Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Comic Quickies Double Your Pleasure

Well, I'm still way behind on comic reviews, and as new comics come in each week, I seem to get even more behinder behind.  So this week I'll focus on three titles but give the rundown for two issues of each title.  Up first: Axe Cop!

Axe Cop Bad Guy Earth #'s 2 and 3: Axe Cop is probably the hardest comic to write a review about because so much random, inane, insane, and hilarious stuff happens in each issue it is hard to talk about a few and have things still make sense.

Basically, in Axe Cop Bad Guy Earth, Axe Cop and his team are trying to save the world from being turned into a bad guy world. And they do that by time traveling back to the time of dinosaurs.  With me so far?  Yeah, amongst other wild and weird happenings there's a trip to the year Zero Thousand and Zero, some insanely epic battles between good and evil, a magician riding a gorilla riding a lion, and a jillion bladed blue diamond sword. 

Though the second issue in this three part series felt lacking in the usual Axe Cop magic, the third and final issue had everything you could ever want and more from an Axe Cop comic.  What blows my mind about the Bad Guy Earth story line is how random, and frayed the story seemed to be, but somehow, and with great humor managed to pull everything together for a great ending, and with an amazing lack of story or plot holes.  Dare I say Brilliant?

If you haven't treated yourself yet, I urge you, nay, command you to check out Axe Cop.  It is totally free, and guaranteed to make your week better.

Sweet Tooth #'s 20 and 21: The Endangered Species story arc begins in issue #20 and as usual this looks to be another fantastic Sweet Tooth story arc.  When the ladies went off to gather some firewood, they unwittingly got trapped ewok-style in a giant net.  When they didn't return, Jeppard and Gus headed out in search of the missing women.

While Gus and Jeppard are tracking the ladies there's some great back and forth dialog between the two old companions that shows just how strained their relationship has become.  The girls on the other hand, are rescued by a strange man who has probably the sweetest dwelling in all of Lemire's post-apocalyptic world.  The man, Walter Fish, has holed up inside a dam, which has been completely retrofitted for post apocalyptic survival.  It sports some great green houses, massive stocks of canned goods, artificial light, and a cozy home and hearth.  Despite his friendly demeanor I get the sickening sense that everything is not on the up and up with ol' Walter Fish. 

In the 21st issue, Lemire takes an interesting story telling apporach.  He flits back and forth between two threads: Gus and Jeppard, who are locked in a life or death battle with a hungry bear, and the women, who are hearing Walter's life story.  The twist is that the Gus and Jeppard thread is told only through images and no words.  It's a pretty cool concept, and the wordless story telling matches the visceral battle, and captures the emotional ending perfectly.

Not surprisingly, this latest story arc is off to an awesome start.  As usual, I can barely wait for the next issue.  Sweet Tooth continues to reside at the top of the comic heap for me.  Fantastic story telling and wonderful art make this comic a regular favorite of mine.

Chew #'s 18 and 27: Huh?  Issues 18 and 27?!? Yeah, you read that right, being the crazy bastards that they are, Layman and Guillory followed up issue 18 with a nine month glimpse into the future of Chew.  Unorthodox I know, but before we get there let's take a look at #18....

Moving past the boob-tastic cover, there's uh, mounds of entertaining story in this issue.  From the looks of their most recent missions, it looks like Agents Chu's and Colby's director is trying to get them killed.  However, the two seem to have a strong survival instinct which has helped them escape the wrath of death cults, mobsters, cannibals, and mounties.  However, now he's got them running back-up for the ladies of the USDA on a suicide mission to take out a crazed general.

In the ensuing firefight, due to heavy losses, Chu and Colby are forced to use their secret weapon.  With a simple press of a button, Chu unleashes the "holy shitstorm of cataclysm" that is Poyo.  If nothing else, this issue is awesome simply for the bad-assery of Poyo, and the new sound effect: "fuckrack".  Gold.

Ok, so the 27th issue...with a glimpse of what is happening nine months down the road there is bound to be some spoilers right?  Well, on the very first page we see that Tony Chu is in a coma.  He's being visited by his twin sister, Toni, and from there we get some of Toni's back story, about her days of working at the Farmington-Kapusta International Telescope.  Aside from observing the stars or whatever, her and her fellow scientists got way into licking hallucinogenic frogs so they could pass the time by tripping balls all day long.

Once their assignment was finished, one of the other scientists decided to bring some of the froggies back with him, which then got interbred with those damn chogs.  Enter our old pal D-Bear who steals the hallucinogenic chogs for his sketchy ass restaurant, then gets busted on a covert NASA mission by Toni and her partner.

