Sunday, 29 December 2013

A Year in Review, Part One – Performance Evaluation

My first comic review! Is it any good?
I don't know. I don't have the
courage to read it!
I’ve very surprised I’ve blogged consistently for more than an entire year. I say more than a year because while my first post only went up late last January, I started working on blog content back in December of 2012. I didn’t think I would have the personal discipline nor the proper skills required for reviewing comics and novels on a regular basis. I went a bit nuts right out of the gate and I had what I now consider a rather high output. I’ve toned things down about one third through the year with the intent of keeping my life balanced. I don’t want blogging to take over my world. Sometimes it’s nice to read something knowing you’re not going to write something about it. Other times, I read something and a post immediately forms in my mind. At the end of everyday though, I don’t want to pressure myself to write about everything I read or watch.

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to since last January has been my Best of the Year list. I really like reading Best of Year lists. They never completely satisfy but the nice thing about lists is that they’re very personal. You can take a group of people who’ve all read the same comics all year long and you’ll end up with different lists. The problem is that I’ve stopped buying single issues since around the same time I started writing Shared Universe Reviews. My reading habits have been greatly affected by this change. I have not read nearly as many superhero comics this year and I’ve also read a lot less titles that I used to. On top of that, while I was transitioning from single issues to trades, I stopped reading series I really liked which I’m sure had I continued reading them in single issues I would be including them on my list of best comics of 2013. I’m thinking specifically of Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang and Conan the Barbarian by Brian Wood and a rotating group of artists.

By choosing to stop buying single
issues, I had to stop reading such excellent
comics as Wonder Woman. One of these
days i'll have to pick up the trades and
continue where I left off.
Not only has my change in the comic format I buy affected my readings habits but it will also have an impact on my Best of the Year list. The biggest difference from what I intended a year ago is the inclusion of novels. I’ve read approximately the same number of novels I usually do but I’ve blogged about them just as much or slightly more than I’ve blogged about comics. I’ve got to take stock of that. Some of the best end of year lists take stock of the different types of entertainment. You can’t easily compare television series to movies; likewise I don’t think you can easily compare ongoing series, mini-series, original graphic novels and novels. I’m going to break down my list based on collections of comics, OGNs and novels. I’ll also break down the novels by science fiction and fantasy. As an added bonus, I’ll provide a similar list of the worst things I’ve read this year. I want to take the time to note that only comics and novels I’ve read this year are on the list. Some things I’ve blogged about last winter won’t apply because I read them last December (specifically Saga of the Swamp Thing and Darwyn Cooke’s comic book adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels (I didn’t get a chance to buy Parker: Slayground which came out this year). Comics include collections of comics that were originally published monthly prior to 2013 or collections that were released in 2013.

Before I get to my lists, I want to take the time to review the work I intended to do based on my initial Mission Statement and what kind of reviews actually popped up on the blog. Simply looking at the content of the blog as is, there aren’t as many comics as I wanted. I really wanted to focus on comics and I didn’t stick to that at all. There are as many non-comic book related post as there are comic book posts and . . . that’s ok. It’s more closely representative of who I am. I don’t exclusively read comics. I read all sorts of things and Shared Universe Reviews, as it is today, shows that.

Likewise, I intended to reread some of my comic book collection and I didn’t do a whole lot of that. It’s not all bad, I did some but not a whole lot. Times where I did reread something was because a new volume of something was published. I didn’t focus on it but it was there. I’m currently rereading Mouse Guard because I’ve acquired the last volume of the series proper and the second volume of the Legends of the Guard series. I’m also been working with my sister on a rather large reread project which will hopefully make an appearance on SUR by the summer but that remains to be seen. I’m a rather distracted reader and I find it difficult to focus on one series from start to finish without taking a break.

There are two areas that I find I succeeded quite well in. One of them had to do with writing blog content I would like to read. Most comics blog focus on the most recent single issues of the most bland and generic comics out on the stands, superheroes. I love superheroes but they’re rarely well written or as engaging as people pretend they are. I like to read things with strong storytelling skills on display or creators doing what they do best, which is creating new comics. Comics need more creators like Fred Chao, David Petersen, Brandon Graham and Paul Pope. Different styles and different genres are all enjoyable in their own right, but what makes a really good comic is something that challenges the writers and artists as well as the reader. There are definitively always be superhero comics on SUR, but I’m glad to see I didn’t automatically focus on them.

Where it all started! The first Star Trek
novel is as good a place as any to
star reading Star Trek books!
The other area I find I did well in was the variety of the blog content. I started more blog projects that I can realistically handle. Projects might not be the best word for it. It’s more of a category or groupings of blog post. One of them I seem to have more or less abandoned, the PokéJournal. I’m not done with it. I want to get back to it but they’re very time consuming, more so than a regular review. Another one that seems to have lost steam is the Kung Fu Corner, a page where I review kung fu movies. I’ve stopped blogging about kung fu movies because my DVD collection was nearly inaccessible to me but I’ve received quite a nice gift from my fiancé and my parents which has helped me organize my collection. I’m hoping to get back on track with those in the New Year. I’ve also got the Blog Fantastic project which is more of a publicized version of a self-motivational tool to explore more series and writers from a genre I loved as a teenager but lost touch once I went off to post-secondary. I’ve had some pleasant surprised and great disappointments this year but I’ll write more on that later. My output of BF blogs this year was focused on revisiting series and writers I know I liked. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series was the only writer and series that were completely new to me. I plan on maybe finishing the Earthsea series next year and continuing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time despite my disappointment on the first novel in the series. As I mentioned above, I have a secret project I’m working on with my sister and on top of all that I keep ploughing ahead with regular reviews of comics and novels. I’ve had a busy year and I’m proud of the output. This might sound like a lot of self-congratulatory back patting but I need it. My first lesson in blog writing was that it’s kind of like work and because my blog is young and I’m still trying to build a regular readership, it all seems to go unappreciated.

