Friday, November 23, 2012

Just a little bit of bragging...

What happens when you cross my interest in supporting local comics, love of Fairuza Balk's style and an opportunity to get a personalised copy of a newly-released graphic novel, The Everyday? Well... you get this.

I asked for Arianna (from Adam's own Blood Blokes - it's a promising series!) as Fairuza Balk in The Craft, and what I got blew my mind - I didn't expect it to be *that* great. Oh, and yeah... The Everyday is pretty good, too. I suppose I could recommend it (and I do - really, I do).

Now to wait to see what appears in my personalised copy of Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms (also from Great Beast)...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More Tweaks & Changes!

As is pretty obvious, I've tweaked my blog a bit. Changed the colour scheme to something a little more serene, adjusted the layout and replaced my mini-profile with a picture of Dian Belmont from Sandman Mystery Theatre reading Hemingway. Why? Well, because I can.

Posts have been infrequent, largely due to work and an inability to actually get anything decent written, so apologies for the radio silence. However, despite the silence, I've recently broken 10k page views! I doubt most of them are genuine, but as I've said before, I shouldn't look a gift mouth in the horse.

I have a few ideas for posts, however. I'm hopefully going to manage to get one or two more posts done in the style of my recent(ish) Chloe Noonan post, and I might go back and try and finish off a few reviews that have sat unpublished for months. On top of this, I just might have a guest post appearing somewhere in the relatively near future.

Onwards and upwards, yes?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Comics You're Not Reading - Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter

In this new, most likely irregular feature, I'll be looking at comics I suspect you (meaning anyone reading my blog) won't be reading, or perhaps even have heard of. Rather than delve into the tangled mess that is Marvel and DC, I'll be looking at creator-owned comics, or those from small presses.

After staying up an hour or so to read the whole collection, I decided that the first comic shall be Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter by Marc Ellerby, published by Great Beast Comics, a small UK press founded by himself and Adam Cadwell (who coloured at least one story in this collection). The digital omnibus, which I purchased, contains an introduction, some concept sketches and a few other goodies on top of the four currently available issues.

And, truth be told, I was going to write a long post about HOW AMAZING IT IS, but my brain is broken so words is hard. I'll try to explain why you should buy the digital omnibus, though, if not the print editions. Basically, Chloe Noonan is what would happen if Buffy was English, red-headed, more 'alternative' and, well, more human. She makes mistakes, she trips and falls, she gets angry over stupid little things - she's almost your typical teen. Her best friend, Zoe, is rather naive and a bit slow, yet has occasional moments of insight and intelligence. Together they're a pretty good team, and definitely one that is fun to read.

Marc Ellerby also fills the pages with jokes, British culture references, parodies of existing cult series and even real-world situations and places (such as a closing-down Woolworths store in the background of one issue). These may mean more to British readers than those abroad, but even those who aren't fully clued in with our whimsical ways should still find something to appreciate here. Despite all this, there are a few moments where the humour fades and we see glimpses of a darker, more serious story at times, and if the introduction is anything to go by, this will be expanded in future instalments of Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter.

And, to finish, here's the end of one issue, showing that Zoe hasn't grasped the fact she's sat on a monster.
The issues of Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter are available from a variety of UK comic shops, including Travelling Man, or they can be purchased from Great Beast Comics' online store.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

REVIEW - Archie #636

Easily one of the most anticipated comics of the second half of 2012 for me, Archie #636 is based around a single plot point - the characters swapping gender - and that's just the main five. Written by Tania del Rio and pencilled by Gisele (also the artist for both covers), it follows the characters as Salem works a spell to change the gender of everyone in Riverdale. Archie becomes Archina, Reggie is Regina, Jughead is J.J., Betty is Billy and, finally, Veronica becomes Ron.

But, the big question is this - did it live up to my expectations? Well...

Not quite.

The plot itself was quite strange. Aside from the Sabrina framing, it didn't seem like there was any particular focus. Archina's day was a mix of various smaller things but unlike the majority of Archie stories, it didn't really have a clear story. Billy and Ron barely fought over Archina, the Boys vs Girls argument took up maybe three-quarters of a page in total out of 22 pages. Compare this to the standard cover, which makes a fairly big deal of the argument. The Betty & Veronica novel We're With The Band (you can find my review here) tackled the Boys vs Girls argument too, but it had the benefit of being a 150 page story rather than a 22 page comic and it was more satisfying for it. What happened in this issue felt like a selection of brief moments from other Archie stories without any of the build-up nor the resolutions.

The strength of this issue, however, lay in the humour. It had numerous pop-culture and internet meme references, but the puns were also incredibly good (such as Hot Dog's swapped name). In a strange way, the simple plot was almost a strength. It showed the comic would be pretty much the same if it was truly about Archina and the gang rather than Archie. Gisele also managed to capture the expressions perfectly well. J.J.'s expressions were those of Jughead, Ron's of Veronica and so on. It worked brilliantly, even if many other aspects didn't quite make sense. One 'swap' in particular is rather humorous, though I'll not say who it affects as it has to be experienced.
L-R: Archina, Billy, J.J, Regina and Ron.
Whilst I think the intention was admirable, the execution sadly didn't quite work as well as I'd hoped. If it was simply an Archie story with reversed genders, it could have been very enjoyable. But it wasn't. It was framed as an experiment by Salem with the marketing and the 'buzz' (and even Archie Comics themselves) adding this other dimension to it. If anything, making it a gender-swap (and Sabrina) story weakened it and took valuable pages away, leaving between 50-66% of the pages to be dedicated to Archina and her friends, and even some of those were used on discussion of the situation and Regina took the focus slightly more often than she should have.

All in all, Archie #636 both a great and a disappointing issue, but there is potential there and I hope that Archina, Billy, Ron and the gang come back for future issues. They could be really fun to read if done with a new story over a number of issues, and I have no reason to think that Tania del Rio and Gisele couldn't make it work. I don't regret buying two copies at all, but I must confess that I was hoping for a little more.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A New Tumblr Feed

As my more eagle-eyed readers may have noticed, I removed my tumblr feed from the sidebar. I did this for a variety of reasons, but I've decided to start a new one!

This new tumblr, also called The Forged Forest, will exist to compliment this blog, but I'll also use it to share interesting things I find. So far it has armour, period clothing, art and a big green orc lady.

You can find my new tumblr here, and it's also in the sidebar below the link to my Goodreads page.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tor UK goes DRM-free for e-books... Yay?

In fairly big genre publishing news, as of today Tor UK have gone DRM-free for their e-books. This means e-books from their store (link takes you to the Pan Macmillan store, which includes Tor) will not have any restrictions. As far as I'm aware, this means they're at least the third major genre publisher to do so - behind Baen and Angry Robot - although arguably the largest. Those who read this blog may remember that I blogged about e-books earlier in the year, and some of those criticisms apply to this too.

First, let's compare some pricing. I decided to go for a small variety of authors, one with a large series, another with a hardcover, a third who is classed as a Tor author but his books are published outside of the imprint (on Pan rather than Tor) and finally self-publishing legend Amanda Hocking.

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Heirs of the Blade (Shadows of the Apt #7)
Amazon UK - £4.71 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £7.07 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - £7.19 (EPub DRM)
Tor UK Store - £7.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £7.99 (Restricted to iDevices)

Mark Charan Newton - The Broken Isles (Legends of the Red Sun #4)
Amazon UK - £7.47 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £8.47 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - Not Available
Tor UK Store - £10.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £10.99 (Restricted to iDevices)

China Miéville - Embassytown
Amazon UK - £3.99 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £6.37 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - £6.39 (EPub DRM)
Tor UK Store - £7.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £7.99 (Restricted to iDevices)

Amanda Hocking - Switched (Tyrelle Trilogy #1)
Amazon UK - £0.94 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £1.00 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - Not Available
Tor UK Store - £7.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £7.99

(All prices are correct at time of publishing this post)

As you can see - Hocking is a little bit of a special case, as she was originally self-published and her books have largely retained a low price - there's some fairly big pricing differences. In one case (Miéville), you're paying twice the price for the same book. Tor are not competing whatsoever with the Kindle, which is all the more bizarre when the only dedicated e-reader their store claims it supports is the Kindle.

