Sunday, 29 September 2013

Alien: The Illustrated Story

Alien: The Illustrated Story is a comic book adaptation of the famous science fiction movie done by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. It’s pretty damn good and I’m somewhat surprised because the movie is excellent. It’s one of my favourite science fiction movies and it works so well on so many levels. The comic adaptation isn’t as good as the movie but that was too be expected. The movie’s strength is the slow and controlled pace. The movie is nearly two hours long and it will take you less than 30 minutes to read the comic. It will take you less time than that if you don’t take the time to look at all the wonderful Walt Simonson art.

The art is where this book excels. The narration is a bit strange and hasn’t aged well but the dialogue closely resembles that of the movie and I actually hear the actors playing their parts in my head because I’ve seen the movie so many times. The comic and the movie were released at around the same time. Simonson must have had access to pictures of the movies sets because it’s all spot on. The fact that Nostromo looks like it does in the movie helps make this a good comic. Had it simply been based on the script and none of the visuals of the movie, I’m not certain the comic would have been any good. Simonson pages are packed with panels. Averaging it all out, he has about nine panels on each page! There are few splash pages, less than half a dozen, which is saying a lot considering the comic is about 60 pages long. There’d be at least twice that many had the comic been produced in the last ten years instead of in the late 70s.

It’s impossible for me to talk about this comic without also talking about the movie. There are two main differences between the movie and the comic and the first one is the pacing. There are numerous techniques that can be used in movies and in movies to control the pace of the narrative. When it comes to comics, the reader has a lot of control over how quickly he’ll read the comic but when it comes to movies, the viewer has practically no control at all. Someone watching a movie sits through and watches the movie for its duration at whatever pace the director has chosen whether it’s 90 minutes or 140 minutes long. There are really two things the viewer can do, pause the movie and come back later or stop it completely. When it comes to comics, two different people reading the same comic can both read that comic for two different amounts of time. You, as the reader, control how long you linger and combine the words with the pictures. You could easily read a comic by, well reading. You could pay attention to the caption boxes and the word balloons and give nary a passing glimpse at the images. Another way of reading a comic is to poor over the images and words and putting them together to form a complete comic reading experience.

Writers can use dialogue as a way of controlling the pace of a comic. Certain writers even instil a rhythmic quality to their dialogue that makes for an interesting, and controlled, reading. An artist’s use of different page layouts and different amounts of panels per page can also have an important effect on the pace of a comic. One writer in particular, Warren Ellis, is a master of controlling the pace in his comics. I remember reading something about Fell, his image series with Ben Templesmith, where Ellis mentions that he was very aware of how many words he would use in any given panel as to not overwhelm the art. You see, Fell, unlike most mainstream comics, have 16 pages of story per single issue as opposed to the average 20-22 pages. Because of this Ellis and Templesmith used a 9 panel grid. To make this more difficult for themselves, each issue was a done-in-one story meaning you had a beginning, middle and end in each 16 page instalment, that’s nuts! To get to the point, Ellis was conscious not to overwhelm any individual panel with too much dialogue. Templesmith was conscious of all the information he had to provide to the reader in each panel, they had no space to waste. The end result was a series that, despite its 16 pages per issues, was pretty dense. Interestingly enough, for a two hour movie, Alien does not have a lot of plot. Not a whole lot happens. But it happens slowly and it’s extremely moody and tense to watch. It’s a movie you watch on the edge of your seat. Ridley Scott really controls the pace and since it’s a movie, we have no option other than sit and watch at the pace that the director and his crew have chosen for the story being told.

Kane, you've got a little something on your face. . .
Alien: The Illustrated Story doesn’t share the controlled pace of its movie counterpart but it might have the upper hand on the second major difference which is the sense of scale. The alien is much bigger in the comic that it is in the movie. It also appears to be much bigger when it first pops out of Kane’s torso. The panel gives us a skewed perspective making the alien look even bigger. Making the alien bigger in its first appearance at the dining table is a good call because it makes it more believable later one when other characters encounter it on the ship because it gets really big in a very short period of time. It’s nice that the comic allows you to see the alien in all its glory. It’s clearly not a body builder or a wrestler in a big rubber suit. It’s an alien, plain and simple.

It’s strange but the ship seems smaller in the comic. I’m not sure if that happened accidentally or if it was something planned, but you don’t get the sense of how big the Nostromo is compared to the movie. Simonson’s art does keep the feeling of claustrophobia as the movie, which is a good thing or else the story would be losing something important. There is a two page spread of the alien ship down on the planet and it’s gorgeous. The ship is monstrously huge. It’s much bigger than what it seems to be in the movie and even in the movie it was made to look big. Unfortunately, the stranger (or the pilot) in the seat inside the ship is given but a small panel, less than a quarter of a page big. It’s interesting how Simonson chooses to show the differences in scale between the objects and the crew members. I’m not sure if Goodwin and Simonson needed to use pages with many small panels in order to get all the whole story told within a specific amount of pages or if that was an artistic choice made in order to increase the feeling of claustrophobia and being stuck in a finite space with an alien monster. Either way, sometimes it works to great effect and other times it falls a bit flat.

