Sunday, 30 March 2014

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin review

“Don’t look surprised. You’re my daughter. And sometimes . . . Sometimes I am sentimental.”
While waiting for Nemo: Roses of Berlin to be published, I took the time to reread the excellent first entry in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sub-series focusing on Janni Dakkar, daughter of the original Captain Nemo. Nemo: Heart of Ice is as excellent, if not slightly better, with each subsequent read. It was my third time reading it since it was originally released about a year ago. There is so much to love and enjoy about that comic but what really throws it over the top for me is the works on which the main plot is based: a combination of influences mixing together Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and H. P. Lovecraft to name only the most well-known and obvious sources. I also really liked personal and deeply emotional journey that Janni goes though. The horrors she experiences in Antarctica had such an impact on her that she’s returned from her travels a new person, completely changed by the experience. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the follow-up.

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin is the second in a planned trilogy of comics focusing on Janni Dakkar, the Captain Nemo of the early 20th Century. It’s a continuation of the comic and the prose story found in the first volume, the story of the marriage of Janni and Broad Arrow Jack’s daughter, Hira, and a French pilot Armand Robur. The year in 1941 and the Nautilus has just raided a German shipping vessel and they find out that Janni’s daughter and her son-in-law have been captured and our being held in Berlin. The kidnapping was done in order to lure Janni and Jack in Berlin so that German’s remaining Twillight Heroes could carry out their order to kill them. The comic is about the two-man rescue operation and the secrets that Janni and Jack uncover while in the city.

Like all the other League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories, this one is filled with various references to other works of fiction in several mediums. The time and place at which the story occurs allowed for inspiration of sources which we haven’t witnessed much in the series so far such as the films of German Expressionists. One character in particular resembles the robot Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Moore also has the clever idea to use Charlie Chaplin’s Hynkel, from The Great Dictator, as a substitute for Hitler. As always, Jess Nevins’ annotations are indispensable for the serious League fan. At least, those who care to know every single reference made in the text. To be honest, I catch on to about a quarter and even that is generous for some of the most reference heavy volumes such as The Black Dossier. Part of the enjoyment of reading the annotations is that I get to see how many of them I got correct. I don’t get all of them right, and that’s fine, but it adds an additional layer of depth to the work that I rather appreciate even if I probably don’t enjoy it nearly as much as other fans of the series. One of the best things about the annotations this time around is the translation for all of the German dialogue. There was more than what I would have liked but O’Neil really rises to the challenge to carry the narrative weight on the all-German pages.

In each volume since the trade paperback of the first mini-series, a prose story has been included with each one of the stories. They haven’t all had the same degree of success but the ones included in these last two stories are particularly enjoyable. Perhaps it’s because their focus is more closely related to the story being told in comic form though The Black Dossier also had plenty of prose directly related to the story being told in that particular volume. There reason they’re good is that they’re well written. Moore writes as journalist Hildy Johnson and her trips to Lincoln Island where she first recounts the story of Hira and Armand’s wedding and in this latest story, she comes out of retirement to visit Janni while she and her family celebrate her 70th birthday. Moore used the text portions to chronicle the events happening between each issues of Century and he does the same thing here. He also takes the time to provide additional information on the other characters, drop a few more references (such as the Nautilus battling Godzilla during the late fifties) and giving us a big tease for the next volume. The only thing I don’t like about the prose is just how few drawings O’Neil does. There are some really awesome things he could be adding to the mix and I wish he could do more.

I really like these comics. Not only are they a great continuation of one of my favourite comics by Alan Moore, they’re really great stories on their own. It’s also great that Kevin O’Neil continues to provide the art as he’s as he’s an integral part of why I love the series. It’s become impossible for me to disassociate the characters in this series with their original versions (be they found in novels or other media). There is a nice connection to the core League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series but they present stories and adventures that are detached from what occurred in the main series. The events of Century and the Nemo stories take place concurrently when you look at the larger continuity but when you take a closer look you can see how the stories weave around one another.

More than the others, the Nemo volumes feel and look like important comics. I don’t just say this because of how the comic looks and feel like European comics. Each of the volumes is a slim hardcover and contain 50 or so pages. It’s not just a comic, it’s a work of art, its presentation makes it look important and the story and art inside back that up. The only advertisements you’ll see here are those created by the Moore, O’Neil and the rest of the creative team. Though they’re not as experimental and dense as Black Dossier, Moore and O’Neil have found what I think is the ideal format for their series with the Nemo volumes.

There is a pretty strong continuation from Nemo: Heart of Ice. It’s very nice especially when you stop and consider the less than satisfying flow of the three 80-page issue of Century. This strong sense of continuity has been less effective over the last few League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories but Moore and O’Neil have both regain their footing. Once again, Janni survives a gruelling experience and she’s changed because of it. In Heart of Ice she struggled with her father’s legacy but in The Roses of Berlin, it’s her past accomplishments that came back to haunt her. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen started out as a Victorian superhero comic but it’s since expanded to bed a universe in which all fictional characters coexist and the creators have used this as the setting for some fantastic stories. It’s difficult to express just how appreciative I am that Moore and O’Neil have gone and created two very personal, emotionally driven stories in a series that has steadily grown in size and scope since it first appeared back in 1999. It might only be 56 page long but Nemo: The Roses of Berlin is clearly one of the stand-out comics of 2014 and I expect the next instalment will be just as good.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Rachel Rising: The Shadow of Death review

Terry Moore is the real deal. I first encountered his work with Strangers in Paradise, a huge and incredible story about best friends Katchoo and Francine and their relationship through the years. I had sampled some of the stories after reading some pretty great things about it in online. I later bought the series for my fiancé (then girlfriend) to try and get her to explore comics and share in something that I love. She’s read the entire 100+ issues twice. She’s as big a fan of Strangers in Paradise as I am, if not more. Since then, I’ve followed Moore’s work to Runaways and Echo up to his later self-published creation: Rachel Rising.

For those who don’t know him, Terry Moore is one of the most successful self-published comic creators, all the way up there with Jeff Smith of Bone fame and Dave Sim, creator of Cerebus. He publishes his comics through Abstract Studios which he managers with his wife. The simple reason why I think Moore is so great is that his work is consistently excellent. The art is spectacular, combining expressive quality and a sense of realism. His writing can also be very poignant and though Strangers in Paradise does have inconsistencies, his later work on Echo clearly demonstrated that Moore can work with a tighter focus on the writing side as well as the art. It’s that seamless quality of the writer/artist, the guy who does it all, that boosts his work into a level of quality rarely met by the output of corporation comics publishers such as Marvel or DC.

Rachel Rising immediately differentiates itself from Moore’s previous work because it focuses on a different genre than the other two of his major works. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Moore creator a horror story but this first volume clearly shows he’s got what it takes to create a great horror comic. The story begins with the eponymous Rachel clawing out of a shallow grave in the middle of a forest outside a small North-eastern town in the US. She can’t remember what happened or how she ever ended up in the strange situation she found herself in. The only problem is that people in town are telling her she’s not Rachel and it’s easy to understand why, with her pale complexion, her bloodshot, she looks more like a corpse. As she tries to unravel the mysteries surrounding her apparent death, Rachel gets caught up into all sorts of trouble as Moore creeps the hell out of his readers.

Everything takes place in a small town called Mason which Moore infuses with that gothic horror feelings that small towns often have in horror fiction. I get the feeling that Mason is one of those towns in which there would have been witch hunts in colonial times what with the mass grave in the woods right outside of town and everything. Rachel Rising is a horror comic that is actually concerned with tension, pacing and giving the reader the creeps. I’m genuinely surprised that Moore is able to pull all of that off because I would never have suspected it. In the past he’s shown that he’s adept at building suspense and mystery but it’s the creep-factor that’s completely new here and I enjoyed it. Is it weird that I loved being creeped out by the characters in this book? I mean Lilith and Zoe are very creepy! It’s made all the more impressive because Moore also made me smile and laugh a few times. He shouldn’t be allowed to create something that will delight and freak me out at the same time. Some people have all the talent and know just how to use it to their advantage, eh? Terry Moore, the read deal.

