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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Once upon a time, a friend of mine who worked with me on a college magazine of science fiction and fantasy, decided to see if he could get a video game free by promising to publish a review of it in said magazine. And lo, it was good. And lo, I thought, “If he can, why can’t I?” And so I did. And lo, another friend said, “We have a good gig going here, let’s make a website.” And lo, we did.

Over the years, I’ve written many many reviews (as well as other stuff) about games, movies, books, and more for The Official Time-Waster’s Guide. I will post the best of them here.

My Graphic Novel Recommendations, part 1 of ?

I have often thought of what I think are the best graphic novels — the books I would recommend to people who are starting to read comics. Sometimes this is because I have been asked, or the conversation is about it anyway. Sometimes this is just because I’m a gigantic nerd.

Either way, I thought it about time I set up a list with basic descriptions I can refer people to. So without further ado…

Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics is an explanation of how comics function mechanically and how to interpret the artistic conventions often used in comics. It is, of course, in comic format. It moves through the history of comics, definitions of the term “comic” and “graphic novels” (not as simple a task as you think), the expression of time’s passage, simultaneity, and many of the other ideosyncracies that make comics a unique artistic medium.

I know this hardly sounds like an exciting work in the world of “zap!” “pow!” and “bang!” but it turns out to be a fascinating read. Some of the bits will make you go “huh, I never thought of that!” Others will make you think “I knew that, but I didn’t know that.” All in all, it lends depth to the medium that will make you appreciate it that much more.

Kingdom Come

This is actually the first graphic novel I think of, every time. I moved it down because it seemed so apropos to have Understanding Comics come first. The sequence in which the recommendations appear has very little, if anything, to do with their quality.

Feeling that the world no longer strives for the ideals he stands for, Superman has been in self-imposed exile for ten years. In his absence, super “heroes” are out of control: their violence and disregard for life often surpasses that of the villains they fight. Desperate to make things right, Wonder Woman convinces Kal-El to return and lead his peers as he once did. Not everyone is happy about this, however, and the strife between various anti-metahuman forces, villains, and Superman’s peers seems prepared to hit apocalyptic proportions.

There really isn’t anything that can stop Superman. Good writers of Superman stories know this. You basically have two approaches, outright murder him with kryptonite, or you write a story about revealing character through choices. Waid takes the latter road (even going so far as the close the first road by having Lex Luthor point out that after so long on Earth, even a kryptonite bomb wouldn’t be enough to stop Superman anymore). What’s on trial in Kingdom Come isn’t whether Superman can beat the foe (though with a surprise twist, a test of his physical power comes as well), but whether staying true to his values can save himself or others, or whether his self-righteousness will destroy society.

All the characters of the DC Universe are here (even the Wonder Twins, it turns out). And there are loads of Easter eggs and detailed nuance, both in writing and art, on every page. Any given panel is a joy to look at, thanks to Ross’s artistic mastery. But despite all the geeky fan service, there’s a tight story here that can be enjoyed by even those with a passing familiarity with the big players of the DCU. In my opinion, this is the greatest Superman story ever told.

Grasscutter (Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 12)

Usagi Yojimbo is a historical fantasy series set in the Edo period of Japan’s history and draws on Japanese myth and legend to complete it. The primary character is a ronin – masterless samurai.

And he’s a rabbit.

All the characters are represented as animals, and it’s not really a metaphor or anything like that. Though the fact that one particular manipulative character is presented as a snake is perhaps not entirely coincidental.

Grasscutter is Sakai’s triumph, a masterful story, and the way he tells it is entirely self-contained – there’s no need for familiarity with Usagi’s previous adventures. The story surrounds the discovery of an ancient sword that can make or break the shogunate, the struggles to take control of it, and what Usagi must do to prevent all out civil war.

A great many of the Usagi Yojimbo stories are very good. It’s more than worth it to read any of the collected stories, but Grasscutter is a cut above even Sakai’s other excellent work.

Maus, Volumes I & II

Maus is the biography of Spiegelman’s father, a Jewish World War II survivor, framed by the story of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father.

Spiegelman uses animals to represent the characters, but that doesn’t make this powerful story cartoonish or childish in anyway. It actually serves as a powerful way to illustrate race relations. Jews are represented as mice. Germans are cats. Americans are dogs, and so on.

