Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Back and Looking Ahead to 2012


All told, it was a pretty awesome year for me and the blog. Personally, I read a lot of great stuff, and had the privilege of sharing it with a wider audience. I more than doubled my traffic from the previous year, and I hope to do the same again this coming year.  This year was particularly great because I was lucky enough to make plenty of new acquaintances with fellow bloggers, a couple of writers, and artists too.  Being able to communicate and share my loves with like minded people is what this blog is all about.

Lastly, before I begin to look ahead to 2012, I just want to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who takes time out of their busy lives to stop by Battle Hymns and check up on what I've been reading or listening to.  You people give me the energy and desire to keep this tiny, dusty little corner of the internet going, and I greatly appreciate all the comments and interactions.  I hope to give you all plenty of reason to keep stopping by in the next twelve months.  Cheers!


There is a lot of good reading to be excited about in the new year.  I've already got my eye on a few choice items, and I'm sure my wandering eye will land on a few more before the year is out.  However, I wanted to highlight a few things that I will definitely be reviewing here in the coming year.


I don't often buy new releases, mostly because I can't afford the hardcover prices.  Truth be told, I am primarily a used book buyer at this current stage of my life, mostly due to the fact that my poor ass can't pony up for the all the new stuff I'd like to buy.  Hopefully once I'm done with school I'll be able to  land a sweet job, and buy more stuff new, when I want it, rather than trolling the used book shops hoping for a score.  However, there is one book that I'll be saving my pennies for so I can buy it as soon as it comes out.

The Wind Through the Keyhole: Dark Tower 4.5

It's no mystery that I'm a lover of Stephen King's Dark Tower books.  However, when it was announced that there'd be a new installment in the series, one that is basically a standalone and squeezes in nicely between books 4 and 5, I was a bit put off, I don't normally like it when people tamper with something long after its conclusion. (I'm talking to you George Lucas).

That said, I've had time to reconcile those feelings, and now that the book is less than half a year away, I'm pretty damn excited.  It'll be pretty awesome to read some fresh tales about Roland, Eddie, Jake, Susannah, and Oy.  This one is apparently a story within a story, within a story.  Sounds awesome!

I'm sure there are lots of other great books coming out that aren't on my radar yet, so I'll likely pepper in a few other 2012 releases along the way.

Some 2011 titles I hope to get to in 2012:

The White Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker: It'll be nice to carry on with his already awesome Aspect Emperor series.

All Clear by Connie Willis: This is basically one big ass book broken up into two parts, I've read the first half, and hope that the pay off is worth it.

Emabassytown by China Mieville:  It's pretty much a given that this'll be my annual Mieville reading.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey: I've lots of good things about this one, and I think I need to check it out for myself.

Some authors I've never read, and hope to read:

Ian Tregellis
Graham Joyce
Clive Barker
Carol Berg


There's a ton of great new comics coming out in 2012 from some big names, and you can bet I'll be buying the single issues and sharing my thoughts here.  Some stuff that I consider must haves:

Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: These two guys are pretty much a comic creating dynamic duo, and now they are making the move to Image, sporting a title that promises to be noir crime with lovecraftian beasts.  Hmmm...I wonder if I'll enjoy that?

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: BKV is one of my favorite comic writers, and he makes his return to the creator owned zone with his new space opera title that looks like it might be the next big thing in comics

Prophet by Brandon Graham and various artists: Graham has been doing his own writer/artist thing for awhile now, and is one of the most talented artists in the business. For Prophet, he'll be focusing his energies on just the writing front, while a who's who of up and coming artists ply their trade on various issues.  Maybe the title I'm most excited about.


King City by Brandon Graham:  I have been wanting to read this for sooooo long, but it is only just now being collected by Image.  I've flipped through some of the issues, and Graham's art is awesome, insanely detailed, and incredibly unique.  Plus, the story is about a guy who is a cat master, yup.  Sounds awesome.  This is also the deal of the year.  You get something like 400+ pages, in harcover, for $20.

Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire: It is a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, that's pretty much a guarantee that I'll be reading it. Plus, Lemire told me it is probably the comics work he is most proud of.  Pretty solid endorsement right there.


Red Fang:  I've been listening to these dudes on the internet since Thanksgiving, but I really operate and appreciate best when I can actually listen to an album in my stereo.  So far I like what I hear, but I want to get the full experience by hearing a whole album.  There's some gift money from the holidays that should remedy that...

Dozer:  I had no idea who these guys were up until a few days ago, but they keep popping up on various Pandora channels I have going, and I like what I hear.  They're a stoner rock band from Sweden, and remind me a lot of Kyuss, who if you don't know who they are, you will soon enough.  From what I've heard, Dozer's 2006 album Through the Eyes of Heathens looks to be the album I'll dig into first.

Mastodon: Yeah, long overdue, but I now own The Hunter, so I just need to give it the proper amount of time to fully sink into my musical pores, and I'll share my thoughts.  First impressions: great stuff, their most straight forward album yet.

So, as of right now, that's the stuff I'm most excited about. How about yourselves?  What 2012 or non 2012 book/comic/piece of music has you excited?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holiday Haul

With best of lists out of the way for another year, it is time to roll out the obligatory "look what I got for the holidays" post.  Personally, I love seeing what other bloggers reap in their holiday harvest, and this year I figured I'd share my own haul, meager as it is, as well.  

My lady was kind enough to brave the comic shop and pick up a couple of nice hardcover titles for me to add to the shelf.

Up first we have the collection comic strips from Kate Beaton's awesome webcomic, Hark!  A Vagrant.  Always good for at least a chuckle and sometimes a deep belly laugh, Hark! A Vagrant is a site I return to at least once a week to check for updates.  If you haven't experienced Kate Beaton's comic genius yet, check it out.

My other piece of holiday booty is De:Tales by artists/writers/twins/Brazilians Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba.  These dudes are two of my favorite comic artists, and De:tales collects some of their short comics works from the last few years.  Just from flipping through and scanning the some of the art, this collection looks to be a wonderful feast for the eyes, and hopefully a good read too!

The third, final and likely most crucial piece of holiday haul-age comes in the form of a new computer. Essential to the continuation of this blog.  My old desktop had been becoming increasingly finicky this fall, with the combined efforts of a few gift-givers, I was able to score a sweet new laptop for my blogging needs. I guess it will help for school too...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Holidays!

Alright y'all, enjoy the holidays!  Hopefully you all have a sweet holidays and if you participate in some sort of gift giving tradition, may you give and receive the gift of great reads, or great listens.  Thanks for coming back to Battle Hymns every so often. Cheers!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 Books of the Year

In terms of sheer volume, 2011 was a pretty average year of reading for me, but when it comes down to quality, this was one of my best years in recent memory.  What made the year so damn special is that I read two books that became immediate all-time favorites.  It has been a while since I’ve read one book in a year that I’d consider an all-time favorite, so to nab two in a year is an extremely special treat for me.  In terms of my reading habits, I more or less stuck to my secret goal of alternating between books and graphic novels. That pattern did fall apart a bit towards the end of the year, when I got crunched for time and certain “must read” titles sat unread on the shelf.  All things considered, the fact that I managed to read about 40 titles, all while attending school full time, and working part time is a number I am pretty pleased with.

So without further ado, I give you the Battle Hymns 2011 Top 5 Books of the Year….

TOP 5 BOOKS of the YEAR:

#5. Moxyland: When I reviewed Moxyland back in April I said it rekindled my love of reading because it felt so incredibly fresh and so clean.  That sentiment still stands because even 8 months later, it still feels the same thinking back on it. 

