Friday, September 29, 2006

VG REVIEW: Ninety-Nine Nights

What kind of game is "Ninety-Nine Nights" anyway? It's not quite an action game, not quite a strategy or a role-playing game.

"Nights," like the "Dynasty Warrior," the franchise it so clearly apes, involves battling a massive army, taking down scores of opponents one soldier at a time. I like to call them lawn mower games, since all you basically do is mow down the enemies in front of you.

"Nights" attempts to up the ante a bit by allowing you to cut the grass more efficiently, so to speak. Now, one swipe of your blade can level not just one or two, but scores of enemies, which now swarm the TV screen thanks to the power of the Xbox 360.

Your combo level can reach into the hundreds and your "kill rate" can go into the thousands. Certain special moves (obtained by collecting "orbs") will even let you decimate an entire army with just the press of a button.

For those who love the idea of swashbuckling through a horde of evildoers, "Nights" sounds promising. And initially, it holds true to its ideas and even includes some weighty questions on revenge, genocide and justice.

Unfortunately, the game soon becomes repetitive and what at first seemed fresh quickly becomes redundant.

"Nights" takes place in a fantasy universe that owes more than a little bit to J.R.R. Tolkein, as you will frequently find yourself up against an array of nasty goblins and trolls.

When the game begins, you play as Inphyy, a young general who seems more concerned with showing off as much of her bosom as possible rather than leading troops.

Most of the game is spent moving her across the battlefield. You can give orders to your troops in a limited fashion (attack or defend), but it hardly matters since they're rather ineffectual.

Once Inphyy's story is over, other characters are unlocked, each with special weapons and combo moves. You can also unleash devastating moves by collecting the red "orbs" that issue forth from each defeated enemy.

It can be fun to try different moves and attacks while surrounded by goblins, but the fact remains that you can just as easily defeat them by mashing one button repeatedly.

Equally troublesome is the save feature or lack thereof. You can only save your game in between missions, some of which can last nearly 45 minutes. What's more, you may find yourself having to repeat an earlier mission in order to level up your character before taking on the final battle, which can prove to be tiresome.

"Nights" isn't a bad game; even at its most basic, there's a certain thrill in overcoming huge odds while performing gravity-defying tricks.

But the game needs an extra level of strategy or challenge to make it rise above the mediocre and take it to the next generation. "Nights" looks pretty, but when it comes down to it, you're still just cutting the grass.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, September 28, 2006

GAME ON: Video game legislation in Pa

Today's post will mainly be of interest to those folks living in Pennsylvania. Specifically Pennsylvania gamers, as I take a look at a recent hearing a state House committee held about the effect of violence of video games on kids.

This will probably be the last Game On column for awhile, as I'm finding it difficult to do these and the rest of my job in any reasonable time period. Something basically has to give and this seemed like a good choice. Plus, with space shrinking in our Arts section, I'd rather devote my time to reviews, especially with the fall onslaught creeping in. I'll still do news/feature stories, but on a more occasional, and hopefully more timely, basis.

It’s happened in Illinois. It’s happened in Michigan. It’s happened in California.

And it might soon happen in Pennsylvania.

What I’m talking about is video game legislation. A number of states have enacted or looked at enacting laws designed to keep violent video games out of the hands of underage children.

Most if not all of these laws so far have been struck down by federal courts as violating the First Amendment, as well as failing to show a direct link between game violence and the real-life kind.

The Pennsylvania Legislature tentatively began investigating the issue, and the House’s Children and Youth Committee held a hearing last month on the effects of violent games on children.

State Rep. Ronald Walters (D-Philadelphia/Delaware), the prime sponsor of the hearing, said he was concerned about children’s access to such games as “Grand Theft Auto,” which allows one to take on the role of a rather homicidal gangster.

“I watch young people play these games, and they play them for long periods of time,” he said. “It’s hard for me to watch that kind of activity without wondering what kind of effects it’s having on them.”

Walters’ main worry is that the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the main ratings board for the video game industry, does not enforce its ratings, so there’s nothing to prevent a store owner from selling an M-rated game to an underage customer.

“What are we doing subliminally to our children that we allow them to entertain themselves with this type of activity and we’re not watching or at least monitoring to see what the effect is,” he said.

Clay Calvert of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment was among those testifying at the hearing. He says he understands Walters’ concerns but doesn’t think legislation is the answer.

“The Legislature is right to be concerned about violence in society. They are right to be concerned about violence in the media. The question is what is really the answer and from my perspective, I don’t think legislation is,” he said.

