Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review: Preacher: Proud Americans

At the start of this third volume, the Reverend Jesse Custer and his lady Tulip are on their way to France to find Cassidy, their vampire pal. While at the airport, Jesse meets Billy Baker, a Vietnam vet who was a good friend of Jesse's dad. As they drink at the airport bar, Billy tells Jesse how the "Fuck Communism" lighters came to be, amongst other stories about Jesse's father.

Once in France, Jesse, who worries for Tulip's safety, ditches her and heads off on his own to rescue Cassidy. Thanks to this decision, Jesse is basically forced to wage a one man war on an ancient secret society called the Grail. Their leader, an enormously fat, bulimic sack of shit named D'Aronique is simply one of the easiest bad guys you'll love to hate. His eventual comeuppance is quite satisfying...and fitting.

The issue concludes with a long scene on top of the Empire State Building, with Cassidy telling Jesse the tale of how he came to be a Vampire. Cassidy's back story was actually a lot less interesting than I thought it would be, and the way he came to be a vampire felt like a bit of a rip-off. Considering his current nature: a hard drinking, fast living guy, his back story didn't really seem to fit.

Ennis' inclusion of the 'war story' was cool, it was nicely written and despite seemingly very pressing things happening in the main story line, I got caught up in it. Ennis has a strong knack for dialog, and he has an uncanny ability to build believable characters in short amounts of time. None of the soldier characters felt like cliches or filled the generic roles we so often see in war films. This section of the volume turned out to be my favorite part.

Technically speaking, Ennis was on a role in this volume. His writing was sharp and extremely witty. There were a few moments where some minor detail mentioned, or hinted at in a panel pages ago, would crop back up at just the right moment, and be absolutely hilarious. Based on writing alone, this was a very solid installment, however, as far as entertainment value goes, Proud Americans lacked some of the punch from the first two volumes.

Thanks to the Vietnam story, which was good, and Cassidy's origin story, which was not so good, not a ton happened in terms of the overall story line. Granted, more happened here than most other entire comic series, but after the first two volumes I've come to hold Preacher to a pretty high standard. With the return to American soil, I expect things will get moving again though. Once I get my hands on the fourth volume, a review will follow closely behind.

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Joe the Barbarian Issues 1-4

Joe the Barbarian is an eight issue maxi-series written by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy.

In issue one we meet Joe Manson, a young teen with a lot of baggage. His father is dead in the Iraq war, his mother has a shitty job, and is in risk of losing their house, he gets bullied at school, and to top it all off he has type 1 diabetes.

The first issue follows Joe through a typically crappy day at school, and his afternoon at home. Soon after he gets home and feeds his pet rat, Joe starts having an insulin deprived hallucination. Or does he? Either way, he finds himself in a fantasy land populated by his toys: transformers, ninjas, superheroes, teddy bears, army men, spacemen, and so on. The toys/inhabitants were recently attacked by evil forces, and Joe arrives in the aftermath of the attack.

I picked this issue up for free while I was at Comicon and I instantly liked it. Joe is a very sympathetic character and I felt connected to him right away. The premise of the story is one of those that you read and you wish you had thought of it first because it is so simple yet brilliant. Morrison's writing is great and the art by Sean Murphy is equally great. I really loved the drawings of Joe's room. It is pretty much every boy's dream room.

The second issue begins with a revelation. One of the Iron Kingdom (the name of the fantasy land) survivors, a Captain Picard looking guy, names Joe as the "Dying Boy" from their prophecies. Despite the burning questions this proclamation brings about, nothing further is explained, and Joe, delirious and shaken travels to the ruined city. There he meets Jack, his real-world rat, now a samurai warrior in the fantasy world/hallucination. Jack has been captured and caged by evil Deathcoats.

