Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: Kindle Fire HD


Between owning an iPhone and a laptop (as well as a desktop iMac), I have felt little need for a tablet. In recent months, however, my interest in having an ebook reader that would also allow me to read digital comics piqued my interest. Since I purchased a Kindle for my wife last Christmas, who was very happy with it, I thought I’d get a color Kindle Fire HD. As I was just about to make my purchase, however, news about the iPad Mini broke, which put my plans for the Kindle Fire on pause -- I decided to wait to see what Apple would have to offer....

Like most other people, however, the Mini turned out to have too high a price point at $325, compared to the Kindle Fire HD’s $199. I also realized that since I already own an iPhone, a traditional tablet like the iPad Mini was redundant. I felt it preferable to get something that complemented my iPhone rather than essentially duplicated it by getting a more dedicated e-reader. At the last minute, I also did comparisons with the Nook and the Google Nexus since they were priced the same. I ruled out the Nook since Barnes & Noble’s future seems uncertain and the Nexus because it was primarily a tablet and, secondarily, an e-book reader. So, in the end, I settled on the Kindle Fire HD.

Having had the Kindle a couple of weeks now, I must say I’m happy and impressed. With its built-in wifi, it turns out the device is robust and has more of the features and capabilities of a traditional tablet than I anticipated: I connected to my email, calendar and contact list accounts with no problems; it has a web browser; I downloaded many of my existing personal finance apps on it like Mint and ClearCheckBook; it can stream Netflix, YouTube and other videos—I can even stream them to my TV using a mini-HDMI connector; and, apparently, it can even run Skype for videoconference calls!

I've already downloaded several books and magazines, as well as several digital comics, which look great on the high-def color screen. With its 7-inch screen size, the Kindle is light, portable and easy to carry around.

Having said that, it’s important to note that the while the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire HD certainly overlap and compete in many areas, they also fill very distinct niches. As I said earlier, I primarily wanted an e-book reader, with apps (and especially gaming, which is where other traditional tablets excel) a low priority. The reviews are right on: you really need to make a decision based on your needs. As I said, since I already have an iPhone, an iPad would have been a bit superfluous, so I'm glad I got what is primarily a dedicated e-reader that also performs nicely as a traditional tablet on the fly. The Kindle, of course, is also closely tied to Amazon's content and the user’s Amazon account, but that wasn't an issue for me since I already purchase regularly on Amazon.

While it may not fit everyone’s needs, the Kindle Fire HD is a great product.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Favorite Apps

Like a lot of people, I’m always on the lookout for useful apps and websites—preferably free—that make life easier. I thought I’d mention a few that I've found indispensible.

Clearcheckbook
Clearcheckbook is a free website and smartphone app that freed me from the tyranny of both Quicken and my handwritten checkbook register.

Clearcheckbook is a cloud-based checkbook register that allows you to manage and track multiple checking accounts. It includes basic but essential checking account features like reconciliation (called “jiving” here), balances, recurring transactions, split transactions, reminders, budgeting, customizable spending and income categories, reports, etc. You can also import and export in a variety of file formats, including CSV and Quicken’s QDF.

Better yet, the data is stored in the cloud in a free online user account, which can also be accessed via a ClearCheckBook smartphone app, so you can add purchases and check your balances remotely and on the go, which of course automatically syncs with the master account.

This app does NOT connect to your actual bank, so there is no danger of compromising your checking account. It's simply an electronic checkbook register.

To gain access to some additional features, users can upgrade to a paid premium account for $4 a month—for the most part, however, the free version meets all my needs. For me, the only drawback of the free version is that the income and expense totals for periods prior to the current calendar year is only available to premium users. As a workaround, though, I created a GoogleDocs spreadsheet into which I download my monthly checking account activity with a second sheet that automatically tallies income and expenses in total and by category for whatever date range I specify!

Mint.com

Mint.com allows you to see a snapshot and track practically all your finances—checking and savings accounts, credit cards, investments, investment and retirement accounts, mortgage and car loans, etc.—in one convenient place. Though you do need to input your log-in information for each account to make the initial connection between Mint and the individual accounts, there otherwise is no compromising information within Mint that places any of your personal or account information at risk—account numbers are not used and accounts are not linked or connected in any way. In other words, you cannot move or transfer money between accounts within Mint. Users may understandably still feel squeamish about all this, but to date, there have been no reports of breach violations as a result of Mint.

As this suggests, Mint is a one-stop website for users to check and monitor account balances and activities—individual transactions within the accounts are all viewable and update every time you log in or request it. And because it can connect to nearly any financial institution, the website calculates your net worth by adding your banking, savings and investments together, and subtracting debts such as mortgage, credit cards, and other loans. Since signing up for Mint, they've added a feature that provides an estimate of your home value as well. Other features at the site allow you to create and track a budget, receive reminders about upcoming payments, and advice on how to maximize investments and money management.

I can even access my financial data on the go thanks to Mint's free app for the iPhone! It’s so much more convenient than logging into different accounts.

Interestingly, Mint was recently purchased by Quicken after trying to launch a rival product. They clearly decided they couldn’t match Mint's innovation or subscriber reach and, fortunately, have not made any noticeable changes to the application.

XMarks (Bookmark organizer)

Like many people today, I have several computers at home and at work, with different browsers and platforms. Until XMarks, maintaining a consistency of bookmarks on multiple platforms and devices used to be a nightmare.

Xmarks is a browser add-on that allows users to synchronize and manage bookmarks across multiple browsers and devices. Users simply create a free registered account at Xmarks.com, to which they can upload and sync their bookmarks and then sync with as many browsers and computers as they wish! The bookmarks can be edited both within the browser and the online user account. You can even create different profiles to specify which bookmarks sync with each device.

The app can even store and sync your website passwords! (I did draw the line here—after syncing my passwords once, I deleted the data from my Xmarks account deciding I didn't want to keep this information online, even though it is a secure account. Syncing passwords is a separate option within Xmarks that you can turn on or off.)

If you sign up for the service, as a word of advice, take a little time to organize and consolidate your bookmarks first; as an example, I maintain separate folders for personal, work and comics-related bookmarks.

