Friday, March 31, 2006

"Civil Snore" checklist

Marvel's released the official tie-in list for "Civil War":

It's pretty horribly bloated, and while I'd hoped to sidestep it completely, I find that no less than three books on my pull list will be involved: "Captain America", "Ms. Marvel" and "X-Factor". I'm also still on the fence about the Young Avengers/Runaways miniseries, because Zeb Wells might actually be able to pull it off.

So what's a girl to do? I guess it'll depend on how involved the tie-ins will be - some writers just shove the event storyline into the background and continue to do their own thing; some resort to "filler" stories that can be skipped over (Brubaker did this when "Captain America" tied into "House of M"); and some take the most undesirable route of diving headfirst into the crossover, and using it to affect artificial changes in the book that pretty much force the reader to get the greater context. It's also not uncommon for the crossover connection to be completely tangential - I recall a Waid storyline of "Fantastic Four" being billed as an "Avengers Disassembled" tie-in, because in one panel someone mentioned that the Avengers were unavailable. The rest of the story went on regardless.

Time will tell, I suppose. If worst comes to worst, it's another reason for me to drop "X-Factor", and while the first issue of Brian Reed's "Ms. Marvel" was good, it's hardly going to tear me up if I have to let it go. Brubaker's Cap... that's a problem, but if he just puts his stories on hold like he did before, I'll be content.

*sigh* You know, the prospect of abandoning comics to fully immerse myself in webcomics is looking more and more appealing every day. I'll probably be doing a post about that quandary soon.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Well, I tried to warn you...

In November of 2005, I ran a commentary on Marvel's solicitations for February and concluded with the following plea:

"Until next time, this is Diana, asking you to PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP BUYING CROSSOVERS. The tenth anniversary of "Onslaught" is coming up soon; don't come crying to me when "Heroes Re-Reborn" is announced! ;)" (

And now...

Maybe I should have taken my shirt off and run around screaming "DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!"

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Movie Review: MirrorMask

Cold. Detached. Highly stylized but utterly devoid of emotion.

I didn't like it one bit.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Comics Review: March 24

X-Factor #5

Not much to say about this one. The ongoing plots are put on hold for this standalone story ostensibly starring Siryn, but focusing on a rather typical "crazy ex-mutant" type we've never seen before and will never see again. Somehow, Nutters knows X-Factor is investigating M-Day (did they put an ad in the paper? Did Oprah do a special?), but is convinced the X-Men caused it because none of them were affected. It doesn't make much sense, but then, he's crazy, so I suppose it's a moot point.

Curiously, the recap page describes the man who attacked Siryn as "an unknown assailant", despite the fact that Peter David went to the trouble of posting a clarification of the previous issue on his blog, indicating it was Damian Tryp and we were all too stupid to figure it out. I suppose this little mix-up is our fault as well. *shrug*

At any rate, it's nothing we haven't seen before: self-pitying psycho rants and whines about his lost powers, Theresa gets tortured, and Rictor saves the day. The end. I suppose it's serviceable, but not much more than that. I think I'll give this series one more issue to win me over before dropping it.


Exiles: World Tour - Squadron Supreme (#77-78)

The World Tour Saga enters its second half with a visit to the Squadron Supreme universe, once Marvel's answer to DC's Justice League, now superceded by J. Michael Straczynski's "Supreme Power", which has recently been renamed "Squadron Supreme" and does not interact with the Marvel Universe, though it will soon be crossing over with the Ultimate Marvel universe.

Got all that? Me neither. Just go with it. ;)

To Tony Bedard's credit, he's still doing his absolute best to avoid repetition; after several encounters with the Exiles, Proteus realizes he can't outfight or evade them, and instead manipulates them into a conflict with the Squadron Supreme using Mimic's stolen memories. The two teams almost immediately throw down, and Proteus slips away unnoticed.

The rest of the story is given over to the Squadron putting the Exiles on trial for crimes against the Multiverse. I'm a bit ambivalent towards this; on the one hand, it's a nice diversion from the main plot, and a proper follow-up to "Timebreakers". But on the other hand, the Squadron really come off as complete nimrods here, trusting and distrusting people with neither rhyme nor reason. Consequently, it's hard not to see them as the incompetent, hypocritical villains of the piece - and yet, they're the heroes of their world. The fact that most of them aren't characterized (due to the absolutely immense and unwieldy size of the cast) doesn't help.

