Thursday, 21 February 2013

Justice League of America #1

After months of waiting, the much anticipated Justice League of America by Geoff Johns and David Finch has finally arrived. Bringing with it a colorful cast of characters, as well as 52 different variant covers, this will technically be the 4th title with the Justice League moniker, after the regular Justice League (also by Johns), Justice League International (now cancelled), and Justice League Dark (ironically the only good Justice League book until now).

Now I, personally, was not particularly hyped for this book. Why? Well, several reasons. First, as much as I like Johns's work, his Justice League has, for the first 14 issues, been mediocre, and other than the entertaining Shazam backup have been a waste of money and talent. Second, the cast of JLA isn't all that interesting to me. Martian Manhunter and Hawkman are cool, I guess, and Simon Baz isn't a terrible character, but why is Katana there? Why Catwoman? Who the hell is Vibe? Why is Johns forcing his 'favorite character', Stargirl, into a politically charged book like this?

Luckily, this book delivers, to put it simply. I'm not sure if it has lived up to the hype for a lot of people, because it takes a rather different approach than what one might have expected after reading Johns's Justice League by Michael Bay, but the approach works. Instead of bombarding readers with a slew of rushed introductions and then forcing some random action sequence, the entire book is actually one long conversation between Amanda Waller (or as I like to call her, Amanda Fencer. Cause she's more of a fence than a wall now) and Steve Trevor, who for some reason has still not gotten over the fact that the daughter of Zeus has turned him down in favor of Superman. In fact, there's quite a few references to his past relationship with Diana, and it often feels forced. Johns realizes that there's more to Steve than just Wonder Woman, right? Because I swear he was more interesting in that one issue of Legion Lost, which is actually saying a lot...

Hawkman's a badass, something I didn't think was possible after Liefeld's run...
Anyway, that's one of the few complaints I had. The other one is the art. While Finch's work is pretty good, for the most part, some of the character contortions leave something to be desired. Overall, however, the art is top notch. Finch does have a tendency to use dark colors and juxtapose with heavy black lines, but the entire spectrum is easily distinguished in every relevant panel, and you'll never have any trouble telling who's who. Shadows are expressed as big, bold black lines, but unlike a lot of artists who fall into this particular pitfall, Finch never seems to have trouble locating his light source, and the result is a consistent, realistic lighting, even if it is a bit dark. Coupled with his impeccable attention to detail, the artwork is, in my opinion, some of the best 'grounded' work I've recently seen from DC. Also, I'm not sure if Amanda's gotten a new hairstyle, since I haven't been following Suicide Squad for a while, but I'm not a fan of the way he draws her. With that said, it could very well be an editorial decision, so I'll let it slide.

The art, in its austerity and seriousness of tone, fits perfectly with the story. As I said earlier, this isn't some big, dumb action book, which Justice League has unfortunately been for a large part. From the get go, Johns builds intrigue, introducing both Ivo and another, mysterious villain. Interspersed with the dialogue and flashbacks are scenes of a black garbed, masked individual running for dear life, which adds a sense of tension and buildup to the otherwise steady-paced story. The story itself is rather simple; Amanda Waller is the control freak who wants to build her own Justice League, in case the regular ones goes bad, and Steve, being the hardened, rebellious soldier, is against it. Waller spends the large part introducing the team and convincing Trevor of their place.

Stargirl discovers Satanism
The roster is, for the most part, explained rather well. All of the heroes are given motivations as well as uses. I wish Stargirl was embellished on a bit more; my main experience with her is, believe it or not, from Smallville, and from the few JLU episodes she was in. They do a decent job of telling you who she is, but you don't really get a sense of her characterization, and Johns also pushes in some strange mystery behind her, which I thought was a bit unnecessary and overwhelming. Her role and motivation are also not too clear; all I got was that she's great with the public, something Waller has been pushing, and that her Cosmic Staff thingamajig is pretty damn powerful. Also, she has braces. Even I admit that that's adorable.

Catwoman is given a lot of attention, which is to be expected. I still don't really get why she joined (maybe I'm missing something because I haven't caught up with the current Catwoman run), but her role makes sense. Martian Manhunter and Baz are the typical powerhouses and kinda skimped over, which is fine, since we've already well acquainted with them. The others are given okay motivations and roles, and I still question parts of the lineup, but overall I came out more impressed with this issue than I had expected. The approach worked, and the characterization was, for the most part, top notch. It's true, nothing really happened, but I expect the series to start taking off in the next issue. I think the build-up was necessary, not only to introduce the characters but also introduce what exactly the book was about. Its clear from the get-go that this isn't your regular superhero team-up book. There's a patriotic/political aspect to it that's far more intriguing than anything the New 52 Justice League International could cook up, and all this talk about the 'Secret Society' being rebuilt has definitely got me hooked. There's also the whole deal with the regular Justice League, and there's some foreshadowing that the JLA might need to take them down. The rudimentary match-ups are certainly interesting.

