Thursday, January 31, 2008

Amulet: Tentacles, robots, and kids make a good combination

I think I'm actually getting caught up on reviews here. Wow.

Amulet, Book One: The Stonekeeper
By Kazu Kibuishi

Why is it that stories aimed at kids always have to be so tragic? I suppose there is a need to eliminate authority figures, allowing the younger characters to empower themselves without relying on a guardian figure, but it makes for a disturbing trend in which most any protagonist of a children's fantasy novel is an orphan whose parents died tragically. But I guess you gotta set the story up somehow, so parental death is a good means to that end. Kazu Kibuishi's new graphic novel jumps right into those ranks, starting off with a scene in which Emily, his main character, suffers through a car accident that claims the life of her father. It's a well-done scene, and it sets up the main story of the book, in which Emily, her mother, and her brother Navin move to an old house that belonged to her great-grandfather, an inventor named Silas. Unsurprisingly (since this is a fantasy story), the house holds some secrets, starting with a neat-looking amulet that Emily decides to wear:

As readers, we can probably expect this simple act to have dire consequences, and sure enough, the amulet turns out to have magic powers, and Emily and Navin are soon plunged into some sort of subterranean world, trying to rescue their mom after she gets eaten by a tentacled monster. Their quest leads them to discover a strange mansion, where they find their great-grandfather's true legacy: a horde of cute robot helpers and some awesome sci-fi technology:

This leads to some exciting chase sequences, and plot twists that mostly set up events to come in future volumes. Those should be exciting to read, but there's plenty to mull over in the meantime. For instance, Emily is presented with the idea that her magic amulet has some amazing powers, including the ability to turn back time. Will she eventually be given the option to change the past and bring her father back to life? At the very least, the indication is given that she will get the chance to become the ruler of this underground (otherdimensional?) kingdom, but she really just wants to save her mom and return with her family to their regular life. So that choice looms uncertainly in the future. And then there's the possibility that there's something sinister going on with the amulet; it often speaks to her, prodding her to use her powers in some way or another; what's to say that it doesn't necessarily have her best interests at heart? I'm sure more will be revealed, and Emily might have to deal with the old idiom about absolute power and corruption.

Kazu Kibuishi (who is probably best known for creating and editing the Flight anthologies, but also writes and illustrates the beautiful webcomic Copper) definitely has a grand scope in mind, and it should be fascinating to watch him develop this world in future volumes. One thing is certain: that world will be beautifully illustrated in his somewhat manga-esque style. His rounded human characters are expressive and very relatable, but the other various creatures are also quite appealing. Miskit, the pink stuffed-rabbit-thing on the cover, is a definite standout; I love his Bone-style monobrow that floats over his forehead:

The environments are also quite lovely, full of gloomy atmosphere and weird, otherworldly features like giant mushrooms and strange creatures:

Kibuishi's colors are a big part of the look, adding a lovely glow to the world and giving characters real weight and texture. He's one of the new generation of cartoonists that use digital coloring techniques in innovative ways to come up with the kind of art that wouldn't be possible even a few years ago.

And don't forget about the monsters! The tentacled beasts aren't quite as scary as Ben Templesmith's nasty demons, but they make an effective threat for a couple of scared kids:

As you can see from these samples, Kibuishi also uses some of the storytelling styles of manga, angling his panels during action scenes and employing speed lines and similar effects. It's a nice synthesis of Japanese and Western styles, making for a unique book with the kind of look you can't find anywhere else.

So, it's a really nice kids' book. Sure, the story is fairly simple (so far), and some might view it as somewhat derivative of other fantasy works (Narnia, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and all the other usual suspects spring to mind), but I really enjoyed it, and I can't wait for the next installment. Keep 'em coming, please!

UPDATED yet again! Solicitationary blatherings: April 2008

UPDATE again on 1/31: In what might be the final update to this post (yeah, right), there were a couple books from Arcana Studios that caught my attention, so see the first two items below. Also: a couple items from Drawn and Quarterly, as reported by Chris Butcher. So make that four items.

Another UPDATE on 1/28: There were a couple of books from Boom! Studios that seem interesting, so see the new first two entries.

UPDATE: I found one more book worth mentioning, so see the first entry below.

I'm trying out a new format this month, partly because I didn't feel like doing all the work I usually do when compiling what's coming out. Also, I don't know if anybody really cares besides me. So instead of posting the cover and mentioning every comic that interests me or that I plan to buy, I'll just post the ones that I think deserve a mention. You don't really need me to tell you that I'm going to get Madman, Casanova, All Star Superman, and whatever else I buy each month, right? So here's what I've come up with so far, and I'll be indiscriminate about it, just doing them in alphabetical order and mashing all the companies together. Sounds like fun. Oh, and I might edit the post and add more later if I find anything else that I feel like mentioning (namely manga). Here we go:

Gearhead - I remember reading about this graphic novel quite a while ago, and it looks like it's finally going to show up. I like the art style, and even though the story has something to do with superheroes, it still sounds interesting. So I'll probably try to check it out.

Helen Killer #1 - Okay, now this is just silly, featuring Helen Keller as a cyborg Secret Service agent protecting President McKinley after being outfitted with technology designed by Alexander Graham Bell. Could be fun, in a Matt Fraction sort of way, but it could also be incredibly stupid. But I do like a good high concept, so I'm willing to give it a chance.

