Friday, December 30, 2011

REVIEW: Batgirl: The Lesson

Batgirl: The Lesson is the final collection of Stephanie Brown/Batgirl stories, collecting together The Lesson, a multi-part arc in which Batgirl finds herself as a fugitive after being framed by a strange gang of villains, adapts to becoming a part of Batman, Inc. and also comes face to face with her past.

The story is, on a basic level, fairly simple. As Batgirl, Steph tries to save a fellow student from being attacked by a group of mysterious robed figures, but later he's found dead and Batgirl is the prime suspect. As she tries to clear her name, she must also find those responsible for the murder but also cement her relationship with Proxy as well as deal with Oracle, who begins to work with the Birds of Prey again. On top of that she's still hiding her status as Batgirl from her mother, which is made even harder by now being part of Bruce Wayne's Batman Incorporated, and she finds herself being sent to London to fight alongside Squire, sidekick of The Knight, in a rather bizarre story.

Truth be told, I found the arc to run on a little too long, or at least was told in a manner I didn't particularly enjoy. It seemed to be made of a few smaller arcs and it felt a little disconnected and perhaps a little unbelievable or, in one case, too convenient. As a whole, it also highlighted problems I have with comics like this - Steph is a little younger than me, yet she's pulling all-nighters, barely sleeping, seems like she's barely eating too, yet she's running around constantly and besting almost everyone in fights, not to mention the seemingly temporary recovery from a dislocated shoulder. Whilst I understand there's got to be some artistic license, I just find my disbelief really stretching with this run.

Yet for those faults, I still enjoyed it. I think with this run of Batgirl, it's not so much the story that's key, more the little moments. Steph has a constant stream of witty remarks, Deadpool-esque fourth wall stretchers and so on, and regardless of whether she's fighting Livewire or herself, it's always going to be a humorous adventure that's complimented by a great cast. Steph's youth and eagerness is contrasted beautifully by Oracle and her way of doing things, but also by Proxy's lack of confidence. The rivalry between Damian, Bruce Wayne's son, and Steph doesn't feature as much in this run, but it's interesting to see how their not-quite-a-friendship develops.

I did like most of the art in this collection, as largely it adds to the humorous nature of the series. The way Batgirl poses or has an expression adds more to the humour than most other aspects, and you really do get a feel for her character from it. In particular, I like the scenes where you see her wit and cheekiness come through because it adds a dimension to her character that doesn't come across too well in words.

That said, at times the representations fell flat. Whilst I don't particularly want to harp on about the size of breasts in comics again, I do wish that Nguyen and PĂ©rez were a little bit more consistent with it. Some times, especially out of her costume, she seems well proportioned, but as soon as she's in it her chest goes from modest to a little too big, although never does she hit the size of Power Girl. I found it more irritating than anything else, however. There were also times when the poses or more action-based sequences looked wrong, and perhaps a little gratuitous. No moment was worse than the fight on a school bus, however, as Steph's arms were drawn very poorly. They looked too short and looked like more of an afterthought.

All in all, Batgirl: The Lesson is another fun series of adventures with Stephanie, but ultimately it left a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth, one that sadly won't really be addressed in future issues due to the Batgirl mantle having been returned to Barbara Gordon as part of the reboot. With the usual jokes, tongue-in-cheek comments and jovial view of the problems that plague Gotham, it still offers a somewhat bright outlook and if nothing else, it's a long arc with great characters (and a few guest stars towards the end!) and some memorable moments.

Monday, December 26, 2011

REVIEW: The Best of Archie Comics

Celebrate 70 years of Archie Comics fun with this massive full-color collection of over 50 favorite comic book stories hand-selected by noted Archie writers, artists, editors and historians. Also included are loads of entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the comics, their creators, and Archie's unique impact on America's pop culture!

