Sunday, January 30, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Marvel 1602, by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove

So, now that my newfound love of graphic novels has really taken hold, I figure it's about time to take a few cautious steps back into the Marvel Universe, in which I more or less lived from the ages of 9 to 13. What better place to start than an alternate history tale by Neil Gaiman?

This collected volume of eight comics posits the existence of Marvel superheroes in Elizabethan England. The world appears to be coming apart at the seams; strange storms and unexplained phenomena rip across the countryside. The queen is old and ailing, and insidious plots surround her. Her spymaster, Sir Nicholas Fury, works with his agents to shield (ha ha!) her life, and to bring a mysterious treasure from the Holy Land that the court magician, Doctor Stephen Strange, promises will aid England. However, her successor plots with mysterious Latverian counts and Spanish Inquisitors, working to bring about a new, more merciless rule. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange discovers that the strange storms are connected to the legends of the age- the lost crew of the Fantastick, the powerful Witchbreed of Carlos Javier's school and sanctuary, and even the agents of the crown. Moreover, if the storms are not stopped, the overthrow of the English monarchy will be the least of their worries.

Honestly, at first I was convinced that I wouldn't like this one. I think I was the victim of my own expectations. The engraving-style illustrations and Gaiman's name in giant letters led me to believe that I'd be reading a subtle, dense tale of intrigue. What I got was... not that, exactly. The dialogue was straightforward (and riddled with punny Marvel references), and the story was slick and moved quickly. This is, all told, a solid historical comic book, and meets (but not necessarily exceeds) the general expectations a reader would have of something like that.

My problem was that I approached 1602 in the same way I do most graphic novels: I started reading it in bite-sized chunks, in order to savor it. The first third of this story does not lend itself to this kind of reading, and I think it would take a while to get going even if I read it all in one sitting. There are just so many characters to introduce, so much Marvel fan service, that it approaches the level of gimmick. The constant scene-shifting makes things hard to follow, and seems to happen solely to allow Elizabethan Daredevil or Elizabethan Scarlet Witch to elicit a squee or two from the true believers. I initially thought I was being a little unkind, but I was vindicated by Gaiman's own admission in the afterword that he was plagued by second thoughts about writing a story with so many main characters.

Once I got through the first three or so issues, though, the story finally started to get going. I started reading it issue by issue (as it was meant to be read) at that point, and the pace obviously felt much better. There were still some story oddities that bothered me; there were so many subplots that some of them meandered into conclusions without any real relevance to the main story arc. Also, I liked the ending twist that connected things to the Marvel Universe we know and love, but I honestly would have been just as happy without it. But once I got on board with what this volume is— a homage-laden look into how the Marvel Golden Age characters might have got their start four centuries ago— I ended up enjoying it a great deal. The artwork was fantastic, too. The scratchboard covers and the mix of enhanced pencil work and digital color (with very minimal inking) offered just the right balance of old-timey flair and streamlined, consumable comic art. Not a confusing or wonky panel in sight, either.

I didn't know this graphic novel had any extras with it, and they proved to be a pleasant surprise that knocked this one up a notch for me. I recently woke up one morning with a fledgling idea for comic characters, and I've been wondering what I could do with those character notes, seeing as how I can barely draw a stick-figure. And then I turn a page in 1602 and see a reproduction of the script Gaiman gave to artist Andy Kubert for the first issue. Sweet. Thanks, Neil.

I wonder how this one might play out for readers who aren't intimately familiar with Marvel heroes; the fan service might not get in the way as much as it did with me in the beginning. Eventually, though, I was won over. The intriguing historical setting is a great fit for the classic heroics of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, etc. Taken as a whole, this is a fun superhero yarn by a great author and talented artists.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, by David Gaider

Well... hmm. I'm glad I played Dragon Age: Origins before discovering and reading this prequel book. In fact, I kind of wish I could just write a review about Dragon Age: Origins. That game took me by surprise; even though it sold itself as yet another medieval fantasy derivative, the story and characters exerted a surprisingly strong grip on me. One of the standout elements of the game was its writing, which is why I was excited to find this book. Unfortunately, it looks like talent with lore-writing and world-building does not automatically translate into talent with writing books.

The book takes place a few decades before the start of Dragon Age: Origins. The cruel Orlesian usurper, Meghren, sits on the throne of Ferelden. Moira Thierin, the rightful ruler, has been slain in an act of base treachery, and her son Maric finds himself separated from the rebel army and on the run. By chance, he finds himself at the mercy of Loghain Mac Tir, a commoner outlaw who is also on the run from the usurper's soldiers, but has no reason to love Maric, either. With Loghain's reluctant help, Maric must decide whether he is capable of rising past his reputation as a lazy, incompetent layabout and becoming the beacon of hope that his people desperately need.

