Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A manga for all seasons

First off, I call your attention to the Associated Press, which did an odd photo/cartoon thingy of the NYCC. It's full of the usual insulting cliches about comic and manga fans and fixates a little too much on the old-school boys club mentality. I saw plenty of grown women at the show too, folks. Anyway, you can read the piece here.

OK, moving on. Here is the full, unexpagated version of the manga/anime story that ran in the Arts & Leisure section of the Patriot-News last Sunday. Corrections due to my own utter ineptness have been duly made. The photos below are of the Cedar Cliff High School Anime Club at Riot! and were taken by Patriot-News photographer Sean Simmers (and are obviously copyrighted by The Patriot-News, 2006).

If all goes well, I'll post the side story here tomorrow.

It’s Wednesday night, and Cedar Cliff High School’s Anime Club has gathered at RIOT! Comics + Culture in Lower Allen Twp. for its weekly meeting.

As the latest episode of the anime "Cromartie High School" plays on the television, the club members talk passionately about their hobby, their voices rising with excitement as they discuss which convention they might attend this year, or whether a highly touted manga (which means comic in Japanese) will finally be translated into English.

Their arms and laps are full of digest-sized black and white manga and glossy magazines, with titles like "Shojo Beat," "Fruits Basket" and "Bleach." Colorful drawings of large-eyed, spiky-haired youths grace the covers, either promising romance or high adventure.

Listening to these high schoolers talk, it’s clear they have a definite reverence for Japanese pop culture that extends far beyond the occasional Saturday morning cartoon show.

But this isn’t some small niche group. Interest in Japanese comics and cartoons has been steadily on the rise for several years now among American teens and young adults. Walk into any local Border’s or Barnes & Noble, and you’re sure to find a pack of youths sprawled along the graphic novel section, devouring books like "Chobits" and "Naruto."

According to Milton Griepp, publisher of ICV2.com, an online trade publication, manga sales grew from 55 million in 2002 to 125 million in 2004, and Griepp expects that number to be even larger when the final total comes in for 2005.

It’s not just comics and animation either. Japanese video games like the "Final Fantasy" series and "Katamari Damacy," and horror films like "The Ring" and "The Grudge" have developed strong fan support from Western audiences.

On the Internet, sites like j-list.com allow consumers to buy anything from CDs of Japanese pop stars to obscure wind-up toys to T-shirts and snacks. Type in the word "scantilation," and you’ll find scores of sites dedicated to translating and disseminating obscure or as yet unpublished manga over computer lines.

The bottom line is that, across the United States, Japanese popular culture is making huge inroads with today’s younger generations. And manga and anime are leading the charge.

"I think what we’re seeing is a cultural shift, similar to the shift 100 years ago from European [popular culture] to U.S. [culture]," Griepp said. He argues that Asian culture is quickly becoming a power to be reckoned with in the Western world.

What’s perhaps the most interesting thing about the growth of manga and anime is that it’s attracting a large number of young women, a demographic that has largely stayed away from American comics.

According to a story in the New York Times last year, girls and women account for 60 percent of manga’s readership, with the strongest market being girls ages 12-17.

This interest in Japanese culture has been slowly rising over the past 20 years or so and can be attributed to a number of influences, including the predominance of video game consoles such as the old Nintendo Entertainment System in American households.

Targeting girls

One significant factor that got the ball rolling was the arrival of cartoon shows like "Sailor Moon," and later "Pokemon," on Saturday morning television.

"The tip of the spear," said Griepp, "has been animation."

Here were shows that were decidedly different in nature from the usual cartoon fare, and that, especially in the case of "Sailor Moon," directly appealed to young girls.

"It really had a different feel to it," said Liz Coppola, vice president of sales and marketing at Viz, one of the oldest publishers of manga in the United States and known for titles like "Naruto" and "Full Metal Alchemist," among many others.

"It was cool. It stood apart from standard animation and had intricate storylines," she said.

In the late ’90s, manga publisher Mixx, which had been serializing the "Sailor Moon" manga, decided to collect the stories into small, cheap trade paperbacks and managed to get its volumes into the big-chain bookstores. Now fans of the series could keep up with their favorite characters through the comics.

"Suddenly girls had access to [comic] books that were targeted to them," said Lillian
Diaz-Przybyl, an editor at Tokyopop, the rechristened Mixx.

Mixx did something different, though. While most manga up to this point had been "flopped" to read left to right instead of right to left, the company decided to keep the trades in their original Japanese format.

This not only kept the company’s costs down, it significantly added to the exotic nature of the manga. It’s that exoticness that remains a large part of anime’s and manga’s strong appeal.

Certainly that’s the case for the Cedar Cliff Anime Club, "especially living in central Pennsylvania, where frankly, there’s not a whole lot of foreign influence," said club Vice President Brian White, 17. "Having a slice of the outside is really nice."

Pop-friendly style

But if a quaint exoticness were the sole reason for manga’s popularity, it never would have been able to retain its popularity for as long or grow as steadily as it has. The fact is, exoticism is only half the equation.

"It’s got a really pop-friendly style," said Dirk Deppey, editor of The Comics Journal magazine, "that kids are used to from years of cartoons and video games."

More than that are the strong characters that readers can easily relate to and project themselves onto, no matter how outlandish the stories become.

"There is empowerment in manga" said Diaz-Przybyl. "These are stories about teenagers. Even with a lot of fantasy elements, the emotions seem very real and very believable."

"Sometimes I get lost inside the books and actually think I’m one of the main characters, said
club member Kate Rabedeau, 15.

It’s a big difference from American comics.

