Monday, March 24, 2014

All New X-Men: Yesterdays X-Men (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Collects: All New X-Men #1-5

This is not a book I was prepared to like.

While we do have the upside of Avengers vs X-Men having ended the "Extinction Era" of the X line - in my opinion, one of the worst in franchise history - we knew ahead of time that Bendis was leaving the Avengers line to take the reigns of the X books. For me, that's cause for trepidation; I've liked a fair bit of his work, but loved little of it, while I hated others still.

Not helping the situation is that the run was slated to involve the original five X-Men. Marvel rarely goes back to that well for good reason. The original five were mostly bland, with the worst offenders - Archangel and Beast - requiring complete overhauls to be remotely interesting.

Color me surprised, then, that All New X-Men is really good.

Bendis is on his game - possibly because he has new toys to work with rather than the same property he'd worked on for close to a decade - and the central conflict has more weight than I expected. Beasts mutation is killing him and he wants to make some kind of impact before he dies, so he goes back in time to recruit the original X-Men. His hope is that either the original group will force Cyclops to face what he's become or that seeing their futures will in some way steer the Cyclops from the past away from it. Kind of a dick move on Beasts part that could cause more problems that it would solve - I'm hoping someone calls him on it at some point and it's not just waved off - but few things can motivate someone to drastic measures quite like death, so I can buy it.

This is not a story that could have happened without the Extinction Era, which for me taints it in some way. But the reason this has weight is because the franchise has gone in some dark directions, whether Marvel wanted to admit it or not. If you brought those five back from that more idealistic time at any other point, it probably wouldn't have worked simply because it would be hard to believe their revulsion. But we live in a time where the X-Men have shacked up with Magneto, renounced humanity once or twice, fought to allow a world devouring entity to make it to Earth and now see their old leader calling for revolution. If you're going to do it, now's the time.

It works. Mostly. There's a lot for young Cyclops, Jean Grey and Beast to chew on because things have changed the most for them. The younger Iceman and Angel, however, struggle not to fade into the background. After all, Iceman has probably changed the least of the five, so it kind of feels as though his younger self is just along for the ride because the rest went. Angel, meanwhile, is as boring as he's always been. We'll see if Bendis can find something for them to do - Angel has yet to find out about the Archangel business, so there is something to be done with him - but for now they're just standing around while the more interesting character conflicts happen.

Some of the dialogue is spotty - and Modern Cyke has some thoughts upon seeing the younger Jean that we'll file under "questionable" if we want to be charitable - but Bendis does a great job of making things interesting. This might be my favorite thing that he's written since Siege; maybe even as far back as the last time I read Ultimate Spider-Man on a regular basis. A lot of his work was just not for me, but this seems to hit the sweet spot.

Despite relying heavily on how things have changed in the last decade of X-Men comics, it felt surprisingly accessible. This is always a tricky call to make when you're already invested in some way; if you've read as many X comics as I have, it's hard to objectively remove that knowledge and judge the material as if you're just trying to get into the franchise. But Bendis has an advantage here; his story focuses around a younger set of characters who have experienced none of this, so if he slips in some exposition about what has happened, it doesn't feel like an intrusion. You'll probably get more out of it if you already have a working knowledge of where the franchise has gone, but it seems to me like you could jump right in and get everything you need to enjoy the story right here.

The title also benefits from some top notch artwork by Stuart Immonen. This guy can easily sell a scene without words. There's a two page splash midway through the fifth issue that succiently summarizes Jean Grey's future in picture. Jean is in the center, surrounded by a patchwork of memories, making a bit of a bullseye. It's very effective and a great scene. Immonen feels like the perfect partner for this storyline, so I hope we can go without a ton of fill-ins as we go along.

Overall, we're left with a well crafted comic that is well worth reading. Time will tell if it continues as strongly as it started, but for now I definitely recommend the first volume. I'm sold.

My Opinion: Read It 

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Dudes a straight up creeper. The second he spots young Jean Grey, he's immediately like "she's so gorgeous, everything I ever wanted in life". Dude, chill out; that's, what, a sixteen year old version of your ex-wife. This is also kind of ignoring the fact that this "perfection" was exactly why they didn't work out in the first place.

Dude's also calling for straight up revolt on television. While picking up mutants for his own school. Which he's calling the New Xavier School. Yup, named after the father figure he himself killed. At least he shows some remorse in this one as opposed to the time he said he'd do it all over again.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz (video game)

Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Genre: Action, Puzzle, Party
Release Date: October 23rd, 2012

Few games can go from fun to frustrating as fast as a Super Monkey Ball entry.

Super Monkey Ball has been around since the early days of the Gamecube and was, in fact, one of the better titles for the system. Thirteen years after the first game, we're on entry number ten; time marched on, but Monkey Ball did not. Save some cruddier level design, this series has refused to move forward at all and that's it's biggest problem.

The biggest - and arguably only - added feature happens to be motion controls. If you so desire, you can control the game through tilting the system. This isn't even all that new a feature; I'm pretty sure the 3DS counterpart has it as well. Either way, the option to use the left analog stick is still there and believe me, you're going to want to use it.

See, the trouble with adding motion control to a game like this is that you only have so much say over what is happening as it is. Monkey Ball has always been unique in that you don't actually control the resident simian or the ball he resides in; you are actually controlling the tilt of the entire stage itself and using that to maneuver the ball around hazards, with sixty seconds to get to the goal. That's difficult enough as it is; adding tilt control just adds an extra layer of imprecision to a game where you're already struggling against momentum and navigating thin pathways.