Morality of Amazon and its pricing aside, when you consider the Kindle is the single most owned e-reader on the market, it seems a little bizarre that they're basically selling the same product at a non-competitive price, especially when they claim they really only support the Kindle with their product.

How about the store itself?
Well, it's dull, it's really obtuse and it doesn't seem to be particularly user-friendly. This is what a product page looks like in Firefox:
Doesn't that just excite you? No clear indication where it fits in the series, no cover art (despite smaller sizes showing elsewhere) and a preview that gives you quite a bit too much of a preview. If you can purchase it from Tor UK, there is a small 'Buy' box with the editions listed, otherwise it links you to other vendors. It doesn't even tell you which file type the e-book is, so you're unable to tell if it will or won't work with your e-reader without purchasing it. A number of books have no e-book edition available from Tor UK, but still list a price that's equal to the cover price of the average MMPB (so £7.99), so it may direct you to a vendor who sells it cheaper (as most do).

I've also noticed bizarre things like these editions for Peter F. Hamilton's The Naked God:
You can have the e-book for £7.99 or the e-book for £8.99 (or go to Amazon and get it for £4.86). Clear and sensible, it is not.

Compare this to Baen, if you will. Baen offers seven formats for a variety of e-readers and devices with e-reading capabilities. They carry books at a fairly flat rate of $6, even if it's a brand-new hardcover, e-ARCs at $15 (get the uncorrected book ahead of schedule!) and they're all DRM-free. On top of this they offer monthly bundles, containing 5-6 books for $18 - roughly half-price for each book. To compare again with Amazon, they offer free WhisperNet delivery to the Kindle (or you can download the book and add it yourself), one-click purchasing and lower prices.

But you're supporting the authors and publisher more this way!Am I? Maybe. They're certainly getting the cost of the book without anything taken by Amazon, Apple, WHSmith and so on, but that's about it. The author may get a little bit more from this, but I would think that two Kindle sales (totalling roughly the same as one book from the Tor store) from, say, Amazon would give roughly the same to the author in royalties but it would also give an extra sale figure, meaning the publisher (or another if the author looks elsewhere) will be more likely to continue publishing that author and/or market their books better.

What I'm trying to say is this - Tor UK have the right idea. DRM-Free is a great way to go for all digital media - comics, music, games, video, books - but it's easy to do it wrong, and I feel Tor UK have done that with their move. They've had a chance to bring people to their store rather than go through Amazon, WHSmith/Kobo, the iTunes bookstore and so on, but beyond DRM-free there's no grab. The store is confusing, complex and incomplete, it has very little stated compatibility with other e-readers (what's the point of going DRM-free if you're only supporting the Kindle?) and the prices are high relative to other vendors. There is no grab here for the customer, no feature that really makes the 'extra' expense worth it. Prices could be dropped to match the Amazon ones, and that alone would make it a much more appealing store - and both publisher and author would benefit more than they do from other vendors.

But for this store to succeed, truly, Tor UK need to look at their competitors - Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Baen's e-book store and so on. They need a cleaner, clearer, simpler website, but that's the least of their worries. Between the relatively high prices and the lack of supported devices, there's little benefit to the user. With Baen's store you get the book in seven formats, which means the majority of devices are supported - including almost anything with a web browser - for a price not far below that of the paperback editions. That's the direction Tor UK should have taken with their store.

(Thanks to Simon from Gollancz (@Gollancz) and Angry Robot author Anne Lyle (@AnneLyle) for help in understanding some of the finer aspects of royalties and sales)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

REVIEW - Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

Songs of the Earth is the Morningstar-nominated debut from Elspeth Cooper, and also the first in her The Wild Hunt series (recently announced to have evolved from a trilogy to a quartet/quadrilogy). In this book, we spend most of our time following Gair, a young man who narrowly escapes being burned as a witch, and as he flees he finds a man who will change the course of his life forever, a man who challenges everything the doctrine of his faith would have him believe.

To start with, Songs is unapologetically traditional in most ways. Young male protagonist who's one of the strongest in recent times at what he does, fairly typical European-esque setting and hints at non-human sentient races (e.g. the sea-elves towards the end). However, some of the traditional aspects are subverted in a few ways such as the post-mediaeval setting (that said, it's not far beyond one). The setting is fairly interesting despite being slightly conventional, but even then it's just a skeleton that Cooper fleshes out with an incredibly well-written journey.

The journey, all roughly 467 pages of it, is very enjoyable. Cooper has a clear, calm writing voice that rarely confused me but at the same time flowed at a fairly high rate. In this regard, Songs is without a doubt a quick and easy read that young-adult and adult readers alike can enjoy without any major issues. She has a natural ability to write believable characters with unique voices and behaviours, and the ways certain characters interacted (particularly Gair with Alderan and, later, Aysha and Tanith) was something I found very enjoyable. Characters didn't talk at each other, they talked to each other.

Despite some seemingly generic aspects, there is some interesting use of magic and parallel worlds in this book. The way both of her worlds (Gair's and a sort-of "shadow world") were linked was definitely intriguing and, whilst a little underplayed due to the focus of the novel, will hopefully be explored in later volumes to great effect.

I can't think of anything that was bad about this read, although those looking for a magic system with a musical aspect may be a little disappointed by the misnomer in the title as it's not a 'straight' magical music system as could be found in, say, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Spellsong Cycle, but is more metaphorically musical from what I understood from its explanations and use. Other than that, there was nothing that stood out to me as a 'bad' aspect or as something that detracted from the novel.

If I had to give Songs of the Earth a rating, it would be four stars out of five, and a solid four at that. I'm not sure anything could have pushed this to a five, at least not in the long-term, but perhaps later volumes will manage to change this.. Songs is, from what I've read so far, one of the best books to have been released in 2011, and Elspeth Cooper easily shows herself able to stand amongst the giants of the genre with this debut.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Romance in Genre Fiction

Romance? Bleurgh.

I've recently been rather irritated by two books because of how they've approached romance. One is from the genre publisher and the other is from a specialist press that only sells books relating to a number of game settings, and both were largely marketed as Strong Female Character Who Is A Warrior Goes To War And Kills Stuff type books. One is marketed as YA, the other as an 'adult' (i.e. non-YA) read, and within 100 pages of either I was tempted to throw them across the room as they both shoved forced romance plotlines down my throat.

Let me say this straight away - I HATE it when a book is marketed as something it isn't. I have been screwed over numerous times by publishers misrepresenting their books as fantasy (or, more rarely, sci-fi) when in fact they're basically romance novels set in fantasy settings - see the marketing for contemporary urban fantasy and paranormal romance as a prominent example. I also HATE badly written romance - there is a borderline-YA trilogy by an Australian author with a female protagonist that had two very strong entries before the third turned on the romance tap and became a 600 page tome of a terrible love story that made no sense (to me, I hasten to add) whatsoever.

A non-genre romance story that I loved.
I don't dislike romance stories - some of my favourite books are actually feature romance in a big way - but I cannot stand forced or bad romances, and there's many of both in mainstream genre fiction. I don't believe that women are the sole reason for bad romance, although I must concede the point that the majority of books I've read with romance I didn't like were written by women, but maybe it's disproportionate due to the way the market stands. Most books are written with male protagonists, whereas I seek out books with female protagonists and these often have female authors.

In the two books I referred to at the start, there is a protagonist who is shown to be somewhat detached emotionally, and also a more than capable fighter. They get thrills - guilty or otherwise - from violence, where they truly become themselves. They then meet a mysterious man who manages to somehow break down those walls just by existing, giving the protagonist strange feelings that they never really had before (or rarely so), and they know then and there that this person is someone that they wish to be with. Someone pass me a bucket, please.

Maybe if this was one book, it'd be a stroke of bad luck. But it seems to me that I find this situation time after time after time. The specifics sometimes change - the woman might not be a fighter, but she will still be considered 'strong' in some manner, yet she will invariably tremble at the knees as soon as she catches sight of Convenient Romance Male #1 - but it still annoys me massively.

