Comics Breakdown!

Thought I’d take a moment to promote two of my favorite things in life: comics, and dogs who type!

Akela Talamasca

That’s Akela Talamasca, “Twitter’s spirit animal and a Typing Husky.” Akela has long had one of Twitter’s most entertaining feeds, and in recent months that feed has been supplemented by fast, funny, and furious outbursts of Silver Age comics goodness in the form of Comics Breakdown.

Comics Breakdown

Problem is … if you miss one of Akela’s Comics Breakdown Tweetstorms, then you miss out on the fun.

Problem solved! Comics Breakdown is on Storify!

Comics Breakdown

Yep, just go to Akela’s Storify page and you can find archived versions of past Comics Breakdown episodes. It’s just like reading them on Twitter, only you aren’t interrupted by the horrifying news of the actual day! WIN!

Thanks, Akela, for being a bright spot in a dark age. And if you like what Akela is doing, here, then vist the Akela Talamasca Patreon page and pitch in a dollar or two. Dog food doesn’t buy itself, you know!

I Shopped At An Amazon Brick And Mortar Bookstore

Longbox Graveyard #165

Surprise — Amazon is testing out the bookstore business!

The program is in its infancy, with the first store opening in Seattle, and the store that I visited debuting just two months ago. Other stores will follow in Portland and Boston, and only time will tell where things go from there. Will Amazon’s push into physical retail finally put paid to your favorite comics shop or bookstore? Does Amazon bring anything special to the table besides deep discounts and even faster fulfillment than same-day delivery?

Read on to find out!

Amazon Books

I visited Amazon’s meatspace outpost in the Westfield UTC Mall, an upscale fashion venue in northern San Diego. The store itself was a stone’s throw from an Apple Store, and directly next door to a Tesla showroom. The shop was clean and well-lit, and maybe just on the small side for a book store … at least compared to the airplane hanger dimensions of your average Barnes & Noble. The aisles felt a bit narrower than I am used to, and the racks were tall, too, so you couldn’t glance up and see across the store. The effect was more cozy than oppressive, but I expect it could get tight in there with Christmas crowds.

Amazon Books

That slightly-smaller footprint meant this Amazon store was stocked differently than a big box book retailer. I didn’t see a periodical rack, a cafe, or anyplace to sit down and read. This wasn’t a library, kid! Aside from a healthy amount of floorspace given over to Amazon’s digital goodies, such as the Kindle, almost everything here was books — the stacks of cat calendars and gaming product that occupy center aisle at Barnes & Noble were in short supply.

Books, also, were in short supply. There were no more than three-odd copies of any given book on the shelf, and everything was displayed cover-out, meaning the shelves carried a fraction of what you’d find packed and stacked into another bookstore. The clerk described the books on offer as “heavily curated” — limited to those titles rated most highly by Amazon readers. (I also got the impression the stock turns pretty quickly). While this reduced opportunity for discovery of new things, it also made for a fruitful browsing experience. I’ve found the paradox of choice to be a real thing, and knowing that every book on the shelf had to pass some soul-destroying Big Data test let me explore with confidence. Having every book racked cover-out also allowed me to quickly scan the shelves.

Amazon Books

The user experience of the store took some getting used to. I don’t know as it’s worse than the usual retail bump and grind, and it might have been better — I’m still making up my mind.

I was greeted by staff as I entered the store — it reminded me of an Apple Store in this regard. It was a friendly and non-intrusive “welcome to our store” sort of greeting. The staff didn’t need to put a sales hammerlock on me, because they knew I’d boomerang back to them in confusion after wandering the store for a few moments.

Amazon Books

The first thing that confused me was the pricing system. When I think of buying books from Amazon, I think of discounts. So foremost on my mind — did the store match Amazon’s online prices?

The answer was yes … sort of.

Prices weren’t displayed on the little placards identifying each book. Neither did a placard’s bar code register anything for me when I viewed it through my Amazon iPhone app (about which more in a moment). No, to find prices, you needed to turn the book over and look for the list price. (Duh). No different than any other bookstore in that regard.

Amazon Books

But you could also take a book to a scanner for additional pricing options, which came down to this — Amazon Prime members get Amazon pricing, and everyone else paid retail. And only schmucks pay retail!

This method was intriguing. If you were interested enough in a book to take it off the rack and carry it over to a scanner, I’m willing to bet you would follow-through and buy it, especially when that scanner beeped up a nice discounted price. I didn’t see shelves or tables near the scanners where you might dump a book after scanning it, so it was kind of on you to either walk it back to the shelf, or walk it up to the purchase station.

