Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War

I’ve always been a big fan of the X-men. When it came to Marvel comics, the various X-men series is what I gravitated to but in recent months, I’ve developed a liking for old stories featuring the Avengers. I’ve read a considerable amount of Avengers stories written by Bendis in the last ten to fifteen years but there is just something about his writing that doesn’t work for me. A lot of it might have to do with the faux-realistic-dialogue and the overuse of banter. And even though I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to Avengers comics, his team never really felt like the Avengers.  The difficulty with exploring older comics, especially superhero comics where continuity is very fluid and often contradictory, it can be easy for a reader to get lost. Because of my familiarity with the modern Marvel Universe and many of its characters, I feel pretty comfortable just jumping into a series and reading. That being said, before reading The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War, I haven’t read any previous Avengers comics by Roy Thomas and generally speaking, when it came to back issues of The Avengers, it’s pretty limited. Though I can tell you for sure that I don’t enjoy the earliest issues written by Stan Lee.

The Kree-Skrull War is pretty darn good. It reads like a mini-series within the pages of an ongoing series. There is a pretty clear structure, a pretty nice beginning with a clear middle and end to the story. Since it took place in the issues of an ongoing series, there are some threads that aren’t wrapped up, but they aren’t crucial parts of the story. Thomas built the story in layers. Each additional issue brought forth new ideas, more characters and Thomas meshed it all together into a larger narrative. Some of the elements are used extensively in a single issue and are only mentioned later on but it all contributes to the overarching story. I’m very disappointed that something called The Kree-Skrull War doesn’t actually have a war between the Kree and the Skrull in it. Instead, the Avengers, through their actions, prevent the war between both alien races. The later issues almost contain some pretty good superhero battles in space but it’s too little too late. The real joy in this story is the variety of different story elements that Thomas weaves into the narrative. The other highlight is the characters.

It’s fascinating to read about characters I’m familiar with in their previous characterizations. Some of these characters have radically changed throughout the years. Some of the changes are actually improvements. Thor’s terrible Shakespearean-light dialogue is a pain to read. Some do it better than others, but Thomas doesn’t have the knack for it. Other times you learn an interesting bit about a character’s history that you weren’t aware of before. I never knew Clint Barton, most often known as his alter ego, Hawkeye, spent some time in the guise of Goliath. I had always though that Hank Pym was the only person to take on that persona but it makes sense that another person could and did take on the identity of the size-changing hero because the powers are science based. Goliath can increase his size and mass using Pym particles.

It’s strange to read a comic in which Iron Man’s secret identity isn’t known by the public. Most of the Iron Man comics I’ve read his identity is public and everyone know Tony Stark is Iron Man. He’s actually a more interesting character because of that. Many superheroes have secret identities and we’ve had that played out. A significantly smaller portion of them have public identities (the Fantastic Four probably being the most famous). The thing that really annoyed me though is just how fake and just plain dumb Iron Man sounds when he’s explaining to people that he only knows how to destroy the trio of Mandroids because Tony Stark told him how to defeat them because he built them. It’s just silly and the scene is poorly written. More than that, Iron Man is constantly talking about Stark and it’s strange that the other characters don’t even seem to notice or care to know why he talks about Stark so much. T doesn’t work for me at all (at least not in this story).

Quicksilver is also pretty ridiculous at this time in Marvel history. He’s not nearly as interesting as he became during the nineties after Peter David’s great X-Factor story. He’s actually pretty lame in this comic. His fighting techniques completely baffle me. His go-to move consists of him running towards an opponent at top speed, rolling himself into a ball, and smashing into them. What the fuck is that? Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver’s sister and the only female Avenger at this time (Wasp wasn’t a part of the team during these issues but she does show up in the story), is more competent than her brother. She uses her hex powers rather effectively against their enemies and her opinion seems to be valued by the rest of the team but not as much as that of her male team members.

My favourite character though has to be Vision. He’s a great character! He’s very powerful but he’s also pensive. Despite being an android, he’s rather in-tune with his feelings and the budding romance between him and Scarlet Witch is quite nice. More than any other character, Vision embodies the spirit of the superhero team. He has genuine concern for the prosecution of Captain Marvel and he suffers a powerful blow because he defended his teammate. He’s very humane, focused on his work and quite the fighter. That last part means a lot because the Big Three, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man weren’t part of the regular roster at the beginning of the story. they step in later to disband the existing group and then decide to change their mind and support the team’s efforts. In their absence though, Vision is the key member and he continues to be important even after the Big Three have returned.

There is something undeniably beautiful and effective about comic book art when it’s done just right. Marvel has many comics in their back catalogue drawn by artists who got it right. For me, when I think of old comics, I think of Sal and John Buscema. I haven’t read tons of comics from this era, but when I think of 70s Marvel comics, the Buscema brothers always come to mind. Not everything they do is great but they’ve produced some fine comics and it’s hard to beat them. Still, for nearly four complete issues, Neal Adams gives them a run for their money. It’s very easy to see why issue #93 is considered a classic. I absolutely loved Ant-Man’s exploration inside Vision’s body. Adams knocked it out of the part in this storyline and it’s actually a bit sad when you compare his work here with some of his work from recent years. A great comics master has past his prime . . . which is just one more reason to check out this fine comic book story from the pages of The Avengers.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

X-Factor Visionaries vol. 4 review

Peter David’s tenure as the writer of X-Factor was, in my opinion, the biggest waste of talent on an X-title during the nineties. David is a good writer and his strength are in good characterizations but he never really got a chance to tell his stories without interruptions. None of the three X-Factor Visionaries volumes have been great. David is having a difficult time finding his footing and hitting his stride on the title. This volume is essentially more of the same but some of the stories within are much worse and some are actually a bit better but volume 4 is the last one of this particular run and it’s probably for the best.

There was an X-Men crossover in the early nineties called X-cutioner’s Song. The event happened in the pages of four different X-Men comics during four months for a total of 12 issues. Three of those issues are collected in this volume. I’ve never read the whole event but if the X-Factor issues are any indication, X-cutioner’s Song is fucking crap. The volume begins with X-Factor’s event issues written by David with art by Jae Lee. I’m a fan of Lee’s artwork. He’s more stylized and formal than many other artists working in comics but based on his work here he’s had very similar beginnings as many other artists who worked nearly twenty years ago. It’s completely different than the kind of thing he would produce now or even ten years ago. It’s sad to say but it’s pretty typical of the kind of stuff you would find in Marvel comics from the early nineties. The characters have grotesquely exaggerated anatomy and their bodies have unnatural sharp corners. The crosshatchings and heavy inking makes for art that is pretty unpalatable. The garish colouring doesn’t help, either. To top it all off, David’s scripting is sub-par compared to the rest of the X-Factor issues. His heart is obviously not in it. For three months during the X-cutioner’s Song event, David was writing this comic because it was a job and not because he enjoyed writing them. It’s just awful stuff. I don’t even know why I’m still talking about it.

After the crossover issues, we finally get some really good X-Factor stories. My favourite is the psychiatrist issue. Val Cooper, government liaison for the team, has decided that all of the members of the team need to a have session with a psychiatrist after particularly difficult missions. In this case, Cooper considers the events of X-cutioner’s Song to qualify as a trying mission for the team. I like that David could take something so bad and make something good out of it. It’s also great to see just how quickly and accurately he explains the character and identifies their individual faults in the psychiatrist sessions. The only ones that don’t really work for me is Polaris and Rahne. Maybe it’s because I’m not very familiar with them as characters but something just doesn’t quite click. Guido’s session was awesome. I really enjoyed his origin story and I appreciated the explanation for his physical deformity. Quicksilver’s was another exemplary bit of storytelling and character development. That story will forever affect how I look at him.