The Exiles' interaction with the Squadron Supreme reality feels even more restricted than their stay in 2099. On the level of the plot, Bedard provides a valid reason for this - the battles with Proteus have been disrupting timelines the Exiles were never meant to visit, and the damage is starting to accumulate. This was something readers were picking up on (particularly considering what the absence of Miguel O'Hara meant for the future of 2099), so it's nice that Bedard was able to anticipate that concern. But I imagine the nostalgic value for fans of these old, defunct alternate realities is diminished.

As a minor aside, Heather is yet again written as the Grand Poobah of Exposition, giving us a two-way scene that explains the Squadron to the Exiles and vice-versa - as with previous infodumps, this one was necessary, but it's starting to grow stale.

A flawed read, then, and not one of the highlights of the World Tour. In retrospect, perhaps the more densely-populated timelines should have been left alone, or allocated more issues: there are just too many pins in the air, even for a skilled juggler like Bedard. It ends up feeling cramped, compressed and ineffective. I expect the upcoming "Future Imperfect" segment will be vastly improved, since it's really all about the Maestro - which means there will be a lot more room to breathe.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Movie Review: Stay

Or: "If There Is No Spoon, How Do You Eat Soup?"

Generally speaking, "Stay" is situated in the genre of psychodrama, alongside movies like "The Machinist", "The Sixth Sense", "Donnie Darko" and "Memento". However, it also distinguishes itself from its peers, in that the others - complex though they may be - are based on relatively simple concepts. If we strip away the jargon, "Donnie Darko" is about a boy who sees the future and changes it. If we turn "Memento" into a linear narrative, it's about a man seeking revenge.

"Stay" goes beyond this. Like other psychodramas, the movie is structured around mysteries and unexplained events, with the denouement pushed to the final moments of the movie - the effect is that we look back, now possessing a key bit of information we didn't have before, and the puzzle pieces fit together. However, the denouement of "Stay" can't really be boiled down to a straightforward concept. In hindsight, the answer is not as obvious as it usually is.

This had something of a double effect on me; my initial impression of the climax was "My God, this is dumber than a box of hair. It's indecipherable. It's sloppy." But when I really stopped to think about it, I realized that it all clicked into place. I like that. I like that "Stay" made me think, made me work for the conclusion most movies do (and perhaps should) offer in big neon letters.

The basic plot of the movie concerns Sam, a psychologist who has taken on a new patient named Henry Letham. Henry is a brooding teenager who hears voices, is suffering from a traumatic yet mysterious event in his past, and most disturbing of all, his half-coherent mumblings seem to have a hint of prophecy in them. When Henry tells Sam he's going to kill himself in three days, Sam decides to stop him... but as he delves deeper into Henry's psychosis, the world around him seems to come apart at the seams: the blind regain their sight, events repeat themselves, the dead walk. Is Henry responsible for this? Or is Sam losing his mind?

I'll go ahead and tell you that the above synopsis is completely useless, as it's both accurate in terms of what happens in the movie, and false in those same terms. :) There's absolutely nothing more I can tell you that wouldn't completely blow the mystery apart - and it's one that's worth experiencing on your own.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Comics: An Update

1) With "Ultimate X-Men" dropped, and Millar's "Ultimates" coming to an end soon, I'm now officially done with the Ultimate Marvel line. Normally this would call for commentary, but I honestly think the recent slew of idiot ideas speaks for itself: Vaughan to Kirkman, Millar to Loeb, and let's not forget the monumental waste of talent that is "Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk". All these are indication enough that the shark has not only been jumped, it's been spanked, harpooned, molested and eaten.

2) The Bendis/JMS/Loeb crossover miniseries "Ultimate Power" will apparently have major effects on the "Supreme Power" series. As a response, I've dropped "Supreme Power". :) I actually enjoyed JMS' take on the Squadron Supreme very much, but not enough to sit through an act by the Three Stooges.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain

Or: "I Wish I Knew How To Classify You"

Ah, this one.

I realize I'm probably the last person to see this movie or review it, unless there's some Amish woman living in the Negative Zone with severe allergies to movie theatre popcorn.

