Thursday, May 31, 2007

Swimming Against The Manstream #1

Okay, I've reached a point where I just can't deal with the sexist bullshit that's been infesting the comics industry lately. The Nymphet thing was seriously the last straw. So this is how I'm coping: over the next few days I'll be posting my picks for the ten greatest female characters in mainstream comics.

1. Halo Jones ("The Ballad of Halo Jones", 2000AD): I think I'll let the master, Mr. Alan Moore, explain this one himself: "I didn't want to write about a pretty scatterbrain who fainted a lot and had trouble keeping her clothes on. I similarly had no inclination to unleash yet another Tough Bitch With A Disintegrator And An Extra Y Chromosome upon the world. What I wanted was simply an ordinary woman such as you might find standing in front of you while queuing for the check-out at Tesco's, but transposed to the sort of future environment that seemed a pre-requisite of what was, after all, a boy's science fiction comic." And that was exactly what we got: a normal teenage girl dissatisfied with her claustrophobic life and determined to go "Out" into the vastness of space. What I love most about Halo is her determination; it's really all she has, but it's enough to pull her through her darkest moments, take her across the universe and turn her into a legend.

2. Ororo Munroe/Storm ("X-Men", Marvel): My very first experience with comics was reading the Dark Phoenix Saga TPB when I was 14. It got me curious enough to follow the X-Men for a while, both in the current (at the time) Lobdell/Nicieza run (early '90s, so it wasn't quite boingy-boingy insane yet) and in back issues. And there was one character who caught my attention and wouldn't let go: Storm. What a heroine; not only did she lead one of the most diverse and interesting superhero teams in comics, she was incredibly powerful (and didn't hestitate to use that power), she took shit from nobody (even Wolverine follows her orders), and she was consistently depicted as being a better leader than golden boy Cyclops. She was independent, graceful, noble... a true role model. And that's setting aside what I, as a more mature and experienced reader, see in her today: a female heroine who dodged the usual cliches when she found her dark side, and got tougher rather than becoming an enormous slut; a female heroine whose sexuality was a primal aspect of her character rather than an act of pandering to deprived troglodytes; a woman who was both a firm leader and a surrogate mother to the younger girls at the Institute. A shame that she's been sacrificed on the altar of a Hollywood writer's lagging sales, but no matter how many retcons Quesada approves, the past is set in stone, and I will always remember Storm as the single best woman Marvel ever created.

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Season's End (Part 3)

Last, but not least - not by any stretch of the imagination - is Heroes, which divided its season finale into three episodes: "The Hard Part", "Landslide" and "How To Stop An Exploding Man".

Of all the series I've reviewed this year, "Heroes" was the one that had the most potential to succeed - and with that, the most potential to fail. There's no middle ground with something this ambitious.

Fortunately for all involved, what we ultimately got was some of the most spectacular television in years, and nitpicks aside, the first season did everything right. Structurally, the storylines were well-paced and balanced so that you never had too many plates spinning simultaneously, while allowing the occasional flashback/flash-forward. Practically every member of the cast was developed and fleshed out to some extent (though there was an obvious hierarchy among the protagonists). The cliffhangers were edge-of-your-seat material. Continuity was highly consistent, and foreshadowing always paid off while allowing for the occasional use of misdirection (ie: in Peter's original dream of the explosion, Simone is running towards him only to be pulled away by Isaac - that turned out to be symbolic rather than literal, but it still happened). Most importantly, the first season constitutes a complete story. Beginning, middle, and an end that brought all the separate threads and characters together. That's how it's done.

"Heroes" probably had an advantage right out the gate by virtue of being relatively unique; the closest TV equivalent I can think of is "The Tomorrow People", and that was a children's show. It's certainly true that Kring wore his influences on his sleeve - many of the series' themes (evolution, persecution of "special" individuals, dystopian future, serving "the greater good" through acts of evil) came from comics, while the decision to employ a large cast of attractive-but-talented actors likely derived from "Lost" (which, for all its faults, should at least be commended for assembling a group of pretty people who, astonishingly enough, could play a role rather than rely on their looks). Of course, in another sense, "Heroes" represents lessons learned from "Lost" and "X-Files" - establish your villain clearly, don't base your entire premise on a yes/no answer (Will they get off the Island? Do aliens exist?), and for God's sake, never forget that your audience's patience is limited and they don't owe you anything you don't earn.