Moxyland represents two major deviations from my normal reading, for one, it is a science fiction book, a genre I don't dabble in too often, though it appears maybe I should.  Secondly, it is a book written by a woman.  Its a bit embarrassing to admit but I don't tend to read too much stuff by female authors...there's no good explanation why, but I don't.  Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that Moxyland is not my "usual" read, and yet it is one of the best books I've read all year.  So my pearl of wisdom is this: it pays to read outside of your comfort zone on occasion.  

If you haven't had a chance to give Lauren Beukes' stuff a shot yet, I urge you.  I haven't read Zoo City but have heard lots of great things, and I was very impressed with Beukes' effort in the Vertigo Strange Adventures anthology comic.

#4. Retribution Falls:  Hooray for Bucklepunk!  

There's almost no chance Chris Wooding had me in mind when he wrote Retribution Falls but damn if it doesn't seem like he had a little Battle Hymns devil sitting on his right shoulder whispering plot and character advice into his ear while he  toiled away at the manuscript.  This novel has all the makings of a hit: great characters, non-stop action and shenanigans, intriguing characters, and a great plot too.  Hard to argue with all that.

Kudos to Wooding for creating a world that is a nice blend of science and fantasy with engaging, dastardly characters who, despite their shadiness and checkered pasts, are easy and fun to root for.  This is one of those books I couldn't put down simply because it was so much fun to read.  I wanna be a crew member on the Ketty Jay.

#3. The Heroes: Joe Abercrombie is a favorite fantasy author of mine, so it is always a pleasure to read one of his books.  However, never before has that pleasure been so um, pleasurable.  

With The Heroes I feel like it all came together for Joe here.  With the story taking place over the course of a few short days in one small area, the scope is much more narrow, and I think that tighter focus made his writing sharper and the story stronger.  

All the things you'd expect from a Joe Abercrombie novel are here:  mixed loyalties, backstabs, betrayals, messy politics, messy battles, messy wounds, characters of ill repute, and much much more.  You can't go too far wrong with any of Abercrombie's stuff, but for my money this is his best effort yet.  

#2. Replay: This title is definitely one that snuck up on me.  Prior to October of this year, I had never even heard of Replay, let alone had any desire to read it, but here it stands at the number two spot.  Not too shabby. 

 So how did I find Replay?

Well, after reading ThePrestige and Mythago Wood both decent to AH-maaaaaaaaa-zing reads, and both recipients of the World Fantasy Award, I figured I’d scour the list of past winners and see if anything else tickled my fancy.  That’s how I met Replay.  We went out for coffee, rode the bus together a few times, had lunch, next thing you know, we’re in bed together.  (Just thought I’d let you know when and where I do most of my reading…)

If you like time travel, Groundhog Day, a realistic romance story, and a book that makes you think, ask questions of your life, and entertains, than Replay is your book.  Mega-highly recommended. 

#1. The Prestige:  Picking my number one book of the year was an incredibly easy task.  For as much as I enjoyed the other titles on this list, The Prestige easily rules them all. 

This is one of those rare, absolutely amazing books.  The characters are phenomenal, the plotting is fantastic, and the story is one that will give you plenty to think about long after you’ve read the final words.  I think what I love the most about The Prestige  is that it practically begs to be read and re-read over and over again.  There is a large degree of unreliable narration, and half-truths being flung around that it can be very difficult to figure out what really happened. 

With dual narrators, and plenty of lies and deceit, I’m not totally sure I even know what went down, but I know I loved every page of The Prestige and I’m already thinking about when I should read it again.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to give this one a read, I urge you to make it happen.  This is one of best books I’ve ever read. 

Honorable Mention:

The Dark Tower: It was a pretty awesome achievement to finish out Stephen King’s Dark Tower series this year, and I thought the series couldn’t have had a more fitting ending.  I’m very excited for 2012’s addition to the series.

20th Century Ghosts: Got a little father/son thang going here…Simply put, I was very impressed with Joe Hill’s debut short story collection.  With each story you get a different brand of horror, and each one is amazing.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Vacation...

I'll be heading out of town for my holiday vacation, so things may be quiet around here for a while.

I don't expect that I'll spend much time blogging while out of town, but I do hope to get to my Top 5 Books of the Year post before I return, and if I'm lucky, give you a glimpse of the future of what's to come in 2012 for Battle Hymns...

Like my man Arnold Schwarzenegger said in Predator right after killing a man with a knife: "Stick around".  I'll do my best to make it worth your while.

Until then, enjoy some Dio!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 Graphic Novels of the Year

This past year was another big year for me in terms of reading graphic novels. Though I didn't reach the lofty 50 title mark like I did in 2010, by the time this gets published I'll be up around 40 graphic novels on the year...not too shabby if you ask me.  Overall, I think I definitely read better stuff this year than in years past, so quality wins out over quantity this year.  Picking out the Top 5 and a couple runners up was pretty damn difficult.  No sense in keeping you waiting here they are:


#5. Axe Cop: This one gets on the list due to sheer hilarity of the content.  If you haven't heard of Axe Cop let me give you the scoop: the comic is written by a five year old and drawn by his 30 year old brother...and that's what makes this so incredibly awesome.  When a five year old writes a comic you better be ready for some crazy shit to go down, and believe me, it does.

With free reign and creative control over the title, writer Malachai Nicolle fills Axe Cop up with all the wonders of his vividly wild imagination.  Be prepared for uncanny plot resolutions, an incredibly strange and diverse cast of characters, and plenty of little dude humor.

When it comes to Axe Cop I can give you one solid guarantee: you will laugh out loud.  Easily the funniest thing I read all year.

#4. Batwoman: Elegy: Let's see, does Batwoman: Elegy feature some mind blowing art and deft writing?  Yes indeed it does.  But wait there's more!  This awesome graphic novel also features a creepy villain named Alice who quotes Lewis Carroll and wants to cover Gotham in a toxic death cloud, shapeshifters, and all the fun, costumed hi-jinx you'd expect from a Bat-Title...and that's not even the best part.

Now don't get me wrong all that stuff I just mentioned is great, and pretty much essential for my own personal tastes, but the true quality in Batwoman: Elegy is found outside of the costumed parameters.  The true grit, if you will, is found when Batwoman is Kate Kane, dealing with all the troblems (troubles and problems) of her personal life.  If you don't believe me, read it.  You'll thank me.

Hey, have I mentioned that J.H. Williams III, who handles the art on this title, is fucking awesome?  Well, he is.

#3. Essex County:  If you are a steady reader of the blog, then you know I am sorta a big fan of Jeff Lemire's works of comics.  So, it should come as little surprise that there's something of his on the Top 5 graphic novels list too.

Simply put, Essex County is a wonderful tale of simple rural farm folk in Canada.  That might sound kinda boring, but this is a wonderful exploration of human emotion pared down to it's raw center.  The characters, their lives, their mistakes and regrets all come vividly to the forefront of this amazing comic. It's one of those titles that locks itself in your memory, and just as easily as you can recall the events of the story you can also easily recall the feelings, emotions and struggles you were going through in your own life while you were reading it.

At least that's what happened with me.

#2. (Tie) Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, Locke & Key: Head Games: Yeah, I'm not totally a fan of ties, but, um get used to it...

I couldn't mention one Locke & Key title and not mention the other one I read.

