Tuesday, October 31, 2006

VG REVIEW: Cooking Mama

Majesco, for Nintendo DS

rated E for Everyone (alcohol refer­ence), $19.99.

Where most Western game developers seem content to focus on games that involve hitting or shooting things (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the Japanese are a bit more inclusive, making games based on such mundane events as driving a subway train, going on a date or preparing a meal.

That latter subject matter is the basis for “Cooking Mama,” a recently imported game that, as you might have guessed, tests your culinary skills via the DS touch screen.

The setup is basic. You pick a recipe and follow instructions from Mama (a cute little kerchiefed girl). Most involve using the stylus in some manner, such as rapidly tapping in order to chop onions, or swiping across the screen to knead dough.

Other times you might be asked to blow into the microphone.

There is a time limit to most of these steps, however, giving the game a “WarioWare” flavor, though it’s nowhere near as frenzied. Still, it’s quite easy to fail to add your soy sauce in time, resulting in a rather angry Mama and a low score.

The menu tends to focus on Eastern dishes. A few more dishes from other countries (not to mention desserts) would have been welcome, though players can combine dishes to create odd mixtures (spaghetti Neapolitan with potato salad, anyone?).

Ultimately, though, the problem with “Cooking Mama” is the repetitiveness of the recipes.

While there are a lot to choose from, they all feature similar steps, to the point where they tend to blend together after awhile.

If “Cooking Mama” allowed you to ramp up the difficulty level, or offered more variety to its formula, it would be as near perfect as a cooking game could get. As it stands, it’s a fun but ultimately minor game best suited for the casual player.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, October 30, 2006

Graphic Lit: An interview with Marjane Satrapi

Time once again for our big "director's cut" interview, this time with "Chicken With Plums" author Marjane Satrapi. I had the opportunity the other week to speak with her about her about her new book and her upcoming film adaptation of "Persepolis." I found her to be an extremely pleasant, thoughtful and energetic, to the point where I had trouble holding up my end of the conversation. Ergo, any errors in the transcription are purely due to my own stupidity and slow-wittedness.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the film. How’s it coming along?

A: It’s going fine. We have almost finished it. I mean, it’s going to be really finished because you have to make the soundtrack and the whole mixing and everything. So it’s going to be finished next week because we want to debut it for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival 2007 in May. ... I’ve been working on it for 2 and a half years and I have another seven, eight months to work on it.

Q: Are you happy with how it’s turning out so far?

A: Really, really extremely happy. ... I wanted a black and white movie, really not the Walt Disney style. The result is really fantastic. I am doing it with my best friend. We co-wrote and co-directed the movie together. We were saying if what is in our mind, they can make 70 percent of it I would be really happy, but I should say that now it is much more than the 70 percent. So yes, I’m very, very satisfied by the result.

Q: Now you said you co-wrote and co-directed it. How did that division of labor work?

A: It’s very hard to say because my friend and I, we have been tied together. The eyebrow looks like him but then the thickness of the eyebrow looks like mine. It has 50 percent of each of us, which make it ... more poignant. It goes beyond what the book was. I cannot exactly tell you, but we always talk about everything. He will say an idea and I will say an idea and the mixture of all of that will make things happen. We are two very big egomaniacs and we have such big egos we cannot fight together. The whole relationship is based on respect. We’ve known each other for a very long time also. What I would say is a dream team actually. I really enjoy working with him. That’s why we want to continue working together.

Q: How closely does it adhere to the original graphic novel?

A: Well it’s extremely close actually. The narration in the movie is very, very different to the narration in the comic. Absolutely not the same way of telling the story so to make it as a movie we had to add some information of course. But we also had to take out some information because you can not do everything. If you count in a very mathematical way each page of comic respond to one minute of a movie. This comic is about 380 pages so we could not make a movie of more than six hours, it’s impossible.

But we tried really to put the whole thing in there. ... With the soundtrack, with the voices, everything takes a dimension that you don’t have. But it’s very close and true to it. .. All of it is actually in there.

Q: Moving on to “Chicken With Plums,” what made you want to tell this particular story?

A: After “Persepolis” and “Embroideries” which were really ... I mean “Embroideries was really my answer to the world. I heard so many mistakes and misjudgements about our people and our culture. I wanted to give another version of the story, the way I saw it. “Embroideries” was more of a conversation.

I really wanted to write a love story. I got attracted by this idea of death because death is part of life. I visited my own uncle and he had a picture of his uncle, who was my great-uncle. The man was extremely good-looking, so I got inspired and ... the only truth in the story is that he was a good musician and he died for some reason that nobody really knows. I made up a whole story around that.

I wanted to write a book about poetry. I wanted to write a book about death. I wanted to write a book about who the artist is, because the artist is extremely egocentric, extremely narcisstic, like myself, but at the same time we’re charming, you know? The main character, Nasser Ali Khan, he’s really a pain in the ass. (laughter) Unbearable.

Q: That’s true actually.

A: At the same time he’s extremely charming. You are attracted to him. You understand what he is saying.

I also wanted to talk about the notion of pleasure, the pleasure of smoking, the pleasure of making love, to be in love. The pleasure of eating. For me really, the whole procedure of dying starts from the second that this man cannot eat anymore. Even the thing that he likes the most in his life, the last instinct, the last pleasure that we lose is the pleasure of eating.

I really wanted the book to look like eight days of life. I made all these very small drawings. ... I could make them bigger and the book was going to be much thicker. But that was not the purpose really. What I wanted was that the book would look like eight days of life. Eight days of life is really short and at the same time very dense. That’s why I put everything extremely narrow, very close to each other. Because I wanted just by the format of the book that you would have the feeling of this very short and very dense period of time.

Q: When you decided to tell this story, did you have to do a lot of research? Did you have to interview family members to try to find out more about your great uncle?

A: Oh not really, not really. The facts are true, but the thing is if I say something about someone, it’s not like all of these things have happened to this person.

First of all, I changed the name and I changed the figures and everything. The person is really the mixture of a couple of stories who belong to different people. All of them are true, but at the same time, the mixing of it are not true. There are things like the Angel of Death. Nobody has seen him, so it can not be a true story.

As a child I was very much friends with the old people in my family. which was extremely unbearable for other people. Old people, they have a special way to tell their story. They make it extremely long, they repeat themselves five billion times and normally nobody can stand that. That’s exactly what I liked about it because I wanted to know all the details. I would ask the questions over and over ... and I was very interested. I heard lots of stories as a child. This was my big treasure. That is what I can really lean on and count on.

It was not so much a matter of research as my biggest problem was to make the structure of the story [work] because as you know the story is really like a puzzle. And at the end all the pieces of the puzzle should be together so you can understand what has happened. So the structure of the story was the thing that took most of my time.

That was a big challenge. The first time that I talked about the story with a friend of mine he told me, “This is a script for a movie and you cannot do it into a comic.” I said, “I will make it into a comic because I want to see if it’s possible.” That’s my energy for my work, it comes from that.

[With] “Persepolis,” I know how it works, I’m not interested in making another “Persepolis” ever. I always want a new way of narration. That is what is interesting for me. If the research is not there, the research of “How am I going to present this story, how am I going to make the book even look like" — because the format of the story is very important that it looks like a story. The whole layout, that is what pushed me to work. I wanted to make something new.

Q: The structure was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book, especially the way you start out with the incident where he meets the woman on the street and it seems like this small incident and you go back to it later at the end of the book; the way you circle it around.

A: Yes.

Q: I appreciated that. There’s been a couple books that do that recently. It reminded me of a book that came out earlier this year called “Fun Home.”

A: Yes, but I didn’t know that you know. I hadn’t seen that book before because actually [Chicken with Plums] was published in France in 2004.

The thing I think I was inspired the most with was the Inarritu movie, the one who made “21 Grams.” I love the way at the beginning you have the feeling that, what is this anecdote and it doesn’t lead anywhere, what does that mean? And all of these things get together and suddenly you have a story at the end.

“Chicken with Plums” is my favorite book. I never thought that I would have a favorite book of my own, but I do.

Q: It’s interesting you say that because obviously “Persepolis” would be a much more personal choice because it is you actual, personal story.

A: But you know Chris I never think I have felt as free as when I wrote “Chicken with Plums” because the main character is a man. And everytime I draw a woman it is related directly to me. So I have a self-censorship that comes because I know that people will relate it to me indirectly.