Good luck Katana
Overall, I was quite impressed with this issue. I'm pleased with the direction Johns took it, and he certainly convinced me why he chose the lineup that he did and how it could all work out. I'm very excited and intrigued by where this book goes, and suddenly the Trinity War is looking a lot less daunting.

Writing and Dialogue: 4/5 - An excellent direction and format of storytelling, and some good characterization, make this a fun, exciting read that'll make you want more.

Art: 4/5 - An excellent, realistic take that ties in perfectly with the politically charged nature of the book, with equal amounts of dark and color.

Fan service: 3/5 - Though it's probably not everyone's favorite cast of characters, there's enough backstory and characterization to keep you interested. Also, Martian Manhunter. Nuff said.

Overall: 4/5 - An excellent start to a promising new series that creates a solid foundation for the team and has just enough of a hook to get you to wanting more.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Katana #1

DC has been known to include a lot of variety in what they provide. While Marvel provides twenty million different X-books and Avengers spinoffs, DC, with the exception of Batman, tends to provide a lot of different options for all sorts of readers, from featuring different heroes in their own solo books, dealing with the less superhero-y side of their universe with the Edge line, as well as drawing in all their horror and magic fans with their Dark titles. But can too much diversity be a bad thing?

Why is this D-list character getting her own monthly solo book? She seemed to be doing just fine as a member of the Birds of Prey, and fans weren't exactly demanding that she get more of the spotlight, as they have with characters like Shazam and Martian Manhunter. The reason is probably two-fold. For starters, she's part of the upcoming Justice League of America, a more patriotic version of the well-known superhero team. She will also be appearing in the upcoming 'Beware the Batman' show. Now, Johns' JLA has gotten some hype, but hardly due to Katana's involvement, and very few people are actually looking forward the the newest Batman cartoon. So why does this series exist?

The answer, it seems, will forever be a mystery, because this first issue does absolutely nothing to pique any reader interest or even justify the fact that some people spent $2.99 on it. Katana #1, before you even read it, feels forced. After you read it, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Which is a shame, really. While I've never found the character endearing, I'm sure she had her fans. She definitely has an interesting look to her, as well as a semi-decent backstory. All in all, a relatively unique character, but this first issue does nothing to convince you of the sort.

Right off the bat, we are treated to a hard-to-follow fight scene, with Katana seemingly at the mercy of some dude named Coil. You would think that starting off an issue, let alone a whole series, in such a situation would be tense and immediately draw the reader in, but that is not the case. Coil, for some reason, is a misogynist. He starts off the conversation by talking about the role of women in society, even referencing a kitchen. Now, I have no particularly qualms about a such a character, as it could potentially lead to some interesting conflict. However, starting off the introduction to both the book and these two characters in this manner makes absolutely no sense. The book isn't about Katana's attempts to gain equal rights for women in the Japanese-American subculture; at least, I certainly hope not. It feels like the issue is artificially forced in just for the sake of making the character of Coil seem unpleasant, and for engendering further hate between him and Katana. Even more jarring is the shift from Katana's dialogue to his; while her inner monologue will stir up images of a martial artist in some oriental background, face to face with death, Coil's dialogue immediately shatters that particular portrait, in lieu of some distorted, hateful imagery that seems really out of place. In fact, its two pages in, at a point where you know nothing of the book, and it still feels out of place.

Why is he saying something so off-putting? Because Katana is written by Ann Nocenti, who is infamous for being outspoken with issues like this. I had certainly hoped that she would avoid forcing such clich├ęd and bland activism into a character who`s already a walking japanese stereotype, but it appears that that was too much to ask.

Still not sure what those things are...

