Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Future of Marvel

This is a misleading title as far as Marvel's characters are concerned. From recent moves that they have made, nothing permanent will happen in the Marvel Universe. Things will happen but will eventually get reset back to the status quo as of the 1970s or 1980s. This is probably a corporate move to coincide with the new Marvel Studio.

This is only a guess but I suspect that they are worried about the reaction of new readers who pick up a comic book for the first time after seeing a Marvel movie. The movies are usually based on a high point in the character's run. This is partly because the movies usually include an origin and partly because the odds say that the best issues out of a 500 issue run didn't come out last week.

So we have a young, unmarried Spider-Man. Johny Blaze is Ghost Rider. Daredevil is fighting Bullseye and Kingpin alongside Electra. Reed and Sue just got married and the Silver Surfer just came to earth for the first time.

Some of the changes over the last few decades can be glossed over or picked up as you go along. Other changes make the character seem like a different person.

So, at least for the characters that have been made into movies, the comic will be friendly to the movie audience. I can't think of any other reason for bringing back Harry Osborn. They wanted the continuity to be somewhere between the first and second movies.

I bet that after the Iron Man movie that the world somehow forgets that he is Tony Stark.

This makes it easier for casual readers. You can pick up a comic at any time. You may have to figure out what the current story arc is but you will know who everyone is and how they relate to each other.

Never the less, some of the magic has gone out of Marvel. When I started reading Marvel comics, back in the mid-1960s things did change, both small and large. Spider-Man graduated from high school, started college, move into an apartment, and switched girl friends. Reed and Sue got married. Rick Jones let out that Bruce Banner was the Hulk. The Sub Mariner found the city of Atlantis and regained the throne.

You didn't want to miss an issue because things might have changed when you read the next one. This was one of the things that distinguished Marvel from DC.

At least Superman is still married.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What is Spider-Man About?

Writing a blog entry, Tom Brevoort, Marvel's executive editor says
Spider-Man is about growing up. And the problem with a married Spidey boils down to the fact that, at that point, he's not growing up any more--he's grown.
This is a convenient rational but it isn't true. In many ways Peter Parker grew up in his first couple of appearances. From there it's been about responsibility. Spider-Man stories have never been about growing up. Yes, Peter has grown over the years. So have all of the younger Marvel characters (even Rick Jones).

Peter spent years complaining about the "Parker luck" - a complaint that has resurfaced. Back before this was a retro complaint Peter's real problem was that he was trying to do too much. The second movie touched on this same theme. Peter's personal life was a mess because he kept putting other people first. If he gave up helping other people then he got his own life together but other people got hurt.

But the powers that be have decided that Spider-Man is about growing up. At the same time, he will not actually grow up. Sort of pointless, isn't it.

This actually describes a different Peter - Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. In the book, Peter constantly forgot things and was, therefore constantly surprised (and hurt) by eperiences that were new to him.

The whole thing reminds me of post-Crisis Superman. I read it for a while but I never felt that it was really my Superman. It was a different guy in the same suit. He was nice enough but he just wasn't the real Superman. The new Spider-Man is the same thing. He is a Spider-Man but not the real Spider-Man.

One ray of hope - one of the comments speculated that this is all part of the countdown to issue 600 and that this will be undone, also.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Death to Batman?

DC has announced that Bruce Wayne will be killed and replaced as Batman. This sounds pretty familiar.

Most of the popular characters went through this sort of transformation around 1990. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were all killed or somehow permanently disabled and replaced. All returned later.

A few characters' deaths stuck a bit longer. Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell) died of cancer in the 1980s and stayed dead until last year. The same is true of Robin II (or was that Robin III?). Hal Jordan (one of the Green Lanterns) died after trying to destroy all creation only to be brought back a couple of years ago.

Between this and the recent reality-tampering in Spider-Man, the comic companies are looking pretty desperate for publicity. They are retooling their flagship characters.

Is anyone taking bets on how much longer Superman's marriage lasts?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Absorbing Man and the Destroyer

These two character popped up in the last month which reminded me about their first appearances. Both came from a single, extended story arc in Thor.

