Thursday, September 27, 2007

Graphic Lit: Stuff I've missed

Trying to keep up with all the noteworthy comics and graphic novels — to say nothing of the manga — is a mug’s game.

There’s just too much stuff out there to keep track of, which is not to say that I don’t keep trying.

With that in mind, here are some reviews of books that for one reason or another, completely slipped through my fingers when they first hit stores a few months ago.

“Alias the Cat”
by Kim Deitch, Pantheon, 136 pages, $23.

I feel especially bad about ignoring this book for so long, if only because it’s such a rich, dense, visionary work of genius.

Like Deitch’s “Shadowland,” which came out last year, “Alias” blends dark tales of Americana with the 21st century as the discovery of a toy stuffed cat, that looks suspiciously like Deitch’s cartoon creation Waldo, leads the author on an almost psychedelic journey through the days of early movie serials, comic strips and eventually an abandoned town formerly populated by midgets.

Deitch is extremely adept at using characters to explore not only how culture has changed, but how we’ve paved over the richness of the past at our peril. It’s one of the best graphic novels you’ll read all year.

“Stop Forgetting to Remember”
by Peter Kuper, Crown Books, 208 pages, $19.95.

Kuper has been part of the indie comics scene for decades now, contributing for a variety of publications, including the “Spy vs. Spy” comics for Mad magazine.

It’s all the more sad, therefore, that his big graphic novel debut is such a disappointment.

In the book, Kuper chronicles the onset of parenthood in the ’90s while reminiscing about his childhood.

The result is a schizophrenic book that jumps around far too much for its own good; the sections don’t blend into a concise whole.

There are some masterful bits of cartooning but, in the end, it’s not enough to make “Remember” memorable.

“The Black Diamond Detective Agency”
by Eddie Campbell, First Second, 144 pages, $16.95.

Never one to rest on his laurels, in his latest book Campbell adapts an unproduced screenplay involving a man accused of engineering a bloody train wreck.

To reconnect to his shady past to clear his name, he inadvertently joins the same detective agency that’s hunting him.

Campbell throws himself into the book, providing some truly stellar sequences, most notably in the disaster that makes up the first few pages.

But the script feels rushed, so concerned with plot and explaining the main character’s dark history that many supporting players become ciphers who blend into the background.

It’s not a bad book, but it’s nowhere near the high watermark of last year’s “Fate of the Artist.”

“Lone Racer”
by Nicolas Mahler, Top Shelf, 98 pages, $12.95.

This is a charming little gem about a former car racer now down on his luck who attempts one last go-around at the track.

Mahler avoids the usual sports cliches, using absurdity, repetition and his extremely abstract cartoon style — his characters are all nose and hair and little else — to great humorous effect.

What’s impressive is, despite the lack of expression, how moved you eventually are by the racer’s plight.

It’s a sleeper of a book that deserves a wider audience.

“Harvey Comics Classics Vol. 1: Casper The Friendly Ghost,”
edited by Leslie Cabarga, Dark Horse Comics, 480 pages, $19.95.

It’s about time someone made an effort to collect these comics. Despite the general dullness of most of the Casper animated cartoons, the comics themselves showed a lot of skill and imagination, eventually eschewing the “Eek, it’s a ghost” scenario to create a creative cast of characters for Casper to interact with.

True, these comics aren’t as strong as some of the true children’s classics like Carl Barks’ “Donald Duck” stories or John Stanley’s “Little Lulu” tales. Nevertheless, they’ve held up surprisingly well over the years.

Perhaps the best recommendation I can give is that my five-year-old daughter immediately picked up this book when I brought it home and has barely been able to put it down since.

I better get it back to her quickly.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Perhaps you've heard of a little game called 'Halo 3'?

So, yeah, I did a Halo 3 preview story, which ran yesterday in the Patriot-News. It's not online for some reason, though, so I thought I'd remedy that.

