Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Happy Halloween!  I hope you all were able to pick up some free comics this past weekend during Halloween ComicFest.  My family had a nice time and we were able to pick up some additional bundles of the comics to hand out tonight.  I doubt it was a coincidence that we were graced with Neil Gaiman's return to the Sandman this week.  How refreshing it is to return to that world.  I attempted a reread this summer that fell short, but was very enjoyable.

Pick of the Week:
Saga #15 - I am not sure how Brian K. Vaughan does it.  This issue of Saga demonstrated the brute force of the Robot family, how in the midst of chaos pleasure can be found in simple things, and how some people never seem to catch a break.  I most enjoyed the simple moments of pleasure that Marko, his mother and company got from playing Nun Tuj Nun!, a Wreath board game that resembles Cranium.  Just when this book gets you to lower your defenses during the Psyche-Out round, tragedy strikes the Will.  I would never have guessed I would care so much about this bounty hunter when I was introduced to him.  Vaughan does a masterful job of creating complex characters that live in the grey.  I don't think it is fair what he is doing.

The Rest:
The Sandman Overture #1 - Neil Gaiman has not missed a beat from the conclusion of his opus until now. I was filled with equal parts trepidation and excitement to dive into this title and I am pleased to say that it is classic Sandman.  Gaiman weaves a beautiful tale and leaves us with Morpheus in imminent danger. Destiny and the Corinthian pay a visit and Dream's sister may be planning to end him.  Perfect read on a Halloween night, I may just have to reread this after dealing with my trick-or-treaters.  

Captain America: Living Legend #2 - Still enjoying Andy Diggle behind the wheel of Cap and this week was no different.  The book maintains its Cold War feel as Cap is taking on Volkov and the living technology of the D.E.U.S. Project.  Well written, classic Captain America feel, and very realistic art remind me why Captain America is my favorite superhero.

Power Puff Girls #2 - The power of this title in comic book form is that it maintains the campy feel of the television show, but is able to provide more depth.  Mojo Jojo is subjected to chemical X and finds himself as the professor's lab monkey for the second time.  Hijinks ensue as Mojo is almost more formidable as an out of control monkey and upon witnessing the power of second chances, the devil utilizes mind control and sends more foes after the girls.  Simply a fun title.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Microreview [book]: Bitterroot by James Lee Burke

Burke, James Lee. Bitterroot [Pocket Books, 2002]

The Meat

Read enough crime fiction and you realize that it basically comes in two flavors. There's the "whodunit," where a sleuth moves through a limited number of suspects--all of whom have motive and means to commit the crime. And then there's "noir," where there might be a formal mystery, but what really matters is the protagonist's tortured relationship to the social environment that produces criminality. This may not be the orthodox meaning of the term, but it fits. Defined in such a way, noir transcends the hard-boiled urban environs the word emerged to describe, and encompasses all kinds of gritty psychological fiction.

Despite noir's greater literary cachet, most popular crime novels are whodunits--formulaic, plot-driven, predictable and, when successful, "fun." They are the perfect books to read on a beach or an airplane, or when you want a good story but don't really feel like being challenged--which, apparently, is most of the time. So big name authors keep cranking the suckers out, and readers just can't get enough of them.

Bitterroot, the third book in Burke's Billy Bob Holland series, fits uncomfortably into this scheme. Burke is a bona fide name brand in crime fiction--he's won 2 Edgar awards, is ranked the #70 most popular fiction author on Amazon and has made the New York Times bestseller list numerous times. His books are published in the travel and airport bookstore-friendly mass market form generally reserved for high volume authors whose books aren't considered shelf material by most of their audience. And boy does he ever crank 'em out--32 novels and 2 short story collections in total, and nearly one every year since hitting stride in 1987.

But Bitterroot, at least, isn't the kind of disposable whodunit I usually associate with writers who do things like that. Instead, it's a surprisingly atmospheric, character-driven crime novel that's two parts noir for every part whodunit. And that's a good thing--because the plot is an utter mess.

The premise is this: lawyer and ex-Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland drives up to Montana to visit an old friend, Doc Voss, an ex-SEAL/environmentalist/poet/single-dad-with-a-moderately-rebellious-teenage-daughter who has come into conflict with a white supremacist militia over ecologically destructive gold mining. Bad shit happens involving a biker gang that seems to be working for the white supremacists, but which doesn't appear to have anything to do with the aforementioned gold mining. A malevolent figure from Billy Bob's past is also there--an ultra-creepy Texas baddie Billy Bob doesn't really remember that well, but who is clearly scary as shit. A wino douchebag writer and his distant, coke-snorting wife are somehow involved, as is the Italian Mafia and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Oh, and did I mention there's a pedophile/kidnapper ring in the mix as well?

If that sounds like a clusterfuck to you, that's because it is. But it hardly matters, because Bitterroot isn't a whodunit. Rather, it's classic noir--that is, the kind of noir you find on the gritty edge of the Western. It's a book about confronting the demons, real and imagined, that emerge almost inevitable from histories of violence. You see the conclusion coming a mile away, of course, but that's part of the charm. The atmosphere is so tense and claustrophobic that the book is almost impossible to put down.

The quality of prose was also a pleasant surprise. While Chandler and Highsmith can match up to anyone, the fact of the matter is that most crime prose metaphorically fits the physical form of the mass market paperback--small, cheap and forgettable. But Burke has a way with voice, and his characters ooze authenticity. Conversations are thick with evasions and implications, so much so that I had to re-read a bunch to make sure I caught everything that was (or wasn't) being said.

The main issue I took with Bitterroot, aside from the overly complicated plotting, centers on one instance of sexual violence against a female character. Now, I don't think rape should be off-limits for writers, but as I've opined in another literary context, I want authors--and particularly male authors--to have a good think about what rape accomplishes for the story, and if it's just "to show that this is a dark and foreboding world," then perhaps they should consider taking another route.

Mercifully, the rape in Bitterroot is not graphic, and in fact occurs off-stage. So I don't think readers will find this terribly exploitative or triggery. At the same time, the individual raped--and the people around her--appear to forget it even happened. Consequently, there's little attempt to say anything interesting or profound about how people experience, interpret and attempt to come to terms with sexual violence. This strikes me as part of the problem, albeit a lesser one to the graphic rapeyness prevalent in so much genre fiction.

On the other hand, there's a subtle but steady appeal to social conscience evident in Bitterroot. Holland evinces an abiding sadness about the fate of Native Americans, the exploitation of Montana's pristine nature and the hatreds that infect the heart and mind. It's not hokey, it's not preachy and it's not ideological. But it gives Bitterroot a humanistic sensibility that sets it apart from the glut of crime novels.

In sum: despite a few missteps, Bitterroot is still one of the better crime novels I've read this year. Unlike most of its mass-market brethren, it's all about mood, and as such, will leave a lasting impression. Good stuff.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for voice; +1 for mood; +1 for being thoughtful noir disguised as a generic whodunit.

Penalties: -1 for all the superfluous plot twists; -1 for "wait, isn't this supposed to be about environmentally-destructive gold mining"; -1 for "I guess that rape never happened."

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Microreview [TV]: Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, Season 2

The Meat

A few weeks ago I reviewed the first season of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, and found it to be, hands down, the best Scooby-Doo series ever made. I was bummed to find out, then, that Cartoon Network had pulled the plug after Season 2, and there would be no more. But thankfully the show's creators were given enough of a heads-up that they were able to actually conclude the series. Season 2, then, is The Final Season, and while I have to admit that I didn't find it quite as compelling as Season 1, it was very smart, very funny, and – yes I realize I'm going to say this about Scooby-Doo – epic.

