Archive for the 'Review' Category

November 24, 2008
Posted @ 10:44 AM by Hawk in Rant, Review | 4 Comments »

Here is a fun little app for you, it’s called Poladroid. You drag and drop any photos (high res for better result) onto the app and it spits out a polaroid version of it. The photo sits on your desktop, you can either wait for it to develop or you can shake it with your mouse. Here are some examples from me…

May 12, 2008

OHIKKOSHI
by Hiroaki Samura

The deal: Ohikkoshi is a black and white manga from Dark Horse. The comics are preserved in their original right-to-left printing. Hiroaki Samura is also the author of Blade of the Immortal. The book is comprised of three short stories.

The summary: In this stand-alone volume of collected work, Hiroaki Samura turns his attention away from the violence and drama of Blade of the Immortal and towards romance and slice-of-life. The offbeat humor that occasionally peppers Blade of the Immortal appears in Ohikkoshi in full force. There are three stories in this collection: Ohikkoshi, Luncheon of Tears Diary, and Kyoto Super Barhopping Journal (Bloodbath at Midorogaike).

Ohikkoshi is the story of a group of University students who are plagued with the problems of youth coming on adulthood: love, lust, and making big post-graduation decisions – Life with a capital L. Love triangles, bad drunken decisions, awful bands, and all kinds of pheromone-induced tomfoolery abounds in this decidedly comedic story.

Luncheon of Tears Diary (Vagabond Shoujo Manga-ka) is the story of a young woman who wishes with all her heart to have a successful career as a manga author. The story follows her along the path from youth to adulthood, where she encounters a bizarre editor, bad relationships, the yakuza, mahjong, and love.

Kyoto Super Barhopping Journal (Bloodbath at Midorogaike) is an autobiographical, humorous short comic about Hiroaki Samura’s trip around Kyoto with his supervisor and two women. It is the shortest story out of the three.

The review: I’ll be straightforward – the best story out of the three is Luncheon of Tears Diary. I LOVED it. Let me talk about the other two stories first, though.

Ohikkoshi, the title story, is also the longest. The format is essentially a group of friends in University getting ready for the real world – or readily ignoring it. The main character is Tono, who loves(lusts) after Akagi, a mature(sexy) graduate with birthmarks in all the right places. His childhood friend has the hots for him, but she is dating his best friend, who also happens to be a terrible musician. The story can be described largely as a situational comedy. Samura does a good job of not taking anything seriously, balancing humor against very occasional bouts of drama nicely. My problem with this story was the humor itself. I’m not sure if it’s something cultural or lost in translation, but it often came off as somewhat awkward and stilted. Don’t get me wrong – it’s funny for sure – but the delivery was never quite smooth. The drama is handled flawlessly, of course – the author is very good at that.

Kyoto Super Barhopping Journal is funny, quirky, and a neat look at the author and his life. The story was told in a way where you felt as though you were hearing a friend’s story over lunch. It’s a nice addition to the book and a nice way to end it.

Luncheon of Tears Diary (Vagabond Shoujo Manga-ka) is my favorite story in the book, and my favorite story by Hiroaki Samura. Samura’s mastery as a storyteller really shows through here. Luncheon is about a young girl who wants with all her heart to become a manga-ka. As a virgin, she has all kinds suppositions about love, and this is what makes her such a valuable asset as a shoujo artist to her editor. Her editor is also a pervert, and ultimately leads her in a creative direction that is badly met by her readers, causing her manga to get dropped from the magazine it is published in. This begins the downtrodden, would-be manga-ka on an incredible path. She takes on odd jobs and encounters people who change her life as she ekes out a living, for better or for worse, but each moment brings us closer to the sense that we are seeing something amazing take place. The story twists and winds and surprises at every turn. The pacing is handled masterfully – things move quickly, slow down, and then speed up again so that we get to see each pivotal moment of the girl’s life as she becomes a woman. Humor is handled here very well – everything is taken seriously, and yet, nothing is taken seriously. The story comes full circle at the close, but I’ll leave that for you to read and see yourself …

The recommendation: I’d buy this book just for Luncheon of Tears Diary.

from Dark Horse, 248 pages, $12.95

BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN
by Haruki Murakami

The deal: A collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami.

The summary: I’m going to forego a summary here because there’s so many stories.

