Unless the event from my last post wasn’t what we thought, how did Riff make these RECAPs?

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized R.E.C.A.P.)

After Zoe was revealed not to be dead, but to be burned to within an inch of her life, I read a theory on TV Tropes that Pete Abrams’ original plan was to outright kill her (as had been foreshadowed for a LONG time), but after fan outcry forced him to back off, he decided to make the fans wish she had been killed.

That theory came to mind upon the newest revelation, that Zoe, though rebuilt, is now a completely empty shell, probably never to be fully “alive” again – to the extent that, unless Abrams pulls a fast one before ending the storyline, it pretty much has the same effect as outright killing her. It takes her out of the story, and it tears Torg and Riff apart over what happened to her.

In fact, this comic almost makes me wonder what the point of not killing Zoe is other than screwing with the audience. Unless Abrams brings her back somehow – and it’s very unlikely he’d find a way to do so that wouldn’t be equivalent to an out-and-out resurrection – he’s achieved exactly the same thing killing her would have, only in a more convoluted way. So what’s the point? Is this a sign Abrams does plan to bring Zoe back at some point?

Maybe my problem is with the screwy science behind how the whole thing would work as described here, even given the science of the medical nanites we’ve already been fed – give her amnesia, yes, make her a completely empty shell, not so much. (It also gets into metaphysical territory over the nature of the soul that I’m pretty sure Abrams is unlikely to get into.) I’m just happy Abrams seems to be wrapping up the storyline and preparing to take Riff back to his own time period, probably with most of his knowledge intact.

And if you’re thinking this is just a way for me to get back to my old post-every-weekday pace… well, you wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. Hey, I need to get back to the modest level of success (which is to say, none) I had in 2009 somehow, and consistent posting is the best way I know to do it…

(Damn, this is a tall comic. I need to type in a lot to prevent it from screwing up the site layout, especially to keep it from interfering with the IWC post from yesterday. Maybe the long title of that post will save it?)

Hey, if I do like Robert A. Howard and post semi-regularly on just the comics I read, I only need to do a new full review once a month or so. If I read as many as he does, that is.

(From Irregular Webcomic: Shakespeare. Click for full-sized star-crossed lovers.)

This comic is not really as impactful as it should be.

Pre-Irregular Crisis, it had been hinted that Ophelia had a thing for Shakespeare (especially during Loren Ipsum’s original story arc), but aside from a bit immediately following the reboot of the universe regarding Ophelia breaking up with her fiance, the only real references to that subplot depended on knowing why Ophelia kept trying to reinforce and push Shakespeare to do his best.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the audience has largely forgotten that Ophelia had a thing for Shakespeare in the first place. Even if they did remember, this probably comes completely out of nowhere, with the only indication that anything like this was coming being Ophelia sending Mercutio out of the room a few comics back. It’s a “where the hell did that come from?” moment instead of a moment of celebration, and actually makes Ophelia look vaguely out of character.

It does still captivate the audience’s attention, but it’s nowhere near as big a moment as it should be, and not all of that is Morgan-Mar’s fault. Watching two LEGO figures make out isn’t even as good as two stick figures.

(And in case you’re wondering, I can write a post about this comic despite it no longer being the current comic by the time it goes up because it should still be the current comic in the Shakespeare theme. You haven’t forgotten about IWC being several comics in one, have you?)

At least she doesn’t need to flash him anymore.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized white lantern ring.)

I’ve been intrigued by Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s development over the past couple years (most of which I missed). I’ll have more to say about it later, but Tim Buckley has apparently decided to back away from the OMG HUGE CHANGES that were inflicted on the comic in 2008 and 2009 and threatened to send it careening headlong into First and Ten Syndrome, and the comic has become downright Penny Arcade-ish in its gag-a-day video game commentaries, right down to often needing to refer to the news post (now posted directly below the comic) to figure out what the heck is going on. (If it weren’t for the site design and art style, this comic could easily be mistaken for a PA comic.)

This, though? This comic is just lazy. It almost doesn’t matter what the setup is, it’s basically an excuse for Tim to throw out that punchline, one that I would argue is already getting tired.

This doesn’t change my opinion that CAD is underrated – looking at some semi-random moments in the recent archive before making this post uncovered a number of laugh-out-loud moments – but I think it does illustrate one of the reasons why it’s so hated. Tim has mostly abandoned his tendency to resort to violence as a surrogate for a punchline (aside from the Players, where it’s the sole reason for their existence), but he doesn’t seem to have completely abandoned his need for a surrogate for a punchline.

Now Websnark’s back too, so it’s 2009 all over again!

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized epiphanies.)

