Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Month in Review: May 2011

Depth, variety, and a few surprises characterized our writing in the month of May, and I think we're both very pleased with how everything turned out. There were reviews, reflections, and ramblings, as well as our first guest post in quite a while.

Collected here for your convenience are all our posts from May 2011:

- A recap of my contributions to videogame humor website GameCola in April 2011

- A brief post that reads more like a journal entry about constantly being on the defensive

- Alex's weekly (and cathartic) comics news/discussion/nonsense column, Volume 3, Issues 18-21, covering Moon Knight, reverse commuting, The Rocketeer, and The Tattered Man, respectively.

- Thoughts about the much-ballyhooed Action Comics #900

- Thoughts about the results of the Smithsonian's Art of Video Games exhibition contest

- A celebration of Free Comic Book Day 2011, and regrets from afterward

- A story about hearing a discussion of comic books on the radio

- A review of Moon Knight, Volume 1, starring one of Marvel's most underappreciated heroes

- A comparison of Portal and Portal 2, which offers a dose of objectivity to put the hype of the sequel into perspective

- A teaser for a real post after Blogger came back from maintenance downtime

- A review of the highly recommended slice-of-life comic Local

- Original artwork that makes Death look really good

- A guest post relating some cultural and comedic experiences at the Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival

- Our Geek Wish List, detailing some of the most earnest and outlandish hopes we two fanboys can muster

- A reflection on Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and why RPGs are suddenly appealing again

- An almost-review of The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE, and the Changing Face of Comics

- A list of all the things Alex just isn't going to be able to do

- A reflection on what you leave behind

- A review of Marvel's Thor movie

- Musings about Kool-Aid

- Thoughts about becoming slightly more than a minor Internet celebrity

- A recap of Book Expo 2011, a convention that turned out much happier than the previous year's

- Music reminding you that you gotta have more cowbell

- A reflection on being a retro gamer, part one

- A celebration of Memorial Day 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

World's Finest Comics #5 patriotic cover"Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic."

--General John Logan, General Order No. 11, 5 May 1868

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Retro(spective) Gamer, Part I

Though I grew up on the Atari 2600, Nintendo systems are almost all I've ever known of modern gaming at the time when it was still fairly modern. I play my fair share of PC games, and I dabble around with the likes of PlayStation and Xbox when I'm visiting friends, but the vast majority of my gaming knowledge and experience comes from what Nintendo has had to offer over the years.

I haven't always been pleased with The Next Big Thing From Nintendo. However, I rarely acquire a new system until the price has dropped significantly, at which point it's just A Thing From Nintendo. I might let my fanboyism get the better of me by springing for the latest Mega Man or Metroid game on its release day (or purchasing a system before the price drops sufficiently for the sole purpose of playing said Mega Man or Metroid game), but just about everything else has to wait until it's 30% off, in the bargain bin, or at a garage sale.

In fact, it's usually not until a system is headed into retirement that I start to fully appreciate what it has to offer. The GameCube is a perfect example of this: approximately 60% of the GameCube games I own were purchased after games were no longer being released for the system. With my library now containing games from Burnout to Karaoke Revolution to Metal Gear Solid, the bargain bin has helped me to realize just how versatile a system the GameCube is.

Though I may miss out on some memes and plot twists and groundbreaking innovations, I think I ultimately get the better end of the deal as a retro gamer. Honest opinions are more readily available than superficial hype; choosing from a well-developed catalog of games keeps me focused on what I truly want to play instead of only what's available, and it's cheaper for me to be a collector.

I've already talked a little about why I'm a strictly Nintendo guy when it comes to consoles and handhelds, but I haven't said too much about the consoles and handhelds themselves, except to occasionally complain about them. I think it's time to fix that.

...Next time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gotta Have More Cowbell

Perhaps you're familiar with the Saturday Night Live sketch where actor Christopher Walken is in a recording session with Blue Öyster Cult, demanding more cowbell.

Perhaps this song needs to be on your wedding playlist.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Expo America 2011

Well, Book Expo America 2011 has come and gone, and, ironically, I missed out on the event completely. Why? Because I was too busy making books to leave the office.

Irony is funny sometimes.

Still, plenty of people from my company did manage to make the trip into New York City and the Javitz Center, and from all accounts, this year's show was way less...depressing...than last year's.

In fact, it seems like things were downright upbeat at the 2011 edition of BEA.

But as with anything in publishing these days, you need to peel back the layers and look at what's really going on. Traditional publishers are having trouble making the shift to digital--something that, in today's world of bleeding edge technology, is staggeringly frustrating and, frankly, incredibly stupid--and at big shows like BEA, the major publishers do their best to put on a smiley face.

Now, certainly there was more to smile about at this year's BEA as opposed to last year's show, which featured curtained booths from exhibitors who had to pull out of the show at the last minute because they couldn't afford to make the trip. And there was even a digital presence there this time around.

But it's funny.

Depending on who I speak to, the story changes. Anyone over a certain age has come back into the office and said things like, "Well, attendance was up, and that's a good thing," and "According to the numbers, book sales are up from last year."

Well, okay. But last year saw a cataclysmic year in the industry. Anyone remember Borders?

Anyone under a certain age that attended the show has said things like, "There wasn't enough digital product." Which, really, should be the title of the book about the publishing industry, once the whole thing collapses in on itself.

For a cold, hard, and so-common-sensical-it-hurts look at the state of publishing today, I recommend this article, over on BNET, written by Erik Sherman about Book Expo.

It's good reading, I promise.

And, if you happen to work in publishing, then you already know everything in the article is true, but it's just nice to see someone putting it out there so bluntly. Because everyone else on the planet recognizes the importance of digital books, except for the people making the decisions about them at the publishers--both big and small.

Hopefully, by next year's BEA, this won't even be an issue. But it's a safe bet that it will be...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Minor Internet Celebrity +

I seem to be something a little more than just a minor Internet celebrity now: I have my own Facebook page as well as my own discussion forum, both created by fans of my YouTube work.

Both the FB page and the forum are still in their infancy at the time of this post, so don't expect anything too fancy. As I said, they're infancy. No? Too much of a stretch? Anynonsense, they're there if you want to demonstrate your undying loyalty to me.

It's really very strange to (a) have fans who are enthusiastic about creating fan pages/sites for me, and (b) see my name proudly displayed on the web like I'm an Actual Celebrity. I have always enjoyed the distance between my Internet self and my real-world self, primarily because blurring the line too much between the two can produce frighteningly well-informed stalkers and con artists.

For better or for worse, as I've continued to meet interesting and appreciative people online over the past year or two, I've grown a little less tense about all this. Nowadays I'm chatting with fans over Skype, and getting involved in these fan pages is bringing me closer to breaking down that blurry barrier entirely. I'm both excited for the opportunity to connect with people who I would count as friends in an offline situation, and wary of how close people are coming to my secret lair. Or whatever it is I'm protective of.

What do you think? I'm open to comments about the Facebook page, the discussion forum, and the celebrity/privacy situation in general.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 3, Issue 21

Holy lingering deadlines, Batman! I'm swamped with work this week, and I need to blow through this as fast as humanly possible.


Welcome to week 21 of this year's Waiting for Wednesday! Hard to believe we've made it into the 21st week of the year, but time marches on and all that. Speaking of time, it's time for me to hurry the heck up!

Let's do this week's featured books Flash-style.