The Best of Archie Comics is, as the title and blurb suggest, a retrospective that goes from the 1940s, when Archie first appeared, through to the present day. It's divided up into decades and showcases some shorter pieces from each one, with the main focus being Archie and its related titles, although some other series (Lil' Jinx, for example) do make an appearance. Whilst most of the pages are dedicated to reprinted full-page stories, there are cover art galleries and some pages of newspaper comics, and this breaks it up a little bit and showcases the different styles of comic that Archie Comics have printed over the decades. Some of the comics contained within this volume have never been reprinted before, whereas some have had various appearances elsewhere. This all combines to create a book with a lot of variety, and as such has something for everyone.

Each decade is fronted by an introduction that talks about the American social views of the time, and this gives context to the following stories. For example, it says that the 1950s were when teenagers began to really break away into their own "thing", and as such their titles like Archie adapted to that, but in a different way to other forms of entertainment. Whilst the social view was that teenagers were rebellious and unruly, Archie tried to represent them as something more average - a bunch of teens that got along, fell in love like anyone else, hung out at innocuous places and whilst they may have caused mayhem and problems at time, it was the product of accidents and carelessness rather than wanton destruction and vandalism.

That said, I personally didn't really enjoy most of the comics as such, and I think I can explain why. Unlike buying a comic from a shop or on a collection, you get a singular experience that is often engaging. With this volume, however, the pieces aren't particularly there to entertain and they're often one part out of many. There are some funny pieces, there are some emotional pieces, but it doesn't particularly have the context nor does it put you in the mindset to enjoy them as such. It's almost as if you're walking through the Archie Museum and these pieces are on the wall with a note underneath explaining why they've been chosen. You may chuckle at some, you may enjoy others, but it's weighed down with that heavy air of a gallery rather than the light-hearted and bright feel of many comics.

That's not to say it's boring or dull, nor worthless. The context alone for the changes to the series along with the analysis of the time periods helps give background to the series and what happens in the subsequent selections from that decade. It brings a level of understanding to them that you simply don't get with many comics, and in a way it's educational, both about American history but also a comics publisher.

In terms of negative aspects, I did feel like the quality of the book was rather poor at times. Some covers were of low quality which contrasts with the clearer representation of some others, and particularly with the earlier comics the sharpness and visual quality can vary quite wildly, although no piece is rendered unreadable. It isn't helped by being printed on what feels like standard "book" paper, the kind you'd expect in a novel rather than the matte or glossy pages you find in most major graphic novels or comics. Whilst it offers an authenticity to the volume, I felt it did detract a little, considering this was supposed to be a celebration of Archie Comics. Also, for all the mentions and references to the musical aspects of Archie Comics, i.e. Josie & the Pussycats and The Archies, there was very little about them. I believe there was only a single Josie story, and The Archies got nothing more than a couple of mentions. I would liked to have seen more pieces for both groups, especially Josie & the Pussycats as they had their own title and, as mentioned in the introduction to the year 2000, their own live-action movie.

To conclude, I felt that The Best of Archie was a noble attempt to compile some of the best shorter (and a few longer) moments in Archie Comics history. There's a good selection of titles, from Archie itself to Katy Keene, from Lil' Jinx to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and material selected from each decade, from 1940 to 2010. Some of the comics will make you laugh, some won't, but if nothing else this collection is a largely well put together retrospective of one of the biggest comics companies around. Whilst the marketing on the back suggests it's a good introduction to Archie, I would instead suggest it's more of a supplementary collection rather than an introductory one.

Recommended to fans of Archie, comics in general or those interested in the history and development of comics.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Haul

I'm not one for showing off, but I'd like to share what I got for Christmas as I'll possibly be reviewing some of it, although largely they're for nothing but pleasure. I apologise in advance for the poor quality of the photographs, my iPod Touch 4G isn't particularly happy about taking them.

Books & Graphic Novels
I asked for a bunch of them this year, and that's exactly what I got.
That's two Warhammer 40,000 books (Dan Abnett's The Founding, the first Gaunt's Ghosts omnibus, and an anthology edited/collected by Abnett that includes a Ciaphas Cain short story), the first Fables trade, the final Stephanie Brown Batgirl trade (which collects 10 issues in one volume!), the seventh The Dark Tower (although the second subtitled The Gunslinger) hardcover The Little Sisters of Eluria, a reprinted Mike Mignola-written story called Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah, and finally in the bottom right is The Best of Archie Comics, a look back at the past seventy or so years of Archie Comics, with the main focus being on the Archie series.
Alright, I know calendars aren't books, but it's comic-related as it's Dilbert. That Doctor Who annual is really aimed at kids, but I had a flick through before I ate too much, and there's a variety of things. Some facts about monsters, a few short stories, a comic or two, and some other interesting snippets. Probably won't tell me anything I didn't really know, but I think it's pretty cool nonetheless.

