Archive for August, 2011

Flashpoint (Comic Review)

Flashpoint #1 coverToday marks the big turning point for DC Comics. Instead of their usual fifteen to twenty new comics, they only released two: Flashpoint #5 completes the event that ends their current universe and Justice League #1 kicks off the new era. I’m going to review Flashpoint (the entire event) today, and look at the opening to Justice League tomorrow (update: here it is).

(This article avoids any specific spoilers of Flashpoint’s plot, but it does discuss the structure of the DC Universe at the series’ conclusion.)

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Scott Westerfield – Behemoth (Book Review)

Behemoth cover

Scott Westerfield - Behemoth

It takes some real talent to make alternate history, steampunk, and weird science all seem perfectly comprehensible, especially in a young adult book. But Scott Westerfield pulled it off and combined it with an exciting adventure, making Leviathan one of the best novels I read last year. In some respects, the sequel can’t help but fall short of the standards set by the initial book. Behemoth has to remain in a world that is now familiar, rather than dazzling its audience with new ideas in every chapter. However, that doesn’t mean it disappoints, either. This is a worthy sequel to a very good book.

Behemoth continues a story that, from a brief description, sounds like a pretty formulaic young adult book: A prince is in hiding from the conspiracy that killed his parents, and a young girl is disguised as a boy in order to enter the military. Though they should be on opposite sides of the war, they overcome their differences, become friends, and succeed at more adventures than any person (child or adult) should ever run into. This somewhat clichéd core is what grounds an otherwise too original book, though: This is an alternate-history World War One, in which the Germans and their allies have a strong steampunk culture, and the British side has perfected the biological arts to the point where even their warships are giant animals.

This technology was well thought-out and thoroughly examined in Leviathan, providing enough technical and cultural details to suspend any disbelief. It was aided immensely by Keith Thompson’s illustrations, done in the style of children’s novels from around the WWI era. The straightforward depictions of one or two scenes per chapter gave a face to all the marvels that the readers were being asked to accept. In some situations, a picture really can be worth one thousand words, and in this case, Thompson made all these elements work by effectively provided another novel’s worth of world-building.

Unfortunately for Behemoth, it doesn’t have an entire new world to flesh out, and it can’t help but suffer in comparison.That’s not to say that it doesn’t try, though. The warring powers continue to roll out new technology, and the heroes visit the exotic city of Istanbul. The way this city has incorporated both the biological and mechanical sciences into its culture, along with historically-based interactions between it and the warring powers, make this a fascinating addition to Westerfield’s world. He already proved that he can build a compelling system that is consistent down to the details, but here he manages the tricky task of expanding on an entire book’s worth of details while honoring the ones already established.

The plot is, of course, breezy and exciting. It focuses heavily on a self-contained plot arc, with new elements introduced at the start of the book and resolved by the end, but it still definitely is the second book of a trilogy. The overarching plots, both personal and world-shaking, all progress without ending, and the uneasy alliance between the Austrian and British characters is tested without being broken nor resolved. It’s fun, but it’s obviously setting up for the big payoff in the next book. Most of the plot, including the major struggle within Instanbul, is important in theory, but could probably be ignored without dulling the impact of the upcoming conclusion.

Yes, Behemoth suffers from a bit of a sophomore slump. There’s no real way around that, though, when the originality was part of what made the first book so great. Thankfully, that wasn’t the only thing that made Leviathan work, and all of the action, character building, and respect for the details of the world are present in this sequel. Behemoth adds as many new ideas as it can manage without seeming like a betrayal of the world it already established. For fans of the first book, there is no reason not to read this one.

Grade: B

Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Jam and Destroyer of the Void (Music Review)

Like most people, I discovered Blitzen Trapper with their 2008 album Furr. I was impressed enough to check out two more of their releases: Wild Mountain Nation and Destroyer of the Void. This creates a tricky situation for this blog, though: Since I only review works that are new to me, I’m in the position of examining one that pre-dates Furr and one that is more recent, while my main point of reference for Blitzen Trapper’s work is not being reviewed. Hopefully that doesn’t make things too confusing.

