Monday, October 31, 2011

Comic Review: From Hell

Despite being completely disgustipated by Alan Moore's most recent comics effort, Neonomicon, I'm still a fan of the guy's comics work thanks to stuff like Watchmen and Top 10. The guy is quite capable of some very solid writing.  I mean, people don't consider the man a comics genius for nothing right?

When I received From Hell as a nifty-gifty last year, I was a bit daunted by the size.  Make no mistake, this is a tome.  For works of such girth, I typically wait for when the time feels right to dig in.  With Winter coming, and the city firmly in Fall's grasp, I figured the time was nigh for this tale of murder.

From Hell isn't just any old tale of murder, its the story of Jack the Ripper.  Jack the Ripper might be the most famous of killers, but there is no definitive text, or account of who he really was, and how all the killings were pulled off, or reasons why.  Its a mystery that to this day remains unsolved.  What you get with From Hell is Alan Moore's take on how it all went down, and by the end, you also get the strong sense that the guy might just have solved the damn mystery.

The story begins a few years prior to the murders with Prince Albert falling in love with a common shop girl named Annie, who has no clue as to Albert's true identity.  He soon fathers a child on her, and the two are secretly wed.  When Queen Victoria discovers the marriage, she sends Albert off on extended holiday, and has Annie relocated to an asylum and instructs her royal physician, William Gull to handle things.  Gull does so, by performing an operation that renders Annie insane.

For a while, it seems like all is well, but a few years later, Annie's friends, now forced into prostitution due to a variety of reasons, decide to blackmail the Prince's pal William Sickert in order to pay off a gang of thugs who demand protection money from the ladies.  Once again, the crown calls upon William Gull to handle the situation, and we all know how that ends.  The catch here is that Gull is a high ranking member of the Free Masons guild, a secret society that strives to control the order of the world from the shadows and from behind closed doors.  It is through Masonic and Royal connections that cause the police investigation to go awry and the case to go eternally unsolved.

In From Hell, Moore approaches the story from multiple angles.  Not only do you see things from the deranged mind of the killer, William Gull, but also through the eyes of the er, ladies of the night who get killed, and also via Inspector Abberline of the police.  In that sense, From Hell is more than just a tale of murder.  You also get an interesting police procedural plot, a taste for the day in and day out existence of an Victorian era Londoner, and a tour of the city as it stood way back when.  These aspects all breathe life into the narrative and help present a full picture of the events surrounding the murders.

Moore does a great job of not only presenting the known facts of the murders, but also adding his own ideas as well.  What makes From Hell work is that Moore is able to put it all together into a story that is interesting and engaging to read.

Accompanying Moore in this epic comics endeavor is artist, Eddie Campbell.  At first glance, Campbell's art is not exactly remarkable.  Many pages feature seven to nine panels with lots of long, thin vertical lines providing the only background.  It wasn't until I becomes fully immersed in the story that I was able to appreciate Campbell's work.  From at a casual glance what looks like sloppy/busy panel work is actually part of the atmosphere.

Yes, when the focus is solely on characters and what they are doing or saying, Campbell's art also focuses on the people. He essentially cross hatches out the setting, and instead focuses his energies on facial expression and body language. A concept that goes a long ways towards giving the reader a strong sense of the character's emotions or inner thoughts.  That said, Victorian Era London is very much a character of it's own in From Hell and Campbell hits the mark with his depictions of the city, and it's architecture, not to mention the nature of people's dwellings.  The furnishings, clothing and other every day items are all there and help depict the time the story is set in and brings life to the story.

For the completist, there's a significant appendix with detailed information on what is happening on nearly every page of the graphic novel and where that information came from.  I found it more useful to use the appendix as a reference tool when I wanted more information on a particular page, rather than something I read all the way through after I was done with the story.

All told, From Hell is an impressive piece of work.  There's folks out there who consider this the most significant work of comics ever, and while I'm not sure I'd go that far, I will say that it is one damn fine example of how incredible the comics medium can be.  Moore is able to present the reader with an insider's view of the Jack the Ripper murders, delving into the mind of the killer himself, all while keeping the many other details and intricacies of the story in focus.  This is a must own/must read for any comics lover.

Grade: A

Friday, October 28, 2011

Welcome to the DCnU Issue #2 Edition

Welcome to the DCnU second issue recap of all the DC comics I tend to read.  If you've been keeping up, you'll know that I liked some of the new DC titles I picked up last month, while some others left me sitting on the fence.  So how'd those titles fare the second time around?  Let's see....

Action Comics #2:  I wanna say that I'm really glad they toned down Superman's powers a bit for this comic.  He's still a strong dude, but Morrison has done a good job making Supes seem like he isn't an unstoppable force.  I also like the way they're handling Lex Luthor.  The guy is faced off against Superman, but for believable reasons: with the safety of humanity in mind...the guy's not wrong, he's just an asshole.

I think I'm officially not a fan of Rags Morales.  Superman is supposed to be a young man in this, but there are times he looks more like an middle aged going on towards old man.  (Just look at that cover)  Also Lois looks like a frumpy, worn out cougar on casual Friday in this issue.  Morales' character designs look totally different from one page to the next.  Not impressed.

Inconsistent art aside, this is a fun take on Superman, and Morrison makes the Man of Steel fun to read.  I'm definitely on board for the first full arc, and probably Morrison's entire run.

Animal Man #2:  A lot of people are totally in love with Animal Man.  I am not one of those people.  I was firmly on the fence after the first issue, and not a lot has changed after the second.

I stuck around for this second issue on the strength of the three page dream sequence at the end of issue one, and like that issue, a few cool things happened that got me excited, which helped balance out the other not so cool parts. For example: Animal Man's eyes bleeding a crazy map-tattoo onto his chest. Animal Man's daughter turning a neighbor's hand into a chicken leg.  However, I realize I can't just keep reading this issue for the one or two pages of thrills it provides each issue.  The whole issue needs to be worth reading not just a few pages.

