Saturday, August 22, 2009

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day vol. 2 (comics)

Writers: Bob Gale, Zeb Wells
Artists: Phil Jimenez, Chris Bachalo, Barry Kitson
Trade Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #552-558

With the first volume of the opening of Spider-Man's new era, Brand New Day, behind us it's time to move on to volume two. After a very solid first volume - which collected the opening arcs of Dan Slott and Marc Guggenhiem - the final two writers of the initial Spider-Man "Brain Trust" step up to deliver their opening stories. Is this volume as solid as the first?

No, not really; in truth it feels a bit uneven. After reading this volume, I found it really brought attention to the rotating writers we have in the current era of Spider-Man in ways both good and bad. But we'll get into that soon enough.

The first arc collected this volume is the first of Bob Gale, whom was one of the original members of the Spider-Man "Brain Trust". It details Spider-Man through his troubles with the DB, now owned and operated by the sleazy Daxter Bennet, and the appearance of a new enemy named Freak, whom we met in the short backup centered around Aunt May last volume. The second arc is the first of Zeb Wells; a blizzard has hit New York City in the middle of April, caused by means we come to find out are quite unnatural. Spider-Man must weather the storm and try to figure out what is causing it. The last issue collected is written by Bob Gale and ties up the Freak storyline for the most part, as Gales arc left it open somewhat. Also returning in the issue is new villain Menace whom was introduced last volume.

Bob Gales arc centered around new villain "Freak" is something of a mixed bag. Unlike the first storylines of Brand New Day - which set Peter back to basics in a way that felt modern without being derivative - Bob Gale's style of writing feels way too old fashioned. Thought balloons are over abundant here, we have Peter over-talking or over-thinking what was happening all and then we have an over-reliance on old fashioned page transitions. Even the dialogue feels too old fashioned to be taken seriously in this day and age. One of the things people whined about in regards to the change of status quo was that Spider-Man was going back to the seventies and eighties; here comes an arc that feels like something right from that era and it's really the last thing the fledgling direction needed at this point.

On top of that, out of the three new villains introduced thus far Freak is by far the least interesting. Mister Negative worked well and Menace is alright for a character that looks far too gobliny for my taste. Freak, on the other hand, is the loser out of the crop so far. For the most part, he boils down to a drug addict who stabs himself with stem cells when he mistakes them for drugs; the end result is that he turns into a monster that, whenever killed in some fashion, cocoons itself and mutates into a form even stronger than before that is also resistant to the previous method of death. The concept is solid enough, but Gale never manages to sell it; Freak's dialogue is almost laughably bad sometimes and you find yourself unable to care about this new rogue.

The artist for this arc is Phil Jimenez. I have to say I don't think his work was quite as strong here as in the past. Sometimes the faces look a little off and the art feels a bit more rushed than what we normally get from him. Considering the weekly format and the grind it must put on the artists, it's not terribly surprising, but it is disappointing.

Zeb Wells arc is much, much better. We're thrust back into more modern storytelling. No more over-exposition; Wells seems to know when to let the artist carry the story. The arc starts out with a guest star appearance by Wolverine and Doctor Strange before Logan departs and Spidey is left to figure out the cause of the blizzard. The story feels a bit more claustrophobic than previous arcs, which works to it's advantage; with the story feeling more closed in, the blizzard really creates a feeling of isolation in the Big Apple and helps with the sense of urgency the overall threat later places on things.

The artist for this one is Chris Bachalo, whom is imminently capable in his own right. The artwork for this arc is simpler, with less lines and a bit less detail, but it really gels with the overall story. Aside from the heroes, the colors are less pronounced in this tale, with their backdrop being scads of white and some snowflakes in the foreground. It's beautiful in it's own way. The only nitpick I had with the art is that I though Bachalo drew Wolverine overly beefy; Wolverine's a muscular guy, for sure, but he was a bit too hulking in this one.

