Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mighty Avengers: Secret Invasion Book One

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Alex Maleev, Khoi Pham, John Romita Jr.
Collects: Mighty Avengers #12-15

So, yeah. Secret Invasion. Kinda sucked, sad to say. So what the hell am I doing reading a tie-in? Curiosity, mostly. The bulk of Secret Invasions intrigue had to do with who was a Skrull and when they had replaced the real McCoy. The main series offered almost none of that, so what the hell. May as well read a tie-in volume and see if the whole thing could have been as interesting as I thought, right?

This is the first of two Secret Invasion tie-in volumes for Mighty Avengers. Collects four of the eight tie-in issues. Why only four? Well, if they did the whole eight, they wouldn't be able to milk the consumer for another fifteen bucks SRP, now would they?

The tie-ins are kind of scatter-shot, it seems. They jump around a lot and don't offer any kind of continuous narrative. It's more a snapshot of different characters leading up to Secret Invasion, basically showing in detail how folks were abducted, when and why. As such, much of it is very continuity heavy. If you haven't really kept up with Marvel around this time, you're not going to get a lot out of this; it seems to assume you've been reading a lot of Marvel comics, looking for clues.

The first two issues collected here follow Nick Fury from his disappearance post Secret Wars on. It's really the best story of the volume; and I enjoyed it more than I did Secret Invasion itself, which ended up being a giant extended fight and little else. We see Fury catch wind of the invasion long before the heroes did, quickly settling in to save the world yet again. We see the start of the Caterpillars - who are part of the Secret Warriors series - and even get a playful jab or two at Samuel Jacks-I mean Ultimate Nick Fury.

The only thing wrong with it is that it feels less like a direct tie-in and more a proper prequel to the invasion itself or at least the start of one, seeing as it's two issues here. Perhaps it would have been better served as an actual prequel mini? Or maybe not, I dunno; after all, Fury and his troops ended up being little more than several more bodies in the fray of Secret Invasion anyways. The event should have just been about Nick Fury going undercover and turning back the invasion before the other heroes even knew what the deal was. That probably wouldn't have sold as much though.

These two issues sees Bendis work with one of his best collaborators - and the favorite of many fans - Alex Maleev. His art is dirty and grimy, which is really best suited for crime comics. Thankfully, this story fits right in his wheelhouse. Removed from the colorful superheroics, this story is a bit darker and more street level. Maleev does good work, though it's not entirely my favorite stuff.

The next issue is a one-off about what the Skrulls want to do about the Sentry, which amounts to "shift into the Void and the dude will totally freak". It feels like a waste of an issue to me. It's understandable that the Skrulls would be concerned about Captain Overpowered Schizo, but Secret Invasion made it clear enough that the Skrulls had tricked Sentry - being the easily manipulated wreck he is - without a whole issue dedicated to Skrulls standing around going "dude, we should totally tweak the headcase".

Khoi Pham does the art and it's rather respectable. Nothing spectacular though. Some of his faces are just way too funny, though they're clearly not intended to be. Sentry's "NOOOOO" face late in the issue is just too much.

Rounding out this thin volume is a whole issue dedicated to how the Skrulls totally roped in Hank Pym, got him out of the way and replaced him. We get the gist of his life as it went wrong before the switch - his wife's a drunkard and then leaves him when he gets irritated because she won't take her drunk ass to bed and sleep it off - and then he cheats on The Drunken Wasp with some blond university student. Pym's clearly kind of a sleaze; that or he's a moron who doesn't exactly seem to understand that cheating on the boozer is probably not the best reaction. I won't spoil how he's replaced, but come on, you've probably figured it out by this point in the description.

JRjr. does the art. He seems to be rather polarizing, but I like what I saw here. It's just a shame there isn't much for him to work with here. It's very much a talky issue with only a quick bit of action late in the book; Pym goes down like a wuss before anything interesting can happen.

Here's the problem. While the first two issues are fine, the second two don't work quite as well. They're exactly what I feared we'd get when it became clear the flashbacks would be separate from the main story. They're padded as all get out to fill twenty two pages, all based around continuity minutia and how so-and-so got jacked. There's a lot in the latter two issues that could have been a part of Secret Invasion proper and compressed down to a couple of panels; instead, they take one very minor cog and throw a full issue behind it.

What we're left with is a feeling that a lot of nothing happened with a few little nuggets of gold buried within. I genuinely like the Nick Fury half of this volume - though I've got no clue how much more of it there is - but the other stuff feels like it's been ruined by circumstance. Still, all of it held my attention. I'm not sure how I feel about all of this, because I've got issues with the book and yet I actually feel like I got more out of it than Secret Invasion itself. Yet again, there's the feeling that Bendis might have had a great story on his hands had the crucial elements not been scattered to the four winds.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Okay, but only half of this volume feels genuinely good on its own merits. More evidence Bendis had a grand plan in mind that I genuinely wish had worked out. I really enjoyed the Fury stuff, but I'm not sure it's worth buying this for.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (comics)

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Andy Kubert
Collects: Batman #685, Detective Comics #852 plus Gaiman penned stories from Secret Origins #36, Secret Origins Special #1 and Batman: Black and White #2

I imagine that if there's one thing comic fans - myself included - never thought they'd see, it's a counterpart to Alan Moore's Superman story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow". Love it or hate it, that work is considered one of the seminal Superman stories, so that's a tough pedigree to live up to and you'd think it would scare off most writers. But here it is; and I guess if you could get anyone to do such a story short of Alan Moore himself - which, you know, would never happen at this point - Neil Gaiman would be a pretty safe bet.

Batman is dead. To the surprise of few. Now his closest allies and fiercest villains gather at his funeral to swap stories of how the Caped Crusader died while the spirit of the man himself watches.

Gaiman isn't quite content to just ape Alan Moore. While Moore's story was something of a capstone to the Silver Age Superman - his last story, as it were - Gaiman takes a bit more timeless an approach. Everything is presented as the base ideals or concepts. It's not the literal death of the character, but the death and funeral of an iteration of Batman. It's every death of Batman in one. There isn't just one version of any character attending either; in some pages, you might spot two Jokers. All there to tell a story about the death of a Batman.

Gaiman himself notes in the foreword that this is his final Batman story, or how he would end it if this were truly to be the last Batman story. But the message of Gaimans "last Batman story" is clear. There is no final Batman story, because Batman lives forever.

It's fitting, not just because that's a point Grant Morrison had been hammering home in the regular stories at the time, but also because there's never really an end to characters like Batman. Someone always picks up the pen and tells a new tale. Even histories great characters no longer under corporate ownership - where they're sometimes brought back if only to keep copyright going - find their way into new adventures. See Dracula, for an example. One way or another, the characters are reborn, or see new life. Batman can stand among these characters, these larger than life rich fictional myths, so it feels right that the final Batman story is that there is no final Batman story.

There's still some interpretation left to the reader, though. Is the tale also an allegory for the cycles of rebirth and reinterpretation the character has gone through? In some ways, is it a musing on the nature of stories in general? A commentary on how every person has a way of telling a story, writ large? Or are we simply thinking too much about it and it's just a loving homage to a character that's lasted well over seventy years of continuous publication? It could be any of those things, or maybe not.

So overall, what Neil Gaimans written is a story that has a timeless feel. Perhaps one of an instant classic, maybe? When it's all said and done, the story doesn't vastly change how you'll look at the character or rock your world. But it feels enduring, like something that will stand the test of time. So perhaps naming it after the Alan Moore story wasn't a folly after all. It feels like something that will hold up in a similar way, relevance be damned.

If I have a problem with the story at all, it's that I felt it would have been nice to see more of the tales told of Batmans death, but that strikes me as nitpicking.

While I've given all this praise to Neil Gaiman, I have to talk some about Andy Kubert. I have my reservations. Even here, a couple panels feel a little too iffy for my liking, usually whenever we're zoomed out from a group of characters, which is a problem that cropped up in Batman & Son as well. But I am a fan of his Batman work. Aside from that problem, it feels like he's on another level here, beyond what he had already been doing.

Within, he actively apes the styles of classic Batman artists from the past, such as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang and Neal Adams to great effect. He doesn't quite achieve the chameleon effect of certain other top shelf artists, but his linework does a respectable job of it. To me, Andy Kubert fits with Batman like a glove and it makes me hope to see more of his work on the character in the future. It just works for me.

Some extra's round out the package, because the actual story was only two issues long and someone in the collected editions department clearly recognized that they needed a hell of a lot more than that to put out a hardcover or trade. These include pretty much every story Gaiman did with the Batman mythos, mostly concerning the villains. They're good reads - not sure if the Poison Ivy one or the Riddler one is my favorite of them - but not essential reading. That and I really don't think the art is the greatest for two of the three. Add some Andy Kubert sketches, stir briskly and viola.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Overall, this is a great read. I kind of wish it were a bit longer, but the short length works well for it. While not perfect, it's a fine package and well worth a purchase.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance (comics)

Writer: Joe Casey
Artists: ChrisCross, Eduardo Pansica
Collects: Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #1-6

Of the four aftermath miniseries, this was actually the one I gave a damn about prior to release. The other ones sounded okay, but Grant Morrison characters? Actually being used? That had my attention; if this was Marvel they would have faded to the background for years or have been retconned out with the majority of Morrisons work*.