The review: It’s Murakami again! I know, I know, I never stop talking about this guy. He’s not even my favorite author – his stories are just so unpredictable, I can’t help but read ’em.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is what made me realize that I prefer Murakami as a short story writer. I discovered him through a short story in a huge anthology of various authors that I have (that story is also included in the book). His stories are always interesting and have a certain impetus that I can’t pull away from, but after having read several of his books, his non-formula begins to appear a formula to me. Just as, with many books, you can predict what happens, what I’ve become accustomed to in Murakami’s books is that the one thing you can always predict is that you won’t be able to predict anything. In the short story format, he touches on an idea, addresses it in an unexpected way, and then it’s on to the next story. I liked not having to linger as unpredictables built on unpredictables, because with Murakami there is often not an obvious payoff. The other thing I liked was some of the stories were a lot more down to earth than Murakami’s usual fare – sometimes it was reminscent of Norwegian Wood, which is one of my favorites but at total odds with the rest of his work. Then there are stories like “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”, which induce that trademarked Murakami WTFness that I enjoy (although it certainly makes me feel conflicted).

I obtained a UK copy of After Dark while I was in India earlier this year, and I’ll probably review that as soon as I dig it up. I think it just came out stateside. I liked it, but it was a departure from his usual novels.

I’d like to mention that I hate the cover of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. The hardcover cover design is better – the colors on the paperback cover fight.

The recommendation: Novel-length Murakami can be too much for some folks, especially if you are just trying to pick him up for the first time. Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow is a great place to start. The genres run the gamut, and Murakami really flexes his writer’s skills in this collection.

from Vintage, 384 pages, $14.95

May 6, 2008
Posted @ 12:04 AM by Ananth in Rant, Review | 34 Comments »

IRON MAN
Director: Jon Favreau, MARVEL Studio

The deal: Marvel’s Iron Man movie came out in theaters last week! It features Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes, Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. It’s 2 hours long, and playing everywhere.

The summary: Billionaire, genius, inventor – Tony Stark is all of these. He’s also a playboy, an ass, and … well, an ass. His company, military contractor Stark Industries, is the Marvel Universe’s Lockheed Martin – the similarity is played down to the logo. Stark goes to Afghanistan to sell missiles, but on his way back to the airport his convoy is attacked, and one of his own missiles – somehow in enemy hands – blows up in his face. Tony Stark learns a lesson here, and begins to construct a suit with which he can save the very people his company has put in harm’s way.

The review: Like I really need to review this. It’s good. By now word of that is all over the internet, so I’ll try to briefly expound on why without giving anything away. Very minor spoilers below.

1. The casting: Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow is adorable as Pepper Potts. To me those were the two strongest actors, but the casting across the board is pretty good. I was less excited about Terrence Howard/Jim Rhodes, but I think that’s the kind of character he was supposed to come across as – hopefully he will step up to the plate in the next one.

2. Character interaction: There’s something very nuanced about the way Robert Downey Jr. handles his relationship with each person he comes across as Tony Stark. For me personally, it was the most fun to watch him and Pepper Potts banter.

3. Cognizance of current events: There is a sequence where Tony Stark appears on a series of magazine covers. Another director would have opted for TIME, but Favreau makes a point of using magazines like WIRED. He’s with the times. This is equally apparent during the Mad Money scene. Likewise, the plot of this movie addresses current events quite well, and recognizes that the problems Tony Stark has are global rather than local (like Spiderman).

4. Not pushing the hero trait too far: There is a blissful lack of superhero-ish speeches, which is wonderful because they rarely come across as anything but cornball.

5. Humor: They make good use of it.

I believe that this is also the first movie that Marvel has released through their own studio, and you can see that they’ve already started to build their universe by the time the movie ends (WAIT THROUGH THE CREDITS!). I’m speculating that, prior to this, Marvel farmed their properties out to various movie studios, and thus shied away from tie-ins as much as possible. Now that they have full creative control, I think we’re going to see some interesting things happen.

The recommendation: You won’t be disappointed! Go check it out. You don’t need to know anything about the movie to enjoy it – my folks saw it Sunday morning and were all smiles afterwards.

MARVEL Studio, playing everywhere, movie tickets cost a hojillion dollars

ODE TO KIRIHITO
by Osamu Tezuka

The deal: Ode to Kirihito is a huge brick of a volume, a whopping 832 pages in length by godfather of manga Osamu Tezuka. The book is about two inches thick, and it’s beautifully and cleverly designed – there’s actually a moving part on the cover that tells a story about the book. The publisher, Vertical, also publishes a lot of Tezuka’s later works in English.

