Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The rise and rise of casual games

Have you ever engaged in a round of Sudoku online? How about “Bookworm”? Or “Peggle”?

Do you stop by Pogo.com for a quick game of “Word Whomp”? Or perhaps MSN for some “Luxor”?

Do you find yourself spending more time playing “Geometry Wars” on your Xbox 360 than “Halo 3”? Are you still trying to improve your bowling game in “Wii Sports” after all these months?

If so, you’re one of the millions of people who make up one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of the video game industry: the casual games market.

Casual games range from card to trivia to puzzle titles, but they all are marked by similar features. They almost all can be played in short bursts, are easy to learn and offer a level of challenge that can prove to be addictive.

“I do it for relaxation,” said 60-year-old Dianne Sheaffer of Middletown, a registered nurse who plays “Bejeweled” and “Freecell” on her computer. “I don’t play them every night, because I’m too tired, but I probably spend about eight hours a week.”

She cites the “addictive factor” as what makes it fun. “You try and try and try and three hours have passed,” she said.

Casual games appeal to a much wider demographic than traditional PC or console-based video games.

“We are inclusive, not exclusive. Casual games appeal to everyone,” said Jessica Tams, managing director of the Casual Games Association. “Everyone plays casual games, even the hard-core gamers.”

“You don’t need a manual. You can jump in and in 15 seconds you can get it. It’s very broad in its appeal,” said Garth Chouteau, spokesman for PopCap, developer of such popular games as “Bookworm Adventures” and “Peggle.” “They’re games that don’t make great demands on your time.”

It’s that broad appeal that accounts for the games’ growing popularity. Approximately 60 million casual game downloads occur each month, according to the CGA, and by 2008 the industry is expected to reach $690 million with a worldwide revenue of more than $1.5 billion.

Worldwide, more than 150 million people play casual games online, considerably more than those who own traditional video game consoles.

“We’re seeing a rise in interest in casual games because a lot of folks who grew up on Nintendo and Sega are now working adults, they may have families, and there just isn’t as much time as we used to have to play really involved games” said Bryan Trussel, director of content and platforms for Xbox Live. “So casual games have filled that void.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about casual games is that older women such as Sheaffer make up a sizable chunk of the market, a demographic that hard-core publishers have been either uninterested in or unable to court.

According to Beatrice Spaine, a vice president at the casual games site Pogo, more than 55 percent of the site’s players are women over the age of 35. Considering that the site has more than 1.5 million subscribers and more than 15 million people playing its games online — almost twice the number of people playing World of Warcraft — that’s not an insignificant percentage.

“Would your mother play ‘Halo’? Probably not,” Tams said. “That mind set does not appeal to women.”

Also, Tams notes, most women today have less free time then men, having the responsibility of work and primary caregiver. For that reason, it’s not terribly surprising that an online round of “Poppit” might hold more appeal than a 40-hour investment in “Final Fantasy XII.”

“Casual games aren’t training wheels for more core games,” Spaine said. “While you may see many of our players being passionate about their scores and their games — we don’t expect a mom who loves to play Scrabble on the weekends to pick up a controller and play ‘Madden’.”

Most casual games can be found online at sites such as Pogo, MSN, Yahoo or PopCap, where visitors can take a “try before you buy” approach to the game, allowing users to demo the game for free online and then pay for and download a more full-featured version if they like it.

Part of the huge spike of interest in casual games is due to the increasing availability of broadband networks, making it easier for people to play games online.

Another reason for the sudden increased notice is the arrival of the Nintendo Wii.

Nintendo’s little wireless console was designed to appeal to the non-hard-core crowd, and its success, as well as the success of the company’s handheld DS console, have gotten quite a bit of attention.

“The recent popularity of the Nintendo Wii and DS has put a big spotlight on the casual games industry,” Spaine said. “Attention like this will open up the world of casual gaming to more people.”

But Nintendo isn’t the only console maker interested in courting the casual games market. Sony and Microsoft have made active efforts in that direction by offering downloadable games such as “Flow” and “Uno” via their respective consoles, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360.

“We’re seeing more and more members of the family playing on the Xbox. They like the simple, fun games that are available to them now,” Trussel said. “You’ll also see core gamers enjoying a few rounds of ‘Uno’ while taking a break between sessions of ‘Gears of War.’ ”

Traditional software publishers such as Midway and Majesco are following suit by offering titles such as “Touchmaster” and “Cooking Mama.”

The true future of casual games, however, might lie with mobile phones and other portable devices such as Blackberrys and pocket PCs.

“Mobile is potentially a very fertile market,” Chouteau said. “It’s not designed for game play per se, but it can be done.”

While we’re waiting, anyone up for a quick round of “Cake Mania?”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, October 29, 2007

Graphic Lit: Horror manga

Looking for a good scary comic to read this Halloween?

