Thursday, October 24, 2013

Take a Trip in the Wayback Machine

A few years ago, I stumbled across this amazing resource called the Internet Archive Wayback Machine that appears to archive past versions of websites. As good as I think I’ve been in preserving the history of my comics work, the dynamic quality of the web makes it less easy to do this. So this has been a fun tool for looking back at how my website (and my web design and html/css skills) have evolved over the years.

If you visit the overview of the WCG Comics website here, you’ll find snapshots taken of the website on various dates throughout the year from the year 2000 to the present. I was particularly impressed to see that these are not simply screen images, but the full functional website, live links at all!

Below are some sample pages for the site that you can click through to explore. For an overview of all the available pages from past versions of the website, click here.

From Dec. 2000:

From Sept. 2002:

From Sept. 2002:


From June 2006:
For more, visit the Internet Archive Wayback Machine!

Monday, October 21, 2013

No School Like the Old School

The 2013 San Diego Comic Fest Reviewed

Earlier this month, I spent a day and change checking out the San Diego Comic Fest with my family. The Comic Fest, held Oct. 4-6, debuted last year and was founded partly as a counterpoint to the behemoth that the San Diego Comic-Con has become. For some, the size and media frenzy surrounding Comic-Con has had a negative impact on the fan experience and pulled the show away from its comics roots. Indeed, the Comic Fest was founded and organized by many people who were involved with the original Comic-Con since its earliest days. I became aware of the show last year at the San Diego Comic-Con when its organizers were promoting the first Comic Fest.

First let me say that I have never begrudged Comic-Con’s growth over the years. Change is an inevitable part of life (you can indeed never go home again!) and, having attended nearly every show since the mid-1980s—and exhibited at nearly half of those—it has been fascinating to watch Comic-Con morph from fairly humble origins to its present position as the largest and, certainly, most influential such pop culture celebration in North America. Though the show is indeed very different from its early days and, yes, overwhelming, I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that other “old school” conventions still exist in other parts of the country. I recall those earlier Comic-Cons fondly, noting that back in the day the biggest celebrities at the event were people like Clayton Moore and Noel Neill from, respectively, the original Lone Ranger and Superman television shows. So props to the organizers for putting together a show to their liking rather than bemoan what Comic-Con has become.

Artist's Alley
The Comic Fest is intended by design to be a much smaller event (indeed, attendance was capped at 1500) and capture the spirit of the original Comic-Cons which gave fans an opportunity to mingle and speak with comics fans and creative professionals in a more relaxed and social atmosphere.

The show was held at the Town and Country Hotel and Convention Center in the Hotel Circle area of San Diego. The Town and Country also is an official hotel during Comic-Con (as are most of the hotels in the area) and is sited a few miles away from the San Diego Convention Center where the Comic-Con is now held. During the 2012 Comic-Con, I was one shuttle stop from the Town and Country, so though I had never been inside, I was familiar with it.

According to Town and Country’s website, the family-owned resort opened in 1953 and I must say it certainly showed its age—to be kind, the facilities are well-worn and do have the feel of another era — which made the venue, in its way, perfect for the kind of show the organizers planned, harkening back to Comic-Cons decades ago.

Sgt. Rock print personalized by Russ Heath
Like most comics shows, the Fest consisted of a dealer’s room, an artist’s alley and panels. They also had programming directed at families/all ages.

The dealer’s room was fairly small, held in a single meeting room, with the usual mix of artists and self-publishers, back issues dealers, toy and memorabilia dealers, etc. To be frank, I’m not sure whether the dealers' room, given its small size, would have been worth the trip itself and, given the cap on attendees, I am curious whether the dealers found the convention profitable and worth their while. Though I did meet some dealers from out of town, I presume most were locals, which would certainly help keep overhead low. The highlight for me was meeting Russ Heath, from whom I happily purchased several affordable prints/original page scans, reproduced with this blog. (And I'm now kicking myself for not thinking of taking a photo of Heath holding the signed print at right!)

