Monday, April 14, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Thor: The Dark World left me less than impressed, but that didn't dampen any of my excitement for upcoming Marvel films. I had a big fondness for the vibe captured with Captain America: The First Avengers, and was looking forward to seeing them pay off on the fish out of water aspect of the character. Captain America: The Winter Soldier not only delivered on that promise, but created a film that many (rightfully) referred to as Avengers 1.5. This film not only was important to moving forward the character of Steve Rogers, but also moved forward the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in important ways.

The backbone of the film picks up on elements touched on in Avengers; SHIELD may not be quite as trustworthy as we think. Since the events of Avengers, Cap has been running missions for SHIELD along side Black Widow. Sadly, that's really all he knows. The world he knew is long gone, and he's a soldier looking for new orders. The first mission we see (which features a non joke version of Batroc, who is not referred to as a Leaper), we understand that there are some fishy things going on with how SHIELD works. Black Widow has her own secret orders that put the rest of the mission in jeopardy, and she doesn't really even know what she's doing. Shortly after, there is an attempt on Fury's life by a mysterious agent with a metal arm known as the Winter Soldier.

I'm going to try really hard to review this film without given away any of the big moments. Even as a long time comic reader, this movie found ways of surprising me. I would say this is the most tightly plotted of all the Marvel films, and the most shocking as well. It's cool to see them go places that they might be hesitant to go in the comics, but since they don't have the baggage of decades of continuity and have the ability to more tightly plan their creative output (they are only putting out two films a year compared to fifty some monthly comics), allowing for the stories to be a breath of fresh air. There was one surprising character appearance in the film that made me giddy with the innovative and visually unique way they handled a rather campy character. With Guardians of the Galaxy taking place in space (and reportedly tying more into Avengers 3), this movie is pretty much the last stop before Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it definitely puts the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an interesting place.

This movie also might be the most thrilling of the Marvel movies yet. The pacing of the film is great, and once the movie gets going it never lets up. The action and fight scenes are awesomely choreographed and well shot, allowing them to play out in the most exciting manner possible. I was really on the edge of my seat and gasping through many of the sequences. Overall, it seemed like this movie did a great job of engaging the audience, as everyone in the theater was reacting exactly as they should. There were even some "Oh my God"s in the audience when the identity of the Winter Soldier is revealed.

Despite this being such an action and plot heavy movie, there are excellent character moments throughout. There's an awesome sequence in the beginning where Captain America walks through a museum exhibit about himself that not only does the job of catching up the viewer on who he is and what happened to him during WWII, but also gives him some time to think about the people important to him. The scene where he sees Agent Carter is wonderfully heartbreaking, and his interactions with the Winter Soldier do an awesome job to show exactly who he is as a person. Black Widow gets some time to shine, as she realizes maybe her shady work for SHIELD isn't exactly helping her redeem her past. The new character of The Falcon allows Steve a connection to modern soldiers. He is an interesting character who's skills give the movie a nice new visual dynamic.

I really am having trouble thinking of any negative aspect of t his film. It's got a tight plot, great action, good character moments and surprises around every corner. I'm a huge fan of what Marvel's been doing with their movies, and this may be their best film yet. I absolutely cannot wait for this film to come out on DVD so that I can enjoy it all over again. There is a confidence that has been evident in Phase Two of Marvel's films, and it leaves me even more excited for Guardians of the Galaxy this August.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Arc Reactor: Indestructible Hulk - Agent of T.I.M.E.

Someday I would like to just go talk to Mark Waid and see how he would pitch a run on every single character I could think of. It seems like he finds the way to shake up the character in a way that is both innovative and completely obvious. He brought Daredevil out of a gloomy rut that it had been stuck in since Bendis left, turning it from the grim and gritty style Frank Miller brought to the book into a swashbuckling, energetic Stan Lee style adventure. Now he's breathed life into the Hulk, a character that has had trouble finding his footing in recent memory. Since I started reading comics, there have been two runs on Hulk that made me check them out, and neither of them held my interest too long. I tried Greg Pak's Planet Hulk, which is good enough, but ran on quite a bit too long, and Jason Aaron's, who's run on Hulk was brief and messy. If you look at Daredevil's zippy tone, you might find it hard to believe that Hulk would be a book for him, but like with Daredevil, he ditches the broodiness that came before him and changes the main character's perspective for the better.

Basically the premise of this run is that Banner decides that he's wasted his entire scientific career trying to cure himself of the Hulk and hasn't been able to do anything else. So he finally decides to treat the Hulk like a chronic condition. Now he works for SHIELD doing research, and when he builds up and Hulks out, SHIELD just drops him where he can do some damage. Banner builds, Hulk destroys. I read the first trade, and found it a lot of fun. I didn't check out the second, but a Marvel digital code mistakenly gave me Indestructible Hulk vol 3, so I started reading that.

Agent of T.I.M.E. (the trade is titled S.M.A.S.H. Time, but the single issues call the storyline Agent of T.I.M.E., so I'm going with that) is tangentially related to the fallout of Age of Ultron. I haven't read that story, but had no problem jumping right into this. All you have to know going in is that Age of Ultron broke the time stream. Hulk has been recruited by another secret agency called T.I.M.E. in order to jump back in time. Many have tried to travel through the broken time stream, but it seems to be too much for a normal human. The only person strong enough to survive the experience is the Hulk. There are several Chronanarchist that have traveled to key points in history in order to manipulate time for their own benefit. This allows the story to have a nice arc, while still allowing each issue to stand one its own. You've got one issue in he Wild West, one in Camelot, and so on. They come across some wonderfully crazy anomalies in time (including one guy who terrorizes the town with an army of dinosaurs). This is so far off from the kind of Hulk stories I'm used to, and it's all the better for it.