Banana Splitz doesn't do a great job of being a portable title, either. When I say "nothing has changed" I'm including the way the game is structured. The typical Super Monkey Ball format is to have three difficulties; Beginner will have one world of ten stages, Normal will have three worlds of ten and Advanced will have five. You have a number of lives and continues to utilize and must complete all the stages in a difficulty in one shot.

That's perfectly fine for a home console - you're sitting on your couch, likely with a fair chunk of time to devote to whatever game you choose - but it's a poor format for a portable. Part of the point is to play games on the go and you don't always have a long stretch of time to play. Oh sure, you may have the occasional long commute or wait in a doctors office, but typically you'll pull out the system to kill a few minutes here and there. Most modern portable games plan for this - even the long games, like an RPG, will typically allow you to save at almost any point - but Super Monkey Ball doesn't bother. You either complete all the levels or you quit; there's no saving midway, so if you're on Advanced you're more or less screwed.

As a result, there aren't a lot of upsides to playing Banana Splitz. It's really the same as any other Monkey Ball game, so you may as well get one of those. There are better games to get for your PS Vita.

My Opinion: Skip It

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Uncanny X-Men by Kieron Gillen vol. 4 (comics)

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Daniel Acuna, Ron Garney, Dale Eaglesham, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Uncanny X-Men (vol. 2) #15-20

Warning: This review is going to contain spoilers for AVX. It's almost unavoidable. This entire volume hinges on the big plot twist of that event. I'm going to attempt to skirt around the identity of the X-Men affected, but be forewarned.

Kieron Gillen's time with the Uncanny X-Men comes to a close with this volume. The book would be immediately relaunched for the second time in as many years, this time with Brian Michael Bendis at the helm. I guess he got tired of writing the Avengers. Damn near ten years will do that to you.

The sad part about it is that it's felt to me like Gillens run never managed to get off the ground. He was on the book for something like thirty five issues, five of them co-written with Matt Fraction. A fair chunk of real estate, but of that number he got to do maybe one or two stories divorced of events or the goings on of the Marvel Universe at large. Looking back, his best issues were frequently single issues he snuck in; the Phalanx and the Mister Sinister issues were easily my favorite of his time with the book.

Unfortunately, most of his run was marred with the sort of problems you see all over this one. This comic makes zero sense unless you've read AVX or at least have a working understanding of what happened in that book. Between this volume and the last, five of the cast have become the Phoenix Five and are all but omnipotent. They immediately decide to make the world an actual utopia, at which point we come in, with not a goddamn lick of that being explained within the comic itself.

This presents some problems beyond the immediately apparent. Near the beginning, they remember Mister Sinister is out there and they should probably go curbstomp him. With little effort, they find him - again, they're basically gods at this point - and commence with said curbstomping.

Obviously, this doesn't go according to plan - I don't think anyone can stretch an ass whopping that one sided for three issues - but it doesn't happen in any believable way. It's pure plot contrivance. They're defeated solely because the plot calls for it, at least up until the Phoenix decides it's better off with the five. Sinister is dispatched immediately after that. Nothing is at stake. There's no explanation to be found, either; I admit that it's been a year since I read the last volume, but I don't recall anything from the rest of the run that could make sense of how the Five were beat.

The worst part is that I'm not sure there was any way around it. Gillens run was ending with this volume and Bendis was coming on board; the Mister Sinister plot had to be wrapped up in some fashion before that happened. But the main X-Men had become demi-gods in the event this book ties into; Uncanny couldn't well ignore what happened, even if it meant there was almost no way to make Sinister a believable - or remotely threatening - adversary to a handful of people backed by the power of a giant fire bird. So I guess the only option was to fudge the lines and wipe the playing field.

After any vestige of plot exclusive to this comic is wiped away, the rest of the volume is your typical "between the panels of the event" tie-in, which is exactly the sort I hate. Gillen, for his part, does a good job of attempting to add to the events of the other book, delving into the warped psyche of the protagonists and attempting to show how deeply this power has compromised them. In fact, he probably adds more depth in his tie-in than the main event had. It comes with the obvious downside though; the last three issues are either a disjointed clip show or an epilogue to someone elses story.

Not exactly how a run by a talented writer should go out.

Most of the art is serviceable, but little stands out to me. Daniel Acuna handles three of the six issues; he's typically a great artist, but his style clashes with everything else we've seen thus far. Ron Garney's work is good, but you won't write home about it. Dale Eaglesham is on for an issue, but that's it; luckily, it depicts a lot of the action from the climax of AVX, so at least he has something interesting to draw.

Carlos Pacheco illustrates the last issue of this run of Uncanny X-Men; it's good to have him back to close out the volume - and tie up any lingering plot threads - but it just serves to remind you how little we actually got of his art We had, what, seven issues total? I'd nearly forgotten that he was supposed to be the regular penciler. They didn't even have him on board to wrap the Mister Sinister story that's been running since the start. Perhaps he just couldn't do it in the time they'd need it. I don't know.

My Opinion: Try It

It's difficult to give a solid opinion on something like this. If you've read up through volume three of Gillens run, you may as well finish. If you're haven't and wonder if the run is worth getting into, I can't bring myself to say yes. It's not really Gillens fault - his dialogue and character interactions are the only reason to even bother - it's just the way this seemed to pan out. We'll see if Bendis will fare better with the franchise; he's a big enough name that he can probably avoid being stuck with whatever event is rolling through the universe.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Quite a few moments are AVX repeats. But man, that second to last issue. Cyclops, now in control of his mental faculties - such as they are - realizes he's killed his mentor on top of making people fear mutants more than ever before. He's over it the second he hears there are new mutants. Even says he'd do it all again. Ice cold.