A happier important notice on the future of Da Blog

You may or may not have noticed that, contrary to what I’ve said in the past, and this past week aside, posting has picked up substantially recently, especially where webcomic posts are concerned. You may have also noticed that some of these posts have gone up at rather… interesting hours.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is something I hinted at a while back: after years of my struggling to find an Internet connection, my mom finally got talked (not by me) into adding an internet connection for our house. This has made it far easier to update Da Blog, but considering what I said a while back about refocusing on school work, it’s not sufficient to explain this new focus.

The other reason I hinted at in my blog-day post. Having essentially unlimited access to the internet has illuminated to me just how addicted to the Internet I’ve become, and how far beyond Da Blog that addiction stretches. Given the opportunity, I can regularly surf the ‘Net late into the night, consequences be damned. I’d already passed only one out of two classes in each of the preceding two quarters, despite my commitment to suspend work on Da Blog and focus on schoolwork. But last quarter, despite the motivation of the Understanding the News series, you may have noticed I only put out one post in that series (other than the introductory post I linked to above). I wound up passing neither class that quarter. When it comes to passing classes again, it’s time for Plan B.

I realized that the last time I was regularly passing two classes was when I was regularly working on Da Blog, on webcomic posts and everything of that like. I theorized that having to spend a substantial portion of every weekday catching up on RSS feeds and working on posts (and Sandsday) provided a necessary structure and constraint on my addiction that allowed me to focus the rest of my time on more productive pursuits. (Note that there’s another theory here: recently, more and more of the classes I take require me to actually do the readings assigned, rather than just pick out a few important assignments and focus on those.)

So to rebuild my work ethic, I’m spending this summer focusing on fully catching up on my RSS feeds (right now I have only the feeds that most clog my reader to go, plus Darths and Droids), working on webcomics posts and future webcomics, as well as other big plans for Da Blog and my future. I’m hoping I can build enough momentum from working on those projects that when school starts in the fall I can shift gears and actually get work done without having other distractions. I still expect posting to decline precipitously, especially in fall, when football usually dominates Da Blog. And honestly, even this plan hasn’t been working very well, with two of my planned projects (in my opinion, the two most important) not having had any time spent on them at all with August about to start. Blame for that can largely be laid at the feet of a more personal project I’ve been working on, one which I hope will provide a shorter “last resort” alternative to Internet fun when the fall starts.

Now that that’s out of the way, now hear this… there will be at least two major site upheavals over the course of this year.

The first will be sometime in the next few weeks, and will involve finally upgrading WordPress to the 3.x series, putting in the forum, fixing the problems with the Sandsday archive, and probably completely overhauling the relationship between the Sports and Webcomics subsites and the main site. (This last I don’t want to do, but the plugin that creates the Sports and Webcomics subsites stopped updating IN THE MIDDLE OF UPDATING FOR 3.0, so it may be necessary.) This revamp will also allow me to start a brand new webcomic, something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to recently.

The second will be a more minor update over the course of late September through early December, as I take a web design class, and may involve next to nothing at all. While I like the general layout of the site and the basic principles behind its look, I’m not blind to the fact that it has some potential problems (the “how do you like my site” poll that came with the WP-Polls plugin didn’t come out with the best results), although some of the problems are things I’ve been meaning to change from the beginning, and it goes just enough against the WordPress standard I’m kind of dreading how on Earth I’m going to get the forum to work (one reason I didn’t start it last time I tried was because I just gave up trying to get it to work), so I’d like to optimize the site and identify those problems and fix them.

Between these upheavals and several new projects I hope to unveil over the next few months, it’s a bold new era in Da Blog’s history. Here’s hoping it all works out for the best.

I will not be Robert A. Howard. I will not be Robert A. Howard. I will not be Robert A. Howard.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized pocket lightsabers.)

Okay, forget what I said in the last few paragraphs of my Ctrl+Alt+Del post earlier this week. While this feels awfully short for a CAD storyline (though I suspect it will continue as a strictly KOTOR-centric manner), for the moment it looks for all the world like Buckley, after briefly teasing actual conflict between Ethan and his friends, has swiftly swept away all hard feelings with a perfunctory apology and settled all differences as fast as possible, treating this as no more than a momentary speed bump. This isn’t quite on the level with Lilah dumping Christian out of the blue, but it is qualitatively similar.

