Tuesday, December 18, 2007

VG REVIEW: Scene It and Buzz


Microsoft, for Xbox 360, rated T for Teen (blood, language, sug­gestive themes, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence), $59.99.

Sony, for PlayStation 2, rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (alcohol and tobacco reference, comic mischief, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild vio­lence), $39.99.

If you follow the video game industry at all, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I note that casual games (i.e. games aimed at a wide audience that don’t require an enormous investment of time or a huge learning curve) have become popular lately.

For instance, not one but two major publishers — Microsoft and Sony — have recently released trivia games aimed at attracting more than your average gaming geek.

“Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action” from Microsoft takes the popular DVD movie trivia game and adapts it to Xbox 360.

The game comes with four controllers that resemble the sort of buzzers you might see on your average TV game show. That in and of itself is an improvement above the usual clunky DVD interface these games have previously had (there are no tiny board game pieces to lose either).

Players compete against one another by watching movie clips and then answering questions or by solving anagrams, guessing famous quotes and a host of other low-rent puzzle options. Ostensibly you can play the game for hours without having any repeated questions.

While fun, “Scene It” is decidedly not a game for movie buffs. Few clips are from films made before 1980 and most are of films everyone and their dog has at least heard of, if not actually watched. As a former movie buff, I would have appreciated the option to turn up the difficulty level so the questions could have provided an actual challenge.

I also wouldn’t have minded if the game slid the other way so I could have played the game with my kids. Most of the clips and questions were either inappropriate for their age or featured movies they had never seen. Perhaps Xbox Live could provide a downloadable kids pack?

The lack of online play seriously hinders “Scene It,” because you can only play when friends or family are all together, but if you’re looking for a simple, fun Xbox game that your parents and siblings can join in on, it fills the bill nicely.

Like “Scene It,” “Buzz! The Mega Quiz” also comes with four “buzzer-shaped” controllers, though these somehow seem less sturdy.

Set on an imaginary game show set, hosted by some freakish muppet-type character, “Buzz” allows up to eight players to answer questions on a variety of subjects, including politics, geography and pop culture in alleged rapid-fire fashion.

Unfortunately, it’s a staid affair. The questions aren’t terribly difficult, even on the harder levels, the minigames don’t offer a lot of variety and the lengthy pauses in between questions deaden the affair considerably.

Ultimately, the game takes too much of a middle-of-the road approach to be exciting. It needs a good dose of humor, spontaneity and (dare I say it) general goofiness in order to distinguish itself.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Matt Fraction

A truncated version of this interview originally ran in the Patriot-News way back on June 1 of this year. Don't ask me why it's taken so long to post the full thing here. I have no excuses.

One of the rising stars at Marvel Comics these days is writer Matt Fraction, who in such monthly titles as "Punisher War Journal" and "The Immortal Iron Fist" (written with "Captain America" scribe Ed Brubaker), has won over readers with his smart, pulpish, tongue-in-cheek sensibilities.

But Fraction's most personal and best project is easily the ongoing series "Casanova," a heady, absurdist take on the super-spy genre that also manages to reflect upon such themes as family, maturity and responsibility.

The title character is Casanova Quinn, the black sheep from a long line of renowned government operatives. Thanks to the machinations of the evil Newman Xeno, Quinn finds himself transported to an alternative timeline where he is actually the good son and his twin sister is the bad girl.

Forced to become a double agent for Xeno, Quinn must reconcile with his difficult father and figure out his place in this new world while going on some truly odd adventures.

The first six issues of the comic have just been lovingly collected into a hardcover entitled "Luxuria." It seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk to Fraction about the comic and his work in general.

Q: Give me a little bit of background on "Casanova." How did you get the idea to do the book?

A: It’s a story that I’ve always wanted to tell. The genre has always been a favorite of mine. I always knew that I wanted to tell a story in this field in this capacity so I was always kind of heading towards it.

It was kind of a conflagration of a few different events: What I was reading about at the time, what I was thinking about at the time and where I was just in my life. Warren Ellis is a friend of mine and was working on developing "Fell" in the streamline format. We were talking an awful lot and it all congealed as one idea. I had a day job at the time — this is all very unsexy and uninteresting — but I thought, “Well, surely I can write 16 pages a month. Surely that’s no problem, with my full time job I can write 16 pages a month.” Little did I know these were in fact the most difficult 16 pages I would ever write. This book takes me three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written. It routinely beats me up. It’s the most unforgiving, mericless and brutal book I’ve ever worked on. So, ha-ha.

