Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Graphic Lit: Manga, Manga, Manga!

I was so busy playing catch-up after the Memorial Day weekend I didn't have a chance to post anything about Alex Toth's death (not that anything I would have said could have been more thoughtful or eloquent than Tom's post.) I'm sure there's a lot more that I missed too.

Oh well, here's last Friday's column.

Time for a look at some of the more interesting manga that has popped up in stores over the past few months.

Manga, for those of you in the dark, is the Japanese term for comics. These comics, usually packaged in thick, $10 volumes, have taken the U.S. by storm in recent years. Most of the books that have crossed the Pacific are aimed at teens or young adults. A few, however, seek a decidedly older audience:

by Keiko Suenobu
Tokyopop, $9.99.

Self-mutilation, attempted suicide and general teenage self-loathing are on vivid display in this edgy new shoujo (girl’s) manga.

Stress over starting a tough new school, along with a betrayal by a close friend, push Ayumu to the point where she starts cutting her arms in order to ease the tension. Meanwhile, her super-happy new friend Shii-chan becomes despondent when her boyfriend dumps her.

This sort of material could easily become exploitive, didactic or worse, mawkish. Surprisingly, Suenobu manages to avoid those problems through her stunning use of visual metaphors. Showing Ayumu literally seeking escape through an open wound, for example, helps explain the comfort she feels in hurting herself.

While it veers into occasional melodrama, "Life" handles its subject matter with tact and thoughtfulness and is well worth checking out.

by Naoki Urasawa
Viz, $9.99.

Speaking of melodrama, here’s a tightly-wound thriller from Urasawa, an acclaimed manga author in Japan ("Pluto," "20th Century Boys"), that’s so expertly plotted, you never notice it’s more ham-fisted moments until after you put the book down.

An acclaimed up-and-coming doctor sacrifices his career to save the life of a boy, only to discover that, years later, he’s become a serial killer. International intrigue, conspiracy plots and bodies pile up as the doctor attempts to render justice unto his former patient.

Some of the book’s characters might as well have the words "villain" or "victim" emblazoned on their foreheads, so obvious are their motivations. Yet Urasawa is an incredibly deft cartoonist, particularly in his page layouts and facial expressions, and enough hints are dropped to suggest that serious moral quandaries await in future volumes.

"Golgo 13"
created by Takao Saito
Viz, $9.99.

"Golgo" is, along with "Monster," part of Viz’s new "Signature Line," designed to appeal to older readers. Golgo himself is one of manga’s most popular creations — an assassin so cool and collected he makes James Bond seem like Jerry Lewis.

This ongoing series cherry-picks the best stories that appeared in the 40-plus years of the character’s history. Golgo’s longevity is not due to the character himself, whose personality is akin to cardboard, but to how people react to him.

A virtual cipher, Golgo is placed in a variety of intriguing settings, including Tiananmen Square and Iraq. Watching events unfold around him as he goes about his murderous business makes the series fun.

"Anne Freaks"

by Yua Kotegawa
ADV Manga, $9.99.

A young man murders his mother, then is discovered by a young lady who offers to help him get rid of the evidence. Teaming up with another sullen youth, the three go on a violent spree against a terrorist organization.

Sounds pretty shocking right? But the most surprising thing about "Anne Freaks" is how utterly banal it is. Rather than poke its nose into some uncomfortable or at least exploitive areas, the book quickly settles down into a routine thriller, with lots of simpering angst thrown in for good measure.

"Anne Freaks" would like you to believe it’s "out there," but the truth is it doesn’t have the strength of its convictions to follow through on its premise.

"Crying Freeman"
by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
Dark Horse, $14.95.

Over-the-top sex and violence dominate this fast-paced manga about an assassin who sheds tears every time he kills (hence the title).

Hailed as a classic, "Freeman" is more than a bit silly at times — that’s part of its charm — yet proves to be an effective thrill ride that will especially be enjoyed by fans of crime fiction.

"Octopus Girl"
by Toru Yamazaki
Dark Horse, $12.95.

George Romero meets Mad magazine in this extremely gory parody of Japanese horror comics. Young Takako is bullied by her classmates until she becomes half-octopus and then takes her revenge on her tormentors and anyone else who gets in her way.

Despite the buckets of blood thrown at the reader, "Octopus Girl" is tongue-in-cheek, as its rather over-the-top parody of "The Little Mermaid" shows. Those willing to put up with its extremely dark and juvenile tone will enjoy it immensely. You know who you are.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, May 26, 2006

Happy Memorial Day Weekend Everyone!

I'm much too busy trying to see if I can fit into last year's bathing suit to do a full post today, but I will lead you over to Crisis/Boring Change, where Chris Tamarri is holding a rather unique coloring book contest, in honor of the latest "Crayon Butchery" issue of NextWave. Just post a particularily descriptive word in his comments section and he'll color the page appropiately (assuming he likes the word you submitted, natch). Some fun!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

VG REVIEW: Tourist Trophy

Sony, for PlayStation 2
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

Tourist Trophy" is essentially "Gran Turismo" with motorcycles.

I could end my review right there, but I’ll keep going, for those readers who want to know more.

Developed by Polyphony Digital, the studio responsible for the well-known "Turismo" series, "Trophy" bears the same marks of high quality, shiny metal surfaces and esoteric vehicular lore that mark its other games. This is a racing game for serious motorcycle enthusiasts. Casual fans need not apply.

