Review: Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

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Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge 7/50
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend
by Box Brown
ISBN: 978-1-59643-851-4

I know Andre the Giant from The Princess Bride and vague memories of Wrestlemania. For a time in my childhood I was way into wrestling, because the characters were everywhere, from cartoons, to music videos, to rubbery action figures. That being said, I haven’t thought much about these guys since then, but when I came across an Andre the Giant biographical graphic novel, my interest was piqued.

It’s done in a pleasantly cartoony style, taking us from when Andre was a 12-year old in 1958 France (he couldn’t fit in the bus, so he got a ride to school from Samuel Beckett), through to his death in 1993. It is not comprehensive, but rather a series of vignettes, more than a few of which made me chuckle. It also shows, however, the pain and inconvenience of his acromegaly, such as how he was too big to fit in an airplane restroom, so he had to, um, completely empty his system before a long flight.

One highlight for me, of course, was the illustrated version of anecdotes from the cast of The Princess Bride, such as this moment with Robin Wright.

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It’s a quick read (hence the light review), and if you’re at all interested in seeing inside the world of wrestling or finding out more about Andre the Giant, I recommend it.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow’s Avengers

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Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge 6/50
Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow’s Avengers Volume 1
ISBN: 978-0785166870

It’s been quite a while since my last graphic novel review. Partly this is because I tore through a bunch of new Valiant graphic novels (reviews to come later), but it was also because I’ve been reading this dense collection of the original Guardian of the Galaxy comics. Well, I’m finally done, so here’s my thoughts on it.

I was first introduced to the Guardians of the Galaxy in 1990 with Jim Valentino’s version of the comic. I bought three copies of issue #1 and I got them signed, thus assuring my financial future! But much like this version of the Guardians, the future in which I got rich from collecting comics was only a possible future. Alas, it was not meant to be. But I digress. After collecting the Valentino run for a while, I worked on collecting earlier appearances of the Guardians, but never got them all. That’s where this handy volume comes in. The 18 issues it compiles bring the Guardians from guest star status alongside the Thing and the Defenders, to their own run in Marvel Presents.

 

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So who are these original Guardians, in case you’re only familiar with the new team? They start off with Major Vance Astro, an Earth native sent on a 1000-year voyage in stasis. The only problem is that hyperdrive is developed while he’s on his voyage, so humans from Earth have already populated the galaxy when he arrives at his destination. Plus, he is somehow damaged by the stasis and has to be encased in a full body suit lest he disintegrate. But his eyes and mouth can be uncovered. And he has psychic powers. And he’s kind of a whiny teenager in a grown-up’s body, and … what was he going to do at the end of his 1000 year voyage if people hadn’t developed hyperdrive while he was asleep, anyway? It’s best not too think too deeply about him.  He’s old, he’s pissed, and he’s kind of an ass. ‘Nuff said.

Charlie-27 is the last survivor of the genetically-modified humans who lived on Jupiter. Same with Martinex, except he’s the last survivor of Pluto. Charlie-27 is big and strong, and Martinex can create and manipulate fire and ice, because Pluto. The last member of the team is Yondu, a version of which became Michael Rooker’s character in the recent movie.

Later on, the team grows to include Starhawk, a character who is “One Who Knows,” which means he gets to move the plot along and act mysterious. He also turns into a woman sometimes, which gets explained toward the end of this volume. Nikki, the last Mercurian, also joins the team. Her power is… she’s got spunk? In an essay in the back of this volume, Stever Gerber says “she was our token female and our token Mercurian.” Way to kill two birds with one stone.

Okay, so that’s who the Guardians are, but what do they do? Well, they don’t get to guarding the galaxy for a while. The first half of this volume involves them kicking the alien Badoon off of Earth, where they have turned the remaining human population into slaves. The Badoon, a race of lizard-like humanoids, are also the reason why so many of the team are the last of their kind. To get rid of these vile creatures requires help from the past in the form of Captain America, the Thing, Doctor Strange, and the Hulk, to name a few guest stars.

The second half of the volume takes the Guardians off Earth and out into the galaxy. There’s some inventive ideas in here, a lot of silly ones, and more than a few batshit crazy ones, like a giant (we’re talking light-years-long) humanoid being whose existence is anti-life itself.

I mentioned before that there’s an essay in the back from Steve Gerber. There’s also one by Roger Stern. Reading them puts a new light on some of the strangeness in the preceding comics, as it makes clear how much of the comic was a seat-of-the-pants affair. Here’s Roger Stern on taking over from Steve Gerber:

[It] was basically my first title for Marvel. I picked it up under circumstances that have since become a trademark for Marvel–it was already late, and not only that, but my first issue was to be the conclusion of a two-part tale about the origin of Starhawk. When Steve brought in the pages of the preceding issue, I said, ‘Gee, this is really bizarre, Steve! How does it end?’ And Steve revealed that he hadn’t really figured that out yet. I was thunderstruck.”