In the world of video games, there are successful titles — and then there’s “Halo.”

The first-person shooter (fps) franchise, developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft, quickly developed into the flagship title for Microsoft’s Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles after debuting in 2001.

And fans of the franchise are expected to line up at stores tonight for the release of the latest and (reportedly) final sequel in the series, “Halo 3.”

Microsoft will hold special events in New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles and Miami, and the company predicted that more than 10,000 retailers in the U.S. will open their doors at midnight.

The release comes after weeks of promotional tie-ins — for Pontiac, Doritos and NASCAR — all featuring either “Halo” logos or pictures of the game’s main character, the green-helmeted Master Chief.

Why all the buzz?

Partly because “Halo” was the first fps game designed specifically for such consoles instead of being made for the PC and then ported over later.

“With the very first ‘Halo’ you had a situation where everything lined up perfectly for that game,” said Jeff Gerstmann, editorial director at the gaming news site GameSpot.

“Here was a big exclusive console first-person shooter that got a lot of things right and, on top of that, told a very interesting story and introduced a lot of interesting characters. It was pretty easy for people to get hooked on that first game.”

Ask a fan why they love the series so much and, while they’ll mention the story and characters, they always come back to multiplayer — the ability to play with and against others, both online and off — as the game’s core attraction.

“The story’s great, but it has such a fast-paced and addictive online system, that really makes ‘Halo’ what it is,” said Aaron Delbo, 18, a Central Dauphin East senior and dedicated “Halo” fan.

That doesn’t surprise Kyle Orland, a freelance journalist who covers the video-game industry and runs the blog, Games For Lunch.

“The single-player story in ‘Halo’ has kind of become vestigial — it’s nice to have there and people might play through it, but multiplayer is the mode they’ll keep coming back to for the next five years,” he said.

For Daniel Young, 42, of Manor Twp., Lancaster County, the game’s multiplayer offers a way for him to interact with his teen-age children.

“When they start getting older you either lose touch with [your kids] or connect,” he said. “Video games really allow me to connect with them and not be the ‘old dad.’ ”

“I think it’s just a very simple game to understand. It’s not real complicated,” he added. “Some games are overly complicated, where you have to play it for hours and hours before you know anything. With ‘Halo,’ someone can pick up a controller and, in a few minutes, understand the concept of the whole game.”

Young is one of the co-creators of Lancaster Area Gamers a group that organizes local video game tournaments.

His group expects to host a “Halo 3” tournament at the East Coast Gamers store in Lancaster in the future.

Delbo said he’ll hold a special “Halo 3” tournament with his friends Wednesday.

Laserdome in Manheim will be offering the game in its Virtual Arena, which will allow 14 participants to play at the same time.

Undoubtedly those won’t be the only “Halo” gatherings popping up in the midstate.

Microsoft is counting on that; it has a lot riding on the success of “Halo 3.”

While the company’s new console, the Xbox 360, has sold steadily, it needs a big hit to convince buyers still sitting on the fence that their franchise is worth buying.

“I really don’t think you can overestimate its importance,” said Gerstmann. “It’s very important for them to get this tent-pole game, stick it in the ground and say ‘This is the system you want.’ ”

Fans like Delbo are already convinced.

“Anything that has the word ‘Halo’ on it is gold to me,” he said.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

From the Vault: "Embroideries"

I'm on vacation this week, so there won't be much new material posted here over the next few days. As a consolation prize, I thought I'd put up some old reviews I did for The Comics Journal many moons ago. This first one is a review of "Embroideries" by Marjane Satrapi.

“Embroideries” shouldn’t work. At least, not as comics. For one thing, it’s filled with dialogue to the point where the art on several pages offers little more than talking heads. The background art is minimal if existent at all. Often the dialogue is so overwhelming that the book becomes more of an illustrated novel, with the drawings being supplementary to the text instead of collaborating with it on the page.