Good-Bye HC - Ah, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the artsy mangaka that I don't get. Actually, I've only read Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and I thought it was pretty good, but not something that blew me away or anything. I need to read The Push Man and Other Stories one of these days; maybe that will change my mind about him. As it is, I find Tatsumi to be a good book to check out of the library; I don't think I would want to drop $25 on this sort of thing.

Red Colored Elegy - This looks like another attempt at the same sort of literary manga as the Tatsumi books, so it should be worth checking out. I'll probably try to get it from a library as well. Nice cover.

Blood Bowl: Killer Contract #1 - A comedically-oriented fantasy football comic, with "fantasy" here taken to mean elves and orcs and whatnot. That's a pretty funny idea, and the cover makes it look like it could be some wacky, gory fun. It's a high concept, but I find it appealing, as long as it goes well over the top and doesn't take itself too seriously.

Shmobots - A graphic novel about lazy robots, from film director Adam Rifkin and pinup artist Les Toil. Could be fun, but I personally dig the retro robot designs. The one with the eyeball head, accordion arms, pincer hands, square base, wheels, and multitude of dials is one of those elements that I find impossible to resist. I'd probably buy Green Lantern if it had one of those on the cover.

Anna Mercury #1 - Another Warren Ellis series from Avatar. I'm never sure what to think about his books for them; they seem be where he unleashes all the disgusting, disturbing ideas floating around in his head. This one is about a sort of pulp action heroine, and it could be pretty good. I'll definitely read the first few issues, since I'm willing to give anything by Ellis a try. Who knows, maybe it'll turn out to be his next big thing.

American Splendor Season Two #1 - Cool, more of good old irascible Harvey Pekar! This first issue of the new four-issue miniseries (why can't they just make it ongoing?) sees art by David Lapham, Chris Weston, Dean Haspiel, Mike Hawthorne, and John Lucas. Sweet. Also: a nice cover by Philip Bond. Good times.

Aqua Leung, volume 1 - This graphic novel looks like it will be pretty cool; I can't wait to check it out. It's written by Mark Andrew Smith (The Amazing Joy Buzzards) and illustrated by Paul Maybury (I don't know what else he's done, but his preview art, including the story in the Popgun anthology, looks great). Don't let me down, boys!

Burnout - One of two Minx books in April, this one is by Rebecca Donner (who?) and Inaki Miranda (who has done some art on Fables). Sounds like it might be good.

Fables, volume 10: The Good Prince - I've been getting impatient for this story to finish and get collected, so I'm glad to see it's finally on the schedule. Now I'll just have to wait until April...

Gantz volume 1 - I've read some of this series in scanlation form, and it's some crazy, fucked-up shit. I'm stoked to be able to actually own it in English. Check it out if you want to see some awesome sex and violence.

Countdown Special: Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth 80-Page Giant - As much as I love Jack Kirby, Kamandi is one of those books I've never read. I really need to check it out, so I suppose this might be as good a sampler as any.

Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus - I heard this recently ended Hellboy-spinoff miniseries was pretty good, so I'll probably end up picking up this trade.

Local #11 - This being an issue of an ongoing series, I wouldn't normally include it, but it comes out so rarely, I'm always excited to get a new one. Plus, it's the penultimate issue! Like all this other stuff, I can't wait.

Pigeons From Hell #1 - A new horror series written by Joe R. Lansdale. I don't know if I would be that interested normally, but the art is by Nathan Fox, who I recently discovered when he did some fill-in art on DMZ. He has a really cool, Paul Pope-ish style, and this looks like a great project for him. Plus, Dave Stewart is doing the colors, so it will probably look extra pretty!

Water Baby - The other Minx book for the month, although it was originally supposed to come out in 2007. I don't know why it was delayed, but I expect I'll get it; I like Ross Campbell's art.

Wulf & Batsy #1 - This probably isn't something I would normally care about (the Josh Howard cover certainly turns me off), but writer/artist Bryan Baugh sent me a few issues of previously-published stories about these characters, and I like his artwork, so I'll probably try to check this new series out. I haven't had a chance to read and review the books yet (sorry, Bryan!), but I'll try to get to them soon.

And I think that's about it. If I see anything else that I feel I need to point out, I will, but I think this will suffice for now. Later tonight or sometime this weekend: more content, probably!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Buddha: Ladies love a bald guy

Whoops, I was silent there for a couple days. But now I'm back, baby! And I have one review elsewhere: a look at Dan Dare #3 over at Comics Bulletin. Also, I noticed an interesting news story: Marvel has made a deal with the French publisher Soleil to publish their work in the U.S. I don't know much about Soleil's stuff, but I'm always very curious about European comics. I kind of missed out on most of the books from the partnership between DC and Humanoids a few years ago; I was just getting back into comics at the time and my tastes hadn't gotten as adventurous as they are now. But this time I'm ready for it! Bring on the wacky French shit, Marvel!

Okay, on with the review:

Buddha, volume 3: Devadatta
By Osamu Tezuka

Three volumes in to Osamu Tezuka's historical epic, and I think I'm starting to see what he's going for. I'm glad this isn't a dry history lesson about Buddhism, but rather a rousing series of adventures through ancient India; but what else should I have expected from a wackmeister like Tezuka? I will say that I'm really digging the crazy stories he's telling here, along with his style; if he decides to spend eight pages on a series of scenes of animals eating each other, he goes for it!

