18 August 2016
08 August 2016
It's all rather like watching a car crash in slow motion... through a fireworks warehouse... on the hottest, driest day of the year... when the sprinkler system is out... while the Firebird Suite blasts out of a wall of Marshalls, the whole event finally ending with the stunt driver climbing out of the vehicle and yelling, "Tah-Dah!" at the top of his lungs before his legs give out from exhaustion. He was supposed to deliver a pizza, but we're nonetheless impressed at the spectacle that unfurled before us.
Now that the prologue is out of the way, let's talk about the prologue of The Killing Joke, and the dynamic between Alan Moore and Bruce Timm.
The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot Batman story written by Watchmen creator Alan Moore, offering a proposed origin story for the Joker, complete with a psychological analysis from our unreliable narrator, the Clown Prince of Crime as he torments Commissioner Gordon after shooting his daughter Barbara through the spine. Though the influence of the book is still being mapped out to this day, sometimes we have to call a spade a spade.
It's not an especially good story...
And I can say that because even Moore has expressed embarrassment over the piece. The biggest criticism that could be leveled at the story (as well as the recent animated adaptation) is that it's a victim of its own hype. It leans heavily on pure shock value, disguising an otherwise humdrum story from a writer with a reputation for breaking the mold with spectacular flair. Remember, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had already happened three years earlier, so the public perception of Batman (and comics in general) had already shifted from juvenile camp and fun to the big leagues of pathos and tragedy. Had it been released earlier, or in lieu of either of those two other works (unlikely, as Dark Knight was Frank Miller's work), maybe it would have had a better chance.
Similarly, Bruce Timm has had his own run-ins with using shock value to move up from the kid's table, once again causing a ripple still being felt today. When Batgirl came to Batman: The Animated Series, Timm didn't simply want to tick off a box of Batman staples, and he certainly didn't wish to emulate the Yvonne Craig Batgirl of the Adam West show, who, among other silly compromises, was never actually allowed to punch anybody. Furthermore, he wanted to make Batman a tragic figure in every aspect of his life. This included his already tumultuous romantic life.
Two birds plus one stone equals five words: No dating at the office.
This is where we have to delve into a slightly (read: very) uncomfortable discussion of eating one's cake and having it too, that of presenting drama and tragedy but somehow not tugging at heartstrings or turning stomachs. Storytelling 101 tells us any good story needs conflict, bad things need to happen to good people, giving them a challenge to overcome and possibly undergo a drastic change as a result.
Gail Simone found that, more often than not, the tragedy tends to fall on female characters, to an alarmingly disproportionate degree. This is a phenomenon dubbed Women in Refrigerators, a reference to an issue of Green Lantern in which the titular guardian discovers his girlfriend's murdered corpse stuffed in his refrigerator, signaling the return of an old enemy. Put simply, in the opening act of The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon is refrigerated. She is shot in the spine by the Joker right in front of her father, who is subsequently taken away to be psychologically tormented, all as a means to lure Batman into a final confrontation.
Here's my personal stance on the whole issue of how female characters are (mis)treated in comics: It is most certainly a problem, but not because it's sexist or misogynistic or any other problematic adjective. It is a problem because it is lazy, tired, cliched, and overdone. On top of that, the only reason I care is because comic publishers keep complaining about how they want to expand their audience to include more female readers, only to keep giving their identifying characters the short end of the stick and beating them unconscious with it.
For the record, I do not consider Timm's idea to romantically link Batman and Batgirl to be a bad one. In fact, I think it is pure, artistic genius, even brave. That said, I'm going to attach a very big qualifier to that statement:
In a vacuum.