The art also improved with the post-crossover stories. Joe Quesada takes care of the art and though it’s not my favourite kind of style nor is Quesada a favourite artist, it’s a definitive improvement following’s the Lee issues (truly, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). It’s with that particular issue that David hits his stride but it’s a short lived celebration since his run ended soon after. The characters and stories are mixing together nicely at this point

Peter David had an interesting run on X-Factor but there were too many inconsistencies in the stories being told, some artist fluctuations, and a terrible X-men crossover all contributed to destroy any momentum David and his collaborators were able to build on the title. Still, for those who can tolerate 90s X-Men comics, there are some good stories to be found in these collections but you’ll also have to deal with some of David’s worst comics (as far as I’ve read anyway). For those of you who want to avoid the drudgery, do yourself a favour and go diving in the long boxes for X-Factor #87. “X-Aminations” is really an excellent done-in-one story, worthy to be compared with some of the best that X-Men comics have to offer. It’s sad that this run never attained full steam but David got to write many of these characters when he helmed the relaunched X-Factor series back in 2005. It’s actually one of the best X-Men series since the early 2000s . . . but that’s another post. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor review

My relationship with The Walking Dead has been challenged since the show first started to air. The show left me feeling cold and uninterested in a comic book series I loved for many years. I discovered the series shortly after starting university in late 2007 and I remember binge reading all of the series up to that point. Since then I've been buying the 12 issues hardcover volumes as they're released and rereading chunks of the series when I feel like it. So far, my enjoyment of the franchise ended with the comics. I never got into the show. I was excited to hear they were making it but it never really worked for me. Besides, I think comics are better suited for this kind of storytelling. Robert Kirkman’s goal in creating the series was to essentially make a never-ending zombies story and the slow, periodical publication of comic books is ideal for that kind of idea. It provides the reader with regular doses of the story at a constant, unrelenting (zombie like?) pace and for a story without end, I think a slower schedule is better than anything else.

I love the comic. I really do. I’m rather attached to some of the characters and overall I like most of them (well, like to hate them in some cases). There isn’t much plot beyond survival and survival related drama but that’s what the genre is about for the most part. Kirkman doesn’t include interesting social commentary like the best zombie stories do but even without that dynamic the series works for me because of its simplicity. Kirkman does give the series a nice humanistic approach. They’re simple themes and often times they get lost and pushed aside in favour of more guts and violence. I think the comic medium also helps to keep a balance between zombie violence and survival drama because pages of action and violence really eats up a single comic book issue’s “real-estate”. Have you ever notice just how big the speech bubbles get in some of the issues? It’s all there to advance the story because the language of comics is very different than the language of movies, TV and novels.

Still, the violence and zombie-gore is an essential part of the series and even when there isn’t an all-out attack, Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard continue to make zombies integral and integral part of the series. Equally important though is how the characters continuously try to rebuild a semblance of life and community. Thrown into the mix is the message that humanity is made up of more or less equal parts shitty assholes and caring, hardworking individuals. Sometimes a given character can embody both aspects of humanity. In The Walking Dead: The rise of the Governor, we get such a character.

I always though The Walking Dead would be a good series to have spin-offs. I would have expected a comic book spin-off by a creative team other than Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, but a series of novels re-introducing us to characters before their appearances in the comic series is also a good idea. The Rise of the Governor is co-written by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga and it focuses on the Governor, leader of the Woodbury survivors. I learned a lot of interesting things about the character and in the end, I rather enjoyed the book but it was also kind of terrible in some parts. Some parts were just shit, actually.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Governor. He’s an evil shit head. Why would I want to read more about him? Well, obviously I wanted to know more about the character because I ended up reading the book but I was hoping the novel would be about a transformative event that resulted in him becoming emotionally unstable (zombies will do that to ya). I definitively got that out of the novel but for such a large portion of the book, it was really about another character. More on this in the spoiler section below.

The other thing that rather upset me is why didn’t the story start at the beginning? I don’t mean the day Blake (the Governor) was born or even pre-zombies. I mean why not start at the beginning of the zombie epidemic? Instead, the novel starts 72 hours after. I feel like the writers missed out on some potentially great character moments. I feel like the writers missed out on some potentially great character moments by not writing about the characters first encounter with the zombies. Instead, we find the group of five (four adults males and one girl) already in full undead extermination mode. They’ve already begun adapting to the new world order. This isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s crucial to the development of who the Governor was before and how he was changed by the events in his life after the arrival of the undead.

The undead themselves are a bit of a problem, too. If it’s only 72 hours after the plague, why are the zombies already pretty grotesque looking? I don’T know about you but I’m pretty sure it would take more than 3 days for my teeth to rot in my mouth. Zombies are often mistakenly characterized by rapid and advanced bodily decay. I’ve always seen it as an extended preservation of the body’s motor function in addition to significant loss in brain function. The body rots and breaks down over time, absolutely, but I would take much longer to decompose than a non-zombie body would. The decay is slowed for zombies otherwise they wouldn’t be able to walk around for months. The descriptions of the zombies being killed are unnecessarily detailed. It’s not just that it’s graphic, it’s that it’s so detailed it feels like I’m reading an anatomy textbook. It’s not as descriptive later on in the novel, but the first few chapters are filled with awkwardly detailed descriptions of an undead’s head exploding and spattering gray matter onto walls.

Remember in the comic how everybody wanted to go to Atlanta because there were rumours that shelters were located throughout the city? Somehow the small group in this book manage to travel to and in Atlanta without encountering any other people. Do you really expect me to believe that the main characters do not encounter any other survivors when travelling on to a large urban center? That’s pretty ridiculous. Of course they find a family of three living in Atlanta but those are the only survivors they find in the entire city. It rings false. You could argue that it’s just a few hours after the plague. A lot of people have undoubtedly barricaded themselves in their houses and haven’t come out yet. Who couldn’t survive in their house or apartment without leaving for a least a week? It’s possible that people haven’t left their homes yet. That’s makes it all the more difficult to believe just how few people they encountered in Atlanta. If one quarter of the population stayed boarded up, the little group would have encountered way more people when entering and leaving the city.

It’s not all bad though. A lot of my criticism has to do with relatively minor details it’s undeniable that it will stick out to attentive readers and it could contribute to whether or not you like the book. For me though, what almost ruined the book were the elements of rape, the lack of diversity in the characters and the overbearing sense of machismo. The machismo I can mostly deal with. It makes sense that in a post-apocalyptic world the traditional ideas of manliness and masculinity would resurface. It’s a violent world and you need to be physically and emotionally tough to survive. Kirkman has done a good job to balance the various characters that show just how tough they are. He’s also shown many ways in which people can be helpful to a group in such a world. There are many skills from their past lives than can be used to improve their lives now. It’s nice to see that incorporated in the story. The rape was completely unnecessary in my opinion. It’s a difficult subject to write about and it was poorly used in the novel to give the characters a reason to leave Atlanta. It was a plot point that could easily have been swapped out for dozens of other character driven story elements but instead, it’s as if the writers just wanted to bring in a rape scene into the mix. I get it. It’s post-apocalyptic fiction and rape along with dozens of other unpleasant thing are going to pop up but write those things in service of the story, not the other way around.

Jay Bonansinga – I’m not familiar with his body of work but he clearly contributed heavily to the novel itself. Kirkman is a comic writer, not a novelist. If he was, I doubt there would be a credit for another author on the cover of this book. I’m not sure where Kirkman stops and Bonansinga begins but I wouldn’t be surprised if the former played the roles of plotter and story consultant and the other did most of the writing.

