Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Graphic Lit -- 1/30

"Plastic Man: On the Lam"
by Kyle Baker
DC Comics, $14.95.

In revamping Jack Cole's classic rubbery superhero, Kyle Baker ("Why I Hate Saturn," "The Cowboy Wally Show") draws more inspiration from Bugs Bunny and the Cartoon Network than the original 1930s comic book. The result is the most goofy, freewheeling comic DC has published in a long time.

"On the Lam," which collects the first few issues of the series (where Plas is wanted for a crime he didn't commit), is a nonstop, overcaffeinated gagfest, where no joke is too silly or irreverent to be included. I'm not fond of Baker's reliance on computer fonts instead of hand lettering, and Plas' current universe seems a lot less populated than Cole's, but this collection is nevertheless an impressive achievement: a work that hearkens back to its creator without becoming a pale imitation.

"Attitude Featuring: Andy Singer"
128 pages, $10.95

The "Attitude" series, which has produced compilations of alternative and small press strip and editorial cartoonists, now realigns itself toward slim, square books that focus on a single artist.

The first collection features Andy Singer, whose blocky single-panel cartoons deal with corporate malfeasance, environmentalism and modern technology. It's an engaging and witty collection. Singer is snarky enough that you wouldn't confuse his strip with "Ziggy." Yet he's mild enough that you can hang his cartoons in your cubicle without fear of reprisal.

"Krachmacher Number One"
by Jim Campbell
48 pages, $6.50

This Xeric Grant-winning cartoonist possesses an extremely likable, rubbery art style and oddball sense of humor that make you want to like his work. Unfortunately, the main story in this collection, "On the Shore," is written in such a deliberately awkward and obtuse fashion that one's enjoyment factor is whittled away significantly. Hopefully, his future work will be more engaging.

"Swan Vol. 1"
by Ariyoshi Kyoko
CMX Manga, 200 pages, $9.95

Young Masumi dreams of becoming a ballerina in the worst way. It seems like her wishes will come true when she is invited to enter a nationwide dance competition -- one which will lead to the formation of Japan's first ballet company. She quickly discovers, however, that she's the weakest student in the group, due to a lack of proper training. Can she pull herself up by her bootstraps enough to become a professional? The answer to that question should be fairly obvious, but "Swan" nevertheless manages to be an entertaining saga that fans of dance will enjoy.

"Dolls Vol. 1"
by Yumiko Kawahara
Viz, 200 pages, $9.99

Anyone who gets creeped out by porcelain dolls should probably avoid this collection of short stories, most of which focus on "plant dolls" -- lifelike dolls that eat, sleep, stare and incite obsessive behavior in their owners. The stories range from the disturbing to the highly comical, and Kawahara does a nice job hopping from tone to tone without awkward or jarring shifts. All in all, it's a nice little package for tween girls that should charm its intended audience.

"Pulpatoon Pilgrimage"
by Joel Priddy
AdHouse Books, 160 pages,$12.95

A robot, minotaur and plant-man are criss-crossing the countryside on an expedition. We don't know where they're heading and never really find out. The characters seem mysterious, though oblique flashbacks hint at pasts filled with longing and sorrow. Priddy's book, with its off-panel references, fantasy milieu, shifts in timeline and formal experimentation risks falling into preciousness and pretension but never does. Instead it strides confidently despite its wandering tone. Suffice it to say that "Pulpatoon" is a lovely, impressive book and Priddy is a cartoonist to watch.

Copyright 2005, The Patriot-News

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Some things I've been doing

So I finally got an Xbox 360 from Microsoft. I'd been waiting for weeks for them to send one for me for review, my hopes growing dimmer each day. It's only a loaner copy, but still, it's nice to have one in my sweaty hands, if only for a few weeks.

Only problem? They didn't send any games.

Apparently the pr firm handling the 360 ran out of games to send and is waiting for Microsoft to send more 1st party titles. I don't know when that will be, all they told me was "soon." In the meantime I can contact Activision and some other 3rd party folks, but damn, I really wanted to check out Kameo.

I've also been playing a bit of Mario Kart DS. Very nice game, especially once you take it online. I had a bit of trouble trying to get it to connect to my home network (I need to figure out what my WEP password is or some such nonsense) but I was able to get online via the local McDonalds with no problems. There's something a bit odd about wolfing down a Quarter Pounder racing against folks from around the globe in a tricked out virtual toadstool.

Needless to say, I lost just about every race. It's true, I suck.

A couple of folks have complained about people signing off when it's obvious they're going to lose and how there's no real text messaging option. I dunno, I kind of like the fact that I don't have to listen to or read smack from "flyguy97" because he hit me with a turtle shell. And as far as people logging out early goes, I confess, I'm guilty, but it was time for me to get back to work. No harm was meant.

Let's see, what else? Apparently the latest update (version 2.6) for the PSP is available for downloading. It allegedly features the ability to listen to podcasts, download video directly to your memory stick (heh, stick) and adds the Chinese language. Still no good game for it though. Except for Lumines I mean.

I realize the past few weeks this blog has been more "pixels and pixels" than "panels and pixels." Suffice it to say I haven't had a chance to do many comic reviews due to space and time, but I am starting to get caught up and hope to run more reviews this Sunday. In the meantime, I'll remedy the deficiency by posting some older reviews tomorrow and hopefully follow up with some thoughts on one of my new favorite series, Godland.