I want to take the time to talk about the biggest surprise I had while blogging in the last year: Star Trek. Where the heck did that come from? Actually, the question is more for your benefit, I know exactly how that came to be. The primary reason I changed my comics buying habits is financial. It’s affected how I read comics and it’s also made me think more about the price to hours of enjoyment ratio of a comic. I would said that generally the ratio is higher with novels and so I started to pick up more novels that I usually do in order to get a higher ratio with my monthly book purchase. In addition to this, I moved at the end of March and I discovered a used book store near where I work. A third elements comes into play which are the blogs that I read. One of my favourite blogs is They have a wide variety of content and some of their regular bloggers consistently post very enjoyable reviews and articles. Some of these focused on Star Trek. I didn’t take much time for me to discover that the used book store had hundreds of science fiction and fantasy titles for cheap. I started to mine that book store for all it’s worth. Inexpensive books that also happen to be entertaining reads that are more on the lighter side. Star Trek novels are ideal for the casual reader and great for blogging because, so far, they’re filled with interesting ideas and character moments which in turn become content for reviews.

Part of this year-end review is to help me reassess my goals for 2014. My goals are as followed:

1-Stay the course. I’ve spread out my interested nicely but I need to maintain the variety of the content on SUR.

2-Bring back some of the focus on comics while maintaining the variety of genres and creators.

3-Give Star Wars novels and The Wheel of Time another chance. That’s something I’ve already started. One of my friends gave me books he no longer wanted with the suggestion I bring them to the used book store for in store credits. I did just that during the holidays and I came back with another the third volume of The Wheel of Time, a Redwall novel, two Star Trek movie novelizations and a little stack of Star Wars. I did some research and I came up with a list of Star Wars novels that I think I will enjoy. If it doesn’t work now, it might be the end of my flirtation with the Expanded Universe and I’ll stick to the movies (well, the first six episodes anyway).

4-Complete and post the Secret Sibling blog project.

5-Get guest contributors to the blog. I have nerdy friends but I need to convince them to contribute to SUR. Guys, all I need is one post and it can be on nearly anything. You know you want to do it.

In a few days, I share my Best of the Year list!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Crater XV review

Part of my appreciation of Far Arden, the comic that precedes this one, had to do with writer/artist Kevin Cannon’s creation of the nearly 400 page comic. He held a series of personal 24 Hour Comic challenges, one per month, which eventually led him to create a much longer work. With its sequel, Crater XV, you can clearly see that Cannon had more time to write, draw and work out the story as whole before putting pen to paper. The art is crisp, but it maintains the same cartoon style and frivolous energy of Far Arden. The story is also different. It’s not one main story chugging along with smaller stories being added to it. It’s not built the same way as the previous comic. Multiple stories are introduced early on and they progress in parallel to one another regularly and eventually they all come together. There’s a sense of momentum that builds and continues to build into a grand conclusion.

Far Arden wrapped up quite nicely. I can’t recall a part of the story that Cannon didn’t wrap up and because of this, I had no clue what Crater XV was going to be about. Where else could the story go? The title and cover art suggesting space exploration. My first reaction was less than enthusiastic. Space exploration? Army Shanks is a hardened sailor, not an astronaut. My second thought was more positive. At least Cannon will avoid rehashing the same old story. The actual story has very little to do with the plot of Far Arden but it retains the storytelling style and surprisingly flows forth from the events that took place during that first story. Shanks is deeply troubled by the events of Far Arden and he’s even contemplating self-imposed exile in the opening pages of Crater XV and starts to act on it. Of course, being the star of the series, Shanks gets over his problems but he does so with incredible difficulty. After reading both comics, it’s very easy to understand why Shanks is sometimes a jerk; he’s had a very difficult life.

Everything I enjoyed about Shanks’s first story also applies to Crater XV. I love the energy of the comic. I love the zany over-the-top feeling of it all and I’m blown away by the sheer imagination of the story. How all of the different plots fit into a coherent story about space exploration, orphans, spies, clean energy, dealing with death, and so many other things is just mind boggling. Had I not just read this comic, I wouldn’t believe all of those ideas could seamlessly fit together into a larger story. What makes Crater XV a special comic isn’t that dozens of interesting ideas are thrown together; it’s that they’re connected through human interactions and real emotion. I understand Shanks better at the end of the story as I did at the beginning. I understand other characters better at the end than I did at their introduction in the series.

Though I’m only really talking about Shanks, most of the characters have an interesting progression from the beginning of Crater XV to the end. I’m only talking about the old seadog on the cover because I don’t want to spoil anything. Most of the main characters in Crater XV are entirely new. The scale of the story is huge but it’s all centered on characters. The plotting is also spectacular. Cannon continuously undermines your expectations to wonderful effect. The ending of Far Arden was completely unexpected and though I’m really glad Cannon didn’t repeat the same kind of twist ending (I’m not even sure I can call it that because the ending, in retrospect, was rather organic in its development) he provides the reader with regular little twists and turns along the way.