But while he often indulges in his trademark goofiness (lots of slapstick, but not as many anachronisms or attacks on the fourth wall as in other volumes), I'm starting to realize how well-paced the thing is. While we see the development of Siddhartha's spiritual philosophy, we get side narratives focusing on minor, tangential characters that illustrate the themes of the story.

In one of the major parts of this volume, we follow young Devadatta, the son of the evil warrior Bandaka from the first two volumes. Through a variety of fairly harsh plot developments, he ends up being raised by wolves and living as an animal. So of course he ends up running into Naradatta, the monk from the first volume who had lowered himself to an animal. This leads to some fascinating discussions of man vs. animal and the harsh nature of, well, nature:

Naradatta's philosophy reminds me of The Lion King's "circle of life" theory, but wasn't that movie kind of a rip-off of Tezuka's Kimba: The White Lion? If so, I guess it comes full circle here. How fitting.

But as cute as Tezuka draws them, this series isn't just about animals, so Devadatta has to end up back in man's world. Thus, we get to see him try to incorporate himself back into society and learn all about man's crazy ways, and finally set out to be strong and powerful. Is man actually more savage than the wild beasts? Eh, maybe, but he's also dumb, falling for Devadatta in drag (it makes at least a little bit of sense in context). Really, this bit emphasizes man's propensity for betrayal and disrespect of other humans. Interesting stuff, and I'm quite curious as to how Devadatta will play into the rest of the series.

But while the Devadatta bits are quite interesting, the heart of this volume is about Siddhartha (who actually gains his "Buddha" moniker this time around) becoming a monk. Right off, he has some problems with the idea of "ordeals", in which monks physically punish themselves in order to purify their spirits (or something like that). He gets to learn this from Dhepa, the monk who burned out his own eye in the last volume. Tezuka presents the reasoning behind these ordeals pretty fairly, but he also shows how Siddhartha doesn't agree with the idea, especially when they discover a dead monk who had allowed vultures to eat him alive (in an interesting bit of doubling, Tezuka has Devadatta subjected to this punishment in the next section of the book). What's the point of trying to purify yourself if you're going to die in the process?

Later, Siddhartha and Dhepa have some other adventures, including a visit to a city that has banned Brahmin after a deadly fever swept through the population and the monks' religious rituals were powerless to stop it. This leads to an interesting situation, but also another chance for a woman to be overpowered by Siddhartha's captivating manliness. I assume he's very sexy; this is the third woman so far to fall for him. In this case, it's the rich, Afro-haired Visakha:

She's a rich woman who kidnaps him and tries to seduce him, only to have them torn apart by Tatta, Migaila, and their gang of brigands. Tatta is trying to convince Siddhartha to return to his kingdom and become a great leader, but Siddhartha only wants to pursue spiritual purity. So Tatta and his gang burn the city down and ravage the population. Bastards. This eventually leads to some pretty cool action scenes, and Siddhartha pledges to return as kind after ten years of monking. It seems like ten years after this volume will be a momentous time; it will also see the return of Devadatta (according to a bit of narration) and the prophesied death of another character. I don't know how much story will take place in the meantime though.

One other interesting character in this volume is Assaji, a snot-nosed kid that follows Siddhartha and Dhepa around, trying to be a monk. In a hilarious scene, his parents try to get the monks to take him in early in the book :

And they spend most of the volume trying to elude him, because Dhepa doesn't think he has what it takes to survive ordeals. But I figured he would end up being important, since Tezuka has a tendency to introduce what seem like throwaway characters who turn out to be more pivotal than originally expected. Assaji is an interesting one; he seems like he might be a reference (visually, at least) to Tezuka's The Three-Eyed One. I don't know what that means (but I would love to read that manga and find out, so somebody please translate it!), but Assaji eventually becomes wise beyond his years, gaining the ability to see the future. It's an interesting development, and Tezuka gets some exciting scenes out of it:

It should be fun to see where he goes with this idea, and what other themes he will explore in future volumes.

So, that's the third volume. It doesn't seem like I have any insights or deep thoughts this time around, but I still want to praise the wonderful storytelling. It's page-turning reading, and it makes me want to get a book about the life of Buddha and see how much is actual historical fact, how much is legend, and how much Tezuka just made up. But whatever the case, I'll be raptly poring over every volume I can get my hands on.

Bonus: Valentine-themed Hyoutan-Tsugi!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Monster: He's a magnet for trouble

Get it? It's a reference to the band! Damn, I'm lame; I have to explain my jokes because I'm afraid no one will get them. Anyway, I managed to do two reviews in one night! The other one besides this post is a look at The Last Musketeer over at IndiePulp. Good stuff; check it out. And then on to:

Oh yeah, there are SPOILERS within, so be forewarned.

Monster, volume 5
By Naoki Urasawa

I'm impressed by how much story Urasawa is able to pack into each volume of this series. In this installment, Tenma reaches out to a psychologist whom he went to school with, he and Deiter encounter an elderly couple, Nina/Anna tracks down one of the crooked cops that killed her adoptive parents, and Inspector Lunge uses murders committed by a copycat killer to try to draw Tenma out of hiding. That's a lot of story for one volume, but it all transpires naturally. With at least three characters that are getting regular facetime, Urasawa keeps us apprised of what is going on with each of them. He might change this pattern in future volumes, but it's working out well for now.

