Tag: Reviews

School of Wizardry

I've been listening to Jeremy Parish's interview with Robert Woodhead, the co-creator of Wizardry. It's a great interview and recommended.

I think about Wizardry sometimes. I first played it on the Mac.

If you pull up the original Wizardry on archive.org, or if you go looking for screenshots, here's the kind of thing you can expect to see:

Wizardry for Mac with lineart dungeon graphics
Via Hardcore Gaming 101, which has a great comparison of the various editions of the game.

You can get more detailed maze graphics by maximizing the window, but at 512x342 that comes at the cost of having to move other windows on top of each other to fit:

Wizardry for Mac with detailed dungeon graphics
I took this screenshot myself.

Of course, if you want to get fancy, you can try emulating a later version of MacOS with a higher resolution, and then you'll have plenty of room. Like these madmen here:

At any rate, I've gone back and tried some of the other versions of Wizardry, but I still think the Mac version is the best, with its GUI and its more detailed graphics. It's not perfect -- look how small the maze window is, even at its larger size; and why does the Castle window need to be visible when you're in the maze? -- but the game is well-suited for a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface.

The first five Wizardry games aren't currently sold for modern systems, but GOG and Steam both sell Wizardry 6 bundled with DOSbox. So why not sell the Mac versions of the earlier games and bundle them with Mini vMac? I guess I'm not sure what the legality is of distributing old versions of the MacOS; they might need a license from Apple in addition to getting one from whatever company owns Wizardry these days.

I've also often wondered why nobody's ever remade the original Wizardry for modern computers, taking the Mac version as a base and adding quality-of-life improvements. The closest thing I've ever seen is a Japanese remake of the first three games called Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga that was released for Windows (as well as PlayStation and Saturn) in 1998.

Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga for Windows
Via Hardcore Gaming 101

Llylgamyn Saga is not quite what I'm talking about; I tried it a few years back and my impression was that it was a Windows port of a console game and its interface felt like it. It simply didn't handle as smoothly with a mouse as the Mac version.

What I'd like to see? Remake the original game. Use touchscreen devices as the primary platform. Copy Etrian Odyssey's mechanic of using the touchscreen to map the dungeon as you go, the way we had to use graph paper in the old days.

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Via Jeremy Parish -- him again! -- at USgamer

Using half a phone screen wouldn't be so different from EO using the DS/3DS touchscreen. The biggest immediate hurdle I can think of is fat fingers: Etrian Odyssey is designed for a stylus; drawing with a finger would mean the grid squares would have to be larger. Pinch-to-zoom would be a good idea, or just a toggle to zoom the map in or out. Build to accommodate different resolutions; there's no reason a tablet user should be stuck with a map that's sized for a phone. Of course you could hide the map during combat, menu navigation, in town -- anywhere where it's not necessary. Use a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface similar to the Mac version; when you go into town, you can drag-and-drop characters between the active party and the reserves.

Add some modern quality-of-life improvements, too. Obviously the weapons shop should behave like it would in a modern RPG: compare a highlighted weapon to the weapon a character currently has equipped. (If it'll fit onscreen, show how it compares to the weapons every character has equipped.)

And allow users to toggle the oldschool rules. Let them play with original inscrutable spell names, or with simple, plain-English ones. Allow them to disable characters aging on a class change, or the possibility of a teleport spell going wrong and permakilling the entire party. Hell, allow a mode where players can navigate through the maps they've made and point to the square they want to teleport to, or even set waypoints so they don't have to do that every time. Maybe even allow them the option of seeing monsters, treasure chests, and other points of interest before walking into them.

Once you've rebuilt the first game in this new engine, it wouldn't be hard to do the second and third. 4-7 would require more work but would be possible. Probably not 8, as it abandons the grid format in favor of free movement.

Hell, open it up. Since I'm dreaming anyway, I might as well say open-source the whole thing -- but failing that, at least release a level editor.

