Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Order of the Stick

February 10, 2012 1 comment

Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick has been in the nerd news recently due to the fact that it’s raised over $ 600,000 via Kickstarter1. For the uninitiated, The Order of the Stick is a webcomic that parodies the game of Dungeons and Dragons2. The core joke is that everyone speaks in game terms as if they where a real thing, because to them, they are. So when someone gets hurt, they talk about hit points, job interviews involve discussions about experience point totals, etc. This may seem like a barrier to non-gamers, but the nerd humour is just a side-line to the main plot.

Y’see, The Order of the Stick is deceptive piece of work. Take the artwork, for example. They’re stick men and women (hence the name). Simple art, yes? You would be forgiven for thinking so, but it’s nothing of the sort. These designs are incredibly simple but at the same time very well realised. Simple yet appealing character design is one of the major goals of any good artist. (Take Snoopy for example; Iconic, instantly recognisable and also very simple.) Each element is carefully thought out and very easy on the eye. And its genius is that most people have noticed how complex it is, and yet they enjoy it none the less.

Yes, you can be deep and clever at the same time

Simple, clever, funny, deep. Order of the Stick.

The same applies to the story. Amidst the gags about hit points and story clichés, Burlew has snuck in an epic-fantasy story that is not only a parallel to the likes of A Game of Thrones and The Lord of The Rings it also comments on the structure of fantasy story telling itself. The world is has detailed as any of its epic cousins, and just as grand in scale and design. These simple looking stick people grow and develop. We care when they are hurt and cheer when they succeed. The reader grows to care about them, just like you should when a story is told well. Yet even the concept of character development and growth is examined, parodied and made entertaining. The author never lectures, he simply shows the reader the mechanisms of storytelling whilst claiming to be a simple storyteller. Burlew is a magician who shows you exactly how the trick is done, and at the same time, you don’t notice yet still wonder how he does it.

The Order of the Stick is a stick-figure cartoon gag strip. It’s also a rich and complex work of art with a fundamental understanding of how we tell stories. Of course it’s based around roleplaying games, because many of our modern storytellers learn the craft by rolling dice to fight dragons. It may not have been the creator’s intention to deliver such a grand endeavour, but this is where he has brought us. This is why it is so beloved by its fans, and why it is doing so well.

You can check it out here, though I should warn you that it is epic in length, don’t try this in a single sitting.

1: Kickstarter’s brilliance is that it tells the user that they’re being philanthropic whilst at the same time being a great place to look for bargains. It lets everyone play at being an entrepreneur, even those of us with little money.
2: Specifically the Third and Third-and-a-half-editions of the game. This may seem as a minor technical point to some of you, but it was D&D’s third edition that changed the status of the game from ‘something that was once relevant in the eighties’ to part of the popular culture, mostly due to some very clever handling of the intellectual properties associated with the game.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Reviews

We’ll Take Manhattan

January 30, 2012 2 comments

The BBC has this odd habit of creating excellent drama and then hiding it somewhere in the schedule1 where it will then sink into obscurity and DVD sales. We’ll Take Manhattan was tucked away on BBC 42, and is a bit of a rare gem, being a biographical drama that isn’t afraid to be bold and interesting.

We’ll Take Manhattan follows the early years of now world-famous photographer David Bailey, and goes a long to explaining why he’s such a big deal. It also follows the early years of Bailey’s muse, model and lover Jean Shrimpton, played by Doctor Who companion, Karen Gillan. It’s a fast paced little drama, with absolutely thrilling performances from both Gillan and Aneurin Barnard (who plays Bailey).

Other people to have taken Manhattan include The Muppets

The drama itself is pretty straight forward; Bright young things take on the establishment and win by being energetic, keen and brilliant, though not without some level of personal cost. This may seem like a cliché to us, but the thrust of the drama is that back in 1962, things were less dynamic. Bailey is not portrayed as a rock star, but as a young man desperate to make his mark on the world. Barnard steals the show entirely, and though Gillan is very good (and shows the audience that she is much more than a one-dimensional character), it is Barnard’s depiction of a man who is so hungry to prove himself to the world that he is willing to destroy everything, including himself, to get there.

