Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: Batwoman: Elegy

I first came across Batwoman: Elegy about a year ago when I saw a photo roundup of Read Comics in Public Day.  Someone in one of photos was holding a copy of this very comic, and the cover totally caught my eye. Yes, I judge books by their cover.  That's why they put a fucking cover on the damn things, so it'll catch your eye.  Anyway...the cover to Batwoman got my attention; There was something about the stylized layout that screamed for a closer inspection.

During my next trip to the comic shop, I tracked down a copy and gave it the ol' flip-check.  And my mind was blown.  The art was, as they say, off the chain.  A couple people noticed my bulging eyes, and slack jaw and acknowledged my awe.  Yes, they assured me, Batwoman: Elegy was a sweet fuckin' comic. Not just the art, but the writing as well.

Unfortunately, at the time, the book was only available in hardcover, and out of my price range, so I filed it away in that part of my brain that can unfalteringly  remember band line-ups, 90's baseball team rosters, and titles of books I want to read, but mysteriously cant remember shit I try to memorize for a mid-term or final. When the book finally came out in softcover earlier this year, I picked up a copy and waited for the right moment to give my eyes a glorious treat.

That moment came a bit sooner than I expected with the big shuffle and relaunch at DC.  A Batwoman series had been planned and delayed for some time, I'd even picked up and read the #0 issue to whet my appetite.  When the relaunch was announced, I knew it was time to give Elegy read so I'd be all caught up when the new issues started hitting shelves.

My recent read of Stumptown gave me high hopes that writer Greg Rucka would be able to deliver the goods with an interesting and engaging Batwoman story.  Boy did he ever.

The story is equally about Kate Kane, the woman behind the mask as it is about Batwoman and her battle against a psycho named Alice who quotes Lewis Carrol and aspires to unleashing a toxic death-cloud over Gotham city.  While all the crime fighting business is taking place, Rucka intertwines the story with scenes that depict Kane's past in the military, her complex family situation and childhood, and her struggles relating to her sexual identity.  All these elements work together to create a character who is intensely real, highly engaging, and downright fun to read about.

I was incredibly impressed with the writing effort here.  I got the feeling that Rucka had really set out to make Batwoman/Kate Kane a believable and realistic character, and I feel like he pretty much nailed it.  There were a few plot elements related to the Alice versus Batwoman story line that felt like they were dropped into the story without any supporting information, but this was minor and didn't really take much away from the reading experience.

As great as Rucka's writing was, and it was quite good, the art of Batwoman: Elegy, handled by J.H. Williams III, was astounding.  Simply put, Williams is one of the very best artists in the business and Batwoman is (in my opinion) his crowning achievement thus far.

Not only does JHW3 display his talent in Batwoman: Elegy, he also displays his versatility. He uses different styles of art to depict various aspects of Kate Kane's life.  When she is Batwoman, he uses an almost photo-realistic art approach, a more vintage style for her military days, a cartoonish style for her childhood, and a clean, crisp art style for her current day, out of costume scenes.

While each style is well done, impressive, and displays Williams' talent, my favorite art sequences were the Batwoman ones.  I loved how Williams used non-standard panels to break up the page and used a much more stylized iconic approach to portray the action.  This made the fight scenes seem much more realistic, as they captured the chaos of the fight, yet displayed Batwoman's prowess and skill, and made it all look fancy to boot.  Williams' ability to create beautiful, dynamic art that makes the action leap off the page is an amazing skill and a quality that only makes me love this comic more.

If judged solely on art, Batwoman: Elegy would receive high marks, but Rucka's writing is equally great.  The character development work he put in makes Kate Kane one of the more interesting characters I've read in any form of writing lately, and she especially stands out as a female comic character that isn't just about gigantic breasts and skimpy clothing.  It's sad that she stands out for that reason, but you can either lament that fact, or enjoy the fact that Batwoman/Kate Kane is a shining beacon in the industry of how good comics can be.

For the relaunch, Batwoman will be co-written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, and JHW3 will handle the art as well.  The #0 issue which hit shelves early in the year was handled by the same team, and I enjoyed it, so I feel like the title is in capable hands.  The writing will probably suffer a bit, but the seeds that Rucka planted should continue to bear fruit down the road.

I can easily recommend Batwoman: Elegy, and in fact, have already loaned my copy out and successfully recommended to other folks around the interwebs.  A great lead character, great writing and great art make this one a slam dunk/homerun/hole in one.  If you have even the slightest interest in reading an awesome comic, give this one a shot.

Grade: A+

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Comic Quickies: Big Names

Rachel Rising #1: I was so excited when I saw the solicits for Rachel Rising.  I've never read a thing by Terry Moore, but I've heard lots of good things about his work on Strangers in Paradise and Echo and I had a good feeling about this comic as soon as I laid eyes on some of Moore's interior art.

