Saturday, 31 March 2012

Digital Canvas - Escape From Niche Mountain

I’ve realised something since starting these regular blog articles; it seems that I occupy my own little webcomic comfort zone, full of similar themes and styles, and I’ve since determined to slowly creep out of my rut for the sake of embracing diversity and for the good of the articles.

You see, I’m a fan of Fun. I’m a big advocate of joy, silliness (within reason), and doing things for the love of awesomeness, and my webcomic reading reflects that. I don’t mind a bit of drama or seriousness every now and then, it usually helps the story along, but I just can’t stand a story that’s overly heavy-going and full of despair. I think there’s enough of that in real life anyway. Likewise I’m not usually a big fan of gore or horror, but I have made exceptions if the concept surrounding the gore is a fun or unique one, as in Image’s comic book series Chew.

So lets start the metaphorical journey away from my comfort zone, in the silly inner city at the centre of my personal Fun-tropolis, and dead centre in the middle is Axe Cop. Axe Cop is a wonderful idea (the comic book artist Ethan Nicolle plays with his 5 year old brother Malachai, discovers his brother has a bottomless wellspring of awesome zany plot ideas, turns these ideas into an ongoing webcomic) executed beautifully, and I’m constantly blown away by its originality and child-logic innocence. Only a little boy can think up such joyous, crazy combinations of ideas and characters, and couple it with poop jokes. And the older brother, Ethan the artist, should get major props for taking his brother’s mad ramblings and actually creating a cohesive story out of them, and beautifully so at that!

As we work our way through the Gag-A-Day districts of Fun-tropolis, tipping our cap to as we pass through, we find ourselves in the metaphorical suburbs. Here at the edge, we find webcomics that have a good helping of fun in them, but it isn’t the main ingredient. Instead they focus on telling a full story with proper consequences and characters I care for, like for example the excellent Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell ( Gunnerkrigg Court follows an unusual girl slowly growing up in a huge, oddly designed school full of pupils who are all in one way or another abnormal or magically endowed. It’s a wonderfully gothic comic that has a much deeper story than it first appears, with great characterisation throughout, and isn‘t afraid to have fun at times too. I realise now that like many of the webcomics I read in these suburbs, it hits all of the major bullet points I’m looking for: it’s full of great story ideas that initially hooked me in, characters you can really see reacting in believable ways, and hints of a larger narrative played out through themes or symbolism.

So with this list of attributes I hope to find elsewhere, I set out through the city limit gates and away from my comfort zone, with hope in my heart and a spring in my step. In the nearby foothills we find the newest addition to my reading list, Monster Pulse. This is the first webcomic I’ve read in a long time with the balance of drama and humour firmly tipped to the serious side, but I was instantly hooked by the intriguing story idea: what if something happened to make one of your body parts fly out of you and turn into a friendly fighting monster? What if it was your heart? It’s this concept and the great interesting characters that keep me coming back for more.

Moving further away from my comfort zone, we spot an old familiar landmark looming up through the mists: it has been quite some time since I read the entirety of the webcomic epic that is Rice Boy, but if you really want to see the best that webcomics have to offer, this is definitely required reading. Put simply, it’s the Lord Of The Rings in weird/symbolic webcomic form. I see that some new settlements have built up around the old landmark now, new stories told about the same setting, ‘Vattu’ in particular looks worthy of a good archive-trawl. I think, for now, this is as far as we go from my comfort zone. The landscape looks increasingly rocky and uneven from here on, but there are some interesting webcomics in this general area (the Abominable Charles Christopher looks quite good (It is - it's wonderful! BF)) that I may have to investigate further. Thank you for accompanying me on this short journey. I encourage you all to identify your own comfort zones, identify the deeper themes within, and venture out on your own journeys of discovery with those deeper themes as a guide.

Todd Marsh had fun writing this one. Can you tell?

Thursday, 29 March 2012

New Beginnings - New Deadwardians #1 & Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child #1

DC’s imprint Vertigo is certainly embracing the supernatural. This week and last week have seen two new arrivals onto the shelves with a common theme of the undead and their surrounding “lives”.

New Deadwardians is the new eight-part title from Dan Abnett (who is without his normal comics partner in crime Andy Lanning) and has relative newcomer INJ Culbard providing the artwork for this title.

The story is a strange one as our main character, Chief Inspector George Suttle, is the only police officer assigned to investigating murders. Unfortunately for him this is in a time - the Deadwardian Age - where it is hard enough to die let alone be murdered. The upper classes have voluntarily become vampires with the great unclean becoming exactly that – zombies.

The majority of the comic is set up to introduce this new world and loosely how it has come about. It’s also to introduce Suttle fully and how his position in society sits. Society is a key thing with this story too - sat in between the vampires and zombies are normal humans. A lot of time is spent in the dialogue to show this; a lot of accent is displayed through the use of common spelling and the almost cockney twang to it all. It’s cleverly done and will get the reader into the whole feel of it whilst also adding to the class divide, but I didn’t find it completely enthralling. The story only really picked up for me towards the end when the mystery of how do you kill a dead person without using the only known methods was posed.

Culbard’s artwork really didn’t inspire me either. It came across as basic and far too clean for the age that the comic was set in. A time full of grime and soot yet not a single spec of dirt was to be seen. It has a very muted tone to the colours which does seem to fit but that only fed the pedestrian pace further for me.

I loved the concept of this comic but the production just hasn’t hit it for me. (Whereas I loved it! A great start to an intriguing new comic, BF)

Created in a more contemporary time, and set in New Orleans, Dominique Laveau has a similar supernatural theme to it. However whereas in New Deadwardians Suttle had a firm grip on who he was, what his life revolved around and where he fit in the world, Laveau has none of this.