Dallas, meeting the alien in the world's biggest air shaft.
For a comic that frequently has many panels on any given page its surprising how clear the storytelling is. Simonson rarely uses a grid. On those instances that he does, the grid is often superimposed on top of a larger image giving the reader both splash page like image and a page full of panels which move the story along. Although Alien: The Illustrated Story isn’t as good as the movie, it’s still a great comic. The art is excellent and a surprising amount of the plot, the art and the tone of the story remain true to the movie version. Despite all that, the comic still feels like its own thing, separate (though not entirely, of course) from Ridley Scott’s version. The colouring and some of the art choices, along with the narration, clearly played an influencing role in making the comic distinctly different. A great story is a great story though, and it’s nice to see two other professionals telling their version of Alien

Saturday, 28 September 2013

X-Factor: Visionaries Peter David volume 2 review

The second volume of Peter David’s tenure on X-Factor is actually half The Incredible Hulk and half X-Factor. There’s as much jade giant as there is green haired Polaris. Both series are written by Peter David and the members of X-Factor do appear in all six issues, but it made for an inconsistent read. The first two issues in the collection are The Incredible Hulk #390-391, parts one and two of a three part story. Issue #76 of X-Factor takes place afterwards and that is followed by one more issues of The Incredible Hulk and the collection ends with issues #77 and 78 of X-Factor. There’s nothing wrong about that reading order other than the fact that the Hulk issues and the story it tells completely distract from the story and the momentum David was building in the first volume.

Other than the Hulk: The End trade paperback, these are the first issues of David’s popular run on The Incredible Hulk that I’ve ever read. My first reaction is that Dale Keown’s art is excellent. It’s so good and I might have to order the first Visionaries volume of David’s hulk run just to see more of Keown’s art. Keown’s sleek and muscular art contrast pretty heavily with Stroman’s thin lines and exaggerated anatomy. Seeing Guido and Hulk on the same page is startling. Even when drawn by Keown, Guido’s musculature is so bizarre it’s truly because a part of the character. Larry Stroman only draws two of the six issues collected here and although it’s a shame because I was just getting used to his art, it is nonetheless a welcome break. I’m warming up to his style but being so closely juxtaposed with Keown, it does leave something to be desired.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the Hulk issues. The story was somewhat uninteresting but it did provide plenty of opportunity for good superhero action. That’s what the highlight was, in fact. Watching Keown’s Hulk in action was a treat and David has a much better grasp of him and his supporting cast (Rick Jones!) that he has on the characters of X-Factor. It’s difficult to judge the quality of these three issues of The Incredible Hulk since I haven’t read any of the others by the same writer and artist but I have a feeling that just like the X-Factor issues aren’t as representative of the rest of the issues written by David, the same can be said for the three-part Hulk story.

There was some good character develop in X-Factor. David is starting to get a feel for the characters and his story is developing beyond “good guys beat up bad guys” kind of stories.

I can’t finish this review without talking about the humour. It’s better than in the first volume. I think that has to do with David getting to know the characters better, he’s had the time to get accustomed to the members of the government sanctioned team of mutants. Guido especially is shaping up into an interesting character. He’s developing a voice and it’s often pretty funny. Rahne also starts to go through some changes and it’s adding some nice depth to the comic. I really like the cast of X-Factor. They’re interesting because I do not know every little thing about them and they’re not A-list characters so I know there can be and will be some serious and pretty permanent changes to their personalities and character makeup.

It’s unfortunate that The Incredible Hulk gets in the way. It’s a decent story and there are some interesting moral questions raises by some of the characters. I’m glad it was collected somewhere but I’m not sure this was the best place. I honestly can’t think of a better way to have included it. It’s right where it should be but it distracts from the real focus here which should be the X-Factor team. At the very least, Dale Keown’s art helps make the Hulk a bit more welcome in an x-book.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

X-Factor: Visionaries Peter David volume 1 review

Like all of Peter David’s other works that I’ve read, X-Factor has a lot of humour. I enjoy it for the most part but it does take over sometime and it can distract from the rest of what’s happening in the comic. Similarly to his Star Trek writing, the jokes occasionally go too far. Not too far in a sense of indecency, but in a way that feels unnecessary. You can only keep a joke going for so long at which point it loses some of its effect.

One of my issues with the first volume of Peter David’s tenure of X-Factor has to do with his main collaborator, artist Larry Stroman. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Stroman’s art. I’m pretty certain this is the first book I read where he’s on art duties and it didn’t completely agree with me. His characters look stiff and often times they also look squared off. His lines are thin, which isn’t a problem in itself, but there’s too many of them on the page. It fits into the style of 90s superhero art but that’s something I’m not really a fan of in general. It’s not all bad though. He uses exaggerated anatomy to pretty good effect, particularly on Guido (Strong Guy). I think that where Stroman’s art really excels is with the portrayal of Guido and Lorna “Polaris” Dane’s hair. He draws Guido large and muscular but in such a way that it clearly demonstrates his awkwardness. Guido is physically awkward because he’s so big and so strong. By drawing him in a way that makes him look somewhat deformed, he’s adding quite a bit of personality to the character. It’s physically impossible for anybody to be that big but, being a mutant, of course it’s possible for Guido. But it wouldn’t be a seamless growth and it’s to be exaggerated that his muscles would seriously alter his physical form. The art isn’t all good but it’s not all bad either. There is a lot of potential for a unique look and feel but it’s too unpolished and inconsistent to be qualified as really good in the context of superhero comics.

