Thursday, March 31, 2011

Batman and Robin - Grant Morrison

Batman has been around for a really long time.  In fact he dates back all the way to 1939, so trying to catch up with his story is a bit overwhelming.  Don't ask me how he's managed to stay so young looking, but let's assume he and Heidi Montag don't have the same doctors.  As a new comic reader I find it pretty overwhelming to try and jump into the world of some of these characters that have been around forever.  With literally thousands of comics, side projects, crossovers, team-ups, and all the Justice League stuff, Batman can be a real pain to catch up with.  Fortunately for people like me, authors do a great job of creating "jump on points," where the larger story takes a new turn, allowing new readers a great place to join the adventure.  Morrison's "Batman and Robin" is the most recent jump on point in the saga of Batman, and for the most part it delivery on every level.  The only down side is that you just might need a quick history lesson to truly enjoy what the future holds.

Bruce Wayne, the original Batman, is dead.  In his place is Dick Grayson, the original boy wonder, and his new Robin, Wayne's son Damian.  Damian is also the son of Talia al Ghul who apparently is not in line for any "mother of the year" awards.  Fortunately, due to their relationship, Damian is in possession of some rather beneficial skills that make him a formidable Robin.  The new Batman and Robin set out to fill the gigantic void left by the original Batman, working together periodically, but frequently at odds with each other as they try to fill their new roles.  The story introduces some new villains into the world of Gotham City, as well as a few familiar ones that anyone will instantly recognize.  My favorite was the Red Hood, a new caped crusader with old ties to Batman's past.  I won't spoil who he is, but for someone with limited knowledge of Batman's lore, it was a fun discovery. Not all of the new characters worked for me, but overall I felt that the experience was fun and fresh, and most of the gambles worked.

Remember how I said you might need a quick history lesson in order to fully enjoy the direction of the future?  To me that is possibly the only downfall of the series.  Even though Morrison takes the story down an interesting road, he makes assumptions that readers know a lot about Batman's past.  While that may be true for many readers, it wasn't true for me, and I often found myself not understanding many of the references.  Why is Batman dead?  How did Dick Grayson become Batman?  Where did this Damian guy come from?  None of these questions are satisfactorily addressed, but instead Morrison assumes you just know.  It sort of felt like watching "Return of the Jedi" without seeing "A New Hope," or "Empire."  Great movie by itself, but probably more confusing than it should be.  Despite these holes left unfilled, "Batman and Robin" really doesn't disappoint.  It has amazing action, deep plot, complex character development, and some fantastic artwork.  It also has a Robin character that just might demand his own series one day.  Overall the positives far outweigh the minor complaints.  Especially when filling the holes simply requires reading more comics...perfect solution!  Any book that immediately makes me want to pursue more related material is a keeper, and "Batman and Robin" fits that criteria perfectly.  Batman's past is epic, and the future is off to a great start.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Y: The Last Man - Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra

In the opinion of this recent comic-book-junkie's mind, there are two kinds of comic series': those you read one of, and those you follow on a continual basis.  "Y" definitely falls into the second category for me.  In the last three months I have read a wide variety of comic books, and "Y" got me hooked quicker than any of the others.  Although the series has concluded, there are more than enough trades to keep you reading for a while.  And while I am a little disappointed that the series has finished, I am also glad that they turned out such a great final product instead of following in the steps of "The Simpsons" or "The Wheel of Time" books.  In other words, "Y" doesn't milk the cow until the udders fall off...and that's a very good thing.

The story of "Y" takes place sometime in the near future, in the United States.  A massive plague has hit the world, killing every living creature with a Y chromosome.  If you are scientifically challenged, that's every male on the planet.  Of course, I'm assuming you noticed the sweet cover art picture I included in the top left corner here, so you know there are a couple exceptions to the rule.  "Y" follows the story of the last two living males on the entire planet Earth: young twenty-something Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey Ampersand.  Yorick has his mind set on getting to Australia to reunite with his girlfriend, Beth. Unfortunately for him, he is soon accompanied by a couple different women, both of which have much different plans for the last man on Earth.  Agent 355 and Doctor Allison Mann team up with Yorick to begin a long journey to discover why Yorick is immune to the virus, and to protect him as they make their way through this new and unfamiliar world. Foreign military organizations, roaming bands of Amazon women, mercenaries, and everyday ordinary women desperate to have a man all join in the adventure, further complicating an already delicate journey.  Of course anyone who's taken a trip across the U.S. knows that it can sometimes be pretty uneventful (Indiana anyone?), so all these groups only serve to move the story along and bring the adventure to life. 