And yet “Embroideries” does work, almost exceedingly well. A good deal of that is in no small part due to Satrapi’s skills as a storyteller. Her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue and her deliberately simple art style help engage the reader and carry the story along what would otherwise be several rough patches. If nothing else, “Embroideries” proves that Satrapi is no one trick pony.

Which is not to say that Satrapi doesn’t return to familiar themes. “Embroderies,” like the two adjoining volumes of “Persepolis” before it, deals specifically with her and her family, and more generally with life in Iran. Especially, how women survive and thrive in a culture that sees them as second class citizens.

The story takes place several years ago, during the period (one assumes) in “Persepolis 2” where Satrapi had returned to Iran after studying abroad in Europe as a teen-ager. After a large family dinner, the men retire to take a nap while the women gather up large samovars of tea and sit down to gossip.

Once freed of the need to behave as wives and daughters, the women let their hair down and talk honestly about their love lives and sexual experiences. Each one of the women present, it seems, has her own horror story to share, whether it involves an arranged marriage, neglectful boyfriends or just plain lousy lovers.

On the one hand these lurid and at times hard luck stories are an obvious rebuke to the Iranian theocracy and by extension any religious right-wing government or organization that thinks by that merely by imposing their will they can keep people, and especially women, from acting on their sexual impulses. Here are a group of women across the age spectrum, living in one of the most sexually repressive governments in the world. Yet many of them have had premarital sex, had affairs or been someone’s mistresses. And few of them seem the least bit concerned about discussing such topics.

A closer look, however, reveals just how Iran’s chauvinism and its oppressive society have limited these womens’ choices. With few exceptions (most notably Satrapi’s grandmother and aunt) these women define themselves by the relationship to the men in their lives. Though off-stage and much derided, men remain the focal point around which these women revolve. Their fears and anxieties, especially among the younger women in the group, are all based upon their ability to be an ideal Iranian woman, which is to say virginal and pure until marriage, and dutiful and complacent afterward. If these women have made poor choices in love, Satrapi seems to be saying, it is in no small part due to a government and culture that continues to view them as chattel.

The desperation to maintain that illusion of purity is hinted at in the book’s title, which at first glance suggests a benign sewing circle (these days referred to as a coffee klatch), of sorts. It also has more sinister connotations, though, as readers soon learn that “getting an embroidery” is the term in Iran used for a woman having her vagina sutured up again so as to deceive her husband into thinking she’s a virgin on their wedding night.

Certainly, the need to define yourself through your relationship to the love of your life is not a concept alien to Western women (or men for that matter). But the extreme lengths to which these women seem willing to go to in order to hide their indiscretions suggests a fear of repercussion and social shame that is not mirrored here. The women in “Embroideries” live in a phallocentric world and thus are forced to use sly, underhanded means to garner a little bit of power. Satrapi, for example, tells of a friend who resorted to seeing a sorceress in order to get her man to commit. Another woman, for example, describes how she had fat removed from her buttocks used to enlarge her breasts. “Of course this idiot doesn’t know that every time he kisses my breasts it’s actually my ass he’s kissing,” she proudly exclaims.

The book’s slim size is in its favor. If it were any longer, it would start to collapse under the weight of the problems mentioned earlier. Satrapi’s art work is even more minimalist than in “Persepolis” and though charming in the short term, might easily call too much attention to itself in the long. Though successful, in many ways “Embroideries” should be considered a minor work, and not regarded as a true follow-up to the epic sprawl of “Persepolis.” And that’s absolutely fine. After all, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few practice swings before attempting to hit it out of the ballpark once more.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007


It’s easy, when hearing the unrelenting buzz about the “new great thing,” to adopt an air of weary cynicism. Surely, the movie, TV show or video game that everyone’s clamoring to the skies about, can’t be as awesome as they constantly proclaim.

That’s definitely not the case with “BioShock,” which has been hosannaed in video game circles. It manages to do something few games pull off these days — it lives up to the hype.