“The Legislature in Pennsylvania is stepping deeply into the culture wars when it decides to legislate about violent video games,” Calvert said. “Being against violence is a very popular political decision. Who isn’t against violence in society?”

Calvert added that legislation, or even some form of state-sponsored study into the issue, would be a waste of taxpayer money since, first, any legislation would be quickly overturned by the courts; and, second, it’s difficult to show what direct effect a violent game has on an individual.

Such arguments hold little sway for child psychologist Marolyn Morford of the Center for Child and Adult Development in State College. From her viewpoint, video games are an educational tool first and art second.

“You can never predict human behavior 100 percent, but you can talk about probabilities, and it is more likely that [children] would engage in an antisocial behavior if that behavior is reinforced for them over many hours and if their cohort also supports those sorts of behaviors,” she said. “That’s how games operate.”

Far from being anti-video game, Morford has used games like “The Sims” as a way to help patients who are socially phobic. Her fear is over access and education.

“There is entertainment, but there’s also learning that’s going on, and I think that anybody who ignores the learning factor is ignoring a very powerful motivating dimension of that experience,” she said.

Morford said she did not view prohibitive or punitive legislation as the solution but instead stressed the need for more public education and awareness about the learning effects of video games.

“I would like the gaming industry to not be so stupid and ignorant or act like they’re so ignorant, that this is just like watching a violent movie and not recognizing what kind of power they do have and how they can play into people’s weaknesses,” she said.

Walters said while he would support some sort of legislation, he was more interested in backing a study to investigate the influence of violent video games, much like the Children and Media Research Advancement Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate.

“I’m just asking for a study,” he said. “Whatever the outcome of the study is, I’m willing to accept it. If we find that there is no consequences of this, then I will be someone who will say ‘OK, I accept the study.’

“But if the study says yes, there are things we need to alarm parents about, then we need to make sure that parents know that,” he said.

Whatever the committee eventually recommends, Calvert said the hearing was far from a kangaroo court and that the legislators showed themselves to be fair and open-minded.

“This was not a hostile group of people. They seemed like they were genuinely interested in these issues,” Calvert said. “I think they wanted to learn about the situation. So I give them credit for having an open mind going in. It wasn’t ‘bash the video game industry day.’ ”

Copyright The Patriot-News

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Graphic Lit: Jean-Jacques Sempe

October is near, bringing changing leaves, colder weather and yet another Halloween.

This October, however, also brings us lots of Sempe, as in Jean-Jacques Sempe, the famed French illustrator and cartoonist.

Though he is well-known in his home country of France, most Americans see his work mainly in the New Yorker, where his wistful characters have graced the cover of the magazine many times over the past couple of decades.

Now, Phaidon is set to release an onslaught of Sempe material on these shores. Gag collections, stationary, children’s books — it’s all heading to a bookstore near you this fall.

Things already got under way earlier this summer, with Phaidon’s release of the “Nicholas” books ($19.95 each), a popular series of children’s books by Rene Goscinny (co-creator of Asterix) that Sempe provided illustrations for.

Also in stores right now is the delightful “Martin Pebble” (120 pages, $19.95). This coffee table-size children’s book tells of a young boy who, for unknown reasons, can’t stop blushing.

Ostracized because of this peculiarity, Martin eventually finds true friendship with another lad who can’t stop sneezing. Then what starts out as a tale about being different gently shifts gears as the youths separate, only to reunite many years later.

Lest this story sound too twee and whimsical, let me assure you that it is anything but. Sempe’s warm, vibrant drawings and knowing text make the book a pleasure for young and old alike.

Next month, meanwhile, sees the release of “Monsieur Lambert” (64 pages, $14.95). Here, a group of businessmen are perturbed when a member of their party starts showing up late at their regular luncheons. Their annoyance quickly turns to delight when they discover his lateness is because of a new love affair.

Sempe’s fondness for poking fun at middle-class foibles is in full effect here, as the gentlemen start reminiscing about their own past, fabulous love affairs. Affairs which, in all likelihood, never took place.

“Lambert” and “Pebble” are lovely, but the main treasure trove can be found in Phaidon’s release of four oversize collections of Sempe’s gag cartoons: “Nothing is Simple,” “Everything is Complicated,” “Sunny Spells” and “Mixed Messages” ($24.95 each).

These books find Sempe in his element, displaying his brilliance with pen and ink while mining familiar tropes involving psychiatrists, artists, long-married couples and urban life in general.

