Friday, December 29, 2006

VG review: "Guitar Hero II"

Red Octane, for PlayStation 2

rated T for Teen (lyrics), $79.99 (with guitar controller), $49.99 (without).

The first "Guitar Hero" game all but screamed "sleeper hit," coming out of nowhere and quickly snatching up critical acclaim and profits like peanuts at a bar.

A sequel was inevitable.

But after a nearly perfect game like the first "GH," what do you do for an encore? Where do you go after you've already turned your amps up to 11?

You move them up to 12, apparently, as "Guitar Hero II" improves just about every aspect of the game, from the song list to the game play.

As before, the game comes with a guitar-shaped controller you strap over your shoulder. Playing "Guitar Hero II" doesn't require previous music lessons, though.On the screen, colored knobs scroll downwards toward the player while a concert goes on in the background. When a knob reaches the bottom of the screen, you must push up or down on the strum bar and press the appropriate fret button at the same moment to hit the note.

Inexperienced users will be able to get comfortable in "Easy" and "Normal" modes, but by "Hard" mode the notes come at a fast and furious pace (if anything it's even tougher than in the first iteration). Thankfully, developer Harmonix listened to fans of the previous game and included a "Practice" mode, where you can slow down a particularly tough tune and work on it without fear of a "game over" screen.

One of the places "Guitar Hero II" really shines is in its track list. Whereas most music games feature an anemic soundtrack, "Hero" gets your blood pumping. Tunes by Black Sabbath, Heart, Primus, Kiss, Wolfmother, Megadeth, Stone Temple Pilots and even Spinal Tap are included (though not by the original artists). And yes, you can even try your hand at "Free Bird."

The most improved aspect of the game, however, is the multiplayer section. Now, it's possible to jam along with your friend in co-op mode, with one player handling the rhythm or bass section. Of course, you can compete against each other in sections like "Pro Face-Off" mode. Either way, an extra guitar controller is a must. (Yes, you could use the standard PS2 controller to play along, but why would you?)\

As good as the first game was, "Guitar Hero II" is a richer, more full-bodied experience the second time around. Every aspect, from the character animations to the loading screens, seems to be that much more enjoyable.

In short, the game does everything it can to make you feel like an actual rock god and not just some schlump pressing buttons in your living room. That it succeeds is no small bit of magic.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


Thursday, December 28, 2006

VG review: "Viva Pinata"

Microsoft, for Xbox 360
rated E for Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence), $49.99. 
From the cover, a cheerful, horse-shaped pinata grinned at me somewhat nefariously. Oh joy, I thought, another anemic, simple-minded game.

Five hours later I emerged from the world of “Viva Pinata,” bleary eyed and wondering where the time went. And how soon until I could play some more?

“Viva Pinata” is the latest salvo in Microsoft’s ongoing attempts to attract folks to Xbox 360. This time around the company is clearly aiming for the family market, as “Pinata” is a colorful, addictive experience, based on a Saturday morning cartoon that I have up until now managed to avoid.

Developed by Rare (“Goldeneye,” “Perfect Dark Zero”), “Viva Pinata” is an intriguing blend of the “Sims,” “Animal Crossing” and “Harvest Moon” games. You start out inheriting a small patch of land to smooth out and cultivate by planting a variety of seeds provided by some of the odd-looking denizens that make up the “Pinata” world.

Once you have some grass and plants in the ground, animals start visiting the garden and, provided certain conditions are met, will make it their home.

When you have two animals of the same type in the garden, you can have them breed by giving them something to eat and then introducing them. A cute, G-rated scene of the animals cavorting plays, with an egg following swiftly afterward.

Part of the fun of “Viva Pinata” is the blazingly fast speed at which it throws a multitude of tasks at you, at least at first. You’ll be busy trying to romance two little birds when suddenly, hey, a new animal is visiting the garden! A new store is open! Two pinatas are fighting! Another is sick; call the doctor! Now, what was that you were trying to do with those birds?

If your garden is a busy place, it’s also a rather violent one. You are building a virtual ecosystem here, and the creatures will feed upon one another in order to survive (or at least be persuaded to romance).

None of the devourings are terribly graphic, but there is something terribly disturbing about watching one crack another one open and then gobble up the candy inside. As a result, it’s not a game I’d recommend for the very young or the easily unnerved.

For everyone else, however, “Viva Pinata” is a blast.

The game can become a bit repetitive as time wears on, but never so much that it loses its charm or sense of exploration.

