comics i like right now

20 03 2009

I haven’t really written about comics for a while so in short here’s a quick rundown of what I like at the moment and one disappointment:

Firstly the “must reads” as soon as I get them:

thewalkingdeadWalking Dead

Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse tale is still brilliant 55+ issues into the series. Kirkman isn’t afraid to write gut wrenching scenes and almost every issue contains an emotional kick, whether it’s a regular being killed or someone realising that the person he is talking to on the phone is actually his dead wife. Kirkman’s also not averse to throwing in the trick cliff hanger ending where you believe one thing, only to have it be revealed in the opening pages of the next issue to be something else. He gets away with it every time because he has killed off other characters in shocking ways. You honestly don’t know whether his “main” characters are going to survive issue to issue and not many other comics can claim that. Plus Tony Moore’s art is starkly stunning, enhancing the emotional punch of Kirkman’s writing.

bprdhellboyBPRD/Hellboy

The world of Hellboy has been around long enough now that the Hellboy Companion published last year is nearly a must have when reading both Hellboy and its spin-off BPRD. Its definitely not essential, at its core both comics read as rollicking pulp adventures, but it definitely adds depth to the reading experience when you can refer back to nuggets of information about certain characters without having to trawl through boxes of back issues. BPRD might be a smidgeon ahead in my affections, mainly because Guy Davis’ art is so brilliant (can anyone draw monsters as well as him?) but Hellboy isn’t far behind.

northlandersNorthlanders

The idea of a Viking comic series written by Brian Wood was intriguing when I first heard about it. The actuality has been excellent. So far Wood has eschewed the linear, specific character approach of DMZ (and to a lesser extent Local) and had stand alone arcs. The current arc, “The Cross and the Hammer” is a CSI style one set in conquered Ireland as a local man fights back against his Viking overlords in a guerrilla fashion. Northlanders has also featured revolving artists and they have all been excellent: Davide Gianfelice, Dean Ormston (an old favourite of mine) and Ryan Kelly. It might just be the Viking setting but I devour each new issue.

i-am-legionI am Legion

A few years back I bought the first issue of I am Legion from the Humanoids line that DC published and loved it. It was brilliant. It was dark, foreboding, possibly featured vampires and had Nazis as the villains. I eagerly waited for the next issue. And waited. And waited. It never came. DC canned the Humanoids line. When I was in France in 2007 I tried to hunt down a copy of the original French comic (if only to gaze on the wonder of John Cassaday’s art) but no joy. Until recently when DDP started publishing it again. I am Legion is wonderful – atmospheric and brooding. Fabien Nury’s story is gripping and Cassaday has long been a master. The only problem is that the pacing of the DDP edition is out of whack – the original DC version was 48 pages per issue, DDP is 24 pages. I just hope I get to see the end this time!

edenEden

Eden by Hiroki Endo is the closest thing I have read to Akira in my 15 years of serious comics reading. Like Akira it is the set in the near future and like Akira it is a manga masterpiece. It is sci fi of the hardest sort whether it is dealing with sentient crystal formations which are gradually taking over the world or the extreme violence of cyborg killing machines. At other times it is touchingly sweet. Plus our main Elijah Ballard is treading the path from youth to adulthood, and rather than annoy us, he achieves the rare feat of making us care for him. In many ways Eden is like a manga Battlestar Galactica, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

And finally, one comic I liked earlier which is fading in my estimation is:

madame-xanaduMadame Xanadu

I wrote about it earlier and liked it but unfortunately since then it has sadly deteriorated. It’s still a very beautiful looking comic and the idea of a person living through time and different eras is appealing (look how long Highlander was on the air) but there’s just something that feels … misguided in the way they are telling the story. It doesn’t surprise me when I read it and as a result it is boring. Recent arcs have featured the French Revolution and Jack the Ripper but rather than exciting they are predictable, we know our heroine is going to survive and so far we have seen little to make her appeal to us. I’m hoping it’ll turn around, Matt Wagner is an excellent writer and Amy Reeder Hadley produces some stunning panels. It just isn’t clicking at the moment.

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Graveyard Book Review

14 01 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman for close to fifteen years. It began with The Sandman, one of the first series that I collected when I began to read comics, and has continued through his novels (Anansi Boys and Coraline are particular favourites). While I haven’t liked everything he has written, his recent Eternals comic was interminable and I thought American Gods was too dry in parts, I was especially excited by The Graveyard Book, which has been billed as gothic fantasy meets The Jungle Book.

