Monday, January 28, 2013

RIP: CBG, or the End of an Era

ABOVE: Cover to last issue of the CBG.
I could not let the cancellation of the Comics Buyer’s Guide (CBG) pass without mention. Earlier this month, its parent publisher, F+W Media, announced that it would be shutting down the 30-year magazine with issue 1699, just one issue short of issue 1700. I received my copy of the last issue recently and it’s clear that this was a sudden, last-minute announcement since no mention of it is mentioned in the issue.

While the news was a surprise to me, even without being privy to the magazine’s financial situation, it probably shouldn’t have been. Like many other publications struggling in the traditional print domain, the decision was based on “freely available comics information online, declining paid circulation and advertising, and the costs and constraints of print,” which its publisher said made publishing the CBG “financially and operationally unsustainable.” Once arguably the paper of record and central meeting place for comic-book collectors and fans, the CBG successfully re-invented itself over the years to remain viable: initially an “ad-zine” for people to sell and trade comics, it eventually became more of a source for comic-book industry news and comic-book reviews. The advent of up-to-the-minute news online, however, obviously made that model difficult to sustain. Recent postmortems seem to show that the magazine was primarily serving an increasingly ageing, shrinking collector’s niche, and, as an excellent overview of the magazine’s history by John Jackson Miller, who is a former employee, shows, the magazine missed the boat on building a strong online presence, mostly because that was not an area of focus for its parent company, which otherwise continued to do well publishing other types of enthusiast magazines.

I personally first stumbled across the CBG in the ‘80s and became a regular subscriber beginning in the ‘90s when I became more serious as a cartoonist and publisher. As many others have said, until then I was a fairly isolated comics fan, so the magazine revealed to me a larger, broader comics fandom that took the form as seriously as myself. Back then, comics was a smaller and less disparate community, so it was relatively easy to get news coverage, reviewed and have letters published in the magazine, as I did on several occasions. Though I wouldn’t say I was “friends” with the staff and editors there like Brent Frankenhoff and Maggie Thompson, I’m proud to say they know of me and my work.

The industry is now much larger and more diverse — all good things — but, as a result, the CBG appears to have been left by the wayside, perhaps looking a touch too stodgy, obsolescent and antiquated compared to new, more dynamic online websites that appealed to younger fans.

There are several online sites—particularly the Beat—on which I have relied for years for breaking news, reviews, and other comics-related information, but I always looked forward to sitting back with the less-transitory feel of the CBG and its print format, always finding it to be a good source of new comics and industry news that retained the community feel of fandom back in the day. Perhaps that’s a reflection of my age as well, but regardless, I’m going to miss the homey, non-snarky, welcoming quality the CBG always conveyed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

REVIEW: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

The blogger with Stan the Man himself (2003)

A few years back, I reviewed Gerard Jones’ 2004 book, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, about the early days of the comic-book industry, as told through the prism of the creation of Superman, generally considered to be the first comic-book superhero. That book exposed the seedy early days of the comic-book industry and, particularly DC Comics, now a division of Warner Brothers / Time Warner. Originally a back alley, lowbrow publisher, DC is now a multi-national media company, its fortune built on the successful exploitation of the iconic character’s two young and naive creators by opportunistic and street-smart businessmen. So reading the recently-released Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe, seemed to be a natural follow up. (For the uninitiated, DC is the home of the “grand-daddy” of comic-book characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, most of whom were created in the 1930s and ‘40s, while Marvel is the younger rival upstart, consisting of Captain America, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Iron Man, which hit its stride in the 1960s.)

Like DC, Marvel Comics — originally founded as Timely Publications, which later morphed into Atlas Comics — rose from the pulps. As the well known story goes, its owner and publisher, Martin Goodman, hired his wife’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant. Lieber, wishing to protect his dream to pursue a career as a writer and novelist, decided to use the pseudonym “Stan Lee” and, after a few false starts, eventually turned the struggling comic-book company into the “House of Ideas” known as Marvel Comics, home to the above-mentioned characters and others like Wolverine, the X-Men and the Avengers. The company achieved a degree of legitimacy and validation in 2009 when the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel for $4 billion. 

