Panel Syndicate is alive and kicking

I’ve mentioned my love of Panel Syndicate before, on this blog as well as on the Unreliable Narrators podcast. It bears repeating, as the brainchild of comics legend Marcos Martin continues to produce great stuff.

Admittedly started as a grand experiment, the site began as a delivery system for Martin and Brian K. Vaughan’s limited series, The Private Eye. That series was great, but I remained skeptical that PS could continue to make the pay-what-you-want, DRM-free model work once that series ended. Happily, both Martin and Vaughan are back with Barrier, another great series that began late last year. In the interim, they began releasing Universe!, a book that introduced U.S. audiences to the work of Spanish cartoonist Albert Monteys. We’re still waiting on word of the PS exclusive release of a Walking Dead story from Robert Kirkman, but their deal with Image has only increased their profile.

The Panel Syndicate model is what separates it from other online comics platforms like Comixology and Thrillbent. Creator-owned comics are offered on a “name your price” basis in a wide variety of DRM-free file formats (PDF. CBR, CBZ). Even better, these digital-only comics are fully formatted for horizontal display; no awkward scans of narrow print pages, or clumsy panel-follow animations required!

To be fair, digital comics have seen improvement on the mainstream front. Image now offers DRM-free downloads in its online store, and even Comixology has begun offering file downloads from Image and other publishers. Only Panel Syndicate, however, manages all of the above-mentioned advantages of the print-free revolution. May they continue to grow and to influence other creators in this direction.

Like a streak of light, he arrives just in time

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_185With Marvel’s announcement in February that a joint venture with Sony would allow Spider-Man to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic nerds rejoiced. The decision was apparently prompted by Marvel’s desire to incorporate Spider-Man into the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, presumably based on the comics crossover event in which Web-head played a pivotal role. Kevin Feige promises that this will be a “different” Peter Parker than we’ve seen so far, and will interact with the rest of the MCU as well as mainline his own movies. And they won’t be foisting yet ANOTHER origin story on us. So far so good, yeah?

Then we learn that this “different” Spider-Man will be a teenager and star in one movie for each year of high school. Chasing the Harry Potter demographic, are we?

First world comic nerd problems, to be sure, but one of my pet peeves is Marvel’s weird insistence that Spider-Man is only relatable as a gangly, bumbling high school geek. Set aside for the moment that the last two cinematic reboots of Spider-Man chose this same tack. (With the added burden of believing a late-20s dude is still in public school, but whatever. Casting a real teen hardly qualifies as innovation.)

Peter Parker graduated high school in 1965. That was issue 28 of Amazing Spider-Man. Heck, he graduated from college in 1978, in issue 185. Almost 800 issues of ASM are now in print. Never mind the well over a thousand other issues of Spider-Man titles. Even if you add in the two hundred or so issues about alt-universe Peter Parker before Ultimate Spider-Man kicked the bucket, the overwhelming majority of classic Spider-Man stories do not take place in adolescence. Kraven’s Last Hunt? The Death of Jean DeWolff? The recent Superior Spider-Man digression? According to Marvel, those aren’t Spider-Man at his most cool and relatable.

So, here we go again. Peter flunks geometry because the Scorpion is on the loose. Bullies steal Peter’s lunch money because he can’t fight back. Peter gets his ass kicked by the Rhino because he’s distraught over someone else asking his crush to the prom.  Hey, these Spider-Man movies keep tanking, in part, because we’re tired of the same old thing. Why eschew the origin story but keep him as a teen? And if Marvel wants to give us a high school flick, but also keep things fresh, why not use Miles Morales? Or even Kamala Kahn?

I’m not saying young Peter Parker ain’t fun. But let’s not pretend we haven’t seen it on screen before. And let’s not pretend Spider-Man can’t be an adult, or married or acne-free because that would render him unrelatable. Thousands of comic books from the past fifty years disprove that theory.

Image Expo

Image Expo happened yesterday in a chilly San Francisco, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. All I can say is, we’ve come a long way from the ‘dark,’ angst-ridden vanity projects of the 90s.  Image is turning out some of the best creator-owned books in the business today, and  the event provided a lot of hope for an exciting 2014. Some takeaways:

  • Kirkman and Adlard’s The Walking Dead is the number one bestselling book for the second year running. No doubt the book’s success owes more than its share to the epic ratings of the television show, but so what?  Marvel and DC have become subservient to their TV and movie products as well. It’s fantastic to see someone give the big houses a run for their money.
  • Publisher Eric Stephens delivered a keynote address packed with announcements. Lots of potential here: Matt Fraction’s Ody-C, Brandon Graham’s 8House collaborations, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet and the resurrection of Robert Kirkman’s Tech Jacket by Joe Keatinge.
  • Image continues to expand its storefront offering DRM-free digital comics in PDF/CBR/CBZ formats. I love seeing more publishers offer actual ownership for the cost of purchase rather than the crappy, provisional rental licenses of third party comics sellers.

