Saturday, December 24, 2011

Marvel Legends: Magneto

In my previous action figure review I talked about the DC Universe Classics, a nice consistent Mattel assemblage of both popular and more obscure characters. Before this came about, however, Toybiz produced a "Marvel Legends" line of six inch figures for Marvel. These set a rather high standard in the early 2000s for good levels of detail and articulation. The line was later taken over by Hasbro, which caused fluctuations in the quality. As such the Marvel Legends line lacks the consistency of DC Universe Classics but there are still some memorable figures, such as the one I'm about to describe.
I've elaborated in the past about my appreciation of Captain America as a Marvel hero but my Marvel villain of choice hasn't been as scrutinised by me yet. As you can tell, it's Magneto. He's an ambiguous character with a good back story and a striking costume. Fortunately Marvel Legends produced a fitting toy for such a character.
This isn't a review so much as a retrospective or showcase because this is a pretty rare toy these days. I bought mine on eBay and while affordable considering its rarity it was still a decision I mulled over for a while. It came out in 2003 in the third wave of Marvel Legends figures and back in those days these kinds of toys were a bit of an elaborate composition. So included in the unpleasant-to-open clamshell packaging were not just the figurine but a stand in the shape of the head of a destroyed Sentinel, the mutant-hunting robots of Marvel lore, and a Magneto-related comic, in this case X-Men Volume 2 Number 2 from 1991, written by Chris Claremont with Jim Lee illustrations. It's a decent inclusion, deriving from the fairly significant Mutant Genesis storyline and focusing on Magneto's ambiguous status as villain, and as far as I'm concerned an included comic is a great addition to an action figure. Extras are always appreciated. So once the clamshell was in my hand I busted it open to the despair I'm sure of some collectors and removed the delightful contents. The package was already a bit damaged so I don't feel too bad. Anyway, the Sentinel head is also a nice addition, being distinctively painted and very detailed. It's a perfect podium for perfidious posing as Stan Lee might say and Magneto looks distinctive on it. We here at "Opinions Can Be Wrong" have often wondered about how under some colour schemes Sentinels often look a bit like big robot Magnetos. Is it deliberate? So far my research has shown nothing. Regardless, it's a nice stand and a good inclusion. It even has a hole in the back so you can hook it onto your wall, although I'm not entirely sure why you would.
Now let's take a look at the Master of Magnetism himself. One thing stands out about this Magneto figure: he's chunky. Initially I was put off by this fact: apparently he's based on Marvel Legends' Wave One Iron Man figure from back in the days when Tony Stark's armour kinda looked like muscles and it shows. He's still got the rings around the shoulder joint like classic Iron Man. It's weird to think that they thought Magneto, a primarily non-physical combatant, would have the same body shape in a fairly skintight body suit as Tony Stark would in a bulky suit of armour, and at first I was put off by his sheer bulk, but it actually works. In the Jim Lee illustrations, from which the included comic is derived, and the 90s X-Men cartoon, Magneto is a very broad, physically imposing character, and I think the body shape is ultimately fitting.
The original parts of the sculpt are all very good; it's really an extremely nice toy. Magneto's face is very detailed, and his stern, brooding expression really suit the very ambiguous, troubled incarnation of the character I believe this figure is trying to represent. He even has a lock of hair hanging down towards his right eye, only visible when his helmet is removed. The inclusion of a removable helmet is an excellent feature and clearly assisted in the quality head sculpt. While it doesn't have the side indent below the ears which it's normally depicted as having in the comics it's a very good fit and looks the right size when he's wearing it. The trim is extremely detailed and while the red and purple blend a little in some spots it's still impressive. The horned front ornament is also red, not purple. This always fluctuates from comic to comic and even from frame to frame but I've always assumed that it's generally meant to be red and I prefer it that way, so I'm glad it's that colour here.
One thing I will complain about is the collar. This is usually depicted as going all the way around his neck, hanging over both his chest and upper back, but here it's basically just a flat piece on his front. Sometimes it disappears under his cape but here it kind of sticks out and can look a tad awkward. It's really the only thing, though. The cape, while pretty rigid, is still in a nice flowing shape and well shaded in the folds on the back. Mine seems to have a small crack in the join between the cape and the neck through which skin tone is visible but I doubt that's standard. The bands on the gloves and boots are embossed, the hands are in good shapes for magnetic manipulation and the belt and trunks are kept simple. Overall it's a really good sculpt.
Last of all let's mention the articulation. I believe these old Marvel Legends toys really set the standard for amazing levels of articulation, and that's completely evident here. Magneto has shoulders with combined ball joints and hinges so they can point in all directions as well as swing outward, his elbows and knees are double-hinged, his wrists and thighs swivel, his head turns left to right and even has a little forward and backward give, his chest, stomach and waist all rotate separately but in cohesion, his hips are ball-jointed and his wrists, ankles, and even fingers and toes are all hinged. The ankles even have a little left-to right give. Overall it lives up to the Toybiz Marvel Legends reputation for quality levels of articulation and it's a very poseable figure. The cape can make him a little back-heavy at times but once it's against the ground it can actually help his stability and the Sentinel stand also has pegs to plug into his feet, as well as generally giving a good surface for posing.
Magneto's a timeless and extremely important character from Marvel comics and this is a toy which lives up to the legacy of such a popular and significant personage. As I say it's a little rare now, but if you're a big Magneto fan and you can get your hands on one I definitely recommend it. I think it's a shame these toys are so rare and that they go out of production so quickly. Nonetheless I'm glad to have such a cool character on the old shelf. Magneto's a good guy at the moment of course, so there are a few X-Men titles like Uncanny X-Men and X-Men Legacy you can pick up if you want to see him operating as a hero. He really needs his own title.
Some people think that Magneto's age and his conversion to heroism after a career of outdated terrorism and violent subversion have caused him to lose his relevance as a character. While I think there's a point to it, personally I think that as long as prejudice and discrimination endure, and as long as people are frustrated and victimised to the point of desparation and isolationism Magneto will still mean something. Bouts of heroism can make him seem like a toothless tiger but maybe Cyclops' more ruthless team of X-Men will let us appreciate these issues as the dilemmas of protagonists, and Magneto will be a vital component. Regardless, he's always an interesting character for his own sake, and he sure looks cool on the shelf.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Classic Literature, the Western Canon and Other Boring Texts

Let's take a break from the pop culture for a sec to talk about boring fiction. Whoops, did I say "fiction"? No, of course it's "literature". Literature is a special term used in the increasingly-irrelevant circles of academia which I tentatively intend to enter to describe texts which are so unbelievably boring that you get to wear it as a badge of pride if you manage to get to the end. At this point of course you go on about how amazing or profound the book was to make yourself feel better and make other people feel like idiots. I'm going to lay down on some canonical, classic and generally literary texts I've read and tell you want I think.

James Joyce, Ulysses
This is as boring as hell. Joyce deliberately wrote it to troll English academics, so I can never understand why people act like it's so brilliant. It has some good bits, especially the parts involving Stephen Daedalus, and the earlier Leopold Bloom stuff which can be quite clever at times, but the whole way through it's incredibly difficult to follow what's going on and as the style becomes more and more unconventional the later chapters are virtually unreadable and meaningless unless you're actually prepared to sit down and write an essay about it explaining it to yourself. It's part of a horrible vicious cycle where inscrutable prose feeds criticism which feeds even more inscrutable prose with the intention of bewildering critics even further in perpetuity. People love to go on about the final stream of consciousness section from Molly Bloom's point of view as she allegedly pleasures herself and how life affirming it is and so on but I think that's a load of wishy-washy feel good hippy nonsense. The whole think draws parallels to The Odyssey with a will towards depicting the life of an average middle-aged man living a boring life in a boring part of the world as equally heroic but that's complete rubbish, real life isn't heroic at all, it's just boring and stupid, unless somehow getting through the day in 1912 Dublin was some kind of heroic achievement, which wouldn't surprise me if all they did was attend funerals and bicker all day and only had this kind of stuff to read. To end on a positive note, though: Daedalus' "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," is a great idea. Shame we didn't get more of it.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land etc.
It's a poem, so it's nice and short, even if it's like a "modern epic", which it isn't because as I say it's too short. You're going to need someone with a good grasp to explain some of the details to you but once you get to it I think it's a jolly good poem. It has some rather nice phrases and it doesn't have any of this life affirming nonsense. It's all about impotence and infertility and degradation and death. Sure, it's the fault of Eliot and his contemporaries that twentieth and twenty-first century "serious" literature is overcomplicated, meandering and pretentious but at least he did it well, unlike his numerous imitators. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a similar deal, as is most of the stuff from that period. His later serious poetry isn't so good, but the poems about cats are kind of amusing.

W.B. Yeats's stuff
Personally I prefer Yeats to Eliot, I find his blend of Romanticism and Modernism to be interesting, and I think it has a little more heart to it than Eliot. Obviously his infatuation with Maud Gonne informs a lot of that and personally I think Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is the best example, but his writing dealing with old age such as Sailing to Byzantium is also very good. He just writes phrases and rhymes that sound good in your ear as well as having a rather strong mastery of imagery. Some of the more First World War focused writing can be a little turgid but mostly I think he's a standout poet of the time.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying etc.
Man, Faulkner is so boring. Almost everything of his I've read has been about the horrible grotesqueness and perversity of the American Deep South and people leading deeply disturbed and unpleasant lives in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County he invented. There are always about a million characters, even in the short stories it takes forever for anything to happen, and his rendering of local dialect and accent can be frustrating. A lot of it's quite powerful and confronting but it's also usually quite dry. I find it surprising to think that he was basically a hack who wrote for profit yet his writing, which to me seems incredibly niche in its appeal, was successful enough to make him a living. I think it's a matter of context, which I will get to.

