Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Demon Squad: Armageddon Bound

Under almost any circumstances just by looking at the cover, I would have passed on Armageddon Bound.  Just look at that cover.  Ok, the cover isn't terrible, but the scantily clad girl whose boobs look like a bob-omb from Super Mario is pretty damn off-putting. It's one of those covers that made me feel self conscious whenever I was reading the book in public.

Boy am I glad I listened to my mom when she told me not to judge a book by it's cover...I'm also glad for all the solid reviews for this book kicking around the internet.  Those two elements helped me keep my preconceived notions in check. Oh, and the author, Tim Marquitz, promised there'd be a few metal references throughout the book...

Strong reviews from trusted sources? Metal music mixing with Fantasy?  Yeah, I'm in.

In Armageddon Bound, Frank Trigg, a human/devil hybrid, finds himself out gunned and undermanned on the front lines of an epic battle between pro and anti-Armageddon forces. In a godless and Satan-less world,  Frank is fighting on the anti-Armageddon side, along with his fellow members of DRAC, an organization of wizards, telepaths and other supernaturals, who must do what they can to prevent one of Lucifer's lieutenants from fulfilling a diabolical plan that would truly fuck over humanity once and for all.

The first thing I noticed about Armageddon Bound is that it's not like any other fantasy novels out there.  While many fantasies these days strive for that dark and gritty feel and often come up short, Marquitz achieves this feel in the opening paragraph and carries it out throughout the course of the book.  In many ways, the tone of Armageddon Bound reminded me of a hard-boiled crime story.

The dark tone of the novel is primarily achieved through the voice of the narrator Frank Trigg.  Trigg is not exactly your typical hero.  While most heroes run around vanquishing bad-guys, slaying monsters and deflowering virgins, Trigg spends most of his time getting beat down by his enemies, and lusting after his angelic cousin.  Not exactly the first guy I'd pick to save humanity.  However, there's no quit in Frank Trigg, and no matter how shitty the situation, he's gonna give it his all.  Trigg's never say die attitude, political incorrectness, and horn-dog rating that is hovering somewhere between College Frat Dude, and Sketchy Uncle, somehow all come together to make one hilarious and strangely endearing character.  Without a doubt, Trigg is one unforgettable anti-hero.

While the characters and narrative voice were the strongest parts of Armageddon Bound, the plot was no slouch either.  Like most first-person perspective stories, the plot is linear, which Marquitz uses to his advantage by continuously shoving the action down your throat.  Like any great metal show, the action is cranked up to eleven from the get-go and there is little to no let-up until the epic finale.

While the characters, and plot were both strong points, I felt the world building was on the weaker side of awesome.  It's not that Marquitz didn't create an interesting world where demons, angels, vampires, and dark magic can all co-exist, he just felt like that world wasn't populated by anyone other than the characters on the page.

For the most part, the book takes place in a city which, from what I could tell, was located somewhere in the South West of the United States.  However, there were many scenes where epic battles occurred, car chases ensued, and plenty of collateral damage, wreckage and ruin was laid down.  However, there never seemed to be regular people fleeing the carnage for their lives, or police or nosy neighbors investigating why the roof got blown off Frank Trigg's house.  There were times when the world felt completely devoid of any life aside from the characters of the story, which made it hard to care about the "regular people" who would be unwitting victims should Frank and his buddies fail to stop Armageddon.  This element didn't cause too much of a hang up for me, but it did take away from the tension a bit.

I am happy to report there there were metal references aplenty in Armageddon Bound.  Though there was a great and timely reference to Iron Maiden's Die with Your Boots On, my favorite metal moments involved Trigg's battles with the black metal trio.  There's just something hilarious about black metal dudes getting the shit kicked out of them.

I'm not so sure Armageddon Bound is a book for everyone, but there was plenty for me to like in this novel.  Brutal and dark with an uncompromising flair, this is a book that is less like a fine wine and more like a shot of mid-shelf whiskey; quickly ingested, delivering an enjoyable and satisfying taste, while leaving the consumer with a thirst for more.  With the sequel Resurrection waiting on my shelf, it is only a matter of time before I refill my glass.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Hellboy v1 Seed of Destruction

Like any good opening volume to a great epic, Hellboy: Seed of Destruction is very much an introductory story.  It begins with the summoning of Hellboy from, duh, Hell, by Nazi sorcerers, and his subsequent adoption by the U.S. government.  From there the story gives you a taste of what the full-grown Hellboy is all about and what he is capable of.  This is all depicted as Hellboy battles some strange frog-like beasts who've just killed his adoptive father.

The story also introduces the reader to Hellboy's job as an investigator for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, or B.P.R.D. We also meet a couple of his fellow agents, Liz Sherman, and Abe Sapien  who together with Hellboy travel to a remote manse to investigate what they believe is the source of the strange frog-beasts.  The introductory-ness doesn't really stop once the team is assembled.   As the story goes on, you get a sense of the special abilities that Liz and Abe possess, and the type of creepy and weird shit the team tends to investigate.