Another thing that impressed me is how terribly appropiate it all looks; everything but the lead characters look old-fashioned and stiff. (Not just Sixties, but established and ancient). The sets tell the story as much as the actors, the only things with life in them are the shots created by Bailey. The producers have clearly taken great joy in framing as many shots as possible in such a way that they resemble the great photographer’s back catalogue3.

We’ll Take Manhattan can be found on iPlayer, and is worth your time if you have an interest in the Sixties, the history of modern photography or Karen Gillan’s legs.

1: Case in point; Christopher and His Kind, a rather brilliant drama about Christopher Isherwood’s experiences in Germany during the eve of World War 2. Isherwood’s story inspired the musical Cabaret, so you’d have thought it was must see television, especially as it featured a rather striking performance from Matt Smith. I find it odd that the BBC commissioned two Doctor Who actors to do adult dramas, both of which are rather good, and then hide them.
2: The channel for interesting documentaries and semi-factual dramas, formally known as BBC 2.
3: Including the shot with the chain link fence and the teddy bear. You’ll know it when you see it. Though the bear gets abandoned. Karen Gillan’s character keep doing that.

Categories: Reviews, TV

Chico and Rita

January 27, 2012 1 comment

To my utter delight, Chico and Rita has been nominated for an Oscar (Best Animation, no less1) which is about time. Given that it’s now available on DVD for about a fiver, I wonder what took them so long, but then the Oscars have never been very good at noticing foreign films.

So why does the Spanish language, animated feature film set in Cuba just before Castro happens deserve an Oscar? Well, probably because it’s one of the most beautifully rendered love stories ever to make it to screen. This is a tale of jazz pianist Chico and talented singer Rita, and how they try and escape their hum-drum lives to create something beautiful. It’s rich and evocative of pre-Castro Cuba, and though it romanticises that period in history, it’s also very blunt about the politics of the time. (Though this is not the focus of the feature).

Apparently, designer Javier Marisca created Rita in a dream. I can believe that.

It’s a tale filled with fiery latin passion, fantastic music (jazz, but don’t let that put you off) and eye-poppingly gorgeous moments. One particular scene practically sizzles on the screen. The characters are drawn in a strongly European comic-book style 2, each character oozing with their key character traits. (Rita drips sex-appeal, Chico is filled with pride and bravado). The art is lovingly detailed and it’s the sort of feature that reveals fresh things on repeated viewings.

Animation is at its most flexible and amazing when it uses the medium to create unique worlds. Chico and Rita exist in an idealised form of the Cuban music scene of the time. Cigar smoke wraps around the singers just so, the pianists are always impeccably dressed and the entire place is filled with beautiful people. At its core though, it’s a movie about what happens when art and passion meet and fall in love.

Spanish speakers will find some of the subtitled translation amusing, as they’ve (thankfully) gone for context-based translation over a more literal interpretation. This is a life affirming, thrilling little feature that I urge everyone to watch. If you find yourself in need of cheering up, I recommend it, though do bring the tissues; it’s as emotional as it is fiery.

1: It’s up against Kung Fu Panda Two and Puss in Boots amongst others. Frankly, those two movies, though nice, pale in comparison to this one. Kung Fu Panda may be all about confidence, and Puss In Boots certainly has a strong hint of passion, but seriously, Chico and Rita is the better work of art, and will dance a bolero around the competition.

2: If you’ve ever read the confusingly titled magazine “Heavy Metal”, you’ll know what I mean. Self Made Hero do produce a comic book version of Chico and Rita as well, and it’s worth your time; what it lacks in movement and music it makes up in artwork.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Empire State

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Super hero stories tend to shine when they’re dipped in noir-style nostalgia; both genres lend themselves to tales of two-fisted fisted, and the grime and dirt of the post-war era balances nicely with heroism and rocket powered justice. So it should come as no surprise that Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State, a tale of rocket powered heroes and private detectives during the American prohibition, is pretty good stuff.