UPDATE in 2015
I wouldn't pay too much attention to the next one. While I still think objectivism isn't as "evil" or "morally repugnant" as a lot of its critics claim, I do think it's a foolish totalising ideology which tries to do too much and appeals too greatly to people with massive chips on their shoulders who want to blame other people for their shortcomings (ironically, given that it's meant to be about self-interest and self-reliance). Ayn Rand's novels are certainly not worth discussing in the context of important Western literature (they only come under the "boring texts" heading of this article) and her views do not constitute a genuine philosophy or workable theory of economics, just the hobby of an escapee of Soviet socialism reacting to that totalitarian disaster in an understandable, but misguided, way.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged
Interesting ideas, poor execution. While The Fountainhead has its moments, I felt let down by Atlas Shrugged, which was more like a diatribe than a novel. It's far too long, the main protagonist is completely unlikeable and John Galt works far better as a symbol than a real person. The message is far from subtle; the dastardly "Looters" who want an easy life without having to do anything to earn it are trying to tear down the successful, utopian business ideals of objectivist supermen Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden and so on, and in one of the last chapters John Galt just spells it out for everyone in an interminable radio broadcast. Personally I don't have a problem with Objectivism; it's a nice theory, like Communism, but would never work in practice. I think a lot of its more hysterical detractors are the people Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead attack - those insecure people who mischaracterise independent success and achievement as really the product of sadistic exploitation out of envy and spite. It's just not an especially good novel in terms of pure storytelling and characterisation. Why do all three of the objectivist protagonists have to be in love with Dagny, as well as poor old Eddie Willers, who felt like the only sane man in the entire novel otherwise and who was my favourite character. The Fountainhead has better moments, especially in the first half, but the character's motivations are inscrutable, it does some pretty unsatisfactory work justifying rape as desirable and the ending is unbelievable hogwash. I don't care how eloquent you are, you could never get off scot free in court after blowing up a building just because people mucked about with the design. I do think the architecture angle is really creative though. Is Rand really even canonical? It's a matter of conjecture, I imagine. I still wanted to talk about her, so there you go.

Henry James, What Maisie Knew
This is another case of "good ideas, unbelievably boring writing." The story's clever enough: young  Maisie's parents get divorced, she's shunted between both parents who hook up with new partners, these rebound relationships eventually collapse, the new partners who've looked after her more than her own parents get together, her actual parents drift away, and she ends up essentially having two step parents who are irresponsible socialites and no real parents.  Her nanny takes care of her, don't you worry. It's a pretty harsh condemnation of the exploitation of children in adult affairs, particularly the machinations and power-plays of marriages and relationships. It's a shame the writing is so turgid.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The entire time I was reading this I was thinking "good heavens this is dull." But as soon as I'd finished it, I thought "that was really good!" Cynical boat captain Marlow travels up the Congo to find the mysterious and sinister Kurtz, who represents the hypocrisy of "civilized" Europe establishing itself in barbarous tyranny in colonial regions, particularly Africa. It's very atmospheric, it's very moving, and it's very short. Not too pacey, though. My memories of it tend to get muddled with, of all things, The Call of Cthulhu, because both end with the protagonist visiting the wife of a dead European explorer. Nonetheless it's worth a read.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Gatsby is a good novel. I know I certainly like it. It's funny and incisive and in my opinion manages to imbue itself with the glamour and razzle-dazzle of Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age" while it brutally tears it apart. You all know the story: noveau-riche war hero Jay Gatsby is trying to win back the heart of his old flame Daisy by throwing huge extravagant parties and appealling to what is his only chance of success: Daisy's (and society at large's) abject shallowness and superficiality. Narrator Nick Carraway, who I personally always thought was the best character, gets tangled up in the whole mess. It's very zeitgeisty, if I may employ the term, depicting the irresponsible and frivolous Roaring Twenties with a condescending but occasionally affectionate mockery and warning against living in the past. Like most of the authors I've praised rather than derided here, Fitzgerald knows how to pen a neat phrase.

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
This one's all right in my opinion. Catcher is never going to be my favourite novel (a spot reserved for The Hobbit, the pinnacle of human literary achievement), but I think it's a worthy text. There are two camps for Catcher: those who think Holden Caulfield is just a whiny teenager who would probably forget all his dilemmas once he was a few years older, and those who think Holden is them, and are concerned with how deeply they relate to him. Personally I think both are missing the point a fair bit. Everyone has problems growing up. I think it's a pretty universal message. I think we should pity Holden, and pity ourselves a bit at the same time, because while his ideas seem nice they're unrealistic. But that's the whole point. He's not a whiner, he's just giving voice to the struggles of maturation, but he's not you either, he's not some kind of postmodern superman who's got a real grip on how the world really works. He's just as confused as any of us. Maybe that's why we should feel sorry for him.

Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Read this novel. Exemplifying the idea that war is hell and that cameraderie and personal friendship are far, far more real and valuable than politics and the squabbles of nations and faceless governments, this is valuable in my opinion not only because it gives such a bold account of realities on the front line but because it's written from the German perspective in the First World War and as such is a diversion from the "written by the winners" World War Two content we get from Hollywood and so on. No one really won in the First World War, did they? It's very powerful and very readable. I've only read it in translation, of course, but even so I thought it was great. It manages to instill a variety of horrific and happy moments. It's powerful in encompassing a variety of experience.

Marcel Proust, The Way By Swann's
Good grief. This is another one I've only read in translation, and in a rather haphazard fashion, and while I wouldn't say that it's boring per se it's nonetheless not very readable. The story of Proust's first volume in his seven part colossus is meandering and tangential and the thought processes and motivations of its two protagonists, the eponymous Swann and the youthful narrator Marcel can be very difficult to relate to. That being said its ideas about the recurrent, cyclical nature of time and the eternal value of art over the seemingly-important but ultimately hollow folly of love, infatuation and attraction are rather poignant insights into the true sources of beauty and powerful emotion. Interesting stuff, but not to be read lightly.

George Orwell aka Eric Blair, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm
Two satires of totalitarian regimes. Two very different novels. Are they both successful? I think so. Animal Farm is doomed to be the lesser of the two works since it focuses on funny animals whose porcine leaders manipulate a utopian socialist ideal of peace and equality into a rule-changing Stalinist nightmare. It calls itself a "Fairy Tale", which a surprising number of people don't seem to understand as an ironic statement about either itself or fairy tales in general, and is relatable in a number of ways to historical events and characters in Soviet politics. It's a nice allegory but a little unsubtle for my tastes. Nineteen Eighty-Four is obviously the dominant work not only due to the lack of funny animals but also because it is more philosophically creative. It's not just another attack on Soviet dictatorship. It's an attack on wilful ignorance, on letting the powerful exploit our perception of the truth, and on submissiveness to degradation, interference in our personal lives and the adoration and worship of figureheads. It's an attack on human nature as a whole: society is nothing but the powerful, who crave power for its own sake and gain it through fear and hatred, and the powerless, who are stupid, cowardly and ultimately defeatable. My one criticism would be that this isn't always portrayed with the greatest subtlety. While I personally enjoy the metafictional passages from Goldstein's book, I think they suffer from a cases of showing, rather than telling. O'Brien's diatribe at the end is similar. Perhaps these concepts are just too awful for us to understand or imagine without them being spelled out for us. Orwell constructs the perfect totalitarian state where people are oppressed by rulers who may not even exist and who give up so much of their agency that they effectively let their superiors control the very fabric of reality. It's a confronting and disturbing read, but enjoyable nonetheless. Let me make clear that something doesn't have to make you happy for you to enjoy it.

Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
A contemporary of Fitzgerald who I imagine is a rather obscure figure outside of academic circles, his final novel is an even more brutal assault on the shallow Hollywood cinema culture of the thirties than Gatsby is on the ritzy New York party scene of the twenties. Budding artist turned set designer Tod Hackett is out to win the affections of flighty wannabe actress Faye Greener, a character who makes Daisy Buchanan seem deep and wise. Muddled up in these events is the bumbling Homer Simpson who exemplifies the persistence of trauma even in an apparently "peaceful" setting. Ending with a borderline-apocalyptic riot which is part celebrity-induced rapture and part hysterical outrage it paints a picture of cinema culture as akin to animalistic savages operating on mindless lust. The film adaptation is good too, especially as a film attacking the cinema industry, with the pre-World War Two context seriously amped up.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five etc.
My personal preference is for Breakfast of Champions but Vonnegut is generally pretty reliable for his science fiction novels which are communicative without being preachy and humorous without being silly. Slaughterhouse-Five juxtaposes the trauma of war to a man who is constant reliving the events of his life in no particular order; the idea of past, present and future is meaningless - they are all happening at the same time. The other big Vonnegut novel, Cat's Cradle, satirises scientific ignorance; using weapons without thinking of the consequences and failing to learn, from the mistakes of the past or of safer scientific knowledge. Some of the earlier work, like The Sirens of Titan, is a bit slower going, but it still gets the job done. Vonnegut is clever and entertaining and reliable, and should be lauded for exemplifying intellectually and technically significant genre writing.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
Hollywood would have you believe that Swift just wrote a kid's story about a man who goes to one place where everyone's tiny and another where they're all huge. What he's really writing is a multifaceted satire of both his own society and the age of exploration, where people could go anywhere and write whatever fantastic nonsense they dreamed up and people believed it was true. Lilliput and Blefuscu satirize the conflict between England and France and the Protestant/Catholic divide, while Brobdingnag is an attack on the militaristic practices of the European powers. The third section is usually glossed over despite covering some of the most interesting imaginary locales, such as the magnetically levitating Laputa which depicts the scientific elite as out of touch with reality. The final, and most disturbing, section of the piece is the voyage to Houyhnhnmland, the island of talking, intelligent horses, where humans have been reduced to the vile Yahoos. Here we have total instinct and emotionless intellectuality pitted against each other to the ruination of Gulliver's sanity with ultimately a misanthropic outlook on human behaviour. It's not the easiest read by modern standards but I went into it under facile misconceptions and emerged altogether more impressed.
William Shakespeare (his plays, obviously)
What you have to remember with Shakespeare is that his plays were the populist trash of their day, performed for crowds of undiscerning commoners just as much as they were for the aristocracy. It's for this reason that I think a double standard exists. There are obviously numerous Shakespeare plays which are well-crafted, memorable and meaningful, like Hamlet and King Lear, but it was still the mass entertainment of its day. Well put-together mass entertainment, for sure, but still intended to be crowd-pleasers. You'd never see its modern equivalent lauded to the high heavens like Shakespeare is. You have to take time to be able to understand what he's saying considering how much language has changed but it is good stuff even to read and perform. I think most of it is quite good, especially the tragedies, but I do think maybe it has been overemphasised and overanalysed.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
These are classics and obviously very culturally significant but I'm not sure if you'd find an academic who thought that they were very artistically credible. That's a shame because I think Sherlock Holmes is the best detective fiction of all time and if it tells us anything it's that it takes a very unusual way of thinking to deal with criminals with the utmost success. There are four novels and numerous short stories of varying quality but mostly they're all very readable and usually extremely interesting.

I could go on but I give up. Obviously there is, in my view, both good and bad literature to be found in the canon and among classics but really I think it's as divisive for the literati as it is for me. Some of these I've read voluntarily, like Gatsby and stuff I read as part of my education and intend to never read again, like Ulysses. Some stuff I've read "under duress" I've gone on to really appreciate, like Remarque. Some stuff I've picked up voluntarily has disappointed me, like Atlas Shrugged. I'm not all about dragons and aliens with laser guns but they help; Vonnegut is the standout example here because he's the science fiction writer. "Genre literature" as some people would dismissively call it is readable because of its elements of unreality. They make it interesting. Reading about the horrid lives of ordinary people may be very thought-provoking but it can be a struggle. I always find it's best when the context is from an interesting period of history, like The Day of the Locust. Again, I think it's a matter of context, like I said in regards to Faulkner. Tastes change, and while people allegedly don't and the most successful literature will always be that with a universal message, that doesn't mean that narratives mired in drudgery and the greyest parts of society will appeal to me. I suppose I don't really understand how someone could enjoy some of this stuff but I guess it's a matter of taste. But people shouldn't dismiss stuff which is popular, like Harry Potter and so on, any more than they should ignore something traditionally praised but incredibly dull, like Dickens. At the end of the day I think people are desiring more and more to be entertained and nothing more; as I've said before this trend is going to be hard to curtail but we could at least sneak a message in there somewhere. Hybridise the intellectual and affective components of creative work. I worry that the "canon" is seen as increasingly irrelevant to people outside of academia, and brainless entertainment is always going to be easier to watch or read that "serious art" which is unconcerned about its entertainment value. I think the answer is diversity. So if you're going to be reading about the adventures of awesome guys like Captain America or the Doctor, check out the adventures of Jay Gatsby or Winston Smith, too, and vice versa. If you're into the classics, read a comic or see a Hollywood film. Watchmen or Indiana Jones, perhaps. Otherwise we're going to end up with a vast majority who don't give a damn about the culturally significant texts of the past, and an academic community who is reading and writing for no one but themselves and is completely out of touch with what culture has become as experienced by most people. Read around, but believe me, I won't judge you if you think the space ships and Dwarves are more interesting.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"A Game of Thrones"

