Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Gødland volume 2 and 3 review

Gødland: Another Sunny Delight and Gødland: Proto-Plastic Party, the second and third volumes of the series didn’t convert met to the church of all things cosmic as I was expecting and (let’s be honest) hoping they would. While the first volume felt a bit disjointed, I still enjoyed it. Casey and Scioli did a pretty good job introducing several characters and locations. They also introduced the superhero and cosmic elements of the series which the creators combined together while also keeping them separated. The problem with volumes 2 and 3 is that the story doesn’t seem to really progress much beyond what was introduced in the first volume. Part of that problem is that what was so strongly foreshadowed in the first volume actually happens in the second volume which isn’t bad in and of itself, but I’m certain it’s a contributing factor to while I feel that book is starting to spin its wheels. The other reason I think I feel this way is that Casey and Scioli still seem to be setting up their characters and plots. Three volumes in, your comic book shouldn’t feel like it’s still setting up the story.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t any new developments. On the contrary, if you look at the individual plot points, things are moving forward at a pretty constant pace. The problem is that very few of the stories are connected together. Another Sunny Delight delivers immediately on the promises of the first volume. Adam Archer is the first cosmic being of planet Earth which makes him the herald of Earth’s cosmic awakening. The space dog, Maxim, had informed Adam that this would strike the interest of other beings in the universe. Book Seven (every issue is called a book) is an alien attack on New York and Adam goes around stopping the threat. This is a good example of how Gødland is a mixture of superhero and cosmic comics. Adam Archer is mostly a superhero and his origin story took place on Mars. The story continues with an exploration of Casey and Scioli’s cosmic mythology: Iboga the god creator. Iboga is the universe and, in turn, the universe is Iboga. It’s one of my favourite issues of the comic so far. The rest of Adam’s stories in the second and also during the third volumes consist of his reactionary defense of New York which are written as superheroic battle scene with a cosmic twist or two.

There are other plotlines going on though. While Adam is the clearly the main protagonist, there are plenty of other protagonists and more than a few antagonists to go around. The various storylines can be organized into three categories: 1) Alien threats to the planet (including Ed, Suprah and Eeg-oh’s machinations); 2) the three supervillains, Friedrich Nickelhead, the Tormentor and Basil Cronus, bickering amongst each other and trying to do . . . something, and 3) the Archer family having adventures out in space and fighting aliens while trying to keep the US military off their backs. The second and third volumes are good but I can’t help but feel a bit let down. It could all be because of my high expectations for the series (I blame you, Internet!). It’s got plenty of action and for a moment I thought the comic was picking up speed but I think Casey and Scioli are juggling more storylines than they can successfully handle at the same time. I generally love when a comic has multiple different storylines all happening at the same time but the different storylines are progressing at different speeds yet all of them remain slow except for Adam’s which is beginning to be repetitive (but it will probably just serve as preparation for his evolutionary leap into a fully fledge cosmic being).

Casey includes other things in Gødland that I simply fail to understand. There are many references to awful reality TV shows. So many that I think Casey is intentionally making references to what I would consider terrible television. I’m completely unable to tell you why though. I do not understand it’s importance to the story or to the themes being developed in the series so far. If anything it just seems to intentionally date the entire project in the later part of the last decade. That’s problematic because it took the creators roughly seven years to complete the 36 issues long series. References made in the earlier issues give a different cultural snapshot than references in later issues would give, presuming that Casey continues with his references.

Another element of my frustration is that I feel as though both of these creators could offer more. While Joe Casey’s body of work is generally hit and miss with me, I’ve read some fantastic comics written by him (Wildcats 3.0, Automatic Kafka and Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker, and Officer Downe to name some of my favourites). As for Tom Scioli, his art is inconsistent. He seems to up his game when he has something truly spectacular to illustrate. A good example of this is book eight titled “Origin of the Universe”. It’s not only one of the visual highlights of the comic so far, Casey also scripts the crap out of it.

While the pastiche in volume one was more obvious seen in the art, Casey steps up to the plate with his dialogue and narration, providing plenty of Kirby-esque writing. Some of it sounds absolutely ludicrous but it works well in conveying the tone of the series. The second volume also specified exactly what the tone will be by upping the humour factor above what was showcased in the first volume. I’m looking forward to seeing the multiples plot threads collide. I feel like this comic needs more conflict. There’s action and drama a plenty; characters regularly fence with words but it’s mostly threats and posturing. Casey and Scioli might be using Jack Kirby’s body of work and the comics of other notable creators of their youths but it’s limited to style. The contents of Gødland fail to reflect the energy and bombast of the average Kirby comic. So far Gødland is more of an interesting comic to read than a really great one but hopefully the following volumes can improve on what’s happened in the preceding volumes. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe review

The Black Axe is a both a prequel with a bit of sequel rolled into the mix. It’s a smart move by Petersen as The Black Axe is the third complete Mouse Guard story both written and drawn by Petersen. Although I’ve enjoyed both volumes of Legends of the Guards, anthology comics in which Petersen writes and draws the framing sequence but invites a host of other comic creators contribute stories to the world of Mouse Guard, I’m thrilled that last year gave us another volume entirely by Petersen. The main Mouse Guard stories are written and drawn by David Petersen. The hardcover collections collect the six issue storylines often with a prologue as well as an epilogue and supplementary material. As Archaia Entertainment often does, the hardcovers are works of art in their own right. Excellent binding, luscious cover art, interior design that is pleasing to the eye and it’s all done with quality printing, the Mouse Guard hardcovers hold a prized spot on my bookshelves. None of that would really matter if Petersen’s story wasn’t good. Thankfully, it is. The Black Axe is only the most recent proof.