First up, from DC, we have the trade paperback collection of the excellent Brian Wood-penned series, Dv8: Gods and Monsters.
Now, considering I had very little clue as to who any of these characters were going into this mini-series, I feel like I can safely recommend this book to absolutely anyone looking for a good, new read.

I wrote about this series as the single issues came out week to week, and I'm quite comfortable in calling Dv8 one of my favorite books of 2010. I'm a big Brian Wood (Demo, The New York Four) fan, and I love Rebekah Isaacs' (Magus, Ms. Marvel) art.

Put them together, and you have a winner. Here's the solicitation information from DC:

The super powered losers, freaks and masochists of DV8 have seen a lot, but it's nothing compared to this! As Gem Antonelli (a.k.a. Copycat) is debriefed in a holding cell, the story of how eight troubled teens were briefly gods of a prehistoric world unfolds in this collection of the 8-issue miniseries!

It's a great little series, and it's an eccentric super hero story with great characters. So if you're tired of the tried-and-true capes and tights approach to storytelling, give this book a go.

Next up, from Image, we have another first issue with some buzz behind it. From the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (Power Girl, Jonah Hex) The Tattered Man one-shot ships today.
Yet another result of an interesting blurb in Previews and some great looking art, The Tattered Man looks to be a mix of horror and action, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the creative team has in store for us.

Here's the info from Image on the book--and take note that it's priced at $4.99 for 40 pages:

JIMMY PALMIOTTI & JUSTIN GRAY (JONAH HEX, TIME BOMB, RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE) and NORBERTO FERNANDEZ (ERIKA, X-MEN) ask the question: Who is the Tattered Man? A spirit of vengeance spawned from the concentration camps of Germany Lies dormant till it is resurrected in modern day new york and finds although times have changed, its work is far from done. Horror and heroics mix, and the results are deadly.

I recently read Palmiotti and Gray's run on Power Girl over at DC, and I loved it. That book was action-packed and filled with funny, quirky character moments.

Tattered Man will be one of those books that retailers may not order in large numbers, so if the premise sounds interesting to you, I'd suggest giving your local shop a call to reserve a copy.

And with that, unfortunately, I need to fly.

That's about the quickest I've ever written one of these up, so here's hoping that it makes sense and isn't too grammatically nightmarish. Before I head out, though, what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Perfect Batch of Kool-Aid

There's something deeply satisfying about making a batch of Kool-Aid and having it turn out perfectly. For me, perfectly means a perfect balance of flavor, sweetness, and texture--none of that watered-down Bug Juice stuff. True Kool-Aid is a beverage fit for popcorn and dipping slices of white bread.

Yes, I'm still a little kid.

It's not just Kool-Aid, though Kool-Aid requires much less effort. Last week I made ham and cheddar chowder from a recipe my grandfather gave me, and while it took me two hours to assemble and finalize, the end result was rather scrumptious (do people use that word anymore?). I don't do that much "real" cooking these days, largely because of the amount of time it requires, so it was a real joy to make time to prepare actual, not-out-of-a-box-or-can food...and have leftovers that I could freeze and stretch out for days to come.

I am a person with a need to create, and I enjoyed being able to construct a dinner from the building blocks of ham, celery, water, cheese, potatoes, and their ilk. I mean, uh, and milk. I wasn't just feeding myself; I was crafting a meal.

So, with a perfect batch of Kool-Aid in the pitcher and a sumptuous (that's more normal than "scrumptious," right?) bowl of cheddar ham chowder in store for dinner, I'm pretty darn satisfied right now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Exfanding Review: Thor

Well, despite claims to the contrary this weekend, it looks like we all made it to Monday morning. Not sure how you spent your End of the World, but I decided to go to the movies.

I managed to carve out a couple of hours late Saturday where I didn't have to do, well, much of anything, really, so I figured I should be a good geek and finally go see Thor.

I'd talked to a few friends that had seen the flick, and I'd listened in on some comics shop talk about the movie, and I'd checked out a few spoiler-free reviews online, and everyone seemed to really dig it.

And, despite my...aversion...to seeing films with large groups of (loud) people, I knew Thor was a film I'd prefer to see in the theaters. And so, with the End of All Things looming over us, we drove out to a 6:45 showing at a little theater north of my hometown.

And, really, what better movie to see on the Day the World Would End than Thor? You know, what with that whole Ragnarok thing the Asgardians are always talking about.

Now, Thor wasn't a character I followed that closely growing up, but I've recently read quite a bit of the classic Marvel Thor stories, and I have a fondness for the character, and for his world.

I tend to like epic-y things, and stories with fantasy elements, so Thor contains concepts that are right up my alley. Plus, I guess my weekly viewing of HBO's new Game of Thrones series put me in the mood for some Asgardian shenanigans.

So let's get to it.

I thought Chris Hemsworth nailed Thor, and about half an hour into the flick, when Thor is in a SHIELD facility, I remember thinking, "Wow. This guy is Thor." I loved the fish out of water take on the character, and the classic Stan Lee "Thor-speak" in the modern world.

Anthony Hopkins, as always, brought a level of class and refinement to the movie, and delivers a strong performance as Odin. Natalie Portman was very much underused; I mean, she's an Oscar winner. Still, I think she did a good job taking a very one-dimensional-on-paper character and making her into something more than that.

But it's Loki who steals the show. And it's Loki who should steal the show.

Tom Hiddleston did an exceptional job in his turn playing Loki, Thor's mischievous brother. As with any comic book-to-film adaptation, the villain's the thing, and if the villain isn't done right, the whole movie falls apart.

Hiddleston's portrayal kept things together, and was in turn funny, heartbreaking, and downright evil.

Which is exactly how Loki should be. A tragic figure of his own creation, Loki is the Trickster, the liar, the silver-tongued. Odin has both done wrong by him, and has been unquestionably loving towards him. Still, it is not in Loki's nature to just...let things be.

Hiddleston is convincing in his lies, and his is the role that drives the plot along.

The story itself was well told, crisp, and a whole lot of fun. Sure, things blowed up real good, and it was a blast to see the home of the Frost Giants, but there was an actual story behind it all.

So, final verdict time.

I went in with high hopes, and I came out with high praise. Honestly, I think Thor is my favorite of the Marvel movies. I loved the first Spider-Man, but 2 and 3 didn't do much for me, other than they were a lot of fun to look at.

And the first Iron Man was an exceptional super hero movie, but my enjoyment of it was affected by The Dark Knight, which I actually saw first. For me, The Dark Knight ruined--and continues to ruin--many a super hero flick because I just can't imagine a better film about one of these characters.

And Thor is certainly not The Dark Knight, but it is an incredible translation of comic-to-screen. More than that, though, it's a good film. A fun summer movie, sure, but there's some very cool stuff here, and some interesting plot development, character moments, and, perhaps most exciting for comics fans, world building.

If you haven't yet seen Thor, make sure to stick around after the credits, because this film very clearly lays the foundations for the next Marvel movies. I still can't get my head wrapped around the fact that we now have a shared universe of Marvel characters in theaters, but, man, is it cool.

So, yeah. Thor rocked. Go see it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What You Leave Behind

Doesn't matter whether it's doomsday or just moving day--eventually, you're not going to be around anymore, and guaranteed you'll have left something behind. Between what I've been seeing in the news and what I've been preparing for in my own life, I've been thinking more and more about what I'll leave behind when it's my time to go.