A big hang-up I have with this title is that I don't like Travel Foreman's art.  He can draw some creepy and cool beasties, but most everything else looks flat and generic, or too clean and sanitized.  Because this is written by Jeff Lemire, I'll give it one more issue, but it needs to improve drastically.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #2:  Does Frankenstein bitch-slap a deranged and creepy old church lady who's been sacrificing children to monsters from another dimension? Hells to the yes.  Does Frankenstein do some underwater sword wielding against some crazy creatures?  Mmm hmm.  Does Frank and his crew travel to a planet completely covered in monsters?  Yes!

Unlike Lemire's Animal Man, which focuses on characters and their interactions, Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is all about the balls to the walls action and monster slaying.  Yeah, there's some character development in there, but it's not the focus of the comic, nor am I inclined to care.

I do get the sense that the light/popcorn feel might not be able to hold my interest over time, but for now, it's pretty enjoyable, and this one scores high marks for sheer escapism.  My one gripe: Frank rocks some really dorky platform combat boots...what the hell is up with that?

Detective Comics #2:  I think Batman is supposed to be flying in the bat-plane or something on that cover, but I'm not so sure...he could be on the bat-toilet.

I wasn't instantly in love with this title after the first issue, but a shocker ending made  me interested enough to read more.  I wish I could say otherwise, but this issue felt like more of the same.  More bat-toys, a fight, and lo and behold, another shock-tastic ending.

Tony S. Daniel, who does both the writing and the art, seems to be relying on the cheap thrills approach with Detective Comics, and I'm not sure how much more I can take.  It doesn't seem like a sustainable form of story telling.  I can only take so many big shockers before they achieve mundane status, and lose their ability to make an impact.  I'm considering dropping this one from my pull-list.

Batwoman #2:  Batwoman is easily the best title coming out of the DCnU, and for my money, is one of the best buys on the shelf these days.  J.H. Williams III is probably the best artist in the game right now, and Batwoman is an amazing looking book, not to mention a compelling read.

Kate Kane/Batwoman is a really interesting character to read about both in and out of the bat-suit.  Her budding love interest with Detective Sawyer adds an interesting dynamic to the whole deal too.

On top of a budding love story, there's some strange wraith-like creature abducting Gotham's children, and a D.E.O. spook pulling rank all over town trying to figure out and unmask Batwoman.  Batwoman is great stuff, I highly recommend this very accessible series.

Batman #2:  Batman is the better of the two Batman titles, but it still has a major weakness.  The art.  I didn't like it in issue one, and I like it even less in issue two.  I wrote in my review of issue one that I hoped to grow accustomed to, and one day like Capulo's art, but I think I kinda hate it.  Not only is it fifteen years or so out of date, but it just doesn't work on multiple levels.

The first thing that drives me nuts are his action sequences, which are poorly planned out and confusing to figure out what the hell is going on. There was a really poorly executed action sequence where Batman jumped the bat-cycle onto an oncoming train (no ramp needed) in physics defying fashion that was just plain cheesy, but it gets much worse.

The other aspect of Capullo's art that drives me nuts are his character designs.  Simply put, the people look ridiculous.  Why is Bruce Wayne's head a fucking cinder block?  There's another confusing action scene where Bruce Wayne battles some assassin in an owl-combat suit.  Bruce tries kicking and punching the guy, both of which are easily blocked by the assassin, yet somehow, Bruce is then able to run up, and put the guy in a head-lock no problem.  There's then three increasing close up panels of Bruce trying to choke the guy out, then comes the worst panel of the entire comic:

Bruce Wayne has had some nutty work done to his face...or Capullo simply does not know how to draw lips.  Lips don't square off like that nor do they meet the teeth at a right angle.  What did the guy do, bust out a ruler to draw that panel?  That will not do.  By the way Bruce, those are some smooth-ass teeth you got there buddy.

What makes this story even more tragic is that Scott Snyder is a great Batman writer.  I really like the story that he's got going on with this first arc, too bad I can't stand the art.  Please get a new artist.  Soon.

All Star Western #2:  Last but not least comes the western that really isn't a western.  When we last left Jonah Hex he was investigating the plot of From Hell (Review coming on Halloween!). Now he's caught up in a brutal shoot-out at Amadeus Arkham's casa with minions of Gotham's own elite secret society.  When the gunsmoke and dust clears Hex is still standing, and in his no bullshit fashion, discovers the whereabouts of the bad-guys hang out.  With Arkham in tow, he heads off to deal out some more six-shooter justice.

Thankfully, it turns out this opening story arc isn't a total rehashing of the From Hell plot, Gotham's secret society is actually following the teachings of the "Crime Bible" a dark faith based on the story of Cain and Abel.

So basically this opening story arc is setting up to be Jonah Hex versus rich religious nut-jobs.

Amen to that.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Music Review: Opeth- Heritage

It's been three years since Opeth's last release, Watershed. With great anticipation, Sweden's (and possibly all of Metal's) finest, Opeth returns with their tenth studio album Heritage.

It's a pretty significant accomplishment for any band to reach the ten album plateau.  By this point, most bands have either given up, broken up, or burnt out. If they are still making music, it is likely formulaic bullshit just to make a few bucks on record sales and kick start another high-priced tour.

Opeth on the other hand, is a band that appears to be constantly evolving, both in terms of their music, and in terms of their lineup.  Since 2005, four new members have entered the ranks of Opeth, one of which, Keyboardist Per Wiberg, has since been replaced.  You might think that the dude playing keys in a death metal band has little effect on a band's overall sound, but in my experience new band line-ups always result in a band who's sound scape is altered.

Heritage is definitely a unique sounding album, and a definite departure from their previous works.  From the melancholy piano intro on the first track, Heritage, it is clear that this album is going to take the listener to new places.  Those new places are even more evident on the following track, The Devil's Orchard, a song that serves as a good example of what you can expect from the rest of the album.  You might think: with new members comes new influences, new approaches, and the end result: new sounds.  However, I would argue that Opeth's new direction is less a product of who is new to the band and more likely due to who is still there.  