At the end of Season 1, the gang gets some big news that makes them re-think the intrinsic value of being a teenage squad of mystery solvers, and their days as a team seem over. Now, we know that as soon as Season 2 fires up, they'll be getting back together, but the way this show handled that necessary "getting the band back together" trope was unexpected and hilarious. I won't spoil it except to say that it involves unruly facial hair and a tank, among other things. One of my favorite recurring characters from Season 1, Hot Dog Water (the weird girl at school, wonderfully voiced by Linda Cardellini of Freaks & Geeks), sees a lot more screen time as corporate, historical, and cosmic workings begin swirling around the gang. As they learn throughout the season, nature has been assembling teams of mystery solving teens with an animal mascot for centuries, and for some purpose that it has yet to reveal and yet to perfect. But we know that this time, nature got it right and whatever these hundreds of years of oddballs have been trying to accomplish will reach fruition.

Things get complicated. And dark. I mean, pretty stinking dark, relatively speaking. People die, and Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby wind up dealing with some real emotional upheaval and pain. I felt comfortable watching Season 1 with my little kids, but after about the halfway point of Season 2, I felt like it got to be too much to share with them. That's probably what wound up checking a little of my enjoyment of this season – the constant internal monologue that went something like "Wow, that was surprisingly intense. Was that too intense for the kids? Maybe not, but...oh wow, now that was definitely too intense for them." That doesn't diminish the quality of the writing or storytelling, but the direction the season ultimately went did seem like a significant tonal shift from Season 1, and some of what made me fall in love with this show in the first place.

It did, however, make one of the best Star Trek references to come along in a long, long time.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the episode "Art of Darkness," which is a parody of Andy Warhol's Factory and one of the funniest things I have ever seen in an animated show not named The Simpsons; +1 for the last five minutes of the series, which were inventive, satisfying, and – again, I can't believe I'm saying this about Scooby-Doo, but – poignant.

Penalties: -1 for killing off characters I liked in a kids' animated show; -1 for the annoying kids that drive the submarine in the underwater episode.

Nerd Coefficient: 7+/10. I don't think a "+" is an official part of our scoring system, but it didn't *quite* rate the same as Season 1.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Justified and Suspension of Disbelief in Television

One peculiar strength of literature and film is its ability to provoke suspension of disbelief. While reading (or watching), you can exit the reality of your daily life and enter the reality of the book or film. In theory TV has the same ability, but the fact is that I rarely suspend disbelief while watching TV.

Lots of things can intervene to ruin the illusion, thus keeping the viewer in this world--the use of obviously fake sets (see, for example, "New York" in Castle), the casting of overly attractive (and thus not terribly believable) actors as ordinary people, the prevalence of poor acting, hokey dialogue, wink-at-the-audience moments, and so forth. It isn't that these things are unique to TV, or that they (or their analogues) don't exist elsewhere, but just that they are prevalent in TV--almost to the point of ubiquity.

"New York City"
Problems of narration pose another set of hurdles to the suspension of disbelief. Advertizing breaks are one egregious issue in American network TV, but it isn't only that corporate marketing pitches wrench you out of your fantasy world--after all, ads are defeatable via Netflix, DVD or other viewing options. Rather, it's the structuring of episodes to fit these artificial breaks in the action, where a 45-minute drama has four or five moments where it has to present something compelling enough to keep you from changing the channel. Other issues are specific to the narrative format of the show in question, where on the one hand you have the mundane, static predictability of episodic programming, and on the other the tendency of serialized TV to value melodramatic cliffhangers over tangible character development. Again, these are not foreign to literature and film--far from it. But there are a lot of books and a lot of films that aren't like this at all. TV, more than any other narrative medium, thrives on this kind of cheapness.

The HBO Model

Premium cable outlet HBO did not invent good television drama, but it has arguably done more to promote the idea that TV can be "serious" than anyone else, and that it is not necessary to sacrifice "entertainment value" in order to do so. The push started with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under--concurrently running dramas organized around typical Hollywood conceits: a show about a mob boss with mental health issues and another about a quirky family that runs a funeral home. Both shows evinced narrative flaws over the long-term, perhaps because their producers never expected them to be as popular as they became. They were nevertheless revolutionary, in the sense that they were not really about these conceits, but instead used them as springboards to tell rather literary stories about how relatable characters try--and often fail--to navigate the challenges, pitfalls and circumstances of everyday life.

The Wire, which has been called the best television drama ever produced, constitutes the high point of the "HBO Model." What began as a character-driven police procedural eventually grew into something more--a sustained, powerful critique of the "War on Drugs" and an extended commentary on the decline of the American inner-city. But at its core, The Wire's success hinges upon the fact that it humanizes all its characters and presents them as flawed individuals trying to make good choices while constrained by oppressive social conditions. Like real human beings, they often make poor choices and then struggle to come to grips with the consequences. The world is so thoroughly convincing that, during each 60-minute episode of The Wire, I was completely mesmerized, enveloped in the tragic world of the West Baltimore's drug war.

The HBO Model has since spread to multiple US cable networks where it has mutated, from Showtime's cheeseball variant to AMC's approximation-with-ads. But very few programs have managed to achieve The Wire's or even The Sopranos' narrative success. That very much includes HBO's more recent dramas, which often seem to value "watercooler moments" over the character-based sophistication of the last decade's marquee fare. It is as if it no longer suffices for a narrative to produce such moments organically. Rather, they must be imposed. Watercooler moments have become an expectation, a defining feature of HBO Model drama. Unfortunately, when not produced organically by the narrative, watercooler moments come off as cheap, sensationalistic and affected.

Justified: The Rare Gem

Now, I haven't watched Breaking Bad, but I have it on good authority that it bucks this trend and even approaches The Wire in narrative quality. So before you pillory me for complaining about the low-quality of even high-brow television drama when there's stuff like Breaking Bad that I (admittedly) haven't seen yet, keep in mind that I'm making a general argument, not a comprehensive one. Plus I'm not even really here to complain about how bad television is. Rather, I'd like to talk about the first show in years that has me suspending disbelief like The Wire--FX's Justified.

This is the third FX drama I've watched. First came The Shield. Though some have absurdly compared it to Shakespeare, The Shield is more reminiscent of Oz, HBO's pre-Sopranos jailsploitation melodrama--a grimy show that isn't so much "good" as "difficult to stop watching." Like heroin, I guess. Or meth. Let's go with that, since the act of watching either show inevitably makes you feel ugly from the inside.

The second FX show I tried was the The Americans, a tense drama about KGB agents posing as ordinary suburbanites in 1980s Washington D.C. Though only one season in, The Americans is already a considerable step up from The Shield, and is on balance a pretty damned good show. But as adventurous and thrilling as it is, it's difficult to look past the conceit long enough to think of its characters as real people living real lives. I like the show, but I never stop thinking of it as a show.

At some point, I started noticing the ads for Justified that played during commercial breaks. They had a really Shield-y feel to them, though, and since I remained scarred by that earlier experience, it just seemed like it was going to be The Shield all over again. So I ignored the several friends telling me that, as a sociologically-interested crime fiction buff, I was nuts to skip out on Justified.