The issue is a little confusing because there is very little to frame things around, but at the same time, it works pretty well as a slice of story.  A few important things are revealed, obviously that bit about Tony being in the coma, but also it appears that Toni has some sort of food-related power as well, the intricacies of which I haven't quite figured out yet.  They also mention that Tony is an ex-FDA agent, so that is likely a clue of something that is to come as well.

More good stuff from what is steadily one of my favorite comics in my pull box.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: Blackout

It has been a few years since I last read something by Connie Willis, but when Blackout popped up as the SF book of the month over at SFFWorld I decided it was time to remedy that situation.

Blackout is a time travel novel that is initially set in Oxford, 2060.  By 2060, scientists/geniuses have figured out how to time travel, and history students at Oxford get the privilege of traveling back through time to better collect information about historical events.  Blackout follows three young historians, Michael, Merope, and Polly, who are prepping for their respective journeys through time.  All three students have different assignments that all relate to World War II.  Michael is supposed to be headed for Pearl Harbor to observe heroes in their element.  Polly is taking care of bratty evacuees in rural London, and Polly is slated to be a shop girl during the Blitz of London.

For some unknown reason, things are exceedingly hectic around Oxford these days, and their assignments get shifted around and garbled.  Instead of heading to Pearl Harbor like he expected, Michael's time travel schedule gets mixed up and he winds up getting sent off to the evacuation of Dunkirk instead of Pearl Harbor.  Polly's trip to bombed out London seems to be going as planned, but once the bombs start dropping, and the landscape gets altered, her plans and her escape route back to 2060 become more iffy by the day.  Aside from dealing with kids who are more than a handful, Merope's trip is going well, up until a massive measles outbreak hits and the countryside manor she is staying in gets quarantined for a few months.  By the time the quarantine is lifted, Merope's date for returning to 2060 has gone by and she fears she might be stranded.

While Polly, Mike, and Merope are all facing circumstances that are beyond what they expected to be dealing with, things spiral further out of control once they realize that the usually reliable mechanisms and safety nets of time travel seem to be having some major glitches.

I had a rough time in the early stages of this novel.  The opening few scenes of Blackout take place in 2060 Oxford, and all the characters spend a frustratingly huge amount of time talking on the phone, running back and forth from one office to another, getting paper permission forms filled out, and things like that.  Now that might seem sort of normal in this day and age, but bear in mind that Blackout takes place in 2060!

The whole time I was reading these scenes, I kept wondering why they didn't just sent an email instead of spending an entire afternoon walking from one office to the next in search of a particular person.  There were equally frustrating scenes where a character would get angry after a phone conversation and slam the phone down into the receiver!  You mean to tell me people still use land lines in 2060?!?  Then, there's this other bit where a character is trying to get a permission slip signed by a professor.  This is like technology that predate faxes for cryin' out loud! 

Well, it turns out that my high horse isn't so high after all because mixed in with the narrative are a few subtle hints as to why the future of 2060 isn't all as advanced as one might think.

Well, whether my gripes are well founded or not, once Mike, Polly and Merope travel back to World War II England, the story takes over and becomes incredibly gripping.  Each character is placed in vastly different settings, but Willis manages to make each setting and character stand out.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of those three characters, and I always found myself wishing for more Polly after one of her chapters, but that yearning would quickly be erased by everything that was taking place in Mike's chapter, then when that was done I'd want more Mike story, but then Merope's chapter would grip my attention, and so on....

As the story moves along, you eventually get the idea that just maybe not everything is right with the time travel technology.  Once that feeling sunk in with me, I was constantly on the edge of my seat for the rest of the book.  Simply said, Blackout is one of those books that will keep you up reading well past your bedtime, and long past the end of your lunch break, and probably make you miss your bus stop too. 

I most definitely recommend this book, but that recommendation does come with a small caveat:  You should know that Blackout is technically half a book.  The other half of this story is titled All Clear and is out now in hardcover, and comes out in softcover format in late October.  The story initially was planned to be one long book, but the publishers decided to break it up into two books.  Whether it was a ploy for them to make some extra dough or not I don't know, but had this come out as one giant-ass 900 page novel, I probably would never have picked it up, so I'm sorta glad they did split it up.  Still, be warned, Blackout has a pretty brutal cliff-hanger of an ending, and I'm right there dangling on the edge.  I will definitely be reading All Clear because Blackout has me totally sucked in. Very strong writing, sweet time traveling exploits, compelling characters, and a highly engaging story are just a few of the reasons why Blackout is a winner.

Grade: A

Monday, May 23, 2011

Map of Metal

I guess sometimes it pays to have facebook.  While killing time, and avoiding school work yesterday I stumbled across the amazingly epic Map of Metal
This amazing piece of music history was put together by Patrick Galbraith with the help of metal historian Nick Grant.  I kinda wish I was a Metal Historian.

