Saturday, July 31, 2021

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Atomic Avenue  

Release Notes for ComicBase 12:

New Creator Fields and the Secret Origin of Custom Fields

Thanks to the efforts of Bobb Waller, Glenn Simpson, Larry Robertson, Brian Stewart, and countless others, inkers are finally getting their due.

I’m not sure we really knew what we were getting into when we implemented our “Submit New or Corrected Data” command in ComicBase 10.0.7. By making it incredibly simple to send in new data (and expand upon existing data in the database, we forced ourselves to start drinking from a firehose of data each week as thousands of users started bombarding us with submissions and content from their collections. ComicBase was already the world’s largest database of comics, but when version 10.0.7 came out, it just exploded. In addition to adding tens of thousands of new issues, there also set in a strange sort of competition among users to flesh out the existing indexing by adding artists and writers where they were previously missing. At some point, we also started getting submissions for fields we normally wouldn’t list, such as inkers and colorists.

I’ll admit: we did discuss whether we should just be punting these corrections so we could get back to our normal 80-hour work weeks. My take, however, was that if you guys were going to send us data, we were going to use it. Fast forward a few months, and suddenly there were thousands upon thousands of inker and cover artist credits in the database where only a relative few had existed before. Then came the colorists... then the letterers... then the cover inkers... It was all great stuff, but it was starting cause us real problems.

For one, there was the question of formatting: we didn’t want to lose data, but we had to get everyone on the same page regarding how best to submit the additional credits—it got old real fast editing submissions like “Artist: Mike Pascale, Mike Pascale art, Mike Pascale pencils, Mike Pascale (pencils), Joe Madureira inks”, etc. Over the course of a few months, however, we got most of the heavy submitters to list the additional credits in a single format showing roles other than peciller in parenthesis. To wit: “Artist: Mike Pascale, Joe Madureira (inks), Richard Starkings (letters)”. We also made constant revs to our submissions editing software to automatically deal with and standardize as many of the submissions as possible to cut down on the amount of work our editors had to contend with.

The creeping problem that persisted, however, was that the Artist field was getting overloaded with the sheer amount of credits listed. On anthologies and annuals it was off the hook. Sometimes several dozen pencillers, inkers, colorists, and more credited in a single issue. On several occasions, we had increase the maximum size of the Artist field to contend with the data onslaught.

The Secret Origin of Custom Fields

So why not just add in new fields for Inker, Colorist, and the like? For that matter, why hadn’t we done such a thing ages ago? There are several decent reasons, but the real answer goes back over a decade to the release of ComicBase 1.1.

(Fun fact: We’ve been on an annual release schedule for over 15 years now, but the current release number is ComicBase 12. Why? Because I was such an engineer (read: marketing idiot) back when we started that I insisted that, “Major version changes to software are for when the underlying file format changes. For more minor changes, you increment the minor version number only.” As a result, the first few versions of ComicBase were 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3... you get the picture. The minute we got a proper marketing person on board, her first reaction was, “What are you, nuts??! People don’t buy version 1.3, they buy version 2.0!” She was right. From there on, the yearly new versions of ComicBase have all had whole-number versions).

Anyway: back to ComicBase 1.1. Hard as it was to believe at that point, we did not have dedicated fields for Storyline, Artist, Writer, or even Cover Date. For a real blast-from-the-past, here’s the Issue Detail dialog from ComicBase 1.0 (scanned from the back of the manual and shown actual size—the original art is long gone, I’m afraid):

ComicBase 1 Issue Dialog

For comparison’s sake, here’s the same dialog from ComicBase 12 (shown reduced to fit this column’s width; click to view full size)

Batman-CB12

 

Looking back at the ComicBase 1.0 shot, you’ll see that although we obviously cared about storylines and artists, we didn’t give them their own fields. Instead, if they were “important” (defined as: “significant enough to move the price of the comic from its surrounding issues”) we’d add a mention in the Notes field.

In ComicBase 1.1, however, we decided to take the plunge and add separate fields for Writer, Artist, Storyline (and, if memory serves, Cover Date) to the program. We even hired our first outside employee, and started going back over thousands of comics and adding in this information for every one, feeling like champion indexers all the while. “Great!” we thought. We’ll really see our registration card satisfaction scores go up even higher now!”