The finale was particularly enjoyable: there were some unexpected deaths, some surprising revelations about the past, satisfying resolutions to several subplots, and best of all, the underlying "message" ended up being a positive one - as Charles Deveaux predicts, the world is saved not by strength and moral ambivalence but by love and purity, and there's a very strong counterpoint there to all the cynical Countdown/Civil War nonsense going on in comics nowadays.

Refreshing, exciting, containing all the strengths of the superhero genre without the inherent excesses; a story about people with powers instead of powers with faces attached to them. This was the breakout star of 2006-2007.

What I'd like to see next season: This being NBC, I suppose any request with the word "nekkid" attached to Adrian Pasdar, Milo Ventimiglia or Zachary Quinto is about as likely as me singing the praises of Chuck Austen. So how about this: more women, please. Claire's great and Niki has her moments, but it'd be nice to have someone a little more formidable turn up - someone with an active power, perhaps? It's an uncomfortable coincidence that every superpowered woman on the show so far (Claire, Niki, Charlie, Dale, Molly and Eden) has had passive abilities.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Just because I feel like it

Sung to the tune of the Andrews sisters (or Christina Aguilera if you prefer):

He was a famous comic writer from Chicago way
He had an awesome style that no one else could play
He was the top man at his craft
But then his number came up
And he was bought in a draft
He's in Avengers now, both new and Mighty
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!

They made him write a crossover for Uncle Joe
It really brought him down and he became a schmoe
But no one seemed to understand
Because the next day the boss
Went out and played in the sand
And now the company jumps when he says "Golly gee!"
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!

A root, a toot, a toodlie-a-da-toot
He's blown assignments so far in awful rhythm
Can't write a note if the book's just a mote
And now the company jumps when he says "Golly gee!"
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!

He puts the boys to sleep with comics every week
And makes 'em cry for mercy when they're feeling meek
They're screaming mad and writing posts
'Cause they know how it goes when you're the host with the most
Whoa whoa he makes 'em mad when he says "Golly gee!"
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Season's End (Part 2)

Here's an ironic twist for you: while "Veronica Mars" was axed with no fanfare and no proper ending, the season finale of Supernatural could have easily doubled as a series ending, though a third season has been confirmed. Eric Kripke took the preparatory step that Rob Thomas wouldn't; as soon as danger was on the horizon, he designed the two-part episode "All Hell Breaks Loose" to serve primarily as a climax not only to the season but to the entire show, while leaving a thread or two open just in case things worked out (these being the sorts of threads that, if push came to shove, could leave you with a sense of "And their adventures continued" rather than "And then they did this really amazing thing, but you'll never know what it was").

When I reviewed the second-season premiere, I thought it probably should have concluded the first season instead, because you had all these plotlines winding down in the wrong place (the Colt, John's relationships with his sons, Dean's ambivalence towards death). Part of what's so surprising about "All Hell Breaks Loose" is that it doesn't just tie up loose ends from the current season (the Roadhouse, the Crossroads Demon, etc.), it also brings first-season subplots to a head: we finally learn the truth about Sam and the other psychics, the Colt is back in play, the Yellow-Eyed Demon's endgame is revealed, and everything leads up to an intense, explosive showdown, a battle that had been building up over forty-four episodes.

Now, this season wasn't perfect. Overall, I'd say there were two major missteps, the first being Jo and the second being Angst. Jo was initially set up to be a female counterpart to the Winchesters, and a probable love interest for Dean, but unfavorable fan reaction sent her rocketing to the Cornfield. While I was fond of Jo at first (or rather, what she represented - we haven't seen any real huntresses on the level of John or Gordon), I do think Kripke pushed her down our throats a bit too hard, to the point where gagging was the only possible outcome. Add that to the fact that Alona Tal's availability is sketchy at best, and it just wasn't going to work out.

The Angst is a whole other story, and might serve well as a cautionary tale of "be careful what you wish for". One of my criticisms of the first year was that the boys weren't quite three-dimensional enough for my tastes; Sam had some pathos to keep his character arc going, but Dean was flat as a kitchen tile. This season, they overcompensated. There was a lot of crying. A lot. A LOT. And unlike James Purefoy and Polly Walker, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles aren't the caliber of actors who can convey profound emotion convincingly; Padalecki proved as much by acting out a death scene as though he were falling asleep. While looking really bored. I don't know. It was awkward. Kripke did try to balance the Angst out with standard "case" episodes such as "Roadkill" and "Hollywood Babylon", humor episodes like "Tall Tales", and the FBI storyline in "The Usual Suspects", "Nightshifter" and "Folsom Prison Blues". But you just couldn't get away from all the (bad) crying and morose brooding.