The best thing about "Y: The Last Man" is it's perfect blend of humor and social relevance.  Yorick brings a sense of nerdiness and humor that kept me laughing out loud on a page-to-page basis.  I almost want to compare the style to that of Scott Pilgrim, although the two books are nothing alike.  If you put Scott Pilgrim's sense of humor into the world of Mad Max then you might have a close comparison.  The pop culture references, nerdy jokes, and sarcasm flow freely.  At the same time, the book tackles numerous socially relevant topics that really make you think and develop your brain muscles.  Topics like men and women's roles in society, morality vs. governmental obligations, the divine vs. evolution, science vs. "natural order," and many others are all discussed.  Amid all the action, drama, and comedy, there is a very thought-provoking story here.  Fortunately, neither the comedy nor the social relevance ever dominate the story.  The comedy never distracts from what is really going on, and the social commentaries never become preachy or in your face.  It's like eating a piece of cake with the perfect amount of frosting.  If you are looking for the perfect blend of humor, thought provoking topics, great action, and beautiful artwork, then "Y: The Last Man" might be just what you are looking for.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

I finished reading Kafka on the Shore over a week ago now, but I couldn't begin to write a review on it because I needed more time to think about it.  Now, after waiting more time I find myself in the same predicament.  I feel like I would have to read this book at least five more times before I could write a review that would do it justice.  This is by far one of my favorite books, and I guarantee I will be reading more Murakami in the future.  It is written in a style that exudes beauty, simplicity, purity, and innocence.  As I read Kafka on the Shore I often began to feel like the world was simpler, purer, and more welcoming.  I can only describe it as being able to once again look at the world like you did before your innocence was lost.  That's not to say that the entire book is lacking any darkness.  In fact, there is quite a bit of violence, sexuality, and other mature themes throughout the entire story, but I never once felt that they were vulgar or gratuitous.  They were simply there because evil is a part of life, and innocence and purity cannot avoid them forever.

Kafka on the Shore is a story about two characters.  The first is a young fifteen year old boy named Kafka Tamura, who has run away from his home in Tokyo.  He is on a journey to find his mother and older sister who left when he was just a small boy.  His journey brings him to a library in the town of Takamatsu where he becomes involved in the lives of the library's owner Ms. Saeki and worker Oshima.  The second character is an old man named Nakata, who has the ability to communicate with cats.  He becomes involved in a mystery to find a specific cat, and soon finds himself traveling across Japan as the mystery unfolds.  Kafka and Nakata's paths are deeply intertwined, but not necessarily in the physical realm.  The story frequently merges into the metaphysical, and often leaves questions unanswered, forcing the reader to draw their own conclusions.  For this reader at least, that was one of the more endearing factors of the book.

"Kafka on the Shore" is the type of book that you really have to read in order to understand the experience.  Just writing this review alone was a study in frustration, pushing my descriptive skills to the next level.  Trying to summarize it is like trying to explain a beautiful sunset, or an amazing experience in your life.  Sometimes you experience something that hits you right between the eyes, gripping you in a way that was completely new and unexpected.  You try to tell someone about the experience, but you just know that no words in the English language are going to get the message across exactly like you experienced it.  Maybe that's why this book was originally written in Japanese?  All joking aside, if you are willing to let your imagination soar, keep an open mind to deeper meanings, and be satisfied with not having all loose ends tied up, there is a fantastic journey waiting to be had in "Kafka on the Shore."  After all, isn't the journey of imagination what reading is really all about?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

