Thursday, July 26, 2007

Time for more Game Bytes

“Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree”
Nintendo, for Wii, rated E for Everyone, $49.99.

Like its DS predecessor, “Wii Degree” escorts players through a variety of quick mini-games, all ostensibly designed to improve your memory and reasoning skills. You might be asked, for example, to count colored balls that fall into a basket or finish the path of a rotating railroad track.

So far, so good, and the game boasts a cute, clean art style utilizing the Miis you create on your Wii console. The problem with the game is that a slim number of games is provided. There’s just not enough here to keep players engaged for more than a day or two, regardless of whether you’re playing by yourself or with friends.

“Brooktown High”
Konami, for PlayStation Portable, rated T for Teen, $39.99.

In high school, popularity is everything. At least it is at Brooktown High, where making friends and increasing your notoriety is far more important than whatever classes you might attend.

As a new student at the school, you must chat up the other students before class begins, seeking potential best buddies and hotties. You’ll also have to attend one of four different classes and keep your grades up, which isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds.

It’s sounds like a great premise, but “Brooktown” has far too much hand-holding to keep you engaged. You only have a few seconds to talk to your fellow students and you can get them to like you by just agreeing with everything they say.

Getting a job or an A+ also is far too easy, requiring only the push of a button or two. Like a lot of students, “Brooktown High” held a lot of promise, but ultimately delivers nothing but disappointment.

“Parappa the Rapper”

Sony, for PlayStation Portable, rated E for Everyone, $29.99.

One of the finest games ever to grace the original Sony PlayStation makes its way to Sony’s handheld PSP platform along with a few extras designed to attract old fans into digging out their wallets once again.

The good news is that the game hasn’t aged badly at all, despite it’s low-tech look. As before, your job is to help the pluckish Parappa get the girl of his dreams by “rapping” (i.e. mimicking another character’s rap by pressing the correct buttons to the beat of the music).

The PSP version includes a multiplayer section and the ability to download remixed versions of classic songs. That’s not necessarily enough to entice those who’ve already played and beaten the game, but if you’ve never had a chance to check this classic out before, now’s your chance.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Graphic Lit: Five Fantagraphics books

The small-press, art-driven publisher Fantagraphics has been on a roll lately, releasing a number of smart-looking, compelling books in a short space of time. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more notable titles:

“Things Just Get Away From You”
by Walt Holcombe, 212 pages, $24.95.

Holcombe is one of those artists who regrettably slipped through the cracks in the 1990s, a variety of economic and cultural factors preventing him from garnering the sales and acclaim his work deserved. One hopes this collection from that period will result in a resurgence of interest.

Combining big-nosed, rubbery cartooning with arch, sometimes affected dialogue (“I’ve gawked into the maelstrom and for my trouble I get me a poke in the eye.”), Holcombe’s tales see-saw between grim fatalism and playful absurdity, often within the same panel.

“Things” is filled with sad-sack characters whose restlessness and selfishness keep them from holding onto love and happiness.

That sounds dour, but Holcombe’s universe is too unique and, in the end, too charming, not to visit.

“Misery Loves Comedy”
by Ivan Brunetti, 180 pages, $24.95.

When the first issue of Brunetti’s intermittent series “Schizo” saw print way back in 1995, the effect was something akin to being punched in the stomach really, really hard.

Full of bile, uncompromisingly scathing toward anything having to do with a) mankind or b) himself, Brunetti served up the blackest humor, with no subject matter deemed too taboo to wring a tasteless joke out of.

“Misery Loves Comedy” collects the first three seminal issues of “Schizo” along with an assorted collection of other gag strips, most of which cannot be described, let alone repeated verbatim, in a family newspaper.

The book is far from some sophomoric attempt to push the envelope for no good reason, however.

Brunetti’s attempts to deal with his crippling self-hatred and depression on the comics page makes for fascinating if highly unsettling reading (one panel shows hundreds of Brunetti clones killing and maiming one another in a variety of horrific ways).

Basically, Brunetti is too talented a cartoonist to be easily dismissed. To read “Misery” is to watch an artist use his creative abilities to guide him through a black depression and (judging by the end of the book) come out the other side stronger and more focused.

If you’re not the sort of person who’s easily offended, I highly recommend it.

“Percy Gloom”
by Cathy Malkasian, 180 pages, $18.95.