It started in 1965. Marvel had already established several of its new innovations but in 1965 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started something new - extended plotlines. Previously stories were continued over at most a couple of issues. Starting in 1965 it seemed like the plots never ended. Just to be sure, Stan and Jack often had a second plot going, ready to take over when the current story ended.

In a story entitles "The Stronger I am the Sooner I Die", Loki decided to create someone strong enough to challenge Thor. He picked a brutal prisoner in a penitentiary and spiked his drink. The prisoner, Crusher Creel, gained the ability to absorb the properties of anything he touched. Using his ball and chain as a weapon he broke out of jail and confronted Thor. With his abilities, Creel could match Thor blow for blow.

Thor was called away from the fight. Loki had used Creel as a diversion and kidnapped Jane Foster (Thor's mortal identity was a doctor and he had a thing for his nurse but Odin disapproved). Thor journeyed to Asgard to confront Loki. Odin broke up the fight, demanding to know the cause. Loki claimed that Thor had brought Jane to Asgard, hoping to make her immortal. Odin decreed that there should be a trial of the gods but allowed Thor to go back to Earth to settle things with the Absorbing Man first.

Creel turned out to be too powerful for Thor to beat so Thor tricked him into absorbing the properties of helium. Creel floated away. Thor assumed that he would float until his powers faded.

Returning to Asgard, Thor and Loki began the trial of the gods. This was trial by ordeal. They were transported to a hostile dimension with the first back being declared the winner. They were not supposed to have any weapons (Thor had to surrender his hammer) but Loki cheated with the use of a bag of enchanted Norn stones. Loki won the trial but Thor was given permission to get proof that Loki cheated.

Loki hid the stones by sending them to Viet Nam (in the middle of the war). Thor recovered the stones and fought off some Viet Cong for good measure.

Desparate, Loki discovered that Thor was near the temple housing the Destroyer. Loki revealed the temple to a hunter who activated the Destroyer. Thor, seeing the temple open rushed to secure the Destroyer but instead of was first thing it saw.

It seems that the Destroyer was a creation of Odin. Not alive itself, it needed a living person's astral self to activate. Once it came to life it would kill the first thing it saw - in this case, Thor (later it was revealed that the Destroyer was created to battle the Celestials).

Thor was clearly outclassed. The Destroyer was made from the same metal (uru) as Thor's hammer and it was far stronger than Thor. It also had an array of other powers. One of them shattered Thor's hammer. In desperation Thor tried to levitate away using one of the Norn stones. The Destroyer pulled him back down by increasing gravity beneath Thor. The Destroyer trapped Thor by turning the floor into diamond. He then tried to do the same thing to Thor.

Loki quickly realized that the Destroyer was too powerful and that Odin would quickly realize who released it. No one but Odin could stop the Destroyer but Odin was in the Odin-Sleep and couldn't be disturbed. Loki was imprisoned for trying.

From a cell in Asgard, Loki saved Thor from the transformation ray by making him immaterial. This gave Thor a respite but the strain was too much for Loki to repeat. While Thor played hide and seek with the Destroyer in the huge temple housing the Destroyer, Loki contacted the Norn Queen. She used a spell to wake Odin. Odin offered aid to Thor who refused. Thor had a plan. He made his way back to the body of the hunter whose essence had activated the Destroyer. Unwilling to risk his human body, the Destroyer transfered his essence back to the hunter. Thor was sworn not to hurt mortals so he figured that he could duck behind the Destroyer then transfer back. Before the hunter could do this, Thor brought down the temple, pulling the hunter to safety.

Thor repaired his hammer and returned to Asgard with the Norn stones. Loki was given a humiliating sentence - to assist the royal alchemist.

Obviously this didn't last. Loki used the alchemist's supplies to bring back the Absorbing Man. This time Creel beat Thor. Loki appeared to Creel, explained where his powers came from, and took Creel to Asgard. Creel made short work of Odin's personal guards and the two of them forced Odin to turn over his scepter.

Loki and Creel fought over the scepter and who would rule Asgard before realizing that they were stuck to it. Odin pointed out that the power wasn't in the object, it was in Odin personally. He sent the scepter into space with Loki and Creel still stuck to it.

