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January 2006

Words from the Unwise

Kids, if something breaks, just fix it. Don't toss it to the bottom of your endless to-do list, thinking it's not an emergency just because it still works fine and isn't causing any immediate inconvenience. Just fix that shit.

Also, never ditch your dental insurance just to save a few extra bucks a month.

Which is all to say, guess who found himself at the NYU Dental Center today, shelling out the first of a thousand bucks toward an emergency root canal? Those headaches that were slowly becoming more and more debilitating every night? (I may not have mentioned them, because there's only so much boredom even I can handle around here.) It seems they had less to do with my sinuses and more to do with a broken tooth from last year.

Now if you'll pardon me, I need to get some aspiring and soft food.


It's my last night here in the UK, and I am definitely not going out in style. I spent the day checking out the type-design gang in Reading today, sitting in on some seminars which nearly fried my fragile brain with information overload. Completely awesome information overload, mind you, but an overload all the same. Cat-related complications have been making it pretty hard to sleep, so it was a bit of a challenge to sit still and absorb too much new information at one time. My original plan was to hang out in London one last night with my old pal Tim, but he had to cancel, so I’m biding my time in Reading, sitting around glassy-eyed and tired until it's a reasonable hour for me to go to sleep once and for all. I’m booked into a drab little guest room on campus for the evening, but at least it's cat-free so I'll be able to pass out more efficiently than the last few nights.

I’m a little sad to be leaving, a little disappointed that I didn't have time to do much or see enough people while I was here, a little intimidated to think about taking out some huge-ass loans, a lot excited about living here for a while, and — in case it wasn't obvious enough — entirely too delirious with fatigue to make much of a coherent point about anything at the moment.

It's Fundamental

In better news, I’ve been offered a spot in the typeface design program I’ve been investigating. It was awfully nice to feel such giddiness and awe about all the work they're doing, and then have them say that my weird, hodge-podge background has been perfect preparation for what goes on there.

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the more general graphic design programs I’ve looked into, no matter how badly I wanted to get into them. The longer I’ve worked as a designer, the more I’ve discovered areas of design I don't want to bother with. I had no idea there was something out there with all the bits I like but not the bits I loathe. (Well, maybe "loathe" is too strong a word, but you get the idea. Let's just say "redundant" or "extraneous" or something.) It's no mystery that I’ve always been a type geek, but I had no idea there was actually a way to study just that. No one but me has ever seemed to see the thread connecting the various kinds of work I’ve done over the years, so it's especially gratifying to hear that it's all been excellent preparation for what I’ve been too intimidated to try. I always thought type design was too big, too complicated, too important for a schlub like me to consider, but maybe I’d been building up to it all along.

So, assuming I can sort out all the stuff with the loans, it looks like I’m moving to England next October. Zoinks! More developments to come, no doubt.

Got My Dander Up

I’ve been discovering these last two nights that I seem to have become allergic to cats once and for all. I’m used to feeling a certain sensitivity if a kitty gets too far up into my face, but staying in a basement apartment with three cats was the magic trigger I needed to experience full-on allergies with the headaches, the scratching, the wheezing, and the sneezing. Luckily, the handful of cold remedies I threw in my kit bag before I left home included a batch of antihistamines, so I’m keeping things under control. But, oy, the unpleasantness!

Model World

For days I have been trying to remember where I saw something about Olivo Barbieri's photos, which look like incredibly detailed scale models, but are actually aerial photos shot with a funky lens. They're not pictures of toys, honest injun!

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until I saw Jessie's link to the the photos, I’d forgotten that I actually read about the photos in Metropolis. I’m so used to following other web site's links to things that when these came up in conversation the last thing I suspected was that I might have found them in a print publication. that’s so twentieth-century, after all.

Devo 2.0

Devo 1.0 and Superboy 2.0Ol' Man Dave has been my Devo hook-up this week. Not only did he arrange to have one of his many minions in the action-figure underground get a Devo action figure into my hot little hands, but he also told me about a new Devo-lopment that has blown my simple mind to smithereens.