But when it’s a man, a direct relationship is not made in a natural way, so that is where I can hide the best and that is where I can be myself the most. I think that in any book I have so much of myself as in this book because basically I consider myself a very charming person but unbearable at the same time.

Q: It’s interesting you say that because I was going to ask that question. “Persepolis” and “Embroideries” of course have a very overt political themes and, as you say, deal with women and gender issues, whereas “Chicken With Plums” doesn’t deal with those things in any overt way.

A: Yes, but at the same time the story is also situated in the 50s, and, as you know, in the 50s, that is the moment that the Americans and British made a coup d’etat in our country. And that was in 53 and I mention it in the book. That was the end of the dream. And the end of Nasser Ali Khan’s dream happened at the same time. It’s somehow related in a way, but you are right when you say it is not specifically political.

It’s not so much that I’m so much interested in politics. It’s the politics that is interested in me and in you. I mean, if the politicians would make their decision and pay the check themselves, fine, I wouldn’t care less. The problem is that they decide, and you and I, we have to pay for that.

So other things, like love stories, of course I prefer them more. If I could have just written love stories I would have preferred that.

Q: You kind of answere the question already but I was wondering if in "Chicken with Plums" you wanted to get away far away from those themes and stretch you limbs a little.

A: Yes. The thing is I like to write stories and sometimes I am a political artist and a political writer and all of that, but that is not the only thing that interests me in life. I would have hoped that the world would be in a way that I would be interested in other things than politics. Like, if the politicians ... didn’t abuse their power and would just take care of other things, cultivating ourselves and being nice to each other, I would have preferred that. But the situation pushed me to be interested in these things.

Q: One of the themes in the book seems to be miscommunication in the sense that if the characters had been more honest with themselves and more observant to what was going on around them, things might not have turned out the way they did.

A: Yes, of course.

Q: I wanted to pull the main character out of the book and smack him at times.

A: That’s it, that’s it. He fell in love with a woman he cannot marry and he marries a woman that he doesn’t love at all and this woman loves him. The whole thing is a misunderstanding. They don’t communicate, they don’t talk about the right things. That is true of many people. They don’t make the right choices and your life turns out to be a real tragedy. You’re completely right about that.

But most of life is very tragic because we are educated and grow up in a way not to follow our instinct because they will tell us all the time that we have to think about what we do and we have to make the right decision. What is really the right decision? From the moment you’re born they will tell you what you see is not really what you see, what you feel is not really what you feel. You have to intellectualize everything. Maybe it’s better to follow what we really feel. Making the logical decision, like the mother telling him “you should marry this woman she’s in love with you.” First of all the most important thing is that you have to love her. If you don’t love her of course it’s going to become a tragedy at the end.

Q: I was also thinking of his children and how they come to see him and he gets upset because they don’t seem respectful. I remember thinking at the time, “well no kidding, they’re little kids.”

A: Exactly.

Q: And then later he doesn’t pay attention to the fact of how much his younger son adores him. That was the moment where the book hit home for me.

A: Yes, and for me too. I have seen that many times with families that have lots of kids. Always in a family you have the kid that everybody loves and the kid that nobody loves. And everybody will of course pretend the contrary, that they love all their kids, etc., and normally it happens that the kid that less loved is the kid that loved them the most. But nobody wants to see that.

Q: You were talking about with “Embroideries” how you wanted to correct people’s misjudgements about Iranians and Iran. What do you think is the biggest mistake or misjudgement Americans have about Iran?

A: The biggest misjudgement is that we are not considered a human being. We are considered as an abstract notion. Either we are the 1,001 nights, this old country with this old country with the flying carpets or we are the terrorists and we are completely crazy.

It’s neither one nor the other. Even in a democracy the president doesn’t represent the whole population. Does Bush represent all the Americans? No, of course not. Thank god of course.

But imagine in a country like Iran that is called a dictatorship. Of course our government can not represent us because if it was representing us, that would be the biggest democracy in the world and it’s not. You can not take the misjudgements of a few idiots and say the whole population is like that. You have to consider they are people just like you, they would like to go eat a hamburger and go to the movies and go on vacation and they aspire for peace.

For America, 9/11, all the terrorists that were attacking, they were either Pakistanis or Saudi Arabia. And Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, they are America’s best friends. I don’t know how Iranians, North Koreans and Iraqis became the Axis of Evil when even not one of the terrorists was from one of those countries. I’m there and I’m like, “Why Us?” Bin Laden is Saudi Arabian. The Taliban came from Pakistan and they have been defeated by the American government. Why is it me, the axis of evil? What did I do? Why me? I am living in France, why am I also the axis of evil? It’s just completely crazy.

Q: What do you think can or should be done to ease tensions and relationships between the U.S. and Iran? That’s a loaded question I know but ...

A: This whole idea of going and bringing democracy to places by bombing them is completely odd. Democracy is not something that you can bring somewhere. Democracy is a cultural change. It is an evolution to democracy.

The American government is behaving like a big gangster. They say if you give me your money, I will protect you. The relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example. And if you don’t do that I am going to come and break your teeth. And that’s what they do. So that is really the policy.

In 1999 for the first time I came to America. And I grew up under the Islamic regime, believing that American people were the worst people in the whole world. I came to America the first time to hate all the Americans. And I got a big slap in my face because it was not like that. And the second [visit] it was better and better and better to the point that me, who is considered axis of evil, I am the one who defends Americans in France. Can you believe that? That is the height of irony.

And why is that? That is because I know who the American is. I think you can support the democratic movement within the countries. The Iraqi opposition, they have been in Europe for 30 years, nobody ever listened to them. If you have the people who want to change in the country, then you can do something. But invading a country you will always be the enemy. If you want to fight a dictorship, then the American government should go and bomb China because that is the biggest dictatorship in the whole world. Why do they invest billions of dollars over there? If it’s a question of human rights, then let’s make war with 80 percent of the countries in the whole world because 80 percent of the countries, they are dictatorships. And if it’s not, then don’t pretend that it’s for our own good.

Q: I know you haven’t been to Iran in a long time, but do you see things improving there?

A: I am far from being a feminist I should tell you, but to look at the situation in a place you should see the situation of the women. Because the biggest enemy of democracy is a patriarchal culture. In the family, the father would have the last world, in a country, the dictator has the last word because the dictator is the father of the nation.

In my country for 27 years the women had half of the rights of the men. But at the same time, 64 percent of our students are women and in 25 years, the amount of the working population, the women working, has multiplied by four or five. So you see that this country is on its way to get modern.

This is a long procedure, these women that get educated, that start working. That is exactly what happened in the West. The democracy came from the second the women started getting instructed, they had the right to vote. This equality is the basis of democracy then the justice will become equal for everybody and the law will become equal for everybody. So this procedure is there. Iranian people are modernizing and they are very far from the government that doesn’t repress them at all, but this whole procedure should not be stopped by American bombs. Each bomb will put us a couple of years behind.

Believe me, I love America and I love American people and if there was no George Bush I would have come and I would have lived here.

Q: Last question, and it’s kind of a comic nerd question. Recently the news broke about Lewis Trondheim and Joan Sfar leaving L’Association. Can I get you to comment on that at all?

A: Well you know they are superstars in France and L’Assocation is my publishing house, made by six artists who couldn’t be published somewhere else in the late 80s. And I’m very happy that the cartoonists are also being published in America. Because we in France, we know lots of American cartoonists, people like Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman. These people have been translated and are very appreciated in France. I’m very happy that this reprocity of the culture exists. It’s very good news.

Q: Oh yes. I remember hearing about David B’s work and trying to track it down in America a couple of years ago ...

A: It was impossible. And now it’s possible, which is very good news.

Q: But what do you think that means for L’Association that Trondheim and David B left ...

A: Yes and I come from L’Association. They tried to make other kinds of comics, intelligent comics, and I think that’s probably why it works. It’s a work of quality. In long term quality always pays. In short term maybe not, but in long term quality is always the thing that wins.

Q: Do you think it’s going to hurt L’Association that these people are going to be leaving and doing work elsewhere?