Joe frees the Rat, and after a battle they escape, and it is here we realize that Joe's real world house represents places in the fantasy world; as they plunge off the side of a cliff, Joe, tripping balls back in his house, falls through the entrance of his attic-room. Shaken into a small measure of clarity by the fall, Joe begins to realize his dire need to even out his insulin levels and he begins his long arduous journey to the kitchen, which of course represents an epic journey through the Iron Kingdom as well.

Morrison ratchets up the fantasy elements in this issue, and he slowly begins to reveal what the hell is going on. As a reader, some of my own burning questions were answered, while others took their place. I really felt sucked in by this issue. Though the Iron Kingdom is amazing, and Joe's adventures there are fun to read, I find myself more concerned that he survive his tripped out ordeal in the real world.

Lots of great stuff happens in the third issue. While locked in a battle with the Deathcoats, Joe and his Samurai Rat, Jack meet Drakka, the dwarf pirate and his hearties. Reluctantly the pirates rescue our heroes and whisk them off to Crater Fjord, represented by Joe's real life bathroom, home of the dwarves.

Without revealing too many plot elements, Joe discovers more about the prophecy of the Dying Boy, and we meet Smoot: Drakka's eldest, unwanted son...the biggest dwarf ever.

Many of the scenes with the pirates are hilarious. Drakka's feigned remorse when he thinks Smoot has not survived the Deathcoat attack was great. Murphy's art continues to help the story along. He is basically being asked to create a new fantasy land in each issue, yet he does an amazing job making each locale unique and interesting. My love for Joe the Barbarian grows with each issue.

In the fourth issue we really begin to see increased intensity in the parallels between the events in the Iron Kingdom and Joe's struggle to survive in the real world. Faced with a giant set of stairs between himself and the main floor, Joe needs to stay with it long enough to traverse the stairs safely.

Meanwhile in the Iron Kingdom, Joe meets the Sorcerers of Inventoria, who reveal the connection between the Iron Kingdom and Joe's real world. Joe discovers the true nature of his mission, but he also learns that the sorcerers wont be much help as they have taken a vow of cowardice. However, a new companion joins Joe's rag-tag fellowship.

As with each issue before, the intensity increased a lot. Morrison is doing a great job building the tension in this series. I found myself becoming more connected to the Iron Kingdom story line here, now that the connection to the two worlds has been revealed. The greatest attribute about this series is that despite Joe's life or death struggle, Morrison manages to slip in a few solid laughs to break the tension up. I really love the artwork as well, Murphy does a great job matching the art with the story.

This is a really solid series and I eagerly await the next four issues...more on this series later!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: A Cavern of Black Ice

A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones

A Cavern of Black Ice is the first novel in an Epic Fantasy series by J.V. Jones, author of the Book of Words Trilogy, which I enjoyed many years ago as a teenager. The events of the novel center around two main characters, Ash March and Raif Severance.

As a baby, Ash was abandoned by her mother and adopted by Penthero Iss, the Surlord of a city called Spire Vanis. Ash is raised in the castle, but kept secluded away from courtly life. Haunted by dark dreams and voices that seem to come from another realm, Ash begins to realize that she is different. Meanwhile her adoptive sketch-ball of a father, (would you trust a guy named Penthero Iss?) watches her as she grows into womanhood. Believe it or not, Iss' intentions when he adopted Ash were not wholly on the up an up, and he is eagerly awaiting her flowering so that he can discover what sort of powers she may possess and use them to further his evil schemes.

Raif on the other hand knows he is different, he has the ability to look into the hearts of living things... a skill he uses to heart-kill animals when he hunts. Raif does a lot of hunting because he is a young man in Clan Blackhail, a hunter-gatherer people from the icy north. However, his strange ability only sets him up to be an outcast from his people. When the Balckhail Clan chief, Raif's father, and some other Blackhail men are killed in a mysterious ambush, Raif finds himself at odds with the new chief and soon finds himself outcast, while all the clans of the north plunge into all out warfare.