The summary: Ode to Kirihito is a dark medical thriller. The main character is Kirihito Osanai, a promising young doctor whose realm of expertise is infectious diseases. He is studying one in particular called Monmow Disease, a sickness that turns the victim into a dog-like creature, and he travels the world looking for a cure. His journey ultimately take him to all corners of the earth, where he encounters all the brightness and darkness of human nature.

The review: Ode to Kirihito is considered to be one of Osamu Tezuka’s seminal works, and was his personal favorite. It reads in stark contrast to Tezuka’s earlier works, like Astro Boy, for which he is better known – in that sense, Ode to Kirihito can be shocking in it’s intensity, darkness, and sometimes graphic nature.

The story itself is epic in scale, with a large cast. Despite all that, however, the plot generally moves at top speed, occasionally cutting away from Kirihito to the others that are caught in a web the slowly begins to emerge as the book progresses. The function of Monmow disease within the story also evolves as Ode to Kirihito draws to a close.

Tezuka’s art is expressive even in it’s simplicity, and his use of layout is unique and set the trends for what was to come – to read Ode to Kirihito is to see a cartooning master at work.

With all the positives are a few negatives, though. My biggest complaint about Ode to Kirihito is the somewhat lackluster handling of female characters. They often come off as very two-dimensional, and the story on occasion takes a heavy-handed approach to explaining away certain details. These complaints are grains of sand on a beach, though – there’s so much to like in Ode to Kirihito.

The recommendation: If you’re a fan of manga and you’re interested in it’s roots, Ode to Kirihito is a good place to look. Likewise, if you like medical thrillers or works that put human nature under a microscope, then you should check this out.

from Vertical, 832 pages, $24.95 ($16.47 on Amazon right now)

April 21, 2008

THREE SHADOWS
by Cyril Pedrosa

The deal: Three Shadows is a graphic novel from a publisher I haven’t encountered before, called First Second. Everything about the type on the cover, binding and back is tightly styled, and meshes well with the colors and imagery. It’s 8.5 x 6″, which is about the size of an over-sized novel – it rests nicely in your hands.

The summary: Three Shadows is the surreal journey of a father, mother and son as they run from three, looming shadows. Their flight takes them through cities and ports, over the ocean, to unknown lands. Everywhere the father takes his son, the three shadows follow, until all he can think of is how to run from them. His son is afraid but believes utterly that his father will protect him from what is coming.

The review: The summary for Three Shadows is short because the premise and execution are remarkably easy to explain. However, don’t let that deceive you – there is a great deal of depth in this book, in the sparse dialogue, movement of story, and richness of imagery and expression. The story has the feel of an allegory, and that is because it ultimately is, as explained on the inside back flap (although I’d recommend against looking at that before you read the story.) The story is melancholy from beginning to end, but it has a building intensity that keeps you tacked to your seat, even as you wait for the other shoe to drop.

The story is done very much in the spirit of the magical realism apparent in books by Garcia Marquez, Allende, and Murakami – strange things happen but are taken for granted as the mundane becomes the focal point of the story. I was personally impressed – it seems tricky to transfer that style to a graphic novel because it’s so easy to overdo the strangeness with the visuals suddenly fully presented rather than described.

The recommendation: This is a melancholy story, but it’s quite good. Despite it’s simplicity – or perhaps because of it – the story resonates. Three Shadows was actually translated from it’s native language (French … thanks commenter darkwind!) very very well – the English translation does the story justice, and this is a beautifully written and illustrated book.

from First Second, International Comics, 272 pages, $15.95 ($10.85 at Amazon right now)

LOST ODYSSEY
by Mistwalker

The deal: Lost Odyssey for the XBOX 360 is an RPG from Mistwalker and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the famed creator of the Final Fantasy series. This is his third game outside of the franchise. It is a 4-disc game.

The summary: The story of Lost Odyssey revolves around Kaim, a one thousand year old man who cannot remember his past. When the game begins, he is quiet and moody, a lot like many RPG protagonists that we know – but as the story unravels, we are given a good explanation as to why – and (surprisingly), Kaim begins to open up.