"U.S. comics are very straightforward, extremely clean-cut," said Coppola. "Manga has intricate story lines. It’s so much more in-depth and more compelling."

"They actually have more than just a half an hour plot, and they can go on, and they can develop the characters," said club member Mandy Grove, 14.

Deppey notes that, unlike most U.S. cartoons and comics, manga and anime have "concrete beginnings, middles and ends." And though a manga artist might have a team of helpers, in the end it’s solely his or her vision on display, unlike the corporate nature of, say, the average "Spider-Man" or "Superman" book.

Wide-ranging subjects

Perhaps the biggest reason for manga’s popularity is its diversity. Despite what a quick glance might suggest, manga and anime are decidedly not all alike.

Unlike most mainstream American comics, which tends to focus solely on superheroes, there are manga focusing on an endless variety of subjects.

There are sports manga, romance manga, horror manga and science-fiction manga. There are anime for young boys, anime for young girls and anime for decidedly older audiences.

There are manga about cooks, firefighters, tennis stars, art thieves, samurai and high school
kids. The list goes on and on.

The content often goes beyond good vs. evil storylines as well, and might occasionally raise a concerned parent’s eyebrow. Gender-bending, cross-dressing, characters who magically change sexual orientation and more can often be found in an average shojo, or young girls title.

There’s even a genre of manga known as shounen-ai, which deals exclusively in homosexual romance stories between pretty men. Designed exclusively for (and very popular with) young girls, such stories are usually very tame in their depiction of sex and sexuality. Which is not to say that edgier material isn’t out there.

Obviously, not all manga or anime are appropriate for younger readers. But neither is it all so
decadent, uber-violent or oversexualized that it will turn your hair white. Regardless of your particular reading or viewing habits, chances are there’s a manga or anime that will appeal to them.

The power of manga

Even though it’s only been a few years since anime and manga crept into the mainstream, their influence is pretty easy to spot.

TV shows like "Teen Titans" show a very obvious anime look and feel, and many more cartoonists have appeared recently sporting some decided manga tropes.

The question is, now that Japanese manga and anime have attained a toehold on mainstream U.S. culture, what happens next? Is this just a fad that will fade away soon, or will it continue to grow and garner new audiences?

"I do think manga will plateau at some point," said Deppey. "I thought it would happen this year but it hasn’t yet. Manga will be around for a while though. That’ll be the most popular
form of comic in the U.S."

Many companies are trying to take advantage of the interest before that plateauing occurs. Tokyopop, for example, is attempting to expand its core readership with it’s OEL line of "homegrown manga." That is, stories written and drawn by American fans of the medium, done in a easily discernible manga style.

Two of these OEL series, "Peach Fuzz" and "Van Von Hunter," have been picked up by Universal Press Syndicate to run in the comics section of many Sunday newspapers, beginning this year.

According to Diaz-Przybyl, papers such as the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and more have signed onto the feature and are "really enthusiastic about trying to get kids to read the paper again."

Viz, meanwhile, has started a line of prose novels based off some of its more popular licenses like "Fullmetal Alchemist." It has also created a "Signature Line," which focuses on slightly more mature, sophisticated stories.

In addition, according to Coppola, Viz has partnered with a company that does museum exhibits in the hope of "demystifiying manga and anime" for general audiences, and working more and more with libraries and other significant arbiters of taste.

Even the popular romance publisher Harlequin has gotten in on the act, teaming up with Dark Horse Comics to publish a series of manga adaptations of their top titles.

Most experts agree that interest in anime and manga might level off soon — there are just too many titles and too many publishers vying for your attention for the market not to get choosier.

But that doesn’t mean that this influx of Japanese pop culture is going to go away anytime soon.

"When you think of any trend, there’s always going to be the ebbing and flowing of that trend," said anime club member Addie Simon, 16. "Right now we’re in a spike. It could very well go down again. But I don’t see it ever completely going away."

Fad or not, it’s easy to see the influence anime and manga have had with this Cedar Cliff High School group. When asked whether any of them has attempted to draw a manga on his own, more than half of the club members raise their hands.

White confesses that his interest in anime has extended to him wanting to learn Japanese and perhaps get a job as a translator after he finishes school.

For these teen-agers, what started as curiosity for a cute cartoon has developed into a lifelong passion.

"If the stories stay as interesting as they are now I’ll probably read them until I am 80," Simon said.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hey, I won an Uglydoll!

Jim Hanley's Universe called me last night while I was putting my daughter to bed to tell me the good news. Seeing as how I rarely if ever win these sorts of raffles, I'm kind of shocked. But in a good way.

Anyway, my report on NYCC is up and about at Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter site, along with some more photos. My sincere thanks to Tom for giving me the chance to do this. Honestly, I was a bit nervous about doing it -- I have a huge amount of respect for Tom and his site -- but it ended up being very fun to write and I think it turned out rather well in the end. You be the judge.

In other news, as Jog noted, I did a rather hefty look at the manga and anime boom for my employer, the Patriot-News. It's available online here, and you can read a related sidebar here. Unfortunately, the first third of the story got cut off due to technical errors. There were also a number of smaller sidebars that seem to have been neglected as well. I'll try to post the full version here either late today or early tomorrow morning (probably early tomorrow).

My sincerest thanks to all those who took their time to talk to me -- your thoughts and observations really made the piece shine. And my apologies in advance for any errors or other problems that slipped into print. Already Dirk Deppey let me know that "3,500 comics shops in the United States equals out to one comics shop per 1000 square miles, not one every 30,000 miles." That's what I get for not buying a new tape recorder and instead trying to rely on my own sloppy notetaking. Sorry Dirk.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

My NYCC diary

Boy am I glad I just went on Friday. I can just see myself getting turned away by the fire marshall Saturday and having spent all that time and travel for nothing.

