Monday, June 30, 2008

Graphic Lit: More kids comics

Time to wade through the ever-teetering review pile once again. This time, we'll take a look at some of the more notable kid-friendly graphic novels that have come out in the past few months. Join me, won't you? 

"Optical Allusions" by Jay Hosler, Active Synapse Comics, 127 pages, $20.

A biology professor as well as talented cartoonist, Hosler has used comics to explore the world of science, examining the life of a honeybee in "Clan Apis" and Darwin's theory of evolution in "The Sandwalk Adventures."

In his latest book, "Optical Allusions," Hosler looks (ha-ha) at the evolutionary development of the eye via the adventures of a cute anthropomorphic brain named Wrinkles.

Wrinkles has lost his bosses' magic eye you see, and to get it back he embarks on an fanciful quest that has him meeting Darwin, a Cyclops, insect pirates and blind fish. Along the way he learns how eyes developed over the centuries and how they work. Hosler intersperses his fascinating and very funny tale with in-depth articles, making this a valuable supplemental textbook as well as a great comic. 

"Flight Explorer Vol. 1" edited by Kazu Kibuishi, Villard, 112 pages, $10.

This is basically a pocket-sized, all-ages version of the popular anthology series, featuring many of the same contributors. I actually enjoyed this collection more than the "grown-up" "Flight" volumes, which tend to be a bit shallow in the storytelling department. Such concerns are less significant here, and though there are a few clunkers, overall the quality, especially in the art department, is quite high. Some of the tales might be a bit too violent for younger tots, but I imagine older kids will enjoy it immensely. 

"Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper" by Kazu Kibuishi, Scholastic, 192 pages, $9.99.

"Flight" editor Kibuishi tries his hand at a more epic narrative with this graphic novel, the first in a projected five volume series. Influenced very heavily by the works of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, "Amulet" sets up the story of a young girl and her brother traveling through a fantastic world to save their mother.

The book doesn't tread any new ground (magic talismans, ancient prophecies and quirky sidekicks abound), but neither does it come off as cliched or overly familiar. A good deal of that is due to Kibuishi's skill at keeping the characters' emotions and motivations in the forefront while moving the action speedily along. I haven't seen that sort of skill before in his work, suggesting this might be the series that officially marks him as a mature artist and storyteller to watch out for. 
"Sardine in Outer Space 5" by Emmanuel Guibert, First Second, 112 pages, $14.95.

This is the first book in the zany series about effervescent little space pirate Sardine that Guibert has done without the help of his frequent collaborator, Joann Sfar. Most of the stories fare well despite the absence, though a few, seem to either fall flat or end abruptly. Still, the inventive, zany humor endures enough that fans of the previous volumes will definitely want to check this one out. 

"Asterix Omnibus," by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Sterling, $19.95 per volume.

This classic Belgian series about a Gaulish village that continually fends off the Roman Empire thanks to a magic potion have been packaged together — three titles per book — in a nice soft cover, $20 editions. Considering that the individual volumes sell for about $13 a pop, that's a pretty good bargain. The production values and translation seems to have improved as well, which is nice.

These are classic, hilarious tales that just about every kid should be exposed to — I have fond memories of reading these adventures while visiting extended family. You want to avoid the later volumes, however, when Uderzo took on the writing chores after Goscinny's death. Those are horrible.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

So I'm doing movie reviews now

Ever since our film critic left for greener pastures, my editor's been handing out sneak preview passes whenever a new film deems itself worthy to grace our burg, which is how I ended up writing a review of The Love Guru, a film that should be avoided at all costs.

This isn't a regular thing. I think the next time I'll be doing something like this for the paper will be in July, and I'm far too lazy to blog about every movie I watch for fun (look how long it took me to post a link to this review!). Still, there it is. Have fun.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

VG Review: 'Penny Arcade Adventures'

Hothead Games, for the PC, Mac and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live), rated M for Mature, $19.95.

Jerry Hoskins and Mike Krahulik, better known as “Tycho” and “Gabe,” have long needled the video game industry in their comic strip, “Penny Arcade” — a sort of urbane editorial cartoon for hard-core gamers.

Now the cartoonists have made their own video game, “Penny Arcade Adventures Episode One: On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness.”

No doubt many who’ve been stung by the duo’s razor-sharp wit were looking forward to seeing them fall flat on their faces in this endeavor. Despite the lengthy title, however, the game proves to be a fun, if somewhat short, experience.

Developed by Hothead Games, “Rainslick” is a blend of the point-and-click adventure games of yesteryear (“Myst”) and the “Final Fantasy”-styled role-playing games of today.

Set in a lovingly detailed “steampunk” world, the game puts Victorian versions of Gabe, Tycho and a third character you create on a quest to stop a Lovecraftian-type menace from destroying the world.

Along the way you’ll do battle with deadly mimes, clowns, barbershop quartets, hobos and little robots that do unmentionable things to oranges.

You also encounter some really funny dialogue. Probably the best news for fans of the comic strip is that most of the strip’s ribald humor makes its way to the game intact. As hilarious as the game frequently is though, it’s also quite R-rated, with swear words flying about at dizzying speeds, so keep the kids away.

The nice surprise is that the game’s actual combat isn’t so shabby either. Using a turn-based system similar to the “Shadow Hearts” series, players use a series of well-timed button presses to block or release devastating attacks. Each character has its own unique attack, and there’s enough tension and variety to keep you on your toes.

“Rainslick” can be slight and even shallow at times. I wish the actual environments offered more exploration, that the fetch quests didn’t seem quite so rote, and that I was given more variety in creating my character. It’s also over rather quickly, not surprising I suppose, considering that it is “Episode One.”

That being said, there’s plenty here for devout “Penny Arcade” fans or those just looking for an enjoyable rpg to chew on. Just watch out for those little robots.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer lives a blessed life.

