Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Legacy strips:frozen or fresh? Part 2

Time Magazine published a list of the ten longest-running newspaper comic strips. In part 1 I talked about those that seems frozen in time -- and creatively frozen as well. But just because the original artist dies, the creative development of the comic strip doesn't have to die as well (or turn into a zombie). It can become the starting point for the the new artistic team. From Time Magazine's list, here are the strips I think are fresh rather than frozen.

Little Orphan Annie - The last creative team to work on Annie did the best they could to update this 86-year-old strip. Annie started wearing jeans, the stories had contemporary settings, but it was all for naught. People who came to the comic because they loved the movie didn't relate to the adventure-style stories. Unlike times past, readers are receptive to new gag strips, but are completely uninterested in new (or even revamped) narrative strips. A noble effort, nonetheless.

Gasoline Alley - This is one of the few strips where characters age (albeit not quite as quickly as in the real world). The current artist, Jim Scancarelli has made major changes in Gasoline Alley, keeping the story -- and the world it inhabits -- growing and evolving. Phyllis Wallet, a mainstay of the strip since the 1930's died of old age during his tenure. Characters leave the strip, and new ones appear. Situations change, and children are born. Just like the real world, life goes on. Slow, organic growth that results in major changes over time.Very fresh, though with a patina of age.

Prince Valiant - Another strip where characters age. When Hal Foster created Val, he was a young boy newly arrived at King Arthur's court. Over a half century later (being a Sunday-only strip, time moves very slowly), he's now a late middle-aged family man. The current creative team of Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz are moving the stories in a more fantasy-oriented direction, bringing them in line with current tastes of comics readers. Maintaining the high standards of the past in contemporary form, fresh in look and stories.

Brenda Starr - Currently written by a journalist, this strip has dramatically changed since Dale Messick's death. Characters have aged, and the trials and tribulations of Ms. Starr reflect the current unsettled market of newspaper reporters in general. The strip has hit the right balance of adventure, drama, and commentary on the very medium it's printed on (thanks to current writer Mary Schmich, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune) and a clean, modern graphic look as drawn by June Brigman. Building a new story on a strong foundation -- fresher than the newspapers that carry it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Legacy strips: frozen or fresh? Part 1

The big news in sequential art (newspaper comic strips) was the demise of Little Orphan Annie. After 86 years, the strip's syndicator called it quits. In honor of the event, Time Magazine published a list of the 10 longest-running comic strips. It's an interesting lineup.
  1. B.C.
  2. Dennis the Menace
  3. Beetle Baily
  4. Annie
  5. The Katzenjammer Kids
  6. Gasoline Alley
  7. Blondie
  8. Dick Tracy
  9. Prince Valiant
  10. Brenda Starr
As I view it, the strips seem to fall into two categories: those hampered by their legacies, and those trying to build on them.This post we'll look at former from Time Magazine's list.

What happens when a legacy strip's frozen? It's pretty much the way the original artist left it. The style of the artwork is followed as closely as possible. The cast of characters doesn't change.The clothes, the gags, settings and tropes don't change, and everything remains just the way the artist left it. From Time Magazine's list, here are the frozen:

B.C. - Did you know the original creators are long dead? You can't tell from the strip, which hasn't changed at all. B.C. is so frozen its got freezer burn.

Dennis the Menace - The art's changed slightly, but the last new character added was tomboy Gina, back in the 1970's. Dennis still bugs Mr. Wilson, still reveals embarrassing secrets, and so on. Brrr.

Beetle Bailey - The addition of Gizmo as the tech-crazy IT guy updates the strip slightly, but you can count on seeing Sarge falling off a cliff and hanging from a branch at least once a month. And Beetle will appear beaten to a pulp at least twice monthly. Pretty frosty

The Katzenjammer Kids - The hi-jinx of these mischevious kids has been toned down as sensibilities changed, and the art is cleaner and less detailed -- a nod to the shrinking panel size. Although still set in German South-West Africa (as it has since its inception in 1897), the native population has virtually disappeared from the strip, primarily due to evolving attitudes about depicting the same. In terms of creative development, though, it's still 1916. Slightly thawed, but only slightly.

Blondie - Although the characters don't age, there have been changes to the strip. Since Chic Young died, Blondie has started a catering business, Dagwood now carpools instead of catching the bus, J.C. Dithers and CO. uses computers instead of typewriters, etc. Although the basic gags remain the same, this is a strip that comfortably works within its established boundries rather than be hampered by them. Defrosted.

Dick Tracy - Max Allan Collins stove mightily to update the character after the death of creator Chester Gould, but he was only partially successful. Dick Tracy is no longer involved with the Moon men (don't ask), but he still fights an endless stream of grotesque villains with Dickensian name in the pattern established by Gould. The only real difference is that the art is less detailed (shrinking space) and the story arcs are shorter. The current Dick Tracy does little more than recycle past glories without the seat-of-the-pants inventiveness Gould brought to the strip. Permafrost's building on this one.

Next: Fresh not frozen! The comic strips that effectively build on their legacies.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Apple vs EMI vs Apple?

It all seems pretty simple. Apple wants the Beatles catalog on iTunes. Customers want the Beatles catalog on iTunes. The surviving Beatles seem to want their catalog on iTunes. So why hasn't it happened? According to Paul McCartney:
"It's been business hassles, not with us, or iTunes. It's the people in the middle, the record label. There have been all sorts of reasons why they don't want to do it."
And so we've had a wave of commentary berating said record label -- EMI -- for their wrong-headed stance. But there might be more to the story.