Though Lee is one of the main protagonists in the book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is somewhat more sprawling compared to Men of Tomorrow, which focused primarily on the parallel and intertwined stories of the naive, inexperienced creators of Superman and the street-smart publishers who exploited them and their character. In contrast, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is an all-encompassing history of the company, covering its beginnings as an off-shoot of a publishing house that initially made more money from its adult men’s magazines; several false starts that more than once brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy, partly due to mismanagement and the disinterest of its owners; and, of course, the eventual success of Marvel Studios’ film franchises and the purchase of the company by the Walt Disney Company in 2009.

From this....
Along the way, author Sean Howe provides plenty of interesting and juicy anecdotes and stories, which includes glimpses into the animal house antics of the early days of the bullpen and the behind-the-scenes politicking and maneuverings among the staff. He also provides a good overview of the idiosyncrocies of its various corporate owners over the years, including the legendarily tight-fisted and publicity-shy Ike Perlmutter who, with Marvel’s acquisition by Disney, became one of Disney’s largest single shareholders (and a vocal one at that).  At the same time, Howe provides context throughout the book by giving overviews of the storylines and plot developments that were being told in the comics as the Marvel “universe” grew and became more complex.

Though Stan Lee is, of course, a major recurring figure in the book, one of the most revelatory aspects of the book for me is how little authority the legend seemed to actually wield in the company. Lee’s name remains synonymous with Marvel and is rightfully credited for creating a powerful brand that connected strongly with fans. Yet as much as he is an acknowledged “company man,” the book suggests that though he guided Marvel’s creative and editorial direction in the early years, for the most part he seemed otherwise beholden to the publishers and the owners he reported to, wielding little real fiduciary authority, often uncomfortably straddling a gray area between management and freelancer. (In later years, he seemed to become more disengaged as he went off to pursue various Marvel-related opportunities in Hollywood on the west coast.) Underscoring this observation is the fact that Lee has resorted to suing the company to receive what he felt was rightfully owed to him, while paradoxically remaining a loyal soldier and unofficial ambassador of the company. Admittedly, his assertion that he wielded no real authority sometimes seemed a matter of expediency when dealing with upstart freelancers, as an easy way to say “no”; in truth, he seemed to benefit from having it both ways, as the

While not quite as lyrically told as Men of Tomorrow, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a  breezy yet comprehensive read that kept me engaged, competently covering both the creative and business side of a company that has become a treasure trove of ideas and intellectual properties for Marvel and now its parent company Disney.

...to this! 'Nuff said!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Last December, shortly before the release of the first installment of the long-awaited film adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Hobbit, filmmaker Peter Jackson announced that the movie would be a trilogy rather than only two parts as originally planned. Jackson made this decision based on the amount of backstory he and his screenwriting partners had included in the film, pulling from the lengthy appendices at the end of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. This material is part of the extensive mythology the author had created for his Middle Earth universe, much of which was later re-purposed for the Silmarillion.

In truth, this backstory is unnecessary for the telling of the Hobbit—the original novel was essentially a simple stand-alone, episodic children’s book, more lighthearted and very different in tone than the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy that came later.

Having done Lord of the Rings first, however, has given Jackson the opportunity to connect the Hobbit more closely with the trilogy and place it in the grander context of Middle Earth mythology and the earlier trilogy. Radagast the wizard, Azog the the Orc Defiler, and the mysterious Necromancer are all additions not in the original book or only vaguely hinted at.

As a result, some reviews have criticized the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for being bloated and overfull; indeed, the film in some ways does play like one of the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies that Jackson released on DVD, which included extra scenes and story arcs that fleshed out the trilogy.

Having said that, I saw the film with others who did not possess the same depth of knowledge or love as me for the trilogy, and all greatly enjoyed the film and weren’t fazed by the burden of the added storylines, which reflect the richness of Tolkien’s world and mythology, as channeled by Jackson. And judging by the box office returns, audiences haven’t minded either.

