Wildstorm: World’s End is a “change in the status quo” event for that particular universe: global apocalypse happens, and doesn’t get immediately fixed.  We are promised an ongoing fiction where superheroes cannot restore the universe to order after transformative chaos.  Which is both a refreshing change of pace and a somewhat grim elaboration of trends that have been happening in comics for a while.

A few years ago, DC Comics fairly obviously decided they were going for a “more mature” demographic, and ratcheted up the violence and “edgy” content in their mainstream comics.  This has led to a monthly fiction that better depicts what adults are thinking about, such as anthropomorphized crocodiles eating people etc.  It has also led to an increased tone of horror and angst, which I’ve written about before.  It’s also led to a thematic fascination with the destruction of civilizations and apocalypse.

In the series 52, the Shazam! villain/anti-hero Black Adam builds his fictional native country, Kahndaq, into a utopia with the partnership of his wife, Isis.  Isis is then killed by a group called (yes) the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  In rage and grief, Black Adam kills the horsemen, commits genocide by wiping out the fictional nation of Bialya, and kills hundreds of thousands more before being stopped.

Black Adam is one of the most intelligently laden characterizations in recent comics: he is a Middle Eastern supervillain who nonetheless, with his strongly-held and comprehensible principles, invites our sympathies.  (Like Magneto, if Mags is more familiar.)  He is an emblem of our ambivalence regarding cultures we fear and struggle to understand.  In 52, he is also us, at least those of us in the United States: focused on building a better world until an unexpected tragedy drives us blindly to a further tragedy of violence and destructive response. The fact that he is so compelling as a character, and the ease of revising away inconvenient narratives in comics, might cause us to quickly forget: he was depicted as killing millions of people.  And is still kind of an anti-hero.  What kind of world system is capable of performing that sleight of hand?

It’s the same system that has generated cataclysms with regularity in the past decade: Coast City, Bludhaven, San/Sub Diego, the deaths of Infinite Crisis.  The revival of the multiverse in DC Comics has allowed for a designated dimension, Earth-51, which is called the “Graveyard” and is apparently intended as a place for apocalypses to be exercised and re-exercised.  These kinds of cataclysms have bloodlessly happened in superhero comics for years, of course.  But these have been portrayed with an increasing realism: body counts are released.  Irradiated killing fields become recurring locales for future adventures.

What doesn’t get portrayed as realistically is what this must mean to a fictional culture.  What does it mean to be a human being in the DC Universe?  Can you really take any solace from these creatures that are supposed to be your figures of transcendent order?  Or by catastrophic trauma #5, have you concluded that  this place is just a mess?

Marvel Comics investigated this with Civil War, a mini-series where, in the wake of the destruction caused by superhero battles, heroes were mandated to register with the government.  Likewise, comics like Marvel’s Front Line series investigate street-level psychology in this incongruous human world of gods.  We don’t get this in the DC Universe: the street-level heroes of Gotham Central were turned into superheroes themselves.  The only psychologies we are presented are the fantastic ones of the heroes, and these profiles read as increasingly alien and aloof.  Still: Civil War hasn’t really slowed down the pace of destruction in the Marvel Universe.  We’re currently seeing a catastrophic alien invasion coming off the “quiet” event of New York being destroyed in World War Hulk.

I’m sure this is a personal reaction, but these days it all feels like a desensitization exercise to me.  We exist in a world where we must increasingly confront the fragility of the way we live.  It’s natural to want to deal with this through art, and from nuking cities to zombie apocalypse to Joker terrorism, we are using our fantasies in an attempt to deal with the anxiety we share about our civilization.  What I’m concerned about is that comics (and not just comics) are evoking these anxieties while trying to resolve them with the patterns of past narratives, and that these patterns aren’t adequate any more.  Maybe World’s End represents what BSG represents for sci-fi television: an attempt to bring in meaningful new patterns, an attempt at studying through fantasy what happens to psyches when they have to work through unresolvable traumas.

