Sunny, high in the upper 80s, 70% humidity, with a 90% change of collateral damage.
It was somewhere in the middle of my fifth or sixth sortie of the day, wiping out government facilities and terrorizing the populace of the small archipelago nation Panau that it hit me: Just Cause 2 is perhaps the ultimate interactive expression of America’s terrifying older-brother stance towards smaller countries that possess resources we desire. Sure, there are games that throw you into the middle of recent middle eastern conflicts for the sake of shooting people in different ways, but this game was different. In it, players control the actions of Rico Rodriguez, a CIA operative who is given carte blanche to create chaos (something that is literally used as a metric in gameplay,) and sway a small island nation towards a more US-friendly stance. I first attempted to stick to military targets — the mission parameters were vague enough that I thought I could advance by being somewhat honorable in my intentions — while helping various gangs gain more territory and further mire Baby Panay’s administration in woes that could further the American agenda with the country. While it was on a bigger scale, the general idea was close to how I played Grand Theft Auto IV: honorable, even if there was the occasional unnecessary explosion. That didn’t last.
While between missions and assignments, I found myself planting explosives on water towers in small desert villages and randomly destroying oil pipelines that kept the population employed; collecting powerups wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I needed to see more devastation, more destruction. I would drive past soldiers patrolling an area, minding their own business, and hop out of my car just to use a grappling gun to attach one to the bumper and drive down the road. I drove to an airport, stole an ersatz 747, and crashed it into massive fuel tanks at a working harbor just to more spectacularly tick that location off my “places to visit” list. The more I upgraded my weaponry by picking up units scattered across the map, the better I could explode things that offended me. The game’s mechanics aren’t perfect, but there’s enough of a visceral thrill to doing ludicrous amounts of destruction that I soon forgave a lot of the quirks and start to learn how to use the system’s ridiculous (if oddly consistent) interpretations of the laws of physics to my advantage.
This is your character in the process of using his grappling hook to hijack a helicopter while skydiving.This is something you can do without snapping at least four bones in your arm and shoulder.
The game’s mechanics and playability aside, what’s truly fascinating is how Just Cause 2 doesn’t even couch the “America does bad things because it can” message in flowery rhetoric: the CIA operative that you make contact with explicitly states that you are wreaking havoc on the general populace and working with drug dealers and revolutionaries all for the sake of Jed Clampett’s cash crop, and it’d be really great if you kept doing more of that, thanks. While your opponents are overblown cartoons and your character’s Spanish accent is unforgivably close to Triumph The Insult Comic Dog’s, the central truth of the game is actually kind of chilling, even as it’s played with just enough spin to act as a satirical goof on film and video game tropes: America isn’t really a great neighbor to other countries; our government does pretty horrible things in our national interest, particularly when it comes to petroleum.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to base-jump off a skyscraper for points before destroying a propaganda trailer and starting a firefight on an oil rig. Go USA!
Out of the blue, The New Press sent me a review copy of Harvey Pekar and company’s “graphic adaptation” of Studs Terkel’s seminal Working. Maybe they heard that I keep a copy on my nightstand or something (no, really, I do — I’ve mentioned how invaluable it is, right?) or perhaps I was just lucky. Anyway. I have nothing but admiration for Harvey Pekar, but the too-verbose adaptations written by him for this book, when fused with frequently-amateurish art and low-end production values – seriously, one piece is lettered in Comic Sans, as if this isn’t 2009 and there aren’t a number of free and low-cost typefaces for comics that won’t make your piece look like Aunt Hildegard let you borrow her computer for a few hours while she was picking up her diabetes medicine – left me wondering what the point was.
