Friday, December 30, 2005

Graphic Lit 12/18 and more

I almost forgot to mention: Shawn Hoke, creator of the lovely mini-comics blog Size Matters, recently posted his list of "365 Things I Enjoyed In Comics This Year" over at Comic World News. And he was nice enough to include Panels and Pixels at No. 235. Thanks Shawn.

The Cute Manifesto"
by James Kochalka
Alternative Comics, $19.95.

Kochalka's work tends to be an either/or affair. Either it's delightful and insightful or it's overly precious and grating. This small, square-bound collection of the author's shorter comics is a little of both. "Sunburn," for example, attempts to be profound but falters badly. "Reinventing Everything," however, is worth the hefty cover price. Devotees of Kochalka's work will enjoy this book, assuming they haven't read these stories previously. Casual fans and newcomers might want to look to one of his other books.

"Cinema Panopticum"
by Thomas Ott
Fantagraphics, 104 pages, $18.95.

Mining a vein best typified by the "Tales from the Crypt" comics of the 1950s, Ott's work focuses on O. Henry-style horror stories done in a lavish, heavily detailed style that resembles the woodcut "novels" of Lynd Ward.

Most of the stories in this collection aren't particular shocking or scary. Anyone who's seen an episode of "The Twilight Zone" will be on familiar territory. It's Ott's sumptuous art that draws the reader in. His world might be dark, but it is captivating nevertheless.

"The Frank Ritza Papers"
by David Collier
Drawn and Quarterly, 182 pages, $19.95.

David Collier has always been one of the more eccentric folks in alternative comics (which is really saying something). Like an extremely knowledgeable tour guide with ADD, Collier's books zig and zag through his subjects of interest (autobiography, history, minor historical figures) that, at its best, fascinate and captivate and at worst, meander to unsatisfying conclusions.

Sadly, "The Frank Ritza Papers" falls in the latter category. The rather slim story involving the Collier family's new life in rural Canada and the discovery of an interesting local artist is interspersed with large chunks from his sketchbook. The result is a rather minor work that feels padded out to justify a higher price tag. Newcomers would be better off starting with some of Collier's earlier works, most notably "It's All True."

"In My Darkest Hour"
by Wilfred Santiago
Fantagraphics, 128 pages, $14.95.

Omar is, to put it lightly, a mess. Overweight, stuck in a dead-end job and manic depressive, he ends up thoroughly alienating his girlfriend. His clumsy attempts to pick up other women are nothing short of pathetic.

Unfortunately, this story is a mess as well. Santiago certainly knows his way around a pencil, not to mention PhotoShop, but his skills as a storyteller are severely lacking here. Panels seem overly crowded and the segues between Omar's inner visions and reality are jarring. To put a fine point on it, Santiago seems more interested in pulling off the occasional striking image than in creating a cohesive work.

"Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco"
by Rick Smith
Alternative Books, 128 pages, $14.95.

Travelogue comics seem to be all the rage these days. Last year saw the release of "Carnet de Voyage" and "A Few Perfect Hours." Now comes Rick Smith's ("Temporary," "Shuck Unmasked") autobiographical story of his travels with his wife, Tania, through Morocco in 2000.

Smith does a good job capturing the frantic, seat-of-your-pants feel of trekking through an extremely foreign country with little more than a toothbrush. The constant negotiating, the heightened state of anxiety punctuated by rewarding moments are all well-realized.

On the downside, Smith simply isn't a strong enough draftsman yet to capture the Moroccan scenery effectively. Backgrounds are overly sparse and the Moroccan denizens seem over-caricatured if not downright crude. Like most travel stories, "Baraka" also suffers from lack of an overriding theme. It's just a story of the stuff that happened to Smith on his trip abroad. Interesting stuff to be sure, but not necessarily compelling.

"Miniburger: Dirty Dozen & the Lucky 13th"
Top Shelf Productions 312 pages, $18.

From the folks that produce Stripburger, a yearly anthology featuring work by Eastern European cartoonists, comes this boxed set of 13 24-page mini-comics. Artists from Korea and France are included in the package, giving the production an international feel. Past Stripburger collections were more than a tad lackluster, but this anthology is an improvement, in no small part due to its cute, creative packaging. Many of the comics offer gripping, dreamlike narratives or present a compelling art style that keep you entertained enough to reach for the next book. It's the art comics equivalent of popcorn.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Thoughts on the Xbox 360

This article originally in the paper ran 2 Sundays ago, but I was, you know, on vacation, so you're getting it now.

As a side note, the high point of doing this piece was easily the angry message left on my phone who felt I must be "smoking crack" to have anything less than effusive to say about this console. Thanks and I love you too.

Let’s skip all the lengthy introductions and boil this down rather quickly. Should you buy an Xbox 360?

No. Or at least, not yet.

Let me equivocate. The Xbox 360 is an impressive, state-of-the-art piece of machinery. With a reasonably strong initial lineup of games, a beefed-up online presence and improved graphics, there’s no doubt that Microsoft’s newest console has the power to turn heads.