DropBox
As most people know by now, Dropbox is a “cloud” service that allows users to store files and sync with multiple computers.

By now, Dropbox is well known and remains the gold standard, having cashed in early on the Cloud service trend. Dropbox exists as its own folder on your desktop,which syncs to a master account, which in turn syncs to an identical Dropbox folder on whatever other computers you’ve connected to the account. It’s, of course, an efficient way to access and manage the same files on multiple computers without having to worry about having different versions.

As this suggests, Dropbox is completely transparent to the user and acts like any normal folder on your desktop. Though I haven’t explored them much, Dropbox has other features that users may find helpful. As an example, the trash saved in the online account that saves earlier versions of deleted files turned out to be a lifesaver for me once!

GoogleDocs/Google Drive
Though I mention Google Docs in passing above, my extensive use of this app has made GoogleDocs one of my most used apps. Initially created as a suite of web-based applications for word-processing, spreadsheets and presentation software, it’s morphed into a service that combines Microsoft Office features with Dropbox—it not only stores users’ GoogleDocs documents, but all kinds of other documents and files as well. Both Dropbox and GoogleDocs also provide specialized folders for publicly sharing files.

Like Dropbox, GoogleDocs has helped hasten the move to cloud-based file storage. In fact, recognizing the increasing importance of the cloud feature, GoogleDocs has been re-branded as Google Drive with subtle changes to the app.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Truman

I had been meaning to read Truman by David McCullough for years, but what finally compelled me to read the bio was a biography of Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller, which I reviewed earlier. Though he appears only briefly in Waller’s book, the well known no-nonsense style and common sense of Truman as portrayed in the book captivated me enough to commit to reading Truman when I finished the Donovan bio.

Many of Truman’s accomplishments and Horatio Alger rise are well known and require little elaboration. He was indeed as “common” a man who ever occupied the White House, embodying the uniquely American belief that anyone could become president. He was a college dropout (for financial reasons), a reluctant but committed farmer, and a failed haberdasher and businessman, who first found his footing and penchant for leadership as an artillery officer in World War I, serving despite being over age and poor eyesight. His one great passion was politics—a family preoccupation—and he soon found himself involved in local politics, then U.S. Senator, then Vice President. Though it’s not clear whether the party bosses (and President Franklin Roosevelt) understood that they were choosing the next president by selecting Truman as vice president since FDR’s failing health was by then an open secret in Washington, DC, Truman clearly rose to the occasion and then some.


There’s little in Truman’s biography to suggest that he would later be widely considered as one of the nation’s great presidents. Timing helped of course—he was a “wartime” president who presided over the end of World War II (making the fateful decision to drop the atom bomb) and the start of the “cold” war. But successfully meeting momentous challenges require clear-eyed leadership and smart decisions. Truman’s innate American prairie common sense and a no-nonsense leadership style were central to his success, as were strong Cabinet appointments like Dean Acheson and George Marshall, with whom he had strong personal and professional ties. But he also was a great student of history and of leadership, and had great respect for the presidency. Truman’s administration encompassed the Marshall Plan, the founding of the U.N., the Berlin Airlift, the founding of Israel, and established the Truman Doctrine which essentially guided U.S. foreign policy through the end of the Cold War. (As an ardent amateur architect, he also was responsible for renovating the White House, spending several years at a temporary residence while the chief executive mansion was renovated. It had literally been deemed unsafe and ready to collapse when he took office.)

One of the most remarkable revelations for me was that he was the product of one of the most powerful political machines in the country in Kansas City, Missouri. Though Truman was beholden to its boss, Tom Pendergast, through much of his career, there’s little evidence that Truman ever compromised himself, a remarkable feat, despite the attempt by rivals to use this association against him. (Indeed, while reading the biography, I wondered whether the corrupt senator in Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was partly based on Truman. In the film, Claude Raines plays a senator who is in the pocket of a corrupt political boss and bears a resemblance to Truman.) True to character, Truman remained loyal to Pendergast to a fault and never denied his connection to the man, causing a minor stir when he attended Pendergast’s funeral as vice president.

Perhaps not as revelatory is the portrayal of the Soviets in the book. Truman was truly committed to avoiding another world war and finding a way to peacefully co-exist with the U.S.S.R. Indeed, though Truman was always realistic and clear-eyed, he thought he would be able to reasonably negotiate with them. Indeed, he admitted both privately and, occasionally publicly (to much derision) that he personally liked “Uncle Joe” Stalin and at least could see where he stood. Over time, however, Truman came to realize that the Soviets thrived on instability and were expert at exploiting uncertainty, so he eventually came to recognize and accept the reality of the Cold War.

Also fascinating is the discussion of Truman’s “surprise” victory over challenger Thomas A. Dewey in 1948, which resulted in the iconic “Dewey Beats Truman” flub headline in the Chicago Tribune. With polling still in its infancy, the book shows that Truman may not have been as far behind as common wisdom (and the press) assumed. Truman did build momentum on one of the last great train whistle-stop campaigns of its kind, but it’s clear that his support in rural areas was greatly overlooked and underestimated. Dewey also did himself no favors by coasting and playing it safe since the polls had him so far out ahead. But ultimately the book notes that, still in its post-war boom, the U.S. was experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity. So while there was some fatigue given Truman was seen as an extension of FDR’s unprecedented 12 years in office, it’s likely voters asked themselves, “Why rock the boat?” and decided to stay with Truman.

What’s striking about Truman was his genuine Capra-esque trust in the wisdom of the people and the common man. McCullough notes that Truman in his manners and values was essentially a 19th century man. He was also a fervent Democratic partisan and the product of staunch Confederate southerners—yet Truman’s vision, principles and values enabled him to rise above the provincialism and prejudices that were part of his environment and upbringing. Though in private his language and remarks could reveal the kind of easy racism that made  him to be a product of his time and place, he nevertheless became an early champion of civil rights (even though it seriously threatened his chances of re-election, he refused to back down on his civil right positions and was the first president to address the NAACP, which he did at the Lincoln Memorial) and at every State of the Union he always proposed universal health care.

