Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Comics Should Be Good’s Top 100 Comic Book Storylines

Four years ago Brian Cronin at Comics Should be Good asked people to vote for their Top 100 Comic Book Storylines. He asked that you submit your top 10 choices then he takes some time to count up the points and shares the results a few posts at a time. I voted and I remember having a blast waiting to see the results. I was upset with some, I was surprised by others and many of the stories on the list I had never heard of before until then. Now, four years later, Brian is doing a second list. I’ve taken the time to make up my list and I’ll be voting as soon as I finish this post.

It’s pretty difficult to come up with your own list of Top 10 Comic Book Storylines. It’s difficult because 10 is a pretty small number when you really think about it. More importantly though, the list you come up with will only capture your Top 10 Storylines at the time you wrote up your list. This list, like all lists, is subjective. Yes, there are some objective ways to determine whether one comic book is better than another, but that’s offset by a greater amount of subjectivity. My definition of a good comic can greatly differ from your definition of a good comic. Another thing to consider is that as individuals, we’re constantly changing. My definition of good four years ago is different from my definition of good today. I’ve read more comics, my tastes in comics have changed, I like to think I’ve matured as a reader and that I’ve made an effort to increase the variety in the types of comics I read. In short, I’ve tried to become a better comic book reader by reading comics my past self from four years ago would not have been interested in reading. In short, the list I came up with is a snapshot of what I enjoyed at the time I made the list.

Another reason the list is difficult to do is that there are more than one way to vote. You can vote for whatever you like the most regardless of other’s opinions. You could also vote strategically. For example, I know that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns will make the list so I will choose not to “waste” one or more of my previous votes on one or more storylines I think will make the list. It will make it on the list whether I contribute to voting for it or not. I think it’s primarily because of strategic voters that we get interesting results. Then again, I also thing that whatever is popular at the time the votes take place will appear high on the list whether they’re considered to be good comics or not. I expect to see Batman: The Court of Owls somewhere on the list even if I think it was a pretty terrible Batman storyline which, I think, will be mostly forgotten by the time the next votes for the next Top 100 list are taking place four years from now. It will be interesting to see how many current ongoing series will make the list.

There could also be other ways that people use to come up with their votes. My personal strategy consists of thinking about who my favourite writers and artists are. I tend to follow the body of work of writers more than I do artists but if I’m thinking of which Grant Morrison comic to vote for, I find it difficult to justify choosing The Invisibles (the quintessential Morrison comic) because of the inconsistencies in the art. It’s also a difficult series to break down by storyline. I also try to vote strategically. I’m a big fan of Frank Miller but I find that voting for The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Born Again or Batman: Year One is a waste of a vote. At the same time, I’m grateful to those who did vote for it because those works clearly belong on the list.

The list will always disappoint me because the list could more appropriately be called The 100 Most Popular Comic Book Storylines. They’re not the best storylines, no matter what your definition of the “best” comic book is. It’s always enjoyable though and it’s a good source for future reading materials. Because of the first list I was convinced to continue reading Cerebus pas the first volume which was good but not nearly as good as the volumes that followed it. I had never read a Love and Rockets comic and now I own nearly all of the Love and Rockets stories (sadly, if it’s never been collected into a trade or a hardcover, I don’t own it). I’ve also bought a few older comics. I’ve always wanted to read older Marvel comics from the 80s but I never know where to start or which book to try and the list helped me with that. The comics also helped because certain people would comment on which excellent and deserving comics were missing from the list. The Top 100 Comic Book Storylines isn’t a perfect list but it’s one of the best sources for helping comic readers find their next favourite comic and that holds true whether you’ve been reading comics since childhood or if you’re just starting to discover the medium.

The voting ends October 31st at midnight. Make sure to visit Comics Should be Good and cast your votes. I look forward to the results on November 4th! I will be sharing my list once the results are out.

For those of you interested in reading the results from the first poll, check out this master list.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian review

Geoff Hunt did a good job on this cover.
My only disappointment is that most of
the ship is missing.
I’m a very big fan of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the film adaptation of a few novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series written by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve watched that movie about once a year since it’s come out. Although I knew it was based on a 20 book (and one incomplete book) series, it never dawned on me to give the novels a try. Until the last time I watched the movie, that is. I’d glad I gave it a try because I ended up really liking the book but it was difficult read.