Service Toolkit

I manage a (very smart, excellent) technology team in my daily life.  I like management.  I actually kind of love management.  When you get over the false “Office Space” assumptions about the role, it becomes a practice in understanding organizational psychology and organizational culture.  It’s a chance to engage with both people and technology.  And, you get to move around a lot.  Aces.

I recently started a discussion about our focus on service and communication in our direct work with clients.  Though logic has largely triumphed over this, there does remain the occasional unspoken assumption that developers (do/can) fall victim to intrinsic social limitations because of their occupation, and that their clients should expect a level of awkwardness and bad communication.  This is a bad assumption.  Good coding practices and good communication practices are both important, but honestly I’d rather manage people who come in with more of the latter.

But both practices are teachable. Social practices, like any other practices, can be learned and exercised and mastered.  Our team’s started sharing “tools,” discrete practices that improve one’s ability to listen and engage with their clients.

Here’s our starter list. 


Responsiveness – Communicate actively with our customers and colleagues. Meet, exceed, anticipate their needs and engage with them on those needs.

Adaptability, cooperation – Reject the idea that your conceptual model is necessarily correct. Understand the ideas of others, evaluate them respectfully and fairly. Come to a point of agreement that results in the best outcome. This outcome should not be entirely “yours” nor “theirs” but something shared.

Engagement – Understand the perspectives of others to be as valuable and important as yours. Focus your attention on the person with whom you’re engaging.


Everyone is awesome. Everyone is the boss. – Focus on the amount of respect, deference and attention you devote to a.) yourself; b.) your boss; c.) the smartest person you have ever worked with. Now devote that respect, deference and attention to everyone.

Notepad your agenda – When going to a meeting, think of the needed outcomes and the points you want to make. Write them on a notepad and take it with you to the meeting. Then, let go of them and concentrate on a meaningful discussion with your colleagues on the topic. Near the end of the meeting, review your list, and bring up only the points that are a.) unaddressed b.) not made irrelevant by the discussion of the meeting.

Questions – Approach ideas not as immutable statements but as potential ideas for discussion. Put forward arguments not as truisms but as propositions. Ask your colleague or customer about these propositions: do they sound correct? Do they raise concerns? Do my propositions not line up with yours? If not, let’s talk about why not and try to reconcile.

Check in with the person you’re with. Are you making sense to them? Do they have questions? Ask them these things, and ask often.

Hold, Breathe – When an idea pops into your head during a discussion, hold it there for 5-10 seconds and stay engaged with what is going on at the moment. Then, express that idea only if it is still relevant.


Recipe for getting your old Drupal export XML into WordPress:

  1. Wait a year and a half.
  2. Get out the XSLT and write a transform to get the nodes into RSS 2.0.
  3. Get out the PHP to turn the Drupal Unix timestamps into RSS valid timestamps and write out the results.
  4. Import the RSS 2.0 into WordPress.
  5. Remove dupes because you imported some scraps from other backups.
  6. Serve.

This blog is now at 100% for historical content, I believe — it should now include the contents of all the old blogs.  If it’s missing anything, yell at me and I’ll go looking.  Hooray completeness!

In other news, I finished building my big rig, and I’ve eaten barbecue.  So it’s been a pretty full day.

Maintenance Uptime

Well, that was easy.  Both Movable Type and RSS imports in WordPress are apparently idiot-proof.  A good chunk of old posts are in here now.

What’s missing is a period from 2003-2005 that I would like to get in here.  My historical stuff from that period is in Drupal exported XML (I’d point you to a schema if there were one) and I’ll probably need to write a stylesheet and transform it into RSS, unless someone knows of a Drupal-export-to-WordPress-import that is better and doesn’t involve the gnarly custom queries that most Googlable pages on this topic recommend.

Anyway, Drupal to WordPress war stories welcome, but otherwise I’ll have the rest in here soon.