Wild Mountain Nation cover

Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation

It’s amazing to see how different Wild Mountain Nation is from the breakout album that came a year later. The elements that would eventually make Furr are all there, from Eric Earley’s simple, high-pitched voice to the weird folk approach of the music. But while Blitzen Trapper now seems like a pretty straightforward indie-rock band with folk and classic rock trappings, Wild Mountain Nation sounds much more like the work of a stoner band.

In some ways, this helps to explain the band’s songs a lot. The hard-to-parse lyrics and meandering styles of Furr make a lot more sense if you imagine a bunch of stoners playing around instead of taking them at face value. Of course, Wild Mountain Nation is much further more out there, with lyrics that don’t seem to be concealing any deeper meanings (“She had a sweet tooth: Kiss-and-tell phone booth”). The music is much rougher, but there is actually more variety throughout the album. “Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem” revolves around a simple synth line with lyrics of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”, while “Summer Town” is a heartfelt ballad whose harmonies and guitar-plucking could have come from any time in the past forty years. “Wild Mtn. Jam” sounds more like a country version of Ween than Ween’s actual country album, but “Murder Babe” could be a testosterone-filled hard rock song if the singer dropped an octave and the band slowed down by about 1/3.

The songs vary from pleasant to jarring, without ever delivering something that truly stands out. It’s not always successful (“The Green King Sings” occasionally sounds like a passive-aggressive band trying to drown out their oblivious singer), but the skill is definitely there. Blitzen Trapper just hadn’t nailed down their sound yet. The only surprise is how suddenly the then-four-year-old band was able to find the right mix for Furr the following year. The experimental, unserious nature is a welcome change from the styles that dominate the indie scene these days, but by coating it in a more staid, folk sound, the band managed to fit in with the modern scene without losing the subversive edge.

Destroyer of the Void cover

Blitzen Trapper - Destroyer of the Void

Once they found that mix, Blitzen Trapper apparently liked it. 2010’s Destroyer of the Void goes further along the path of rich folk-pop with a classic rock influence. The abrasive sounds and occasional yelps are gone, and the epic 6 minute opener makes a sharp contrast to Wild Mountain Nation’s OCD. The strange perspective is still present, along with lyrics that seem to make sense until you try to parse the specifics. It seems like the best way to explain it might be that they have changed from a “stoner band” to one with “psychedelic influences”.

Destroyer doesn’t have any tracks to match Furr’s standouts. Really, Furr’s first half had a more energetic edge that made it immediately appealing and earned some radio play. Destroyer takes its cues from the softer songs. Fortunately, though, it gives them more appeal: Furr seemed to lose its direction whenever the band calmed down, but this new album avoids the lows even if it doesn’t have the highs. It’s consistently good, even if it wouldn’t serve as the catchiest introduction for a new listener.

The sound might be more consistent now, but Blitzen Trapper continues to write interesting new songs instead of revisiting specifics of the past. The only exception is the strange “The Man Who Would Speak True”, a close cousin to Furr‘s “Black River Killer”. Both are murder ballads whose narrator is undeniably evil, but references a moral code that doesn’t quite make sense. The soulful vocals and soft music would normally be used for songs about introspective heroes, putting them at odds with the song’s actual theme. It’s a clever trick, but it mainly works because it is so rare for the band to revisit past styles.

I’m glad Furr led me to try out these two albums. They provided a lot more variety than I expected, and also gave me a new perspective of the album I already knew. Neither were quite as good as Furr had been, but Destroyer did manage to come close. It’s only a few weeks until this band’s next release, and I’m looking forward to it now that I know both how skilled and how experimental they can be.