I felt the same way reading Master and Commander as I did while reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The book is a combination of riveting passages and glacially slow accounts of marine life in the early 19th Century. When the book is good it’s really good but when the pace slows down and O’Brian writes about the rigging of the ship or Melville talks about the about the failed representation of the leviathan, it becomes a dry read. It’s not just those two books though; I seem to have a problem with any nautical adventure book. I had the same problem while reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket earlier this year. There is something about that type of narrative, I don’t want to say genre, that can lead itself to fascinating stories but the author’s all seem to get side tracked by the trivial matters. O’Brian, at least, has an excuse because he’s writing a historical fiction novel first and a bromance adventure novel second.

The pace of Master and Commander is slow. It’s damn slow. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a strong narrative flow. The structure of the book is episodic. Stories don’t necessarily follow each other; one doesn’t always flow into the next. The narrative seems to have been built around the smaller episodes that O’Brian wanted to write. I think the book could have been a hundred pages shorter without seriously impacting the story. The whole thing feels like an introduction to a larger story which make sense because it’s followed by several other novels (though at the time O’Brian wasn’t planning a series).

I’m very impressed by O’Brian’s descriptions of nautical life of the British Marines but I don’t care for the minute details of the ship’s design, rigging, etc. It’s impressive but it doesn’t appeal to me to directly, at least not a book made up of just that. I also don’t want to know everything about the ships, especially not right away. The first 100 pages feel like I’m reading a dusty historical account of life as an officer in the Royal Navy. Which is fine but it’s not balanced with story. It doesn’t feel like fiction until you’re passed that initial hurdle. I think, on the whole, O’Brian’s decision to start off the book in this way pays off. Despite being a dry read and a slow start, I learned a lot and I think it contributed to my excitement reading the rest of the book.

O’Brian is clearly a very intelligent man. He has a large vocabulary and doesn’t pander to the reader. That’s part of the problem, of course, because it makes for a difficult read. At time it feels like the book is written specifically for an audience made up of historians, nautical experts and enthusiasts. The average reader looking for a book about an adventure at sea might be in for a difficult read.

The use of historically accurate descriptions of the HM Sloop Sophie pays off for O’Brian as a storyteller and for the reader. It prepares the reader for the rest of the book. O’Brian is not only telling a story, he’s educating the reader. He starts even before the book truly begins. In his introduction, O’Brian clarifies two things to the reader. The first, he shares his opinion that it’s impossible to describe with complete accuracy the feeling of being in the Royal Nave in the early 1800s. Because of this he’s chosen to write his novel in as flat and unemotional a writing style as possible. The second point is that he’s borrowed a great many details from history books which should come as no surprise. It’s the first point is the most important one, in my opinion. O’Brian’s prose throughout the novel is flat, so very flat. During several passages he falls quite close to a writing style that could be considered academia. Despite O’Brian’s attempt to be as underwhelming as possible, the excitement during the action scenes is palpable. It’s surprising that writing in such a style that O’Brian successfully makes jokes. Unlike how the writing serves itself rather well to philosophical discussions and political debates among the characters, the flat writing shouldn’t work well at making jokes but it does.

The flat writing style is also contrasted with the characters. The characters are one of the better elements of the book, particularly Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s relationship. The characters, by their actions, take on mythical qualities which contrast with the flat, unemotional writing style. That a man such as Aubrey can fear that one of his officers considers him shy when he decided to no longer pursue a French man-of-war is pretty close to mind blowing. Especially considering that this scene occurs after we’ve read of several impressive accomplishments of Aubrey and his crew on the Sophie. Often time Aubrey is portrayed as more than mortal. He feels so strongly, his every moment is filled with passion. His desires seem excessive when compared to the desires of others but it’s only because he makes a conscious decision to live fully and completely. He’s a man of action with a large appetite. His appetites for food, spirits and women are very large. He feels very strongly too. He’s very emotional. When Maturin leaves the ship for a short period of time, Aubrey misses him so dearly he visualizes the conversations they will have together upon Maturin’s return. It might be because of the contrast between the events of the book and the writing style that it works, that it doesn’t feel forced or exaggerated.