The first story, about Tenma and the psychologist, is a good one, focusing mostly on Dr. Gillen, a shrink who specializes in criminal psychology. When Tenma seeks him out for help finding Johan, Gillen assumes that Tenma is schizophrenic, and Johan is a split personality of his. But his investigations soon prove otherwise, leading to a tense showdown in which Tenma has to escape from the police. But the best part of Gillen's story is his work with a serial killer who turns out to have a connection to Johan. In classic Urasawa style, we get some extended scenes of Gillen interviewing the killer, and it's as tense as anything else in the series:

That's something Urasawa does so well; he'll have pages and pages of two characters having a conversation, but he'll make it tense and riveting by constantly switching viewing angles and shifting in and out of closeups. It's masterful work.

The next story, a one-chapter affair about Tenma and Deiter hitchhiking with an elderly English couple as they travel across the German countryside, is a nice character piece of the type that Urasawa also does so well. It's good to have a breather from the usual breakneck pacing, but rather than just using some filler, he sketches out some good characters and builds a nice arc that gets wrapped up in a short number of pages. And this is a pretty good one, with Tenma's good nature acting to help the couple while wondering if they're going to discover his identity and turn him in:

This is as good a time as any to mention a technique of Urasawa's that I like. As you can see in the page above, he often ends a page with the final panel (or two) bleeding all the way out to the edges of the page. It's a simple, non-showy way to make the scene seem to lead right to the next page and get the reader ready to turn the page for more. He often continues this transition on the next page, with the first panel also bleeding right to the edge, as if continued directly from the last panel (see the next image below for an example). It's simple and effective; like I say, the guy is a master.

The next story is another exciting one, as Johan's sister Nina finds out what is going on with one of the cops that killed her parents. But Urasawa throws in a little twist: at first, we only see the cop and his new family as they live a life of luxury in a big mansion. They seem like a happy family, and we don't learn his identity until almost a full chapter into the story. This gives us a chance to get to like him and his family, so when Nina shows up and we learn that he was the killer from the second volume, it's a jarring shift; we don't know whether we want him to die for his crimes or not. We also learn a bit about Johan's influence; the ex-cop has been paid off after killing the couple for Johan, and now he's living in luxury, accompanied only by a bodyguard. Of course, the bodyguard also functions as insurance, ready to take out him and the family if necessary. It's chilling stuff, and it leads to some good, tense scenes. I know I keep describing the book as "tense", so I'm sorry if I get redundant, but it's true.

Anyway, it's another good story, and the bit of Urasawa art I want to highlight here is his depiction of the bodyguard:

That's from early in the story, before we know what's going on. The thing that gets me is how creepy he appears; it's not a surprise when he turns out to be evil. Maybe it's overly obvious, but I thought it was effective, lending a creepy vibe to the story and making the ex-cop feel "wrong", then providing a satisfying feeling when everything was revealed.

Finally, we have a story centering on Inspector Lunge, the computer-like agent who is trying to track down Tenma. It's all about his investigation of a murder that turns out to be a copycat, meant to look like it was done by Johan. Lunge figures this out pretty quickly, but he doesn't arrest the real murderer, choosing instead to leak the details to the press in hopes that Tenma will show up and investigate. It's a good indication of how driven he is to succeed, sacrificing justice so he can "win" in his conflict with Tenma.

Again, it's tense and exciting stuff, and it even ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I suppose Urasawa didn't pack quite as much story into the volume as I'm giving him credit for. My favorite bit in the story is when Lunge is reenacting the murder and spots an important detail:

Later, Tenma investigates the scene and does the same thing:

I love the difference in their expressions when they both make the same connection and realize that Johan wasn't the killer. Also, the way Urasawa starts off with small panels as we see their actions and then opens up for a big panel to reveal the mirror is especially effective. I just love the technique on display in this series; every volume is full of this kind of storytelling effectiveness, and I just continually marvel at how well he does it. Unless I'm too caught up in the story to pay attention to that sort of thing, which also happens quite often.

So, like usual, another volume ends with me wanting more. I've already picked up the sixth volume, so I'll be reading it soon. At this rate, I'll be caught up in no time!

This week, is it really the LAST man? Noooooo!

Yeah, you can probably tell what I'm most excited about in this week's comics. But let's see what else is coming:

New comics this week (Wednesday, 1/30/08):

Black Summer #5

So what's going on in this series again? I think it's all starting to blend together into random scenes of gore and explosions. Maybe there will be some more plot or something this issue. And I wouldn't mind a return to the political commentary. Eh, it'll probably still be enjoyable.

Jack of Fables #19

More of Jack in Americana. There was some interesting, weird stuff going on last issue; hopefully it'll continue to develop.

Madman Atomic Comics #6

Madman is still in space. As much as Allred has built up this storyline over the years, I'm kind of getting bored of it already. Hopefully it will either get more interesting, or it will finish soon so the characters can return to earth for some wacky mutant-fighting adventures or something.

Narcopolis #1

Jamie Delano's new (mini?)series, about a drug-fueled dystopia of some kind. Looks cool; I'll be reading it unless I hate the first issue for some reason.