My brain was in the right place in the right time. When I wanted to start writing a monthly book I sat down and this fell out.

Q: When you say it’s so hard to write, can you give me some examples?

A: It’s 16 pages, which is six pages short of your average monthly comic. It’s two bucks so it’s cheaper, but I feel obligated to not make anyone feel ripped off for that two dollars. I’m amazed that I have any kind of audience; that anybody thinks anything I have to say is worth reading, let alone paying money for the privilege. So I want to ensure that they get their money’s worth.

There’s such a move toward decompression and writing for the collection these days in comics that the satisfying monthly is kind of lost.

The second arc takes a different approach to this, but in the first arc any issue could have been five, six, seven issues of any of the top 10 selling comics in the country. It’s just the way those books are paced. I was trying to condense six issues of story into 16 pages.

If you’ve read the back patter, you know it’s always kind of a little more than just what’s going on the surface. I was trying to figure out how to articulate this stuff in the language of Casanova. My life and my experience and my ideas and whatever was fascinating me at the time.

Q: It’s definitely one of the densest comics I’ve read in many years.

A: I don’t know if you’ve ever read "American Flagg," but it was really one of the most formative books I read as a kid and it was a book that I had to read three times. I may as well have picked up "Gravity’s Rainbow." It refused to insult my intelligence.

I wanted to write a book that treated its audience like co-conspirators. I wanted the audience on our side. I wanted to invite people in and engage them. I think subtlety is a lost art. I hate exposition and I hate it when “Suddenly here we are explaining the plot for three pages.” I hate that stuff.

Q: Is that how you came up with the little asides where you or one of the editors pop up to explain things?

A: Yeah, but it’s always completely the opposite of anything that’s of actual value. It never has any use. It never explains what’s going on.

Q: You read a lot of serial comics these days and you’re done in ten minutes. But "Casanova" is something you definitely have to sit down and pay attention to. You can’t do your laundry while you’re reading it.

A: There are lots of laundry books out there. They’re really great, and they sell a billion copies and that’s awesome. I wanted our thing to be different, to give our readers a different experience.

Q: What got you interested in writing for comics in the first place? I don’t know much, I’m ashamed to say, about your work before "Casanova."

A: Well, I’ve always been in the words and pictures business. I started school going after a fine arts degree and then transferred into film ... going after a film degree from a couple of different schools. After I dropped out, some friends and I started a motion graphics design animation company, making films and music videos and commercials for a few years. I’ve always been really interested in telling stories with words and pictures. I’ve always read comics and it just occurred to me one day I was going to do it. I was maybe 18. I wrote hundreds of pages nobody ever, ever saw from the safety of my own house. Just quietly practicing. Trying to learn my craft.

Q: You strike me as someone who really has a good feel for the history of comics. I was thinking of your recent post about Arnold Drake when he passed away and you mentioned Alex Toth. It seems like you’re very aware and appreciative of American comics.

A: Yeah definitely. I worked retail for a long time and it was as much an educational opportunity as it was a chance to get a killer employee discount.

Q: You mentioned day job. What was your recent day job?

A: It was doing the motion graphics stuff. It was a great job, but it was the kind of job that on a moment’s notice would send me to Tokyo for two weeks. Or suddenly I’d have to go to New York and work out of Manhattan for a month.

The first two issues of "Casanova" is a perfect example. I was in New York directing the animation of six HP commercials. I actually finished the first issue of "Casanova" in New York City, working remotely.

Q: Are you an accomplished artist in your own right then?

A: No, I absolutely am not. I am a frustrated artist. There’s muscle atrophy. When I stopped painting and went to film school ... when I closed that toolbox, those muscles atrophied. It’s not like riding a bike. It’s best for everyone that I put down the paintbrush and picked up the camera.

Q: Tell me a bit more specifically about some of the inspiration for "Casanova." I was wondering what influenced you in making something that’s so layered and detailed.

A: Sure. Well, I’ve always loved the super-spy genre. I remember the first James Bond movie I ever saw. Bond movies were always on around the house, in the background. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only and my dad saying “Well, you know there’s a lot of James Bond movies” and I said “really?” There’s three guys that have played James Bond just blew my mind. I’ve always just loved that.