Maybe the best way to go about this would be for a fan group to start by creating a game that's Wizardry-like but noninfringing -- similar D&D-style rules, similar generic fantasy races, classes, and monsters, but different maps, spells, enemy behaviors, etc. -- and then, once they've released a finished game, make an offer to whoever it is who owns the Wizardry copyrights these days to port the original games to the new engine.

A man can dream.

Creator-Owned Ditko

I've been meaning to write a post about Steve Ditko's creator-owned comics for quite some time. Ditko's recent death has me thinking about that, and so, here's something. I'd still like to write something a little more detailed later on down the line, but this should serve for now.

Steve Ditko stopped working for mainstream comics publishers in the 1990s, but he never stopped making comics. For the past 20 years, Ditko's comics have been published by his friend, editor, and collaborator Robin Snyder. Ditko has also written essays, some of which appear alongside his comics, others of which appear in Snyder's zine The Comics, and others in 9 small pamphlets called The Four-Page Series. Since 2013, Snyder has funded twenty Ditko comics on Kickstarter, with more to come; Snyder noted in a Kickstarter update last month that he and Ditko were working on two new titles, and a prior Kickstarter update discussed out-of-print books that Snyder intends to send back to press.

Snyder does not have a website, but Bob Heer's ditko.blogspot.com is an invaluable resource, and its Ditko Books in Print page serves as a catalog of what Snyder has available and how to order it.

Of course, merely seeing a list of titles can be daunting. Where to start?

The most in-depth article I've seen on this subject is Steve Ditko Doesn’t Stop: A Guide To 18 Secret Comics By Spider-Man’s Co-Creator, written by Joe McCulloch for ComicsAlliance in 2013. You should read that.

But if you want my opinion? You should start with The Mocker.

Of the Ditko books Snyder has on offer as of this writing, it's the most accessible, the one that feels the most like Ditko's work for Marvel, DC, and Charlton. It's a straightforward, tightly-told story of a costumed crusader fighting organized crime and corrupt police.

I only have one complaint about The Mocker: it was clearly intended to be printed at a much larger size. Ditko fits a lot of panels on each page, starting with 16-panel grids and eventually settling on 20. The comic was originally printed at magazine size; reduced to standard comic size, it's often difficult to tell what's happening and to tell characters apart, especially in action scenes. (Ditko sure draws a lot of men in suits and fedoras punching each other.)

After The Mocker, there are a few different directions you can go. The most obvious is Mr. A, Ditko's best-known creator-owned series -- if you're interested enough in Ditko that you've read this far, you probably already know who Mr. A is, at least in passing. My favorite Mr. A stories are When is a Man Judged Evil? and Right to Kill; both appear in a 32-page comic that's just called Mr. A -- which, sadly, is currently out of print. I'm quite fond of the whole series, though; there's good stuff in every issue. I believe #4 contains the earliest Mr. A material that's in print, while #24 and #7 are the two latest issues (in that order, and no, I don't understand the numbering) and include the two-part story The Knifer.

Alternately, I'm partial to Miss Eerie, one of Ditko's later creations and another masked vigilante in a 1930s setting. She appears in Ditko Presents and The 32-Page Series #3, #6, #14, #20, #23, and #26. The 32-Page Series itself is an anthology comic and something of a grab bag; it's a great, eclectic collection of Ditko's late work.

From there? Well, I was all set to recommend Avenging World, a collection of comics and essays that I consider to be Ditko at his purest -- but, sadly, it's out of print. Here's hoping that changes.

For my part, I have varying degrees of affection for everything Ditko did. His comics are often eccentric and didactic; his essays are often impenetrable puzzle boxes. But he always had something interesting to say. He was one-of-a-kind. I'm going to miss him -- but for now, at least, I can expect a few more new Ditko comics still to come, and older Ditko comics like Static to become available again.

Ridiculously Self-Indulgent

"Weird Al" Yankovic's Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour has come to a close. And now every show is available on Stitcher Premium. And they're DRM-free MP3s -- Stitcher doesn't provide a convenient "download this" button, but they're easy enough to download; view the page source and do a search for ".mp3". (There are probably browser extensions that will do this without having to muck around searching the source, but when I tried to find one I found a million extensions for downloading MP3s from YouTube videos and none for downloading just plain streamed MP3s.) It's not hard to sign up for a free month of Stitcher Premium, immediately cancel automatic renewal, and download the entire tour -- plus many other fine Stitcher programs, including Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, WTF, and Black on the Air.

