Thursday, 30 June 2011

New Beginnings - Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing

Following the massive events of Blackest Night, and subsequently Brightest Day, a new three part aftermath series has been born and is set to re-introduce two notable characters from the DC roster - Swamp Thing and most intriguingly John Constantine.

Initially Jonathan Vankin may seem an odd choice considering he has written for TV, graphic novels and his own books, but he is a senior editor at Vertigo. This may have also been a factor paving the way for Constantine to cross over into the DCU, but I am just speculating.

The story he has written is an interesting one. The title, as it suggests, is all about the hunt for Swamp Thing now he has returned and Constantine is a great vehicle for this as he made his first appearances in the Swamp Thing comics (as an occult specialist). If you’ve been reading Brightest Day then there is really nothing to give away here, as it is exactly as it says on the cover. This is really about finding the Swamp Thing in the aftermath, however, and here is the cynical side of me showing, I found it more about showcasing Constantine, especially in the knowledge that he is being brought into the DCU in Justice League Dark (by Peter Milligan who brought us 5 Ronin most recently).

Having also not read Hellblazer prior to this I’m not sure if the stereotypical “British” language, which is a coarse mockney sprinkled with mild profanity, is the general speak of Constantine. It’s been liberally used throughout the issue and has to be the one thing I got bored of whilst reading. In smaller doses I would have said palatable but I felt there was a bit of overkill here. It was also good for comical effect, such as when he had somehow gained access to the Batmobile!

Marco Castiello has pencilled the issue and outside of work on Witchblade I’m not familiar with his work. I was surprised when I looked him up as his style is not what I would say is the Top Cow normal. There is a lot of fine line work with uncluttered visuals. Great attention is taken to facial details conveying a lot of emotion and thought through minimal touches and additions. There is a lot more detail in the cover work (not by Castiello) but I am left wondering why the inclusion of Superman has been made seeing as he’s nowhere to be seen inside.

I’ve enjoyed this issue and I’m looking forward to others for a couple of reasons - I like the artwork for one, the story holds well (barring the fake accent) and the plot is good. More importantly I’m looking forward to the 2 potential spin offs that this is creating as they are characters that are new to me and opening doors. If there is anyone like me, who doesn’t know much about Constantine (aside from the Keanu Reeves film) then I would really suggest taking a look at this one. A good introduction and one that has piqued my interest in him. Roll on the other two issues and also let’s take a look into Hellblazer...

Matt Puddy often sprinkles his reviews with mild profanity, but they get edited out. Funk yeah!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Watcher - The worlds of Philip K. Dick - Blade Runner

Next Monday, July 4th, sees the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the 12th feature film based on the works of Sci-fi icon Philip K. Dick. While ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ has earned mostly positive reviews, critics have noted the film’s divergence from the source material, Dick’s 1954 short story ‘The Adjustment Team’. As such, the finished movie retains only the story’s core concept of a "shadowy team of G-Men type spooks who make tiny adjustments […] to our lives to make sure the future plays out as it should (SFX issue 211)." But with the exception of 2006’s excellent ‘A Scanner Darkly’, adaptations of Dick’s writing usually take only the core sci-fi concept and run with it, often jettisoning the title itself together with subplots, twists and more philosophical themes.

Nowhere is this more true than the very first adaptation of Dick’s work to hit the silver screen, 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’. Directed by relative newcomer Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, it was, at the time, a relative flop, but has since become regarded as a classic, and marks something of a career high for almost everyone involved.

‘Blade Runner’, based on Dick’s 1968 novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ is the story of Police bounty hunter Rick Dekkard, who hunts down dangerous ‘replicants’, genetically enhanced humanoid slaves, through the streets of a decaying future society. This is where the similarities to Dick’s story end, but at the same time, the world evoked by Scott is unmistakably that of the original author, who having been privy to the filmmaking process, happily acknowledged the truth that "A movie moves and a book talks." (Lee/Sauter: ‘What if our World is Their Heaven?’ Overlook, 2000, p.33)

Fittingly, ‘Blade Runner’ is remembered first and foremost for its stunning depiction of the future city-scape of Los Angeles circa 2019. From the opening shot of a dark urban sprawl lit by neon light and flaming spires, to the rain drenched streets and smoke filled offices, Scott crafted a cohesive, atmospheric world that mixed film noir with futurist style. His insistence that the visuals take equal place alongside the drama ensuring the film’s legacy in a whole new sub genre of ‘neo-noir’ visuals in films and animation.

Legacy aside - simply watch the opening few minutes of the film for yourself. Some scenes are so well constructed that they belie their sheer complexity. In one, Dekkard and colleague Jaff fly through the city as various shots seamlessly mix live action, miniatures and matt paintings to stunning effect. It took about twenty years for the film industry to produce anything else so detailed and visually cohesive, and even then it was with the aid of computers (*cough* George Lucas *cough*).

At its heart though, there is more to this film than simple looks. It’s also a decent thriller where the action is never gratuitous and a story that doesn’t completely ignore the more interesting questions thrown up by the source material. Again, at Scott’s insistence, we not only see how Dekkard’s quest to ‘retire’ the rogue replicants highlights his own brutality and seeming lack of empathy, but ultimately the film makes you doubt whether there are any real humans left at all.