Parts of the comic are absolutely charming because of the emotional undertones which are evenly spread throughout the comic. Scenes like the ones at the orphanage have heart breaking and gut busting scenes taking place on the same page. With Far Arden I was impressed with Cannon’s ability to write an improvised story that had so much energy, heart and fun that also managed to be a good story that had a distinct beginning, middle and end. With Crater XV, Cannon surprised me yet again but this time it was for many of the same reasons as before in addition to his skill in writing believable human drama amidst all of the resurrected space exploration programs, high sea adventures and hilarious mayhem taking place once again in the Canadian high arctic. The situations in which the characters create for themselves are ludicrous but Cannon deals with them with such earnestness that I can’t help but share their pain and their joy. I was sceptical that Cannon would be able to pull off a sequel to the impressive Far Arden but he pulls it off. Cannon’s imagination is seemingly limitless and his cartooning style is very endearing. It’s a killer combination and it would delight fans of adventure stories for many more years. If you haven’t taken the time to read Far Arden, give it go but pick up a copy of Crater XV at the same time because you’ll be looking for it next. 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Doomsday World review

The behind-the-scenes story of Doomsday World the first collaborative Star Trek novel is more interesting than the novel itself. It was written by Carmen Carter, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman and Robert Greenberger during TNG’s first and second seasons and while it doesn’t succeed as a good Star Trek novel, it’s nonetheless an interesting Star Trek curiosity. In the introduction written by Greenberger, he shares the story behind the writing of Doomsday World. The writers were inspired by a shared fictional universe in which many writers contribute stories and narratives with the intent of creating a larger fictional tapestry which can provide seemingly endless entertainment to readers due to the scope of the world building and the multitude of characters which all co-exist. Star Trek is a good example of a shared universe since dozens of writers have all contributed stories to several of the series both on television, film, games and novels.

Greenberger goes on to specify that they were more interesting in something akin to the Wild Cards science fiction series edited by George R. R. Martin. Wild Cards is a series of anthologies which include several stories by many writers between two covers, all of them taking place in the same shared universe. Greenberger and his friends had the idea of writing a single novel with three or four plots all of them connected and written by different authors. Although a handful of writers showed interest for the project, nothing was done for several months until Greenberger decided to write an outline. Once the outline was done, sub-plots were assigned or chosen and the writing began. Once the manuscript was completed, Friedman did a bit of a rewrite to smooth out the inconsistencies in the tone and writing styles. I have to give credit to the writers; it’s surprising that they managed to write a book that didn’t feel like it was written by four individuals. Especially considering that the segments were not as clearly defined as Greenberger’s introduction let on (you can read more about that here).

The downside of this collaborative effort, I believe, is that Carter, David, Friedman and Greenberger were too busy on trying to make their project work; they forgot to write an interesting Star Trek story. The Enterprise visit the artificial planet Kirlos to assist the Federation with an archaeological study of the planet to uncover how and why the planet was constructed. The planet is populated by the Sullurh, descendants of the Ariantu (the race that built Kirlos) and colonist from the Federation of Planets and from the K’vin Hegemony. A conspiracy plot develops and they try to frame the away team which is made up of La Forge, Data and Worf.

To everyone’s surprise, descendants of the Ariantu return to Kirlos. The Sullurh are also descendants of the Ariantu. They are the ancestors of the Ariantu that stayed on Kirlos. Over the five millennia since the creation of Kirlos, the Sullurh has progressively and intentionally changed their culture and their society to distinguish themselves from the Ariantu. They feared the arrival of the K’vin from their home world nearby would visit Kirlos and the Sullurh didn’t want to be recognized as descendants of the age-old enemies of the K’vin Hegemony. None of that really matters now since Ariantu have arrived. It’s so weird that the writers point out that the Sullurh intentionally changed their culture. You would think that 5,000 years of progress would have made them sufficiently distinguishable from the old Ariantu. Following the terrorist actions and the unexpected visit of the Ariantu, the delicate diplomatic balance of Kirlos crumbles and chaos ensues.

I have no interest in the plot what so ever. The idea of an artificial planet which was constructed to be a weapon is interesting but the story that takes place on and around Kirlos could easily have been told without the planet. The idea of a world being a weapon is poorly integrated into the story. I don’t see how the story benefitted from taking place on and around an artificial planet.

The book suffers due to a plot that is at times boring and needlessly complicated. As if that wasn't enough, the characters act nothing like they did on the TV series. Data is concerned with learning to be more authoritative after realizing that this mission is his first command of an away team. It's ridiculous. I really don't think Data would care because it doesn't help him understand the human condition in any substantial way. La Forge is similarly out of character. You would think that being the chief engineer aboard a Starfleet vessel he would be more than a little curious as to the mechanical composition of the artificial planet. Instead he plays a love sick puppy infatuated with his former archaeology professor. Speaking of archaeology, why the hell isn't Picard part of the away team? His interest in archaeology was established early on in the series and even though it's uncommon for the captain to be part of the away team, there are precedents of him doing so. The only character that doesn't act completely out of character is Worf but even he’s been better written elsewhere. 

I would qualify Doomsday World as the least favourite Star Trek novel I’ve ever read. The idea of a collaborative novel written by several writers who have experience writing Star Trek stories has quite a bit of appeal but the execution left me cold. Three of the four collaborators, David, Friedman and Greenberger, wrote another novel together: Star Trek: The Disinherited which is a TOS novel. I can only assume that Doomsday World receive a positive response during its initial release which is why another multi-writer novel exists but I really hope The Disinherited is a better book because I’ve included it on my list on my to read list because of David’s inclusion as one of the writers. At the very least it will be interesting for me to go back to a novel that takes place during TOS since I’ve spent a great deal of time watching and reading TNG in the last few months.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Mara by Brian Wood review

I like Brian Wood's writing. I don't enjoy all of it, some of his indie comics aren’t really to my liking, but some of his other series like Northlanders, DMZ and Conan the Barbarian are just excellent. Wood has written many non-superhero series and that's one of the reasons I've followed him as a writer. When well written I really enjoy superhero comics but it's nice to have a few writers whose body of work isn’t entirely superhero from which I can select comics to read when I’m feeling for something other than tights. That’s exactly the reason why I picked up Mara. All I knew about the comic going in was that it was set in the not so distant future where sports are at the center of attention. It’s about a female volley ball player in the future, it’s written by Brian Wood and it has a pretty good cover drawn by the same artist who did the interior art, Ming Doyle.