DVDs & Games
So, there's two of the latest Marvel-based releases - Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class, the fantasy-cum-dude-movie Your Highness, and the rather brilliant LEGO Star Wars: The Padawan Menace, which is a comical and self-referential take on the Star Wars universe (although some of the chronology seems a little... odd). Finally, there's the Collector's Edition of Relic Entertainment's recent release Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, a third-person action game which involves the slaughter of those dratted Orks. I've had a little play with it this evening, and it was fairly enjoyable but I'll probably be sitting down to play it in the near future. As far as Collector's Editions go, it's actually a nicely put together - although not perfect - piece, and I like how much detail went into it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Song for Sunday (Almost): Anti-Christmas Special

Again, Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas Eve - blogs, TV and radio are no doubt going to be full of Noddy Holder screaming as if someone's kicked him in the Noddy Holders, Wizzard will still be beardy and that song by The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl won't be getting the airtime it deserves. I'm sick of Christmas songs, although thankfully I've escaped most of them, and I'm sure some of you will also be sick of them.

And that is why I chose this song. It's a bit of relief, albeit of a slightly flirtatious nature, and it'll break up the humdrum of vomit-inducing jingle-filled crap.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year!

Well, I might as well get into the Christmas spirit, eh? That said, my advent calendar is still sitting untouched after three weeks, but I digress. I've still got a post or two half-planned before the year is out, including a song for Christmas Day itself, but I think this will be one of the last posts of the year.

I'd like to take this opportunity to wish my readers and anyone who visits this blog a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. I hope you all enjoy the time off from work, the time with your family, and that if you get any presents, that you get things you enjoy.

And to finish, here's a slightly Christmas-themed image:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

REVIEW - Betty & Veronica: In Each Other's Shoes

In Each Other's Shoes (Betty & Veronica) by Adrianne Ambrose

In Each Other's Shoes sees Betty and Veronica in a bit of a tricky situation at Riverdale High. Due to a mix-up with the school ballots, the fashion-loving Veronica finds herself as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, whereas Betty is out of her depth when she's elected to run the school's charity fashion show. Both girls help each other to get to grips with the basics of their new positions, but their friendship becomes strained due to the interference of a third party, making their responsibilities all the harder to bear.

Despite the closeness of the setting, most of the other main characters are pushed to the background, often not even having any input or importance in the story once it gets going. Kevin Keller, however, moved forwards into a fairly big role in this one - with another comment about his sexuality, one that actually means quite a lot when you read between the lines - again showing that Ambrose is not holding back with the potential Kevin has.

I was less impressed with this book, however. I couldn't really believe the way the girls acted with each other, at times acting more like young girls than the young women that they truly are. As is most likely predictable to anyone with even the smallest knowledge of Archie and its characters, Betty and Veronica fall out but reconcile towards the end, but to me it was too neat and they were too forgiving towards the third party I referenced earlier. The charity aspect of the fashion show was largely forgotten too, whereas I would have thought that for Betty it would have been the important thing.

I also felt that unlike the previous two books, there wasn't much of a message. There is an underlying vibe of "you must take responsibility if you seek it" or something similar, but it wasn't particularly powerful or even well thought out. The character that causes the issue in the first place never really takes responsibility, the character that exacerbates the problem and causes many of the issues does, and they atone and make up for it towards the end, but I didn't feel that there was a real lesson behind this book as the situation itself didn't make much sense. The problem they faced felt artificial and was artificially sustained.