Which leads to the performances. Harrison Ford, no stranger to leading man duties by this point, takes a risk and ditches the easy going charisma of Han Solo and Indiana Jones for something altogether more hard boiled and tortured, and is all the better for it. The two leading ladies, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah who both play replicants, bring a perfectly nuanced physicality to their roles that is at once human and yet slightly alien to our senses.

Rutger Hauer though, as replicant ’big bad’ Roy Batty is, ironically, the film’s beating heart, a tortured soul, and awesome physical presense, who reads his lines with all the passion of a man about to die, and the grace of a classical actor reading Shakespeare. The rooftop showdown between Ford and Hauer at the film’s finale gets the heart racing, before leaving you staggered with its sheers beauty. The flowing soundtrack by Vangelis might also be classed as a performer, perfectly mirroring the emotional beats and even providing them completely during the film’s more stark moments.

All in all, watching 2007’s ‘Final Cut’ version of the film, its hard to believe that ‘Blade Runner’ is pushing thirty. Sure, there are moments, such as the smoking, the flying cars and the lack of digital photographs in the film’s future world that betray its 80s roots, but one still can’t help but conclude that Blade Runner was so cutting edge that it wasn’t so much ahead of its time, but that it simply took the rest of the film industry about thirty years to grow up around it.

And as if that was enough... Edward J. Olmos, with a ’tache and a bow tie. Bow ties are cool. Eddie Olmos is cooler. ’Nuff Said.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe has seen things you people wouldn't believe...

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Saffron Threads - Blood and Treasure, Pride and Glory

A couple of months ago, as a break from immersing myself in the depressing history of the Balkans and the exploitative and patronising practices of early European colonialists, I read my first graphic novel. It was "How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less" which follows a pair of young American adults on a birthright tour and explores how their preconceptions about the country and the tour are challenged through the experience. It's pretty weighty stuff for a format I'd casually written off as being purely anthologies of comics! As well as being beautifully illustrated and well-researched the presentation of information meant quite a lot of it stuck in my mind. Certainly, on my own trip to Israel a few days later I was struck by how much I remembered at odd times. More, I think, than I remembered from any of the academic reading or indeed the Lonely Planet guidebook I'd been poring over for months while planning my trip.

One ceasefire doesn't make a peace treaty, of course, but it's a start. I borrowed Ben's copy of Pride of Baghdad for my next foray into this strange, new world, and promptly sat on it for almost two months while finishing up my MSc Finals*. Of course, when I got around to reading it, it took me all of about half an hour, but 24 hours later I'm still thinking through the implications of its political commentary.

On the surface, it's a lushly coloured and somewhat harrowing account of the fate of a pride of lions when the 2003 invasion of Iraq destroyed the zoo they'd called home. Unlike Animal Farm (which can be read by young children as a story about animals a well as being an insightful political commentary on communism for older readers) Pride of Baghdad begins with gang rape and progresses thence through torture and cold-blooded murder, illustrated by graphic depictions which make the Killer Bunny from The Holy Grail look positively pleasant.

Analysing more deeply, the pride represents the people of Iraq, liberated by the American troops whether they wanted it or not: within the pride, some of the lions are pleased by their escape into the concrete jungle while others are not. Taking the analysis further still, there's a sophisticated retelling of the story of Iraq to be found. There are discussions about “outside” and what the pride remembers of it, as well as the concealment of the less-savoury elements from Ali (“Exalted”), the baby of the pride who represents the future of Iraq. The lionesses Safa (“Purity”) and Noor (“Light”) compare memories and stories of “the old days”, with the aforementioned gang-rape perhaps alluding to the number of times Iraq was invaded and conquered from the Middle Ages onwards, but with periods interspersed of prosperity and peace. In my reading, the pride represents the Shia Muslim majority of Iraq, with the zookeepers (killed by the first wave of bombs) representing the ruling Sunni Muslim minority. The pride suffers starvation, dehydration and a loss of their home as a result of the bombing; this uncomfortably highlights the effect of the invasion on the ordinary citizens of Iraq who lost their homes and their livelihoods in the war to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

There are other groups of animals too: before the bombs begin to fall, one of the antelopes in the zoo talks to Noor, who tries to persuade the antelopes that if they worked together they could all escape. The final substantial group in Iraqi society is the Kurds, and the antelopes' ultimate decision to take their chances in the ruins of Baghdad mirrors the autonomy-seeking stance of the Kurds in Iraq and their distrust of the Arab majority (whether Sunni or Shia: Kurds follow both strands of Islam but are ethnically distinct from Arabs). A monkey tribe attempts to opportunistically abduct Ali, perhaps symbolising elements such as Iran or Al Qaeda taking advantage of the chaos and destruction in the immediate aftermath of the invasions and competing for influence over its future.

Finally, a visit to the deserted main palace in Baghdad reveals a chained male lion, a black bear, and a herd of horses. Given that the book was written in 2006, I take the black bear to be Saddam Hussein and the horses to symbolise justice, driven by Ali. I'm undecided on the significance of the chained lion: perhaps the Shias who had been complicit – on whatever level – with the old regime? I also haven't decided whether the final few pages are intended as a brutal and poignant indictment of the attitude of the American forces or if they were simply necessary for it to stay true to the final events befalling the pride. Of course, it may be both and this is perhaps the most damning political comment in the whole novel.