His children’s novel, “The Man in the Ceiling,” is being produced on Broadway by Disney. His memoirs will be published next year. And when I spoke with him recently, he was preparing to see his daughter perform alongside Kevin Kline — in a play he wrote.

Not to mention the other beloved and award-winning plays (“Little Murders”), screenplays (“Carnal Knowledge”) and children’s books (“Bark, George”) he’s written in the past 50 years.

It started with the comic strip. Specifically, the “Village Voice” comic strip.

Originally titled “Sick, Sick, Sick” at its 1956 debut (and later renamed “Feiffer” before its current name), the strip’s sardonic take on Cold War America’s politics and social mores quickly made a name for itself. As a comic strip, it was a pioneer in exploring adult anxieties and foibles.

Now those seminal cartoons are being collected in four extensive volumes, the first of which — “Explainers” — went on sale a few weeks ago.

I talked to Feiffer about the collection and the strip’s legacy. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: What’s it like to revisit this material after all this time?

A: It’s kind of amazing to see how much of it holds up and how interesting it remains to me as the author of it, instead of making me wince and wish it away. I kind of enjoy looking at it. I see it primarily at this late date as a body of work, but it’s a body of work that increasingly builds and develops and makes sense, so I’m quite happy about it.

Q: Are there any strips in particular that stand out for you?

A: Oh, I’m sure there are, but I can’t —

Q: Is there anything that surprised you?

A: Yes, but again I can’t be specific. But here and there I’d say “Jesus Christ, I used to be good.”

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you got in the Village Voice?

A: It’s in the introduction, but I’ll tell you about it. I had been for three years or so been trying to sell my work in book form to editors at publishing houses like Simon and Schuster. All of them expressed great interest in the work and no interest in publishing it.

Their excuse was, as they gave it over and over again, that they didn’t know how to market it. Since I was an unknown, they couldn’t take a chance on publishing it. If I were known, if my name were Steinberg or Steig or Thurber, they would grab it.

My problem was that I wasn’t Steinberg or Steig or Thurber and I had to figure out how I could be. It was clear that once I could get in publications they would recognize, they’d recognize me. I saw on all their desks copies of the Village Voice, so I figured if I could be in that paper, then they might confuse me with Steinberg, Steig or Thurber and publish me. And that’s exactly what happened.

Q: What was the initial reaction when the strip debuted? Did you get any reader feedback?

A: Yes. I thought it would take six months to a year, it took a matter of weeks. It happened incredibly fast. People would stop me on the street and say “How did you get that into print?” They didn’t talk about how funny or satiric or interesting it was. They just were amazed that something that represented their sensibility could be in a newspaper because what they were used to is being aced out of the cultural and political conversation.

We’re talking about the end years of McCarthyism and Eisenhower. A young, college-educated generation in their twenties and thirties, didn’t exist as far as the media was concerned, including in the pages of the New Yorker.

Q: Initially did you have any problems with editorial interference?

A: With the Voice, there was never a problem with editorial interference. When I agreed to syndication three years later, there’s always a problem with that, but there very little of that, because when the newspapers took me in the first place, kind of knew what they were getting into and the ones who didn’t, I confused them with so much dialogue they couldn’t figure out what it was about anyway.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you developed your style for the strip? Because it’s very different from the work you were doing initially with Eisner on the Spirit or the Clifford strips you did.

A: It was clear to me that it could not be a conventional drawing style, conventional cartoon style, particularly as in Clifford. I was trying for a form that was far more adult, far more sophisticated vein, so I had to look to others. I started trying to be Steig and I stole from Andre Francois who was a wonderful Austrian/French cartoonist at the time.

I just floundered around, mainly trying to find a line that would be expressive in a newspaper, that would simulate what I could do in pencil but never could manage to do in ink, that would seem fresh and free and innovative. And primarily expressive. I wanted a drawing style that would play with the text and move reader along from panel to panel without drawing attention to itself too much. Because mainly what I wanted them to pay attention to was the story I was telling.

Q: It’s very theatrical. You do away with panel borders and backgrounds. Many of them resemble monologues.

A: Well, if you see the early ones, there are panels and balloons. I went back and forth. It took a while for me to figure out. I’d do a cartoon, it would seem fun, and then I’d see it in the newspaper and wince. In the early weeks and months you see the drawing style would change from week to week. I’d go back and forth. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was determined to try everything until I found my way into what it should be, and that took a period of months.

Q: Was there an “ah-ha” moment where you went “Yes, this is how it is supposed to be?”

A: I think it might have been a little “a-ha” moment, more out of exhaustion than eureka. I was quite frustrated and angry at myself for not being able to do what seemed to me intellectually should have been obvious. It seemed to me that I was a very poor student of myself. That I was not learning fast enough. The writing seemed to be way ahead of the art. It took a while for it to catch up.

Q: As the strip started out it was more of a social satire, with you looking at the social mores of the time. It started to get more overtly political as time went on. What prompted that?

A: When I was starting out, there was no such thing as a credibility gap. People trusted their leaders. Although government has always lied, it wasn’t taken as it is today, as a given. People even on the left were not cynical. There was always a sense of hope. There was always a sense that there were a few bad apples, but it was Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Nixon following with Watergate that started this sense of government being bad and you can’t trust your leaders and liberals in particular just tuning out and turning off.

But none of this was in play at that time. Essentially what I was trying to do in the strip was introduce my readers to what government was doing with language, how it said one thing but meant another, and, of particular interest to me, was how the Nuclear Regulating Agency — it was originally called the Atomic Energy Commission and then it was called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — would deny during underground tests that there was any fallout while sheep were falling over in fields. And John Wayne was getting cancer for being out on location where this was going on.

Government was simply lying, and you didn’t read about that in the New York Times. You read it in I.F. Stone’s weekly and maybe in the Reporter magazine, but if you weren’t on the left, you didn’t know this. I was trying to introduce this to a general readership.

Q: Especially in the early strips, it seems like you’re playing a lot with types. You have the nebbish, tightly -wound, anxiety-ridden male —

A: Who became my character Bernard.