I was a bit disappointed when I found out at the end of Winter 1152 that Petersen’s next Mouse Guard story would be the legend of the Black Axe, specifically Celanawe’s tenure as Black Axe. I was expecting nothing more than an extended flashback sequence that while providing an interesting and well executed story, wouldn’t add much to the story of Lieam, Jaxon and Kenzie. After reading the story, I found out I was right but I also underestimated Petersen’s skill as a storyteller. The story is a flashback sequence framed by Gwendolyn’s account of a looming threat and our Mouse Guard trio’s separation. It doesn’t offer much in the continuation of the story began in Fall 1152 but it does help to make the wait for the next volume a bit easier to handle. As for Celanawe’s story, it’s not only fascinating but helps to enrich the world of Mouse Guard.

Not only is Mouse Guard Archaia Entertainment’s best series, it’s one of the best comics being published today. A new volume only appears every two to three years but so far it’s always been worth the wait. Petersen is crafting a surprisingly well thought out fantasy epic in tiny proportions. His careful attention to detail helps to transport the reader to a world where danger is literally hidden behind every bush and the size of our heroes isn’t representative of the courage of their hearts.  

The Black Axe is a legendary weapon as well as a mythical warrior. Many brave mice have held the mantle throughout the years. The descendants of Farrer, a metal smith and one of the founders of the Haven of Guilds in Shorestone, are entrusted to find worthy candidates to wield the axe and uphold the legend. Like the stories before it, the plot of The Black Axe is simple but Petersen handles it with such care and attention to character and the details of his world, it never feels slight. I might be incorrect in describing his plotting as simple or even deceptively simple. In truth, it’s probably more of an indicator of how good of a writer he is. He makes a complex story feel and appear simple but that’s only because he took the time to polish his story. It’s all in the execution and Petersen continues to deliver, volume after volume. The story begins with Celanawe (pronounced Khel-En-Awe), a mouse of the Guard, being visited by his last remaining relative. She imparts him with a mission, to find an ancient weapon which Celanawe accepts only because the Matriarch of Lockhaven and leader of the Guard commands him to do so. His journey is transformative in more ways than one. It would be a shame for me to spoil any more of the story because it’s such a joy to read and discover first hand.

As with the previous volumes of Mouse Guard, the world which Petersen is slowly reveiling is equally impressive as the story of Celanawe’s quest. With each continuing story, Petersen further develops the culture of the mice and their cities. Aside from the interesting story of Farrer and his genealogy, Petersen gives the reader the opportunity to explore the Port of Sumac and the world of seafaring mice, the island of Ildur the Ferret kingdom of Ebon and Shorestone and the Haven of Guilds along with the four founders of the main guilds: Omarr (stone masonry), Farrer (metal smithing), Thurston (mathematics), and Locke (carpentry).

With Mouse Guard: The Black Axe, Petersen continues to impress. I was certain that this volume would feel like a lull because it pulls away from the storyline of the first two volumes but the use of the epilogue served the dual purpose of letting readers know that Petersen is conscious that he’s moving his focus away for a volume and to introduce the extended flashback sequence. I would honestly prefer if the stories were published more quickly but I wouldn’t want the story of the art to suffer. I’m content to wait if it continues to give Petersen the time he needs to keep the stories at the same level of quality as the stories release so far.


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Blog Fantastic 015: Sourcery review

It’s true I’ve only read five Discworld (I say only because Terry Pratchett’s either close to or already has written over 40 novels in the series) but only five volumes into the series I know that I’ll enjoy each new book I pick up. There are things I know will happen once I pick up a Discworld novel off the shelf. I will 1) laugh out loud (which doesn’t happen often with books), 2) snicker while Pratchett makes fun of a fantasy trope I love while simultaneously loving that very same fantasy trope all the more, and 3) learn something interesting and be sent off into deep thought over a brilliant line or paragraph. While Sourcery isn’t as thought-inducing as say Equal Rites, it’s still a damn good book because it’s hilarious. Let’s be honest, the primary reason anyone has for reading a Discworld novel isn’t that it will make you think, that’s just an added bonus, the real reason is that it’ll make you laugh ‘til your abs hurt and your face muscles are tired. In that respect, Sourcery is a success.