Xbox 360 owners looking for a game to share with the younger members of their family would do well to check out this game.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Curses" and "Lucky"

There have been a number of up and coming cartoonists in recent years, all vying for the title of “best new comic artist.”

Few of them, however, seem as worthy of that mantle as Kevin Huizenga.

Having spent a number of years toiling in the world of avant-garde anthologies and Xeroxed minicomics, Huizenga has produced an impressive body of work in a remarkably short time.

Recently he’s bumped up to the “big time,” (relatively speaking) with two new ongoing series, “Or Else” from Drawn and Quarterly and “Ganges” from Fantagraphics, part of their new Ignatz line.

Now a new book, “Curses,” collects many of the short stories that appeared in those anthologies and minicomics, most of which feature Huizenga’s twentysomething everyman, Glenn Ganges.

Like the author Nicholson Baker, Huizenga often uses everyday events to explore a character’s stream of consciousness. In “Lost and Found,” for example, Glenn reads a junk mail ad, which in turn leads him to contemplate the fate of abducted children, the Lost Boys of the Sudan and his own desire for a family.

Family, children and the longing for both play a big role in “Curses” as many of the stories focus on Glenn and his wife’s attempts to have a baby.

Another reoccurring theme is the fragility of our own short lives, as the nature of hell and the afterlife is contemplated in several pieces (“Jeeper Jacobs,” “Jeezoh”). In Huizenga’s world, the sacred and the profane don’t just intertwine, they are the same.

“My stories are about objects and ideas and landscapes, not just the dramatic relationships between characters.” Huizenga said in a recent e-mail exchange. “I want to draw comics about more than characters solving problems in a series of scenes.”

Huizenga’s art is deliberately light, simple and proudly cartoonish, in the vein of artists like E.C. Segar (“Popeye”) and John Stanley (“Little Lulu”). That goes a long way toward making some of the more heady and poetic aspects of his stories palatable. Glenn’s face, for example, is little more than a few dots and curved lines.

Glenn, however, is not an autobiographical stand-in for Huizenga, though some of the viewpoints may be similar.

“Glenn has to become his own man. Right now he’s like a generic, distorted version of me,” Huizenga said. “In a way he’s how I can write about my own experiences without getting caught up in the messy details and distortions that autobiography would require.”

“Ideally I would like to create a cast of characters that could embody different aspects of myself but stand as individuals too — something like Charles Schulz’s relationship to the ‘Peanuts’ gang,” he said. “But I’ve a long, long way to go.”

The best story in the book is “23rd Street,” an inspired retelling of the folk tale “The Feathered Ogre.”

Here, Glenn goes on a mission through strip-mall America in search of a mystical item that will finally enable him and his wife to have a baby.

It’s the author’s ability to combine the transforming myth of folklore and our world of Wal-Marts and Mobile stations that makes the work take flight. (In one sequence, for example, Glenn has a transforming vision by squirting “enchanted gasoline” into his eyes.)

I’m not spoiling too much by saying that success does eventually come for Glenn and his wife, but, as the title of the book implies, it arrives with some tragic, unforeseen consequences.

In my own stumblebum fashion, I’ve only hinted at the skill displayed in “Curses.” While many art-comics fans are no doubt already familiar with these stories, the book is a perfect introduction for those unacquainted with the artist and his ever expanding world.

‘Lucky’ Bell

Another new cartoonist worthy of high praise is Gabrielle Bell, whose new book, “Lucky,” (Drawn and Quarterly, 112 pages, $22.95) collects a number of minicomics she did a few years ago.

At first hearing, Bell’s comics sound like the sort of stereotype one automatically thinks of in regard to indie cartoonists: Autobiographical tales, focused on mundane details and events filled with heavy narration and a smidgen of angst. Dull news to some of you, no doubt.

But Bell’s dry sense of humor, combined with her thin, sparse, yet graceful artwork belie any preconceived notions you might have about her work. She’s far too talented to be pigeonholed.

“Lucky” doesn’t represent her best work. You’d have to turn to the new “Drawn and Quarterly Showcase” to see that. But it is an entertaining collection and underscores the notion that Bell is a cartoonist to watch out for.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Graphic Lit: A Vertigo round-up

The past year saw the debut of several new titles from DC’s Vertigo imprint. In fact, most of them have already had their initial issues collected in handy trade paperbacks. Will any of these series grab hold of the comics-reading public the way “Sandman” and “Preacher” did? Let’s take a look.

“DMZ: On the Ground”
by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
128 pages, $9.99.

