Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 review

The second volume of David Petersen’s Mouse Guard series gives us further insight into the world of mice and the Guard. The story jumps a bit from where it ended in the previous volume. Winter has completely set in and the towns and cities of the Mice Territories are in near complete isolation from one another. Lockhaven is short of food and stores for the winter following Midnight’s attack during the fall. Gwendolyn has sent out three parties of Guardmice to visit the surrounding settlements to gather essential supplies. The second volume concerns itself with the trip of Kenzie’s group which is made up of Saxon, Sadie, Lieam and Celanawe, formally known as the Black Axe. There is also quite a bit of story that deals with the events taking place at Lockhaven. It’s nice to spend some time with characters that aren’t Guard members. It’s also nice to spend time inside a city instead of seeing it from a visitor’s point of view while accompanying the Guard on one of their missions.

Petersen essentially puts the Guard in action, having them do what is essentially their job, acting as a physical link between all the towns and cities. What they did in the first volume, fighting a rebellion, isn’t their primary work but it’s something they do in order to achieve their primary goal which is to protect the Territories. Unfortunately, exiling Midnight wasn’t enough to put an end to his supporters or the ideals he spread during his uprising.

He also takes the time to develop his character which he does with a considerable amount of pathos. You get a much better idea of how the mice from the first volume interact with each other. Petersen simultaneously gives us further insight into the personalities of the individual characters and we get to see them play against one another. How Saxon reacts to being lost and alone in Darkheater and how it changes him is one of my favourite moments of the series. Likewise, the trials young Lieam faces in Winter 1152 are so well executed as to make it feel natural and rather moving. There are more characters in this volume than I remember. Most of the characters appeared at the end of the first volume but it’s in the second volume that they get to shine.

Click on the image to make it bigger. It's worth it.

We also get to explore a couple more settings. One of them is another mouse dwelling, the city of Sprucetuck which is located in a hollowed out tree. Petersen develops it in the story as well as in the back matter. I like the fact that they heat the tree with stones in order to minimize the amount of open flame which is an obvious dangers when the whole town in inside a tree. I like that different population centres have their own defining characteristics and trades. Sprucetuck is known for its healing “Spruce Brew Elixer”. The real treat though is the discovery of the abandoned tunnels of Darkheather which used to be a weasel kingdom deep underground. Some of the Guard find themselves stranded in the labyrinthine tunnels and some rather intense things happen in the dark but I won’t spoil it hear.

If there is one frustrating thing about Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 is that despite continuing the story from Fall 1152 and providing further depth to the characters and the world they inhabit, it all still feels like it’s setting up for a larger story. That’s not to say that nothing happens. On the contrary, Petersen strikes the difficult balance of telling a story that begins and ends between the same covers while also planting the seeds of further and, I can only assume, grander stories. I want more Mouse Guard and I want it now! People can complain all they want about their multi-volume fantasy series or the next season of whatever generic TV series they’re watching; what I can’t wait to get my greedy hands on is the next instalment of Mouse Guard. I don’t mean to complain, but Mouse Guard: Tales of the Guard doesn’t do much to satiate my cravings. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Naruto 3-in-1: volumes 16-17-18 review

Naruto is one of my favourite manga series of all times. It’s also one of the first manga I’ve ever read. It all started when I was in grade 7 or 8, when Shonen Jump was first published here in Canada. I had a friend who would buy every single issue and because he was a kind and generous person he lent it to me every single time. He would read it first and because he knew I wanted to read it after him, he would hurry up and read it as fast as he could which was a big deal because he read slowly. I love all of the series in the first couple of years of Shonen Jump except for Yu-Gi-Oh!.

When I move out of my home town I kept on reading Naruto because I love nearly everything about it. In the last couple of years Viz has been publishing 3-in-1 omnibus editions of popular manga series that have several dozens of volumes. I’ve been collection One Piece and Naruto. I’ve also been interesting in picking up Full Metal Alchemist as I really liked the first anime but I’ll wait until I’ve finished buying a few other series I’ve got on the go. Before the 3-in-1 publications began appearing in bookstores, I haven’t read Naruto in about three years. It’s been great to be able to revisit the series and fall in love with it all over again.

I haven’t reviewed any of the previous 3-in-1 volumes and but I might at a later date. Right now I just want to talk about the greatness to be found in volumes 16, 17 and 18. I find that long shonen series have a cyclical nature to them. Single issues or chapters build saga or story arcs which make up the huge story of the entire series. The story arcs in Naruto aren’t as clearly defined as they are in other series (Dragon Ball or One Piece are good examples) but it’s still part of the overall structure of the series. Because of the differences in style and narrative technique between comics and manga, I generally consider manga to be a quicker read than comics. The storytelling, the art style and the publication format all seem to indicate that. Contrary to my dislike of excessive decompression in comic book, I do not feel the same way towards manga which regularly uses decompression, particularly shonen manga. I find manga can sometimes be disappointing to read if you’re reading in the monthly format or the collections. The monthly format of Shonen Jump just doesn’t have enough content to truly satisfy and stories can take forever to come to a conclusion. I remember being surprised by the small number of chapters it took to tell the story of Buggy the Clown and the cat pirate captain in One Piece. It felt like they took forever when I first read them in Shonen Jump. Reading shonen manga in volume can also be frustrating when you’re waiting months for the next volume to be published (I’m thinking of you 20th Century Boys) but that doesn’t really matter if you have several volumes and you’re reading them all at the same time but eventually, you will be all caught up.

Reading the stories in the 3-in-1 editions isn’t nearly as frustrating. For one, I’ve already read all of these Naruto stories so I know what’s coming up. It’s also nice because of the amount of story you’re getting in one chunk. The 3-in-1 editions come in at 500 to 600 pages. Depending on the pace of the stories, a single omnibus edition can contain most or all of a story arc. With the sixth omnibus edition, containing volumes 16, 17 and 18, Masashi Kishimoto ends the storyline from the previous volumes, setups the plot for future stories while telling an epilogue and preparing the groundwork for the next story arc. The stories of volume 18 are the first chapters from the next storyline. For a bit of perspective, volume 16 ends the attack on Konoha, has parts of the aftermath, includes Kakashi’s decisions on Naruto and Sasuke’s training and introduces the Akatsuki. Volume 17 is the transition volume. It includes the continuation of Jiraiya’s training with Naruto, the continuing story of Orochimaru and the beginning of the search for Tsunade. The last volume, volume 18, includes the meeting of the Three Legendary Shinobi thus really kicking off the next storyline and it also includes more of Naruto’s training. That’s a lot of story!