Anyway, I did a not-so-brief write up of my impressions of the first day of the New York Comic-Con for one of the more notable comics sites -- I'm not sayin' who until if and when it gets posted (sometime tomorrow morning I imagine). In the meantime, however, enjoy these photos. If it's content you're looking for, though, you can't do much better than Chris Butcher's insightful and very funny look at the show. He does a much better job than I ever could of summing it up.

Nothing says comic convention like a Batman made of Legos.

Your requisite Modok photo for the day.
I'm thinking he should see a doctor for that irritable bowel problem.

After I took this picture, the Smurf gave me a big thumbs-up.
I don't know if you've ever been given the thumbs-up sign
by a guy in a smurf suit, but it's a good feeling.

First Transformers, then G.I. Joe. Now Smurfs.
That makes it official, my childhood refuses to go away.

The creators of "Sokora Refugees" talk about their book at the Tokyopop booth.

I wonder if that Dr. Light action figure comes with special rape action?

An art teacher painted comic characters from the past 100 years onto his Ford Model A
and put it on display at the show. You can read all about the car here.

This guy really freaked me out.

They had gaming tables upstairs courtesy of Wizards of the Coast
way up on the top floor, but no one seemed to be aware of them
and they were pretty sparsely attended.

They had video games up on the top floor too. Here are some people playing
DDR and Guitar Hero, but, as you can see, only a few folks ventured upstairs.

I'll leave you with this photo of some MTV bozo in a monkey suit
busily embarassing himself and those around him.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

To New York I shall go

On the dubious chance that anyone's interested, I shall indeed be attending the New York Comic-Con this weekend. Actually, I'll really only be there tomorrow, as I can't justify abandoning my family for the entire weekend just to attend seminars about Vertigo's upcoming line and whatnot.

If you're planning on being at the con on Friday, drop me a line and mayhap we shall meet.

I'm planning on taking my camera with me, so pictures will definitely be posted later next week.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Now It Can Be Read! Bizarro World

Once again, reviews that for one reason or another, never originally saw the light of day are plastered here for your enjoyment. This one's a review of DC's Bizarro World anthology that came out early last year. I think the softcover edition will be out in stores this spring, so consider this a sorta-preview review if you missed the book the first time around.

Bizarro World
by various

DC Comics
, $29.95

This latest and second “alternative cartoonists meets DC superheroes” anthology is a decided improvement upon it’s predecessor, 2001’s “Bizarro Comics.” A good part of that is due to the lack of awkward framing devices that plagued the first book. More important, however, is the fact that a lot of the writer/artist team-ups seem better thought out and more complimentary than the first time around. For whatever reason, Rick Altergott and Ariel Bordeux or Johnny Ryan and Dave Cooper seem a much better match-up than say, James Kochalka and Dylan Horrocks.

Your enjoyment of “Bizarro World” is pretty much dependent upon your affection for and knowledge of Superman and his friends, not to mention a willingness to see them tweaked in an affectionate, G-rated fashion. As with the first volume, a lot of the jokes deal with placing DC’s caped cadre in mundane or heavily ironic situations. The Justice League has to endure a “take your kids to work” day. Batman has trouble upgrading the software on his computer. The League enjoys some down time at an amusement park. And so on.

The best jokes work when they don’t rely too much on obscure DC minutiae. Bordeaux and Altergott’s Legion of Super Heroes story works better than Evan Dorkin and Andi Watson’s because it doesn’t require as deep a knowledge of the original material. Hell, I read the comic as a kid and I still didn’t get the Mon-El joke.

The highlights here are many and varied. Evan Dorkin and Ivan Brunetti take Two-face to his logical and hilariously fitting conclusion. Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez take a swipe at desperate C-list celebrities courtesy of the Red Bee. Chip Kidd and Tony Millionaire’s Batman story is even more bizarre than the first one if that’s possible. Mike Doughty and Danny Hellman manage to make Aquaman seem even more pathetic and lonely than ever before. And Dupuy and Beberian create a Batman that’s more Martha Stewart than dark detective.

Ryan and Cooper’s story, however, is the real gem of the book, and deserves a mention on its own, simply because it’s the only real example in the whole anthology that shows what the editors were thinking in forcing these cartoonists to team up. “Super Dumped” is a delightfully bizarre affair that utilizes Ryan’s snarkiness and Cooper’s gift for surrealism to create something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see from either artist on their own.

Of course, for every piece that works there’s one or two that, if not outright failures, lay there flat and cold like yesterday’s oatmeal. Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel’s contribution feels strangely lifeless. And I don’t even know what to make of Tomer and Asaf Hanuka’s story that seems to have the Batman entering a little girl’s mind in order to defeat the Joker. Or perhaps it’s all a dream; I’m really not sure.

Improvements and goodwill aside, there’s not enough grade-a material here to convince me that forcing these artist/writer collaborations works better than just letting the individual cartoonists go it alone. Let’s put it this way. What would you rather see: Michael Kupperman do a Justice League parody with the co-writer of the film “Antz” or all on his lonesome? Now, how many of you would rather just read “Snake and Bacon?” I thought so. As it stands, "Bizarro World" is a nice diversion, particularly if you’re a fan of the artists or the underlying material, but it’s hardly essential reading.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 3/19

by Alex Robinson
Top Shelf Productions, 352 pages, $19.95.

A reclusive rock star, an unlucky-in-love waitress, a young teen looking for her father, a deceitful young man and a fan on the verge of madness all converge with violent consequences in this follow-up to Robinson’s popular first graphic novel, "Box Office Poison."

