Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New Comics Wednesday: Batgirl (DC New 52)

Batgirl #20, on-sale 5/15/2013
Here's another look at a comic that, a year ago, I wouldn't have seen myself reading. It's a case of how strong, intriguing writing can turn a character that many wouldn't normally give a second look at into a compelling saga that makes you crave the next issue. It's not unlike what they did with another character's book I covered a few months ago - Aquaman.

In this case, we're talking about Batgirl, another one of DC's "New 52" books that debuted in September 2011.

DC gets a lot of flak from people for the idea of completely rebooting their universe (again) with the advent of the New 52, in effect cancelling all of their old books and starting everything over with #1 issues, even including long-standing publications like Action Comics and Detective Comics, that were both numbered in the 800s and which dated back to the 1930s.

I initially resisted the changes as well and avoided the New 52 for about the first eight months or so, but I kept reading more and more about some story lines that sounded interesting. Eventually I visited my local shop with the intent of picking up just four titles: Batman, Detective Comics, Justice League, and the Flash. The Flash and Batman are my two favorite characters, and I figured I could pretty much get a sense of the other major things going on in the DC universe by reading Justice League.

That all changed with the "Night of the Owls" storyline that ran throughout Batman and all of its related publications, including Batgirl. I hadn't intended to read all of the tie-in issues, but my friendly local comic shop purveyor had helpfully packaged them all together in a discounted bundle, and it was actually the only way I could get a copy of Batman #9 at that time, since it was sold out at every shop I checked.

I found the Batgirl tie-in issue of the story arc to be really interesting, and I mentioned to the manager of the shop how much I liked it, at which point he directed me to pick up a copy of the Batgirl Annual that had just recently been released. I did, and from that point on, I became a regular Batgirl reader.

As a reminder, I avoid any spoilers of current storylines playing out in the comics, but if you haven't ever read classic "The Killing Joke" story by Alan Moore and you intend to read it at some point, I'd advise you not to read the review below, as it contains a pretty major spoiler from that work.

What's It About?
It's obviously about Batgirl. However, this is the "classic" depiction of Batgirl as Barbara Gordon, daughter of police lieutenant James Gordon.

Here come the spoilers from older issues of comics: In recent pre-New 52 continuity, Barbara Gordon had stopped being Batgirl after being paralyzed from having been shot by the Joker in "The Killing Joke." When she couldn't continue her role as Batgirl, she instead turned into the "information broker" known as Oracle, with access to all sorts of computerized information that she shared with the various DC heroes so they could go about their normal hero duties. The Batgirl identify was eventually taken over a few different times, by Helena Bertinelli, Cassandra Cain, and most notably by fan favorite Stephanie Brown.

With DC's reboot of their universe with the New 52, Gordon is Batgirl once again, although it is acknowledged that at one point she had been paralyzed and lost the use of her legs due to having been shot by the Joker, so that part of the pre-reboot story stays in place. However, she's trained herself to regain the use of her legs and is once again back patrolling the streets of Gotham, although this is a very new development and the ghost of her very recent paralyzation still haunts her and colors much of her actions.

The broader story in Batgirl also involves her family (specifically her dad, mom, and brother, James Gordon, Jr.) and their relationships with each other. Rest assured, this is Gotham City, so let's just say it's not exactly a happy family dynamic and James Jr. didn't exactly follow in his dad's footsteps to join the family business.

Barbara's apartment roommate, Alysia, also plays a pretty main role, and an interesting one at that. Comic book social media sites and message boards were abuzz last month when a pretty interesting and relatively major character development was unveiled concerning Alysia.

Who Are the Creative Team?
Batgirl has had one of the more consistent creative teams of the DC's New 52.

Fan-favorite writer Gail Simone has handled writing duties since the first issue, with the exception of a couple of issues that were handled by Ray Fawkes. There's an interesting story behind that - Simone was actually fired off the book by DC Comics, and she went to Twitter to announce that she would no longer be writing on the book. The fans reacted with such vitriol against DC for the firing that DC actually relented a few weeks later and re-hired Simone onto the book. The whole incident caused DC to create a new Twitter policy for its creative staff to prevent any similar incidences from occurring in the future.

Simone is best known for her work on DC titles like Birds of Prey, Secret Six, and the pre-New 52 Wonder Woman.

Simone's handling of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl is masterful. It's a tough job, given the amount of fan backlash that occurred in the wake of DC essentially wiping the Stephanie Brown version of Batgirl out of existence with their reboot. Many fans came to like Gordon better as Oracle than as Batgirl, and the Oracle character definitely provided a super-hero role-model for the disabled.

However, Simone navigates this potential mine field with grace and dexterity, crafting a hero who suffers from PTSD from her encounter with the Joker, and survivor's guilt that she was able to get better while so many others who have been paralyzed or disabled have not. She questions herself and her motivations for people the cape and tights back on, and her internal thoughts she has while battling villains or chasing bad guys are priceless. This is comic writing at its finest.

