Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Song for Sunday #4

And we come to the last Sunday in November, and I think I'll post something that is best described as different. Now, I'll be honest, I have no idea what the lyrics are, nor what they mean. All I know is that the song sounds really good and that the video is really odd.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mini-Review x 3 - Free Comic Book Day 2011 #1

I'm going to - finally - get around to reading and reviewing the Free Comic Book Day 2011 issues I have sat around. I meant to do so months ago, but I never got around to it. That changes now! Today I'll be reviewing Super Dinosaur: Origin Special (Image), Young Justice/Batman: The Brave and the Bold (DC) and Pep Comics: Featuring Betty & Veronica (Archie).

Young Justice/Batman: The Brave and the Bold
This was my first foray into these titles, both of which are aimed at younger readers. As the title suggests, this is split into two parts. The first part is a short Young Justice comic, the second part is the Batman one. I'll review them separately.

Young Justice
The team is made up of Kid Flash, Superboy, Robin, Miss Martian and Aqualad, and they've been sent to Colorado to face Psycho-Pirate, who has managed to get hold of some plutonium. The Young Justice team try and get it from him, but they all get put into a trance of self-doubt which reveals to us all of the issues the characters currently face, i.e. they're not as good as the "older" superheroes they're based on/team up with.

The art is really quite good and appropriate for the age group and the theme of the team, and I found it clear and easy to follow. Despite being perhaps twice the target age, I did enjoy it.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold
In this shorter piece, Bruce Wayne is supposed to be attending a charity function, but is instead helping the Flash save people from a fire. We're treated to a brilliant duality with the attention flicking back and forth between the function and the conflict between Batman, the Flash, Heat Wave and the Firefly. It's really well done, and gives two great perspectives. One is that Bruce Wayne's reputation with the Gotham elite is being slightly tarnished by his string of non-appearances, but we know that he's actually out there saving people and kicking butt. It ends with Alfred giving a brilliant witty retort that really catches the guests off-guard.

The art is pretty good in that rather ridiculously exaggerated way that you often find in cartoons, and it works quite well for this. It's clear and easy to follow.

Overall, a good taster issue. I think even adults would enjoy reading this, because the Young Justice section is quite deep once you get into it, but also because the Batman section harks back to an Adam West-era Batman, where it wasn't all dark and brooding.

Pep Comics: Featuring Betty & Veronica
I had to do a little bit of research on this. Pep Comics was the name of the series in which Archie had his debut, and it was one of the classic series - along with ones such as Action Comics. It had a brief resurgence in the '80s, but has since lain mostly dormant.

In this issue, we follow Betty and Veronica as they discover the old Club Archie treehouse, and reminisce about when the gang were kids. After an embarrassing moment for Veronica, they all go to Pop's and discuss creating a new club. Archie, Jughead, Nancy and some others create a club for younger children, in which they help them with one-on-one attention, whereas Veronica's idea is to basically spoil the kids rotten. The kids like Veronica's club, but ultimately prefer the one-on-one attention they get in Archie's.

It's a sugar-sweet issue with some really good ideas behind it, mostly about friendship and how you should help others. I found myself a little confused, however, as it didn't really introduce any of the characters and only a few were referred to by name. Sadly, I didn't think much of the art. So much of it seemed reused and poor quality, which I found to be a disappointment. Facial expressions seemed odd, and barely changed during panels. When the characters spoke, and they weren't grinning, they looked really, really odd. I hope that's not true of most Archie comics, as I could see it becoming annoying very quickly.

In conclusion, a fairly fun read with some rather inconsistent art, the quality of which is questionable.

Super Dinosaur: Origin Special
I've never heard of Super Dinosaur before, but I'm fairly glad I picked this issue up. Derek Dynamo is a young boy with a dinosaur for a best friend. His father and his assistant, Max Maximus, had discovered Inner Earth, an untouched place with dinosaurs and a rock called DynOre, which could be used as a fuel. Max begins conducting experiments to alter and "improve" the dinosaurs to create an army, as well as creating the harness that Super Dinosaur wears, whereas Derek's father is oblivious to the sinister nature of the experiments. Max goes renegade, Dr Dynamo is injured in a blast, but Super Dinosaur (SD, as he's often referred to) sticks with Derek.

