Monday, June 30, 2008

Wall*E... 'Nuff Said

What can I say? I saw it this weekend with Karen and Rachel and some friends, and I loved it. The storytelling was smart and smooth, the character designs and animation were, as always, first class. Wall*E and Eva were as well developed as two non-speaking characters can be, and while I never quite choked up, the way I have at some other Pixar films ("Toy Story 2," all right?), I did feel a pang or two when things looked bleak for Wall*E near the end. All of which is to say, I had a good time.

Karen and Rachel, not so much.

Both of them thought it was just okay.



Sunday, June 29, 2008

Paranoid about Paparazzi?

Well, if you are, or if, possibly, you're worried you might soon be living in a CCTV police state where the guv'mint can watch your every move (and those who aren't just a wee bit afraid we've been marching bravely backward to 1984 haven't been paying attention) then this fine piece of do-it-yourself eyewear may be just the thing you've been looking for:

Anti-Paparazzi Sunglasses - video powered by Metacafe

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tome Talk Thursday: Guilty Pleasures

Anyone who knows me (or who's managed to sneak a look at my Amazon account) knows I'm a voracious reader. Non-fiction: history, current events, science; fiction: mid- to late-19th Century literature, early 20th Century literature, pulp fiction, science-fiction, mysteries, westerns, legal suspense, modern thrillers, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Roger Zelazny, David Brin, Larry Niven, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, James Rollins, Clive Cussler, Dashiell Hammett, and Neil Gaiman -- I like to think of it as an eclectic set of interests, but "undisciplined" may be a fairer description.

Admittedly, my tastes run more to trash than to tragedy -- I'd rather curl up with a Victorian middle-class angst potboiler by Anthony Trollope than a modern middle-class angst potboiler by John Updike -- but for the most part, I feel no guilt for enjoying a fast-paced thrill ride by James Rollins or a wry, formulaic piece of pulp by John D. MacDonald.

But, lately, I have been feeling just a tad guilty for the pleasure I've derived from reading a class of fiction that makes almost no attempt at achieving literary merit. It's the modern-day equivalent of mid-century pulp: fiction based on games and comic books, such as the Dragonlance novels of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; the "legend of Drizzit" series by R.A. Salvatore; and the books based on comic book series, like The Ultimates and Justice League novels by various authors. Oh, yeah, I also enjoy the "Rogue Angel" series published by Gold Eagle, and, of course, the Mack Bolan and Executioner novels.

I make no apologies for enjoying this stuff -- though like I said, I feel a tad guilty -- because for the most part, these books are written professionally, by writers who clearly enjoy what they're doing, and who take it seriously enough to do the best job they can. As someone who made a living writing characters created by other writers (along with a number I created myself, of course), I can appreciate the love these folks have for the characters and worlds over which they've taken temporary custodianship. Quite a few of these authors began their careers writing these shared-world novels, and have gone on to make their mark with wholly original works of their own; yet most of them return, again and again, to the shared worlds that gave them their start. That tells me they write what they write not just to earn a living, but because they have a passion for the material.

What they turn out may not be great literature, but it's entertaining pulp, and sometimes that's just what I'm in the mood for.

If you're interested in checking out some of the best of the bunch, try some of these:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Warring Websites

Okay, so I'm being cute. By "warring websites," I'm not referring to websites at war with each other -- I'm referring to websites that provide information and support for players of World of Warcraft. But in a way, of course, some of these sites are at war with one another -- competing for the eyes and interest of the WoW player in his or her never-ending search for truth, justice, and a few good tips on how to play.