For the most part it lives up to the hype. Being a young adult book it’s a quick concise read and I literally had to pace myself to read a chapter each night. Much like The Jungle Book the chapters can be read as short stories, each dealing with another period in our protagonist Bod’s life. This approach works well – each chapter is gripping, inventive and with interesting twists.

I also greatly enjoyed the approach Gaiman took with conventional horror standards. The Danse Macabre is deconstructed as a festival held between the living and the dead. Silas, a vampire (who is never named as a vampire), is Bod’s guardian and antithesis of a villain – if anything he is the hero of the story. While Miss Lupin is quite possibly the coolest teacher werewolf ever. 

The overarching plot of the book involves the murder of Bod’s family that opens the novel and it builds nicely throughout the novel with a twist that genuinely surprised me.

Gaiman has talked about possibly revisiting the world of The Graveyard Book and I for one will be there if he does.

8/10





Bloodheir Review

16 12 2008
Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley

Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley

Brian Ruckley is a solid if unspectacular writer. His debut novel Winterbirth featured a northern world reminiscent of Scotland, full of Blood’s (another name for clans), fierce warriors, and wild untamed lands. It’s no surprise to find that Ruckley is a Scotsman and in many ways is writing what he knows. But this setting has been the inspiration for a plethora of books and stories from the awesome Song of Fire and Ice series by George RR Martin to JV Jones and others and for a novel to stand out it needs to be truly original. Unfortunately I wasn’t blown away by Winterbirth. It felt very generic. I felt like I’d read this story before and while I enjoyed it it was more a comfort read than anything special.

I guess the completist in me prompted me to read Bloodheir. There were moments in Winterbirth that suggested at some untapped potential and while I didn’t have exceptional hopes I wanted to see what happened with the story.

Bloodheir is a better book than Winterbirth. Ruckley is surer with his craft and he takes the time to develop the setting a lot more. I love the concept of the Godless World and the motivations it has created in people as a result. The Black Road are a fantastic horde-like enemy. They’re religious fanatics on a crusade against the True Bloods. At the same time there are other creatures, the human-like Kyrinin, the Na’kyrim half breeds, the mysterious Anain.  Yet there is a nagging sense that Ruckley is not fully exploiting this setting. A great deal is made of the powerful Anain but they seem to shake some leaves and that’s it. Big whoop. Perhaps they’ll be more prominent in the next book.

Ruckley is at his best when he deals with the minor characters. Taim Narran, a grizzled general just trying to survive so he can see his family is by far the best character in the book and his chapters are easily the most vivid in the book. Wain and Kanin, two Black Road siblings, are probably the next best characters and when Wain falls to the villain’s powers I despaired. The remainder of the characters are a struggle however. His villain, the Na’kyrim Aeglyss, has become a clichéd physically weak sorcerer. He commands awesome powers and armies but struggles to walk. Orisian, ostensibly our main character, is an awful character, pouty and pathetic. I kept on hoping that he’d take an arrow through the head. The great and powerful characters, the Bloodheir of the title in particular, are almost to a man stupid and you wonder how they ever got to where they are. I know it suits the plot to have them hotheaded but if I was a Thane of Thanes I wouldn’t send my son to wage war without at least a few experienced generals with him.

Bloodheir falls prey to the same faults that plague middle books in trilogies. While lots of things happen including murders, sieges and battles there is still the sense that the story is not being propelled onwards. In many ways I feel that if this book disappeared and the concluding volume was all that remained I wouldn’t miss anything.

Ruckley writes “moments” exceptionally well. There is a scene of a battle in a terrible rain storm in Winterbirth that stays with the reader long after the book is finished. In Bloodheir there is a similar moment of a battle in a blizzard which is the most vivid sequence in the book. It remains with me long after the story has ended.

Despite my reservations above I did enjoy Bloodheir. It has nicely set up the story for the concluding volume and I am truly interested in seeing how the story turns out.

6.5/10





A not so heroic effort – a Heroes series 3 review

10 12 2008

(Spoiler Warning: this review relates to the episodes screened in NZ so far)

What’s wrong with Heroes Series 3? The first season of Heroes was great, a taut gripping drama that was genuinely compelling. Sure it ripped off other things – most notably J.M. Stracyznski’s Rising Stars and Brian Wood’s Demo but also a whole host of other comics as well as TV shows like The 4400, but it did so in a way that was grown up and sophisticated. Essentially you didn’t mind because it was just really really good. “Save the cheerleader, save the world” was a mantra that we tuned in for every week, it meant excitement and drama.

