Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Welcome to the DCnU Issue #3 edition (Part 1)

Batman #3: Allow me to take a BIG  sigh of relief.  Why? Because I didn't hate the art in this issue.  Truth be told, this is the best issue of Batman so far.

Not only is there some sweet bat detective stuff going on, but I thought Greg Capullo's art was pretty solid in this issue.  I think what enamored me to it the most is that Capullo seemed to be experimenting with his "lens" and how the panels were viewed by the reader.  This led to some strange panel art, like the one where a conversation between Bruce and Alfred is viewed through the eye holes of the Bat-cowl sitting on a nearby table.  The technique worked best when Batman was doing his detecting and Capullo would highlight clues so that it felt like the reader was detecting alongside Batman.

This title is probably the best written title out of all the new DC stuff I'm reading, and for that reason alone, I will tough out Capullo's art.  Hopefully, this issue is a sign that he's growing into the job, and growing as an artist.

All Star Western #3: The first arc of this new series is tied up in this third issue, which was a surprise, and for my money, felt a bit rushed.  It was like, all of a sudden, boom, on to a new arc!  It looks like Hex will be sticking around Gotham though, and hopefully Amadeus Arkham will continue to be a character, because he's pretty much the only likable character in the title.  Don't get me wrong, Jonah Hex is fun to read, but the man's an asshole.

Aside from the weirdly rushed writing, I felt like Moritat's art looked a bit rushed in this one too.  The beautiful high detail that was prevalent in the first two issues wasn't there, and often there was little to no background art in the panels.  On the other hand, there were two sweet double page spreads, so it almost balances out in the end.  Hopefully Moritat can recapture the thunder in the next issue.

Action Comics #3: I was freaking out when I read the first few pages of this issue, because I thought that all of a sudden Rags Morales had gotten amazing at art.  I figured he must have taken some sort of magical elixir because if I wasn't mistaken, his art was looking a lot like it was drawn by Gene Ha...then I realized it was Gene Ha doing the art on the first few pages.

WOW.  Amazing.  His depiction of planet Krypton before the destruction is bee-yoo-tee-ful.

Back on planet Earth, things aren't going so well for Supes.  He's got the po-po breathing down his neck, some anti-alien animosity aimed in his S-chested direction, and from the looks of things, a showdown with a battalion of robots and a freaky cyborg dude in his future, oh, also the threat of an alien invasion.  Sounds FUN!  I know I can't wait.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #3: In this issue Frankenstein and his fellow monster buddies travel to a planet that is literally covered in monsters, and attempt to kill them all.  Then they discover that three other areas of the planet are monster infested as well, and have a giant epic monster to defeat in each of those regions as well.  Can you say "Boss Battle"?

It is almost silly how simplistic and straight forward this comic can be at times, but that simplicity is primarily what makes this a fun title to read.  Yes, this title is sort of a guilty pleasure for me, but so far it has been consistently fun, and highly entertaining.  Plus, as I mentioned before, I am a sucker for monsters, and this is pretty much the mecca of monsters.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Comic Quickies: Some Endings

Captain Swing #4 of 4:  Well, it's about fucking time!  I've been waiting for this series to conclude for quite a while now.  Not only was it about a five month wait between issue #3 and #4, but I recall buying Captain Swing #1 as my very first floppy issue purchased as an adult a little over a year and a half ago.  Yeah, that's a long time to wait for four issues.

Ellis did manage to wrap things up pretty well here, but the story definitely suffered for the long wait between issues.  For my money, the third issue was the best in the series.

Captain Swing is definitely worth a read in graphic novel format when it comes out, particularly if you're into pirates, Victorian era electro-steampunky shenanigans, good writing and solid art.

The Red Wing #4 of 4:  Unlike Captain Swing, The Red Wing came out in nice rapid-fire release style, sticking to the monthly schedule.  Unfortunately, that didn't do me a lot of good, because even with the typical gaps between installments, I still had a hard time following the story and remembering what exactly was going on.

For that reason, I would advise enjoying this tale of futuristic time-travel and intergalactic war in one sitting.  Despite my sieve-like memory, I did still enjoy this.  Have I mentioned I enjoy time-travel stories?

My one gripe for this title is Nick Pitarra's art.  I started out really liking it, but by the fourth issue, I was a bit tired of it. There wasn't much variety in the content from issue to issue, and I definitely got sick of the whole "draw every little part and piece of  some object" shtick. (Look to the cover for an example of this technique).

I'll definitely have to give this whole deal another read sometime in the future to get the full effect.

Witch Doctor #4 of 4: Winning the award for pure, crazy fun is Witch Doctor.  It's no mystery that I can't get enough of weird, crazy monsters, and Witch Doctor has been doing a real good job of providing me with my fix.

This is a title by two new creators, Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner, and they've each gotten better at their respective jobs with each issue.  Siefert's writing has gotten sharper with each consecutive issue, and Ketner's art seems to improve with each panel.  Each creator seems to be on a nice skyward trajectory, and I can't wait to see what they have in store next.