Ultimately, Pride of Baghdad makes several incisive points in a very subtle fashion, and criticises the foreign policy of those involved in the “Coalition of the Willing” in a way which more mainstream media would struggle to do and still be given airtime. It turns out there are several more graphic novels exploring aspects of the Middle East, and these have been added to my ever-expanding list of Things To Read For Fun Once I've Graduated.

*not literally on it

This month, Saffron is immersing herself in Israel's 1980 “Jerusalem Law” and related British government policy in order to get a handle on her dissertation research.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Technophobia for Dummies…

It has come to my attention that lately, certain aspersions have been cast. There’s a change in the air, a certain atmosphere when I sashay gracefully (or stumble, or skip, depending on my mood and overall excitability level) into a room. If I listen carefully I can almost hear the whispers, the hissed insults... I’m half expecting a rock through my window any day now attached to one of those notes, where each individual letter is fastidiously snipped from The Times, or The Guardian, or What Psycho magazine.

So what heinous crime have I committed? I queue politely, maintain a blandly unobtrusive ring tone and wouldn’t dream of risking that special level of hell reserved for people who talk at the theatre. But apparently, this isn't good enough. Apparently, I’ll be hanging out with the perjurers in Dante’s Inferno, because I, ladies and gentlemen, am a liar. What with the role playing and the zombies and the chess, the word on the street is that I am not a Reluctant Geek at all...

More just one in denial.

True or not, this week I’m drawing a line in the sand between myself and the world of geekery. Except the line is more of a wire, which is probably already demonstrating how hideously out of date I am on this week’s subject. Technology. I just don’t get it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I have some vague understanding of how it all works… I haven’t thought my laptop was powered by tiny pixies for at least a year and a half now. And I get why people *use* technology. I use it myself to check the internet whilst hiking in deepest rural Somerset, or to catch up on my favourite shows, or to write this column.

What I don’t/won’t/can’t get, is how interesting the truly hardcore geek finds it - how much conversation it can generate - and the levels of frantic anxiety that seem to exist when it isn’t quite right. Linking up the laptop to the TV to play online programs strikes me as an infinitely sensible idea, but being driven to paroxsysms of despair when your girlfriend* leaves the tiny white mouse symbol still hovering around doesn’t. Likewise I love my phone. It lets me talk to my friends and family, and check Facebook on the go (which I’m sure we can all agree is the very definition of life enhancing!) but when people start talking about Android technology and apps and user interfaces I fix an interested smile on my face, and start playing the movie ‘Footloose’ in my head. I imagine this is how people feel when I start waxing lyrical about PBGV puppies, or wild swimming, or the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Which is to say, baffled but indulgent.

And I know that I’m demonstrating my true Luddite credentials when I say this, but I’m yet to be dragged over to the dark side of the Kindle. It’s a great idea and I can see the appeal intellectually, but there’s a stubborn part of me screaming "No! I need an object I can hold in my hands, with that wonderful ‘book’ smell, and the chance to trip over it and stub my toe on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night." I have a similar attitude to SatNavs, except that rather than just being a tad resistant, I actively hate them. I dislike being told what to do at the best of times, and I’m afraid I’m just not going to take it from a box of wires and screws (or whatever you actually find inside a SatNav!) The mere presence of one is enough to turn me into something akin to the most stereotypical male driver, who despite having been lost for six hours and late for his own wedding, actively refuses to stop and ask for directions.

It’s all OK though. Despite my disinterest, I've never been anything other than happy to co-exist alongside each new innovation. There are always those voices telling us that the internet is ruining our social skills, our mobile phones are giving us cancer and HD TV is damaging our eyesight. But it’s all a bit of a cop out. I don’t want to sound like Yoda or anything, but we have to master technology and use it in the ways that are best for us (or should that be ‘ways that are best for us, we must use it’) rather than letting it make us its bitches.

On which note, perhaps I’m just not taking proper advantage of the technological possibilities with my current mobile ringtone. I’m off to download something catchy and outrageous. Or maybe it’s not a case of downloading, maybe I need to text, or hook up my iPod, or...

*She is very sorry and won’t do it again!

This week Kate is in the mood for strawberries.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Mane Event - Green Lantern Movie Prequels: Abin Sur, Kilowog & Tomar-Re

This week in conjunction with the release of the long awaited movie, Green Lantern, I have three tie-in comics to review. These are the individual one-shots for Tomar-Re, Abin Sur and Kilowog.

Each of these have been written and drawn by different teams, which gives them individuality and also their own unique touches. Each brings out the essence of each of these substantial figures which parallels their ability to overcome fear and show great will.

Outside of the well-known four human Lanterns, these have to be some of the most well known Corps members, with only (and remember that these are set early in the GL saga) characters such as Sinestro (out in July and written by Geoff Johns) being more recognisable from within the ranks.

Tomar-Re is written by Marc Guggenheim (of The Flash when Bart died and the GL movie) and he doesn’t go lightly either in this issue. Tomar is a scientist at heart after all and this analytical mentality is clearly conveyed in his approach and the story. Putting him in positions where his heart and head are in conflict over the situation. It also gives more insight into his race and how they react physically, which I didn’t know, so really opens him out. For a Corps lead by emotionless guardians, he certainly wears his emotions on his sleeve.

This is all conveyed further by Cliff Richards’s artwork. On the whole it feels quite heavy and dark but this also fits the story as emotionally speaking it is the same. It’s not the most detailed work but it makes a statement and keeps things focused on the main characters and story.