The same can be said for the writing. David tries to do a lot with six issues worth of pages. He packs a considerable amount of story in a 120 page story but parts of the comic feel bloated while others feel decompressed. The exposition is often done on pages that have a significant number of small panels that have more word balloons in them than is visually appealing. The action and humour scenes on the other hand feel decompressed. They take a lot of space and that shouldn’t be where the focus, especially because David is trying to tell an interesting story. He still accomplishes this but there are a lot of kinks to work out on the title.

I find that often first arcs on superhero comics are slow to start and uncertain in their quality or they’re phenomenal stories. In the case of phenomenal beginnings, many writers cannot keep the momentum they build. There can be multiple reasons for this but essentially it amounts to lack of skill or because they only had one or two really good stories to tell and they didn’t know when to quit. Peter David’s X-Factor falls into the first category of opening arcs. He has plenty of good ideas. One of them is the study of Jamie Madrox, Multiple Man and his powers and the other is to take a waning superhero title composed of A and B-list X-men and try to make a great comic by replacing the existing team with C-list heroes. It’s a smart move because everybody’s written about the most well-known X-men but the lesser known ones have more potential for characterization and interesting stories. Jamie Madrox is an excellent example of this.

X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David volume 1 is a good start. The writer and the artist are finding their footing and it’s apparent but it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the parts of the comic that work well. You can tell that they’re trying to tell a story that isn’t your traditional good vs. evil comic and I appreciate that. Still, X-Factor is still clearly a superhero comic and there will always be good guys fighting bad guys and the creative team even struggles with that. One of the most boring parts of this volume was the villain. There are quite a few things that were more interesting that Mr. Sinister and his Nasty Boys. The forming of the team, the jokes and Jamie Madrox where all significantly more worthy of my attention that the X-men baddy, Sinister and his goons. This is a good start and I look forward to seeing where the title goes because it’s clear to me there is quite a bit of potential for a great comic within these pages. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Star Trek: TNG: A Rock and a Hard Place review

This is the second Star Trek book Peter David’s ever written and it’s the second one I’ve ever read. It was good but not as good as the first outing. I have to say I’m glad this wasn’t the first Peter David Star Trek novel I’ve read because I might not have read another one so soon. There is a lot to like about this book and one of them was to see how Pater David is getting comfortable writing about the crew of the Enterprise D. He writes good dialogue and his characters are true to their portrayals on the TV series but there’s a bit extra. The extra is that we get to be inside of their heads and most, not all, of it rings true. It’s very interesting to get more depth of characterization in the novels than in many of the television episodes.

The story of A Rock and a Hard Place is pretty simple. Starfleet Command has ordered that Riker be sent to planet Paradise, a terraforming planet. In his absence, he will be replaced by Commander Quintin Stone who is being placed on Picard’s ship because he’s proved to be an extremely difficult officer to discipline. Stone’s stay on the Enterprise results in high emotions and much conflict while down on Paradise, Riker is also experiencing some troubles where he has to survive in a harsh environment as well as defend himself against genetically engineered monsters.

The best thing about this book is David’s writing on the characters and, strangely enough, that’s also where David fails. I was sad that Worf wasn’t at the centre of this story like he was in Strike Zone but he does have some nice moments. David writes him so well. One of my favourite moments of his happens about halfway through the book. Worf and Deanna have a pretty big disagreement and their discussion which begins as a confrontation ends in renewed and strengthened friendship. It’s a joy to read and it shows just how good a grasps David has on these characters. This story took place sometime during the second season of TNG and this scene between Worf and Deanna shows some nice foreshadowing for their relationship, even if it’s unlikely those actual plans were laid out. The scenes works just as well without the knowledge of what’s to come for the characters later in the show.

Unfortunately, not all the characters are nearly as interesting as Worf or written as well. Commander Stone is a frustrating character. He’s such an ass! He has so much potential as a Starfleet officer but his disdain for all around him and his disregard for authority and regulations make him impossible to work with. I disliked him so much that I just wanted to scream during some parts of the book. I completely object to his behaviour and the intentional mistreatment of the crew. The book doesn’t work because of Stone. Not only was he frustrating as a character, but the way the crew of the Enterprise dealt with him was equally frustrating. The guy has serious issues and the author’s explanation as to why Stone is like he is rings as hollow as his ending to Strike Zone. If Stone is psychologically scarred by the events that took place on Ianni, how has it not been noticed during his psychiatric evaluations? What about the rest of the crew that was also present at the same event? Why are they fine? It’s hard for me to believe that there was no psychological precedent that resulted in Stone being more susceptible to the horrors he faced compared to the rest of Starfleet.