Overall The Rise of the Governor is a decent first entry into The Walking Dead novel series. It’s got flaws, some minor and a couple major, but by the end of the book the story and the writers appear to have found their footing. It was a rocky start and I’m not sure the Governor was the best character with which to start off this spin-off series but the rest of the books might change my opinion of that. As a spin-off series, it still maintains some consistency with the comic series. There are a few allusions to people running through doorways while they’re in Atlanta which I took to be references to Glenn and Rick running around for supplies. I’m also pretty certain that the “ALL DEAD. DO NOT ENTER.” sign that Brian Blake puts up is the same gated community that Rick and the gate encounter in the series but I haven’t double checked. After reading up on the second volume, it looks like the series will focus on other characters from Woodbury for a while and that’s ok with me because I’d be interested in knowing what was going on there before Rick and the other showed. There’s a lot of good potential with this first novel and it was a rocky reading experience but I enjoyed it and I’m hopeful for the quality and story of the second volume.

Bonus review:
There is a short story ebook that takes placed between the first and second volumes of The Walking Dead novel series. It’s called The Walking Dead: Just Another Day at the Office and it’s not really worth your time. Not because it’s bad, it’s enjoyable though nothing spectacular. My problem with it has to do with the extreme shortest of the story. It’s shorter than the average chapter length in The Rise of the Governor and most of the ebook is made up of a preview chapter for the second volume in the series, The Road to Woodbury which I already had in my edition of The Rise of the Governor. To summarize the story, after Blake’s transformation into what will soon become the Governor, he kills off dozens of zombies in spectacular fashion which helps to solidify his position as new leader of Woodbury.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan novelization review

Star Trek sure loves its rainbow covers.
I used to think it was pretty silly that people wrote novelizations of movies. But crazier than that, some people actually read them! What the hell? Why would you do that? What could you possibly get out of the novel that the movie didn’t already do better? As it turns out, loads of stuff. I’m pretty new to novelizations and but I can tell you right away that I won’t have stacks of them in my living room but I have discovered that some of them are really worthwhile.  Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan by Vonda N. McIntyre, is one of the few novelizations that is actually rather incredible. You’re probably expecting me to say that it’s better than the movie right? No, don’t be stupid. It’s difficult to compare the two not because of their similarities but because of their considerably important differences. McIntyre has managed to write a novel that doesn’t just try to emulate the movie in prose, it’s a companion piece. She’s written a book that successfully builds on the movie without contradicting it or making it boring.

I was pretty surprised as to McIntyre’s approach. She writes the events of the movie, it’s all there. There are significant portions of the dialogue that are the same as in the movie (sadly, the movie’s “KHAAAAAAAN!!” was a simple “Khan!” in the novel). That makes sense because it fits with my preconceived idea of what a movie novelization is but I think few people would agree that a novelization should limit itself to simply rehashing the film it’s based on. What surprised me is that McIntyre embellished and added to the movie experience. She did this primarily by developing characters, some of which don’t even appear in the theatrical release, such as Peter Preston.

In McIntyre’s capable hands, Saavik is an actual character, not just a new face on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. She gives her a background story and she gives the reader a fascinating look inside her teacher/mentor relationship with Spock. It’s quite the shame that actress Kirstie Alley never got a chance to develop the character on screen because novel-Saavik is far more interesting than movie-Saavik. In my revisionist history of the making of the Star Trek films, Alley didn’t return to her role as Saavik because she read McIntyre’s novelization of The Wrath of Khan and was pissed about who novel-Saavik is and just how much more interesting she is. The same can easily be said for Dr. David Marcus, Captain Kirk and Dr. Carol Marcus’ son. Remember how there are some strange looks that are made between Saavik and David at the end of the movie? That’s because they’re been flirting since they met. His budding romance with Saavik gives the fans a chance to see a different side of David. As it turns out he’s not solely concerned with the news that Kirk is his father. He has a life and he’s also aware of other things going on around him. McIntyre gives us the chance to spend some time in David’s head too and it was pretty great. I’ve always found him rather annoying in the movie but novel-David is interesting because he isn’t uni-dimensional. Other characters also get some time to shine such as the many scientists who worked on the Genesis Project and Peter Preston, the nephew of Montgomery Scott.

Cute (and smart) couple.
That’s really the secret as to what makes The Wrath of Khan a successful novelization. McIntyre isn’t focused solely on hitting all the plot points and writing descriptive action scenes or technically heavy descriptions of the workings of all the advanced technology. Similarly to the movie, the focus was also quite heavily put on the characters. The second Star Trek films isn’t the best because Khan is the best villain, it’s because Khan is a great character and the juxtaposition of Kirk and Khan is a fascinating to watch. McIntyre also did a great job writing Khan.

The Wrath of Khan is often considered a great revenge story and while it certain is that, it’s also much more. It’s the story of how 15 years of hardship broke Khan and his final self-destructive moments where everything around him crumbles not despite his actions but because of them. McIntyre shows us just how deeply Khan cares about his people and that’s the main reason he’s so angry at Kirk. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s angry that he’s failed his people. His desire for revenge is fuelled by his love for his people who he wants to protect and lead them to a better life. The death of his wife, Lieutenant McGivers pushes him over the edge and he’s unable to focus on anything other than causing Kirk pain and suffering. He has to deal with his hatred of Kirk before he can return his attention to the well-being of his people. At heart, he’s a good if harsh man but the difficulties he faced while on Alpha Ceti V proved to be too difficult for him.

McIntyre brings forth this side of Khan by allowing the reader to spend some time in Joachim’s head. As one of Khan’s people and one of his close followers, he noticed firsthand the transformation that Khan went through while on Alpha Ceti V. At one point he realises that Kahn will regain his focus once he’s been able to deal with Kirk but that, of course, ends in tragedy.

This part was pretty heart-wrenching. Kind of sad it only made it in the
Director's Cut version of the movie. Poor Peter Preston.

One of the things I really like about Khan is how well he plays off of Kirk. His wrath may have truly begun with the death of his wife but it continues to grow during his showdown with Kirk and finally consumes him. Khan puts Kirk in an extremely difficult situation which is something Kirk unknowingly did to Khan. He’s plotting Kirk’s humiliation and death but he’s not doing it with any measurable amount of success other than by stealing the Genesis missile and that’s no consolation. Stealing Project Genesis was never Khan’s goal, it was a tool which allowed him to lure Kirk into a dangerous situation. Aside from the frustration of failing to successfully put an end to his rival, Khan also has to deal with the fact that Kirk is being selfless. Kirk is being exactly the kind of man Khan (presumably used to be in regard to his people and putting their needs before his own. Kirk even offered to give himself up to Khan in order to protect his senior officers and the training crew above the Enterprise. Khan is raging because the very man he’s trying to destroy is demonstrating his worth as an individual and as a leader making Khan look like a fool. Despite his enhanced physique and his advanced intelligence, Kirk is the better man because he puts his aging body and his mind at work with the goal of protecting and defending the men and women he cares about. If you set aside Khan’s enhancements, he and Kirk and very much the same person, both leaders who were put in difficult situations but one of them decided to act in the interest of the people he cares about and the other decided to act on his own desires and forgo the safety of his people.

The comparison extends beyond Kirk, though since other characters show that have a greater sense of duty and responsibility towards those who look up to them than Khan. Spock is a great example of this.
Spock: Don't grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many, outweigh...
Kirk: The needs of the few.
Spock: Or the one.
It’s fascinating that Khan takes one approach and Spock another. For Khan, despite his previous devotion to this people, believes that his personal revenge is more important than any of the other needs, be they personal or collective, of his people. As for Spock, he believes that the needs of his friends and crew are more important than his need to survive or keep on living. It’s even more interesting when you consider the events of the third movie, Star Trek: The Search for Spock, in which Spock’s friends collectively agree that his needs are more important than the needs of the group. They prove it with their actions and it’s great to see the same quote flipped on its head with equally emotional results (though one is negative and the other is positive).