While anthropomorphism in Sakai’s work is an aethetic style choice, Spiegelman’s animals remind us of our visciousness and how little above animals we actually are. And while McCloud can explain comics, Spiegelman puts those principles into raw practice.

Maus is worth reading as a telling of history, as an exploration of human relations, and as a showcase of effective storytelling using the comics medium. It transcends all of these, forming a solid work of art and literature.

Marvels

I hesitate to put two books by the same creator on the same segment of the same list, but Ross is just that good. Plus I’m going to do it again with Will Eisner in a later edition. Maybe I should have split them, but I thought since I threw DC comics a place in the first part of this series, I’d better look even handed and put a Marvel Comics book here as well.

Not that I chose Marvels solely to balance publications by The Big Two. Marvels stands on it’s own.

The book tells the history of the Marvel universe, starting with the first appearance of superheroes with the original Human Torch, The Submariner, and Captain America, and hitting all the biggest stories that shaped what is iconic about Marvel superheroes.

Through the eyes of Daily Bugle photographer Phil Sheldon we see the world shaped by the rise of superheroes, the formation of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, and Spider-Man — as well as the biggest, most emotional stories that happened to these characters.

The real brilliance was chosing a normal person to be the viewpoint. In most comics there’s simply the feeling of triumph as heroes win the day. Making Sheldon the narrator let’s us see the fallout. And yes, there’s hero worship, but there’s also acknowledgement of the uncertainty of people who feel they might not be in charge of their own destiny. There’s more reason to mourn at death and more reason to celebrate victory.

Marvels is a primer on the big events of Marvel Comics history, true. But it’s also a great story that gives additional meaning to those events.

Back to the LEGO!

So I spend the Christmas money from Grandma on LEGOs.

But not just any LEGOs. BACK TO THE FUTURE LEGOS.

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Note that the doors lift and lower and the wheels swivel downward. The only disappointment, which is minor, is the skateboard color. It would have been cool to have a pink one with some sort of clear LEGO brick underneath, to be the hover board. Who knows, maybe we’ll get one in 2015.

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There’s a Mr. Fusion bit up there (removable if you want the version from most of the first movie). The “shiny bar code” license plate can be swapped out for the “OUTATIME” plate. The rims can also be changed out for the red rims used in part III.

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“ONE POINT TWENTY-ONE JIGAWATTS!”

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“This is heavy!”

(The whole point being that you can have happy faces or shocked/worried faces).

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And yes, there’s a flux capacitor. There’s the time circuits too. Set to January 28, 1958 — the date the first LEGO brick was patented, apparently — and October 26, 1985, the date on which the first movie begins.

So, yeah, I’m pleased.

GUYS! KISS K’NEX!

An impulse purchase to be sure. Because I have no idea how on earth one can learn about the existence of LEGO compatible toys made in the image of KISS without immediately buying them. The fact that there was only one package remaining on the shelf when I got there only proves my case.

I’m not sure I need to talk too much about them. Just… LOOK!

KISS K'NEX!

They have all of them. Spaceman (Ace Frehley)…
Spaceman

…Starchild (Paul Stanley)…
Starman

…Catman (Peter Criss)…
Catman

… and my personal favorite, Demon (Gene Simmons).
Demon

And, in case you ever wondered, yeah, fully compatible with LEGO bricks. Here’s Ace Frehley wearing a TIE pilot uniform.
Ace Frehley, TIE Pilot.

But, the absolute very best most awesome thing ever about this? The platform boots are accessories, not a solid piece of the legs.
Pirate Kiss

Bad Cinema

So I have been asked what I mean when I say “Bad Cinema.” The thing is, it’s not an easy thing for me to encapsulate any other way. Which is, after all, why I settled on the phrase.

One proposed definition is “movies that are so bad they’re good.” And to be honest, Bad Cinema encompasses a lot of these sorts of movies. Robot Jox is a good example of this. Robot Jox is a B-movie, set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the remaining nations (the Soviet Union among them) have agreed that instead of full on wars or weapons of mass destruction, they will settle disputes with what amounts to Ultimate Fighting Championships – between giant robots. There’s no rationale for how on earth societies settle on this, or why they even abide by it. The budget was so low that the props and costumes were made primarily out of bits you’d find in any local Radio Shack.

What did the film have going for it? Well, they managed to avoid wholesale copying of “mecha” style robots. Otherwise… not really anything.