Though this is the end of this Witch Doctor mini-series, there is more to come soon.  There'll be a nice little Witch Doctor one-shot coming in time for the Holidays, and another mini-series coming early next year.  Hopefully they'll be able to keep the ball rolling on this fantastically weird, funny, disgusting, and exciting title.

Read and enjoy!

The Vault #3 of 3:  The whole time I was reading this final issue of The Vault, I kept thinking to myself how it was set up, and felt very much like a movie; with three distinct acts, the first which set up the situation, the second which saw everything go haywire, and the third where everything comes together.  Then I heard that The Vault had been already been optioned for film production.  Well, surprise, surprise!

I'm not sure how I feel about comics that are basically story-boards for a movie. I'm not sure that was writer's and artist's goal with The Vault, but the fact that I thought the comics had a movie script-like feel to them, then found out it was indeed going to become a movie is a pretty good indicator that ulterior motives were afoot.

Movie conspiracies or not, this was still a pretty fun comic to read.  My biggest complaint was that the evil beastie wasn't that cool looking.  I never felt like it made much of an impression as a thing to be feared.  Decent stuff here, but nothing that brings anything new to the table.  A decent read, but not one I consider must-read comics.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: The Heroes

When I find an author that I enjoy, like Joe Abercrombie, I usually tend to stretch his or her books out, so that I'm enjoying something by that person on a yearly basis.  I read Best Served Cold back in the summer, so what am I doing reading another Abercrombie book this year?  Well, as I've established before, I can be mentally weak at times.  Basically what happened was that there was a gift card to a certain online book seller, and I spent it all in one epic book buying fest, and what you see before you is one of those purchases.  Money well spent.

Like The First Law and Best Served Cold books before it, The Heroes is set in the same universe.  This time around the focus of the story is much more fine tuned, and takes place over the course of a few days.  Thousands of men from either the North, or the Union are converging on a forgotten hill set in the middle of a small farming valley near the border of the two lands.  It is there in that valley and on that hill named The Heroes that the two sides will clash.

As I mentioned earlier, The Heroes is tightly focused.  That brief description I just gave is just about all there is to this book; a three day battle over useless, abandoned land.  However, that tight focus is what makes this book great.  The focus of this novel is so sharp that the pacing is wonderful, and the action is pretty much non-stop.

I've gotten so accustomed to massively epic fantasy with huge worlds, hundreds of characters, and numerous story lines that a book The Heroes, that takes place on such a small scale, almost seems improbable.  I've noticed myself becoming increasingly burnt out on epic fantasy the past couple years, so a book like this was a welcome alternative.

The one complaint I did have about the small setting was that I found myself confused sometimes about the scale of the battlefield. It seemed like troop movements, and how long it took them to cover distances was inconsistent at times.  Though legitimate maps are provided in a Joe Abercrombie book for the first time, it was still hard to judge distances between regiments, and battle lines at times.  Still, a minor complaint, and one that is grossly outweighed by all the positives.

Since The Heroes is set in the same world as the rest of Abercrombie's books, there are a few recurring characters that devoted readers will be familiar with.  A few of the names that are back in varying capacity are Black Dow, Calder, Scale, Caul Shivers, Jalenhorm, Byaz, and Bremer dan Gorst.  Alongside these familiar names are a wonderful cast of new characters as well.  Though I did enjoy reading all the characters, I've begun to notice a familiar Joe Abercrombie character building pattern: each character seems to embody one main, overriding trait like self pity, ambition, or self perseverance, and then have a few other less prominent traits mixed in.   Now, I will agree that many people in the world do tend to have a well defined character such as those in Abercrombie's books, but I feel like this model for character building doesn't allow me to really discover the depths of Abercrombie's characters.  That said, his characters are very memorable, and fun to read about so I can't complain too much.

The story is told through a variety of point of view characters but I definitely had favorite point of view characters on each side.   For the Union, Bremer dan Gorst was my favorite to root for.  The guy is an all out beast when it comes to war, but mentally he's a mess, and enjoyed seeing if he'd ever manage to straighten himself out.  For the North, Curnden Craw, a veteran, a named man, and leader of a dozen was a probably the easiest character in the book to root for.  I found myself fretting over his well being like a nervous soccer mom.  The other point of view characters were all fun to read, and that factor is a big reason why this book is so damn great.

Aside from the great cast of point of view characters, there are many secondary characters that populate this book, and give it more life.  I think Abercrombie is at his best and  having the most fun when he's writing the rough and rowdy Northmen, and it showed with characters like Whirrun of Bligh, Glama Golden, and Cairm Ironhead.

Looking back at Abercrombie's past novels, I would say they all pale in comparison to The Heroes.  This is definitely his best effort yet.  Looking back at Best Served Cold, it could have done with a tighter focus and feels bloated in retrospect. The fact that I loved that book should prove just how much of an improvement this book is.