Truman tells the remarkable story of a common man.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I’ve briefly spoken here about the Inbetweeners, a British television series that ran for three seasons (in the British sense in that each series consisted of just 6 episodes). When I first stumbled across the series a few years ago, I thought it was one of the raunchiest—but funniest—shows I’d seen in awhile. I believe the show was largely inspired by the American Pie films. Indeed, I have described it to friends as “like American Pie, but funny.” It’s also not to be confused with the new Americanized adaptation of the show on MTV.

The Inbetweeners features four clueless high school students (or at least the equivalent of high school students in Great Britain, which has its own unique school system), who of course are preoccupied with girls, getting laid, and being cool. What makes the show so winning is the well-defined personalities of the characters and their chemistry with each other. The four leads include Will (actor Simon Bird), the private school refugee whose story kicks off the series when he is forced to go to public school after his parents divorce; Simon (Joe Thomas), who eventually becomes best mates with Will and who carries the torch for his gorgeous next door neighbor Carli, who is oblivious to his feelings; cocksure Jay (James Buckley), who constantly talks in explicit detail about his sexcapades that obviously never happened; and easy-going but thick-as-a-brick Neil (Blake Harrison) who is the epitome of “ignorance is bliss” but appears to have actually experienced success with girls though he never thinks to mention it despite everyone else’s obsession.

Below: A clip from the film.



As I mentioned, the show is incredibly raunchy and explicit. But also hilarious. Episodes have featured at least two instances of graphic projectile vomiting, and one instance of full frontal male nudity and one episode that prominently featured one of the character’s testicles in full view. Indeed, when I first watched the show, I wondered what the child laws in Britain were like before I confirmed the leads were all over 21.

I was excited to hear about the film’s release in the U.S.—as an indication of its popularity in Great Britain, the movie made news for giving the last Harry Potter film a run for its money at the box office.

Some of the advance reviews of the film in Great Britain seemed to express disappointment with the movie, so I wondered if it was a matter of a half-hour comedy show not translating well to a full-length feature. In keeping with its American inspiration, the film follows the lads to their last hurrah after graduation as they take a spring break-like trip to Malia in Greece, which like, Palm Springs in the U.S., apparently is a beach mecca for college-age partiers.

After seeing the film, however, I’m not sure what those critics were talking about—I found the film as funny as the show. And though the show’s creators worked to ensure there was a true story arc in the film—and they received kudos for introducing female characters who were more than just eye candy and window dressing—they didn’t lose sight of the goal to keep it funny and raunchy, and put the characters in as many humiliating situations as possible. In fact, the film ends as a nice coda to the series.

The film works fine without having seen the show, but probably ultimately works better for those who are fans and are familiar with the series. So, if you’re so inclined (keeping aware of the very hard-R content), I encourage you to shoot over to YouTube where the series is actually available in its entirety, as well as Netflix streaming where it has just become available.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Remembrance of Shows Past....

While housecleaning my files, I came across a folder of programs from past performances, events and exhibitions I’ve taken in over the years. Although I only recently became more methodical about preserving these souvenir programs, I was surprised to see how far back my file went. Being a bit of a pack rat, I obviously had thrown the older items into this file when I first created the folder. I thought it would be fun to reminisce on some of the memories they brought back.

Beatlemania!
One of the most surprising finds was my discovery of the program shown in the middle of the photo below from the original Broadway run of “Beatlemania,” which I saw in 1977 shortly after it opened (the show ran from 1977-79). I would have been 15 at the time and as a huge Beatles fan (as I still am) who was just too young to have seen them live while they were still together, seeing this show was the next best thing. (Lennon’s murder just three years later in 1980 occurred when I was a college freshman in L.A.). My younger brother and I were taken to the show by our aunt. We saw the show again a year later as a surprise from neighborhood friends--it was the summer before my family moved from New York to the West Coast and during a trip into Manhattan as a last hurrah, we walked by the Winter Garden Theater to reminisce about the show when our friends whipped out the tickets for that day’s performance!



The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
One of my most memorable and electrifying theater experiences is, of all things, a UCLA student production of “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui.” Written by playwright Bertolt Brecht, the play is a thinly-disguised black comedy depiction of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, re-imagined as a gang war for control of the vegetable produce market in 1930s America, with Hitler portrayed as a ruthless mob thug. I was a UCLA student at the time and was fortunate to be attending when there was quite a confluence of talent there, most notably actor Tim Robbins (whose Actor’s Gang Theatre Grouprelocated to my hometown in Culver City, where I have seen the actor numerous times while attending shows), but many others as well who I continue to see on film, television and stage. This was one of those performances where the power of the production transcended the confines of the stage, aided in large part by a nearly-cartoony stylized but fully formed lead performance of a talented student actor whose name escapes me now (I heard he tragically passed away a few years later of AIDS).

In the photo above you’ll see a program for the show—but it’s for a different production of “Ui.” This production is from 1999, which I made a point of seeing because of my fond memories of the earlier show. This was a much smaller and intimate production, staged by a German theater company, the Berliner Ensemble—and in the original German, though Brecht always had intended it for America. (The show was supertitled and I remember the production using the song, “The Night Chicago Died,” quite a bit.)  Before the theater opened its doors, I spotted actresses Lynn Redgrave and Jane Krasinski in the crowd milling about. As a related piece of performance art, prior to the show, an actor stood on the roof of the two-story theater building reciting from some of Hitler’s speeches in the original German. Kinda chilling.


Richard III
Prior to portraying Gandalf and Dr. Xavier on film, actor Ian McKellan was a respected British stage actor (he still is) who achieved success in Hollywood late in his career.

One of McKellan’s most celebrated stage successes was Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which I had the fortune to see at UCLA’s Royce Hall Theatre in 1992. For this production, the play featuring one of Shakespeare’s great villains was re-imagined as a 1930s fascist drama, and McKellan was mesmerizing. Though the production was later adapted for film, the movie doesn’t come close to capturing the immediacy and urgency of the stage show. The show might have been better served had the production simply filmed the stage version.