I didn’t know that Mara was a superhero comic when I picked it up but unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is. Even more unfortunate, it’s not very good.

I’m not sure what story Wood was trying to tell with Mara. To be honest, I’m not sure he knew. The comic I read in the first half of the collection is radically different from the one I read in the second half. It’s different in the story being told, the message that story carries and the overall tone. It was so strange to see a comic evolve from a futuristic satire of the media, the entertainment and  sport industries and power and politics to a haphazardly thrown together story about the world’s first superhuman and the god complex she develops. I think that part of the problem is Wood never really takes the time to create a future world. He sets up enough of the future world to allow for us to follow Mara from one plot point to the next. It all feels so rigid and mechanical.

Are those paramedics or volleyball
players who have excellent first aid skills?
If sports have become so important in the future to the point of being the number one thing people focus on throughout the world, without exception, why are we only shown volleyball? Are other sports not important? Similarly, Mara seems to be the only sports celebrity. I can’t understand that she’s the most famous of all the other athletes, but for to be the only one? The poorly constructed vision of the future creates disbelief at an alarming rate. Why are volleyball stadiums giant flying stadiums? What possible benefit could there be for having a volleyball court on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier? What’s most frustrating about these criticisms I’m pointing out is that they could easily have been address if Wood had concentrated on telling the story of the first half, without the second half. He would have been able to embellish the story, the world and the characters. Mara is a flat, flat character, they all are, really. Ingrid is the only character that interested me and only because she was the only one to show some emotion.

Brian Wood wasn’t the only creator to drop the ball on Mara. Ming Doyle’s art is equally disappointing. While Wood’s writing was inconsistent, Doyle’s art is overly consistent. All the woman and men look the same, as if they were created from a mould. Sure, some of the players on Mara’s volleyball team are shorter, but their body type is the same. Likewise the designs for they volleyball uniform and military uniforms all look the same. They even us similar colour patterns (this could be a decision of the colourist and I do not attribute blame to Doyle, but it adds to my overall dislike of the art). In a scene Mara is in an ambulance and the look and colours of her sports uniform and the uniforms the paramedics are wearing are near identical.

Doyle isn’t very good at drawing bodies in motion. Significant portions of the comic deal with athletes in motion and that doesn’t come across in the art. Everything looks stiff and static. Likewise the more superhero centric sections are also filled with stiff poses. Some of those static images work well. I really like the cover, it help to convince me to give Mara a try. I took a look at Doyle’s tumblr and it confirms the feelings I have towards her art, not only on Mara, but her overall. She does good static images but as soon as I see a sample of her comic pages something is missing. She’s not a storyteller. There is a difference between a single image and two or more images in sequential order. She’s good at one but struggling with the other.

These world class athletes move with the
gracefulness of socially awkward teens. 
Mara is a comic that has a few interesting ideas but Wood was unable to take those ideas and create a story with them. The final product is composed of two three issue stories (or thereabouts) that are sandwich together with a force plot holding them together. Neither of the stories gets to shine and both feel at the same time rushed and decompressed. The first story doesn’t have an ending and is constantly trying to transform itself into the second story which doesn’t have a beginning and rushes towards the end. Meanwhile the art by Ming Doyle presents a bland vision of the future and is serviceable at best. Stories set in the future can always provide interesting designs but Doyle limits herself to a repeating patterns and designs for clothing, body type and backgrounds. Her art isn’t bad but it’s bland, lacking energy and emotion. Mara was a comic that had potential but the execution left me cold, uninterested and emotionally distant. 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Johnny Hiro volume 2 – The Skills to Pay the Bills review

I wasn’t expecting another volume of Johnny Hiro so soon. Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’m actually quite thrilled. The first volume was published in the summer of 2009 by AdHouse Books and republished more recently as Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hiro in the summer of 2012 by Tor Books. I remember thinking while reading the first volume that it would be unlikely that another volume would be released since I hadn’t heard of any new stories about Hiro other than that one volume. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention because Tor Books released a second volume in October. What a nice surprise it was. I hope this means Fred Chao is hard at work on yet another volume of this very enjoyable comic.

Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills is slightly more serious in tone than the first volume. It still has its fair share of funny moments and chaotic big city energy even when scenes take place in confined areas such as Gracie Mansion. That’s not to say that the stories have changed, but just like their main character, they’ve grown up a bit. The same can be said for Chao who tells more challenging stories about Hiro and Mayumi’s struggle for a better life in New York. Another difference between the two volumes is that Chao develops the rest of the cast. We learn a considerable amount of backstory on Hiro’s boss, Mr. Masago; so much, in fact, that The Skills to Pay the Bills is as much Masago’s story as Hiro’s.

In the first volume we were introduced to Hiro and Mayumi, a cute young couple living in New York. They were just trying to settle in then and by the end of the book, they had a chance to do just that. The second volume is about Hiro’s existential crisis. Chao doesn’t keep the focus squarely on Hiro, he uses it as an opportunity to show that Hiro isn’t the only character that’s questioned the meaning and direction of his life. A couple chapters deal with Masago’s past ranging from his first job as a chef to his first partnership. It also deals with the betrayals and difficulties of his previous life in Japan and how that hardened him and left him the cold owner of a sushi restaurant in New York. It’s interesting that Masago and Hiro being in two different parts of their lives are having a similar period of growth as a result of their emotional turmoil.