Monday, November 28, 2005


Hope everyone had a nice holiday. Here's this week's game review:

Square Enix, for PlayStation 2
rat­ed T for Teen (alcohol reference, fantasy violence, simulated gam­bling, mild language, suggestive themes)

Nintendo, for GameCube
rated T, (fantasy violence)

Atlus, for the PlayStation 2
rated M for Mature

Square Enix, for PlayStation 2
rat­ed E10+ for ages 10 and up (mild fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)

Judging by the length of most video games these days, I’d say developers think that I have nothing but free time on my hands.

Take your average role-playing game. While your average game might take you eight to 10 hours or so to complete, your average RPG will take no less than 40 hours to finish. And that’s assuming you don’t go after every hidden minigame and special item buried somewhere in the computer code.

Few people have that sort of time. Nevertheless, let’s move along and look at some of the RPGs that have come out in recent months.

Standing at the top of the heap is "Dragon Quest VIII," the latest sequel in a series (actually one of the very first console role-playing games ever) that has garnered juggernaut-like acclaim in Japan but only minimal attention in the United States.

Unlike some new RPGs that try to tweak or subvert the traditional turn-based formula, "Dragon Quest VIII" is old-school and proud of it. The plot is simple, with a motley band of warriors going after a nefarious sorcerer/jester bent on world domination. None of your fancy-pants moral ambiguity or haughty sermonizing here.

That traditionalist attitude extends to the gameplay, which involves the usual formula of leveling up characters through battles with random enemies and uncovering new spells, abilities and weapons along the way. It’s a format that will be comfortably familiar with anyone who’s played a Japanese RPG.

What keeps the game from suffering from a case of "been there done that" are its high production values and delightful sense of humor. The monsters are so goofy and unpredictable that random battles rarely get tiresome or routine. What’s more, the colorful cartoonish graphics (with designs by "Dragon Ball Z" artist Akira Toriyama) and sumptuous sound track ensure the game feels epic instead of routine.

I also wouldn’t mind spending more time with "Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance." The "Fire Emblem" franchise has traditionally stayed on the Game Boy Advance’s small screen. "Radiance" marks its first appearance on Nintendo’s GameCube.

Unlike "Dragon Quest VIII," "Fire Emblem" is a turn-based strategy game, which means you send your troops up against other enemy armies on a gridlike battlefield.

Each member of your team has his own strengths and weaknesses, meaning success requires more than just attacking willy-nilly. Archers, for example, are great for long-range attacks, while fighters on horseback are able to hit and run.

The plot and characters in "Radiance" aren’t particularly engrossing, but the combat is, making the game a welcome addition to the dearth of role-playing games available for the GameCube.

"Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2" is, as its long name suggests, another installment of a franchise popular in Japan. The series is different from its RPG brethren, however, in its decidedly adult themes and more disturbing look and feel.

The problem here is that this title is a direct sequel to last year’s "Digital Devil" game. So if you didn’t play the first game you might be at sea, at least plotwise.

While the gameplay is turn-based and will be familiar to those who played, say, "Dragon Quest VIII," the story plunks you down right in the middle with little exposition or explanation. It’s not too hard to figure out what’s going on (you lead a band of fighters who can turn into demons in a post-apocalyptic world) or how to play, but the net effect is like starting a lengthy novel on the 20th chapter instead of the first.

It’s a shame, because "Digital Devil" is a smart, well-made game that demands strategy and a certain amount of thoughtfulness on the player’s part. My recommendation, though, would be to try and scrounge around for the first game before getting involved with this one.

While most console RPGs hone a tried and true path, diverging from the norm doesn’t necessarily mean success. Witness "Romancing Saga," a frustrating, confusing "epic" from the same folks who brought you "Dragon Quest VIII."

In "Romancing Saga," you play one of eight different characters fighting against a malevolent evil that threatens the world’s safety. The story differs depending upon who you play.

The problem is the characters aren’t interesting. What’s more, the combat is dull, the menus are text-heavy and confusing to maneuver through, and the missions are rote and rarely add anything to the main storyline.

If your free time is cramped, "Romancing Saga" is an affront to your limited schedule. It’s better to spend those hours on something like "Dragon Quest VIII." Just try not to think about how long it’s going to take you to get to the end.

Copyright 2005, The Patriot-News


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Linkblog time!

I've been meaning to post a link to this for a few days now, but the Thanksgiving holidays kinda swept me away from my computer. Anyway, Mark Seigel, editor of the sure to be ballyhooed First Second line, posted on the FS blog recently about the Visual Storytelling conference, where cartoonists and video game developers met to chew the fat. He comes away with some interesting insights into the differences/similarities between the two industries, as well as some great quotes.

On another, completely unrelated note, if you can track down last week's issue of the New Yorker, there's a plethora of swell cartoons in there, including a three-page strip by Aline and Robert Crumb on Aline's recent plastic surgery. Plus, there's a spread of gags by Lee Lorenz and a really good 2-page Roz Chast cartoon. Well worth perusing if you get the chance.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Atlus, for Nintendo DS

rated T for Teen (blood, mild language, mild violence, partial nudity)

for Nintendo DS
rated T (blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

for Nintendo DS, rated T (mild violence)

Konami, for Nintendo DS
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up. (mild vio­lence)

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, Nintendo’s dual screen handheld is racking up quite a number of interesting and entertaining games after a quiet initial release.

We’ve already seen compelling titles like “Nintendogs” and “Meteos” so far this year. Now that the holiday season is ramping up, several more intriguing games have appeared, suggesting that the DS’ unique abilities have encouraged developers to think beyond the pale.