The comic begins with nine wordless, art filled pages which take place in the woods with a mysterious woman watching on from a distance as another woman literally digs herself out of a shallow dirt grave.

The buried woman is the title character, Rachel Beck, who can't remember what the hell happened to her last night. As the reader, we are as clueless as Rachel, and can only search for clues in the art, and try to make meaning out of the small things she discovers.  The first issue offers up a scant amount of information: a strangely bruised neck, three missing days since she last remembers a thing....and there's something wrong with her eyes.

Not a lot to go on, but I was completely sucked in by this comic.  Moore's art, which completely carries the story for the first few pages is lush and gorgeous.  The mystery element of what the hell happened hooked me, and there are a lot of things that happen or are seen in through the course of the issue that left me with some seriously burning questions.  Like: who the fuck was that lady watching Rachel dig herself out of a shallow grave?

Awesome stuff, and easily the best comic I've read all month.

Gotham Noir One-Shot: Before I even flipped open the cover, this comic had all the hallmarks of greatness: A Gotham City/Batman story set in the 40's featuring Jim Gordon as a down on his luck P.I., a noir-style crime story, and the creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, which has been a money combo for me in the past.

Unfortunately, this comic failed to impress me.  I was pretty underwhelmed by the story, I found that I couldn't make myself care about what was going on.  It was sort of interesting to see how Brubaker placed classic Batman characters like Catwoman, and the Joker into the mid-century narrative, but the whole time I sort of felt like I was reading a What If? type story, that was lacking in authenticity.

I can't say that this was a bad comic, it just didn't strike me as the quality I've come to expect from Brubaker and Phillips.  It's so sad when things don't live up to expectations.

The Red Wing #2: This four issue mini-series started out incredibly well, and I had high hopes that the second issue would live up to the quality of the first.

It did...for the most part.  In terms of writing, the story took a much appreciated leap forward. This issue developed characters, delivered some important back story, moved the plot along nicely, and delivered a sweet twist at the end.  All in all, an epic win for any piece of writing.  Hickman is clearly a top-level writer working at the peak of his game.  So, yeah, in that regard, this was a great issue.

The art was a slightly different story.  Nick Pitarra was a complete unknown prior to this comic, and then he came out the gates strong with a brilliant looking first issue.  The dude set the bar pretty damn high for himself, and I felt like he didn't quite nail it on this issue.  Though most of the time Pitarra did manage to recapture the artistic glory of the first issue, there were a few times the art looked flat to me.  There also weren't any mind-blowing art sequences here like there were in the first issue.  That might sound pretty nit-picky but I guess I just have damn high expectations from the previous issue.

My petty complaints aside, this is still a great comic, and one that I'm very much looking forward to reading for the next couple months.

Sweet Tooth #24: This comic gets continual mentions here on the Comic Quickies feature because Jeff Lemire continues to not only write an amazingly captivating and emotionally gripping story, but he also continuously experiments and push the boundaries of his art.

In this issue, for the first time ever, Lemire handled some of the coloring duties.  Why? Especially when he's got Eisner Award winning colorist Jose Villarrubia on colors?  Well, it worked out perfectly on this issue as Lemire's colored pages matched up with a particular character's journey between the worlds of the living and the dead.  Lemire used watercolors, and they gave a very creepy, other-worldly feel to the pages he worked on.  Obviously, the other-worldly feel was perfect for a story that took place on err...other worlds.

This isn't the first time Lemire has tried some new things artistically with Sweet Tooth.  He's done a story-book style issue, and even an issue where three different guest artists tell the back story of three different characters.   Each time, the unique approach has made for a great comic reading experience.  This isn't the end of the art experimenting either...Matt Kindt is a guest artist for three straight issues coming out in the very near future.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: Halting State

Halting State is very much a novel for the modern human.  It's a near future sci-fi crime novel where the crime, a bank robbery, takes place on a virtual world inside an online role-playing game by a band of orcs with a dragon on hand for back-up.  As the case gets investigated, what seemed like a waste of time for the police, turns into a crime that has severe real-world implications.

For a technologically challenged dude like me, who can barely figure out how to properly operate a blog, the ramifications of the crime that is the centerpiece for this novel were a bit hard to wrap my brain around.  That being said, Halting State is a fast paced crime story that melds the crime and sci-fi genres extremely well.

Despite my short-comings, Halting State was a pleasure to read.  For one, Stross used a rotating cast of three point of view characters.  Each character had a different connection to the crime that is being investigated.  Their vastly differing lives collide thanks to this virtual bank robbery, and their various backgrounds add depth to the story.  I enjoyed the rotating points of view; they kept the story feeling fresh, which kept me turning the pages.