Curiously, there are a couple of very nicely-done pieces that seem to be from another book entirely – Danny Fingeroth (!!) and Bob Hall (!!!) (with some very polished lettering from Janice Chiang) handle Rip Torn and Steve Hamilton’s stories) and seemed to show what this book could have been in many places. I also should point out that even if I’m not fond of the aesthetic, comix vet Sharon Rudahl acquits herself very nicely in the several pieces contributed. For the most part, though, this book is a failure; a dismal, lifeless piece that misses the vibrancy of the original even as it reverently recreates most of the text. If you’re going to include 90% of the original text in the pieces and just use illustrations to buoy up the original content here and there, then you’re missing the point of doing comics.
However, Darwyn Cooke’s much-ballyhooed and anticipated comics version of Richard Starker’s The Hunter is pretty much a master course on how to do this kind of thing. Cooke’s taken the original novel and stripped it down even further, letting the reader savor the interaction between a plot that never stops and vibrant, two-tone art that actually tells the story versus providing illustrations for the narration. I was 90% sure this was going to be a success when this was announced — Cooke’s one of my favorite comics creators and his 2005 issue of DC’s Solo and subsequent run on The Spirit showed that he knew how to do comics noir without falling back on the familiar Sin City-isms — but I was honestly surprised at how enthralled I was with the book.
In my first reading, I devoured the whole thing in one sitting and then rereading it several times over the next few days, going over my favorite sequences: pages 34-37 of my review copy feature a suicide and subsequent disposal of the body in a sequence that is part storyboard, part elegy to a dead romance, notable for its near silence; the end of Book Two with its bang-up set of splash pages and the opening of Book Four, a darkly funny sequence where Parker handles some goons even as he speaks to one of the people responsible for his current plight. All of these highlight how effortlessly Cooke plays to his strengths as well as those of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s original narrative.
If you can’t tell, I think this is the book to beat so far this year, not just in its genre, but as a definitive example of the medium. There’s a preview up at IDW’s site, and it’ll be on shelves in July.
The new release The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena is a stealth-heavy first-person-shooter for the XBox 360, Playstation 3, and Windows. In a move that I highly approve of, the 360 and PS3 versions come with both the newer game and a remastered version of the 2004 release The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay.
Pro: Vin Diesel, Ron Perman, Michael Rooker Lance Henricksen, Michelle Forbes and…uh…Xzibit provide strong voice talent. (Forbes in Dark Athena as the pirate captain stands out with a wonderfully throaty, no-nonsese intonation that makes me want to hire her to record my voicemail message.)
Pro: Both games feature designs that fit easily in the amalgamated Dune-meets-Star Wars-meets-The Fifth Element look of the film whose license they’re based on.
Con: They also have the same nonsensical approach to story as the movie. For the most part, there’s no real reason for the gamer to care about what they’re doing, a problem I have with most game writing.
Pro: The player is able to kill the enemies in a truly astounding number of ways, with sneakiness playing a key role. Sneaking around, grabbing someone from behind, and snapping their neck is a pleasure each and every time you do it, and the implementation of Riddick’s “eyeshine” is very nicely-handled.
Con: Boy, there’s a lot of “Get this and this and then you can do this,” which is something I’ve never quite cottoned to in first person shooters. These recursive, repetitive calls to action dull some genuinely interesting game mechanics.
Short version: When all of these factors are combined with a heavy dependence on trial and error at some points and AI that’s glitchy, you get a pair of decently-made games that swing wildly between exhilarating and frustrating. If you’re an avid player of FPS games, this is a bundle you’ll likely want in your library, but a more casual gamer may want to look for a more balanced experience.
Please note that I actively avoid playing with the unwashed masses on XBox Live and so I can’t give any impressions about the multiplayer aspects of the game. I presume they involve flailing around in the dark with knives and cursing at other people, sort of like Hell Night at any given industrial club.
I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly needs to be said about this book, the result of a 2009 Xeric grant. It’s a series of very competently-told tales that touch on a number of subjects that the reader is likely to be very familiar with, from the way that aging affects one’s interactions with the world to the way that animals are treated, a subject that must be very close to creator J.T. Yost. On the plus side, it’s obvious that Yost has a very firm grasp of what he’s doing: the pacing in even the briefest of pieces is very tight, and I really enjoyed the autobiographical chapter concerning a prank from his youth, which had a slightly rough edge to the art that made it feel more personal.