The map itself is a wonderful wealth of knowledge and information.  Everything is delineated by decade, and metal genre.  The metal genres are further broken down into categories like Primary Genre, which is stuff like Death Metal, Thrash Metal, and Folk Metal.  The next is Metal Genre which covers subgenres of the primary genre, so stuff like Power Metal, and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The next category is Fusion Genre which covers stuff like Nu Metal, Grindcore, and the most hilarious subgenre: Unblack Metal (A.K.A. Christian Black Metal).  The last category is Related Genre, which is stuff like Punk Rock, Garage Rock, and Gothic Rock. 

Each and every genre of metal comes with a great write-up about the genre, and gives a bit of a history lesson for that piece of the metal map.  Also included are playlists of full songs that represent that brand of metal music.  This is a great way to hear and get a feel for what each genre and subgenre sounds like. 

After spending a good couple of hours browsing the site, I feel like I've only hit the tip of the iceberg.  There is tons of great information available at Map of Metal, and plenty of cool stuff for the beginner who is looking for some new bands to check out.  That said, a veteran of Metal music could also gain deeper understanding of how metal music as a whole evolved from it's roots to where it is now, and how everything relates to on another. Map of Metal is probably the most epic thing I've discovered all year.  Check it out!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: Ex Machina v4 March to War

Ex Machina: March to War takes place at the onset of the Iraq war.  Mayor Hundred, as mayor of New York City, must decide whether or not to let peaceful anti-war protests to take place in his city streets.  Though the risk for some sort of terrorist situation seems highly possible, Hundred allows the protests to take place and is left to pick up the pieces when many of the protesters are killed or hospitalized due to a toxic dust cloud attack.

As bad as the attacks are, they hit extra close to home as one of Hundred's cabinet members is severely injured in the attack.  To make matters worse, in response to toxic dust cloud attack, which may or may not have been the work of terrorists, a few New Yorkers have decided to deal out some street justice by killing people they assume to be "terrorists".

So, while the police are doing what they can to find these killers, Hundred and his chief of police team up to find the person or persons who built the device that delivered the toxic dust.  Hundred and Chief Angotti don't exactly go "by the book" to crack the case either.  Instead, we get an impressive display of how Hundred's ability to talk to machines can be used in subtle ways.

Also added into this fourth volume is the two-part Life or Death story line that delivers some great insight into Hundred's life while he was The Great Machine.   We finally get to meet Pherson, The Great Machine's archenemy, a man with the ability to talk to, and command animals.  Pherson is pretty much the antithesis of Hundred and for that reason, makes a great archenemy.  The guy is pretty damn creepy too....like all bad-guys should be.

Not surprisingly, this was another solid Ex Machina trade.  I thought the peace protest story line was quite engaging since it represented a piece of fairly recent history that I have strong memories towards.  Vaughn does a great job of placing this narrative in an engaging context and then also delivers a story that is not only exciting to read but also packs an emotional punch.

I like to think that I'm not one who usually gets excited for reading about politics, but I actually really enjoy the way Hundred goes about his mayoral duties.  He pretty much handles shit the way a normal person would, and doesn't pander to anyone, including constituents, fundraisers, or political parties.  When a crisis does come up, and they tend to hit him all at the same time, he is all about taking care of business by any means necessary.  The way these scenes are written with the character interactions come across as incredibly sincere and real.  The characters talk like real people, not like action heroes or dramatic performers.  I really appreciate that quality.

On the other hand, I also like to think that I'm not the kind of guy who gets excited for super hero comics, but the super hero bits of Ex Machina  are also quite awesome.  Simply said, Hundred is, at best, a pretty amateurish hero... Aside from the time when he saved one of the Word Trade Centers.   In the flashbacks to his hero days he always seems to be saving someone who doesn't want to be saved, or messing up and doing something like saving a mom before he saves her children.  Once again, all this comes across as genuine and realistic.  I like that Hundred struggles to do what he thinks is right, even though that isn't necessarily what someone else wants him to do in the heat of the moment.  I like that The Great Machine isn't just some perfect, omnipotent do-gooder.  It makes the flashback scenes extremely entertaining.

As per usual, Tony Harris' art is top level in this installment.  I don't have any complaints, and though I could easily gush, I'll spare you and just say that Harris' work on Ex Machina is consistently great and a perfect example of a top flight artist working at the top of his game.  Sexy-sexy stuff.  (Yup, two sexies!)