The Wrath of Khan is one of the best novelizations I’ve ever read. Granted, it’s not a very long list, but McIntyre is able to present the events of the movie without adding unnecessary fluff. She doesn’t repeat the movie in further detail but she embellishes it by presenting smaller, character driven stories that take place in between the events that were included in the film. Lucky for me (and other Star Trek fans) she’s written two others novelizations, The Search of Spock and The Voyage Home. I’m very curious to see if she was able to write equally good novels out of the other films but there’s only one way to find out for sure. Either way, it’s clear that McIntyre’s got a great grasp of the characters and the universe of Star Trek and I’ll definitively be checking out more of her tie-in novels. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Miscellaneous Reviews 06: Secret Invasion: Black Panther and The Complete Multiple Warheads

Secret Invasion: Black Panther:
American superhero comic publishers have the annoying habit of regularly releasing “event comics”. Event comics are company-wide crossover story that is often months, if not years, in the making and it generally results in a temporary shift in the status quo. A less favourable description would be that it’s a cash grab on behalf of the publisher. My only concern regarding event comics is whether or not they’re any good. I have no real interest in memorizing the minutiae of superhero continuity but for those that care about such things, event comics are a big deal. Again, for me it’s just about good stories and unfortunately, event comics are wildly unpredictable when it comes to quality. There is one pretty constant rule though, the tie-in comics are generally terrible. But with every rule, there are exceptions and Secret Invasion: Black Panther is such an exception.

Written by Jason Aaron and with art by Jefte Palo, these three issues from the regular Black Panther ongoing series are better than main Secret Invasion story! It’s a great example of a successful tie-in story for a few reasons. First of all, it’s clearly a Secret Invasion title because it deals with the Skrull invasion head on as opposed to trying to pretend it’s not a tie-in comic (which is just an awful approach). You don’t need to be overly familiar with the characters or the series to be able to enjoy it. All I know about Black Panther is that he’s king of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation which is rich in a rare metal: vibranium. If you know who the Skrulls are, then you know everything you need to know in order to enjoy this comic. Even if you don’t know any of that the story will fill you in as it goes along. It’s surprisingly friendly to new readers despite how it’s a tie-in to a comic book event that was years in the making.

The story is pretty simple. A legion of Skrulls is sent to invade Wakanda and steal as much vibranium as they can. They are led by Commander K’vvvr, a veteran warrior, who is on his last mission before retirement. It’s little touches like that one that make this a good comic. We also get a nice sense of how strong a leader Black Panther. He also gets a few moments that demonstrate just how great a strategist he is. Simple, yes, but also very effective. The art by Palo is heavily inked and dark. The skies are a sickly green colour suggesting that the Skrulls are infectious and poisoning Wakanda. It might sound a bit strange that I’m giving so much praise to this little story but it’s because it’s a quality story amongst dozens of other tie-in stories that were just terrible. If you liked Secret Invasion you owe it to yourself to track down this little gem. With Secret Invasion: Black Panther Aaron and Palo prove that you can create a very good tie-in story and that you don’t have to limit yourself to rehashing in fuller detail events that already took place in the main series.

The Complete Multiple Warheads:
Chad Nevett once wrote that Multiple Warheads is a hang-out comic. That’s one of the better descriptions I’ve found for this comic. Written and drawn by Brandon Graham, Multiple Warheads is the story of a young organ smuggler and her genius mechanic werewolf boyfriend who are travelling in search of a new home and a new purpose in life. It’s also the story of Nura, a bounty hunter and her latest mission. In reality, it’s not about any of that. The comic is really about the science fiction and fantasy influenced alternative Russia. It’s about the world and it’s strange inhabitants more than anything else. Brandon Graham doesn’t really care about the plot. We get a beginning to the story of the young couple and the bounty hunter but it never ends. It sort of just wanders around, allowing Graham to blow out collective minds with his wild imagination and skilful artistic flourishes. The reason I think “hang-out comic” is an apt description is that it starts with the intent to do something but really the characters and the writer just bum around the world of the comic and it never really goes anywhere but you encounter some very interesting things along the way.

Those interesting things are made up primarily from pun-heavy dialogue and in-jokes by Graham and European comic influences art. There is a beautiful simplicity to Graham’s art but it also manages to be very detailed. It’s somewhat unexplainable. Graham doesn’t resort to abstraction and blocky shapes like many other skilful artists who seem to require half as many lines as other artists to convey twice as much beauty on the page. The image above kind of explains some of it. There is a lot of detail on the page but there are also a lot of open spaces. Look at the large beast that carries the city on its back. The beast itself is very simple but the city that rests on its back is lavishly illustrated. Look at the wrecked train, the smaller beasts with their riders and the cracked mountainside, the detail is all in the world which the characters inhabit.

Multiple Warheads isn’t a great story but it’s a unique and fascinating comic. It’s not nearly as good as Graham’s King City or his reboot of Rob Liefeld’s Prophet, but the aimless wonderings of his characters and the travelogue approach to world building have an endearing quality. The art is also pleasing to the eye but offers plenty of additional goodies for readers who wish to linger a while longer on an image before turning the page. There is a sense of unbridled joy to Multiple Warheads that reminded me of teenage slackers who don’t have a care in the world but are capable of doing extraordinary things, if only they had a little motivation. I’m actually quite surprised that Graham become an accomplished comics creator because his Multiple Warheads stories strongly suggest he’s also a slacker. How he manages to keep this aspect alive in his comics is a mystery to me but I’m glad he’s found a way to make it work because his comics are like nothing else I’ve ever read.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Photography in Motion and Interrupted Poetry

I had to learn to be a fan of Wes Anderson’s work. The first movie of his that I ever saw was The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou. My father and I rented it when I was a young teen because it starred Bill Murray and he’s hilarious. The only problem is that my dad didn’t like it and I can’t say that I did either. It just wasn’t funny and Murray looked kind of pathetic running around with his speedo and red cap. The next movie I watched was The Darjeeling Limited which I bought because it starred Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson, two actors I quite liked (I wasn’t very familiar with Jason Schwartzman at the time). To make a long story short I really liked it and it announced my discovery of the rest of Wes Anderson’s body of work. I’ve been a fan ever since.  

When looking at Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, you can pull apart some very interesting themes as well as recurrent elements and techniques. It’s common to see dysfunctional families, larger than life characters, beautifully faux-designed set pieces and stop-motion animation. I need to clarify what I mean by faux-designed. The sets in his movies do not look designed. They feel natural and lived in as if you could stumble upon them in real life. It’s almost as if Anderson employs location scouts instead of set designers, sending them out into the world to find the most interesting rooms, buildings and locations. I’ve recently returned from watching his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. To nobody’s surprise, I loved it. It was an excellent film and it incorporated a lot of familiar elements but for the most part they were presented in new ways. It’s a culmination of narrative and cinematic techniques all wrapped in a surprisingly dense and irregularly face-paced movie. It’s very much a mature Anderson at play, juggling the familiar and stylistic evolution to produce something new.

When Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fienes) turns around to talk to Zero, Anderson
doesn't give us an over the shoulder shot or even show Zero in the same shot. Instead,
Monsieur Gustave looks nearly straight at the camera as if he's being photographed, not filmed. 
Style and form can be very interesting for various reasons. Anderson is known for the unique style he brings to his movies and though some of his movies focus more on characters and their stories, some of his movies have an greater emphasis on style and form. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful marriage of both style and story but I have to admit, partway through the movie I was pleasantly distracted by the style and form of the storytelling that my focuses shifted to the what, the why and the how of what Anderson and his crew did with the movie. That’s not to say I stopped paying attention to the story itself, but I was taken aback by a powerful awareness of what kind of movie I was watching. I’ve come to the realization that The Grand Budapest Hotel is photography in motion and interrupted poetry.

I’ll let you browse the internet to read about the movie’s plot, production details and a list of the cast and crew. I’m not taking the time to list it all hear because that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to focus on the movie’s form. It’s essentially a live-action cartoon but like none other that I’ve seen before (and there is more than one out there; you just have to look hard enough to find them). The movie has a unique form of storytelling, it’s not so much a movie as it is a series of photographs in which parts of the photograph movie, most frequently the main characters of the story. I would love to provide screen captures of the movie showing various different examples but that will sadly have to wait until the DVD release. Still, not having the visual references won’t stop me from trying to explain what I mean.