If it wasn't for O'Brian teaching me about
ships, I would never have realized that the
yards on this boat are very crooked.
There are plenty of things to like about this first novel and they’ve helped to convince to keep reading the series. Some of the smaller little things that contributed to my enjoyment included O’Brian’s dialogue which is excellent. It’s accurate to the time period (or at least it reads as if it’s accurate, I’m not expert). I also enjoyed discovering how Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin first met. Because I’m already familiar with some of the characters, it was a nice treat finding out where some of the officers and members of the crew first came into Aubrey’s service (characters like Pullings and Killick). I’ve always wondered where Aubrey got the scar on his face and ear in the movie. I know now because the story about how he got injured takes place in Master and Commander.

I found the first novel of the Aubrey-Maturin series to be challenging and I can only assume that the rest of the series will be similarly challenging. Perhaps less so because I’m far more familiar with the nautical language now that I was when I first began. Despite the challenges, Master and Commander was a rewarding read. I feel like a “better” reader. I feel the way I do when I read classic literature. There is a sense of accomplishment for having read and enjoyed the book. I’m also slightly disappointed because I’m so familiar with the movie and there is a completely different tone between the film and the novel. I’m still very glad that I’ve read the book because I’ve really enjoyed it even though it got tedious from time to time, I liked learning about the Sophie. Part of me wishes I had researched late 18th and early 19th Century Royal Navy before starting the book. Now that I’m done the first novel I feel ready for more but I’ll enjoy my shore leave for all it’s worth before heading out to sea once more.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Sand Land by Akira Toriyama review

Akira Toriyama is one of my favourite manga creators and he’s also one of the first mangaka whose work ever caught my eye. As a child who grew up in the nineties, Dragon Ball Z has been on television for as long as I can remember. To this day I’m still a big fan of Dragon Ball. In recent years I’ve also been collecting Toriyama’s first ongoing series, the hilarious Dr. Slump. I love his body of work for various reasons from his excellent character designs, his excellent grasp of anatomy to his choreography of hand to hand combat and the combination of dumb and intelligent humour. Rereading Sand Land several years after I first read it in the pages of Shonen Jump was a real treat. At the time I had somewhat dismissed Sand Land as that “other comic” Toriyama wrote and drew but it’s clear to me now that it’s a modern classic manga in a single volume.

Sand Land is one of Toriyama’s works from the later part of his career. After completing Dragon Ball in the mid-nineties, Toriyama wisely chose to never create such a long series. Sand Land was supposed to be a short work about a man and a tank and the whole thing is only one volume long. Even then you get the feeling it went on longer than Toriyama was expecting. It was published in Japan in 2000 and it was first published in English in issues #1-11 of Shonen Jump. The story is rather simple, in a post-apocalyptic desert land, an old Sheriff and a couple of demons go on a journey to find the mysterious Phantom Lake. Along the way they meet various strange characters and a couple of monsters all the while uncovering the dark secrets of the King’s Army and the war that took place 30 years earlier.

There isn’t an enormous amount of depth but the story is entertaining and it moves at a breakneck pace. Yet, it’s not a quick read it just that so many things happen every chapter. There are demons stealing water from cargo trucks, monster chases through the desert, driving lessons, fights with crooks, tank battles, plenty of hand to hand combat, a couple military conspiracy and that’s only about half of the content of the manga! So there’s not a lot of depth because the focus is to write and draw a fun manga and hope the reader has fun too. That’s exactly what Toriyama achieves.

It’s not all fun in the sun and desert hijinks though. There are some environmental and social-economic concerns in there too for readers who need a bit food for thought with their entertainment. General Zeu’s use of the King vas a puppet leader to create a monopoly on the water of Sand Land is a pretty dark and surprisingly contemporary socio-economic issue. At first I was a bit disappointed that the villainous General Zeu didn’t appear to have any further motivation for his actions than wanting to amass power and money. That’s it for his motivation, actually. It works, though. That’s the driving factor for some of most of the corrupt military and political leaders of modern times. Greed is the driving factor that contributes directly to the suffering of hundreds of millions every year. Sheriff Roa, Thief and Prince Beelzebub are putting their foot down and choosing to end the needless suffering of the people of Sand Land.