Wood indulges in his love for both New York City and politics in this new series, which imagines the U.S. torn apart by civil war, with the Big Apple operating as ground zero.

Into this war-torn city comes Matty Roth, an aspiring photojournalist who quickly ends up behind enemy lines lost and alone. Making wine out of sour grapes, however, he settles in and begins reporting on the devastation and conflict he sees.

The series starts awkwardly, with lots of ham-fistedness and cliched characters, but once Roth digs in his heels things improve considerably. If the “DMZ” matures, and there’s no reason to suggest it won’t, this could be Vertigo’s strongest and most interesting series in quite awhile.

“Loveless: A Kin of Homecoming”
by Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin
128 pages, $9.99.

Having had great success with the crime genre in “100 Bullets,” Azzarello tries his hand at Westerns with this ongoing series, about a former Confederate soldier who returns to his home town, finding very little in the way of a warm welcome.

Azzarello’s ability to create strong, iconic characters seems to have deserted him here. Even worse, the constant use of flashback to explain the back story is awkward and confusing. As nice as it is to see DC try to bring back the Western, I don’t think they’re going to succeed with this outing.

“Testament: Akedah”
by Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp
118 pages, $9.99.

In “Testament,” futurist pundit Rushkoff explores our relationship with the Bible, suggesting there are more parallels between the ancient world and our own than we might think. Here, for example, an Abraham-type character must decide between sacrificing his son to the Big Brother-styled military or rebelling against his employers. Meanwhile, a trio of supreme beings look on and attempt to influence the proceedings.

Unfortunately, Rushkoff seems more interested in pushing his metaphors (some of which seem awfully forced) than in creating interesting characters or covering up plot holes. Sharp’s art is nice and I like the way he shows the gods’ influence by having them “guide” characters around the edges of the panels, but that’s about all I have to recommend.

“The Exterminators: Bug Brothers”
by Simon Oliver and Tony Moore
128 pages, $9.99.

It’s the Orkin man versus mutated cockroaches in this horror-tinged thriller, as a group of eccentric exterminators, find themselves up against some dangerous bugs, and bump up against some rather repellent people as well.

This is the sort of thing filmmaker David Cronenberg used to do, only much better. Not that “The Exterminators” is awful; it’s just more gross than scary and takes far too long to develop its plot. This first volume is all set up, with little payoff beyond getting to see an army of roaches tear apart the occasional deserving victim. For some, that last sentence might be enough of a recommendation.

“American Virgin: Head”
by Steven T. Seagle, Becky Cloonan and Jim Rugg
112 pages, $9.99.

Boasting one of the more interesting premises of the year, “Virgin” follows the exploits of youth minister and chastity advocate Adam Chamberlain. When his beloved betrothed, a Peace Corps volunteer, is killed by terrorists in Africa, Chamberlain heads to Mozambique to retrieve her body and in the process begins to doubt his cherished beliefs about god and sex.

Obviously Seagle’s goal is to explore the contradictions found in fundamentalist religious dogma, suggesting not too subtly that what one holds to be the undeniable truth is actually dependent upon his or her own permeable cultural values.

The problem is the book veers too wildly between parody and drama to sustain that sort of meaningful analysis. There are too many moments that ring false, as when Chamberlain chastises African boys for being naked.

Cloonan’s artwork is really lovely though, and probably the best thing going for the series so far. Perhaps if Seagle can find a consistent tone, the writing will equal the art.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Insert the "Seasons Greetings" of your choice here

I'm on vacation this week, so blogging will be light, if at all.

Unless inspiration strikes me, posting will resume on the 26th of December or thereabouts.

Have a happy, safe holiday.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Resistance, Wii Sports and more

Of course, a console is no good without some games to play. So, as promised, here's my look at some of the launch titles for the PS3 and Wii.

“Resistance: Fall of Man” (Sony, rated M, $59.99). Anointed the “must-have launch game” because of a lack of competition, “Resistance” is an entertaining, well-made, first-person WWII shooter that pits you against marauding aliens instead of the Axis powers. It’s nothing you haven’t seen in a million other fps games, though the ability to go online in 40-player death matches is a nice feature. Grade: B+

“NBA 07” (Sony, rated E, $59.99). This is probably the title I enjoyed the most, and I’m not even a big basketball fan. Making full use of the console’s high-def abilities, “NBA” looks great and makes good use of the Sixaxis controller, turning it clockwise for example, to have a player spin. Grade: A-

“Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07” (Electronic Arts, rated E, $59.99). The PS3 version of the popular golf franchise is full-featured and fun, but it’s also a bit too similar to the Xbox 360 version. Grade: B