I dropped by the bank on Friday to deposit some checks, and the teller remarked that she hadn't seen me in a while. Though I've never formally introduced myself, I've been going to that bank for long enough that people recognize me, and apparently notice when I've been away. I thought to myself, whenever I end up moving out of this area, I'm going to miss the people. There's always Facebook and e-mail and phone calls for keeping up with people, but I don't imagine many of us would make a road trip just to visit those friendly part-timers we got to know at Domino's or that nice dentist's assistant whose name we can never remember. I'll miss the people.

This works both ways, though--the people you leave behind will miss you, as well. This blog is more than just a creative outlet for our geek tendencies; it's a way for the people who miss me to keep tabs on my daily nonsense, and it's the closest thing that my hypothetical kids and grandkids might ever have to getting to know me as the person I am now. Whether it's the impact of my words or my words themselves, I want to share something lasting with the people I leave behind.

Of course, the act of leaving isn't always a misty-eyed experience. Some people are eager to leave things behind and move on to greener pastures. In that case, it becomes a question of how much of the place you're leaving remains with you; locations, people, and tangible goods might not be along for the ride, but memories and experiences aren't always so easy or desirable to leave behind.

And what of the people who come after you? The people who inherit your job, or move into your house, or step in as the acting parents of your children--what are you leaving behind for them?

Things to think about--that's what I'm leaving behind as I conclude this post.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Weekend Doings (Or, There is No Try)

I'm writing this post up late Friday afternoon (evening, really), and while I crawl to the finish line of the race that has been this past week, I figured I'd mention a few things that I'm looking forward to attempting to do this weekend.

I say "attempting" because, you see, I am a bad geek. I still haven't seen Thor, and despite the fact that I really don't love the whole movie theater experience, I do want to see this flick in theaters.

I didn't go the first week, mostly because I wasn't anywhere near a movie theater, but also because I typically avoid opening nights like the plague.

But there's an X-Men movie that opens tonight, and I'm willing to bet the theater will be pretty crowded. So I'm not going to do that. Oh. Also, I'm still at work, and I plan to be here for quite some time.

So there's that whole problem.

I'm thinking about seeing Thor on Saturday (today, in your fancy future time), but I hear there's supposed to be some kind of apocalypse, though there's a bit of confusion as to what will cause said apocalypse.

Either way, maybe I'll just stay home and read.

Ah. But in order to be able to stay home and read, I need to actually be home. And I won't be, because I'll be out in a mall (hmmm...maybe I should learn something from George Romero), shopping for new clothes for an upcoming (and insanely expensive) trip.

And that should take up most of my day, as I also have to bomb into the office for some overtime reading/editing/teeth gnashing.

So that leaves Sunday. But I have a philosophy about Sundays, you see, and I have a thing about not doing anything on Sundays, other than lie down and watch things move on a screen in my living room.

Preferably baseball.

So Sunday's out, too.

Luckily, I have (half of a) blog, and I can live vicariously through all of our readers. Or the ones who comment on this (ridiculous excuse for a) post. So, please. Comment away, and tell me why you're (way) cooler than me.

And enjoy your apocalypse.

We'll be back tomorrow (or will we?) with more nonsense.

(Also, I totally spelled "apocalypse" right every time in this post without using the spell check. So at least I have that going for me.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hey, Look! It's Almost a Review!

Kind of a scatter shot review post today, featuring a film I've watched and a book that I'm currently in the middle of re-reading. But it's Friday morning before 9:00, so I figure that scatter shot is completely acceptable.

Plus, it's been one of the Longest Weeks Ever, so just bear with me, 'kay?

So. Last weekend, I sat down and watched the excellent DVD documentary, The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE, and the Changing Face of Comics. As far as on-the-nose titles go, this one is king.

It's an hour-long doc about Jeff Smith, the creator of one of comics' most cherished works, Bone, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. For those unfamiliar with the title, think of Bone as the Harry Potter of graphic novels.

Bone has won a pile of awards, has garnered the praise of Time Magazine, the American Library Association, and Publisher's Weekly, as well as some the greatest creators to ever work in comics.

The entire series, which clocks in at 75 issues and over 1,300 pages, is written, drawn, and lettered by Smith. And that is staggering.

In a comics landscape where it becomes reason for celebration when a book ships on time, or if a title goes 25 issues, Jeff Smith--all by himself--managed to produce the highest quality story imaginable over the course of 75 issues.

It took him 13 years to complete (which averages out to about 6 issues a year), and boy, does that dedication show in its pages.

If you've never read Bone, you really should. It's an unparalleled achievement in comics, and it's recently been collected by Scholastic in a giant, one-volume edition.
After watching The Cartoonist doc, I dove back into my copy of Bone, and I'm about three-quarters of the way through.

Told in the tradition of Walt Kelly's Pogo, and classic Disney stories featuring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, Bone is both a familiar looking story and something completely different.

These characters are archetypes, and as such, when reading Bone for the first time, I felt as though I had always known them.

As Smith himself has described, Bone is sort of a mash-up of Bugs Bunny and The Lord of the Rings.

It's a story that is epic in scale, and like Lord of the Rings, a small group of good guys must go up against impossible odds and impossible evil. But at the same time, Bone is peppered with these wonderful, small moments.

Smith is a true master of the form, and he's able to convey his story using minimal dialogue and, maybe more impressively, minimal line work. Think Peanuts. An economy of ink is used when constructing his characters, and you can tell that Smith knows exactly what he wants them to be doing in every single panel.

Add to that an incredible use of light and shadow, and, well. You have quite possibly the best comic book of all time.

But I could go on about the book itself all day. What I want to talk about, even briefly, is the documentary, The Cartoonist. This is a real gem of a DVD, loaded with special features--the highlight is a nearly two-hour interview with Smith conducted by Scott McCloud, whose Understanding Comics is required reading for fans of the medium.

But the main feature itself is a wonderful look into the creative drive that produced this long form graphic novel and its incredible effect on comics, and on publishing.

Smith was in the first wave of indie creators in the early 1990s who decided to buck the trend of comics at the time and do something completely different. Because of the success of Bone, doors were opened for other creators, like Terry Moore (who also appears on the doc), to follow this self publishing revolution.

Bone led the way, and it's because of that book's almost-immediate success and soon to follow acclaim that we have works like Strangers in Paradise.

The DVD gives a good glimpse into what it was like for Smith and the pack of indie creators he ran with in the early nineties; huge lines at conventions, and parents telling him that their kids learned to read because of Bone.

We also get to see just how much work Smith had to put into creating and distributing the series. Eventually, Smith's wife quit her Silicon Valley job to turn her attention to running the business end of Bone full-time.

If you have any interest in the creative process, or even more importantly, if you want to learn a bit about what it takes to carry out a creative vision, I'd absolutely suggest checking this flick out.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Finally, a fantasy.

RPGs are not my favorite genre of video game, as I discussed last year, and the Final Fantasy series in particular has been letting me down with each new installment I play. I liked FFI, FFIV, and Mystic Quest when I first played them in elementary and middle school, but I was young and foolish back then. Now I'm old and foolish and play Final Fantasy games I don't like.