"Brokeback Mountain" is an incredibly difficult movie for me to review, for several reasons. First, I never read the original story by Annie Proulx, so it's impossible to determine what and how much of the film is Proulx, and how much is Ang Lee - which means I can't really analyze the film as an adaptation, only in terms of the final product.

Second, I'm fighting the urge to give it obligatory points simply because it's unapologetic about its subject matter - considering how conservative America is (to say nothing of Hollywood as an American institute), "Brokeback Mountain" probably deserves some credit simply for being what it is. But I do feel that sometimes the critical schools skew a bit in favor of being politically correct; any gay or lesbian movie that's halfway competent gets praised simply so the possibility of prejudice doesn't rear its ugly head. It's been the case in Israel as well, where movies such as "Yossi and Jagger" or "Walk on Water" might have been good, but certainly weren't deserving of the enormous accolades and hype heaped upon them.

And finally, the biggest issue I have with this movie is that I can't reconcile it as a love story. Having mulled it over a bit, I realize that I don't actually see "Brokeback Mountain" as a romance at all. Yes, it's certainly true that love and sex are deeply intertwined, but this story presents a total conflation; we're asked to see Jack and Ennis as tragic lovers, but all they do is fuck. Anything that transcends the physical never comes into the discourse.

Now, to be fair, that's probably the point, that their relationship couldn't go any further because of social restrictions... but at the same time, these guys don't even admit their love to each other. The closest they come is acknowledging that "something" overtakes them when they're together - but that can be construed as hormonal, not emotional. Even the film's famous line, "I wish I knew how to quit you", can be read as an admission of sexual addiction, not romantic attachment.

The obstacle here is that when the film suggests the characters have fallen in love, my automatic response is "How could they?" They don't act like they're in love, at least not the way we define love today (and the film is set in the second half of the 20th century - it's not like we're dealing with a completely different culture). They barely see each other, and when they're apart fidelity is a foreign notion; Jack in particular becomes something of a village bicycle. The narrative is riddled with enormous chronological leaps, which means there's no real process of development you can observe. One second you're watching an army of sheep that would put Peter Jackson to shame, the next our boys are playing tonsil hockey.

As an aside, kudos to Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for excellent performances in general, and for going all-out during the intimate scenes specifically. The women of the world salute you, gentlemen. ;)

However, no amount of conviction can resolve the issue at hand; at the end of the day, maybe Jack Twist is just a fantastic shag and that's all Ennis wants. Maybe it's an easy way for him to cheat on a boring wife without taking on more responsibilities. And maybe Jack fetishizes the rodeo so much that he needs sex to be as close to that as possible: with Ennis, all he has to do is spread his legs, brace himself and ride until he gets thrown. And when Ennis isn't in the picture, he marries a fellow rider and hits on a rodeo clown.

If you look at "Brokeback Mountain" not as a love story but as a story about sex and passion, about damaged individuals relying on a physical connection to escape their problems, the movie might actually come out stronger for it; when we reach those closing moments, and Ennis finally displays an emotion beyond the physical for Jack, it's more poignant if you believe he simply hadn't thought about that possibility until it was too late. He only lets himself feel love when it no longer matters. But that interpretation is more or less the antithesis of everything Proulx and Lee have claimed the movie is about.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Comics Review: March 18

Ultimate X-Men: Date Night (66-68)

For this week, it's Robert Kirkman's debut on "Ultimate X-Men".

The good news first: conceptually speaking, Kirkman is on solid ground. He pulls off a reinterpretation (or "Ultimization", if you will) at least on par with Vaughan; the best kind of revamp, where your familiarity with the original character colors how you perceive the new version, thus allowing the writer to play tricks with reader expectations. "Date Night" introduces us to Ultimate Lilandra - not exactly someone you'd expect to find, but Kirkman makes it work. He also adds some interesting twists concerning the Sabretooth/Wolverine relationship and the Phoenix, which apparently foreshadow future storylines.

