Monthly Archives: December 2007

Fables: Legends in Exile

Another new graphic novel series? I can assure you, it’s all true. For, y’know, extremely relative values of new that seem in fact to reflect things published years ago. My initiation into the format only occurred within the last couple of years[1], though, so running behind kind of goes with the territory. The Fables series got on my radar via Amazon recommendations, much as with Dorothy and for that matter Ex Machina. Of my recent new series, this is certainly the one I’m the most satisfied with.

The idea of storybook characters all jumbled together in New York, while obviously cool enough to take the risk on (since I did buy it), seemed potentially fraught with peril. Apparently, they all come from different worlds (which I will choose to call dimensions) that were one after another attacked by an Adversary (who is thusfar shrouded in mystery), and by the time they realized that there was true danger afoot, they had no remaining options but to flee from their worlds to this one, which the Adversary has no apparent interest in. Being the stuff of fables, they’re immortal, so while they all came from different storybook dimensions to start with, they’ve had several hundred years on earth as Legends in Exile to properly mingle and form interrelationships. The upshot of all that background being that the interactions were rich and often funny, with distaste, attraction, working relationships, and even unlikely friendships all laid bare. The book was equal parts Storybook Melrose Place and Fable Noir.

Which raises my other extreme like for the book. The mystery was, if moderately simple, plotted quite well and made good use of the setting. Bigby Wolf[2], the sheriff of Fabletown, is confronted with murder most foul when Jack[3] reports that his girlfriend Rose Red is missing and her apartment covered in blood. Once Deputy Mayor Snow White[4], the victim’s sister, insists on including herself in the investigation and the rich and powerful Bluebeard is fingered as a potential suspect, all the trappings of a Humphrey Bogart noir are in place, and the only thing left to do is lean back and enjoy the ride. There are a lot of possibilities for the series, since the available characters cast such a wide net. I figure, if I get more volumes in the noir vein, well and good, and if not, the creators have already proven they have the chops to do good things with the premise, at least.

[1] Well, except for Sandman, which I’m prepared to call a special case.
[2] That name still gives me the giggles, even now.
[3] of “and the Beanstalk” fame
[4] whose surpassing loveliness is storied… er, whose fabled… Dammit. The point is, she’s a looker with legs that just wouldn’t quit and a smoldering fire in her eyes that told me she’d seen enough of the world to know that it wasn’t as pretty as the stories said it would be.

Dorothy, Volume I

I can no longer recall what prompted me to pick up the first volume of Dorothy, an extremely slow-publishing comic based on the Wizard of Oz that so far doesn’t have enough issues in play to warrant a Volume II. I mean, I’m sure it was related to my Amazon gold box, but as far as what made them think I should get it, I have no guess. Anyway, it has proceeded to sit on my bookshelf for lo these many months, occasionally pulled down but then supplanted by something else. Having finally taken the plunge, I am provisionally hopeful that the sequel will come forth someday. (Of course, even if it does, there will be more yet to come behind it, even slowlier.)

The most obvious thing about the book is the art format. A combination of photography and CGI makes it the most visually distinctive graphic novel I’ve read. I’m sure drawing could have done as good of a job at telling the story, but the images would almost certainly not stick in the same way, and neither would I be bothering to talk about the way it was put together except in broad strokes. So that’s a partial success. And nothing really looked bad, though I will say I’m not so sure about the contrast between the photographs and the standard comic-book lettering. A lot of the inhabitants of Oz had the long and concave faces that aliens have had ever since Communion was published, which struck me as odd. But to counter that, I feel strongly that Toto would have been greatly diminished by being drawn instead of CGIed into the photorealism.

The next most obvious thing about the book is the emo quotient. Modern Dorothy is completely alienated by Kansas’ many charms, and appears to spend most of her time doing drugs or complaining about her aunt and uncle in her diary. But once her tragic tale has been expanded over the course of several flashbacks and she’s fully committed herself to figuring out what’s going on in this bizarre and dangerous Oz place, both the plot and her character settle into a much more pleasing rhythm. For all her disaffected attitude, she’s the kind of tough in the clutch that emo kids believe they could be if only the world would give them the chance, proving right there in the statement of belief that they are not that kind of tough. And maybe being disaffectedly tough is good for her, because the Oz she’s been dropped into reminds me a lot more of the recent Sci-Fi channel movie, Tin Man, than it does of Judy Garland’s technicolor romp down the garden path. Oz is in bad shape: an evil queen in the West holds dominion over the whole land, and the only things that might displace her rule are the Wizard, who is gone to ground where nobody can find him, and prophecies of a girl who will someday come to Oz (specifically to oppose her? it’s not clear yet). Winged monkeys are out and about doing whatever they feel like, without the excuse of some diabolical mission to prompt their presence, if that gives you an idea of how bad things have become. I can dig it.