A Cavern of Black Ice has many of the elements that make for a typical epic fantasy: Teens with unrealized powers, Evil Lords, a frigid northern climate, a difficult quest, etc. However, Jones does nothing interesting or new with these elements and A Cavern of Black Ice came off as a generic piece of fantasy fiction. I was constantly struck with the "been there, seen that" feeling as I worked my way through the novel. The fact that Jones adhered so firmly to those tried and true elements was frustrating at times, and for me, sucked much of the tension right out of the book, making this epic journey feel more like a plod to a very predictable end.

Very few of the characters stood out. I felt like maybe Jones tried too hard to make the main characters stand out, and it actually seemed like a couple of the lesser characters were better written simply because Jones wasn't trying as hard. Ash and Raif were particularly lame to me. They both were devoid of any kind of personality, and felt like cardboard cut-outs.

Ringing in at 768 pages, A Cavern of Black Ice is a thick bastard. Bloated even. A good 50-75 pages could have been cut if Jones hadn't tried to include long paragraphs of description that were too wordy and uninteresting, and only served to distract from the action.

For obvious reasons, I will not be returning to this series. A Cavern of Black Ice was just waaay too generic and dull to make me want to carry on with the series. Oh well, on to better things.

Grade: D

Ozzy's (S)Hit new song.

The Prince of Darkness has returned with a new single from the soon to be released Scream.

No more Zakk Wylde on guitar, he's been replaced by a dude named Gus G and no more Mike Bordin on drums...the old Rob Zombie drummer is his replacement. Ozzy claims that the new album reminds him of his older Ozzy/Sabbath work...listen to the new song and see for yourself. I'm not a fan.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Battle Hymns Classics: Morningrise

Occasionally my small group of metal loving friends get together and have a "Metal Night". Metal Night generally consists of cooking and eating a bunch of food, burning each other's metal CD's, listening to Metal, and watching metal videos. It was at one such Metal Night, about six years ago that I first heard Opeth.

One of my friends played Black Rose Immortal for us and it was love at first listen. I'll never forget how at one thundering point in the song my brother pretended to charge into the room on horseback, shooting us all down with imaginary arrows. I think the fact that Opeth's music can evoke that from anyone, proves how fucking epic they are.

Generally I'm really bad at remembering names, but the song title Black Rose Immortal stuck in my head, and a few days later, I tracked this CD down at the record store. From there it didn't take long for Opeth to become my favorite band.

Even though this is their second album, I think it provides a great jumping off point for Opeth newcomers. With five epically long songs, all are at least ten minutes, (the album length is 66:06 in length total) the album might be a bit of an acquired taste for some. I enjoy the song length, each track has its own unique feel, but still gives you a great taste of Opeth's style: Heavy music and death-metal growls mixed with lighter progressive and acoustic elements. I think it is that unique blend that makes me love them so much.

Black Rose Immortal still stands out as my favorite Opeth song, one I've yet to hear them play live, (maybe because it is twenty minutes long), but thanks to that Metal Night, it has an unforgettable quality to it makes you want to run through a god damn brick wall. Another song that stands out is the last track, To Bid you Farewell, it features no death-metal growls, and is the lightest song on the album, but still packs quite a punch thanks to they way the song is structured. When they finally do crank things up at the end, it really feels powerful.

Morningrise is not Opeth's best album, but it stands out as one of my favorites. Through the years, Opeth has experienced line-up changes, the addition of a keyboardist, and has evolved musically as a band, and even though I tend to favor their Balckwater Park through Ghost Reveries sretch, early Opeth still rocks and is much better than 99% of all other music out there.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Dr. Rat

Dr. Rat by William Kotzwinkle

While on vacation last week, I took one book and a handful of comics and graphic novels with me, thinking I would do lots of reading on the plane and while chillin' at my folks house. After browsing a few of the comics on the flight there, I picked up the one book I had brought along. From page one Dr. Rat had me in its grips.

