Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Five NFL Teams to Never Win a Super Bowl

In honor of the playoffs kicking off next week. I think that numbers 5 and 1 will meet this year, but I've been making that prediction for about five years now, so we'll see.

5. San Diego Chargers

What puts the Chargers ahead of teams with longer histories, such as the Lions and the Cardinals, is that they have two periods of excellence in the Super Bowl era: the old Dan Fouts/Kellen Winslow teams; and the current run begun by Marty Shottenheimer and Drew Brees, and continued by Norv Turner and Philip Rivers. I would be willing to bet my mortgage that the Chargers will beat the Colts (if they face them) in the AFC title game this year.

4. Buffalo Bills

Mostly an NFL also-ran, the Bills accomplished one of the great feats in NFL history, reaching four straight Super Bowls. Of course, they lost all four, by increasingly large margins. So they have somehow become synonymous with losing and failure, which seems wholly unfair, but them's the breaks. Buffalo's first loss was immortalized in Vincent D'onofrio's Buffalo '66, so there's that.

3. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have a couple of unfortunate firsts in their history: they were the first team to reach four Super Bowls and loose them all; and they were the first team with a record of 15-1 or better to not even reach the Super Bowl. That year, 1998, might be the ultimate bitter pill, as kicker Gary Anderson went all year without missing a kick-- until the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game, when he missed a field goal that would have put the Vikings up by two possessions. Atlanta scored the tying touchdown and won in overtime.

2. Cleveland Browns

The asterisks to the Browns lack of Super Bowls are well known to any Browns fan. Cleveland was the dominant franchise in the pre-Super Bowl years, winning ten titles. And the Browns suffered the ultimate indignity of having owner Art Modell move the team to Baltimore when Cleveland refused to build him a new stadium, only to watch the newly-christened Ravens win Cleveland's rightful Super Bowl within five years, and the city build a new stadium anyway for an expansion Browns. Oh, and in between there was The Drive. And The Fumble. Why does God hate the Cleveland Browns?

1. Philadelphia Eagles

What, you were expecting someone else? If the Eagles weren't always one of the NFL's showcase franchises, they sure are now. The Eagles do have one NFL title to their credit, back in 1960, and two Super Bowl appearances, getting shellacked by the Raiders in 1981 and coming up three points short of the Patriots in 2005. Keep in mind that I FULLY EXPECT Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb to change this, perhaps as early as this February. Hope springs eternal and all that.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Wallpapers Part 2: Frank Quitely

Since I just wrote about him, it seemed like a good idea to post some wallpapers I've made from the works of the great Frank Quitely. Surprisingly few, really, considering my admiration for his work. So many of his images are so iconic, I think, they tend to be made into wallpapers a lot, and I've tried to avoid those. I suppose that I'll have to remedy that. Anyway, these are all 1024 x 768, as usual.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Minimate Customs: Black Adam

So this one came about, basically, because Suncoast Video had DC Minimates Series 5 on clearance, and I racked my brain for something I could do with them to take advantage of the prices. It finally dawned on me that I could turn Captain Marvel into Black Adam fairly easily. I just put the boots and belt on a pair of black legs for the lower torso. For his chest and arms I decided to just use a black sharpie on the red parts that came with the original. I think it turned out really well; the sharpie allowed the muscle detail on the chest piece to show through, which you can kinda see in the picture.

The head comes from the Emo Peter Parker from Spider-Man 3, which I was thrilled to get such good use out of. I think the simple, angry face really looks great for Black Adam. And the hair is from the Sub-Mariner, which killed me to use, but sometimes in Minimate customizing tough sacrifices must be made.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Comics Journal #300 Conversations: Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely

Among my Christmas presents this year was the 300th issue of the Comics Journal, a bit of a bittersweet milestone, as it's the last regular issue for the foreseeable future. I've always appreciated the Journal, even though I found it less enjoyable over the last few years. And I'll be sorry to see it go, even if it's not really gone; the Journal will be expanding it's online presence while publishing a few special print issues a year.

But back to #300. The Journal has always done a fine job with special issues, and this one is no different. As editor/overlord Gary Groth explains, the Journal editors brought together several creators from different generations together for informal conversations. The results, we hope, will enlighten us all about how comics have changed over the last 20-30 years. So I thought it would be fun to read each one and post my thoughts and reactions. I'll be reading these, more or less, in my own order of interest. First up: Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely.

The first time I ever saw Dave Gibbons' work would have been during his Green Lantern run in the early '80s, but the first time I became aware of it would've been the same as most everyone else: Watchmen. And I think, frankly, that he's more or less coasted on that; the only other work of note that he produced was the Give Me Liberty cycle, of which I'm not a fan. Frank Quitely, on the other hand, is just about the best artist in mainstream comics at the moment. My first exposure to his work (I think) was the Vertigo series 2020 Visions, and I thought it astonishing. I've bought pretty much everything he's done since then, and Quitely's name on the book is one of the few ways to guarantee I'll read something.