Character-wise, Kirkman is largely following Vaughan's lead: you've got the friendship between Ororo and Logan, Kurt being deeply uncomfortable with Peter's homosexuality, and Scott trying to adapt to Jean's expectations (but is he really doing it of his own volition? Or is Jean "suggesting" a little too strongly?). However, he stumbles a bit with Kitty (who comes off as a self-centered brat, not quite in line with previous depictions), and Rogue and Bobby... well, it misses a note somewhere. They basically reset to status quo between them, except a lot happened to her while she was away and Kirkman doesn't really deal with that.

And now the bad news: despite solid ideas, Kirkman fails to overcome the greatest problem he faces as a writer - he's about as engaging as watching hair grow on Laura Bush's chin. There's no excitement here, no thrill. Fights are cut short, deeply personal conversations are completely cliche, and if there's supposed to be a foreboding air around the Church of Shi'ar Enlightenment, Kirkman doesn't project it well.

This is something that has always characterized Kirkman's writing as far as I can tell: as an "idea man", he's passably average, but when it comes to dramatizing those ideas, he does so in the most boring ways imaginable. Those that can appreciate his work purely on the level of "hey, that's a nice idea" will probably get more out of this, but if you're looking to be entertained, it might be best if you go elsewhere.

EDIT: I don't expect things will get any better. Even after we get rid of Kirkman, we'll still have Singer. This book is dropped.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Webcomic Review: Questionable Content


The problem with "Questionable Content" is that it is, by definition, a "will they/won't they" story - the focus is almost entirely on Faye and Marten and their ambiguous feelings towards each other. Sure, there are secondary characters like Steve and Dora around, but they don't have any independent existence outside their connections to the protagonists.

Now, on a purely technical level there's nothing wrong with the "will they/won't they" model, aside from the limited scope: the automatic assumption is that "they will" sooner or later, because that's the only way the story can move forward. The denial of romance is only meant to create obstacles for the characters that will inevitably be overcome. Of course, once the lovers get together, the story's over because the question has been answered: try to stretch it any further and you end up with something like "Dawson's Creek".

What Jeph Jacques does is... to be honest, I'm not entirely sure. He's either saying "They won't" and building his entire series around sexual tension that won't come to fruition (which is a nice, if pointless, way of deflecting expectations), or he's saying "They will, eventually" and decompressing on a beyond-Bendisian scale. Because there's no sense of progress, however minimal. We know there's a reason Faye can't let herself love Marten, but that reason only becomes clear during a storyline that kicks off in the series' 500th strip.

That bears reiterating. Jacques spends 499 strips making fun of the tension, acknowledging its existence, but refusing to do anything with it. Faye gets drunk, makes an ambiguous pass at Marten, blacks out, wakes up and punches him, repeat ad nausem. And on the 500th strip he finally gets around to establishing the primary obstacle to the relationship. Not resolving it, not even beginning to deal with it. He simply tells the readers that it's there.

There is such a thing as waiting too long, IMO.

It wouldn't be so bad if there was something else going on, if the Faye/Marten story was simmering in the background while other subplots took the lead. But we don't have any real reason to care about Steve's dating problems or Dora's identity crisis, because they're not complete characters in their own right. Their stories are completely entangled in those of the protagonists'.

The end result is that "Questionable Content" is a mortifyingly slow read - the humorous aspects work well enough, specifically anything to do with Pintsize, but they're not as dominant in the story as they should be. Everything else is given over to Faye and Marten, who develop so minimally (if at all) that I just completely lost interest.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rant: The State of the Industry

Or: "The Good Die Young, The Bad Cash In"

This is the central paradox of mainstream comics, and why they frustrate me so: very often, quality is inversely proportionate to status and market position. That is to say, solid and well-written series will find themselves pushed to the fringe, barely making 10K, while material that isn't fit to line bird cages pulls in twenty times as much. And why? Because the latter is a superhero story, and the former is not.

Now, I'll preface the rest of this post by reiterating that I do, in fact, enjoy the superhero genre and what it has to offer. Some people tend to reject it altogether, but IMO, there's no point in casting down an entire genre - even if 99% of the output is garbage, there will always be something that transcends the limitations, something you can point to and say "This is why I like it." It's very, very easy to bash the superhero genre for its excesses, but by doing so, you're also dismissing James Robinson's "Starman", Warren Ellis' "Stormwatch", and, of course, Alan Moore's "Watchmen", among many others.