"Trophy" is identical enough to the "GT" franchise to be its twin. As in those games, you move up to better vehicles and tougher challenges by going to "License School."

As in those games, you can tweak a variety of aspects of your ride, including the angle you handle turns and the position of your driver’s arms.

As in those games, you can watch and save photo-realistic films and photos of your races, suitable for printing or downloading onto your computer.

What’s different this time is the difficulty level. In "Gran Turismo 4" you could cut corners and knock into other drivers to gain first place, but that doesn’t fly here. Spend one too many seconds on the grass and you’ve in effect forfeited the race.

Also, the "Trophy" bikes are much harder to maneuver than the "Turismo" cars. It’s far too easy to spin out or topple on a hairpin curve, never mind getting enough speed to overtake your opponent.

Success is possible, but it requires a good deal of trial and error, more than many gamers are willing to put up with.

For hardcore gearheads, "Tourist Trophy" will provide hours of entertainment as they can endlessly tweak, race and admire their virtual bikes. Less interested gamers, however, will grow bored quickly.

But then, you already knew all that after reading the first sentence of this review.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Graphic Lit: Civil War and 52

Before we get to last Friday's column, a few quick items of note:

1) I wanted to put in a quick plug for the new blog, Graphic Language, which features interviews with comics creators, critics and other folks of note in the industry. Created by Chris Tamarri, Ed Cunard and Kevin Church, the site promises to be one of the few must-stop places on the Net for solid, insightful comics commentary. First interview is with Salon critic Douglas Wolk. If you haven't checked it out yet, you should go read it now.

2) Tom Spurgeon posted a rather neat preview of Dan Nadel's upcoming book, "Art Out of Time," here. The book promises to be a revealing look at cartoonists that have, for one reason, or another, been forgotten in the mists of time. The book comes out in July from Harry N. Abrams.

And now, last Friday's column:

It’s summer blockbuster time, and not just at your local cinema multiplex.

This is also the time of year when the two big comics publishers — DC and Marvel — unveil their huge, multilayered, universe-shattering crossover events.

Marvel kicked off things at the beginning of the month with the first issue of "Civil War," a seven-part miniseries that, according to the company’s Web site, will leave "no corner of the Marvel Universe unaffected."

The story begins when a C-list team of superheroes, currently filming their own reality TV show, attempt to take down dangerous villains. The ensuing brawl results in a 9/11-type catastrophe that leaves hundreds of innocent people dead.

The fallout from the tragedy has a lot of people asking whether superheroes should continue acting as independent vigilantes or become registered employees for the government.

When it looks as though federal legislation will force the issue, the Marvel heroes find themselves sharply divided, with the pragmatic Iron Man seeking acquiescence and Captain America leading the rebels.

With more than one obvious nod to current events, "Civil War" could easily fall into a state of unbearable over-earnestness, like an ABC Afterschool Special with capes.

Thankfully, Marvel manages to sidestep most of those problems, at least in the first issue. That’s in a large part due to the talents of writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven. Millar’s clipped, to-the-point dialogue and McNiven’s slick, sharp layout keep the story moving at a nice pace.

To be sure, there are plenty of nits to pick. (I, for one, felt the disaster might have been a bit underplayed. Hundreds die, now let’s move on to the real story.) That said, "Civil War" turns out to be well done. Hopefully future issues will maintain that quality.

DC meanwhile, is ratcheting things up in its own superhero universe with the ambitious "52," the second issue of which came out this week.

A follow-up to its other, even more gi-normous crossover event, "Infinite Crisis," "52" will be a yearlong event, with a new issue coming out every week (hence the name of the series). Events in each issue will take place over the course of one week.

To keep up this "24"-like pace, DC is using the talents of no less than four writers (Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid) and a bevy of artists, with artist Keith Giffen breaking down the issues so they have a uniform look and feel.

Picking up where "Crisis" left off, "52" follows the adventures of DC heroes as they try to clean up the mess and restore some sense of normalcy to their world.

Problem is, three of their most famous champions — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — have disappeared, seemingly without a trace. How can the world rebuild without the heroes it has come to rely on so dearly?

While it provided an interesting commentary on the current state of superhero comics, "Infinite Crisis" was something of a convoluted mess, understandable (or appreciable) only to the most devout DC fan.

"52," despite the lengthy list of creators, seems a bit more focused. That might be due to the fact that it mainly deals with a handful of minor characters like Booster Gold and The Question, showing events from their ground-level perspective.

Although it isn’t as topical as "Civil War," "52" is considerably more ambitious. That it doesn’t fall flat at the outset is a worthwhile achievement.

It’s off to a good start, but it’s too early to tell if it can evolve into a comic worthy of merit or dissolve into a plethora of fanboy minutiae.

Still, if either series can just create an entertaining yarn, they will be considerably better than crossover events that have come down the pike before them.

Copyright, The Patriot-News 2006

Friday, May 19, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: Safe Area Gorazde

My daughter woke me up in the middle of the night yesterday, so I'm a very sleepy blogger today. Let's pulls something out from the archives then, this time a lengthy review of Joe Sacco's "Safe Area Gorazde" that ran all the way back in 2000.

In general, comic books are the last thing you think of when you hear the word journalism.

That's certainly not the case for Joe Sacco, however.