Anyway. Judging by the bits I've read of the other conversations as I flipped through the Journal, I'm afraid that I may have chosen to start with the least interesting first. There's sadly very little discussed between the two men that could be considered engrossing. Much of the conversation revolves around the effect of computers upon working methods, and I think the most interesting thing said here is that Frank Quitely still draws on paper because he feels he needs to have the original art to sell in order to make a living.

Think about that for a minute: Frank Quitely, one of the most successful artists in the industry today, can't survive on his page rate and royalties alone. And sure, a lot of that has to do with being a British national working for an American company, and the lousy exchange rate, but still. Quitely's been the artist of some of the most notable books published in the last decade; one would think he'd at least feel financially stable enough to abandon drawing on paper if he wanted to.

Which leads me to a topic that I would have loved for the two to discuss, but sadly is never brought up: perennials. Gibbons, of course, is one of the creators of the ultimate perennial, which will probably always be one of the best selling books in any given year (though probably never again quite like the last year); Quitely, I suspect, will have a perennial of his own with All-Star Superman. How much does this mean to the artist? Will they continue to see monies from books that continue to sell years after their original publication? Is having a perennial on the shelf something to strive for, or does it still not matter in comparison to having the hot new comic on the stands?

One other item from the conversation struck me: the changed role of editors in comics. When Gibbons broke in, editors were still very much teachers, and his work would often come back with notes of things that needed to be improved. But Quitely, 20 years later, has never had such interaction with his editors. He notes that, nowadays, editors have probably never worked as writers or artists previously, and aren't likely to offer any kind of tutorial on the mechanics of storytelling to young talent. And I thought: yeah, that's true, why is that? Used to be, guys like Geoff Johns and Bendis would get a staff job, just like Marv Wolfman and Len Wein and so many others did in the '70s and '80s. But you don't see that any more. My guess is, probably, because the economics have changed. Most of those writers and artists became editors (or the editors started writing) to sublimate their incomes. And guys like Johns and Bendis make plenty of money- and have plenty of say in the direction of the respective fictional universes they shape- without having to worry about the letter page getting to the typesetter before the deadline.

This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but I'm not sure it's a good thing either. You've now got at least a generation's worth of editors that have little power, really, compared with the talent; again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but what if the talent's wrong? What about when a writer wants to have the spouse of a prominent Justice League member raped? Does the editor have the position to say no, and be backed by his bosses? At the end of the day, I think the paradigm has shifted towards the talent. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing, but without the likes of Archie Goodwin behind the scenes, are we really better off?

But I digress. You'll note that the things I found most interesting in this conversation weren't really things Gibbons and Quitely talked about at all. At the end of the day, these are two guys who are pretty satisfied with their careers, but pretty far removed from comics as a whole. Sadly, it feels like so many other topics are left on the table untouched. Like: these men are primarily known for having worked with two of the most brilliantly idiosyncratic writers in comics. Shouldn't their names have come up a few times? All in all, this conversation feels like a lost opportunity.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ironically, I Much Prefer John Hodgman to Justin Long

So I'm sitting here typing this on my new computer, a Macbook Pro. Yeah, I've gone to the other side. Actually back to the other side, as I first started with Macs some fifteen years ago, and only ever went to a PC when I decided I wanted a laptop and couldn't justify the cost of a Mac notebook. I still can't... but my mom can! Thanks Mom!!!!!

I'm still getting used to it, but learning to use it sure is easier then my PC was when I first got it. I mean, I literally took it out of the box less then two hours ago, and here I am, filling it with pornography (not really!). I have switched from Safari to Firefox, and will probably replace Quicktime with VLC or something like that. I'm just happy with how easy everything is with this machine. And I don't have to worry about viruses.

This last semester was kind of a nightmare for me because our laptop caught its' second virus of the year. Thing is, I have no idea how it got it, because I wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary that would have lead to a virus. Really. I'm not lying about that. I was able to remove the virus, but the wireless drive or something was fucked, so the damn thing couldn't get online any more.

This lead to me pulling out of the mothballs my old, old first laptop, which I didn't think even worked any more. But it did... sorta. Not well, though. Not well at all. For example, it wouldn't install Adobe Acrobat, so any time I wanted to read a PDF I had to copy the file onto my external hard drive and get the other computer. Which wouldn't have been such a hardship, except they were both sharing a power cord. Yeah. Not fun.