Enter four long-haul flights on an airline whose on-demand entertainment system magically included all of Justified: Season 4. I decided to give it a try. First episode? Not bad. Kind of fun. Good enough to keep me going. Second episode? Better. Easy to pick up without prior knowledge of the characters, but hinting at considerable depth. Building towards something. Third episode? Totally hooked. By the end of the last flight, I'd completed the season, and promptly started watching from the beginning.   

Justified shares a lot of conceits with The Wire. It's about a cop-who-doesn't-play-by-the-rules, a familiar trope of police procedurals. But whereas Jimmy McNulty ignores the chain of command and generally does things the wrong way in ruthless pursuit of a case, Raylan Givens is just sort of too lazy to do things by the book. In both cases, though, the "cowboy cop" thing is really just a front. Deep down these are deeply unhappy people.

The Harlan County, Kentucky setting is also nearly as well-realized as The Wire's West Baltimore. Whereas The Wire parsed America's urban blight, Justified does the same for its rural blight, though both share a preoccupation with the peculiar role drugs, guns, incarceration and the rest of the "War on Drugs" plays in sustaining and reproducing inequality. There's also a neat, thought-provoking subtext of the corrosive, enduring effects of foreign wars on the impoverished communities that disproportionately contribute to America's volunteer military. So yeah, it's smart and socially conscious too.

This isn't to pretend that Justified is the second coming of The Wire--it's not quite on that level. But it is a clever, well-written and character-based drama that does all the things good drama should do, and none of the things bad TV drama tends to do. Plus it's got great narrative structure. Some stories are told within a single episode, while others resolve in a few--others still take a full season to come to a head.

And it's funny. Not in the way a sitcom is funny--there are few laugh-out-loud moments--but rather in the way everyday people are funny. You laugh with them sometimes, but more often you laugh later, when you think about them and their quirks. Raylan, Boyd, Ava, and the rest all feel like real people. Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder--the slow-talking, cheeky and long-winded villain of the show--is one of the best and most dynamic bad guys I've ever seen on television. Nearly any scene with Boyd--or fellow villain Wynn Duffy (played by Jere Burns from 1980s network sitcom Dear John)--is pure gold.

...and the best part? For 45-minutes, I forget that it's TV.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Halloween ComicFest

The second annual Halloween ComicFest is almost here!  This Saturday marks the return of one of my favorite events at my LCS last year.  What is not to like about free mini-comics, candy, costumes, and fun.  To find a participating store in your area click here.  You can also enter the costume contest here (you will need to pick up an Itty Bitty Hellboy button from a participating store) and be entered to win some really great prizes.  For the first time I ordered bundles of the mini-comics to hand out at my house on Halloween and couldn't be more excited.

Top 5 Comics:

1. Batman: The Long Halloween Special Edition - A classic Batman tale from Jeph Loeb, this comic collects the first chapter of a great holiday themed mystery.  Can't wait to start reading this again!

2. Pantalones, TX: Zombinata - From Archaia, this all ages comic takes place in the town of Pantalones, TX.  It is Halloween and pinatas that are fed candy are coming back to life.  Sounds like a fun enemy to battle and I can't wait to read this with my kids.

3. Cartoon Network Super Sampler - What is not to like when you have a comic that features the Power Puff Girls, Samurai Jack, and Ben 10?  Sounds like a comic that, not only with both of my kids enjoy, but I will as well.

4. Batman Li'l Gotham: Special Edition - When you read a preview of a title and it includes a story in which Robin learns the true meaning of Halloween then you know it is a must have.  Add in a Thanksgiving story and I don't know if it gets any better.

5. My Little Pony: Halloween Edition - While I would have preferred a Halloween story, this collection is sure to impress casual fans and bronies alike.  This mini-comic collects highlights from the previous year, pony art, and some surprises.

Thursday Morning Superhero

Apple was in the spotlight yesterday, not only for their newly announced products, but for their stance on Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals.  As of this writing the comic was "under review" and not available digitally from Apple.  You can still purchase the comic from ComiXology, Kindle, or Google, but Apple is intent on playing morality police and restricting what comics it sells.  While you can still get the comic on the ComiXology app, you can't purchase it via Apple's iOs.  Hopefully these types of shenanigans won't be a trend with Apple.  This is the second comic (Saga) of recent memory that was restricted by Apple.

Pick of the Week:
Velvet #1 - Ed Brubaker has done it again.  He is bringing a unique twist to the crime/mystery comic. The personal secretary, who is in possession of key information, turns out to be less of a traditional administrative assistant and more of a spy herself.  She is privy to unique information on many operatives, and when one of their own is killed on a mission, the hunt for the mole is on.  The first issue feels like the WWII-era Captain America books that Brubaker wrote and if you have read any of the Criminal series then you know how able he is in regards to writing about crime.  Really excited about this one.

The Rest:
Mind MGMT #16 - Matt Kindt continues to weave an interesting tale that is one of my current favorite ongoing series.  This issue is a stand alone that provides a chilling background to the eraser.  Kindt's ability to push the comic medium is second to none and I highly encourage anyone who enjoys a good mystery to pick up this title. A sci-fi story that occurs on the perimeter of the pages leaks into the issue to take the storytelling to the next level.  Kindt is one-of-a-kind and I hope his imprint on the world of comics is lasting.

The Massive #16 - I decided to see if I could resume reading this title from Brian Wood after taking a break from its impressive debut.  This week's issue is part one of a new three story arc entitled "Longship".  Callum discovers an old friend has helped with the resurgence of the whaling industry.   Whales are not endangered and provide many needed resources following the crash, but the Massive and Callum are intent on stopping it.  Looking forward to seeing how this develops and glad I returned to this title.

Daredevil #32 - Murdock is not fooled by the Jester's trick, but needs to get to the bottom of the Sons of the Serpent and figure out a way to stop the riots in New York.  A tip from Foggy leads him to Kentucky where a seemingly normal cab ride leaves him in some monstrous company.  Nice to have an occult feel around Halloween, Waid continues to deliver the goods on this Eisner winning series.

Pretty Deadly #1 - Another impressive debut from Image Comics, Pretty Deadly pairs the supernatural with the wild west.  The daughter of death, Ginny, is seeking a missing page from a diary.  The story is narrated by a pair of traveling minstrels, Sissy and a blind man named Fox.  Packed with intrigue, magic, and the west, this book has a very Sixth Gun feel to it.  That is a compliment and I look forward to reading more. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Microreview [film] : The Great British Sci-Fi Xperiment : X The Unknown (1956)

Delving into post-war cautionary sci-fi films is like sorting pebbles on a beach. There are too many, and many are too similar. And there is seaweed everywhere. Well, not the last bit. So instead of picking a particular method of analysis, I hereby begin, in no particular order of importance or date - or sanity - an occasional series on some of the more unusual, less-celebrated movies of that time. I have exact and complex reasons for each film choice in the series which I could try and explain to you all but it would be like teaching algebra to a one year old fish. 
Oh, okay, not really. 
I am going to watch every weird old British sci-fi film that crops up on the BBC, Film 4 and any other UK channel from now until the end of the year. I call it The Great British Sci-Fi Generator Xperiment!

And so we start with the wonderfully-monikered 'X - The Unknown' (1956, Hammer Films).

The Meat Pie :
No, this is not some obscure prequel to X:Men. Or Vin Diesel's XXX. As much as we all wish. This is in fact a delightful sci-fi horror from the revered Hammer Films company, made at the now-closed Bray Studios, west of London. It actually mainly looks like it was made in a muddy field at night, and this is one of many things I love about it.