Yet despite all this, there’s just not enough meat on its bones yet to justify the hefty purchase. If you’ve been eyeing the console but unable to find one in stores, my advice would be to wait. You’re not missing anything if you hold out for a few more months.

Certainly, the 360 boasts a much sleeker, more attractive design than the first Xbox. It’s sharp concave shape and smart white and green colors are a considerable improvement over the behemoth that was the first Xbox. That beauty is somewhat offset, however, by the rather large brick of a power supply that it plugs into. You could kill a horse with this thing.

Hooking the system up and turning it on is a piece of proverbial cake. After plugging in the wires, simply press the start button on your wireless controller and you’re good to go. It’s the sort of genius idea that makes you slap your head and wonder why other developers hadn’t thought of this first.

One of the most attractive things about the 360 is its menu interface. From the main "dashboard," it’s easy to go online, check your statistics (the console keeps track of all your various achievements in your games), copy a CD or connect to your PC.

Billing itself as a multimedia machine that just happens to also play games, the 360 can handle a variety of electronic devices. I was able to plug in my digital camera and iPod without any trouble. And, as with the first Xbox, the console also was able to play DVDs and music CDs easily.

Of course the 360’s graphics power is what has been driving the marketing blitz so far. Even on my considerably-less-than-HD television, there’s no denying the pictorial prowess of this new system. Playing a game such as "Call of Duty 2" or "Kameo," you’re aware of every blade of grass. It’s hard not to be awed, at least initially.

And with that introduction, let’s take a quick look at some of the console’s launch titles:

"Kameo: Elements of Power," Microsoft, rated T for Teen (animated blood, violence), 49.99.
A surprisingly beautiful and entertaining platform game, considering it was originally supposed to come out for the Nintendo 64 more than five years ago. In "Kameo," you play a winsome elf princess with the ability to transform into a variety of fearsome monsters, each with its own special abilities. A much deeper and richer game than you’d expect at first glance.

"Perfect Dark Zero," Microsoft, rated M for Mature (blood, language, violence), $49.99.
A futuristic, James Bond-style first-person shooter involving secret agent Joanna Dark tackling an endless array of corruption and heavily armed bad guys. The single-player mode is enjoyable, if rather unexceptional. With the ability to support up to 32 players online, however, it’s in multiplayer mode where this game will shine.

"Project Gotham Racing 3," Microsoft, rated E10+ for Everyone age 10 and up (mild lyrics), $49.99.
This latest sequel rewards drivers not just for coming in first, but for flashy driving as well. It’s a gorgeous game that takes full advantage of the 360’s capabilities and one that racing fans will enjoy.

"Ridge Racer 6," Namco, rated E, 59.99.
A more arcadish (i.e. less realistic) racing game than "Project Gotham," "Ridge Racer" is nevertheless fun, if a significantly shallower experience. Good for those who’ve finished "PGR 3" and want to move on to something else.

"Call of Duty 2," Activision, rated T (blood, mild language, violence), $59.99.
"Call of Duty 2" has you fighting Nazis on a variety of fronts. The stunning graphics add to the game’s realism, giving you a real "you are there" feel that, up till now, could only be created on a PC. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s easily the best 360 title out of ones I sampled.

"Quake 4," Activision, rated M (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language), $59.99.
Yet another futuristic first-person shooter, with gruesome monsters popping out of dark, dank corridors and so on. It looks good, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen a million times before.

"Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland," Activision, rated T (blood, crude humor, language, suggestive themes, violence), $59.99.
"Gun" Activision, rated M (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol), $59.99.

There is absolutely no reason to own either of these games if you have an older PS2 or Xbox at home. Both show little or no graphical improvement on the 360, and neither version offers any extra incentive over the older console versions. The $10 price hike only adds insult to injury.

Certainly, the 360’s initial lineup is wide and varied enough that hardcore gamers should be able to find something tailor-made to their tastes. Yet playing these games, I had a distinct sense of deja vu. Hadn’t I played most of these games, albeit in slightly less pretty form, before?

As good as titles like "Kameo" and "Call of Duty 2" are, they aren’t anything that cries out "play me now!" Perhaps I’m being persnickety here, but shouldn’t a next-generation video game console feature truly revolutionary, next-generation games?

Which is not to say that they aren’t coming. A quick look at next year’s calendar shows the arrival of games like "Gears of War" and "Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" — titles that might well offer a "must-have" experience.

Mention should, of course, be made to the 360’s online capabilities. Assuming you’ve got a broadband Internet connection, and that your television is in relatively close proximity to your cable modem or router, you shouldn’t have any problem getting online.

The one aspect of the new Xbox Live that is most promising is the Marketplace. From here you can not only download movie trailers and pictures, but also upgrade to such games as "Perfect Dark Zero." Better yet, you can purchase classic games like "Joust" and new puzzle games like "Bejewelled."

These smaller, less complex titles have the potential of reaching a much broader, more casual audience than titles such as "Call of Duty," and may go a long way toward attracting consumers. I know I had more fun goofing around with five-minute games like "Zuma" than I did with "Quake IV."