The fifth Discworld novel, Sourcery brings us back to the famous character of the first two books, Rincewind the wizard and the Luggage. Most of the humour and the story in this book works because of the characters. It’s a character centric novel and the plot, the little bit that exist, was probably a better and tighter plot but Pratchett had to go throw some magic in there and everything started to fall apart. To this day, he still pretends he had a firm grasp on where this novel was going before it decided to head into another direction all on its own. Please be warned, Pratchett is a professional liar, he writes books for a living. I won’t get into the details of the plot because there isn’t a whole lot of it and it’s much more fun if you discover it on your own. What the story really comes down to is people running around Discworld trying to avoid the nasty effects of the coming of a sourcerer to the flat planet. What made the novel work for me was Pratchett redefining Rincewind as a character and introducing new ones.

Oh, what’s a sourcerer? It’s quite simple really. See, a wizard is the eight son of an eight son (eight being a magical number on Discworld). Something happens with genetics that makes them susceptible to being able to absorb and channel some of the magic of Discworld. As it turns out, the eight son of an eight son of an eight son, or a wizard squared, is something altogether different. They’re not just able to channel magic, they’re a source of magic and none of the rules apply to them.

As I said above, the best thing about this book is the characters: who they are, what they do and how they interact with each other. The main characters of the story are made up of:

Rincewind: a terrible wizard who’s not very courageous but somehow manages to regularly do courageous things and save the world.

Conina: a warrior who live in the shadow of her father, Cohen the Barbarian. All she really wants to do is become a hairdresser but quests keep getting in the way.

Nijel: a barbarian-in-the-making. He’s out on his first quest. It’s almost been a week and he’s doing pretty well. Probably because he’s using his guide book, Inne Juste Seven Dayes I Wile Mayke you a Barberian Hero, written by Cohen the Barbarian.

Luggage: a chest made of sapient pearwood. It runs around on hundreds of tiny legs and gets into all sorts of mischief. It’s also adorable and tougher than nails.

It’s interesting to note that I don’t really consider Coin, the sourcerer of the story, a main character. He’s kind of just there to provide conflict for the others. I’m not sure if that was the intent or if Pratchett just never got around to it because he was busy writing about the aprocralypse and flying carpets.

Look at all that chaos and energy Josh Kirby paints. I love his covers. Too bad mine is an
edited (ahem, incomplete) cover. 

Pratchett makes fun of wizards a plenty. If they’re so powerful why do they just sit around and not do much of anything? That’s because they’re not all that powerful, they’re only wizards after all not sourcerers who are the ones with real power. He also has quite a bit of fun poking fun at barbarian heroes of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Conina is funny because she’s a female barbarian but we quickly stop laughing once we found out just how effective she is. She’s reluctantly following in her father’s footsteps. Just imagine how much questing she could do if she put her mind to it? In case you’re too lazy to imagine it, she’s Genghis Khan all of Discworld. It’d be pretty terrifying, I guarantee it. Out of all the characters in the book, Nijel wins the prize for being the most ridiculous. He’s the embodiment of a table-top role-playing nerd taking to its extreme conclusion. With the help of his manual he heads off on a journey to actually become a barbarian hero. Nijel is a skinny young man who weighs less than his trusty guidebook and does nothing without first consulting his book. He also gets over silly arguments when the rules mentioned in Cohen’s book are broken. How he survived his time alone before meeting Rincewind and Conina is one of the great mysteries in all of Discworld (at least those five novels I’ve actually read).

Terry Pratchett, or Sir Terry like some have become found of calling him, is a special kind of writer. He’s not just a satirist or a comedian or a post-modern philosopher, he’s all of these combined into some sort of super writer*. I might not as much to say about Sourcery as I have for previous Discworld novels but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong or bad about this volume. It just focused on different aspects of Pratchett’s writing than some of the other books. There were more jokes and less philosophy. Either way, it’s a great novel to read especially for readers of fantasy literature who also have a fondness for British type humour.

*I haven’t check but Sir Terry is probably the eight son of an eight son (of an eight son?) which is why his word fu is so strong. Nobody cracks a joke like he does because nobody has that genetically developed magic manipulation of words. It’s all very scientific and I haven’t really done my research, but I’m convinced he has an advantage no other writers have and that’s what makes him so good. I’m also pretty certain that he has more than one pair of arms because he sure writes a lot.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

At the Earth's Core review

I haven’t read a lot of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the two that I have read I enjoyed. His works have aged quite nicely. They feel like classic pulps and it’s because that’s exactly what they are. I mentioned in my review of A Princess of Mars, that I’m a sucker for first person narration adventure stories. That is not to say that all books that follow that model are gold, but when written well, it can be immensely enjoyable. I like adventure stories best when they contain elements that are fantastic or derived from advanced science. Not to the point where the book because a story of that genre, but as an addition to the adventure story. I like the combination of a personal story (the narration) and a strange or impossible voyage (the adventure with a strange element). Lucky for me that’s exactly the kind of book Burroughs has written with At the Earth’s Core.

Burroughs has a knack for taking a simple idea and examining it in a unique way. With At the Earth’s Core, the story begins with and experiment gone wrong. David Innes, the heir of a mining company, and Abner Perry an old engineer are testing a new drilling machine. The experiment goes awry and the men drill straight down for several hours until they emerge, upright, into a prehistoric land. The rest of the book is about David exploring the lost land of Pellucidar.