This is by no means a complete or authoritative listing. These are just a few sites I've found useful over the years (years? yikes!) I've been playing the game. When I first started, I had no idea there were resources outside the official WoW webpage. While there was a lot of helpful information there, I floundered around for quite a while, till I found the first site that provided me with some tips and guidance, with walkthroughs for many quests, and tips from users who'd been there before. That first site was Thottbot, a fairly rudimentary website with some useful details about items and NPCs. More useful than Thottbot, at least when I first found it, was Allakhazam, a site that offers guides, tips, and item info for several MMOs aside from WoW. Allakhazam was my go-to site for almost a year, until Wowhead came along. Wowhead, like Thotbot, had a clean, simple, search-based interface, but its user-generated tips and walkthroughs were much more detailed, on a par with. and usually surpassing, those on Allakhazam. But even Wowhead had its limitations, so when I wanted more information, or deeper insight into the background and lore of the game, or fuller walkthroughs, including strategies for quest chains, I turned to Wowwiki. Like Wikipedia, it's a user-generated website, with articles written and edited by the users. A great site for general information, though, like any wiki, it has its odd blind spots.

Allakhazam, Wowhead, and Wowwiki: Those are the three main sites I use, but there are others that I've found helpful, and here's a quick list:

Curse Gaming, for mostly-up-to-date WoW add-ons.

MapWoW, for lovely maps of Kalimdor, the Eastern Kingdoms, and Outland, based on the terrain-relief maps found in the onscreen mini-map.

WoW Insider, a blog-type site for news, commentary, community, and extensive guides to classes and professions. (A must read if you're struggling to understand how to play your class, whether it be a mage, a hunter, a warrior, etc.)

Ten Ton Hammer, another general-purpose MMO site, with an excellent WoW sub-site.

And finally, Warcraftmovies, a great site for fan-built machinima -- short movies using WoW in-game animation. Lots of fun, though leaning heavily toward in-joke humor.

That's it. By no means a complete, or even extensive, list. Consider it something to get you started.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Popeye Then And Now

Back from New York, back to blogging.

This is hardly news, but I'll mention it anyway: the original Max Fleischer Studio Popeye cartoons are being released on DVD in a series of lovely box sets. Volume One came out a while ago, and features cartoons from 1933-38; Volume Two is now available, with cartoons from 1938-40. If you're offended by pre-PC racial, sexist and ethnic stereotypes (PC in this case meaning "politically correct"), you're going to be massively offended by these cartoons, but I hope you'll be able to put them in context with the times. If nothing else, seeing how casually these stereotypes were used, and how shocking they appear now, tells us we've made some progress toward a less racist society. (Some progress; we still have a ways to go.) In any event, if you can look past the stereotypes, there's a lot to enjoy in these old cartoons. The early Popeyes are pretty crude, but as the series progresses, the design, storytelling, and humor (if not the actual animation) becomes more and more sophisticated and surreal. Highly recommended.

Also highly recommended are the original newspaper strips by Segar from which the cartoons were derived. Fantagraphics is in the process of reprinting Segar's Thimble Theater strip, which introduced Popeye as a minor character back in 1929. These books are fantastic, a real treat for fans of the squint-eyed sailor, or for anyone who enjoys a well-told yarn. Segar was a tremendous story-teller. The Popeye of the newspaper strip is much more developed and a far more interesting character than the Popeye of the Fleischer cartoons, and the stories are charming, mysterious, and loads of fun. (The Sea Witch saga is a personal favorite.) Two volumes are available now, with a third volume due for release in November.

Friday, June 13, 2008

No blog update today 'cause I'm surprising Rachel...

... with a secret (till we get to the airport) trip to NY to see "Legally Blonde The Musical" with a friend of hers.

The things we do for our children.

I've been listening to Rachel play and replay the DVR'ed video of the
"Legally Blonde" Broadway musical for the better part of six months
now. It sets my teeth on edge and blurs my vision with a red haze.
My hands involuntarily clench into fists and with effort I stifle a

But I love my daughter and she loves this show, so with the help of
her friend's dad (who will be joining us, and whose idea this was), I
will take her to New York today, and we will see the show tomorrow,
and I will try not to pull out an Uzi and mow everyone down.

I am a good good father.

Happy Father's Day to me.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Obama and Reagan

First off, let me apologize for getting this out a couple of days late.  We've been busy around Casa Conway looking for a Nuevo Casa Conway, and it's been, shall we say, distracting.