I have to specify that this isn’t a slasher comic though there is plenty of blood and gore. Moore present the violence in a specific context and that’s what make it work. He’s not exploiting the violence or the people who are on the receiving end of that violence. That’s one of the key elements of Moore’s body of work, actually. He presents everything form a humanist point of view. The reason the violence and the horror are so effective is that he immediately made me care about the characters. Rachel, Jet, Aunt Johnny, Zoe, they’re all very interesting characters and when they’re put into threatening situations, Moore knows how to present it in a way that will make me care about the story, the characters which results in my investment in the story and characters. He makes it look so easy!

Moore’s stories are always centred around the lives of one or more women. Some people might think this suggest his comics are for a female audience or that Moore has a desire to inject a dose of feminism into the comics industry. Neither or those things are inherently bad but that’s neither of those things is the focus here. If anything, Moore’s work is one of the better example of gender-neutral comics. Both men and women play important roles in his work and both sexes are portrayed in position and negative ways. More importantly, his characters actions are done in service to the story or for character development which is the best way to handle things.

Rachel Rising isn’t just good because of the writing but also because of the art. Moore is an excellent artist. He draws people of all shapes and sizes which make his fictional world look and feel real. He also draws hair and woman like it’s nobody’s business. The way he draws Zoe’s braid is just great. Does I elevate the story? No, not at all but just look at those breads! I can’t get over how much I think Zoe’s hair looks great.

I like how his art has a sketchy quality to it but it maintains this look without also looking incomplete like an actual sketch would look. I really enjoy the black and white and I think that’s part of what gives the finish are that sketchy look. Moore has a very specific line work and I think he would have to clean it up in order to be able to colour it effectively. I’m probably wrong of course. I don’t understand art nearly as much as a should considering just how much I love comics and just how many of them I read. There’s assuredly a style of colouring or a technique that could be used to great effect on Moore’s art as it is, without requiring any tweaks on his part. Still, you can see a cleaner version of his art on the cover work for Strangers in Paradise and Echo. Lucky for me, the covers for Rachel Rising are even sketchier than the interior art and I think it works well with the tone of this particular story. I also like to use of just a few colours on the cover art because it adds to the tone.

I’m not a fan of horror. It’s not a genre I actively seek out. I actually try and avoid it because the stuff I have sampled was just rubbish, exploitive and self-involved. That my previous experience with Moore’s body of work is enough to compel me to buy a horror comic should be enough to convince people that he’s a creator worth following. I know that I’ll be sticking around in part to spend more time with Rachel and Aunt Johnny (she’s great) but also to see Moore work his magic in stark black and white. He captures a certain truth about humanity in his art and his writing and Rachel Rising seems poised to show us the very best and the very worst of the inhabitants of Mason. I know I’ll be sticking around until the end of the series. I can’t wait to read the rest. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Gødland volume 4 and 5 review

Discovering Gødland has been an interesting experience. It’s been one of those series that mostly meets my expectations with the earlier stories but then progresses far differently that what I would have guessed and I end up disappointed. I had a pretty clear idea in my head as to what the story would be in the volumes following the first on but It didn’t go there. I came to Gødland with certain expectations which I build based on the cover art, the feel of some of Casey’s other comics, and the reviews and commentary I’ve read about the series on the internet. The other half of my expectations were founded on what was shown to me in the first volume and the promises of a grand cosmic epic to be told in the rest of the series. Everything seemed to linger. The story needed time to build before it ever even went where it was meant to go. I’m glad the series took it’s time to develop the plot but It shouldn’t have taken two volumes to do it.

The fourth volume Amplified Now! gave me what I’ve been waiting for since the end of first volume, the coming together of different storylines. The story in volumes 4 and 5 exploded compared to the slow crawl that had been established after the first volume. The fourth volume is essentially the turning point in the series. All of them setup is complete and Casey and Scioli simply have the stories turn and collide into one another. I truly did not expect three volumes of setup but that’s what the first 18 issues (yes, 18!) can be summarized. Though the third volume is the result of the previous stories being told, it’s not quite the second phase of the series but it does act as a bridge between the introduction or setup phase and the exploration of the cosmic collective phase. The creators announced the end of the first phase of the series with a few major events, specifically, saying goodbye to some of the more superheroic aspects of the series.

What I really enjoyed about the fourth volume was that it delivered. It took a long time for the story to get to the point where Adam fights with the Triad. Sure, he found plenty of other aliens before them but the Triad has been present in the comic for several issues before any direct conflict occurred with other characters previously established in the series. It was the same thing for other promises, like how it was strongly suggested that Neela would also become cosmically aware. It took several issues for it to happen and then it took a few issues more before we got to see her in action and to see her interact with Adam. It wasn’t enough to have alien beings with Kirby-crackle to make Gødland a great series. It can’t all be cosmic imagery, there also has to be a story and fro this kind of story, cosmic superheroics, there has to be conflict. We’ve had plenty of action but the conflict became sparse after the first volume. I wanted to see these supreme beings interacting with each other and taking part in huge adventures and changing the world and the universe. Thankfully all I had to do was stick around and wait for space aliens to cause havoc in Las Vegas.

If volume four was a step in the right direction, the first few pages of the fifth volume “Far Beyond the Bang!” clearly announced that we had arrived at our destination. It starts with Adam blasting off into space. Finally! This is literally a moment I’ve been waiting for since the very first issue and I’m completely surprised that it took so long for it to happen. The pacing and the flow of each storyline in Gødland has been very strange. I want to say that it’s the result of how Casey and Scioli are working on the book but I can’t confirm that. There are so many comics out there in which there is a strange pacing and there are plenty of artist who are very adept at controlling the pace of a story but there are also examples of writers who are very good at this (Warren Ellis is a great example, he’s a master of pacing).

Adam Archer’s arrival in space launches the series into a whole new level of action and cosmic adventures. He soon meets up with two other powerful cosmic beings: Vayikra and her son, Leviticus. They both remind of Jack Kirby’s New Gods and that’s a great fit because Gødland’s reason for being is to celebrate this kind of storytelling. Adam meets up with Vayikra and Leviticus while they are in the middle of a heated battled against N’ull Pax Mizer, a strong believer in the universal trust of eventualism. After helping them out in their fight, the mother-son duo decides to team up with Adam and join him on his search for his sister, Neela.

Neela is doing her own thing. She’s hunting down another powerful being, R@d-Ur-Rezz who goes around making mischief and causing as much confusion and chaos as possible. He lives by the code of total entropy and Neela is trying to stop him. We later find out why but I won’t spoil the good stuff for you. Meanwhile, on Earth, Friedrich Nickelhead is finally executing the plan he’s been working on since we first met him way back in the first volume. It’s equally surprising and underwhelming. Surprising, because I didn’t expect this series to go there, but underwhelming because it’s something we’ve seen several times before in superhero comics. Sure, Casey and Scioli make it their own but it still feels too familiar.

Without a doubt, Gødland: Far Beyong the Bang! propels the series into a whole new level of comics. It really makes the other volumes look boring in comparison. It’s sad to say but it’s true. I feel like he creators have been holding out on us. I can just imagine how torturous this would have been to read during it’s original, often delayed publication. Not only is it packed with story (I left out quite a bit) but the art seems to explode off the page! I love it! This is Scioli at his best (so far) and although I’m not the biggest fan of his style (it’s Kirby and it’s also not Kirby, I’m not sure how to describe it) it’s quite exciting to see him let loose on his character designs. He’s clearly having a blast drawing the hell out of the space portion of this story. I’m looking forward to the sixth and final volume of the series. I really don’t have any idea how the story will end because it feels like it all just began. Casey and Scioli quickly built up the momentum with the first volume but they let it die almost completely before really kicking it into high gear with the fourth and fifth volumes. Can it continue to improve in quality? I hope so but there’s only one way to find out. I just hope I don’t have to wait too long until the trade paperback is released.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Miscellaneous Reviews 05: Dr. Slump vol. 18 and Maria M. Book One

Dr. Slump volume 18:
This is the final volume of Dr. Slump. I have to say, it’s a bitter sweet moment. I’m glad that the series is ending because there is no way to make an open ended humour series work. It will eventually grow stale and if I’m being perfectly honest with myself and with Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dr. Slump and Dragon Ball, some of the stories in the later volumes demonstrated that things had indeed started to slow down. Part of this could be that while ending Dr. Slump, Toriyama was also working on the early chapters of Dragon Ball which as well all know became and international phenomenon. Maybe he was getting a bit distracted by his new series. It’s not surprising to thing that after four years of non-stop hilarity in Penguin Village, a new series with new characters and a different setting would have its appeal. Why wouldn’t Toriyama want to focus on a different project? I’m not saying this to complain or to rationalize a depressive decrease in quality in the 18th volume of Dr. Slump. The opposite is closer to the truth.

