Category Archives: Atomic Avenue

Is Comic-Con About Comics Anymore? (And if not, does it matter?)

“So how was Comic-Con?” asked what seemed like the millionth friend of mine who knew I just got back. “From what I can see on the news, is it even about comics anymore?”

I’ll confess, I’m of two minds on the subject. On one hand, the ghosts of some eighteen previous Comic-Cons keep rattling around in my head, and I remember when the entire show floor was full of people selling actual comic books. Fifty-cent and dollar comic boxes were everywhere, and I managed to haul away several long boxes full of finds for my own collection. It was a glorious time.

But over time, actual comic sellers became a smaller and smaller part of the show. Today, purveyors of comic pamphlets occupy a mere four or five aisles in a sprawling convention hall that runs the length of eight city blocks. Even when comic publishers, artists, and small press are figured in, actual comic books are almost as much a minority in the convention hall as straight male hairstylists in the Castro. In my darker moments, this fills me with something approaching despair (about the lack of comics, not hetero hairdressers, mind you).

But really, when you look over the vast nerdapalooza that Comic-Con has become, it’s hard to stay dour for long. Just think about it: for every conceivable sub-section of geek culture, Comic-Con offers five days where you can tribe up and enjoy the company of your fellow fans. Whether you prefer to dress in a snarky gamer T-shirt, as Wolverine, or as a laser-toting Victorian dandy, you can find others who share your love for your particular brand of pop culture.

Catwoman and Joker Cosplayers (picture from the fabulous comicvine.com cosplay gallery)

You can spend your loot on action figures, video games, steampunk-inspired watches, or even software to manage those thousands of comics you’ve been piling up since you were a kid. You can meet the people who created and starred in your favorite movies, wrote your favorite books, or drew that amazing painting of the robots with donuts. This year, I even bumped into a guy who produces old-time radio dramas about zombies.

And yeah, even as the convention spills out to dominate downtown San Diego during its run, having overflowed the bounds of a million-square-foot convention center, you’d still turn it into a tiny, diminished thing if took all the comics out of Comic-Con. It’s no longer a great place to find that copy of Batman #473  you’ve been searching for–the internet has taken over much of the action on that front. But instead, Comic-Con glories in Batman video games, Captain America movies, and more comic-themed art, T-Shirts and action figures than you can shake a Batarang at.

So yes, Comic-Con is still about comics, even if it’s not so much about comic books. It’s about being a fan, loving cool things, and getting a chance to have fun with other folks who love the same things you do. And that, is a wonderful thing indeed.

The Million Dollar Club: Action Comics #1 and Detective #27

A few years ago, I had a discussion with then Managing-editor (now Editor in Chief) Brent Frankenhoff of Comics Buyer’s Guide. It went something like this.

Me: [Diamond Comics head] Steve Geppi says he’ll pay $1,000,000 to anyone who sells him a near mint copy of Action #1. I say we get on top of this now and set that as the going price in the guide.

Brent: But what’s Bob [Overstreet] got it at? Like 200,000? Can we really go with that big a jump?

Me: I think the question is this: If I walked into Steve’s office with a near mint Action Comics #1, do I walk out with a deal for a million? I, for one, take Steve at his word*. If so, that’s the market rate. Our job is to match the market, not just make our prices fit into some nice progression from our own last-best-guess. Let’s leave that to the other guides.

* Having once had a meeting with Steve during which he had to casually brush a mint-looking Superman #8 onto a box next to his desk in order to make way for me to put down my laptop, I had little doubt he could make the Action #1 deal happen.


So it was that in the next edition of ComicBase, Action Comics #1 (the first appearance of Superman)  went from $220,000 to a cool million. It was crazy. It was controversial. It…was the only comic in the database that required the use of scientific notation in order to label the y-axis.

And in the past week, it’s proved to be prescient. Indeed, it seems to have understated the value of the book somewhat, as an VF 8.0 copy just sold for a cool million, followed by a similar copy of Detective #27 (The first appearance of Batman) selling for even more: 1.075 million, making it officially the most expensive comic of all time.

Human Computing Gets a Phone System Upgrade

Please share in our joy at putting a stake through the heart of our old telephone system at the office–or at least the telephone answering/routing portion of it. (Note to AT&T: Your 974 is a fine office phone, but the 984 answering system at the heart of it—to quote Jean-Louis Gassée– “…could be even better.” I’ll spare you the translation of what that implies it is currently).

In any case, the direct phone numbers to reach us all on are:

Wish us luck as we settle into the new phone system, and please let us know if you have any difficulty with any part of it.