Allow me to point out a couple of things that may or may not be obvious: 1) Joe Hill can flat out write.  2) That fact is not limited to just novels.  2011 will definitely go down as the year I discovered the awesomeness that is Joe Hill.  I read four things by him this year, and if not for a small measure of personal restraint, I could have easily read more.  So far, I haven't met a piece of Joe Hill writing I don't love.

I'm trying really hard to restrain myself from repeatedly using words like "awesome", "sweet", "the bomb", "amazing", "outstanding" and so on, but Locke & Key is all those things and more.  I will emphasize a couple points: From what I've read so far, I'd say Locke & Key is shaping up to be the modern horror classic.  Aaaaaannnddd: Joe Hill is the bomb!  Shit! There I go....Seriously, despite all signs pointing to the fact that I'm nuts, check out my reviews for Welcome to Lovecraft and Head Games.  Or don't and miss out on something incredible.  The ball is in your court.

#1. (Tie) Planetary Volumes 1-4: It's only fitting that these four titles go down as the number one graphic novel of the year, because I read 'em all together, and really, it would be lame if four of the top 5 spots were taken up by Planetary books.

I know I said it in my review, but Planetary is the best comics story I've read...ever, and it'll be pretty damn tough to top.

This one has all the hallmarks of greatness: great writing, fantastic art, and a story that is aimed at a reader who can balance a check book, or something equally adult, time consuming and frustrating.  I really think this is a set of graphic novels that can be read and enjoyed by anyone who loves a great story, and for fans of the fantastic and or science fictional, this is it, your gateway into comics.

As great and amazing as the other titles on this list, they don't come close to Planetary.  Seriously, this is the comics medium at its absolute best.

Runners Up:

It was the War in the Trenches: A harrowing and intense look at World War I from the perspective of French trench "grunts".  Simultaneously incredible, beautiful, depressing, bleak, and tragic.

Stumptown: A tale of crime, back-stabs and double crosses in the Pacific Northwest.  Expertly written and beautifully illustrated.

There you go, another round of the year's best in the can.  It's gonna be a tough year to follow, good luck 2012. In my expert scouring of the comics medium did I miss anything?  What were your faves?

Friday, December 16, 2011

2011 Comics of the Year


In a year where I was still finding my feet in the comics medium, discovering what I like, and don't like, the battle for the Top 5 Comic Series of the Year had some stiff competition.  Last year I only featured two titles in what was a tie for my top comic, but this year I read way more titles, and it wouldn't be fair to only cover one title, so this year I'm giving you seven!  Damn, I'm nice.  With last year's co-winners Sweet Tooth and Chew still cranking out issues on a monthly basis, will any fresh contenders be able to unseat the champs? (I'll give you a hint, one of them slipped completely out of the rankings all together...) What am I waiting for?  Let's find out!

#5.  Rocketeer Adventures:  This title was an absolute blast.  Basically, a bunch of the industry's best writers and artists got together and cranked out a bunch of short comics and gorgeous pin-up tributes to Dave Steven's Rocketeer.

Each issue of this four issue mini featured some of the best comics creators in the business. The first issue was pretty astounding, but with each issue, there seemed to be a theme of each creator trying to out-do the others.  The result is some absolutely wonderful comics that offer a wide variety of Rocketeer action.  High caliber writing and art is pretty much standard across the board in this Top 5 list, but Rocketeer Adventures offers more variety and plenty of bang for your buck.

Probably my favorite comics moment of the year came when I discovered Geoff Darrow's lovely double-page spread pin-up.  Jaw Droppingly awesome.

#4. Batwoman: In case you've been living under a giant rock all year long, you know by now that DC relaunched all it's titles and started all their shit over at #1.  This provided me with the opportunity to jump onto a bunch of their titles that looked worthy my attention.  Out of the 52 titles they released, I deemed 7 of them worthy of my time and money.  Of those 7, only one gets the glory of being a Battle Hymns Top 5 comic of 2011. That title is, of course, Batwoman.

Batwoman doesn't spend her time battling classic villains like her compatriot Batman, but she seems to have carved out her niche in Gotham's caped and cowled crime fighting community: the supernatural.  In her most recent adventures she finds herself up against a ghostly child stealing wraith; with lots of personal and professional distractions going on amid all the action.  The writing is solid, Kate Kane's sexuality is maturely handled, and issue after issue, this seems to get better and better.  Oh, and the art?  J.H. Williams III is at the top of his game.  Absolutely beautiful work.

#3. The Sixth Gun: I love westerns, and I love fantasy so it should come as no surprise that I love The Sixth Gun, because those two elements have never been so wonderfully intertwined.

Sometimes I feel like the creators, Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt had me in mind when they came up with this concept, because it is very much geared to my tastes. I've been loving this title since issue #1 and have gladly been hooked for the whole journey so far.

The most recent story arc, Crossroads has been extremely entertaining and full of tense, shocking moments.  This comic is pretty much guaranteed to deliver engaging characters, fun western-style action like train hijackings, and crazy supernatural moments like re-animated evil spirits each and every month.  The art seems to just be getting better each go-around too, so there you go.  All around awesomeness.

#2. The Intrepids: The Top 5 list would be sadly incomplete if I failed to mention the awesomeness that is The Intrepids.

Mad science, a tech-ed up teen team battling crazy creations like cyber bears, battle baboons, and robo-squids are all involved in this crazy fun, crazy awesome 5 issue mini series.

Series creators Kurtis Wiebe and Scott Kowalchuk definitely delivered the goods here.  The writing by Wiebe is fantastic, and he delivers action, drama, tension and jokes with equal aplomb.  Kowalchuk's art is some of my favorite from the year.  He draws mad-science creations extremely well, and makes them look incredible...oh, and the rest of his art is great too, but those mad science creations...*sigh*

What astounded me the most about The Intrepids is that the story delivered on multiple fronts, and even packed in some emotional moments, and still managed to be the most fun comic to read on the shelves.

If you still haven't checked this title out, do so immediately.

#1. Sweet Tooth:  You're still the one Sweet Tooth.

Impressively, despite some stiff competition, Sweet Tooth manages to find itself at the top of the heap once again, and really, it was an easy decision to put it at number one once again.  The reason is simple: Sweet Tooth gets better with each issue.  Not only that, but writer/artist, Jeff Lemire continues to explore new ways of telling the story, and by doing so, stretches the boundaries of the comics medium.

Not only is this my favorite on going comic, but it is steadily creeping up the list and becoming one of my favorite all time stories, period.

For as much as I think, discuss, and gush on and on about this series, I still have almost no idea how this will all turn out.  So much of the bigger picture is still shrouded in mystery, but Lemire has done an excellent job off hiding his cards and slowly revealing them one at a time.  I can't wait to see what the next year of Sweet Tooth will bring.

Runners Up:

Who is Jake Ellis?: Wonderful action packed espionage thriller.  Great writing, satisfying ending to the series, and really cool art.

Blue Estate: A seedy Hollywood crime story with plenty of ins and outs.  Crafty, twisty crime writing at it's finest.


Who is Jake Ellis? #1: In a year where I read more comics than I ever have in my entire life, one issue stands out from the crowd, and that is Who is Jake Ellis? #1. When I read it, I felt like I was reading something completely new and unique, which is very rare these days.  Both the writing and the art had a very fresh feel to them.

This issue pretty much did everything perfect.  The writing by Nathan Edmondson was captivating, it introduced the primary characters, set up the plot, and delivered some great action and chase scenes.  The art by Tonci Zonjic has an incredible vibe and personality that gave the series a signature style that is one of a kind.