On the other hand, the Angst actually had an appropriate cause - John's death, among other things - and more to the point, it served a purpose, that being character development for Dean. Granted, it's the cheap sort of development, where tragedy upon tragedy is piled onto a protagonist until he cracks, but structurally speaking it took him to the precise place he needed to be in the season finale, where he gives everything up for Sam. Sure, devotion to his brother has always been a consistent aspect of his character, but Dean's actions gain a lot more credibility in light of how ground-down and world-weary he's become. That, I think, is what ultimately justifies the overwhelming pathos this season, though it's no less exhausting to go over in full.

As payoff, then, "All Hell Breaks Loose" is more than adequate, and if the season as a whole tilted a bit too far in one direction, it was still consistently entertaining.

What I'd like to see next season: A greater emphasis on folklore would be nice. While "Supernatural" has appropriated and adapted many urban legends, I think they could do more in that department, given the series' backdrop. Obviously, I'd also appreciate a reduction in Angst-related storylines, though the brothers' interaction has been much more solid this season. My hope, in terms of storylines, is that they won't spend too much time on Dean's death curse; it's the sort of thing that could potentially be dragged about for way too long.

Part 3 (last one, promise!) to follow! :)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Some old posts will probably be popping up as new if you're subscribed to this blog by RSS - I'm uploading the contents of the old site here, but I sometimes forget to backdate them. For future reference, the next "current" article to be posted is part two of my "Season's End" TV review.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Crisis on Infinite Livejournals

Ugh, what a week. For the last eight days, neither my home computer or my laptop has been able to enter Livejournal; all I get is "Cannot find server". Oddly enough, several friends of mine succeeded, and I was able to do so via campus computers, but... well, I just have no idea what's going on. My IP is dynamic, so it can't be a problem with a specific address; I can't remote-post replies to threads via e-mail; and since no extensions of Livejournal are accessible, there's no way for me to contact their Tech Support or check their FAQ.

It's not my own site I'm worried about; Sententia's doing nicely here and I'll have all the old material uploaded by tomorrow. But dammit, I have a lot of friends on LJ and I just can't interact with them at all. It's very frustrating. :(

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Season's End (Part 1)

It's been a surprisingly good TV season for me - I had four shows on rotation, plus I discovered the excellent "Dexter" in January. That's not how I normally watch TV; I tend to just pick a show and watch it exclusively until it either jumps the shark or ends. So, yeah, lots of good stuff these days.

Back in October I listed a bunch of shows that were launching in the fall: Veronica Mars, Heroes, Smallville, Supernatural, Nip/Tuck, Drawn Together and Lost. "Rome" and "Dexter" were late additions.

So how did the new year treat these shows?

Let's start with the biggest losers: "Smallville", by all accounts, is still treading water after six years of bland teen soap and outrageously stupid storylines, so I suppose Annette O'Toole is better off finding a job where she can actually be proud to name-check her show. "Nip/Tuck" ended up retconning Christian's attraction to Sean as "just one of those things", which pretty much killed any interest I had in the show, so whatever. "Drawn Together" never came back from its break, and I'm not sure anyone - including the creators - have noticed. Finally, threats of cancellation at long last jolted "Lost" into forward motion, but as far as I'm concerned it's way too little, way too late. That bridge has been scorched more thoroughly than Jennifer Love Hewitt's musical career.

Now, to the good stuff. :)

Rome was the first casualty of the new year, buckling under the weight of a severely limited budget that shortened the second season to ten episodes. Despite temporal restrictions, and the inevitable sense of apocalypse that comes with the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire, Bruno Heller and his cast acquitted themselves very well. We watched beloved characters die, or come full circle, or achieve the destiny they'd been speeding towards since day one. We saw actors, in the truest sense of the word, delivering phenomenal performances. And if the tragedies were strung a bit too closely together, it somehow avoided feeling repetitive, even in the most similar cases (Eirene/Gaia). So while this series will be missed immensely, I can at least take comfort in knowing that it went out properly.