For some time, this extraordinary cartoonist has been on the frontlines of various international events, using comics to depict life in hot spots around the globe. From 1993-96, he created "Palestine," an outsider's look at relations between the Palestinians and Israelis that earned him an American Book Award.

Since then, he's turned his focus over to the conflict between Bosnia and Serbia, producing "Soba," the first of his several "Stories from Bosnia" and the wonderful short story "Christmas With Karadzic." Most recently, he has appeared in "Details" magazine, turning in a piece on Mississippi blues artist R.L. Burnside.

Now, Sacco has turned his eye back on Bosnia with "Safe Area Gorazde ," a 240-page epic that may very well be his best work yet.

For many Americans, the Balkan war that broke apart Yugoslavia inthe early 1990s must have seemed too far away, too horrible and too complicated to relate to.

There were too many warring sides committing atrocities in acountry that few knew anything about beyond its having hosted the Olympic games long ago.

In recent years, a number of books and articles have been published attempting to explain what went on between the Croats, Muslims and Serbs up to and beyond the Dayton peace accord, and many of them are excellent.

Few, to my mind, however, have had the emotional punch of "Safe Area Gorazde." Here, Sacco does more than attempt to explain the logistics of the war. He provides an intimate, terrifying portrait of what it's like to live under siege.

To some, the mere idea of conveying something as complex as a European war in comic form verges on being insulting if not laughable. Yet through the interplay of words and pictures, Sacco is able to create a sense of atmosphere that might otherwise be lost to the reader.

Whereas a photo or two might provide a quick if indelible image,Sacco is able to give us a sense of what Gorazde, the town he focuses his pen on, really looks like. We become familiar with its streets and bombed-out homes. As a result, we have an intimate feel for the town and its citizens that a novel or photo would struggle to provide.

For four months from 1995-96, -- right around the time of the Dayton accords -- Sacco toured what was once Yugoslavia, eventually focusing his eye on Gorazde, a Muslim enclave surrounded by Serb-controlled territory. Here was an area that had somehow survived the purges and massacres that "cleansed" other Muslim-dominated areas .

When asked by a student why he came to Gorazde, he replied, "Because you are still here, not raped and scattered, not entangled in the limbs of thousands of others at the bottom of a pit. Because Gorazde had lived and -- how?"

The book, then, becomes an examination of how the town, and by turnthe nation itself, disintegrated into violence, of how generation-old prejudices and suspicions turned neighbors against one another to the point where they were picking off one another with sniper rifles.

Virtually every aspect of life in Gorazde during the war is explored. Nothing goes unnoticed, whether it's the constant need for firewood, the handmade generators that provide little electricity or the dangerous late-night treks to a far-away army post for food supplies.

Because he didn't have stories that needed to be filed within 24 hours, Sacco had the time to tour the town and its people. The result is a work that delves into the common humanity of a besieged populace.

Perhaps what's most striking, apart from the grotesque brutality visited upon Gorazde 's citizens, is their almost desperate need to reattach themselves to the rest of the Western world. The people Sacco meets are eager to hear about Michael Jordan and "Pulp Fiction," to talk about anything except the war. Every girl he meets asks if he can get them 501 jeans (they must be "originals"). One local constantly belts out classic rock tunes and is eager to learn the lyrics to more in order to improve his English.

In the end, it is Sacco's art -- his incredibly detailed and realistic, yet cartoonish, panels -- that helps to draw the reader in to Gorazde 's plight. By the end, you feel as though you have been personally privy to this town's travails. His indelible images bridge the distance gap and create a strong empathetic connection. Gorazde 's citizens are not really so different from ourselves.

Certainly, this is not a book for the squeamish or for those whoare easily upset. Scenes of war, massacres and bloody operations may be enough to turn some eyes away.

But those with stronger stomachs will be sure to recognize this book for what the literary masterpiece it is. "Safe Area Gorazde" is a triumphant blend of art and writing and may redefined the way we look at comics and war reporting.

At the very least, it ought to make more people sit up and take notice of Joe Sacco.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2000

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Quick Bytes 5/14

Not every game that comes out in a given month deserves a full-bodied review. Sometimes they aren't that good. Sometimes there just isn't that much to say. It was with that in mind that I started doing Quick Bytes -- short reviews of new games that run occasionally in the paper (i.e. when there's space. These ran last Sunday.

"Sonic Riders"
Sega, for PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube
rated E for Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence), $39.99.

You know a once-beloved franchise has been in the doldrums when a mediocre title like this seems like a return to form.

"Sonic Riders" is essentially an arcade-style racing game, albeit one that uses futuristic hoverboards instead of cars. Sonic and his friends can ride their opponents’ turbulence to pick up speed, do flips in the air to earn extra "air," grind rails and more.

Overall, the game is enjoyable, but not especially memorable; this sort of thing has been done before and demonstrably better. Sonic fans will no doubt want to check it out but will also be better off renting the game instead of purchasing it.

"Bust-A-Move Deluxe"
Majesco, for PlayStation Portable
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

It seems at times as though "Bust-A-Move" has been around as long as the Sphinx. Certainly there are as many titles in the long-running series as there are stars in the sky.

Now add one more celestial body, "Bust-A-Move Deluxe," this time for Sony’s PSP handheld.

Anyone who’s ever played a "Bust-A-Move" game will be on familiar territory. As always, brightly colored bubbles slowly descend from above. Match up three of the same color using the launcher at the bottom to make them disappear.

