Adventures In Freelancing: Looking Back At 2015

monkey-typing2015 was the fifth full year that I worked as a freelance writer. It’s wild to think about. I got unceremoniously and somewhat surprisingly laid off from Wizard in September of 2009. With no idea what I would do with the rest of my career (a fun thought to have at 26) my friends jumped at the chance to set me up with freelance work. I wasn’t sure if it would stick, but dove in and am still rolling today.

That year I wrote for Marvel.com, Maxim.com, Topless Robot, Wizard, ToyFare, UGO, MTV Geek, Click and even a bit for CBR and realized I could actually do alright for myself with just my brain, a computer and a solid internet connection. Since then, a few of those outlets have gone defunct (I miss seeing my work on the magazine stand) and some completely changed directions since then. These days I find myself mainly working for three sites: Marvel.com, CBR and Geek.com and I’m digging it. Looking back at the past year, it seemed like an okay time to reflect a bit on the ups and downs of the year. Continue reading Adventures In Freelancing: Looking Back At 2015

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Computer Movie: Track Down a.k.a. Takedown (2000)

track down poster One of my favorite movie subgenres has to be computer movies (heck, it’s got it’s own Category over there on the right). Favorite examples include WarGames, Sneakers, The Net and Hackers. It might seem inconceivable, but back then, the general public wasn’t sure what to think about all these people talking to each other over a mysterious new invention called the internet. Hackers — people who understood how computers worked and used their abilities either for good or ill — were as mysterious as comic book vigilantes, roaming the online landscape under the guise of colorful aliases. All of this mixed together for a new breed of films, ones trying to capitalize on the rising popularity and mistrust of computers, adding more traditional action elements  to thrill audiences. Some of them are actually solid films, some are fun cultural artifacts and some are ridiculous. I especially enjoy seeing how excited people got about the kind of technology that your phone surpassed about a decade ago.

Track Down, as it’s known on Netflix Instant, or Takedown, which it’s also called is one of these movies. Unlike the movies I mentioned above, I’d never heard of this one directed by Joe Chappelle (Phantoms, Fringe) and starring Skeet Ulrich, Russell Wong, Master P, Amanda Peet, Donal Logue, Jeremy Sisto, Christopher McDonald, Tom Berenger and Ethan Suplee. The film is based on the story of real life hacker Tsutomu Shimomura (Wong) working alongside the government to bring down legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick (Ulrich).

Obviously beefed up and made more theatrical, this is a pretty fun little movie. I like how they made the relatively boring idea of sitting-in-front-of-a-computer look interesting without getting into the craziness of something like Hackers. Ulrich also seems to be channeling his inner Johnny Depp throughout the film as the pressure of running from the government and going up against a talented adversary clearly wears on him. Chappelle also brings some style to the proceedings with the use of filters and whatnot. You might get sick of the color orange from the last 20 minutes or so, but at least he was trying something.

takedown poster

There’s actually a documentary called Freedom Downtime that a bunch of Mitnick’s supporters created in 2001 pointing out the inaccuracies of this film. I’d be interested in checking that out as I’ve been curious about Mitnick’s life for a while (I also want to read his books The Art Of Deception, The Art Of Intrusion and Ghost In The Wires). However, I still think it’s possible to enjoy this flick as its own entity that works as a take on actual events (it’s based on Shimomura’s book called Takedown), an action-thriller movie and a look at Hollywood’s reaction to computers.

If you dug the more serious elements of Sneakers and the look and feel of Hackers, then I think you’ll dig Track Down/Takedown.

Book Review: The Totally Sweet ’90s By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper & Brian Bellmont (2013)

the totally sweet 90s by gael fashingbauer cooper & brian bellmont When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I became incredibly nostalgic for my 80s childhood. I don’t know what it was, but all I wanted to do was watch He-Man and Transformers cartoons, which I was able to find at a nearby Blockbuster in a big for-sale box. This was before the days where everything was readily available on DVD or even streaming, so it wound up being a huge find. I also dug out my parents’ Betamax which allowed me to watch old home movies as well as TV shows we taped (I love watching old tapes like that not just because of the cartoon content, but the commercials too!).