Amazon Books

Checkout is another place where the system was different from conventional retail, at least for Amazon Prime members. A sign near checkout alerted me to scan a QR code with my Amazon app, then to present my phone to the clerk. The clerk scanned my books and then scanned my phone. My order appeared on a touchscreen, showing everything I bought and the discount I received. I signed with my finger and my transaction was complete, with charges billed to my Amazon account. This was about as many steps as paying with a credit card, but using my phone this way was new, so it felt a little awkward. I expect it would improve with familiarity.

And about that smart phone app — it really was essential equipment to use Amazon Books, along with a Prime membership. Without those things, this was just a small bookstore with limited selection. With the app, you could check prices through the phone, rather than walking over to a scanner. And as a free bonus you didn’t have to feel guilty about doing it, as I do when scanning a barcode at Barnes & Noble to decide if I really want it now, or if I could wait a day or two for a discount.

It did feel like there was a piece missing, though — and that piece was digital. In a very real sense, Amazon’s brick & mortar operation is a feeder for their digital ecosystem. Everything in the store pointed me toward the value of a Prime membership and the convenient utility of their app. But while Kindles were well-represented in the store (with a section of their own, and individual Kindles embedded in the book displays), there was a gulf between paper and digital books that I expected to be bridged here.

Amazon Books

The value proposition would have been for a free or discounted digital copy of any physical product I bought to automatically arrive in my account, but no such service was on offer. It would have also been handy if there was a one-touch solution for buying digital editions right where the books were racked — maybe by tapping my phone on the display plate. Instead, the clerk encouraged me to use my Amazon app to scan barcodes to make purchases or put something on my wish list the way you would in any other store. It felt like transferring trains at the station, instead of going directly to my destination, and this (admittedly small) bit of friction discouraged me from grabbing digital books when I might otherwise have given in to impulse.

But I did buy a couple physical books, and it has been a long time since I did that in a bookstore. Even with a limited selection, brick-and-mortar retail beats heck out of digital when it comes to browsing and discovery, and in this sense Amazon Books proved the best of both worlds — I walked out of the store with two books I didn’t have in mind when I went in, and I got them at Amazon’s discounted rate.

So the store was a big win all around, right?

Kinda.

I enjoyed the browsing and buying experience and would likely visit this shop every week if it was closer to home, but three things stick out for me.

First, I really would like a better convergence of the print and digital worlds. That there is still a divide between print and digital inside an Amazon brick-and-mortar outlet feels like a missed opportunity.

Second, as much as the curated selection of books suited my particular needs, I am sensitive to how this system throttles the discovery process. Amazon already exerts an unhealthy influence on the market by what they do and do not chose to show at their site, and this is only exacerbated in the reduced display space of their physical environment.

Borders

Third, I do sympathize with every other physical bookseller, who have survived the firestorm of the Barnes & Noble vs. Borders beatdown and seen their business undercut by Amazon’s online discounting only for Amazon to come after them on their home turf. Choice is good for readers, and discoverability is good for authors, and neither of those things will be especially well-served if brick-and-mortar Amazon stores drive everyone else out of business.

But that might just happen. A great local bookstore is a treasure, especially when staffed by enthusiastic readers who offer their own recommendations; or sign you up for an author’s in-store appearance; or when they host book clubs and meet-ups; or even when they just invite you to pet the bookstore cat. Amazon’s store might only offer part of that experience, but the store is still fun, the purchase process is novel and (mostly) painless, and everybody loves an Amazon discount.

Bookstore purists might turn their noses up at Amazon’s operation, but I am reminded of when Apple jumped into the music market with iTunes and the iPod. Apple’s digital music was inferior to other options (and if you don’t believe me, ask an audiophile the next time you have three hours to be harangued about digital music quality), but the end-to-end experience of doing music the Apple Way was greater than the sum-of-its parts, and the iPod conquered the world.

iPod

Will Amazon’s store disrupt the bookstore market the way the iPod disrupted music? Only time will tell! In the meantime, I’m going to read Paper Girls, which I bought off the shelf today at Amazon’s discounted price … but please let me know your thoughts in the comments section, below!

Paper Girls Vol. 1

Doctor Strange vs. Dracula!

Longbox Graveyard #164

Super-Blog Team-Up returns with a Doctor Strange-driven look at magic in comics! Now, Halloween was last week, so I’m a couple days late for Dracula, but with his movie out this week, I’m right on time for Doctor Strange … and it’s always time for Bronze Age Marvel here at Longbox Graveyard. So let’s jump right in as Doctor Strange battles Dracula, Lord of Vampires!

Tomb of Dracula #44

This two-part crossover began in Tomb of Dracula #44, smack-dab in the middle of the classic run by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer. I’ve sung the praises of Tomb of Dracula here at Longbox Graveyard before (twice!) — it really might have been the finest Marvel comic of its age. And one of the reasons the book worked so well was that writer and editor Marv Wolfman largely kept Dracula and his tales sequestered from the rest of the Marvel Universe. While Drac would encounter Spider-Man and Thor in other titles, Marv jealously guarded the door of Dracula’s own book, ceding to editorial pressure to more closely connect Tomb of Dracula with the Marvel Universe only through crossovers with otherworldly and supernatural characters like Silver Surfer, Brother Voodoo, and (in our case) Doctor Strange!