Negatives? Well, three stories about animal welfare in a single book sort of blunt the impact of each one, especially as the book’s best piece, “Roadtrip” is a fine example of wordless comics storytelling to get a message across, but the reader might honestly be a bit tired of the issue by the time they get to it. Also, that cover. That cover is awful. You can’t tell what the title of the book is and while I’m normally all about minimal color palettes, that particular shade of pink is…certainly something.
Here are four clips from the released-today DVDs featuring the X-Men cartoon that many of us grew up with:
I’d somehow missed this during my freshman and sophomore years of college1 and for years, a certain subsect of comic fans have been telling me that the X-Men cartoon stood up to the Warner Brothers-produced Batman animated series that also aired on the FOX network, and I’d always quietly suspected that the haze of nerd nostalgia had prevented them from being objective about the matter. I’m sad to inform them after sampling a dozen episodes from the confusingly named “Marvel DVD Comic Book Collection” of the 90s X-Men cartoon, it’s all as bad as these clips would indicate and the series surely can’t hold a candle to its contemporary from another studio.
Where Batman was sleek and sharply written, effectively using decades of continuity and minimal, easily animated designs to get the most from a tight budget, the X-Men cartoon is a bloated mess that seems to revel in its fiscal and storytelling shortcomings. There’s overblown dialogue forced into the mouths of voice actors who seem more desperate than talented, animation that seems to be missing every other frame, and an intensely dispiriting take on the X-Men mythos that lacks any sort of joy, stripping away the themes of tolerance and education in exchange for hamfisted plotting and poorly done fight sequences. In a lot of ways, it’s emblematic of much of the comics being printed at the time, all cheap gloss with no substance and an ugly veneer that seems designed to attract teenage boys with more money than charisma.
There’s a reason that this cartoon has been buried in the past until Disney secured the rights to release it on DVD: if the Batman cartoon was frequently a night of passion with a fantastic partner, something you’d want to revisit again and again, X-Men is closer to ten minutes with a tube sock that you’d then bury in the laundry, hamfisted groping that is embarrassing after a certain age..
1You can speculate why in the comments. I’ll tell you that it rhymed with “girls, music, and some more girls, almost like a Jeffrey Brown book.”
Brian John Mitchell sent me over some very small comic books to review and the design fetishist in me immediately liked the form factor. As a package, each issue measures two inches by two inches and provides a surprisingly dense read, especially for the price point.
The body horror in Worms #3 is muted in a few places by some pretty dodgy art from Kimberlee Straub, but Mitchell’s strong first-person narrative compensates nicely; it’s deceptively simple and displays a keen ability to use the text space on each of the tiny pages to great effect, building suspense very nicely. Despite actually quite enjoying this, I immediately wanted to see how the writer would make use of a larger format, where this form factor’s limitations are removed and his scripting would get more room to breathe.
Unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed by Mitchell’s autobiographical Lost Kisses comics I was given (issue 7 and 8.) I think a good deal of this is because I’m just past the whole stick figure thing at this point, especially as Matt Feazell and Randall Munroe make almost every other comic using the technique moot. Points for exposing some nasty truths about himself and his toxic relationships, but haven’t we crossed the event horizon for comics of that ilk?
You can read (and order) issues of Lost Kisses and Worms on the Silber Records site, where they’re linked at the bottom.
Yet another comic book about how someone’s life was imperfect growing up but they found someone to love and things are a lot better now. We’ve got enough of these cluttering up the discount racks of the nation’s comic book sellers at this point, don’t we, so why bother with with this, from a guy you’ve likely never heard of?