It all boils down to photorealistic use of stop-motion animation. Most scenes start with an establishing shot which then leads to movement. But it’s not the camera that moves it’s the set itself or the characters that move through the set while the camera remains, for the most part, rather still. The camera frames the sets which vary from the lavishly decorated to pretty small and simple rooms that are made odd by their shape, their decoration or the characters that are in it. A good example of this is the prison cells. Monsieur Gustave is walking with a food trolly from one cell to the next. As he stops at each door, the camera gives us a look at the inside of the cell. It looks like a photograph because the camera is so still but the characters move around the room and talk back to Gustave. When the camera cuts back to Gustave he’s standing the doorframe and again, the only thing that’s really moving is him, not the camera. Other times, the camera appears to be moving but it’s either on the hood of a vehicle looking forward or looking back at the character as is the case when Willem Dafoe’s character is riding his motorcycle. There is a strange combination of immobility and movement. Dafoe barely moves but the buildings surrounding him and blurring by as he rides along. Part photograph but part film, it’s slightly disorienting when you first see it but it’s wonderfully charming. In the scenes that rely more heavily on narration, a voice over narration is used while a series of photograph-like segments of the movie pass by on the screen. This is used early in the movie when Jude Law’s character introduces the now decrepit Grand Budapest and its solitary residents. He speaks while we shots of the hotel’s many rooms slowly move across the screen.

Edward Norton spends this entire scene in the hole. He talks to the others from that
same position while the camera stays essentially immobile.

The technique I described as photorealistic stop-motion reminds me of traditional animation because of the limited movement of the camera, the details present in the sets and the movement on screen being limited to the main characters. The set pieces are made up of very large building exteriors and those buildings are made up of large and elaborate or very small, though still detailed rooms. There are many fine examples of large building exteriors such as the prison, Checkpoint 19, and the Grand Budapest. Some of the large rooms include the restaurant and the baths at the hotel, the service staff’s cafeteria, the individual prison cells and so many more great little sets. I particularly liked the repeated use of the train car. In fact, the repeated use of some of the sets which were always filmed from the same angle but presented different “pictures” was one of the pleasures of watching this movie.

The interrupted poetry from the title refers to the actual in-movie interruption of characters citing poetry. They’re cut-off mid-sentence by various events but I’m also referencing the quick cut from scene to scene. It also serves as a way to describe the comedy-drama (or dramady) of Wes Anderson fills. They are usually some very serious character driven stories at heart but seamlessly incorporate very humorous elements without entirely losing focus on the dramatic. A tense and serious chase seen occurs in this movie. A dangerous relative of Madame D. is chasing the executor of her will through a museum and when the chase is brutally brought to an end, I burst into laughter even though we were presented a rather gruelling end to the scene. The chase itself was a fine example of photography in motion: Kovacs, the lawyer, would walk through a room and the same room would be shown again but this time, instead of having Kovacs run through it, we only the shadow of his pursuer begin to walk into the room. Everything remained still in each room, corridor and stairway with the exception of an understandably alarmed Kovacs and the shadow chasing him down. It’s also a great example of interrupted poetry since the chase was carefully and beautifully put together but the end is so abrupt, it feels like an interruption.

While I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel tremendously, it’s not a perfect film. I feel as though the triple layered framing device was unnecessary. In the first sequence, a young woman hooks a hotel key on the statue of The Author. She does so after having read a novel which shares its name with the movie in which the sequence takes place. The second sequence takes us back to The Author himself in his later years while writing his novel. This leads to the third and final framing sequence where an old Zero Moustafa tells the story of how he came to inherit the Grand Budapest which is really the story of Monsieur Gustave and the death of civility in the modern world. I enjoyed all of those scenes but I feel as though there were simply too many layers that really didn’t bring all that much to the party. They feel light in comparison to Monsieur Gustave’s story which moved along at an impressive speed and was a true visual storytelling feast which was made possible by the obvious joy the moviemakers and actors felt in creating the film.

More than any other Wes Anderson film before, The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns itself with exploration the form of film. It does so by mixing the art of filmmaking with other media, mainly but not limited to, photography, stop-motion, miniatures and animation. That is not to say there isn’t a story. There is and I have to admit it didn’t go in the direction I thought it would but that was part of its charm. As is always the case with Anderson’s movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is populated by outrageous characters who I am convinced will remain engrossing after multiple viewings because the writing and the actors imbue them with such a strong sense of identity and, dare I say, pathos. These are grand characters and many of them are deeply flawed which heightens their humanity and makes them very believable despite their exaggerated oddities. The story plays it for laughs but the characters are all incredibly serious in what they do and who they are. This movie succeeds because Anderson brings that same combination of joy and seriousness to his work.

At first glance, the above picture appear to be marketing images of the movie. It looks like they were designed as a way
to show off the rather stellar cast. In fact, these are all screen captures! The movie is so picturesque in nature that
they were easily modified by the addition of the actor's name to make a marketing tool out of them. 

Note: My favourite moment in the movie is when Zero brings Monsieur Gustave a small bench on which to stand on and remove the Boy with Apple painting from the wall. In this little moment Zero does what he was trained to do as a lobby boy which is to give people what they want before they want it, in this case giving Monsieur Gustave not only the physical object that will help him take the painting but also the  very idea of taking the painting.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez review

"Adults who burn out from living in the city pick up their families and move to towns like this for the slower pace, the quiet. They feel they can raise their younger kids in relative peace and safety. What they fail to recognize is that it's their teenagers who suffer boredom and existential low self-esteem in extreme ways."

I’m a very big fan of Gilbert Hernandez, co-creator of one of the greatest comic series of all time, Love and Rockets. There is an ethereal quality to his work that is combined with strong characterization and bold, unapologetic art. His Palomar stories are a young man’s masterpiece but Beto (as he’s known) has continuously improved throughout his career. Though I’m most familiar with this Love and Rockets stories, I’ve been slowly working my way through the rest of his oeuvre. Note that the only reason I’m doing it slowly is that he’s rather prolific. Thirty years after the first issue of Love and Rockets Beto continues to regularly publish comics on an annual basis. Some years, he’s even got three or more publications if you count his collection of serialized works and original graphic novels.

Released in 2006, Sloth is an original graphic novel. Hernandez wanted to create something that was different than his Love and Rockets stories. For those who might not know, Beto’s half of Love and Rockets is a huge, sprawl family epic with dozens of regular characters who have age in slightly quicker than real-time since their original appearance. Part of his inspiration for Sloth was to create something with fewer characters and really focus on them. That’s really what Sloth is. It’s a study in character and it’s also a study of what it is to be a teenager.

The story is about Miguel, a depressed teen who wanted to escape reality and willed himself into a coma. The comic starts out with his reawakening after his year-long coma. We follow him as he re-enters the world he left behind. Hernandez presents us with a bit of Miguel’s family history and he also gives us the events that may have led to his coma. Miguel lives with his grandparents since his father is in prison for selling drugs and his mother abandoned him when he was a toddler but is now rumoured to be dead and buried in the lemon orchard, a local haunted spot.

Structurally, Sloth is fascinating comic. Beto splits the story in two parts, the first dealing with Miguel’s post-coma return to normal life and he second is Lita’s post-coma story. The story is linear for the first two thirds (give or take) but the story is partially rebooted when Lita wakes up. There are interesting parallels and differentiating storie happening to Miguel and Lita but what really captivated me was how some parts of the story, those related to Romeo (and maybe the Goatman?) appear to continue from the first to the second part and ultimately lead us to a third comatose teen.