Empire State is the tale of two cities; one is New York in the 1950’s, the other is a mirror-universe version of the Big Apple, called The Empire State. Whereas New York is a big place, filled with possibilities, The Empire State is a claustrophobic, insular city at war with a shadowy foe. The story follows the life of Private Detective Rad Bradbury1, a good man in a rotten city.

Gas Masks, Rocket Packs and Zepplins. What's not to love?

As you’d expect, there’s a woman with a secret and a missing person to find. There’s also rocket powered heroes, super villains, robots, airships and dashing captains. It’s a skilful blend of two well-loved genres, and it’s a fun, pulpy, tightly written book.

The setting is not just an interesting backdrop; the author takes full advantage of the premise and fills in a lot of the details in way that keeps luring you. This makes for a dense story with a well realised world behind it. Like you’d expect in any good mystery story, every character has a past and a strange secret. These elements slowly fit together to create a world greater than the sum of its parts.

Empire State is a master class in world building, whilst still retaining a coherent and engaging story. It manages to keep the reader guessing all the way through, without losing itself in its own mythology.

Fans of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City , movies such a Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow and the The Rocketeer or any ‘Dark Mirror’ episode of Star Trek, this one is for you. Fan of pulp adventures and twisty, noir-style plots will find a lot to love here.

1: Oh yeah, and it’s full of lovely little references like that as well.

Categories: Books, Geek, Reviews

The Ballad of Halo Jones, The Stage Play

January 2, 2012 1 comment

Manchester based pub and venue The Lass O’Gowrie is often on the cutting edge of nerd-cool, and plays host to a wide variety of geek friendly events1, so it was the natural venue of choice for the debut stage production of The Ballad of Halo Jones.

Halo Jones is a much-loved science fiction comic strip by notorious Northampton genius Alan Moore, and is famous for its epic, inter-galactic feel, domestic storyline, and social commentary. So adapting it into a stage-play was always going to be a feat, especially one designed for a small, intimate venue.

The limited space and obvious shoe-string budget have been skilfully turned into an advantage by the production company Scytheplays. A tale that takes us from the depths of a futuristic slum to the heights of space could easily have been achieved given a lavish budget, but is instead portrayed far more effectively through inspired acting and clever verbal cues in the script.

Art by Adrian Salmon

"Where did she go? Out. What did she do? Everything."

The actors are brilliantly cast. Those of you who fell in love with Halo in the pages of 2000AD should be prepared to be equally enchanted by Louise Hamer’s performance. Benjamin Patterson tackles the difficult task of playing the menacing robot dog2 Toby with great skill and care and clearly is having a ball doing so. For me, the most stand-out performance is by Danny Wallace, who plays the doomed, hopeless and sexless creature, The Glyph. It’s a role that requires comic timing, empathy and a gentle touch, and Wallace is perfect throughout.

The script strips the story down into two acts, each about an hour long and covers the first two books3. Fans of the original will be pleased to learn that no major changes to the storyline have been made, and the odder characters (Rats, Dolphins and TV newscasters) are handled in a believable sort of way. Those who’ve never read the book should brace themselves for strange future-speak and a bizarre, yet socially relevant story. The future-shock will pass as the play goes on, but I suspect the social commentary will stay with you.

The Ballad of Halo Jones is as important now as it was when it was first written in 1984, and is a tale that deserves to be heard by a wider audience. If you’re lucky enough to live in Manchester, and have a spare evening, do go and see the show.

1: “The Lass” has vintage video game nights, Doctor Who themed evenings and has played host to the likes of Professor Elemental and Mr B, The Gentleman Rhymer. If you’re lucky enough to live in Manchester, you should take advantage of The Lass.
2: In the graphic novel, Toby is a beautifully drawn robot dog. In the stage-play, they have more obvious limitations, and handle it through a carefully thought out interpretation of the source material. It also helps for Patterson’s performance is spot on.
3: The original work is in three books, the third being a strange, starship troopers style space war. It’d be hard to do well on the stage, and they wisely avoid it. This doesn’t detract from the production at all, especially when you consider that the original book was never properly finished.

