Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack (game)

Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Genre: 2D Platformer
Release Date: February 21st, 2012

For all the talk of the trouble the PS Vita is in - it does have a surprising lack of games for a system two months removed from a full year on the market - it does have several titles of a pretty high quality. Some are pretty faithful ports, which is astonishing in itself for a handheld, but of the native games it has thus far, Mutant Blobs Attack is probably one of the most fun.

You are a mutant blob who escapes from a science lab. Having been experimented on, you're understandably a little pissed. So it's time to absorb whatever junk you find lying around until you can get some revenge on those pesky humans.

Mutant Blobs Attack is a pretty standard platformer, but it's a well designed one. You're never at a loss for what to do or where to go, while traps and obstacles are quite clever. At times, the Vitas touch screen functionality comes into play, allowing you to magnetically move platforms and reverse the direction of certain traps. Even the collectibles - your other mutant blob buddies - are hidden in intelligent ways; some of the later ones take a bit of thinking to find while others require you to keep a sharp eye open.

Also included are a handful of levels taking advantage of the Vitas motion sensors, serving as bonus levels to add some variety. These are entertaining as well, allowing you to tilt the system to control your blob. A minor, unfortunate nitpick is the fact that this requires you to start with your Vita held flat, but it's hardly a major issue.

Style is the word with MBA. Everything is colorful and every level is packed with chuckle worthy jokes or homages to things long past. One of the "Tilt-a-Blob" levels was done in black and white with a pretty familiar border, paying simultaneous homage to black and white horror films and the original Game Boy. While the jokes aren't liable to make you laugh out loud, it's enough to make you smile and set a lighthearted tone that kind of obscures the fact that you're basically destroying the human race.

The game has about six chapters with three to six levels a piece, so it's a pretty respectable length for the money. Stages are long enough to keep your interest but short enough to get one in if you have five minutes to spare. In all, it's got quote a bit to offer for a downloadable title. It's well worth the price, especially if you're a PS+ subscriber where it has been offered for free.

The Score: 9 out of 10

If you love platformers, give this a download. It's a wonderful little 2D side scroller that deserves a spot on your Vitas memory card.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Spider-Man: Spider-Island (comic)

Writers: Dan Slott, Rick Remender
Artist: Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli and Tom Fowler
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #666-673, Amazing Spider-Man: Infested, Spider Island: Deadly Foes, Venom #6-9

You may have guessed by the lack of reviews over the past couple years, but I fell off the Spidey bandwagon a while back. It's not for utterly boring reasons like "oh my god I'm so mad Peter and MJ aren't together anymore", as you may recall that I was pleased with that development. It's not really an issue of quality either, though I have some issues I'll get to in a minute. No, there are a few reasons, but the biggest one is a pretty simple one; I just plain could not keep up with the Spider-Man release schedule.

It started with Brand New Day, where Amazing went thrice-monthly. I loved the first few volumes, warts and all. But the trade release schedule was just as hectic; seemed like a volume was releasing every other month thanks to the accelerated schedule of the floppy and Spider-Man was about mid-way on my list of purchase priorities. It was sort of inevitable that I was going to fall behind. It got to a point where I was so far behind I just gave up and figured I'd get back to it later. I didn't.

Spider-Island seemed enough of a self contained thing that I could pick it up and go from there. The premise is just ridiculous enough to scream "fun" at me in big bold letters. Basically, everyone in Manhattan suddenly has all of Spidey's powers, with none of his morals or - cliche as it is to say it - responsibility. Clearly, this is not going to end well.

Oh, also, Jackal's involved, which nearly caused me to drop the book on page one - to paraphrase Mary Jane in this story, "If we're doing the clone thing again I'm leaving" - but thankfully there's only a bit of his usual shenanigans.

If you want to look at the big picture, it's easy to see the reason for this story. By giving everyone his powers and thus making him one in a crowd, Slott can highlight what it is that actually makes Peter Parker stick out. A good trick to be sure. DC had a similar idea not that long ago; the entire New Krypton saga existed for many of the same reasons, though how much success they had with that one depends on who you ask*.

Spider-Island is far from the most cerebral read going, but there's something to be said for some dumb superhero fun mixed with your typical Spider-Man soap operatics. It also has the good sense not to overstay its welcome; think about how many past big Spider-Man stories seemed to never end. Overall, we get a decent portrait of what makes Peter Spidey, along with some choice developments to the ongoing narrative.

But then there's the other half of the coin. I actually read the first volume of Big Time a while ago in an attempt to get back on the Spider-Man bandwagon. Apparently, I didn't review it - a quick check of the Spider-Man tag seems to indicate as much - but there was one impression that stuck with me. I just flat out hated the artwork.

To my disappointment, the artist Marvel chose to accompany Slott on the Big Time venture was Humberto Ramos. He's still around for the main storyline of Spider-Island. I am not a fan of his work for numerous reasons, many of which can be seen in this book. The anatomy is always off, limbs are bigger than they should be, judicious use of impossible poses abound (at least one panel has Carlie swinging while she's bent so far back I'd expect to see a "snap" SFX somewhere near her midsection) and everything looks vaguely ugly.

Being harsh is not my intent. His style does have its fans. I simply do not see it. I have a similar problem with Kelley Jones; at some point, I just can't chalk things that bug me up to "it's just his style" anymore. I don't begrudge the man work and have nothing against him. His art is just a major turnoff for me. I try, but I can't look past the Popeye proportions. It's part of why I didn't stick with the book after reading the first Big Time trade.

Also included here are four issues of the Venom ongoing. A while back I actually wondered where the hell #6-9 ended up and this seems to answer that question. The first couple can stand apart from the main story well enough, initially making me wonder why they didn't have their own volume, but by the end I understood; the events of #8 are very important and lead right into the next issue of Spider-Island, making them inseperable. Clearly Marvel hates me.

All four issues are very good - and frankly, I'd rather Tom Fowler or Stefano Caselli had handled art duties for Spider-Island proper - with numerous developments building off the first volume of Venom. This is a joy and a curse; these issues are important to the ongoing events of the Venom series, yet are tied so strongly to Spider-Island they can't really stand alone. As such, this is likely to be the only place you're going to find these issues in trade. Dammit.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

I'd score this higher, but the art really hurts it for me. If you can deal with Humberto Ramos artwork - or are a fan of his - bump this up half a point higher. It's far from an instant classic, but it's fun and it's memorable.

* Some people think it was an interesting experiment, but most were sick of it and it seems largely forgotten now. It certainly didn't help that Geoff Johns run on Action Comics was cut short at the time for reasons I can't recall. He essentially set the whole thing up and had to bail, leaving New Krypton to others. The whole saga seems to be regarded as a failure and I'd say losing its architect before the plot gained momentum had a large part in that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 1 (comic)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Steve Niven
Collects: Captain America (vol. 5) #1-5

The Marvel love affair with relaunching rolls on. The sad part being that it wasn't twenty issues before that they renumbered the last volume to legacy numbering. Then, this one lasts all of nineteen issues before they relaunch Cap again*! Unbelievable.

Steve Rogers has the mantle again and Ed Brubaker decides to lead off with an accessible story. You need no knowledge of prior volumes to read this one. Brubaker's been pretty generous in giving us an easy in between bigger storylines. "Two Americas" is similar in this regard.

This story leans on a few Captain America cliches to work. Someone from his past returns and is kind of cheesed at him. They fight. Steve then ends up wondering if he's a failure as Cap or if America has lost its way under his watch. On the plus side, Ameridroid shows up for a bit, even if we aren't likely to see him again. What we end up with is more of a straightforward action comic, which is not something Ed Brubaker has done a lot of in the past.

I mentioned Two Americas earlier; this volume has a few similarities to that book. The basic conflict is the same; someone shows up who is pretty unhappy with the way that America has gone, has a pretty concrete view on how it should be and will go to extreme methods to "fix it". The difference is in the message. The point of Two America's is that Crazy 50's Cap was essentially fighting to regain a vision of America that probably never existed. It was pretty clear that, however good the intent may have been, 50's Cap was off his rocker and definitely in the wrong. This time, it's left ambiguous; Rogers himself wonders if the jerkass had a point. Not exactly unfamiliar ground for a Captain America story**, but it's not something I recall Brubaker doing before, so I can cut him some slack here.

The ending points towards another multi-arc plot from Brubaker, but I have no idea if it's resolved. Brubaker's run finally ended - after a staggering eight years - about fourteen issues later. You'd think that would be plenty of time to wrap it up, but it depends on when exactly Bru knew he was leaving and if he got enough space.

Steve McNiven's art is nice, as expected. There's a gaffe or two in there, though. The two panels where Sharon tosses the shield from out a hole in a building immediately come to mind. I wish I could counterbalance with something other than "it was nice", but I'm far from a master art critic.