The whole comic is set in Treme in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The whole area is struggling to recover and survive, which is exactly where this begins with a werewolf attack on the residents. Fighting for her life and backed into a corner something strange happens saving her life. The search for answers is then the only avenue she can go down as she needs something to ground herself once more. In all of the action she hasn’t realised the shadowy figure watching in from the background.

Further development of the story shows how underneath the city lies a long standing religions and beliefs which have fought and changed over time. Some rising, some falling but all of them still being followed to differing levels. Completely unbeknownst to Dominique, she falls into the lap of her ancestors and the potential and power that is also entwined with it. As it slowly dawns on her what might have happened, as she still cannot quite believe it, the full scope of it all comes to light. Alongside the mysticism comes a darker, riskier side. If she felt that her evening earlier was bad, well the comic ends in a more sinister situation.

Selwyn Seyfu Hinds is a strange choice for me. I’ve couldn't find any previous comic work or indeed any fiction at all but that’s not a bad thing. Fresh blood so to speak. The story is punchy and very fast paced. In fact it rarely slows down which made for a very quick read for me. Even the “quiet” moments in the comic have an undertone to them which makes you read them and look around the whole page as you don’t want to miss out on any details. Careful planning has gone into how each of the characters act and interact with distinct personalities coming through. What’s also nice is that the characterisations can subtlety change even in this single issue as our heroine starts to piece things together. A nice touch.

The artwork is by Denys Cowan who has worked on Detective Comics in the past - in fact his depiction of Henri Ducard was then taken and revised to create Liam Neeson's character in Batman Begins. The dark setting and broken imagery that Cowan creates works incredibly well and supports the writing well. It can become a little too detailed in some frames and detracts away occasionally but on the bigger pieces I found that it gave you enough and kept up with the fast story.

The two elements worked well together and made for an enjoyable, albeit rapid, issue. It didn’t really expand on all of the elements but gave enough information to dangle some hooks for you to snap up. Of the two comics this was the one that grabbed me most this week. For a different take on an era combined with mystery then New Deadwardians would be worth a look at but for pace and excitement check out Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child.

Matt Puddy can see this year's Marvel summer event looming on the horizon

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Watcher - The Hunger Games

March 23rd saw the arrival of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”, the first part in a trilogy of books and rumoured to be the first of four films (suggesting that Mockingjay or Catching Fire will be split at some point). It follows in the footsteps of Harry Potter, Twilight and other films which have essentially been teenage fiction that have progressed to a much wider audience on the big screen. I’ve already read all three books so I was eager to see how they measured up.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where the remains of North America have been split into 13 districts and the Capitol. The outlying districts are all producers of various materials and products for the support of the wealthy and excessive Capitol, whether it is fabrics, produce or coal. Coming from abject poverty life is certainly hard for Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in District 12, which is where the film opens.

Given that this is virtually post-apocalyptic, the rural image that you are presented with and the prettiness of our main cast doesn’t quite fit but to the casual observer this goes without notice. A minimal amount of time is spent in the development of the film here, which I can understand in an attempt to keep runtime down as well. It does sacrifice a lot of the drive and motivation of Katniss, which in the book comes from her environment and interaction with the inhabitants. There are a number of minor changes here - like the origin of the pin - but if honest they aren’t changing the story to any great degree and it will only be readers of the book that recognise the lack of them.

The history of The Hunger Games is that 74 years ago the districts rose up against the Capitol but were beaten back down, using District 13 as a demonstration of power. Ever since then an annual display of the power of the Capitol has been demanded and every district has to supply two tributes - one girl and one boy - between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a brutal tournament of survival, with only one winner. The Reaping is a morbid lottery presided over by Effie Trinket (a heavily made up Elizabeth Banks) to decide who are the “lucky” tributes.

In District 12, family means everything. So when Katniss’s 12 year old sister Prim is selected she can’t stop herself from volunteering instead to protect the young sibling. A display of ultimate sacrifice. Peeta’s selection is not similarly challenged and so we have our combatants.

The progression from the district to the Capitol is fast tracked in the same way that the opening has also been and it’s used as a vehicle for the introduction of Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Kravitz plays Cinna very well - calmly and carefully which fit perfectly with my vision and the books, though the removal of the overexcited harpies that formed the make up crew diluted this a little. Haymitch on the other hand was certainly made more cinematically acceptable. Haymitch is the veteran winner of the 50th Hunger Games and therefore the mentor of the tributes from 12. In the books he is devious, logical, calculating but mostly drunk. It was alluded to in the film but I didn’t feel that this was quite the same character. Yet again the fast paced push towards the main event was to the detriment of the surrounding world.

Once in the Capitol the charm offensive begins. After a flaming chariot ride, interviews, mandatory training and other displays designed to bring the public onto their sides the tributes are thrown into the manmade arena. 24 children, all from different backgrounds, all trying to survive.

It’s at this moment that there are obvious parallels drawn to the 2000 film (and preceding manga) of Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. Many people will see the similarities, however Collins has openly described her inspiration as a mix of channel hopping between reality TV and the Afghanistan conflict, whilst also having a large drive from the tales of Theseus. This gives a much better perspective on the film as Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss is that of a strong heroine figure in a gladiatorial setting. There is an obvious role reversal as well with Hutcherson being a smaller figure on screen reinforcing the dynamic between Katniss and Peeta further. The reversal began earlier in the film with Peeta’s admission of love for Katniss, which felt somewhat underplayed. In the book it is such a key dynamic and a tool used by them (and against them) that it does feel lost within the film. Mild references get noticed but it’s only when they are in the arena does it come through.

Thus ensues the deadly games for which the film was named, with its various ups and downs courtesy of that year’s game maker, the conflicted Seneca Crane. Dedicated to his job to the point of putting himself at odds with President Snow, played coldly and calmly by Donald Sutherland in his uniquely placid but menacing style. Something that will also become key in the future.

