ARCANUM: Immortality is So, So Creepy

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Even pseudo-immortality, the thousand-year lifespan, has a nasty ring to it.

Not just because of what it might mean for the individual who’s rocking the forever-life, either — and there have been plenty of discussions of that idea, both in the vampire myth and in science fiction. One of my favorite authors to tackle this idea is Richard K. Morgan in his Altered Carbon series. In this universe people are implanted with tiny upload hardware, almost impossible to destroy, allowing your persona to be transferred from body to body. Not quite the traditional view of immortality, but the tone — the weary, noir sensibility of an endless dream-like loop — is spot on.  People who’ve lived too long in the AC universe are fundamentally wrong in an alien way. They have seen and done too much. They’ve gone past nihilism. There’s an … absence where the fundamental connection to other humans should be.

No, what’s even creepier to me is what a society of such people would be. Look around us now. Boomers are freaking out over millenial values, just as their Greatest Generation parents freaked out over theirs. I have people working for me who’ve never even seen a dial telephone.  Change hurtles ever onward, and the only thing more corrosive than the fact that the future isn’t evenly distributed is the fact that there are plenty of humans who don’t want this future at all.  It’s all too much change, it may be literally too much change to process for human hardwiring. Many older humans are living future shock, right now.

It was ever thus. But the difference now is that those people are alive.

In 1900 the percentage of the American population over the age of 45 was 17.8%. In 1950 it was 28.4%. As of the last census the share of the US population over 45 is 36.4%. Hell, the 65+ share’s gone from 4.1% in 1900 to 13.3% in 2010. More and more people still in the society, with greater and greater influence, still constructing societal and legal norms based on emotional, psychological, cultural and technological frames of reference that are less and less relevant.

We’d all like to think we’d reinvent ourselves, re-assimilate, learn and grow along a constantly regenerative learning curve. But most of us wouldn’t. We’re just not cognitively wired for it. We crave stasis, because our lizard brains crave safety and security.

Now, am I bashing older people in general, painting them all as regressive? No, of course not. But the law of averages is the law of averages, and people are people, and the vast majority of we humans formed our core values in our adolescences, locked our social and political opinions in our early 20’s. Grudges dig deep. To call out a specific example: no matter who you voted for, wasn’t it a little goddam tiring in the 2000 election to still be refighting the 32-year old Vietnam War records of the two candidates for the US presidency?

Now imagine it was the Civil War.

Imagine it now.  A functional lifespan of, say 200 years.  Working with people who owned slaves.  Trying to negotiate international trade treaties to deal with global warming by reconciling voters who watched their brother’s head get spun into a fine red mist by a Boston infantryman or a Georgian cavalryman. Getting funding for stem cell research from voters who grew up believing not only were black people a genetically inferior race, but other versions of white people were, too.  200 years is what Bruce Sterling posits in Holy Fire, a gerontocracy, and it’s a goddam mess.

Now make it 500 years.

Nothing ever forgotten. Nothing ever truly passing.

The death of history and the birth of the Long, Eternal Now.

So when you posit a race of beings who stare at us pitilessly, as so much mortal cannon-fodder in the midst of their centuries-long feuds, I do not fantasize about meeting them. I want them to sod off post-haste to the Grey Havens, good and gone.  The prospect of them returning, and dealing with them as an enemy with reality-bending powers and millenia of strategic experience, does not fill me with elfin glee. That’s horror, to me.

ARCANUM, as usual, can be read here.  And you can browse our other comics, from continuing series to quirky short subjects, here.

Apr 29, 2013 In: Comics

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Shame

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Fourth week of INSUFFERABLE 2: ON THE ROAD is live, and Galahad gets a lesson in the relationship between dignity and poverty.I have always said that the reason I became a comics professional instead of an actor (this is true) is because all beginning actors have to pay the rent by, at some point or another, doing a commercial dressed up in a giant hamburger suit (or whatever), and I have my standards. Not that you would know it on karaoke night.

