The Illusion of Change: A Conversation with Sean Howe About Marvel Comics

“Comic books are about presenting the illusion of change,” once said Stan ‘The Man’ Lee, “without ever actually changing a a thing.” 

…Or maybe he didn’t. The origin story of attribution for this portentous quote has been as ambiguous as Wolverine’s.  And that’s kind of the point.

The illusion of perpetual change without ever actually changing reveals the contemporary state of the comic book industry, and of the institution that is Marvel Comics.

In his extensive history of the company, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story author Sean Howe reveals the story Marvel never could: of it’s own origin and the commercial weight of ideas. 

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is about the mechanics of myth-making. Packed with McFarlane-like detail, Howe reveals the joyous hyperbole of Marvel’s super-sausage-making process. While the human characters are sometimes as mundane as the Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods where they lived, the story of Marvel is as exciting as the comics themselves.

The House of Ideas has always been home to scrappy innovation. From the early Golden Age pulp days of Timely Comics, through the creation of historic character archetypes like the Fantastic Four in the 1960′s, Lee’s Marvel was a boisterous, break-neck bullpen that helped birth contemporary myth.

And, somewhere along the way, emerged the Marvel Comics story, a fascinating tale about a cast-off company comprised of forgotten geniuses, creative malcontents, and business bamboozlers. 

By the 1970s, in an attempt to either escape or sell the characters he helped create, Lee escaped from New York City’s publishing industry to the film business in Los Angeles. In his wake Lee left a hole in Marvel filled by business innovation and a creative renaissance.  In a sage-like move that would make today’s Apple proud, Marvel embraced the burgeoning Direct Market, an innovative approach to fostering the independent retail stores across the country. The Direct Market allowed retailers to obtain non-returnable product at deeply discounted price. The deep discounts allowed comic book retail stores – and Marvel itself – to focus on more specific, target markets. Of target marketing attempts fell flat and lead to silly pulp stores. 

While silly and cynical products failed, the Direct Market helped foster the burgeoning fandom industry, and lead to a creative boom by some of Marvel’s writers and artists. Creators, some famous, many now long-forgotten, were left to invent wildly imaginative stories, and to adapt characters from a previous generation. Creative muscle flexed on cast-offs like Wolverine and Daredevil lead to a commercial explosion that helped define the industry through the 80′s and 90′s.

Marvel’s true identity today is as a company trapped somewhere between blockbusters movies and the old retail Direct Market. As comic book store across the country shutter, the intellectual property of the characters and stories has never been more valuable. The Direct Market threatens to choke digital evolution, and young fans are just that: fans, not consumers, of the core product.

Last week I sat down in the studio with Sean to discuss where the Marvel story began, and where it’s going. 

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Conversational Passport: An Interview with App.Net Founder Dalton Caldwell

In which I discuss social platforms and technology culture with entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell.

Originally from El Paso, Texas, Dalton cut his tech teeth by building streaming networking imeem. At imeem Dalton experienced great success, and tremendous setbacks. At it’s peak, imeem had close to 30 million users. After years of legal battles, the company folded in to Myspace.

Dalton was discouraged, but learned how to adapt in Silicone Valley. In addition to being a passionate evangelist  for transparent business, Dalton is the founder of App.Net, a developer and community-focused social platform. After observing Twitter’s shift from a developer model to an advertising model, Dalton launched App.Net as a for-pay platform. Today, App.Net supports a vibrant community, and more closely resembles a social app ecosystem than a Twitter clone.

In this interview, recorded initially as a Google+ Hangout video, Dalton and I discuss his evolution as a technologist and business owner, and dive deeply in to his feelings about the current state of the social web.

Learn more about App.Net.

Find more great shows like this on KoPoint.

Thanks for listening.

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Ready Check: Inside World of Warcraft Raiding with Gaming Researcher Ladan Cockshut

Ready Check: Inside World of Warcraft Raiding with Gaming Researcher Ladan Cockshut

Every night, massive teams of battle-worn experts gather, organize, and battle through intense and complex challenges. Often they die. Sometimes they win. World of Warcraft is nothing if not massive and complex. While the world at large has a perception of video games as simplistic pastimes, raiders define an intense pursuit of excellence.

Yes, Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games can be fun, undoubtedly. But as experienced players know, the play style, challenge, and commitment to excellence of gamers closely resembles the values of competitive and collaborative sports. Even the word ‘casual’ in World of Warcraft simply refers to those not entirely devoted to pursuing end-game content.

Raiding refers to act of completing difficult content only available to players who have completed an arduous and time-consuming leveling challenge. Leveling a character typically takes seven through nine days (24 hour cycles) of in-game play. Once a character reaches a level plateau, a series of far more difficult challenges known as Dungeons are unlocked. In an elaborate dance, these dungeons can require up to 40 players to coordinate performance for several-hours. Raiding typically occurs a few nights per week and the most hardcore raiding guilds will often treat raiding like a professional job.

ladan_cockshutResearcher Ladan Cockshut of Durham University studies these guilds and is attempting to quantify the act of Raiding.

In this episode, Ladan introduces the basic mechanics of massive games, and explains why raiders matter.

About Ladan:

More on MMOs:

Thanks for listening.

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RSS is dead! Long live RSS! An Interview with The Old Reader

RSS is dead! Long live RSS!

This interview was recorded the week after Google announced the death of beloved feed parsing app, Google Reader. The headlines regarding Reader’s demise  have been predictably and wonderfully hyperbolic.

Elena Bulygina and Anton Tolchanov, two of the three co-founders of The Old Reader, help us make sense of a post-Google Reader world.

Props to @ChazFrench for his help in understanding the true power of the old Google reader.

Thanks for listening.

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Interview with Maciej Ceglowski of

Interview with Maciej Ceglowski of

Maciej Ceglowski is the founder of, an “anti-social” bookmarking site. As the social web evolves, some trends mature past the initial commodified service value to become strong cottage industries. A for-pay service inspired by the original, takes a holistic approach to personal data tracking. The service integrates smoothly with the contemporary web of indie apps, and excels at truly frictionless clickstream cacheing.

Dan talks with Caciej about the vision behind a truly personal, counter-social service.

Find more interesting podcasts on KoPoint.

Thanks for listening.

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