I have to admit that, partly because of my own inherent shyness, I have never put much emphasis on the social aspect of comic-book conventions. Having said that, it was nice to speak a bit with some of the artists and catch up in a more relaxed atmosphere with fellow pros like Batton Lash, Jackie Estrada, Michael Auschenker, and Ken Meyers, Jr.

Personally, the highlight for me were the panels. I have mentioned in past reports of Comic-Con that I seemed to have lost patience in sitting through most panels—I’ve always presumed it was a simple aspect of getting older, but I guess it’s just a result of the Comic-Con atmosphere. The fact that I have other things on my mind (i.e., guilt that I should remain at my booth), the stress over possibly being unable to attend a panel due to overcapacity, the crowds, and the impersonal (and sometimes corporate) nature and sheer size of the panels have likely all contributed to this feeling.

In contrast, the opportunity to sit in a smaller room in a more relaxed, conversational and intimate atmosphere seemed to make all the difference. The panels I attended included:

The Schanes Brothers’ Story: From Swap Meets to Pacific Comics: Working independently but in parallel with others across the country, Bill and Steve Schanes helped establish the modern-day comics distribution network and opened some of the earliest comic-book stores. They also founded Pacific Comics, one of the first independent comics publishers to operate in the fledgling direct-sales market, which first published, among others, Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory and Dan Stevens’ Rocketeer. Like many such pioneers, they demonstrated an entrepreneurial bent at an early age (at least one of them was still a minor when they got into business) and learned the business, flying by the seat of their pans, as they went along. The brothers shared their fascinating story as direct-sales and indie publishing pioneers in a conversational, entertaining, funny and self-effacing manner.

Marty McFly's car from the film Back to the Future
While some may be tempted to look back on those days with nostalgia and fondness, their stories show that the opening era of the direct-sales comics market was a true Wild West as entrepreneurial types moved in as they realized there was money to be made on filling an unmet need. The Schanes talked—with some humor in hindsight—of the rather unsavory underworld types who ran the early days of the comics and magazine distribution system. (At one point, Bill Schanes talked about getting his four automobile tires slashed every day for two weeks as a company tried to convince him to do business with them.) And even during what some might believe was the collegial, chummy world of comics fandom, they described their experiences dealing with strong-arm tactics and behavior.

The Secret Origins of IDW: IDW, based in San Diego, celebrates its 10th year anniversary this year and marked the occasion with this panel hosted by IDW CEO and Publisher Ted Adams, who, as he spoke, introduced various members of the publisher’s leadership team to talk about the company’s various areas of focus. My main familiarity with IDW is through their American Comics Library imprint, through which they have published several fine collections and overviews, including those I’ve reviewed focused on the life and art of Alex Toth and Milton Caniff. So it was interesting to hear their history of getting into comics—which was never in the company’s original business plan—through both creator-owned properties and licensed characters like Transformers and G.I. Joe.

A special treat was the free book they provided to attendees at the panel, which came in an impressive slipcase. The book consists, I believe, of the covers to all of the comics they have published to date.

They also announced that IDW was entering the tabletop games arena.

Ito, Beck and Norman from Song of the South Panel
Who’s Afraid of Song of the South? Race and Ethnicity in Animation: This panel featured two veteran animators, Floyd Norman, who is African-American, and Willie Ito, who is Japanese-American, moderated by animation historian Jerry Beck. Both animators have extensive, impressive credits, which include stints at Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera, etc. (I do not know Floyd personally, but we both belong to a local Southern California cartoonists’ group.)

Though the discussion touched on the Disney's film, Song of the South (which is not available domestically) and the issues of race in animation, it was also an opportunity for Beck (and the audience) to ask about and be regaled by stories from the glory days of animation by two men who were there. Their comments about Walt Disney were especially instructive—Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism and his politics often arise when he becomes the topic of discussion and, as I have heard Norman do in the past, he dispelled these rumors through his sharing of personal anecdotes and experiences, delivered as always in his gracious and balanced manner. As anyone who has seen the knowledgeable Norman speak, he is no apologist—Norman is always clear-eyed and candid with his thoughts and opinions, which along with his very easy-going manner, makes him a very credible and entertaining source.