Pencilling duties for the first 13 or so issues were mainly handled by Adrian Syaf, an Indonesian artist who had done a lot of work for DC Comics prior to Batgirl, notably on Blackest Night: Batman, Green Lantern Corps, Brightest Day, and  Superman/Batman. His work on Batgirl is really well done - Syaf has the ability to handle both intense action sequences as well as the more still scenes. His command of character and setting designs also enables him to bring diversity to these elements, which is something that's often lacking with less experienced artists.

Around Issue #14 or so, artist Ed Benes came on board, often sharing pencil duties with Daniel Sampere. There styles are actually quite different, but were helped by consistent inking handled by Vicente Cifuentes, who had also inked the Syaf issues.

Recently, Sampere has pretty much handled the pencil work solo, partnered with Jonathan Glapion on inking duties. Sampere's style has a cinematic quality do it, with a strong sense of energy that pervades most of his scenes. He's a natural for extended action and fight scenes.

Who Will Like It?
This is a great title for someone who left comics for awhile and wants to re-discover the character of Batgirl that they knew from "back-in-the-day." While the book does reference a few events that happened in the pre-New 52 Universe, everything you really need to know is handled in-book. You don't need any prior knowledge.

Barbara Gordon is a strong female character, and would make a great role-model for teen girls who are looking to feel empowered. I personally like to tell Batgirl stories (edited for age appropriateness) to my own little 3 year-old daughter to make sure she understands that not all superheroes are boys.

One of the things I like about this title, beyond the superb writing and characterization, is that it takes place in a setting I really like (Gotham City) and deals tangentially with many of the story arcs that affect Batman, but this is not what I'd call a typical "Bat-book." It's about character, family relationships, friendships, and the ability of personal will to overcome major obstacles in life.

Any Good Fodder in Here for My Role-Playing Games?
As usual with the straight-up super-hero titles I review, there are of course plenty of ideas that you could steal for a supers-type RPG. But, beyond that, there are some really interesting concepts with the various costumed villains and other bad guys in Batgirl that would make for an interesting story arc in any RPG type setting. And, as a Games Master, if you're looking for a way to incorporate any sort of family drama into one of your player's character stories, then you should definitely check out the more recent issues of Batgirl (focusing on #13 - #19).

Is It Good for Kids?
It's rated "T for Teen" and I'd really hesitate to show it to kids younger than that. Just looking at the cover of the issue released this week (Issue #20) illustrates the amount of blood, gory, and scary images that can find their way into a typical issue of Batgirl. There are also some pretty disturbing things revealed about the people in Barbara Gordon's life (no, I'm not talking about her roommate, but I don't want to spoil who it is by saying more) that could be confusing or scary for younger kids.

That said, again, if you have a teenage daughter, niece, or granddaughter, I think that Barbara Gordon makes a great "strong woman" role-model character type. But, as always, I'd suggest reading an issue for yourself before handing this over to any child.

BATGIRL
  • Format: Monthly 32-page full-color series
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If you don't have one, try a bookstore or convenience store. You can also buy the digital version on Comixology. That link leads to the page on the series; issue #20 came out today. Also, there are two collected editions available: Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection contains issue #1-6, and Batgirl Volume 2: Knightfall Descends contains issues #7-13 and issue #0. Those links lead to the book on Amazon.
  • Price: $2.99 per issue
  • Rated: Teen
  • More Information: The official DC site for Batgirl

Special Note: Posting is a little lighter this week because it's "Television Upfront Week" in the advertising world, and I've been going to all of the simulcast presentations here in Los Angeles so I can see what new programs are coming out and hear all of the networks crow about how they're #1 against this demographic or #1 in total viewers during this time of the day or how they're "redefining" either late night or TV everywhere or online campaign ratings or whatever. They all say they're better than their competitors, as though those of us ad professionals in the audience are going to sit up and say, "Wait! I'm confused. Yesterday ABC said that they were #1 and now today CBS said that they were #1! What am I going to do?"

In any event, one of the cool things of attending these presentations (other than free food and what used to be free alcohol but is now just free non-alcohol), is that we get to see clips of all of the new show and also hear about how they came about, why the network wanted to buy them, and all that.

Yesterday at ABC's presentation, I got to see an extended trailer from their upcoming "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." program, and Joss Whedon came out on stage with the cast to talk about the show and why he was excited about it, and promising the audience that it wasn't solely going to be a gimmick show to include Easter Eggs for the various Marvel movies, but instead a fun and action-packed exploration of what it's like to be a team of agents who don't have super powers operating in a world that's becoming increasingly more complex with the invention of aliens, strange technologies, and time-displacement. The network also told a little story about how the show came about. I'm not sure how true this actually is, but apparently the head of Disney, Bob Iger, sent out copies of the bonus footage on the "Avengers" DVD that talked about S.H.I.E.L.D. with a note that simply asked, "Is there a show here?" The rest, as they say, is history.

The trailer actually looked pretty cool, and I trust Joss Whedon to put together something really interesting and compelling. I believe that trailer that they unveiled as a "special treat" for those of us in the ad industry is pretty much widely available now online, so search for it and let me know what you think. Are you excited for the new show?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap-water
Listening: "When the Rainbow Comes" by World Party

Friday, May 10, 2013

Game World Inspirations Friday: Liavek

It's been a while since I've posted about some of the inspirations I've used to craft my home campaign, the World of Samoth.

