For a little bit there, in the late 90s and early 00s, I really thought dance music was going to take off, going to transcend its XTC-popping, glowstick-swinging roots. And of course that happened, but in (for me, anyway) the worst way possible. Now *everyone* listens to dance music – and that’s great! But I feel like most of what comes out today is just screechy, slurry noise that passes off as “hip”, or else it’s Top 40 high fructose corn syrup.
Of course, a few brave souls are still making great electronic music in the right-now (Boards of Canada!), but it’s hard not to get cynical. It seems like the loud and vulgar always crowds out the understated and beautiful. But nothing, nothing can detract from the joy and wonder of the late 90s and early 00s.
Take Private (2002), one of my all-time favorite albums, by speedometer., the stage name of Jun Takayama. Private is, as far as Yours Truly is concerned, a masterpiece of dance/electronica. Therefore it’s all the more heartbreaking that it’s so utterly obscure. I can’t even recall how I came across Private; I think I heard one of the tracks on soma.fm while lettering Rex Mundi at 3 in the morning, and I took a chance on the full album. The chance paid off, in droves.
What can I say about speedometer.’s sound? Sure, it’s downtempo, chill out, space jazz, whatever – but none of those descriptors even come close to capturing the beauty of the music. So here’s Nightboat from Alaska, the first track from the album. I love the mysterious, shimmering timbre of the melody, the skittery jazz percussion, the rubbery Angelo Badalamenti bass, and the saxophone.
Private Roots, the second track, is my favorite, and the fact that it only has 15 views on YouTube is a sickening crime. Yoshie Nakano, the vocalist on this piece, deserves like ten Grammys. Downtempo dance tends to feature a lot of soulful, jazzy female vocals, but the vocalists don’t always have the chops. Well, Nakano has chops. You can’t fake passion and intensity like hers.
The entire album is perfect, one of the rare cases where you can listen from beginning to end without skipping a track. It’s available on iTunes, wedged in somewhere between the Justin Bieber remixes feat. Nelly and singles from The Voice™. If you happen to be lucky enough to live near a small record store that specializes in electronica/dance, they might have it, too, but I dunno. Like I said, this album never got the attention it deserved.
I somehow hunted down speedometer.’s earlier album, …Or Not, and there are a few fleeting moments of brilliance in it that are fully realized in Private. Checking speedometer’s Web site, I can see he released a bunch of albums after Private, but I have no way of knowing how to get them in a way that financially compensates Jun Takayama. Which is sad, but at least he’s still making music. That, by itself, makes me happy.
Okay. I’m going to go listen to Slayer now.
oo long! It’s been way too long since last I posted. I’ve been both lazy *and* busy. Just got back from Munich, in fact, because I’m officially working on Travian, the mightiest browser-based strategy game of them all.
I shamefully confess I hadn’t heard of Travian until my friend Josef recommended me to the powers-that-be at Travian Games GmbH. Now I’m officially hooked. Travian is a completely different take on online gaming, on gaming period. It’s “free-to-play”, and you can gain advantages by spending real-world money – Travian’s got to make money somehow, renting out servers ain’t cheap – but the game is wonderfully designed so that forking over real gold for in-game gold is truly, madly, and deeply optional. You can do well at the game and spend nary a dime.
The game is pretty staggering in its intricacy. It debuted in 2004, and it’s been updated and expanded ever since. The setting is ancient Rome. You expand your settlements, cultivate resource production, and raid and form alliances with other players. The ultimate goal is to complete a “World Wonder” and thereby defeat the Natars, the non-player enemies that are threatening the world. Once a World Wonder is built, a winning alliance is declared, and the server resets.
It’s hard to capture the complexity of Travian in a paragraph or two, so check it out for yourself. It’s basically a vast and complex board game, with all the fiddly rules and tally-keeping handled for you.
One of the coolest things about the game is the broad player base. Travian has servers everywhere from Estonia to Indonesia. 1.6 million “likes” on Facebook. So what am I doing for Travian, exactly? World-building. I’m coming up with a story for the game, answering questions like “who are the Natars?” and “how is Travian different from historical reality?”. That kind of thing.
Speaking of historical reality, the trip to Munich was amazing. Germany is like some kind of fantasy realm where bad architecture and cars that are not either Mercedes or BMWs and street litter have been erased from existence. And German is such a weird language. Sometimes I can almost understand it, but most of the time I feel like I’m in one of those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where Picard is forced to go to the Klingon homeworld for some reason. Like settling a succession crisis for the next Klingon emperor, or working on a browser game.
Thanks to Erik, Robin and… Jesus, everyone in Munich for making me feel so welcome. The newest iteration of Travian, version 5, is gonna debut sometime early next year. I have an account on the super-secret test server, and oh my Lord, is v5 ever an improvement. I cannot wait for it to go live, and it’s an unbelievable honor to be a part of it.
Yes! It’s finally here.
This is my second team-up with artist Roberto Castro. I didn’t think it was possible for Roberto to top Lord of the Jungle, our first series together, but by golly, with Lords of Mars he has. To see what I mean, check out an extended preview at comicvine.