Usually when I hear the description “a fairy tale for adults,” all sorts of warning signs go off in my head.

“Percy Gloom,” however, thankfully manages to avoid the sort of twee sentimentality that readily applies to most books slapped with that label.

Created by the director of “The Wild Thornberrys Movie,” “Gloom” tells of a nebbishy little man whose sole goal is to become a “cautionary writer” for the Safely-Now Corp. It goes without saying that all sorts of unexpected obstacles stand in his way, and in the end Percy discovers that in life one can be too cautious.

Overall it’s a stunning debut, filled with striking, smart ruminations on the brevity of life and happiness and the sweetness of both.

by Josh Simmons, 80 pages, $12.95.

Three young hikers explore an enormous, desolate mansion when irrevocable tragedy strikes in this short, wordless horror story that doesn’t pull punches.

Simmons begins the book with large, open panels filled with white space that slowly become smaller and blacker as the story progresses.

The net effect is that of increasing claustrophobia, perfectly mirroring the characters’ ever-increasing despair. It’s a sharp, evocative little tale and easily the best work Simmons has produced thus far.

“The Three Paradoxes”
by Paul Hornschemeier, 80 pages, $14.95.

Autobiography and formalism merge in this slim volume that sees Hornschemeier at his parents’ home, reflecting upon his childhood.

The book’s art style changes frequently throughout, as the author remembers past slights, imagines other people’s wounds and even delves into Zeno’s philosophy (hence the book’s title).

“Paradoxes” isn’t perfect — the whole “artist writing a story about how he can’t write a story” has been done better countless times before — but the book is grounded in a sincere humanism as it ponders the transitory nature of life and how frightening that aspect can be.

Perhaps “Paradoxes” is best viewed then as a transitory work in itself, one more rung on Hornschemeier’s ladder as he slowly reaches toward what will surely be a truly seminal work. 

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

VG Review: Harry Potter and The Fantastic Four

2K Games, for Xbox 360, Play­Station 3, PlayStation 2 and Wii

rated T for Teen (fantasy vio­lence), $49.99 and $39.99 (PS2)

Electronic Arts, for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 and Wii
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (fantasy violence), $59.99 (360 and PS3), $49.99 (Wii) and $39.99 (PS2)

While video game publishers put their best foot forward for this year’s E3 conference, unveiling their finest games for the coming year, we’re still stuck with a plethora of less-than-mediocre titles, most of them tied to blockbuster films.

Both “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” feel like merchandising afterthoughts, rather than quality, interactive entertainment that stands separate from its source.

“Fantastic Four” plays like a severely dumbed-down version of other, better games, most notably last year’s “Marvel Ultimate Alliance.”

As in the film, you’re attempting to stop the destruction of the Earth that the Surfer’s arrival heralds. Unlike the film, that apparently involves running through nondescript, identical rooms, beating up endless hordes of unchallenging enemies and generally being bored stiff.

Ideally, you’re supposed to switch between the four team members while playing, but the Invisible Woman and Mister Fantastic are useless. You can spend most of the game as The Thing without a lick of trouble.

The Wii version of the game adds a little variety in that you can swing the controller to enact the characters’ special moves. Swinging downward, for example, unleashes The Thing’s devastating ground punch.

It’s a cute feature, but it does little to wash the bland flavor out of your mouth. “Fantastic Four” is a tepid, dull affair. Fans of the comic or film would do better replaying “Ultimate Alliance.”

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” fares a little better, especially the Wii version, where you can wield the Wii-mote like a magic wand.

Lifting the controller up, for example, allows objects to levitate. Rotating it in a circle can repair broken objects and so on. It’s a nice feature, and improves the game’s flaws, though it doesn’t make them vanish.

The game adheres to the plot of the film and book, though it skips through the main points so rapidly that if you aren’t familiar with the source material you will be hopelessly lost.

The bulk of the game is spent trying to round up the student members of the Order to meet and practice spells. Most of them have little chores they need to finish before they can go, which means you’ll often be helping out with such mundane tasks as sweeping floors, collecting plants or chasing after owls.

It’s this lack of imagination and wonder that sinks the game. Imagine, developers are given a magical universe and the best they can come up with is you need to turn the lights on. And don’t get me started on the combat system, a confusing mess where you’re never quite sure if your blasts are hitting their marks.