Categories: Reviews, Theatre

Dead Harvest

December 29, 2011 6 comments

Dead Harvest is a detective horror story with a neat little twist; the lead character, Sam Thornton, is dead and damned, doomed to roam the earth as a ghost. His soul belongs to the powers of hell and he has been cursed to collect the souls of sinners and send them to the demons. Urban fantasy1 is tricky genre to get right; mix in too much of the supernatural and the tale becomes a clichéd creature feature, mix in too many mundane elements and the spooky parts seem gimmicky and false. Dead Harvest pulls of the rare feat of getting it exactly right; Sam’s power to possess the bodies of the dead (and the living) makes consistent sense, as does his doomed (and tear-jerking) backstory.

Like any good detective story, a young lady turns Sam’s world upside down, and the tale quickly becomes an action-movie inspired romp. As the main characters run from one dangerous situation to another, we grow to care about the supporting cast and learn more about this world where heaven and hell are so very close to an unknowing (and often uncaring) human race.

The retro styled cover tells us that the tale is hardboiled

It’s pretty rapidly paced; the peril is layered on pretty thick and it’s this sense of urgency that really draws the reader in. The story takes place over a few short days, lending a leanness and speed to the whole thing. A good mystery story keeps the reader guessing, and though some of the twists seem obvious, the devil is the details. (I’m not going to tell you if I mean that literally. Read it for yourself and see.)

Fans of the Harry Dresden series and those who like their modern-day fantasy with a twist of hardboiled detective story will love this (as will fans of Good Omens and In Nomine). I firmly expect this page-turner to do well, and am pleased to hear that a sequel is already in the works.

1: A clunky term that usually means ‘set in the real world, with supernatural elements’. Typically with a healthy dose of horror story staples like ghosts and werewolves thrown in for good measure.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Gaunt’s Ghosts

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Salvation’s Reach is the latest book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novels. As a review of one book in series of thirteen would be a bit useless to those of you who’ve aren’t familar with them, let’s take a quick look at the series as a whole.

The books are set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and focuses on the fate of a specific regiment of Imperial Guardsmen; The Tanith First and Only. These are just regular guys, armed with fairly standard equipment and weapons, facing an uncaring galaxy filled with hostile monsters and hidden horror. They are humble riflemen, doing their duty to protect their civilisation, with very little hope of long term survival. Those familiar with the Sharpe series may recognise some elements here; the first few stories were pitched as ‘Sharpe in Space’. It’s a fair summary, though not a very descriptive one. The two are very different from each other in many respects, however, both are character-lead action dramas with high body counts.

The series began life as a collection of short stories in the magazine Inferno1, and this means they tend to have an episodic nature. This is actually rather handy, as it means you can digest the stories in bite-sized chunks. (I recommend reading them on an e-reader whilst travelling). You can put them down for a while, but the stories are deeply more-ish.

Grim. Dark. Gothic. And a page turner. Stock up on them for a long journey.

The earlier books in the series (collected together in an anthology called The Founding) are also the weakest, but no less interesting. As the first anthology concludes, you can tell that the author, Dan Abnett, is just starting to get into the swing of things. The writing begins with at a pretty good quality, but as the series progresses, the narrative gets much better and becomes much more fun. It’s intensely satisfying to see an author whom you like to begin with improve, and the Gaunt’s Ghosts delivers this in spades. Each anthology improves on the other, as we learn more about the world they are in and the people that surround the regiment.

As this is a tale of war and warriors, the body count is very high. Abnett fiendishly keeps key characters around long enough for you to become familiar and fond of them. He’ll hint at dark fates for his characters (after all, this is a war story), and just when you think your favourites are safe, something awful happens to them. It’s part of the fun. The churn of shocks, bluffs, revelations and funerals are the life-blood of this series. As you become more convinced of the indomitability of certain heroes, something happens to change everything. It’s grim. It’s dark. But it’s also about people surviving in extraordinary ways. Gaunt’s Ghosts is a series about heroes, but flawed, fractured heroes who keep going. “Only in death does duty end” as the books so succinctly put it.

So what about Salvation’s Reach ? More shocks, more revelations. More people die and we learn more about the world. Is it the same as the last dozen? Not a bit of it, because part of the appeal of the series is it uses the massive galaxy it’s set in as a backdrop to the drama. Did I devour it during the spare moments? Of course I did, it’s what I’ve come to expect from the series. Did it leave me wanting more? Yes. More please.