Robinson plays to his strengths here, with characters and dialogue that seems sharply drawn from real life. Not everything works — the romance between the rock star and a young temp seems contrived, and the ending is a bit too pat. Yet despite some significant missteps, the book is well worth your time if for no other reason than to appreciate the number of subtle storytelling tricks and other devices that let us probe the character’s inner lives and heighten the story’s tension.

by Gary Panter
Drawn and Quarterly, 104 pages, $19.95.

This is a handsome, pocket-sized collection of Panter’s sketches and drawings completed from 1999 to 2001. While it boasts an impressive design, the book will most likely be enjoyed by serious Panter ("Jimbo in Purgatory") fans, who can then wave the book under the nose of naysayers as proof that yes, the man can draw.

"Salamander Dream"
by Hope Larson
adHouse Books, 98 pages, $15.

Larson explores the bittersweet relationship between young girl and a magical forest creature, and chronicles in a few pages how time and adolescence slowly erode their friendship. Deceptively simple, fanciful images hint at the emotional ties that bind us to our childhood friends, as well as show how nature can seem mysterious and thrilling when you haven’t cracked open a science textbook yet. Although it’s her first book, "Salamander Dream" doesn’t feel like a debut, but like a significant work from an already established talent. I can’t wait to see what Larson does next.

"Full Moon Vol. 1"
by Arina Tanemura
Viz, 208 pages, $8.99.

A sickly 12-year-old girl realizes her dream of becoming a pop singer with the help of a pair of comical harbingers of death who magically age her to 16. The story, as you might have guessed, doesn’t really make much sense; Tanemura plays fast and loose with the rules regarding the main character’s illness, and I had trouble keeping track of what age she was supposed to be at various points. But it’s a relatively breezy and pleasant enough read for hard-core manga fans to enjoy, so long as they don’t spend too much time thinking about it.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, February 20, 2006

VG REVIEW: Guitar Hero

Aaaaaand we're back. Sorry for the delay folks.

Red Octane, for PlayStation 2
rat­ed T for Teen (mild lyrics), $79.99

Do you secretly strum your tennis racket when no one is looking?

Do you insist upon silence when your favorite five-minute guitar solo comes on the radio?

Do you daydream about achieving rock stardom despite your own musical ineptitude?

Ladies and gentlemen, do you suffer from the pain of rockingout-itis?

Well, fear not dear reader, because “Guitar Hero” is here to save the day. Whether you are an ace shredder or barely able to finger a C chord, this game will have you feeling like a true heavy metal god in no time.

The game is the brainchild of Harmonix, creators of the popular “Karaoke Revolution” series and other notable rhythm-based games. “Guitar Hero” is similar in structure to those titles, but with one notable difference, a guitar-shaped controller.

Featuring five colored buttons along the fret, a “strum bar” and a whammy bar, the controller is meant to be used with you standing up, legs splayed in true rock form.

In the game, colored buttons scroll toward the player. By holding onto the matching fret button and hitting the strum bar at the right moment, you’re able to play the song. Miss too many notes and the band starts looking for a new guitarist.

Hitting the whammy bar on long notes raises your score. You can also raise your score through the Star Power meter. Fill it up by nailing a particular series of notes. Then, tilt your ax upward and watch your virtual counterpart do some crazy tricks that will drive the crowd wild.

Mention must be made of the soundtrack, which is impeccable, even though it’s mostly cover versions of popular songs. Classic tracks by Motorhead, Judas Priest, the Ramones, Megadeth, Jimi Hendrix and, of course, Black Sabbath, can all be found here. You might marvel at the exclusion of a particular artist (what, no AC/DC?) but it’s hard to argue with any of the songs included.

The one caveat is the huge spike in difficulty. I came off easy mode pretty sure of myself, only to be sweating bullets in normal mode and thoroughly trounced in hard mode. And for the love of God, don’t make me talk about expert mode.

That being the case, the game could really use a practice section to help you learn those trickier songs without risk of failure.

If you can afford the cost of an extra controller, definitely check out the multiplayer section, where you and a friend can rock out together, trading licks on a tune. (Yes, you can use a normal PS2 controller, but why would you want to?)

The genius of “Guitar Hero” is that it mimics actual, honest-to-goodness guitar playing close enough to maintain the illusion that you are actually playing the song and not just pressing a few buttons. And yet its setup is simple enough that you don’t feel the need to take lessons to succeed.

“Guitar Hero” is the rhythm game to end all rhythm games. The price might seem a tad high, but if you have a serious case of rockingout-itis, it’s worth every penny.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cue sound of crickets chirping

As I'm sure you've noticed by now, blogging will be a bit light this week, as work, both at home and in the office, is taking up a good deal of my time this week. Blame it on co-workers taking winter vacations, looming deadlines and my own extreme procrastination. Hopefully posting will resume towards the end of the week, if not soon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

VG REVIEW: Electroplankton

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone, $34.99

If we define a game as "playing," not only with rules, but with goals of some form or another, then "Electroplankton" really can’t be called a game.

It’s more of an elaborate toy.

An interactive, colorful music box that charms and delights but lacks any serious objective. No real achievement is attained or, ultimately, necessary to enjoy what’s offered here.

Created by multimedia artist Toshio Iwai, "Electroplankton" is a collection of 10 types of "plankton" — little virtual fish-shaped creatures that light up, change colors and make music depending upon how you interact with them.

There are plankton that bounce melodically off leaves. Doughnut-shaped plankton that emit trancelike hums when you spin them. Plankton that change formation when you clap your hands or blow into the microphone. Snowflake-shaped plankton that ring like chimes when you touch them. And a teardrop-shaped plankton that will copy your voice and alter it in various odd ways.