The same cannot be said of Veronica Mars, cancelled with the conclusion of its third season. Quite frankly, both Rob Thomas and the CW handled the situation poorly: it's no secret that the series was never a ratings hit, despite its critical acclaim and devoted fanbase. The third season was greenlit as a Hail Mary pass, and it didn't work. The CW responded by not responding, declining comment on the show's fate up to and including the day they unveiled the fall schedule, with "Veronica Mars" nowhere to be seen. Aware that the news would infuriate a percentage of their viewers, Dawn Ostroff simply decided not to tell them. Not exactly appropriate behavior for someone who ultimately has a hand in making such decisions.

But Rob Thomas is equally to blame for the below-average way in which the series concluded; here was a man I praised for quick thinking, who was constantly reinventing the series to suit current circumstances, and he reacted to the possibility of cancellation by sticking his fingers in his ears and going "la la la"; reportedly, he never even considered designing the season finale to double as a series finale, just in case. As a result, "Veronica Mars" concludes with little closure, a mediocre finale to a mediocre season. Pacing was way, way off during the last string of standalone episodes: Logan's suddenly wondering if Veronica cheated on him weeks after they broke up, Dick has an 11th-hour breakdown that really, really, really should have been explored earlier, and the fate of practically every character is left up in the air.

I imagine it all stems from how very far the series strayed from its original premise, due to its WB-esque relationship drama. Joss Whedon named S1 Logan Echolls one of the top characters on TV; two years later he's a castrated fop. Veronica herself ended up following Buffy Summers' footsteps and crossing the Rubicon from snarky to bitchy, becoming rather unlikeable in the process. Keith stopped being fun. Such things make you wonder why you were watching the show to begin with.

At which point you pop in the S1 DVDs, and you see it. The mysteries, the intrigue, the wit, the irresistable characters. That, to me, is "Veronica Mars". And no matter what came afterwards, that first season is an accomplishment that can never be taken away.

That's the end of part 1. Part 2 coming shortly! :)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Book Review: "Troy" by Adele Geras

My fascination with the Trojan War and its legends aside, Adele Geras' version of the tale makes for very compelling reading, for a number of reasons.

Geras incorporates a lot of aspects that are usually ignored for the sake of streamlining the story: characters such as Oenone (Paris' first love), Deiphobus (the Trojan prince who marries Helen after Paris' death) and Hermione (Helen's daughter) are part of this world, and even if they don't directly appear in the narrative, their very existence shapes the way we view the characters. Helen, for example, is no longer just a runaway wife but a mother who abandoned her child. Geras also places a heavy emphasis on the passing of time - though the novel is mostly concerned with the final years of the war, we are never allowed to forget that the city has been under siege for ten years. This broadens the scope of the tale considerably, breaching the confines of a two-hour Hollywood blockbuster and regaining the epic dimension originally set down by Homer.

Most adaptations of the Iliad provide both Greek and Trojan perspectives, typically from those characters who are considered to be Homer's protagonists (Hector, Helen, Paris, Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus and so on). Part of what makes "Troy" so remarkable, then, is where Geras places us, as readers, in the fictional world she constructs. For starters, we're exclusively given the Trojan viewpoint until the very end of the novel, where Greek characters start popping up as focalizers (it's a nice bit of metafiction where they "invade" the narrative even as they're invading the city). This, of course, leads to a far greater dramatic impact, because we've spent the whole story in Troy, with Trojan characters, and their ultimate fate is dismal, brutal and destructive. You feel the horror and the loss much more strongly, I think, than you would in a narrative that divided your attention between the winners and the losers.

Geras takes this innovation a step further by pushing the Trojan royalty - in other words, the recognizable characters such as Priam, Hector and Paris - to the sidelines (some more than others; Helen is still a significant presence, but Cassandra is practically a ghost). All the main characters of "Troy" are servants, handmaidens and such, a class that's usually invisible, faceless and anonymous. Not only that, but with the exception of Iason the stable boy, all the main characters are women, and that provides a very unique and intriguing outlook on the war. It also allows Geras to avoid repetition by dramatizing the same familiar scenes; all the major events are seen from an "external" perspective, through the eyes of the women on the walls of the city. In fact, some fairly "important" events happen entirely off-page simply because there are no women to witness it.

I also like the subtle ways in which the author undermines the mythological dimension of the story, despite active participation of the Olympian gods. Helen, for example, is still the most beautiful woman in the world, but her relationship with Paris isn't quite as idyllic as the public thinks; she's tormented by the loss of her child, he feels pressured by her and seeks relief with palace servants, and there's just a tangible sense of erosion. One thing that's mentioned early on is that Paris' beauty - once the male equivalent of Helen - has faded; he's put on weight, he's lost his boyish charm, and while he's still attractive, there's a certain polished shine that has gone away in the face of harsh reality.