So far, I've talked about a variety of things like Earth History, Conan's Hyboria,  and game worlds like the World of Greyhawk, Dragonlance's Krynn, and the old B/X "Known World."

Today I move more in the direction of literary fiction sources and cover a book that fits into the shared-world concept: Liavek.

The first book in a series (it's fantasy, so of course it's a series) is called simply Liavek, and it was published in 1985. I probably picked it up right around then or a bit later at my local used book shop in La Verne, California, where I was living at the time.

When I read this book, I was exposed to several ideas for the first time:

  1. Shared Worlds. The book states right on the cover that it's "In the bestselling tradition of THIEVES' WORLD." I knew what Thieves' World was from having seen reviews of some of the books in Dragon Magazine but my knowledge stopped there. I didn't realize what this blurb on the cover meant was that this was a shared worlds book - essentially a bunch of short stories, all by different authors, which all took place in the same world (in this case, all in the port city of Liavek). That kind of stuff is old-hat now, and I've read many other books with this format, but back then, nearly 30 years ago, this was all new to me. 
  2. Non-European Fantasy Setting. By this time, I'd read quite a bit of Conan stuff so I was familiar with how an author could take elements from non-European cultures and recreate them as fantasy worlds. But, Liavek was different. The entire flavor of the world is Middle Eastern in scope - it's not "the Middle East equivalent" that's adjacent to a Middle Ages Europe equivalent or anything like that. The entire focus of the book is on the city of Liavek which is definitely Arabian/Middle Eastern in style and culture. The cover of the book features robe-clad adventurers riding desert horses and camels, with desert palaces in the background. This really intrigued me because it was just so different. I'll touch on this more down below.
  3. Gunpowder. Nowadays, it's no longer novel to include rudimentary gunpowder in fantasy worlds. Even back in 1985, when this book came out, it wasn't exactly new, but it was new to me. I hadn't yet been exposed to Games Workshops' Warhammer world, and stuff like the Iron Kingdoms from Privateer was decades away. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide clearly stated that gunpowder would "muddy the waters of your fantasy world." And yet, single-shot wheellock and matchlock muskets were seen in Liavek. I really liked that idea a lot at the time.
Cool Bits from the Story (no Spoilers)
The series takes place in the port city of Liavek, which is cool because it allows the various authors to introduce other cultures in the form of merchant ships and explorers who interact with the people of Liavek itself. That way, we can see how the culture of Liavek's people compares with some of the other cultures of the broader world.

Magic is handled in an interesting way - each year on a person's birthday, he can attempt to invest his luck into an object. If successful, the person becomes a magician of some varying degree of power over the course of the next year. But, there's a price - all of his power resides in the object into which he invested his luck, so if it's stolen and destroyed, he's in great danger. As a consequence, many people invest their luck into the city itself, giving rise to Liavek's nickname, "The City of Luck." That's a really cool concept and one that I briefly tried to play around with in my world design before discarding it.

The series was also written from the standpoint of making men and women equal - there are no "gender roles" that put men above women or assign women to only certain tasks. I liked this because, D&D is generally designed the same way. It assumes that men and women both have an equal chance to become adventurers and eventually people of importance.

Lastly, there's a really great series of appendices in the back of the book that covers things like "Food & Drink," "Social Structure &  Government," "Language," "Weaponry," and much more - it's written as a "tourist's guide" as though you were going to visit there, but includes tons of great ideas for building your own fantasy world. There's also a creation myth and some stuff on magic.

Things I Used in my World Creation
Liavek was truly the first fantasy book I read that didn't have a major Western Europe theme to it. I was immediately intrigued by this "exotic" culture, and I really think that the authors who created the world did it right. This isn't just Earth's "Middle East" with the names changed and the addition of some wizards. This is a truly crafted-from-scratch fantasy world that happens to have some Arabian and Middle Eastern flavor to it. It's a fine distinction but one that I think many world creators miss, especially when dealing with cultures that are outside their level of familiarity. It's much easier to just take real world history for things like China and Japan and just add magic to them when making a fantasy Asia equivalent than it is to really dig deep and find what makes those cultures different and unique and apply those things to creating a new world from scratch.

After having read this book, I ended up scrapping the world I was currently working on (a "proto-Samoth" world, if you will) and starting from scratch, eventually leading me to concentrate on just one country and culture - that of India, which because the sole focus of my campaign world for the next few years before I slowly began adding other cultures, eventually turning it into what is now the World of Samoth.

That's the main thing this book gave me - a sense of wonder and an understanding that my world didn't have to be a rip-off of Tolkien, Howard, or Gygax - I could add other, unfamiliar yet "real" elements and make the non-European areas of my world into more than just stereotypes.

I also really liked the idea of adding primitive gunpowder to my world, and that owes itself directly to my reading of Liavek. Gunpowder was a part of the world right up until I actually started using it as an active gaming world for my still on-going 3rd Edition / 3.5 / Pathfinder campaign. The main reason I took it out was, sadly, because when I started the campaign in May of 2001, there were no good rules for handling gunpowder in a straight fantasy d20 setting and I didn't feel comfortable, as a novice DM, trying to include them. So, I just took them out and the world hasn't had them since.