In Halting State Stross takes a unique writing approach, and utilizes the ginger-haired step-child of perspectives, the Second-person perspective.  Sure, it took me a bit to get used to, but I quickly came to enjoy this unique point of view.  Often when I read, I perceive the events of the story from a movie-like distance.  However, with the second-person perspective, I felt like I was looking directly through the character's eyes at the events of the story.  That may seem like only a slight change, but for me, it made me feel like I was closer to the action, and it made the three point of view characters seem more alive as they perceived and reacted to events differently.

I've been making an effort this year to branch out and read more sci-fi this year.  In the past, I've had a hard time delving into the genre mostly due to two big stumbling blocks: I either 1) don't "get" how technology works, and don't care to read info dumps that explain it. Or 2) get depressed by the author's imagined future which is far shittier than the present.

Lucky for me, for the most part, neither of those beasts reared their ugly heads with Halting State.  The novel is a near future story, so things aren't all that different, thus I understood how most of the technology worked, and Stross' future didn't crush my soul...it seemed alright.  I did struggle a bit some of the technology stuff, but that's to be expected for a guy like me who can barely work his own cell phone, and Stross provides enough detail without being overwhelming and dull.

The kicker for me was that at the heart of things, Halting State is a crime novel, and I love me some crime.  The investigation that takes place in Halting State is an interesting one, with all the twists and turns you'd expect from a non sci-fi crime story.

I had a lot of fun reading Halting State.  The rotating perspectives and short chapters kept the story moving along at a nice pace, and the second-person point of view made the book feel very unique and added an element that for me felt very fresh and different.

All told, Halting State is a great read, and I think hardcore sci-fi fans and folks like me who struggle to get into the genre can equally enjoy this novel.  Worth checking out.

Grade: B

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mastodon: Curl of the Burl

In a little over a month from now, Hunter, the newest album from metal giants Mastodon will hit stores.

Have I mentioned that I'm excited for this?

Well, my buddy Justin, and Oceans of Ale beer blogger, is pretty excited too, and he comes through again here delivering yet another hot tip about the up coming album.

The band has released what is meant to be their first single for the album.  The song is titled Curl of the Burl and it's pretty fucking awesome.  It sounds great, good and heavy, yet still melodic.  From what I've heard of the album so far, it seems like they're poised to release yet another gem of an album.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Comic Quickies: Finales

Green Wake #5: This fifth issue marks the end of what originally was going to be the whole series, but Green Wake has sold well enough to be magically transformed into an ongoing title rather than a five issue mini.  Nice!

So how'd the first arc go? Pretty great.  The comic has a great blend of mystery and horror, which I know I mentioned before, but that's truly what sells me on the comic each month.

Riley Rossmo's art is totally unique and unlike anything I've encountered before.  Rossmo's style can be a blessing and a curse for me though.  There are times when I feel like his squiggly lines, and textures can be too much. Those times mostly come during the highly emotional moments that Wiebe scripts.  I feel those moments would be better served with a cleaner presentation so that the raw emotional power that is prevalent in Green Wake could have more room to breathe.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a raw emotional power to Green Wake.  Make no mistake, this is an intense story about love, loss and coping with what it leaves behind.  Kurtis Wiebe is so adept at portraying the emotional moments in a very genuine way, that I wonder if he has recent experience in such things.  Either way, it is incredibly compelling.

Overall, a great first arc, and I'm excited to see where the story goes from here.

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde #4: Another finale, this time in Victorian London.  The fourth and final issue of The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde delivered what the whole series had been building up to:  Mr. Hyde versus Jack the Ripper!

The showdown was a bit boring if you ask me, and the outcome of the action wasn't so much a surprise as it was confusing and strange.   Through the first three issues I really enjoyed where this was going, but I was ultimately pretty disappointed with how the whole thing ended.

Definitely not my favorite mini-series ever, but not the worst either.  Still, I liked the creative team enough that I hope they get some work in the future.  The final page hinted at perhaps some more Inspector Adye adventures, so hopefully Haddon and Corley can keep working and keep improving on what is a solid start in the comics business.

Jonah Hex #70:  The final of my arc/series finales is the final issue of Jonah Hex.

I became a fan of Jonah Hex after the 69th issue rocked my socks off with some great writing and the fantastic art of Jeff Lemire.  When I saw that the final issue would feature the art of Ryan Sook, I figured what the hell, and picked that one up too.

Sadly, my socks stayed firmly on my feet for this issue.

Like I had with the 69th issue, I picked this up because of the artist.  Now, I can't say that I've ever read anything that features Sook's art, but I've seen enough of his various cover artwork to know that the guy is great.  That being said, I can't really say that I was all that impressed with Sook's interior art in this issue.  It was good, but just not as good as I had hoped for.  I think the sparse, barren desert setting didn't allow provide enough of a backdrop for his art to flourish.

The writing wasn't anything special either.  The story was kinda hard to follow, and pretty fucking weird too.  But not in a good way.