But all that's behind me now. I'm a Mac. Woot woot.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Wallpapers Part 1

Yup, it's another one of my stupid hobbies. I've been making wallpapers for a few years now, after reading a tutorial in the old Comic Book Resources forum. What the hell, I thought, doesn't look too hard. Anyway, here's a sample of some of my favorites. These are all 1024 x 768, but can be stretched to fit larger screens. Hope you like them, there's more to come.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stuff We Watched: Whatever Works

We just finished watching this about an hour ago, and I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep until I sit down and get this goddamn blog post out of my head. I'll just toss and turn for a few hours, going over the things I would say about it, if I had a forum with which to make my voice heard. Which now I do, so at least I can get this all out and maybe get a little sleep like a normal person.

I knew, when I put this sucker at the top of my Netflix queue, that it had not been very well received. But I was intrigued enough by the thought of Larry David walking around in a Woody Allen movie that figured, what the hell. I have to admit that I am something of a Larry David mark; he has a... well, presence isn't the right word. It's more that there's never been anyone else on camera remotely like him, not even Woody Allen himself. In the words of Mel Brooks, there's something about that middle-aged bald guy that thrilling.

Here's the thing you should know about Woody Allen movies, though, and keep this in mind the next time you think about seeing one: he makes a movie about once a year. That's a pretty rapid pace. Think about how long it takes to make a movie. And sure, Woody Allen movies don't take as long to film, and there sure as hell isn't a lot of post-producion done on them, but still. A movie a year. And he's been doing this for a long time, meaning he's made A LOT of movies.

And not all will be good. I often wonder if even the most creative of us have a finite source of creativity from which to draw from; yes, like a well, and remember that wells run dry. Woody Allen, I think, doesn't go through the normal process most of us go through in developing an idea, finding out if it's worthwhile. No, he just turns them right into movies. At that pace, how can he not? And who is going to tell him that maybe this one isn't so hot, and should stay in the desk drawer?

Whatever Works is the story of a middle-age New York Jew that falls for a woman much younger then himself. Manhatten it is not. David's character, Boris Yetzen-something, is supposedly a genius-level physicist that almost won a Nobel Prize once upon a time, though frankly the movie really doesn't do anything with this background. We never learn anything about the work Boris did that brought him to the top of his field, and David sure doesn't do a lot to sell that he's an expert in Quantum Mechanics. Really, the movie would be better off if he just thought he was smarter then everybody else, without having ever achieved anything more then made children cry playing chess.

The movie would be better off. That's a phrase that goes through my head a lot as I think about it. Because there are so many things that could have happened, that you expect to happen, that wouldn't have made the movie any better, probably, but would have made it less infuriating. Mainly, the ingenuine, played by Even Rachel Wood, who used to be on a show I have a certain fondness for called Once & Again that should really only have been watched by middle-age women. But I digress. She plays a young woman, fresh off the bus (or something) from Mississippi, with hardly a brain in her head but a heart on her sleeve.

But here's the thing about this girl, and I suppose I should say *SPOILER WARNING* here, although I beseech you to not see this movie, and just read what I'm about to type instead: I was sure she was a con artist. Her performance was so bad, her character so phony, that I was sure it was going to turn out that she was a junkie on the run from Queens that had found an easy mark and a comfortable place to lay low. Well, perhaps not that drastic. But surely- surely- we could not be meant to take this character seriously, not with her catfish and beauty pagents and story of her first time... you know *blush*. This can not be a real character.

When her mother shows up out of the blue, fresh from having left her father, I thought: here we go. This is her partner, mayber really her mother, and Boris actually has money stashed away, I mean look at how he's living. He's clearly not spending anything. But she'll have real feelings for him, not love but feelings nonetheless, and in the end she'll tell him the truth, leaving him heartbroken but a little wiser. Learning that even he, as brilliant as he knows himself to be, wants to believe that people are whom they say they are. Maybe, just maybe, he learns a little something about life.

This is not what happens. Her mother, it turns out, it something of an idiot savant photographer, and becomes an avant- garde artist, and shacks up with two men, and then her father shows up and- I kid you not- realizes that he's been gay all his life. See, because everybody that lives in the Red States is actually a repressed free spirit, and if they could just somehow find their way to Manhatten, they could discover their real selves, and everything would work out in the end. See, Republicans, see?

Woody Allen's career goes through this funny little cycle where he makes several lousy movies in a row, and everyone thinks he's lost it, and then he goes and makes something brilliant and everyone thinks he's back. It was only a few years ago that he made Match Point, which is one of the five best films he ever made. If he could just find a way to not make these movies in between, just say "no, that's a stupid idea, and anyway, I've already covered that theme like seven times in my career" we'd all be better for it. Thing is, everything he does has an audience. When I worked at the Ritz Theater in Philadelphia a decade ago, we would get a new Woody Allen movie every year, like clockwork. And the same senior citizens would come out for it; they wouldn't even adk for the movie by name, just say "one for Woody". I always wondered why he even bothered going to the trouble of naming his movies, when he could have just gone with My New Movie by W. Allen and been equally successful. Of course, most of that audience is probably dead by now.....