One of the most fun aspects of the story is that in order to keep Hulk on task, Banner uploads his personality into a little floating robot. This allows for an out of the ordinary Banner/Hulk team up. It's a lot of fun to see "Banner" be able to let out his frustration with the Hulk. There's a lot to explore with having Banner not be burdened by his rage, so it's really fun to see that. The final twists involved in the story are amazing. The set up of the last issue was genius, and challenged Bruce both morally and physically.

This storyline is not only a great example of how to do something new and innovative with a long running character, but also a great way of showing the fallout of a big event comic without directly following it up (or requiring extensive knowledge of the event, for that manner). From what I understand, the next (and final arc) of Indestructible Hulk deals with the new Inhumanity status quo that follows Infinity. When they comes out in trade I will definitely check it out, as Waid has proved time and time again that he is a master of freshening up characters.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Fifth Annual Russells - An Award for Cinematic Excellence

"Woah, Norris Was the Thing?" - Biggest Surprise of the Year
-Plus One
-Spring Breakers
-Cheap Thrills
-Upstream Color (being disappointing)
-Antiviral

WINNER: PLUS ONE

"The Jack Burton" - Best Action Scene
-Air Force One Rescue - Iron Man 3
-Battle for Hong Kong - Pacific Rim
-Thor vs Malekith through the Nine Realms - Thor: The Dark World
-Final Assault - Ender's Game
-Escape the Compoud - "Safe Haven" (V/H/S/2)

WINNER: BATTLE FOR HONG KONG - PACIFIC RIM

"Kurt Russell of the Year" - Best Actor
-Joaquin Phoenix - Her
-Simon Pegg - The World's End
-James Franco - Spring Breakers
-Caleb Landry Jones - Antiviral
-Pat Healy - Cheap Thrills

WINNER: JOAQUIN PHOENIX

"Goldie Hawn of the Year" - Best Actress
-Jennifer Lawrence - Hunger Games: Catching Fire
-Amy Adams - Her
-Sandra Bullock - Gravity
-Mia Wasikowska - Stoker
-Jessica Chastain - Mama

WINNER: SANDRA BULLOCK

"Call Me Snake" - Best Hero of the Year
-Katniss - Hunger Games: Catching Fire
-Stacker Pentecost - Pacific Rim
-The Warrens - The Conjuring
-Tony Stark - Iron Man 3
-Ender Wiggin - Ender's Game

WINNER: KATNISS

"Is It My Scar?" - Best Villain of the Year
-Kaiju - Pacific Rim
-Aldrich Killian - Iron Man 3
-President Snow - Hunger Games: Catching Fire
-Mama - Mama
-Polite Leader - The Purge

WINNER: ALDRICH KILLIAN

Best Screenplay
-Her
-Plus One
-The World's End
-This is the End
-Cheap Thrills

WINNER: HER

"The John Carpenter" - Best Director
-Alfanso Cuaron - Gravity
-Guillermo del Toro - Pacific Rim
-Edgar Wright - The World's End
-Chan-wook Park - Stoker
-Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans - "Safe Haven" (V/H/S/2)

WINNER: ALFANSO CUARON

Best Movie I Haven't Seen, But Know I'll Like
-I Declare War
-In a World...
-Riddick
-Short Term 12
-Act of Killing

WINNER: ACT OF KILLING

Most Anticipated of 2014
-X-Men: Days of Future Past
-Guardians of the Galaxy
-Interstellar
-Snowpiercer
-Transcendence

WINNER: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

"The Golden Plisken" - Best Picture
-Pacific Rim
-The Conjuring
-Gravity
-The World's End
-Her

WINNER: PACIFIC RIM

TOP 10:
10. Cheap Thrills
9. Antiviral
8. Room 237
7. Plus One
6. Iron Man 3
5. The World's End
4. The Conjuring
3. Gravity
2. Her
1. Pacific Rim

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Arc Reactor: Ghosted - Haunted Heist

In past Arc Reactor posts, I've been writing about superhero comics. It seems to me that's a lot easier to do, as creator owned titles tend to have less discrete story arcs and are more just one long story without big breaks. I don't know if that's just how most people write when they have no restrictions placed on them and are working with their own creations, but it can be tough to talk about just one part without talking about the whole. Not so with the opening five issue arc of Ghosted, called Haunted Heist. It's paced perfectly, following the normal heist movie formula, but doing it in a completely unique environment, while provided a beginning, middle, and end.

When I first heard of Ghosted, the first thing that came to my mind was "I wish I would have thought of that." It has one of the most elegant high concept pitches I've ever heard: Man puts together a team to steal a ghost from a haunted house. Ocean's 11 meets The Shining. As an amateur screenwriter who has tried to write scripts in both of those genres, it seems like such an obvious premise that I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it. I'm glad to see that the writer who did come up with it was able to take the ball and run with it so successfully.

Ghosted opens with Jackson T Winters in prison after his last heist left him the sole survivor of his team. Conditions are horrible in prison, with the threat of being raped or murdered being a very close reality for him. Winters is the typical type of criminal character we see in tales like this; a pretty vile person all around, but with a charm that makes him hard to hate. Within the first few pages, he is broken out of prison by Anderson Lake, who takes him to meet Markus Schrencken, an eccentric old man who needs Winters to help him add the one item to his occult collection that he's always dreamed of: a human spirit. Turns out the Trask Mansion, the site of many murders over the years, is just about to be demolished, so time is of the essence. Winters doesn't really believe in the paranormal, but would rather take a shot at it than be thrown back in prison. He goes about putting together the team, which is a combination of people he's worked with in the past, and some forced on him by Markus. None of them are explored in a particularly deep manner, but they all bring something unique to the table and have enough differences for them to butt heads a few times, which is really the perfect balance for a story like this.



