Thursday, May 31, 2007

VG review: MLB 07 The Show

Sony, for PlayStation 3

rated E for Everyone, $59.99.

I tend not to review sports video games too often, because the difference between yearly iterations of a popular sport, be it basketball or baseball, tend to be minimal. At a certain point as a reviewer you’re just ticking off a list of superficial alterations and not really critiquing the product.

“MLB 07 The Show” is a bit different, though, as it’s the first big sports franchise game for Sony’s new next-generation console, the PlayStation 3.

The fact that it was developed in-house makes it noteworthy. Would the developers be able to take full advantage of the PS3’s abilities and create a baseball game that mimicked the real thing?

Well, apparently not. Or at least not yet. “MLB 07” is a decent baseball sim, but it doesn’t offer enough thrills to distinguish it from any of the other baseball games out in stores right now.

In terms of graphics, “MLB” is a mixed blessing. The stadiums and backgrounds are nicely detailed, but the players, while their movements seem realistic, look wooden and artificial. That, plus some choppy moments (batters suddenly vanishing after striking out for instance) make you question how “next-gen” this game actually is.

The game offers the usual assortment of features that just about every sports game under the sun does. You can play a full season or just one game, manage the team or create a player from scratch and follow his career in the majors. The latter feature, titled “Road to Show,” is well done and probably the best part of the game.

The game attempts to make use of the PS3’s Sixaxis controls, letting you tilt it to the left or right to slide inside or outside of the bases, but honestly, the addition feels like an awkward afterthought.

You can also go online to compete with other players, though good luck actually getting to finish a game. Every match I attempted quickly stalled out because of a lost Internet connection, a problem that was mentioned frequently on the game’s online message board.

“MLB 07 The Show” is solid enough to entertain baseball fans, but not much else. It seems more like the latest iteration of yet another sports game than the next-generation leap forward that no doubt many hoped it would be.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Graphic Lit: More reviews, more quickly

My pile of comics has gotten rather precarious, and you know what that means: time for another lightning round of reviews!

Must! Critique! Comics! Quickly!

by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

Drawn and Quarterly, 112 pages, $19.95.

Set in the Ivory Coast circa 1978, “Aya” is a disarmingly sweet and funny soap opera about a group of young people falling in and out of love. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the book is that Aya isn’t even the main character. Instead, she serves as a Greek chorus of sorts as she observes her friends make incredibly poor romantic choices. The kind you make when you’re 20 and the future seems too far away to think about.

Despite the cultural differences, “Aya” is filled with characters that will resemble you or people you know. Issues of class and sexism swim underneath the surface, but again, seem intimately familiar. No doubt that’s the entire point.

“Garage Band”
by Gipi

First Second, 128 pages, $16.95.

Like “Aya,” Gipi’s tale of a group of teens attempting to form and desperately sustain a rock band deals with class and cultural issues that might seem foreign to U.S. audiences (Gipi is Italian).

Readers will easily identify, however, with the characters’ desperate attempts to escape their home lives through music, thanks to the author’s masterful way with his characters, both in terms of the dialogue and body language. Anyone who’s ever fumbled through the opening chords of “Smoke on the Water” during his high school years will enjoy this book.

“Daybreak Vol. 1”
by Brian Ralph

Bodega, 48 pages, $10.

Yes, it’s another post-apocalyptic zombie tale, but one with a difference. Ralph tells the entire story from a first-person viewpoint, so that all the characters and events seem to be addressing the reader directly, thereby upping the intensity.

The result is a book that seems more interested in exploring a desolate landscape than in providing your usual horror scares, though it’s certainly not without some thrilling moments. Fans of the genre would do well to check it out.

“Red Eye, Black Eye”
by K. Thor Jensen

Alternative Comics, 304 pages, $19.95.

After losing his job, girlfriend and apartment in 2001, Jensen grabbed a bus pass and started on a 10,000-mile road trip through the United States. “Red Eye” documents his travels, which seem to consist mostly of being tired and smelly.

That doesn’t sound like an appealing book, but Jensen is a good and funny storyteller, focusing on the small moments and amusing anecdotes that make up any journey. (I especially like the way he’s able to draw stories out of his hosts.) There aren’t any big revelations, but then why would there be? The kind of journey Jensen details, both inwardly and outwardly, is one of slow progression, not immediate disclosure.

“Escape From Special”
by Miss NoteLasko-Gross

Fantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $16.95.

In cringetastic detail Lasko-Gross chronicles her childhood and early adolescence, focusing on ugly moments of betrayal, embarrassment, isolation and general alienation. Thankfully, she’s not afraid to portray herself at her worst, and there are plenty of moments where she comes off as a brat (my grandfather would have called her “too smart for her own good.”)

The episodic nature of the book works against her to an extent, in that many of the supporting characters, namely her parents, seem like ciphers. We are so deep inside Lasko-Gross’ head that it’s hard to get a feel for the other people in her life. It would have enriched the book to have shown someone else’s perspective.

Still, it’s an engaging, strong first work that suggest a good deal of promise. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

“The Grave Robber’s Daughter”
by Richard Sala

Fantagraphics Books, 80 pages, $9.95.

No cartoonist does gothic horror better than Richard Sala, as this slim little scary book proves.