Consider, for instance, “Trauma Center: Under the Knife.” This challenging title lets you play doctor, with your DS stylus serving as scalpel, forceps, syringe and just about any other medical implement you can think of.

The game follows a basic formula: Find out what’s wrong with the patient and fix it before the clock runs out or the patient’s stats drop.

That’s trickier than it sounds, as you’ll have to do a lot of multitasking in order to keep things from ending up like your average episode of “ER.” Thankfully, the nurses will be on hand frequently to give suggestions or outright information on how to get the job done.

The game doesn’t mirror medical science too closely — at one point you develop the ability to slow down time by drawing a star across the bottom screen — but it is one of the best utilizations of the DS’ touch-screen capabilities I’ve seen, not to mention an addictive game in its own right.

From the operating table we move to the courtroom with “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.” In this mystery/adventure game, you play an up-and-coming defense attorney, assigned to a number of seemingly hopeless cases.

Getting a “not guilty” verdict entails digging up evidence, talking to witnesses and then finding contradictions in their testimony. Part of the game’s fun is the ability to yell “Objection” into the DS’ microphone (though you might not want to do that while on the bus).

“Wright” resembles an actual courtroom case in the same way that, say, an Oliver Stone movie resembles the truth. And the game ultimately doesn’t do as much with the touch screen as “Trauma Center” does. You could easily play this on the Game Boy Advance without much alteration in the basic layout.

But while “Phoenix Wright” may not offer a state-of-the-art experience, it’s winning sense of humor, brainy puzzles and overall charm make this a perfect addition to anyone’s handheld library.

“Trace Memory” is a similarly entertaining adventure game, though on a much smaller scale. The plot involves a young girl named Ashley Robbins. After receiving a cryptic message from her father, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler, she heads off to a small, mysterious and apparently uninhabited island.

Unable to locate her father or anyone else, Ashley explores the island and uncovers some of the mysteries surrounding it and her relationship with her dad.

The game follows a structure that will be familiar to anyone who’s played “Myst” or a similar story-based game where solving puzzles and discovering clues is the key to success.

The problem with “Trace” isn’t the game play or the story, both of which are good. The problem is that “Trace” is an incredibly easy game to get through. Most of the puzzles have blindingly obvious solutions, and many gamers will be able to complete the thing within a day or two.
With that in mind, “Trace Memory” might be ideal for the age 10-18 crowd, though the murder mystery surrounding the basic plot would ward off anyone younger.

Finally, we come to “Lost In Blue,” a title that alternates between intriguing and maddening depending upon how far you are into the game.

An interactive “Robinson Crusoe,” “Lost in Blue” washes you up on a desert island, your only companion a young woman who can do little to help you because her glasses are broken and she can’t see without them.

It’s up to you, therefore, to forage for food, make tools, explore the island and numerous other tasks to keep you and your friend alive.

The developers have some great ideas to mix things up (you blow directly into the DS’ microphone in order to start a fire for example). The problem is that you spend so much time looking for food and water that you never get to do anything else. My character was constantly reminding me of how hungry and thirsty he and his companion were, despite my best efforts to stuff all manner of food down their gullets.

In the end, their constant whining got on my nerves and I turned my DS off in disgust. Which just goes to show that innovative game play isn’t enough if you’re going to frustrate the gamer at every turn. “Phoenix Wright” might not have you scraping the touch screen for clam shells, but it’s a lot more entertaining.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Xbox 360 preview

I did a preview story on the Xbox 360 for the Patriot-News, which ran yesterday and can be now seen below. My thanks to everyone who took time out to talk to me and give me some great quotes.

Wednesday was not a good day for Todd Lippi, owner of the Game Traders Club video-game store in Annville.

Lippi had taken 20 pre-orders from customers for Microsoft's new Xbox 360 gaming console. Microsoft had assured him that it would send him at least that many systems for tomorrow's launch.

But on Wednesday, Microsoft called to say that Lippi's store would get only 10 consoles, meaning that he had to call 10 customers and tell them he wouldn't be able to fill their orders tomorrow.

"I'm pretty peeved," Lippi said.

Game Traders isn't the only store faced with shortages. Chain retailers such as EB Games and Target are rumored to be getting only 10 to 50 systems per store, according to the popular video-game news blog Kotaku. On eBay, copies of the console are being sold for as much as $800.

The Xbox 360 is Microsoft's newest video-game console. Designed to be a state-of-the-art multimedia system, the 360 will connect to a computer and iPod, display photos from a digital camera, download new games from the Internet and more.

The release of the console is the opening salvo in the latest video-game wars, as Sony and Nintendo are expected to release their new consoles next year.

To some extent, potential shortages can be blamed on stores taking too many orders and the exuberance that coincides with any console launch. But Kotaku editor-in-chief Brian Crecente wonders if the shortage isn't a strategic ploy on Microsoft's part.

"My inkling is that Microsoft has tried to set up shortages,"Crecente said. "They're trying to get the best of both worlds. They want to sell out so as to have stories on the TV stations and in newspapers, but they have to have stock in time for Christmas."

Crecente noted that Microsoft needs to make the most of holiday sales and its lead time against competitors.

"There will be some summer sales, but the bulk will be around the holiday season," Crecente said. "There's no way to have a shortage around Christmas and meet that."

So, while you might not be able to pick up a console tomorrow, Crecente said, you might be able to get one in a few weeks when new shipments arrive.

Chris Morris, who covers the video-game industry for CNN/Money, doesn't buy into the conspiracy theory. But he concedes that attempting to get a 360 before the holidays might be a lost cause.

