Friday, February 29, 2008

From the Vault: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath

Electronic Arts, for the Xbox, rated T for Teen (blood and gore, strong language, violence), $49.95.

Clint Eastwood might have just won an Oscar, but chances are he never fired off a Boombat or a Chippunk.

They're just two of the creatures you can use as ammo in "Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath," a stylish, original shooter that takes several pages from Eastwood's "Man With No Name" Westerns ("For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") and adds a large dollop of creature-feature weirdness.

"Stranger's Wrath" takes place in the "Oddworld" universe but is separate from the previous games in that series ("Abe's Exodus,""Munch's Oddysee"). Here, you play the Stranger, who is a cross between Eastwood and Joe Camel. He sounds like he had a few too many cigarettes, too.

The Stranger desperately needs a life-saving operation, and to raise the necessary money, he becomes a bounty hunter, rustling up law-breaking varmints such as Filthy Hands Floyd and Looten Duke to collect the cash rewards.

That's where the Boombats come in. In order to corral the miscreants and their rather large posses, you'll need to collect the different species of "live ammo" that dot across the countryside and load them into your crossbow.

Each animal comes with unique abilities. As the name suggests, Boombats explode upon impact. Bolamites spin webs that tie up your opponents. Stunkz spray an obnoxious odor that brings the bad guys to their knees. Chippunks lure enemies out from hiding with their snarky comments.

Should you run out of ammo, or just tire of firing round after round of wasps, you can head butt or punch gangsters in third-person mode. Usually, toggling back and forth from third- to first-person viewpoint would be a stomach-churning experience, but here it's seamless, as is just about every other aspect of the controls.

The trickiest part about collecting bounties is bringing them back alive. You can slay your enemies if you like (or need to), but that brings in less money, which you need for your mysterious operation.

Wearing them down and then capturing them is essential to success in the game. "Doom" this isn't. And thank goodness. "Stranger's Wrath" combines elements of humor, suspense, action and melee shooting and melds it all together into its own wonderful, unique package.

What's more, the game play here is well thought out and designed. There are a variety of ways to take down a villain's fortress. You can charge in and spray Thudslugs or take a more stealth-based approach.

The enemies tend to be a bit on the dim side -- they'll quickly forget about you if you run away or hide behind a rock -- but the game compensates for that by throwing dozens of them at you at a time. And while you can shake off any wounds you receive, it takes only a few well-aimed shots to do you in.

On the minus side, the challenge bar is set a bit high, especially in some of the boss fights. And it's a shame there's no multiplayer option to speak of. But these are minor quibbles in the face of a game that's so thoroughly and delightfully original.

If you're a shooter fan, don't let "Stranger's" oddness put you off. It's one of the most enjoyable first-person shooter games to come down the pike in quite some time.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Thursday, February 28, 2008

VG Review: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

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

"Professor Layton and the Curious Village” is a tough game to review.

On the one hand, it frustrated me frequently, often to the point where I contemplated flinging my DS across the room in disgust.

At the same time, I’d be a churlish philistine to not acknowledge its charm and style. This is an utterly unique title that deserves merit for attempting to go beyond your average “adventure game.”

The plot involves puzzle-master Professor Layton and his young ward, Luke. The pair are asked to come to the mysterious village of St. Mystere to help uncover a valuable treasure.

Once in the village, however, they discover a number of nefarious plots and shady characters, and find themselves immersed in the midst of an even larger, shadier mystery.

Despite what the plot synopsis suggests, you won’t spend your time interrogating suspects or pulling out your magnifying glass to look for clues.

No, it seems the citizens of St. Mystere are suckers for puzzles, and they’ll pester you to help solve their brain-teasers at the slightest opportunity.

These aren’t puzzles along the lines of “find crowbar in room A to lift rock in room B so you can get key to go into room C” that dot the landscape of most video games.

No, these are genuine puzzles, along the lines of “A man is going along the road at 50 miles an hour”-type word problems. You know, stuff about getting wolves and chicks across a raft or moving matchsticks to make words or figuring out percentages. Logic and math-style stuff.