The following year's annual found Loki plotting from deep space. He sent his astral body to the mound where the Destroyer was buried and activated it. With an Asgardian's spirit in it the Destroyer was able to use the Rainbow Bridge and invade Asgard. Odin was in the Odin Sleep again (he did this a lot) but woke in time to deal with the Destroyer. Even Odin couldn't withstand the Destroyer's disintegration beam but Odin shut down Loki's mind before the Destroyer could strike.

Neither character appeared again under Stan and Jack although the Absorbing Man has become a mainstay. After being beaten multiple times he sort of reformed and keeps a low profile unless provoked. Most recently he tried to save his cousin from She-Hulk who is now a bounty hunter.

The Destroyer has remained exclusively a Thor character. At various times its shell has been inhabited by Balder, Sif, Loki, a retired army officer, Odin and the assembled spirits of Asgard, and Thor himself. He was even made a herald of Galactis for a short time (it was never explained why this didn't work out). The forces that empower the Destroyer are too strong for it to ever be destroyed itself. Even melting it into a puddle was a temporary measure.

As with many villains, neither character has been as threatening as in their first appearance.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Apple's War on Consumer Choice

There are two reasons I don't switch from a PC to an Apple. The obvious one is price. Apple charges a "coolness" premium. The other is their philosophy about how the computer should be used. The new MacBook air is an extreme example of this.

First - it has all the requisite Apple coolness. It will fit in a manila envelope. It looks good. It's "greener" than most computers but not enough for Greenpeace.

But it dictates how it will be used through what is missing. There is no ethernet connection, just WiFi. There is no DVD drive, not even a CD drive. And replacing the battery has to be done by Apple technical support.

The missing ethernet connection is a bigger deal to some than it might seem. For security reasons, we don't have WiFi at work so it would be useless to me there.

So how does it stack up as a personal and travel computer? It's small and light but most padded laptop bags are a lot bigger than the PC they contain. If I was a business traveler I might appreciate being able to stuff it in a briefcase.

When I travel I use my laptop for email, Internet access (especially news sites), and for media. Granted I have most of my music on a Sansa View but where do you think that came from? My laptop, of course. With the Air I would either have to have a second computer for ripping my music or I would have to buy everything fresh from iTunes (not really an option since most of my CDs are from obscure Irish musicians and many were purchased directly from the artists).

Then there are movies. I often play DVDs on my PC. The picture is better than on my TV and the mouse is easier to use than a remote. Even a second PC doesn't help much with the Air unless you buy a special program to rip DVD. These exist but are legally questionable under the DMCA.

Of course, I could rent a movie through iTunes. There are a lot of issues there. I don't always watch the DVDs I bring with me and you only have a month to play a rented movie. Also, sometimes I watch a movie over several days, especially a long one like Return of the King. Apple only gives you 24 hours from when you start watching. And all of this ignores the significant amount of time it takes to download a movie.

Then there is the battery. Like other Apple products, you have to send your Air in when the battery starts to go. You can't carry a spare battery and you can't buy a new one yourself when the old one starts to go.

I won't even go into the single USB connection.

At some point someone, probably Steve Jobs himself, decided that it was more important to have a really slim laptop than to include any of these features. He decided how you would use your expensive laptop for you.

In the meantime, I'm sticking with my Compaq.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Current State of the Music Industry

The major entertainment companies are all releasing music on MP3s without DRM. Some people are calling this a victory for consumer demand. While I think that this is how music should be sold, the motivations of the music industry deserve some examination.

First some history for those who forgot it. The current MP3-oriented market has a lot of roots.

CDs are digital and computer-readable so the roots go back to the 1970s when the format was introduced. Of course, at that time there were no home computers that could read CDs. Even playing music was a major accomplishment for these early systems.

CD drives started become standard on PCs in the early 1990s on "multi-media" PCs. These could play a CD but they were too short on disk space to copy more than a track or two to the PC. That's where MP3s came in. They compress the .wav files. At first people were ripping CDs so that they could burn their own mixes with their favorite tracks. Apple even targeted this with their Rip/Burn/Play promotion.

Four other things happened around this time. One was the rise of the stand-alone MP3 player. They were fairly bulky and they were short of space. Still, they took up less room than a CD player and they were shock-resistant. The second was speed increases in the Internet. Even without broadband it was possible to transfer an MP3 file in a fairly short time. The third thing was the rise of music trading sites beginning with Napster. The final factor was the elimination of the CD single. If you wanted your favorite track you had to go out and buy the entire CD at $20.

