There are no overriding issues in the world of comic books I feel like writing about this week, so:
So what've people got against Matt Fraction, Man Of Action, anyway? Some people don't like what he says in POPLIFE. Some bristle at his occasionally bizarre reviews at ArtBomb. Me, it's that I hate ape comics and then Fraction goes and writes a hysterical one, REX MANTOOTH, which has been collected as THE ANNOTATED MANTOOTH ($12.95) by AiT/PlanetLar Books (2034 47th Ave, San Francisco CA 94116). Mantooth is the James Bond of apes, complete with big action, ridiculous deathtraps, bad translations from foreign languages, and lovingly rendered by Matt Kuhn, with tones by Tim Fisher, in a delightfully loose quasi-Mike Mignola style. Okay, it's not deep, but it's wacky and funny. Fraction takes the unusual tack of running script pages opposite drawn pages, so reader may compare one to the other, and kindly includes his own running commentary so that no jokes will be missed. Which, given the material, is kind of overkill, but what the hey. Plus it's got intros galore by the likes of Warren Ellis, Joe Casey and Greg Rucka, plus a few pinup pages and more. It's been a grim weak (see below) so I was due for a good laugh. Sure turns out to be a hell of a lot more to read here than you'd expect, too. Thanks, Matt.
Speaking of laughs and apes, there's IN SEARCH OF MONKEYSUIT ($9.95) from Monkeysuit Press (170 West End Ave Suite 30 D, New York NY 10023), a trade paperback collection of "alternative comics" from an international spectrum of creators, which really doesn't have much to do with apes or any other non-human primates at all. I have a small problem with a lot of "alternative" comics: many seem to be as void of content as most "mainstream" comics, and often badly drawn, but because they're supposedly "personal," like that's automatically some badge of honor. Thankfully, the Monkeysuit stuff doesn't fall into that category. The stories aren't universally excellent – the book unfortunately opens with a weaker entry about intrepid kids investigating a supposed neighborhood cannibal that stumbles badly into BEANO territory – but in general they're sickly, and fairly slickly, entertaining, with a seeming special focus (though it seems coincidental) on the world of kids. And bunnies. Weird. Great collection, though, and one that gives me great hope for the future of "alternative" comics, after some of the drek I've seen recently. (And for truly inspired sickness, check out Dr. Hammer's "The Flesh Pocket," loosely patterned after ads in old comic books, one of the most creative comics works I've seen in years.)
A few months ago I reviewed Mad Yak Press's ANARCHY FOR THE MASSES: An Underground Guide To The Invisibles, by Patrick Neighly and Kereth Cowe-Spigain, a excellent skeleton key for Grant Morrison's hypersurreal cornerstone series THE INVISIBLES (currently available in many trade paperback volumes from DC/Vertigo) which went out of print almost immediately thereafter. Now resubtitled "The Disinformation Guide To THE INVISIBLES, the book has been reissued in an expanded by The Disinformation Company (163 3rd Ave Suite 108, New York NY 10003; $19.95). I gave the first edition a rave-up review for slicing, dicing and, um, illuminating the often cryptic Morrison masterwork, and this edition has even more, including a new cover by Frank Quitely. If you're a Morrison fanatic, or just want to see some really good comics criticism, don't miss ANARCHY FOR THE MASSES. (And I'm not just saying that because the back cover quotes my earlier review.)
But Mad Yak Press (300 N. Charles St #307, Baltimore MD 21201) isn't just about great exegeses. It's also about... urgh... apes. Or, specifically, GREAT APE ($3.50), a black and white comic written by Neighly and drawn in a charming, very European style by the mysterious "Brahma." (Whose true identity I happen to know: Diego Jourdan.) It's a comical tale, complete with bumbling secret agents, about a primate researcher who's made custodian of a recently discovered mystery ape with, she discovers, miraculous powers. Which turns out to be something totally unexpected, and permutates into a lighthearted speculation on the nature of existence. It's cute, and I mean that in a good way. Really wish Patrick hadn't done the Empire State Building joke, though.