And that’s about it. "Deluxe" throws in a number of variations on that basic formula, some of which entertain, some of which feel like padding. At it’s heart, though, this is still just another "Bust-A-Move" game. Fun, but far from essential. If you’re a fan of puzzle games and you own a PSP, then you should get this. If not, then don’t.

"Street Supremacy"
Konami, for PlayStation Portable
rated E for Everyone (alcohol reference), $29.99.

This portable racing title has some interesting ideas but ultimately is too bland to be enjoyed by anyone but serious speed junkies.

The meat of the game puts you on one of several street racing teams and pits you against rival groups, as well as the other members of your crew, for domination of the highway.

Unfortunately, the streets and rivals are nearly identical, giving the game a bland, uniform feel — each race is exactly the same, essentially, with only slight differences in difficulty. The fact that the cars are tough to control at times doesn’t encourage continued playing, either. Unless you’re seriously jonesing for some street racing action, you’d be better off passing this game by.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Nintendo, for GameCube
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (violence), $49.99 (with microphone)

Trying to describe "Odama" is a challenge.

It’s sort of a strategy game, except that you’ve got this giant pinball ... well, I guess it’s more like a pinball game with some strategy elements ... and then there’s this microphone you use ...

Hmmm. This is going to be harder than I thought.

"Odama" is an innovative title that sounds great, or at least intriguing on paper, but falters in the execution.

You are a famed samurai general up against impossible odds. Your goal is to get the magic "Ninten Bell" (yeah, I know) from the bottom of the battlefield to the top without being overrun by the enemy.

The one thing you do have on your side is the Odama, a giant ball that you roll over enemy troops or other obstacles using the flippers at the bottom of the screen.

So, yes, it is essentially a glorified pinball game.

You also control your troops using a microphone that comes with the game. Holler "press forward," "rally" or "flank and destroy" at the right moment and your army will follow your orders (assuming their morale is high).

So, yes, there is a bit of strategy involved.

And that’s where it gets complicated. Too complicated, in fact, as there are lots of little rules and tactics to follow. Many battlefields, for example, have specific requirements, such as knocking over a ladder, gaining control of a floodgate or seizing a catapult.

The basic problem with "Odama" is it tries to do too many things at once. It’s hard enough tracking the pinball while keeping your troops in line. Tacking on extra missions or rules only results in an early "game over" screen.

In fact, you’ll be seeing that screen frequently, as the difficulty bar in "Odama" is set way too high. Part of the problem is that you are limited in the number of soldiers you can have, and if too many get slaughtered on one level, it’s tough nuts for you on the next one. There is a power-up that allows you to "conscript" enemy troops by rolling over them, but its appearance isn’t frequent enough to help.

The core concept behind "Odama" is intriguing enough to make me want to see a sequel that’s a bit less punishing. There are times when the game really shines, but those moments are frequently rolled over by that big metal ball.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

01 to publish PoP

I had known about this for awhile, but had been asked to keep mum. Apparently now it's official, as Publisher's Weekly announced that First Second will be publishing a three-volume series on the popular Prince of Persia video game franchise. The books will be written by Carla Jablonski and drawn by LeUyen Pham. You can read all of the fascinating details here, along with some interesting items on other upcoming books in the FS pipeline.

Certainly, this will be pleasant news to fans of the games, which have a pretty strong following due to the overall high quality of the most recent titles. It will be interesting to see ihow they try to capture the swashbuckling, time-traveling aspects of the games into a sequential format. I'll definitely be checking them out, though I have plenty of reservations as few video-game tie-ins are strong enough to stand on their own.

Monday, May 15, 2006

VG REVIEW: Shadow Hearts: From the New World

XSeed Games, for PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (crude humor, mild language, suggestive themes, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)

It was around the time that I came across the giant talking cat that I began to think "Shadow Hearts: From the New World" might not be taking itself too seriously.

The ninja with the goofy accent who used a bus stop sign as a weapon should have tipped me off, but I can be dense at times.

"From the New World" is the third and latest "Shadow Hearts" title, a role-playing series that has won critical raves but not necessarily huge sales.

While the previous games could never be accused of taking themselves too seriously, "World" jumps headfirst into a big vat of silliness and revels in it.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young lad named Johnny who, along with a sultry American Indian lady, the aforementioned cat and ninja, and a host of other odd characters, trek around North America to stop the dangerous, demonic forces that seek to wreak havoc on all we hold dear, etc., etc.

While the plot might sound overly familiar, the gameplay itself is refreshing. Like past "Shadow Hearts" games, "From the New World" uses something called the "Judgment Ring" to spice up the endless battles that are staple of any basic Japanese role-playing game.

Basically, whenever you make a battle choice, whether to simply attack, cast a spell or down a potion, a "ring" appears with a bar that starts spinning around. Stop the bar in the proper colored areas and your attack (or whatever) is successfully executed. Miss, and tough luck, pal.

It’s a fun and rather cunning way to spice up the traditional and, by this point, dull rpg experience.

Goofy plot and interactive play system aside, "Shadow Hearts" is in many ways a traditional Japanese rpg, with its healing potions, leveling up, boss battles and what not.

Obviously, your mileage is going to vary with a game this silly. There are many rpg fans who might turn up their noses at something so deliberately ridiculous. But I appreciated its willingness to be foolish, even when it doesn’t make sense.

