Monday, August 17, 2009

Flip the Flippin’ Switch

I’ll be online only sporadically for the next couple weeks, because, I’m told, it will take some time for the Deutsche Telekom to locate the switch for my DSL—and, once found, the switch will have to be flipped gently, not hastily.

So, more time to read comics, I guess, although maybe I’ll do something crazy and come up with some content for the blog while I’m not plugged in.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Amazon Best-Seller List: “A Black Box with the Fancy Word ‘Algorithm’ Used to Describe It”

There’s been some speculation lately about what online book-seller Amazon’s best-seller lists (“updated hourly”) do or don’t mean. At The Big Money, now, there’s a new article by Marion Maneker that takes a closer look at the charts.

On the method used to compile the list, for instance, Maneker quotes “an Amazon spokeswoman”:

“We base rankings on all-time sales, as well as recent sales that are weighted more heavily than older sales, so that our lists are timely and aren't always dominated by all-time best-sellers like Harry Potter.”

Maneker also provides a quote from author Andy Kessler’s book Wall Street Meat that explains what this may mean in practice:

"I'm not sure the exact number," Kessler says of the weightings, "but my guess is 40 percent hour, 30 percent day, 20 percent week, and 10 percent month. So if you have a huge spike in sales, you don't completely dislodge books that have been in the top 10 or top 100 for months and months. Though you might pass them for a very fun hour."

Based on these assumptions, Maneker goes on to speculate on the numbers required to get on the list:

At the very top—rankings No. 1 to No. 10—a book could be selling 3,000 to 10,000 copies a week through the Internet retailer. So all it takes is, say, 500 to 1,000 copies manhandled through the system on a single day to get your book into the top ranks.

I’ve suspected the same thing, but in the end, it depends on how exactly the list is assembled, of course.

The complete article, which also discusses some of the implications for authors, ways of gaming the list and the impact of e-books and the Kindle, is well worth a read.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Greek Street #1

DC Comics/Vertigo, 32 pages, $ 1.00

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Davide Gianfelice
Colorist: Patricia Mulvihill
Letterer: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Kako

Greek Street is a reimagining of many of those ancient [Greek] tragedies,” Peter Milligan explains in his editorial, “played out on these modern Soho streets, with modern Soho and British ‘types’ unconsciously living out the roles of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Medea and more. It’s a complex story of incest, murder and clairvoyance.”

As it turns out, though, that’s not quite correct. The book’s protagonist, a character named Eddie, may be living out a role similar to that of Oedipus, but it’s also one that differs from its mythological model quite significantly. In the original myth, Oedipus sets out to avoid the Oracle’s prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother. The tragedy being, of course, that his very zeal to defy his fate leads to its ultimate fulfillment. It’s a very human story, with the potential for profound insights—the fact that it’s still carried on, after thousands of years, is not an accident, after all.

In Greek Street, now, the plot takes a very different turn. For one thing, whereas his ancient predecessor didn’t know who his real parents were, Eddie is well aware of it, at least in the case of his mother. For another, Eddie seems hellbent on fulfilling the “prophecy,” instead of running from it. I’m fairly confident that this is not a careless blunder on Mr. Milligan’s part, granted, but a conscious decision that’s going to pay off somewhere down the road.

Still, the mythological Oedipus’ ignorance and his desire to escape his fate are the crucial parts that inform his every move, and it’s precisely those two aspects that ultimately enable the audience to care about the character’s fate, and that make it, well, tragic. If you take all that out, then you better have something worthwhile in mind to replace it with. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing the story?

Unfortunately, that something is missing here. Eddie clearly doesn’t want to avoid any prophecies—nor, for that matter, does he seem to want anything else. The character just stumbles around and does a whole bunch of wildly unsettling things that should, by any means, be wreaking all kinds of havoc with his mind. But they don’t seem to have much of an effect at all on him. There is a brief scene in which Eddie has a nightmare, but immediately after, it’s back to business as usual: He goes to work and does more weird things without a discernible motivation. Everything Eddie does appears random and perfunctory, rather than the consequence of something.

There are at least four potentially traumatic experiences Eddie goes through in the story, and each time, instead of exploring what could be an interesting and significant moment for the character, Mr. Milligan just skips ahead. When Eddie finally does crack, ironically, the occasion just seems phony—after everything he’s been through in the previous 30 pages, this is driving him over the edge?