You could go pick up something American made, but these days, Western horror comics are passe.

For those who really want some solid horror, manga scratches that itch like few others can, as the following titles indicate:

“Uzumaki Vol. 1” and “GYO Vol. 1” by Junji Ito, Viz, 208 and 200 pages respectively, $9.95 each.

Ito is one of the greats in the horror manga genre. His “Tomie” stories, for example, about a young woman who drives men to murder, have a sense of dread and terror to them that few cartoonists — Western or Eastern — can pull off.

“Uzumaki” or “Spiral” is one of his finest works to date, a collection of interrelated short stories about a quiet seaside town whose denizens slowly become obsessed with spirals.

Ordinary people suddenly start twisting their bodies into impossible, grotesque shapes. Hair takes on a life of its own, twisting into endless circular patterns. And then things get really weird.

“GYO” on the other hand is a more traditional, though no less enjoyable, monster story. I say “traditional,” but considering it’s about fish that somehow obtain mechanical legs and start ravaging the countryside, that might not be the proper term.

The book starts with a young bickering couple taking a seaside vacation. A foul, deathly odor in the air, however, casts a pall, and heralds the arrival of the aforementioned crawling sea creatures. What’s worse, they’re carrying some sort of disease that seems to be contagious.

Ito’s humor is pitch-black perfect in both of these books. Even during some of the most horrific sequences, you can sense the smile hiding behind the panels.

Although he doesn’t shy away from the gore, Ito is more concerned with creeping you out than grossing you out. “Uzumaki” and “GYO” thus have a flat, matter-of-fact tone that underscores the tension, as well as the black humor. Either book will have you leaving the lights on at bedtime.

“Presents” by Kanako Inuki, CMX, 200 pages, $12.99.

The perils of poor gift-giving is the theme of this ongoing collection of short horror tales, with a creepy, seemingly immortal little girl taking the Crypt-Keeper (i.e. narrator) role. The tone here is familiar to the sort of tales heard around campfires, with thoroughly rotten kids introduced to the concept of poetic justice in rather gruesome ways. (A girl who’s mean to a painter ... turns into a painting and melts! A girl obsessed with her vanity ... is stricken with disgusting acne).

What we’re left with then is a sort of Japanese “Stuwwelpeter” with the need to be generous and appreciative underscored ad nauseam. Inuki, however, utilizes a big-eyed, round-faced, cartoonish style that helps make the ham-fisted moralizing go down a bit easier. This is essentially the manga equivalent of the popular Goosebumps series, though the gore puts it out of the reach of most American kids.

“Alive: The Final Evolution” by Tadashi Kawashima and Adachitoka, Del Rey, 208 pages, $10.95.

Throughout the world, people are suddenly, inexplicably committing suicide. The survivors, meanwhile, find themselves acting in rather sociopathic ways or displaying disturbing new powers, sometimes both. There’s no way evil aliens could be responsible for these occurrences, right?

The first volume in this ongoing series builds slowly, focusing on a pair of picked-on high school students and offering only vague hints as to what’s going on in order to keep the mystery alive for as long as possible.

The art and story are competent, but not necessarily distinctive. I liked, however, the way the authors took their time teasing the reader. It was enough to make me want to read the next volume.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

VG REVIEW: Drawn to Life

THQ, for Nintendo DS, rated E for Everyone (mild cartoon vio­lence), $29.99.

“Drawn to Life” has an utterly winning premise: You hand-draw the main character of the game, using the DS touch screen to configure and color a pixilated hero.

That’s not all, though. You’ll also be asked to design and color various machines, platforms, clocks, clouds and more, putting your own artistic stamp on the game.

It’s a great idea, because theoretically you’d have added incentive to see the game through to the end because you had a hand in its creation.

Unfortunately, the game quickly shows itself to be little more than your average platformer, with the hand-drawn aspects serving as little more than a gimmick.

The plot centers on a little village populated by sickeningly cute critters called Raposas. The village has fallen on hard times, surrounded by darkness and threatened by an army of evil shadow monsters. Beseeching their creator (that would be you) for aid, their prayers are answered in the form of the afore-mentioned hero you create.

From then on we’re in “Super Mario Bros.” territory, as your hero must collect items like coins, rescue lost Raposas and butt-stomp the various enemies that attempt to keep him from his appointed rounds.

Some variation is provided in having to swipe the screen with your stylus to get rid of shadow goop, and there are the aforementioned drawing bits, but these feel like add-ons and ultimately don’t influence the game play significantly.

It’s not that the levels themselves are dull — they’re not — so much as they’re overly familiar. You’ve played this type of game before, many, many times.

“Drawn” is ultimately too restrictive in its execution. Why, for example, does my rocket have to look like a rocket? Or my ray gun a ray gun? Why can’t I make it any shape I want? Why doesn’t my drawing palette give me more color and shape options? Why can’t I use my painting powers to attack or defend, as I can in “Okami,” a much better game centered around similar notions.