In conclusion, In Each Other's Shoes was a good, but not particularly impressive, read. Anyone who has enjoyed the previous books or comics will likely find an enjoyable tale here, but one that perhaps doesn't work as well as others have. The target audience may not find the flaws I have, and I'm sure they'll get more out of it than I have.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Song for Sunday #7

Last one before Christmas. I really struggled to think of something this week, so I've fallen back on a really awesome fan-made video for the song "Want You Gone" by Jonathan Coulton, as featured in this year's Portal 2.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Song for Sunday #6

I'm going to have to go back to Battles again, as I've been listening to them a fair amount recently. I found this song called My Machines, and it has Gary Numan singing in it (Yay!), and I love it. The bass line got stuck in my head one night, constantly looping around and around.

Just excuse the rather... bizarre video.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Verdicts for 2011 - The Awards

It's now December, and I'm thinking back over the year. There were books I surprisingly enjoyed, books I finally got around to, books I wish I hadn't bought, books I wish I'd read sooner - The usual, I guess. According to my Goodreads account, this year I'll have read almost 100 books, if not that figure exactly. I didn't get to read as many releases this year as I'd hoped to, instead I was mostly catching up on things I hadn't yet read, but also the books that came before this year's releases if they were part of an existing series. I found some great books, and some that weren't so great, but I've enjoyed most of them. This has also been the first year in which I've had reviews published on popular genre sites, I did my first interview with an author, and one signed to a major genre publisher at that, as well as a few other little things here and there.

If I can, I'll link to my Goodreads reviews, no matter how brief they are. I read many of these books with no intention of reviewing them properly, and in the case of one book I was too lost for words to do it any justice.

2011 Awards

Best Sci-Fi
Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1) - James S.A. Corey
Goodreads Review
Written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under a shared name, Leviathan Wakes was a stand-out book for me. It combined mystery and aspects of detective novels with some military themes, and the product was a very strong read with some great characters. It was vivid, it was compelling and it showed great promise for future iterations. It wasn't perfect, the horror aspects weren't that strong in my opinion, but aside from that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Fantasy - Tied
I could not decide which of these two books was most deserving of "Best Fantasy", because both had an emotional hold over me and still do. I was absolutely enamoured with each one, and I think it only fair for them to share it.

The Snow Queen's Shadow (Princess series #4) - Jim C. Hines
Goodreads Review (Brief)
The Snow Queen's Shadow is the final book in Hines' excellent Princess series, one I followed since early last year after a recommendation, and it blew me away. It was touching, it was emotional and it was incredibly well-written. Most of all, it was a fitting end to what had been a largely high quality series, and I don't regret even one minute of that experience.

Huntress - Malinda Lo
Goodreads Review 
Huntress is a sequel to 2010's Ash, but the links are fairly minor so one could say it's more akin to a spin-off. Unlike that book, however, Lo isn't restricted to the structure or style of fairy tales and it allows her to bring Huntress out into something deeper, with better pacing and more interesting characters. It was a book I devoured in no time at all, and it was one I thought about for a long while after I finished the last page. At its simplest, it's an engrossing story with a beautiful romance that flowers into something touching and emotional.

Best Graphic Novel
Anya's Ghost - Vera Brosgol
Goodreads Review (Brief)
I came across Anya's Ghost thanks to a preview on, I believe, and I fell in love with the preview. I quickly went and placed my order, and the day it came I went from start to finish in an evening. It was a very, very enjoyable read. The art was cute and worked really well, but it never took away from the story, and vice versa. I also liked how the themes went deeper than they appeared to be, and as such it offers some good views on bullying, friends, teen life as a whole, but also integration into a new country and a new culture, especially at the volatile high school age.

I would urge anyone who likes comics, graphic novels or even just YA fiction to pick this up, because it's nothing short of beautiful.
Most Disappointing
Prince of Thorns (Broken Empire #1) - Mark Lawrence
Goodreads Review 
Unlike many of my peers, I didn't like this book all that much. I was quite hyped for it, too, as it was getting good reviews, it had been part of a UK-wide promotion in Waterstone's and it was shaping up to be a good read, and I even though the author seemed a decent chap. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed the limits of my taste and my patience. The portrayal of women was shocking, the writing was average at best, and overall I felt disappointed that my experience was vastly different to that of many others. I could see where the book got praise, I understood why some people liked it, but to me it just wasn't what I'd call a fun read.