On top of being a great read, there are a few important developments that occur in The Heroes that make me very excited for Abercrombie's next effort, whatever that may be and whenever that may come.  Fans of Abercrombie's previous works will feel right at home with the gritty violence, realistic characters, and balls out action.  For those of you who haven't read Abercrombie's stuff, I would advise starting with The Blade Itself and plowing through his stuff from there.  You wont regret it.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comic Review: The Boys vol.1 The Name of the Game

Oh man, did I ever enjoy Preacher.  It is right up there as one of my all time favorite graphic novel series.  Going off the strength of that experience, I thought for sure that Garth Ennis' other big comic series The Boys would also be a sure fire hit for me as well.  You gotta trust your instincts right?  Well, It turns out my instincts aren't as sharp as I had hoped...

The Boys are a C.I.A. backed team of dangerous, quite likely even psychotic individuals.  The team, which consists of a motley crew if there ever was one, are employed by the U.S. government to protect the country from earth's superheroes; who run the risk of finally coming to the conclusion that they could rule the world if they so desired.  Here to prevent that from happening are The Boys, who do their best to keep the superhero threat controlled, and if necessary, remove potential threats.

I'll admit, the premise of this series did intrigue me.  The Boys sorta seemed like the anti-Authority, and with Ennis at the helm, I had hopes that would lead in some pretty interesting directions.  Not to mention the catharsis I imagined feeling when slightly altered yet easily identifiable super heroes got their asses kicked by a bunch of no-names.  Though I did get a bit of wish fulfillment with the latter part, I was sadly disappointed in all other terms.

The first and ultimately most disappointing thing about The Boys is that it is by far the most mature comic I've ever read. In terms of language, and graphic content it is pretty much off the charts. However, the mature-ness of the whole thing is taken so far to the extreme that it manages to become simultaneously the most immature comic I've ever read.  The "humor" registers at an extremely low maturity level, and the excess and raunchiness of the sex might be exciting and/or hilarious to some, but for me it was ridiculous, offending and stupid. Throw in a few other instances that made me cringe and severely question my own judgement in purchasing this title, and you have a complete fail of a read.

It seems pretty clear to me that Ennis tried really hard to make this the most edgy, balls out, extreme, no holds barred comic on the shelves, and he did that by pushing all the wrong buttons.  There is so much useless sex, sexism, and stupidity in this title that it completely lost sight of the concept, which could have been interesting.  I wouldn't mind reading a comic about a group of people who keep the incredibly powerful superhumans in check, and how they do it, but sadly, that shit ain't gonna happen because I'm not reading any more of The Boys, and it is unlikely that this concept will get revisited anytime soon.

I think what is most frustrating for me is that I normally don't mind, and even enjoy a bit of humor, foul language, violence and sex.  They can all be used to make a story better and stronger.  Look no further than Tim Marquitz' Demon Squad books for an example of all four elements done right.  The thing is, humor, language, violence and sex all have a greater impact when they are used in small doses, but with The Boys there is no such thing as a small dose, it is all the time to the point of perversion.  Ennis could have cut back and added more depth to the story, developed more characters, or given more life to the world, but instead he opted for a fairly straight forward plot that did little to interest me.

All told, this one was an epic fail.  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, and would advise staying away.  I really liked Ennis' Preacher series, but I guess I'll be more cautious with his stuff in the future.  Simply put, this is the worst thing I've read in years.

Grade: F-

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Winter's Bone

Every now and again I like to take a break from my fantasy and comic reading for a little jaunt in the crime/thriller/mystery realms of fiction.  This is one such occasion.

Winter's Bone is a recent victim of the Hollywood trend where they take books and make 'em into movies.  I'm not much of a movie watcher, but occasionally people who know my tastes in stories will recommend a film to me and if said movie happened to be a book before it was a movie, I'll usually try to read the source material first, which is exactly what led me to this novel.

Winter's Bone follows Ree Dolly, a sixteen year old girl, busy taking care of her two little brothers, and her crazy mother, trying to make it through a tough winter in the Ozarks.  Her dad, out on bail for charges of running a crystal meth lab, has a court date coming up but he's gone missing.  This wouldn't be much of a concern to Ree, but her father put the house, and the family's vast tract of timber up to make his bail.  If her father doesn't show his face in court, the house and land will be lost and Ree, her little brothers, and her mother will be homeless.  Ree takes it upon herself to track her father down, calling upon a variety of shady family and community members who might know of his whereabouts.

Winter's Bone is a slim and trim novel, with no wasted words or space.  The narrative maintains it's singular focus and drives straight ahead with very little preamble.  I enjoyed the slick presentation and honed edge of the narrative flow.  The author, Daniel Woodrell does a remarkable job of giving the story a pared down feel, without actually skimping on prose or descriptive passages.  Woodrell also does a great job of bringing the setting of a small, rural town in the Ozarks to life on the page.  Though I've never visited that part of the country, it was easy to visualize, and get a sense of what the place is like.

Woodrell also was able to give me a strong impression of the mentality and tacit cultural norms the people of that region possess.  It's difficult for me to put my finger on exactly how he accomplished this, but I was able to fathom the depth of the Dolly family network and the rural culture that "circles the wagons" and protects itself at all costs from outside threats.  This quality gave the novel some added depth that I wasn't expecting, yet fully appreciated.