Spirit #13

The first post-Darwyn Cooke issue (although he might be doing the cover), featuring another collection of short stories by various contributors, including (I think) Gail Simone and Jeff Smith. But I could be wrong about that.

Wormwood Calamari Rising #1

A new miniseries about everyone's favorite gentleman corpse. I'll wait for the trade, but I'm sure I'll get it, considering how much I liked the first collection.

Y The Last Man #60

And here's the big comic of the week, for me at least. Final issue! Who will live? Who will die? Who will go insane from having to clean up monkey poo? I hope this is satisfying, and that I'm not reduced to tears or anything. Don't let me down, BKV!

Albert & the Others

A new graphic novel by Guy DeLisle. Apparently it's a companion piece/sequel to his book Aline & the Others, which I haven't read. In fact, the only DeLisle book I've read is Pyongyang; I liked that one, so I should really read more of his stuff.

Batman the Man Who Laughs HC

I've never read this story, but it's by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke, so I suppose I could check it out. But I probably won't, unless I get it from a library or something. I've gotten cheap when it comes to mainstream comics.

Casanova vol. 1 TPB

This awesome series finally comes out in softcover form, so if you've been waiting for a more affordable edition, now's your chance to read it. Of course, each issue is only two bucks anyway, so it's pretty affordable no matter what, if you ask me. So, yeah, check it out! Casanova! It's awesome!

Complete Jack Kirby Vol 4 1947C TP

I wasn't even aware of this project, but it's an interesting one, collecting all of Kirby's stuff (or, I assume, all of it that isn't already licensed by somebody; probably not a lot of Captain America or Challengers of the Unknown in here). This volume looks to contain a bunch of romance comics. It's another one that I wouldn't mind reading, but probably never will, due to cost and availability.

El Diablo TPB

Collecting a Vertigo western miniseries from Brian Azzarello and Danijel Zezelj. I've never read it. Is it good?

Templar Arizona Vol 1 Great Outdoors GN

This was on Midtown Comics' release list, so maybe it's getting some sort of mass release. If so, awesome. Spike is a really good artist, and it's an incredibly enjoyable book. I reviewed it several months ago. Check it out!

What Were They Thinking Vol 1 TP

Boom!'s collection of their "write silly new dialogue over old comics" series. I don't think I've actually read any of the issues, but I do generally like that sort of thing, and it features work from blogger Kevin Church, so check it out if you think you'll like it.

Penguin Revolution Vol 5 TP

On the manga front (surprisingly, there don't seem to be any series coming out this week which I'm behind on. Maybe I'm getting caught up!), here's a series that looks fun. If anyone has read it, do you think I should check it out? Of course, if I'm going to read any penguin-related manga, I should probably start with Tuxedo Gin...

Ral Grad Vol 1 TP

And here's that crazy-looking Takeshi Obata manga. I might wait to read reviews before I get it, but it does look pretty cool. It's definitely a possibility...

And that's it for the week, I believe. If you don't hear from me after Wednesday, it'll probably be because I'm crying in the corner after reading Y: The Last Man...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wasteland and Wormwood: Weirdness comes in different forms

Holy cow, two reviews in one post? Lets see if that actually happens. But first, a quick blurb about a dumb movie:

I watched that silly Korean movie Dragon Wars, and it was terrible. But also pretty enjoyable. For one, the plot made very little sense and mostly consisted of the wooden leads (who are two of the least charismatic actors I've ever seen) being repeatedly chased by a giant snake/dragon. There are some fun bits though, especially when an army of dragons and other beasts attack Los Angeles and have a war with the military, leading to scenes of dragon/helicopter dogfights in between skyscrapers. And the climax, in which a good dragon and an evil dragon have a big wrestling match in the middle of the desert is also enjoyable, just because it's so stupid. But the best part is probably Robert Forster's turn as a reincarnated kung fu master who keeps morphing into other people and showing up out of nowhere to save the day (or deliver exposition). All in all, it was a stupid, ridiculous, enjoyably awful movie. Check it out, if that seems like your kind of thing.

Or go watch Cloverfield. That one's much better. I won't go into details (since I'm sure you've heard all about it already), but it was really good. And not in an good-bad way either; it was excellent. See that one, if you have to choose between these two.

Okay, on to the real post:

Wasteland, Book 02: Shades of God
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Christopher Mitten

So here's my dilemma with this series: it's quite good, but I don't know if I want to keep reading trades or start buying it on a monthly basis. I already have to buy single issues here and there, since the standalone stories that go in between story arcs aren't being collected in the trade paperbacks, and there's "backmatter" material in each issue that's not being collected either. And the other problem is, the long wait between trades makes it harder to get up to speed on the story; it took me couple chapters into this second collection before I was able to recall who all the characters were and what their status was. So I'm thinking I might want to switch to getting the monthly issues. Also, the story is exciting, and I don't want to have to wait too long to keep reading it.

But that's just pointless decisions about my reading habits, so I should emphasize that this series has gotten quite good. I think I gave the first volume a "modest recommendation", but that has morphed into a wholehearted "Read this!" now that I've read more of the story. Antony Johnston has really laid the groundwork and figured out an entire world of different cultures, races, and religions in this futuristic, um, land of waste. It takes some attention to try to keep it all straight, but it's totally worth the effort. Once I got back up to speed on who everyone was, I was quite immersed in the various political moves, betrayals, escapes, power plays, and fights that go on here. And that's not to forget the slow revelation of the book's backstory, in which we get a glimpse of how this wasted land came to be. Maybe; I'm sure there will be many twists in store.