“Need for Speed Carbon” (Electronic Arts, rated E 10+, $59.99). A by-the-numbers street racer that nonetheless manages to offer up its share of thrills. Grade: B

“Madden 07” (Electronic Arts, rated E, $59.99). Sure, the game looks fantastic, but the controls feel wonky, with some noticeable lag time. Wait for next year’s edition. Grade: B-

“Untold Legends: Dark Kingdoms” (Sony, rated T, $59.99). A disappointing and repetitive fantasy role-playing game that encourages mindless button mashing and little else. Grade: C+

“Genji: Days of the Blade” (Sony, rated T, $59.99). This is next-gen gaming? Dull hack and slashing combined with a horribly placed camera that constantly gets in your way? Not to mention assorted bugs. Pass, thanks. Grade: C-

Wii Games

“Wii Sports” (Nintendo, rated E). Packaged with the console, “Wii Sports” does an excellent job of showcasing the Wii’s features. Whether swinging your arm like a golf club, tennis racket or baseball bat, the controls are intuitive and a lot of fun. It’s a perfect party game. Grade: A

“The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess” (Nintendo, rated T, $49.99). Our hero, Link, goes werewolf in this epic, well-designed fantasy game. Players swing, stab and aim their controllers like a sword or bow to dispatch various villains. “Princess” is similar in structure to past Zelda games, but for fans that’s far from a bad thing. Grade: A-

“Excite Truck” (Nintendo, rated E, $49.99). This is a fast-paced, fun racing game that makes good use of the Wii controller (which you hold sideways and tilt left and right to steer). Lack of strong multiplayer features means there isn’t much replay value, but it’s a great pick-up-and-play title nevertheless. Grade: B+

“Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz” (Sega, rated E, $49.99). As before, you guide a small monkey trapped in a clear ball through a hazardous maze. Using the Wii controller, however, makes the experience a lot more intuitive and fun. Too bad the mini-games are so disappointing, though. Grade: B

“Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam” (Activision, rated E 10+, $49.99). This spin-off turns the popular skateboarding franchise into a downhill racing game packed with insufferable cartoon characters. The basic design is decent enough, but the game play is too simplistic and watered down. Grade: C+

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

PS3 vs. the Wii

Better late than never I always say. Here's my breakdown of the two new consoles, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii. The story originally ran in last Sunday's paper, along with some quicky reviews of various launch titles. I'll post the reviews tomorrow.

Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendos Wii might be video-game consoles, but theyre aiming for much different markets and have completely different viewpoints toward what video games should be. Comparing them is really rather unfair.

But then who ever said we were fair? Heres a look at the two competing consoles and how they measure up:


$600 gets you one PlayStation 3 complete with a 60GB hard drive, Blu-ray DVD player, Ethernet and USB ports, one wireless controller, built-in Wi-Fi and a Blu-ray copy of Talladega Nights. For $500 you get the same items except that its a 20GB hard drive and theres no Wi-Fi.

The PS3 can play Blu-ray and regular DVDs, display digital photos, copy music (though you cant incorporate the music into your games the way you can on the Xbox 360) and play old PlayStation 2 games. It should be noted, however, that some folks have had trouble with some PS2 titles.

Sleek, black, beveled and large. Stylish, but also rather heavy. It doesnt, however, make an ungodly whirring noise like the Xbox 360.

Much more complicated than it ought to be. The PS3 is supposed to take full advantage of your average HDTV, but it doesnt come with the proper cables. As soon as you pop in the first game expect to go through a 10-minute (or longer) update installation. Plus, you have to plug in your
controller in order for the console to recognize it. Bah.

Anyone who owns a PlayStation Portable will recognize the PS3s menu system. The vertical menu lets you switch from games to music and movies pretty easily.

The Sixaxis controller (as its being called) is extremely lightweight and fits in the hands rather well. It boasts motion-sensitive capabilities somewhat similar to the Wii, though it doesnt seem as intuitive. Sadly, one thing it doesnt have is rumble vibration, which is sorely missed.

This is where the console shines. Just about every game played on the PS3 looks phenomenal,
featuring stunning detail and texture, though a few are only appreciably different from what you see on the Xbox 360.

Presently, Sonys online area is pretty anemic, but then so was the Xbox Live at first. The Sony store offers some game demos, trailers and one or two arcade-style games, but not much else. The store is easy to navigate, but unlike the 360, you cant download while doing something else, so expect to see lots of progress bars.