Ex Machina: March to War is a return to form for this series.  I was pleased to see the writing half of the series step its game up and deliver a story line that was interesting and engaging.  The extra two-part Life or Death arc was like a delicious icing on the cake.  Alone, the March to War arc was one of the best in the series so far but adding Pherson, The Great Machine's nemesis into the mix gave this graphic novel some extra juice.  All around good stuff.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Comic Shop Birthday Blowout

This past Friday the 13th, local Seattle comic shop extraordinaire, Arcane Comics held their 7th annual birthday bash. Aside from promoting tasty eats and yummy beverages, they also scored big time and got four awesome local comic creators to come into the shop to sign, sketch and add some flavor to the event.

Hip Flask of Elephant Men, drawn by Moritat

Mark Rahner of Rotten fame was there.  I had a very cool chat with him about how he and Robert Horton go about co-writing an issue of Rotten.  Basically they meet up at a bar and hammer out the stories.  Rahner said he tends to write the parts that feature Agent Wade, because he is more like Wade, and Horton writes the Flynn parts because he and the character are also similar.

Rahner said they have the whole series plotted out, and know pretty much exactly how everything will play out.  There is a bit of a risk that their publisher, Moonstone, wont give them the full run they deserve, so they might need to compress things a bit to squeeze in the full plot.  My fingers are crossed that wont be the case.  Rotten is one of those under-appreciated gems.  I know I've urged you all before, but check out this comic.  It is worth a read for sure.  

Matt Southworth, the artist of Stumptown was also there doing sketches and signing stuff.  Southworth mentioned that his band was playing in town the following night so he and I talked for a while about his musical influences.  He was kind enough to hook me up with his band's CD and add an amazing sketch on the inside of my Stumptown graphic novel.

Stumptown sketch by Matt Southworth.

Also in attendance was Moritat, the artist of some Elephant Men issues and DC's fairly recent relaunch of The Spirit.  He was kind enough to draw a very cool sketch of Hip Flask, one of the characters from Elephant Men, which you can see above. 

Rounding out the comic creator crew was Stefano Guadiano, an artist who is best known for his work on the highly acclaimed Gotham Central.  He brought some original pages to sell and did sketches as well.

All in all, it was a damn fun party and a great signing/sketching event as well.  If you are a local Seattleite, I urge you to check out Arcane Comics, it is truly the finest comic shop in a city filled with some pretty amazing comic shops.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Open Up Your 3rdI: Tool

Welcome to Battle Hymns in Drop D.  This is the first of hopefully many posts dedicated to all things music. I wanna introduce you all to 3rdI, a man who shares a taste for great fantasy novels and more importantly, awesome music.  Being the all around solid dude that he is, 3rdI was kind enough to offer up his musical knowledge for the betterment of Battle Hymns in the form of some posts dedicated to bands we both love.  Periodically we will be posting about bands that we think have pushed the boundaries of music.  Some of these bands you might be familiar with.  Others you probably have never heard of.   What is common amongst each band is the quality of the music.  We hope you enjoy this new addition to the Hymns.  Check back often and keep rocking!

This first post is about the band Tool.  In 1992, Tool released their first EP, entitled Opiate.  The original line up consisted of Adam Jones (Guitar), Paul D’Amour (Bass), Danny Carey (Drums) and Maynard James Keenan (Vocals).  Opiate is a raw, angry album.  The compositions are fairly short and straight forward.  Keenan’s powerful vocals mixed with Adam Jones crunching riffs, Danny Carey’s precise drumming, and Paul D’Amour’s  powerful bass lines combined to produce a sonic thunderstorm that hinted at greater things to come.

The band gained momentum and in 1993 released their first full-length album, Undertow.  Undertow shares some similarities with Opiate in that it is also a very raw, powerful album.  The compositions however are longer and more mature as the band began to evolve and grow as musicians.   The song Sober catapulted the band into commercial success.  Sober encapsulates the feel of the album; a powerful, thunderous song that showcases the bands musical talent and complex subject matter.  Nothing else on the radio sounded like it.  Tool achieved something rare in music, particularly so early in their career, by creating their own signature sound.  When I first heard Sober it did not remind me of anything.  It sounded new and immediately caught my attention.  With that first famous bass line Tool created a sound that would become a cornerstone of modern progressive rock music.

In 1995 the band underwent their only lineup change.  Paul D’Amour left the band and was replaced by bassist Justin Chancellor.  A year later saw the release of Tool’s second album, Ænima.  Ænima is a masterpiece and is one of the most important rock albums ever released.  The first single, Stinkfist, is a stunning piece of music.  It was also extremely controversial.  MTV renamed the song Track 1 and censored some of the lyrical content.  Ænima is a complete album in every sense of the word.  While the album does not center around one theme it is very much in the tradition of a Pink Floyd or King Crimson style album where every song is absolutely vital to the album.  It is a complex, meandering voyage combining heavy riffs and intricate drumming with ambient interludes and sonic exploration.  The album ends with 13+ minute mind fuck that is the song Third Eye and is without question one of the bands greatest compositions.