"From the New World" isn’t as good as the first two games in the series. I missed the tongue-in-cheek gothic horror of the previous "Shadow Hearts" titles. Still, it’s refreshing to play a game where you get to control a giant cat who not only knows kung-fu, but also works for Al Capone.

That’s just not something you come across every day.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, May 12, 2006

Graphic Lit: First Second

One of the problems with doing a comics column for the Friday Living section, is that it's one of the tighter sections in the paper, due to the amount of movie coverage and just a general lack of space. Thus, I had to cut a great deal out of my Graphic Lit column this week. Lots of good stuff went by the wayside, including some pithy quotes from First Second editor Mark Siegel.

But there's no reason why my faithful blog readers (all three of you) should suffer so. Thus, I present the unexpugated version of today's column. Any grammar or spellling errors may be attributed to the fact this inital version never went through a copy editor and my spelling is pretty pathetic. Otherwise, I think this version is a bit better than the one that actually saw print.

If you’re starting up a comics company, the conventional wisdom is to start small, play things safe, and build up your line slowly.

Mark Seigel doesn’t hold much stock in that notion. As editorial director of the new First Second line (a division of Roaring Brook Press), he firmly against taking a cautious approach.

"What I told [Roaring Brook] is I don’t want to use an eyedropper, but a firehose," he said during a recent phone conversation from his office in New York City.

To that end, First Second has unveiled six books in their debut line-up this month. Aimed at a variety of ages and literary sensibilities, any of these books would be strong enough to stand alone at a publisher’s coming out. Taken together, they reveal the Seigel’s remarkable ambition and the high mark the company has set for itself.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at First Second’s initial catalog:

"The Fate of the Artist"
by Eddie Campbell
96 pages, $15.95.

All of the First Second books are impressive, but if you can only pick one title to take home with you, it should be this one.

Here, Campbell, best known for his autobiographical stories as well as his work on "From Hell," imagines what might happen if he were to suddenly vanish.

Using prose, photos, parodies of old comic strips and more, Campbell describes the hole left by disappearance, with his family forced to puzzle out where he may have gone to and reminisce about how difficult he was to put up with.

Constantly shifting, "Fate of the Artist" is both a comical and dark look at what happens when an artist grows discontented with his work. It’s an astonishing work from one of the top talents in comics.

"Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda"
by J.P. Stassen
96 pages, $16.95.

Winner of the Goscinny Prize in France, "Deogratias" tells the story of three friends — a boy and two sisters — and how the tragic, genocidal events in Rwanda drive them to death and madness.

Yes, "Deogratias" is about as far from "happy-go-lucky" as you can get, and you had best steel yourself before reading the book, so heartbreaking are its contents. But Stassen’s skills as a storyteller and cartoonist are formidable, and the book is remarkable in its ability to transport you to a far-off country and culture and not make it seem like its events are happening right next door.

"Vampire Loves"
by Joann Sfar
192 pages, $16.95.

Ferdinand is not your typical vampire, seeing how he’s more given to mooning over failed relationships and listening to old jazz albums than to sucking blood (he only bites with one fang, so people thing it’s a mosquito bite). Good thing there’s plenty of women, both real and supernatural, that find that sort of behavior attractive.

As with his stellar "The Rabbi’s Cat," Sfar uses the fantastic to examine the philosophical quandaries and foibles that make us human. Here, he looks at love and romance in its various permutations as Ferdinand bounces from relationship to relationship. There’s not much of a plot, and little is resolved, but the journey itself is so delightful and warm-hearted that you won’t mind a bit.

"Sardine in Outer Space"
by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar
128 pages, $12.95.

Sfar teams up with his friend Guibert for this Saturday-morning-cartoon-styled frolic involving a plucky young pirate, her swashbuckling Uncle Yellow and her overeager younger cousin Louie.
Hi-jinks ensue when the trio run up against the nefarious Supermuscleman and his henchman Doc Kroc. Fast-paced and unconcerned with following the laws of science or sense, "Sardine" is a fun joy-ride that younger readers are sure to enjoy.

by Lewis Trondheim
96 pages, $12.95.

The cute-cartoon characters that grace the cover and insides of this book might lull you into thinking this is a good book for kids. IT IS NOT. Blood, maiming, death, destruction and an endless array of scatological jokes await readers inside.

Well-known in France, Trondheim is up to his usual high standards here in this mostly silent story of small alien creatures that prey and are preyed upon by each other. Adults will find this book to be extremely funny, if more than a tad dark. Just keep it away from the children.

"The Lost Colony Vol. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy"
by Grady Klein
128 pages, $14.95.

This is probably the most challenging book in First Second’s line-up, and not just for its content. Klein uses heavy black lines to outline his tightly delineated characters as well as divide the panels, giving the book a cramped, confined feel. He also will frequently sequel into a quick flashback or visual metaphor without explanation, which can be jarring to the reader at first.

However, by the time I reached the halfway point, I found myself fully engrossed in Klein’s tale of a small, mysterious island off the coast of 19th-century America, unhampered by slavery and other social ills. "Colony" deals with some rather dark chapters in U.S. history — in an all-ages book no less — and its ambitiousness may be it most flagrant flaw. But the book offers enough promise that you’ll want to check out volume two.

As good as these spring releases are, Seigel promises even more in his fall line-up and further on down the road.