Be that as it may... 

I was talking with my older daughter, Cara, on the way to the airport Monday, and the topic turned to politics.  We're both Obama supporters; I told her how happy I was for her, that she could experience such excitement for a candidate and an election season.  Whether Obama wins or loses, he's made history, and we, as Americans, are part of a special moment in history.  And agree with him or not, you have to admit, he's an intensely charismatic, inspiring political figure, a politician who has the ability and the potential to change the terms of the political debate in this country for a generation.  He's likable, charming, has a marvelous way of putting across his message, and he seems to represent a turning point in our national conversation.  Those who oppose him do so by attacking him for the very things that make him appealing -- his rhetoric, his sense of purpose (which they define as artificial, contrived), and his lack of "experience" (as if anyone who hasn't actually been president has the relevant experience to be president).

All of which makes Barrack Obama a lot like Ronald Reagan.

A confession: I was a Reagan Democrat.  The things that attract me to Obama and the Democrats this election season are exactly the same things that attracted me to Reagan and the Republicans in 1980.

Let me explain.

Throughout my adult life until 1980, I'd been a faithful liberal and supporter of the Democratic party.  I believed in affirmative rights, in high taxes on the rich, in government programs for the poor, in business regulation and consumer protection.  I was against the war in Vietnam and I supported the Equal Rights Amendment.  I wasn't too wild about school busing, but I understood the rationale.  I had my doubts about the morality of abortion, but I was in favor of a woman's right to choose.  I was, in short, a fairly typical moderate, left-leaning liberal of the 60s and 70s.

But by 1980, I was ready to be persuaded otherwise.  The Vietnam war was over, but then came the horrors of the Kymer Rouge in Laos.  America's reputation as a moral power in the world was stained, and our ability to project our power and defend our people was revealed as an illusion by the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran.  The economy was in a shambles; inflation was raging into double digits, and so were mortgage interest rates.  There was a banking crisis.  We seemed to be teetering on the brink of a recession or depression.   The incumbent president had become irrelevant to the political process, seemed out of touch with the concerns of the people he was supposed to be leading, and the party he represented had nothing to offer in the way of new ideas or a fresh approach.  Though it may not have been obvious to the hard core base of the party, the Democrats were at a loss for a defining message, a simple, clean, clear statement of purpose -- something that could inspire belief and support from those, like myself, who wanted something more than a promise of more of the same.

The Republicans, on the other hand, were on fire

Sometime during the late 1970s, conservatives had seized the terms of debate, confronting the failed policies of the Democrats with an imaginative new interpretation of government's role in American life.  And in the abstract, at least, their ideas made sense.  They seemed to be based on fundamental principles of human behavior, and they were expressed with passion and clarity by smart true-believers like Milton Friedman and William Buckley.  The Republicans had ideas; they had solutions to the malaise; they offered a new path, one that promised greater freedom for the individual, a stronger economy, and a restored sense of place for America in the world.

For someone whose faith in traditional Democratic policies had been shaken by the all-too-obvious failure of those policies -- and by my party's unwillingness either to admit or to address that failure -- I was eager for a change, for a new direction.

Ronald Reagan, bless his heart, offered me that change and pointed the way to a new direction.

I bought in, and honestly, I think I did the right thing.

Not because Reagan was right, or because the Republicans delivered on their promises of greater individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and a restoration of America's moral stature in the world.  I did the right thing because the whole point of the political process is to provide a responsible, controlled method of provoking change in the status quo.  The American political process is a form of slow-motion, managed revolution.  We've developed a way to produce tremendous social upheaval from time to time, in response to the flow of real world events and in accord with the patterns of history, and to do so without forcing our citizens to take to the streets with guns, or to build guillotines, or to exile failed leaders to small islands in the Mediterranean (much as we might like to).

At a time of suffocating stasis and calcified political thought, the Republicans offered change; they offered revolution; they promised a way out.