It seems pretty clear to me that Opeth is fully Mikael Akerfeldt's band, and the rest of the band marches to the beat of his drum.  It could be argued that this has been the case for some time, but with additions like Martin Axenrot and Fredrik Akesson, guys with death metal in their blood, I wonder how they feel about the band taking the less heavy road.

The Devil's Orchard  makes three things distinctly clear: First off, this is by far Opeth's softest album since Damnation.  Secondly, this is most likely Opeth's most progressive, and experimental album yet.  Altering time signatures, tempo shifts, and trippy sounds are all in abundance here.  Lastly, and maybe the most important factor of them all, is that Heritage is an album completely devoid of the death metal growl.  A detail the metal lover in me had a hard time coping with.

That said, it is really only on the first few listens that the death metal growl is missed.  Once I had a better taste for the album, and I had adjusted to it's sound, it became pretty clear that there really is no place for the growl on the album.  This set of compositions is truly much better served by Mikael Akerfeldt's liquid honey vocals. For a guy who can deliver some beastly growls, he really does have a beautiful singing voice.  That voice does have it's limits though.  There are times when Akerfeldt sings high, with less than great sounding results.  Still, for this set of songs, the clean lyrics work well in harmony with the music.

Instrumentally, Heritage breaks new ground for the band.  Not only is it softer than most of their previous output -look no further than the lovely guitar riff intro to I Feel the Dark- it also features some musical elements not often used by a metal band.  Aside from the occasional acoustic guitar, you'll also find some stand-up bass, hand percussion djembes and congas, and in the case of Famine, a healthy dose of some flute.  These elements all serve to prove the fact that Opeth has taken a much more progressive and experimental approach with Heritage.

For the most part, Opeth's new approach makes for some beautiful music, but at other times, the band goes a bit overboard with the progressive elements and, as is the case on Slither, wanders into the danger zone of rhythm damning avant-garde nonsense. While The Devil's Orchard is a great example of progressive metal done well, complete with time changes, and tempo shifts, it never stops being a good song with it's roots firmly planted in metal soil.  Slither on the other hand, takes the progressive elements to the extreme and becomes an incomprehensible mish-mash of buzzing, swirling sounds that barely resembles music.  Maybe this is a case of the listener needing more time to acquire an appreciation for the unique sound, but I'm more inclined to say Slither is a dud. When a band takes a new approach to music and explores new avenues, one dud out of ten isn't too bad, and Heritage delivers 57+ minutes of mostly wonderful music.

There will definitely be some fans out there disappointed with Opeth's new sound, and while some may say this album is just a departure, I get the feeling that Clean Vocals Progressive Metal-land is now Opeth's permanent residency.   Heritage is an album I initially struggled to enjoy, but it is an album that continues to grow on me with each listen.  I definitely prefer Heritage to the band's previous effort, Watershed, but I still find myself preferring their earlier, heavier albums.  Overall, an impressive effort, far superior to just about everything else in the music industry, but in terms of what I look for in an Opeth album, I'm left wanting a bit more.

Grade: C+

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Comic Quickies: Tales of Death

The Unexpected: 'Tis the season for horror, and The Unexpected, a one shot from Vertigo, is packed full of the stuff from the glorious cover drawn by Rafael Grampa to the back cover, which has an ad for The Big Bang Theory which is a wholly different brand of horror.

Vertigo managed to pull together some pretty big names to contribute to this anthology, but for the most part, I was disappointed with the content.  There was a decent ghost story in there from Joshua Hale Fialkov and Brian Wood delivered the goods with his tale Americana, (though it was a story that didn't actually feel like horror) and I enjoyed looking at Farel Dalrymple's art, but aside from those few high points I was pretty underwhelmed.  The rest of the content seemed to fall into one of two categories: "gore-fest" horror, which I don't care for at all, or "shocker endings!" which were never very shocking and at times outright predictable.

The $7.99 price tag makes me feel like I was ripped off.

 The Shade #1 of 12: After Batman, The Shade is my favorite DC character.  I say this despite my only previous experience with the guy being the first Starman Omnibus.  His shady demeanor, (pun intended), his ambiguous morals, and his creepy ability to make shadows come to life as beastly constructs makes him a memorable and like-able character.  The fact that this twelve issue mini-series is written by James Robinson, who wrote the Starman stuff and has an all-star lineup of artists working on the issues made this title a must have for me.

The first issue got things off to an odd start.  From what I can tell, The Shade basically spends his time sipping tea with superheros, and engaging in post-coitus repartee with his lady.  He also takes a stroll.

Robinson seemed to more intent on showing who The Shade is and only gives readers a very small taste of what he is capable of.  There is a shocker ending that was actually shocking, and has me pretty excited for the next issue.

Also, Cully Hamner handled the art for this issue, and he makes everything look beautiful.  Definitely worth checking out.  It'll be interesting to see where the hell this one is going.

Who is Jake Ellis #5 of 5: FINALLY!!

I think it was about at two or three month wait (it felt like longer!) for this final installment of what has been one of my favorite comics of the year.  Delays suck, but Who is Jake Ellis is worth the wait.

Since the very first issue, this has been an comic steeped in mystery, with a healthy dose of espionage action tossed in to make a delicious concoction of comic genius. I loved everything about this comic, from the writing, to the art, and the colors, and the final installment delivers on all fronts.  (Except for the ugly gray-tone cover, what the hell?)

I've always said that good endings are hard to come by, and the ending here (or is it?  More Jake Ellis please!) is pretty well handled.  Writer Nathan Edmondson wrapped up much of the mystery that was swirling around the primary characters, and answers most of my burning questions, and manages to leave the door open for potential sequels.  Not too shabby by my book.

If you aren't already reading this in single issues, buy the trade when it comes out. You will thank me.  Who is Jake Ellis is one of the best titles to hit shelves this year.