Williamson also makes the Trask Mansion into quite the character itself. The atrocities he attributes to that place add to the mystique, and the plethora of ghosts that populate the house add to the creep value. Winters plays it smart by making a big deal about how they never go into the mansion after dark, so when circumstances force them there at night, you know it's really about to hit the fan. Several twists come into play throughout, tying Markus to house in unexpected ways. Like any good heist, it doesn't go down as expected, and the cons involved play out perfectly in an extremely satisfying conclusion.

I'm a bit torn about this series in general. When it was initially launched, it was listed as a five issue miniseries. I think Image does this a lot to test the waters with certain series, and if they do well enough they are graduated into a full fledged ongoing, which is what happened here. I liked the series so much that I probably should be invested in what happens next, but I just feel that these five issues told such a great story that I don't know how they would continue. Will he be tasked with committing some other sort of supernatural crime? Will those he screwed over come after him with some occult magic? These could be good stories, but I'm not entirely sold yet. I'm sure once the next trade comes out I'll be ready to give it a shot. Until then, I know that I can strongly recommend Ghosted vol 1: Haunted Heist

Third Annual CoKR Comic Book Awards

CONCLUSION
-Sweet Tooth
-Locke and Key
-Batman Inc

Not as many big series came to a conclusion this year, but the ones that did were very personal to me. Batman Inc wrapped up Grant Morrison's run on the greater Batman universe, one that I remember starting fairly early in my comic reading career. The end, while not quite as mind bending as some of his earlier stuff with Dr Hurt, provided a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to the Talia vs Bruce over the soul of Damien that's been running through Morrison's story since his very first arc. The conclusion of Sweet Tooth was a very emotional one, ending with a classic jump forward to the elderly stage of Gus' life, showing just how the events of the series helped to create a better life for so many for years to come. But in the end, Locke and Key was the finale that got me the most. Locke and Key was another title like Batman, it began fairly early in my comic reading career, and it was the first time that I really felt like I was ahead of the curve getting in on the ground floor of something unique. The journey Locke and Key took me on was absolutely amazing. And while I shed a good amount of tears during Sweet Tooth's final issue, it's not even close to how moved I was by the end of Locke and Key. The final was a perfect culmination of all the plot threads that had been building since day one, and featured some really great call backs to the beginning. There were many deaths throughout that hit me hard, and it was amazing to see the effect everything had on those that made it. For all the fantastical elements of Locke and Key, it was the humanity of the series that really made it stand out from the rest, and the final issue really helped you remember that.

WINNER : LOCKE AND KEY


BEST RELAUNCH
-Superior Spider-Man
-New Avengers
-Young Avengers
-X-Men

Marvel NOW provided a lot of all-new, all-different takes on characters we've seen before. X-Men was the least amount of shake-up, but we still got a great writer who took an all female team (something that doesn't do great in this market), and really made it into a slick title. Young Avengers got quite the reboot as a hip title about what it means to be in that stage of 'young adult,' reading like no other super hero book on the stands. New Avengers got turned into a dark, cerebral book about how the smartest men in the world deal with moral quandaries that aren't easy to think away. Superior Spider-Man was the reboot that impressed me the most. Dan Slott and company managed to completely change the book, while still following the threads of what came before it. The Superior Spider-Man was one of the boldest directions of any super hero title (made evident by the amount of death threats Slott received). It's such an interesting direction to have a villain use villain-esque tactics to do the job of the hero. While the title is going to revert back to Amazing Spider-Man with Peter Parker back in control, I don't think Superior will be forgotten any time soon.

WINNER: SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN


BEST MINISERIES/ONE-SHOT/OGN
-Trillium
-Comeback
-Station to Station
-Hellboy: Midnight Circus
-Daredevil: End of Days

I didn't do so great this year at keeping up with miniseries this year, but there were a few that stood out to me. Comeback was a fun little book, with shades of Looper, but never really blew my mind the way I thought it would. Station to Station had  beautiful artwork by Gabriel Hardman, and a nice little Kaiju meets Twilight Zone feel to it. I've heard that they might do something more with the world, and I would probably be willing to check it out if they did. Hellboy: Midnight Circus was a wonderful tale, evoking pieces of one of my favorite novels "Something Wicked This Way Comes." It's a wonderful look into an early Hellboy misadventure, and really makes me want to get back into the series. Daredevil: End of Days brought me right back to the gritty Bendis Daredevil that drew me into monthly comics. I loved this sort of Citizen Kane style investigation of what happened to Daredevil, and it paid off emotionally as one last arc to Bendis's legendary run. When Vertigo announced that two of their biggest writers would be doing miniseries, I knew whichever one I read (I told myself due to budgetary reasons I could only pick one) would end up being a top book. While I'm having trouble being patient with Scott Snyder's The Wake, I'm very confident in my choice of Jeff Lemire's Trillium. Each issue finds some way to play with conventional storytelling, and seeing Lemire draw another series is really a treat. Not to mention the idea of a time travel romance story is right up my alley. There are still a couple issues left to go, and I can't wait to see how it ends.

WINNER: TRILLIUM


BEST NEW SERIES
-Lazarus
-Private Eye
-The Eighth Seal
-Sex Criminals
-Pretty Deadly

With the year that we're having, this was a tough category. There were a lot of innovative, unique series that came out between Image Comics and digital avenues such as Thrillbent. On the Image side, you have Lazarus, Sex Criminals, and Pretty Deadly, all completely different in style and tone. Lazarus by Greg Rucka is  set in a future of extreme economic inequity, with families fighting battles between and within themselves; like a Game of Thrones in a dystopian future. Sex Criminals is a laugh out loud inventive sex comedy like nothing else. It manages to be both extremely vulgar and really touching, a feat not often achieved in comic form. Pretty Deadly is a western like nothing I've ever seen before, drawing more from an almost poetic, fairy tale style than the grim and gritty we are used to in the genre. On the digital side, we have Eighth Seal and Private Eye. Eighth Seal is a wonderfully clever horror story that fully utilizes the nature of digital comics with panel builds. Mixing the satanic plot points of something like Rosemary's Baby with politics along the lines of West Wing, this comic tells the tale of a First Lady who is experiencing horrific visions due to an evil cult's manipulation. Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin blew me away with Private Eye, which sets up one of the most intriguing futures I've seen yet. The story takes place "After the Cloud Burst," which was an event where all of our digital information was made completely public. Now the world is completely without internet, and privacy is the most valued commodity. This set up provides the perfect world in which to play out a classic detective story, albeit one that subverts expectations at every turn. This is the first comic he's released on the Panel Syndicate website, so I can't wait to see what he has in store for the future.

