Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chris Onstad offers the reason for the multi-month hiatus on "Achewood"

This should probably get posted at our links sister site, but I'm posting it here.  Chris Onstad, sole creator and creative force behind the popular online strip, Achewood, has offered up a bit of an explanation as to why the series slowed to a drip and then went on hiatus, which seemed to start in earnest last October.

You can read his explanation here.

Some will say Onstad owed no explanation, but I'm not sure that's accurate. We can make a guess as to what happened and theorize, but part of having an audience does, in fact, mean that one has a responsibility to at least let people know what's happening.   Not knowing is a bit like if your waiter goes back in the kitchen and never returns (I actually did have that happen once, and its totally freaky.  I waited half an hour before flagging down another waiter and figuring out what happened.  Apparently my waiter's shift was over and he forgot he'd never closed out the tab at table 5.)

Achewood's tone and poise is not set to the same audience as that of "Marmaduke"
Onstad's response is more than adequate, but will confuse the howling masses who have been trained to expect their every whim to be catered to if they believe a penny can be made from such a whim.

His explanation is, by the way, basically:  I got burnt out.  It's been ten years, and with all the stuff associated with that sort of production, maintaining quality and challenging myself became a bit of a drag.  And the constant two-way feed of communication with the public seemed to be getting him down.

In some small way, I can relate on an infinitely smaller scale.  When I shut down League of Melbotis for several months and brought it back up under The Signal Watch, it was the best thing I could have done for myself and for my willingness to continue blogging.  Those months away retrained me that I was more than the work I did to get paid and a race each evening to post lest my readership numbers dwindle (for which I did not get paid).

Back in the blogging day, we attempted a sort of collaborative pop-culture blogging experiment called "Nanostalgia" that didn't really get off the tarmac before we settled gently back into the sea and I found myself on a metaphorical yellow rubber raft paddling back to shore and unnecessarily eating the ration packs.  But at that site I did a column about how hard it was going to be for webcomics because they aren't set up with all the niceties of the corporate structure, and its all on the shoulders of the single creator.  And that meant, man, you'd best be ready to give over your life to nigh-daily content production.

That all got a tough response from a webcomic guru, but six years later, I can see I was mostly right.  Making money and getting support is hard to begin with.  And once you do self-build that empire, its not unlike being successful at, say, owning a hardware store that becomes the size of a box store.  Suddenly you have all these new duties that aren't just "man, I have to get the new hammers out for the spring hammering season".  You got staff, deals to close, etc...  and its a much bigger thing than selling bolts or whatever reason you got into the hardware business to begin with.

And, I think, people do not get into the business of comics to feel like they're on an assembly line, cranking out comics that meet exactly the same criteria every panel, every episode lest the readership get nervous when the artist tries something new.

And, in my own small way, I wrestled a bit with the expectations of the readership, as it were.  I have enjoyed the freedom of the sandbox that I've staked out as The Signal Watch, and in many ways, its easier having a much smaller readership of friends, family, strange Canadians, etc...  who aren't much more invested than sort of checking in and do not think of the content as a product to be delivered to their RSS feed daily.  And while it had little to do with why I quit (however briefly), man...  its much easier to get the "hey, is everything okay?  You haven't posted in a while" emails than the "where are you?  what's your problem?" comments showing up because you decided to do something else for three or four days.  And I never had to deal with the entitlement of a readership that one could see in the sprawling comment sections beneath each and every strip.

I hope Onstad finds his way out of whatever creative qicksand he's been caught in.  I salute the guy.  He created a fantastic strip for about a decade, producing hundreds of times better content in that time than some strips that run 365 days a year, have hit every day for decades and have become the ugly, comfy slippers of the newspaper strip world.  I'll be sure to try to follow him wherever he goes, and I am certain that whatever he does next will be better than even Achewood die-hards would expect.

Signal Watch Reads: Superman #709


For the record:  I suspect The Flash is quite a bit faster than Superman
One of my favorite comics is the original Superman/ Flash race, and I keep a copy of that issue in a frame on my wall.  You aren't going to get an objective review out of me when you add The Flash and Superman together.  And you will then see me suggesting you check out:
In this issue, Superman's trek takes him to Colorado where we find Superman wrapping things up after an off-panel team-up with Super-Chief.  And here I'd like to digress...