"Troy" is, ultimately, a story that works on two levels: it tells the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Trojan women who never existed as far as Homer's concerned, and it follows the lives of those Trojan women as they search for meaning amidst the blood and havoc. As might be expected from a female-centric work, it's very much a novel that deals with women's issues such as pregnancy, the threat of rape and mother/child relationships, but it also uses the backdrop of the siege to take these potential cliches in new directions. And it's an excellent read to boot, well-paced and coherent. Grade: 4 Trojan Horses out of 5.

The votes are in...

And the Ron Jeremy Award for Biggest Dick In The Industry goes to Joe Quesada! This award is given in recognition of your unparalleled ignorance and willful disregard of your customers. Well done, Joe. Now go crawl back to your slime pit and wonder why you just can't seem to get those darn women to read your comics.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Because I've had it up to HERE with Livejournal...

Welcome to Sententia 3.0! Content to follow. :)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

And Me Without A Black Dress

Thursday was, to quote Melaka Fray, a "Bad day. Started bad, stayed that way."

First I lost a bet with my friend Hannah, and had to read "All-Star Batman #5". Which I thought I could do, being prepared for Miller's usual foolishness. So imagine my surprise when his depiction of Wonder Woman sent me flying into a volcanic rage. I was screaming, throwing the comic around, ripping pages. I'm a little embarrassed about it now, but you know what? After MJ, and the hypocrisy of the Citizen Steel scandal, and the shameless exploits of Superslut, and Storm becoming a trophy wife, and Sue giving her husband a goodbye boink before abandoning her children... gah. I just couldn't take it anymore. Lately it feels like DC and Marvel are bombarding me with misogynstic and sexist tripe, and I'm not a violent person, but I swear, if I'd had a baseball bat and Frank Miller was within swinging distance, I would've been seriously tempted to crack him upside the head and let the misogyny drain out.

Fortunately, there's a cure for exposure to Neanderthalism, and her name is Shaenon Garrity. I sat myself down and reread the first few months of "Narbonic: The Director's Cut" to cheer me up; worked like a charm (the Theftbot gag and Madblood's reaction gets me giggling every. single. time). Of course, then I started asking myself why in hell was I still bothering with mainstream comics when there are women like K. Sandra Fuhr, Ursula Vernon, Shaenon Garrity and Aeire doing superior work online (and no small number of highly talented men as well - Rich Burlew, Randy Milholland, Kristopher Straub, Justin Pierce, Scott Christian Sava and so many more who don't need Power Girl's tits to tell a good story). But it's sort of a "righteous man in Sodom" thing - I stick around for guys like Brubaker, Whedon and Carey, and maybe the Lunas have another "Ultra" up their sleeves, and there's always Vertigo...

Anyway, I digress. A few hours later, I found out that "Veronica Mars" had been cancelled. My first reaction was "Okay, no shock there, the show hasn't exactly been at the top of its game lately." Except the first season was flawless, and that's what I remember when I think of the series, and even at its weakest it still stood head-and-shoulders above most of its contemporaries (mostly because Kristen Bell, unlike Tyra Banks and the Fashion Police, can string more than two sentences together without sounding completely stoned). Bye bye, 21st Century Nancy Drew. I'll have a proper eulogy when I do my end of the season review.

To top it all off, Jeff Lester - one of the great critics of the comics blogosphere - announced his departure from The Savage Critics at the end of the month. There aren't many online individuals whose opinions I trust wholeheartedly; Jeff is one of them, on account of his wit and his ability to cut through the BS and pinpoint, with total clarity, the things that need to be said. I remember my surprise when news of the impending Black Panther/Storm marriage broke; most people were debating canon vs. retcons, but Jeff was one of the few who drew attention to Storm's status as an independent female icon, an African-American woman leader of a prominent superteam, and how that was being threatened for the sake of a sales boost. When Wolverine #50 came out, Jeff again hit the bullseye by pegging Marvel's great flaw: its administrators have bought into their own hype to the extent that not only do they publish crappy comics, they do so secure in the belief that they're releasing absolute gems.

On May 26, the blogosphere will shine a little less brightly.

And then, of course, my Internet connection drops dead over the weekend, forcing me to post this long after it's relevant.