This issue pretty much stormed the gates... and the whole damn castle fell with the following issues.  In a year bulging with "#1" issues, this one easily takes the cake.

Runner Up: The Intrepids #1: I've got two words for you: Cyber Bear.

Welp, there you go, my favorite comics from the year.  Are there titles I completely overlooked?  What were your favorite comics from the year?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 Album of the Year

Heritage by Opeth.

I'll admit, right out the gate, that this selection leaves me with a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.  The reason being that my music listening year seems so incomplete this time around. The fact that I still haven't had a chance to get in a full listen of Mastodon's The Hunter, let alone the ten plus listens I prefer before giving something a review really sticks in my craw.  In many ways, this selection feels almost like a default selection.

Sure, it is a new album from my favorite band, but I can't exactly say that I love this album, so that sorta takes away from the whole Album of the Year thing.  Which is strange because in terms of volume, I listened to a lot of new* music this year.  (*Not necessarily a 2011 release, but new to my ears.) I delved into Amon Amarth's back stock of albums, dabbled in the melodic crunchiness of Baroness and Kylesa, journeyed to the dark lands of Black Metal with Immortal by my side and even explored the rock genre with The Black Keys.  Despite all that, I didn't exactly discover anything that'll be getting steady play in my stereo.

So suffice it to say that this was a down year for me in terms of music.

So was Heritage a great album? Is it worthy of such exalted status?  Well, my review wasn't exactly favorable, but that was based more on terms of how I liked it in comparison to the rest of Opeth's output rather than it's individual merits.  All told, the album is quite good.  The music is beautiful, and expertly crafted.  Heritage has an appeal to non-metal music listeners as well as long time fans of the band, so in many ways this album is very much worthy of high praise and the lofty title as Battle Hymns' Album of the Year.  And, for better or worse, whether I like the results or not, it is still the best piece of new music I listened to this year.  So there you go.

By the way, if you aren't a fan of Opeth, you really should listen to their stuff.  It is wonderful.  Well, that's my album of the year.  Aside from the Mastodon album, were there other glaring oversites?  What was your favorite album of the year?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Planetary vols. 1-4

Vol. 1: All Over the World
 and Other Stories
On the day that I became an adult reader of comics, I biked to a local comic shop, browsed around for awhile, asked for advice from the guy who worked in the shop, and came away with the first volume of Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories.  I immediately dove in, and loved what I was reading.  Soon after, I picked up the second volume, The Fourth Man and devoured that one as well.  However, upon reading that second volume, I began to notice some cracks in my memory and decided that myself, and the series would be better off if the whole thing were ingested in one large serving of Planetary awesomeness.

The kicker was that the fourth and final volume wasn't out yet, so I waited.  And when it came out in hardcover, I waited for the softcover edition.  And when that was sold out, waited for it to come back in stock.  Finally, I got my paws on it, and then waited again for the right time to read the whole shebang-a-bang in one mighty chunk.  That time came when I needed something completely different from the epic intensity of Replay.

Vol. 2 The Fourth Man
So what is Planetary all about? Well, that isn't exactly clear after reading the first volume.  The whole thing begins at a roadside diner in the middle of nowhere, where a white suited, white haired man named Elijah Snow is recruited to join Planetary by the sexy-beautiful-dangerous Jakita Wagner (who sorta looks like Baroness from G.I. Joe). Snow is offered the pay rate of one million dollars per year for the rest of his life for the exclusive use of his memory, talents and experience.  Deciding anything is better than boredom, and shitty coffee at a low-rent diner, Snow joins up.

From there the team of Elijah Snow; century baby, aged 100 years old, with the ability to create intense cold, Jakita Wagner; extremely strong and fast, and The Drummer; uncanny knack for manipulating machines and electronics, explore and investigate a variety of amazing and strange secrets around the world.  In the first volume alone they explore a secret cave that once housed the trophy room for a group of extraordinary metahumans, and is now a giant super-computer. They also travel to a remote island near Japan where giant monsters lay dead and rotting, and investigate a revenge minded ghost who prowls the streets of Hong Kong, among a variety of other weird and amazing phenomena.

From reading the first volume I got the sense that the Planetary team is all about uncovering and documenting all the world's secret history that makes the planet an interesting place.  In addition, they seem to be somewhat diametrically opposed to a group calling themselves The Four, who seem determined to unlock and keep the world's great secrets for their own personal gain.

Vol. 3 Leaving the
20th Century
As the story moves along in the second volume, The Fourth Man, the narrative investigates who the mysterious financial backer is for the Planetary corporation.  On top of that, you get a much more in-depth look at The Four, their scope of influence in the course of historical events, and the depth of their evil.  The Four are essentially a pastiche of The Fantastic Four, except in the world of Planetay, they have used their powers, and mental capacity to work evil upon humanity.  As the story moves forward, the conflict between Planetary, and The Four escalates.

Now that I'm a couple years into reading comics as a grown up, and I've read fairly widely across the medium, I gotta say that Planetary is probably the best possible adult re-introduction to comics on the shelf, and I'm thankful this is where I started.  Planetary is proof that comics can be engaging, entertaining, fun and a worthy pursuit for adults.  What is impressive is that this is a comic that doesn't rely on foul language, nudity or extreme violence to get the "mature" tag. Instead, it focuses on having a great story, where every detail is important, and everything that happens, or is mentioned, down to the tiniest detail, winds up having some importance later on in the story.  Mix in some nice nostalgia, and more imaginative and fantastic ideas than a China Mieville novel and you have an amazing comic aimed at a reader who wants to read an actual story.

Vol. 4 Spacetime Archaeology
Though I said it earlier, it should be explicitly noted that Planetary features some incredibly strong writing.  This is Warren Ellis at his peak, and for my money, the best stuff of his I've read so far.  I can't imagine having to read this in single issues though, as it took about a decade for all 27 issues to come out, which is way worse then the year I had to wait for Ellis to produce all four of the Captain Swing issues.

Rate of publication aside, this is some fantastic writing, and Planetery really showcases Ellis' ability to come up with some amazing an imaginative ideas.  Each issue reads like its own enclosed story, yet stays true to comics' episodic roots by simultaneously being a thread that ties into a much larger and more elaborate tapestry. The end result is a story with multiple elements and a payoff that is top notch.

Complimenting Warren Ellis' writing efforts is John Cassaday on art, and the effort here is no less amazing.  Cassaday is one of those artists whose style is so refined and practiced that when you see even just a portion of a panel it is instantly recognizable as their work.  In a medium where the talent is plentiful, and the competition fierce, Cassaday's work on Planetary stands out not only as his magnum opus, but as a landmark work in the entire industry.

So what makes Cassaday's efforts on Planetary so special? The reason is quite simple; the range of things Cassaday is called upon to draw in this series is off the charts.  The man draws everything from mad science constructs, to fantastical otherworldly technology, to metahuman abilities, to giant ants, to steampunk creations, to selective physics distortion fields, to theoretical snowflakes that exist in 196,833 dimensional space...or something like that. (Not to mention frozen vampire nut-kicks!)  The fact that Cassaday can draw these fabulous feats of imagination is impressive, and the fact that he draws them so damn well is astounding.  As much as Planetary is a feat of writing, it is every bit equally a delicious feast for the eyes.

With equally wonderful writing and illustration, Planetary is the total package, and a comic series that I recommend with every fiber of my being.  This is a comic that will impress lovers of the medium, cause comic haters to erase their line in the sand, and flat out entertain and enthrall anyone who loves a good story.  Since this blog caters mostly to fans of the fantastic, I'll add that there's plenty here to wet your whistle.  This is flat out an amazing read.  The best thing I've read so far in the comics medium.