King Lear and A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” made me an instant fan of the actor/director, who came out of nowhere with that film. So when Branagh came to L.A. in 1990 with his theatre company (and then-wife Emma Thompson) to perform “King Lear” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in repertory at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A., my wife and I were determined to score tickets—which we were fortunate to do for both shows. I have to admit my memories of the productions have dimmed with time—I mainly remember the use of real water for the rainstorm in “Lear”! 

The Spencer Tracy Award
After I graduated from UCLA, I worked there for several years. During this time, UCLA established the Spencer Tracy Award, its first recipient being actor William Hurt. I was a fan of Hurt from the very beginning of his career and, if not for the program I found in my files, forgot I had attended the ceremony for the award’s inaugural presentation in 1988. I’m fairly certain I attended next year’s presentation to Jimmy Stewart. Both events included sit-down interviews with the actors. (I don’t think it was for this award, but I recall seeing Gene Kelly at the same venue; I recall him joking that he just had to cross the street to accept the award since UCLA is adjacent to Bel-Air.)

Given UCLA’s location, I was fortunate to see many actors come in to speak and answer questions during noontime programs. At this stage there are more than I can remember, but these include Sean Penn (many of whom in the audience went to high school with him), Christopher Reeve, Joe Piscipo, and others.

I have many wonderful memories of outstanding live theater shows I’ve seen over the years. Among the best not mentioned above are a UCLA student theater production of “Medea." This was a controversial M.F.A. project that re-imagined the ancient Greek story as a star-crossed love story between Jason, an Israeli army officer, and Medea, a Palestinean, with the deux ex machina at the end of the production in the form of a helicopter, which was quite an impressive piece of stagecraft in the show; a production of “Macbeth” with a Mad Max-like production design; “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which I saw before the show was revived, re-vamped and expanded into its current popular incarnation; and “Mother Courage and Her Sons,” another Brecht production off-Broadway that I saw while in high school and still living in New York City. This was one of the first stage productions I ever saw, or at least one of the more adventurous ones that showed me the true power of theater when done compellingly and innovatively.

These productions are among the highlights of my life as a theater-goer and are a reminder that there is nothing quite as electrifying as a live theater production that hits on all cylinders.

A few more from my collection:


At right is a souvenir program I believe I inherited from my parents, for the film Camelot. I wonder if it's a collector's item?

By coincidence, I  have this same image hanging on my wall as a poster, from a gallery exhibition of the artist's movie poster work.


The souvenir program at left was from a showing of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film, Hamlet, in 1996. I don't think I went to any special showing, but it was the week it opened, at a well known L.A. arthouse theater in West Los Angeles, so it may have been leftover from the premiere. I recall seeing Leonard Nimoy at the show! 
At right is the cover to a handsome, glossy program I got at a special showing of the film Grand Prix that I attended at the Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences earlier this year. The film was part of the Academy's annual 70mm festival. I only discovered the film relatively recently and blogged about it here, but it was a delight to see on the big screen. Better yet, several of the film's crew and stunt drivers took part in a Q&A, including actress Eva Marie Saint. (James Garner, too ill to attend, sent a nice message.)

It's nice to know that movie programs like this aren't a lost art!


Monday, August 20, 2012

America's First Modern Spy Chief

Between the San Diego Comic-Con and the release of Rob Hanes Adventures #13, there hasn’t been mention of much else at this blog lately, so I’m pleased to provide some relief from the PR-oriented slant of my comments from the past few months....

First up are reviews of a couple books I've read in recent months, Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller and Truman by David McCullough.

As the title explicitly explains to the uninitiated, William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan was the founder of the OSS, the spy agency that was founded during World War II, later to morph into the CIA during the Cold War. A Medal of Honor winner in the First World War, Donovan was a scrappy, self-made man with street smarts (as a Catholic, he was initially an “outsider”), who was also ambitious and restless. Though he was a lawyer by profession and a partner in an affluent law firm, he used his position as an opportunity to engage in international travel and intrigue, often volunteering (whether welcome or not) to size up and gather intelligence on the people he met and the places he visited. (As an indication of both his prominence and resourcefulness, during a trip overseas before the war he wrangled a private meeting with Italy’s Benito Mussolini and smooth-talked him into having his military staff provide him with tours and briefings of Italy’s military and political goals, capabilities and operations.) Donovan's activities convinced him of the importance of intelligence gathering and, after persistent prodding, he convinced President Franklin Roosevelt—who was a bit of a spy buff himself—to create and appoint him head of what became the OSS. Though each man came from rival political parties, both knew the value of information.

The book reveals the agency in its infancy to be often amateurish and slapdash, predictably attracting wannabes who sometimes had more chutzpah than common sense. This was partly a reflection of Donovan’s own personality and his predilection to abruptly jump from one interest to another. Furthermore, none of this should be a surprise since, up until then, the U.S., didn’t have much of a tradition in spycraft, particularly compared to Great Britain, which had a hand in the founding of the OSS. Indeed, the British played a key role in pushing Donovan to found the agency and providing him with assistance in building it; Donovan early on recognized that war was coming and strongly supported the British, so they saw him as a friend and a key contact within Roosevelt’s inner circle (though they probably misread the degree of influence he actually had with the president). While Donovan was occasionally criticized for being too dependent on the British—or, worse, being nothing but their puppet—to his credit he did become wary of his relationship with them and, once the OSS found its legs, he certainly marched to his own drummer, often operating at odds with his British counterparts in different theaters of operation around the world. Contrary to the more under-the-radar approach of the British, he OSS’s operations and ambitions were certainly as much a reflection of Donovan’s outsized cowboy personality as his desire to ensure the OSS made its mark.

Not surprisingly, Donovan seemed to spend as much time fighting political battles in Washington as he did fifth columnists and Axis enemies. This was in large part due to FDR’s style: the president liked to play people and agencies against each other and fancied the OSS as his own private spy agency (he initially funded it in secret without Congress’s knowledge), with little thought or planning devoted to how its work fit in with similar operations within the military, the FBI and various other U.S. information agencies. (Not unexpectedly in retrospect, Hoover despised Donovan and worked hard to discredit both the OSS and Donovan himself.) Working at cross-purposes and stepping on other agencies’ turfs were not uncommon occurrences.