That's a look into how I incorporated some of the things from this series into my world. I really encourage people who haven't read the series to at least check out the first book (I haven't read the others, so I've no idea if they're as good). And I'd love to hear from people who have read the series to see if it inspired them in the same way it did me.


LIAVEK


  • Format: 274-page paperback
  • Where to Buy: It's long out-of-print, but of course you can find used copies. Here's a list on Amazon.com
  • Price: Original) $2.95
  • More Information: There are tons of fan sites, but here's the entry on Wikipedia.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Drank a Oskar Blues Gubna Imperial IPA at lunch

Listening: "Big Parade" by the Lumineers


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Of Movies, Comics & Star Wars

Joy at Collectors' Paradise for
Free Comic Book Day 2013
I'm going to postpone today's regularly scheduled "80's TV Thursday" post to talk a bit about last weekend, May 3rd - 5th.

As long-time readers of my blog know, this same weekend last year was chock-full of activities, and this year was no different.

MOVIES
The weekend started on Friday, when my wife took the day off of work so she and I could go see an early afternoon showing of "Iron Man III" at our local Arclight Theater.

Note: Spoiler-Free (unless you haven't seen the TV trailer)
 
I liked this film a bit better than "Iron Man II," mainly because it didn't focus on yet another villain wearing an armored suit. I never understood while they went that route with "Iron Man II." Iron Man has a pretty deep well of villains that they could've gone to, but instead they just created another guy who makes a bigger, better armored suit? Isn't that the same plot as the first "Iron Man" movie?

One of the things that bugged me about "Iron Man III," and believe me, I know this is a small quibble, is the amount of time that people who wear the Iron Man armor insist of flipping the stupid face mask up while they are wearing the armor. This part is right from the trailer, so I'm not spoiling this for anyone, but at one point, Pepper Potts puts the armor on. And, she dons it during some serious stuff happening. She's not wearing it go to pick flowers in the garden or do her Excel spreadsheets at the corporate office or whatever it is Pepper is supposed to do in these movies. No, she and Tony are being attacked and she's got the armor on for protection. And yet, at least 18 times (I may have lost count), she flips the visor up rather than keeping it down to use the built-in "heads-up display thing whatever it's called" to actually operate the suit. 

Now, I get that the studio paid a lot of money to have Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. in the movie, and I'm sure that their agents made sure that part of their contract insists that their face be shown a lot, or whatever. But, come one! That's just lame. It makes no sense. There's no reason at all that you'd need to flip the face mask up while wearing the suit, with the exception of the studio demanding it because they paid a lot of money to have these actors in the film, and also because movie studio executives are notoriously bad at gauging the intelligence of the audience. I'm pretty sure some idiot in a suit sat in a screening of the movie and said, "How is the audience supposed to know that's Pepper Potts wearing the suit! Redo the scene and have her flip her face mask up so the missile can hit her right in the eye!"

I'm pretty sure the conversation must've gone something like that.

That said, I did like the film, and there is the obligatory little scene after the end of the credits. I don't understand how, at this point, people can still be surprised that there's a little Easter Egg scene at the end of Marvel movies. I'm constantly amused by people in the audience who are caught unawares and are shocked that there was another scene coming. Seriously. I guess they don't have access to the Internet or haven't seen every other Marvel movie ever. 

STAR WARS and COMICS MASH-UP

Williams Sonoma Star Wars
Pancake Molds
Saturday morning, the family woke up and I immediately went to work making some pancake batter so my wife could make Star Wars pancakes using some fun Yoda, Darth Vader, and Stormtrooper pancake molds we got from Williams-Sonoma. This year, my wife outdid herself and did some "freehand" Death Star and number 4 (for "May the 4th Be With You") pancakes. While we ate, we listened to the music from "Star Wars: Episode IV" on my iPad. My daughter loves this music, as I've mentioned before, and we're considering taking her to see John Williams conduct the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra later this year as a little treat.

My Marvel Comics Star Wars Shirt
Donning my red Marvel Comics: Star Wars #5 t-shirt (because, see... it's both "Star Wars" and Comics!), we then headed over to my local comic book store, Collector's Paradise, for Free Comic Book Day. Last year, Joy and I went by ourselves, but this year, my wife came with us. As predicted, the store was extremely crowded, but at least we didn't have to wait in a line to get in. We each picked up our six free comics and then set about browsing through the store for other items. They were offering a sale of "Buy 3, Get 1 Free" of anything in the store, so we ended up getting eight trades/graphic novels (paying for only six) - Saga Volume 1, Dial H Volume 1, Action Comics Volume 1, Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, Wonder Woman Volume 1, The Creep, Hero Bear (for my daughter), and Darth Vader & Little Princess. We left the copy of Hero Bear with the store manager because the writer and artist, Mike Kunkel, was going to be at the store later that day to sign copies for fans, and he said that he'd get it signed for my daughter.

Joy's Signed copy of Hero Bear
by Mike Kunkel
After a detour at a "Color Me Mine" place where my daughter, Joy, painted a little "jewelry tray" and I attempted to paint a Wonder Woman-themed cereal bowl for her, we all grabbed lunch and my wife and I had some tasty craft beers at our local Stone Brewery Tasting Room. We encouraged all of the families we saw there to head over to Collector's Paradise for Free Comic Book Day. Many of them sounded interested and said they were going to check it out.