A: Oh no. L’association is really a whole thing in France. No, not at all. ... I’m extremely faithful to L’Association for example, and I know many other people are so I don’t think it’s going to hurt anyone. ... Don’t worry, everything is fine.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

VG REVIEW: A Halloween round-up

I'm always of two minds about these holiday round-up stories. On the one hand, they invariably end up being really long yet never say anything really insightful. They're more consumer guides than anything else. On the other hand, they enable me to tear through a bunch of titles, thereby lessening my guilt that I never got to review Game X after promising the PR rep I would.

All that being said, here's a Halloween round-up I did for the paper last Sunday:


Atlus, for the PlayStation 2,
rated M for Mature (blood, intense vio­lence, suggestive themes), $49.99.

Atlus, for the PlayStation 2
rated M, $49.99.

Midway, for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (cartoon vio­lence, crude humor), $29.99. 
Like candy corn and jack-o’-lanterns, the Halloween season usually sees the arrival of a few scary video games.

This year the selection is a bit sparse, perhaps because most developers are focusing on the new consoles to come out in stores soon.

If you’re too old for trick or treating, but are still looking for a good scare, one of these titles might do the trick. 

"Rule of Rose"

First up is “Rule of Rose,” a rather surreal horror game featuring a young girl in peril.

The game garnered a bit of controversy earlier this year when Sony declined to distribute it in the United States, ostensibly because of some vaguely sexual overtones between two female characters.

Now that Atlus has brought the game to our shores, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. “Rule of Rose” features some impressive cut scenes and storytelling, but it’s not a terribly thrilling game to play.

The gamer plays Jennifer, a teenage ragamuffin who comes to live at a creepy orphanage. Almost immediately she is whisked up into a dirigible (no joke) controlled by a murderous group of children called the Crayon Aristocracy.

Jennifer must perform tasks and find gifts for the various members of the Aristocracy or face severe beatings and humiliations, like having a dead rat shoved in your face.

The main problem with “Rule of Rose” lies with its controls. I had hoped I was done playing games with fixed camera angles, where the characters moved stiffly and awkwardly through look-alike rooms on endless fetch quests.

You do have a dog to help you sniff out, but he ends up being more of a crutch for the gamer as he keeps you from having to use any actual brainpower to figure out where anything is. And don’t get me started on what passes for combat here (one of your weapons is a rusty fork).

While the story is intriguing and suitably creepy, good cut scenes are not enough to warrant the sort of slog needed to complete this game. Basically “Rose” feels stodgy, awkward and tedious. 

"Devil Summoner"

A much better option, also from Atlus, is the mouthful “Shin Megami Tensi: Devil Summoner — Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army.”

The “Shin” series of games (most of them unrelated in story from one another) are popular in their native Japan, and known for their attempts to bring a more adult sensibility to the role-playing format.

“Devil Summoner” imagines an alternate universe circa the 1920s, where demons live in secret amongst the general populace, seen only by a select few.

As one of those select few, you have the ability to battle and then capture these demons, forcing them to become your allies in battle.

You’ll use these creatures to investigate various odd goings-on in the neighborhood. Along the way you can combine your demons to make interesting new monsters, or heck out the usual list of side-quests.

The actual combat is a tad more basic than some hard-core rpg fans may like, but the game’s look and feel is stylish and collecting monsters is something that never gets old. 

"Grim Adventures"

If you’re looking for a Halloween game that’s a bit more kid-friendly, there’s “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy,” a spin-off of the popular Cartoon Network show that imagines the Grim Reaper befriending a pair of smart-alec kids (well, one of them’s a smart aleck; the other’s just an aleck).

“Grim” is an unabashed rip-off of Nintendo’s “Smash Brothers” series, with the various characters battling it out on an interactive stage, complete with oddball melee weapons.

Playing a game where kids — even if they are cartoonish kids — whack one another over the head with axes and hammers was more than a bit disconcerting to me. Still, it should be said that most of the violence is of the Saturday morning variety, with no blood or gore.

My biggest problem is the game lacks originality and depth. The levels are inventive and there are a number of mini-games and challenges, but many of these feel like afterthoughts. Plus, it can be difficult to locate your character on the screen during intense battles when the camera pans back.

But if these caveats don’t bother you too much, “Grim Adventures” is a perfectly acceptable, PG-rated way to celebrate your Halloween. Assuming you’ve already egged your neighbor’s house, of course.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, October 23, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Cancer Vixen" and "Dungeon"

According to the American Cancer Society every three minutes a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Some of the women who contract this insidious disease will, through surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments, survive. Some will not.

They are our mothers, daughters, wives and friends. Attention must be paid to their plight, and we need to honor those who have lost their lives as we work toward a cure.

But does that mean every patient wants her story to be told? In 224-page detail? With lots of asides on what sort of shoes your oncologist wears?

I ask these questions having just read “Cancer Vixen,” a new, hugely hyped graphic novel from New Yorker cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto (a movie version has already been greenlighted with Cate Blanchett in the leading role).

In 2004, Marchetto discovered a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancerous. Of course, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. At age 43 she had finally met the man of her dreams and was in the midst of planning her wedding.

The fact that she had let her insurance lapse didn’t make things any easier.

Marchetto provides a good deal of backdrop about her pre-cancer lifestyle and how she met her fabulous husband-to-be, celebrity restaurateur Silvano Marchetto.

Too much detail in fact, as we get page after page of her eating great food, obsessing about her looks and weight and fending off obnoxious models hitting on her fiance. The rest of us should have it so bad.

The book is filled with references to fashion, models and shoes. Just about every cliche about trendy New Yorkers can be found in these pages. “Sex and the City” parallels are far too obvious for me to make them here.

When she’s dealing with the nitty gritty details of her cancer treatment, Marchetto is on solid ground. The sections on her chemo treatment, or detailing how her family handled her bad news are well-done and involving.

When she tries to reach for a more profound insight, however, she comes up with empty New Age spoutings like “When you light a candle, you illuminate a soul.”

Marchetto also tends to go for obvious metaphors. The disease is portrayed as the Grim Reaper. Cancer cells look like “Mr. Yuck” stickers. White blood cells are happy smiley faces. She calls her mother her (s)mother. (Get it?) And so on.

I don’t mean to suggest that the book is awful. I liked Marchetto’s loose, sketchy style, and she often writes with a good deal of self-effacing humor. It’s just that I kept tripping up on the more awkward moments for me to wholeheartedly recommend the work.

That said, those who are members of “the Cancer Club” will no doubt get a great deal more from this book than I did.

I salute Marchetto for telling her story with bravery and humor. I’m just not sure I came away from it with anything I didn’t already know. Beyond what sort of shoes an oncologist wears, I mean.


When Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim began the “Donjon” series in France back in 1998, few knew how ambitious their vision would be.

The simple fact that two alternative cartoonists were publishing a sword and sorcery parody for a major publisher was odd enough. The comparison would be if Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch decided to collaborate on a big-budget superhero film.

But what at first came off as a simple parody soon became a universe unto itself.

Not content with the initial story line, involving a cowardly duck, a warrior dragon and a labyrinthian dungeon that attracts good business, Sfar and Trondheim have expanded their series into 20 volumes so far.

Some of them are mere spin-off tales involving secondary characters, while others delve back into the dungeon’s past and future.

The latest U.S. volume, “Dungeon Twilight Vol. 2: Armageddon” (NBM, 96 pages, $14.95), is out now and continues the high level of imagination and wit the series is known for.

The “Twilight” stories take place many, many years after the main “Dungeon” saga. Here, Herbert the duck, who was little more than an office boy in the first volume, has become an evil sorcerer.

His friend Marvin the dragon is now blind and armless and desperate to find his family. Meanwhile, their planet is in danger of literally falling to pieces.

Anyone who’s handled a 20-sided die, even in passing, will appreciate the jokes being thrown around here.

But you don’t have to have a degree in high geekery to enjoy this series. There’s enough smart characterization and emotional involvement to win over even the fantasy-averse soul.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, October 20, 2006

Neither fish nor foul: An interview with Jeff Wiggle

The following pertains neither to video games nor comics, but I'm posting it anyway because I think it's a pretty decent interview andr, heck, I just like the Wiggles. My daughter's a little old for them now, but I have fond memories of watching the show with her, so when they came to the area (actually State College) I jumped at the chance to do an interview. Especially with Jeff. I can relate to being perpetually sleepy.

Oh, I apologize in advance for the introduction by the way. What can I say, I was under deadline.