My biggest concern about the film was how they would film the more gratuitous scenes. Aside from having to edit out some blood this has been done well. A shaky camera is employed at times to film dramatic scenes, enhancing the pace and adrenaline found within them. The use of clear wide angled shots to display the isolation also worked well.

The casting was a pleasant surprise. Both Lawrence and Hutchinson are strong in their respective roles. Sutherland, as previously mentioned, has the right level of callous control to convey the person I had created in my mind from the book. Kravitz however was a real shiny star for me. The role has been made a little less flamboyant, however the quiet strength and conviction which Cinna provides is very evident and I didn’t initially expect Kravitz to pull it off. Not a show stealer but still very strong. The other tributes were mostly for show in my opinion and served a purpose although I didn’t really find the portrayal of Thresh by Dayo Okeniyi to fit - mainly due to the scripted characterisation.

This film is guaranteed to spawn sequels and several of the cast have already signed up for further films. The teenage market will swallow it up in the wake of Twilight and a wider audience may also gravitate towards it, making this a potentially formidable film franchise. It’s slow enough to create foundations for the coming films but also quick enough that you keep interested and involved in the film. I’d watch the film before reading the books but I would warn you that doing so will draw you in on both fronts.

A really entertaining film that doesn’t ask more of you than enjoyment.

Matt Puddy is gearing up for a smorgasbord of supernatural comic books.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Big Game Hunting - Mad Scientist University

One of the rules we’ve got in our house is that there has to be MANY LOTS of silly games. Many lots because there’s always going to be a standing date where one or more of us just don’t want to play in our campaign – either because there’s no time, or we can’t get in the mood or…

So, my partner and I started building up silly card games. We’ve got Munchkin, and Gloom, and some other ones - but by far and away our favourite is Mad Scientist University.

Produced by Atlas Games, it’s one of those cute games that if I tried to offer an actual blow-by-blow ‘actual play’, I might make brains explode. Atlas also makes Once Upon A Time, a pre-requisite for breaking the ice at the first three NaNoWriMos I ran down here, among other things.

The game itself doesn’t have background or character generation (though, you may want to practice evil laughter), and the game package is quite a small, long box, with two piles of cards – the unstable elements, and the assignments. Doesn’t sound complicated huh? It’s the fact that you have to create an evil genius plan by using your unstable element to fulfil the assignment. And with elements such as cheese, flamingos, lava, tweezers, clipboards, coconuts, coffee, bikinis, lawyers, and assignments of the evil calibre of ‘write your name on the moon’, or ‘find yourself a bearable flatmate’, it’s fair to say hilarity can ensue. You only get one unstable element, but the later in the turn you present, the more likely it is you can riff off someone else’s class project to get more chance of being awarded the assignment. You are a Mad Scientist after all.

Gameplay starts when the first player deals out the unstable elements to the other players. You all get 15 seconds to decide what you’re doing, then play starts. In truth, unless you’re only allowed to look at your card for the 15 seconds before your presentation, you get 15 seconds plus however long it takes to get to you. And the people present their zany ideas. The TA chooses who wins, and then the TA position is filled the next week by either the winner, or the person to one side of the TA. It really is a great game, though, be warned, you’re probably going to laugh…a lot.

This week, Kai is getting ready for her mom’s visit, reading ‘The One Ring’ to review in the next few weeks, and being a very good girl and NOT popping over to buy yet more american candy from Ben.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Why Should I Read... The Walking Dead?

You aren't real. I know this because Robert Kirkman told me so. I trust Kirkman, he knows his stuff. He also came up with that über fashionable TV show called The Walking Dead, so he must be right. But if you aren't real, who the hell is reading this? To find out, read on!

Chances are that you've heard about the Walking Dead. Cool TV show, very glamourous, pretty people and a zombie apocalypse. Nothing to think about. But Robert Kirkman has been blowing minds with his gritty take on the end of the world ages before the fella from Teachers showed up. So why read it? Because it will make you doubt you are real, and not many comics can make a claim like that.

I struggled with whether or not to reveal your immateriality to you. After all, discovering you aren't real is something you should find out for yourself. When Robert Kirkman wrote The Walking Dead, he looked past the genre, the (and let's be honest) hundreds of zombie clichés and decided he'd disassemble society. He picked it up, held it up to the light, turned it back and forth and saw how fragile and worthless it was, like a empty whisky bottle. Then like a hobo trying to get his life together, he threw it on the ground and dashed it into a thousand pieces.

Kirkman creates characters you know. He reached deep in to the pot of stereotypes and took out the biggest, fattest, juiciest ones he could find. He used them like worms on a hook to bait his readers, they are access points straight to the heart of the story. But Kirkman knows how to use worms properly, so he sticks them at the bottom of a big bottle of zombie juice tequila. So you drink, like the hobo. You slurp down that tequila and it feels good. You know it well, green-grey hands grip you warmly, and you chew on the worm... but it doesn't taste like you thought. Because Kirkman tainted the whole brew with a dirty secret. The Walking Dead are the characters of his story. The policeman, the hillbilly, the little Asian boy, the angry black people? They are the Walking Dead - not the zombies.

The question is, what is a policeman without a society to police? What is a husband without a wife, or a father without children? What is an outlaw without a law to be outside of?

Well, thanks Kirkman. You got me addicted to your weird home brew. It's got me sat in an alley, out of my mind and drunkenly questioning everything. If you strip away everyone I know, everything I do, everything I interact with, what am I? Just as demanding in my drunken zombie thoughts is this; how the hell did a comic make me doubt my existence?

What a simple premise for a book. You are nothing without society, because we are a social animal. OK, Kirkman distilled his concoction with the usual zombie shtick. He threw in the shotguns, the gore, and for bite, a little sex and racism. Everything the fashionable geek needs on the label of his favourite tipple. But the message is clear, even through the beer goggles. You shouldn't be scoping out your plan for killing zombies in the event of a zombie apocalypse. You should be working out how to rescue a decent therapist, so you have a hope of hanging on to your sense of self.