I love the Three Legendary Shinobi because it adds so much depth and history to the world of Naruto. I also really love the parallels between the multiple generations of ninjas of Konoha village. Kishimoto does an excellent job of using his flashbacks to add depth to characters and story. The sheer amount of story included in this omnibus is just one of the many reason to love it. The story is supported by great action and the art which has changed a bit since the series began is still very, very good. The amount of detail that goes into the series is great and it’s one of the series strength that the action, characters and backgrounds are clear and easy to read despite the detail and the black and white art. If you’ve been avoiding these omnibus editions, you should really give them a look. The two series I collect have more than convinced me this is the way to read long running shonen series.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Orbiter by Warren Ellis review

I really like Warren Ellis as a writer. I’m not his biggest fan but his name is enough to draw me to a project. Some of the reasons I like Ellis so much is that he likes big ideas but in most cases he doesn’t let character or story suffer because of it. He’s also produced work with extremely talented artists throughout his career and when your career consists mostly of comic books, that’s a good thing because visuals matter a lot. Another reason I like Ellis is that he’s gender and race neutral. That’s a pretty big deal, it’s more important than some people think. What I mean by gender neutral is that he doesn’t go out of his way to make every single character a woman but woman are present in most if not all of his work in roles that matter. They’re not limited to being background characters that don’t speak or aren’t otherwise involved in the narrative. Unlike other writers, Ellis doesn’t forcefully integrate women or racial minorities in his work. He’s aware that he’s using a character that isn’t the statistical average human male and so he doesn’t write them as such. He also avoids writing his female and racial characters as stereotypes. It might not seem important, but these elements are present in Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s original graphic novel Orbiter.

Orbiter, like a lot of really good science fiction, begins with real world ideas and scientific facts and uses them to provide us with interesting ideas. Good science fiction is often speculative in nature and it’s concerned with social, political, economic issues. With Orbiter, Ellis uses the lost wonder of his childhood growing up during the Space Race along with the retrospective nature and overly cautionary administration of human spaceflight exploration, specifically the funding and administration of NASA, as the starting point of his story. Ten years ago, Space Shuttle Venture blasted off and disappeared. The shuttle and its crew where never heard of or seen again. Because of the incident, the American Space Shuttle program ended and Kennedy Space Centre has deteriorated and become a shanty town. On a day like any other, the thought-to-be-lost Venture returns home and crashes at KSC. Experts are brought in to study the shuttle and figure out where it went, how it got them and how it got back.

The rest of the story is a science fiction procedure grounded in real world ideas. Ellis has three experts, a psychiatrist, a biologist and an aerospace engineer, study the shuttle and the sole survivor crew member. Along the way he argues why crewed space flight is crucial to the success of space exploration. There are things that men and women can experience that robots just can’t, no matter how sophisticated they are. More importantly, you need humans in order to do experiments. Try having a robot do what Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield did on the International Space Station last year. His experiments where simple but they helped to clearly demonstrate the way zero gravity can affect everyday items. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the things we can learn from space exploration and study.

I mentioned that Ellis is usually pretty good at keeping the human element in his stories present in his stories along with big ideas. He does so here, too. The four main characters all have their reasons to be concerned with the Venture. For one, it’s as simple as being fascinated with space and curious to learn how it affects animal and vegetable biology. For the pilot of the Venture it’s a matter of exploring and discovering the unknown. Space exploration is also extremely important to the engineer who only wants to help others reach space and come back in the best way possible. He wants to create things that will allow man to do the impossible. I particularly like the character of Anna Bracken, the psychiatrist who doesn’t have any interest to physically go to space but she’s devoted to the idea of helping others understand their own experiences.

Ellis’s comics can sometimes feel like essays. It’s true. If you don’t believe me you only need to read Crécy or Supergod. Better yet, find a copy of Orbiter and give that a read. I say this because Ellis’s writer can sometimes feel much more argumentative than other fiction. In Orbiter, Ellis and Doran argue for the importance of crewed spaceflight. As such, the comic succeeds but it flounders a bit as a narrative.  Part of the problem with the narrative is that everything goes so smoothly. This comic is, in essence, a science fiction mystery and boy, what a mystery it is! The problem is that the specialists from very different fields all work seamlessly together and solve the mystery based on well informed guesses. They’re still guesses though and they guess right every single time.

I don’t get too bothered by that because the point of Orbiter isn’t to provide a great narrative. The point is to inspire. Ellis is trying to inspire pride and joy in the idea of manned space exploration while (unhappily) predicting the end of the manned space flight. I was impressed by Orbiter because the creators also managed to throw in a heavy dose of science fiction while making all three elements, inspirational story, science fiction ideas and prediction all work together. As a species, man has the incredible potential to do the seemingly impossible but in order for us to do the impossible; we have to actually do it. We can’t use technology as a crutch or as a replacement of man in space. That will provide some answer but robotic exploration is stale and uninspired and ultimately not worth as much as real life experienced individuals doing what they do best which in this case happens to be exploring, learning and discovering.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 review

I’ve read David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 over a dozen times and every time I read it again, I find new thing to enjoy about it. I don’t remember hearing or reading anything about this comic but somehow I ended up taking the first hardcover edition home with me. The cover was the only reason I bought the comic. Seeing it in the store was enough to convince me to give it a chance and I’ve stuck with the series since. As much as the art was the reason I first read Mouse Guard, it’s also the art that intrigued me on this most recent reread. I’ve recently read Mouse Guard: The Black Axe and I’m amazed by how much Petersen’s art has evolved over the years.

The biggest difference I could notice is how much scratchier Fall 1152 is compared to its sequels. Going along with the less polished line art, Petersen’s colouring isn’t as crisp as I’m used to seeing it now (I can’t confirm that Petersen colours Mouse Guard but no other artist’s name is listed in the credits). It doesn’t seem to be as integrated to the art as it ends up being in later volumes. The mice also look different. Their heads are nearly the same shape that Petersen tends to draw for them now with the exception that they’re not as obviously triangular. The ears stick out more and they tend to be longer than the mice he draws now. Lastly, their bodies are thinner which helps to further contrast them to how he presently draws his mice characters that seem to have gotten shorter and wider in recent years, their overall body shape starting to look more akin to real life hamsters than mice (in a good way). It’s interesting for me to see how the way Petersen draws his characters evolves in the pages of Fall 1152. At times the mice look more like real mice, or at least drawings of real mice but by the end of the first volume, they’re closely resembles the kind of mice drawn by David Petersen. That’s a sloppy way of putting it but Petersen’s art style is as recognizable as any other great artist. You don’t need to be a Mouse Guard reader to know what Petersen’s art looks like and that’s because of the style he developed while drawing Mouse Guard. In Fall 1152 you can to witness the crystallization of Petersen’s style.

Compare this picture to the one on
the right. It's Lieam, the mouse
wearing green.
It's the same character. Look how much thinner and mouse
like he looks in this picture. The picture on the left was recently
taken from Petersen's blog and there is a clear different in style.

All this talk of art and I haven’t even mentioned what Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 is about. The basic idea of Mouse Guard is that mice are such small animals that they can’t properly integrate their lifestyle with other, larger, animals because of the different in size. Therefore, they’ve had to develop a culture of their own but, again, because of their small stature they’re society has developed into a network of mostly self-sufficient cities. These cities are very safe and secretive dwellings, designed to keep the population within as safe and cozy as possible. All of these cities are scattered throughout the Mouse Territories which occupies a rather large area, comparatively speaking. Because mice tend to be nearer to the bottom of the food chain, it’s very dangerous for them to travel from one establishment to the other which is why the Mouse Guard was created. The Guard is located in Lockhaven, near the centre of the Territories and the Guard’s job is to protect the cities and their citizens. They regularly patrol the safe routes from city to city and are also known to escort travellers, merchants and other mice.