You can surf the Internet via the built-in Web browser, though typing in addresses is a hassle. You also can make a friends list, but only for each individual game; theres no real integration between games.

If you have an HDTV (and why did you even try to get a PS3 unless you did?) youll need an HDMI (a good ones about $100) or component cable. An extra controller will set you back $50. A USB keyboard ($14 and up) is essential if youre planning on spending a lot of time online. Sonys maddening key pad system was obviously not designed with real people in mind.

Unless youre hankering for a Blu-ray player, the PlayStation 3 is about as far from an essential purchase as you can get right now. With its high-grade tech specs but low-interest launch library, the PS3 is little more than a tease. It would be foolish to count the console out at this
early date, but those who missed out on the initial launch should sit on their hands and wait until some really noteworthy games come out. The PS3 suggests incredible potential. But right now thats all it is.


For $250 you get the Wii console, a “Wii-mote” controller and “nunchuck” attachment, cables, a sensor bar, Wi-Fi Internet access and a copy of the game “Wii Sports.”


Not much. You can display and manipulate digital pictures by inserting your camera’s memory card into the console (which enables you to then send photos to friends and family). That’s about it. No DVD or CD features to speak of.

Small enough to be unobtrusive, the Wii resembles more of a peripheral PC hard drive than it does a video-game console. Considering how big and clunky the 360 and PS3 are, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Thankfully easy. Just put the sensor bar on top of your TV, plug in the appropriate cables and voila. Getting the controller to recognize the console took a bit of effort on my part, but that’s what manuals are for.

The Wii screen displays an array of different “channels” — one for playing games, a “news channel,” a “weather channel,” etc. The most interesting one is the “Mii Channel,” where you can create amusing little avatars to stand in for you and your friends, which can then show up in games like “Wii Sports” or be sent over to other consoles.

Here’s where the magic happens. The “Wii-mote” is a wireless, motion-sensitive controller that resembles a TV remote. Operating the device is remarkably easy and fun. Playing a tennis game? Just swing the controller like a racket. Is your game character holding a sword? Swing the controller to have him vanquish his enemies.

There’s even a small speaker in the controller so you can hear the crack of the bat. Plus, it vibrates!

For games that require a bit more button-pressing, like the new “Legend of Zelda” game, just plug in the “nunchuk” attachment.

Overall the controls offer a new way of playing games, one where standing and moving about is required, though your arms do get tired rather quickly.

Passable. Wii games look about as good as your average GameCube title. Not bad by any means, but nowhere near the kind of crisp definition that the 360 and PS3 offer.

It’s still being tweaked, but the online Wii store offers a variety of classic games like “Donkey Kong,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Super Mario 64” to download and play. You buy the games with Wii points, which you purchase via credit card (1,000 Wii points equals $10; most games run about $5 and up).

You can also download alternate channels, like the aforementioned news and weather channels, though they’re not available yet. A Web browser is also in the works.

If you don’t have a strong wireless signal in your house you’ll need some sort of attachment to directly connect to the Internet (an official Wi-Fi USB adapter is $40). If you have an HDTV and want to take advantage of the nice picture, you’ll have to buy the appropriate cables. Another “Wii-mote” will set you back $60. To play the downloaded games, you’ll need a “Classic Controller” ($60).

By eschewing the shiny graphics arms race and instead attempting to attract the casual gamer with innovative game play, Nintendo has come up with a winner. The Wii is an impressive and, more importantly, fun piece of machinery. Games like “Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” “ExciteTruck” and “Wii Sports” give you some A-list titles right out of the gate, too. At long last, here’s a console the whole family will want to play.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Graphic Lit: The EC Archives

Last week, I took a look at two commendable collections of some classic comic strips. Today, I thought I'd take a look at some other noteworthy compendiums, starting with a new attempt to archive one of the most famous comic book publishers ever: E.C.

Back in the 1950s, the E.C. line was known for its high-quality horror, crime and science-fiction titles (not to mention a little humor book called "Mad").

Unfortunately, the graphic (for the time) nature of these books was decried by social advocates who saw them as the '50s equivalent of "Grand Theft Auto." The vilification by folks like psychiatrist Frederic Wertham led to congressional hearings and the industry's creation of the Comics Code, which neutered the art form for decades.

E.C.'s owner, William M. Gaines, eventually quit the comics business and turned "Mad" into a magazine, but the original comics are known and loved to this day by collectors young and old.

"The E.C. Archives" attempts to collect all of the company's books in an ambitious series of lush hardcovers. Two books have come out so far, "Weird Science Vol. 1" and "Shock SuspenStories Vol. 1."