The Super Young Team really are something else. Pop culture superhero wannabe's one and all, the group is like an amplified form of Booster Gold from his glory hog days. Always seeking fame, fortune and fabulousness, they're far from typical superheroes, initially doing it for more self absorbed reasons. Even their costumes are different, acting like a manner of cosplay gone horribly wrong, mostly mashing together ideas born of the American superheroes of DC.

Picking up from Final Crisis, the team seems to want to take superheroics seriously. Unfortunately for them, their fame is becoming something of a nuisance. Their publicist has them pushed from one flashy media event to another, often keeping them from the opportunity for real heroics, and there's literally no news whatsoever about the state of Japan after the crisis. They obviously need to find out what's going on, but make no mistake, they want to be fabulous while they do it.

Joe Casey does some interesting things here. One part I liked was how he relayed Most Excellent Superbats thoughts through a twitter feed. It makes a lot of sense, really; these heroes are on top of all trends and immersed in pop culture. That and the young tend to fancy themselves invincible and don't put too much thought into their actions online.

The writer also has the story staged as an opportunity for the team to prove themselves, in a way. We often see throughout the story that, despite their celebrity status, the Super Young Team aren't exactly taken seriously, even by their supposed fans. An older Japanese hero berates them, calling them a shame of their hero community, some partygoers more or less call them a bunch of nobodies. The Super Young Team actually want to be heroes now, but they're at a point where no one takes them seriously. It's a pretty good underdog setup mixed in with a bit of generational conflict.

Also of note is how the miniseries is structured. Casey decides to take a different route, making about half the mini almost like standalone adventures. Sure, there's the overarching plot that runs through the whole thing, but each of the first several issues introduces a new conflict, setting and villain to be taken care of by the end of it. The last two more or less wrap up the bigger plotlines that had been simmering in the background.

It's an interesting direction to take a mini. Comics have been slowly moving away from strictly "writing for the trade" - we've recently seen the return of three to four issue arcs instead of six all the time - but mini's, especially six issue ones, traditionally tell one overall story. Run did this - to stick with an example within the same grouping of minis - and while the titles of the issues tried to give the impression of two issue arcs within the six issues, Escape was really just one long confusing mess. I appreciated it's structure and wouldn't mind seeing more of it.

So storywise, the book does rather well. It's the art that's a problem. Chriscross seems to flitter from decent, workable art to odd stuff that doesn't quite feel right. I'm not a fan. But that would be tolerable if he did the whole thing; a story can save a book from lackluster art. Sadly, he had a fill-in artist.

Unlike Escape, the art just doesn't pull together. There, the three issue pencilers managed to settle on a relatively consistent style among them, to the point where if you weren't really looking, you might not notice too much difference between them at first glance. Dance doesn't fare as well. Chriscross and Pansicas work look nothing alike, making for jarring shifts in the midst of the mini. I didn't like what I was seeing to begin with, then they decide they're going to throw in another artist who doesn't fare a lot better.

The story manages to pull through, but the art hurdles actively work against it. I'm generally more forgiving if the work is particularly good, but I genuinely did not feel like what I was looking at was either artists best. I really didn't care for what I saw. Perhaps deadline troubles brought this about? Either way it's a problem.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

I'm genuinely intrigued by the Super Young Team and I wouldn't mind seeing more. Only next time, I'd prefer it if the art held up it's end of the bargain. What's here is a decent story, but the art really does bring it down. It might be worth a look if, like me, you want to see more of Super Young Team. I can't really recommend it with art troubles like this, however.

* Why yes, I am bitter about New X-Men. Why do you ask?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sonic Rivals (video game)

Platform: PSP
Developers: Backbone Entertainment
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: November 24th, 2006

No kidding? Sonic has a game on the PSP? Who woulda thunk it? Anyone with a firing synapse, actually. It's not like Sonic has missed a console since Sega went third party. So here we are with his first PSP outing. Is it any good?

First off, I'm actually kind of surprised it took so long for Sega to put out a game like this. Rivals is less "action platformer" and more a racing game with platforming elements. It echoes some of the familiar bits of gameplay from the 2D classics filtered through a race to the finish line. Seems like a no brainer, dunnit? I mean, hell, Sega had done the concept before with multiplayer of the classic Sonics, making it surprising they hadn't tried a full game of it before.

So, you know, Eggman's up to his dirty tricks again. Apparently he went out and bought himself a spiffy new camera at Best Buy or whatever store he hasn't been thrown out of yet. Naturally the first thing he's going to do is piss off his nemesis with it. Only, gasp, this camera turns whatever it takes a picture of into a little card, including Amy and Tails. Now, Sonic doesn't think this is really the way his friends should be treated, so it's time to go beat up fat people again. But then, a twist; now a bunch of Sonic wannabe's plus Knuckles are after him too, so naturally the way to settle this is by racing.

The term "team-up" is apparently lost on all of them.

The story's alright for what it is. It's really just an excuse to get four characters to race one another. It kind of makes everyone look pretty dumb though. I mean, they're all after a fat dude with a hilarious mustache. A couple of them are friends or at least on decent terms. Shouldn't they be helping each other, or at least not getting in each others way? Shouldn't they at least try to have a conversation before deciding "ha ha, I'm totally faster than you, I'll catch him first"? Apparently this doesn't occur to them until the rotund doctor decides he's going to turn the planet into a card.

I guess in Sonics world, love interests, best friends and huge gems being turned into trading cards isn't reason enough to work together. Nope, racing is clearly the superior option. It's all fun and games until somebody turns the planet into a card. If you ask me their priorities are a little screwed up.

Music and sound fare alright. None of it's really spectacular, but the actual stage music is pretty nice. There are also some sound clips, but they're not a big deal; it's a shock to get a voice clip with more than one word. At the very least, Tails is a card for most of the game, so I don't have to worry about wanting to strangle him as previously. The graphics are decent, but ultimately far from noteworthy.

The gameplay's technically sound, but while the basics work out, the other stuff does it's best to sink it. For one thing, this games a rubber band racer. No matter what you do, no matter how well you play, that sum bitch is going to catch up to you and kick you in the shins. Whoever is in second place suddenly becomes faster than the guy in first, so even if you play perfectly chances are good he's going to catch up.

There are power-ups to help keep them from passing you, but they don't always help. I really hate this kind of crap because it just takes skill out of the equation. When this sort of thing is done, it's usually done under the guise of keeping the challenge up or the game fair, but it's an artificial fix that actually makes things worse. I hate it when racing games do it, so you can imagine how much I cared for it here.

The level design this go around is pretty respectable. They usually have three different paths to go by - top, middle and lowest - similar to the classics, only streamlined for racing. This only succeeds in making them less interesting, but for racing tracks, they're not horrible. A bonus is that bottomless pits are less of a hassle here; the only real penalty for falling in one is losing a couple seconds while you respawn, a far cry from the pain they usually are.

Here's where the trouble really starts. You've got four playable characters - including Silver, a character whom Sonic '06 was in the process of ensuring we probably won't see again - each with their own story. But aside from a signature power-up-triggered move, that's the only thing different about them. They all play exactly the same, with no strengths or weaknesses among them. It's a problem the franchise had for a while, in that the developers never seemed to understand that having multiple playable characters meant nothing if they played exactly the same.

Compounding the problem is that the levels are exactly the same for each of them, with no variations whatsoever. If you want to play through all four storylines, you essentially have to play through the game four times, through the exact same levels in the exact same order. Since the levels aren't interesting enough to be worth replaying much, this means you're going to get bored around when you finish your second run through with another character.

There isn't the now-traditional last story in this game either, which means the only incentive for completing all four is to play as Metal Sonic. He doesn't even have his own story, so it's not really much of a prize. The game tries to add replay value through collectible cards, but it doesn't quite get the job done, since the game itself gives little reason to want to play more to get them all. There are challenge modes for each stage as well, but it's difficult enough just to force your way through the six levels four times for each story, so it's not exactly an attractive option. Add in an utterly worthless Grand Prix mode - to unlock a cup, you literally have to complete every single challenge for a level - and you have a game that tries to add replay value but utterly fails.

The game is enjoyable for a bit though. The first playthrough is at least mildly entertaining. I get the feeling this game would have been more enjoyable if it were a more traditional Sonic platformer, however. The sixth and final level, you race against time instead of a "rival", so it feels more like a regular Sonic stage. The time limit is relatively strict, but still, it feels different and a bit more enjoyable. What could have been.

The Score: 6 out of 10

In all, there's about an afternoons worth of fun here, but that's about it. You're really best served just playing it for Sonic story and then putting it down, because you'll have seen most of the game. It may be worth a rental. I just wouldn't recommend buying it unless you found it for dirt cheap.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Final Crisis Aftermath: Run (comics)

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artist: Freddie Williams II
Collects: Final Crisis Aftermath: Run #1-6

In the midst of Final Crisis, the Human Flame got his "revenge" on his nemesis. But the Crisis ended and it turns out that having one of the heroes murdered in cold blood is probably a bad plan. So the two-bit never-was decides it's time to go on the run from pretty much everyone and bumbles his way from one predicament to the next.