I hadn't really realised it until this morning, but Derek is a terrible character. He's about ten years old, he's a supergenius, and he's a brat. He finishes his dad's equations, because he can't as the blast caused some brain damage, he improves and upgrades SD's armour and many other things, including fooling the government. That's pretty ridiculous, even by comic standards.

That's not to say it wasn't a good read. The backgrounding seemed really thought out, and the art was largely pretty good. There's a nice mix of characters and it looked as if the series would be pretty good. Heck, there's even a female dinosaur/human hybrid mentioned in the character pages at the back.

If one can get over the arrogant brat of a protagonist, I got a good impression of the series. It looks as if it could be some really daft, explosion-loving fun. I may just have to pick it up.

A Song for Sunday #3

I shall say nothing, but simply leave you with this great song. Some of us have waking up and reviews to do, y'know.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mini-Review - X-23 Issue #17 (Marvel Comics)

I've known about X-23, the character, for a few years now, and I've got a few things with her in, and she's a character I've wanted to know more about. I've been meaning to pick up the few solo trades she has, including the one for this most recent series, and I sort-of enjoyed the one-shot from the Women of Marvel theme that Marvel ran, which was collected in the not-so-great Mighty Marvel: Women of Marvel collection not too long ago.

So, here we are with issue 17 of the now-cancelled series, with only three more to go. I saw a preview of this on Comics Alliance, and I liked the look, but I was also confused as to Laura (X-23) being chosen to babysit. This is the girl with six retractable blades, history with the X-Men, the Weapon X Project and also the X-Men's secret and highly dangerous team, X-Force. She's not what I'd call the ideal babysitter, although one could easily argue that there's few better people around to protect others.

With a hint of trepidation, I got started. A few moments later, I was done. Wow, that was short. I mean really short. I count 20 pages of panels! I think I've had longer sneezing fits. Anyway, those 20 pages packed a nice amount of content (albeit with too many panels of Laura completely void of any expression. There weren't many characters (Hellions, Laura, Gambit, Wolverine, the two kids, Reed Richards and Sue Storm), and it didn't seem as if it needed the reader to have read every single bloody series Marvel is putting out, which makes it a great stand-alone, although I'm sure it does have deeper ties to some current events. The synopsis explains the basics well, and they should be enough for any new reader to get a quick grip on what is or isn't going on.

The art was really well drawn, and had a really nice blur effect to it, but I can see it only working for a few titles and art styles. Everything was really well drawn with a great attention to detail, and it worked wonders. The colours were fairly muted for the most part, but it created an effect that was easy on the eyes without sacrificing detail or contrast between objects. Whilst not part of the issue itself, the cover isn't actually that great. On my copy at least, the colouration for the skin tones in particular looks really poor, making Laura look like she's just escaped from a very hot bath.

X-23 #17 restored my faith in Marvel a little. The art was good, the writing was good, the characters were well drawn and portrayed, and I enjoyed the issue, even if I did feel it was a little short. The quality of the art and the writing just go to show that Marvel dropping this series was a mistake, and I hope they rethink that decision in the coming weeks.


REVIEW - Among the Ghosts by Amber Benson

Among the Ghosts' protagonist, Noh, is a girl with a secret. Whilst like many girls her age she's resourceful, intelligent and just a little stubborn, she inherited a gift from her mother – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. When her father goes away on his latest scientific journey, she is bundled off to her aunt Clara, who is conveniently on holiday as Noh arrives at her house. Taking matters into her own hands after a brief talk with Clara's neighbour, she goes to the only other place she can, which is to her Aunt Sarah who lives and works at the New Newbridge Academy boarding school. As she ventures to the school, Noh detours into the comfort of a graveyard and encounters an older woman there, who gives our young heroine a strange stone. From there onwards, her life begins to change.