Kids, let us now speak of Devo 2.0, and then let us try to make sense of it. The short version is that the five members of Devo have gotten together to re-record the music tracks for a bunch of their old songs, and then a bunch of kids will be singing new vocals to go along with them. For Disney. Honestly, I can't decide of this is genius, advanced madness, or shameless pandering. But I kind of love it. And hate it a little, too. But love it.

Here's a little more insight from a press release:

Devo changed the way people thought of music in the 1980s. Now, with Devo 2.0, the band will change the face of kids' music — and introduce the concept of "de-evolution" to a new generation. The original band has re-recorded its iconic hits and asked five talented kids to sing them on cd. An accompanying DVD offers surreal animated music videos directed by Gerry Casale. Both feature the first new Devo tracks in twenty years: "Cyclops" and "The Winner."

Don't take my word for it, though, or that of the publicists. Just watch the video!

Devo 2.0

Manufactured Landscapes

You only have until January 15 to get yourself over to the Brooklyn Museum to catch an unbelievable retrospective of the photography of Edward Burtynsky. The show, Manufactured Landscapes, is a mind-blowing collection of images shot with a large-format camera that capture — with incredible detail — scenes of the massive impact that modern industry and activity have on the landscape. Everything shown in the show is oversized — not just the prints, but the subjects, too. Vast quarries and railways cuts carved into the earth, huge piles of industrial and automative refuse, massive ships sitting in mud flats waiting to be ripped into salvageable parts, huge factories whose scale overwhelms the workers within them. You can actually see most of the images on Burtynsky's site, but the effect is nothing like standing in front of the actual prints, which have levels of detail that stand up to the closest scrutiny. They're awesome and stomach-churning all at the same time. Go! Go!

Urban Renewal #5 by Edward Burtynsky

It Isn't Ironic

A recent thread at Typophile ponders what might be used as a punctuation mark to express irony. The suggestion so far, picking things up from here and here (that last one's a French Wikipedia article, in case wants to leave a translation in the comments), is to use something like a backwards question mark, based on the Arabic question mark. Frankly, I think using a normal piece of Arabic punctuation when want to suggest you don't really mean what you say could turn out to be really, really bad form.

I still advocate the system of sarcasm marks that I brought up earlier. With a little finessing to the look of the marks themselves, you have a nice system for adapting marks we already use that convey different levels of emotion or tone. I think it's time we start the movement to add sarcasm and irony to Unicode — now! Can you just imagine all the Internet flame wars that could be avoided if we could just make it clear when we say something facetious?


Brace yourselves, gang, I’m about to geek out way beyond any geekery you've seen here yet. Today I’m going to meld together comic geekery and typographic geekery, and it's not going to be pretty.

I’ve been meaning to rant for a while now about the general crappiness of the electronic lettering used in comics nowadays, which not only sucks all the charm out of traditional hand-lettering, but also leaves the lettering prey to all the mistakes of novice desktop publishers. This started when I kept noticing a simple typesetting error showing up over and over again in dialogue balloons: the use of a double hyphen instead of a proper em dash (-- instead of —), a typewriter convention that spills over into amateurish handling of type. In digging up old samples to prove my point, however, I discovered that this was going on way before electronic lettering. Here's a panel from 1966's Fantastic Four #47:

Fantastic Four #47

OK, so I guess this particular flub has been going on for a while, probably because traditional letterers were of a similar ilk as their modern peers: neither editors nor real typesetters, either of whom ought to notice things like that. Fine, I'll let that slide. In the meantime, though, take a gander at the warmth and charm of that lettering. You know why it looks like handwriting? Because each instance of each letter is unique. Simple hand-lettering was cheaper and easier than typesetting, so it made sense, and the crudeness was an appropriate visual match to the artwork and the shortcomings of the reproduction. A perfect unity of tone.