Clean water should not be a luxury. It’s a foundational pillar of life and should be shared amongst all living creatures, be they man, animal or demon. It’s interesting that Toriyama makes Zeu a cyborg. He’s equal parts man and machine. By pursuing his greedy aim his body has decayed to the point where he needed to attach cybernetics to maintain his health. His need for water is presumably less important to him individually than it is for the average human. It’s grim that he’s the sole possessor of the Land’s water supply. His continued persecution of the people has nothing to do with his need for water but for his illusionary need for increased wealth.

The art here is some of Toriyama’s best. In his short introduction to this volume he states that he thinks his drawings of the tank are less than satisfactory which is completely inaccurate. It’s very well drawn from its first appearance to its last. He draws the exterior as well as the interior with great attention to detail. He draws several other motorized vehicles, some real and some imaginary. His character work, as always, is great. His villains look like villains and his heroes are tough but fair. Beelzebub and the Sheriff look great. I would really like to see more of their adventures.

Sand Land wasn’t a quick read but it was a light read. The book feels dense even though there isn’t an overabundance of story but there are a lot of plot points, nearly each chapter feels like a story unto itself. It all keeps the story rolling along but it also makes you feel as though it was money well spent. It was to see a storytelling master at work. Sand Land could be dismiss as just another fun adventure manga with demons, tanks and an old secretive Sherriff but to dismiss it as such is to entirely miss the point. The entire point is to have fun but there is a more depth to the work for those who wish to pay attention to it. Sand Land allows for a more engaged reading experience. Viz Media gave the collected volume an “A for All Ages” rating and that’s spot on because Sand Land works well on so many different levels. Truly a manga for the whole family.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Miscellaneous Reviews 01

Chew volume 7: Bad Apples
This is probably the weakest volume of the series so far which is a pretty big disappointment since every single volume has been a joy to read. The volume doesn’t really advance the story. Chew has recently reached its halfway point and “Bad Apples” seems to be setting up the story for the second half of the series. It doesn’t feel like much of a continuation of the first half of the series because the momentum sort of just . . . stops.

A considerable amount of Chew has to do with world building. John Layman and Rob Guillory have done a phenomenal job building a world in which the sale and consumption of chicken is an illegal activity up until this particular volume. The whole thing feels like it was done without any real effort. It’s repeating things that have previously been established but it’s dialled up a few notches. We know there several different kind of superpowers based on but, but on a single page the writer and artist create nearly a dozen new powers. The food related superpowers are approaching self-satirical heights. It’s completely unnecessary and each new power is less impressive than the other. I’m disappointed because I expected so much more story and a lot less frivolous world building and cheap gags. One of the things that have made Chew so good up to this point was the deft balance between humour and supernatural food related drama.

Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!
Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! Is the first published comic work of Jeph Loeb and the first collaboration between Loeb and artist Tim Sale. That alone makes this an interesting comic to read since we get to experience the writer and artist cutting their teeth on one of their earliest comics work. The story takes place in the aftermath of an attack on Challengers Mountain: they retire. Loeb and Sale give us the story of a group forcibly starting retirement, what they did after and then, how they came back out of retirement. It’s a nice little story but it’s something we’ve seen before: deconstruction of a superhero team followed by its reconstruction.
One of the highlights of the comic is Tim Sale’s art. I’ve always liked his art ever since the first time I read Batman: The Long Halloween but he’s been good ever since he started working in comics professionally. He really did a great job with the Challs. The most impressive aspect of his art on the book is his stellar page and panel designs. Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! is one of the few comics that revels in being a comic and telling the story in a way only comics can.

Sale inks, presumably, with a pen. His lines are the same thickness throughout the comic. It’s a pretty thin line and it doesn’t matter how close or far an object or a character is the thickness of the line remains the same. It gives it a loose and casual feel. This isn’t an overly polished digital image. There is something classic about Sale’s style it’s put to good use here. I can’t help thinking of reasons for which I admire his art. He uses very few straight lines; the whole comic has a nice fluidity of movement and looseness to the action. Superman’s guest appearance in one of the issues is a rare example of Sale’s obvious use of straight lines (such a square jaw). The art is interesting from the first page to the last but I can’t say the same about the writing. Loeb starts off with a really strong story but the whole thing loses it’s footing with the last couple of issues. For someone first published work, Loeb should be proud of his efforts since he wrote a several compelling issues reviving one of the earliest super science hero teams. Having Tim Sale on art duties surely helped too. It’s too bad this was only an 8 issue mini-series since I think it had the potential for an interesting ongoing series.