I love it when pens turn into missiles and surfboards turn into hang gliders. It’s all great. I got into this as a sales pitch but their superheroes always put on capes and mine always put on suits. It’s always been a thing for me and I wish there were more comics like "Casanova." That’s really where it came from was writing a comic that I would like to read.

The time-travel stuff. That came from wanting to do a book about identity and wanting to do one of those big, crazy science-fiction tropes but in a cavalier, eh fashion. I didn’t want to just do a super-spy book, I wanted to make a new wave film. I wanted to do Truffaut’s James Bond. Like "Day for Night." I wanted to make a comic book that celebrated comic books and you could play with all of these ridiculous, absurd ideas and just throw them away because it doesn’t matter.

Don’t worry how the casino floats. Don’t worry how a ship that big can fly. It just flies. I’m not a big Jerry Cornelius fan. I knew we would get killed if we didn’t acknowledge that we know of Jerry Cornelius. It’s sort of unconventional. I wanted to do a story about twins and identity and who you are and who you perceive yourself to be and who you present to the world. I can use all these ridiculous science-fiction ideas as a convenient in to that.

Q: You talked about how "Casanova" reflects your own life. Can you talk about the autobiographical aspects of "Casanova?"

A: Ultimately it’s a book about a disaffected young man trying to find his identity and learning as he grows up that his adult ass can’t cash the checks he used. It’s the kind of thing we all go through when we figure out what do we want to be when we grow up? Who are we really? What are we doing here? How beholden are we to our parents — or any kind of authority figure — no one has the right to define who we want to be. It’s about family and friendship and doing what you love versus what you have to do. And those kind of broad thoughts you have growing up.

Q: One of the things I like about the book is how you break the fourth wall. Can you talk for a little bit about why it’s important for you to break that fourth wall?

A: We’ve all read the same things, we all know the tropes. We’re doing a black, white and one color book that’s 16 pages. It’s about a spy who may or may not be having an incestuous relationship with his twin sister who may or may not really be his sister. The characters barely repeat themselves. It’s unforgiving, it takes no chances. It does not care if you follow along with us. If you’re with us, great.

People who love the book, loooove the book. I’ve received the most astonishing responses. And the people who hate the book, hate me. They don’t hate the book, they take it personally. As though I was coming over to their house and calling them morons. It’s a difficult ride if you’re not into it. And anything we can do to acknowledge that and celebrate that? Fuck it, let’s do it. Have the characters talk to the camera and not do it in that way that has contempt for the reader and the medium. let’s reclaim that tool. Let’s use it in a way that celebrates the form and celebrates the medium.

It’s a pretty uncompromising book so anything we can do to lighten the mood I think we should do.

Q: Is there a general complaint from people that hate the book?

A: It’s basically I don’t get it. Which is fine. Great. I appreciate that people try. But that’s fine. A comic writer of some renown once told me that comic readers are like Yankee fans. If you win they’re gonna complain, and if you lose, they’re gonna complain. The comics Internet is like sports radio. There’s always something to bitch about. There are people that love to complain.

Q: I would compare them more to Philadelphia Eagles fans, but ...

A: You can win the super bowl and there’s going to be some prick on Monday going, “you did wrong.”

People don’t get it, that tends to be the complaint. Which is fine. I appreciate that you tried. But people also tend to feel personally insulted that they don’t get it, because they maybe realize that they should. I think people have forgotten how to read intuitively. I think comics have beaten the intuition out of their audience. They’re so used to being spoon-fed and given everything that the minute you introduce subtlety or don’t say everything out loud, the minute you don’t open the box and show us Gwenyth Paltrow’s head inside, you lose people.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the $1.99 format. How important do you think it’s been to "Casanova’s" success?

A: I think it’s been sort of backhandedly successful. I think retailers ordered more because they were cheap or something. Some retailer think I could be selling a $6 book in this slot. It’s not worth the effort to lift the box because my profit margin is so low. I will allow you to evaluate that statement independently. I think it got it on more shelves. Retailers said “It’s only two bucks, we can order twice as many. Let's give it a shot” Every single cold sale, every single person that walked by my table at Heroes, when I say it’s only $2, they buy it. Every single one. And I’ve sold by hand more than 300 copies of the book at those two shows. I sold crazy amounts of those books.