But back to Weird Al and the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.

I caught the Mesa show, and I'm glad I did. If this was my only chance to catch a Weird Al show like this, then I'm glad I got it. But I hope it wasn't.

While Al promoted the tour with self-deprecation, as its name implies -- as something nobody really wanted to see -- it's quite clear that that's not true. I sat in a sold-out house. I could hear the people a couple of seats over singing along with songs like Your Horoscope for Today and Why Does This Always Happen to Me? No, you wouldn't want to play a setlist like that at the Arizona State Fair (where you've got random fairgoers seeing Al's name on the marquee and walking in expecting to hear Eat It). But clearly there was an audience for the Vanity Tour, because it sold out venues all over the country.

I think Al could spend the rest of his career performing shows like the one I saw. And I hope he does.

I've seen Al's big shows -- at least six times. (As noted in my Weird Al in Concert post, I lost count at some point.) I love them. I love the costumes and the videos and the showmanship and the sheer precision.

But the Vanity Tour felt like something special.

Every time I've seen Weird Al, I've gone with my dad. And usually, when we leave the venue at the end, we talk about what a great performer Al is.

This time, as we left the venue, we talked about what a great singer he is.

Strip away the glitz and the hits and the fat-suit, and it lets you really focus on just how damn good Al and his band -- Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz on drums, Steve Jay on bass, Jim "Kimo" West on lead guitar, and Rubén Valtierra on keyboards -- are. Hell, when they played Why Does This Always Happen to Me?, I wouldn't have been able to tell Valtierra's playing apart from Ben Folds's on the studio original.

They didn't play every song I would have liked to hear -- of course not. The way I see it, that just means I can hope there's a next time, that I get another chance to hear some deep cuts. (Though I'm realistic and don't expect I'll ever hear a live performance of Hardware Store or Genius in France.) But another one of the wonderful things about this show was the sense of constant pleasant surprise.

You know what song I really enjoyed hearing? She Never Told Me She was a Mime. As Al himself noted before playing it, it's not exactly a fan-favorite -- but something about that made it more impressive. It's a song I wouldn't have requested, and I had low expectations -- and I think those low expectations meant I was just that much more impressed by how good it was. No, it's not one of Al's more impressive songs lyrically -- but hearing the band kill it, and hearing Al hit those high notes, helped me appreciate a song I didn't appreciate much before.

So sure, I'd have loved to hear Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. And I hope some day I get a chance to. But I got to hear songs like Jackson Park Express and I Was Only Kidding and, yes, I was even blown away by lesser songs like She Never Told Me She was a Mime. (And because I avoided reading about his set list as best I could before the show, I didn't know he did one straight cover every night. At the Mesa show, it was Suffragette City; you can hear a few seconds of it in the YouTube video embedded at the top of this post.)

Weird Al is a great singer and a great songwriter, with a great band. The Vanity Tour underscored that, more than any other Weird Al show I've ever seen.

If this represents a new phase in his career, and this is what he does from now on, I will be a very happy Weird Al fan.

The Sorry State of Smartphones

It's disappointing that the smartphone market has turned into a choice between two OS's: iOS's walled-garden approach where Apple decides what software you're allowed to run on the phone that you ostensibly own, and Android's spyware panopticon security nightmare.

There are a few alternatives, none of them very good.

A few months ago, I tried switching from Android to Ubuntu Touch. Canonical abandoned Ubuntu Touch a few months back, but it's still under development by a small community-based group called UBports.

Here's what I wrote at the time (originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2017-07-03):


It's a pretty different idiom from Android (no ubiquitous three buttons at the bottom of the screen, though their functionality is there; swipe from the left edge of the screen to get a dock, from the right edge to get a Windows 7-style list of open programs, and the Back button is handled at the app level), but I could get used to it, and the list of available apps seemed sufficient for my day-to-day use.