The plot doesn’t get more complicated than that. David and Perry quickly start getting chanced by a giant sloth-bear then captured into slavery, make a few friends, explore some more. Events lead into one another with the only intent to bring David to another part of the subterranean world. Burroughs seems to want to focus on showing off his world. It’s like a travelogue in an unknown land. It’s an interesting book to read despite not having a breakneck pace. Burroughs peppers the book with really neat ideas. Most of the ideas are simple like Pellucidar having opposing landmass and oceans than the surface. The result is that Pellucidar has significantly more landmass than the surface, effectively making it “a larger world within a smaller one”.

Most of Burroughs ideas are interesting but they’re not all well executed. I found the whole aspect of lack of time to be frustrating and silly. Pellucidar’s “sun” is in a constant position of high noon because of its location in the centre of the sky, the centre of the hollow earth. Pellucidar is a world of constant sunlight and there are no ways for the inhabitants to tell time. Not only do the characters not know what time of day it is, they do not even know when the day ends and a new one begins. Burroughs pushes the idea too far. In one scene David and Perry are reunited after what feels like a month of absence for David and but a few hours for Perry. David’s been travelling, sleeping and eating several times, and Perry has been reading books in a library. How is it possible for them to have such different ideas of how much time has passed since their last encounter? More ridiculous is that their first trip to Pellucidar is supposed to have lasted ten years. Am I really supposed to believe that David and Perry stayed in Pellucidar for ten years? Wouldn’t they have some sort of physical indicator of the time that passed? Beards at least?

I also found it very difficult to believe that David could beat Jubal the Ugly One in single combat. I understand that he worked in his father’s mines for several years and he was regularly active but he’s not a fight whereas Jubal is a barbarian warrior! At least John Carter had the advantage of lower gravity, super strength and military training.

This is only the second book written by Burroughs that I read but there is an interesting comparison to be made between both heroes. David Innes and John Carter are both transported to otherworldly locations but their experiences there, despite some similarities, are very different. They’re different because of the world building, Pellucidar and Mars have substantial differences but Innes and Carter have similar characteristics. They’re both very boastful when it comes to their personal, specifically physical, prowess. They’re pretty arrogant. I think you would have to be cocksure and arrogant to survive in the situations they end up in but I also think you would have equal opportunity to survive by other means.

I noticed it a bit while reading A Princess of Mars, Burroughs isn't very good when writing female characters. Part if it has to do with when the book was published and I'm not sure there is much more to it than that. Still, it is noticeable than the female characters are treated differently in the human societies of Pellucidar. Dian, similarly to the princess of Mars, seems to be characterized simply on her appearances, her stubbornness and strong will. It seems only beautiful women are strong willed, the comely ones are impressionable. It's also interesting that the villains, the Mahars, are a unisex species, they're all female. A reptilian people, their eggs are fertilized chemically and do not require male Mahars. Overtime they have been bred out. It’s difficult to make any conclusions regarding his treatment of woman based solely on those two examples but I will be paying attention to the female characters in any other Burroughs novels I read.

Even though I enjoyed At the Earth’s Core, I’m also a disappointed with the scale of the story. It’s a good book if I only consider the world Burroughs introduces and the neat ideas he weaves into the story. As for characters and the plot, they’ve both as hollow as the planet in which David burrows. The whole thing feels like a setup, particularly the end, in which David returns to the surface of Earth and decides to make a return trip to Pellucidar this time armed with advanced technology. It’s a nice hook and it makes me want to read the second book. I just hope there’s more substance to it than there was in the first novel.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Miscellaneous Reviews 04: Happy! and Godland: Hello, Cosmic!


Published by Image and created by a superstar creative team of Grant Morrison (writer) and Darick Robertson (artist), Happy! in an exercise in juxtaposition, a genre mash-up comic and like all other mash-ups, it succeeds not based on the genres it’s playing with but on how good the story is. I would characterize Happy! as a mash-up failure and here’s why. Morrison takes a crime story and mixes it with, um, something. That’s the first problem. If you’re going to mix two things together, you have to be able to clearly identify what’s being mixed. This comic is clearly a mash-up of something but Morrison never clarifies both components of what’s being combined. One side, the crime comic, is pretty clear but what’s the deal with Happy the Horse? What kind of story is it and how do you categorize that? I can easily picture a crime story because millions of them exist, some great and some terrible but I’m not able to come to terms with Happy (the horse, not the comic - well the comic, too).