WINNER: PRIVATE EYE


BEST MOMENT
-"Try the red one" - Daredevil 25
-The Death of Grills - Hawkeye 9/10
-Nor Varr kicking ass at the club - Young Avengers 04
-Gor vs 3 Thors - Thor: God of Thunder 09
-"All of them" - War - Wonder Woman 23

There are tons of ways to make a big moment memorable. You can have it shift the tone of the book, like the death of Grills in Hawkeye. It took the happy go lucky tone of the book and added a strong element of tragedy by killing off a lovable and quirky side character in a very brutal way. You can have a bad ass moment like War's in Wonder Woman 23. When asked, "You and what army?" War simply responded "All of them," then manifested the ghosts of dead soldiers from every war throughout history. It's an incredibly bad ass moment that really captured how the character of War worked. You can have moments that provide a big twist like in Daredevil 25. Throughout the issue, Daredevil is pursued by Ikari, a man who has the same powers as DD due to being forced to go through the same process as Murdock when he got his powers. Daredevil is down, reaching for a weapon, and comes upon a series of umbrellas. Ikari snidely remarks "Try the red one," revealing that he is NOT blind like Daredevil, and has all of his senses enhanced. It's a simple, but brilliant moment that shows Waid gets Daredevil more than almost anyone before him. A great moment can also be an epic fight scene, like in Thor: God of Thunder 09. Three Thors from different ages fight the God Butcher in an epic battle only Gods can have. They throw each other from planet to planet, knocking each other light years with each blow. It perfectly encapsulates the scale of Thor, showing what differentiates him from other heroes in the Marvel Universe. Or maybe its a combination of these, like in Young Avengers 04. Our heroes, who are still just getting together, are in over their heads when Nor Varr comes to save them. In a perfect two page spread, we see the layout of the club they are in, along with a graphic timeline of sorts showing each step Nor Varr takes to sweep through the club and kick ass. The following page feautres him standing, back to us, looking over his shoulder saying "Come with me if you want to be awesome." It's a moment that really captures the feeling of Young Avengers in three pages, and makes for the best moment of the year.

WINNER: NOR VARR KICKING ASS AT THE CLUB


SINGLE ISSUE
-Sweet Tooth 40
-Young Avengers 04 - Deus Ex Machine Gunner
-Hawkeye 11 - Pizza is My Business
-Thor: God of Thunder 12 - Once Upon a Time in Midgard
-Wonder Woman #23

There were a lot of really solid single issues this year. Wonder Woman #23 made a great climax to two years of storylines, bringing everything to a head in a bad ass confrontation that wrapped up the big threads going through the title while creating a new status quo for Wonder Woman that changes her in interesting ways. Sweet Tooth #40 was a beautiful goodbye to the characters we'd spent 40 issues growing to love, creating one of the most emotional wrap ups to a Vertigo title. Young Avengers #4 showed the world exactly what type of tone the book was trying to achieve: a vibrant, punk rock type book where the style is the substance. Thor: God of Thunder #12 was one of the best inbetween arc issues ever, with Thor acting truly like a god on Earth, touching different parts of the world and trying to do what he can. But there is nothing out there in mainstream comics that was like Hawkeye #11. Pizza Dog became one of the breakout characters of Hawkeye right from the beginning, and #11 is all from his point of view. Fraction and Aja use some amazing techniques to show how Pizza Dog intersects with important events of the series, and displays how he interprets the world with some really inventive infographics. It's a really ballsy move for Marvel to put out such a strange and innovative issue, and I'm glad they let Fraction have his way like that.

WINNER: HAWKEYE 11


STORYLINE
-The God Butcher/Godbomb - Thor: God of Thunder 1-11
-Ragnarock Now - Uncanny Avengers 6-17
-Secret Origin of Tony Stark - Iron Man 09-17
-Darkest Hours - Superior Spider-Man 22-24
-Haunted Heist - Ghosted 1-5

Image books are hard to really nominate for this, because they are usually so long form that they don't have distinct story arcs, but Ghosted: Haunted Heist really made for quite an opening storyline. It was a perfect little heist story, except what they were robbing was a haunted house. Great pacing, nice twists, and a sweet payoff. While this was good, Marvel Now proved to be a fertile ground for writers to grow great stories. Secret Origin of Tony Stark took Iron Man out of his comfort zone and into deep space, dealing with family secrets and crazy AIs. Ragnarock Now picked up on some threads of Uncanny X-Force, and is spinning a tale with a scope that eclipses most event comics Marvel has put out recently. The magnitude of the story is so huge, I can't believe they are letting Remender get away with it. Superior Spider-Man has given us lots of unique tales, the best of which is Darkest Hours, in which Doc Ock/Spider-Man confronts Flash Thompson's version of Venom, with wonderfully chaotic results. It also marks a major turning point in the Doc Ock as Spider-Man saga. But to me the best of all stories to come out of Marvel Now, or any comic this year, was the God Butcher epic from Thor: God of Thunder. Spanning three time periods, Thor does battle with Gorr, an all powerful being hell bent on wiping all god's from existence. The writing of Aaron and the art of Ribic go perfectly together to form a tale for the ages. It's got elements of sci fi, fantasy, and a little bit of horror on a scale only Thor can provide.