The only real problem was that the phone didn't work.

I fucked around with the settings for awhile but all I managed to accomplish was to change what it said under "carrier" from "Sprint" to "none".

So I decided to give LineageOS another shot. (Well, technically my first time using it as LineageOS, but I used it plenty when it was Cyanogenmod.) It appears that I've mostly fixed the Sprint issues I had with it before.

But I thought Ubuntu was pretty impressive, and I intend to give it another shot someday. Maybe once they finish updating it to a 16.04 base.


I should probably update my post about getting Sprint to work on LineageOS (then CyanogenMod); I need to update the title and the links, and add the last step that finally got it (mostly) working.

I've managed to do okay without Gapps, too -- but maybe I'll get to that another time.

IDW's Transformers, Phase Two

Yesterday I talked about IDW's Transformers comics (which are on sale on Comixology through tomorrow, November 30). I mentioned a few favorites from their first few years (Phase One), but also noted that the series didn't really get good until Phase Two.

Phase Two kicks off with two series: More than Meets the Eye, by James Roberts and Alex Milne, and Robots in Disguise, by John Barber and Andrew Griffith (with various other artists involved in both series over the course of their runs).

There was also a trilogy of prequel miniseries, called Autocracy, Monstrosity, and Primacy, available as the Autocracy Trilogy (written by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille, with gorgeous painted art by Livio Ramondelli). I've only read Autocracy, which concerns the beginning of the war and Orion Pax's ascension as Optimus Prime. I really liked the art, but the story felt a little disjointed; it was released digital-first, with 8-page issues, and those short chapters really affect the pacing.

But back to the two main series: As our story begins, the five-million-year war between the Autobots and Decepticons has been finally, decisively won, by the Autobots. More than Meets the Eye tells the story of a group of Cybertronians led by Rodimus who set off in a ship called the Lost Light, nominally in search of the legendary Knights of Cybertron, but mostly they just get into trouble along the way. Robots in Disguise is a political drama, about Bumblebee's attempts to serve as leader on a resurgent but factionalized Cybertron, where an uneasy peace exists among Autobots, Decepticons, and so-called NAILs, Cybertronians who did not join either faction but are returning to their home planet now that the war is over.

Chris Sims wrote a great series of reviews at Comics Alliance, called The Transformed Man, where he followed both series for most of their run. It's worth a read, whether you want to read it as a companion piece as you read the series yourself, or want some reviews from a Transformers skeptic to see if these are the kind of books you'd be into. Sims is funny and insightful, and, for all his talk about being a Transformers neophyte, his tastes align pretty closely with mine as a longtime fan.

I plan on talking about these comics in more detail later on, but my take is this: read More than Meets the Eye all the way through, and then keep reading as it continues under the title Lost Light (with new artist Jack Lawrence). It's seriously one of my favorite comics of the last few years, and my favorite Transformers series ever, in any medium.

Robots in Disguise, meanwhile? My recommendation is to read up through the City on Fire arc (vol 4) and stop there. After that, volume 5 is mostly table-setting, and then both series cross over in an arc called Dark Cybertron. I haven't read Dark Cybertron, because it wasn't in the Humble Bundle I got most of these comics in, and because I hate crossovers (though I just bought it in the current Comixology sale, so I guess I'll be reading it shortly). Some important stuff happens that leads into "season 2" of More than Meets the Eye (beginning in MtMtE vol 6), but even if you don't read it, it doesn't take long to pick up what you missed. (I plan on getting into spoilers in a future post, but for now I'll leave it at that. Even though one of those spoilers is right there on the cover of MtMtE vol 6.)

After that, Robots in Disguise moves off Cybertron and on to Earth, and it loses my interest fast. There is some great stuff in there -- a highlight is Thundercracker enthusiastically writing screenplays and not realizing that they are terrible, and issue #48 is narrated by a dog and is amazing -- but in a lot of ways it's a continuation of the earlier, more boring Phase One comics that I didn't like that much. Your mileage may vary.