The problem here doesn't really lie within the genre itself, but rather how the industry has fetishized it to the point where anything that is not superheroes won't survive in the market. Conversely, those non-superhero books - the ones that are consciously moving out of the generic paradigms to try something new - are often superior to their spandex peers. I mean, if we're looking at them strictly in terms of quality, there's absolutely no reason why "Hard Time" has been cancelled again with June's issue #7; no reason why "Small Gods" or "H-E-R-O" or "Deadenders" were cut short. And yet they languished at the ass-end of the charts until the plug was pulled, while books with no redeeming features whatsoever (such as "All-Star Batman") reign supreme.

There's something wrong with that model, isn't there? Superheroes have basically become an all-purpose shield: however inferior the writer, however cliched the premise, there's a guaranteed level of sales any such book will achieve strictly because of the genre it's situated in. Quality isn't even a factor; just throw a crossover or a variant cover in there and shazam, instant top-seller. Meanwhile, the very act of stepping outside the box requires that you come up with a radically good idea - you're going up against the force that's ruled the industry for a good handful of decades - but once the book's on the shelf, it doesn't matter how good or innovative or interesting it is. It just won't sell. It won't even be a blip on the radar. And more often than not, the story will end up being shortened, hacked apart or just plain dropped midway through.

Come to think of it, that might explain why readers are so hesitant to try a non-superhero story from a superhero-oriented company: the underlying assumption will always be that it won't last anyway, and why get invested in a story that has no guaranteed continuation, the way we expect Batman or Spider-Man to always be in print? It's a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy, and both DC and Marvel contribute to this by underpromoting and deprioritizing their non-superhero work: when they later lament the fact that the readers don't want anything else, they conveniently miss the fact that they've contributed to this mindset by not pushing the books harder.

Regardless of how much hand-wringing and whining Joe Quesada does on a weekly basis, the bottom line is that the companies are, to a large degree, responsible for the trends in the mainstream. Comic readers tend to be incredibly passive in this sense; they follow whatever the administrations dictate. When Jemas was running Marvel, he stressed turning away from everything that had characterized Marvel in the '90s, and for a while this was what readers wanted to see: postmodern, intelligent stories that more often than not poked fun at their ancestors. A big, sprawling crossover a la "Onslaught" was beyond the pale, and there was no outcry for it either. But once Dan Buckley green-lighted "Avengers Disassembled", the floodgates were open, and that became what the masses wanted. Likewise with DC: prior to that issue of "Hush", the idea of variant covers making a comeback was unthinkable. Then DC ran one, and another, and Marvel joined in, and sales went up, and before you knew it every other issue of every other series was getting special "sell-out" variant covers that ranged from sketches to alternate poses to black-and-white to foil.

This is why I place the blame for failed non-superhero books squarely on the companies' shoulders: because when they condescend to step outside the box, their efforts are deliberately half-hearted, and the market responds accordingly. If it's an individual book like "Hard Time", they just don't promote it or do anything to ensure high sales (look, kids! Variant cover by Jim Lee!). If it's an entire imprint like "Marvel Next", the writers assigned are complete unknowns who usually aren't much more than "average" in terms of skill. And then everyone's shocked that nobody embraces these characters. Would things have been different had "Arana" been written by Tamora Pierce or Tania Del Rio? Would "Gravity" have made a bigger splash if it had been written by Joss Whedon?

As a critic, it's increasingly difficult for me to reconcile my love of comics with the notion that it's so creatively restrictive, a place where any attempt to step out of generic restrictions is penalized with abrupt cancellation. And while I don't blame the superhero genre for being what it is, I can't help but feel a little resentful towards the readers, editors and administrators who contribute to stamping out anything that doesn't fit within the cookie-cutter frame.

Someone once said that in today's market, "Sandman" wouldn't have made it past issue 12. I find myself incredibly saddened to agree with that sentiment.

Marvel's June Solicitations

Normally I'd go into a long commentary... but reading the selection for June really only evoked one reaction from me.

That is all.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Comics Review: March 11

Short ones this week, work's been piling up...