Honestly, I’m getting increasingly exasperated with Ctrl+Alt+Del. Despite the interest in this storyline I espoused in my last post, I found myself dreading reading Friday’s comic – perhaps because I had read Wednesday’s comic and knew something like this was a possibility, perhaps because interest in the storyline couldn’t overcome the reticence to invest I mentioned in my last post. But beyond that, while I continue to hold that Buckley’s art has improved over time, I think I’d actually prefer a little “B^U” compared to the ugly faces made by Lilah in the second and third panels and Ethan in the last one.

I wonder if exasperation with Ethan’s plot immunity is worsened by having to read the comics one at a time, and thus actually feeling any suspense Buckley builds up. I didn’t feel Ethan was particularly Sue-ish when I was reading my original archive binge back in 2008, but this little trick, while not as bad as the Christian incident, I think actually gave me purer feelings of anger and sadness, like I was more legitimately screwed by this resolution than that one – my reaction to that resolution was partly motivated by what others thought of CAD, while my reaction to this one is more relevant to my own feelings. Perhaps backing this up is the account of the Webcomic Overlook that CAD was actually reasonably popular, even among Internet opinion-mongers, back in the early to middle part of the last decade.

On the other hand, I wonder if I’ve changed as well – if I require a story of Order of the Stick-level caliber to get me invested in it. I was rather quick to dump Sluggy Freelance from my RSS reader when the new story arc started, and I may have a general frustration from having to get involved in a story. The flip side of that is that I may be a little more forgiving of humor comics this time around than in my previous go-around (I’ve already said some words of praise towards xkcd in that vein). I may know for certain after completing my Darths and Droids archive binge.

Though I have added a new story comic to my RSS reader, even if only taking Sluggy‘s place. More on that later.

I’ve quit Sluggy Freelance. Have I found a temporary replacement? (Of course not, with OOTS back up and running.)

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized creamy corn niblets.)

Before I dropped all my RSS feeds two years ago, I was reading Ctrl+Alt+Del largely wondering where Tim Buckley was going with the darker turn the comic had taken with the miscarriage. I was looking to see whether the comic would go for the good kind of drama, maybe even address the points people had raised against the comic in years past, or simply send the comic careening headlong into First and Ten Syndrome. The storyline at the end of 2008, which inspired the creation of the Angst-O-Meter, looked for all the world like the latter until its infuriating ending; the storyline where Ethan takes over Gamehaven was looking like the former.

When I stopped reading CAD, it was launching into a storyline where Ethan decides to make a mate for Zeke, and my last post before my “vacation” where I commented on CAD was a parenthetical statement inside my webcomic-review-one-year-anniversary post (and as such, not tagged as a CAD post when we moved to the new site) where I groaned at the unoriginality of both the plot itself and the notion that Zeke owed his sentience to some sort of mysterious X-factor that conveniently forced him to be forever one-of-a-kind.

Despite this, Ethan managed to make a working she-robot anyway. Rather, it turns out that Zeke’s X-factor (insert Simon Cowell joke here) didn’t give him sentience, it gave him a conscience (or rather, stable sentience, according to a later retcon). Despite all her code allegedly being downloaded directly from Zeke, Embla has much less sympathy for any humans, and much fewer misgivings about carrying out Zeke’s old plans to take over the world, making Zeke wonder whether prolonged contact with humans has warped and softened him in some way. To me, this didn’t make any sense; if all of Embla’s code is a carbon-copy of Zeke’s, she shouldn’t be any different from Zeke at the time of her creation, and she should inherit any empathy for humans Zeke might have (and his stability of sentience, for that matter). And if she only inherited Zeke’s base code, why would Ethan (or Microsoft, considering his X-Box origins) write destroy-all-humans code in there? (Of course, that just gets into the question of how Ethan was able to make Zeke in the first place…)

Between this, Lilah’s reaction to Embla’s construction, and Zeke letting slip about Ethan’s elopement to Lucas (despite that being what he blackmailed Ethan into making Embla in the first place), this storyline looked like another swing towards First and Ten Syndrome, to the extent that Ethan spends the latter part of the storyline fighting off the temptation to drink. Ethan manages to patch things up with Lilah, but Zeke elects to work out his issues by leaving with Embla, cueing Ethan’s inevitable drunken stupor. Between Zeke’s angst in this storyline and its conclusion, I’d have probably brought back the Angst-O-Meter during its progression, and it might have approached it-looks-like-Lilah-ran-off-with-Christian levels at the conclusion. Had you told me then what the next year-and-a-half-plus of CAD would look like, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The storylines we’ve seen since then have been: the sham wedding, which is a platform for Ethan to get involved with his brother’s dealings with the Hawaiian mafia (I am not making that up); a storyline where Ethan comes up with an achievement system for the store and has to deal with one persistent customer’s attempts to game the system; the third “Ethan McManus, Space Archaeologist” storyline; the return of Zeke, rather anticlimactically with an Embla whose unstable sentience finally caught up with her; a short storyline involving Ethan having to make a new role-playing game terrain; and perhaps most tellingly, a storyline where Ethan gives Zeke a new body and takes him to a movie, where he starts playing video games on the big screen, forcing everyone to make a daring escape where Ethan ends up having to go to the emergency room.