Beto has mentioned in an interview (which you can read here) that the coma is a metaphor for adolescence. In order to understand the characters you have to understand why they chose to self-induce themselves in a coma. For Miguel it was a way to escape life. It was too much for him to deal with but when he woke up, everything was still the same. He still has the same girlfriend, his band is still together, the legend of the Goatman (who lives in the lemon orchard and can swap bodies with you using his willpower alone) is still being circulated. Absolutely nothing has changed and when he slips into what can only be his final coma, his only regret is that he’s leaving Lita behind. For Lita, her coma is nothing but an extended dream, a fantasy. Nothing in her life remained the same. She has different friends, Romeo has become an incredibly successful rock and roll star. What really makes it a fantasy though is that everything she wants (a relationship with Miguel, to meet Romeo X, etc) happen without requiring any real effort. Her post-coma (dream) life is a fantasy because it depicts an unrealistic portrayal of life where change happens easily and is always rewarding.

A big fuss is made over the Goatman but what is his portion of the story really about? I think the Goatman symbolises change or the desire to change. Teenagers have their entire life ahead of them and they often dram of what they will one day be. Few teens actually work towards achieving any of their goals. Teens are dreamers and because of that they’re static, they don’t do much. They’re so unmotivated to enact change and better themselves that they’re rather avoid real life and regress into a cocoon of sleep and hope everything will fix itself in their absence or that their dreams will come true all on their own. The problem with this approach is that by the time they wake up they’ll realize nothing has really changed and their coma approach to life was counter-intuitive. You can’t just dream of what you want, you have to go out and obtain it. While Lite and Miguel were busy trying to film the Goatman, Romeo stayed home and worked on his music. Later, in Lita’s coma fantasy, Romeo is a successful rock star because he worked hard to achieve his dream. In the dream Romeo X hangs out with Miguel and Lita and he tells them he’s from the same hometown as them essentially telling them and the reader that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can achieve greatness if you work hard. I see the Romeo as being the Goatman and they both represent will power, which Romeo used to get what he wanted out of life rather than run away from life like Miguel and Lita did.

Sloth looks and reads like the typical Beto comic, that is to say all the components are there, the elliptical storytelling, the heavy-inked bold art and a focus on developing interesting and deeply flawed characters. It really works though because he rearranges those components to tell a very effective story about teenagers and their hopes and dreams. Beto’s later work is often categorized by a false sense of simplicity. Sloth, despite its name, is a pretty quick read but unless you slow down and think about what is happening, you won’t be able to appreciate. My interpretation of the story isn’t necessarily right and I’m certain there are far more interpretations that could be made, each of which could be equality validated, but that’s the pleasure of this kind of comic. Beto doesn’t spoon feed us the answers but he avoids giving the reader a pile of unrelated visual symbolism. If you focus on the characters and the recurring elements of coma, dreams, movement and the Goatman’s famed will power, you can puzzle together a story that sheds light on the lives of teens and how best to escape it all. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Star Trek: The Original Series: The Weight of Worlds review

You may have noticed that in my exploration of Star Trek literature, I’ve been pretty selective. With the exception of Spock Must Die! by James Blish and Planet of Judgement by Joe Haldeman, all of the novels I’ve read were written or co-written by Peter David. David happens to be a writer I’m already familiar with having read some of the comics he’s written. Admittedly, I’ve been playing it pretty safe by staying within my comfort zone but how can any respectable fan of the adventure of any Star Trek series call themselves a fan if they’re reluctant to explore. Really explore, not the timid posturing I’ve been doing so far. I’ve tried to rectify that by reading Star Trek: The Original Series: The Weight of Worlds by Greg Cox.

You know what? I like the comfort zone. There were good Star Trek novels in the comfort zone. Cox takes the story into another dimension and it’s not one I’d like to revisit again because it lacked definition and was rather predictable which made for a boring read.

The novel begins with an attack on the Ephrata Institute which is located on the edges of the final frontier. The institute is the residence of numerous scientists, physicist and artists and the search for knowledge is the focus of daily life. An unexpected attack occurs and Ephrata is quickly taken over by the Crusade of the alien race known as the Ialatl. After hearing a distress message, Captain Kirk and the Enterprise travel to Ephrata to investigate. There they find the Ialatl with their weaponized gravity technology and they fight to liberate Ephrata from the tyranny of the Crusade as well as for the freedom of thought and diversity of the galaxy. I’d say more about the plot but I would undoubtedly spoil the book in the process. There’s just not a lot that happens in this novel and what does can be puzzled together from the first few chapters. Instead, I’ll talk about the areas where the book failed for me.

The Ialatl’s science is relies heavily on the manipulation of gravity. We mostly see it used in their architecture, as a means for transportation and as a weapon. Weaponized gravity is a pretty darn cool idea up until the point where you think about it for a little bit. In the book, it’s used both as an offensive and a defensive weapon but it really fails to be convincingly used as defence. I can’t help but be reminded of the magnetic bullet proofing experiment from Mythbusters. I’m referring to the “Electromagnetic Watch” experiment from the first James Bond Special in they test the myth that an electromagnetic watch can generate such a strong magnetic field that it can successfully deflect a bullet. It horribly fails because the bullet moves as such rapid speed that even the most powerful magnet the Mysthbusters could get their hands on wasn’t powerful enough to deflect the bullet in any measurable way. In the book, a strong gravitational field surrounds an Ialatl and it is powerful enough to stop phaser fire from penetrating in. Phaser fire simply plummets to the ground before hitting the target. That’s a terrible idea! Even though science fiction series such as Star Trek regularly demands that fans suspend disbelief but this is pushing it. It would work if we replaced phaser fire with arrows because arrows are slow and actually have some mass to them. The problem with phaser is that they shoot a beam made up of nadion particles. Does a beam made up on nadion particles even have mass? I search online and couldn’t find the answer but I’d say that there is no way the phaser beams would ever be significantly affected by an individual gravity shield especially when more conventional (by Star Trek standards) deflector shields exist. 

Scotty and Uhura take command of the Enterprise in Kirk's absence.

Another problem with this novel is the aliens. The Ialatl aren’t as much poorly developed as they are undeveloped. We know very little about them. The live in a different dimension and after discover out dimension with its multitude of planets, cultures and species, the Ialatl collectively lost it. A religious cult preaching the Truth developed and after using their knowledge of gravity to produce weapons, decided to go on a Crusade to our dimension to eradicate anything that does not comply with the Truth. What is the Truth? Hell if I know, I just read the book. Cox doesn’t give us an idea of what the Truth is beyond vague descriptions that if it’s not exactly like the Ialatl, it’s not part of the truth. It’s essentially religious bigotry Cox plays it against the concept of IDIC which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations which is at the heart of Vulcan philosophy. It’s mentioned in the novel but it’s not developed beyond that. Cox definitively leaves the heavy lifting to the reader but not in a way that is challenging and rewarding, rather in a way that screams of underdeveloped ideas.

There are more problems with The Weight of Worlds but I don’t feel like reliving a book I didn’t enjoy reading in the first place. I mentioned earlier that Cox’s story was pretty predictable and boring. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he wears his influences on his sleeves, much like Starfleet officers wear their rank on their uniform sleeves. The Ialatl are clearly based on early Msopotamian cultures. The name itself harkens to that but their appearance as well as their architecture and the sport-like challenge Kirk undergoes while in their dimension reinforce that idea. It’s not a good example of a well thought out or well executed alien species. The whole idea of the Crusade is also bland and unoriginal. History books are filled with stories of the original Crusades (more than 15 of them). If Cox took the time to study a bit of history before writing The Weight of Worlds, it surely doesn’t show.