Over two years ago, during my previous webcomic-reviewing existence, I reviewed Sluggy Freelance, an occasion I took more to bash Pete Abrams for his refusal to throw any but the tiniest of bones to new readers of one of the oldest webcomics on the Internet. I decided that Abrams was apparently content to settle for the readers he already had and had no interest in recruiting any new ones to keep the fanbase strong and fresh. Then I wrote:

Sluggy deserves every ounce of praise it gets; I sometimes found myself looking at various points in the archive and reading significant stretches with interest. … And I’m intrigued enough by the current story arc, which promises to be a milestone one, that I’m planning on keeping on reading Sluggy until this arc’s conclusion. But I don’t have much of a reason to keep reading Sluggy beyond that. With my overcrowded schedule, I just don’t have time for another strip that demands an Order of the Stick level of attention, certainly one with so massive an archive, so much of a need to comprehend all of it, and so little help in doing so.

Because of what happened that summer, I never got around to finishing the story arc at the time. However, recently, as I started preparing to start up webcomics posts again, I finally did get around to finishing “bROKEN”.

And then spent the rest of the night reading the remainder of the archive up to the then-present moment.

“bROKEN” ends with a heck of a cliffhanger – the discovery of Zoe’s cursed necklace separated from her body (implying her death, right after Oasis inadvertently led her to realize the sexual tension between her and Torg), and the live Riff turning up in an alternate universe, where he’s promptly shot up in the final panel of the storyline. This put things in such an unbalanced state that I immediately decided to keep reading to see this storyline resolved. Needless to say, it hasn’t – Torg and some friends spent the rest of 2009 and all of 2010 working for an arch-villain as a cover for getting more information on Hereti-Corp and Oasis, and Riff is still stuck in the dystopian, Brave New World-esque alternate universe.

The present storyline has involved Riff and alternate-universe versions of his friends staging a revolution against said dystopia, but it’s really the recent events involving (SPOILER ALERT) Riff getting detailed exposition from the alternate-universe version of himself that really has me riveted, especially given the promise of resolving the storyline it offered. Although it’s clear this isn’t the future of the “main” timeline, the similarities – including those Riff doesn’t know yet – are striking enough that I’ve been waiting with baited breath for Riff (and the comatose-as-far-as-we-know Zoe) to return to the main timeline, and start working to keep it from becoming its own version of 4U City, in more ways than one. Sluggy has me riveted enough that I’d probably keep reading even beyond the tying-up of the last loose ends from “bROKEN”.

So imagine what I felt upon reaching the current strip, when Riff realizes how much like his alternate-universe counterpart he’s really been… only for Alternate!Riff, upset that “our” Riff brought his wife to him despite his pleas, to “reboot” him, putting him right back where he was at the start of the adventure, without even the knowledge gained through the exposition, his quest for redemption seemingly snuffed out before it began. I was silently going “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” That’s a rare feat for a comic; I’m not sure if I’ve even done that for anything that’s happened in Order of the Stick, which I tend to read from a more detached viewpoint. I hold out hope that this turns out to be a psyche-out or something, or Rammer or a remorseful Alternate!Riff re-supplies the exposition, but I’m also fearing the worst.

I should add a caveat: it’s possible I’m caring about this storyline for all the wrong reasons, hoping more for it to just resolve already than feeling anything for the cast, and recent weeks have been rather confusing as Riff and company have been struggling to beat back an outsider attack on the city (as well as with a meddlesome AI). A while back Robert A. “Tangents” Howard wrote of his frustration with the storyline, and it’s possible that if I’d never abandoned my RSS feeds and had to sit through reading it day-by-day for two years I’d feel similarly to how he does, or at this point, like I’d just watched the season finale of The Killing. (That said, I can’t agree with him that this lacks any “emotional potency” as a conclusion, as up until the last row of this strip it seemed to mark some very significant character development for Riff. Also, the Irregular Crisis has been just as slow and I don’t feel the same sense of just-end-it-already, though that slowness may be the result of spreading it across multiple themes.)

I wonder if “bROKEN” marks the start of the sequence that leads to Abrams winding down this comic that has been his livelihood for over a decade. What little we learned about Oasis in that storyline, the maybe-death of Zoe, Torg’s subsequent attempt at revenge, Riff’s motivation when (if?) he returns to the main timeline, all seem to suggest that Abrams is setting up the pieces for the great conflagration where the bleep really starts to hit the fan. It certainly would back up how little he seems to care about new readers. If so, I hope the prize is worth the wait, and that Abrams doesn’t waste too much time getting there.

On Mary Sues and spoony bards

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized make-out session.)

The concept of the Mary Sue used to be so simple.

Way back in the days of yore known as “the 1980s”, when the Web was but a gleam in the eye of a few idealists and, as far as those few people who had even heard of the Internet were concerned, it was Usenet and nothing else, the term “Mary Sue” arose in those fledgling fanfic communities that were springing up even then to describe a certain type of character endemic to such stories, one instantly recognizable the instant you saw it, so long as you weren’t the one who wrote it. She was the flawless, brilliantly unique, perfect character who hijacked the story, turned all the other characters into drooling fanboys, and generally acted out the author’s every fantasy.

Then someone decided to start looking for Mary Sues in actual fiction, not based on any other franchise. After all, why shouldn’t the same idea apply to any kind of fiction? It’s not like being in a fanfic is a requirement of being a Mary Sue, is it?

