Saturday, November 24, 2007

Marvel DCU: What it's missing

Yesterday I dropped a load of complaints about Marvel's new digital comics service but I don't think it's a lost cause. Here are the things that would make me willing to spend the ten dollars a month (or sixty dollars a year) for access.

There needs to be a much larger database of comics. Right now there's roughly one-fiftieth the number of comics that would make their library worth paying for. Twenty non-consecutive issues of a series that has over five hundred issues is a terrible situation. This will improve over time but it's unclear how long it will take and the real question is how long will it take to get to scanning things like the black and white horror magazines or science fiction comics from the sixties?

They need to have the digital copies of current books up in a timely fashion, not necessarily day and date with the books reaching stores but not more than a month later. Not digitizing something until it's in a trade paperback is unacceptable for a subscription service.

The format they've chosen limits the quality of the scans but it can be used to their advantage by adding hypertext. There's no reason why a reader should have to exit the viewer to read consecutive comics, follow a storyline across multiple series, or follow references back to the original source. If I want to flip through every appearance of Stilt-Man then the system they have in place could easily let me follow the issues or even the individual pages where he's appeared. They need to drop the one issue at a time thinking.

The old letter columns and bullpen pages often contained things of interest even to modern readers and could easily be included while scanning in the individual issues. They add context to the older books and while I wouldn't necessarily want them when viewing a storyline putting them in the issues would be nice.

The search function works at only the most privative level. It only checks for the presence of any keywords; a boolean search is the bare minimum and there is no reason not to include a more robust search tool.

In short, they need to actually provide some service to go with the service they're selling. As it stands right now they're essentially renting me their product but they're acting like slum lords. Once they start making it worth paying a premium for (ten dollars isn't much but those ten dollars add up fast) then I might consider using it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited

Marvel announced last week that they were starting a new subscription service that would offer digital copies of their comic books online for ten dollars a month. Initially there are a handful of preview books that will display a small number of sample pages which invites some direct comparisons.

This isn't the first time that Marvel has done something like this. In 2000 they announced they would offer a selection of their comics digitally for free a few weeks after they were available in stores. I read the first twenty issues of Ultimate Spider-Man this way as well as a few other popular series. Marvel also licensed a document storage company called Graphic Imaging Technology to scan in complete series and make them available. The GIT product are PDF scans of the complete original book including the letter columns, bullpen pages, and advertisements priced at roughly $40 for the major series and less for ones that don't have hundreds of issues. Since there already are good quality scans of nearly complete runs of some series already available it makes sense to compare both of them directly.

Before I get too into this I need to say a quick word on my methodology. I picked smaller panels and screen captured the marvel image first then screen captured from the PDF viewer. Both source images have roughly the same dimensions but there may be slight differences which I did not scale in the imaging problem I used to avoid creating artifacts there. I did zoom in on the Avengers panel to illustrate how well both formats scale up. The online service's images are first followed by the PDF's image. I recommend clicking on the images to view them full size so you can see the differences between the two very clearly.

First things first, the browser based Flash applet for the new Marvel service does not have a great interface (something that I'm sure will come as a shock to anyone who has used Flash based navigation). With the online digital comics by default there is a pointless page transition and a lack of ability to flip through the book (if you use the current PDF viewer you can see thumbnails of the pages). If you're looking for anything then it will take time and if you're looking to check something across several issues you'll find you cannot open more than one at a time. You can view pages one at a time, two at a time, or a "smart panel" view which zooms in on individual panels but the two page view appears to be strictly tied to the book layout so double page spreads could be cut off and the "smart panel" view sometimes didn't focus quite right with trickier panel layouts. Individual pages are loaded as separate images downloaded when you view them rather than transferring the entire document to the computer at once also, and in my brief sampling I encountered several times when pages simply didn't load.