The artwork has a certain simplistic honesty that compliments the brew like a little bowl of pretzels. The dialogue and narrative are much the same, not over-the-top, but with enough flavour to keep you going on to your next glass. The cheese and onion crisps of my laboured alcohol metaphor, if you will.

But then, I'm not worried if you're bored with the booze talk. I told you before, you aren't real. From reading The Walking Dead, I've learned that it is society that defines us, and we it. Without it, you might as well be my drunken hallucinations of the absinthe fairy or grenadine goblin.

So then, why should you read The Walking Dead? Because every book gives you another moment to look at an aspect of your life, assess it, and hopefully make it better. You can't say you can take that from many books, let alone a graphic novel. So I suggest you get a glass and pour yourself some. But then, what do I know? I'm just the alcoholic at the end of the bar.

Chris Boyle is preparing the impending apocalypse. No wait, impending childbirth. So easy to get the two confused...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

New Beginnings - Supercrooks #1

Welcome to Millarworld (for those of you who are here on their first visit) and welcome back those who have visited before! Millarworld is an interesting place, hosted by its Mayor and founder Mark, which over the last year I have really grown to love. One thing I have also found is that his style is strangely unique and familiar at the same time. Millar manages to take a completely normal situation and add a touch of super or, and this is particularly the case with Supercrooks, takes a super situation and adds a sheen of normal and reality.

Supercrooks is a story about an idea I’ve had in my head for a little while and have knocked back time and time again to enjoy my weekly comic fix. The general premise for a “superhero” is that they have their own little area which has its circle of heroes and more importantly villains revolving around it. So why do the villains stick around? Time and time again their actions, plans and dastardly deeds are thwarted by some individual or team set firmly on the path of righteousness.

Millar’s tale begins with one such failed heist with The Gladiator taking down a supervillain group, sending them back to a supermax prison where Johnny Bolt languishes for five years. It’s only on his release when he finds that his former mentor has got into a spot of financial bother with a criminal demanding $100 million within a month. A steep request for even Danny Ocean and his crew. So what is Bolt to do? Bolt comes to the same realisation that many have before, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so he starts to look further afield towards Europe. This is so eloquently put in the comment that in Spain, “Their money’s as good as anyone else’s," and 'I‘ve never heard of a Captain Spain”.

The writing is what I have come to know and expect from Millar - it is the stories that he weaves that attract me. On both counts he has come up trumps even though the issue doesn’t really venture into the main body of the story, this is still a very attractive proposition for a storyline. I’ve been looking forward to the comic coming out since reading about it in the back of Superior and I have to say it has lived up to my expectations. Lenil Yu’s artwork is a good supporting choice with Millar’s work and fits into what I feel you could call a “stable” of artists like Steve McNiven. It’s open enough to not feel crowded or cluttered but at the same time has plenty of detail within them too. Sunny Gho has provided the colouring work which gives more grounding to the “normal” feeling to it all and the real world element is heightened. The combination of the three sits incredibly well for me.

As a final act of goodness I even enjoyed the publicity moments at the end. OK, I understand that as a creator-owned brand Millar has to plug his titles including Superior which had its final issue released some weeks ago, but it also features some which are still to come: the spin off for Hit Girl; the soon to be released Secret Service; and towards the end of the year Jupiter’s Children and Nemesis 2. What more could a reader want? You have a great issue and to top it all off teasers setting you up for the next six months!

There’s no point in me warbling about this any further. Make a bee line for your friendly local comic shop and buy this comic!

Matt Puddy is fighting fit once more

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Watcher - The Walking Dead, season two finale

WARNING: SPOILERS for the final half of season two lie beyond, including the thirteenth and final episode that airs in the UK on Friday.

Season one of The Walking Dead was a sublime piece of TV, showing that AMC had the guts to make a show that would be both faithful to the source material and brave enough to deviate into interesting new waters. Despite coming from comic book source material, the show preserved the comic's tone rather than treating its origins like a bad joke. The presence of great filmmaking names like Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd helped to reassure wary fans and soon it was a bona fide hit. A second season of thirteen episodes was commissioned and the long wait for new episodes began.

Like roamers searching for fresh meat, many of us scoured the 'net for news. But what began to emerge was somewhat disconcerting. First there were rumours of Darabont deciding to forgo a writers' room for season two - practically unheard of in American TV production. Then mere days after attending a comic convention panel promoting the show, Frank Darabont was seemingly fired by AMC - a move that felt quite ruthless and left a bad taste in many a mouth, myself included. As further clarification came out, I began to understand that whilst Darabont is a great filmmaker and did well on six episodes last year, the pressure and time constraints of bringing in thirteen episodes - on time and on budget - may have been beyond someone used to working in such a different manner. Television doesn't always allow the luxury of perfectionism after all.

When the show did finally return, it opened with a powerful first episode, before settling into a new location and an ongoing story arc. Hershel's farm and the characters found there, were comfortably familiar for fans of the comic book, but the search for Sophia and the more character driven focus of the show seemed to alienate some.

I'll admit, I became tired of many of the objections I read online to the show's evolving story. People bemoaned the lack of zombies and accused Rick of becoming a dull and insipid worrier, incapable of action. I saw a man doing his best to keep the peace, while still trying to get his head around the mess - not just the zombies, but the interpersonal situations and the group dynamics. His police training and status made him a natural leader, but burden of command is exactly that. A burden. Plus, constant zombie attacks would actually lessen the impact of the walkers themselves, so that didn't bother me. When we did see the undead, they were all inventive and terrifying to behold, thanks to the magic of Greg Nicotero.