Each of the 10 games included here is unusual enough that repetition never sets in. Nor is the game simply a treat for your ears. It’s also fun to watch the plankton alter their shape and color as you fiddle with them.

Numerous complaints have been made by critics about not being able to save your musical creations.

Once you’re done with a particular section, your electronic symphony just floats off into the ether (unless you have your DS hooked up to some sort of recording device).

That doesn’t really bother me too much. The whole point of "Electroplankton," it seems to me, is to provide a ephemeral, impossible-to-duplicate experience. It’s supposed to be fleeting.

No, my problem with "Electroplankton" is that there simply isn’t enough material to maintain interest.

After about an hour with the game, you’ll have seen everything the title has to offer and be wishing for more.

Why can’t you control the pitch or color of the plankton, for example? Why can’t you use some of the other DS buttons as well as the stylus to alter the sounds? Why can’t you set up multiplayer musical experiments with your friends?

Honestly, I’m torn about "Electroplankton."

I’m extremely happy that Nintendo saw fit to bring a unique title like this to American shores. And I’m delighted enough with its concept and execution to still be picking it up for quick play weeks later. At the same time, I wish there were more meat on its virtual bones.

Perhaps ultimately "Electroplankton" is something best enjoyed by younger players; those whose hearts and minds are still open enough to appreciate the variety of experimentation offered by this game.

Er, sorry, I mean toy.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, February 13, 2006

VG REVIEW: Torino 2006

"TORINO 2006"
2K Sports, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated E for Everyone, $19.99.

Despite what naysayers may tell you, there are more than two certainties in life. Along with death and taxes, for example, we can include really horrible video games based on the Olympics.

Exhibit A for the prosecution is "Torino 2006," the latest in a long line of bad Olympics games, this one obviously focusing on the winter games in Torino (or Turin for those not fluent in Italian).

"Torino" claims to feature 15 different events such as speed skating, bobsleighing, slalom skiing and the biathlon all in one package. Closer inspection, however, reveals that a lot of the mini-games are so identical to each other that you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

"Luge" and "Bobsleigh," for example control the exact same way with only minor variations, while the only difference between "Downhill Skiing" and "Giant Slalom" are that the flags are spaced a little closer together.

What’s especially amazing are the number of notable competitions left out. Why isn’t there any figure skating? Or ice hockey? Or snowboarding? Or curling, for Pete’s sake?

Spend even the briefest amount of time with this game, and you’ll come to the quick conclusion that there’s just not a lot of meat on its bones. You could easily run through every mini-game offered here within a half-hour and still have time to make yourself a sandwich.

What "Torino" offers is pretty dull fare to begin with. Each game boils down to some occasional button mashing akin to the track-and-field games from the 16-bit era, while keeping your athlete on the track with the left thumbstick.

When the game does require a bit more effort, such as in the speed skating routines, it creates frustration by offering as little instruction as possible.

Even for a title that’s modestly priced, "Torino 2006" is a complete waste of time. Technically it might not be as broken as, say, some Olympics-themed games in years past. But in terms of game play and entertainment value, it marches lock step right behind its predecessors.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, February 10, 2006

VG REVIEW: Quick Bytes

While I obviously can't review every game that comes down the pike, I do try to at least take a look at everything that comes my way. Not every game warrents a full review, however, for a number of reasons, namely my own lack of time. For that reason, I started the "Quick Bytes" section awhile back. It's just brief reviews of new games that run every few weeks or whenever I feel like doing it. And with that introduction, here are a few samples taken from the past couple of months. Enjoy.

"The Sims 2"
Electronic Arts
for PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube and Nintendo DS,
console version rated T for Teen (crude humor, sexual themes, violence)
DS version rated E 10+
$39.99(console) or $24.99 (DS).

These console adaptations of the popular PC game are nowhere near as full-featured as the title that inspired them (your Sims won't, for example, age or have offspring) but it manages to be a relatively entertaining game despite its deficiencies. The story-based version requires players to complete a number of odd missions like finding a job or buying more stuff for your home. Occasionally these missions feel like busywork, but usually they prove to be a pleasant enough time-waster that harkens to the original "Sims" game. Whatever you do, though, definitely avoid the DS version of the game, which is at best tiresome and at worst horrid.

"Battalion Wars"
Nintendo, for the GameCube
rated T for Teen (violence), $49.99.

This army strategy game started out as a big-screen version of the popular "Advance Wars" series, but got morphed into something a bit more complex. Here you can command soldiers, tanks, artillery, planes and more in an attempt to take the ground and win the day. The cutesy art style keeps things from getting too gruesome or gory (soldiers just fall down and fade away after being hit).

Unfortunately, the commands are complex and at times confusing. A good deal of preparation and cunning is needed to succeed, which pretty much put me out of the running early. Still, those who love strategy games shouldn't be put off by the game's cartoonish look; there's a lot of meat on the bone here.

"The Bible Game"
Crave Entertainment, for PlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated E for Everyone, $19.99.

This is about what you'd expect, assuming you expect a dull, anemic trivia game that does little to engage or teach.

"The Bible Game" takes a "Mario Party" approach, with up to four players competing on a simulated game show. Problems abound. For one thing, the trivia questions are dumbed down to ridiculous levels.

Conversely, it's too easy to fall behind, thanks to a random "Act of God," with no chance of getting back on top. Add to the punch horrible minigames and the lack of a decent single-player version, and you've got a poor excuse for a game, even for a budget title. There are many good ways to offer religious instruction through interactive entertainment, but none of them is on display here.