Blast from the Past: Virtual World News

Came across myself on Long Story, Short Pier this evening, and now have a nostalgia for the days when I got to write all day and blog much more often.  I can’t promise I’ll become a more frequent blogger, but I can get off my ass and import my archived back posts — I’ll do that soon.  In the meantime, the least I can do is get Kip Manley the post he’s been looking for.

Originally published: Mon, 26 Sep 2005.  I publish this with apologies to Geoff Johns: this conversation speaks more to a malaise my brother and I shared at the time than to his work, which I actually like a lot.


Not just for MMOGs anymore.

Was having a conversation with my little brother a while ago, and we came upon comics writer Geoff Johns as a topic.  Both of us buy a fair share of his work (he writes a lot of books).  We buy them faithfully, but often do so with the lack of a familiar passion, and we found ourselves asking why.

Anyone who has bought comics regularly knows the sense of inertia that keeps one purchasing a book in which one has lost almost all interest.  You hold out hope that a new creative team will improve things, or else you just aren’t proactive enough about removing comics from your subscription list.  But Johns’ work doesn’t fit into that category: we choose to buy his comics, and read them with interest. I’ve actually dropped his JSA before, just to pick it up again.  They’re perfectly readable comics.

But there’s a sense of aesthetics, of pleasure (or, sometimes, of provocative displeasure), that drives most of our comics purchases.  A sense that the authorial voice here is a distinct signal.  But this is a different experience, strangely becoming more common: engaging with a comic not for its creative voice but for its neutral voicelessness.

We noodled on this for a few minutes, until Adam said, “I don’t know, it’s kind of like reading a newspaper. It’s not like the newspaper is inspiring, but you need to read it to see what happens.”

Which is exactly it. These comics don’t introduce any noise to the signal of the DC Universe. But they transmit it faithfully. Virtual world journalism, reporting the news of the DC Universe as it evolves.

Judge my rig

I’m building my next PC.  I’ve had to tinker with and upgrade computers a lot in my life, but I’ve never built one from the ground up.  Also, I’ve always been a little antsy and phobic when I’ve had to upgrade machinery, so I think this will be a good exercise in developing some more mastery and confidence.

I’m modeling a high-performance PC: this machine will be doing some heavy-ish lifting with Adobe CS3, and I will be gaming on it as well.  It’ll be running a dual boot, Vista and Ubuntu, hopefully 64-bit for both.  I’ll start purchasing parts next week, but before that I’m exposing my parts list to the world for criticism and commentary.

First, have I done anything that’s just dumb (incompatible components, badly weak links in the system)?

Beyond that, am I being a chump in my choices?  Am I spending too much for marginal improvements?  Where can I get similar performance with a cheaper component?  I want this to be a performance machine, but I’m trying to stay away from extreme indulgences.

Be merciless.  I’d rather feel stupid now than stupid with the parts in my house.

Academic Review of DC One Million

In 2005, I got a nice email from a university journal asking for a review for a forthcoming edition on comics. I wrote a review, and it was officially accepted into the journal and all that. I never heard anything further after that, and now have learned in 2008 that it was never actually published. (Does that happen often?) (Is there an emoticon for a sigh and shrug?)

So, without further ado, the review I wrote on DC One Million.


Morrison, Grant (writer), Val Semeiks (penciller), Prentiss Rollins (inker), Carla Feeny (colorist), John Costanza (letterer), et al. DC One Million (Trade Paperback Collection of DC One Million 1-4, Green Lantern 1,000,000, Starman 1,000,000, JLA 1,000,000, Resurrection Man 1,000,000, and Superman: Man of Tomorrow 1,000,000). New York: DC Comics, Inc. 1999. ISBN: 1-56389-525-0.

Near the end of DC One Million, Superman is preparing to leave the year 85,271 to return to his home in “our time.” He tells his descendant, the Superman of the 853rd century, that he’d rather defer a meeting with the future’s Superman Prime, who happens to be himself, now millennia old. As “our” Superman takes his leave of the future and its Supermen, his descendant says, “There’s only one Superman” (201).

