Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rockin' Out to the Billboard Top 10

The musical aspect of Battle Hymns is too often neglected lately.  Let's face it, its been awhile.  The sad fact is that I just don't buy all that much new music these days,  thus the dirge of music reviews.  I also know that my favorite music genre of choice, metal, isn't everyone's cup of tea.  Why, I don't know.  Metal really is the best kind of music.  Instead, lots and lots and lots of people listen to shitty, bland corporate music that is completely devoid of art or sincerity.  Which by the way is exactly what I'm about to do.  I'm going to listen to the Billboard Top 10 hits of RIGHT NOW and share my thoughts.  Ok, deep breath.  Here I go.  In descending order...

*Props to Dan Savage, of The Stranger, who did a similar article a few months back, thus giving me the idea.

#10: Black and Yellow by Wiz Khalifa: Yeah, uh huh! Of the ten hits, I'm pretty sure this is the only one I've heard before.  Pretty much every sports team out there has remixed this song into an anthem about their own team, changing the colors to team colors and switching up the lyrics a little bit.  I'm not sure which is a bigger feat of creativity, writing this song, or taking what Wiz wrote and making it work for say, the Seahawks. 

One thing I've noticed right off the bat, Wiz cant rhyme for shit.  Either that or he just knew that his hook was money so he phoned the verses knowing it was a hit no matter what he actually wrote.  Some of Wiz's awesome rhymes: "roarin'" and "for it," "diamonds" and "time is", the guy needs to read some Dr, Seuss or something. 

#9: Tonight by Enrique Iglesias feat. Ludacris: Yes! What would a top ten be without Ludacris?  Wait, I forgot it wasn't 2005 anymore.  How do some of these guys stay around for so long?  Also, Enrique, I'm disappointed.  I thought you were a "singer".  Why you gotta use the auto-tune gimmick? What the fuck is it with the auto-tune bullshit?  How is that still cool?  It is a stupid sound trick that sounds terrible in every song it's ever been used in.  I mean, have you guys not heard Domo Arigato by Styx?  Same idea, same shitty sound. 

This song is nothing more than a soulless club hit.  It has a thumpy beat that even white dudes could dance to, and I just picture Enrique grinding with like three cougars at once, dancing to his own song.  Luda's rap verse could be rapped by a five year old, that's how complex the lyrics and rhymes are.  What a terrible fucking song.

#8: Never Say Never by Justin Bieber feat. Jaden Smith: A trend I'm noticing here: almost every radio hit these days has to feature someone else. Someone will all of a sudden be featured in everyone else's song, then boom, they have their own solo album and their career blows up and the cycle of shitty music continues.   These bastards are are thick as thieves!  The amount of nepotism in the music/acting industry is outlandish.  This song, featuring the son of The Fresh Prince, is a great example.

Sorry, but I already hate this song, without listening to it.  For one, I really hate J-Beebs or whatever he's called.  Nice hair dude.  Anyway, my personal preferences aside, this song really does suck.  Did you know "there's just no turnin' back, when your heart's under attack"?  That is some deep shit right there.  The sooner this kid's star fades into obscurity the better.  Jaden's rap delivery, cadence and voice are reminiscent of Kris Kross.  Not a good thing.  Ok, just end now song...

#7: S&M by Rihanna: Wow, the beginning is really annoying.  That was a painful 30 seconds of repeated "Na, na, na, na come ons".  Off to a great start.  Another bass heavy club hit from the looks of things.  From the lyrical content, I'm guessing this song is supposed to create some sort of "bad-girl" image for Riannah.  She likes whips and chains.  Whoa.  It's funny how pop music from the 80's still manages to be more shocking, controversial, and also interesting than the shit produced today.  Riannah might like the smell of sex, but that doesn't hold a candle to Like a Virgin.  Totally, completely a forgettable, song.  Hope I never have to hear it again.

#6: Fucking Perfect by P!nk: P!ink kinda grosses me out.  There's just something about her mannish jaw that I find creepy.  If you didn't know, her "singing" voice is terrible.  I guess this song is supposed to be about the struggles of and angsty teenager.  Hey, that's never been done before.  Awesome concept.  At least the song has a positive vibe.  You should believe in yourself, and think you are perfect just the way you are, but then the video goes and glorifies fighting with your family, getting shitty grades, and suicide.  Way to go guys.  Fucking Perfect.

#5: Firework by Katy Perry: In the opening line, Katy asks: "Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?"  Nope.  Shit, I'm worried I might have a hard time connecting with this song.  Hoo, yuck, Katy's range is pretty limited.  When she tries to actually sing, you know like belt something out, despite her producer's best efforts, and knob tweakings,  her voice falls apart.  Another lame concept that I guess is supposed to make me feel inspired to let my inner light shine out.  Yeah, not feeling it.

#4: I Need a Doctor by Dr. Dre feat. Eminem and Skylar Grey: After those last 6 songs, I really do feel like I need a doctor.  Enter the most talented musicians on the top ten list: Dr. Dre and Eminem.  I liked Dre back in the 90's, and even though I'm not a fan of his music, I think Eminem actually moves the rap genre forward rather than backwards like most other popular rappers these days.

I'm assuming Dre created the beat for this song.  If so, it is one of his weaker beats. I don't know why I expected this song to be a savior.  It plays right into that middle road of being easily accessible to the masses and never veers from the path or is remarkable in any way.  At this point I'm just waiting for Dre to drop his verse, which I know is coming, and will probably also be a let down. Oh snap, here it comes....and there it goes.  Dre always was a better producer than a rapper.