Another controversy related to the film has been Jackson’s use of a new higher-frame-rate 3D technology that provides much greater image definition and clarity. I ended up seeing it at one of L.A.’s last remaining large classic movie houses, the Village Theatre in Westwood, outfitted with the format’s new projector. Though I was concerned since there were reports of people feeling ill during early screenings because of the high frame rate, I ultimately decided to see the Hobbit in the new format since this was clearly reflected the director’s vision. The picture was indeed incredibly hyper realistic—I have described it as looking at times like closed-circuit TV. And as some have noted, the clarity of the picture makes some sequences look like the film sets they are.

Though I have to say the new format did not distract from the movie, there were nevertheless moments when the clarity was startling and, in other cases, not particularly aesthetically appealing, I have to say that I’m ultimately not sure what the new format brings to the Hobbit, nor to film in general, other than it attempts to compete with the kind of picture quality audiences have become used to with HD TV and BlueRay. Regardless, I’m glad I saw the film in the new format, though I am curious to see it in regular 35mm film format as well. Jackson spent a great deal of time color grading the earlier trilogy of films and I presume he has done the same for the regular film prints of the Hobbit, so I'd like to see what it looks like compared to the high frame-rate format.

What distinguished Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film adaptations was his ability to find emotional complexity and heart in this story of hobbits, wizards and elves, which, of course, were an essential part of Tolkien’s source material. As such, the Hobbit has similar moments of heart and feeling, all anchored by lead actor Martin Freeman’s warm yet sharp-edged performance as Bilbo—Bilbo’s eventual acceptance by Thorin and the other dwarves as one of their own, Thorin’s quest to regain his kingdom, and, of course, the finding of the One Ring that will later drive the Lord of the Rings and leads to one of the best scenes of the film, where Bilbo and Gollum face off in the dark—puts the film on solid emotional ground. Nevertheless, in truth, this first installment, though full of plenty of action and adventure, feels as though the story has barely started and scratched the surface of the adventure. The brief teaser of seeing the eye of the dragon, Smaug, suddenly awaken from beneath his hoard of treasure gave a brief glimpse of the excitement and adventure to come when the second installment, the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is released this December.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Entertainment Roundup for 2012

Below is my annual overview of movies, books, concerts, and other entertainment consumed in 2012.


DIGITAL AND STREAMING MEDIA
The year saw a significant shift for me to streamed and digital media. I've used Netflix streaming for several years now, but I discovered that Amazon Instant Video and DirecTV were also great for streamed content, complementing what was available on Netflix. (All were viewed on my widescreen TV via a laptop connected together with an HDMI cable.)

Along the same lines, as mentioned in my last post, I recently purchased a Kindle HD, which has allowed me to read not only books, but magazines and comics (via Comixology) as well. (Regarding Comixology, I want to support my local comic-book retailer but at the same time, it’s nice not to be accumulating as many physical comic-books anymore.) In fact, the Kindle also allows me to stream Netflix, which I often connect to the TV in my studio via a micro-HDMI cable.

ABOUT THE LIST
As in past years, the usual caveats regarding the lists below apply: being the parent of two young children tends to limit the number of films I see in theaters and the kinds of films I see. Fortunately, with the kids getting older (the eldest being a tween), we’ve finally graduated beyond just family fare. While the quality of modern animated films from studios like Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks are usually topnotch, I’m glad we’ve begun expanding our horizons. So it was a treat to see the Avengers as a family and I considered it a milestone that both kids consented to seeing the Hobbit, which they initially feared would be too intense in a theater, and enjoyed it immensely. (As we did for Captain America, we watched the Hobbit in advance to ensure it would not be too scary for our 7-year-old.) This is why you’ll also find oldies-but-goodies like the Back to the Future trilogy, Home Alone 1 and 2, and Galaxy Quest on the list, which my wife and I introduced to the kids this year.

Having said that, I must admit that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less interested in films that are high octane or overly violent -- films on the list like Django Unchained notwithstanding, I’m more interested in being entertained than I am watching anything too harrowing or violent.

Which is why Downton Abbey, season 2, stayed tops with me again in 2012 (with season 3 about to start as I write this), continuing my interest in entertainment from Across the Pond that began the previous year, with British films and shows like the Inbetweeners film, season 2 of the Sherlock PBS series, and Salmon Fishing in Yemen being among my faves this past year.  Other faves include Lincoln, Django Unchained, Avengers (a perfect, entertaining popcorn film), Margin Call (actually released in 2011), the Hobbit, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Pitch Perfect!