Hope this flies off the shelves like it deserves, because we have lots of great things in store for this series. I’m off to jabber at the wall like a deranged monkey in anticipation. Happy reading!
I know how to get to Comic Book Heaven. It’s not hard to find. In fact, if you live in New York City, you can take the subway. Ride the Flushing Local to 49th Street in Queens, and walk to Skillman Avenue. Take a left, walk past the Indonesian Mosque, and look up: the sign above the store front is a little faded, but there it is – Comic Book Heaven.
A couple of books have been published delving into detail — critical detail — about the financial hardships and soap-opera turmoil experienced by big comics publishers like Marvel and DC before they were snapped up by Viacom and Disney. But the real burden of the perpetually depressed comic book market doesn’t fall on the shoulders of companies in skyscraper suites in Manhattan. It falls on the people who sell comics for a living, people without the support of a multibillion-dollar corporation, people who open up shop without a whole hell of a lot more than a love of comics and a dream of owning their own business. People like Joe, owner and sole proprietor of Comic Book Heaven.
I only met Joe once, in 2001, when Rex Mundi was first coming out from Image Comics, and I’ll never forget him. He’d been in business for a long time – the only thing thicker than his prescription glasses was his New York accent. Comic Book Heaven was only open five hours a day, five days a week. A musty smell was first thing that greeted me when I walked into the shop, and the floor space near the window had been given over to used books and thrift-store ceramic dolls and plates.
I went to Comic Book Heaven as part of my tour of every comic book store in Manhattan and Queens to “promote” Rex Mundi, which pretty much consisted of me wandering into a store and begging whoever was at the register to order a few copies. Joe wasn’t interested in my pitch; most of the smaller shops weren’t. I had to force him to take some free previews I had brought with me.
Not that I could blame him. Joe’s shop had obviously gone into decline since (as I later learned) The Great Comic Book Bust of the mid 90s. He had enough trouble selling X-Men and Batman – what the hell was he going to do with a weird little murder mystery comic about Jesus?
Failing to pique Joe’s interest, I asked him about his experience selling comics over the years, and he was more than happy to tell his tale. Hell, I thought I would walk into his store and sell him my story, but he ended up selling me his.
“I remember in ’93, my wife had to stand at the door and turn people away, my shop was so busy,” Joe told me. “I had twenty-five people in my store all day some days. This, of course, was before the crash.”
At that time I didn’t know anything about “the crash” of the mid 90s, or the history of comics in general. I had just finished working on a few film sets and decided making movies was not for me. My comics “career” started out as more of a means than an end, a way to tell a Hollywood-scale story with a punk rock budget.
When I asked Joe about the crash, and he looked at me as if I were stupid.
“You sure don’t know a hell of a lot about a comics for someone in the industry,” he said.
“I’m not sure I’m really in the industry,” I said.
“Well, listen,” he replied, visibly irritated, although I couldn’t help feeling he liked having someone to talk to. Throughout our entire conversation, no one entered the store. “It was Marvel that caused the crash. Them and DC. Your company [Image] was part of the problem too, but you can’t blame them, they just wanted a piece.”
“And what was the problem?” Joe gave me another Jesus-Christ-you-are-an-idiot look, but he continued.
“You know how many titles Marvel has out there now ? ’Bout 50. You know how many they had in 1996? 150. There was just too much. No one could keep up, there were too many gimmicks, too many holofoil-cover issues, too many titles. It used to be a customer could walk out of my store with a stack of eight comics for ten bucks. Now ten buys you, what, three comics? Can you believe they were charging five bucks for a comic?”
“Were there a lot more stores before the crash?” I asked.
“Of course,” Joe replied. His annoyance was beginning to melt away. “I was lucky, because I had some money saved up, and I saw the crash coming, so I didn’t order too much. I knew guys that made $10,000 orders for their stores for comics they could never sell. Still, I’ve got a basement full of comics. Marvel would sell a comic, and then not deliver it for months and months after it was supposed to ship. By the time it finally got here, there was no way to sell the damn thing. No one wanted it. Marvel didn’t have the right to do that, they couldn’t do that, but we didn’t know. We weren’t smart.”
“But do you think things are getting better now?” I asked. Joe’s reply was simple.
When I asked why he didn’t start selling video games to help turn a profit, he just shrugged. “I don’t need to sell video games,” he said. “I sell comic books. What’s with these video games? There’s no story, it’s just ya-ya-ya. The way I look at it, if you don’t read comics, you’re not an American kid.”
I’m not sure if Joe’s still around. I sure hope so. An Internet search dispelled some of my fear – Comic Book Heaven is still open for business. Things are a little better than when I spoke to Joe, for publishers, anyway. But the independent shop owners continue to bear the biggest share of the risk and the smallest slice of the returns. The fact that any independent retailers are still around is a minor miracle – so here’s to them. I don’t even care if a small shop has the clientele to carry my comics. That’s where I go for my funny books, and if it takes them a few weeks to special order whatever I’m looking for, then so be it. There’s a Comic Book Heaven in just about every town in America, and if enough of us readers give a shit, there always will be.