A month ago I would have said I was all in for Hex's upcoming All Star Western adventures in the DC relaunch, but now I'm a bit more skeptical, and will approach the first few issues of the series with a much more discerning eye.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Ex Machina v9 Ring Out the Old...AND Ex Machina v10 Term Limits

One of the most difficult challenges for any writer of a serialized story is ending the damn thing, and ending it well.

I've been slowly plugging away at the Ex Machina series since last December and though I've enjoyed the series, it has had some ups and downs.  That being said, the events of the 7th and 8th trades gave me high hopes that the ending to the series would be one that did justice to the overall story of Mitchell Hundred, that man who can talk to machines.

Sadly, the ending did not come anywhere near my expectations.  Instead of an ending that tied up main plot lines, brought in those hinted at elements that were seemingly critical to the main plot, and wrapped things up nice and clean, the ending was disjointed, sported some jarring plot gaps, and left me confused, and very dissatisfied.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the lack-luster ending was that the book shifted from what had been mostly a political drama with bits of super-hero stuff mixed in, to being almost completely about Hundred's powers and his masked adventures...to the point that he was not handling political crises, but crises that a costumed hero would face in a typical capes and tights story.

My first reaction to the ending was "Huh?" followed by a reread of the bits that left me confused.  I thought for sure I had missed something crucial that would make the end satisfying, but there was none to be found.

During my next stop at the comic shop, I discussed the end of Ex Machina with the owner, and some well-read customers and they all confirmed that I hadn't missed anything, the ending was just weak, and that they'd had similar disappointed reactions with the ending.

It wasn't just the writing that left more to be desired though.  For the first time all series, I was underwhelmed by Tony Harris' art.  His usual quality stood firm in Ring Out the Old but his art in the finale, Term Limits, appeared to be "mailed in" at times.  What was most annoying though, was that one page would look like an amateur version of Tony Harris had handled the art, then the very next page would look like classic Tony Harris.  The inconsistency of the art was frustrating to say the least, but also disappointing.  Believe me, once you've seen what Harris is capable of, anything less than the best is just not enough.

What makes the weak ending to Ex Machina so sad and disappointing is that I know what the creative team of Vaughan and Harris are capable of, and these last two trades just weren't it.  Overall, this is still a pretty solid series, but the ending doesn't do justice to what at times was an amazing comic.

In the end I would say yes, I recommend this series, especially if you are a super-hero comic reader looking to get into the non-mainstream stuff.  Ex Machina would serve as a pretty solid go-between.  In many ways, Ex Machina has done the same for me, but in reverse, as I'll be subscribing to some super-hero comics for the first time this September with the new DC relaunch.  And yes, I would still recommend it to most any other comic reader as well, because there is a lot to love about the entire series, but I recommend it with the caveat that you'll likely be disappointed with the ending.  I know I was.

On to better (hopefully!) things...

Grade Ring Out the Old: C

          Term Limits: D-

Overall Series Grade: C+

Monday, August 15, 2011

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery...sort of.  The story is told by Christopher John Francis Boone, an autistic teenager who is mathematically adept and socially inept.  Unable to understand the intricacies of social interaction and such things as sarcasm, complex facial expressions, and body language, Christopher takes things at their literal face value.

Late one night he discovers the dead -impaled by a garden fork- body of his neighbor's dog, Wellington.  Christopher is soon found by the dog owner, cradling the dead canine and winds up being  arrested by the police for questioning.

Upon his release, Christopher decides to take after his literary hero, Sherlock Holmes, and discover who murdered poor Wellington.  Though his investigation is discouraged by his father and his neighbors, his special education teacher at school, Siobhan, encourages him to write a book about his investigation.  However, Chris' sleuthing leads him to discover some things about his parents he was never meant to know.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was meant to by my quick, easy-breezy post A Dance with Dragons read that provided quick, easy to digest entertainment, and refresh me after reading such a massive tome.  While The Curious Incident did all that, I was pleased, and a bit surprised to find that it did more.

The author, Mark Haddon does a fantastic job of portraying the unique mind and mannerisms of an autistic child.  Through Christopher's narrative voice you get a strong sense of who he is, and how he is driven by routine, order and predictability.  However, once he begins his investigation, his routine is shattered, and the ways he copes with and interprets events that unfold, which for most people would be emotional nut-shots, is fascinating, unique and interesting.

Without a doubt, Christopher is one of the most unique literary characters I've ever come across.  His personality, narrative voice and mannerisms are at once fascinating, and frustrating to read.  Christopher's literal, mathematical and logical approach to everything in life started to wear on me.  As I struggled to read a story from the point of view of a person who is so fundamentally different from me I came to understand how his father, and those around him also struggled to deal with, interact, and co-exist with Christopher.  That Haddon was able to pull all of this off is no small feat and quite the literary accomplishment.

However, since we see the people who populate Christopher's world only through his emotionless eyes, I found that the other characters didn't stand out or appear nearly as developed as Chris.  This caused me to visualize them mostly as empty vessels who occasionally spouted dialog, and mostly served as tools to show Christopher's uniqueness.