Often the delight in his work lies not in the gag itself but in discovering it. A two-page spread of the bulls running in Pamplona only becomes funny once you see one of the bulls has entered a nearby home and is threatening the owner. A picture of two men squaring off with pistols doesn’t make you grin until you see the two women at the top of the picture getting ready to battle it out in a less refined manner.

Of course, that’s not all. Phaidon is also releasing a number of Sempe-illustrated stationary, postcards and journals, including “From the Couch” ($14.95) a handsome hardbound journal featuring Sempe’s psychiatry-themed cartoons.

Sempe’s work is so detailed and lush that often the cartoons become art objects themselves. He often goes beyond what’s necessary to depict a joke or scene, setting up not just a gag, but an entire universe. You stare in awe at the artistry on display first, then you laugh.

Even when his humor is black, there remains a warmth, a love for humanity and life that makes his work such a treat to read. Though he frequently skirts the edge of sentimentality, Sempe never crosses over into it.

In publishing these books, Phaidon has unearthed a veritable gold mine. If you care at all about comics, cartooning or just good art, you would do well to check them out.

Also in stores

“Bardin the Superrealist”
by Max
Fantagraphics, 80 pages, $19.95.

Another extremely talented but little-known (at least here) author is the Spanish cartoonist Max. We can hope “Bardin” will be the start of more releases down the road.

The book, a surreal tour de force that echoes artists such as Bunuel and Dali, focuses on a meager everyman who is transported to a weird dimension. There, and back on Earth as well, he encounters strange creatures, heckles a jealous god and tackles a variety of nasty nightmares, sword in hand, until ... but why spoil it?

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, September 25, 2006

Graphic Lit: First Second's Fall Line-up

As you might or might not remember, the upstart publishing company First Second debuted earlier this year to much acclaim and some rather impressive titles (“Fate of the Artist,” “Vampire Loves”).

Now comes the tough part — maintaining their stride. This month they unveil their new releases for the fall. Here’s a quick look at the lineup.

“Kampung Boy” by Lat
144 pages, $16.95.

In his native Southeast Asia, Lat is regarded with a devotion comparable to the adoration Charles Schulz received here. “Kampung Boy,” a thinly veiled autobiography of his childhood in rural Malaysia, is one of his finest works — a tender, funny, nostalgic look at a place that seems altogether different from our lives and yet incredibly familiar as well.

Lat’s art at first might seem too rough, too sketchy for Western audiences. All you have to do, though, is look at his drawing of a group of students trying to learn Arabic and know you’re in the hands of a master. If you can afford only one First Second book this year, make it this one.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang
240 pages, $16.95.

This highly ambitious book about ethnic identity incorporates three different story lines. The first involves young Jin Wang and his desperate attempts to fit in at his largely white school.

The second tells of the mythic adventures of The Monkey King, who has a bone to pick with the Chinese pantheon. The third shows how average white teen Danny’s life is ruined by his cousin Chin-Kee, who seems to embody every horrible and offensive Asian stereotype known to man.

Though seemingly unrelated at first, Yang manages to tie these three disparate tales together in a rather unique and surprisingly satisfying way. It’s a smart, well-written book that not only asks tough questions about identity and racism, but also indulges in a bit of formulist play as well. Perhaps it doesn’t answer every issue it raises, but don’t let that keep you from checking it out.

“Klezmer Book One: Tales of the Wild East” by Joann Sfar
144 pages, $16.96.

Having examined the life of a North African Jewish family in “The Rabbi’s Cat,” Sfar heads north to Europe at the turn of the last century for this tale of a motley group of musicians who band together to perform a new type of Jewish music.

Sfar adopts a much looser, watercolor style here than found in his previous works. One color, such as yellow, frequently dominates a page, giving the book a fauvist quality and often highlighting the emotional and even musical drive of the story.

Basically it’s another wonderful book from Sfar, further underscoring what a significant, powerful author he is.

“Sardine in Outer Space 2” by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar
128 pages, $12.95.

More outer space hi-jinks from Sfar and Guibert, as young space pirate Sardine, her uncle, Captain Yellow Shoulder, and best buddy Little Louie continue to outwit and thwart the evil Supermuscleman and his henchman, Doc Krok.

The tales have a surreal, anything-goes quality that will appeal to kids with a deep appreciation for the offbeat, not to mention the downright silly. Parents might object to some of the gross-out humor, but it’s hard to say no to a book that includes a giant monster with TVs for fingernails and a removable bellybutton.