Despite my reservations, the core idea of “Drawn to Life” is strong, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. One, perhaps, where the initial premise is a jumping-off point and not an end in itself.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Graphic Lit: Schulz and Peanuts

By all accounts, 1951 should have been a banner year for Charles Schulz. He had finally attained his dream of producing a daily comic strip, the newly christened Peanuts (a title he hated). After years of struggle and sorrow, success was on the horizon.

Still, that didn’t keep him from turning to his new wife on his honeymoon and exclaiming “I don’t think I can ever be happy.”

That story and many like it are recounted in “Schulz and Peanuts” an excellent new biography by David Michaelis that re-examines the life of the famed cartoonist — quite possibly the most famous artist of the 20th century — and his relationship to his creation.

The portrait that emerges is of an extremely complex and difficult-to-know man. Schulz, as Michaelis describes him, constantly battled depression and was forever fearful that he would amount to nothing. At the same time, however, he was extremely competitive and determined to succeed, to prove his worth.

The only child of a loving but emotionally reserved Minnesota family, he nursed perceived childhood grudges for decades, was at times an inattentive parent and could be quick to issue a cruelly cutting remark.

“The mystery of Charles Schulz is how can the guy who was the most beloved cartoonist ever ... feel so unrewarded? How could he consider himself a nothing?” said Michaelis during a recent interview. “He was always doubting himself, doubting he was fulfilled, not just as an artist, but as a man.”

Such arguments, perhaps not surprisingly, have come under fire by Schulz’s children, who sharply criticize the book, claiming that Michaelis paints far too negative a picture.

Speaking recently on CBS’ “The Early Show,” for example, daughter Amy Schulz Johnson said she felt betrayed and deceived by the book.

“We trusted him and invited him into our homes, and shared a lot of what we felt [were] sacred things with him, things that we feel and things that we had in our home,” she said. “And it’s very upsetting now.”

On the blog Cartoon Brew, son Monte Schulz cited a number of factual errors in the book and commented: “I can tell you absolutely that he was not a depressed, melancholy person, nor was he unaffectionate and absent as a parent.

“Honestly, the quote I’ve really wanted to give the press is this: ‘The book is stupid, and David Michaelis is an idiot.’¤”

Asked for comment, Schulz’s widow, Jeannie Schulz, e-mailed me the following response:

“I look forward to receiving David’s research materials here at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. There are a number of people who have since died whose stories David has captured. These archives will augment our own archives for the benefit of future scholars.

“I was married to Sparky [Schulz’s nickname] for a third of his life, and I miss the laughing and joking that was also big part of his life.”

For his part, Michaelis is philosophical about the family’s reaction.

“I’m afraid it’s sort of occupational. It comes with this territory,” he said. “A seven-year study of someone’s life is going to turn up things that aren’t comfortable for a family.

“I certainly understand the complaint. I only dared to try to understand him. I did not have an agenda. If anything I wanted to get under his skin and figure out what made him tick. That’s the biographer’s job.”

If Schulz shared his inner life with anyone, it was with his readers. Easily the most fascinating discovery in the book is how much of Peanuts was a daily diary of its creator’s thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t just a deeply personal strip. It was blatantly autobiographical.

For example, while Schulz was having an affair during his first marriage, Snoopy was falling in love with a girl beagle with “soft paws.”

Even more tellingly, at the same time his wife found out about the affair via the phone bill, Charlie Brown was berating his dog for making “long-distance phone calls.”

“For a very private person, so much of what was going on in his life turned out to be going on in Peanuts,” Michaelis said. “There’s Charlie Brown throwing Lucy off the baseball team, and sure enough, that’s the week he’s getting divorced.”

Lucy’s character, in fact, was largely based on Schulz’s first wife, Joyce, Michaelis argues, and the give and take between Charlie Brown and Lucy, or between Schroeder and Lucy, often reflected what was going on at home.

Perhaps the triumph of Peanuts, then, is that Schulz, like most great artists, was able to take his own personal pain and experiences and channel them into a universal work of art, something everyone could identify with.

As funny and warm as Peanuts could be — who can argue with “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” after all? — the strip was also well aware of the cruelty we inflict on one another and the anxiety and ache that simply being alive can engender. In channeling his own insecurities and fears, we were able to reflect on our own.

As Michaelis said, “He had the finger on the pulse of all of our hearts.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Adrian Tomine

It can be tough to be the wonder kid. Just ask Adrian Tomine.

Having been tagged as the “hot new indie artist” when he was still in high school, he’s had to compete with unrealistic expectations about his work — usually serialized in his ongoing series, “Optic Nerve” — ever since.