So let's look at today's electronic lettering, which is trying to copy the effect of old comics but getting it all wrong. I'll let this month's Ultimate Fantastic Four #26 be my scapegoat:

Ultimate Fantastic Four #26

Yeah, that em dash thing. But I said I’d let that slide. Notice how every repeated letter is exactly the same? That, my friends, is why shitty handwriting fonts do not look like handwriting. They look like novelty typefaces. No variation, no warmth, no charm. It's especially bad form when you get double letters or stacked letters. (Look at "do" and "double" up there.) It's an affectation, but only taken halfway. Now, I’m not saying modern comics with their detailed art and magnificent reproduction quality should switch to real typefaces. If that happened legions of fanboys, myself included, would probably have massive aneurisms all at once. But since they're not paying someone to do all that lettering by hand, couldn't they invest in some better fonts? Some fonts that do a better job of faking the craftsmanship they're trying to ape? That stuff doesn't even come with decent letterspacing built in, never mind alternate characters. Gentlemen, we have the technology!

OK, but that’s not even what hurts the worst. Let's turn our attention back to FF #47, paying a visit to the letter column this time:

Fantastic Four #47

Now, that’s not the best typesetting in the world, but it's good for what it needs to do. A nice, wide serif typeface that can handle the cruddy printing, and some attention to details like indents, justification, and even ligatures. (Look at the "ffi" in the word "official" — that’s what real typefaces do when they're used properly, kids.) Since they're using real type, they're using good type. Hallelujah!

Ultimate Fantastic Four, however — like most of its contemporaries — makes the Baby Jesus cry:

UFF #26

How to make my eyes bleed, step 1: pick a goofy, "techy" novelty font that ought to be used — and sparingly, one would hope — for titles only, and set paragraphs of text with it. Step 2: set it in white on a black background with no extra letterspacing. Step 3: make sure the line length is super-long and the line spacing is super-tight, so that it's even harder to read easily. Step 4: center those lines, just to put the rotten cherry on top of the whole thing. Also, those horrible little em dashes that almost look like hyphens, and with no extra room around them! That is not what I want to decipher at the end of a long day.

Now, the thing that pushed me over the edge and made me finally rant like this was actually this image of the Daily Bugle taken from this month's Daredevil #80 (which otherwise has artwork that’s totally white-hot):

Daredevil #80

Goddamn, could that look any less like the page of a newspaper? And they pull this crap all the time in Daredevil. (I’m afraid to even look at The Pulse, which probably does a little bit in every issue.) Let me enumerate the sins. Problem 1: there are at least 5 different typefaces in use, and none of them would be really good for newspaper. And they shouldn't ever get used at the same time (Helvetica and Verdana, I’m looking at you!) Even if they were, there would be 2, maybe 3, altogether. Tops. Problem 2: either the Bugle is a letter-sized pamphlet, or that’s the large-print edition. Three columns, with about 35 characters to a line? I call bullshit. Problem 3: Sometimes the paragraphs are flush left, sometimes they're justified. Sometimes only half the paragraph is flush left but the rest is justified. (That means that someone used a hard return to make a line break mid-paragraph, which is just bad form.) Problem 4: those paragraph indents are word spaces, not proper em spaces or decent-sized tab stops. that’s why it's kinda hard to see where each paragraph starts. I spend obscene amounts of money each month for this?

Dear Marvel, please give me a dream job as a typography director so I can make you look better and make the world a more better place. And don't get cocky, DC: you're next in my sights.


On second thought, you don't deserve to see that much of my self-contempt. If you don't think I deserve it, you'll only be horrified. If you think I deserve it, you won't believe it runs as deep as it does.


I keep trying to write something chatty, but it keeps veering off-topic and turning into another variation of something I wrote this morning. Usually angrier. Since there's not much point in finding endless ways to get the same damn thing off my chest, I'll just post this excerpt, since it's pretty much relevant to everyone who suffers at the hands of my good intentions and poor follow-through. (Trust me, your disappointment or resentment cannot compare to the vast, glistening depths of my own self-hatred and keen awareness of failure. Have you learned nothing about me?) Since I spend an extraordinary amount of time dwelling on how much I let people down, it's best that you all realize this:

My failures are legion, and you seem to think I don't dwell on them because I don't dissect them on my web site. Well, ultrasparky is a fiction, and it always has been. It's just those things I can handle saying in public. . . . it is more of a way to bolster my own morale than anything else.