"There's no guarantee you'll be able to get one," he said. "You have to be lucky, stand in line and cross your fingers."

A Microsoft representative said a news release addressing complaints about console shortages will be issued soon. The company has said that it expects to sell up to 3 million consoles in the first 90 days after tomorrow's launch.

Many stores, including Game Traders, will open at midnight tonight to sell to a lucky few who ordered early. Other retailers, such as Circuit City, will sell consoles tomorrow on a first-come, first-serve basis.

People picking up 360s this week likely are hardcore gaming enthusiasts, willing to plunk down a considerable amount of change in order to be one of the first on their block to own a cutting-edge piece of hardware.

Dave Logan, 23, of Annville, fits that category. A part-time employee at Game Traders, he's eager for the arrival of the 360. Logan pointed to its sleek design, wireless controllers and improved graphics. "It's going to be a fantastic system," he said.

The real question seems to be: Will the 360 maintain its success next year after all the hardcore gamers have bought their boxes?

The answer isn't certain. The 360 comes with a high price tag of $399 (there is a $299 version, but it lacks a hard drive). What's more, many media pundits have noted that there isn't a "must-have" game for the system yet.

That likely will change in coming months, said GameSpot senior editor Ricardo Torres.

Microsoft "has a good chance to give Sony a run for its money," he said. "They have all the tools. What they choose to do with them and how they use them is up to them."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Friday, November 18, 2005

Graphic Lit -- 11/6 and 11/13

And with this, I think I'm finally caught up. These reviews originally ran in the Patriot-News on the dates listed above. Enjoy.

"Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace: 1951-1952"
Fantagraphics Books
624 pages, $24.95.

"Peanuts" and "Krazy Kat" may seem like obvious choices for completist compilations, but "Dennis the Menace?" Fantagraphics does a solid job of convincing readers of the strip's importance with this first volume of a projected multibook series. Far from the misunderstood angel of the later gag cartoons (and TV show), the Dennis portrayed here is a real terror, fully living up to his nickname and resulting in some side-splittingly funny gags that hold up remarkably well after 50 years.

The real surprise of this book is what a supreme draftsman Ketchum was. His cartoons vibrate with life; his line expertly controlled yet maniacally detailed. To read this book is to discover a treasure you never knew existed.

"Paul Moves Out"
by Michel Rabagliati
Drawn and Quarterly
120pages, $19.95.

Rabagliati's thinly-veiled autobiography is filled with so many remembrances and reminiscences that at times the book is in danger of tipping over into "a bunch of stuff that happened to me" territory.

That it doesn't is testament to the author's considerable skill as a storyteller. In this third volume of Paul's onslaught into adulthood, the title character finds himself attending art school, finding true love and preparing for a life of work and domesticity. I really like the way Rabagliati uses conversation to reveal emotional connections between the characters, to say nothing of his lovely art. This book is a real gem.

"The Rabbi's Cat"
by Joann Sfar
142 pages,$21.95.

A cat living in 1930s Algeria eats a parrot and immediately gains the ability to talk. The first thing he requests, after lying about eating the parrot, is a bar mitzvah.

So begins Sfar's brilliant, episodic examination of spirituality, philosophy and family as seen from the perspective of a beloved pet. The book changes focus from the cat to his owner, a widowed rabbi, and the rabbi's daughter about halfway through, but remarkably enough, the book does not lose any of its charm or warmth despite the shift.

There are few cartoonists working today willing to make comics about such heady subjects as the nature of God, the tenuous relationship between children and parents, and various issues of ethnicity and identity. Even fewer do so with such good humor and obvious joy. We are lucky to have a book like this out there.

"Y: The Last Man -- Ring of Truth"
by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerraand Jose Marzan Jr.
Vertigo Comics
192 pages, $14.99.

The plot is the kind of "high concept" story that Hollywood adores. A plague rips through Earth, instantly killing every male mammal on the planet except for one twentysomething slacker and his pet monkey. What sounds like the start of a Z-grade soft-core flick actually becomes a thoughtful examination of gender politics and human relations. Vaughan wisely takes the concept seriously, and Guerra's straightforward, realistic art helps keep the book grounded.

"Ring of Truth" is the fifth volume in the ongoing series, and finds our hero and his friends in San Francisco trying to find a cure for the plague while being assailed by various shadowy figures. Newcomers will likely want to start with the first volume, but wherever you enter into the story, "Y" proves to be surprisingly gripping.

"The Monkey King Vol. 1"
by Katsuya Terada
Dark Horse Comics,

Imagine Rob Zombie directing your favorite Bible story and you have a slight idea of what this ongoing series, a blood and sex-soaked adaptation of a classic Buddhist folk tale, is like. The plot involves the Monkey King heading east to obtain the original Buddhist texts and the demons he fights along the way, but you'd never really know that from reading this first volume, which explains the copious notes in the back of the book.

A book like this is entirely reliant upon familiarity with the tale being told, or, in this case, warped, and I imagine many Westerners will simply scratch their heads upon first read. Terada's art is sumptuous, however, if disturbing at times, and some manga fans will no doubt be happy to enjoy the book on that simple level alone.

"Seimaden Vol. 1"
by Higuri You
176 pages, $9.99.

An amnesiac young woman is torn between a noble, heroic warrior and a seductive, evil demon in this fantasy manga for young girls. No points for guessing which guy turns out to be the romantic, tragic lead and which turns out to be a dull clod. This is the perfect comic for girls who like to swoon over Professor Snape from the "Harry Potter" books.

