Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Incredibly Stupid Plots

I was reading a list of failed government energy programs and the entry for breeder reactors reminded me of one of the dumbest plots to appear in Spider-Man. This got me to thinking about bad 1970s plots in general.

DC and marvel were a mess in the 1970s, especially Marvel. Stan Lee and the other driving forces behind the Silver Age were gone. The new generation was enthusiastic but undisciplined. Marvel was having trouble keeping an editor-in-chief. Pretty much every writer who hung around long enough got the job at some point. Most quit after less than a year. This showed up in the quality. Features were launched with A-list talent then turned over to the B-team after a month or two. Sometimes assignments were dumped on the new team with no indication of where plots were headed.

With all of this churning in assignments, deadlines were regularly missed. Most strips had at least one fill-in per year where the creative team had missed a deadline so an inventory story was run instead. These were usually poor and some were downright awful. Which brings me to one of the worst.

The Defenders was a team of marvel super-heroes. In one fill-in story, the team was captured by a frustrated chorus boy (dancer) and his tap dancing robots. Really.

After Star Wars came out and its licensed toys were a hit, Marvel began licensing its characters. Writers were encouraged to include licensed products in the comic book. So, Spider-Man got a Spider-Car. It was actually a dune buggy with tires that could stick to walls and web shooters. Even in the comic it was treated lightly. Someone offered Spider-Man some licensing money if he would build and drive a spider-car so he and the Human Torch whipped something together. Spider-Man had never driven anything besides a motor cycle before. after a few issues he lost control of the car and drive it into the East River.

But someone recovered it, outfitted it with remote control, and sent it to kill Spider-Man.

I actually saw the original art for the entire issue for sale once. It was fairly cheap, probably because it was such a bad issue.

DC had its bad stories, also. In one, Superman was traveling through time and found that the Time Trapper had arraigned it so that he could only go forward in time and so that he would age. At one point, in the far future, Superman found a burnt-out Earth being collected for recycling by two giant robots. He saved the planet from them then split it in two and welded the two halves together, side by side, with his heat vision. Then he used his super lungs to bring an atmosphere. Finally, he imported a new eco-system. Needless to say, none of this is remotely possible. Finally, Superman traveled to the end of time only to discover that time is circular so he ended back where he started.

Back to Spider-Man. This next one needs a little background. In Spider-Man Annual #1, six of Spider-Man's enemies made a coordinated attack. Their first step was to kidnap Betty Brant who Spider-Man had rescued before. It just happened that Spidey's Aunt May was talking with Betty when she was kidnapped so both women were taken. Their captor, Doctor Octopus, was very polite to them and May, who must have stopped reading the paper, had no idea that he was a super-villain. Later she commented on how much nicer he was than that awful Spider-man.

That is as far as this went until Stan left the strip. His replacement, Gerry Conway, wanted to take everything to the next level, even if it meant jumping the occasional shark.

When Aunt May decided to make a little extra money by letting out a room, Doctor Octopus rented it. Then he proposed.

But, it was all a trick. Unknown to Aunt May, she had inherited a breeder reactor in Canada and Doc Ock was after that (he was a nuclear scientist, after all). He went to collect the plant, a fight ensued, the plant went critical and exploded.

Where to start? Nuclear power plants just are not privately owned, especially experimental once capable of producing plutonium. Even if they were, May would have known and had to sign a bunch of paperwork before taking possession. And where did the rich relative come from who left her the plant? Why didn't anyone ever speak of it again? As owner, May would have been involved in legal affairs for decades after a power plant exploded (which can't happen). There just isn't a single part of this story that makes sense. It was all conceived to explain why Doc Ock would want to marry a poor widow and to tie in with the newest scientific news (the breeder reactor).

While the dancing robots were really bad, that was a fill-in. This was part of a story arc that stretched over months and, presumably, had editorial approval. That's why it gets my nomination for worst story.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bil Keane

Bil Keane, the creator of the comic strip the Family Circus, died on November 8. He was still producing strips until his death although his son Jeff had taken over a lot of the work.

When it started in 1960, the strip was called the Family Circle. The daily strip had a few characters in a circle with a dialog caption at the bottom. There was some confusion about the strip's relationship with Family Circle magazine (none) so the same was changed to the Family Circus.

While the daily strip usually only contained a few characters, the Sunday strip often featured the entire family with a barrage of word balloons. The idea was that all of the kids were talking at once.

The art in the strip had a very 60s look which continues to today. The main concession to time was the mother getting a new hairstyle in the 1980s. Only a few other things changed - the baby PJ was added, a second dog was adopted, they traded the family car in on a minivan, and the father got glasses.