Kaim is joined by several immortals and a few mortals, who begin a long and arduous journey to defeat a man name Gongora, who it seems is somehow linked to these immortals. Their quest takes them all over the world, to a lot of colorful places. It’s worth noting that the world in which these characters reside is pretty full of … well, stuff. It’s just very fleshed out, and the time period – thirty years into a sort of magic-industrial revolution – is interesting and novel.

I’m going to stop here – the world is unique and definitely it’s own, so it won’t feel recycled.

The review: I’m going to go ahead and say that the team behind this game is pretty good. Hironobu Sakaguchi is the founder of FF, the writer is Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu, and the composer is Nobuo Uematsu. The Mistwalker team is actually joined by Feel Plus, a studio made up of people who worked on Shadow Hearts, a lesser known RPG that is one of my favorites, hands down – I’ll probably review it some time.

This game is different from the FF franchise in a lot of notable ways, but the best way to sum up is that this is FF “grown up”. Characters are given plausible motivation, they show emotion, and dialogue is more than just filler between action and play. I enjoy me a good FF, don’t get me wrong – but these characters on the whole are older and more adult-like than their FF counterparts. Themes like parenthood and marriage come up again and again.

The battle system is novel, complex and interesting. Attack rings keep you paying attention and interested during fights (time a button press right to increase damage, something like Squall’s gunblade – on steroids). It’s similar to the system in Shadow Hearts, but you’re also provided with a menu option called Ring Assembly that allows you to assemble new attack rings to capitalize on specific weaknesses that particular foes have. You can switch equipment out in the middle of battle, so this becomes very useful.

Also of note is the guard system – your characters are divided into front and back row during combat, and the front row provides a defensive wall that can be worn down over time – but the higher your GC, the (significantly) less damage your back row takes.

Leveling up takes attention as well – immortals can learn any skill from any mortal, but they can’t learn new skills themselves – mortals learn skills as they level up on their own. This means that you have incentive to switch characters in and out (usually I end up picking a main party and ignoring the rest). If immortals die in the middle of a battle, they will automatically come back to life after a few turns, which is very cool – it is fun in battle and also helps reinforce the storyline.

The voice-acting is pretty good, actually – some of the voice actors are very recognizable – and they all manage to do some pretty nuanced speech.

One interesting feature is The Thousand Years of Dreams – occasionally, when you talk to someone or see something, it will spark a memory in Kaim and then you’ll be treated to a long text story. Of all the things in the game, this is what makes Kaim’s age of one thousand years believable. Sometimes the stories are violent, sometimes sweet, sometimes poignant – they run the gamut, but they really help to flesh out Kaim’s character, as well as the world around him. Some people may balk at all those words in a row, but you’re given the option to skip them, so it’s not a big deal.

I could go on about all the neat features this game has tucked away, but I actually want to move on to the negative now. I only have one really big complaint, and that is the character design. I hated it right from the opening scene. There’s all these soldiers fighting on a battlefield and then something crazy happens, but these soldiers are all wearing stupid hats and I can’t stop thinking about dumb they are. If they were stupid but believable, that would be okay, but they are entirely implausible and impractical. This is compounded when Kaim shows up – he rips through the enemy ranks and it’s all very badass, but he’s wearing armor that exposes his midriff. What the hell? That’s stupid. I was thinking to myself, well, maybe it’s just a fluke – they wanted to make it visually interesting and the protagonist of these games always has to be some slightly effeminate pretty boy – but no, the costumes only get dumber and dumber. And the architecture, don’t get me started – it is ridiculous. Feel free to ignore this entire previous paragraph, but I like my character and world design with a bit of research behind them, and I get the crushing feeling that there was none. Everything is gaudy and impractical, and it sometimes detracts from the overall experience.

That being said, it doesn’t detract enough for me to put the game down. I’m right at the beginning of disc 3 right now, so maybe I’ll do a follow-up review when I’m done. Maybe they’ll explain the stupid costumes and the wacky buildings (all their tailors and architects are monkeys on LSD?).

The recommendation: If you can get past the weird visual aesthetic, this is actually a pretty rich game. The story is interesting, the game mechanics are engrossing, the music is good, and the tone of it is a good deal fresher than what you’re probably used to.

by Mistwalker, for XBOX 360, $59.99

April 13, 2008

I had a conversation about reviewing webcomics, and it’s also a suggestion I’ve received via e-mail the past few weeks. I appreciate the suggestion, but I won’t be doing that, for a number of reasons,

1. I don’t think there’s any point in reviewing something that is available for free. A review helps you decide whether or not to make a purchase.
2. People don’t take reviews of webcomics seriously because, when it’s been done in the past, it’s been done maliciously – simply to rile people up. There’s a serious credibility deficit, unfortunately.