"AEIOU or Any Easy Intimacy"
by Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf
224 pages, $12.

This is the third volume in Brown's "girlfriend trilogy," and easily the weakest of the three. That's not to say that it's bad, it just doesn't reach the same heights as "Clumsy" or "Unlikely." It mines the same territory, though, as Brown presents some rather cringe-worthy vignettes from a dysfunctional love affair. The fade-in, fade-out structure allows for Brown to plumb certain moments for greater emotional depth, but at the same time it hampers the narrative structure of the story. We're left not quite sure what exact footing Brown and his significant other are on. Fans of Brown's previous books will enjoy this book; it just might be time for him to tackle other subject matters.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Egad! Another comics-games confluence!

The Comics newsletter from Publisher's Weekly (have you subscribed yet?) has an article on the video games/techno-geek channel G4 and their apparent interest in comics, mainly on their somewhat popular Attack of the Show program.

My early disdain for all things G4 has kept me from catching any episodes of AotS, but I shall try to set some time aside now, as my curiosity has officially been peeked. Anyone a fan of this show or can comment on their comics coverage?

Also, it seems no one's really mentioned it yet, but there's a really nice interview with Seth over at the Onion's A.V. Club.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

VG REVIEW: Marvel Nemesis and X-Men Legends 2

Electronic Arts
for the PS2, Xbox and GameCube
Rated T for Teen

for the PS2, Xbox and GameCube
Rated T for Teen

You'd think that superheroes and video games would be a match made in heaven. Particularly the Marvel franchise of heroes, with their blend of dynamic action and soap opera melodrama.

But, of course, such is not the case. For every decent game involving Spider-Man or the X-Men, there's a landfill full of ill-conceived games taking up space in a scrap yard somewhere.

Throw onto the pile "Marvel Nemesis," a new fighting game from the folks at Electronic Arts. Nemesis allegedly had an untouchable pedigree, with a story by noted comic book scribe Mark Millar, character designs by artist Jae Lee and overseen by one of EA's finest studios. With such high expectations, perhaps it's only natural that the game would turn out so poorly.

Problems are apparent right at the outset. Most fighting games map out a variety of attacks on the controller's buttons, but "Nemesis"only gives you one button for attacking, relegating the other buttons for jumping, throwing and so on.

The result is that every single character in the game plays exactly the same. Regardless of whether you're playing as Wolverine, Daredevil, Iron Man or The Thing, you simply mash the attack button while occasionally blocking or jumping out of the way. You can pickup a variety of items lying around to throw at your opponent, but that takes time that your opponent will use to get the drop on you.

In order to unlock more than the paltry number of characters given at the outset, you have to complete the lackluster story mode. This is a rather shallow beat-em-up that has you plowing through a seemingly endless array of identical alien invaders, along with some rather odd villains created especially for this game.

Sadly, all the story mode does is reveal how superficial and repetitive "Nemesis" really is. And the inability to lock on an enemy or see where a particular foe is until it's too late results in a good deal of frustration.

Much more successful is "X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse," the sequel to last year's popular role-playing game involving everyone's favorite band of mutants.

Activision and developer Raven wisely decided not to alter the basic formula too much for this outing. The most notable addition is the ability to play as bad guys like Magneto in addition to heroes like Storm and Cyclops.

It seems that the X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants have a common enemy in the ruthless Apocalypse, who seeks to make the planet over in his image. In order to defeat him, they must join forces. Thus, the added roster.

The game is broken down into a series of missions, with you controlling a team of four heroes. You can easily switch between characters on the fly by pressing the D-Pad up, down, left or right.

Each character has a variety of powers at their disposal, and you garner new ones as you level up. And the ability to have three of your friends join in for some multiplayer action only adds to the fun.

My only quibbles are that the interface has too many menus and way too much text, making it hard to navigate around. The game also tends to favor the heavy hitters over the more subtle, less muscle-bound characters. You may love Nightcrawler or Scarlet Witch, but chances are you'll get a lot more satisfaction out of playing Juggernaut and Magneto.

"Legends II" doesn't do anything it's predecessor didn't achieve, but it's just as much fun as the first game. Considering the abundance of games like "Nemesis," we should be thankful for that simple accomplishment.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

VG REVIEW: Shadow of the Colossus

Do you like the reviews kids? That's good, because I've got the reviews:

"Shadow of the Colossus"
for the PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (blood, fantasy violence), $39.99

In a sparse but green land surrounded by stone ruins and populated by little more than the occasional lizard or bird, a young warrior makes his way on horseback toward an enormous temple.

Once inside he deposits his burden, a young woman, presumably dead or unconscious, on a stone altar.

A mysterious voice comes from above. What does the warrior want? To bring the young lady back to life, he replies.

To do that, the voice says, he must defeat 16 colossi, enormous creatures the size of mountains. Only then will he get what he seeks, though it might come with an unexpected price.

I’m supplying this long-winded introduction not just for exposition’s sake, but to try to clumsily describe the unique sense of time and place that Sony’s new game, "Shadow of the Colossus" superbly evokes. While most games seem content to get your blood pumping, "Colossus" is striving for something more.

This is no real surprise when you realize that the creators behind "Colossus" are the same development team responsible for "Ico," one of the finest games ever made for the PlayStation 2, if not one of the finest games ever, period.

"Colossus" seems to take place in the same fairy tale universe as "Ico." But, while the latter game confined players to battling small, shadowy enemies in tight spaces, here you are crossing vast plains to go up against monsters the size of skyscrapers.

