Sunday, September 30, 2007

Yes, but I may mean no

First brought to my attention by good friend of this blog Mark Cardwell, the animated webcomic City of Thamesis makes me wonder if this is what online comics -- perhaps even all comics -- will become in the future.

Mark described the series as having "a nice dark Luther Arkwright/Jerry Cornelius vibe" and that's a good starting reference point. City of Thamesis is set in an alternate-reality Britain, the history of which isn't explained in much detail up front...but it involves Steampunk-era advances in psychic technology leading to the use of mind control in the Great War, a radically different royal family in the United Kingdom, and a vaguely dystopian social structure in (presumably) the present day, in which a monolithic "Britomart" corporation provides officially sanctioned epidermal patches giving their users various enhanced physical and psychic abilities. The cast includes black marketeers dealing in unregulated pirate patches, telekinetic bodyguards, foppish goth turncoats, "postmasters" who deliver courier messages with superspeed, and the endangered teenaged heir to the throne.

The story could go in a predictable direction or it might hold some surprises -- I have a sense of where I think it's going, though I may be wrong -- but either way, the real draw here is the world building. You get the feeling at least as much thought and creative effort have gone into designing the history and background details as went into the plot or characters. In addition to the actual story installments, the site includes subsections such as "Environment" and "Techgnosis" more akin to the extras in a video game or DVD than to an online comic, allowing the audience to scroll through panoramic views of different parts of the alternate-reality London and see mock vintage advertising and newspaper clippings that divulge at least some of the background.

But it's the format and presentation of the actual story that gives me pause as to how this project should be described. My immediate reaction on first viewing it about a month ago -- and I feel this way even more strongly now that a few episodes have gone up -- was to be unsure I'd call this form of presentation a comic at all. I mean, yes, in the sense that it has images and written text placed together and neither one tells the story without the other, it's very much an example of comics storytelling. But, at least for me personally, a comic involves the reader controlling the pace of the reading/viewing experience -- whether by clicking to move forward, or turning a page, or just deciding when to look at the next panel. City of Thamesis has animation that directs the eye, music and sound effects synchronized to the visuals, and someone else deciding the speed at which the viewer moves through the story. My gut feeling is that this might be better described as an online animated series than as a comic.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining: I enjoyed City of Thamesis a great deal. It may be that my definition of a "comic" is too rigid, or that I've spent too much time reading Scott McCloud. And because it does have that written text component rather than voice actors playing the characters, this story has a lot of comics DNA in it. I think it's a very strong hybrid.

From what I hear, the creative team behind the project plans to introduce some voices in future installments, taking this further away from being a hybrid comic and making it even more like standard animation. If so, that's too bad...because these early episodes do suggest a direction many more online comics could take in the future, especially given a new generation of artists for whom Flash and Shockwave are as familiar as print. Most of all, City of Thamesis embraces the fact that it's being viewed on a computer screen rather than on a printed page, something most "webcomics" and "online comics" don't do.

Take for example Sugarshock by Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon at the Dark Horse Presents page on MySpace. As Stephen Frug points out, the presentation really kind of sucks. It was designed for a standard printed comics page and is a huge pain to navigate through. Which is why Stephen has done lovers of entertaining comics everywhere a huge favor in finding these links to read "issue" 1 and "issue" 2 directly, without the annoying mediation of the awkward MySpace layout. The writing and art is a lot of fun...but I have a feeling these guys could come up with something more suited to being read onscreen were they given the opportunity.

Having mentioned these online comics, I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention a couple of favorites I follow regularly:

Deadbeats started out as an impressively long-running but ultimately failed comic book by my close personal friend Richard Howell. I was a fan of his back in the day when he was doing Portia Prinz of the Glamazons (even before it was published by Eclipse) but I was made into a character in Deadbeats so don't expect me to be remotely objective about the latter. When the Claypool Comics line folded, Richard turned Deadbeats into an ongoing webcomic formatted much like an ongoing newspaper comic strip, picking up the continuity where the series left off. This is almost the opposite end of the spectrum from City of Thamesis in terms of innovation, but an equally valid approach. It may seem retro by comparison, but Richard knows the comic strip form as well as he knows the comic book page...and it turns out to work really well for onscreen presentation of a serialized story. Reading this strip since its start online persuades me that: a) the quasi-newspaper strip format may have been the ideal presentation for a vampire soap opera all along, and b) this may well be the ideal format for Richard as a creator. It plays to all his narrative strengths, and the very aspects of Deadbeats that sometimes made it a hard sell to a wider audience as a traditional comic book -- it's, um, heavy on exposition and dialogue, to say the least -- turn out to be strengths rather than liabilities in this form.