All Over the World and Other Stories: A+
The Fourth Man: A+
Leaving the 20th Century: A+
Spacetime Archaeology: A+

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Music Break: Red Fang

I've been exploring the music of Red Fang lately, ever since I discovered the wonder that is Pandora...don't laugh, I tend to show up late to the party more often than not.  They're a Hard Rock/Metal band from my neck of the woods, the Pacific Northwest, but they hail from Portland, which doesn't surprise me, because as a city, Seattle's collective music taste is way too wimpy to handle a band like this right now.

Still, in today's world of emo and indie rock, Red Fang is like a breath of beery cigarette smoke-filled air to a metal lover like me.  When the gift cards I imagine my Chistmas stocking being filled with start rolling in, I expect to snag at least one of their albums and give it a review here at the Battle Hymns.  Until then, enjoy this Awesome (capital A!) and hilarious video that does a good job of capturing the feel I try to achieve here at the blog.  ENJOY!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: Replay

After reading and loving The Prestige, and reading and having mixed feelings about Mythago Wood, I decided to hop back on the World Fantasy Award winning train and check out another winner, Replay by Ken Grimwood.  It turns out those World Fantasy Award folks might know what they are doing.

What if you could live your life over again, retaining all knowledge and experience you acquired in your first go around?

Replay is the story of Jeff Winston, a 43 year old man who at the beginning of the novel dies of a heart attack, then inexplicably reawakens to find himself alive and well in his college dorm room at the age of 18, with all his previous memories intact. Upon figuring out that the following 25 years of existence weren't just some crazy, extremely detailed dream, Jeff does what anyone (even Biff Tannen) would do if they had exclusive knowledge of the future: bet a shit load of money on a variety of sporting events and strike it rich.

After years of luxurious and heart healthy living Jeff once again dies of a heart-attack on the same date and time of his first life, only to reawaken again at age 18 only a few hours after his first initial return. Before too long, Jeff realizes that he is replaying the same life cycle over and over, except that he is increasingly losing time at the beginning of each successive cycle.

During one of his replays, Jeff notices a film that never existed on previous replays, created by an unknown filmmaker by the name of Pamela Phillips, and directed, produced, and acted by Hollywood big-shots who shouldn't get their big breaks for at least a few more years. That's when Jeff realizes he's not the only replayer out there, experiencing this strange phenomenon.

I can't deny the fact that Replay reminded me a lot of the film Groundhog Day, except the novel takes place over a much larger time scale.  Like Bill Murray's character, Jeff also indulges in some wild, hedonistic behavior, and takes advantage of the situation to make his life more comfortable and entertaining. Not that I can blame the guy, I would probably do the same things myself.  The kicker was that initially, the book followed a somewhat predictable course, that while entertaining, didn't exactly break new ground. However, once fellow replayer Pamela Phillips enters the novel, things pick up, and novel takes some very unexpected directions.

Jeff and Pam think of themselves as soul mates and their love story is one that many would envy; being able to share multiple lives together is a dream of many lovers, and Jeff and Pam get to live that dream over and over.  But as the replays start to stack up, the the time loss increases with each subsequent replay, and sharing their lives together gets increasingly difficult.  The ways they go about sharing their lives, and loving each other across time and distance is quite powerful and remarkable. I almost never get sucked into love stories, but with Replay I was incredibly sucked in, in ways I never expected, and found it to be the most impressive piece of this novel.  Grimwood evokes some very powerful and touching moments that will cause a stir in even the most black hearted soul.

Not only did Grimwood write a novel with a concept that captures the attention, and a love story that captures the heart, but he also wrote a compelling story that will capture the mind.  The meaning of life is a question that has plagued many a mind, and while Replay does not go so far as to tell one how it should be done, but it does give the reader a lot to think about in terms of ways to give it your best shot.

Going into this one I figured I would be getting a fun, somewhat engaging novel that would provide some distraction and relief from my otherwise dull textual reading for school.  I was pleasantly surprised to find an incredibly powerful novel that has left a lasting impression on me.  Will this novel keep you up reading waaaaaaay past your bedtime? Yes. Will this novel give you cause to to think and analyze its ideas and meanings when you should definitely be thinking and focusing on other things? Yes.  Will this novel cause you to weepingly call your significant other in the dead of night just to say "I love you"? Uh, no comment...

If not for the power, and magic of the aforementioned The PrestigeReplay would find itself sitting firmly at the top of the "Best of" heap for my reading this year.  Still, it is among good company.  Replay is a true gem of the fantasy genre, and an unexpectedly amazing read.  This is another book that I look forward to revisiting sometime down the road, as I think new meanings and discoveries can be made with each reading. This one gets the full on Battle Hymns epic recommendation.  Fantastic stuff.

Grade: A+

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Comic Review: Lost at Sea

I picked up Brian Lee O'Malley's Lost at Sea on the strength of his amazing and wonderful Scott Pilgrim series, which ranks up there as one of my favorite comic series of all time.  When I came across Lost at Sea, his debut comic, I figured I'd give it a go.

Lost at Sea is very different from O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim stuff.  The overall mood is much more emo, and the art is less developed than his work on Scott Pilgrim.  The story follows a teen aged girl, Raleigh, who claims to have no soul because it was stolen by a cat.  On top of being souless, Raleigh is friendless, and seems more or less listless on a day to day basis. So why is she on a road trip with three boisterous classmates she barely even knows?

If you've ever been eighteen, and had little to no direction in your life, you will probably find something to relate to in Lost at Sea.  This adventure of finding inner peace, and a bit of meaning in life is a story that I feel like many readers can relate to.  That being said, the overall tone is a bit on the melancholy side, which was a slight deterrent for me.  While I could relate to and connect with Raleigh's emotions, I often felt the book was a bit too whiny and inner-turmoil-ly for me.

This graphic novel shined brightest in terms of dialog.  O'Malley really has a knack for making his dialog come to life, and I really got the sense I was listening to bunch of teens converse when I read the word bubbles.

Raleigh's character is well written, and she comes across with a feeling of familiarity.  Compared to the other characters in the story she is by far, the stand out.  The other characters seem to mostly be there to offset Raleigh's mopeyness with their humor.  The Secondary characters in Scott Pilgrim served a similar offsetting purpose as well, but they were simultaneously memorable, and much loved.  The secondary characters in Lost at Sea don't have that kind of staying power, and the overall story pales in comparison for that fact.

Overall, this is a solid story, and one that most readers can relate to. However,I had a hard time fully connecting to the narrative.  Maybe I'm too far removed from the troubles that plague an eighteen year old to fully invest myself and care about what happens to that character, which may be the case here, but I think O'Malley goes a bit overboard with the emotions and doesn't give Raleigh enough other characteristics to make the reader become fully invested in her troubles. That's a writing trick that isn't easy to pull off, and O'Malley narrowly misses here, but I think he nailed it with the Scott Pilgrim series.

I tentatively recommend this as it is an interesting and entertaining look at the emotional processes of a young woman, and an interesting treatise on cat soul-theft, but in my opinion, not as strong or impactful as it could be. For Brian Lee O'Malley fans, this is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: C+

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Welcome to the DCnU Issue #3 Edition (Part 2)

Batwoman #3:  Well Batwoman, you're still the one.  This is hands down my favorite title from the new DC stuff, and overall, one of my favorite titles on my pull list.  The reasons why are pretty simple, strong writing and absolutely beautiful art make this a must read.