Whatever Works is probably the worst Woody Allen movie I've ever seen. It's definitely the worst episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top Five Definitive Superman Artists

It's snowing pretty heavily outside right now (EDIT: or it was when I started this damn thing), which seems like a good excuse to talk about Superman for a bit. Because of the Fortress of Solitude or something. Just go with it. Superman, of course, has the longest continuous publishing history of any comic book character. And, this is just a guess, but he's probably starred in more comics then anyone else, considering that he's starred in at least two comic books a month for most of his career, and as many as four. That's a lot of comics. And a lot of artists. But what's interesting about Superman is that it's really not all that hard to make up a list of his definitive artists. Several have become so associated with the character that it's impossible not to think of them when you think of Superman; moreover, I honestly don't think you could expand this list beyond two or three more spots without having a tremendous dropoff. Certainly, I don't think you could get all the way to ten.

And what is a definitive artist? Well, it's an artist that made a tangible, lasting contribution to the character. Obviously, that's hard to quantify; length of service has something to do with it, but does not guarantee this status. For example, I daresay that Sal Buscema drew more issues of Captain America then anyone outside of Jack Kirby, but he wouldn't be on my Captain America list. So talent must play a part, but again can't be the only criteria. Thus, guys like Neal Adams, George Perez, and Ed McGuinness, all of whom drew Superman at some point but aren't really associated with him (with the possible exception of Adams) don't make the cut.

In the end, it's mostly just a gut feeling. It's the guys you think of when you think of Superman, or Superman is whom you think of when you think of these guys. Which is a convoluted way to put it. But whatever.

Before we get to the list, a couple honorable mentions:

Frank Quitely: Quitely is the artist of All Star Superman, which may well be the definitive Superman story. But it's still only twelve issues, and outside the regular Superman continuity at that, and I'm still not convinced that Quitely really is all that appropriate for Superman. No, I take that back; Quitely has a unique ability to convey both the fantastic and the mundane that has always been a hallmark of Superman at his best. But still, not quite yet.

John Byrne: Byrne was the mastermind behind the relaunch of Superman in the mid-'80s. Byrne wrote and drew both Action Comics and a renumbered Superman for several years, but for whatever reason he never really clicked with the character. I don't think this work would really be considered a highlight of either Byrne's or Superman's respective careers.

Dan Jurgens: During the '90s, DC published four Superman titles a month, each loosely following the previous week's installment, with an extra number even included on the cover to indicate where the issue fell in that year's Superman continuity. This period is often referred to as the Triangle Years (the shape of the extra number), and Jurgens was probably the driving creative force. But unlike a lot of other fans, I don't look back at this period, which included the death and rebirth of Superman storylines, with much fondness. And nor do I think much of Jurgens. In fairness, he'd probably have to be in any top ten list; one reason why five seems like a good cutoff number.

5. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

Garcia-Lopez was a somewhat regular penciller on Superman in the '70s, plus the regular cover artist, and also had stints on both World's Finest and DC Comics Presents. On the surface, this would seem to not be enough of a body of work . But Garcia-Lopez has also been DC's primary licensing artist for the past 30 years or so. His work can still be seen on hundreds of products featuring DC characters, especially Superman. It's this combination of factors, I think, that push Garcia-Lopez beyond Jurgens, Byrne, Al Plastino and others. Garcia-Lopez's Superman is iconic.

4. Jerry Ordway.

Probably the best of the modern Superman artists. Ordway was the other artist of the great Superman relaunch of 1986, launching Adventures of Superman (which continued the numbering of the original Superman series). It was pretty clear to everybody, though, that Ordway was the "B" artist in the new Superman publishing world in name only. While Byrne struggled to gain a foothold with fans, Ordway was immediately embraced as the proper inheritor of the Superman artistic mantle. Ordway stayed on Superman for years (later only as a writer); his obvious appreciation for the artists of the Golden Age made him something of a throwback, and perfect for Superman.

3. Wayne Boring

I'm going to come right out and admit that I don't know all that much about Wayne Boring. The only two comic books that I own that definitely contain his work (Secret Origins #1 and All Star Squadron Annual #3) were heavily inked by Jerry Ordway. They look great, though. But Boring was the primary Superman artist from the late '40s through the '50s, serving as a lynchpin between the top two artists on our list. Thus Boring was keenly involved in the period where Superman morphed from his early glorified strongman days into the Man of Tomorrow we now know.

2. Joe Shuster

Shuster, of course, is one of the co-creators of Superman. I don't think that the creator credit necessarily brings with it definitive artist status (see Kane, Bob), but it's certainly warranted in this case. Shuster not only designed (and refined) what is easily the most iconic costume in comics, he also developed Superman's square-jawed look.