Wellllll, it didn’t work out that way. For one thing, it turns out that a good part of what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue is related to being in a fanfic. It’s in how the character completely takes over the story, which implies that there is a story to take over, and it’s in how the character hijacks the other characters into fawning admiration for her. If the situation is that way from the start, is there really any “hijacking” going on?

Take that out of the equation, and you really do rob the Mary Sue of a lot of its identity, and you need to create surrogate criteria for characters that have a similar effect. You also run into another problem: until the advent of webcomics, most original fiction had to go through some sort of barrier to entry, meaning that most writers of such tend to be better than writers of fanfic. In fact, the mere fact that they do create a universe of original characters rather than take a set of characters that’s given to them almost automatically puts them a step ahead of most fanfic writers. I’d argue that there are really only two excuses for writing a fanfic: if you’re saying something about the characters and setting themselves, or, much less defensibly, if creating original characters would only lead to a charge of being a rip-off. Even if such writers do create what might be called Mary Sues, they tend to be a bit better at hiding them.

And then you have characters like Ethan of Ctrl+Alt+Del, so commonly accused of Sue-dom, but why? It seems to be mostly because Lucas and Lilah stick with him through thick and thin, which seems to me a pretty weak justification for a charge as serious as Mary Sue-dom. I could see it if Ethan were presented as consistently in the right, or if his “flaws” were, to use TV Tropes’ phrasing, presented as “endearing”, but pre-miscarriage Ethan’s antics seem to be to often be presented as being in the wrong, and that Ethan isn’t always supposed to be presented as the sympathetic character (and those times when he is implausibly successful often aren’t intended to be taken as seriously as the haters do). That Lucas and Lilah continue to stick with him may say more about them than about Ethan. But, of course, what does it say about them, and about how the whole strip is written?

Suddenly you start having a lot of arguments over what does and doesn’t count as a Mary Sue. Does it just have to be a representative of the author, or does it even need to be that?  How much of it needs to be in the flawlessness, or would a flawless character who has a lot of bad s**t happen to him regardless count? How much of it needs to be in being uber-powerful, or would the planet-juggling Silver Age Superman count? How much of it needs to be in how much goes implausibly right for them, or would MacGyver count – or for that matter, a suite of characters who routinely beat the odds but not any one character? How much of it needs to be in hogging the spotlight, or would Harry Potter count?

Or perhaps the definition is just in being a model of perfection? But that opens a whole ‘nother can of worms, because there are a gazillion models of perfection, and in some instances you’re not going to be able to incorporate all of them into a single character, and besides that clearly isn’t why Ethan elicits the accusation. There seems to be a sense that all of the above play some part in defining what a Mary Sue is, but how much and in what proportion is seemingly impossible to pin down.

And then there’s the question of gender, whether to use terms like “Marty Stu” to describe male Mary Sues, or if the term “Mary Sue” really does imply a gender bias that one is unlikely to admit to. Four years ago Robert A. “Tangents” Howard charged the accusation of Mary Sue-dom of sexism, that many accused characters wouldn’t have been called Sues if they were male (to the extent that he felt “Mary Sue” really meant “halfway competent female protagonist”). I intended to write a response, but no sooner did I start my webcomic reviews than Tangents started the long, slow transition to its current state, and by the time it had reached the point that I would have had anything to link to, I was already transitioning away from webcomics posts.

I get the sense that what Howard had hit on was the fact that we hold men and women to different standards of perfection, and specifically, often seem to hold women as inherently more perfect than men. The image of perfection for women is sweet, all-caring, beautiful, all ponies and sparkles – a lot like the fanfic characters that gave rise to the term. A female character who lives up to those ideals is unrealistically perfect; a male one, too girly (and thus inherently flawed, ergo, not a Mary Sue). On the other hand, the image of male perfection is of a badass who mows down anyone who gets in his way. We don’t call characters who live up to those ideals Mary Sues, we make lists of Chuck Norris Facts about them (and even if they started as parody, I sometimes wonder how serious they’ve become).

It does seem like there is a standard by which a male might be called a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, or Gary Stu) that might not necessarily apply to a woman, just as the reverse might be true. Besides Ethan (whose unsympathetic portrayals might be better noticed on a woman), the example I would cite would be Rayne Summers of Least I Could Do. Perhaps Rayne’s most defining characteristic is his status as an utter Casanova who sleeps with women like they’re going out of style. If we were to reverse this situation, with a woman sleeping with men left and right, we wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue, we’d call her a slut, maybe even a whore. Which brings me to Elan of Order of the Stick.