The comics industry seems to be on the upswing this year, and I’m looking forward to the new output. I suppose that’s the definition of a successful event.

Kindle Paperwhite

So I pulled the trigger on a new e-reader. The prompt for this was a cramped return flight that didn’t allow carry-on bags to actually be carried on.  (Don’t get me started!) I wound up on the plane without my tablet, and read about 90% of an e-book on my Android phone by the time we arrived.  Surprisingly workable, but not ideal. I’d been hearing good things about the latest Paperwhite update and decided to give it a shot.

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I am not a proponent of convergence, the whole “One Device to Rule Them All” mentality.  Every few years someone opens a fresh refrain of how specialization is dead and we must all use a single device to do everything.  Don’t know about you, but my phone barely lasts an entire day without a charge as is– and on vacation, I’m often falling back on those portable battery chargers to make it to an outlet.  The idea of a small, flat device that supports my favorite hobby and lasts for weeks on a single charge has a lot of appeal. E-ink still trumps the highest res screen, and the backlighting on the Paperwhite is subtle after staring into a tablet screen for hours on end. This device does the best job I’ve seen of emulating actual book pages, with just enough illumination to keep it viable in less than ideal conditions. So far so good.

(That first screen is from my own work-in-progress, bee-tee-dubs. I highly recommend converting your own drafts and uploading them for review. Helps divorce your brain from your own work.)

One new feature I find interesting is the X-Ray, which provides useful context around characters, setting and historical details (as shown in second shot above, from Stephen King’s 11/22/63). The downside is that it’s not available on all books; presumably someone must aggregate all that metadata in the background. It’s something to keep in mind for my own releases, especially alternate histories!  Ahem.

Another surprise is the readability of graphic novels on the Paperwhite. Well, some graphic novels. Kindle Panel View makes this the perfect device for reading an old-school, black-and-white, panel-by-panel joint like Alan Moore’s From Hell (below).  Seems obvious that more modern comics with elaborate color palettes and unconventional layouts will suffer, but I have yet to experiment. We’ll see.

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It’s been years since my first-generation Kindle became… uh, kindling. Since then I’ve muddled through with Kindle apps for PC and Android, as well as free readers for EPUB format. They get the job done, but are less than ideal.  Paperwhite isn’t perfect by any stretch; you’re still stuck within Amazon’s ecosystem and the occasional DRM annoyances. But, for me at least, it manages to restore the feel of reading vs. browsing files on a computer. Given my reading habits, that justifies its existence.

Freedom!

Happy birthday, America!  In the spirit of independence, I was pleased to learn that Image Comics unveiled a new, DRM-free comics store at Image Expo.  Official, legit CBR/CBZ archives?  Sign me up!  It’s terrific to see a major distributor following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Thrillbent and Panel Syndicate in ditching draconian crippleware.  In case anyone fails to see how momentous this is, Ars Technica does a good job of summing things up.  Okay, DC and Marvel, you’re up! Are you ready to treat us all as paying customers rather than potential thieves?

 

Man of Steel

The new Superman flick seems to be as divisive as they come.  Some love it, some hate it.  I think that means they are doing something right, since the overwhelming reaction to the last Supes outing was apathy.  Me? I’ve never been an enormous fan but I think it’s a pretty good movie.  At the very least it’s a different take on the character, which has been sorely needed.

It’s not a perfect film.  Yes, the fight scenes drag on too long.  Yes, the over-the-top collateral damage brings to mind the opening of Team America: World Police (a parallel I’m quite sure Snyder and Co. did not intend.)  But in the end they got more right than not.  Golden Age tropes have always been Superman’s Kryptonite with  modern audiences.  Happily, this movie either jettisons or transforms the most egregious problems.  The Kents are not just homespun yokels that serve as examples of Good Old Fashioned American Values; they take an active role in helping him deal with his powers.  There’s a sense that being Superman is a chore, and he has to work out how to control his power.  Best of all, Lois immediately figures out Superman’s true identity — which, let’s face it, is the only way to give her any credibility.  The idea that a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist is fooled by a pair of chunky glasses is beyond silly.  As a bonus, we finally experience what a true knockdown drag-out between WMD-level beings must feel like.  The destruction does descend into borderline parody, but it gets the point across.  How civil can a battle be when both opponents fly at supersonic speeds and punch like meteorites?