It’s unfortunate, because he’s really one of the most talented and interesting folks working in comics right now. His naturalistic stories about disaffected and insecure young adults call to mind authors such as Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

His latest book, “Shortcomings,” is also his longest work. It tells the story of Ben Tanaka, an overly critical, sarcastic young man who has, shall we say, “issues” about his own ethnicity, including a yen for white women, something his Asian girlfriend has understandable trouble with.

The book follows Ben as his love life slowly implodes and he tries to get back into the dating scene. It’s a captivating, smart look at how people trip over issues of race and sex in an attempt to get the things they think they want.

I talked to Tomine over e-mail a few days before his impeding marriage to discuss his new book. Here’s what he had to say:

What was the impetus for Shortcomings? How did the story come about?

Shortcomings was the result of me wanting to try something a little more challenging after spending many years working on short stories. I admired the achievements that some of my fellow cartoonists had made with longer narratives, or “graphic novels” as they’re now called. So whether or not I was truly ready to take on a 100-page story, I basically just forced myself to give it a shot.

In terms of the content of the story, I’d been accumulating material for years, and I knew that at some point I would want to group it all together. Some of the topics that are raised in this story are things that I hadn’t dealt with in my past work, and since I was forcing myself to attempt a story that was longer than anything I’d done before, it also seemed a like a good opportunity to attempt to delve into some different subject matter.

Shortcomings is your longest work to date. What sort of challenges did creating a lengthier narrative pose for you? Is it the sort of thing you'd like to do more of in the future?

The initial challenge I faced was simply figuring out the process I wanted to use to create the story. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with writing shorter stories, and often I was able to pretty much just write a story like that in my head. But something like Shortcomings required a new level of organization and forethought for me.

The other challenge I faced later on was that of just maintaining my focus on something that I’d been toiling away on for several years. I’ve always had a pretty quick arc from the conception of a story to its completion, and at times there was a bit of a Sisyphean feeling to the process of drawing Shortcomings. I’ve never had to draw the same faces so many times before in my life! And trying to maintain at least a modicum of consistency in the art—not only in terms of style, but just how the characters look—that was something I was not well-versed in either.

In terms of the future, I think I probably will work on longer stories again, but maybe not right away. On one hand, I feel like I now want to do the exact opposite, and do something shorter and contained. And on the other hand, I have this feeling like Shortcomings was almost like an apprenticeship, or a learning process, and it gave me some abilities that I think will come in handy should I attempt something even longer.

One of the things that's interesting about the book is there are very few truly sympathetic characters. Was this a deliberate choice or was it something that grew organically as you developed the story?

I think it’s more just that I have a different sense of what’s “sympathetic” than a lot of other people. I have to admit that there might’ve been some miscalculation on my part in terms of what readers would accept before a character became “unlikeable” or “unsympathetic.” But to answer your question more directly, I don’t think I made a deliberate choice either way. Sympathy or empathy with the characters was never a primary guiding force as I was writing the book.

Can you talk a little bit about the issues of ethnic identity and sexuality that you explore in the book? How does Ben's attitude jibe with your own personal experiences? Do you think Asian-Americans and Americans in general are as obsessed with stereotypes as Ben seems to be?

A lot of people have been asking me about the relationship between the character Ben and myself, and I think I have myself to blame for that correlation in some readers’ minds. I might’ve misled some people to think that this was a more autobiographical story than it really is with a few very specific details about Ben, including his appearance. But the truth is, it’s entirely a work of fiction, and if any of my real beliefs and personality are to be found anywhere in the book, they’re scattered amongst all the primary characters.

As for the last part of your question, for me to answer that would be in direct conflict with my goals for this book. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, least of all giant groups of very distinct people.

I liked the way you subtly sprinkled the pillow case motif on the cover and endpapers and through the book. How did you decide to do that and could you talk about some of the other subtle visual motifs you use in the book (the cup of coffee, the x-rated dvds, etc)?

The pillowcase motif was something that just kind of developed organically as I wrote and drew the comic. And the way it bled over into the design of the book was probably secondary. On one hand, I just liked the way that pattern looked on the cover, and on the other hand, I was probably trying to take something that was basically invisible to the reader at first, and then kind of imbue it with some relevence to the actual story.

I’m not sure what to say about those other things you mentioned, other than that one of the new things that I enjoyed about working in the context of a longer narrative was the way that you could repeat images, and have little things gently echo things from maybe 50 pages prior. I’m not saying I did it with the greatest of skill and subtlety, but I do know that attempting that kind of thing in a shorter story is usually just too sudden and obtrusive.

Your work is very dialogue heavy, yet never comes off as overly wordy or "a bunch of talking heads." How do you as an artist break down a conversation in comics so that it doesn't become overly repetitive visually or just a slog to read through?