And it’s here that I come across my real problem with the game: I’m no good at these sorts of puzzles. In fact, I’m downright awful at them, to the point where I vowed upon graduating high school that I would never ever look at another word or algebra problem again if I could help it. “Layton” broke my streak.

Still, if these sorts of brain teasers are your bread and butter, then “Layton” will be a pleasure to play. Not only do the puzzles range from simple to stumpers, but the game boasts a captivating, cartoonish design reminiscent of the film “The Triplets of Belleville.”

Most minigame collections for the DS have a thrown-together feel, at best, putting a bunch of mediocre puzzles under one roof and hoping for the best. “Professor Layton” tries to be a bit more ambitious than that. The fact that its goals lie outside of my meager abilities shouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

From the Vault: Formerly Known As The Justice League

Sorry for the media black-out recently. Been very, very busy here without much sign of letting up. I'll try to put up some new posts later this week, but for now, here's a review from TCJ #267

“Formerly Known as the Justice League”
by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein
DC Comics

Your enjoyment factor of “Formerly Known as the Justice League” is entirely predicated upon your knowledge of and love for the DC super hero universe. More specifically, it’s especially dependent upon your familiarity with the “Justice League” series that Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire shepherded back in the late 1980s to early 90s. This rather popular revamp was notable mainly for its emphasis on humor, putting a bunch of second banana spandexed heroes through their usual paces while having them talk like Lucy and Ethel.

At the time it must have seemed rather innovative to take such a tongue-in-cheek approach and have tried and true DC characters act boorish, petty or inane, all the while spouting pithy asides and one-liners. And when it worked – when the humor came out of the characters and was leavened with some emotional weight -- “Justice League” was one probably one of the better super hero books going at the time. When it didn’t, which could be often, especially towards the end, the series was like a tiresome sitcom that has long since passed its initial cleverness and rushed straight long into unadulterated camp.

This new collection brings back the original creative team to perform what could best be described as the comic book equivalent of “Return to Mayberry.” It’s better than that, though it does fall into enough overly jokey lapses to irk those who don’t care for this kind of thing. Giffen and DeMatteis have a tendency to overplay their hand. I could have done, for instance, without the witty banter from the overly erudite thugs that attack the team early on, or the way every character’s comment has to be undercut with a reflective muttering of some sort. On the other hand, I did smile at their portrayal of Wonder Woman as priggish, self-righteous snot, and the notion of a super hero complaining about his heart condition was amusing enough to keep me engaged. So, in short, fans of the original series will be pleased with this brisk nostalgic walk. Newcomers to “Formerly” should only pick up the book if they’ve ever taken the time to find out who Booster Gold and Captain Atom are.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

VG Review: Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice

Sony, for PlayStation Portable, rated T for Teen (alcohol refer­ence, tobacco reference, mild language, violence), $29.99.

The first “Pursuit Force” game was a silly but fun bit of testosterone nonsense where you played a futuristic cop dedicated to meting out justice while jumping from moving vehicle to moving vehicle, guns blazing.

The new sequel, “Extreme Justice,” doesn’t mess with the formula too much. As a result, there’s a bit of a “been there, done that” feeling. However, it’s still goofy and playable enough to entice fans and newcomers.

The basic concept is the same: You’re a member of an elite police task force that frequently engages in high-speed chases with dangerous gangs.

Taking down these criminal elements usually means leaping from car to car and then gunning down the various occupants until your quota is met. Variations to the formula are added — you might have to protect a shipment or man a gun turret — but for the most part you’ll be drivin’, jumpin’ and shootin’.

The good news is that those elements are still fun, if a bit repetitive over time. Also fun is the deliberately bad story line, which skewers the awful action movies of the ’80s and ’90s with its one-dimensional characters, cheesy dialogue and terrible stereotypes.

What’s not so much fun is the on-foot sections, where you’ll be ducking for cover as you chase perpetrators. These sequences are full of awkward movement and difficult aiming. A lock-on feature would have been nice here.

The big addition this time around is a multiplayer feature where you can take turns playing the cops or the robbers.