The Cybertron storyline, however, continues in two Windblade miniseries, and then the Till All Are One series, by Mairghread Scott, Sara Pitre-Durocher, and a few other artists. These series ably continue the story of political intrigue that Barber and Griffith started, and expand the scope by introducing other planets where Cybertronians have settled, including religious Caminus, militaristic Carcer, and Eukaris, the planet where all the Beast Wars characters live.

Lost Light is still ongoing. Till All Are One, sadly, has been cancelled, and its story will wrap up in Till All Are One Annual 2017, which is due out on December 20.

So there's my brief run-through of what IDW Transformers comics I like. In future posts, I hope to spend more time delving into why I like them, how Roberts and Milne have turned Megatron into my favorite character, and why it's a damn shame to see Till All Are One go and I hope that it's not the last we see of Cybertronian political intrigue.

IDW's Transformers, Phase One

I'm a longtime Transformers fan. And over the past year or so, IDW's Transformers comics -- most specifically, the More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light series -- have surpassed Beast Wars as my all-time favorite Transformers series.

But it wasn't always thus. The first few years of Transformers at IDW -- now referred to retroactively as "Phase One" -- mostly just aren't that good.

The main series, spread across miniseries called Infiltration, Escalation, and Devastation (written by Simon Furman and drawn by EJ Su), was too slow-paced and human-centric. Another miniseries, Stormbringer (by Furman and Don Figueroa), was an attempt to course-correct and focus the action on giant robots and the planet Cybertron, but made the baffling choice of turning Cybertron into an uninhabitable wasteland; the book was pretty to look at but ultimately forgettable. All Hail Megatron (by Shane McCarthy, Guido Guidi, and various other artists) started out strong, and had some great moments with Megatron and Starscream, but ultimately suffered Third Act Problems and fizzled out near the end.

So don't start with any of those.

No, if there's a Phase One book you should start with, it's Megatron Origin, by Eric Holmes and Alex Milne. Megatron Origin is probably the single most important book in IDW's entire Transformers line, which is perhaps ironic since it was actually conceived as part of the previous Transformers line at Dreamwave.

That may be why the effects of Megatron Origin aren't really apparent through most of Phase One; it plants seeds that pay off later (mixaphorically speaking). But it introduces an element that's key to what I love so much about the IDW comics, and why I think Megatron is the most interesting character in them: it gives him an arc. Megatron starts out as the good guy.

That thread picks up later, in issues #22 and #23 of the 2010-2011 Transformers series (which are also collected in the Chaos Theory trade, along with some other stuff). Milne revisits Megatron's origin story with writer James Roberts, going back even farther than the Megatron Origin miniseries to tell of his first meeting with Orion Pax (later Optimus Prime). Roberts and Milne come back to this story again and again in More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light; it's a crucial moment in Megatron's development, signaling his turn from philosopher to violent revolutionary.

Those are the most important books in Phase One.

I also quite like the first ten issues (collected in the first two volumes) of Transformers: Spotlight, a series of done-in-one stories, each focused on an individual character, written by Simon Furman and drawn by various artists. They're not as crucial to Phase Two continuity as the Megatron stories I've mentioned, but they're well worth reading.

Lastly (for Phase One), there's Last Stand of the Wreckers by Roberts and Nick Roche, which is mainly important for two things: it introduces Overlord, who becomes important later, and it begins to establish Prowl as a scheming, calculating bastard, which becomes his primary depiction from here on in. It's not essential, but it does make for a nice "oh shit" moment if you know who Overlord is when he shows up later.

And oh, hey, all these comics are on sale on Comixology through November 30. (And if you miss this sale, keep an eye out for another one later; IDW has pretty frequent Transformers sales. They show up in Humble Bundles once in awhile, too.)

I'll be back tomorrow to talk about Phase Two.

Podcasts

Expanded from a couple of posts at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-08.


I like listening to NPR on the drive to work.

I do not like listening to NPR on the drive home. I have had just about enough of Kai Ryssdahl acting surprised about the Internet.