Lost Cat by Jason

Jason is one of my favourite comic creators. There is something about his deadpan, anthropomorphic animal style that really works for me. Despite the minimal facial expression and body language, his art is very expressive. He manages to do things with his art that he shouldn’t be able to do, it just shouldn’t work. The emotion his characters can convey is staggering and the feeling he can imbue in the reader is equally impressive.

Lost Cat is one of his longer workers. I’m not sure if it’s the longest so far but it’s being advertised as such. Sure, the page count is very high compared to his previous comics but his pages follow a strict four panel grid. I’m sure that some of his shorter 48 pages comics with nine panels on each page contain just as much story but the extra breathing room Jason gives Lost Cat helps with the story he’s telling.

One of the recurring themes in Jason’s work is loneliness. He does it so well in Lost Cat. One of the pivotal scenes in the book is a forty page long conversation between two astonishingly lonely people who, for the first time in their lives, feel connected to another individual. Lost Cat isn’t about a lost cat at all. It’s about a missed opportunity; it’s about missing out on the love of a lifetime because of mundane reasons like having cold feet. It’s a comic that ponders the deeper meanings of love and live and Jason brings his unique perspective it, aliens and all. 

X-Factor: Visionaries Peter David volume 3 review

The third volume of ­X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David brings the focus back on the main members of the X-Factor team. It’s a big frustrating because I feel this is where the story should have picked up after the first volume. The crossover with The Incredible Hulk was a pretty major distraction even if it was a good story in itself. I enjoyed the third volume more than the second one but my enjoyment of it is hindered by the same problems I had with the previous volumes of this series.

The art inconsistencies didn’t really bother me this time around. That’s because the guest artists’ style matched up pretty closely to Larry Stroman’s art even if they did not quite reach he same level of abstraction in their line work. I don’t have much more to say about the art in these issues and that itself probably says a lot. They’re early nineties comics and it’s important to mention that because the inking and colouring have a pretty big impact on the final look of the comic. These issues look like nineties comics. The only exception would the Annual issue which is drawn by Darick Robertson and Joe Madureira. That issue looks sleeker and cleaner and it’s quite breath of fresh air but the annual they make up can best be summarized as a throwaway gag issue. It doesn’t advance the story or the characterization and the only thing it contributes to is a few laughs. Peter David has made significantly better jokes in the regular issues of X-Factor.

Thankfully the story moves along a big more in the rest of the volume. The X-Factor team deals with three mutant related issues. In one, a mutant is accused of murder and they investigate the allegations. In another story, they’re asked to protect a former member of a muscle for hire crew which offered protection to a drug cartel. The third story deals with mutant expatriates from Genosha who are travelling the seas searching for sanctuary but finding only rejection. Mutants are the Jews of the Marvel Universe it seems. All three of those stories could and for a few pages did, form the basis for interesting stories about homo sapiens and homo superior equality but they all fall short. One of the reasons of the stories do not work is that the members of X-factor always end up fighting numerous other mutants or super villains. The resolution to all these stories is a one or more superhero fights. It’s a disappointing story.

The other reason why the stories don’t seem to work is that they try to bring forward topics that would generally seem more serious in tone. Peter David is trying to pull away from the good guys fights bad guys story and steer the book into a more satisfying direction. He’s trying to offer the reader something different that also happens to have depth of story. As I mentioned, the first problem is the unnecessary requirement for superhero fisticuffs and it’s not even a particularly rewarding version of that. The second reason is that the tone of the book is in constant fluctuation form humorous to serious and thoughtful. David is unable to balance the humour and the more serious elements into a cohesive comic. This happens to be the volume which has the best humour in it. He’s done ag ood job on that fron band the best thing about the fight scenes is the banter. It’s problematic though when Havok and Val are having a serious discussion as to how to handle the mutant expatriate (or x-patriate) situation, they’Re also finding time to crack jokes.