Q: And then you have the overconfident boor — and sometimes the two are actually the same person. What led to exploring those types of people?

A: These were the people I saw around me and these were the conversations typical of what I heard. Obviously simplified for six or eight panels, but I was really reflecting what I saw and heard around me and it became clear as I got into this after several months, it excited people because they were not used to seeing themselves represented in any form in a newspaper or magazine and to see it in a comic strip really threw them off balance. It excited them and that’s what essentially made me popular.

They simply weren’t represented. When I came along, it was basically an underground operation. I was doing it in the voice and Mort Sahl was doing it in San Francisco at the Hungry Eye and then Nichols and May came along and started doing it in clubs, beginning in Chicago, but it began in cabarets and my strip in the Voice. It evolved into black humor in novels and Bruce Jay Friedman and Philip Roth and others. Something was in the air and I just happened to be on the scene at the right time.

Q: How conscious were you of the scene at the time? Did you see yourself reflecting the cold war society at the time or was it just these were peoples I wanted to talk about?

A: It was a little of both. there was a consciousness that the way I felt, thought and reacted, not just politically but culturally, was simply not given voice to out there. It wasn’t reflected. So by giving voice to myself I was giving voice to an entire segment of a population simply had been denied. There was nothing unique about my own sensibility.

Q: Did you see yourself as part of that group?

A: Oh yes. When I started finding these people after I had begun my work, I felt very excited because up until then I felt in isolation. I then discovered there was Second City in Chicago, which I didn’t know anything about until I went there, and discovered it. They were doing what I was doing except they were doing it theatrically. My work became increasingly theatrical as I saw people like Mike and Elaine and second city.

Q: You haven’t done a strip like this for a long time. Do you miss being more political now?

A: No, because as the years went by, I gave up the idea that I could be an instrument of change and that was always an important part of what I did. Although I’d always been accused of cynicism, I never thought of myself as cynical. I was always full of hope and I always thought of these cartoons as cautionary lessons. By the time Gore and Bush were running against each other I had become cynical. I no longer have the hope I once had. I no longer believe in change as I once did. I’m having a second wave now with the Obama campaign, but at the time, I thought there was no point to me doing politics anymore because it wasn’t affecting anything. I was just getting my rocks off. I had better things to do.

Q: But you missed out on one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.
A: Oh, all of Iraq and Sept. 11. All I could do was express the rage and frustration that other people and other cartoonists like Tom Toles and Oliphant and some others were doing just brilliantly. I saw no point in echoing others who felt just as I did and doing quite a good job of it. I had by that time gotten involved in writing for children and thought that was the country’s and my future. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I wanted to say. Recently I had my first cartoon in the Voice in 11 years because they approached me, on Hillary Clinton and her campaign. That was a lot of pleasure. We’ve been talking about me doing a few others to the run-up of the convention. We’ll see how that works out.

Q: You’ve done comic strips, comic books, written novels and screenplays, children’s books and plays. What’s the one thread that connects all of these different works?

A: I think they’re all connected. It’s my own sensibility and also I think as I’ve analyzed it and tried to figure out what I feel comfortable with and what I don’t, these are forms that I loved by the time I was 12 years old, I could figure out a way of doing them, with the single exception of the adult novel, which requires a knowledge and power of description that is beyond me and always will be. But on the other hand I’ve written a memoir in the first person that is quite literary enough and because it’s my story I don’t have to describe a goddamn thing I don’t want to. And the writing is fine.

I love theater and I love movies and comics and old-time radio, which doesn’t exist anymore or I’d be writing for that. The forms I loved by the time I was 12 in most case could do except for the novel.

Q: But what sort of themes —

A: The themes always, or generally, have something to do with the individual dealing with authority in one form or another. How both authority and the individual would use language not to communicate directly but as a way of avoiding or defusing communication.

Q: It seems like there’s a real interest in power and how people try to wield power over each other, not just in the political strips, but in the gender war cartoons. There’s a fascination with how people attempt to wield power over themselves or other people.

A: And where it leads. The perfect example is Carnal Knowledge, where the narcissism and essential misogyny, particularly in the character played by Jack Nicholson, ends up in a kind of self-loathing, masturbatory isolation. But he’s got control.

Q: Fantagraphics is going to be doing four books of these?

A: So they claim.

Q: They’ve done a really impressive job of keeping your work in print.

A: With me and with others. And their production and stylization has gotten better and better over the years. They're really great. The Popeye series is terrific. The Krazy Kat series is beautiful. And they did a terrific collection of Ed Sorel’s work recently.

Q: I would imagine it’s incredibly flattering to have a publisher so devoted to you, but I wonder if it’s intimidating at the same time.

A: I suppose the reason it’s not intimidating and not in my consciousness is because I’m working as much today and probably harder than ever doing my current work. I’m working on my memoir, I’m also doing my first musical comedy. I’ve never done that before. It all comes together. It’s based on my first children’s novel, the Man in the Ceiling, which is about a boy cartoonist.

So what’s coming full circle is my first musical is about my first form, cartooning as a boy. It’s being produced by Walt Disney on Broadway. It’s this lovely future connecting to the past and the best part of my past.
Q: Sometimes I talk to cartoonists and if they’ve had a really big hit they can be really intimidated and feel like they’re constantly reminded of their past work when they’re working on their next book.

A: I’ve had similar conversations with Art Spiegelman and others. Somehow or other, that has never troubled me or made me have any kind of second thoughts about what I was going to do next. From the beginning, because I wasn’t successful with the strip until I was 28 or so — rather late for a lot of people — rather than being intimidated by success, I knew what it was for, which was to give me what I had never had before in my first 27 years, freedom. Freedom to do the work I wanted. If it wasn’t going to give me freedom; if it was going to give me success and fame and make me cautious, then what was the point in having it? Where would the fun be?