The Girly Pink Server that runs Atomic Avenue’s Main Database

…and some of his new friends.

(Photo by request)Girly, but powerful... the database servers behind AtomicAvenue.com and ComicBase.com

Mac Mini: The World’s Most Power-Efficient Windows Server (?!)

We all knew Apple made pretty computers with great interfaces, but have they also managed to create the most power-efficient Windows server machine on the market?

We just wrapped up a huge round of server upgrades at comicbase.com and AtomicAvenue.com. Last to go were our three oldest servers which we use to run a bunch of essential but boring jobs like our DNS, email, Microsoft Exchange, and Active Directory Domains.

The old servers were “1U” jobs–your basic short, wide, and very long boxes packed to the gills with heat-generating electronics. These were cooled–barely–by a suite of fans at the back of each box blowing at hurricane speeds.

Having these servers around the office was like having a cleaning woman permanently parked in the back room vacuuming up a storm. In fact, the noise of these servers was enough of a factor that finding a “server room” to put them in where they (a) wouldn’t overheat and (b) wouldn’t drive us all bonkers with their unceasing roar–was a major part of the search for our last two office locations.

So what replaced these power-sucking, heat-generating, noise-blasting behemoths? A trio of tiny Mac Minis running Windows Server 2008, thanks to Apple’s Boot Camp utility which lets you dual-boot them as either Windows or Mac OS X machines.

These are computers so diminutive that we can fit all three of them side by side on a single level of our server cabinet. They’re so quiet and power-efficient that they don’t even have (or need) fans to cool them. And the total power draw? About 57 watts total when they’re running full-out at their assigned jobs!

Now, I can’t recommend the Mac Mini for every server job. For one thing, their small, slow, laptop-style drives make them unsuitable for anything involving the storage of any great amount of data, or where disk speed enters the equation in any real way. For instance, they’d make pretty mediocre file servers or web servers, and fairly horrific database servers. They also lack a lot of server niceties like hot-swappable drives, redundant network adapters…or any of the other things which IT folks tend to gush over but rarely turn out to be useful in the real world.

But for jobs like DNS service, where the computer can load all the data it’ll ever need to serve in a small amount of its RAM, they seem (so far) to be working out as well as the buffest, most costly machine we could have thrown at the problem. Better yet, they’re doing it at a fairly trivial hardware cost, in near-perfect silence, and with a power draw hundreds of watts less than the servers they replaced.

I don’t know how Apple managed it, but I’m blown away that Apple–known everywhere for pretty interfaces and beautiful design–may have also created the world’s most energy-efficient server in the bargain. Well done, guys!

The Apple Tablet and The Future of Comic Books

Noted comics writer James Hudnall writes in his blog that the rumored Apple Tablet (concept art shown below) could wind up saving the comic book industry. I agree that the Apple Tablet is going to be hugely disruptive to the print media world, for many of the reasons listed in another blog.

apple_tablet

Here’s how I see the whole thing playing out: Sometime in January or February, Steve Jobs will get up on stage and announce the Apple Tablet. Essentially, it’ll looks like a big iPhone, complete with touch screen, glossy plastics, and impeccable industrial design. Wi-Fi is also a given, along with some sort of interface (Bluetooth?) which lets you set it in an equally impeccable cradle for charging, keyboard, and mouse access.

But the real win is going to be as a portable media “slate”–think HD movies, full-screen video conferencing, and the like…and then imagine reading a book on it.

This is where Jobs turns the demo over to little Johnny from Public School 323 somewhere. Johnny’s class will have been road-testing the Apple Tablet for their science textbooks, and he’ll hold up the tablet to the camera where it shows an elegant textbook cover which “opens” through the use of a gesture. Pages will be “riffled” similarly until Johnny arrives at some science diagram, perhaps showing the way an LED emits photons. Johnny will then tap the diagram with his finger, and it  will come to life showing an animation depicting the whole process. Next will come history books showing famous speeches next to the picture of the speakers involved, recipe books showing video instruction for the dishes being cooked, etc.

And then–if I were Steve Jobs–I’d have Amazon’s Jeff Bezos come out on stage and announce that all those jillions of Kindle books which can already be read on your iPhone will also work on the Apple Tablet. Ditto for the Barnes and Noble book inventory.

So what about comics? Well, for a start it’s easy to imagine Marvel…err.. I mean Disney (of which Jobs is a board member and single largest stockholder) doing comics either specifically for the platform (a la Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.) or simply making sure that the already-strong Marvel digital offerings include making it possible to buy any current (and possibly older) Marvel comic directly through the device at a fraction of the cost of buying it in paper form.