The combination of the two work well to portray Tomar well.

Secondly we have Abin Sur. Interestingly enough it is written by Michael Green, who co-wrote the GL movie with Greg Berlanti and Guggenheim, but aside from that he has mainly been in TV. There have been some DC storylines, but predominately for Batman. The story focuses heavily on the first experience of Abin Sur with an unremarkable planet known as Earth. Although the story is quite straight forward, its implication is much more. It gives the reader, if prior to watching the film, much more of a grounding for when they see this alien and when he meets Hal.

Drawn by a combination of Patrick Gleason and Tony Shasteen the artwork is clean and well defined, a style I like, with plenty of background and technical detail. It follows more in the design of the film which is also not too far from the original comics. On occasion it does look a little forced, but on the whole it looks good. One thing I loved was the fire though, the explosions really jump out when they occur and they look great!

Finally we have my favourite – Kilowog. If ever there was a member of the Corp that wore his pride of who and what he belonged to then here he is. Peter Tomasi has written this incredibly well; not only do you get to feel this - and I do mean feel - but you also get to see how even with his unfeasibly hard exterior, Kilowog takes every metaphorical bump hard and personally. His focus and passion is the Corps and making sure it continues, which is demonstrated by the fact the story revolves more around his recruits. This is still typical of Kilowog and his comic book storylines (outside of Emerald Warriors) which means that the continuity is kept for fans but new readers will get to know it well.

Carlos Ferreira was not a surprising choice for the artist either but on this occasion I’m not completely fond of all of his characterisations. Kilowog for one has changed over the years and on this occasion his muscular neck-less depiction, although apt, isn’t my favourite. Free reign has been given with the recruits and taken well seeing as we are given some new races to muse the backgrounds of as well. It’s not as detailed as Gleason’s work either but this story is more about inner strength and will as opposed to outward image. Tomasi’s story has been supported by the art, but it is certainly the driver behind it as well, or at least it is out in front.

That said, I still loved this issue as it still epitomises who Kilowog is for me and for anyone who sees the film and wants to know more about who the characters are, then this is a good one to choose.

For once, and without sounding too sceptical, I was pleasantly surprised as previous movie tie-in comics have disappointed me but on this occasion they’ve been worth it. I am tempted to go so far as wanting to buy the Hal Jordan and Sinestro versions as well. Firstly, this will complete the set, but secondly they are written by Geoff Johns, so hold a certain weight already. As a fan I’m happy as all three give me more about well established characters in the GL universe, but for a film goer getting into comics or a new reader then these also work well, especially with the upcoming DC reboot.

Matt Puddy got a ring from a dying alien... but it just left an ugly tide mark he had to scrub to get off. Cheap metal sucks.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Bite me…

I am not a morning person. I never have been. When faced with a situation where the world demands that I should be ripped untimely from my bed I tend to resort to stumbling around, wailing incoherently and snarling at anyone unfortunate enough to cross my path. Whilst in this mind fog of resentment and swooning irresistible sleepiness, driven only by the most primitive urges (primarily to go the hell back to bed) I have some sympathy for the lot of another group marked by their shuffling gait, absence of rational thought and tendency to bump into stuff. Perhaps zombies are misunderstood creatures really, only resorting to a little bit of brain snacking out of frustration and sleep deprivation when they’d much prefer just somewhere comfy to lie down and maybe have a nice cup of tea... Well I mean really. Has anyone ever stopped to ask? (This is if they get time before their brains are sucked out of their ears of course.)

What is certain is that sympathetic to their plight or not, we have never been so fascinated by this idea of the undead amongst us. I seem to come across zombies wherever I go at the moment, which makes me feel that the universe is sending me a clear if indecipherable message, (possibly to do with it being rude to bite?!). I’ve tried to trace this pattern back and I suspect that The Walking Dead has an awful lot to answer for. As a comic book with a visceral, paired down style and a body count higher than a psychiatric hospital for lemmings it is brutally engaging enough, but the recent TV series removes another level of distance between us and the heartbreakingly normal, recognisable characters that surround protagonist Rick. And really, poor Rick. As all-American as heroes come, he functions as the epicenter of Hurricane Zombie, death and carnage swirling around him. He resists, but to do so is to engage in a task as endless as that of fighting nature itself. The zombies just keep coming.

Of course, zombies aren’t natural really. One of their most terrifying aspects is the fact that they exist against the natural order of things. If death and taxes are supposed to be the only certainties then zombies cast us loose from even these constants. Not only is your loved one gone, but their corpse is trying to nibble on your shoulder-blade. I’ve talked before about how my gaming tastes tend towards the girly and the obsessive, and in keeping with the sub-conscious "zombie theme' of the present I have become more than a little pre-occupied with a rather lovely game called Plants versus Zombies. Tapping in to this idea that zombies upset the balance of nature, the game involves defending your property by means of the judicious application of a variety of plant-based guardians. Trust me, zombies lose all their terror if the face of a sweet pea shooter or two, a thoughtfully placed walnut or a wonderfully grumpy squash. It is nature’s own backlash against the zombie threat!

But if a little plant based anti-zombie therapy isn’t enough to allay your fears of a living dead invasion, you might take comfort in the idea that our current obsession means that you can look to prepare yourself for the coming apocalypse with people only considering you to be mildly eccentric rather than a total kook. The shops are full of self-help guides with tips and hints for succeeding in your continued existence where others will inevitably fail and films like 28 Days Later and Zombieland are full of good advice for staying alive. (In the case of the latter, it’s as simple as following the ‘rules’ although if you need to be told to ‘beware of bathroom’ you’re probably screwed anyway.)

