One comment I always hear from newcomers to the San Diego Comic-Con is how big it is. Triple that and you've got a rough approximation of the size of Comdex, the computer industry's biggest trade show of the year. Held every year about this time at the Las Vegas Convention Center, it's where all the hot new products are trotted out for display. Business products, mainly; the cool consumer products show up at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, at the same venue in January. (If you want to go, entry to the exhibits is free if you register online before the end of the month.)
Despite their rollercoaster performance on the stock market, tech companies remain major forces behind the continual reshaping of our culture. We live in a tech culture now, our world slowly transforming into William Gibson's cyberpunk landscape. Slow being a matter of perception; my mother was born in 1920 and grew up in cities during the 30s when even the most urban areas were ridiculously rural by our standards. Movies, which she loved, were something you stood in line and went to the theater to see, exclusively, and movies came on reels and reels. (When I was a film projectionist, movies didn't fit on anything lighter than 40 lbs., and that was just the raw film and reels in their protective steel cases.) Being able to hold an entire movie in your hand on a disk that doesn't even weigh an ounce is sheer science fiction to her. When she was a girl, phones were large, attached to a wall, and you had to go through a central operator to connect to anyone. When I was a kid, phones were smaller and you could call direct, but all of them used rotary dials and couldn't be moved far. Now almost everyone carries tinier and tinier cell phones. Science fiction, except it's not fiction anymore, and the next step, already in progress (as evidenced by many displays at Comdex) is the widespread use of cell phones able to connect to the Internet from anywhere, at any time.
And I imagine a number of readers are saying to themselves, "Yeah, so?" We've become so used to technological jumps they barely register anymore, because most of us have grown up during a period where technological jumps are the norm, or have adjusted to the pace. Future Shock, theorized by Alvin Toffler in his then-influential and now hopelessly sentimental best-seller of the early 70s, no longer exists for most of us. Our attitude, generally, is okay, we put a man on the moon, we're all linked together through the Internet, we have faster and better gaming systems, so what have you done for me lately?
Comdex, by its nature, is more focused on business technology: local area networks, remote connectivity, portability, data security, that sort of thing. But there are technologies that may have huge impacts on our lives. 50" TVs you can lift with one arm and hang on your wall, far sharper and with far more brilliant color than ever before. Tablet PCs, which, as my tech advisor Rob Beddard points out, is the perfect format for virtual comics. New DVD technologies. The most popular exhibit was easily Microsoft's X-Box display, where conventioneers could play hot new games on Microsoft's super new game system.
What all this means for comics is new challenges. Technology changes at a ridiculous pace. The cutting edge speed for computers is, with technological improvements in the hardware, now close to ten times what it was two years ago. Game graphics become more realistic in quantum leaps. Print technology, likewise, is making huge leaps; one company at Comdex demonstrated its ability to print picture-perfect photographs on square yards of canvas, making "fine art" prints with an "original" feel cheaply and easily. In theory, comic books can now be produced more cheaply than ever before, if the technology is embraced, but traditionally new technology is accepted grudgingly by comics and usually only when it's on the verge of being replaced by a new technology. Marvel, for instance, is just now shifting to electronic vouchering for freelancers, though the technology's been available for years. And they're pretty much the only company doing that, and that's just financial technology and nothing to do with the art. Imagine the look of a comic that made use of current computer image generation technology. For all the great artists working in the field today, comics still look pretty much the same as they did twenty years ago.
Just one of the ways the field isn't staying competitive for consumer dollars.
Not that all is rosy at Comdex. Walk around the floor, and there are the "sexy" booths, where conventioneers ooh and ahh over new toys, but there are also many where no one clusters, where manufacturers try to push their particular version of core tech. Let's face it, pretty much all USB patchboxes are the same, made with roughly the same components to sell at the same price, so how do you get people excited about that? Sameness breeds boredom. For many of the new technologies, like the Bluetooth wireless standard, on-the-spot excitement won't necessarily translate to sales or success. There's an old rule of thumb in the computer industry that every technology needs a killer app. A killer app is software that either drastically changes the way things are done or is so cool it's hard to pass up on entertainment value. Computer games were, naturally, the killer apps for computer gaming systems. Spreadsheets were the killer app that put PCs on the map. There could have been no CD writer market without good CD-burning software. DVDs are the killer app pushing the sales of many flat panel screens.
For all the new products being pushed at Comdex, there's a noticeable lack of emphasis on software. Where are the new killer apps? (Comics fans and publishers might also see an analogy in this. Comics may, as some argue, be better than ever – but where are the killer apps? Where's the material that makes comics necessary?)
The other whipped stepchild at Comdex is the dot-com, which has been quietly tucked away. All the companies have their own dot-coms, of course, but dot-coms seem no longer to be an end in themselves. There were a few dot-coms promoting themselves, mainly those offering supply, financial or data security services, and very little of interest to anyone but middle managers.