The entire game takes place in the underwater city of Rapture. The enormous structure is the brainchild of visionary Andrew Ryan, who bears more than a passing resemblance to “Atlas Shrugged” author Ayn Rand. It’s a utopia where the best and brightest could meet and work free from the tyranny of religion, government and small minds.

By the time your character, Jack, arrives at Rapture, however (his plane having crashed into the ocean), the city has become more of a hell than a heaven.

Now in ruins and littered with corpses, Rapture is filled with crazed, murderous people known as Splicers, who stalk the corridors of the city just eager for a chance to bash your skull in.

Finding out what exactly went wrong here is the main goal of “BioShock,” which offers a number of inventive ways to put you on the path to discovery.

To make your way past the Splicers you’ll need to upgrade your genetic structure using Plasmids — liquids that upgrade your genetic structure. These tonics will give you the ability to set things on fire, for example, or shoot electricity out of your fingertips.

This adds a good deal of strategy to the game, as you can set an attacker on fire, and then electrocute him when he heads to the water to douse out the flames.

Here’s the catch, though. In order to gain important new abilities, you’ll also need to collect ADAM, which is literally housed in the bodies of some rather ghoulish-looking little girls known as the Little Sisters.

You can forcibly remove the ADAM from the girls, but that will kill them. On the other hand, you can heal them of their genetic modifications, which will net you a little bit of ADAM, but not nearly as much as killing them will.

It’s forcing the player to make moral choices like these that make “BioShock” much more than your average first-person shooter. Do you go for the reprehensible choice, which will net you much-needed power in the short term but make you little different from the city’s Splicers? Or do you take the morally correct path, which will make things difficult for you as you progress through the game, with the hope of a greater reward down the line? Which decision you make ultimately affects the game’s plot.

If that isn’t enough of a dilemma, to get to the Little Sisters you’ll have to take down the Big Daddies, mechanical monstrosities that look like old-fashioned bell diving suits on steroids, complete with bloody drill. They guard the girls with a fierce vengeance and taking them down can be one of the toughest challenges in the game.

“BioShock” boasts a stunning look that is best described as “ruined Art Deco.” It calls to mind such classic adventure games as “Myst.” Every aspect of this game seems to have been meticulously thought out, right down to the motivational posters that line the walls.

My physical unease with most fps games (i.e. they make me nauseous) has kept me from getting as far along in the game as I would have liked, but even my limited playing time was enough to make me realize I was in the presence of greatness.

In terms of gameplay, plot and design alone, “BioShock” is a masterpiece and creates an immersive experience. For once, the hypemeisters were right.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Graphic Lit: Naruto Nation

The most popular comic book character in America right now isn’t Superman or Batman. Or Spider-Man. Or even Wolverine for that matter.

No, that title is held by a plucky young Japanese ninja named Naruto.

His self-titled manga series, written and drawn by Masashi Kishimoto, has consistently charted on USA Today and Bookscan best-seller lists and is often used as Exhibit A proof that manga has surpassed American comics in popularity.

Meanwhile, the “Naruto” anime (Japanese term for animation or cartoon) is one of the most popular offerings on the Cartoon Network right now (in fact, it just wrapped up a “100 Hours of Naruto” marathon).

And, as you might expect, the phenomenon doesn’t end there. Go into any big-box store and you’ll see Naruto clothing, toys, collectible card games, video games and much more.

Now Viz Media, publishers of the manga and anime, has upped the ante considerably with the arrival of “Naruto Nation.”

Starting this month, Viz will ramp up its publication schedule to release three volumes of the manga a month.

September, for example, sees the arrival of volumes 16, 17 and 18. Volumes 19-21 will come out in the beginning of October, and so on, up to the release of volume 27 in December.

In March, Viz will go back to its regular schedule with volume 28, which abruptly fast-forwards to two and a half years later to feature an older, wiser Naruto.