I Am Legend

Far back in the mists of Delirium’s history (er, the site, not the girl), I read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. He fills in one of the final gaps between the old school horror of Poe and Lovecraft and today’s modern horror renaissance birthed by Stephen King, and yet until just a few years ago I’d never heard of him. He is certainly to my liking so far, and it was with a fair amount of excitement that I heard I Am Legend was being made into a movie this Christmas. Plus, I like Will Smith a lot better than Tom Hanks, so it’s nice to see him in the role of last man standing. But I suppose that’s getting ahead of myself?

The premise of the movie is as follows: in late 2008, a viral cancer cure has just completed successful human testing and is poised to flood the market. Cut forward three years later, to where Dr. Robert Neville is a man alone in Manhattan with only his dog and department store mannequins for company. His days are spent hunting for food, watching DVDs, presumedly siphoning gasoline and maintaining his cars and generators off-screen, trying to develop a cure in his underground laboratory, and broadcasting to any person alive who can listen that he can meet them at the harbor at noon, that they are not alone. His nights are spent huddled in darkness behind metal shutters, praying that tonight isn’t the night the things that roam the darkness will find him.

The first two thirds follow Matheson’s book thematically if perhaps not event-for-event. Neville is driven to find some way out of his exile, whether via the message he broadcasts on all frequencies to convince himself that someday a non-infected person will appear, that he isn’t truly alone, or via his attempts to find some kind of cure, to bring back humanity from its rapid decline, huddled in caves by day and ravening through the streets in search of food (or explicitly in search of Neville?) by night. And Smith does a great job of conveying the drive, the despair, and yes, the subtle edge of insanity that is only barely being held off, one day at a time. The final third’s variance from the story would of course be a spoiler to explain from either direction, but suffice it to say that as interesting as Matheson’s conclusion was, the movie provided a much more reasonable ending for a screen. I mean, that sounds obvious, right? My point is, Matheson’s ending works well in a book but would fail horribly in a movie. The media are too different, in this case.

Also: someone involved in the writing of this script appears to have a vendetta against me, as with but a minor change one sequence of events would have been not just as horrible as it was but instead have actively ruined the movie for me. So, that was mean, mysterious writer guys and lady!

Mass Effect

One sign of an extremely good video game is that it would be almost easier to describe it as a movie and leave out the game elements entirely. Well, okay, that may not be true. But if the reason you want to leave out the game elements is that they were so seamless and non-intrusive that you only very occasionally even felt like you were playing something instead of watching it and influencing the outcome, that would be good. It would also be a good sign if your father, no stranger to games even if he’s not the gamer type, were to ask you after watching the last 15 or 20 minutes of the game to clarify that it was in fact a game, and not a movie.

And looking at it like that, Mass Effect is an exceptional game. Short centuries from today, humanity has spread out into the solar system only to discover relics of an extinct race that had observed our solar system 50,000 years ago and left behind technology we were quickly able to make use of. Now the mass effect drives have unlocked the galaxy for rapid exploration. And of course, we are not alone in the discovery, nor are we the first. And so, at a moment when humans are accepted as an important member of the galactic community but are clamoring for a chance to be more involved in the governing and policy-making of that community, opportunity arises in the form of Saren, a Council agent gone rogue who has just unleashed a rain of death upon a human colony and garden world in the form of his AI allies, the Geth. Now, the principle character of the game, Commander Shepard, must marshal diverse resources to hunt down Saren while unraveling the mystery behind his motivations and goals. At the very least, humanity’s position in galactic affairs is at stake for years to come. And it’s always possible that the stakes could be higher still.

Mass Effect is an RPG, in the style of Baldur’s Gate or Knights of the Old Republic, not Final Fantasy. That is, created with conscious effort to be reminiscent of tabletop RPGs, if they were played by one player instead of several. In the general course of events, I can only get so much enjoyment out of those games, because the micromanagement gets in the way of the pure joy of playing. And sure enough, the inventory system is an exercise in frustration, both because of the limit on how many things can be kept and because of the horrible ordering system. This kind of thing results in the games taking ages to complete if I ever do, and any justified sense of accomplishment comes tainted by the lack of consistent gameplay over a short period of time. That is, these games take me months or years to complete because I get bored of all the between-time work I have to do, so I play something else for a while instead.