Seed of Destruction was a solid first volume, but for my money it took things a little bit too slow, and sorta gently eased the characters and the world into the reader's lap.  I think I would have preferred to just be dropped into the middle of the action, and learn as I go, but that wasn't even remotely the case here.

Aside from the gentle introduction, I also found the writing and dialog to be overly wordy, and a bit tedious.  From discussions I've had with other folks who have read the series, my understanding is that the wordiness is a byproduct of having John Byrne scripting this opening story arc.  Apparently, in the later volumes with Mike Mignola at the helm, the writing is much more smooth.

My biggest problem with the writing was that it actually took away from the art.  Mignola, who wonderfully handles the art, is adept at setting, tone, atmosphere and action.  His art is very moody and can carry a lot of the story, so the writing tended to be distracting in many situations.  That said, the art here is clearly still developing.  Mignola's Hellboy style is still finding it's feet here in the early going.  Though Mignola hasn't reached the top of his game yet at this point, I still really enjoyed the art, which is very unique and dark.

Despite writing that didn't totally work for me, and a plot that was a bit too linear, I still enjoyed Seed of Destruction.  The main reason is that it is weird, and I like weird.  The characters are either hellspawn, some sort of strange creature, or an outcast from normal society...and that's the good guys.  There's also plenty of crazy looking Lovecraftian beasts and monsters, plus crazy Nazi sorcerers.  The world it all takes place in has captured my interest too, and I look forward to seeing more of it.

Overall, Seed of Destruction is pretty solid but nothing overly earth shattering. It is definitely lacking in the writing and plotting, but the art, characters and world more than make up for the writing. I think the story still needs to find its feet a bit, but there was enough in the first volume to keep me interested and make me want to keep reading.

Grade: B-

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Retribution Falls

Retribution Falls is one of those books that I've had my eye on for a long time, thanks to lots of high praise getting heaped all over it from all corners of the web.  I'm always leery when the hype is high going into a book, but every now and then I get a gut feeling that a book will be good.

This was one of those books.

I was pretty much sucked in from the get go with this novel.  It starts with a tense hostage situation, some ballsy roulette of the Russian variety, and a daring escape.  If the first ten pages or so don't capture your interest, there is a good chance this book isn't for you, but really I don't see how those pages could fail to capture even the stuffiest of readers.

Once escapes are made we meet the cast of characters who populate the novel and also serve as the crew for the Ketty Jay, an air ship of dubious repute. The crew, a kaleidoscopic mix of humanity, all seem to share a need to stay out of sight, and keep their pasts firmly behind them.  Darian Frey is the captain, mostly in title, as he runs a loose ship and is more likely to drink, gamble and wench than he is to give orders.  Malvery is the ship doctor with disgrace in his past, drinking to forget. Crake is a man of noble birth, skilled in the arts of daemonism. He too is running from a dark past, but his taveling companion is an armored golem.  Jez, the navigator, startlingly capable at her job, has a dark secret she'd like to keep quiet.  The rest of the crew which includes an engineer, and a couple out-flier pilots are equally imperfect in their own unique ways.

With the crew of the Ketty Jay on the run, and in need of some cash, Frey jumps at the first job opportunity which is seemingly too good to pass up.  The job -which promises a chest of gems as the pay off- requires a small act of piracy, but seems exceedingly routine and easy.   Frey's instincts may have shouted TRAP! but the promise of easy riches and a life of luxury are too hard to pass up.  When the attack goes horribly wrong  Frey and his crew find themselves wanted, and on the run from bounty hunters, and Century Knights.  Not exactly the low profile they had hoped to maintain.  As the Ketty Jay races for safety, they must also race to discover who set them up, and more importantly: Why?

At this point in the review I should make the obligatory comparison between Retribution Falls and Firefly, thus maintaining my geek cred.......................yeah, I must have missed that show when it was on back in 2002.  I don't think I even owned a TV back then.  You know what though, I think one of the main reasons I enjoyed Retribution Falls so much is that it didn't remind me of anything else.  Retribution Falls is one of those genre busters that is hard to pin down.  For what it's worth, I would say it is more science fantasy than it is steampunk.  I couldn't instantly categorize it, and I liked that.  A lot.

The characters were all varying shades of gray and for the most part, acted like actual people, not larger than life heroic figures.  Though I was more likely to find myself amused at their shitty luck than fretting over their dire predicaments, I related to and appreciated each crew member in a variety of different ways.

Not only is this a book of non-stop action, adventure and mayhem, but it's also a book with a solid sense of humor.  Though the humor element was touted elsewhere, I personally feel that the geek crowd is an easy crowd to get a laugh out of, so I sorta doubted I'd have the same experience.  It takes a rare book to get me laughing, but Retribution Falls got quite a few chuckles out of me.  Guess that'll teach me to be such Doubting Donald.

I could carry on about plot, and prose, but that would most definitely lead to more gushing about this wonderful novel.  For me, the key factors that made Retribution Falls stand out are the cast of characters, the exciting plot, and the genre busting feel of the whole she-bang.  For real, this book is great in lots of different ways, and is definitely worth a read.  Highly Recommended.