If you've been reading my blog for at least a couple weeks you know that I've been reading a novel that has been busting my brain.  Well, that novel has finally reached it's last page, and now I take on the difficult task of reviewing it.  House of Leaves reminds me a lot of dating a few of my ex-girlfriends (actually, maybe all of them).  When I first picked up the book I loved the cover, and I found the concept interesting and appealing.  The short description seemed like just what I was looking for.  But then I started reading, and I realized things just weren't going to work out like I had hoped.  Like my ex's, House of Leaves wasn't exactly a bad book, in fact it had many great qualities that will probably appeal to future readers.  (See how I put that last sentence in there just in case any of my ex's read this?)  At the same time, sometimes a book (or woman) has such a great cover and concept that you keep trying to convince yourself that you actually like it more than you do.  You keep reading, and keep reading, getting more and more frustrated until finally you realize that no matter how hard you try, this book will never be one that meshes with you.  Is it just me or was that analogy awesome?

House of Leaves starts out from the perspective of tattoo artist Johnny Truant.  Through a short chain of events Truant comes into possession of a trunk that formerly belonged to a man named Zampano.  In the trunk is a manuscript written by Zampano about a documentary film called "The Navidson Record".  The Navidson Record is a short film about Will Navidson, his wife Karen, and their children.  Several other characters come into play as the film progresses.  It documents their experiences living in a home in Virginia, and the mysterious anomalies that take place in the house.  Will first notices something strange about the house when he realizes that the dimensions of the master bedroom have changed.  He begins to measure, and discovers that the inner dimensions of the room are larger than the outer dimensions.  During this investigation the house produces two new mysteries, the first being a new hallway between rooms, and the second being a doorway that previously was not there.  The doorway is of particular interest because when opened it reveals a long hallway of around 30 feet that extends beyond the outer dimensions of the house.  This hallway also contains other doors that lead to new hallways and corridors that far extend beyond the dimensions of the house.  Navidson's film then becomes a record of several explorations into the labyrinth of these halls and the horrors found within.  That word "horror" is extremely appropriate.  House of Leaves alternates between Truant's narrative, Zampano's account of the Navidson Record, and many other interjected commentaries from other written perspectives on the film.

I am really torn on this book.  The actual story line is great, and thoroughly enjoyable.  It's just that there is so much "other stuff" that just ruined it for me.  It is written in a crazy style where Danielewski switches perspectives mid-sentence, makes you read a multitude of footnotes, puts text upside down, and does  about a million other things that all drive this reader crazy.  There are also long periods where the story just stops and you are forced to read forty pages of word studies, commentaries written by people that don't even exist, or pages with the entire text crossed out.  I'm sure that there was a reason for all this, but I always felt like there was some hidden secret that I wasn't privy to.  It's not exactly fun to read a book feeling like you are always missing something.  At the same time, as I already said, the story itself was awesome so I kept reading through all the stuff I hated just in order to once again engage in the great parts.  If you are willing to put up with a lot of craziness and possible frustration, there is a great story hidden within House of Leaves, you just might have to dig a little harder than you would like in order to find it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller

There is something a little nerve wrecking about picking up a book about a character you love.  You come into the experience with certain expectations, and you don't know whether they will be met or not.  It's sort of like when U2 releases a new album and I always walk to the check out counter thinking, "Please God don't let this be the album where it all goes to crap."  Maybe U2 was a bad example since people might argue that happened a long time ago, but I think you know what I mean.  Batman has always been a character that I love.  From the reruns of the classic TV show with Adam West, the action figures, the animated series, the footy pajamas, and now the excellent Dark Knight movies, Batman has been a part of my entire life.  Sure things got a little bit scary when the neon lights flooded Gotham City, but we can always lock those movies away with the newest Star Wars trilogy right?  It was with this feeling of unease that I peeled back the cover of Frank Miller's graphic novel, and was soon reassured that everything was as it should be in Gotham City.