It's all right.
People have been going on a lot about A Game of Thrones lately. I'm talking here about the novel, not the TV adaptation which I haven't seen and which sounds like the usual HBO exploitative pseudo-art which makes people who just like seeing lots of sex and violence pretend that they're engaging in something deeply intellectual and sophisticated. But I wouldn't want to judge it prematurely. Anyway, I'd heard word that the first novel in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series was the absolute cat's pyjamas so with the resultant klaxons and alarm bells blazing in my head, a healthy dose of scepticism and a dubious look on my face, I purchased the aforementioned tome and gave it a read.
Now I'm not going to suggest, as might be expected, that A Game of Thrones is a bad novel. It's certainly above average. I'm just not entirely sure why it's getting the rave amounts of praise that it is. It's more or less a similar situation to the one I found with "The Way of Kings" except that Martin's novel is actually interesting, unlike Sanderson's unfortunately overwrought work. Prepare to groan, however, for I am going to attest wholeheartedly that it is nowhere as good as, yes, you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. The reason I say this is because due to the human predilection for bigging things up by putting other things down in lieu of stronger evidence A Game of Thrones has been getting a lot of favourable comparisons over The Lord of the Rings. I've always been of the opinion that you don't big something up by putting other stuff down; that doesn't hold any water in my book. So partially this is a correcive; frankly if you think Tolkien's writing is too boring or stodgy then the more's the pity because you're excluding yourself from a unique and powerful style and aesthetic. Martin's stuff is a bit more by the numbers.
We're presented with Westeros, a sort of extended England being ruled over by a relatively typical feudal heirarchy. In the North we've got House Stark, home of several of the protagonists, and down South are their scheming Machiavellian nemeses, House Lannister. There are a number of Houses all over the place with fingers in various pies. What do you suppose this entails? If you guessed "lots of bickering, court politics and civil war" then you'd be right. Basically a good deal of it is medieval drama in an imaginary world. It's not presented in a boring way but I'd be lying if I suggested that it came across as the most fresh or original set of concepts in the world. I'm pretty sure every Fantasy author and his wolf has had a point at which their big epic diverted into medieval politics for some reason. Just to ram the point home, let's pick, say, the Tolnedrans from The Belgariad. Yep. Just compared "A Song of Ice and Fire" to David Eddings. Problem, fanboys? Too bad comments are disabled, huh?
Of course we do get some juicy snippets of more interesting stuff on the horizon. Over a giant wall of ice to the North dwell the Others, necromantic wintery horrors who clearly want to overthrow the world of Men at some point, and far away in the East we hear about the Shadow and the lands from which dragons once came and so on. However this is just volume one in what is already a five-part and apparently going to ultimately be a seven-volume series, so don't expect to see much of the supernatural in this instalment, oh no. Apart from some undead shenanigans, all we get is an appearance by the Others at the very beginning and one by Dragons at the very end. Most of the rest of it is given over to innumerable nobles squabbling and having power struggles. It's interesting that Mormont, the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch who guard the Wall, notes that really worrying about the Others and the oncoming Winter should be everyone's primary concern and that who's king doesn't mean a damn when murderous fiends are probably to be soon on the rampage and it kind of feels like Martin's altogether aware that the series is currently dealing with the boring and stupid bits just to make us understand how people can have bad priorities or a lack of perspective at times.
That being said I did appreciate the fact that the novel presented a reasonably realistic medieval society. For instance there are very few genuinely old people, medicine is incredibly limited and woman are hardly empowered. Another thing I appreciated is that the battle scenes are generally brief or occur elsewhere. Martin doesn't give us drawn-out titillating video game action sequences, only sporadic impressions of the genuine horror and pointlessness of life-or-death combat. One thing I will quibble about is that considering the issues at stake and content I rapidly despaired of how many of the third-person narrators or perspectival characters were children. Children are almost always annoying as points-of-view and many of Martin's kiddies are no exception, although they do permit some disturbing moments such as when youngster Bran stumbles upon a scene of rather grotesque incest or when Sansa ends up being used in the power-plays of the Lannisters, which while a slightly worn narrative conceit is nonetheless effective enough in portraying Martin's exploration of the possibilities of human viciousness.
Eddard Stark, the father of the kids, is a boring, humorless, honour-bound character like so many tedious Fantasy protagonists but he is executed towards the end so that's something. The best characters were the bastard Jon Snow and the deformed prince Tyrion Lannister. As outsiders they both relieved a lot of the mundanity of the plot and provided something more than rather dry medieval narrative, especially since almost all of the overtly 'fantastic' elements were consigned to the side-narrative about Dany set on the continent of Estos over the sea. One thing I found frustrating was the fact that significant portions of the Estos narrative were not covered in the maps provided and at times it was difficult to assess where in the world these events were happening relative to the main story.
The Dany plot is more of this "having to grow up too fast" type thing which seems to be a big part of Martin's intent. At the most superficial way I'd suggest that he's interested in depicting how politics, the "game of thrones", brooks no room for innocence, mercy or honour, and that the squabbling of factions over the niceties of control is at best the pursuit of a hollow goal and at worst an idiotic distraction from far bigger problems which will occur regardless of who's in charge. In that regard I suppose the novel is successful. Its darkness is of the human kind. It's confronting and unpleasant and doesn't pull very many punches. That being said the problem with such seriousness is that it often isn't especially engaging, and being dragged through the mud alongside the characters may be as cathartic as King Lear but that doesn't make it a fun journey. Similarly the argument is hardly original or fresh; everywhere you look you can see the mercilessness and stupidity of politics being satirised, but I suppose this is just bringing it to a new generation of numbskulls who think this kind of stuff is the apex of literature. The dreariness of the setting, theme and characters is effective but at the same time occasionally quite exasperating. I can't imagine how it could ever be enough to sustain a series of so many long novels.
I guess that's my biggest quibble. Why do all these "game changing" Fantasy works always have to be these massive epics? At no point in A Game of Thrones is an overarching story connecting to future instalments ever established. It's all just side-narrative, set-up for something involving either the Others or Dragons or both which I have to assume will happen at some point later in the series. It's really hard to argue for the value of Fantasy in artistic terms when it becomes unpleasantly evident that it's about grinding out as many novels as possible, the through-plot stretched wafer-thin, to make as much cash as can be had. Obviously The Wheel of Time is the prime offender but I think it's a blight which afflicts the genre as a whole. Everywhere I look people like Martin, Feist, Brooks and Goodkind are constipating through these enormous series of epics, and as trite as it seems to go back here they'll never achieve anything on the level of Tolkien, who, comparatively speaking, understood the importance of brevity and conciseness, and who knew when to stop. Even Pratchett, who has churned out countless novels, has them reasonably short, pithy and self-contained. What precedent is there for this kind of long-windedness in the world of serious literature beside À la recherche du temps perdu? The best examples of science-fiction are normally the short, punchy ones. Why do Fantasy authors never do the same?
Regardless, I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss A Game of Thrones but I do think that, much like The Way of Kings, it is absurdly overrated. While effective in its point that point is hardly fresh. The story is slow, plodding and often quite dull, the characters are often frustrating more than anything and it really doesn't innovate nearly as much as people like to suggest. It's not as overtly trashy as some Fantasy, but it's still trash. It's not bad trash, but it's still trash. Martin may make things a bit darker and more "realistic" than some Fantasy but he's still ultimately cavorting with the likes of the late David Eddings and the equally late Robert Jordan. It's an okay novel but I just can't fully express how overrated it is. Then again the Philistines who give voice to our culture wouldn't know any better. Read it if you've got nothing else to do and want a Fantasy that will bring a slightly thoughtful frown to your face but if you don't then you're not missing anything.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It is said that for every series there is a definitive instalment. For Star Wars it's The Empire Strikes Back. For The Legend of Zelda it's Ocarina of Time. For Harry Potter, it's Prisoner of Azkaban. And, although I haven't played it, I'm led to believe that for The Elder Scrolls series, it was Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls is one of those series with a rabid, cretinous fanboy following that considers everything Bethesda Softworks produces to be flawless and divine despite how much they dumbed down Fallout and the fact that Oblivion was okay but hardly amazing. I bet most of them haven't even played Arena or Daggerfall, the first two Elder Scrolls titles. I know I haven't, apart from a dabble at Daggerfall, but then again I'm not an Elder Scrolls fan. My point is that people have been going on about Skyrim ever since its announcement like it was going to be the best thing ever and begin the apotheosis of the human race and so on and frankly it's this kind of irresponsible sycophancy which motivates me to write reviews like this.
Skyrim is a fun game. I'm even willing to say that Skyrim is a good game. More than willing, in fact. But it's hardly amazing. It's not a groundbreaking achievement. Sure it's big and the environments are pretty but it's hardly revolutionary. I'm not saying it has to be. I just think the hype games like this get is ridiculous considering how textbook they are, and it suggests that there's nothing more to be done. But there is more to be done! Anyway, let's talk Skyrim.
Skyrim begins with you being carted to your death for reasons unknown while people mutter about war. There's of course the clunky "Who are you, stranger?" bit where you get to customize your appearance. This wasn't as versatile as I would have liked, but we still get all of the Elder Scrolls' variety of human and Elf nationalities (including Orcs), Argonian lizard people and Khajiit tiger people. While I've always found the lizard and tiger people to be a bit silly I appreciated that the choice was there. I plumped, as I always did in Oblivion too, for a Dark Elf aka Dunmer, 'cause I think their blue skin and red eyes are cool. Once I had the obligatory long, pointy nose and slicked back hair I was ready to go. Thus began the adventures of Vanderalf, warrior, Dragonborn and general odd-job man for the citizens of Skyrim province.
As I say I feel like the face customisation was a bit limited although to be fair I was only trying on a Dunmer and for all I know it's better for other races. I have a couple of other problems with the main character. For a start, he doesn't talk. I know this is a role playing game and Bethesda want us to project ourselves into our custom protagonist, along with the fact that giving voices for both sexes of all the races for such a big game would be enormously time consuming and potentially limit the sense of immersion but frankly I think this is a mixed bag. I've always thought that having everyone talk except your guy who just selects words which people understand you to have said but don't actually hear creates a frustrating sense of unreality. Consider Bioware RPGs (another disgustingly overrated franchise): Shepard in Mass Effect has a fairly strong sense of character due to full voice acting. The Warden of Dragon Age: Origins doesn't speak, and so feels like something of a cypher. It didn't matter so much back in the days of video game RPG origins when no one had voices but these days having everyone but the main guy talk feels weird. Hell, Lucasarts understood as early as 1987, back when they were still called Lucasfilm Games, that even when you couldn't hear the voices having your guy actually speak contributed a great deal to a sense of realistic pacing and character interaction. I know having the player character's dialogue unarticulated is an Elder Scrolls tradition but I think it spoils the sense of internal reality a little bit. Even having the guy actually say the dialogue as it's written in the choices is fine; in fact I prefer that to the modern thing which occurs in Mass Effect and, to go back to Lucasarts properties, Tales of Monkey Island, in which the dialogue choice selected is only an approximation (sometimes not even that) of what the character actually says. This is a problem in Mass Effect because it can feel like you're not expressing what you intended. It's a problem in Tales because a lot of the funniest options were selectable but not spoken. Regardless, I think if Bethesda really wants to give us a sense of total immersion the hero really needs to talk, especially when 'Speech' is a skill. I want to hear my guy's silver tongue in action! Besides, one of the gimmicks of the game is your ability to shout magical gibberish in the 'Dragon tongue'. The only time you get to hear your guy speak is when he's shouting nonsense at enemies.
This brings me to the other gripe I had about the player character with the way you're integrated into the story. You're not just a guy swept up in events, you're a 'Dragonborn', some kind of super dude who can steal the magic of dragons or something to give you these 'shouts' where you quite literally shout in the 'ancient tongue of dragons' as it were for magical benefit. While I don't mind some funny dragon powers what annoys me is when you're the 'chosen one' or protagonist by divine right. It's just not as interesting as seeing what happens when an ordinary person gets swept up in events and can feel constraining at times. Granted, this is in a game with few constraints, but I'd still like to play as some kind of agent provocateur who was just an average guy who decided to basically go on an adventure for the hell of it.
Anyway you're saved from execution by a dragon attack and go on the run to discover why dragons are returning to Skyrim. Clearly something is afoot in the midst of Skyrim's civil war between those who support the Empire and those who desire Nord independence. You're free to go and hoon around the place as you please, however. I tried to do a mix of both. Well, that's not strictly true. I mostly let the main story go hang and ran around doing odd jobs for the residents of Skyrim, which with alarming regularity seemed to involve venturing into innumerable Barrows full of undead warriors and each ending with a special magic wall on which a new Dragon magic gimmick word was located. I actually found it quite disappointing how repetitive this was, and if the quests didn't send you to barrows then more often than not it was to some cave or semi-ruined fort in the middle of nowhere overrun by bandits or monsters or evil wizards or some combination upon that theme.
There are a fair share of nice unique quests though, like investigating a series of murders in a spooky lighthouse up at the very North of the world, obeying the commands of a disemboided voice which utters from a stone you can find or leading an angry torch-wielding mob to a vampire's lair. That being said, an awful lot of quests also involve people saying to you "item (x) which I want is in barrow/cave/ruin (y), please go find it for me and bring it back and I will give you money." By not especially far into things I had far more money than I knew what to do with and so much loot from visiting dungeons on fetch quests that I essentially bankrupted local economies by forcing the resident shopkeepers to buy absolutely everything I thrust at them, and even then I couldn't empty my inventory. Also, the NPCs which usually do have a decent amount of cash are the weapon sellers and they won't take half the junk I'm carrying around because it's not weapons or armour.
This problem can be alleviated somewhat by burdening your companion with gear. My housecarl, Lydia, begrudingly accepted whatever odds and ends I threw at her so that I wasn't so overwhelmed with luggage that I walked like I was going for a stroll on Jupiter. The problem with giving stuff to companions is that sometimes they start using it even if you don't want them to. They have invisible default weapons and armour which you can't remove or view in any way so it can be a guessing game to upgrade their gear and sometimes they'll use whatever you give them to carry simply because it's better than their mysterious default items. At one point Lydia insisted on shooting ice bolts at enemies with a rather weak magic staff instead of the hefty Dwarven battleaxe I'd given her and she ended up impaling me repeatedly while I was trying to fight. Then again when she wasn't attacking at range she'd frequently get in the way of my own hammer blows and get killed. Your companion can't die from enemy attacks, only be temporarily incapacitated until it's safe, but they can accidentally be killed by you while you were trying to kill a nasty. And this is in a game where you can't kill half the main NPCs because they're "essential" to the quest so you can't just go on a psychotic rampage and massacre the population. Yet you can accidentally kill your companion, permanently mind you, in combat with hostiles. Have fun reloading those save games.
Don't expect to develop a BioWare style rappor with your teammates either. I'd exhausted Lydia's dialogue options after the second time I spoke to her and following that she was just someone to make me jump when she knocked things over behind me in spooky barrow tunnels or to ask: "I wonder what's inside?" of caves we discovered. I'm fairly sure she also once asked this in regards to an open wardrobe. It wasn't helped by the fact that your companions always walk, so although I was galloping all over Skyrim on a mighty steed Lydia had to footslog it everywhere, often being left on the far side of the nation if I made good time. Unlike games like Red Dead Redemption which heavily incorporate horses as a core part of gameplay, your buddies don't ride horses. They just run behind you and get left in your dust. Your horse will have a tendency to go into combat with any foes you encounter on the road and either get itself killed or get scared and run away so that you have to spend time scrambling around in the eerie darkness looking for it since there's no horse call like in Red Dead or Zelda. You'd think a medieval Fantasy game would go to some trouble over the horses but no, they're basically just a very expensive speed boost which dies in agony if you run it off too many cliffs. You can't fight from your horse either so if you're pounding the long roads of Skyrim and you get attacked, you'd better believe that you're going through the horse dismounting animation before you can, in all likelihood, slay your waylayer in one hit, resume your steed and continue your journey.
This can become tiresome, especially due to the numerous wolves, bears, sabre-tooth tigers, killer walruses (not joking) and various other homicidal winter creatures which inhabit the land of the Nords. These will jump out at you mid-ride at a moment's notice and while you can usually outrun them it can be as frustrating to have them snapping at your heels as it can be to dismount and kill them. Of course you can fast-travel to places you have already discovered but I avoided this. These Elder Scrolls games are meant (and note the qualifier) to be all about immersion so I took Bethesda up on this and always chose the realistic route of travelling in real time rather than performing loading-screen teleportation. Unlike Oblivion you can't fast travel to the various major cities off the bat unless you pay to travel in a wagon so it does force you to be a bit more involved with your participation in Skyrim's direly underfunded public transit system. However as I've said it can be easy to lose your horse and at times I had to fast travel to the place I was already at to find him again because your companion and horse teleport wherever you loading-screen-teleport to no matter where in the game world they were before, a useful tool in the event that they are too stupid to follow your instructions and find themselves lost.
This does however autosave your game, which happens both regularly and not regularly enough. Any loading screen progression will save your game but otherwise saving won't happen unless a major quest event occurs. On one occasion I rode across much of the country and then up a high mountain in search of the ancient wise men who knew all about the power of gimmicky dragon language. Halfway up the mountain I was attacked by, appropriately enough, a troll, and the ensuing murder caused me to be kicked mercilessly back to my last saved game halfway through my laborious horse journey, which was enough to motivate me to take a break from Skyrim for a day or two. At that point I figured that despite how mighty Vanderalf clearly was he might need some exercise so I indulged in some of the aforementioned sidequests and levelled my character.
Levelling has either been refreshingly streamlined or bluntly dumbed down depending on your perspective in this latest Elder Scrolls instalment. I usually never have a clue what kind of stats are important in RPGs so I personally was rather thankful. Bethesda have more or less scrapped Oblivion's patented "rubbish" style class system with one heavily inspired by the Fallout franchise they have adopted, but minus the stat alteration. You do maintain the levelling of skills, however, like destruction magic or heavy armour or lockpicking, which through real-time practice become easier or more powerful. In addition, whenever your character increases a level, you pick a perk from one of these skills, like making two-handed weapons 20% more powerful or giving you the ability to bribe guards who may have noticed you intensely violating the law. The only other option you're given upon levelling up is to increase your overall supply of mana (for casting spells), stamina (for performing special attacks) or health (for not dying). No more indecisively chucking one point into every possible characteristic like 'charisma' or 'intelligence' or 'toughness' anymore, no sir. For someone like me who wanted to do things in a simple fashion on his first playthrough it was now a straightforward matter to allocate most of my upgrade currency on health, two-handed weapons and heavy armour, with sidelines in ever-essential Bethesda RPG skills like speechcraft and lockpicking. Lockpicking too apes the modern-day Fallout method rather than the Oblivion minigame, which makes things altogther easier for me to run around smashing heads in and stealing jewels.
At this point I ought to talk about the combat. If it hasn't already become obvious I chose a close-quarters focus, but there are no overt classes in the game. Rather, early on you find standing stones devoted to the warrior, the mage and the thief, which give you overall benefits to the relevant abilities for that style of gameplay. But! You can pick a new standing stone whenenver you want, and even find other ones secluded around the countryside for unique and unusual benefits. So it's more of an opt-in flexible class encouragement than a rigid class system, and it works. Despite spending most of his time clanking around in multiple layers of metal and bashing people's heads in with a hammer, Vanderalf could still cast a spell or two or stealth behind some cover if need be.
You can play the game in first or third person. I like to look at my guy while he's running around, so I picked third unless I needed to peer at something up close. I also much prefer third person on consoles, and first person on PC with a mouse and keyboard, and I was playing on Xbox 360 so third person was the way to go. You're not as up close and personal with the NPCs but it does mean that you aren't sticking your sword blade (but apparently not your hand) up in front of your face. It also meant I could see enemies behind me, although that often didn't help much as I flailed wildly hoping that hammer would meet flesh.
The NPCs both improve on and perpetuate some of Oblivion and Fallout 3/New Vegas's foibles. They still sleep above the sheets in their clothes, for instance, and sometimes get stuck on things, but they keep daily schedules, which is nice, and their faces certainly look a lot more realistic than that unsettling, slightly jowly and indistinct look everyone in Oblivion had. The way they're incorporated into quests can be quite good, leading you around or joining you in fights, and they tend to feel as real as can probably be expected. You can grab procedurally-generated bounty hunts from innkeepers, and local bards play music and sing songs, even if their lutes tend to magically appear out of thin air into their hands and sometimes they seem to be at the exact same point in a song when you wake up in the inn as they were eight hours ago when you went to bed. This can be especially awkward when you beat the innkeeper to the room before he can show you there and he ends up telling you to let him know if there's anything you need the morning after you've taken advantage of his facilities. It's still nice that they show you there, although I think that doing that once per inn could have been enough. That said, there are still far too few voice actors. At one point in the court at Solitude as I accompanied the gruff, American-accented head of the Bards' Guild, I overheard a nearby Thane with the exact same voice talk about the good of Skyrim's economy. This guy turns up all over the place as various races and stations with absolutely no consistency. The same is true of the generic Scandinavian guy, who voices the blacksmith in both of the major faction capitals, among numerous other NPCs. There are also an assortment of cockney Dark Elves, posh English-sounding Imperial women and Nord guards who all pronounce your armour's chief alloy as "shteel" in outrageously broad German accents.
I've used the term 'mana' somewhere in this review but actually your magic supply is "magicka". I like how series like The Elder Scrolls think that if you add a 'k' on the end of the word 'magic' it will be taken more seriously. It looks absurd. What else is absurd about Skyrim? Well for a start, you can join the Bard's Guild by revitalising a local festival in the city of Solitude, but once you are a bard all you do is mercenary work for the other bards, mostly by hunting down lost legendary musical instruments. You can't perform at inns for money or anything. I found that to be really disappointing. Why even have it as the Bard's Guild if it's just going to be another generic quest hub? I assumed it would at least give me somewhere to sleep so I didn't have to pay for an inn room but so far I haven't managed to find a bed for me in the guild either. To progress in the Companions, a guild of warriors, you have to become a werewolf and the procedurally-generated quests get locked off if you don't. You have to join the College of Mages to get access to part of a quest which has nothing to do with mages. The map is total cobblers, designed to just look pretty with real time weather, so you can't see the roads and it's easy to get lost. The story's pretty generic, but what do you expect from a genre that's been lamely riffing on what Tolkien did better for sixty years? The combat can be irritating when enemies run past you or you can't figure out where you're being attacked from, and it's a little simplistic, but I think it has an appreciable element of realism in the attack/block mechanic which I actually prefer to stylised World of Warcraft/Dragon Age style fights where it's about hotkeys and stats rather than striking and blocking in real time. So in that regard, what else is good about Skyrim?
Well you can save and load pretty much whenever you want, so you can avoid repeating difficult combats if you're careful, and change your choices in quest lines if things don't turn out how you like. There's a courier who's blatantly ripped off from the Postman in Zelda games, most noticeably Twilight Princess, who delivers letters to set you off on quests. You can get involved in funny incidents, like brawls in the city streets which, if you run from them, can cause you to end up with a trail of NPC onlookers following you everywhere. Although the gameplay for side quests is repetitive their storylines have a decent amount of variety and I certainly feel as if a laudable effort has been put into the game. The graphics of course are very nice; the scenery is infinitely more varied than that of Cyrodiil in Oblivion and it all looks very realistic. I do kind of wish for the return of realistically sized worlds like Daggerfall had, as ridiculous as that idea is. Some people complain about bugs in Bethesda games but apart from a bookshelf which seemed to eat my books rather than display them (and which I believe was fixed in a recent patch) I haven't had any problems. I didn't with New Vegas either, and people loved to whinge about that.
Skyrim is a good game but it's nowhere near as groundbreaking or ecstatic as people were acting like it was going to be, and are as of writing acting like it is. Sure, I've sunk hours into it but mostly because it's easy, not because my mind is being constantly blown by its numerous revelations about how to distill Tolkien pastiche even further and the merits of hacking native fauna to death in the undergrowth. None of this is Skyrim's fault, of course. It's just the fault of all the bloody idiotic people who go on about these big release games as if they're something totally amazing without any real justification beyond their own slavish conformity and desire to feel like the sixty bucks they spent were justified. Now if you gave me an open world game like one of these Bethesda titles, gave it the player character customisation, presence and voice acting, as well as NPC development, of a BioWare game, streamlined the gameplay with Rockstar's open world combat and travel mechanics, and gave it a story written by, I don't know, probably not some hack employed by the games industry, then there would be a game worth raving about. To be fair, it'd probably just become real life without any sense of genuine responsibility but that's one of the joys of video games.
I could go on further about Skyrim but it's just too damn big. If you want a huge, nice-looking time-sink with a reasonably gentle learning curve and a sense of becoming a mighty fantasy hero then this is the game to play. If you want something with a memorable and engaging story and characters you may wish to venture elsewhere. It gets the job done but outside fanboy bias it isn't going to change your world. It'd probably be more fun if it didn't take itself so seriously, which is a problem Bethesda had with Fallout 3 as well. On the other hand I've invested more than fifty hours into it so far and I'm not entirely sure why. But that's what it is - a game for people with too much free time. If you've got that, it'll be perfect, but in that regard it certainly doesn't elevate gaming out of a position of mere entertainment. I hope people realise that there's more which could be done.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"New X-Men" Volume 1 by Grant Morrison et al