In the context of a mid-90s animated series generally aimed at a younger audience about a popular comic book hero still shedding the stigma of camp, the notion of Batman as a tragic figure by way of his most stable relationship being with his best friend's daughter, is brilliant. Timm has even said, when asked why the odd pairing that's most certainly bound to fail, "That's why we did it." If it's not clear yet why I'm madly in love with this bad romance, let me put it this way: Where is it written that every relationship in any story has to go well? Hell, George Lucas even asked once why every male and female lead have to end up together. For as much of a headache as it seems to be for comic writers to write superheroes as married, they seem to have a harder time writing a relationship that's got red flags from the word go. Of course it's not going to work. Of course it's going to end badly. Of course it's likely to backfire in the worst conceivable way. However, we'd be less invested, if not utterly disinterested, if everything went smoothly.
This is where the discussion of Barbara Gordon's role in The Killing Joke gets uncomfortable, for both fans of the book and the new adaptation. Again, compared to other stories that came before it, Moore's little one-off special seems rather quaint, almost phoned-in. As for animation, Timm's treatment of the Batman/Batgirl dynamic loses its luster when venturing into the broader spectrum of the comics it's based on. It's still unique, but it gets buried under a host of similar, yet failed experiments. It's too little, too late. Putting the two together works about as well as it sounds. It doesn't fail, but it has the same problem the original did; take away the shock value, and all you've got left is a decent adaptation of a so-so Alan Moore comic, preceded by an above-average "lost episode" of Bruce Timm's animated Batman.
None of this means it's bad or unwatchable. The parts that work do so beautifully. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy own their roles, and hearing Moore's words through them is well worth the price of admission. It respects the source material, warts and all, hitting all the key points with superb fidelity, even maintaining the subtle nuance of the ending. When the worst that can be said of something is it being a product of its era and a victim of its own hype, that's not a bad outcome for a collaboration of two radically different visionaries.
01 August 2016
The console market is in a place of uncertainty for the first time since the early 1980s. Sure, the uncertainty principle has followed consoles from day one, but if we look at the facts, the years have seen a dwindling number of advantages consoles have held for consumers over PCs in the last fifteen years. The Dreamcast introduced a built-in modem in 1999, whereas previous attempts at internet support have been aftermarket accessories like the Satellaview or the Sega Channel. Despite this, the idea of distributing games over data lines was years away from viability, with the 64DD, PS2 Hard Drive, and Phantom Console's graves as trail markers. Now, hard drives and internet connections are standard, along with digital storefronts and infrastructure for downloads and even streaming. Put simply, the line between consoles and PCs has been completely blurred, the only true differences having more to do with politics than hardware. PCs are still fundamentally the wild west while consoles are gated communities. Literally anyone can develop a PC game, and even get it released through a proper online store like Steam or Humble Bundle. Console developers have to offer their firstborn just to be put on a waiting list for a development kit. Granted, that line is blurring, but there's very little point in waiting for the treaty to be signed if the arms race is already over by way of stalemate.
Between Miitomo and the runaway hit Pokemon GO, Nintendo has shown they're not above going to third parties for hardware, the taste of Philips out of their mouth at long last. Still, what we've always loved about Nintendo is how they go their own way, for better or for worse. Though they may have tread lightly in bringing the NES to America, compromises have been few and far between, much to the chagrin of developers, publishers, and even gamers. The Super Nintendo sold well enough, but if not for the Mortal Kombat blood controversy and Sega looking the other way to EA bypassing normal publishing channels to bring Madden to the Genesis, the SNES could have buried the competition as the NES had done to the likes of the Master System and Atari 7800. The N64's use of cartridges (in)famously drove away powerhouses like Square to Sony's bed, alienating those RPG fans who had cut their teeth on the SNES. Again, it sold well enough, but we have to ask what could have been. Similarly, the GameCube was a reasonable success, but now stands as Nintendo's second worst-selling home console, after the Wii U (we won't count the 1973 Color TV-Game since it's a Pong console), owed again to a proprietary format and a reluctance to play ball with third parties.