It’s a bit gorier and more gruesome than his usual work, as teenage sleuth Judy Drood goes up against a nefarious army of murderous clown zombies, but no less gripping because of it. It’s also a bit of a quick read, but those looking for a good, short scare will be well served here.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

VG review: Spider-Man 3

Activision, for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, Wii and PC

rated T for Teen (animated blood, mild language, violence), $59.99 (PS3 and Xbox 360), $49.99 (Wii), $39.99 (PS2) and $29.99 (PC).

“Spider-Man 3” made me want to vomit.

No, I mean that literally. Twenty minutes into the game I had to switch it off because it made me so nauseated.

I tend to be prone to motion sickness, but even so, this video game tie-in to the most popular movie in theaters suffers from one of the worst point-of-view cameras I’ve ever experienced.

It refuses to stay behind the main character and becomes completely disoriented in tight corners, especially when you’re crawling on the walls or ceilings or battling large groups of gangsters.

The problems don’t stop with the game’s camera. “Spider-Man 3” is a mess, full of clunky button-mashing, shoddy graphics and repetitive game play.

The game is virtually identical to “Spider-Man 2,” except in quality. As before, New York City is your web-swinging oyster, and you pick up missions and side quests as you explore its environs.

The game follows the plot of the film pretty closely, with Spidey tackling the triumvirate of Venom, the Sandman and the new Green Goblin. However, the developers throw in a host of other villains and challenges to pad out the game.

And padding out is exactly what a lot of these missions feel like. The notion of beating down on the various goofy gangs that patrol Manhattan or taking Mary Jane on a web-swinging ride through the city sounds intriguing on paper but becomes mind-numbingly dull when put into practice. Especially when the game’s fighting system seems to consist of pushing buttons as wildly as possible and hoping for the best.

Usually I try not to focus on a game’s graphics too much, preferring instead to talk about other issues such as game mechanics or the overall emotional experience. “Spider-Man 3,” however, gives me little choice.

I played the game on a “next-generation” console, the PlayStation 3, but its graphics didn’t even hold up to PS2 standards. Characters look blocky and robotic. Backgrounds are devoid of color or detail.

It’s obvious that “Spider-Man 3” was a rush job. The developers were no doubt under pressure to get the game finished in time for the movie’s release and let it go out the door before it was ready. It’s a common practice, and one that needs to stop.

I tried to get through “Spider-Man 3,” dear reader. Truly I did. But there came a point when enough was enough. My poor stomach can only take so much, even when engaged in the noble cause of good criticism.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, May 21, 2007

Graphic Lit: Minx line launches

Girls don’t read comic books.

That’s the myth that’s pervaded comics culture for the past few decades. It’s a lie that manga has especially proved false, as series like “Fruits Basket” have attracted a strong and devoted female readership.

But what about American comics? Is there a way to attract young girls, even those not necessarily interested in manga, to more homegrown comics?

It’s a question that plagued DC editors Karen Berger and Shelly Bond.

“As great as a lot of manga is, we felt we wanted an American sensibility,” Berger said. “Teenage girls deserve to have a line of books from an American publisher that would suit their sensibilities closer.”

To that end they created Minx, a new line of graphic novels aimed specifically at the teen market.

“Shelly Bond and I have always wanted to do more material for women, so we said ‘Why don’t we just go for broke and try to do an imprint specifically designed for teenage girls?’¤”

With about seven to eight titles coming out each year, Berger says the Minx books will focus on “real stories about real girls in the real world.”

“The protagonists are independent, they take chances, they have a sense of individuality,” she said. “They’re not conventional, they’re not necessarily the it girl, nor do they want to be.”

The opening salvo in the new publishing imprint is “The Plain Janes,” written by Cecil Castellucci, author of such young adult novels as “Boy Proof” and “Beige,” and drawn by Jim Rugg of “Street Angel” fame.

“The Plain Janes” is about a young girl — named Jane naturally — who moves with her family to the suburbs after surviving a terrorist attack in the city. At her new school, she comes across a trio of girls sitting at the reject table, all blessed with the same name as hers.

Frustrated by the dull safety of suburbia and still reeling from her traumatic experience, Jane bands the other girls together to form the secret art gang P.L.A.I.N., which stands for People Loving Art In Neighborhoods.

While their innocuous acts of art terrorism thrill their fellow students (at one point they wrap all the town fire hydrants in scarves and hats), they only manage to draw the wrath of local law enforcement, with everything coming to a head on New Year’s Eve.

“I wanted the book to have a duality to it in a way. I didn’t want it just to be about ‘boys or cool and I like kissing’ or whatever,” said Castellucci. “I’m always dealing with pretty serious issues even if they’re just serious issues to the characters.”

A longtime comic book fan, Castellucci says she jumped at the opportunity to take part in the Minx launch.

“I really like comic books a lot,” she said. “I’d always thought it was something I’d like to try to do because it wasn’t ‘in my world.’ I had no idea how to do it.”

She adds there was a bit of a steep learning curve initially, though she credits Rugg with helping her overcome it.

“In a way the image is very freeing, narrativewise. At the same time, when you don’t understand yet how you can move the story forward, it feels very claustrophobic.”

While “The Plain Janes” makes a few missteps (many of the supporting characters — particularly the other Janes — come off more as types than individuals), it’s a perfect choice for the imprint’s launch as Castellucci and Rugg complement each other very well. The result is a charming, fun book that doesn’t feel weighted down by political allegory or “chick-lit” frothiness. I can easily imagine a lot of girls thrilling at the Janes’ anti-establishment exploits.