100% Mod Pop Punk

Once again, a minor Google search has led me to an unsuspected treasure trove. I had been looking for any information on an 80s band called "The Pop," whose one album I found in a quarter bin when I was in college, but their super-generic name and almost total lack of success seems to have made them impossible to find. (This is another reason why I should try to reclaim the vast collection mix tapes I gave away a few year ago. If I could remember the titles of any of their songs, it would help a lot.) My hunt, however, produced a much more fruitful result: a vast collection of amazing, obscure old songs (in digitalicious MP3 format) at the Mod Pop Punk Archives. The files have some pretty sketchy metadata, so you may want to download faster than you can keep track of what you're getting, but if you've got a taste for the mod/power pop sound from around 1976 through 1985, this would be the place to start cultivating an obsession.

Update: Mike's more efficient sleuthing actually found The Pop for me. Much to my surprise (and delight, since they'll probably be easier to find), they put out more albums than the one I found in the three-for-a-dollar bin at In Your Ear Records in Boston so long ago. I actually got pretty close to some info on my own. If I had dug a little deeper through the Mod Pop Punk Archives before getting distracted by the the MP3 library, I would have the band's bio lurking within. It seems they were more successful than I’d guessed but never really made it further than some West Coast popularity before too many members kept rotating in and out to really hold things together.

The Pop - Go!The Pop's album "Go" is one of those discount-bin success stories that always keeps me checking for overlooked gems. I grabbed the album because it's cover artwork was so crude but so ideally New Wave — not a good design, but one that seemed so perfectly rooted in a certain time and place — and I was stunned to discover some fantastic songs on it, particularly "Beat Temptation," the title that eventually helped me (once Mike laid the groundwork) find out some info about them. Now to start obsessively searching LimeWire...

I’ve been on a quest, you see, to recreate the rich musical legacy of the 130-or-so mix tapes that I got rid of when I purged my belongings before leaving the Swanktuary a few years ago. I had a pretty big CD and cassette collection (but my vinyl collection was a mere shell of its once impressive breadth), and the most impressive part was the set of custom mix tapes I had been cultivating since I was about 13. The earliest ones could barely be played, but overall the set was quite a roadmap of my ever-expanding musical interests. I figured The Pop would be one of the most difficult acts to track down again, but maybe there's hope for the rest after all.

Toys for Mutants

Devo action figureI’ve been griping about how I really didn't want anything for Christmas except a ride home from the airport. It turns out, though, there there is something I wanted much more, or would have if I had known about it before Christmas: the official Devo action figure! I get giddy just thinking about it. I love that the figure comes with one body but five heads since the band always wears matching outfits. that’s just genius.

I think every one of you should have one of these as a declaration of your superior mutation. Break off the shackles of pop oppression and embrace de-evolution!

Hail Devo

Kicking Off the New Year

Happy New Year! Or at least it goddamn better be. Since the thumpa thumpa coming through my apartment walls has resumed and I can no longer nap in peace, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the year that’s past and consider the year ahead. See, that way it shows that I’m deep and thoughtful and sensitive, right? (Perhaps I’m just wallowing in sulkiness, though.)

Major Events of 2005:

Major Accomplishments of 2005:

Major Failures of 2005:

Now here's the rough part. What am I likely to change in the year ahead? Resolutions are all fine and good, but I think they're like birthday wishes — better left as secrets until they happen. So what do I think the year will bring me?

Goals for 2006:

[Editor's note: I realize this whole entry has been long and badly written. I wince when I look at all those repetitive conjunctions and clauses. Fuck it, though, I’m tired and need another nap.]

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