Why yes, that last one does sound a lot like a story Buckley might have done in 2005, why do you ask?

If you had to construct a myth arc out of the events that have taken place in CAD since the miscarriage, after the drama of Christian’s attempt to take Lilah back and Zeke running off with his mate, the entirety of its progress in a year and a half, not counting the sham wedding, has been a retreat from some of those events with Zeke returning. What’s more, I’ve skipped the Winter-een-mas storylines, which returned to the main comic, suggesting its 2009 exile to the Sillies was, contrary to what I thought at the time, a one-time deal. It looks like the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post is looking like neither. Rather, Tim is retreating to the state of the comic prior to the miscarriage, except with Ethan running Gamehaven, evidently with no ill effects (aside from his paranoia in the achievement storyline). Indeed, Kate – whose rocky relationship with Lucas was a big subplot during Ethan’s issues with Christian – has completely disappeared with no explanation I can recall.

It begs the question: why did Tim make the comic so grimdark, with vague statements implying the miscarriage was just the beginning, only to pull back and turn the comic back into the fun-loving place it always was? Did Tim start seeing people express frustration with the direction the comic was going, or leaving it in droves, and decide to hit the brakes, realizing that a comic that had already earned enemies out of half the Internet had been alienating the other half since the miscarriage? On the flip side, does the fact that very little has changed for Ethan from his year of angst, other than running a game store, prove CAD‘s haters right, that the miscarriage was just a way for Ethan to skate the responsibility of raising a child, and that Ethan will never, ever, change in any conceivable way?

I do think Tim has gotten better, and aside from his retreats in his storylines, has made some effort to address the complaints the haters have; as I mentioned in my last post, his video-game commentaries have become almost Penny Arcade-esque, with correctly identified punchlines, near as I can tell (though admittedly, not all of them have necessarily been fantastic). And while the “Ethan the Henpecked Husband” jokes have gotten very tiring, they have hinted that not everything goes right for Ethan all the time (which I would argue was the case even before the miscarriage). And yet… when we started getting several consecutive strips of Lilah tormenting Ethan with her ability to play the Knights of the Old Republic beta, I found myself actually dreading the prospect of another storyline, not so much for the potential content, but just for the need to commit myself to keeping track of everything that was going on and getting invested in the storyline’s events. Considering I read CAD primarily for the storylines, not being much of a gamer, I was fully prepared to announce my departure from CAD despite its aversion of First and Ten Syndrome… until Wednesday’s comic.

While I was rather underwhelmed by Lilah’s specific revelation – Ethan once refused to let her play the Star Wars Galaxies beta – I have to say I am intrigued by the general direction Tim is going with this storyline. One of the biggest sources for the accusation of Mary Sue-dom against Ethan, aside from his leadership of a Church of Gaming and creation of Winter-een-mas, has been Lilah and Lucas’ willingness to stick with him through thick and thin, no matter how many scrapes of his own making he gets into. With both Lilah and Lucas looking like they’re bringing the chickens home to roost, it’s looking like Ethan may finally be forced to face the music. After a year and a half, Tim may have finally swung the pendulum back to the good kind of drama.

Now, if, as I fear may be likely, the storyline ends with everything being restored to normal with no character development for anyone, Lilah and Lucas back to blindly defending Ethan, and Ethan every bit as much of an asshole as before, that may be enough to turn even me off Ctrl+Alt+Del. But if this storyline ends up having lasting consequences, it could serve as a testament to why I keep defending CAD, and to how complex Buckley can really be beneath his occasional belligerence. Expect me to continue posting on this storyline over the next few weeks.

I’m finding myself checking Twitter before Google Reader these days, just in case Eric posted on OOTS and I’d be spoiled.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized HULK SMASH!)

The Order of the Stick manages to do quite a bit with stick figures, but that’s not to say the format doesn’t have its limitations, and one of them is making close-in melee combat properly dramatic. That’s not to say OOTS hasn’t done this well, or that it’s not simply the fault of the comic medium as opposed to the art style (which forces the fight to be portrayed as a series of static images without sound), but even at its best OOTS swordfights can look like a bunch of people waving swords at each other, which can make even the most beloved strips look strangely static. OOTS‘ best fight scenes tend to involve ranged combat, whether arrows or magic.