This exchange, amazing yet reasonable in context, is a testament to the ability of superhero comics as a genre to contain the fantastic and situate it as part of everyday physics, but is also a by-product of the emergent complexity of Superman as a character and icon. At the moment you read this, Superman, created in 1938, is nearly seventy years old; and, Superman is, as always, a young professional in Metropolis. Umberto Eco posited that Superman was a mythological figure, outside of time, and a figure of romance, subject to the vicissitudes of causality, at once. This paradox can be stated in more material terms: Superman participates each month in ongoing dramatic adventures, and Superman carries stable cultural meanings as a symbol within contemporary global capitalism. As a character and brand at once, his ontology is in perpetual conflict, his world a battleground between contradictory impulses to both novelty and stasis.

We can complicate this world still further by noticing that Superman and Batman coexist in the same imagined space. Their mutually troubled chronotopes engage in persistent serial dialogue with one another, and with those of Wonder Woman and all the other heroes published by DC Comics, Inc. Their shared fiction is a conglomeration of marketable properties which presents itself in the form of a large-scale serial narrative. This structure, referred to by its owners, producers-for-hire, and audience as the DC Universe, must maintain enough dynamism to keep its readers buying periodicals, while at the same time maintaining loyalty to its real purpose: a stable for licensable cross-media intellectual property.

The mechanisms of this balancing act are too manifold and intricate to discuss completely here. They include practices of willful selective causality, fragmentation, and oneiric history, with names like “retroactive continuity,” “Elseworlds,” and, importantly here, “alternate futures.” The fiction of the DC Universe cannot have a “real” future or endpoint: an ending, in this ecology, is not a resolution of patterns of action and conflict, but rather the foreclosing of market potential. Instead of an ending, the universe generates speculative futures, “imaginary” projections ahead in time, that allow the parameters or conflicts of the universe at the present moment to play out. These speculative futures allow progress in the narrative without the bother of actual change: they allow the reader a resolution that the “real” fiction will never be allowed to provide.

One such alternate future is presented in DC One Million, a “crossover event” taken on by several of DC’s serials in 1998. One Million takes as its premise the fact that the various comics published by DC, if allowed to continue, will reach their one millionth issues sometime around 85,271. Through the convention of time travel, the DC heroes of that time – the Justice Legion A, consisting of implausibly direct descendants of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other familiar heroes – are able to travel to 1998, and our Justice League of America is given the opportunity to change places with them. A concurrent plot generated by the immortal villain Vandal Savage and the “tyrant sun” Solaris leads to a conflict across the eons, which keeps all the DC heroes busy for a couple of months.

One Million is partially a discrete story and partially a corporate directive: a coordinated event involving the work of dozens of DC’s artists and writers for hire, but with core concepts created by Grant Morrison, who with Val Semeiks and Prentiss Rollins generated the four-issue miniseries in which the main story events occur. Morrison’s work stands out for considering the DC Universe’s structure from a critical perspective (Craft 142), and in One Million he presents a vision of the future that, as an extrapolation, highlights the unspoken paradoxes of the DC Universe as an ecology for intellectual property more than it does the rules of cause and effect that ostensibly govern the universe as a serial fiction. One of the members of the Justice League asks logically, “What are the chances of an identical JLA arising hundreds of centuries from now?” (7); the degree of similarity between this future of the DC Universe and its present seems a stretch even within the loose reality of superheroes, and yet, given the real rules of the DC Universe – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman must maintain the iconicity, the brand equity, that makes them viable in a market – it makes perfect sense that, within the parameters of this corporate fiction, the year 85,271 will bring us more of the same Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

By then placing our icons in direct dialogue with their bizarre and yet entirely contiguous far-flung future, Morrison brings the ironies of “alternate futures” in this system to light – not only to the audience but, in typical Morrison fashion, to the characters themselves. Morrison often brings to superheroes a level of awareness of their own fictionality, and when Batman protests, “I’m trying hard to find my free will in all of this (201),” or Aquaman asks, “Is this the real future or another of those possible futures?” (34-36), they seem as much jaded about the practices of their fiction as flummoxed by the existential challenges of time travel.