Frankly, people need to remember that the title of the series is not a reference to the zombies. The back of every graphic novel of The Walking Dead makes it clear the story is about human survival, not constant gore. That said, the first half of season two was not without its faults. Darabont's departure led to some varied characterisation as the scripts commissioned under his tenure gave way to that of the incumbent showrunner. Certain characters spent the whole season sidelined as well. T-Dog in particular seemed to have little to do after the opening episode, until the zombie in the well incident. Yet he hangs on in there, presumably held in check by the writing staff until Merle returns for bloody revenge. I suspect we'll find him in league with the Governor in season three, but that's my musings for another time.

The midseason finale seemed to silence some of the dissenters, with its powerful revelation about Sophia's fate. What followed was a fairly pedestrian episode that ended in one of the most tense barroom standoffs I've seen in a long time. The show felt like it had a renewed energy, and like the ever more dangerous Shane, it was looking to take no prisoners. More jaunts away from the farm raised the stakes and character arcs began to evolve in a way that felt natural, rather than the scattergun approach of before. Lori became a twisted but almost sympathetic Lady MacBeth; Hershel became so much more than he had been before; Maggie and Glenn became one of the more convincing couples on TV right now; Carl flirted with becoming a sociopath and Andrea became more and more unlikable. Carol became a three dimensional character and her sweet connection to the show's breakout character - redneck hunter Daryl Dixon - became quite heartwarming despite all the horror she had been through.

The growing tension between Rick and Shane moved from fodder for slash fiction writers and hurtled toward the collision the comic fans knew was coming. Several times, it seemed set to come to a head then simmered some more and in the midst of it all, Dale bought the farm. On the farm no less! I'm sure many viewers didn't see it coming, though the rumours that Jeffery DeMunn had asked to be released for his contract - in a seeming show of solidarity for his old friend, Darabont - made the move seem less surprising and more like making the best of a bad situation. Still, it kept us comic fans on our toes and reminded us of creator Robert Kirkman's repeated warnings that no one is safe.

The following episode seemed like an episode of mending fences, both figuratively and literally. Until one fateful and perhaps well meant conversation between Shane and Lori, which reignited the deadly resolve in the man who had sacrificed Otis. From that point on, Rick's card was marked and only his quick wits saved him from a bullet to the head. This penultimate episode also seemingly confirmed that all the dead come back as walkers, something that had been teased in previous episodes and is true to the comics. Confirmed by Rick in the finale as the secret Jenner had whispered to him in the CDC, suddenly the stakes are raised for everyone - not just the current cast.

The meat of this finale though was the zombie herd laying waste to the farm. Here was a slice of action for all those who had complained the show was too slow this season. Between Rick's barn fire gambit and Hershel holding the line armed only with a shotgun and steely eyes, it was a sight to behold. The cast was whittled down to the more compelling characters too, as Jimmy and Patricia became walker chow. I wasn't sad to see Jimmy go, but the moment where the older woman was torn out of Beth's hands was surprisingly moving all things considered.

The chaos of the exodus was well handled and the rendezvous at the place where they left supplies for Sophia was a nice touch, bringing that whole debacle to a close. The final few scenes saw Rick shake off any accusations of being a weak leader, as he issued an ultimatum to the others. Stick around if you like, but I definitely call the shots now. After everything he went through, who can blame him? And after egging him on to kill Shane, Lori's disgusted reaction when Rick told her what he'd had to do made me furious. I now hope she doesn't survive the prison, which we saw looming in the distance at the end of this episode - a tantalising sight for the fans.

Of course, the prison's reveal is somewhat overshadowed by the mysterious arrival of an iconic character from the comics, as Michonne arrives to save Andrea with her trusty katana. Flanked by her 'armless zombie escorts and hidden under a hooded cloak, I'm sure the audience members who are only watching the show (and haven't read the comics) were slightly baffled by her appearance. I'm sure series three will demonstrate just what a badass this woman is!

The Walking Dead season two was marred by behind the scenes shenanigans, but it still produced some of the finest drama of the season. With new showrunner Glen Mazzara now firmly entrenched, season three seems set to be belter. With both the prison and Woodsboro to come - seemingly confirmed with news that British actor David Morrissey has been cast as the Governor - we potentially have a much greater variety of locations moving forward. Plus the drama born of numerous new characters - dynamic ones too, unlike young Jimmy! Mazzara says that he and Kirkman have mapped out the third year - now increased to sixteen episodes. I have high hopes as we hit the stories from the comics that had the biggest impact on me as a reader. It's going to be a great year.

Ben Fardon is now looking forward to the return of Game Of Thrones

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Big Game Hunting - Mass Effect

Earlier this month, something epic came to an end. Inevitably, it was met with derision and anger from fans who felt cheated, as if they had somehow come to own this intellectual property. Certainly, having poured hours of gameplay into the franchise, I can see the source of such strong feeling, though the arrogance that drives it is staggering.

When one plays an RPG with friends, one is participating in collaborative storytelling. You can make specific decisions about your character. You can petition your GM between sessions, you can ally yourselves with other characters and you can get instant feedback from said peers. When you choose to play a computer RPG, most of the time you are playing a finished and encapsulated product. Despite the myriad of choices, ultimately the story has been written by others. And not necessarily for you.

The first Mass Effect was released in 2007 on X-Box and in 2008 for Windows. As a Mac user and PS3 gamer, this first entry in a new science fiction RPG franchise passed me by. In 2007, I was busily devouring Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - one of the first games to truly enthral me on my PS3, Oblivion was epic to the point of being initially somewhat overwhelming. I overlooked its flaws and embraced the world and options it presented; often staying up till 4am playing through quests, dungeons and Oblivion Gates.