You can also see that the colors are very oversaturated in the online image. Coloring in comic books was designed to show up well on the cheap newsprint and work with the limited color separation process that was available at the time. In the 1980's new printing technology made certain high end books look better (new paper stocks, for example) and by the 1990's coloring was dramatically different. However if those old comics are printed with the same "coloring" with modern techniques then the result is garish. The GIT images are scanned in directly from hard copies which means that the color used is almost exactly what you would see if you had a paper copy of that same book.

The online scans are lower resolution than the ones used by GIT. You can see it especially in the curved lines in these panels; the top of Iron Man's head in particular is a good place where you can see the difference in the quality of the scans. In the online scan it's blocky. The fact that they're streaming these files out to the viewer rather than having a local copy is a disadvantage for the quality of the imaging.

The one place where the online Marvel digital comics can gain an advantage is in availability. The GIT collections are limited to what they think they can sell and it takes them a long time to scan in a book. While obviously they aren't going to have everything up instantly when they start out it would not be unreasonable to expect them to have a complete run of a recent miniseries since they would have all the material on hand and if they're scanning in one or two issues they might as well do all four to six. This is not the case. Agents of Atlas has only two of its six issues, Nextwave has issues #1 and #7 (I'll get to that problem in a moment), and New Avengers: Illuminati has just one issue. There are some series (GLA: Misassembled or Hulk: Grey) that do have all of their issues but most only have one or two. For the ongoing series the coverage is spotty often skipping several issues. The whole thing is just a mess.

And there's one more problem to cap off the entire fiasco. As I mentioned Marvel Digital Comics is a subscription service and yet they still have ads:

In the end I found the Marvel comics online service severely lacking. If they kept it current and made a point of at least maintaining complete runs of series or story arcs then I could see a place for this service but at the moment it seems like its little more than an advertisement for hard copies of things that people are already paying to get.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm off for dinner at the von Doom's!

He's made a turkey, ham, and roast so that his domination of the meal is complete!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

And so we've reached the end of Heinlein's record four Hugos for best novel. After The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress even the biggest Heinlein fan has to recognize that there is a dramatic shift in his writing. He had major health problems for an extended period that started shortly after this and he never really recovered completely. For his last Hugo winning novel Heinlein went out with a bang. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is easily my favorite of his novels.

In the not too distant future the moon has become a penal colony where undesirables are sent to grow crops for an overpopulated earth. This has been going on for three generations and now the moon is populated by a mix of political prisoners, authoritarian administrators, and their descendants. The authorities are getting harsher and demanding more from the colonists but the moon is rapidly running out of resources. Within just a few years the moon will no longer be able to sustain its population but the authorities refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists. And so a computer repairman, a political science professor, a firebrand, and an AI hidden within the mainframes that run the colony take it on themselves to start a revolution.

You could almost rename the first portion of the book "How to Overthrow a National Government"; it's practically a guide to holding a revolution (for those of you thinking about getting your own third world nation step one is to have a situation ripe for revolt so it's unlikely that you'll be able to conquer Arizona this way). While there are eventually violent clashes the real battleground is in the minds of the people. The violent clashes aren't between equal forces, it's a mob against the police. This isn't like most plucky good guys versus authoritarian government stories that are so common in science fiction; Heinlein brings the conflict down to a very realistic scale.

The second portion continues this with Heinlein acknowledging that when a bad government falls it doesn't mean that things get easier. The newly free lunar colonists face counterstrikes from earth, complicated negotiations, and the growing pains of establishing a functioning government. Most of the revolutions in the twentieth century resulted in the people who ousted their government being stuck with something just as bad when it was done and even after throwing off the shackles of their oppressors the moon is in danger of following that same path. Africa in particular was undergoing these rapid governmental turnovers at the point that Heinlein was writing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and it clearly affected what he wrote.

The book is written in a rather odd dialect of English that can be annoying as you start the novel. Style is clipped. Abbreviated. Like this. I found that I was able to get past it fairly quickly but I know some people who find it too annoying to read. It does help that only the narrator speaks this dialect while other characters have their own voice.