Now, it's not often that we get a bonafide villain centric comic; a lot of it being due to the problems said concept brings up. If we get anything of the sort, there's usually an anti-hero slant added to the character or it focuses on the positive qualities. See Secret Six for one example; most of its members are former villains who have since moved more towards shades of gray.

Not here. The Human Flame is a bonafide, Grade-A douchebag. Halfway through the first issue - about when he ties up his ex and steals her car right in front of his kid - it becomes crystal clear that there is absolutely nothing redeeming about him. He's nothing but a thug with delusions of grandeur. Not exactly someone you could write an ongoing about, but for a mini like this, he's just what the doctor ordered.

See, Run is very heavy on the dark comedy. Human Flame is a worthless loser, a fact the story never fails show in a variety of ways. So we watch as he screws himself over time and time again, usually with bloody results. No matter what he does or what he gains, his tendency to be a scumbag causes him to blow it. He's his own worst enemy and it's fun to watch him fail repeatedly at villainy.

The comedy Sturges shoots for isn't just dark, its quite physical. Run almost verges on Looney Tunes-ian in regards to the slapstick. Things the Human Flame uses blow up, money burns, he runs out a three story window and smacks the pavement and so on. It's depraved, physical comedy enacted on the type of human being whom - though you would never admit it - you would want to see get his just desserts if you met him in real life.

It's easier to laugh at these sort of things when your protagonist is such a prick, which is why Sturges made the right call here. Doing it with a more heroic figure - or even an anti-hero - doesn't quite work. After all, if you like the character, do you really want to see one of Flashes rogues knock his teeth out? Not to mention that the Human Flame is about as Z list as you get in regards to villains - as are a bunch of other loser villains he hooks up with in the story - so you can do whatever you want to him. I doubt this could have worked with any other character; even some C list villains have some manner of potential or popularity that can keep a writer from going all out. Sturges doesn't have to worry about such things and he makes the most of it.

I can't mention the successes of this book without mentioning the art. Freddie Williams II really outdid himself here. When I mentioned earlier that the book becomes almost Looney Tunes-esque in it's slapstick, a good bit of that is because of his art. He shows almost everything that happens to the Human Flame. He doesn't seem to skip on the detail anywhere, even a particularly gruesome two pages where Human Flame wakes up in the midst of his "upgrade". I can't say enough good things about the art; without this level of work I doubt it would have worked as it does.

All the elements combine to make a fun read, though I imagine it's not for everyone. If you need a likable protagonist to care about the proceedings or aren't partial to dark humor, this one might fall flat for you. Otherwise this is a well constructed tale that feels like it winds down about where it should. I'm not sure we'll ever see a book starring the Human Flame again - I'm almost shocked they did this one, since it's literally a mini about a nobody villain - but if Sturges ever wants to write this sort of thing some more I'd be glad to pick it up. Something like this every once in a while might be nice.

The Score: 8 out of 10

This isn't a book that's going to rock your world. It's not a book that really "matters", at least not to the greater continuity. It's probably not going to win any "best of" awards either. But that's not a good way to judge it. If you like fun, dark comedy then you could do so much worse than this. I had a good time; to me, that counts quite a bit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape (comics)

Writer: Ivan Brandon
Artists: Marco Rudy, Cliff Richards
Collects: Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape #1-6

As they usually do with events, DC decided to push out a few "aftermath" mini's in the wake of Final Crisis. Four of them, this go around. A funny thing I noticed in discussions is that the four tend to split people right down the middle. The average seems to be that everyone has two they loved and two they hated, with no one mini being universally hated.

Well, I can tell you this; Escape is not going to be one of my two.

So Tom Tresser, otherwise known as Nemesis, is drugged and abducted from his home. He wakes up in an unfamiliar place where the very laws of reality seem to have no hold. He has only one plan. To escape.

This is a tough review to do. Part of that has to do with being unsure that I really have anything to say that Iceberg Lounge and Collected Editions didn't say already; obviously, opinions are going to overlap from time to time, but I find myself skittish about reviewing something if I don't feel like I've got anything new to say. But another large part of the problem is that part of me just doesn't even want to think on it. This book is kind of like the kid who's a perpetual screw-up, but tries hard enough that you can't hate him even if you don't want to be around him because he's so freaking odd.

This is a hell of a difficult read. There's a very real feeling when reading this that what you're witnessing is just chaos birthed onto the comic page. But the difference between the good kind of difficult read and the bad is what lies in between the lines. The best kind are those that aren't linear, but at least have something under the hood. With similarly unconventionally told stories, there are meanings to everything and nothing is by accident. But this story feels the exact opposite.

The trouble is that the story doesn't seem to have a real plan in mind. Some writers have proven that the general framework of storytelling is very flexible as long as you get your point across and give everything the reader needs to figure it all out. Escape is way off on the other end of the spectrum, seeming to hold its cards too close to the chest and choosing to be complex for the sake of complexity. It's like a maze with no real path to the exit, the only way to get there being if you teleported to it.

The end result is one of the most unfortunate attempts at an nontraditional narrative I think I've read in a long while. Which is sad, as not everyone in the business really chooses to experiment. What makes the whole thing even more disappointing is that there were points in the book - like, say, when you realize what's caused the "jumps" from one scene to the next - where it seems like things are headed somewhere and that there's a solid foundation beneath, but eventually that feeling gives way. If there was a plan or point to all this, the writer tried so hard to make Escape a different kind of read that he completely obscured it from view.

Luckily, there is a positive quality or two to speak of. The cast of the book is good. Pretty much all of DC's spy characters and organizations are present, from Suicide Squad members to Checkmate on down the line. I loved Greg Ruckas Checkmate series, so even just seeing some of the characters again is nice. There's also a fair bit of fun continuity mining; though I'm not sure just what the hell the Kirby stuff had to do with anything aside from the fact that Final Crisis used it too. There's also some fun "meta" moments, as when it's pointed out that Nemesis has been nothing but a supporting player in someone elses stories while over the course of this story becomes something more; I'm pretty sure that's a clear jab at the then recently ended relationship he had with Wonder Woman that made him a regular presence in her book.

It's also worth mentioning that this volume at least attempts to follow the precedent set by its associated event. It's an unfortunate fact that aftermath stories tied to events don't always have a lot to do with what the associated event was trying to accomplish. Grant Morrison is known for being unconventional in his writing, which I've felt is a large part of why he's popular and why he also has detractors. This mini seems to try to follow his lead; I appreciate that the effort was made, even if it didn't work out.

The art's not so bad. It's held up by Marco Rudy, Cliff Richards and Neil Edwards, the last of whom would go on to do some of Johnathan Hickmans Fantastic Four issues. Despite the number of artists, they do a respectable job of mimicking one another, making it tougher to notice when there's an artist change without looking at the credits. There's the occasional exception - sometimes you may notice a face doesn't look exactly the same as previously, but for the most part it's seamless. If you're going to have more than one artist on a miniseries - which, mind you, I'd prefer not to happen - this is generally how it should be done.

The Score: 5 out of 10

It's unfortunate, but this mini feels like a spectacular failure. There's complex and then there's confusing; and this book is definitely the latter. Skip it. It's not worth the trouble.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Metro 2033 (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, PC
Developers: 4A Games
Genre: Survival Horror, First Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: March 16th, 2010

Post-apocalyptic futures aren't exactly the norm for video games, or at least they weren't for the longest time. Sure, the Fallout games have delivered it, but they don't exactly play it straight; dark humor is the order of the day in those games and the outlandish isn't out of place there. So here comes Metro 2033 - based off a Russian novel - to help fill the void.

After nuclear war ravaged the world, survivors in Moscow retreated to the metro tunnels beneath the city. Unable to live on the surface, they made a life for themselves there, with different stations all through the metro becoming like underground cities, interacting with one another through the many tunnels. But the nuclear war had other effects. Monsters now roam the tunnels, threatening the stations. Your own station, Exhibition is besieged by a new threat, the Dark Ones. When encountered, those who survive the encounter are left broken, their minds scarred. Your station now on the brink of annihilation, it falls to you to traverse the tunnels - and occasionally the irradiated city topside - to get to Polis station for help. It won't be easy.

Despite the presence of monsters, anomalies and ghosts, the game feels relatively realistic. Part of it has to do with game mechanics, but another part of it is that it feels like what you might expect to happen after a nuke or two was dropped nearby. The metro tunnels are the only habitable places - at least for a good long while - and they still carry danger, while even a short jaunt up to the surface world is always an ordeal. Even the currency speaks to the dangerous world your character inhabits; pre-war military grade ammo serves as money to the denizens of the metro and while you can fire it, firing money is probably not the greatest plan ever devised. It feels like a world that's been sent to hell, with what survived struggling to etch out a living in the fiery flames.