If we were a $3 full-color book, and we made the numbers we made, everyone would be making really comfortable money off of it. I don’t know that we’d be selling in those numbers though. I would hazard to guess that we would be selling 2,500, maybe 3,000 copies if we were a $3.50 book. But we’re a one color book and we’re selling 9,000 copies. It’s not bad, but it’s two bucks.

Q: It seems like the $2 price is a great promotion. We’re talking about collecting for the trade, but it seems like a great way to drum up the press for it. Feel free to disagree, but I guess one of the tests for how successful it is will be how well the trade does.

A: The numbers of the trade were enough that Image thought we should release a hardcover. That’s pretty cool. It’s going to be a great package. It will be worth it to people who have been waiting for the trade. There’s a lot of value out there, for both the people who have been waiting and for the people who have followed.

Q: How did you get Gabriel Ba on the book?

A: I went after his brother Fabio. Fabio and Gabriel talked amongst themselves and Fabio decided Gabriel was the guy to draw it. I was like “OK, do I get a vote?” (laughs) It was their decision and god bless them. Gabriel is amazing. No regrets.

Q: He seems integral to the book. I can’t see another artist laying out the story as well as he does.

You mentioned Warren Ellis. I wondered who some of your other influences were.

A: I don’t even know that I would consider Warren an influence writing for comics. I certainly read many of his books it’s hard to say not, but my influences ... I love Jim Woodring. I can’t imagine there’s another creator out there as different as me, but Jim Woodring’s work never fails to inspire me to want to just go work. The early Stray Bullets stuff from Dave Lapham. Hugo Pratt, Daniel Clowes, the EC guys, David Mazzuchelli, Paul Pope is really huge. A chunk of the Will Eisner. Matsumoto. The Hernandez brothers. Grant Morrison. Now I’m just looking around my room.

Q: That’s a pretty eclectic line-up.

A: it’s not really apparant. You look at "Casanova" and go oh, he likes Gilbert Hernandez.

Q: Actually, I could see that, especially some of his more experimental comics.

Let’s talk about Marvel for a minute. How did you get to work there?

A: Axel Alonzo knew my work and was a fan of a graphic novel I did called Last of the Independents. It was a crime book and that got me into his office. And I started pitching things to him and his assistant Warren Simons. That kind of got me into the Marvel neck of the woods.

I pitched a lot. I think I wrote easily a couple hundred pages of pitches and scripts that nobody ever saw but Warrant or Axel. A wolverine short story was the only thing I had to show for two, two and a half years of pitching.

And I swear to god, he called me a year and a half ago “There’s a big thing, civil war going on, and we’re going to relaunch 'Punisher Civil War Journal' and I think you’re the guy to do it.” And that was it. I wrote the opening scene, with Stilt-Man being shot in the taint, just as like a practice run. I hadn’t written straight superheros and I wanted to find the tone. I knew I wanted to do this black funny thing. I wrote six pages as a sample and a one-sheet and that was how I got in at Marvel.

Q: How does the experience of writing for Marvel compare to something like Casanova?

A: With Casanova I can bend or break the rules. If you’re on Team Casanova, you know what to expect and we can play some games, I can take some chances and lose you and anger you and it’s OK. We’ll all be in good shape.

With Marvel you’re beholden to the property. you’re beholden to the shareholder, you’re beholden to editorial. There’s a degree of responsibility you have. It’s a different experience but I like it. It’s part of the reason I wanted to do it. It’s not just “Whoo hoo Marvel.” I grew up reading Marvel stuff but I’m not that guy. I had a really awesome day job that let me go make music videos for Feint and co-direct a video with Kanye West, so I never freelancer-hungry. I was never that guy, “you have to let me write my sub-mariner series and here’s why!” I was always kind of chill about it. If it didn’t work I would walk away and everyone was cool. I wanted to go after Punisher like I did because I wanted to work with Axel. Axel Alonso is one of those editors. If you look at his CV, it’s really impressive. I wanted to know what it was like not just to work with an editor, but to work with that editor. They let me in the candy store in this major, major crossover that’s actually going to change the status quo in this really profound, really big ways. Yes, do it, now’s the time.

Q: It’s a crossover that got mocked really hard though ...

A: Yeah, and Marvel cried all the way to the fucking bank. It sold like half a million copies. It’s Yankees fans.

Q: I was going to say though that your run on Punisher seemed to be the only instance where people were actually saying favorable things.

A: Is that true?