Stone also serves another purpose. Part of this book contains David’s criticism of the Prime Directive. Sometimes you simply can’t justify non-interference and David clearly wanted to voice that in this novel. The problem is that he uses a mentally unstable character to voice that message. It’s also difficult to accept a message when it comes from the mouth of an infuriating and dangerous asshole of a man like Commander Stone. He’s not even a real person and I’m angry at him!

What’s great about having multiple people work on one series is that different writers will better explain certain elements of the series. In this particular Star Trek novel Peter David explains a staple of life on the Enterprise in a way I’ve never understood it before: the communicators. I’ve seen the communicators be used in every single The Next Generation episode but David gives it a different perspective in A Rock and a Hard Place that made it revelatory. The communicator badges are on the uniforms of every member of Starfleet. They’re the ultimate communication device on board. They allow any member of the crew to talk to any other instantly. Yes, it’s basically just a little walkie-talkie by what does its presence on everybody’s uniform signify? Starfleet isn’t a democracy but if the Captain of a vessel wanted to hear the opinions of any of his crew, the communicators can create a forum for discussion and sharing of ideas. More important, it allows for easy communication on an extremely large ship and it has been particularly useful in difficult and dangerous situations. It’s something we’ve seen countless times on the show but I’ve never seen it described in that way.

There are a lot of things that do not work with this book but a few things do. Just like in Strike Zone, Peter David has a good grasp of the characters. Perhaps surprisingly is how good of a grasp his has on the female characters. Deanna Troi, though frustrating with her interactions with Stone, is well written. The same goes for Doctor Crusher. The best female character in the book has to be Stephie. She is the daughter of two childhood friends of Commander Riker. There are some surprisingly good dialogue and insight into the mind of a teenaged girl. I know that Peter David has daughters of his own and maybe it’s because of them that he writes Stephie so well. I’m not sure how old David’s daughters were at the time he wrote this book, but Stephie’s character is spot on. A Rock and a Hard Place isn’t my favourite Star Trek novel but there’s enough here to please, and infuriate, any fan of the franchise.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Strike Zone Review

Ever since I decided I would give reading Star Trek novels a try, I wanted to read some TNG books but I wasn’t sure if it was the best place to start. You see, I’m familiar with two Star Trek series. The Original Series and The Next Generation. I prefer TNG by quite a large margin. I decided to begin with TOS and it was good, I enjoyed both books I’ve read so far. I wanted to read more TOS but I wanted to try a TNG book more. The problem, as always, is where to begin? In his last Blogathon, Chad Nevett aided by Graeme McMillan did a couple of posts on the Star Trek novels of Peter David (here and here). I didn’t know Peter David wrote Star Trek novels! I’m a fan of some of his comics work. I’m not the biggest fan but his X-Factor stuff is great superhero comics. David’s also a funny author. Star Trek is no stranger to humour but I find it’s often a little stiff or, regrettably, falls flat. Still, my curiosity was picked.

After doing some research a few months ago, I found out that the bulk of David’s Star Trek writing took place in a series he co-created with John J. Ordover called StarTrek: New Frontier. It’s a spin-off of TNG. I plan on giving the series a try in the next few months but before doing that I wanted to give David’s TNG novels a go first. I wanted to do this for a few reasons. Because it’s a spin-off series, New Frontier might make references to things that happened in David’s TNG novels. Another reason is that David’s first Star Trek books were his early TNG stuff. Strike Zone, as far as I can tell, is his very first. Considering that, it’s pretty good. When comparing it to the TV series, it’s just plain good.

Peter David uses a similar tone to his prose writing as he does his comics writing. There is plenty of humour that, while being present throughout the book, doesn’t distract. Occasionally David goes too far with the jokes he has Data make but I feel it’s the sort of thing the writers of TNG would have included in their episodes had they all been episodes of two hours in length. One of the compliments I can make of Strike Zone is that it feels like a long episode of Star Trek: TNG. Long, but not bloated. The novel is pretty breezy which is somewhat surprising considering the crew of the Enterprise have to deal with some serious issues, diplomatic and personal.

One of the reasons the book doesn’t rise beyond good or the relative quality of a mid-range TNG episode is that a large focus of the book is on Klingons and their antagonistic relationship with the Kreel who are essentially scavengers. Captain Picard is ordered to escort a party of Klingons and another of Kreel to a deserted planet that was used as a weapons cache. On the way, he is to be aided by a Klingon diplomat and they're mission is to establish lines peaceful communication between both races. I’m not a huge fan of Klingons. I like them, but I won’t like an episode simply because they’re in it. I really like Worf though and he has some nice moments in the book. We learn about his childhood and it’s pretty heartbreaking. I’ve got a feeling David quite likes Worf because he plays a big role in Strike Zone and he also has nice little moments in A Rock and a Hard Place which I’m currently reading. To top that, David wrote three young adult novels focusing on Worf’s time at Starfleet Academy. As for the rest of the book that doesn’t focus on the relationship between the Klingon and Kreel focus instead on Wesley Crusher, which is a bit unfortunate. It’s not that I don’t like Wesley as a character; it’s that he’s often poorly used or his treatment by the crew of the Enterprise is completely unrealistic. Wesley suffers a pretty serious mental breakdown in this book but it was an interesting take on the character. David gave him some depth by giving us a look inside his head and his inner thoughts are filled with self-doubt. It’s not an original idea, an early TNG episode, “Coming of Age”, focuses just on that very subject.