Fables: The Ballad of Rodney and June (46-47)

After the intricate complexities of the "Arabian Nights" storyline, Bill Willingham shifts gears and delivers a short, charming and deceptively simple side-story about two of the Adversary's wooden servants who fall in love, and can't consummate their relationship unless their creator agrees to make them flesh and blood. While it's nominally a touching little romance, Willingham actually goes a bit further than I expected; what we get here is a perspective that hasn't really been examined before, as the whole story focuses on the points of view of the wooden soldiers. We learn a bit about how they think, and the Adversary again demonstrates that he isn't the evil overlord we initially believed him to be. He also eschews the typical storybook ending, and goes for the more realistic idea that getting what you want only leads to different problems. And it's left to the reader to decide whether these characters are better off now than they were before.

Even though it's only a filler story that doesn't advance any of the ongoing subplots, "The Ballad of Rodney and June" is a very enjoyable read.


Hard Time #4

Continuing with the theme of pausing the momentum for a different kind of story, Steve Gerber temporarily puts the ongoing intrigues at the state jail on hold to give us Cindy's backstory. The framing device is Cole reading "her" diary to find out about Cutter, whose charisma has snared both Cindy and Hardin (an eerie echo of Deshon and the preacher last season, which Cole explicitly brings up). Gerber's choice of segments in Cindy's history is interesting, because he doesn't pick the most relevant selections: the diary goes all the way back to kindergarten and stops shorts of actually explaining why Cindy's in prison to begin with. We can probably guess what happened given the information at hand, but that's as far as the story goes.

On the whole, it does seem a bit of a misstep; Gerber focuses primarily on Cindy's gender issues, which were perfectly apparent the moment "she" debuted. Strictly speaking, we haven't learned anything we couldn't have pieced together on our own. Then again, Cindy's past appearances always placed "her" in the function of appendage, both literally and metaphorically - attached to whichever character or subplot was dominating the issue. Here, Cindy is situated within the larger Cutter storyline, but is also given an independent narrative for the first time. It'll be interesting to see where this leads.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Comics Review: March 6

X-Factor #4

This issue concludes the series' introductory arc, as the conflict between X-Factor and Singularity Investigations crystallizes (though Singularity is still coming off much more like an evil law firm than a rival detective agency - since when do investigators protect clients from murder charges?). Meanwhile, the Mutant Town riots force Strong Guy, Wolfsbane and Siryn to stake a claim they may not be able to enforce, M solves the Santiago case on her own, and Layla... well, she knows stuff.

It all comes together nicely, but I find I'm not completely sold on "X-Factor" just yet - it feels like Peter David is trying to juggle one too many plots, especially for an opening storyline. And the balance between these various subplots would seem to contradict the book's stated premise: it's been classified as a detective series, but the Santiago case is relegated to the backburner in favor of the cloak-and-dagger machinations of Singularity and the enigma of Layla Miller. What should have been a four-issue mystery becomes three issues of "our client has been arrested" followed by a brief and speedy fix that does not emerge from any kind of detective work.

Again, the problem is that PAD insists on making "X-Factor" an explicit event spinoff; that is to say, in addition to all the potential storylines you could extract from the "mutant detective" angle alone, he's also dealing with "House of M"/"Decimation" fallout in its various forms. At the same time, it's debatable whether anyone at Marvel sees this series as a vehicle for that agenda: Joe Quesada would probably maintain that "Deadly Genesis" is the primary "Decimation" series, purely in terms of direct relevance to upcoming stories. PAD ends up caught in his own snare: he's writing a fringe book that's desperately trying to thrust itself into the mainstream by promising to address plot threads that belong in other books. That's all well and good in the short term, but it doesn't make for much of a long-term plan.

The question I've been struggling with since I started reading this series is "Where is this book going?" After four issues, I still can't seem to find a definitive answer. The writing is still well above average, which is why I'm sticking around for now, but I don't see "X-Factor" surviving very long unless it defines itself in opposition to the generic X-book, by offering something the other books don't.


Sentinel Vol. 2 (5 issues)

I enjoyed Sean McKeever's first run of "Sentinel" quite a bit, back in the old Tsunami days. It represented a rarity in Marvel at the time: Bill Jemas having a good idea. Specifically, it was something of a trend during his regime to tell Marvel Universe stories without the explicit tropes and presence of the Marvel Universe. For example, the first volume of "Runaways" had the Avengers on TV, or radio broadcasts about the Fantastic Four, but these icons were always very distant from the protagonists. It was a ground-level view of Marvel superheroes, lower even than Phil Sheldon from Busiek's "Marvels" because he still participates in that world. Someone like Juston Seyfert or the X-Statix are in the Marvel Universe but not of the Marvel Universe. In other words, their stories were their own, and if you were familiar enough to see another layer of context, well, that was your reward for being a loyal Marvel reader.