"It’s gonna take three seasons just to show our range of ages, themes and styles —just to show our breadth," he said. "I compare it to the Beatles in Hamburg. The comics world is now coming back from Hamburg, ready to handle big projects in a trade medium."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, May 11, 2006

This is such good news

The news has already been circulated across the Net, but I just had to add to the foofrah and say how happy I am that one of my favorite strips is being collected. I even have most of the original Fanta volumes but will still be buying this series as it comes out. 2006 has now officially eclipsed 05 as best comics year evah.

Fantagraphics honcho Kim Thompson has the details on the TCJ message board here. Apparently it will be a hardcover volume, half daily strips, half Sunday. Sunday strips will be in full color. Yay!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Some E3 stuff

I'm not going to provide any in-depth coverage here. For that kind of thing, you can easily head over to GameSpot, 1Up or Kotaku.

No, instead I thought I'd take a quick look at some of the comic book-related games being featured at the expo. The most interesting news (to me at least) is that Telltale Games' upcoming Sam and Max game will be available on the GameTap network. Press release is here. For those of you not in the know, GameTap is a Turner-owned site, where PC users can download a variety of games, most of them moldy oldies like Pac-Man. The original Sam and Max game was much beloved by those who played it, so I expect a strong cult interest in this title.

In other news, there's the usual number of video game spin-offs of upcoming films, including but in no way limited to X3, Over the Hedge, Superman Returns, Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider, and The 300.

None of this is terribly surprising -- licensed games have been the bread and butter of the industry since the 2600. It does seem like there are more of these types of games than ever at this year's E3. I mean, they're even making a "Desperate Housewives" game for pity's sake.

But that's not all comics fans! There will also be two new Marvel games -- Marvel Ulitmate Alliance and a yet-to-be titled virtual trading card game -- and games based on Hellboy, 100 Bullets (rescued from oblivion!), The Darkness, and yet another Turok.

Let me know if I missed any.

Monday, May 08, 2006

VG REVIEW: Metroid Prime Hunters

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated T for Teen (animated blood, vio­lence), $34.99.

When the Nintendo DS made its debut in 2004, it was bundled with a demo version of "Metroid Prime Hunters," a first-person shooter that showed off the touch-screen capabilities of the new handheld console.

Almost a year and a half later, the official version of "Hunters" has finally arrived in stores, a release that is sure to please the many hardcore "Metroid" fans.

Traditionally, most fps games are played with a PC keyboard and mouse or, more awkwardly, with a traditional console controller.

"Hunters" mixes things up by incorporating its unique touch-screen abilities into the controls.

You move your character, bounty hunter Samus Aran, with the D-pad and control the camera by moving the stylus across the touch screen. You fire your weapons by pressing the left trigger.

It is a bit awkward, but for the most part it works surprisingly well. The only time the controls become problematic is in tight firefights. I found it hard at times to get the drop on my opponents when they got up close and personal (you can alter the controls in the game).

In "Hunters," Samus again is on a quest to recover some mysterious object of undetermined power. This time there are several other superpowered bounty hunters with the same goal in mind. Getting your hands on this ultimate power means defeating each one of them in turn.

For a DS title, "Hunters" is a decidedly good-looking game.

Unfortunately, its prettiness cannot hide the fact that you’re still traveling down corridors and dull, boxy rooms that resemble countless other fps games.

In fact, a feeling of familiarity overrides a lot of the fun in "Hunters." It’s hard while immersed in the single-player version to avoid an overall feeling of "been there, done that," regardless of whether you’re talking about previous "Metroid" games or fps titles in general.

Fortunately, there’s a nice multiplayer mode that keeps things from getting too dull. Up to four people can be online in games such as Capture the Flag.

Your enjoyment of "Hunters" is almost entirely dependent upon your love for all things "Metroid" and your willingness to experiment with a unique control system. If you’re willing to look past its cookie-cutter design, "Hunters" will surely entertain.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Happy Free Comic Book Day!

Hope everyone took some time out of their busy day to stop by their local comic shop and make a purchase or two.

Below is the story I did on FCBD and its history for the Patriot-News. Chances are you've already read the story since I put up a link to it yesterday. But I'm tired and feel the need to post something, so this is what you get. Enjoy the leftovers.

Comic book stores across North America are planning to do something tomorrow that most retailers wouldn’t ever dream of doing.

They’ll be giving away merchandise for free.

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day, an annual event devoted to getting average consumers into comic shops, as well to as drawing attention to the art form itself.

Big-name publishers such as Marvel, DC and Archie — as well as small-press companies such as Drawn & Quarterly — have created special comic pamphlets for stores to hand out as part of the event.

"It’s a way to find new readership for the medium" said Chris Pitzer, owner of the boutique comics publisher AdHouse.

This is the fifth year for Free Comic Book Day, which was dreamed up by Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif.

Field got the idea for the event when he noticed the ice cream store next to his shop was having a "free scoop day."

"I thought, ‘The only product cooler than ice cream is comics,’ so I borrowed the concept," he said.

The event has grown since its inception in 2001. Originally tied into the release of a major comic book-themed film such as "Spider Man," it has become popular enough to stand on its own, according to Field.

Ralph Watts, owner of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra, says he gets 150 to 200 people into his store, with five percent to 10 percent of those becoming regular customers.

Bill Wahl, co-owner of the Comix Connection stores in Mechanicsburg and York, says Free Comic Book Day is the "busiest day of the year."