We actually stopped back at the store to see if we could meet Mr. Kunkel and also get pictures of Joy and the various costumed characters who had shown up. I snapped some pictures of Joy with Thor and Superman, and she and I also got to meet Mr. Kunkel and chat with him briefly, and I took a picture of Joy and him together. Unfortunately, none of these pictures turned out because I'm stupid and didn't realize that my camera's SD card was full.

By this time, around 2:30pm or so, the store was nearly out of free comics. They only had a third of one small table left with copies, and were now only offering one free comic per person since they didn't have much left. The store was way more packed than it had been in the
morning, and I learned later on that the two guys who work at the store, who know Joy and me pretty well, didn't even remember that we'd come back. They were that busy. Good for them. That's awesome - my wife and I both heard while we were in there that several people mentioned that it was their first time in the store, and one guy who was there for the first time didn't even realize it was Free Comic Book Day! (I guess he didn't see the dozens of signs and posters all over).

Joy's custom signed sketch of Hero Bear by Mike Kunkel
For dinner, we just ate at home and my wife and I made a little Star Wars themed dinner considering of homemade "Chewbaccaroni and Cheese" (my very bad pun) and "Jar Jar Links" (sausage links, and my wife's even worse very bad pun) and a salad my wife called "Dagobah Salad" even though that doesn't really rhyme with anything. I actually protested the use of "Jar Jar" in naming our food, because I haven't yet explained to Joy that there are three other "Star Wars" movies aside from the ones that I've told her about. I figure when she's 18 and moves out of the house, she can choose to watch them. Until then, we are a firmly anti-Prequel family. And I also have to think really hard about about letting her watch "Episode VI: Return of the Teddy Ruxpins." Because, seriously.


The Williams Sonoma Star Wars
Cupcake Decorating Kit
I also made some Star Wars cupcakes (triple butterscotch) using a cupcake decorating kit that my friend bought us for Christmas a few years ago.

Joy's evening finished with me reading Joy's new Darth Vader and Little Princess book to her, even though I had to ad lib much of the reading to avoid revealing that (SPOILER ALERT) Darth Vader is Princess Leai's father.

After we put Joy to bed, my wife asked if we could watch (get ready)... the JJ Abrams' "Star Trek" movie.

Yep.

I tried to explain that watching a Star Trek movie on Star Wars day was sort of like mixing matter and anti-matter and that it was bound to create a hole in the universe and destroy everything, but her response was "I want to watch it again before we go see the new Star Trek movie IN TWO WEEKS."

I guess we weren't planning on having an evening free to prepare to see the new Star Trek film.

AFTERMATH
The next morning, on Sunday, Joy woke up a bit earlier than usual and wanted to crawl into bed with us to relax and hang out. I told her to go get a book and I would read to her, and she said, "I know just the book to get!" and disappeared for a few minutes. She returned holding her Star Wars: Villains book in one hand and her My First Superman Book in the other.

"Because I know that yesterday was an important day for you, so we can read these and talk about it."

What a great kid.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Glass of 2005 Core Wines Hard Core. Drank it last night with dinner and was hoping that some extra decanting would have helped, but I'm pretty sure it was heat-damaged due to poor storage.
Listening: "Stay Tuned (Featuring Sojourn)" by Ohmega Watts

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

New Comics Wednesday: Uncanny X-Force (Marvel NOW!)


The 1st issue, signed by the author and the inker.
My daughter, Joy, handed a "special rock" to Sam
Humphries, which she said would make him "a good
writer." And then she told him that she liked to write also.
Intro: As many of you know, Wednesday is New Comic Book Day, the day when new comics go on-sale at comics shops around the country, and also the day when most publishers also release the digital versions of their comics to platforms like Comixology or their own internal digital platforms. Each comic featured on Daddy Rolled a 1's New Comic Wednesday posts is one that I personally get at my local shop. 

Please note also that every Wednesday, I tweet out which issues I picked up that week, and then over the course of the week I send out individual tweets with 140-character reviews of each issue. You can follow me on Twitter here.

Today's subject of New Comics Wednesday is one of Marvel NOW!'s (still not sure why that's capitalized) new stable of X-related books, Uncanny X-Force. Issue #4 came out today.

As with all of my comic book overviews, I will attempt to explain what makes this comic interesting without giving away any spoilers.

Full Disclosure: As regular readers of the blog know, I'm really much more of a fan of D.C.'s characters, having grown up with them via the old Superfriends cartoons and reruns of the Adam West "Batman" show. However, lately, I've been collecting a few more Marvel titles, partly based on recommendations from my local comic shop. This title in particular I picked up solely because my shop had a signing featuring the writer and inker on the title (more about them below), and they were so cool to both my 3 year-old daughter and to me, I decided to give the title more than just a cursory look. I've been pleased with what I've read so far.