The current gladiatorial sequence has illustrated this well, with the most dramatic strip to be set in the arena being one revolving around the lack of combat, and the fight between Roy and Thog looking, to this point, like the two combatants just waving their swords at each other while bantering, to the point where I’m not sure whether there was any actual fighting going on, rather than a standoff.

That is, until this strip. After going into full-on RAGE mode in the previous strip, Thog ditches the swords, and instead just starts throwing Roy all over the place, and the way it is portrayed is simply exquisite, with virtually no words (a rarity for OOTS these days) and lots of close-ups and medium shots. We can feel Roy as he’s thrown around, feel the tension in every blow Thog puts on him. The panels almost seem to come alive before our eyes.

Of  course, it may be that this strip can have this effect precisely because it drops the swords and can go straight into the more inherently active modes of fists and body-flailing. Still, it feels like this is what we came to see when we learned we’d be getting a gladiatorial plot – something more out of a movie than what we’d been getting previously – and it helps add to the dramatic tension at the end of the strip, when not even surrendering can quell Thog’s rage enough to stop Roy from getting hit with a piece of masonry, leaving us all in suspense at Roy’s fate (not that Rich will kill him again so soon after bringing him back, of course… right?).

(Yes, this is an entire month since my last OOTS post, and yet it’s only two comics later. Just be glad Rich is finally at the drawing board again.)

I promise I’m not going to turn this into “TV Tropes: The Blog”. As interesting as that would be.

(From Irregular Webcomic: Martians. Click for full-sized discounts.)

I bring up this episode of Irregular Webcomic! from earlier in the week because it exhibits a trope I hate: when a seemingly bit character with a mundane life turns out to have an incredibly exciting past that often is more intertwined with the heroes and their present plot than we thought.

You know that ordinary proprietor of the pizza place Ishmael worked for? It turns out he’s actually a descendant of Alessandro Volta locked up by the Nazis in 1933 who was freed by time travellers and started the Reichstag fire, accidentally time-traveled with them back to the 1980s, and then got the idea to start a pizza place from a young Adam Savage from MythBusters.

(I think I may have just summarized IWC‘s appeal in a nutshell.)

Now, you could argue that Morgan-Mar is limited in his LEGO figures and is thus more justified in this economy of casting than most, and a similar case could be made for a related contrived coincidence: that Adam and Jamie not only attended the same college as Ishmael, but (it’s implied in the themes’ previous comic) stayed in the exact same dorm room. Still, I can accept a lot of things stretching my suspension of disbelief, but this is the sort of thing that takes a skilled hand to pull off, and part of what makes it work is often exactly what antics the character pulled off in the past, what led him to his current mundane existence, and how it’s presented to the reader. Typically, if he’s presented as a retired badass first and a simple farmer second, it can work well (even if he’s introduced as the simple farmer first), but not so much the other way around.

Once you start getting into things like supernatural powers and, oh yeah, time travel, it starts to stretch suspension of disbelief too much for my purposes. Especially when it raises questions like “how does he explain his appearance out of nowhere and his similarity to the guy who disappeared back in 1933?”

Wimbledon to ESPN, and what’s beyond

When it comes to keeping sporting events on broadcast in the US, could Wimbledon be a victim of its own relative popularity?

Compare Wimbledon to the French Open. Both events air at about the same time of year, in about the same time slots, on NBC and ESPN2. But NBC airs Wimbledon coverage on weekdays during the second week, and doesn’t do the same for Roland Garros until the men’s semifinals on the last Friday. The result: American tennis fans harboring seething hatred towards NBC for tape-delaying Wimbledon matches during the second week to air its Today show, which may have cost NBC their part of the Wimbledon contract, despite apparently promising to end those delays down the road. (Reading between the lines, one could surmise that NBC was willing to show matches live, so long as they could do so on their own Versus network once ESPN’s contract ended after 2013. This may have come down to the mere fact that the cable rights weren’t up at the same time.)

Now, tennis has fallen so far in popularity that the fact there is any tennis in the middle of the week at all on broadcast television is clearly a relic of the days when Americans actually cared about tennis. Still, it’s rather odd that the more prestigious and popular Wimbledon will apparently become a cable-only affair, while the less prestigious Roland Garros will continue to have an NBC presence… at least in the short term, because while I don’t know how long NBC’s French Open contract lasts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow Wimbledon to cable, as it barely makes a blip on the sports radar ratings-wise these days.