Each volume collects the first six issues of its respective series, including the original ads and letter pages. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg provide introductions for the first two books.

The E.C. series were known for their "shock" twist endings, many of which seem forced and awkward today. For every genuinely nail-biting tale there's one that seems like a third-rate "Twilight Zone" episode.

A bear hunter IS TURNED INTO A RUG! A furrier from the future visits a planet WHERE THE ANIMALS WEAR PELTS MADE OUT OF PEOPLE! An effeminate man marries solely for business reasons because HE'S A ROBOT! (Actually, that last one's kinda good.)

If the plots could be hackneyed, the art was anything but. Virtuoso craftsmen like Jack Davis, Wally Wood, George Evans, "Ghastly" Graham Ingles, Harvey Kurtzman (the driving force behind "Mad") and many more lent their considerable talents. The amount of talent inside the average E.C. comic is staggering.

Publisher Gemstone has gone to considerable effort, and the hard work shows; the books look great. However, the high price and extensive number of titles ("Tales from the Crypt" and "Two Fisted Tales" will come out soon) mean these books are primarily for devoted collectors and those with deep pocketbooks.

Fans will no doubt adore "The E.C. Archives," but I'd love to see someone try to do a coffee-table-sized, one-volume collection of E.C.'s creme de la creme. For those of us on a budget.

Other recent treasuries

"Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Vol. 1,"
Drawn and Quarterly, 96 pages, $19.95.

Though beloved around the globe, Jansson's "Moomin" books aren't well known in the U.S. Hopefully, this book, collecting the initial run of the comic strip spin-off, will fix that problem.

Like "Peanuts," Jansson's strip combines melancholy and whimsy to delightful effect. It's a wonderful, delicate little strip that parents should share with their children whenever possible.

"Passionella and Other Stories"
by Jules Feiffer, Fantagraphics, 232 pages, $19.95.

Flush with "Peanuts" money, Fantagraphics has been reworking some of its other projects, including this fourth volume in the "Collected Feiffer" series.

There's some lovely material here, enough so the book works on its own merits -- you won't feel the need to track down the other volumes first. Stand-out stories include "The Lonely Machine," "Harold Swerg" and "The Relationship."

"The Real-Great Adventures of Terr'ble Thompson!"
by Gene Deitch, 104 pages, $18.95.

Most recently seen in Dan Nadel's "Art Out of Time," Terr'ble Thompson is the great comic strip that almost was -- Deitch giving it the ax after only six months when his animation career began to take off.

Thompson is an irrepressible little boy who, he insists, has had a hand in every significant moment in history. And indeed, Cleopatra and Christopher Columbus show up, eager for his help. The end result is a joyful, silly strip that makes you wonder what might have been if Deitch had stuck with it.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

Yet another D&Q preview

And here I said I wouldn't be posting any new material this week. You'd think by now I'd learn to keep my mouth shut.

Anyway, the book publisher Farrar Straus Giroux sent me their catalog for the Spring and once again, they've got a look at what Drawn and Quarterly has lined up for the coming year. Let's take a gander, shall we?

"Spent" by Joe Matt ($19.95, out in May). This 120 page volume collects the recent storyline Matt just wrapped up in Peepshow concerning his obsessive-compulsive masterbation habits and addiction to porn. Reviews of the final chapter (and the series as a whole) have been mixed. I have the latest issue, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so I'm noncommittal for now.

"James Sturm's America" and "Dogs and Water" by Anders Nilsen (both out in May, $24.95 and $19.95 respectively). Two great D&Q books get resolicited. Sturm's America, of course, collects "The Rapture," "Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight" and "The Golem's Mighty Swing." And if you haven't read any of those stories then shame on you.

The Nilsen book I notice has a higher price point this time around, which makes me wonder if it's an expanded version of the original pamphlet-sized book. The catalog does note that it's "two-color illustration," which I don't believe it was before, so ... cool.

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan (May again, $19.95). Modan is one of the members of the Actus Tragicus club, as well as the illustrator f
or a few children's books. This tale involves a young man who teams up with a female Israeli soldier in uncovering his father's mysterious death. I received a preview copy in the mail recently but haven't had a chance to read it yet. It looks good though.

Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde (July, $24.95). This looks to be a woodblock novel in the style of Lynd Ward or, more recently, Eric Drooker. Catalog says it's about the atomic bomb testing performed by the U.S. in the South Pacific during WWII and how it affects one Polynesian family. Apparently this was originally published in 1951 and features some essays by Hyde and a new introduction by David Berona. I wouldn't imagine it ends happily.