Grade: A

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: The Drop Edge of Yonder

The Drop Edge of Yonder tells the story of Zebulon Shook, a mountain man and fur trapper who gets cursed by a dying half Shoshoni, half Irish woman. The curse makes it impossible for Zebulon to know whether or not he is trapped in the spirit world, the real world, or somewhere in between.

After selling his most recent collection of furs, Zebulon sets out from his home, setting off an epic journey that has him meeting up with his half brother, losing a fortune at cards, getting shot, (multiple times), tangled up with a dangerous women, becoming a well renown and much wanted criminal, caught up in the gold rush, among a myriad of other adventures.

As Zebulon careens his way through the American West there is an interesting juxtaposition between Zebulon's free wheeling, devil may care attitude and approach to life, while all around him, the west gets steadily more organized and tamed.  It was interesting to me how the idea of freedom on the frontier is vastly different from the notion of freedom in a civilized society.  This seems to be a recurring theme in many westerns, but it is played out to the extreme with Zebulon in this novel.

The Drop Edge of Yonder is a virtual whirlwind of a tale. Once Zebulon sets off on his journey, the pacing of the narrative is rapid fire.  One thing literally happens directly after another, and the story never once lets up.  The story reflects Zebulon's lifestyle which is chaotic at the best of times, and just plain crazy at all others.  I found myself easily swept up in the story, and enjoyed every moment of this wild ride.  Because of Zebulon's free wheeling style, there is no way to know which direction the novel will take you...aside from knowing that where ever the story goes it will likely lead to more trouble for Zebulon.  That said, it was a joy to be swept up in the story and visit a variety of locations on the western frontier.

Rudolph Wurlitzer's prose reminded me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's in the sense that Wurlitzer is somewhat sparse with his descriptions, but at the same time, manages to paint a vivid picture of the wild west.  Though Zebulon's adventures take him all over the west, down to Mexico, and further into Central America, Wurlitzer makes each setting come boiling to life.  Despite the sparse style, Wurlitzer was still able to capture a very authentic feel for the settings, people, and sometimes violent and dangerous culture of the western frontier.

The Drop Edge of Yonder is a book that can be read in a couple of different ways.  It can be read simply as a western adventure of outlaws, cards, and whiskey, but there is a supernatural element to the story as well.  The curse that gets put on Zebulon gives this book a bit of a fantastical swirl.  There are a few clues and circumstances that give credit to the idea that Zebulon might either be dreaming up his wild adventures, or be stuck in the spirit world.  However, the free spirit in me wants to believe that someone could possibly live the free, unshackled life that Zebulon led.  Either way, The Drop Edge of Yonder had a small dose of the fantastic to it, which adds yet another engaging element to the story that reminded me a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay's works that are very light on the fantasy elements.

No matter which way to shake it, The Drop Edge of Yonder is a definite departure from my usual reading habits.  Though I consider myself a moderate fan of the western genre, mostly through comics and film,  this novel was well worth the foray into the written variety of the genre.  Definitely worth a read for western fans and lapsed western fans alike.

Grade: B

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Comic Quickies: Welcome to the DCnU part 2.

Batwoman #1: After reading Batwoman: Elegy, I had the feeling that Batwoman would be one of, if not the only, sure-fire hits for me in the DCnU.  It is hard to go wrong with J.H. Williams III on art, and his writing efforts, teamed up with co-writer W. Haden Blackman are pretty solid here too.

This comic begins by setting up a creepy new supernatural villain who is stealing children in Gotham City.  Given Batwoman's past, this seems like a great villain for her to square off against.  This issue also sets a few other interesting balls rolling for the series.  Detective Sawyer, the officer who is investigating the missing children, looks to be a little love-interest in the making for Kate Kane.  In other action, Batwoman also appears to be training herself a side-kick.  This prospective hero is none other than Kate's cousin, Bette Kane, who was formerly Flamebird in the Teen Titans.  This section of the issue was slightly confusing for me, as my knowledge of any DC heroes not Superman, Wonder Woman or Batman is terrible, and I felt like I was missing something.

The best part of this comic came when Kate has a confrontation with her estranged father.  This sequence, told over a double page spread, displays three important things:  JH3's ability to visually tell a story better than any other, the writing team's ability to script and deliver some tense, yet succinct writing, and an amazing montage recap of what went down in the Elegy story.

All told, this was a very strong issue, and for my money, the best of the DCnU relaunch comics so far.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1: Jeff Lemire is writing two comics for the relaunch. While Animal Man is a serious story with some family drama, and horror elements, Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is balls out action.

This one starts out with a little walk-through of S.H.A.D.E.'s new HQ, which is a three inch indestructible ball, which is currently hovering 2,000 miles above NYC.  In order to visit said three inch ball one must get shrunk, then teleported aboard this mite-sized base...and that crazy kind of shit is exactly why I think this is going to be an awesome comic.

That's just the beginning of the zaniness too.