On to the reviews! The first one is a Frank Miller recommendation in sharp contrast to the negative review I gave last week. They’re both a little shorter than usual – apologies, it’s been a busy few weeks with all the projects on my plate.

DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
by Frank Miller

The deal: Dark Knight Returns is a miniseries from DC that has been collected into a trade paperback. The cover design is very cool, with a modern aesthetic take on the original art that speaks volumes.

The summary: Dark Knight Returns is about an aging Batman’s return to the streets and rooftops after a ten year absence. In the time since he “left”, Batman has become even more of an urban legend. Crime has proliferated and evolved; most of the old villains are locked up in Arkham, but now it’s gangs of young people that rule the streets. Something inside Bruce Wayne (although it’s argued that he’s always been Batman) claws and screams, and suddenly an aging 50 year old Batman is swinging through the city to recapture Harvey Dent (a supposedly re-habilitated Two-Face). Batman begins to systematically clean out Gotham City. His age and lack of understanding of the new generation are constantly apparent. He faces off against the Joker and even Superman, which ultimately brings the book to a dramatic conclusion. This all happens against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Reagan era, and the role that politics and the media play within the story still seem surprisingly relevant today.

The review: Dark Knight Returns is arguably Frank Miller’s break-out work. He was the one who reinvented Batman from the Adam West Superfriend to the character he is today. Even reading it now, outside of the context of the time period it was written in (and that’s very important), it’s clear that Miller was approaching the character from an entirely different viewpoint than everyone else. Why write about an aging Batman, past his prime? Because it’s damn interesting, for starters. Miller uses the book to show the dichotomy of method between Superman and Batman as well, and while it’s clear he has no real affection for Superman, his argument as to why the character is flawed is interesting. Likewise, his grounding superheroes in the context of politics and the media is also interesting, and definitely a symptom of the times – Ronald Reagan shows up more than once, and the media argues about Batman’s morality for pages upon pages. A younger Robin, an older Joker, and the new danger: gangs, represented in this story as the Mutants. The generation gap is obvious, too – Miller plays on this, making Batman out to be a sly, hardened old man outside his time, who slowly but surely begins to grasp how he can bring his own image into the new age.

It’s also worth reading Dark Knight Returns simply as evidence of pop culture during the 80s – it’s a neat view into what people thought the future when projecting off of their current events, and moreover it functions as a rather strong reactionary piece.

The recommendation: If you like comics but reading superhero comics is like pulling teeth for you, you may want to give this a shot – it is not your typical approach. I actually recommend it highly, simply because it was such a pivotal book when it came out. As a side note, don’t mix this up with Dark Knight Strikes Again – two completely different books.

from DC, American Comics, $14.99 ($10.19 on Amazon right now), 224 pages

INCREDIBLE CHANGE-BOTS
by Jeffrey Brown

The deal: Incredible Change-bots is a small format book (6.3 x 5.1″) from Top Shelf Productions. It is full-color, and printed on nice thick glossy page stock.

The summary: Incredible Change-bots is about a group of sentient machines from Electronocybercircuitron. On this planet, there are two major political parties – the Awesomebots and the Fantasticons, led by Big Rig and Shootertron respectively. They destroy their own planet and thus board a ship to Earth, where their battle continues with their new human allies.

The review: You’re either laughing after reading that summary, or you’ve already closed your browser. For those of you still with me, I just want to say, Incredible Change-bots makes me laugh my ass off. It’s a pretty direct parody of Transformers, but it’s done like a little kid would do it – all the drawings are somewhat askew and the whole thing appears to have been meticulously colored with Crayola markers. The author manages to sneak a few political/religious/social jokes in there, but for the most part it’s silly versions of typical Transformers tropes, stilted dialogue, and robots questioning their own sexuality. Epic robot fights, moments of nostalgic tribute, and bouts of morality abound. In short, it is good, dumb fun. I keep flipping through it and noticing little details in the background. The pictures alone are enough to make one laugh out loud, and the glossy stock the book is printed on makes it very nice to look at.

My one gripe would have to be that the binding is in Japanese, and that makes it hard to spot on a shelf – look for a small book with blue Japanese characters on the binding.