It’s impressive that Toriyama still manages to write funny stories about the townspeople who live in Penguin Village. If there’s one thing you need to understand about Dr. Slump is that there is a rotating cast of villagers that regularly pop up in stories. Some only appear one or just a handful of times but others appear at least once or twice a volume. Even after 18 volumes Toriyama is still creating new characters. The most notable in this volume is Biker Boy which should come at no real surprise considering the focus of this volume. Toriyama didn’t shy away from infusing Dr. Slump with his hobbies and all the other things he enjoys in life. Toriyama loves science fiction movies, building models, motorized vehicles and animals. He didn’t just incorporate this in the bonus feature pages in-between the chapters in the collections, he also incorporate these elements to the title pages and the stories themselves.

If there is one predominant theme to the final volume it’s advertising his new series, Dragon Ball. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, go out and buy a copy. It’s great stuff! I actually enjoy Dr. Slump far more than I ever liked Dragon Ball (and I really like it!). It’s one of the most overlooked manga series I know of. Sorry, I lost focus there. If there is one predominant theme to this volume its setting up stories in which Toriyama gets to draw vehicles of all sorts but specifically motorcycles. The standout new character of this volume is Biker Boy. A boy who has a rare and complicated (and entirely real) disease: he will die if he is not riding his motorcycle. He lives his life riding around the island never stopping for anything. A truck has to drive next to him so he can refill. He radios his favourite food truck to toss food at him while he drives by. Biker Boy’s condition is so serious he can’t even stop to use the bathroom. He wears a biking suit which is cut out at the back allowing him to poo in a special compartment of his bike which then flings it out onto the side of the road. This solves one of the great mysteries of Dr. Slump: just where do all the little piles of poo come from? Now we know where Arale finds it all. Thanks Toriyama, fans around the world also thank you for finally revealing the greatest secret in all of manga history.

Maria M. Book One review:
Gilbert Hernandez is a genius. He’s been hard at work on one of the best long form comic works of all time. Along with his brothers, Jaime and Mario, they’ve been regularly releasing Love and Rockets for over thirty years. Gilbert been pushing his work and bringing it to very interesting places since the Luba in America stories have been published. The most notable of these comics is the “Fritz B-movie” sub-series. Half-sister of Luba, Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez gave up her job as a psychotherapist to take up acting and Maria M. is her long lost masterpiece.

All of the Fritz B-movies are low-grade sexploitation films taking advantage of and displaying her unique physique. Maria M. is based on a true story and it has Fritz playing her own mother. The true story on which this “movie” is based is Gilbert’s incredibly dense Poison River, a huge and complex comic book opus. Already without looking at the story itself, Maria M. is a complex work simply based on its origins, both metatextual and real. The story though is pretty impressive for a 135 page comic that averages four panels per page. Maria Martinez has recently arrived in America (having run away from her home country in South America after an affair with her father’s gardener which resulted in the birth of her first daughter, Luba – that is if my memory serves me well, I haven’t read Poison River in quite some time). She finds a few “modelling” jobs and finally gets a few acting jobs as well. An influential gangster helps to produce one of those films, falls in love and marries Maria. The inconsistencies, or specifically, the artistic liberties being taken by Beto (a widely used nickname for Hernandez) with one of his previous stories is fascinating. In part because of how it contrasts with the earlier story and also on how it reflects more of Fritz’s character than it does on her mother. That makes sense of course since she’s had her story told in Poison River. But details such as Maria’s husband actually loving her or Gorgo having a brother and being Maria’s step-son bodyguard all feel kind of off but it makes for an engrossing read due to the depth of meaning these seemingly minor changes could have on the larger story of Fritz found in Beto’s work.

The Fritz B-movies has varied in complexity and quality but this latest one is pretty damn good. I feel like I’m missing some of the nuances the comic has to offer because it’s been such a long time since I’ve read the stories in my hardcover collection of Luba as well as Poison River that I’m certain I’m missing quite a bit. This comic, like most of the Fritz B-movies can only truly be appreciated by fans of Beto’s previous work. Still, I’m convinced Maria M. is a very good read because it’s a fast paced, haphardously paced crime comic. There is sex and violence to be found on nearly every page and the paranoia filled lives of Senor Cienfuegos (Maria’s husband), Gorgo and even Maria herself will delight even the most biased and critical fans of crime comics. I can’t believe Beto and Fantagraphics decided to split this story in two because the wait might just make me lose my mind but I shouldn’t complain too much since it gives me time to revisit earlier stories with Fritz and refresh my memory on just how big an impact making this movie had on her as well as her family. 

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Blog Fantastic 017: The Colour of Magic review

It was the King Colour, of which all the lesser colours are merely partial and wishy-washy reflections. It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchanted itself.

But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.

Running the risk of sounding like a snobbish expert of all things Discworld, I have to admit that upon rereading The Colour of Magic for the third time, it stands out far more than it used to compared to the rest of the novels (that’s right, all five novels of the series I’ve read so far). It’s structured differently. It’s composed of four novellas or extended chapters (I guess you could also call them parts or sections). Most of the novels in the series aren’t organized in parts or chapters which means that the story isn’t organized that way either. The Colour of Magic reads more like short story collection in which each all the stories flow from one to the other as opposed to a novel which encapsulates one continued story for its entire length.

I was a bit surprised to realize that Pratchett’s influences were more obvious to me than they’ve ever been before. Part of it is that the first two times I read this was during my teens. The other part is that I recently finished reading Swords Against Death byThe Colour of Magic isn’t one continuous story per se, it’s more of a collection of never-serialized stories. Four distinct stories that follow from one to the other which, when read in sequential order, work rather well as a novel. The fact that all four parts focus on a particular story or a long joke (made up, of course, of several smaller and medium size jokes) serves to make me believe I didn’t imagine the influence from Fritz Leiber. I think it’s interesting that Pratchett, the writer being influenced, is better than Leiber, the one influencing Pratchett. It’s not really a fair comment to make because Pratchett has far many more influences than just Leiber and unlike Leiber he’s not afraid to actually put his world building to good use, by which I mean Pratchett doesn’t just throw fancy word combinations onto the page. Octarine means something and some does hubward and so does the designation of “the disc” mean the world.

Fritz Leiber who’s was a big influence for the first and second stories in this collection thought he wasn’t the only influence, that’s for sure. For starters, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (Bravd and the Brown Weasel) appear as characters in the book in the first few pages. The wonderful city of Anhk-Morpork is clearly based on Lankhmar. Heck, it’s right there in the name! The way the book is organized also shows signs of the influence from Leiber.

It’s a bit obvious to say but being the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic is responsible for introducing several staple elements of the series. To name just a few, the planet itself is introduced: it’s flat, held up by four elephants riding on the back of Great A’Tuin, the space turtle. Discworld, the planet, is a very unique location in fantasy and it works very well. It’s one of my favourite fantasy locations of all time (and it would make a great statuette to have in ones living room). Pratchett also introduces the magical importance of the number eight along with the eighth colour of the light spectrum, octarine (which the title references). Anhk-Morpork, Rincewind, Twoflower and the Luggage are also introduced. I love all of these characters, the Luggage especially. They’re all so familiar (maybe not the Luggage) but maintain a specific, how would you say, flavour or essence all their own. Pratchett instantly makes these characters both unique and relatable in a matter of pages. It’s made all the more surprising when you stop and consider how ridiculous these ideas are. Let’s take my favourite (LUGGAGE), made up of a rare tree called sapient pearwood, it has hundreds of tiny legs, has quite the attitude, and is seemingly impervious to all sorts of natural and magical injury.