Sweet Tooth #26: Jeff Lemire is a busy dude lately.  He's writing and illustrating Sweet Tooth, plus writing  two other comics, and working on his creator owned graphic novel Underwater Welder in his spare time.  So when I heard that he was taking a three month hiatus from his Sweet Tooth drawing duties, I wasn't that surprised.

His sub, Matt Kindt, has been the subject of much scrutiny between myself and other Sweet Tooth readers at the comic shop.  I wasn't too thrilled to think that someone other than Lemire would be drawing the likes of Gus, Jeppard and the other Sweet Tooth folks, a feeling that seemed to be universal.

Well, boy was I surprised when I cracked open issue #26, Kindt's first call of duty, to find that he would be handling the art for a three issue side story titled The Taxidermist that is set one hundred years prior to the events of the main story line.

The story follows Dr. James Thacker on his sea-faring journey to the icy northern wastes of Alaska in search of his brother in law, who has gone missing while attempting to set up a Christian mission for the native Alaskans.  As soon as Thacker, the ship's captain and first mate hit land and begin their trek towards the settlement, things start to get weird, and before too long, their sled dogs are mysteriously killed, and things go south from there.

An awesome start to what looks to be an interesting side story.  Oh, and Matt Kindt's art is a good match to the strange story of icy Alaskan mystery and mayhem.

Near Death #1: Would I read a crime thriller set in Seattle? Sign me up!  Well, that's just what you get with Jay Faerber's Near Death.

Markham is a killer for hire, but from the looks of things in the early pages, his most recent job went to shit.  Now Markham is severely injured, and racing to save his own life.  He winds up on the operating table of a friend who runs an animal hospital and flatlines during surgery.  During his near death experience Markham is confronted by the hundreds of souls he's put to death, and told he needs to make amends for his sins.  Markham eventually is saved, and during his recovery, decides to use his skills to save people rather than kill them.

This first issue delivers the concept for the series in a pretty straight forward and workman like manner.  There is a no nonsense feel to the comic, which is possibly meant to make the story seem more spare and hard boiled, but to me it made the characters, especially Markham come across as empty vessels.  There is an interesting twist at the end that makes me think there might be more to this fledgling series than meets the eye, but I'm definitely on the fence with this title.  I do have the second issue waiting to be read, so I'll see if #2 can deliver the goods before I decide whether to carry on with this series or not.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Mythago Wood

Another day, another World Fantasy Award winner. Yup, that's just how I do.

 Up this time is Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.

Am I a impulsive book buyer?  *sigh* Um, yes, at times, but it usually works out in my favor.  There are definitely times when I'll see a book sitting there at the used book store, and though it isn't on my "books to read radar" I'll snag it because I've heard good things about it, and the fact that it has "found me" rather than me finding it, I figure that fate has somehow placed the two of us together for a reason. And really, who am I to give fate the cold shoulder?

It was under such fateful circumstances that Mythago Wood came to be in my possession.  At the time I was reading and loving The Prestige and since each title had won the World Fantasy Award, I thought, what the hell, let's give this one a whirl.  So I did.

For years, the Huxley family has lived on the edge of Ryhope Wood, a dense stretch of ancient British forest.  For years, George Huxley studied the forest, an undertaking that estranged him from his family and possibly drove him mad.  Now, after his death, his son Christian has taken up the old man's research and his younger brother, Steven has returned home from the war to help take care of the house and land.  Together the two young men discover that the forest is much more than it appears; The Ryhope Wood is a primeval place, where people, legends and tribes from different historical eras live and co-exist, brought to life by myth.  What appears to be just your typical old-growth forest is actually a place that is physically larger once inside that it appears from the outside, and is host to mythagos; savage men, women and beasts.

The forest has a dark power. The power that pulled down their father, George, and now is pulling Christian into it's grasp.  Unwittingly, Steven falls in love with Guiwenneth, one of the mythagos, just like his father and brother have before him.  When she is captured, Steven must quest to the center of the wood to save her, while confronting the dangers of the dark forest.

Mythago Wood got off to a slow start, taking its time to set up the characters, and the forest, which in many ways is a character itself.  The slow start was a bit frustrating because I knew that eventually, the book had to go and explore the forest, which is the most interesting thing, but it took a while to actually get to that point.  Things do pick up a bit once the quest through the forest begins, but overall, the pacing is a bit on the slow side here.

Though the primary character, Steven is decently developed, albeit a bit uninteresting as far as lead characters go, he serves the story well by being a great conduit for the reader to experience the woods and the mythagos through.  Steven is every bit as perplexed, overwhelmed, and unprepared for the mysteries of the forest as I would be, so in that sense, his experiences, reactions, and emotions come across as instantly understandable and real.  I thought this quality was a nice touch and made me feel like I was experiencing the dread, and craziness that was the Ryhope Wood.

The forest itself was basically a character and in my mind, the star of the show.  I wanted to know more about it, I wanted to explore it, and learn the secrets of the wood.  Holdstock did a great job by creating a mysterious and creepy setting and then bringing it life on the page.  I really felt like all of my senses were engaged, and operating at full capacity as Steven journeyed through the forest where unknown dangers, and mysteries lurked.  This made for a memorable reading experience.

My one gripe, aside from the slow pacing, was that the one female character, Guiwenneth, was poorly developed.  She came across to me as more of a pretty object for the men to fall in love with than an actual character.  Some of this was compacted by the fact that for much of the novel she couldn't speak modern English, so she didn't have much dialog, but aside from apparently being handy with a knife, a fact that was told, but never shown, she didn't have a lot going on.  The lack of character development with Guiwenneth made it harder for me to believe that George, Christian, and Steven would all fall madly in love with her, which ended up taking away from the story since Steven's love for Guiwenneth is what drove him into the forest in the first place.