Interestingly, there will be coverage of Wimbledon on regular ESPN during the second week, including the mens’ and womens’ finals, with ESPN and ESPN2 providing simultaneous coverage of different parts of the same event, which they’ve previously only done for soccer tournaments during the last round of group play. This obvious use of ESPN’s family of networks is why I had been hoping for ESPN to win the NCAA Tournament or Olympic contracts, events popular enough to actually justify such use, but it was not to be. What makes this interesting is that regular ESPN doesn’t cover the US Open, which is more popular stateside, but there is more sports competition that time of year. Also, there is normally some kind of soccer tournament in late June and early July at least every other year; would Wimbledon interfere with coverage of the World Cup or Euro tournament? I might have ordinarily expected ESPN to hand some of the coverage off to Tennis Channel, like they do for the US Open.

Apparently, besides NBC, Fox was considering making a run, but the thought of Fox doing a sport as straight-laced as tennis makes me shudder. However, I’m surprised CBS apparently didn’t make a run. They already carry the US Open and don’t have a morning show worth salvaging. On the other hand, the rest of their daytime is in better shape than NBC’s. But after losing out on the NHL and Olympics, in the end this represents ESPN’s first true head-to-head sports rights victory over NBC since the Comcast merger went through, even if a small one, and the first time anyone other than Fox has ended an incumbency. Because of the problems with NBC’s coverage, however, it’s unclear what it represents for NBC’s long-term prospects against ESPN.

We may find out about that soon enough, though, for far more than a mere blip on the radar like tennis. There’s an unexpected new battleground on the horizon. The NFL may be making plans to take Thursday Night Football full-season as a consolation prize for not getting their 18-game schedule. And that could be, by far, the biggest battleground in sight. More on this one later.

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It’s a Sluggy Story Arc Climax Party in the Webcomics Blogosphere!

(From Sluggy Freelance. Click for full-sized epic lateness.)

Pete Abrams is finally wrapping up a storyline that’s been going on for the past two years.

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of how he’s doing so, however, especially the comics we’ve been subjected to over the course of the week so far. I can’t help but think he’s rushing the storyline to a conclusion because he knows this particular part of it alone has gone on rather long already – at one point he’d promised that we’d learn Riff’s “ultimate fate” by the end of June, and if he meant Riff’s return to “our” dimension, he didn’t quite make that goal.

Let’s start at the beginning, with Monday’s comic, where Abrams threw what looked to be an absolute curveball at his readers: after drugging all the witnesses, rather than head home at the point we had gotten to with Torg and company, Riff would “change history” and prevent Zoe from ever burning. Abrams seemed to be preparing to retcon the events of “bROKEN” substantially, and possibly retcon away everything that happened in the past two years in his home dimension. I was fully prepared to write a post on that comic alone.

For the record? I loved it. It seemed like a fitting way to end this two-year-long epic that I’d spent reading Sluggy Freelance, a way to tie it all into one continuous loop from which the comic would proceed. But then, I started reading the comic from “bROKEN”. You know who didn’t love it? Robert A. “Tangents” Howard, who wrote a fairly lengthy post detailing his worries that Abrams would “pull a Dallas” and render the past two years completely irrelevant, wondering why he would even burn Zoe and put his readership through the past two years of comics in the first place. If that sounds familiar, it’s similar to what I said last week about killing Zoe vs. rendering her a vegetable, with the difference that I wondered if it was a sign Abrams was going to pull a fast one to bring back Zoe in full. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Similarly, I didn’t think Abrams was going to go quite that far and pull, in Eric Burns(-White)’s terminology, a Category 4 or 5 (or even 3) retcon. I figured certain characters, especially Riff, would remain affected enough by the events of the past two years somehow to affect the plot moving forward. I prefer to trust that no matter what happens, story-comic writers know what they’re doing and that, ultimately, everything will serve some greater purpose. But apparently, Howard felt that Abrams had betrayed that trust before and he could do it again. He felt that Abrams had previously negated the events of the “That Which Redeems” storyline, which like most of Sluggy I haven’t read, and that he was perfectly ready to go back into that well.

In any case, all was rendered moot by Tuesday’s comic, in which Riff shows up at Zoe’s house, the night before the attack… and, apparently talked out of it by alternate-Riff, only says goodbye to Zoe before letting alternate-Riff do what he was going to do anyway. So Abrams didn’t even let that twist stand for 24 hours before pulling a “gotcha” and pulling back on it, effectively manipulating his readership and playing them like fools. Howard was not pleased, perhaps because he wasted a post on the original twist only to see it negated. While I sympathize, I also get a certain sense of entitlement from Howard, like he was personally wronged by Abrams’ bait-and-switch. Personally, I was rather stunned and went back to not writing a post, and I admit I felt that was a pretty cheap trick, but I had trusted that Abrams knew what he was doing and wouldn’t obviate whole swathes of material.