Wild Mountain Nation: C+

Destroyer of the Void: B

“Old” DC Comic Capsule Reviews

This Wednesday begins the huge re-launch of the entire DC Comics universe. While I remain cynical about their approach, I have to admit that I’m now more interested in DC than I have been for a few years. Looking over the titles I’ve been buying from them, I can see why: I’ve pretty much drifted away from their core comic line, and at this point, I’m just reading the one that are on the fringes of the company’s main stories. Even if the relaunch is only half-successful, it’s still a chance for DC to draw me back into the fold. I can see why they aren’t too worried about cynicism from people like me.

At this point, the final issues from all of their “old” titles have now shipped. Below the fold are capsule reviews of the few that I was still reading.

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Gods Behaving Badly (Book Review)

Gods Behaving Badly cover

Gods Behaving Badly

Obsolete gods withering away after their time has passed; It’s a well-worn idea in fantasy literature. In Gods Behaving Badly, though, Marie Phillips gets some mileage out of this concept by putting the Greek gods in modern London. The broad strokes of the plot feel like they could easily fit in with the classic myths if not for their new setting. However, the original myths rarely went into details about the petty bickering and foolish mistakes that typified these characters. By fleshing out those particulars, as well as devoting half of the time to the humans’ side of the story, we get a very different view of the Greek gods.

Phillips can write in a laugh-out-loud, Douglas Adams-esque style when she wants. See the first chapter (in which Artemis talks to a mortal recently turned into a tree) for the best example. However, this isn’t her default mode. Instead, she plays most of the book straight, allowing the epic powers, juvenile sulking, and casual incest to give the story an absurdist air.

The result is a fun, light read. It doesn’t always work if you stop to think about it too much (despite the gods’ waning powers, it’s difficult to believe that they couldn’t have gotten better jobs and avoided some of the traps they find themselves in), but it’s easy not to overthink it. After all, this is the story of Aphrodite making Apollo fall in love with their housekeeper to avenge a minor insult. It’s not designed for deep thought.

That said, Phillips does a great job in portraying their views and motivations. The gods are immortal, but bored and lazy, and have lost most of what they believe is their due. While they aren’t necessarily vengeful, normal people matter to them about as much as a plant would to us. The novel gets inside their heads and actually justifies this boredom and self-importance by showing us how differently they react to normal situations. In one memorable scene, Artemis considers what she would do if she “only” had another century to live. Faced with such an immediate fate, she realizes that she would move out of the dysfunctional family house. With the timescales they think in, it’s hard to believe that human lives matter. Also of note, repeated sex scenes with Apollo and Aphrodite start out interesting, but eventually demonstrate how anything can become mundane and pointless after millennia. The chapters that focus on the human characters are a more straightforward, cute love story, but the contrast shows the gulf that exists between the mortals and immortals.

There are still some frustrating aspects that took me out of the book. Much of the plot hinges on the repeated inability of intelligent people to recognize the Greek gods even when all the evidence is right in front of them. Then at the end, the resolution to the conflict is based on something that is so fundamental to this sort of story that it felt unfair to have the characters come up with it thousands of years late. Whether your frame of reference for fantasy is more Pratchett, Gaiman, or Eddings, this is something that will occur to you long before it occurs to the gods whose existence depends on it. That marred an otherwise solid portrayal of unusual characters.

Gods Behaving Badly provides a fun, subtly humorous story that makes the Greek gods into more robust characters. The story is sympathetic overall, but be warned that the obscenity and casual cruelty that mark the original myths are not glossed over. It’s necessary to overlook some flaws at times and let the novel dictate the terms of the story, especially at the end. But despite all that, Phillips is a strong character writer, and makes the journey worthwhile.

Grade: B-

Bob Wayne – Outlaw Carnie (Music Review)

Outlaw Carnie cover

Bob Wayne – Outlaw Carnie

One of the big debates in modern underground country is whether the “outlaw” style revitalized by Hank III has run its course. If you aren’t tired of it yet, then check out Bob Wayne’s Outlaw Carnie album. It may very well be the one that pushes you over the edge.