The Score: 7 out of 10

This arc doesn't hit the highs of the past, but it's solid entertainment. Not a bad place to jump on either; I wouldn't recommend it, but if you just wanted a recent Cap book without six years worth of ongoing plot driving it this is as good a choice as any.

* Because, you know, DC did it and it was pretty successful. They deny it, of course, but they're not fooling anyone. To their credit, though, they're doing a better job with the rollout; instead of the hardline "wrap your shit up before September" approach DC took, Marvel's spreading out the new number ones and allowing books time to finish. So I hesitate to give them too much of a hard time. Still, two Captain America and Uncanny X-Men relaunches within two years?

** We can thank Watergate for that.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Spider-Man: Death of the Stacy's (comic)

Writer: Stan Lee, Gerry Conway
Artists: John Romita Sr., Gil Kane
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #88-92, #121-122

Time for a rough truth; a lot of old comics, especially from Marvels Silver Age, do not age well. As influential and groundbreaking as the work may have been at the time, the sad fact is that those comics were done in a style that is so far outdated that it's almost painful to read. Stan Lee, great as he was for the time, is probably one of the worst offenders; and while Gerry Conway isn't nearly as bad, he's still a writer of that time period and that particular style.

I've always had a problem reading old Stan Lee comics. Stan Lee wrote in the most verbose way possible, constantly having characters describe things clearly depicted in the artwork and narrating the hell out of the slightest action. It's not like he had incompetent artists, either; hell, here he has John Romita Sr., an all time great. Such was the strength of Romitas art that if you ignored the narration or speech and just followed the art you could get a clear picture of the fight anyways.

The problem, for me, is that I find myself struggling with all that redundant prose. I'm easily bored, especially with things I already know, which is why I've always had a rough time with old timey comics. On the other side of the coin, I don't want to just skip it because what if I miss something important or cool in the dialogue? That constant struggle always irritates me. A lot of people complain about how quickly you can read through a comic these days, but they forget that there are several very good reasons no one writes like this anymore.

So for all the strength of the stories - and the emotional beats contained within - their age shows, making them difficult reads today. Marvel is not like DC - they're fairly uninterested in retelling stories - meaning this will probably always be the official version of the Stacy family's death. That's probably a good thing for these comics, because - and your mileage may vary, since you may well have more tolerance for material this old - in this day and age the importance of the stories are about all they have going for them.

One last note about this whole thing and it pertains to Gerry Conways forward. He admits outright that he killed off Gwen Stacy because he wanted Mary Jane with Peter Parker and saw his shiny new job writing Spider-Man as his chance. Considering how iconic the story is now, one can always make the argument that he made the right choice, reasons for it aside. But does his reasoning reek of bad fanfiction or is it just me? Male writer kills off female character because he doesn't like her and she is in the way of his preferred pairing? That's about three quarters of internet fanfiction right there.

The Score: 6 out of 10

I can't say I had a good time reading this. I hesitate to give it lower, because it's an important story and, well, despite how much trouble I had enjoying them, these comics come from a different time. Don't let me scare you off if you want to read the Death of the Stacy's. Sixties comics simply don't agree with me.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

X-Men: Schism (comic)

Writers: Jason Aaron, Kieron Gillen
Artists: Carlos Pacheco, Frank Cho, Daniel Acuna, Alan Davis, Adam Kubert, Billy Tan
Collects: X-Men: Schism #1-5, X-Men: Regenesis

I guess you could say this is a story that's been in the making since Wolverine first joined the X-Men. Perhaps what's important to you is the fact that the group is splitting up into two sides with two entirely different mission statements. For me, the most important part is the fact that I've finally got an X-Men comic I completely enjoyed with the promise of more in one of the series launched in Schisms wake.

I guess it had to happen at some point.

It starts out simple enough. Cyclops and Wolverine represent Utopia at an arms conference - because in the Marvel universe, all you have to do to become a country is herd two hundred people on a rock and call yourselves one - to ask nations of the world to disarm their Sentinels. Who knows if he would've managed to get anywhere, because Quentin Quire shows up and decides it would be a good time to make a complete mess of things by forcing the worlds leaders to embarrass themselves on live television. Guess how they react. Worse still, this is all part of the plan of the new Hellfire Club. On top of that, Wolverine is growing increasingly agitated over the use of kids in their little mutant wars. Cyclops doesn't help matters by insisting on it.

A lot of the book is a conflict of ideology, with the fisticuffs only coming into play in the last third. Cyclops sees himself as a General in a war, willing to use whatever is necessary to survive and win. On the flipside, Wolverine is a man who has found himself tired of seeing kids grow up without childhoods, knowing only how to fight. The tensions only increase over the five issues until Wolverine is ready to blow up Utopia to force everyone to evacuate - as opposed to Cyclops, who wants to risk the kids by leading them into battle with a huge Sentinel - and, out of options, Cyke goes for the verbal equivalent of a low blow. What Wolverine says next hits a little too close to home and the fight is on.

To a certain extent, you can look at Schism as a story of men who, over time, have changed. Cyclops barely even resembles the character he was before and I've detailed my disdain for that several times in the past. Wolverine, on the other hand, has become less a loner and more like a gruff parent who only wants what's best for the kids. It's a change that's happened over time and tracks well; he always took young wayward teens under his wing and tried to show them the way. The direction he's gone in only makes sense for his character and with the X-Men now resembling an army - one with child soldiers whose main education is in fighting - you get the feeling this is the only way it could have ended.

Ultimately, who is right is left up to your own individual opinion. As you can guess, I'm with Wolverine and think Cyclops is a complete ass, but Jason Aaron has gone out of his way to make it so that feeling the opposite is a legitimate view as well. This can be seen pretty clearly in the ending conflict of the book. Schism couldn't resist making Cyclops ultimately "right"* - he, Wolverine and the kids DO manage to push back the Sentinel, as he believed - but it doesn't forget to balance the scale; as Wolverine points out, it doesn't really matter that they COULD do it, the point being that the kids should not be forced into positions like the one Idie found herself in, as has been necessary in the Cyclops Army. You could take either side and Schism will not go out of its way to make you feel like you are wrong, unlike the inexplicably beloved "Civil War" event.

On the whole, Schism is a well written book that opens up different avenues for the franchise. If you actually like the way the X-Men books have been since House of M, well, I have no clue how to understand your point of view, but you could keep up with Uncanny X-Men and the other books following his side. If you're with Wolverine and want to read a book with a more traditional approach, you can follow him back to Westchester in Wolverine and the X-Men. Works for me. Guess which book I'll be reading.

The art situation is... complicated. There are five different pencillers, each assigned to an issue. Normally, this would be the sort of thing I would slam a book for. Trouble is, each and every one of the artists used is a great. They all do fine work, to boot. If I had to lodge a complaint, it would be that Acuna's art does not really fit with the other four, but that's about it.

The X-Men: Regenesis one-shot - scripted by the talented Kieron Gillen with art by Billy Tan - is also included here. It's not really necessary - the book is basically a "who will go with which side" deal juxtaposed against some weird tribal standoff representing the split of the "tribe" - but it's a nice inclusion that gives you an idea of which side you might find your favorite X-Men on. The art by Billy Tan is decent. I've never had a problem with his artwork, though I suppose he suffers a bit by comparison, given the number of great artists collected in the rest of the volume.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Against all odds, we get an X-Men event that manages to complete it's mission statement and be legitimately good. Who'd have guessed? X-Men: Schism is definitely worth a read, even if you just want to see the Wolverine/Cyclops brawl they finally decided to get around to years after the imitator**. Schism has me interested in Wolverine and the X-Men as well; we'll see if that's the X-Men book I've been waiting for.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: The book takes great pains to keep Cyke from being too much of a dick and ruining his side of the argument, but he still has a few moments of his now patented brand of douchebaggery. Giving a troubled girl with questionable control over her powers the go ahead to "do what she has to" when the adults "won't make it in time"? Gee, I wonder how THAT plan will end? Also, see the complete dick move Cyke pulls when he brings up Jean Grey and tells Wolverine she not only never loved him, but was frightened of him. She had absolutely no bearing on anything; Cyclops was just pissed Wolverine left him with no options and decided to take the cheapest shot he could. He doesn't particularly care for the reply.

* Cyclops has been sort of a writers pet since as far back as Ed Brubakers run onwards. For some reason, writers have had a hard-on for the character, going out of their way to make him either right or "cool". They even gave him a jetpack. For me, it never worked. I just ended up hating Cyclops.