Finally, you might take comfort in the fact that even the authorities are starting to wake up to the zombie threat. Last week, a "concerned (this may be a euphemism for crazy) citizen" in Leicester berated the City Council there for their lack of preparation in the face of a zombie attack, which if nothing else should meant that the seed of zombie based fear has now registered on the disaster planning authorities map. Perhaps readers, we should be writing our local MP with similar questions. It’s not all about the Coalition and the NHS. Sometimes it’s about infection and reanimated corpses too.

Misunderstood or not, zombies can’t have my brain. At least not for free. There are some mornings when I’d probably swap it for a longer lie in though...

This week Kate is preparing for some cave based partying.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Proud Lion and the DCNu

By Now, many of you have hopefully heard the news that come the end of August and throughout September, DC Comics are completely rebooting their superhero universe.

For the record, the Vertigo line is completely unaffected.

Dubbed the DCNu by the blogosphere, this move will see them publishing 52 NEW titles in one month.

With this in mind, I will need you to order the titles you want added to your folder by Tuesday 19th July.

As this is a complete reboot, we will consider all previous DC orders cancelled, so you will have to order again. In short, if you already get Batman you will still have to re-order Batman to ensure you get the DCNu version. Many people will potentially decide to radically alter their DC pull list at this time, so I can't take anything for granted.

It's a complete faff for all of us involved, both Proud Lion and you guys, but to help us all, I've created an order form that you can collect in store or print off at home.

If you right click here and choose "save as", you can download a pdf of the order form to fill in at home and drop in to the shop. Just mark an X next to the titles you want in the column marked Yes?

Or right click here and choose "save as" to get a Word document version that you can fill in on the computer and email back to me at Again, just mark an X next to the titles you want in the column marked Yes?

I'll be trying to contact every Reservation Folder customer in the coming weeks to get your DCNu, orders, but if you could get them into me first that would be a huge help. I have to create 52 new titles on the database in one go as it is!

If you don't have a Reservation Folder, but would be interested in starting one to try some of these titles, please contact me at the email address above.

Thanks folks. Some of these new titles do look AMAZING.

Ben Fardon is a little exhausted by a lot of things, but finding exhilaration in the challenge.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

New Beginnings - Mystery Men

This week Marvel has launched an interesting 5 part series entitled Who Are The Mystery Men by David Liss and Patrick Zircher.

The title comes from the 1930’s when Superheroes were known as “Mystery Men” as part of their iconic status, and this is also played up to within the comic.

Set in New York in 1932, Liss has created a very good opening to the series, which fits incredibly well into the feel of the era. This is completely the opposite to the New York he is currently writing on as author of Black Panther: Man without Fear.

Liss has been a really interesting choice on this project considering Black Panther is his only other comic book and prior to that he has been associated with short stories and also thriller novels. Saying that however, he has really embraced what he been given as a clean slate to write upon. Keeping the characters we’ve met within the style and also the historic setting Liss has opened with a Robin Hood figure known only as the Operative. Without revealing much about him, except for his social status, you are quickly taken into the story and also introduced to what is going to be his nemesis. Considering that at present there are only five issues in the series the pace at which he has to move is considerable but the issue doesn’t feel rushed in any way. It is pacey but only when the action requires it to be.

Patrick Zircher has drawn in a very dated way, but one that is in parallel with the pulp feel of the comic. Normally I’m not a fan of this type of work but I have to admit that on this occasion, combined with the sound of the scripting and the setting I am really taken by it. It’s not the most detailed artwork, and quite often you have frames which contain only the one person and nothing else but, most importantly it still feels right.

There are obvious similarities and comparisons that could be drawn between this and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but to dismiss this outside of anything other than the look, is the supernatural aspect that Liss brings in. In continuity with the rest of the Marvel Universe where this is set, we are introduced to witchcraft and powers.

In just one issue you have been given mysterious characters, demons, a murder and even further the allusion towards a lot more of the same. The story has really set you up for more on numerous levels across the characters involved and as they are all new to us there is a lot of unknown territory to cross with any and all of them.

I’m happy to have been given this issue to look at as it’s deep enough to get into with absolutely no prior knowledge but also has the potential to be a lot more than just five issues. Conversely, it’s also been written in such a way that you don’t get the feeling that it will be a miniseries.

I’ll certainly be collecting the set and I would suggest that if there is anyone looking for an extra short-term comic to try then this is a refreshing change to sample. Great new work, that has brought variety and a unique feel to an already crowded universe of work.

Matt Puddy is admittedly bemused by Marvel timing this to coincide with LA Noire on the games consoles...

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Watcher - Sci-fi rocks!

Its hard to imagine life before the internet, but with barely five minutes to spare between work, dinner and all those pressing social engagements, quite often a quick flick through YouTube, etc. is all today’s self respecting genre fan has time for.

Lately I’ve begun to realise just what a trove of sci-fi and fantasy goodness the music scene has provided over the last fifty or so years. One of the great things about music videos is the fast, thrilling combination of sound and vision, making them the ultimate sci-fi quick fix.

So, like a nerdy John Cusack, I present my all time top five, sci-fi/fantasy themed music videos.