I'd love to see a new Superman Family book like we had back in the day, including the B-listers, supporting casts and to give creators a chance to work on characters like the aforementioned "Super-Chief" (and I find the idea that Green Bay has a super-hero pretty awesome/ hilarious).  Why DC hasn't launched anthology books for the Super and Bat-books is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery...

But if Roberson is wondering - yes, I'd pay money to see more of Super-Chief (but will not pay to see Supertramp).


Superman enters Boulder, Colorado where the world around him begins changing to a replica of Krypton.  Squinting, Superman's supervision detects that its Barry Allen/ Flash working at super-super-speed to construct costumes and replicas of Krypton's past so quickly, the full scale changes are happening in the blink of an eye, while Barry recites Kryptonian history at super-super-speed.

I'm not really interested in spoilers or rehashing the plot, but there is a bit of a Flash/ Superman race in the story, and that is a good thing.

I've commented before how Roberson's stories seem to harken back to the Elliot S! Maggin and Cary Bates stories I've only really become familiar with in the last four years or so (thanks, back-issue bins!), and the splash on page 4 of this issue just screams "Bronze Age" to me.  And that is a good thing.  

As I grew older, had a job, etc...  something I liked about the line of DC characters was that: where Marvel's books (especially X-Men) maintained the feeling of getting jammed together like high schoolers, DC's characters had an interesting collegiality about them, especially when Morrison and Waid were handling the JLA title.  Sitting at the JLA conference table with coffee while talking about how to deal with a crisis actually made complete sense to me, and seeing them call one another by their first name was always a reminder that these characters knew and trusted one another, but that they could be honest with each other (how many other people get to call Batman "Bruce" when he's in the mask?  There's something to that.).

A civil conversation between Flash and Superman is a welcome moment in the story, just old friends having a bite - even if its at superspeed.  Even if I felt that Marvel's characters were a bit high-school-ish, Marvel always understood that unless you have those character moments, the stories don't matter.  DC definitely tilts toward plot-driven tales, but if we can't see who Superman and The Flash are...  why would anyone care?  And isn't it easier to speak in the broad terms found on message boards and comment sections if you can't point to the specifics found in these sorts of scenes?

Its refreshing to see Flash just be up-front with Superman about his recent trauma, and how he's not surprised if Clark is a bit off.  As much as the JLA can be about bringing together a strategically superior fighting force (which... okay, that's every team book) it can also be a place to acknowledge the similarities and differences of these icons as characters.*  This was something Brad Meltzer was about to do with his JLA re-launch, but, man... did people not get what he was up to. 

The issue also gets bonus points for references to Barry's awakening to his own powers (the first use of his superspeed was catching a falling tray of food in a diner), but will likely be best known for the already-famous insertion of the internet meme "Lex Luthor took 40 cakes" directly into the story.  And that is terribly awesome.

Also, this issue may go down in history as being the one who's preview featuring a Superman/ Flash race got so heated in the comment section that DC finally killed the comments on their own blog.  Slow clap, comics fans.

Roberson does what he's done remarkably well since taking over the title:  he's repurposed the Grounded storyline and actually played off the weaknesses in JMS's original plan, addressing where JMS went wrong "in story" and made it part of the narrative. 

I suspect that this issue, which drops a few hints at the "and something is very wrong with Superman" is the breather en route to the conclusion of Grounded.  We don't have all that many issues left to go, and one would suspect that with the Doomsday storyline happening in Action and other titles, we're due for a big conclusion here. 

I mentioned in a previous column (not a Superman review) that I had written DC a letter asking that they consider keeping Chris Roberson on the Superman title after the conclusion of Grounded.  I'd reiterate that sentiment here.  Roberson gets the character of Superman as well as any I've seen handed the keys to the kingdom, and it would be a shame to see DC pull the plug on he and Paul Cornell in Action Comics when those books are as strong as they've been in decades.

*which is one of my primary reasons for believing JLA should always feature a team that includes a minimum of 4 of the original 7.  Otherwise its a band touring as The Beach Boys, but without a single founding member.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rebecca Black's "Friday" (or: in which I discuss exploiting starry-eyed teens and their parents for fun and profit)

So.  Rebecca Black.

Randy asked me to cover the rise of Rebecca Black, a girl I'd guess is a high school underclassman and who has become famous for a very bad song which is making the rounds.

If you have not seen the video that launched a meme, I'll go ahead and embed it below. I invite you to watch the video in order to inflate Rebecca's hit count and get some context here.