Christopher's mannerisms, which fall under the autism spectrum, often came across as oddities, and were used to make the novel funny and inject some lightness to what is a very emotional story.  I'm not so sure how I feel about this.  Special Education is the most prominent form of segregation in schools these days and special education students are often put in a position of "other" and made the butt of joke.  The fact that Christopher's eccentric behavior, which stems from his autism, is used to create jokes in the novel sort of rubs me the wrong way.  More than anything, it made my question my own perceptions of folks with developmental differences and whether or not my perceptions and assumptions are fair.

All told, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a unique and thought provoking novel.  This is one of those books that can be easily enjoyed by nearly anyone.  It was a great in-between novel to give me a little breathing space before I dive back into meatier stuff.  A solid non-genre book worth checking out.

Grade: B-

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review: Stumptown

Stumptown is one of those graphic novels that seems to have been created for my sole enjoyment.

The story follows Dex Parios, a private investigator who has been spending more time racking up a massive debt at the Whispering Winds casino than cracking cases lately.  Her recent cold streak at the craps table has left her owing 18 large to the casino.  For Better or worse, her luck changes when she is called upon to meet with Sue-Lynne, head of the casino.  Sue-Lynne's granddaughter has gone missing, and if Dex can track her down, Sue-Lynne will erase Dex's debt.  But finding Sue-Lynne's wayward granddaughter might be more trouble than it's worth for Dex.

 So, a crime caper set in my backwoods, the pacific northwest, with a female lead who isn't just the main character so that copious amounts of T&A can be on display, but someone most any reader, male or female, can relate to.  Yeah, it was hard for me to put this one down.

Greg Rucka's name carries a lot of weight in the comics industry, but Stumptown was my first exposure to his work.  Overall, I found his writing, plotting and pacing to be quite good.  I was hooked from the opening pages, and totally engrossed throughout the entire graphic novel.  I think Rucka's strength lies in his ability to write characters like they are regular people not just caricatures of typical crime story denizens.  Even his thugs for hire seem to have more depth than your typical hired muscle.

The story of Stumptown unfolds nicely.  There are plenty of ins, outs and twists that will keep any crime lover happy.  It's one of those stories where you know no one is telling the truth and the path to said truth is a rocky road for Dex.

No comic or graphic novel is complete without a strong art component and Matthew Southworth seems to be the perfect artist for this tale.  His gritty and grainy art style sets the tone perfectly for this down and dirty crime story.  Southworth's art, and color palette definitely make the comic feel like it is set in the Pacific North West.  His ability to fully capture Portland, and its surrounds make this comic a little bit more special. In my opinion, the art was perfect for the story. 

Now, I'll admit, there's a pretty good chance I had a predilection towards Stumptown to begin with. Before I ever did more than read the first few pages, my copy sported a lovely sketch and personalization from the artist, Matt Southworth.  The fact that he took the time to add a sketch, and talk to me about his guitar influences (of all things) makes this comic all the more special to me. 

Despite the fact that my copy, and interactions I had with part of the creative team, make Stumptown a special piece on my shelves, it is for sure a great comic, and worth the read.  The current edition you'll find in stores has a nice hard cover, and thick, high quality pages.  It's also slightly oversized from your standard graphic novel, all which make it even more worth reading.  The larger format allows for better enjoyment of the art, the overall quality is fitting for the quality of the story.  Stumptown is one of those stories I know for sure I'll find myself reading again over the years.  I definitely recommend this one.

Grade: A

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Check Out the Fresh New Style

Yeah, so I made some changes to the blog-style today.  I was getting a little nauseous from looking at the white lettering on black background every day, so I decided it was time to switch it up. 

Some sawdust, a few beers, some good music, and a vial of tiger sweat was all it took to create the new look.  

Hopefully the new look will make the blog a little bit more user friendly, and entice folks to stick around and read the posts without having to visit their eye doctor afterward. 

I sorta feel like if black isn't a featured color of the blog scheme, then the blog loses some of its bad-assness, but I'll sacrifice some bad-ass points for readability. (Sheeeeit, is this what happens when you turn 30? Sacrifice coolness for the sake of eyesight?)

I fully appreciate all those who visit, comment and support the blog.  You are Bad-ass.  I'll do my best to give you folks reason to keep coming back. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: A Dance with Dragons

The day I bought A Dance with Dragons I walked away from the cash register and did a little fist pump, happy to be finally holding this book in my sweaty hands.  In my mind I was saying: "It's about fucking time!"  You see, I've been reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series since 1997, and in my poorer and more patient days I would even wait for the cheap-ass paperbacks to come out before reading the latest book. 

I own paperbacks of the first three books, which all feature the Stephen Youll cover art, (My preferred covers), and hardbacks of the latest two installments.  Sure, it doesn't make for the most attractive looking shelf display, but it represents how this series has been a part of my life for many long years.