What's It About?
This particular X-book combines Storm, Psylocke, and a guy I remember way back from reading Alpha Flight in the 1980s, Puck. So far, they seem to be "working together" in only the loosest sense of the phrase. In the aftermath of the big A vs. X cross-over from 2012, Storm and Psylocke are sent on a mission to Los Angeles by Wolverine to essentially get them away from a lot of mutant-related drama happening back on the East Coast. In L.A., Storm and Psylocke meet up with Puck and the story takes off.

I also have to confess that I haven't read any of the issue of the title that preceded this one, Rick Remender's somewhat famous run on the pre-Marvel NOW! Uncanny X-Force, so I can't speak to whether Humphries' run is based on any pre-existing storylines. It does involve some characters with whom I'm not very familiar but that, as far as I can tell, are fan-favorites or at least well-known among readers who regularly follow the X-titles.

Who Is the Creative Team?
Sam Humphries has writing duties on the title. In addition to Uncanny X-Force, his writing credits for Marvel include Ultimates and the upcoming Avengers: A.I. He's also got a stable of creator-owned titles include Sacrifice (a mash-up of Joy Division and... ancient Aztecs?!), Our Love is Real, and Higher Earth. Of special note to Daddy Rolled a 1 readers who are parents, Humphries also wrote some Fraggle Rock comics for publisher Archaia.

Humphries writing on the series has been reviewed favorably, mainly in the context of how he's kept the series fresh and yet weaved in some threads sewn by Remender in his run on the series. I can't speak to that, not having read the previous series, but I love the way Humphries handles the characters - Puck, in particular. I remember Puck from the 80s and I also thought he was just kind of a "gimmick" character without much to add to a team that included some pretty heavy-weight mutants. Humphries has effectively turned Puck into my second-favorite "little person" character (Tyrion from the Song of Ice & Fire series is still #1).

I also really enjoy how Humphries inserts little nods to Los Angeles culture and its residents. L.A. is a city that's too often overlooked in comics, taking a very far back-seat to New York (especially in the Marvel Universe). As a resident of L.A. (well, Pasadena, actually), I appreciate that the city has some character and is more than just a name. Some little gems that locals would appreciate include things like mentioning In-N-Out burger and my personal favorite, a character questioning, "L.A. has a subway?"

Art is provided by Ron Garney, who is able to do some real detailed layouts despite the aggressive publishing schedule for Marvel. I really like his work in crafting the various figures - the draftsmanship is really well-done. Unfortunately, after the first issue, the book gets bogged down by a rotating cast of inkers and colorists (five total for issue #2) - it seems a bit excessive and definitely creates some disconnects in the otherwise well-done pencil work by Garney. This trend continues in issue #3. I'm curious to see issue #4 later today.

Who Will Like It?
As always, this part is intended to help folks who don't normally read comics decide if this is something that they'd want to pick up. My assumption is, if you're a regular comic reader, you're probably already at least partially aware of this title.

I'm reading a total of three X-related titles right now (or technically four is you count Uncanny Avengers), and of the four, Uncanny X-Force really seems to be one that can be read without needing to sucked into the miasma of the over-arching story-arcs that are running throughout the other X-books. Storm, Psylocke, and Puck seem to be operating, as least so far, independently from the rest of the X-teams (although Storm does show up periodically in the last few issues of Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men). So, given that, this might be a good title to check-out if you're not following the "main" X-men storylines and if you're looking to explore some of the world of Marvel's mutants without getting bogged down in a lot of the stuff that's taking place in the other titles.

Unlike some of the other titles I've reviewed, this isn't one that has a "hook" (like historical Japan or 1930s pulp adventure) - it's a pretty much straight-up mutant/superhero type of book, so if that style doesn't appeal to you, you might want to look elsewhere for you comics fix.

Any Good Fodder Here for My Role-Playing Games?
As usual, there's a lot of great character development that both players and GMs can use as models for their characters and NPCs. Puck, in particular, would be a great model for fantasy dwarf character with a chip on his shoulder.

Of course, there's also good ideas for running a superhero RPG, and the initial story-arc for the first few issues is somewhat akin to a modern-setting "mystery" involving drugs and other street-level details that could be used in any modern of near-future RPG setting.

Is It Good for Kids?
Pretty much, no. It's rated as "Parental Advisory" and with good reason - there is a lot of heavy swearing (albeit blocked out with black boxes), drugs, lots of violence, and a pretty heavy dose of sex (including some... let's just say "weird" stuff and leave it at that, so as not to spoil anything).


UNCANNY X-FORCE
  • Format: Monthly 28-page full-color series
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If you don't have one, try a bookstore or convenience store. You can also buy the digital version on Comixology. That link leads to the page on the series; issue #4 came out today.
  • Price: $3.99 per issue, including a digital download code for a different free Marvel comic
  • Rated: Parental Advisory
  • More Information: The official Marvel site for Uncanny X-Force
   
Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Had a Speakeasy Double Daddy Imperial IPA with lunch when I started writing this.
Listening: "Words That I Manifest (Remix)" by Gang Starr

Thursday, May 2, 2013

80's TV Thursday: Wizards and Warriors

Image © Skooldays 2006 to present
Let's set the way-back machine to 1983 and look in on this campy fantasy-comedy show that showed up right around the time that D&D was starting to be noticed by the mainstream media.