A few years later, I heard great things about Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins and gave it a go. I quickly grew to despise it. I dislike squad/party management systems. I've frequently been in a managerial role at work, so when I play a game I want to play as a sole protagonist with capable comrades as required, rather than continuing to direct belligerent ingrates. Furthermore, Dragon Age: Origins presented an array of mostly unsympathetic characters in overblown, longwinded cutscenes. I rarely fail to see a game through to completion, but I gave up on Dragon Age after a few quests. I found what I was craving in Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas in subsequent years, then news came that Mass Effect 2 was being ported to the PS3.

Due to licensing issues, the first Mass Effect would not be available to Sony gamers, but a motion comic DLC was released - allowing players a chance to pick up on the backstory and make the key decisions ready to import into ME2. The opening of Mass Effect 2 itself is a blur of an attack on the original Normandy that destroyed it and Shepard. It was compelling start as I took on the role of a reborn Shepard, surrounded by people she couldn't trust and with little attachment to her past. This was my additional motivation for my version of the character. As I hadn't played ME1, I would be cold and aloof to those who had known me before. The dialogue options didn't allow me to portray an amnesiac, but the Paragon/Renegade choices allowed me to keep the past of ME1 at arm's length, whilst also giving Jacob and Miranda a hard time for being Cerberus (based on what I had learnt about this pro-human organisation). It felt like real roleplaying, rather than just clicking buttons and pulling on triggers.

Furthermore whilst the Mass Effect games do feature squad management options, the AI is good enough to allow you to be more of a Commando Shepard than a Commander Shepard during combat, as your team can usually hold their own provided you fight well too. A far cry from the suicidal liabilities that seemed to follow me round during my short time playing Dragon Age.

Over time - and loyalty side missions - I slowly let the character thaw, especially as new non-human crew members joined the Normandy SR-2. Shepard became friendlier and developed a renewed sense of camaraderie, especially once Garrus Vakarian entered the fray. Brandon Keener's voice acting convinced me that Garrus was a stalwart comrade-in-arms despite my PS3 limitation of not having played the first Mass Effect.

I forged a team, I made choices, I fought battles and I lost a few people in the final mission. In short, I was sucked in. Bioware had done something quite magical, but even then I remained a Bethesda boy at heart. I was rabidly excited about Skyrim and was delighted when my copy arrived a day early. I didn't get worked up about Mass Effect 3. I knew I'd play it eventually, but somehow because Bethesda games give you so much freedom, I forgot how evocative Mass Effect 2 had been.

Somewhere in all the recent kerfuffle surrounding Game and EA, I found myself in a position to order a Collector's Edition Of Mass Effect 3 and I decided I may as well. I'm so glad that I did. Mass Effect 3 built on what had gone before, creating a relentless gaming experience filled with heartbreak, desperation and driven endeavours. I lost another character to a noble sacrifice and it felt satisfying. Then I lost two friends in a senseless mess and I was genuinely upset. When another comrade-in-arms seemingly went down fighting I was distraught, and truly elated when it was revealed to be a fake out. It's rare when a game can really tap into one's emotions on that level.

The much derided ending wasn't as satisfying as I'd have liked, but after around seventy hours of game play, I doubt anything would feel quite right. I'll refrain from talking about the details for those who haven't played it yet, but I certainly don't hate it. I made the right choice for my Shepard and I shall be intrigued to see how it plays out in future DLC or sequels. I suspect we might see a new beginning akin to that of the second Deus Ex game (I know - horrid game compared to the first, but I still enjoyed the story of Invisible War) whereby enough time past to render the decisions somewhat moot, though if you wanted to look for aspects of "your" choice then you would find it. We'll see.

Mass Effect 3 made me eat humble pie. Bioware are incredible storytellers and my investment in the narrative trumps anything Bethesda have served up. I was pleasantly reminded of my beloved Babylon 5 as ME3 unfolded. An ancient, dark force with terrible technology returns to destroy the current dominant races, all in the name of improving the galaxy for the younger races. A central space station serves as a rallying point for the different peoples of that time, despite itself being intrinsically connected to the mystery. And humanity transforms from young, naive upstarts involved in conflicts born of misunderstanding and arrogance, into the unifying force that brings the allied forces together to strike back at their oppressors. Sacrifice is a key part of both stories too.

So, while others may scream at the injustice of palette swaps and DLC retcons, I'm just grateful that Bioware gave me another science fiction epic to enjoy.

It really was great gameplay too.

Ben Fardon is itching to start an Eclipse Phase RPG campaign.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Digital Canvas - Two To Review: My Cardboard Life vs. Wondermark

In this week’s Two To Review, I’ll be comparing webcomics with a common design style: the use of collage to create something better than the sum of its parts.

Wondermark is a Gag-A-Day webcomic with occasional longer storylines created by David Malki. But the way he creates such strips is highly unusual, and a main draw to the site: Malki hunts down (or more commonly now is sent) old books with classy Victorian or Edwardian illustrations inside, which he then proceeds to scan into his computer, separates the drawings into the component parts, i.e. funny looking heads, bodies and clothing, backgrounds and textures, objects etc, and then rearranges and digitally glues these parts together to create his comics!

This digital collage art style let’s Malki’s work instantly stand out from the crowd with very little need for drawing, plus it’s hilarious seeing Victorian era gentlemen talking about 21st century things as if they were disobedient teenagers or men with a mid-life crisis! Plus I love how Malki can take old pictures of plumbing parts and trumpets and put them together to create steam punk robots and improbable gyrocopters. The writing is often hysterical, ranging widely from making up new types of religious stances and vehemently defending them, to a 40 foot tall Abraham Lincoln destroying a city.