#3:  Grenade by Bruno Mars: I have no idea who Bruno Mars is, but I must be missing out on something amazing.  I mean, anyone whose video has 95 MILLION youtube views must be like, the best musician ever right?  Hmm...I'm skeptical.

Ok, there you go, right off the bat: he's singing in a baby voice.  Ugh, I hate it.  Bruno, would you really catch a grenade for the woman you love?  Really?  Of course not.  Be fucking realistic.  You probably wouldn't take a blade, or jump in front of a train either.  Also, what kind of relationship are you in if those kinds of things are distinct probabilities?  You might wanna bail on that one.  I'm wondering, is Bruno dating Ramona Flowers or something, and all these evil exes are trying to kill him with grenades and swords and trains and shit?    What is the point of doing all these deadly things anyway, if you did, you'd be dead, thus making it impossible to be with the woman you love, and isn't being with that person no matter what, the point of it all? 
Yeah, anyway, moving on.  Two more to go.

#2: Fuck You (Forget You) by Cee Lo Green:  This is sort of the opposite of what ol' Bruno Mars was singin' in the last one.  I guess Cee Lo's chick left him for another dude, and he's not the type to move on so easily, or handle things like an adult.

My endurance is definitely running low right about now.  These songs just aren't any good.  Oh great, there's this part towards the end where he sings in this whiny-cry baby voice and it is really terrible.  As far as I can tell, this song is a hit based on it's snappy, and liberal use of the word "fuck".  I guess everyone can sort of relate to the lyrics a bit too, but who cares, that doesn't make it a good song.  Everyone could relate to a song about drinking water too, and I bet that would suck just as bad.

#1: Born This Way by Lady Gaga:  I'm pretty sure this will be my very first time ever listening to a Lady Gaga song.  Give it up to me for achieving a life-long dream!  L. Gaga strikes me as a Madonna rip off, but I have nothing to base that on other than her looks, which sort of reminds me of Madonna in her vogue era.  Big surprise, unlike Madonna, Lady Gaga has a bad singing voice. Words of wisdom I've gleaned from this song: "Don't be a drag, be a queen".

Ok, scratch that earlier comment about Lady Gaga being a Madonna rip off, I've decided she's actually the love child of Madonna and Dee Snider from Twisted Sister.  Take a look:


See the family resemblance?

Ok,  my work is done here.  What a dumb, torturous idea.  Do yourselves a favor and listen to something else.  Something that will inspire you and make feel good.  I just sorta feel dead inside.

Palette cleanser:

Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: Ghost Projekt

I'm gonna let you in on a little secret:  I love me some espionage.  Shit, I've even seen the first two Mission Impossible's with that d-bag Tom Cruise, that's how much I like it.  If you can't tell from the blog, I also like me some supernatural stuff, so when I discovered a comic that had both of those elements, minus Tom Cruise, I was plenty excited.

Ghost Projekt is an action-packed supernatural spy thriller, that takes place in the Russian Siberia.  If you are like me, you know in your heart of hearts that Russia has a shit ton of sketchy ass super secret chemical/biological prototype weapons just kicking around abandoned research facilities, left over from the cold war era.  So when thieves get their hands on a mysterious weapon, it is up to UN weapons inspector Will Haley to figure out what kinds of dangers the weapon might pose.  To complicate matters, Will is forced to work side by side with the attractive Anya Romanova, a russian agent who's priorities don't fully match up with Will's.  Soon, the old scientists who once worked at the site where the weapon was stolen from start turning up dead and Will is visited by the scientist who led the project.  With the help of some clues and some detective work, Will starts to understand the nature of the weapon, but will he be able to stop it before it is unleashed?

Like many good spy stories, the plot of Ghost Projekt is a bit convoluted, and I had to go back and reference earlier events a few times to make sure I was understanding everything...which I may not have been totally successful at.  Maybe my espionage IQ has gotten dumbed down by too much Mission Impossible.  Still, the plot is quite interesting and the mystery elements were spread out nicely through the five issues.   One of the nice things about Ghost Projekt is that there is no unstoppable Bond-like hero.  Instead Will Haley is a pretty normal guy who is just doing his job as best he can.  His interactions with Anya the Russian agent were pretty interesting, and well written.  I felt like there was a bit of a spark between them, but they were both too professional to let that interfere with the job at hand.

The writer, Joe Harris did a great job of creating interesting characters that didn't fall into any of the spy-thriller stereotypes.  He also had a great skill for writing believable dialog that fit with the character's personalities.  Even though I thought the plot was a bit complex, I enjoyed that challenging aspect, and was glad that it wasn't just a recycling of old ideas. 

The art by Steve Rolston was great.  He made me feel like I was freezing my buns off in Siberia, and he definitely set the stage for the series by drawing a perfectly creepy and mysterious Russian research facility in the opening scene.  Not only did he handle the "real world" artwork well, but the supernatural elements of the series looked incredible.  Some really cool stuff by an artist I hope to see more of soon.  Though the story is completely self contained, I think the door is open for some more Ghost Projekt stories in the future...fingers crossed.

All in all, I thought Ghost Projekt was a great comic, filled with just enough espionage and supernatural elements to make it something cool and unique.  I think this is a bit of a sleeper, but worth a read.  Cool story and great art.  The nice thing is this five issue mini-series just came out in graphic novel format with a sweet glow in the dark hardcover, so if you can get your hands on it, this is one to check out.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's a Dark Tower World and I'm Just Living In It.