Grant Morrison's controversial X-Men run begins with this volume, which I was recently afforded as a birthday present by m'colleague Kruger (thanks dude). It's not just a controversial comic, of course. Morrison's a controversial writer. He's divisive, and some people utterly despise his work as much as others revere it. I'm lucky enough to be in the middle ground. I think Morrison has delusions of grandeur to which he's not entirely entitled but at the same time I do find some of his work pretty enjoyable. Batman R.I.P., for instance, was a fairly innovative and intriguing Batman comic but a lot of it was Morrison running off the hype that Batman was going to die, which he actually didn't. He did at the end of Morrison's Final Crisis a short time later - actually no, he was just temporarily displaced in time. What I'm saying is that I think Morrison takes a bit of an inconsistent approach. He used his Animal Man run to bemoan the increased grittiness and "realism" of modern comics in the 80s, where people were confusing "realism" with violence and trauma, but at the same time he likes to inject a lot of his own works with intense violence, drug abuse, sexual deviancy, all this sort of exploitative stuff which wavers on the titillation scale between soap opera and snuff film. He likes to criticise Alan Moore for bringing darkness to comics but a lot of that he did himself.
Morrison, for instance, is the one who removed the X-Men from their amusing spandex costumes and derring-do and equipped them with black leather uniforms and stories of psychological abuse and grotesque violence, which is what we get in this X-Men run. He writes a good story, I'll give him that, but I think a lot of the stuff he purports to hate in modern comics he's either guilty of or had a hand in creating. He certainly doesn't approach it with the juvenile stupidity of Mark Millar or Frank Miller (these days) and his stories do approach unpleasantness from a more realistic angle than the degradation and perversity of something like The Dark Knight Strikes Again but I'm not convinced that he practices what he preaches.
Regardless, let's talk about X-Men. We're reduced to a small team in this series from the teeming numbers of mutants which were common in previous titles with a pretty textbook assemblage of Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine and Beast. They're joined by Emma Frost not too far into the story, and later by a mysterious figure called Xorn. But I'll get to that. Main antagonist du jour is psychic nutjob Cassandra Nova, who is apparently some kind of pre-natal psychic nemesis of Professor X given bodily form by his unusual mutant situation. She happens to be a genocidal maniac obsessed with destroying mutants for reasons which aren't readily apparent until we discover this "nemesis" aspect of her. She exists to try to destroy Charles' world.
With this in mind she swiftly sends a couple of big bastard mutant-hunting robot Sentinels to Genosha where Magneto is leading an isolationist mutant paradise. The Sentinels kill everybody with Emma as the only survivor. The X-Men seem to be in a pretty tight spot, so they go to Hong Kong for some reason I didn't quite understand and a bunch of human whackos start trying to harvest mutant organs and genetic material to make themselves into a "third species", calling themselves the "U-Men". It's interesting but don't expect anything too fun. It's heavy and contextual and trying to jump down the throats of as many discrimination, genetic engineering and human rights issues as possible. Oh, and Beast is a cat.
Beast's difficulties surrounding his physical changes are far from pleasant and it's a pretty confronting examination of the nature of extreme visual biological difference which is rather challenging if you're prepared to eschew the fun factor from your comics. It'd be tough being Beast; all the X-Men have to face problems, like Jean's Phoenix possession or Xavier's paraplegia but Beast is really out-there different and you can understand why he'd have more obvious social difficulties than the others, driven home when his date cancels on him. It can reach the point where he seems like a bit of a whipping boy but you can feel like he makes enough discoveries and has sufficient heroic moments that Morrison isn't just wailing on him.
One thing I will criticise is Frank Quitely's pencils, which occur in numerous issues. His characters are as ugly as hell and while it works for old guys like Xavier and ugly bastards like Wolverine, Cyclops often looks deformed with huge womanly lips and Jean and Emma, when they're not completely identical apart from hair colour, can end up looking like they're in their fifties. Some of the other artwork, however, such as that by the ever-reliable Ethan van Sciver, is very good. Much like Morrison's writing, the artwork is hit-and-miss.
Another criticism I'll make is that the plot is often difficult to follow. When action or a rapid progression of events take place often the comic jumps all over the place through settings and characters and the artwork doesn't help in making it any simpler to form some sense from what's going on. Insert bizarre alien characters like Empress Lilandra and it rapidly loses cohesion. The capture of Cyclops and Xorn, and their ensuing escape, the chaos Cassandra Nova causes in Lilandra's empire and the attacks the U-Men make on the school are all frantic set-pieces which often leave us to draw far too many of our own conclusions not in a thematic sense but rather in regards to what the hell is going on in the plot. I'm not saying it's incoherent but I think it could have been paced a little better. All these things give me the impression that Morrison's in the habit of having more ideas than he can actually get down on paper, and that maybe he prioritises his arguments over good storytelling at times.
None of this should be seen as a dismissal. The characterisation is good all 'round, and although I think writing out Professor X for so much of the plot weakened it a little, and that the "swapping minds with tbe bad guy" plot which caused this was awkwardly trite for such a self-proclaimed innovator as Morrison, it's a good read. If you're really after an unusual take on a very traditional super hero comic then New X-Men's definitely worth a look. Just don't expect a pleasant journey. Morrison, for all his protestations of Silver Age-adoration, is not interested in comics being fun. He wants them to be serious, and gruesome, and confonting. I can't blame him for that, because it's an interesting experiment, but in some ways I think he's missing the point. Perhaps he wants to challenge our preconceptions and entitlements about these characters but at the same time you can only do that so much before the inherently imaginary nature of, for instance, the X-Men makes any attempts at this kind of "gritty realism" seem increasingly absurd. At least he's given us the option, I suppose. Just don't necessarily expect to come away from it with a smile on your face. It's food for thought but it sure as hell doesn't taste good and that's part of the deal.
Oh, and I believe I was going to get back to Xorn. Well, I like him, and I'm led to believe that I may end up wishing that I didn't. We'll get to that once I've read the rest of Morrison's run...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DC Universe Classics: Blue Beetle and Booster Gold