For a world that has such a basic setup, Petersen takes full advantage of the world building possibilities. His careful attention to detail is present on every page and the art’s contribution to the story is greater than in most other comics seen on the shelves today. I love the idea of a medieval based mice culture. One of the difficulties that often arise with this sort of story has to do with scale. How big a mouse compared to a snake? To a leaf or a grain of rice? For the most part, Petersen gets the scaling just right. It’s not something I appreciated until I read the Legends of the Guard anthologies in which I witnessed other comic artists struggle with it. Even at such an early stage in the series, Petersen has an eye for detail and it contributes to making Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 an extremely enjoyable read.
Petersen has build several maquettes of
locations that appear in his comic. It's all part
of his detailed oriented approach to storytelling.

With such a simple setup, Petersen could have easily taken his series in dozens of different directions. Fearlessly, he opts to go big but it’s difficult to tell because the story starts so small. Three Guard mice, Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon, uncover a secret plot. Somemouse has been trying to divulge the secret location and the details of the structure of Lockhaven. It appears that somemouse is trying to destroy the Guard. The scope of Mouse Guard isn’t quite as easy to notice and appreciate in this first volume until you’ve discovered where the story goes from there, but all the groundwork for an epic story was laid in this first volume. The story itself moves a brisk pace and it deceives the reader into false sense that little is going on. In actuality, Petersen is building a multilayered world in front of our eyes. It’s difficult to notice upon the first read. It seems to appear out of thing air by the time you arrive at the final chapter. The world building is carefully integrated into the story and it’s all done with the use of wide panels and small speech bubbles.

As if there wasn’t enough to enjoy in the comic itself, the hardcover volume ends with a collection of supplementary material such as maps and other world building information. There is a breakdown of the towns of Barkstone and Lockhaven. There is also a page outlining the primary trades in Lockhaven as well as common trades throughout the Mouse Territories. Lockhaven, for example, has a full time armoury and an apiary. I quite like this section of the book because it helps to embellish the story. The information provide isn’t directly related to the story being told, but it contributes to fleshing out the world in which the story takes place.

You can see the care and attention with which Petersen crafted his story of a group of brave mice who have dedicated their lives to the protection of others. Their way of life is noble and deserves respect and Petersen gives his characters and story the respect they deserve. The evidence is in the comic itself. From the cover to the back matter, the details never let up and it’s presented in such an elegant way that you really get the best of both worlds by which I mean an elegant and simple presentation of a superbly intricate fantasy story. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Blog Fantastic 013: The Farthest Shore

One of the reasons I like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is that she doesn’t spoon feed her readers. There has been an increasing tendency in fantasy literature to write huge, sprawling sagas that give the reader insight on every little thing that happens to dozens of characters during the entirety of an epic saga. I’m not too critical of it because of my limited experience with very long series but I have enjoyed it in small series. However, when I think of what the final two books of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series has clearly changed from a detail heavy realistic approach to medieval fantasy to a travelogue for the various characters travelling around on the continents of Westeros and Essos. In that series, Martin seems to have become obsessed with the idea of subjecting his reader to every hour of his characters journey. I prefer Le Guin’s approach to her story. The first Earthsea book was written as if an ancient legend. The writing style played a big part in this but Le Guin also chose not to show the reader everything. Like the oldest of legends, we only have bits and pieces, not the whole story. In the second book, the feeling that the Earthsea series is the retelling of an old legend is somewhat lost because the story shifts focus to another character and the reader experiences the Deed of Ged. I’m not sure this approach would suit every fantasy story, but Le Guin uses it very well with this series.

What does this have to do with The Farthest Shore? In the third book in the series the reader encounters Ged, or Sparrowhawk, at another stage in his life. He’s no longer the young adult from the first two books. He’s now an older man and Archmage of Roke. There is at least 20 years of Ged’s life that we do not know about. Since I haven’t read the series in full, I have no idea if Le Guin revisits this period of Ged’s life in later books but I love the idea that we do not know anything about Ged for an extended period of his adult life. People who know the legend of the Deed of Ged know the beginning and know the end but we’re not privy to the details of a significant portion of his life and that’s fascinating because it gives the reader the opportunity to discover who Ged is a second time because the older man his is in The Farthest Shore is pretty different from the young man we met in A Wizard of Earthsea.

The main plot of the story is simple, perhaps even deceptively so. The son of the Lord of Enlad, Arren, journeys to the island of Roke to inform the wizards that magic is dying in the islands to the West. Sparrowhawk, who is now the Archmage of Roke, takes Arren on a journey throughout the Archipalego to discover the cause of the weakening magic and, if possible, bring magic back to Earthsea. That’s the foundation on which Le Guin builds a powerful novel that deals with such themes as death and power. During their travels, Ged (Sparrowhawk’s real name) and Arren discover just how important magic is to everyday life on Earthsea, so important that for some people who have lost it can only going on living by being heavily intoxicated. Some entire islands, such as the island of Lobarnery which has an economy based on the production and sale of silk is in a degrading state because of the loss of magic.

The World of Earthsea:
One of the reason I enjoyed The Farthest Shore so much is that Le Guin had her characters explore parts of Earthsea the reader hasn’t been to yet. One of the places the characters visit is one of my favourite world building elements in the book, the Children of the Open Sea. They are a society that lives on rafts out on the open sea. Some of the rafts are so large they have temples and other public buildings on them. Most of their tools, clothing and building materials come from the sea. They build ropes from seaweed and carve various tools and other objects from the bones of large grey whales which they also worship and call the Great Ones. Le Guin uses Arren’s interaction with the Children of the Open Sea to point on the differences of their cultures compared to the cultures of the other people we’ve already met in the series. I really like how Arren interacts mostly with the children. He’s new to this culture of living on the open sea and talking, playing and working with the children is the best way of learning the basics. I really like how the kids make fun of Arren for the way he swims. It only makes sense that the Children of the Open Sea are excellent swimmers since they live on open water. They are a bit rude to Arren but it’s the rudeness of children. They don’t filter what they say; it just sort of comes out. When Arren first responds to the children’s comments he does so while being “a little mortified, but polite; indeed he could not have been rude to a human being so very small.” Le Guin’s writing is filled with such truths of human interactions.

The other world building aspect that made a big impression on me was the dragons of Earthsea. We’ve encountered them before, notably in the first novel. I was blown away by Le Guin’s portrayal of a fantasy creature I thought I knew so well. Sure, there are many types of dragons in both real-world mythology and in fantasy fiction of all languages but Le Guin’s dragons are something altogether special. The most important dragon in The Farthest Shore is called Orm Embar. That’s his real name and it’s very important to point that out because knowing someone or something’s true name is to truly know that person or thing. It’s also the basis of magic on Earthsea. Orm Embar is a dragon so old and powerful that he doesn’t bother hiding his name. Dragons are the only animals able to communicate with humans through the use of language. They are beautiful and dangerous and Le Guin shows this balance by contrasting how they can at times be civilized and other times they can be incredibly animalistic and violently savage.