Another thing is the superb lead actor, Dean Jagger, an American known best to me as the inept sheriff in Bad Day at Black Rock, but he also won an Oscar for 12 O'Clock High and played Elvis's dad in King Creole, apparently. Now, I use 'superb' in a rather loose sense. Jagger is here one of those actors who seem like they are in a slightly different film to everyone else, and seem also to be slightly annoyed to be there. I found out after watching it that he allegedly demanded the original director, Joseph Losey, be fired as he was on the Hollywood blacklist, but Jagger also hated the replacement, Leslie Norman (a bully by all accounts), and ignored most direction from him. This is detectable in his eagerness to walk out of shot a lot and to stroke his bald patch irritably. A lot.

He also seems almost suicidally unconcerned by smoking in his nuclear lab -

This lady, however, is clearly very concerned by something.

Just to be clear, that is screaming, not yawning. She has just seen the doctor she was about to snog (in a closed-mouth '50s style) melt after encountering an off-camera monster, which remains off-camera for most of the film as it creeps really, really slowly up on people, who scream then die. The reason it is off-camera so long is of course to increase tension and wonder in the viewer, and nothing at all to do with budget constraints on making a mound of molten mud move menacingly...

There it is, finally visible. The radioactive mud. That kills. Slowly. Beautiful, isn't it...

Don't laugh. It's deadly. Look - 

Anyway, pictures are a thousand words and all that but if I showed much more you wouldn't have to watch the damn thing. Which you will of course do immediately... Anyway, here more words...

The film begins with soldiers on a training exercise (in the aforementioned muddy field in 'Scotland') coming into contact with some strange force from the depths. Soon enough military scientist Jagger is on the case and, in between letting us go off to see other extras getting blasted and melted in amusing ways, he slowly figures out an ancient creature of pure energy is running amok in search of radiation, tempted out of subterranean hiding by the nascent nuclear age.

And there is the 'cautionary' part of the sci-fi. Jagger's character, Dr Adam Royston, is a maverick, straying from the lab to work in his shed on a device to deactivate radioactive devices. The police chief who quickly appears up from London, played by a young Leo McKern (later to be in The Prisoner and other gems of British telly), is impressed and excited by the implications if such a device. It's not said whether that's because it could stop the nuclear threat to all, or because it could help them beat the 'Ruskies'. I like to think it's the former reason. Of course, this device comes to play an important role in more immediate proceedings, but I don't want to spoil the ending...

Shot lovingly in black and white (or black and silver, more accurately), and with editing and a score that keep the pace and tension, the film evokes a small Scottish community with a few nicely-accented supporting players and the odd foggy wood. As much as I joked about the mud monster effects, in many ways X is a smartly made and seriously-minded film. It takes a small budget and works that weakness into a strength, keeping things on a small scale, staying in rooms and the same few exterior locations, and uses decent actors to bring home the drama rather than helicopter shots and pricey effects work. It is clear it is as concerned by the inaction of bureaucracy and the violence of the military as it is by the threat from below, and the lasting impression is of intelligence and compassion winning the day. Even if lots of stuff blows up too.

The flaws are many, but it is perhaps unfair to judge the past on today's standards. The dialogue is stagey at times, the acting often awkward, the gender politics appalling, the slow and naive decisions of the heroes frustrating and the attempts to scare us laughable. But I can imagine at the time it raised a few hairs on the back of the neck. It was originally a follow-up to Hammer's successful The Quartermass Xperiment (sic) but the writer of the Quartermass serial on which the film was based refused them the rights to his character, hence the Doctor Royston creation. The fact that its troubled gestation resulted in such a solid work is impressive, and, despite an odd false ending that isn't sure if it's a cliffhanger or not, worth searching out.

The Math :

Baseline Assessment : 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for no annoying romantic subplot with swelling strings; +1 for the weird and unlikeable lead; +1 for the effective use of a small budget

Penalties : -1 for the death scenes being funny rather than scary; -1 for the odd ending; -1 for the lack of Vin Diesel *

Nerd Coefficient : 7/10
A mostly enjoyable experience
 * I tried to find a photo of Vin Diesel crying, or even looking dejected. And there aren't any. Really. The man only scowls or grins. That is how he rolls. Seriously. Google Image search 'Vin Diesel crying' and he just laughs at you. Or flexes. There is one of Toby Maguire crying in there for some reason. Don't understand that. Although he cries in everything.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

AiIP: The Anti-Amazon Experiment, Phase Two

So for the last several weeks, I have been brainstorming how to make a success of this. For those of you just joining us (me), I recently pulled my book off Amazon for a variety of reasons. Mostly because I would rather throw my lot in with indie booksellers and forge my own path a bit rather than be married to Amazon. Or, as my friend Bree put it "Amazon is... Amazon."

I suppose I should point out that this isn't necessarily forever- selling books on Amazon is a pretty logical step, like selling in the Borders and Barnes & Noble of yesterday (what, B&N is still around?!). But, like those large brick and mortars, does it need to be the first step? Yes, it's a massive marketplace, but... it's a massive marketplace. How does one stand out there? Of course, there is the obvious accessibility factor- namely, that the people who find your book outside of Amazon probably want to read it on their Kindle.

So here's the plan, in any case: I am going to use this as an opportunity to clean up a few things- a few errant typos remain, so I'm going to run it through a professional proofreader, and the guys at League Entertainment are providing a new cover. In order to cover all that, my plan is to run a crowd-funding campaign, and use any monies beyond those basics to print physical copies which can then be distributed to bookstores. It will also bring about a much needed facelift to my own site.

Simple enough, right? That's the way I see it. And I stand to gain more than i do to lose- there is certainly a bit to be lost in availability, but Amazon is never going to promote my book or events, and a place like Village Books will.

Now it's a matter of building those relationships and printing books.


I did a two part piece on reasons you shouldn't and should self-publish. I guess I should call it three parts, since I wrote a concluding post on the subject. If you want to see examples of people being very, very firmly entrenched in opinions, read the comments (the emails I got were even better- one from an established, traditionally-published author saying how much she liked the posts and that it had been send to her with the subject "Can you believe the NERVE of this guy?").

Good friend and author who I have long adored, E Cathrine Tobler recently released the second book in her Rings of Anubis steampunk series, called Silver and Steam, and you should go read it. Something about Egypt and steampunk scratches a major itch for me- hopefully you enjoy it too.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales

Sales, Ian. The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself [Whippleshield, 2013]

The Meat

The most difficult reviews to write, I find, are of the books that affect you most deeply. After all, it's easy to say why something sucked, and similarly easy to stack up what worked and what didn't when there's plenty of both. But what about a book that hits all the right buttons, and haunts you long after you turn the last page? The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself, the second novella in Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet, is one such book. It's also the best piece of science fiction I've read in 2013.

Now, truth be told, I've had a difficult go with SF for a while now. It just, well, for a genre that is so self-consciously progressive, it really isn't producing a whole lot of exciting material right now. I thought Sales' BSFA-winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a major exception. So I went into The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself with high expectations. And the good news is that it does not disappoint. If anything, it's better.

The two novellas aren't linked by narrative, or at least not apparently so, but rather by theme. These are alternate histories of the space race, and very "hard," but in each case there's also a specific fantastic technological advancements not found in our timeline. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains it was the dimension-shifting Wunderwaffe; in The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself it's FTL travel.