Fortunately, Harris O'Malley's mini-comic, BETWEEN THE CRACKS #3, (230 W. Lynwood, San Antonio TX 78212; no price given) has nothing to do with apes or monkeys, except maybe philosophically. Playing off the old English folk tale, the hero Tam Lin, in modern day, uses an unsuspecting woman in an attempt to rescue his own soul from Titania, the Faerie Queen. It's not an entirely successful updating of the old song, immortalized by Fairport Convention on their breakthrough folk rock album LIEF AND LIEGE, but it's an interesting attempt, and O'Malley's particularly good at keeping dialogue sparse and taut. Having nicked the same story myself in the past (I'll leave it to the scholars among you to sort out where) I can only compliment him on his good taste...
J. Nick Reddoch and Clayton Hollifield are producing the mini-comic ZENJEFF (Clayholio Comics, 713 NW 22nd St, Battle Ground WA 98064), with two issues out already ($2.00@). The issues break down into tales of "Zenjeff," a postmodern barbarian warrior with a fairy companion who dresses like Elvis, and "Alien Boy," a plotless post-punk ramble with a half-human half-alien. Actually, I'm not sure what Alien Boy is, but, wouldn't you know? There's an ape in the strip. But it doesn't matter: both strips are decently drawn and fairly funny.
At first glance, Robert Elrod's ALL DRESSED UP (Swine Song Comics, 17038 Vineland Dr, Parker CO 80134; $2.00) seems a bit crude – the cover features a suited zombie bringing "us" a bouquet of dead flowers – but get over it. ALL DRESSED UP is an array of dark little vignettes focusing mostly on the apparent valueless futility of modern existence. (In keeping with this week's apparent theme, there's even an ape in one of them.) The artwork curiously shifts styles in every piece (fortunately, to something generally appropriate), and in some places (notably the ape strip) it's pretty good. Not for all tastes, but Elrod shows some promise, particularly if he can develop his mordant wit and apply it to actual stories.
Another book I raved up some time ago was Troy Little's CHIAROSCURO (Meanwhile Studios, Boc 39040, RPO Billings Bridge, Ottawa ON K1H 1A1 Canada), featuring the storyline "Patchwork," a beautifully drawn strip (the art's like an anime version of Will Eisner) about a slacker philosopher/would-be painter lost in everyday life and looking for inspiration and surviving on his own outrage. Troy sent me #s 2-5 ($2.75@) to catch up with, and while my original response to the book was that it's great, after reading five consecutive issues I have to say it's really great. Someone get this stuff in a trade paperback right bloody NOW! Fact is, Will Eisner would kill to do stuff like this, and if you have any brains at all you'll either pester your comics shop until it gets CHIAROSCURO or you'll stick a check in the mail for it right this bloody instant.
Yes, a storyline does slowly evolve, with, thankfully, not an ape in sight.
Speaking of Patrick Neighly, he weighs in with a report on last weekend's Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco, which I couldn't attend:
Betty Page haircuts and striped tights. That seemed to be the official costume of the 2003 Alternative Press Expo, a near-endless supply of Slave Labor Graphics characters come to life, with not a single middle-aged Sub-Mariner in sight. Indeed, one suspects the sole Spider-Man costume in the crowd was more an achingly hip reference to Peter Bagge than anything else.
The APE show, held last week in a disused train station in San Francisco, was a mixed signal as far as industry yardsticks go. Top indie stars such as Jhonen Vasquez drew crowds on a par with "mainstream" industry celebrities, but aside from the photocopied mini market, fans of the craft were far outnumbered by fans of the creator.
San Francisco is an odd beast, with a Mission district populated in seemingly equal measure by trendy youths and thrift shops. The result seems to be a comics audience not used to spending money, and, while fifty-cent minis appeared to fly off tables, anything upwards of three bucks remained glumly in vendors' hands.