The first part of the tale, written by Marv Wolfman, opened with Strange mourning the death of his faithful manservant, Wong, beneath the flashing fangs of a vampire!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

Just look at Gene Colan’s smokey pencils, beautifully illuminated by Tom Palmer’s perfect inks! There’s never been a better team for supernatural comics storytelling!

But this wasn’t just any vampire — this was Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, as Strange discovered when his sorcery allowed him to experience Wong’s final moments.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

Harnessing the fathomless powers of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto (which then, as now, could do about anything the writer needed it to do), Doctor Strange tracked the “life-patterns” of Dracula from the scene of the crime to Dracula’s lair in Boston.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

I love how Colan’s “camera” pushes in on Dracula, starting with his open coffin, then Dracula in repose, and then Dracula alert to Strange’s intrusion. Looking at this sequence, did you “see” Dracula’s eyes snap open between the last two panels? That’s the magic of comics, boys and girls — like Scott McCloud noted, comics are as much about what you don’t see between the panels as what you see in the panels themselves.

After that? Well, it’s on!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

But this battle between Dracula and Strange wasn’t the usual Marvel Comics Fist City beat-down, and it wasn’t even a garden-variety Doctor Strange ectoplasmic duel of ghosts.

No, to battle Dracula, Strange invoked the “Images of Ikonn” to delve into Dracula’s “passions and fears,” taking Dracula back to the moment his mortal self fell on the battlefield in a cavalry duel with Turkish invaders.

It’s kind of dirty pool, to be honest.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

For a couple panels, there, we could almost sympathize with Dracula, and this was intentional. Marv Wolfman considered Dracula the “protagonist” of Tomb of Dracula, rather than the hero, but as readers we still needed to get on board with Dracula, and moments like this served to humanize him. We see Dracula as a mortal terrified of his pending (un)death, we see his noble sacrifice in defense of his homeland, and can kind of feel bad for him … but it doesn’t take much for Dracula to revert to form, showing the dark side of his noble nature with his incredulity that this conflict originated with the death of “… a mere hireling … a cretinous menial … a whimpering domestic.”

(Don’t take a job with Dracula, folks).

Taken aback by Dracula’s sudden recovery — and reluctant to use his “more potent magics” for fear of rendering Dracula incapable of restoring Wong to life — Doctor Strange was quickly mesmerized by Dracula.

Mesmerized … and slain!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

How’s that for a vintage Marvel shock ending? Doctor Strange is dead? Say it isn’t so!

Fortunately, we needn’t wait even one week to see how this one turns out … the tale continued in Doctor Strange #14!

Doctor Strange #14

While this issue was written by Steve Englehart (who firmly put his stamp on the story, as we shall see), the book was illustrated by the self-same team of Colan and Palmer, and also edited by Marv Wolfman, resulting in an unusually coherent crossover, at least by Marvel standards.

The issue opened with Dracula gloating over his fallen foe, casting Strange’s body into a dungeon, where he might rot until rising, three days later, as Dracula’s undead slave.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

But in his arrogance, Dracula didn’t reckon that Doctor Strange might be “no stranger to death,” as we learn that Strange escaped death by leaving his body instants before Dracula killed him at the end of last issue. But now, Strange was trapped outside his body, in astral form, with only three days to concoct a solution to his dilemma.

So what did Strange do?

Why, he thought, of course!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

But all the thinking in the world didn’t solve Doc’s trouble. After trying to distract Dracula with visions and spells — and nearly catching Dracula out in the daylight — Strange was still a helpless, disembodied spectator when Dracula returned three days later. But Dracula was taking no chances, and in an odd reversal of roles, he sought to put a final end to the undead Doctor Strange with a stake through the heart!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

Right on cue, Strange rose as a vampire, and we finally got some fist-and-fang action, as Dracula battled with a thing that was not-quite-Strange: Doctor Strange’s body, given in to dark vampiric impulses, while Strange’s conscience was helpless to intervene.

And it didn’t take long for Dracula to gain the upper hand against a Doctor Strange reduced to bestial impulses.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

I love it when Drac calls someone a “clod.” If your boss calls you a clod — or “cretin,” another favorite — then he’s probably a super-villian

It’s when Dracula had Doctor Strange on the ropes that something intriguing and even a little profound occurred. When Dracula asserted himself as “Lord” while strangling the life from Strange, from the depths of his possessed soul, Doctor Strange called on the power of the Christian god to save his life!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

It’s a bold turn of events, and something Steve Englehart didn’t shy away from — he once featured God Himself in a Doctor Strange story, then authored a bogus fan letter to deflect scrutiny — but what’s most interesting to me about this moment is what it asks about Doctor Strange’s own spirituality.