Also live on the Thrillbent site are our other ongoing serials, ARCANUM and THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD, free to read–and to them, we just added THE EIGHTH SEAL, a creeeeeepy horror tale with poltical overtones that, yesterday, burned up the servers at Thrillbent Central, it drove so much traffic. And as always, if you like a comic on Thrillbent, feel free to share with friends by embedding it directly into your own webpage or Tumblr feed (scroll down below the comic window for the Embed button).

Still offering free CBZ downloads (these are just zip files for use with various comics-reading programs), still trying to figure out a good workaround on the PDFs we were offering. Your voices have been heard and I’ll be straight up with you–we’ve been thinking about how best to create a revenue stream for the Thrillbent creators so they can keep doing what they’re doing and so that we can keep offering everything free to read on the site. Charging a small fee for PDF downloads is something we’ve discussed, and we may still have to go that way, but I am struck by just how many of you responded that you were using out PDF downloads already. I assumed it was a small percentage, but judging by your voices, apparently not. And I’m loathe to give anyone the impression that we’re looking to take anything away from our loyal readers. Hrrrm. Man, decisions aren’t this hard to make when I’m just writing Daredevil, or whatever….

We’ll discuss a plan of action here, and I’ll write a longer blogpost soon about this; I have no problem asking fans to help us out financially, but I don’t want to force anyone to. I will say this–in the meantime, if you ARE willing to give and to help us keep giving back, I encourage you to visit the Thrillbent page at Comixology (way to bury the lede, Waid), where you can purchase digital issues and compilations, all with new bonus materials, for a fair price. That’s a huge help to us, and we appreciate your support.

Apr 24, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent News

The Eighth Seal

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We just added a new ongoing serial to THRILLBENT. It’s a horror strip with a twist that I’m loathe to discuss until you’ve read it, but it’s what sold me when James Tynion IV (writer of DC’s TALON and BATMAN) pitched it to me months ago. Together, he and Jeremy Rock have created the creepiest comic yet on this site, and if you read CLOWN IN THE MIRROR, you know that’s saying something. It’s called THE EIGHTH SEAL, and I urge you to check it out.  Unlike most of THRILLBENT’s content, THE EIGHTH SEAL will be running longer installments monthly rather than shorter ones weekly; I’ve always said this site is about experimentation, so we’re interested in your response. (Still getting message boards built and organized–until then, feel free to comment below!)

For those of you who have voiced a desire to help support THRILLBENT financially (God bless you), know also that you can purchase a Comixology version of THE EIGHTH SEAL right here for 99 cents, complete with additional bonus materials, sketches, designs, and all sorts of goodies.

And if you’re visiting us for the first time, come to the main page and see what else strikes your fancy: ARCANUM, INSUFFERABLE, THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD, THE WALKING PANDAS and more, all free to read and free to embed in your own websites if you’d like to share!  Thanks–we appreciate your visits.

Apr 23, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent News

America’s Favorite Rum-Flavored Malt Beverage

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Third week of INSUFFERABLE 2: ON THE ROAD is live, and murder is in the air. One of the things I love most about artist and co-creator Peter Krause is that he’ll draw anything and never complain about it. Crowd scenes, beach parties, giant props…it’s like he enjoys the challenges. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Also live on the Thrillbent site are our other two ongoing serials, ARCANUM and THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD, free to read and absolutely stunning work. Those links’ll land you on the first installments of each–just scroll down the page for links to the next installments (for now–we’re right now making that part of the navigation more automatic, should have that licked by end-of-week). And as always, if you like a comic on Thrillbent, feel free to share with friends by embedding it directly into your own webpage or Tumblr feed (scroll down below the comic window for the Embed button).

While we’re still offering free CBZ downloads (these are just zip files for use with various comics-reading programs), these last few weeks, we’ve not been offering PDF downloads–they’re not as popular and they don’t emulate the effects of the viewer as well. That said, if there’s still a demand, sound off below. We listen.  Thanks!