When you pass by a bowl of fruit salad, do you immediately think, “Yummy, yummy?”

Do you get a hankering for “Crunchy, Munchy Honey Cakes?”

Can you point your fingers and do the twist?

If so, chances are you — or more likely your children — have been exposed to The Wiggles.

The Wiggles consist of Aussies — Greg, Anthony, Murray and Jeff — who sing catchy songs about food and dance along with their friends Dorothy the Dinosaur and Captain Feathersword.

The group has become one of Australia’s biggest exports. In 2005, it grossed more than AC/DC and Nicole Kidman combined.

The Wiggles, who are celebrating their 15th year, will be performing Friday at Bryce Jordan Center in State College. Jeff “Wiggle” Fatt (the sleepy one) recently spoke from his home in Australia about the upcoming tour:

Q: How do you manage to keep the live shows fresh?

A: When you’re in front of all these people you pick up a lot of energy from the audience. If you’re not feeling well that day there’s something about the audience that does pick you up. There’s an excitement there.

Plus, performing for children, it’s something you can’t resist doing. Once a Wiggle always a Wiggle. As soon as the camera’s pointed in your face you automatically go into Wiggle mode and your fingers go up.

Q: When did the four of you actually sit around and say hey, we could actually turn this into a career?

A: Well, we never really thought that we could. It was more of a “let’s cut this album and then see what happens.” ... We didn’t have any master plan to go from then to now. It’s just been little steps along the way.

Q: Because you were the one person in the group who didn’t have a background in preschool education, was it daunting for you at first to have to perform for children?

A: Absolutely. I had absolutely no idea what you did in front of children. I can remember going to our very first public appearance at a shopping center. That was the most nervous I’ve ever been.

And that’s how the whole “Wake Up Jeff” thing came about, because it was a way of getting me involved onstage without actually having to actually do anything. At the same time it’s a very empowering thing for the children.

Q: What are some of your favorite songs to perform in concert?

A: “Rockabye Your Bear” has to be the quintessential Wiggles song. It’s so appropriate for preschoolers. It’s got all the actions and the simplicity and the gentleness of it all, it’s great for kids. We all love “Rockabye Your Bear.”

One of the later ones I’ve become enamored with is “Here Come the Chicken.” It’s just a little bit inane. [laughs]

Q: Why do you think The Wiggles have such a huge appeal, not just for kids but for adults as well?

A: I think possibly [the parents are] relating to the style of music that we’re presenting. It’s very catchy and poppy I’d like to think.

Plus, we have the educational background, and everything we do is based around children and what is the child going to get out of this. ... So parents basically see what their children are getting out of it, I think, and they also get into the whole spirit of it.

Q: You and Anthony were in a pop band called The Cockroaches before you joined The Wiggles. What were you able to take from that and bring to The Wiggles?

A: We learned quite a bit about being in a pop band and your interaction with record companies and how they can bend and twist you into certain directions you don’t want to go in. Having the experience of being through that, we used that to our advantage in all the decision-making processes of what The Wiggles do. We’re basically maintaining our own creative control.

Q: What’s the best part of being a Wiggle?

A: The fact that you can make a difference in children’s lives. When we do concert tours we always arrange to meet children with disabilities or who are sick before the show, and that’s a really heartening thing to be able do that and to see that you can make a difference for families of children with autism and things like that.

We’ve found that we’ve made such a connection there through our videos. There are parents who say that their child has never spoken until they saw a Wiggles video. It sounds like snake oil, but these are the sort of things that we hear, and it’s just fantastic. We didn’t set out to do that; that’s a great spin-off from what we’ve been doing.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

VG REVIEW: Star Fox Command

“STAR FOX COMMAND” Nintendo, for Nintendo DS rated E 10+ for ages 10 and up (mild fantasy violence), $34.99.

They’ve taken him to dinosaur planets and had him driving tanks, but Nintendo’s little fox mascot works best when he’s blasting nasty aliens in tricked-out spaceships.

How fortunate then that Star Fox’s first adventure for the DS, “Star Fox Command,” puts him once again in the pilot’s seat.

The exact plot of the game isn’t terribly important. Suffice it to say there is an evil menace threatening the solar system, and it’s up to Star Fox and his team to make sure good triumphs.

While the plot might be standard video-game fare, the controls are unique, at least compared with past “Star Fox” titles. Here, you control Fox’s ship via the DS touch screen: Moving the stylus up, down and around pilots the craft in the same direction. You fire by pressing the D-pad.

It sounds a bit forced, but actually it proves to be a rather intuitive control system and quickly became second nature for me.

In between dogfighting sequences (often involving some odd-looking spacecraft), you move your fighters around on a gridlike map that resembles the kind used in turn-based strategy games such as “Advance Wars.”

These sequences help you protect your main ship as well as take care of any potential problems early on, such as missiles fired by enemy outposts.

The missile sections, where you have to fly through a series of beacons, might be the most irritating part, as the difficulty level is set quite high here.

“Command” also makes good use of the DS’ networking capabilities, as six players can join in on one game through a local wireless network or go on the Net for four-player matches.

Overall this is a solid entry in the “Star Fox” series that features strong controls and adds an enjoyable layer of strategy to the mix. The more inclined you are to these sorts of space shooter games, the more you’ll like “Star Fox Command.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, October 16, 2006

Graphic Lit: Tatsumi & Delisle

stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Drawn and Quarterly, 224 pages, $19.95. 

by Guy Delisle, Drawn and Quarterly

152 pages, $19.95.

Saying Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s stories are bleak is sort of like saying water is wet. It also misses the point.

Most of the Japanese comics that have been translated for American audiences have been aimed at the teen and preteen market. Look down the manga aisle of your average book store and you’ll see lots of ninjas, samurai, giant robots, dewy-eyed princesses and idealized high school romances.

Tatsumi’s work is 180 degrees removed from that world. In his comics, prostitutes, drunks, blue-collar workers and the downtrodden, repressed and misbegotten all rub shoulders, often with tragic consequences.

Whereas many manga series involve lengthy plots that can extend to 20 volumes or more, Tatsumi’s characters are happy (if such a word can be used) to consign their woes to a few short pages.

Aesthetically his art is much more placid in tone, the tension springing from the character’s inner anxieties rather than any outward antagonist. His characters, especially his men, all tend to have similar features and blank expressions, giving them an everyman quality.

Tatsumi obviously was aware how different his work was from other manga. Having begun his career in 1957, he coined the term “Gekiga” (“dramatic pictures”) to describe the kind of realistic, hardscrabble stories he was telling. And though his work never caught on in the same way that say, “Dragon Ball Z” did, he has influenced generations of artists in Japan and abroad.

Last year, alternative cartoonist Adrian Tomine and publisher Drawn and Quarterly introduced Tatsumi to the U.S. with “The Push Man,” the first in a projected four-volume collection of the artist’s work. The second volume, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” is out now and is just as impressive a volume as “Push Man” was, both in content and production values.

Most of the people in Tatsumi’s work lead bitter, desperate lives where release only comes from aberrant behavior, if it comes at all.

A burned-out manga artist, for example, rejuvenates himself by drawing dirty pictures on bathroom walls. A young man attempts to hide his invalid, needy mother from his fiance, only to have his guilt drive him into despair. A machinist attempts to turn his life around only to sink further into darkness after an accident occurs at work.

Yes, Tatsumi’s work is dark. But it also provides a glimpse into an aspect of post-war Japanese life that’s rarely been examined, at least in the West.

What’s more, the characters in “Tokyo” as desolate as they are, aren’t too far removed from our own environment. Their needs, their despair are universal and there are street corners in every city filled with such sad souls.

Who knows, you may have passed by one on your way to work today.


Also from Drawn and Quarterly is “Shenzhen” by Canadian artist Guy Delisle.

Although it comes on the heels of last year’s critically acclaimed “Pyongyang,” “Shenzhen” is actually the earlier work, having been published in France about two years prior.

As in that book, “Shenzhen” finds Delisle once again in a foreign country, this time China, forced to oversee outsourced production on a TV cartoon show.

While living out of a hotel room in a remote city, Delisle relates the day to day troubles of acclimating to a culture where he stands out like a sore thumb. His sense of alienation is palpable and anyone who’s spent time alone in a strange city will be able to relate.