“Journey Into Mohawk Country” by George O’Connor
144 pages, $17.95.

O’Connor adapts the diary of a 17th-century Dutch trader and his winter trek through what eventually would become known as Manhattan in this graphic novel.

O’Connor’s art, as well as his eye for detail, is impressive. He obviously did an enormous amount of detail, but he also has to add a lot of asides and superfluous character bits in order to pad out what is essentially a rather dry journal. You’re too busy noticing all the stuff O’Connor had to add to keep the narrative moving along to become involved in the story. It’s ambitious, but “Mohawk” will probably best be enjoyed by those with a specific interest in this period of history.

“Missouri Boy” by Leland Myrick
112 pages, $16.95.

This is easily the weakest book in First Second’s fall lineup, and possibly the weakest book they’ve published so far.

Myrick provides snapshots of his small-town childhood, but the result feels disjointed and mundane. In trying to be poetic, the text comes off as overly ponderous, the result of trying to inflate one’s memories with more importance than they can bear.

The biggest problem is the tales don’t connect in any real narrative sense, making the book feel like a loose collection of events that bear no real relation to one another. Myrick’s stories might mean a lot to him, but he doesn’t manage to convey to the reader why that’s so.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sorry for the lack of posts

It's been hella busy around here lately. Fear not though. Posting shall resume on Monday, if not sooner.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

VG REVIEW: Madden '07


Electronic Arts, for Xbox 360, Play­Station 2, Xbox, GameCube and PC rated E for Everyone. $59.99 (Xbox 360), $39.99 (PC) and $49.99 (ev­erything else)

I think we’re at a point with the “Madden” series right now where it’s about as good as it’s going to get.

The core gameplay experience is more or less set in stone. The format has been honed and rehoned to the point where there’s not much more you can do with the basic setup.

So what you get from iteration to iteration is a series of tweaks and upgrades (or, if you want to be cynical, downgrades) that amount to a nice, new tablecloth on a rather old (but sturdy) table. Because there’s got to be some incentive to buy the new version, after all.

How utterly amazing, then, that the latest edition of “Madden,” “Madden 07,” includes a new feature that is not only fun, but actually improves the game.

I am speaking about the “All-New Highlight Stick,” which allows you to use the right thumbstick to pull fancy jukes, cutbacks and power shoves.

In previous incarnations, you had to rely on the controller buttons to exert these moves, and remembering which button did what could be an exercise in frustration.

Using the thumbstick is a much more intuitive and elegant solution and results in a much more enjoyable game.

Other inclusions aren’t too shabby, either. Now, for example, you have the ability to control the lead blocker during your running plays, shoving the defense aside so your running back can make the first down.

Since this aspect of the game has always been one of “Madden’s” weak points, it’s nice to see an attempt to improve the experience. It’s something that takes a bit of effort to get the hang of, but one that football fans will ultimately appreciate.

There are other additions. “NFL Superstar Mode,” in which you build a player from the ground up and take him to the Hall of Fame, is back, but has been altered a bit.

Now your actions on the field can influence other teammates, as well as raise your own character’s stats. It’s a nice feature, but it takes time to get your character off the ground and is recommended only for those with the patience to persevere.

Overall, this is a pretty solid chapter in the “Madden” franchise, one that casual fans and hardcore sports enthusiasts should be able to get behind. At least until next year’s sequel comes around.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stephan Pastis and "Pearls Before Swine"

Recently, the powers that be at The Patriot-News decided to boot Dilbert to the business page, leaving a hole open on our comics page for a new strip. The winner turned out to be Stephan Pastis' "Pearls Before Swine." To herald the new arrival, I did a feature story on Pastis and the strip which ran last Sunday. Enjoy.

A couple find a sick seal washed up on a beach. They take it to a hospital, nurture it, play with it and hold a big party when the seal is well enough to return to the sea.

Then, as the seal makes its way back to the ocean, it is quickly eaten by a large killer whale.

“He didn’t get the memo” says a largish rat to his pig friend, as the couple wail in the background.

Welcome to the deliciously twisted world of “Pearls Before Swine,” the new daily comic strip that will join the comics section of The Patriot-News starting tomorrow.

Created by Stephan Pastis, “Pearls” features an anthropomorphic cast of characters that includes an arrogant, sharp-tongued rat, a slow-witted pig, a peaceful zebra and a trio of incredibly stupid crocodiles who would like nothing better than to eat the zebra.

