Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tales from the Loscon

From Friday through today, we attended Loscon 34, an LA-area science fiction convention. Every convention has its own personality. Loscon's is of a well-read, highly-educated and extremely vocal party guest who knows more than you do about any subject you bring up. Perhaps because the organization that puts it on, LASFS, is close to JPL, the con is suffused with experts on history, science, and even cruise ship lore. (When we were in line for the masquerade, one line-member's comments about the Titanic were met with a torrent of corrections from another, who worked for a cruise line.) This often leads to disagreements between those who believe they know more than the experts at their sides. One panel on pulp fiction featured contradictory comments from pulp historians on whether the paper used to print pulp magazines was the same grade as or lower grade than the paper on which comic books were printed.

Loscon is also well-known for its Saturday-night room parties. One of the more unusual ones we visited last night was thrown by an author to promote her small-press fantasy novel. The author herself dressed up in a Xena-type warrior-woman outfit to plug the book.

As we were leaving this costume-filled milieu early Sunday morning, we shared an elevator ride down with two young women wearing costumes of a different type -- i.e., short skirts and low-cut tops that could barely contain their surgically-bestowed assets. One dropped a hotel key card as the elevator descended; but she waited until we left the elevator before bending down to retrieve it -- for obvious reasons.

Plainly, these women were not fans; they were "pros."

DVD's Your U.N.C.L.E.

Today's LA Times ran two articles about the upcoming release of the entire MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. series on DVD: This interview with Robert Vaughn; and this appreciation by Robert Lloyd. I particularly liked Lloyd's comments on releasing the space-age U.N.C.L.E. series in the information-age early 21st Century:

"Although we are now accustomed to carrying around record collections and multiplexes in our pockets, to my ancient mind there is still something pleasantly improbable about the thought that all 105 episodes of 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' have been put onto DVD and packaged in a single cardboard 'attaché case' roughly the size of a complete volume of Shakespeare. . . . That a laser beam is at the heart of the technology that has made this possible is also suitably science-fiction, and poetically appropriate, regarded with a mind that can still thrill at the words 'laser beam.' Laser beam! Oh!"

Lloyd comments that nearly forty years after the series left the air, he no longer watches it with the wide-eyed wonder of a cold-war-era kid; but rather with "amused, ironic detachment." But, he continues,
"is not 'amused, ironic detachment' the very essence of the character of the modern filmic secret agent? Really, the whole world could use a lot more of that."

I've got an odd relationship with the whole U.N.C.L.E. phenomenon. As with many '60's TV shows, I have hazy memories of watching both U.N.C.L.E. series in the sixties (I particularly recalled the animated opening titles); but because the reruns weren't syndicated in my part of the country until the '80's, I didn't actually watch whole episodes growing up. Instead, my knowledge of the show came primarily from merchandising. There was a Whitman juvenile U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel (written by Walter Gibson, the author of the SHADOW pulps)around the house; and I'd occasionally come across board games and other tchotchkes from the show. In the early '80's, there was an U.N.C.L.E. reunion movie, which my cousin Lee covered extensively for STARLOG magazine; and occasional articles about the show. It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco in the late '80's that I was able to see multiple episodes of not only the Man from U.N.C.L.E., but also the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Because Silicon Valley wonks had an appetite for science fiction programming, the bay area local stations -- both private and public -- ran extensive science fiction programming.

As with the Connery Bond movies, I'll probably never be able to appreciate U.N.C.L.E. with the same viewpoint as those who grew up watching the show in the sixties. But I can still enjoy a worldview where the greatest threat to our planet is neither geopolitical forces nor ecological IOU's, but rather nasty businessmen who name themselves after birds.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

the Song of Summer

If you watch anime set in Japan during the summer months, you'll inevitably hear cicada songs in the background. Those are not just fanciful. Here's a snippet of video I shot while we were walking to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka in September. The background sound is not machinery or traffic; it's just insects.