Even though I completed my quest to the Dark Tower a couple weeks ago, (yeah my blogging queue is a bit backed up), I haven't been able to stop thinking about the characters, the events, and especially the ending of that final book.  It's rare that the end of a book will stick with me for so long, but even though those mind blasting moments are few and far between in my day in and day out reading, ultimately that is a big reason why I read.  For me, a guy with little to no artistic talent, that inspiration just fuels my desire to read more and try to recapture that experience.  For others it is different.

Just as I was turning the final few pages of The Dark Tower, Battle Hymns follower, occasional commenter, fellow Dark Tower reader, and gifted graphic artist, Ryan B. got in touch with me to tell me about his Dark Tower/Stephen King inspired t-shirt designs.  I thought it would be cool to show the rest of the Battle Hymns community what some of the other folks who deem this site worthy their time do while slavishly awaiting a new Battle Hymns post.   Other Ryan's cool shirts can be viewed here.  My personal favorite is the "The Lookout" with "Face of your Father" a close second. I think a "Long Days and Pleasant Nights" shirt would be cool...hint, hint!

In other Dark Tower related news, I spent a few minutes at my comic shop tonight browsing the Dark Tower comics.  They look pretty cool, and Jae Lee's art is pretty sweet.  If I didn't have over 50 unread trades already sitting on my shelves at home I probably would have picked one up.  One of these days...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: The Dark Tower

A couple years ago I loaned my brother The Gunslinger and got him hooked on the Dark Tower books.  From there he plowed through The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands, surging ahead of my own reading pace with the series and foraging on into uncharted Dark Tower territory. Not long after he got the Dark Tower ball rolling, he had read nearly everything.  When he finished Song of Susannah and found himself with the end in reach.  Then he did something remarkable...he stopped.  Not wanting the adventure to be over, my brother has put The Dark Tower on indefinite hiatus and left Roland and his pals hanging there in limbo.

Well, time passed, and at my brother's urging to carry on with the series, I did just that and found myself in the same spot.  Like my brother, part of me wanted to put off the reading of this one a while longer, but like Roland Deschain, the central character in this series, I found the pull of the Dark Tower too overwhelming to resist.

It has been a long and incredible journey with Roland and his Ka-Tet.  I'm at the point now where I've spent enough time with Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah  and Oy that I sort of feel like they are my good friends.  However, after six long, and entertaining books I opened to the first page of this final story, dogged in my determination to reach the end and see what lies at the top of the tower.  The journey there isn't all roses either.  The first half of the book was a bit of a drag, but right at the half way point King picks up the pace and surges ahead...Maybe he started feeling the pull of the tower as well.  Either way, the sense that this incredible journey is coming to an end is powerful.

As much as I wanted this to be the perfect final book, it is not.  As I said before, it comes out of the gate slow, but it has some other problems as well.  I felt that at times King relied heavily on deus ex machina to get himself out of some jams.  I could be wrong about some of that as I haven't read all fifteen of the other King novels that tie in to this series, and might be missing some explanations.  I don't want to give too much big important stuff away but I will say that when some characters head towards the clearing at the end of the path, I feel like some go there too easily.

As much as Eddie, Jake Susannah and Oy are a big part of this series, the story has always been Roland's.  The journey has always been his, and like the other members of his Ka-Tet, I have always been willing to follow Roland up to the very end.  Without a doubt, Roland Deschain is my all-time favorite literary character.  For one, he is cool as hell, he can shoot fast and straight, and he don't take no guff.  But for me, what was most enduring was his slow change from the cold-hearted, emotionless killer to the loving, warm-hearted friend that he became.  I guess I was really taken in by how Roland learned to love again.  I know that might sound cheesy and mushy, but as cool as he was before, he was hard to relate to.  King made Roland not only someone who was cool and bad ass, but also a guy you'd follow to the death. 

My love of Roland made the ending to The Dark Tower all the more spectacular.  I gotta say that while King seemed to falter a bit in these later books, which weren't as good as say, the first four, he really, truly nailed the ending.  Simply said, the ending is perfect.  Does that mean I'm totally in love with the ending, and happy with the way everything turned out?  No. But I thought it worked so well, and fit just right.  I'll add that it also nearly brought me to tears.  I even get a little choked up thinking about it.

Ok, so now I've admitted to loving Roland, and nearly crying over a book.  That's probably as good a spot as any to call it a day. 

This certainly isn't the perfect fantasy series, there are certainly some flaws along the way, but to me it is those less than perfect bits that endeared this series to me.  If you haven't done so already, I strongly urge you to embark on the journey to the Dark Tower.  Sure, these books aren't for everyone, but for some of you, it might be just the right thing.  If you are like my brother, and have been holding off: DON"T STALL ANYMORE!  The ending is worth the journey.

The Dark Tower series will live long in my memory, and I'll likely revisit Roland and company someday down the road, but for now I'll just say 'long days and pleasant nights'.

Grade: A

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Comic Quickies or Attack of the Albino Alligator

Sweet Tooth #18:  Writer/artist/creator extraordinaire Jeff Lemire continues to find new ways to work within the comics medium with this horizontal issue.  For a lot of this issue Lemire forgoes the typical panel and word bubble format in favor of large illustrations and lines of text, sort of like a children's book.  To some this may come across as a gimmick, but I think the alternative style is a cool way to go about showing the events of this transitional issue. 