For the most part, they delivered on that promise.  Whether my diehard liberal friends want to admit it or not, the initial years of the conservative revolution produced some positive results for Americans.  Our stature in the world improved remarkably; we addressed, militarily, the failures of Vietnam; the increasing burden of taxes on average Americans was reduced; inflation dropped to historically low levels; houses became affordable again; business innovation boomed; and for the most part, Americans felt freer from government interference in their lives than they'd felt in a generation.

Sure, there were bumps along the way -- failures here and there, embarrassing gaffes and saddening disappointments of principle like Iran-Contra -- but there were spectacular successes as well.  The fall of the Berlin wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union; a revolution in welfare; a reduction in crime.  Were the Republicans and their theory of government responsible for all of this?  Maybe; maybe not.  But the fact is, they were in charge while these triumphs occurred, just as the Democrats were in charge during the dark days of Vietnam and stagflation and social unrest.  Whether they were channeling the currents of history, or simply surfing on them, the fact is, from 1980 to 2006, the Republicans dominated American politics.  For better or worse, those twenty-six years represent the Modern Conservative Era, just as the forty-eight years that preceded it represent the New Deal era.

And now it's over.

In 1980, the Democrats were burned out, demoralized, confused, and voiceless.  They were led by an uninspiring, weary, and aged-beyond-his-years ex-Navy man who was forced to defend policies that had proven themselves to be an utter failure.  The intellectual Left was intellectually bankrupt.

The country demanded change.

Anyone see a parallel between 1980 and 2008?

At a time when the country is once again exhausted by the failure of a political philosophy, by humiliation abroad, and by a leadership that seems truly out of touch with the concerns of average Americans, Barrack Obama and the Democratic party offer change.  They are passionate in their principles; they believe strongly in their solutions; they offer us a way out.

They're on fire.

And for the first time in twenty-eight years, so is my heart.

Monday, June 09, 2008

World of WifeCraft

Okay, so it isn't Wednesday, but this kinda comes under the Monday movie rubric, right? Right?

Here's something to put life in perspective...

From Nasa, an image of the Earth and the moon as seen from Mars.

No, seriously:

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Elementary School graduation day

Well, strange as it seems, this is a big day -- my daughter's graduating from elementary school.  They're having a ceremony, there will be speeches, she's getting dressed up, and I know for a fact my wife is going to cry.

When did this become such a big deal?

I mean, it's a big deal to me, of course -- my baby's getting older!   But in a larger sociological sense, graduating from elementary school?  That was big back when my granddad was a kid; an elementary school education was the highest level of education most folks got, if they got that much.  For my father's generation, graduating from high school -- that was a big deal.   For my generation, it was college (and to an extent, it still is).  For my older daughter, a full education barely stops with a master degree.  It seems with each generation the bar gets raised higher.

And at the same time, we celebrate smaller victories.

Maybe it's because of the stress we go through, those of us who send our kids to private school (and in California, I'm sad to say, if you want a decent education for your kid, private school is probably your best option).  We worry about getting them into the best school, we bite our nails through the application process, we wait anxiously for the acceptance letters, we shudder at the size of the tuition bill.  Sending a kid to private school is like sending them to college.  It's expensive, it's stressful, but it's something you're glad you're able to do -- I feel a sense of pride that my daughter has done well at a school that isn't required to accept her and promote her and praise her, because that's the PC thing to do.  Whatever honors Rachel has earned, she's earned, in competition with an amazing array of other well-qualified, hard-working young boys and girls.

Please understand, I'm not saying she's better than the kids who go to public schools.  By no means.  But the school she's attended for the last six years is better than the public school she would have attended otherwise.

We did try the public school system for Rachel's kindergarten, and it was a huge disappointment.  A charter school, too, with heavy parental involvement, in a neighborhood where the parents could afford to devote a lot of time and energy to the PTA.  Didn't make a damn bit of difference.  The school sucked, and the teachers and administration knew it, and they didn't seem to care.

So maybe there is something to celebrate.

I'm proud of my little girl, and saddened too.