I’m being harsh because the novel wasn’t all bad. There were actually some nice character moments. Cox might not have studied his history but he sure as hell watched and rewatched episodes of TOS. He has the characterization of the senior officers down pat. The dialogue for Spock was one of the things I rather enjoyed reading. It was also nice that Lieutenant Uhura got several chapters focusing on her. Without revealing too much, she gets to do far more than work at her regular post. Sulu also gets a significant amount of exposure but most of his scenes are focused on the action as opposed to giving her something truly interesting to do. He mostly runs around Ephrata trying to escape the Ialatl and sabotage their operation. As much as I like Kirk, Spock and McCoy, it’s always nice when the other characters are put in the forefront.

Am I being too harsh on Cox because his name isn’t Peter David? Maybe, but I doubt it. The Weight of Worlds wasn’t nearly as exciting as it was intended to be and while good characterization can save a book, it’s not always enough to prevent it from being bogged down by a insufficiently developed plot and alien culture. I picked up The Weight of Worlds with lofty goals of expanding my boundaries and exploring the vast cosmos that it Star Trek tie-in fiction. Instead I got a book that played it far too safe to ever be considered a good read. Don’t believe me? Well give my copy a read. You can find it at the local used bookstore where it will spend the rest of its days.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Yoko Tsuno: La Spirale du Temps (The Time Spiral) review

Back in my introductory post for Shared Universe Reviews I mentioned how I first got introduced to comics via my dad’s collection of bandes dessinées. So far I’ve only ever reviewed one of them (the latest volume of Blacksad, read about it here) but it wasn’t very representative of the BDs I read in my youth. I read a whole bunch, the entire Tintin series, all of Lucky Luke and Astérix. I also really enjoyed reading the zany adventures of office slacker Gaston Lagaffe but one of my favourite series to read was Yoko Tsuno by Roger Leloup.

For those who don’t know him, Roger Leloup is a former collaborator of Hergé on his most famous creation, Tintin. He’s mostly known for creating the series and eponymous character of Yoko Tsuno which he has been writing and drawing since 1970! The most recent album came out in 2012. I haven’t read all of them albums but by reading through my dad’s collection and the albums available at my primary school library, I’ve read nearly 20 out of the 26 album and one novel long series. It’s been ongoing for forty years and with good reason. It stars Yoko Tsuno, an electrical engineer, and the many adventures she has throughout Europe and the rest of the world. She also regularly has adventures in space with the Vineans, blue humanoids with advanced technology. Nearly all of the stories deal with advanced science but I wouldn’t typically categorize the series as being firmly in the science fiction genre. That’s probably because Leloup ensures that each story is firmly grounded in reality by providing the reader with strong characters.

La Spirale du Temps begins while Yoko is spending time in Borneo visiting her cousin. While visiting the local ruins she witnesses a strange event.  A whirling device materializes out of thin air and a young woman emerges to meet with two men who seem to have prepared for the arrival of the machine. Yoko rescues the girl after she’s attacked by the men and soon she’s wrapped up in what will be her first time travel adventure.

The young girl Yoko rescued is called Monya and she’s from the 39th century. It was her father’s wish that she travel back in time to prevent the destruction of Earth during their time period. Aided by Yoko, she sets out to find Dr. Webbs, the inventor of “la bombe a contraction” or the contraction bomb. When they meet up with Webbs he shares part of his research with them but chooses to ignore Monya’s warning that his experiments will one day lead to the doom of mankind. After finding a sealed door bearing her great uncle’s name on in in Webbs research facility, Yoko decides to travel back in time to uncover the secrets of Webbs’ antimatter research.

La Spirale du Temps is a notable entry in the series because it introduces the concept of time travel as well as the recurring character of Monya. Leloup also shows that he’s adept at writing a time travel story that doesn’t get stuck or bogged down by the details. He merges two types of time travel paradoxes together into a tale that doesn’t feel overly constructed but unquestioningly dealt with time travel. What’s interesting is that one of the paradoxes is used for travelling back in time and the other is used for travelling forward in time. Leloup uses the Novikov self-consistency principle in how Yoko travels back to the time of World War II and the events that happen during her visit affected certain things like what Yoko’s mother chose to name her daughter and the difficulties her great uncle alluded to in letters to his wife. In this sense, everything Yoko did back in time was meant to happen since it had already happened. When Yoko asks Monya if she will leave for the future she replies that she’ll be staying in the present. It’s dangerous to travel to an unknown future. She goes on to explain the branching universe hypothesis which Leloup uses for future time travel. The event that took place in the present changed the course of history which means that tomorrow now holds just as many secrets for Monya as it does for Yoko since history has branched off, using the present events as the split in direction. It’s an interesting approach to time travel but I think it works rather well, both paradoxes being used at the same time but separately based on the direction of travel.

One of the reasons I enjoy this series so much is the art. A bit unsurprisingly, considering his background, Leloup uses a “ligne claire” (clear line) style of art. Hergé, creator of Tintin is often regarded as the father of ligne claire, a detailed style of art that is also notable for its clean and crips finish. All of the details are produced using a single, uniform ink line. Leloup doesn’t use crosshatchings to creating shading; in fact shadows are used sparingly. Leloup is very good at combining both key elements of ligne claire, the use of strong cartooning skills for the characters and a highly detailed and realistic style for the backgrounds. Leloup’s characters are usually less cartoonish than what is traditionally found in other ligne claire BDs. Yoko’s stories take place in various exotic settings around the world and some of the albums also deal with science fictional and alien locations but it’s all drawn in a very realistic way. Leloup regularly uses photo reference for buildings, clothing and vehicles. Yoko often changes outfits through the course of one story.

I never noticed it before but Leloup’s pages are split horizontally into two halves. Presumably this is how he’s able to produce significant details in his drawings while using a uniform line because each page is actually made up of two separate sheets. I have no idea how large he initially draws these pages but each finished page is made up of a top and bottom portion, labeled by the page number and the suffix of A (for the top) and B (for the bottom). The art is clearly shrunk down and combined, two sheets at a time, to form a complete page. It’s interesting to notice that some panels are very large but they never more than one sheet (or half a page) in size.

The colouring, which was done by Béatrice from Studio Leonardo is also indicative of the type of colouring often used with ligne claire art. It presents an objective view of the world, leaving almost nothing in shadow. A scene taking place as night is coloured in such a way as to clearly indicate the time of night but the details of the background are as clear as the characters.

Yoko Tsuno is a perfect comic for North American audiences who are tired of the often sexist and thoughtless comics that line the walls of comic shops. Yoko is a beautiful and very capable woman and her stories are exciting because of the quality in the writing. Though Leloup doesn’t draw women in an exploitive way, there is an uncanny similarity in the physique of many of the female characters in the series. But since the same criticism can be made regarding the male characters, I don’t fret over it. I have to clarify that this comic doesn’t have a feminist agenda. It’s much more neutral in tone and it would rather spend time with themes of technology, family and ecology than be bogged down by gender politics. Intelligent writing and a clear, classic looking art give Yoko Tsuno a timeless feel and I’m certain I’ll be revisiting the series time and again.

My review is based on the French edition published by Dupuis published in 1981. Also thanks to my father for unknowingly letting me borrow this and a few other Yoko Tsuso albums. I promise to bring them back. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Vendetta: The Giant Novel review

First off, let's talk about the ridiculousness of the title. Nearly half the cover is made up of words and the rest is made up of what you will typically find on the cover of a Star Trek novel of the 90s: busts of characters from the show and a spaceship in the background. Don’t believe me? Look it up online, you’ll quickly see the pattern, too. Some elements of this cover work though. Keith Birdsong regularly captures the likeness of the actors he’s illustrating and despite giving Picard a thinner face, he nails it. I particularly like the creepy expression of the Borg’s face. The art is standard but very well executed. What’s truly ridiculous on the cover though is the title of the book: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Vendetta: The Giant Novel. Are you serious? Apparently yes because that’s a picture of the final product, right there --->

But what exactly constitutes a “giant novel” by Star Trek standards? It’s clear to anybody who’s look at the details of the book or has seen the physical thing that Vendetta isn’t really giant by anyone’s standards other than those of Pocket Books. Vendetta is exactly 400 pages in length. That’s not much longer than the average Star Trek book published at the time of its release. Let’s consider previous books by Peter David. Strike Zone is 275 pages long, A Rock and a Hard Place is 244 pages and Q-in-Law is 252. So Vendetta has 125 to 150 additional pages. My god, this book is huge! Giant barely does it justice. In truth, I really don’t think this or any of the other giant Star Trek novels are labelled as such specifically because of their length. Having only read one, I think it’s pretty safe to say that they’re considered giant in the sense that they deal with a much larger story and it’s simply consequential that the page count is more than the average Star Trek book.