As Morrison spins futures, presents and pasts in simultaneity and lends characters a sneaking suspicion of their own status as fictions and products, he takes advantage of the fact that this fiction is constructed in comics, a semiotic system that, in its juxtaposition of image and text, reveals the contingency of both, and allows an impressive range of representational play. At the end of One Million, our ageless Superman Prime has embedded the past within the future, recreating the Krypton of his birth within a tesseract, a fold in space that presents itself to the world of the 853rd century as a flat window to somewhere else – a window very much like a comics panel. As Superman steps into the panel of the past while the heroes of the future watch, he turns and winks. In the transition, a layer is collapsed, and we are dramatically placed at the same point of perspective as the audience of the future: we gaze into the tesseract/panel, and inhabit a moment of complexity and ambiguity where past, present, and future dramatically coexist. Later, in a retelling of the moment, Green Lantern muses, “Some things you can’t put into words, man” (204).

Works Cited

Craft, Jason. “Fiction Networks: The Emergence of Proprietary, Persistent, Large-Scale Popular Fictions.” Diss. University of Texas at Austin, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Role of the Reader. 1962. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979. 107-24.

Robert Downey Jr.

Let’s just start with the axiom that the most compelling popular culture narrative America sells itself is the narrative of individual destruction and redemption. I won’t list the dozens of celebrities that are exemplars of this. We find ourselves fascinated with famous and talented people being degraded and abased through their own weaknesses of character: the powerful and tragic magnifications of our own lapses and less-than-proud moments.

Enter into this system Robert Downey Jr., circa late 90s-early 2000s. Incorrigible, so gone that we kind of gave up on following his story until it was all over (think Whitney Houston about 20 months ago). What’s left, when the glory of being a celebrity is ruined by the shame of being human and subject to human problems? (Think Britney Spears, now). Middle America (and I’m not objectifying this: at the time, I definitely shared the perspective of middle America) wanted Downey to osmotically learn the lessons we understood as common sense, and we were mighty vexed when he didn’t, at least not immediately.

And didn’t at all, not in ways that we found traditionally comforting. He took his issues past a point where we understood them within a revival or “bad boy with a heart of gold” narrative: he got bothersome, and let us give up. He didn’t publicly apologize in the mode we’re accustomed to now. He didn’t get Christian: he just hit rock bottom. We figured he’d be in jail until we forgot about him.

But he then lived. What’s more, he understood himself as the man lost and found again, the prodigal, and performed it. His performance in Elton John’s “I Want Love” is perhaps the most succinct distillation of this. “A man like me is dead in places.” Watch the subtlety with which he, in spaces of moments, mobilizes regret, craving, sadness, defiance, and invites us to sympathize with him. He understands these feelings as theater: not only his own drama, but the drama we were living through him. Downey persisted through the facile shows of glowing life and tragic fall to which we assign the famous, and remained able to look us in the eye and perform himself, and to understand the framework with which we appropriated him, and to own and perform that as well.

Whether it’s in Wonder Boys or Zodiac or his public existence: Downey not only lived through the horrors of addiction but has proven able to mobilize his own story of addiction and tenuous survival, to synthesize it with his art and present it to us in a way we find resonant. Maybe it helps that middle America has seen a lot more Oxycontin and meth and is a little more able to acknowledge the addictions that live within its own culture. Or maybe it’s just because he’s a brilliant actor.

Regardless, he’s free now of our pernicious stories: he’s been through our wringer, so rather than continue to subject him to our narratives of fidelity, sobriety and domesticity, we respect him for the shaman he is, and we let him work. In Iron Man he plays an arms dealer, an emblem of Blackwater or Halliburton, who seeks redemption, and perhaps only he could sell that to an American audience at this point. By acknowledging that he is “dead in places,” Downey takes up our sins and invites us to wrestle with our own degradations and abasements. In some ways, he’s one of the few convincing superheroes we can still plausibly have, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying it’s about time we saw him fly.