I was determined to have fun with this career and I was determined to play and have a good time. I was determined to go in whatever direction the work took me and not worry about acceptance or rejection. Mostly I’ve been able to do that. Financially from time to time, I’ve had to make deals just to feed my family, write screenplays I didn’t want to and fortunately they were never produced and I got the money anyway.

Q: Looking over your career, you’ve managed to stay really relevant as the years have gone on, unlike a number of your peers. What’s your secret?

A: The secret is I didn’t know there was a secret. There’s always a sense, however established I’ve been -- and I have no illusion about that, that I’m starting out -- that as I get older I feel more stupid, that as I feel more stupid I feel free to play and free to experiment and free to learn. When I feel I don’t know something, rather than that daunting me, it excites me to try to figure the whole thing out. When I come up against a problem I can’t solve, rather than it depressing me, I know that my job is if I can’t solve it is to figure a way around it so that everyone thinks I solved it when I know I didn’t. Because so much of what I do and what anybody in this business does is sleight of hand. Look this way and I’ll do something over here and you won’t even know I’ve done it. And that’s the fun. How you can pull the wool over their eyes and be honest at the same time. And honesty is a big part of what I try to do. I teach a class at Stony Brook South Hampton in Long Island called Humor and Truth. And that’s what it’s all about.

Q: I think that’s certainly one of the big appeals of your children’s books. They have a real emotional honesty to them.

A: Remember that passage from Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield reads a book and he wants to call the author up on the phone? Maybe he does, I forget. Because it’s the one person he can identify with. He holds onto this book. It’s the one version of life that relates to him. And of course, early Salinger was just that way for so many of his readers and that’s the role I envision myself playing with younger readers when I started my children’s books.

Q: What’s the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?

A: You ask where the freshness and relevance come from. It comes from assigning myself to have a good time at whatever I do. Not a pleasure. Some people have a bullshit detector. I have a "hate work" detector. If I’m not having a good time, I don’t want to do it. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. Sometimes while I’m having a good time I’m having a terrible time but the work essentially has to be done and I’m determined to do it because underneath it all it’s this great commitment because I’m in love with what I’m doing. I think being in love with it after all these years, and there are a number of older cartoonists, I was talking to Al Jaffee about this, feel the same way. Irwin Hasen, who is just about to turn 90. I love Irwin and he’s a spirit. That’s what I love about cartoonists. Arnold Roth. Cartoonists are in so many ways not grown-ups, except for the New Yorker ones, who are more grown ups.

I don’t make a distinction. Clearly there is one. It’s no more a distinction than writing plays, comic strips and screenplays. Something clicks in my head when I move from one form to another and I make the adjustment. Just as in writing a play, I’m making adjustments in characters’ voices as I move from one character to another. I just take on another identity. I do it as completely as I can to make it work for that character while telling the story I have to tell. And the same thing is true in working in any other form. Obviously there’s language I can’t use and nuanced relationships, but for that matter damaging in more serious ways that you can’t use in a kids book. But I know that. I also know how to get back to who I was and what I was at six and eight and ten and twelve. When you see my memoir which I hope will be out at the end of next year, you can see how completely I’m able to capture my own sensibility when I was [a child]. That was not a reach at all.

Q: You mostly work alone but you collaborate a lot as well. Do you have a preference? Do like them both equally?

A: Theater has been more fun because it is a collaborative form and also because you see something you put on paper live on stage and I never get over the excitement. And also it is in the mouths of actors. Monday of next week we’re having a reading of a play of mine I did in the 70s called Knock, Knock, which is a fractured fairy tale. My 23 year old daughter Halley, who is an actress, is going to have the female lead. She plays a fairy tale Joan of Arc against the male lead who’s going to be Kevin Kline and Peter Friedman. To see these wonderful actors doing my work and to see my daughter in a work that was written and performed before she was born, and which she does better than anyone who’s ever done it, because she’s performed it at Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago. There’s nothing as satisfying as that.

I love hanging around with actors and talking to them about the part and seeing what they add to what I’ve written, which, if they’re good actors, is always infinitely better than what I had in mind. What Jack Nicholson brought to his character in Carnal Knowledge, I didn’t dream anybody could do. It was beyond my highest hopes and expectations. My job can inspire other people to do a job that is remarkable. That’s what I find so exciting. I find it exciting and thrilling when I do my job as well as I can, but there’s an added zest to it doing the unknown where other people can take it and go further than you could.

Q: What about the downside?

A: The downside is if you don’t get people whose egos are involved. Instead of perfecting the work they’re interested in how they look. Or, if their performance isn’t going well, in saving themselves which means they make the wrong choices. But that’s the difference between getting first-rate people and second-rate and I’ve been luckier than most in getting first-rate. Working people like Mike Nichols and Alan Arkin, I can just sit back and let them take over and have a very good time. Very stimulating conversations about where things should go. When you’re in good hands, good things happen. If you’re not in good hands, then you’re dead.

Q: Can you tell?

A: You can tell from the second week on. It takes about two weeks. I’ve had some disasters with some really bad people, but I picked them.

Q: Comics are undergoing a real renaissance right now where people seem to be noticing that they’re a legitimate art form. Do you look around at any of it and see your handiwork? You were a pioneer in many ways.

A: It’s interesting. I was a pioneer who doesn’t seem to have many imitators. There’s no question that I introduced a level of seriousness, of maturity to the form that nobody had done before except for Gary Trudeau, but it didn’t invite a number of pseudo-Feiffers, the way that say Walt Kelly’s Pogo or Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts led to so many imitators. I haven’t had that many imitators. What I seem to do, which is quite enough for me, thank you, is give license to a whole group of young people to do work they might not have considered doing if I hadn’t been there in the first place. That’s a great feeling. The forms they work in and ways they go about it are not the way I ever would have done it, but that doesn’t matter.
Q: What do you mean by that? The graphic novel medium?