If you already own an HDTV, and have the other technological capabilities necessary to take full advantage of the 360, then this is a worthwhile purchase. Everyone else should just sit on their hands for a while and see what games appear next year. For all of its technological brilliance and multimedia capabilities, the Xbox 360 remains a big shiny brick without the software to back it up.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Best Games of 2005

I know quite a few folks find top 10 lists tiresome, but I actually kind of enjoy them, provided no one takes them too seriously and a healthy amount of debate/skepticism is encouraged. Working on my "look back" article for the paper the other week, I focused on my favorite games of the year and neglected to talk about stuff like the "hot coffee" scandal. In retrospect, probably not the best tack, but one that will hopefully generate a bit more feedback.

Hope everyone had a merry merry.

2005 saw a number of arriv­als and big announcements.

There was the Xbox 360, which came flying out of the doors with a barrage of hype but few notable games.

We also saw the appearance of Sony’s PlayStation Porta­ble, an impressive machine that so far works better as a movie player than as a gaming device.

It also was the year that saw the Nintendo DS hit its stride as a surprising number of strong titles came out for the system after a rather anemic launch.

The year was also pretty good for the games them­selves. A wide number of games took established genres and tweaked them enough for them to leap past their peers.

Whether in terms of art de­sign, tight storytelling or gen­erally superb gameplay, the best games of this year took various cliches and made them feel like something new.

Here then are my picks for the best video games of 2005.

10. "Alien Hominid"
This side-scrolling shooter isn’t just a clever homage to the days of "Metal Slug" and "Contra"; it’s also a delightful­ly bizarre game with a goofy visual flair all its own. Not to mention a reminder of the need for more small, indepen­dent games on the big con­soles.

9. "Burnout Revenge"
Developer Criterion im­proves an already excellent franchise by adding lots of hidden shortcuts and the abil­ity to knock traffic off the road. The end result is the best game in the series yet. Driving badly has never been such fun.

8. "Psychonauts"
This quirky, funny platform game doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as show you how wheels should really be made. The "milkman" stage alone demands the game’s in­clusion on this list.

7. "Kirby Canvas Curse"
The first game that really made use of the Nintendo DS’ touch screen remains one of the best games for the hand­held system yet.

6. "Lumines/ Meteos"
I know, I know. I’m cheat­ing here, but it’s hard for me to separate these two puzzle games in my head, not only because they’re similar in structure but also because they spring from the mind of acclaimed game designer Tet­suya Mizuguchi. Either one will keep you up late at night, desperate for "one more round."

5. "Forza"
This is the new standard against which all racing games shall nowbe judged. At least by me.

4. "Killer 7"
Creepy, surreal and thor­oughly original, "Killer 7" no doubt frustrated many with its stripped-down gameplay. It’s a pretty safe bet to say you’ve never played anything like this before, however, and in these days of cookie-cutter design, that’s a good thing.

3. "Resident Evil 4"
An obvious choice, no doubt, as just about everyone and their cousin loved this game. For me, this was the turning point that made me appreciate a series I had loathed.

2. "God of War"
Yes, it’s violent and gory and all those other things that upset Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s delicate sensibilities. More than any other game this year, however, "God of War" left a goofy smile on my face. In terms of design, game­ play and sheer sense of style, "God" has few peers.

1. "Shadow of the Colossus"
It’s hard for me to think of a more haunting, sublime expe­rience this year with any art form, be it movies or books, than I’ve had with "Shadow." When your friends argue that there is no way that video games could ever be consid­ered high art, pop this title in and watch them quickly change their minds.

Also worthy of merit
"Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath," "Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory," "Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee," "Jade Empire," "Puzzle Pirates," "WarioWare: Twisted," "Ninten­dogs," "We Love Katamari,"
"Indigo prophecy," "The War­riors," "Dragon Quest VIII," "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attor­ney" and "Trauma Center: Under the Knife."

Console of the year
Nintendo DS. Sorry PlayStation Portable and Xbox 360, but Nintendo’s little dual-screen console beat you with its impressive lineup of inven­tive and original software.

Worst game of the year
"187 Ride or Die." Offensive "gangsta" stereotypes get slapped on what is essentially an "urban" version of "Mario Kart." Pathetic. Runners-up: "The Getaway: Black Mon­day" and "Advent Rising."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Holidays

Regardless of how you celebrate this holiday season, or even if you don't, here's wishing you and yours peace, love and prosperity into the new year. Even if you work for Fox News.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Now It Can Be Read! Leonard and Larry

Here's part two in my occasional series of "reviews that never saw print." This time out it's the most recent and final collection of the Leonard and Larry comic strip, "How Real Men Do It."

“Leonard & Larry 4: How Real Men Do It” by Tim Barela Palliard Press $12.95

It’s a little something I like to call the “Philadelphia” syndrome.