The conceit is interesting enough, but the true genius of the Apollo Quartet lies in the way it reminds you of what reading science fiction was like when you first discovered it--especially if, like me, those early discoveries were of 1950s "ideas men" like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Of course, the thing about those 1950s "ideas men" is that they were, generally speaking, terrible writers whose books are filled with cardboard characters, egregious sexism, naive faith in progressive science and so forth. Many so-called classics are brilliant for the ground they broke and people they inspired, but do not stand up well as enduring works of literature. I often find myself wishing I could go back to Caves of Steel or Islands in the Sky and read them again with the wondrous eye of a twelve-year old, but know that it is not possible.

Reading The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself is the closest I can get to that. Sales channels the spirit of 1950s SF without reproducing its tropes and failings. And in the end, for all the hard SF trappings, it is at heart a deeply human novella--melancholic and ultimately bittersweet. It reminds the reader that, at base, science fiction isn't about scientific discoveries or technological advancement, but how we come to grips with such things.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for making me feel like I'm twelve again without having to re-read a novel I remember loving but know as an adult probably isn't very good.

Penalties: -1 for I wish it had been longer.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Standout in its category--well worth your time and attention."

Friday, October 18, 2013

First Impressions: Grand Theft Auto V

Well, it's finally here

Some of you have been waiting with baited breath for the next chapter in the Grand Theft Auto series. Others are waiting to see how it holds up before they buy the next version of the world's most infamous game. Count me somewhere in between. When GTA IV came out, I was blown away. The completeness of the world and plethora of options were simply staggering. The ability to follow a couple around and eavesdrop onto their very realistic conversation was a leap forward in the creation of a real-world feeling sandbox shooter. However, by the time I was finished with the game, I'll be quite honest, I was ready for it to be over.

the characters

The biggest change from previous iterations of Grand Theft Auto is the ability to play three different characters simultaneously. A single push of the D-pad allows you to jump immediately from one character to another. This wouldn't have been necessary in previous GTA games as they only had a single protagonist, but this one has three.

Michael Townley is a forty-something retired gangster living in witness protection in San Andreas (GTA V's Los Angeles and surrounding areas). He claims to be happy that he has survived the outlaw life and is living comfortably in relative wealth. However, that facade quickly falls apart as we learn that his wife is sleeping with her tennis coach, his son is a pot-smoking gamer burnout, and his daughter is a day away from starring in her own porn movie. 

Franklin is a gangster who is trying to work his way out of the life and make something more profitable and, more importantly, survivable for himself. Unfortunately, just like Michael Corleone, each time he gets out, they pull him back in. Franklin has done the dopeman thing. He's been a hustler. He's boosted cars. Franklin is pretty much the stereotypical gangbanger we all rapped along to in Snoop Dogg tracks circa 1994.Unlike those Death Row Records classics (Many of whom appear on the classic rap radio station), Franklin gives us some insight into the softer side of the gangster. We learn of his family problems, his drug-addicted friends, and his aching for a better life. He recalls Ice Cube's classic line from Boyz N The Hood. "They either don't know, don't show, or don't care what's happening in the hood."

Trevor is easily the most entertaining and unpredictable of the three protagonists. He's a died-in-the-wool psychopath with just the smallest shred of human decency still crawling around inside of him. He's a hillbilly meth cook and you don't want to play around with him. I'll be honest. I just opened up this character last night, but it was a memorable experience. He chases down gangsters in a rusty, old pickup, destroys a trailer park, then makes a deal to cook meth for what I think was the Japanese Triad. That's a full day's work for anybody! I can't wait to play the rest of his story line as I've read it's easily the funniest and most entertaining, and after my first experience with him I can see why.

is it really that good?

The game isn't revolutionary, so don't look for the next step in gaming here. However, it is possibly the best of the series, and that's really saying something considering this is the second-best selling franchise ever after Call of Duty. There are some cool new options, the best of them is the ability to play as multiple characters with a touch of the D-pad. Whether doing missions together or standing on opposite ends of the map, this addition really changes the overall feel. While it's still a GTA game, it feels like it has more depth and meaning than any of the previous four.

Unfortunately, I'm not as impressed as many reviewers were with the improvements in gameplay. I still hit everything in sight when driving. I still run around in circles trying to figure out who is shooting me or trying jack a car. The character movement that has been described as "tank-like" is still ever-present. That said, the writing in this game really puts it a step above anything Rockstar has done in the past. Unlike Niko from GTA IV, I actually care about these characters. I want Michael to sort out his family issues. I want Franklin to make something more of himself than just being your average dope-slanging gangster. I don't have enough experience with Trevor yet to speak to my feelings about him other than to say he maybe the funniest character ever created in the series. Hopefully reports about him weren't as overblown as the ones about the new driving and auto-aim features.

then why is it getting so much praise?

I really feel that the biggest change in this newest of Autos, Grand Theft is the mid-mission save points. It truly makes the game. I honestly couldn't tell you why they haven't thought of it before, but I'm forever grateful that they did. Let's say you're doing a heist. It's a 20-30 minute long mission. In past versions you would have had to start the entire thing over if you died, but not any more. The game does a fantastic job of keeping track of your progress and placing you exactly where you were when death occurred. For noobs this may seem like a small addition, but GTA veterans will know exactly what I'm talking about. There was nothing more annoying than getting 90% of the way through a mission only to die and stare down the barrel of another 30 minutes of death-defying. I turned off more GTA games due to that fact than any other I've ever played.

Instead, you pick up right where you left off. When you've been doing your best to cling to that last shred of green life bar, only to catch a bullet a few feet from escape, well, let's just say not all my controllers have survived the process. Now it drops you in seconds before your death if you aren't able to hang on. There are other small additions that help you enjoy the game. There's a Facebook knock-off called There's an homage to Lethal Weapon when you use a truck to pull a house down the side of a mountain. There's even a stripper mini-game where you try to touch the dancer without being caught by the bouncer and kicked out of the club. However, it's this mid-mission save point option that makes this the best of the series, in my opinion. The writing is good. It's not Breaking Bad or The Wire, but it's solidly entertaining. However, the removal of the most maddening element in the previous games takes this to a whole new level.

Nevermind the fact that it's a truly beautiful game, and it is, the save points take away what made the other games so infuriating. If you were driven crazy by the gameplay and movement, you might want to skip this one because, for all their bluster, Rockstar hasn't created the next great control scheme. But if it was the length and repetition of missions that was keeping you away from GTAV, go ahead and pick it up. You won't be disappointed. It took me a while to get into this game, but now I've fallen in love with it and I can't wait to get home and play more. I hope you feel the same.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

For the first time in a while it was a relatively slow week for comics.   While there were some great books out this week, my pull list was limited to two titles.  I am happy to report that both of them were great.  It felt good to return to Matt Fraction's Hawkeye and Letter 44 poured on the mystery and intrigue and cost a buck!

Pick of the Week:
Letter 44 - President Blades is about to begin his first term as the POTUS.  He is following up a 2-term president who wasn't the most popular president to date.  Constituents were not happy with the amount of money are resources he spent on unnecessary wars.  I am guessing it is no mistake that this is similar to Obama following Bush into the White House.  What should be a joyous occasion turns into one of uncertainty as he learns that seven years ago a mining operation was detected in the far reaches of space.  A team of nine astronauts have been sent out to investigate and are about to lay eyes on the alien presence after three years of travel.  Charles Soule's writing has a certain ease to it that makes everything seem plausible.  I am curious to see how Blades handles things going forward and am anxious to learn more about the crew of astronauts that sacrificed everything for this mission.  Definitely worth your time and it is only $1!