So I decided to look into some podcasts. I'm not really looking for scripted stuff at the moment (I've got a buttload of Big Finish Doctor Who I haven't listened to yet as it is); I want something where if I lose the thread for a minute to concentrate on the road, I'm not going to miss out on important story details.

So here's what I've been looking at so far:

Brontoforumus regular Niku recommended Talkin Toons with Rob Paulsen; I listened to the Rick and Morty episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. The website hasn't been updated in a couple of years; it has episodes up through Christmas 2015. It went on hiatus after that (Paulsen had throat cancer; he's better now) and came back in January. Tech Jives has episodes up through May. More recently, the show has moved to Nerdist, which has a bunch of short videos but no episodes; there are some articles referring me to a subscription service called Alpha but it's not mentioned on the website and I really have no idea if the show's even available in audio format anymore? It's really not clear and I hope they fix that.

Retronauts is a podcast started by Jeremy Parish and currently hosted by Bob Mackey, about retro games.

Axe of the Blood God is USgamer's RPG podcast. I've only listened to it a couple of times, when my old friend Steve Tramer was a guest; he hasn't been on it recently, but it's still a good group.

Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast is pretty great. So far I've listened to some great interviews there, with Frank Conniff, Rob Paulsen, and Carl Reiner.

And speaking of Frank Conniff, he and Trace Beaulieu have a podcast called Movie Sign with The Mads where, as the name implies, they talk about movies.

I don't listen to a lot of political podcasts at the moment, but I like Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air. Larry's a good interviewer; I'll never understand why he went with a panel format on The Nightly Show, which was easily its weakest component. (It's not an original sentiment, but I do wish he'd gotten to take over The Daily Show and Noah had gotten a chance to do his own thing in Colbert's timeslot.)

I hear good things about Flop House (failed movies), Kevin Smith's Fatman on Batman (comics, movies, the sort of stuff characters in Kevin Smith movies talk about), and WTF. I've mentioned Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files before, back in 2015. I've listened to one episode of Talking Simpsons with Bob Mackey (another Niku recommendation) and it was pretty good; I expect I'll check out more.

As for actually-scripted podcasts (not what I'm currently looking for, but there are some good ones!), I enjoyed the one episode of Dead Pilots Society I listened to. It's a podcast where they do read-throughs of TV pilot scripts that never made it into production; the one I listened to and enjoyed was Only Child, a John Hodgman vehicle (the hook was he was playing himself as a teenager; all the other kids would have been played by age-appropriate actors).

And, lastly (for now!), I see that yesterday saw the launch of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast. I haven't had a chance to listen yet, but I bet it's pretty good!

Kurtzman's Books

I mentioned the other day that I just read Bill Schelly's Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America. Since then I've been on a bit of a Kurtzman kick. The nice thing is, most of Kurtzman's work is in print.

I'm going to include some Amazon links here. As always, support your local comic shop or independent bookseller if at all possible, but if for some reason you can't (you don't have a local comic shop, your local bookstore can't order these books, etc.), please feel free to use these Amazon links; as always, they're Amazon Associates links and if you buy through them I'll get a small kickback.

While most of Kurtzman's work is in print, some of his earliest work, sadly, isn't; Hey Look! goes for big bucks used. But his EC work is available in a couple of different forms. Dark Horse has its hardback EC Archives series including Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and other titles that feature earlier Kurtzman work such as The Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, and Weird Science. Fantagraphics has black-and-white collections sorted by artist. Corpse on the Imjin contains some stories that Kurtzman wrote and drew himself, and others that he wrote and laid out but other artists finished. (I think I'll have more to say about Kurtzman's layouts in a later post.) Other books with with Kurtzman's layouts and other artists' finishes include Bomb Run (finishes by John Severin), Aces High (George Evans), and Death Stand (Jack Davis). Some of these books are also available in digital versions. Dark Horse books have DRM, but Fantagraphics books don't.