We are first introduced to the titular ghosts in the first chapter, which tells a brief story about a boy named Thomas. This very chapter also introduces some ants, which exist as a recurring theme and a page embellishment, and a strange event that happens to Thomas and first hints at what is to come in the book. In the second we learn a little about Noh's childhood and birth, such as the death of her mother just moments after giving birth to Noh, and also what may be in store for her in life.

It's not until the third chapter that we really get into the story. After the first chapter, which is set somewhere chronologically around the time of chapter six, we follow Noh as she arrives at the Academy, and as she discovers what she is and what she can do. Whilst the Academy, especially the unsafe and unused West Wing, is free of children, Noh is certain she keeps seeing some. As is implied by the title, Noh is in fact able to see the ghosts of the Academy. From the chatty Trina to the depressed and sorrowful Henry, Noh interacts with a small party of ghosts and quickly discovers that all is not as it seems.

Benson creates a very well written protagonist with Noh. She's got all the hallmarks of a girl her age, but she never once is a girly-girl, nor a tomboy. She's Noh, and that's all there is to it. The ghost children are also nicely diverse. Trina is very chatty and somewhat girly, Thomas wanted to be a detective, and Nelly plays the perfect part as Trina's best, but rather different, friend. The adult characters, such as Hullie and Aunt Sarah, treat Noh as both a young girl but also an adult, which I felt worked well and seemed fairly typical of how adults can treat children, especially as they're both teachers.

In terms of the writing, I felt Among the Ghosts was on the whole a very well written and thought out book, but by no means perfect. At times I felt as if Benson went beyond the age group this book is aimed at (8-12 years) with both the words she used and the occasional tone or subject of a paragraph. The characters were all nicely written and worked well together, but they also felt real. Towards the end of the book, however, I felt that the story became a little complex and potentially confusing. A big monster is hinted at via brief chapters in the last two thirds of the book, but I felt it was poorly explained and not necessary for the story. There is also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment for one of the characters, and if not noticed will leave some readers scratching their heads for a few chapters.

The illustrations drawn by Sina Grace compliment the story well. They're cartoony and stylistic, but easy to match up with the story and they give a good idea of what some characters may look like. I felt they added little to the story, but they break up the text and sometimes tell more than the paragraphs themselves. My gripe with the illustrations is that, as I have noticed in other illustrative books, they can often spoil the story without meaning to. For example, we are told the story of how a child died in the book, and later on we see an illustration of him that takes up about a quarter of a page. My eyes instantly scanned over it and I realised who it was before I'd gotten to him being mentioned, and I felt it took away from that surprise.

Overall, I feel Among the Ghosts is a good read. With Hallowe'en coming up, it would be the perfect gift for the little monster(ess) in your life, although I would encourage parents to give it a read first as it can feel a little dark or gory at times, and they may not wish to upset their child. It's a largely well written story with rare moments of complexity, and I can't help but draw parallels to Neil Gaiman's excellent Coraline, to which this book is a perfect sister. 

((This is a review I did some months ago as practice. It was never published, although it was originally posted - along with a different version of the review - on SFFWorld. I have slightly reworded parts of it from the version posted there, as well.))

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

REVIEW - Betty & Veronica: We're With the Band

We're With the Band (Betty & Veronica) by Adrianne Ambrose

We're With the Band begins during the summer vacation, and The Archies are once again playing at Pop's Chocklit Shoppe. Betty and Veronica go outside to get some things before they start, but the bouncer doesn't let them back in. Thanks to good timing from Archie and Reggie, they get inside and soon the band start playing another popular set, but the seeds of discomfort begin to grow. Veronica feels jealous of Betty's freedom on stage and her proximity to Archie, the boy both girls have an on/off relationship with. After they've finished playing, Veronica proposes a somewhat selfish name change for the band, but it doesn't seem to go down too well. Reggie comments that neither girl really is part of the band, and that they are the "frosting" on the "cake" that is The Archies, causing an argument that results in both Betty and Veronica leaving the band and gives them the idea to start their own.