And ultimately, the same went for Zoe, because in Wednesday’s comic, as Riff returns to his home dimension (and gets the localized EMP I knew was necessary to prevent him from rebooting in the future), he reveals, in breathless exposition to a bemused Torg, that everything that happened in the last two comics was part of a convoluted plan to get Zoe back, by preventing alternate-Riff from keeping him from bringing 4U City tech to his home dimension by drugging them, then boldly announcing his plan to cause a paradox to get alternate-Riff to chase him into the past, so that he could take a snapshot of the sleeping Zoe and return to 4U City to introduce that snapshot to the vegetable-Zoe, so that Zoe would wake up with no memory of the events of the day she burned and alternate-Riff would see the need to have her follow our Riff back home.

Um… what?

Why do this? Why go to such lengths, over the course of just three comics, to mislead alternate-Riff and, by proxy, give the audience whiplash just to bring Zoe back? Commenting on his own post on Tuesday’s comic with a reaction to Wednesday’s comic, Howard proposes a way to do the whole thing with less misdirection and whiplash by making Riff upfront with his intentions from the start, and while neither Riff has much reason to trust the other, his idea sure seems like a saner, less manipulative way to achieve the same results. Personally, I’m wondering, even given what Riff did, why he has to exposit his plan to Torg of all people, to whom – by Riff’s own admission – nothing he’s saying means anything, and it serves only to inform the audience. Sure, he needs to keep Torg calm until Zoe shows up, but he basically has to give Zoe a substantial amount of exposition anyway, possibly enough for the audience to get the picture anyway; why not give as much exposition as Zoe needs to understand in a much more justifiable context?

But either of these options would likely require at least one or two more comics to complete, and Abrams is basically committed to ending the storyline at the end of the week. So he’s trying to cram the ending into five comics, and in the process a lot of distortion is resulting, with the plot needing to be over-simplified to fit. Part of what we’re seeing is the result of Abrams’ inability to plan ahead; I agree with him that cutting corners in alternate-Riff’s exposition would have been a bad idea, if only for the insights Riff gains into alternate-Dr. Schlock, but did the minimal-point battle against the outsider army need to go quite as long as it did? And for that matter, was today’s strip really necessary? Hell, I bet tomorrow’s strip will just be alternate-Riff taking a few parting shots at our Riff; couldn’t these two pages be used to set up the storyline going forward, or at least build a more natural conclusion?

Regardless, the end outcome is that Zoe is back, with no memory of the events of the climax of “bROKEN”. Among other things, this means she never had the epiphany Oasis led her to regarding her relationship with Torg, so the status quo there is fully restored. On the flip side, she now no longer has her cursed necklace she had for most of the strip’s run, so that status quo has been drastically shaken up. Also, Riff has now pledged to stop being “stupid” and returns to his home dimension with a new mission, which is enough for me to keep reading for just long enough to see exactly where he’ll go from here.

And on a more meta level, I’ve confirmed something I speculated on a while back: that I’m more forgiving of what Abrams does in part because I haven’t sat through the things Howard, as a long-time reader, has. Howard felt that Abrams had retconned events out before and could do so again, so he sat through the recent comics with nothing but dread. I didn’t feel so betrayed, so I was willing to follow Abrams wherever he was willing to go. Now, compare that to what I said in my initial review of Sluggy Freelance, about Abrams alienating new readers by not throwing them any bones to jump into the storyline, and being satisfied by the audience he already has. If Abrams has also alienated longtime readers who have sat through that storyline, perhaps this only underlines how backwards the lack of real support for new readers is, because properly introduced to Sluggy‘s world, they could be bigger supporters of the comic than his existing fanbase is. Perhaps, then, we should chalk this up as more evidence that Abrams is starting to wind down the comic, and doesn’t see a need to appeal to anyone who would only sign up for a couple of years.

Or maybe we should both lighten up and enjoy the storyline on its own merits, like Eric Burns(-White) did.

Are superheroes dying a slow death?

The way in which the “new DCU” will work is even worse than I anticipated. Crisis on Infinite Earths tried to make it so that most of the major events that had occured before the Crisis were still canon, but hadn’t necessarily occured the way they were originally chronicled. The present reboot will attempt to do the same thing, but to a potentially even more exclusive extent, and not all of DC’s titles will be roughly contemporaneous with each other – Action Comics and Justice League will be set at the “dawn of the age of superheroes” but all other September titles won’t. (The former seems like a mockery of my “use split titles to Ultimate-ize DC” idea.)