While the barrage of word balloons continued, other jokes took over the Sunday strips. One frequent one showed the circuitous path that one of the sons took going from one place to another, usually punctuated with a line about "I came straight here." Other strips featured ghosts named "Idda Know" and "Not Me" who were responsible for any mayhem in the house ("Who broke the vase?" "Not Me!").

A few times a year the oldest child Billy would supposedly take over the Sunday strip so his father could have a day off. These featured outrageous puns.

Keane was gracious about allowing parodies of his strip. In an interview he said that it flattered him. Family Circus characters often appear in Pearls Before Swine (seldom in a good light) with Keane's permission.

Keane never tried to be the funniest cartoonist but was usually good for a mild chuckle. The Family Circus is one of the world's most widely syndicated strips.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Tablet Wars

Predictions that the IPad was unstoppable were premature. It has not been available for a year and a half. Granted the first responses were insufficient but the same thing happened with the first generation of touch phones after the original IPhone was released. Now, four years later, Android is the dominant operating system.

The same thing will happen in the tablet market. No one can build the perfect product. Every design is a trade-off. In order to have a large screen, the IPad had to be bigger, heavier, and more expensive.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble see an opening. Both companies have introduced 7" tablets that are significantly lighter and cheaper than an IPad.

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a low-end tablet that tries to lock the owner into the Amazon ecosystem the way that the IPad locks into Apple. It uses cloud computing to make up for some of its shortcomings. It has little storage and is not expandable. It also has a last-generation CPU. Amazon gets around these drawbacks by allowing cloud-based storage and by off-loading some browser tasks to Amazon servers. The main drawback is that the user is tethered to WiFi. That doesn't make much difference for web browsing but it cuts you off from some of your content when traveling. The $199 price is enough to make people overlook a lot of deficiencies.

B&N has offered the Color Nook for some time. It is a color ebook reader with some tablet capabilities. The price on this has been reduced to $199 and a new software update is coming which may put it on par with the Kindle Fire. B&N also introduced a new tablet, the Nook Tablet. This is an upgrade from the Color Nook and the Kindle Fire. For and extra $50 ($250 total) you get more storage, a faster CPU, a more visible display, and a slot for an SD card. B&N has less of an infrastructure so buyers are not as locked-in. This is another trade-off since Amazon's app store is larger than B&N's and B&N's music and video streaming services are through 3rd parties.

Many analysts dismissed the Nook Tablet because it didn't make the magic $199 price point. Others point out that, at $250, the Nook Color is still half the price of the IPad. They also dismiss the Nook Color which is at the $199 price point.

Apple dismisses Amazon's and B&N's offerings as examples of Android fragmentation. This is short-sighted. While there are drawbacks to Android code forks, it also allows manufacturers to tailor devices to their market. Amazon's and B&N's strengths are book-sellers first and foremost. Both have established lines of ereaders. These new tablets build on their established markets and undercut the IPad on price and portability. They cannot be used for everything that an IPad is used for but that misses the point. The IPad cannot do many things that a full PC does but it found a huge market, anyway.

Some analysts are trying to predict a winner between Amazon and B&N. This also misses the point. The question is not which product will win, it is if the market is big enough to support both products as well as the IPad. I expect to see all three succeed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Shakespeare Plays

The new movie Anonymous presents the view that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. This seems like a good time to go over the controversy.

First, it must be noted that every contemporary reference to the plays has Shakespeare as the author. Since the plays were written for the strengths of the company and the stage they were performing on, this makes an additional argument that the author of the plays was a member of the company.

The world seemed satisfied that the man whose name was on the plays was the author until the mid-19th century. At that time, an intellectual named Delia Bacon. At that time, Francis Bacon was regarded as the smartest man who had ever lived and Shakespeare the greatest writer. Delia thought that it was a paradox that out of all history, two so talented men were contemporaries. Her solution was that they were one and the same. For the next half-century, many educated people came to believe this theory.

Two things happened around the turn of the 20th century. The first was that Bacon was no longer held in such high regard. That opened the door to someone else being the author. The second was the idea that all great literature is semi-autobiographical. According to this, the plays were about kings and nobles so the author could not be the son of a back-woods glove-maker. He must be someone of high rank.

By the middle of the 20th century, opinion had centered on Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. He was associated with the theater and wrote some poetry. Most important, some events in his life mirrored the plots of some of the plays.

A weak case can be built from there that de Vere wrote the plays. But that wasn't enough. Assuming that the plays and sonnets were all thinly-disguised biographies, the Oxfordians "discovered" that their man was both Queen Elizabeth's son and lover. And that was the basis for Anonymous.