The “Pursuit Force” formula is so well-worn by now that I’m not sure if it will be open for a third game in the series. “Extreme Justice,” however, does its job well enough that I’m happy to take another high-speed trip around the block for now.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Graphic Lit: The Boys & Black Summer

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a handful of superhero books that anyone could go and pick up without needing to dig into 20 pages of backstory or worry about an excess of blood and guts.

They weren’t necessarily the most family-friendly titles out there, mind you, but for those searching for a capes and cowl thrill, they fit the bill nicely.

Now it’s time to look at the flip-side of the coin: books that embody what Comics Journal online editor Dirk Deppey terms “superhero decadence.”

The idea is that under pressure to constantly up the ante, publishers fill their comics with more and more sex and violence in order to cater to an increasingly older and jaded audience, one desperate to have their superhero comics “matter.”

One of the best examples of this growing subgenre may be “The Boys,” a satire by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.

Set in a world much like our own (only filled with superheroes), “The Boys” is about a group of government operatives who keep tabs on the various hero elements and make sure they toe the line when necessary. It goes without saying that it’s often necessary and that toeing the line involves beating them to a bloody, mangled pulp.

The moral center of the comic is Simon Pegg-lookalike “Wee Hughie,” who joins the team after his girlfriend is accidentally (but very brutally) killed by the hero A-Train.

The superheroes in this series are far from admirable. Though they maintain a veneer of moral authority, behind the scenes their ranks are filled with rapists, murderers, money-hungry charlatans, drug addicts and sexual deviants.

None of that should surprise those who’ve read Ennis’ other books, like “Preacher.” Many of his recurrent themes, such as the need for personal responsibility and ethics in a corrupt world, surface here, and as always he revels in going as far beyond the pale as possible.

“The Boys” walks a fine line. It veers wildly at time between uber-gross-out satire and serious character study. It’s clear Ennis and Robertson want you to care about their characters, particularly Hughie. When you do, it’s a compelling, if overly coarse series. When you don’t, it’s just coarse.

“Black Summer” by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp isn’t a satire, but it deals with a number of the same themes as “The Boys,” namely the dark side of the superhero fantasy.

The story begins with a bloody bang as hero John Horus decides he’s had enough of the Bush administration and their “illegal” war and slaughters the president and his cabinet.

That action creates quite a bit of trouble for Horus’ former teammates, known collectively as the Seven Guns, a loose group of genetically and cybernetically enhanced twentysomethings who have since fallen on hard times and, in the case of one member, rendered him a cripple.

As every military and federal agent attempt to take down Horus and, by extension, the other guns, philosophical questions are batted around like, at what point does a personal quest for justice and freedom edge into fascism? When do you stop being a do-gooder and become a dictator?

Of course, those questions take second seat to panels of stuff getting blowed up real good. And I mean real good. Ryp’s art owes a lot to Geof Darrow, of “Hard Boiled” fame. His pages are as overly and expressively rendered as possible, with no negative space to be found and every drop of blood, meat and bone drawn in the sharpest light.

Like “The Boys,” “Black Summer” wants to have it both ways, to shock you with its violence but thrill you at the same time. That’s about as good a definition of “superhero decadence” as I can come up with for now.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Friday, February 08, 2008

From the vault: Tintin the Complete Companion

Note: This review originally ran in issue #252 of The Comics Journal

Tintin the Complete Companion
By Michael Farr
Last Gasp Press

No doubt there are plenty of hardcore Tintin-philes out there to whom a book like the new Complete Companion offers little they haven’t seen or heard before. I am not one of those people. For folks like me – devout fans of Herge’s books who nonetheless remain woefully unfamiliar with how they came to be – this coffee-table sized book is an enjoyable if at times didactic background primer for what has for all intents and purposes become one of Belgium’s primary exports.

The book itself is a thorough and by-the-numbers tour through the Tintin oeuvre. From the barely formed “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” all the way through the unfinished “Tintin and Alpha Art,” Farr delves into the history of each volume, starting with the general facts and then winding his way down into the more niggling details and artistic decisions.

The central reason for reading this book is the wealth of photos, preliminary drawings and reference material that line the pages, showing how Herge and his studio got from here to there. One wonders if the Herge foundations sends a generous check to the folks at National Geographic after seeing the few samples from the Tintin swipe file included here.

