Tag Archives: Web-comics

Master of your domain, King of your castle

Our computers do hundreds of tasks without asking us. They perform updates, index the hard drive, check for viruses, verify the integrity of programs, and hundreds of other preventative maintenance, monitoring, security, and random processes. And most of the time we’re okay with this. Sure it can be a pain in the butt when we want to shut down our laptop at a coffee shop, and are forced to wait for Windows updates to complete.* But most things happen without our notice and we just accept this as part of technology.

But what about when our computers prevent us from doing things we want them to do, when they disobey our commands?

I recently finished reading Cory Doctorow’s latest book of essays Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free. In it he addresses some of the history of using our computers against us, and where it might be going in the name of security and copyright protection.

Doctorow is an outspoken advocate of DRM free media and a frequent critic of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act, something probably very familiar to the people who discovered BitTorrent in the early ’00s). We all may have heard of Sony rootkits (an attempt by Sony to prevent their CD’s from being ripped that opened up a security vulnerability that was ultimately exploited by virus writers) and Amazon’s yanking of 1984, but to most of us these seem like isolated incidents, or something that doesn’t affect law-abiding citizens.

Both these cases are examples of a company trying to make a device work against what you want to do with it. When we still trafficked in CD’s you would rip a copy so you could listen to it on an MP3 player, or play a copy in your car so you wouldn’t damage the original. And when we read a book on the Kindle, we expect it to stay there, especially if we paid money for it. I don’t want my Kindle trying to figure out if all the books I’ve loaded on it are legitimate or not, because I don’t trust programmers to always get that right. At the very least in my case I have eBook versions of my own unpublished draft books, and other books purchased from the Humble Bundle and Story Bundle. What if one day my Kindle didn’t let me load these books, and only let me load stuff from the Amazon store? I signed a big long EULA with Amazon to let me use the Kindle and I didn’t read it, and neither did you. But I still expect the device to do what I bought it for.

Ultimately I’m more of a tinkerer than most people with computers today, but “hacking” a computer to get it to do new and more creative things has been part of owning computers since their inception. Let’s take a more morally gray area and pick apart all the legitimate and illegitimate uses of it, web scraping. What is web scraping? Simply put it’s a program designed to read all the pages of a website or series of websites and download specific content. Applications include downloading all the strips of a web-comic, pulling Bible studies from Bible Gateway and making an eBook, or pulling down a directory of pictures and making an application to decide out of a random pairing which is hotter (a la Social Network).

These are fairly easy scripts to write, in fact here’s a whole on-line chapter of a book about how. Some websites and web-comics hate web-scrapers (GPF comics being just one example). Requests from web-scrapers can be bounced back with fake webpages or even threats of banning (since this kind of traffic circumvents ad revenue, though then again so does AdBlock plus). Websites that don’t like web-scraping want you to load their site one page at a time, see their ads, and go back to the site every time you want to read those comics again. And that makes some sense, they own their own content right? The book I linked to is listed with a creative commons license for online reading, but with a little digging behind the page source, you could probably scrape the book down into an eBook using the knowledge gained in that online reading.

What differentiates web-scraping traffic from legitimate communication is speed and type of request. Requests can be massaged to look like their coming from a real person, and timing can be adjusted, but ultimately there are still ways to tell. But what if your computer decided that it would limit the amount of outgoing web requests to something more akin to normal usage. What if your hard drive stopped letting you save images pulled down this way? You wrote a program to do something, and your computer doesn’t want you to do it. Maybe that helps the legitimate cases of copyright infringement, but what about study applications or the experiments that are part of developing code.

I don’t know if I’ve made web-scraping sound shady or really cool, and I can come up with applications that would skew you both ways. But the truth is, some applications are beneficial, some are close to stealing, and some are creepy. But the act itself is neutral, and should be allowed. It’s not something that’s been specifically targeted yet, but it could be. Websites already have some ability to recognize that kind of traffic, and it would actually be easier to monitor at the source.