Given that sort of planning, it’s no surprise that these stories meander a bit, but there’s some fun and powerful stuff in there along with the filler. Especially toward the end of this volume, there are stories that pack more of an emotional wallop than I expected from the stories that came before. The emotional impact of the scene below is lessened somewhat when you read what Roger Stern has to say about it, but it still comes as a surprise in terms of the comic.

ggwompwompAnd when super-strong lunkhead Charlie-27 ends up crying, you know the Guardians have grown up some.

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Or maybe they haven’t. I’ll have to wait until I get Volume 2 through an interlibrary loan to find out.

 

Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge 4/50: Usagi Yojimbo

 

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Review:
Usagi Yojimbo Book 1: The Ronin
Stan Sakai
ISBN-13: 978-0930193355

I’ve known of Usagi Yojimbo for years but only ever read a story here and there, so I figured I’d start from the beginning. Of course, it didn’t disappoint. How can you go wrong with a world full of anthropomorphic animals in the equivalent of a samurai movie? In the case of this series, it allows for a mix of funny and serious stories, some of which are straight-up samurai tales that happen to star walking, talking animals, while others rely on the animal nature of the characters. Think ninjas who can burrow through the earth, or a blind swordspig who is deadly with a sword thanks to his incredible sense of smell.

The titular character, Usagi Yojimbo (or rabbit bodyguard) is a masterless samurai, or ronin. (I half suspect anyone reading this knows all this already, but just in case.) His master, Lord Mifune (one of at least two nods to Toshiro Mifune) was killed in battle with Lord Hikiji due to being betrayed by one of his own generals. (Hikiji’s presence is felt throughout this first volume, as many dastardly deeds and personal tragedies can be traced back to his actions.)

Now wandering as a ronin, Usagi picks up jobs here and there as a bodyguard, but also stumbles into many situations where he sees fit to dispense justice on his own. For the most part, he is honorable and wise, although in at least one encounter I felt like he made a mistake and acted too harshly. I’m willing to forgive him this momentary lapse because it sets up a cool (and amusing) villain for later stories.

There are quite a few characters introduced in this first volume who I am sure will return for later stories, including two possible love interests (although one is married to Usagi’s childhood rival). One character that appears in two stories in this book is Gennosuke, a rhinoceros bounty hunter who, with the dark shadow of a beard on his jaw, is clearly meant to be a Toshiro Mifune look-alike. While he is not wholly good or bad, he and Usagi have a fun rivalry in this first volume. I gather from a quick Google search that he will be back for many more stories, which is a good thing.

All in all, these comics don’t suffer at all for being about 30 years old, perhaps due to the feudal setting already being timeless. For those like me who missed these comics the first time around, this collection is an excellent way to catch up, and I’ll be searching out the rest of them because I have quite a lot of catching up to do.

(This is my fourth entry into the Mother/Gamer/Writer’s Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge.)

Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge 2/50: Girl Genius Omnibus Vol 1

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Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Volume 1
Phil & Kaja Foglio
ISBN: 978-1-890856-40-3

I enjoy a lot of webcomics, but I’ve been intimidated by the deep archive for Girl Genius, so I’ve stayed away from it. How nice then to have a thick omnibus edition to help catch me up. The trade-off for this particular volume is that it is in black and white instead of color, but that didn’t bother me except for some pages that came out way too dark this way.

My first exposure to Phil Foglio’s work was from the Myth Adventures book covers and graphic novels (some of which are online here). Girl Genius, with art by Phil and co-written with Phil and Kaja Foglio, has the same sort of over-the-top humor as those stories, but it is set in a world where steampunk science and magic exist in equal parts. In this world, some people have the Spark, a magical ability that allows them to defy the laws of physics.

Volume 1 starts with our heroine, Agatha, getting mugged and having her locket stolen. This makes her late for her class at Transylvania Polygnostic University, where she has a knack for building clanks (autonomous robots) that fail spectularly.

When Baron Wulfenbach and his son Gilgamesh show up at the university, a series of events leads Agatha into the Baron’s service, although only Gil seems to recognize Agatha’s potential.

Mysteries abound throughout the story and there’s plenty of humor in both the writing and the art, but a large part of the pleasure in reading these is in discovering the details of the world the Foglios have built. I’m a sucker for this type of steampunk fantasy, filled with giant automatons and enormous airships, so it didn’t take much to pull me along through this first volume.