Most of the publishers I spoke with felt this pain, many taking several hundred dollars in losses just to get their books two days of visibility in a comics climate that usually sees them shut off from retailers. A quick scout around online fora suggests that even larger indies felt the pinch this year, with one or two notable exceptions.
To make matters worse, organizers segregated the floor, giving the big guns prime real estate by the front door and relegating the single-title crowd to an elevated – and much less trafficked – side area. The few unknowns on the main floor reported brisker sales as a result, and one wonders if organizers should deliberately mix large and small publishers at future events to help grow the community. How many small players won't bother to plump for airfare next year after seeing the difference in floor and deck traffic?
But what small presses lacked in quantity they made up for in quality, with Heidi MacDonald making a special effort to circle the deck in the interest of fair play and pros such as Steve Leialoha carving out time to check out the up and coming talent and snap up books like my own GREAT APE (Ahem! Solicited in the March Previews from Mad Yak Press).
Retailers were another bright light, dominated by local stalwarts James Sime (of Isotope) and Rory Root (of Comic Relief). Both appeared to take glee in buying armloads of books from unknowns on Sunday, spearheading what seemed to be a weekend of heavy retailer interest in what the little guys have coming up next. Indeed, visitors to both Isotope and Comic Relief could be forgiven for wondering if superhero books are no longer the norm!All in all, the show was a worthwhile visit for the small publisher, a chance to chat with peers about printers and promotion. Where else can you pick up a hand-stapled mini at one booth and a lavishly printed Malaysian graphic novel at the next? APE is no longer essential for the small publisher, but it remains a vital, exhilarating destination for fans of the craft weary of corporate homogeneity.
After Colin Powell's speech last week at the UN – during which they symbolically covered up their tapestry of Picasso's famous painting, on the horrors of war, Guernica - I received a number of e-mails from people saying, "There! Now you certainly have to admit we should invade Iraq."
Er... no. If anything, the argument for military action against Iraq is even weaker now.
One of the great arguments for the invasion of Iraq is the old saw that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to relive it. If that's the argument being made it's highly selective of the history we should learn from.
Connie Chung, on CNN not long ago, displayed her impartial investigative journalist chops by demanding of a guest who questioned the administration's "evidence" if he really chose to take the word of Saddam Hussein over the word of *The President*. There was no mistaking what Connie believed the right answer would be – the question alone suggested the guest was Mad! I tell you! Mad! – but it's not the right question. There is no reason to take the word of either one of them. Since the end of World War II, the United States government, regardless of political affiliation, has repeatedly lied to the American public, particularly regarding overseas adventurism. Let me ask you: if someone consistently lies to you over and over and over, why would you leap to the conclusion that they're believable on the issue of the moment? This goes for the Iraqi government (c'mon, let's face it, no one likes the Iraqii government, but that's hardly the point), and it goes for the American government.
A small selection, out of many, of lies foisted on the American public in the name of foreign policy agendas:
The Gulf Of Tonkin. This event, an "unprovoked attack" by North Vietnamese vessels on American Navy ships off the Vietnamese coast, complete with wild rumors of numerous American casualties, triggered the massive military build-up since known as the Vietnam War when Congress reacted emotionally to the attack. Later it came out that American and South Vietnamese forces had deliberately provoked it.
Before the Gulf War, the first President Bush proclaimed the Iraqis were marshalling their forces on the border with Saudi Arabia in preparation for an invasion, thus threatening the West's supply of oil. (This was strongly undercut by satellite photos that showed, well, absolutely nothing on the Iraq-Arabian border. The American public was later stirred to backing the Gulf War by the tearful testimony before Congress by a refugee Kuwaiti woman, of Iraqis throwing babies out of incubators in hospitals and leaving the helpless infants to die while the invaders made off with the equipment. Only later did it come out the woman was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who hadn't been in Kuwait since before the invasion, and her testimony was concocted by a Washington DC P.R. firm with strong ties to the Bush-pere White House, and no evidence has ever been found that Iraqis slaughtered incubated babies (or zoo animals, for that matter) in Kuwait.