Honestly, there isn't a whole lot in the story itself that most medieval fantasy readers haven't seen before. Naive princeling that must learn how to be a true king? Check. Dangerous turncoat that can't help but fall for our hero with a heart of gold? Check. We even have a Guinevere facsimile, for crying out loud. That isn't to say that the story is bad, necessarily. In fact, it's pretty good. It just plays second fiddle to the settings, names, and monsters, which are meant to advertise the video game for those that haven't played it, and be fan service to those that have.

Loghain is the star of the book, and is the reason I picked this one up. He is such an interesting character in the game, a villain with noble intentions that I sometimes liked more than some of the heroes. He doesn't disappoint in this book, either; he is the best kind of protagonist, with glaring flaws but a consistent moral compass. He's even better for those that have played the game, offering a lot of sobering insight into who Loghain is and why he makes the decisions that he does.

Okay, so, all of that is well and good, but someone needs to inform Gaider that he shouldn't publish a book without an editor, even if Bioware says that it's cool. Or, if there was an editor at Tor that looked at this manuscript and let it go to print, someone needs to slap them across the face a few times to sober them up. Either one or the other has to be the reason for the preponderance of unnecessary sentences, confused metaphors, and frankly bad writing that constantly gets in the way of the story. I'm not talking about typos and mangled grammar, although there is plenty of both. I'm talking about things like using "mind you" in the omniscient narration. I'm talking about boneheaded writing mistakes that should have been caught in even a cursory readthrough.

For example, I'm pretty sure the Rebel Queen isn't "her grandfather's daughter," unless the bloodline of Calenhad is more messed up than I thought it was. Also, Mr. Gaider, the word "decapitate" means to separate the head from the body. Therefore, I don't think one of the sentences on page 208, "the creature's head was instantly decapitated," is saying what you're intending to say. I like to imagine that the spider's head had a smaller, cigar-chomping head on top, and Rowan severed it for making one too many Brooklyn-accented wisecracks.

I chuckled my way through this book because of these unintentionally hilarious tidbits, which is a shame because there's plenty to like, here. Gaider has a real gift for creating gritty, dark, plot-centric fantasy. Kind of like George R. R. Martin at his best, before he said "fuck it" and dove balls-first into the deep end of the misogyny pool. If anybody had actually read this book through a couple of times and offered some useful suggestions (like, for example, that Gaider should actually write about the River Dane battle, an iconic part of Loghain's character, instead of fobbing it off on the epilogue), it actually could have worked well as a standalone novel.

As it is, this is worth reading if you are already a fan of Dragon Age, like me. For all its comedy and tragedy, I liked it. In fact, I'm itching to play the game again, which is the best measure of success a book like this can have. For newcomers, though, it's much too unpolished and amateurish to take seriously. Try the game, first.

Verdict: 2 / 5

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book Review: Spirit Fox, by Mickey Zucker Reichert and Jennifer Wingert

Mild spoilers ahead.

I bought this book over ten years ago, back when I unabashedly consumed all things fantasy. I finally picked it up this month while moving bookshelves around, after I noticed it sitting patiently on a shelf, cover still pristine, waiting to be read. This one is a challenge to review. By most objective standards, this is a pretty bad book. And yet, I couldn't help but like it, due to its specific standout elements and to a sense of nostalgia.

Kiarda is a noblewoman among the people of the rural Marchlands, who live under a strict religious code of pacifism. Unbeknownst to her and everyone around her, she was destined at birth to be spirit-linked to a fox, a rare and revered condition that bestows longer life and an inseparable animal companion. However, the circumstances of her birth cause this link to be damaged, causing the link to manifest in a new way: shapeshifting. Meanwhile, a conquering army lands in the reclusive Marchlands, intent on wiping out the spirit-linked, who they see as a dangerous and contagious profanity.

I could probably write a more cohesive synopsis, but honestly, the plot of this one ranges all over the place, and isn't all that strong. There is a story, but it grows organically out of the characters. Which can make for the best kind of story in competent hands, but I'd hesitate to call the execution here competent. The book falls prey to both the cliches of the genre and the foibles of the greenhorn author. For example, Tell Not Show is in full effect, here. I can tell the world is lovingly crafted, but its particulars are introduced with awkward dialogue that the characters wouldn't ever actually speak.

"Good weather today, huh?"
"Yes, well, due to the unique cosmology of our world and the intrinsic nature of our magic, we always have good weather."
"Oh, naturally, everyone knows that. Well, I'm off to offer prayers to Archibald."
"You mean, the god of snack cakes and high-heeled shoes, who also has red hair?"
"Yup, that's the one!"

I exaggerate, of course, but you get the idea. This is mostly in the beginning and it gets better, but it also contributes to a distinct feeling of other world details being made up on the spot and churned out for color. As a result. I couldn't quite immerse myself in the book's world as much as I wanted to.

The narrative voice is also lacking. It wasn't outright bad, but there were places that could have used some polish. For example, I counted four uses of the word "agony" in three paragraphs on one page, which is a particular pet peeve of mine. The thesaurus is our friend.