World-building is actually the one thing that makes this book work. It’s not just fantasy hijinks and magic jokes. For the uninitiated, The Colour of Magic tells four stories involving three mains characters. Rincewind is a washout wizard who’s hired as a tour guide to Twoflower, and ­in-sewer-ants clerk who is on holiday. Twoflower is the first tourist ever on Discworld and it works really well as an introduction because some of the sights he sees and the places he visits are explained to him by Rincewind which, by extension, is also explained to the reader. Accompanied by Twoflower’s Luggage, a sentient wooden chest with an attitude and many endearing qualities (he, it’s, no I’m pretty sure it’s he, is one of my favourite Discworld characters) they go on several fun adventures. In the first story, they meet up, many introductions are made, and half of Anhk-Morpork is burned to the ground. In the second story they meet up with a caricature of a barbarian hero are unintentional captured by an ancient god and defeat it. In the third story the characters get into a bit of a misunderstanding with the Dragonriders of Pern and the whole book ends with Rincewind and Twoflower getting into all sorts of trouble on the Edge which inevitably leads them to travel beyond the Edge of the Disc.

I quite like the idea that everything Pratchett throws into his fictional world seems to work so well together. Discworld isn’t your typical pseudo-medieval setting with magic thrown in, though there certainly is quite a bit of that. There are also modern ideas that come into play in hilarious ways. Pratchett introduces a lot of these elements in the first book making Discworld a series, a location and a universe in which things are ever changing. The overall constants remain the same, but immediately in the first story the concepts of tourism, insurance and economics are introduced. We also learn that as a failed wizard, Rincewind’s always toyed with the idea that there exists something else other than magic. He’s thinking of science but he obviously wouldn’t know that since he’s never encountered science before. He gets to, though, as Twoflower has a few contraptions form his home continent that would quality as a cross between magic and science. He has objects like a pocket watch and a camera, both going by different names, which Rincewind gets to use throughout the novel. The reader is made to understand that all these things were completely unknown to the population of Ankh-Morpork before the arrival of Twoflower.

The Colour of Magic isn’t the typical Discworld novel, at least not if I compare the five books I’ve read from the series. It’s got a bit of a strange structure and it’s nowhere close to the funniest book in the series, it’s hands down the best place to start reading. Perhaps unsurprisingly it serves as an excellent introduction to a couple of the most well-known Discworld characters as well as some of the most popular locations, like the twin city of Ankh-Morpork. More importantly, The Colour of Magic is the first time that terminology unique to the series such as octarine, the Discworld compass: Hubwards (towards the Hub or the center of the Disc), Rimwards (towards the Rim), Turnwise (the direction in which the Disc turns) and Widdershins (the opposite of Turnwise). In order to truly enjoy all that Discworld has to offer, you also have to be a pretty well-read fantasy reader. The more fantasy novels you’ve read prior to reading one of the many Discworld novels, the better the reading experience will be. That’s something I’ve only realized the third time reading it which means you don’t need to have read hundreds or even dozens of fantasy novels before it to enjoy the great fun that Pratchett’s having at everyone else’s expense.

Note on the Cover:
Josh Kirby’s cover to The Colour of Magic is pretty interesting. It’s not my favourite Discworld cover by any means but I do like how he was able to capture the energy of the book inside. This cover is also notable for putting the best character in the center (Luggage!) but the rest of the characters are a bit lost in the mix. Twoflower happens to have four eyes because Kirby catch on that Pratchett’s description of him was meant to convey that Twoflower wears glasses. It’s ok, I didn’t catch on the first tie either. I like how the cover shows a scene from the book. I love it when artists do that but good covers don’t always have to represent something from the story to be good.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Best of Milligan & McCarthy review

This is a great collection from Dark Horse. Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy make up one of the best long-time collaborations in all of comics. They’re not as famous as other creative teams such as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon or Joss Whedon and John Cassaday or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but some people would argue they should be. I’m not entirely convinced of that but The Best of Milligan & McCarthy sure makes a strong argument for it. I think the collection isn’t as much a collection of the best as much as it’s the most comprehensive collection of the creative team’s work to date. That’s the reason I bought this collection because it collects some very hard to find and out of print works from this British duo. I’ve enjoyed they work separately before but this, I think, is the first time I read one of their comics-by-collaboration.

One of the better stories collected in this volume is Paradax!. The story is quite simple; a young unemployed man finds a superhero costume in a book. When he wears the costume he discovers that he has gained the ability to walk through wall and move his body through objects. Instead of deciding out of the blue that he will fight crime and uphold justice with the help of his new powers, he decides to do something altogether different: get famous. Paradax! is an honest satire of the superhero job and it revels it’s in hipster attitude and the slacker ways in which its hero prances around town and occasionally fights crime. I quite like McCarthy’s art here. The clear line work is very effective when combined with the bright, day glow colouring. Unlike other more famous comics of the late eighties, the colours aren’t dark and muddy; they’re very bright, boldly announcing the arrival of a new hero on the streets. It’s a shame that he’s not really up to much good but he doesn’t have to. There aren’t any rules governing the actions of people who stumble upon magic costumes. All Al Cooper really wants to do is drink beer, have sex with girlfriend and strike it big in celebrity circles.

Hands down my favourite comic in The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is Rogan Gosh. It’s a masterpiece. Rogan Gosh presents the reader with multiple paths than can lead to transcendence or maybe it’s the illusion of multiple paths as there is only one true way to achieve enlightenment. Some will chose to pursue other things in life, such as love and caring for the fellow man. Others will foolishly be tricked into thinking that a life spent in an extended dream state is the same thing as enlightenment. I could go on and give you a synopsis of Rogan Gosh but that would be pointless for me and you both. Besides, it would sound like gibberish because Rogan Gosh masquerades as a comic that isn’t really about anything beyond a collage of Indian imagery and bright colours. In truth, it’s a comic that is as rich and complex as the best curry dishes. It seemingly combines a few different storylines that are all really the same stories from different dimensions (reality, dreamscape, a combination of the two, etc), all of them occurring simultaneously, commenting and contrasting with each other to give the reader a single story that echoes beyond the panels with each additional passing page.

I liked to you. I’ll attempt a synopsis. It begins with Rudyard Kipling who is in India. Having just experience a difficult time in his life and amassing bad karma, he decides to find the legendary Rogan Gosh (the man, not the dish). Rogan Gosh is a Karmanaut, a type of person who specializes in getting rid of bad karma. Kipling visits an opium house because Rogan Gosh does not live is the physical world. Meanwhile, a young man is trying to order a meal at a curry house only to end up decapitated along with his waiter. The two are now bound for the spiritual plane where they embark on a journey of enlightenment. Rogan Gosh is trick bed the god of lies and his most recent body is growing old. He patiently awaits his next reincarnation while also trying to save himself from the curse of Kali. There’s also a pretty heart-warming story of a broken love that learns to heal but that’s not all. There are even more things happening within the pages of Rogan Gosh. It’s about many things and about nothing. Rogan Gosh is best described as an experience. They weren’t just being boastful with the title; this is truly the best of Milligan and McCarthy.

The last major work included in this collection is Skin. Skin had a rather controversial publication history. It tells the story of Martin Atchison, a skinhead during the 70s in England. Martin was born with severe birth defects after his mother was poisoned because she took thalidomide to relieve her morning sickness during her pregnancy. The story is pretty straightforward, recounting a regular day in Martin’s life and his interaction with the group of skinheads he hangs out with. The story spirals downwards after he experiences a traumatic series of events highlighting how he will never lead a normal life because of his disability. It’s violent, rude and kind of a dumb comic but it’s intentionally dumb, hiding a smarter narrative and a poignant critique of larger corporations taking advantage of consumers.