After some unsuccessful auditions, Nancy and a new girl by the name of Tina are chosen as the bassist and drummer for the band, the name of which is The Candy Hearts. They quickly begin to rehearse and perform shows, but with one member driving the band faster and harder, it's only a matter of time before something goes wrong...

As with Living the Dream, I felt We're With the Band was well-written and it didn't feel as if it was trying to be too simplistic or patronising. It was a smooth, clear and perhaps gentle read that was well paced and fairly vivid. I also noticed less product placement in this book, which to me was an improvement as the setting of Riverdale has really no need for constant pop-culture or real-world references. The way Betty and Veronica's sometimes-strained friendship was portrayed seemed very in-line with how teenage girls genuinely act, as did their reactions to each other and their friends. Kevin makes another few appearances in this book, and his sexuality is directly mentioned, and again I felt that it was done well and I must applaud the author for handling it as she did.

Whilst the themes didn't have quite the depth of the previous book that I read, they instead were much more personal and about the strength of friendship, but also about how we're not perfect. Veronica was quite selfish and deceptive at times, which itself was a factor in the initial split from The Archies, but Tina caused many more problems. As well as being selfish, she was too occupied on fame and fortune to realise that The Candy Hearts were about fun and friendship as well as showing The Archies up, not about being playing multiple gigs a week. Betty again seemed to get the short end of the straw as she found herself quickly worn out and upset by the problems within the band. It seemed to me that fame and money aren't more important than friends, and if you begin to lose the enjoyment of doing something like a band together, you should quit before it ruins a friendship.

I did have a few minor issues with the book, though. The biggest issue was the trigger for the split. Whilst I don't feel that it was intended to come across as it did, the way Reggie spoke about the girls seemed eerily reminiscent of the "because they are girls" argument used by some people to explain why females cannot/should not do certain things. I honestly do not think that was the intention, but it's how it came across to me as a reader. As I mentioned above, I also noticed that Veronica was almost overly selfish and deceptive, and that wasn't tackled with a resolution. It was basically brushed to one side and left unresolved, although the girls - obviously - did make up at the end.

We're With the Band was another fun read, although perhaps not as enjoyable as Living the Dream, and it should appeal to Archie fans of all ages and genders. It's funny, it's sad, and it's got a lot of honest representations of how band life can affect friends. Again, a must-read for Archie fans, but non-fans will still find some enjoyment here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

REVIEW - Betty & Veronica: Living the Dream

Living the Dream (Betty & Veronica) by Christa Roberts

This year, one of the Penguin imprints (Grosset & Dunlap) released three Betty & Veronica novels - Living the Dream, We're With the Band and In Each Other's Shoes - which revolve around the titular characters from the Archie series of comics. Like aspects of the comics they revolve around both girls, their relationships and other aspects of their lives, all of which takes place in the town of Riverdale, a quintessential American town that seems to have barely changed in the seventy years that Archie has been published.

In Living the Dream, Betty and Veronica have just begun their summer vacation. Betty, as a responsible teenaged girl, has been trying to get a job for the summer for experience but also to earn enough money to replace her laptop. Veronica, coming from a background of money, has no such inclinations but quickly realises that experience in the fashion field would be vital for her dream career. Betty has spent the past few weeks applying for various jobs with only a single interview, and she's getting distraught. Whilst she loves spending time with her friends, she feels that she needs the experience and the money. Veronica, however, applies for just one job at a store called Belle Pink and gets it within days. It's not until Betty meets Archie at Pop's Chocklit Shoppe that she gets a job thanks to Georgette, the head waitress, overhearing and going to talk to Pop.