Ultimately though, “Shenzhen” is not as powerful a book as “Pyongyang,” probably because it doesn’t have the political strength of the latter. While no one would mistake China for a free democracy, it is a more open and welcoming society compared to North Korea’s.

Thus, “Shenzhen” is more about Delisle himself than the country he visits and that divide, though interesting, leaves the reader wanting to know more about the world the author is visiting.

It’s a good book, mind you, and I definitely recommend it, but only after you’ve read “Pyongyang.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Sunday, October 15, 2006

SPX 06 impressions

I didn't take any pictures this year, even though I had my camera, because I was feeling really lazy and just wanted to peruse the aisles and buy stuff and not worry too much about blogging about it afterward. Plus, I was working on only four hours of sleep from the night before, so I was in something of a haze. An adrenaline fueled haze certainly, but a haze nonetheless.

Thing is, I'm still pretty exhausted, so I'm going to keep this short:

* The hotel is lovely. Much nicer than the Holiday Inn. I was concerned about having the expo in one big area -- I really liked trudging from small room to small room in years past -- but I have to say the place was spacious without feeling like an airplane hanger or warehouse. The tables were really well laid out, so that you felt like you had to check out all the aisles in order to get the full flavor of the show. Although Alvin Buenaventura griped a bit about being stuck in the far corner.
* Panels were really interesting and diverse. I attended two, the Scott McCloud talk, which was packed to the gills, and the Brian Chippendale talk, which was also well attended. I wish I had the time to have attended more. What I heard from other folks sounded really interesting.
* Speaking of Chippendale, the book of the show, as Jog notes, was easily his mammoth, 11x17 coffee table wonder entitled "Ninja." This thing was easy to spot on the show floor as it stuck quite awkwardly out of people's bags and backpacks. It was one of the first books Jog and I bought at the show and as we walked the floor folks kept glancing at the book and saying "What is that?" Eventually it became to awkward to carry and we had to stash it back in the car.
* We got to have lunch with the very nice Gina Gagliano from First Second, who gave us a breakdown of company's spring line-up for 07. Keep your eyes peeled for some rather impressive books next year from Trondheim, Eddie Campbell, Gipi and lots and lots of Sfar. It's just a shame my stomach started bothering me, because my turkey sandwich looked kind of good.

* Complete lack of a downtown area. Most of the restaurants were ugly fast food joints and walking around was a bit of a hassle. The main road is more of a highway and there really isn't any flavor to the area the way there was at the Inn. If they have it there next year I will likely eat at the hotel restaurant.
* Panels were held in far from the show, downstairs in an area that you would never find unless someone told you exactly where it was. Perhaps next year we could put up some signs directing people? Hmmm?

What I bought
I got quite a lot actually, but here's a quick rundown of the more intriguing titles:
The aforementioned Ninja
The new Kramer's Ergot and Comic Art
A bunch of new Ignatz titles, including New Tales of Old Palomar
Rick Veitch's Abraxas
The Ivan Brunetti-edited Anthology of Graphic Fiction
Project Romantic
Brian Ralph's new book, Daybreak
Asthma by John Hankiewicz
A new issue of The Vagabonds by Josh Neufeld
A preview of Von Allen's The Road to God Knows

All in all, it was a good show, better I think than last year's, despite my extreme sleepiness. If I ever recover and feel more human, I'll post some more thoughts. That's it for now though.

EDIT: Jog did a much better job than I in covering the show and I suggest you just read his post and try to erase my own mumbled meanderings from your mind.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Links and announcements

I am planning on making my yearly pilgramage to SPX this Saturday, with Jog providing navigation and moral support. I shall most likely be wearing some sort of black T-shirt with a video game logo or design emblazoned on it, so if you see me, say hi. I do so love attention.

In other news:

Four Color Rebellion reports that there is now a homebrew app available for the Nintendo DS that allows you to upload and read comics. It's PC only and I'm a Mac owner, so I'm unable to verify how well it works. Anyone else have any luck with it?

Have you been reading Shaenon Garrity's series on Overlooked Manga? Why the hell not? You should at least check this one out.

Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese" has been nominated for a National Book Award, which is pretty cool.

The set list for Guitar Hero II has been announced and it's awesome, naturally.

That's all I can give for now. I'm spent.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Capcom, for the PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (blood and gore, crude humor, fantasy violence, suggestive themes, use of alco­hol and tobacco), $39.99.

“Okami” is utterly unique and at the same time reassuringly familiar. It relies upon popular video game tropes you’ve seen a billion times over, but reuses them in such inventive and lovely ways that it doesn’t feel like a mere rehash. Combine that with an innovative and thoroughly delightful new mechanic and you’ve catapulted the game into “instant classic” territory.

“Okami” draws heavily from Shinto mythology and Japanese folklore to tell the story of the sun goddess Amaterasu. One hundred years ago, Amaterasu took the form of a wolf to defeat the dangerous, eight-headed Orochi.

Now, however, Orochi is back and his evil ways have spread throughout the land like a plague, destroying vegetation and paralyzing townsfolk. It’s up to you as Amaterasu — in wolf form once again — to defeat Orochi and restore the land to its former glory.

How you do that is the game’s central and most ingenious conceit. As Amaterasu — or “Ammy” as her friends call her — you have at your disposal the “Celestial Brush.” By pressing and holding the R1 button, you can pause the action on the screen and draw directly on it, thereby altering the reality of the game.

Drawing a circle around a dead tree, for example, brings it back to life. Sketching a quick straight line, produces a slashing motion that can stop enemies in their tracks. Painting a loop can bring a powerful breeze that blows fire and other hazards away.

No mere add-on, the game’s developers (Clover Studios, best known for the “Viewtiful Joe” series) make the brush an integral part of play, giving the game a greater interactive quality. Most games are content to let you merely explore their world. Few actually let you modify it.

The game’s painterly aspect continues right through to the design. “Okami” looks as though it was made only with India ink and watercolors. Flowers spring up behind Ammy as she runs. The wind circles over mountains like Japanese calligraphy. To an extent, the game bears a resemblance to past “cel-shaded” titles, but only in the same way that the Mona Lisa bears some resemblance to the cave paintings of Lascaux.

Lest you get bored painting stuff, “Okami” offers plenty of side quests and alternative missions to fill up your time. You can collect items, go fishing, improve your skills at the local dojo or just feed the animals. As with “The Legend of Zelda” series, which “Okami” most strongly resembles, the virtual world here is rich and detailed enough to keep you busy for weeks on end.

Some may no doubt quibble about certain minor aspects of the game: the camera sticks occasionally, it’s not always clear what or where the next goal is, but these problems melt away in consideration of what Capcom and Clover have accomplished here. “Okami” is a work of exquisite craftsmanship and one of the best games of 2006.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, October 09, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Criminal"

Back about two years ago, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips created what can easily be described as one of the best superhero comics ever made with “Sleeper,” a gritty noir story of intrigue and double-crossings that focused more on character development and good storytelling than impressive slugfests.

While the series garnered much critical attention, it didn’t do well in the sales department and was canceled, albeit in a rather satisfactory fashion, after about 24 issues.

Both creators moved on to bigger, if not necessarily better, things. Brubaker quickly became a fan favorite upon moving to Marvel and penning “Captain America” and “Daredevil.” Phillips provided art for the hugely successful “Marvel Zombies” miniseries.

Now the pair are back together with a new, ongoing series: “Criminal,” the flagship title for Marvel’s new creator-friendly Icon line.

“This is just us figuring out a way to do the kind of comics we’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” Brubaker said during a recent interview from his home in Seattle. “I have a notebook filled with crime story ideas and character notes for years I’ve been wanting to get to.”

Like “Sleeper,” “Criminal” is a dark, hard-boiled tale of morally corrupt people. Unlike the former series, though, there are no guys with special powers to speak of here. This is pure noir.

To that extent, “Criminal” adheres to well-worn crime story tropes. The main character, Leo, is a hard-nosed thief who’s given up trying for the big score and settles for picking pockets and easy marks.

That all changes when a pair of crooked cops coerce him into an offer that seems too good to be true (and probably is).

Anyone who’s read an Elmore Leonard or Jim Thompson novel will be on familiar territory here, but Brubaker and Phillips are doing more than just going through some well-worn paces.

“The reason I like genre stuff is it has a template for you to tell your story within,” Brubaker said. “Within that you can tell a much wider story that says a lot about people and human nature. I think crime fiction in general says a lot about society.”