From the looks of things, S.H.A.D.E. is run by none other than...Father Time, who is using the body of a uniformed school-girl to act as his host.  Then, there's a small town in rural Washington that is overrun by a host of ugly-ass monsters.  S.H.A.D.E. has sent in their best agent, the four-armed, gun toting Bride of Frankenstein.  Her efforts aren't enough to contain such a massive threat, so Frank, and his newly assembled team of monsters are sent in to do some damage.  The team includes a werewolf, vampire (neither are sparkly), a mummy and the creature from the black lagoon.

So far, this is pretty much exactly what I want this comic to be: classic monsters fighting monsters, with a lot of weirdness and tons of action.  Lemire's writing is decent, and the art, by Alberto Ponticelli is pretty great too.  There were a couple times his work looked a little sloppy, but most of the time it looked solid.  He seems to excel at drawing lots and lots of monsters.

From the looks of things, Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is shaping up to be pretty nutty, yet entertaining as hell at the same time.  Looking forward to what comes next.

Meanwhile (Graphic Novel):  Up last is a non DC title.  Conceived, written, and illustrated by Jason Shiga, Meanwhile is a choose your own adventure style graphic novel with over 3,500 different possibilities and it all begins with one simple (or is it?) decision: chocolate or vanilla.  Depending on your choice of ice cream, you are launched into a story filled with mad scientists, insane inventions and the fate of the world in the palm of your hands.

Meanwhile is a pretty unique piece of comic creation.  Instead of reading the panels left to right, you have to follow these colored tubes that lead you up, down and all over the page.  When it comes time to make a decision, you follow the tubes to tabs, and flip to that page, and carry on.  A careful read of the text, and a sharp eye for detail is brilliantly rewarded as there are a few hidden codes throughout the comic that will aid you in your quest.  Some of these codes were easier to unlock than others.

Aside from code breaking, and decision making, there's also a coin-toss scene that felt about as realistic and chancy as a real coin-toss, as well as some cool inventions (time travel anyone?) that, when you have to choose which invention to investigate, makes for some tough decisions...As tempting as the doomsday device was, I ultimately chose time travel as my initial adventure.

I spent a good chunk of a day trying to max out as many story possibilities as I could, and I think I came pretty damn close.  By the time I felt like I'd covered most of the options, I did what any good choose your own adventure reader does, and cheated.  After flipping though each and every page of the book I found only two pages I hadn't been to; One was an easter egg for cheaters like me, and could only be found by, well, cheating, and another that I still haven't been able to work my way to yet.  Still, there is a lot of material here, and Meanwhile is a pretty amazing feat of choose your own adventure style story telling.

I consider Meanwhile a must have for any fan of this style of story, and a must read for anyone who loves to have fun.  Hopefully Shiga will dip back into this style of comic again in the future.  Great stuff.

Grade: A

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: Rex Mundi v1 The Guardian of the Temple

Picture a world where the American Civil War ended in a stalemate, the Catholic Church is the primary power in Europe, and sorcery and mysticism are practiced behind closed doors.  Now consider what this might make the political situation of the Eurasian land mass look like and you've got a good starting place for Rex Mundi.

This first volume, The Guardian of the Temple, is set in Paris.  When an ancient scroll goes missing from the secret chambers of a church, Doctor Julien Sauniere is called upon, by his old friend, Father Marin  -the guardian of the secret chamber- to investigate.  Marin confesses that he revealed the whereabouts of the secret chamber to a friend, who is currently a practicing prostitute.  Marin also suspects that sorcery was used to breach the chamber.  Sauniere rushes off to track down Marin's friend but is too late and discovers she is the victim of a brutal, ritualistic murder.  As Sauniere digs deeper, he discovers that an ancient secret society may be behind the murder.  All the while, the Catholic police, the Inquisition is hot on his heels.

While all this is going on, plots, and counter plots are hatching in the political arena as France inches closer and closer to a war with their neighbors.

In many ways Rex Mundi: The Guardian of the Temple reminded me a bit of The DaVinci Code, except with better writing, more complexity, and a wider scope.  While The Guardian of the Temple is basically an opening salvo to a much grander plot, it does a great job of giving the reader a feel for the alternate historical setting, and the elements at play.

In many ways, Rex Mundi is a comic where the art does much of the talking, but make no mistake there is some solid writing going on too.  This is a comic rich in complex elements, with a fully fleshed out alternate history that I am dying to learn more about.  The writer, Arvid Nelson fills the story up with lore, mysticism and mystery that only make the setting more intriguing.  There are a lot of elements thrown at the reader in this first volume, but I never felt over my head, and instead felt like I had been invited into an amazing, fully realized version of Earth that never happened but could have.  So far, the world building has been excellent, and I'm hungry for more.

As great as the plot, and the alternate historical setting is, I found it hard to connect with Sauniere, who is, for all intents and purposes, the primary character.  So far he has mostly been the tool that cranks the story and the plot forward, moving it along towards the eventual destination.  Aside from that, there hasn't been much development of his character.  There were a few tidbits here and there, but nothing I could firmly latch on and connect to.  Despite this grand scope of the plot, there are only a couple of secondary characters thus far, and none that really stand out.