Except, contrary to expectations, I’m about to proclaim joy instead of hardship. The majority of the game was put together explicitly to minimize these kinds of micromanagements, even if the inventory part failed. Instead of pausing and selecting enemies for combat, everything is played out in real time with a third person movement and cover system reminiscent of Gears of War that simultaneously allows growing character skills to matter while providing direct control over the flow of combat. The dialog system was primarily about setting the tone of your character; not what does she say, which is for the most part scripted (though there certainly are important choices scattered throughout the game), but how does she say it: with an eye toward politics and goodwill? Strictly official to get the job done, irrespective of the opinions in his head? Or with a giant chip on her shoulder, trying to cut through the pointless bureaucracy? And there are more tones, of course. So, my point is this: RPGs in general are only so entertaining to me, but Mass Effect was spectacular. Even the simple brilliance of Portal has such a different focus as to make them non-comparable. If it wasn’t for BioShock, Mass Effect would unquestionably have been my favorite game this year. (I really need to finish BioShock. Like, a lot.)

In at the Death

One of those things where I end up with a pile of reviewable materials all finishing up at once has just happened. Lucky for me, I’m working today, on one of the slowest days of the year, so theoretically I have enough time to get it all caught up and sorted in my mind before any useful particulars fade away. Though I suppose it might help if I had more inclination; that seems to be another thing in addition to time that gets sacrificed when I finish so many things at once. As ever, the best way to get rolling is to just blunder ahead willy-nilly without any thought until something appears on the page. (I have it on good authority that this is the key to all writing, not merely for reviews.)

Firstly, I finished another Harry Turtledove alternate history cycle. In at the Death chronicles the final year of World War II and its aftermath, in a 1944 and 1945 that has already seen four wars between the United and Confederate States in just 80 years. Since the outcome in broad strokes was essentially a foregone conclusion as of the end of the previous volume, most of what I got out of the book was a chance to enjoy the characters again and to get at least a glimpse of the possible future of a completely different world. After all, with North America divided against itself, Japan had no effective adversaries in the Pacific Rim. And in a Germany that won the previous war and thus had no calamitous economic collapse or subsequent hatred for its Jews, the brightest minds of the atomic age had no reason to flee that country. The future is an uncertain place that I’d be thrilled to see more of, but if Turtledove stops here with the conclusion of the second World War and just brief glimpses of what could follow, it will still have been more satisfying than the concluding volume of the alien invasion of World War II series. As stories with 11 volumes go, well, I’ve certainly read some that were a lot less consistent than this one has been. Yay, alternate history!

Preacher: Alamo

Remember the Alamo? About 160 people holed up in an old Spanish mission against a 5,000 man Mexican army, at the dawn of the Republic of Texas[1]? Some people will try to tell you that it was a pointless battle that didn’t accomplish much of anything that couldn’t have been better handled in the field with more even odds, thanks to Santa Anna’s ineptness as a general. These are people who don’t understand the strength of a legend. There’s just something soul-stirring about a hopeless battle whose only purpose is to provide the people down the way with the time they need to change their own battle into one that can win a war. I guess I understand how people can not get that, but I don’t believe it’s possible to not get that and be Texan at the same time.

All of which gives me renewed appreciation for the Preacher series as it reaches it’s ninth volume finale, Alamo. Whatever else can be said about the series, good or bad, Garth Ennis certainly has a handle on the nature of Texas and the kind of man it gives birth to. Jesse Custer and his girlfriend Tulip, their once-friend, Irish vampire Cassidy, the world-dominating Grail Society, the Saint of Killers, and even the Lord God himself all gather in San Antonio for their final, climactic confrontation, and it’s a sure bet that with the power and bloodthirstiness that each party brings to the table, practically anyone could be considered analogous to the doomed band of soldiers holding the Alamo in 1836. Of course, only one of them’s Texan, so I suppose there’s a potential spoiler built right into the thematic success of the concluding volume.