Maybe I’m supposed to be shocked by a character having sex with his own mother or cutting off his dick with a piece of broken glass. If so, the story fails. It’s hard to be shocked when you’re given no reason to care about the characters; random, vaguely outrageous misery is no substitute for character development. It’s hard to be shocked, for that matter, by a comic that purports to be “for mature readers,” but is so obviously and so terribly afraid of regular male and female nudity that no hoary old comic-book cliché is too contrived or silly to cover it up. (Bring on the extra bras and linens and convenient awkward poses.)

The panel-to-panel storytelling by Mr. Gianfelice has its own share of kinks, meanwhile. In the strip-club scene in the first two pages, one of the patrons, sitting on a bar stool, puts his hand on a stripper who just stepped next to him. She immediately tells him to remove it, but it takes her six panels, various camera shifts and a lengthy monologue before she changes her position. Instead of just stepping out of reach, or of simply turning around while addressing the guy, she’s just standing there, implausibly, talking to the offender over her shoulder for six panels straight.

On top of page 29, I’m still not entirely sure if a scream coming out of a window is meant to be connected to the previous scene. It has to be, logically, because otherwise, why put a random scream in the panel? The problem is, it’s clearly not the same window as the one depicted a page earlier. It’s pretty easy to tell, too, because there’s a big neon sign just below the window on page 28, but not the one shown on page 29. That’s pretty basic stuff, and you’d think somebody would catch it—particularly since it obscures a plot point.

Ultimately, though, the main problem with Greek Street is the same one that many other mainstream comics share. Its set-up, “modern characters unwittingly reliving ancient Greek myths,” is a sound one, but that’s not what makes a story. It’s just an engine, and it needs both a direction and compelling characters to become a story. In this first issue, at least, Greek Street has neither.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Thor: The Trial of Thor #1

Marvel, 32 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Cary Nord
Colorist: Christina Strain
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

The current Thor series by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Olivier Coipel has been extremely successful since its launch in 2007, but also something less than monthly—in the last two years, only 15 issues have come out. To fill the resulting gaps in the schedule and make at least a little bit of money on the character’s newfound popularity when the regular series fails to show up, Marvel started to commission a slew of one-shots and miniseries last year. Most of them have been written by Matt Fraction, now it’s Peter Milligan’s turn.

The Trial of Thor, the first of two one-shots written by Mr. Milligan, starts out well. While Asgard is in a prolonged war with the Frost Giants (is it ever not?), with blood raining down on Earth and all that jazz, Thor is accused of walking around and killing and raping his own people, and generally behaving like he’s some sort of Viking prince. His father Odin and his friends, Balder the Brave and the Warriors Three, find this kind of behavior completely unacceptable, of course, and begin to investigate the allegations—which are delicate for a number of reasons, not least because Thor’s aid in the war is crucial.

And, as it turns out, there’s not the shadow of a doubt that Thor is, indeed, the perpetrator.

It’s a sound idea for a 32-page story, and the creators pull no punches in the way they set us up for the inevitable thunderstorm that is to follow, no doubt, when Thor stands trial for his crimes. Except it never comes. Remarkably, there is no trial of Thor in The Trial of Thor.

For 22 pages, Mr. Milligan slowly prepares the ground for an intriguing character study, and then it just falls apart completely. Thor, just like that, has a sudden “epiphany,” turns around, goes back home, uncovers the lame and contrived deception, and resolves the situation by beating the villains up with his hammer.

The story never makes good on the promise of the first few pages, there’s no dramatic turning point, and the conclusion is a rushed deus-ex-machina ploy that’s not even very clever. I’ve read better Peter Milligan stories.

Grade: C-

Monday, August 3, 2009

WildC.A.T.s #42

Image Comics, 1997, 22 pages, $ 2.50

Writers: Brandon Choi, Jonathan Peterson
Pencilers: Mat Broome, Mike Miller
Inkers: Sean Parsons, Mike Miller
Colorists: Wendy Fouts, Mike Miller, Bad@$$
Letterer: Bill O’Neil
Cover artists: Mat Broome, Al Vey

WildC.A.T.s #42, cover-dated September, 1997, is remarkable mainly in how unremarkable it is, right up to the way it came into my possession a couple of months back.

To make a long story short, I wanted a copy of Phonogram: The Singles Club #1 and couldn’t find one except in a bundle with four other comics, of which this was one. On the plus side, the set ended up being cheaper than the single copy of the comic that I actually wanted—and which they told me they didn’t have when I specifically asked for it—would have been. So, I guess, thank you, Golden Age Collectables in Seattle!

But I digress.

