Thursday, June 28, 2007

VG Review: Mario Party 8

Nintendo, for the Wii

rated E for Everyone (mild cartoon violence), $49.99.

Yes, believe it or not, there have been eight "Mario Party" games in almost as many years, though this is the first one made for Nintendo Wii.

Those hoping that a switch to the new console would result in a shakeup in game play will be disappointed. This latest iteration is more or less identical to past "Mario Party" games, with only minor variations to differentiate it from past titles.

As before, "Mario Party 8" is a video board game of sorts, with up to four players roaming across a multicolored landscape, smashing dice instead of rolling them.

The object in each game is to collect as many stars as possible, and there are a variety of ways to do so. Each board has different rules and strategies. One, for example, nets you stars by investing the money you collect in hotels. Another takes place on a train where a movie star demands 50 coins in exchange for a star.

At the end of each turn, the players all take part in a minigame of some sort, which can net players more coins. The minigames range from stellar to lackluster, with players doing such odd tasks as measuring out sand, shaking cans of soda, waving down passing ships or roping barrels.

Despite the delightful lunacy of these concepts, there's a good deal of randomness to the game that can get frustrating. You could easily, and despite your best efforts, find yourself in fourth place at the end as, say, stars are awarded for whoever landed on the most green squares.

For the most part the game makes good use of the Wii's motion sensor abilities. There were a few instances in which the Wiimote seemed unresponsive or jittery, but that might be due to my inability to keep a steady hand.

"Mario Party 8" offers a number of modes beyond the basic four-player free-for-all. You can team up in a "tag battle," go it alone in a story-based "star battle" or just try the various minigames without any of the board-game nonsense.

There's even a healthy selection of alternative minigames using the Mii -- the little virtual person you can create on the Wii console.

"Mario Party 8" doesn't offer any "next-generation gaming," it's just a fun party game. If you tend to play alone or are bereft of friends, it might not offer much for you. If you've got a large group of friends, however, it's a good investment.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Graphic Lit: Fanfare/Ponent Mon

One of the more interesting manga subgenres to crop up in recent years is "nouvelle manga."

Founded by French cartoonist Frederic Boilet, nouvelle manga is an attempt to cross-pollinate the European and Japanese comic waters, drawing on both cultures' interest in telling slice-of-life stories.

Rather than rely on established genres like Westerns or science fiction, nouvelle manga's focus is on down-to-earth stories of everyday life, with a decided emphasis on realistic art.

Providing a well-rendered sense of time and place is of foremost importance to these practitioners, regardless of what side of the globe they live on.

No English publisher trumpets the nouvelle manga aesthetic better than Fanfare/Ponent Mon.

Its line of books provide the best -- indeed, in the U.S. the only -- glimpse into this movement. Its books can be tough to track down, but are well worth your time.

Here's a look at some of its more notable titles:

"Japan As Viewed by 17 Creators"
by various, 256 pages, $25.

If you can only afford to purchase one Fanfare book (and what a shame that would be), it should be this one.

As the title suggests, it's a collection of French and Japanese artists, both well-known and obscure, delivering their impressions of the land of the rising sun.

The Western artists tend to aim more toward autobiographical travelogues while the Eastern artists offer more impressionistic looks.

All, however, provide some of their best work. It's not just an insightful look at two different cultures; it's one of the best anthologies in recent years.

"The Building Opposite Vol. 1"
by Vanyda, 168 pages, $21.99.

This ongoing series looks at the occupants of a small, three-story apartment building: a single, pregnant mom, an older married couple, and a pair of young lovers.

At first the book seems to move at a glacial pace, but ever so slightly, Vanyda starts to delve deeper into the characters' lives, ultimately showing not only their differences, but also how their interactions with each other subtly shift their own lives.

"Yukiko's Spinach"
by Frederic Boilet, 144 pages, $13.99.

One of the seminal titles in the nouvelle manga movement, "Spinach" is Boilet's autobiographical account of a brief romance with a Japanese woman (Boilet lives in Japan).

Boilet keeps the focus on Yukiko using a first-person perspective and rarely shows himself. That could easily lead to severe critiques of colonialism and adopting a sexist "male gaze."

Boilet is too clever and romantic an artist for that however, and "Spinach" ends up being a smart, erotic and bittersweet chronicle of a doomed love affair.

"Doing Time"
by Kazuichi Hanawa, 240 pages, $19.99.

In 1995, Hanawa was sentenced to three years in prison for possession of firearms without a permit (a serious offense in Japan). "Doing Time" is an account of those years, though the presentation is quite different from anything you might expect.