The art element of Rex Mundi is handled by Eric J, and is the perfect companion to the writing and the setting.  Eric J brings the world of the 1930's to life brick by lovely brick.  Each scene is wonderfully detailed and quite nice to look at.  He expertly captures the decadence and the dinginess alike of the environment.  That said, his figure drawing felt a bit off for me. All the people in the comic look like they are about nine feet tall, and men and women alike all have elongated, broad-shouldered swimmer's bodies.  It almost looks as if a nearly human alien race is walking around Paris, pretending to be human.

After reading this first volume, there is not doubt in my mind that this is a comic with a rather epic scope.  In some ways this intimidates me a bit, as I'm not sure I'm quite ready for a journey of such proportions.  There is no doubt that there are much bigger things to come, which to me can be a blessing or a curse.  My fear is that Nelson wont be able to hold all the strings of such an ambitious plot.  However, I am quite intrigued by all the potential.  Even though I haven't connected with any of the characters yet, this is still a strong first volume, and I'm definitely on board for the next installment.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Comic Quickies: Welcome to the DCnU part 1

With DC comics spitting out 52 new titles this month, there's a lot to talk about in the comics world.  The problem with all these "new" titles, is figuring out which ones are worth reading.  For the most part, I had no problem saying "no fucking way" to the majority of "the new 52" but nostalgia, curiosity, and some great creative teams have peaked my interest enough to get me to add seven titles to my pull list, along with a handful of other titles that'll be getting the ol' flip check in store.

So without further ado, I give you part 1 of my DCnU Comic Quickies...

Action Comics #1: If you're a long-time reader of the blog, you'll know that I loved Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman enough to name it one of my top 5 graphic novels of the year last year.  If you aren't long time reader, well, that's ok too.

Anyway, when I saw that Grant Morrison would once again be writing Superman, my inner nerd went wild.  Now, I'm not in any way a Superman fan.  I never even liked the guy that much as a kid.  He always struck me as far too over powered, and boring.  However, Morrison has this crazy knack for making Superman interesting.  Interesting to the point that he made me love a comic about Superman.  Believe me, that takes some skill.

So, how was Action Comics #1?  I was not let down.  The comic starts with Supes literally sniffing out corruption and dealing out some steel justice in a rather Batman-like way.  From there we learn that this is a story about Superman's early days in Metropolis, before all his powers come to full fruition.  The Man of Steel is more Man of Suspicious Interest as he's pursued by police, and plotted against by the government who enlist the help of Lex Luthor.

I got the feeling that Morrison is trying to take a back-to-basics approach to Superman, where he is truly a man of the people, fighting for those who can't fight for themselves.  That concept came across well here, and it is a concept I can definitely get behind.

Yeah, Superman's "costume" looks a little bit off with the patched jeans, and shoes he borrowed from Goofy, but I liked that he's a bit powered down.  I actually found myself caring about his safety and health a couple times, which is a new thing for me.

The art, which is handled by Rags Morales, was a bit hit or miss for me.  I think I read somewhere that Superman is supposed to be about 5 years younger than the JLA Superman here, but there were a few panels where he looked downright old.  Like, in his 50's.  Aside from that, I can't really complain, Morales' art is competent, but not astounding.

Aside from writing Superman in such a way that made me care about the guy and take interest, Action Comics #1 was also just a great fucking comic.  From start to finish it was a spellbinding read, and was easily my favorite, and least flawed, title I've read so far from the new 52.

Animal Man #1:  I was initially interested in Animal Man because it's written by Jeff Lemire, a guy who is right up there as one of my very favorite comic writers.    That initial interest skyrocketed when I got a good look at Travel Foreman's cover and some of the interior art.

That interest and excitement waned considerably once I got the actual comic in my hands and flipped open to the first page of art to see flat, texture-less, unattractive art.  This style prevailed for about two thirds of the issue while Animal Man, A.K.A. Buddy Baker is going about his usual family man/costumed hero day.  However, after an intense hostage situation at a children's hospital, where we get a glimpse at Buddy's powers, Buddy returns home, goes to bed, and proceeds to have one hell of a nightmare.

The dream sequence, is quite easily, some of the coolest art I've seen in comics.  It's got everything from rivers of blood, to fleshy disembodiment, to strange talking beasts.  This dream sequence leads to an intense real-world moment for Buddy and his family, and finishes off the first issue with a solid shocker of an ending.

After this first issue, I'm firmly on the fence with Animal Man.  If Foreman had been able to bring the thunder all issue long, and deliver 20 pages of great art, rather than 4 pages of great art, I'd be heaping praise on what is a well written comic, but for my money, is lacking consistency in the art department.

Detective Comics #1:  Without a doubt, Batman is my favorite superhero.  Probably because there is nothing "super" about him, he's just a regular guy, albeit incredibly fit, and a touch crazy.  Ever since I've returned to comics as an adult, I've been hoping for an opportunity to jump onto some Batman titles and read the adventures of my childhood hero.  That opportunity never presented itself, at least not without me having to read a few graphic novels worth of key back story from the last decade or so of Bat-history, until the relaunch.  Once the relaunch was announced, I immediately signed up for the two key Bat-titles, Detective Comics and Batman, to be added to my pull list.