Unfortunately, neither format is ideal. The Dark Horse books are massive hardcovers, fit for a coffee table but not to be thrown in a backpack and taken with you. And I don't care much for the new coloring job. The Fantagraphics books, on the other hand, shrink the art down, and while the black-and-white presentation brings out more detail in the art, I think the stories lose something without their color. Plus, I prefer seeing the stories presented in their original anthology format to seeing them split up by artist. Still, while neither choice is perfect, both choices are good.

Which brings us to Mad. It's available in DC Archives collections, which is the best format you're going to get it in. The original comic book run (and issue #24, the first magazine issue) is collected in a 4-volume DC Archives hardcover set. DC Archives books use original coloring on newsprint. I'm kind of a snob about reprint coloring, and this is my favorite way of doing it: keep the original colors and print on newsprint; that's the way those old comics are meant to be seen.

But a $240 hardcover set is expensive -- even if you could get it for that price, which you can't, because the last two volumes are out of print. They are available digitally, but the digital versions have DRM, and unless you're rocking a 12.9" iPad Pro, you won't be seeing the pages at full size on a tablet. I'm also not sure how the colors look if you put them on a screen instead of newsprint -- and anyway, even the digital versions will set you back a total of $160.

I think Mad's Original Idiots is an acceptable compromise. It's three paperbacks, one each for Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Wally Wood; each book collects its respective artist's work from those first 23 issues of Mad; they go for $15 a pop. It uses the original colors and, while the paper isn't newsprint, it's not glossy, either; the colors look okay.

Again, the format's not ideal. You lose the letters and other editorial content. You also don't get any of the work by anybody but Davis, Wood, and Elder -- and that's a cryin' shame; John Severin is a particularly notable omission, but there were a few features by Basil Wolverton, Bernie Krigstein, Russ Heath, and Kurtzman himself in Mad's comic book period too.

But, nonetheless, I think the Mad's Original Idiots paperbacks are a decent way to go. I've bought all three and have been quite enjoying the Davis one so far. Even with the dated references, even not recognizing what half the parodies are making fun of, they're still great damn comics -- but hell, even when I was reading Mad as a kid in the '90s, I hadn't seen half the movies they were parodying, and I loved them anyway.

After Kurtzman quit Mad, he wrote and drew The Jungle Book, which, contrary to its title, is not based on the Kipling book. It's one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as a graphic novel, and it's all Kurtzman's work. It was reprinted in hardcover in 2014 and was nominated for Eisners for Best Domestic Reprint and Excellence in Presentation.

After The Jungle Book came Trump, Kurtzman's followup to Mad, which featured work by his Mad collaborators (including Elder, Davis, Wood, Severin, and Al Jaffee) as well as humorists including Mel Brooks. It was recently collected and is easy to come by.

After Trump came Humbug, another magazine by the original Mad artists.

Kurtzman's last magazine was Help! There's no complete Help! collection, but there is a collection of the Kurtzman/Elder Goodman Beaver cartoons that were published in it. It's out of print, but doesn't cost too much used.

Kurtzman and Elder's longest-term collaboration was Little Annie Fanny, which was published in Playboy, so that link may be NSFW.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other Kurtzman books, too, like his adaptation of The Grasshopper and the Ant, From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, and The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle.

This list is thorough but not exhaustive; it should be a good starting point, but there are other Kurtzman books out there I haven't mentioned.

I'm not done with Kurtzman. Hell, if the size of this list is any indication, I'm just barely getting started.

Kurtzman's Career

I recently finished Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America by Bill Schelly. It's an interesting read; the first couple of chapters are a little choppy, but as you'd expect, it picks up once Kurtzman makes it to EC and Schelly has more sources to work with.

Kurtzman's story, alas, is familiar to anyone who's studied comics history: he created an American institution but never achieved financial success from it.

And what tremendous influence he had, and continues to have. Not only did his work inspire the later Underground Comix artists (he counted Crumb, Spiegelman, and Kitchen in particular as friends), but Schelly's not overstating things with that "revolutionized humor in America" line. Mad's influence can be seen everywhere in American comedy, from Airplane! to The Onion to The Simpsons to The Daily Show to "Weird Al" Yankovic, to name a few examples off the top of my head. Hell, did I say "American"? Because that's too limiting. There's Kurtzman influence in Monty Python, too; John Cleese once did a photo shoot for Help! magazine, and that's where he met Terry Gilliam, who was Kurtzman's assistant at the time.