Apr 17, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent News

Clarke’s Law, Harry Potter, and ARCANUM

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Or at least Clarke’s 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I have a physics degree from McGill University in Montreal, where several well-meaning humans — with the exception of a Thermodynamics professor who intentionally posted incorrect office hours — attempted to instill in me an appreciation for the order of the universe. The problem is, of course, when you learn to speak the mathematical language of physics, the “order” gets pretty damn weird.  Or, as my Quantum Physics professor said on the day we ground out the math for quantum tunneling: “This is the bit where people’s brains begin to crackle.”

It’s hard to understand, as we wander around with cell phones in our pockets,  the disruptive effect quantum mechanics — the physics of the unknowable, or at the very least the physics of the best-guessable — had on the scientific world in the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the universe!” quote comes out of this era. To put it bluntly, the smartest people on earth were, on a daily basis, losing their shit.

ARCANUM is born out of two impulses. First, blending body horror with fantasy, much as Charles Stross found the inherent harmonies between Chtulhoid Horror and Cold War sensibilities in the Laundry Series. We’ll discuss that later.

But it also comes out of my love of science fiction, specifically my amusement at how the most important, disruptive moment in most alien invasion movies is tossed over the movie’s shoulder. The aliens have come from beyond the stars, they have come for our …

… wait, what? No, they don’t want our seawater, they don’t want our brains, whatever you — THEY CAME FROM BEYOND THE STARS?! Assuming that’s not a generation ship or some self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those aliens just BROKE PHYSICS.

Except, of course, in the (mainstream) alien invasion story, they didn’t break physics. In every (mainstream) alien invasion story they’re here. We can shoot them, and talk to them, and be dissected by them, they’re wandering around in our physical universe and so are beholden to the same physics, Newtonian or Quantum, that we are. So that fictional universe has rules, the aliens just … apparently … know some better ones than we do?

But faster-then-light travel mucks with such fundamental boundaries of our physical universe that if they can circumvent that, they can damn well circumvent any of the boring rules which would allow us to interact, or perhaps even perceive them. There’s an inherent paradox — if the aliens are interstellar, they are certainly not walking our streets in hacked-together HALO armor gunning down humans. Unless that’s, like, a thing they get off on. Which would be double-plus ungood now that I think about it.

For chrissake, in the 21st Century one country is untouchably pounding the hell out of terrorists and unfortunately placed Afghani weddings with remote-piloted drones operated by kids from half a planet away. And we don’t even leave our local gravity well except for special occasions.

Those aliens would not be fight-able. They would be unknowable. They would incomprehensible. They would be soul-shatteringly terrifying. They would be terrifying sky gods who rain down destruction on a helpless human populace as if by … magic.

So why not jump straight to magic?

This is tied to one of my pet peeves in the Harry Potter universe (stay with me).  I am always a little disappointed that Hermione Granger (the hero of the series) at no point says “You know, I rather like science. Has anyone noticed that none of what we do obeys the laws of physics, and yet we co-exist with the world of Muggles where the laws of physics hold sway? I mean, shouldn’t we talk to some clever Cambridge blokes about the fact that we gesture and point with a stick and manufacture objects out of thin air –”

— THEY MANUFACTURE OBJECTS OUT OF THIN AIR?! Assuming that’s not a self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those tweens just BROKE PHYSICS.

You see what I did there. (After all, the Harry Potter Universe is Secretly Terrifying).

The structure of Arcanum is derived from my instinctive love of that paradox. There are multiple alien invasion styles to choose from, of course. To emphasize the horror aspects, I’m patterning our magic invasion on the slow-burn secret invasions of UFO or The Invaders or the criminally short-lived Threshold. If anything even vaguely resembling alien tech were discovered, you’d see the US government immediately put two programs in play: 1.) a Manhattan project to unravel the broken physics of said tech and 2.) a secret military/intelligence agency to keep tabs on it. Just substitute “magic” into those sentences and you have Arcanum.