And speaking of characters, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has as rich of group as you could hope to find. Mannie the computer technician doesn't want to overthrow the government but feels he doesn't have a choice. Professor Paz wants to tear down all of the institutions and not have anything in their place. The AI Mike sees the revolt as the greatest of all practical jokes but may not be stable enough to see it through to the end. Unfortunately Wyoh, the lone major female character, drifts off stage once the conspiracy to overthrow government begins, though she at least isn't sitting around pining for Manny while waiting for the men to do all the work.

The lunar society is clearly a frontier one and is well built around the idea that almost everyone there is fiercely independent. Life is cheap on the moon and the environment is unforgiving (one might say that the moon is a harsh mistress but that would be silly). It's a society built on the idea that "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Even the air isn't free on the moon and the whole situation drives people to be as self-reliant as possible.

The thing that I appreciate the most about The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is the depth of the society. The colony, the revolution, and its aftermath feel plausible and so they carry more weight than heroes who attack the governor's palace and then everything afterward is all better. Heinlein does slip into political lectures occasionally at least they're far more justified here than in Starship Troopers. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is Heinlein at his peak and its well worth reading.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy - Great Game, or Greatest Game?

You don't have to go far to find people gushing about Super Mario Galaxy. Any nerd with a Wii has probably spent a lot of time indoors this weekend playing through it. I haven't seen a lot of people commenting on some of my favorite aspects of the game (probably because they're not as sexy as talking about the graphic design or the levels).

The Scale - There's fifteen stages with at least three layouts and then another thirty-five stages that are one shot puzzles. I got more than twenty hours of play out of exploring the stages and getting all 120 stars and I'd like to think that I'm a somewhat skilled player. It's the right scale for a game for me; long enough that I don't feel cheated but not packed with repeditive, boring filler to extend time (Assassin's Creed, I'm looking at you). With that many stages there's a wide variety of things that a player will be called upon to do and almost each one has a distinct feel. The one unfortunate exception is a stage near the end which uses most of the same geometry as a stage near the beginning, and not in an ironic revisiting way.

Most of the stages are more linear than those in Mario 64 but there is enough exploration to let players dig around for hidden bonuses. Since the bulk of the environments are mapped onto three-dimensional surfaces there is a deceptive amount of area even in places where it doesn't look like there's much.

The Interface - Think about this for a moment. You have a game with an environment where some objects attract the player to any surface as down and others where the gravity pull is in one constant direction. Some places where falling is fatal and others where the player is attracted back to the nearest surface. How do you do this and make it coherent to the player? The answer that the developers of Super Mario Galaxy came up with is some subtle graphic design that gives obvious clues. Do you see a swirling black hole in the background? Don't fall there. Is the edge a sharp right angle? Then you can't change gravity there but you can smoothly cross over any curved surface.

The game doesn't use a lot of the Wii's motion tracking but it uses it appropriately. The waggle attack and activation is becoming a standard feature for games that don't have a lot of use for complicated motion tracking but the real gem is the fact that the player has a mouse cursor which can be used to collect power ups and shoot enemies to stun them. A player with a lot of FPS experience would have no problem shooting enemies while walking Mario around with the nunchuck's analog stick.

The Co-op Mode - Co-op play in Super Mario Galaxy features completely different game play for the second player. Instead of the traditional platforming that the first player is doing the second player is essentially there as an assistant. They have their own cursor which can be used to collect power ups, fire bullets, stun enemies, and help the first player jump higher. The game is still the first player's show but someone else who is watching can just jump in and play along. It reminds me a lot of Sonic 2 where the second player could take control of Tails at any time to assist the first player but the first player was the only one who could move the viewpoint. No one is going to get Super Mario Galaxy for this mode but it's a nice bonus.