Overall this was a solid fantasy novel, but far from my favorite.  Holdstock is a crafty writer, and created a great setting that was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, but the pacing and character development left a bit to be desired for my tastes.  I will say that Mythago Wood is a unique book in the fantasy genre.  I've certainly never come across anything like it.  I would recommend this one if you are looking for something different, but still want to stay in the fantasy genre.  For me, score this one as a push for impulse buying.

Grade: C+

Monday, October 17, 2011

Live in Concert: Opeth

This past Saturday, along with my buddy Justin from Oceans of Ale, I stood witness as Opeth rolled into Seattle wielding their mighty Metal war hammer and proceeded to smite their fans with their punishing brand of death metal...Ok, so it didn't go exactly like that, but it was still quite wonderful.

This was my second time seeing Opeth.  I first saw them when they hit town a few years ago touring for the Ghost Reveries album.  This time around, it was almost like seeing a completely new band.  There were a couple new guys in the line-up and the set list consisted completely of songs where Mikael Akerfeldt sang  in his clean vocal style.  From reading about other shows from this tour on the web I had a feeling it would be a pretty mellow set, but I wasn't expecting the show to be completely devoid of death-metal growls.

Despite not playing their heaviest songs there were definitely some metal moments, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the show was lacking because of the lack of growl-age.  Still, Opeth is a band that is so musically gifted that seeing them live is a real treat.

They kicked off the set with The Devil's Orchard which is one of the best songs off Heritage.  Around the middle of the set, in minstrel like fashion, Mikael sat down with an acoustic guitar and played three obscure Opeth tracks.  One, which can be found on the deluxe edition of Heritage, another which I think he said was a song they wrote for a game, and the last which was written around the Blackwater Park era.  On the one hand, it was cool to hear three Opeth songs that were completely new to me, but at the same time, I was a bit frustrated that such a large chunk of the set was dedicated to music that was totally obscure to all but the most devout Opeth aficionado.

My disappointment was almost immediately erased when Porcelain Heart and A Fair Judgement (my favorite Opeth Song not titled Black Rose Immortal) followed the obscure songs in close succession.

Like most things in Seattle where lots of people are drawn together, the crowd enthusiasm would best be described as tepid.  There was also a strong sense of disappointment in the air when it became quite clear that the band was intent on putting on a mellow performance.  I think a lot of fans still yearn for the Opeth of old where blistering, yet melodic riffs shredded the silence and the double foot bass pounded out the beat to yet another epic song.

After hearing Heritage, and seeing them live, one thing seems abundantly clear: Opeth has evolved from their death metal roots into a progressive, technical metal band.  Like many fans, I'm also still coming to terms with this fact, but unlike many fans, who seemed unsatisfied with the show on Saturday, I enjoyed the show.  Sure there may not have been any growly vocals, but Opeth is still incredibly gifted and talented.  As a band they are incredibly tight, and play together well.  They slowed down and sludged out the ending of A Fair Judgement, and it was one of my favorite moments of the show, and seemed completely spontaneous rather than a rehearsed alteration to a back catalog song.

All told, it was a great show at a less than great venue, with great company.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: v2 Wake the Devil

I don't usually read successive volumes of a comic series in such close proximity to one another, but I felt myself drawn to Wake the Devil over the plethora of unread comics sitting on my shelf.  As Autumn settles in here in the north west, like every year, I find myself gravitating towards the darker, more devilish works that populate my shelves.  Fall, horror, and weird fantasy are a great combo, and I knew Hellboy would be able to deliver the necessary goods.

In Wake the Devil a mysterious crate marked Giurescu, Lot #666 has gone missing from a New York City wax museum and the evidence at the scene of the crime points to the evil Nazi unit Ragna Rok being involved.  From the intelligence Hellboy's employers at the B.P.R.D. have collected, it looks like the Ragno Rok folks are dedicated to resurrecting a deadly vampire.  Hoping to prevent vampire troblems (troubles and problems) Hellboy and his fellow B.P.R.D. operatives are sent in to investigate.  Throw in some Nazi occult business attempting to bring about the end of the world, and you have an action packed second volume.

The biggest difference between Wake the Devil and the opening volume in the series, Seed of Destruction is that the writing duties are wholly handled by Mike Mignola this time around.  So what does that mean for the story?  Well, there's less Lovecraftian beasts in the mix, and a greater sense that there's a distinct effort to tie everything into myth that already exists in the real world.  There was still a bit too much wordy dialog and weird occult stuff that is hard for me to wrap my head around, and I worry that I'm already getting sick of Nazis as the bad guys.  That said, there's plenty to like in this second volume too.

Once agian, Mignola's art stands out as the strongest quality of this comic.  The guy is great at drawing strange beasts of both magical, and weird science origin.  I'll never get sick of looking at art that depicts beasts, monsters and science constructs, I love that shit and Mignola is one of the best at drawing that stuff.  I mentioned this in my review for Seed of Destruction, but it bears mention again: Mignola is a master at setting tone and mood with his art.  Granted that mood is almost always set to "dark and creepy" but he does it well time and time again.  I love how there are often massive slabs of black on each page.  Though Mignola uses this technique a lot, it never feels overused, and really gives the comic a dark, grim feel, not to mention, a great signature style.

Another enjoyable quality is that this volume is all about strange monsters, occult plans for Armageddon, and demon battles.  However, Mignola also craftily adds depth to his titular character by throwing Hellboy an  inner demon to confront on top of the regular flesh, blood and brimstone demons he usually faces: his purpose on earth.

I'll admit, this was very much a reading experience full of ups and downs.  Though great art, exciting action, and fell beasts populate the pages, there were some low points as well.  For one, there's a vampire involved, and if you've been reading the blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that I'm sick of those bastards.  Lucky for me, the vampire has sort of a supporting role here. The theft of his body is what sets the plot in motion, yet the vampire himself isn't much of a player until the end.