Sarah Beauhall. Lesbian, lover, ass-kicker.
As I've said above, I don't dislike the idea of romance in books. Sexual tension can be a great thing - Sam Sykes used it well in Tome of the Undergates, and I'm sure Ari Marmell had some going in The Goblin Corps (of all books!) - or you can do what John Pitts did with his Sarah Beauhall books and have the romance already exist. But these things were never coming up page after page. They had their place in the story, and they were never forgotten, but they didn't crop up in inopportune moments. If your character is in a sort of duel for dominance, they're not going to be thinking "Phwoar he's a bit of alright, innhe? Love to give 'im a bit of an 'ow's yer father if I'm honest", they're going to be wholly focused on the fight at hand.

So, what I want is this - I want authors to stop writing terrible romance in the first place. If it's meant to be, it will work. Don't force a romance arc. Ever. I want publishers and their marketing departments to stop disguising romance-centric stories as anything but that - it's almost like a betrayal of trust. You want my money, right? Well, represent a series accurately and if I'm interested I'll bite - if I buy a book and it turns out to not be what's on the cover, chances are I won't continue with that series or I'll buy the following ones used, and who benefits from that?

Romance done right can be beautiful, but done badly it can turn a great book into something absolutely terrible.

Friday, June 29, 2012

REVIEW: Judge Dredd - The Complete Case Files Volume 19

Oddly enough, this is my first substantial foray into the world of Judge Dredd. I've read a couple of 2000AD issues, I've read the short stories contained in the Sweet Justice collection, but I've never really had a good solid story to get into until now, thanks to winning a Twitter giveaway.

The Complete Case Files 19 contains stories from Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, John Wagner and John Smith, as well as the debut of Grant Morrison. Most of these authors have since become big names in comics - Morrison, Ennis and Millar are all very well-known - whilst Wagner, I believe, is known as one of the better Dredd writers. These stories all come from roughly 1993, somewhere around the halfway mark of 2000AD's life (at the time of this release and review).

The writing in this volume isn't that bad, and it's certainly the strongest and most solid element. The jokes, subtle and otherwise, can be good (such as a judge with 'Lardas' as his name badge) and you will get a few little laughs, yet there's no real laugh-out-loud moments here. Inferno, the story that takes up a large chunk of this volume, is Grant Morrison's debut and it concludes an arc from a previous volume (one I've obviously not read), which sees the return of an exiled Judge with a bunch of dangerous criminals and a highly dangerous virus. It's something like 11 or 12 parts long, and it sadly outstays its welcome within four or five issues. It teases the reader by making you think the end is about to come but it's quickly apparent it won't, and this happens numerous times, driving me to the point of annoyance rather than excitement.

This isn't a book with any sense of consistency. Characters almost die in one issue and are fine within the next. The Judge's base of operations will be ablaze in one story, and then get blown up the next, and then appear fine straight after. That constantly changing aspect is either a blessing or a weakness depending on how it's used. It stops poor stories completely changing the universe, but it can mean the larger effects of bigger and better stories never really come into play.

The art constantly changes due to the different artists, and it never quite becomes enjoyable. There are some excellent panels within stories, but often it seems to be a little... odd. In one story, we have two male Judges (Dredd and another) and a female judge, and the uniform is form-fitting but slightly loose on the male judges whereas the female judge has a supermodel figure, a rounded bottom and a large chest, all contained within a more-than-skin-tight suit. How is that even close to 'fair'? The racial depictions also leave a lot of questions hanging in the air, many of them being grotesque and almost offensive. This would be almost understandable if we were talking about comics from the late seventies or early eighties, but judging by the copyright notices in the book, these comics are from the early-to-mid nineties which makes the art very worrying indeed.

Rebellion and the 2000AD team have also dropped the ball with the credits. Only about half of the stories have credits, so once you get beyond Inferno the stories tend not to be credited, meaning you don't know who worked on most stories, nor are the stories even named! There are also no breaks between the majority of stories so it's possible to start reading the next without realising that you've moved on to another. This means there's no pacing to the volume, nor are the stories introduced with any sort of information relating to where these characters have appeared before. A simple title page between each story would have sufficed to break it up into easier chunks, but also to allow the appropriate credits to be given.

The Complete Case Files Volume 19 is really only something hardcore Judge Dredd fans will find any enjoyment from. Newcomers or part-time fans may end up questioning the potential of the comics if this is a jumping on point for them, as it's a collection of weak stories that aren't particularly enjoyable or that even make sense. There are some moments of strength and hope, such as the arc with the Jigsaw Killer, but these are few and far between. For a volume with a shelf price of £23, the lack of information or credits is questionable and leads one to wonder just how much effort Rebellion are putting into these volumes. It's dampened my interest in Dredd a little, but nowhere near enough to put me off.

Not recommended unless you're a big, big Dredd fan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Marriage Equality

In a rare turn, I'm going to put the genre stuff to one side and talk about marriage equality.

A number of months ago, I talked about an American organisation who sought to remove an issue of Life With Archie from the shelves (and, have since, tried to do the same with a recent issue of Astonishing X-Men), but the debate has once again come back to the UK. We had, earlier this year, a prominent member of the Scottish Catholic church speak out about marriage equality, and it clouded the issue, and it's happened again this week but this time from the Church of England.

Now, I don't hate religious people. The religion, perhaps, but not the people. There have been polls and surveys that show large swathes of the religious people in the UK are supportive (or perhaps at the very least not bothered by it) of marriage equality - over 50% in most cases. This is great news and needs to be thrown about in the media much more.

But I'm a secularist, and this debate alone shows why secularism is needed. We have prominent religious figures wading into a civil debate and obscuring the issue. To make matters worse, I have not seen a single shred of evidence to even imply that same-sex couples are worse for children than the 'traditional' family - and even then, that should be unrelated to the marriage debate. The arguments from the religious side tend to revolve around centuries-old scripture and deep-rooted homophobia, as well as apocalyptic visions of doom. Marriage equality will bring this country to its knees - things like that.

The closest to a 'real' counter-argument is the existence of civil partnerships, a sort of marriage-in-all-but-name, often colloquially referred to as a marriage. But is that not a case of Equal But Different? Did we not learn about that from the treatment of African-Americans after the abolition of slavery? Different bathrooms, drinking facilities, seats and so forth. It's not on the same level, I'll admit, but it's similar in that the same service is provided but it's "for them".

The other popular counter-argument is that it goes against the definition of marriage. This is, frankly, a complete load of rubbish. Definitions of words and phrases can and will change over time. The ceremony can and has changed, and even what marriage represents has changed. We live in a society where people largely can marry for love, yet there are times in history where marriage was a political device. There are even people in the Bible in marriages we would not think of today - King Solomon is a prime example, with 700 wives and about 300 concubines - something that wouldn't exist today under modernised Abrahamic religions..

I've also heard the idea marriage is about having children. Really? Well... what about heterosexual married couples who don't want children? What about those who get married and cannot have children, for medical, physical, emotional or other reasons? What about if two 70-year old people want to get married and spend their twilight years together? Should that not be allowed, because after all they won't be having children!

I shall counter thusly; Marriage is largely a ceremonious gesture in today's culture. It is not uncommon for people to have had more than one marriage, and on top of that children born out of wedlock are no longer taboo for the most part. There are people who make a mockery of the 'traditional' view of marriage, getting married and divorced like it's going out of fashion, and those who do it for money or other reasons rather than love. All of these people are heterosexual (a few may be bisexual, but in 'heterosexual' relationships), and could one not argue that indeed those people are the ones weakening the "institution of marriage"? There's hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative couples wanting to get married for love. Not for money, for fame or anything else. For love. How is that against the modern idea of marriage? If nothing else, it's the definition of it!

All marriages, at their root, are civil. Whether you're Jewish, Sikh or Christian, only your civil marriage will be recognised by the state - NOT the religious ceremony. Opening that to other couples does not change the religious aspect, and in fact a number of religions are open to offering the ceremonial aspect for couples who currently cannot get married.