The Dark Knight Returns takes place ten years after the voluntary retirement of Bruce Wayne as Batman.  Most superheroes (excluding Superman) have been forced into retirement due to a distrusting public and government.  Bruce Wayne is haunted by the death of the second Robin (Jason Todd) as well as the death of his parents.  He is becoming more and more disillusioned with the current state of Gotham City, the new government, the rising crime and corruption, and the general sense of fear among its citizens.  After Harvey Dent (aka "Two-Face") is released as "rehabilitated", a crime spree starts and Bruce is once again forced to don the cape and cowl to return as the caped crusader.  Unfortunately Gotham City's welcome is mixed, and Batman soon finds himself fighting old and new enemies, as well as a few former allies. 

 Frank Miller's story is everything that a Batman comic should be.  It's dark, gritty, political, and full of action and intrigue.  Miller does an excellent job of making the story his own, while still keeping enough of the established lore intact.  Where he does take chances I found myself loving the directions he took and never disagreeing with the gambles.  The only negative for me was that with each turned page I knew that I was drawing a bit closer to the end of the Batman saga.  It was like watching an old friend slowly get older, more feeble, and knowing that the end would come before you were ready.  When you have lived with Batman for as long as I have, I'm not sure you are ever ready for him to put the cape and cowl away, but who knows, maybe in another ten years Gotham City might just need him again.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fables - Bill Willingham

When I first heard about Fables I was immediately drawn to the concept.  The characters from folklore and fairy tales have been kicked out of their respective kingdom by a villain named "The Adversary", and have been forced to enter our human world.  The characters that are able to take human form are allowed to live in the middle of New York City in a large building called Fabletown, while the other non-human characters are forced to live outside the city at "The Farm".  Characters like Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Jack (down from the beanstalk), and even "Bigby" the big bad wolf (now able to take human form) all reside in the middle of New York, while the three little pigs, Brier Rabbit, and others must all stay hidden away in the country.  This separation causes problems between the two groups, as many of the farm fables feel segregated and left to rot away from outside contact.  Problems also arise in the city as Rose Red, sister of Snow White, is missing and presumed murdered.  Bigby the big bad wolf is on the murder case, and looking for answers.

The first hardcover edition of Fables covers two separate story lines.  The first is the story of Rose Red's murder, and Bigby's investigation.  While the plot was well written and interesting, I never really felt like I was reading about folklore characters.  Sure they were named Snow White, Jack, and The Big Bad Wolf, but they all looked human, acted human, and could have easily been humans for all I knew.  There were brief moments of fantasy, but they ended too soon and left me saying, "That's it??"  I enjoyed the story, but really wanted the fables to come alive more than they did.  Thankfully, there was a second story line that didn't disappoint.  This second story explores the mutiny at The Farm, and the ensuing conflict between city fables and country fables.  Here we get the full effect of what got me excited about the series in the first place.  Talking pigs, Red Riding Hood packing heat, the tortoise and the hare toting machine guns, and sleeping giants that awaken from hundred year slumbers.  You know...the good stuff!  Even though it takes a while for Fables to grasp it's true identity, once it does it is a great adventure that really delivers.

Even though Fables is focused on children's characters, this is definitely not a book for little kids.  There are several adult themes, some inappropriate language, and occasional violent images.  These themes are more obvious in the first story arc, and seem to simmer down as the second arc starts.  Seeing as this is a comic I also should mention the artwork.  Unfortunately of all the comics I have read lately, the artwork in Fables was among my least favorite.  The cover art is absolutely beautiful, but unfortunately it doesn't carry over to the inside.  Despite my personal taste I don't feel like it distracted or took away from an otherwise well done series.  If you enjoyed nursery rhymes and folk lore as a kid, then you might also enjoy the way they have matured and grown into adulthood with you.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Sixth Gun - Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt

Let's see, how many blog posts can I start by referencing my buddy Jeff?  I should really link his website one of these days...maybe tomorrow.  Anyways, once again I am reading a book that comes highly recommended by Mr. Jeff Wester.  In case you are wondering, yes, I do occasionally find books on my own, but this isn't one of those times.  Fortunately for me Jeff has yet to steer me wrong, (although the verdict is still out on a certain book that will not be named) and The Sixth Gun is no exception.