This is essentially a video game pared down to 16 boss battles. There are no minor enemies to defeat, no power ups or other familiar tropes. It’s just ride, battle, defeat. It might sound a trifle monotonous, but "Colossus" is all about the overall emotional experience, not about how many buttons you have to push.

Defeating these gigantic beasts usually involves climbing up and on them, and then stabbing them repeatedly in a special, highlighted area, such as the back of the head or on a wing or shoulder blade.

The trick comes in figuring out how to get on. For one flying beast, that involved shooting arrows to get its attention and then jumping on as he dived down to attack me. For another creature I had to find a way to destroy the armor bracelet around its wrist so I could climb its massive sword and cling to the fur around its arm.

Getting on and staying on are two different things however, as the creatures will frequently try to throw you off whenever possible. Pressing and holding the R1 trigger will allow you to get a grip, but your strength will hold only for so long, meaning you might quickly find yourself falling down if you don’t find a place to relax your grip every once in a while.

Any time not spent battling the various colossi is time spent trying to find them. By following the glint of sunlight off your magic sword you can find the direction each beast is in. But while getting to each beast takes time, it’s never boring, as it gives you time to drink in the beautiful scenery and astounding graphics. Very few games would be brave enough to make you spend 10 minutes or more just riding across the countryside, but "Colossus" manages to pull it off.

Very few games would also seek to create such a deliberate feeling of melancholy. Sadness pervades the game, from the blue-green-brown color palette to the comatose princess to the defeat of each colossus.

You would think that wouldn’t be so; that overcoming each colossus would be an exhilarating experience. And it is, to a point.

When you’re in the midst of battle, holding on for dear life and the (very lovely) soundtrack is blaring, it’s an unparalleled thrill ride. But each victory has an undertone of pity; a mournful quality not just brought about by the change in music.

Think about it for a moment. Your motivation for defeating these beasts is, to a large extent, extremely selfish and more than a bit desperate. And even though these humongous monsters may be trying to squish you, there’s no question that you are the aggressor in these instances. The fact is, the death of each colossus feels like a loss, as though you were a big game hunter out to rid the world of blue whales.

Most video games wouldn’t try to evoke these sorts of thoughts and feelings. Most games wouldn’t have the chutzpah to reach higher and attempt to be more than mere product. That’s a shame for the industry overall, but good for us that there are games like "Colossus" that strive so high and succeed so admirably. A few moments with the game and you’ll come to the same conclusion I did: "Shadow of the Colossus" is one of the best games of the year.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Haspiel & Wood sign comics just for me

Coffee and comics: together at last

So the big RIOT signing in Camp Hill was yesterday and I dragged the whole family along just for fun. While there wasn't a line out the door, there were a few folks milling about in the store and owner Jason Richards said they'd had a pretty regular stream of people, including some who had seen the article in the paper. Hopefully people continued to show up after we left as well.

"This is my 'feign interest' face."

While my son dived into the candy bowl, my daughter read an Archie comic, and my wife wrangled the two of them, I chatted up Dean and Brian and got them to sign some books. I already had a copy of "the Quitter," but I picked up the new issue of the Escapist, which features a new story by Harvey and Dean.

Brian Wood in repose

I also picked up Brian's new books, "Local" and "DMZ," as well as the first "Couriers" collection. I'm not as familiar with Brian's work as I'd like to be, so I look forward to checking out these books this week.

I swear to God this photo was not staged. Well, maybe a little.

In short, Brian and Dean were very gracious and a good time was had by all, until we said farewell and bundled everyone back into the car. Along with the Archie comic and some lollipops, naturally.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Interview with Dean Haspiel

One of the comics shops in my immediate vicinity is Jason Richards' fine store, RIOT! As you may or may not know, Brian Wood and Dean Haspiel will be stopping by the store tomorrow afternoon from 2-5 p.m. to sign their books and shoot the breeze. I interviewed Dean for yesterday's edition of our paper, reprinted here for your reading pleasure below. Hope to see you at the signing!

Illustrated ‘Quitter’ details Pekar’s adolescent years

It pays to know the right people.

At least, that’s the message driven home after talking with comic artist Dean Haspiel.

The artist has worked on books such as “Batman Adventures” as well as more personal, autobiographical fare including “Opposable Thumbs.” Haspiel was illustrating several short stories for famed “American Splendor” author Harvey Pekar when he thought of his friend, filmmaker Ted Hope.

Haspiel had worked for Hope as a personal assistant many years before and knew that the director was a big fan of Pekar’s work. He persuaded Pekar to meet with Hope.

The result? The award-winning and critically acclaimed 2003 film “American Splendor.”

That film in turn led to the latest project from Haspiel and Pekar, “The Quitter,” a no-holds barred look at Pekar’s childhood and adolescence in 1940s-era Cleveland.

Haspiel will be signing copies of “The Quitter” from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at RIOT comics + culture, 2202-A Gettysburg Road, Lower Allen Twp.

“The Quitter” is a rather unsentimental look at Pekar’s formative years. Plagued with insecurity and doubt, the young Pekar bails out of football, college, work and just about anything else at the first sign of frustration. The only thing he truly seems gifted at is street fighting.

It’s only upon discovering jazz music and, later, underground comics, that Pekar is able to turn his frustration into art, partly as a music critic, but mainly through writing about the everyday ups and downs of his own blue-collar life.