In addition, Farr reveals the real-life influences that inspired characters or certain incidents in the books. For a clueless American like myself, many of these facts were revelatory. I was completely unaware, for example, of the anti-fascist subtext that ran through what I took to be the simple boy’ adventure of “King Ottokar’s Scepter.” Not that such a discovery leads me to completely re-evaluate the book, mind you, but it did make me run downstairs and reread the darn thing to see what else I missed.

If there’s a serious flaw to the book, it’s that it seems to bog down far too much in the minutia and doesn’t give us enough of a general picture. To put it a bit more eloquently, he puts the trees under such a powerful microscope that this reader started to wonder if there was any forest around. I’m not sure, for example, that I need a four-page inventory of every single difference between the original 1943 color edition of “The Black Island” and the overhauled 1966 version. Do I really care, ultimately, that Dr. Mueller’s tie is altered into a waistcoat? Or that one of the Scotsmen the intrepid reporter comes across carries a crook in one version and an umbrella in the next?

What’s especially maddening is that at the end of the chapter Farr exclaims that the ‘66 version is far inferior to its predecessor, yet he has given us no definitive reason to think so; he has merely compiled a list of superficial differences. A tighter focus on the aesthetic merits of the two books and some more thought-out opinions might have made for a more compelling argument.

Ok, I lied. There’s another big problem with this book; namely that Farr feels the perverse need to quote verbatim dialogue from the books at length and often. I confess to being completely flummoxed by this desire. I mean, I’ve already got all the books (not bragging, just saying). I know the various plots and dialogue, as, I imagine, most people who pick up this book will. If I’m confused about a particular passage or quote Farr alludes to, I can always pull out the original work in question. I don’t need to have the entire comic sequence laid out to me in prose. I want to forgive this constant urge of Farr’s, but the cynic in me suggests it’s padding designed to up the page count and nothing more.

Still, for those Tintin fans not already intimately familiar with all of the details, “The Complete Companion” does a decent job of living up to its title. To the die hard Herge scholars, the book probably comes off as old hat, though even they might get a kick at some of the reproduced materials on display here. And it’s not as though there are that many Tintin reference books available in English and on this side of the Atlantic. So let’s congratulate Farr for filling this niche so nicely.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Brian K. Vaughn

Comic books have been very good to Brian K. Vaughn.

More specifically, one comic book, “Y: The Last Man,” has been exceedingly good to him.

“Y” has what is known in entertainment industry parlance as a “great hook.” In the near future, a mysterious plague wipes out every male mammal on planet Earth, except for one guy, a young amateur escape artist named Yorick.

For the past five years, writer Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra have chronicled Yorick’s adventures as he, secret agent 355 and scientist Allison Mann have attempted to find the cause of the plague and perhaps a cure.

The success of that series has led to Vaughn’s star rising not only in comic book circles but in Hollywood as well, including a recent stint as a writer on the TV show “Lost.”

Now the series comes to a finale with the release of issue No. 60. I talked to Vaughn from his home in Los Angeles about bringing the series to a close:

Q: How does it feel to be wrapping up Y? I imagine you have some mixed emotions.
A: Very much so. It’s weird. As I was writing the final issue it was half-relief — “Oh my god I’ve been working on this for years and years and am eager to reach the conclusion” — and also kind of a quiet dread of “Wow, I will truly miss getting to write these characters every single month.” I’m still conflicted about it.

Q: Is it fair to say Y made your reputation as a writer? It seems like it brought you a certain national attention.

A: Very much so. In fact, I don’t think I’d be working on Lost if Damon Lindelhoff weren’t a fan of Y. It’s opened up doors. I wouldn’t have met Joss Whedon if it hadn’t been for Y. Anything good that’s happened over the last five or six years has been because Y has opened that door.

Q: What was the impetus for that series?

A: I guess I’d been really eager to talk about gender. It’s always a topic that fascinated me. In comics, if people talked about gender, which was pretty rare, it was in the context of “Should Catwoman’s boobs be smaller?” or “Should she be called the Invisible Woman instead of the Invisible Girl?”