Walt and Skeezix Book Three (June, $29.95). Christmas comes early this year as we get the new W&S collection before the leaves have fallen off the tree this time. Expect lots more beautifully heartwarming tales of family life plus another great essay by Jeet Heer.

And that's it. Not a lot of new material per se, but some interesting collections nonetheless. I think the Modan book could be the gem of the bunch, but I'll post my impressions once I get around to unearthing it from my pile.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: The Complete Peanuts

No video game reviews this week -- my big Wii/PS3 critique got bumped to this Sunday. Instead for the rest of the week I'll be posting older reviews and articles, since I'm too lazy to put up anything new or original. Today is a story I did back in '04 on the debut of the "Complete Peanuts" series.

It was back in 1997, during an interview with Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, that Gary Groth -- co-owner of Fantagraphics Books and editor in chief of Comics Journal magazine -- first broached the subject.

Would the famed cartoonist be interested in publishing the entire run of the strip -- every single strip that ran daily and Sunday from 1950 onward -- in a handsome, multivolume format?

Schulz was less than enthusiastic.

"He didn't know if anyone would be interested in it," Groth said.

Nevertheless, the alternative comics publisher -- who had given similar attention to such classic strips as Pogo, Popeye and Krazy Kat -- continued to press Schulz about the project. Eventually, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Linus gave in.

Fast forward seven years. After Schulz's death in 2000, a bit of legal wrangling and some detective work for more than 250 missing strips, "The Complete Peanuts" has finally become a reality. The first volume, covering 1950-52, arrives in stores this month.

"The Complete Peanuts" will total 25 volumes, spanning all 50 years of the strip, with two books being issued each year. In addition to the strips, the first book features an introduction by Garrison Keilor, a short biography by David Michaelis and a 1992 interview with Schulz.

It's a project that is long overdue, according to Jean Schulz, Charles Schulz's widow.

"Gary's doing us all a favor," she said in a phone interview from Santa Rosa, Calif. "It's a real honor to the man and his art. It's a tribute and testament to a sheer work of genius and dedication."

Peanuts didn't, however, jump out onto the newspaper fully formed. Those who know the strip only from the Sunday funnies and the TV specials will be surprised at how different these early strips are.

For one thing, the characters behave much more like actual children than the sophisticated adults in tiny bodies they later became.

Snoopy doesn't talk and walks on all fours. There's no Woodstock or Peppermint Patty. And Charlie Brown is more of a wiseacre than the put-upon, "wishy-washy," awkward youth as we know him today.

"A lot of the early strips are less 'Peanutsish' and just little kids," Jean Schulz said. "After awhile you begin to see Charlie Brown. It's a little like peeling an onion. It gets more intense as you peel away."

But would Schulz have wanted these long lost strips to see the light of day again?

"I love the old strips, but to Sparky Schulz's nickname they were an embarrassment. Yet I'm sure he was still proud of them," Jean Schulz said. "He didn't like anything except the last strip he drew."After years of merchandising, commercials and overall overexposure, it's easy to forget the impact that Schulz's strip initially had on the public.

"In the 1960s, Peanuts was seen as hip and cutting edge," said the cartoonist known as Seth, who is the designer for the "Complete Peanuts" series.

A lot of this, Groth says, was due to the fact that running underneath the comical situations were strong emotional themes -- alienation, unrequited love, loneliness, rejection and isolation -- that reflected Schulz's own struggles and life experiences.

"There was a real emotional investment in the strip as opposed to cartoon emotions," Jean Schulz said.

"It's certainly one of the great strips of the 20th century; possibly the greatest strip of the last half of the 20th." Groth said. "We want to remind people the phenomenon started with a great work of art ."

To that end, Seth chose low-key, sedate colors when designing the cover and interior pages, opting for a more subtle, sedate and sophisticated approach than past collections had produced.

"I wanted to avoid that bright, happy-kid feel. The strip doesn't reflect any of that at all," he said.

In addition to the first volume, the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa has recently published "Charles M. Schulz: Li'l Beginnings," a collection of one-panel cartoons Schulz did for the St. Paul newspaper in the late '40s, before moving on to the big time. Here, fans can get an even earlier look at the themes that later shaped his most famous work.

"It goes back one layer farther," Jean Schulz said. "It shows there are no overnight successes. This was a man who worked and worked and worked."