This practice has more or less fallen apart under the Buckley administration. The second run of "Runaways" kicked off with guest-stars galore, and while Vaughan has promised an end to that for the forseeable future, it doesn't change what's already seen print. In fact, the greater movement trend-wise seems to be going back to the concept of a shared universe, one book's subplots intruding on another's, that sort of thing. Frankly, I find the idea dreadful - its advocates justify their arguments by claiming it worked in the '60s and made Marvel what it is today, which misses the obvious counter-point: Marvel was much smaller then. It's much easier to coordinate twelve books by six writers than sixty books by forty writers plus the Hollywood brigade. It's just begging for disaster. Leaving that aside, is a shared universe really the answer to Marvel's problems? It worked way back in the Time That Land Forgot because the characters were the selling point; it was a very big deal if Namor suddenly appeared in "X-Men". But that paradigm eventually gave way to the Dark Decade of the '90s, where artists became the star attraction. These days, the writers are the ones who push the book, whose names are used to draw attention. Which J. Michael Straczynski doesn't need to write a pointless one-panel scene where Peter Parker's spider-sense goes off in "Amazing Spider-Man", just to acknowledge the return of Apocalypse in Peter Milligan's "X-Men" - nobody cares.

You'll notice that I haven't actually said anything about the recent "Sentinel" miniseries yet. This is because, tangent aside, there's very, very little to say about it. Having received an extension over a year after the first series concluded, Sean McKeever then proceeds to jog in place for five issues. Oh, there's a big robot fight, and we learn the Sentinel's "secret origin", but by the end of the story Juston and the Sentinel are still together, his mother is still MIA, the CSA is still in the dark, Jessie is still just a friend... there's no closure, no change, the story goes right back to status quo. It doesn't even resolve the plot threads left over from the previous run. On the one hand, this was probably done with the possibility of a third sequel in mind... but I can't help feel a little cheated that this whole miniseries ends up treading water. Juston gets some development, but every other character remains more or less exactly where we left them, and there's no sense that anything especially significant ultimately happens. A bitter disappointment.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Prince of Persia Trilogy: The Two Thrones

Saving the best for last.

We all make mistakes. Some are small, some are large. But his mistake, born of innocence, fueled by pride, was the greatest and most terrible of them all.

"The Two Thrones", in many ways, brings Ubisoft's "Prince of Persia" trilogy full circle. If the previous two games can be categorized as polar opposites - "Sands of Time" being more story-driven than gameplay-driven, and vice versa for "Warrior Within" - "The Two Thrones" achieves a perfect synthesis, combining the best aspects of its predecessors. It's also a rewarding experience for those players who've been around since the beginning: old friends and enemies return, destinies are fulfilled, and it all comes to an excellent finale.

The story begins immediately after the conclusion of "Warrior Within". Or rather, one of its conclusions. As I mentioned in the previous review, "Warrior Within" has two endings. If you play through the game without finding all the secrets, the Prince kills Empress Kaileena. If you unlock all the hidden stuff, the Prince and Kaileena ship off to Babylon together. The introduction to "The Two Thrones" follows the latter ending, and reconciles the conflicting accounts by pointing out the lack of witnesses - for reasons that become clear once you progress a bit, no one but the Prince can verify Kaileena's presence, so when his story is repeated, some will simply say he returned from the Island of Time alone.

In any event, after four weeks at sea the Prince and Kaileena return to Babylon, only to find his city besieged by an invading Scythian army. Their ship is spotted and destroyed; Kaileena is knocked unconscious and the current carries her away from the Prince, to another part of the beach. Meanwhile, the Prince drags himself out of the wreckage and the game gets underway.

Creatively, "The Two Thrones" not only returns to the first game's paradigm in terms of storytelling and characterization, but it improves upon them. Better yet, it doesn't apologize for the mess caused by "Warrior Within" but rather grows from that mess. The story acknowledges that yes, the Prince has become a self-absorbed, vainglorious twit - but that this is his chance to redeem himself, to become a true hero. It retroactively casts "Warrior Within" as a fall from grace, which really draws the whole trilogy closer together.

