Category Archives: Comics

“Hey, I’ve got an Idea…!” The Secret Story of Sidekick

“Damn it! It just can’t read the update file any faster!”

It was late 2012, and I had a little bit of freedom after the launch of ComicBase 16 to try to take on some of the “Big Issues” for ComicBase’s future. High on the list was better mobile support (more on this in a separate article), a possible replacing of the underlying database technology, and possibly even facing down the prospect of completely rewriting in .Net.

“Dotnet” as it’s pronounced, is a Microsoft technology that had clearly been the future of the company’s development path for some time–but which promised to pose a monumental struggle for porting the mammoth code base behind ComicBase. We’d actually done an investigation of what it would take to make the move three different times over the years, but had to turn back each time when it became clear we’d have to essentially rewrite and refactor what had become a very large and complex program. Worse, if we somehow managed to rewrite ComicBase in .Net, our developers would get the benefit of much better build tools (albeit at the price of endless hours of programming and re-testing), but the customers would be unlikely to notice any difference at all.

Actually, that last part isn’t quite true: the progress bars in .Net are decidedly nicer. The rest of the changes would be technical and architectural in nature–which is to say, virtually invisible to the end user, unless we used the rewrite as an excuse to polish up various bits of the program using the newer technology.

But for today, I wasn’t worried about any of those things. I had decided that I wanted to see what could be done to make the weekly updates faster.

Introduced in ComicBase 10, the weekly updates did something previously unimaginable: the ComicBase staff had taken on the job of keeping all our customers updated with all new comic information the same week the comics appeared on the stands. We’d supply all the new data on every comic released each week–along with its artists, writers, storylines, and other special information–and our customers would be able to simply download it and have their database be instantly current, instead of adding all that data in themselves. All the customer had to do then was simply check off which books they had in their own collection, or better yet, use a barcode scanner to “bleep” them in to their own collection.

For understandable reasons, the weekly updates were a huge hit, but it meant that we had to take on the incredible amount of work to acquire several hundred new comics each week, as well as keeping up with the constant pricing changes that were happening in the world of comics. We opened up our own Diamond Comics account, and soon were ordering one copy of virtually every issue sold, which our indexers would scan and index within a day or two of their arrival so they could be part of the Friday update.

Later, we added in a “Submit new or corrected data” feature to ComicBase which allowed several dozen amazing customers to add to the wealth of knowledge we were processing, and the pace of additions to the database doubled, then doubled again. Soon we were processing thousands of new issues and additions each week, and the database grew to encompass virtually every English-language comic that had ever been printed–as well as hundreds of thousands of foreign books.

But now there was a new problem: the sheer size of the database was starting to make the process of downloading and processing the weekly updates an increasingly lengthy process for our customers. What once took them only a few minutes was starting to stretch on for 15 minutes or longer–sometimes much longer if they had a slower machine or were upgrading a very old version. If customers hadn’t been updating regularly, it was not unheard of for an update to contain hundreds of  thousands of  updates to everything from pricing to artist credits. Unfortunately, updating this much information meant that customers were spending too much of their time watching progress bars while they waited for all those changes to be incorporated.

So I had decided to take some time and really pound on the code for the updating process, trying to wring the last bit of performance out of it. Numerous late night hacking sessions ensued, but for every clever programming trick I came up with that saved a few ticks of the clock, the time savings soon vanished as the flood of new comics swelled the database to ever greater scope.

After yet another late night of coding, I was discussing the problem with my wife Carolyn as we walked over to Starbucks on our morning routine. “I think I’m at the limit–no matter how fast computers are going, it just looks like it’s going to take several minutes to even read–let along process–the update file. After all, it’s got something over 10 million distinct pieces of information in each one.”

“Can’t you cut it down?” she asked?

“Not that I can see. There’s no telling how long it’s been since someone updated, and we need to be able to catch them up to date even if they haven’t checked for updates all year long. We could cut down on the amount of data we offer, but a big part of the appeal of the program is that it’s the biggest database of comics in the world.”