It’s inconsistent but it has a lot of potential and it makes for a frustrating read because you keep thinking the story is going to lead to something good and worthy of thought and discussion but it often leads to bad jokes, cackling evil bad guys. The villains in this story are uninteresting and much like the stories in the Annual issue, they feel like throwaway characters that matter because of their role as villains as opposed to their importance as characters in a story. Three volumes in and it still feels like Peter David is trying to find his footing and it’s getting to be too late since he ultimately only wrote one more volume’s worth of X-Factor comics.   

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Wolverine and the X-men vol. 5 & 6 review

The fifth volume of Wolverine and the X-men is a transitional volume. It’s not breaking new ground but it’s not retreading any of the previous stories. Since the very first issue Jason Aaron has shown an interest in doing things differently as far as X-men comics of the last ten years go. Because of that, the series has had some tonal shifts. The first two volumes set the tone. The tone of the third and fourth volumes was different due to the influence of a story outside of the title. Volume five seems to be establishing a new, revised, tone of the series.

Now that Jason Aaron and his rotating group of artists are done telling their obligatory Avengers vs. X-men crossover tie-on issues and the focus is back on the Jean Grey School. A new (but also old) teacher comes to the school and a few new students are introduced. Aaron is setting up his pieces on the board and is preparing for his next big storyline. It’s a big of a shame that all the momentum he and artists Chris Bachalo and Nick Bradshaw in the first ten or so issues has nearly all been wiped out by Avengers vs. X-men which was a pretty lame crossover. Aaron now has the opportunity to steer the book in ad different direction but that also means he has to rebuild some of the momentum he lost. That’s why this volume feels like he’s introducing characters and plot lines to be explored further in the issues yet to come.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that Aaron is focusing so much on what’s still to come. He’s not really paying attention to what came before. The new Hellfire Club is barely present and for the few scenes they do show up they’re also in a transitional phase. They’re planning and scheming how they’ll bring destruction and ruin to the Jean Grey School. The bulk of this volume is comprised of a three part story that, sadly, feels like a bad B-movie. The purpose of the story isn’t to be a good story on its own, instead it’s to place the characters in the right emotional setting for a story that is still on the way. I didn’t expect to find such a bland story on this title. I’m pretty disappointed that the quality in the stories didn’t improve after the distractions that were the Avengers vs. X-men stories. The first and last stories collected in the volume were a cut above the three part circus story but I’m hoping this will be the only disappointing volume in the series.

This title needs less grease paint . . .
The sixth volume is a distinct improvement on the fifth. It’s just a tad less enjoyable than the first two volumes. The issues in this volume are part of the new beginning for the title that the fifth volume was preparing for. The catch is that we’re not quite. This is a new beginning, that’s certain and Aaron’s writing seems more confident than it was in the last few issues. The new characters introduced in the previous stories get a chance to shine. Aaron’s taking the time to get to know the new characters and how they interact and what makes them tick. Even though the series has been filled with new characters, Aaron hasn’t taken the chance to focus on them completely and it’s nice to see him do that with this volume.

and more beards.
The story consists of Wolverine taking some of his more troublesome students as well as three new students to the Savage Land to teach them about survival. Of course, once they get there the whole things turns into a mess and despite Wolverine’s feelings of ineptitude, the students actually learn something. In the midst of all the chaotic superhero action, Aaron finds the time to continue planting seeds for his next big story. I thought for sure volume 6 was going to be the story he’s preparing for but it turns out it’s not. It’s still set up but man, it’s much more enjoyable set up than that weird circus story.

The last issue collected in this volume is pure teaser but it makes for an excellent single issue story. That’s what makes it work, actually. It’s a teaser in narrative form with some time travel mixed it. Very good stuff and it also contributes to the advancement of one of Aaron’s goals a writer for Marvel: giving every male character in the Marvel universe a beard. Wolverine and several Bamfs get a beard in this last story and Wolverine’s beard is full and white like he’s getting ready to move to the North Pole. I loved it.

Ramon Pérez did all of the pencil art for the sixth volume. His style is more cartoonish than previous artists who have worked on Wolverine and the X-men, even more so than Nick Bradshaw. Bradshaw’s art is cartoony but it has a slight stiffness to it. Pérez art is very fluid and expressive. I’d rather have read a comic with more art by Chris Bachalo or Nick Bradshaw but Pérez does a good job filling in. His style was well suited to the energetic action sequences of the Savage Land.

