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Monday, Jul 20, 2009
Things should never have gotten this bad

No longer catatonic after prolonged exposure to the rigors of deep space isolation, Venture Flight Commander John Cost surveys the impact of his disappearance on the Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t supposed to be this bad. KSC is blasted, its amenities now support a growing refugee camp. Somewhere in the wake of having disappeared along with his shuttle and its entire crew, Cost returns to find not only the landscape, but the dream of spaceflight destroyed. Yet Cost returns with wondrous news, he and the crew of the Venture have made first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The Venture itself has been retrofitted with science-fictional technologies that allow for super-lightspeed exploration of the galaxy. And he has returned to Earth to ensure humanity takes a permanent step into space. Yet Cost now confronts a humanity that has forgotten how to look up.


In a moving Foreword, writer Warren Ellis sets out the project of Orbiter. ‘This is a book about returning to space in the face of fear and adversity. It’s a book about glory. About going back to space, because it’s waiting for us, and it’s where we’re meant to be. We can’t allow human space exploration to become our history.


‘Human spaceflight remains experimental. It is very dangerous. It demands great ingenuity. But we are old enough, now, to do these things. Growing up is hard. But we cannot remain children, standing on the shore or in front of the TV set’.


The eloquence of hope contrasted starkly with death of the dream of spaceflight, Orbiter speaks to our dreams for a better world, and our responsibility to keeping those dreams alive. Forty years ago, to the day, our species landed human beings on an alien soil using simpler technology than iPhone. It is time to reclaim our heritage, and recall the words of President John F Kennedy: ‘We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’.


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Friday, Jul 17, 2009
Long live Wizard World Philly?

It’s been a month since Wizard World Philly 2009, but I have to write about it.  Someone has to mark its death knell.


I started going to conventions in 2006, when I was lucky enough to be hired as a volunteer at the Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.  I’ve been to New York Comic Con twice, and plan on going yearly, because it’s a great con, and I live in NYC, so it doesn’t require airfare or hotel expenses.  Over the years, as I’ve listened to fellow geeks make me jealous with tales of all the conventions they somehow find the time and money to go to, Wizard World Philly was always mentioned as a natural, desired stop in their convention circuit.  So I was excited when I saw a chance to go to WWP as a volunteer.  Finally, I’d get to see what all the fuss was about!


Turns out it’s not about very much, not anymore, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Being a volunteer, one hears the gossip amongst the vendors.  This is the worst Wizard World Philly in years they said.  No one is here! they panicked.  The “exhibition floor” looked more like a PTA swap meet in a school gym.  Nothing caught the eye, and the floor was only about half full.  The cast of Battlestar Galactica was signing autographs, which was amazing…but Lou Ferrigno and Peter Mayhew?  Really?  No disrespect intended, but are they the best that WWP has to offer?  The programming schedule also left a lot to be desired.  There were one or two interesting panels, which I’ll write about another time, but for the most part…well, they’ll have to invent a new word for boring to capture how boring this convention was.  I mean, I didn’t even take any pictures, it was so boring.


Wizard World seems to have been the victim of convention over-saturation.  HeroesCon was going on the same weekend, and lots of people chose that instead.  I would have, too, if I could have afforded to fly to Charlotte!  Brian Michael Bendis was there!  As was Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Tony Harris, and other powerhouses in the comics industry from both mainstream comics as well as indie comics.  It’s only natural that with the increase in conventions some will fall by the wayside.  Sadly, though Wizard World Philly is happening in 2010, it seems to be on the way out.  Which is a shame for East Coasters like me who can’t afford to fly across the country to get our geek on.  Ah, well.  There’s always New York Comic Con!


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Friday, Jul 17, 2009
As web-marketing guru Seth Godin reminds us, 'Without art, there is no commerce'.

‘The whole thing about the first Sin City is that I was rediscovering the love of drawing on that job. I had absolutely no boss, and it was the first thing I completely did from head to toe by myself’, Frank Miller says to Will Eisner in their book-length conversation Eisner/Miller. ‘the rain scene was one of two scenes where I go the idea of simply not thinking about the number of pages. For me it was like I’d just stepped out of the cave into the morning’.


There’s been too much of the wrong kind of talking thus far in Frank Miller’s ‘The Hard Goodbye’ his first graphic novel in the Sin City series. It’s a welcome break to find a piece of honest detective story in this blacker-than-sin neo noir story. It’s a welcome break to find Good Ol’ Marv taking the time to put the pieces together. There’s been a lot of talking, but the action has been so slick and the comics so fluid, it’s easy to forget that there’s been monologue at all.


With Sin City Miller makes a genuine statement about comics. Comics in black & white because black & white comics are read rather than absorbed (as Eisner suggested in Eisner/Miller). Short, episodic tales, because this kind of punchy dialogue works well with the neo noir genre. And a comics of sharp contrasts, and hard-edged negative spaces to depict the ‘town without pity’.