Wandering around Hogwarts casting spells is fun, but that fun is severely mitigated by the amount of repetition and drab quests “Phoenix” offers. By the time you’ve gone up that main staircase for the 20th time, you’ll be eager to put the game behind you.

Hopefully, as summer draws to a close, we’ll start to see more original games and less drab movie tie-ins.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play “Transformers: The Game.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An interview with Jimmy Gownley

In previous installments of his regular comic book series “Amelia Rules,” local cartoonist Jimmy Gownley has tackled such difficult childhood traumas as divorce and moving to a new town.

Now Gownley is tackling an even weightier subject: the Iraq war.

The latest issue of “Amelia,” titled “The Things I Cannot Change,” deals with one of Amelia’s friends, an Army brat whose father is being shipped off to Iraq. Gownley chronicles her family’s attempts to deal with his upcoming departure, as well as her friends’ attempts to raise her spirits.

Q: How did you get the idea to do this particular issue?

A: It was something I was wrestling with for a long time. It seemed like the kind of thing that I could deal with in “Amelia,” but I wasn’t really sure how to approach it. And then I found out that my friend Steve, who was my college roommate, was actually being sent to Iraq for a year. Suddenly it became much more pressing for me to address it, especially when I thought of how his absence was affecting his kids. I wanted to do something that would speak for them and give them a voice.

Q: What sort of research did you do?

A: I interviewed Steve, who is now back from Iraq. I interviewed him to get the perspective of the parent. I also interviewed his 10-year-old son, Taegen, who was perfect because he was the exact age as the characters in the book, and he gave such an authenticity of emotion, because he answered questions in a way that only a kid could.

The third person I interviewed was Steve’s wife, Mary. She gave me access to her journal, which is an amazing piece of writing. It goes into excruciating detail of what it’s like to send someone off to war.

Q: Outside of the family, did you do any other sort of research?

A: We decided to limit it to one family, because the truth of the matter is you could go all over the place and get any number of stories, and they would all give you a facet of what this is like. But if you kept it to one family ... that would make it so specific it would feel more authentic. I didn’t want to tell every single person’s story. I just wanted to tell one person’s story.

Q: What were some of your biggest concerns in tackling a story like this?
A: It’s a nice edge to walk on because on the one hand I’m primarily speaking to kids. I have to keep that in mind at all times, but it’s a very, very serious issue. So you have to deal with it in a way that’s honest and true, but also helpful and accessible to kids, because it’s kids who are really going through this.

Q: Have you gotten any feedback at all?

A: I’ve shown it to very few people because I’m sort of afraid to jinx it, but I did show it to the Murphys, and they were very pleased with it, which was very gratifying to me.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

Graphic Lit: Jack Kirby's Fourth World

Back in 1970, if you wanted to make a decent living in the comic book industry, there were two companies you could work for: DC or Marvel.

So when an embittered and frustrated Jack Kirby — co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men and Captain America, to name just a few of his many accomplishments — decided he’d had enough mistreatment by the higher-ups at Marvel Comics, there was really only one place he could go to.

“Marvel had undergone a change of ownership,” said writer Mark Evanier, Kirby’s assistant at the time.

“The [new] conglomerate didn’t know who Jack was and ... promises to Jack had suddenly been forgotten. He was being asked to sign documents he found legally offensive.”

Kirby came to DC with a vision, Evanier said. Inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was undergoing a revival at the time, he wanted to take comics out of the 32-page, pamphlet format they had been consigned to and create an epic, self-contained story that could eventually be collected in book format.

The result was a series of four interrelated titles: “The New Gods,” “The Forever People,” “Mister Miracle” and, believe it or not, “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.” These stories came to be known — for reasons that were never fully explained — as “Kirby’s Fourth World.”

Sadly, the comics never sold to DC’s unrealistically high expectations, and the company canceled the line before Kirby could finish his story.

Long neglected and undervalued except by devout Kirby fans, the series is finally getting the deluxe treatment it deserves with the arrival of the first volume of “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus,” a four-volume attempt to collect the entire series in the chronological order that the individual issues were published.

The plot ostensibly involves the valiant heroes of New Genesis, led by the tortured, conflicted Orion, fighting against the supreme evil of the planet, Apokolips, ruled by the sinister Darkseid, with Earth as the battleground. Darkseid’s goal is the attainment of “anti-life,” the secret of which he believes is hidden in the mind of an ordinary earthling.