1: An ambitious short story magazine, with a focus on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K worlds. Sadly, like many anthology periodicals, it’s no longer around. However, the same people behind Inferno do produce a regular e-zine called Hammer and Bolter, which fulfils the same sort of purpose. Which is good, as short story anthologies allow both readers and publishers to find new talent.

Categories: Books, Geek, Reviews Tags:

The Nightmare Man

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

The BBC has a long history of delivering quirky and intelligent drama, be it science-fiction, crime stories, thrillers or something else entirely. One example the springs to mind is 1981 drama The Nightmare Man1 adapted for television by genre hero Robert Holmes 2.

This short, 4-part drama contains all the elements you need for a classic British creepy story; a remote Scottish island, a new arrival and of course, a mystery that needs solving. In this case, a series of bizarre murders, caused by some sort of weird thing. As the cast get bumped off in gruesome ways and more mystery gets stirred into the plot, the tale gets darker and more bizarre with every turn.

The series features familiar faces looking much younger than you're used to

This is classic eighties telly, and proves the point that you don’t need a big budget to achieve a strong story, The Nightmare Man was shot on location in Cornwall with a cast that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched something made by the BBC.
Though the pacing is slow (a common feature for dramas made last century), this lends the series a much needed feeling of claustrophobia. The Nightmare Man is just the right size. Too much longer and we’d want to know more and if it was any shorter some viewers would be confused. 3

Fans of spooky stories with a distinctly British edge will enjoy this. If you’re a fine of the likes of Steven Moffat or Warren Ellis, I’m confident that’ll you get a kick out of this.

1: Based on a book called the Child of Vodyanoi by David Wiltshire. The story is apparently inspired by the Howard Hawk’s 1951 movie The Thing from Another World; the same movie which inspired both John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Or to put it another way, the story has an excellent heritage.
2: Robert Holmes wrote some of the more popular and well-known episodes of Doctor Who, including Spearhead in Space, which introduced us to John Pertwee as the third Doctor and the Autons and The Talons of Weng Chiang, which gave us Tom Baker in a deer-stalker doing a Sherlock Holmes impersonation. Holmes also wrote scripts for police drama, Juliet Bravo.
3: TV Tropes calls this British Brevity. If you’ve never seen the TV Tropes website before, I should warn you that it’s a massive time sink.

Categories: Reviews, TV

Robert Kirkman’s Invincible

December 1, 2011 1 comment

Robert Kirkman is best known for his comic book turned TV series The Walking Dead. What a number of zombie-horror fans neglect is Kirkman’s just as lengthy and detailed work Invincible. This is isn’t that much of a suprise; horror comics stand out more amongst the countless super-hero books on the market, and on first glance, it’s pretty easy to dismiss it as just another super-hero book.

The set-up for Invincible is surprisingly simple; it’s a mix of the growing pains angst that fans of various Spider-Man titles will be familiar with and the sort of two-fisted, god-like heroism that appears all the time in books like Superman. The titular character is a young man with incredible power and a sudden realisation that he’d better find some sense of responsibility or deal with the consequences. The book addresses the notion that if one was nearly-indestructible and strong enough to throw buildings around, then you’d have to grow up pretty fast.

Despite this, it doesn’t take itself as seriously the way many post-Watchmen1 comics do; Invincible doesn’t try and do comics for grown-ups, what it does is tell a story about super-powered humans in a way grown-ups will find engaging. Nominally set in the same universe as Spawn and The Savage Dragon , Kirkman’s tale quickly establishes its own mythos and rules,2 showing us a world in which the consequences of having individuals with the destructive capacity of a nuclear bomb is dealt with in a rational and pragmatic way.

The artwork is clean and action driven, and fits the narrative very well

Fans of The Walking Dead know that Kirman loves to throw his readers a curve ball; he delights in setting up reader expectations and telegraphing the forthcoming plot, only to suddenly change everything at the last minute, causing sub-plots to suddenly reverse and the main characters to have to deal with rapid change and stress. Just like real life, the reader seldom knows what’s coming next.