I might be wrong when I say the book shifts in tone. There were elements of the more serious faux-slice of life type of narrative in the first book. There is a definitive sense of reality to the whole thing such as Hiro and Mayumi’s rather serious inability to afford a place to rent even though they’re both working full time or Mayumi having to potentially move back to Japan if she can’t renew her work visa. Many young adults have faced that same situation. You’re constantly working but somehow you’re just not making ends meet. You can feel the weight of adult responsibility on Hiro’s shoulders. Add to that the surrealist monster attacks on New York and things can get very complicated for the couple. It can seem like a difficult subject to write and it is which is why I’m so impressed by what Chao’s created with Johnny Hiro. It’s at times very funny and then it shifts gears into something that is borderline depressive because of how real the character’s struggles are. I can empathize because less than a year ago I was in a similar situation as Mayumi and Hiro. I want them to succeed to dearly that it makes for an emotionally powerful read.

After thinking about it, I don’t think my first statement was wrong. There is a shift in tone but it’s driven by the progression of the story which is why it works. Chao still took the time to write stories that were closer to the tone of those found in the first volume. The first story in The Skills to Pay the Bills is one of those stories. Mayumi wants Hiro to meet one of her friends only to find out her friend and Hiro once dated . . . well, not exactly dated. The conversation is interrupted by a King Kong like ape who grabs hold of Mayumi’s friend and runs away with her. Hiro and Mayumi run after the ape, Mayumi doing it in platform sandals which Hiro notices and comments on (aren’t they the cutest?). Chao even takes the time to address some of the sillier aspects of the first volume such as Mayumi having a job as an editor despite speaking in fragmented English. It turns out she has excellent reading and writing skills but the dichotomy between written and oral remains. It’s not explained, simply pointed out. It also got me thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about how your ability to communicate something is directly linked to your understanding of it.

Once I was passed the halfway point of The Skills to Pay the Bills, I started to read more slowly. I didn’t want the book to end. I wanted the experience of reading it to last longer so I took my time and savoured each page. Johnny Hiro is a pretty special comic. It speaks to me in a way that surprises me. I feel like I’m slightly ahead in my life than Hiro and Mayumi are but I can still relate to them because their situation is still fresh in my mind. Fred Chao really starts to explore the characters and he does so in a fascinating way, not by focusing on one character at a time but my juxtaposing the development of one character and the past of another. He is able to simultaneously show the reader what has happened and how and what will happen and why. Now we know how Mayumi and Hiro met and we know how the rivalry between Shinto Peter and Masago started.

Despite Hiro’s existential crisis, the comic ends on a positive note. Hiro learns that no matter the difficulties you face, you have to make time to enjoy things because if you don’t, it will one day be too late . . . and even then that might not always be the case. You’re the master of your own destiny and by working hard and persevering; you can change things for the better. Masago acts as a cautionary tale for Hiro but he’s also serves as an example that it’s not always too late to change. The Tor Books website lists The Skills to Pay the Bills as the second volume of three. I’m sad to find out that there will only be three volumes but at the same time I’m very glad to know that there will be at least one more volume of Johnny Hiro.

Mad skills, Mayumi.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Q-in-Law

One of the enjoyable characteristics of Star Trek literature, based on my experiences thus far, is that they have relatively simple plotlines used to create interesting character moments and provide food for thought, much like some of the better episodes of the franchise. They also generally have interesting painted covers which are always nice (though you’ll notice, there exists a patter: characters heads, with or without torso, with a ship floating in space above them). Peter David also adds an additional element to his Star Trek novels: they’re hilarious. Star Trek: The Next Generation: Q-in-Law appears to have been written primarily to provide plenty of laughs.

The plot, as stated above, is simple. Two rival merchant families of an alien race called the Tizarin are preparing for a wedding that will unify both families. They’d like to have the wedding on the Entreprise because of the diplomatic importance of the wedding. The Tizarin are organized in families and their social structure is somehow linked to the Fifth House of Betazed . . . meaning Lwaxana Troi will also be present at the wedding. For reasons unknown, Q also makes an appearance. Do you understand now why I said that Q-in-Law seems to be built around a single idea? That idea is to have Q and Lwaxana meet and give David plenty of opportunities to crack wise and make us laugh. Simply put, it’s an absolute delight.

The book isn’t about the jokes themselves, it’s just built to allow for plenty of humour. It also allows for David to write a great deal about love among other things. David does this by (you guessed it) using a couple run-on gags. One of the run-on gags is that the crew’s thoughts or infected with the idea of love because of the upcoming nuptuals. It starts with Geordi talking to one of the guys in Engineering about his rather sad love life. Geordi cheers him up but the result is that he is now depressed. This passes along through the ship like some horrible disease, travelling from a person seeking advice to the person who offers advice. It’s a surprisingly effective way for David to bring the reader up to speed on the emotional status of the crew. It can be difficult to place a tie-in novel within the chronology of the TV series it’s based on and it’s tricks like this one that not only provide context relevant to the story, but do so in an entertaining way. When it comes to TNG novels, unless you’re reading a book with Dr. Polaski or Tasha Yar in it, you could potentially be reading a story that is taking anywhere from season 3 to 7.

It’s slightly surprising just how many ridiculous situations David is able to create with the simple setup and the theme of love. My favourite has to be Wesley trying to cope with being given a Tizarin servant woman whose only concern seems to be Wesley and his sexual needs. I don’t want to go into any more detail because it’s just such a joy to read. David also writes about it while staying true to the tone of Star Trek. It’s a pretty impressive feat.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is filled with romantic couples and David takes complete advantage of that in Q-in-Law. He uses existing couples, like Troi and Riker, but also creates a few new ones such as the young Tizarin lovers Serah and Kerin. What’s most interesting is that David seems to be stating two things. One, all couples are different and two, all couples are valid whether they’re literally a couple, meaning two, or something else. Star Trek is about the exploration of alien life and David dabbles into the idea of alien love. What David writes about the couples established in TNG is limited to what’s shown on television. Picard and Crusher will never formally their affection for each other but they know it will always be there. Troi and Riker are both too focused on their careers and will never make the time to work on their relationship which is in perpetual limbo. They even talk about their relationship in a business-like way. They use their relationship as a tactical advantage in situations on the ship. The prime example is Riker’s proposal to Troi, which is made, not out of love, but out of duty. He hopes that by proposing to Troi he’ll distract Lwaxana from Q’s advances and rid the Enterprise of this strange power couple.

