Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sir Peter Siddell, 1935-2011

My father-in-law Sir Peter Siddell died peacefully Monday, nearly three years after being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, and nearly two months to the day since his beloved wife Sylvia passed away.

To say 2011 has been a tough year for our family would be an understatement. To lose two parents, two grandparents, in less than 8 weeks is the kind of thing I hope nobody has to go through. The deaths were not surprises -- in many ways, we've been preparing for them for several years now. The year has been filled with slow declines, fading away and too many vigils, hospital visits and emergencies to count. There hasn't been a lot of time for blogging, or whatever passes for ordinary life.

Now all that's over. But it really is going to take us a terribly long time to get "over" losing Peter and Sylvia. I'm apparently going to be speaking at Sir Peter's funeral in Auckland Monday, and one of the things I will mention is how unceasingly welcome he was to this strange American joining his family, dragging his daughter around the USA and eventually bringing her home again.

Sir Peter was one of New Zealand's most famous painters, and it's a great comfort that he lived long enough to see his work recognized -- a wonderful coffee-table book of his art came out this year. And the family has a tremendous legacy left behind of his distinctive, uniquely Kiwi work.

Passed almost unnoticed this week was that it's been exactly five years since we moved back to New Zealand. We didn't know then what we'd be dealing with, or that our son would have such a short time with his New Zealand grandparents. But I'm still glad we've been here for it, that we were able to be a part of their lives and that my wife and her sister were so supportive in their final days.

We don't always know what kind of family we'll get when we marry someone. I was extraordinarily lucky and honored to be part of this one as long as I was.

More on Sir Peter's passing from local media:

* New Zealand Herald


* Auckland Art Gallery

* Artists NZ

* Beattie's Book Blog

* Siddell Art

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and the world he left us

Like a lot of people, I heard the news about Steve Jobs dying via my Apple computer – in my case, my iPhone.

There’s been quite the reaction to the death of Steve Jobs, at 56, too young, and many of these comments talk about how much he “changed the world.” Despite my distaste for hyperbole, I’d have to agree. He’s one of the few business leaders you can say that about. Steve Jobs didn’t single-handedly create the home computer, the iPod or the iMac or the iPad, but he was a driving force in getting his vision across to talented others, and even more than Bill Gates, he was the face of the ongoing technological revolution. And unlike Bill Gates, Steve Jobs managed to be bloody cool.

An article I quite liked today noted how Apple “stood in the intersection of utility and desire.” That to me really sums up the instinctive appeal to the Apple line, which more than any other computer system has taken us into the future. We may not have rocket jetpacks and laser guns, but I have a computer the size of a sheet of paper and I can do video live conferencing with my parents on the other side of the world at a moment’s notice.

Apples were the first computers I liked, and the only computers I’ve ever really owned. A friend of mine in junior high had some of the first Apple IIs in the mid-1980s, which dazzled me with their ease and intuitive use, even with the poky black-and-white games. I was too danged poor in the 1990s to own anything but hand-me-down PCs but when I finally achieved fiscal stability, one of those beautiful blueberry 1998 iMacs had to be mine. Since then it’s been MacBooks, iPhones, iPods galore – and just last week, I bought an iPad 2. I’ve used PCs when I’ve had to, but I have never felt as at home, as comfortable on them as I have on my Macs.

I don’t know much about Steve Jobs the human being, who apparently could be a bit arrogant, but I do know that whatever his flaws, he drove a creative, engaging business sense that made Apple what it is today. His management style drove the innovation that kept Apple rising from the dead, again and again. Oh, and during that brief period Jobs was “fired” from Apple? He went and helped create Pixar, the home of some of the biggest computer animated movies of all time.

Sure, Apple’s business practices aren’t perfect, and the “hip” factor might put some off. But there’s a reason every other tech company scrambled to come up with their own mp3 players, their own tablets and their own smartphones that aped Apple as much as possible. It’s because somehow, Steve Jobs knew what people want. He’s gone, but he left behind a world that’s very much shaped in his image.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

DC Comics and the "new 52" gamble

I do worry about comic books. I’ve been buying them regularly since, oh god, 1982 or so, but the monthly floppy periodical business model may be something that, like a lot of good ol’ non-digital pastimes, is fading away.

So DC Comics shook things up quite a bit by deciding to cancel their entire nearly 80-year-old line of books (some up to #900 or so), and starting all over from scratch. I can’t get too fussed about that, really – there have been more “reboots” than I can count of comics universes in my 30 years of collecting and I’m sure there will be more.

I see this move, though – 52 new first issues of 52 series, all over the course of a month – as a real “hail Mary” pass for the future of comic books as a monthly concern. So far, fortunately, it seems to have at least for now been a financial success – because frankly, if it were a huge flop, it would be bad for the entire comics industry by proxy. While DC is far from the only comics company, they're one of the two biggest. I wouldn’t be half surprised if Marvel followed with some sweeping move of their own sometime soon.

I haven’t picked up a ton of the new DC 52 comics but I have generally liked the ones I tried. DC have put together a nice mix of mainstream heroes like Green Lantern and The Flash with more offbeat books like "Frankenstein" and "All Star Western."

The new “Justice League,” much touted as the flagship of the line, was a mixed bag – I’m over the “let’s take 6 issues to put the team together” decompression school of storytelling, and Jim Lee’s art has always been a bit overrated to me. But it wasn’t TERRIBLE – merely routine. Grant Morrison's new "Action Comics #1" is a far better relaunch -- a new vision of Superman that draws heavily on the nearly forgotten gangster-punching strongman of the early 1930s, but modernised with a twist.

I quite enjoyed the quirk-hero adventures of “Animal Man” (an old favourite of mine) and “Frankenstein and the Agents of S.H.A.D.E.” Also good fun were the medieval adventure “Demon Knights” and, surprisingly, the relaunch of conspiracy-heroes comic “Stormwatch” which combines a variety of franchises and DC’s venerable Martian Manhunter together and might actually make the characters Apollo and the Midnighter interesting for the first time in a few years. “Justice League Dark” was pretty cool, too, a kind of Vertigo-meets-mainstream caper with some excellent art.

More importantly, this whole "new 52" business has given comics a jolt of excitement that all the endless "big event" miniseries have failed to do. While there's a fair amount of junk among the new 52, I have to admit I've now suddenly got more DC Comics than Marvel on my monthly pull list for the first time in a long while.

In what is probably a testament to the problems comics sales are facing, I ended up downloading a couple of my very first comics on our new iPad too. It’s interesting to note that it was cheaper to download than buy them here and now that DC and Marvel are both doing day of release digital, it’s hard not to imagine that market taking off.

I was pretty impressed, actually, at how gorgeous “Superman #1” and “Justice League Dark #1” looked on the iPad – stunning colours, very user-friendly interface, and closer to “reading” a “real” comic than any other such digital endeavour I’ve seen. I'm still a sucker for the tangible object, though. I don’t think I’ll download often, but I have to say Comixology and the publishers have made reading a comic on an iPad a pretty satisfying experience.

Will DC’s “new 52” gamble pay off in the long run? I honestly don’t know. When you look at the figures a comic sells nowadays – if it breaks 100,000 copies it’s a huge hit, whereas 20 years ago some comics sold in the millions – it’s a tough fight ahead. However, whatever happens next I don’t ever think we’ll see the end of comics as a medium of expression – yeah, they may go entirely digital like so much else has, but the comic book is a sturdy, endlessly vast and variable way to tell a story, from “Love and Rockets” to “Archie.”

The comic book has its fingerprints all over pop culture these days. It ain’t going anywhere soon, no matter how it changes.