I've spent the past twelve years (in part) creating CD compilations primarily for public radio stations. And I can tell you that rights issues -- even among small independent labels and artists -- can be messy. One of our client stations has artists perform live in the studio. When they do, the artist signs a waiver allowing the station to use that recording for non-commercial purposes, such as a fund raising CD.

Sounds straightforward, right? Well, sometimes the artist has an exclusive contract with a label that covers any and all recordings made, regardless of the venue. Which means the artist had no legal right to sign that waiver. It's up to the label to decide if the track can be used.

Other times the artist is just fine, and the label doesn't have any controlling interest, but the artist's management has exclusive right to make any such deals (and management is seldom on hand when the artist is at the station). So it's the management that has to make that decision.

Now while most times the labels and management organizations will let us use the those tracks, the wheels can move very slowly. Sometimes too slowly and the track has to be dropped in order for the disc to ship on time for the station's fund drive.

No one's the bad guy. They're just following the procedures they are legally bound to. End result's the same, though. The radio station wants the artist on the CD, the artist wants to be on the CD, but it doesn't happen.

EMI doesn't own the Beatles catalog. They represent the Beatles' recorded music on behalf of Apple Corp. (the legal entity of the Beatles) in an arrangement that has a long and complicated history. That catalog has been locked down from the very beginning. Beatles tracks never appear on Greatest Hits or Top 40 collections. Their use has been very carefully controlled. And while it might be EMI, it also might be EMI following the procedures and guidelines laid down in the agreement with Apple.

According to David Kronemyer:
[Beatles manager] Klein was determined that Apple really should be the manufacturer of Beatles (and non-Beatles) records. He wanted to control all activities that a manufacturer possibly could control. The 1969 agreements went further than most royalty contracts in that they gave approval of product, packaging, pickup albums, etc. to the Beatles. Klein not only wanted to keep those features but also add release dates, pricing, approval and placing of advertising, promotion, publicity, etc.
So while Paul McCartney the artist may say he doesn't understand what the problem is, in the end it may very well be that it lies not with EMI, but with his legal avatar, Apple Corp.

 - Ralph

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Mozart Effect, Effectively Dead

So now it's official: the "Mozart Effect" is bogus.

According to University of Vienna researchers Jakob Pietschnig, Martin Voracek and Anton K. Formann listening to Mozart won't make you smarter. According to Science Digest

The comprehensive study of studies synthesizes the entirety of the scientific record on the topic. Retrieved for this systematic investigation were about 40 independent studies, published ones as well as a number of unpublished academic theses from the US and elsewhere, totaling more than 3000 participants.

The University of Vienna researchers' key finding is clear-cut: based on the culminated evidence, there remains no support for gains in spatial ability specifically due to listening to Mozart music.

Many parents over the past 15 years purchased Baby Genius and Mozart Effect music (and many other such series) to make their babies smarter -- to no avail.

I, for one, am glad. Mozart, unlike spinach, shouldn't be consumed just because it's good for you. It's time to stop treating him as such. Plus, if Mozart isn't something the parents normally listen to, then any "exposure" won't do much, either. Kids are very quick to figure out that things parents don't participate in aren't that important.

Want your kids to be familiar with classical music? You need to listen to it yourself. Want them to be readers? You need to read books, too. Is it important for your kids to be active? Then you have to turn off the computer and get out there, too.
"I recommend listening to Mozart to everyone, but it will not meet expectations of boosting cognitive abilities," says Jakob Pietschnig, lead author of the study.
I concur. Everyone should listen to Mozart. Not because it will make you smarter, but just because.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

One vote, no tea

Yesterday, I voted in our local Town Council elections. Voter turnout for such elections is traditionally low, which is a shame. Because in one sense, these are the elections that matter very much. In this case, 27% -- about 600 voters -- of the electorate turned out.

While policies of the Federal Government have some impact on our lives, our local governments do so even more. In the area where I live, members of the Town Council have to decide the town's resources should be managed, and consider ways to expand them. And ways to fund them. And many other rulings that directly affect my life.

For example: in order to make ends meet the town imposed a meal tax. That changed our eating habits. We don't go out as much (going to the next town doesn't help -- they do it too). Trash collection is the town's responsibility. What I can put in the trash is regulated, which in turn determines how often I have to go to the dump as we renovate our house.

We have a big problem with deer, groundhogs, and other wildlife. Even though we're not close to other houses, we can't invite a hunter in to take care of the problem -- town ordinances forbid discharging firearms within town limits.

Property taxes, town stickers for the car, water and sewer rates are all set by the town. (yes, we have county taxes too, but let's keep on topic). The success or failure to keep businesses in town impacts the economic health of the community. And the type of businesses allowed in also color the character of the community. Those are all decisions ultimately made by the Town Council.

Snow removal, street repair, law enforcement -- all services provided by the town. And the Town Council determines the budget. The Council hires the Town Manager.The competency of that person can play a big role in how desirable the community is to live in.

What about development? Should we keep that open space, or put up another housing development? What the Council ultimately decides makes a big difference if the property under discussion is across the street from your house!

One final thing: while it's popular to characterize politicians as greedy, lying careerists, it works a little differently on the local level. No one ever got rich (legally) by serving on a town council -- not at $300 a month. Because its extremely local, and you run into your constituents everywhere -- in a restaurant, at the grocery store, at a gas station, at a party, or even just walking down the street. And few of them are shy about telling you in detail how good or (more often) how poor a job you're doing.

So yes, I voted in the local elections. And may I say that I'm grateful to the entire field of candidates for being civic-minded enough to run. It's a step further than I care to take.

- Ralph