The best thing about volume 6 is that it got me excited about the next volume. Aaron is planning a big story, with issue #29 he’s telling the reader flat out that he’s planning a big story, but he’s not quite ready yet. In the meantime though, enjoy these good X-men stories. I’m sure he’s sorry about the circus story but it did serve its purpose (it help Aaron and Bradshaw pay the bills) and it really could have been worse. Thankfully, Aaron replaced clowns with dinosaurs for the follow up story. Hopefully the next storyline bring the focus back to the Jean Grey School because that’s where all the real crazy stuff happens. I’m looking forward to it.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Starfleet Academy 01: Worf’s First Adventure

Tania Tobias and Worf by Catherine Huerta.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Starfleet Academy is a series of fourteen books that take place at the United Federation of Planet’s Starfleet Academy in San Francisco. The first three books were written by Peter David and follows the story of Worf Rozhenko’s and many other cadet’s first few months at the Academy. Worf is the first Klingon to ever be admitted to the academy and he will grow up to be one of the most beloved characters of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series. I think it’s great that Worf is the star of these first few books because he’s one of my favourite characters for TNG but also because Peter David writes Worf really well.

My interest in these Starfleet Academy books has to do mostly with Peter David. I like his writing style and I’ve rather enjoyed the first two of his Star Trek: The Next Generation novels so I figured I’d give these a try as well. I’m also interested in reading his Star Trek: New Frontier series but I’ve read online that some characters from his previous Star Trek books appear in the series. Some of the characters that were introduced in Worf’s First Adventure are regular characters in New Frontier. It seemed like required reading before taking on David’s popular novel series.  

There are a few references to episodes of TNG. The book was published in 1993 and it mostly references events of the first three seasons of the television series. The book offers some nice backstory for Worf some of which we’ve seen before in Strike Zone and in A Rock and a Hard Place. Not all of the things David introduces remained canon. His adoptive brother’s name is a good example of information that is no longer accurate with the television series. In the book, he is named Simon but we find out in an episode of the seventh season of TNG that Worf’s brother’s name is Nikolai (which makes more sense, because Worf’s adoptive family lives in Russia).

David does a good job showing the reader why it’s important for Worf to succeed at the Academy because he’s the first Klingon to ever be admitted. There is a diplomatic importance to his success. It puts a lot of pressure on Worf and he doesn’t really have it easy in San Fran. He doesn’t really have it too difficult though. Despite his Klingon heritage he quickly made friends during the shuttlecraft ride that first brought him to the academy and he stays friends with them throughout the novel. They even formed a study group together. There is some conflict between Worf and a Brikarian but they by the end of the novel, they’ve become friends due to both being members of alien species that aren’t well represented at the Academy. Alien minorities have to stick together against the mutual threat of racial intolerance. It’s just a little strange that Worf so easily forgets that Zak Kebron, the Brikarian, is the one who antagonised Worf more than any other cadet.
Worf and Geordi La Forge in one of the
many pencil drawings by James Fry.
My primary complaint for this young adult novel is that it’s a young adult novel. The cadets are all in their late teens; I believe it’s mentioned that Worf is 18, so really, they’re young adults and a more mature story could easily have been told. I think the decision to market this series to young adults is a good idea but by doing so it took away some of the storytelling potential. David’s writing style doesn’t pander to younger minds, but his trademark humour is nearly absent and the more serious themes and interesting moral dilemmas of his other Star Trek novels is also absent.

A series of shorter novels designed to be sold to younger readers is an interesting idea but despite not seeing signs of intentional dumbing down of Star Trek for consumption by younger readers, there is nothing here to really spark the interest of non-Trekkies or to challenge younger minds. It’s a short book, which is fine, but it feels slight. I understand that not all young adult fiction is 500+ pages novels like Harry Potter but it doesn’t have to be 120 page novellas about going to space school where nothing really happens other than some mild bullying amongst alien cadets. I did enjoy the pencil drawings. I’d like to see that incorporated in other Star Trek novels, especially because a lot of characters and settings never had the opportunity to make it to the small screen and it would be nice to see visual representations of many of the novel-only characters.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Blog Fantastic 010: Streams of Silver review

The first book in the Icewind Dale Trilogy (which was retroactively renumbered as being the fourth part of the Legend of Drizzt series) wasn’t a masterpiece of the fantasy genre but it was clear to me why it has its fan. R. A. Salvatore’s first published novel, it had a simple story but it also had familiar characters interacting in a familiar setting. That sense of familiarity can be very comforting when starting a new book depending on your reading habits and the mood you’re in. The problem familiar settings and familiar characters is that they often lead to familiar stories and that’s exactly what the first book was.