Meanwhile, in the portable and handheld market, Nintendo's only true blunder to this day is the Virtual Boy. Otherwise, even the weakest link in the Game Boy/GBA/DS chain has been a license to print money. It's almost hilarious how people would forgive serious flaws like a blurry, spinach-green display on the original or a dim-as-moonless-midnight screen on the Advance and still send the things flying off the shelf. It took Sony pouring buckets of money and marketing into the PSP to even make a dent in that wall (Rest In Peace, Neo Geo Pocket Color). It finally took the iPhone to make Nintendo sit up and notice they weren't alone in their dominance of the handheld market. As much as I laughed at the prospect of iPhone/Android games and still hesitate to call it a serious platform, just like consoles, the line is blurring and it's all getting better. I still love my Vita, and I still have my original PSP, and if I could only have one, I'd take either of those over the best iPhone or iPad any day. The problem, the final hurdle for mobile phones and tablets to overcome, is the interface. Touch controls and gyroscopes do not give the same satisfying, tactile feedback as buttons or even knobs. Nintendo seems to understand this. That's why I think they're making a legitimately smart move in presenting the NX as a souped-up gaming tablet, following patterns laid down by the likes of the NVidia Shield or the Wikipad or some of Sony's Xperia devices. Some may be scratching their heads, but I think this move is the best decision they've made in years. They're still going their own way as they always have, it's just down a trail they blazed years ago.
16 June 2016
Copyright protects the investment of artisans, be it only time or time and money. It guarantees them a means by which they may benefit from their work to enable them to keep creating content with as few hurdles as possible. There's nothing remotely wrong with this idea; it's basic sweat of the brow logic. Is it beneficial for their to be some flexibility in these terms? Absolutely. Again, it's the artist's terms. Can this system be abused? Of course it can, but we don't ban hammers when one gets used to bash in someone's skull. Can it have the reverse effect of causing an artist to stagnate by letting them rest on their laurels instead of pushing themselves forward? Sure, but remember what we said earlier about having the first and last say on what an artist makes?
I could go on about this until the end of time and I practically have over the years, but I bring it up now not just because of the "copyright is bad" sentiment, but also because I spent the last week getting Autodesk to admit to what's apparently a known issue with their mobile app. It has to do with DeviantART and the Creative Commons.
For the record, cards on the table, I HATE the Creative Commons. I hate every bloody thing about it. Put simply, the CC is nothing more than Copyleft with its teeth pulled out. It's a GNU in a china shop. It's a clumsy, pandering, pretentious implementation of a license system intended for software patents. I don't like it and I don't get why anyone uses it. I like Copyleft, and I like the GNU, but all the CC does is add condescending, dictatorial stipulations like "non-commercial" and "no derivatives" which may as well say, "I want free, non-critical advertising!"
"But I don't want people making money off my stuff!"
That's what copyright is for.
"But I want people to share my stuff and do things with it!"
That's what fair use, Copyleft, and the GNU is for.
Anyway, back to Autodesk and their Sketchbook app. Sketchbook has a really nice option to let you post your work directly to DeviantART, rather than save it to your phone's album and then upload it from there. I don't actually know if this has any real advantage apart from skipping a step, but I like the idea of these two entities cooperating, like Wacom support for Muro. However, I found that when I posted through the app, everything was slapped with a CC 3.0 Non-commercial sharealike license, the most worthless CC license of them all. Naturally, I was a tad annoyed by this. I don't mind that my 3D print designs on Thingiverse or Pinshape can't be copyrighted, but they at least give me the option to set my license (I go with GNU/GPL). After a few more tries on my Xperia and my iPad, all while carefully scouring the menu and settings, I went to tech support to get an answer. Here's what transpired:
ME: Whenever I submit to DeviantART through the app, it sets the default license to Creative Commons. I then have to go into DeviantART and edit the license there. Is there a way to change the submission settings in Sketchbook?
DL: Can you send me some screen captures of what is happening with you?
ME: Well, that's the problem, nothing is happening. The option to change the license when submitting to DeviantArt does not exist. I may as well simply show you the screenshots from your site.
I did send him some screenshots after this part, but I don't think they were ever received.