Barring one misstep in the matter of Jesse and Tulip’s relationship which I’ll put down to a matter of taste, I liked the book through and through. And I’ve liked almost every other individual book, some of them very well indeed. But looking at the series as a whole, I’m not so sure. There are a lot of messages buried in it, most of which I think are really good, and true besides. But the one floating at the surface, central to the plot and the driving force behind almost every action taken by every character, is that the world is a bad place and it’s God’s fault. That may be factually true, but whether it is is well to the side of my point. I just feel a little let down by so much great writing and art coming out of the whine-delivered statement of blatant fact: “Life’s not fair!” Luckily, I had no trouble with it up until the end, and then probably only because the ultimate solution was so prosaic and, to me at least, absent of any actual solving of the problem.

Incidentally, Preacher may become an HBO series, starting in 2008. If so, and if you can stand all kinds of bloody violence, you should probably watch it. Whatever else it is, it’s a damn fine story.

[1] At least, the Alamo had not yet fallen when independence was declared. So dawn feels like about the right metaphor from where I’m sitting.

Portal

35979-portalI’m about halfway through Bioshock, and probably within an hour’s play of finishing Mass Effect. But I at least finished one of the three or five big awesome games that have come out this quarter, and I’ll take what I can get. Mind you, I’ll be playing most of the rest of the stuff in the Orange Box before too much longer, but many of those games have been previously reviewed, so I doubt I will again unless some kind of mood really strikes me. (On the other hand, at least there will be no stupid sparkles flaring all over my screen to distract me. Thanks, PC gaming!) The important part for now is that I have finished Portal.

At the risk of over-selling it, Portal is what a video-game would be if someone took pure awesome, distilled it into its Platonic form, and then burned it onto a game disc. Yeah, okay, that’s probably an oversell after all. Anyway, Portal is a game set in the Half-Life universe. You play as a volunteer at a Black Mesa rival company called Aperture Science, testing their Portal Device. The function of the so-called portal gun is to open transdimensional portals between two points in space, effectively joining them into a single point. Aside from this possible violation of the laws of physics, the portals otherwise adhere to natural laws, conserving momentum and gravity in ways that would make Escher smile like the Cheshire Cat. Utilizing the portal gun and the assistance of the Artificial Intelligence in charge of the testing chambers, you make your way through a series of tests designed to confront you with diverse challenges that can only be solved through ingenious use of these portals.

The game has three essential strengths: 1) The puzzle-solving aspect, although sometimes frustrating, is mostly a true delight. In a way that no FPS has ever done before, it lets you come up with novel solutions to otherwise insoluble problems. Every victory, however small, leaves you feeling like a giant among men. 2) As of Half-Life 2, Valve has really captured the urban decay chic, and despite that almost all of the game takes place in sterile white test chambers, there’s a real sense of the same kind of minimal but undeniable wrongness about things that marks their other recent efforts. 3) The dialogue is outstanding, even though there are only two characters with lines in the entire game. It swings between hilarious and chillingly disturbing with, at the risk of repetition, disturbing ease. (Also, the end credits contain a wonderful song to which I wish I had the mp3.) Oh, and 4), the three things I just listed combine to form a very tight and affecting plot.

I like Mass Effect quite a bit. I like Bioshock better than I’ve liked any game since Half-Life 2 came out. That said: if you find time to invest yourself in a game before the year ends, it should be Portal. You’ll thank me later. (Except you mostly won’t, because who hasn’t already played it? Nobody, that’s who! (Dear people who haven’t played it: no offense!))

Dragons of the Dwarven Depths

A couple of Saturdays ago, at work: I’m sitting at my desk, bored with nothing challenging happening, trying to find ways to kill time. I’ve just returned from the vending machine with a turkey and (let’s say) cheddar Lunchable. In front of me on the desk is a copy of Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, a recent DragonLance novel that I’m reading.[1] To the best of my recollection, therefore, the only differences between that day and high school are that I was getting paid to sit there and that nobody was bothering me. It was kind of weird.

As far as the contents, they’re about what you’d expect from a main sequence DragonLance novel. There are dragons and a band of divided characters who must oppose them, each in their own way with heroics, low cunning, and magicky bits, in dungeons, wintry mountain passes and so forth. Basically, you get to see a fleshed out account of things that were glossed over in the original books, with some moderately implausible new information added (considering what knowledge the characters have later in the series) as well as a little depth of character for Sturm and Flint, who sometimes got short shrift in the originals. Unless you’re a sucker for the setting, and I am, you won’t really get anything out of it. But it’s by no means bad, if you are their type of sucker.