The Magic Of Earthsea:
Le Guin uses words like Ged uses magic. That is, sparingly. “The first lesson on Roke, and the last is do what is needful. And No more!” I don’t want to talk too much about the magic that is present in The Farthest Shore, in part because I’ve talked about it in some of my previous reviews and also because it’s tied into the plot and I don’t want to ruin the story. Le Guin’s writing style feels a bit like magic. It’s an absolute joy to behold. She has such mastery and command of language that I’m truly in awe by some of the passages in The Farthest Shore. It’s simple, deceptively simple. Her writing is clean, economical and it speaks trues about life. For a series of books in which magic is the knowledge and use of true names for people and things, Le Guin demonstrates that she too is a wizard of great power.  

I knew all of this before I began reading The Farthest Shore; after all, I read the first two books in the series. But this book gave me a new perspective on her writing. It’s theatrical and very dramatic. Not melodramatic but dramatic in the classical sense. Her characters feel big emotions; they have big dreams and face big dangers. There is gravitas in Earthsea and it’s contrasted by Le Guin’s cool and calm writing style. Each and every word appears in the right place and in the right order as if Le Guin is transcribing the true history of Earthsea as opposed to writing a book.

Of the tree Earthsea book that I’ve read so far, The Farthest Shore is my favourite. The story felt important and though I don’t agree with everything Le Guin writes about life, death and the abuse of power, I appreciate that she’s handling such difficult themes in fantasy fiction. The great evil of this book isn’t a mad overlord trying to take over the world. It’s human evil such as substance abuse and slavery. I really appreciated reading a story about an older Ged to counterbalance with the coming of age story that is The Wizard of Earthsea. Sparrowhawk’s reached an age where he can easily spend hours reflecting on his life and the decisions his made. Le Guin spends several pages writing about magic, life and death and if there’s one lesson to be learned from The Farthest Shore is that life is about dancing on the edge of the void without fear of falling in. It’s about accepting that one day you will lose everything that you consider valuable but that’s no reason to stop trying to achieve the greatest heights possible.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye review

Notice how it doesn't say Star Wars
anywhere on the cover?

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is a pretty well-known Star Wars novel. The reason why is rather simple, it’s the first Star Wars Expanded Universe story. It was written by Alan Dean Foster, who also ghost wrote the novelization of A New Hope for George Lucas. It’s also well known for being the only example of what Star Wars could have been had the second film gone in a different direction. Originally, Splint of the Mind’s Eye was intended to be a low budget alternative sequel to Episode IV on the off chance that Lucas wouldn’t be able to secure the funding necessary to film the sequel he intended. Lucky for us, The Empire Strikes Back was made into a movie but let’s not completely dismiss Foster’s book just yet. It’s good, not great, but good and I enjoyed reading about this alternate Star Wars that could have been (and depending who you talk to, still is).

I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this novel. I think the best way to think of the book is to consider it as that weird little brother of Star Wars who’s fun to hang out with for short periods of time but you’re always kind of happy when he leaves. What I’m trying to say is that I’m really glad this isn’t really representative of the Star Wars I’ve come to know and love but at the same time, I appreciate the look at an alternate low-budget version of the story. You see, the problem with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is that it doesn’t work as a Star Wars story but it does work as a science fiction/fantasy story. 

Let’s recap the overall story first. Several months after the end of Episode IV, Luke and Leia are travelling in separate fighters on their way to a conference on Circarpous IV to convince the citizens of the planet to join the Alliance. There are technical difficulties with Leia’s ship and they crash land on the Circarpous V, also known as Mimban, which is a jungle planet. While trying to find a way off-planet, they discover a secret Imperial mining operation. None of that really matters because they simply continue to try finding a way off planet but they’re imprisoned by Imperial for having a mud fight in the middle of the mining settlement. The rest of the novel consists of them breaking out, failing miserably at finding the Kaiburr crystal and just having walking around on the planet trying to avoid getting killed. What’s the Kaiburr crystal? It’s a shabby plot device. It doesn’t really matter, it just gives Luke and Leia and excuse to stay on Mimban and have an adventure.

The back of the book makes it sound like the whole story is some grand quest to capture the Kaiburr crystal. It’s not about that at all. It's mostly about Luke and Leia exploring a sparsely populated planet and trying to get a ride off of it. Considerable sections of the books don't focus on plot or story; it's limited to Luke and Leia surviving in the wilderness. It's a neat trick to show character traits but Foster uses it ineffectively because Luke and Leia only act like themselves about 50% of the time. Overall, I enjoyed the exploration of Mimban. The idea of two people crash landing on a jungle planet is very simple, but it’s got plenty of potential as a science fiction survival story. There are moments in the book where Foster convinces me of certain alien elements of Mimban but all the odd not-quite-Star-Wars moments suck me right out of the book. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a plot and no real momentum is built. Silly things like Luke’s inner monologue making it sound like Kenobi taught him so much about the Force is just too off-putting to truly allow me to believe in the story and the setting. Those are the two ways I think you can enjoy the book: 1) A light-hearted science fiction survival story or 2) faux-Star Wars.

The most interesting thing about Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, for me, was the strange faux-Star Wars bits that I could point. Unsurprisingly, some of these things that didn’t survive into the Star Wars we know are actually rather annoying. Some of the annoying things include the characterization of the main characters. Leia’s emotionally crippled by the memory of her interrogation by Grand Moff Tarkin while on the Death Star. It’s disappointing to read her character as being rather boring and generic, for most of the book she’s missing that snarky attitude of hers. It’s almost as if she’s in the novel to serve as an object of desire for Luke. As for Luke, he’s incredibly sure of himself and he’s far more resourceful than I would have thought him to be soon after A New Hope. Luke is good with action, he’s very good and that’s ok, I buy that because it fits with the Luke we were introduced to in the first movie. Most of his inner monologues are brutal to read. All he does is swoon for Leia and it’s very strange to read. Lucas has tried to convince us that he wanted them to be twins from the get go but it’s nearly impossible to believe that after knowing he approved the things Foster writes about in this book.