This is good, because until Agatha starts coming into her own a little by the end of the third volume in the omnibus, her story was a little painful to read. She’s misunderstood, underappreciated, and has a nasty habit of ending up in lingerie and sleepwalking. It’s a joke that falls flat quickly but gets used over and over for some reason.

Despite some rough patches like this, the book ends on a high note with plenty of hooks to make me want to keep reading this series.

(This is my second entry into the Mother/Gamer/Writer’s Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge.)

Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge 1/50: The Invisibles Vol 1

I couldn't find a good image of this, so here's a scan of my library copy instead.

The Invisibles, Volume 1: Say You Want A Revolution
by Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, Jill Thompson, and Dennis Cramer

For my first entry into Mother/Gamer/Writer’s Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge, I’m going back to the 90s for some comics I didn’t read at the time. The Invisible has been described as a “complicated and ambitious comics masterpiece” and I’ve heard it mentioned frequently, so I figured it was high time I gave it a read.

The very first issue of The Invisibles, “Dead Beatles,” throws you right into the deep end. There are evil folk wearing opaque, circle-lensed glasses bowing down to horrifying gods, the ghost/god John Lennon, delinquents who have their sexual drive and rebellious instinct sucked out of them, and a secret band of superheroic individuals who are fighting against the evil folk.

It’s a trippy, confusing trip through the essential elements of the story, focused on one of the above-mentioned delinquents, Dane McGowan.

Dane gets recruited by the Invisibles, the group of freedom fighters who are clued into the truth of the world, and the second arc, Down and Out in Heaven and Hell, follows him as he initiated into these truths. He learns about the invisible world beneath ours, the horrible things that live there, and those who fight against the horror.

The whole initiation into the secret truth of the world and fighting against bad guys in sunglasses reminded me a lot of The Matrix. Checking to see which came out first, I found it was The Invisibles by a few years. In this post, Morrison agrees: “Yeah. It is that close. I don’t think they could deny it. After the initial rage, when I really went through it plot point by plot point and image by image… The jumps from buildings, the magic mirror, the boy who’s being inducted called the One, the black drones, the shades, the fetish. The Kung Fu as well. The dojo scene. The whole thing – the insect machines that in fact are from a higher dimension, which supposedly enslaved their own. The entire gnostic theme.”

But where I found the Matrix to be a fun, thought-provoking action-adventure, I found this first volume of The Invisibles to be incredibly draining. I wasn’t the only one, apparently. Per the Wikipedia page for The Invisibles, Morrison became seriously ill while writing the book, something he attributes to working on the title and the manner in which its magical influence affected him.

I can readily believe that the work had such an effect on him. The last arc in this first volume, Arcadia,  had me wanting to simply put the book down and not look back. The story deals with the French Revolution, a madman from another dimension, the Marquis de Sade, and horror creatures feasting on human flesh. It’s not a ray of sunshine, that’s for sure. Even Dane grows increasingly sick throughout the tale.

The violence and depravity just didn’t work for me in the same way as it did in, say, the Preacher graphic novels, where there’s at least some humor. It just dragged me down into a really uncomfortable place.

I grabbed volumes 2 and 3 in the same library trip as this one, but I think I need to take a break before I pick up the second volume and see if I can push on through this series.

Manga & Graphic Novel Challenge

Mother Gamer Writer

The fine folks at Mother/Gamer/Writer have been hosting a Manga/Graphic Novel/Video Game Novel Challenge for a few years now, and I’m going to join in this year.

I’m going to shoot for the stars and enter at Level 5 (read a total of 45-55 books). The actual reading should be easy. I tear through manga and graphic novels on a regular basis (and I’m skipping the video game novel portion of the challenge). But keeping up with reviewing each book? That will be a challenge. Let’s see if I can keep up or I fall flat on my face, shall we?

I better get myself to the library and get some manga and graphic novels checked out, because if there’s one thing I can’t do, it’s afford to buy all of the books I am going to read! If you’re of a mind to help me in that department, maybe you’d consider buying one of my books or stories? (What, you thought I’d miss a chance for a shameless plug?)

Fiction Friday: 5/11/12

For today’s Fiction Friday, I have a graphic novel adaptation, a novel that mixes gambling with magic, and a cyberpunk short story.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories

I have mentioned it more than once before, so now it is time for my full review of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories, Jason Bradley Thompson’s adaptation of dream-related stories by H.P. Lovecraft. I was very excited to get my hands on this graphic novel and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Immediately inside the cover is a wonderful map of H.P. Lovecraft’s dream realms that I am tempted to use as the basis of the next RPG I run (someday, someday). This is followed by the short stories “The White Ship,” “Celephais,”, and “The Strange High House in the Mist,” and the main attraction, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

The illustration is black and white and intricately detailed, with each panel filled to the brim with details both mundane and fantastic. Each story except for “Strange High House” involves the main character entering the dream realms. Once there, the dreamer is represented as a simplistic “mock man,” a simplistic, cartoony character with a large flat face, expressive eyes, and knobbed sticks for hands and feet. This is a neat way to set the dreamer apart from the fantastic world they are adventuring in; at a glance, you always know where the dreamer is in any given panel.