"MediEvil Resurrection"
Sony, for PlayStation Portable
rated T for Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

This remake of the popular PlayStation game would be much more enjoyable if not for two annoying factors: a sluggish camera and poor collision detection. The lead character, undead hero Sir Daniel Fortesque, isn't necessarily the fastest thing on his two bony feet, yet the game's camera has the darndest time keeping up with him and frequently gets caught in corners and other unwelcome places.

Add to that the fact that your attacks will only connect half the time and you have a platform game that should've been a lot better. It's a shame, because it gets so many other things (level design, weapon upgrading, sense of humor) right.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Q&A with Jim Rugg

As I mentioned earlier, I recently had the opportunity to interview "Street Angel" artist/co-creator Jim Rugg for a preview story about the signing at Riot. Unfortunately, I was only able to use a wee little bit of our email conversation in the article. It seemed a shame to waste it, as Rugg offered what I thought was some rather interesting insights into the creation of the character. So, with that in mind, here's a slightly edited version of our email conversation. Let's hope more issues of "Angel" are indeed on the way soon.

Q: First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and where are
you living now?

RUGG: I grew up about an hour south of Pittsburgh in a place called Connellsville. I graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1999 with a BFA in Graphic Design. Now I live about 10 minutes north of Pittsburgh.

Q: How did you get interested in comics and what made you want to become a cartoonist?

RUGG: Growing up, I always liked to draw. When I was 11 or 12, I randomly picked up a comic book at the local drug store and something just clicked. I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to do, and I never wavered.
Q: What comic was it and what was it about it that captivated you so?

RUGG: The interesting thing about that comic is that it was a horrible comic. It was a random issue of Marvel Comics Presents, this biweekly anthology that Marvel published in the late 80s/early 90s. The issue I bought had a short Hulk story in it. I think that’s why I bought it. I liked the Hulk. But the thing is, the comic wasn’t good, and I still recognized something in it that attracted me to the form. Most of my drawings up to that point were line drawings. As soon as I had the book at home, I think I started copying drawings from it. So it wasn’t some great art or story that drew me to comics, it was just the form itself. Does that make sense?

Q: Where did you get the idea for Street Angel?

RUGG: It’s been a few years since Brian (Maruca, Street Angel’s co-creator) and I came up with Street Angel. Brian’s been co-writing stories with me for a while now, and at the time, I wanted to draw a super hero comic that starred a young, dynamic heroine.

We brainstormed for a while, trying to come up with something that entertained both of us enough to sustain the creative process and what we ended up with is Street Angel. She began as a parody of Marvel/DC superheroes. A lot of the parody fell away as we progressed through the writing of the first story. What remained was a character that embodied the opposite of most Marvel/DC heroes, instead of an affluent, adult, glamorous male, we ended up with an underdeveloped, immature, not particularly bright, homeless girl.

Q: One of the things I find interesting about Street Angel is the way it contrasts its high flights of humor/action/fantasy with its rather touching and sorrowful look at life on the streets. Was that a deliberate contrast or was it something that came about organically?

RUGG: Early in the development of the character and book, we tried to go in the opposite direction of the Marvel/DC male fantasy formula. One element of that was the homelessness and poverty. We wanted to create this character that no one would envy.

As we worked more on the book and the silly humor became more pronounced, we thought the pitiful aspects of the character and her situation served as a counterpoint to the humor/adventure and created a very effective contrast to that aspect of the book. I don’t think it was ever forced.

Issue 4, the story of her searching through dumpsters looking for something to eat was one of the first stories we wrote about her. It’s so typical for a protagonist to be smart, cunning, funny, etc. and with Jesse, that’s not the case. She’s not very bright; she’s uneducated and too immature to recognize the value of education. She’s awkward for a teenage girl, despite her skateboarding and kung fu skills. She’s self-conscious because she has no support group and she’s well aware of her shortcomings – physically and socially.

When she does manage to be funny, it’s often in spite of herself – either the humor comes at her expense or its inadvertent. So the more dire aspects of her and her situation developed as part of her character. I don’t think we’ve done anything with the character that doesn’t make sense.

Q: How has Street Angel been received so far? Is the book doing well?

RUGG: It has been very well received. It has sold well and it has been well reviewed. We’ve received a lot of great feedback from readers at shows and through email. In many ways, it exceeded my expectations.

Q: What are your plans to continue the series? Are there going to be more adventures of Street Angel?

RUGG: I’m not sure what the future holds for Street Angel. I’d like to do more, but I need to make time. Producing a comic book requires a significant commitment. So we’ll see.

Q: What are you working on now?

RUGG: I have no idea. I’m in the middle of a pretty discouraging creative block.

Q: What do you do when you're not making comics (i.e. other art work, hobbies, possible day job, etc)?

RUGG: I work as a graphic designer for a manufacturing/engineering company. I design ads, catalogs, that sort of thing. I also do a little freelance illustration when the opportunity presents itself. When I’m doing neither comics nor the day job, I try to spend time with my wife.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: Graphic Lit 2004

No space for new comix reviews in the paper this week, so you'll just have to settle for this loose collection of reviews that ran all the way back in '04.

"Never Ending Summer"
by Allison Cole
Alternative Books, 96 pages, $11.95.

Autobiography is a popular theme in the world of alternative comics, but Allison Cole manages to avoid some of the genre's more prominent cliches in "Never Ending Summer," her first full-lengthwork. That's mainly due to her delightfully minimalist art style, where the central cast of characters is drawn more like yeti-shaped blobs.

