Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nashville con is fun for geeks, but on a smaller scale

As far as conventions go, the October Comic and Horror Fest is far from the largest.

Certainly, no one is going to confuse it with, say, Atlanta’s Dragon*Con or San Diego’s Comic-Con International, where tens of thousands of humans, Klingons, elves and other sentient life forms gather each year for weekends of revelry that threaten to knock the Earth off its axis.

But the Comic and Horror Fest, held every October in Nashville, is an eye-opening experience for convention newbies and a pleasant afternoon for geeks who would rather avoid teeming crowds.

This year, the convention returned to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds after a couple of depressing years during which the Fest took place at Nashville strip malls. It was definitely a return to form.

On Saturday, the fairgrounds’ Agriculture Building was filled almost to capacity. Fans browsed from table to table, where dozens of dealers hawked old comic books, vintage movie posters, DVDs, toys and other collectibles.

I managed, just barely, to resist a late-1940s “Phantom Lady” comic book with the $500 price tag. “Phantom Lady” became infamous in the 1950s as one of the comic books that crank child psychologist Frederick Wertham blamed for causing juvenile delinquency.

But I couldn’t pass up an original poster for the 1977 Clint Eastwood film “The Gauntlet,” painted by famed fantasy artist Frank Frazetta.

Speaking of juvenile delinquency, “The Gauntlet” has sentimental value for me, as it is the first R-rated film I ever saw in a theater. My dad took me to see it when I was 6 years old, and Dad isn’t known for his parenting skills.

This year’s guest of honor was John Saxon, and even if you don’t recognize his name, you probably know his face. Saxon played the heroine’s dad in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” and, more importantly, co-starred with Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon.” More recently, he buried Nick Stokes alive in an episode of “C.S.I.” directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I got Saxon’s autograph and had my picture taken with him. Overall, I acquitted myself far better than the time I met Ray Bradbury and, for what I think was the first time in my life, was struck speechless.

One of the other guests at the Fest was Chris Durand, a stuntman and actor best known for playing Michael Myers in “Halloween H2O” and Ghost Face in “Scream 2,” in which he killed Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame.

“I killed her in ‘Scream 2,’ and she killed me in (an episode of) ‘Angel.’ So, we’re 1 and 1,” he said while signing autographs.

Such is the life of an actor who spends most of his career behind masks. It’s kill and be killed. And rise to kill again.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a comic/horror convention without a woman in a bikini. In this case, it was Thong Girl, the star of a series of no-budget films in which she fights crime. Or something. Mostly, I think, she poses while wearing a string bikini and a cape.

So, which is the more inappropriate crime-fighting attire, a bikini or a cape? You decide.

Thong Girl became something of a scandal for Gallatin, Tenn., Mayor Don Wright last year, when Wright let filmmakers shoot scenes for “Thong Girl 3” in his office.

City Council members and several little old ladies were not amused, and Wright lost his bid for re-election.

I guess some people just don’t appreciate the arts.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Internet radio is thriving now, but for how long?

I have a new addiction: Soma.

No, not the fictional drug of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but SomaFM, an Internet-based “radio” station broadcasting commercial-free music from a garage in San Francisco.

SomaFM emerged in 1999 from one of those most noble of institutions: a pirate radio station. Not a “Pump Up the Volume”-style pirate radio station, but a station serving that year’s Burning Man festival.

Burning Man is an annual celebration of arts and anarchy held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For more about it, see Brian Doherty’s definitive and entertaining book, “This Is Burning Man.”

Burning Man, however, was only the beginning. In February 2000, Rusty Hodge, SomaFM’s founder, launched a Web site to stream his station via the Internet to the entire world. SomaFM is now one of the largest Internet-only radio stations, broadcasting more than 3 million “listener hours” a month and reaching about 8,000 listeners on average at any given time.

SomaFM’s playlists are far removed from typical top 40 radio. The 11 separate channels at offer mostly a mix of electronic, ambient, trance and trip-hop music — the sort of stuff often referred to as “New Age,” not that much of it has anything to do with the eclectic group of religions often lumped under that name.