The art seems regressive compared to the artwork of others comics McCarthy’s illustrated. It’s obviously intentional and I believe it was done to make the art look as dumb as the story. It’s as if McCarthy is trying to show us how Martin views the world. Everything looks a bit strange because Martin sees the world differently than others. The colouring by Carol Swain makes everything look poisoned or sick which again alludes to Martin’s birth defects. The sickly colours are applied in a brush stroke pattern reminiscent of wax crayons. It’s a very peculiar look but it works in the context of the story. Much like in Paradax!, what makes this comic good, what makes it memorable, is how brutally honest Milligan and McCarthy are with their storytelling. They present their critiques of large corporations and wealthy fat casts in an unapologetic way which isn’t only refreshing, it’s also crucial to the quality of the comic and the message of the story.

The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is a fascinating comic. It’s especially interesting if you’re familiar with the history of England during the eighties. Milligan and McCarthy really play up the satire in aloud of these comics. They really get that feel of oppression of youth and labourers and as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister has influenced culture during and after her time in office for the Vertigo line of American comics, it’s even more obvious in this collection. There is a raw energy to the comics and the satire reacts to what then was recent and immediate changes taking place in the country. These comics in this collection, which includes other shorter and less impressive works, aren’t just a visual feast, powerful satire of politics and superhero comics and ground-breaking stories, they’re all of these things combined. It’s not often that you get a chance to read comics that are historically important that also happen to be good comics and some are event great (Rogan Gosh). If you like any of these things, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Naruto 3-in-1: volumes 19-20-21 review

Naruto 3-in-1 volume 7 is an omnibus edition of the original volumes 19, 20 and 21. Like all of the previous Naruto omnibus editions, this volume collects a very nice selection of stories. Each volume tells its own story while also serving as satisfying continuation of the series. Volume 19 is the direct continuation of the previous volume’s story. Naruto and Jiraiya have just found Tsunade, another of the Three Legendary Shinobi, and they are trying to convince her to accept the position as the Fifth Hokage of Konohagakure village.  Orochimaru and Kabuto are also after Tsunade but their goal is to have her heal Orochimaru’s arms that he can continue with his plot to acquire the Sharingan and destroy Konohagakure.  The whole volume is an extended fight sequence and as exciting as it is to have the Three Legendary Shinobi fight, it was a bit of a disappointing fight. Part of it had to do with the fact that all three were incapacitated in some way. Orochimaru is unable to use his arms since his fight with the Third Hokage. Tsunade is emotionally crippled as she is struggling between her responsibilities as a Konoha ninja and her more selfish goals. Jiraiya, well, he got poisoned by Tsunade in an earlier story. The other reason the fight was a disappointment had to do with the type of fighting. All three used summoning jutsu and the whole fight escalates in scale and it actually becomes less interesting sine the summoned animals (toad, slug and snake) do much of the fighting. Still, it’s not all bad. We get to see some interesting fighting combinations like Gamabunta (the chief toad) spitting out oil and Jiraiya igniting it with a flame ball. It’s also nice to see Kabuto and Tsunade using their medical jutsu to fight.

Volume 20 served as a nice change of pace. It’s breather volume, taking place between a story arc that just finished an another one that is about to begin. Masashi Kishimoto takes the time to catch up on a few of the other characters and develop them further. He spends time shedding new light on Naruto and Sasuke’s mutual friendship and rivalry. He also spends some time on Rock Lee. Lee is still recovering from the injuries he suffered while fighting Gaara in the Chûnin exam. I have to admit I’ve always been a little disturbed by Guy’s teaching techniques. It’s like brainwashing to a degree. Lee is limited in what he can do. He’s only able to do one of the three main types of justsu. Guy acts as if that’s not a handicap at all but it is. He convinces Lee that even without special abilities he’s able to achieve the same heights in fighting abilities as all of the other genin (low-level ninja). Part of Guy’s teachings are true, Lee can still become a great ninja, but what I don’t like about Guy’s message is that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that everything Lee will achieve will come at a high price. We witnessed Lee’s incredible taijutsu (physical techniques) during his fight we Gaara but it has left him nearly crippled. It’s nice to get to catch up on all the younger ninjas as the series has had some really hectic plot developments and it elevated the series to a whole new level of action and story but a little breather from time to time is nice.

The final volume of this collection, volume 21, is the beginning of a new arc. After being healed by Tsunade and recognizing Naruto’s impressive growth, Sasuke feels like he hasn’t progressed as a ninja as well as he should have. He’s recently been spurred to achieve greater strength following an encounter with his brother, the man on how he will like to get his revenger for annihilating the Uchiha clan. Sasuke departs to join Orochimaru to become stronger. This leads to Tsunade sending out Shikamaru on a mission to bring Sasuke back to Konohagakure. Shikamaru has always been one of my favourite characters in Naruto. I think it’s great that we get to see him actually lead a team. That’s what he is really good at as opposed to one-on-one fighting. He’s a good fighter but being a ninja is more than just being a strong fighter. Giving Shikamaru this mission and having us follow him on it gives the reader a slightly different look at the world of Naruto, a world in which countries military is made up of ninjas. I was pretty excited about this story arc when I first read it and I’m excited about it now, too. Even though Sasuke isn’t one of my favourite characters (he’s too much of a brooder and feels much too sorry for himself) it’s nice to see him get into action. He’s been moping a lot for several volumes now and if he’s serious about getting stronger, he’s got to go out and do something about it. I don’t think he’s going about it the right way but that’s what makes the story interesting. I’m also excited about this arc because we’ll be seeing some of the Genins in action; some in particular we haven’t really seen do much before. 
All three volumes collected in this omnibus edition are a tad underwhelming compared to the crazy volumes that preceded it. The series really came into its own as of the 5th volume, the start of the Chûnin exam. It continued to reach new heights with the end of the exam and Orochimaru’s attack on the village in volume 13. It’s only natural that things started to come down a bit in order to recoup and prepare for the next big storyline. Naruto is also a series that has tons of regular and recurring characters. Kishimoto has regularly been introducing characters since the first volume but in volume 20, he gave the readers the time to catch up with a few characters before starting the next art and though it wasn’t as exciting as some of the stories, I appreciated the change to catch up. The Sasuke Retrieval Team is made up in part of some ninjas we haven’t spent a whole lot of time with before and the spotlight chapters on Choji and his battles (one inner and exterior) for his self-confidence was a rather nice way to start off the new arc. It’s unnecessary to say, but I’m really looking forward to the next 3-in-1 omnibus!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Best of the Spirit review

As an avid reader I regularly encounter a problem: what should I read next? You’d think that’s an easy question to answer but that’s not always the case because there are often too many choices. When it comes to comics specifically, I tend to read works by creators I like and whose work I’ve regularly enjoyed in the past. I often make my way through their body of work until I’ve either read all or most of what they’ve done or until I no longer enjoy it. Back when I first started to collect comics in 2006, I felt a need to explore classic comics and critically acclaimed writers and artists. The problem is that I never really read a whole lot of comics that predated the 1980s. It’s not entirely by choice, newer comics tend to be more readily available, but there is still plenty of older material which can easily be found in stores or online. I consider myself a comic reader that doesn’t like to get pigeonholed into reading and buying from a single publisher or from a single genre. 

I absolutely love the variety that comics can offer. It’s an incredibly flexible and versatile form of storytelling. Sometimes I think that regular readers rarely explore as many older works as they probably should. In the last few years I’ve continued to explore different creators, genres and publishers but I still don’t own many older comics and that’s a shame because comics is still a young art form, having made a big splash in the first half of the 20th century, there is a wealth of interesting material that predates the shared universe superhero boom of the second half of the century.

That brings me to Will Eisner. He’s an immensely influential creator in the field of comics and although not as many people are as familiar with his work, everyone is familiar with at least a handful of creators Eisner influenced. I’m one of those readers. I’ve known of Eisner and his body of work for years but I’m never read one of his comics. It’s not that I didn’t want to, much the opposite really. It’s just so easy to be distracted by new releases and I’m just as likely to buy something from a creator I know I like than to explore and try something by a writer or artist that is new to me. That all ended this past weekend when I started to read The Best of the Spirit. It just so happens that it’s great timing as it’s currently the sixth annual Will Eisner Week. It’s celebration of the comics of Will Eisner, the promotion of literacy and free speech. It actually last for more than a week but that’s alright by meYou can find more information on the event here.