Of the those two titles, I'm less excited about Dectective Comics mostly because Tony S. Daniel handles both the writing and the art.  I'd flip-checked some of his past bat-work and never been all that impressed with either his writing or his art.  I figured I'd give it a shot though, especially considering how much I've been wanting to read some Batman the last couple years.

The comic itself turned out to be a pretty solid, if somewhat standard Batman comic.  It's got all the usual Bat-stuff you've seen hundreds of times, like Batman sprinting/jumping/bat-grappling from roof top to roof top, Batman driving the batmobile through holograms into the bat-cave, Batman engaging in some banter with Alfred, Batman talking with Gordon, Batman disappearing on Gordon mid-sentence while his back is turned, and so on...I almost felt like Daniel was filling out a checklist of necessary, cliched bat-moments while interspersing them into the story.

The story, though somewhat juvenile, is pretty interesting; It deals with the Joker, so that is an instant plus, and has a pretty gruesome and shock factor-ish ending which could potentially lead to some cool plot lines down the road.  I don't want to be too hard on Daniel, his art in this issue is pretty strong, and reminiscent of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Batman art.  The writing is pretty decent too, I just think I hold any Batman comic to pretty high standards, and this one didn't quite reach those heights.  I'm definitely excited to see more of what Dectective Comics has to offer, but slightly on the fence about his title.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Metal Memoir: Mustaine

This one has been a long time coming.

I've put this book on hold at the library four times, and each time, when it comes in, I forget to go to the library and pick it up.  By the time I remember, my hold has expired, and the book is off in someone else's hands.  Fifth time's the charm though, and with late fines through the roof, I pushed this one not only up to the top of my 'to read' pile, but also up to the top of my 'to review' pile.

So what is book all about?  Well, Mustaine is the memoir of Megadeth's founder, frontman, and guitarist, Dave Mustaine.

Ever since the Countdown to Extinction album came out and subsequently rocked my 11 year old world,  Megadeth has been one of my favorite bands.  Though my fanaticism for the band has faded a bit over the years, their power trio of albums, Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia are still incredible and get steady play in my stereo.  So, when Mustaine came out last year, I thought it might be cool to give it a read and hopefully learn a little bit about one of my favorite musicians and favorite bands.

Well, I sure did learn a lot.  Like how many times Mustaine has been in rehab, (17 times), how much getting kicked out of Metallica haunted him for years, how many chicks he banged, and how many lineup changes Megadeth has been though over the decades.

And, that's pretty much the whole book in a nutshell.  There's some bits about his sadly messed up childhood, and some bits about his personal life, but make no mistake, this is a memoir that covers what the fans wanna read about: sex, drugs and rock n' roll.  With slightly more emphasis on the drugs.

I guess I'm not your typical Megadeth fan because the thing is, I was sort of hoping for more information about his guitar playing technique, which I feel he downplayed in favor of giving props to other band members, and more information about the band, song writing processes, album recording, inspiration, and that sort of stuff.  Sure, Mustaine did cover all those things to some degree in the memoir, but very little amount of the book is focused on those items.

As I mentioned earlier, much of the focus is on drug use in Mustaine which makes sense, given how large of a role it played in his life for many years. But hearing story after story about how drugs ruined a relationship with a band-mate, got him in trouble, or jeopardized his career got a little tiresome for me, while other aspects that I'd have liked to read more about were merely given lip service.

The aspect I appreciated the most was Mustaine's openness about himself, his drug use, his sometimes caustic relationships with band mates and the controversy over his expulsion from Metallica.  While every story was, of course, told from his point of view, I felt like he was very candid about what happened, honest and up front about his own role, no matter how shameful, in the various events.  I got the sense that it has taken a lot of time and soul searching for Mustaine to come to terms with his past and own up to his actions.

Overall, this was a mostly interesting read, though maybe not such a sure fire hit for non-Megadeth fans.  If you do happen to be a fan, there is some interesting stuff here, especially in terms of Megadeth line-up lore (nearly as many band members as rehab trips).  If nothing else, Mustaine will inspire you to stay away from drugs, and listen to good music!

Grade: C+

Warning: scientific experiments enacted upon goofy looking aliens!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Comic Quickies: A Fond Farewell

The Intrepids #6:  We begin this Comics Quickies with a fond farewell to what has steadily been one of my favorite comics for the past six months, The Intrepids.

I couldn't ask for much more in a comic; The Intrepids pretty much has it all.  From skilled, twist-filled, and fun writing, to art that gives the series a unique feel, and makes each page feel like a little gift, this is truly a wonderful comic.

If mad scientists, cyber bears, robo squids, attack monkeys, high-tech body modifications, action, humor, adventure, spy/special agent hi-jinks and dark pasts hold even a flicker of interest for you, then I urge you to give The Intrepids a shot.

If The Intrepids were a Batman, it would be the Adam West Batman.  If The Intrepids were James Bond it would be Roger Moore.  If The Intrepids were a wrestler it would be The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, and if it were a car, it would be a Delorean.