Every so often, Hollywood gets on its moral high horse and comes out with a major motion picture dealing with some important topic like anti-Semitism (“Gentlemen’s Agreement”), interracial dating (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) and AIDS (“Philadelphia”). Such films are usually hailed as stellar achievements -- pinnacles of the art form. They sweep up all the awards and everyone pats himself or herself on the back, feeling that their job has been done.

It’s only years later, in the cold, harsh eye of hindsight, that one can see how anemic and unworthy of merit such works actually were. Perhaps at the time they were considered praiseworthy for their mere existence; that they discussed in a frank and open manner things one didn’t bring up at the sewing circle. The fact remains, however, that as works of art they are supremely lacking. They simply don’t stand the test of time.

Which is as good a place as any to start talking about “How Men Do It,” the latest and apparently final collection of strips from the popular gay comic strip “Leonard and Larry.” In its own way, “Leonard and Larry” could be seen as daring in its depiction of homosexual wedded bliss and dull domesticity. The mere fact that it focused on the mundane, day to day aspects of a gay couple’s life, not very subtly underscoring that homosexual couples go through the same sorts of relationship and family problems as heterosexuals do, was no doubt a breath of fresh air to many in the gay community, and I wonder if some of its popularity wasn’t due to the fact that, apart from one or two other strips, it was the only thing of its kind around.

Now, with the arrival of “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye” and on and on until the gay culture has taken on a hip cache in the public’s imagination, the temptation to ask if a strip like “Leonard and Larry” is in danger of becoming archaic is almost irresistible. Of course, all you have to do is pick up a newspaper to know that, if anything, “Leonard and Larry” has its finger on the pulse of America’s culture wars. Still, the question remains: Is the strip more noteworthy for what it says than how it says it?

Fear not though, the news is pretty good. Thankfully, the strip manages to pull itself out of the one-note mire and more often than not offers a funny and lively look at a gay couple and their extended family. It’s “For Better or For Worse” with a slightly narrower demographic.

A lot of the strip’s strengths are due to Barela’s skills as a cartoonist. Barela displays an extremely tight, clean line with which he’s able to wring a number of amusing facial contortions from his rather large cast of characters. He’s also a pretty good draftsman, though it’s often hard to tell as the text usually leaves little room for more than talking heads (more on that later). As a writer, Barela’s ear for dialogue manages to make what would otherwise come across as one-note political tirades sound – if not fresh – at least like they’re coming out of the mouths of the characters and not the author. He seems thankfully desperate to avoid creating cookie-cutter comic strip people so that each individual has their own quirks and behavior that seems ingrained rather than put-upon.

Which is not to say that the book doesn’t have problems. Barela is, to put it mildly, a wordy cartoonist. His characters have the habit spewing off about some such topic or another ad nauseum, to the point where they’re barely able to fit in the panel beyond a mere head and shoulders. Suffice it to say that this is not a strip for those comic formalists out there.

Also, Barela’s fetish for hairy, burly men tends to get in the way as almost every character seems to possess either one or both of the above traits, making it difficult to tell the players apart without a scorecard. (Those who are familiar with the strip will undoubtedly have less trouble.) Though a talented cartoonist, Barela seems to rely too easily on a few quick shorthand tropes over and over again (he seems unable to draw more than two different types of noses for example).

So yes, “Leonard & Larry” is an amusing, if somewhat slight, strip that will no doubt continue to amuse readers should it find an audience in the future. However, while I’m listing negatives, let me voice one concern that “Real Men,” as well as other, similar (and by similar I don’t mean gay, thank you) comics raise for me. I understand the desire, nay, the need to portray right-wing fundamentalists as idiots and insensitive clods who are too busy spouting off their extremist values to realize how foolish they are, but I often wonder if doing so doesn’t play right into their hands.

The thing is, these people, however twisted and bigoted their opinions may be, are genuine in their beliefs. They might contain a feverous self-righteousness and piety that can be frightening at times, but I wouldn’t be calling them all morons (at least, not all of them). Their opinions may be offensive, but these aren’t necessarily ignorant high-school dropouts we’re dealing with here. It may be emotionally satisfying to get a cheap and easy laugh at these peoples’ expenses, but while you’re doing that, they’re getting elected to the school board and getting ready to lower the boom on you.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NOW IT CAN BE READ! Reviews salvaged from the circular file

As a holiday gift to you and yours I thought I'd start a new feature here at P&P. "Now It Can Be Read" is basically my way to pawn off reviews/think pieces/whatever that were meant to see print but for one reason or another, never did.

I'll kick it off with my review of Joel Orff's "Sturm and Drang," which was published back in May of 2003. This review was originally supposed to run in The Comics Journal, but got pushed out due to limited space and a lack of timliness on my part.Enjoy

“Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll”
by Joel Orff
Alternative Books

What is wrong with me that John Porcellino’s work can send me into spasms of delight, yet similar minimalist comics, like Joel Orff’s “Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” leave me utterly cold? Actually scratch that. Let’s use my prerogative as a critic to switch the question around. What the hell is wrong with Orff’s work that it doesn’t fail to achieve the same thrills and insights that King Cat does with such seeming effortlessness?