The other reason why Happy! doesn’t work is that the recognizable part of the comic is a boring rehash of other stories. Most notably, it reminds me of the basic plot of The Hard Goodbye, the first Sin City story by Frank Miller. I’m not saying Morrison is taking his plot points form another writer, I’m pointing out that nobody seems to have noticed the pretty strong similarities between both stories. As for the parts that make this story different from The Hard Goodbye, they’re trite and predictable. Mash-ups aren’t very convincing when the basic story stems mostly from one of the two genres and uses a well-known story in the same medium as its plot.  My third problem is that Morrison’s unique authorial voice is completely lost. It’s hard to tell it’s actually written by Morrison. The reason could be that he’s unfamiliar with crime stories. The dialogue also suffers because I got a sense that Morrison was trying too hard. Most of the characters use fuck as punctuation and while that in itself isn’t necessarily what makes the dialogue terrible, it certainly doesn’t help.

I don’t even have anything particularly nice to say about the art. Robertson does a good job drawing things that are gross. He’s really good at capturing images and characters that show the dirtier parts of life, particularly life in the city. I think Robertson is a good fit for this kind of story but there was something different with the inking. The lines were thinner than what I’m used to seeing with his art. At the end known of that really matters because the colouring was too dark to let any of the line work to really shine through. What could have been a really interesting mini-series by two well-known and applauded creators in modern comics, Happy! will undoubtedly be relegated to a mere footnote in the story of these creators contribution to the medium. 

Gødland: Hello, Cosmic!:

Gødland is a superhero and cosmic comic pastiche. Specifically, it riffs on the works of Jack Kirby, both his art and a bit of the writing, and on the family dynamic of the Fantastic Four. It’s co-created by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli and they’re not just making use of some of the great comics of their youths, they’re also using what is known in the industry as the “Marvel style” of creating comics. Casey writes out a plot and hands it over to Scioli who draws out an entire issue and hands it back to Casey who writes in the caption boxes and dialogue. It’s a different form of collaboration than what we usually see in comics today but it seems to work pretty well for these two.

I’ve regularly read good things about Gødland online, particularly by people whose taste often matches up with me. I’ve also read other comics by Casey that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit (but he also has some terrible stuff). It was just a matter of time until I read Gødland and now that I finally have, I’m a bit disappointed. Part of my disappointment is related to my expectations. I wanted more science fiction, more things cosmic. The first volume of Gødland focuses as much on the Archer family and their relationship with the universal cosmology than it did on supervillainy with characters such as Basil Cronus (love the name), Discordia and her father. I like it but I don’t love it. I feel like Casey and Scioli are getting their footing but it’s still impressive what they accomplish. You can tell that they have a good idea where they want the story to go but it’s not minutely planned out.

The first volume of Gødland leaves me wanting more. It kind of felt like a tease even though Casey and Scioli introduce a lot of characters, some important backstory all while setting up the larger story still to come. I want to know more about the space foetus Adam meets on Mars, I want to know more about Maxim the armoured spaced dog and Iboga the mysterious space god. I also want to know more about the Archer sisters, Stella, Neela and Angie. I feel like the book will focus primarily on the Archer sisters and their relationship (or lack of) with Adam but also because family is an important theme in Casey’s body of work. Gødland is simultaneously impressive and underwhelming. I know, it’s a strange combination, but I’ve responded to a comic like this before. It makes me feel like I did when reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles which is one of his best comics. I’m hoping that’s an indication that Gødland will also be a great comic but the only way to find out for certain is to keep on reading.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Blacksad: Amarillo review

I grew up reading bandes dessinées (or BDs). My youth was filled with afternoon reading titles such as Spirou et Fantasio, Gaston Lagaffe, Lucky Luke, Tintin, Astérix et Obélix, and a few others. My dad had an impressive collection and I took full advantage of it, reading volume after volume of my favourite series. If I remember correctly some of those volumes have loose pages in them, probably because they’ve been read so many times. For a few years I essentially stopped reading BDs. Part of it is that I barely recognize the landscape. I grew up reading older series, many of them classics, and I didn’t know where to start if I wanted to read another BD. For reasons I can no longer remember, I picked up the first two volumes of Blacksad in a French bookstore in downtown Ottawa. It was my lucky day because I adored Blacksad. I bought the third volume a couple weeks later and the fourth when it finally came out. It’s been two years since the last volume and I finally got my hands on a copy of Blacksad: Amarillo.

My initial reaction is one of disappointment. The story didn’t have as much weight as the previous volumes and overall it reads like a bad mixture of anthropomorphized noir road trip comedy film. Actually, that’s exactly what it is! Amarillo tries to be too many things and it fails.

Blacksad is created by a Spanish duo made up of Juan Diaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist). The first few volumes focused on John Blacksad, a private investigator, and the whole thing is set in the 1950s. Blacksad is a well-educated man (well, cat – tomcat?) who also knows how to talk with his fists which is a useful skill to have in his line of work. Like many noir characters, Blacksad believes in justice, it’s almost an obsession but Canales brings a nice balance to it by giving his character a deeper level of characterization. Sure he seems like your run of the mill detective story character but Blacksad is a well-rounded character and I liked him instantly. Creating strong and instantly recognizable or familiar characters is one of the creative duo’s best assets and that’s what contributed to making me like this series so much. The success of the series so far can be attribute to hitting that nice balance between character, story and art.