It's been an amazing six years.  Can't wait to see what's next.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Social Animals

Much of the fun in playing World of Warcraft comes from interaction with other players -- especially interaction with other players in a guild (assuming you join one).  But finding the right guild (and recognizing that it's the right guild for you) is tricky.  At least, it's been tricky for me.

The first guild I joined, "Dark Guard" on the Lothar server, is no more, but through it, I met the nicest people I know in WoW.  We became friends outside of WoW; our families met in the real world last summer at Blizzcon in Anaheim ( that's a picture of my daughter Rachel at the convention) and we're planning to meet up for a weekend with them this summer in Santa Cruz.  

When "Dark Guard" merged with a larger guild, I went along.  When that larger guild moved to another server during the traumatic
realm split last year, I went along.  When that guild broke into two guilds, and one of them moved back to the Lothar server, I followed my friends in the new/old guild.  When that guild collapsed and my friends joined a new guild, I joined too.  But somewhere along the line... I just didn't feel part of the group anymore.  

I still like my friends, but I'm not feeling it with the guild we belong to now. 

Hard to say why the new guild's not working for me -- even though it's made up of many folks from the older guilds, but my guess is, to use a cliche, "we've grown apart."  The first guild I joined was loose and fun, small and friendly.  The guild we merged with was larger and more focused on grouping for raids -- building larger teams to run the endgame content of pre-Burning Crusade instances like Molten Core.  With the coming of Burning Crusade, and the split of the guild between two realms, the latest version of the guild seems even more focused on grouping for raids in the new zones of Outland.  And even though I've tried to work up enthusiasm for it, the truth is, raiding just isn't my thing.

I'm not opposed to raiding -- I'd like to do some -- but I can't commit to a regular, multiple-nights-a-week raiding schedule.  I'm just not that hardcore.  I have a family, and we spend too little time doing things together as it is.  So this latest incarnation of the guild I've belonged to since my main WoW toon was a level 20 Night Elf Hunter just isn't the guild for me anymore.  And it's painful to admit it and leave, because I'll be leaving my friends.  (Not in the real world, of course; just in the game.)

Like I said, finding the right guild is tricky.  Sometimes, the guild that was right for you when you started playing isn't right for you after you've been playing for a while.  Recognizing this can be difficult, especially when you've made friends with others in the group.  But failing to recognize it can make playing the game far less fun; in fact, it can make playing the game feel like a chore and an obligation.

Which kinda defeats the purpose.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Nostalgia Wallow Part Deux

Posting last week about the first book I ever owned reminded me of the first book I read that fully captured my imagination as a story -- so much so that I spent thirty years trying to find it, and finally laid my hands on a copy two years ago.

The book was a young adult science-fiction novel by Paul Capon, "The End of the Tunnel." It's about four young kids who go on a caving trip together in England, get trapped in a cave by a landslide, and follow the cave deep under ground, encountering a forgotten civilization, before finally finding their way back to the surface -- through the Paris catacombs.

It was, as the kids say these days, a thorough mindf***.

I read this book once, when I was seven or eight years old, and it made such an impression I've retained scenes, characters, and images, for almost fifty years. For example: as the kids head out for their exploration, they pass a hole in the ground, where, for good luck, they drop a penny and listen to hear how long it takes to hit the bottom. It takes a looooong time. Later, once they're trapped under ground, they eventually come across the bottom of that hole -- and find a pile of coins lying under it, with the coins on the bottom of the pile dating back hundreds of years.

How cool is that?

I could go on, but all I really want to say is how much I loved that book, and how happy I was when I tracked down a copy of the original printing. It wasn't inexpensive, because the book has been out of print for five decades, and is something of a collector's item, but looking at a recent listing for it on, I think I got off pretty cheap.

Any favorite books you remember vividly from childhood? Any you spent a lifetime tracking down?

Let me know.