Marriage equality will do one thing, and one thing alone. It will allow people to marry those they love legally. I think it's also important that if civil marriage is extended to non-traditional couples (I hate that term), that civil partnerships are extended in the opposite direction, if not removed and 'absorbed' into a civil marriage.

Friday, June 8, 2012

REVIEW - Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

Tome of the Undergates, published by Pyr (US) and Gollancz (UK) in 2010, was one of the most talked-about debut novels. Coming from one of the youngest authors in genre fiction, it almost divided those who read it - some enjoyed it, others didn't. Set in a new world and the start of a new trilogy (The Aeon's Gate), Sam Sykes took us on a journey with Lenk and his adventurer comrades as they engaged in the search for a magical, titular tome - along the way facing ship battles, demons, a strange island and, most dangerously of all, each other.

Despite it being a Big Fat Fantasy Book (which I rarely get along with as I wander off in the first half more often than not), and a slightly bloated one at that, I enjoyed it.

I've also found out that it's a bloody hard book to review.

See, Tome is a really interesting book with some great moments and a consistent undercurrent of potential, but it never fully realises it, yet perhaps that's why I enjoyed it more than most.

A lot of this novel feels as if it should be trimmed down. Arguments between the characters are too long, frequent and repetitive, combat sequences are also too long and stretch the limits of what should be possible and, in general, it just feels a little rough. Most of this can be explained simply by pointing out Tome is a debut novel by a younger author, and it's a labour of love that took almost a decade from conception to publication. It does show at times, but rarely does it stop the book from being enjoyable.

If there is one aspect of Tome that is stronger than any other, it's the characters. They're natural, unique and are all a pleasure to read about in their own ways. Whether it's Lenk, the main protagonist, Asper the priest (a sort of secondary main character) or Quillian, a supporting character who appears in a tertiary role in the first third or so of the book - they're all distinct and have their own presence in the book. When Lenk speaks, you know it's him, as he doesn't talk like Deanos. When Deanos talks, it's clear he's not Gariath. This, along with the character-specific insults, makes following the dialogue quite easy for the most part.

There's a sort-of-not-quite-character, however, that I wasn't particularly enamoured with. It's obvious from the start that Lenk has a voice in his head, but for 90% of the book it's not really explained who or what it is. It's just there, saying odd words in his head. It does lead to some interesting character moments, but largely I felt it was too much of an unanswered question, even by the end.

The humour is largely juvenile fart-level jokes, but they work and I'd be lying if I said this book didn't make me laugh a number of times (more so than some books by the king of comedic fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett). The tone also extends into a near-fetish for bodily fluids, something seemingly prevalent in mainstream fantasy at the moment, often used to imply how characters feel or to show how violent the combat can be, but there are moments where the tone and humour contrast each other to create a particularly funny scene.

Sam Sykes is, without a doubt, an author to watch. In Tome alone, he shows a level of creativity and a natural approach to characterisation that makes him stand apart from the rank and file. But for all its crudeness, for all its flaws, Tome of the Undergates is a compelling book that shows more potential than most debuts I've read. Yes, it's hard going at times. Yes, it's a little bit over-long. But once you hit the last ~10% and come to the end of the book, you'll put it down and be glad you fought through it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Reinvention

Yes! I have decided to give this blog a new coat of paint (and myself in the process to some degree). Over the coming days and weeks, I'll likely continue to tweak it (if and when I remember), so don't be surprised if it changes a little in that time.

Whilst the colours changed fairly easily, as did the title and a number of my links, it's not happened entirely smoothly. I've lost a number of blogs from my sidebar, so if you're missing from there or wish to be featured, please get in touch via social media or even the comments, and I'll be sure to correct that as soon as possible.

As for the future? Well, I'll work on getting some more posts done, along with a couple of the reviews that have been coagulating in a corner. Hopefully I'll also manage to get some more features and special posts done.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

REVIEW - False Covenant by Ari Marmell

Widdershins, Widdershins, Widdershins... Young woman, master thief, sole follower of a minor god and quite the snarky little thing. She's an interesting and compelling protagonist, and a pleasure to read about, and after thoroughly enjoying her début in Thief's Covenant, I was champing at the bit to read her next adventure.

So why am I a little disappointed with False Covenant, the latest YA novel from Pyr Books?

It's not so much a bad book as it is awkward. I didn't find the plot itself that interesting, but I did enjoy the characters, though that's often rarely enough to keep you going through a novel.

I found Marmell's writing style to not sit too well with me (something False Covenant shares with his earlier The Goblin Corps, albeit for different reasons), because it doesn't feel all that natural. The narrator peppers the text with colloquialisms, casual talk and moments of stretching (if not outright breaking) of the fourth wall. In my personal opinion, this really only works if the story is told by the protagonist or if you're Sir Terry Pratchett (and even then it seems like he gets it wrong almost as much as he gets it right). At other times I struggled a little with it for no discernible reason. Yeah, that's an apt comparison. Marmell's Widdershins books, to me, are like Sir Pratchett's Discworld books. Really interesting characters, some good humour (though nothing that made me laugh, sadly), but the plot leaves something to be desired.

With regards to the villain I just didn't really find the villain all that fun nor the confrontations with him to flow too well in my head. There were a few scenes in which we saw how truly merciless and vile he was, and some of them should have been quite distressing, yet I never particularly felt anything during them beyond a "oh, that's not very nice" type reaction. That said, the way he was explained brought up some very interesting ideas with regards to belief, which I found intriguing.

The way characters interact is definitely a strength, however. The dialogue mostly felt natural and genuine - characters were ignored in conversations, some spoke over others and so forth. Many of the thoughts and feelings felt right (within the context of the book), and even the supporting villains (it's hard to explain what they are without spoiling anything) had logic and sense behind their actions that allowed you to see what they were trying to do, but also why they reacted like they did to developments in the plot. It's due to moments like that and scenes involving 'Shins and other major characters (Robin, Renard, etc) that really made this book enjoyable for me. The book could just be 'Shins walking around talking to other characters and I'd enjoy it.

Marmell also tries his hand at romance, and I just didn't really care for it, especially as it ends up being a love trapezoid or something along those lines. Two of the people involved - YES! It made perfect sense (and for one of them it was OMG SQUEEE <3 CUTE CUTE CUTE!), but the third person? Oh dear. No, I just didn't buy it for a single moment, nor how it progressed, let alone how it was dealt with at the end as I had no emotional attachment to that character nor the romantic story involved. If Craeosh and... um... the troll lady from The Goblin Corps had ended up having feral naughty times in a bush in the middle of TGC, I would have found that more convincing (well, come on, there was a lot of sexual tension between them).

In conclusion, I'd say False Covenant is a somewhat enjoyable book with numerous issues. It's never bad, but I was gripped for all the wrong reasons. I didn't much care how the plot turned out, but I wanted those all-too-few moments of genuine character interaction - largely between 'shins and other characters, particularly her best friend Robin (total crush on her now, despite the age gap). Looking at Goodreads, it appears I'm in the minority on this, and perhaps I am. I would put this, in terms of enjoyment, next to books like Jim C. Hines' Red Hood's Revenge and Sir Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight - they're not bad on any real level, they just didn't do a lot for me at the time I read them.

I would, however, still urge people to check out the Widdershins books. She's a great character, and one I want to see much more of in the future. Marmell has a real flair for writing female characters, and I would hope that he continues to use that to his advantage in his future books. I'd also ask that he adds a Dramatis Personae list to the start of each book - it's easy to get names confused!

P.S. There's a supporting character who is revealed to be a lesbian. If you've read Thief's Covenant, think of all the female supporting characters, and try and narrow it down. It should not take you long to work out who it is.

Rating: Jade crying (for a character who I will not name)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Free Comic Book Day 2012 Haul

Today is Free Comic Book Day! A day of free comics! Of queueing in a small shop with dozens of people, fighting over the same small selection of titles, few of which they're truly interested in and are taking merely because they're free - hey, I do it too! 
So here's what I got today!

Road Rage #1 (Phil Noto variant)
What can I say? Stephen King writing with Joe Hill, his son. Those names alone sold me on it, and once I found out Phil Noto had done a variant, I just had to grab it.