A: The graphic novel medium, the confessional treatment which works better with some people than it does with others. I think Blankets by Craig Thompson is an extraordinary piece of work. Other confessional books are just irritating because they’re too full of self-pity and narcissism. It just depends upon the artist getting away with it. Chris Ware is something of a genius and does the kind of work Raymond Carver would have written. Of course Art Speigelman when he’s doing what he should be doing, which is writing and drawing, instead of doing covers for the New Yorker.

Q: Does it surprise you that comics have finally attained this legitimacy?

A: Yes, it does surprise me. Over the years I was cynical enough to think that here and there there might be something elevated like Spiegelman’s Maus and then we’d go back to the condescension. But Art is really responsible for a breakthrough. And I think it happened both ways. First he gathered more serious critical attention, but also he gave as I did some 30 or 40 years earlier young cartoonists the ambitious push to try something a little bit different and a little harder.

Q: I think when Maus first came out people expected immediately there’d be this overflow and they didn’t realize it would take a generation or so before there’d be constant stuff coming out.
A: And the stuff being done in Europe is remarkable too. Even more sophisticated than we find here. Some of the stuff Drawn and Quarterly does is lovely stuff. A pleasure to look at.

Q: You mentioned the musical you’re working on, you talked about the possibility of returning to the Voice, what else, because that’s clearly not enough, are you working on these days?

A: Well, I finished my memoir and I’m in the editing process now. There’s the musical, and my daughter Kate wrote a book that I illustrated called Henry the Dog With No Tail. Which you should look up for your kids. Simon and Schuster put it out. We have a new book which I’ve been working on. It’s about something that happened to us when she was a little girl up on Martha’s Vineyard, called My Side of the Car. It looks like we’ll sell that and if we do I’ll illustrate it.

My wife Jenny wrote an adult book which I illustrated a few years ago, The Long Chalkboard, and she’s working on another story now. She’s about to have her first essay in the New Yorker too. In any case, if she gets this done and it works as a book I’ll do it. And I want to get back to my picture books for young kids. I haven’t done one in a long time. I haven’t done a picture book in about five years now and it’s irritating.

With this musical, I’ve fallen in love with the form and I hope to do more with the same collaborators.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

VG Review: 'Grand Theft Auto IV'

Rockstar, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rated M for Mature (blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol), $59.99.

I wouldn't call myself a "Grand Theft Auto" expert.

Still, I'm familiar enough with the series that, a few minutes into the newest sequel, "Grand Theft Auto IV," I knew how to steal a car. You just walk up to the automobile, push a button and throw the current driver out. Easy, right?

Seconds after trying it, however, the driver grabbed me by the shirt, pulled me back out of the car, got back in and sped off, cursing me all the way.

Clearly, the game was warning me: Stay on your toes.

It's those little details and unexpected twists that make "Grand Theft Auto IV" such a fantastic game. While it doesn't necessarily offer any new surprises in game play, it's a much richer and
involving experience than any of the previous games in the series, featuring a compelling story line, complex characters and an expansive, detailed city.

The city is what you'll notice once you pop the game in. It's hard not to be impressed with the detail that Rockstar brought to the table, creating a virtual rendition of New York called Liberty
City. Walking along its streets, there is the distinct sensation that you are a part of a fully realized world, right down to the pigeons and hot dog vendors.

But what's really impressive is the game's plot. In the past, the story and paper-thin characters have been among the weaker aspects of the series. I know plenty of folks, including myself, who gave up on the main story halfway through "Vice City" and decided to try out side missions or wreck havoc in general.

Not so here.

Niko Bellic is one of the most interesting and fully realized characters I've witnessed in a video game. With his loping gait and hang-dog expression, you feel an empathy for him that's impossible to achieve with, say, Mario.

Bellic arrives in the U.S. hoping to put his ugly past (he did bad things during an unnamed war in an Eastern European country) behind him. Quickly though, he finds himself embroiled in shady

A central difference between Niko and past "GTA" characters is you can sense that while he's not afraid of getting his hands dirty, he takes no joy in it, either. The result is that the game's violence carries more emotional weight than it has in the past.

Matched with that drama (and at times at odds with it) is the series' usual smart-aleck satire. Sly jabs at America's rampant consumerism abound. The Statue of Liberty, for example, has been renamed the "Statue of Happiness," and holds a coffee cup instead of a torch.

In fact, it's quite possible to see the game as a stinging commentary on the modern immigrant experience. To acquire the American dream now, Rockstar seems to be saying, means clawing your way to the top in pursuit of meaningless wealth and power.

Do I need to underline the fact that this game should be kept as far away from kids as possible? I'd no sooner put this in the hands of my children than I would a DVD of "Scarface," and I would hope most responsible parents would do the same.

I could go on for pages describing the wealth of cars, missions, multiplayer games, radio stations -- god, the radio stations! There's enough quality music here to fill several box sets, with everything from Fela Kuti to John Coltrane to Queen.

At one point I took on a mission to "deal with" my boss's daughter's unwanted boyfriend. I stepped into my car, "Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy came on the radio and my heart skipped a beat.

Ah, Liberty City. It was good to be back.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

VG Review: 'Boom Blox'

EA, for the Wii, rated E for Everyone (cartoon violence, cartoon mischief).

You know video games are a mainstream enterprise when a noted filmmaker and big-time entertainment mogul such as Steven Spielberg starts making them.

His debut, produced in collaboration with Electronic Arts, is "Boom Blox" for the Wii, an addictive puzzle game that lives up to that "fun for the whole family" tag line.

Best described as "Jenga in reverse," "Boom Blox" has players (at least initially) knocking down precarious towers of blocks in as few throws as possible.

The game makes good use of the Wii's controls here. Simply clicking on where you want to throw, then winding up your arm and releasing the A button can result in a hail of blocks.

Just when that starts to go stale, the game provides a number of variations so that you'll soon be blowing up blocks, pulling them apart, helping a block-shaped gorilla get to her babies as soon as possible or keeping a group of cute block-shaped kitties from being menaced by block-shaped skeletons.