Do you value being able to tinker with your machine, to know what it is doing, and to make your own decisions about what it’s doing rather than to have your machines decide for you? Then maybe take a look a Doctorow’s book, look at your task manager and running services, and learn some python. Or just share that value far and wide with anyone who’ll listen.

* When they say don’t turn off your computer they mean it. My dad’s Windows 7 starter netbook was at a Panera once when a Windows update started. During peak hours of 11:30am – 1:30pm, Panera limits WiFi use to 30 minutes. Apparently the update had only half downloaded before Dad’s connection was cut off and he was forced to hard shut down the computer. It took a long time to get the system fixed and there are still hiccups probably caused by this.

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Review: Alone Forever: The Singles Collection

Another week of racking up my NetGalley queue with an overabundance of riches, or just things with funny titles that grab me. Since I’m working most of this week on writing a talk for church on Sunday, I thought I’d shake up the format a little by doing review blurbs on books when I get free moments or need a break. These will be single serving (one book) posts, at somewhat irregular intervals.

Alone Forever: The Singles Collection

Writer and Artist – Liz Prince

AloneForever

Single life can be tough, especially in the age of on-line dating, and lots of cute guys that are hard to talk to. But fear not, at least you’re not alone, you have your cats.

Liz Prince’s Alone Forever is a collection of her web-comics about single life, dating, and all things relating to indie bands, bearded bespectacled plaid shirt wearing guys and cats. This collection gets better as it goes along and you get to know the character and person of Liz. How much of this is true to life, and how much is embellished for comedic affect isn’t always clear, though you get the sense that most of this is just as it happened. What might seem immature in the early strips is revealed for a sense of playfulness and self-deprecation. There’s no part of her life that seems to be off limits.

Here’s the first one that made me laugh out-loud:

aloneforever26web

Copyright 2011 by Liz Prince, Used with permission

The OK Cupid section seems particularly auto-biographical, as it chronicles a series of guys and how each are not the guy for her (or for anyone). One thing that strikes you as a married person is how a lot of single life is figuring out what love and romance actually mean using a vocabulary and criteria that have no relation to what real love is. And yet there’s a lot you can relate to in this book, as a woman or as the bearded guy. How dating can be clumsy, how being alone can seem permanent and very lonely, and how animals can be a comfort even when you are in a relationship.

The art style is akin to shows and comics like Adventure Time (which is appropriate since Liz has written comics for one of their comic book spin offs). There is a decent amount of language, though I would generally think it is employed correctly. There’s not a lot of sexual content, though some is implied. Since these are web-comics, they tend to have a looser structure in terms of number of panels, number of words per strip (sometimes none, and sometimes a novel). They remind me a little of the structure of Matt Groenig’s Life In Hell comics (though with far less graphic depictions of sex between rabbits).

For a couple more days this book is included in the Humble Bundle, or you can pick it up for $3.99 at Comixology (which for a 106 page book isn’t bad). Overall, not a bad collection for a quick commiseration, laugh of reminiscence, or grateful reminder of things you don’t have to worry about anymore.

(3.5 Stars | The early stuff’s a little rough, but you’ll definitely find something to make you laugh)

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Reviews: Starbucks Marathon

Sitting here in Starbucks typing this into a text editor since Opera refuses to accept any of the security certificates Starbucks is laying down. Still, I can get through a couple of reviews and post them later. This post in particular has some eclectic material so their should be something for everyone (if not always me).

Bang! Tango
Writer – Joe Kelly, Artist – Adrian Sibar

coverImage recently reissued this apparently classic work from Joe Kelly for wider distribution recently. I’ll start up front by saying that my interest in crime stories has been waning over the years. I really liked gangster movies and shows like The Sopranos more in my teen years, but by the time I was maybe mid-way through college my interest waned (though works like Road to Perdition can still grab me). So, I’m probably not the primary audience for this story.