It may be too late to get your hands on the single issues, but there will be a trade collection coming soon so just keep an eye out and then give it a read.

I think this video captures how I feel about the end of The Intrepids.

Loose Ends #1:  This one bills itself as a '4 issue southern crime romance'.  The first issue, which takes place almost completely at a roadside dive bar, mostly delivers on that billing and acts predominantly as a set up for what is to come in the following issues.

I enjoyed the seedy setting, flawed characters, and dangerous regulars of Bobbi's Hideaway.  The story that takes place at the bar is quite interesting and filled with an interesting twist that has me intrigued for the next issue. There are still a few elements that are so far, unexplained but I expect, more shit will come to light in the coming issues.

On top of what looks to be some strong writing, Loose Ends also offers some great art, and comes in a slightly oversized format, with thick, high quality pages.  This is a comic that looks good, feels good, and reads uhm, good...shit, I couldn't make that work. You get the idea.

Mystery Men #4: Mystery Men is a comic series that started out pretty solid, with a moment or two that made me cringe, and has sadly, slowly deteriorated from there.

The biggest contributors to the decline has been the addition of the two latest team members, The Surgeon, and Achilles.  These two guys have pretty much ruined the comic for me.  Every time The Surgeon speaks it's in cheesy medical lingo.  For example, after he dispatches a cop with a syringe full of green...stuff, he declares: "My diagnosis: a feeble mind, leading to faulty detective work.  This operation is concluded...let's scrub down and compare notes."  Yeah, so bad, and there's others, that's just the first one I came to.

Achilles is a pain with the dialog too, but in his case, it's his conflicted inner dialog that drives me nuts.  Nothing has been done to make me care if he is a killer or not, so when he mentally whines about deciding to take someone's life, I find that it just annoys me.

Yeah, there's stuff to like about the comic, like other characters who are pretty cool, and interesting, there's some pretty great art as well, and the plot of the series is interesting, but I just flat out cant stand that there are guaranteed to be at least two groan inducing moments per issue.  Long story short, I wont be buying the fifth and final issue to this mini-series.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bask in the Spectrelight

Mastodon was kind enough to release yet another track from their forthcoming album The Hunter.  This latest one is called Spectrelight and features Scott Kelly of Neurosis on vocals.  Kelly has memorably added his vocal skills on previous albums, so I'm happy to hear he's on this album as well.

As per usual, Justin from Oceans of Ale, hooked me up with the linkage.

As much as I enjoy hearing individual songs from the album, I'm definitely the kind of guy who prefers to listen to an album all the way through.  I sorta wish it would hurry up and be the 27th already.  Oh well,  soon enough.  Enjoy Spectrelight!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Review: Transmetropolitan v1 Back on the Street

Former journalist, Spider Jerusalem is living the life of a secluded artist.  He's got a house in the mountains, tucked away from prying eyes and a decent stash of drugs to keep him happy for a while.  He's also got smartguns, ebola bombs, and proximity mines to ensure this his peace and quiet is guaranteed.  All that peace and tranquility comes crashing down when Spider gets a call from his publisher, informing him that he owes his publishing company a couple more contracted books.  With no cash, and no inspiration to be found in the mountains, Jerusalem grudgingly decides that it's time to return to his natural habitat, the city.

Upon his return to his native throbbing mass of life and activity, Jerusalem scores a job writing articles for a city-wide newspaper.  Along with the new gig comes an apartment, a genetically engineered cat, and access to the mass of humanity that will inspire him to get writing again.  In this first volume, Jerusalem explores, interacts with, and creates an overwhelming air of chaos in such areas of racial tensions, politics, television, and religion.

I think it is fair to say that I was slightly under-prepared for just how nutty Transmetropolitan is.  Warren Ellis does a fantastic job of capturing the energy of a bustling futuristic city and then channeling that energy into the pages of Back on the Street.  The setting of this graphic novel reminds me of the gritty, violent futures of a Paul Verhoeven film, with a healthy dose of  Ellis' black humor.  Somehow, this is a graphic novel with an in-your-face attitude and a chip on its shoulder.  While reading this, I went through stages of shock, disgust, and joy as Ellis dragged me into his futuristic world.

The main character, Spider Jerusalem is clearly an homage to Hunter S. Thompson.  Spider's journalistic style felt very similar to that of Thompson, and his black humored, pull no punches writing.  Jerusalem seems like the perfect guy to hitch a ride with on his travels through the dystopian future Ellis has dreamed up.  He meets each fucked up situation with equal parts of anger, smarts, and black wit.  As far as main characters go, Jerusalem is a great driving force that pushes the narrative in some pretty interesting directions.

Darick Robertson, the artist on Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street is a guy who has been around the comics medium for a while, but is more or less an unknown to me.  Even though I unfamiliar with his works, I think it is safe to say he is the man for the job here.  Robertson totally nails the chaos and turmoil of  the story with his art.  Not only does he wonderfully display just how crazy, and fucked up the city is, he captures the crazy, fucked up-ness of Spider Jerusalem and his ever expanding range of nutty emotions too.