So sorry, DC, but this is a reboot, in every way that Crisis on Infinite Earths was. After all, the “dawn of the age of superheroes” will now be set only five years in the past; DC’s policy since the Zero Hour event has been that it’s been at least ten or eleven, and to try to cram in most of the major events just since Crisis on Infinite Earths in that span makes a mockery of those stories and shows just how half-assed this reboot really is. At least with Crisis, you could accept that the broad strokes of what had happened prior to the Crisis had still happened. Either reboot the entire slate from the beginning, or leave your entire historical arc intact as Crisis did, but don’t half-ass it and pluck events out of their historical context and pass it off as leaving history intact just because you and/or your fans happen to like them. Eric Burns(-White) was entirely spot-on about the whole mess.

Meanwhile, I’ve come to realize a major impetus for the reboot, and why it won’t work: the superhero canons that have maintained especially the DCU for all these decades are running on fumes.

Let’s take an example. For decades, one of the defining aspects of the Superman mythos was his double life as Clark Kent and Superman, and a major part of that double life was his relationship with Lois Lane, aloof to mild-mannered Clark Kent and head-over-heels for Superman. DC got a lot of mileage out of that tension, both in comics and in other media. Then, during the 90s, DC decided to get Lois and Clark married. In doing so, DC was meddling with an iconic part of the Superman mythos. Despite the fact that it was timed to coincide with the same happening on the Lois and Clark TV show, most people outside comics fandom are always going to associate Superman with his two-person love triangle with Lois Lane. Mess with that, and there’s a sense in which the character you’re writing isn’t Superman anymore.

So why did they do it? In part as a publicity stunt, in part because of the Lois and Clark factor, but I think it was also a recognition of the limitations of the setup, which had, after all, been the status quo for something like six decades (far longer than any fictional television show, except maybe soap operas that constantly shake up the status quo). At some point, we don’t buy that Superman will ever be with anyone other than Lois, so we start wondering why he keeps stringing her along, and we wonder how good a reporter Lois can be if she can’t see that Superman is just Clark Kent without glasses. Getting them married closes the door to many, many stories rooted in the old status quo, but it also opens the door to many new story ideas revolving around Lois and Clark as a married couple. To some extent, the status quo, if too narrowly defined, becomes too limiting. To move the story forward, DC had to remove some of the barnacles from it.

Many comic book superheroes have these sorts of lists of defining elements that people expect to see in the character. A lot of mileage can be gotten out of these defining elements, but there does come a point at which you’re just telling the same story over and over. You can’t keep these characters timeless, locked into their mid-century origins, forever. At some point, you have to provide the payoff for your setups; at some point, maintaining the setup indefinitely starts to stretch suspension of disbelief. But once you do, you’re taking away something that makes the character who he is. DC has this problem more so than Marvel; Marvel is more fond of shaking up the status quo with its heroes, and it tends to keep its iconography simpler in the first place, but even it has some lines it is loath to cross (for example, Dr. Banner will never find a cure for his condition).

Over the last twenty-plus years, perhaps these points have been reached, as more and more of the iconic aspects of many characters have been changed in the comics. Superman got married, as did Spider-Man; Superman also died; many of DC’s sidekicks, including Dick Grayson, graduated from their roles; Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon was crippled (as was, for a brief time, Batman himself); writers started introducing a plethora of Hulk personas; the Green Lantern Corps was wiped out and a new guy made the only Green Lantern. In recent years, many of these changes have been reversed, partly out of Silver Age nostalgia, partly out of a realization of the core aspects of the characters that have changed, partly – and most tellingly – because the new stati quibus have themselves started running on fumes. Most of the changes at DC that haven’t been reversed already will be reversed by the reboot – suggesting a desire to rejuvenate the old concepts by returning them to their iconic glory.

But at the same time, lines once thought to be even more unbreakable have been crossed. Batman died, and Dick Grayson became Batman; Marvel revealed a plethora of secret identities in its Civil War crossover, most notably Spider-Man (in his case later retconned away); most of Marvel’s mutants were depowered; there are a gazillion colored Lantern corps running around, as well as more Hulks than you can shake a stick at. I don’t buy the argument that “every story needs a conclusion” often used to argue for sweeping aside the old stable of characters – we’re talking about characters, not stories, and real people don’t get neatly-tied-up endings (and if you know your Greek mythology, Hercules’ death is almost an afterthought) – but sometimes, reading about some of the “current events” in superhero comics, I’m reminded of nothing so much as a story winding down to its conclusion, whether building up to a huge climactic confrontation or simply tying a bow on a character’s story and passing the torch to the future. The status quo is shaken up in ways only the winding down of a story can, especially stories that have gone on for this long.

