Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Batgirl Volume 3: Death of the Family

Written by Gail Simone
Art by Daniel Sampere

            If you know anything about Barbara Gordon pre-New 52, or hell, even if you’ve just read The Killing Joke, you know one of the defining moments in her life: the Joker showing up at her apartment door, shooting her in the spine, and leaving her paralyzed, making her Oracle for the 20-or-so years before the New 52 reboot put her back in the Batgirl costume.  But history hasn’t been erased here, and so a crossover with the Joker has big expectations, most of which are met.
            As with the main Batman Death of the Family story, the main appeal here is finding out exactly how twisted the Joker’s current plan is.  Thus, it’s hard to say much about the primary story here without inherently feeling like it’s a spoiler.  I can say that, not only is it appropriately twisted, but it works well as a Barbara Gordon story.  Not only does she get faced with some real horrors and no easy way out, but we see the difference between her and Batman in a situation like this.  Batman may hate the Joker, but not like Batgirl does.  And she gets pushed right to the line of going from justice to outright revenge.  Unfortunately, there’s one major problem: the finale is the same finale from the Batman side.  This means that the story builds up to a climax where either you’ve already read the main Batman part and thus you’ll probably just skip over it, or you haven’t read the Batman part and suddenly you’re moved over to a focus on a different character.  It just feels like a letdown, and I imagine it’s a problem with several of the other crossover books.
            This collection does feature two other story arcs.  One of them is cleanup from the Night of the Owls event.  I haven’t been reading Batgirl or her part of that event, so I don’t know if there was more meaning that I was supposed to get out of this.  It was a nice story, but kind of forgettable, and felt like it ended and then moved on.  The other story arc features James Gordon Jr., who shows up during the Death of the Family part, and Batgirl has to take care of his own plots, which can be just as twisted as the Joker’s.  I don’t know if James has shown up in the New 52 before this, but compared to The Black Mirror, he’s lost the mystery angle of “Is he or isn’t he evil?”  He is very obviously evil here.  But this doesn’t make him any less creepy.  In a book that features a reincarnated super-assassin and THE evil clown, the guy with no villain identity, no powers, just his own warped mind, has one of the greatest impacts, and where the confrontation with the Joker fizzled in the end, the ending to the James arc is stunning.  It’s the kind of moment that makes me want to read more Batgirl just to see the effect the final moments have in the future.  And that’s really good.

            Batgirl’s side of Death of the Family has its flaws which you can really feel.  But when it’s working, it’s working really well.  People who were reading Batgirl before should be pleased, people who came on for the Death of the Family crossover should have plenty of reason to stay.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory
Published by Nintendo
Played on Wii U Virtual Console

            Earthbound’s legacy among Nintendo and RPG fans is downright legendary.  After its downright disastrous initial launch, not helped at all by the release late in the SNES’ life and the odd ad campaign with the slogan “It Stinks!”, the game gathered a cult following.  Across the fan website starmen.net, the high demand for the GBA remake and sequel, and Ness’ inclusion in the second and third Smash Bros games, it was clear that Nintendo must’ve known how much people wanted to see Earthbound again.  But it wasn’t happening, even with the inclusion of the Virtual Console on the Wii.  Until this year, when the game was finally put on the Wii U’s Virtual Console.  And after all the wait (and the $2 price mark-up over other SNES games), can it match up for those who only know the hype, not the game itself?  Oh yes.  It can.
            Ness is an ordinary boy living in Eagleland when a mysterious meteor crashes in his hometown.  Finding a traveler from the future inside, Ness learns of his destiny: he has to go to 8 sanctuaries to collect the power needed to defeat Giygas, an ancient evil which will take over the world in the future if it’s not stopped now.  Along the way, he’s joined by the psychic Paula, inventor Jeff, and the prince of Dalaam, Poo.
            A lot of Earthbound’s charm comes from its fairly unique setting.  It takes what could be a normal plot (travel the world, collect the mcguffins, defeat the ancient evil) and shifts the location.  Instead of a medieval kingdom or a dark future, it’s modern-day America.  Potions are replaced by foods like hamburgers and pizza.  The characters use weapons like baseball bats and frying pans.  The cities range from the smalltown beginnings of Onett to the giant metropolis of Fourside.  And this setting combines with the game’s unique brand of humor.  Nintendo tried to market it as gross-out on its original release, and while there are some fart jokes, it’s not gross-out.  It’s off-beat.  Townspeople are anywhere from normal but quirky to downright strange, especially in some of the game’s trippier environments, like Saturn Valley.  Enemies go from evil taxis and birds to modern art and the famous New Age Retro Hippie.  And they’re just as likely to attack you with standard attacks and psychic powers as they are to furrow their brow or measure something with a ruler.
            The combat system is one of those that’s so simple it makes Earthbound a good beginner’s RPG, but still satisfying enough for longtime genre fans.  The battles are strictly turn-based, none of the ATB system that Final Fantasy and such like, meaning it’s very relaxed.  Each of the four characters has their own abilities and roles, meaning that Paula is the heavy hitter with psychic abilities, Ness and Poo get more of a healing/offense mix, and Jeff has no psychic abilities at all, with his use of items making him potentially powerful, but with limited resources.  The game’s biggest notable feature, though, is the rolling HP meter.  If an enemy does a lot of damage to you, instead of instantly subtracting it, the game “rolls” it down, meaning it can take some time until the damage actually takes effect.  It takes some quick thinking when a character takes a mortal hit, and it’s satisfying when you manage to get a healing spell out before their HP hits 0.