** I'm talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles here. The relationship between Leonardo and Raphael has always been a carbon copy of the antagonism between Cyclops and Wolverine. They took almost as long as the X-Men to stop dancing around it and just have the two duke it out. That happened in the fourth TMNT film, which was done in CGI instead of live action. Decent film, if not particularly memorable. The Leo/Raph fight is worth watching online if you don't feel like seeing the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Astonishing X-Men: Monstrous (comic)

Writer: Daniel Way
Artists: Jason Pearson, Nick Bradshaw
Collects: Astonishing X-Men #36-37, 39, 41

I've never been a believer in the notion that some titles should end when a story ends or a creative team leaves - serial superhero comics do not work that way for one and it just creates another damned "volume" to keep track of when it's inevitably relaunched for two - so I never had a problem with Astonishing X-Men continuing once Joss Whedon and John Cassaday finished their acclaimed run. It certainly helps that Warren Ellis put forth a pretty good effort, even if he didn't always hit the heights of the books past. With Ellis now gone, Astonishing marches on as the accessible, continuity light X book*; for this period Marvel figured the book should switch off creative teams telling their own story. This volume collects one of those stories.

I've always liked the idea of an island filled with monsters, so I'm always down with seeing Monster Island. Apparently, there's a bunch of oil under it too. Roxxon - whom you may know as Marvels version of a cartoonishly evil corporation - naturally wants it. So, of course, they go and hire an unstable supervillain to team with their employees tasked with blowing up Monster Island so they can get at it. They are then shocked when the villain turns on them, takes control of every monster there and then holds them for ransom. Meanwhile, some of Armors family has died, which is how the X-Men end up in Tokyo for the monster related shenanigans.

Daniel Way, the writer for the arc, is about as hit or miss as they come, in my estimation. I've liked some of his work - at one point I read a big hardcover of the first year of his Deadpool run, which was pretty good - and did NOT care for others. Monstrous sits somewhere in the middle. For every one thing I like, there's one negative to match it. I like that Way sticks with a theme of family, which is almost foreign these days. But then we have Armors dad, the stereotypical Japanese father**. Bunch of monster wrecking Tokyo? Tempered by the fact that things go laughably wrong when Way attempts to write an accent for Wolverine.

One problem that stands above the others is the fact that the book doesn't seem to give enough time to the things it probably should. Either things needed a bit more shuffling around or the book needed another issue. For instance, the story ends on Armors father finally accepting her life as a hero, but it doesn't feel earned; the last time we saw him prior, he was urging her to stand with her family and the moment where he realizes how important her other life is - when he watches her save others during the monster attack on television - happens off panel.

Then there's the fact that not nearly enough time is spent on Armor actually dealing with the loss of some of her family. We don't see much of the wake or her interactions with her father outside of it. Considering Armors powers draw from her deceased ancestors, it almost feels as though that half of the story only happened to give her a power boost.

Ah, and the villain. Some Z lister named Mentallo. I've never seen him before and had no idea what his deal was prior to this story. I can't say I would feel too bad if we never saw him again either. Aside from controlling some monsters to smack the X-Men around, he doesn't have a lot going for him.

I don't know; I didn't hate it, but the more I think about it the less Monstrous did for me.

Also problematic is the art situation. Mostly because we have four issues here and it switches artists after two. Why? It's not like this story is structured like a typical arc, with consecutive issues. Both #38 and #40 - not collected in this volume - belong to a different story, giving a month extra per issue to get the job done. What happened?

Regardless, Jason Pearson handles the first half; like the writing, there are things I like and things I don't. I'm fond, for example, of his Cyclops. The lines on Cykes suit are drawn much thicker here, which looks pretty great. Also a keeper is the fact that the colorist for his issues decided on black and gold for his costume as opposed to the typical blue and gold. They're small, simple alterations, but I thought they were improvements. On the downside, his Wolverine needs some work; the near constant bug eyed expression he's drawn with is downright odd. If he worked on his expressions somewhat, I wouldn't mind seeing Pearsons work again.

Nick Bradshaw handles the other half of the story. There's much less for me to talk about here. Whereas Pearsons work is stylized, Bradshaw gives us something a bit more standard. It's some rock solid art; nothing outstanding about it but nothing to dislike either.

Oh, on a final note, apparently Marvel threw in an old issue of Strange Tales to help justify the seventeen dollars they want for this four issue collection. I guess the official word would be that it's there because it has Fin Fang Foom. Like most old issues thrown in to pad a small volume, it's fine as a curiosity but you can never get past the knowledge that it's there for no other reason than to scam a few more dollars out of you.

The Score: 5.5 out of 10

It's alright. I wouldn't recommend a purchase, but if you see it at the library and need some X-Men it might be worth a read through. This volume is far from Astonishing X-Men's finest hour, but I must admit I'm glad to see Marvel is sticking with the idea of an X book that's light on continuity.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Immediately upon finding out the monster raging through Tokyo is under mind control, Cyclops figures they may as well just kill it anyways. Captain Kill'emall himself, Wolverine, is the one who steps up to say "hey, wait a minute, this is not his fault". Sure, it's a practical move - obviously they're out to save the lives of others as well as their own - but he doesn't even bother to consider another option before deciding. Not particularly heroic.

*This is a GOOD THING, mind you. I personally think it should be standard for every big franchise - Batman, Avengers, X-Men or so on - to have a book that strives to be accessible and keeps continuity wrangling to a minimum. They should also be books the companies put some of their best talent on, but I'm probably asking for too much with that one.

** I'm not sure if this is on Way or if her dad was always like that. I'm admittedly not as big a Marvel guy as I am DC, so my knowledge is a bit lacking in that area. For all I know Daniel Way is just following his established personality here.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

SHIELD: Architects of Forever (comic)

Writer: Johnathan Hickman
Artist: Dustin Weaver
Collects: SHIELD #1-6

I actually finished this comic a month ago, but when it came time to review it I kept putting it off. I've had a hard time figuring out what my thoughts were. This comic is obviously the first part of a story, which makes it difficult to really come to a conclusion about whether it works or not.

The book uses history to weave an interesting tapestry, which is quite possibly its biggest strength. Most of histories greatest figures are shown as members of SHIELD, the protectors of the world; SHIELD is likewise retconned as an organization that was around long, long before Nick Fury was even a thought. A lot of visually interesting scenes abound.

Said moments are at least part of what makes this book engaging. There's something captivating about seeing Leonardo Da Vinci, time traveller extraordinaire, or having Galileo topple Galactus long before Reed Richards. In a medium that is at least half visual, having so many "cool" scenes to look at in your book goes a long way, especially when you have yet to reveal your hand by the end of the book.

The storytelling structure takes a bit of getting used to, though. Hickman uses a LOT of flashbacks that range from thousands of years to as little as five minutes ago. At least half of the first issue is done in flashback. While this provides the book with many of its standout images, it also has a habit of getting confusing.

For instance, here is at least one occasion where it's difficult to tell if a scene is supposed to take place in present day or recent past. Then it feels like the book is trying to get cute when two scenes see time going backwards in five minute increments. The moment I refer to in particular sees one scene set as "five minutes ago" from a scene with Nostradamus and the scene after it also set as "five minutes ago", leaving me to wonder if it was supposed to be five minutes ago from five minutes ago or if both events were meant to be happening simultaneously. It wouldn't be quite so bad if it didn't feel unnecessary.

But even with the books at times non-linear structure, there's a lot going on that feels important. Only trouble is, you're not sure if it is or not. The miniseries ends with a revelation, but it only pulls a couple threads together while leaving the majority hanging. Clearly, the book is meant to come together later on - which I assume will be the second half of the story - but for now the book leaves us with a lot of puzzle pieces I'm not sure we have the context to put together as of yet.

I think this is what makes the book awkward to review. The story feels like the sort that is meant to be taken in when its finished rather than judged by halves. On the other hand, it's perfectly legitimate to judge whether a series works for you based on what you've seen. It's a tough call.

One aspect that's easy to judge, however, is Dustin Weavers artwork. It's simply fantastic on a level you'll only find from the JH Williams III's of the comic world. Each page is packed with tons of detail and interesting things to see. The wonder evoked from many of the books coolest scenes might not have worked as well under another artist. His art makes SHIELD worth the purchase alone.

The Score: 8 out of 10

I wasn't entirely sure how to grade SHIELD, but I eventually settled on an eight. Everything could go wrong in the second part of the story, but for now there are enough strengths to this comic to make it worth the cash. Recommended.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hexyz Force (game)

Platform: PSP
Developer: Sting Entertainment
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: May 25th, 2010

The PSP has a fair number of RPG's, so it's easy for a lower key title to get lost in the shuffle. Hexyz Force is one I'd never heard of before I came across it and decided to play it. It doesn't stand out enough to really make a big impact, but Hexyz Force is unique enough to be worth a playthrough.