To meet these goals, the game offers several tools. Red bomb boxes, for instance, will explode upon impact, while green ones explode only when they come in contact with one another.

Not every variation on the theme is successful. I found the skeet shooting levels, where you're firing indiscriminately at swiftly moving boxes or foes, to be irksome and overly difficult. One level, where I was playing some goofy variation on golf by spraying green boxes into one another with a hose, should have been dropped early in the development phase.

I much preferred sequences that required a bit of meditation, such as having to slowly remove the pieces of a teetering tower without letting the tiny cows on top fall to their doom.

Replay value is contained within the "Create" mode, where you can build a puzzle, using an intuitive selection of PhotoShop-like tools. Unfortunately, you can't post your handmade levels online, though you can send them to friends.

Despite some missteps, "Boom Blox" remains a highly entertaining and engrossing game that parents can share with their kids without cause for concern. I look forward to seeing what Spielberg and EA do next.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

VG Review: 'SingStar'

Sony, for PlayStation 3, rated T for Teen (lyrics, mild violence, suggestive themes), $39.99 or $59.99 (with microphones).

Sure, you could trek on out to the annual “American Idol” auditions in the hopes of acquiring fame and/or fortune, but why go to all that trouble when you can achieve a small measure of the former (if not the latter) from the comfort of your living room couch?

That’s the promise at any rate of “SingStar,” the new karaoke game for the PlayStation 3.

There have already been several “SingStar” titles out for the PlayStation 2 (“SingStar Rocks!,” “SingStar ’80s”) and this latest version doesn’t really do much to alter the formula.

As before, you sing along — using the provided USB microphones — to a variety of contemporary and classic pop and rock tunes (ranging from Amy Winehouse to Warrant) while watching the video play on the TV screen.

As with most games of this ilk, you’re graded on pitch more than anything else. A staggered series of horizontal lines guides you on how well you’re doing while the lyrics run across the bottom of the screen.

If you own a PlayStation EyeToy camera, you can also record yourself acting like a goofball while mangling the lyrics to “Toxic.”

So far, so familiar. What’s new this time around is the online component. Now you can download extra songs off the Net without having to exit the game, as well as post pictures, videos and audio files of your warbling to the community area.

The online store is a good idea in that it will, we hope, decrease the need to release expensive expansion packs every couple of months, though the price for individual songs — $1.50 — while not prohibitive, still seems rather high. Most songs on iTunes are only 99 cents after all.

The community area is a bit more interesting, if you enjoy watching people making fools of themselves (and I do). Most of the videos seem to be divided among people who can sing really well, people who can’t sing at all, cute kids trying to sing and people in Star Wars costumes dancing to the Scissors Sisters.

As fun as all that is, the online area is missing some heft. While the game does offer a two-player mode, it’s a bit anemic, and you can’t compete against other players online, which would really add a bit of bite (not to mention added value) to the proceedings.

Overall, “SingStar” is a solid if unexceptional music game that is best played with large groups of people. Unless you’ve got lots of folks stopping by your pad for fun and excitement, or you’ve got a yen to act like Bono, there’s little here to warrant purchase.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Monday, June 09, 2008

Graphic Lit: Bill Mauldin and 'Willie & Joe'

The soldier looks, quite frankly, like hell.

His shoulders are slumped, his uniform is disheveled and torn, there are bags under his eyes, and he’s sporting a five o’clock shadow.

He’s speaking to a seated medic, also looking rather tired and beat-up, who hands the standing man a box with a medal inside.

“Just gimme a coupla aspirin,” the soldier insists, “I already got a Purple Heart.”

The soldier is known simply as “Willie,” and for most of World War II, he and his pal “Joe” offered some of the most biting, insightful, honest and (let’s not forget) humorous commentaries on the war and the soldier’s life that’s ever been attempted.

Willie and Joe were the brainchild of Bill Mauldin, a fresh-faced kid from the Southwest who, upon joining the Army, found himself amazed at the inequities in the military and blessed with the opportunity to mock them in print. The result was some of the most indelible and important editorial cartoons ever published.

These cartoons have been collected in a handsome, oversized, two-volume slipcased set, “Willie & Joe: The WWII Years.” It might be the most important comic reprint project of the year.

Edited by Todd DePastino, the collection goes back to Mauldin’s early years and sheds light on how the cartoonist’s work developed over time.

His initial cartoons, done for the “45th Division News,” rely heavily on traditional gag structures and familiar stereotypes (the American Indian recruit talks in third person).

As the threat of war edges ever closer (Mauldin volunteered in 1940), however, all that starts to change. A greater attention to detail begins to show. His characters become less stock company types and more everymen. And he becomes more concerned with the plight of the lowly, beleaguered infantryman plagued by uppity, fatuous officers, surrounded by gunfire and hostile enemies and all but drowning in mud.

“Willie & Joe” offers a close look at a private’s life without seeing actual blood and guts (Mauldin once said he wanted to suggest “that there were bodies just offstage”).

As a result, Mauldin’s work, by this point serialized in the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper, became a sensation. He was adored both on the front lines and the home front and became the youngest cartoonist ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. For those fighting and dying in Italy and France, Willie, Joe and Mauldin’s other “dogfaces” were their mouthpieces.

Though many officers saw the good in Mauldin’s work, others were enraged by what they viewed as his insubordination and rabble-rousing, none more so than Gen. George S. Patton. Things got so bad that ultimately Eisenhower had to arrange a man-to-man sit-down between the two in order to cool overheated heads.

That meeting is delightfully recounted in DePastino’s new biography of the cartoonist, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.” This engaging book makes an excellent companion piece to “Willie & Joe.”

After the war, Mauldin retired from cartooning for a while. He wrote several books. He acted in John Huston’s adaptation of “The Red Badge of Courage.” He took up aviation and even ran for Congress.