Q: That’s my impression. I wasn’t following any of the tie-ins, but I’d read the blogosphere reviews and they were all really negative, especially on the mini-series itself, but War Journal seemed to be one of the few that actually had positive reviews.

A: Wow. I actually went into ego quarantine when it came out. I haven’t read, I haven’t been looking, so I didn’t know. That’s awesome, that’s great. I didn’t want to turn into one of those crazy on the Internet guys. But that’s hilarious.

With this new thing that’s started up I wanted to look because ...

Q: Are you talking about this new series you’re starting?

A: The thing with Frank’s costume change. I looked a little bit because I knew that it was coming when they offered me the book. I wanted to be a part of one of those things where they release an image and there’d be 200 people screaming. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted a taste of that. I peeked a little bit and people were going apoplectic over a single , contextless image, and it was hysterical to me.

Q: So on the whole it sounds like you’ve had a pretty positive experience working at Marvel.

A: Yeah.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

VG REVIEW: Super Mario Galaxy

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

Though it's easily one of the more popular consoles out there today, the Wii hasn't exactly garnered a thunderous herd of stellar games. There have been a few strong titles but nothing that screams must-own or really builds strongly upon the premise of the Wii's motion controls.

All that changes with the release of "Mario Galaxy." The first major Mario title for the console (assuming you don't count "Super Paper Mario" and "Mario Party 8"), "Galaxy" is a fun, addictive platform game that thrills and surprises at every turn.

The plot isn't significant, but for the sake of recapping, it can be summed up thusly: The evil dinosaur-turtle (or whatever he is), Bowser, has kidnapped the princess (again) and stolen a bunch of magical stars. It's your job as Mario to get them all back and set everything right (again).

To do this you wander the spaceways, either hopping or jetting across various tiny planetoids, some barely larger than Mario himself, solving puzzles and dispatching enemies along the way.

As you might expect, you'll do the usual bit of item collecting (a mainstay in any platform game these days), but for once the coins, gems and other doodads prove to be valuable, as they can unlock other areas or improve your health.

Taking a page from "Super Mario World 3," in "Galaxy" Mario can try on several costumes, each with its own special abilities. The bee outfit, for example, allows him to fly for short periods of time (though you have to avoid water). The "Boo" costume lets you become a ghost and pass through walls.

But it's not just the level design and add-ons that make "Galaxy" such a joy to play. The game's use of motion controls is intuitive, fluid and graceful enough to make you wonder why you ever bothered using a traditional D-pad. Shaking the controller, for example, allows Mario to do a spin attack, stunning his enemies. Other, more unique levels require you to do things such as holding the controller vertically to balance Mario on top of a rolling ball.

The game also boasts a co-op mode, where your friend can collect the little star bits that dot the landscape while you operate Mario. As multiplayer schemes go, this seems to be terribly unbalanced and is probably the weakest part of the game.

As the official poster boy for Nintendo, Mario gets his mug plastered onto a lot of games that barely rank above mediocre. Not so with Mario Galaxy." Like the best "Mario" games before it, it builds firmly upon platforming traditions to offer something original and inventive. You won't find a better game on the Wii console right now.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Graphic Lit: Holiday shopping guide

With so many graphic novels to choose from, finding the perfect gift for your favorite comic book geek can be tough.

To aid in your travails, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting some of the more notable big-ticket items out for the holidays this year, along with some (comparatively) cheaper suggestions, all broken down according to genre. No need to thank me.


Pricey: “Mad’s Greatest Artists: The Completely Mad Don Martin” (Running Press, 1,000 pages, $150) collects every single cartoon, cover, sketch and parody the floppy-footed cartoonist ever did during his venerable run on the magazine (roughly 1957-1987), wacky sound effects and all, packaged lovingly in an immense two-volume slipcase. For many, Martin’s goofy, black sense of humor is synonymous with the magazine itself,

Less expensive: “The Mad Archives” (2 volumes so far, DC Comics, $49.99 each) collects the “classic” Mad era from the early 1950s when Mad was a comic book. For many fans, this material, edited by the great Harvey Kurtzman, beats anything “the usual gang of idiots” came up with afterward.


Pricey: Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” celebrated the fleeting joys and sorrows of American life in its daily strips, but the Sunday pages were another thing altogether.

Here, King experimented with color, art styles and form, spinning out a variety of lavish dream sequences and ruminations on nature.