I've said all that before though, so in an attempt to say something new and original I'll add that I'm really falling in love with the Batwoman/Kate Kane character.  I like that she is on the one hand highly skilled, and good at ass kicking, but on the other hand, a bit head strong and prone to getting in over her head.  Her alter-ego, Kate Kane is no less interesting, and I find that the story around her personal life is quite engaging.  The writers handle her sexuality in a mature way that is nice to read. Tack on an interesting sub-plot with her side kick and you have comic gold.

The Shade #2:  Not technically a "New 52!" title,(though he is "Marked for Death!"), but it's a DC title, and it's new, so I'm lumping it in with these ones.

I'm sad to say this, but no matter how badly I want to like this title, I can't bring myself to get into it.

The first two issues haven't done me any favors.  The first one was ok, but this one didn't do a damn thing for me, and didn't capture my interest at all.  The writing is a bit on the cheesy side, and while there are lots of great artists lined up for this title, that factor isn't enough to keep me around.  If I want I can always flip through the new issues and oogle the art, but I wont be carrying on with The Shade any longer.      A theme that will be recurrent with this edition of Welcome to the DCnU.

Animal Man #3:  Another case of the dropped title here.

I was on the fence with this one for the past two months, and I figured the ol' baseball adage, "three strikes and yer out" worked well here.  Jeff Lemire's writing has been decent so far, but in my opinion, certain plot points seemed to happen or come together a bit too easily.

The writing isn't my biggest concern though, as I haven't been a fan of Travel Foreman's art since issue one.  I'll hand it to him, the man does have his occasional moments of really great, wonderful looking art, but the spaces between those moments are not that good at all.  I think I've called it flat, lacking in detail and sterilized looking in the past, and I think that pretty much sums it up.  There isn't nearly enough here to keep me interested, so I won't be reading this title anymore.

 Detective Comics #3:  Forming the final head on this three-headed beast of dropped titles is the latest installment of Detective Comics.  Once again Tony Daniel underwhelms the reader with his steady knack for telling a Batman story the reader feels like he/she has read a million times before.

Not only does the story seem dull and well worn, but Daniel's approach to Batman has a paint by numbers feel to it that is equally lame.  It's as if the man has a check list that he makes sure he works through for each issue.  Gadgets, fisticuffs, bat-cave, goofy detecting, and on the list goes on.  But I wont.

I like to think I'm an easy man to please.  Just give me some strong writing, and solid art, with compelling characters and I'm happy.  Detective Comics fails on all levels.

And with that major downer of a Welcome to the DCnU installment I conclude this series of posts.  From now on, if they are good enough or noteworthy enough, I'll pepper some of these titles in with my Comic Quickies posts.  There are some VERY awesome titles hitting the shelves in the next few months that I'm really excited about, so expect some good comic reading tips coming your way soon!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Welcome to the DCnU Issue #3 edition (Part 1)

Batman #3: Allow me to take a BIG  sigh of relief.  Why? Because I didn't hate the art in this issue.  Truth be told, this is the best issue of Batman so far.

Not only is there some sweet bat detective stuff going on, but I thought Greg Capullo's art was pretty solid in this issue.  I think what enamored me to it the most is that Capullo seemed to be experimenting with his "lens" and how the panels were viewed by the reader.  This led to some strange panel art, like the one where a conversation between Bruce and Alfred is viewed through the eye holes of the Bat-cowl sitting on a nearby table.  The technique worked best when Batman was doing his detecting and Capullo would highlight clues so that it felt like the reader was detecting alongside Batman.

This title is probably the best written title out of all the new DC stuff I'm reading, and for that reason alone, I will tough out Capullo's art.  Hopefully, this issue is a sign that he's growing into the job, and growing as an artist.

All Star Western #3: The first arc of this new series is tied up in this third issue, which was a surprise, and for my money, felt a bit rushed.  It was like, all of a sudden, boom, on to a new arc!  It looks like Hex will be sticking around Gotham though, and hopefully Amadeus Arkham will continue to be a character, because he's pretty much the only likable character in the title.  Don't get me wrong, Jonah Hex is fun to read, but the man's an asshole.

Aside from the weirdly rushed writing, I felt like Moritat's art looked a bit rushed in this one too.  The beautiful high detail that was prevalent in the first two issues wasn't there, and often there was little to no background art in the panels.  On the other hand, there were two sweet double page spreads, so it almost balances out in the end.  Hopefully Moritat can recapture the thunder in the next issue.

Action Comics #3: I was freaking out when I read the first few pages of this issue, because I thought that all of a sudden Rags Morales had gotten amazing at art.  I figured he must have taken some sort of magical elixir because if I wasn't mistaken, his art was looking a lot like it was drawn by Gene Ha...then I realized it was Gene Ha doing the art on the first few pages.

WOW.  Amazing.  His depiction of planet Krypton before the destruction is bee-yoo-tee-ful.

Back on planet Earth, things aren't going so well for Supes.  He's got the po-po breathing down his neck, some anti-alien animosity aimed in his S-chested direction, and from the looks of things, a showdown with a battalion of robots and a freaky cyborg dude in his future, oh, also the threat of an alien invasion.  Sounds FUN!  I know I can't wait.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #3: In this issue Frankenstein and his fellow monster buddies travel to a planet that is literally covered in monsters, and attempt to kill them all.  Then they discover that three other areas of the planet are monster infested as well, and have a giant epic monster to defeat in each of those regions as well.  Can you say "Boss Battle"?

It is almost silly how simplistic and straight forward this comic can be at times, but that simplicity is primarily what makes this a fun title to read.  Yes, this title is sort of a guilty pleasure for me, but so far it has been consistently fun, and highly entertaining.  Plus, as I mentioned before, I am a sucker for monsters, and this is pretty much the mecca of monsters.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Comic Quickies: Some Endings

Captain Swing #4 of 4:  Well, it's about fucking time!  I've been waiting for this series to conclude for quite a while now.  Not only was it about a five month wait between issue #3 and #4, but I recall buying Captain Swing #1 as my very first floppy issue purchased as an adult a little over a year and a half ago.  Yeah, that's a long time to wait for four issues.

Ellis did manage to wrap things up pretty well here, but the story definitely suffered for the long wait between issues.  For my money, the third issue was the best in the series.

Captain Swing is definitely worth a read in graphic novel format when it comes out, particularly if you're into pirates, Victorian era electro-steampunky shenanigans, good writing and solid art.

The Red Wing #4 of 4:  Unlike Captain Swing, The Red Wing came out in nice rapid-fire release style, sticking to the monthly schedule.  Unfortunately, that didn't do me a lot of good, because even with the typical gaps between installments, I still had a hard time following the story and remembering what exactly was going on.

For that reason, I would advise enjoying this tale of futuristic time-travel and intergalactic war in one sitting.  Despite my sieve-like memory, I did still enjoy this.  Have I mentioned I enjoy time-travel stories?

My one gripe for this title is Nick Pitarra's art.  I started out really liking it, but by the fourth issue, I was a bit tired of it. There wasn't much variety in the content from issue to issue, and I definitely got sick of the whole "draw every little part and piece of  some object" shtick. (Look to the cover for an example of this technique).

I'll definitely have to give this whole deal another read sometime in the future to get the full effect.