There's no "Oz"-like tales of abuse here, just meticulous vignettes of prison life: what they eat, how they work, and how they pass the time.

Floor plans, diagrams and pages of meals (food is a particular obsession in jail) are presenting in painstaking fashion.

If anything, Hanawa seems to be arguing it's the monotony and mundane humiliations (prisoners, for example, have to ask permission to pick an eraser up off the floor) that slowly erode one's sense of self-worth.

It's not for nothing that the book's final image is of a group of fat, contented pigs in a small sty.

"The Times of Botchan, Vol. 1"
by Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa, 152 pages, $19.99.

More than any of Fanfare's other books, "Botchan" is best enjoyed if you have a bit of knowledge about Japan, specifically the Meija-era, when the country attempted to join the modern world.

The book focuses on the writer Soeki Natsume, who tries to turn his ambivalent feelings about the country's Westernization into a novel. Meanwhile, his friends and students (several based on real people) bump up against other cultural shifts, like public displays of affection.

"Botchan" offers an intriguing look at a turbulent period in the country's history, with stunningly detailed art by Taniguchi.

But it's definitely a book where your enjoyment is in direct proportion to your familiarity with the subject matter.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Graphic Lit: World War Hulk

“Puny humans. I’ve come to smash.”

That priceless bit of dialogue comes about one third of the way through the first issue of “World War Hulk,” Marvel’s latest summer blockbuster event and a follow-up to the recent “Civil War” brouhaha.

I always greet these big “everything will change,” universe-shattering events with a mixture of apathy and apprehension, as such things always seem geared more toward empty hype than an actual interest in producing something worth reading (“Civil War” was especially guilty in this regard).

It’s like the carnival barker promising you sights that will amaze and astound, and you go in the tent and see a papier-mache figure glued onto a fish.

The good news is that “Hulk” promises to be a real hoot, at least based on the first issue. Written by Greg Pak and drawn by John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson, the comic delivers just about everything I’d want from a series like this, which, to be completely honest, isn’t very much.

Before I delve into the issue though, a bit of back story is in order (though the comic nimbly provides plenty of exposition for those who haven’t been following the Hulk’s adventures lately).

About a year or so ago, a group of superpowered potentates — Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man and the Inhuman known as Black Bolt — decided the Hulk was too dangerous to be allowed to roam freely on earth and decided to shoot him out into space.

They wanted him to land on a peaceful celestial body, but instead he ended up on a barbaric planet, where he became a gladiator.

Being the Hulk, he fought his way to the top and eventually became literally king of the world (all this is retold in the “Planet Hulk” saga, now out in collected hardcover), with a beautiful alien queen at his side.

As always happens in these types of stories, though, the Hulk’s happiness is short-lived. The spaceship he came in unexpectedly blows up, killing his wife and unborn child and about a million other folks.

Now really ticked off, the Hulk grabs a group of surviving warriors and heads back to Earth, eager for some payback, which is where “World War” picks up.

It should be noted that this Hulk isn’t the pea-brained gentle giant that many readers no doubt remember. This Hulk is a lot smarter and speaks in complete sentences, though he’s obviously not above using phrases like “puny humans.”

As you might expect, a certain amount of disbelief must be willingly endured while reading (New York City is evacuated in only 23 hours? Uh-huh.). But once you’ve dialed your brain down a notch or two, the comic offers a number of pleasures, most of them involving brightly costumed people thrashing each other incessantly.

While there are certainly numerous emotional and political hooks that Pak can latch onto, he wisely chooses to keep such elements simmering in the background, preferring instead to focus on slam-bang action, all the while keeping a delicate tongue-in-cheek.

Which is exactly what the 5-year-old in me wants from a book of this nature. Save the soap opera heroics for the main titles, please. I just want to watch the Hulk smash things up real good.

Thank goodness that Romita is on the job, then, as he and Janson do an excellent job choreographing the action for fullest effect, giving weight and realism to the characters, but not at the expense of fantasy.

The series will run for five issues, with plenty of tie-ins and related miniseries produced.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for this “epic” to fall flat on its face, but I remain hopeful that the succeeding issues will fully exploit the goodwill engendered here.

Yes, “World War Hulk” is silly and cartoonishly violent, but gloriously so. In a summer when Hollywood’s big blockbusters reek of desperation, here’s one that actually entertains.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, June 25, 2007

Aaaaand we're back

... though time is too short today to do any real posting. Instead I shall point you to my MoCCA roundup and photo collection that I put together for Newsarama.

Thanks to all who took time to talk to me, whether for the article or just to say hi. It was great to finally put some names with faces.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I'm on vacation

... so there will be even fewer posts than usual, if such a thing is possible.