And now without any further ado....

BOOKS:
Steve Jobs (1/16/12)
The World of Downton Abbey (2/27/12)
Backing into Forward by Jules Feiffer (3/9/12)
Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller
Truman by David McCullough (7/2/12)
Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Christopher Matthews (9/2/12)
Downton Abbey: The Untold History of Television by Kathleen Olmstead (Kindle) (10/28/12)
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe (Kindle) (11/16/12)
Rose: My Life in Service by Rosina Harrison (Kindle) (12/1/12)
A Christmas Carol - Kindle (12/26/12)

LIVE ENTERTAINMENT:
Spamalot (7/1/12)
Mid Summer’s Night Dream (8/11/12) - Cal Tech
Tempest (Actor’s Gang adaptation) (08/12/12)
Hollywood Babble-On (8/18/12)
Sgt. Pepper (Beatles Tribute Band) (8/25/12)
The Book of Mormon (10/13/12)

FILMS:
Page One - Netflix streaming (1/2/12)
Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy (1/7/12)
White Collar (Season One) - Netflix Streaming (1/14/12)
Margin Call - DVD (1/21/12)
White Collar/Season 2 - Netflix streaming (1/28/12)
Fortysomething (6 episodes) - Netflix streaming (1/30/12)
Sherlock (season 1/episode 3) - Netflix streaming (2/2/12)
The Descendents (2/13/12)
Brass’d Off  - Netflix streaming (2/18/12)
The Secret World of Arriety (2/19/12)
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (2/20/12)
Jackboots on Whitehall - Netflix streaming (2/24/12)
The Lorax (3/4/12)
Accidental Tourist - Cable
Beginners (3/10/12)
Iron Man 2 - Netflix streaming (4/15/12)
The Highest Pass (4/23/12)
The Pirates: Band of Misfits! (4/29/12)
The Avengers (5/6/12)
The Avengers (5/27/12)
The People vs. George Lucas (5/28/12)
Recalculating (6/2/12)
Witness for the Prosecution (6/2/12)
Madagascar 3 (6/16/12)
Brave (6/23/12)
Sherlock (season 2) - PBS/DVR (6/23/12)
Anything Can Happen - TCM (6/28/12)
Come Live With Me - TCM (6/28/12)
Back to the Future - DVD (7/5/12)
Katy Perry: Part of Me (7/6/12)
Back to the Future II - DVD (7/7/12)
Back to the Future III - Amazon streaming (7/18/12)
Galaxy Quest - Amazon streaming (7/21/12)
Grand Prix (7/23/12)
The Dark Knight Rises (7/27/12)
Nicholas Nickleby - Encore (7/27/12)
Mirror Mirror (8/4/12)
49th Parallel - TCM (8/10/12)
The Lost Battalion - Reelz (8/19/12)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (8/18/12)
Paranorman (8/26/12)
Somebody Up There Likes Me - TCM (9/9/12)
Inbetweeners (9/15/12)
What Rats Won’t Do - Netflix (9/24/12)
Company Men - DVD (9/29/12)
Holes - DVD (10/6/12)
The Decoy Bride - Netflix Streaming (10/5/12)
Another Country - Netflix streaming (10/12/12)
The Rum Diaries - Netflix streaming (10/13/12)
Art School Confidential - Netflix streaming (10/17/12)
Mister Foe - Netflix streaming (10/18/12)
You Only Live Twice - Amazon (10/19/12)
Hotel Transylvania (10/20/12)
Wreck It Ralph (11/4/12)
Skyfall (11/11/12)
Lincoln (11/17/12)
Rise of the Guardians (11/22/12)
Sixty Six - Netflix (12/8/12)
The Hobbit (3D HFR) (12/15/12)
The Hobbit (3D HFR) (12/22/12)
Salmon Fishing in Yemen - DirecTV streaming (12/23/12)
Django Unchained (12/27/12)
Amazing Spider-Man (12/28/12)
Pitch Perfect - DVD (12/29/12)
Home Alone - Amazon streaming (12/30/12)
Double Indemnity - DVD (12/30/12)
Home Alone 2 - Amazon streaming (12/31/12)