One thing I would mention as a negative, however, is that sometimes the art style can work against it. If a heavily detailed background is used alongside similarly styled figures and objects, the action can get lost somewhere when the line-work and crosshatching start melding into one another. The panels of the strip are all usually formatted to the same size, but it can sometimes feel like this size is slightly too small, leaving you to squint at the details. Malki sometimes provides a larger alternative view to some strips, often to showcase the level of detail in a complicated contraption, but I feel the strip could benefit from a permanently larger panel size. And along with all Gag-A-Days that have updated for a considerable amount of time, it inevitably has jokes that aren’t as good on some days than others.

My Cardboard Life is a Gag A Day webcomic peppered with long running jokes and themes, and a recently started longer ongoing storyline, created by Philippa Rice. The strip stands out from the crowd by being completely made up of actual collages of paper and cardboard, utilising Philippa’s impressive paper craft skills! The strip’s main characters are the unlikely duo of Cardboard Colin, a friendly, innocent and sometimes naïve boy made of squares of cardboard, and Paper Pauline, the kind of friend who’s selfish and always picks on Colin thoughtlessly, but deep down knows that he’s the only one she’s got!

It’s a great, gentle-humour filled story of friendship and silly situations, and is definitely the cutest webcomic I read! The diverse range of materials are well used, with the fact that characters are made of paper (and all sorts of other small household items) often leading the jokes. Dr Bandaid is a personal favourite recurring character, for example! But the main highlight of this strip is the very real relationship between Colin and Pauline, often tumultuous but ultimately reminiscent of the turbulent friendship between a brother and sister.

Of course, this sort of gentle-humour-driven strip isn’t for everyone, certainly those who crave a deep drama or a more exciting adventure. And unfortunately the stationary-based gags sometimes tend to drift into “bad Christmas cracker” territory at times. More’s the pity, I can’t for the life of me bring myself to like the Polar Bear character, who just acts as a bad running joke (however, the other one-dimensional running joke character of the plastic teaspoon is just absurdly abstract enough to keep me smiling).

So now to decision time. My Cardboard Life has its flaws and can be a bit thin, but I like to think of it as a cute palette cleanser between more meatier webcomic courses, and holds a place in my heart because of this. And Wondermark is an excellent concept with some true laugh out loud moments, but not entirely perfect. In my mind, this has been the closest Two To Reviews since I started these articles, but after much deliberation Wondermark edges it for sheer laughter quota, and the fact that it appeals to the steampunk/Victoriana centres of my brain!

Todd Marsh welcomes the Runaways back to Marvel Comics with open arms.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

New Beginnings - Saga #1 & Saucer Country #1

This week we have two very different new comics to take a peek at. In one hand I have Paul Cornell’s Saucer Country and in the other Brian K Vaughn’s Saga. Both are brand new this week, both are sci-fi but both are from very different ends of the spectrum.

Saucer Country, on DC’s Vertigo imprint, is a new “real life” comic following the campaign of a Hispanic, divorced woman aiming to go from Governor to President in modern day America. Now this all sounds very politically correct (please excuse the pun) but there is a twist given away in the title for this is Saucer Country, land of the little green – or grey as you prefer - men.

The opening issue is one mainly dealing with the prejudices that Arcadia Alvarado is facing publicly but also opens up her private life too. She’s plagued with vivid dreams whilst sleeping and has a mind that plays tricks on her whilst she’s awake. All pointing towards something bigger and subliminal that is try to creep out but she just can’t quite get there. Equally you are also introduced to Professor Kidd who is her polar opposite with full blown interactive visions. Kidd isn’t the focus of the story in this issue so he’s brushed over but there is something to build from. The story starts to capitulate with an impassioned and driven speech, however the final twist is left to burst into the story as it ties everything together. We are being invaded and the Governor is there to stop it.

Cornell is a well known writer and most recently has finished a stint on Stormwatch, Demon Knights and Batman & Robin for DC. I’ve known a lot of his work over the last couple of years whether it is comic or TV but this time I have to admit I struggled. The story is labelled as for mature readers and that is completely true. I actually think it was a little mature for me as I use comics as my own little world of escapism. Please don’t misunderstand me when I say this though as it’s well written and full of feeling, just not what I expected or was looking for.

From a very similar writing creed we also have Saga from Brian K Vaughn. This comic has to have one of the most unique openings I have ever read with the immortal line of “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!” and from there on it, in its very own quirky way, the story continues. Moving from one extreme in Cornell’s writing to the other end of the scale Saga is almost a Shakespearian Romeo and Juliet affair, if you crossed it with The Terminator. The story is told in part in a retrospective point of view from the daughter who has just been brought into the world.

As much as it is a different type of story, it’s also the same too. This is all set with a political backdrop. The war is based on prejudice and a lack of understanding of a different people. When stripped back to its bare bones this is a story that has been told numerous times in a variety of forms. It is the surrounding aesthetics that make it different and new.

Vaughn’s previous writing on the Buffy comic is quite evident here as there are horns and wings aplenty! What is interesting is that Vaughn’s opposing stance in the story is an almost mechanical and robotic one. The mix of cultures, ideas and images does create a lot to think about especially when it has a hint of lore also interwoven through its fabric. The other strange thing about it is that the more I think about it the more I notice, like the strong feeling of responsibility, tradition and honour that also underlies it all. I’ve been really impressed by the story and found it a very entertaining read as well.

Fiona Staples has provided the artwork and is not a familiar artist for me. Her work isn’t as detailed as I prefer but it is packed full of emotion and sentiment. There are frames when the written pieces are only in support of her work so I’d count that as an achievement. It also supports the story as a whole and works very well with the writing.

Of the two comics Saga has made a bigger impression on me and is the one I would most likely follow. Saucer Country definitely has an X-Files appeal but isn’t the type of thing I read, however it is something that I think others will take a shine to. Interesting work from both screenwriters indeed!