The book also sheds light on many of the side clashes and political maneuverings that went on during the war outside of the better known theaters of operations in Europe and the Pacific. In some ways, the OSS’s activities were particularly important in these areas in the absence of an overt American military presence. Places like Switzerland and Turkey were hotbeds of espionage—not too unlike the kind of intrigue romanticized in the film Casablanca—where many spies’ identities were widely known and informants switched sides on a dime (or, rather, for a dime). Other hotspots in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and especially Eastern Europe also provided openings for opportunists, nationalists and political factions to settle scores, engage in criminal acts and/or assert sovereignty, often playing Ally advisors and agents against their Axis counterparts. In these instances, the U.S. and the British often parted ways and clashed, partly because the British were more engaged in realpolitik and focused on preserving the British Empire while finding the morality that often drove American policy as idealistic if not downright disingenuous and delusional.

Though the value of Donovan’s work—or at least the OSS’s—came to be appreciated within the U.S. government by the end of the war (even within the military), after the death of FDR, the agency’s future became uncertain. FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, eventually came to see the value of an intelligence agency as the Cold War emerged, but had no trust or confidence in Donovan, despite Donovan’s best efforts to gain it. Eventually, Donovan was squeezed out and the CIA was founded. Some of the men who worked under Donovan (not all happily) would work for the new agency. A few—most notably Allen Dulles—would even go on to serve as CIA director.

After his work with the OSS wound down, Donovan remained active but restless: he helped prosecute war crimes in Nuremburg (though he eventually had a falling out with the lead prosecutor) and briefly served as ambassador to Thailand (where he tried to re-engage in spy activity). It’s clear, however, that Donovan spent much of his remaining years trying to recapture the excitement and influence he had achieved with the OSS during the war. But though his service was honored and appreciated, the world had changed. Nevertheless, the passing of time showed that many of his innovations and ideas about the importance and work of intelligence to be prescient and valuable. So while the establishment of the CIA was intended to signal a clean break from the OSS and the start of a more professionalized intelligence service, credit must still be given to Donovan for laying down the groundwork for the modern CIA.

Next:Truman by David McCullough

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rob Hanes Adventures #13 Now Available

After its successful debut at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, Rob Hanes Adventures #13 is now available!

Visit the WCG Comics website to order online now!

The issue features two complete adventures: In "Crime Takes a Holiday," Rob vacations at the French Riviera, while in "Not Your Father's Private Eye," Rob becomes the subject of a news magazine article while on assignment.

In addition, as a special bonus to the issue, two "news" articles featured in the issue have been posted online in their entirety:
Both stories are the full-length versions of articles found in Rob Hanes Adventures #13!

Readers will also be excited to know that issue 14 is now also in the works: picking up on where issue 13 leaves off, Rob becomes involved in the "Arab spring" sweeping through the Middle East country of Koman when he is hired by the nation's exiled princess to accompany her into the middle of the conflict so that she may re-connect with a former lover who also happens to be head of the uprising.

Full color cover • 24 b&w pages • $2.99

Monday, July 23, 2012

Back on Planet Earth: 2012 San Diego Comic-Con Report

Below is my report on the San Diego Comic-Con with a few sample photos from the show. To see the full collection, visit my two photogalleries, divided into the Best and the Rest.



Now that I’ve unpacked, tallied inventory and sales, checked online to see what actually happened at the Comic-Con beyond the limited bubble of my exhibitor’s booth, and recovered somewhat from Comic-Con (though not entirely), I can safely say I’ve landed back on planet earth.

From a fan and Comic-Con perspective, the show was certainly another success. No matter your pop culture/geek interest, it was all there under one roof: Twilight; Star Wars; Firefly; television ranging from BBC America’s Dr. Who to AMC’s Walking Dead; previews of films like Django Unchained, Oz, the Man of Steel, and the Hobbit; gaming; books; and costuming/cosplay. Now that the convention has hit its attendance limit, the people fortunate enough to attend are now old hands at navigating the show, so I was struck by how generally pleasant and mellow everyone was, even when the crowds and lines seemed otherwise overwhelming.

And despite complaints each year about how comics have been pushed to the fringes at its own party with Hollywood’s deep pockets dominating the show, there were nevertheless plenty of comics and comics-related product to be found for anyone so inclined: mainstream publishers like DC, Marvel, Image, IDW, and Dark Horse; indie and small press publishers like myself; artists; boutique graphic novel publishers like First Second, Scholastic and Top Shelf; back issue dealers; and both high end and original art dealers. It’s strange, however, that Comic-Con splits its contingent of comic-book dealers and artists in half by placing them on opposite ends of the concourse, often making it difficult to easily traverse to the other side since the large entertainment industry booths and the crowds they attract sit intimidatingly in the middle.

Comic-Con physically outgrew the convention center years ago and has been steadily creeping out into the surrounding area with ancillary events, both official and unofficial, with restaurants, bars and empty storefronts booked for the duration. This year it seemed even moreso—alternative events even welcomed people who were shut out of the show. An article in the Los Angeles Times noted how some people come down to Comic-Con just to attend parties and/or do business without ever stepping inside the convention center.

As far as sales, it was a solid but not spectacular showing for me, boosted by my sale of some original art. It’s been observed for several years now that regular comics fans have become an endangered species at Comic-Con—ironically, as the event has become more popular and grown, it’s become more exclusive. Obtaining a golden ticket to the event has become a lottery, with many longtime attendees of Comic-Con squeezed out. It’s been many years since I could automatically assume anyone stopping by my booth was a potential customer who read comics.

Of course, in addition to growing my audience, a major reason I continue exhibiting at Comic-Con is because of the fans who have been following the book for many years and make a point of stopping at my booth—sometimes making me their first stop—to say hi and pick up the latest issue. Their ongoing support and patience—especially given the long draught between issues—is amazing and humbling. It was great to see these old friends, many of whose photos you'll see in the photogalleries of this year's show and last.

Having said that, foot traffic around the comics areas seemed consistently heavy. But keeping in mind that sales can often vary greatly by exhibitor, the Comics Beat reported that comics publishers and artists reported slow sales, a trend echoed by Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter who has observed “a noticeable diminishing of monied comics buyers” at Comic-Con. Several well known cartoonists even made news by announcing they planned not to return to Comic-Con (or at least have a table).