There are plenty of other things that are interesting about this book. Some of my favourites include:
  • Han Solo and Chewie don’t show up at all. Han gets a dismissive mention near this end and that’s it. Threepio and Artoo are both there for the duration of the book. I always thought it was interesting how many iconic elements of Star Wars were constantly in flux until the final moment of their capture on film. Things like Han Solo not going to appear past the first movie is but one example.
  • Ralph McQuarrie did the cover for the book and it’s great! McQuarrie is the famous artist who worked on the original trilogy as a conceptual designer and matte painter. As far as I could tell from a quick search online, this is the only cover he’s done for a Star Wars novel. That’s a shame because this cover is great. I think it’s far superior than all of the digitally painted covers we see today. Is it just me or are book covers now either overly stylized graphic design or muddy digital paintings?
  • They never made a movie out of this but Terry Austin and Chris Sprouse did a comic book adaptation.
  • Did you know that lightsabers use up energy like blasters do? Luke uses an “energy pistol” he stole from an imperial guard to charge up his lightsaber. During a couple chapters Luke and Leia are travelling in underground tunnels and Luke contemplates using his lightsaber to create some light be decides against it because he’s worried it would drain the energy. Did you also know that lightsabers have a low setting? According to Foster they do and it’s used for things such as cutting bonds made of vines. In Foster’s Star Wars, lightsabers are like Swiss army knives you need to charge and it only have one tool which you can use on two power settings. Jedi are so crafty!
  • Luke, having grown up on the desert planet of Tatooine, is scared of open water. And Leia can't swim. The Empire doesn’t stand a chance. Hard to imagine these two defeat Darth Vader at the very end of the book.

My absolute favourite part happens about three quarters in where Luke has a one-on-one fist fight against a Coway, a small subterranean inhabitant of Mimban. Foster days a very good job with the fight scene. I didn’t think he could write fight scenes well but he does. I’m really hoping somebody uses this as inspiration to write a punchy action novel titled Luke Skywalker Galactic Brawler. Quick Del Rey, make it happen! I’ll buy two! Better yet, someone make a movie and the writer of the novelization can embellish the background stories of the alien opponents. The move I think about this idea the more I think the movie should be anime. Yeah, like Bloodsport but with aliens and Star Wars anime dripping with crazy action scenes. Man, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was a huge missed opportunity for Foster and Lucas. I’m pretty disappointed all of a sudden. Still, for

I'm really hoping somebody uses this as inspiration to write a punchy action novel titled Luke Skywalker Galactic Brawler. Quick Del Rey, make it happen! I'll buy two! You know what, better yet, someone make a movie and the writer of the novelization can embellish the background stories the alien opponents. The more I think about this the more I think he movie should be anime. Like Bloodsport but with aliens and Star Wars as anime. Huge missed opportunity Foster and Lucas. I'm very disappointed. Still, it’s not all bad. I would recommend Splinter of the Mind’s Eye to avid Star Wars fans because they’d be the only ones to get a kick out of pointing out the various differences between Foster’s sequel and the movies . . . and don’t forget to enjoy Luke’s brawl. It’s great.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground review

I discovered Darwyn Cooke’s comic book adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker novels back in 2012. In early 2013, I wrote reviews of all three comics that were out at the time. It wasn’t enough. I got hooked. Parker was such an interesting character. He’s as close to existential as possible while still maintaining and incredible amount of depth. I also fell in love with Stark’s writing still. It’s terse and it cuts you like tiny shards of broken glass but I enjoy it tremendously because the world Parker and the other characters live isn’t a place for a soft approach. You have to be hard as nails to survive and even harder to come out of the game with a little spending cash. I took a bit of a break from the novels, not because I didn’t enjoy them any longer but great novels, like candy or too much popcorn, can give you a sore stomach. I wanted to be able to walk away knowing I would return rather than be forced to quit because I had spoiled my appetite.

The only way 2013, my personal Year of Parker, could get any better was with new Parker material. Lucky me, there was a new movie but more importantly a new Cooke comic was published! The excited was short lived because I wasn’t very impressed. Needless to say, my initial reaction after reading Parker: Slayground is one of disappointment.

I was looking forward to Parker: Slayground in great part because of the reasons stated above. In addition to this, it would have been the first time I read the novel before the comic. I read the comic versions of The Hunter, The Outfit and The Score before reading the novels. It’s the other way around for Slayground. The interesting with the novel of the first three comics is that they were still excellent even though I was very familiar with the story. I was curious to know if it would work well the other way around. It turns out it wasn’t. Reading Parker: Slayground (the comic) made Slayground (the novel) that much more impressive to me.

Reading a story I’m already familiar with in a different medium made me realize that the story of Slayground seems to be much better suited to a novel than to a comic. There isn’t a whole lot of plot. The story is very good but it’s also very simple and Stark had to make it engaging by using a variety of techniques. In order to talk about why I think the story suits one medium more than the other I have to rely, once again, on the structure of a Parker story. I appreciate that Slayground follows the Parker formula while simultaneously trying to test the boundaries of the formula. Raymond Chandler once said:  “To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.” Chandler said that in reference to his career writing in pulp magazines but Stark had a clearly defined structure for his Parker novels and Slayground is but one of his many attempts to exceed the limits of the structure without breaking it.  In my review of The Hunter I establish the five main elements of the formula:

1) Parker alone or with a crew prepares to pull a heist,
2) They do the job,
3) There is a double cross or a serious complication, 
4) Parker fixes the problem (for himself at least), and
5) Parker does everything he can to get his portion of the take. 

Slayground sticks to the formula but it shows then slightly out of order and some parts are only dealt with in the sequel (presumable, as I haven’t read it). The novel begins with part 2) and it immediately leads to part 3). The novel then takes a brief moment to present part 1) in a flashback. More of the novel then concerns itself with what happens between part 3) and part 4). The ending of the novel, and I’m not spoiling anything here, ends with part 4) which Parker getting clear of the mess. The comic does the same thing because the plot is closely related to the formula but it does so without adding much story. The comic gives us parts 2) and 3) in just a few pages and it ends with part 4), just like the novel. What doesn’t work is everything in between the complication and Parker fixing the problem isn’t interesting in the comic. It’s extremely well done, especially considering it’s mostly absent of caption boxes and speech bubbles. That’s also the problem. What made Slayground a good novel for me was spending so much time in Parker’s head and the growing tension that Stark was building before the confrontation with Parker and the crooks. The novel is tense because of all the waiting and the preparation Parker has to do.

Parker: Slayground isn’t Cooke’s best comic adaptation but it serves well as another example of Cooke’s mastery of comic book storytelling. In the same volume, Cooke includes what I can only surmise is condensed adaptation of another Parker novel: The Seventh. The Seventh is one of the novels I haven’t read and I’m pretty convinced that it’s an eleven page comic book adaptation included to make Parker: Slayground seem a little less thin. I for one am glad it was included because I enjoyed those 11 pages immensely. It’s different than his other Parker adaptation, primarily because of its length but Cooke effectively proves that not every adaptation needs to be of equal or similar length as the original story.

I’m far more critical of this Parker comic than I was the first three and that’s ok. Not every comic can be great but even so, I did enjoy Parker: Slayground quite a bit. Certain differences between the novel and the comic were a bit jarring. The physical confrontations are good examples of those differences. In the novel they are quick burst intercut by slow and suspenseful preparation but in the comic, they’re also quick but it all feels very impersonal. It’s too easy for Parker. In the novel he struggles to survive and every man he beats down or kills was the result of extensive preparation, utmost stubbornness and physical prowess on Parker’s part.