I chose to read The Best of the Spirit for a few reasons. It’s Eisner’s most famous work. It’s also known to be a highly experimental and innovative comic which was originally published from 1940 to 1952. The Spirit was a seven page comic book insert and it appeared in newspaper on a weekly basis during its initial run. Eisner was asked to write a superhero story, an increasingly and emergent genre at the time but he didn’t much feel like it and the result is a hero that’s essentially a detective but he has an origin story, wears a domino mask to go along with his trademark blue suit, tie, gloves and fedora hat. Detective Denny Colt confronts Dr. Cobra in his science lair and after a brief bout of fighting Colt “dies” after coming into contact with Dr. Cobra’s experiment. Later on he awakens in his grave, digs himself out and decides to continue pursuing a life of crime fighting as the Spirit. He wears a mask to keep his identity a secret but it doesn’t play into the series too much.

One of the things I like about The Spirit is its strict adherence to a seven page length. I find that creators work best with restrictions or limitations. It forces them to be more creative because there is a dual expectation. One is driving by the restriction itself; you must produce a seven page comic strip. The other goal is driving by the creator who wants to break from the format without breaking the format proper. Yes, Eisner had a seven page limit to each and every story, but if these 22 stories are representative of the whole series, that was the only constant structural element to The Spirit. Many of the stories treat the Spirit as a secondary character. He regularly doesn’t appear on the first or even the second page. That’s pretty surprising considering he’s the main character and that the comic is named after him.

For starters, the stories are never the same. The first one is a typical vigilante origin story but another can be a tense thriller, a suspenseful action story or straight up action. A lot of the stories deal with crime in one form or another and other stories still are romance or drama. A fair number of the stories also have humorous elements which Eisner worked into several different styles of stories. Some of the stories also contain racist or sexist elements. The most obvious of these is the depiction of young Ebony White, a black boy who acts as the Spirit’s sidekick in the earlier stories. Ebony is a typical caricaturized portrayal of a black person complete with wide vacant eyes and large lips. He also talks in a broken speech. I’m not sure how many stories he appears in or for how long he was a part of the strip. 

The Best of the Spirit only collects two stories that were published before Eisner was drafted into the World War II. The rest are collected from his more experimental era in the late forties. Ebony only appears in about three stories out of the 22 collected in this volume. In the later stories he’s replaced with a young white boy, Sammy, as the Spirit’s sidekick. It’s interesting that Eisner replaced Ebony with Sammy. It seems to indicate that while Eisner was clearly influenced by the portrayal of black characters typical of the time in which he was working on this comic; he didn’t entirely feel comfortable about it and so he replaced Ebony with another character. I’m not well suited to discussing racist depictions of black characters in fiction but there are plenty of interesting articles and essays to read on the subject and many are available online.

Other than the seven page length of the weekly Spirit story, the other defining aspect of the series was how many of the stories focused on Eisner presentation of the human condition. Stories include the life of a man driven to murder told through his point of view, literally allowing the reader to look at the world through his eyes (Eisner places us in the head of the murderer).  The life of Rice Wilder, aka Wild Rice, is told in just seven pages. Having grown up in a wealthy family she desired nothing more than to be allowed to escape and experience freedom first hand. She willingly heads into a life of crime only to have it end in tragedy when she gets what she wanted so desperately. One of Eisner’s most poignant stories in this collection takes place on a getaway island in South America. A friend of the Spirit asks him to clear the name of her husband who is clearly guilty but he changes his mind after the man dies while heroically trying to save the life of his step-daughter. Most of the stories in this collection present situations specific to human life in all its varied forms. You often get to see the Spirit punch someone, too but that’s more of a bonus. It’s very interesting how in his very own series, the Spirit regularly doesn’t appear for the first two pages of the strip. In many ways, he plays a secondary role to the true main character of any given story.

Though it only presents a small look at the series, The Best of the Spirit clearly demonstrates in many ways how Eisner was an innovator. He wasn’t the first to create many of the techniques he uses (though he did create plenty) but he changed them and pushed them further than they’ve ever been used before. He combined many different techniques together to produce interesting stories. There are several visual styles and storytelling tricks that continue to survive today that were first developed or used effectively by Eisner during his run on The Spirit. Some examples include new ways to use of sound effects, the further development of interesting and effective lettering techniques, “logotechture”, and the technique that incorporates a story’s title or the title of the comic into the background or buildings. These images were often one-page spreads. Later comics would adopt this technique to incorporate the credits of a particular comic into an introduction page. The idea of an introduction page is also something Eisner innovated. Many of the later stories in The Spirit begin with a nearly full or a complete one-page spread. Some of them didn’t even have text on them.

I would feel like my post was incomplete if I didn’t mention the fact that Eisner received a considerable amount of help while writing and drawing The Spirit. While in Europe during World War II, the comic was ghost written and drawn to allow for the regular publishing of the strip. During the end of its original publication, many creators, some of them well known such as Julius Schwartz, Wally Wood and others, were producing The Spirit nearly on their own which Eisner reduced to the role of supervisor and consultant. It’s pretty clear to me that The Spirit is as fascinating a comic as Will Eisner and they both deserved to be explored further. It’s something I plan on doing so don’t be surprised if either of them post up on Shared Universe Reviews again.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Blog Fantastic 016: The Great Hunt review

In my review of The Eye of the World (here), I ended it by saying I would be posting the review for The Great Hunt in a few weeks’ time. I lied. It took months! It took months because I felt a bit betrayed and very letdown by The Eye of the World. It was too unfocused and Jordan’s writing is very difficult to wade through particularly during the “action draughts” where characters just seems to be wandering aimlessly and over analysing the silliest of things and trivializing rather important things about the fate of the world. It shouldn’t have surprised me though. I should have seen it coming. Robert Jordan writes like the Wheel weaves, that is he sticks to the pattern and repeats it over and over hoping that the result will be grand and epic simply because of its size and not necessarily because of skill or particularly intricate designs. There are things, such as Rand constantly thinking of women in the way only young virgins think of women, I’m sure will be a part of the series until the very end. Or until Rand and one of the female characters simply have sex and begin to build an adult relationship instead of tugging at their braids and twiddling their thumbs.

Granted, I had quite a few issues with The Eye of the World and most of them are still present in The Great Hunt. The most notable exception to this is that Jordan is pulling away from the influence of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. He’s making The Wheel of Time his own thing by infusing it with original concepts and ideas. The more he builds his world, the weaker Tolkien’s influence becomes which makes for better reading because I’m not automatically making connections between both works which can only favour Jordan since a strong comparison to Tolkien’s work makes Jordan look amateurish. The Great Hunt is a big book and I had a lot of things I wanted to say about it but I’ve cut out most of the random comments and I’ve tried to limit myself in order to better organize my thoughts. Let’s dive in.

The Characters:
There were quite a few characters in the first book and there is a fair amount of characters that have been introduced in The Great Hunt. I don’t love ‘em all. Some I downright fight annoying. So much so that I think I hate them. If there’s one character I love and I think I will always love it’s Moiraine. She’s just the coolest you know? I love that she’s obstinate but not blindly so. She’s intelligent and she’s a hard worker. She also has a conscience that is true and just and she’s devoted her life as an Aes Sedai to work towards keeping the dark forces at bay and helping the Dragon Reborn put an end to it for good. It’s a noble goal and she’s aware that there will always been obstacles to block her path but with Lan by her side and just a few other allies, she’s willing to take on all opponents because she believes in what she’s doing. She’s also badass and I wish there was much, much more of her and Lan in the first two books. According to The Wheel of Time wiki, Moiraine is only in 7.44% of The Great Hunt. That’s bull! I want more! Who decided on this? I had to wade through 53.16% of the book stuck with Rand and all of his insecurities. That better change in the following books.  