Vincente Ponticello has built a new life for himself, away from the dark streets of San Francisco. But when Autumn breezes back into his life asking for his help, Vicente must find a way to put his old life finally behind him while preparing for dance competitions with his demanding partner Mel. Autumn’s the woman who ruined his life back in New York, when he found out she wasn’t really a she, at least biologically.

Perhaps the playful cover here makes a little more sense to you now.

This is a “sexy” book, with a lot of betrayals, lust, lies, money, and deviant behavior (not Autumn, but more the predilections of a mob boss who prefers pointed objects instead of his own member). As might be apparent, the story didn’t do a lot for me. It’s violent, and doesn’t really end well for anyone involved. The trajectories of most characters have been determined from the beginning and it can be a little difficult to tell if Kelly is really sympathetic to the trans community or is using it for shock value. The reactions of a prideful man like Vincente ring true, but are they really a perspective I want to read about?

I’d love to see Sibar’s work on a better piece. Each page uses a different color as the main motif, giving it a gray-scale quality while conveying mood. He also does a great job with illustrating the music of each tango, showing the words instead of the notes on the stanza flowing throughout the dancing action.

This is probably a story that will appeal to some of you. It’s well-paced, action packed, and well illustrated. But personally I found it a little too grimy for my taste.

(2 stars | Rounded down from 2.5)

Bad Machinery Volume 3
Writer and Artist – John Allison

coverAnd now for something completely different. John Allison is a master of the web-comic, writing series since 1998, and author of previous series Boom and Scary Go Round. Bad Machinery seems to have kicked it up a notch in terms of the quality of the art and the story-telling. It’s worth noting that there are some jokes that are set up in the beginning of the book that aren’t paid off until almost the end, which is several months in real time.

Though this is Volume 3, it’s pretty accessible to someone who hasn’t read the material before. Allison organizes his run of the comic into cases which run for a few months to nearly a year, then he takes a few months off before the next one. The structure seems to be less about the case, which in this case involves a series of fires set off in old buildings, and whether or not a mysterious and simple man who lives in the woods might be responsible, and more about the lives of three main boys and three main girls in the UK city of Tackleford.

There’s a lot of UK specific phrases and humor here, but there’s a handy guide at the back for anyone who might not pick up everything. I’m a fan of this sort of humor, so this kind of thing just speaks to me. Allison seems to have mastered one of the difficult skills of long-form web-comic story-telling which is to have each page feel like it can be self-contained without always having an obvious punch-line. The book version of this story-line seems to rearrange some of the on-line material, inserting some new pages, so this is probably the best and most definitive way to read the story, though I’ve pulled down the rest of the on-line material (which is about 8 cases now) for my own amusement.

The story is pretty silly and fanciful, but it fits the overall tone of the work. This book is worth it alone for the phrase “swit-swoo” and an embroidery of a tank.

(4 stars | More like 4.5, wish the dimensions of the book fit better on my tablet, but that’s web-comics for you)

Wizzywig

Writer and Artist – Ed Piskor

PrintThough published as a single graphic novel, this story bears some structural relationship to a web-comic. There are longer sequences, but many of the jokes and stories are told in two page comics.

Kevin (a.k.a Boing-Thump) is a burgeoning computer hacker and phone-freak in the early days of computers. He starts from using his perfect pitch to make long-distance calls, to pirating software to floppy disk, to inadvertently unleashing the Boing-Thump virus. The story is told through chapters corresponding roughly to a year of Kevin’s eventual incarceration, and flashbacks to his evolution as a hacker, and the lengths he would go to learn about machines and to evade the law. Most of the present day material is told by his best friend who broadcasts over the air to get Kevin out of prison, or at least for the FBI to come up with the charges to give him a trial.

The era of hacking portrayed here doesn’t really exist anymore. It was a time when anyone who was mechanically inclined, and could string together a few lines of code could get into some surprising places. As evidenced by recent data-hacks, security is something that lags behind a lot in the corporate world, particularly in the 1980s. Boing-Thump serves as an amalgamation of some of the more famous hacks and perceptions of hackers from that period. For us techies it’s great nostalgia, and for others it can even be slightly educational.