Certainly, both works are rife with similarities. Both seem to avoid a more realistic style in favor of a simplistic, almost primitive art work. And both prefer a “small is beautiful” approach to storytelling where heavily convoluted plots and characters are discarded in favor of a focus on the more minute aspects of everyday existence.

However, attempting to adhere deep spiritual meaning or at least a good bit of humor to minor or even mundane events in modern life – never mind attempting to do so in comics -- is a bit of a Frankenstein effort, one that only really skilled surgeons should attempt. Orff does his darndest, but his stories more often than not lie there flat on the page, like the dead air that follows a bad joke.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the book’s title is a wee bit deceiving, having little to do with rock and roll at all and barely anything to do with music. It’s more of a collection of somewhat amusing anecdotes told by Orff and his friends, some of them having to do with music, some not. Anyone hoping for a great collection of debauched, hard-living tales from famous or at least edgy rock bands would be better served with one of those oversized Paradox Press volumes. Or perhaps a few hours watching VH1.

Anyway, one of the central problems in a work like this is that just because the author has a strong emotional attachment to a particular trivial event in his or her life doesn’t mean that said event will resonate for the reader. If you aren’t able to imbue the story with any sort of weight, then you’ve left the reader hanging. Most of the stories included here come off as minor ramblings that don’t have any real point or point of view. They’re the kind of stories that might go over well at a party among friends or over coffee with work mates (“Hey, an odd thing happened to me at the concert last night . . .”), but overall it’s an awfully slight conceit to hang some comic strips on, never mind a book.

Part of the problem also lies with Orff’s art style. It seems all wrong for the type of material he’s trying to present, overly busy and heavily inked when simplicity and cleanness should reign. Again, not to endlessly and unfairly compare the two cartoonists, but part of what makes Porcellino’s work so enjoyable is the marriage between his zen storylines and his barely there, connect the dots pen lines.

Orff does manage to knock a few out of the park, -- I enjoyed the story about a sparsely attended Metallica concert, and the last strip, of a pregnant woman playing guitar for her unborn child is touching -- but really, the hit to miss ratio is far to uneven to recommend the book to anyone. For a book with a title as loaded as Orff’s, it’s kind of amazing how much he misses the mark.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Catching Up

I updated most of the links on the left today as many sites have changed addresses and there were a number of sites I've been meaning to add. Let me know if you see any broken links.

Posting will most likely be sporadic for the next week or so as I will be on vaction and far too busy wrapping presents and whatnot to blog. Before the holiday merriment begins, a few things I've been meaning to get to:

* Cartoonist Dash Shaw (Goddess Head, Love Eats Brains) has updated his Web Site with lots of lovely comics and other nice art work to look at. Please do check it out.

* Video game hater Roger Ebert has been getting a flurry of responses to his comments about games not being art. You can read them here. Some folks are thoughtful and articulate. Others are full of crap. You decide which is which.

* The New Yorker takes a tour of the virtual Big Apple in "True Crime: New York City."

* An excerpt from Jeet Heer's lovely essay on Krazy Kat creator George Herriman and the question of his ethnicity has now been posted online.

* Finally, I had the good fortune last Monday to talk to Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, co-authors of the excellent book "Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution." It's a smart, extremely well-written look at where the game industry is right now and how poised it is to become THE dominant entertainment medium of the future.

My interview with Heather and Aaron won't actually run until next month, but until then, please take the time to head to your local store and check this book out. If you're at all interested in the medium, it's well worth your time. (And note to comics fans: there's a Scott McCloud reference!) The authors have also started a blog, and already have put up some great posts, including one on the Xbox 360 launch.

That's all for now folks. Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Graphic Lit -- 12/11

Only two reviews this week, as newspaper space was at a premium (and will likely be again this week). I'll post some older reviews (and hopefully more original material) towards the end of the week.

"Identity Crisis"
by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair
DC Comics, $24.99.

Best-selling author Meltzer attempts to inject some crime novel gravitas into the formerly sunny world of DC superheroes, with rather depressing results. Rape, murder and other unpleasantries dot the landscape of this whodunit, which, oddly enough, doesn’t carry a "mature readers only" warning.

It seems someone is going after the DC heroes’ family members and friends, and some rather ugly secrets are uncovered during the investigation.

The main problem with this book is that what makes second-banana characters like Elongated Man and Atom so enjoyable is their inherent comedic or pulpish qualities. Attempting to add a layer of "real life" grit and grime only robs them of their charm. At any rate, it’s definitely not a book for kids, despite the presence of Superman.

"Six Hundred and Seventy-Six Apparitions of Killoffer"
by Killoffer
Typocrat, $25.95

Narcissistic self-loathing reaches new heights in this oversized volume as the author finds multiple clones of himself doing unspeakable things around town and in his apartment. Ultimately, he takes matters into his own hands in a rather suitably gruesome fashion.

What pushes the book into the realm of inspired isn’t the plot or theme so much as the design. Eschewing panel borders or any sort of line breaks, Killoffer spills his images on top of one another in a dense frenzy that only gets more maddening as the story progresses. Lines that in one corner form a street turn into a car as your eye travels down the page.