Vendetta delivers on the big story. Its story is essentially a sequel to “The Best of Both Worlds” from TNG and “The Doomsday Machine” from TOS. Peter combines the planet-killer with multiples Borg cubes to create one big explosion filled novel and, for the most part, it’s quite good. David puts a lot of effort into making this particular story feel big and important which I appreciate because his previous books have felt like additional episodes that were never filled but very well could have and it was nice to get a story so big that one and maybe two episodes wouldn’t have quite been enough to contain the whole novel from start to finish as it’s written here.

The book begins with a flashback during Captain Picard’s day at the Academy where we’re presented the story of his first encounter with the spectre of a woman. This is relevant to the story being told later I the novel but it’s inclusion in the beginning is meant to give the reader a sense of just how big (or giant) this story is supposed to be. I have to say that it feels pretty hollow and it does little to increase the importance of who the woman turns out to be. This chapter is also notable for introducing Morgan Korsmo, a classmate of Picard’s who will also captain a ship in the future. There are some nice moments with Korsmo later on even so; the first chapter seems like and unnecessary. Well, that might not be entirely true. It does sum up “The Doomsday Machine” but if you’re actually reading Vendetta you’re probably already familiar with that episode.

Kirk's Enterprise and their encounter with the first planet-killer.

The story continues with the destruction of the planet Penzatti by the Borg. The Enterprise travels to the planet to aid them and to find out what the Borg are up to. There they encounter a second version of the planet-killer from which is piloted by Guinan’s bond-sister who is consumed by her desire to destroy the Borg for all the suffering they’ve caused her. It might sound like an impossible task but with the planet-killer at her disposal, Delcara’s vendetta is all too real a possibility. The crew of the Enterprise along with those of the Repulse and the Chekov are stuck in the middle of the two dangerous and destructive powers in the galaxy. That’s the foundation of the story and Peter David does a good job with it but the best parts of the novel are the character interactions which isn’t a surprising to anyone who’s ever read a book by David.

There are plenty of things to like in Vendetta including the nice character moments. One of David’s strength as a Star Trek writing is that he regularly makes very interesting observation about the series as a whole or about specific episodes. A fine example of this is the conversation the characters have about nanites. In the second part of “The Best of Both Worlds”, Dr. Crusher suggests using the nanites as a weapon against the Borg. After the crew of the Enterprise defeated the Borg (by other means), this plan was proposed to Federation headquarters but the deliberation has led to a standstill because the intention of breeding a life form for the sole purpose of using them as a weapon against another life form goes against the virtues and beliefs of the United Federation of Planets. Not only does it serve as a good explanation as to why the nanite plan was never put into execution, it reminds us that the event depicted in the TV series don’t appear in a vacuum. There is more to the world of Star Trek than the bridge and the books are one of the places in which that has been explored the most.

Not all of the character moments work though, occasionally some conflict with how they’ve been portrayed before. One scene in particular Data is arguing with La Forge that they can’t recreate memories of an individual even though La Forge is convinced his ability at creating personalities in holodeck simulations. According to Data “What is created in the holodeck is not alive.” Doesn’t he remember the events in “Elementary, Dear Data” in which Moriarty, who was created in the holodeck, became self-aware? Does that not constitute a form of life by the definitions of the 24th century? Not only does his statement appear to be incorrect, it’s callous and hypocritical response from Data considering he is an artificially created life form. Maybe his assimilation among a primarily human crew has been more successful than we think.

Even though Vendetta is about a huge battle on three fronts, the characters are really at the heart of it all. David brings back a few characters form the show that we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with. Commander Shelby returns and she’s now working as the first office of the USS Chekov under Captain Korsmo. Captain Taggert of the Repulse also returns though this time it’s Ariel Taggert, the daughter of the previous Captain Taggert, who’s taken over the command of the ship. David’s quite adept that writing these characters despite their shot appearances on screen and he also has a good time creating some pretty interesting, albeit tragic, characters with Delcara and Reannon Bonaventure.

Delcara, the woman Picard first met while studying at the Academy, is a thematic stand-in for Dulcinea, the ideal woman as depicted in Don Quixote. With their initial encounter shrouded in mystery, Picard builds her up to be the idea woman and she becomes the representation of the unknown, the undiscovered which fuelled Picard’s life to a career of space exploration and discovery. As he puts it:
“She was . . .” He paused, trying to find words.  “She was a concept. A symbol. The idea of her came to mean more to me than the actuality of her. What she represented was so pure, but the reality was far from that. In the end I tried to make her into what I envisioned her to be, and what she could never be. And yet, in a way, she is. Was. She was everything I could have asked for. Unreachable. Untouchable. Always out there, guiding me onward. I seek to touch the stars, Mr. La Forge. To brush my fingers across them, and search out the mysteries they hide. She was all of that. All of that, and more.”

Ah, as dramatic as ever, eh Picard? And as unreachable as Delcara was and will remain, it’s very unfortunate that she was a character created specifically for this novel. It strains disbelief that such an important character to Picard made her first and, very likely, her last appearance in Vendetta.

There is another Dulcinea in the story. I’m talking about Reannon Bonaventure, a woman who used to be part of the Borg Collective but was rescued by the crew of the Enterprise. During the course of the novel, Geordi La Forge develops a very strong desire to take care of Reannon and help rehabilitate her. I would say that La Forge’s behaviour is borderline obsession because it goes beyond his regularly caring nature. The rest of the crew also notice just how intense he is and question him about what his motivation is for helping Reannon. His explanation that he and Reannon are kindred spirits due to them both having a handicap isn’t very satisfying and I suspect the explanation is simply that La Forge wanted a project. He convinced himself that he could help her and he’s fixated on the idea that he can and will heal her fractured psyche. I have to say I thought Reannon’s story was interesting enough on its own without requiring the addition of whatever it was that La Forge thought was so important about helping her more than what the other characters were also doing.

Not everything in the book works. I kind of beat around the bush on how the big story is nice and David does a good job but it’s just not enough to make this a memorable story beyond the fact that the Borg face off against a newer, bigger and more powerful version of the planet-killer from “The Doomsday Machine”. Without the strong character work from David Vendetta would fall flat as a story. Thankfully, both elements balance each other nicely and it’s made a better book because of it. I was kind of surprised to see that David would even write a story on this scale as it seems to be outside of his comfort zone. Even with his comic works his stories tend to be focused on characters as opposed to huge blockbuster-end-of-the-world-or-universe stories. It also helped that David brought forth some interesting thematic elements to the book via the early scene in the holodeck where La Forge, Data, Guinan and Troi re-enact a famous scene of Don Quixote (the one where he attacks the windmill, mistaking it for a giant). It’s not a co-incidence that both Reannon and Delcara either physically look like Troi who played Dulcinea in the holodeck. Both those characters were clear stand-ins for Picard and La Forge’s personal Dulcinea. The final verdict is that Vendetta works. It’s has some flaws, certainly but David is taking the idea of a giant novel to heart and he add plenty of high-stakes action, character drama and thematic resonance to make it a memorable read. It’s just a shame that 400 pages seem a bit much because the novel does meander a bit in the beginning. I think I would have preferred he same story in less pages in order to increase the awesome-per-page ratio. But what can you do? You rarely get what you want when the Borg are around.