The first issue explodes with unique, colorful characters. Brubaker’s dialogue is tight and focused yet manages to offer plenty of small moments necessary to canvass the various personalities onstage.

Phillips, meanwhile, keeps things moving at a brisk pace by sticking to a simple three-tier system and dividing the page into neat, narrow panels with lots of extreme close-ups.

“Sean felt like he needed the storytelling to be really clear and straightforward,” Brubaker said. “Sean, more than anybody I’ve ever worked with, understands the rhythmn of the dialogue.”

The result is a sharp, smart comic that rises above the genre’s cliches to create something fresh and exciting, making “Criminal” one of the best new series of 2006.

“We’re trying to make sure the book is worth $3 that people pay for comics these days,” Brubaker said. “I feel like that’s a lot of money to spend on something these days.

“The goal is to sell enough copies that we can keep doing it.”

Also in stores
“Pride of Baghdad”
by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

Vertigo, 136 pages, $19.99.

Loosely based on true events, Vaughan’s story follows some hungry lions that escape from a Baghdad zoo during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

I’m not entirely sure the political allegory works, or at least completely jibes with what’s going on in that country right now. There’s more than mere colonialism at work there, though that certainly is a lingering issue.

That being said, Vaughan manages to make the animals into compelling characters, and Henrichon’s art is lovely to gaze at. At the risk of being flip, I’d say this is the best book about talking lions in Iraq you’ll ever read.

“American Spendor”
by Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel and more

Vertigo, $2.99 per issue.

Everyone’s favorite crank returns to the title that started it all with this four-issue limited series from DC.

Pekar is in good form here as he discusses his parents’ descent into Alzheimers, minds his daughter for a day and is dressed down by an airline stewardess.

As longtime readers know, it’s not what happens in “Splendor” that matters — nothing rarely ever happens. Rather it’s Pekar’s inner life, his constant turmoil, ruminations and anxieties, that make the book worthwhile. Nice art by folks like Haspiel, Ty Templeton and Hilary Barta doesn’t hurt either.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, October 06, 2006

If it's Friday, this must by Game Bytes

“Ultimate Ghosts ’N’ Goblins”
Capcom, for PlayStation Portable
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (animated blood, fantasy violence), $39.99.

The “Ghosts” series is known not just for being a classic platform game but also for being incredibly hard. The makers of “Ultimate” obviously wanted to maintain that renowned level of difficulty for their sequel, as it’s quite impossible to get through the game on any setting except “easy.”

Good thing, then, that “Ultimate” is such an inventive and fun experience. The levels are cleverly laid out and exhibit enough imagination and variety to keep you on your toes. Just when you’re about to write the game off as a by-the-numbers platformer, it surprises you.

Too bad the developers decided to keep the controls old-school as well. The biggest problem is your little main character can’t maneuver while jumping, making it even tougher to get from platform to platform. Despite that, “Ghosts ¤’N’ Goblins” is a fun hand-held title that should amuse and challenge fans of the genre. Just play it on easy, trust me.

“FlatOut 2”
Vivendi Universal, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC

rated T for Teen (mild lyrics, violence), $39.99.

I’m not sure the world was clamoring for a sequel to this demolition derby-styled racing game, but here it is anyway. The good news is that it’s a considerable improvement on the first game, which was torn between speeding and smashing stuff up. Better tracks, better controls and improved physics all help make the sequel more enjoyable.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. I still find the rag-doll minigames, where you deliberately hurl your “driver” into a variety of bone-crushing stunts, more disturbing than comical. And the difficulty level seems to spike at odd times. But there’s no question this is more fun to play the second time around, whether you were asking to or not.

“Crusty Demons”
Evolved Games, for Xbox

rated M for Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence), $19.99.

Let’s see if I can get this straight. A bunch of stunt bikers die and go to hell. Satan, in his generosity, grants them immortality (they can still feel pain though) in exchange for their souls. With this ability, they then race around doing odd jobs for prostitutes and assorted hustlers.

One could possibly overlook the incredibly stupid premise, not to mention the offensive ethnic stereotypes, if the game handled well. Sadly, it does not. The controls are awkward, to put it mildly, and the games range from inane to dull. Mark this as a sad “Tony Hawk” rip-off and avoid at all costs.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

VG REVIEW: Loco Roco

Your ability to enjoy “LocoRoco” is almost entirely dependent upon your tolerance for an abundance of cuteness.

Because while “LocoRoco” is a clever, inventive, colorful and quite fun game, it is also very, very cute. Almost terminally so, at least as far as some gamers might be concerned.

The structure of the game is simplicity itself. Your job is to get a happy round blob — the “LocoRoco” of the title — from one end of a lengthy two-dimensional maze to another.

Along the way, you’ll find little flowers and other objects you can chomp on to grow bigger. Getting larger also allows you subdivide your LocoRoco into smaller blobs, which is handy for getting through tight spaces.

Moving your little blob around this candy-colored environment is one of the more ingenious aspects of the game in that you don’t move the creature so much as the world around him. Clicking on the PSP’s upper right trigger tilts the landscape to the right. Clicking on the left trigger tilts it left. Holding both and then letting go lets the LocoRoco jump over obstacles.

And apart from splitting and regrouping your blob by pressing the circle button, that’s about it for controls, giving the game a user-friendly feel that will appeal to kids as well as adults.

That appeal extends to its highly simplified, picture-book art style, where any shape more complex than say, a hexagon, isn’t permitted.

There are lots of hidden items and areas in “LocoRoco,” adding a good deal of replay value. Little buddies known as Mui Mui are squirreled away in tiny corners, and discovering them can unlock minigames, items to decorate a LocoRoco house with, music and more.

I haven’t mentioned the sound track yet, which might be one of the best parts of the game. It is filled with impossibly catchy nonsense songs; these tunes will get stuck in your head quicker than any tune currently on the pop charts.

The high level of whimsy will no doubt put off a number of gamers too insecure about their own maturity to be seen playing such an obvious “kiddie game.” Too bad for them, as “LocoRoco” is easily one of the best titles of the year.

Ever since PlayStation Portable came out, it’s suffered from a dearth of essential software. “LocoRoco” is the first game that justifies purchase of the system.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A completely unnecessary fall video game preview

A few (OK, several) weeks ago I did a little preview of what notable games are coming out this fall and winter season. Despite the fact that a few of the games mentioned below are already out in stores, I thought I'd post the article here because, well, why not?

Oh, and if you haven't checked out Okami yet, you're doing yourself a real disservice.

And so the avalanche begins.

The avalanche in this case being the autumn onslaught of highly anticipated new video games that will be arriving over the next few months. Publishers like to hold off on releasing their biggest titles until the end of the year.

This year is especially significant, though, as we will see the arrival of not one but two new video game systems: Sony's PlayStation 3 (Nov. 17) and Nintendo's Wii (Nov. 19).

Nintendo announced the street date and price -- $249 -- of the Wii last Thursday. Much of the year, however, has been spent in curious anticipation of the innovative system and how its movement sensitive controller will offer new ways of playing games.

Sony has come under more than a bit of controversy over the release of the PS3. The cost of the console ($500 and up) has caused quite a bit of sticker shock among many pundits.

More significantly, there might not be enough consoles available to meet demand this year. Rumors are flying that Sony would have only 400,000 machines available in the United States at launch, which means that if you haven't already ordered your copy, you won't be getting one until 2007.

But let's not let the new-fangled equipment overshadow the main reason we buy these consoles in the first place: the games. Here, in no particular order, is a look at the more notable titles wending your way this fall. Note that all release dates are subject to change.

"World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade" for the PC. Release date: TBA
If there's any such thing as a sure bet, then this expansion pack for the most popular online role-playing game ever made is it. With almost seven million folks playing this game, "Crusade" will sell by the truckload, especially since it includes new races, a new continent to explore and more. I foresee a lot of people calling in sick the day it comes out.

"Gears of War," for the Xbox 360. Release date: Nov. 7
Quite possibly the most hotly anticipated game for the 360, "Gears" is a tactical shooter from the makers of the popular "Unreal" franchise. Expect lots of gruesome monsters and big guns that go boom.