FFII punished my party with instant death for even the smallest amount of off-the-beaten-path overworld exploration, and bored me with useless dialogue and tedious wandering. FFV gave me a delightfully customizable job system and neutralized the fun with a generic storyline and outrageously unfair boss battles requiring exactly the right setup of jobs and equipment to succeed. FFVI gave me too many party members and too many not-really-optional sidequests. FFVIII dragged on far too long and never stayed focused on the characters I liked for any amount of time.

Oh, and the random battles. I'm not entirely opposed to random battles, but the Final Fantasy games do them poorly. There, I said it.

Whereas Dragon Warrior gives you a variety of monsters in groups of varying size that require actual tactics to survive when all of the damage you're doing is in single or double digits, Final Fantasy usually gives you the same few monsters in the same few configurations that can be taken down in most cases by mashing the attack button to do several hundred damage or casting whatever spell you happen to select first.

This is acceptable enough for just getting slowed down while moving from A to B, but grinding for gold and XP quickly becomes a wholly unfulfilling and wasteful experience. At least in Dragon Warrior you know you can stop grinding when you are able to just mash the attack button and stop thinking about tactics.

Where was I going with this? Right--why I mysteriously like Final Fantasy III.

You see, I've been playing the Nintendo DS remake of FFIII, which feels like a harmonious blend of the combat of FFI, the job system of FFV, and miscellaneous elements of FFIV. OK, so maybe not a mystery after all. So far, so good.

What's more, the challenge is scaled almost perfectly so that, if your tactics are sound, you only need to grind for gold if you absolutely must clean out a town's weapon, armor, and magic shops before starting to explore the next area. The music is nice, the story is unremarkable but at least different enough not to feel stale, and the low-tech 3-D graphics are not as abrasive as I initially thought they'd be. There's a few minor shortcomings and annoyances, such as notably long load times for every change of scene, and no real instant gratification for attaining a new job level, but nothing so egregious as RANDOM FOREST DINOSAUR CASTS ULTIMA AND DECIMATES YOUR PARTY.

Essentially, I've got everything I want in a Final Fantasy game without any of the things that put a major damper on the rest of the series. Yet, I don't think that's why I'm enjoying it so much right now. I actually had daydreams of going home and playing Final Fantasy III, and that's just not normal. I have to be incredibly invested in the story, or excited about trying out a new game in a series I love, in order for me to get like that, and I can assure you that neither is the case here. Something else is afoot.

I've also been playing Dragon Warrior IV for the NES--and allow me to emphasize how rare it is for me to be playing two RPGs at once anymore--and I've also had strong cravings to go back and play.

I'm a little more interested in the story, and I like the characters a little better, but all the characters in your party, save for the leader, are on autopilot and can only be given broad tactical directives in combat such as "Defensive" and "Cast the instant death spell five times in a row against the boss that is CLEARLY IMMUNE TO INSTANT DEATH." Most of my teammates are morons, and I tell them so on a regular basis, though it doesn't seem to make a difference. As such, combat fluctuates between boring and frustrating, yet I periodically get revved up to play this game. None of this is normal at all!

Probably because I'm not in a very normal situation right now.

There's Big Life Stuff going on right now, some of which I've been planning for, and some of which completely blindsided me. Video games have always been a way for me to escape from the real world, blow off some steam, and be entertained enough to return to the real world with a positive attitude. This time, I find I'm in need of something predictable, steady, stable, and low-stress where I can take my time to plan and always be making some kind of progress. These two RPGs fit the bill perfectly.

Okay, so the characters in Dragon Warrior IV could stand to drink a little less moron juice, but otherwise the game fits the bill perfectly.

Even when the odds are against me and a challenge seems insurmountable, I can always go back and grind for XP until my characters have reached a level high enough to press on. Doesn't seem to work that way in real life--if somebody hands me a bill that's due immediately, I can't just leave the room to beat up wild animals until I've got the money to pay for everything, and then sleep at an inn for a few nights until I've mustered the strength to face reality. In the same way, escaping to video games isn't making these challenges go away, though it's helping to keep me relaxed and level-headed by being able to take a break from time to time.

I think that's really the key to all this: stay relaxed and level-headed. Nothing that's going on in my life will mean the end of the world (though there's predictions that the end is on its way anyhow), and there's nothing that won't get sorted out in good time. There's just too many things going on at once for my taste, but if it means that a video game genre I've long since tired of is finally becoming appealing again, then I might as well run with it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 3, Issue 20

Oh. Right. It's Wednesday. Huh. Will you look at that.

Well, lessee. Um. I say we skip the preamble this week and head right to the comics. Because they're just that good, and that important this week. And because I had zero time in which to sit down and write today's column.

So. Right to it, then.

There are a number of new, interesting titles shipping today, including a spat of first issues. And this makes me happy because it allows me the opportunity to suggest books that you don't need to have a decade's worth of continuity knowledge to be able to pick up and enjoy.

Which is a Very Good Thing for comic books.

There's really an eclectic mix of books today, and we'll start with the latest issue of what may well be my favorite series of 2011 so far. From Image Comics, writer S. Steven Struble, and artist Sina Grace, The Li'l Depressed Boy, issue four, hits stands today.
I've talked about the series before, and while a fourth issue is never the greatest jumping-on point for new readers, retailers seem to have caught on to the fact that this book rocks.

There was a second printing of issue one, and at least in my local shops, there are copies of issues two and three also available. If you can't find the books, though, not to fear. There's a trade collection coming out in a couple of weeks.

Anyway, for those picking this up issue to issue, here's the solicitation information from Image for today's issue four:


After birthdays, concerts, bowling and house parties, The Li'l Depressed Boy feels closer to his dream girl more than ever before. In this issue: A new friend, some fried rice, and a kiss.

If you haven't been able to find this, or if you've held out, please do give the trade a chance. I love slice of life comics, but I HATE slice of life comics that follow the same, boring patterns.

LDB definitely doesn't follow those patterns, and it's a book we should celebrate.

Next up, we have our second Image offering in Drums, issue one, the latest horror series from the publisher. Written by El Torres and with art by Abe Hernando and Kwaichang Kraneo, Drums is one of those books that I pre-ordered on a hunch from Previews.
The cover looks great, and the description of the series had enough there to convince me to plunk down my $2.99. Here's the blurb from the publisher:


In our world there exists an ancient religion with many names and many disguises: Candomble, Palo Mayombe, Santeria... Voodoo.

FBI agent Martin Irons is sent to investigate the sudden deaths of an entire gathering of followers at a ceremony, an assignment horrible enough before one of the mangled corpses rises and leads him on a sinister path. A new horror story with possessions, santeros, zombies... all set to the thunderous boom of drums!

With these Image books, if it looks good, I order it. Because when I don't I can't get the first issue after the day of release. As long as the books hold steady at this price point, I will be very willing to continuing trying out these new series from Image.

I haven't been burned yet, and I really am looking forward to what's next.

Speaking of new series, let's move on to one from IDW. Talk about a blast from my childhood. Today, Rocketeer Adventures, issue one, hits stands with an impressive array of creators on a character that I adored as a kid.
Now, sadly, I am woefully uninitiated with the classic Dave Stevens comics stories featuring the character, but, man, I loved the heck out of the movie when I saw it in the summer of 1991.

So I'll happily pick this issue up, and here's hoping the series--which appears to be in an anthology format--sticks around for some time. Here's the (longest, ever) solicitation info from IDW:

The Rocketeer Flies Again!