Another gripe I have is that the same Nazi crew was back as the baddies for consecutive volumes.  Like vampires, I'm also a bit sick of Nazis.  I understand that these comics were written back in the 90's before popular culture was swamped with video games where you shoot hordes of Nazis and shitty books with goofy ass vampires but still, I'm reading them now with all that cultural bullshit clogging my brain.  What is a man to do?

In regards to the occult Nazi crew, I think I was more disappointed with the lack of variety than I was fed up with the use of a familiar trend.  Hellboy is part of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense right?  To me, this opens up the doors to a lot of possibilities, the only limitation being Mignola's imagination, so I expect a weird and wild variety of investigations.  There's no need to limit the antagonists to one group.  In order for me to stick around, Mignola is either going to have to branch out, or somehow weave his clan of Nazis into a greater tapestry, because right now, the story has too narrow of a focus for me.

I gotta say, so far the Hellboy series has been an atypical comic read for me.  Usually if I enjoy a comic, it is because I get sucked in by the characters, and the plot.  However, with Hellboy, I'm not sucked in at all, yet I've enjoyed each volume thanks to key elements like the art, the beastly creatures, and the weirdness.  This series offers up some of my personal favorite elements, but somehow it isn't blowing my doors down.  I'll admit, I'm a little bit confused.  Still, I'm intrigued enough to read more, but I'm still on the fence.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: The Prestige

Every now and then, on rare occasions, I'll be reading a book, and as I'm reading it, get that feeling that the book I'm holding is something really special.  Despite how much reading I do, (more than probably anyone in my friend circle, though less then I'd like), I only come across a truly special book every so often.  Probably less then once a year.  However, on these auspicious occasions, a book will rise up from the depths of my "to read pile" and ascend to the lofty heights of, er, "books that are really fucking good, and I'd never sell them to a second-hand shop even if I was moving to India" status.  Some books that fit that category are Grapes of Wrath, Catch-22, The Brothers K, all the A Song of Ice and Fire books, the Dark Tower series, Use of Weapons and a smattering of others.  When I was about 3/4 of the way through The Prestige I realized it too would be joining the ranks of those with "never to be parted with" status.

The Prestige is set in Victorian Era England and tells the tale of two young stage magicians.  One, Alfred Borden is a naturally gifted magician, skilled in the necessary arts, and adept at figuring out the secrets behind how other magicians pull off their greatest tricks and illusions.  The other, Rupert Angier, is a gifted performer, but lacking in the ability to unlock the secrets behind even the simplest of tricks and illusions.  The two men, who under different circumstances might have been great friends, wind up as sworn enemies as the two clash during a fraudulent seance conducted by Angier, and attended by Borden.  From this fateful moment, the two men become enemies, and a decades long rivalry of sabotage, deceit, treachery, and violence ensues.  Each man is possessed of the same two goals: become the greatest living stage magician, and bring about the destruction of their rival.

The Prestige is wonderful for a lot of reasons, but for me, what made the novel so amazing is that while it is a book about the art of stage magic and illusion, the novel itself is a magic trick.

The Prestige is told through the context of two descendants of Angier and Borden reading the two men's personal journals, but the main body of the story is essentially told in two parts: Borden's life and career as told in his journal, and Angier's life and career as told in his journal.  There are many events in the two men's lives that overlap, however, the recounting of those events can vary to a great degree.  This had a powerful effect on me as a reader.  In many ways I felt like Borden and Angier were telling their stories directly to me, and I had to somehow figure out who was telling the truth.  However, the whole time, I was very aware of exactly who was telling me the story, and knew that there was no way I could trust or believe two seasoned masters of illusion.  Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole time, like any magic trick, the truth was there to be seen, if only I could make myself see it.  I think it is safe to say that my level of engagement in a novel has never been so high.

The ol' unreliable narrator, or in this case narrators, trick is just one of Priest's clever deceptions.  He cleverly hides clues to the plot within the narrative, and plays with the reader's expectations and assumptions for where the plot is leading.  This is my first experience reading anything by Christopher Priest, and I was amazed with his ability to set up an amazing plot with promises of a huge payoff, and then deliver with artful skill.

I already mentioned that The Prestige is a rare book in the sense that it became one of my all-time favorite reads, but it has another rare quality that I want to highlight: This is a novel that practically begs to be re-read. Not just because it is so wonderful, though that's a great reason to re-read it, but because I think there is a lot of higher understanding and comprehension to be gained from a second, third or fourth reading.  Like I mentioned earlier, Priest is like a magician himself, using sleight of hand (or would it be sleight of pen?) to conceal secrets, clues, and truths within the narrative, and with one reading under the belt, one might be able to read into certain passages and events more deeply and figure out the secret to some of those tricks.

I was incredibly impressed with Priest's literary skill.  Not only did he write an incredibly engaging, expertly plotted, and deceptive novel, but he also impressed with his prose.  The novel is initially told through the eyes of Andrew Westly, a descendant of Borden's, but then the narrative shifts to the two magicians' journals.  What struck me as amazing is that both Angier and Borden have distinctly different styles and voices in their journals.  The shift from Borden to Angier was a bit awkward at first, and had me loathing Angier's stiffer, more "proper" language, but I soon got used to his voice and really appreciated the fact that the two journals read much differently and actually felt like they were truly written by two very different men.

The fact that The Prestige has become one of my favorite books might be shading this review a bit, but I honestly couldn't find much to fault in the novel.  It is superbly written, plotted and executed, and has a great cast of characters.   This is easily the best book I've read in or out of the fantasy genre in a long time, and I think its a book with wide appeal.  So, put down the farm boy-turned-chosen one fantasy and read The Prestige, you wont be disappointed.  Plus, it has Tesla in there as a secondary character.  Tesla the scientist, not the shitty band.

Grade: A+

Monday, October 10, 2011

Busy Busy Busy

Sorry it's been kinda quiet around here lately.  School has ramped up again, and has stuck its vile claws into both my reading and blogging time.  I also spent this past weekend checking out Olympic National Park, doing a bit of hiking, sightseeing, camping and infusing my hair, skin and clothes with the lovely/stank-ass aroma (depending on the setting) of wood smoke.