Well, Box Brown is very, very self-aware and willing to pillory himself for a laugh pretty thoroughly as he takes snapshots from his life and assembles them in thoughtful, thematic stories that run the gamut from “I’ve found the love of my life and am having difficulty settling into the new town that we call home” to discussing his fucked-up relationship with money.
I also found that this book had a surplus of that oft-missing element known as charm. Ben and Ellen are people you want to spend time around, not hipster ciphers with punchlines and references instead of dialogue. Ben’s willingness to joke about himself and his circumstances instead of treating everything as a relevatory moment reminds me of a less-deadpan version of Jeffrey Brown. Obviously, none of this would work without Brown’s artwork, a helps underpin everything very nicely, using incidental details and a minimal, cartoonish aesthetic that reminds me of Ivan Brunetti without aping him beat-for-beat.
Other comics people want to bombard you with words while I value and respect your time!
That’s it. Really.
The new Haunted Tank comic? Surprisingly good. Frank Marraffino’s script is engaging, human, and funny, nicely aided by Henry Flint’s detailed yet just-cartoony-enough art. I’d normally question the more stereotypical bits of dialogue from the Iraqi army in a few places, but they seemed to fit in nicely with a tone that reminded me of the first act of Three Kings. I prefer what I’m seeing here to the also-well-done Unknown Soldier revival, but that’s likely mostly because I’m wanting more upbeat material at the moment.
If I told you that Shin Takahashi’s Manga Guide To Statistics features a cute 14-year-old schoolgirl who wants to learn statistics so she can make some time with her dad’s attractive coworker, exactly how surprised would you be? Setting this (I’ll call it a ) cultural difference aside, statistics is the sort of math I can get behind: pulling usable information out of a sea of numbers, so I actually brushed off my sadly-atrophied numerical skills and played along for a few chapters on a lark. From my very-much-a-layman’s view, this piece of nonfiction manga from newish player in the field No Starch Press seems to do its job very well, if you can handle a dram of reverse ephebophilia in your educational comics.
The X-Files #1
Wildstorm â€¢ $3.50
A little under a decade ago, I was an avid fan of The X-Files. Despite stiff acting, a too-complex subplot that lost its way too early on, and questionable quality control, I enjoyed its neopulp and monster stories enough to keep watching on through the first movie and subsequent season, in which they began filming in California and the show became much glossier. After that, I lost interest, discovering other ways to spend Sunday night, and left the show and its diminishing returns behind.
The first issue of Wildstorm’s comic miniseries based on the property, penned by series writer, story editor, and executive producer Frank Spotnitz with art by Brian Denham, isn’t going to bring me back into the fold. The script lacks any of the humor or humanity of the show, even making the Lone Gunmen into hollow recitation machines and instead feelis like a series of plot beats and little more. Even there it falls down: Mulder’s paranoia in the final third of this first chapter seems to come from nowhere, and his relationship with Scully seems colder than it ever did on-screen. Artist Brian Denham photo-references heavily and comes across as a less-talented Tony Harris. Some of the sketchiness that Charlie Adlard brought to the Topps X-Files comics would have brought some welcome humanity to the whole affair.
Oh, and for those counting, this is the sixth non-comics-property tie-in that I’ve been sent to review from Wildstorm in a row. What happened to the imprint that gave us The Authority, Sleeper, and America’s Best Comics?
Batman: Cacophony #1
Boy, Kevin Smith’s not a very good superhero comic book writer, is he? Characters chatter on and on; Batman’s wildly out-of-voice in his narration, which is saying something, considering how many interpretations of the character are out there and worst of all, there’s no reason to care unless you think Onomatopoeia was the great character find of 2002, as the execution leaves so much to be desired. Smith seems to be aiming squarely at the arrested development cases that ensured that Clerks 2 paid for itself: there’s a painfully extended anal sex joke and Batman calls Zsasz’s slaughter of two people an “unholy briss [sic]” because – get this – he used a scalpel! Even some nifty technobabble involving Deadshot’s costume and a Joker who somehow manages to recall the classic Englehart take on the character can’t save this sloppy mess that smacks of an inside joke (note artist Walt Flanagan‘s presence) that somehow went a bit too far up the editorial chain.