It’s too bad that I can’t say the same about Amarillo. The whole thing feels unbalanced. There are plenty of interesting characters in the latest volume and although I’m saddened that Canales and Guarnido chose to create new characters, I would have liked to have more Weekly in this story.  The other problem is the absence of a good story. Amarillo feels like a collection of events as opposed to a narrative. The most consistent aspect from the first four volumes and the fifth one is the art. The other element that contributed to throwing things out of balance was Canales cranking up the dial on the humour. It’s somewhat surprising considering Weekly’s near-absence from the story but the hyena character (sorry, I can’t remember his name – I know, hyenas are people too, I’m sorry ok?) did a good job picking up the slack and Blacksad proves once more that he’s best suited to playing the straight man.

I should probably talk a bit about the story but I’m not really feeling up to it because there isn’t much to talk about. Still, I feel my reviewing responsibility pretty strongly tonight so I’ll give it a go. The story is about a writer lion, Chad, who has a poet friend and on their way to meet Chad’s editor in Amarillo get caught up in thievery and booze and Chad ends up with blood on his hands. The rest of the book is made up of Blacksad searching for the writer and Chad getting into deeper and deeper trouble. Along the way Canales incorporates humorous sequences and fails at trying to say something meaningful about Beat Culture of the 50s. The creators have been successful at incorporation some message or theme about America in their previous stories but it really doesn’t work in Amarillo. It might be the subject matter or even the tone of the comic which is a combination of dreamlike horror (Chad’s portion of the story) and humour (Blacksad’s portion).

My problem with this story wasn’t the tone. Blacksad’s had comedic moments in it before and I don’t mind that the creators wanted to spend some time on the lighter side of things but it doesn’t work with the rest of the story. Part of the problem is that the humour is cliché ridden. The other problem is that the humour feels tacked on as if Canales didn’t have faith that the rest of the story could stand on its own. Guarnido has no problems drawing his characters expressively and his style proves to be as effective for serious stories as well as silly stories. While the art can jump seamlessly from the tone of both halves of the story, the writing can’t. The humorous scenes are intercut with those involving Chad and his troubles and vice versa resulting in an absence of momentum. That just made the culmination of both stories converging near the end difficult to appreciate. It’s like oil and water, it feels forced.

I respect that Diaz Canales tried a different sort of story but Amarillo doesn’t deliver like the earlier stories did. Guarnido, as always, is spectacular on the art. After roughly 250 pages of anthropomorphism, I still love the art. Guarnido does a fantastic job with body language. His characters are so expressive that even the non-speaking characters in the background have a personality. He draws a few new (at least, that I don’t remember seeing) animals in Amarillo such as a parrot, a Chihuahua (with a moustache, no less), a flamingo and a koala bear just to name a few. I’m already looking forward to the next volume but I’m hoping it’s an improvement on this one.

My review is based on the French edition published by Dargaud.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Blog Fantastic 014: Swords Against Death review

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Fritz Leiber. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs before him, I picked up this book by Leiber because of Mordicai Knode and Tim Callahan’s Advanced Reading in D&D series of posts on Mordicai Knode raved about the fourth book in this series and the series as a whole. After reading his solo post on Swords Against Wizardry I figured I would keep my eye out for some of Leiber’s stuff down at the used book store. There was a few of them there and I chose Swords Against Death because it’s part of his most famous series, the stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and it was the closest thing to the first book in the series. Long story short, I didn’t like it.

Long story short is an apt way to describe the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Swords Against Death is a collection of short stories and I think every single one of them was too long. Each one of the stories started out so good. They all start out as interesting stories but they all end up as stories that dragged and dragged. For the uninitiated, Leiber’s most famous fantasy series is the original fantasy bromance. Fafhrd and the Mouser are made for each other. They’ve been living by the code of bros before hoes before the term ever came into being. They’ve remained popular since their first publication in the late 1930s and I can understand why. The tone of the stories in this collection varied quite a bit, ranging from humour to horror and various other combinations of genre in between. In truth, I enjoyed certain things about this book what I couldn’t get over was Leiber’s style.

Leiber has a very strange style. He’s clearly an intelligent person and he uses quite the extensive vocabulary but I get the sense he doesn’t take his own stories seriously. That in itself is not a bad thing. I can’t imagine Terry Pratchett is terrible serious about his Discworld novels but he approaches his approach is humorous because that’s what his stories are; humour (among other things). Leiber doesn’t seem to know exactly what kind of stories he is or should be telling with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser so he’s tried several different types. Sadly, not all of them work. The Circle Curse is the worst. It’s a very short story about Fafhrd and Mouser travelling all the lands of Nehwon in an attempt to mend their broken hearts following the deaths of their lady loves at the end of the first volume. It’s awful. The story doesn’t succeed at anything. It tries to serve as an introduction for two famous wizards in the series (fails both encounters are uninteresting and feel forced), act as a preview travelogue of many different places in Nehwon (fails, it’s just name dropping and vague descriptions), it also tries to show just how heartbroken the characters are (fails, they clearly don’t give a shit and are only lusting after their unfortunately deceased booty calls) and it tries to be a story with a joke ending (it fails, we see the ending coming from the very beginning of the story).