But I like it. So by default, I throw it in the Bad Cinema category.

But that doesn’t work for the main body of what I consider Bad Cinema.

The second simplest way I can put it (since “Bad Cinema” is the first simplest way) is that these are movies that have at least one flash of absolute brilliance in them. Something genuine and real, and almost objectively well done – but that are otherwise so poorly made that they have no chance of commercial or critical success.

Many movies with cult followings fit into this category: Buckaroo Bonzai, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (the camp approach on the last one walks the brilliant line of farcical silliness without ever crossing into just plain stupid, which is the problem with so many spoof movies, including all of Tomatoes’s sequels.

They all have that one piece of inspirational awesomeness that draws certain people who are able to overlook the flaws. Highlander is another example. By all objective measures, the TV series was a better made production. Critics collectively gave the movie a “meh.” If it weren’t for international audiences, the theatrical release would have been a loss for the studio.

All the same, the ideas and the story that lay under the movie were enough to inspire Queen to sit down and write a bunch of songs for it. It launched a multi-film and multi-media franchise. The catch-phrase “There can be only one” is widely known these days. Taken as a whole, it’s not a brilliant achievement. But the component parts of it reveal some wonderful creativity and some powerful ideas that can be truly moving.

Another example: Godzilla (1954). This isn’t what most people think of when they think of great cinema. It’s also an example that initially seems to be arguing against myself. Godzilla was initially panned by critics. But the people disagreed sharply. It broke records for ticket sales. The only reason it didn’t win best picture in the Japanese Academy Awards was because it was up against Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (a fantastic movie by almost any measure).

You know what’s awesome about Godzilla? This is a movie about the horrific accidental result of a nuclear weapons testing – made concrete in the form of a literal giant monster. And the only way to stop it is to create a new kind of weapon of mass destruction and using it on their own territory. And where does it take place? The only country to have had a nuclear weapon used against them – less than ten years after the flight of the Enola Gay. It is powerful that the creators would have the courage to examine the issue that way in the mass media.

Of course, when I talk about Bad Cinema, I don’t mean just the 1954 movie. I’m talking about most of Toho’s output, as well as even the Mathew Broderick version. One of my favorite installments in the franchise is Final Wars, which features … well, pretty much every rubber suit monster Toho ever conceived. And they just keep coming. Also included? A Power Rangers-esque set of super soldiers who do battle with humanoid aliens (who control the monsters) and each other. Good times. It is, essentially, pro wrestling in rubber suits. I think, honestly, it’s that homage to the original that makes it so appealing. It’s not an attempt to recreate the phenomenon. It’s an acknowledgement that giant monsters stomping tiny things is pretty awesome on its own.

So that’s Bad Cinema. I’m not sure if I can reduce it any more than that, other than to cite more movies and explain what I love about them.

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Favorites: Musical Acts of the 1950s

This is the first in a new series I’m starting. It may be that this series will only reach 6 articles, but it may be that I find something else to put in it.

Why six articles? Because the inspiration for this series was creating a list of my favorite 3 musical performers/musicians/songwriters/bands of each of the last 6 decades. Naturally, they focus on rock and it’s related kinds.

So, without further ado: My favorite three rock stars of the 1950s.

There are really only three to consider: Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. The 1950s was the easiest decade from which to select favorite music acts.

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry is one of the earliest rock stars I ever even knew about. He was one of the artists Dad listened to. And who doesn’t know “Johnny B. Goode?”

Especially if you’ve ever seen Back to the Future

But he had others that just rock out. “Maybelline,” for one.

“Sweet Little Sixteen,” for another.

And honestly, he brought us the timeless “My Dingaling”

(yeah… that one’s not 1950s, at least that recording… I stand by my decision, however)

and one of the Best Christmas Songs Ever

(look! Reindeers! — if Chuck says it that way, I can too. Sorry, couldn’t find a performance of it)

Elvis

Elvis: THE STAMP

And... he had great hair

I admittedly overlooked Elvis Presley for a long time.

It wasn’t till the USPS released a postage stamp with his face on it that I gave him a real chance, recognizing at last how many of his songs I did know and love already.I mean, I knew I loved them, I just didn’t acknowledged that I liked so much that Elvis recorded, collectively. It was upon the release of this stamp, and the purchase of a greatest hits CD that I was finally able to admit: I loved Elvis.