Aside from changing demographics, with so much to see and buy, it’s possible that people are simply being selective about their purchases. Indeed, in observing and speaking to other publishers around me, it’s clear that selling comics is simply not enough—many resort to ancillary products to supplement sales and attract people to their booth. (One fellow publisher had the foresight to prepare colored drawn prints of the Hunger Games cast for fans—he confessed that he didn’t like using another company’s property to generate sales, but felt he had little choice given the realities of the convention.)

This is the reality of Comic-Con—there is a LOT competing for people’s attention at the convention and one has to find a way to cut through the noise in one's assigned tiny corner of the Comic-Con universe. I’ve never been comfortable as a salesman, but it would be naive to think that the quality of the work will sell itself—indeed, I attribute my improved sales of the past few years to my willingness to be a bit more proactive (aggressive is too strong a word) in getting people to simply stop and look at my book. Occasionally, people do still drop dead in their tracks when they see my booth then walk over with the kind of excited look that says my work is the comic-book series they’ve waited for their entire life, but these experiences are fewer and far between. I often wonder how many people attend Comic-Con who might otherwise latch onto my series but never see my booth due to the sheer size of the show.

And Now for Something Completely Different...


Perhaps one of my most surreal moments at Comic-Con this year was actor Shia LeBeouf hanging out his shingle at the small press booth immediately behind me to give away free copies of his own self-published book, something he had done at another comic-book convention earlier this year. I noticed some activity and commotion at the booth behind me and, wondering what small presser rated that kind of attention, decided to take a look for myself and saw the actor. Noticing he was handing out his book and taking pictures with fans, I asked my wife if she wanted a picture with him, resulting in the photo at right. After a surprisingly quiet lull, the crowd suddenly turned into a mob, with my booth and me now part of the security phalanx around the actor. As soon as he ran out of books, security whisked him away.

But perhaps even more surreal than that was having dinner one table over from actor Larry Thomas—best known as the Seinfeld show's Soup Nazi—and his family at the restaurant on site at the hotel where I stayed. (No, I didn’t know his name, I googled him a few moments ago to preserve some of his dignity.) He likely was at Comic-Con to sign autographs. Also saw actor Seth Green and Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening on the floor. Also saw DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio relaxing at the DC Comics booth early one morning before the start of the show.

For the first time in years (decades?) I stayed at a hotel significantly beyond walking distance of the convention center, at Hotel Circle, a few miles out. Rising hotel prices finally priced me out of the Gaslamp District. Fortunately, Comic-Con has multiple shuttle routes that go throughout the city—including Hotel Circle. And for the first time ever they ran the shuttles around-the-clock during the show. This came in very handy on Sunday, because my usual routine is to park in the lot beneath the convention center when it opens at 5 a.m. to ensure a spot that will make loading up my car at the end of the show convenient (I then return to my hotel. For the same reasons, I departed L.A. at 4:30 in the morning the day before the convention to set up my booth, arriving at 6:20 a.m.)

I must give credit to the effort of the organizers to respond quickly to the demand for shuttles. Shuttles during the busiest times of day were scheduled on paper to run every 15 minutes, but it was clear they ran more when needed. I recall getting on line for the shuttle back to my hotel at 10 p.m. and being disheartened by the length of the line which, at the 30-minute shuttle interval at that hour, would have taken hours to serve. However, when the staff saw the length of the line, they immediately diverted four buses to the route. In the mornings, the convention was obviously running buses one after another, only a couple minutes apart, to minimize the wait. (Wednesday afternoon turned into a gridlocked traffic nightmare, however, since one of the hotels on Hotel Circle was designated an off-site registration area.)

Because I’m primarily attending Comic-Con as an exhibitor and not a fan, I rarely go to any of the panels anymore (aside from some occasional panels targeted at publishers), let alone the larger entertainment industry presentations. Having said that, this is the first time I recall that I never stepped foot inside a panel room while at Comic-Con. I would loved to have attended the Warner Brothers’ panel which previewed the upcoming Man of Steel Superman re-boot and the Hobbit where director Peter Jackson appeared, joined by actors Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellan and Elijah Wood, but that was a three-hour session that likely would have required standing in line all day. (As it was, I heard people began lining up the night before.) My brother attended a DC Comics panel that Quentin Tarantino crashed (apparently to the genuine surprise of DC as well) in order to prematurely announce a book he was doing with the company based on his upcoming film, Django Unchained.

I do occasionally roam the floor on breaks (usually with one or both of my children) to check out the booths, but I always feel I should get back to my booth to sell! I didn’t pick up much, aside from an advance copy of Love and Rockets. 

Although I'm generally stuck at my table, Comic-Con is nevertheless an opportunity to re-connect with fans and fellow pros, so it was a thrill to see old friends like Batton Lash and Andrew Pepoy. Another highlight was having Scott Shaw!, another longtime professional friend and colleague, draw on my son's armcast, which he was wearing after receiving a minor fracture on the first day of summer camp when he fell off the monkey bars. I know Scott to be a great guy, but I was still struck by how delightful he was with my little boy in talking to him and pattering as he drew a SpongeBob drawing on his cast. When my wife later saw Scott and thanked him, he sunnily replied, "That was easily the best thing I did all day!"

Speaking of my children, I must say that Comic-Con has become incredibly family and child friendly both through its programming and exhibitors. While comics has traditionally always been considered a children’s medium, in actuality Comic-Con was predominantly a nostalgia and fan-based comics show at its start before it became a mainstream consumer show extravaganza. Catering to children was really not its focus. But the explosion of good quality and quirky animated television shows (like Avatar and Adventuretime) and films that appeal to both grownups and children, and the explosion of books and, particularly, comics and graphic novels geared towards children and young adults (like the Harry Potter series) by numerous publishers, particularly Scholastic, have really expanded the scope of Comic-Con. As the L.A. Times has noted, it’s led to an interesting clash of tastes and cultures on the floor.

But this is Comic-Con and it's all good, right?