Dr. Rat is a tough book to describe. There is a lot of stuff going on and its pacing is frantic at it's slowest moments. Initially, the novel takes place in a university research lab, and is narrated by a veteran lab rat who calls himself Dr. Rat. Thanks to numerous experiments, Dr. Rat is completely nuts. Dr. Rat, a supporter of all things testing lab related, finds himself pitted against the other lab animals who start a rebellion. While this takes place in the lab, Kotzwinkle cuts to a plethora of outside events happening simultaneously at various locations in the animal kingdom.

Dr. Rat is a versatile book. Kotzwinkle manages to make it hilarious, sad, terrifying, disgusting and touching at various points, and I thought the novel was masterfully crafted. Kotzwinkle writes short, sharp chapters, and this really makes the pace flow. The fact that he skipped back and forth between the lab and the outside world didn't slow things down for me either. Some chapters left me shaking my head, amazed at how well-crafted they were.

Dr. Rat is one of those books that has a lot to say if you read between the lines. I thought the novel provided some very interesting insight on how humans coexist (or lack there of) with the natural environment, particularly animals. If you don't already hate the concept of zoos, this book should make you hate them. Not to mention labs which utilize animal testing.

Not that I'm big on books that win awards, but Dr. Rat won the World Fantasy Award way back in 1977. Nothing about the book feels dated though, and the distance of time has done nothing to dull this novel's impact. Dr. Rat delivers on all levels and I give it my full recommendation. Fans of anthropomorphic books such as Watership Down and Animal Farm should give this one a go.

Grade: B+

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Music Break

The Mighty Opeth.

A shortened version of The Grand Conjuration.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity is the first volume of a comic series written by Mike Carey and drawn by Peter Gross.

Tommy Taylor is the star of a Harry Potter-esque fantasy series that has become a major cultural phenomenon. Fans of the series gather at conventions, online message boards, even join cults to celebrate the series. All the fans hope that the writer, Wilson Taylor, who has gone missing for a few years, will return and write another book. In the meantime, Tom Taylor, son of the author, and inspirado for the fictional Tommy, signs autographs at conventions, and makes money off his connection to the beloved series.

However, word gets out that Tom may just be some kid that Wilson Taylor hired away from a Bosnian refugee family in order to help promote his books. Then he gets abducted and nearly blown to bits by a villain from his father's books. As the lines between Tom's life and the books written by his father begin to blur, Tom gets caught up in events that seem to way over his head.

Let me start by saying that I was not a fan of The Unwritten. The first problem was that I never found myself invested in the characters. Tom Taylor is douche. He looks like a young Charlie Sheen, and even wears the same shitty shirts Sheen wears on that show Two and a Half Men. I instantly had no respect for the guy. I mean, he makes a living signing autographs and making paid appearances thanks to the fact that his Dad wrote a bunch of really popular books, and has the same name as the main character. Zero talent and zero integrity. The other characters in the book are barely there, and are completely forgettable.

The second problem was that I never was able to get invested in the plot. On the surface it sounds was why I bought the book in the first place, but the writing never drew me in. There was nothing there to capture me. No hook. Usually a good graphic novel will have something that makes me crave more, but there was none of that here. Instead I found myself wearily plodding along, waiting for the moment where I would fall into the world Carey had created. That moment never came.

The third problem I had was that the artwork was pretty underwhelming. The art is very plain and untextured. Many of the panels were very bland without much to look at, and the more interesting drawings I would consider mediocre for other graphic novels. The thing that really bugged me was how lame the bad guys looked. I could never take them very seriously thanks to the fact that they looked so damn cheesy. Art is an integral part of the graphic novel format, and it totally fell flat for me in this one.

To put it in a nutshell, The Unwritten failed on all accounts for me. Bad characters, uninteresting plot, and poor art. I will not be returning to this series again.

I realize that this review may sound overly harsh, but unfortunately, I don't have anything positive to say about this graphic novel. I am also aware that my opinion is most definitely in the minority, as this comic has been a critical success, and is extremely popular among the comic buying crowd. It also is up for multiple Eisner Awards, which means somebody out there likes it. So maybe I'm just crazy...but I'm sticking to my opinion.