That it feels this way is important, because it adds a lot to the experience. The game shoots for an immersive package and on the whole it manages to achieve its goal. Things like checking your objectives, for example. Instead of an objectives screen, you bring out your personal journal - while the gameplay is still going, I might add - to check them. Need more light to read it? Good thing you've got your trusty lighter. Going into irradiated areas - or going up to the surface, where the air is toxic - requires a gas mask, which is as important as a gun in this world; almost everyone, especially people outside the stations, has one on hand. HUD icons aren't even necessary here. Need to check your filters or how hidden you are? Simple as pushing a button to bring up your watch. Want to know where to go? Good thing your journal has a handy compass. You don't need to pause the game to do much of anything; almost everything is done in-game.

In what seems like the pink elephant of game design these days, the developers decided to make this game level based. You're continuously moving forward on your path to save your home station, overcoming hurdles as you run across them. There are towns along the way - almost always a converted metro station - but each is akin to a breather along the way, allowing you to exchange your ammo for weapon upgrades and other tools you may need to survive. While the structure may be a bit more traditional, you don't have to worry about play time. This is still a relatively beefy game, containing seven chapters and a prologue, with the majority of them having five to seven levels including "towns". I thought it was a good design choice, if only because it keeps the story moving and that most major console games seem to shoot for a sandbox style of play these days.

Some of what I liked best about the game are the little things. The gas masks in particular require that you find filters, allowing you to stay topside longer. When a filter gets low, your mask is fogged up before a fresh filter is placed. The gas mask can also take damage; and if broken while in toxic areas, you have twenty seconds to find a replacement or you're screwed. There's also a charger in the game, used for charging your batteries. Both the night vision goggles and the flashlight use the batteries, so when power is low, you need to pull out the charger to boost it back up. The more you charge, the brighter your flashlight becomes. Your enemies are also as vulnerable to the environment as you are; if you're outside and you knock their mask off their head with a well placed shot, they too will eventually die from the toxic air. When you escort a child by carrying him on your shoulders, the aiming speed and such change to simulate the extra difficulty. Touches like that are just cool.

Levels are mixed up just enough to keep things from feeling stale. With levels involving human targets, you can opt for the stealth route rather than Rambo tactics. With some of them, it's probably a really good idea; not just to save ammo, but also because eight or nine Nazi's sending a hail of lead your way is a pretty reliable way to die. How the hell Nazi's were in Moscow when the bombs hit is anyones guess, really, but the pricks tend to hit you in groups. Some levels are even of the "rail shooter" variety; you'll typically be riding shotgun on a handcart, trying to keep monsters from overwhelming the cart.

On the whole, there isn't a lot wrong with the game. The controls are of the standard variety layout for First Person Shooters, but they're responsive and feel tight. I saw few to no glitches, which is a very welcome thing in an era where games are dumped to shelves with numerous bugs. Really, it's just a great game; one that proves that making a great, lengthy game can be done with the old fashioned method of "levels". Seems like a foreign concept these days, doesn't it?

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

This is probably my surprise of the year in gaming. It's great from top to bottom and is well worth your money. I definitely recommend it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thor (comics)

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Olivier Coipel
Collects: Thor #1-6

I've gotta say, mythology in comics usually doesn't do it for me. It's part of the reason you don't see many comics reviewed here that dabble in it; it's not the reason I haven't touched Hercules yet, - I actually like Greek mythology a lot - but it is part of why I haven't bothered with Marvels Thor. Something about it when translated into a comic medium just seemed off to me, so I've long avoided many comics that deal with it.

However, sometimes a comic will get so much praise that I end up ignoring my personal preferences and give something a shot I might not otherwise. Thor by JMS is one of those times. JMS is a rather controversial writer - especially since he went to DC - but his Thor run garnered acclaim and I'd wanted to give Thor a fair shot, so the first trade of his latest ongoing seemed as good a place as any.

The story starts from the ground up. Ragnarok has come and gone; the cycle finally broken by Thor himself. After his victory, he went missing; left to sleep in an endless void. But now, he has returned. The cycle of Ragnarok behind them, he brings Asgard back, settling it in Oklahoma. Now he must find the rest of the Asgardians hidden away in humans scattered all over. But the world has changed in his absence and it may not be ready for the gods to live among them.

These days, new ongoings have a habit of being inpenetrable just as often as they make themselves accessible to newbies. There's been several occasions where a new number one continues a story from someplace else, which really defeats the purpose of a number one issue. If you're not getting in on the ground floor and learning everything you need, then what's the point? The new Thor series doesn't have this problem, thankfully. I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to Thor and his mythos at Marvel, but by the end of the first issue, I felt like I knew what I needed to. This is pretty important to me; as cynical as comic readers generally are with their "oh there's no such thing as a new reader" business, there are people who would like to read new things or read comics. But comics have a reputation for being impenetrable for newbies, one it's probably earned; I've heard some say "you know, I wish comics weren't so hard to get into so I could read some [insert chracter here]", which leads me to think there really ought to be more effort into making them easy to get into. As a newbie to Thor, I appreciated feeling as though I had been brought up to speed despite not knowing a lick of the lore prior. Comics need more of this sort of thing.

This volume's starts off slow, but each issue seems to ratchet the momentum up a bit. First, Thor is back, then in the second issue Asgard returns, in the third Thor finds his first hidden Asgardian and so on. It feels like you're along for the ride as the Thor mythos are rebuilt from the ground up and for a reader new to Thor, that's a rewarding feeling.

Most of the book is well written. There are some particularly nice moments as we watch the Asgardians interact with their neighbors in the town near Asgard. Actually, the residents of the nearby town are probably what surprised me the most; I wasn't quite expecting to like them as much as I did, but lo and behold, I did. They also bring about some genuinely funny moments in their interactions with the Asgardians, which is welcome.

Unfortunately, it's not all roses. If there was a rough issue out of the six collected here, it was definitely the third one. In it, Iron Man guest stars as Thor finds himself in a Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Just by that previous sentence you can probably see where it went wrong. JMS has brought in real world events before - see the 9/11 issue of Amazing Spider-Man he did - and it's exactly the sort of thing I hate in comics. Not only did this come years after the disaster in question had come and gone, JMS used it to get a bit preachy. One of the citizens is pissed at Thor because he didn't do anything - despite the fact that, you know, the dude was dead when it happened - and irrationally blames the heroes despite Thor explaining that there was no way he could help. Then Thor feels bad because he could have stopped it. Only, you know, he couldn't, because this is a real world disaster we're talking about here; if Hurricane Katrina never happened this issue wouldn't have existed, which makes this whole exercise feel pointless and stupid. At least Thor didn't respond by taking a walk around America.

Worse still is the appearance by Iron Man, as this book takes place back during the time Iron Man was the Director of SHIELD. After Civil War manhandled the character, it became hip to have Iron Man show up in a book so that the title character could tear him apart. Not only is this annoying for fans of the character who already didn't care for how Civil War twisted him, but it happened so often that it quickly became tedious. Even if, by chance, you DID want to see it happen, it's kind of hard to pump your fist and say "yeah, give that mustachioed prick what he deserves" after the twentieth time a book had their main character tear open the armor like a can opener and beat the stuffing out of him.

Still, it's not enough to drag down the trade as a whole; the fourth issue gets a little preachy, but it's otherwise not as bad as I'd feared.

Oliver Coipel's work here also cannot be understated. He draws Thors head a bit blockier than I'd expect, but he otherwise draws the hell out of this book. He seems right at home with the granduer of the material, drawing splash page after gorgeous splash page of the mammoth floating Asgard. His fight scenes are also rather striking. I was pretty impressed. I hope JMS gives him even more to work with in future volumes.

The Score: 8 out of 10

In all, I enjoyed this book. I'm not sure I can call myself a Thor fan just yet, but this book went a pretty long way in making me a convert. It's a bit of a slow start, but it's accessible to a newbie and if things keep up in the next volume I'm hoping things will pick up even further. Still, what's here is pretty compelling and I'm intrigued enough to come back for more. Recommended.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Secret Invasion (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Lenil Yu
Collects: Secret Invasion #1-8

Well now, that was certainly a waste of time.

Marvel doesn't exactly have a great track record with events in the 2000's. Most of them sucked. Harsh, maybe, but it's true. Some did have redeeming qualities, but I can't think of one that was genuinely good.

I thought this would be the one to break the trend. It had a good setup - hell, if we're being honest the entirety of New Avengers up to that point had been leading to it - a decent hook and it had readers completely engaged. People were scrambling about, searching past Bendis comics for hints or clues; that's pretty much when you know you've got everyones attention and interest. It should have worked.

Should have.

Bendis and Marvel promised that you could read just the main miniseries and get a complete story, so I put that to the test. Well, the claim certainly holds up, mostly because there's nothing here. Skrulls invade and the heroes fight back. That's it. This comic is one giant brawl between heroes and aliens. A brawl that someone decided it should take eight issues to tell. Even on a payoff level it doesn't deliver.