Wrong.

For all the new data, and for all our work, we found that our customer satisfaction scores actually dipped slightly. Why? As soon as customers saw the new fields, they got mad whenever the data didn’t come pre-filled for them. To them, what had previously felt like a nice, complete database suddenly felt half-finished, even thought it actually contained far more information than before. In short, we’d raised an expectation that neither we, nor any other guide could ever meet: to supply artist, writer, and storylines (as well as notes and pricing) for every comic book ever published.

Some years later, partly as a result of the collapse of a competing product (Comic Collector™ from AbleSoft/MMI), we had a large influx of new users to ComicBase. By and large, we got high marks from the switchers, but also a complaint: “Why was there no dedicated Location field in ComicBase, as there had been in the now-dead Comic Collector program they were used to?” Others asked if we could add any number of other fields for data they cared about: the date they had bought a comic; the date they sold it; who they sold it to; whether it was “hot”; whether it was on their “most wanted list”; whether they’d loaned it to someone...the list was endless. Our answer was basically to let users put whatever they wanted in the Notes field (which was reportable and searchable), but to be careful about adding new, dedicated fields, unless a majority of our users would get concrete benefit from them.

It was easier to get a grip on the calls for more creator credit fields, particularly requests to add a dedicated Inker field to ComicBase, with smaller numbers requesting colorist, cover artist, and the like. Chastened by our ComicBase 1.1 experience, I didn’t want to take on new fields which would add loads of new work for us, while simultaneously driving down our customer satisfaction scores. The hard-earned wisdom seemed to be, “If we add a field and give it a name: Inker, Colorist, or what have you—we’re going to be expected to fill it.” The brilliant solution we eventually hit upon was, “What if we add a whole bunch of fields—regular text fields, checkboxes, and even dates—but let the users name them . Thus was born the notion of “Custom Fields” in ComicBase 5, letting users track anything they wanted—and letting us off the hook for filling in the data.

As I write that, I realize it sounds a bit less than idealistic. But bear in mind that ComicBase was my by then my more-than-full-time job, and with a family to support (and a payroll to meet), I just couldn’t indulge tearing off a limitless hunk of new creator indexing work unless it was going to drive sales. The engineer in me has always been happy to add things to the program that are cool, or that make my life easier (after all, I keep my own comics in ComicBase!), but before we do any really major new work, the businessman (and Dad) in me has to ask, “How many more copies of ComicBase is this going to sell us?” If the answer is “not very many” or even “none”, it’s going to be a pretty strong vote against going down that particular road.

...

So why, after all these years, are we adding Inker, Colorist, Cover Artist, Cover Inker, Letterer, and even Editor fields to ComicBase? Frankly, it’s because of you guys. By sending in so much data, you’ve forced our hand. You crowded the Artist fields into near-unusability with your generous donations of time and data, and you’ve filled in enough of these credits that it lessens the blow we’ll inevitably take for adding new fields and not having every single credit for the over 400,000 comics in ComicBase filled in. Everyone who uses ComicBase should have a look at the contributor board at the right hand side of the ComicBase Home Page. Let’s all honor and thank the folks whose names you see there for making the new additions both possible and plausible.

And Barry John Shepherd? You’re a madman! (and if you ever get over to San Diego for Comic-Con, drinks are on me!)


 

Release Notes for ComicBase 12:

Why ComicBase 12 Archive Edition is now a 3-DVD set, or “Wow! That’s a Whole Lot of Pictures!”

Since we decided to break tradition and pre-announce ComicBase 12 (more on that later), I’m actually in a position to talk about the product a bit, and some of the things that went into making it.

Over the past several weeks, one of the machines in our office has been chugging away pretty much 24/7 taking our massive picture library, that lives on a file server, and compressing it down into the various forms that will actually fit on the release disks. In their native format, we’ve got something like 40 GB worth of data in our image library, including over 205,000 pictures—most of which have now been upgraded to larger, high-definition format. That’s all terrific—except that even dual-layer DVDs can only hold about 8.5 GB. Not even a Blu-Ray Disk can hold the entire library in its native form, so compression is a must.