My not-quite-review got a few comments on Goodreads, and actually caused quite the heated discussion on SFFWorld, and looking back I was a little harsh, but aren't we all when we have such a disappointing book? I've had some people, including reviewers, turn around and say they agreed with me, at least on some level, whereas others have been less thrilled by my review. I wrote it with perhaps a little too much emotion behind it, but upon reading it since I feel that I could add no more to the discussion. I was disappointed, and if I'm honest I was a little shocked.

And there we have it, my 2011 awards. I'm sure many will disagree with my choices, but these are the only titles that really deserved such a prominent mention. Most of what I've read from this year was good, but it never grabbed me or affected me like the titles above, or in the case of sci-fi, I just hadn't really read all that much from this year.

A Song for Sunday #5

I came across this band, Battles, when they were first appearing on the bigger scene. They had some great songs, notably Tonto and Atlas, with some really interesting structures and sounds. Last year, the singer Tyondai left, leaving just three members. They're still going and put out their album, and this is a live-ish recording of one of the songs, called Futura. I've listened to it a few times already, and I've got to say I love it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Superheroines & Comics - A follow-up

Previously, over on SciFi Now's blog, I discussed the line-ups and presentation of female superheroes, but I feel I missed out on many points that I only thought of with hindsight.

I've spoken about exaggerated figures, but there's a blonde elephant in the room in a white costume – Power Girl. The epitome of exaggeration, with her blonde hair, voluptuous curves, back-breaking chest and cleavage-window. However, I believe Power Girl should be one of a kind rather than “a bit bigger than everyone else”. Her large assets have often been used as a plot point in both serious and humorous ways, and I feel they define her as a character, but the opposite is also true. As a character, she transcends her figure and is strong, capable and perhaps even empowering. Her costume is also quite flattering, but depending on the artist it leaves her exposed to a varying degree, sometimes exposing quite a lot of her bust. Her bosom is arguably one of her trademarks, though, and to change that could easily change how she's viewed. She would become just another exaggerated figure, not one that stands apart for a reason.

Supergirl also deserves a mention, and for similar reasons. Her figure is the opposite of Power Girl, her stomach flat, her hips fairly narrow and her chest being amongst the smallest of any I've seen in mainstream comics – I actually find it odd if she's depicted with a large chest. Her 'traditional' costume bares her midriff, and she has a short pleated skirt to go with it, giving her a cheerleader vibe. This could easily be exploited, and I'm sure it has been, but in my limited experience I've found her to be drawn with some level of restraint and decency, and it makes me wonder why she is one of the few characters that seems subject to it.

There aren't many serious characters, male or female, superhero or not, who are in the fuller-figured section of the population. Marvel have Kingpin and The Blob, and Big Bertha's power is to enlarge herself to Blob-esque proportions, but DC had a very powerful character by the name of Amanda Waller. She was a large lady, and very formidable. In the reboot (Suicide Squad, I think), she's a slim and large breasted woman. That, to me, is precisely what has been wrong with certain aspects of the reboot. Characters have been changed in various ways for no reason except for the sake of it. There is no way that such a physical change can be justified by the artists or writers, because it was part of her character.

 "Mommy, why is Black Widow facing the wrong way?"

With the upcoming The Avengers film from Marvel Studios, a large (and squishy) problem has become prominent again – how artists pose the women on their covers. In the marketing images for The Avengers, Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) has been depicted in a rather worrying pose. Her rear is facing the camera, and she is looking over her shoulder – this is true both for the artwork poster and the photograph banner – whereas all of the male characters are facing the camera with their chests, the only exception being Loki who is side-on. This is prevalent on cover art too, an example being the Frank Cho cover art work for the recent X-Men: Schism arc. A number of women, more so on issues #4 and #5, are in poses with their backs to the camera or are showing off in some form, not to mention Rogue's rather exposed cleavage,. The male characters are doing little, if anything, beyond standing around or sitting down although they do all seem to be rather muscular and sporting prominent six/eight-packs.