Berger and the powers that be at DC are working hard to get the Minx line into the hands of their target audience, partnering with the marketing group Allied Media, who helped make the Traveling Pants and Gossip Girls series of books such successes.

Upcoming titles include “Re-Gifters” by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, about a “Korean-American California girl,” and “Good As Lily” by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm, about a teen who’s confronted by past and future versions of herself.

“There’s a lot of ladies who would read comics or graphic novels if there were stories that appealed to them,” Castellucci said. “That’s where everybody’s heading. I say bring it on.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Even more Game Bytes

“Guitar Hero II”
Activision, for the Xbox 360

rated T for Teen, $89.99.

The Xbox 360 edition of one of the best games of last year is notable for a few reasons. One, it offers more songs from such acclaimed rock acts as Alice Cooper, My Chemical Romance and Deep Purple. Two, you can download more tunes via Xbox Live. Three, the guitar that comes with it is a white Gibson Explorer.

Add in the “achievement points” that allow you to boast about your prowess to your friends, and you’ve got enough add-ons to make this iteration feel superior to the PlayStation 2 version. Whether or not owners of the original game need this new port depends upon how manic a fan they might be. If you own a 360 and haven’t checked this game out yet, though, you’re missing out.

“Singstar Pop”
Sony, for the PlayStation 2

rated E10+ for ages 10 and up, $49.99 (with microphones) $29.99 (without).

This karaoke game is completely identical to last year’s Singstar Rocks. The only difference is the list of songs, which focuses more on the Top 40, both past and present, than rock ¤’n’ roll. Your enjoyment, therefore, is entirely dependent upon your desire to sing along with folks like Whitney Houston, Jesse McCartney and Avril Lavigne. For me, that’s not much of an incentive, though I did enjoy warbling to tunes by The Raconteurs and Franz Ferdinand.

As before, the goal is to keep good, if not perfect, pitch with visual cues helping you against a backdrop of the artist’s music video. It’s a cute concept, but slight, and best served when playing with a group rather than solo. If you’ve got a bunch of friends to play games with, then this would make for an amusing diversion, but not much more.

“Bust-A-Move Bash”
Majesco, for the Wii

rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

You would think that it would be pretty easy to utilize the Wii’s motion controls in a puzzle game as basic as “Bust-A-Move.” You’d be wrong. This iteration — where, as before, you fire little colored spheres at similarly colored spheres to make them pop and eventually clear the screen — features incredibly wonky controls. The slightest twitch of your wrist will send the launch arrow all the way to the left or right, making precise aiming much tougher than it needs to be.

Combine that with lackluster presentation and a general lack of variety and you have little reason to play the game. “Blast” does have eight-person multiplayer, but that’s hardly enough reason to shell out $40.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, May 14, 2007

Graphic Lit: Countdown

Summertime is nigh upon us, and you know what that means.

That’s right — big superhero crossover events.

In the DC universe, the big shebang is “Countdown,” a new weekly series that picks up on the heels of its last one, “52.”

The latter, you might remember, was DC’s first, ambitious attempt to do a weekly comic. Featuring four big-name writers (Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Geoff Johns) and a host of rotating artists, the series attempted to fill in a “missing year” in the DC universe, immediately following their “Infinite Crisis” saga.

“52” proved to be a pretty big success for DC, so it’s no surprise that they’ve decided to attempt another one. This time around, however, there are a few differences.

For one thing, while “52” took place in the recent past, “Countdown” is set in the present and will tie in or at least refer to the goings-on in other DC titles. And where the former attempted to take place “in real time” (i.e. cover one week exactly), the latter adopts a much less rigid structure.

“We wanted to build a weekly book that really could interact with the DC universe as it proceeded month by month.” said DC’s Executive Editor Dan DiDio.

“We just didn’t want to create any series,” he added. “Once we felt we had something we thought was really special, we gave ourselves the go-ahead to do another weekly book.”

“Countdown” is overseen by writer Paul Dini, who is best known for his work on “Batman: The Animated Series” and is currently scripting “Detective Comics.”

Dini hashed out the basic plot and provides an issue-by-issue breakdown of the story, which he then hands off to one of a team of writers to flesh out the scripts. The result is a comic written more like a TV show.

The art chores, meanwhile, will be overseen by Keith Giffen, who did the page breakdowns for “52.” He’ll do the same job for “Countdown” (starting with the fifth issue), with artists like Carlos Magno, David Lopez and Jesus Saiz picking up on Giffen’s lead.

The plot of “Countdown” follows some of the B-list characters in the DC world, such as Jimmy Olsen, Mary Marvel and Ray Palmer, the long-missing Atom. The individual characters’ story lines will eventually intertwine to reveal there’s something amiss with the universe.

True to its name, “Countdown” will start with issue No. 51 (out in stores now) and count backward until next year, leading up to the next big, for the moment secret, event.

“I’m trying to bring a stronger sense of continuity to the DC universe,” DiDio said.

“We’ve shown we can produce [a weekly comic] for a whole year. Now we have to one-up ourselves with a story that really ties into the DC universe. “

World War Hulk 

Marvel, meanwhile, is gearing up for its own big miniseries this month, the amusingly titled “World War Hulk.”

The first issue of the five-issue series won’t be out until June 13, but fans can get a preview of what’s in store with “World War Hulk Prologue” and “Incredible Hulk No. 106.”