At one point, the entire event was going to be split between Mighty and New Avengers, showing characters abductions and replacements by Skrull agents in the past while the battle raged in the present. Think what DC did with Sinestro Corps War. But eventually they went with a standalone miniseries, with all the abductions relegated to the tie-ins. The reason boils down to money, but it damaged the integrity of the event; eight issues of fighting could have been eight issues of deftly plotted invasions, reveals, answers as to when people were abducted and all the trimmings. Instead, we get filler.

Now lets be real here; the question of who was a Skrull and who wasn't comes out to about ninety percent of the buildup to Secret Invasion, including the ad campaigns. With all the explanations held elsewhere, the most interesting part of the story is gone. It's like they stripped the meat off a bone and then handed it to us. As a result, we get eight issues of fighting in the Savage Land and New York City. Eight issues of fighting that had the entire line tying into it for upwards of ten months.

Worse still, after all that buildup, the Skrull reveals aren't even all that interesting. There are maybe four major reveals and they all happen in the first issue. Half of them aren't even superheroes. There was a very real fear going around at the time that the event was going to be used as a cop-out for the actions of certain characters over the past couple of years. Turns out Secret Invasion didn't pull any of that at all - Bendis pokes fun at it with a few fake-outs - but the flipside is that we went through months of characters braying about how they couldn't trust anyone - to the point where fans were saying "enough already, lets get to the invasion" - only to have almost all of the heroes be the real deal. All that hysteria over nothing. Moderation is good - and if the story went too far in the opposite direction I would have been pissed about that - but it felt like the infiltration didn't have the impact that it needed.

Secret Invasion is also packed with filler. Lots of it. Seriously, there are sequences where it's so obvious wheels are being spun because "holy crap I have to fill eight issues". This is at its most noticeable when characters seem to flit in and out of the story at random, ultimately doing nothing of consequence. One of the most ridiculous involves Marvel Boy. We see him from time to time in the course of the story before he's inspired to join the battle. He then makes his presence known on the battlefield, telling the Skrulls that the battle is over and they've lost. We don't even see him again after that aside from him being present in a crowd scene. He just vanishes from the story. That's just one example; they're all over this book.

There's also an occasion where a scene just straight up does not make sense. The climax of the book involves some last resort doomsday weapon the Skrulls had. What it is or how it's actually resolved, I really don't know. Bendis doesn't tell us anything about it, much less how it's resolved. It looks like a tornado hits the character in question and they dissolve on impact. Whatever it was, it happens and then the story goes on its way with no explanation in sight.

I'm not even going to touch the ending, because it's simply insane and makes no sense whatsoever; I realize Marvel - and Bendis - wanted a certain status quo, but what they went for is more like trying to shove the meat clever in a slot made for the steak knife.

It's written, well, like a Bendis comic. Which is to say that it's at times overly quippy. Better people than I have pointed out Bendis' flaws as a scripter - there are times where everyone sounds the same, it's all too fixated on cool lines and so on - but the man can write a good comic. I've read some of them. This isn't one. Most of his bad habits as a writer are on display here.

Lenil Yu does the art; I can't say I'm a fan, but I don't dislike his work either. He does well enough - and packs detail into the fights - but there are times when his art is too scratchy for my liking. I guess it comes down to my personal preference. Others seem to get more mileage out of it than I did.

At any rate, this story is deeply, deeply flawed. There is so much wrong with it that I simply cannot recommend it. Bendis had a good thing going here, but whether it's the format getting in the way or otherwise, it just didn't work. Damn shame too; part of me thinks it should have worked. I hate it when potential is wasted.

My Opinion: Skip It

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Batman: Arkham Reborn (comics)

Writer: David Hine
Artist: Jeremy Haun
Collects: Battle for the Cowl: Arkham Asylum, Arkham Reborn #1-3, Detective Comics #864-865

Man, that's a striking Cliff Chiang cover, innit? I love the guys work. Wish he did more interiors.

Anyways, despite his prominence on the cover, Batman doesn't figure much into this story; he's in it, but he's only an element in the story instead of the protagonist. The star of the show is Jeremiah Arkham and Arkham Asylum itself. The whole of the Arkham Reborn saga is kind of a parallel plotline to the "Batman Reborn" retooling of the Batman line; while the rest of the line was fooling around with the shiny new status quo, David Hine quietly crafted a story of Arkham's rebirth into something quite possibly even more sinister than ever before. It's status as a parallel plot is both a blessing and a curse, however, which I'll get to later.

During the events of Batman RIP, Jerimiah Arkham was ejected from his beloved asylum by the Black Glove. Not long after, the asylum was destroyed by the new Black Mask while a battle for Batmans cowl raged. Unwilling to give in, Jeremiah decides to rebuild Arkham, but what it turns into may be even more dangerous than what it was before. Mysterious incidents involving the inmates occur and it almost seems as if the asylum itself is working against him. The question quickly goes from asking if anyone can be rehabbed in Arkham to asking if the asylum itself can drive a man to insanity all on it's own. The title - Arkham Reborn - is apt, as in a way this story is something of a rebirth for more than just the infamous home of Batmans rogues.

In all, it's a compelling read. David Hine writes a tight story with plenty of tension. You just know everything is going to go horribly wrong - it is Arkham Asylum after all - but there's the question of how it's all going to come crashing down. Hine brings in elements of past Arkham Asylum related stories to play off of and the result is gripping. Jerimiah Arkham has always struggled to keep some semblance of control over the asylum and there has always existed the question of whether it's affected his sanity. This book seems to settle that question rather definitively and I'm interested in the changes it brings to the asylum.

An action packed book this is not, so if that's what you're looking for, this probably isn't for you. A lot of the page time is spent on Jeremiahs thoughts and mental health. Even when a riot occurs a bit after the halfway mark of the book, it doesn't focus on the action or Batman getting things under control. After all, there's no need; that's just another Tuesday in Gotham. It's used as a device for the story, wrapped within a few pages and putting more pressure on the principal character.

If there's a problem with the book, it's that it's abundantly clear that it was hampered by the need to keep from spoiling events in another book; events I'm now forced to dance around while talking about it in case I have a reader who doesn't want to be spoiled. The presence of the new Black Mask - a plotline handled in Tony Daniels "Life After Death" storyline - is made clear throughout the book, but Hine is forced to work around the subject for most of the storyline. But between the Arkham Reborn mini and the publishing of the Detective two-parter that ends the story, that whole business had been resolved, so the Detective issues open with it clear who Black Mask was, assuming that we read that storyline. Also, a character incarcerated at the end of the mini is suddenly walking free in the 'Tec issues with absolutely no context; again, I assume it's a question answered elsewhere, though I'm not entirely sure, as I haven't read "Life After Death". It's very jarring, as some of this stuff simply does not flow from the ending of Arkham Reborn. It harms what's an otherwise compelling read; even just a few pages showing what happened between them would have helped with the transition. Instead, the knowledge is assumed; not good, especially when it isn't something minor or easily ignored.

Why this happened, exactly, I just don't know; the Battle for the Cowl: Arkham Asylum one shot collected here summarized the events that affected this story, effectively getting us up to speed. Why it didn't happen with the Detective issues that desperately needed it, I haven't a clue. Hell, the fact that this story was being finished up in a book that had nothing to do with Arkham prior - Batwoman was starring in 'Tec right before the two part wrap-up of the Arkham story - should have been reason enough to get readers up to speed. It makes no sense whether you put it in the context of a trade or a monthly.

The art by Jeremy Haun is good, solid work, but I'm not entirely sure it was suited for this sort of story. The bulk of the story deals in madness and insanity; I don't want to rag on this too hard, as Hauns work here is quite good, but my point is that it seems more suited to a superhero book. I personally think this mini needed the work of an artist whom's style is more apt to dark, haunting imagery. So, basically, very good art paired with a story it wasn't suited for.

Still, despite the flaws, I felt that the story still managed to come together. Arkham Asylum's always been an interesting part of the Batman mythos to me. It's pretty over the top by this point - we're at the junction where even characters are referring to it as a revolving door for the insane - but nonetheless fascinating in it's own way. Not too many stories really focus on it a lot though; it's more of a backdrop in most regular Batman adventures. But it seems that every now and then we get a story spotlighting Arkham and its crazies. When they're this good, they're welcome.

I just wish the choppy transition late in the book didn't hurt it so much.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

In all, the book is still a good read despite everything. I wish I could give it a higher score, but I felt that the trouble late in the book surrounding the jarring shift hampered the book too much. But it's still a worthwhile read. Maybe even worth a purchase, especially if you like a good Arkham story.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hulk: Red & Green (comics)

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artists: Arthur Adams, Frank Cho, Herb Trimpe
Collects: Hulk #7-9, King Sized Hulk #1

The Jeph Loeb Hulk run gets a lot of hate. It's not unfounded; all you need to do is take a look at one of the free five page previews from one of the issues to know the comics are dumb as a post. Loeb doesn't even try to make it anything but, so a spade may as well be called a spade. At some point this past decade, Jeph Loebs scripting abilities went to hell, but at the same time, the man is practically magic when it comes to attracting top tier artists to his projects. This volume boasts the talent of Arthur Adams and Frank Cho; so on those grounds I gave it a read.