Both girls become quickly frustrated with aspects of their jobs, Betty with the attitudes of the customers and her frequent mistakes, and Veronica with the realisation that working in a clothes store isn't all about helping people directly and honestly. They both struggle through the first weeks, but whilst things begin to improve for Veronica, they only get worse for Betty...

I was quite tentative about reading these books, because children's lit - to me, as an adult - can sometimes feel too simplistic, and perhaps a little patronising. However, I never found that to be a problem with Living the Dream, as I felt it was well written and easy to follow but it didn't talk down to me. As you'd expect from a book for a lower age group, the descriptions are often quite simplistic and basic, but I found them to create quite a vivid picture of what the characters were wearing or doing at those moments in time. The interactions between characters also seemed very natural and in-keeping with both the characters but also the contemporary setting.

A lot of the characters from the comics make appearances, cameo or otherwise. Archie, the love interest for both of our protagonists, appears with some regularity and often with Jughead, his best friend. The very well received Kevin Keller, Archie Comics' first openly gay character, also makes a couple of appearances and I felt that the way he was treated was no different to how any other character would be, which to me is worth mentioning as it's such a rarity amongst LGBT characters. Together, these characters work just as well as they do in the comics, and I got a sense of the camaraderie that has been around for years.

If one looks a little deeper into the text, there seems to be some sort of reference to the current state of affairs. Jobs are hard to come by, the girls talk about how it's hard to get work without experience - I think whilst the depth might not be noticeable to younger readers, I'm sure any teenage or adult readers would quickly pick up on it and sympathise with the characters that much more. It helps connect the series to our "real" world, but also shows that for all its perpetual and arguably idealistic views towards teenagers and life, the world of Archie can still represent and show problems that we ourselves face.

However, I did feel the book had a little too much product placement in its attempts to seem relevant. One of the big appeals about Archie and the spin-off series is that it has a timeless quality to it - many of the stories could happen in 1950 or 1990 - and I was a little disappointed by the amount of direct references to our culture. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are name-dropped (and to be honest, I'm quite surprised by that. Their personalities seem so different to the tone of Archie), and at one point we are told Kevin Keller has an iPod. I felt that Roberts could perhaps have used references from within the Archie world or catch-all terms, so for example Veronica could have listened to Josie and the Pussycats, and Kevin could have just had a music player.

In conclusion, I felt that Living the Dream was a very enjoyable read that should appeal to Archie fans of any age. It's quick, it's funny, it's light-hearted - It's a brilliant read. It was my first true foray into the Archie world, and I don't regret it one bit. I won't call it a must-read for anyone but Archie fans, though, as I feel the almost sugar-sweet tone and simplistic writing will grate with some.

I'll be reading and reviewing We're With the Band later this week...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Changes & Updates (Updated!)

I decided to give the blog a bit of a going over this morning. I liked the header image, but I felt it was low quality and not particularly interesting. I also went over the blog roll and removed those that either aren't updated or that I don't follow any more.

I still need to go back and re-tag a number of my posts, however, which I may do this afternoon depending on how bored I get.

- Added and removed blogs from the link section.
- Updated mini-profile.
- Added section containing personal links.
- Removed header image, added new description.
- About page.
- Compile published reviews in some form.

To-Do List:
- Tag posts.

A Song for Sunday #2

First heard this song on Liberty Rock Radio, a fictional radio station in Grand Theft Auto IV, presented by Iggy Pop. At first I thought it was early Sonic Youth, but apparently not.

So, without further ado, "1979" by The Smashing Pumpkins.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Demon King Review Is Now Up!

My latest review, for Cinda Williams Chima's The Demon King, went up on Speculative Book Review yesterday. It can be found here. My review is less than glowing, and I was a little harsh on it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Song for Sunday

Not much of a post this time. I felt like sharing this song, which I've enjoyed on-and-off for a couple of years. It's by a band called Battlelore, and their music is pretty much exclusively about Middle-Earth.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wolverine & the X-Men (TV) - Some thoughts

So, for those who don't know, Wolverine & the X-Men was a cartoon series done not too long ago. It had a prequel in the form of a one-off episode called Hulk vs. Wolverine (part of a double-feature package called Hulk Vs), and only managed one season of 26 episodes before being cancelled. This year the whole show (bar Hulk vs. Wolverine) was repackaged in a complete collection, and that's the one I picked up. £10 for 26 episodes, each about 20 minutes long. Talk about a bargain.