(He might want to relax a little on the recaps of past events, actually, because one of the virtues of the whole free online webcomic deal is that -- unlike the newspaper strip of yore -- the audience can actually go back at any time and catch up on the events they've missed, so little if anything needs to be repeated for latecomers. And another appearance by Reed Bensam somewhere down the line would be much appreciated. I'm just saying, is all.)

And finally, Brat-Halla by my remote personal acquaintance Jeffery Stevenson and my complete and utter stranger Seth Damoose ranges from always entertaining to occasionally utterly brilliant. My only quibble is that it's been presented in portrait rather than landscape orientation. Does anyone even make portrait-type monitors anymore, let alone use them? But as I say, that's just a quibble. If I could marry a webcomic and have babies with it, it would be this one, in hopes that our kids would grow up to be webcomics as consistently good as this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Excuse me while I whip this out

This may be old news already, but I want to make sure no one misses Bill O'Reilly on his dinner with Al Sharpton at Sylvia's:

"I was up in Harlem a few weeks ago, and I actually had dinner with Al Sharpton, who is a very, very interesting guy, and he comes on The Factor a lot, and I treated him to dinner because he's made himself available to us, and I felt that I wanted to take him up there. And we went to Sylvia's, a very famous restaurant in Harlem. I had a great time. And all the people up there are tremendously respectful, they all watch The Factor. You know, when Sharpton and I walked in, it was, like, big commotion and everything, but everybody was very nice. And I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean it was -- it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship; it was the same."

He goes on to say:

"There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

What gets me is how O'Reilly clearly means this to be a compliment and genuinely believes it to be one. He's praising the staff and patrons of a legendary restaurant for being well-behaved. What could be wrong with that? You couldn't get him to recognize the depths of racism his comments reveal any more than you could explain the concept of "wet" to a fish. If Al Sharpton said to Bill O'Reilly "When I visited your studio, I was very impressed that even though you're Irish, you didn't spend the whole interview getting drunk, throwing up on the carpet, and waving a broken bottle around before passing out in a puddle of your own vomit," I don't think O'Reilly would understand what he was talking about, much less draw any parallel with his own words.

If there were any justice in this world, this incident would lead to a Imus-like public scandal and the end of Bill's broadcasting career...but that won't happen. I suppose we should just be glad O'Reilly didn't mention feeling disappointed that he wasn't greeted with a rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" or "Camptown Races"...because what could possibly be racist about praising those people for their natural rhythm and their urge to sing spirituals? It's a compliment, after all!


Look here for more info.

Found here, where it's garnered some amusing comments...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Kirby in the park

I spent this past weekend helping my friends Rand and Lisa Hoppe (previously mentioned here) represent the Jack Kirby Museum at the HOWL Festival in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side.

As the name suggests, the HOWL Festival showcases artists, musicians, and performers of the East Village and Lower East Side...and it took place just a few blocks north of where Jack Kirby was born and spent his childhood. The Kirby Museum was involved at the request of festival curator, painter, graphic novelist, and noted Jack Kirby scholar James Romberger and his wife, filmmaker and former punk rocker Marguerite Van Cook. James insisted that Kirby be represented at the festival, Rand and Lisa were up for promoting the Museum...and I was more than happy to spend a couple of days goofing off and hanging out, so I invited myself along.