"It’s taken a toe-hold into the public consciousness beyond the fan base," he said, noting that the event has drawn a number of younger readers into his stores.

Free Comic Book Day is emblematic of the growing interest comics have garnered from the general public. Once dismissed as juvenile kiddie fare, comics (or sequential art if you prefer) are slowly being seen as a legitimate art form.

For sure, big blockbuster films that have hit the screen in recent years ("X-Men," "Batman Begins") have helped the medium acquire a certain hip cachet.

But Hollywood isn’t just keeping their interest in comics to the cinema. A number of celebrities, including filmmaker Kevin Smith, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon have written stories for some of the most popular superhero franchises out there.

Nor does it stop at superheroes. Previously relegated to dim corner of the market, a number of cartoonists previously branded "alternative" or "indie" are attaining mainstream recognition and signing with upscale publishers such as Houghton Mifflin and Pantheon.

Chris Ware, for example, won widespread acclaim, not to mention awards, for his graphic novel "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth." Marjane Satrapi’s "Persepolis," an autobiographical account of her childhood in Iran, has earned critical raves and strong sales.

And then there are Japanese comics, otherwise known as manga. As any visit to a major bookstore chain will tell you, manga has made huge inroads, especially with younger readers. The boys’ adventure series "Naruto," for example, recently made USA Today’s best-seller list.
"It’s almost like a renaissance in comics right now," Wahl said.

Field agrees.

"The walls are down," he noted. "One of the strengths of Free Comic Book Day is there’s a pretty wide variety of material. ... The medium is not strictly for kids."

Friday, May 05, 2006

The last Graphic Lit

Well, not really. The bad news is that I'm no longer going to be doing short comic reviews for the paper's Sunday books page. The good news is that today sees the debut of my new weekly comics column, the bigger, smarter and all-new Graphic Lit.

I'm really excited about this as I think it'll give me the opportunity to talk about comics in more depth and breadth and hopefully attract a wider audience. I'll post today's debut column tomorrow. If you can't wait though, you can read it here, on I also did a larger story on Free Comic Book Day, which you can read here.

In commemoration of the new column, I thought I'd post some reviews that, with the exception of the first item, weren't able to make it into the paper.

"Sexy Voice and Robo"
by Iou Kuroda, Viz
400 pages, $19.99.

Nico, a 14-year-old girl who moonlights as a telephone-dating operator, flirting with lonely, nerdy men, hooks up (though not in a romantic sense) with a 20-something doofus and goes about solving mysteries and doing odd tasks for an aging mob boss.

It sounds like an odd cross between Nancy Drew, "The Sopranos" and a John Hughes film, and to an extent, it is. But Kuroda’s manga is ultimately much deeper and friendlier than that odd amalgamation would suggest.

What’s interesting about the book is seeing how Nico’s devil-may-care attitude slowly changes as her missions become more morally complex. Bearing an art style much different from the usual manga, "Sexy Voice" is a fantastic, original work, and that is well worth your time whether you’re a fan of Japanese comics or not.

"Spaniel Rage"
by Vanessa Davis,
Buenaventura Press, $13.95.

Davis’ sketchbook diary reveals an insecure young woman struggling to find herself and deal with the hostility and mundanity of the day-to-day world. That’s not anything new in the world of alternative comics, but Davis’ loose, off-the-cuff art and willingness to show her weaknesses makes the pages come alive. Davis proves here that she’s a more than capable cartoonist. Now she needs to produce a work that moves her up to the next level.

"Masca Vol. 1"
by Young Hee Kim
CPM, 208 pages, $9.99.

A young sorceress finds herself re­ceiving a good deal of unwanted atten­tion from a handsome demon in the first volume of this Korean comic. It’s an odd little book, with the characters coming off as terribly fey, oh-so gothic and rather superficial. That the author doesn’t seem to take any of this fantas­tic romance too seriously helps under­cut the book’s ponderousness, but it’s still not something I’d recommend to anyone over the age of 16.

"Recidivist 3"
by Zak Sally
La Mano, 106 pages, $15.

Best known as the former bassist for the band Low, Sally proves himself to be a rather stunning cartoonist as well with this third collection of short sto­ries. Sally tells surreal and unnerving tales of irate surgeons, a mysterious and dangerous group of young girls and men with animal heads. The stories manage to evoke a sense of dread and general unease without ever resorting to cheap shocks or overt violence. Those wondering where all the good horror comics went should check out his work at

"Buja’s Diary"
by Seyeong O
NBM, 280 pages, $19.95.

As with the recent "Push Man" col­lection by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Korean artist O’s stories deal with the society’s down and out. Alcoholics, poverty-stricken farmers and families, strung-out war veterans all get time in the spotlight to relate their personal tales of woe.

O uses humor to far more often than Tatsumi, but he also seems to show a bit more sympathy towards his charac­ters as well. Many of the stories here are sorrowful, especially the titular tale,
but glow with a humanity and richness that few of the Korean comics translat­ed on these shores share. More of O’s work needs to be published in the U.S. And soon.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

GAME ON: eSports and such

For my Game On column last month (ie April) I did a feature story on local cyberathlete Justin Summy. The city desk liked it so much they took it out of the Arts section and threw it out onto A1, which was nice.

Sorry in advace for the lack of photos. If I get time later I'll see about posting the pics of Summy that went with the story.

Anyone who claims video games are a waste of time has never talked to Justin Summy.