Anyone remember this show? It only ran for 8 episodes on CBS in 1983.

The Show Background
"Wizards and Warriors" is about the Kingdom of Caramand, a fictitious fantasy kingdom in a world of witches, unicorns, invisible dragons, evil princes, and, yes, wizards and some warriors. The story centers around the character of Prince Erik Greystone, played by Jeff Conaway of "Grease" fame, and his betrothed, Princess Ariel (and, an aside here - how many Princess Ariels do we need? There's the Disney mermaid version, the Thundarr the Barbarian version, and this one? Why is Ariel such a popular princess name?), played by a young Julia Duffy. Princess Ariel is the actual Princess of Caramand - her father and mother are the King and Queen. I can't quite recall where Prince Greystone is from or why he's a Prince, but he mainly plays the role of a sword-fighter who protects the people of Caramand from the evil Prince Dirk Blackpool, played by Duncan Regehr. You've really just gotta love those names - Greystone, Blackpool... but, then again, this is intended to be a comedy - a parody of the swords-and-sorcery genre that was again ascending into popularity at the time.

The evil Prince Blackpool has enlisted the help of an evil wizard, Vector (yes, "Vector") to do his evil bidding, and Vector goes along with it because the Prince has stolen Vector's "power crystal" with the help of the evil Witch, Bethel. Lots of eeeeeeeeeevil going on there.

The show only ran for eight episodes before being canceled. It was preempted constantly in the U.S. due to breaking news of the day - many important events happened during  the time "Wizards and Warriors" was on air, including the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

This Sounds Pretty Campy
Yep, it sure is. It was the 80's after all, so that's a bit hard to avoid unfortunately. But, unlike something like "The Master" (reviewed last week), which was unintentionally campy, "Wizards and Warriors" was self-aware about its campiness and was designed as a satirical look at pop culture in general and swords-and-sorcery specifically.

Julia Duffy actually does a pretty amazing job as an exaggerated, over-the-top self-important Princess, and it's clear that Princess Ariel became a model for her portrayal later on of Stephanie Vanderkellen, the spoiled riched girl housekeeper that she played on "Newhart."

The show is chock-full of in-jokes and campy lines, like the evil prince warning that he's going to chain someone to the floor and walk over him with his spiked boots. It's completely over-the-top.

One reviewer I read used this analogy - "Wizards and Warriors" is to D&D what "Sledgehammer" is to cop dramas. That's probably a good analogy. Think more "Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie" and less "Lord of the Rings" and you'll get the idea.

Anything Good Here for My Role-Playing Games?
Honestly... probably not a lot. It's very cliche and the character types are built on broad, stereotypical roles that are so prevalent in the fantasy genre that we've all seen them before. There may be a few personality quirks you could pick up to emulate for your PCs or NPCs, but other than that, the main reason to watch this show again would be just for the sake of the comedy and entertainment value rather than as an opportunity to mine ideas for a game.

That said, when this show came out in early 1983, I was 12 and really into D&D and I loved it. I didn't appreciate the campy elements at the time and wished that they'd treated the subject matter that I loved with more respect and a more seriousness tone. But, I watched it just the same and was happy to see some kind of representation of the fantasy worlds I was playing in, even if I felt the depiction wasn't accurate.

Is It Okay for Kids?
There's no parental content guides online for this show, but based on my memory, I'd say yes, it's probably fine. It's probably akin to a modern-day PG movie at worst. It's actually not even that bad from what I remember.

Interesting Tidbit
While doing some research for this post, I discovered that apparently the battle scenes from the show were actually leftover unused footage from the movie "Excalibur."

I would love to hear your thoughts and memories on this show. Post 'em below!

WIZARDS AND WARRIORS
  • Format: 8 one-hour episodes (really about 45 minutes without commercials)
  • Where to Buy: As far as I can tell, this series has never officially been released on DVD or VHS. You can find some episodes on YouTube broken up into various parts. I also found this site which appears to be selling a DVD box set of the series, but I'm pretty sure it's not "official" and I can't vouch for the quality (or the legality) of the item. 
  • Price: N/A
  • Rated: Not rated
  • More Information: Wikipedia "Wizards and Warriors (TV Series)" entry

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Pelegrino sparkling water
Listening: "M62 Song" by the Doves

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

New Comics Wednesday: 47 Ronin

As many of you know, Wednesday is New Comic Book Day, the day when new comics go on-sale at comics shops around the country, and also the day when most publishers also release the digital versions of their comics to platforms like Comixology or their own internal digital platforms. Each comic featured on Daddy Rolled a 1's New Comic Wednesday posts is one that I personally get at my local shop. 

Please note also that every Wednesday, I tweet out which issues I picked up that week, and then over the course of the week I send out individual tweets with 140-character reviews of each issue. You can follow me on Twitter here.

Today's subject of New Comics Wednesday is a comic with a semi-historical theme by Dark Horse Comics, entitled 47 Ronin. Issue #4 came out today.

As with all of my comic book overviews, I will attempt to explain what makes this comic interesting without giving away any spoilers. In this case, if you know of the the story of the Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin, then you already know the story of the comic, but in case someone out there doesn't know the story, I won't spoil it. 