There will be another Parker comic in 2015. I have more than a year to wait and that’s ok because I hope this will give Cooke enough time to create something as gripping and intelligent as the first three comic adaptations. However, if I find the wait to be too long I can always continue reading the novels by Stark. That’s something I planned on doing anyway and you should too.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

A Year in Review, Part Three – Worst Comics and Novels of 2013

Worst Science fiction novels
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Doomsday World
Star Trek novels were some of the books I had the move fun reading in 2013. A lot of that has to do with the structure of the series which the novels can tap into which gives you stories that are similar in structure and execution as the TV show but allowing greater flexibility in terms of characters and budget (the novels can do anything). Doomsday World is, as far as I know, the first novel that was written by a team of writers. Four writers got together to write this little book. The problem with Doomsday World is that it’s not any better than other Star Trek books because of the additional writers. Much the opposite, its seems as though all four writers decided to half-ass it thinking the others will pick up the slack. While reading the book I had a feeling that the writers were more focused on actually accomplishing the task of writing a collaborative book than they were on writing a book that is good.
It's too bad you weren't as hilariously
entertaining as The Courtship of Princess Leia.
Runner-up: Star Wars: Choices of One
Timothy Zahn is regularly lauded as being the writer of one of the best Expanded Universe trilogies. His other Star Wars novels are regularly included in list of the best Star Wars books. When I decided to explore the Expanded Universe I immediately chose on of Zahn’s book. At the time it was the most recent one, Star Wars: Choices of One. The main reason I didn’t like Choices of One is that I felt lost. There were very many reference points to the Star Wars I know. Because Star Wars is such a huge franchise I image this is an issue that fans who have not devoured everything Star Wars encounter with some of the novels. Another problem that I had was that Zahn used characters unique to the EU, many of them he created. I think that only fans of the Expanded Universe or of Zahn’s previous Star Wars books would appreciate and like Choices of One. It might sound blasphemous to some, but I don’t give a crap about Mara Jade.

Worst Fantasy Novels
Streams of Silver
I had read a couple books by R. A. Salvatore in my teens and I had enjoyed them. Part of my Blog Fantastic project was to discover new writers in series in the fantasy genre while also taking the time to revisit series and writers I was already familiar with. Some of those stories have held up. I still enjoy a Dragonlance story even though I now realise it’s not the best fantasy series in ever created which my 12 year old self used to think. I wanted to give Salvatore another chance and while he was disappointing with The Crystal Shard, the first volume of his Icewind Dale trilogy, the second volume, Streams of Silver is just awful. His characters are invincible and Salvatore is using and more is more approach with the monsters he puts in his heroes’ way. More importantly, Salvatore borrows quite heavily from Tolkien and while he doesn’t try to imitate the giant of fantasy fiction, he doesn’t do him justice either. At its best Streams of Silver reads like good fan fiction and it’s convinced me not to continue the Icewind Dale trilogy or any books with Drizzt Do’Urden who I find insufferable.  

Runner-up: The Eye of the World
I really liked Robert Jordan’s prequel to his acclaimed fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time. It was the second time I read New Spring and I enjoyed it just as much as an adult as I did in my teens. The desire to read the rest of The Wheel of Time is one of the reason I started The Blog Fantastic. Years ago I had started The Eye of the World but for reasons I don’t recall clearly, I abandoned it. Needless to say I gave it another shot this year and I was very disappointed. How is it that the first volume of an epic fantasy series didn’t live up to my expectations after having only read the prequel? I have no clue. If there’s one book I read in 2013 that I’m frustrated about its The Eye of the World. I wanted to love it so badly but I didn’t. I’m still not sure why. Part of me thinks it’s because it’s bloated and that doesn’t bode well when it’s the first volume of the series. Another part of me thinks the main character is far to whinny and I really think we didn’t enough Moira. Despite my problems with the first book, I want to keep on reading. If the first book was any indication, there will be plenty for me to enjoy about this series to balance out for all of the things I’ll dislike. One of my goals for 2014 is to read The Great Hunt. He’s hoping I love it.  

It's shorter than The Eye of the World  but is it better? 

Worst Collection of Comics originally published before 2012/2013
Avengers: The Contest
This comic can be considered one of the first ever event comics. It’s been a while since I read I and to be quite honest I forgot about most of it. Lucky for me I remember just enough to know that the setup for the stories was bland and the only real enjoyment I got out of it was some old school comic book artistry. Unfortunately like some of its contemporaries, Avengers: The Contest isn’t a classic comic storyline filled with the best examples of superhero melodrama nor is it endearing. Ultimately, the background information that lead up to the creation of The Contest is just interesting enough to warrant its own reprint but it’s not good enough to find a home on your bookshelf.

Runner-up: X-men: Longshot
The first time I read X-men: Longshot was during my first year of discovering American comics. I specify American comics because I grew up reading Tintin, Spirou et Fantasio, Achile Talon and many other European comics. Before re-reading Longshot all I remembered was that it wasn’t much of an X-men comic and it’s not. What I hadn’t realized before is just how influential Longshot was for the 90s comics era. So much of Image’s identity as a comic publisher in the 90’s can be found in Longshot. The problem with that is Longshot is kind of a mess but it’s an original mess and a surprisingly influential one. I also enjoyed just how passionate Nocenti was in her introduction and in the supplementary material. I don’ agree with everything she says but her appreciation and thoughts on comics a good read.  

Worst Collection of Comics originally published during 2012/2013:
The little comic that could but didn't.
Mara had a promising setup but writer Brian Wood and artist Ming Doyle don’t follow through. Instead, the story changes directions halfway through and everything falls apart. I have no idea why Wood took the story in a superhero direction because the first half of the comic about a not-so-distant future dealing with power, media and fame seems better suited to his skill as a writer. There are interesting scenes to be found in Mara but it’s difficult to appreciate them when they’re surrounded by uninteresting art and a story that feels all too familiar. 

Runner-up: Avengers vs. X-men
Part of me isn’t surprised I didn’t like Avengers vs. X-men. After all, it’s an event comic and those are always hit or miss with the added frustrations of being terrible standalone stories and they’re often preceded by and end with a new (temporary) status quo for the fictional universe in which the story takes place. Based on those criteria, Avengers vs. X-men does not disappoint. There are two additional reasons why I didn’t like this particular comic. The first is the inconsistencies in the writing and the art. I appreciated the experiment of having some of Marvel’s top writers and artist working according to a rotating schedule but the shifts in tone, art styles and storytelling techniques was jarring and unpleasant to say the least. The second reason is that the story doesn’t try nor does it deliver anything new. The Phoenix entity shows up, possesses some characters and the heroes find a way to vanquish it by having a well-known character pay the price. It’s sad that such high demand was put on so small a story. Don’t even get me started on character development; clearly there wasn’t enough room for that in 12 issues of comics. Obviously that’s what tie-in issues are for.