Trying to drum up support for military action against Nicaragua, the Reagan White House presented surveillance photos of a "Cuban base" in that country. Despite looking much like a baseball diamond, the administration assured us it could only be a Cuban base because they don't play good old American baseball in Nicaragua. Baseball is Nicaragua's national sport, and the White House was, in fact, passing off a photo of a baseball diamond.
After Russian invaded Afghanistan, footage was produced of a "Russian tank" destroying "an Afghan town." It later turned out to be a Pakistani tank on a standard training mission inside Pakistan.
Etc. etc. etc.
(This doesn't include the many scenarios where the government didn't tell us what they were doing, as when they experimented with chemicals, psychoactive drugs and radiation on unsuspecting American citizens. This morning I heard a report to Congress from the CIA sternly warning that Al-Qaida desires to use chemical, biological and "radiological" – this word seems to have suddenly popped up to replace "nuclear," maybe because no one in the current administration besides Colin Powell seems to know how to pronounce the latter word, though I can't see radiological as much of an improvement – weapons on American citizens, and I thought, "Yeah, that's the CIA's job." Or the plans that never quite happened, like 1962's Operation Northwoods, where the Pentagon planned "Cuban" attacks on Americans to gain backing for an invasion of Cuba.)
So does this mean Colin Powell was lying to the UN? I have no idea if he was or not. (But, as someone reminded me last week, bear in mind that Powell first came to prominence orchestrating the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, where American soldiers gunned down all the men, women and children of an entire Vietnamese village, again regardless of political connections. The government first denied it had happened, then claimed it was the work of crazed soldiers strung out on the demon weed marijuana, and finally we learned it was a carefully designed and executed extension of the Phoenix Program, the CIA's campaign in Vietnam to wipe out dissidents.) So Powell waves photographs of semi-tractor trailers at us and claims they're mobile weapons development facilities, and all I can think of are baseball diamonds in Nicaragua. His case wasn't helped by extensive quoting of British prime minister Tony Blair's own security assessment of the Iraqi threat – whose "latest findings" were revealed last weekend to have been lifted wholesale from a two-year old dissertation of a Monterey CA grad student, marginally rewritten to amplify a sense of threat. This is the "secret intelligence" they're working with? As for the information from "captured terrorists" "establishing" a link between Al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, German intelligence reports indicate the "link," a terrorist named Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, is actually connected to Iran, not Iraq. So who do we believe?
Okay, so your argument now is: sure, maybe they lied to us all those other times, but they don't lie to us anymore!
But just this last week the administration lied, when the Center For Public Integrity laid hands on the Justice Dept.'s 120 page plan for updating the 2001 Patriot Act with such wonderful measures as virtually totally freeing the DoJ from any oversight by even the generally complacent FISA court (they did tell Atty. General John Ashcroft no once - then reversed themselves on review, with only the government allowed to argue the point before them – but apparently that was once too often), deporting American citizens (to where?!!) if they "aid terrorists" (By doing what? Protesting government actions?), vastly increasing the FBI's ability to spy on American citizens at home, and generally eliminating the Bill Of Rights, as well as cracking down on anyone's ability to actually discover what the DoJ is up to in defense of our liberty, and dropping in little gifts to industry like forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency and other government organization from revealing to locales what chemicals the factories and other businesses in the vicinity are dumping into the air and water. The initial response from the DoJ was that there was no such plan, before they backtracked to say they haven't sent anything to anyone. (The January 9, 2003 draft is marked "Confidential – Not For Distribution." Then National Public Radio discovered a cover sheet indicating it had been sent to both the Speaker Of The House and Vice President Dick Cheney.) (And ain't it convenient that a sudden raising of the color-coded National Alert Level to orange, with the proposed threat of a biochem attack that has apparently once more been thwarted, followed immediately on the heels of the leaks?)