The recommendation: If you’re looking for something fun and easy to read, and you are or were a Transformers fan, find this book and give it a shot. The humor can be a little bizarre at times and it’s not for everyone, but there’s definitely an audience for this book and you might be it.

from Top Shelf Productions, American Comics, $15.00 ($11.70 on Amazon right now), 144 pages

April 6, 2008

Last week someone in the comments called me out on not having written any negative reviews. The reason this won’t happen a lot is because no one is handing these reviews to me as assignments – I’m just picking things that people might really enjoy, but may have overlooked because of a lack of exposure, etc. BUT, since it was asked for, the second review today obliges the anonymous commenter who wanted to see a negative review.

BLACKSAD vol. 1 & 2
by Juan Diaz Canales & Guarnido

The deal: Blacksad vol. 1 and Blacksad vol. 2 are both large format books (9″ x 12″). This is to showcase the art, which is full-color watercolor and gouache. Blacksad is a Spanish graphic novel that has been translated into English.

The summary: Blacksad is a series of noir stories told with an anthropomorphic cast. The title character is a black cat detective, and the story in volume 1 opens with the death of his Lady in Red, Natalia. His investigations lead him high and low as he navigating his way through police, street toughs and assassins, ultimately tracking down Natalia’s killer and bringing us to the classic noir conclusion. Volume 2 sees Blacksad picking up a sidekick and tackling the escalating racial tensions in the city and suburbs head-on. White-furred animals and black-furred animals are fighting for supremacy, and Blacksad is caught in the middle as he sleuths, shoots and punches his way to the stunning and unexpected conclusion.

The review: I’ve only read the first two volumes of Blacksad, so I’ve disregarded the third volume for this review.

The first thing people see when they look at Blacksad is the art, and this is emphasized by the large format the books are printed in. These books are gorgeous. They’re done entirely in watercolor (with a few touches of gouache), and every page is just beautiful. The pages are well-composed and dynamic, and the palettes and light values make the art ooze atmosphere. The characters themselves, despite having animal faces and features, are highly expressive, often times oscillating between showing the beauty and ugliness of the same character superbly. The choice of using full-color for a noir story is interesting, but it works to great effect simply because Guarnidos has the skill and vision to make it work.

The story in volume 1 is a classic noir story with a few minor twists. Blacksad is the detective, and Natalia is the classic Lady in Red, but Natalia is dead at the opening of the book. We learn that Blacksad and Natalia shared a relationship at one point, and this gives Blacksad the impetus to take the case on without a client or paycheck in sight. He encounters a colorful array of noir archetypes, represented by different kinds of animals, and as the story moves along the bigger picture unfolds, treating us to a final showdown in classic noir style. While I enjoyed volume 1, the writing was a bit lacking, and this may have had a lot to do with the writer and artist testing the waters and adhering to a formula.

Volume 2 is just as visually stunning as volume 1, but this time the writing is on the mark as well. Canales finds his voice in this volume, tackling the touchy topic of race during a period of segregation (roughly right before Civil Rights in our “human” time). White-furred and black-furred animals butt heads. Murder abounds, as well as kidnapping, blackmail and scandal (even the KKK makes an appearance). The pieces begin to fall into place as Blacksad and his new companion Weekly, a reporter, are propelled into this web of violence, and the hits keep coming even after you least expect them. The ending of volume 1 was satisfying, but I LOVED the ending of volume 2.

I haven’t read volume 3, but I’ll be sure to review it when I get a copy. For those of you out there who like to know how things are done, there is a book called Blacksad: The Sketch Files that gives a VERY thorough rundown of how the books were made, as well as an insightful interview with the artist and writer.

The recommendation: At a first glance, Blacksad may turn some people off because anthropomorphic animals sometimes carry negative connotations. Blacksad was not originally developed with an anthropomorphic cast; it was a decision made later on, when the writer and artist realized it would add another layer to the work. Blacksad is great, but ultimately I find volume 2 to be superior to volume 1. Volume 1 is also out of print – the only way to find it in English these days is to find a used copy floating around on Amazon or somewhere else. Volume 2, Volume 3, and the Sketch Files are all still in print, so the prices are much more reasonable. Volume 2 won a 2005 Harvey Award.