The net result is a dizzying and galvanizing reading experience — one well worth taking on, assuming you’re not put off by either the subject matter or the high price.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

VG REVIEW: Mario Kart DS

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

Nintendo is usually credited as being a company on the forefront of innovation. Yet there’s been one area of the video game world it has barely explored: the Internet.

The arrival of "Mario Kart DS" suggests that a change is finally in the air as the perky little racer is the first title in the DS library to let gamers go online.

Anyone who’s ever played any of the games in the "Mario Kart" series (and even those who haven’t) will have no trouble with this version.

As before, it’s all about taking your favorite Mario character — be it Princess Peach, Wario or the cute little Italian plumper himself — and racing them through a series of colorful but hazardous tracks.

This iteration is a "greatest hits" of sorts, collecting beloved tracks from the GameCube, SNES, Game Boy and other previous versions.

Winning races means not just keeping your finger on the acceleration button, but learning how to slide into turns, as well as picking up mystery boxes that will give you items that can speed you up or slow your opponents down.

The most significant feature of "Mario Kart DS," however, is the ability to take the game online via a wireless connection.

The setup is pretty basic. You can connect through your home Internet setup (assuming you have a wireless router), a third-party wireless "hot spot" or through one of the Nintendo-approved spots at various McDonald’s restaurants nationwide.

Getting online at a local Mickey D’s was a piece of cake. After searching for other players for a minute or two, I was racing with folks like "milkman99."

The setup won’t tell you the real names of the folks you’re playing against, and you won’t be able to tell where they’re from. You also won’t be able to talk, type or communicate with them in any fashion. You can, however, be a poor sport and dump out of a race if you’re losing by shutting your DS off.

I, for one, am quite happy not to have to hear an endless stream of "smack talk" from my fellow players. If you really want to play online with your friends, Nintendo makes it easy by giving every player a "friend code." If your friends are close by, though, you can connect with them in the same room on one "Mario Kart" game.

If you have no home wireless network and can’t or don’t want to head to your local fast-food restaurant, you can buy a Wi-Fi adapter from Nintendo for $35. Without the online connection, "Mario Kart DS" is a fun but unchallenging arcade-style racing game.

Take it online, however, and the fun factor increases considerably. While I’m not thrilled with the idea of having to down Quarter Pounders in order to play with others, the game shows a giant stride forward in Nintendo’s online strategy.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Monday, December 12, 2005

VG Review: King Kong

for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GameCube and PC
rat­ed T for Teen (blood and violence)
$49.99 (PS2, Xbox and Cube), $59.99 (Xbox 360), $39.99 (PC).

Show of hands everyone. Whom would you rather play as in a video game: Adrien Brody or King Kong?

Yeah, me too.

Peter Jackson and his entourage seem to think otherwise, however, which is why the bulk of the new video game adaptation of Jackson’s upcoming "King Kong" remake is spent in Brody’s shoes.

You do get to take control of the giant ape in several stunning sequences, but these sections are piecemealed out between lengthy bits involving Brody running through the jungle shooting at monsters.

The game opens with Brody, or, I should say, movie scribe Jack Driscoll, arriving at mysterious Skull Island with a movie crew led by producer Carl Denham (all of the film’s actors, including Jack Black as Denham, Brody and Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, reprise their roles here).

Trouble sets in right away as your team is beset by giant insects, vicious dinosaurs, unfriendly natives and, of course, the King himself.

Driscoll’s sequences take the form of a first-person shooter or FPS. Everything is viewed from his perspective, and you make hash of your enemies by using the guns and ammunition dropped by a seaplane, or using the spears and bones found on the island.

One of the nice things about these segments is that there are no health bars or game icons to speak of that would distract you from the experience. Driscoll lets you know periodically how much ammo he has, and you’ll know your health is low when the screen turns red and you start moving more slowly (recovering is just a matter of heading to a safe spot and staying still).
These FPS segments are very well-done. It’s quite exciting to have to try to distract a giant T-Rex while your comrades try to open a door, or protect Watts’ character from a marauding band of predators.

But let’s be honest. Despite the high quality, this is just another FPS shooter, and you want to play as Kong. The good news is that the chapters where you do play as Kong are great. The giant gorilla can smash just about anyone or anything in his path, climb along steep cliffs, swing on branches or work himself into a real fury.

These sections underline one of the main problems of the game. The Brody/Kong ration is weighted heavily toward the former to take the game from very good to exceptional.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a FPS fan or even just a casual gamer, you’ll be thrilled with "King Kong" regardless of which character you’re portraying.

It’s just that playing as Driscoll isn’t the same as rampaging around as 25-foot tall ape. I mean, Brody’s a great actor and all, but to my knowledge he never swatted biplanes from the top of the Empire State Building.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Graphic Lit -- 12/4

"Drawn & Quarterly Showcase Vol. 3"
Drawn and Quarterly
96 pages, $14.95.