Below are a small sampling of photos from Comic-Con. To see more, visit my two photogalleries, divided into the Best and the Rest. All my previous posts about this year's Comic-Con can be accessed here.

Reports and photogalleries from 2011 and earlier may be found at the WCG Comics website.













Tuesday, July 10, 2012

See you in San Diego!


Well, the books and booth supplies are packed, as well as my personal luggage—the San Diego Comic-Con looms!

I do hope to post comments and photos while I'm at the Comic-Con, though I haven't figured out the details yet. I'll probably do so via the Rob Hanes Adventures Facebook page or this blog.  Much of it will, of course, depend on finding the time while I'm manning my booth and how well the battery on my mobile device holds up since I won't be near any charging stations on the floor. I may well end up not posting until later in the evenings when I'm back at the hotel, but again, that will depend on my own level of energy at the end of the day!

Comic-Con is a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too, of course.  It's a time to connect directly with fans of the series and to get re-energized about comics!

If you're attending, please stop by Booth K1 (aisle 1500) in the Small Press Pavilion. Otherwise, be sure to check Facebook and this blog for updates from the show!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Countdown to Comic-Con (Part III): Press Release

Below is the official press release about my appearance at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. The official press release is posted here.


Rob Hanes Adventures Makes 15th Appearance at Comic-Con

Issue 13 to Debut at San Diego Comic-Con

Indy comics writer-artist Randy Reynaldo announced that he will debut issue 13 of his long-running all-ages action-adventure series, Rob Hanes Adventures, at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con. The show marks his 15th exhibitor appearance at the show since 1993 and his 9th consecutive appearance since 2004. The indy publisher will appear under his WCG Comics imprint at corner booth K1 of the Small Press Area, on aisle 1500 of the convention hall.

As announced earlier, Rob Hanes Adventures #13 features two complete stories: “Crime Takes a Holiday,” which takes place on the French Riviera, and “Not Your Father’s Private Eye,” where Rob becomes the subject of an online news article while on assignment in the Middle East.

“It’s been awhile since the last issue, so I’m excited to be back at Comic-Con with a brand new issue,” said WCG Publisher and writer-artist Randy Reynaldo. “It’s heartening to know that many attendees make a point of coming by my booth every year to pick up the latest issue.”

In addition to the new release, Reynaldo will have available at his booth branded t-shirts, prints, buttons, bookmarks, and free sample issues. A new booth banner will also debut at the show. And as always, all back issues of the series remain available at special Comic-Con prices that will allow new readers to easily and affordably get up to speed. To date, the series encompasses the 13 issues of the current run and two trade paperback collections of earlier original material.
Inspired by classic adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates and the Spirit, Rob Hanes Adventures features the globetrotting exploits of a troubleshooter from Justice International, a private security and investigations agency Justice International. Launched in 2000, the series has built a dedicated following for bringing a modern sensibility to the spirit of the classic adventure strip genre, while series creator Randy Reynaldo has developed a reputation for his continued long-running work on the series and his solid black and white art, reminiscent of Milton Caniff and Alex Toth.

Every story in the series is complete and self-contained. Writer-artist Reynaldo also takes great pride in mixing genres, with stories ranging from globe-spanning adventure (“Rescue in Koman”) to romance (“The Real Julianne Love”) and comedy (“The Pride of the Chickenhawks”). 

Rob Hanes Adventures has been reviewed, spotlighted and featured in industry print publications like the Comic Buyer's Guide, Comics Retailer, Comic Book Marketplace, Diamond Dialogue, and Previews, and online at comicbookresources.com and Newsarama. The series was included among Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read (Krause Publications, 2009).
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Below: Promotional banner image from the WCG Comics website.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Countdown to the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con (Part II)

Like any exhibitor worth his or her salt, in addition to a new issue of Rob Hanes Adventures and the introduction of a new booth banner, we’ll also have a few other goodies available at the convention. First up are brand new t-shirts!  They feature the same design, but in black or white...


RHA T-shirts have always been available at the WCG Comics website, I’ve never really pushed them hard—in fact, they’ve been such a low priority, this is only the second new t-shirt design since 2005. I plan to have only a few on hand at the convention, so I welcome advance orders (be sure to tell me what size!) For the convention, each shirt is $20.

Other goodies will include newly re-designed pin buttons and the RHA bookmarks that debuted in 2010. Both are free to longtime fans or with any purchase!

At right: Yes, I have no shame--I even have my little boy promoting my comic-book!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Countdown to the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con (Part I)

Before each year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I like to provide a behind-the-scenes look at my preparations for the show. Below is my first entry for this year’s Comic-Con, scheduled July 12-15, 2012.

For once, I’m ahead of the game in my preparations for this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Like a lot of publishers, I often work until the very last moment preparing a book for release at the show, pushing my printer’s deadlines to the limits. But this year I shipped the book off to the printer with plenty of time to spare, which gave me time to focus on other plans for the show.

First on the agenda was a new booth banner for the show. Below is the one that’s been in use since 2008....


And the new one that will debut at this year’s Comic-Con....



I planned to update my banner last year, but time ran out before I had a chance to conceptualize, let alone execute, a new design. I was very happy with the earlier banner, but thought that the light-colored background of the banner got lost in the convention hall. I think that the straightforward solid black background of the new banner will pop out more.

Though I didn't have a specific design in mind when I began planning the new banner, since I liked the shot of Rob on the cover Rob Hanes Adventures #13 turned out well, I decided to develop the new banner around it. Below is the original digital image that was submitted to the printer.



I originally planned to use the figures from the Rob Hanes Adventures trade paperback (as seen on right) as the focus of the banner, but I found that the three figures made for a busy design. Bold and simple seemed the best way to go!

Monday, June 4, 2012

REVIEWS: Backing into Forward

The increased respect for comics and cartooning has resulted in a number of serious, in-depth biographies in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed several of them, focusing on Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, Noel Sickles, and Alex Toth. This is a review of Jules Feiffer’s autobiography, Backing into Forward: A Memoir (2010).