The last collected issue is again written by Gale, but thankfully the writing felt a bit more restrained in this one and less like a lost 1970's Spider-Man arc, though it still suffered from some of the same writing pitfalls of the earlier arc. For the most part, the Freak storyline is more or less wrapped up for the time being in a semi-conclusive way; in other words if no one wants to use him again it's really not necessary by the end. Menace also makes an appearance as the Mayoral election plot moves forward a little bit. All in all it's not a terrible issue and it feels like a better installment than the arc it wraps up.

Barry Kitson pulls art duties on said last issue. His work is much cleaner and feels more modern to me in this issue and I thought it was pretty good. It doesn't stand out much either way though; it feels like some dependably solid Spider-Man art that I don't have much in the way of complaints about.

As I mentioned earlier, these arcs really brought about the good and the bad in regards to the rotating creative teams. Thankfully, there's more good than bad; one bit that's much appreciated are the different artists, which gives each arc it's own look and helps each volume feel a bit like a showcase in different arts, even if the effect is unintended. The other good part is that when they remain relatively consistent, each arc will flow together well and still feel like the same Spider-Man. On top of that, we get a unique voice and addition with each arc that comes down the pipeline.

The bad, however, lurks right around the corner. All it takes is one writer to muck up the consistency and sadly that writer is Bob Gale. His wildly different style of writing things feels so overly retro that it becomes something of a stark contrast to the relatively consistent feel the other writers bring. In regards to the other writers, while each arc feels different, they still flow together and feel consistent. Gale doesn't write like that here and it really is to the detriment of the team.

Back to some positive. MJ is not missed, even in the lesser arc. Without the writers having to worry about forcing her in, we get scenes with the supporting cast. Really, the supporting cast helps make things so much better; losing it was really the stupidest mistake ever made in the history of the franchise. I'm glad this aspect of Spidey has returned; even in Gales opening arc they help quite a bit.

Also, I can't stress enough how great it is to have running subplots back. That's another thing that helps out even the lesser work in this new era. Things like checking up on Jonah Jameson, whom had a heart attack in the last volume and lost the Daily Bugle without his knowledge, or the slow burn of the mayoral election subplot are welcome insertions and help mix things up. They also help things feel consistent from arc to arc; the writers may change, but the suplots and issues carry over. The little touches that tease upcoming events or refer to past events in the book are great details as well; an odd, upcoming blizzard is telegraphed in the background of Gales arc almost throughout, which really helps lead into the aforementioned arc.

Things are still fun as well, even if this volume isn't quite as much so as the last. Despite the issues with Gale's writing, even his work feels a bit more "free" and loose. It's this feeling that really makes Spidey worth following again.

My Opinion: Try It

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ramblings: Batman Arkham Asylum Demo Impressions

If you pay attention to video games at all, you're probably aware of the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game by now. Speaking as a complete freak for anything and everything Batman, I simply cannot state in words just how excited I am for this game. I mean, seriously; I can't think of the words to describe it. I even pre-ordered the goddamn collectors edition and I never bother with those.

So of course I snatched up the demo the very second it went from being a Live Gold only exclusive to available to everyone. By the way, just to say it now, I really think it's bullshit that Microsoft actually reserves some demo's for anticipated games to Live Gold only for about a week. It's a stupid tactic; absolutely no one is going to run out and nab a Gold subscription just to play a demo, so what's the point beyond being irritating? It's a practice that really needs to end; all it really does is hurt people. The online play, the Netflix streaming; that's one thing. The demo restrictions need to end.

Anyways, so I've finally played the demo to one of my two most anticipated games of the year - the other being the completely metal Brutal Legend - and I figured I'd give my thoughts on it and general impressions of the game so far. Keep in mind that this is not a review or anything. As such, I may have a tendency to ramble or swear; this isn't a professional style review, just a smattering of thoughts on a game I'm hotly anticipating the release of.