Matt Puddy is resting his foot and eagerly awaiting The Hunger Games

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Watcher - John Carter

I approached Disney’s John Carter with an open mind, I was a blank slate ready to be drawn upon. I had seen the trailer but this only really gave a loose idea of what the film was about, the visual elements were what brought me to see it.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an American Civil War veteran who is worn and weary, fed up of fighting other people's battles and is searching for fortune deep within the Arizona desert. All the while being hunted down by General Powell (wonderfully played by Bryan Cranston) to be re-enlisted into the Confederate army. Carter craftily escapes several times but keeps getting brought back, when he finally manages to get free he runs right into Apache territory! Luckily he stumbles upon spiritual ground and a mysterious cave where the Apaches will not follow.

In the cave he finds the gold he was looking for and so much more... Suddenly transported to a strange planet where he’s stronger and can leap for miles. He is then captured by a green-skinned, four-armed warrior race called Tharks lead by Tars Tarkas (William Dafoe).

The world he is on turns out to be Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it and all is not well. There is a war between the Heliumites and the Zodangans, mirroring the war that John left behind. Both tribes are humanoid in appearance and are only really told apart by their choice in red or blue coloured sash. Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) the Princess of the Heliumites is in need of a hero, and our protagonist fills that slot nicely.

Beautiful winged warships powered by light battle in the skies of the red planet - the civil war rages on. Sab Than (Dominic West) leads the evil Zondangans in the battle for the city of Helium and Dejah’s hand in marriage. The whole thing being secretly orchestrated by the Therns - an ancient race of powerful monks lead by Mark Strong’s Matai Shang.

Is John Carter the man who can stop the war, save the day and fall in love with the princess? Well it is a Disney movie! One complaint I have is that Collins as Dejah is not particularly likeable and Kitsch is rather dull as Carter. Not much of a surprise as they were both in the terrible “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” as Gambit and Silverfox, but I do feel that they’re assisted well by a stellar supporting cast. Some I have mentioned already but others like Ciarán Hinds, James Purfoy and Samantha Morton are all also superb.

Now you might find this blasphemous, but I didn’t know the story of John Carter was based on a series of novels! So when the credits rolled and I was informed of this fact, I decided to find out more. The American author Edgar Rice Burroughs produced a lot of work between the late 19th and early 20th Century and is mainly known for being the creator of Tarzan. He also wrote many sci-fi and fantasy works like “The Land That Time Forgot” and of course his “Barsoom” series which John Carter is pulled from.

The main problem most people will have with the movie is due to the original stories being such an inspiration for so much; a lot of what we see just feels a bit deja vu. I felt very reminded of Avatar as a lot of the main story points are the same - a man transported to another planet via an alternative version of himself, one who falls in love with the Princess and helps save their race. James Cameron even said himself that he wanted something which fitted into the Burroughs' mould. This isn’t even the first film to be based on “A Princess of Mars”; in 2009 there was a direct to DVD release of the same name starring Traci Lords!

Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E and Finding Nemo) succeeds in creating a visually beautiful, fun, action film. One battle sequence which is cut with an earlier tragedy is excellent and shows he can also inject emotion when needs be. However I think the problem with him doing justice to Burroughs’s work is that it all feels a bit dated. Just remember its origins and what they’ve inspired over the years. So go, give it a chance and judge for yourself.

Stefan Harkins is really enjoying re-watching the classic Nineties X-Men cartoon.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Big Game Hunting - Gateway Games: Settlers Of Catan

Despite being an award-winning game that has been around for nearly two decades, The Settlers of Catan feels very much like Marmite in the world of board games. Players seem to either love it or avoid it. I suspect the release of the digital version of the game, called just Catan and available on a number of platforms, may convince some of the avoiders to give it another shot.

The rules are quick and simple to learn, even if the game itself takes awhile to play out. The board is made up of randomly numbered resource tiles that make up an island. The numbers represent dice rolls, and determine what resources (wood, ore, grain, sheep, or brick) are collected by the players with adjacent settlements to those tiles. These resources are used to build additional settlements, cities, and the roads necessary to connect them, on the paths made by the six-sided hexagonal tiles. Every settlement and city you build will earn you Victory Points, and the first player to acquire 10 Victory Points wins.

Of course, there are additional factors to make the game more interesting. The Robber, who may be moved to another tile whenever a seven is rolled, enables a player to steal a resource from another, and also blocks resources from being collected. Resources can be used to buy Development Cards, which do a variety of things including allowing the player to build extra roads, move the Robber, or gain instant Victory Points. The ability to trade resource cards is a great game element, as it allows you to exchange resources with other players or the resource "bank" in order to get the resources you need.

What is probably apparent just from the overview is how much the game depends on chance. There is a definite element of strategy, but all the strategy in the world won't help you if you suffer from a series of unlucky dice rolls, or poor placement of either resources or settlements. The digital version offers at least one solution to this: the ability to simply quit the game and start again with a new board (though this could be considered a bit of a cheat to some).

What seems to be the highlight of the game is the trading options. Building settlements on harbours, special locations around the edge of the island, rewards you with the ability to trade resources with the bank at a reduced rate, rather than the standard 4:1. Trading with other players can be either greatly beneficial or a nightmare, particularly if one player has all the brick you need for roads and refuses to give it up! However, it must be noted that in the digital version of the game, computer players will repeatedly offer the same poor trades; what's more, they will often trade with each other as a priority, even if you have accepted a trade, which can be incredibly frustrating.

The real limitation to this game is the required number of players. Catan can only be played with three or four people, making it difficult if there's only two of you. This is less of a problem in the digital version, though you then end up dealing with the often exasperating computer players.

The Settlers of Catan is, overall, a game that one needs to be in the right mood for. While the digital version allows for a faster game, it lacks the entertainment value and competitive edge you get from playing the physical game with a small group of friends. If you want to have a go at the digital release yourself, it is available on PC, Xbox Live, PSN, iOS, Android, and online at The Settlers of Catan website.

For more from guest blogger Rae, please check out her website.