Fear not, I still have plenty of blog-able material lined up.  Sitting in the review queue are not one but two World Fantasy Award winners, some more Hellboy, and a nice little Jack the Ripper style Halloween treat.  There's also a pile of unread comics lying in wait, as well as a certain tentacled China Mieville novel calling my name.  Oh, and I'm also going to see Opeth live in concert this coming weekend, so brace yourselves intrepid readers for a splendid October of cant-miss material.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: Locke and Key v1 Welcome to Lovecraft

I've read some pretty wonderful things this year, both in and outside of comics, but nothing has quite caught my attention like Joe Hill's Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft.

Incredibly, I found myself completely sucked in from the very first page; where two young men toting a pistol and an axe show up at the door of the Locke family vacation home.  Just as things are getting tense at the house, the story cuts away and Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, the three Locke children, and principle characters of the story, are introduced.  After some sharp and incredibly quick character development, the story cuts to a funeral as Tyler, the oldest son, grieves.  By this point I was just about coming out of my seat wondering just what exactly went down at the house. Though it isn't said outright, I had the feeling that the father was killed, possibly other family members as well.

Hill isn't exactly forthcoming with the answers either.  He instead keeps the tension high, while flitting back and forth between the attack at the house and the remaining family moving to Massachusetts to live with the father's younger brother at the ancestral manse, which happens to be located in a place called Lovecraft.

It isn't long before Bode, the youngest Locke child, who appears to be about 6 years old, discovers a magical key that unlocks a door and turns him into a ghost.  Further exploration of the house and the grounds around it uncover a mysterious lady in a well, along with some hints of various other keys that possess other interesting powers.

There are many elements that have me drooling over this graphic novel, but the first that comes to mind is that of the mysterious and magical keys.  Though the magical keys play a small but crucial role in this volume they did a lot in terms of sucking me in and building a sense of wonder and interest with the story.  Though Hill only reveals about four keys, I really want to know how many other keys there are, what they do, and how they'll play a role in the series.

The other major standout quality of Locke and Key is the wonderful cast of characters.  I guess I would say that this is a family epic.  Each member of the Locke family shares the duties as a lead character, and each one is incredibly well developed and fleshed out.  Not only does Hill give the reader a strong sense of what each character was like prior to the attack, but also how they've changed since then, and how they are continuing to change.  I was impressed with how Hill managed to portray the teenaged Lockes Tyler, and Kinsey as realistic teenagers, while Bode, the youngest, is also a developmentally accurate six year-old.

I found myself instantly attached to these characters, and Hill responds by putting them, individually, and as a family, through the ol' ringer, which was torturous, yet exciting at the same time.  I usually only fret so hard for GRRM characters, but no one really feels safe in Locke and Key either.  I got this sense because Sam, the teenage boy mainly responsible for the attack on the Locke family is one extremely creepy and resourceful bad guy.  Add that to the strange fantastical forces at play in the family house, and there was almost more tension than I could bear.

Further upping the Awesomeness Meter on Welcome to Lovecraft is the art by Gabriel Rodriguez.  Simply put, the guy does it all well; He can draw people, and environments and make 'em look really great. All that is wonderful, but this is a horror/fantasy comic, so there are some greater demands on the art...the horror scenes need to be equally tense and terrifying, and the fantastical elements need to create that sense of wonder.  Rodriguez manages to nail down those qualities with equal aplomb and deliver art that I found myself enjoying a great deal.  Rodriguez's greatest achievement in this volume is how he makes Sam's eyes seem completely dead and devoid of emotion.  It is a very chilling detail that I greatly appreciated.

I'm starting to wonder if Joe Hill has some sort of arcane power that makes me completely love everything he writes, because I sorta LOVE everything he writes.  As soon as I finished reading Welcome to Lovecraft I went out and bought the other three available volumes...and they will be getting read very shortly.  This was, in many ways, a completely fucking awesome comic.  It delivered an incredibly gripping story with a fascinating plot, wonderful characters, and dealt out some awesome fantasy and horror elements.  I was literally on the edge of my seat reading this one.  Since I'm starting to run out of superlatives, I'll wrap things up by adding that even if you aren't a comic reader, this is a must read for fans of the fantasy and horror genres. It is too good to be missed.

Grade: A+

Monday, October 3, 2011

Comic Quickies: Welcome to the DCnU Part 3

Batman #1: Between this and Detective Comics,I've had a higher level of anticipation for the Batman title mostly because Scott Snyder is the writer.  I first came across the guy in the pages of American Vampire, which was a solid comic, but suffered from the fact that it is, well, about vampires, and I'm sick of those fuckers.  

Since then, Snyder's star has been on the rise as he's garnered some high praise for, what I've heard, was a wonderful run on Detective Comics (pre-relaunch).  Now, with the big shake up, he's manning Batman.

Confused?  Good.  Moving on.

So how does this first issue turn out?  Overall, pretty decent stuff here.  It starts out with a riot in Arkham prison, and Batman, with help from an unlikely source, puts a hurtin' on pretty much everyone in the rouge gallery.  From there, Snyder introduces the readers to some new bat-gadgetry which serves the purpose of one,  being cool and two, helping to introduce a dumb out of touch reader like me to the current bat-world.  With the help of a fancy facial recognition device, Bruce Wayne chats it up with his proteges, (there's been three different Robins apparently), and rubs elbows with Gotham's ultra-rich elite.

While Bruce is announcing his plan to fix Gotham through imaginative rebuilding, he is cut short, as duty calls and Batman is dragged into a murder investigation.  After some fun Bat-tective work, he discovers Bruce Wayne is the next target for Gotham's latest crazed killer.  That's pretty much the whole issue in a nutshell, but there's more intricacy to the plot than I've laid out, and there's a great cliff hanger ending that has me excited for the next issue.