“If only there was some way to have the updates happen automatically so that people weren’t standing around waiting for them each week–.”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea…”

(to be continued)

Blast From the Past: Why Comics Cost So #!@# Much

While cleaning up server drives today, I stumbled across the following article draft from 2005 I wrote for Britain’s Tripwire Magazine. Included with all its original notes to my editor, Joel Meadows.

 

Sounding Off

By Peter Bickford

How popular do you think Friends would be if everyone who wanted to check out Rachel’s new hairdo had to pony up a couple of quid before their telly would switch on? Do you think your mum would be able to indulge her Hello! habit if each issue cost £15-£20? And how many kids would tune in to Spider-Man’s latest adventure if a single 32-page issue cost £2.00 << Joel—please  replace with the usual UK price of a US $2.99 comic >>

Oh wait—we already know the answer to that last one. “Not a hell of a lot.”

And “not a hell of a lot” is exactly how many copies even the top comic books are selling lately. “Not a hell of a lot” also aptly describes the number of corner shops and newsagents that carry any real number of comics. And “not a hell of a lot” is how many younger kids are picking up the comics habit today.

But if we want to answer the question of why Spidey costs 12p a page << substitute actual number >> to read, we ought to start out why asking why Hello! doesn’t. An issue of Hello! costs an order of magnitude more to produce, has superior production values, is printed on costlier stock, and involves the talents of countless top-flight photographers, journalists, and editors. Even with the price breaks printers give when printing in Hello! quantities, the raw cost of each copy can easily run to several pounds.

But it doesn’t stop there. The publisher also has to worry about the expense of schlepping the breathless saga of Fergie’s latest diet to every Tesco between Whitechapel and Royston-Vasey These are then shifted through various distributors and sub-distributors at a steep discount, before whatever dog-eared copies remain unsold on Monday morning are returned to the publisher with a demand for credit. But despite these murderous publishing conditions, Hello! still manages to earn megabucks for its publisher, pushing out a circulation of  some <> issues weekly, and costing readers just under £2.00 per copy, delivered right to their door>><>

Meanwhile, what of our friend Peter Parker? He may be able to capture crooks just like flies, but it’s all he can do to shift about copies in the entire world market, and only a tiny percentage of that in the UK. And we all know what kind of financial shape Marvel’s in. Not to rub salt in the wound, but did I happen to mention that Spider-Man’s one of the comic industry’s most successful comics?

So what’s Hello! got that Spidey doesn’t? For that matter, how does NBC manage to pay the multimillion dollar salaries of Courtney Cox and Co. without requiring you, the loyal viewer, to part with a pitiful pence of your hard-earned wages?

To riff on James Carville, the Rumpelstiltzkin of American politics, “It’s the advertising, stupid.”

The whole reason that anyone other than her husband and a few dedicated stalkers even know who Lisa Kudrow is can largely be credited to the fact that most of her fans don’t actually have to pay to see her act. Instead, countless companies wanting to tap into that hip young 18-34 demographic kindly kick in hundreds of thousands of pounds for the opportunity to spend 30 seconds trying to sell you miracle teeth whiteners while you wonder what kind of trouble that wacky Ross will be getting into after right after those important messages.

Once upon a time, comic companies seemed to get it. Picking up two comics at random, we first come across 1974’s Star Spangled War Stories, #194. This issue included 14 ad pages plus a four-page color insert (hocking wedding rings, of all things!). Of the ad pages, only three were “house ads” (paid for by DC itself). The rest were for everything from guitar lessons to Hostess Fruit pies. More tellingly, a good half of the ad pages were broken into smaller ads for monster posters, magic itching powder, and everything in between. In short, 50% of the magazine was ads. But the 18 story pages cost the reader a mere 25¢.