WINNER: GOD BUTCHER / GODBOMB

VILLAIN
-Gorr the God Butcher - Thor: God of Thunder
-Apocalypse Twins - Uncanny Avengers
-451 - Iron Man
-The First Born - Wonder Woman
-Arcade - Avengers Arena

This one was a tough one for me. The Apocalypse Twins were a pair of villains who not only have plans that threatened the Earth on a scale that very few villains do, but their existence acted as a reminder of mistakes of the past (the Wolverine lead X-Force set in motion the events that lead to them being born). The First Born was a force of nature type villain that cut through tons on his way to trying to claim his prophesied seat on the throne of Olympus. The robot 451 revealed information to Tony Stark that shook the core of who he was, while trying to manipulate him into his plans. Gorr took on three versions of Thor simultaneously in his quest to wipe all gods from existence. To me, I have to give the award to Arcade, whose reinvention in the pages of Avengers Arena took him from a joke villain to someone who was able to threaten a lot of characters that people love. That series was a huge surprise, and it was cool to see Arcade set up such a simple yet elaborate "Murder World" that finally gives use some actually murder.

WINNER: ARCADE

ARTIST
-Jamie McKelvie w/ Mike Norton - Young Avengers
-Chris Samnee - Daredevil
-Esad Ribic - Thor: God of Thunder
-Marcos Martin - Private Eye
-Gabriel Rodriguez - Locke and Key

There was some really great art this year. Marcos Martin once again showed how great he is with him simple, yet crisp style in Private Eye. McKelvie and Norton provided us with a ton of innovative layouts that really wowed me. Rodriguez's wonderful grounded cartoon style helped bring Locke and Key to a close, working perfectly in step with Hill's scripts, as it has been throughout the whole series. Samnee's really brought out the fun, classic tone of Daredevil. His simple style creates some of the best acting in comics. But to me, Esad Ribic's art helped bring the epic scale of the God Butcher arc to life. I can't imagine anyone else drawing this arc, as his crisp style creates some amazing imagery and brutal fights. From what I understand, he's coming back for the next Thor arc, so I'm super pumped for that.

WINNER: ESAD RIBIC

WRITER
-Jonathan Hickman (Avengers/New Avengers/Manhattan Projects/Infinity/East of West)
-Brian K Vaughan (Saga/Private Eye)
-Kieron Gillen (Young Avengers/Iron Man)
-Matt Fraction (Hawkeye/FF/Fantastic Four/Sex Criminals)
-Kurtis Wiebe (Peter Panzerfaust/Rat Queens)

It seems that lots of writers now a days are really trying to stretch their legs more. Lots of them take on a couple Marvel books, then dabble in putting out some creator owned content. Kieron Gillen showed a lot of diversity by doing a hip, youth infused book like Young Avengers and a classic, yet forward thinking book like Iron Man, both great in their own ways. He also did Three, which was a historical book set in Sparta, which I haven't picked up. Jonathan Hickman brought his wild ideas to Avengers, New Avengers and Infinity at Marvel, while also focusing on his creator owned books like Manhattan Projects, East of West, Secret, and God is Dead, all different, but still containing that Hickman flair. Fraction seemed to really stretch himself, doing three quirky books at Marvel, Hawkeye, FF, and Fantastic Four, while trying out a couple other genres at Image with Sex Criminals (a sex comedy fantasy) and Satellite Sam (a murder mystery in the golden age of television). A couple other writers at Image have decided to forgo the big two publishers and just make their own things. Kurtis Wiebe continued to explore more genres by launching Rat Queens this year along side Peter Panzerfaust, which has been going for a few years now. The two couldn't be more different, as Rat Queens is a comedy set in a D&D type setting, while Panzerfaust is a retelling of Peter Pan in WWII. To me though, the quintessential indie guy is Brian K Vaughan. Not only does he put out Saga, which is constantly bring referenced as a trendsetter in the industry, but he's trying to break some new ground in digital comics by releasing Private Eye on his website Panel Syndicate. It seems like the time he spent working in TV let him build up tons of comic ideas that he's just waiting to pump out.

WINNER: BRIAN K VAUGHAN


BEST SUPERHERO TITLE
-Thor: God of Thunder
-Uncanny Avengers
-Young Avengers
-Daredevil
-Wonder Woman

We're in a really good era of superhero comics right now, and even though DC isn't quite as appealing as it used to be, there's definitely a ton to choose from. Young Avengers gave us a superhero title that used a villain called Mother to build some pretty clear metaphors about how it feels to grow up, giving us some poignant character moments and some amazingly fun sequences. Wonder Woman continued to reinvent the classic character, taking her a bit more out of superheroics, instead focusing on the epic struggles of the Greek Pantheon that makes up her family. It's weird to see DC take one of their biggest characters and almost completely remove it from the rest of the collective universe, but Azzerello has a vision and I'm glad their letting him play it out. Daredevil continues to be good in ways that are almost annoying, because I really can't figure out any more ways to say it. Waid and Samnee just line up perfectly to create a classic feeling superhero comic. This year brought to head a ton of stories Waid's been brewing since the beginning, and really pays off. As I said before, Uncanny Avengers has been creating a story whose scale rivals that of any event Marvel has done in the past few years, but still manages to get some good character moments and interactions. It's tough to be able to balance such grand stakes with such small moments, but Remender knows how to pull it off. But to me, there's no better example of the superhero genre than Thor: God of Thunder. The God Butcher arc was almost a perfect story, and he managed to follow that up with another dynamite story with The Accursed, with a really beautiful story between them.