Genevieve Elverum, Sammy Harkham and Matt Broersma are the featured artists in this latest edition of D&Q’s squarebound anthology. All three cartoonists create striking works here, though I’m particularly taken with Elverum’s surreal tone-poem involving elephants, yetis and abject loneliness. This series remains a great way to be introduced to new work, and if you haven’t heard of any of these artists, this is a fine place to start.

"Kamichama Karin Vol. 1"
by Koge-Donbo
Tokyopop, 212 pages, $9.99.

Karin is a young girl, newly orphaned, with only her mother’s ring to remind her of her family. Does the ring contain magic powers that enable Karin to become an all-powerful goddess? Are there evil forces who want to test her abilities? Is the pope Catholic? What keeps this series from entering into cliche-land is the author’s irreverent attitude toward the material. The smart, winking jokes keep the story moving at a brisk pace and ensure that the reader never grows bored.

"Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea"
by Guy Delisle
Drawn and Quarterly, 176 pages, $19.95.

An animator, Delisle spent several months in the capital of North Korea overseeing the outsourcing work of a particular cartoon. His experiences make up this book, a surreal and rather frightening look at life under one of the only utterly totalitarian regimes left on the globe.

Delisle paints a rather disturbing portrait of a land where every aspect of daily life is dedicated toward slavishly honoring its leaders, the deceased Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. Anything with implications that all is not well (and there are plenty) are ignored for fear of never being seen again.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Pyongyang" is that despite spending time in North Korea, Delisle gets no nearer to understanding its citizens than the rest of us. The country is a frozen mask propped up with the shakiest of equipment. Delisle does a suburb job of showing us the ultimate cost of maintaining such an artifice.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Roger Ebert hates video games

Assuming you haven't been following it, the game blogsphere is abuzz over famed film critic Roger Ebert's recent comments in his biweekly Answer Man column concerning video games. For those who just want the high points, I submit the following quote:
I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Where do you begin with a statement like that? Other than slapping your forehead and bemoaning how narrow minded it is, I mean. There are plenty of games that have an easily discernable artistic vision or "authorial control." They're called game designers. People revere folks like Kojima and Miyamoto so highly because of their artisitic vision. What's more, just because he's not aware of worthwhile game criticism doesn't mean it's not out there. And as far as the whole, "you could be reading Tolstoy instead of playing God of War" notion, please. Someone needs to remind him of that statement the next time he's at a Chicago Bulls game.

Rog's comments have certainly touched off a lot of online debate, that's for sure, some of it very thoughtful musings on what games qualify as art and why. One wonders if Ebert is aware of all the discussion that's going on. Probably not.

What's especially interesting about his statement is that it comes at the same time as this not so pithy piece from the New York Times. While I tire of the whole "hey, lookit how sophisticated these there games are" lead, I really like that the author includes a quote from Henry Jenkins calling Steven Spielberg to the carpet for his ignorance of the medium he's chastizing. "Cry by level 17" indeed.

What this is endemic of is the growing pains that games are going through right now. It wasn't too long ago that comics endured similar bouts of snark/patronizing. They're not out of the woods yet, but certainly the less and less people view comics with contempt. With works like Shadow of the Colossus out there, I don't think it will be too long before games join the "art club" too.

EDIT: I almost forgot to include Chris Butcher's thoughts along somewhat similar themes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

VG REVIEW: Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

Birthday celebrations (my own, thank you) kept me from posting yesterday, sorry. Here's this week's review:

Rockstar, for the PlayStation Portable
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)

You’d think in creating the latest edition of the ever-popular, ultraviolent "Grand Theft Auto" series for Sony’s PlayStation Portable, developer Rockstar would have to sacrifice some of the franchise’s size, presentation or general quality to fit the game on one of those tiny Universal Media Discs.

You’d be wrong.

Easily the most impressive thing about "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" is that Rockstar has managed to cram the full "GTA" experience into this tiny machine. Neither a port nor an oversimplified sequel, "Liberty City" is remarkably consistent with past games in the series, right down to the goofy radio stations.

Unfortunately, that stunning feat also is part of what holds the game back. Developing a game for a handheld system requires different rules than for a larger console. In other words, just because you can stuff an entire "GTA" universe into the PSP, does that mean you should?

A prequel of sorts to "Grand Theft Auto III," "Liberty City Stories" follows mobster Tony Cipriani (a supporting player in "Grand Theft Auto III") as he gets released from jail and finds his rank has fallen a few notches.

In order to get back into his don’s good graces (and his mom’s), Tony must shoot, steal, kill, race and do just about anything else illegal.

As with past "GTA" games, "Liberty City" is mission-based, with Tony doing favors with various criminals and other unsavory types, with the player picking and choosing which mission to take on and when. And, as before, there are tons of smaller mini-games, like driving a taxi, putting out fires or commandeering an ambulance, that you can try out.

Those who rail against "GTA’s" virtual lawlessness seem to ignore one of the most potent aspects of the game, namely that it’s a satire. A vicious, violent and black-hearted satire, yes, but a satire nevertheless.