On top of a strong narrative flow, and the insider's glimpse at the fringe of society, Woodrell also adds strong character building to his list of talents.  Despite being just sixteen, Ree Dolly is tough, and world weary beyond her years.  She's got guts too.  Her search for her father is an act of bull headed bravery that I have to admire; Ree is easily one of the most memorable and remarkable women of fiction I've experienced. In addition to Ree, her Uncle Teardrop, and the rest of the cast of characters are all impressively written.

The sharp pacing, solid plotting, astute writing and intriguing characters all combine to make Winter's Bone a great read.  Woodrell is definitely an author I'll be getting back to some day.  Another great excursion afield from my usual fantasy and comic hauntings.  Worth a read, before you watch the film, which, by the way, I also recommend.  Hollywood didn't fuck that one up. The book, as usual, is better.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Comic Review: Locke & Key vol.2 Head Games

After the events which saw their father murdered, the family moved across country, and their family attacked in their new home by their father's escaped killer, the Locke kids have finally begun to piece their shattered lives back together.

Tyler and Kinsey are starting to settle in at their new school and have even made a new friend; A boy named Zack, who, like the Lockes, is a new student and the nephew of one of the faculty at Lovecraft Academy. Meanwhile, Bode, the youngest, is filling his time exploring their massive new home and the surrounding acres.

Their new home, Keyhouse, is aptly named due to the fact that hidden in and around the massive house are special keys, each of which give the wielder a unique power or ability.  When Bode finds the Head Key, a key that unlocks your mind giving the wielder the ability to learn or unlearn any skill,  he once again attracts the attention of Doge, an evil and vile creature who seems bent on the Locke family's destruction.

After reading the opening volume to this comic series, I was quite impressed to say the least.  Given the fact that the writing is handled by Joe Hill, a guy who is rapidly moving up the "Battle Hymns' Favorite Author" rankings, I had a good feeling that the second volume, Head Games, would deliver as well.

It did.

Though Locke & Key shines for many reasons, one of the brighter qualities of the series are its characters.  Maybe I have a soft spot for the whole "kids in danger" plot element, but I find that the Locke children are really fun to root for, and I find myself fretting over their safety more than is healthy.  What makes them great though is that they actually "act" their age.  They are prone to mistakes, ill advised decisions, and all the emotions that come with the territory. While they may sound cliched, the effect of past events in their life color who they are today, and causes them to rise above your typical pop culture ideals of what "kids" are like.  When you add in their Uncle who is trying to juggle his own life, and help his sister-in-law, niece, and nephews rebuild their own, and the mother who is in a constant state of wine soaked shock and detachment you get a wonderful cast of characters to root for.

The Locke family wouldn't be nearly as much fun to root for if they weren't being constantly put in danger by a frightening antagonist.  Dodge, the malevolent spirit that plagues Keyhouse, is one scary, duplicitous, vile, and extremely cruel bastard of an antagonist.  There is little I can say about Dodge that wouldn't cause some spoilers to leak out, but I will say that Dodge is a character that will keep you up late at night, and plague your dreams while you sleep.  That fact that Dodge is always about twenty steps ahead of the Locke kids is a frightening prospect.

I may be parroting my review for Welcome to Lovecraft, but the magical keys are a wonderful and ingenious plot element.  They are a fairly simple concept really, but truth be told, who needs complex, hard to explain magic systems?  Not me. The mystery that surrounds the keys is another of the great qualities of the Locke & Key series.  Though only five keys have been discovered and used thus far in the books, many others, and their abilities have been hinted at.  I think I've also noticed a couple other keys hidden in certain panels, and I can only assume they'll come into play at some point in the future.  How or when, I don't know but I can't wait to find out.

I'll spare you the effort of reading a paragraph about the writing and art, and simply say: Once again, top notch writing and great artwork graces the pages of Head Games. I can't find much to complain about on either front, and find both aspects of the comic to be quite awesome.  Locke & Key: Head Games  seems to be a case of both creators functioning at the top of their games.  A rare and welcome treat.

It's no secret that I loved Welcome to Lovecraft, and while I can't say that Head Games is better, I also can't say it's worse either.  The high level of storytelling and art that was present in the first volume is present once again, only this time, the plot thickens, the characters get a bit more developed, and as a result, I find myself further sucked into the world, and can't wait to read more.  I'll probably resist the urge to read the third volume until after the new year, but if you're reading this and haven't given this series a shot, don't delay.  Locke & Key is some of the very best comics on the shelves.

Grade: A+

Sunday, November 13, 2011

My 10 Favorite Bands

I was sitting through a three hour lecture the other day, and a point in time came where I had eaten all the snacks I had brought, doodled all over an entire page of notes, and gotten up to "pee" a.k.a. escape the drudgery, three times. Desperate to do something, anything, other than actually paying attention, I decided to make a list of my favorite bands.  Then, inspiration struck: turn the list into a blog post! Everybody likes lists right?  Well, I do, and I know at least one other blogger who is a fan of the lists, so here it comes.  The OFFICIAL Battle Hymns top 10 bands, complete with my favorite song from each band the the three albums that are most essential to my collection....