WINNER: THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

BEST DIGITAL ONLY SERIES
-Private Eye
-The Bunker
-The Eighth Seal
-Subatomic Party Girls
-The Endling

There's been a lot of interesting work going on with digital comics. It seems like people have seen that the creator owned route is very alluring, and they have decided to cut out one of the biggest costs of working this model (printing) and give the product straight to the customer. The Endling and The Eighth Seal have both been posting issues for free on Mark Waid's Thrillbent website. Both take advantage of the digital format using panels builds and interesting transitions. Eighth Seal offers a great combination of politics and horror, making it quite the unique story. Endling gives us an interesting look at a computer simulation of human evolution that wants to be made into a real person. Subatomic Party Girls is a fun all ages book published with Monkeybrain that's about a rock and roll band who gets blasted into outer space as a publicity stunt. It's a fun and refreshing, pop culture infused book. Fialkov decided to skip teaming up with a publisher for The Bunker, a science fiction tale about a group of people who get letters from future selves in an attempt to avert a horrible future. It's less about the intrigue and more about the effect the situation has on each of the people. To me, none of these compare to Private Eye. Vaughan creates a beautiful world and makes an interesting statement by releasing a book where the internet doesn't exist exclusively on the internet. While I wish that it somehow worked in some panel builds like Thrillbent / Marvel Infinite comics, I can't be disappointed with a book as good looking as this one.

WINNER: PRIVATE EYE


BEST NON SUPERHERO TITLE
-Manhattan Projects
-Saga
-Locke and Key
-Chew
-Private Eye

Some of the same nominees as last year, but that's just a testament to how strong some of these series have stayed. Manhattan Projects has proved the high concept has legs, evolving the series from just the crazy science to something with a bit more military and political (and extradimensional) intrigue. Saga proves that it wasn't just a flash in the pan, continuing to take interesting and unique turns to create one of the most interesting families in any medium. Chew trucks along, not losing a beat after almost forty issues. The book still reads just as fun and inventive as it was years ago, while finding interesting ways to develop the universe with a wacky smile on its face. Private Eye was a newcomer, quickly establishing itself as an event comic any time it came out. But to me, this year was all about Locke and Key. I knew it was going to be tough on me knowing Locke and Key was coming to a conclusion this year, but the comic went out perfectly. I'll definitely miss all the characters, but they all got a perfect goodbye, while wrapping up the main plotline in style. I'm definitely a Joe Hill fan for life.

WINNER: LOCKE AND KEY


BEST OVERALL
-Thor: God of Thunder
-The Private Eye
-Uncanny Avengers
-Daredevil
-Locke and Key

Great competition this year for best books. Another year, another great new BKV series. Daredevil continues, now in the 30s while still feeling like every issue is something that's never been done with Daredevil before. Locke and Key ends its run as one of the greatest creator owned books of all time. Uncanny Avengers runs event level stories on a monthly basis with no sign of slowing down. To me though, nothing beats Thor: God of Thunder. There's just no better book when it comes to epic stories, interesting character developments and inventive threats. Aaron could have rested on his laurels after God Butcher, but he kept up the quality with Accursed and shows no sign of slowing down with his next story, which will feature Old King Thor battling Galactus for the fate of a burned out Earth.

WINNER: THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Top 10 Video Games of 2013

10. KNOCK-KNOCK (STEAM)
I have only ever supported two projects on Kickstarter. One was the famous Double Fine Adventure game (now titled Broken Age), and the other was Knock-knock. I haven't played any of Ice Pick Lodge's games, but their game concepts always seemed to intrigue me. I'm always in the mood for a good horror game, and this looked like one that separated from the pack. It seems a lot of horror indie games lately are in the Slender/Amnesia vein, which is great, but I like some variety. I think I was just playing Lone Survivor, so the sound of a 2D horror game was appealing. When it was finally delivered, it didn't disappoint. It's a hard game to describe, it's sort of a spooky game of hide and seek that captures the feeling of insomnia. If that doesn't sound appealing to you, don't bother, because it's a very specific subset of people that will enjoy it. While the game isn't outright scary, it's unsettling in a way that's hard to put a finger on, and even harder to produce. I have to say, I'm impressed with this a lot, and would be more than willing to check out future projects from them.

9. GONE HOME (STEAM)
I haven't spent as much time with this game as I want to yet, but from what I've seen, it's been really impressive. The game is a very simple premise, you come to your family's new home for the first time and find that everyone is gone, and you walk around the house trying to find out what happened. If you like the exploring of the world in things like Bioshock, this will be right up your alley, as the story is all told as you piece together things from notes and letters that you find throughout the house. The world is wonderfully rich, and really makes the place feel like you are actually walking through someone's home, and not just a level optimized for your gameplay experience. It's a tough balance to strike, and there's a real art in what they are doing here. If you are fatigued by the endless wave of shooters that you see in the world of video games, give this story a try. No combat, no puzzles, just a world that slowly reveals to you a story.

8. OUTLAST (STEAM)
This is the type of game I was talking about when I mentioned a game in the Slender/Amnesia mold. It takes what made Amnesia work (the feeling of helplessness that comes from being weaponless) and just ramps it up to 10. There's nothing about the setting or gameplay that is really unique, this definitely isn't the first game to be set in an insane asylum, but it just does everything super efficiently. With my strong love for horror, part of me wants to scoff at it for being kinda cliche and cheap, but I'll be damned if I don't catch myself holding my breath as I hide from maniacs that wander the halls of mental institution. This is the complete opposite end of the horror spectrum from Knock-knock; fast and lean horror that goes straight for the jugular. I really hope that the developers can take some time to craft something a little more unique for their followup, because they certainly know how to craft a fine tuned horror experience.

7. THOMAS WAS ALONE (PSN/STEAM)
During Steam/PSN sales, there are always a bunch of great looking video games that I consider getting, but it seems about 75% of them are 2D puzzle platformers, and I have plenty of those that have sat unfinished on my harddrive for years, but Thomas Was Alone was one that made be actually pull the trigger on a purchase. Basically is a Lost Vikings style game where you switch between different colored rectangular pixel style characters that each have a different jumping ability. The puzzles and mechanics of the game are perfectly done, making each level a joy to play, but the real icing on the cake is the voiceover. Much like how Portal was transformed by its narration, Thomas Was Alone turns from a simple puzzle platformer to a rather heartfelt game about making and solidifying friendships. They give each of the colored blocks you control names and personalities, which is not an easy task, and really manage to pull at your heartstrings as their relationships evolve. Technically this game came out on PC in 2012, but since it came out on PSN in 2013, I'm going to count it.