A long time ago, the Goddess of Creation descended with the Holy Vessall and created the land of Berge. But eventually, disaster struck and a group of the divine had to fight off Delgaia, the god of Destruction. The world was reborn under one condition; that one day an hour of judgement would come to pass and the chosen would choose the future of creation or destruction. You play as those tasked with this decision; only you can stop those who wish for Destruction over Creation.

One thing of note with this game is that you have some measure of choice here. There are two main playable characters and you will choose one at the start. Each has their own story to play through. This offsets the fact that this RPG is fairly linear; there's only so much to see and do - side quests in particular are few and far between - but it's easier to go along with this when the game offers you two twenty to thirty hour plot paths to play through.

The battle system of the game is unique. When you boil it down, it's a big old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each weapon has one of the three different forces, each of which has a strength and weakness. If you coordinate your attacks so the elements are used in order, the damage you do - and even the amount of health you heal - is multiplied. Monsters must also be taken into account, as their attacks add to the multiplier and they also get the damage bonus. Use the wrong force type and the chain will be broken, requiring you to start over again.

It's a system I welcome, because it requires some semblance of strategy. The key to defeating a boss quickly is proper use of this mechanic; if you just attempt to power through boss battles without keeping an eye on your multiplier percentage, there's a good chance they'll massacre you. Even some of the stronger common monsters can take you down if you don't keep an eye on things. You won't be holding the button down on "fight" like in other RPG's.

I liked the music in the game well enough. It's not on the level of an Uematsu, but each song fits the area it corresponds to well. You won't find yourself humming the melodies or anything but some might stick in your head. Pretty respectable overall.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

A perfectly respectable RPG to kill time. There are several ways it could have improved - more to do in the world not related to the main quests is one particular way - but it's otherwise a solid game. Feel free to rent it from your service of choice.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

All Star Batman and Robin (comic)

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: All Star Batman & Robin #1-9

Frank Miller's at a point where he's not the surefire hit he used to be. Oh sure, he'll probably sell a lot of copies of whatever book he's putting out, but critically he's fallen pretty far. Kind of hard not to, though, when you put out shit like Holy Terror.

If Dark Knight Strikes Again was the book that made everyone realize he could, in fact, do wrong, All Star Batman is where people started to turn on him. The book is a love it or hate it affair among fans these days, but for a while there it was the joke of the internet for several reasons. The dark mirror of the universally beloved All Star Superman.

Its reputation is somewhat deserved. I've rarely seen a book filled with characters this unlikable. Wonder Woman is a radical misandrist - she calls a random passerby a "sperm bank" for no other reason than he had the misfortune of walking near her - Batman is the guy forching a freshly traumatized child to eat rats, Commissioner Gordon is a guy who chats on the phone with his former flame while his wife is in the other room and so on. If there's a single decent person in this book, it's Alfred.

Frank Millers typical traits are on full display. Everyones a slut, whore or at least dresses like one. First time we see Vicki Vale she's on the phone in her lingerie while inexplicably wearing high heels in the comfort of her penthouse. An ass shot follows within three panels, of course. The protagonist is a cackling, uber-violent maniac. It's like Miller never managed to dial things back after Sin City.

Worse still, it feels like it takes forever for the book to go anywhere. Only in the last issue or so do we get the idea that Miller may be going somewhere with this. Where that is, only he knows. After all, this volume collects nine of the ten issues released in the seven years since the book started. As it stands now, the book has vanished into the ether with the six issue conclusion wildly off schedule*. It's tempting to wonder if anyone will even care by the time this finishes.

Is there any merit to the story? I suppose. Millers Batman has always openly opined that his fight against crime is a war, which is taken to its absolute breaking point with Robins recruitment. Dick Grayson is practically drafted into this "war" and the parallel doesn't stop there. In the old days, part of the point of the training was to break you, to mold you into the killer the army wanted and needed. The effects were, frankly, real bad; we hear a lot about how utterly broken many soldiers were after wars**. The cruel treatment of Grayson seems a similar attempt to mold him and it seems just as likely to break him. It likely even explains the murderous psychopath he became by DKSA; like a soldier, it seems this treatment had ill effects that never truly went away and going by this book the blame can be laid entirely at Batmans feet.

The Batman Miller has been writing since DKSA is a hell of a lot less heroic - despite the good his actions inspire - and definitely more of an outright psycopath. I suppose that's a perfectly valid interpretation and there's certainly no harm in it existing as a contrast to the typical heroic Batman. Still, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

Using Jim Lee for the artwork is an odd choice, one I'm not sure paid off. We'll set aside the delays it caused for now; the problem is more that Lee does not seem to suit Millers world. When we think of Millers Dark Knight work, we visualize his artwork, faults and all. Lee, however, is much more mainstream with his art; it's cleaner, brighter, smoother and suited more to a regular depiction of Batman. The result is a man doing the best art of his career on a book that isn't quite suited to it.

Perhaps when the conclusion hits at some vague point in the future this book will hold up better, but as is it's a curiosity at best.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Lee's artwork is worth an eight, at least, but on the whole this book is a misfire. It has merit, but little I can really appreciate. I can understand why others like it - it can be funny at times if taken as a deliberate parody of Millers typical work - but I don't think it's for me. Not something I can recommend.

* Fitting, I suppose, given the books notorious delays. At one point there was something like a year between issues. All Star Batman truly is the Duke Nukem forever of the comic world. Ten to one it'll disappoint just as badly.

** My step-fathers father was a particularly bad case. His war was Nam. He came back an abusive, horrible man who had any good in him destroyed by the experience. Stories of my step-fathers childhood are pretty heartbreaking in regards to the abuse. I've also heard plenty about how his father would wake up from a dead sleep, dive for cover, flip the coffee table and scream about Charlie over the ridge. Chilling stuff to hear about.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saints Row the Third: The Trouble With Clones (video game DLC)

Parent Game: Saints Row the Third

With everything Saints Row the Third did right, one of the few things about it that didn't sit well with me is the fact that it offed the best recurring cast member in the first fifteen minutes of the game. Apparently, it didn't sit well with most of the folks at Volition either; it's been said that many of them did not want to kill off Gat at all.

So how do you rectify this? With clones, of course! This is Saints Row the Third we're talking about.

Storywise, it's kind of a fitting coda to the main game. After all, Saints Row the Third kicked off with Johnny going down, so ending on a mission pack that kind of brings him back takes the game full circle. Who knows where the next Saints Row game will go, but it'll be nice to have Johnny Gat - or at least a musclebound clone - along for the ride.

The new weapons are fun to dick around with. I mean, shooting people with a bee gun? Good times. The games third and final mission also gives you superpowers through an irradiated can of Saints Flow. You'll be running through cars, tossing fireballs at helicopters and turning bodies into a spray of blood in one punch.

Unfortunately, it's not all roses. This mission pack costs seven dollars and gives you all of three missions. You'll clear it in under an hour. Seriously bad value for the money. The content we get here is worth three dollars at the most and unless you have the PC version and get the DLC through Steam or something you'll never see them at that price. Add the short length on to the fact that the weapons - including the Saints Flow superpowers - do not carry over to the main game after you're done.

When people gripe about the evils of DLC, this is the kind of thing they're talking about; this would be great if it were something that had been included in the main game, but at seven dollars TTWC is seriously overpriced and - sadly - not worth what they're charging.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Like the main game, it's short and sweet; unlike the main game, it's way too short and not sweet enough. This is the only DLC add on that is an actual addition to the games story, so if you absolutely have to have more Saints Row 3 this is the one to get, but be forewarned that it's over before you know it.

I feel like I should have given it a lower score because of all this, but there's technically nothing wrong with the content itself. It's just kind of a rip off. I settled for the middle ground of a six.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On the lack of activity

You may have noticed that updates have slowed around here. It's not indicative of a loss of interest in the blog. Rather, in the past two months I haven't really read or played much in the way of new things. I typically only review video games after I've finished them - which obviously takes a while in most cases - and I haven't had much in the way of new comics to read.

This should change in the coming weeks. I've got a couple games up for review, plus a few comics. So stay tuned, non-existant readership!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Saints Row: The Third (video game)

Platform: Playstation 3, X-Box 360
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Genre: Action Adventure, Sandbox
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: November 15th, 2011

You are the boss of the Third Street Saints. Once a gang stuggling to gain control of a single city, the Saints have become a powerful multi-media empire. They have it all; comics, TV shows, an upcoming film and even their own crappy energy drink. But all good things come to an end.

On a fairly routine bank robbery, you're ambushed by suspiciously well armed bank tellers. From there, the heist goes bad, the cops show up and everything spirals out of control. You end up captured and threatened by a crime syndicate. Escape comes at the cost of a friends life*. Now you're stranded in a new city.