Since I've been with the series from nearly the first printing, there has been a great deal of waiting associated with what I consider not only my favorite, but also the best fantasy series on the shelves.   That being said, once A Dance with Dragons was in my possession, I tried to avoid it, and read other things; I'd been waiting on the book, now the book could wait on me.  My plan lasted a whole two days before I caved and started reading. 

Being the petty, cynical reader that I am, before cracking the book, I sent a mental message to George; I've waited five long years.  This shit better be good.

It was immediately pleasing to jump right into consecutive Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon chapters; three characters whose plot developments were sorely missing from A Feast for Crows.  I loved the new maps, which depicted in greater detail parts of the world that play a huge role in this book.  I was also happy to see some other old favorite characters like Davos, Stannis and Mellisandre back in the mix. 

However, a couple hundred pages in, my "Oh my god I'm finally reading A Dance with Dragons!"euphoric high wore off and I settled into the book, finding plenty to enjoy and a few things here and there that rubbed me the wrong way.

I haven't read a single page of the A Song of Ice and Fire series since I finished A Feast for Crows and I found a few cracks in my memory regarding some of the finer points of the series. At the beginning I struggled to get a grip on the time line of events and how everything in this book aligned with the events of A Feast for Crows.  I eventually got it all together, but A Dance with Dragons was definitely a book that required my full attention at all times.  The overall story is at, what I hope, its widest point; there were times I struggled to hold all the strings and keep all the details straight in my head.  I'm assuming the narrative is at its widest point and will continuously narrow in the future books.

I was a little bit shocked, and pleasantly surprised to see that GRRM's prose has improved a great deal over the years. I don't know why this came as a shock to me...I guess I was so focused on catching up with certain characters, and seeing story events move forward that I wasn't focused on how much the man's skill had improved.  The guy is a skilled writer to begin with, but I felt like his description of events, people and places were better than ever. 

Martin has always been a writer who excels at making the reader feel like they are living and breathing the events of the story, and I really got that sensation from A Dance with Dragons.  My favorite aspect of the man's writing is definitely the fact that I find myself mentally yelling at characters as they take certain actions or say certain things.  His ability to evoke such strong reactions and get me riled up is a satisfying treat. 

It would be easy for me to simply bask in the joy of finally getting to read A Dance with Dragons and tell you that everything is all sunshine and rainbows, but that wouldn't be completely accurate. There are a couple dark clouds in the sky.

My first, very minor, gripe is that Martin still has a tendency to overuse particular words or phrases.  In the past books the term 'nuncle' would be a good example of this trend, and the word does rear it's ugly, ugly head a few times in this book as well.  The ones that really got me this time were 'leal' and 'wroth'.  The two words popped up far too often for my liking.  A phrase that came up more than once was 'as useful as nipples on a breastplate'.  True, it's a great metaphor and pretty funny, (I could see Renly having nipples on his armor), but it's shoulda been a one and done type deal.

My other gripe with the book is a bit more meaty.  I was pretty disappointed with the lack of plot development in regards to Tyrion and Daenerys.  Yes, some pretty big things did eventually happen with Dany, but it took a really long time for it to happen, and the build up to those events wasn't exactly exciting.  On the other hand, with Tryion, his story was pretty interesting, (but most anything regarding Tyrion is interesting) but I felt like his story didn't move very far either.  I guess I expected that the story would move further ahead than it did with A Dance with Dragons and that the focus of the story would narrow and start honing in on the home stretch. 

So, was this shit good, and was it worth the wait?  Yes, but A Dance with Dragons doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of the first three books.  Overall I was pleased with the book, but it may take me awhile to forgive Martin for fucking with my emotions so much towards the end.  Despite a few hang ups, A Dance with Dragons pretty much delivered all that I could have hoped for.  Yeah, I could have done with a bit more plot movement, but there's a great twist that adds an exciting new player to the game and gave this novel and world of Westeros an unexpected jolt.  Good stuff.

Here's to hoping only a couple of real life winters pass before we get to see winter fully descend upon Westeros. 

Grade: B+

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: The Nightly News

The Nightly News was recommended to me by a very reliable source; my local comic shop owner.  The shop was celebrating its anniversary, and holding a sale for box customers, and I was browsing the graphic novels when he came over, plunked The Nightly News in my hands and told me sale or no sale, this should be my next purchase at his shop.  Since the guy's been sticking comics in my pull box (not nearly as dirty as it sounds) for over a year now, and talks comics with me on at least a weekly basis, I consider his tips to be close to golden.  The tip on The Nightly News is more like platinum.

The Nightly News is about a cult of radicals bent on changing the news media by destroying the news reporters.  They begin this change by sniping a few innocents, then sniping reporters as they show up on the scene to report the story.  The idea behind all this shooting is to get the news media to become reliable and report the facts, not sensationalized versions of the news that can ruin careers, marriages, and lives.