Jason’s architecture is a strong point. His dream realms are filled with incredible, gargantuan cities with building stacked upon building, spires, statues, domes, minarets, and residences both grand and decrepit. Likewise, the inhabitants of the dream realm are well thought-out and -depicted, from ordinary human inhabitants to divine and semi-divine beings to the slimy-faced, turbaned merchants whose wide, crooked-lipped smile succeeds in evoking menace and disgust. There are also monsters galore, with ghouls, gugs, night-gaunts, and plenty of tentacled, slobbering nightmare creatures.  And let’s not forget the cats. I’m a sucker for well-drawn talking cats, and the adventurous kitties in these pages add just the right light touch to some dark proceedings.

I think the best parts of the GN are when Jason is filling in background details that are not part of the original text, for here you can really see his imagination at work and how he did not skimp on any page. There is a two-page spread (pgs 20-21) of Kuranes searching for the dream-city Celephais that includes panels of him searching through industrial-looking wreckage, having tea with a dragon, speaking to birds big and small, fleeing monsters up a spiral staircase, and standing on a flying carpet, to name a few of the scenes, all on a page that evokes a Candyland-ish journey through the dream realms. In the center of the page is the actual human dreamer, at the same time asleep in bed and part of a mountainous landscape. Some of these scenes are suggested in the original text, but most are not. It shows the care with which Jason decided when to narrate straight from the stories, and when he let the art speak for itself.

To sum up: great art and a wonderful adaptation of some classic H.P. Lovecraft stories: what more could you ask for?

Vegas Knights

Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights is a book I had to read once I saw its premise of magic users in Las Vegas, because it’s a story that’s been plaguing my mind ever since I first drove away from the city of sin with no money in my pockets. With each visit, I would entertain the same daydream: What if I could have used magic to tilt the odds in my favor? Vegas Knights answers that question.

It is the story of Jackson and Bill, two college students who have learned enough magic to get themselves in trouble with it, and who decide to make some money at the blackjack table by using their magic to make sure they are dealt the cards they need. Whenever I thought of writing this story, I would get stuck at the next logical point: if you can use magic to cheat in Vegas, you can be sure that the casinos use magic, too, and they won’t look kindly on your activities when they catch you. Needless to say, Matt did not let that be a sticking point; rather it is the starting point for Jackson and Bill’s excellent adventure. The story spirals out from there as these two college boys experience the highs and lows of Vegas life and learn what’s underneath the surface and who’s really in charge of Vegas.

Vegas Knights ends up being a fun adventure story with a surprisingly personal through-line for one of the main characters. I tore through it and had a good time. It is available from the usual e-tailers, or you can buy a DRM-free version from the publisher, Angry Robot.

Love in a Time of Bio-mal by Colum Paget

This dystopian, cyberpunk short story is a fractured tale of a tempestuous relationship, set against the backdrop of a world in which neuro-bio-warfare has ravaged the land. The rich live behind hermetically-sealed walls, while the poorest suffer the worst after-effects of the war, such as rogue bio-mal that can make you age prematurely. The narrator has lost his place in the higher ranks of the society, and with it, the woman who was using him to climb the social ladder. The story starts with an emotional punch as we see the lengths the narrator is willing to go in order to win back his former love, and it does not let up from there.

I enjoyed the whole story, especially the bits about rogue Artificial Intelligence, which I won’t ruin for you by getting into here. Love in a Time of Bio-mal can be found in Electric Spec, Volume 7, Issue 1. Links to more stories can be found at Colum’s blog, The Singularity Sucks.

Diane Duane E-Book Sale

There is a 60% sale on Diane Duane and Peter Morwood’s e-books at their website. It started on 5/8/12 and is going to run until an unspecified time. Their books are DRM-free and you can’t beat this deal. I highly recommend the So You Want to Be a Wizard books.

Up Next on Lithicbee

Sunday: Part Thirteen of The Only City Left. Will the secrets of Allin’s family history be revealed at last? Was the werewolf ghost who was chasing him really his Uncle? Be here on Sunday for Allin Arcady’s adventures through a planet-sized city called Earth!

Webcomics Wednesday: This time around I’ll be focusing on webcomics that sell digital issues you can read on your tablet.