I might as well get it out of the way, right? Let’s talk about Rand. It’s incredibly annoying to be inside Rand’s head for so many chapters. He’s in constant denial of his role in the grand scheme of things. While the Aes Sedai seem to accept that their lives are destined by the Pattern, heck they even seem to depend on it, Rand is uncharacteristically sturbborn. Uncharacteristic for being a character in a world where their culture is saturated with the idea of the Wheel of Time and the Pattern being woven with the lives of men and women. It’s almost as if Jordan thought he had to write Rand this way in order to give the reader someone to relate to which is ridiculous. We’re reading a fantasy novel and come on as if we didn’t know Rand was the Dragon Reborn since the first page of The Eye of the World!*

Rand is whinny little bitch. I find it very difficult to sympathise with him because of his internal monologue. He’s always complaining about how people think of him and label him. To some, he’s a lord. To other, he’s the Dragon Reborn or another False Dragon. To some, Egwene and Nynaeve especially, he’s just a farm boy. All of these labels and titles upset Rand and instead of focusing on becoming the person he wants to be, he’s letting himself be bothered by what others think of him. He’s just too fragile to be the hero he’s destined to be. I understand that Mat, Perrin and Rand have had their lives turned upside down and shaken up but why are they all finding it so difficult to adapt to their new experiences? They live in a world of magic and they’ve seen the proof of it time and again but the idea of being a wolfbrother or being able to channel saidin, the male half of the One Power is too much for them to handle? You would think that because they live in a world of magic and ancient heroic legends it would be easier for them to accept and even embrace it. Even if that’s not the case, they experienced those very things they used to think were impossible. Their state of denial is incredibly frustrating and they’re so dumb about it they even lie to themselves about what they’re doing. Rand regularly justifies his hunt for the Horn as being nothing more than a search for the dagger of Shadar Logoth which he’ll give back to Mat so that he can be healed for good. You can channel saidin and you’re going after the Horn. What other clue do you need?

The sad thing is that Rand isn’t the only poorly written character. The characters are Jordan’s weak point. Some of the characters are interesting and some are even well written but many, far too many for a book of this size and with this many characters, are flat, uninteresting, annoying and just downright unpleasant to read about. Some characters only have one thing about them that’s truly annoying. Liandrin of the Red Ajah is a good example. Her dialogue is terrible. She talks so strangely, it’s like a reverse-Yoda parody. It’s just awful. Other characters are used in regular jokes, or at least what Jordan considers to be a joke. The Emond’s Field boys are constantly wishing another one of the guys was around when they’re making a fool of themselves talking to one of the female characters. When Rand is with a women he finds attractive and he’s blubbering like an idiot he wishes that Perrin was with him because “he always knew how to talk to girls”. A few pages later, it’s Perrin’s turn to wish that Rand was with him because “Rand always understood women”. It was repeated at least one every 100 pages in The Eye of the World and it popped up again in The Great Hunt.

My favourite characters are Moiraine, Lan and Loial. I don’t need to explain why I like Loial, he’s just awesome and I want more of him. He’s one of the few characters that are interesting and despite not being explored as much as other characters; he does a good job playing a supporting role. Moiraine and Lan are good characters because they’re the only example of male/female relationship that isn’t painful to read. All of the other male/female pairings feel forced, passive-aggressive and sexist to both men and women. The male characters all think women are impossible to understand and will continuously act as a source of frustration. Despite that frustration, the male characters will also be continuously infatuate with or lust after the female characters. As for them, the female characters all feel entitled to bully the male characters and have them submit to their will and whim. There is a scene where a female innkeeper gives Rand marital advice when she mistakes him and Selene for a couple after Selene retreats to her room after an argument. It’s not only embarrassing for Rand and his friends; it’s embarrassing and painful to read. Moiraine and Lan don’t dodge all of the above criticisms, but their relationship feels fare more natural than any of the others in the series so far.

I think another reason why I like Moiraine and Lan is that I actually know something about their character but I didn’t learn it from The Eye of the World or The Great Hunt. Most of what I know from them I learned while reading New Spring. It’s incredible how little the characters develop after 1500+ pages. Nynaeve is still temperamental and hard-headed as ever. She also shows no desired to do anything. Sure, she’s travelling with Egwene to Tar Valon but you get a sense that she’s doing it because she has nothing else to do and not because she wants to. This changes towards the end of the book but it’s not something grown out of her own desire to do something, she’s simply doing what she thinks is right after being put in a very difficult situation. Now that I think about it, there was a bit of character development for Nynaeve. I guess she wasn’t the only character to develop. Rand is still a whiny bitch but now he’s a whiny bitch who knows how to do a few neat tricks, like sword fighting thought he took a knack to it like it was nobody’s business. It might sound crazy but as far as characters are concerned, New Spring looks even better when comparing it to the first two books of The Wheel of Time.

There were a few characters that were only introduced in The Great Hunt that I like; in particular I really like Hurin. He’s a sniffer which means he has the special ability to smell violence. How cool is that? Well, when you start to think about it it’s not as cool as you think. Few of us ever experience the kind of violence we see on television and that we read in books. If we ever did, I’m sure most of us would be terrified and we’d probably be changed by the experience. Imagine experiencing that violence through smell? You can smell flesh wounds, domestic violence, rape, murder, torture, every kind of violence. You can recognize what violent action took place in a specific area by smell alone. The more intense the violence, the more intense the smell and the easier it is to recognize. It quickly becomes a pretty horrific “gift”. Hurin is pretty great about it though. He uses his ability for good and even though he doesn’t enjoy smelling certain acts, he does it for the greater good. He’s also very loyal and it’s nice to have a character who seems content with his position in live and doesn’t feel the need to question his motivations. He knows where he stands with the other characters in the book and that refreshing. Still, I hope one day when he retires he gets to spend his time in a huge garden surrounded by happy people so that he can smell something nice for a change.

Though I struggle to find a lot to enjoy in the way Jordan writes his characters, he does show some affinity on how they influence one another throughout the story. Rand in particular seems to more accurately reflect his status of ta’veren. A ta’veren is an individual around which the weaves of the Pattern focus, pulling in the life-threads of others. Everyone who meets Rand has their lives changed because of it. Jordan demonstrates this regularly and it really works because of the well-developed idea of the Pattern. It feels a lot less heavy handed because the Pattern is a real thing in this particular world. It’s not some vaguely defined mystical force; it’s a well-documented guiding force of the universe, as real as gravity. While Jordan struggles at writing realistic characters, he’s much better at other aspects of writing such as world building.

*I added all of those italics because Jordan loves his italics. The only thing he loves more than italics is to reverse italicising words in an italicised sentence.

The World of the Westlands:
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about The Wheel of Time is Jordan’s development of the Aes Sedai’s magic system. In The Great Hunt, he introduces characters that have other abilities that are unrelated to the One Power which the Aes Sedai tap into. It’s nice to know that even though there is a dominated magic system, there are other forms of magic that also exist. Some forms of magic are specific to a species which no other species can use. Ogiers are a good example. Their ecological based magic can be pretty powerful and Loial has been shown to be a pretty talented at Treesinging. Some humans also have special abilities, like the wolfbrothers or Hurin’s sniffing talents. Min, which we first met in The Eye of the World can see things about a person’s future. Min tells

Some humans also have individual abilities, like the wolfbrothers. Min, which we first met in The Eye of the World can see things about a person’s future. Min tells Elayne that she will share her husband with two other women. Shit dude, it’s got to be Egwene and someone else. Elayne and Egwene have become close friends since they’ve been at the White Tower. Because Jordan’s been introducing new types of magic, I’m expecting to learn new things about some of the magic that’s already been introduced. If Rand can use the One Power, he’s basically a male Aes Sedai which makes me think that maybe he can bound with women, like the Aes Sedai do with Warders. I would also expect that if he can do this he’d try to bond with Egwene. I’m not sure if they can since they’re both users of the One Power but maybe they might still be able to. It’s said that during the Time of Legends, male and female Aes Sedai did their best work together. I guess I just have to keep reading to find out.