Grade: D-

Vacation in Maine

It's been a while since I've posted here, and for good reason, I took a week long vacation to Maine! Maine is where I grew up, and I hadn't been back in over a year, (weather scuttled a Christmastime visit), so it was really nice to be back. I spent a week among friends, family and loved ones. It was relaxing, and the weather was pretty solid too. Got to do some sight-seeing, which was nice, because it had been a long time since I experienced some of Maine's beauty. I did do a bit of reading while on vacation too, so there should be some new stuff up around here soon... For those interested, here are some pictures from my trip:

The view from the shore in Sullivan, Me

View from Acadia National Park

A Maine Lobster Boat

The Black Dikes of Schoodic Point

Senor Battle Hymns himself, on the rocks at Schoodic Point

Another View from Schoodic Point

Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Chew: Taster's Choice

Chew: Taster's Choice is a graphic novel written by John Layman and drawn by Rob Guillory. It stars Tony Chu, a detective with a strange talent. Tony is "Cibopathic", meaning he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. If he eats an apple, he gets a feeling in his head about what tree it came from, what pesticides were used, and when it was harvested. If he eats say a cow, or a chicken, well, you can imagine what the psychic impressions he might get from that. The only thing he can eat that doesn't cause this reaction is beets. (I'm sure Schrute Farms is happy to hear this news.) Tony's power, or special skill, or curse, or whatever you want to call it, helps make him a hell of a long as he doesn't mind taking a bite out of a murder victim to help solve a mystery.

Thanks to his special skill set, Tony has been recruited by the FDA, yes that FDA, which is a powerful law enforcement agency now thanks to a recent avian flu epidemic that has killed millions world-wide and has led to world-wide chicken prohibition. Said prohibition has led to massive amounts of black market chicken dealers, and is the new cash cow or cash chicken in this case, for crime-lords. While at work for the FDA, Tony teams up with the gigantic, monocled Agent Savoy, who shares Tony's special ability, to investigate some bizarre cases.

As you can see from the plot synopsis, Chew is a graphic novel that comes with a big sense of humor. I really enjoyed the blend of compelling crime-fiction with the over the top style of humor. There were multiple moments where this book made me laugh out loud. Whether it be Tony catching a face-full of vomit while he falls in love, or Agent Savoy coating himself, Tony and a female coroner in the fan-blown ashes of a dead senator, this book has a dark, somewhat taboo sense of humor that is rarely found.

Sure, Chew also has its share of "eww" moments, moments that in other settings would just be disgusting, but in most cases, this only served to add to the humorous feel of the book, and the artist, Guillory generally depicts these scenes with a cartoonish feel that never left me feeling ill, and only made me chuckle.

Guillory's art is one of the major aspects that makes Chew stand out from the comic crowd. His art has a cartoon-like feel to it that reminded me a bit of the Ren and Stimpy cartoon from back in the day. Oftentimes, his art alone was enough to make me giggle and give me that feeling of joy I got from watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. Chew however, is not anything like your standard Saturday morning cartoon fare. It simply evoked that giddy feeling of visual humor.

The thing I liked most about reading Chew: Taster's Choice is that it was a lot of fun to read. The writing is great, and I felt myself immediately drawn into Tony's world. It is rare that I finish a book or a Graphic Novel and have the desire to read the next installment, or the next in the series right now, but Chew gave me this feeling. Too bad the second Graphic Novel doesn't hit shelves until late July.

Though it is still somewhat early in the year, Chew: Taster's Choice has made a firm case to be named in my Top 5 rankings at the end of 2010. I loved it.

Grade: A

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Victoria, one of the awesome bloggers over at Speculative Book Review just put up an interview she did with Guy Gavriel Kay . They talk about his writing style, and his new book Under Heaven which comes out on April 27th. It's a cool interview and it provided a nice capstone to my recent Lions of Al-Rassan reading experience. Check out the interview here!