Mind the Gap #1 (Cover A)
I was quite critical of Mind the Gap when I read the prologue a few months ago, but thankfully the first issue puts some of those worries to rest. Like Morning Glories (the series Esquejo has done numerous covers for), it looks as though it'll be a series that needs a few passes before it fully begins to make sense.

I'll confess that the series hadn't left my mind since that preview, so to finally get it is quite welcome.
Alabaster: Wolves #1
Alabaster: Wolves appeared on my radar with quite the bang. I've little idea what it's about or what it's like beyond a fantasy series, but the attachment of Kiernan's name (I've not read her work before but her name does appear numerous times in various places) and the push from Rob Bedford of SFFWorld means I now have a copy.
Batman: Arkham City #1
It was 99p in GAME, yet I've not even started it and I'm disappointed. How thin is this comic? Does it have just three pages or something?!

Ahem. I liked the first game, but I was really just swayed by the price on this one.  

Missed out on getting a number of issues I wanted. B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Pickens County Horror #1 wasn't in stock so I passed on #2 as well, Avenging Spider-Man #7 has been delayed a week, so I couldn't get that, and two other issues I wanted, Saga #1 and New Avengers #59, also weren't around so I'll get the former in trade and the latter digitally this weekend through the Comixology sale. Maybe. I was also thinking about Epic Kill #1 but I passed for reasons I still don't know. I should probably have bought it instead of Arkham City #1.

Well, it's not Free Comic Book Day if I don't get any of the free comics, is it? Here's the list of available comics, and I'll list the ones I got. Sadly, a number that I wanted weren't available, and those I'll list separately.

Atomic Robo (with NeoZoic & Bonnie Lass);
The Avengers: Age of Ultron #0.1;
Bad Medicine #1;
Bongo Comics Free-For-All! (The Simpsons)/Spongebob Comics: Freestyle Funnies;
Buffy the Vampire Slayer/The Guild;
Serenity/Star Wars;
Graphic Elvis (Why the farkle did I pick this up? Seriously? It's gonna go straight in the recycling);
Yo Gabba Gabba!;
DC Comics: The New 52!;
Worlds of Aspen 2012;
Valiant 2012;
Top Shelf Kids Club;
The Hypernaturals;
Witchblade: Unbalanced Pieces;
Spider-Man: Season One;
Voltron Force: Shelter From The Storm;
Mouse Guard, Labyrinth and Other Stories (yes, the hardcover!);
Peanuts/Adventure Time;
Image 20.

The Intrinsic;
DC Nation/Superman Family (it was there, I forgot to pick it up! Arse!);
Jurassic Strike Force 5.

I didn't do too badly, all things considered. I also picked up a Vertigo sampler, but it wasn't a FCBD title so I'm not counting it in the list. I got the majority of the ones I really cared about, and many I don't. Atomic Robo, Aspen and Star Wars are pretty much staples of my FCBD haul regardless of the year, though chances are Atomic Robo is the only one I'll get to quickly.

So that's my haul. Yay!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Promoting Minorities in Fiction

Over the past year or two, I've pondered minorities in fiction. Gender, race, sexuality... We still seem to be stuck with 16-30yr old straight white male protagonists, and it's getting a little boring. In fact, it's already boring. I wondered who to blame for the lack of minorities, and I think I've finally figured out who is at fault here.

I'll explain...

Publishers, Agents & Editors come together under one heading, because they're all so tightly linked. All three groups are responsible for the promotion, representation and sale of fiction involving minorities. Editors should not be suggesting minorities are represented (as has been known to happen), but when an author uses minorities, they should be using their editorial prowess to make sure that the representation is fair, contextual and so on. A number of editors also have an online presence, and they can use this to promote books they're working on.

Publishers are arguably the marketing powerhouse behind each book, and as such I feel they have a responsibility to highlight minority books. Some do, but a lot don't.

Authors, being the ones who write the stories in the first place, also arguably have a responsibility in this area. Whether it's mentioning a skin colour, alluding to a sexuality or otherwise, an author has ultimate control over their story. Sometimes the best representations of minorities are the simplest and quietest. To use an example, Sandy Mitchell wrote a lesbian couple into the Ciaphas Cain novels - Grifen and Magot - yet he (Mitchell nor Cain) never made a deal of it. It was alluded to numerous times, but they were shown to be two very strong women who were close, and that was it. Together, they're one of the best lesbian couples I've ever seen in a book.

But also, you can have the traditional inequality, and it can work brilliantly. Trudi Canavan and Mark Charan Newton have done this with their gay characters, both to great success. In both series, the gay characters face death if they're outed (or even suspected), so both work to keep it under wraps. To contrast this, the author Catherine M. Wilson's When Women Were Warriors historical fiction series has a good number of lesbian relationships, none of which are even commented on as being anything other than normal.

There are traps and pitfalls, however, and authors need to be careful. There's the mistake of representing every gay male as camp, catty and promiscuous, or gay women as being - well - butch. There's also the good ol' Kill The Minority aspect, which can feel worn out. Oh, you have a black transwoman in your book? Kill her off, then! Victimisation of minorities happens, it's real, but it doesn't mean you have to do it in a book. Why not do what Mark Newton did with Lan, and put her through the grinder, but give a somewhat happy ending? Or, better still, make what happens to the character separate from the feature that classes them as a minority - for example, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s third Imager book (Imager's Intrigue) had a gay male who was killed... but, if my memory is correct, it had nothing to do with his sexuality.

After a brief discussion on Twitter with an editor - I think I should address her points. She said to me that perhaps there's an element of authors not wanting to do things wrong, and wanting to make sure they do it right. That's fine. Doing things right is what we want, but to not do it in fear? I don't think that is right. I will leave it for others to discuss and explain the differences of sexuality, gender and so forth, but I will say this - we live in an internet age. There are so many minority-themed websites out there. Use Twitter, use Google, use discussion forums, bring the minorities closer to your writing in order to get things right. With the availability of the internet, there's little excuse for not trying to find out how to do something right.

Finally, there's one group left. Bloggers, Reviewers & Readers, in other words - those of us who read and buy the books. We have one of the most powerful tools available - word of mouth. So many best sellers happen not because of the author's name, but because word of mouth has had such a powerful effect.

Bloggers and reviewers are, in particular, the first place to look for book reviews. They are the ones who read the books critically, but also who work in spreading the word about these books. They, directly or indirectly, have the power to make or break sales. Because of their position, I feel they have a responsibility to point out minorities in books and, more importantly, discuss whether such representations were right or wrong. If a book has gay males, all of whom are what we'd term "camp", that could be a point of criticism, but if a book has a male lead role and his sexuality is mentioned but not defining (or at least positively portrayed), that could be a point of praise. Bloggers and reviewers are in a great position. They're not tied to a small commentary like publishers, and they have the benefit of having experienced the book. They can sell it in ways publishers and authors cannot, and as such I feel there is some degree of responsibility there with regards to highlighting books with minority characters.

Finally, the readers. Whether you're a blogger, a reviewer, a publisher, an editor or even an author, we're all readers, and it falls down to us to really make this happen. We can buy these books, read them, spread the word, but also do so much more. Ask publishers if they have any minority titles coming up, if an author is doing a question session (or are available and open to chatting on Twitter/Facebook/etc), ask if they'll include - or are open to including - minorities in their upcoming books. If nothing else, you're making the author aware that there's a desire to see better representation, and you may be making them consider diversifying their cast a little more.

In closing, what I'll ask is this. If you see a book with a minority character (or even a female protagonist!), and it's not something you'd generally go for, go for it. Buy it. Read it. Discuss it. Push your boundaries, step out of your comfort zone - you might be surprised. If you come across a book and it has a positive (or negative) portrayal of a minority, make it known if you review/blog about it. Make it clear that this book has that aspect to it, because you'll help make sales. Minority aspects of so many books are overlooked because no-one points them out or because they're barely discussed (for example, the aforementioned lesbian couple in the Ciaphas Cain books), and that needs to stop.