The best of those pages are now collected in “Sundays With Walt and Skeezix” (Sunday Press Books, 96 pages, $95). What’s more, they’re printed at the gi-normous size they originally ran in the newspaper back in the 1930s. That means you’ll have trouble fitting the volume on your bookshelf, but the beautiful production values more than make up for the space considerations.

Less expensive: Just about every significant comic strip is getting its due in snazzy hardback collections these days, including “Peanuts,” “Popeye,” “Dick Tracy,” Dennis the Menace” “Terry and the Pirates,” “Moomin” and much more. But if you’re looking for something contemporary, “The Best of Mutts” (Andrews McMeel, 256 pages, $24.95) provides some choice samples from the first 10 years of Patrick McDonnell’s wistful funny animal strip.


Pricey: Assuming you haven’t gotten hooked into Naruto’s clutches yet, Naruto Shadow Box Set (Viz, $189.95) offers you a classy way to do so. It comes complete not only with the first 27 volumes of the series, but also a wooden bookcase to store them, as well as some assorted stickers, posters and whatnot.

Less expensive: A number of popular series such as “Battle Royale,” “Azumanga Daioh “ and “Princess Ai” have been collected into chunky “Omnibus” or “Ultimate Editions,” putting a number of initial volumes together in one. My pick would probably be the “Fruits Basket Ultimate Edition” (Tokyopop, 434 pages, $14.99), as it’s one of the most popular series out there now.


Pricey: Marvel and DC have a number of big-ticket, hardcover collections to choose from, from the “Captain America by Ed Brubaker Omnibus” to “Absolute Kingdom Come.” My pick, however, would probably be “The Absolute New Frontier” (DC Comics, 462 pages, $75) which, according to the experts, is the best way to read Darwyn Cooke’s elegant homage to the DC superheroes of the ¤’50s and ¤’60s.

Less expensive: DC and Marvel’s ongoing black-and-white “Essential” and “Showcase” reprint compilations (about $16.99 per volume), provide some satisfying old-school thrills to those on a budget.


Pricey: Last year, acclaimed cartoonist Chris Ware provided a number of covers and strips for The New Yorker’s Thanksgiving issue. Now, these covers, which form a complete story when read in order, are being offered by the New Yorker as a packaged portfolio of 15x20 prints for the whopping price of $350. If you need extra inducement, the package also includes some of Ware’s notes and a strip that was previously available only online.

Less expensive: You can buy the same package as “Acme Novelty Library 18.5” from Drawn and Quarterly for $32. The prints come folded in half though.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

If you happen to be in Central PA area today ...

I invite you to stop by the Dillsburg Library (that's in Northern York County) tonight at 7 p.m., as I'll be giving a slideshow talk there on the history of the indie comic scene in America, from the 1950s to today. You can get more information here. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

You say it's your birthday

Well it's my birthday too yeah.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

VG REVIEW: Rock Band

“ROCK BAND” Electronic Arts, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rated T for Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes), $169.99.

Admit it. Deep down inside you wish you were a rock star.

It's a common dream, but all too often a severe lack of talent and skill prevents most (oh, all right me) from ever actually getting up on stage and prancing about like a golden god.

Thats why I'm so grateful there are games like Rock Band out these days. With a sizable cash infusion I can now make like not only Jimmy Page, but also Robert Plant, John Bonham and even John Paul Jones via my video game console. Best of all, I can bring three of my friends
along for the ride.

The developing studio Harmonix, which created the first two versions of the uber-popular "Guitar Hero series, as well as such other music themed games like "Karaoke Revolution" and "Frequency," has produced some inspired games before, in many ways this ambitious title represents the culmination of everything they've done.

Lets get the biggest problem with Rock Band right out of the way — its terribly expensive. At some future date you’ll be able to buy the various instruments separately, but ideally you’ll want to shell out the big bucks for the $170 special edition package.

If youve played any of the "Guitar Hero" games or even fiddled with a karaoke machine, you can get the basic gist of Rock Band quickly enough.

In the game you and up to three other people take on different band roles — drums, guitar, bass and vocals — and play along to a variety of songs by such folks as Nirvana, Radiohead, KISS and The Who.

As with "Guitar Hero," the goal is to press (or thwack) the colored buttons on your controller at the same time they scroll down the bottom of your TV screen. The vocal section, meanwhile, works just like most karaoke games, with singers having to match the pitch and phrasing of the
song as accurately as possible.

Of all the instruments, playing the drums is the most fun and challenging section of the game (and the one that resembles the real thing the closest).