The band became embroiled in long legal fight with their label that lasted over two years.  Finally resolved in 1998 the band soon began work on their next album.  In 2000, Tool released Salival.  The album includes live songs and some fantastic covers including the cover of Led Zeppelin’s epic song , No Quarter.

In 2001 the bands long awaited third full-length album, entitled Lateralus, was released.  Tool had once again pushed the boundaries of rock music by creating a truly remarkable work of art.  Lateralus is one of the most complex pieces of rock music ever created.  It combines complex time signatures, mind-bending polyrhythms, precise control, and artistic vision to create beauty in chaos.  It pounds along with breakneck speed only to abruptly stop and wander off into ambient soundscapes.  Most of the songs clock in at over 7 minutes.  Schism, at 6 minutes 47 seconds, became an instant classic and received heavy play on many radio stations.  On this album Danny Carey firmly cemented his place amongst the pantheon of all-time great drummers.  His drumming on Lateralus is the finest drumming I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

True to form it was another 5 years before the next Tool album was released.  10,000 Days, the band’s fourth full-length album, was released in April of 2006.  It is the bands most musically complex work to date.  The album debuted at number one and the first single, Vicarious, received heavy rotation around the country.   10,000 Days saw the band yet again reach new artistic heights.  It features songs like Wings for Marie, (Wings for Marie, Pt1 and 10,000, Wings Pt2), Lost Keys/Rosetta Stoned, and Jambi which contain fascinating time changes,  complex polyrhythms and intricate chord progressions.  Again most of the songs on the album are well over 7 minutes long with Wings for Marie clocking in at 17 minutes 24 seconds.  The album title 10,000 Days is a reference to Maynard’s mother, Judith Marie, who suffered an aneurysm which left her paralyzed for the last 27 years (10,000 Days) of her life.  The Song Wings for Marie is an intensely personal tribute to Maynard’s mother.  It is a remarkably complex piece of music that resonates deeply with anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Tool are currently working on their fifth album and have stated they hope to have the album out by the end of the year.  I speak for the entire Tool community when I say that we cannot wait.  Tool is the very best band that many of your friends know nothing about.  Millions and Millions of records sold worldwide with very little radio/video support when compared to other popular rock bands.  Tool has pushed the envelope of what is possible and has influenced many current bands.  After 20 years they are still going strong.  Spiral Out.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Comic Quickies With a Side of Victorian Murder

Captain Swing #3: It has been a long-ass time since Warren Ellis got around to delivering us an issue of Captain Swing, but the third issue was totally worth the wait.

This issue pretty much does it all.  Ellis, the crafty bastard that he is, manages to give a tour of Cindery Island, the electric pirate hideout, develop Captain Swing's character a bit more, develop Gravel's character, and add in a whole grip of action and fiery story-telling.  To top it all off, he threw in a couple of awesome twists that set things up for the fourth and final issue of this mini-series to be very interesting.  I'll be looking forward to it when it finally comes out. 

The art of Captain Swing continues to be pretty great.  Raulo Caceres can draw people, places, and weird electrical steam-punky technology with equal skill.  I feel like sometimes the artists Ellis works with can be a bit over the top and over do it on the art front, but Caceres seems like the perfect fit for this title.  An all around awesome issue that made me very excited to read the final installment.

Infinite Vacation #2:  Add this title to the list of comics I'm on the fence about.

This issue started out pretty slow, and then got bad, then at the end managed to be totally awesome and draw me back in.

My problem is that there is almost too much text in this comic.  There's a whole lot of explaining to do with this concept and to add in a murder mystery on top of the already complex idea leads to a lot of word bubbles that basically serve the purpose of filling you in as to what the hell is going on.  I feel like a big chunk of the story is a veiled info-dump, and though it is somewhat covered up by being part of the story, it is still a big of a turn off for me.

Also, the artwork is extremely hot and cold.  I'm not even remotely exaggerating when I say that the art quality varies from panel to panel.  There can a panel on a page that looks pedestrian at best, then one later on the page that is absolutely gorgeous and does crazy stuff with negative space.

Each issue so far has also had a span of pages that are photographs of actual people with word bubble.  This switch has thrown me for a loop each time, and I'm not a fan of it.  

Interestingly enough, the last few pages of the comic were so damn good that they managed to  re-invigorate my interest in the series.  My hope is that we're beyond the info-dumps and it will be pure story from here on out.  Hopefully the art quality will solidify, and I'll be treated to more pastelly-trippy unique artwork.

The Mission #3: This third issue of The Mission begins with Paul and his wife in couples therapy.  It's pretty clear to see that his new life as Killer For God has totally screwed up his family and marital life.  The nice thing about Paul is that he's a fighter, and when his next meeting with Gabe, the so-called angel, happens, Paul decides to do a little bit of detective work.  However, tailing Gabe leads to a dead-end, and dusting his coffee cup for fingerprints turns out to be a total waste of time. 