Eventually, however, he returned to the drawing table, becoming an editorial cartoonist, first for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then the Chicago Sun-Times. Outspoken on civil rights and other liberal causes, he garnered a second Pulitzer Prize during this period.

But it was his World War II cartoons that will be the most cherished and remembered. Perhaps it’s simply because they were the most needed.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

VG Review: 'Mario Kart Wii'

"Mario Kart Wii"
Nintendo, for Nintendo Wii, rated E for Everyone (comic mischief), $49.99.

Next to the actual, "official" Mario platform games, the "Mario Kart" series is probably the most popular spinoff featuring the red-hatted plumber.

So it's no big surprise that Nintendo would release a version of the go-kart racing game for its current Wii console. Nor is it surprising, given past games' level of quality, that "Mario Kart Wii" is an entertaining game, though longtime fans might find it a bit more predictable than newcomers will.

The basic concept of the game remains unchanged. You pit yourself in a cartoonish grand-prix style series of races against up to 11 other players.

The tracks are littered with hazards. And the ability to grab and throw random items such as banana peels and turtle shells at other players means that it's easy to go from last to first in a matter of seconds (sadly, the reverse also is true).

It wouldn't be a Wii game, of course, unless Nintendo came up with some fancy control scheme. Here, said scheme comes in the form of a "Wii Wheel," a piece of plastic shaped like a steering wheel. You simply slide your Wii remote into a large slot in the middle and voila! Now you can steer your cart as you would a real car.

I found this setup to be intuitive and responsive. I had next to no problems controlling my vehicles and found it to be much more graceful than my past experience mashing buttons and pushing joysticks.

There are a few other new inclusions, most notably the addition of bikes, which are a tad more difficult to steer than the kart, adding extra challenge to the game.

The other notable extra is the ability to go online in a variety of multiplayer races, including tournaments. The game doesn't feature any voice or chat integration, robbing it of potential social interaction (though those tired of trash talking might be glad about that).

If there's a downside to the game, it's that it's overly familiar. While the new tracks are inventive and varied, there's a bit too much reliance on older courses.

The game also feels a little bit dumbed down and oversimplified, a deliberate attempt, no doubt, to allow younger players and those new to the series to play without any difficulty.

But that last gripe shouldn't be too surprising. "Mario Kart Wii" is ultimately designed to be a "family friendly" game -- one that parents can play with their kids without feeling confused or like they have to shut off their brains. In that regard it succeeds admirably.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Thursday, June 05, 2008

VG Review: 'Wii Fit'

Nintendo, for the Wii, rated E for Everyone (comic mischief), $89.99.

Video game companies have made a few attempts at creating games that would encourage cardiovascular exercise, but none have been as successful as Nintendo’s new “Wii Fit” game.

The title has been a surprise hit, selling out almost immediately in its first week. It remains a hard-to-find item online, selling upward of $155.

What’s all the fuss about? I spent a week with the game to see if it was worth the purchase (and would perhaps even help shed some of my unwanted pounds). Here’s a day-by-day account of my travails with the machine.


"Wii Fit” comes with an 8-pound “balance board” — a wireless, pressure-sensitive peripheral you stand on while playing. After installing the (provided) batteries and taking a moment to sync the board up with the Wii console, I’m off and running (well, not quite yet).

As the game starts, a little virtual version of the board waves one of its corners at me, stresses the importance of proper balance and asks if I want to determine my “Wii Fit Age.” Sure, why not?

After choosing a virtual character or “Mii” to represent myself, I add in my height and other data. The game then measures my weight and BMI (Body Mass Index), and asks me to perform a series of tricky balancing exercises.

It turns out that not only am I overweight (though thankfully only borderline), my Wii Fit Age is an embarrassing 50 (I’m actually 37).

Nintendo has clearly taken several pages out of its “Brain Age” series for the portable DS system for “Wii Fit,” as the structure is very similar, right down to putting colorful stamps on your calendar each time you take the body test.

A few yoga and stretching exercises confirm that I am indeed the clumsy oaf I always suspected I was. The “tree” pose in particular seems designed to ensure I look as foolish as possible. Thankfully everyone in my house was asleep at the time.


Much better. My Wii Fit Age is down to a more manageable 40.

The game is divided into four sections: “Yoga,” “Strength Exercises,” “Aerobics” and “Balance Games.” There are only a few selections available as you begin, but the more time you spend, the more games and exercises you unlock.

The yoga and strength exercises are dominated by bland trainers, who, like Thomas the Tank Engine, have the creepy ability to talk without moving their lips.

It’s important to note that the emphasis here is on toning your muscles and improving your overall posture and balance. This isn’t a game that will turn you into Charles Atlas, let alone Jack LaLanne.


I’m surprised to discover that the Hula-Hoop game, wherein I swing my hips vigorously, Elvis-style, gives you quite the workout. I’m actually sweating here.

In general I find I prefer the aerobic and balance games to the trainer-based exercises. The latter do, however, provide a decent warm-up to the former, so I keep at them, though success on some of the trickier exercises remains elusive.

Oh yeah, my Wii Fit Age is now 31. Boo-ya!


An unforeseen consequence of the game is that I’m thinking more often about how I treat my body. I’m more aware of my calorie intake and over all fitness levels than I was before.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from snacking on Pop-Tarts at work today. The result: My weight shot up and my age is now 37. Oh well. Time for some push-ups!


My wife has become intrigued by the game as well. Though, like me, she’s a bit unsteady on her feet in some games, she is impressed with its overall setup and design.

“You’ve brought home other exercise video games,” she says, “but this is the first one that actually makes me want to use it regularly.”


Now my kids have joined the “Wii Fit” craze. My son loves the marble tilt game (move left and right to send the marbles down the hole) while my daughter seems to take a perverse interest in jogging (running in place while holding the Wii controller). Both love the ski jump game (stand up from a crouch at the precise moment to execute a winning jump — no real jumping please).