From iBooks, European Comics, 3 volumes, prices vary

ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN
by Frank Miller and Jim Lee

The deal: Frank Miller is the writer of Sin City and 300, two books that have seen cinematic adaptations. He also wrote Dark Knight Returns, which is still considered to be THE definitive Batman book – the one that saved the character from the Biff!Pow!Bang! days of Adam West campiness and redefined him as the darker, grittier character we know him as today. Jim Lee is arguably the most famous comic book artist of the last decade – he helped found Image comics, and his style has been emulated over and over again. DC brought them together to do the highly-anticipated All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder, a no-strings-attached interpretation of the characters that exists in its own continuity (translation: Miller has full artistic license to do whatever he wants).

The summary: All-Star Batman & Robin is a retelling of the story of when Robin joined Batman on his mission to make Gotham City safe. It begins with their first meeting after Robin’s parents are killed; Batman takes young Dick Grayson under his wing and brings him to the Batcave, where he begins to train Dick for the war ahead.

The review: Reception to this book was controversial, but I don’t really think there’s any controversy: this book is just bad. Really, really bad.

Dark Knight Returns is going to be one of my favorite comics until the day I die. I’m not really a reader of superhero comics, but it’s a watershed landmark of a book. On a scale, I like Frank Miller’s writing on Ronin, Sin City, 300 and Batman: Year One pretty okay to a lot. So I feel justified in saying that this book is not only the worst book Miller has ever written (yes, including Dark Knight Strikes Again), but is also one of the worst comic books every written, period.

Miller isn’t writing Batman in this book – he’s writing a drunk, rowdy PEDOPHILE (I’ll get to this) fratboy in a Batman costume. This Batman is an asshole, and not in the way they we’ve all come to love Batman being an asshole – so he can get results quickly – no, this Batman is an asshole because it’s fun. There’s no sharp detective mind here – there’s a guy from Jackass who wants Dick Grayson to eat rats in the Batcave to “toughen him up”. This Batman acts like a spoiled brat who likes to show off all his cool toys to the other kids on the block – he always tells people how cool his Batmobile, to which the standard running answer is “You call it the Batmobile? That’s gay.

Alright, I’m sure you guys are wondering about my capitalized PEDOPHILE in the previous paragraph. Maybe Miller was trying to create some sort of dialogue or commentary on the weird relationship between a grown man and a boy running around in tights. So, he wrote some lines to underscore the inherent potentially homoerotic undertones there, only there’s a problem: there’s no underscoring going on here. What we have instead is a guy with a big fat red pen writing “BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE” over and over again, and then circling it repeatedly afterwards just for good measure. We start with someone saying “This kid’s amazing,” to which Bruce Wayne replies, “Yeah, I’ve had my eye on him for a while. He’s something, all right.” Those italics are in the book, but fine – this isn’t blatant. Neither is the repeated use of, “Dick Grayson, Age Twelve”, which becomes sort of a mantra as the series progresses. No, we graduate to blatant when we get to issue 9, where Batman is having Robin paint an entire room yellow. We’re treated to Batman’s inner monologue here, where he tells us over and over again that he is smarter than everyone else, everyone is an idiot, and oh yeah the Green Lantern’s weakness is the color yellow and boy is that stupid. Batman is looking up at Dick Grayson in his Robin tights on a ladder as he paints and complains to his “mentor”. Over Dick’s tirade, Batman inner-monologues, “Fast hands, my little Robin. Fast hands, big mouth.”

This is all underlined by Frank Miller’s standard WHORESWHORESWHORES. I think Wonder Woman (a manhater in this particular iteration) calls someone a “sperm bank” at one point, and all of the women besides her can’t stop telling Batman they love him/throwing themselves at him.

I’ve ragged on Miller’s writing for long enough, but I haven’t really talked about Jim Lee’s art. He’s a good artist, but truth be told, I don’t really think his style suits Batman. This is purely my personal opinion, but Batman is a gritty character and tends to stick to the shadows, and Jim Lee doesn’t seem to utilize shadows well, and everything about his art is very clean cut. Even when Batman has stubble, he seems clean cut. Also, the contrast of his art against Frank Miller’s writing seems incredibly awkward. I actually feel bad for Jim Lee – he must get a script each month and go, ” … goddamit.” Jim Lee’s art would be better suited for a Superman/Batman team-up, probably.

So I feel I’ve built a good case against anyone ever thinking this book is good. What I will say is that this book can be entertaining. No one really knows if Frank Miller is fucking with his readers on purpose – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. I personally have to believe that he’s doing it on purpose. One thing is true, regardless of what you believe: All-Star Batman & Robin is HILARIOUS. If I start reading it, I can’t stop laughing. This is exemplified by the way Batman introduces himself to Robin, “What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn BATMAN.