Debuting in January 2002, the strip has proven to be one of the more successful new newspaper strips of the past few years, appearing in 300 newspapers worldwide, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post.

A large part of the strip’s success is due to its almost relentless clever wordplay. (Waitress: “Would you care for a cup of coffee?” Pig: “If it needed me and no other family member would take it in.”) Not to mention its delightfully simple, cartoony art style and the aforementioned sardonic point of view.

Pastis is quick to point out, however, that such morbid musings are all in service to his sense of humor.

“I write what I think is funny, and what I think is funny happens to be dark,” Pastis said from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“I don’t want complaints any more than the next guy. If the humor wasn’t there, I wouldn’t go there.”

Cartooning has been in Pastis’ blood since he was a kid, though it took time and effort before he was able to realize his dream.

“I was a big ‘Peanuts’ fan. I always wanted to do what Charles Schulz did,” he said. “When I got to be about college age, I realized the odds of that happening were very slim, so I went to law school and became a lawyer for nine years.”

But Pastis found he loathed the legal profession and started drawing on nights and weekends, submitting strips, usually involving smart-aleck rats, to the comic syndicates.

It wasn’t until he paired the rat with a good-natured pig that the strip took off.

“When I started out, it was a hard sell. ‘I got a rat and a pig and they talk about death. Hope you like it,’¤” he said, adding that the pig “sort of makes rat more palatable. That seemed to be the key.”

“Pearls” is one of several newer strips, along with “Get Fuzzy” and “The Boondocks,” that is clearly aimed at a younger audience.

“That seems to be the core group. People in their teens, 20s and 30s,” he said.

That is noteworthy since most strips tend to skew toward an older audience. In fact, “Pearls” has been quite merciless in the past in poking fun at beloved, long-established strips like “Family Circus” and “Blondie.”

“There’s a huge divide in the profession,” Pastis said. “If you’re young, you see one strip after another handed off from father to son, and it just goes on ad infinitum and no space clears up on the comics page. If you’re a young [cartoonist], that’s really hard to deal with.

“You don’t even have to hold a poll. I know among older people, I will be one of the least-liked [cartoonists] and among younger people I will be among one of the most liked.”

Writing an allegedly “edgy” strip for a family-friendly newspaper can be a bit taxing at times for Pastis.

“It’s almost like playing the piano and someone says you can’t use the black keys,” he said. “It’s not to say it’s not doable, but you’d rather have all the keys.”

Despite his outspokenness, Pastis isn’t in a hurry to head back to his old legal firm. Cartooning, he says, is where it’s at.

“How can you beat staying home and drawing goofy pictures?” he said. “It’s a good thing.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006

Graphic Lit: The 9/11 Report

The arrival of “The 9/11 Report,” a graphic adaptation of “The 9/11 Commission Report,” has caused a bit of a kerfluffle among some conservative pundits, who seem to be affronted by the notion that such a serious subject could be treated with delicacy in the comics medium.

It’s a ridiculous concern, of course. If anything, comics make excellent teaching tools. They are able to impart complex, detailed information in an easy-to-read, narrative format (and if you don’t believe me, check out the safety placard in your airplane the next time you take a flight).

No, the question is not whether “The 9/11 Commission Report” could be successfully adapted into comics. Of course it could. The question is, have the authors managed to do so?

For the most part, yes. Writer Sid Jacobson and artist Ernie Colon do a commendable job of condensing and illustrating the commission’s report.

“I had known so many people who had tried reading [the 9/11 report] and could not get through it. It was too difficult for laymen,” Jacobson said from his home in Los Angeles. “Our feeling was we can make it easier and more accessible to all readers.”

“I’ve always felt comics can show more precisely what’s there than a photograph. A photograph can be blurry.”

Though dense at times, the book lays out in detailed fashion how the September attacks occurred and where the government failed to prevent them, covering many decades, countries and characters while doing so. To their credit, I never felt as though I couldn’t follow the story or be confused as to who was who.

The best example is the opening timeline, which shows in horizontal strips across the page how the attack went forward. In strict prose, it would be much more difficult to keep track of the different planes and times.

Which is not to say this is a perfect adaptation. At times, I’d trip on one of Colon’s overlapping layouts, and have trouble figuring out the order of the panels, only to have to start reading over again from the top.

There’s a more troublesome aspect to the book, however, that goes beyond the occasional narrative slip-up. The authors employ some traditional comic book tropes that would be more suited to “Batman” than here.