And the Department Of Justice recently pursued the federal government's anti-medical marijuana crusade by prosecuting an Oakland grower, Ed Rosenthal, by empaneling a jury from outside the district that knew absolutely nothing about him, while the prosecutor painted him as a grass gangster flooding the Bay Area with the evil weed while the judge refused to allow mention of a fact that, as jurors revealed when they learned of it after the case concluded (with a conviction), that Rosenthal had been deputized by the City Of Oakland to supply medical marijuana to cancer patients, under strict supervision, pursuant to California Compassionate Use Act that passed with the support of 78% of the Californian public. Rosenthal was in essence not allowed to defend himself, members of the jury publicly spoke out when they learned the truth and said they felt they had been duped and manipulated by the court, while the federal prosecutor stated, as prosecutors do, that "justice had been served." But only by forcing out any statements contrary to the government's position. Is this lying? By omission, yes, and of the government felt their position was so strong, why was it necessary? Was it manipulation? Absolutely. There's a pattern of those growing in the Ashcroft DoJ, and what Rosenthal's case suggests about the current administration is that if they feel a cause is worthy enough – say, the war on drugs – then any practice that serves the needs of that cause is valid. Even against the will of the citizenry.
So is the government lying about Iraq? Not necessarily. We don't know. Given their track record of the last 50+ years, we cannot afford to take the word of the government in matters of foreign expeditionism. There has simply been a standard pattern of lying and manipulation, and we shouldn't be putting up with it. This is supposed to be a democracy, which means we are supposed to be informed, and that means accurately informed. If a case is strong enough, there's no need to lie about it. If lies are necessary, it isn't a strong enough case. And I'm not talking about being wrong. Even governments are wrong. Even our government. But that's just another reason for double-checking everything what the government tells us before we come to conclusions and rush to action. Are the Iraqis really moving labs around on trucks, like they did in KNIGHT RIDER? Let's get it independently verified.
(Just turned on the TV and it turns out, as I write this, that Colin Powell just announced to the world that Arab radio station Al-Jazeera was about to play an audio tape from Osama Bin Laden – before Al-Jazeera knew the tape even existed. The BBC has, interestingly, removed Al-Jazeera's denial of any knowledge from their website. Also interestingly, the tape seems to have generated from Birmingham England. What on earth is going on here?)
Unfortunately, we have been lied to so often that independent verification is absolutely necessary. Especially with an administration obsessed with secrecy surrounding its actions and driving (via such things as the "non-existent" expansion of the Patriot Act) to drastically increase secrecy. Particularly with an administration that changes its tune daily when producing rationales for war. For instance, we have been told, over and over, that oil is not the issue in Iraq, and for at least some sectors of the Pentagon it's not; they want a secure Middle Eastern base from which to keep other Muslim nations in line. Why then have we tried to coerce France and Russia into backing our invasion by threatening to cut them off from Iraqi oil (hereafter to be known as "the spoils"), once "regime change" has been effected, if they don't? (The Guardian reports the US is reacting "with fury" to a German-French plan to toughen and extend inspections, calling it "a thinly disguised attempt to derail the US timetable for war.") Why are we trying to browbeat NATO into a war outside their charter.
An extremely good case can be made for decades of a standard pattern of lies and manipulations from the United States government in order to achieve foreign policy ends. Due to time considerations, I cited four above, but there are dozens, extending to virtually every overt and covert foreign action the USA has undertaken since World War II, and many of the domestic actions it has undertaken, often to the detriment of American citizens. (Don't take my word for it; there are hundreds of books out there spelling it all out with strong documentation, like Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair's WHITEOUT, which includes vast lists of other sources.) There's absolutely no reason to believe this administration is different from earlier ones in that regard, and to assume that, especially as many of the people active in the lies and manipulations of the Reagan and Bush-pere administrations are also active in this one, is flat out dangerous. As Powell's speech indicates, we can't afford to take their word for "secret intelligence." Whatever is there to be proven must be independently verified before it becomes believable.