"The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess," for the GameCube and Wii. Release date: TBA
The latest sequel in the highly acclaimed "Zelda" series will arrive for the GameCube and the Wii at the same time, but it's the Wii version that will be getting all the attention, and will possibly be a major selling point for Nintendo's new console.

"Resistance: Fall of Man," for the PlayStation 3. Release date: Nov. 15
The PS3 doesn't have a lot of notably exclusive titles available at launch, so a good deal of pressure is resting on "Resistance's" shoulders. It's yet another first-person shooter, with the player going up against deadly aliens in a 1950s-era England this time around.

"Okami," for the PlayStation 2. Release date: In stores now.
This adventure game from Capcom features a lovely, unique visual style as you play a wolf god intent on restoring color to the world.

"Lego Star Wars II," for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GameCube and PC. Available now.
Last year's "Lego Star Wars" game was a surprise hit and critical darling, so it's only natural that a sequel be made. This one comprises the original three "classic" films.

"Guitar Hero II," for the PlayStation 2. Release date: Nov. 7.
Picking up where the first "Guitar Hero" left off, the sequel includes the ability to play rhythm or bass, a practice mode (thank god), and even more songs to rock out to.

"Final Fantasy XII," for the PlayStation 2. Release date: Oct. 31
It's a new "Final Fantasy" game. What more do you need to know?

"Neverwinter Nights 2," for the PC. Release date: Oct. 17
D&D fans everywhere can rejoice over the new sequel to one of the most immersive role-playing games ever. The ability to create your own scenarios will likely be a huge draw once again.

"Bully," for the PlayStation 2. Release date: Oct. 17
The most controversial game of the year puts you in a elite prep school, where you must contend with surely teachers, mean classmates, wedgies and much more. Opponents of the game have been vociferous in their cries of outrage, which will only get louder as the game gets closer to release.

"Viva Pinata," for the Xbox 360. Release date: Nov. 14
Microsoft attempts to grab a slice of the "Animal Crossing" audience with this colorful game, where you take care of cute little pinata creatures, creating a virtual world.

"Call of Duty 3," for the PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Release date: Nov. 7
In a world of countless WWII shooters, "Call of Duty" stands above most for its attention to realism and general high level of craft. The third game in the series promises to maintain the same uniform quality, this time focusing on the liberation of Paris.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, October 02, 2006

Graphic Lit: An interview with Scott McCloud

This is an extended, "director's cut" version of an interview I did with Mr. McCloud for my Patriot-News column. It wasn't as thorougly copy-edited as the final version was, so my apologies in advance for any misspellings or grammatical errors. The fault is entirely mine.

“Making Comics” by Scott McCloud is the kind of book that makes you slap your forehead and wonder why no one ever thought of this before.

Most “how-to-draw-comics” manuals focus solely on the art of rendering and anatomy — making sure your pictures look pretty — and not so much on the actual art of telling a story (Will Eisner’s seminal “Comics and Sequential Art” and “Grapic Storytelling” being two notable exceptions).

“Making Comics” goes a long way towards fixing that oversight, as McCloud, the author of the hugely influential “Understanding Comics,” breaks down in an easy-to-read fashion the tools and tips you’ll need to make great comics.

Here you’ll learn how to frame a scene, guide your readers through a page, emphasize character through facial expressions and posture, create detailed environments and combine words and pictures that integrate seamlessly.

McCloud and his family are currently doing a 50-state promotional tour of the book. I talked to him while he was holed up in a hotel in Syracuse, N.Y., about the book, working with computers and the hazards of traveling with your family.

Q: Reading the book I get the feeling you’ve been mulling these ideas in your head for quite some time. Is this a project you’ve had in the works for awhile?

A: The gestation began when I was asked to do a seminar at the College of Art and Design back in 2002. And I found when putting together a syllabus for the seminar that these ideas just tumbled out of my head. As if I’d been working on them in the back of my mind without even realizing it.

As I began to actually teach the class and the class went pretty well, and I began to build on those ideas, I got a much clearer idea how we could approach comics in a constructive way. That led directly to the book. A lot of it dates back to that moment when I began working in Minneapolis and I just opened a door to a room I didn’t even know was there necessarily.

Q: Is there any kind of overriding ideas that you wanted to get across? What for you was the central aspect of the book?

A: If a reader would only remember one thing from the book, I would hope that it would be the same thing that I hope they would take away from the first book, “Understanding Comics,” which is that comics are a blank page. There’s really no right tool, no right style, no right content. They can fill that page with whatever they like.

And I give them options, choices, tools, ideas for how to best express what they have in mind, but it’s really important to remember that blank page. Remember that it’s a wide open field. Comics can accomidate anything you want to say.

Q: There hasn’t been any book quite like this that really dealt in the mechanics of comics itself. Why do you think that is?

A: Well, we should namecheck Will Eisner here. I think his books probably come closest. And then there are other books that have touched on some of these storytelling issues. But what’s gone on over the years is that I think maybe publishers don’t have as much faith in readers that they’re going to be intersted in the structure [of comics]. They may think that fans who want to draw comics primarily just want to figure out how to render the things that they like. How to draw a figure, how to draw costume detail and things like that.

And while the fact is there are several hundred books on the shelves offering to teach just that, there are virtually none teaching you how to structure a narrative or choose the right moment, how to frame your actions and that sort of thing. I thought it was worth having at least one book on the shelf that focused on that primarily.

Q: One of my favorite chapters was the “world-building” one, because it’s not something you see a lot in comics because it’s so time-consuming.

A: In North American comics that’s true, yes.

Q: Is it something you see in manga?

A: European comics have a tradition of world-building which I think may have gotten it’s strongest boost when Herge’s Tintin got very popular. That heritage of world-building in the Franco-Belgian tradition. Even though he worked in a fairly streamlined style, he put an enormous amount of effort and care into rendering the worlds that his characters inhabited. I think that loyalty to worldbuilding continued for generations afterward.

Q: I also liked the section on manga and how you talk less about the surface elements and more about the deeper storytelling elements. Do you see more of that thing going on in American comics today? Do you think others are starting to adopt those forms?

A: I do. I think in the last 25 years we’ve seen a lot more Japanese technique filtered to North America. And sometimes it isn’t even a direct influence. I don’t know for instance that the Canadian artist Seth necessarily was influenced by manga but it’s similar to what he does in terms of pacing. Invoking environments and fragments and things like that. There are parallels in manga whether or not he was directly influenced.

Q: I was amazed when I got to the point on tools and you said you drew the whole book on the computer. Because I had been reading it and I though “Oh, he’s gone back to pen and ink.”

A: I was hoping actually it would come as a surprise when I revealed that I had done the whole thing on a paint monitor in PhotoShop. I’m glad. You’re the first one who’s actually said that but I’m really glad you said that because I hope that it has a warmer feeling.

Of course it’s always been hand drawn. Even in “Reinventing Comics,” there were elements that were done in Adobe Illustrator in that book, but the fact is it was always hand-drawn stuff, it was just hand-drawn with a tablet monitor instead of paper and ink. I guess I just finally found a tool that was right for me after all these years.

I also had the frightening challenge that because I was doing a how to book I figured by artwork would be judged twice as harshly. If I was demonstrating facial expressions for example, and my own were really terrible I think that would have been especially embarressing. I think fear may have driven the draftsmanship more than anything else.

Q: Having done both, working with computers and the more tried and true pen and ink methods, what are the advantages of the computer per se?

A: Scale. One of the greatest advantages is simply being able to do very detailed work at a large size. You can be drawing with your forearm and have a very relaxed natural stroke while you’re doing something that occupies a single square centimeter. That’s really marvelous provided you keep things in perspective and don’t go overboard because there’s always a temptation to cram too much detail in.

You really have the best of both worlds. You’re always drawing with a nice, easy broad stroke. You can always go in and not fuss too much because the scale you’re working in — it fusses for you. When you’re working 16 up basically the type is sort of built into the process. That’s tremendously useful.

And then of course there’s the ability to undo errors which I do often. In fact I’ve built a little undo button right into the pen that I used to draw on the montior. It has two little switches on it and one of those little switches moves backwards in time and one moves forward. So I can move back multiple steps or move forward multiple steps. I’ll draw a line I don’t like, it vanishes. It’s like thinking about it makes it go away. My thumb will hit that button like second nature when I don’t like a line.