Well, actually, I need to talk briefly about the main OOTS cast’s other nominee for Mary Sue-dom, Belkar, he who, before O-Chul’s display of badassery, was OOTS‘ resident Chuck Norris. Despite being an utter sociopath, Belkar doesn’t show much of any other shortcomings in battle (no pun intended), and besides being a complete badass when not Mark of Justice’d, tends to get all the best lines and one-liners, to the extent of being much of the fandom’s favorite character despite his ostensible role in the comic. He might be the model I would point to for what a truly Sue-ish Ethan would be like. Still, it’s quite clear no one is willing to put up with him except insofar as he can be controlled, and his uneasy truce with the rest of the OOTS seems to form a key plot thread and source of development for the comic. Elan, on the other hand…

Look, I’ve run into at least two people who are utterly sick of Elan’s stupid antics and think they monopolize the strip’s humor quotient and take away from the plot. I’m not talking about that, though it is relevant. I wouldn’t say those antics are the funniest things I’ve ever read, but I wasn’t driven into a rage begging Rich to stop with the stupid-Elan jokes either; I even get a kick out of Elan being even more genre-savvy than the rest of the group. In fact, if Elan had more of those antics I might be more forgiving of him as a character.

What’s gotten to me about Elan is that, in the past, he’s gotten not one, not two, but three women swooning over him, despite (ostensibly) having the IQ of a brick. Now obviously, the stick-figure format doesn’t get across features that might change my opinion, and I’m obviously not the best judge anyway, but taking away the goatee from Nale’s “realistic” police sketch doesn’t leave me with an image I’d call “ruggedly handsome”. But near as I can tell, that’s not really his appeal to the ladies (well, aside from Therkla) anyway, judging by how Haley defends him to her father: “Elan is the best man I’ve ever met. Sure, he’s a little dumb sometimes…But he’s… I don’t know. Pure. Honest. Better than I am, that’s for sure. He makes me a better person just by being around, and I like feeling that way.”

As sickening as it might be to hear Elan described like he’s Tim friggin’ Tebow, Haley isn’t alone; the general consensus among forumites is that Elan is the one genuinely good character in the OOTS, if not the whole cast. Think about that for a minute. Like many writers, Rich Burlew tends towards flawed, morally ambiguous characters; rather than simply go for simplistic fantasy archetypes, Rich tends to give his characters complex, contradictory personalities that make them more interesting as characters. But Elan seems to have avoided this stick (no pun intended), instead becoming a paragon for everything good and sweet (though not being above “seduc[ing] female bad guys“). Is this starting to sound a lot like the fanfic characters that gave rise to the term Mary Sue? What if I told you that, aside from his romantic liasons, while Elan gets on Roy’s nerves, literally every other member of the OOTS leapt to his defense when he was kidnapped?

Elan’s saving graces, the traits that save him from being an overly perfect figure, are supposedly his utter uselessness in combat and the aforementioned stupid antics – at least one of which falls under the “endearing” exception. But the former hasn’t been all that relevant since Elan picked up his level in Dashing Swordsman. As for the latter, they’ve become decidedly inconsistent, ever since Rich saw fit to give Elan more “character development” in the fourth book that amounted to removing one of the last things that kept him flawed. Elan spent the fourth book thrust into the position of leading half the team, with V going crazy and Durkon more prone to defer, and went through his own plot arc with his involvement with Therkla that may have put him through the wringer in the short term, but led him to “mature” coming out of it, giving him some experience of the “real” world that dragged him a little ways out of stupidity, only that was one of the few things keeping him interesting. (While I’m on the subject, one of my issues with the fourth book is the way, with the main plot stalled, Elan so stole the spotlight of his half of the OOTS with a plot that ultimately went nowhere that he completely overshadowed the real plot development of that half, V’s descent into madness.) Elan has returned to acting the goof in this book, sometimes, but I wonder if that’s Rich realizing his mistake on some level and trying too hard to overcompensate, to the extent that it now seems out of his present character.

But with all that, what really drove me to write this post is the present update (and my thankfulness that Rich’s recent slow update schedule allows me to write this post on it). I’ll admit, this is one of the more entertaining strips of the book and certainly one of the most entertaining strips of the Linear Guild confrontation thus far, but damn if it doesn’t also underscore how Elan’s being written these days. Because this strip hints that Elan may have just seduced Sabine. Let me repeat that. Elan just seduced a friggin’ succubus. One whose present love interest is his own evil twin who’s out to kill him. I mean, I’m running out of things to say about all of this. What’s next, is Elan going to wrap up the entire plot of the strip all by himself?

I will say that this sort of mapping of traits from an archetype to a particular character is certainly an inexact science – as I indicated above, the whole point is how uncertain the concept of a Mary Sue has gotten – and none of the above has taken away too much from my enjoyment of the strip, or even, at times, Elan’s antics. But it has definitely gotten on my nerves and stuck in my craw for some time. This marks three straight books with a subplot centered on Elan (and the second book is the only one that really lacks it), and this one is going on for nearly a hundred strips and over a year real-time, despite apparently being of tangential relevance to the hunt for the Gates and despite numerous other plot hooks that I would ordinarily think would be resolved in this book. Elan hasn’t gotten to the point of overshadowing Roy as the main character of the OOTS… but this book is making me wonder.

Let the sports television wars begin!

Over the last few months, the first shots have been fired in a multi-million-dollar war for control over the sports television landscape.