The Rest:
Hawkeye #14 - It does the soul well to have another Hawkeye issue penned by Matt Fraction.  In a somber issue that includes Grills' funeral, we are treated to a very insightful issue and a personal glimpse into the psyche of Clint Barton.  Fraction has a knack of humanizing Hawkeye and portraying him to be someone with a huge heart that genuinely cares for the loved ones surrounding him.  It just feels authentic and I want to be Barton's friend.  Reading this issue has me wanting to go back and reread this entire series.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Microreview [book]: A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish

David Dalglish. A Dance of Cloaks [Orbit, 2013]

The Meat

Since childhood, I have always loved stories incorporating thieves. There has always been a big part of me that has enjoyed watching protagonists succeed (or barely survive!) through a combination of wits and sheer luck instead of overwhelming physical or mystical power. While figures like Raistlin Majere in the original Dragonlance series would capture hearts and minds of readers everywhere, I always identified more with the enigmatic Kender, Tasslehoff Burrfoot. Likewise, the Fritz Lieber classic, Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser, to this date still owns a small village in my heart. And more recently, Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series has been rekindling my love for this type of fantasy fiction. So it was to my delight that I learned of David Dalglish's A Dance of Cloaks, a story which seemed to combine my love or thieves guilds with the grittier, darker background that pervades modern fantasy. Dalglish admits being heavily influenced by George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and was inspired to create a world where no character is safe. At first glance, this looked to be just the type of book I needed to sink my teeth into.  

A Dance of Cloaks weaves together three main stories. The first centers on Thren Felhorn, the greatest thief and assassin of his time. Thren wrestles control over the various thieves' guilds in the city of Veldaren, and is in the midst of a war against the Trifect, an alliance of wealthy and powerful nobles. The second story concerns Aaron Felhorn, the main protagonist of the story. As Thren's young son (he starts the story as a wee 8 year-old), Aaron is being groomed as heir to his father's thieving empire. In the process, Thren tries to destroy his son's emotions, isolate him, and mold him into the perfect killer--a dark, emotionless leader who inspires fear throughout the city. But through various chance meetings, Aaron glimpses a world beyond the iron control of his father. The other main story focuses on the Gemcrofts, a noble family that is part of the Trifect. It features the relationship between clan head Maynard Gemcroft and his willful young daughter, Alyssa, who makes choices that could have dire consequences for their family.

Though the world Dalglish builds is noticeably influenced by the darker turn in fantasy, at its most basic level it has a Tolkein-esque quality, and feels similar to much fantasy produced in the 1990s. Elves populate the world, but they take remain backstage in this story. In Veldaren, humans take center stage. And the human heart appears to be the battleground between good and evil, represented by the rival religions of Ashur and Karak. Although Dalglish does not foreground this trope of good vs. evil directly, it remains central to the overall world/city of Veldaren. Good is revealed through small acts of kindness instead of purity of heart, whereas the tendency toward greed, profit, ambition, and hatred (in a word, evil) remains ascendant.  

A Dance of Cloaks is a fast-pace and frenetic thriller... one that at the very least never gets boring. The plot takes the reader through a number of twists and turns throughout the rat maze of Veldaren, traversing the castle, the wealthy nobility, and the slums and whorehouses. In the process, Dalglish does a great job of bringing the dark and grimy city to life. At the very least, the city feels authentic.

<Caution! Mild Spoilers Below>

Much less so do the characters. Granted, two main characters--Alyssa and Aaron--do experience character growth throughout the course of the story, but I strangely never found myself rooting for either of them. In fact, I found it hard to identify with all the main characters (although, I did like Senke and Zusa, two side characters). Thren is a homicidal sociopath, one who cares more about his legacy than anything else. Aaron, we learn, is no less crazy. His difficult upbringing created in him a split personality between Aaron (the homicidal, immoral heir to his father's empire, and one who wants to do his father proud) and Haern (the homicidal, immoral boy who wants to do good and live a normal life). This split personality made him more weird than compelling. Nor did I identify with Alyssa, who in many ways seemed a caricature of Sansa in A Song of Ice and Fire

More problematic are the strange choices that characters make throughout the course of the story. The cunning and wary Thren is embroiled in a plot to seize control of the city from the Trifect and the King, yet he seems more than willing to throw those plans away at the drop of a hat. For instance, after Kayla (an unknown entity both to Thren and his Ash Guild) saves Aaron from certain capture and possibly even death, Thren rewards her almost immediately by making her one of his right-hand (wo)men. Does this make sense? One would think a leader as cautious as Thren would have kept a more watchful eye on Kayla, just to make sure she did not have ulterior motives or wasn't sent by the Trifect. And at other times, despite Thren's plot to control the whole city, Thren at times is willing to engage in single, man-to-man combat. Why would Thren do this, when losing his life would threaten his long term plans for himself and his progeny?

Perhaps my biggest problem with this book was that at times, it felt dark just for the sake of darkness. Now I do like gritty fantasy (or grimdark, as it has come to be called), but generally prefer that the world's overall grit serves a broader purpose. At times, A Dance of Cloaks seemed to feature some of the more problematic trends in grimdark--the grit is merely there to show the reader how gritty the world is. For example, the torture scene near the end. What purpose did that serve? Just to show how murderous and barbarous a city Veldaren actually is?  

In the end, A Dance of Cloaks is a problematic book, but an enjoyable read nonetheless. And given its interesting themes, dark tone, and fast pacing, this book will most definitely find a loving readership. Unfortunately, this was not the thieves guild book I have been waiting for...        

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for Zusa and Senke; +1 for the dark and grimy city of Veldaren

Penalties: -1 for the main characters; -1 for their unbelievable choices; -1 for meaningless brutality

Nerd Co-efficient: 4/10 "problematic, but has redeeming qualities"

See why a 4/10 isn't as bad as you'd think here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Microreview [book]: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