But the characters themselves are another matter altogether. In another book review, I used a comparison to roleplaying game writing in a negative light; this is a more thorough and positive example of that sort of writing. These characters are lived in. The author(s) love them, and have put a lot of thought into them. The book doesn't read like a story played out by characters, but like a long transcription of characters interacting with one another, if that makes sense. This brought me back to my own experiences with collaborative writing (usually through games like the Realm, EverQuest, etc.), where a long, carefully maintained story arc would grow out of characters colliding with each other and evolving. This is why I happily kept reading this, despite the meandering story and questionable writing; it reminded me of those kinds of stories, which I contributed to and loved despite their own flaws.

Also of particular note are the unexpected twists that Reichert and Wingert put on the two conflicting societies. The Marchlanders, for example, are bound by superstitious taboos and appalling ignorance, for all of their medieval charm. And Imperial bad guys are, in fact, wise and benevolent (especially their monotheistic religious representative, a favorite villain in most other fantasy treatments), and are operating underneath a well-intentioned misunderstanding- and yet are still willing to slaughter innocents without a moment of regret. Though these interesting concepts are not explored very deeply, they move past the level of gimmick, and did most of the heavy lifting when it came to pulling me as a reader into the world.

Unfortunately, a lot of this is undone by a rushed ending that sidesteps a lot of foreshadowed ugliness (including the unconscionable: skipping whole chunks of the climax and having it delivered as exposition in the epilogue) and gives everybody everything they want. Blech. Setting aside for the moment that it wasn't really explained how an invading commander had the authority to negotiate peace with a regional lord, the happy funtime ending didn't seem to fit very well with the moral ambiguity that suffused the rest of the book. Or with the characters' behavior in the previous chapters, for that matter.

I'm ambivalent, here. There is a lot wrong with this book, but I honestly liked it. There is no logical reason to like it, but I do. I'm reluctant to recommend it, except on the basis of its thorough characterizations and interesting take on morality. It's not a great book, but I definitely enjoyed it for what it was.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

I am one of the people who came to this series through the movie. Despite coming away from the first volume with the same sense of feeling too old that the movie gave me, I loved this one in spite of myself.

Scott Pilgrim is a twenty-something in Toronto that walks a fine line between being charmingly indolent and a being a complete waste of space. He spends his time either playing bass with his band, Sex Bob-omb, or going on somewhat uncomfortable outings with his teenage girlfriend, Knives Chau, and listening to her play-by-plays of Yearbook Club drama. (This is not as creepy as it sounds, due to Scott's crippling emotional immaturity, and the decidedly non-physical nature of their relationship.) His lazy, self-absorbed routine is interrupted by the appearance of a rollerblading American girl named Ramona Flowers, who begins appearing in his dreams and then suddenly shows up at the library. As Scott tries to find out more about this quirky temptress, he finds himself in the crosshairs of Ramona's Evil Ex-Boyfriends, who apparently have promised violence (of the video game variety) against anyone who dares to try and get close to her.

This graphic novel is full of references to things from my own teen years, which is awesome. Unfortunately, these references are put into a context where they are celebrated as retro-chic by people a lot younger than me. I simultaneously feel like I get it and that I am so not cool enough to be reading this, which is weird. But I've learned to deal with it, I think.

The book is a fantastic example of magical realism for people that need shiny things and can't handle staid books by Marquez or Allende. It begins as a relatively mundane portrait of hipsters doing whatever it is that hipsters do, with a few touches of video-game aesthetic and breaking of the fourth wall. By the time the first Evil Ex shows up, though, the book suddenly explodes in a mad fit of musical fight scenes, mystical summoning powers, subspace highways, and bad guys dissolving into coins. It can occasionally be hard on those of us without short attention spans, but the blending of the disaffected young people story with the kung-fu fight quest story is actually pretty awesome.

I definitely like the art here, too. Most people seem to classify it as a manga homage, which is accurate, but my mind tends to associate it more with the kind of casual/messy webcomic art that is popular online right now. There are no elaborate panels that can be thrown off track by an odd perspective or wonkily-drawn arm, and the big-eyed exaggeration of the facial expressions is often hilarious, in my opinion. Again, there is a lot of huge bold type that slaps the reader across the face here and there, but once you get used to the feel of the book, it works just fine.

Most of the bad things I've read about this book have boiled down either to backlash from its new popularity or to simple personal opinion. Which is all fine. Personally, I ate this one up. It's trendy without being pretentious, sarcastic without being insulting, and cute without being saccharine. It's also consistently funny, especially if you grew up in the 90s. And yes, I was actually a teen in the 90s, just like the author. So get off my lawn, you damned kids.

Anyway, definitely worth checking out. I'll be picking up the next volumes at the next opportunity.

Verdict: 5 / 5