You don't even have to stop at novels, either. If you read comics or graphic novels, consider changing your next purchase a little. Why not go for a comic with a protagonist of colour? Why not buy a graphic novel with a gay supporting character? Or at an even greater extreme, why not buy a mainstream comic with more natural looking women?

We, as consumers, have the ability to at least make our preferences known. We have the ability to tell publishers, authors and so on - through sales or otherwise - that we want minority books. We are all responsible for promoting the use of minority characters, whether we're a reader who borrowed a book from a library or whether we're sat in one of the major publishing houses. It's not the fault of any one person, perhaps it's the fault of no-one, but we are all responsible for diversifying fiction and for making representations positive.

Monday, April 9, 2012

REVIEW - Morning Glories: All Will Be Free

Morning Glories: All Will Be Free TPB
(Collects Morning Glories 7-12)
Story: Nick Spencer
Art: Joe Eisma
Colours: Alex Sollazzo
Covers: Rodin Esquejo

Morning Glory Academy is one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country... But behind it's hallowed doors something sinister and deadly lurks. When six brilliant but troubled new students arrive, they find themselves trapped and desperately seeking answers in a place where nothing is what it seems to be!
(From Volume 1)

Collecting the second story arc of the smash series in one volume. Learn (some) of the secrets in the Glories' lives as we delve into their pasts and see how it affects their present. Each chapter focuses on a different Glory while maintaining the narrative and moving the mystery forward. 
(Volume 2)

Once I'd re-read the first volume, I was really quite excited to get my hands on the second, as I felt something had finally clicked for me with this series. This volume hasn't "unclicked" the story, if anything it's hooked me even more.

Each issue focuses on a different character (in order: Zoe, Hunter, Jun, Jade, Ike and Casey), and whilst the plot doesn't advance too much, we instead learn a lot more about the lives of each character and their problems, but it also seeks to clarify some points from the first arc... as well as to complicate matters. It'll bring you closer to some characters, and push you further from others.We begin to see just how severe Jade's problems can be, why Jun seems to constantly change and how sinister Zoe's past was, and that's just to start.

The dialogue in this issue was particularly strong, with characters feeling diverse and natural. For example, Jun speaks differently to Hunter, and Hunter is different again to Ike, and it works really well. The stories themselves seem a little strange at times, and there were moments where I was unsure how certain things happened (or could happen), but it adds to the suspense and the tension more than it takes away from it.
Hey, we've all been there, right?
Eisma's art is pretty consistent with the first volume, and I have to admit it's growing on me. He manages to make characters look attractive, yet normal. Even Zoe, the (supposedly) prettiest  character looks normal enough to be 'real'. I still feel it's a little shaky at times and can move into the slightly odd (Jade's hair in particular seems prone to this), but generally it works well with Spencer's writing. He gets expressions and poses right, and you can tell how a character feels without needing the dialogue to tell you.

Overall, I was impressed with All Will Be Free. Whilst some things are a little clearer, the plot itself seems to be deepening and widening, but that itself is a double-edged sword. I've found it easy to become lost with this series in the past, and I hope Spencer can keep control of the different threads. Once certain things are clarified, I think it'll make much more sense and become a stronger series for it.

Rating: A Slightly Strange Smile

Friday, March 16, 2012

REVIEW - X-23 Issue 21

X-23 #21
Story: Marjorie Liu
Art: Phil Noto
Cover: Kalman Andrasofszky

Approaching this issue as a standard issue just isn't possible. Whilst it leads on from the end of #20, it's more of an epilogue or a side-note than a true finale. Completely silent, it's more an artistic issue than a story one. Noto's art alone is all that's needed to move the story along, and he delivers.

After the events of #20, when Laura has decided which team she has chosen, she gets on a bike and rides off to her new life. One night she camps in the wilderness, and her dreams are invaded by wolves, giving her a strange sort of signal, one which leads to an important personal discovery, and perhaps even some inner peace

Liu's dialogue-free script and Noto's art work beautifully together in this issue. No words are needed, because some of the meaning is crystal clear. Laura is naked for a good part of this issue, yet it never feels exploitative or ridiculous. Noto's art is natural and his use of angles and Laura's long hair to avoid showing anything that might be considered 'rude' is cleverly done. It could only have worked with a few artists, with Noto being one of the few. I feel that it wouldn't have worked anywhere near as well with, say, Sana Takeda on art - the art style just wouldn't work that well.

My only gripes? Well, aside from Andrasofszky's cover which once again misrepresents the story and looks relatively poor, I don't really think I have any. It's quite a deep issue that passes quickly, so without knowledge of what it references (I believe Wolverine had a similar story), some of its meaning may pass readers by, as it did for me, but for those aware of the story it may provide some deeper meaning or just be quite a neat thing.

In conclusion, a good issue with a very personal focus, but sadly one with very limited appeal. Some of the panels were absolutely beautiful, and there's a panel on the penultimate page that really made my day. Recommended to those who've read the previous issues - there's little for anyone else, I feel. But I loved it, and definitely one of the best single issues I've recently read.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

REVIEW - Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom

Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom TPB
(Collects Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom 1-5)
Story: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Art: Phil Noto
Colours: Phil Noto & Rob Schwager
Covers: Phil Noto

A vicious Apokolptian villain known as Maelstrom has arrived on Earth to kill Superman so that she might become The Bride of Darkseid! Superman and Supergirl join forces to battle the villain but at what cost to Metropolis? From Earth to Apokolips and beyond, Superman and Supergirl face unexpected challenges in this action-packed tale examining what it means to be a hero.
- Synopsis for Issue 1

Before I start this review, I'd like to apologise for the lack of panels. There aren't many easily available for me to requisition, and those I found were of poor quality. So, Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom is a trade I picked up earlier this year, and as part of my current aversion to novels, I decided to re-read it.
The story is basically this; Maelstrom wishes to prove herself worthy of Darkseid's respect, and even his love. Her initial attack on Metropolis is thwarted by Superman (after she's caused a lot of destruction and practically incapacitated Supergirl with a furious attack, including a laser bolt to the boob), and this causes the story to split. Superman and Supergirl take off to an alien planet where their powers are useless in order for Supergirl to learn more about herself but also her role as a superhero, whereas Maelstrom returns home and is imprisoned. She returns to Earth later with Granny Goodness' Female Furies, just as the heroes are recovering from their journey.

It is, if nothing else, a very cheesy story and one I would perhaps have expected from the '70s, not 2009. Whilst the particulars of Palmiotti and Gray's script were good, in the wider picture it isn't particularly great. Supergirl is incapacitated quite easily, and Maelstrom manages to almost lift a hospital by its corner - neither of which seemed particularly likely nor sensible. If I'm perfectly honest, I felt the whole side-story with Maelstrom and Darkseid was just not all that good. The catalyst for Supergirl's apparent failure could have been done much better, and it would have resulted in a smoother and perhaps more sensible mini-series.

Whilst I generally love Phil Noto's art, I can't help but feel the art in Maelstrom is a little wobbly. The end result has semi-frequent moments of disconnection in which the script and art don't match up at all. This tended to happen with regards to facial expressions and the dialogue. For example, there is a full-page panel in which Supergirl is supposed to be shouting, but her facial expression is fairly blank. There's also an earlier scene in which Superman is flung into a river, and if you look carefully he appears to be smiling and care-free, which would be fine except both he and Supergirl were under attack from a dangerous creature, and the river appears to have a very strong current. In general, the art works somewhat well for the majority of the story, but the Earth-based action sequences were very inconsistent in quality, so much so that I felt it dampened my enjoyment.

Overall, this story is a mixed bag. The discussions between Superman and Supergirl about attitudes, morality and so on were really interesting and well done, but they were sandwiched between a not-so-great additional storyline and complimented by some inconsistent art. I'd recommend it to those who like comics with a more personal feel, but for those wanting a more traditional tale or a high-octane adventure then there's little here but disappointment

Rating: Superman Smiling In A River
Not that you can tell, of course. Sorry.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

REVIEW - Morning Glories: For A Better Future

Morning Glories: For A Better Future TPB
(Collects Morning Glories 1-6)
Story: Nick Spencer
Art: Joe Eisma
Colours: Alex Sollazzo
Covers: Rodin Esquejo

Morning Glory Academy is one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country... But behind it's hallowed doors something sinister and deadly lurks. When six brilliant but troubled new students arrive, they find themselves trapped and desperately seeking answers in a place where nothing is what it seems to be!