Anyways, the first thing I could say is that having completed the demo, I'm actually rather pleased with what they gave you for it. The length of the demo itself isn't spectacular or anything - there are certainly those that last longer on X-Box Live - but what is given completes the general criterion any demo should strive for; give the gamer enough to whet their appetite and entice them to come back for more. The demo starts at the beginning and runs to right before a first encounter with some deformed hulking creature. On top of that you have access to some nice character bios and two trophies from the full game to gander at. Not bad guys.

I must say I liked the bio's, by the way. Short and to the point. A perfect primer to familiarize any gamers who might have been living under a rock long enough not to be familiar with most of Batman's rogues. At the least, I suspect they'll be handy in the case of Mr. Zassz; just about anyone can be excused for not being familiar with him, as he only appears in the comics sporadically despite being an enticing villain. I loved the little touch of two patient interviews under the Jokers profile, by the way; they're not important to the game, but they give an idea of the Joker himself and set a certain mood.

First thing I noticed without a shadow of a doubt upon startup; this game is fucking gorgeous. It really feels like Batman and Arkham come to life. Gritty, grimy and disgusting, the asylum feels like a rundown warehouse that's seen too much use over it's years. The Asylum has a few futuristic elements to it, such as laser barriers that keep prisoners from escaping, but they thankfully don't detract from the experience. In reality, they're kind of necessary; otherwise it would be kind of hard to even remotely believe Batman could be trapped someplace like that. In short, everything looks fantastic.

They weren't kidding when they said that the game was drawing on Batman on the whole, by the way. This game doesn't tether to simply one era or comic of Batman or even any one adaption like previous games. It's kind of a mashup of much of the classic history behind the character. Classic voices for the characters, for one thing. Harley in particular feels like her animated counterpart, except in this she's more akin to her comic counterpart in regards to human life; she's not against killing, at all. Oracles backstory includes the infamous bit where Joker shot her in the spine and paralyzed her. This Batman games world is Batman boiled down to his essence before taking elements from the whole cloth of Batman's history to build it. It works well towards making this game feel like it's own entity; you're not going to need to be familiar with anything Batman to pick up this game and understand it's world, which is frankly how it should be.

The voices? For the most part just plain awesome. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil - Batman and the Joker respectively - slip into their old roles with ease and oh man it's like they never left. I vote we have it officially recognized that these two are the greatest in these roles, bar none. Even Heath Ledgers turn as the Joker can't beat how classic and timeless Hammils Joker feels. Same goes for Harley; whenever I read any comics with the character I must admit I always hear her animated counterparts voice in my head reading the lines.

The others measure up rather well too, for the most part. Oracle sounds pretty decent as do many of the guards. The only voice that really took me out of the experience was Commissioner Gordon. Perhaps I've just been hearing the kind of voice we got in Batman: TAS for too long or maybe it's being used to Gary Oldman's turn in the role. Either way, from the second Gordon opens his mouth he sounds wrong. It simply does not sound like what you would imagine Gordon to sound like. Luckily you don't hang around the character long and even then you will have just started to get used to the voice, but it's still a bit of an oddity. I find it hard to believe that with such dedication to getting classic interpretations of these characters in voice that they couldn't have gotten someone that sounded similar to one of the Gordon's we've encountered in past adaptions.

The camera takes a little getting used to at first. I must admit that the over the shoulder third person camera always throws me off for a bit at first, no matter how many games with it I play. Thankfully once you get the hang of it, it stops being a problem; I suspect many others won't have an issue with it at all, but I've always had a bit of momentary difficulty with the perspective. The buttons felt intuitively placed, for another thing. So much so, mind you, that you won't even realize there's no jump button for most of the experience; it's simply not needed.