It's hard to say how much work Shuster actually produced; plagued by eye problems, Shuster had to turn most of the work on his breakout co-creation over to several assistents. But Shuster remained involved, despite his limitations, touching up figurework and faces for years to maintain the look he'd established for the strip.

Shuster left the character permanently after his ill-fated lawsuit to reclaim the character with partner Jerry Siegel failed in 1946. The co-creator of the most iconic character in comics faded into obscurity after that, his eyes now too weak to allow for much of a career. Recently, a collection of Shuster's fetish art was released by Abrams, featuring characters that look disturbingly like the cast of a certain comic book. And, frankly, I don't know what to add after that.

1. Curt Swan

Curt Swan was basically the Superman artist through the Silver and Bronze Ages. He probably drew more Superman stories then anyone else, always with an unparalleled elegance. In a way, Swan was an odd fit on Superman; never a strong action artist, his strengths lay in facial expressions and body language. But these abilities actually fit quite well with the Superman of the Silver Age. As his powers had grown to literal godlike proportions, Superman rarely used his fists in those days, relying on his brain and his vast array of other powers. Swan, the thinking man's comic book artist, was a perfect fit with the more cerebral Superman.

Appropriately, Curt Swan's legendary association with Superman ended (for all intents and purposes) with Alan Moore's coda to the Silver Age Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?". This two-issue story, running between Superman and Action Comics, effectively tied up Superman's continuity for the last 30 years, paving the way for John Byrne. It's funny; Byrne was brought in because the Powers That Be felt that Superman needed to be shaken up, but in two issues Moore showed perfectly how to balance Superman's fantastic past with modern sensibility. And Swan, as the lynchpin of the past, was a perfect compliment to Moore's script. Can you imagine if DC has put Alan Moore together with Curt Swan on Superman full time? But I digress....

Bert and Ernie Appreciate Bert's Bottlecaps

I think this video is an eerily accurate view into my marriage. Just substitute "Minimates" for "bottlecaps".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Minimate Customs: The Question

Anyone that knows me knows that I collect action figures (and, if you didn't: I collect action figures). Superhero action figures only, though. There are many reasons, but I suppose that it comes down to the fact that I like to hold a three-dimensional representation of these characters in my hands. There's something satisfying about that. And, these days, it's more satisfying then the comic books that spawned the toys.

One of the little subsets of my collection are Minimates. These are little block figures, not unlike Legos, that stand about 2" tall, but have multiple POAs (that's points of articulation, or moving joints). Minimates are way cool, in that they pack an exceptional amount of detail into a small body. And, in the last few years, that detail has been ratcheted up considerably, to the point that I'd stack Minimates up against any so-called "deluxe collector" action figure.

Minimates are also one of the few toys that have characters from multiple comic book companies, movies, and tv properties in a uniform style. The flagship property for Minimates is Marvel Comics (and the movies based on those comics), but Minimates have been made for DC Comics, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few. Honestly, unless you go back to the old Mego World's Greatest Super Hero! dolls, you're going to be hard-pressed to have Batman standing seamlessly next to Spider-Man in your collection-- never mind Jean-Luc Picard, Peter Venkman, and Gollum.

But what really puts Minimates over the top, for me, is the ease of customization. For the uninitiated, customizing is the creation of a brand-new figure from the scraps of others, using paint, modelling clay, whatever. It's not very easy, and good customizers can produce figures indistinguishable from commercial releases. I've always wished I could customize, but it's always proved to be beyond my skill set. But not with Minimates. Because their parts are all interchangeable, it's extremely easy to pull a few apart and create something new. Moreover, coloring and detailing can be achieved successfully with something as simple as a Sharpie marker. Yes, the better customizers also use paints, puttys, and even printed decals; I am not one of those customizers. Yet.

Anyway. One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog was to show off my meager works. I've cobbled together a few dozen customs, mostly from DC Comics, because 1.) DC Minimates suffered a premature end, and 2.) I like DC better then Marvel. So, without further ado, I'm going to start this off with one of my favorites, the Question.

The Question is a pretty darn easy custom to do. All you really need are a shirt/tie torso, coat, and hairpiece with a fedora. Moreover, many of the pieces you see here were provided by the official Question release. So what makes this a custom? Well, the official release was for the Modern Question, a.k.a. the female Question, a.k.a the sucky Question. As soon as I saw her announced, I knew that she would never have a home in my collection in place of the classic Question. So I took her nongendered parts and created one of my own.