It seems pretty obvious that Paul is losing his mind, and that Gabe, and all the other stuff related to "The Mission" are a figment of his imagination.  Just as Paul begins to come to grips with his new-found insanity, he receives a glimmer of hope in the form of an old-fashioned ass-whoopin'.

Even though this issue wasn't as action packed as the previous issue, it delivers some good psychological-dilemma layers that add to the story.  I'm not completely sure Paul is nuts, but at the same time, there's a good chance he is. 

The art of The Mission continues to be pretty underwhelming, but the writing is pretty solid and I'm enjoying the story.

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde:  I've saved the best for last this time around.  So far 2011 has been a great year for new comics, and The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde is looking to be another great one.

This one begins with a little bit of back story regarding the infamous Dr. Jekyll, then jumps ahead five years to "present" day where an unnatural killer is slashing up whores in the streets of London.  Inspector Thomas Adye is on the case and his investigation of the most recent murder leads to the discovery that the killer is not only capable of preforming feats of uncanny strength, but can also ran faster and jump much higher than the average man.  The last killer with such unnatural abilities was Dr. Jekyll's alter-ego, the beastly Mr. Hyde.  In need of some help with the case, Inspector Adye reluctantly seeks the aid of the one man who might be able to help him, but also might be insane.

I don't want to spoil too much of the first issue, but there is an amazing scene of back and forth banter that is not only expertly written but also drawn fantastically.  The writer, Cole Haddon, packed a lot of story into this first issue, and most pages are packed with panels.  Even though there are a lot of panels, I never felt like the text and the art were fighting for space.  The artist M.S. Corley does a fine job, and I enjoyed his artwork throughout the issue.  The groundwork is laid for what looks to be an entertaining Jack the Ripper story with some Dr. Jekyll mixed in.  I'm very much looking forward to the next issue.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Mistborn

The world of The Final Empire is one that is covered by falling volcanic ash during the day and shrouded in mist by night.  For a thousand years the Final Empire has been ruled by one god-like man known as the Lord Ruler.  During those thousand years, both the nobles and the slave-like skaa have been manipulated, and controlled by the Lord Ruler and his minions.  Though there have been some Skaa rebellions, all have been thoroughly and soundly crushed by the Lord Ruler.  However, a glimmer of hope survives.  That hope lies in the hands of one man, Kelsier, a skaa himself, but possessor of some magical skills and thieving know-how that might just be the perfect combination to topple the Lord Ruler once and for all.

Kelsier is what they call an Allomancer, or in common terms Mistborn.  As an allomancer, Kelsier has the ability to burn certain ingested metals, which grant him magical abilities.  For example, burning pewter makes him stronger and faster, burning iron or steel allows him to push or pull on surrounding metals in the environment, and burning brass and zinc lets him manipulate people's emotions.  There are other metals that can be burned too, but you get the idea.  It is quite rare that someone is a "Misting", or has the ability to burn just one type of metal, and it is extremely rare that someone is an allomancer and can burn all the metals.

For some reason, the ability to burn metals only occurs in a person with noble blood.  Which for the most part is why the Skaa are oppressed.  However, there are a few skaa, with misting or allomantic powers due to some mixed breeding.

In his younger days, before he discovered his abilities, Kelsier was a top-level thief.  However, his biggest and most ambitious job got him captured by the Lord Ruler and sent to the mines of Hathsin, a place from which no one returns.  Except Kelsier.  Now he's back in the capital city, Luthadel, and he's got his old thieving gang back together for one last glorious job:  Toppling the Lord Ruler and his government.  This job puts Kelsier in contact with the Skaa rebel faction and another thief, a young girl name Vin.  It turns out Vin is also an allomancer, and has a rather important part to play in the upcoming job. 

Mistborn had a very Ocean's 11 meets Star Wars feel to it for me.  The crime/caper story aspect of this book was well done, as was the rebels fighting evil oppressors and folks with sweet ninja/magic powers aspect.

The elaborate caper was a big part of Mistborn.  It was fun getting to know Kelsier's crew, and their distinct abilities, and I felt like there were a lot of twists and turns along the way to make me feel like the plot wasn't following a tried and true course.  Brandon Sanderson, via Kelsier, did a solid job of keeping his cards well hidden, and revealing them slowly, at the right moment.