For those not familiar with what’s been going on, here’s the setup: Prior to the recent “Civil War” shenanigans, Iron Man, Reed Richards and a bunch of other heroes decided the Hulk was too dangerous to live on Earth, so they shot him into space.

Landing on a faraway planet, the Hulk becomes a gladiator and eventually king of that world, though not before his spaceship explodes, killing, among many others, his wife and unborn child.
Now, as you might expect, the Hulk is really mad, and he’s heading back to Earth to exact his revenge.

“The Hulk blames these Marvel heroes for exiling him,” said “Hulk” writer Greg Pak, who will work with artist John Romita Jr. on the miniseries. “He blames them for the destruction of his adopted world.

He’s coming back angrier and stronger than the Marvel heroes have seen him.

“I think that fans are eager to see the Hulk come back to Earth and do some smashing,” he said. “I think there’re some characters people feel ought to be smashed in the wake of ‘Civil War.’ We’re in the position of being able to satisfy some vicarious pleasures.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Because you demanded it: More Game Bytes

Since last week's Graphic Lit column was all about Free Comic Book Day, and that event has since come and gone, I see little reason to post it here. If you really want to read my list of now-over-and-done events, you can click here. As a apology for the lack of comics content, I thought I'd post an extra-long edition of Game Bytes, since I haven't done so in awhile. Enjoy.

“Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters”
Sony, for PlayStation Portable
rated E10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence), $39.99.

It’s always cause for concern when a new developer takes over the reins of a beloved franchise. In the case of “Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters” — overseen by High Impact this time instead of the folks at Insomniac — most of those fears are unwarranted.

Despite being made for the small screen, “Size” plays similar to past R&C titles. As before, Ratchet and his robot pal are off on a grand adventure across the galaxy, attempting to save a small girl while using a variety of odd and impressive weapons.

The only serious problem here is the game’s camera, which does just about everything it can to hinder your enjoyment. The game also suffers from a lack of imagination. It feels more like a side project than a sequel in its own right.

Still, neither of these caveats is a serious dealbreaker. Despite its problems, “Size Matters” offers enough platforming fun to please most PSP owners.

“Cooking Mama Cook Off”
Majesco, for Wii
rated E (alcohol reference), $49.99.

The Wii edition of this cooking simulation is an improvement on last year’s DS version, if only for the addition of multiplayer, not to mention more recipes.

As before, you attempt to complete elaborate (or not so elaborate — American cuisine seems to consist of hot dogs and popcorn) meals by performing quick, simple tasks.

This time you use the Wii-mote to stir, chop, turn on the oven and perform a host of other kitchen-related activities.

The tasks are clever, but the game really lacks depth (you don’t really learn anything about cooking, for example), and most of the recipes feature too many similar steps — chopping an onion for the millionth time tends to wear out the novelty.

Ultimately, this is a game best enjoyed in short bursts with friends and not something you can delve into for hours. I await a cooking game that really expands on the basic ideas offered here.

“Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07”
EA Sports, for the Wii
rated E, $49.95.

Being able to swing your Wii controller around like a golf club was one of the Nintendo console’s great promises, so it stands to reason that EA would attempt such controls for the Wii rendition of their Tiger Woods franchise.

So how does it handle? Awkwardly if we’re being honest (and we are). It’s twitchy to the point where the slightest wrist flicker can lead to an unwanted swing while other times a full-arm windmill results in no swing at all.

Once you figure out the control nuances, “Tiger” can be fun, though your arm does get tired quickly. But I’m looking more toward the next iteration and hoping the game responds to my swooshes a little more intuitively.

“Cake Mania”

Majesco, for Nintendo DS
rated E, $19.99.

Essentially a baking version of the arcade classic “Tapper,” “Cake Mania” has you rushing around the kitchen putting together iced baked goods for an increasingly irritable series of customers.

The game has one basic premise — make and decorate the cake the customer asks for before they leave the shop in a huff. It doesn’t offer any variations on that theme, it just gets faster as you progress.

That in and of itself would not be a deal breaker if the screen itself weren’t so tiny. It’s very hard, for example, to see what types of cakes folks are requesting — is that a circle or a pumpkin on the bottom of that double-layer cake? And the kitchen is so cramped that it’s far too easy to tap on the wrong item. I unintentionally sent too many cakes into the trash when I was only trying to put a cute rose on them.

“Cake Mania” has a sound enough premise to keep casual gamers attention initially, but it ultimately doesn’t do enough to make them want to keep baking.

"Marvel Trading Card Game"
Konami, for PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS
rated T (alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes), $29.99.

With a title like that, you're certainly not going to confuse this game with, say, your average WWII shooter or fantasy rpg.

As the name suggests, this is a straight-up adaptation of the trading card game, where you and an opponent lob superheroes at each other until one of you loses 50 points. Special "equipment" and "plot twist" cards add spice to the proceedings.

Though the presentation is a little dry, the game itself is rather entertaining. The only real problem (apart from the long loading times) is that the game board is really small on the PSP screen, to the point where you'll need a microscope to see the various cards (though highlighting them does bring up a more readable version).

"Marvel Trading Card Game" won't woo those who aren't either fans of the comic books or trading card games in general -- the rules are a bit too complicated -- but those who fall into either of those two categories should get some fun out of it.

"Winning Eleven Pro Evolution Soccer 2007"
Konami, for Nintendo DS
rated E, $29.99.