If you dont have enough (or any) friends to play with, the game does offer solo tours, where, after creating your own character and outfitting them in ridiculous costumes, you can take a spin
through rock stardom.

Ideally however, "Rock Band" is a game designed for and best played with a group of people,
either in your home or online. The "Band World Tour" section, for example, is the real meat of the game, with players able to garner stars, fans and even roadies and tour managers as they
make their way from a tiny dank night club to arena stadiums (unfortunately, this section doesnt have an online mode).

Though the soundtrack provided in the game is excellent, users can download new songs (for a price naturally) on a weekly basis. Even full albums like The Who's "Whos Next" will eventually
be made available for download.

Despite its expense and limited one-player features, "Rock Band" is a stellar achievement and, with the right settings, perhaps one of the best experiences you'll have playing video games.
When youve got four people playing along to "Suffragette City" and everyones in sync the effect can be magical.

It's no substitute for actual music lessons, but "Rock Band," like "Guitar Hero" before it, should inspire a few intrepid souls to put down their controllers and pick up an instrument.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, December 03, 2007

Graphic Lit: 'LOEG: The Black Dossier'

“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier”
by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Wildstorm, 208 pages, $29.99.

A good deal of Alan Moore’s recent work has focused on mashing up well-known literary characters or genres (“Lost Girls,” “Top 10,” “Promethea”) to explore what he regards as the redemptive power of storytelling and the imagination.

Exhibit A is the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics he’s done with artist Kevin O’Neill. The first two volumes threw together Captain Nemo, Mina from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” pulp adventurer Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man and Dr. Henry Jekyll and plunged them into rip-roaring Victorian adventures, with lots of other literary characters popping up in just about every panel (the less said about the 2003 Sean Connery movie the better).

Now, after many delays, in part due to an ugly falling-out between Moore and publisher DC, we have a new “League” book, “The Black Dossier.”

“Dossier” isn’t a true sequel; for that you’ll have to wait until next year, when the first third of volume III will come out from the publisher Top Shelf. It’s more of a guidebook to the extensive literary universe Moore and O’Neill have created.

As a result, it’s both a rewarding and extremely frustrating book to read. One gets the feeling at times that in order to fully appreciate it, you have to be either Moore or O’Neill.

The main story finds Alan and Mina, having now attained eternal youth, in Great Britain circa 1958, and attempting to recover the Black Dossier of the title, a thick file containing information about the mysterious league and its various operatives over the centuries (previous members include Fanny Hill and Lemuel Gulliver).

The British government, however, having just recovered from the “Big Brother” years (though many of its masterminds still control things in secret), wants such information kept under wraps and sends a pair of young agents — the thuggish Jimmy Bond and lithesome Emma Night (i.e. Emma Peel) — to capture the adventurers and retrieve the file.

In between those sequences, we are treated to lengthy (and often pure textual) excerpts from the dossier, with Moore and O’Neill attempting a variety of literary pastiches, including Shakespeare, old British newspaper comics and a Big Brother-styled Tijuana Bible (i.e., X-rated comic). There’s even a 3-D section in the back of the book; special glasses are included.

This type of literary riffing works spectacularly sometimes, such as the hilarious melding of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Other times, such as the attempt to ape beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, it becomes a dull slog.

Spotting the numerous references in the previous volumes was usually a fun side game to the story’s central proceedings. In “Dossier,” it feels like homework. As allusion-heavy as the earlier books were, I never felt they were weighted down by the original material or that I needed a degree in European literature to enjoy it.

Not so with “Dossier.” Moore’s references are frequently obscure (at least to American readers, unless Fantomas or the Greyfriars School stories are better-known than I suspect) to the point of annoyance and seem to be thrown together in a slap-dash “wouldn’t it be cool if” fashion.

Moore is obviously opening the “LOEG” world here to include not just Victorian literature, but any work of fiction from any time period, regardless of medium. But I wonder if he’s cast his net too wide. What started off as clever, well-executed conceit quickly turns into a poor piece of fan-fiction.

On the plus side, O’Neill ably imitates the artists and modes while still maintaining his unique style. Moore’s enough of a strong writer to make several sequences sing. And this is easily one of the best James Bonds I’ve ever seen.

All that being the case, it’s best to think of “Dossier” as a little, nonessential appetizer, something to whet the palate before Volume III arrives.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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