After reading it, all I can say is... well, at least it all looks really good.

The book has two main "stories" here. See, at the time, the Incredible Hulk series had been renamed Incredible Hercules and followed that particular character. But since then, Green Hulk was running around and there was only one Hulk book. So they decided to go in halfs. Half an issue would follow Hulk classic and the other half would follow the new Red variety.

Anyways, the one starring Green Hulk finds him in Las Vegas. Apparently, Wendigos are all around and infecting the whole of Vegas. Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel and the Sentry drop by and Banner Hulks out. By the end an entire section of Vegas likely needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and for some reason known only to the creators it's actually snowing. Over in the Red Hulk tale, She-Hulk decides she wants some payback for being smacked around by the Red Hulk in times past. So naturally, instead of actually coming up with, you know, a plan, she just rings up a few of her gal pals, announces their arrival to the Red Hulk - I guess she's never heard of the element of surprise - and then proceeds to try beating the hell out of him. Since, of course, we're talking about Red Hulk here - who is a villainous Gary Stu if ever I saw one - it's no spoiler to say this doesn't work out so well.

The writing is pretty bad. Loeb does not even bother to humor us with even the slightest hint of coherent continuity or plotting. It's basically the equivalent of a kid taking his action figures and smashing them together. Seriously, there are a lot of basic questions here that do not even receive lip service. For example, at a couple times during the story, we see that Banner is in captivity - where he has apparently been since World War Hulk - which begs the question of how the hell he's running around in Vegas, beating on a bunch of furry monsters. No answers; not even a hint that Loeb even cares. That's just one example of the story just plain not making sense. Out of nowhere the Joe Fixit personality emerges from Banner for no real reason and is gone within a handful of pages, having served no purpose.

By the time one of Marvels mystics shows up to Deus Ex Machina the problem away, you've pretty much given up trying to make sense of any of it. Hell, how the Wendigo's infect isn't even explained properly; Banners monologue explains it as the result of humans engaging in cannibalism, but then later in the story it seems to just forget it established that and suddenly it's done by being bitten by one, a la zombies. We get an amusing sequence with Hulk out of it, sure, but goddamn; retconning is one thing, but within the same story? It's all a mess.

The Red Hulk tale mercifully lacks the variety of problems the previous one had. But that's mostly because it's nothing more than a big fight scene. Red Hulk spouts about some plan every now and then, but we never get the idea that he has one outside of him telling us he does. Perhaps it was a bit clearer in the last volume, but judging by this one, I doubt it.

The last real story is a summation of the life of Abomination told from his death on backwards to when he was "born". Why it's even here, I haven't the foggiest; after all, the Abomination was killed in the last volume and plays no part in this one. But whatever, right? I just kind of look at it as an out of place extra.

Where the scripting fails, the art prevails. Seriously, for every bad moment brought by the writing, there's a gorgeous panel of art to look at. Arthur Adams draws the hell out of the Vegas story; the story may be stupid as hell, but it's kind of hard to really argue with Hulk smashing through a city of neon lights and busting up Wendigos in a casino. Though I will say that I found it kind of funny how he makes Ms. Marvel look like Empowered.

Frank Cho draws the Red Hulk story because of course Frank Cho is going to be called upon to draw a story where eighty percent of the cast consists of women. Ass shots aplenty. I love Cho's work and really, this kind of thing is pretty much his specialty. The dudes good at drawing beautiful women. This is a story where a bunch of beautiful women fight Red Hulk. The math's definitely sound and the man can draw some good facial expressions too. I like it, even if he does sometimes work to get in an ass shot; though to be fair, I didn't think it went to the levels of, say, an Ed Benes this go around.

Now, I've railed on this book pretty heavily, so it's understandable if you think I loathed it outright. These are, after all, comics that don't even manage to come within a mile of being genuinely good. But I have to admit, there is some enjoyment to be had. If you go in like you might a regular comic, you'll probably rip your hair out, because the book - and hell, most of the characters in it - borders on retarded. But if you stop thinking about and just enjoy it as a fight comic, you can find some fun within. It's basically two big fights drawn by some of the industries greats. Sometimes that's all you really need.

The Score: 5.5 out of 10

I kind of hesitate to give this book a score even on the level of a five point five, but fun is fun, even if it's retarded fun. There's plenty of reason for most readers to hate this book; and honestly, I agree a hundred percent with most of the criticisms. But this volume at least had some merit. If the art wasn't even half as good, this probably would have gotten a four. I'd never recommend a purchase, - and I doubt I'll be back for future volumes, because I fear my IQ would drop sharply - but if, say, you were to find it at the library, the art makes it worth a check-out. But only one.

One last thing; can writers please be banned from writing "omigod"? It's horribly obnoxious. I do not know any real people who say that. If I did, I probably wouldn't want to hang around them.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Batman and the Outsiders: The Chrysalis (comics)

Writer: Chuck Dixon
Artists: Julian Lopez, Carlos Rodriguez
Collects: Batman and the Outsiders #1-5

Is it just me, or is it a bit sad when the circumstances surrounding a book are more entertaining than the book itself? It seemed like this book pissed through creative teams on the way to being published. At one point Judd Winick was slated to write the book, then Tony Bedard, then one more if I remember right before Chuck Dixon was finally solidified as the writer. The cast of the book was almost as much of a question mark. At one point I was interested - putting Batman in a books title is an easy way to get my attention - but between all the ruckus leading to the books debut and Batman RIP making it clear the pointy eared ones involvement in the title would not last, the interest more or less bottomed out.

Turns out I didn't really miss anything.

So after a relatively disastrous team-up with the forces of Checkmate, Nightwing decided it would be a fairly ballin' idea to give the reins of the team up to Batman. It's a logical move for ol' Dick to make; after all, the Bat is the one who initially created the team to start with and has flitted in and out of their lives since. Batman does some trial by fire recruiting and this book starts up after all that has taken place. The first mission quickly leads them into hot water, OMAC's are involved and nasty folks need stoppin'. Sounds right up Batmans alley.

The book is pretty straightforward, yet still manages to be something of a mess. It feels like the book was trying to work out its creative nightmares as it went along, which leads to some odd instances within the comic itself. Several promised members featured prominently on the cover are gone by the end of the second issue - remnants of the plans of a different writer - and new members drop in seemingly at random, only to kind of hang around and not do much, at least not in this volume. Dixon works to get things to where he wants them to be, but even if you didn't know of all the behind the scenes malarky it's easy to get the feeling that the book did not go as planned.

The writing is solid, but not much more. To tell the truth, I'm not a huge fan of Chuck Dixon; I like some of his comics, but he is not one of those guys whose work I'll actively seek out. To me, he's always been middle of the road; one of the dependable workhorses of comics, if you will. You can depend on him for a solid script and timeliness - and hell, to be fair, sometimes you just want a straight up superhero adventure with no subtext - but if you want comics that really push boundaries or rise to great heights he's not exactly the writer you want to look for. Aside from some of his Batman and Punisher work, I have a difficult time remembering any stories he's written that didn't have the title "Year One". Sometimes I just find his work bland.

To that sense, this book definitely feels like one of his. Despite it's creative woes, he manages to pull the book into readable territory, which is no mean feat. But it's not something you're likely to remember afterwords, which is never a good sign.

I will give credit where it's due, however. Dixon makes use of several characters we haven't seen in a while. It's interesting to have Francine Langstrom as part of the supporting cast of the book, for example, as it's her husband - also known as Man-Bat - that usually takes up the page time. It's also nice to see something done with the Dibny's, who, despite receiving a fantastic setup for adventures as ghost detectives, have appeared in jack all since 52.

The art only compounds problems. Frankly, it feels rushed. Hell, it probably was, considering the trouble getting the book out there. The second issue has a guest artist and neither really turn in work that goes to a level much higher than "solid". One particular quirk to note is that Julian Lopez - the primary artist - has a tendency to overdo expressions; some of Geo-Forces midway through the book are almost comically overdone. The artist couldn't seem to settle on a consistent costume for Katana either, as it seems to change from issue to issue.

Oh well, at least Metamorpho has pants now; never could take him too serious prior.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

Solid, but ultimately forgettable. It has its pluses, but the flaws seem to outweigh it; and Dixon isn't exactly an exciting enough scripter to make the entire exercise worthwhile on his own. It's a shame too, as the hook has potential; alas, it never truly seizes it and considering there's only one more volume from Dixon I highly doubt anything introduced in this book got to play out in any interesting way. You won't miss much if you skip it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Daredevil Noir (comics)

Writer: Alexander Irvine
Artist: Tomm Coker
Collects: Daredevil Noir #1-4

This book kind of confuses me. Not in a sense that I couldn't understand the story. More in the sense that I can't understand why it exists.