This hand-held version of the widely acclaimed soccer series doesn't bring shame to the venerable franchise, but it doesn't bring much glory either.

For one thing, the players are so tiny on the DS screen that it's hard at times to decipher the action. To make matters worse, your teammates' AI is rather spotty, and there's not much depth to the game in general. It does however, sport Wi-Fi, so you can play online.

It's not a great game of soccer, but if you're absolutely desperate for a game of European football on your DS, it will suit for now.

"Sid Meier's Pirates!"
2K Games, for the PlayStation Portable
rated E10+ (mild violence), $29.99.

I really like pirates -- heck, who doesn't? -- but most pirate video games really haven't given me much of an opportunity to get my "y'arrr" on.

Perhaps that's why I'm so taken with this hand-held version of Sid Meier's (of "Civilization" fame) popular swashbuckling PC game. In it, you play an upcoming young swab eager to sail Central American waters. While you search for your long-lost family members, you can plunder vessels and towns, woo young ladies, dig for buried treasure and rack up reputation points to become one of the most fearsome pirates in the Atlantic.

The game becomes a bit repetitive a few hours in, and the challenge bar isn't set terribly high. That being said, the game offers enough buccaneer thrills to be worth your time. Y'arrr.

"SingStar Rocks!"
Sony, for PlayStation 2
rated E10+, $49.99.

Like "Karaoke Revolution," "SingStar" lets players sing along with some of their favorite tunes and grades them on how they did. The big difference is you're singing along to the original versions, not watered-down soundalikes.

It's fun to try to keep up with, say, Joss Stone, and the accompanying videos provide a nice visual element. Plus, you can play back your version after you're done and add gimmicky vocaltricks, making you sound like a robot, for example.

The only real problem with the game is there just isn't enough of a song list to justify repeated play. "SingStar Rocks" is a fun party game, but you'll burn through its offerings quickly.

"Lucinda Green's Equestrian Challenge"
Red Mile Entertainment
for PlayStation 2 and PC, rated E, $19.99.

The worlds of equestrian riding and video games seem diametrically opposed, but that hasn't stopped Red Mile from trying anyway.

The game starts off strongly enough, with players able to create their own horse and rider from scratch, and then putting them through their paces in a variety of competitions. In between, you'll have to feed and take care of your horse.

Unfortunately, the competitions themselves are repetitive and far too easy to sustain any interest in the game. Only the cross country event offers any challenge, and that's mainly because you are figuring out the layout of the land.

If the developers offered more customization and complexity, they might actually have something here. As it stands now, even the most devout horseman will find this title tiresome.

"Juka and the Monophonic Menace"
SouthPeak Interactive
for Game Boy Advance, rated E, $19.99.

In "Juka," you make potions by combining various elements that you collect by shaking trees, bushes and just picking up stuff off the ground. These potions allow you to do things such as unlock hidden areas and put enemies to sleep. Except when they don't, in which case you'll need to collect the projectiles that enemies throw at you in a certain sequence in order to defeat them. Then there are all the other jars, keys, elements and crystals you'll need to collect.

Is this game needlessly convoluted? Just a bit. It's a shame, too, because it boasts a nice, clean design and several of the core concepts are intriguing. If only they'd pared it back a bit, it would have been more enjoyable.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with James Kochalka

Since 1998, James Kochalka has been chronicling his life in comic books.

That in and of itself is not so special. Lots of cartoonists have been doing the same thing for decades. What makes Kochalka’s interesting is the format he’s chosen.

Each day Kochalka draws a little four-panel strip about his day and posts it online (at Occasionally the events are significant, but more often that not, the focus is on odd little absurdities or thoughts that occur while going about his business.

That kind of an emphasis might seem unbearably twee to the casual reader, but when sitting down with a large chunk of strips — as in his newest collection, “American Elf Book Two” — a rich, nuanced portrait of the author and his family is revealed. By concentrating on the minor triumphs and hassles of everyday life, he’s able to draw out some meaningful truths and
moments of beauty.

Kochalka talked with me over the phone from his home in Vermont about his new collection as well as his ongoing series, the delightfully profane "Super F*ckers."

Q: How did the idea for doing a daily diary strip come about?

A: Well, it’s a pretty simple idea in that people have done autobiographical comics for a long time but it seems like no one had ever tried to combine autobiographical comics with a daily strip format. It just makes sense because the most common form of a diary is the daily diary, right? So to do a daily diary comic strip just made sense.

And once I thought of it, I knew it would probably be the best thing that I would ever do. So once I thought of it I had to do it.

Q: How do you choose what particular moment or event to focus on for each day? Is there something you look for?

A: I guess it’s two things that I could choose to do in the broadest sense. I could try and draw about something typical that happened, something that sort of always happens or I could draw about something unusual that happened. (laughs)

Really I just look for something that I found interesting in some way. I’ve been doing the strip for a long time, since 1998, and I want to try and capture the full tapestry of my experience. Certain things happen to you again and again in life and sometimes I might notice I’ve had the same experience four or five times already and I have not yet drawn about it. So sometimes I’ll have realized this and just wait until the thing happens again so I can draw about it. (laughs)

Q: The reason I ask is I notice sometimes in a strip you’ll focus on playing with your son or the cat. And then the next day you’ll mention an big event that happened the day before. It’s interesting what you choose to focus on and what you leave out.