Posting will resume on Monday.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

VG review: Odin Sphere

Atlus, for PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes, use of alcohol), $39.99.

Most games these days are content to provide you with one main character and a linear, by-the-numbers experience that usually involves shooting things.

"Odin Sphere,” on the other hand, gives you five characters, a story that moves backward and forward in time and grapples with such weighty themes as war, sacrifice, filial duty and other angsty issues, all wrapped up in a cute, candy-colored exterior.

You start off the game as Gwendolyn, a Valkyrie warrior, determined to win her father’s love, even if it means dying on the battlefield.

Her father, also the king, is seeking a powerful weapon that might turn the tide of a long drawn-out war but which could also destroy the planet. Despite this, Gwendolyn sets herself on a quest to retrieve it.

Once you finish Gwendolyn’s story, supporting characters take the center stage and fill in various plot strands (I didn’t get the chance to complete Gwen’s tale yet, so don’t ask me what they are).

The game boasts a truly stunning art style, despite taking place in only two dimensions. The colors are crisp and lush, the scenery is well-detailed and each character bears a unique and appealing design.

The game is essentially a beat-¤’em-up, as you travel through various circular landscapes (i.e. run in one direction and you’ll eventually return to where you started) and dispatch enemies by rapidly hitting the square button. A bit of strategy is added by collecting “phonzons,” which let you cast a number of magic spells.

You also can collect various items and create potions and recipes that improve your health and
increase your strength. Unfortunately, space in your backpack is limited, and trying to manage items on the fly can swiftly become irksome.

The game’s challenge bar is set high, and you might get frustrated with some of the harder levels. Don’t be surprised if after a couple of hours you set the difficulty level to “easy” (you can always reset it back later).

The game also suffers from a frame rate problem in that whenever a large group of monsters swarms the screen the game characters seem to be moving in slow motion.

But those problems are minor considering how well the game meets its far-reaching goals. There’s more than a bit of repetition to “Odin Sphere,” but the high level of craftsmanship on display keeps things from becoming rote.

With a summer full of dull, half-conceived titles, “Odin Sphere” is an oasis in a desert of underwhelming movie tie-ins.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Graphic Lit: Alice in Sunderland

Like a number of people, British cartoonist Bryan Talbot became enchanted with the world of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” at an early age.

“I can’t remember when I first read it, but there doesn’t seem to be a time when I can’t remember the [John] Tenniel illustrations,” he said during a recent phone interview.

In fact, Talbot, author of such critically acclaimed graphic novels as “The Tale of One Bad Rat” and “Heart of the Empire,” had been thinking about doing a comic about Carroll and the “Alice” books for a number of years, but had been unable to come up with a concept that worked.

It wasn’t until he and his wife moved to Sunderland, a large, northeastern city in Great Britain, nine years ago that Talbot discovered his hook.

“I found out when I moved here that not only Lewis Carroll had lots of links with the city and the surrounding area but also Alice Liddel, his supposed muse,” he said.

For example, Sunderland — which at one point had been one of the largest shipbuilding empires in the world — was where Carroll wrote “Jabberwocky.” It’s where he saw his first (stuffed) walrus, and his first biographer grew up here.

Discoveries like that led Talbot on an eight-year quest, the end result of which is “Alice in Sunderland,” an immense, sprawling, endlessly fascinating graphic novel that not only unveils the “truth” about the history of the Alice books, but weaves in a variety of facts, myths and generally captivating stories about the Sunderland area.

Although the book’s ultimate scope is much larger than the history of “Alice in Wonderland,” one of Talbot’s aims was to make clear that the image of the shy Oxford don creating the idea for the book during a summer’s row was a falsehood.

“I never say in the book there’s a conspiracy by Oxford scholars to ignore the northeastern roots of Wonderland, but there is a definite willful ignorance.” he said. “They’ve just ignored the northeast for all this time.”

Structured as a theatrical performance, “Sunderland” offers a dreamlike narrative structure, jumping from tangent to tangent in what seems like a stream of consciousness. One page will spin backward millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs only to skip ahead to medieval times and then to the modern world.

Along the way you learn about characters like the Venerable Bede (the father of English literature), music-hall comedian George Formby and, of course, Lewis Carroll.

Such constant see-sawing between centuries and threads would make for a difficult read in the hands of a less experienced artist, but Talbot keeps the reader from becoming overwhelmed or lost, filling the book with humor and fascinating trivia. (Did you know the light bulb wasn’t invented by Thomas Edison?)