So, I'll be honest... yes, its vapid, pointless pop music, clearly cranked out quickly and cheaply.  It utilizes auto-tune to fix a non-professional's deficiencies, and to make it sound exactly like every other song that's on Top 40 radio. Sure, its hard to say much about the song other than "they really know how to repeat the same words over and over", and itts intended to appeal to an audience I'd guess is between the ages 5-15 (ie: children's music - which i doubt Black herself has grokked), but it is MOSTLY a song that Ms. Black's folks would feel completely comfortable to hear their child sing in front of a crowd (if one can ignore the poor grammar of "we so excited".  Which raises questions for me about the writer's intentions regarding who was supposed to sing this song, but let us not go there.)

The video and song have been mocked by folks online who know better* and believe themselves snarky.  Hey, that sounds sort of like what we do here, but let me be 100% honest with you:

I have absolutely no idea what is funny about this meme. This song sounds exactly in my head like what I hear when anyone from Hilary Duff to Miley Cyrus to Britney Spears to Ke$ha to (insert pop starlet using autotune who is the product of a producer looking to create a brand).  It sounds like bad pop, which is what it is.

Perspective, people.

Sure, its a stripped down version of the overproduced pop that's dominated kid's music since someone tried to make a go of making Tiffany a household name.  I salute Black's parents for not buying that she has to put on a skimpy faux-Catholic school girl Halloween costume ala Ms. Spears to get attention, nor that she should sing about wanting to be "rubbed the right way", as Aguilera insisted en route to making the Top 40.  She seems like a sweet kid, and if riding in a car is a big deal to her, more power.

But...  I am 35 and a dude, and this is not intended for me.  This is exactly what pop music sounds like right now no matter who is performing it and no matter how they're dressed.  The difference is that she's singing about the dumb stuff that I suppose most kids in middle-class and upper-class homes think about at her age. Honestly, isn't this her "Everybody's Working for the Weekend"** but for rich kids for whom Friday represents a chance to get a ride with her friend's mom to the Pizza place where that cute boy from Geometry might be hanging out?  At least she's singing about what she knows. 

The fact that she can't sing (thus: auto-tune) and the lyrics are asinine: I'm sorry, where were all you people when Will Smith decided his daughter needed to be a pop star and everyone talked about how great and catchy that @#$% was? 

In short, its silly, its badly written, it doesn't really work...  but that describes 95% of what gets generated out there that outsells all your favorite bands.  So let us all give poor Rebecca a brake.

And... did we just notice that there are cynical producers exploiting bright-eyed young people and their parents? Heck, I admire Ark for their brazen choice to put their label out front and announce to YouTube Nation exactly who was making mad bank off of this hack job. And who can say that this method hasn't worked for them?
  • Rebecca Black has a top-selling tune on iTunes.  
  • You have smug self-satisfaction and once entertained notions that Crash Test Dummies were a good band when you were trying to define your tastes as "alternative". 
It's the Disney Channel of music.  If we're going to bag on this, let's all tune into Wizards of Waverly Place and bag on that show for not being The Wire.

Now what I do love is that at 2:30 in the video, this random, much-older guy shows up and starts rapping about how he wants to echo Rebecca's sentiments regarding the awesomeness of Fridays and his joy at seeing a school bus.

Guy in car, I salute you.***

Also, at about 1:16 it seems Ms. Black was asked to invite her pals to join her in a video shoot, and, man...  her friend in the braces does just not know she is about to be an internet meme.

Now, I know what I was listening to by 7th grade, so I can say with confidence, this would have drawn the same blank stares from me that Ms. Debbie Gibson received during her reign (btw, is this really worse than Electric Youth?), but maybe in, like, 2nd grade I would have thought this would have been great to hear at Pizza Royale while plugging quarters into the Galaga machine.  Back then, this would have been right there in my wheelhouse. 

You aren't going to really convince me that this is a whole lot different from, say, Taylor Swift.  Teen singer, handled by agents and producers, singing repetitive, tuneless songs, not in control of her own destiny...  Actually, that's kind of how I feel about modern country in general, but I digress.  The difference seems to be just how much someone's parents were willing to spend on an investment and how much a producer thought they could make on a kid before they wised up and he moved on to the next kid.

I am also not convinced that this girl is any different from the 10's of 1000's of bright-eyed hopefuls who show up for American Idol, nor what becomes of the "winners" of that show.