So... yeah. Thursday sucked.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Caught In A Web: Dominic Deegan, Oracle For Hire

Another old favorite of mine, though unlike "Something Positive", the shine's starting to come off a bit. The issue I have with "Dominic Deegan" is its manga-esque tendency to swerve from emotional extreme to emotional extreme; things are either bizarrely optimstic or morosely depressing, and the author has never really found middle ground, so to speak. A relatively light-hearted story about a crime wave being foiled ended with slit throats and lots of blood before curving back to optimism again (good guys win, best friends part amicably, blah blah blah). Jacob Deegan's past appearance involved the attempted murder of his younger brothers, and when he turned up a few weeks ago it was all puns and giggles. Very abrupt, very jarring.

Of course, I can't discount my own experience when evaluating this series: when I first discovered "Dominic Deegan", it was building up to "The Storm of Souls", a very intense and kinetic storyline centered around a climactic confrontation between good and evil. The storyline before that had Nurse Pam being assaulted by a bunch of jocks; prior to that, Dominic and Luna were caught up in a treacherous scheme involving demonic possession, orgies, serial killings and a psychotic Infernomancer. In other words, my initial expectations of the series were founded on the belief that it was transitioning from comedy to drama, from light to dark, and that the series was "growing up" in a sense. Now, several storylines later, it's starting to look like that transition wasn't as complete as I thought; indeed, it's altogether possible there was never any deliberate shift in the first place, that I mistook coincidental arc placement for deliberate progression.

That realization stems primarily from Mookie's (the author's) aversion to taking risks with his cast - if you run a whole storyline about a cataclysmic war in Hell, and the only casualty is an obnoxious third-stringer who was designed to be hated, you might be holding on a bit too tightly. Even the villains keep coming back again and again. Fake-outs (where you think a character's been killed, only to discover they miraculously survived the next day) have been used so often at this point that it's hard to be genuinely invested in any storyline that suggests a real threat to the protagonists and their relationship; this just isn't the kind of comic where such threats could even come close to fulfillment.

That said, "Dominic Deegan" has a lot going for it: the art is cute without being cloying, the puns are always fun to groan at, and Mookie never finds himself at a loss for a new angle. And if it's not as mature as it could be, and if the shifting tone can get a bit erratic at times, it's still worth reading in the long run.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Perfection: MJ-Gate

It exists.

My take on the MJ scandal? Conflicted. On the one hand, it's a pretty horrid example of female objectification in a medium that's practically overflowing with similar examples, and yes, sometimes I'm so goddamned fed-up with it...

But on the other hand, I don't think I'm as worked up about this as I would've been had the statue been of Sue Richards, or Ororo Munroe. As far as I know, washing Spidey's tights is all Mary Jane Parker ever does when she's not being held hostage; the statue's an objectification of someone who's practically an object anyway - the epitome of the useless appendage, the woman who only exists to motivate her man. That's always been my view of the character, and Kirsten Dunst certainly didn't help matters by depicting MJ as someone defined almost entirely by the men she's with.

The statue's a sleazy piece of work, and you can easily imagine hundreds of sweaty Kevin Smith clones descending upon it with drool on their lips... but at least it's not imposing the "sexbomb" identity on a female character, so much as showing her in the role she's always played.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Caught In A Web

After being stuck in a bit of a holding pattern, I've decided to dive back into the wonderful world of webcomics. I'd like to start this (tentative) series off with some strips I'd found before and am still following:

R.K. Milholland's Something Positive is a perfect example of how imperceptible change can be until you step back and take in the big picture. Looking at the series as a whole, it seems that "Something Positive" has drastically changed its tone over the last year or so, but if you've been reading it regularly, you probably haven't noticed - it's been a very slow and gradual shift.

What originally drew me to "Something Positive" was Milholland's fantastic use of black humor, but that's been tapering off lately; these days, storylines tend to alternate between drama and comedy rather than conflate the two. The easiest point of comparison is the recent "Last Hours" storyline, a morbid depiction of Scotty Harris' suicide, and "This Is How We Say Goodbye", the original iteration of that storyline.

See the difference? S*P used to have a punchline for any event, no matter how inappropriate. But I don't think there's any funny to be found in Scotty's demise or Kharisma's nadir.

Which isn't to say that the strip's worse off, really. It's just adopted a different tone, and the narrative structure's changed now that the main characters have split up; in earlier years, most storylines linked back to at least one member of the core group (ie: each stage of Mike's development intersects with either Davan or Peejee), and these days the ongoing storylines lose a bit of cohesion because we're constantly moving back and forth between Boston and Bedford.