There’s some language and crude humor. Piskor’s drawing style renders Kevin as having an almost child-like cartoonish face, but the rest of the world around him is much grimier. Still the humor doesn’t feel artificial in this environment, as anyone who’s been on a few message boards or seen internet comments can attest. And the origin of the moniker “boing-thump” is pretty funny.

This is a long work, and it took me setting it down and coming back to it to get all the way through. I probably liked the early sections best before Kevin delves into helping real criminals, back when it was just about finding out how things worked. But the ending was worth the slog and even gets into a bit of a discussion of WikiLeaks and some of the issues that would lead to Edward Snowden.

Interesting side-note, this is one of the few graphic novels I can check out from my digital library. They may not have any DC or Marvel digitally available, but there are some gems to be found if you look.

(4 stars | At least read maybe the first 80 pages to see if you like it)

Incredible Change-Bots Two Point Something Something
Writer and Artist – Jeffrey Brown

coverThe copy of this from NetGalley was pretty lo-res, so I wasn’t really able to read one of the main story-lines, but this volume seems largely made up of miscellaneous material from a (web-comic?, indie?) parody of Transformers. If I was someone who’d followed the 1980s cartoon series, the jokes might have landed a little better for me. The art is imaginative, I personally like the golf-cart and microwave machines. A lot of what you’re getting here could come out of an artistically inclined sixth-grader who doodles in class, with writing to match. There are some romantic lines explored between a police car and a pick-up truck, mostly for some bad jokes about rust and dating.

Good for maybe a chuckle or two, especially if you like Transformers.

(3 stars | Rounded up from 2.5, wish I could’ve read it better)

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Morning Manga Madness

For today’s reviews we’ve got some great indie manga (and a manga inspired web-comic). The material here runs the gamut from manga short stories about the nature of life, to a fantasy involving a girl who fell from the sky (or what’d be like to be the wife of a God). Oh, and talking fishes.

Alive

Writer and Artist – Hajime Taguchi

AliveThe people in Alive often aren’t living, at least not well. From a girl who puts on a pair of glasses that hides everything she hates in the world, only to find that she can’t see anymore, to the woman who feels and is, trapped. The author captures the loneliness of relationships, and sex in particular, quite well, but it’s the fantasy pieces that I think are more worth the effort.

Like a lot of short story collections there are going to be some stories that resonate with you, and others that are mostly forgettable. The two best stories are probably “The Wall” and “The Tower” (Neither of these is the official title, some have them, some don’t but you’ll know the ones I’m talking about).

The first (The Wall) involves a young boy’s quest to climb an insurmountable wall around the world. No one who has ever climbed the wall has come back or lived to tell the tale, including the young boy’s father. This is a simple fable about how the pursuit of a dream can change our perceptions of the world, and how what we think is the end of the journey is often the beginning.

The second notable story is The Tower. A young man who isn’t doing too well at school or at life in general encounters a girl living at the top of their apartment building on a small roof barely the size of my home office. For a few magical days they live above the world in a virtual paradise before the limits of their home finally force them back to Earth. This story might suffer a bit from the fantasy pixie dream girl syndrome, but it’s made up for in its frank depiction of teenage emotions and how sometimes it can seem like such a great fantasy to give up the world.

The art varies. Because of the inconsistent titling and some stories having ambiguous or abrupt endings, it can be a little difficult to tell who is who or if we’ve switched stories. This is more a problem in the early part of the book (once you get used to the author’s beats you can usually pick up the changes). There’s definitely some experimentation with technique ranging from the mundane, an entire story from one perspective at a bar, to more fantastical pieces.

This is not really a very happy book, but there are a few pieces to make you smile, and maybe even a few you can relate to. Fair warning, there is a decent amount of nudity in the middle of this book, and some sexual behaviors you might be uncomfortable with.