Actually, I cobbled a Question together several months before the official release. The shirt comes from a BSG Gaius Baltar (a Minimate that has proven very useful), though there was not shortage of other options. The hat, however, was a different story. It took me a while to find a Minimate with the proper hat, but finally I stumbled upon him: Tiger Jacket Rocky, of all things. I've never been 100% thrilled at how the hat's cocked, but I've grown to like it. There's a better hat out there now, from the Spirit, but I haven't been able to make the change. I've grown accustomed to your hat....

Oh, and the head, of course, is just a random head turned backwards. Nothing hard about that. I also gave him a little folder to hold, which I apparently didn't photograph. Oh well. Anyway, the Question is, I think, a perfect Minimate custom; easy to do, and looks as if he came right out of the package. They aren't all like that....

Heady Time to be a Phillies Fan

Here's a link to something Tom Verducci wrote on last week about the Phillies becoming the closest thing to the Yankees in the NL. Basically, they've become the team for which every other contender must account. This was as it was first emerging that the Phils were aggressively pursuing Roy Halliday-- a pursuit that looks as if it has come to fruition.

If you're a longtime Phillies fan, this new, elite-level Phillies franchise is a little hard to wrap your head around. After all, it wasn't that long ago that stars like Curt Shilling and Scott Rolen were looking to leave Philadelphia, because they were convinced that management wasn't committed to winning. And who could blame them? I saw Curt Shilling pitch a lot of games, and I can't tell you how many wins he lost because of the inferior Phillies bullpen. One year, it seemed like every game Shilling pitched, he took a lead into the eighth, when Steve Schrenk would inevitably be brought in-- and, also inevitably, he would blow the game. Shilling, clearly, felt that his only chance to win in those days was to throw a complete game. He was probably right.

But Rolen, as it turns out, probably should have been a bit more patient. He was actually the beginning of a youth movement that has become the core of this Phillies team. Rolen was soon followed by Pat Burell and Jimmy Rollins, and later Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels. Again, if you followed the Phillies for awhile, this is still hard to accept. I grew up going to Phillies minor league games in Reading, and let me tell you, if ever a farm system was bare, it was the Phillies in the '80s. I recall only one even remotely impact player from that era, part time first baseman Ricky Jordan. Ricky Jordan!

But now the Phillies look to be contenders for a long, long time. Their core is still young, and already has a World Series title under their collective belts. The farm system remains deep, meaning the team will continue to get better either from within, or by parlaying their prospects into players, as they did first for Cliff Lee, and now for Halliday.


I don't quite understand the mechanics of this trade. Basically, the Phillies are getting Halliday from Toronto, and shipping Cliff Lee to Seattle; in addition, the Phillies are sending prospects (reportedly outfielder Michael Taylor and pitchers Kyle Drebeck and J.A. Happ) to Toronto, and receiving prospects back from Seattle. I don't know anything about them, but reportedly the Seattle package is not as good as the Phillies prospect package, nor as far along.

This prospect package is essentially what the Blue Jays asked Philadelphia for over the summer (with the substitution of Taylor for Dominick Brown, who may be better ultimately but is not as far along as Taylor). The Phillies decided this was too high, and went and got Lee for a package of good, but inferior, prospects. Drebeck, in fact, was considered untouchable.

So why make that deal now, when you'll actually be getting less out of Halliday? What has changed? If the Phillies have decided that they need another elite starter to compete with the Yankees in a possible World Series rematch next fall, then yeah, they're right. After all, Lee was the only starter that proved capable of beating the Bombers, and you just can't be sure that Cole Hamels will regain his 2008 form. So adding Halliday, even at such a steep price, seems like a reasonable idea.


Why trade Lee? If the idea is to make your rotation lights out in October, Halliday/Lee does that. But just Halliday puts you back at square one. Granted, Halliday is an upgrade over Lee, but Lee is an upgrade over Hamels or whomever else the Phillies will plug into the rotation. Plus, now you've lost Happ, and Drebeck, who would probably be pitching in Philadelphia by the end of the summer. Who will pitch those innings? Pedro Martinez? Kyle Kendrick?

I understand that the Phillies thought that they couldn't lock up Lee long-term, but they can Halliday. Fine. So why not keep Lee for the year? If the goal in trading Lee for prospects is to restock the farm, then the two draft picks the Phils would pick up if Lee signs elsewhere as a type A free agent after next season accomplish that. It just doesn't make much sense. I would understand if the Phillies were shipping Lee to the M's, then sending Seattle's prospects to Toronto and thus keeping their own farm system intact, but this seems like the worst of both worlds.

Oh well. Roy Halliday's a Phillie, or about to be, and it's hard to complain about that. The Phillies have shown that they have no intention of being satisfied with a two or three year run, and are looking to be the team to beat in the National League for a long time. Considering where they've been, they get a pass.

For now. It doesn't take long for fans to go from suffering to spoiled; just ask the Red Sox.