I could probably write a whole blog on this panel, but one of the highlights was when someone asked Norman to describe Walt Disney the man. Norman said that if anyone wanted to truly know what Disney was like, to watch the upcoming film, Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Tom Hanks as Disney and focuses on Disney’s efforts to convince P.L. Travers, the author/creator of Mary Poppins (played by Emma Thompson). Norman, who has seen the film and said that he spent some time with Hanks on the set, said, “Mr. Hanks may not look like Mr. Disney, or sound like Mr. Disney, but I assure you, he is Walt Disney.” A glowing review if I’ve ever heard one! (See trailer at the end of this post.)

I enjoyed the Comic Fest though I’m not sure I would attend this annually (esp. since I also attend the San Diego Comic-Con). Though nostalgia for the comics of one’s youth has always been a part of the Comic-Con experience, the Fest seems a bit more steeped in it, as opposed to highlighting what is the now and new in comics. This is not a bad thing, but it certainly is something potential attendees should consider when planning to attend any kind of comics show. Every comics convention has its own personality and focus—Comic Fest yearns for a simpler time when the convention was more relaxed and there was less of a barrier between fans and pros, which the sheer size of Comic-Con has made necessary. For anyone wishing a more relaxed show and a taste of the early days of Comic-Con, Comic Fest is certainly worth a visit. Next year’s show is scheduled at the same location, Oct. 17-19, 2014.

BELOW: Trailer for Saving Mr. Banks.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reviews: Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

I’ve been a student of World War II history since adolescence, whether it be films, documentaries and books, and consider myself knowledgeable about World War II history and lore. Indeed, the earliest comics I drew were World War II genre stories, inspired by work like DC’s Sgt. Rock, Marvel’s Sgt. Fury, and Charlton’s Our Army at War. The historical period is so steeped in our culture with information about it so easily accessible, it’s easy to seek out and soak up such knowledge without much effort if one has the interest. Yet I don’t recall ever reading a single all-comprehensive, chronological history of the conflict.

Earlier this year, I stumbled across and downloaded a sample of Inferno: The World at War, 1939-45 by Max Hastings on my KindleFire HD as a digital book. Based on this initial reading, I downloaded the full edition, which I found to be a compelling page turner.

Any visit to a bookstore or library will tell you that the second world war is a cottage industry in itself. Regardless, this hasn't stopped Hastings, a noted war historian and correspondent, to produce this ambitious, comprehensive-yet-concise one-volume history of World War II that feels fresh and never gives any of the subjects covered short shrift.

As knowledgeable as I am, I’m no expert on current World War II research and scholarship, but this volume does reflect certain perspectives that likely provide readers a more informed, balanced view of the war. None of this was new or a surprise to me per se, but it certainly affirmed certain biases that exist in mainstream views of the war here in the U.S.

The Hollywood/American version of the war, for example, often makes it look like the war was won solely by the U.S.—or at least changed course when the U.S. entered the conflict. While there is of course some truth to this—in fact, Hastings asserts that U.S. industrial might was likely one of the major contributors to allied victory—without taking credit away from the Greatest Generation who sacrificed and gave up their lives during the war at home and on the battlefield, Hastings also points out that relative to other countries, the U.S. fared relatively well in terms of deaths and even sacrifice. For the most part, while U.S. citizens did experience some shortages, they paled in comparison to the millions of civilians overseas who died, suffered, and were displaced.