The strongest aspect of Mistborn however, was Sanderson's well designed, easy to follow, dare I say genius, magic system.  Though the powers that people achieved from burning various metals was pretty astounding, and a full-on allomancer was a lethal weapon, those with the ability to burn metal, never seemed to be extremely over-powered characters.  I feel like magic users in fantasy are too often all-powerful and destructive, and it was nice to see a slightly toned down magic system.  Also, any scene where an allomancer battled another allomancer was pretty epic and jedi-tastic. 

As I mentioned earlier, the plot of Mistborn was filled with twists and turns aplenty.  The pacing was also well handled, and I though the book is a fairly lengthy 642 pages, I never felt bogged down or mired in dull stretches.  Despite some good twists regarding the caper aspect, and strong pacing, I never really felt like there was much tension in this novel.  I never had the feeling that the ending was up in the air, or the outcome I expected was ever not going to happen.  The main characters, despite engaging in some highly risky business,  never seemed in that much danger, (though I was proven wrong on a couple accounts).

Though Mistborn is a very solid fantasy and well written, Sanderson didn't exactly reinvent the wheel.  For the most part I always sort of felt like I was reading a well plotted, albeit a bit generic opening to a fantasy trilogy.  Maybe my expectations for Sanderson were too high given his popularity, but I wasn't overly impressed and I didn't feel like I was reading something that had that extra-special, hard to put my finger on quality I look for in a great fantasy novel.  I can see this novel being very accessible to nearly any genre reader, but for me, a guy who needs his fantasy to feel fresh and different, Mistborn fails to stand out from the pack. 

Grade: C

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Comic Quickies: All Guns Blazin'

The Sixth Gun #'s 10 and 11:  Hoo boy, I sure am far behind on my comic reviews.  So far behind that I had the tenth issue of The Sixth Gun sitting in my review pile for a whole month before I got around to it.

Don't let my terrible reviewing habits deter you from reading this series.  It is absolutely flipping awesome.  If I had to pick my next favorite ongoing comics series after Chew and Sweet Tooth, I just might pick The Sixth Gun.  This comic is a fantastic blend of western, fantasy, and horror, and I absolutely love it.

While this second story arc has featured less of the six magical guns, and less shootin'  it has delivered some epic and exciting moments.  I will say that I enjoyed the first story arc a bit more than this second.  I guess I never felt that Sinclair, Becky, and Gord were in as much danger during this arc as they were in the first when running from General Hume and his death squad.

What looks to be the important aspects of this arc are the introduction of Kirby Hale, and some cool world building.  Some new supernatural elements are introduced, and the world of The Sixth Gun seems to be full of evil spirits, ghosts, ghouls and demons that are just itching to get their hands on the guns of power.  That means that pretty much where ever Sinclair, Becky and the guns go, trouble is likely close behind.

It should also be noted that this second story arc was just five issues long where the first arc was six issues.  Those of you looking to buy trades and jump on with the third arc, need to get yourselves prepared for some sweet six shootin' action sooner rather than later.  Awesome, and inventive writing, along with some fantastic art, make The Sixth Gun one of the finest reads on the shelves.  This is a comic you don't want to miss.

Rotten #'s 7-9:  Never in my life has anything made me say "Oh, fuck yeah!" out loud more often then Rotten.  In fact, it happens almost as much as I say, "Oh, shit, that's nasty!"  Yes, I can truly count on Rotten to always deliver the awesome, the sickening, and the balls-out action.

The seventh issue kicks off a new story arc that has our two heroes, Agent Flynn and Agent Wade split up.  While Flynn travels to Chicago to meet and debate with other intellectuals in the field of medicine, Wade Travels to a logging town in the Pacific Northwest to investigate the latest zombie outbreak.

The seventh issue stands out for what is maybe the most epic/hilarious/cathartic moment in all of comics.   I don't want to spoil too much, but I'll say that Wade dispatches a Sarah Palin zombie in a very epic way.  "Shut. The Fuck. Up. You brain-dead bitch." Is quite possibly the greatest set of speech bubbles ever.

While Wade is fucking up zombies, Flynn is living it up, socializing with other great minds, eating some tasty sausage, and courting a lovely lady.  However, he also finds himself stuck in the middle of a large, ongoing debate between the scientific minds of Chicago, and a large group of ignorant citizens who don't believe in the theory of evolution.  Flynn also crosses paths with the mysterious Aubrey, the strange albino who almost killed Wade in an earlier issue.

Though only nine issues in, Rotten, when it comes out, is proving to be one of the more entertaining reads on the shelf.  The publication rate is pretty sporadic though.  I believe this is more due to the publishing company, Moonstone, than it is the fault of the creative team.  Since there has been a fairly lengthy gap between issues, I just save 'em up till I have a full story arc, then read the whole thing.

The writing of Rotten will definitely keep you on your toes.  Not only does writer, Mark Rahner add in lots of little historical tid-bits that tie into modern day media, but he also demands your attention as the zombies evolve, and little clues are peppered in.