I, meanwhile, have unlocked a rather addictive boxing game. I’m also intrigued by a balance game where I glide down a treacherous river in a bubble. One false move toward the walls and it’s over.


I still have a number of games and exercises to unlock, but I think it’s safe to call “Wii Fit” a success. Though my weight hasn’t decreased significantly, my posture and sense of balance have noticeably improved.

I doubt I’ll be training every day, but I do plan to keep “Wii Fit” around the house. If I didn’t, my family would never let me hear the end of it.

Easy to set up and use; balance board is well-designed and neat way to train; exercises are fun. 

Trainers lack personality; you can’t string together workouts to create a routine; some games get repetitious. 

“Wii Fit” won’t turn you into a bodybuilder, but it’s a great, family-friendly way to get off the couch and start working off that flab. 

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Graphic Lit: Memoirs, memoirs

Stroll into any big-chain bookstore these days and peruse its stacks of new releases and you'll notice that memoirs are hot stuff these days, controversies about their potential truthfulness aside.

It's not just prose books that are jumping on the autobiography bandwagon.

The success of books such as "Fun Home" have led many artists to attempt to relate their personal experiences in a sequential art format.

Jeffrey Brown is probably one of the best-known practitioners in this field, having made a name for himself by chronicling various cringe-inducing love affairs in books like "Clumsy" and "Unlikely."

His latest is "Little Things: A Memoir in Slices." As the title suggests, Brown decidedly focuses on the minor, at times quotidian events of life -- a camping trip in the mountains, witnessing a
terrible car accident, an unexpected illness.

Drawing in a sketchy, cartoony style, Brown has a keen eye for detail that makes his stories come alive. Ultimately "Little Things" seems to be about the ways minor, unexpected events can force us to reassess or even alter our lives.

At the outset of the book, Brown is your typical lonely single guy. By the end, he's a new dad. Even he seems surprised by how he got from A to B.

Philippe Dupuy's "Haunted" is much more hallucinatory and experimental than "Little Things" though it's no less autobiographical.

A Frenchman, Dupuy is best known for his collaborations with Charles Berberian, particularly on the "M. Jean" series (collected in North America under the title "Get A Life").

Striking out on his own, Dupuy loosens up his style considerably, to the point where the drawings have a desperate, dashed-off quality, as though he's attempting to get the images on paper as quickly as they enter into his brain.

Ostensibly a loose collection of daydreams and ruminations hadwhile out jogging, "Haunted" is suffused with a surreal sense of horror and despair (dismemberment is a running theme throughout the book), whether it involves Dupuy directly or the strange cast of anthropomorphic characters that occasionally pop up.

Reading "Haunted," it's obvious that Dupuy is wrestling with personal demons that, while familiar, remain subtly enigmatic. The result is an unsettling but compelling read that lives up to its title. It will stick around in your brain for a few days.

Rather than go for the straightforward or experimental approach, perhaps the best option in penning a memoir is to fictionalize everything, as Canadian Michel Rabagliati does in his "Paul" series.

Obviously a stand-in for Rabagliati, the "Paul" books follow the young man as he stumbles through school, matures into a young man and finds a career and true love.

The latest entry in the series, "Paul Goes Fishing," finds the titular character and his wife attempting to start a family during a lengthy fishing vacation.

The trip provides Paul with the chance for numerous ruminations and remembrances, and the book frequently diverges into long digressions as Paul remembers influential events from his past or that of his friends and family.

Despite the constant side excursions, the book is an utter delight and my favorite of the three. Paul's everyman qualities are endearing and Rabagliati has a lovely rail-thin line that conveys a good deal of nuanced emotion.

In fictionalizing his life story, Rabagliati has arrived at a more honest story than a pure memoir could probably provide.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Graphic Lit: 'Final Crisis' and 'Trinity'

Sorry for the radio silence. Work and other committments (including regular postings at Blog@) have been kicking my tail lately. I've got a ton of columns and reviews to post though, and hope to do so over the next few days. For now we'll start with last week's Graphic Lit, which offered a "Final Crisis" introduction for the uninitiated.

First there was “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Then it was “Identity Crisis.” Next came “Infinite Crisis.”

Now we have “Final Crisis,” DC Comics’ latest and greatest superhero crossover.

Details have been scanty about exactly what sort of crisis Superman, Batman and the rest of the DC pantheon face this time around, but executive editor Dan DiDio had some hints.

“We’ve been describing the story as the day evil won,” he said from his offices in New York City. “The story is what happens on the day that the heroes lose. How do they regroup? How do they fight back? What if the odds are so insurmountable that it’s not even worth fighting anymore? What we want to do is explore the true nature of what it takes to be a hero.”

The new seven-issue limited series is notable not just for its promise to shake up the status quo, but for the fact that it has an impressive talent roster behind it.

Writer Grant Morrison (“The Invisibles,” “Seven Soldiers”) and artist J.G. Jones (cover artist for “52”) are highly regarded within the comics community for their craft and willingness to take risks, meaning that “Final Crisis” might be an artistic success as well as a slam-bang summer blockbuster.

As you’d expect with an event of this nature, “Final Crisis” will also inspire a number of spin-off books and related miniseries like “Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds” and “Final Crisis: Rage of Red Lanterns,” giving readers a chance to see how various characters are reacting to the events in the main story line.

“If you’ve been away for a while you’ll want to peek in to see what the fuss and excitement is about,” DiDio said. “We’re hoping it generates interest.”

If it doesn’t, DC hopes you’ll be interested in “Trinity,” its weekly series that debuts next Wednesday.

Written by industry veterans Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, the series is a stand-alone story involving the company’s top three iconic characters — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Unlike last year’s weekly series, “Countdown,” “Trinity” will be a self-contained story, though there will be repercussions felt in the characters’ main books as the series progresses.

“I love the weekly format,” DiDio said. “There is a real hunger and interest for weekly comics. A lot of people use it as an excuse for stopping at a comic shop.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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