What the hell, you might as well take over, right?

Prior to this game, I had completely written off the Saints Row games. While I now know they came about by sheer coincidence, at the time the similarities to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - one of my all time favorite games - left me dismissing the franchise as a copycat. My initial assessment wasn't exactly wrong, but Saints Row the Third caught my attention with an intelligent reversal in the dynamic between it and its competition.

I've played Grand Theft Auto since the first one and part of the fun is that as time went on, they ended up throwing any and everything at the wall. The height of that was San Andreas, where you could do almost anything from taking over territory to flying a jetpack straight out of a James Bond flick. Grand Theft Auto IV featured a complete reversal, eschewing the silly or campy in favor of a serious take on an illegal immigrant attempting to make it in America. As a story it was an achievement, but as a game it was nowhere near as fun as any installment of the PS2 trilogy save III.

Saints Row, on the other hand, started as a fairly serious attempt at showing gang warfare. Arguably, they dropped that pretense with II, any remaining attempt to ground Saints Row in realism is out the window here. Grand Theft Auto has shunned its former bombast, leaving an opening Saints Row is now all too happy to fill. This game is over the top in every respect, surpassing even GTA's most outrageous moments in a varied experience that is never once dull.

Seriously, this game starts out with a bank heist turning into a massive shootout, with a helicopter forcibly pulling the safe from the building, while you're still on it. Eventually you are forced to leap out a plane, smash through the windshield of another plane and go out the back before catching a team member - dodging debris all the way down - so you can both parachute to safety. This is the tutorial level. It is not even the craziest thing to happen in this game.

Every time you think it cannot take you by surprise, it will introduce a plot twist or throw in a cameo that can only leave you smiling. Saints Row the Third is not concerned with telling a mature, serious story. Rather, it's content to toss luchadors, cyberpunk hackers, zombies, tigers and hoverbikes at you in a wild attempt to be the coolest game ever. It comes pretty damn close, too.

They even manage to throw something new in the side missions. While I realize that it's not a first for the series, the Insurance Fraud activities are still a pretty unique, fun diversion no other game has attempted. Others will see you driving around with a pissed off tiger in the backseat, hang with a luchador voiced by Hulk Hogan and participate in a murder based game show that I assume was inspired by The Running Man.

A gang territory dynamic is also in place, which is something I wish more sandbox games did more often, since it helps give a sense of reward to each activity you embark on when it has a tangible benefit, even if it's just a piece of territory.

One other thing in this games favor; the developers were clearly thinking of ways to alleviate player frustration and give them more options. Do you know how long I've wanted one of these sandbox games to let me to choose songs I like from the soundtrack and make a custom "station"**? The option's here with the "mixtape" function. Do you want to disable stations that cater to genres you hate? You can. Hate falling in water and wasting a good five minutes trying to get to shore? You're covered; a simple button press will warp you back.

Hell, cars don't even spontaneously explode upon hitting a tank! The car will be crushed in the area hit by the treads. It's the little things that count. Or kill, if you ask Bush.

I spoke of the soundtrack and this game has a pretty decent one. I suppose you could argue that the selection quality is not exactly on par with the distinguished competition, but there are several smart choices. Hell, there are at least three different rock stations, catering to different audiences. I can't say anything bad about a game that won't force me to listen to soft rock as I wait for something harder to come up.

Even better, money actually has its uses here. Rather than just give you a bunch of static weapons, you can upgrade just about anything you pick up. You can also buy property, another feature a certain other series saw fit to drop. All come with tangible benefits that will aid you in gameplay. There are in-game reasons to complete tasks in this game; as opposed to only getting a trophy for your trouble.

There is very little here to criticize. If I had to point to anything, it would be that the game feels a little short for one of its type. Even with generous amounts of dicking around I finished the main story in under twenty hours. Granted, that's twenty hours of the most fun I've had with a video game, but it still felt like it was over too soon.

The Score: 9 out of 10

Buy it now. There is nothing else that need be said. It is well, well worth the money.

* This kind of annoyed me a bit. He's easily one of the coolest characters in the game and he's dropped within the first twenty minutes. He's also the only asian I can think of in the game, which is pretty glaring in a game that includes a bunch of characters of different ethnicity. I guess they chose him for the role because he was a long standing member of the series cast - he was in both of this games predecessors - but geez, that's a cheap attempt to garner player involvement in the fight against the enemies. Especially when you've killed his murderer at the end of the first act.

** I'm pretty sure that this was an advertised feature for Grand Theft Auto IV at one point. Obviously, it didn't make the cut.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pinnochio: Vampire Slayer and The Great Puppet Theater (comics)

Writer: Van Jensen
Artist: Dusty Higgens
Original Graphic Novel

After reading the last volume, I was all about Pinnochio slaying vampires. So of course, once I realized a sequel was already out, I jumped right on it. The follow-up to the first volume is not quite as good as the debut offering, but it's still a fun book that can easily shift between drama and humor at the drop of a hat.

We start where we left off. Pinnochio is still out there breakin' noses and stakin' vampires. Before long, we find out he's not the only living puppet out there; seems there's a whole host of them, all who consider him their brother and all of whom are alright with the idea of killing some filthy bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, things inevitably go wrong, misunderstandings are had and allies are lost.

To top it off, when things turn bad, Pinnochio finds himself hit with what should be a blessing, only to find that - considering his profession - it resembles more of a curse.

I'm not sure how far Van Jensen and Higgens plan to take this series - I could easily see it being a long runner if they wanted - but if they plan on a trilogy this would be the "Empire Strikes Back" of the series. Things start off pretty good in the wake of their prior victory and quickly go downhill from there. By the end, Pinnochio has lost several allies, his girlfriend and any fighting chance against his enemy. He's survived, but he's definitely lost this battle; by the last page you're left wondering just how he's going to turn it around. The last sequence is a pretty great sequel hook.

Given the subject matter, it's easy to see why this installment relies more on drama than anything else. Even so, it was a bit of a shock to realize the book wasn't quite as funny as the last one. It's an understandable shift, but even still, I think it hampered the volume somewhat; part of the fun of the first volume was that it was funny as well as action packed. The book is merely good as opposed to last volumes home run.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Not quite as fun as the first volume, but The Great Puppet Theater is still well worth your money.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Luminous Arc (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: imageepoch
Genre: Tactical RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: August 14th, 2007

The Tactical RPG genre is pretty great, but it also hasn't advanced much over the years. It feels like a lot of these games have a certain sameness that makes it so they just sort of bleed together in your mind. Take this game, for example, which is Textbook TacRPG Example 1A.

You start off as a teenage knight in service of a church, because Japanese games tend to have this odd love affair with underage heroes. Apparently, said church teaches that witches are the bane of all existence. You can see where this is going, right? Kid meets witch, kid changes his mind about them, realizes boobs are pretty great, realizes that the being the church deified is actually a monster and sides with the witches. "We're gonna give God such a pinch" twist aside, it's a by the book coming of age story, sans anything to make it stand out from the pack.

Really, there isn't much about this game that isn't by the book. The story and characters are steeped in Japanese cliche, while the gameplay could be culled from any number of games in this genre. Luminous Arc doesn't have an original bone in its body and you could be forgiven for feeling as though you've played this game before.

Unoriginal as it may be, however, it's still a solid title. The character designs are stock anime for certain, but they're still appealing enough. We get voice acting as well. The gameplay itself is, of course, tried and true. It's certainly not reinventing the wheel, but it has a certain competency that redeems it, even if it doesn't make it something you just gotta have.

The Score: 7 out of 10

I wouldn't recommend this game over any of the classics, but if you've already crushed the greats it could serve as a fair rental. Just don't expect anything unique out of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Avalon Code (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Matrix Softwares
Genre: Action RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Release Date: March 10, 2009

I'm one of maybe four guys in this world who couldn't give a damn about Legend of Zelda games. I liked II - you know, the one everyone hates - A Link to the Past - got bored after reaching the Dark World - and Twilight Princess. That's it.

A main complaint I've had is that while details may change, it feels like the series has never done enough to evolve or keep my attention. It feels like the same game every time, to the point that different games may have the same basic dungeon names or themes. Before you say "well Mario does it too", he kind of doesn't; the lions share of the main games change things up all the time and manage to keep from feeling stale.

Avalon Code feels like what would happen if you took some of the very basics of Zelda gameplay and did something radically different with the rest of it. The world map is done in square sections traversed by going to the edges, the view is top down, you use swords, shields and bombs, so on so forth. Hell, your character is even silent, though you occasionally choose responses to NPC's. The rest is new, building off that tried and true play style with something truly unique.