#10. IRON MAIDEN: What? Iron Maiden in the ten spot? I know blasphemy right?  Well, make no mistake, I love this band, but I uh, ahem, only own three of their albums.  Yeah, I realize I may have just lost some cool points, but I own the three most awesome Iron Maiden albums, The Number of the Beast, Powerslave, and Piece of Mind.  The strength of those three albums raises them above so many other bands in my music collection.  Each and every song on those three albums are essential Iron Maiden songs, and I habitually name my fantasy baseball and fantasy football teams after Iron Maiden song titles.

Favorite Song: Flight of Icarus

Essential Albums: Take a guess...

#9. THE DOORS: Hey-oh! Another shocker right out the gate, a classic rock band!  The Doors are one of those bands that people either seem to love or hate.  I happen to fall into the love category.  Do I know the lyrics to over 90% of their catalog? Yes I do. Do I tend to sing along  with said 90% of songs whenever I hear them?  Also a yes.  By the way, I can't sing for shit.  The fact that this is one of the only bands both myself and my lady both like means they get a lot of air time on road trips.  The only two albums I haven't gotten totally into are Soft Parade and Strange Days.  The rest of their stuff from '67 to '71 is gold.

Favorite Song: Maggie M'Gill

Essential Albums: Waiting for the Sun, Morrison Hotel, The Doors

#8. TOOL: These dudes have been covered pretty extensively around here, but Tool still deserves to make it on this list.  They are an amazing band both technically amazing, and lyrically astounding. Tool is one of those bands that seem to have a wide appeal.  However, my tastes with Tool haven't exactly evolved along with the band.  My favorite Tool album is their EP release, Opiate.  However, from there my tastes and their style seem to slowly and continually diverge.  I caught these guys live for their Lateralus tour and it still stands as one of my most favorite live shows of all time.  To fully appreciate their talent, I firmly believe they need to be experienced live.

Favorite Song: Forty-six & 2

Essential Albums: Opiate, Undertow, Aenima

#7. MASTODON: Mastodon is a band that has evolved from their southern thrash metal roots into a slightly progressive, melodic yet still very thrashy metal band.  When I first started listening to Mastodon, I didn't know if they were a band for my tastes. However, it didn't take too long for me to assimilate to their sound and with each subsequent release, they get better and better.  Not only do they crank out some great studio albums, but they are a great band to see live.  I've seen them play twice, and each time was pretty damn special.

Favorite Song: Blood and Thunder

Essential Albums: Crack the Skye, Leviathan, Blood Mountain

#6. FAITH NO MORE: If ever there was an acquired taste in the world of rock n' roll, it has to be Faith No More.  I bought their third studio album, The Real Thing when I was eight or nine years old; Basing the purchase off their two highly accessible hit videos for Epic and Falling to Pieces which got steady air time on MTV.  Boy was I in a surprise when I listened to the rest of that tape and heard songs like Surprise! You're Dead!, Woodpecker from Mars, and the lounge-y Edge of the World.  It took me probably a full ten years to fully appreciate that album, and get to a point where I could listen to more of their catalog, of which each offering is as different from the last in a multitude of ways.

To love Faith No More, you have to appreciate that fact that this band should probably never have come together in the first place.  They are one strange conglomeration of talent. They've got Mike Patton, possibly the most talented singer in all of the music industry...his range, and voice capabilities are one in a trillion, yet his musical tastes and areas where he wants to focus that talent is totally scatter-shot.  Then you've got Mike Bordin, a guy who went on to drum for the likes of Ozzy, and Jim Martin who wishes he could get the chance to play for Ozzy, but never really got much of a chance to show off his Tony Iommi-like skills in FNM.  Add in Roddy Bottum and Billy Gould who can tear it up on their respective instruments and you've got one talented line-up. It is a small miracle that this odd grouping managed to put together some of my favorite music.

Favorite Song: Caffeine

Essential Albums: The Real Thing, Angel Dust, Album of the Year

#5. PINK FLOYD: Simply put, Pink Floyd makes beautiful, sublime music.  I never really got into their early stuff from the Syd Barrett era, or any of their other pre-70's stuff for that matter, and as for their output after The Wall, well, that's sorta like leaving Gimli out of the Fellowship.

That said, the 70's were a great decade for Pink Floyd and they made some wonderful music.  Not only is their stuff entertaining, but it makes me think, which can be a rare thing in music.  Believe it or not, I've been through some dark times in my day, and Pink Floyd was essential to the healing process.  The Dark Side of the Moon is probably my most listened to album after Megadeth's Countdown to Extinction.

What makes this band great is that their music still sounds unique and fresh some 40 years after the fact.

Favorite Song: Comfortably Numb

Essential Albums: The Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle, The Wall

#4. PORCUPINE TREE: Out of all the bands in my top 10, Porcupine Tree is the band I'm the most new to.  When I heard that the guy who produced some of Opeth's albums had a band of his own, I had to see what they were all about.  The first song I heard from the first album I listened to (Blackest Eyes), made me an instant fan.