As you might guess by the above description, these comics collected here have a heady, fever-dream approach to conventional super-heroics, where it seems like almost anything goes, from the “space hippie” peace and love vibe of “The Forever People” to the “one man against impossible odds” thrills of Mister Miracle, an extraordinary escape artist bent on foiling Darkseid’s schemes.

Kirby was at the peak of his powers here and let his imagination run wild.

Should Jimmy Olson fight a monstrous, gigantic green clone of himself only to be saved by pint-sized paratroopers? Absolutely! How about some black and white photo collage spreads? Why not! The Grim Reaper redesigned as African-American, armor-clad skier? You got it! A Don Rickles look-alike named Goody? Um, sure thing!

“He didn’t think a lot about what he was going to do, he just sat down and did it from the gut,” said Evanier, who has a biography of Kirby coming out later this year. “And frequently he was very surprised by what he had created. He would have no real idea of how he had gotten from A to B.”

All this pop culture insanity, however, is firmly grounded by Kirby’s strengths as an artist and storyteller. Vast, intricate cityscapes, extreme uses of perspective, and thick, almost granitelike characters (especially Darkseid) connote weight and significance and keep matters from seeming too ridiculous.

Unfortunately, as good as Kirby was with his art and stories, dialogue (and, as you might have guessed subtlety) was never his strong suit. A good deal of the dialogue, especially in “Jimmy Olsen,” comes off as forced and stilted. It sounds fine when coming out of the mouth of an otherworldly being like Orion, but not so much when being uttered by a supposed teenager.

There are other problems, few of them actually having to do with Kirby.

DC, nervous about having a Kirby Superman that looks so vastly different from the way he had been drawn before, had other DC artists redo the faces in “Jimmy Olsen,” all but ruining the effect Kirby was going for.

While it seems a horrible crime that Kirby’s work was messed with in such a manner — not to mention that he never got to complete his story (“At that point at DC, they canceled more comics over those couple years than they had in the 20 years preceding,” Evanier noted) — we are lucky to have this handful of extraordinary comics, especially when reproduced in such a loving manner as DC does here.

For all the awkwardness and hokum, Kirby’s “Fourth World” saga is a stunning achievement; a personal, far-reaching epic that takes the sort of chances no one in superhero comics seems interested in attempting today.

In many ways, Kirby is a lot like Mister Miracle himself: an escape artist who, despite being imprisoned by a variety of overwhelming (and in his case commercial) forces, was able to break free and produce a work of art.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Friday, July 13, 2007

Game Bytes abound

"Lost in Blue 2"
Konami, for the Nintendo DS
rated E 10+ for ages 10 and up, $29.99.

I had hoped that for the sequel Konami would fix some of the problems that plagued the first "stranded on a desert island" game No such luck.

As before, you are washed ashore on a small island with a partner. You can play as male or female with your companion taking the opposite sex.

Your job is to stay alive and explore the island, but the former keeps interfering with the latter.

Your charges are constantly hungry and tired, regardless of how much food you stuff in their faces or let them rest. As a result you spend way too much time hunting and gathering and not nearly enough time exploring the island, a problem that only gets more frustrating as the game progresses.

There's a really good game hidden in the premise of "Lost in Blue." Let's hope that someday Konami finds it.

"Pro Stroke Golf"
Southpeak, for the PlayStation Portable
rated E, $19.99.

This is actually a surprisingly rich golf simulation, especially considering its budget price and that it's designed for a handheld console.

The main attraction here is the ability to create your own golf course from the ground up, adding trees, sand traps, hills and scenery as you see fit. Unfortunately you can't share your course online with other players, which seems like a lost opportunity.

The game itself plays rather well on the PSP, though the figures and courses seem a little anemic at times (to say nothing of the commentators' patter). Still, the game play itself is solid enough that fans of the game will find little to complain about.

"Prince of Persia: Rival Swords"
Ubisoft, for the Wii
rated T for Teen (blood, violence), $49.99.

This is essentially a Wii port of "Prince of Persia: Two Thrones" game that came out way back in 2005. It's so identical, in fact, that I wonder why they even bothered changing the name. The only significant difference I can note is that the level of violence seems to have been toned down.

That being said, "Rival Swords" remains a fun, engaging title, and the developers do a solid job of porting the game over to the Wii. Rather than pushing buttons, for example, you battle your enemies by swinging the Wii-mote up and down. It's a nice touch, but not necessarily enough to make me want to play the whole again.