So what is so great about Elvis? Other than the fact that he swung his hips and wore a leather jacket and sneered?


and the fact that even in his old age he could kick a mummy’s butt

Well, “Hound Dog,”

“Jailhouse Rock,”

and “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Pretty much ’nuff said right there.

Granted, he did “Amazing Grace” in 1970,

From the title of the album, it’s clear that they didn’t invent innuendo by 1970…

which puts it in another Decade, but since what I love of his music is MOSTLY in the 50s, and since that’s the decade I believe most people associate him with, I’m putting him here.

Buddy Holly


Wait… wrong buddy Holly…

From an early age, I was familiar with his work. I thought it was alright. I don’t think I “got” it though. Even when I was in a fit of buying 50s music and I got his greatest hits I didn’t get it. I believe there are times when I thought he was over rated on the basis of his tragic death as told in epic song.


Wait… wrong epic…

But while his music is simple, and I tend to be snooty about a lot of the virtuoso music I listen to, there’s raw art underneath the wholesome nerd-rock image Buddy Holly gave us. This is stuff at the core of so much rock to follow for the next half century and beyond. This is stuff that is iconic and still influential.

“That’ll Be the Day” (that I’ll die, not the music),

Wait… wrong… oh yeah. This one is right.

“Peggy Sue,”

What if Elvis had worn Holly’s glasses…?

“Maybe Baby,”

Couldn’t find a decent performance for this one either. Enjoy the pre-hipster nerd chic look

and “Rave On!”

But not with glow sticks or roofies! Also, yes, it’s clear the performance and the sound are not really associated with each other. Deal.

I mean, come on. You know you like every one of those, even if you won’t admit it because you’re a hipster and think you’re above it. And it’s because Holly is/was iconic. Emblematic.

Figure Shopping

Saturday I took the girls to Target to spend their dollars. Naturally, I ended up in the toy aisles. I’d like to pretend this was because I had three people under the age of 8 with me, but we all know my penchant for buying and playing with toys. Plus the girls wouldn’t stop in the G.I. Joe and Star Wars aisle. To make a long story short, I saw two new lines of toys. This was surprising in that Christmas was less than two weeks previous, and it seems like January is a poor time to market a new set of toys, but there you have it. I was no less excited over the prospect.

The first one I want to talk about is the new set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures. They look really different than previous lines, but this is hardly a shock, since they’re based on the new film coming out and the character design for the new films is very different from previous movies or shows. I’m not very convinced I like the new designs, but I’m excited for the movie (though it could very easily turn out to be lame). Maybe my position will reverse on this issue in a couple months.

So I didn’t buy any turtles. I did, however buy April O’Neil. April in the new line is dressed like a ninja — complete with katana and overly large tonfa that is bigger than her leg (normally a tonfa is only slightly longer than your forearm and fist). This would be an entirely new approach to the character than I’ve really seen before, which intriguing less that the figure is this way (toy lines have made her a ninja before) but that it reflects what will be in the movie. Yes, I’m interested. They could very easily blow this, but still.

Anyway, April gets the thumbs up. She looks good, if cartoony (and well, what did you expect?), plus she stands and isn’t fragile. You go girl.

The other set of toys is the brand spanking new line of Marvel Comics based action figures coming out of Hasbro. At least a year ago, Marvel announced that they would be discontinuing their contract with Toy Biz and moving to Hasbro, but I didn’t think it would take a full year to ramp up to actual distribution of collectible figures. Foolish Eric. When I first heard the news I was disappointed and apprehensive. Toy Biz has made the best figures I’ve ever seen, hands down, with their Marvel Legends line. Super articulated with quality sculpts, they’re fun to look at, sturdy, and highly posable. Hasbro, on the other hand, does the craptastic Star Wars figures that are out now. 90% or more of the current Star Wars figures cannot stand up without leaning on something. The poses are awkward and while the sculpts have improved over the last couple years, they’re still mostly suckaliscious. I suppose that’s good for my wallet though, seeing as even though I hate them I still buy all sorts of Jedi figures. I need help.