The story takes place in the years following the Civil War and follows Drake Sinclair, a man with few morals, a love for money, and a knack for getting in and out of tough situations.  During the Civil War a band of evil confederate men find themselves in possession of six pistols that hold great power.  The most powerful of them, the sixth gun, belongs to their leader General Oleander Hume.  While each gun contains a unique power, they can only be wielded by their owner, and ownership can only be transferred upon death.  At the start of the story, General Hume has been defeated and locked away in a prison far from the reaches of the sun's light.  His gun has been taken, and through a course of events become linked to a young woman named Becky Montcrief.  General Hume is soon liberated by his gang, and the six villains head off to reclaim the lost sixth gun.  Of course Becky and Drake soon become entangled in the adventure, teaming up to protect the gun and maybe even claim a few of the others in the process.

The Sixth Gun is one of those stories that really hits the ground running.  This is a story about action and adventure, and it has plenty of both.  It is a fun read that doesn't take itself too seriously, and keeps the entertainment coming.  Sometimes you just want to sit down and be entertained for a while without having to think about deep social issues, or whatever other stuff that authors like to interject into their books.  The Sixth Gun was the perfect blend of fun, adventure, and pure enjoyment for me.  That's not to say that it lacks substance, but simply that it doesn't try too hard to be something it's not.  The art style also fits perfectly with the storytelling.  It is a simple style, very cartoony, and yet full of simple details that made my eyes stray back to previous panels to look again.  Overall it is a very promising new series that has a lot of potential.  If you are looking for a new series to get you started in the comic world, then Jeff highly...I mean, I highly recommend it!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Walking Dead - Robert Kirkman

Maybe it's because my friend Jeff is so convincing, or because I'm reading an impossibly frustrating novel at the moment (one day ill post on it), but for whatever reason my blog is about to get a whole lot more illustrated.  Scott Pilgrim planted a seed, Locke and Key watered it, and now I have a full blown shrubbery growing out of control.  You see, my blog is a little outdated.  After discovering the joys of comics last month I've been on a mission to read every comic I can get my hands on.  Now my mission is to put them down long enough to update this stupid blog (which is on my bad list for making me put my comics down).  So here goes nothing...

The Walking Dead is all about the imminent zombie apocalypse — trust me it's coming, and sooner than you might think.  Unfortunately, the zombie theme has been done so many times, it's in the running with vampire stories for winner of "genre that has been beaten to death", so I was a little hesitant going into the first page.  The story starts out with the main character, Rick Grimes, waking up alone in a hospital bed.  Not exactly a groundbreaking start in the zombie genre, and Kirkman keeps a healthy dose of tired cliches coming.  There is a reason these cliches have become tired, and it's because they work so well!  Just like Pepsi would never change their recipe (Crystal Pepsi?  Doh!) the zombie cliches are part of the fun!  What makes The Walking Dead special is that it mixes an expert story and strong character development into the cliche formula.  The dialogues between characters are what really draw the reader in.  Kirkman explores the delicate mental psyche of the people dealing with the complete destruction of everything they knew as reality.  Despite the obvious appeal of guns, axes and gruesome zombie dismemberment, there is a real focus on what an event like this does to the people involved.  Exhaustion, mental deterioration, animal instincts, and the fight for survival are all parts of the formula.  The characters grow, change, deteriorate, and fight to stay alive, and they take us along for each part of the gory ride.

On the surface, you can look at The Walking Dead and say "been there done that".  There are a ton of cookie cutter zombie moments that have been used a million times in a million other zombie works.  At the same time, The Walking Dead breaks new ground on the zombie genre by taking it to a deeper level and exploring the human side of the apocalypse.  Each living person, as well as each zombie is a character of the story.  With every zombie that dies (and there are thousands) Kirkman takes you through the excitement of the action, as well as the pain of seeing a human life lost.  The humanity of each zombie is felt, and you share in the pain and internal conflict that each human character is forced to deal with.  In the end, despite all the familiarity, The Walking Dead breaks ground like a decrepit hand rising out of the grave to bring something new and exciting to the once beaten to death zombie genre.