In fact, if you have an older console and can find a cheap copy of "Two Thrones," the experience will be virtually the same. If you don't, then the Wii version will do nicely.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

VG Review: Forza 2

"Forza Motorsport 2" Microsoft, for the Xbox 360 rated E for Everyone, $59.99.

At first glance, it's hard to know what to say about "Forza Motorsport 2."

This is largely because the game is so well-balanced, so player-friendly, that its virtues lie not in overt, easy-to-spot attributes, but in the minute, background details, the artificial intelligence of your computer opponents, for example, or the way different cars handle the same track.

It's not until you take a step back that you realize what a seamless and well-balanced game it really is.

That shouldn't be too surprising to those who played the first "Forza" game, which was one of the best auto racing titles ever made.

For the sequel, the developers wisely kept to the basic formula, doing little to alter or even tweak the formula, beyond upgrading it for the new Xbox 360 console.

As with the first title, "Forza 2" is a "simulation" racing game, which means it relies more on real-life driving physics and mechanics than any fancy arcade tricks. There's no pulling crazy hairpin turns or high-air jumps here.

Ostensibly that suggests it's a game made for serious auto and racing fanatics only, but the cars are responsive enough and the game play is accessible enough that anyone would be able to pick up and play without feeling excluded.

There are two basic modes here, arcade and career. Arcade offers nice, once-and-done races, but career is where you'll spend the bulk of your time. More than 300 cars from 50 manufacturers can be unlocked here.

Winning races in this feature nets you a certain amount of CR or credits (known in the real world as "cash"). Garner enough CR and you can level up your driver (i.e. you) and that in turn gets you discounts on car parts and new cars. Thus, you can upgrade your automobile as well and smoke the One feature I was happy to see return is the suggested line, which shows you the ideal path to take your car along the track and even when to brake and when to hit the gas. You can lose points however, for utilizing such a cheat, so you might want to turn it off if you're looking to level up quickly.

One of the nicest additions to this sequel is its new online feature. Now you can not only race other players via Xbox Live, you can also auction off the cars you buy and upgrade.

"Forza 2" might seem overly familiar at times, and I would have liked to have seen a greater variety of tracks, but those are minor quibbles next to what's been accomplished here. This is a friendly, fun racing game that's also surprisingly deep and intricate, allowing you to tailor your game play as you see fit. There're not many video games -- driving or otherwise -- you can say that about.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Graphic Lit: Two by Bertozzi

Nick Bertozzi was one of the rising indie stars of the late 1990s, producing unconventional comics like "Rubber Necker" and "Boswash," which unfolded like a map.

Recently, however, he's been off the radar, leading one to wonder whether he decided to hitch his wagon to a more financially rewarding star (hey, it happens).

Turns out he was just busy working as he recently unleashed an impressive one-two punch of books: "Houdini the Handcuff King" and "The Salon."

Written by Jason Lutes ("Berlin") and drawn by Bertozzi, "Houdini" is the opening salvo in a new, slim series of biographies for kids from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Rather than provide a dry summation of the man's life, Lutes and Bertozzi wisely choose to focus on one day instead, providing an intimate snapshot of the escape artist as he prepares to jump off a bridge into the Boston River.

Bertozzi's art is clean and distinctive, and he breaks down the story in a variety of interesting ways (Houdini's escape from the river is shown in narrow, long panels on the side of the page, opposite close-ups of worried faces and ticking clocks).

Through the book we get a clear sense of Houdini's drive to be the best, his knack for publicity, his insistence on loyalty and his deep love for his wife. The selection of notes at the end of the book helps round out the portrait even more, resulting in a satisfying book that would make an excellent addition to any child's library.

"The Salon," meanwhile, also deals with historical figures, though in a much different and more fantastical setting.

Set in Paris circa 1907, the book follows the adventures of painters George Braque and Pablo Picasso, on the cusp of discovering both cubism and fame.

Together with such Modernist luminaries as Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire and the composer Erik Satie, the pair discover a mysterious brand of blue absinthe, which, upon imbibing, allows one to actually enter a painting.

Yet the magical drink has a dark side. A blue figure has been seen wandering around the Paris streets at night, ripping the heads off of painters. Could the killer possibly be Gauguin, who vanished under mysterious circumstances?