(3 Stars | Uneven, but a couple of great stories)

Stones of Power

Writer and Artist – Azumi Isora

StonesOfPowerA young tropical fish expert gets drawn into the mysterious Cafe Renard which sells protective stones that can ward off evil spirits. And they have a couple of fish who have started to talk to him in his dreams. Are they just fish or are they gods who can control the rain and have control over the most powerful of old stones?

This is a pretty straightforward supernatural fantasy story with some amusing elements thrown in when communicating with the fish, and exploring the owner and his sister’s past. As a one off this story leaves a little lacking in terms of development, but as the first volume in what is hopefully a longer series, it is a great kicking off point.

Probably my favorite parts are the analogues between how the man takes care of the fish and their offspring, while at the same time communicating to them in his dreams. And we do have your typical “some things are best left undisturbed” and “you may be a chosen one” kind of tropes here, but that’s kind of to be expected.

The exact nature of the owner and why he’s chosen to ply his trade on a small scale is interesting, and we get a hint of a larger and darker past about which we might learn more in the future.

A good start to a story that could have some legs if the author wants to keep going.

(4 stars | You’ll like this one)

Give to the Heart – Volume 1

Writer and Artist  – Wann

GiveToTheHeartIn a devastated future world there are three demons who live as God among men, controlling the essential elements of life. The most powerful of these is the water king, who can save or drown a nation with little effort. We meet a young woman, Sooyi, who is running from the water king and trying to find a way into the dead city to find an artifact to finally kill the man who destroyed her world, the man who she once loved and who jealously wants to keep her as his wife.

Most of this first volume is focused on the relationship between Sooyi and The Water King. There’s a real thread of dominance here that can go from strong and maybe charming, to downright creepy after a while. While the King restrains himself from just taking Sooyi, it’s clear that he considers it an option. And Sooyi’s ultimate method of escape from the fortress in which he holds her is not without physical or emotional consequences.

Maybe I just take this stuff too seriously. Maybe to someone else this stuff is romantic, but to me he definitely seems like the kind of guy who we’ll be glad if Sooyi ever finds a way to kill him. There’s definitely a focus on effeminate male strength (again possibly a bearded man’s bias). Still a better love story than Twilight, but maybe not by much. Personally I hope Sooyi finds that artifact seeker geeky fellow from the beginning and they have a go at the Dead City. Guess we’ll see in Volume 2.

(3 Stars | A lot of romances are kind of creepy when you think about it)

Makeshift Miracle (Book 2)

Writer – Jim Zub, Artist – Shun Hong Chan

MakeshiftMiracleIf you’re worried about missing out on Book One, or about the slightly steep price-tag for a little over 100 page book, then you’re in luck, since the entire Makeshift Miracle story is available as a webcomic. Actually this version of Makeshift Miracle is a retelling of a web-comic Zub created in the early 2000’s with different artwork.

In the first volume Colby is a teenager who feels disconnected from life and is wandering outside the city when a girl named Iris falls from the sky. They get caught out in a storm, and somehow she is able to teleport them back to his house just by thinking of it. Then there’s a mysterious tree that crops up in the living room, Colby falls into a magical world, and Iris fades away.

In the second half Colby reconnects with Iris in the dream realm, running through the discarded pieces of dreams to try to protect Iris from those who are hunting her down. But the dream world exacts a terrible price on those who ask something of it, and the creatures that serve this world are not all as they appear.

There are so many pages of this that would make great posters for your room, or wallpapers for your computer. The artwork is amazing and evocative. Of particular note are the sky-ships over the desert, the final couple of pages parallels to the first volume, the last page, and the use of grays in lonely moments when color is only around the character. There’s a decent amount of humor, and the ending will definitely surprise you, so I don’t want to give too much away.

The price is a little steep for half the story (I think you could collect the whole run in a single volume for maybe $25 at the most), but having seen the first book out in the wild this is a high quality printing. If you’re not sure, read it online.