For the past decade, if not the past two decades, ESPN has controlled this ground, at least on the cable side, leveraging its strong portfolio of rights across multiple sports to build the biggest brand in cable television. Sports is one of the few pieces of programming that attracts the most valuable viewers, and ESPN has used it to become the most profitable division of the Walt Disney Company and one of the most popular, well-known, and notorious brands in America, while extending its reach around the world. And ESPN’s dominance has meant that most sports need to play by ESPN’s rules or risk irrelevance.

Now others are eyeing ESPN’s turf. In fact, four of the other five major media companies have at least partially positioned themselves for their own piece of ESPN’s riches. All had some stake in the game before, but all have also attempted to set themselves up to become much more serious at the sports rights game, and ESPN only raised the stakes when it broached a whole new world in what’s possible on cable when it snagged the rights to the BCS. Comcast fired the first salvo by acquiring NBC Universal, expressing its intent to turn NBC Sports into an entity on par with ESPN. Others have made their own moves to keep up, with Fox expressing its intent to bring more sports back to FX and CBS rebranding the CBS College Sports Network to drop the “College”. Billions of dollars are at stake, and the major media companies want a piece of the action.

Playing this game comes at a price, and increased competition will mean increased rights fees, which is very bad news for sports on broadcast television – cable networks collect money from subscriber fees in addition to advertising, which broadcast hasn’t really branched into, “retransmission consent” fees collected by individual stations notwithstanding – and very good news for sports leagues and conferences. Yet it’s very possible they’ll play a significant portion of the game with none of the suitors, instead choosing to play it with themselves. Over the last decade, the league-owned network has become all the rage. All four traditional major professional leagues have their own networks, as well as two college conferences (with a third soon to join them), and while it’s common for such networks to be run or launched by the media companies (NBA TV is run by Turner, for example, and the Big Ten Network is run by Fox), it’s probably more the norm for leagues to keep their networks to themselves, as with the NFL Network.

There are five contenders to the sports programming prizes, each seeking to obtain as many of them as they can, with the ever-present specter that the leagues granting the prizes may choose none of them and keep them to themselves.

As the incumbent ruler of the roost, ESPN remains the best positioned of the bunch, but time will tell if it can keep its advantage. ESPN has just about everything the other contenders could ask for. “The ESPN family of networks” has no equal among the other contenders, and the jokes about “The Ocho” become less funny every day. ESPN boasts not one but two full-time sports networks seen by the vast majority of the country (the only ones of their kind), including what is for most the sports highlight show, plus a broadcast outlet (available in a pinch even if they sometimes seem to want to kill sports there), a college sports network (with rights most competitors would die for), a sports news network (also the only one of its kind), a Spanish-language network, a 3D network (also the only one of its kind, although other networks have produced 3D broadcasts), and just for good measure, a classic-sports network. Throw in a video-streaming service (further advanced than any other), a radio network, a network for mobile devices, heavy investment in international rights, and a virtual monopoly on college-sports syndication, and ESPN is basically a one-stop shop for anything a league could need.

But now Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal has sent the message that they intend to challenge ESPN for the throne. Certainly they seem to be the next-best positioned, being the only other contender with anything resembling the all-sports network ESPN represents, bringing two with the soon-to-be-rebranded Versus and Universal Sports, not to mention the sport-specific Golf Channel (whose brand is already appearing on golf broadcasts on NBC). The merger coupled all of this with a broadcast presence on NBC, and while they don’t have a Spanish-language sport-specific network, they do have a Spanish-language outlet with Telemundo and mun2. Comcast also has something ESPN doesn’t: a collection of regional sports networks, which builds a strong brand for them in local markets. They also benefit from synergy with their cable operations, something no other contender can boast.

But Versus still has a long way to go before they have the quality of sports contracts ESPN has, NBCSports.com is well behind the other contenders online, NBC itself continues to struggle as a broadcast network, the closest thing they have to a college-sports network is the mtn., and the recent departure of Dick Ebersol cripples Comcast’s ability to pick up strong sports rights without one of the most respected names in sports broadcasting.

Potentially the wild card in this battle is Fox, the only other contender with a strong presence on both broadcast and cable. Fox is also the only other contender with its own collection of regional sports networks, which remains a bigger brand than Comcast’s, as well as FX, Speed, Fox Soccer Channel, the Big Ten Network, and Fox College Sports, all of which Fox has taken steps to unify under the Fox Sports brand as of late. Fox doesn’t have a sport-specific network other than their past efforts to make one out of FSN, but they do match ESPN note-for-note in various areas that other competitors don’t: a sports-specific Spanish-language network, a nightly highlights show on FSN, a radio network (which, unlike ESPN Radio, lacks any rights and might not be pursuing any), and being ESPN’s main competitor for international rights. All this makes Fox almost as well-positioned to challenge ESPN as Comcast is.

Turner is the next-best positioned; in fact, with NASCAR, MLB, NCAA Tournament, and the crown jewel, NBA rights, Turner has the best existing presence on cable of any contender except ESPN, and that has led to the development of some of the better sports streaming capabilities. Already stocked with sports on TBS and TNT, Turner’s taking of a share of the NCAA Tournament led to an expansion of sports onto truTV, and that appears to have gotten the idea into their minds of adding more sports onto that network; they were reportedly considering putting the NHL on that network. But Turner’s big Achilles heel is its lack of any sort of broadcast presence; I doubt the CW, which parent company Time-Warner is a partner in, will ever find sports to be in line with its target audience. (Which is too bad, because sports would be the best way for the CW to truly become a fifth major broadcast network.)