But, the truth is that, as much as I feel like a child of the 80s, I’m equally a product of the 90s. That decade took me from 6 to 16 and helped introduce me to some of the most influential things in my life from movies and music to the job I would have for the next five years, the end of grade school and the beginning of high school and crazy-future-tech like cell phones, home computers and the internet. So, when I got a PR email asking if I’d be interested in reviewing Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont’s The Totally Sweet 90s: From Clear Cola to Furby, and Grunge to “Whatever”, the Toys, Tastes, and Trends That Defined a Decade, I jumped at the chance.

In addition to having a strong connection to that decade, I also realized that I hadn’t really read or looked into 90s nostalgia. Fashingbauer Cooper and Bellmont’s book does exactly that by running down a list of alphabetically ordered topics, talking about them for a few paragraphs and offering an update as well as a fun fact about each. The book kicks off with “Adam Sandler Songs On Saturday Night Live” and ends with “Zubaz” to give you an idea of what you’ll be dealing with.

It was a lot of fun taking this trip down memory lane which combined with my own experience, but also moved into topics I was unfamiliar with like the short-lived MTV series Austin Stories and Coke’s attempt to get Generation X bucks with OK Soda. The short-and-sweet format of the book kept me moving from section to section with a quickness I wish I could harness when reading fiction.

It might seem like the subject matter is light and somewhat inconsequential (how important can Orbitz, Scrunchies and Pogs be?), but the intro made a really interesting point that I hadn’t thought about: many of the elements of modern life we take for granted began life in the 90s. I’m a firm believer that you can’t really appreciate today without having a fairly good working knowledge of yesterday. The Totally Sweet 90s might not get into in-depth analysis of the decade, but it does start the process by presenting a sample of the things that were popular to the young people of that generation.

My only complaint about the book is that there aren’t enough pictures. I know from being a research assistant for so many years, though, that including a lot of photos of copyrighted materials can be difficult and, worse, pricey. The ones that are included in the book are usually of toys or products which are cool to shoot and print. On a somewhat related note, I haven’t seen the Kindle or digital version of this book, but I can imagine that it would make for a really cool experience, especially if links to various images and/or videos were included. I have no idea what the feasibility of something like that is, but it’d be rad.

Finally, I just want to throw in another way this book made me nostalgic, but for a much more recent time. While reading The Totally Sweet 90s, I had all kinds of flashbacks to my days working for Wizard and ToyFare. This book is basically one giant list and list features were always interesting to work on. I helped with everything from the coolest single issue comic stories and best villains to coolest toy action features and best movie fights, plus many more. Instead of imagining Fashingbauer Cooper and Bellmont sitting around a room trying to figure out their list, I went right back to the old Wizard conference room where we’d first hash out exactly what the list was supposed to be about (an important step some outlets tend to gloss over, resulting in a poor list) and then coming up with every possible entry. From there you start crossing off. Once you’ve witled your kitchen sink list to the number you’re going for (10, 50, 100, whatever), then you get to have the fun talks about what makes one entry better than another which results in the final order. It was a long process, sometimes taking several meetings a week, but I loved taking part when I could.

So, for being a fun time capsule of a very important time in my life and reminding me of some fun professional memories that I’d lost touch with, I give The Totally Sweet ’90s a thumbs up. If you’re interested in checking the book out, follow the above link. The book will be out tomorrow.

My Younger Self Would Be Blown Away By The Kindle/Kindle App Combo

Kindle Fire I know I’m incredibly late to the party on this one, but the way the Kindle works with the Kindle App for iPhone is pretty fantastic. I’ll be honest, I’ve only just recently started using my Kindle Fire to read actual books. For the most part, I’ve been using it to read comics. Even for that, I tend to only check it out every few weeks — maybe once a month — and then get back to the piles and piles of unread books and trades I have lying around. But, I just downloaded a book I’ve been really interested in checking out and have been reading through it every chance I get.

But, as you may know, my wife, daughter and I just went down to Pennsylvania to visit a theme park called Sesame Place with some friends. Those places might not seem like the best locales to get any quality reading done in, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it’s as good as any and that’s all thanks to the Kindle App for iPhone. As long as you make sure to synch your devices, the one tells the other where you last left off, so you get to keep your place no matter which device you’re using. It’s fantastic!