The story is that you play as a boy - or girl - plagued by vague, apocalyptic nightmares. But one day, after one such nightmare, you find yourself bequeathed with a strange book. Turns out, it's the Book of Prophecy and it only shows up when the world is about to end. When things go too far south in the world, someone is chosen to chronicle the things in the world and decide what is worth saving for the new world you will create. Guess who's the chosen one?

Much of the games uniqueness centers around the book. The bottom half of your screen is filled with the book at all times, which you may traverse at will. You scan things, people, items and weapons into the book. Each page carries its own grid, where you place the titular codes, which range from elements - fire, ice, you know, the standard stuff - to animal types - bird, dog, so on - to concepts like hope, justice and freedom. Through arrangement of the codes, you can change the properties of pretty much anything.

This is, ultimately, pretty damn cool. If you're having difficulty with an enemy or boss, you need only get behind them to scan them into your book. Then you can change their codes around at will, which effects their stats; remove things like metals from their page and both their defense and hit points will drop, then put a bunch of Ill codes on the grid to plummet their hit points, to give just one example.

Weapons and items are switched about much in the same way. You can scan "recipes" for different items all over the game world, allowing you to change, say, your broadsword into Excalibur or some other cool blade, while you're measly old hammer could become Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. As a bonus, the different recipes have unique looks that translate into the game world, instead of only being seen in a portrait in the book or something like some games might lazily pull.

There are also some RPG elements to the game. Obviously, in changing the properties of your weapons and armor, you change its effectiveness and damage. But there are also hitpoints and MP to worry about. Plus you get along with people in the world by giving gifts. Slide your way in with some of the girls - or guys if you're playing a girl - and they might just take a hell of a liking to you. Most residents - especially the romancables - also have their own worries and sidequests to take care of.

As you can probably tell, there's plenty to do. It's a pretty hefty little beast, especially for an action RPG. I got a good twenty or thirty hours out of it, just dicking around, changing everythings codes and screwing with the Book of Prophecy. It's a pretty good time.

If there's a downside at all, it's that you can only carry four codes in your inventory at a time. That means you're going to be dumping a lot of codes on any empty spaces on different characters pages and switching codes around. That means flipping back and forth between pages while you take the codes you need out, put them where they need to go, take the unnecessary ones out of the page you're changing and so on. Most of the time it's fun to screw around in the Book of Prophecy, but occasionally, it gets just a little bit tedious. I don't think there would have been much harm in giving an extra slot or two to your code "inventory"; it would have eased the process a bit at times when you need to switch around a lot of codes without sacrificing anything.

Other than that, the game is pretty spiffy.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

I checked this title out on a whim, mostly because it sounded interesting. What I got was a fairly unique little action RPG that stood out from the pack. I'm a little surprised it's not better known. Aside from a few issues, it's definitely worth tracking down if you can. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

X-Men Legacy: Lost Legions (comics)

Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Khoi Pham
Collects: X-Men Legacy #250-253

Here we are, back again, with what is likely to be my last volume of X-Men Legacy. The last one was just so... yuck that I pretty much haven't felt like reading, much less reviewing, comics recently. Frankly, the last one was so aggressively dull - and questionable - that I would not have continued if I didn't already have this volume in my possession.

Hot on the heels of last volumes events - where we learned several of Legions personalities were running free - we find the cast looking to reclaim them. I mean, they're seperate personalities of a mentally unstable dude each with a power set of their own. You can't just kick back, call it a day and hope somebody else deals with it, especially when one is fond of draining souls and using the bodies like puppets.

This volume redeems the book a little bit. For one, it's a far more straightforward adventure; a far cry from last volume, where a blind mutant mused about bad things coming for the X-Men while semi-invisible giant spiders roamed around and Rogue decided to go have sex with an old homicidal egomaniac. The pleasant characterization returns and hell, Professor X is actually allowed to do something for once, so it can't be all bad.

It's just that there isn't anything remarkable about it. It's good enough that, had last volume not occurred, I may well have continued, but not good enough to erase that sour taste. I'm not sure there was any one element that did it - or if I could even pinpoint what the tipping point was for me - but the previous volume well and truly soured me on this book.

Yet again, we have another artist. It is, of course, no one from the previous two volumes I read, because apparently "regular artist" is a foreign concept to this book. Still, it's Khoi Pham and the work is very, very good. Clean, expressive and far from the muddy, inconsistent art the book has had previously. Frankly, they should have had Pham on from the start.

On the whole, this isn't a bad volume, but it isn't enough to have me keep going. But then, I believe Carey only has one volume left, so who knows. Maybe if it's in the library and I have nothing else to read I'll give it a shot.

The Score: 7 out of 10

And so the search for a good X-Men book continues. Somebody has to put out a good one eventually, right?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Captain America: Prisoner of War (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Mike Deodato, Butch Guice, Chris Samnee
Collects: Captain America #616-619

This volume has the distinction of being the last before a relaunch; a new Captain America #1 came about - as I recall this was right around when the movie hit - while this book pulled an Incredible Herc and changed its mission statement whilst retaining the numbering.

Personally, I think this is stupid - just because a major run is ending and a movie is out doesn't mean you need to relaunch the goddamn book - but I can kind of understand why they're doing it in this case. The fourth volume - from Winter Soldier up to now - has been as much about Bucky as anyone, even when Steve was holding the shield. With Steve set to be the main focus of the new volume, I suppose they're looking for a clean break. Fair enough, but I don't think it's necessary.

When we last left Bucky, he'd managed to triumph in his trial, only to find himself suddenly extridited to Russia for crimes he supposedly commited as the Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers, not being a complete idiot, smells a rat - it's very likely Russia is just sore that their Cold War secrets are out in the open, after all, and are looking to dispose of that nagging loose end - but officially his hands are tied. It doesn't stop him from covert attempts to follow up. Meanwhile, Bucky is forced to survive in a Russian gulag, where everyone is out for his blood.

Everything is fine right up until we hit the end. As I noted earlier, this volume contains the last issues before the books relaunch, so you'd expect some manner of closure. It wouldn't necessarily need to be definitive or tidy, but an ending of sorts to Buckys days as Captain America is certainly in order.

Well guess what; we don't get one. For the first time since Civil War, Ed Brubakers run falls victim to a crappy event. Hell, at least that one worked to his advantage. Nope, we end on a "to be continued in Fear Itself", even if it isn't necessarily worded that way. I don't know if Brubaker was in on it or okay with it, but thanks for that regardless, Marvel. I guess it's way too much to leave a book alone to wrap it's own business. Gotta stick it in the summer event, of course.

That aside, there isn't much to say about the writing that hasn't been said before. This time, Bru splits the narrative between Bucky adventures in Russian prison and his buddies outside trying to figure out how to get him out of the mess. This is, of course, not what Bucky signed up for; he was ready to face his past before, but that was also before it involved being thrown to the wolves in Russia, where the warden and everyone employed by him are corrupt and the inmates all want to kill him. This on top of the fact that memories of his Winter Soldier days are bubbling to the surface, haunting him.

Bucky's a very compelling character under Bru. After all this time I think it's safe to say his return was a masterstroke. I'm sorry to see him leave this book, even if he is getting one of his own.

The art does a bit of mixing and matching. Each section - Bucky, Steve and Widow - has it's own artist. Not a great way to keep some visual consistency under normal circumstances, but it's clear it was designed this way. Hard to say if it's a good or bad move on Marvels part - I guess it comes down to the individual to decide - but I must say I kind of liked the effect. I don't mind assigning different artists to sections involving different characters as long as the stylistic shift isn't too jarring. There's a big difference between structuring your comic that way and having crappy fill-in art.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

It doesn't quite provide the closure it should have to Bucky's time with the shield, but it's still a solid, entertaining book through and through. Hopefully the quality holds up when Steve Rogers is the focus.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

X-Men: Legacy - Aftermath (comic)

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Paul Davidson, Harvey Tolibao, Jorge Molina, Rafa Sandoval
Collects: X-Men: Legacy #242-244, 248-249

As you'll recall, I read and enjoyed the previous volume, which ended with issue #241. Well, somehow, in the time between that issue and #242, the book took a nosedive so sharp I think I got whiplash from it. I do not know what the hell happened, but the end result is a particularly odd, boring and downright ridiculous read .

First off, this volume essentially bookends a separate story, that being Age of X. If you want to read the series or stories sequentially, it requires you to read half a trade paperback, go read another one, then pick the first one up where you left off. I hate that stunt with a passion. Daniel Ways Deadpool series did it once, too, when the book crossed over with Thunderbolts. They had the good sense to collect everything in order when they did the big whopping hardcover release though.

So already we're off to a bad start.