Next time: immortality is so, so creepy. In the meantime:

Catch this week’s Arcanum here. Start from the beginning here.

Read Mark Waid’s Insufferable, his awesome super-hero meta-story — what if you were a dark detective of the night, and your teen sidekick grew up to be a douchebag? —  starting at the beginning here. The latest arc, Season Two, starts here.

Read our gritty, true-life crime thriller The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood here.

And sample all our comics, from our continuing series to one -shot experiments to shorter (8-10 week) series, from the THRILLBENT HOME PAGE.

Apr 15, 2013 In: Comics

SAGA and Comixology

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Hey, let’s talk about someone else’s digital comic. You can download it on your iPad. No, wait, you can’t. Wait, wait, this just in… yes. Yes, you can.

Like most comics professionals yesterday, I was blowing off all my deadlines to follow the internet-consuming drama surrounding SAGA #12, a creator-owned series published by Image that’s been one of the few true “indy” breakout hits of the past few years. (Deservedly so.) Comixology, the medium’s primary digital distributor, announced Tuesday that even though the previous eleven issues had been available through their iOS app for iPhones and iPads, the twelfth Chapter would not be. Customers would be able to purchase and download it directly through the Comixology site, but not through Apple devices.

Comixology called the publisher, Image, to advise them of this… and it’s at this point that the entire chain of communication crashed and burned spectacularly. SAGA is a brilliantly written and drawn science-fiction story that is not shy about being sexually graphic. Previous issues have shown orgies, nudity, acts that only Virginian legislators still call “sodomy,” and a fight with a giant whose readily apparent testicles are the size of two Sherman tanks. And despite the fact that Apple is somewhat prudish (says I, the liberal) in its Terms of Service about what iOS Apps can and can’t publish, terms that Comixology must adhere to, all previous issues of SAGA have been approved. But not this one. The content — two postage-sized images on the first couple of pages — was deemed too sexually explicit.

Image was pissed. Writer Brian Vaughan was pissed. It seemed to them to be a totally arbitrary ruling given the standards they’d already set… and then the crashing/burning went full-bore when, having no further information to go on other than this , Brian concluded that the difference this time was that this was a scene of male homosexuality… and, as a longtime defender of LGBT rights, he went nuclear and issued an angry statement saying as much.

Jeezum Crow, the ensuing storm. Over the next few hours, Twitter and the media exploded with stories and headlines all using the words “Apple” and “homophobia” and “gay sex” and “censorship” in various hyperventilated combinations. As a faithful SAGA reader, that got my attention. I found the offending images on the net and got confused myself because I saw the second one first. Several erect penises geysering into the open mouth of a… woman? A man? Impossible to tell. But if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’ll admit that the first thought I had was a startled, “wow, bukkake, that’s new,” not “oh, there’s the gay sex.” It wasn’t until I doubled back to the first image, of a man giving a blow job, that I understood how the phrase “gay sex” entered the controversy.

Following my urge to continue ignoring my deadlines, I re-read the Terms of Service that I’d signed between Thrillbent and Comixology, paying particular attention to the age-rating guidelines. Hey, look. There, under the qualifiers defining what material cannot be published through apps but only through the web, is this one: “Explicit pornographic depiction of sexual activity or genitalia.” Okay, call me an old biddy, but I could make a reasonable case that an illustration of gang-bang bukkake could be interpreted as “explicitly pornographic.” And it occurred to me that maybe this was more the Chapter than homosexuality.