I wouldn't call Super Mario Galaxy the greatest game ever but it is a lot of fun. Anyone who has enjoyed a Mario game in the past is sure to love it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Review - Dune

by Frank Herbert
1966 Hugo Co-Winner for Best Novel
1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet.

Dune. The book that launched a thousand sequels and a dynasty similar to that of the Tolkeins. It's one of the biggest novels in the history of science fiction, winner of the first Nebula, and potentially the best selling work of science fiction ever (I haven't been able to confirm the numbers for that one). I recall eating breakfast near Grand Central Station on a trip to New York and seeing a gigantic painting in an office building across the street featuring the Bene Gesserit litany.

I don't like the book.

I recognize that this makes me a heretic but where would we be if everyone thought the same way. I didn't care for the writing, I didn't care for the world building, I didn't care for the characters, I didn't care for the story.

Dune, for one of those five people who have somehow gotten here and have not heard of it, is about a world almost completely without water called Arrakis. On Arrakis you can find spice, a substance that can be refined to a drug that allows one to manipulate space and time. Spice lets faster than light travel be possible, is key to the function of the human pseudo-computers that manage things, grants its users immortality, and generally makes the universe go round. The downside to this is that giant worms the size of battleships roam the surface of Arrakis and have a tendency to crush anyone who wanders the desert looking for spice.

In this very distant future the known universe has regressed to a feudal system with great lords running entire planets. House Harkonnen runs Arrakis and controls the spice but they have a scheme to eliminate their rival House Atreides by having the planet handed over to them and then crushing them with the Emporer's assistance while the Atreides are still consolidating their power. The Atreides have an ace in the hole because the heir, Paul, is an übermench resulting from centuries of controlled breeding by a secretive organization of women called the Bene Gesserit. He has some vague, undefined superpowers of observation which are still developing as he goes to Arrakis. The Harkonnen succeed in killing almost all of the Atreides except Paul and his mother Jessica who flee into the desert seeking shelter with nomadic tribes while he plots his revenge.

There's one aspect to Dune's story that snapped my suspension of disbelief so hard that it could never recover. I can accept worms that tunnel through sand like its water. I can accept clothing that recycles the body's energy and liquids so efficiently that the laws of thermodynamics must be taking the day off. I can accept that a spacefaring culture might not grasp the doctrine of air superiority (okay, maybe not on that one but it's a mild balm on the "primitive people versus technology" plot that pales in comparison to my biggest problem). The single biggest problem I have with Dune is the spice. Not the fact that it makes you immortal, causes physical changes, and lets you bend the universe to your will; my problem is that no one seems to really care about it.

Spice is the most important substance in the universe; we're told this repeatedly throughout the book. So how is the most important substance in the universe, a substance which happens to appear to be vegetable matter, harvested? They fly around and go "Oh! There's some!" and then pick it up. Try to imagine anyone with bronze age technology on up taking this approach to collecting an important resource. And people put through major effort for much less important things like bananas. The book has one character working to prevent the discovery of the truth behind the spice but that's one person and spice has been the most important thing in the universe for thousands of years. No one has tried to improve production, enhance yields, cultivate it, or even been curious about the nature of the spice for a period that covers the same time frame separating the first Egyptian dynasty and myself. Since the book hinges on this idea it pulls me out of it immediately.

Once suspension of disbelief is lost it is hard for a book to recover. Good prose can help but Dune is lacking in that. For much of the book its as dry as Arrakis itself. It does pick up at several points (Paul and Jessica's journey in the desert is a particularly evocative section) but on the whole I found it to be plodding and overstretched. The characters are rather flat and seem to be puppets to the plot though Paul does get some depth toward the end of the novel.

There is one chunk of prose that I think is good is the famous Bene Gesserit litany:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
If the entire novel was written like that... well it would be pretty annoying after a few paragraphs but that is a very memorable screed that resonates well with readers.