The remaining broadcast network is CBS, but CBS doesn’t have much other than its own broadcast network. They may be looking to change that: CBS took what was once ESPNU’s truest competitor, the CBS College Sports network, and dropped the “College” from its name, making it simply CBS Sports Network. But CBS Sports still has nowhere near the distribution of even Versus or ESPNU, and it’s doubtful that CBS would be able to snare any truly valuable rights for the network. CBS also doesn’t have much of anything else either; they don’t even hold a stake in the Westwood One radio network anymore.

But while CBS brings a strong broadcast presence (at this point, maybe the strongest broadcast brand) but has no presence on cable, Turner has one of the strongest presences on cable, but nothing on broadcast. It’s no surprise that the two companies, already partners on the CW, make natural partners for sports as well, each complementing the other with their strengths, as was demonstrated most readily when they joined forces to cover the NCAA Tournament. For big events that require both a broadcast and a cable presence, the combined forces of CBS and Turner can present a formidable force where neither would even be a contender individually.

These contenders have already started facing off over some significant sports rights, and the battles have already taken on some interesting dimensions, with ESPN picking up surprisingly few wins. Fox fired the first salvo when it picked up cable rights to the Big 12, putting games on FSN and FX for the next 13 years. Things got interesting when ESPN and Fox tag-teamed on rights to the Pac-12, apparently in part to keep Comcast from establishing a foothold in the market. This belatedly gives Fox the beachhead they were seeking in college sports during their time controlling the BCS contract. Comcast then took control by renewing NBC’s and Versus’ existing NHL rights.

However, the big prize was the much-delayed race between Fox, ESPN and Comcast for the rights to the Olympic games, America’s second-most important property. Despite conventional wisdom holding that the loss of Ebersol would hurt Comcast most in Olympic negotiations, on Tuesday NBC kept control over the Olympics through 2020 by paying nearly twice as much as the competitors. The outcome was a bit of a surprise, both that ESPN didn’t pay more after blowing a lot of smoke about making a play for the Games, and that NBC didn’t pay less, especially after losing substantial sums on the most recent contract, speculated to be among the reasons for Ebersol’s departure (in the end, this round wound up being a replay of the last, Ebersol-led bid), and blowing a lot of smoke about fiscal responsibility.

But Comcast apparently decided that a four-Games bid would ultimately cost less for them, and hopes to make more money in part by spreading the wealth to its cable networks, including Versus. However, unlike a lot of “professional” analysts I’ve read, I’m not convinced a two-week event every two years is going to give Versus the push to achieve ESPN-like legitimacy or carriage fees. NBC did indicate a commitment to showing more events live, including all of them by Rio 2016, but it’s possible many of them will only be available online. The biggest downside? ESPN continues to be shut out of the two events that would most take advantage of their family of networks, the NCAA Tournament and the Olympics. The former in particular would have been a great fit given ESPN’s existing commitment to college basketball.

Where will the next battles be? There will certainly be some interest in the Big East, but the next truly big showdown will be over Major League Baseball, whose current contract ends in 2013. That should be as entertaining and gripping as the battles we’ve already seen – they all should. And I’ll be getting the popcorn ready to keep an eye on all of them.

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The most pivotal week in the history of webcomics

I’m slowly working my way back to doing regular webcomic reviews – look for some down the pike, starting with a review of Comixtalk, once I finish my studies for the quarter – and not a moment too soon. We’re in a heady period for webcomics, a turning point in their development. This has been an eventful week.

First was “Dating-Guy-gate”, when Least I Could Do‘s Ryan Sohmer accused Canadian network Teletoon of ripping off his concept for another series. The facts of the matter are very complicated and the whole thing has a good chance of going to court, but the upshot of the whole affair was a Kickstarter effort to film a LICD pilot (I’m incredulous that Randy Milholland had to set it up for him because Kickstarter is limited to Americans for some reason), which proved wildly successful. This could be a momentous moment for webcomics, and Sohmer is in a uniquely qualified position to lead the charge. While I have a feeling that, once I finally get around to reviewing it, I will absolutely loathe LICD for its alleged sexism and allegedly Mary-Sue-ish main character, there are few webcomics I can think of that are better suited for translation to television, or any other medium.

Most other gag-a-day webcomics are either too decentralized to support even the sort of plot for a 30-minute show (Penny Arcade, xkcd), or would have trouble appealing to even a broad enough audience for a fairly focused cable network, especially a problem with video game comics (as with previous efforts of Sohmer’s Blind Ferret Entertainment, PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del). Least I Could Do is one of the few popular gag-a-day webcomics with broad enough subject matter to actually attract the interest of TV networks. In fact, I don’t know how much Sohmer would be considering American outfits, but I could easily see LICD fitting right in alongside the animated comedies on Fox’s Sunday night lineup – on an American broadcast network, alongside such titans as The Simpsons and Family Guy. If LICD could pull that off, it would become, by far, the most famous webcomic in the world overnight.