Video games have allowed Summy, 21, of Grantville, to travel to France, Spain and China.

Fans send mouse pads and other items in the mail for him to autograph.

He's part of an online team, CompLexity Clan, which has its own manager, a staff and a sponsor that provides a monthly salary.

Summy, you see, is a cyberathlete, one of hundreds of young adults who have turned an electronic hobby into a viable sports career, touring the globe, competing in professional tournaments and garnering tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

One recent tournament, for example, netted CompLexity $40,000 in prize money, with Summy taking home $8,000.

The idea of playing video games competitively for a living — much less watching such a contest — might seem laughable, but it's a movement that has grown considerably over the past decade. Such tournaments already draw a huge following in such countries as South Korea and China, where tournaments are regularly broadcast on TV.

Now e-sports are set to become the next big thing in North America.

"It's an incredible new trend that's just starting to show rays of light," said Angel Munoz, the founder and president of the Cyberathlete Professional League, the NBA of the e-sports world. "It's the next phenomenon in sports."

To underscore his point, Munoz said when he launched the CPL in June 1997, only 300 people attended the first tournament.

Now, an average of 5,000 folks attend tournaments from around the United States and the globe. More than 1.1 million people watched last year's World Tour Grand Finals on MTV while the sport has garnered notice from media outlets such as "60 Minutes" and Time magazine.

"Everybody has woken up to the reality that this is a huge new trend," Munoz said. "It's on a collision course with mass media."

In many ways, Summy is riding high on the wave, as CompLexity Clan is one of the top-ranked teams in North America. The group has won such notable competitions as the Global Gaming League Transatlantic Tournament in New York and the Electronic Sports World Cup Championship in Paris.

Summy had been active in soccer and baseball in school when he discovered the computer game "Counter-Strike." He quickly took to the competitive aspect of the game.

"The only difference [between "Counter-Strike" and other sports] is it's not as much physical activity. It's more like playing a game of chess, more of a mental sport. You're outthinking your opponent," he said.

"Counter-Strike" is a tactical, team-based, first-person shooter that pits a group of five "terrorists" against a group of five "counter-terrorists." The game is won when one side is eliminated or a particular objective has been met, such as rescuing hostages or defusing a bomb.

One of the most widely played games online, "Counter-Strike" has become the game that most professional and amateur leagues use in tournaments.

Once Summy took a shine to the game, he started playing on low-level teams with friends. Slowly, he began to be recognized as a better player and was able to join higher-ranked teams and start competing on the tournament level. He estimates he has been playing professionally for about four years.

Most video game tournaments are three-day events, with one to two matches each day. Matches are split into two halves, with about 15 rounds in each half. Each round runs a little under two minutes, with matches lasting anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.

To stay on the top of his game, Summy practices with the rest of the Clan from 6-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. They practice in the evening because the other members of the team are scattered around the country (one lives in North Dakota, another in Miami) and it's easier to find other people to play against at that time.

Steve Summy, Justin's father, marvels at his son's success in a career that might seem a bit odd to outsiders.

"Watching him online is amazing," he said. "It's like watching the Super Bowl. ... This could blossom into a big-time money job."

Yet Summy's professional gaming days might be over soon. In fall, he plans to set aside "Counter Strike" for a while and attend Harrisburg Area Community College.

He's not sure what he'll major in yet, but says it will definitely be "something with computers."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, May 01, 2006


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

How do you improve upon something like "Tetris"?

I mean, it’s a classic game that’s managed to stay around in the public consciousness for so long because it’s so elegantly simple and dangerously addictive.

I have regret-filled memories of staying up late in college, not partying, but desperately trying to stack blocks on my roommate’s Mac Classic, wondering where the hell that one vertical piece I needed was.

Why mess with perfection?

Such moral quandaries didn’t keep the folks at Nintendo from trying to muck about with the formula, and it’s a good thing they did, as "Tetris DS," the latest variation on the timeless title, actually manages to offer a pleasant new spin or two on the basic formula.

Like "Pac-Man," "Tetris" should be familiar to anyone who hasn’t been in a coma over the past 10 years, but just to recap: In the game, blocks of different shapes fall from above. Your job is to get rid of them by stacking them to form horizontal lines, which then dissolve the blocks away. The tricky part comes when the game speeds up and blocks start falling faster and faster.

In addition to the traditional "standard" mode, "Tetris DS" throws in a bunch of other variations, the most interesting being "Touch," which makes clever use of the DS’ touch screen.

Here the blocks are arranged in a teetering, tower-like fashion. Using the DS’ stylus, you can slide and rotate the blocks to form lines and clear them away from the bottom up.

It’s a rather inspired take on the game and offers the same sort of addictive game play that the original "Tetris" did. It wasn’t long before I found myself hunched over my DS, clock ticking away the hours, promising myself, "just one more game."

The most interesting feature of "Tetris DS" is its multiplayer mode.

Here, you can compete against 10 other DS owners from either the same room or across the Internet via the console’s wireless hookup.

The ability to take what has previously been a solitary game and turn it into a competitive forum also manages to keep the game feeling fresh, regardless of how many other hours you’ve spent in the past with "Tetris."

There are several other modes — Catch, Push, Puzzle and Mission to name a few — but Touch and multiplayer are the central reasons to pick up the game. Tetris fans unsure about how Nintendo’s new coat of paint would look on the game need not fear. It really goes with the decor.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006