DL: This is what I get... (link to a BOX account I can't access even after I log into BOX)
ME: I can't open that link. I have a Box account, but it's not letting me see what's in the folder. Are you saying there is a way to change the license when exporting to DeviantArt?
5 Days Later:
DL: Sorry - Try now! (another BOX link that doesn't work). I would get a video if possible via Quick Time (on Mac) (a link to Apple's support site).
ME: I'm still not able to load the folder. Look, I'm trying to be patient here, but this is a very simple issue and it's taken you five days to try and send me a Box link I can't open. I've sent a screenshot of what I'm shown when using the "submit to DeviantArt" option. There is no option to change the license from the default Creative Commons 3.0 license to standard copyright. If it's buried in the menu, please just walk me through it. If the settings cannot be changed, please say so, that we can address this obvious fault in your app.
DL: There isn't a way to change the settings.
14 June 2016
Needless to say, I'm more than a little disappointed with the craftsmanship. Then again, it was pretty useless as a backup since most of the apps calling for it had phased out compatibility in recent updates.
As for the sequel, its fate was revealed to be slightly less drastic but still debilitating. In addition to one of my brush tips going mysteriously missing, that adorable little AAA battery decided it'd had enough of sitting idly by and committed acidic seppuku. While its screw mercifully maintained its ability to undo itself, that little zinc oxide cylinder wasn't going anywhere. To be fair, a battery going belly-up isn't any real demerit in terms of craftsmanship, given lithium batteries having a spotty history with mastering the art of not blowing up in a fiery puff.
The story does have a happy ending, despite still not finding that missing brush tip. A quick photo expose on Twitter got the immediate attention of TenOne, and within hours I was told of a fresh new one being sent out to me and arriving in a matter of days. They didn't even want me to wheel the corpse out; photo evidence was all they needed. This sort of disposability in electronics does make me a little sad as someone old enough to remember when "No Job Too Small" was the motto of any TV repair place, and paying to have a piece of plastic removed from a VCR after a VHS tape somehow shattered while playing Thunderball. These days, it's literally cheaper to simply scrap a TV (let some scavenger--which I mean in a good way--harvest its components) than to get it fixed, even under its own warranty.
Overall, I'm still impressed with the Pogo stylus, especially its cooperation with Sensu, but given the Pogo Connect 2 being on sale at the time of this writing for about the same price as a Sensu brush tip, I think it's pretty clear if you're going to make art on tablets, it's best to shop around.
04 June 2016
I'd avoided Instagram for a time, mostly for the sake of efficiency. Between Twitter and Flickr, my photo sharing platform needs were covered. There's also the hipster part of me who turned up his nose as Instagram's whole "we make vintage/experimental photos easy" modus operandi, presenting themselves as a digital version of Lomography. As someone who owns a Holga 120S and has developed his fair share of film, I felt a little disgusted at the pushbutton setup of Instagram. Over time, this bias cooled down to a tolerable indifference, though I still never bothered signing up.
Recently, though, after downloading Nintendo's Miitomo app, I ended up giving in and expanding my Facebook account into the virtual Lomo service. My impression: yeah, it's all right, I guess.
Going back to the "Lomo App" image, it is somewhat comforting that Instagram has admittedly never tried to offer themselves as a replacement to gimmicky film cameras like Holgas or old Polaroids (that was more the work of some of its fans, for which no one can really be blamed), but rather a tribute to the medium, one that embraces the flaws of vintage/amateur photography and, much like Lomography, markets those flaws as features. Light leaks and poor color and double exposures are considered technical shortcomings that would have been the bane of any pro's career, but to artists and people less discerning of their photos' presentation, it's character. It's rough and unrefined, yet authentic and honest. This nostalgia even extended to their logo, a brown-and-cream-colored box camera complete with rainbow sticker. Right away, from that logo, you knew you weren't getting some high-end "unleash your phone's true potential" sort of app. You were getting a virtual version of that old Polaroid or Instamatic you or your folks had growing up, and that's okay.
So, what the Hell happened?