Whilst talking of Marvel, I think I'll bring up their Women of Marvel event again. It was an event, as far as I'm aware, to promote the female characters they have. There were numerous one-shots under the event, from new characters like Lady Deadpool through to more established characters such as Dazzler and X-23 (which went on to be a now-cancelled ongoing), as well as a few smaller series like Marvel Her-oes, which I think existed more for teen girls, and the questionably-titled Girl Comics. Overall it was a noble act which put their varied cast into the spotlight, but they went and got it a little wrong, especially when you look at the trade paperback they put out which collected the issues together...
Could they fit more breasts into this cover? 

This is the absolutely brilliant (snort) image that was chosen to adorn the cover of a trade celebrating strong women, drawn by Greg Land (apologies to the site I stole it from). Let's look - more breasts than a stripper bar, all four women have the exact same porn star face, the lady on the right makes Power Girl look flat-chested, and there's basically nothing redeeming about it. That's not a celebration of women, that's a straight-out hypersexualised... Well, I've no more words for it. It goes against everything the event seemed to stand for.

Whilst the proportions and figures of female characters are an issue, the above image brings me to a new point - I've found that the other half of the issue is how they're posed and how they carry themselves. It's the exaggerated hip movements, the arched backs, the pushed-out breasts – they all carry an air of flirtation or sexualisation, whether the character is sixteen or thirty-six. There have also been many instances of the 'camera' in the panel being used to get shots of the character's rears or to look below their legs, even to show a little bit of underwear if the character wears a skirt. It's the context and the art itself that causes the sexualisation, and with both major publishers I find it a big issue. There was an issue of B.P.R.D. (Dark Horse Comics) that read to me as a tongue-in-cheek take on such portrayals, and it even had shots between his legs and of his backside. I thought it was absolutely hilarious, and it showed just how ridiculous comics can be. Something similar was also done in one of the Deadpool arcs (X Marks The Spot) in which Wolverine and Domino are climbing through a duct. Domino becomes paralysed with fear due to an errant chicken (placed there by our favourite mercenary), causing Wolverine to go head-first into Domino's bulbous seat.

Looking back to costumes as a whole, I think it's important to explain why some things are good and why others are bad, but also problems related to them. The traditional form-fitting costume makes a lot of sense, as there's nothing for your assailant to get purchase on. A lot of costumes go against this, though, even by simply letting the character have their hair out, especially if they've got long hair and engage in physical combat. Capes, sashes – they all go against it, too. Form-fitting is not inherently sexual, though. It's how the artists draw the characters and decide how they wear what they do. The cover for Pixie Strikes Back has five of the X-Men (Blindfold, X-23, Pixie, Armor & Mercury) walking towards the character, with a hint of hip-wiggle from some of them, but it's not sexual despite the tight costumes.

It's also a case of practicality or just common sense missing, too. With the large chest being common in comics, one has to look at it practically. Large chests mean bras become almost necessary, if not necessary, especially if you're going to engage in a lot of physical activities. By all rights, Emma Frost should be popping out of her bustier with anything faster than a walk, let alone doing any sort of combat. A number of the costumes seem to incorporate or at least allow for the possibility of sports bras, a necessity for many of the women in comics, but it's clear that a lot of artists don't understand that or choose to ignore it for no obvious reason.

The authors and artists should not just stick to positive representations, though. I feel it's just as important to show weakness and negative characters. There's nothing wrong with having an evil, or morally corrupt, female character. Marvel have done really well with Mystique in that role, and DC often cast the Gotham City Sirens (Catwoman, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy) in such positions. To reference one of the most famous and important titles in comic history, Batman: The Killing Joke, the temporary humiliation and exploitative representation of Barbara, even for just those few moments, set the scene for one of the most empowering characters to have ever existed - Oracle. Shocking events can be used to rocket characters into new strengths, and that's good as it adds suspense and drama, drawing the reader in, pushing them to read on. It's when those weaknesses are never fought-against or dealt with that it's poor.

So, there we have another load of thoughts on the portrayal of women in comics. I may do more later.