After reading both this and Detective Comics, I would say Batman is the sure front runner of the two main bat-titles after one issue.  The writing and plotting is just much more solid here, and didn't seem to be just recovering ground that has already been covered over and over.

That said, I was not a fan of Greg Capullo's art.  No, his art is not bad, it is fine, I just really disliked how 90's it looked.  Every page gave me flashbacks to my comic reading experiences as a kid, and as an adult, I expect better. There was nothing special or interesting or new feeling about that art, and that was ultimately pretty depressing.  Maybe I'll grow accustomed to Capullo's style, but I'd rather have a better artist, who has a unique style, working this title.

In the end, this was a great comic, brought down by mediocre art.

All Star Western #1:  Wanna hear the craziest thing about the DC relaunch?  They took Jonah Hex out of the wild west, and plunked him down in...Gotham City!
Ok, maybe not the craziest thing, but still pretty nutty.

Gone are the wide open spaces, and sparse landscapes of the frontier.  This issue opens with a sweeping shot of a Gotham train station and the be-smogulated brackish city-scape in the background.  Enter Jonah Hex, the bad-ass, tough as nails, bounty hunter with the freakish mug and penchant for dealing out steel justice. He's been called to Gotham by none other than Doctor Amadeus Arkham to help investigate a series of murders.

Hex and Arkham make for a weird pairing, but Hex's straight forward, no-fuckin'-nonsense approach to bounty hunting seems to be working.  Some clever detective work, which mostly consists of Hex cracking skulls and forcing the otherwise silent to talk -all while Arkham looks on in abject terror- leads the unlikely duo to be on the trail of a man called the "Gotham Butcher", who is going around killing prostitutes, and is more than likely part of a secret society of Gotham elite.  

Sounds like a pretty cool plot right?  Well, it would be if that didn't also happen to be extreeeeemly similar to the plot of Alan Moore's From Hell, which I also happen to be reading right now.  Yeah, that's a little disheartening, but Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are definitely not idiots, and are almost certainly playing into the reader's expectation that this is gonna be a variation on the good ol' Jack the Ripper story.  My money's on a big-ass twist in the next issue that sends this plot in new directions.  Fingers crossed.  Please don't re-write From Hell.  Please.

A good reason to pick up this book is that, (hey-oh!), there's actually a good fucking artist, who has his own unique style, working on it.  That artist is none other than the singly named Moritat.  Moritat makes the early-industrial era Gotham every bit a character as Jonah Hex or Amadeus Arkham.  The city looks great, as do the folks who populate it.  And populated it is!  The city has a dirty, over-crowded, claustrophobic look and feel to it that gives the city a personality.

Moritat also does this interesting thing where the primary characters of a given panel are inked with a thicker line than the rest of the panel.  This makes the important people stand out, and seem more in focus than the rest of the art.  It makes the comic have a more cinematic feel, as there is a definite focus on particular people and places while the background, though exquisitely drawn and detailed, seems to be out of focus.   Like it or not, and I lean towards liking it, it is an interesting way to ink a page.

My biggest complaint with the comic is that the coloring is pretty damn lackluster.  The color palate for the issue seems to be varying shades of gray with a bit of sepia tone added in.  This makes everything look pretty flat, and doesn't do justice to the art.

Despite a plot that is remarkably unoriginal, and some weak coloring, I liked this issue way more than I thought I would.  It was a lot of fun, and nice to look at.  Hopefully there'll be a big twist in the plot next issue so I can carry on with reading this this title.

Ok, since I like lists a lot, I'm gonna rank and grade the 7 DCnU titles I've read from worst to best.

7. Animal Man: D
6. Detective Comics: C-
5. Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.: C
4. Batman: B-
3. All Star Western: B-
2. Action Comics: B
1. Batwoman: B+

Ok, now let's head across the seas to Marvel and see what they've been doing with Daredevil...

Here Comes Daredevil #1:  Last weekend I went to the Jet City Comic Show here in Seattle.  Bearing almost no resemblance to the much larger and much more epic Emerald City Comicon, the Jet City Comic Show is a much more humble and sparsely attended affair.  Nonetheless, there's plenty of great comic creating talent on hand.

The coolest thing is, since the attendance is pretty low, there's no lines or rush to talk to folks and you can more or less hang out and chat it up to your heart's content (or until they are clearly sick of you) with a variety of comic creators.  One question I got asked a lot was the ol' "what comics are you reading?".  To which I name a few of the titles in my pull-box and say that I mostly read creator-owned stuff, and mostly stay away from the "big two".  However, on multiple and separate occasions, I was told that I should check out the new Daredevil comic, because it is, to paraphrase, really good.

Figuring such high praise from folks in the industry was too much to ignore, I grabbed the first few issues and lo and behold! Here Comes Daredevil is really good.  The comic takes sort of a back to basics approach to Daredevil, and eschews the dark and gritty approach that has been the norm for the book for a long time.  There's nothing wrong with the dark and gritty Daredevil of yore, but I like the new Daredevil.

It opens with Daredevil stylishly thwarting a kidnapping at a mob wedding, then moves on to Matt Murdoch's personal life as a lawyer,  where his career is in jeopardy due to the fact that there's a big media blitz going on because it somehow slipped that Matt Murdoch is Daredevil.  Though his cover is solid, the media is persistent, and like real life, does a better job of wrecking the poor guy's life than it does of telling a compelling story.

After being thrown off his current trial by the judge, it is up to Daredevil to find a link between his client and greater conspiracies.

As great, and compelling as the story is, the art, handled oh so well by Paolo Rivera, is great.  Rivera excels at making Daredevil's movements seem fluid, graceful and flawless.  There's real energy to his art which is a wonderful thing.  I haven't seen the likes in any other super hero comic, and for that reason alone, this is a special book.

I never thought I'd be recommending a Daredevil comic, but here I am.  Here Comes Daredevil is definitely worth a read.   There's four issues out so far, so check 'em out!