Nitpicks abound but I think it’s a good effort, if a bit overblown.  It’s a version that takes risks, which is something DC has traditionally been quite timid about.  J. Michael Straczynski had a golden opportunity to reboot Supes from scratch in the Superman: Earth One graphic novel, presumably to reach a new audience, and came away with an all new version of the character that kept almost all of the old tropes.  (So Superman wore a hoodie and had a ‘what color is your parachute’ moment in adolescence.  How is that outside the parameters of the old Kal-El?)   If nothing else, this Superman serves as the antithesis of the sentimentality in Singer’s previous film.  Perhaps the pendulum has swung a bit far in the other direction, but it’s a course correction that I think is in order.

Three tomatoes are walking down the street

Continued slippage!  I’m becoming more infrequent with my updates here, and I shall try to rectify that. At least it’s for a set of good reasons, the most important being preparation for Paradise Lost III this weekend.  Yes, it’s finally arrived. I’ll be in San Antonio tomorrow afternoon and commiserating with fellow VP alumni.  I’m looking forward to a good time with a group of talented writers.

Meanwhile, have a jumble of random musings that I should have been posting all week, served up stream-of-consciousness style!

What a terrible week for all media. First the dreadful news about Iain M. Banks. Sickness is upsetting in any circumstance, but I’m especially saddened that he won’t be serving as the Guest of Honor at LonCon3, which I am already planning to attend. My heart goes out to a giant in the field. Unfortunately that was merely the opening event: Roger Ebert and Carmine Infantino both passed away, leaving their own voids behind. Never one to be outdone, the Iron Lady herself rounded out the week of doom, though reactions to her passing are decidedly more mixed. Russell Brand, of all people, delivered perhaps the most fitting sendoff to Maggie in the Guardian. Hopefully we’re done with the bad news for this cycle.

Politicians keep insisting that corporations are people, too, so I’ll also throw in an obituary for LucasArts. A bit of a shame that The Mouse appears to have no stomach for adventure games, as the genre appears to be on the verge of a comeback thanks largely to indie developers. We’ll always have Steam!

In better news, Christina Blanch’s Gender Through Comic Books MOOC is into its second week (that’s Massive Open Online Course for the buzzword-challenged), and it’s off to a rousing start. Awesome stuff. I have no idea if it’s still open for registration, but if so you should definitely join. I plan to post more about it after the long weekend away.

See you in San Antonio!

The Private Eye

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Here’s something interesting, Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man) and Marcos Martin (Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil) have just released the first issue of their new comic series, The Private Eye. It’s available now and online only through Panel Syndicate.

Everything about this release is awesome. First, there’s the promise of a fun ongoing story about a PI in a future L.A. that no longer uses the internet. More importantly, it’s a creator-owned release, independently distributed in a variety of formats (PDF. CBR, CBZ) and you can name your own price!  Even better, it really feels like it was made specifically for online distribution: the wonderful artwork is laid out in landscape format that is more conducive to a 16×9 screen. And reading with a good CBR browser (like CDisplay) means no clumsy interface and navigation between you and the artwork.

This is exactly the sort of product I would love to see more of, especially from such top-drawer contributors. Online comic reader stores and platforms are useful for the occasional fix, but usually charge full retail price for crippling DRM and silly restricted usage on their own servers. Check it out and support independent distribution, so we receive more of this goodness!

 

Class of the Titans

Just received word of this interesting post by Eisner winner Mark Waid (whose current Daredevil run is one of the only interesting things happening at Marvel these days).  He and a number of other comics pros, including Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Snyder, Matt Fraction, Brian Bendis and Gail Simone) are participating in an online course called “Gender Through Comic Books.'” It’s available on Canvas as a free course, and features interactive interviews taking questions via Twitter.

I’m in. Sounds like quite a bit of fun. And it also sounds like a decent follow-up to Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis’ Chicks Dig Comics anthology, which is also well worth a read.

The valiant also die!

Avengers #44

Welcome to the wonderful world of Marvel madness!

I recently ran across a thumbnail of one of my all-time favorite comic book covers: Avengers #44 from September 1967. John Buscema manages to distill the essence of Silver Age fun on a blank white background.  Bodies are flying every which way, but also create a flow of movement in a spiral around our hapless heroes.  I also love that the usual story-specific blurbs are replaced by a single, generic message: “Welcome to the wonderful world of Marvel madness!”  It’s as if Stan and Co. gave up on any attempt to encapsulate the chaos. And really, what more encouragement does one need?