All of this is told in rather stellar fashion by Haspiel, who uses his angular, almost expressionist art style to breathe life into Pekar’s neurotic tale.

“I wanted to do a longer work with Pekar for a while now,” Haspiel said in a recent phone interview. “ 'Quitter’ is kind of like payback for hooking Harvey up with Ted Hope.

“After the [success of the] film, Harvey asked me what he could do within reason to thank him for the movie,” he recalled.

“I said ‘I want to do a long story with you.’ ”

Drawing the book provided its own set of challenges much different from, say, illustrating the adventures of the “Justice League.”

While admitting that “a heftier work is always a challenge,” Haspiel acknowledges that the real trick was interpreting and adapting a real person’s life story.

“A franchise character you can [interpret] on any number of levels as long as you meet certain standards,” he said. On a book like “The Quitter,” however, “you have to answer to that person [you’re drawing].”

To that end, Haspiel had to take a bit of poetic license in translating Pekar’s script into comic book panels.

“What I told Harvey was ‘I need to make it mine so I can make it yours,’¤” he said. “I couldn’t be married to every fact and detail. ... It’s better to take poetic license. There are more truths gleaned that way.”

Haspiel also will be signing copies of a new 16-page story he did with Pekar, featured in the eighth issue of the ongoing series “The Escapist.”

Also at the signing will be Brian Wood, author of such critically acclaimed comics as “Channel Zero” and “Demo.”

Wood will be debuting two new comics at the event, “DMZ” from Vertigo Comics and “Local” from Oni Press.

“DMZ” is the futuristic story of a photojournalist trapped in a war zone on the streets of New York City. “Local” is a collection of self-contained stories about everyday people forced into extraordinary situations.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Graphic Lit -- 10/30

Isn't it funny how backlogged you get after being out of comission for awhile?

No, no it's not funny at all. Here's some comic reviews from two weeks ago.

"Dr . Slump Vol. 1 and 2"
by Akira Toriyama
Viz, 192 pages, $7.99 each.

"Dr. Slump " was Toriyama's first big comic series before creating the widely popular "Dragon Ball" and "Dragon Ball Z." The immense success of that series on these shores has led to "Slump's" arrivalhere, and comic readers are the better for it. "Slump " is nothing short of a manic delight.

The stories center on a socially inept inventor, the young robot girl he creates and a toddler who, it seems, can gobble inorganic matter. They live in a zany anthropomorphic world where just about any object is capable of getting up and dancing, time travel is a piece of cake and animals can be swatted down with oversized exclamation points.

Although frequently hilarious and thoroughly delightful, "Slump "may scare off parents due to its occasional scatological and mildly sexual content (the inventor has an occasional fetish for women's underwear). That's a shame, since it's probably kids who will most appreciate the books' goofy energy. If nothing else, "Dr. Slump " tells me that I need to get more acquainted with "Dragon Ball Z."

"The Pin-Up Art of Bill Wenzel"
edited by Alex Chun and Jacob Covey
Fantagraphics Books, 200 pages, $18.95.

Here is yet another collection of saucy girlie cartoons from Fantagraphics, this time focusing on the relatively unknown but surprisingly prolific Bill Wenzel.

Wenzel isn't as assured an artist as previous featured cartoonists Jack Cole or Dan DeCarlo -- his lines seem too rushed at times -- but his gags largely manage to hit the mark, if in a quaintly sexist way.

It's hard to imagine this collection offending today's jaded consumers when so much more salacious material is readily available and tenaciously pervasive. Still, if you think you can include yourself in that category, then you might want to pass on this book. Fans of this series, meanwhile, will enjoy this lovingly designed package.

"Why Do They Kill Me?"
by Tim Kreider
Fantagraphics Books, 202 pages, $14.95.

This is the second collection of political cartoons from Kreider's weekly strip. The artist makes no bones about his feelings for the current administration, and those who have even a smidge of sympathy for Dubya will no doubt be heartily outraged by Kreider's relentless and cheerfully mean-spirited attacks. He's at his best, though, when skewering American culture, as in his "Freedom"series, where he shows average Americans casually abusing their constitutional rights.

As funny as much of Kreider's work can be, however, ultimately, he doesn't have much to say beyond "Bush is an idiot." What's more, his need to constantly portray himself and his friends in his cartoons, as well as the extensive and unnecessary notes that accompany each drawing, is annoying. Kreider vitriol is impressive, and he uses it to strong comedic effect, but being angrier than your average mainstream editorial cartoonist doesn't necessarily make you any more insightful.

"The Dead Boy Detectives"
by Jill Thompson
Vertigo, 144 pages,$9.99.

This spin-off from Neil Gaiman's popular "Sandman" series eschews the latter's gloomy fantasy style in favor of an effervescent manga-like approach. In the story, Rowland and Paine, two tween-age ghosts with a serious Sherlock Holmes jones, investigate a mysterious disappearance at an all-girls boarding school. Much goofiness ensues, including the inevitable cross-dressing sequence.

Thompson is obviously very familiar with most manga tropes and incorporates them here to good effect. Yes, the book is a trifle, but it's a pleasant trifle, and one that will likely appeal to "Sandman" fans as well as manga junkies.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

VG REVIEW: The Warriors

And we're back. Not necessarily up to 100% health, mind you, but well enough (and considerably less stressed enough) to start posting again. So with that thought, here's my review of "The Warriors" that ran in our paper last Sunday.

for PlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated M for Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual themes,

strong language, use of drugs and alcohol)

RATING: Three and a half stars

If there was ever a film that was begging to be turned into a video game it was "The Warriors."