The first half deals with some crap that happened after Second Coming. Essentially, a dude got his hands chopped off and has PTSD over it. Then there's a damn Omega Sentinel the X-Men keep around that I don't recognize who loses her shit - I would never have seen THAT one coming! - at which point the Little Depressed Boy kills her. Of course, his attitude beside, he made the right decision - that one sentinel was wiping the floor with the X-Men present at the time - but apparently he's a demon for stopping her. Then there's some giant spider that can only be viewed in some angles and I just don't even know what the hell all that was about. It sounded like it played off something earlier in the run, but it came out of nowhere and wasn't much more than a fake-out.

After that, we skip ahead to right after Age of X. Everyone is kind of flipping out because they have memories of an entire life lived in the alternate dimension. Most get their memories wiped. This is the point when the writing completely loses track of its own series internal continuity, as suddenly we're told that Rogue and Magneto's alternate forms had feelings for each other in Age of X, something that would have been handy to see. Of course, Rogue decides to keep the memories from the other life because she made a promise to remember the people there who didn't exist and Gambit tells her to screw off until she has her head on straight - admittedly, a moment long overdue - and geez, let's just dispense the pretense and say it's nothing more than an excuse for Rogue to keep these "feelings" and go ride Magnetos magnetic pole.

Oh, I didn't mention that, did I? Rogue shacks up with Magneto.

This is... wow. Magneto takes her to a Holocaust museum and tells her a story about how he killed someone and could sleep well at night. He then pulls a "I know I'm bad for you, so you best run back to Gambit, but if he ever hurts you" trick. Stories of murderin' and preserved corpses apparently turn Rogue on - because of course they do - so she decides it would be a great idea to hook up with thus guy, because she "wants what's bad for her". This also happens immediately after Magneto tells her he wishes she feared him, because it suits his ego better.

Hoooo-ly shit. I'm not usually someone who is always bothered by this kind of thing, but this is on another level. Who thought this was a good idea*? How did such a decent book go from respectable read to boring to mind boggling so quickly?

For the proverbial cherry on top, the book employs an army of artists just to keep things moving. Four artists for five issues. As such, we've got numerous stylistic shifts and geez it's rough. What happened to Clay Mann? There were some rough spots, but at least he brought visual consistency to the book. This is just all over the map.

I hated this. A lot. Just really, really questionable stuff here wrapped up in a package so boring I practically snoozed. I'm giving this series one more shot - some shenanigans with Legions numerous personalities sounds like an alright time - but if I hadn't already borrowed a copy of the next volume I would have dropped it right here. Avoid. Just avoid.

My Opinion: Burn It

* Probably the same people who thought what happened in Sentry: Fallen Sun (ha ha geddit) was a good idea. At least you can say no one read that comic. Not so here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Spider-Man: Season One (comic)

Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Neil Edwards
Original Graphic Novel
Also Included: Avenging Spider-Man #1
 
Clearly, the gears are a spinning over at Marvel headquarters, because I have to say this new graphic novel line is a good idea.

Unlike DC, Marvel never really changed their continuity around all that much. As such, they've had less need to retell or revise the origin stories of their heroes. They're the same as they were when they first debuted in the 60's. The flipside of that being that said origin stories are not likely to appeal to anyone who may wish to try a Marvel comic.

Lets face it; Stan Lee - along with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko - may have built a universe from whole cloth, but the stories of their day are very, very dated and can be a bit of a chore to get through.

So, have a creative team produce an original graphic novel updating the origin stories of their most popular characters? A good move by Marvel. Including an issue of a modern day comic of said character - introduced as a "where are they now" after the main feature - to entice them into the monthly grind? That one's a shrewd move. Credit where it's due here; this is a slick, modern, well put together hardcover

The only iffy part is the branding*, but everything else more than makes up for it.

I probably don't need to recap much of the story; it's an iconic tale that everyone knows by heart now. Peter's a nerd who is bit by a radioactive spider, thus giving him amazing powers. At first he tries to take advantage of them for his own gain, but when his uncle dies in a manner that he could have prevented, he realized he has a responsibility to use those powers for good. The Amazing Spider-Man is born.

Cullen Bunn is a new face at Marvel who rose to prominence seemingly overnight. He tackles this in a manner reminiscent of an older comic; lots of thought balloons and a few too many instances of characters talking to themselves at length. I'm not sure if this was a conscious choice - perhaps Bunn was trying to update the storytelling styles of the day for this - but I'm not sure it worked as he may have hoped. There are several instances where it might have been appropriate for Bunn to pull back a bit and let the art do the talking.

The art, by the way, is pretty solid work. It's clean, expressive and does a fine job of telling the story. Neil Edwards doesn't reinvent the wheel or anything here, but at the same time, he doesn't really have to.

There's nothing offensively bad about this graphic novel; it's an alright retelling of Spider-Mans classic origin. It doesn't touch the best - I've long felt Ultimate Spider-Man is the cream of the crop in Spider-Man origins - but it's a step up from the original. If I had to choose one thing that struck me as an issue, it would be the odd pacing and structure.

The story itself feels like it's reached it's natural climax and endpoint when Peter discovers that his uncles murderer is the same man he let go earlier in the story. Instead, the book moves onward into Spider-Mans first real adventure against the Vulture. Trouble is, Vulture was barely mentioned in the first half and it's treated as a part of the same story. Since this part was not separate from the origin - as, say, another chapter in the book - it ends up feeling like a very long denouement instead of another adventure.

As for the extra - a copy of Avenging Spider-Man #1 to show what Spidey is up to in current continuity - it's a pretty fun opener to what seems to have been a multi-part storyline. Spidey teams up with Red Hulk to fight the Mole Men. It's some good fun. It's bolstered by art by Joe Maduriera, who hasn't done interior work on a comic in a good long while.

The Score: 7 out of 10

There are some issues here, but it's not a bad retelling of Spideys origin. I'd say it's worth a look for a newbie. Everyone else won't find much they haven't seen before. Regardless, the line is a good idea; I just hope the overall craft is on a higher level for the other installments.

* The "Season One" moniker is odd. It gets across the general idea; this is starting right from the beginning. It also accomplishes the goal of differentiating their line from DC's "Year One" tagline. But a "season"? That's television terminology that denotes a run of episodes from a serialized program. It's... odd, considering this is a single story, not to mention a comic book. It also breeds expectation; if there's a season one, shouldn't there logically be a second season? Time will tell  if there will be a Season Two, but as of this writing there's no word.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: John Romita Jr., Brian Hitch
Collects: Avengers (vol 4) #7-12, 12.1

After a fun romp full of time traveling hijinks, Bendis looks to keep up the pressure by upping the stakes. The Infinity Gauntlet is back on the board; meanwhile, for the first time in forever, a Hulk joins the team. The threat is big, but does the story deliver?

This is the book where the Illuminati - that secret cabal of Marvel heroes that gathered to figure out big problems in secret - is outed to the rest of the superhero world. They'd disbanded a while back, but they are forced to reform when it becomes apparent that the Infinity Gems are being snatched from their hiding places. Since they were the ones that hid them, it falls to them to figure out what the hell happened.

Apparently, Black Bolt decided to be an utter moron and leave his behind unguarded when he and his city left Earth, so the Hood has it. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers - now taking the position as the head of security or whatever the role is - throws a tantrum because no one told him about a secret group of heroes that had disbanded before he came into power anyway. So Tony Stark is threatened with expulsion from the Avengers because I guess it was Steves time of the month.

Obviously, the stakes are high - reality itself is on the line here - but the book feels like it's more concerned with drama. This is really about the Illuminati members having to explain themselves to other people and the simmering tension between Iron Man and Captain America over long standing issues. Steve comes off like a whiny ass here and it's not a look that fits him; that A doesn't stand for "Whiner". At least it should have waited until AFTER the gems were recovered. To top it all off, he comes across as a major hypocrite in the end.

So, it's mostly drama with some fights mixed in; and while I've got little issue with some good drama, it probably shouldn't have been front and center. We're talking a gauntlet that can give complete control over reality itself, which is a huge honking macguffin. Yet the story feels like it's more about the B plot of in-fighting and outing the disbanded group for their "crimes". That shouldn't happen.

Not to mention that - as you can tell by my sarcasm - Steve blows the whole thing out of proportion. Yeah, sure, the Illuminati have proven themselves useless in the past, but we know that, not Steve. Besides which, it's not like they picked terrible parking spots for the gems; they're stuffed in alternate dimensions, separate pocket universes, so far under the sea that almost nothing could survive the pressure and so on. Had Black Bolt not succumbed to incompetence, the whole thing might not have even been an issue.