“Well, I’m so busy, I asked my good pal Dr. K to review Heroes Volume 2 so I didn’t have to. Also, I don’t like the show at all and he does, so I figured he’d be a better judge of the content. So there’s that.”
The third media tie-in comic I’ve received in a row for review from Wildstorm, Mirror’s Edge suffers the most compared to its source, a fast-moving, kinetic video game that’s set in a Dystopian future where parkour runners serve as an underground courier service. From the clips of the game online, it’s apparent that it’s a game centered around movement and vertigo and, by using the first-person point of view, giving the player the chance to do physical feats that would likely leave them in the hospital if attempted.
This leaves Rhianna Pratchett, who wrote the game’s script, and Matthew Dow Smith with an odious task: taking the focus of the title away from what players can do while picking up a controller and instead using static imagery and some licensee-approved backstory to craft something that captures something from the gameplay experience and brings it to the comics page. Not surprisingly, they fall short of their goal, but to be fair, there’s very few people (Paul Pope comes to mind) that could convey the motion that the source material is centered around. Smith’s art has progressed greatly from his earlier Mignola-derived work, but the generic-seeming world of the game and humorless, paper-thin characterizations don’t give him much to work with.Â Mind you, I’m getting more and more likely to pick up the game itself, so maybe by giving me a reminder, the comic did its job just fine by the beancounters.
A quasi-sequel to The Dark Knight and existing in the sort of continuity-free area that it needs, the Joker graphic novel is much more successful than most of writer Brian Azzarello’s previous work with superheroes and a notch above his previous archvillain-related material with artist Lee Bermejo, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. The script (thankfully) leaves behind a few of the quirks that defined his 100 Bullets (narrative counterpoints to the visual, oblique dialogue) and provides a relatively straightforward ground-level look at crime and inevitability in Gotham City through the eyes of a thug that’s aligned himself with a fresh-out-of-Arkham Joker.
This isn’t to say that the work is the least bit generic: Azzarello’s new takes on familiar villains such as Killer Croc and The Riddler are infused with his sensibilities, with Bermejo’s designs providing a level of grit and believability that will make the book accessible to readers both casual and indoctrinated. Engrossing and capable of eliciting genuine shock from a character that is commonly thought of as well and truly played out, Joker is highly recommended.
Ferryman #1 is “presented” by Joel Silver and Dark Castle Comics (the latter is a sub-division of Silver’s own Dark Castle Entertainment) and pretty much reads like what you’d expect: the first ten or so minutes of a high-concept horror/action movie. Mark (Manhunter) Andreyko’s quip-filed and self-aware script is serviceable and keeps the pages turning, even if there’s a distinct air of familiarity about the whole thing that kept me from being completely sold. Jonathan Wayshak’s art looks like Billy the Sink and Klaus Janson had a son hidden away in the Andes, just waiting for their big debut, and is easily my favorite thing about the book. May well be worth looking at in collected form, depending on how the usually-reliable Andreyko steers this particular ship.
Wolverine: Logan (which was apparently supposed to have a long “O” but I can’t suss out how to do it and neither could the publisher’s art department, apparently) is one of those curious “$20 for this? Really, Marvel?” hardcovers that the company occasionally throws onto the market. It’s three issues of Wolverine in World War II Japan, done by overhyped (if frequently quite good) writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Eduardo Risso, whom I could possibly write odes for, maybe even sonnets. As expected, it’s visually stunning, with watercolors by Dean White complementing Risso’s work perfectly, but the script is threadbare and hackneyed taking 60 pages to do what Claremont and Byrne (or Smith, or Lee, or Romita) would manage in 20.