After escaping the militia camp Jeppard and Gus are reunited and they have now formed a bit of a strange rag-tag fellowship of traveling companions.  Along on the journey are fellow hybrids Wendy, Bobby and one of the feral dog-boys, also Johnny, the Militia camp lacky and Doctor Singh are in tow and rounding out the group are Lucy and Louise, two former captives of the militia camp.   Together they are traveling to Alaska in hopes of finding some answers about what caused the apocalypse. 

This issue has a sweet feel to it, which is vastly different from other Sweet Tooth issues.  The change in format makes for a nice interlude between story arcs, and I'm looking forward to the next set of stories.  

The Sixth Gun #8: Drake Sinclair might have four of the six guns in his possession, but he's looking for ways to rid himself of the bond, which normally, can only be severed by death.  Hoping to find some information, he travels through a haunted swamp to visit a man who might have some answers.  Discovering more secrets than anything, Drake attempts to return to New Orleans, but is attacked by a gang of demon alligators. While Drake is on his little fact finding mission, Becky appears to be getting increasingly friendly with new comer Kirby Hale, whose intentions are foggy at best. 

 So far this story arc hasn't been as action packed as the first arc, and instead seems to be focusing a bit more on character development.  Writer Cullen Bunn seems to be keeping his cards pretty close to his chest, as I'm still a bit unsure where this arc is headed.  Sure, the Crossroads story arc is off to a slow start, but I expect things to pick up next issue as more plot threads are revealed. 

Memoir #1: Another debut issue from Image Comics, who recently cranked out solid first issues of Who is Jake Ellis and Infinite Vacation.  In Memoir, ten years ago everyone in the small town of Lowesville lost their memory.  The protagonist, Trent, is a young hot-shot investigative reporter who has decided to travel to Lowesville and find out how the people there have recuperated their lives after the incident.  Trent comes across as a bit of a self-assured cocky douche, which makes him sort of an unsympathetic lead.  He certainly stands out as a stranger in the small town and it is interesting to see how he struggles to connect with the townsfolk of Lowesville and get interviews and information.  On the surface, Lowesville seems like your typical small town, but the residents we meet in this first issue are distrusting of outsiders, a little bit crazy, and confrontational to boot. 

It's impossible to say what exactly happened to everyone that made them lose their memories, as there is only one small clue in the opening page.  On top of erasing their memories, whatever happened also seems to have make everyone in town ugly.  This could be an unimportant detail, but with so little to go on, it is hard to say.  the events of the last few pages are pretty tantalizing though, so I'll be interested to see where this one goes. 

The black and white art work is solidly done and I was especially impressed with the fact that artist Nikki Cook managed to make the Lowesville residents so damn ugly, yet also make their faces so expressive.  All in all, a well done first issue, though I am a little concerned about how much I initially dislike the main character.  Still, at the end of issue one I find myself wanting to know more about what happened in Lowesville, so I'll be sticking around for a bit more.

Dracula The Company of Monsters #6: Dracula is on the loose and has decided to make America his new home.  Evan, the poor guy who brought Dracula back from the dead, has been offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to become Dracula's apprentice.  A pretty sweet internship if you ask me, but for Evan, sentimental guy that he is, it would mean turning on his family.

Why Evan is still loyal to the family and their corrupt business is beyond me, as his Uncle Conrad, the C.E.O. is a gaping asshole, and the one who got Evan into this mess in the first place.  Oh, and did I mention ol' Uncle Conrad is a vampire too?  Yeah, and he's using his powers to make Barrington Industries into a powerhouse corporation.  As the cherry on top, Conrad has also started shacking up with Evan's power hungry fiance.  What a dick. 

I really hope Evan picks a side soon, (fingers crossed that he teams up with Dracula), as his fence sitting is starting to get tiresome.  Initially, this issue didn't do much for me, but after giving it another look, it is actually pretty sweet.  Lots of interesting things going on. The vampire-hunter crew is in out in full force now too, so that should make for an interesting triangle.  I expect Evan will somehow get mixed up with them as well, thus having some sort of vested interest in each group, making whatever outcome there is in this series a bitter-sweet one for the poor bastard.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Axe Cop

If you haven't heard of Axe Cop yet, you are missing out because it is probably the most amazing thing ever. The biggest reason Axe Cop is so amazing is due to the fact that it is a comic written by a five year-old.

Yes, you read that right and no, that isn't a typo.

Malachai Nicolle is the five year old (he's probably six by now) creative genius behind Axe Cop.  His older brother, Ethan Nicolle is faced with the task of coaxing and encouraging the story out of young Malachai, and drawing the wild imaginings of a five year old boy.  What you get is a brilliant work of creative genius.

The story goes that one day at the scene of a fire, the Cop found the perfect fireman axe and became Axe Cop.  Needing a partner, Axe Cop held tryouts and hired Flute Cop to help him fight a gang of dinosaurs.  The duo prevailed, but Flute Cop got dinosaur blood on him, and transformed into Dinosaur Soldier, and with that awesome introduction, the adventures of Axe Cop kicks off.  Along the way you'll meet an incredible cast of characters, including a uni-baby, a guy with boomerang socks for arms, a T-Rex with Gatling-gun arms, and even some moon ninjas.  You'll also travel to far off planets, visit weapon stores, battle aliens, ghost, robots and more.  Axe Cop is the perfect stream of consciousness creative story and my early favorite for best comic of the year.