It turns out that I like the TNG novels more than the TOS books by approximately the same margin that I prefer the second Star Trek TV series over the first. The characters are more interesting and the stories are also more interesting. I also think they’re better defined and because of that I hear them more clearly in my head when I read the book. In addition to that, David has a good grasp of their individual voices but he does do write a few things that don’t really ring true. The somewhat verbally abusive treatment of Data is one example. Despite all my criticism, I rather enjoyed Strike Zone. I’m impressed with David’s first foray in the Star Trek and I’m pretty hopeful that I will discover his stories, grasp of character and authorial voice improved with his later novels. If he kept me interested with a book filled with Klingons and Wesley, I’m sure he can get me to read just about any Star Trek book that has his name on the cover.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Saga volume 2 review

This is one of Staples's best covers so far.
I enjoyed the first volume of Saga much more on my second read. My expectations and preconceived notions were too disruptive to my enjoyment the first time I read it. Once I had a clear idea of what Saga was, I was able to better enjoy it the second time around. I was able to look at it for what it was. I paid attention to its multiple components as well as the final result without having to worry whether or not Brian K. Vaughan was still able to create good comics after leaving the medium for a few short years (his absence felt longer than what it really was because he stopped creating new comics years before he ever stopped writing them; Ex Machina was his only title for a while).

Expectations can be a funny thing and they regularly play a make it or break it role when it comes to our appreciation of entertainment. Because I have read and reread the first volume of Saga, I had pretty clear expectations for the second volume. Because I’ve read most of BKV’s comics, I was excited, much more than I was for the first volume, but I was still a little worried. One of them had to do with Fiona Staples’s art. Will it improve of diminish in quality? Already in the first volume there were a number of backgrounds that seemed rushed or unfinished. I know that Saga doesn’t have a strict monthly schedule. The creators are seemingly producing the comic on a daily basis but the issues are released six at a time at a one per month frequency and then there is a break of a few months before the next batch of six issues comes out. Canadian artist, Staples, has a lot to do on these issues. She takes care of the art from start to finish, including but not necessarily limited to pencils, inks, colours and cover art (on which she uses a more complex and most likely more time consuming colouring technique).

I had other concerns, too. Will BKV give the reader a sense of what the overarching story will be? So far, the main protagonists are simply running away from the intergalactic conflict between the people of their respective planets (or moons). The sub-plots are so far limited to other characters undergoing their own little quests which are related to the fate of Alana and Marko. At the end of the first volume, things still seem to happen seemingly without reason other than this is what must happen for the writer to set up his story. To BKV’s credit, it’s interesting but he can’t keep that pace for long and expect readers to stay interested. There needs to be more story and more character development. Get me hooked on this comic.

My last big concern had to do with the world building. Will BKV and Staples be able to make the world building into something that resembles a cohesive whole with a strong internal logic? So far we’ve had talking monkey, tv-headed robots mixing in with wooden spaceships, magic swords, ghosts, laser guns and more. They’re all interesting, if not from a storytelling or originality perspective, then at least from and visual perspective but it all seems too loose and chaotic at this point. I wanted them to tighten up the world building to help me truly believe in the setting in which the story is taking place so that I can let myself be immersed in Alana and Marko’s lives. In short, Saga volume 1 was a good introduction but the second volume really had to kick things into high great because the series at six issues wasn’t strong enough to support itself as the type of Vertigo style maxi-series it’s trying to be. I understand it’s sometimes difficult to see how a series will progress, even vaguely, on six issues but that’s the problem. When the main characters are simply running away, it doesn’t leave us with much to hang on to storytelling wise. The characters are pretty reactive in the first six issues and I need them to be proactive in order to provide me with a story and not just snippets of event that are happening concurrently between different characters.

It's unfortunate that Alana gestures right a the crappy background. 

I’ve glad to say, for the most part, Saga volume 2 did not disappoint. It was a distinct improvement on the first volume. All of the concerns I had going in were addressed. BKV provides us some history between Alana and Marko, how they met and how they ended up in their current predicament. BKV did this using a technique that will feel very familiar to his long time readers. What’s good about his writing is that he doesn’t tell things linealy from one issue to the next. There is always a current “present” story going on that intercut with flashbacks often taking place in the beginning of an issue that provides snippets from the past adding characterisation and sometimes setting up future storylines or, at the very least, adding context to the current storyline. It’s a technique BKV’s often used but he does well so I don’t mind seeing it here again.

Saga does feel like BKV is telling a new story using old tried and tested methods. There aren’t any significant differences in how BKV is telling his story compared to some of his larger works such as Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. Part of me wishes he would try something new but the other part of me I knows that his tried and true techniques will make for a good comic.