            Earthbound has definitely stood the test of time.  Its clever dialogue and setting and easy-to-learn battle system make it irresistible and unique even today.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Green Lantern Volume 3: The End

Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Doug Mahnke

            It’s pretty incredible what Geoff Johns has done in Green Lantern for the nine years he’s been on the book.  Starting with bringing back Hal Jordan, he introduced the entire color and emotion spectrum of Corps, created huge events like Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night, and basically set the bar high for any writer that follows him.  With The End, his run comes to a close, and it’s a nice conclusion to the ride.
            Following on the events of the last volume, Revenge of Black Hand, the start of this volume sees Hal Jordan and Sinestro out of action, while the Guardians of the Universe are on the brink of destroying everything with their introduction of the Third Army.  And things go from bad to worse when the First Lantern breaks out.  The last hope falls on Simon Baz, a Lebanese-American who’s suspected of terrorism.
            Simon Baz definitely provides a unique viewpoint.  The previous four Earth lanterns were in pretty good circumstances when they became Green Lanterns, while Simon has to deal with government agents who are after him because of the terrorism charge and the sudden acquisition of the ring.  It’s odd that, despite this being a conclusion to a huge run, this is also a strangely good jumping on point in regards to Simon’s story, giving plenty of exposition for anybody who doesn’t know anything about Green Lantern.  And I hope we see more of him in the future.  Sadly, while he is a huge part of the majority of this book, in the final issue, he could basically be replaced with a generic Lantern as more of the focus goes on finishing Geoff Johns’ plot threads, especially in regards to Hal and Sinestro.
            And their relationship is the core here, and has been throughout the New 52 run.  Sinestro’s the easy choice villain for Hal, the yin to his yang and such, but we rarely get as good a look as Johns has given us.  Suddenly, we’ve been able to fully understand him.  Now, most of this does take place in the previous two volumes, but this does come back in a big way in the finale, as Johns puts the finale on his run with their conflict.  In fact, it seems like more of the book should’ve focused on them.  The Third Army is honestly almost pointless, and the First Lantern is a good villain, but not a great villain.  I imagine part of the problem is that both were involved in crossovers with other Green Lantern books—which aren’t collected here.  As the ARC does not collect extra features here, I wonder if the retail version will have a summary of events outside of the main book, which would help fill in the pieces a lot.

            Nonetheless, The End does tell a fine Green Lantern story, has an ultimately great ending, and satisfies on shutting the book on Johns’ run.  The epilogue truly makes the point: the adventures of the Corps will continue with other writers, but this is the end for everything Johns has done. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Toy Story of Terror!