Since the advent of the direct market, the world of comic books has been of, by, and for superhero fandom, with other genres just trying to sneak between the cracks. Perhaps, as Scott McCloud suggests in Reinventing Comics (a decade ago!), by focusing all our energies on one genre we’ve tapped it out of everything it had to offer. The 80s saw several deconstructions of the modes of the superhero genre, in works like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and later Kingdom Come – deconstructions that later gave rise to a wave of “reconstructions” in the 90s that sought to take the more “realistic” world presented in the deconstructions and bring to them the elements that made the genre popular in the first place. In other words, we’ve turned the genre of superheroes so far inside out that we’ve turned it right-side up again – all before 2000. Combine this with the fact we haven’t really created any new iconic superheroes since the late 70s (not coincidentially coinciding with the rise of the direct market), maybe early 80s, and is it possible we’ve wrung everything out of the superhero genre there is to get out of it?

Some would say so, or even that superheroes’ time in the zeitgeist has passed. I’m not so sure. One of the most popular series in the history of the Cartoon Network, and certainly one of the ones that first put it on the map, was The Powerpuff Girls. While The Powerpuff Girls boasted more adult writing and humor than one might otherwise expect (something that, looking back, distinguished Cartoon Network from competitors like Nickelodeon in the late 90s), it was, by and large, a decidedly traditional take on the superhero – looking back, I’m reminded of nothing so much as the old Silver Age comics.

I’d argue that The Powerpuff Girls is the only new true superhero concept to break out in some way in the last twenty-five or so years, and perhaps the only one to originate outside of comics since The Green Hornet. Most of the other contenders for the crown twist the concept beyond recognition – Buffy, Witchblade, and Heroes are too ordinary, Kick-Ass and Watchmen are too deconstructive, the Tick and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are too parodic, Spawn, Harry Potter and anything involving vampires are rooted in fantasy or horror, and Power Rangers and Dragon-Ball Z are rooted in martial-arts films. Many of the above spend too much time in their own little world (also a complaint against Sailor Moon), and with some of those, it’d be hard to call them true breakouts.

Why is it that the only real breakout superhero concept of the past twenty-five years is… so basic? Has all our deconstruction been a waste of time, yielding no real fruit? Have my constraints guaranteed that only the most undistilled of superhero concepts can qualify for the title? I doubt it – Marvel’s wave of new concepts in the 60s was the original superhero deconstruction. When I look around, I see that the breakout concepts that come closest to superherodom come from what are, at least nominally, kids’ shows – even though quite a few involve even more adult writing than The Powerpuff Girls. Is Xaviar Xerexes right to claim that the next frontier for superheroes is in its kiddie past? Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the core of the superhero genre, that it is fundamentally a power fantasy, and all the deconstruction has ruined the fun, all the pandering to twenty-somethings that haven’t let go of their childhood has resulted in superheroes’ real core audience – kids and teenage boys – falling out of focus.

That’s not to say adults can’t have superheroes appeal to them – Marvel is busily building its superheroes into the next great film franchise, up there with Star Wars and Harry Potter – but clearly there hasn’t really been anything new to appeal to them. Most of what they’ve been exposed to has been dedicated to ridiculing the concept; the reconstruction wave of 90s comics hasn’t really hit the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, DC and Marvel have largely rested on their laurels of their existing back catalog, and haven’t really had much interest in creating anything new. Now those concepts have started to show their age, and DC’s response is to beat a hasty retreat to the comfort of the most iconic forms of their concepts.

Most of the good superhero concepts may be taken, but as with oil, that just means you have to look harder to find more, not that we’re completely out yet. Perhaps the time of DC’s and Marvel’s superheroes is coming to a close, and the genre needs to be completely upended and reinvented to be kept alive, but it’s far from dead yet. In fact, there may be something to be said for rejuvenating some of DC’s old concepts, especially with how long DC has been staring up at Marvel. DC’s stable has never been as well-suited at appealing to the direct market audience as Marvel’s, and DC has essentially spent several decades trying to play Marvel’s game, rather than its own. If it’s not going to make a concerted effort to market to the audience their stable is most suited for, though, I think it can still be salvagable, and DC made to compete with Marvel on a level playing field. But that’s not a topic for this post.