So the story here is that the group of sun-worshipers ("sunners") from the first volume have been enslaved in the city of Newbegin by the ruling faction of the city, who worship their leader, Marcus. But Michael, the "ruin-runner" who alternately helped and aggravated the sunners in the first volume, shows up to help out, and he manages to mess with Marcus's head and foment a slave rebellion while escaping with heroine Abi to set off on a journey for the fabled land of A-Ree-Yass-I. There's also the small matter of an attack on the city by a huge mass of the nasty, monstrous "sand-eaters". It's exciting stuff, with plenty of twists and turns; I have no idea where the story is going to go from here.

Christopher Mitten does a great job of bringing the old, dirty world to life, and although there are occasionally some action sequences that are somewhat hard to follow (for me at least), he rarely slips up, providing some incredibly exciting sequences:

The gore certainly doesn't hurt. And I also love the way everything looks so ancient and dilapidated. This aspect really stands out during a "flashback" sequence to before whatever cataclysmic event caused the land to be so wasted:

The straight, clean lines really stand out against the usual dirty look of the art.

Also of note are the occasional flashbacks that show us Abi's backstory, letting us know how she came to be Jakob's "mother" and join the village she lived in. It's interesting stuff, and lets us know more about who she is. Now we just need to see more about the pasts of Michael and Marcus; I'm sure Johnston has many neat revelations in store.

So yeah, I'm all over this book now; this volume has converted me from an interested reader to a big fan; I'll be switching to monthly readership and following it closely, working up theories as to what is going on and everything. Well done, Johnston and Mitten!

One more note: I picked up the seventh issue a few months ago, since it was supposed to be a standalone story that wouldn't be collected. After reading this second volume, I recommend that any other trade-waiters also search that issue out; it introduces some characters and conflicts that turn out to be pretty important to the volume's story. Even if Johnston says it's not necessary, I think it is. Just saying.

Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, volume 1: Birds, Bees, Blood, and Beer
By Ben Templesmith

Man, Ben Templesmith is a strange fellow. But I mean that in a good way; it's what makes it possible for him to turn out highly entertaining comics like this one. I don't know where else I would be able to read dementedly violent tales of tentacled demons, worm-steered corpses, bearded robots, magically-tattooed strippers, or demonic pregnancy-causing male enhancement medications. So long live Templesmith and his psychotic imagination!

The story here centers on the titular character, a demonic worm that lives in the eye socket of a corpse, controlling its movements. He is joined by his robotic buddy Pendulum, an ex-stripper bodyguard, and a ghostly detective, and they all end up on cases where they fight demons and such. That's pretty much all you need to know; the pleasure is in the execution, seeing Templesmith come up with crazy visuals and funny dialogue.

And he sure delivers on those counts. Nobody makes art like Templesmith; I love the way he overlays sketchy-lined characters on top of vividly-colored backgrounds. This is especially effective here, when those backgrounds and splashes of color are usually dirty interiors that often get soaked in blood:

I shouldn't make it sound like the characters are just hastily tossed-off though; Templesmith actually does a fine job of detailing their features, and I love the coloring work that goes into them, adding some real weight and texture:

And then there are the freaky monsters, which usually sport plenty of slimy tentacles. Templesmith really brings them to light, making them look horrific and nasty:

He also usually has Wormwood react to them with joking nonchalance, which really adds to the humor of the proceedings. It makes for a really fun read. And so does the action; I love the way Wormwood's body, being already dead, can get regularly mutilated:

And the sarcastic way Templesmith depicts shootouts had me cracking up:

It's the "etc..." that really gets me, but I think the hand-scrawled sound effects are also quite effective, adding to the down and dirty nature of the stories.

So yeah, I don't have any deep insight here, and this isn't a masterpiece for the ages or anything, but it's a hell of a fun read, especially if you dig Templesmith's artwork. I can't wait to read more of this stuff; keep it coming, Ben!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

2007: Movies!

I've been meaning to write something up about my favorite movies of 2007, and the deadline for the AV Club's film poll is as good as an impetus as any. So here we go:

My favorite movies of 2007

Of course, I have to offer the disclaimer that this is my opinion, and I'm not trying to assert that these are the best movies or anything. Hey, it's all subjective, right? Anyway, I'll offer number 10-20 without comment, and give a blurb about the top ten. Okay? Oh, and links lead to my review (or brief comment, in some cases) of the film. Plus, I'm feeling kind of iffy about #20 here, thinking there's probably something else I could plug into that spot, but I always like to point out decent animated movies in this age of crappy CGI lame-joke-fests (fucking Shrek), and that one was pretty good. Especially in 3-D. Oh, and I should also mention that there are a few that I haven't seen, including Atonement, Charlie Wilson's War, Sicko, Gone Baby Gone, Michael Clayton, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. So who knows, this list could change in the future at some point, but hopefully not too much.

20. Meet the Robinsons
19. Ratatouille
18. Superbad
17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
16. Knocked Up
15. The Lookout
14. Brand Upon the Brain!
13. Eastern Promises
12. Sweeny Todd
11. Black Book

10. Black Snake Moan

Samuel L. Jackson as a blues musician is enough to make for a good movie, but this one was a really nice character piece, with Jackson chaining Christina Ricci to his radiator in order to cure her of her whorish ways. There's a good concept for a movie. It kind of died at the box office, but I dug it, so I recommend checking it out.