Dave Stevens unveiled the Rocketeer nearly 30 years ago to instant acclaim, and in all the years since that auspicious debut, respect for Dave’s talent and his greatest creation have only continued to grow.

Last year, IDW had the honor of releasing the complete Rocketeer saga in several editions, showcasing the work of this great artist as it was always meant to be seen—completely remastered, with nearly every page scanned directly from the originals and recolored by Dave’s hand-picked colorist.

Today we are able to celebrate Dave’s talent once again, with an all-new Rocketeer anthology miniseries written and drawn by some of the finest creators in comics, and with the full cooperation of the Stevens family.

The first star-studded issue of The Rocketeer features a gorgeous cover by Alex Ross, and terrific stories by John Cassaday, Mike Allred, Kurt Busiek, and Michael Kaluta, plus outstanding pin-ups by Mike Mignola and Jim Silke—all paying tribute to the continued legacy of Rocketeer and Dave Stevens!

Whew. That's a lot of talking. And, if all that talking didn't sway ya, you can check out a free preview over at Comic Book Resources.

That's a great cover, too. Looking forward to this one.

Finally, we'll end today with a character everyone knows--Batman. Now, I can hear you saying, "But Alex, Batman has 75 years of continuity behind him!" And you're right about that. But today sees the launch of a brand new mini-series by writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire), entitled, Batman: Gates of Gotham.
Apparently, this series will have ties to the Grant Morrison story, The Return of Bruce Wayne, but I'm hoping that Snyder's issues will be accessible to readers just coming on board now.

Here's DC's blurb for the book:

When a mystery as old as Gotham City itself surfaces, Batman assembles a team of his greatest detectives – including Red Robin, Owlman, I-Ching and others – to investigate this startling new enigma.

As clues are discovered and the mystery deepens, Batman's team soon finds itself on a journey that explores different eras in Gotham's history and touches upon notable Gotham families including the Waynes, Kanes, and Elliotts.

This miniseries spins out of recent events in the Batman titles and sets the stage for several exciting storylines in 2011. Additionally, this limited series touches upon mysterious story elements introduced in Grant Morrison's RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE.

Featuring many exciting Batman Family guest stars!

This book sounds great, and Snyder is quickly compiling one heck of a track record. His American Vampire series is flat-out fantastic, and his Detective Comics run has been the best on that character in quite some time.

He's one of those writers who is perfectly suited for the Dark Knight and his world. So check it out. And tell 'em Exfanding sent ya!


Uh huh. Definitely time for me to go. Before I do, though...what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Geek Wish List

Quite a while ago we shared with you our geek claims to fame, but there's an addendum to that list that has yet to be written: our geek claims to fame wish list.

Maybe we'll get a shot at these some day; maybe they're too logistically or financially impossible to achieve without first learning to bend the fabric of space, time, and Wall Street to our respective wills.

Either way, if our New Year's Resolutions were any indication, Alex will almost certainly get that time machine he's been wishing for, while I spend yet another year convincing Alex that we cannot go back in time to kill Grizzly Adams.

So. On to our wish lists, then.


For me (and, by "me," I mean, "Alex"), the biggest--and some would say most shameful--thing on my geek wish list is a trip to Comic-Con in San Diego. Shameful, because I have never been, and, likely, will never be.

This one hasn't happened for a couple of reasons, and they both rhyme with, "way too expensive."

Just to get out there--in the middle of the summer, no less--would take a monumental effort on my part. Summer is always, always, always busy around these parts, and not to mention gas prices have a tendency to inflate during prime vacation months.

July, apparently, is a prime vacation month.

On top of plane tickets and hotel accommodations (I'd need to sleep somewhere, I'd imagine), there's the cost of the show itself. Put me in a room with that many comics and that much original comic book art and, well.

You can imagine.

Oh. and food. I'd also imagine that would be a necessity.

Also also, I don't much like crushing, smelly crowds. And when there are that many people together in a single room...crushing and smelly are givens.

So, yeah. Comic-Con is definitely at the top of this wish list, and it'll likely stay there for some time. Unless, of course, we get that time machine, kill Grizzly Adams, and...


Nathaniel, you say things now.


One item? That's it? One little mostly plausible thing on your wish list? Pfft. Let me show you how it's done:

I want a Death Star. Life-sized. Fully operational. Manned by dancing Ewoks.

Now that we've established our baseline, here's what's on my to-(probably never gonna)-do list:

Whether through major or minor involvement, I want to leave my creative mark on a video game that garners an honest-to-goodness international fan following. I want to be that guy that people wonder about when they ask, "Who in the world designed this insanely difficult, yet surprisingly fair video game level?" and, "What kind of a person comes up with a boss like Sheep Man?" Somebody stuck a Goomba in a boot in Super Mario Bros. 3, and I want to be that guy.

Hm. I suppose that doesn't actually compare at all with the Dancing Ewok Death Star. Oh, well. Maybe it's better to be a little reasonable.

I want to be published some day. Getting around to producing that blog book we promised on our first birthday would be a good first step, but I'm also thinking of collected journal entries or poetry or even short stories, should I ever feel the drive. Hey, come to think of it, writing the instruction manual for a video game would satisfy this wish and the previous one. Score.

I want to run into one of my YouTube fans somewhere, and be asked, "Hey--don't you do Mega Man videos for YouTube?" And I want them to ask with the hyperlink in their speech and everything. Without a doubt, I have the best group of YouTube fans ever, and I think it'd be tremendous fun to get to meet some of them.

I get closer to achieving this with each costume I don, but I want to attend a convention in a homemade costume that is simultaneously unique, immediately identifiable, impressive, highly accurate, and convention-friendly (I.e. will allow me to sit down without needing to disassemble myself). Barring that, I want to see my fiancée in a homemade Panda-Z helmet.

Lastly (at least for now), I want to travel through space. So much space. Need to see it all. Doesn't need to be anything fancy, and I don't even mind if I'm an old man before I go; simply having been into space will be good enough for me. But I think it's gonna be a long, long time.

And...um...back to you, Alex.


The Death Star, huh? Maybe you should try starting with something a little...smaller? Like KITT. Start with KITT.

Speaking of, and since we're doing the whole pie-in-the-sky thing here, I want a Batmobile. And not the one from the Adam West show, either. Or the new tank Batmobile from the latest films. I want the Michael Keaton Batmobile.

I also wouldn't mind some explosives to drive it through. And, finally, since we're talking Things I'll Never Own, I want a Detective Comics, issue 27 (the first appearance of Batman), and a page of original Batman art by Frank Miller.

To wrap up, and to bring things back to Planet Maybe (as opposed to Planet Ain't Gonna Happen, Bucky), I echo Nathaniel's wish to be published, or to be a publisher.

That...that would rock.

I'd love to do something that will shake things up and change the way we look at books and comics and this whole digital revolution everyone's talking about.

I also wouldn't mind opening my own comics shop/coffee house someday. Two of my favorite things becoming the thing I do every day. That would rock, too.