Led by the unknown and secretive "The Voice" who delivers their ideals, and missions, "The Hand" leads a group of followers who are determined to create a revolution in the media even if it costs them their lives. 

The Nightly News isn't just about capping a bunch of news reporters.  If that was the case, this graphic novel would lack serious cool points.  Hickman peppers in a bunch of interesting factoids that will make you question the reliability of the media, understand how corporations control the news, make you do a fancy math equation to see if your education was really worth it, and much more.  Warning: These little info-graphics will make you more cynical.  These little asides add depth to the story without detracting from the narrative flow too much.  There is also a strong mystery element as to who exactly "The Voice" is, and what his/her ultimate motivations are.

It should be noted that Hickman straight up declares on multiple occasions that he doesn't condone or endorse the Cult's methods or ideals, he is simply telling a story. And a damn good one too. 

Though I found the story of The Nightly News very interesting, and well told, the art is really what makes this graphic novel stand out as special.  Hickman, who also handles the art, almost totally eschews your typical panels, and art layout for what looks more like a graphic design layout.  While some pages look sorta similar to what you'd find in nearly every comic, most pages are a single entity, with bold overlying images and dialog bubbles, but separated in such a way that doesn't require panels to depict the flow of the story.  Hickman also uses a monochrome coloring scheme, a sort of rust color for present day events and an icy blue for events in the past, to set the tone for the story and make certain graphics stand out.  When this is all put together the result is a graphic novel that looks totally unique when compared to everything else I've ever read in the comics medium.  

Since The Nightly News is totally unlike 99.9% of all comics out there, I could see how it might be hard for some folks to really sink their teeth into. The story is a pretty dense one, packed with lots of story, and all those little information graphics as well.  The art definitely takes some adjustment time, but is worth the effort.  Sometimes, due to the nature of Hickman's limited color palette, it can be slightly difficult to tell who is who, which further slows down what is already a slightly slow narrative.  But then again, these might not be problems at all.  Once I got used to his art, I had no problem telling who was who, and if you couldn't tell, I really enjoyed the story and the little information factoids.

What I think is the most impressive quality of The Nightly News is that it's a comic that can make you think and question the norms of society...which can be a rare thing these days.  Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Friday, August 5, 2011

Comic Quickies or Sea Creature Double Feature

The Vault #1: Undersea treasure hunting doctors, Gabrielle Parker and Michael Page think they know the location of a massive treasure trove.  They've assembled a team, and acquired the financial backing of a man named Kirilov, who not only can put up the needed money to fund the remainder of their expedition, but can also supply some sweet digging technology.  However, as they near their treasure trove, and start hauling out some booty, a hurricane threatens just over the horizon.

I came into this one hoping for some sweet sea creatures, and monster attacks, and from the way things panned out in this first issue, it looks like my wishes will be granted.  I gotta say though, this first issue was a bit shaky.

There was a lot of information unloaded on the reader, and the learning curve of getting to know the cast of characters, and what is going on is a bit steep.  On top of all that, writer Sam Sarkar packs in a lot of plot development and even the plotting is a bit garbled.  There is a lot of in and out of the water stuff going on, with a character submerged underwater on one page and on the ship in the next.  It is also pretty fucking hard to tell who is who in the diving gear. 

This is only a three issue mini, so I can see why a lot was packed into one issue, but it did feel awkward.  The art is handled by Garrie Gastonny, an artist I found hit and miss during his work on Warren Ellis' Supergod.  The man can draw some sweet beastly creatures though, so I'm hoping for a bit of that in The Vault.

Witch Doctor #2:  So, I was a little skeptical after the first Witch Doctor issue, and though I'm still a bit skeptical after #2, I'm feeling a bit better about things.  This issue kicks off what is intended to be a 3 issue story arc, and has the Doctor investigating a baby who is possessed by a Cuckoo Faerie, a creature that mimics humans, while the brood mother feasts on the human babies her hatchlings are switched out for.

While Dr. Morrow is searching for the Cuckoo Mother, he is contacted by Absinthe O'Riley, a woman who seems to have past connections to the good doctor and is searching for a creature called a "Dagon Lure", a ghastly looking beast if I do say so myself.

The creepy, fucked up looking life-sized Barbie thing that is the Cuckoo Mother is a horribly freaky looking thing, and provided some solid entertainment for this issue.  I get the sense that the real story for this arc lies with Absinthe O'Riley, and her weird sea creature though.  Looking forward to where this is headed. 

Elephantmen #33: There was only one reason I bought this comic...the artwork of Shaky Kane.

Shaky filled in on art for, uh, someone else, in this stand-alone story set in the Elephantmen universe, which I happen to know pretty much next to nothing about.  The story is about a creepy plastic surgeon and his wife/canvas upon whom he tries his most elaborate and daring augmentations upon.  His latest quest is to completely replace her skeleton with an all new ivory one...harvested from dead Elephantmen.