“If there’s anything clever at all about this book it’s the actual structure that holds everything together,” Talbot said. “It should seem like stream of consciousness almost. Like dream logic, but underneath it all, there’s a rock-solid structure.”

The book took Talbot about three years to research and five years to write and draw. One particular homage to Jabberwocky took him three days just to ink.

Talbot himself appears in the book in a number of places. He’s not only the performer on stage, he’s also the “plebeian” or sole audience member watching the show (and offering snarky commentary), as well as the “pilgrim” who guides readers through the various settings and tourist spots.

“I thought, ‘Well if I’m telling all these stories ... it might as well be me performing them on the stage.’ ” he said.

The book incorporates a variety of media, combining pen and ink drawings with photos, old prints, computer illustrations and watercolors. Talbot even changes his style depending on where the book takes him, adopting a Tenniel-like atmosphere while adapting Jabberwocky or doing a homage to Tintin when relating a trip to Africa.

Talbot said he was concerned that the book might seem too British to an American audience, but he should not worry. Though Sunderland and Carroll might provide the book’s narrative drive, Talbot’s aims are much higher.

Ultimately, “Alice in Sunderland” is about not just history but myth-making and the power of storytelling. Heartwarming, thought-provoking and impossible to put down, “Alice in Sunderland” is a book that will stick with you long after you’ve finished it.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, June 11, 2007

My editor asked me to do a "Fantastic Four" story

This is what I came up with:

No doubt you’ve seen the promotional material for the latest Fantastic Four film — a movie trailer here or a billboard poster there — all bearing the iconic image of a metallic man zooming across a gleaming surfboard.

That figure, known by the descriptive title of the Silver Surfer, (hence the film’s title: “Rise of the Silver Surfer”) has made a number of devoted Fantastic Four fans excited and hopeful for the new sequel.

Though he’s never captured the public imagination in the same way as Spider-Man or the X-Men, he remains a strong supporting character within the Marvel Universe, one with a strong fan following.

For those interested in the film but not familiar with the character, however, a bit of back story might be required.

The Silver Surfer first appeared in March 1966 in Fantastic Four No. 48 as the herald of Galactus, a planet-eating, space-faring giant who thought Earth might make a nice late-night snack.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the “Galactus Trilogy” is regarded by many as one of the best superhero stories ever, an epic, lofty blend of science fiction and action tropes.

Persuaded by the Fantastic Four that Earth is worth saving, the Surfer betrays Galactus, who ultimately spares Earth, but not before exiling the Surfer to the planet forever.

Now a regular part of the Marvel Universe, the Surfer quickly got his own regular series and a new origin.

Turns out his real name is Norrin Radd, an ordinary Joe from another world who volunteered to become Galactus’ herald in order to spare his home planet.

Forever separated from his true love, Shalla-Bal, the Surfer, when not battling the forces of evil, was often given to bouts of expository self-pity, as well as philosophical musings on man’s inhumanity to man. (“Is it but in desolation that man can find the peace he seeks? Was it for this that I renounced my heritage?”)

That original series, written by Lee with art by John Buscema, lasted only 18 issues, but the Surfer has appeared regularly in a variety of Marvel titles in the decades since, including a second series that lasted 194 issues.

The character was a particular favorite of Lee, to the point that for many years he requested that he be the only one allowed to write his adventures.

So what’s the appeal of a silver-plated guy who roams the cosmos on a fancy boogie board?

“The Surfer, when done well and properly, is best as the alien observer on our culture,” Marvel editor Tom Brevoort said. “It’s about being able to take a look at mankind from an outsider’s perspective and hold up a mirror to ourselves and our foibles.

“While he may not be as popular as a Spider-Man or an X-Man, he’s in that solid bedrock of perennial Marvel characters,” he said. “Even though he hasn’t had a movie of his own, people seem to remember and recognize him. There’s an essential Marvelness about him. There’s something about him that sticks in people’s imaginations.”


I asked Marvel Universe editor Tom Brevoort to list five Silver Surfer books that would allow the uninitiated to get up to speed. Here’s what he picked: 

“The Silver Surfer Omnibus.” This $75 “dictionary-sized hardcover” collects all 18 issues of the original series — including the letters pages — plus various odds and ends. “It’s your one-stop shopping for surfer information,” Brevoort said. 
“The Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1-2.” A more affordable version of the omnibus, these black-and- white softcovers collect 500 of reprint material, from the 1960s onward. 

“Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 5.” This $50 hardcover collects the “Galactus Trilogy,” the first Silver Surfer story. 