UPDATE: So the trade was finalized today, finally, and did not include Happ, but a catching prospect that I haven't heard of. So that's certainly better, although the Phillies have now traded two catching prospects in the last six months. I hope they really do like Ruiz.

So the Phillies rotation would look to be Halliday/Hamels/Blanton/Happ/Moyer or Pedro. Not bad, but they are really counting on Hamels to rebound, and Happ to be the real deal. I think both those things will happen, but I'd feel a lot better if Cliff Lee was in front of Cole Hamels, or Kyle Drabeck was waiting in the wings.

Oh: I misspelled Kyle Drabeck's name. Knew it was one or the other.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

DC Drops the Other Shoe?

My buddy James beat me to this a bit, but I still wanted to sound off a bit on the big news that DC Comics (or, as I like to say, Detective Comics Comics) will be starting a series of ongoing original graphic novels this summer under the brand EARTH ONE. Essentially, these books will be skipping the middle man by telling a continuing story, but without serializing the story first in standard comic book format (or "pamphlets" or "floppies" or whatever trendy euphemism for comic books we're using this month).

This is, indeed, a big deal. But is it as big a deal as it should be?

DC's basic strategy here is to take their two biggest characters, put high-profile creative teams on them, and launch new series with "fresh" continuity unencumbered by the characters' 70+ respective years of history. This is a laudable idea, but one that feels less then fresh, considering that DC just did the same exact thing four years ago with the ill-fated ALL-STAR line. Those books are really an interesting case study: they both sold a ton, one was a tremendous critical success (I'd say it's the greatest Superman story ever told), and the other probably the most controversial comic of the decade (I'd say it's the worst Batman story ever told). Yet, you can't really call ALL-STAR a success, because it didn't spawn a series of other books. Unlike Marvel's similar Ultimate line, it didn't create a fresh new universe. It just, inexplicably, went away.

And this failure, I think, is what's driving DC's decisions here more then anything. Because the books didn't fail in the traditional sense (again, they sold), but in a more intangible way: they took so long to complete, and shipped so haphazardly (AS BATMAN, I believe, went a calendar year between issues at one point, and remains unfinished as of this writing) that they lost a ton of momentum and pretty much killed ALL-STAR as a viable brand. Keep in mind, also, that there were several other AS projects that were announced (I want to say Adam Hughes doing All-Star Wonder Woman...) that never saw the light of day and are presumably still unfinished.

So, I suspect that the EARTH-ONE line is in essence a non-continuation continuation of the ALL-STAR line. But then... why not just continue the ALL-STAR line? Why not just announce that these are ALL-STAR volume two (or season two, as we so sillily say these days)? I feel pretty comfortable in predicting that both AS SUPERMAN and BATMAN, despite their initial problems getting to the stands, and ignoring the fact that AS BATMAN is Godawful, will now remain comfortably entrenched on the list of "perennials", the books that remain among the best sellers year in and year out. You've already established a brand, and most importantly at the book store, where DC's focus with this material should be.

The biggest drawback, I suppose, is that they are essentially unfollowable. ALL-STAR SUPERMAN (though I believe originally designed to be ongoing, with a new creative team after Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely finished their run) tells a complete story that doesn't leave much room for more. And Frank Miller's Batman in AS BATMAN is so ill-conceived, so poorly written, that I can't imagine anyone wanting to follow him. At this point, I think DC editorial is content to let him finish the book whenever he and Jim Lee finish the book, count their money and call it a day.

So I think the existence of a pretty similar previous attempt to do the very same thing mutes my excitement for this. And then there's the fact that the creative teams for the latter books aren't quite as exciting as the former. Okay, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank is pretty darn good, but is it better then Frank Miller (writer of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and BATMAN: YEAR ONE) uniting with Jim Lee (artist of BATMAN: HUSH) to do Batman? No. Oh, I have no doubt that the final product from the Johns/ Frank team will be better (how could it not be?), but the Miller/ Lee combo was a wet dream for most of the fanbase. As for comparing J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis to Morrison and Quitely... I mean, who the hell is Shane Davis (yes, I know who Shane Davis is. He used to draw TEEN TITANS. My point is... who the hell is Shane Davis)?!

And then there's the brand name... EARTH ONE. I know (or suspect I know) why they went with this: it has a deep meaning in the history of DC Comics, and represents a fresh start. The thing is... the deep meaning trumps the fresh start. DC, very recently, reintroduced the multiverse into their omniverse; it's too hard to explain here, but basically the name "Earth One" is very much in play within the core continuity they are trying so hard to distance themselves from with this "fresh start". DC writers, editors, artists, janitors, et all will be asked time and time again if this new EARTH ONE is meant to represent "Earth One" in the multiverse. And if it is, then it's not a fresh start. And if it isn't, why even raise the possibility?