Worst OGNs
The Originals by Dave Gibbons
This one needs some explanation. There weren’t many OGN’s that I’ve read this year and unless my memory serves me wrong, The Originals is the only one I read that was released prior to 2013. It’s by no means a spectacular comic but it isn’t bad either. It’s a well-executed middle-of-the-road story with stellar artist. Gibbons’ style is classy and I really enjoy it. The highpoint of this comic is the art and the reason I ranked it as the worst OGN of 2013 is because of the unimpressive story. I would still recommend this comic to any fans of good graphic storytelling and nice art.

When you name is Dave Gibbons you don't need to write the best comic. You just have to draw the hell out of it.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A Year in Review, Part Two – Best Comics and Novels of 2013

Since I did quite a bit of explanation in the first part of this three part end of year review, I’ll just get right on with the list. Keep in mind that when I say best I mean the best that I’ve read or the stuff I’ve enjoyed the most and, of course, the list is limited to what I read and not everything that was released in 2013. I like robot but I’m not a robot. It’s impossible to read everything! Let’s move on!

Best Science Fiction Novels
A Princess of Mars
Other blogs on the internet regularly influence what I read and watch. I usually allow myself to be convinced to read something I wouldn’t necessarily read without the input of outside sources. For several months in 2013, I faithfully read Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode’s Advanced Readings in Dungeons and Dragons series on In short, Callahan and Knode read all of the books that D&D creator Gary Gygax listed as having influences him when he created the now famous table-top game. I’m not at all familiar with D&D nor have I ever played but the numerous reviews of old science fiction and fantasy novels were a delight to read. They’ve convinced me to seek out the works of a few of these writers and the one that caught my attention more than most was Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars was awesome. People overuse words like awesome and epic but that’s exactly what this book was. There are so many fascinating ideas mix into the plot with very interesting characters, that alone would make it a good book. Burroughs goes beyond that by seamlessly combining science fiction and fantasy tropes (some of which he created) into an explosively good first entry in the Barsoom series that also satisfies as a standalone book. My only disappointment with Burroughs’s John Carter stories is that I haven’t had a chance to read the second book in the series. One last comment I’d like to make is that the Barsoom series has inspired a huge selection of excellent art and someone I purchased the book with the worst A Princes of Mars cover ever.

Runner up: Star Trek novels
The large majority of science fiction novels I read in 2013 were Star Trek novels. It’s important to point that out because I qualified most of those novels as being 3 out of 5 stars books but when I look back on them all, two clearly stand out. The first is from TOS, Star Trek: Planet of Judgement by Joe Haldeman. He managed to write a Star Trek story that actually had a sense of impending doom. He also managed to write a Star Trek story for adults, which means he didn’t shy away from things like abortions. It might not sound impressive by today’s standards, but for a book published in 1977, it must have had some impact on readers. The second book is a TNG story, Star Trek: Q-in-Law by Peter David. Q-in-Law is the funniest Star Trek novel that I’ve read so far. David takes advantage of two of TNG’s favourite recurring characters, Q and Lwaxana Troi, and sets up a plot that allows for maximum hilarity. It’s not all fun and games, the crew of the Enterprise have to deal with a difficult diplomatic situation and the combined might of Q and Lwaxana. David also mixes in a fair bit of musings on love just to keep things interesting.

Best Fantasy Novels
The Children of Húrin
The Children of Húrin is a standalone novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and it takes place during the First Age of Tolkien’s Legendarium. It tells the story of Túrin, son of Húrin, and his cursed existence. It’s a short novel by Tolkien’s standard and a shorter version of the story is told in The Silmarillion. The writing is much darker than other works by Tolkien. Thinking about it now while I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings it’s striking how morally grey the characters of The Children of Húrin are. Gone is the contrast between dark and light from The Lord of the Rings. I think it’s better than The Hobbit and serves as a great companion to The Lord of the Rings.

Runner-ups: A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan
I’ve been waiting to read something, anything, by Ursula K. Le Guin for a few years now and I got my chance back in 2012 when I stumbled upon a short story collection of hers. I enjoyed it so much I finally made room in my monthly book order for the first novel in the Earthsea series. It was marvellous. A Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I reviewed in my Blog Fantastic project and it was a great motivational factor in continuing with that project. I now have a new author and a new series that I can add to my list of what I consider great fantasy literature. The surprises of Earthsea didn’t end with the first novel. With the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin manages to retell the same story thematically as the first book but in a completely new way and using a radically different approach to the story and plot. The focus of Earthsea so far is the characters but the world which Le Guin creates is rich if not in history, then in texture. You can smell the salty air and feel the sun on your face. I am only missing one book from the rest of the series and as soon as I have it in my possession, I will continue to explore the wondrous archipelago of Earthsea.

Best non-Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels:
The Outfit by Richard Stark
I’ve read my fair share of Parker novels this year. I discovered the writing a Richard Stark through Darwyn Cooke’s comic book adaptations of Parker stories. Out of all of them, The Outfit is my favourite. Parker is incredibly tough as he undertakes a one man war against the entire Outfit of organized crime in the US. Stark’s no nonsense writing and quick pacing make for quick reads but the story has enough depth to satisfy. I’ve taken a break because I need to order myself more of the novels. With Darwyn Cooke’s latest adaptation recently released and over a dozen more novels by Stark I haven’t yet read, 2014 will also be another year of Parker stories for me.

Runner-up: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
With his second novel, Warren Ellis writes the kind of story he does best, police procedural. His idea of police procedurals tend to differ from the general public’s idea of such stories. Ellis has always shown an interest in his writer to contrast the best and worst that humanity has to offer. Perhaps it’s because of this contrast that he enjoys police procedurals. In Gun Machine, a NYPD detective follows a string of unsolved homicides and discovers them to be all connected. Such a summary doesn’t do the book justice as Ellis manages to incorporate dozens of very interesting ideas ranging from cutting edge science to history of New York City into a vast crime conspiracy. I found the chain of events to be too conincidental to my liking, but when a story is populated with such fascinating characters such as John Tallow, Bat and Scarly. I wouldn’t mind if Ellis was writing another novel featuring Tallow.

Runner-up: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Master and Commander was one of the more challenging reads I took on in the last year. The naval terminology alone proved difficult to learn and remember. Once I was able to overcome that, I was able to better appreciate the story. The adventure of Captain Aubrey’s first command of a ship and his skills at capturing prizes were highly entertaining and extremely accurate to the historical period depicted in the novel. I have Post Captain sitting on my bookshelves and I fear I’ve waited too long to read it. I’ve probably forgot most of the naval terminology O’Brian taught me in Master and Commander.

Best Collection of Comics originally published before 2013
Concrete volume 1: Depths
Paul Chadwick’s Concrete is the superhero comic that decided it didn’t want to be a superhero comic. I say this because Concrete’s origin is straight-up superhero. He’s abducted by aliens and his brain is transferred into a seven foot tall body of concrete. It’s entirely fantastic on the surface but Chadwick presents it with utter realism. The rest of the comic is also just that, realist. I wouldn’t say Concrete is a revisionist comic because it doesn’t deal with superhero tropes more than it has to. It takes a different approach in which on a revisionist superhero element is dropped at the center of what is otherwise a difficult to categorize comic. The art is spectacular. It’s crisp, like the story it’s realist in its approach and Chadwick’s contrasting of black and white is used masterfully.