This relates to one of the problems I have with Saga. If you read comic reviewing website, a lot of people are really losing it for this comic. You read some reviews and people are saying Saga is the best thing to hit the comic scene in years. Yes, it’s good. The second volume is very good but I wouldn’t call it the best. Saga despite trying to be edgy is a “safe” comic. It tries to be edgy. This book has more adult content than previous BKV comics but it’s portrayed in a juvenile way that takes away the bite out of the adult content. This comic is posing as an edgy work but it’s really just Star Wars in comic form with more jokes, more magic, more boobs, penis and butts and less mythos. That last part sound like a critique but it isn’t really. It just want to make it clear I think this is a safe comic for adult readers who are really only looking for a good space adventure story to read without being judged for it. At the end of the day, this is a fun comic is good twists and turns and a relatively fast pace. The fact there is a Mature Readers tag on the back cover simply serves as a defense against non-comic enthusiasm who might give a condescending look to adults reading a space adventure comic.

I went off on a bit of a tangent there but Saga provides so many topic for discussions and I still have a lot of things I want to say about it. I want to talk about Staples art some more. It hasn’t really grown on me. I like it about the same I did while reading the first volume. I think he character work and designs are great but, her backgrounds continue to be hit or miss with me. Some work very well, so well in fact I get pretty disappointed when I turn to the next page and look at a background that just fails to deliver. Her covers on the other hand remain top notch. I’ve been impressed with almost every cover she’s done for Saga so far.
The colouring is just great on this cover.
I've noticed that Staples doesn't really draw
backgrounds on her covers. Solid colours
seem to be her preference.

The absolute best thing about the second volume is the relationships that start to form. One of my favourite was the bonding between Alana and Barr while on the wooden spaceship. Their time on the ship together is primarily composed of talking, taking care of Mabel and giving parenting tips. It’s great and it shows just how good BKV is at writing seemingly everyday conversations that create depth of character. It's pretty impressive but more importantly, it was so enjoyable while also advancing the story and adding depth to the comic which is something it was missing up until this point.

Volume 2 improves on the first in part due to its development of the themes to be found in Saga. Themes of war and pacifisms which were apparent in the first issue are further developed but that's not the real focus. Neither is love the main theme, though there is quite a bit of material available to support that. I think family is the predominant theme. Monarchical families, adoptive families, broken families, inter species families; they all exist in Saga. I don’t want to be to descriptive but I’ve outline four distinct families in  the series so far they each bring forth interesting ideas of the notion of family. What’s a family? Is it something you’re born into or is it something you make for yourself? BKV seems to be arguing the latter but I’m certain he’s only beginning to talk about the families. Take a second look at Saga, it’s all over the place from Mabel’s narration to the parenting tips to the conflicting (and sometimes complimentary) roles existing within the same individual.

I’ve had a lot to say about the second volume of Saga and I’m very happy about it. I’m not worried about whether or not it will be a good comic. I know now that it is. I hope it continues to be and I also hope Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples continue to impress and surprise. One thing is clear; I have very few concerns left over the quality of Saga. Instead, I’m starting to build a list of expectations and I’ve got a feeling the creators at play will rise to and maybe exceed them.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Saga volume 1 review

I wanted to like Saga way more than I did. I wanted to love it like I love other Brian K. Vaughan comics. This was supposed to be his great return to the medium and, depending who you’re talking to, it is. I agree with them that Saga is a very good comic and that BKV and Staples are doing something important with their comic but I don't love it. I think it's important that they're doing a vertigo style maxi-series at Image. I also think it’s very important they're creating something new because comics, like any other medium, is always in need of new creative energies. 

The first few pages of the first issue are groan worthy. Really, this is how BKV decides to return to comics? An interspecies hipster couple who are experiencing the birth of their first child in a random garage the whole scene peppered with trite dialogue? You're better than that. The scene continues with Marko telling us about his vow to never take his sword out of his scabbard again. He kept it in for four issues.

The comic isn’t all bad though. To be fair, it’s mostly good. Fiona Staples has a large role to play in that. She’s a very talented artist. I like that her colour is an inseparable part of her art. The colouring embellishes her line work to such a degree I'm convinced that seeing her work in black and white juxtaposed with her colour pages would make it seem like the work of two different artists. Look at a page to see how much detail she adds to a law without the use of lines, using colouring alone.
This is one example where Staples's background
is very well done. I like how mysterious and strange
the ice cave looks.

I've never seen Staples’s art until I heard about this project and I really like it. The problem is I don't think she's the best artist for this story. Her backgrounds leave much to be desired. Often times they're not even really there. Fantasy and science fiction as genres are dependent on visuals. That's primarily what defines them and it contributes greatly to what separates them from other genres. A big part of these visuals are the surroundings. Her backgrounds look likes scenes taking place on a holodeck. Some of her character designs are excellent, I really like them. But her locations, her vistas, they're practically non-existent. I really like her art but the jury is still out on whether she's a good fit for this story.