(Translating a story webcomic to the big screen poses similar challenges. Most story webcomics, especially former gag comics that underwent Cerebus syndrome, have an odd mix of humor and seriousness that would be difficult to market or portray on the big screen. Even a comic as story-focused as Order of the Stick would be difficult to translate, but even Girl Genius has an odd enough balance to give Hollywood execs pause. The equivalent to LICD in the story webcomic community, from the perspective of how easy it would be to translate, would probably be Gunnerkrigg Court – a story that has drawn more than a few comparisons to Harry Potter. But as we’ll see, there is another way to turn a webcomic into a movie…)

Next came DC’s announcement of digital day-and-date distribution for its revamped universe, which has led more than a few retailers to cry doom. As well they should; DC makes up about a third of the comic book market and is probably responsible for much more than that coming through their doors. That many are calling this move inevitable does not make it any less of a stake in the heart of the direct market, or any less one of the bigger ones. We’re likely to see many more would-be comic book creators make the move to graphic novels and webcomics.

Finally came what could be the biggest news of all: One of Penny Arcade‘s old spinoff concepts has been optioned by Paramount to be made into a feature film. Forget a show that could have languished in obscurity on a Canadian cable channel: this could see millions of Americans flock to movie theatres and make Gabe and Tycho millions of dollars, not to mention (as with the LICD animated series) pave the path for more webcomics to see the silver screen.

And that’s before we get to the detente between print cartoonists and webcartoonists at this year’s National Cartoonist Society Reuben awards.

These are baby steps: even if LICD gets made into a series it could be on some obscure or Canadian-only channel, this isn’t Penny Arcade itself but an idea they threw out there once, and both are far, far away from actually being made. But I get the sense that this is a turning point, a milestone week, in the history of webcomics. If even one of these projects get made it gives webcomics by far their broadest exposure they have ever had, and between that and DC’s colonization of the digital market could lead to a huge influx of new people into webcomics. We may look back on this past week as the one that webcomics started to bloom, started to move out of their extended adolescence and into the full-blown adulthood (or, if you’re more like Bengo, out of childhood and into adolescence) that would confer upon it the respect and corpus of literature due any other medium.

What DC Comics’ revamp really means

This may be a two-part post, though the second part probably won’t be under the “webcomics” heading. If you’re not familiar with comics history, get a crash course before continuing with Part II of “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”.

This September, DC will effectively reboot its entire universe (well, not really – more on that in a bit), launching 52 #1 issues to, presumably, replace their existing line of titles with a more “modern” DC Universe. DC previously rebooted its continuity in 1985-6’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, and performed “soft reboots” (performing various retcons without wholesale junking what came before) on roughly 10-year intervals thereafter, in 1994’s Zero Hour and 2005-6’s Infinite Crisis. (The in-story justification for this reboot appears to be the ongoing Flashpoint event.) Perhaps more importantly for the general comics industry, they will also release their comics through digital platforms on the same day they come out in comic book stores.

Back in 2009 in my “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series, I predicted that eventually, the old monthly comic format would fade away, as webcomics and graphic novels replaced newspaper comic strips and monthly comic books. Noting that Diamond had recently induced a contraction of the market and that further contraction to exclude almost all companies other than Marvel and DC was looking very possible, I proclaimed that the direct market existed solely for the purposes of DC and Marvel, and suggested that most of the smaller comic creators would abandon the direct market in favor of graphic novels in bookstores and webcomics. That DC itself is reinventing the company and embracing the web as a parallel revenue stream is a sign even they may be bailing, or preparing to bail, on the direct market. Presumably, they figure that even more than themselves, the direct market really exists primarily to serve Marvel and Marvel alone, who has had a substantial lead over DC for virtually the entire time since the 1960s.

Or at least, it would… if they weren’t keeping the existing monthly comic paradigm.

The monthly 22-page comic is a relic of the days when comics were published on newsstands, when they were magazines that happened to have comics in them. As the idealists of the time who started futzing around with the concept of the “graphic novel” keenly realized, it became obsolete with the rise of the direct market in the 1970s; Marvel and DC continued publishing them mostly out of inertia, while smaller publishers that took advantage of the direct market published monthly comics because Marvel and DC did (and because they were cheaper and, for a time, less exotic than graphic novels). The only reason the comic book industry accepts that comics should be published in 22-page chunks every month is that that’s the way it’s always been done. If the direct market perishes, it won’t continue to be the way it’s done – even when bookstores stock monthly comics, it’s always segregated from their other magazines on spinner racks, reducing the point of pretending to be magazines.