Queen - Flash (1980)

What more thrilling soundtrack to a film bursting at the seams with acid-fuelled visuals, ridiculously macho action and Brian Blessed in silver hot-pants than the grandiose yet rocking stylings of masters of Pomp Rock, Queen? The title track is less a re-telling of Flash’s story as a pounding, visceral affirmation of just how thrilling sci-fi at its best can be!

David Bowie - Ashes to Ashes (1980)

‘Ashes to Ashes’, is a funky, era-defining paean to ageing, regret and the inevitability of coming down. The video memorably flashes from bleached out bare sets, to the saturated colours of an alien landscape as layers of reality slowly peel away. The most striking image remains Bowie’s iconic ’Pierrot’ costume, which continues to intrigue audiences to this day, most recently as Alex Drake’s recurring nightmare in series one of ’Ashes to Ashes’(2008). Kudos, Mr. Pierrot. If I was a scary Sci-Fi clown, I’d probably stalk Keeley Hawes too.

Beastie Boys - Intergalactic (1998)

I have friends who could wax lyrical about this video’s loving homage to Japanese cinema, urban culture and even knowing nods to H.P. Lovecraft, but to me, this is quite simply an thrilling story of mad scientists, giant robots and the Beastie Boys at their ass-kicking best, with guest vocals from Patrick Troughton era Cybermen and a cheeky nod to Mr. Spock. This song never fails to lift my spirits and it’s quite possibly my favourite driving song, making me feel like I’m at the controls of a flying saucer rather than a blue Ford Fiesta.

Muse - Supermassive Black Hole (2004)

Having appeared in such genre "greats" as ‘Twilight’ (2008) and ‘Supernatural’ (2009), this song’s coolness factor was spectacularly reclaimed by its inclusion in 2011 ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘The Rebel Flesh’. That’s what I should say, but darn it, I LOVE the baseball scene in Twilight. Maybe it’s the idea of vampires playing baseball, or maybe it’s the fact that I have a not so secret crush on Alice Cullen. But the video proper is something quite unique in itself. The band, decked out in black robes and freaky masks, wigging out singing about global warming, and very very very large Black Holes. More Pink Floyd than Pink Floyd ever dared to be.

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic - White and Nerdy (2006)

It’s almost impossible to believe that Weird Al is anything other than a dyed in the wool geek and proud. The musical evidence speaks for itself. Not only has Al given us some of the greatest genre parodies in ‘Yoda’ (1985), ‘The Saga Begins’ (1999) and 2003’s Spider-Man homage ‘Ode to a Superhero’, but he even compared falling in love with wife Vanna White to ‘bowling on the Starship Enterprise’. The video, with too many nods and references to genre to list here, is a pitch perfect parody of Chamillionaire’s ‘Ridin’(2006), and perfectly illustrates the huge gulf that exists between some people’s definition of ‘cool’. The scary thing though, is watching this video is realising just how many of Al’s white and nerdy traits I share.

Robert Barton Ancliffe still can’t really decide whether he likes Kirk or Picard more.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Big Game Hunting - Free RPG Day

Saturday 18th June is Free RPG Day!

Now into it's fifth year, some of the biggest and best RPG publishers are bringing you some freebies for one day only!

Pop in store from 10:00am on Saturday and claim yourself one of the following:

Eden Studios
All Flesh Must Be Eaten Quickstart & Adventure

Exile Game Studios
Hollow Earth Expedition Quickstart & Adventure

Fantasy Flight Games
Black Crusade Quickstart and Adventure

Goodman Games
DCC RPG Quickstart

Green Ronin
DragonAge Quickstart

"We Be Goblins!" Pathfinder Adventure
Paradigm Concepts

White Wolf
World of Darkness Quickstart

Wizards of the Coast
"Domain of Dread: Histhaven" D&D 4th Edition Supplement
to the box set "The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond"

Stocks are limited, first come first served. Due to potential demand, these freebies will be limited to one per customer, so choose wisely and get down early!

I'm sorry but due to limited space in store, I won't be running any in store demonstrations this year, but check out iWARPUK for RPG and other gaming in Gloucestershire.

Ben Fardon is hoping to lose himself in other characters this afternoon

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Passion Play, in all its guises

Dear readers, imagine, if you will, a darkened room bedecked with candles and roses, maybe some Barry White playing on the sound system and a half drunk bottle of wine carelessly flung on the table. Never let it be said that I don’t go all out to get you guys in the mood and the mood this week is... (said in my best, breathy seductive voice) ...passion.

Of course, passion is also a bit of an abstract concept at heart, rather than a palpable object like a comic book or a DVD so it might be an equally effective scene setter if you were to imagine some kind of clinically minimalist modern art installation and a bunch of people using words like ‘post-modern’ and ‘deconstructivist’. Whichever works for you.

The point is that passion and geekery are pretty inseparable, although we may not use the words together terribly often. It may not be very sexy to refer to the Warhammer enthusiast who spends painstaking hours painting tiny figurines as the victim of an all-consuming passion, but that’s what he is none-the-less. So is the Star Trek convention attendee in the Klingon costume, and the Role Player who writes reams and reams of background that the other players may never see. As much as we might prefer to imagine those in the throes of passion as young and beautiful and tastefully dressed, the truth is that passion is found in strange places. (And maybe the prolific role player is young and beautiful anyway...)