The Meat

So here's the deal: the author—who has one of the coolest first names ever!—is a vintage photograph collector, and he noticed that old photos of children are sometimes pretty weird. From among his vast collection, he chose some of the weirdest and decided to use these peculiar photographs as the skeleton of a supernatural story. He even interweaves the fifty chosen photos, almost all of which are unaltered, into the text of the story, which is a wonderful idea. Beyond helping readers visualize the sort of strange, magical children he had in mind in his story, it also gives us an unusual degree of insight into how and why he was inspired to write the story as he did. In other words, the photos are a kind of glimpse into authorial process and intent.
  All of this is great, and it's made better by, in terms of style, the distinctly above average quality of the writing. This was his first book, and for a first effort it's very well written, though the dialogue and exposition in the second half leave something to be desired. And in some ways, the story is intriguing—in the current cycle of superhero worship, who can't get behind the idea of kids with bizarre powers, after all? And for existentialists, or simply jaded ex-fantasy/superhero/ sci fi junkies bored of the usual fare, the experience of reading this image-integrated book is almost unique, and should win points for the value the photos and the format added.
   Where the book definitely loses points, though, is in the development of the plot and characters. Without giving too much away, there is a strong resemblance to the central conceit of the movie Groundhog Day at work in the story, but unlike the mesmerizing character development of Phil, the characters ensconced in this particular story's temporal anomaly show not a single trace of the 'sadder and a wiser man' effect of having to relive the same period of time. Moreover, roughly halfway through the reader is savaged by a sustained barrage of exposition—bad enough on general principle—but made worse still by the strikingly arbitrary nature of many of the rules governing the magical aspects of the world. So we readers have no choice but simply to accept, no questions asked, that the mysterious antagonists are invisible to almost everyone (why?) but their shadows can be seen (double why?) and they become fully visible when feeding (triple why?) but they can't enter time anomalies (sigh) but their more evolved bad guy handlers can (double sigh) and plus only women who can change into a certain flighty type of animal can manipulate time (triple sigh).
   To be sure, many stories of the supernatural suffer from this sort of totally arbitrary provision (why can't vampires cross running water? Is it just me, or is Quiddich total nonsense? And don't even get me started on the infuriatingly random 'rules' of the magic charms in I Am Number Four!). But I think there are two kinds of arbitrariness in such stories, or rather two types of stories that contain arbitrariness: 1) stories which are very well thought out and planned, in which such 'take on faith' provisos have been reduced to the fewest possible number; and 2) unmanaged 'hey, I saw a guy without visible pupils in one of my photos so I'm just going to make all the bad guys pupil-less!' chaos. I'm sure you can guess into which category Miss Peregrine falls, or rather plummets.
   This might one of those exceedingly rare cases where the ridiculous phrase 'one's greatest strength is also one's greatest weakness' is accurate. The strength of this story is the integration of the photos and, to some extent, the inspiration the author drew from them to shape the story. But that is certainly also a serious weakness, because if those photos are the bones on which the flesh of the story is hung, it resembles no skeleton I've ever seen—it's all a-jumble, haphazard, ad hoc. The author mentioned in an interview included at the back of the book that he's worked in the T.V. and film worlds, which I paradoxically find hard to believe (surely no trained film writer could get away with such clumsy exposition, where after a certain point the main characters just sit around for ages and, essentially, say 'on camera' everything the reader must know for the story to make sense?) and all too easy (the brainstorming 'hey, let's make the monsters have lots of tongues and stuff cause that'd look cool!' kind of aspect).
All I could think of when I read the lengthy exposition about the monsters--full of made-up-on-the-spot rules and provisos--was "Yeah, sure, like how the Golden Snitch is worth 150 points and ends the game--cause that makes sense!"
   So I'm deeply ambivalent about the creative process out of which this book sprang, fully if bizarrely formed. On one hand, it's a true pleasure to read a story integrated with (as opposed to merely decorated with) visual stimuli. But to let said stimuli shape and limit the story feels like kind of a questionable move. Sequels are planned, but now the die is cast and all the silly, totally arbitrary rules Riggs made up off the cuff while looking at his photographs are set in stone, and he has to try to write himself out of the consequences of those haphazard decisions in later books. For myself, I hope he succeeds, because despite its faults, Miss Peregrine was great fun and a unique experience!

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for having photos and +1 for seamlessly integrating them into the story/text

Penalties: -1 for huge slabs of rather clumsy exposition, -1 for the 'hey, that'd be cool!' vibe in making of the rules of the world, -1 for failing to deliver, characterization-wise, any of the Groundhog Day-esque dividends one might reasonably expect from the time anomaly plot device

Nerd coefficient: 6/10   "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

Before you get on my case for unnecessary harshness, know this: 6/10 is actually pretty good!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Microreview [book] I, Crimsonstreak and II Crimsonstreak by Matt Adams

Adams, Matt. I, Crimsonstreak / II Crimsonstreak [Candlemark & Gleam, 2012 and 2013]

The Meat

Two book reviews for the price of one! Written seemingly back-to-back, 'I, Crimsonstreak' and the wittily-titled 'II Crimsonstreak are a light-hearted duo of novels, that can be read at a pace and with a lack of gravitas that match the eponymous hero. A young son of superheroes, Crimsonstreak has the power to run. Very, very fast. And to quip. And banter. And mock. And generally Josh Abrams all over the shop. As our narrator, we whizz through events with a largely-jovial perspective, things treated with references (Star Wars, Batman, Tom Clancy(rip), etc) rather than reverence. This is superhero fiction more in the vein of The Incredibles than The Dark Knight.

For a while, though, the wonderful Brad Bird film cast a shadow over proceedings for me. This is a world familiar from so many other works; not to cast aspersions on Adams but he is walking over many old footsteps of those who have affectionately lampooned the comic book universe of capes and muscles already, and in some cases more successfully. Therefore once a reference or memory popped into my head, it hung around, watching and judging. And Mr Incredible and co stood in the wings the longest, with me wishing some more of that film's humour and excitement came into play.

We begin with Crimsonstreak breaking out of jail after being framed, and finding that whilst he's been behing bars the world has changed dramatically. His father, Colonel Chaos, has apparently gone insane after the death of Miss Lightspeed, his mother, and taken over the planet in a sort of camp facist Big Brother way. Teaming up with Crusading Comet (loving these names) and others, Crimsonstreak battles to bring order to the world and closure to his family problems. All whilst quipping and running. And telling us what has just happened. And what things in popular culture that events remind him of. And lots of references to American sports that left me more cold and confused than a penguin with amnesia.

Yet I slowly began losing my grey(not gray)-souled cynicism and just decided to relax and enjoy myself. With the end of the first novel and the start of the second (which follows neatly on from the plot of the first), I was becoming a fan of Adams and a fan of Crimonstreak. The second book nicely up's the ante while retaining the tone of the first. The aliens who invaded prior to the start of book one (don't ask; I'm British but I'm not Basil Exposition) return and take control of Earth in a fresh and imaginative way, and the roster of heroes and villains is expanded whilst retaining the affection of the core 'cast'. My favourite had to be Falcon Gray (not Grey), an alien birdman that brought fond memories of the ridiculous but proud Hawkman from Buck Rogers.

So if you want a fast and fun couple of reads between more deep and dark novels, I recommend this duo.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for managing, after an awkward start, to breathe new life into a tired genre

Negatives: -1 for too much referencing; -1 for going over the plot again like a bad reality tv show

Nerd Coefficient : 7/10 A mostly enjoyable experience

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Pretty big week in the land of comics.  I had the good fortune to attend the midnight release of Walking Dead #115 at my local LCS and was able to pick up my weekly reading pile at 12:01am.  As I was excited about having my grubby hands on my books so early, the old father of two in me took over and I quickly fell asleep upon arriving home.  I woke excited to dive into the Walking Dead, Sixth Gun, Infinity, and the other treasures I scooped.

Pick of the Week:
Rocket Girl #1 - Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare deliver a gem of a first issue with Rocket Girl.  Dayoung Johansson is a police woman from the future.  She is only 15 and has traveled back in time to the year 1986 to prevent Quintum Mechanics from producing the Q-Engine.  Upon arrival, she passes out and has an equipment malfunction.  Dayoung is now trapped in 1986 New York and has full knowledge of the past in which to use to assist the police.  Rocket Girl provides an interesting concept and is already full of colorful characters that I hope are fully fleshed out.  The art is stunning and the creative use of panels really contributed to the chaotic action of Dayoung zooming with her rocket.  The humor is timely and it is refreshing to see a strong 15-year old female protagonist.  Well done.