That’s not all, of course. This month also sees the release of “Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of the Snow” on DVD. The book “Uzumaki: Art of Naruto” will be published in October. And then there’s the seemingly endless assortment of stickers, magazines and video games that will hit stores this fall.

The idea behind the push, according to Liza Coppola, senior vice president of marketing at Viz Media, was to accommodate fans clamoring for more Naruto while at the same time catching up with the Japanese release schedule.

“All the fans want to get caught up. They want to get as much Naruto as possible,” she said. “This is our chance to give the fans what they want and ... get caught up to what’s already been out in Japan.”

Without sounding too flip, “Naruto” can best be described as “Harry Potter with ninjas.”

Naruto Uzumaki is a 12-year-old orphaned ninja whose body houses the spirit of a violent fox demon that attacked his village before he was born.

For that reason, most of the village — except for a select few — views him with suspicion or outright hostility, although poor Naruto doesn’t find out why until much later.

Rather than wallow in self-pity, he instead dedicates himself to becoming the best ninja ever, though his impetuosity and mischievous behavior frequently interferes with that goal.

Kishimoto’s story features a huge and diverse supporting cast, from Naruto’s rival, the unflappable Sasuke, to the murderous but pitiable Gaara.

It’s the relationships between all those characters, combined with the intense and well-choreographed action scenes, that’s made “Naruto” so successful, according to critic and journalist Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter Web site (

“It’s this generation’s ‘X-Men.’¤” he said. “It features a real fun, engaging, refreshing approach to action on the comics page. Marry that to the time-worn underdog drama — it’s an irresistible action comedy.

“It’s not one of those fluke hits where you think your kids are morons for liking it.”

But is the series popular enough to bear the brunt of such a heavy release schedule? Will fans, in Spurgeon’s words, become “so saturated with Naruto product that they get a brain-freeze and won’t be on board for the newer stuff?”

Coppola doesn’t think so.

“I think ‘Naruto’ is the exception to every rule,” she said. “There’s an affinity with this property that we don’t really see with other properties.”

In other words, if there’s any series, Japanese or American that could sustain this kind of retail onslaught, it’s Naruto.

Oh, and maybe Harry Potter.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

VG REVIEW: Persona 3

Atlus, for the PlayStation 2, rated M for Mature (blood, language, partial nudity, violence), $49.99.

I’ve played video games where the main characters have summoned powerful gods and otherworldly creatures. I’ve played games where they’ve transformed themselves into fabulous monsters or harnessed arcane magic to perform impossible feats.

But I’ve never played a game where the main characters had to shoot themselves in the head to summon their powerful alter egos.

That’s just one of the central conceits behind “Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3” an inventive and engrossing role-playing game designed, like most titles in the “Shin Megami Tensei” series, with a more complex, mature audience in mind.

The game takes place in a world much like ours, but with a twist. In this world, there’s a secret, dark hour between midnight and 12:01 a.m. (but, magically, an hour for the game) when deadly monsters come out and prey upon unsuspecting humans.

Your character (you get to name him) is a high school transfer student who, imbued with the ability to summon powerful creatures called Personas, joins a team of demon-hunting fellow students. Together you battle the “dark hour” monsters in a labyrinthine tower called Tartarus.

When not chasing ungodly creatures in this enormous dungeon, you’ll be trying to improve your abilities by making new friends at the high school.

Your personas gain strength from the different social relationships you have with others in the school and surrounding neighborhood. Doing things like joining the student council or the swim team can gain you access to new types of personas, while visiting the karaoke bar or studying for a test can increase your courage or academic levels.

“Persona 3” offers a great deal of strategy. You can fuse personas together to create new ones. And knowing your enemy’s weakness (to fire for example) can often make the difference between victory and defeat in a battle.

The game boasts a colorful, anime-based art style, even during the somber sequences. Perhaps most jarring of all is the sunny pop soundtrack that offers odd counterpoint to the frequently sinister goings-on. Not to mention all the shooting-in-the-head stuff.