Well, thanks for saying that, because that’s certainly something I struggle with. For me, the challenge isn’t so much about not being overly repetitive with the visuals…if anything, I have to push myself in that direction a bit. I think like so many cartoonists, I grew up with the notion that comics had to always be visually dynamic with all kinds of absurd “camera angles” and unconventional layouts. And now to me, as a reader, that’s just as deadly, if not moreso, than something being visually repetetive. I think that kind of simplicity works beautifully for people like Charles Schulz or Chris Ware, whereas any time I see a page that looks like something out of “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way,” my interest just kind of shuts off.

In general, I wanted Shortcomings to be as readable as possible, so this issue you raise was kind of like a tightrope walk. I didn’t want it to be too dull and boring, but I also didn’t want the visuals to be inappropriately wild in relation to the subject matter.

Your work always seems to come up as exhibit A in the "indie comix are boring stories about whiny twentysomething losers" complaints that crop up all the time. It's not a stance I particularly understand let alone agree with as I find your work engaging. What do you make of that attitude and does it at all frustrate or bother you?

Well, that should all change now that most of my characters are whiny thirtysomething losers. In all seriousness, I can’t really let myself worry too much about that kind of thing. For some reason, my work has always been evaluated in kind of a polarized way…people tend to either really like it or really dislike it. That’s always kind of surprised me, but I think it’s been useful in terms of learning to not take either type of extreme reaction too seriously. I never imagined that my work would even appeal to as many people as it does, so it seems perfectly appropriate that there would be some people who really don’t enjoy it.

What are you working on now?

I recently finished my contribution to the next issue of Kramers Ergot, which is a great anthology published by Buenaventura Press. This issue is going to be a massive, full-color hardcover book, and it was a lot of fun to be doing something so different from Shortcomings.

I’ve also been spending some time lately on a little project that very few people will probably ever see: a mini-comic that we’re giving as a favor at my imminently-approaching wedding!

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Graphic Lit: Classic comic strips

Last week we took a look at comic strip artist Milton Caniff, creator of the classic mid-century strip “Terry and the Pirates.”

Today, let’s set the way-back machine even further to the earliest part of the 20th century and look at some collections of comic strips from that bygone era:

"The Kat Who Walked in Beauty: The Panoramic Dailies of 1920”
by George Herriman, Fantagraphics Books, 200 pages, $29.95.

Wow. That’s likely the first reaction you’ll have on gazing at this oversized, lovingly designed tribute to Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” regarded by many as the finest comic strip ever to grace the pages of a newspaper.

The book isn’t part of Fantagraphics’ ongoing effort to collect Herriman’s Sunday strips. Rather, the bulk of “Beauty” compiles daily comics from 1920, regarded by scholars as one of the high points of the strip’s run.

A smattering of very early formative strips and sketches done for the ballet adaptation (yes, there was a “Krazy Kat” ballet) are also included.

These daily strips are interesting in that they don’t follow what we know as the classic Krazy formula (Krazy loves Ignatz mouse, mouse hates cat and throws brick at him/her, Offissa Pup loves cat and thus puts mouse in jail).

Instead we get some delightful wordplay between Krazy and Ignatz, surrounded by an inventive visual structure that few cartoonists could ever hope to emulate.

In other words, “Beauty” chronicles Herriman at the top of his game and thus is an absolutely essential purchase for serious comic strip fans.

“Oh Skin-nay: The Days of Real Sport”
by Clare Briggs and Wilbur Nesbit, Drawn and Quarterly, 136 pages, $24.95.

The type of childhood Briggs depicts so nostalgically here, where kids play marbles in the street, hop rides on ice wagons and thaw out the water pump, was already fading into yesteryear when this book was originally published in 1913.

As such, there’s a wistful gloss that can be hard for contemporary readers to swallow.

Were there no outcasts, nerds or sullen loners that got routinely bullied in Briggs’ hometown?

Nesbit’s doggerel poetry accompanying the cartoons is cute but largely unnecessary — Briggs’ artistry is strong enough to convey the moment in question without any added text.

Despite my misgivings about this book, it’s not hard to see why Briggs was so beloved in his day, and I’d like to see more of his work put back into print.

“Forever Nuts: The Early Years of Mutt and Jeff”
by Bud Fisher, NBM, 192 pages, $24.95.

Mutt and Jeff might not have been the first daily comic strip (it’s a hotly debated topic, believe it or not), but it was the first highly successful one, enough to make Fisher a rich man.

Reading this book, which collects a number of early Fisher strips, it’s not hard to see why. The strip displays a mean, and at times crude but highly effective sense of humor, with poor diminutive Jeff usually bearing the brunt of Mutt’s vicious assaults and get-rich-quick schemes.

Fisher also fills the strip with (what were then) topical references to folks like Pancho Villa and the boxer Jack Johnson, which no doubt helped add to the strip’s popularity. It’s a bold, smart-alecky comic that you don’t see a lot of in newspapers these days.

“Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays”
by Winsor McCay, Checker, 200 pages, $19.95.

A pioneer, McCay delighted early 20th-century audiences with his “Little Nemo in Slumberland” a fanciful, gorgeous dream world where beds strode through cities like giant horses and princesses rode around in dragons’ mouths.

“Rarebit Fiend” is an earlier work, consisting of people having bizarre, transformative nightmares induced by the consumption of a cheese sandwich.

The general rule of thumb here is the more outrageous and catastrophic the dream sequence, the better the strip.

McCay had a fascination with portraying motion (he was also a pioneer in the field of animated cartoons) and playing with the formal limits of the comic strip that, when combined with his fertile imagination, was a wondrous thing to behold.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Friday, October 05, 2007

VG REVIEW: Blue Dragon

Microsoft, for Xbox 360, rated T for Teen (alcohol reference, crude humor, fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes), $59.99.

It was supposed to be a match made in heaven. The return of the dream team.

Hironobo Sakaguchi, creator of the “Final Fantasy” series, Nobuo Uematsu, composer of the music for most of the “Fantasy” games and Akira Toriyama, character designer and cartoonist of the acclaimed “Dragon Ball Z” manga, would join forces to work on a video game for Sakaguchi’s new company, Mistwalker.

The last time these three artists teamed up the result was “Chrono Trigger,” a role-playing game that is one of the few “classics” that still remains immensely enjoyable.

What we got instead was “Blue Dragon,” an enjoyable but wholly average rpg that, while amusing, will surely be regarded as a letdown for those who hoped, nay, prayed for greatness.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A plucky young lad from a bucolic village attempts, along with his cookie-cutter friends, to stop the nameless terror that is plaguing his town (in this instance, it’s a “land shark,” prompting guffaws and memories of classic “SNL” skits).

Along the way he and his companions gain impressive mystical powers (the blue dragons of the game’s title) and discover lost civilizations and dangerous monsters and blah, blah, blah.

The story and characters are two of the biggest problems with the game. There’s not a single person, creature or plot line here that you haven’t seen before. As such, it’s extremely hard to feign interest in the various goings-on, despite the protagonists’ evident excitement.

The combat system is a little more intriguing. Taking a few pages from “Final Fantasy V,” “Blue Dragon allows you to switch your character’s “classes,” so that your Sword Master, for example, can learn to be a Monk or Assassin without losing any of his sword skills. It’s a nice, flexible system.

There are other things to like too, such as the Field System, which not only does away with random battles (one of the more annoying aspects of most rpgs these days) but also allows you to pit various monsters against each other by attempting to fight groups of them at once.

The game makes considerable use of the Xbox 360’s graphical capabilities, but the “Dragon’s” cute aesthetic at the same time works against it. The figures are too polished and stiff. They look more like Hummel figurines than characters you could relate to or spend time with.

The worst thing I can say about “Blue Dragon” is it’s completely average. An enjoyable way to spend a few hours, especially if you’re hungry for an rpg, but nothing that will get your blood pumping. And considering the number of top-tier games that are out right now, “average” just isn’t good enough.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Covering cancer in Funky Winkerbean

As you may or may not know, the character Lisa Moore in the comic strip Funky Winkerbean passed away today from cancer. I talked to cartoonist Tom Batiuk about the storyline and readers' responses to it in today's paper. Here's the unedited version:

Rest in peace Lisa Crawford Moore.

The 36-year-old beloved attorney, mother and wife passed away today following a bout with breast cancer. She is survived by her husband, Les, and daughter, Summer.

These aren’t real people; they’re characters in the daily comic strip “Funky Winkerbean.”

But that hasn’t kept Lisa’s illness and death from upsetting a lot of readers.

“I cannot look at the strip. It is that depressing,” said Elaine Baumbach, 60, of New Cumberland. “If it catches my eye, right away I feel bad. I fold the paper over as soon as I get to that page.”

The strip, written and drawn by Tom Batiuk of Medina, Ohio, has been around since 1972 and runs in about 400 newspapers, including the Patriot-News.

And Baumbach is just one of a number of local readers who have complained in recent months about the current cancer storyline, calling it too much of a downer for the proverbial “funny pages.”

“There’s nothing funny about [cancer],” said Keith Roth, 79, of Newberry Twp. “It’s sad and serious and a terrible thing and we have too much of it today anyhow in the real life without looking at it in the paper.

“It’s not that I don’t think it shouldn’t be in the paper, but it’s in the wrong place,” he said.

Joshua Fruhlinger, whose Web site, The Comics Curmudgeon (joshreads.com), regularly pokes fun at contemporary comic strips, sees something else in readers’ reactions.

“I think one of the things that’s interesting [about people’s reactions] is it says something about their attitudes about sickness in general,” said “A lot of people were really mad about the character’s decision to stop doing chemo, which I think they saw as giving up.”