I think Leiber’s problem is that the stories lack focus. One of the better stories is The Howling Tower and I think it’s because it’s one of the most focused. The guys are travelling and Fafhrd hears a strange noise. As he listens more closely he becomes enchanted by the noise and quickly makes his way to a tower out in the distance. Grey Mouser follows him to find out what’s going on with his friends and they encounter a strange and horrific trap at the tower. It’s all very eerie and Leiber does a great job with the mood of the story. The ending is also very nice. It’s simple but so very effective. It’s also followed by another good story, The Sunken Land, which again, is pretty focused and is just as much of a horror story as a fantasy story and it works.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the book or even most of the stories, they nearly all had some really interesting ideas in them. Leiber’s not a good writer but damn, he has some crazy ideas! I would love to write about the ideas behind The Howling Tower and The Sunken Land but I would ruin them if I did. All of his stories start off with a great idea, one main idea. Then along the way Leiber drops a few smaller and equally interesting ideas but he’s boring in his delivery. If Leiber frequented hipster coffee shops today, he’s be the guy blowing your mind with great ideas for a story but then fail miserably while trying to write it because he’s not a writer. He’s just a guy with interesting ideas but without the ability to craft an interesting idea behind it.

It might sound like I hated Swords Against Death. I didn’t but I’d be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone. Leiber isn’t an engaging writer and I had to force myself to pay attention because I wasn’t invested in the characters at all. I knew that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would survive anything more than I’ve ever felt that way about other fantasy characters before. They seem to laugh in the face of danger, not because they have no fear or believe that their abilities and friendship will conquer all evils. Nah, I knew they would survive anything because Leiber thinks his characters are the best barbarian bros that ever lived! That’s just not so. The writing style is dry, the stories are pointless unless the point is to write a story with a lot of mood or something in a black humour (more of a light grey, really) style. I’m genuinely puzzle as to how the book because so influential and remains, to this day, a fantasy classic.

Note: Little did I know the second volume in the series collect many of the earlier stories written by Leiber. The stories in the first volume were written after most of the stories in the second volume. I wasn’t aware that I was reading these (kind of) in chronological order, but it might work in Leiber’s favour as I think I will read the other Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser book I purchased: Swords Against Wizardry.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Ice Schooner review

Why the heck is Ulrica barefoot on
the ice? Must be the lust plagued ship
keep her warm. 
In my continuing exploration of influential writers of fantasy novels from a few decades ago, I decided to read a book by Michael Moorcock. I’ve started to read a book of his before, one the many Elric of Melniboné stories but for reasons I can’t remember, I never finished it. I wanted to give Moorcock another change though because he’s been an incredible influence on so many writers, many writers I like. Moorcock’s body of work is notoriously difficult to navigate. Most of his oeuvre is interconnected and I didn’t want to start at the end of a 10 book series or with the third trilogy of four or something like that but because of the interconnectedness of his body of work and the sheer number of stories he wrote, it’s nearly impossible to pick the right book to read. I decided to take a completely different approach than what I usually do and just go to my local used book store and judge Moorcock’s books by their covers.

I picked up four books by Moorcock. One with a cover by Frank Frazetta, another because it’s the book directly preceding the one with the Frazetta cover, a third because it’s supposed to be one of Moorcock’s best and I liked the cover. The fourth book is The Ice Schooner. Just look at that cover by Boris Vallejo. A frozen planet where people travel in ships on skis? Look at the sexualized drawings of the characters on the cover. Why is she barefoot? I also think that the cover blurb is ridiculous: “Aboard a lust-plagued ship they crossed a frozen hell to a city of legendary doom.” I admit, I didn’t buy this book because I thought it would be good. I bought it because I thought it would be terrible. It wasn’t. It’s actually pretty good for a few different reasons. It’s not a science fiction masterpiece by any means but I had a great time reading it.
The story begins with Konrad Arflane, a former captain of a whaling ice ship. The ship he captained was given away by the owner so that he could pay off a debt. Arflane is wondering around without any motivation or goal in mind. He rescues the Ship Lord of one of the Eight Cities which are located on a huge plateau above the location of Matteo Grosso in South America. There in the city of Ship Lord Rorsefne, Arflane is asked to captain a ship and voyage to the fabled city of New York to discover if there are any truths to the rumours that the ice age is coming to an end. That’s the basic setup of the book and Moorcock uses it to explore the conflicting notions of science and religion, against tradition and modernization. Many characters have different points of view on the chances occurring around them, the dwindling population of ice whales and the warming climate, while others refuse to accept these changes and regress further into the comforting arms of their deity, the Ice Mother. By putting all these different characters on an ice ship headed on a dangerous journey creates a lot of conflict, some of it plot related and some of it character related. In the end, it all culminates into a futuristic version of Heart of Darkness that ends with a twist reminiscent of The Planet of the Apes.