Um, so I didn't pay super close attention to the story, I sorta used my Steven Erikson reading technique where I skim parts that don't seem to matter, and read what is important.  Via this technique I was able to get the gist of what was going on, then sit back and enjoy the insanity that is the art of Shaky Kane. 

Kane's art definitely made this one worth the purchase.  There is some amazingly weird and visceral imagery.  Crazy shit, but totally worth it if you love the work of Shaky Kane.

The Intrepids #5:  As I type this, there is a single, solitary tear leaving a wet track down my cheek...Why? Because it's pretty sad to think that there is only one issue of The Intrepids left to read. 

From the very first issue, I have been in love with this series.  Not only has it featured sharp story telling, some solid humor, great art and some epic battle scenes, but it has, by far I might add, the absolutely best mad-science constructs I've ever encountered.  Though I have a soft spot for the Cyber Bear, Carbon Calamari the robo-squid who terrorizes the pages of this issue, is amazing and is in the running for the Best Creature of the Series.

The Intrepids is truly one of the great comics on the shelves.  I realize at this point, if you aren't already reading it, then it makes sense to buy the trade, however if you aren't reading it, be sure to buy the damn trade when it comes out.  You will not be disappointed.

I can't wait to have the final issue in my hands, and re-read the whole series start to finish.  Great stuff and worth every penny.

The Sixth Gun #13:  I mentioned this last time, but this latest arc of The Sixth Gun is shaping up to be the best one yet.

Every aspect of this comic has shown marked improvement, which is saying a lot 'cause it was pretty damn awesome to begin with.  Hurtt's art is climbing to new heights, and the writing has not only provided some great new characters, but has delivered some great new twists as well.

Though I've enjoyed this series quite a lot, through each issue, I've never had much fear for the safety of the two main characters Sinclair, and Becky Montcrief.  That being said, those two seem to be well and truly effed in this arc.  They are seemingly surrounded by enemies, and their friends seem shaky at best.

This issue had a great cliff hanger of an ending and I'm pretty much drooling for more.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Have a Listen: Mastodon: "Black Tongue"

September is shaping up to be an epic month for metal.  Not only is Heritage the new Opeth album due out on the 20th, but only a few days later on the 27th, Mastodon's latest effort, The Hunter hits stores.

It is hard to say which album I'm more excited about, it varies on a day to day basis.  At this moment, I'm more amped for The Hunter because Justin, fellow blogger, and metal guru sent me the link to "Black Tongue" the first song released from their new album.

Not only does the song sound fucking awesome, but the accompanying video is pretty cool to check out too.  I like that Troy Sanders handles most of the lyrics for the song, as his voice is my favorite in the band.  If this song is any indication, The Hunter is bound to be a gloriously epic album.

Check out the song and the video!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: The Imago Sequence

Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence is a collection of horror/fantasy short stories written in the eldritch tradition.  The novel collects nine short stories filled with weird, dark and devilish happenings.

The Imago Sequence is hands down my least favorite read of 2011.

I came into this novel with a lot of excitement, and high expectations, and unfortunately they weren't met.  I'm always in search of some fantasy that is non-traditional, and melds the genres of horror and fantasy.  After some internet research I thought for sure Barron's works would be just the thing to tickle my fancy, but I'm sad to say this collection of short fiction didn't work for me in the least.

From the starting gun, I had problems with Barron's pacing.  His prose is pretty dense, and filled with description.  I appreciate it when an author can impart a strong sense of place, and make emotions leap off the page, and I can appreciate Barron's efforts on that front, but that effect just didn't click between me and Laird.  I found myself sludging through the pages, to the point where reading the book felt like drudgery.

Normally, that sense of drudgery would be more than enough to make me put the book down and read something else, but the fact that The Imago Sequence is a short story collection had me continuously hoping that the next story would be better.  I had it in my head that one of the collected stories would just blow my mind and make the whole thing worth the effort. The fact that the title story was also the last story meant that I stuck around to the bitter end in hopes of salvation, but none was found. 

Aside from a prose style that I found impossible to lose myself in, I felt like the stories themselves all sort of felt the same in terms of tone and substance.  When I read a collection of short stories, I hope for some variety in the stories, which I thought was one of they many strengths of 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill.   Unfortunately, I found little of that variety with The Imago Sequence

Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression, and say that The Imago Sequence is total crap.  It's not.  It just didn't work for me in very important ways.  Just as I could easily tell you why the book didn't work for me, I could also see why someone else might love the book for the very reasons I didn't like it.  Barron has some cool/weird ideas that at times made for some interesting reading, and if you are into the Lovecraft-style horror, then there's things in this collection you'll appreciate.  I found it nearly impossible to sink my teeth into though, and can't give it my recommendation.

Grade: D-