A: I don’t always pick the biggest, most important thing of the day. Sometimes I just pick some little moment or something that someone said. Other times I feel the need to explain more and I’ll have larger areas of text where I go more into the context of what happened or describing feelings. But other times I just like to show something simple that happened.

Really I don’t know how exactly I choose, but I try to have some variety so that it’s not the exact same strip every day.

Q: The interesting thing about the strips to me is that you’re very selective in what you reveal. Yet to a large extent I feel like I have a good sense of who you are and who your wife is, which may be completely unfair. I think that’s interesting considering you focus more on life’s little moments rather than the big, grandiose events.

A: Well, drawing the daily diary strip, as I pick a little moment each day to draw about, there’s obviously so many moments that I don’t choose. Practically an infinite number of things I could draw about on a particular day. Hopefully as the strip goes on day by day, year after year, a fuller portrait is being painted of my life.

Here’s why I started doing the strip: I’ve been drawing graphic novels and the novel has an established structure. Stories in general have an established structure. They have beginnings and middles and ends. And I felt there was something artificial about that. That wasn’t really capturing how I experience life. The stories that make up our lives don’t have beginnings, middles and ends. No story in your life really has an ending. They all continue on. And there’s really thousands of stories in your life, all happening at the same time and sort of twisting around each other and doing loop-de-loops. And certain things happen again and again and again. And there’s so many little details that all add up to make a human life.

Although I was trying to express that kind of thing in my grahic novels, there was no way to do it. Once I came upon the idea of doing the daily diary comic strip, I realized that would perfectly accomplish what I was trying to do.

Q: How do your family and friends feel about being portrayed in the strip?

A: Most of them really like to be in it. I’ve been doing it for a really long time. There was some resistance from (Kochalka’s wife) Amy towards the beginning, but not any more.

Actually she was already a character in my graphic novels before I started doing the diary strip, so she was already used to it by the time I started the strip.

There’s certain things that she doesn’t really like me to draw, like sex stuff, so I try to limit the amount of sex stuff I draw or how graphic it is. But I don’t leave it out entirely. I don’t draw every time I have sex in the comic. But I don’t draw every time I brush my teeth in the comic either. I draw some of the times I brush my teeth or have sex, but I don’t draw it all.

Q: Maybe that’s what the strip should be — every other one, brushing teeth or having sex.

A: I’ve had a fantasy for years that I would do a week or a month, just brushing teeth.

Q: That would be awesome.

A: At the beginning I thought that would be too risky to try, but now I draw hundreds of these strips a year and we’re coming up on a decade so there’s some room for a month of toothbrushing strips. Subscribership would probably jump.

Q: How does the online readership compare to the book sales? Which is the more financially viable?

A: I make more money from subscribers, although probably more people buy the books. Way more people buy the books. But the people that subscribe pay me $1.95 a month, so that comes out to more money.

Q: How many people do you have subscribing right now?

A: Acutally, I don’t really have any way to tell. The way we have the site set up doesn’t count and PayPal doesn’t tell me what the total is. All I know is how much money I take in a month. And even that I’m not completely sure of, but it’s something like $500-$600 a month.

Q: But the books sell well too? Because I remember when the first collection came out it wasn’t selling well.

A: Well Diamond has pretty much a monopoly on comic book distribution to comic book stores. Their orders for American Elf book one was 600 copies, which was pretty low. Especially because that book cost a lot to print because it’s giant.

So our orders for the next one are more than doubled, almost tripled that. But the book was slimmer; it was $10 cheaper and that was probably what cause orders to be lower for the first book, even though it was totally worth it.

Q: Has the first book regained money over time?

A: Oh yeah, I think all my book do fine in the long run. None of my books ever have particularily high initial orders. The highest might be around 2000 or 2500. But they all continue to sell as the years go by. Cause I’m not going anywhere and I’m pretty well known in indie comic circles. So the books continue to sell slowly over time. And that’s fine. I’d love to have a runaway best seller, but I’m happy enough because I make a living at it so I can’t really complain. I thought for sure I was going to have to work as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant for my whole life. Which is what I did for six years before.

Q: What are the benefits and hazards of doing a daily, personal strip like this?

A: Well, the only really big minus is every time I get together with my friends and I want to tell them about any little anecdotes that I have, they know them already, cause they’ve read the strip. (laughs) “Yeah I know James, I read the strip.” I’ve got nothing to say then. (laughs)

Q: Well, what have been the benefits? Is there anything you’ve found in doing a strip like this that you didn’t expect to discover?

A: Well I got a lot better at using PhotoShop. It’s gotta be good for my drawing skills.

Not every strip am I pushing myself to my utter limit of drawing. some of the strips are pretty much take it easy. But still it’s good to draw every day and I do try to remind myself to push on content. I don’t want to coast on the content. Because you could draw a daily diary strip and really reveal nothing about any of the deeper truths of humanity and I would like to try to reveal some deeper truths. Luckly how the strip is structured I’ve been able to reveal deeper truths without even trying.

There’s two good ways to do it, and they both work. Sometimes I draw without particualry even thinking about what I’m doing. Sometimes you can reveal things by accident. And then other times I purposely push myself to try and dig a little deeper in why I’m doing something. Sometimes that works and you actually do figure out some truth about yourself that you wouldn’t have otherwise realized. But other times that obscures the truth because you think you come up with some profound thought and really you haven’t (laughs). But I figure it’s all part of it. If I draw some profound thought that I have and it turns out it’s all bullshit, that’s fine. That’s part of life too. Everyone has their profound thoughts that turn out to be bullshit.