Then it all kinda went wrong. The season 1 finale fell a bit flat, we were promised (threatened) with the apocalypse and instead we got a literal puff of smoke. It was all a bit whoop-de-doo. Season 2 was wrong in so many ways. They introduced too many new characters, went away from the characters that we liked (Micah and his family should have had more of a prominent role, and Hiro was in the past for waaaaaaay too long) and made it too slow.

Pre Season 3 we were promised that they were going to go back to what was working in the first season. So far it’s been a failure. The action has definitely returned, there are a plethora of baddies out there and some of our heroes are turning villainous (rather apt when the season is titled: Villains), but it all feels very kindergarten. Everything is simplistic and the sophistication that seemed to be there in season 1 is absent. Or perhaps it was all just an illusion and we were so grateful to have a grown-up superpower show that we ignored its many flaws.

Whatever the case, Heroes season 3 has too many problems.

The show suffers from Peter being too powerful. He can literally almost do anything. They’ve tried to rectify this somewhat by having him firstly be stuck in the body of a criminal then by him contracting Sylar’s power. This has turned him into a powers vampire and we have an insight into what has driven Sylar to be a monster so far. Admittedly this story is strong and provides many of the more powerful moments in the show. However it has the potential to go farcical if Peter has to be restricted every episode, if they don’t he’ll logically be able to solve every dilemma with one of his myriad of powers.

There’s also a definite sense of the producers making things up as they go. Case in point is Peter’s Irish girlfriend from season 2. WTF is she? Isn’t she still trapped in that alternate hellhole future? I found this quote from Tim Kring to be quite shocking:

When the fan asked if Peter would ever acknowledge Caitlin or express any grief over what seems to be her dire fate, Kring replied, “No, we passed it. We leapfrogged it.” He added that when the idea of returning to Caitlin was brought up, they asked, “Really? Are we going to risk that? We have enough stuff to [deal with].”

That’s just bad scripting, bad storylining and bad producing. So we’re supposed to give a crap about characters that the producers obviously don’t? my wife, who is a storyliner for a television show, is absolutely disgusted by this and says that she’d be in deep crap if they pulled a stunt like that.

Another problem I have with the show is that there is no real sense of a broader story like there is in Lost or Battlestar Galactica. This is something that the show definitely needs. Personally I would love it if they explored the reasons why the powers have come on now. Why can’t they have some otherworldly threat appear – it would give you a lurking menace and really, is it any sillier than the utter crap that they’ve pulled already? Maybe their powers are the world’s defence mechanism at some terrible tentacled menace that threatens our very existence.

The other problems I have are pet peeves:

Every time I see Parkman do that constipated turtle face when he is attempting to use his powers I want to throw my remote at the screen. Show the powers another way, the way you’re currently doing it is farcical.

They’re frikkin ripping off The Fly with Suresh’s story and it’s not even that interesting! It’s possibly because the actor is soooo bad but I doubt it. At least when Stargate Atlantis rips things off (which they do every second episode) they do it in a cheerful and exciting fashion.

And worst of all, they’ve ruined Hiro’s character. He was the best character and now he just seems annoying. Characters change and evolve, have him become that dark future assassin struggling to regain his happiness. He just seems like an annoying Chihuahua at the moment. I want Ando to kill him.

I don’t think the show is irredeemable but every week it gets harder to watch it. It’s a tragedy because once upon a time, Heroes was must see television. “Save the cheerleader, save the world”  now means “meh”.





Watchmen Review

28 11 2008

watchmen(Just a warning for those of you who haven’t read Watchmen, this post will contain spoilers)

A few weeks back I finished reading Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’m ashamed to say I’ve owned a copy of Watchmen for over a decade but it took me that long to read it. I don’t act that way with any of Alan Moore’s other books. I devoured V for Vendetta, From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as soon as I got them but with Watchmen, I let it sit, like some mammoth cthulhu-like creature waiting in the darkness. I guess in some ways I was intimidated by it, after all, it is regarded as the greatest ever graphic novel. So it was with a mix of trepidation and anticipation that I finally sat down to read Watchmen.