I thought there was probably a way to raise the level of dialogue about gender. I thought it was a pretty good, high concept hook. A fun, sci-fi way to talk about something that fascinates me.

Q: Did you have the whole story planned out from the beginning? I know you wanted it to be self-contained.

A: Yeah, I knew the final sentence of the final panel of the final page from the time we started working. At the very beginning Pia Guerra and I the co-creator, took side trips along the way, we made unexpected discoveries about the characters, came up with new ideas. For the most part, the destination has always been the same. We always knew where we were getting.

Q: Tell me a little bit about those unexpected destinations. What surprises or changes came to you while working on the series?

A: Definitely Pia’s involvement made the book better at every stage. She and I talked pretty frequently and along the way she would make suggestions, sometimes huge, sweeping ones. Sometimes just an offhand comment. We were talking once and she said “It’s very cool that Yorick is an escape artist. The perfect villain for an escape artist would be a master of bondage.” I thought that was funny and brilliant in a way and came the impetus for “Safeword” which was a real watermark for the book in exploring what makes Yorick Yorick. That’s just one of many examples.

Q: You talked about gender being an important issue, but I was wondering what other themes you either came across or wanted to explore in the series.

A: Well, I never like to explain the book. I always say people’s interpretations are more important than my intent. So there are definitely a lot of things that I wanted to explore but I’m always more interested in other people’s interpretations.

I suppose in broad strokes escape and what that means to individuals is a really important part of the story.

Q: Well reading the last couple of issues it does seem like death or rather confronting death seems to be an issue in the series.

A: Any series whose first issue opens with the death of three billion people, death is probably going to play a large part in things, so yes, that is very much the case.

Q: What challenged you, as far as setting up that scenario? What sort of research, if any, did you have to do?

A: Yeah, it was a bottomless amount of research because if I didn’t treat it with a great degree of seriousness and realism that this concept can pretty quickly descend into “late night Cinemax movie” and so I wanted to think about every level of society. How would this affect transportation? How would it affect agriculture? How would it affect politics and military endeavors? So I wanted to look at every aspect of my life and then, circling the lives of others, ask if you removed men from the equation how would things change? And oftentimes more importantly how would things not change. So yes, there was a great deal of research.

Q: You mentioned Pia Guerra. Artistically, what do you think she brought to the series?

A: I think she’s unparalleled at acting in terms of artists working today that a lot of other artists can give you flashy splash pages which I think Pia in the most recent issue did that as well and she’s done that often. But what very few artist can give you is if you just have a few pages of talking heads and not have every head look the same. That her facial expressions are so magnificent that it really makes my dialogue better. Working in television now you can tell when the difference between a great actor delivering your dialogue and a bad actor. And a bad actor will kill it, just like a bad artist will. First and foremost her performances are unparalleled. Beyond that I think it’s the accessibility of her storytelling. People don’t know how difficult it is to make a comic that you can give to your mom or dad or someone’s who’s never read comics beyond the Sunday funny pages and be able to follow it perfectly. Her storytelling and layouts are so inviting and so accessible that I really attribute that to how successful the book has been to reaching out to a mainstream audience.

Q: You mentioned writing for TV. What are some of the differences as far as working on Lost versus writing for comics?

A: The biggest difference is with writing for comics I’m entirely alone. It’s just me, man versus himself. I’m sitting alone in a room coming up with all of this stuff by myself. I’ve got no one to turn to when things go wrong. I also don’t have anyone to yell at me and say “Your ideas are terrible,” which doesn’t happen too often at Lost, but more often than in comics. TV is much more collaborative. It’s sitting in a room with six to eight other human beings and coming up with a story as a group. There are many advantages over writing alone and there are some disadvantages but they’re two totally different meetings. Even though they’re both forms of visual storytelling. And I think if you’re good at one it certainly helps you with the other. But the learning curve has certainly been pretty steep. It’s very different. I’m grateful I get to do both. I love getting to work at Lost during the day and then coming home and weekends and still work on my comics. I love having both of those outlets.

Q: Looking back over Y, what are you proudest of? Is there a particular series or storyline or even just something you feel the book said that hadn’t been said before?