Speaking of Japan, guess where this issue takes place? Japantown! It's exactly like Chinatown, except more like rural Japan. Speaking of stereotypes, you'll find at least a dozen in this one. An old man, sitting on the road, drinking sake and being a practical joker to any woman he sees. A distinguished woman, possibly a housewife, who's a little too eager to ask for bribes in exchange for secrecy. Weird, japanese myths made manifest onto the skin of a helpless girl as daemonic tattoos. Not to mention ninjas. Some of the content is mildly interesting, but it seems Nocenti is more eager to show all of these off, rather than actually develop them, and so we're left with a dusty, worn out slideshow at some old museum, waiting for it to end so we can move on to see depictions of samurai and black-clad ninjas disemboweling one another.

That, too, is a disappointment. Katana's inner monologue attempts to add flavour to her encounters with the sword clan, but it works against her; her diction fails to match Sanchez's artistic style, and the end result is thoroughly underwhelming. The one aspect of the book that might have been impressive, the Asian swordfights and martial arts, falls flat on its face, with Katana pirouetting around a kooky japanese garden, taking down ninja seemingly by dancing around them. Then, on the very next page, the book trades the subtle, almost painting-like encounter for a modern blood-splattering. Nocenti also, for some reason, insists on telling the readers exactly how many ninjas there are, which unsurprisingly fails to match the number we actually see in the panels.

Katana takes on the orange foot clan while a weird green shrub watches.

So, the action is a downer, and so are the boring characters and environments, but at least the dialogue is good, right? Wrong. It shifts from having a methodical, foreign syntax to randomly switching into a more modern, young adult tone. The writing is sub-par, and what the characters say rarely makes any sense. Katana monologues...a lot, and it's rarely interesting or even relevant. The story shifts around, from showing Katana's visit to Japantown, to her training, to her dead husband, to her visiting the tattoo girl for some reason, to her being the park for some other reason, and there's absolutely no flow.

The art is the one decent aspect of this issue; it's inconsistent with the writing, and the faces are pretty distracting and often inappropriate for the situation, but overall it's not particularly bad, and captures the vibe of the setting rather well. Sanchez isn't really to blame for this issue's shortcomings. Nocenti's writing is, unsurprisingly, average at best, to downright awful at worst, but even she might not be the one to ultimately blame.

The blame lies with whoever thought this series was a good idea. I don't know why they felt the need to advertise Katana as such an important character. Maybe it was for diversity. Maybe it was because they genuinely thought she was an interesting character. Whatever the case, it's obvious that this entire series should never have made it past the storyboard portion of its development, if even that.

Writing and Dialogue: 1/5 - Katana's monologues are a bore, the flow of the story is all but nonexistant, and the characters are poorly written.

Art: 3/5 - The art does a decent job capturing the japanese inspirations, but fails to complement the writing, and the fight scenes are visually uninteresting.

Fan service: 1/5 - Does little to really focus on Katana's character or history, and honestly even if it did, Katana herself is unfortunately not enough to carry this series.

Overall: 1/5 - This first issue of Katana confirms our worst fears: it was completely unnecessary. This particular outing does not bode well for the series at all.

 Also, can someone explain how the lower half of her face turns grey!?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Upcoming reviews: 25th August 2012

The first list of reviews! Barring unforeseen circumstances, these'll be the reviews coming in for the next few weeks:

Batman Begins
Watchmen - Ultimate Cut
Superman vs. the Elite
The Expendables 2

(All DC titles are part of the New 52 unless stated otherwise. Graphics novels don't count)
Action comics #1-12

Diablo II

Reviewing games

Games are one of the most familiar mediums in which reviews are written, so this should feel pretty familiar. Reviews themselves are easy, too, especially compared to comics. The one interesting thing about reviewing games is that the price also has to be taken into account, partially because it varies so much, partially because the quality is often proportional to the price, and partially because they're often quite expensive. Anyway, on to the criteria.

Story: Is the game's story any good, and should it be? Have the developers and writers made a conscious effort to create a good story and is it relevant to the gameplay? This criterion will judge both the plot and the world that the game creates, as well as its characters and settings. Now, many games won't even have a story, and many don't need one. Of course, when you have a good story where you don't expect to find one, you tend to like the game more, so the story is still a relevant criterion; however, the weighting of this particular category will be related to how important the story is to the particular genre.

Visuals: Does the game have good, original, interesting visuals? Are the standards of the current generation, the console, and the price met? You'll notice I used the term 'visuals' and not 'graphics', because 'graphics' tends to imply only the objective quality and complexity of the game's visual characteristics. As any real gamer will tell you, however, games don't need good graphics to succeed. 'Visuals' refers to a combination of graphics, art style, neatness, etc. Visuals aren't the most important category, but they can greatly enhance a game, and also bring it down a few notches. This latter usually occurs when the game has serious flaws in its visuals, from plain ugliness to technical issues (particularly relevant for PC games).