“Persona 3” suffers a bit in that, as with most rpgs, you’ll have to do a fair amount of level grinding and repeat certain floors of Tartarus to progress through the game. But the variations and clever ideas — regardless of how disturbing they might be — make the game worthy.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Graphic Lit: Fletcher Hanks

In many ways, the early days of the American comic book market resembled a Wild West town. Nobody quite knew what they were doing or what would sell. There was no precedent for this sort of material.

Anyone could come in and get a job drawing comics, since it was such a low-paying job and product needed to be churned out regularly.

One of those anyones was Fletcher Hanks, who between 1939 and 1941 produced a multitude of some of the most surreal and innately disturbing comics ever made.

Hanks’ work had long been neglected and forgotten but has now been salvaged by author and cartoonist Paul Karasik, who has collected 15 of Hanks’ best stories in “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks.”

“Once you see a Fletcher Hanks story you never forget it,” Karasik said during a recent phone interview from his home on Martha’s Vineyard. “It burns into your cerebellum like a branding iron.”

All of Hanks’ stories are variations on a basic theme, regardless of whether the central character is the all-powerful space wizard Stardust or the skull-faced jungle goddess Fantomah.

To wit, a group of evil villains is attempting some heinous crime, say infiltrating Fort Knox or attacking a secret city filled with jewels.

Once they’ve set their fiendish plans in motion, Stardust or Fantomah enters the picture, sets things to right using their godlike powers and then enacts a horrible vengeance against the evildoers.

It’s the details, therefore, that make Hanks’ work so utterly unique and gripping. In one Stardust story, for example, the villains’ goal is to stop the Earth’s rotation, thus sending everyone hurtling off into space, leaving themselves (tied down of course) as masters of the planet.

In another, a man who attempted to assassinate various heads of state has his own body shrunken down by Stardust until nothing is left but the head. Stardust then flings the head into “the space pocket of living death,” where it is ultimately absorbed into the body of the giant “Headless Headhunter.”

“There’s a certain seething misanthropy and rage just bubbling right under the surface,” said Karasik of Hanks’ work. “It’s not just poetic justice that’s being wrought here. It’s really Old Testament, flaming-sword-style justice.”

At first glance, it might be tempting to dismiss Hanks’ work as camp or overly crude. His characters’ proportions often seem off, with overly large heads and little if any variation in facial expression (I’m not sure Stardust ever opens his mouth even once).

The dialogue, too, is borderline ridiculous (“We must end democracy and civilization forever!” one miscreant states), so that many critics have been tempted to compare Hanks to campy filmmaker Ed Wood or outsider artist Henry Darger.

“It’s not the kind of work that’s so bad it’s good, and it’s not campy. If you approach it like that you can appreciate it, but you’ll never experience what makes it so good,” said Karasik. “He’s a very good storyteller. The stories are tightly and crisply told. More importantly, it’s not what’s on the surface, but what’s under that makes them indelible.”

In a fitting epilogue to the book, Karasik writes and draws the story of how he tracked down and met Hanks’ eldest son, Fletcher Hanks Jr. His discovery is bittersweet, however, as he learns that the artist whose work he so admires was considerably less worthy as a human being.

“If there was a gun in the house I woulda killed him dead,” Hanks Jr. bluntly states at one point.

The revelation that Hanks Sr. was a horrible, abusive alcoholic is not really such a great surprise considering the nature of his stories. There’s an almost egomaniacal desire to impose one’s will upon an uncaring universe reflected here, an immature need to have might equal right.

However inexcusable Hanks’ behavior was, there’s no question he was a stunning auteur, writing and drawing powerful, dreamlike tales that were unlike anything being produced at that time, and which pack an emotional wallop to this day.

It’s just tragic that he couldn’t keep his violence contained to the pages of his comic book stories.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007