Monday, June 02, 2008


A friend of mine from the comic book business dropped me an email this morning, asking for my input -- he and his family had noticed that one of this summer's big blockbuster comic book movies used several elements from stories he'd written a number of years ago.  One of his family members suggested he hire a lawyer to see if he could get some recompense, and my friend wanted to know if I had any experience that might be useful, given that a character I'd created for Marvel Comics had been adapted for two movies.  He was talking about The Punisher, but those of you who read my comics in the Seventies know that stories of mine were adapted for the first two Spider-Man films, so I guess my response should probably include my experience regarding those movies too.


Some people like to ease the band aid off the wound slowly and with care to avoid pulling out any hairs.  Me, I've always been a rip-that-sucker-off-fast kind of guy.  So, to put it bluntly, I got nothing for either Punisher film, and nothing for my stories being adapted for the Spider-Man movies.  I didn't even get credit for creating the Punisher, or for the use of my story material in Spider-Man.

Honestly, I didn't expect that I would.

I'm not happy about the fact, but I'm resigned to it.  I accept the reality of how the business operated when I wrote those stories, and I'm truthful enough with myself to admit I knew full well that I was giving over all my rights to the material at the time.  There hasn't been a comic book professional since the 1940s who hasn't been fully aware of the exact nature of the deal we were making with the publishers: what happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster was common knowledge and an established part of comic book lore.  So it would be disingenuous of me now to claim I was misled, or mistreated, or that I didn't realize what I was doing, or that somehow Marvel reneged on some imaginary implied promise that I'd share in whatever bounty might come their way from exploiting characters and stories I created.  Nobody promised me anything.  The deal was clear -- I wrote the stories, I created the characters, and in return I accepted a page rate payment for the work I performed. 

Sure, there was some question about the legality of the practice prevalent at the time of putting the assignment of rights contract on the back of the check paying you for the work.  But that's a question of legality -- and it was resolved with later contracts that clearly established the nature of the work for hire arrangement -- and it has nothing to do with what I believe is really a moral and ethical issue.  Morally and ethically, for me to claim that I was "cheated" somehow would be a lie.  Nobody forced me to write comics.  Nobody forced me to accept the terms of the deal as it stood. 

I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway.

Does it hurt when I see a movie made from a character I co-created, without receiving credit or recompense?  Sure it hurts.  I don't think it's particularly nice of Marvel Comics to pretend that the Punisher sprang full-blown onto the scene without parents.  It's pretty cheesy, mean-spirited behavior.  What would it cost them to credit Ross Andru, John Romita, and me, for writing and drawing the story that brought the Punisher into being?  If they were worried we might use that credit to press a claim -- why not ask us to sign a release?  Knowing they were under no legal obligation to give us credit, but they felt it was the human, decent thing to do, I would've been happy to sign a release; I was happy to give an interview for the DVD.  But nobody asked.  I doubt anyone even thought about it.  And that's what hurts, really.  I don't expect money, I don't expect a piece of the action, but I sure would have appreciated a little acknowledgment when those credits flashed by.

But to repeat: I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway.

On a happier note, I get lotsa bucks from the use of characters I created for DC Comics in the late 70s and 80s.   Firestorm, Power Girl,  King Croc, Steel, and lately, Vixen, have all spun off toys and statues and games and videos and other cool stuff, and thanks to the forward-thinking contracts DC started offering creators in the late 70s, I and my artist collaborators get a piece of all that revenue.  And that makes me happy.

So in a way, it balances out.

But I'm one of the lucky ones -- as are all of the creators who came into the business after the mid-Seventies.  We get a piece (albeit a small piece) of the cash our characters generate.  The people who came before us, though, aren't so lucky.  A lot of those writers and artists end their careers with not much to show for the work they've done but the money they earned along the way.  Some of them are in pretty dire straits financially.

If you'd like to do something about that, check out the Hero Initiative -- a non-profit fund organized by fans and professionals to help creators who've fallen on hard times.  Give back a little of what they've given you.

You're under no legal, moral or ethical obligation to do so.

But it's the nice thing to do.

It's the right thing to do.