Burning News

Some readers of this blog might know that my cousin Lee Goldberg writes tie-in novels for the mystery series DIAGNOSIS MURDER and MONK. His brother Tod -- heretofore a literary novelist/short story author, a journalist, and a book reviewer -- has now ventured into the same waters. He has announced on his blog that he has contracted to write four tie-in novels for the TV series BURN NOTICE. That means he can (as Lee has), if he wishes, go down to San Diego Con, sit on a panel of media tie-in writers, and then sign autographs under the sails in the convention center.

Meanwhile, Lee's latest Monk book, MR. MONK IN OUTER SPACE, sits on my pile of books to read. It's a Monk mystery set at a science-fiction convention. Is it a frisson of fear that prevents me from immediately cracking it open?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Manga Symbiosis

Japan, Ink: Inside the Manga Industrial Complex

The cover story in the current WIRED magazine discusses the manga business in Japan, which writer Daniel Pink deems (perhaps hyperbolically) the hub of all popular culture in the land of the rising sun.

Pink's focus is on the symbiotic relationship between professional manga publishing and doujinshi -- the limited-press fan-published comics that draw hundreds of thousands of buyers to festivals like Comiket, and that violate creators' and publishers' intellectual property rights outrageously. How do publishing companies that fanatically protect their copyrights coexist with store chains like Mandarake and K-Books that buy, sell and trade doujinshi? As Pink describes it, the secret is an unwritten agreement between the fan publishers and the professionals -- and a mutually-beneficial business model that, he suggests, Western media might do well to emulate.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Kamichu: A Little Bit of Heaven

If you're lucky enough to get the Imaginasian channel (Channel 157 on Time-Warner in LA), I recommend that you tune in at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. That's because the cable channel's Anime Ener-G programming block (sponsored, ghostlike, by Geneon, even though Geneon itself is in reorganization and won't be buying advertising anytime soon) will rerunning episodes of a series we've grown to love, KAMICHU.

KAMICHU is a program that I cannot imagine an American channel would run -- in part because the concept is deeply rooted in Japan's pantheistic Shinto religion. The series' main character is Yurie (pronounced yury-eh), a rather immature 13-year-old girl who lives in a small seaside town near Hiroshima in the '80's. In the first episode, Yurie announces to her best friend that the previous night she somehow discovered that she is a god. And she is. In the Shinto religion, there is a god for everything that exists. And so the existence of a junior high school god is worthy of some note (there's an announcement on the school PA right after she inadvertently creates a typhoon with her face in the eye of the storm), but not a lot of fuss.

The title of the series is the magic word her friends make up for her to say to summon her power -- a contraction of the Japanese words for god and junior high student.

We learn that she's more powerful than the resident god in the Shinto shrine where her friend Matsuri lives (a god who acts more like a servant than a deity, and who yearns to be a rock star). We learn that the land is swarming with gods, who are generally invisible to all but Yurie and those whom she temporarily gives magical sight. She sets up a consultation tent at her school during lunch hours, and grants wishes to some who approach her with worthy wishes (although one of her first supplicants, the Prime Minister, turns out to have an agenda).

One could imagine that a comedy about a teenager who obtains divine powers would devolve into slapstick or lowball comedy. Certainly most kids Yurie's age could not be trusted with such might. But Yurie simply does not think of abusing her power for personal purposes (except, say, to change the TV channel from across the room without a remote). She remains dedicated to trying to live her life as a normal junior high student, yearning to catch the attention of the largely oblivious boy she likes, and dealing with Matsuri's various schemes to capitalize on Yurie's powers to help Matsuri's shrine.

The series overall has a soothing, relaxing feeling, from the opening harmonica theme through the cute closing. Aiding this is terrific writing from Hideyuki Kurata (creator of the READ OR DIE franchise, and screenwriter for the HELLSING ULTIMATE series) and the creative team that produced the ROD THE TV series a few years ago. A sign of the care put into the series is the attention paid to the setting. The town in which Yurie lives, the hill she rides her bike down, the ferry she and her friends ride to school, the businesses and the shrine all feel so real that if the viewer woke up in the town tomorrow, they could probably navigate their way around.