Sound effects, for example, are used with alarming frequency. A disturbing “Blamm!” in capital red letters overlaps the explosion at the Pentagon. Enemy soldiers are dispatched with a mighty “Flamm!” and even a “Pok!” The sound of a fireball going down an elevator is, apparently, “Shoom!”

“It’s a translation of sound. I don’t think we overused it. It was used in a precise way.” Jacobson said in defending its use.

This penchant for melodrama extends to other aspects of the book as well, though, as Jacobson says, only in small spurts. Exclamation points are used frequently, in sentences such as “We’ve got to stop them! Two Planes crashed into the World Trade Center!” and “How the hell could a plane — Oh, no! A Second One!”

It’s as though Jacobson and Colon — who have both had long careers at companies like Harvey and Marvel — couldn’t completely let go of the pulpish idioms that incorporated the comics they spent most of their careers working on.

Still, while these inclusions dull the emotional impact of the book, they don’t alter its effectiveness as a teaching tool. For those who found the original report rough going, or, more ideally, for students who are still learning about how the world suddenly became a lot more dangerous, “The 9/11 Report” is an excellent resource.

“We have had such laudatory comments by the Commission members I’m in awe,” Jacobson said. “I’m so fulfilled.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Sunday, September 10, 2006

D&Q Winter Preview

Hey, look at that! I actually finally fixed up my links! Now clicking on "The Beat" won't take you to Heidi's old site. Plus I added a few nice, new links to the lists. See if you can find them.

Anyway, it's that time of year again, where all the book companies send out their catalogs to the press for the coming year. And since Farrar Straus Giroux handle book distribution for Drawn and Quarterly, we get a sneek peek at what they've got planned for the first few months of 2007. What fun!

First up on their list is a translation of the highly acclaimed French graphic novel "Aya" by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie. I'm pretty sure this was already announced a few months ago, so no real surprises here. It's about a 19-year-old West African girl, her friends and their adventures growing up in an increasingly liberated and modern Africa. It sounds about 180 degrees from books like "Degroatis," and ideally should provide a more nuanced picture of life on that continent. It's due in stores in March.

Next up is "King Cat Classics" by John Porcellino. This, as you may well guess, is a "best of" collection of stories taken from Porcellino's ongoing "King Cat" mini-comic. Considering how long he's been doing that series, and how many issues have long since been out of print, this book has been long overdue. It'll hit stores in April.

After that we have "One Eye" by Charles Burns, which is part of the Petit Livres series. Neither a sketchbook, nor a minicomic, "One Eye is a collection of paired photographs, two to a page. The idea seems to be to juxtapose two strikingly different or subtly similar works together to create a disturbing cumulative effect. Look for it in March.

Next we have the book I'm probably looking forward to the most: "Oh Skin-Nay!" by Clare Briggs. Briggs, for those who don't know, is an early 20th-century cartoonist who largely depicted rural and middle class American life with sly humor. The catalog text says "Oh Skin-Nay is a collaboration between Briggs and poet Wilbur D. Nesbit and potrays a year in the life of small-town American through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy." It comes out in January.

Finally, there's "Hey Dork," which is the second in the ongoing mini-sized sketchbook collections by Gary Panter. I liked the first one, "Satiroplastic" and fully expect the second to be of the same high quality. I mean, it's Panter. It's due in January.

And that's all for now. Peace out.

Friday, September 08, 2006

GAME ON: Refuting Chuck Klosterman

For my gaming column last month (boy am I behind in my posting) I thought I'd take a look at the mini-brouhaha Esquire critic and all-around snark Chuck Klosterman created in one of his recent columns. My thanks to Clive Thompson and Brian Crecente for taking time out to talk to me. They're both very swell, very smart guys. Be sure to check out their respective blogs.

It's a question that's plagued scores of gamers and journalists: Why is there no Lester Bangs of video
games ?

Well, at any rate, it's a question that's plagued critic and columnist Chuck Klosterman. In the July issue of Esquire, he
lamented that, although video games are an important cultural medium, serious, thoughtful criticism of video games was seriously lacking, at least in any major mainstream publication.

"As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no film critic Pauline Kael of video game writing. There is no rock critic Lester Bangs of video game writing."

Gamer reaction, as one might expect, was swift and, to a large degree, incredulous. Particularly among those who actually cover video games for a living.

"I love Klosterman's writing. He may be the best pop culture critic out there. But he was way off the mark with this one," said Clive Thompson, a columnist for Wired and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

Thompson wrote a rather scathing response to Klosterman's column for Wired, where he took to task the assumptions that gaming needs mainstream validation and that mainstream periodicals such as Esquire are at all interested in covering such things in any meaningful way.