You know what else would rock? A flip-phone shaped like an original Star Trek communicator. Beam me up, Verizon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Sakura Matsuri" and Other Words You'll Need to Wiki

Exfanded by Neko-chan

My college Anime Club, of which I am the VP, is known for three things: being friendly and welcoming to anyone who walks in the door; eating copious amounts of bento boxes and pizza; and liking Gurren Lagann a bit too much. We are not known for our organization and planning, and our definition of "field trip" means walking down the street to the Asian Bistro, yet this semester our club went super saiyan: we organized a button drive to raise money for Japan; we set up a cosplay photobooth at our Spring Fling; we sent a small squad of cosplayers to Anime Boston; and we sponsored our very first campus event - taking a busload of 46 students and faculty to the Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

We were to meet the bus out front of campus at 8:30 am on Sunday morning. Now I half-expected the other students to groan, seeing as most of them still perceive waking up before eleven as a Herculean feat, but they were all there at 8:15, and most of them were fully decked out in cosplay outfits or yukata. I wore my own yukata, which I had made a few days beforehand from quilting fabric, and I managed to wrangle Nathaniel [Editor's note: That's me!] into helping me tie the obi sash (which, despite our combined force powers, still came undone less than an hour into the trip). [Editor's note: Not my fault!]

Concern about the day's proceedings started when we watched the bus miss the turn into campus and continue driving down the main road in the wrong direction. It being Sunday, the dispatch office of the chartered bus company was understandably declining to answer their phones, so we simply waited and hoped that the bus driver would realize the error of his ways and return to us someday.

At almost nine o'clock we finally caught sight of the bus once more, headed this time to the wrong side of campus. Seeing that our bus driver had a bad pathfinding AI, we sent our club president on a fetch quest to retrieve the bus and bring it to the designated meeting place.

Once that crisis was averted, we loaded everyone on and finally got underway...to the Bronx. Apparently our bus driver was wearing Ozzie pants that day. Our tickets were for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Our bus contract stated we were to be dropped off at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. We verbally confirmed with him we were going to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. He decided to go to the Bronx. And when we told him to pull over he blamed us for not providing him with written directions. And although he owned a GPS, he did not have it on because he did not know how to use it. And the Five Burroughs bicycle tour was blocking off half the roads we needed to drive down. Great. So we had a student set up the GPS with the right address, and we had some of the older gentlemen on the trip provide verbal directions to bypass the road blocks, and we arrived late to the festival having gained valuable XP from learning what bus driver to NOT hire for our next trip.

Luckily, most of the major performances and entertainment did not start until later in the day, so we still had some time to wander around the garden. I made my way from the entrance to the Cherry Esplanade, where rows of sakura trees were in full bloom, and the entire area seemed coated in pink frosting. I stopped to photograph the flowers, and to simply take in the beauty of the garden, which I had never visited before.

On my way down the Esplanade, I passed a number of cosplayers from shows I had never heard of, and one of them had an impressively big sword. I think it must have been too heavy of a prop to carry around, though, because every time I passed by that area during the course of the day he was still standing there having his picture taken, and the herd of fangirls around him seemed to multiply like singers in a Morning Musume video.

My next destination was the Yoko Trading booth, where I browsed through their selection of vintage kimonos, imported fabrics, and handmade accessories. Although I could have easily bought everything on display, my wallet talked me out of it, so I decided on a single cat-shaped pin made out of vintage fabric. I would post a picture of it here, but the kawaii overload would cause a cascade error in your positronic network.

Continuing down the main path, I came upon a series of tiny greenhouses which seemingly had no entrance, but had people inside. I determined I would get to the bottom of this mystery, which mainly involved circling around them again and again in bewilderment until I finally noticed the entrance was from a below-ground tunnel branching from the main greenhouse. Entering the building, I saw that there were several displays of award winning bonsai.

Some of them were 60-75 years old, and had been tended by multiple generations, each one helping to prune and shape the curve of the plant in a new direction. Most of the plants had been named after a haiku which helped to illustrate the character of the plant's growth. I've never really been much of a bonsai person, but I appreciate art, and the presentation of these plants helped to personify them and bring out the individuality and vitality of each one, showcasing them as "living sculptures" instead of just plants.

After exfanding my views on bonsai, I met up with another club member and toured the smaller greenhouses which had previously eluded me. Each one contained plants from a controlled climate, ranging from desert to tropical. I have to admit the tropical greenhouse was my favourite, as it contained the most lavish flowers, but the other ones were equally as interesting.

There was a scratch and sniff display of edible plants, there was a plant that had leaves taller than I am, and there were plants that looked like reject concept art for Final Fantasy monsters. I couldn't help thinking of the Literal Music Video of "White Wedding" while I was in the desert greenhouse, though, as there truly was "nothing safe in this room." Most of the plants were covered in spikes, or drills, or barbed wire, or other natural defenses, and everything was shaped like a monster, a cannon ball, or a blunt weapon. It was cool in a scary kind of way, but I think I prefer plants that don't resemble random encounters.

Seeing as the greenhouses were located next to the cafe, I was understandably hungry upon exiting the building. I decided to bypass the standard menu, and head back toward the Cherry Esplanade where there was a food tent selling Japanese snacks and bento. I had had a craving for taiyaki, and had been looking forward to getting it all week, but alas there was no taiyaki to be had. Instead I had a feast of cold soba, edamame, green tea mochi, onigiri, and hanami dango.

Just as I finished eating, the Taiko drumming performance started on the stage at the front of the tent, and I tried to work my way through the crowd in order to watch the musicians and dancers. Unfortunately, the crowd was so impossible to cut through that it was worthy of Goemon's Zantetsuken, so I worked my way around to the side of the tent, instead. There were fewer people there, but the view was obscured by the hazy plastic of the plastic rain guard, making it hard to distinguish anything beyond mere silhouettes. Once I reached critical eyestrain levels, I decided to simply listen to the music from a comfortable position on the Esplanade, where a few of the other club members were already relaxing.

Following the performance, I headed off to the J-lounge Stage to see Uncle Yo perform his geek-centric stand-up comedy routine. He had some great jokes, including why Gendo is the best father in anime, why Gurren Lagann is a perfect example of the male mentality, and why Japan cannot make us thin.

After meeting up with a group of friends at the performance, we were defeated by a wandering ninja, we listened to off-key and out-of-sync singers remind us why they have day jobs, and we leafed through manga selections that made me feel old and out of touch with the current younger generation of Naruto-crazed, Poké Ball-wielding, Kingdom Hearts-playing hooligans.

Since the group was headed to the bonsai exhibit that I had already explored, I made my way to the puzzle plaza where Maki Kaji, the Godfather of Sudoku, was holding a meet-and-greet. Mr. Kaji is a master puzzle-crafter and an inventor of various math and logic games, and he is the president of Nikoli, the puzzle book company that owns the rights to Sudoku. I had a chance to use my rusty Japanese in conversation with him, although I probably sounded as coherent as Mr. Saturn, and then he signed my book of "Extreme Sudoku" puzzles.

Continuing on, I passed by a demonstrator who was showing a crowd how to fold basic origami pieces, and then wandered over toward the art exhibits to see the traditional Gyotaku fish prints, and Becky Yee's "Back to the Streets" photography series. Gyotaku are created by rubbing rice paper directly on a painted fish, which is kind of gross to me as someone who does not eat seafood and would prefer that fish be left alone; therefore I didn't spend much time looking at the prints, and instead moved on to investigate the photography.

The photographs were interesting in concept because they juxtaposed the cosplaying counterculture of Japan's youth demographic with the traditional and elderly demographic of the family-owned shopping districts. The photo shoot was intended to both reassure the older generation that a change of clothing does not necessarily reflect a loss of values, and to also remind the youth culture that the old-fashioned shopping districts are a valuable Japanese heritage that should be preserved rather than allowed to fade and decline.