It’s music most people usually can’t hear over the air, apart from public radio shows like “Echoes” and “Hearts of Space.”

Hodge and SomaFM quickly became an Internet success story, not in terms of profits because there weren’t any, but in terms of Web hits, word of mouth (or e-mail) and satisfied listeners who had gone unserved by the likes of Clear Channel.

If SomaFM were the subject of a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode, this would be the point in our story where everything goes wrong. As it happens, everything does go wrong.

In 1998, Congress passed one of the most poorly conceived pieces of legislation of the past decade: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And in 2002, using the DMCA as a sledgehammer, the Recording Industry Association of America went after Internet radio stations for millions of dollars in royalties.

“I was looking at owing the RIAA an obscene amount of money, like $100,000,” Hodge told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2004 interview, “so I chickened out at the time and took the station off the air.”

Internet broadcasters fought back, and Hodge testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Eventually, the RIAA relented and settled on a lower royalty fee, which for SomaFM is $2,000 a year, funded by listener donations.

As a result, SomaFM is back. But the legal problems, unfortunately, continue.

On May 1, the federal Copyright Royalty Board raised the fees for Internet broadcasting, making Web broadcasters responsible for royalties that over-the-air broadcasters don’t have to pay. A bill in the U.S. House to overturn the CRB’s decision, H.R. 2060, has more than 140 co-sponsors, but so far it has gone nowhere.

The duplicity here simply reeks. Congress is filled with demagogues who routinely rail against the broadcasting conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus Media, the two largest owners of traditional radio stations. But when it comes to fostering competition where it really matters — the Internet — Congress stands with the big broadcasters and major music labels.

Of course, traditional broadcasters are dependent on government licenses in order to transmit over the “public” airwaves, so they, unlike Internet broadcasters, are reliable donors at election time.

But for now, Internet radio stations like SomaFM are still going. So, try them out before it’s too late. And maybe leave a few bucks in the tip jar while you’re at it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Digital downloads remaking music industry

The British rock group Radiohead has found a business model that Priceline pitchman William Shatner could appreciate: name your own price.

Radiohead’s latest release, “In Rainbows,” went on sale this week as a digital download via the Web site The band’s contract with EMI having lapsed, Radiohead is cutting out the middleman. With no pesky record label in the way, Radiohead can sell its music however it wants.

And right now, Radiohead wants its fans to decide for themselves what they think the band’s music is worth.

I bet Radiohead makes a mint. In fact, with no record label to take a cut, I bet the band will make more from “In Rainbows” than from its previous releases.

Unlike Metallica, which waged war on the music-sharing Web site Napster in 2000, Radiohead is embracing the Digital Age. If you don’t want people pirating your songs, you’d better give them a reasonable alternative.

Radiohead gets it. The rest of the recording industry doesn’t. The Recording Industry Association of America persists in suing its customers, most recently a Minnesota woman ordered last week to pay an outrageous $222,000 in damages for downloading and sharing 24 songs on her computer.

The RIAA claims illegal file sharing is bankrupting the American music industry and costing people their jobs, although at least one study, by Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf published in The Journal of Political Economy, disputes that.

More to the point, the people sharing music online probably are improving the country’s overall economic welfare.

Writing recently at his blog, Marginal Revolution, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen said, “In the past most people didn't much like or listen to most of the music they bought, or in any case most of the value came from their very favorites. ... So if people can sample music in advance, and know in advance what they will like, music sales will plummet. This will be a sign of market efficiency, not market failure.”

Even if file sharing is costing the music industry the hundreds of millions of dollars the RIAA claims, it’s because most of its music isn’t worth paying for. People sample songs online and download their favorites so they don’t get stuck paying for compact discs containing only one or two good songs.

If the music industry is worried about its profits, it would do well to lower the price of CDs. And musicians would do well to make better music, not just one or two hits per CD for every 10 duds.

But if the RIAA’s member labels are slow to learn, others are eager to drag them into the 21st century. has joined Apple’s iTunes in selling legal music downloads online. And while Amazon doesn’t have as extensive a music library, it has overtaken iTunes on two fronts. First, Amazon’s music is less expensive. Second, and more important, all of the songs at Amazon are available without Digital Rights Management.