Although motion comics are expensive to produce, and still in their infancy in terms of technique, all modern comics are likely to pass through a digital “final” form (e.g. PDF) on the way to the printer anyway. Running it through a batch process to whip out the digital reader version is simplicity itself for the publishers.And if they sold the digital copy in a way which clears them a single dollar per copy, they’d already be more profitable to publish than the paper versions.

In this digital future, you’d lose the feel of paper and some of the other qualities (not least of all resalability) of the physical comic, but readers would also have them in pristine, archival format for an eternity without needing filing, comic boxes, or bags. And they’d cost a lot less–probably no more than $1 to $1.50 per issue.

Not everyone will go for it–at least not at first–but expect a larger and larger percentage of the comic buying audience to switch to digital in the same way that newspaper readers have. (And the month that an Australian reader can get their Marvels in this format for $0.99 instead of the $7.50 or more they currently pay, it’s all over on the newsstand).

At first, expect the readers–especially Apple’s–to be expensive enough that they appeal mostly to early adopters and those with fair amounts of spending money. But that’s not such a dissimilar demographic from the comic buying audience as a whole right now (comprised mostly of post-college males with higher than average family incomes). I think the digital future will be one us far faster than most would dream now.

To steal a surfing metaphor, a big wave is coming for the world of comics. You either gotta get on your board and ride it, or get prepared to go under.


“Creative Destruction”, or “Server Crashes (The Good Kind)”

In memoriam…

Economist Joseph Schumpeter is famous for popularizing the term, “Creative Destruction” to talk about the way economic progress relentlessly grinds down the old to make way for the new in a never-ending cycle of “reinvent yourself or die”. For instance, buggy whip companies were driven out of business by Henry Ford’s horseless carriages which, being horseless, did not not need to be whipped quite as often. (They also pooped less). Similarly Polaroid had a monopoly on self-developing film but lost its business when digital cameras made film irrelevant, and suddenly you had other ways of taking pictures you didn’t want the photo developing guy to see.

For a little software company that’s been doing this ComicBase thing for seventeen years, we live and breathe this whole “creative destruction” thing ourselves–whether we like it or not. We started out shipping ComicBase on six compressed Mac OS 1.4 MB floppy disks, went on to become early adopters of CD, DVD, and digital video, and were the first PC program in the world to ship on Blu-ray Disc format. (We just made history again by being the first commercial PC program to ship on Dual-layer Blu-ray format!).

We’ve had to make the transition from Mac OS 7 to PowerPC processors, then wrote an entirely new version–in another language, no less–to let us run on PCs with Windows 95. Naturally, this led to later versions which in turn offered support for Windows 98, , Me*, 2000, NT, XP, and Vista, as well as new technologies like 64 bit operating systems and the growing use of mobile and handheld devices of all stripes.

*Which is to say that the constant glitches you experienced while using Windows Me were just the operating system blowing up, not ComicBase.

Ironically, we had to discontinue our original Macintosh version when Apple decided to mothball HyperCard, the development environment it was written in. Thankfully, Apple later introduced Intel-based machines which once again let the Mac folks use ComicBase under Windows, thanks to Apple’s Boot Camp software (and numerous other programs like VMWare, Parallels desktop and the like). It actually works so well that we even use a Mac Mini as one of our demo machines at San Diego Comic-Con–Not that I don’t still get regular hate mail from fans of the long-dead HyperCard version…

And of course, we’ve embraced the internet in a big way as well, starting with a basic HTML web site way back in 1996, and steadily revving it, rewriting it, and expanding it in the years that followed until it now does everything from real-time comic price quotes, to weekly price and title updates of the world’s largest comic book database. Then, since we clearly lacked anything else to do, we created Atomic Avenue–the vast online marketplace of comics which now boasts more comics for sale than all of eBay (1.2 million and counting!).

So what’s the point of this running travelogue through ComicBase history? In a roundabout way, it’s to explain why I treated five of our most loyal and longest-serving server machines to ignominious and painful deaths in the past week.

One by one they fell: “Spectrum” (our office file server) was repeatedly bashed and thrown onto the hard floor of our office until bits of plastic and metal came flying off from its horribly twisted case. “Judy” (backup and utility server), “Elroy” (our old production web server), and “Astro” (the production database server) had their disk drives ripped out, cards scavenged, then were mutilated and chucked into a dumpster parked behind our building.

And then there’s Goddard (our old test database server)…It’s probably best not to even talk about the things we did to him before the twisted bits that remained joined the bodies of Judy, Elroy, and Astro in the dumpster.