Axe Cop got its start about a year ago as an online comic which featured mini episodes and the hilarious and informative "Ask Axe Cop" column.  This first volume collects most of the material at the Axe Cop web site, so yeah you could  easily read all the material that is collected in this trade there, but if you are like me, and prefer to hold an actual physical book in your hand over reading something from a back-lit screen, then this graphic novel is the way to go.

Every character in Axe Cop is hilarious, but rightfully so, Axe Cop was my favorite.  Even though Axe Cop is supposed to be this amazing heroic dude, he is also a bit of a weirdo and a creep.  Which of course, only made me love him more.  For one, aside from chopping off heads with his trusty axe, his next most preferred way to destroy his enemies is by poisoning them.  Not exactly what you'd expect from a 'hero".  Not only that but the guy is sorta strange.  Back in his pre-Axe Cop days he lived alone with no friends, no TV, and no computer, all he did was sleep all night and eat all day.  Eating disorders aside, Axe Cop can be a bit of a creeper too, hiding in bushes and spying on couples, then beheading the woman if he is pretty sure she's evil.  But Axe Cop also has a heart of gold.  He even shed a tear or two when he found out he had once accidentally killed a good guy.  That's only the tip of the iceberg too.  Aside from Axe Cop himself, there are scores of incredible characters to love in these stories.

As I said earlier, Axe Cop is pretty much a feat of unparalleled creativity.  Matching that creativity is some very fine art.  Ethan Nicolle is tasked with the difficult job of actually trying to draw the imaginings of his little brother.  That can't be too easy, but he nails it.  Each and every panel is wonderfully illustrated, and fantastically captures and portrays the wildness of the story.  As often as I laughed at the narration or something one of the characters said, I was also laughing at the art which wonderfully depicts the world of Axe Cop.

Axe Cop is pretty much a lock to be the funniest thing I'll read all year.  I read a good chunk of this graphic novel on my bus commute to and from school, and I must have spooked quite a few of the introverted Seattle Metro travelers with my steady barrage of snorts, chuckles and giggles.  Not only is Axe Cop a fun and hilarious read, it is also an amazing way of collecting and paying tribute to the fantastical imaginings of a five year-old boy.  That unbridled stream of wild imaginings doesn't last forever, and this is such a cool and unique way for the entire Nicolle family to hang on to that little slice of Malachai's life.  So in that sense, I guess Axe Cop can also be sentimental and heart warming.  Any way you look at it Axe Cop is all awesome.  I honestly can't conceive of anyone who wouldn't find something to enjoy in this graphic novel.  If such a person exists, I don't wanna meet them.  If you haven't done so already, do yourself an awesome favor and read this right away.  After you do, give yourself a laser high-five for doing the right thing.

Grade: A+

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: 20th Century Ghosts

After reading many rave reviews for Horns,and his comic work Locke and Key, I've been dying to sink my teeth into something written by Joe Hill.  I got a little taste a short while ago when I read his comic one-shot The Cape last month.  Needless to say, all that one did was perk up my appetite even more. 

20th Century Ghosts came my way via a belated Christmas gift and I moved it into the top position on my reading pile.  Every now and then I make smart decisions.  This was one of them.

20th Century Ghosts  is Hill's first published work, and is a collection of fourteen short stories and one forty-eight page novella.  The tales all fall under the realm of horror, and dark fantasy and were all great.  They ranged from scary, to disturbing, to weird and even heartwarming.  I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but I will say that The Black Phone, a story of a twelve year-old boy kidnapped by a serial killer,  kept me up past my bedtime and contributed to a mostly sleepless night of paranoia.  The opening story, Best New Horror, was a classic horror tale that delivered some good shivers up and down my spine.  Pop Art, the story of a young boy who is inflatable was funny, weird and awesome all at once.  That's just it though,  I could say something along the same lines about each and every story.  There wasn't one story that didn't manage to elicit some type of reaction or evoke some sort of emotion out of me.

I don't usually read much short fiction, as I tend to prefer a longer story with an expansive plot, and a greater amount of character development, but in many ways I think this was the perfect way to get my first Joe Hill reading experience.  For one, it proved just how versatile of a writer he is.  Yes, he stays within the fantasy/horror genre, but the stories cover a pretty big stretch of the genre landscape.  Furthermore, he managed to overcome the very reasons why I tend to shy away from short fiction.  His characters came to life on the page, and each story was plotted and paced masterfully.

I know I'm about to fall into blogger/reviewer cliche mode and laud this work as a "strong debut", but for real, this really is a powerful work of writing.  As I said earlier, each story got some sort of reaction out of me, and over the course of fifteen stories, that's a lot of reacting.  Hill shows great skill at character building, plot development, story pacing, and has a definite knack for the fantastic, and horrific.  This is stronger than most any other debut I've read in recent memory, and my fingers are crossed that Hill has a long and illustrious career in writing.

So, I got a little taste of his comic writing, and now I've gotten a taste of his fiction writing.  I'm done with tastes and samples, I'm ready for the full-course meal.  The next logical step is to get my hands on Horns.  You should do the same.