6. RIDICULOUS FISHING (iOS)
I think mobile games offer interesting ways to play with methods of telling stories and immersing the player in the world, but what really works most of the time is a simple game with brief rounds that you can play over and over again, like Angry Birds or Jetpack Joyride. Ridiculous Fishing falls into the latter category. It's so simple, but there is enough variety in each turn you take to keep you coming back for more. The game is also notable for the fact that it is one of the few games lately to completely forgo in app purchases. There is a store in the game that plays a significant part in your progression throughout, but you can only purchase things with currency that you EARN in game, rather than currency that you purchase with real money. It's a refreshingly old school way of doing things that may have cost them money in the end, but allowed them to craft the game they wanted to make it. I would gladly pay a couple bucks more for the game to support a developer who is willing to stick to their guns.

5. ANTICHAMBER (STEAM)
After the success of Portal, there have been a good number of games that have tried to recreate that type of puzzle experience, but very few have been memorable. Antichamber is the first one for me that completely brings me back to that fresh feeling I got playing the first Portal. Imagine if MC Escher did a Portal game, and you'd have a good sense of how this plays out. Basically you have to navigate your way through an environment that doesn't obey the normal laws of physics and space. The layout shifts, but in ways that follow specific rules that the game teaches you as you go on. The layout of the puzzles is absolutely brilliant, and the thrill you get when you solve that one room you were sure was impossible is just as good as hitting that perfect shot in some action game. The visual style of Antichamber is also unique, with most of the world being a stark white with black lines, punctuated by splashes of color. Watch the Steam sales, because this one is getting to the point where you can catch it for half off every once in a while, and it's completely worth it. It's an experience you won't forget.

4. DEVICE 6 (iOS)
Simogo really became a mobile game company to watch this year. They came out with the creepy puzzle/exploration game Year Walk early last year, then dropped the amazing interactive novel/puzzle Device 6. It's tough for any studio to put out two games of such quality in one year, and they pulled it off. Device 6 plays like some crazy mixture of House of Leaves and The Prisoner. You scroll through the text and read the story of a woman who wakes up in a castle on a remote island without memory of how she got there. The text becomes your map, as the layout changes shape, forcing you to rotate your device to follow the narrative. Throughout the story, there are little pictures or animations, often accompanied by some spoken dialog or music. This is really what I think of when I think of the possibilities that ebooks provide, and I hope that people start doing more and more of this in the future.

3. THE LAST OF US (PS3)
For some reason, I had a bit of trouble getting into this game. I don't play a lot of long AAA games any more, and I had just come off another one, so I may have just been burned out a bit. I put it aside for a few months and picked it up again later and was completely sucked in. While not a lot of people seem to be classifying this as survival horror, I think it its a prime example of the type of survival horror pioneered by Resident Evil and Silent Hill. So much of the time I tried to figure out ways of eliminating my targets without spending any bullets, because I knew that resources were precious and hard to come by. It's that bullet-counting gameplay that I miss in the more action focused horror games put out by most AAA developers (such as Dead Space). The addition of stealth based kills into the gameplay also gave the game a unique feel, drawing tons of tension from trying to be careful to sneak up on people as to not waste ammo. I also think this is a particularly brave game for a big studio to put out, and exemplifies why I've always preferred Playstation exclusives to XBox exclusives. While XBox's exclusives always seem to be some sci-fi multiplayer shooter like Halo or Gears of War, Playstation has the guts to release a slow paced, meditative game that is tonally close to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's not often that games will really make you think long and hard about some of the darker parts of mankind, and I applaud Sony for giving something like this such a big chance, and I thank audiences for helping it pay off.

2. BIOSHOCK INFINITE (PS3)
I have pretty strict trailer black out policies when it comes to movies, but I don't usually follow that when it comes to games. I figure that trailers for games show such a small percentage of the actual game that I'm not spoiling as much watching them as I would with a movie. But once I saw that 10 min gameplay footage of Bioshock Infinite that they released years ago I avoided all other footage of the game. With how great my experience going into the first Bioshock knowing nothing was, I knew that this would be the best way to play this one, and my patience was rewarded. While some of the shooter mechanics were the same as the past game, the look and feel of the universe couldn't have been any more different. That difference does a great job of making the familiar aspects of the game feel fresh. It seems evident from this game that Ken Levine and company have really grown as storytellers, taking chances with an ambitious tale that boils down to the same theme that the original Bioshock tied into: Choice. The final part of the game is absolutely engaging, filled with more ideas and philosophical meditations than any other first person shooter I've ever played. The experience is breathtaking, and I can't wait to see what Irrational can cook up for us next. I would love to see them try to do a smaller, downloadable game, as I think their focus on story telling could really be focused like a laser on a taut little tale. Plus I don't want to have to wait another 5 years for their next title.