But as elegant as the comics themselves remain, Miller makes an equally significant statement about the comics industry and the responsibilities and freedoms of creator-owned projects. As glimpsed in his comments to Eisner, Sin City was very much the journal of a comics artist breaking free from the decades-old format of the superhero comicbook. It was and remains a profound statement about the risk of art. In the early 90s, Sin City must have been a gamble. Noone yet had conceived of postmodern neo noir comics, no market had been established. Instead of simply replicating the modes of mainstream (superhero) comics, Miller uses this as an opportunity. In doing so, he recalls a favorite saying of web-marketer Seth Godin, that without art, there is no commerce.


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Thursday, Jul 16, 2009
Will Eisner knew what he was doing.

It just doesn’t seem like comics, does it? By the fifth page of ‘A Contract with God’, the artist seems woefully misguided by today’s standards. Bricks on the upper part of the wall seem to hang in the air, not at all cemented down. The light in the background is unclear, lost behind a sheet of rain. The steps that lead down from the sidewalk are visually unclear. Protagonist Frimme Hersh is in no way afforded use of the masking effect; the linework of his character is not simpler so as to promote emotional investment by the reader. And the cardinal sin - there has been no comics so far, just a series of five page-long posters.


But visionary cartoonist Will Eisner definitely knew what he was doing with very first Graphic Novel. It is so very hard not to involve oneself emotionally with the falling rain. It is a rain that just inundates the world. And it is the rain that is the most powerful visual metaphor for the utter despair of the lead character. For Frimme Hersh this is not anger, it is impotence. Hersh is almost a secondary consideration after his own anguish. He is completely unable to act in any way to the death of his daughter. And Eisner allows Hersh’s anguish to be seen in the world itself. Against expectation it is Eisner’s self-imposed limitation against using framed paneling and the masking effect that produces maximum emotional investment by the reader. This is a world literally awash with anguish and sorrow.


But in a wholly other sense, Eisner makes a statement about comics as a medium, and comics’ power to convey intense emotional experiences. Comics is a medium for great literature, Eisner seems to say, Do not simply mistake these for the picture-books of your youth.


In 1978 Eisner was the first to conceive of the Graphic Novel format. With its publication he made an argument about comics’ capacity to act as literature. But Eisner was also writing against a second generation of European comics the so-called Bandes Desinee like the Tintin and the Asterix series. These comics were prepared graphically, with empty speech balloons meant for the proper translation. In a certain sense, these comics were a reminder of the factory-style production that prevented institutional acceptance of comics as a medium. What impoverishment of the comics medium could there have been, if such comics remained the standard alternative to street-driven superhero stories of the 1970s?


It just doesn’t seem like comics. Not by today’s standards. In a sense, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is not comics at all, it is a manifesto. It is a powerful piece of history and a powerful statement about the comics medium. The thoroughgoing craftsmanship of Will Eisner while pioneering the Graphic Novel form is one of the reasons that today we do have standards to judge comics by.


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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
It all comes down to one final chase scene for Tracy Lawless. But if he's in town to avenge his brother's murder, why would he help the killer escape?

Light, and sound, and Christmas.


In the concluding chapter of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ Lawless, the heist is finally on. But who are you rooting for?


There is seemingly no end to the supply of bad guys.


The stickup gang is filled with types you wouldn’t want over for Christmas dinner. Gray the stickup man, Nelson the muscle and Mallory femme fatale passing herself off as the shill. They work as a gang, or as Brubaker eloquently puts it, ‘As uncomfortable together as any other dysfunctional family… Dependent on each other for survival and security whether they liked it or not’.


Working his way into the gang’s trust is the tough guy and lead of the story Tracy Lawless. He’s ‘a guy who can drive’ when the gang need someone to drive. He’s also man responsible for killing Davey the group’s former driver. But for Tracy, an Army specialist deployed to Iraq now on Unauthorized Absence, infiltrating the gang is a matter of revenge. His brother Ricky, erstwhile leader of the gang was betrayed and eventually murdered by one of his own. Tracy is in town to settle the score. And supporting cast are making moves of their own. Sebastian Hyde the crime-boss looking to appear legit, Chester his muscle intimidating even Gnarly the tough-guy bartender, and Jacob the cartoonist turned counterfeiter.


Far from a single, simple panel in a chase sequence, Phillips provides readers with a map of the machinations and manipulations going on. The panel itself provides two separate layers of interference; the driving snow and the flashing lights of the squad car. It’s easy to lose track of the 70s muscle car, the Dodge Charger, as it careens through the panel. As with the light and the snow, readers of Lawless don’t always understand what they’re seeing. Tracy’s third-person observations made in caption boxes act as the layers of light and snow do, misdirecting readers’ attentions. And just as the sound FX project beyond the panel, there are times when even Tracy moves beyond readers’ view.


By the time of the chase depicted in this panel, Tracy has already discovered the identity of his brother’s killer. They’re in the car with him, he’s helping them escape. But why would he do that?


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