As a series, WildC.A.T.s* was in a spot that’s somewhat similar to the one it’s in today: right in the middle of a period that isn’t particularly memorable**. The astronomic sales of the first few issues were long gone, Jim Lee himself was nowhere near the book, and the property was about a year away in both directions from the kind of material that people tend to remember. From today’s point of view, the closest WildC.A.T.s #42 comes to being in any way conspicuous is an early advertisement for the first relaunch of StormWatch by Warren Ellis and Oscar Jimenez, which later led to The Authority.

As a comic taken on its own terms, WildC.A.T.s #42 is a random, typical superhero comic—no, scratch that: a random, typical superhero comic by the standards of 1997. The story is the second chapter of a two-parter, its cover price of $ 2.50 is surprisingly close to what most mainstream comics still cost today, and it’s generally a brightly-colored mess. It’s also historically confused, since the otherwise useless—though extensive—recap page refers to German soldiers from World War I as “Axis troopers.”

About the plot, I’m not sure. The gist of it is that some of the WildC.A.T.s have traveled back in time to prevent their arch-enemies, the alien Daemonites, from handing the Germans their very first supply of poison gas. “<Once the Germans start using my bio-chemical agents in battle, humanity’s final descent toward extinction shall be irreversible!>” bad guy Adolphus Koch, alias Defile, handily explains, in the kind of line that used to be shorthand for “villain speak.” Much of the rest of the dialogue is in the same league.

There’s another group of time-travelers, and there are about five pages of story taking place in the present, but I’m not sure what’s going on with any of that. The recap page, as suggested earlier, is no help at all, because it just tells me the part that I could actually have figured out myself from reading the story. Generally, it’s a lot of characters running around doing a lot of things that the X-Men were particularly known for five years earlier; besides the time-travel angle, there’s also a token mysterious member who, purely by chance, runs into one of his ancestors, for instance.

The panel-to-panel storytelling is sometimes competent and often shaky. Lord knows how the ridiculous two-page intro sequence is meant to be unfolding, for instance—or what its purpose is meant to be, for that matter. The artists seem to have mainly concentrated on making two generic F.B.I. agents look like Scully and Mulder from The X-Files, which I guess they almost pull off in one of the panels, if you get past the distorted faces and the screaming second-hand Jim Lee style of the artwork. Backgrounds are the exception. Consequently: lots of speech balloons and caption boxes that are either redundant or have to cover for shortcomings in the artwork. After all, someone has to tell the story, if the artists can’t be bothered.

In fairness, the writers do take a brave stab at irony here and there and have some ideas in mind about lessons that some of the characters might be learning. But ultimately, it’s all too heavy-handed and haphazard to add up to much of a moral. Speaking of which: Why am I reviewing a nondescript Image comic from 1997, again?

Well, the reason why I read it when it came to me was because I was genuinely curious. I didn’t read any Image comics in the 1990s, and I was wondering how a random issue like this one would hold up. And when I read it, what struck me, mainly, was that the level of craft it puts on display is—let’s face it—very shoddy, but was perfectly acceptable and commonplace ten years ago. After all, I did read a lot of other superhero fare in the 1990s, and, without going back to check, what I can say about it now is that a lot of it probably wasn’t much better than WildC.A.T.s #42. And a lot of the time, I didn’t really mind, and neither did much of anyone else. It seemed to be accepted that mainstream comics, as a general rule of thumb, tended to be crummy, most of the time.

So if there is a moral to all this (and there might not be, other than that spending 1,000 words on a 12-year-old issue of WildC.A.T.s is a gigantic waste of time and electricity), it has to be that we’ve come quite a long way in the last ten years. Not that there are no more crummy genre comics, but it certainly seems to me that the standards have risen by a notch or two over the last decade. On average, I think it’s fair to say that mainstream comics, much like television shows or videogames, are generally of a better craft in 2009 than they were in 1997. Simply put, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and when they do, it tends to be an accident or an error of judgment. (Or Jeph Loeb.)

And so here I am, grateful, after all, for this crummy 12-year-old Jim Lee comic that I didn’t actually want and that Jim Lee didn’t even draw. Now, with my palate properly cleansed, I will read my Phonogram (from, you know, Image Comics!) and appreciate it like I should. And so should you.

Grade: D-

* The acronym in the title stands for “Covert Action Teams.” They dropped it at some point, and it’s just called WildCats now.

** It’s not exactly the same spot, mind you. In 1997, comics retailers pre-ordered an estimated 38,200 units of WildC.A.T.s #42. In June 2009, they bought an estimated 7,863 copies of WildCats #12.