But the humor's still there in some form, and every now and then Milholland proves that he's as twisted as ever, so at the end of the day, it's all good.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Game Review: Final Fantasy IV Advanced

I've always been fond of "Final Fantasy IV" - it may not have achieved the level of intricacy and complexity found in the series' later installments, but there's something to be said for presenting an epic, globe-spanning, coherent adventure with relatively well-rounded characters and an excellent soundtrack, at a time when such things weren't exactly commonplace in the genre.

That said, there's never really been an English version of the game that could be considered "complete". The original SNES release, dubbed "Final Fantasy II", was a hack job, heavily censored and badly translated, with numerous aspects of the game deleted for simplification. The Playstation version, released in "Final Fantasy Chronicles", had a better script and restored most of the edited content, only to fall victim to the platform's limitations by requiring load times at practically every turn.

"Final Fantasy IV Advanced" is, I believe, the game "Final Fantasy IV" was meant to be. The script is excellent, with some new lines added to shed more light on characters' motivations and personalities; gameplay has not only matched the original Japanese version but exceeded it; character portraits have been added to dialogue exchanges, adding a bit of color to them; and the bonus content is worth every minute needed to earn it. The only problem is that, like "Dawn of Souls", airship travel tends to be a bit frustrating because the buttons stick more often than not. Small price to pay.

The real draw here, at least for veterans of the original game such as myself, is the extra material. Specifically, there are three major changes which take place towards the end of the game (and after it). Upon completing the penultimate dungeon, five former party members become available for recruitment, and you can mix-and-match to build your own fighting force for the final dungeon. All former party members will be at a level approximately equal to main character Cecil, so there's no need to go EXP-hunting.

Once a new team is assembled, you'll have the option of exploring a new dungeon, the Cave of Trials, built exclusively as an armory for your old teammates: superior armor is scattered throughout the cave, while the deepest part of the dungeon holds five powerful weapons guarded by five powerful monsters. If you can defeat them, you'll find that even the puny bard Edward will be able to hold his own against advanced enemies.

Upon completing the game, the Lunar Ruins will be unlocked. Much like the Souls of Chaos in "Dawn of Souls", this post-game dungeon is enormous and somewhat randomized, overflowing with dangerous monsters you won't encounter anywhere else and containing equipment that will turn your party members into nigh-unstoppable powerhouses. Unlike the Souls of Chaos, though, the Lunar Ruins are actually a lot of fun to explore, largely due to the immense variety of activities (good thing, since you have to go through it at least two and a half times to get to the end of it). Sure, some floors are the typical hack-slash-find-exit affair, but others require you to punch a combination on floor tiles scattered throughout, or to catch a toad that's teleporting around the screen. Also, each and every character has a trial to endure, ranging from a running a gauntlet to investigating a murder to proving your worth as a paladin by doing good deeds; the trials culminate in confrontations with a Lunar Summon (similar in concept to the Dark Aeons of "Final Fantasy X"), after which you'll receive an ultimate weapon or an item that upgrades your character in some way (ie: Rosa's White Ring changes the Pray command to Miracle, providing much more potent free healing, while Kain's Dragoon Gloves allow him to Double Jump).

In short, "Final Fantasy IV Advanced" offers the best version to date: not only are the script and gameplay in top form, but beating the game is, in a way, just the start of the adventure. Definitely worth the time, whether you've conquered this particular Final Fantasy before or not.

As an aside, this game marks the first time I've ever defeated a superboss; the Brachioraidos is to FF4 what Ruby Weapon is to FF7 (or Penance to FF10 for the more modern crowd). How powerful is it? Its lair is home to an NPC who desperately warns you to avoid the monstrosity stomping across the screen (yes, they gave the Brachioraidos its own map sprite). I was very, very lucky - Kain's ultimate weapon randomly casts Tornado (an HP-sapping spell), and he struck first, the spell was cast, and the next blow destroyed the fearsome creature. Like I said, pure luck; I have no doubt in my mind that I'd lose ten rematches. :)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Passing Sentences: May 5

Heroes, Five Years Gone: As I expected, this episode comes off as a much-improved take on the classic X-Men story, "Days of Future Past". The primary difference is the process of discovery - in DFP, Claremont lays it all out in the first few pages, as Kate Rasputin traipses through the barren ruins of Manhattan and then walks across a cemetery full of superheroes. But when Ando and Hiro materialize on the roof of the Deveaux building, the first thing they see is reconstruction, a deceptive image suggesting that things aren't as bad as you think. The truth, of course, is that this future is much closer to dystopia than it appears, at least for the Heroes. Likewise, there's a significant body count attached to this episode, the full scope of which isn't immediately apparent (or, for that matter, spelled out in its entirety - DL's fate, for example, is revealed only by the fact that Sylar can phase). Excellent episode overall, containing what I believe to be the single most spectacular twist in the series thus far. I'd also like to take a moment to note that Milo Ventimiglia has really filled out lately - he was never scrawny, but now...