If you want to watch an anime that does not go down like a twice-frozen TV dinner (which happens with some of the more derivative series), check out KAMICHU.

Japanese Conventional Artifacts

Here are some fun convention flyers I picked up while we were in Japan for Worldcon. The first is a manga-style flyer (helpfully translated into English for us foreign attendees) for the next Japanese National Science Fiction Convention, Daicon. (Remember to read right -t0-left.)
The other is the cover for the program for the summer Comic Market, or Comiket, for 2007.

Nothing the God of Biomechanics Wouldn't Let You into Heaven For

Last night we went out to the neighborhood movie theater, the Landmark, to see BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT -- the third or something edition of this 1982 movie, likely issued to celebrate the flick's 25th anniversary. Perhaps I'm unperceptive, but I found only slight differences from the "director's cut" already out on video -- although both versions vary drastically (and are much improved from) the theatrical original. The reissues excise the annoying narration by Harrison Ford; reorder shots; change dialogue; and include a far less optimistic (though more existential than downbeat) ending.

The question for me was whether I'd perceive the movie differently now than the first time I saw it in a theater -- which was in the Liberty Theater in Walla Walla, Washington back when I was 17. What would I bring to the story, after 25 years (including seven years of higher education and ten years of marriage) of living life?

Frankly, I'm not sure. I was hyper-conscious of how the Blade Runner look influenced movie and TV for years, much as 2001 had 14 years earlier. I wondered what exactly it was that made Deckard such hot stuff in hunting down androids that his former boss essentially forced him back onto the job. (And yes, I know it's because of what he is.) After all, he doesn't do much in the movie beyond basic detective work, whenever he's not mooning after Sean Young. I did feel much more sympathy for Rutger Hauer's replicant character, Roy Batty, who is by far the most expressive character in the movie (over the top, in fact, like someone who has just discovered emotions and is so drunk on them he can't help gushing them like a geyser).

I also found that the special effects were still fantastic-looking, even after 25 years of increasing sophistication. Without a whisper of CGI, the effects draw us into this futuristic Los Angeles completely.

Incidently, the movie is set in 2019. Somehow I don't think we're going to develop Darryl Hannahdroids in the next 12 years, let alone attack ships burning off the shoulder of Orion. But as someone once said, it's not science fiction's job to predict the future; its job is to imagine the future.

Does Starbucks Need a Triple-Shot Venti?

Yesterday morning, Amy and I were having breakfast at Santa Monica's 18th Street Coffee House (which actually looks like my concept of a coffee house -- lots of dark wood finishes). I read Amy an article from the LA Times about how last quarter visits to Starbucks stores fell for the first time since -- well, ever. The way every head swiveled around to look at us, you would have thought I had mentioned E.F. Hutton. (That's a reference that will be lost on anyone under 30.)

The fall in Starbucks attendance strangely coincided with an increase in the price of drinks chain-wide (four months ago), a dip in the chain's stock, and rising gas prices (not to mention the sub-prime mortgage debacle) that have led some to believe that perhaps a $4 a day latte habit is not, financially, a good idea.

Throw in the number of local coffee bars that have taken a page from Starbuck's playbook and charge nearly identical prices for the same types of lattes, cappucinos, and froufrou drinks, and you'll find the Starbucks mermaid facing some rough seas ahead.

Perhaps a good starting point for Starbucks to regain its momentum is to reconsider its previous strategy of saturating the market with stores like a spilled machiato saturates a bar-towel. At some point, too many Starbucks is too many Starbucks. If you can hardly take a step without tripping over a Starbucks, it stands to reason that the sales in each store is going to go down.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Animidnight Gets Even Darker

Starz Edge's Animidnight Adds More Anime - Anime News Network

Premium cable channel Starz's Action Channel has in the past run the HELLSING anime TV series a few times on its ANIMIDNIGHT umbrella show, which runs at midnight (duh) on Friday nights (now on Starz Edge).  Next year, it will be running the newer, more faithful, and far nastier incarnation of the story, HELLSING ULTIMATE; along with fellow Geneon kill-em-up, BLACK LAGOON. 