Robertson's art should also get some of credit for the Verhoeven-esqe feel this story has, as his art is reminiscent of the sets of such films as Total Recall and Robocop.  I appreciated the un-perfectness and heavily used feel to the world that his art gives off, and would take it any day over the shiny-and-new futuristic settings  that are too often found in science fiction.

I can't say that I was completely sucked in by this comic.  I did enjoy it immensely, both for the writing and the art, but there wasn't that magic bean that made me want to read the next volume immediately after.  I have no doubt that I'll read the next volume and possibly the entire series, but at this point in the series, I can't say that I'm completely invested in the thing.  Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street is certainly a great comic, and a pretty great piece of Warren Ellis writing.  It was a pleasure to read, but not as wholly engaging as I might have wished.   Sill, a great comic, and I'll definitely be coming back to this well sooner than later.

Grade: B

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: Nights of Villjamur

I've been patiently waiting to read Nights of Villjamur since reading the high praises it has received from trusted review sources around the web.  When I finally got my hands on the book, it spent only a few short days on the shelf before I picked it up and dove in.

The world in which Nights of Villjamur takes place is slowly trudging towards an ice age underneath a cold red sun.  In the city of Villjamur, the capital of the Jamur empire, people are getting ready for the long cold winter ahead.  While the people of the empire prepare for the transition, the nobility is undergoing a transition of its own as it ushers in a new queen.

As you might guess, the ascension to the throne is no minor political event, and there are many players, big and small, pulling strings behind the scenes.  When some of the nobles start getting murdered, a twisted conspiracy involving magic, military might, religious cults and corruption lurches to the forefront.  Though the very structure of the empire is in peril, a greater, otherworldly threat is poised to wreak havoc on an already vulnerable Jamur Empire.

I had great expectations for this novel.  The reviews I'd read seemed promising, the back blurb seemed to hint that many elements I enjoy in a fantasy novel were present, and the world Newton created seemed like a great setting for an amazing story.  Despite all the positive energy this novel had built up before I turned the first page, I was ultimately disappointed by Nights of Villjamur.

My first piece of disappointment came from Newton's prose, which I had a hard time becoming fully immersed in.  The prose was a series of ups and downs.  At times it reached fairly lofty heights and I enjoyed the cadence and flow of events, but there were too many steep drops in quality that were jarring and cringe-worthy.  The varying quality of the writing, which often shifted from good to bad on the same page, prevented me from being able to just settle in and enjoy the novel.

An equally important and troublesome gripe is that I had a very hard time connecting to any of the important characters in the novel.  With the exception of Brynd, who I found somewhat likable and interesting, there was little substance to the other characters and as a result they fell completely flat.  There was little development spent on each character, and when there was, the character development felt more like superficial additives to simply create an interesting trait in a character. Yet this generally did little to define character's motivations or justify their actions.

As flat as the characters were, it should come as little surprise that various races that populate the novel were homogeneous as well.  Though Nights of Villjamur included a long lived reptilian race, birdlike men called garudas, and banshees, whose cries announce deaths, aside from what I just told you, there was little more to these groups of people.  There was very little to set them apart from the human race, and when a human character interacted with one of these other races, there were little to no dynamics that indicated differing cultures, social norms or the like.

Another frustration I had with the novel is that the magic system, in which relics from a bygone age are used to do magical things, made absolutely no sense, and no explanation for how it all worked was offered.  The system was so poorly enacted that I got the sense Newton himself had little to no idea how his magic system worked, and instead just chucked it in there to appease fantasy fans who just gotta have their magics.  Each time there was magic at play in this novel I felt frustrated and confused as to how it worked.

With such major complications in terms of prose, character development, diversity among races, and a completely un-fleshed out magic system, it was hard to find the positives in Nights of Villjamur.  Though hard to see through the other problems, there is quality to be found.

I was most impressed with was the complexity of the plot.  Simply put, there is a lot of shit going on in this novel, and the basis of it all is quite interesting.  Yes, my aforementioned problems with the book all did their part to take away from my enjoyment of the plot, but there is no denying that Newton is capable of putting together an interesting story.  This fact is no small thing because it should be noted that Nights of Villjamur is Newton's debut novel, and the problems I had are all things which can be improved on over time. However, if you can't write something interesting, well, as a writer you are pretty much out of luck.  Happily, Newton does possess a strong ability to write an interesting story, so if he can improve upon his prose, and character development, while putting in the time to flesh out various races, and his magic system, the man could write a fantastic fantasy novel.    

I had far too many serious problems with this novel to give it a recommendation.  The weaknesses far overshadowed the strengths and I had a very hard time enjoying this novel.  I'm unwilling, nor do I think it is fair, to write off Newton as an author whose works I would avoid.  I think he is quite capable of improvement, and his extremely creative imagination, which I'm pleased to say leans towards the weird end of things, could put together a fantastic novel in the near future.  Nights of Villjamur however, fell far short of greatness,  I would advise staying away from this particular novel.

Grade: D