Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Archive Factor: Can It Raise The Dead?

(First, a brief hello to anyone who's coming to this from 'Comics Should Be Good'--if you're wondering about the update schedule, new "Storytelling Engines" are on Mondays, and Thursdays are my normal entries, which are not guaranteed to be comics-related, geek-related, or even necessarily worth reading. I've had a tradition of self-deprecation since the first post, and I'm not about to stop now.)

Today's post, though, is geek-related. Specifically, it relates to a post I made a couple of weeks ago, in which I talked about all the ways this is a wonderful time to be alive. (And every fan of 'Yamara' always finishes that with, "Archers, commence firing!") I discussed, in specific, something I called "The Archive Factor", the recent commercial trend of putting out collections of sci-fi/fantasy/action/adventure/...let's just call it, for lack of a better blanket term, "cult fiction" out for release. When I was five, if you wanted to read the complete Lee/Kirby run of Fantastic Four, you had to have more money than God. Nowadays, it'll cost you less than a hundred bucks. The ephemera of pop culture has become an accumulation, almost a museum of cool. (With new exhibits added daily, natch...Penny Arcade Book Three just came out yesterday!)

This has a lot of upsides; for one thing, it means that you can start telling more complex stories because you can work on the assumption that future audiences will be able to look up your backstory. This is a double-edged sword, as I've commented on in the past, but you can see the benefits of being able to do less recapping of previous stories and more storytelling. (Even so, writers shouldn't overlook the need for good exposition.)

The second factor, which edges closer to the heart of this column, is the idea that cult fiction generates cult fiction; people who are into science fiction tend to be predisposed to like new science fiction series, people who are familiar with the basic tenets of a fantasy universe won't feel so put off or confused when they see a new fantasy story, et cetera et cetera. And since all this stuff is available now in archived form, it's easier to get the necessary cultural priming to enjoy cult fiction. (In fact, I think we might have achieved some sort of critical mass in the last two decades, where cult fiction is now the dominant paradigm for fiction. Being a geek is now not just socially acceptable, it's downright cool. You can even chart this on a year-by-year basis by watching "The Simpsons", and keeping track of how casually surreal the series has gotten over the last fifteen years as audiences have become more accepting of it. The societal tipping point, obviously, is when "Lost" became the hot water-cooler show.)

But the third, and most important to my mind, is the way that archiving of cult fiction has changed the commercial strategies of production companies. Because this stuff is no longer ephemeral, it can take all the time it needs to build an audience, and then return as a commercial success once it's got a broader fanbase.

This isn't an entirely new concept, of course; "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" were both series that got cancelled after relatively short initial runs, but which built a strong, broad fanbase through syndication and eventually returned. But the time was, these were exceptions to the rule. That's because other series that might have been able to build similar fanbases weren't able to do so; syndication of a series like 'Firefly', for example, just wasn't an option, because it only had thirteen episodes.

The Archive Factor has changed all that. You can make a movie like 'Slither', and be confident that you'll make your money back even without a big initial return, because it's such a good movie that people will still be watching it two decades from now. (You do own a copy, right?) 'Firefly', 'Family Guy', and 'Futurama' all got (or are getting) new stories after their supposed demise, because studio execs all noticed that these were strong sellers on DVD. Since nothing's ephemeral anymore, good ideas might get buried in the archives, but they won't be thrown in the garbage anymore. Sooner or later, when the time is right, they'll return. No good idea ever dies anymore.

Which means that all I have to do is wait, and I'm getting another 'Hawk and Dove' series.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

This Is Funny (Trust Me)

The Minnesota Vikings hired a new wide receivers' coach yesterday, and I'm picturing him meeting with his players on the first day of his new job.

COACH: Alright, guys, starting today, we're going to go back to the basics. I want to work with you on the fundamentals of catching the football, from--

TROY WILLIAMSON: Sorry, coach, but, uh...whatting the football?

COACH: Catching.

TROY: No, sorry, still not getting it.

COACH: Catching? You know, you catch the football when it's thrown to you?

MARCUS TAYLOR (doubtful): I dunno...that's not what the last guy said.

COACH: Of course you catch the football! When your number's called and it's thrown your way, you catch it!

TROY: Pffh. You won't get me to start talking crazy like that. Marcus Robinson started saying stuff like that, and they cut him.

Take my word for it--if you were a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, you'd be laughing hysterically right now.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Unwrapping DC Showcase Presents

(See the clever thing I did in the title, there, using the other meaning of the word "Presents"? That's what we writers call, um...clever, I think. There's probably a technical term for it, too.)

Originally, I didn't think I was going to do a DC equivalent of in this blog, mainly because I didn't think I knew DC history well enough to make any good suggestions. But on thinking about it, DC's reprint program is so new, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Even a relative DC novice like me (I started reading DC comics in 1991) can come up with a bunch of good choices for reprinting, because they haven't even gotten around to Wonder Woman yet.