Q: One of the things I admire about the strip is unlike a lot of similar autobiographical works, you’re not afraid to show yourself at your worst. You balance it out. I think a lot of people who are doing autobiographical strips, or are insipired by your work, seem to either focus all on the cute, or in the other direction.

A: I’ve been accused of my strip being just cuteness or a cute a day thing but it’s not.

Q: Well the one that stands out for me is that Christmas strip.

A I have no idea what you’re talking about. (laughs) I can’t remember.

Q: Are you being facectious?

A: No, I haven’t read my own book.

Q: In the strip you blow up over trying to get the Christmas tree up and Amy’s crying and saying we can cancel Christmas.

A: I ruin Christmas a little bit every year. I get a little better about that. I might not have ruined Christmas this year because I really tried hard not to.

It’s hard though because you get so many expectations and it never quite turns out the way you hoped. It’s supposed to be a beautiful, magical day, and that’s not necessarily what happens.

Q: How has becoming a parent affected your work? Because Eli plays such a huge part in the diary strips.

A: That’s true. It took a lot of the emphasis off of me. I did have to remind myself that it’s not his diary it’s my diary. It’s not just there to catalogue all the funny things that he says. And I don’t think it has become just that.

So much of my life revolve around being a dad now so the strip is about being a dad too. I thought I would lose my core readership when I had the kid because most hipsters in their 20s don’t have kids and some of them were vocal about how the strip sucked now. But for the most part it hasn’t been a problem.

Q: Well, they’re all starting to get older and have their own kids I suppose.

A: Sure. I still have a lot of pretty young readers I think. It’s broadened my readership. I get a lot of moms reading the strip now.

Q: Let’s talk about SuperFuckers for a little bit — a strip I don’t know how I’m going to refer to in the paper.

A: You can always put more asterixes in.

Q: I’ll just call it “Super Explitive Deleted.” How did that come about? What was the impetus for that?

A: It’s really complicated how I started doing that strip. You know my book “The Cute Manifesto?” I have a contrary dissenting philosophy. The Cute Manifesto is my book of art theory, comics theory and life theory. Basically it’s art and philosophy. I have an equal and opposite philosophy, which I call “the evil universe theory.” I wanted to incorporate my evil universe theory into a regular story. Basically I wanted to show the interconnectedness between all things and that every molecule of the universe is at war with every other molecule of the universe.

Somehow that turned into this goofy story about teen-age superheroes living in a clubhouse. And doing drugs. It was really going to be a quite different story but after I bounce these ideas around for several years before I started, pretty much the moment I actually sat down and put pencil to paper and started drawing the story it completely changed. And that happens anytime I write a story.

Q: How so? Where did you say “what this needs is a Legion of Super Heroes” bent?
A: I have no idea. I don’t know how it happens. (pause) This is how it happened. I had all these ideas about that grandiose graphic novel. But then I also thought an easy and fun way to make a bit of money would be to write a superhero comic for marvel or dc. So I pitched an idea for a Legion of Super Heroes series to DC. And it took them so long to get back to me about whether or not they wanted to do it that I finally just started working on it myself and changed the name to “Super Fuckers.” (laughs)

Q: It’s got a lot going on. Obviously on one level it’s this dopey little, really funny parody ...

A: I don’t consider it a parody. The reason I don’t consider it a parody is I cause I think it is a real super hero comic. I don’t think it’s making fun of super hero comics. I think it is a super hero comic. But I would say it’s a satire. It does satire a lot of things from real life.

One of the issues had a President Bush satire with Jack Crack sitting in as a Bush character. No one even noticed.

Q: Is that the one where he fights ...

A: Yeah. He tweaks the rules to become president of the club.

Q: I didn’t even catch that was a Bush satire, but now that you say that it makes perfect sense.

A: And that was already after he had become a born-again Christian. He became a born -again Christian and then stole the presidency.

Q: And now he’s wearing a dress.

A: That’s my revenge on George Bush. His stand-in is wearing a tutu in the latest issue.

Q: I like how each issue has some weird number so you get the feeling you’ve missed a couple of issues.

A: The reason I did that is that is my experience of reading comics. Back before you could find comics at the comic book store you had to buy them at the newsstand on a little spinner rack. I would never find two issues in a row of a comic. Or almost never. I didn’t know when to go and look for them. Sometimes they didn’t order every issue, sometimes it sold out before you got there. Sometimes your dad wouldn’t bring you back for three months. So I never had two issues of a comic in a row. It never made any sense. I wanted to capture that same experience I had reading super hero comics as a kid. that’s another reason why I say it’s not a parody. because I really am trying to capture the feeling I got from reading super hero comics.

Q: But the interesting thing is that they never really fight any crime or seem to go on any kind of missions.

A: No, there hasn’t been a single mission or actual threat they had to overcome. There’ve been some perceived threats that have turned out to be wrong.

Q: The super powers in themselves are more status symbols.

A: Yeah, they are. Most of the characters I haven’t even said what their power are.

Q: True. I don’t know what the one power of that very Christian uptight guy ...

A: Oh yeah, what’s his name? Does he even have a superhero name?

Q: He probably does but I don’t remember what it is. He’s the one who converted Jack to Chrisianity.

A: That guy, I’m not even sure if he does have any power (laughs). He’s definitely a respected member of the team. I’m not sure what he does.