It’s with one of the new couples, Serah and Kerin the young Tizarins, that David writes the most interesting things about love, attractiveness and sexual desires. Q, for reasons unknown throughout most of the books, manipulates the young fiancées against each other. He sabotages the couple by having two separate conversations with them on a one-on-one basis. He uses different arguments for each youth to try and manipulate them not to get married. It’s interesting to see Q trying to understand the human concept of love. Serah and Kerin aren’t human by they seem to have an near identical idea of what an ideal romantic relationship should be. That’s the book biggest fault. Peter David missed the opportunity to write about alien love and alien relationships. Perhaps it would have been more difficult to do so while keeping a humorous tone but I’m disappointed there weren’t any attempts at writing about alien romance.

Despite a few missed opportunities, such as David not making any sex jokes with Worf (something he’s done in Star Trek novels before) Q-in-Law is a very good book. It’s constructed in such a way to provide as many romantic and sexual jokes as possible even one including Q transforming himself into an astonishingly beautiful woman just to prove a point and ruffle Picard's feature. David makes an interesting character out of Lwaxana Troi. He humanizes her by giving the reader a glimpse of her fears and doubts as a mother. It will forever affect how I see Lwaxana, not as the overbearing mother or the troublesome Betazed-Federation Ambassador. Q also has some very good moments of his own. His reason for being on the Enterprise is yet another one of his attempts to teach humanity a lesson. Of course, as it’s always the case with Q, the learning happens for all parties involved and it’s no different in Q-in-Law. I would definitively recommend this to any fan of TNG.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Blog Fantastic 012: The Dragons of Krynn review

Dragonlance is one of the series that made me a fantasy reader for life. Sure, it seems like an underwhelming series to help turn somebody onto an entire genre but at the time I believed Dragonlance to be some of the best books I ever read. I discovered them at around the age of 10 when Dragons of a Fallen Sun was recently released. I finished that trilogy and curious about the War of the Lance and all the characters the series referenced I bought Dragons of Autumn Twillight and all the other Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman co-written books I could get my greedy little hands on. As I’ve grown as a reader and explored many other fantasy series but I still rather enjoy reading a Dragonlance novel from time to time and having recently gotten a few of my books back from my brother, I decided to read one I hadn’t read before. Since this is a short story anthology, I decided to do a mini-review for each story in the collection. 

Seven Hymns of the Dragon by Michael Williams:
The first story is a poem. I have very little appreciation for poems and maybe that's my bad but this is a rather forgettable story.

The Final Touch by Michael and Teri Williams:
The same can be said for the second story. It's about a young druidess who finds a dragon egg. Despite the wise council of her former mentor she brings the egg to her cavern and raises the dragon. It was a disadvantage for the dragon to be raised in this way because it didn't learn the lessons a dragon should learn in the wild. There is a sad and pathetic quality to the dragon which it developed through no fault of its own. It reminded me of real life animals who are born and raised in zoos. Eventually the dragon leaves but all ends well for the bronze dragon after all. Overall the story is cute. There are a few saccharine moments but it’s not something I would recommend to a friend unless they like somewhat cute stories about dragons.

Night of Falling Stars by Nancy Varian Berberick:
This story is about a dwarf, Tarran Ironwood, who lives in fear. He chooses to put an end to his fears by seeking revenge on a dragon that killed many of his friends several years ago. He hires a young swordsman who also has fears of his own that he needs to vanquish in order to be of any real aid to the dwarf during his quest. Both characters travel to the mountain lair of the dragon which used to be a dwarven mine.  Berberick convincingly writes about the dangers, sense of claustrophobia and the ever present echoes of the mine.

Berberik’s plot is rather cliché; a small group of individuals (not even a group, a pair) set out to slay a dragon. It’s been seen countless times before but Berberick makes it her own. In the dwarven mines, the characters are surrounded by the echoes of the sleeping dragon, Claw, the quest becomes a meditation on painful memories and the fears that can haunt an individual. It’s a pretty powerful story and I was pleasantly surprised to see this type of thing in a short story collection. There’s definitively potential for a larger narrative but maybe its short length contributes to its success.

Honor is All by Mickey Zucker Reichert:
A knight of Solamnia heads out to battle a dragon in order to protect a village that the dragon has been terrorizing. Not all is as it seems in this story, however. The knight is obsessed about honour like many other knights of Solamnia. He lives his life in a way to tip the balance in the favour of good but through the events detailed in this story, he ends up tipping the balances the other way. The story ends with the knight realizing what he's just done and choosing to rethink he's life of blind devotion to the cause of the Solamnic Knights. There's also a small section about nature vs. nurture in relation to dragons and I would have preferred if the story had followed that idea to its conclusion rather than the cheap twist. I think it would have made for a better ending because of the nature of the knight and what his oath represents.

Easy Pickings by Douglas Niles:
Douglas Niles starts his short story, which takes place during the time of Huma Dragonbane, with a battle between ogres and Knights of Solamnia. What begins as a sure victory for the ogres changes with the arrival of Knights wielding lances atop the back of dragons and the tides quickly turn. The second half of the story echoes the first. A surviving ogre, Chaltiford, finds a deceased dragon near its lair and decides to steal the dragons gold. Things are not as easy as it seems and once again the tides turn for the unlucky ogre. The whole thing is predictable but it didn't impede on my enjoyment of this little story. It was nice to have an ogre as the main character since I’ve never read any ogre-centric Dragonlance stories before.