At this point the recording industry should have recognized a potential new market. If they had come up with something like iTunes they could have saved themselves a lot of grief, especially if older tracks were available at impulse-purchase prices - say $0.75.

The executives knew that all of this was going on but they were afraid of the new technology. They were even more afraid that anyone they brought in to manage it for them would take advantage. They tried some subscription services but these had such a limited catalog that they all failed. Other than that, they spent a lot effort trying to legally suppress file sharing.

That's what happened although it took them years to recognize it. Steve Jobs came to them with a proposal for iTunes. The kicker to his sales pitch was that it would only be for the Mac so, even if they didn't like it, it would be available to such a small percentage of the population that it didn't matter, anyway.

Jobs' promise didn't last long. Around a year after the initial iPod launch he expanded it to the PC.

Along the way Jobs made a couple of choices that shaped today's market. He included a proprietary DRM in iTunes. Jobs refuses to license this to any other company so the only way that you can use iTunes is to buy an iPod first (I suppose you could buy a tune, burn it to CD then rip that but that's too much work for most people). At the same time, Jobs declined to license any other formats. This gave Apple a big share of the music market and, like most things that Apple touches, it is on Steve Jobs' terms.

Enter Microsoft and other MP3 manufacturers. The iPod is no longer top of the heap. Several other players offer better features for a similar price. SanDisk's Sansa line has more flash memory and FM radio. Microsoft's Zune has WiFi. While Apple still has the lion's share of the market, these other players are selling in the millions.

So how to sell to these new players and Apple? The majority of the players are still iPods so using Microsoft's DRM eliminates too much of the market. That leaves MP3 as the only format that will play anywhere. The recording industry doesn't like it but they want to break Steve Jobs' hold over them.

So the sales of DRM-free music have more to do with Steve Jobs than any other market forces. That means that there may be future attempts at enforcing non-Apple DRM coming.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Missing: 30 years continuity

If found return to Spider-Man c/o Peter Parker.

Marvel made it official (see the picture below), everything that happened in Spider-Man in the last 30 years is gone. Gwen is still dead as is Norman Osborn. No one knows Spidey's identity - period. Not even people who knew it since the 1980s.

Peter was never married to MJ. MJ is a Hollywood actress who comes to NYC sometimes.

Peter may have lived in an apartment once but he moved back in with Aunt May for financial reasons.

No word on Peter's college status but I'll bet that he is either a drop-out or an undergrad.

It's an ignominious change to a character who first introduced continuity and realism to comic books.

Continuity was easy at first. There was only the one comic and every issue was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Stories took a full issue and Marvel couldn't afford inventory stories so everything was printed in the order it was created. That made it easy to refer to the previous issue as "last month". Continuity showed up in little ways. Peter started dating Betty Brant. If they argued in one issue they might refer to it in the next. It showed up in big ways, also. Villains didn't just return. They were granted parole or revieled how they escaped from a previous certain death.

Spider-Man broke several rules. He graduated from high school and went to college. He broke up with a girl friend (Betty) and got a new one (MJ) then got serious with a third (Gwen Stacy).

By the mid-1970s Stan and Steve had moved on. Gerry Conway took over as writer and the strip got in a rut punctuated by some silly stuff (Doc Ock marrying Aunt May in order to inherit her nuclear reactor). In a decision that would be repeated in numerous strips, the solution was a new girl friend. Gwen was killed and Peter started dating MJ again.

Marv Wolfman got the strip going again in the late 1970s. In the 1980s it started breaking all sorts of rules. Peter started dating the Black Cat, a thrill-seeking villain. He even revealed his identity. After they broke up he got back together with MJ and eventually married her.

In the 1990s things went wrong. Arguably the worst plotline from the 1970s involved Peter's biology professor becoming a super villain and cloning Peter and Gwen. This was revived and stretched on for a few years. After that Norman Osborn was brought back from the dead.

New management felt that the marriage was a mistake so MJ left town and was assumed dead.