Bertozzi's characters are strongly defined, and the narrative is lusty and profane (an excerpt published in a free comic and featuring a naked Picasso got a Georgia comic book store in serious legal trouble). It's a fantastical murder mystery combined with an art-history lesson.

And while Bertozzi clearly is having a great deal of fun with his premise, it's in latter sequences that the book really comes to life. The action scenes and cryptic goings-on are fun, but they pale next to the heated discussions between Picasso and Braque as they attempt to discover a new form of art. It's in those moments that the book really comes to life.

"The Salon" takes a few missteps -- its ending is a bit unsatisfying since we're left to puzzle out the ultimate fate of the villain -- but it remains a great romp and should further cement Bertozzi's reputation as a cartoonist worth reading.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Graphic Lit: Comics for the kids

As more and more cartoonists produce comics and graphic novels aimed at adult sensibilities, pundits have been fretting recently that kids — once the medium’s target audience — are getting left out of the equation.

Those fears prove groundless, however, when you take a look around at the plethora of children’s comics available in comic shops and bookstores. Here’s a quick look at some recent releases: 

“Mouse Guard Fall 1152”
by David Petersen

Archaia Studios Press, 192 pages, $24.95.

Petersen’s “Redwall”-influenced fantasy story, about a feudalistic mouse society and a group of mouse knights that must ferret out a traitor, was the big sleeper hit of last year, and it’s not too hard to see why. His art is grounded in just enough realism to make the idea of tiny mice slinging swords and shields seem plausible. And he does a nice job breaking down the big action scenes as well.

Unfortunately, Petersen makes the mistake a number of fantasy authors do, focusing too much on setting up their elaborate universe and not enough on the individual characters. I had a tough time telling the different mice apart, and the revelation of the story’s villain merited little more than a shrug from me. Petersen clearly has a strong vision, but he doesn’t give the reader enough reasons to care about it. Still, that might not matter too much to young readers for whom the notion of tiny mice in capes and daggers is enough to excite imaginations. 

“Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age”
edited by Ariel Schrag

224 pages, $18.99.

That intensely traumatic period known as the junior high (or these days “middle”) school years are the subject of this anthology. As you’d expect, there’re lots of stories about kids being bullied or betrayed by friends, or just feeling terribly awkward.

Indie icons Joe Matt and Daniel Clowes provide some previously published work on the subject, but the real gems here are by Gabrielle Bell, Lauren Weinstein and editor Schrag, who capably show the casual cruelty and fluctuating social standings kids inflict on one another. If you’ve got a sullen 13-year-old in your house, give them this book and maybe they won’t feel so isolated. 

“Tiny Tyrant”
by Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme

First Second, 128 pages, $12.95.

My absolute favorite out of this week’s selections, “Tyrant” is an absolute hoot with an ingenious premise. Six-year-old Ethelbert is the king of the tiny nation of Portocristo, and whatever he says goes. From there, Trondheim and Parme spin out a variety of great slapstick tales, most of which involve the bratty Ethelbert attempting to have everything catered to him (in one episode, he shrinks the entire kingdom so he won’t seem so short anymore), with events quickly spinning out of control in slapstick — and frequently absurd — fashion. It’s the rare book that parents as well as kids will get a thrill out of. 

“Sardine in Outer Space 3”
by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar
First Second, 112 pages, $12.95.

The spacefaring Sardine and her friends Little Louie and Captain Yellow Shoulder continue to outwit the villainous Supermuscleman in this latest collection of comical sci-fi stories. As usual, cartoonish, absurd hi-jinks are the order of the day, with planets made of junk food and drawings that come to life. The occasional potty humor will no doubt displease some parents, but Guibert and Sfar’s work is ultimately too silly and charming to get outraged about. 

“Avalon High: Coronation Vol. 1: The Merlin Prophecy”
written by Meg Cabot, illustrated by Jinky Coronado
Tokyopop, 208 pages, $7.99.

This comic book tie-in to Cabot’s prose “Avalon High” books, which transports the King Arthur legend to a modern-day high school, is a complete mess. It’s way too heavy on dull, thudding exposition and clumsy dialogue (in fact, the whole Arthurian legend seems ill-suited to high school life). Worse, Coronado’s awkward, overly angular art amounts to “I’m just going to draw exactly what is written in the text” which should be rule number one in how not to do a comic. Even if you’re a fan of the novels, you should pass on this spin-off.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007