"It's arrogant to think the gaming world is waiting for Esquire," he said, arguing that there is plenty of good criticism being written, it's just being done online.

"Clearly he did not get the interesting thing about games, which is they are the first form of mass entertainment to grow up in the age of the Internet."

Brian Crecente, who covers video games for the Rocky Mountain News and is editor of the popular video game blog Kotaku, agrees that Klosterman's piece was flawed.

"He's right, but he may be wrong about why," Crecente said, adding, "He started a discussion that needs to be had."

Like Thompson, Crecente believes the Internet's role in developing good criticism is too significant to be ignored.

"The audience for consumption of entertainment has become so fractured and niche-based there can't be a Lester Bangs of anything. There can be powerful writers, but no single voice in coverage. Lester Bangs is ... the community."

Part of the problem in talking or writing about video games is that it is a markedly different form of entertainment, one that requires a different set of criteria and language. That can be tough to do in a mainstream market, where you're writing for a general audience.

"What I'm trying to do is continually redirect away from cinema and narrative and talk about play," Thompson said.

Crecente noted that video games are a much less passive experience than other art forms. "Two people can play the same game and have completely different experiences," he said.

There is one aspect of Klosterman's rant that rings true. Many reviewers, even those who write for niche gaming magazines, tend to focus on the details of a game and don't really discuss how the game affects you emotionally. What you get instead is a barrage of technical specs which, as Crecente notes, "don't leave you with any sense of what the game is about."

That will all probably change as time moves on and gaming takes a more prominent role in our culture. Klosterman's biggest faux pas might be that he's a bit premature in his lament.

In the near future, I expect to see more and more coverage of gaming in periodicals such as Time and Newsweek. I expect to see smarter, more in-depth reviews of games and the gaming industry from the journalistic community. I just don't necessarily expect to see that sort of thing in Esquire.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

VG REVIEW: Dead Rising

Capcom, for Xbox 360
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, in­tense violence, language, partial nudity, use of alcohol), $59.99.

Thanks to "Dead Rising," I now know exactly what to do in the event that an enormous zombie horde comes knocking at my door. I'll just hit them with my soccer ball.

Or a bowling ball. Or a food court umbrella. Or a chain saw, shotgun, cash register, sledgehammer, hockey stick, coat hanger, two-by-four or anything else I can get my hands on.

That's the central premise behind "Dead Rising," where you play aspiring photojournalist Frank West, who inadvertently finds himself trapped for 72 hours in a mall that's overrun with the undead.

Luckily the No. 1 rule of zombies applies here, namely that they're rather stupid and slow. Their strength lies in numbers, not in cunning.

That gives Frank (and you) time to comb through the various stores in the mall, where just about anything he can find can become a weapon.

There are other things you can grab in the mall that add to the experience as well. Food and drink at the various stands will improve your health, reading books raises your skills and you can change into a variety of costumes, some comical, some chic.

But a lot of your time at the mall won't be spent just hacking at zombies and trying on T-shirts. Success in the game also means locating and rescuing the few survivors that are trapped in various parts of the mall.

Often that means going up against the various unhinged psychopaths that lie in wait for you. Apparently, the dead coming back to life and eating flesh does bad things to the average mind. Just ask the chain saw-wielding clown.

Of course, because your character happens to be a photographer, taking good pictures of the carnage is important as well. Getting dramatic or bloody photos will garner you prestige points, which in turn increase your strength, health and whatnot.

The most intriguing thing about "Dead Rising," however, is its structure and save system. Unfortunately, this also is the most frustrating thing about the game, and what ultimately prevents it from becoming a classic.

Because the game takes place within such a limited period of time, replay is essential in order to unlock all of the different items, characters and endings available. It's easy, for example, to miss the central plot line concerning how the zombie attack came to be.

Capcom, however, makes replaying the game a veritable necessity through its restrictive save system. Other games, for example, offer different "slots" to save your game so you don't have to overwrite previous saves; "Dead Rising" only has one, forcing you to make tough decisions about saving your game when your health is low.

Save points also are few and far between, located only in mall bathrooms or in the security room. Worse still, though, is that when you do die in the game, you are given a rather unwelcome choice: start your game over all the way from the beginning with all of your upgraded stats intact or load up your last save, even if it had been an hour ago.