So without further ado...

Honorable Mentions: DC's got a lot, actually, because (again) their list of what's actually out is so small. They could do more war comics (Blackhawk, The Losers, Enemy Ace), more of their classic heroes (Superboy, Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, Firestorm, Plastic Man, Martian Manhunter), or some of Jack Kirby's contributions (The Demon, New Gods, Kamandi.) There's still horror out there (like The Witching Hour)...heck, I think they even have the rights to Mad Magazine. But for the top fifteen...

15, Sugar and Spike. Yes, there are people looking at me funny, saying, "Why would you want to reprint a kid's humor comic instead of 'Firestorm'? But S&S is well-regarded, it'd probably sell well as a black-and-white reprint, and it's the sort of thing that might not get reprinted anywhere else, because it doesn't have the hardcore nerd appeal.

14. The Outsiders. Or, as it was known for much of its early run, 'Batman and the Outsiders'. It's a concept that's had legs for a while now, it's still being published today (albeit with no Batman, and a completely different team line-up), and there's a lot of 70s nostalgia in there to be tapped.

13. World's Finest. One of those concepts that was always a no-brainer; "Hey, you got your Superman in my Batman!" "No, you got your Batman in my Superman!" Since they've got a Superman line and a Batman line, this one seems to be the natural extension.

12. Sgt. Rock. Easily DC's most famous and recognizable "war comic" character, and yet 'The Unknown Soldier' beat him to the punch. This is the sort of thing you don't want to get worse; better reprint him before things get out of control and 'Girls in Love' has a volume while the Sarge is still stewing in limbo.

11. House of Secrets. If you've got 'House of Mystery', you've got to have 'House of Secrets'. What's Cain without Abel?

10. Warlord. Mike Grell's 70s sword-and-sorcery epic has tons of devoted fans out there, all of whom would no doubt snatch up collections of the comic. Not to mention, I have a strong suspicion that Grell's art would look great in black and white.

9. Supergirl. I have to suspect that plans for this one are already afoot, given that they published the volume of Superman that introduced her, but didn't give us any of her back-up stories. In any event, Supergirl's probably more popular than ever, so this one's a no-brainer.

8. The Question. If they're going to make this one relevant, they'd better hurry--it doesn't look like he's got long left. (That's a '52' reference for those of you not stopping at comics stores; the character has terminal cancer.) The reprints could probably cover the entire Ditko era before the first volume finished, then go on to the Denny O'Neil stuff that's probably got a bigger following.

7. Suicide Squad. Technically, there's not enough material of the "classic" Silver Age Suicide Squad to fill a volume, but that's alright, because what everyone's really jonesing for is the 80s John Ostrander Suicide Squad, the one with all sorts of B-list DC villains and death around every corner. It made Captain Cold seem bad-ass, so it has to be impressive.

6. Hawk and Dove. Again, there's not enough actual Silver Age Hawk and Dove material to fill a volume, but spice it up with some of their key Titans appearances, and then the uber-classic early 90s series by Karl and Barbara Kesel, and you've got a slice of good comics. (I don't know how to make an umlaut in this format, by the way, so just draw two little dots on your screen with Magic Marker over the "u" in "uber".)

5. Doom Patrol. In the Marvel list, things got closer to the present as they got higher up, because I wanted the comics I remembered as a kid; here, they get older, because I want to see the roots of DC's Silver Age. The Doom Patrol is best remembered now for Grant Morrison's weird 80s run, but I think that the 60s version has a lot of potential for reprints.

4. The Metal Men. Another one that's actually pretty topical at the moment, since their creator, Will Magnus, is popping up now and again in '52' (he doesn't have terminal cancer. He's manic-depressive. Gosh, isn't DC fun for kids nowadays?) Fun book, cool robots, it's a snap.

3. Adam Strange. Another '52' alum (both eyes gouged out--no, I'm not kidding), Adam Strange is practically synonymous with the Silver Age. He's a space hero with a jetpack, a laser gun, and he's even got a fin on his head! How he hasn't been reprinted yet is beyond me.

2. The Atom. Another Silver Age icon whose absence is surprising, this would be another topical pick, since there's a new 'Atom' series out there (he's not in '52', though, and is probably breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief.) It'd be good synergy to reprint this one, since the current 'Atom' series deals with Ray Palmer's successor, and kind of assumes you know something about the Silver Age Atom (like, for example, the fact that his real name is Ray Palmer.)

1. The Flash. The absence of a 'Showcase Presents The Flash' is absolutely bizarre to me. Comics historians actually date the beginning of the Silver Age from the first appearance of the Flash, in 'DC Showcase'. He's the definitive Silver Age hero. To have a 'Showcase Presents' line without the Flash is like Marvel's Essentials line not having gotten around to putting out a Spider-Man book yet.