So, yes, I bought all six figures in Hasbro’s new Marvel Legends line. I tried to convince myself to only grab one or two for approximately .36 seconds before acknowledging the futility of the argument. As soon as I saw all six figures where there, I took them, despite the physical impossibility of carrying all of them. I had to enlist my daughters, already laden with the popcorn and lemonade they had bought, into helping me until I found a shopping cart. Despite the fact that some of them were, well, stupid. Don’t get me wrong. While the Hasbro figures aren’t as articulated as the ones from Toy Biz, they’re quality sculpts, sturdy figures, and still quite posable. In terms of quality, these are very good toys.

See, the thing is, with the Toy Biz lines, you could never get some of the figures of any given series. Let’s use Series 13: Onslaught Series as an example. It was relatively easy to find Lady Deathstrike, Blackheart, and Pyro figures, but very difficult to get the others unless you preordered or bought off amazon, which takes half the fun out of it. This is because those three I mentioned are, well, stupid. D-U-M, dumb. Plus they weren’t great sculpts, relatively speaking, particularly Lady Deathstrike. You couldn’t make most collectors care enough to get them, even though you have to buy all six figures to be able to build the Onslaught figure. Naturally, I did buy all six, eventually. Because I am Toy Biz’s bitch.

The thing that got me was the building additionial figures. Most of these figures are cool, like Onslaught, Galactus. And usually only one or two of the figures in a series suck too badly, which makes me feel better about buying them. But some of the build figures are pretty darn insipid too. I mean, I can almost see Mojo, but Modok? Frickin’ MODOK? who cares about Modok? No one. Nobody cares.

But what got me about the figures in Hasbro’s new line is the character selection. There are some silly figures in the Toy Biz series, but they’ve done over 100 figures. Even with some alternate versions (such as First Appearance Iron Man or black costume Spidey — yet, sadly, never a Ben Reilly costume Spidey… how we hates them, yes we do…), you’re going to have to dip into some less impressive characters. On the other hand, Hasbro is introducing a brand new line. Trying to get a new following, from scratch, essentially. So why are there second- and third-string characters on the shelf here?

Ultimates Iron Man is shiney, both in the literal sense and in the Firefly slang sense. Planet Hulk … er… Hulk is both timely and original looking. Heck, he looks like Spartacus. And let’s face it, Emma Frost is both popular right now and oh so very smexy. These are figures that will attract buyers. If I were starting a toy line based on Marvel properties I know who my first six action figures would be: Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, and well… Emma Frost. These are the first stringers. The most iconic of Marvel characters. These are characters known even by people who don’t particularly care about Marvel. If you want to mix it up you could replace a couple with villains — choose from The Green Goblin, The Red Skull, Magneto, and Venom, all recognizable characters. Sure, Toy Biz has done most of them during hte last few years, but come on, new line. It replaces the old. *These* are going to be the ones everybody wants now.

I don’t really know what to say about including Hercules. I mean,for starters, the sculpt isn’t to die for. He can barely hold on to his mace, and his head looks like it grows from his chest, with a neck behind it. For some reason, Marvel keeps wanting to think he’s a significant character, even though most of us forgot (often on purpose) that he’s even in that universe (they do this with characters like Namor and Black Panther too — seriously guys, stop trying to even out sales and focus on characters we already like). He’s not even Thor, who is at least a character that people recognize as a superhero. People only recognize Hercules as a bad TV show and a worse Disney cartoon. Some of the unwashed masses might remember he’s a figure from ancient mythology, but no one thinks “comic books!” when they hear the name Hercules.

Then there’s X3 Beast. Not Beast. But the Beast as played by Kelsey Grammer in X-Men 3: The Last Stand, the worst X-Men movie of the lot. Ok, well, at least it’s not Elektra, but still. Look, I’m willing to give them a lot more props for this movie than most people are, but neither I, nor anyone I know, is exactly clamoring for an action figure of Frasier. And what we got in that movie was a hairy blue psychiatrist. Couldn’t we just have one that looks good like the comics?

Finally, there’s Banshee. Yeah, Banshee. He’s never actually been in a movie. This is because he sucks. His superpower is yelling. Now I know it’s cool to show the character using his power, but well, come on. Banshee’s craptacular sculpt makes him look like he’s coming on to the other male characters. This is not good.

So yeah, in general thumbs up. But there’s still some problems I’m not happy with. But yes, I still bought them all.

I had to in order to have the parts to build Annihilus.

No, I don’t know exactly who that is.

Congrats Hasbro, you win. I am now your bitch.