DRM, embedded in most of the music iTunes sells, limits what you can do with your own music files after you’ve paid good money for them. Apple’s Steve Jobs says he wants to do away with DRM, but so far he hasn’t forced the issue. So, the only label to offer DRM-free music via iTunes is EMI, Radiohead’s former label.

But there is still a catch: iTunes charges more for EMI’s DRM-free music.

Still, with competition like Amazon around and bands like Radiohead going directly to their fans, I bet Apple will get the message. Apple isn’t as slow on the uptake as the RIAA.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Spider-Man co-creator has own secret identity

A "Doctor Strange" panel with art by Steve Ditko.
It’s all in the hands.

Well, maybe not. But Steve Ditko’s hands are distinctive — both his own and the ones he draws.

The hands Ditko illustrates on the printed page are weird, contorted and as expressive as eyes in their ability to convey emotion and mood. The hands at the ends of Ditko’s arms, however, are no less distinguished.

They’re the hands that gave birth in 1962 to Marvel Comics superhero Spider-Man.

Even people who don’t read comic books have heard of Spider-Man’s other parent, Stan Lee. Lee makes sure of that. So, it’s odd that most people have never heard of Ditko. Odd, that is, until you know a little something about him.

Ditko’s reclusiveness makes J.D. Salinger seem like Paris Hilton. Only four photographs of Ditko are known to exist, and he doesn’t grant interviews. From his studio in New York City, the 79-year-old artist still toils away on comics few will ever see.

He has turned down any share of the profits generated by the three “Spider-Man” movies. His life is one of self-imposed obscurity.

That made things somewhat difficult for British TV presenter Jonathan Ross when he decided to make a documentary about Spider-Man’s co-creator. The one-hour program “In Search of Steve Ditko” aired on BBC Four last month and appeared on YouTube briefly before the BBC’s copyright police intervened.

Eventually, Ross and writer/Ditko fan Neil Gaiman, best known for his “Sandman” graphic novels, got in to see the intensely private artist, but Ditko declined to appear on camera. Instead, he spoke to the two for half an hour before sending them on their way with a stack of Ditko’s more recent works.

Apart from designing Spider-Man and plotting many of the character’s early stories (Lee provided the cornball dialogue), Ditko created another Marvel superhero, Dr. Strange.

While never as popular as Spidey, Dr. Strange was a hit on college campuses and became, probably to Ditko’s horror, something of a drug-culture icon.

Dr. Strange, a master of the mystic arts, regularly visited otherworldly landscapes, and for some readers, that was the ultimate trip. An allusion to Dr. Strange appears in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 counterculture book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

For his part, Ditko in the 1960s was attracted to the novels of Ayn Rand, and soon he adopted her radically individualist philosophy of rational self-interest, Objectivism.

To this day, no one is sure why Ditko left Marvel. The prevailing theory is that the last straw was a dispute with Lee over the identity of Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin. Lee wanted the Goblin to be an established character, but Ditko wanted the Goblin to be a nobody — symbolizing the Objectivist view of evil.

Oddly, Spider-Man is, in a way, an anti-Objectivist. He always makes sacrifices for the good of others. But perhaps Ditko intended a lesson of sorts in that. What does Spider-Man get for his selfless ways? A life of misery, mostly. His alter ego, Peter Parker, is always broke. He never has money to help his poor Aunt May whenever she gets sick or faces losing her home — both of which happen a lot.

No issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” during the Lee/Ditko era ended without Peter wallowing in self-pity.

After Marvel, Ditko worked for poverty-row publisher Charlton Comics. The pay wasn’t great, but he had more creative freedom, working on characters like Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and, most importantly, The Question.

A brief stint at DC Comics followed, and along the way, Ditko turned out explicitly philosophical comics for smaller publishers. One character to emerge from that, Mr. A, served as Ditko’s mouthpiece: There is black, and there is white, and there is nothing in between.

For Ditko, the principle of the thing is the principle of the thing. So, whatever his reasons, he remains in the shadows, letting his work speak for itself.