So, there's the list for DC to match Marvel...again, licenced titles were excluded, which is a real shame. Because who wouldn't, if they had the option, want to pick up 'DC Showcase Presents: Jerry Lewis'?

Monday, January 08, 2007

ConBestiary #4

Cosplay Succubus: This offshoot of the succubus family feeds solely on the attention of men; thus, the convention environment, with its wildly skewed male-to-female ratio, provides a perfect feeding ground. By dressing up in skimpy, geek-culture themed costumes, the cosplay succubus ensures that simply walking down a hallway draws crowds of socially awkward males to them. The cosplay succubus is essentially harmless, although some men have been known to injure their brains wondering if the girl dressed as Witchblade is single. If you need to escape from a cosplay succubus for any reason, get someone to ask to take their picture--cosplay succubi are absolutely unable to resist the lure of a photo opportunity, and will freeze in position for hours if they believe that someone is taking a picture of them.

A much rarer and deadlier creature is the cosplay medusa, and unfortunately, the only way to tell them apart is by visual inspection--by which point it's too late. These sad, deluded creatures believe themselves to be a cosplay succubus, but insist on dressing in a ludicrously unflattering costume. The cosplay medusa will not turn you to stone, but after seeing a 40-year-old man dressed like Sailor Moon, you may very well wish it had.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Golden Age?

So let's see...Doctor Who is moving towards its third season after smashing its competition in the ratings, Joss Whedon is writing a new Buffy comic that picks up where Season Seven left off, 'The Invasion' is finally coming out on DVD with animated versions of the missing episodes, and this summer sees the third installment in the Sam Raimi-directed 'Spider-Man' series and a live-action 'Transformers' movie. As some point, the question has to be asked: Is this the best time to be a geek ever?

The gut instinct says, "Yes!" Doctor Who Christmas specials alone seem to demand it. But hold, I say to myself. It is far too easy, as a geek, to fall in love with the new and shiny and neglect the memories of yesteryear. Let's look at some of the other candidates, first.

The 1960s: Doctor Who first starts, Star Trek makes its appearance, lots of big-name sci-fi writers are doing the work that will make them legends, and oh yes, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are working on some comics for that company that keeps switching names. "Marvel" sounds better than "Timely" or "Atlas", though... It's a pioneering time, and very impressive, but much of the work is more pioneering than great in its own right.

The 1970s: Two words: Star Wars. It's a point at which a quantum leap occurs in special effects technology, changing audience expectations of what science-fiction is capable of and raising the standards for all subsequent geek TV and movies.

The 1980s: Comic books are now available in special shops instead of having to grab what you can on newsstands, and home video means you can actually see old Star Trek episodes without having to just tune in while they're showing repeats and hope it's not one you've seen a thousand times before. 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' finally blew the lid off of stodgy old DC, and movies like 'Terminator', 'Aliens', and the Indiana Jones series keep raising the bar for "cool".

The 1990s: A strong candidate for 'Golden Age' status. Sci-fi TV finally explodes, with Babylon 5, Highlander, X-Files, two Star Trek series at once (NextGen and DS9--one of the best things about the mid-1990s was that Voyager hadn't happened yet), Xena, Hercules, and even some cult gems like Forever Knight all jostling each other on the airwaves. The Simpsons were in their prime, Neil Gaiman was doing Sandman, Bone was coming out, and the Internet was just starting to flex its muscles. Doctor Who was producing the New Adventures, the finest TV-tie-in line ever written, and we even got a TV movie and the hope of a new series someday. Hong Kong action movies started to hit it big in the States, which meant that the bar for "cool action sequences" was about to be notched up to a height only Jackie Chan could leap over. Oh, and the Playstation came out.

So, what is it about now that manages to trump that stellar line-up? It can't just be seeing K-9 come back (maybe that it was in the same episode where Anthony Stewart Head played a villain...nah, still not enough.) Ultimately, what makes now better than any of the thens mentioned above, and what makes this truly the Golden Age of the Geek, is what I call:

The Archive Factor.

Because let's face it, that's the big difference between now and any previous time. We've finally made our voices heard, and archives of all the classic geekery has been made available to us. Monty Python, Highlander, Star Wars, Star Trek, the Avengers, the other Avengers, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Looney Tunes, Doctor Who, Rocky Horror, Shaun of the Dead, all three X-Men movies, the non-Special Editions, every era of Transformers, the Muppet Movie, the best years of the's all available to you, as close as a DVD or a trade paperback. The newest video game system, the Wii, has in addition to its own line-up of games, a feature that allows you to download classic video games and play them all over again. What was once ephemeral, something to catch once or miss forever, is now archived to enthrall future generations of geeks in addition to their own, newer, equally exciting stories. Geek culture now welcomes casual viewers, because the world has finally caught up to the rest of us. Is this the best time ever to be a geek?

No. Because in ten years' time, it'll be even better.