A Dragon to the Core by Roger E. Moore:
This is a fun story that tried really, really hard to be funny. It somewhat succeeded. It doesn't really work overall because the story is easily twice as long as necessary. Like a decent comedy movie that kept on playing well last the acceptable 90 minutes. A total length of 20 pages of a gnome mining and draconians scheming would have been plenty for me. I was very glad when the Iron Dragon blew up because I knew it was announcing the end of the story.

Dragon's Breath by Nick O'Donohoe:
“Dragon’s Breath” is yet another forgettable story. A group of five men set out to fight and kill a dragon that has been terrorizing the surrounding area. A gnome gets involved and a dragon is found and eventually chased away. The five men return home no more famous or rich for their trouble and continue living their peaceful lives in their quiet village.

Fool's Gold by Jeff Grubb:
This story resembles “A Dragon to the Core” only it's shorter, isn't annoying (probably due to the absence of a gully dwarf) and the events happened in reverse order. The story begins with the tale of an encounter with a golden dragon which put a curse on our former-warrior, now the story’s hero. The story then ends with a gnome creating a mechanical sea dragon which helps him put an end to the town’s bullying baron once and for all. There isn't any depth of storytelling but it's a brisk and enjoyable read even if nothing spectacular happens. I think I just liked it because it wasn't self-indulging like Roger E. Moore's story earlier in this collection.

Scourge of the Wicked Kendragon by Janet Pack:
By "borrowing" a jewelled figurine of a dragon, a kender named Mapshaker Wanderfuss accidentally transforms himself into a dragon. He gets into all sorts of troubles afterword such as scarring villagers and various types of cattle, learning to fly, getting hounded by a Knight of Solamnia whose honour was besmirched only to finally get transformed back to his real self by the same mage from whom he stole the statue. It's a delightful little story in which most of the characters are funny. Sir Aric is particularly ridiculous in his hunt of the kendragon.

And Baby Makes Three by Amy Stout:
Stoic John, a mercenary who works with a dragon finds a little child at the top of a mountain. The child, called Jax, is a gift of revenge from a sorceress the mercenary used to date. John tries to puzzle out why she sent him Jax. Jax might be a reincarnation of the sorceress or, most likely, a love child. The story ends with Stoic John adopting Jax. It’s a boring story because nothing happens. It’s all speculation with no resolution or interesting plot elements. The plot ends after two pages when the discovery of the child is made. The rest of the story is spent on the mountain revisiting past memories and deciding what to do with Jax.

The First Dragonarmy Bridging Company by Don Perrin:
As the title says, it’s the story of a bridge building company in the service of Dragon Highlord Ariakas. The whole operation is interesting but it’s made even more fascinating by Perrin’s great understanding of Draconians. I don’t recall a Dragonlance story in which Draconians are better written. It’s a very welcome break from all the gnomes and dragons found in the previous stories. Perrin’s military background also adds a considerable about a credence and veracity to military engineers. That’s why this story works so well because it’s very specific in the events taking place that it utterly charmed me and I was able to completely immerse myself in their world.

You learn a great deal about Draconian physiology. They’re cold blooded, have heat sensitive eyes and their scales tighten and loosen with a clicking sound dependent on their mood and physical level of comfort. Some Draconians can even use magic but it’s a different type of magic than what humans learn. Human wizards have to memorize spells from books and once they’ve cast a spell, it’s forgotten, that is until they memorize it once again. Draconians like Kang, a Bozak and leader of the Bridging Company, enters a trans-like state and is given spells by the goddess Takhisis. Once a spell is cast, they also forget it until the next time they’re given one by their Dark Queen.

In what is my favourite short story of the entire collection, Perrin writes an immersive story that provides readers with a different view of Dragonlance than they’re used to. It focuses one staples of the series, Draconians, but embellishes them like never before. He also creates two rather interesting characters: Kang, a Bozak and Slith a slippery Syvak. Lucky for me Perrin and Margaret Weis have written two novels that continue the stories of Kang.

The Middle of Nowhere by Dan Harnden:
“The Middle of Nowhere” is an uninteresting story about foolish villagers mixing it up with magic, dragons and precious treasures. A boring story, bland execution and a twist ending that barely even qualifies as one. It would be a waste of my time to continue writing about it.

Kaz and the Dragon's Children by Richard A. Knaak:
Richard A. Knaak’s contribution to The Dragons of Krynn is, of course, a story of Kaz the Minotaur. Set after the events of The Legend of Huma and Kaz the Minotaur, this story is about the creation of the first Draconian. Kaz is captured by a Black Mage who has also been able to capture a severely wounded silber dragon and her clutch. By using dark magic to harness the dragon’s own source of magic, the Black Mage is able to experiment on her eggs, twisting and tormenting the baby dragons within.

It turns out that Kaz was captured in order to test the “dragon-man”. The story ends with Kaz believing he ended the creation of a new evil on Krynn but little does he know, centuries later, Draconians would rise again.

Into the Light by Linda P. Baker:
I didn't finish this story. I didn't even read half. I'm not really sure I can accurately tell you what the story is about though I'm sure there is a dragon in it. It's not often I don't bother to finish something I started to read but after experiencing the quality of some of the longer stories in this collection and adding to that Baker's excessive use of purple prose, I really didn't think it was worth my time to finish "Into the Light". If anyone has read it, please let me know if I was wrong.

The Best by Margaret Weis:
It's difficult to write about this story without ruining it. It's a very enjoyable story, well-constructed and well told. The title refers to the best dragon slayers in the land. They're hired to slay a dragon and all accept because they've been robbed by the very dragon they're hired to kill. It was nice to have Weis write a Dragonlance story that didn't focus on currently established characters or the Companions and she did a very good job establishing the personalities of the four dragon slayers. I can't voice my main complaint without ruining the story but I do have minor complaints. I didn't like how short the story was and how the ending wraps everything up so neatly. I shouldn't be too critical though because it was better than a lot of other stories in this collection.