It didn’t let me down. While I wouldn’t say it is my favourite graphic novel of all time, some of the volumes of the Sandman, Akira, Planetary and even V for Vendetta are up there with it, it is definitely one of the best things I’ve ever read. As ever Alan Moore displays his monstrous skill and intellect, creating a narrative that is so far beyond what anyone else can even come close to replicating (well, maybe Grant Morrison could). Dave Gibbons artwork is solidly British and displays the same subtlety that David Lloyd displayed in V for Vendetta. The art is deceptively simple but packed full of character. It made me realise how much I prefer this style of art to the showboating tricks that characterise most modern mainstream comics.

For me Watchmen captured the mood of an era exceptionally well. This felt like the 80s, an era where our mutually assured destruction is simply a few button presses away. It made me realise how close we were (and still are) to our doom.

I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the film adaptation though I’m wondering how they can possibly do it justice. One thing that does worry me is the news [link] that they will be changing the ending from the giant squid monster that destroys New York to what seems to be nuclear devastation. I can understand their reasons for changing it – it seems a bit silly for a modern audience but then we had Cloverfield just recently so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  There are other elements which I am interested to see how they develop – most notably the Black Ship comic within a comic stuff. Will it be interweaved within the film?

Anyway, Watchmen is a piece of genius. Highly recommended.

9/10





NBA Live 09 Review

30 10 2008

I’ve written about my obsession with NBA Live before – basically I’ve been hooked on the game for over a decade. I’ve played it on the pc, ps1, ps2, and this year I’m graduating to the Xbox 360. Last year was my worst experience of the game – it was flawed in so many ways and eventually I ended up buying NBA 2K8 and spent all my time playing that instead. This year, with my new 360 console I was looking forward to playing the game as they meant it to be played, with all the new bells and whistles. Only, it didn’t come out when it was supposed to and I ended up getting NBA 2K9 as well. I posted my review of 2K9 and while it was solid I still was looking forward to NBA Live 09. And here is my review:

The first thing you notice coming from the ps2 versions of the game is how much slicker it looks. I was expecting it to be prettier and more developed, after all it is the 360, but I was pleasantly surprised. My test on how realistic it looks is Kirsty’s reaction to it. If she volunteers that it’s just like watching a game then it’s pretty good, and yes, she did say that about this version. The close-ups of the players and the courts are beautiful, the players have a slightly icky sheen of sweat that covers them as the game goes on and the replays are for the most part of dramatic moments. Which is an improvement on the anaemic version of the highlights that 2K9 presents at the end of the game (really? A bog standard jump shot from Maurice Williams is your highlight over the thunderous dunk that LeBron threw down? Really?). Still the visual presentation is not a patch on 2K9. 2K9s crowd and bench player reactions are brilliant, they really get behind your team at the right moments and that does a great job of building atmosphere in the game. In NBA Live most of the players sit there on the bench, seemingly bored with events as the game moves on, only haphazardly reacting to what’s going on. Essentially NBA Live could learn something from 2K9 in the presentation of the game. I quite liked the default camera angle that NBA Live 09 selects for us however, as it’s the view that I usually select for myself anyway.

Ultimately however, I’m less fussed about how the game looks but rather how it plays. Happily NBA Live 09 succeeds for me on that count. I much prefer the way shots and moves are handled through the controller in NBA Live than 2K9. 2K9 was just too fiddly and required much more of an effort to pull anything off. NBA Live 09 on the other hand is smooth, and reacts more to the way I play the game.

I’m finding the defensive aspect of the game much more realistic as well. In 2K9 I had to do a lot of game slider adjustments to get the game to play in a realistic fashion. In NBA Live 09 I’m able to play more realistic defence. It helps that they have a defensive assist function mapped to the LT button and at first I was using that regularly but now that I understand the rhythms of the game I’m using it a lot less. I also like the lockdown defence you can play, and I’m using it in a much more strategic fashion now. It does however cause the odd unrealistic turnover but then players in NBA games do stupid things all the time as well.

I love the new pick and roll control and I use it on most possessions. I also love the new dynamic play calling, very fluid and easy to use and with it mapped to the specific players on the court, much more realistic. It brings the actions closer to what a real NBA game would be like for a coach.