Cartoonist Batiuk, 60, has heard the complaints.

“They [readers] feel that I’m violating an unwritten comics code by not providing a punch line for them every day. I sort of feel that what I owe them is the very best work that I can do,” he said during a recent phone interview.

“I love being funny. But I think there are times when we need to try to build something a little bit more than that.”

Dan Stencovage, 47, of East Pennsboro Twp., agrees.

“It’s a good tool. There may be people out there battling cancer or any other disease who may not take care of their own health needs. Maybe by reading that they’ll go ‘I better take care of myself. Maybe I better have that mammogram.’¤”

That’s partly why the storyline concludes at the start of October, which just happens to be National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (though Batiuk suggest that luck played a part in that bit of timing).

According to Heather Hibshman, executive director of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, Lisa’s death isn’t that far from the reality .

“About 2,200 women in Pennsylvania lose the battle each year. It’s relevant to a lot of people. we all know someone with breast cancer,” she said from her office in Ephrata. “This will bring awareness to thousands of people reading this strip about how prevalent this disease is.”

Batiuk originally had Lisa battle breast cancer back in 1999. Once she recovered, he thought that was the end of that particular storyline. Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003.

“It was when I was diagnosed myself when I realized there was a huge void between empathy and personal experience,” he said. “I knew as I was going into that process that I was going to be writing about it again.”

Following Lisa’s death today, the strip will jump ahead 10 years, with a goateed and much older Les reflecting on Lisa’s funeral and his subsequent mourning.

From there the strip will focus on the sons and daughters of the strip’s original core characters.

“I wanted to bring the characters closer to my age,” Batiuk said about the time jump.

Interest in the story has also led to Lisa’s Legacy Fund, created by the University Hospital’s Ireland Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the premier cancer treatment centers in the country.

One hundred percent of the donations made to the fund will go towards research and education at the center. For his part, Batiuk has pledged to donate all royalties from his upcoming book, “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe” to the fund.

Despite the criticism, Batiuk remains confident in his work.

“I feel it’s some of the best work I’m ever going to do,” he said while signing copies of “Lisa’s Story” at the center. “It’s certainly some of the most hard won.”

“It’s an ambitious thing to do and I’m all in favor of people doing ambitious things,” Fruhlinger said. “The comics page is full of people who are happy to do the same thing for 30 years.

“Whether or not it was successful for everybody, he did try to do something that was really different and I have to say I think more people should do that.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Graphic Lit: "Flight" and other anthologies

Despite the rising interest in stand-alone graphic novels, the anthology remains for many a good way to break into the comic industry, specifically the indie comics scene.

After all, why bear the burden of attempting to get your work noticed all by yourself in an increasingly crowded market when you can align yourself with a group of like-minded individuals or get published in a well-regarded series?

One of the more popular anthologies in recent years is "Flight," an annual all-ages collection put together by Kazu Kibuishi (author of the upcoming "Amulet") and dedicated to showcasing young and upcoming artists.

The first volume wowed a lot of people when it debuted in 2004 and subsequent volumes have continued to generate good press.

"Flight" recently got picked up by a big-name book publisher (Villard, a division of Random House), and has a new fourth volume out in stores now.

The latest collection continues the trends established by the previous books. Though there's no overriding theme connecting the stories, the emphasis overall is firmly in the winsome fantasy/science fiction mode. Anyone who's seen the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle") will be on familiar ground here.

Most of the artists featured in "Flight" are terrifically accomplished. This is no abstract, primitivist collection but rather a variety of visually sophisticated art styles. The emphasis is decidedly on craft, which is not surprising, as many of the contributors have day jobs in animation or video games.

As pretty as the artwork often is, the stories themselves leave a lot to be desired. Many indulge in the worst sort of gross sentimentality or simple-minded philosophizing. Others seem more like cute eye candy and will barely be remembered by the reader once the book is closed.

There are a few notable exceptions. Scott Campbell provides the best story, with a hilarious tale of creatures that all have some sort of structure on top of their heads. Graham Annable's shaky stick figures provide the usual dose of hilarity. Thomas Herpich's metaphor for the onset of adolescence is an inventive and compelling one. And Jon Klassen's flat, silhouetted style serves the folk tale he retells very well.

But those are the exceptions. Overall, it's hard not to shake the feeling that "Flight" is an attractive but rather shallow package. Those who appreciate craftsmanship and aesthetics over storytelling and emotional identification will best appreciate this book.

Other anthologies

"Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened"
edited by Jason Rodriguez, Villard Books, 160 pages, $21.95.

Here's a pretty good rule of thumb regarding comic anthologies: If they're centered on a theme, such as "war" or "chocolate," they will almost always be insufferably bad.