Before moving on too much more, I do feel the need to make one thing clear: I’m not one of those overly-attached-to-my-phone parents who barely takes his eyes off his phone while out with the kids. I only turned the Kindle App on when I was waiting for the others to do their thing (not a big ride fan and also had a bit of a stomach ache at one point). Then, back at the hotel, I simply went back to the Kindle Fire, picked up where I had left off on my phone and continued on.

While sitting there waiting for half the gang to ride a ride and the other to check out the gift shop I couldn’t help but stop and imagine how much this technology would have blown my mind as a kid. I was an even more avid reader in my youth than I am now (specifically books, though I guess I still read a lot of comics and trades these days). I’d go to the library, get a stack of books and plow my way through them. I’d also go to the book store — first Thackery’s, a local Toledo place that clased, then Barnes & Noble and Borders — and get things that looked interesting or I had heard about, starting the piles that I’m still working through today.

kindle-on-iphoneI was never more focused on what books I had, though, than when my family and I were going on a trip. The idea of being without something to read haunted me. I have no idea if it ever actually happened or not (probably did which fed into the fear) but eventually it was not an issue because I would use whatever extra suitcase space I had to bring an extra book, magazine or comic to keep my habit fed.

The ability to carry a number of books all in a device that weighs less than one of those old Pocket paperbacks while having a secondary device that I already carry with me everywhere that I can also read on is amazing. Too often we take the tech we have for granted, so this is me taking a few paragraphs to not only reflect back on my old reading habits, but also give a big old thumbs-up to Amazon, the Kindle Fire and the Kindle App team for making a killer combination of functionality and radness. Good work, folks!

The Kindle Fire Is Awesome

Right off the bat, I want to make it clear that this isn’t a “the Kindle Fire is better than the iPad post” because it’s not. I’ve had limited access to iPads and think they’re pretty rad, but I don’t own one because of the expense involved. I do however owned a refurbished Kindle Fire that Amazon sold at a discount price a few weeks back. My wonderful wife and darling daughter got it for me as a combined birthday and Father’s Day present.

I must say, I love this thing. I was a little worried that either the Fire or my iPhone would start feeling redundant because the only real difference is size, but I’ve found that I like checking and responding to email and looking at Twitter better on my phone which also benefits from being more carryable when I’m out and about. The main thing I’ve been using the Fire for is reading, specifically comics.

As a writer about comics, I have access to PDFs of books from various companies. I’ve been downloading these things for a while, but really dislike sitting on the couch with my laptop and reading a comic PDF. After being with this thing all day, I just need some time away in the evenings when I’m relaxing. The resolution on the files isn’t always the best, but I can still enjoy flipping through a comic either horizontally or vertically. This is really the way I want to consume my graphic fiction in the future. Who needs all the clutter and the ridiculously high price of printed comics anymore? I just want to read them and move on to the next thing. If I really like something, I’ll probably get it in trade, though I have read some collections on the Fire as well and might just be able to convert my thinking to that format as opposed to the hard copy one.

I’ve also been downloading some of the classic free books from the Amazon store. I’m currently reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. I’m roughly 13% through it, which is an interesting way to think about books. Sometimes a book with a large page count can be overly intimidating, but I wonder if seeing a mere percentage will change how I think in that regard. So far I’ve found that the black on white text doesn’t hurt my eyes too much, but extended exposure can be a little rattling. I’m also experimenting with the white on black which seems to work better for me in the day time than in the dark. If nothing else, I’ll be on my way to reading more classic literature, just like my college days.

I’m also a big fan of using the Read It Later app which cost about $3. Read It Later is an add-on you can download for your web browser that allows you to save a web site or page by clicking a yellow arrow that appears in your browser window. I have the app on my phone, laptop and now the Fire, all three of which access the same account. Like with the comic PDFs, I much prefer to sit with the Fire and read through the stories I saved throughout the week than with the laptop, especially as the days and nights start heating up as we go into summer.

Getting the Fire also turned me on to a service that I think I will grow to like very much as well which is Amazon’s Cloud service. My wife and I have decided to get an Amazon Prime membership again this year which gives you unlimited access to the cloud and I’ve been uploading my music ever since. I’m not quite sure why you can’t just prove you own something and have Amazon just copy the digital files they already have over, but what are you gonna do? I’ve got about half of my laptop’s music library up there and it’s been great because, as long as you’ve got internet access, you can get into those files on the cloud without taking up any space on the device itself. I’m hoping they come out with an iPhone app eventually, but we’ll see.