Written and directed by Angus MacLane

            This is one of the years I was really wary about Pixar.  An unnecessary-looking prequel and a Halloween TV special weren’t exactly filling me with hope.  But Monsters U was a success, and perhaps more surprisingly, things stay on the upside with Toy Story of Terror, showing that Pixar can do TV just as well.
            Bonnie and her mom are on the road when an accident forces them to stop at a motel for the night.  The toys go exploring, only to start getting picked off one by one by a mysterious creature.  It comes down to Jessie (Joan Cusack) as the one who has to save them before morning comes and Bonnie leaves without them.
            The focus on Jessie here is a nice change of pace.  The three movies have really been focused on Woody, and while Jessie and Buzz have certainly been major characters, it’s not their journey.  Jessie not only gets some backstory expansion (in particular, looking at the effect that being abandoned in a box has had on her), but she gets to be the actual hero here.  It doesn’t come down to Woody or Buzz or the ensemble as a whole coming together and saving things, it comes down to her own abilities and facing her fears herself.  It’s very well done.
            And it’s just a part of the fact that, even condensed down to 30-minutes-with-ads, Pixar loses none of their touches here.  The story is interesting, and similar to the Small Fry short, shows another side of the Toy Story world which we haven’t gotten to see.  The humor is perfectly done, from jokes regarding new toys that are seen to the toys themselves riffing on a B-movie at the start.  And the visuals have not diminished at all.  I remember with Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda Christmas special, there was something off with the visuals—not quite TV series bad, just not quite movie good.  Here, though, this is as good as any movie Pixar has made.  Of all things, it was a scene in a bathroom that made my jaw drop.  It was just a bathroom, but it was one of the most realistic looking bathrooms I’ve ever seen in an animated movie.  The one flaw here is the use of Mr. Pricklepants as the character explaining all the horror tropes as they apply to their situation.  There’s some humor from it, but it just feels too much like talking down to the audience.

            Overall, if this is the quality Pixar can bring to TV specials, then they can keep making them.  Yet again, they’ve managed to return to Toy Story and keep things fresh, expanding the universe and just making it a franchise that’s clearly loved and cared for by the creators. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Batman Volume 3: Death of the Family

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo

            For those not in the know on the New 52, it should be noted that one of the big early initiatives was giving many of the books new villains (Darkseid is the only old villain I know of that appeared in an initial arc).  To apparently make a point about this, in the first issue of Detective Comics, Joker got his face cut off.  Of course, old villains came back into the books as they went on, and anybody familiar with the Joker knows that it takes a lot more than losing his face to even make it appear that he’s died to readers.  With Death of the Family, Joker comes back in a big way, threatening to kill off Batman, the Robins, and Batgirl.
            There’s honestly not much to talk about storywise besides what’s already been said.  After all, this is the Joker, and part of the fun of any Joker story is finding out exactly what his plot is.  Yes, he wants to kill Batman, but you’re never entirely sure of what he’s doing.  The book makes sure that most of the information is conveyed to the reader only when Batman knows it, and that means that everything the Joker is doing just seems that much more mysterious.  Even with some side-stories in this book focusing on the Joker, we only get glimpses of how he interacts with the other Bat-villains, not any reveals about his plans.
            What this book does best is reminding us what a threat the Joker is.  Everything he does is meticulously planned, and everything is just as likely to be a joke as it is to be an actual threat.  And what makes him more dangerous than ever here is the information he has.  He seems to finally know everything about Batman, the secret identities of him and the rest of the Bat-family.  And of course, it’s teased whether he actually knows anything at all.  Batman can give everything a logical explanation, but it’s clear that even he’s starting to shake, even he fears that everything he’s built up is just going to crumble down.  Probably no coincidence that this arc comes right after the Night of the Owls, where an urban legend ended up being a major threat to Gotham.  It flipped what Batman thought he knew on its head, and again, the man who prepares for everything suddenly feels like he hasn’t prepared well enough.

            Death of the Family can take a place in the pantheon of great Joker stories.  It’s so easy for him to be overused with little thought, but Snyder has clearly crafted a Joker story built for the clown prince of crime, giving him plenty of new ground to terrorize.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Directed by Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn
Written by John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Erica Rivinoja
Inspired by the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett

            The first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs seemed like a fairly safe kids movie from the trailers, but managed to win me over with its over-the-top humor and charm that significantly elevated the basic concept of the book.  The second movie brought two worries with it: one being that it’s a sequel, and the other being that Lord and Miller are no longer directing, which can be two major blows against any movie.  Fortunately, Cloudy 2 (mostly) works its humor and charm over once again.
             Starting shortly after the conclusion of the first movie, Swallow Falls is absolutely destroyed, causing the population to relocate.  And Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) even gets a job with genius inventor and childhood hero Chester V (Will Forte).  But the job goes badly, and as things look at their worst for Flint, Chester sends him on a secret mission to Swallow Falls, where the food is still being created—and has evolved into foodimals.
             And the movie gets a lot of mileage both out of the transformed Swallow Falls and the foodimals.  The environment itself is visually stunning.  Realism tends to be tossed out the window, so instead it’s just this fantastical world of food plants and living food.  And the foodimals get a lot of material, from their unique looks to the many puns and jokes the movie pulls out.  And the new team has kept the great sense of humor here.  Some of the jokes would be lame under most circumstances, but they’re delivered with that fun and winking nod that makes you laugh.  And it all goes over the top, such that as the movie gets bigger and more ridiculous towards the climax, it just feels strangely natural.
            The biggest change here is the message, which, without getting into too many spoilers, has changed from the consumerism and gluttony of the first movie—a good idea, as otherwise it would just be repetitive.  Instead, there’s more of a message about environmentalism here.  It generally works, but it does have the same flaw of the first movie: things are so over-the-top that trying for any sort of real world message can just get lost in the shuffle.  The character moments work a lot better, with Flint stuck between his idol of Chester V and his friends.  It lacks the character development that happened in the first movie, but it still works.
            The movie does have its handful of problems, though.  The opening scene is particularly weak, as it recaps the first movie and then repeats a bunch of jokes from the first movie.  It at least gets it out of the way early on, and doesn’t fall into it later.  Well, besides with Brent (Andy Samberg), whose sole joke is that he says “UH OH!” a lot.  And by a lot, I mean going past the rule of three and right into “Yes, we get it” territory.  And finally, there’s the replacement of Earl’s voice, from Mr. T to Terry Crews.  This is a minor problem, as Terry Crews does a good job.  He’s just not Mr. T, and doesn’t have the same effect that Mr. T had.  Honestly, I never thought a movie would lose something without Mr. T, but there you go.

            Overall, if you enjoyed the first movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a perfect second serving.  It keeps the great humor and visuals that made the first one a success, and even its faults don’t stop the movie from being a fun time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Justice League Volume 3: Throne of Atlantis

Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, and Tony S. Daniel

            If there’s one thing that Geoff Johns has definitely left his mark on, it’s big comic events.  While Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night certainly had their smaller character moments, it’s the twists, the fight scenes, and the big, memorable moments that make them such enjoyable reads.  Throne of Atlantis doesn’t quite match their scale, but it’s still a big, fun comic.
            A military missile attack gone wrong misses its target completely and hits Atlantis instead.  This causes the Atlantis war protocol to go into effect, with their army led by Aquaman’s brother, Orm.  Now Aquaman has to decide which side he’s on, while Gotham, Metropolis, and Boston are all faced with destruction.
            As should be obvious, while this is a Justice League book, and the Justice League does appear (minus The Flash and Green Lantern, who are busy with stuff in their own books, apparently), this is really an Aquaman story.  You can stop giggling now.  Geoff Johns’ takeover of Aquaman has been pitch-perfect in turning him from a joke into a must-read comic, as he expands on the character and makes him into a true badass—without having to fall on the “beard and hook” crutch that befell the character before Flashpoint.  And part of that is the complexity of the character that he’s developing, especially on being torn between two worlds.  Having to finally make his stand between the world of man and Atlantis is a big moment for him, and what happens in the end of the book will make huge waves (no pun intended) for the character.  And we’re also seeing that, as far as morality goes, Aquaman is as grey as it gets.  So yes, stop the “what is he gonna do, talk to fish?” jokes now.  Aquaman is one of the New 52’s real successes.
            Of course, it wouldn’t be an event comic without some huge fight scenes.  As always, Ivan Reis’ art is perfect for these big, two-page spreads of lots of heroes fighting lots of Atlanteans.  He shows the chaos of the battle without making it confusing for the readers, and he also captures the destruction of the cities well.  There’s a bit of over-reliance on two-page spreads, but then, it’s also built up on, making the battle bigger and bigger as it goes.  I will note that my ARC did not have individual issue credits, so I do not know which issues Reis did and which were Pelletier.  The fact that I could not tell while reading where one ended and another began is probably credit that Pelletier is on the same level.
            Throne of Atlantis also includes a smaller story featuring Wonder Woman fighting the Cheetah, which adds in a few more character moments, including the fact that Wonder Woman and Superman have started on their relationship.  This relationship is pretty controversial, and honestly, I was happier when it wasn’t being brought up.  It’s not necessarily bad, but the story beats aren’t all there to convince me that they should be together.  It still feels very much like pairing the characters together for the sake of it.

            Still, Throne of Atlantis succeeds as being a fun comic, with well-done fight scenes and plenty of Aquaman’s character development.  Whether you’ve been reading Justice League or Aquaman or neither, this is a book worth picking up.