I'm encouraged by both deals.  The American branch of Geneon continues to languish in reorganization limbo; and playing these Geneon properties on TV should encourage other companies to pick up their licenses if Geneon can't do it itself.

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The WGA Does Not Merely Strike; It Really Most Sincerely Strikes

A Writer's Life

In Cousin Lee's latest war-correspondent post from the front lines of the WGA strike, he describes an only-in-Hollywod (well, actually Burbank) scene:  Some of the original munchkins from 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ hand out donut holes to strikers (assuring them, "The Lollypop Guild is with you"), while an onlooker asks if John Edwards (scheduled to visit) talks to dead people.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Unca Danny's Teeny Screeny Video Show

If you scroll way, way, WAY down on the blog -- past the posts with broken links, past the wi-fi-watering hole finder, even past the brown line -- you'll find a radioactive-green screen on which you can watch streaming material from YouTube (with advertising around, natch). I told the Adsense people that I wanted programming that matched the subject matter of the blog; and so far they've obliged with anime and comic-book related programming. It's fun, it's free, and it'll give you something to watch once the TV networks run out of new episodes.

Strike and Strike Again

Today was "take your kid to the picket line" day for the Writers Guild of America strike. I drove by Fox Studios on my way to work in Century City, and saw kidlets hanging out on the picket line with their striking scribe parents. And from my Cousin Lee Goldberg's blog
comes this picture of him and his cute daughter Madison picketing in Studio City.

I recall that in 1988, when we had the last extended writer's strike, TV entertainment options included home video (mainly rented) and cable movies; but was still far more limited than now. Today's couch potato has ready access to thousands of hours of TV series, on DVD, on iTunes, even illegally on YouTube. Will they feel the pinch of a lack of new TV content?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Heroes Reborn

How do you take a bunch of Web comics based on the TV series HEROES that were available on the Internet free, package them in a hardcover book, and get people to pay $29.99 for them?

Easy: Just have Alex Ross paint a cover like this one.

Worked for me.

What Are You Building, Stark?

YouTube - Iron Man

The second teaser trailer for next year's IRON MAN movie is up on the web -- and like the first one (seen in slightly different form at Comic-Con), it looks terrific. This flick better not disappoint me.

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Writer's Strike Wipes Out Wi-Fi Watering Holes' Writerzens

Strike empties L.A. writers' havens - Los Angeles Times

This afternoon, I rode my bike to Synergy in Culver City, and found it deserted. According to this LA Times article, it's not alone. Several wi-fi watering holes favored by writers are feeling the pain of the WGA strike, as writers who normally pound out scenarios while ensconsced with a latte and a muffin are hitting the picket lines or staying home, watching their budgets. Will L.A.'s purveyors of overpriced java survive?

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More People I Grew Up With Who Lived Their Dreams

Gregg Gilmore

Greg Gilmore, whom I attended high school with, apparently studied acting; appeared in various movies and TV shows; and last year co-produced videos featuring INXS and Orthodox-Jewish rapper Matisyahu.

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Norman Mailer, R.I.P.

Dead or Alive? - Norman Mailer

Soon after the death of Paul Norris, who drew the two-fisted hero Aquaman, comes the passing of two-fisted author Norman Mailer.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Paul Norris, R.I.P.

Mark Evanier's blog brings the news of the death today of Paul Norris, who co-created one of DC's most durable (if soggy) heroes, Aquaman. As Evanier points out, Norris was the last living creator of a classic Golden Age DC hero -- the creators of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern are gone.

Paper Heroes

The latest issue of TV Guide features 4 alternate "Heroes" covers, each by a comic book artist. My subscription copy featured art by "Fathom" artist Michael Turner.

Is it my imagination, or did Turner draw the "Heroes" cast as the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" cast?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Japan's 'Gundam' Personal Equipment System Revealed - Anime News Network

Japan's Ministry of Defense recently announced an "advanced personal equipment system," listed in a symposium under the title, "Towards the Realization of Gundam."  Since Mobile Suit Gundam is the most durable giant robot franchise in anime, fans in Japan (and to a degree all over the world) wondered if the land of hi-tech was actually working on a suit of robot armor the size of a skyscraper.