The Kirby Museum table was pretty much what you'd expect to see at a comics convention. We had recent issues of The Jack Kirby Collector for sale, as well as the trade paperback collections of same, the Kirby Unleashed portfolio book, the Silver Star Graphite Edition, and the Streetwise anthology including "Street Code," Kirby's autobiographical story about his impoverished childhood on Suffolk Street. With that selection of items, the Kirby Museum table was threatening to look like a TwoMorrows Publishing table instead, but we also had postcards promoting the museum and photocopies of an article about Kirby from the Sunday, August 26 New York Times written by Brent Staples to hand out. Rand put up some samples of Kirby art, including posters offered as a bonus with museum memberships. We also had a preview flyer for Mark Evanier's upcoming Kirby: King of Comics to show around, because it's always good to help a struggling new author get his start.

Perhaps the strangest item we offered visitors -- at least in the sense of being most incongruous with the above -- was an issue of the hardcore conspiracy journal Steamshovel Press published by hardcore conspiracy theorist (and hardcore Kirby fan) Kenn Thomas featuring an article by aforementoned festival curators James and Marguerite describing how Jack Kirby helped the CIA free six Americans during the Iranian Revolution.

So you have the basic picture: as a favor to an arts festival organizer, the three of us are sitting in a New York City public park on a summer weekend, behind a table that obviously belongs at a comics con and just as obviously does not belong in Tompkins Square Park. Surely, you say to yourself, this is a recipe for misery and disappointment; those poor saps are about to suffer abject humiliation and embarassment. This would be a reasonable assumption. And it would be totally wrong.

What I discovered this weekend was that if you put up a big display about Jack Kirby in a New York City public park, you get tons of people stopping by. And I mean people who were Kirby fans. Painters and actors and musicians participating in the festival were coming over and telling us how Kirby inspired them...but at least half of our visitors were folks from the neighborhood who hadn't even known an arts festival was taking place that day. Random passersby would say "Oh man, the guy who created the Silver Surfer!" or "The Inhumans were the best! They oughtta make a movie with them!" or "He came from around here? No way!" We met uniformed cops who were comic fans, and Kirby fans in particular. Over the course of the weekend we had four or five people who met Jack in person or had spoken to him. I'm not making this up; I have witnesses.

It was nothing like I expected. Had this been a comic con, the level of traffic coming by our table would be pretty decent, but this was in the middle of a city park on a summer afternoon. Rand sold a respectable stack of books; this is all the more impressive when you consider that people weren't coming to the park with cash expecting to buy expensive artsy books full of interviews and articles about some comic book creator, as they would be at a convention.

Here's a funny thing: kids still dig the superheroes. They know the characters from cartoons, they know the movies, they have the toys, the games, the action figures. I saw kids who were genuinely excited to hear that the guy who first drew the Fantastic Four and the X-Men and Thor and the Hulk and Captain America came from their neighborhood. If only we'd had something more kid-friendly and accessible to offer them than back issues of JKC our table would have been an even bigger hit with the younger crowd. I've said it before and I'll say it again a thousand times: hiding comics away in those secluded and forbidding comic shops for grownups and not making any available in newsstands or drug stores or supermarkets is killing comics with the younger audience. I saw with my own eyes that a lot of kids still want the characters and the colorful costumes and all the good stuff; it just isn't where they can get to it anymore.

Another comment I heard a lot was regular folks -- not geeky weirdo fans -- asking where the "Kirby Museum" was located and if they could go there. On finding out it only exists online so far, they were disappointed. The idea of visiting a museum for a comic book artist sounded really appealing to them. Imagine!

This weekend, I saw a big crack in the wall dividing "comic book culture" from the general public. There was a time when comics could handle being a mass medium, not just a precious little inside club for our elite fandom. A fair segment of the public wants to be allowed back in. Are the big companies ready to let them? Who among us is willing to tear down that wall?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Found poetry

Woman visits her own heart at exhibition:
Transplant patient Jennifer Sutton paid a visit to an exhibition in London called The Heart today, mainly to check out a particular item on display - her own heart.

Jennifer, 23, from the New Forest, UK, had a heart transplant at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, on 4 June 2007. She lent her heart to the Wellcome Collection for the exhibition to increase public awareness of donation and Restrictive Cardiomyopathy, the disease that would have killed her.

As you might imagine, she found the experience very odd and moving. "Seeing my heart for the first time is an emotional and surreal experience. It caused me so much pain and turmoil when it was inside me."

Yeah, it'll do that.

(Found at Boing Boing)