By comparison, Marvel’s Cage #2 has the same number of pages, albeit thinner, glossier ones. Thirteen of these are ad pages—28% fewer than the 1974 comic. More tellingly, Marvel either owned or had a stake in the advertisements on seven of those pages, meaning that they were a cost to Marvel, instead of a source of ad revenue. There were only six pages of clear outside ads. Not surprisingly Cage #2 costs $2.99—twelve times the cost of the 1974 comic. That’s more than three times the combined rate of inflation for those years (368%).

Fun fact: If comics’ price increases were just about inflation, today’s US $2.99 comic would cost readers just $0.92.

So my question to publishers is, “Do you think it might be possible, just possible that you might sell more comics at 92¢ each than at $2.99? If so, why not try something old: kick your ad staff’s collective hineys into gear and sell some bloody ads. Sell big ads. Sell little, inexpensive ads. If you have to, sell microscopic ads for joy buzzers and X-Ray Spex again.

But however you do it, you’ve got to move more of the cost of publishing to someone other than the comics reader. Otherwise, you can look forward to the circulation numbers reserved for daft ventures like the £15 supermarket celebrity mag, the £6.00 daily newspaper, or…damn it all… the modern comic book.

Peter Bickford is the creator of ComicBase. He lives with his wife Carolyn, son Neil, and way, way too many comics in San Jose, California. He can be reached at pbickford@human-computing.com

 

 

Review: The Walking Dead Game Collector’s Edition

Walking Dead

The PS3 Pre-Order bundle from GameStop

One of the coolest presents I got for Christmas was GameStop’s pre-order exclusive collector’s edition of the Walking Dead adventure game. The game includes all five “episodes” originally released as downloadable games, and comes with a massive compendium of the first 48 issues of the comic series, making it a real deal at the combined price of $69.95. Since this was released as a GameStop pre-order exclusive, you may need to track down your copy on eBay, but it’s well worth doing.

The game itself focuses on a cast of survivors of the zombie apocalypse that is different from the group appearing in the comic series and TV show. The game’s group is centered around Lee, a convicted murderer who was on his way to prison for murdering his wife’s lover, when the dead began walking the earth. While scavenging in the ruins of a zombie-infested neighborhood, Lee discovers a small girl, Clementine, who has been hiding out in a treehouse since her parents were away on a business trip, and the babysitter turned into one of the undead. Lee becomes Clementine’s defacto guardian, and his attempts to keep her safe through the unspeakable dangers which follow form the emotional center of the series.

You control Lee’s actions as meets up with other survivors and tries to survive in a world filled with flesh-eating undead and society in collapse. Using both action sequences and action/conversation choices, you get to choose your path in the world. What’s truly fascinating is the way the story and characters react to your choices, all of which is convincingly reflected in the attitudes and actions of those around you. In some cases, a snap decision can result in a character living or dying–or set up a story conflict which will only become evident many episodes later in the series.

The writing and voice-acting is absolutely first-rate, and stands head and shoulders over such wooden affairs as Heavy Rain and Alan Wake. Although the gameplay elements are executed well enough, it’s the emotionally gripping story that sets this one apart and makes it a must-play.

Separately, the comic book compendium is a terrific read and worth a look even if you’ve been following the comic book or TV series closely through their respective runs. As someone who’s been a Walking Dead fan from issue #2, it was eye-opening to read the two published compendiums of the series and realize how well the story plays out when read in condensed format (My biggest gripe with the comic series is that too little seems to happen in a give issue, since most of the series focuses on character development; this isn’t a problem when reading 48 issues at a clip in the compendiums).

It’s also a little startling to see how well writer Robert Kirkman handles the character arcs over the long haul. As opposed to traditional comic book characters who aim for what Stan Lee famously called “The illusion of change”, Kirkman’s characters are slowly, but relentlessly altered in permanent ways by the world they live in and the horrific situations they face. The change is especially heartbreaking when you look at characters such as Carl (the young son of lawman Rick Grimes–the series’ lead). It’s heartbreaking to re-read early issues where Carl is very much a young boy and to see how he slowly changes over the course of the series in response to the awful decisions that life throws at him.