A terrible depiction of an ice whale. That's
not how I pictured them at all. It looks so
much smaller than it should.
The World of The Ice Schooner:
One of my favourite aspects of the book was the world building. There is a surprising amount of world building taking place for such a slim novel but Moorcock makes it feel organic by developing his vision of a future earth through characters and situations present in the story as opposed to heavy-handed narration.

The story is set in earth’s future during a new ice age. The ice age has lasted for thousands of years and the world has adapted. Whales now walk on land or ice as is more often the case. They have four flippers which they use to move around at surprising speed. Their skin is brown and they’re covered in wiry hair which grows when they reach maturity at around three years of age. Moorcock never develops the rest of the food chain but they have teeth which leads me to believe they’re carnivores. We have no idea what the ice whales eat or how they live but we do learn that they travel in herds. There are other animals that still populate the world. Nomadic barbarians in the north have domesticated large bear like creatures which they use as means of transportation. There are also smaller ice whales which live in the north and large birds that live off of the remains of other animals. Wolves also continue to exist but it’s mentioned that they’re on the decline. Moorcock doesn’t make many of much vegetation. He makes no mentions of trees, perhaps conifers were all wiped out by the harsh climate. The sun is described as being red which makes sense. An older sun would explain the ice age.

It was interesting to see how humans adapted to the change in climate. Ice ships became the main mode of transportation because it runs on wind and doesn’t require fuel. Their diet consists of seals, ice whales and other Arctic and Antarctic mammals. They also eat lichens which grow in certain areas as well as seaweed. The Eight Cities of the plateau are located in large crevasses in the ice. There is a pretty rigid social structure. Rich merchant families are the aristocracy and they live in the rock carved homes while the poorer families live at the top of the crevice in the homes carved out of ice. The merchants have no respect for the lives of whalers and sailors. There primary concern is their ships from which they make their living. The ice ships are antiques but it’s difficult to believe they’re made from their original wood. Moorcock mentions that whale bone and fiberglass where used to strengthen the ships. It’s unclear whether or not any ships were built out of bone and fiberglass only except for the smaller sailboats they used while whale hunting. How they made fiberglass is anyone’s guess.

As per the Leiber quote above, the radical changes on the planet’s surface resulted in a change in humanity’s beliefs. One of the more interesting aspects of Moorcock’s story is the cult of the Ice Mother. Fritz Leiber once wrote in one of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, “Times and customs change. Periods of reverence alternate with periods of realism.” Moorcock seems to be exploring this very idea in The Ice Schooner with the cult of the Ice Mother. The belief is based on the idea that the natural state of the planet is to be cold. It’s easier to believe is this notion when your entire world is surrounded by ice and snow. When you die, your body loses its heat and become cold thus supporting the ideas of the cult. Many characters in the book find it difficult to accept that the world might be warming up because it’s an unnatural idea to them. It defies the teaching of the Ice Mother and the natural order. Moorcock shows us some interesting rituals that have developed such as bloodletting when offending the Ice Mother. People believe that their blood is a source of heat in their body so by bleeding themselves and presenting their blood to the Ice Mother they are cooling down their body temperature.

More ice whales. They just look like
fat seals. How disappointing.
The various characters in The Ice Schooner are defined by their interpretation of the changes, or lack of changes, happening to their world. In that sense, the journey to New York means different things to different people. For Urquart it’s a religious journey. He believes that Arflane is the chosen one who will plead the cause of humanity at the Ice Mother’s court in New York and have her stop the ice from melting in the South. For Manfred Rorsefne seems to go along with the journey out of boredom stemming from his aristocratic lifestyle. Arflane was more difficult to understand than most characters but by the time I reached the end of the book I understood him. Arflane searches for the truth. His story begins at a point in his life where he has lost everything he ever valued, a captain’s commission on a whaling ship, some respect and a bit money. During his self-exile and his chance encounter with Ship Lord Rorsefne, he’s gained a purpose in life. This purpose, this sense of direction quickly transformed into a maddening desire to search for the truth after his events on the Ice Spirit. All of the characters are trying to force their beliefs onto to Arflane. Arflane is different from the other characters because he doesn’t begin the voyage with his mind set on specific ideas. For him, it’s truly a journey of discovery. Another way in which Arflane is different is that he’s not entirely consumed by his search for answers. He’s regularly distracted by the female charm of Ulrica Ulsenn, daughter of Lord Rorsefne.

For its size, The Ice Schooner is a pretty impressive book. Moorcock does a great deal of world building but it’s old school world building. It’s fast and loose, I would categorize it as improvisational and that fits with Moorcock’s prolific period of the sixties and seventies. It’s not the kind of world building we’re used to seeing in fantasy novels of today, which is to say highly detailed and organized. The short length, a mere 267 pages, is filled with action, character interactions and numerous plot elements. The only real aspect of the book I didn’t like was Moorcock’s poor job writing women. Ulrica is the only female character of note and she’s limited to being and object of desire and a damsel to be rescued. There is plenty to enjoy in The Ice Schooner and even though it would resurface as a forgotten science fiction classic of yesteryear, I’ll be thinking about the times I spent in the Ice Age of the far future, travelling in ice ships and hunting ice whales.