Jules Feiffer has been always proud and foremost to identify himself as a cartoonist, but he is of course much more than that: author, children’s book writer, comics historian, playwright, and screenwriter. His foray into other media—partly driven by a need for alternative artistic expression but also to make a living—has never been by design and often accidental. Hence the title of his book.

Though I’ve always been aware of Feiffer—particularly his long-running syndicated self-titled strip, Feiffer, in the Village Voice that was discontinued in 1997—his other work has also made it on my radar. These include his ground-breaking Great Comic Book Heroes which arguably helped renew interest in comics and introduced a new generation (myself included) to Will Eisner’s Spirit; and his film work, including Carnal Knowledge (which I saw in college) and Popeye. (He reportedly also wrote an unproduced script for Terry and the Pirates, which I’ve always been curious to track down and read.) As a young junior high school student who was an aspiring cartoonist, I especially enjoyed his personal anecdotes in the Great Comic Book Heroes about breaking into the comics biz as an assistant to Eisner and what was it like at the dawn of the comics age.

(I had the privilege to meet Feiffer at a talk he gave at the L.A. County Library in downtown Los Angeles many years ago. When I approached him to sign my copy of his book, The Man on the Ceiling, I mentioned to him a favorite anecdote from the above-mentioned Great Comic Book Heroes. He recounted that one of his first assignments as Will Eisner’s assistant on the Spirit was signing Eisner’s name on the stories, at which he claimed he was better than Eisner himself. So Feiffer chuckled when I asked him to sign in Eisner’s name—he inscribed my book as, “Will Eisner aka Jules Feiffer.”)

My initial interest in Backing into Forward was to read about his years in Eisner’s studio. Though this transformative experience got him into comics, it was just the beginning of what would be a productive and diverse career.

Especially fascinating are his stories of New York in the 1950s and ‘60s when he came of age professionally and the city was still the center of much of the art, entertainment and publishing world. Intellectuals, playwrights, actors, movie directors and, yes, cartoonists like Feiffer seemed to mingle and cross-pollinate easily. Feiffer’s anecdotes of working and interacting with people like actors Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Alan Arkin (who was the first to successfully crack the code on one of his earliest plays), producer Robert Evans, and directors Mike Nichols and Robert Altman (on the ill-fated Popeye) make for fascinating and amusing reads.

A proud and unabashed old-school lefty, Feiffer also expounds at length on politics. (Nevertheless, Feiffer was not radical enough even for his sister, who was a self-declared communist.) He speaks at length of the upbringing that shaped his views and neuroses, which included a difficult mother who was slow to praise or encourage and a father who ceded all authority to his wife rather than risk challenging her.

As Feiffer mentions in his book, his success was often built on the ashes of some failure. Now in his 80s and looking back on a life and career that was sometimes more happenstance than by design, he remains as opinionated as ever, but has found happiness and comfort in his own skin as a parent, writer and artist, and now a college teacher.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

PR: ROB HANES ADVENTURES RETURNS

Below is the official press release announcing the return of Rob Hanes Adventures in July! The official press release is posted here.



Rob Hanes Adventures Returns with Issue 13


In keeping with the comic-book adventure series' tradition of connecting with real world current events, issue 13 will touch on the Arab Spring uprisings


Randy Reynaldo, writer-artist of the long-running independent comic-book series, Rob Hanes Adventures, announced that the next issue of the title (#13) will be released July 2012 through his WCG Comics imprint. Images of the cover and selected interior pages are available at this link.
Inspired by classic globetrotting adventure comics like Terry and the Pirates and Buz Sawyer but set in the modern day—with frequent dashes of light-hearted humor reminiscent of The Spirit—Randy’s work on Rob Hanes Adventures has remained a standard-bearer for breezy, fast paced action-adventure along the lines of Indiana Jones and James Bond, and the work of cartoonists like Alex Toth and Darwyn Cooke.
Rob Hanes Adventures #13 will feature two complete stories: “Crime Takes a Holiday” and “Not Your Father’s Private Eye.”
In “Crime Takes a Holiday,” Justice International private investigator Rob Hanes goes on vacation in the French Riviera. However, when he discovers that an international crimelord named Nicolai Korda is also in the area, Rob interrupts his plans for some long-overdue R & R to investigate what his longtime nemesis is up to!
Then, in “Not Your Father’s Private Eye,” Rob gains notoriety when he is the subject of a print and online news magazine article about modern-day private investigators while on assignment in a Middle East country on the verge of regime change. Set in the fictional Middle East kingdom of Koman that has been frequently used in the series, the story echoes the real-life upheavals that have occurred in the Middle East over the past year.
As in all stories in the series, both adventures are complete and self-contained in the issue. While a cover price has not yet been announced, the issue is anticipated to be 28 black-and-white pages with a full-color cover.
“I know it’s been a long time since the last issue, but I’m glad to say I’m back on track,” said series creator Randy Reynaldo. “The time I spent preparing the recent trade paperback that collected the series’ early adventures took up more time and energy than I expected, but I’m excited to be working on all-new stories.”

Launched in 1991 as part of the era’s storied wave of small press black-and-white comics, Rob Hanes Adventures has developed a dedicated following for bringing a modern sensibility to the spirit of the classic adventure strip genre, while series creator Randy Reynaldo has developed a reputation for his continued long-running work on the series and his solid black and white art, reminiscent of Milton Caniff and Alex Toth.
In addition to the 12 issues of Rob Hanes Adventures that have been published to date, two trade paperback collections of earlier work from the series also remain available. This includes a 144-page trade paperback called the Rob Hanes Archives, funded by a Xeric Grant, which collected the series’ original zine run, and the more recent 140-page Rob Hanes Adventures, Volume 0, that collects four issues from the series’ earlier run under the title, Adventure Strip Digest.
Rob Hanes Adventures has been reviewed, spotlighted and featured in industry print publications like the Comic Buyer's Guide, Comics Retailer, Comic Book Marketplace, Diamond Dialogue, and Previews, and online at comicbookresources.com and Newsarama. Issue 10 was included in Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read (Krause Publications, 2009). For more information about the series, visit WCG Comics’s website at wcgcomics.com.

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Below: Large size scans of the cover and selected pages from Rob Hanes Adventures #13.