Runner-up: Thor: The Mighty Avenger
Thor: The Mighty Avenger written by Roger Langridge and drawn by Christ Samnee began its original publication in the summer of 2010. Since then there have been quite a few positive reviews written about it and rightfully so. It’s refreshing that a comic featuring Thor, one of Marvel’s most popular superhero characters, could be so unconcerned about continuity. Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a retelling of Thor’s origin story with a focus on character. Jane Foster, a love interest for Thor, is an interesting character in her own right and her budding relationship with Thor is far more naturally occurring than it’s ever been portrayed before. This is the biggest “what if…” comic I’ve read in quite some time. I consider it a “what if…” story, because Langridge and Samnee weren’t given the opportunity to finish their run. It was cut short due to low sales and it’s a damn shame. It didn’t just feel different and fresh, it was different and fresh and an absolute joy to read.

Best Collection of Comics originally published in 2012/2013
Mouse Guard: The Black Axe
David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comic is a series of huge fantasy adventures starring tiny mice. I do not want to say too much about Mouse Guard: The Black Axe because I’ll be releasing a full review in a couple weeks, I have to say it wasn’t a very difficult decision to place this one at the top of the list for Best Collection of Comics. Petersen manages to write a prequel that also serves as a sequel. It advances the story and gives the reader further insight of elements of the series which were presenting in earlier volumes. Somehow, Petersen’s art continues to improve. It’s just not fair. How can he possible draw mice with such gravitas? He continues to test my patience by releasing new Mouse Guard stories at a slow pace but he doesn’t disappoint because each new story is a worthy addition to the saga.

Runner-up: Prophet volume 2: Brothers
Brandon Graham and a team of artist have been telling what is possible the best science fiction comic story available is possibly today. What makes it even more surprising is that you can tell Graham is still putting the pieces in place for the big finish that is yet to come. Prophet is told through a much greater use of visual storytelling than most comics today. You have to pay attention to the details of the worlds that are being explored. There is a sense that the comic is going somewhere but it’s not obvious where that final destination will be. One thing is for certain, Graham and his colleagues are making sure the ride there is as fascinating and weird as possible.

Runner-up: Crater XV
There are two things that made Crater XV a good comic. The first is the energetic and improvisational tone of the story, the art and the humour. The second is the depth of character writer/artist Kevin Cannon manages to sneak in amidst the chaotic activity of the rest of the story. Crater XV feels and reads like a comic that was written by trying to mix together as many different story ideas, genres and fun characters together and hoping for the best but it’s more than that. There is an underlying structure to the whole thing that clearly demonstrates Cannon knows what he’s doing it. How he can juggle the feeling of spontaneity with a well-crafted story is beyond me, but it’s a great comic that can be enjoyed in so many different ways.

Best Original Graphic Novels (OGN):
Nemo: Heart of Ice
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is Alan Moore’s best series from the later part of his career. The same can be said of Kevin O’Neil’s career. With Nemo: Heart of Ice, Moore and O’Neil shift the focus of their series from Mina Murray and her team literature heroes to Janni Dakkar, the daughter of Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Moore uses stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Vernes and H. P. Lovecraft as the basis for Heart of Ice in which he tells a story of Janni trying to step out of under her father’s shadow and create her own identity as Captain Nemo. It was a more personal story set in the world of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the execution, both the writer and the art, where spectacular. Top Shelf’s announcement of two more Janni graphic novels is great new, especially since one will be published in 2014.

Runner-up: Battling Boy
Any year in which a new comic by Paul Pope is released is a good year. I wasn’t the only one who had high expectations for Pope’s new comic but we needed had worried because Battling Boy delivers. It’s an excellent pseudo-superhero/modern myth story about a boy and his journey to manhood. Pope masterfully combines the allure of fun and action with the lasting depths of a more serious work. The best thing about Battling Boy: there will be more. Pope is hard at work on the second half of the story and once again, comic lovers are eagerly awaiting its release.

Runner-up: Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills
I picked up the first Johnny Hiro comic more or less on a whim. I had read something about in on Comics Should Be Good a few years ago and it sparked something in my head when I saw it in the store. I recalled something about a guy running around on rooftops in his bunny slippers, chasing after a Godzilla rip-off that kidnapped his girlfriend. It sounded goofy but enjoyable and Johnny Hiro sure is that, but it’s also something more. I didn’t expect to see a second volume so soon after having read the first volume but Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hiro has already had two separate publications. To my delight Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills surpasses the first volume in both character development and story though, sadly, not in humour. Fred Chao’s wonderful series breathes fresh air to the comics world. It’s original despite borrowing certain elements from pop culture. Chao crafts a story that is personal but relatable and the result is a comic that truly feels important, particularly to young adults in their twenties.

Best Manga:                       
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
I’m a very big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies so when I found out that VIZ Media was releasing a two volume hardcover box set of the entire Nausicaa manga, I had to get it. I’ve always known that the movie of the same name only told part of the story. I have no idea that it only told about 150 to 200 pages of the 1000+ magnum opus that is the manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The scope of the story is huge. The history, the number of characters, the multitude of plot threads running through the book and the world building are all more impressive that the other. I took my team reading it because there were so many stories to immerse myself into and I wanted to savour it. A few months ago I wanted to write a review of it but I don’t think a conventional review would be good enough. I plan on writing about Nausicaa in the future, I’m just not entirely sure when. One thing is for certain, I’ll be reading this manga ago several times because there is just so much being offered on every page, I can’t picture this story ever getting old. The only downside of having read the manga is that the movie seems underwhelming. It’s very well executed but in comparison to the story being told in the manga, it doesn’t feel impressive anymore.

Runner-up: Dr. Slump volumes 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16
I love Dr. Slump and I’ve read 11 volumes of it this past year. For those of you at home who have no clue of the gut-bustin’ world contained in each and every page of Akira Toriyama’s first manga series, that’s 11 volumes of roaring laughter, tear jerking jokes and insanity. In an attempt to put Dr. Slump into perspective, it’s the funniest manga or comic I’ve ever read. Toriyama is nothing less but a genius. The humour takes on many different shapes, from run-on gags about poop on sticks, to little girl robots who need to wear glasses, from jokes taken from Japanese culture, laughing at perverted men, situational comedy, meta-fictional comedy, breaking the fourth wall, everything is used and despite the numerous mentions of having story ideas rejected by his editor, it’s hard to believe that ever really happened because I can’t think of a Dr. Slump story I haven’t enjoyed. For those of your who are only familiar with Toriyama’s action series, Dragon Ball, the funniest moments in Dragon Ball don’t measure up to the jokes found on nearly every page of Dr. Slump. Do yourself a favour; pick up a volume of Dr. Slump, any volume. It’s one of the best ways to spend ten dollars.