One dot-com with a Comdex presence is also the sole representative of the comics industry there, the upstart Wowcomics. Sporting a variety of material and styles, with plans for expansion soon, Wowcomics intends to market online comics (done, as near as I can tell, in the traditional page style and not as the stop action Flash cartoons so many try to push as "comics" on the web) with instant translation and fast streaming, in an attempt to capitalize on the worldwide love of the comics form. They also sport an Image-like backend payment scheme for freelancers and a decent (again, as near as I can tell) creator-rights agenda.
TV Watch: THE TICK (Fox, Thursdays 8:30) got off to a very weak ratings start. If things don't improve, expect THE TICK to get scratched very quickly. Fox's 24 HOURS (Tuesdays, 9 PM), a somewhat intriguing espionage show starring Kiefer Sutherland, was also considered a ratings disappointment, probably not helped by debuting in the middle of the season directly opposite the return of ABC's popular NYPD BLUE. I'll give 24 HOURS at least another couple episodes to see if what I anticipate is what's really going on in the story. DC, on the other hand, must be thrilled that the WB's fall hit SMALLVILLE (a massive hit by WB standards, anyway) actually raised its market share opposite 24 HOURS, NYPD BLUE and NBC's FRAZIER. For those already tiring of the SMALLVILLE formula, I have it on good authority the staff is aware of the formula, intentionally played it up to get everyone used to the show's basics, and have swerves from the formula already planned for upcoming episodes. Meanwhile, things look bleak for NBC's INSIDE SCHWARTZ as the network reportedly plans to move their Tuesday hit SCRUBS to SCHWARTZ's post FRIENDS berth at 8:30 Thursday, while Julia Luis-Dreyfuss' new show takes the SCRUBS slot. Where this leaves SCHWARTZ is anyone's guess. For star Breckin Meyer's sake, I hope the show is quickly dumped and he just as quickly ends up in something much better. And the New York Post recently asked if "the superhero" is making a comeback, citing the success of SMALLVILLE, SAMURAI JACK and the new JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA cartoon show, coming to Cartoon Network Nov. 17. Given that they ignore the crash of THE TICK and don't mention MUTANT X, that SAMURAI JACK hardly qualifies as a superhero, and JLA hasn't debuted so no one knows if it's a hot ticket or not, the article sounds like something some Time-Warner press flak managed to place. But, of course, the New York Post is too professional a newspaper to ever allow something like that...
Not much happening on the comics scene in the past week. THE AUTHORITY isn't officially cancelled yet, but the rumor mill's running wild with reports it's imminent. Not that this comes as a surprise, particularly not to AUTHORITY creator Warren Ellis, who predicted the cancellation within minutes of the 9-11 WTC attack. Wildstorm, like Vertigo, is considerably freer than the DC Universe proper, but Warren's stint on HELLBLAZER at Vertigo ended when his story about high school shootings collided with DC's increasingly renowned "sensitivity to public tastes," so he was in a good position to estimate DC's tolerance for stories about destroyed cities and slaughtered populations, not to mention tolerance for, um, "deviant" lifestyles. (I leave it to Kyle Baker to judge their tolerance for the interface between kitchen technology and infants.) It'll be interesting to see how sensitively DC approaches Frank Miller's upcoming megahit (reportedly 200,000 advance orders for #1), THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES BACK, especially since Frank hasn't been exactly quiet in interviews about how we shouldn't let the WTC attack affect how we approach what goes into our comics...
A note on the political front: another example of how the so-called "war on terrorism" is at least partly a war on American liberty. Last week Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft authorized the Justice Dept. to begin listening in on conversations between lawyers and their clients in Federal custody – "wherever it is deemed necessary to prevent violence or terrorism." Besides being flagrantly unconstitutional, it also widens the definition of "convict" to anyone being held in Federal custody, not just those who've been convicted or even accused of a crime. The DoJ has promised all kinds of flighty "safeguards," including notifying a lawyer he's being listened in on, which falls apart because as confidentiality is a cornerstone of the lawyer-client relationship and lawyers aren't even supposed to have legal conversations with clients in unsecured conditions, what it really comes down to is the government attempting to rob people of an adequate defense. Ashcroft insists the government will sift carefully through all information gained and not use anything gained that doesn't have anything to do with violence or terrorism – unless a Federal judge says it's okay to – but it's the DoJ, apparently down to the local office level, that gets to decide who and what "violence and terrorism" means in any given situation, and, since the decision covers people who haven't even been officially accused of a crime, that means they can pretty much arbitrarily listen to just about anything, and decide what's relevant afterward. "Observations" can be ordered for a year at a time and renewed indefinitely. Yet another step in Ashcroft's campaign to institute an American police state under the guise of protecting freedom.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. 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.
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