Grade: A

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review: Rotten v1 Reactivated

First of all, a giant "it's about damn time" to Moonstone for finally publishing this thing.  They solicited this trade way back in September, but never got around to publishing it until early January.  When I talked to writer Mark Rahner at the Jet City Comic Show back in September he was extremely frustrated with the delays, and I can see why.  Rotten is a sparingly printed comic, that steadily sells out, yet still leaves unlucky buyers wanting the issues...Myself included.  I wanted to jump on at the fourth issue, but the first three issues were nowhere to be found, and thus had to wait for the trade to come out.  And wait, and wait, and wait.  Sometimes when I wait in anticipation for something for long periods of time, that thing I waited so long for fails to live up to my heightened expectations.  Luckily Rotten: Reactivated didn't let me down.

This comic takes place during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, and focuses primarily on two characters, William Wade, and J.J. Flynn.  Wade is an army vet who has been forced back into service by a president who cheated and stole office.  Wade has been sent to the mining town of Shimmer to investigate a strange phenomenon...Outbreaks of the living dead! The trip to Shimmer doesn't reveal many answers, as the duo is forced to deal with scores of zombies and a mine owner who forces the town's residents to work his mine at gun-point in return for his "protection" from the strange creatures.  The two barely escape with their lives, but become separated when Wade catches a bullet and seeks succor from the Shilo family, a family that cant seem to "let go" of a daughter that is barely showing signs of life... You better believe that girl is a zombie.  Lastly, the three-part story arc is rounded out as Wade and Flynn go undercover at a dilapidated army fort.  Wade poses as the new Commander there in an attempt to discover the source of some mysterious on goings at the outpost.   The fort has been plagued by occasional zombie attacks, and upon further inspection Wade and Flynn discover yet another type of zombie.

Wade and Flynn are stuck playing catch up in every situation they find themselves in, and though they are fast learners, the zombies are never quite the same in each situation.  The cause of the outbreak is unclear, rumors abound that it could be a sign of the apocalypse, a strange new virus, or possibly even have something to do with that new fangled theory called "evolution".  What is clear though is that in each situation the zombies are different from the last batch, which leads one to think that whatever is causing the outbreaks is mutating.  A scary idea given the frontier setting, lack of communication, and the state of scientific knowledge at the time. 

The best thing about Rotten is that much of the material can easily be connected to current or very recent historical events.  The bit about Hayes is a clear poke at the Bush versus Gore election, and there is lots more.   Including the government re-conscripting former soldiers, that whole Terry Shaivo ordeal, major corporations making money off war efforts, and even the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.  These elements help the story interact with contemporary issues despite it's wild west setting.  Reading Rotten and coming across these elements makes the experience all the more rewarding.  I always appreciate it when writers engage contemporary issues in intelligent ways, and in that sense Rotten succeeds.

Aside from the political/historical references, Rotten: Reactivated is a well written comic.  I am very wary of anything having to do with Zombies, but this graphic novel manages to make the story not about the Zombies, but about the survivors.  There is definitely a lot more to learn about Wade and Flynn, but the makings for great characters is there.  At this point they can only react to the zombie outbreaks, and try to patch things up.  As a reader I got the sense that I was learning just what the hell was going on alongside Wade and Flynn.  This heightened sense of mystery was an endearing trait, and left me wanting to read more.

The one glaring weakness of this Graphic Novel is the art work, which can look rather rough and flat.  There were many times when I had to take time to look too closely at a panel to figure out what was going on, and that disconnect can take away from my enjoyment.  I think the problem is that early on in the graphic novel, the panels per page ratio is a lot higher than it is later in the book.  This causes many of the pages to look busy, cluttered, and constricting.  Later on, in the Frostbite story for instance, instead of eight panel pages you get more pages with six or less panels, which opens things up and leaves more room for more detailed art.  As a result, the second half of the book looks better than the first half.  Weak art can be a major deterrent for me, but luckily the art in Rotten: Reactivated is just good enough to keep me going, and all signs point to more improvement in that area.

All told, Rotten is a pretty sweet zombie comic.  It's a great blend of western and horror, basically right up my alley.  I'm a subscriber to the monthlies now, so hopefully Moonstone can manage to make the releases more timely.  For sheer strength of story, I give this my recommendation.  Comics readers could do far worse, and there is very little out there that is better.  If the art was better I'd put this title up there with The Sixth Gun but it is sadly not on par in the art in that series.  Still, a great read, and a book that looks to be improving with each installment.  I say it's worth a look.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Comic Quickies or Superior Double Shot

Superior #3: Okay, so Simon Pooni, the quadriplegic kid whose body has been changed into that of Superior, the mightiest hero of them all, has figured out his powers, figured out how to fly, and now all he's got to do is start saving the world.  Enter one of Mark Millar's customary "big ideas" and before you know it, Superior is saving an entire flipping space station from crashing into a busy New York City street.

In this issue we also get to meet Lois Lane Madeline Knox, a news anchor who apparently likes to hide two giant kick balls underneath her shirt.  Oh, wait, upon further inspection, those appear to be her ridiculously ginormous breasts. I was totally blown away by how crappy this character is.  Yes, there are a couple panels with Ms. Knox that don't  highlight her um, divine assets, but those are few and far between.  Doesn't Millar know that there is a little thing called the internet? If the teenage boys that read Superior wanna see some boobs, they sure as hell aren't gonna have Superior as their fix.  To make this issue even more fanTAstic, (emphasis on the T&A) , there's a beach scene, where all the chicks are either bending over provocatively... in thongs, or on the flip side, morbidly obese and wearing water wings.  To add "hilarity" to this scene there's also lots of fat dudes and an old man putting sun screen on his wrinkly, saggy wife.  Wow.  So fucking lame.