Witch Doctor #4 of 4: Winning the award for pure, crazy fun is Witch Doctor.  It's no mystery that I can't get enough of weird, crazy monsters, and Witch Doctor has been doing a real good job of providing me with my fix.

This is a title by two new creators, Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner, and they've each gotten better at their respective jobs with each issue.  Siefert's writing has gotten sharper with each consecutive issue, and Ketner's art seems to improve with each panel.  Each creator seems to be on a nice skyward trajectory, and I can't wait to see what they have in store next.

Though this is the end of this Witch Doctor mini-series, there is more to come soon.  There'll be a nice little Witch Doctor one-shot coming in time for the Holidays, and another mini-series coming early next year.  Hopefully they'll be able to keep the ball rolling on this fantastically weird, funny, disgusting, and exciting title.

Read and enjoy!

The Vault #3 of 3:  The whole time I was reading this final issue of The Vault, I kept thinking to myself how it was set up, and felt very much like a movie; with three distinct acts, the first which set up the situation, the second which saw everything go haywire, and the third where everything comes together.  Then I heard that The Vault had been already been optioned for film production.  Well, surprise, surprise!

I'm not sure how I feel about comics that are basically story-boards for a movie. I'm not sure that was writer's and artist's goal with The Vault, but the fact that I thought the comics had a movie script-like feel to them, then found out it was indeed going to become a movie is a pretty good indicator that ulterior motives were afoot.

Movie conspiracies or not, this was still a pretty fun comic to read.  My biggest complaint was that the evil beastie wasn't that cool looking.  I never felt like it made much of an impression as a thing to be feared.  Decent stuff here, but nothing that brings anything new to the table.  A decent read, but not one I consider must-read comics.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: The Heroes

When I find an author that I enjoy, like Joe Abercrombie, I usually tend to stretch his or her books out, so that I'm enjoying something by that person on a yearly basis.  I read Best Served Cold back in the summer, so what am I doing reading another Abercrombie book this year?  Well, as I've established before, I can be mentally weak at times.  Basically what happened was that there was a gift card to a certain online book seller, and I spent it all in one epic book buying fest, and what you see before you is one of those purchases.  Money well spent.

Like The First Law and Best Served Cold books before it, The Heroes is set in the same universe.  This time around the focus of the story is much more fine tuned, and takes place over the course of a few days.  Thousands of men from either the North, or the Union are converging on a forgotten hill set in the middle of a small farming valley near the border of the two lands.  It is there in that valley and on that hill named The Heroes that the two sides will clash.

As I mentioned earlier, The Heroes is tightly focused.  That brief description I just gave is just about all there is to this book; a three day battle over useless, abandoned land.  However, that tight focus is what makes this book great.  The focus of this novel is so sharp that the pacing is wonderful, and the action is pretty much non-stop.

I've gotten so accustomed to massively epic fantasy with huge worlds, hundreds of characters, and numerous story lines that a book The Heroes, that takes place on such a small scale, almost seems improbable.  I've noticed myself becoming increasingly burnt out on epic fantasy the past couple years, so a book like this was a welcome alternative.

The one complaint I did have about the small setting was that I found myself confused sometimes about the scale of the battlefield. It seemed like troop movements, and how long it took them to cover distances was inconsistent at times.  Though legitimate maps are provided in a Joe Abercrombie book for the first time, it was still hard to judge distances between regiments, and battle lines at times.  Still, a minor complaint, and one that is grossly outweighed by all the positives.

Since The Heroes is set in the same world as the rest of Abercrombie's books, there are a few recurring characters that devoted readers will be familiar with.  A few of the names that are back in varying capacity are Black Dow, Calder, Scale, Caul Shivers, Jalenhorm, Byaz, and Bremer dan Gorst.  Alongside these familiar names are a wonderful cast of new characters as well.  Though I did enjoy reading all the characters, I've begun to notice a familiar Joe Abercrombie character building pattern: each character seems to embody one main, overriding trait like self pity, ambition, or self perseverance, and then have a few other less prominent traits mixed in.   Now, I will agree that many people in the world do tend to have a well defined character such as those in Abercrombie's books, but I feel like this model for character building doesn't allow me to really discover the depths of Abercrombie's characters.  That said, his characters are very memorable, and fun to read about so I can't complain too much.

The story is told through a variety of point of view characters but I definitely had favorite point of view characters on each side.   For the Union, Bremer dan Gorst was my favorite to root for.  The guy is an all out beast when it comes to war, but mentally he's a mess, and enjoyed seeing if he'd ever manage to straighten himself out.  For the North, Curnden Craw, a veteran, a named man, and leader of a dozen was a probably the easiest character in the book to root for.  I found myself fretting over his well being like a nervous soccer mom.  The other point of view characters were all fun to read, and that factor is a big reason why this book is so damn great.

Aside from the great cast of point of view characters, there are many secondary characters that populate this book, and give it more life.  I think Abercrombie is at his best and  having the most fun when he's writing the rough and rowdy Northmen, and it showed with characters like Whirrun of Bligh, Glama Golden, and Cairm Ironhead.

Looking back at Abercrombie's past novels, I would say they all pale in comparison to The Heroes.  This is definitely his best effort yet.  Looking back at Best Served Cold, it could have done with a tighter focus and feels bloated in retrospect. The fact that I loved that book should prove just how much of an improvement this book is.

On top of being a great read, there are a few important developments that occur in The Heroes that make me very excited for Abercrombie's next effort, whatever that may be and whenever that may come.  Fans of Abercrombie's previous works will feel right at home with the gritty violence, realistic characters, and balls out action.  For those of you who haven't read Abercrombie's stuff, I would advise starting with The Blade Itself and plowing through his stuff from there.  You wont regret it.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comic Review: The Boys vol.1 The Name of the Game

Oh man, did I ever enjoy Preacher.  It is right up there as one of my all time favorite graphic novel series.  Going off the strength of that experience, I thought for sure that Garth Ennis' other big comic series The Boys would also be a sure fire hit for me as well.  You gotta trust your instincts right?  Well, It turns out my instincts aren't as sharp as I had hoped...

The Boys are a C.I.A. backed team of dangerous, quite likely even psychotic individuals.  The team, which consists of a motley crew if there ever was one, are employed by the U.S. government to protect the country from earth's superheroes; who run the risk of finally coming to the conclusion that they could rule the world if they so desired.  Here to prevent that from happening are The Boys, who do their best to keep the superhero threat controlled, and if necessary, remove potential threats.

I'll admit, the premise of this series did intrigue me.  The Boys sorta seemed like the anti-Authority, and with Ennis at the helm, I had hopes that would lead in some pretty interesting directions.  Not to mention the catharsis I imagined feeling when slightly altered yet easily identifiable super heroes got their asses kicked by a bunch of no-names.  Though I did get a bit of wish fulfillment with the latter part, I was sadly disappointed in all other terms.

The first and ultimately most disappointing thing about The Boys is that it is by far the most mature comic I've ever read. In terms of language, and graphic content it is pretty much off the charts. However, the mature-ness of the whole thing is taken so far to the extreme that it manages to become simultaneously the most immature comic I've ever read.  The "humor" registers at an extremely low maturity level, and the excess and raunchiness of the sex might be exciting and/or hilarious to some, but for me it was ridiculous, offending and stupid. Throw in a few other instances that made me cringe and severely question my own judgement in purchasing this title, and you have a complete fail of a read.