Like X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back, Morning Glories was a series I initially didn't take to. Aside from the slightly creepy covers by Esquejo, I just didn't see what was there that made the series so popular. However, with Easter coming up, I chose a copy of the second trade collection as a gift, and I felt it was time to re-read the first collection in preparation.

It's a fairly interesting series on paper. Six students are chosen to enter a prestigious school, and nothing is as it seems. There's two spoiled brats (Ike & Zoe), a geek (Hunter), a child prodigy (Casey), the token 'emo' (Jade) and a more mysterious character (Jun), and they must work together to work out what's going on, but perhaps to also escape. On top of this, we are shown that stranger things are happening behind the scenes, and that sinister forces may be involved.

In practice, however, it feels a little confusing and half-explained, although maybe this is an intentional device in order to add suspense. For example, in a later issue there is a scene involving the characters rebelling and using some materials, yet we were never shown or told how they knew about the materials in the first place.
Jade and Casey
I have to admit I quite liked the art, but I found parts of it a little odd. With the girls in particular, there's a lot of inconsistencies with the covers and the interiors. Casey is shown to be round faced and a little perky on the covers, but in the interiors she's got a more angular face, and something similar exists for Jade. She looks as if she has freckles or some sort of scarring on her cheekbones, but it can often make her look strange on the interiors, and the marks are wholly absent on the covers. The girls all tended to have the same figures, too, and I found their tops to seem to cling a little too much, often giving too much of a shape to their chests (and it tended to make them look bra-less, not that it's a bad thing) and I found it a little unnecessary.
Cover designs; Click to enlarge
With regards to the writing, it's a little hard to say. I feel as if Nick Spencer introduced some concepts a little too early, which tended to add to the confusion. The characters, however, seemed to be quite diverse and I didn't feel that they could be easily confused. The plot is a little unclear, but I felt that it was still being laid out by the time the sixth issue ended.

In conclusion, I feel Morning Glories: For A Better Future was - on a re-read - a fairly interesting yet bizarre read. I still have some doubts about this series, but I will be continuing for now. I have a feeling that this series may be best read in one go rather than as a monthly series or as the trades come out.

Rating: One Slightly Lost-Looking Redhead
I don't remember this panel, oddly. Probably from volume 2. I don't care, though.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

REVIEW - X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back

Issue #1 Cover (also used for the collection)
X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back TPB
(Collects X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back Issues 1-4)
Story: Kathryn Immonen
Art: Sarah Pichelli
Colours: Christina Strain
Covers: Stuart Immonen (with Justin Ponsor for #4)

Pixie, X-23, Armor, Mercury and Blindfold face a new kind of hell: high school! Things get even worse when Pixie's mother shows up on Utopia demanding to see her daughter. Discover the truth about Pixie, including the answer to something even SHE doesn't know: the identity of her father- one of the most dangerous X-Villains ever! Who is he? Here's one hint: HELLFIRE.

Pixie Strikes Back is one of those stories that is, if nothing else, an acquired taste. After my first few reads, I was still left with little idea as to what truly went on in it, but I gave it another shot last night and I went from apathy to almost falling in love with it.

In Pixie Strikes Back, we meet all five main characters in high school. Everything seems to be normal, but the odd strange thing happens. When Cessily points out how bad she looks in the mirror, we begin to see just how abnormal everything is. Reflected in the mirror, the girls all look like their X-Men selves, except for Ruth who maintains her appearance. Whilst this is occurring, Anole and Rockslide are trying to track down the five girls, yet only find Ruth alone in the girl's bathrooms in front of a mirror. At the same time, Psylocke and Nightcrawler come into contact with a woman claiming to be Pixie's true mother, and she refuses to believe they don't know where she is. From then on, it's up to Emma Frost, Nightcrawler and Psylocke to find the girls and to unravel the mystery.
Ouch - I bet Armor's back will hurt in the morning.
The story is as strange as it sounds, and it feels a little weak as portions aren't explained. It feels as if bits of the plot or backgrounding were cut in order to fit it into a four-issue series. I feel a fifth issue would have helped, as it could have been used to fill in some of the blanks and to clarify a few moments (particularly with regards to the events of the fourth issue, but also Blindfold/Ruth's sudden appearance in part of Issue #2). However, any weak moments in the story were made up for by the absolutely brilliant tone set by Kathryn Immonen, as well as the characterisation which is easily on the level of writers like Bryan Q. Miller and Marjorlie Liu. She put in some very touching moments, and some brilliant dialogue ("Pretty kitties go boom!"). Let me sum up the brilliance of Immonen's writing in one way - she manages to make Emma Frost enjoyable.
First page of issue #2 - Mercury, X-23, Armor and Pixie
Sarah Pichelli and Christina Strain did a really good job on the art, the pencils/inks and colours mixing really well to create a very interesting style. It sometimes felt a little unclear in bigger scenes, but largely the scenes are smaller and more intimate. Whilst moments were a little wobbly, both Pichelli and Strain helped bring Immonen's writing to life and added considerably to my enjoyment of the story.

Overall, I think Pixie Strikes Back is a noble effort, but a flawed one. If one can look over the weakness of various parts of the story, and the rare moments of weak art (or its unusual style in general), then there's definitely something fun to be had here. It's a chick movie in comic form, it's full of little jokes and humour that may illicit a smile, though I wouldn't think it would really make you laugh out loud. It may take a few reads before it fully 'clicks', but when it does then it goes from an average comic to a potentially-brilliant read and a type of comic that Marvel (and DC) really should do more of.

Rating: One Mercury/Armor Kiss
(Yes, it totally happened. Shut up.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Digital Comics Mini-Reviews: Round Two

Today I'll be continuing with my series of mini-reviews of various zero/first issues and previews of comics, largely found upon the ComiXology app.

Note: This was originally going to be longer, but like a complete genius I deleted half of the comics I'd read.

Abiding Perdition 10-Page Preview
Arcana Comics - Writer: Nick Schley - Art: Filipe Aguiar, Pedro Delgado, Adam Frizzell, Carlos Gomez - Colours: Bob Pedroza
I'd never really heard of Abiding Perdition, but it looked interesting. I believe it's a take on Red Riding Hood, but it's hard to gauge by such a short preview, and one that acts as a sort of prologue at that. The main character is riding in a coach with her grandmother when it's attacked in a dark, haunted forest. Her grandmother and the coach driver try and fend off the attacker whilst the protagonist tries to escape. I quite liked the clarity and spookiness of the art and the writing wasn't too bad, either. I'm definitely going to look into this, as the protagonist - when older - looks to be a female warrior.

Amber Atoms Issue #1
Image Comics/Creator Owned - Art & Writing: Kelly Yates - Colours: Michael E Wiggam
This was definitely an enjoyable read, albeit one I'll likely only finish digitally (if available) due to never being collected as a trade. It's a sci-fi adventure with a pretty funky aesthetic to it, with a very capable female lead. The art was absolutely amazing, and I liked how the aliens looked. It had two different stories - one detailed the fall and rise of an antagonistic civilization after their defeat, whilst the second focused on the relationship between Amber and her father.

I would love to continue reading this series, and I hope I can find a way.

Atomic Robo & Friends - Free Comic Book Day 2011
Red 5 - Writer: Brian Clevinger - Art: Scott Wegener
Atomic Robo is one of those series that gets a lot of good press. It's got a great sense of humour, and some really good art to back it up. In this issue, Atomic Robo is a guest judge at the National Science Fair, and all seems to be going well until Dr. Dinosaur interrupts and causes a whole load of chaos. Atomic Robo has to deal with him whilst minimising the risk to the children and other innocents at the fair, but one girl just doesn't stop interfering.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, from the apparent Back to the Future reference in the panel above (does it look like the Flux Capacitor, or is it just me?), to numerous Doctor Who jokes and - well - it was just fun in general.