Now to entertain you with a by-no-means-comprehensive list of all the things tomorrow’s internet is going to ignore about what I’m saying:

  1. I wasn’t offended by the content and think it’s perfectly fine for appropriate ages.
  2. Given what’s been previously approved in SAGA, I can easily see why the creators wouldn’t think this content was a problem.
  3. Whoever’s in charge of writing up Comixology’s own guidelines, God bless them, might ought to rewrite that one clause for clarity; my educated guess is that the “or” is intended to give the terms “sexual activity” and “genitalia” equal weight (“Explicit pornographic depiction of… genitalia”), not to suggest that genitalia in any context is web-only material. Key words are “explicit pornographic depiction of.” A lot of people have obviously misinterpreted the clause.
  4. Yeah, flagging this one instance could be seen as “arbitrary”; personally and objectively, and while I can see how this specific multiple-exploding-penises imagery could be ruled “explicitly pornographic” in ways that some previous imagery wasn’t, that’s just me. Your mileage almost certainly varies, and that’s cool. That’s what makes horse races. That’s what gives society the flavor and friction it requires to grow (he said, teetering on the verge of explicit pornography himself).
  5. I am not saying any of the above or below to defend or impugn Apple, Comixology, Brian Vaughan, Image, my Aunt Polly, your Cinemax subscription, or anyone or anything else in the known universe. I’m simply, as Comics’ Longtime Leading Authority On Mouthing Off Without Knowing All The Facts, fulfilling my karmic obligations to publicly separate information from hearsay when I am so able.

I made some more phone calls, I talked to various parties involved, and in one of those rare moments, what they said actually bore out my intuition. Neither Apple nor Comixology “banned” material for depictions of “gay sex,” though God knows that certainly makes a better headline. In reality, Comixology flagged the content as potentially problematic given both Apple’s and their own internal Terms of Service; a decision was made by Comixology to not attempt an end-run around Apple’s (and like it or not, making that decision is their right); Brian misunderstood the why of it and (quite logically) concluded that “gay” was the problem, not “explicit”; he vented; the media jumped on that angle; and Apple was left to ask Comixology why on Earth they were suddenly being besieged by angry customers regarding something they’d not even seen, much less censored. Comixology has since issued a statement clarifying that the decision to hold that Chapter from Apple was theirs, not Apple’s. (Again, you don’t have to like that decision, but they do have a right to conduct business as they see fit.)

Continuing the above list of statements that will be ignored in a rush to make me out to be a corporate stooge and/or a fussy prude:

  1. Since I wasn’t there and I’m getting conflicting reports, I don’t know for certain if Comixology flat-out told Brian this was Apple’s ruling or if Brian simply assumed or misheard that it was. My strong suspicion is that words to the effect of “this will be a problem for us with Apple” were either poorly phrased or misunderstood as “Apple says so.” Knowing all the parties involved, I find it infinitely more plausible that, miscommunications aside, everything said to everyone was said with the best of intentions, not out of deliberate attempt to shift responsibility, and certainly not with any consideration whatsoever as to whether the sex shown was gay, straight, robotic or between two pieces of lawn furniture. I could be wrong. I have misjudged people before. But that is my personal assessment.
  2. Brian had every right to be angry believing what he believed. I have known Brian for 15 years and consider him a dear friend. Brian, like me, does not excel at multitasking. And, right this second, Brian is in North Carolina filming and showrunning a major TV miniseries (UNDER THE DOME) and is thus doing that which he is least comfortable doing: spinning twenty-seven plates at once. The last time I spoke to Brian, about a month ago as he prepped for shooting, he already sounded like a jack-in-the-box with one note left to go, so I have zero problem picturing him yesterday simultaneously wrangling actors, doing on-set rewrites, choosing wardrobe, taking network notes…and right between some thespian begging to know his “motivation” and a lighting technician asking him to spell “fresnel,” Vaughan gets a phone call about SAGA #12 that buzzsaws into his last nerve. It is very easy for me, in the quiet of my office, to conclude that this isn’t a gay censorship issue; it is perfectly understandable that a man 3000 miles from home and making six expensive decisions a minute while a P.A. holds a cellphone to his ear would conclude otherwise.