A: I guess I’m a believer in that most things probably have been said before so I hope that if anything I said it in a new way. But honestly, I am really most proud of the final issue. I do think the book, like any monthly journey, has its ups and downs, but I think as artists and creators Pia and I just got better as the months went on. I think the book did as well, culminating in what I think is our best issue, the finale. It’s probably what I’m most proud of anything I’ve ever written.

Q: Now, you’re going to be wrapping up Ex Machina soon too, right?

A: Well, not too soon. I’m about to start writing what will be the beginning of our final year. That will be our final 12 issues or so and that will come out over the next 16 months. So we’ve got a ways to go. It’s not quite done. We’re coming into the home stretch I guess. Issue 50 will be the final issue.

Q: What do you have planned next?

A: I want to wait for the final issue of Y to come out and then just take a breather for a least a day would be nice. After that I have several ideas for new creator-owned things. I’ve gotten a lot of nice offers to work on existing Marvel and DC characters, but I’ve had a stretch of 10 great years getting to work on them and I really feel an obligation to keep creating new things. So it’s just a matter of deciding which one I want to pursue most. I think it will be more along the lines of something like Pride of Baghdad. It will be a creator owned graphic novel before I embark on another ongoing series like Y.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about that sense of obligation you talk about? I wonder if that has something to do with comics where creator’s rights has always been an issue and ownership has always been a tricky thing.

A: I think it’s tricky in any medium, but it’s not so much the sense of ownership, though I do think that’s important. For me it’s more the sense of originality. I grew up revering Stan Lee and he is still a hero of mine and I think such an important pioneer for our medium and our industry. But I think I’ve come to realize the best way to honor Stan Lee if you love Stan Lee is not to write the best Spider-Man story ever, or the best FF story, but maybe to contribute more new things, just like he did when he came to comics, he didn’t say “There’s a Superman story I’m aching to do” or “I can’t wait to get my hands on Batman.” He really was bursting with new ideas and I think if our medium is to grow and evolve we need more new ideas.

Q: Do you see that happening in comics now? It seems like there are a lot of people out right now who are saying what they really want to do is write Iron Man.

A: That’s always been true. And first of all, I don’t mean to sound like a superhero snob. Iron Man and Spider-Man are about as good as they’ve ever been. But I love that Bendis, as well as working on Spider-Man, is doing stuff like Powers that is truly his own. I think there’s always going to be those books taking the most shelf space in stores, but I don’t think there’s ever been a period of diverse works being published by more people. The fact that you can read about Acme Novelty Library in the mainstream press ... There’s probably never been a time where there’s been more stuff. It might not be at the forefront of the sales charts, but I think if you’re willing to go digging for it, there’s more great, original stuff being published now than there has been at any other time since the conception of comic books.

Q: One of the things that is great about Y, especially in that it’s serialized fiction, you do a really good job creating cliffhangers, leaving the reader wanting more at the end of each issue, creating new mysteries. I think that’s very hard to do and still maintain an interest in the characters. And not come off as a cheap ploy. How do you do that? Is that a conscious effort on your part?

A: At first it wasn’t really. I guess that had always been my instinct as a writer. I’ve always seen those monthly issues, much as I love collections and I’m grateful for anyone who picks them up, I really love monthly comics and I love serialized storytelling, something with a beginning, middle and end in a monthly dose. It feels like when you get to that end it has to be crescendo. You have to end on the right note. Leaving the reader wanting more is always felt natural to me. I guess I was surprised initially when people singled out the cliffhangers of the book. It wasn’t something that I set out to do. I think like all writers when you hear something over and over again you start to worry that you’re going to be pigeon holed as cliffhanger guy. That was part of the desire to challenge myself with stuff like “Pride of Baghdad” — do something that was self-contained and didn’t have the benefit of cliffhangers to propel the story forward. But I love a good cliffhanger.