Just a couple of years ago the strip seemed have gotten back on even footing. MJ was back and reconciled with Peter. Aunt May finally found out that Peter was Spider-Man, a revelation that was decades overdue. Peter started teaching. The excesses of the 1990s could be easily ignored.

Then they started changing things again, piling them on too deep. Peter died and came back with new powers. He got a new costume. He revealed his identity to the world.

After letting things go to pot, Marvel decided that the easiest thing was to make it all away - everything that they considered a mistake. Essentially the strip was rolled back to its stagnant period in the 1970s. The main difference is that Peter doesn't even have his own apartment.

I can see rolling back the last couple of years. They went overboard with changes and the staff who came up with this junk is still around to take the heat for it. I have real problems with undoing 2/3s of the strip's run. Some of the best runs of the comic have been swept away and I don't think that the current management is as talented as the people whose efforts they invalidated.

I have only been reading Spider-Man sporadically since the 1990s. I see no reason to read it again.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Ralph and the Primaries

Last night's Simpsons marked a return to some of its best writing and was one of the top episodes. Not bad for the longest-running sit-com even on American TV.

The plot started with Homer accidentally blowing up the "fast food district". Naturally the people wanted it rebuilt but that would take a bond levy and would have to wait until the next election - the Spring primary. The simple solution was to move up the primary making Springfield's the first primary in the nation.

The political reporters in New Hampshire immediately abandon the state in favor of Springfield. In no time, Dan Rather is making strange similes while Krusty pumps Jon Stewart for material. When the Simpsons are identified as undecided, their door is broken down and their house filled with reporters and presidential hopefuls.

Homer comes up with a solution to all of this - cast write-in votes for the least qualified person possible (which turns out not to be Dennis Kucinich). This is Ralph Wiggam, a very special 8-year-old. Presented with an unexpected front-runner, the parties both decide to endorse him as their candidate.

Along the way the episode manages to lampoon both parties, Rush Limbaugh, Ariana Huffington (and her ex-husband), and the whole circus that the primaries have become.

After way too much Iowa coverage last week and too much New Hampshire coverage over the weekend, I wonder how many votes Ralph will get in real life?

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Future Ain't What It Used to Be

This article asks the question, Is sci-fi out of ideas? The author is referring specifically to movies and TV. His point is that nearly everything we are seeing is a retread of old ideas. With Star Trek being jump-started again and comic-book movies being mainly based on heroes created in the 1940s-1960s, he has a point but it is reflected in society as a whole.

My grandfather was born before airplanes. They were still flying bi-planes when my parents were born. I was born before Sputnik. For all of us, the world was changing at a fantastic rate. Technologies were invented then went out of date quickly. My parents grew up in the age of radio. TV was still black and white when I was a child. The switch to color TV in the 1960s and cable in the 1970s was a huge leap. VCR tape recorders were introduced in the 1970s and became ubiquitous in the 1980s.

Look at a similar period over the last few years. The switch from VCR to DVD meant better resolution and smaller storage space but it is nothing like the previous changes. I now have around 150 cable channels but there is less on that I want to see so the change isn't very pronounced there.

Cars have a lot of luxuries standard and several safety features that they didn't used to have but my 20-year-old van is still quite usable. You couldn't say the same thing in the 1960s about a 1940s vehicle. Jets have been standard since the 1960s. It doesn't matter much the size or shape of the cabin.

I remember my father saying that space travel had seemed impossible when he was growing up. Even so, he didn't think that we would actually make it to the moon. He was wrong about that but I doubt that I will see us land on Mars. Just getting back to the moon seems beyond us.

With so little change happening before our eyes we have stopped imagining how things will be different in the future. Space exploration now is mainly supply and repair missions in shuttles that were designed 30 years ago. No wonder we fall back on a vision of space travel crafted when each space mission broke new records.

Even the Internet isn't new any longer. Some people (like me) were doing things on-line in the 1980s through services like CompuServe and AOL. The Internet became well-known in 1993 (as the Information Superhighway). Web pages and browsers have been common for more than a decade. Not much inspiration there. Virtual worlds were beaten to death with The Matrix and even that was years ago.

Biology - genetic engineering, cloning, transplants - has become too common-place to inspire any wonder.

Not that progress has stopped but right now I don't see the big jumps that I saw growing up. Its the big jumps that inspire the best science fiction.