Now, I am willing to embrace this video and song as silly, if you'll acknowledge that Avril Lavigne did far more damage to the music industry than a 1000 Rebecca Blacks could hope to accomplish.

*I've seen your record collection.  You don't know better, and you have some explaining to do.
**I would submit that "Working for the Weekend" and much of the Loverboy catalogue was weaker than this tune, but we still let that @#$% play over the PA at Red Robin three decades on.
***In the story I've written in my head to give the video a narrative, this is RB's aunt's boyfriend who is the only one who appreciates Ms. Black's auto-tuned talent.

Oh @#$%...  

Here she is going acoustic (thx, Randy!)

I think her friend in the braces is sitting there on the couch looking way more comfortable this time.

Aside from the fact the boots are blue, I am totally down with the Wonder Woman TV costume

From Entertainment Weekly

well, gosh

Well, yes, I think I will be watching this show.  Likely for the wrong reasons.

Oh, look! She has gold stars on the outside seam of her pants! That is so cool!

Not a problem, but I wonder why they changed the tiara? 

Also, I'm already over the fact that her boots are blue.

Michael Gough, the Alfred of 4 Batman movies, Merges with the Bat-Infinite

JimD has alerted me to the passing of Michael Gough, the British Thespian who played Wayne family butler Alfred Pennyworth in four Batman movies, beginning with Tim Burton's Batman and concluding with (sigh) Batman and Robin

Gough was the first actor to bring to life the dry wit regarding his boss's nocturnal activities with which Alfred had become infused in the comics in the 1970's and which became a staple of the character post-Dark Knight Returns.  He also was responsible for conveying the flipside to that relationship as Bruce's unacknowledged father figure (see the dinner sequence in Burton's Batman). 

Unfortunately, his last outing as Alfred included the "Alfred's dying, bring in Alicia Silverstone" decision which was one of many choices made by WB that knee-capped the franchise.  But it wasn't a crazy choice.  As the only actor to appear in all movies of that Bat-era, audiences were emotionally invested in the character, and what can a brother do about Alicia Silverstone's baby-voiced non-acting when his job is to lay there comfortably in silk pajamas?

We salute Gough and he will be well remembered here at LeagueHQ.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Trend in Social Media - Getting Rid of Comments (is a pretty good idea)

Last night I wrote perhaps my third of fourth letter ever to DC Comics. I wrote in to let them know I was very much enjoying the work of Chris Roberson on Superman, and that I hoped they would consider letting him continue on the book. My letter was perhaps too formal, but I wanted to ensure that the civility of my tone conveyed my sincerity.  I like my comics, but I am also aware of the insane entitlement and false sense of ownership which pervades all aspects of pop culture in a 24/7 world of online chatter.

Several months ago I wrote a post about the return of DC Letters columns.  I enthused about the decision and my hope for a better tomorrow vis-a-vis a managed conversation about comics.*
While letter cols no doubt will manage the conversation, there's also no doubt that the internet is an enabler for misplaced entitlement and bad behavior (why DC bothers to have a comment section on its blog is beyond me.  Its the same six guys criticizing every single item that goes up) and DC can manage their conversation with fans a bit better. 
Yesterday was the first time I'd noticed a letter column appearing in my issue of Superman 709, so I decided to use the channel offered to me by DC to share my opinion.   While I do not expect to see that letter make it to print, that wasn't the point.  I wanted someone at DC to have a chance of seeing a letter telling them "this is working for someone who likes to give you money.  Please keep it up."  Had I posted to the Message Boards or to a comment on a blog post, most assuredly, civility and a positive message would have been lost in the cacophony.

Of course, DC has had a Bulletin Board/ Message Board for years.  And the last time I visited that board regularly was around...  2002 or 2003.  Even at that time, the place was becoming hopelessly toxic. About three weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled onto the Boards while looking for help regarding DCU Online, and was completely amazed at the vitriol, ignorance, and stunningly awful grammar found in an Aquaman forum.

That same attitude, which is encouraged all over online (from my local paper to Gawker), had also trickled out to DC's very public blog.  Shockingly hateful comments, ignorance and bigotry, disturbing levels of entitlement, ugly personal attacks, and, frankly, an astounding lack of knowledge about the very subject of DC Comics, were on display in the comment sections of virtually every single post.  It was a quagmire.  And all I could think was "Why is DC giving any of these people a forum to do this in public?  And associate this horror with their official site?"

Well, I guess all that's over now.