The Rest:
The Walking Dead #115 - The calm before the storm is upon us.  Carl and Andrea are holding down the fort while Rick leads the three factions united against Negan and his men.  The bullets have been made, Rick gave his pregame pep-talk, and the march is on.  Negan has a trick up his sleeve and I have a feeling all hell is going to break out next issue.  Looking forward to this arc.

Infinity #4 - I have to hand it to Jonathan Hickman, this was the issue that got me hooked once again on this series.  Captain America and Thor attempt to negotiate peace with the Kree, but with the builder backing them they are not to be trusted.  Thor pulls some trickery and it looks like there is some hope.  Black Bolt has a brutal battle with Thanos and unleashes a scream that unlocks sleeper inhumans across the globe, including Thanos' son Thane.  This should lead to a somewhat substantial change in the Marvel Universe.  Hickman seems to be a fan of the slow build and I feel like it is starting to pay off in this series.

Sixth Gun #35 - Becky is shocked upon stumbling onto the world that she created with the six during her ghost walk.  She quickly learns the price that one must pay for wielding the six and the burden that rests upon the one who rebuilds the earth.  Meanwhile, Cobb and the rest of the crew trying to fend off the skinwalkers are successful in protecting Becky.  Lady Hume goes back to Griselda for help, but Griselda has different plans in her quest for the six.  Becky is able to finally wake up from her ghost walk, but she is a changed woman.  Shocking ending and Bunn delivers once again.

Artful Daggers #8 - ComiXology has weekly sales were select titles are only $.99.  While the sales are normally a great deal, Artful Daggers is $.99 everyday and has been a fast paced thrill ride from the start with some of the most unique art you will find in comics.  The Tricksters demonstrate how they earned their name and the reputation of maintaining power for so long.  Things are not looking up for the Tricksters, however, as the First of Cornwall appears to be in on the attempt on the Tricksters so they have the daunting task of dealing with three organized groups of opposition.  Looking forward to issue #9!

Batman #24 - Zero year picks up with a double-sized issue following the month off for Villain Month.  Scott Snyder continues his take on Batman's origin as his confrontation with Red Hood and his gang reach a boiling point.  Red Hood's gang are stealing a large assortment of chemicals with plans of detonating them across Gotham on the anniversary of the death of Bruce Wayne's parents.  Batman has other plans and confronts Red Hood at ACE Chemical.  I am guessing we are seeing the origin of the Joker, but time will tell.  As Bruce reflects with Alfred on the progress the two have made the Riddler turns off the power on Gotham.  Looks like we have the foe for the new arc.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Guest Post: A Second Golden Age of Isometric RPGs is upon us!

I'm proud to present a very special guest post from writer S.C. Barrus, who is here to tell us all about the new age of computer RPG’s that's right around the corner. S.C. is the author of the forthcoming steampunk adventure Discovering Aberration, which is coming January 20, 2014. He is also the author of this excellent piece for A Dribble of Ink. So without further ado...

In 1997 the dawn of a golden age of video games began. This golden age stretched across platforms. Some will remember Final Fantasy 7, others StartCraft, but for me this golden age was best represented by one very specific genre of videogames: the isometric computer RPG.

Before 1997, the most famous RPG’s were japanese console games like the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series. But when Fallout exploded onto the scene followed by a slew of greats like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and others, the RPG landscape shifted. In the center of it all was a tight knit group of developers, big names with big ideas who dared to create mature, thought provoking and challenging games.

Now almost 17 years later, with the help of Kickstarter, the isometric RPG gaming experience (a genre thought to be unprofitable in this day and aga) is nearing a second golden age, a full fledged resurgence featuring many of the same developers behind the originals, inspired by the same first golden age elements that made the past so great!

But to understand this second golden age of isometric RPG’s we’ll jump 17 years into the past and look at the classics and how they’re inspiring the new wave of coming RPG classics: Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Project Eternity.

Wasteland 2

The First Golden Age - Wasteland & Fallout

In the late 90’s, Interplay was among the best game publishers in the business. They released stellar games in multiple genre’s developed by the some of best game designers of the day. Within the cloak of Interplay was nestled a budding internal development studio known as Black Isle, and they were about to release the first game in one of the most popular quality franchises in the history of games. Fallout.

Fallout was set in a dark retro-futuristic open world full of violence amidst the endless wastes and struggling villages. But within these wastes was a sandbox where the player, cast as a lowly vault dweller in search of a water purification chip, was free to do what they willed. Will you be a paladin of strength, helping the helpless, or a bandit enslaving them for your own profit? It was all valid as far as Fallout was concerned.

Bolstered by tactical turn based action, creative and gritty kill animations, mature storytelling, and an open world, players were rewarded with a unique and satisfying computer gaming experience unlike anything they had played before. Except for Wasteland.

Fallout was originally intended to be a sequel to Wasteland, a 1988’s release sporting creative descriptions of action such as “he was reduced to a thin red paste" and “your head explodes like a blood sausage". But Interplay was unable to secure the rights and instead the Fallout franchise was born.

Lucky for us, Brian Fargo, one of the big minds behind both Wasteland and Fallout, is creating the first true sequel to Wasteland with his crew at inXile Entertainment.

The Second Golden Age - Wasteland 2

Enamored by Wasteland, Brian Fargo has been trying to develop a true sequel for over 20 years, but due to legal issues those efforts were either turned into new franchises (like Fallout) or shot down by publishers who claimed a sequel was unprofitable.

With his new development studio inXile, Mr Fargo attempted one final ditch effort to make Wasteland 2 a reality by crowdsourcing the funds they needed through Kickstarter. Seeking $900,000 to fuel development, inXile blew their goal out of the water and raised $2,933,252 becoming one of the highest funded videogame kickstarters at that time.

Supported by the fans, Wasteland 2 is looking to be one of the first big budget crowdfunded game to ever be released. Currently it’s nearing the end of it’s development cycle with beta testing beginning this month and its release to follow soon after.

Why should I be excited about Wasteland 2?

The year 2102 and you are a member of the army rangers. The world emerged from nuclear holocaust more than 20 years earlier leaving a wasteland in its wake. Many have survived, and as a ranger you must bring order to the wastes.

Carrying on the traditions of Wasteland and Fallout, Wasteland 2 is keeping with the classic, strategic isometric view, featuring diverse turn-based squad tactical combat and non-linear storytelling. (see the video below for an in depth example)

Furthermore, the choices you make throughout Wasteland 2 matter significantly, each choice potentially changing the direction of the rest of your playthrough. The player isn’t judged by the game, there is no karma system, no ranking on whether you are good or evil. But each choice you make has both short term and long term consequences. Because of this, there is no way to see the whole game without multiple playthroughs.

The most extreme example comes when you choose to stray from the ethics of the rangers, for example: killing everyone and everything in sight. Your commanding officer will send hit squads after you and the entire story of the game will alter, including it’s own unique ending. However it will also cut 40% of the game in the process.

Choice extends to the battlefield as well. Every situation will have multiple avenues of approach allowing the players to utilize their squads diverse skill sets such as sniping, small and large guns, animal control (yeah, animal control) and at times diplomacy. This is where the tactical approach really comes into play. Positioning your team before the assault and utilizing their unique skills will give you strategic advantage but mowing through your enemies gun blazing is always an option.

Wasteland 2 is currently entering the beta phase of development and is scheduled to be released early 2014. You can pre-order your copy today for only $25, quite the deal for a full fledged game!

Interested in more? Read Ten Reasons I Pre-Ordered Wasteland 2 and You Should Too.