I feel really weird about all of this because in a big way, there was nothing wrong with those servers. They were all working absolutely fine when we sent them to that big shiny server rack in the sky. It’s just that their technology was getting too old, and it became possible to economically build new servers to replace them which offered twice the performance, were far quieter, and consumed less energy. We tried to find a nice retirement home to shove them off to via Craigslist and Facebook, but to no avail–they were heavy and cumbersome to ship, their technology was too specialized and dated to be worth selling, and nobody volunteered to adopt them before the time came for them to be put down.

So, after months of planning, machine construction, and staggered software installs to reconfigure all our interrelated sites and services to use the new machines, it became time for the old servers to be, well,  creatively destroyed (at least, as creatively as we could be without the use of explosives!)

So long, fellas. I’ll sort of miss you when I browse my Network Neighborhood and don’t see your names there. At times like that, I’m sure I’ll think of the fun times and the pain we had together, and get all nostalgic for a second or two (except Judy–we never really bonded for some reason).

But rest assured:  if we’re doing our job right, the day will come before too long, when your replacements will be blinking their little LEDs nervously as we assemble the machine that will replace them.

ComicBase and Atomic Avenue Go to the Movies

A couple of weeks before Comic-Con, I was heading out to grab coffee at the Starbucks across the street when a strange call came into the office. Joe answered it, and I could hear him saying things like, “You want to borrow what?” and “I don’t think we normally loan that out…” to the caller. I stopped, puzzled, and made pantomime motions to Joe along the lines of “Who the heck is that, and what do they want?”

It turned out that the “Who” was the production company working on the new Working Title/Universal Movie “Paul” (Written by and starring Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The “What they Want” was to borrow our Atomic Avenue rocket–indeed, our entire show booth–for use in the movie, where they apparently were called on to restage Comic-Con for several scenes.

Cut to yesterday, and I was sitting in an extras holding room in the Albuquerque convention center. It’s a room full of  Stormtroopers, Steampunks, a platoon of Princess Leia’s (slave girl version from Episode 5) and the odd green-skinned woman ala Star Trek, the original series. In short, it was exactly like every movie you’ve ever seen portraying extras looks like. We were along for the ride playing ourselves, manning a slightly stripped-down version of the ComicBase booth (no computer monitors).

Unfortunately, I can’t go into any details about the movie, but it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. And it certainly gives you a whole new perspective on the monumental job it takes to bring a motion picture to life. For instance, a small army of craftsmen and set decorators just days to recreate Comic-Con, and legions of production assistants are constantly handling everything from errant wookie costumes to set calls. The actors are also working their butts off, doing take after take (yesterday ran from 6am to after 9 pm) in scenes that–when they’re all cut together–will probably just look like a couple of guys having a laugh. And to his great credit, Neil also worked “booth duty” right up until the very end, and is back for the second day of shooting today.

Gotta run–they’re ushering the “attendees” into the hall, and it’s time to man the booth…

Comic-Con: Now Bending Space and Time!

Everyone who’s experienced it knows that Comic-Con is a mind-bending extravaganza with the capability to tax every iota of your energy and endurance, both in preparation, execution, and in the long slog to and fro. And to top it all, this year it’s managed to seemingly tear the fabric of reality and reverse the flow of time itself.

To wit: ComicBase 14 was released into the wild at Comic-Con, but it won’t even officially exist until early next week. And since we were all working crazy hours struggling to get ComicBase 14 out the door in time for Comic-Con, that staff was so exhausted (and the office was thrown into such disarray) that we won’t have the extensive web site configuration and other materials ready to allow us to actually ship ComicBase 14 until next week. (I had hoped for earlier, but a round of flu has been knocking off Human Computing staffers members like Watchmen’s Mask Killer).

So there you have it: a product that doesn’t exist yet has been busy killing its creators, thus delaying its birth.

And the best part? In two week’s time, I’m actually going to be on a movie set  in Albuquerque…reenacting Comic-Con!

I swear, I couldn’t make stuff like this up…

(Almost) a Wing Commander!

Ever since we devised the rank system on Atomic Avenue (a mishmash of US and British Air Force titles for the most part, with no small hat tip to the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), there’s never been anyone who reached the 2500 rating points required to make the top rank: “Wing Commander”

Checking my feedback this morning, however, I noticed I’m getting awfully close…

Profile

In theory, this means ten more Five-Star ratings would put me over the top. I’ll admit, for a system that I helped concoct (and which I suppose I could rig by editing the database), I’m irrationally excited by the prospect of hitting the top rank.

(Maybe then I’ll finally get the key to the Wing Commander’s Executive Washroom! ;-)