In the first issue, you know Computer Fist?

Q: The name sounds familiar, yeah.

A: He doesn’t join the team in the first issue. He’s there for team tryouts. No one has noticed, but when he’s first introduced, he’s talking to this girl and he says, “My name’s Wilbur.” And then later he’s talking to another character who asks him his name and he says “Kevin.” (laughs).

Q: It’s got a very freewheeling sensability to it, so how much planning do you put into the book? Do you know where you’re going with it from issue to issue?

A: No, I know nothing. I have a general idea about what’s going to happen each issue when I start out. But usually the characters get their own ideas about what they want to do and how to behave.

Q: What other projects are you working on? I read where you were doing a children’s book.

A: Yes, I have a children’s book completed called “Squirrley Grey” and it’s coming out in August from Random House. I have a book of short stories called “Yellow Bear and Wheat Toast” but I haven’t found a publisher for it. That’s prose. I have a rough draft for a comic called Dragon Puncher. No one’s really interested in it, although I think it’s really good. I’ve got the first issue complete for a new children’s comic called Johnny Boo. We’re just trying decide what format we want to release that in with Top Shelf.

Q: You’re very prolific. How do you manage to balance your workload?

A: I guess I spend a lot of time working on art. But more than that I also taught myself how to work quickly. I don’t feel like I’m overworked or anything. I feel like my pace is pretty relaxed and alright. I can probably create ten times more stuff if I really buckled down and worked really, really hard. But I feel like I work at a relaxed pace. I’m probably wrong about that; I probably am working really hard. It just doesn’t feel like I’m overworked.

Q: Are you still doing the little strips for Nickelodeon Magazine?

A: Oh yes, for Nickelodeon Magazine I do Impy and Wormer. I still do that. Give them a couple batches of strips a year. I probably should do it more often. I’ve written a couple SpongeBob SquarePants comics for them for the foreign market. They’re not published in the United States. They have somebody else draw them and translate them into whatever language they’re being translated into. I don’t know if those will ever appear in the U.S. I’ve only done a couple of them.

Q: Are you still teaching at the cartoon school?

A: I haven’t at all. Not at all this year and only two days last fall, so not much. I’ve been doing a lot of paintings. I did 150 little paintings for a show at Giant Robot in New York City. Sold 111 of them so I thought that was pretty successful. I have another show at Giant Robot San Francisco in June. Doing a bunch of little paintings for that now.

Q: You’ve done paintings, you’ve done comics, you have a children’s book coming out, you’re recording music. Is there anything you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to take a stab at?

A: I really want to design video games. I would like to do animation myself. I made a couple of animated shorts for Nickelodeon. I optioned a couple of books to turn into TV series but none of them actually got made so I kind of would like to learn how to animate myself. But that sounds like a lot of work to figure out how to use one of those programs. I don’t know if I’ve got the time to devote a couple of years just learning how to use a stupid program. But I would really, really like to learn how to design video games.

I did design a video game that this guy was going to put together to make a Game Boy Advance game. He said he would put together a team of professional video game designers. And turn my idea into an actual Game Boy Advance game that would probably give away free online. There’s a whole homebrew scene for making GBA games. You can play them on emulators on your computer or you can load them onto carts and play them on your actual Game Boy. It’s kind of complicated if you don’t know anything about it.

This guy said he wanted to do this, but it hasn’t happened. I worked out all the play mechanics of the game and designed the characters and all that, but nothing has been actually created. I would really like the chance to actually make a game. I don’t know how to make that happen.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

VG Review: "Super Paper Mario"

Nintendo, for the Wii

rated E for Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence), $49.99.

”Super Paper Mario” isn’t supposed to be an “official” Mario title, but a spin-off; a role-playing-styled variation that uses flat, two-dimensional artwork to give off a storybooklike atmosphere.

The thing is, the game is rich and engaging enough to be allowed into the canonical Mario pantheon. It falls a hairbreadth shy of being called a classic, but it’s certainly a game that Wii owners will want to pick up.

Rather than save the princess for the umpteenth time, Mario is instead called upon to save the universe. This time the villain is the mysterious Count Bleck, who is attempting to destroy, well, everything, possibly due to a bad case of heartbreak. (He’s very emo.)

The only way everyone’s favorite red-hatted plumber and his friends can defeat the evil count is by traveling to strange and sometimes surreal worlds and collecting “pure hearts.”

So far, so good. What makes “Super Paper Mario” interesting, however, is its ability to literally alter your perspective. By pressing the A button, you can flip the world 90 degrees, turning the game from 2-D into 3-D. The developers make good use of this conceit, allowing you to discover hidden paths and items.

You’ll also have help in the form of little floating abstract-shaped creatures called Pixls that give you various abilities. Boomer, for example, can lay explosive bombs on the ground while Thoreau will let you grab objects and enemies and toss them aside.

Unlike past “Paper Mario” titles, “Super Paper Mario” relies less on rpg conventions and more on traditional Mario platforming and exploration.

Despite all this novelty, the game still doesn’t reach the high-water mark of the last Paper Mario game, “The Thousand Year Door,” which I still consider one of the finest Mario games in recent years. There’s a bit too much backtracking and too many pedestrian side quests here for me to slap on an “instant classic” label.

That said, “Super Paper Mario” makes good use of the Wii, with puzzles that are clever without being frustrating. It’s inventive and cute and should slake fans’ thirsts well enough until the next “official” game comes out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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