Combat is a somewhat simplistic affair. You have one button for regular attacks, a button for countering and a button for the cape stun. This threw me a bit at first. I've been playing a few games in the vein of God of War lately - the most recent being the Conan game, which was pretty good by the way - and I instinctively kept going for light and strong attacks, which in this game are the attack and counter buttons. So I'd hit Y and nothing would happen until I realize I was being a duncecap. Once you get the hang of it - hell, you probably won't have the same issues my dumb ass did picking it up at first anyways - it actually works very, very well.

As you can probably tell, there's not a lot of depth to how you fight. You're not going to find a bunch of complicated combo's to pull off here. In reality, that's the perfect way to do it. This game is not about jumping into the fray like Bruce Lee and kicking everyone's ass, though you do get the oppourtunity to do that from time to time. This is not Batman the Urban Commando; this game has Batman the creature of the night. Dropping in on foes, using your gadgets, quick takedowns, leaps from the shadows; that's what this game is about. Thankfully it works wonderfully. This game really doesn't need strings of combo's or long battles against enemies to remain exciting.

This is the first time I felt like the combat actually worked perfectly for a Batman game. Being the Bat freak I am, I've played most of them. Sadly, most Batman games have sucked ass. The 3D ones, anyways; some of the old 2D sidescrollers were pretty solid affairs. The best of the lot before now was Batman Vengeance, based off of the "Gotham Knights" animated version, as fans call it. Even in that game, the combat was a pain in the ass. Let's not even get into the camera. You ended up getting too close to an enemy and the camera shifted to the side and you were immediatly locked into some combat mode that was tough to get out of. The button layout changed and you couldn't use any gadgets. Basically a mishandled system in general.

The demo's length in general was enough to do it's job. I wanted more once it ended. It was enough to let you get a feel for all the basics, too. By the end of the demo, you'll have experienced open combat, use of your batarangs, learn to move from gargoyle to gargoyle high above, get the hang of singling out opponents and deal with your first fight with a group of enemies. In short, you get a taste of pretty much all of the very basics before the demo ends. If you rush through it you can probably complete the demo in approximately twenty minutes. If you take your time, however, you'll probably get a good forty minutes out of it. A forty minutes that you won't want to end, if you're anything like me.

In general? I want this fucking game. Now. There is no doubt whatsoever that this is going to be the standard for Batman video games from here on.

I'll definitely be reviewing this game once I get my hands on it and play through it, by the way. Rest assured of that.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Wolverine (comics)

Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Frank Miller
Trade Collects: Wolverine #1-4, Uncanny X-Men #172-173

If there's one comic team that's weathered the years, it's the X-Men. Writer Chris Claremonts run on the X-Men spanned almost two full decades, taking the group to places and levels of popularity it had never seen before. Prior to the relaunch with the "All New, All Different X-Men", the group was like the red headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe. Of all Stan Lee's creations, this was the one that just didn't catch on, ending up canceled instead of becoming the almost instant icons other creations were. But Chris Claremont changed that, shaping the team into what would become a phenomenon and long running franchise that continues to this day.

One of the most popular aspects of this run was the Wolverine character. Back in the early days, he was nowhere near the exposure he receives now; he was just one side character in a cast that contained several. But he was one of the most popular of any X-Men and eventually it led to a mini. Chris Claremont, as he states in the trades introduction, wanted to break Wolverine down, looking to build him back up into something better than he had been before the story.

Mission accomplished.

This is the story that established one of the greatest tropes of Wolverine stories; his strong connection to Japan and it's mythos. After returning from a hunt for a renegade bear, Wolverine finds that his letters to Mariko Yashida, a woman he met in earlier issues of Uncanny X-Men and fell in love with, had been returned without explanation. A phone call reveals she has gone back to Japan, so Wolverine follows. Despite being warned away, he presses on, only to find the love of his life has married a man she does not love out of loyalty and honor for her family, including her corrupt father.