I know, odd statement; why does any story exist? But seriously, this book didn't exactly feel too far removed from the norm for Daredevil. I admit I'm not a regular Daredevil reader. I've only read a couple scattered stories. I'm not overly familiar with noir either, aside from enjoying a couple classics. But what I have read of Daredevil already felt immersed in noir - or at least to my admittedly limited understanding of it - which kind of makes the choice to do a book like this an odd one. If the main book dabbles in the genre semi-regularly, why bother creating a standalone alternate continuity story based around it?

I guess one could say they just felt like hitting all their icons with this noir line; actually, now that I think on it, that's probably it.

Still, it makes for an odd read. What little noir I've read tends to have a nihilistic view of the world; and to some extent, that continues here. But in trying to suss out what's different, I couldn't really find anything. This book has Matt Murdock as a blind PI with partner Foggy Nelson and Matt moonlights as Daredevil. The typical dame shows up, Matt's drawn into her world, including a coming gang war and everything just goes to hell for him. But, you know, isn't that more or less what happens to Daredevil Classic? Seems like every five minutes you hear about one of his love interests overdosing and his life literally being broken down piece by piece. Maybe it just seems that way because I don't read the book much. Regardless, that's how it comes off. I guess the biggest difference with this book is that instead of being dredged in noir like the regular Daredevil, this is soaked in it before being sauteed in the proverbial noir juices.

Regardless of all that, it's quite competently written. It read about as I expected and I generally enjoyed it, so I suppose in some regards it's a success. The inner monologues can get a bit purple, but as I understand that's pretty much how noir is done and such is done well enough that I didn't feel like it was a distraction. I suppose I could fault it for being so much like what I expected that little it did was a surprise, but there's something to be said for getting what you want out of a book. Still, I'm not sure there's anything in this story that made it a completely worthwhile exercise.

The art looks great and fits the story perfectly, but it too has its problems. I understand that a noir story is supposed to be pretty dark - lots of shadows, muted colors and so on - but there are times where I think this book goes a bit overboard. There are a couple fight scenes that contained panels where I just flat out could not discern what was going on. Did the Bullseye killer just stab him with a piece of wood in the water? Does that character have Daredevil in a headlock? Why do the limbs seem kind of off in that panel? Why does this panel look more like they're having a dance-off than fighting? What the hell is coming out of that pipe? How did that building suddenly set on fire? And so on. It's really the fight scenes that are the problem. For the most part, the book has solid storytelling through art, but it seems that when a fight scene comes about the books very genre gets in the way. I guess if nothing else, it proves a noir comic can be a bit too shadowy.

The Score: 7 out of 10

When you get down to it, I'm still not sure this book justified its own existence. It was a fairly enjoyable read, however, so it's not a total waste. It's not something I'd jump to recommend, however. I guess it depends on how much noir you like on your Daredevil. For me, it didn't dissuade me from trying others from the Noir line, but... well, it doesn't exactly inspire me to go out of my way to read any more either.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

Writer: Gerard Way
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Collects: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1-6, two page internet preview story, Free Comic Book Day 2007 story

Holy hell, talk about defying my every expectation.

Listen. Between you and me? There was absolutely no reason for this to be any good. It's written by a singer in an alternative rock band. I've little experience with My Chemical Romance aside from hearing a song or two that I thought sounded kind of cool, but even if they're the best - or worst - band going, there's a difference between writing music and writing comic books. Besides that, the track records for any comic book written by a musician of any kind is piss poor. Remember those Insane Clown Posse comics? No? Good, you must have blocked them out of your memory. Couple this with the fact that I had never heard of the artist before and man I thought this was going to suck harder than a cheap hooker; Grant Morrison giving it praise is why I ultimately took it out for a read.

I'm sorry for not giving you the benefit of the doubt, Gerard Way; at the very least, you've proven you can put together a good comic.

The story starts with seven kids with extraordinary powers being born after a wrestler drops the atomic elbow on a space octopus. The seven are taken in and adopted, later becoming a dysfunctional family and superhero group, the Umbrella Academy. After seeing their first adventure, we jump forward twenty years. They've all grown up, one of their number is dead and by this time the team has long since disbanded. But now, their adopted father has died and the apocalypse is on the horizon. The remaining members of the team need to put their differences aside and reunite if there's any hope for the world.

First off, it's easy to tell Gerard is a fan of Grant Morrison. More than once this comic reminded me of the style of rapid fire ideas that can make Morrisons comics the most interesting thing to hit a page. From a living white violin with the power to bring the apocalypse through song to the Academy fighting an insane Eiffil Tower piloted by Zombie-Robot Gustave Eiffil, this comic is just bursting with the kind of insane fun that draws me in every time. He's also got a knack for writing a bit of dark humor here and there, which is more than welcome; juxtaposing an "isn't this worth fighting for" speech against a seedy streetcorner with triple X signs and hookers fighting next to a homeless guy is just morbidly hilarious.

To my surprise, it's all very well written. Way manages to craft some believable drama in the midst of the insanity, with the different relations between the dysfunctional kinda-sorta-not-really-a-family bringing some emotional weight to the proceedings. None of them are actually blood related and within the dynamic lie grudges, chaffing personalities and serious dysfunction. Some members get along well while others might come to blows. Way manages to make us feel like we know the members of the Academy fairly quickly, which I think is high praise. By the end, it's easy to be attached the the team and their insane world. It's even easier to want to see what might be next.

If Gerard Way is not a comic fan, I'll be surprised, because there are aspects to this comic that seem to homage some of the greats. Late in the book, when attempting to piece things together, The Kraken meets with a very Commissioner Gordan-esque inspector. The scene feels like a reference to Batman, right down to Kraken disappearing while the inspector is still talking. The team itself - including the power sets and general looks - feels very much like an homage to the Doom Patrol; hell, the fight with an insane Eiffel Tower made me think of the Painting That Ate Paris from Morrisons Doom Patrol run. Also, some character interactions remind me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. By that, I'm thinking largely of the rivalry between The Kraken - a hot headed brawler who doesn't like taking orders, just like Raphael - and the team leader Spaceboy, who reminds me of Leonardo of the Turtles, only far more interesting (lets face it, Leo can be kind of a bland cliche of the stern leader just as often as he can be awesome). Some of it's probably intentional, some of it might not be, but it's nice regardless.

I mentioned earlier that I'd never heard of Gabriel Ba before and that's true, but I'll remember him from now on. His art is at times a bit too blocky for my liking - not really a fan of that sort of style - but he clearly has an eye for detail and skills in telling a story with art. The details in his art can convey as much about the story as the words. To elaborate on that a bit, one thing he did I liked happened midway through the first issue when we jump ahead twenty years to the time period the rest of the comic takes place in. The first thing we see is Spaceboy. In the twenty years since, his head has somehow been grafted onto an apes body. There is no exposition explaining this, the comic just moves forward; instead, in the background, we see newspaper clippings that give you everything you need to know about what happened without any exposition. Good stuff.

Also included in the collection is a two page story that was put up on the internet as a teaser of sorts and the Free Comic Book Day offering. The former is nice to see included - though it may be non-canon - but doesn't offer much. The FCBD offering, however, holds more value. Seeing as it takes place before the Umbrella Academy originally broke up as a team, it offers a look at the group in their prime, something we didn't see at all in Apocalypse Suite proper. It's very much in the same vein as the main series and I'm glad it was included. To round it off, there's a sketchbook section at the back, showing a lot of the original concept art of the series numerous characters. It's worth a look to see how the designs evolved prior to the project.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Man, was this a great read. This was definitely a surprise in regards to how good it is; I'd heard the praise, but I couldn't believe it until I'd seen it. It's great folks. I'd recommend dropping the coin - followed by the Atomic Elbow Drop - as soon as possible. No hype; it's just great comics. I'll be back for Dallas and whatever else Gerard Way feels like writing.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Metroid: Other M (video games)

Platform: Wii
Developers: Team Ninja, Nintendo
Genre: Action, Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: August 31st, 2010

I've been a fan of the Metroid games for a long time. I was a bit late to the party - my first experience was Fusion and I never got to play Super until just a couple years ago - but once I got into the franchise I've been there for most installments. Up comes the latest adventure for Samus, Other M. The question of whether I was going to play it would be met with a resounding "duh".

Before I go much further, I may as well address the elephant in the room and get it out of the way. There's been some outrage over this game and its portrayal of Samus. This was to be expected, really - even when she had the few story sequences in Fusion some people bitched - but it's louder now. There are calls of sexism and even claims on Big Time Gaming Sites that try and say the game has ruined the character of Samus Aran.

It's bullshit, folks, but probably not for the reason you think. The truth of the matter - and what some either cannot or or simply will not see - is that Samus never had a character. Prior to Fusion she was nothing more than a cypher; a character in the very loosest sense possible. A player stand-in. Link with breasts, basically; and that space suit is so androgynous ninety percent of the time you can't even tell. But somewhere along the line, some folks seemed to decide she was some sort of feminist icon or a shining example of a female character. This is a very stupid notion - I mean, Christ, the main reward for completing the first three games quickly was seeing her in a swimsuit, which doesn't exactly scream "feminism" - but it's there and over the years it seems to have taken root deeper than I previously realized.