In "The Sands of Time" we had two voices, the Prince's and Farah's. In "Warrior Within" we had none. "The Two Thrones" gives us no less than four voices for the four main characters in the game: Kaileena narrates, the Prince has an internal monologue which soon becomes a dialogue, and another old friend accompanies the Prince at certain points in the game. Even bit players from past games like the Old Man and King Sharaman appear.

Let's start with Kaileena. Her powerlessness still annoys me, but at least here there's a thematic reason for it: she's being juxtaposed with Farah (the princess from "Sands of Time"). These are the two women in the Prince's life - Kaileena sees all timelines while Farah is subject to whatever changes the Prince makes. Kaileena is outside the story, narrating without participating, while Farah is right in the thick of things, she inspires the Prince to heroism. It's nice that Kaileena is more or less redeemed in this game, which manages to give her the tragic dimension "Warrior Within" didn't quite pull off; it's clear now that she sees it all coming, she knows there's nothing she can do, and so she just lets everything play out.

The internal dialogue I mentioned involves perhaps the most compelling character in the game: the Dark Prince. At an early point in the story, the Prince becomes partially infected by the Sands of Time. This has both a physical and a psychological effect on him: as the infection spreads, he undergoes periodic transformations into a Sand Demon which give him increased strength but also saps his vitality. To make things worse, his mind becomes inhabited by an unnamed second entity (formally known as the Dark Prince), whose voice the Prince cannot escape. And while this entity can't exert any control over his host's transformed body, the Dark Prince is subtle, witty, and extremely manipulative, and his true nature isn't revealed until it's almost too late.

The Prince himself develops very nicely in this game - he starts off with single-minded intent to wreak bloody vengeance on the Scythians and their leader, to the point where he actually ignores his people's cries and pleas for help. But a face from his past awakens something inside him, and cracks the hardened shell formed by seven years fleeing the Dahaka. Time travel is much less prominent this time, perhaps a lesson learned from the almost-incoherent movement back and forth in "Warrior Within"; on a thematic level, it's all about the Prince learning to accept the consequences of his actions rather than rush off and find a way to wipe the slate clean again.

Moving onto gameplay: as I said, the system is rather consistent with "Warrior Within", with a few new moves added to the Prince's repetoire. The most important innovation is the "speed kill" system - there are many moments in the game where you're able to sneak up on an enemy and perform a series of timing-based moves to kill them without having to go hand-to-hand. It's rather helpful, though the split-second intervals can take quite a while to get used to.

There's not much choice, though, because with one exception, every boss fight in the game requires use of multiple speed-kills rather than regular combat. Unlike "Warrior Within", where boss fights were just extended versions of ordinary fights, you battle the mutated Scythian generals in phases, each one culminating in a speed kill. It's quite fun, and you can rewind time to redo a speed kill if you messed it up, but it's very, very reflex-oriented.

At certain pre-scripted points in the game, the Prince transforms into the Dark Prince. These sequences revive the urgency of the Dahaka Chases, as you need to move much more quickly due to your decreasing vitality. The catch with the Dark Prince is that a single sand cloud, gained from shattered objects or slain enemies, completely restores his health, so you'll always be looking out for possible sources while proceeding. Despite this, the Dark Prince is very fun: his secondary weapon is a chain-whip which allows him to strike multiple enemies, strangle them from behind, swing across very large gaps and so on. And because he's so dependent on sand, the Dark Prince sections have a much greater emphasis on combat, sometimes taking on fifteen to twenty enemies at a time.

A final new addition are the chariot races, where the Prince must ride a horse-driven chariot at breakneck speeds across vast distances, avoiding walls, boulders and other chariots trying to run you off the road. It's a huge surprise at first, and I'm sure most players will require a good two or three tries to maneuver through the lengthy sequences.

"The Two Thrones" is an exhilarating game, delivering satisfaction on all levels. New players shouldn't have much trouble learning the ropes, since the game begins with a helpful tutorial, but longtime fans of "Prince of Persia" will get the payoff they've been waiting for.