Returning once again to the hub of the Esplanade, I waited outside the tent for the Samurai play to end, and then nabbed a good seat for the Minbu dance performance. The folk dancers showcased a variety of traditional cultural and religious dances that coincide with various seasons or festivals over the course of the year. It was interesting to see how they utilized subtle variations in their uniform to alter the character of each dance, such as adding a bandanna and baggy pants to indicate a farmer's clothing, or adding a longer underskirt to indicate a more formal dance.

It is also interesting to see how cultures develop an ingrained form and order to their arts. For example, the traditional Japanese clothing silhouette is comprised of a robe that is folded crosswise at the front and belted in place. Even the crow costume of the Minbu dancers maintained this silhouette, combining a fringed, beaked hat with a black, belted robe. Conversely, Western fashion is based on the tunic silhouette and the button-down shirt, and most of our traditional costuming maintains those forms.

Another example of this sort of cultural detailing is a culture's distinct way of using props and masks in their performance arts. Each culture will invariably use those same items differently. Whereas American dancers might roll a top hat down their arm to show class, or wave a fan to show femininity, or use a mask to conceal their identity or individuality, the Minbu dancers affixed bells inside their hats and used them as tambourines, attached fans to their foreheads and feet to create the illusion of fish and flowers, and held their masks like a puppet to give gestural expression to a wooden prop. I believe it is these subtle differences that truly highlight the intrinsic beauty of a culture.

After the performance I had just enough time before the bus was scheduled to leave to wander through the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, which was filled with koi, turtles, waterfalls, stone lanterns, and wooden shrines in a breathtaking combination of crisp orthagonal planning and organic natural accents. It was the highlight of my day, and I could easily have sat there for hours. I took so many pictures that I reached the memory limit on my camera and had to delete old photographs just to capture the all the shots I wanted.

I ran back to the meeting spot, and managed to sneak a quick look inside the flower arranging exhibit while we were waiting for the stragglers to gather. Luckily we had a different driver for the return trip, one who actually knew where she was going, so the only excitement on the trip home was hiking the five blocks from the garden to the bus pick-up location, and making sure everyone was accounted for and safely on board, which somehow took four of us to confirm.

Apart from our initial navigational woes, everything turned out great. The day was beautiful, the scenery was awe-inspiring, the performances were filled with talent and ingenuity, the people were insightful, the food was delicious, and we didn't leave anyone behind. Overall, our first big excursion was a triumph {note: huge success}, and the club will definitely return next year.

(Photography Sources: The Sakura Matsuri banner is the property of the BBG. The "Back to the Streets" image is the property of Becky Yee. The image of Uncle Yo is his own. The image of Maki Kaji is his own. The images of the Minbu dancers, the hanami dango, and the flower arranging exhibit are the property of their respective owners. All other images are the property of Neko-chan.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Art Day!

Not much doing 'round these parts today. Nope, just a lazy old Sunday. So, in celebration of Lazy Old Sundays, I'd like to show you some art.

This past week, two commissions arrived from two incredibly talented artists. Both pieces feature Death, from Neil Gaiman's brilliant Sandman series. She's my favorite character from the that, and one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

And, recently, I've decided to get a whole bunch of commissions featuring her.

Here's the first piece, by Vertigo cover artist Chrissie Zullo. As with all of the art I commission, I give the artist little descriptions of what I'd like. Typically, these are incomplete, semi-coherent ramblings of a half-lunatic.

For this particular piece, my inkling of a thought was as follows: "Death, near a tree. And I'd like some ravens, I think."

Here's what Chrissie came up with:
I think it's a beautiful piece of art, and I'm very happy to have it. Please do yourself a favor and check out Chrissie's site, and if you like what you see, don't be afraid to email her for a commission of your own.

The next piece is by Ryan Kelly, artist of Local and The New York Five. I gushed about those books, and Ryan, in a number of posts.

This time, I asked for Death, in Washington Square Park. Fitting, as Ryan so wonderfully draws New York in many of his books, and because that's where the character first appeared, way back in Sandman, issue 8.

Here are the preliminary pencils:
And here's the stunning, final watercolor piece:
Only in comics can you connect directly with the professionals that you admire, and contacting these artists has been such a great experience.

A special thanks to both Chrissie and Ryan for two beautiful works of art that I'm proud to add to my collection.

-- -- -- --

Enjoy your Lazy Sundays, everyone!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Exfanding Review: Local

Well, not quite sure when you’ll be able to read this, as Blogger has been down for a couple of days at this point. But if it’s Friday or Saturday, hopefully you’re enjoying your weekend.

And hopefully I am, too.

See, I’m writing this Friday morning/early afternoon, with a pretty major deadline looming over my head, so I’m really interested as to whether or not I’m in the office as you read this.

Because your present is my future.

Now that I’ve blown your minds, let’s get down to the heart of the matter. Last night (or whenever...I hate time travel), I sat down and re-read Local, a wonderful series published by Oni Press and written by Brian Wood with art by Ryan Kelly.

I’m a big fan of both creators, and their work on The New York Four and The New York Five has been featured in a number of Waiting for Wednesdays. NY5 is in the running for my favorite book of 2011, and from the response the book received online, it seems like a lot of people enjoyed it just as much as I did.

Much like NY4 and NY5, Local is a slice-of-life comic focusing on the (sometimes) wayward adventures of a young woman named Megan. Megan is doing her best to find her way in life and, hokey as it may sound, her identity.

Each issue of Local is essentially a vignette that showcases a moment in a different year of Megan's life after finishing school. In that sense, we get to see the character grow up and progress (and, sometimes, regress) right in front of us.

As she does so,Megan travels from state to state, trying for a seemingly endless number of “fresh starts” after a seemingly endless string of screw-ups, false starts, and near misses.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. I’ve seen this before.

Only, you haven’t. Not even a little bit. Sure, the concept of finding one’s identity is pretty much as old as storytelling itself. But I can assure you that Local is something quite different from your typical "real life" comic book story.

First off, it’s just more...grown up...than the vast majority of comics on the stands today--even the ones you'll find in the independent aisle at your LCS. Told with an economy of words by a writer who is, in my opinion, one of the best voices on the comics scene, there's nothing quite like this book on the market.

Local is one of those rare instances in fiction where, while I’m reading it, I am wholly immersed in the characters and their world. I was worried for the protagonist; I was invested in every single move she made. I was completely captivated by her life.

But when I put the book down last night, I started thinking about my own life.

And mistakes I’ve made similar to the mistakes made by characters in the book. And, despite the fact that I was up at 5:00 AM, worked until past 7:00 PM, and knew I had to be up super early to meet a major deadline the next day, I just couldn’t fall asleep.

Because I was thinking about so many different moments in my own life, all triggered by this story that I read.

If that’s not the definition of the point of literature, then I don’t know what is.

And, as if this book needed any more going for it, Ryan Kelly's art is stunning. No one in comics can transport you to a real place like Kelly does. Visually, and with feeling.

His Greenwich Village is Greenwich Village; it feels like Greenwich Village. I know this because I love Greenwich Village, and I've spent years there.

And, while haven't been to other locales in the book--like Portland, for example--I imagine the art achieves the same level of reality for those places.