As I've elaborated upon previously, I'm a fan of Justice League International. They're a quirky team who make super hero comics fun and are a nice diversion from the very serious comics you get elsewhere. Even Batman cracks the occasional joke in the pages of JLI. DC Universe Classics, or DCUC for short, are a line of very nice action figures in which several JLI characters have found a place. I first discovered DCUC when I saw their awesome Captain Cold figurine at the comic shop. I snaffled that bad boy up and before too long I'd discovered that there was a wide variety of characters available if you knew where to look. It was not long after that I read about the humorous friendship of Beetle and Booster while investigating the origins of Watchmen characters, Blue Beetle being the inspiration for Nite-Owl, and not long after happened upon DCUC Beetle and Booster at a convention. You'd better believe I nabbed those guys too.
So before I start talking about them individually, let me just give a little background on DCUC. As I've said, these are really nice action figures. They're 6" figures so they're a good healthy size. I like having 3D models of the characters from the pages of comics so they're good representations. They also have a lot of articulation, so places where their limbs and extremities can move like a real human being. They're bright and colourful and they re-use pieces in an effective way to give a sense of continuity, like comic characters drawn by the same artist. The unique pieces do a good job of making them stand out. So without any further ado, let's check out Blue Beetle.

Blue Beetle

I love Blue Beetle. Dunno why, I just think he's cool. He's the guy who brought the bwa-ha-ha to comics and he's consistently one of the funniest and most loveable characters of the Justice League International. The DCUC figure is certainly a fitting tribute. The costume looks perfect with the details painted on so that they don't stand out, just like in the comics. He's got a little scarab symbol on his right glove, the yellow buckle/clasp on his belt and the antennae symbols above his eyes. The paint is slightly different on his upper and lower legs but otherwise it's a good paint job with the colours just right. There's the occasional lump or flash line here or there but nothing serious or prominent. If you can overlook these guys blatantly having hinges in their arms and stuff you can overlook that. One of the best bits are his goggles. They're a clear amber plastic and you can actually see his eyes through them. It's a satisfying level of detail and I think it's very reassuring to see that even a lesser-known hero like Ted Kord gets this much attention lavished upon him.
As far as accessories go, Beetle comes with his classic "BB Gun" in a holster on his waist. It's a neat little accessory that gives him more options for when you're posing him on your shelf or fiddling around with him in general. It can be a bit of a wrestle at times to get the holster to close when you put the gun away but it fits pretty snugly and stays in place. He's got a rotating neck and shoulders, swivelling waist, upper arms, thighs and wrists, and hinged elbows, chest, knees and feet, with combination swivel/hinge hips so he's pretty poseable. He can run, jump, hold his weapon or just flex. He's not too buff or anything, a pretty medium superhero build as they go, which suits the character. He has open hands for holding his gun in either right or left, with his finger on the trigger. His face below the mask is all one colour but that's pretty standard, and he has a small smile on his lips which befits such a humorous character. All in all he's a good figure and if you're a JLI fan or a Ted Kord fan, or you just want to bring the bwa-ha-ha back to your shelf or display case, I'd definitely recommend hunting him down.