1. XCOM: ENEMY WITHIN (PS3)
XCOM had always been one of those games that people had told me I would like based on my interests, but for whatever reason I didn't check it out. The old one seemed daunting, and the 2012 version came out at a time when I was already occupied with other games. This past year, that version (XCOM: Enemy Unknown) was free on Playstation Plus, so I decided to give it a shot and was immediately sucked in. This past year's expansion / reinvention of the game tuned what was already an amazing game into a nearly perfect one. When I was younger, I was a big fan of turn based strategy games, but in today's market they are few and far between, especially on consoles, so I forgot just how fun they can be. I love the mixture of randomized elements and fixed story points, as it allows the game to play out different every time. There is such a large level of customization that you can put into your base and soldiers (especially with the addition of the Cybernetics and Genetics Labs in Enemy Within), and it really allows you to play exactly how you want to. The permanent nature of death for each of your soldiers allows you to draw your own stories with characters that truly aren't really given any personality. One of the coolest things for me was that the game randomly gave two characters the same last name right off the bat, and I constructed a narrative about them bring brother and sister. One of them got cybernetic upgrades while the other was injured, prompting the injured one to become genetically enhanced months later. I hope this game has done well enough to warrant a sequel, as I would love to see more games in this style, especially with a bit more story worked into the progression. As it stands, XCOM: Enemy Within is a sublime experience for those looking for something a bit more thinky.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Best Books of 2013

In the past, I've never done a best of books for the year. That's not because I don't read, but is rather because I usually have such a long list of books that I want to read from previous years that I don't get a chance to read current books. This year there happened to be enough books that came out that really grabbed my attention, so I've read enough to be able to make a moderately well informed Top 5.

5. SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes
Not only was this book appealing to me because I had just finished reading Zoo City by Beukes when Shining Girls came out, but the subject matter just happened to be right up my alley. The elevator pitch I'd heard of this novel was "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with time travel," and being a fan of both serial killers and science fiction, I knew I would have to check it out. The two main characters are Harper, an unhinged man who uses a mysterious house to travel through time and hunt down girls that 'shine,' and Kirby, the only one of his victims to get away. The book jumps between their perspectives, as well as to that of Harper's victims. While I understand why she did this (in interviews she stated she wanted to show that he was a serial killer that was not charming like most, but rather just a deranged individual, as well as show more of the victim's perspective to make them more than just gruesome crime scenes), it ends up hurting the pace of the story. In my opinion, I would love to see the story told just from Kirby's perspective, as she researches all these victims throughout history impossibly killed by the same man. Her struggle with trying to hunt down the guy who attacked her is a very compelling motivator, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle with all the different stories. Despite the book it could have been with a little more focus, it still manages to be an emotional and satisfying serial killer novel.

4. OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman
It's certainly an event any time Gaiman writes a novel, and it's great to see him back writing novels for adults. To me, this novel was a bit like an adult version of Coraline, once again about a child who is faced with magical threats that parents can't help them deal with. There's some really nice stuff in here about reflecting back on how it feels to be a child, and how memory and reality can be tough to reconcile. I especially liked the characters of the Hempstock family, but the main character just didn't seem to have much of an arc throughout the novel. Also, since there was lots of magic, it occasionally felt like some of the turns came a bit from out of nowhere, with just a bit of 'magic' talked about to make it work. I read an interview saying that he started this out as a short story, then it ended up expanding into a novel, and I get the feeling of that from the pacing. None of this is to say that this isn't a great novel, it's just not up to the standard set by his other work.

3. MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT by Sean Ferrell
This is the only novel on this list that isn't written by someone who also has written comics. Man in the Empty Suit probably has by favorite premise of any novel this year: a man invents time travel, and uses it to Doctor Who his way around time. Every year, he goes to a hotel where he has a party with versions of himself at different ages. This time, when he goes to the party, it's not as he remembers it; someone is murdered, and its the version of him that's only one year older than him. He then focuses on figuring out what is going on before he shows up at the party next year and gets killed. It's so cool to see how Ferrell populates most of the story with 'one person' believably being multiple characters, as he changes quite a bit throughout the year. The story has a bit of trouble in the third quarter or so, but whenever the book focuses on the party, its absolutely dynamite.

2. GUN MACHINE by Warren Ellis
It's interesting to see Warren Ellis do a story like this, as I'm so used to him doing a lot more science fiction heavy material. This is essentially a police procedural, but with a lot of Ellis's signature edge. The story starts out with a hell of a scene where a grizzled cop loses his partner, then discovers a crazy crime scene: a room full of hundreds of guns, all linked to a different unsolved murder in New York. It's a great story of a cop on the edge forced to take the responsibility of an impossibly large case while everyone in the precinct hates him for stumbling upon it. The story is amazingly efficient, painting the characters swiftly while moving forward the plot. The plot shifts to the killer's perspective, who appears to be mystic, giving us a unique viewpoint of the actions in a way that really amps up the tension.  I've gotten more into crime novels like this lately, and this one definitely has more character than pretty much any other I've read.

1. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
This is the first novel by Joe Hill that I've found entirely satisfying. I've loved his short stories and comics, but have always found his novels a little lacking. There are some similarities with Shining Girls, in the sense that the main character, Vic McQueen, gets away from the villain of the story, but NOS4A2 has both more supernatural elements (both of them have magical gifts that make them unique) and a great study of how this experience really effects her growing up. While I'm sure a lot of her story could be tighten up for the sake of the plot, Hill does such an amazing job fully painting her character that I gladly read it all, even though the novel comes in at over 700 pages. Not only is the main character compelling, but the villain Charlie Manx is truly memorable. He's a charming devil who takes such an innocent and happy symbol like Christmas and subverts it into something horrifying. It dos such a great job of keeping these two apart after their initial confrontation, making their final confrontation immensely satisfying without feeling like it was unnecessarily drawn out. Now that Kill has wrapped up Locke & Key, I wonder if we can expect to see another novel from him very soon. If so, I'll gladly clear my reading schedule for him.

Honorable Mention:
S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
I can't give full thoughts on this film, as I am still reading it, but this book is right up my alley. This book is a multimedia experience, with a ton of letters, newspaper clippings and photos stuffed in the pages. The premise is that this is the last novel of an enigmatic author, and two students are conversing with each other by writing notes to each other in the margins. It's got the same learning curve as something like House of Leaves, where you have to stop reading one layer of narrative to read another one, but the multiple layers make for an incredibly rewarding experience. I love novels with this much ambition, and I hope this is something that catches on in the future, as the idea of the physical book is really starting to wane in the light of digital readers.