Lots of comics try to say something. Lots of comics try to be deep and resonating and personal and beautiful and real. Very few actually achieve any of that. And in a sea of very similar super hero and zombie comics, a book like Local should be the one in the comics shop window.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hey! Look At Us!

Hey! Blogger's back up and running again! Woo-hoo!

That's good. Very good. We missed all of you, and we're sure you all missed us terribly. Um. However. Since it's been a couple of days since Blogger went down for a bit of a vacation...well, ya see...the thing is.


We don't have anything of note to post for today. Or what's left of today, anyway. And, since this post will only be up for a little while before tomorrow's post bumps it off the top spot on the blog, well.

We don't want to put up anything that people might miss.

Which is a trying-really-hard-not-to-sound-like-a-complete-cop-out way of saying that we don't have a real post for today, and we don't have the time to write a real post for today.

Not to fear, though, as I have a long review post cooking for tomorrow about one of my all-time favorite comic books.


So come back tomorrow. Uh...please?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Portal vs. Portal 2

I think I may be the only person on the planet who's not madly in love with Portal 2, but who's also not completely unimpressed. We all know I'm a retro curmudgeon, and that I've gotten into the dangerous habit of challenging popular opinion, so it should come as no surprise that I prefer the original Portal to the sequel that virtually everyone is hailing as The Second Coming of...well, Portal.

The first Portal remains one of the most perfect games I have ever played--and considering I'm something of a perfectionist, that's high praise. When I play video games, my primary interest is in the gameplay: Portal offers an excellent learning curve, keeps a close eye on the pacing of the puzzles, provides challenges that require thoughtful and skillful solutions, and...really, I could keep going, but suffice it to say, the gameplay is the primary focus of the game, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

The visuals are deliberately crafted to keep the focus on the puzzles, too. Level architecture is appropriately complex, but the decorations are kept simple to avoid drawing attention away from the brain-intensive challenges. Some people have complained about the sterile white walls of the Aperture Science testing chambers, but that's like complaining that minimalist music doesn't have a lot of instrumentation. Portal is as pretty as the technology of the time allowed, but the visuals are deliberately not of primary importance.

As for the story, the entire plot can be summarized in a sentence or two, but it's the subtle and gradual unraveling of the details that makes the story compelling. That, and the increasingly unstable computer AI who does all the talking. There's a lot of room for interpretation in the things GLaDOS does and does not say, so in some regards, the player gets to create and explore his or her own version of the story. Story isn't the main focus of the game, and it's conveyed with just enough mystery and suspense that players have something to chew on during the pauses in their puzzle-solving.

Of course, you can't mention GLaDOS's dialogue without talking about the humor. Regardless of whether you find the game to be funny (and the vast majority of people do), the humor principle the designers followed is solid: gradually contort the computer and her words into something far more absurd and sinister than the player expects. An appreciation of irony, absurdity, and/or twistedly evil ideas is all the player needs to be tickled by the writing in this game.

Now, let's compare this to Portal 2: There's plenty of absurdity and twistedly evil ideas, but there's also a mean streak to the humor--some of it is clever and unexpected enough to be pretty universally funny, but anyone with any kind of sensitivity to, say, being overweight or adopted, might stop laughing when GLaDOS starts making what are essentially well-articulated fat jokes. Most of the humor, however, is fairly absurd, but the absurdity leans toward idiocy and lunacy more often than not. (In fact, there's an achievement for lunacy, but that's a different story altogether.) So, we have a shift from humorously defying people's expectations to relying on the inherent humor of stupidity, insanity, and being fat and adopted.

That being said, there are quite a few jokes that are adapted from the first Portal, and they straddle the fence between fun reference and uncreative duplication. Still, a lot of the material through the first half of the game feels very much in line with what the previous installment has to offer, and there are some fantastic laughs, but something about the writing doesn't feel as quotable this time around...and the dialogue gets more and more mundane between the last ramblings of Cave Johnson and the final showdown. Even the closing song, while quite catchy and performed well, is disappointingly pedestrian compared to "Still Alive." I chalk it up to focusing too hard on telling the story.

Whereas Portal is unquestionably a gameplay-oriented game with graphics and dialogue that are attractive enough to help maintain interest, Portal 2 strikes me as a story-driven game with gameplay tailored toward advancing the plot and showcasing the pretty graphics. This approach is not intrinsically good or bad, but it's decidedly not my preferred style, nor is it completely in line with the feel of the first game.

To its credit, Portal 2 employs a design tactic that keeps the player focused on the puzzles, but it's a tactic that's only necessary because the environments are so huge and visually distracting--portal surfaces are usually only found in places where you need to use a portal, and they generally cover just enough surface area for you to land your portal in the right spot on the first or second try. Even when an entire wall is portal-safe, an observant player can typically detect some subtlety or pattern in the wall texture that indicates where a portal should be placed.

On my first playthrough, scouring massive rooms for any distant portal surfaces brought back a few unpleasant memories of the hidden object challenges in Metroid: Other M. If all the environments were breathtakingly beautiful and a joy to explore, I might not have minded, except I'm running Portal 2 on a computer that can barely display screenshots of the game. I have played a lot of computer games, and never in my life have I needed to turn every single graphics option to the absolute minimum setting.

Emancipation grids appear to be non-functional without the fancy special effects, and bouncy goo erratically changes colors when it pours out of the spout, splattering on the ground in patches of solid color that look like they were lovingly crafted by a 3-year-old in Microsoft Paint. The game gets awfully light on gameplay in some places, and while the rest of the game looks nice enough, the sections that are supposed to inspire awe and focus on the story come across as dull filler...especially when you have to wait around for characters to stop yakking.

With the exception of the final boss battle, the original Portal never forced you to stop what you were doing if you wanted to listen to the dialogue in full. In Portal 2, excessive dialogue slows down the game significantly if you stop to hear everything. Wheatley in particular likes to talk your ear off, most often in places where there's no real reason (such as a complicated puzzle) to stick around. If you're interested in the plot and the prospect of hilarious dialogue (and I imagine most players are), you'll probably find yourself standing around a lot, waiting for characters to hurry through their unnecessarily long pauses and finish what they're saying.

Still, Portal 2 is a lot of fun. It's just a different type of fun than the first game, and it's unfortunately not always the kind of fun I enjoy most in my video games. For me, Portal 2 is at its best when some wisecracking computer interjects with an absurd general assertion of "fact," or when the story develops with the gameplay as opposed to instead of, or when I spend more time on creative portal use than on locating a viable surface to initiate creative portal use.

It's a good game and a good sequel that acknowledges the insane popularity of its franchise without resting too much on its laurels. There are clever challenges and funny lines and interesting plot twists. There's also a nice homage to the first few levels of the original Portal that serves to demonstrate both how much things have changed and how first-time players (assuming anybody skipped the first game and started with the sequel) can start thinking with portals, in a way that won't detain the veterans for too long.

I just think it loses sight of what made the original so great, in favor of what makes certain other games so great.

I have plans to try out the extensive co-op mode, which I imagine will be much more gameplay-oriented than the single-player story mode. I'm not enthused about multiplayer gaming becoming the future of single-player games, but it's not necessary to expand on that here, as I've already explained on this blog why multiplayer gaming is not my thing. Let's hope that Portal 2 still has a few good surprises in store for this curmudgeonly gamer.