Does Doctor Strange believe in the Christian god, or is He just another deity in the Rolodex, to be invoked like Cyttorak or Vishanti? In his moment of greatest extremis, it is the Christian god that Strange turns to for salvation. Is Strange a man of faith, or is he just happy to use the best tool at hand?

Either way, that cross-like burst of light sure did the job …

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

Strange’s body and soul become one again even as Dracula is sent down to defeat, but Englehart implies that the will and even the cruelty required to overcome Dracula’s evil doesn’t come entirely from the divine force Strange invoked — that the “… true Dr. Strange would find no pleasure in his (Dracula’s) pain … that his tormentor (Strange) has been touched with Dracula’s own evil …” This conclusion points to an (ahem) strange duality, with the power of God getting Strange back on his feet, but Dracula’s own dark power of evil being the special sauce that let Strange finish the deed and kill Dracula for all time.

(Or at least until the next issue of Tomb of Dracula!)

And with Strange’s (and Wong’s) souls miraculously restored through Dracula’s death (could Drac have died for their sins? Nah …), that brings this tale to a close, and with it this installment of Longbox Graveyard!

It’s been awhile since I posted here, and it feels good! I hope to make this a more regular occurrence — please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!

But, before you go — it took the awesome power of Super-Blog Team-Up to wake Longbox Graveyard from its Odinsleep … assuming you view this as a welcome development, please pay your thanks forward by visiting these other Super-Blog Team-Up articles, all looking at some form of “Strange” Magic!

Super-Blog Team-Up: Magic!

NEXT: #165 I Shopped At An Amazon Brick And Mortar Book Store

Credit Where It Is Due

Longbox Graveyard might be going through an Odinsleep, but packages continue to arrive here at my secret worldwide headquarters.

Unlike the last missive from Mars, this one was entirely expected:

Lone Star Box

It’s from my favorite online back-issue retailer — MyComicsShop.com!

But this order was mostly Omnibus reprints.

Leading off — the first two volumes of the reprinted Master of Kung Fu!

Fist-Full Of Omnibuses

It is more than a little bizarre that I got these, as Master of Kung Fu is one of the few comics runs where I own almost every issue … but these Omnibus editions are easier to reference and read, and given these books have been out of print for so many decades, I felt I would be missing the party if I failed to buy them. And, hey, this way I get those Giant-Size MoKF issues that aren’t part of my collection.

Plus, this is an inexpensive way for me to finally read the very first appearances of Shang-Chi in the pages of Marvel Special Edition … I didn’t start collecting this series until issue #20, when the book had retitled itself Master of Kung Fu.

The series originated with Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, and was actually pretty good from the jump. This edition comes with forwards by Englehart and MoKF’s signature creator, Doug Moench, which shed a little light on the series’ origin, and also fill in some blanks for me. For instance, the reason that Paul Gulacy is on again/off again in the first dozen issue of this book was down to accelerated deadlines imposed by the printing schedule of Marvel UK. Ya learn something every day.

The Legend Begins!

Anyway, they’re handsome volumes, and I’m glad to have them, even if it means I’m on the hook for the forthcoming Volumes 3 & 4 if I want to have the whole run. (Insert weary sigh of the collector, here). I’ve already read a good chunk of the first volume — maybe it will inspire me to restart my long-dormant Master of Kung Fu review series.

I Double Dare You

Next, two volumes of Frank Miller’s Daredevil … another favorite series where I already own most of the issues, but purchased here as collections because I am a damn fool.

Finally, some actual back-issues …

img_1415

This nearly fills-in my run of Black Panther in Jungle Action, and completes my collection of Chris Claremont’s run on Marvel Two-In-One, which I will get around to reviewing here sooner or later. And that stray Captain Marvel just about fills in my run of that book, as well.

Finally, to give credit where it is due … I need to thank YOU, my Longbox Graveyard readers, for each and every book pictured here. You see, this haul was paid for entirely with trade credit earned by readers clicking through to MyComicsShop.com from the pages of Longbox Graveyard! And at better than four hundred bucks in trade credit, that is a LOT of clicks. Thanks so much!!

Now, I’ve got some reading to do. And some writing, too … Longbox Graveyard will return shortly with an actual issue review, sooner than you expect. Watch this space!

 

Happy Halloween From Longbox Graveyard

Celebrating this blog’s favorite holiday with this wonderful piece from Bruce Timm!

Lee by Timm

Enjoy your holiday … and see you again later this week as Longbox Graveyard at last lurches from the grave with a Doctor Strange-focused installment of Super-Blog Team-Up!

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