As for the fight for the gems, it's fairly decent, but it doesn't feel on par with what you would expect from a story involving a group of gems that could end reality. Mostly it's a fight to keep hold of the gems off a coast somewhere, while the Watcher needs to show up to explain why The Hood doesn't just wish the heroes out of existence. It could have used more punch; if anything, Bendis should have used someone other than one of his pet characters - The Hood - for this one, because he's far from menacing and doesn't give much reason for us to care.

The point one issue we get here is probably one of the first to actually present a starting point for something rather than throwing out just another chapter of a given book. I suppose you could look at it as a prologue to "Age of Ultron", a miniseries slated to be the final Bendis Avengers story that was teased in the previous volume. It's quick, fairly interesting - we see a Spaceknight for the first time in forever, but it isn't Rom - and puts Ultron back into play for the future. Unfortunately, there's no telling when Age of Ultron will actually hit - I believe it's been over a year out and still no sign of it - so it's just kind of there.

Unfortunately, that can be seen as a proper way to describe this volume on the whole; it's very readable, but ultimately just kind of there.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

This was a step down from volume one. The fun and the believable threat from the first volume is missing, to be replaced with excess drama. Not good; after all, an appearance by the Infinity Gems should feel like an event. I'm still in for more - it was still okay, if unremarkable - but I hope this was just a bump in the road.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Avengers (vol 4) #1-6

The Avengers are not a team that I've ever really cared to follow for a long period. Obviously, it's the premiere team book at Marvel and is branded as the "Worlds Mightiest Heroes". Problem is, the Avengers always struck me more as the "Worlds Mightiest C-Listers". I'm sorry, but I cannot give a goddamn about a chick who bangs crying robots or a dude from Eros whose power revolves around giving people orgasms without sex. With people like that it's easy to wonder if Cap just let anybody join off the street. Meanwhile, Spider-Man and Wolverine - two of Marvels best characters - didn't join for forty years.

Bendis kind of rectified this with New Avengers - Spider-Man and Wolverine were finally on the team - but Thor was gone at the time and the book had a different tone. Mighty Avengers restored the tone but went back to a bunch of C listers, Iron Man and the Sentry being the only holdovers of the "big guns". This is the first time all the stars seemed to align for the kind of Avengers book I was looking for; a team mostly comprised of A listers, a big sweeping threat, a large scale and even some time travel thrown in for good measure.

So, now we have the setup I've always looked for - the best of the best taking on the things no one hero can - but is the book any good?

Good might be subjective - Bendis has his fans and detractors - but I think it ranks pretty well. More than that, it's fun. Bendis just throws everything at the wall here; this thing has Kang, Ultron, an old Hulk that resembles Maestro, a cameo by Devil Dinosaur, Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen, Killraven, Martians. We even see the Next Avengers from that animated movie. Bendis plays the "broken timestream" angle to the hilt, ably showing the chaos or eras and alternate timelines slamming together. As such, there is no shortage of cool things to look at.

The overall plot is fairly straightforward; the timestream is wrecked and only our heroes can fix it. It doesn't sound too much different from other Kang plotlines in Avengers. That said, Bendis has some nice moments throughout. It's nice to see Thor just flat out smack Kang several blocks away as soon as he shows up, mid-speech; sure, he was actually there for their help this time, but it's not unreasonable to assume he was there to try and take them down for about the billionth time. I also liked how the storyline looped around in the end, giving context to the first pages of the first issue.

I'm not so sure about his Tony Stark though; while he has several moments where he tries to humanize him, he also plays the characters smarmy douche side to the hilt. That's not necessarily a bad take - it's not like Iron Man is new to being portrayed as kind of a dick - just not one I'm sure the character needs right now when Matt Fraction has worked overtime to get the character back on track after Civil War wrecked him.

JR Jr.'s art is something I'm a bit split about. There are aspects to it I love, such as how rounded and slick he draws Iron Mans armor, almost as though he were a sleekly designed robot. He's also good at drawing a number of crazy things, which is exactly what you need in a story involving time travel. Then there are the glaring instances of his style seeming to almost change; one page things will be slick and simple while the next will be sketchy or scratchy. There's an inker change for the last two issues of the story, too, so there's a noticable shift there as well; it's especially glaring when two pages from the beginning of the story are reprinted at the end in a scene giving context to what we saw at the beginning.

Love the colors though. Bright, flashy and striking. It helps give this book that "over the top heroics" feel it needs as opposed to the darker, muddier coloring prior Avengers books dwelled in for a good while there.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Maybe I like this because it's my first big scale Avengers story. Maybe it's just because I haven't read Avengers Forever, which I've seen called as the ultimate Kang story. Regardless, I enjoyed the opening of the "Heroic Age" quite a bit. It's not perfect - and JR Jr.'s art can be weird at times - but it's a solid opener that delivers the Avengers I'd hoped to see for a long time. It's worth a look.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Siege (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Olivier Coipel
Collects: Siege: The Cabal, Siege Prologue, Siege #1-4, Avengers: The Way Things Are

I make no bones about the fact that I kind of hate Marvels events. I crap all over them at every opportunity and for good reason. Most of them are terrible. The worst part being that they even drag down writers who are normally excellent. Modern Marvel events are, frankly, the pits.

So, it's kind of shocking to me that I found one I got some genuine enjoyment out of.

Norman Osborn - the big swinging dick in the US military after the inexplicable climax of Secret Invasion - decides that he doesn't like the fact that Asgard is on earth. When the President informs him that he's nuts for wanting to take on a bunch of Norse Gods, Norman decides he's going to go ahead and do it anyways. So, he and the Dark Avengers start their attack and it's going surprisingly well until a bunch of the real Avengers show up. A bunch of Thors friends show up to help him. Who could have EVER seen that coming? Norman's insane, sure, but come on.

It seems like every big event Bendis does is the "culmination of everything he's done on Avengers", but this is the one that comes closest to doing exactly that. Siege is the little bow on top of numerous plots Bendis has played with over the course of his long run on the Avengers books, from things that were there in the beginning such as the Sentry to more recent developments like Dark Reign and the Superhero Registration Act (Mark Miller instigated it, sure, but Bendis is the one who played with it the most). If you want to be cynical about it, this is the Marvel Universe finally moving back to a more manageable status quo, but we could do worse than getting a decent event comic out of it.

This event is the exact opposite of Bendis' usual style of decompression. At four issues, it doesn't waste any time. The war on Asgard is incited in the first, it plays out over the next two and the final obstacle is dealt with in the fourth. As such, Bendis gets straight to the point, putting in all of the little moments that were frankly long overdue. Without a padded number of issues, it finishes before it's worn out its welcome*.

The end result is a feeling that things of consequence are actually happening. One of the problems with Secret Invasion - the previous event Bendis handled -  is that it was about eighty percent filler. We'd waste entire issues on interludes with our heroes twiddling their thumbs in the Savage Land or a crashed ship full of "abducted heroes" that ended up being nothing more than a glorified fakeout. Whereas in Siege it doesn't feel like there are a string of wasted moments. Most every scene matters.

Barring a bit of tiring hyperviolence**, there isn't much wrong with the event. It's not the most exciting, gotta-get-all-the-tie-ins thing going, but the fact that I enjoyed it is significant. I didn't necessarily think it was great, but I admit that it may partly be due to my detachment with the linewide plots over at Marvel. A lack of investment kills some of the power of a book like this, because it really relies on how invested you are in the ongoing saga of the Marvel universe. Since I don't give much of a crap about the heroes going underground, who is in charge or whatever, it doesn't mean as much to me. I just stick with the books I like.

One other note; the presence of Olivier Coipel on art is welcome. It feels like there's a nice visual bridge from the Thor ongoing to this event due to his work on that book. Considering Asgard is a major part of this event, that's a handy thing to have in the plus column.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Pretty good work all around. If you are heavily invested in the ongoing saga of the Marvel universe, you'll get even more out of it than I did. I think if you're going to check out an event from Marvel, this is probably the one to go with. Or you could just give it a look if you're in the mood for a flashy superhero punch up with gods, bright spandex and clashes of epic proportions. You could do worse.

* This is a lesson that Marvel - geniuses that they are - promptly forgot two seconds later. The next event they did had eight issues. The one after that will clock in at a staggering twelve issues of two teams punching each other. Amazing how they learn nothing. Even more amazing is that people buy into it.

** I'm not one of those guys who thinks gore and heavy violence has no business in superhero comics, but I don't see any reason we needed to have someone ripped in half on panel in full view, complete with organs flying everywhere. Worse still, the trick isn't working anymore. What should have been shocking didn't even make me flinch. Comics ought to pull back for a while, because it feels like they've gone down this road for so long that it's old hat. Scenes like that should garner some kind of reaction.