(5 stars | Can’t stress enough how great some of these pages are)

~4 down, maybe 20 to go 🙂

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Friday Reviews: Mega Girls and Mighty Monsters

Every Friday I’ll be reviewing two books (usually comic books from NetGalley). Today’s post is a bit of a change of pace as both of these books are actually collections of ongoing web-comics. We’ve got a girl who fights monsters, and one who lets them play with her cat.

Gronk Book 1

Writer and Artist  – Katie Cook

Ggronkronk follows the eponymous monster as she leaves the big woods in search of a life that doesn’t involve scaring people. Gronk has never fit in with the monster life, and is teased by the other monsters, so she sets out way from the deep dark woods. Soon she finds a young artist who quickly sees that Gronk is not a monster inside and gives her a home with her cat and 160 pound Newfie.

This is mostly a cute gag of the week comic with little narrative thread. It’s appropriate for all ages, with most of the humor deriving from Gronk discovering things about our world, and the particular nerd sensibilities of the artist. Another point of interest are the different shirts that Dale (the artist) is sporting in each comic, often with obscure code or nerd references.

The art is cute and simply colored. Most of these originally appeared in black and white on the site but have been colored for the book. This is a very quick read (I think I knocked most of it back waiting for pizza at Marcos), and at $9.99 60 pages feels a little thin. The site posts on an irregular schedule, and the books that have been printed so far contain about a year’s worth of comics which works out to about 50-60 each book.

That said there are probably a couple of these that you’d want to put up in your cube either for the humor or the extreme cuteness, and if you want to support the artist go ahead and pick up the book. For me this is probably another one of the ones I’ll infrequently check online.

(4 stars | Fun and cute but too short)

Strong Female Protagonist Book 1

Writer – Brennan Lee Mulligan, Artist – Molly Ostertag

strong_female_protagonist_cover_sm_lgStrong Female Protagonist follows the adventures of Allison Green (a.k.a. Mega Girl) as she tries to adjust to post super hero life by going to college and trying to find a way to save the world that doesn’t involve smashing giant robots. In this volume we flash back to the moment Allison decided to give up the mantle of Mega Girl and the impact that has had on herself, and her fellow biodynamics (the author’s term for those with super-powers).

This comic is a bit like Watchmen crossed with John Byrne’s Next Men with a little XKCD thrown in for flair plus a lot of heart. Each page features a wry comment or extra joke from the author (a la XKCD though a technique that’s popular elsewhere). In this world like Next Men, super powers are not always a gift. One villain has blades for hands that are actually cancerous lesions that are slowly killing him from the inside. Another hero, Feral, can heal from any injury, and because she wants to help others has chosen a life of extreme pain and limited mobility in order to give as much of herself as possible. Even Mega Girl who is basically invincible worries that her strength will cause undue harm to those around her.

But the best moments in this story are the simple interactions, whether it’s between Allison and her former nemesis Menace, or her family life, we spend less time fighting the typical super hero fights and more time getting to know these heroes and villains as people. Each chapter or issue of this volume reads like an individual comic book (though more of an annual length than a single issue), with some connective tissue. There are some plot threads introduced in the first chapter that feel a little forgotten by the last (which given the webcomics’ schedule would be about two years later), but the author may pick these up in future chapters.

Another of my favorite comics is MegaTokyo, which has a VERY irregular schedule but tries to do a similar thing in delivering pages of a book rather than just a gag of the week format. It’s a shame more web comics don’t follow this format, though it can be a little frustrating to follow from week to week. We’re about 88 pages into Issue 5 on the website (the book reviewed here contains 1-4), but that’s at a rate of two pages a week. Probably this is the kind of thing you’ll want to check in with once or twice a year and read the whole backlog (or buy the books).

This is one of the best comics I’ve read in a while and is playing on a whole bunch of levels. I even found myself with a bit of a tear in my eye by the last page of Issue 4. But I also found myself laughing like crazy as well (Check out this comic and maybe the one right before it, particularly if you’ve got humor sensibilities like my friend Brian). You owe it to yourself to at least give this one a look.

(5 stars | Highly Recommended)

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