What's It About?
Dark Horse's 47 Ronin, a limited series, is an artistic retelling of the tale of the revenge of the forty-seven ronin, which has been described as "Japan's national legend." The story epitomizes the samurai code of honor, known as bushido.

The events of the revenge of the forty-seven ronin, which took place in the early 18th century, have become a bit of a legend, but the basic plot of the story (both the legend, and this comic on which it is based) is grounded in actual historical events.

Given the subject matter, it's difficult to say more without spoiling any of the story. The plot involves lots of Japanese court intrigue and politics, and particularly focuses on how the code of bushido dictates that certain characters react to those types of situations. It's a fascinating look into another culture from another time.

Who Is the Creative Team?
Writing for 47 Ronin is done by none other than Mike Richardson, the actual founder of Dark Horse Comics. In the first issue, Mike discusses his love of the story and how he's long wished to bring it to life in a comic book format. He's got a strong story to work with, and due to his love and knowledge of the subject matter, he takes his time to set the stage with the first issue or so. One review I read of the title mentioned that it might be better in a collected trade format rather than as single monthly issues, and I can understand that point of view. Things move a bit slowly over the first issue especially, and reading it all collected together might make more sense. That's not a fault of Richardson's writing by any means, but rather just a function of the monthly comic format.

The art is provided by none other than Stan Sakai, an artist known for his comic series creation, Usagi Yojimbo (translated as "rabbit bodyguard"), a tale of Edo-period Japan with anthropomorphic animals replacing the humans. It sounds a bit goofy if you haven't read it, but this isn't a fluffy kids book - it's a compelling look into Japanese culture of the period and it's written for a more mature audience, and Sakai's illustrations include very faithful depictions of the architecture, clothes, and weapons of the period. So, he knows the subject matter intimately well and was the perfect choice to illustrate 47 Ronin. His style has been called "cartoony," but again, don't let that throw you off. There's a level of detail that really helps the reader to immerse himself in the culture of Japan.

Also, a little shout-out to Sakai, who resides in my home town of Pasadena. Go, Crown City!

Who Will Like It?
So, whenever I write this section of these reviews, it should go without saying that people who like comics will like it. That's a given for any of the titles I include in my posts. What I'm trying to do with this section is explain why I think the particular title in question could appeal to someone who doesn't typically read comics, and who that audience might be.

In this case, this is really a well-done historical comic that should appeal to people who are interested in history in general, and of course Japanese history in particular. Folks who enjoy the films of Kurosawa should also appreciate this comic, and anyone interested in the "pop culture" aspects of Japanese culture should pick this up. As stated at the beginning of 47 Ronin (the comic), “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know Japan.”

Any Good Fodder For My Role-Playing Games?
Absolutely! This story is a must for people who are playing in Asian-inspired RPGs, or fantasy worlds that have a Japanese equivalent (such as TSR's old Kara-Tur, or the world of Rokugan from Legend of the Five Rings). Too often, I think most role-players simply insert Asian-themed countries into their fantasy worlds without thinking of the ramifications of how those cultures are fundamentally different from their Western counterparts. We simply change the names, add some katanas and monks, and we're done. I played a samurai-inspired character in my friend Cal's long-running game a few years ago, and took quite a few inspirations for my character from the legend of the 47 Ronin. It would've been helpful to have this comic version handy to re-read and help me get into my character's head a bit more.

Is It Good for Kids?
This is a bit of a tough one. I'm going to say a qualified "yes." Really, this is a historical comic and it's an important story, and I think that most mature kids (maybe ages 8+) should be fine with it. That said, as a parent, you'll need to be the judge of what your own kids can handle. It's a samurai-inspired story, so you can expect sword fighting and difficult concepts like the idea of seppuku. It doesn't appear to be rated by the comics code, so again, use what I said as a guide to make your own decision. As always, it's always a good idea to read a comic yourself before giving it to your kids to read.

47 RONIN
  • Format: Monthly 5-issue limited series 32-page full-color issue
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If you don't have one, try a bookstore or convenience store. You can also buy the digital version on Dark Horse's website. That link leads to the first issue in the series; issue #4 came out today.
  • Price: $3.99 per issue
  • Rated: Un-rated.
  • More Information: The official Dark Hose Site for 47 Ronin


Special Note: Another title came out today that I want to give special attention to for the kids, which is issue #1 of a brand new Sesame Street comic. Somehow, in Sesame Street's storied history, it's never had a comic book before, so this is a cool thing. It's published by Ape Entertainment, and the first issue has a variety of different covers, so make sure to pick the one(s) that will most appeal to your youngsters at home. As a bonus, the first issue also includes the first part of a series called "How to Read a Comic," to help parents who may be unfamiliar with the format teach their kids how to read it. It's a nice touch, and as an added bonus, Ape Entertainment is publishing the "How to Read a Comic" on their website for free. Part 1 of the series is here

There will also be a free Sesame Street comic available for Free Comic Book Day this Saturday, May 4th, so click over to find the comic shop nearest you that's participating.  
 
Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Had a fancy cocktail at dinner with tequila, Campari, and some kind of spice in it
Listening: "Fever (Adam Freeland Remix)" by Sarah Vaughan
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