My only complaint is with regards to Hana Gitelman, whose existence I continue to protest. Here's the thing: every week NBC puts out a tie-in minicomic that details some aspect of the series that hasn't seen screen time (ie: Eden's backstory). Of course, this potentially interesting avenue is negated by the fact that most, if not all, of the supplementary material is not only useless but often contradicts the series itself - for example, the comic that saw light before "Five Years Gone" depicts Future Hiro fighting a Sylar who's on the verge of exploding, needlessly confusing a plot point that's addressed quite neatly in the episode itself.

And then you have Hana Gitelman, a character who appeared in a grand total of one episode, whose storyline began and continues exclusively in the comics. So if you want to know more... hell, if you want to know anything about her, you're forced to read the tie-ins despite their extraneous nature. And, of course, because her story takes place off-screen, she only ever turns up on the show itself as a plot device, utterly interchangable with any generic character.


Veronica Mars returns from its break with Un-American Graffiti, the first in a sequence of stand-alone episodes wrapping up the third season. Unfortunately, it hasn't quite bypassed the hurdles plaguing the season thus far: we're treated to yet more tiresome Parker/Logan/Veronica/Piz soap while the primary mystery is steeped in anvilisms - I appreciate the message behind the story, but not so much the mallet-to-the-face method of delivery. And worst of all, Enrico Colantoni came off as completely tired and lifeless, which is very much not the Keith Mars I've come to know and love. As much as I've adored this show, if this is the best they can do at the moment, it might be best to take a bow and leave the stage before things really go south.


Meanwhile, Supernatural continues its "average-to-good" curve in What Is and What Never Should Be. On the one hand, it's the standard "utopia/wish fulfillment" stock plot, but on the other hand it avoids the usual pitfall of having the protagonist's every desire materialize. Dean gets something he wants, but not everything he wants, and that's important when it comes to the inevitable moment of choosing betwen illusion and reality (because it's a choice between two flawed and therefore similar worlds rather than perfection versus the truth). That, along with some solid character beats from Dean and the two Sams, pushes this episode past the usual "above-average" to "good".

This week also saw the release of Supernatural: Origins #1, a Wildstorm comic tie-in detailing the backstory of John Winchester. As with most tie-ins, there's a lack of correlation between the story being told here and the story as it was related to us on the show: in the first-season episode "Home", psychic Missouri Mosely tells Dean and Sam that when their father exhausted every rational option in investigating their mother's murder, he turned to the occult, whereas this issue depicts Missouri seeking John out. Of the two versions, I prefer the former, as it implicitly shows John gradually picking at his blindfold until he pulls it off, but... whatever. The highlight, IMO, is the touching backup strip (by Geoff Johns, of all people!) depicting Sam and Dean when they were kids, as Dean tries to reroute his brother's curiosity about Mary's demise so as to prevent Sam from entering the world of the supernatural. That's the sort of thing I wish the show emphasized more often: Dean's most basic contradiction is that he wanted Sam to have a normal life but couldn't help resenting his brother for leaving in pursuit of that life.


Strings is a very charming Danish/Norwegian film that presents a typical fantasy tale in a revolutionary way: the cast is made up entirely of puppets whose strings are not only visible, but acknowledged as part of the fictional world. For example, in the opening moments of the movie, a character commits suicide by severing the string that holds his head up. In one of the most memorable scenes, a woman gives birth by unwrapping threads from her own strings and attaching those threads to the inert form of the baby, which promptly springs to life.

These are just two examples of how cleverly the technique is used. Unfortunately, the plot's nothing to write home about - good king usurped by his evil brother, noble prince sheds his classist ways to see the truth about his kingdom, big battle of good vs. evil, etc. It makes for a bizarre combination of a story you've probably seen a hundred times before, delivered in a way I doubt you've ever seen. Worth a casual viewing, for sure.