I’ve actually found the gameplay in NBA Live 09 much more realistic than 2K9s. Until I adjusted the sliders radically in 2K9 and found the opposition players sinking an unreasonably high field goal percentage – like 90% kind of unreasonable. It was depressing. In NBA Live it’s much more realistic – sure you’ll get the odd game where one team will be around the 60+% mark but that’s usually due to playing like crap than an obvious glitch. Another area where NBA Live is realistic is in the rebounding, people have to gather themselves before they go for a rebound and that I guess is more true to life.

One of the keys of a good basketball game for me is the dynasty mode and so far I don’t have too many quibbles with NBA Live 09. I’ve been playing as the Portland Trailblazers and they’ve been up and down like most young teams. One thing which I did find however is that it is too easy to acquire top draft talent from other teams – I’ve been able to acquire Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo for my roster as well as a veteran point in Kirk Hinrich. All I had to give up was Raef LaFraentz and Martell Webster for Beasley, Sergio Rodriguez and another scrub for Mayo and for Hinrich, a draft pick and Channing Frye. It felt a bit toooooo easy for me. At least the interface for the Dynasty mode in NBA Live is better than 2K9 – easier to navigate and view all the relevant info.

With the NBA season having just started I haven’t really delved into the NBA 365 feature, but I figure it’ll be a prerequisite when starting a new Dynasty game. I probably won’t replay many previous night’s games either but it’s nice to have that feature.

I haven’t actually delved into the new Be a Pro feature – from the reports I’ve read it doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe if it expanded into a dynasty type mode I’d play it.  

I did find that I had to adjust a few sliders – namely the sliders related to fatigue, but it was nothing like what 2K9 needed.

There are a few other flaws and they are mainly to do with presentation. At times the game glitches and a player will run out onto the court to pass the inbounds ball. And it’s not just a step or two, it’s like a metre or two. At other times there will be a foot on the line during 3 point shots that doesn’t get called. It happens once or twice a game and is really jarring. There are other times when the controller doesn’t match up with what you’re trying to do – especially when you’re trying to throw a lead pass on a break. The solution is to always do a direct pass but it’s frustrating.

Overall I’ve been loving NBA Live 09. It’s a definite return to form and the fact that I am well into December in my Blazers Dynasty having played every game is probably a good indication of how much I’ve been playing and enjoying it.

8/10





NBA 2K9 Review

13 10 2008

After the disappointment that was Friday when NBA Live 09 failed to show Kirsty solved the problem on Saturday by telling me, nay, ordering me to go and buy NBA 2K9. I guess she got sick of me moping about the house. It was made worse by ESPN screening the Heat/Nets exhibition game from Paris. Did it dazzle me with its brilliance? Not quite, in fact it was more the opposite. I sat there groaning at the offensive ineptitude of the Heats/Nets bench players trying to win a game. I know if I’d been in the crowd I would have been chanting Wade’s name – if only cause I’d paid good money to be there.

Anyway so at Kirsty’s urging (probably more like demand for her own sanity) I went down and bought NBA 2K9. It immediately solved some of my b-ball craving. Don’t get me wrong I’m still getting NBA Live 09 this Friday but as a short term fix 2K9 satisfied.

The whole package of 2K9 is slick. The animations are beautiful, the stadiums in particular are things of beauty and the player animations are top notch. It really creates this sense of immersion, you believe that you are watching a telecast. Which makes the glitchy nature of the commentary so jarring and disruptive. There are moments when the commentators will talk about a particular team and there is a fractional delay while the game loads the requisite team name. It’s like they spent all the budget on the visuals but didn’t leave enough for the audio.

The gameplay seems to be smooth and effective, players have the requisite style of play and signature shots but its offset somewhat by the screwy 2K9 settings when you first start playing. Your team just doesn’t play defence, nor do they contest shots. It’s easily fixed by adjusting different sliders but why couldn’t they have it adjusted perfectly out of the box? Once I adjusted the sliders appropriately the gameplay improved immeasurably.

Another thing I had issues with is the Association mode. I love the franchise mode in NBA games – its one of my favourite features and I play for several seasons. But the 2K9 interface is awful. They base it around the NBA.com site and while that might work on the pc where you’re a few inches from the screen, on a normal sized tv (and no I don’t have a 42 inch Plasma or anything – try half that size) it’s almost unreadable. The controls are also awkward and at first glance it frustrates more than rewards.

So far NBA 2K9 has done nothing to suggest that it is drastically better than NBA Live 09. It’ll be interesting to compare the two. Despite my reservations I still have enjoyed my experience with it.

7.5/10