When, heartbroken, Wolverine tries to leave, said father has him captured; Mariko's father seeks to battle him and show his daughter that the man she loves is not worthy. In the midst of battle, Wolverine loses his composure, popping his claws and reverting to a berserker rage that he is chided as more animal than man for; despite his formidable fighting skills, Wolverine is soundly defeated and disgraced, his honor and self worth quickly a memory. From there, he must rebuild himself, waging a war of honor to prove himself worthy and win back the woman he loves, as well prove once and for all that he is not an animal, but a man. It's the tale of a failed samurai risen up to claim what he deserves.

As far as Wolverine stories go, the story told in this mini is a definitive classic, even to this day. Wolverine, for the first time the leading man of a story all his own, is humanized in a way few stories can ever manage. His plight is one of loss and personal strife, not entirely physical, and you are brought to care about him through the course of the tale. It was Wolverine as he'd never been seen before and from that point on, he started to become the backbone of the X-Men. This tale hd expanded and changed the character forever; hell, it was even the series to introduce one of his best known phrases, "I'm the best at what I do, and what I do isn't very nice".

On the subject of love interest Mariko Yashida, I must admit that I love the character already amongst Logans many loves. She was arguably his greatest love of all the women he's been with, which shines through. She's bound to honor and duty; Wolverines love and longing for her bring about change to the man in ways other love interests have not. She's perfect in this tale of honor, shame, love and pure mayhem. That's a good bit of praise for me.

For the most part, the tale holds up beautifully and I suspect it always will. This was Chris Claremont when he was on the top of his game; modern Chris Claremont sometimes has similar problems to Stan Lee's modern stories in that the scripts are overly talky and over explain everything. This story is in stark contrast; back then Claremont knew when to pipe down and let the art tell the story. Everything is top notch in regards to the writing, the story ending as strongly as it begins. It's not hard to see why Japan became such a strong presence in the years to come once you read this story; it's a place Wolverine works very well in and is often rife for drama.

As for the art? It equals the great writing held within, if not surpasses. This was also Frank Miller when he was arguably at his best. His style is fluid and dynamic, rendering the fight scenes quite expertly and lending the story the visual punch it needed. Without his work, it's arguable that the story might not have been as powerful. While the coloring is definitely reminicent of the time it was published, the art holds up wonderfully today.

Without question, this was and still is one of the definitive Wolverine tales that I think anyone with even a passing interest in the character should read.

I really can't talk much about the two included Uncanny X-Men issues without spoiling the end of the miniseries, sadly; and while it's been twenty years since the mini was published, I don't want to run the risk of spoiling it for anyone who hasn't read it. In some ways, they're very necessary to cap off the story told in the mini; the main throughline of the issues involves following up on the mini. They are not completely self contained, however.

This stems largey due to Chris Claremonts style of writing on the regular X-Men title. He tended to have several different subplots simmering in the background at any given point in time, progressing them forward piece by piece before they eventually took the spotlight. Seeing as the included capper issues are of Uncanny X-Men, that's certainly the case here too. Don't expect to read the issues and get everything that's going on; plots like the Jean Grey lookalike Madalyne Pryor and Rogues struggle to fit in amongst the X-Men, whom she'd previously fought, started long before those two issues and continue for long after.

In some ways, this general approach affects the cap of the Wolverine story, as well. The issues end in a way you might not expect; something is clearly wrong with the reactions and it's hinted whom is behind it. Basically, the storyline started in the mini is brought to an awkward conclusion and not truly ended, as it had then become another plotline amongst the many in the title. What was wrong with Mariko and why things happened the way they did was not really solved until a couple of issues down the road in the Uncanny title. Don't expect a truly clear resolution.

I can be a bit more clear, however, on the art of the two issues of Uncanny. They were not done by Frank Miller, but Paul Smith. They hold up very well, actually, following Millers art on the miniseries. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the included Uncanny issues were still quite excellent despite the change in artist; thought there are a few instances where the artist change is pretty glaring, but that it holds up in the face of Millers work should speak very well of the work given here. It feels quite visually consistent, which truly eases the inclusion of the issues with the miniseries.

My Opinion: Buy It