Games aren’t really my thing, but I have downloaded a few free ones like Fling and Quell which both look nice. I also haven’t really explored the video capabilities, but do have the Netflix and Hulu Plus apps downloaded for when I do. I literally just hit the Video tab for the first time and discovered that Amazon Prime members also get access to lots of streaming content for free (as well as discounts on books and other downloads). I also downloaded the Wired app to supplement my subscription and can’t wait to dig into that a bit more.

I’m also really impressed with how well integrated the systems are. Obviously, they’re all hooked up to the Amazon store, but if you’re looking for a book to read, movie to watch or record to listen to, they’re only a few taps away. Speaking of which, I’m still getting used to typing on the thing. I’ve taken a few notes and written a few emails, but I don’t think the system is fast enough for my thumbs (or I’m possibly too clumsy for it). I felt the same way about the iPhone when I got that, too, though, so I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. I love the idea of being able to carry a device with me, though, that has so much functionality and gives me the opportunity to get the heck away from my laptop, but still catch up on the media and material I enjoy reading, listening to and watching.

Casting Internets

Over at CBR, I’ve been busy. I did interviews with Jim McCann about Mind The Gap and Marc Silvestri about Top Cow. I also did a few posts about Image Expo like the re-release of The Milkman Murders and The Red Diaries/The Re[a]d Diaries.

My pal Sean T. Collins wrote about the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey. As always, insightful stuff.

My other pal Ben Morse tackled one of my favorite characters, Guy Gardner, over on Cool Kids Table.

A month ago, Esquire reminded me that Wayne’s World (the flick) turned 20 this year. I first saw it with my grandma in Cleveland. Still dig both flicks.

Google’s going to make internet-enable glasses. This is the greatest idea ever. (via THR)

I dug this Esquire interview with Michael Ian Black. Check it. If you’re a Star Wars fan and haven’t already, go check out Jason Geyer’s Action Figure Insider report on unused Phantom Menace promo ideas. My personal favorite is the Death Star basketball. I would still buy this today.

I’ve long been in the camp that says that language doesn’t just help us communicate but is the backbone of how we experience, interact with and describe our reality, so this io9 piece about how a language’s future tense effects how speakers thing about the future is pretty fascinating.

Casting Internets

It’s been way too long since I’ve done one of these, so I’ve got a few old links in here. Ah well, I think they’re still worth checking out.

First off, I’m sad to hear about Steve Jobs passing away. To my mind he was the Walt Disney of our generation. He might not have build the iPad or MacBook Air with his own hands, but he amassed an amazing crew of people, gave them some ideas and let them invent to the utmost of their ability. Same goes for Walt. My thoughts go out to his family.

Onto a few more light links. A few folks got drawn onto variant covers of Amazing Spider-Man #669, check out the story I did on them over at Marvel.com. I also wrote about Beast’s many costumes for the site and my monthly Earth’s Mightiest Costumes feature!

For CBR, I talked to Frank Cho about Guns & Dinoes, Nathan Edmondson about The Activity, Jon Goff about Blood Red Dragon, Jim Zubkavich about Skullkickers, Denton & Keene about Pilot Season: Fleshdigger and Doug TenNapel about Ratfist.

I also did a list for Topless Robot, this one about the nerdiest set decorations found on The IT Crowd, a show I quite liked.

Speaking of Topless Robot, my pal Rob Bricken wrote a pretty amazing and hilarious FAQ for the Star Wars Blu-ray you should absolutely read.

I saw the following N64 commercial a ton of times while watching my tape of Real World: Boston. It’s quite strange, to say the least.

I’ve been a Red Hot Chili Peppers since 7th grade and never read a solo Chad Smith until this super entertaining Rolling Stone one.Dan Hipp mashed up Willy Wonka and the Fantastic Four. Beauty.

X-Men Destiny looks kinda awesome. My interest will depend on how much RPG stuff is in there. The less the better. (via CBR)

As a novice food blogger over on Monkeying Around The Kitchen, I found this Will Write For Food list of ways bloggers have changed food reviewing to be pretty darn interesting.

Ript Apparel‘s Mad Men/80s slasher mash-up was pretty amazing today. In fact, I liked it so much, I bought it! (via Shirtoid)