A few months ago, Instagram changed out the off-white bakelite logo for something that not only looks like the lazy byproduct of someone trying out the gradient tool in a drawing program, but also completely deprives the app of any sort of identity. I think it's a mistake for your app to be partly cut out or translucent in any way. App tiles always look their best when they look like plaques or badges or buttons. The old logo was especially cute because it looked like a physical object. Specifically, it resembled an old instant camera from around the late 60s to early 70s, the kind where you had to wait a few seconds before peeling away a bit of sticky tissue paper away from your photo. The new logo looks like nothing. It doesn't resemble a real camera, and doesn't evoke any particular time period. The magenta and yellow gradient has an early 90s vibe to it, but the die-cut, simplified outline is distinctly of this decade (which, bear in mind, we've only got four years left in). It simply reeks of pandering and compromise. It plays it safe and tries to be liked by everyone at the expense of its personality.
What I suggest is that if we use the original logo as a baseline, why not simply push forward ten years? Sure, some of us might be sick of the 80s retro love heralded by Adam Sandler's Wedding Singer and the more recent Far Cry spin-off Blood Dragon, but maybe Instagram is the one place no one would mind it. Hell, they might even embrace it.
Bring on the chrome, Tron graphics, and neon cursive.
15 April 2016
To their eternal credit, Apple has always catered to the creative crowd and delivered. While many of their products, physical and digital, come at a premium that waxes dealbreaker in the eyes of many starving artist types, the trade-off is an unparalleled ease of use. Obviously there's nothing written saying an artist cannot also be technically inclined or adept. It's a matter of reducing hurtles, red tape, and prep time. As much as labor and sacrifice are part of the creative process, the overall goal is still to have as little between the artist and their work as possible. If there are limitations to overcome, it's by the artist's choice and entirely on their terms.
I liked drawing and painting on my Sony Xperia Z Ultra, especially in PSoft Mobile's Zenbrush, and using the Sensu brush stylus. It helped transition me from traditional media to digital better than an Wacom tablet had. It was portable, convenient, and surprisingly versatile. The downside to the whole setup, though, was I didn't have a lot of options, particularly in terms of hardware.
The Sensu brush is a special case, the result of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to create a brush that could work with a capacitive touchscreen, no software or connectivity required. The trouble with Android is that there are few to no hardware standards, so anything made to work with an app has to either pick and choose which brands and models they're compatible with, or bank on Apple. It's why you'll see hundreds of different iPhone cases (often in bargain bins) but maybe a dozen other designs for maybe three or four specific Android models, such as the Samsung Galaxy, easily the only Android devices that can hold a candle to the iPhone in terms of versatility.
Sensu not only makes their own stylus/brush combo, as well as a standalone brush with better ergonomics, but also an attachment for a stylus made by Ten One Design, the Pogo Connect 2. The company had a sale recently, so I couldn't help but spring for it. I hadn't yet taken advantage of the pressure sensitivity on my iPad mini 3, and this seemed a good way to jump in without breaking the bank. The device and its additional nib packs arrived in nondescript packaging, and rather vague instructions. It went through how to connect the stylus to the iPad by way of Ten One's app, pairing it via Bluetooth and adjusting pressure settings and nib style, but I had a moment of confusion on how to change out the nibs. I knew the tips were held in place by magnets, but they're deceptively strong, to the point I thought there was another step, like a locking ring or a release button. Fortunately, Ten One's website had a FAQ with that very issue explained. Still wish they'd put something in the instructions, instead of one page devoted to pairing and six pages to all the FCC/Wi-Fi security legalese.
The R3 tip, the default nib for the Pogo, is big and chunky, bearing an uncanny similarity to the carpenter's pencil-inspired Fifty Three Pencil stylus. It works well enough for navigating menus when you're tired of dealing with fingerprints on your screen, but drawing feels like a soft, mushy crayon at worst and a big piece of chalk or charcoal at best. It might be useful if you're working with straight, point-to-point lines or any other drawing feature that favors a mouse. Otherwise, there's not much here to give the stylus a "must have" quality. If you're tempted to pick up a Pogo, expect to buy at least one of the extra nib packs. I got three.