In that context, aside from the innocent civilians, the allied country that suffered and sacrificed the most both militarily and at home—and likely served the true fulcrum for victory—was the Soviet Union. To some degree, of course, the scale of suffering was self-inflicted — the Soviets, under Josef Stalin, considered most of its combatants as little more than cannon fodder, with much of its strategy based on attrition and dependent on the sheer massive size of its population and geography. The Nazi-led Germans considered Russians (and most Eastern Europeans) as sub-human and treated them with little of the same respect they generally accorded Western combatants. (Indeed, until the very end, the Nazis fully believed the allies would join with them to fight the Soviet/Communist onslaught.) So whatever little regard the common Soviet soldiers may have held for their superior officers was more than offset by their contempt (and fear) of the invading Nazis who rarely took prisoners and, when they did, treated their Soviet POWs with anything less than cruelty and worse.

By the same token, Great Britain and the U.S. depended greatly on the Soviets to keep the Germans as engaged as possible on the eastern front while the Western allies built up their forces, hoping to face a German foe as weakened as possible by the Russians. Hastings asserts that many of the Western allies’ campaigns prior to the D-Day Normandy landings in 1944—which included the invasion of Sicily and Italy the year before—were little more than window dressing to assure the Soviet Union that they were doing their part when, in fact, the USSR was doing the heavy lifting. To be fair, the West’s desire to minimize bloodshed was not only for moral reasons, but also political—Churchill and Roosevelt always had to be mindful that terrible casualties and losses would deeply affect the public’s willingness to remain in the war (let alone affect their political fortunes). As a totalitarian state with its people under direct siege, the USSR simply did not operate under the same constraints and the Western allies took full advantage of this. (On the other side of the coin, while in large part the Soviets were fighting an invading force, they also were very strategic, their willingness to sacrifice lives in service to their long-range goal to destabilize and maintain control over the areas they captured from the Germans.)

Another interesting facet of the war covered in this book were the many sideshows around the world outside the regular theaters of operation. Paralleling what I noted in my review of Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, the chaos of war provided a pretext for many around the world to exploit the situation for personal gain, by settling scores and seizing power, often by allying with one side or another, changing sides, and/or playing one side against the other. One saw this throughout the war, particularly in places like Yugoslavia, Greece, and Czechoslovakia. While the older powers, like Great Britain and Russia, were old hands at cynically exploiting such situations to their own political ends, many in the U.S., the product of a post-colonial world not yet as jaded, were somewhat appalled by such behavior. As history shows, however, the U.S. soon caught up.

In contrast, the Pacific Theatre was pretty much an all-U.S. show. Already hemmed in by Germany at home, Great Britain’s swift and humiliating defeats at the hand of the Japanese pretty much ended that country’s dominance in the Pacific for all time, as well as tarnished their reputation as a worldwide colonial power. The people in the Pacific still under British colonial rule finally discovered, not without some genuine shock, that their rulers were, after all, simply human and not infallible, as the British fell quickly to the Japanese with little of the fight or dignity usually associated with their colonial rulers. (By this time, the British empire was all but sitting on its laurels in the Pacific and the military leaders, soldiers and resources assigned to the region were definitely second string and not a priority.)

One small revelation to me (but long suspected) was the fact that the U.S. Army and Navy were virtually pursuing their own strategies in fighting the Japanese, with the army committed to an island-hopping campaign while the navy believed control of the oceans and containment/defeat of the Japanese navy was key to victory. While both approaches were, of course, ultimately complimentary and contributed to the defeat of Japan, Hastings does question whether all the island campaigns (and the resulting loss of life) were truly necessary and nothing more than political show.

As this book points out, with little understatement, war is a terrible, chaotic thing. Strategy, planning and training are essential, but so is the will to fight, logistics and resources, and a bit of luck. Given the one volume, Hasting’s does an impressive job of presenting the war in all its facets and operations—from the political arena, to the ground battles, to the home front, to the sideshows, and to the telling moments of horrible inhumanity as well as profound chivalry that invariably emerge during times of war. There are no doubt many fine books to choose from to learn the “inside story” of World War II, to which Inferno can be included.