When taking a look at the story and plot of the book, I’m also a little disappointed. It’s essentially Shakespeare in space with a heavy dose of Star Wars. The Shakespeare part makes me hopeful because despite it’s simple beginnings, it can easily grow into a story filled with interesting conflict between characters. The Star Wars influences will undoubtedly ensure it’s filled with science fiction and fantasy action. The combination of both those genres is a very difficult thing to do and that’s also something Vaughan is struggling with in these early issues. The balance isn’t quite there yet and both the magic and the technology are being used as storytelling devices to increase conflict and add melodrama. It’s not always done to the best effect.

Fiona Staples really knocks it out
of the park with her covers. This is where
her colouring is the most interesting. 
One of the things that Vaughan does well is play with the dialogue and the narration. They both play off of each other and it regularly has nice effects. They support each other. Hazel doing the narration makes for some humorous panels but it also adds some nice weight to the events taking place in the future. It’s not a new technique to have a narrator in the future telling a story in the pass without letting the reader know who or when the narrator is talking, but Vaughan uses it well here and it helps to keep me interested in the story. I like Hazel more than I like her parents based on her narrations alone.

I know I sound like I didn’t like the comic at all, but really, I did. There is a lot to enjoy here, including Fiona Staples’s artwork or Brian K. Vaughan giving his readers nice parenting advice and baby raising factoids. It’s refreshing to read a comic by BKV that isn’t shock full of pop culture references. There aren’t any because the story takes place in an entirely fictional universe. Sure, he’s replaced the pop culture with parenting tips and tricks, but maybe he just needs to have his characters referecence something. Either way, I’m enjoying it and I’m actually learning things too! Educational comics with spaceships, freelance bounty hunters, Shakespearian family conflicts, dismembered ghost babysitters and magic. There’s something here for the whole family!

Below is a good example of how well Staples uses her colouring. Look at how she enhances the texture of Marko's horns. Look at the baby, look at the background even. It's a pretty good splash page. (Click on the image to make it bigger.) 

Below are two more examples of Staples's backgrounds. I find that first the first six issues her backgrounds are either hit or miss. Sometimes it has to do with what she's drawing as the back ground. Certain scenes taking place in the forest at night beneath a starry sky at well done, but they're also simple and the colours being used work to Staples advantage. When the backgrounds are good though, they're undeniably good. It's just unfortunate that the same can be said when the backgrounds are bad because they're muddy, undefined or seemingly rushed. (Click on the images to make them bigger.)


Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Blog Fantastic 009: The Crystal Shard review

There's just something so great about hand painted
covers. Digital painting often rubs me the wrong way.

I’ve read a handful of books by R. A. Salvatore. I read them in my teen years and I thought they were quite good. His books were never my favourite fantasy novels and he was never one of my favourite authors but I’ve always enjoyed them. A friend of mine lent me The Silent Blade and The Spine of the World when I was in high school and since then I’ve always wanted to go back and read Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms books from the start. I attempted to do this during my university years by reading Homeland which is only the first book chronologically. I didn’t like it because I don’t like Drizzt. I find him incredibly boring. He’s the Superman of Forgotten Realms and Salvatore (and thousands of fans) like him way more than they ever should have because he’s such a boring character. Drizzt can do basically anything and survive any challenge, danger and adventure. It sucks out all the romance and allure out of the series.

I thought that the Blog Fantastic project on the blog would be a great opportunity to revisit Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series. I wanted to read about the origins of the band of heroes I first read about in The Silent Blade. That’s one of the great disappointments of Homeland. I think Drizzt isn’t interesting enough to support his own book, never mind his own trilogy or series of books that’s well into the double digits. I decided to give start with the chronological beginning by reading The Crystal Shard, volume one in the Icewind Dale Trilogy. I liked it more than Homeland but there are still quite a few problems with Salvatore’s first published work.

There are many relatively easy critiques you could make of The Crystal Shard and of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels as a whole but there is quite a bit to really enjoy in this first book. Sure, Salvatore wears his influences on his sleeves (Tolkien!) but his influences have also influenced so many others. There’s the little halfling thief Regis who’s got hairy feet, likes to laze around and eat several large meals a day. There’s also many elements of the dwarfs that very closely resembles the dwarves to be found in The Lord of the Rings and other books by Tolkien. Mithral Hall is nothing but another author’s appropriation of Moria. None of that matters though, not with this book and not with any other Forgotten Realms book.

The full cover to my edition of the book. I quite like it, even for a digitally painted cover.
The Crystal Shard and every other Forgotten Realms of Salvatore’s that I’ve read have a different purpose and it’s something pretty close to America’s version of Shonen manga. These books are about friendship, growing up, getting strong, defeating evil, fulfilling quests and surmounting impossible odds with an unbeatably positive attitude. The characters in this book, Wulfar the barbarian, Bruenor the dwarven leader of the dwarves of Icewind Dale, Drizzt the drow elf and even little Regis are entertaining (though some more than others) and it’s there interactions with each other and the rest of the characters that make these books memorable. The Crystal Shard is a book filled with fast paced action peppered with character development and that’s why I think they’re so popular. That’s why I enjoyed it.

Salvatore has a reputation for writing excellent battle scenes. It’s pretty evident even in his first published work. He’s only good at one-on-one or small battles, though. He fails miserably at writing a siege battle with any real skill. It’s kind of a mess and it took away from the climatic chapters of the book. Instead of dealing with the siege we get little segments of what the main heroes are doing and of course every one of their fights was decisive in the grand scheme of things.