There is a lot to love about Invincible; the romantic sub-plots are always set-up in a way that, though often fantastic, are believable and the villains are very rarely cackling mad-men, rather they have hopes, dreams and motivations. (Indeed, some of the villains aren’t villains). Time is spent setting up the supporting cast so we care about what happens to them, and the entire work has the internal consistency that one gets with single-creator owned work.

Invincible is a big story, the 15th volume comes out in January, and it’s still ongoing, with no sign of the end in sight. Despite the size, I suspect once you start you’ll find it hard to stop, so be warned, it’s addictive.

1: Alan Moore’s The Watchmen was a comic book back in the 80’s which gets mentioned every time someone else writes a super-hero book aimed at a mature audience. It’s typically used as a the base-line for ‘mature’ audiences and spawned countless imitators of variable quality, and can be criticised for being too visceral and cynical.

2: Image comics in general tend to avoid being one cohesive lump of shared- universe. Which is fair enough, as Marvel and to a lesser extent, DC, already have that market cornered.

Categories: Comic Books, Reviews Tags:

The Gildar Rift

November 28, 2011 3 comments

Sarah Cawkwell’s debut novel, The Gildar Rift has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the Warhammer 40,0001 books, as the author’s previous short stories (which can be found regularly in the e-zine Hammer and Bolter ) have been very well received. Cawkwell’s style combines the over-the-top elements of the popular sci-fi setting with character driven plot and a keen eye on this heavily baroque world. This is the sort of thing that fans of Black Library2 books like a lot; the 40K fandom likes it’s big, power armoured super-humans to be actual people you care about, rather than just blobs of male-power fantasy.

So it comes as no surprise that, The Gildar Rift is pretty damned good. It’s another one of those Space Marine Battles3 stories, this time focusing on a conflict near the titular Gildar Rift, an unstable region of space prone to raids by Demon-worshipping space pirates known as The Red Corsairs. Defending this region of space are the Silver Skulls who are religious and steadfast space-knights, who rely on superstition for guidance. (Yes, that’s right. Demonic pirates in power armour in space. Wielding chain-saw swords. Fighting knights in shining power armour. In space. Who also wield chain-saw swords. This is why people love this setting so much).

Gildar Rift features Huron Blackheart, who is one of the more interesting villiains of the setting

The action splits three ways; we get starship battles, gritty land war and internal conflict from both factions. The starship battles are glorious, I do enjoy reading about big things going boom and Cawkwell4 mixes the vastness of space with the sort of edge-of-your-seat action usually reserved for the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean. The ground war element is very dynamic; plots and counter plans on both sides mean that the action is constantly rolling, and each leads to a dramatic conflict, rather than simply one long drawn-out fight. This gives us time to care about the heroes, adding weight to the narrative.

Running through these scenes of war are two subplots that give us stronger insight into both sides. The bad-guys get a tale of treachery and deceit, punctuated by evil cackles and barking-mad monologuing. Meanwhile, the heroes get a rather touching tale of hi-tech heresy and the search for one’s place in the universe.

The book is also filled with some lovely touches to the setting. From a subtle shout-outs to fans to pointed observations on the domestic side of the world, this book is a stunning debut, and also a good entry point for those looking to get into Black Library books.

1: Yes, it’s another review featuring 40K. You may have gathered by now, what with the retro-sci-fi game I’m creating, the Doctor Who love and the reviews of 40K books that I love British Sci-Fi.
2: The Black Library is the name of the book publishing arm of Games Workshop. Over the years, it’s nurtured a goodly amount of British genre writing talent, and has helped spawn a number of other British genre publishers. Or to put it another way, well done Black Library, keep up the good work.
3: I reviewed Nick Kyme’s Fall of Damnos a while ago.
4: I’m only aware of a handful of women who’ve written for the Black Library, and by utter coincidence, I’ve met two of them (Sarah Cawkwell and Debbie Gallagher) at LARP events. Both women tried to kill me, but that’s fair enough, people are always trying to kill me at LARP events. It’s a talent of mine.

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