The first book also served as an introduction to Salvatore’s corner of the Forgotten Realms. Salvatore’s mark on Forgotten Realms isn’t based on an actual geographical corner of the map of that world but on the characters he introduced to it. It’s the popular characters such as Drizzt the dark elf and Wulfgar the barbarian that made the book what it was. The events that take place only do so to provide adversaries for the heroes to fight against. The fights serve another purpose which is to entertain the reader with increasingly ludicrous fight scenes that make the heroes look invincible.

I’m getting pretty negative but everything that I enjoy about the first book has disappeared from the second and everything I didn’t enjoy in the first book can be found on nearly every page. The story is even less important than it was in the first because it’s a simply quest to find a hidden kingdom of dwarves, Mithril Hall. What that really means is that the heroes will go on a long adventure which will give Salvatore many opportunities to have Drizzt and his companions fight all sorts of different monsters frequently found in the fantasy genre. Despite all of that, the book could still have been enjoyable had it been written particularly well or if the characterization of the protagonists was above average. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The characters do not progress any further than they did in the first book. They do a lot, they travel far and wide and fight many foes, but it doesn’t mean anything to either of them. They’re not changed or affected by it in any meaningful way.

That’s the first problem I had with Stream of Silver. The second was that the story feels incredibly familiar because any fan of fantasy literature knows it forward and backward. The story here is essentially a slightly modified version of the Mines of Moria chapters from The Lord of the Rings. It’s incredibly problematic because Tolkien did it so much better. Obviously Salvatore isn’t the first to closely revisit the stories of Tolkien in his own body of work, but like most that have come before him; he does it with adding anything to the story. In fact, he does so by reducing the story to be a poor imitation of the original story. There was nothing new here and it was boring and also frustrating because if I wanted to read about the Mines of Moria I would pick up my copy of The Lord of the Rings and reread it.

My third biggest problem with the second volume of the Icewind Dale Trilogy was the action scenes and the fighting. Fans of Salvatore will tell anybody who is willing to listen that he writes some of the best fight scenes in fantasy fiction. They’ve clearly only read fantasy books by a select few fantasy writers. Salvatore does write a good fight scene, but only in his description of action to action events. He does a poor job contextualizing the action in the story. Bruenor, Wulfgar and Drizzt fight people, monsters and dragons because enough pages have passed since the last fight and it’s time for another battle. Worse than that, they’re always grossly outnumbered and the odds are always ridiculously stacked against them and they always vanquish seemingly without any real effort. There is absolutely no sense of danger or even a sense of threat in any of the fights. If you want good battles, whether it’s one on one type or armies versus armies, look no further than books written by David Gemmell. He makes Salvatore look amateurish.

I after reading and enjoying The Crystal Shard, which was a good debut but nothing spectacular, I was hoping for something more out of Streams of Silver. That’s exactly what I got. I got more of everything I didn’t particularly enjoy in the first book. I got more Drizzt, more battle magic used constantly and without effort. I also got more villains, but generic villains without any personality with the exception maybe of Artemis Entreri. I like my magic to come with a price, I like it to be hard earned. It shouldn’t be easy. That’s why I didn’t like this book. It felt easy, there was no effort made by the characters when it came to accomplishing their deeds because they can do superhuman feats without batting an eyelash and, if that’s not enough, they’re aided by magical weapons a plenty. Worst of all, I feel like Salvatore didn’t make much of an effort with his follow up novel. The story has been told many times before, the characters are cookie cutter fantasy heroes and the prose, the pacing and the villains in the novel, none of them feel fresh or even polished. I like to be challenged as a reader or, at the very least, engaged. I would even accept angry at a book, but nothing makes me feel worse than being bored and that’s exactly how I felt while reading Streams of Silver. On a final note, why does Bruenor talk like a pirate? Infuriating.