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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site

Back in 1992, like a lot of other supposedly intelligent people, I fell for DC Comics' "Death of Superman" hype and bought issue #375 in its stupid, acidic black poly bag. And, as is routinely the case in the world of mainstream comics, the whole thing turned out to be a con. Four months later, Big Blue was back, alive and well and only temporarily less powerful than before.

At that point, most of those who'd been lured into their local comics shop by the media hoopla turned their back on the whole, unsavory mess and sales of DC titles deservedly dropped like a Kryptonite rock. Meanwhile -- just like everyone else's -- my factory-sealed copy of issue #375 in its value-subtracting bag continued steadily to deteriorate.

Unlike those other folks, though, I stuck around.

Yes, I was irked by DC playing me for a sucker. And, yes, I found out that old Supes is just as lame as ever. But, in the meantime, I discovered that what's true of Kal-El doesn't necessarily apply to other titles.

In fact, if you know where to look, there's a surprising amount of thoughtful storytelling out there in comicsland. Even the mainstream houses have offbeat titles -- DC's Hitman springs to mind here -- and there's definitely intelligent life among the independents. I particularly like British wild man Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan -- which chronicles the adventures of a sort of extropian Hunter S. Thompson -- and Kurt Busiek's Astro City -- which concentrates on its superheroes' most human aspects.

The great thing about comics is that I can read one of them in fifteen or twenty minutes -- which is often all the time I have to spare. The ones I like all feature strong plots, razor-sharp dialogue and complex characters. And because there have been enormous advances in both printing and coloring since the 1960's -- when the late, great Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC, and my interests changed from the Fantastic Four to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll -- the art is often gorgeous.

If you think about it, good-looking art is pretty important stuff. After all, where would your website be without it?

Every Picture Tells a Story

Now, strictly speaking, I'm not a visual artist -- my interests and talents lie more in the realms of music and language. Even so, I create all the images for my personal website, with the exception of the illustrations for my online novel, "A Season in Methven". My collaborator, Rex Brooks, does the art for that -- and even there, I'm the one who scales his images to fit, adjusts the palettes for quicker download and so on.

What works best for me is to use separate tools for each of the different aspects of producing finished art.

I do a lot of basic production in MicroGrafx, Inc.'s Picture Publisher. It does virtually everything that Adobe's Photoshop can do -- it can even use Photoshop plug-ins -- and it costs a darned sight less. I'm a rev or two behind the latest version, but, as I say, I'm not primarily a visual artist, so being absolutely current isn't vital to me.

For scaling the Methven images and converting them to black-and-white, I use an ancient copy of MMedia Research Corp.'s LView Pro. The current version -- 2.1 -- is a whole lot more powerful than mine, but a lot of the added functionality has to do with creating animated GIFs.

For that, I use GIF Construction Set from Alchemy Mindworks Inc. It's been around for years now and it just keeps getting better and easier to use.

The mind working behind Alchemy belongs to Steven William Rimmer, a self-published author of Gothic witchcraft and espionage novels. Once upon a time, he'd give you a registration number for GIF Construction Set merely for purchasing his first book, but those days have long passed.

Still, it's inexpensive and powerful and its big brother, GIF Construction Set Professional, is even moreso. (If you choose the Pro version, be sure to download and install the latest bugfix -- which also adds new capabilities to the product, including the option to slice your gifs into teeny pieces to make them harder to steal. There are links to both the program and the patch, along with more information about the issues the update addresses.)

Paperback Writer

When it comes to writing HTML, I do most of it by hand, using Alan Phillips' wonderful freeware Programmer's File Editor, version 1.01 of which he released this past February. PFE lets me simultaneously open as many documents as will fit into system memory -- which I find especially handy when I'm making changes to my website's architecture, such as when I added Javascript-based frameproofing to my pages last year -- and the same limit applies to any individual file's size.

To create and edit HTML tables, I generally use Netscape Composer, then fine-tune the table code by hand. Because it needlessly proliferates font tags, and because it insists on removing the quotes I so carefully place around numerical arguments, I only use Composer when I'm creating new tables. Composer's idiosyncracies irritate me to the point that I'll often build tables in a dummy document, then cut-and-paste them into the keeper version, just to avoid having to concatenate font tags and replace argument quotes by hand.

"A Season in Methven" and my columns are another story. Those I write in Corel's WordPerfect 8 -- which I think blows the doors off Microsoft Word for power and ease of use. My columns I then save as ASCII text and submit to my editor via email.

Methven episodes require substantially more work. As I write them, I put in HTML tags for italics, underlining and other text emphasis. Once I'm satisfied with an episode, I reopen it as a read-only file (to keep from making accidental changes to the master copy) and add paragraph tags, replace double quotes with """ insert javascript for popup character windows and so on, then cut-and-paste the HTML-ized copy into an episode template in PFE. I save that template as a new file, then I scale, adjust and incorporate Rex's illustrations, copy the results to the current.html file, adjust the back links and upload the relevant files and art to the Methven website.

Both my main website and Methven are optimized for viewing in Netscape Navigator, but I make it a point to check every page to make sure it displays acceptably in Internet Explorer. I think its important to remain essentially impartial in that battle, since I have no control over which browser my readers choose to use.

You Can't Always Get What You Want

There are, of course, substantial differences between the two -- or, if you allow for all the different versions of each, twelve or fifteen -- different browsers. And among the biggest distinctions is in the way they handle Javascript.

Here's an example. While I was building the website for my new newsletter, Reality Check, I used CNet columnist Charity Kahn's Mighty Mouseover Machine to craft clickable images that change color when you move the mouse over them. The code the Mouseover Machine generated for me displayed exactly as I wanted it to in Navigator 4. However, in both Navigator 3.x and in Internet Explorer 4, the images only displayed correctly on the index page. Clicking through to any of the other pages caused the images to disappear -- despite the fact that browsers are supposed to simply ignore markup they don't understand.

Which is exactly why I strongly recommend that you check the readability of ALL your pages against not only both major browsers, but against as many versions of each browser as you can round up. Heck, there are even a fair number of people out there who are still using Navigator 2.0 -- especially those who have older, less powerful machines.

I was finally able to get my Javascript code to function correctly in both Navigator 3.x and Explorer 4 by changing the names the Mouseover Machine assigned to the if control statement conditions. I can only assume that the problem is due to a difference between the way Navigator 4 implements Javascript and the way it's implemented in Navigator 3.x and Explorer 4.

However, why that difference exists is unclear to me.

It may be equally unclear to you why I chose occasionally to spend my free time reading comics. If so, I recommend you pick up a copy of Scott McCloud's excellent book, Understanding Comics (copyright 1993 by Scott McCloud, ISBN 0-87816-243-7, published by Kitchen Sink Press, $19.95). In it, McCloud uses comics to illustrate how the medium differs from all other media in the way it communicates information to the reader, traces the roots of the form from Egyptian, Mayan and other hieroglyphics and makes a pretty convincing case for comics as a serious art form.

It might just persuade you to take a fresh look at what's happened to comic books since you were a kid.

(Copyright© 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)