No such luck.  The system just combines a bulletproof vest with a computerized helmet.

"We've been somewhat perplexed by the overwhelming response," deadpanned (I imagine) a spokesperson.  Apparently, one of the researchers nicknamed the system "Gundam," so the Ministry innocently put that into their program.  Uh-huh.

Of course, if one were to actually build a giant land-based war machine, shaping it like a humongous humanoid -- let alone like a huge suit of samurai armor -- would be extraordinarily impractical.  Not only would the resulting monstrosity be unable to stand up without its legs collapsing under the suit's weight, but locomotion on two legs would be insane.  Imagine picking up a hi-rise, swinging it out into space, plunking it down again, and using it as a pivot to swing another one outward.  Imagine doing that over and over.  Now imagine all the stuff getting squashed underfoot.

Best to leave the true Gundams on the battlefield of the imagination.
Japan's 'Gundam' Personal Equipment System Revealed - Anime News Network

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Product Placement: Heroic, Yet Futile

In last Monday's episode of HEROES, a black video iPod was featured prominently in one scene. The dialogue indirectly emphasized its video capacity; and a character even turned the back of the device to the camera, to show the Apple logo on the back.

Product placement? Apparently. A generic video MP3 could be used; or a DVD.

The odd part: Due to acrimony between Apple and NBC/Universal -- which airs HEROES -- earlier this year, NBC announced it would yank its programming off iTunes. That includes HEROES.

So why would the network give Apple millions of dollars worth of advertising in the form of product placement? Two guesses. First, the scene may have been filmed before the Apple/NBC brouhaha. Second, Apple still buys lots and lots of TV advertising time; so staying on the company's good side might still pay dividends.

There's a Kind of Haruhi All over the World

What is it about the comedy/parody/fantasy anime THE MELANCHOLY OF HARUHI SUZIMIYA that inspires so much passion? Here's a Youtube video of fans around the world -- and I mean around the world -- performing the highly-choreographed dance from the closing credits of the anime.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

It's Greek to Me

Verbal Medicine

Any time I feel like I'm too smart for my own good, I can head over to my friend Rick Marshall's blog, VERBAL MEDICINE.  Rick posted a review of a volume translating Heraclitus's works, and received a thank-you e-mail from the translator.

Sigh.  Think I'll write some more about Batman and Peanuts.

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Birthday on the Hill

Yesterday was Amy's birthday. At her request, we had dinner out at Yamashiro. Yamashiro is a gorgeous restaurant up in the Hollywood Hills (the ones Bob Seger sings about), just above the Magic Castle and overlooking Tinseltown. It was built near the turn of the last century, and is modeled after a castle in Kyoto. Although Yamashiro predates the glory days of the area, it is inherently and iconically Hollywood.

Won't You Take Me Down to Snoopytown

Although we think of Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters as quintessentially American, they truly belong to the world. The Japanese passion for cuteness -- and for gift-giving -- likely drives the success of Peanuts collectibles in Japan.

While we were in Yokohama in August and September, we visited the Yokohama branch of Snoopytown, a Peanuts tchotchke store chain. (We saw a bigger store in the Harajuku section of Japan, but didn't go in.) Among the items tailor-made for the location were these hand-towels. (Hand-towels are often seen in gift stores there, possibly because many public restrooms don't provide paper towels.) One depicts Yokohoma's Chinatown; the other the downtown Yokohama skyline, complete with the Cosmo World Clock ferris wheel and the Landmark Tower.

The Peanuts images are copyright by United Features Syndicate.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Spirit of Darkness

Lion's Gate Films has put up a Website promoting the upcoming movie version of Will Eisner's character The Spirit. No content yet; just a link for updates, and a big illustration of ol' Denny Colt by Miller, in that Sin City style that looks as if the rain is slicing him to pieces. I can fairly taste the grit. (Ack! ptui! ptui! Anyone got some water?)