What sets Rotten apart from other zombie tales is the zombies themselves.  While most zombies we see all too often these days are brainless, shuffling cannon fodder, the zombies of Rotten are an ever changing beast.  In this arc Wade found himself battling hordes of untiring undead with the ability to run, and swim.  In past issues the zombies have possessed different abilities.  Though it might seem like a small thing, the fact that the zombies are different each time makes them a far more interesting adversary.  I also like the fact that Wade and Flynn pretty much have no idea what they are up against, and what the zombies will be like the next time they cross paths.

Rotten is an underrated and under appreciated comic.  It flies a bit under the radar due to that fact that it's not published by one of the bigger publishing names, but in my mind it blows away much of the competition.  This is way better than almost all other zombie stuff out there, and it truly is getting better with each issue.  When I reviewed the first Rotten graphic novel  I wasn't in love with the art, but it improves with each issue.  If you are looking for some balls to the walls action, and glorious zombie killin' that is as smart as it is entertaining, give Rotten a try.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: Blacksad

One glimpse at this beautiful graphic novel in the comic shop told me that Blacksad was a must read.  Three things that instantly leaped out and screamed "Read me you bastard!" are: 1) Crime Noir.  When done right, crime noir is a guaranteed hit with me.  2) Anthropomorphic Animals.  I have a weakness for talking animals.  3) Really, fucking beautiful art.

The Blacksad graphic novel collects three stories each of which is about 60 pages long.  The collection is oversized, and hardcovered, so you get a damn fine product for your money.  Each story centers around John Blacksad, a private investigator.  For better or worse, John manages to get caught up in cases that involve murder, kidnap, and even nuclear secrets. 

In the first story, Somewhere in the Shadows, John investigates the murder of a film starlet who also happens to be one of John's former lovers.  His investigation leads him to underground boxing arenas, the home of a screen writer, sleazy night clubs, graveyards, even downtown skyscrapers.  The opening story establishes John Blacksad as a tough, never say die character, and also delivers a solid murder mystery plot with plenty of twists and turns.

The second story in the collection Arctic Nation deals with the kidnapping of a young girl from a forgotten section of town, and mixes in a group of white supremacists calling themselves the Arctic Nation.  Amidst some intense racial tensions and violence, John must try to rescue the child and keep himself safe from the various white furred animals trying to terrorize the city.  This story also introduces John's pal/informant Weekly, the slightly sketchy, and smelly, news reporter.

The final story, Red Soul, begins in Vegas, but winds up back in John's home city, where the debate and strife caused by nuclear proliferation is causing lots of drama.  Otto Liebber is sort of like a father to John, but he's also one of the fathers of the nuclear bomb and John has become mixed in with Otto's crowd of thinkers, artists, poets, and authors.  When these great minds start getting killed, it is up to John to do what he can to protect his loved ones.  Even if that comes at the expense of his own happiness.

Writer Juan Diaz Canales does a wonderful job of telling some gripping, dark, and entertaining crime stories.  For my money they weren't as dark as I had hoped, but they were still quite good, and did a good job of scratching my crime noir itch.  On the artistic front, Juanjo Guarnido proved to be more than capable.  Each page was an amazing combination of great looking characters, fantastic backgrounds, and rich detail.  I think the most noticeable thing about Guarnido's art was his ability to draw extremely life-like facial expressions on talking animals.  Think about how hard it would be to make a toad smirk, or have a gorilla look like he's in deep thought.  Not easy, but Guarnido pulls it off.

If I were to make one gripe about Blacksad it would come from the depictions of female characters.  The male characters always looked like their counterpart from the animal kingdom.  John looks like a large black cat or puma, a toad looked like a toad, a gorilla looked like a gorilla, and so on.  The women on the other hand, had some animal-like features, such as larger ears, or animal-like noses, however, for the most part, the likeness ended there, and they pretty much looked like human females with knock-out bodies.  The difference between how the  male and female characters were drawn gave me a bit of a hang up because each time I saw a female character, it was hard to figure out what type of animal they were.  Sure, it was a small annoyance, and one other readers might be able to easily dismiss, but it bugged me. 

With beautiful art, and crafty writing, Blacksad is a must have for any lover of the comics medium. The time I spent between spotting this at my local comic shop and saving up the cash for so I could buy it was enough time for them to sell out of copies.  Apparently Blacksad is also out of print, so I had to resort to an Amazon purchase for this one.  Despite the hardship you might face in tracking it down, Blacksad is worth the effort.  Blacksad is a throwback to when stories were told right, without blatant attempts to shock an awe the short attention spans of the audience.  The stories here will make you think, laugh and make you stay up too late reading.  All good reasons to read this one.

Grade: A-