Q: I don’t mean to make it sound like the series is a pulp novel

A: And I wouldn’t mind if you did. I have no problem with those conventions. But it’s interesting. Having worked in “Lost” now I’ve been given this vocabulary that I didn’t have before. We sometimes talk about “schmuck-bait.” Schmuck-bait is if you have a cliffhanger at a commercial break where you put your lead actor in jeopardy — he has a gun on him. We call it schmuck-bait because only the schmucks in the audience are going to believe that guy is going to get shot. That’s not a great cliffhanger. A great cliffhanger is trying to find something that’s emotionally resonant to the character. I think I’ve probably been guilty of schmuck-bait a lot, whereas a guy like Joss Whedon has done in Astonishing X-Men a lot of really meaningful character-based cliffhangers. I’ve really learned at his feet.

Q: Do you follow any of the reaction to the series? Do you have any sense of the reader reaction?

A: I’m pretty neurotic, so I follow obsessively. But I’ve never let that dictate in any way the book’s direction. I think early on with this two part comedy and tragedy story where Paul Chadwick, our first guest artist came in, we just took a break from the main story to talk about this troop of female actors and playwrights. And I would say about 90 percent of people despised it. “Enough of this and can we please get back to the story.” It was always one of my favorite stories and it’s always nice to meet people at conventions who say “that was always my favorite.” They’re few and far between, but I like that. It’s a danger to cleve to that 90 percent every month at the expense of that 10 percent. I only ever try to write the stories for myself.

Q: I was thinking of that specifically, and I’m going to try to phrase this carefully, because with the death of one of your major characters recently I was curious as to the reaction you got from that because that was pretty traumatic I imagine for devoted readers.

A: You would not be able to publish most of the emails that I received. A string of “f you,” “I hate you,” “you suck.” And that feels good, because if I hadn’t gotten that reaction it would have meant that we totally failed. You want people to be so invested in these characters that they hate you for doing anything to them. I feel the same way. I share their pain.

Q: But at the same time, because they have been so invested, you don’t want it to come off as a cheap emotional ploy.

A: It’s always a danger. But you run that risk in a 90 minute movie of “oh, that death was meant to be shocking.” I think our readers have enough faith in us to know we didn’t start something up for five years just to pull the rug out from under you.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Come listen to me blather

If you happen to be in the Central Pennsylvania area this Thursday, I will be giving a talk at the Dillsburg Public Library at 7 p.m. on "The Manga Revolution" (i.e. explaining to parents and the great unwashed what managa is and why it's popular).

If for some reason you can't make it, I'll also be giving the same talk on Monday at the Elizabethtown Public Library on Monday at 6:30 p.m. Hope to see you there.

Friday, February 01, 2008

From the vault: Death and Candy

This review originally appeared in issue #251 of The Comics Journal.

Death and Candy #3

By Max Andersson
Fantagraphics Books

No one would ever confuse Max Andersson’s work with The Land of Sunshine and Roses, but the latest edition of his continuing series, Death & Candy, seems, if anything, bleaker and more morbid than previous efforts. Those who doubt my words need only glance at the story on the back cover – a particularly gruesome story that involves the violent mutilation of an infant and its mother via gunshot and ends with the mom wearing the baby’s mangled body like a ski cap. If that isn’t enough to deter the weak-hearted I don’t know what is.

The stories inside expertly mine along the same vein of death, disfigurement and black humor. In one, human organs violently rebel against their owners (“He had decided to give up drinking, and I just couldn’t take it” a kidney confesses) while a group of fugitives escape across the border by hiding in the body of an extremely obese lout. “The Viewers,” meanwhile, is a surreal nightmare of one woman’s journey through slime, sex and pubic hair that doubles as a sponge.

The real gem of the issue, though, is “Bosnian Flat Dog,” a continuing, joint effort with fellow artist Lars Sjunnesson. A whirlwind blend of fact and fiction, the pair uses the backdrop of war-torn Bosnia to create a disturbing but extremely witty tale. Here, mines and bombed out houses share space with a refrigerated corpse, the quite literal flat dogs of the title and grenades filled with ice cream. The net result disorients the reader (what, if any, part of their story is true?) and, at the same time, provides a distinct impression of life immediately after wartime.

While I’d rather read a lengthy, more sustained work from Andersson than have to content myself with these bits and pieces, I’m happy to get his work in whatever form I can. He’s one of the best absurdists working in comics today and while his stories may be borderline nihilistic, they’re consistently engaging, gripping and mordantly funny.

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