The recommendation: Borrow this from someone if you’re curious, but seriously, don’t buy it. It’s awful. If you’re curious about the comedic value I mentioned I earlier, I point you towards two columns at i-mockery.com – “All Suck Batman and Robin and Frank Miller is Still Insane. They’re a riot.

From DC, American Comics, $2.99 and any sense of good taste

March 31, 2008

EMMA
by Kaoru Mori

The deal: Emma is a completed 7-volume series released by DC’s CMX manga imprint. The covers are printed with a sort of watercolor effect on textured matte paper, which is unusual and aesthetically appropriate.

The summary: Emma takes place in Victorian England. It is about a maid who falls in love with a man of rank, and their struggle to overcome the class gap in society that separates them. They are joined by a group of rather colorful characters as the reader follows them through their trials and tribulations.

The review: Emma is the maid manga for people who hate maid manga. Instead of gratuitous cheesecake and unlikely situations, Emma presents a well-researched Victorian England, down to the architecture, costumes and dress, and representation of society. At times it seems to draw more on Victorian-era novels than it does on manga, which is refreshing.

Emma begins with the maid’s unlikely meeting with William, a man of some nobility. For William, it is love at first sight, but this is Victorian-era England, and as such there’s no gushing or declaration of love. They’re replaced instead with well-planned encounters and offers of gifts. The story follows this thread until it hits the barrier of their different classes, at which point it becomes a struggle for them to see each other through. Emma moves away, William becomes engaged to a girl from a “respectable” family, and the direction of their lives seems to continue to spiral out of their control.

Emma would have been a cute story in and of itself, but what really makes it so much fun is the colorful cast of characters within. Hakim, the eccentric Indian playboy prince who arrives on William’s doorstep with a herd of elephants and a harem, the German couple who take Emma in when she is looking for work, William’s mother, and the gaggle of maids and servants that Emma works with are but a few members of the dynamic cast found within the book.

Each volume is also closed out with a mini-comic from the author herself, where she talks about herself and her work on Emma, which is a fun bonus.

The ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered, though, and I hope that the eighth pseudo-volume of short stories helps clear these questions up.

The recommendation: This is a romance manga recommendation from the guy who really hates romance manga. I really enjoyed Emma for two reasons: the fantastic cast within and the realistic representation of Emma and William’s romance within the setting. Everything is very subtly done, with blushes and expressions often speaking much louder than words.

From CMX, Manga, 7 volumes, $9.99

GRAPHIC ARTISTS GUILD HANDBOOK: PRICING AND ETHICAL GUIDELINES
Twelfth Edition

The deal: The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is a handbook for graphic artists (this includes but is not limited to illustrators and designers of all kinds). A new edition is released by the Graphic Artists Guild each year. As a sidenote, the book is oddly sized.

The summary: The Handbook is a hefty volume chock full of information for today’s professional illustrators and graphic designers. It answers a lot of questions about how to handle situations with clients, what you can ask for and what you can’t, as well as very handy price charts that outline the current going rates for particular types of work. It also contains sections about contracts, which allows graphic artists to arm themselves with the knowledge they need to be treated fairly in a professional scenario. It also contains recommended reading and resources.

The review: This book is a must-have for graphic artists, especially freelancers. Many basic questions like, “How much should I charge?” and “Do I get to retain rights to work I create?” are answered in this book. It is a reference book that ought to be on every freelancer’s shelf. The types of work are broken down into sections, and it is extensive: Corporate Graphic Design, Branding Design, Package Design, Typeface Design, Photo Illustration, Broadcast Design – the list goes on. It also explains some very important concepts, including the dreaded Work-for-Hire clause that has trapped many, many illustrators and designers.

Design and Illustration are not always seen as “real” work by other industries (although that has changed immensely in recent years), and as such professionals are sometimes under-compensated and … well, I’m going to go ahead and use the words ‘tricked’ and ‘fleeced’ by people who know how to use the words of a contract against them. This Handbook allows you to educate yourself against being trapped into unreasonable contracts and situations.

The recommendation: If you’re a graphic artist, especially a freelancer, pick this reference book up. It can be invaluable.

From Graphic Artists Guild, $35.00