Herbert tends to throw around his own terms without context which interrupts the flow of the book as you have to flip back to the glossary to be reminded what that term is. If he established things up front and then used the words regularly this wouldn't be so bad but he has a tendency to drop in a term and then not use it again about it for a few hundred pages before referencing it again so that the reader has forgotten what it means. Making things worse is the fact that he tends to define words in the glossary with other words in the glossary. On the whole I find this kind of writing annoying; dropping foreign terms in the middle of English text when a simple English equivalent would do is at the very least pretentious.

I can't deny that Dune is popular but I obviously don't care for it. Since I didn't like it I have to make a conjecture and say that Dune's popularity stems from its complex world-building, though when I first read Dune I was in that phase of my life when I was more willing to overlook poor writing for depth of setting and I didn't like it then (when I outgrew that phase it left me with a bitter dislike of the vast majority of fantasy novels). Dune is one classic science fiction work that I find skippable.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review - Beowulf

A quick way to know if you're a nerd: if your first reaction to hearing about the film Beowulf was "Neil Gaiman is doing a screenplay adaption of an Old English epic!" then you definitely fall into the nerd category. And for those of you who are like me and reacted that way will find the result worth it. This is the best film adaptation of Beowulf that I've seen even though that's damning with faint praise. But Beowulf has some real problems which no script could ever help.

For those of you who slept through your medieval literature classes the original epic is simple. Hrothgar's mead hall is getting attached every night by the monster Grendel so he sends out a call for heroes. Beowulf shows up and kills Grendel but his Grendel's mother is even nastier and wants revenge. Beowulf kills her and becomes king. Then it jumps ahead a few decades to a dragon attacking his land and Beowulf in his old age goes out to face the dragon.

Gaiman's script takes a point of view of showing us the real events that had been interpreted by the bards. It's similar to Eaters of the Dead (or The Thirteenth Warrior for those who have only seen the movie) in that sense though Gaiman obviously retains the fantastic elements. His deconstructionist view is that Grendel's mother is, essentially, a fertility goddess who offers a kind of immortality in exchange for seed. It's a concept that hits all the notes that Gaiman likes (if you're familiar with his work at all then you can probably guess where that story is going).

The real problems in Beowulf come from the visuals. There's nothing inherently wrong with CGI animation but the application here is particularly bad. Rather than distinctive character designs Robert Zemekis chose to make the characters look as much like the actors playing them as possible. Instead of wildly fantastic staging he chose "sets" that might as well have been sound stages (with the exception of a handful of better shots). In short, he made a live-action film using entirely CGI.

Unfortunately that plunges the viewers right into the heart of the uncanny valley, the paradox that as CGI attempts to look more real the more a human observer will notice that there's something wrong. Characters don't quite move right, lips don't quite form the right shapes, the skin doesn't have quite the right texture (this stands out in particular since the movie features the youngest looking old woman I've ever seen). Their attempts at realism are just distracting which is not a good thing.

Another problem is that the actors simply didn't do a very good job. Hollywood loves to cast big names for their animated movies but the skills for acting in a movie are different from acting alone behind a microphone (even with ADR they at least have the advantage of pulling from their on set experiences). Anthony Hopkins does the best work as Hrothgar, and Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf essentially gets to shout a lot and that's hard to do really badly. Angelina Jolie, on the other hand, acts like a drunk forty-year-old trying to seduce a teenager and I don't think that's quite what she was trying to do and John Malkovich was so sedate I was wondering if Valium was available in eighth century Denmark. I do have to compliment Crispin Glover as Grendel for learning his few lines in Old English.

It's a tough call for me but I think that the story outweighs the visual problems that the film has, but ask me on a day when I'm thinking about quality animation and I'm likely to go the other way. I'd say the breaking point is Neil Gaiman; if you're a fan then you'll be more inclined to overlook Beowulf's faults and find that gem in the middle but if you're not then you'll find yourself staring at the cold, dead manikins that Robert Zemekis is attempting to pass off as human beings and wondering why you went to see the movie.