But that’s OK, because it’s this invisible sheen of passion that actually makes geeky pastimes almost, well, cool. In my eyes, at any rate. Bear with me while I briefly channel the spirit of a grumpy 82 year old, but why are we so quick to dismiss people who care about stuff as kooks? Since when did apathy rule OK? I’ve said before that I don’t watch a lot of TV, and that’s because when I do watch I want to be viscerally involved, drawn into a storyline to the temporary exclusion of the world around me, and heart thumpingly invested in the characters I’m watching. I can barely cope with even thinking about what’s coming in Game Of Thrones, and that’s the way I like it.

Similarly, at a LARP Gathering this weekend I was struck by the incredible effort that goes into every event. A tiny, bustling medieval camp is created complete with hangings and thrones and gates. Players shiver through rain and mud, and run around wearing plate armour in the blistering sunshine. And after 48 hours it all gets packed away and taken down again. (On this occasion, with added scrubbing and disinfecting after an outbreak of some kind of horrific plant disease on site.)

Whilst the rest of the world would perhaps label this evidence of mental deficiency and skewed priorities I’m actually kind of proud to be part of a community that will make this much effort for their hobby. It requires a darn site more commitment than watching Britain’s Got Talent at any rate, and is considerably less painful.
And you know what? I love it that my friends can talk with conviction and enthusiasm about their favorite board games, or the series of novels they are currently devouring, or the latest obscenity they are crafting from their subversive cross stitch manual. To live without passion is to sleepwalk through your life, and we may as well extend it to every area we can rather than letting it remain purely in the domain of romantic love and all of its associated ephemera.

Which is why I’m going to talk about passion and geekery in the same breath more often, in the hope of starting my own modest little revolution. One that changes the mentality that perpetuates the fiction that the more you care about something, the less cool it is. It isn’t nerdy that there are people out there who speak Elvish. It’s amazing! (Well, OK, it’s a little nerdy, but it’s mainly amazing.) And I’m glad that my world involves people who cry at the end of Doctor Who. (Not every episode though, that would be crazy!)

I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is this: light the candles, prep the wine, turn on the music. Because tonight, we’re playing Risk!

This week Kate is overexcited about potatoes.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Mane Event - Batman: Knight of Vengeance

If you have not yet read Flashpoint #1 please be aware that this review will touch on elements and changes that may be considered a spoiler.

Without a doubt, Flashpoint has overnight changed the face of the DC Universe. Its reach has already been seen and has some very interesting new twists. Batman: Knight of Vengeance is certainly no different.

The story, written by Brian Azzarello, opens with a cold and bitter Wayne under scrutiny for his health insurance. This is quite an ironic thing considering his alter ego. He is more concerned with continuously providing a strong image, being right and his business empire built on hotels and gambling. So the heart and soul that drove Bruce on has gone, but then this is not the same man. Due to the machinations of the Reverse-Flash, this is Dr Thomas Wayne.

During the story we see a change in approach, not only from Batman but also the former GCPD as well. As I said in my review of Flashpoint, there are people within the DCU that will have changed (or not) as a ripple effect. Harvey Dent is now a prime example of this, as he is not displaying his well-known persona.
Half of this issue is written well and conveys a lot of pent up aggression and frustration through the story. Not to say that Azzarello has collaborated with someone else, but there is a large portion, where Batman goes hunting, which relies solely on the artwork and a small splattering of words to convey everything else. This is inherently its weakness as well though.

On first glance Risso’s artwork came across to me as similar to styles I have preferred (usually on the Marvel payroll) but on closer look inspection I am let down. You have a story that has emotion almost oozing out of each bubble of speech but the intensity simply hasn’t been matched by the artwork. The feeling of the approach taken here is minimalist with very little detail being used anywhere except for the sole focus of the frame. Large parts are left empty with simply a wash of colour to fill the void. It just didn’t feel full and in others that there had simply not been enough effort used leaving me let down.

As a slightly odd point as well, for once the lettering stood out to me. Clem Robins seems to love punctuating statements with bold type and on the whole it works well passing on a much more aggressive tone. However, I can’t decide whether this supports Azzarello or goes over the top by using the effect too much. Whichever it was, it caught my eye, so I’m still not sure if that’s good or not.

I’ll be collecting the other 2 issues in this mini-series but that’s purely because it’s Batman and Flashpoint. I can’t see how this is going to develop into a deep enough story in such a small amount of issues. This is more a labour of love for me and sadly an uglier version of one too.

Before anyone asks, no - Matt Puddy has not read 100 Bullets. But yes, he probably should...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Reluctant Geek - A blog of Scones, Sarcasm, Webcomics and Interactivity

For the second time in as many weeks, I find myself writing this blog from a strange land beyond the internet. Other hints that this is life, but not as we know it, include a proliferation of scones, jam and cream and people who pronounce the word pixie, ‘piskie’ (don’t ask how it came up). Yes, I’m currently enjoying the delights of Cornwall, but even this sand and sea fest can’t keep me from my geeky duties. In fact - in a transparent effort to re-establish my credentials - this week’s offering is going to focus on a hardcore zone of geekdom. We’re talking internet secrecy and people who wear T-shirts with code on to the office. We’re talking webcomics.