Cole uses only a few distinguishing characteristics -- glasses, a ponytail, etc. -- to tell the characters apart, but her bare style means the reader never has too much trouble figuring out who's who.

The story -- concerning a failed relationship -- is slighter than slight, but Cole's graceful storytelling abilities show her to be a cartoonist worth noting.

"Mister O"
by Lewis Trondheim
NBM Publishing, 32 pages,$12.95.

Poor little Mister O. All he wants to do is get across the chasm that separates him from here to there. Yet each attempt not only ends in abysmal failure, but frequently leaves him injured, maimed or at the bottom of the chasm itself. Not that it stops him from getting back up and trying again.

Few cartoonists (or authors for that matter) manage to call to mind both Chuck Jones and Camus, but Lewis Trondheim's hilarious stick figure parable manages to do just that. With exquisite timing and a minimalist art style, the wordless "Mister O" is a book that both 12-year-olds and adults can treasure on any number of levels.

"Hi-Horse Omnibus Vol. 1"
edited by Howard John Arey, Andrice Arp, Joan Reilly and Bishakh Som
Alternative Books, 112 pages, $11.95.

Most comic anthologies tend, on average, to be lackluster affairs, with the mediocre or just plain bad outweighing the good. The new"Hi-Horse Omnibus" manages to avoid that pitfall for the most part, however, providing a nice showcase of some up-and-coming cartoonists.

Of special note are Joan Reilly's examination of the emotional divide between a father and his daughter, Zack Soto's surreal, disturbing tale of a sailor lost at sea, and Karen Sneider's funny story about a needy girl's love affair with a quite literal monster.

"Further Grickle"
by Graham Annable
Alternative Books, 123 pages,$14.95.

Like its predecessor, this new collection of short stories involving average people making some rather shocking lapses in judgment contains the same wonderful dark humor. Annable might be working in a minimalist style, but he coveys enough emotion and knows enough about storytelling to make him one of the one of the more notable new cartoonists to come down the pike in quite some time.

by Hans Rodinonoff, Keith Griffen and Enrique Breccia
Vertigo, 144 pages, $24.95.

What if the imaginary horrors dreamed up by famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft weren't imaginary after all? What if all his stories were not only true, but all based on his personal experiences?

That's the premise behind this new graphic novel, which sketches out the bare bones of his life story and then has him battling demonic forces in his spare time. As gruesome and gory as the story is at times, it's not a particularly frightening tale. What makes the book noteworthy is Breccia's lavish artwork which manages somehow to be beautiful and grotesque at the same time.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2004

Monday, February 06, 2006

VG REVIEW: Ape Escape 3 & Ape Escape Academy

I attended the Jim Rugg/Tom Scioli/Paulette Poullet signing last Saturday. Got to meet Ed Cunard of The Low Road, who, in addition to producing a kick-ass blog, is a heckuva nice guy. He told me about his dogs; I complained about my kids. I chatted with Rugg about manga, talked with Scioli about Godland and bought Poullet's mini-comics. All in all it was a good time. Hopefully the bad weather didn't keep people from stopping by after I left.

And with that out of the way, here's this week's video game review ...

Sony, for PlayStation 2
rated E10+ for Everyone age 10 and older (car­toon violence, crude humor), $39.99.


Sony, for the PlayStation Portable
rated E10+, $39.99

I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand our culture’s fascination with monkeys.

Whether you’re talking about the little pet primate on "Friends" or the orangutan from those horrible Clint Eastwood films, there seems to be this pervasive idea that monkeys are just inherently funny. The logic of that notion completely eludes me.

That might be part of the reason I was less than enthused about the two latest entries into Sony’s "Ape Escape" franchise — "Ape Escape 3" for the PlayStation 2 and "Ape Escape Academy" for the PSP. Neither game was able to win me over with its little simian antics, particularly in the case of the hand-held title.

For those of you who haven’t played any of the previous "Ape" games, the premise is simple: monkeys (dressed in shorts and helmets with flashing lights) are running amok and causing havoc. It’s up to you and your trusty net to catch them.

Besides the net, you have a number of tools doled out to you as you progress through the game, including a flotation device, a slingshot and an RC racing car. You can also transform into different, more powerful characters, such as a knight or a ninja, if you collect enough energy pellets.

The monkeys prove to be devilish little suckers to catch. Many are quick to alert themselves to your presence and can and will knock you flat if you try a full frontal assault.

As with previous games, "Ape Escape 3" takes a lighthearted, kid-friendly approach, with lots of tongue-in-cheek jabs at well-known fairy tales, films and even other video games, which tend to be more cute than actually funny.

Ultimately, though the problem with the game lies in its controls. You move your character with the left analog stick and swing your net (or other gadget) with the right. Sounds simple right? Except that with the right stick occupied there’s no real solid way to control the camera.

Oh, you could use the L1 button to center your viewpoint, but even clicking that regularly fails to fix the camera, which frequently gets stuck in corners, leaving you wide open for a monkey assault.

If it weren’t for that nagging camera problem, "Ape Escape 3" would be a much more enjoyable game. As it is, it’s a marginally entertaining title that will offer more to those who can’t get enough monkeys in their video games.

That’s not something I can say about "Ape Escape Academy," a woebegone collection of ape-inspired minigames.

Taking you behind the scenes, "Academy" puts you in the ape army, and asks you to complete a number of overly simple, 1-minute games in order to "graduate."

So far, so good. Problems begin with the basic layout of the main stage of the game, which resembles a tic-tac-toe board. Complete three or more games in a row and you move on to the next stage.

You get only one chance to succeed in each game, however, and even if you’ve already failed and have no chance of continuing on to the next level, you can’t quit and start over. You have to play through all nine minigames before you get the chance to start again.