It seems pretty clear to me that Ennis tried really hard to make this the most edgy, balls out, extreme, no holds barred comic on the shelves, and he did that by pushing all the wrong buttons.  There is so much useless sex, sexism, and stupidity in this title that it completely lost sight of the concept, which could have been interesting.  I wouldn't mind reading a comic about a group of people who keep the incredibly powerful superhumans in check, and how they do it, but sadly, that shit ain't gonna happen because I'm not reading any more of The Boys, and it is unlikely that this concept will get revisited anytime soon.

I think what is most frustrating for me is that I normally don't mind, and even enjoy a bit of humor, foul language, violence and sex.  They can all be used to make a story better and stronger.  Look no further than Tim Marquitz' Demon Squad books for an example of all four elements done right.  The thing is, humor, language, violence and sex all have a greater impact when they are used in small doses, but with The Boys there is no such thing as a small dose, it is all the time to the point of perversion.  Ennis could have cut back and added more depth to the story, developed more characters, or given more life to the world, but instead he opted for a fairly straight forward plot that did little to interest me.

All told, this one was an epic fail.  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, and would advise staying away.  I really liked Ennis' Preacher series, but I guess I'll be more cautious with his stuff in the future.  Simply put, this is the worst thing I've read in years.

Grade: F-

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Winter's Bone

Every now and again I like to take a break from my fantasy and comic reading for a little jaunt in the crime/thriller/mystery realms of fiction.  This is one such occasion.

Winter's Bone is a recent victim of the Hollywood trend where they take books and make 'em into movies.  I'm not much of a movie watcher, but occasionally people who know my tastes in stories will recommend a film to me and if said movie happened to be a book before it was a movie, I'll usually try to read the source material first, which is exactly what led me to this novel.

Winter's Bone follows Ree Dolly, a sixteen year old girl, busy taking care of her two little brothers, and her crazy mother, trying to make it through a tough winter in the Ozarks.  Her dad, out on bail for charges of running a crystal meth lab, has a court date coming up but he's gone missing.  This wouldn't be much of a concern to Ree, but her father put the house, and the family's vast tract of timber up to make his bail.  If her father doesn't show his face in court, the house and land will be lost and Ree, her little brothers, and her mother will be homeless.  Ree takes it upon herself to track her father down, calling upon a variety of shady family and community members who might know of his whereabouts.

Winter's Bone is a slim and trim novel, with no wasted words or space.  The narrative maintains it's singular focus and drives straight ahead with very little preamble.  I enjoyed the slick presentation and honed edge of the narrative flow.  The author, Daniel Woodrell does a remarkable job of giving the story a pared down feel, without actually skimping on prose or descriptive passages.  Woodrell also does a great job of bringing the setting of a small, rural town in the Ozarks to life on the page.  Though I've never visited that part of the country, it was easy to visualize, and get a sense of what the place is like.

Woodrell also was able to give me a strong impression of the mentality and tacit cultural norms the people of that region possess.  It's difficult for me to put my finger on exactly how he accomplished this, but I was able to fathom the depth of the Dolly family network and the rural culture that "circles the wagons" and protects itself at all costs from outside threats.  This quality gave the novel some added depth that I wasn't expecting, yet fully appreciated.

On top of a strong narrative flow, and the insider's glimpse at the fringe of society, Woodrell also adds strong character building to his list of talents.  Despite being just sixteen, Ree Dolly is tough, and world weary beyond her years.  She's got guts too.  Her search for her father is an act of bull headed bravery that I have to admire; Ree is easily one of the most memorable and remarkable women of fiction I've experienced. In addition to Ree, her Uncle Teardrop, and the rest of the cast of characters are all impressively written.

The sharp pacing, solid plotting, astute writing and intriguing characters all combine to make Winter's Bone a great read.  Woodrell is definitely an author I'll be getting back to some day.  Another great excursion afield from my usual fantasy and comic hauntings.  Worth a read, before you watch the film, which, by the way, I also recommend.  Hollywood didn't fuck that one up. The book, as usual, is better.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Comic Review: Locke & Key vol.2 Head Games

After the events which saw their father murdered, the family moved across country, and their family attacked in their new home by their father's escaped killer, the Locke kids have finally begun to piece their shattered lives back together.

Tyler and Kinsey are starting to settle in at their new school and have even made a new friend; A boy named Zack, who, like the Lockes, is a new student and the nephew of one of the faculty at Lovecraft Academy. Meanwhile, Bode, the youngest, is filling his time exploring their massive new home and the surrounding acres.

Their new home, Keyhouse, is aptly named due to the fact that hidden in and around the massive house are special keys, each of which give the wielder a unique power or ability.  When Bode finds the Head Key, a key that unlocks your mind giving the wielder the ability to learn or unlearn any skill,  he once again attracts the attention of Doge, an evil and vile creature who seems bent on the Locke family's destruction.

After reading the opening volume to this comic series, I was quite impressed to say the least.  Given the fact that the writing is handled by Joe Hill, a guy who is rapidly moving up the "Battle Hymns' Favorite Author" rankings, I had a good feeling that the second volume, Head Games, would deliver as well.

It did.

Though Locke & Key shines for many reasons, one of the brighter qualities of the series are its characters.  Maybe I have a soft spot for the whole "kids in danger" plot element, but I find that the Locke children are really fun to root for, and I find myself fretting over their safety more than is healthy.  What makes them great though is that they actually "act" their age.  They are prone to mistakes, ill advised decisions, and all the emotions that come with the territory. While they may sound cliched, the effect of past events in their life color who they are today, and causes them to rise above your typical pop culture ideals of what "kids" are like.  When you add in their Uncle who is trying to juggle his own life, and help his sister-in-law, niece, and nephews rebuild their own, and the mother who is in a constant state of wine soaked shock and detachment you get a wonderful cast of characters to root for.

The Locke family wouldn't be nearly as much fun to root for if they weren't being constantly put in danger by a frightening antagonist.  Dodge, the malevolent spirit that plagues Keyhouse, is one scary, duplicitous, vile, and extremely cruel bastard of an antagonist.  There is little I can say about Dodge that wouldn't cause some spoilers to leak out, but I will say that Dodge is a character that will keep you up late at night, and plague your dreams while you sleep.  That fact that Dodge is always about twenty steps ahead of the Locke kids is a frightening prospect.

I may be parroting my review for Welcome to Lovecraft, but the magical keys are a wonderful and ingenious plot element.  They are a fairly simple concept really, but truth be told, who needs complex, hard to explain magic systems?  Not me. The mystery that surrounds the keys is another of the great qualities of the Locke & Key series.  Though only five keys have been discovered and used thus far in the books, many others, and their abilities have been hinted at.  I think I've also noticed a couple other keys hidden in certain panels, and I can only assume they'll come into play at some point in the future.  How or when, I don't know but I can't wait to find out.

I'll spare you the effort of reading a paragraph about the writing and art, and simply say: Once again, top notch writing and great artwork graces the pages of Head Games. I can't find much to complain about on either front, and find both aspects of the comic to be quite awesome.  Locke & Key: Head Games  seems to be a case of both creators functioning at the top of their games.  A rare and welcome treat.

It's no secret that I loved Welcome to Lovecraft, and while I can't say that Head Games is better, I also can't say it's worse either.  The high level of storytelling and art that was present in the first volume is present once again, only this time, the plot thickens, the characters get a bit more developed, and as a result, I find myself further sucked into the world, and can't wait to read more.  I'll probably resist the urge to read the third volume until after the new year, but if you're reading this and haven't given this series a shot, don't delay.  Locke & Key is some of the very best comics on the shelves.

Grade: A+