In all matters creative, never attribute to malice what can be explained by bureaucracy. I really, genuinely do applaud anyone who calls out racist or bigoted behavior and shines a light on it, but that comes with a responsibility to know all the facts before making charged allegations. Some good did come out of all the misguided Nerd Rage in that it opened up hundreds of discussions about the role of censorship vs. the present and future of digital comics, so there’s that. Also, I bet SAGA #12 sold a bajillion copies thanks to the controversy (unmanufactured; again, knowing Vaughan as well as I do, I can promise you his honest response to any contrary allegation would be, “I wish I were that smart”). And Apple’s since told Comixology, “Sure, go ahead, put it up for sale!”, so that’s a win. Just remember, though… sometimes, bukkake is just bukkake.

Apr 10, 2013 In: Comics

The Word “Embeddable” Always Looks Misspelled

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Welcome to Week Two of Thrillbent 2.0.  I’d be flattered if you came here solely for INSUFFERABLE, but given how much we’ve been bragging about our other two new series online and in interviews, that seems unlikely. Nevertheless, if so, I encourage you to check out ARCANUM and THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD — like INSUFFERABLE, free to read and, if you care to share, fully embeddable in your own webpage at a mouse’s click, one of our many new features. The web designers at Raygun have done a stunning job with the site redesign and functionality; we’re still nipping and tucking here and there, small stuff, the kind of details you don’t notice until you go live, but we couldn’t be happier with their work. If you notice anything that bugs, or you have feedback, feel free to comment below or send us an email — like I keep saying, Thrillbent is an operation built on transparency and cooperation.

If you like what we’re doing here and would like to show your support, I would not at all stop you from swinging by Comixology or iVerse to buy a digital copy or two of INSUFFERABLE, four weekly installments to an issue, complete with new covers and some bonus material in the back. I’m not hard-selling it (cue screaming business manager), but I’ll be honest — your financial support does make a difference, as do your retweets and recommendations and word-of-mouth, anything that bangs the drum about what we’re doing here at Thrillbent. We appreciate it.
In: Comics

INSUFFERABLE: ON THE ROAD

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When last we saw the eternally bickering father-and-son hero team of Nocturnus and Galahad, the stars of INSUFFERABLE, they’d defeated the arch-enemy who brought them back together after years apart. Welcome to the next chapter in their journey, as — penniless — they (and Galahad’s personal assistant, Meg) travel abroad in pursuit of the millions stolen from Galahad. Traveling on the cheap is not Galahad’s style. This is so much fun to write.
Apr 03, 2013 In: Comics

THRILLBENT 2.0

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Welcome to the next step in the Thrillbent (r)evolution. Today, thanks to the close collaboration between the hyper-amazing Lori Matsumoto and the web design geniuses at Raygun, we have a whole new look.

The new Thrillbent incorporates responsive design, meaning that it automatically scales to fit your device’s screen, whether it be an iPhone or a tablet or a laptop.

The new Thrillbent has new weekly content, beginning with John Rogers’ and Todd Allen’s ARCANUM every Monday:

Arcanum by John Rogers

The return of INSUFFERABLE each Wednesday:

Insufferable_mondrian

And the hard-boiled prison/crime drama THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD by Christy Blanch, Chris Carr and Chee every Friday:

Damnation of Charlie Wormwood

And — maybe most exciting of all — the new Thrillbent allows you to share our comics in an all-new way: by directly embedding them into your own website! If you like what we’re doing and want to help us spread the word, just hit the EMBED button, size the display to fit your website, and cut-and-paste the code beneath to help make our comics truly viral. That’s a first for this new medium — and you’ll see more innovations in weeks ahead! Check out ARCANUM, download or embed it to share, and come back Wednesday for the first new installment of INSUFFERABLE 2: ON THE ROAD!

Apr 01, 2013 In: Comics, Site News