9. Rescue Dawn

I just saw this one, Werner Herzog's first narrative feature in a long time, and it was pretty great. Beautiful jungle imagery, and Christial Bale turned in a surprisingly charming performance, considering he usually sticks to creepy, intense guys. And Steve Zahn wasn't bad either, in a serious performance quite different from his usual goof-offery. But it's still an amazing true story about a guy escaping from a Vietnam POW camp. Check it out if you haven't seen it.

8. Away From Her

Man, I don't know if I would normally go for a movie about a couple being torn apart by Alzheimer's, but this was an arresting, horribly sad story, with a great performance by Julie Christie. It's hard to sit through, but worth the effort.

7. Grindhouse

I liked the Death Proof half of this double feature better than Planet Terror, but together they made for one of the most enjoyable movie experiences of the year, complete with fake trailers and other fun stuff. Sure, it was kind of a goof on old exploitation movies, but Tarantino's half aspired for more than just replication, making for a really good movie in itself, and Rodriguez went hilariously over the top with his half. It's all good.

6. There Will Be Blood

Hey, that Daniel Day Lewis is pretty good, am I right? I liked this one, although I wasn't sure what to make of it at first. But after thinking about it and reading various commentary, I just couldn't get it out of my head. Man, it's one hell of a performance, and an incredible story. That Paul Thomas Anderson is going places.

5. Once

It's a simple, moving picture about making music and forming relationships, but it's one of the most charming movies of the year, with some incredible scenes of music being played. It's short and sweet, and I'm sure tears found their ways to my eyes more than once (crap, that wasn't supposed to be a pun. Sorry).

4. Sunshine

I love a good cerebral sci-fi movie, and this one was pretty incredible, full of amazing sights and sounds, and a tense plot about the fate of humanity. Danny Boyle is one of those directors that seems to come up with crazy new ideas with every movie he does, and he kept that streak going here. There's some great stuff here, like subliminal flashes of the results of murderous insanity, characters floating through the depths of space with no protection, and frantic, claustrophopic chases through the cramped ship. Super cool; I dug it.

3. Paprika

I'm always excited when a new Satoshi Kon movie comes out, and he sure delivered with this one, a mindfuck of epic proportions full of amazing visuals and mindbending ideas. I still can't get some of the imagery out of my head, like the bad guy plunging his hand into the girls body or the guy straining to get through the wall separating him from her dream world (or whatever was going on there). Awesome.

2. No Country for Old Men

I don't even know what to say about this one, except it's fucking great. The Coen brothers are probably my favorite filmmakers, and they showed why here, delivering a tense, exciting movie full of amazing moments and incredible performances. Javier Bardem was a scary dude (that voice!), and I'd be happy if Tommy Lee Jones just kept doing "old cowboy" roles like he did here and in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It's good to see they can still do some great stuff even when they're adapting previous material instead of originating it.

1. The Darjeeling Limited

Seems like this wasn't as popular with most people as it was with me, since I don't think I've seen it on any top ten lists, but I don't think there was a movie I liked better in 2007. Maybe I'm just a Wes Anderson fanboy, but I found this to be enjoyable and moving, full of his usual quirks and some great visuals. For me, the centerpiece of the film is that funeral scene, an amazingly emotional moment that pulls the main characters out of their self-absorbed, touristy attempt at a spiritual journey and gives them some of the catharsis they were looking for. It's a beautiful moment in a beautiful film.

So I think that's everything. I might write something up about the Oscar nominations, like I did last year, but I'll probably wait until closer to the ceremony. Okay, more comics stuff soon, I hope.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Shojo Beat: This issue's theme: (Underage) Drunkenness!

You'll see what I mean. Damn kids.

Shojo Beat
February 2008

As you can see from the cover image of Japanese girl band Puffy (or Puffy AmiYumi in the U.S.), this is the music issue. Which means lots of articles about Japanese bands that I'll probably never listen to. So screw that stuff, let's talk about manga!

Monkey High
By Shouko Akira

This month's preview chapter is of a title I thought seemed interesting, if only for the title. Judging by this sample, it seems like it could be pretty enjoyable. Here's the setup (stop me if you've heard this one before): a girl transfers to a new school...surprise, surprise, am I right? Anyway, she's the daughter of a disgraced politician, and she used to go to a prestigious private academy, but after her dad's disgrace, she's forced to mingle among the masses at a public school. As a prim and proper young lady, she views the rowdy students here as monkeys, giving the series its title. But, hey, maybe they're not all bad! Like, for instance, a goofy short guy named Macharu might turn out to be an all right dude, and even a possible love interest.

This chapter sees her integrate herself among the other students, and the main conflict has to do with a hotshot boy who has his eyes on her, much to the chagrin of the other girls. There's also a school play to deal with, and other complications. Pretty standard shojo drama. Not really something I would go out of my way to read, but it's far from problematic. Check it out, if it sounds like your sort of thing.

Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time
By Tohko Mizuno

I know I said I wasn't going to talk about this one any more, but it suddenly got...interesting is the word, I guess. It's still not good, but this chapter was crazy enough that I have to comment. The plot involves Akane and pals performing some sort of ritual with cherry blossoms that have absorbed evil from across the kingdom, turning them blood red. And if one of them falls too early, "disaster would befall the entire land." It's never explained what's supposed to happen though; maybe Akane, the "dragon priestess" is supposed to purify them. Anyway, the wacky stuff happens when Akram, the demon lord, shows up and tries to make the petals fall. Maybe? I really can't tell what's going on, but it involves Akane's friend Tenma fighting some demon cougars with his newly-awakened flame powers:

At least, I think that's flame. It might be clouds, for all I can tell. It never gets explained. And then a sorcerer on Akane's side freezes the petals in midair, so Akram magically changes them all to little devils:

What? Huh? Yes. Little devils. I can't follow the action, and this all gets resolved in some obtuse fashion, but weird, crazy details like that at least keep me from wanting to tear the pages out of the magazine. It's still an awful series, but hopefully it will be crazy-awful like this in the future, rather than boring-awful. Or maybe it could be replaced with something that's, you know, good?

Absolute Boyfriend
By Yuu Watase

Ah, the magazine finally admits that this series is ending! In fact, this is the penultimate chapter, in which Riiko and Night throw a going-away party for Soshi, who is moving to Spain. It's the first example of underage drinking in this issue:

This chapter is Riiko's chance to angst about Soshi leaving; she's still wishy-washy, even though she chose Night over him. Ugh. My prediction for the final chapter: Soshi decides to stay anyway, and Night becomes a threesome-bot. Everyone lives happily ever after! Then Godzilla stomps on them or something, and I get some catharsis.

Crimson Hero
By Mitsuba Takanashi

All right, we finally get some volleyball action in this chapter! The best parts of this series are the tense matches (and occasionally the romance), but we've been mired in self-doubt and other boring stuff for too long. This time around, Nobara and her sandy teammates challenge a couple pros visiting from the Brazilian national team. Hey, why not? It makes for a fun chapter, demonstrating some of Takanashi's strengths, like the physicality of her characters:

Or the pure emotions that sports can bring out:

Or even comedy, occasionally, like in this scene of the others reacting to the game:

Good stuff. It won't last long though; I predict more moping and angst in the chapters to come.

Vampire Knight
By Matsuri Hino

This series is weird; it seems like the last few chapters have been action-packed, but they've mostly consisted of characters standing around threatening each other. It's been something like three chapters in a row in which Zero and his evil twin brother have held swords at each others throats and argued about their parents (or something; I have trouble remembering the details). We also get a weird/cool bit in this chapter when Kaname confronts evil vampiress Shizuka Hio, plunges his hand into her chest, and grips her heart in preparation to kill her:

Yikes! Then he spends the rest of the chapter discussing vampire politics with her and drinking her blood before finally doing the deed (killing her, I mean; I hope you weren't thinking of a different deed). It's pretty gory, for a teen-targeted series, which I guess makes up for the lack of action. We do get action every so often though, so it's not terrible. More drama to come, I guess, but I think I'm only interested in blood at this point.

Honey and Clover
By Chica Umino

Man, I keep trumpeting the greatness of this series, and it just keeps getting better! This month, we see the gang go on vacation to a hotel/spa. The usual hijinx ensue, including this month's second example of drinking (although these are college students, so it's not necessarily underage):

There's a hilarious bit in which Morita, through his screwing around, ruins a painting in the hotel room, so he improvises a replacement using only his finger and some soy sauce:

That's something I like about the series: even the comic-relief goofball character is well-developed; he has some real artistic talent but a total lack of focus.

In the second chapter this issue, the gang goes to the zoo, and we get more comedy, like Mayama making everybody sad by describing the life of the zoo's giraffe:

And there's also a nice bit in which Takemoto and Hagu contemplate the beauty of said giraffe.

But the best part of this chapter is a conversation between Mayama and Professor Hanamoto about Mayama's boss, Rika, whom he's in love with. She's an old friend of Hanamoto's, and we learn about their past. It's a sad story; she was married to a mutual friend, Harada, a fun, joyful guy that brought a lot of light into their life. But then he died in a car accident, and neither of them has recovered emotionally from the loss:

Tearjerking stuff, isn't it? I always said I was a big softie. But it's very true to life; how many of us have played that game, in which we wonder how things would be different if only a small detail had been changed? We've all felt that regret, just not necessarily amplified to this level. That's good drama, and that's what sets this series apart from the usual shojo angst-fests. This is some good comics.

Sand Chronicles
By Hinako Ashihara

And finally, we get some more angst (and more drinking!). Last chapter, Ann decided to move to Tokyo with her father, and now she's moping her way through a long distance relationship with her boyfriend Daigo. But it's not all tears and longing; she was lucky enough to end up in the same class as some of her old friends, and they throw a birthday party for her. That's where the drinking comes in, along with a reunion with her country friend Fuji, who is still nursing a crush on her. He's also planning on meeting up with his real father, which is sure to cause some drama in the future. So, this chapter is mostly lighthearted, but it could get more interesting, especially with the increased emphasis on the Ann/Daigo/Fuji love triangle. But until then, we get some good comedy:

We'll see where it goes; judging by what's happened before now, I trust Ashihara to deliver some more good comics.

And that's everything. Whew! Okay, enough for me, I think. Good night! Maybe more tomorrow!