That was confirmed for me while playing some of the missions involving Tony’s mom. At one point I found myself trying to win my ma’s love by taking pictures of a butcher who apparently had a penchant for dressing up like an infant (she wasn’t impressed). It’s that sort of absurdity that keeps the game’s high body count from becoming too grotesque or upsetting.

But if the game’s production values and sense of humor remain topnotch, interface is a source of complete frustration.

Just about every single problem that has plagued the "GTA" games since they went 3-D is amplified here.

Had trouble driving the cars before? Wait till you try using the PSP’s tiny thumbstick to steer. Camera got stuck in the past? Expect to be frequently staring at buildings instead of your enemy. Never cared for the game’s targeting controls? You’ll find new ways to loathe it in this iteration.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is its lack of a decent save feature. As with past games, you have to head all the way back to your house after each mission in order to save your game.

Considering that many of these missions are lengthy and spaced out all over the city, it’s not something you’ll want to do too often, which can be a problem when your battery starts running low. Forget to recharge, and you’ll find yourself missing a half-hour or more of gameplay.

These sorts of things can be forgivable on a TV console. On a handheld, which is specifically designed for on-the-go gaming however, it’s insufferable. You’ll be at your next bus stop before you even get halfway through a mission.

Rockstar deserves acclaim for being able to transfer its warped vision to a smaller screen without missing a beat. Certainly, hard-core "Grand Theft Auto" fans will be impressed enough to pick up the game regardless of its flaws.

The fact remains, however, that developing a title for a handheld console involves its own set of rules. Rockstar, for whatever reason, chose to ignore those rules and the result is a less-than-worthy game.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stan Berenstain: An appreciation

For those of you who haven't heard, Stan Berenstain, co-author with his wife Jan of the popular Berenstain Bears series, passed away earlier this week.

Most of the obituaries tend to be respectful, if typically perfunctory. A few, however, caught my eye either for being vaguely snarky, like this New York Times obit, or outright comptemptuous, like this Washington Post story.

The Post story in particular seems to take the Bears series to task for lacking "subtlety and joy." Oh, and for making the dad behave like such an idiot. It's not enough I suppose, to offer young children reassuring stories of how to deal with the problems and fears they face every day and do so in a consistently engaging and entertaining fashion. You have to be pc and in an overly precious fashion too.

It seems like the criticism is essentially a case of familiarity breeding contempt. The books, TV show and various other spin-offs are inescapable to anyone with young children (I have two). Like some people's attitudes towards Peanuts, people seem to hate the Berenstain Bears for just being so ubiquitous.

Reading these two pieces riled me up, because, in case you haven't guessed yet, I love the Berenstain Bears. As a parent, I'm a fan of the series, and my four-year-old daughter has a hardcore jones for the books. I have no doubt her love of books was in a good part due to Stan and Jan.

I'll address the Post's (and Times') criticisms in a moment, but first I wanted to talk about Mr. Berenstain's skills as an artist. No less an authority than Dr. Seuss claimed that Stan could draw just about anything, and it's true. More than that, however, he was a consumate cartoonist. Consider this (somewhat truncated) spread from "The Berenstain Bears' New Baby":

Notice how the authors use the trees to separate the story panels. Such artifices are frequently used by modern cartoonists but Stan and Jan may be the first to use such a device, at least in a children's book.

And look at the level of detail (not to mention the brilliant colors) on this page from "Berenstain Bears Go To School."

Yes, the stories followed a very basic formula (sister and/or brother have a problem, one parent -- usually mama -- provides a solution, crisis averted). And yes, Papa usually got the brunt of the jokes, though he occasionally could be the sole calming voice as well (as in "Messy Room" or "Sleepover.")

But the Berenstain Bears series dealt with real fears and problems that very young kids face. To a four-year-old, starting school or having to spend a week at Grandma's can be more terrifying than the monster under the bed. These books talk to kids at their level and provide much needed reassurance in a charming, easy-to-read fashion.

It's a bit harder for me to defend Papa's doltishness except to say it wouldn't do for Mama to be the fall guy. Like Homer Simpson, Papa Bear often showed kids how not to behave (though he was never as bad as Homer) and let's face it, kids like seeing adults behave badly, at least in books. It makes them feel better about themselves.

But if the cookie-cutter aspect of the series puts off some critics, then I ask them to turn their attention toward the Beginner Books series they did under Seuss' editorial guidence. Titles like "Old Hat, New Hat," and "Bears In the Night" readily offer the subtlety, joy and sense of wonder that those stuffed shirts at the Post are searching for.

I don't mean to make it sound like Stan was the sole creative force behind the series. I have no doubt Jan and, recently, their children, have had as much a hand in shaping the series as he did and nor do I doubt the series will continue at least for the foreseeable future.

But I am just as certain that children's literature and cartoonists everywhere have lost a giant with his passing. I for one, will miss him.

For those seeking more, The Comics Journal message board recently started a thread, and RIOT! owner Jason Richards has a nice memorial over at his blog.