That’s not to say you won’t enjoy it. A lot of the songs on this album are simple fun, with a real understanding of how to strip a story down to the bare essence of music and lyrics. Wayne’s songwriting is outstanding. But the life depicted here seems almost like a parody of outlaw country: Drinking, fighting, robbing banks, and shooting the cheaters at the card table. Even the songs that start out with some vulnerability are feints, such as the lament about a cheating woman that turns into a claim that he won by cheating on her more. The music is similarly over the top, clearly showing Wayne’s metal roots. Though their country performance is serious, the unsubtle, loud music is at least as far from the country styles of a generation ago as modern pop country is.

The songs are a little better individually than they are as a whole. Apparently Wayne’s vision of a country outlaw involves stubbornly giving himself the victory in almost every story. Whether bragging that his band will back him up in any fight, somehow winning a blind five-against-one gunfight, or even having the ghost of Johnny Cash literally come down from the sky to save him, Wayne doesn’t seem aware of the power of songs about loss. Just look at “Mack”, the story of a “truck-drivin’, gun totin’, meth snorting, blue collar, true American hero”. Wayne never explains what makes this murderous drug smuggler a hero, other than the fact that he’s the protagonist of the song, and that the dealer he kills happens to be worse.

You would never guess much about the real Wayne – a recovering addict who has had experience fighting off demons – from the mask he puts on here. Only “Driven By Demons” shows how a song can be rowdy and rebellious while still acknowledging the cost of that lifestyle. I’m not saying that every one needs to end with the narrator paying a price, but a few more like that would have made the album feel a lot more fleshed out.

Wayne lets the bravado slip for a single song, “Blood to Dust,” which has the most fascinating story and is apparently true. Despite some amateur lyrics (“I was born in 1977, the year that Elvis died and went to Heaven”), it builds up to one of the best country music refrains of the past few years:

They say some things in our lives are best forgotten,

I say those are things that make you who you are.

So be proud of what you got, and where you come from,

‘Cause from blood to dust well it ain’t very far.

This would be a standout track on almost any album.

But for every bright point, Outlaw Carnie has something to counter it. “2012” is an embarrassing spoken-word album closer, mixing junk science with bigotry to argue that an apocalypse would be a blessing. (Did you know the fact that “them Muslims, they’re all multiplying” is one of the reasons that we’d all be better off dead?)

Outlaw Country is an incredibly uneven work. Bob Wayne can write excellent and incisive lyrics, but has no vision for combining them into a cohesive whole. When the quality keeps up for an entire song, the results are great. At his worst, though, he manages to bring down the good songs by association. I enjoy a lot of this, but don’t have much desire to listen to to half of the songs on it any more. It will be fascinating to see how Wayne grows as an artist from here. At least, I sincerely hope that he grows.

Grade: C+

Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Music Review)

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive cover

Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

“Was a time I would of said them days was gone, but I’m givin’ it another whirl”, sings Steve Earle at the opening of I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And he is – this album is a return to form for a singer-songwriter who has been frustratingly unfocused of late. The sticker on the CD cover emphasizes this, announcing it as the “first album of new songs in four years”, glossing over the recent live and cover albums. (You’d need to go back seven years, to The Revolution Starts Now, to find his last truly good album.)

As is tradition for Earle, that title track is one of the album standouts and sets the theme for the songs that follow. In this case, “Waitin’ On The Sky” is a personal look back on his life, and introduces a collection of songs loosely about mortality and endings. This is a turn from the more overtly political songs that made up his strongest output in the past decade. Earle only approaches politics in a couple songs: “The Gulf of Mexico” portrays the recent oil spill through the eyes of blue-collar oil workers who know no other way of life, and “God Is God” explains that only a fool would claim to speak for God or know His intent. They seem perfectly harmless and self-evident, but it’s part of Earle’s genius that he can make the claims he does in the conservative language of traditional songs. Most songwriters would have stumbled horribly when hinting at the way large corporations destroy traditions or implying that God is distant from our daily life.