Carl

In all its forms (except, perhaps, the goofy-looking shooter game which also brands itself “Walking Dead”), it’s the characters and their development which make Walking Dead a remarkable creation which rises above the expected in the world of genre fiction.

Comic-Con is Over…Let Summer Begin!

It’s now almost a week after Comic-Con, I’m back in my home office in San Jose, and I’ve managed to clear enough piled up comics, receipts, camera parts, and juggling balls away that I can make out about 10 square inch piece of actual desk. I’ve also managed to cut down the bags of computer cables and Comic-Con swag to a level where vacuuming my office wouldn’t be an exercise in surrealistic comedy.

On Monday, we’ll be launching ComicBase 16 to the world in general, after a successful preview launch at the show. So far, it’s looking like it’ll be a great release for us, and the only technical hiccups we’ve had to date (fingers crossed) have been minor and easily dealt with. We’ve still got some publicity materials to put together (as well as a bunch of web site updates to do), but it looks like it’ll be a great launch of a very cool new version that’s been a long time in the making.

And so, with the chaos of Comic-Con starting to fade, I’m really looking forward to enjoying the summer, as well as the creative freedom that happens when I’m not staring down a product launch deadline. I’m really looking forward to heading up to Sacramento for the State Fair tomorrow, hopefully taking some good shots with my new Canon 5d Mark III, and sampling all the best of the fried exotic foods category. (Last year, I tried both crocodile and deep-fried Oreos–both were delicious in a “man, this has got to be bad for me!” kind of way).

I’m also looking forward to getting back into the swing with guitar playing (which I was actually starting to get a handle on before I managed to rebound a pry bar into my wrist while pulling up an old kitchen floor a couple of months ago, damaging the nerves which led to a couple of fingers in my right hand–ow!). For anyone else taking up guitar, I can’t recommend Rocksmith enough — it’s like Rock Band with a real guitar, and a very nice levelling system that paces the difficulty to how well you’re starting to nail the song phrases. It’s a great way of tricking yourself into doing the thing that’s hardest on any instrument–practicing. I’m expecting my level of guitar awesomeness to take a real hit after a couple of months away (and a semi-gimpy hand), but I should be able to climb up the old learning curve and actually get some of my guitar mojo working again).

Let the summer (all…err 3 of 4 weeks that are left of it) begin!

 

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.

Please Don’t Let This be the iPad 2

It looks like Apple will be taking the wraps off the iPad 2 next Wednesday, but if the specs posited by Analyst Min-Chi Kuo of Concord Securities are on the money, I may just be leaving my wallet in my pocket.

Kuo’s report indicates that the new iPad will be a little thinner, non-reflective, and sport more power under the hood in terms of memory, CPU, and GPU capability. Beyond that, the biggest new features are likely to be two lowish-res cameras, facing front and back. This should allow video conferencing, a feature I was a bit shocked wasn’t part of the original offering.  No word was offered on price, but it seems likely to be in line with the current structure given the paucity of new features.

The biggest–and most unwelcome–omission from the feature list is the lack of a higher-resolution display. The current iPad can boast just 1024 x 768 resolution — enough to read web pages, but–it turns out–not quite enough to read the hand-drawn-style fonts typically used in comics. Although some, such as Dark Horse, have apparently taken pains to ensure that the typography in their digital offerings reads well on tablets, many of Marvel and DCs offerings are nigh-illegible at full page view. These comics desperately need the higher-resolution that a “retina” display (akin to the iPhone 4, but larger) might have offered. If Kuo is to be believed, however, this is  not in the cards for the iPad 2.

Here’s hoping he’s wrong…

 

Dark Horse Gets Digital Comics Right

Someone actually gets this whole “Digital Comics” thing.

What a concept: a pricing and bundling model for digital comic book content that actually makes sense, combined with stories you’d actually want to read instead of ragbags and castoffs. And it’s from an independent publisher that clearly cares about comics, creators, and bringing great stories to fans. Well done, Dark Horse… Again!