Booster Gold
Booster's Ted's buddy, and while I'm a bigger Ted fan I do enjoy Booster. He's a showboat turned genuine hero and generally a good guy needing an opportunity to prove himself. His DCUC figure certainly captures the showy aspects of his character. He's painted in metallic blue and gold, with the various divisions and symbols in the right places. He has collared wrists with the power blaster things on the tops of his hands and his classic disco collar from the 80s costume design. One thing worth noting is that Booster, traditionally a bright blonde-haired guy, has hair of a more light brown colour in this figurine, with sort of beige highlights. It's a bit weird but it doesn't really bother me. He probably doesn't look as definitive without the very yellow hair but he's still recognisably Booster. Like his friend Beetle he has translucent goggles, and through these you can see his eyes and his eyebrows. It's a nice touch. The paint is a little sloppy around the hair but it's pretty much the only place and negligible compared to the clean lines on his costume. His face is one colour like Beetle but he does have a little bit of a wry smirk going on which fits his nature.
Accessory-wise, Booster Gold comes with his robot buddy Skeets from the 25th Century. Skeets is swooping over Booster's shoulder with a yellow trail which conveniently plugs into a little slot on Booster's back. This stays in place pretty firmly. You can't remove it from Skeets to have him on his own but that's no big deal. I don't know where else you'd put him anyway. At least you can have Booster on his own because he has a lot of adventures without him. There is another detail worth mentioning, too. Booster is sculpted with the Legion of Super-heroes Flight Ring he pilfered on his right middle finger. It's a nice touch. Originally, this was meant to be Superman's ring which he'd brought back from the 31st Century and donated to the superhero museum so it's a very time-paradoxy ornament once Booster takes it back to the 20th Century again.
There's a variant Booster in the more modern costume without the collar and with a Skeets which opens to reveal surprisingly dangerous recurrent Captain Marvel villain Mister Mind. He's clashed with Booster a few times in more recent comics so if you're a fan of the more contemporaneous Booster the option's there. I prefer the 80s/90s Booster with the collar and normal Skeets because it fits with the JLI design I like. Booster's as poseable as Ted with as many opportunities for whacky hijinks implicit in his build. Some of the joints are a little stiff on mine but I doubt that would be a universal problem. As with Blue Beetle, if you're a JLI fan I would recommend him. I myself knew that I couldn't get Ted without him.
These are both great figures. One day I'd like to assemble a "definitive" JLI from DCUC toys but it's not possible yet. While we do have Martian Manhunter, Guy Gardner, Batman, Captain Atom and Mister Miracle and Big Barda, we still need key JLI members like Rocket Red, Fire and Ice and, if you're into the corporate side of things, Oberon and pre-retconned-into-villainy Maxwell Lord. I suppose it's worth mentioning that, both being parts of DCUC Wave 7, Booster and Beetle come with the left and right legs of Atom Smasher. So if you're into big, extremely obscure Justice Society characters, well, you know where to look.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

DC's New 52 Continued

Being fairly new to the single-issue-collecting game I wasn't aware of the concept of a "fifth week" in which comics don't get published. Imagine my disappointment when, upon checking the web for a reminder of which trashy superhero comics I had to pick up this week, there was nothing for DC at all. They like to release their comics once a week for four weeks of the month, and if there's an overlap, like the current half-November half-December week, they just don't publish. But that's a good time for a break. As I stated in my original roundup of the New 52 items I'd examined, I was going to wait until three issues in and then pass sentence. Well we're now officially three issues in for everything and the judge has taken the stand. I've picked up a couple more lines than I was collecting initally, so hopefully this will have a bit more variety than the last.

Action Comics
This is one of the good ones. I'm neither here nor there about Grant Morrison in general, and haven't read too much of his stuff, but he seems to know what he's doing with these tales of Superman's early career. We've been succinctly introduced to core supporting characters like Lois and Jimmy, as well as significant villains such as Luthor and, if the final pages of Issue 3 are anything to go by, Brainiac and Metallo. After some of the slightly dodgy pencils in Issue 2 we get back to business with the following instalment which lacks some of the weirder poses and faces which seemed to occur from Morales and Anderson sharing the pencil duties, although Lois still looks a bit odd. What I've appreciated in this story is the characterisation of Clark and his reporter activities. It gives us a good sense of this idea of Clark as the real guy and Superman as more his job. Definitely one to stick with.

Batgirl
Sometimes I feel like this and Nightwing are like "the crimes in Gotham that are beneath Batman." It's still interesting, though. Some whack job called Mirror is trying to kill off anyone who's ever had a miraculous rescue or lucky escape from death. Good thing Batgirl's on the case! While at times I think there's maybe a tad too much angst or insecurity from Barbara I suppose that's understandable for someone who's mysteriously been un-crippled and so far she's been a likeable character. It's been more of a character study than a mystery but I think it's been good for providing some solid characterisation for Barbara as Batgirl which she obviously received as Oracle but was never really bothered with back in the day when she was an easy target. The crossover with Nightwing was interesting but it made me think that maybe they'd work well as a team rather than getting antsy with each other. I can't believe I'm saying this with any kind of seriousness but the characters have good chemistry.

Batman
I think having to unearth Gotham's dirty laundry is starting to become all too common an activity for Batman. He's currently embroiled in a deadly investigation with the mysterious "Court of Owls" who allegedly rule Gotham from the shadows or something. Gotham has a hell of a lot of conspiracies in its past. The art's all right even if everyone has a chin like a shovel but sometimes Bruce Wayne, generic beefy Mayoral Candidate Lincoln March, random beat cops from the 1920s and helicopter-piloting art thieves all start to blend together. I'm curious to see where things go with this Court of Owls but I'm expecting a fairly generic twist, like that Bruce's ancestors were members or that Lincoln is a member or something. I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised but I've come to not expect too much from these sorts of ancient mysteries.

Batman: The Dark Knight
Some people have been saying that this is the worst Batman comic running at the moment but I think it's actually pretty good. Someone's been infecting Arkham's worst and wickedest with some kind of anti-fear toxin steroid thingie which turns them into fearless monstrosities until they pass out with strain. I'm curious as to whether the writers knew about the plot of Arkham City when they chose to have Clayface impersonating the Joker. Everything's bundled up with a mysterious woman in a rabbit outfit who no one else ever seems to see. It's suitably mysterious and I'm intrigued. Sure the rabbit woman is a bit over-sexualised and there's a side plot involving Bruce Wayne dating some skanky-looking woman with a ring in her nose but I can deal with a less jaded Batman in return for an interesting plot even if sometimes Bruce looks a bit like the werewolf dude from Twilight. Forbes' investigation into the Bruce Wayne/Batman connection will hopefully go somewhere because otherwise it feels like contrariness for its own sake in a world where the Commissioner accepts Batman's help. The team-up with the Flash in Issue 3 was completely pointless though, I don't know why they bothered bringing him in just to get rid of him again.

Batman: Detective Comics
This one's been a bit slow to get going. We know someone called the Dollmaker is chopping people up and stitching them back together like a hilarious jigsaw puzzle and I have a sneaking suspicion that Commissioner Gordon's had one of his vital organs removed and he hasn't realised yet but other than that there hasn't been too much detective work going on. In fact, apart from identifying the perp in the Batcave it's been more action than investigation. The creepy little girl was a rather predictable mole but I'm curious to see how Joker ties into all of this because he doesn't normally let himself just play second fiddle to some other villain. Bruce is hooking up with some busty woman here, too. Gets around a bit, doesn't he? Regardless, the plot hasn't developed too much so my main criticism is just that it's been a bit unengaging. We get enough freaks and bizarre villains in the other Batman stories. I'd prefer Detective Comics to be a more cerebral investigation of more realistic crime.

Batman and Robin
This has operated along slightly more predictable lines than I would have liked. Damian wants to go fight crime, Bruce says it's too dangerous, he turns his back and Damian goes off anyway. It's a pretty serious comic all round, with Batman's grim and sombre attitude contrasted to Damian's rage and ruthlessness. I feel like there's a more interesting relationship to be developed here than simply one of Batman accidentally spurring Robin to rebellion or at least disobedience in a rather generic protective-mentor fashion. The art's quite nice but I'm not exactly gripped by the plot yet. It's maybe a little too mired in the Batman Incorporated scenario which I didn't read. Still, having Batman and Robin share a title does inevitably break up the Batman comics somewhat so I'm still enjoying it in its own way.