I really like this bit about Salvatore's dwarves. Sorry about the crappy picture.
All in all Salvatore writes an entertaining sword and sorcery novel. That’s really what this is. It’s not an epic fantasy novel like The Lord of the Rings nor is it grand in scope as another type of “shonen fantasy” like Dragonlance (which I love) and it bears just a passing resemblance to today’s fantasy publications. It’s not unique, it’s actually pretty filled with fantasy literature clichés, and parts of it are just dreadful. A good example of that is the villain which only serves as a justifiable target for our heroes fury. For every bad element included in the book there is a good one. My personal favourite is that every dwarf smithy of great skill will produce one legendary weapon in their lifetime. I think it’s a great idea and Salvatore writes the forging of Aegis-fang rather well. I’m not overly impressed by The Crystal Shard but I’m far from disappointed. It was a quick read fill with action and interesting and likeable characters that just begs for me to read the second book and I’ll do just that. Hopefully Salvatore improved on all the weak elements of the book and continued to improve on the good stuff. I’m really hoping that Streams of Silver has a better plot, a better villain and better large scale action sequences.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

X-men: Longshot review

Ann Nocenti is to blame for the superhero excesses of the nineties. That might sound hyperbolic and it probably is but after reading Longshot it's nearly impossible to think that this six issues mini-series written by Nocenti and pencilled by Arthur Adams didn't play a contributing factor in the 90s superhero comics explosion of excess. 

I would argue that on the aesthetic side of things alone, Nocenti has a pretty clear influence. Consider the complete black leather-like clothing worn by Longshot. He also has a small assortment of pouches; a bag, a big knife and a bandoleer with dozens of knives in it (even though we only even see him use four at a time). He also has one eye that glows when he’s use his “luck” powers or is “reading” (some form of psychic ability) a person or an object. This sort of design can be found in many superhero books of the nineties. Even Longshot’s mullet was used in the nineties, most notably on Superman. Heck, there was even a female Longshot created in the nineties (yes, I’m talking about Domino).

Another thing that prophesises the nineties excess is Arthur Adams’s art. His art style fits right into the overly detailed; some would say unnecessarily detailed, Image style. He respects anatomy just as much as most of the Image co-founders and his lines are thin, so very thin, presumably to allow him to pack in more details into each panel. It’s interesting to point out that Whilce Portacio, one of the future co-founders of Image, inks all six issues of Longshot. I do not want to criticize Adams’s art too much because he has some very nice pages at the end of the book. His pencil art along with sketch drawings and thumbnails are collected at the back of my trade paperback edition. His full pencil renderings look completely different from the inked and coloured final product. It’s quite surprising. I would have enjoyed a black and white edition of Longshot. It’s unfortunate that the lazy colouring had such a negative impact on the final product. Overall the colouring was garish and lazy to such a degree that sometimes several characters which had been fully pencilled and inked were all coloured the same, effectively making them indistinguishable from the background.

Nocenti’s basic ideas, character outline and notes are also showcased in the supplementary material at the back of the trade. Just like Adams, Nocenti’s thoughts about the mini-series are just as, if not more, interesting than the finished product. She had a lot of ideas and I can’t help but feel that she had something to say about comics and the society of the 1980s. I say this based on her introduction and the supplementary material as well as what can be found in the six issue mini-series. I really don’t think she was trying to write a “kewl” comic but that’s what happened. Maybe she got carried away, maybe she didn’t her polish her story and maybe she simply doesn’t have the talent required to make something as strange as Longshot work. Still, quite a few big ideas make it into the comic. Things like media conglomerates, the importance of freewill, the ability to see things in a positive light and surmount seemingly impossible obstacles and the worship of mass media as a modern day religion. Some of her ideas, such as freewill, aren’t too subtle. In Nocenti’s physical description she mentions that Longshot’s spine is prominent and visible all the while Mojo, the main villain of the comic, is constantly telling anyone who will listen that he hates spines and anybody with a backbone.
It’s her execution that’s poor. Her dialogue is particularly bad. Not only do the characters talk in the most unnatural way, they can barely form cohesive thoughts. It’s as if Nocenti had so many things she wanted her characters to say she couldn’t focus it enough to effectively translate to the page into a recognizable way.

Is Longshot a good comic? Not quite, but it’s enjoyable. It’s a convoluted mess that doesn’t really work. The biggest problem is that Nocenti tries to do too much and ends up accomplishing very little. She and Adams try. They try so hard and you can’t really fault creators for that. Longshot is far from being a comic book masterpiece but it did try to do something new and it tried to do it in strange ways while also trying to convey interesting social messages. There’s so much going on in Longshot we might not even give it the time and thought it deserves. It’s not great but it’s an interesting and maybe even an important superhero work that predates the revolutionary comics of the late eighties by creators with more recognizable names. I think it’s important to talk about Longshot as a precursor to what took place in the decade that followed. Just don’t get me started on the “luck” powers. That’s just dumb.