Despite all this lame shit going on, this issue doesn't manage to totally suck.  Simon/Superior manages to perform his most amazing feat of all and rescue this issue from the depths of despair.  The one thing that Millar seems to get is that no matter how amazing and super Superior is, there is still a twelve year old kid trapped in that muscle bound body, and Simon's humanity, innocence and uncorrupted desire to just be a good guy is what makes me able to root for Superior the character.  The guy can bench press a nuclear submarine, but he's gotta be quiet when he secretly crashes at his friend's house so that the parent's don't find out.  There's just enough of that wholesome stuff to keep me going, because I really like Simon and I wanna know what happens to him. 

Superior #4: This issue is all about Madeline Knox getting the first exclusive interview with Superior.  I gotta say, the way she goes about it is pretty ingenious, and ballsy. Compared to the last issue, this one is actually quite a bit better.  There's only one blatant shot of Madeline's boobage, and the interview scene is somewhat interesting.

The latter half of the issue, (ok, I lied, so the issue isn't all about an interview), delivers some more solid character development on the part of Simon and his friend Chris, who is pretty much a real-deal super hero for sticking by his buddy through all the tough times.  Chris gets hassled by some dick head ginger-kid and his cronies on the way to basketball practice and returns home to find Simon/Superior on his couch, chowing down on junk food, watching his own interview on TV.  When Superior gets wind of what happened, he and Chris deliver some satisfying pay back to the bullies.  We also get some insight into what exactly Simon wants to achieve with his new powers, and we get a glimpse of his potential nemesis.  It is nice to see this comic finally take a direction.  This could possibly get better.

Dracula the Company of Monsters #5: Yep, they're still cranking out the cheesy vampire magic covers.  This is another fairly solid installment in this ongoing series.  The main protagonist, Evan Barrington-Cabot is still a bit of an ineffectual character, but I think that is by virtue of him being stuck firmly in the middle of the whole Dracula resurrection scheme.  The poor guy is in way over his head now, and I think he is starting to realize that he has reached the point of no return.  He just needs to decide which side of the conflict he wants to support.

This issue was a bit of a set-up issue, as most of the pieces on the board did some recuperating or consolidating.  It seems like things are poised to blow up and get really interesting, but the pacing in this comic isn't the fastest, so there might be a bit of a wait before this title gets really interesting.  Though I shudder to say it, I think this comic would actually benefit from a bit more vampire mayhem.

Neonomicon #4: This issue was extremely tough to read, and probably the most disturbing thing I've ever read.  I understand that this is meant to be an extremely complex comic, and is meant to do lots of meta-textual things that will boggle your mind and play with the very fabric of the medium, but does it need to be so god damned off-putting?  I can appreciate the artisan-ship that has gone into creating such a complex and unique thing, but I can't tolerate the subject matter at all, to the point that I dropped this one from my pull-box.  I have a lot of respect for Alan Moore and the high quality comics he creates, but this one is not for me.

If you want a detailed,  in-depth analysis of what went down in this issue and what it all likely means, check out Bleeding Cool's review. But this is just one comic I can't support any longer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review: Legend

Before you start reading this review, take a moment to bask in the glory of the amazing cover art for this book.  This is a near perfect cover.  The cover promises a gray-haired mulleted dude, filled with rage, smiting his enemies with a fuckin' mighty battle axe...and boy, oh boy does this book ever deliver.  

The kick-ass old dude on the cover is none other than Druss, a living legend to the Drenai people.  A veteran of uncountable battles, Druss has earned the right to retire to his mountain lair, drink wine and reminisce about his past glories.  However as Druss is playing out a stalemate with his old enemy Death, a massive barbarian horde is gearing up to march into the Drenai lands and start conquering, raping, and pillaging everything in sight.  The only thing that stands between the barbarian Nadir hordes and the Drenai people is a mighty mountain fortress by the name of Dros Delnoch.

The Dros was once the mightiest of all fortresses, but it has been neglected of late, and is currently under-garrisoned, run by an ineffectual general, and a strategic nightmare due to the large civilian population that lives behind its mighty walls.  At the pleas of an aging Earl,  Druss' last remaining friend, the crusty old legend decides to dust off his battle gear, head to the Dros, and whip the soldiers there into shape before the barbarian horde attacks the walls.  The battle might be a lost cause, but it least it gives Druss a chance to die with Snaga, his mighty axe, gripped firmly in his hands. 

Legend isn't just a story about Druss the mighty, mulleted hero.  In fact, before Druss is even introduced, we first meet Rek, a skilled swordsman, who hears of the impending invasion, and decides to flee in the opposite direction.   Rek is a man who knows discretion is often the better part of valor, and does all he can to avoid confrontation whenever possible.  Too bad his escape route led straight through bandit territory.  Before you know it, Rek is rescuing an attractive warrior-lady from a bandit ambush, and soon after that, the two are in love.  The love story between Rek and Virae isn't the best developed, or the most convincing, but what I did appreciate was how the love of a good woman made Rek a better man.  Through Virae, an accomplished warrior and daughter to the Earl of Dros Delnoch, Rek gains a degree of courage, and together, he and Virae acquire a mighty ally to the Drenai cause, The Thirty, a sect of highly skilled warrior-priests.  Together with the priests, Rek and Virae head for Dros Delnoch to help stem the tide of the Barbarian horde.