I've got a few more Atomic Robo comics to read, and perhaps I'll look into starting it properly.

Beautiful Creatures Issue #1
Red 5 - Writer: Kurtis J Wiebe - Art: Ash Jackson - Colours: Frank Zigarelli
First in a two-part series, I believe. Four girls are out having a good time whilst elsewhere in the world, some people are finding a power awakening inside them. As luck would have it, these four friends all have powers, and they only find out once their night is ruined.

Some pretty funky art, but I felt the characters were all the same colour. The girl in the headscarf (in the picture above) is, I believe, Iraqi yet her skin colour and facial features are largely the same as those of the other girls. Other than that, I felt the art was generally pretty good, as was the writing. Some good comedy and some potentially-compelling characters.

I may pick up the next issue at some point.

Danger Girl Issue #0
IDW - Writers: J. Chris Campbell & Andy Hartnell - Art: J. Scott Cambell
Okay, who doesn't know Danger Girl? With its risqué humour and over-the-top sexualised art, it's one of those series that catches the eye. Whilst I'm generally not a fan of such art styles, I found it to work quite well in this zero-issue. It's little more than a scene-setter and a hint of what's to come. This is Danger Girl, this is the bad guy, there's history between them, bam, end.

I may continue with this series at some point, however. The cheeky humour may work better in full issues, and some are illustrated by one of my favourite artists, Phil Noto, so I may very well find a new series to enjoy here.

Mind the Gap - Prologue
Image Comics - Writer: Jim McCann - Art: Rodin Esquejo & Sonia Oback
Not sure what to make of this. A supernatural thriller of sorts which sets the scene for the upcoming (at the time of writing) series of the same name. Elle Peterssen is attacked for no apparent reason, and is left in a coma. In this prologue, we are given an idea of the sinister nature behind the attack, but also how it will affect her friends and family.

Some good art, but I didn't find any part of it particularly remarkable in any way. There's just nine pages here, which doesn't give much of an idea of what the series will be like.

If and when the trade comes out, likely next year, I may take a chance.

The Walking Dead Issue #1
Image Comics - Writer: Robert Kirkland - Art: Tony Moore
Ah, The Walking Dead, one of the biggest names in independent comics at the moment. With a hit TV series now in its second series and with a third confirmed, as well as an upcoming video game by Telltale Games, it's definitely a big deal. Main character Rick Grimes wakes up in a hospital, only to find it seemingly deserted. There's no patients, doctors or anyone around. Rick soon comes face to face with the new residents, a group of zombies, however and flees for his life only to find an equally hostile world.

I quite liked Moore's art. It worked really well, and the black and white was quite a refreshing change from colour. Kirkland also seemed to spin a fairly interesting tale, too. I'm not sure I'll continue with The Walking Dead, however, as zombies just aren't my thing. I can certainly see why it's so popular, though.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Demo Thoughts

So, this week sees the release of Mass Effect 3, one of the most anticipated and biggest releases this year - and it's only just turned March. Set a short while after the events of Mass Effect 2, we once again take the boots of Commander Shepard and this time the fight is not for equality, a place in the universe or even for good or evil. This time, you fight to save the galaxy.

My first ever experience with Mass Effect was one of disappointment. I'd just gotten an Xbox 360, and for my birthday I was given a copy of Mass Effect. I tried it and gave up within a very short time. For some reason, I just didn't like it. Fast forward a year or two later, and I went into a GAME. I picked up the PC version of Mass Effect (I'd heard a lot of good about it, and wanted to give it another go) and from then on I was very much a fan of the series. I completed Mass Effect 2 the weekend it came out - I actually own two copies of it - clocking up a staggering 18 or so hours in just two days. I bought all of the content (still missing some of the promotional/pre-order content), played it all. Had a good number of hours in the Mass Effect series.
Mass Effect 2's Knights of Badassdom - My (old) Shepard, Zaeed and Garrus.
Then comes Mass Effect 3. At this point, I'd lost most of my faith in BioWare's ability to deliver. Retrospect killed my like for Dragon Age: Origins, I saw Mass Effect 1 and 2 as highly flawed but enjoyable games with absolutely no consistency in tone, setting and art style. I just wasn't sure Mass Effect 3 would be any good, and with all of the revelations about character changes, gameplay changes, Kinect support for the Xbox 360 and so forth, I just wasn't confident it'd be good.

And then I played the demo...

Just to point out that I played the demo on PC on 'Narrative' difficulty and in 'Roleplaying Mode' with a 'Female' Shepard and Squadmate Deaths to 'Numerous'

They changed a lot. Again. The gameplay itself is still very similar to Mass Effect 2's, including the interface. The combat feels pretty much the same, although melee combat has been expanded on a little to encompass two attacks rather than just being a rather weak action to get enemies away. I felt that the game as a whole flowed much better. There's some rudimentary ladder climbing/gap jumping that feels like it's there to vary the action and little else. In terms of levels/abilities, it's an expanded version of Mass Effect 2's, and it seemed to work from what I saw. You have different paths - for example, in one of the skills for soldiers, you can choose to upgrade your weapon damage or your melee damage, which should allow the player to tweak the game to their style a little better than the previous games.

Dialogue seems pretty much the same with the dialogue wheel, but in the few bits shown in-game, it feels... almost wrong. It seemed like cutscenes with pauses for you to make a dialogue choice, and it disrupted the flow a little, and I can't help but wonder if this is due to the addition of new gameplay modes and conversation options. I would have liked the demo to have contained some more dialogue sections in order to get a better feel for how they've changed or improved it.

There was a glimpse of some of the new characters in the demo, specifically James Vega, one of the new squadmates. He seems like Jacob v2.0 in that he's an overly-muscular meathead who is all about protocol and so on. I could be wrong, but first impressions count, and I was not impressed.
James Vega and a slightly too-shapely breast.
But it's still far from perfect. The demo shipped with some shockingly poor textures, so you have these situations where the game looks fine and poor at the very same time. The animations are also really questionable. BioWare seem to have - once again - got them wrong. Shepard lurches around like some kind of gorilla, and it never looks good - it always looks stupid. Facial expressions have improved, but still tend to look poor or insincere rather than genuine. For a game with such a focus on emotions and personalities, I find this rather irritating. I also felt that Shepard had a slightly bigger chest and a top that showed their shape a little too well. Come on, BioWare, she's not wearing body paint. A lot of the models and textures also had a lot of clipping issues, such as when a Reaper walks, you can see parts of its body pass through its legs, and I had a lot of issues with the hairstyle I chose for my Shepard.
Not too sure about Shepard's pose here. Seems very unnatural.
An example of the clipping issues - look at Shepard's left hand.
They've also changed the art style again. Mass Effect was quite dark, and tended towards simplicity and blue. Mass Effect 2 was slightly brighter, orange and much more stylised. Mass Effect 3 continues that, once again changing the colour filter but there's a huge jump in terms of what things look like, what people are wearing and so on. It really grates with me, because there's no consistency there. It's more noticeable in the character creator, as they've totally gone over the hair textures and hair styles again, and they manage to look better and worse. There's new hair colours (purple? REALLY?!), but seemingly no actual 'red' (as in a natural redhead, but you can have bright/dark red), and overall I was not too impressed with the changes to creating one's own Shepard. There wasn't any need for it, and the new creator is too dark to really see what you're doing.

I must say, however, that Clint Mansell's soundtrack is stunning. There's a very emotional part towards the end of the first section, and the soundtrack is absolutely beautiful at that point. I'm definitely interested in how it'll work out with the rest of the game.

Overall, I'm still very much on the fence with Mass Effect 3. They've improved it yet managed to make it worse. I'm now definitely sold on it, but I'm a little concerned as to BioWare's inability to stay consistent with any aspect of it, and this is perhaps influenced by the loss of Drew Karpyshyn after Mass Effect (he moved to BioWare Austin to work on The Old Republic). The tone, setting, style and, well, everything else changed, often for illogical reasons or for the sake of change. I doubt they've addressed the issues of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, instead just pushing their way forward rather than stepping back and looking at the issues.

Rating: Sad Shepard