That’s marvelous. And also being able to work in multiple layers is a tremendous help for people like me who like to endlessly move or recombine things around. An average page of Making Comics will have as many as 20 or 30 layers. Some use 40 or 50.

Q: It reminds me a little bit of the way Chester Brown supposedly works where he cuts the panels out and puts them on a page.

A: Yeah, it is actually a little bit like that because sometimes, especially when I have a particular challenge, I may cut that out of the page and then draw it seperately later. I do sometimes do a panel by panel approach. And I have at times made changes where I’ll move a panel over after or rearrange it. You can always cut and paste digitally.

Q: How did the Notes sections at the end of the chapters come about?

A: There was the main narrative where I made the essential points, but the thing is I’m cursed with this mania of finding virtually everything interesting. And sometimes I’ll find something fascinating, a little detour that my mind takes, that could rob the general points that I’m making of some of their momentum. And when that’s the case, I was giving myself a gift with the notes section by saying if I was really intersted in something, whether or not it was along the main road, I gave myself the opportunity to take that little detour and set up this little village of ideas way off on the far side of the road.

Q: I like the exercises. I could see a K-12 teacher using those to suppliment an English lesson or some kind of homework, outside of an art class or a comics class.

A: I do hope those will be useful for people. The exercises were a little bit harder for me to do. I’ve always benefited from the luxury of being very nonperscriptive. Certainly in "Understanding Comics" I was able to avoid seeming too didactic cause I was never telling anyone to do anything. So in a way it was a little bit against my nature to actually include section where I said “OK, do this now. Here are the rules.” That’s why you’ll notice those weaslly little disclaimers before them, where I’m saying “Now, you don’t have to do this. It’s totally up to you. I’m not the boss.”

Q: You did seem throughout the book to be doing that. I kind of wondered if that was in answer to some of the criticisms that came after “Understanding” and “Reinventing.”

A: There’s a couple of places in the book where if you look closely you can see me wincing behind those blank disc eyes. Where basically I’m saying the equivelent of “Don’t hit me!”

Q: Was that really a concern for you?

A: Well there are plenty of legitimate complaints that I’ve had to field over the years. Of this and that, of a section being unclear or of something being overly restrictive or whatever. I’m partially on the lookout for actual flaws in my argument. Because you can bet if there have been any in the other books people have pointed them out to me. So it’s not just fear of mindless beating. There are plenty of perfectly mindful beatings that I’ve suffered in the past that I’d like to avoid this time.

Q: In the book the focus seems to be primarily on storytelling. You emphasize telling good stories and making characters designed to get a narrative across. As opposed to being more experimental. I was wondering what was the thinking behind that and to that end did you have a specific audience in mind in writing the book?

A: Well certainly anybody who’s interested in creating. Whether or not they’re working in a conventional narrative context I think it’s important to understand that function of a narrative form like comics. Because the nonnarrative option, the experimental comics, the nonfiction comics still grow out of that culture. I make the comparision in the book, and it’s not a facetious one, to sex and how sex has so many different forms and interests us in so many different ways and much sexual activity has nothing whatsoever to do with reproduction. But if you want to understand sex you have to start there. You have to start with the reproductive system and you have to begin by understanding this function that this whole panalopy of activities include.

And so it is I think with comics, that comics originated in narrative and story. And mastering that aspect of comics helps you to understand all aspects of comics. Then of course there’s the fact that 95 percent of the people who make comics do want to tell stories. And as it happens I’m one of them. Now that this book is done, we’re on tour for a year, but once I’m done with the tour I hope very much to create a graphic novel and put some of these ideas to use.

Q: What will the new book be about?

A: I’m not telling anyone. All I will tell you is it will be probably at least 300 pages. It’s fiction, it’s a proper graphic novel. And it’s fairly operatic.

Q: Reading “Making Comics,” you echoed some of my own thoughts recently in terms of comics as an instructional tool, which it seems particularily well suited to.

A: Yeah, I think that nonfiction or instructional comics have a tremendous amount of potential. I’ve seen how I am able to convey ideas about perception and semiotics and identification. Concepts which I think would have a lot of high school students and probably college students eyes just glazing over. But when I attach them to pictures, when I convey them in a visual way, as I do in the books, they’re very easy for even younger children to understand.

I honestly think that virtually any traditional topic of instruction can probably be knocked down a full four grades just by conversion to comics.

Q: I really agree. You don’t have to just explain it in words. You do it in "Making Comics" all the time, where you show exactly what you’re talking about. It seems to be perfect as an educational tool.

A: Certainly anything that has a visual component — I would think even subatomic physics can probably be described that way. Now some subjects like higher mathematics might be impervious to comics, but never say never. Even there, there may be away to do it.

But certainly subjects like history, politics, cultural instruction, you name it, economics. I think all of these things could benefit from a visual approach. And it doesn’t involve dumbing it down at all, which I think is an unfortunate misconception that you have to strip away a lot of the complexity in order to present these things. I don’t really think that’s true. You just have to have faith in your topic. You have to communicate an enthusiasm for that topic. And you have to be willing to present the individual components of the topic in isolation at the outset.

I think it helps to begin with simple principles delivered in isolation. You don’t begin with some massive chart of everything you want to say. You begin with a few principles and you make sure your reader has grasped those principles and then you build on those.

Q: I don’t worry about complexity, but I wonder if you can have as much information. If you’re doing a biography, you’re going to run into problems where a prose biography can offer a lot more really nitty-gritty detail. It would be hard to do that just in terms of length and time.

A: I think the conversion is somewhere 2 or 3 to 1 ratio. That is if you have something that’s going to take 100 pages of prose, you’re looking at two or three hundred pages of comics. Certainly in terms of movie adaptations that’s true. To properly adapt a movie into comics form you’re looking at three or four hundred pages.

Q: The sense of humor shines through in the book, which I think would be hard to do in plain prose. I’m thinking of the moment where you go “Ooooo, diagrams,” which is one of my favorite parts of the book.

A: I have to thank one of my kibbutzers Jen Manly-Lee who helped me prune that joke for effectiveness. I had an extra panel, I forget what it was, but it was better when I trimmed it down to that island moment of me looking and becoming self-concious.

Q: As much ground as you cover in “Making Comics,” there seems like there’s a lot more different angles still to cover.

A: Oh god yes.

Q: You talk about pacing and timing for example, but it would be interesting to see a chapter on telling a joke in comics, and how you set up the timing. Like you just said, taking out a panel made it better.

A: I would say that there are at least maybe a dozen one to two panel sequences in that book that could have been a book in and of themselves.

Q: Are you thinking about returning to the subject, a “Making Comics, Part 2”?

A: I don’t know if there’ll be a “Making Comics, Part 2.” If there is, it’ll be five to six years from now. Cause I know what I’m doing for the next few years. I have a tour to finish and that’s going to take a year. Then I have a graphic novel to create and that’s going to take at least three years. And then I might think about a follow up.

I do have another project in mind that is not dissimilar from "Making Comics" but approaches it in a very different way. And does expand on some of those ideas. But as I say, not any time soon.

Q: Let’s talk about the tour a little bit. You’re on tour with your family and you’re going to be traveling through all 50 states. That’s a massive undertaking. How are you going to be able to get through the whole thing? If it were my family I think about two states in I’d be turning the car around.

A: The first thing to remember is 50 states is one state a week. As soon as you think of it that way, you realize I have to try to get a lecture or a seminar or a store signing in there, for every state. So there’s at least one public appearance in every state.

When you look at it that way you realize wow, there could actually be a lot of downtime. We’re not driving Seattle to Baltimore to Los Angeles to Miami. Right now we’re shuttling between Massachussettes and New York. We planned it by region so apart from a couple of big trips like the trip from California to New York that started this, or the drive from the Northeast down to Florida in January, for the most part, we’re just going to neighboring states. If I manage to get 50 speaking engagements, we’re going to be spending plenty of time hanging out, going to museums. It’s actually not too bad. I haven’t found the pace particularily grueling.

Q: How do you break up the travel? Do you at certain points between signings say well we need to go home for a week and water the plants and check on the cat and then go back on the road? Are you on the road all the time?

A: Oh, there is no home. We were living in Southern California. We took all of our stuff, put it in storage. We have no home. One of the honest to god purposes of the tour is to see all 50 states and make a final decision on where we want to live. We don’t know where we’re gonna live. We’re house hunting.