Sometimes melodic, sometimes proggy, sometimes heavy, sometimes quiet, Porcupine Tree is a band that will astound the listener with their versatility.  Like Pink Floyd, their music can make you think, and often times has a message.  Another band that seems to evolve and get better with each new album.

Favorite Song: Lazarus

Essential Albums:  In Absentia, Deadwing, Fear of a Blank Planet

#3. BLACK SABBATH:  All hail the elder God's of metal.  Where would I be without Black Sabbath?  Hard to say.  They say Kieth Richards wrote every guitar riff known to man, but I think Tony Iommi deserves some credit for writing some incredibly awesome ones too.  He also originated the heavy metal gallop, which became a signature part of Sabbath's sound.

I don't just love Black Sabbath for the fact that they were the first ever metal band, I love them because their music is, as Oprah would say: amaaaaaaaaazing.  It's been 41 years since the release of their first album, and that album is still far superior to most of what passes as metal music these days.  I know songs like Iron Man, and Paranoid get a lot of radio play, but the best Sabbath tunes are the ones that don't often see the light of day.  I could get by without ever hearing Iron Man again, but so much of their remaining output is essential listening and gets steady play in my stereo.

Favorite Song: Black Sabbath

Essential Albums: Black Sabbath, Master of Reality, Black Sabbath Vol. 4

#2. MEGADETH: For years and years (age 10-24) I considered Megadeth my favorite band, but their drop-off in quality and the fact that they haven't released an album I want to listen to since 1997 has caused them to slip down a notch on the list.  Truth be told, my love for Megadeth is mostly refined to a specific lineup...What I like to refer to as the Glory Years lineup of Dave Mustaine, Dave Ellefson, Marty Friedman and Nick Menza.  During those years they released three of my all time favorite albums, and one pretty solid album (Cryptic Writings).

Not only does Megadeth score points for making some of my most loved music, but they also score some great nostalgia points.  When I listen to Symphony of Destruction I can't help but think of being 11 years old, head banging and air guitaring with my brother in his room while we blasted said song through his boombox.  Not to mention the thousands of other great times I can associate with this band.  Simply put, ever since I've loved music, I've loved Megadeth.  They've almost always been a part of my life, and I can't see that changing anytime soon.

Favorite Song: Symphony of Destruction

Essential Albums: Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction, Youthanasia

#1. OPETH: Yeah, not such a huge surprise here, but they really do deserve the top spot.

A few years back, myself, my brother, and a few other friends would get together for what we liked to call "Metal Night". A gathering that consisted of drinking beer, listening to metal, burning albums for each other, and watching some sort of metal film; Either a documentary, or a collection of videos, or recorded live performances.  It was on one such Metal Night where I first heard Opeth, (The Song, Black Rose Immortal to be precise), and my mind was blown.  I had never heard such exhilarating, heavy music that still managed to have form and melody.  The next day I went out and bought two of their albums.

Though their sound, and my tastes seem to be on slightly divergent paths at the moment, Opeth nails down the top spot for the fact that they still make music I want to hear, and for that fact that they make the most amazing music I've ever heard in my life.

Favorite Song: Black Rose Immortal

Essential Albums:  Morningrise, Blackwater Park, Deliverance

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: Demon Squad: Resurrection

After reading and enjoying the first Demon Squad book, Armageddon Bound, I knew it wouldn't be long before I read the second installment in the series, Resurrection.  I tried really hard to put it off for a while though, because, you know, you gotta spread the good stuff out over time, but that damn thing sat there on my shelf staring at me. Demanding my attention.  Like a crow spotting something shiny and reflective, I was lured in.

After the epic events of Armageddon Bound things have returned to business as usual for our intrepid hero Frank Trigg.  By "business as usual" I mean trying desperately, and failing miserably to get himself laid.  Just when it looks like Frank has found true love, or at least a prostitute who's good at pretending, his night is rudely interrupted by a horde of marauding zombies.  The strange thing is, the zombies appear more inclined to capture humans than to feast on them, a sign that points to greater schemes.  Schemes that Frank Trigg is bound to get caught up in.

As per usual, Frank soon finds himself in over his head, right smack dab in the middle of a sea of supernatural shit.  With a necromancer, demon assassin, Satan's ex-wife, and an ultra powerful demon all using him as a pawn in elaborate schemes, Frank must do what he does best, survive, and if possible, stave off the resurrection of the Anti-Christ.

Zombies... Have I mentioned before that I hate Zombies?  Well, those pesky bastards keep popping up all over the place these days, to the point that I've become a bit numbed by all of it.  That said, the zombie element in Resurrection is just that, an element; one among many others at play in this slim, yet densely packed novel.  And truth be told, they didn't bother me in the least here. In fact, I dare say they entertained me, which is saying a lot.

Love him or hate him, (pencil me in for a man-crush) Frank Trigg is back as the unwitting hero of this dark and twisted tale of back-stabbery, secret alliances and hidden agendas.  Once again, the story is told through Trigg's first person perspective, and once again, that voice is pivotal to the story.  Trigg is a great character to hitch the narrative onto because for better or worse, he is sure to find himself in the middle of the action, where ever that may be.