With it’s mythic themes and it’s "get from A to B" premise, Walter Hill’s cult 1979 film about a Coney Island street gang trapped behind enemy lines seems tailor made for adaptation.

And it’s not much of a surprise that Rockstar, makers of the infamous "Grand Theft Auto" series, are the ones who chose to adapt it, given their affection for all things violent and urban. That they did a pretty good job translating the material is, if not surprising, pretty impressive considering the number of bad movie spin-offs exist in the video game market these days.

The game does, indeed, bear some resemblance to the "GTA" series, and fans of those games will feel at home here. Structurally, however, it’s a much closer cousin to the old "beat-’em-up" games of the arcade era.

Anyone who has fond memories of titles such as "Final Fight" and "Double Dragon," where players fought off hordes of bad guys while scrolling from left to right, will see the similarities here. In many ways, "The Warriors" is the first game to take the long-languishing genre into the next generation.

The game adheres pretty close to the basic plot of the film, but adds a good deal of back story.

As before, the Warriors head uptown for a huge gang powwow, where Cyrus, the messianic leader of the largest of the New York gangs, is attempting to join the disparate groups together to take over the city.

Cyrus, unfortunately, gets assassinated rather quickly, and the Warriors are mistakenly identified as the culprits. Now the nine members must make their way back home while avoiding the cops and every other gang that wants revenge for Cyrus’ slaying.

After starting at Cyrus’ death, the game goes back several months before the meeting, as The Warriors attempt to gain a strong foothold in their Coney Island community and battle rival gangs to protect their reputation.

The game follows a basic mission structure similar to that found in "Grand Theft Auto."

Players will find themselves at various times graffiti "tagging" various structures, defending their turf from rivals, destroying property, and, of course, beating up anyone who gets in their way.

It’s the beating up part that is the meat and potatoes of the game. Players attack using two controller buttons. A third lets you grab and throw your opponent while a fourth is used for jumping and picking up weapons.

The weapons are significant, as they really aid you during some of the game’s massive street brawls. Just about anything lying around on the street, from garbage cans to bricks to beer bottles, can be thrown at or smashed against someone’s head.

You don’t fight alone, however. Other Warriors members usually tag along with you, and you can give them instructions like "Watch My Back" or "Wreck ’Em All," depending upon the situation.

When not indulging in a bit of the old ultra-violence, players can steal car radios, pick locks or mug passers-by for quick cash. That money can be used to purchase "flash" a drug that instantly heals you when your health is low.

Clearly, "The Warriors" is not going for the politically-correct audience.

If the game falls down at all, it’s more in the technical side of things than with its overall concept. Some of the controls, like commanding your troops, can be difficult in the heat of battle. And despite the variety of attacks available, it’s too easy to button mash your way to success.

What’s more, a few technical glitches, as well as the chunky graphic design draw you out of the game. And the save system is far too stingy.

Ultimately, however, these issues don’t mar the overall gaming experience.

"The Warriors" doesn’t have the epic feel of "Grand Theft Auto," but what it does is equally impressive. It manages to stay faithful to its source material while offering a unique and fun experience.

You don’t have to be familiar with the film in order to enjoy the game, but for those of you who have fond memories of Cochise and Swan or desperately wanted to take a bat to the Baseball Furies, "The Warriors" fills that need rather nicely.

Can you dig it?

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Friday, November 04, 2005


I have been innundated with a remarkable amount of stress, both at work (everyone's out sick) and at home (everyone's sick), making regular blogging somewhat difficult at the present time. Hopefully this is only a temporary measure and I will be able to start posting early next week. Cross your fingers.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

VG REVIEW: Pump It Up Exceed

for PlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated T for Teen (suggestive themes)

There’s nothing like a video game to make you feel completely inadequate. Especially if it’s a dancing game.

Recently, I popped in "Pump It Up: Exceed," a new dance title in the same vein as the popular "Dance Dance Revolution" series. Now, I don’t profess to be Fred Flintstone, let alone Fred Astaire, but based on my past "DDR" experience, I figured I’d manage to hoof my way through a few of the easier songs.

Then I started the game. Within seconds I was looking at the "Game Over" screen and a surly teenage voice was berating me, "Dude, why don’t you just get up and dance?"

Dude, I’m trying. Honestly.

And so it went for pretty much the rest of my "Pump It Up" experience. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t, for the life of me, manage a higher grade than "F." It became apparent quickly that this was not a game made for my limited abilities.

But on with the descriptions. In "Pump It Up: Exceed," the player matches the quickly scrolling dance steps on the screen via a mat that plugs into the console.

The catch here is that, unlike "Dance Dance Revolution," which has you stepping on the four compass points of the mat, you instead step on the corners and in the center.

The idea is that this simple alteration provides a more intuitive, "dancelike" experience. And I suppose it does, although the moves for each song are so complex that it’s hard to tell. And the inclusion of a step point in the center takes some getting used to.

On the positive side, the songs are considerably better than most of the ones that make up other games in this genre. And the videos that play are visually arresting as well. There were a couple of times where I became so engrossed in the animation on the screen that I forgot I was supposed to be moving my feet.

For those gamers who consider themselves hardcore "DDR" experts, "Pump It Up" offers a nice, challenging break from the tried and true. It’s tailor-made for those who’ve already danced their way through past games and are looking for something new.

The rest of us shlubs, however, should stay as far away from this game as possible if we want to hold onto any self-esteem at all.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005