I'm now halfway through the set, having watched volumes one and two, and so far I'm really enjoying it. It fits in with how the X-Men comics have been going in the past years, with allusions to events from various spin-offs and adaptations. There's hints towards Wolverine's romantic past with Mystique at times (detailed in comic form in Wolverine: Origins, I believe), he's been shown as he was in Hulk vs. Wolverine and also the Wolverine: Origins movie with Hugh Jackman. A lot of the lesser-known or more superfluous mutants get a showing, too. I've noticed my beloved Mercury in a couple of episodes, X-23 appears in at least one, Pixie does appear but is sidelined (whereas in the comics, she has a much more prominent position), and so forth. It's really good as someone who's dabbled in X-Men over the past year or two, because I know who certain characters are and/or I can relate to certain events.

Steve Blum is cast as Wolverine, and I feel he does an excellent job. He gets the voice, the tone and even the anger down perfectly (I wonder if it's because he tends to get cast in those sorts of voice roles), and Tom Kane is a very excellent Magneto. A number of the supporting cast also sound really good, plus Nolan North is in it as Cyclops. I'll get to Cyc later. I also noticed Jennifer Hale, known to me best as the female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series, is cast as Jean Grey, but she's not in it too much. I think they all tend to work together really well, but I feel that the more classic characters, such as Storm and Nightcrawler, are sidelined a little in favour of the newer or "improved" characters, such as Shadowcat and Iceman.

It's not all great, though. With Rogue they went back to Anna Paquin's performance from the X-Men movies for inspiration, including the accent. Her costume is back to the '90s style one, though, which is an improvement over what little she wore in X-Men: Evolution. Whilst Emma Frost is finally wearing something semi-decent for a woman of her age, I can't help but feel that she's the most pretentious, unlikeable and irritating "good guy" ever. She's so far up her backside that a colonoscopy wouldn't be sufficient to find her head. I mean no disrespect to the voice actress, but whenever Emma Frost talks I want to kick a puppy.

I mentioned Cyclops earlier, and I think he deserves a bit of explanation. Nolan North is a pretty good voice actor, I loved him in Portal 2 as the Space Core and his portrayal of Deadpool in Hulk vs. Wolverine was absolutely spot-on, but it's doing nothing to make me like Cyclops. I must admit I've never really cared much for the character, and as I've read more into things, it's becoming clear why. He's such a dick, and there's no other way to put it. He's self-absorbed, he's an idiot, he's arrogant, he's stubborn... I just can't stand him. All he does is get angry or whine, and this show is no different. One episode has him freaking out about Jean Grey (who pulled her disappearing trick again), and he creates a huge amount of destruction. It's stupid.

I suppose that leads to another problem I have. Wolverine has six blades, yet never cuts anyone (I believe he's only been shown to slice Deadpool). Cyclops' power can destroy cars and such, but it's more of a physical hit on people/mutants. They all take huge amounts of damage, like Arclight who got thrown from a bike at a high speed, but take no actual injuries and often don't even sustain damage to their costumes. I understand it's a kid's show, but it's really grating that they don't even show grazes or tears in costumes for the most part. They also cause huge amounts of damage to the surrounding environments, whether it's destroying roads, severely damaging buildings, breaking windows - everything is there to be destroyed. There's no sense of responsibility on either side.

The episodes also seem to wind between various plotlines. The next episode you watch isn't guaranteed to directly follow the previous one, and may in fact relate more to an earlier episode. They do have introductions with clips of the episode they link to, so often it takes no time at all to remember what happened before.

So far, so good. I've got two more volumes to go, and I'm looking forward to them.