What happened here is that the absence of a defined character led people to draw their own strict conclusions of what she was like. A lot of them seem to be that any emotion on her part is out of character. Wipe out an alien race without a shred of remorse? Stare down your parents killer without even a twinge of emotion? Blew up several planets without even a second thought? That's what they seem to think happened. They seem to think it makes her "strong". There's a word for that, and it tends to be "sociopathic", not strong; and while the games never went out of their way to give Samus depth as a character, she never struck me as a sociopath or much of anything really aside from someone who kicks ass on her own.

But I digress; my point is that you can't ruin a character with no personality whatsoever and what people really seem to be mourning is the loss of the notion that the character might be the way they envision her.

With that cleared up, lets move on. Now, while I've established that there isn't really a character to Samus, there are things I'm still not sure about. The game has a standard set-up. Samus receives a distress call from the "Bottle Ship" and she bolts to check it out. She finds her old unit in the military there and tags along with them. Things go south pretty quick as you find more than a few nasty beasties inside wanting to crack open your armor like a can opener might and chow down.

The games story has an obvious goal of giving more depth to Samus than has ever been attempted before. They don't really hold back much, showing her time in the Galactic Federation army and other flashbacks. Quite a few of these things feel right. It made sense to me that she would mourn the baby Metroid, as you don't tend to brush off the death of something that gave its life protecting you, unless you're a few knives short of a full block. Having her as ex-military also goes a long way towards explaining why she is as skilled as she is, much less how she got the sort of combat experience she might need to quickly make a name for herself as a bounty hunter.

Others don't feel right, however. They try to do something new with how you progress, instead of having Samus lose everything at the start, she turns them off until Adam - the CO of the Federation Squad you're chillin' with - gives authorization. It's stupid, frankly; she already has her entire arsenal, but her former boss distrusts her so she turns them off and lets him decide when she can use what? She's got access to the stuff; at the very least you'd expect she wouldn't be skulking around in lava pits for too long before deciding "screw this" and turning on the Varia feature, authorization or not. Even if you buy it, there's no reason for something as harmless as a grapple beam or low grade ordinance like morph ball bombs needing the okay from a guy you don't even work for.

Probably the iffiest moment in the games story comes about due to the series stalwart villain, Ridley. When he shows up, Samus outright freezes in fear. While it makes sense to me that at some point she was afraid of Ridley - after all, this is the creature who murdered her parents right in front of her when she was a little girl * - this late in the series it's almost laughable. By this point, depending on whether you include the Primes, she's fought some variation of Ridley two to five times now. Shock at the fact that he wasn't dead anymore, I could see; freezing in fear to the point Ridley gets in some serious damage before she snaps out of it, not so much. It might have worked for a 3D remake of the original Metroid or something, but here it just does not work and is the one scene people complained about that does make Samus look somewhat weak.

Other than the iffy points, the story isn't all that bad. I've certainly experienced better - and some lines, like Samus calling the traitor "The Deleter", are straight up comical - but I've dealt with enough Japanese product that I've also experienced far worse. If anything, that's the stories problem. It feels way too Japanese in that stock manga or anime way. The Japanese are creatures of habit when it comes to storytelling; they tend to stick within a certain set of tropes and don't really deviate far from it. This is probably why Nintendo's managed to keep relevant to those sick of Japanese storytelling over here; for the most part they've kept story as a secondary concern for most of their existence. Unfortunately it does plague Other M a bit, so I hope the next time they take a shot at a story with the series it's a bit more minimalistic. I loved Metroid Fusion - story included - so I'm thinking more along those lines.

Oh, one more thing about the story and really the game in general. It's actually nice to have a Metroid game that recognizes that the Metroid species can morph beyond the larval stage we so often see. Aside from the fight against an Omega Metroid in Fusion, this game is quite possibly the first time since Return of Samus - which is the game that introduced the evolution chart of the Metroids - that we've actually seen a form past larval. I'd very much like to see more of this, because one of the things that has annoyed me with the series is that either we've just seen the primary stage everyone is familiar with or it goes off into some completely different evolution because of Phazon or whatever.

Anyways, what really lets down the story here - and is part of why some scenes fall flat - is the voice acting. Talk about a "for the paycheck" performance. The voice actress for Samus in particular emotes about as well as the boulder out to the side of my driveway, which really hampers any emotional weight a lot of scenes might have. I don't know why they didn't just tap Jennifer Hale again. If they'd put her as Samus here and let her do more than grunt like in Prime, I imagine the game wouldn't have had this problem.

So the story doesn't quite live up, but it's not as bad as everyone's said. Should be smooth sailing from here on, right? I mean, the Metroids are renowned largely because of the great gameplay. Well unfortunately that's where the game really cements itself as a letdown. In the past, a Metroid game has been either in the third or second dimension. This time around, they try to mash the two up. It's an idea with merit; other companies have taken a similar approach in the recent past and it's worked out well. Here, they've found an approach with merit, but there's a long way to go to mold it into something truly great.

The problem is partly one of controls. The nunchuck is passed over entirely, instead asking you to turn the Wiimote to the side like an NES controller to play. When you want to switch to first person mode, you point at the screen. Cute idea in theory, but in execution it doesn't work out.

See what this means is that you now move using the directional pad. You're in a 3D space, but you can only move in eight directions. Which means you can only fire in eight directions while in third person mode. Now, I probably don't need to tell you that enemies aren't kind enough to stay in one of those eight directions. You see the problem. I'd gladly trade the novelty of holding my Wiimote like an NES remote for use of the thumbstick, thanks.

Then there's the first person mode, activated by pointing the remote at the screen. Someone had the bright idea of making it so you can only use missiles while in this mode. In case I didn't mention, you also cannot move while in first person mode. So have fun taking damage while you try to line up the lock-on for the missiles! This pretty much makes this staple of the franchise more or less useless for any enemies not designed to be beat with missiles. Worse still, there are times when you are automatically put in first person because the game wants you to notice something. Unfortunately, unlike the Prime series, things of interest are not highlighted in any way. So when you're forced to spend about five minutes in a dark place trying to find the goddamn thing the game wants you to notice, you're probably going to get annoyed.

As far as design of the game, well, this is part of what's painful about the whole thing. The mash up of 2D play and 3D has a lot of potential for future games. In fact, I really hope it's used in the future, because there are a lot of possibilities. But here it's not utilized in any interesting way, which is a goddamn shame. This manner of gameplay could easily bring forth new challenges, puzzles and ways to hide items, but it doesn't. Most of the areas are fairly straightforward, with you easily able to suss out any items in the room. They're really not all that well hidden, for the most part, and there's little reason to backtrack. You're probably going to be able to hit about seventy percent of the items in your first playthrough with minimal deviations.

Not that there's much room for deviation. This game is pretty linear for a Metroid game. Some people heckled Fusion for this, but Other M is much, much worse. There aren't a lot of clever alternate paths to be found and you won't have much difficulty finding anything. In a series known for dense maps and lots of things to discover, this is something of a shock. Couple that with very few occasions where backtracking through areas you've been to already is necessary and you've got a game that feels pretty damn short if you set aside any story sequences.

On the arsenal, there's good and bad on display here. On the negative side, some classic tricks from past Metroid games have been nerfed. You can just forget about the morph ball bomb trick, for example; you can do it if you're patient, but the game has a set height from the ground it allows the bombs to take you, making it essentially worthless. But on the other side of the token, almost all of the classic arsenal has finally made the jump to 3D. The Prime games were great stuff, but no matter how talented Retro Studios may be, there are some things they never figured out how to do in 3D. But this game finally brings out many of the mainstays that had been left in the 2D era. Things like the speed booster and the screw attack, for example, have finally made it into 3D and in the new gameplay design they work like a charm. It's something worth noting, because it's one thing this game definitely does right.

When you narrow it down, the question becomes, is there fun to be had with this game? Yeah, there is. To tell the truth, I really love the Prime games. But sometimes, it doesn't feel as much like Metroid as it should. It became something of a first person adventure, using most of Metroid lore and staples to great effect. But it also ditched a lot of what made the series popular to start with. In fact, a lot of the time I'd chill in morph ball mode in those games, since it was in the third person, which felt better than the first person perspective mode. This game, however, has more of a Metroid feel. The way this game is structured feels far more natural to the series than the jump to first person ever did and it feels like a natural evolution of the franchise instead of showing the round peg through the square hole. Sure, Retro managed to jam that round peg through, but that doesn't mean it felt like as much of a fit.

For all the games problems, I hope they don't scrap the gameplay wholesale; I'd much rather they improved upon this than going back to the first person, which I'd mostly had enough of after three games.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

When you break it down, the game is a disappointment. But then, it had a hell of a pedigree to live up to. There's fun to be had here, but the gameplay hampers it. It might be worth a rent, but I hesitate to recommend it for purchase. Hopefully, Nintendo learns from its mistakes. There really is a solid foundation with the switch to third person, they just blew it when it comes to this game.

* With a backstory like hers, Samus should probably have a bat emblazoned on the front of her armor. She could be the intergalactic representation of Batman Inc.