Captain Atom
I wish this was better. It's just not very interesting. All this stuff of Captain Atom worrying about his power and its consequences was done long ago and better with his own facsimile, Doctor Manhattan, in Watchmen. It's not helped by the fact that whatever the big disaster is due to be, apparently involving animals mutating into hideous abominations, has so far not crossed into Captain Atom's own activities so far despite three issues. I do like the idea, though, that Captain Atom does the reverse Manhattan and just starts interfering in everything: war, disease, crime, disaster, you name it. Yet his angst over interfering in people's lives is a little wearisome. We live in an age of neurotic heroes who agonize over their powers rather than taking responsibility for them and it's just not a very effective way of discussing a point. Perhaps if Captain Atom got more dialogue with other characters it would work but he spends a lot of time alone, monologuing. The equally pointless cameo of the Flash in this story only serves to heighten the redundancy of the "Libyan Civil War" scenario which already seems dated in the wake of Gadaffi's defeat. That being said, I'll be curious to see this new development involving the army "reclaiming" Captain Atom. These guys sure know how to sucker me in.

The Flash
Poor Barry Allen. He's gone from being one of the stalwarts of the Silver Age to his new role as the Blandest Man Alive. I mean sure, he's quick and resourceful and likes saving people and fighting bad guys but beyond that he's lacking a lot of personality. Maybe he's a bit too much like his Silver Age counterpart in that respect, from the age of incredibly tame DC comics. At the moment he's embroiled in a struggle with an army of clones of some very old friend he never had before. He runs around and utters a lot of exposition. That's about it. I mean it's got lots of high-speed derring-do, which is nice, but the plot is a brisk jog away from being interesting. I think part of the problem is how much his supporting cast has been pared away. I mean sure, things were getting pretty convoluted before Flashpoint, but the "Flash Family" was a good set of characters, even if Barry spent a lot of time running away from them and being wilfully alone and mopey. Wally West seems to not exist, Jay Garrick is missing presumed absent and Bart Allen is somehow Kid Flash despite the continuity snarls this would suggest. I liked the idea of a sort of team of Flashes because they all worked well together but now Barry has no speedy buddies to talk to. The only survivors are partner revived from obscure continuity Patty Spivot, and former, now presumably future, wife Iris who so far has just been stuck doing a Lois Lane schtick. Let me put it this way: in Issue 3, the best bit was like two frames with Captain Cold in prison. I mean I like Captain Cold for a start but it was at least a reference to something intrinsically Flash-related that hasn't been chucked out the window. I worry from the art that he has been given cold-powers. Hope not. Anyway, I guess Flash can get a little continuity-heavy at times. I don't mind them going back to basics. I just think writers have struggled to update this very Silver Age character who was born of the days when strong characterisation wasn't so important and as a result he comes across as a bit dull. It's not helped by the boring plot. I just hope they get the Rogues in on the action soon. I'm sure they could bring a lot of flavour to the comic, flavour which already feels lacking through the soft art style.

Green Lantern
This one improved with time, possibly because once Hal and Sinestro were together we had the presence of Sinestro to mediate the Hal. Sinestro's a strong character who's been given a lot of depth and complexity, and seeing his awkward, even embarrassed response to being praised for rescuing humans or his concern over the safety of Korugar are interesting insights into his personality. His very philosphically-charged brand of arrogance is a strong counterpoint to Hal's more generic cockiness and tactlessness. The scene where Sinestro bursts into laughter before telling Hal that he is better than him was quite a curious moment. While I think Hal would work better as a hero if he was characterised as a more responsible and mature figure rather than a reckless goofball, his current personality does gel better with Sinestro and makes him seem like less of a simply arrogant villain. I hope Sinestro sticks around as co-protagonist for a while.

Green Lantern: New Guardians
They still haven't formed a dysfunctional crime-fighting team! As interesting as the concept is, New Guardians has so far become rather bogged down in recent Green Lantern lore which would have left me completely baffled were I not the kind of person who keeps up to date on these things using Wikipedia. How come recent Green Lantern and Batman lore happened despite Flashpoint but no one else's backstory was preserved? Anyway, Kyle's still being harassed by all these different rings and pursued by members of other Corps and the Guardians of Oa have begun to consider the Green Lanterns to be failures like the Manhunters before them and now want to create a third law enforcement army to replace them. Could be interesting, I just wish they'd hurry up. As much as I am frustrated by how the in thing at the moment seems to be turning the Guardians into total jerks simply to give Green Lanterns a lot of bureaucracy to deal with and authority trouble, I do like the idea of a third army. But mostly I want to see Kyle and these other Corps members getting up to hijinks. I enjoy the mix of characters but I want to see them have to start working together. It's a good idea so I want to see it manifested.

Justice League
This one's been a bit of a mixed bag. While I find Hal as written by Geoff Johns to still be pretty annoying, it does have much better characterisation for the Flash than he is getting in his own comic. The story still hasn't really got underway yet. Darkseid's trying to invade Earth but beyond that we're not getting much more than a drawn-out introduction to the heroes as the team assembles in such a way that new characters conveniently appear in moments of crisis as snappy cliffhangers. First it was Superman, and in Issue 3 Aquaman shows up. We've also had the introduction of Cyborg, who is a footballer with daddy issues. Don't know what else is going on there. It's a bit of a self-indulgent introduction so far, but as I say it has some good humour and decent characterisation. The plot's mostly just over-the-top action which can at times become confusing and difficult to follow but I guess there's so little to it that it doesn't matter that much. I just wish, as with so many of these comics, that they'd hurry up.

Justice League International
Bring back Ted Kord! Anyway, this one's been a bit of a fizzer so far. The second issue was okay but the third was a bit dull. There are a bunch of big robots beaming something to some bad dude in space who looks a lot like Mongul but isn't. The thing is, Justice League International was originally a "funny comic" but now it's just a bunch of B-graders mucking around with Batman. The fact that there's no Blue Beetle for Booster to swap jokes with, the absence of other funny characters like Mister Miracle and Captain Atom from before he was angsty, as well as Martian Manhunter, make it a little bland. It feels like they just want to make a Booster Gold comic but sell it on the nostalgia value of the old JLI series but without the humour and the overt silliness of the plots. If they'd kept more of the politics in it might be more valuable but I think after the Cold War there just isn't a sufficiently interesting political situation in which to ground the series' more serious elements and it comes across as just another generic costumed romp.

Nightwing
Dick Grayson's gone back from being Batman to his better-known persona but as with Batgirl it feels more like he's just the guy dealing with the stuff too small for Batman to handle. There's some kind of conspiracy involving the Haly Circus where he grew up, which is donated to him to manage by its dying owner. He's also being stalked by a costumed nasty called Saiko who claims that Dick Grayson is some kind of evil monster. He also meets an old friend from his circus days and doesn't waste time sleeping with her on one of Bruce Wayne's private jets. Honestly it's been more of a trip down memory lane for Dick Grayson than anything else and as usual the plot is taking its sweet time to go anywhere. The whole circus thing seems a bit incongruous too. How often do you see a circus these days? Maybe big bonanza events by the Moscow Circus or Cirque du Soleil, but are there still travelling circuses with the big tents and stuff? Maybe in the US there are. I dunno. It feels like a bit of a demotion for Dick Grayson after tackling big stuff as Batman. We need to see these guys doing more crime fighting and less being targets in bizarre and complicated conspiracies. They reach a saturation point where they add nothing to the characters in question.

Superman
This is always what I dreaded with Superman. This series has so far devolved into "each issue Superman fights a big monster." First it was a fire monster, then an invisible flying lizard, then an ice monster. Something's possessing the citizens of Metropolis and turning them into these creatures, which incidentally makes them say something featuring the word 'Krypton'. The third issue had an interesting editorial on how Superman's presence encourages crime and chaos in Metropolis but it wasn't exactly a subtle deconstruction of the scenario. The suggestion that Superman begets superhuman criminality is hardly a new idea. There's been some stuff with Lois' journalistic work but really it hasn't gone very far yet. Unfortunately it's inevitably going to be compared to the simultaneous run of Action Comics and while I realise that Superman's career has progressed further in this comic which lends credence to the increasingly dangerous attacks on Metropolis a "monster of the week" format is hardly the best storytelling out there, especially compared with the other comic.

Wonder Woman
This one is still weird. They're playing up the Greek Mythology angle pretty hard, with the big revelation being that Wonder Woman is the daughter of Zeus. That's a big shocker, apparently. I'm not too fussed. The idea that Wonder Woman was formed out of clay is a pretty absurd notion in my opinion, as absurd as they get in comics. There's just something uncomfortable about a protagonist who is made from clay yet now a person, not a golem or something. The story's moving at a slow pace here too. The goddess Strife turns up and causes some, well, strife, and there's the big revelation about Diana's ancestry. She needs to protect a pregnant mother from the wrath of Hera. At least there's some faithfulness to Greek mythology there. Nonetheless I suppose I expected more along the lines of Wonder Woman fighting crime and stuff. Maybe we'll get to that. Who knows. These comic stories are taking forever. You'd almost believe they want to drag them out to sell more issues.

What do I think of the New 52 overall, three issues into everything? To be honest I'm not entirely sure it was the wisest move. I mean, new volumes of stuff is easy to get into, which is nice, but as convoluted as comic continuity is some of the changes and erasures feel like the universe is lacking some of the texture it normally has. There's a certain lack of depth and the cast of characters feels reduced. They wanted to draw in new readership, which of course has happened, but they've done it at the cost of alienating fans and with comics becoming less and less profitable, and with the initial readership boost inevitably going to dwindle, I feel like in some ways a streamlining of the DC universe has become more of an oversimplification. I'm willing to stick with it, but I wish it would get a move on.