And yet, after Mad, Kurtzman never really had financial stability; he hustled for work for the rest of his life, and died with $35,000 in savings. That's not bad -- it's more money than I've ever had in my bank account, even before adjusting for inflation -- but I'm 35 years old and didn't create Mad.

Of course, part of Harvey's misfortune was self-inflicted. There's little doubt that if he hadn't quit Mad, he would have died a much richer man. His successor, Al Feldstein, went on to retire in comfort, and spent his final years on a 270-acre ranch. If Kurtzman hadn't quit Mad, it certainly would have become a different magazine that it did under Feldstein, but it's reasonable to assume it would have been just as successful.

Schelly notes that, of course, hindsight is 20/20. Kurtzman quit Mad because Hugh Hefner had offered him an unlimited budget and total creative control on a new magazine, glossy and in full color. Let's put it this way: if this were 1956 and you didn't know what you know now, and you heard that the entire creative team of Mad had left to start a new magazine, backed by Hugh Hefner, and Mad was being handed over to the editor of Panic and a bunch of new artists, which of the two magazines would you bet on?

In 2009, Warren Ellis remarked that the late Alex Toth "never drew a story worthy of his talent". Similarly, Kurtzman, in a career that spanned half a century, only ever produced one magazine that was up to his own high standards. It was called Trump, and it got cancelled after two issues.

Schelly posits two major reasons for Trump's cancellation, and neither one was related to sales.

One of the reasons Trump was cancelled was due to external circumstances entirely beyond Kurtzman's control: Collier's unexpectedly ceased publication, and it sent shockwaves through the entire magazine industry. Hefner suddenly had trouble getting investors; something had to give, and it wasn't going to be Playboy.

The other reason was Kurtzman's fault: his perfectionism kept him from meeting deadlines. Gaines had been effective at riding herd on him at EC and making sure Mad (and Kurtzman's previous comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat) shipped on time, but Hefner didn't have similar success keeping Trump on schedule (Hefner was in Chicago and Kurtzman was in New York; this no doubt played a role). Schelly quotes Hef as saying, "I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it."

And that's what frustrates me the most about Kurtzman's work: I think he got in his own way. I think he was a micromanager who needlessly restricted his incredibly talented collaborators, and his own output suffered from it. Spectacular as Kurtzman's work is, I can't help but wonder how much more he could have done if he'd been able to take a step back and give greater autonomy to guys like Jack Davis and Wally Wood.

And I suspect I'll have more to say about that in a later post.

The Mads Live

Expanded from a post at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-22.


Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, formerly of MST3K, have been touring the country, riffing movies, under the name The Mads. I caught them at the Chandler Alamo Drafthouse two weeks ago, riffing the Vincent Price "classic" The Tingler. It was fun! If you get a chance to see them, I recommend checking them out.

The event was smaller and felt more intimate than when I saw Cinematic Titanic some years back. They've got a merch table (books and posters) where they hock stuff before and after the show, and I had a chance to chat with them for a bit (and picked up copies of Trace's Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children and Frank's How to Write Cheesy Movies). They did an audience Q&A after the movie, too.

The riffing...well, you know how MST3K keeps things PG and doesn't make timely political jokes? Well, it's not like that. They say "fuck" a lot and one of the more memorable riffs involved a corpse covered by a sheet and Frank saying, "That sheet makes you look like a Trump supporter." So keep that in mind if you're planning on taking any kids or Republicans.

At any rate, the Mads put on a good show. Keep an eye on that tour schedule on Facebook (because for some reason their website is down) and go see 'em if you get a chance.

They've also got a podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads, where they discuss movies -- including some that are actually good! So far I've listened to their episodes on The Shining and Young Frankenstein -- it was Halloween season, after all. I enjoyed the shows and look forward to hearing more. And I expect I'll have more to say about podcasts in a future post.