Haven't been to the movies in ages – I wouldn't mind seeing THE RECRUIT but it's nothing I can't wait for on HBO – and there hasn't been much on TV worth writing about. I don't think DAREDEVIL, opening on Friday, will change the world for comics, but I expect it'll do decently, since someone in the promo department had the brains to start playing up the Murdoch-Elektra romantic element in the ads, which may go a long ways toward making it the date movie of choice on Valentine's Day (as opposed to the relationship killing action thriller kissoff – "You want to go see WHAT on Valentine's Day" - it was originally marketed as), but I've got no particular interest in seeing it. The only thing coming up that's enough to get me out of the house is the Kurt Russell-Ving Rhames vehicle DARK BLUE, a James Ellroy scripted film that I'm told is very much in the vein of the great L.A. CONFIDENTIAL but is unfortunately being promoted by some dimbulb as a generic cop thriller. Latest episode of OZ (HBO, 9PM Sundays) was not only brilliant but chock full of info about varying rules for executing the mentally handicapped in America, but there's not really much that can be said about OZ until the series wraps in two weeks. 24 (Fox, 9PM Tuesdays) continues to hold up, KINGPIN (NBC, 10PM Sundays and Tuesdays) is mildly – but only mildly - entertaining fluff (a Mexican-American friend of mine was a bit annoyed over all the mayombero stuff, which really isn't very prevalent in Mexican culture), and – that's pretty much it. Comedy Central recently aired a new ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS special that illustrates why the show should never go past half an hour: the first half hour, reintroducing all the characters and setting up a trip to New York, was rolling on the floor hilarious – esp. the Evangelist bits with Mo Gaffney and Jane Horrocks, who hysterically doubled as heroine Eddy's (series creator-writer Jennifer Saunders) braindead assistant Bubble – but while everyone was dead on in the acting, the pace and humor flagged badly as Eddy scoured Manhattan for her gay son, accidentally ending up in a lesbian marriage in the process. Until the last five minutes, when, perhaps relieved by the onrushing words "The End," the laughs suddenly rocketed back. Still, beats the hell out of EVERYONE (but me, apparently) LOVES RAYMOND. Following my THE OFFICE review last week, Ed Brubaker wrote to suggest I check out the BBC thriller WAKING THE DEAD (BBC America, 9PM Mondays). It's about cops who reopen dead cases, it's said to be the English equivalent of CSI (CBS, Thursday 9 PM) and I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, so you might want to check it out for yourselves first. BBC crime shows are a hit and miss affair; you never know whether you're going to get SECOND SIGHT or JONATHAN CREEK...
A couple websites of interest. Rob Schamburger, whose THE BELIEVER was published by Image Comics, has started, with Thom Thurman, a comics activism site, FREE COMIX. Along for the ride so far are Jim Mahfood, Steve Lightle (who I still want to do a book with one of these days), Phil Hester, Kerry Callen and B. Clay Moore. They're out there fighting the good fight for you; check them out, and get active.
Stu Young sent me this link yesterday: THE 25 LAWS OF JAPANESE ANIMATION. Very funny. People have been sending me a lot of things. Mark Coale sent a copy of GAEA GIRLS, an acclaimed documentary about Japanese women's wrestling. (Not to mention feeding me info from Dave Meltzer's excellent newsletter, The Wrestling Observer. Reading that I liked DR. WHO, Patrick Neighly sent along a prose anthology he co-edited for Ambrosia Press a couple years back, called LIFEDEATH. Chris Gumprich volunteered to provide tapes of PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE, an old radio show current plans have me updating into a crime comic for Moonstone Books.
Finally, I'd like to thank Jeffrey Stevenson for the tube of CortAid, which he courteously sent to comfort the hives that comics featuring elves give me. I appreciate all of it.
I also want to remind everyone – particularly you reviewers out there who passed by the pamphlet run with an eye toward the trade paperback collection – that MORTAL SOULS has been released as a trade paperback by Avatar Press. And remember this month's issue of Marvel's X-MEN UNLIMITED, #43, has a tale of Lockheed The Dragon, beautifully and lovingly drawn by Lockheed co-creator Paul "LEAVE IT TO CHANCE" Smith. Don't miss it.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I've switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it's still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.