The Hunt by Kevin Stein:
The final story in this collection is a mere 9 pages long and is about a Knight of the Rose hunting a black dragon. He's been hunting the beast for years and just before he begins his final assault the dragon speaks to the knight. The dragon forces the knight to contemplate the price he paid, the precious things he's lost by relentlessly pursuing the dragon. By doing this, the dragon effectively robs the knight of any sense of victory he would have had after slaying the beast. It's a bittersweet ending to a collection that has a few good story and fewer very good ones with a lot of predictable and uninteresting stories in between.

Top five stories:
5-The Best
4-Scourge of the Wicked Kendragon
3-Night of Falling Stars
2-Kaz and the Dragon’s Children
1-The First Dragonarmy Bridging Company – I guess  I like draconians more than dragons!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Far Arden by Kevin Cannon review

Far Arden is a pretty interesting comic even before you read the first page. Written, drawn and lettered by Kevin Cannon, Far Arden is the result of an extension of the 24-hour comic challenge. A friend of his challenged Cannon to attempt “The 288 Hour Graphic Novel Challenge”. The idea is that you would do a 24-hour comic one a month for a whole year. At the end of the twelve months you would have 288 page graphic novel; the whole thing only having taken 288 hours to make 288 pages of story. Cannon was able to maintain the page of one 24-hour challenge per month for four months. Afterwards he continued at the pace of 24 pages per month but he worked on Far Arden in the evenings and on weekends. It's crazy to think that he managed to write a comic that is nearly 400 pages long while continuing to work on other comics projects.  To top things off, Cannon wrote a short comic about the creation of Far Arden in which he explains things much better than I just did. Read about it here:  “The 288 Hour Graphic Novel Challenge”.

The 24-hour challenge has a specific set of rules and Cannon admits to having broken one of them: he came in with ideas for a story. His honestly is appreciated but I think he’s being hard on himself. The idea for his story was rather undeveloped:
 “A crusty sea dog named Army Shanks searches for a mythical tropical island in the middle of the Canadian High Arctic.”

That’s essentially the main story: Army trying to find the mythical island of Far Arden. But it’s also about so much more. Part of the book is a man’s struggle to live up to expectation. It’s about an orphaned boy trying to understand his origins and avenge the death of his father. It’s about a born explorer living in a world that has been completely mapped out and trying to find purpose for his life. It’s about a woman having an adventure and just enjoying herself in the High Arctic, about a misguided young man learning to do what’s right. It’s about so many different things with a single constant throughout, it’s all interrelated with Far Arden as its centre.

The art is as interesting as the story because of the conditions in which Far Arden was created. The art is very fluid. Characters don’t really have elbows or knees. When they punch or kick or gesticulate wildly their limbs form long U-shapes. They look very rubbery. Even splashes of water are drawn to look like they’re made out of clay or some sort of plasticine. The book regularly looks rushed in the first 100 pages or so but I don’t mind for three reasons: 1)He drew each page in approximately one hour per page; 2) The art remains clear; and 3) The rushed art contributes to the sense of energy which is something that the comic strives on. The art tends to be clearer when panels focus on characters’ upper torso and face. I simply enjoy the overly expressive and freestyle storytelling taking place on every single page of Far Arden. It’s quite masterful how Cannon can achieve so much using simple lines.

The writing is also very impressive. Cannon manages to juggle several subplots all at once happening in many different geographical areas. All of the characters are linked in one way or another and the story weaves in and out of so many different subplots that the reader feels trapped in a whirlpool of a story but it’s all told with such clarity that is makes for a very enjoyable read. Cannon is also surprisingly adept at conveying strong emotions and getting big laughs from one page to the next. Far Arden is a very, very funny read but it’s also have its fair share of heart wrenching moments.

Even though it’s a funny read the humour doesn’t get old because the comic isn’t just a comedy. Otherwise, 400 pages of action-centric onomatopoeia sound effects and ridiculous gags would get tiresome before reaching the halfway point. Far Arden is a mixture of nautical adventure, comedy and tragedy. By mixing the story in such a way, Cannon kept me interesting in the comic. It never lets up, not even for a moment, the whole story constantly moving forward. It just happens to also be a very funny comic.

I would like to talk about the ending but it’s the kind of book where I can’t do so without spoiling it and I really wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone because it’s that important to the work as a whole. The ending could be a deal breaking for some of the readers but I think that’s what makes the book work. Cannon has the story move at such a quick pace from the very first chapter that it’s surprising that well past 300 pages the whole thing is still moving at full speed. The story doesn’t quietly slow down to a happy finish, it rolls along at incredible speed and stops sharply, shocking the reader. A quick epilogue then brings the whole thing to a bitter sweet end. The reason it feels so unexpected is because most of the book, up to that point, was either ridiculously enjoyable humour or a fun sea adventure but because of the frenetic pace of the story, it’s easy to forget there was a good helping of dark subplots, evil (or at the very least, misguided) characters and their actions served as a precursor to the powerful ending. It doesn’t come out of left field but because Cannon balance the tone of the book so carefully the darker elements can be missed upon first reading.

If you’re still unconvinced that Far Arden is a uniquely enjoyable read, you can sample a few pages on Kevin Cannon’s website. In fact, you can read the whole thing online. I haven’t post any picture in this review for that reason, they’re all available on his website and you can see them in all their glory there. I’ve recently reread Far Arden because I found out Cannon wrote a sequel: Crater XV. I knew I had forgotten a lot about it and I wanted to refresh my memory before reading the follow up comic. I also remember really enjoying it and so I knew I would have a good time revisiting the work. I did and I’m really, really looking forward to reading Crater XV.