By keeping one foot in the direct market, DC is shutting themselves out of the creative benefits of a move to digital distribution, at an opportune time to do so, coinciding with the reinvention of their universe. By committing to the monthly 22-page comic format, DC has shut themselves out of using the infinite canvas, or even adopting the webcomic model. Perhaps DC is understandably wary of their ability to make money out of the web alone, or whether their existing audience would follow them. But what’s even more baffling than that DC would go the digital route but not take advantage of its possibilities, is that they aren’t taking advantage of this reinvention to move towards the other comic distribution mechanism of the future, the graphic novel model.

Comic books have come a long way from the Silver Age when an entire story could be told in one issue, often leaving room for one or two more stories besides; “decompression” has become the norm, with most stories taking 4-8 issues to complete, and with the greater depth that most comics creators have started looking for, 22 pages has started looking increasingly cramped for an entire story with beginning, middle, and end. This has only furthered the obsolescence of the 22-page monthly comic, so DC could go far by removing the 22-page constraint from their writers and allow them to go as hog-wild as they wish on self-contained stories released less frequently (perhaps two or three times a year) in graphic novel form. (Xaviar Xerexes wonders at the end of this post whether DC is missing an opportunity by not making these comics for kids again, which at least would justify the length as well as the inherent silliness of the whole concept of superheroes. DC’s more “fantastic” heroes haven’t meshed well with the serious stories told with them.)

That DC isn’t doing any of this makes me wonder what the point of this revamp is – it’s worth noting that in 2009, DC Comics was restructured into DC Entertainment to strengthen the connection between comics and other media, making me wonder if the ultimate impetus for this move is to create new properties for media exploitation and reinvent existing properties to be more exploitable. It’s even more baffling that they would keep a foot in the direct market when no one is going to walk into a comic book store unless they’re already a fan of superhero comic books, and even distributing over digital channels isn’t going to be anywhere near as effective at drawing in new “readers” as said exploitation in other media, as Marvel is doing with its line of movies, which are slowly building towards an eventual Avengers movie. Yet by completely relaunching its existing universe, DC risks alienating their existing direct market audience and throwing out one of their biggest assets – as exemplified in the likely end of four or five titles that can claim their legacy and numbering back to the Golden Age.

While continuity can be a barrier to entry to a story, it can also be a tremendous asset, and DC has leveraged its continuity like no other, creating a sense of legacy around their characters. Several characters that were teenagers in the Silver Age have grown into their own identities as adult heroes, with Wally West, the former Kid Flash, even taking his mentor’s mantle as the Flash when his mentor died during Crisis on Infinite Earths. The most famous of these might be Dick Grayson, the former Robin, taking the identity of Nightwing (immortalized on screen during the later run of the 90s Batman animated series) and, since his own mentor’s death a couple years ago, himself taking the mantle of Batman.

However, DC’s approach to continuity and the passage of time has been rather half-assed (how long has present Robin Tim Drake been in high school again? With all these former teenage sidekicks taking adult identities as early as the 80s, shouldn’t the “original generation” of heroes be in their 40s by now?) – they have an interest in keeping the “iconic” versions of their characters, and although the monthly pace of comic books allows much less time to take place than the actual time between issues, the passage of time can’t be held off indefinitely, and for various reasons DC has frittered away a lot of that time.

The reasons for such conservativism are arguably outweighed by the story possibilities it holds back – of the only three characters for whom it really matters all that much (of their next three iconic franchises, two have had at least three different people hold each of their mantles), two, Superman and Wonder Woman, have been portrayed as effectively immortal (although admittedly Lois Lane is another matter), and Batman has, as mentioned, already been killed off and replaced (a move, note, that has been largely critically acclaimed by superhero comic fans, many of them clamoring for Bruce to never come back, despite the seeming inevitability of returns from the dead in comics). But if DC is understandably committed to the iconic versions of their characters, it seems a reasonable compromise is to start a brand-new universe aimed at new readers alongside the existing DC universe, which is then allowed to grow and change dynamically.

Marvel went in this direction with the 2000 launch of the so-called “Ultimate” universe – while wildly successful, there’s evidence a lot of its fans came from existing comics fandom, and the Ultimate universe quickly became as continuity-choked as the mainstream Marvel universe. Still, what’s to stop DC from launching their own “Digital” universe? In fact, DC’s four Golden Age-dated titles are split two apiece between Superman and Batman, and since the end of multiple stories in a single issue DC has tried valiantly to justify the existence of two separate titles. What’s to stop them from putting the “new” Superman in Superman and the existing Superman in Action Comics, or the “new” Batman in Detective Comics and the existing Batman in Batman, and splitting the rest of their line between their universes?

DC has attempted to clarify that this is “not a reboot“, implying that this new status quo will be overlaid on top of the existing DC universe, but they’ve also released material suggesting even the most iconic characters will be revised, made younger, and given new costumes, leading me to ask: why half-ass it? If you’re going to go this far to sweep aside the shackles of continuity, why not cut them off entirely? I personally will watch at least the start of this new initiative with interest, to see what new twists DC puts on their old characters as well as to watch this revolution unfold, and I intend to devote a future post to my own ideas for reinventing DC’s stable, but the way DC is going about all of this, I can’t help but think it’ll bite them in the ass.