That certainly is the case with "Postcards," a terrible collection of stories based on the scribblings found on musty vintage postcards editor Rodriquez collected from antique shops.

There's a number of talented people involved here, but they turn in amazingly maudlin or just plain sloppy work, most desperately stretching to make the original material fit to some sort of grander story. The worst offender is Harvey Pekar, who, with Matt Kindt, contributes what has to be the laziest piece of writing he's ever done. An absolute waste of time and trees.

"Hickee No. 3,"
edited by Graham Annable, Alternative Comics, 32 pages, $2.95.

There's a lot more bang for your buck in the third issue of this humor anthology, perhaps because its page count is so comparatively low. Annable and Scott Campbell unsurprisingly provide the best contributions; I especially enjoyed Campbell's tale of a pair of Roman-age gladiator fans.

Other contributions are a little too juvenile or obvious, but there's enough good stuff here to make me recommend checking this comic out.

"Meathaus 8: Headgames"
Alternative Books, 256 pages, $14.95.

Meathaus is a loose collective of artists who attended the New York School of Visual Arts in or around 2000, many of whom have gone on to at least a solid career in illustration and/or comics.

They still are doing the anthology gig, though, and the latest collection features a number of experimental or downright psychedelic comics in the "Heavy Metal" vein. As you might expect, not everything here works, but it's an interesting ride by some noteworthy creators nevertheless.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Graphic Lit: Terry and the Pirates

In October 1936 a sandy- haired boy named Terry and his guardian, a tall, strapping manly-man with the all-Irish name of Pat Ryan, pulled into the port of Hong Kong, hot on the trail of an exotic treasure and eager for adventure.

Though that treasure eventually eluded them, for the next 10 years, they, along with a cast of characters that included Connie the cook, the sultry Burma, Hotshot Charlie and the incomparable Dragon Lady, significantly altered and dominated the landscape of the newspaper comic strip in Milton Caniff’s seminal “Terry and the Pirates.”

Though certainly not forgotten, the strip has been somewhat overlooked by contemporary comics fans, both of the strip and book variety.

That might change quickly as several books have recently arrived to shine a vibrant light on Caniff and his accomplishments.

The most notable is IDW’s “The Complete Terry and the Pirates: Vol. 1,” which collects the first 27 months of the strip.

While there were many adventure strips running in newspapers at the time of “Terry’s” debut, the strip is notable for many reasons.

For one thing, unlike “Flash Gordon,” “Tarzan” and like-minded strips of the era, “Terry” was ostensibly set in the real world. The only other strip that could make the same claim would be Roy Crane’s “Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy.”

Unlike that strip, however, Caniff’s work is notable for its reliance on character instead of plot to dictate the action. The events were driven not so much by mysterious outside forces as much as the various cast members bouncing into and off of each other.

“Terry” also was notable for its art work, which was rarely anything less than sumptuous. Caniff’s use of chiaroscuro (i.e. utilizing light and shadow to suggest shape and objects) masterfully underscored drama and emotion inherent in the various plot threads, and several other cartoonists soon tried to imitate his methods.

The other thing Caniff brought to the comic strip was sex. “Terry’s” female characters practically oozed sexuality in a way that previous strips had never dared. And while the strip was never in danger of entering R-rated territory, there was a reason Caniff was a favorite among the love-starved GIs during World War II.

A lot of that information, and much, way too much, more can be found in “Meanwhile,” a new biography about Caniff by comics historian and critic R.C. Harvey.

Weighing in at 800 pages, the book is intimidating in its size to say the least. I pity the poor sap who accidentally drops this brick on his foot.

As you might expect with a book this massive, it could have used a bit of editorial pruning. Virtually every anecdote, every fan letter, every bit of biographical material seems to have been included here (though Harvey has gone on record as saying the book was originally even longer) and the net result is frequently overwhelming and occasionally irksome.

But if Harvey is a bit too inclusive in chronicling Caniff’s life, he does a superb job of explaining why he’s important. He goes to great lengths, drawing out examples, providing background and detailing individual strips to show how and why Caniff dominated the comic strip world during the middle of the 20th century.

Caniff eventually left “Terry and the Pirates” to start “Steve Canyon,” a strip he could own the copyright to lock, stock and barrel, a move unheard of in those days — and still mostly nonexistent today.

“Canyon’s” pro-military themes, and Caniff’s growing conservatism fell out of step with the times as the ’60s came on and is more than likely one of the reasons why the strip isn’t as fondly remembered today (though the publishing company Checker has been collecting the strip in handy $18 volumes).

Of course, the sort of world-building, epic strip Caniff created couldn’t even be attempted in today’s newspapers. There’s too little space and too many other distractions to compete with our time.

But reading “Terry” today, despite its dated references and cultural attitudes, it’s hard not to be awed by Caniff’s abilities as a storyteller and artist. He was that good.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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