Yes, webcomics are for people who don’t feel that an encyclopedic knowledge of the internet, or an all-consuming passion for comics are sufficiently geeky in isolation. They must be combined! If you’re concerned that these days everyone is cashing in on the fact that it’s become vaguely cool to be a nerd and the girl with the short skirt and the perfectly manicured nails was quoting Star Trek at you this morning (Sexist! Why shouldn’t she?!) then webcomics provide a perfect chance to get back to basics.

I’ve talked before about how often traditionally ‘geeky’ areas function as a kind of secret society for the initiated and webcomics fall squarely within this remit. Despite my wishy washy arts graduate background, I’ve read XKCD for several years now, a fact that has not entirely ceased to astound my more scientifically minded contemporaries. (A dear, but not always subtle friend once expressed his skepticism that I could possibly comprehend more than half of it. Lies! I may not always understand the maths, but I am invariably down with the sarcasm)

The truth is that checking XKCD has become one of a plethora of daily (or at least thrice weekly) routines that serve to comfort, reassure and break up the nine til five monotony for me. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that XKCD and its ilk serve as a kind of modern day philosophy for the time rich and attention poor, serving up easily digestible nuggets of observational wisdom.

In a more predictable vein, Hark A Vagrant makes history fun (No, really!) and reading it gives me that warm, fuzzy glow that comes with combining the fun of a comic, with the sense of smug self–satisfaction provided by its vaguely intellectual credentials. It also makes me feel better about the fact that my introduction to web comics came in an altogether less highbrow package. Technically a cartoon rather than a comic, Homestar Runner blighted my university years, and thanks to it, I am better acquainted than I would ideally wish to be with Strong Bad, Strong Sad and the Burninator. Still, at least Marzipan was a feminist...

Regardless of my rather mixed history with them, there is ultimately something rather special about web comics. They teeter precariously on the edge of the main-stream which means they can ultimately disregard it and court controversy on a whim. The internet is an unregulated, labyrinthine space which isn't always a good thing, but it does make it a perfect home for the surreal, transgressive and niche. And on occasion, web comics have taken this mandate to push the boundaries to its natural conclusion. There's as much bad taste, politically incorrect and shocking stuff out there as there is of the clever, life enhancing variety. And sometimes the two are one and the same.

So this week, the Reluctant Geek is about to get interactive. (Hang on, that may have come out wrong…) In the name of sharing the love, why not leave a comment below bigging up your favourite web comics. Which are the ones that get you through your working day? Or make you feel that you are somewhat less alone in your appreciation of the depressing nihilism/breath-taking hypocrisy/wondrous beauty (delete as applicable) of everyday life?

Now, I’ve never really worked in an office for more than a few months at a time and even more shockingly, I’ve never worked in IT at all. But as I understand it, a certain amount of time wasting on the internet is practically mandatory. Perhaps we can help each other out by ensuring that said time wasting is spent on the highest quality material the net has to offer. (No! Not porn!!)

And that is a rather beautiful thing, wouldn't you agree?

This week, Kate is playing board games with her family. And it isn't even ironic.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

New Beginnings - Giant Size X-Men

Evolution is a very strange thing. Charles Darwin has proposed that it is a process that is continually moving forward for the best. A natural course of action that occurs through adaptation to the surrounding environments. So what happens if you aren’t the strongest or the fittest? What if there was a threat to your natural survival? In what is an interesting - possibly paradoxical - crossover, Marvel is set to explore this in its new X-men arc.

Christopher Yost has taken over at the helm of this arc and has used a nice vehicle to introduce it all as well. The story is a crossover with, essentially, itself, but through time.

As a scene setting piece Yost opens with a narrative. Watching from the dawn of time, in two short pages we jump straight into a pivotal moment in Man's evolution. The witnessing of Homo Sapiens “arrival” and fatal natural selection almost taking place if it wasn’t for the mysterious narrators stepping in and saving the species. Now, this has little meaning for the majority but give it time...

In a similar situation we now see Scott struggling as the new 'infant' against the Neo. After seeking a peaceful resolution Scott breaks down, which unlocks protected memories from when the First Class were a team. This leads to the introduction of the Evolutionaries, the reason behind mutantkind's biological prosperity, and now potentially the end.

The other crossover element is the artwork. By crossing the timelines the door is opened for both the past and present to be in the foreground, but a clever move has been made, by using separate artists to represent the different timelines. Paco Medina is the artist for the 'now' with Dalbor Talajic penciling the 'then'. Medina has a good clean style, which is modern and easy to view. He does occasionally border on a cartoonesque Ramos style but this seems to only be in moments of shock. With the action in the front he also doesn’t neglect the background. Although they may not be filled with intricate artwork they do have subtle yet suiting details, which supports each frame well.

Talajic, on the other hand, has a much harder job. Whilst he may be a well-known artist from Hit Monkey and Deadpool, in this issue he is required to draw in a style not completely his own, so it looks like the original comics. He does a great job whilst also making his own mark on the art too. There is a lot more emotion displayed in his work. Maybe a little too much occasionally but he certainly conveys the feelings over every individual in each frame very well.

Although X-Men are not my normal comics of choice this was still a good issue to read. Yost’s story is yet to develop further but the premise set in this first issue is a good strong one. I think the only reason I wouldn’t consider following it would simply be that I’m not an X-Men fan and that’s the only reason. It’s not one to introduce new fans easily but it is still provides a very meaty hook for any reader to get caught on.

Matt Puddy naturally selected his pull list. True story.