Ultimately, I just don't think this new project addresses the question many of us have been asking in recent years: Why not just publish trade paperback collections and skip the comics alltogether? This doesn't mean why not publish new hardcover graphic novels starring Superman and Batman with a new continuity, but rather, why publish Scalped as a monthly comic? Or Air? Or Ex Machina?

See, those series are already free and clear of the continuity stigma, and I'll let you in on a secret: all of them (as well as pretty much every Vertigo and Wildstorm property) do much better as trade paperbacks relative to their comics sales. These days, Vertigo and Wildstorm books are lucky to debut above 15k, and most quickly fall below the 10k threshold. But they do well as books, both in the direct market and at mass retail. In fact, there's rumors that some book collections outsell their first-run comics. In other words, the comics cling to the bottom of the sales charts, but the books are among highest selling titles upon release. So why continue publishing the comics? Why not just make Vertigo a serialized book publisher, following the strategy that has made Manga the dominant comics publishing genre in the US?

Until someone (not necessarily one of the Big Two) is willing to make this very logical leap, comics will still be stuck with a dinosaur publishing model. It's amazing to me that one company, First Comics, actually announced a plan to suspend their monthly titles in favor of continuing them as OGNs nearly 20 years ago, and no one has followed suit since (First, by the way, went completely belly-up before their plan could be put into place).

I've no doubt that these new books will be successful. I'll probably read them (at least the Batman one); and I'm curious to see where the line will go from here. Probably, we'll see the material intended for the ALL-STAR line repackaged here. But I don't think this announcement quite represent the revolution that we are waiting for. A nudge in the right direction, yes, but one still delaying the inevitable.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Top Five Side One Track Ones

This topic is, of course, the one Jack Black gives John Cusick in "High Fidelity", and I thought it would be a good one to kick off what I hope to be a regular feature here at the ol' blog without a clever name. Keep in mind that these are not merely my opinion, but actual fact; you are welcome to offer suggestions of modifications, but I have the final say, as God intended.

So: top five track ones. I think that a great opening track is one that immediately makes you say "yes, I will like this". It should really set the tone for the whole album, kind of like taking the opening kickoff in for a touchdown (never mind the fact that I think the second half kickoff is far more important, and were I an NFL head couch I would always defer). And these songs do that; they kicked down the doors of my ears and said "listen to ME!" Doors of my ears... yes, that's the simile I want.

I think it's really pretty awesome when this happens, and in fact, it just happened this morning, when I listened to Metric's "Fantasies". I had downloaded this album ages ago (shhhh) but never burned it until last night, and the first track is so kickass that the baby and I have listened to it five times already. I even thought about putting it on this list, but that seems premature. It gets an honorable mention, though.

Yes, this is a very rock-heavy list, and Indie rock at that. Sue me, it's what I like. I thought about putting on things from other genres, like "Linus and Lucy" or "Bombs over Baghdad", but that would be disingenuous. Like Cusick putting "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his list.

Couple more honorable mentions go out to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name", which I might even argue is the greatest opening song ever, but I guess I'm over U2, so it doesn't make the cut, and Belle and Sebastian's "Lazy Line Painter Jane", which is brilliant but the opening track to an EP, not an album. It feels weird to not have any Belle and Sebastian songs here, but most of their albums don't really start out at top speed; it's the later tracks that are most memorable. Anyway, the list:

5. "Bittersweet Symphony", The Verve (Urban Hymns). This doesn't really fit the criteria I mentioned above, because it's more a great song that happens to be Track One. Still, it's a great, great song. It's a shame that this was the Verve's only true hit, and that they are often considered a one-hit wonder, and that they didn't see a dime from it.

4. "Writing to Reach You", Travis (The Man Who). My friend Travis bought their first album because he saw them open for somebody (Oasis?) and they had his name. I listened to their first album and thought it was all right, but this one... whoa. This song is just so pretty, and so sad; it may be the perfect Britpop song, and it's definitely the perfect Travis song.

3. "Twin Cinemas", The New Pornographers (Twin Cinemas). This song just kind of explodes out of the speakers. Travis (again) saw them open for Belle & Sebastian, said I would like them, burned me a copy of this cd, and I knew after about five seconds that he was right.

2. "Caring is Creepy", The Shins (Oh! Inverted World). This album was recommended to me (by... uhhhh... Travis... look, we just have similar tastes in music); we got a used copy in at my old record shop, so I popped it on and said "yeah, that's for me". You'll note this song is on the Garden State soundtrack, but is not the one Natalie Portman oh-so irritatingly says will change your life. That song was "New Slang" which is only the song Hillary and I dance to at our wedding. Damn you, Garden State!

1. "Reverence", The Jesus and Mary Chain (Honey's Dead). This is the song I want played at my funeral. It won't be, but it's the song I want played at my funeral.