The Archive Edition disks take the most work. Even with the fastest machine we can throw at it, it takes about 38 hours to run a full compression pass on the library. Worse, due to blocking factors and the huge number of files involved, we don’t really know if we’re going to hit our target until we try to prep the compressed files for production. Each time we’d find ourselves running over the limit, we’d have to dial up the compression ratio a little more and start the whole thing over again. “Tedious” doesn’t start to describe the process.

After a week or more of this, we did finally manage to squeeze the files onto a single DVD, but we had to employ such extreme compression ratios to do it, that the quality of the images had suffered mightily. It took less than a day for us to decide that we were going to have to add a third disk to the Archive Edition, splitting the pictures between the two. This let us spend another few days scaling back the compression and balancing the pictures between the two Picture disks. In the end, however, we got them all to fit, and the image quality looks astoundingly better.

In addition to running up our costs with a third disk (we decided to keep the sale price the same as before), we also faced another problem: we’d now lost the ability for users to stick in a single disk and see all the pictures, without needing to copy the images to their hard drive. This had been one of the major reasons for not doing a 3-DVD release last year. Although most Archive Edition users do indeed copy the images to their hard drives for faster access, we didn’t want our users to lose the ability to see all the images without copying anything at all.

The solution was to use something we’d never made a big deal about: the 2 GB of space on the main program disk of the Archive Edition which we had previously used for “one-offs” —the lowest-numbered picture for each title. This was done so users could insert either disk to get going (as well as seeing the movies and interviews contained on the program disk). This year, however, we decided to use that 2 GB of space for something much more ambitious: we compressed down thumbnail images of all 205,000 pictures on the Archive Edition, as well as larger versions of the one-offs, and managed to just squeeze it all on (after about a week of compression and experimentation).

So now, if you want to just use the program, look at video clips, scan through covers, and even use pictures for labels and navigation, all you have to do is put in the Archive Edition program disk, and everything’s all there. You can also see the pictures at their normal size—including the majority in full-size, high-definition format—by installing the high-res versions of the pictures from the two Picture DVDs. All this took weeks of pure processing time to pull off (not to mention over a decade to collect the images in the first place!) but it was all worth it. If you take a look at this year’s Archive Edition, I think you’ll see that the results are like nothing you’ve seen before!

 

Reason #2,969 Why Atomic Avenue Freakin’ Rocks…

...Because the 2,969th comic I sold on the system is one that I spent 15 years looking to buy.

Star Spangled War Stories #169

 

In 1975, I managed to get my grubby little mitts on a pile of old Star Spangled War Stories starring The Unknown Soldier. As a kid, I absolutely loved the idea of a battle-scarred master of disguise, who, through cunning and derring-do, could practically overthrow the Third Reich single-handedly.

One half-remembered story from this issue stuck with me through the years for some reason. When I started getting back into comic collecting as an adult, I’d find myself scouring every comic store and convention I came across looking for old copies of Star Spangled War Stories, hoping to re-read this, and a handful of other lost tales. My quest might have been simpler had I kept a better recollection of the story (or better yet, its cover, or issue number). Instead, I just remembered a few key panels showing the Unknown Soldier's mask being torn off by the commander of a Nazi U-Boat. As a result, I bought every Star Spangled War Stories I could get my hand on in the hopes of opening it up and discovering those lost panels. It wasn't until a few years ago that I managed to finally set hands on the elusive issue amongst a dusty stack of dollar-box comics in the back of a comic store.

Having gone through all this to find it, the crazy thing is that it’s really not a very important comic book. It’s only worth a couple of bucks, and nothing important in comic history happened in its pages. Still, it was important to me, and when I managed to track it down at last, I felt like all the hours I spent thumbing through long boxes from coast to coast were somehow worth it.

Having just having had my latest Atomic Avenue order roll off my printer, it looks like my copy of Star Spangled War Stories #169 is bound, along with many of his brothers, for a new home in Alberta, Canada. Maybe the new owner feels as lucky to get it as I did, or maybe they’re just filling a hole in his collection. Heck, maybe he just liked the cover—and for less than two bucks plus shipping in VG condition, it looked like a good read. In any case, I’m happy it’s off to a (slightly less crowded) home where it’ll be looked after by a fellow comic fan.

...And I really love that, thanks to Atomic Avenue, I can pick up a FN copy from user “kochcom” for a few bucks more, if I ever regret letting this one go. ;-)