[1] In case you’re wondering, I accidentally left it in Austin with about 50 pages to go, and by the time it got back to me, I was so close to finished with the Dresden book that I completed that one first.

Fool Moon

I cannot decide if my love for the Harry Dresden books comes from their being objectively awesome, or from them being in such sharp contrast to the Anita Blake books. I mean, sex happens, but it’s dealt with tastefully, with soft-focus lensing and quick cut-aways, and far more importantly, it is not the constant focus of Harry’s regular magic-wielding, mystery-solving lifestyle. Which leaves him some time to think about wielding magic and solving mysteries. Is the prose with which he wields his magic, the world-building in which he solves his mysteries, the characterizations that come into play when he interacts with the other, er, characters really any better than most books I read? I’m going to guess that probably not, and yet I could grab the next three that I currently own and read them all in a row without getting the least bit tired of it. Um, unless the plot suddenly changes into a situation where he’s banging the vampire chick Bianca like a drum and his cop friend starts hating him and he wallows in angst by taking up with a werewolf pack? Don’t be sexy, Harry! It’s not worth it!

But also I guess there are some specifics about Fool Moon, which book is the one I just read? Werewolves, then. It turns out that there are about 5 different ways for a person to change into a wolf in Dresden’s world, and each of them with a different name. Which sounds like pretty extraneous information to have at my fingertips, except that someone with a lupine MO has been committing murders, and Harry has to figure out who and how so he can stop them from killing again! See, and I’m still not convinced why I should love these as much as I do. We’ll assume it’s not just by comparison, and go from there. I figure the two factors that the author really has working for him are multiple interesting characters (the cop chick, the mob guy, and the skull all leap to mind) and Dresden’s voice. I’m genuinely interested in everything that Harry Dresden has to say, so this first person narration thing is like the world’s best gravy on top of a mysterious chicken fried steak. The substantial food part may be really good, or it may be mediocre, but the gravy is so great that I have no way of knowing!

The Mist

MV5BMTU2NjQyNDY1Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTk1MDU1MQ@@._V1__SX1537_SY747_On Monday, I spent most of the day driving around Austin digging through a few of its Half-Price Bookses, wishing I had an excuse to drop by the Alamo Drafthouse, failing to find any new Hawaiian / hipster button shirts for work, and just generally enjoying the rhythm of the town. Even over-trafficked as it is these days, if you don’t get on 35 you at least get to look at all the Austin people and landmarks while you’re stuck in your car not going anywhere. In addition to all that, though, everything was covered by a dense layer of fog all day. I mean, not the kind where the visibility is measured feet, but probably the kind where it’s measured in hundreds of feet. When you add up all of these factors, it becomes clear that my viewing of the latest Stephen King adaptation The Mist was not so much a decision as it was inescapable fate.

Before the movie, though, I have to write another love letter to my favorite movie theater. I mean, sure, other places serve food. But do other places serve you food with names like Maximum Overdog? (See, ’cause it’s a hot dog with fancy chili on top, and it’s named after a different Stephen King movie! And this is only one example; there are multiple movie title puns spanning multiple genres. You can use theme as a deciding factor in your menu choices!) And if there’s another theater that not only shows a loop of hysterical trailers for old movies from the ’60s and ’70s that nobody has ever heard of, carefully selected to match whatever movie is coming on, but also finds old interview footage related to the filmmakers or writers or possibly stars of that movie, I have never heard of this theater. When it’s the Alamo, you show up early, and it’s only fractionally for the chance at good seats. Time after time, they provide the best theater experience going, and my soul dies a tiny bit when I remember that people who live north of Austin can’t just decide to go there at whim. Especially when I remember that those people include me.

Anyway, though, then I watched the movie. While out shopping after a big storm, people are surprised to see a heavy mist rolling in, reducing visibility to just a few feet. And just ahead of it, other people are running toward their cars in terror, while one man makes for the supermarket, shouting, “There’s something in the mist, and it killed [some local guy]!” As you can see, this is the kind of premise that can pretty much go anywhere. The places that it does go include an invasion of scary poisonous and/or flesh-rending monsters, government conspiracies, and religious fanaticism for starters. Mostly, though, it demonstrates over and over again the horror that comes to pass when a group of normal people collectively has more fear than they have hope. This is not much of an ‘up’ message, I admit, but it’s portrayed with incredible effectiveness, and that’s a pretty cool thing to see a movie do.