The R1 tip, touted as their fine point for its narrow 4.5mm diameter, is disappointment made solid. Basically worthless, the tip only registered on the iPad when pressed down hard enough to turn its fine tip into a rubber stamp. Despite much tweaking of the pressure settings in the app, neither tip in the pack could produce even remotely practical results. I can't imagine anyone using it for drawing, let alone note taking. I'll be returning mine, instead getting a backup Sensu brush tip.
The Sensu brush tip (B3), which is what led me to the Pogo in the first place, redeems the device on every level, elevating it above passably mediocre. It worked like a dream in both Procreate and Zenbrush 2. I only wish the undo function had worked in Zenbrush 2 as well as Procreate. Rather than having to tap the screen or even flip the stylus over like Fifty Three's Pencil, a simple click of the Bluetooth button instantly erases the most recent stroke. This is immeasurably handy. It genuinely improves on the original Sensu design. While I love my Sensu to death, its portability comes at a price. Even at its full extension in brush mode, it's not very comfortable to hold, like a golf pencil. It's slightly off-balance and requires you to hold it fairly close to the head of the brush, which can be problematic if your app of choice can't offer any sort of palm rejection, so the slightest bump of a knuckle can ruin your otherwise perfectly flowing line. The Pogo, on the other hand, is a big, chunky thing (like its default nib), reminiscent of those primary pencils you had in elementary school, only lightweight like a Bic pen. I can genuinely relax my hand while holding it. That's a big plus.
There are other brush tips (B1 & B2), made in-house by Ten One Design, but I have yet to try them out. Frankly, I'm not in a big hurry to try them out. I expect they'll perform well enough, as brushes are clearly the Pogo's strength. One issue that came up when I was organizing all the tips was storage. The R1 and R3 nibs are easy enough with their rubber tips and low profiles, but as a rule, brushes have to be stored carefully, lest you bend the bristles too far and get the head misshapen. You also have to consider taking them out and putting them back in, since its best to avoid touching the bristles. It's not a major issue as I don't intend to take Pogo on the go, instead favoring my Sensu, but I'd still be curious to see what others come up with as far as storage. I thought of an Altoids tin, but the magnets might make that tricky.
While my overall impressions and experience with the Pogo Connect 2 is positive, I can't give it a strong recommendation without some qualifiers. The Sensu brush tip makes it a worthwhile purchase on its own, but the additional tips run the gamut of broken to uninteresting. The device itself is extremely well-built, with good battery life and even a nifty tracking feature to help you locate a misplaced one. If you're looking for a good, all-around versatile stylus for everyday use on your iPad or iPhone, this is not the one. If, however, you want a painterly experience or would like to upgrade your Sensu, the Pogo with the B3 tip is a great combination. Peanut Butter met Chocolate on this one.
09 April 2016
I said I didn't have time to explain why I don't go to church to the two who came to my door unannounced wearing jackets more befitting municipal services than clergy (a little deceiving) because I don't expect to entertain discourse on a Saturday morning, as much as I don't mind discussing ideologies. Were I less than the type to give others the benefit of the doubt to the purity of their intentions, my answer would be, "Because I grew up." Luckily, I'm not that guy, no matter how much I've had to drink. The proper and more civil reason is because while I was raised Christian, I found many problems with its base doctrines and tenets I could not reconcile with the world around me. I eventually found a new perspective with better insight and greater possibilities. I take no issue with churches or their charitable endeavors. I do, however, question their motives, especially in socio-political circles, evading taxes while influencing state policy, feigning humility yet engaging in deceptive marketing practices befitting a business, and ultimately offering a service with no guarantee of delivery and even less accountability.
I had no interest in attendance, and I'm even less inclined to reconsider now after this visit at an apartment complex adorned with a "No Solicitors" sign.
--Your Friendly Neighborhood Objectivist