It's a shame that Capcom inflated the game with such an artificial difficulty level, but it's still a different enough and, yes, amusing enough game for me to recommend.

It is hoped such problems will be taken care of in the inevitable sequel. I'll keep my soccer ball at the ready just in case.

Note: Apparently this game was tested only on HDTVs, and folks with standard televisions have been complaining they can't read the text in the game. Buyer beware.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Graphic Lit: Review Round-Up

The review pile on my desk is in serious danger of teetering over, which means it’s time for another quick lightning round of reviews.

Let’s see if I can actually offer some thoughtful criticism in as few sentences as possible!

“But I Like It”
by Joe Sacco, Fantagraphics Books
122 pages, $24.95.

Sacco’s love/hate affair with all things rock and roll is explored in this collection, the highlight of which is easily “In the Company of Long Hair,” where the author spent several weeks touring Europe with an almost-was rock band.

There’s plenty more strong material here, though, including album covers and show posters, satirical strips and loving tributes to The Rolling Stones and Lightning Hopkins. Those who mainly know Sacco through his journalistic pieces will be surprised at the (often bitter) humor on display here, as well as his gift for over-the-top caricature. And hey, there’s even a CD included!

“I Love Led Zeppelin”
by Ellen Forney
Fantagraphics Books, 112 pages, $19.95.

Fantagraphics continues its onslaught of rock-themed books with this collection of strips by Forney, who doesn’t publish nearly enough to suit my tastes.

This is mainly a loose collection of strips from the past 14 years or so, with the older material suffering greatly in comparison with the newer.

At her best, however, Forney is able to break down complex information in short, easy-to-read bites, whether she’s talking about how to roller-skate backward or how to sew an amputated finger back on. Add in her sensuous, playful line and you’ve got a cartoonist we need to be seeing more of.

by Raymond Chandler, Ted Benoit and Francois Ayroles
Arcade Publishing, 120 pages, $19.95.

“Playback” is one of Chandler’s “long-lost” stories — a screenplay that never saw the light of day but bits of which were incorporated into his novel “The Lady in the Lake.”

Benoit and Ayroles do a decent job adapting the story to comics, but they could have done better. “Playback” isn’t primo Chandler, but Ayroles’ art doesn’t necessarily improve things — his scrunched-up and pushed-in faces prevent the characters from showing any emotion beyond ennui. It’s not a horrible book by any means, but it is more for Chandler fans than casual readers.

“Path of the Assassin Vol. 1”
by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Dark Horse Comics, 320 pages, $9.95.

Yet another sex-and-violence choked samurai tale from the pair that brought you “Lone Wolf and Cub.” Here, a young ninja in training is assigned to protect a shogun not much older than himself.

As usual with a lot of Koike’s work, the sexual politics are a tad politically incorrect, to put it mildly. But it’s also a rip-snorting, tense and rather smartly-told yarn that older comics fans will enjoy so long as they’re willing to overlook some of the more questionable issues.

“Megillat Esther”
by J.T. Waldman, The Jewish Publication Society
176 pages, $18.

Here’s an oddity for you: a graphic novel adaptation of the Book of Esther that features the original Hebrew decorating the pages like architectural flourishes. Plus, you have to turn the book upside-down at the halfway point to finish reading the story.

Unfortunately, these aesthetic flourishes, though clever and delightful, don’t really aid much in storytelling. In fact, it’s very difficult at times to suss out the basic plot or tell the characters apart. Perhaps a better knowledge of the original text is necessary. In any case, this is a book best enjoyed by those with an interest in more experimental work, or in the Bible.

“Tough Love: High School Confidential”
by Abby Denson, Manic D Press
144 pages, $12.95.

If they gave out Pulitzers for good intentions, this book would surely win. However, they don’t and this won’t.

Denson’s story of a shy high school boy coming out of the closet and finding love has its heart in all the right places, but her art and writing are far too crude to engage the reader.

“Lucky Luke: Billy the Kid”
by Morris and Rene Goscinny
9th Cinebook, 48 pages, $9.99.

Across the seas in Europe, Lucky Luke is quite the popular comic character, a noble gunslinger so quick he draws faster than his own shadow.

His appearances in the U.S. have been sporadic at best, but now the U.K. company 9th Cinebook has started to release his adventures here, beginning with this volume, which rather comically imagines Billy the Kid as a mischievous spoiled brat rather than a figure of terror.

Like the “Asterix” books (which Goscinny is the co-creator of), this is a great, light-hearted series that should appeal to the kid in everyone.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006