“Silver Surfer: Parable.” Written by Stan Lee and illustrated by French cartoonist Moebius. Brevoort describes the plot of this standalone story: “Galactus’ return to Earth is turned into a subject of worship by an unthinking humanity, and the Surfer must again stand in defense of mankind even against itself.” You might have to dig around a bit to find this one. 

“Silver Surfer Requiem.” The Surfer faces his own mortality in this new, ongoing series by J. Michael Straczynski and Esad Ribic. $3.99 each.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

VG review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Disney, for PlayStation 3, Play­Station 2, Xbox 360, Wii and PC
rated T for Teen (use of alcohol, violence); $59.99 (PS3 and 360), $39.99 (PS2), $49.99 (Wii) and $29.99 (PC).

"Pirates of the Caribbean” is a frustrating game — it’s just competent enough to make its flaws all the more annoying.

And to be sure, there are some pretty glaring flaws. You’d think, for instance, that the combat mechanism in a pirate game would be one of its highlights.

You’d be wrong, however, as sword fighting for the most part proves desperately boring, full of mindless button mashing and wading through a sea of faceless enemies. A few meager boss battles rise above the mundane by letting you use the thumbstick to block and parry your opponents’ moves, but those sequences are few and far between.

The game tries to get you to mix up your attacks by using pistols, bombs and other items, thereby increasing your “notoriety.” But apart from being able to show off your gun skills online, it’s a hollow achievement.

“At World’s End” follows the plot of not just the third “Pirates” film, but the second one as well, with Capt. Jack Sparrow attempting to acquire Davey Jones’ heart and thus avoid becoming a member of his crew.

At different points throughout the game you get to play as Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. There will even be a few scenes where you’ll need to switch between characters on the fly. These tend to be the worst moments of the game, as whatever character you happen to not be controlling at the time will become brain-dead and refuse to defend itself.

The Wii version of the game is slightly different in that it requires you to swing the Wii-mote up and down and side to side instead of button mashing, so you’ll just get carpal tunnel in your wrist instead of your thumb. Other than that it’s more or less identical to the other versions of the game, though the graphics are considerably poorer.

In the end, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” is another mediocre movie tie-in. It’s playable, but it’s far from enjoyable. It’s not the first of its kind we’ve seen this year, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Friday, June 01, 2007

From the Vault: Rebel Visions

I haven't been able to do much at P&P lately. To make up for it somewhat, I thought I'd start posting up older comic and game reviews done in my pre-blogging days, starting with this review of Patrick Rosenkranz's excellent history book, "Rebel Visions."

by Patrick Rosenkranz
Fantagraphics Books, 300 pages, $39.95.

Along with lava lamps, love beads and LSD, underground comic books -- or comix, as they were known at the time -- were an integral part of the hippie landscape in the late 1960s to early '70s. Such titles as "Zap," "Bijou" and "Rip Off" were required reading for those who tuned in, turned on and dropped out of middle America, and artists including Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and Rick Griffin enjoyed celebrity status in the counterculture movement.

Until now, this side note of '60s culture has rarely been scrutinized by historians. Thankfully, Patrick Rosenkranz's excellent "Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975" does a good job toward alleviating that oversight.

Beginning in 1963, the book follows the misadventures of various would-be artists and troublemakers who were loosely linked by a love for satire and the funny books they grew up on. Through college magazines and later assorted underground newspapers, these cartoonists found a venue to explore their own odd muses rather than follow a more traditional path into comic strips or superheroes.

The floodgates opened with the arrival of Crumb's "Zap Comix" in 1967, which gave everyone else the go-ahead to explore every kind of neurosis, psychosis and dirty thought their unleashed id could allow. Unexpectedly, these books were a hit, and suddenly, comic books became hip; something to read while expanding your mind.

The book does a good job showing how cartoonists sought to break whatever social and political taboos they could and why. (As a result, the art reproduced here ensures that this is an adults-only book.)

Rosenkranz managed to get interviews with just about every significant cartoonist from this period and then some. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Art Spiegelman and many others reminisce and offer their thoughts on the period. Unfortunately, the author spends so much time jumping from here to there and from artist to artist that the reader is in danger of developing whiplash.

In the interest of keeping a solid chronology, not enough space is spent looking at the aesthetic merits of certain artists, who fall by the wayside next to the larger, better-known names.

For better or worse, these cartoonists helped to alter not only the world of comics, but also American popular culture in general. As Rosenkranz so aptly points out, magazines such as The National Lampoon and TV shows such as "Saturday Night Live" owe a debt to these perverse little books. Thus, it's not just comic book fans who will get a kick out of "Rebel Visions." Anyone with an interest in this period of American history will likely enjoy this book.

Copyright The Patriot-News

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