I was impressed by just how many insane elements Time Marquitz was able to pack into this novel.  Just when the odds seemed terribly stacked against Frank Trigg, Marquitz would chuck in another villain, or demon or beast, or jilted ex-lover just to further stack the odds. Add in a boat load of plot twists, double and triple crosses, and plenty of surprising moments, Resurrection is pretty much non-stop action.

With Armageddon Bound I found myself slightly frustrated with the world building.  I felt that the events of the story only seemed to affect the characters and had no ramifications to the innocent bystanders or regular folks who seemingly populated the world.  This time around things are different.  Reading Resurrection I definitely got the sense that there was an effort made to populate the world with regular everyday people, and have the events of the story make waves in the regular non-supernatural world.  Marquitz makes this adjustment in a variety of ways, and it definitely serves to add another layer to the story.

Speaking of layers and elements, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that once again Tim Marquitz gives a nice nod to fellow metal heads out there.  Though there were many metal-moments I appreciated, and some I'm sure I missed, the greatest metal and comical moments all came when Chatterbox, the body-less zombie head, belted out metal hits in two part harmony with Trigg.  You had to be there.

As far as sequels go, Resurrection is something for other series minded writers to take note of.  Not only does this installment build on and improve the best parts of its predecessor, but it also adds plenty of new elements, characters and situations and ends with a nice little cliff-hanger that makes me wish I had the next volume, At the Gates, locked and loaded on my shelf.  For as good as Armageddon Bound was, I'll definitely say Resurrection is a marked improvement.

All told, another successful, satisfying, and incredibly entertaining reading adventure for yours truly.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 7, 2011

Comic Review: It was the War of the Trenches

I had never heard of Jacques Tardi until his beautiful looking graphic novels started turning up at my local comic shop.  Tardi, a French graphic novelist, has only just recently made the jump across the Atlantic and had his works published here in the States.  As each piece has made its debut I've become increasingly more interested in his work, and the act of deciding which story to read first has become increasingly difficult as time goes by and more of his stuff hits shelves.

When I finally decided to purchase and read some Tardi, I settled on It was the War of the Trenches, mostly for the fact that I hadn't read any war comics in a while, and had recently dabbled in the other genres his works represent.  Once I started reading this tale of woe and suffering, I remembered why it had been so long since I'd last read a war comic; because they terrify, and depress me like no other.

Set during World War I, It was the War of the Trenches gives a grunt's eye view of the miserable existence that was trench warfare.  Through a series of vignettes Tardi gives the reader an indelible view of what it was like to be a lowly French soldier in one of the deadliest wars in all human history.  If going over the top, scouting enemy gun placements, or enemy artillery barrages didn't kill you, then friendly fire, starvation, or dysentery likely would.  

Despite my aforementioned weak stomach for real-life war stories, I read It was the War of the Trenches in one spectacular and glorious sitting.  This graphic novel is so expertly researched, and beautifully drawn that I couldn't make myself put it down.  Tardi's artwork is amazing, and he captures the imagery of the war as well as any photograph.  In many ways, Tardi's art which features settings that look photo-realistic, and humans with a slight cartoonish look to them, reminded me of Joe Sacco's art, but it's more likely that Sacco's art is inspired and influenced by the work of Tardi, since he's been around longer.  Either way, Tardi's realistic depiction of places and spaces is as good as it gets, and gave me a strong sense of all the mud, blood and detritus of the trenches.

Tardi does something truly amazing with It was the War of the Trenches, with some words, and some lines on a page, he masterfully captures the brutality, stupidity, futility, cruelty, and reality of war.  This is a black and grim graphic novel, but it is expertly crafted and is a work I am proud to have classing up my bookshelf.  This is one of those graphic novels that is an essential for any lover of the comics medium.  I'm an instant fan of Jacques Tardi, and will be reading more from this genius of the comics medium as soon as I can get my hands on more of his stuff.

Grade: A+

Friday, November 4, 2011

Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Shaky F@$king Kane!

Great news for my fellow comic nerds out there! Flex Mentallo is coming!  After years of being tied up in legal limbo, this never before collected work that combines the talents of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is finally being printed here state-side for American consumption.

The story is spun out of Morrison's work on Doom Patrol, and follows body builder Flex Mentallo on a journey of self-discovery and meta-fiction weirdness...I'm down.

Not only does it feature the talents of my favorite writer/illustrator duo, but it comes in a snazzy hard cover OVERSIZED format.  Bonus!

From the looks of things, this beautiful piece of work will be hitting shelves sometime in February.  Something to look forward to.

Props to Multiversity Comics for helping me notice this...they got it from Vertigo: Graphic Content.

Another thing that has me quivering with excitement:  Coming in November we have a sweet looking work of mad-cap genius from Shaky Kane.

I've had Monster Truck on my radar for a while now, but Comics Alliance just released a sneak preview, and it looks insane, and insanely awesome.   