That’s not the worst of things though. There are next to no instructions offered for the various minigames, meaning that you’ll have to fail several times at each game before you figure out what exactly it is you’re supposed to do.

Even that would be forgivable if the games themselves were somewhat interesting, but for the most part, they’re not. Unless you consider multiple-choice quizzes about the flags of the world edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

Combine all that with long load times, too few games to pick from and poor multiplayer options, and you have a game that not even the ultimate monkey devotee could enjoy.

As I already said, I’m not one of them.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, February 03, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: Katamari Damacy

Time to revisit the archives again. This time with a look at one of my favorite titles, the utterly bizarre "Katamari Damacy."

Namco, for PlayStation 2,
rated E forEveryone (mild fantasy violence), $19.99.

Blame my father, that darned King of the Cosmos.

If he hadn't destroyed all the stars in the heavens during one of his drunken binges, I wouldn't be stuck here on Earth, trying to replace them.

Griping aside, it's up to me, the pint-sized Prince, to return the night sky to its former glory. In order to do that, I've got to roll around this small ball, called a katamari.

The katamari is really, really sticky. So as I roll it around the landscape, it picks up stuff. At first it will only pick up little things, like thumbtacks and erasers. As it gets bigger and bigger, it can pick up larger and larger objects, including people and animals. Get a katamari large enough and I'll be rolling up skyscrapers and stadiums with ease.

Once I've met the size requirement specified by my father within a certain time limit, he takes the katamari and turns it into a star or constellation, depending upon his twisted whims.

Luckily, you can help me on my odd quest, assuming you have access to a PlayStation 2 and some time on your hands.

Controlling the katamari is easy. All you do is push both analog sticks on your controller in the direction you want them to go. You change direction by pushing one stick only. That's all there is to it. I know, it's quite unlike any control scheme you've tried before, but once you try it, I think you'll agree that it's graceful in its simplicity.

You have to be careful when rolling your katamari around, however. The rules of physics apply here, and picking up oblong objects like lampposts or trees can change your trajectory or send your ball awkwardly bumping along until you get enough objects to round it out.

Even worse, if you run headlong into a large object, it can send items spiraling off your katamari, making you waste precious moments rerolling. (You are on the clock, you know.)

At first you may seem hemmed in a particular area, but as your katamari grows, once roped-off areas now become accessible, as you can now simply roll over any roadblocks in your way.

I think it's pretty safe to say you've never seen a game quite like"Katamari Damacy" before. And that's what makes the whole experience so great. In an industry filled with look-alike shooters, platformers and dull action titles, "Damacy" is a genuinely unique, odd and thoroughly wacky creation.

I admit it's not perfect; the camera work could be improved. There are times when, while you're helping me roll my ball around, you might get stuck behind a building or wall and have trouble maneuvering me out of a tight corner.

But c'mon, you have great gameplay, a multiplayer option, an appetizing low price and one of the best soundtracks ever to grace a video game. What's a slightly wonky camera among friends?

Developed in Japan, "Katamari Damacy" is one of those oddball games that sound enticing but never makes it over on these Western shores. Namco should be credited for taking a chance and porting the title to the States. The game's strong word of mouth seems to suggest that they made the right decision.

And so should you. Rolling a ball around a virtual landscape doesn't sound much like a good time, I know. But the fact is, this is one of the most original and thoroughly enjoyable games of the year.

And, what's more, I could use the help. This giant ball isn't getting any easier to push, you know.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2004

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Major signage

For those of you who live in or near the Central Pa area, I should alert you to yet another noteworthy comic event. RIOT! Comics + Culture will be hosting a signing featuring "Street Angel" artist/co-creator Jim Rugg and "Godland" artist Tom Scioli this Saturday from 2-5 p.m. Also at the event will be mini-comics creator Paulette Poullet. Both "Angel" and "Godland" are delightful pop culture pastiches well worth you're reading time, so if you haven't checked out these books yet and will be in the Camp Hill vicinity, this is a great chance to get acquainted with them as well as meet some pretty interesting people.

I wrote a brief preview about the event for the paper that you can read here. My thanks to Jim Rugg who took time out to talk to me about his work and life history. He gave me a ton of great quotes which I didn't have the space to run, unfortunately. Perhaps if time permits later this week (and with Jim's permission) I'll run the full interview here as a Q&A. No promises though.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Send me your stereotypes

Dear readers, I need your help.

Right now I'm working on an article for the paper on different gamer stereotypes/cliches. It's sort of a fun look at the various "types" of people that play games, but I'm a little stuck coming up with material. Are there different types of gamers and if so, how do you tell them apart? How is the average rpg fan different from say an FPS fanatic? And what sets them apart from a hardcore MMORPG player? That sort of thing.

And before anyone jumps to conclusions, this is, as I said, supposed to be a fun, tongue-in-cheek look at how gamers see themselves. I'm quite sure all of the folks who read this blog play a wide variety of games and are not easily pigeonholed, so please, no noses out of joint. Rest assured, I am not interested in dredging up the usual negative stereotypes about how gamers are all desensitived, depraved, drooling fanboys incapable of forming coherent sentences and prone to violence. If anything, this article would show that there is a wide variety of different "gamers" out there.

Some headings I've come up with so far include:
The RPG fan
The FPS fan
The importer
The collector
The casual gamer
The fanboy

That's a bit of what I've got so far, but I could use some help fleshing out details. No, I don't want you to write my story for me, I'm just curious to hear what others think about this idea
. And yes, I will credit you if I use your suggestions.

Feel free to drop me a line either in the comments section, or via email.

Have at you.