Written back in the 80's, Legend has a bit of a dated feel to it, especially given that "small force defends against a massive unstoppable army" is a fairly common theme in fantasy.  That concept might feel a bit dated, but Legend is quite a bit better than the competition.  I may have joked about Druss early on in the review, but Gemmell does a great job presenting an aged hero who's best days are long behind him.  Though his legend is mighty, Druss might just be the most regular and easy to relate to character in the book.  The guy might have once single handedly taken on armies, but now he's an old duffer with a bad knee, a bad back, a sore shoulder, and you better believe he's tired as hell after a day of drilling.  Sure, Druss still brings a lot to the table in terms of physical prowess and might, but you don't get to be his age just by being good with an axe.  You gotta be the best, and that means being smart too, and Druss is also pretty cagey.  Druss doesn't just teach the Drenai soldiers how to fight, but he also revamps the defenses, handles battle logistics, and most importantly, raises morale.  Druss isn't the only well developed character, Gemmell develops each of his characters well, and by the end of the book I felt I had walked in the shoes of nobles, common soldiers, warrior priests, and even barbarian kings.

There aren't a ton of fantasy elements at work in Legend.  Druss' world is one with little magic, but what magic there is does play a significant role in the book.  The Thirty possess some arcane skills as does a shaman in the Nadir horde.  These skills play out in some degree on the battle field but you wont get mighty magical conflagrations like in Erikson's Malazan books.  Legend is more about the grit and the grime of battle, the blood and the wear and tear, both physical and psychological. 

Ultimately, this is a book about fate, and two men finding their destiny.  Two things that are hard to write about and not have them come across as cheesy, but Gemmell succeeds.  Legend manages to shrug off cliche a be a great novel packed to the brim with memorable characters, an exciting story, and great writing.  This is definitely a book that deserves to be called a classic of the genre.  There are many copy cats and look alikes out there, but there is only one Legend.  This was a great read for me, I loved the characters, especially Druss, and Gemmell's writing style jived well with my tastes.  Definitely worth a read for die hard fans of the genre.

Grade: A

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review: Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting  is a wonderful set of re-imagined and nouveau fairy tales.  This graphic novel starts out with a sort of stand-alone Sleeping Beauty tale, titled The Curse of Brambly Hedge.  Instead of focusing on Sleeping Beauty, the story is seen mostly through the eyes of the secondary characters involved in her tale.  From there the story picks up many years after Sleeping Beauty's departure and focuses on the few remaining residents of the castle, which now serves as a sort of refuge for folks with troubled pasts.

After the story moves on from the Sleeping Beauty intro, we meet Lady Jain, who is pregnant and fleeing an abusive husband.  Her father, a well traveled tradesman, once told her of Castle Waiting, a place she could go if she needed a safe haven.  After a long journey, sometimes filled with peril, Jain eventually makes it to Castle Waiting and meets the not so numerous yet diverse group of characters who look after the place.  The castle is sort of unofficially run by a stork headed dapper lad by the name of Rackham, but there's plenty of other folks who live at the castle, including a bearded nun, a sort of half-man, half-horse knight, a jack of all trades who is definitely the strong, silent type, three maids in waiting, a reclusive doctor, and a susie-homemaker named Dinah, and her son.

As the story progresses writer/artist Linda Medley develops the characters who populate Castle Waiting through a series of vignettes, and then delves into a longer story arc that gives a detailed origin story of Sister Peace, the bearded nun, whose life has included being a bar maid, to working for the circus, to eventually joining a convent that is populated exclusively by bearded women.  While this book offers more of an in depth look at Sister Peace, all the other characters are equally amazing and fully developed.  I get the feeling that the remainder of the origin stories make up the second volume which has recently hit shelves.  Medley seems to really know her characters inside and out, and that comes across to the reader as they all come to life on the page. 

Medley's artwork is exquisitely detailed and beautiful to behold.  Each page is filled with rich ink-line illustrations and just by looking at one page you get a sense for the massive amount of time Medley must have spent on the art alone.  This collection is 457 pages long, and there is absolutely no sign of Medley ever cutting corners or slacking on the art.  It is all beautiful.  The consistency, which must have been hard to maintain, is one of the many virtues of this graphic novel. 

Castle Waiting is not only lovely to behold, but also lovely to hold, Fantagraphics Books really pulled out all the stops in making this a beautiful book.  It is printed on nice high quality paper hard bound and comes complete with a fancy built-in silk page marker.  I know I don't usually, ever rave about how nice a book is, but this is easily the nicest book I own.  I looks like the type of book that belongs on a mahogany bookshelf or something.

Castle Waiting definitely has a bit of a PG feel to it, as there isn't really a lot of tension or danger to the book, however, the stories inside definitely cover a wide range of adult themes, the book just happens to deal with them in a way that is quiet, well mannered and peaceful.  You wont get wild chases, vicious sword fights, or devious backstabbings, instead you get even headed adults handling things like, well, adults.

I really enjoyed this graphic novel, and despite its massive length, I was left wanting more.  While I loved learning more about Sister Peace and her life prior to Castle Waiting, I wanted the same treatment for the other characters.  I guess I'll just have to read the next volume.  Castle Waiting is one of those rare books that gave me the warm fuzzies as I read it.  I sort of wish I could live at that castle.  Definitely not my typical graphic novel read, but definitely worth the journey.

Grade: A-