Those political songs are few, though, and the everyman folksiness pervades the entire album. Earle is a countrified version of Springsteen, with a raspy, blues-infused edge that producer T. Bone Burnett brings to the surface here. As a reassuring, traditional Steve Earle album, the review could easily be lifted from one of his past albums: Murder ballad “Molly-O” is an original, but sounds like it must have been a traditional song that was somehow overlooked before. The storytelling songs (“I Am A Wanderer” and “Lonely Are The Free”, along with the opener) showcase Earle’s strengths, while the love songs (like “Every Part Of Me”) are decent but never the highlights. The expected male-female duet, “Heaven or Hell”, is a little weaker than normal – the song needs a little more emotion to sell the claim “I just can’t tell [if] this kinda love comes from Heaven or Hell”. Then there is a half-successful experiment, in this case “Meet Me In the Alleyway”. It’s got a great sound reminiscent of Tom Waits doing Louisiana blues, but its story about dark New Orleans magic is uninteresting.

No songs are bad, though, and every one feels like it has a place on this album. The lesser ones only earn that description next to the frankly stunning standouts. Don’t worry about Steve Earle’s recent missteps; After a 25-year career, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive still sounds like the work of a musician in his prime.

Grade: B+

Webcomics Roundup: Complete Stories

New webcomics are exciting, of course. But there’s a certain appeal to completed ones, too. An entire story is waiting for you to read it at any pace you like! Besides, it can be reassuring in a way to know that the artist was confident enough to bring their story to an end instead of dragging it on until everyone lost interest. For that reason, this article is going to focus on three notable webcomics that completed recently. The entire archives are there to read, and for free, giving you something to do while you wait for their new series to start up.

(I know, it’s been several months since my last “monthly” webcomics article. I’ll catch up on some new comics next month.)

Below the fold, Bobwhite, Great, and FreakAngels

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The Heavens of Olympus (Game Review)

“Zeus has decided that he wants to construct a universe.” I hope you don’t need theme, because that’s about as much as The Heavens of Olympus ever provides. Over the course of five days (marked by the phases of the moon, for some reason), players are charged with placing planets in the sky in order to form constellations. (Yes, these constellations are made of planets.) Points are rewarded based on the fact that Zeus craves variety. In other words, the game’s rules have nothing to do with either actual cosmology or Greek myth.

The game mechanics themselves aren’t bad, though. This, the first published game by designer Mike Compton, is a fairly abstract game about placing markers on a crowded board for points. Players select actions by playing cards simultaneously, and there are rewards for choosing different actions than anyone else. Conflicting rules offer points for forming constellations within the pie-shaped regions of the board, but also for majority control of the circular orbits that cross regions. It makes for a nice variety of choices, especially since players will also need to earn “power” (generally by playing to new regions) in order to create and place planets. The system is set up so that power will be hard to maintain by the end of the game, forcing players to struggle and do (minor) calculations to play effectively. Because they’ll also need to keep the strength of their “torch” high enough to light the planets during scoring, there are a decent number of factors to track. Combined with a simple but effective catch-up mechanism that makes the player in the lead pay higher costs, this is a decent design for a medium-light game.

In my plays, the game board was a little too busy and difficult to follow with five players, but it was decent with fewer. I’m not sure whether five is simply too many for this game, or whether better graphic design could have saved it.

Unfortunately, the idea that better design was needed comes up regularly while discussing this game. I suspect that, with dedicated professionals working on The Heavens of Olympus from start to finish, it could have been a decent, if unspectacular, game. Probably a B-, maybe a C+ if the five-player gameplay still didn’t pan out. But in its current form, almost every aspect of it is cheap and shoddily made:

  • As already discussed, the game’s theme seems to have been thrown together in five minutes. If nothing else, it would have been less insulting if the game had simply called the planets “stars” (since they light up and form constellations) and said that a cycle of the moon is one month rather than one day.
  • Along with making the five-player board easier to read, a little more consideration could have streamlined the rules that require two different first player markers to move around the table, and to help people remember each phase of the game (such as the “extra night” that occurs at the start, and the torch reduction that occurs at the start of each new day).
  • The colors of the planet markers don’t match the colors of the other player tokens at all. (And the cards that are used to select actions match neither.) Expect some mistakes.
  • The marker that displays the strength of a player’s “torch” is supposed to be placed one position higher than the actual value. The idea is that since the marker covers a number, the player’s strength is the highest value still visible. This is a confusing, non-standard rule; The same board has a scoring track, on which markers cover the player’s current score without confusion. If this was a real problem, then the publisher should have provided disks that show the number underneath.
  • The box is long and thin, similar to Monopoly dimensions, rather than the taller but more compact format that is commonly preferred today. The pieces were not designed for that box size, and the board slides around banging into the sides.
  • Similarly, the plastic insert within the box was obviously not made for this game. That’s become a common money-saving shortcut for Rio Grande, but it’s especially egregious in this case. The space for holding cards is too small to hold the ones that come with this game! Was the production so rushed that no one noticed this, or did they really care that little about the game’s quality?

Some of these flaws make the game a little more confusing and slower to play. Others are just aesthetic, but definitely impact the overall experience of the game. At conventions, I’ve sometimes talked to small publishers who were obviously a little embarrassed by the quality of the finished product they could deliver. Given their lower budgets and smaller audience, it is often possible to overlook a few flaws in order to find an undiscovered gem. But in this case, Rio Grande is one of the largest game publishers in America. That they would attach their name to such a amateur production is frankly an embarrassment for them, and a little insulting to me as a member of their intended audience. I wonder whether this is a one-time mistake, or a sign of shift in strategy for a company that should know better.

Grade: D

Enter The Haggis – Gutter Anthems (Music Review)

Gutter Anthems cover

Enter The Haggis - Gutter Anthems

Perhaps it was unfair of me to introduce myself to Enter The Haggis at the same time that I was listening to the Dropkick Murphys’ latest album. Though the band isn’t bad, there is a reason that they have such a small fanbase compared to the Murphys. On the other hand, it might be unfair to make that comparison at all: They may both be American bands with Irish influences, but while the Dropkick Murphys combined that with blue-collar punk, Enter The Haggis dabbles in more straightforward pop.

That’s not to say that the Irish-punk movement has passed by the band completely. Gutter Anthem’s first song (after the instrumental opener) is a hard-rocking ode to alcohol and overindulgence. But, while it’s a good song, it just doesn’t sound natural coming from lead singer Brian Buchanan. His declaration that “we’ll sing a gutter anthem till the day we die!” sounds less like honest self-destruction and more like the stubborn partying of a fresh-faced student who knows that once the hangover subsides, he’ll need to start studying for those finals. The band sounds much more natural singing earnest pop songs about the importance of raising children right (“DNA”) or the way people need to face up to their responsibilities (“Real Life/Alibis”).

That’s not to say that any of the songs are bad. In fact, most of them are well-written. It’s just that the more rocking tracks sound like play-acting (The liner notes for “Noseworthy and Piercy” actually take the time to inform us that 19th-century fishermen had dangerous lives, in case anyone doesn’t understand that from the song), and the poppier ones feel somewhat mundane. The band deserves a small, devoted following, probably near a college somewhere, but it’s only the popularity of Irish fusion that has brought them to national attention. (Also, those aforementioned liner notes do help. Not all of them are necessary, but when they explain inside jokes or tie into the songwriter’s life, I’m sure it helps to turn casual listeners into fans.)

Gutter Anthems also features three instrumentals that testify to the band’s composition and performance skills. Two of them are too short to work as more than glue for the album, but “Murphy’s Ashes” shows how interesting Enter The Haggis can be. Adapting a band-member’s industrial experiment into a legitimate-sounding Irish instrumental was a bold and tricky move, but it turns out that the bagpipes make an effective replacement for synthesizers. It shows that while the band may need some more time to figure out what kind of music they do best, they definitely have the skill to write interesting songs if they figure that out.

Grade: C+