"It's an impressive tribute to a cartoonist who Jean Schulz said, "had a good sense of what it felt like to be small."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Graphic Lit: Popeye and Dick Tracy

“Popeye Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam”
Fantagraphics, 200 pages, $29.95. 
“The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Vol. 1: 1931-1933”
IDW Publishing, 352 pages, $29.99. 

The past few years have been pretty good ones for fans of the funnies, as classic comic strips like “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Gasoline Alley” have been collected in lavish and lovingly detailed volumes.

Now, two seminal strips have recently been added to the fore: Popeye with “Popeye Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam,” and Dick Tracy with “The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Vol. 1.”

Both characters are iconic figures that still resonate today. Unfortunately, most folks are unaware of just how good the source material is.

That sailor man

In the annals of American humor, Popeye ranks up there with Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers.

That statement may surprise those readers whose opinion of the squinty-eyed sailor is based solely on the fitfully funny animated cartoons, which would be most of you.

The truth is the strip, at least in the hands of its creator, E.C. Segar, is much smarter, funnier and more delightful than those old three-minute cartoons could ever hope to be.

Whereas on screen Popeye fought a continuous and increasingly dull battle with Bluto over Olive Oyl, on the newspaper page Popeye battled a variety of foes, often without the help of spinach, and rarely in an attempt to woo Ms. Oyl.

Bluto himself is nonexistent for most of the strip’s run. He didn’t show up until much later and disappeared shortly after having his clock cleaned.

While the cartoon Popeye mostly stayed at home, Segar’s character traveled to strange lands, solved mysteries, investigated the supernatural and even became king of a small nation at one point.

And while the cartoons mainly focused on the Popeye/Olive/Bluto troika, the strip had a rich and varied cast that included Wimpy, the Sea Hag, George Geezil and more.

Fantagraphics (which initially collected the strip back in the 1980s) spared no expense in producing this oversize volume (the first of six), and their hard work paid off. This book is gorgeous, featuring a die-cut front cover and an introduction by Jules Feiffer.

Bursting with verbal play, over-the-top slapstick and character-derived humor, Segar’s Popeye is unlike any strip of its time or since. If you’ve never read it you’re missing one of the great works of the past century. It’s that good.

Dick Tracy

Chester Gould was a struggling cartoonist in 1931 when, fed up with the rampant crime in his home city of Chicago, he decided to start a strip about a no-nonsense police detective. The rest is history.

Well, not quite. It took Gould a number of years before the strip settled into the stylized, expressionist and intensely violent work we know today. Deformed villains like The Brow and Flattop didn’t make their way into the strip until the late ¤’30s, and inventions like the 2-Way Wrist Radio didn’t show up until after the war.

What’s surprising then, is how good the early strips collected in this initial volume are. While Tracy may be going up against mundane (in comparison) thieves and blackmailers, these early comics crackle with sharp dialogue and nail-biting plots.

For the most part, IDW did an excellent job publishing this material, though the initial design and format apes that of the best-selling Peanuts volumes a little too closely and not necessarily to the strip’s benefit.

The later Sunday strips, for example, suffer being printed at a considerably smaller size than the dailies. Perhaps future volumes could spread the Sunday strips over two pages, since Gould’s art deserves to be printed as large as possible.

That being said, most of the strips here look beautiful — crisp and sharp — and show off Gould’s development as an artist. Auxiliary material like an interview with Gould sweeten the pot considerably.

It will take a couple of volumes before the strip reaches its zenith, and I hope readers are willing to maintain their interest and keep buying these books. As good as this material is, the best is yet to come.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The interview of the year

Man, N'Gai Croal is so my hero now. He did a fantastic interview with Electronic Arts CEO Larry Probst and asks the tough questions about PS3 shipment problems, developing for the Wii, EA's infamous microtransactions and why the PSP sucks eggs (my wording entirely).

You know it's going to be a good interview when you get this right off the bat:

Here's my first question. PS3 is supply constrained and will likely remain so until early 2008. 360 demand is--

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Early 2008?

You don't think so?

I don't think they'll be supply constrained that long. You think all through 2007 they'll be supply constrained?

And then later, there's this:

Universal Music Group, the largest record label in the world, gets a dollar in royalty from every Zune digital media player that Microsoft sells, in addition to the lion's share of revenue from every one of its songs--

Wait a minute. They get a dollar for every Zune?


Do all of the music companies have that deal?

As far as I know, it's just Universal Music Group.

Why do they get that?

That's a good question for Microsoft.
You really ought to read the whole thing. Part One is here. Part two and three can be found here and here.