When it comes to Aes Sedai and their magic, the whole aspect of weaving which was present in New Spring is almost completely absent from the first two novels in the series. Is this something Jordan introduced later in the series? It seemed like an integral part of the magic system when I read the prequel and I liked it because it worked so well with the whole thing about how the Wheel of Time weaves the lives of men into the Pattern. Aes Sedai are so powerful, they can also weave the True Power into magical patterns and thus influence the course of people lives. Based on your understanding on the Pattern, the Aes Sedai might be weaving a smaller pattern within the larger Pattern.

Jordan’s world building remains interesting because he’s still adding to it. It’s a very difficult thing to do but the Westlands seem large enough and have a rich history that if he paces himself well, the world building aspect of the series can remain interesting for at least a few volumes more. The notable additions to the series are the Portal Stones, the Seanchan and their culture including the damane and their history as the descendants of Artur Hawkwing. The Portal Stones is a pretty big addition. I’m certain that it will have pretty big ramifications during the rest of the series. Portal Stones are used a magical travelling method but it also allows the users to travel through time and to other worlds. These other worlds are variations of the real world. Every single decision that is made creates another world, each one of them a variation of the true world or the true Pattern. Some of the worlds barely resemble the world the characters live in but others are so similar you can travel to one and visit its future and it will likely give you an accurate portrayal of your world.

The other big addition is the Seanchan. They come from a continent to the west of the Weslands, across the Aryth Ocean. They are said to be descendants of Artur Hawkwing and they’ve cross the Aryth Ocean to reclaim the lands formerly conquered by Hawkwing. They have a very strict hierarchal system and it reminds me of a twisted form of the government during the Feudal era in Japan. They’re a very powerful people, skilled in the art of sword fighting but what really makes them fearsome is their treatment of women sensitive to the One Power which they call damane. It’s a combination of human trafficking (the Seanchan actively search for women who can channel), slavery and warmongering. It’s a frightening addition to the world of The Wheel of Time and it feels very dark compared to the other elements present in the series. It could also feel darker because of the character development that can regularly feel juvenile.

The Great Hunt is a better book than The Eye of the World. Jordan makes better use of the world he’s developed. The focus of the story has expanded along with its world. Jordan’s also further developing the themes of his story. The primary theme is balance, dark and life, male and female. He’s also writing quite a bit about how power comes at a price. Rand is the best example of this. As the Dragon Reborn, he is able to use saidin which gives him incredible power as one of the few men able to channel. But it comes at a cost since the male half of the One Power is tainted. The price of his power is death. First he will go mad and then he will die because of his regular contact with saidin. Another important theme is the difficulty of doing one’s duty. It’s very difficult to do what is right. Rand’s reluctance at being called a Lord doesn’t just have to do with him feeling awkward, it’s also because being called a Lord means that he will the responsibilities of a Lord. Likewise, Moiraine’s work is very difficult and incredibly dangerous. She’s been at it for twenty years and she’s still facing dangerous situations but it’s the right thing to do. Mat doesn’t like to use his wolfbrothers abilities but when Hurin is lost and the Shienar needed help to track the Trollocs, he reluctantly communicated with the wolves to help keep them on the right path.

Even though I enjoyed The Great Hunt quite a bit more than The Eye of the World, it is far from perfect. Heck, it’s so far from excellent but I don’t think that mattered to Jordan. I don’t think he cared. Sure, I never knew the man personally but shit, The Wheel of Time isn’t about supreme character development, it’s not about writing a carefully constructed narrative and reworking it until it shines unto the fantasy novel readership of the world so brightly it burns out our eyes and stops us from ever being able to read again. It doesn’t have such lofty and ridiculous goals. The Wheel of Time is about narrative simplicity for the sake of grandiose storytelling. At its core, it’s a simple kind of book that has huge aspirations. That’s why I’m conflicted when I read it. The story is very interesting; the world is fascinating and the amount of details appeals to me. I want to explore the hell out of the Westlands but instead I’m stuck in the head of Rand al’Thor and his painfully naïve thoughts about women, duty and destiny.

There’s a reason that The Wheel of Time is such a long series. It doesn’t care about being a concise series; it doesn’t want to be like all those other fantasy trilogies, it wants to be big! It wants to be huge! The problem is that it doesn’t really know how. Jordan doesn’t seem to know how to write a huge book either but he tries by filling every page with unnecessary descriptions and (sometimes, but not always) painstaking inner monologues. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter because that’s not what the focus of the series is. Jordan wants to transport you away on a huge journey where Darkness and Light fight an eternal and cyclical battle to Break the World and dammit he delivers on that! It’s not always well told, it has a lot of faults and apparently the series loses control after the sixth book but that’s to be expected. The Wheel of Time is so large I’m not surprised the whole thing got out of hand.

It sounds like I’ve been converted, doesn’t it? Well I guess I have. There is a lot to enjoy here and if you’re going to keep on reading such a big series you might as well refocus your expectations with what you know the book might actually deliver. There are some things that will bug me throughout the entire series, I’m sure, and that’s ok. I’ll just vent about it here. Like hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people before, I’m about to let myself get swept away. It’ll be a rough ride but I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. It’s hard to ignore a giant of the fantasy genre like The Wheel of Time and I’m not the fool who’s going to attempt it. I’m also not foolish enough to go around saying it’s the best damn fantasy series evaaaaah and whoever disagrees is just a stinky Trolloc! Heck no. It’s obviously not the best but it’s something. Try as I might to resist, I’m slowly being sucked in. I just hope I can keep my wits about me while still being able to enjoy all the good stuff the books have to offer. I’m serious, there are some things to enjoy here but you have to be able to tolerate a lot of suck to get it to.

Man, I really hope making the right choice to keep on reading! Maybe I don’t have a choice and it’s all part of the Pattern. I guess you’ll find out in a few weeks (or months).

A note on the cover:
Alright, let’s talk about that awful cover. Sure, it looks nice and for a moment there I almost agreed with you but it’s not. It’s really bad but it’s not enough to just say it. Let’s consider why. I’ll start with Rand; he looks like a little guy, a fourteen year old, maybe. He’s not nearly as tall as he’s described and he doesn’t have any of the Aiel features he’s repeatedly said to have in the books. The horn looks fine. I kind of like that from a short distance it looks like a regular, every day horn (what, don’t you have a horn at home?). Selene looks ridiculous though. Look at her facial expression! It kind of makes sense once you’ve read the end of the book and know more about Selene’s character, but there’s no way she would be looking at the horn with such a wide-eyed, doe-like expression. It’s ludicrous. The Trollocs also fail to meet my expectations. For starters, they all look far too human for my liking. They’re also average human size; they look no bigger than Rand. The lack of animal characteristic is particularly frustrating. Oh look, they’ve all got horns on their helmets. It’s quite nice that all the horns look different but none of them actually have horns. It’s just decorative! From cover of the rest of the series, Sweet addresses his inaccurate portrayal of Trollocs later on. I do find it a bit disturbing that Trollocs as we see them on this cover are basically black men. It’s made all the more disturbing in comparison to the other characters on the cover. Selene should be pale, and that’s fine. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with Rand though he does look a smidge too pale considering his genetic and cultural heritage. But Loial, there is no excuse for that. Not only is he too pale, his entire character is poorly painted. His ears look ridiculous protruding from an all-too-human head. Actually, that’s the problem overall. He looks human! Almost entirely so. He’s far too short, his nose isn’t as wide or as large as it should be and he doesn’t give the same sense of size and scale from how Jordan describes him in the book. And don’t get me started on the eyebrows. 

This is the best Ogier art I’ve been able to find. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an art credit.

I mean no disrespect to Darrell K. Sweet. I do like his art but the cover to The Great Hunt isn’t representative of the story being told in the book and that’s automatically a bad thing, but it is a bad thing when you’re clearly trying to give an accurate depiction of the story and characters of the novel! I’m certain I would really like this cover had I never read the book but having read the book, the cover doesn’t work for me anymore.  I will give credit where it’s due, he paints the hell out of that scenery. Look at the rocks, at those trees. They’re pretty gorgeous, you have to admit. The Trollocs’ armour also looks pretty great. I can’t get over Loial, though. That’s difficult to digest.