This uncouth graphic novel has a neat little twist to it: The art is 100% continuous; The edge of one page bleeds onto the next, so what you see at the right edge, will become the left edge of the following page.  Technically, this is an 108 page piece of sequential art.  I fully expect Monster Truck  to be one crazy hallucinogenic voyage.  Check out some of the preview pages below, and you can see what I mean about the sequential art.

Robots and Barbie dolls.

Clowns really creep me out.  

Preview pictures courtesy of Comics Alliance.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review: Kraken

China Mieville is what I would consider a top tier fantasy writer;  Up there with the likes of Martin, Rothfuss, Kay, Abercrombie, and Bakker. A guy known to crank out quality works that I consistently want to read.  With Mieville I always try to make sure I read at least one of his works per year.  Up for 2011 is Kraken an urban fantasy tale set in London.

Billy Harrow is a pretty ordinary guy.  He works at the Darwin Center in the Natural History Museum as a cephalopod specialist.  One of his tasks is to conduct tours through the museum.  On the day the reader meets Billy, he is doing just that, leading a tour through the center, saving the museum's prize piece, a giant squid, as the grand finale of the tour, when he realizes the squid, tank and all, has vanished.  No incriminating tire tracks from a fork lift, no tell-tale drops of embalming fluid on the floor, no wet foot prints, just vanished as if it was never there to begin with.

Billy soon discovers that the disappearing squid is just the beginning of events that will vastly alter his life.  Like it or not, Billy is soon caught up in a struggle between a variety of mysterious, magical, and mythical forces.  It turns out the missing giant squid happens to be the god of a cult, who are hoping to track down their God-Kraken so they can have their prophesied Armageddon. There are numerous other forces at play here too, as every magical, strange and mysterious force in London seems to want to get their hands on the missing Kraken, or failing that, Billy, whom everyone seems to think is the key to the God's whereabouts.

Mieville is a writer of many skills, but I normally find myself drawn to his works for his wonderfully weird fantastical ideas.  I'm always impressed with his ability to create fantasy elements that are unique, and mind-blowingly cool; I'm very happy to report that there's an abundance of great fantastical elements at play in Kraken.  My favorite among these were the "knacks" or special abilities many of the characters possessed.  One character had some telepathic abilities which were used in interesting ways, and I especially liked the "Londonmancers" who draw power from the city itself.

As great as the fantastical elements were, I was slightly surprised to find myself more impressed and drawn in by the characters that populate the story.  There's a diverse group of characters in Kraken, and they are all well developed and came across as feeling vibrant and alive.  Mieville achieves this high level of character development by using the tried and true technique of showing what they are like rather than telling.  A lot of  this is done through fantastically written dialog which not only sounds incredibly realistic, but also gives the reader a strong sense of the character's personality through the way they speak and interact with others.

While there's talking tattoos, an old Egyptian spirit that travels from one statue to the next, magicians, assassins, and also characters of less magical origins, I found myself most impressed with Kath Collingswood, a knacked cop and member of the FSRC, a branch of the London police that looks into cases of the more fantastical nature.  Collingswood is a character with some serious attitude and swagger, and anytime she graces a page, the scene crackles with energy.  Collingswood is a testament to Mieville's ability to create great characters, and while there are many great ones in Kraken, for me, Collingswood is a great example of the brilliant character development on display in this novel.

Even though I enjoyed and connected with many of the characters in Kraken, I had a hard time doing the same with the main character, Billy Harrow.  I never felt like I had a strong image of him in my head, or a good sense of what kind of person he is.  I don't think this is any fault of Mieville's, especially considering how well developed many of the other characters are.  I think it is more a product of the fact that Billy gets caught up in the events of the narrative, and the character is more of a reactor rather than an actor.  He is consistently forced to respond to strange events rather than making things happen.  As a character Billy is always changing, growing and developing throughout the story that it was hard to get a grip on him as a character.

Out of any of my previous China Mieville reading experiences, I would say that this is his lightest book, aside from his YA novel Un Lun Dun.  That being said,there is still plenty of the signature dark and weird fantasy elements that makes this book have that Mieville feel...Goss and Subby anyone?  Still, I was surprised to find a fair amount of humor in this book.  Sure, most of it is dark humor, but comedy is an element not typically found in a China Mieville novel, and its a welcome addition in Kraken.

Though Kraken isn't my favorite China Mieville novel, that honor would go to The Scar, it is still an incredibly impressive novel.  Aside from being wonderfully entertaining, Kraken is proof that Mieville is still growing and developing as a writer.  His character development has clearly taken a leap forward, and his willingness to add new elements like comedy to the mix shows that he's willing to try new things in order to achieve new heights.  As always, Mieville's imaginative and weird fantasy elements are mind blastingly awesome.  If the guy keeps improving at this rate his skills will achieve Kraken-esque proportions. 

Devoted China Mieville readers will be happy to know that Kraken is another great installment in the man's already impressive bibliography.  For those who are new to the author, I think Kraken would serve as a great introduction to the author and his writing.  Either way, new reader or old, this is one you don't want to miss.

Grade: A-