According to Chris Sims at the Comics Alliance, DC has given up on offering comments on their website and pulled the gate down on the Message Board.  I, for one, think this was the right decision, and hope that the change is permanent.

Its also not without very recent precedent.  Recently the website for The Comics Journal, the supposed high-brow approach to comics (ahem, comix) underwent a change of management, and in that change, they dropped what some described as the worst-of-the-worst when it came to ill will and misplaced anger.  In short, the TCJ Message Board is no more, and the site managers seemed positively relieved.
It was a place that had some virtues but mostly, I think, it was a place where unhappy people went to be even less happy. Its time has more than passed...
At the crux of it, I'm not convinced that giving your more insane and obsessive customers a soapbox on your website from which to spend hours each day complaining is very good business.  Its a bit like asking the crackhead who wanders by your shop to go ahead and come inside every day from open to close on the off chance he might spend some money.

I'm a DC fan, and I find it off putting.  It does not make me want to engage with my fellow fans, and actually kind of makes me dislike my fellow fans.  I'm a DC fan, and I would rather fall into a swarm of bees than spend a week moderating the message boards, or get punched just once in the face rather than partake in a discussion on the message boards.

Frankly, media outlets have tried the whole "community" approach, and it doesn't work very well.  Self-organizing communities seem to do much better** in this regard, and with social applications now freely available all over the place, I don't think DC owes it to anyone to bother with these tools anymore.  After reading about the upcoming Batman release, frankly, I don't care what WildFang666 thinks about the creative team.  I care what I think, or maybe what you guys think, or what folks at the comic shop might say (all trusted sources). 

Look, the internet is absolutely still out there.  Those same few people who decided that the steps of the DC Blog were their hobo camp can claim a WordPress site or go off to Blogger.  But I think I'll be happier if DC takes steps to just let the comics and work speak for itself.  We don't need to know what DarkKnightBlade has to say.  I'm good, thanks.

Will this become a new trend?  Well, I don't see sites that are the business having much luck dropping comments.  The sense of community is part of what makes the site go, but its sad to know how much time must be spent moderating comments (its sort of the depressing factory job of the 21st Century).  But for sites trying to sell an actual product...?  I don't know.  And that product could be anything from comic books to soda to actual news.

I assume the generation that grew up with internet comments as a standard issue part of life will be shocked.  But for some of us who can remember a time when you needed an internet connection and a valid email to get into print or part of a conversation, we remember getting along just fine.  Editors edited and responded to letters, and there was the concept of the crank file.  Sadly, the crank file has become the discussion, and not just in comics.***

So, I vote for keeping it down.  Your primary job is to make comics, not babysit crazy people.

For someone who has embraced the insanity, I recommend Estate 4.1, who posts the best comments from wire services articles.  After you get done weeping for humanity, its actually pretty darn funny.

*I just totally quoted myself.  And that is terrible.

**I think you may have seen how quickly I've clamped down on comments around here when we've had a drive-by troll or two, and there's an astoundingly polite and friendly bunch of commenters on this site... in part due to the site's smallish readership.  Also, note I've patted myself on the back twice now in footnotes.

***CNN - cannot tell you how sad it makes me when you spend time reading Tweets on air or inviting anyone with an iPhone to submit content.

Special St. Patrick's Day Treat: Oh Danny Boy

And now: one of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever.

Decidedly Rated R for tommy gun-related violence.

And Shoemaker sends this along:

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

It's St. Patrick's Day! Hope you put on some green. These guys did.

Ollie and Hal urge you to drink responsibly

Happy Birthday to my Brother

March 17 is my brother's birthday.  Some of you know Jason (aka:  Steanso), many of you do not.  It is no secret to many of the people of Austin that the Bros. Steans come largely as a package deal.  You get one, you get the other.  And we're just different enough to be completely annoying to each other and everyone who has to listen to us.

mi hermano
These days Jason is an attorney for Travis County where he works with two special courts that I know of, a court for folks with mental health issues and a new court for veterans.  We're all very proud.  We just wish he'd clean his garage.

Of late, Jason has teamed up with AmyD, who is a crowd favorite at our house (we suspect that she will eventually even get him to clean the garage). 

Every year he shares his birthday with two things - St. Patrick's Day and SXSW.  So, basically, the man's birthday just gets totally co-opted each and every year.

Attorney, musician, dog-owner, and unlikely king of ballet - Happy Birthday, my man.