Audio: Music, sound design, and voice-overs are all judged in this category. Again, not the most crucial element, but one that still serves to greatly improve a game. Bad voice-overs and sound effects can also hurt the game.

Gameplay: The most important factor, obviously, but also the hardest to judge. Gameplay varies infinitely from game to game, so judging a game's worth is only really possible by the entertainment factor and a comparison to peers in the genre. This criterion will be weighted the most in almost all cases, as it is what defines a game; all else can fail, but a game with good gameplay will be remembered for a long time. Creativity and originality are also important; not referring to being an original title (that would be way too harsh given that most major titles are sequels...), but rather ingenuity in gameplay design.

Replayability/worth: Another important factor, this mostly determines whether someone should buy the game at full price, or wait for a sale. Of course, many games don't necessarily need hundreds of hours worth of gameplay (quality over quantity), but some titles really do skimp on the 'content' part, which means that, even if they are solid titles, they're usually not worth the full $60 from the start.

Especially with games, it's worth noting that each category will be weighted quite differently between titles. Also, pay attention to the Replayability/worth criteria if you're on a budget; as I said earlier, even great games may be overpriced.

That's it for the intros; I'll be posting a short list of upcoming reviews and what to expect, then I'll jump right in. As always, criticism and comments are more than welcome, just be civil :-)

Monday, 20 August 2012

Reviewing comics

Comics are a more unfamiliar medium, so it may take reading a few comic reviews to fully 'get it'. However, because of the large similarities that most comic books share, reviewing them is considerably easier and less vague or confusing.

Unlike movies, I won't be splitting comics up into categories since, as said earlier, most comics tend to be quite similar. I will denote whether I read a particular comic as a graphic novel (which are either really long comics or a whole bunch of issues collected together as a single title) or a regular comic issue (which are normally about 25 pages in length).

I will also review them based on multiple criteria; 3, to be exact. They are:

Writing and Dialogue: Technically two criteria, which I may split apart when reviewing graphic novels, but given the small size of regular comics I think it's a solid criteria. Basically, I'll judge both the direction and plot of the comic, as well as the writing itself (think dialogue). This will almost always be the most important factor in a review, though failing in the other criterion will not be excused.

Art: They're comic books, not novels, so the art obviously has to be an important factor. While I don't consider it as important as the writing itself, I think comics should still have good, original art directions and believable character and environment designs.

Fan service (for lack of a better term...): There's a reason comics have hundreds of issues that are all bought and loved by its fans. Readers don't read comics exclusively for the stories (novels are usually superior), nor for the art (uh...I guess the internet takes this one). It's important to note why DC and Marvel are the two comic companies that most often come to mind. It's not because they make the best stories (far from it), but because of they have comic books based on the characters that readers all know and love. That is what this criterion will be judging: whether a comic has enough fanservice in it to make it worthwhile. For example, does a Batman comic portray Batman properly, and have enough well-known Bat content (villains, supporting characters, references to known storylines) to make it an exciting read for Batman fans? Obviously, this criterion isn't always relevant, and isn't as important as the other two categories, but I think it's still an important factor when judging comics.

I'll leave it that for now, since reading a few comic reviews will be more helpful. Just two more posts and we should be getting into the reviews proper.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Reviewing movies (and TV)

Nowadays, movies are probably the most prolific medium in which to write reviews, and so they will obviously feature considerably on this site. Unlike most reviewers, however, I'll actually be splitting movie reviews into two categories: Fun and Art. I think the titles alone should be pretty self-explanatory, but just in case:

Fun films will be movies that should be considered basic entertainment, essentially giving viewers a good, enjoyable watch and supplying different thrills based on genre. Normally these won't be spectacular practices in cinematography or symbolism and whatnot, but can still be good films in their own right.

Art films aren't necessarily part of the 'art film' genre, although they quite often will be. These films will be more high-brow, thought provoking, well crafted movies that seek to do more than just entertain or be 'fun'; they have a deep, complex story, or a message, and usually excel in at least one cinematic category. They should also be films that have a good chance of being nominated for the academy awards.

Now, the distinction between these two categories won't always be clear, but I think this system is needed to help distinguish between the different types of films. You could have two films that are equally good in their own right, but they could be good for very different reasons; one could be an extravagant, over the top action film and another could be a morally significant, well-acted drama, and while both may get 5 stars they'll still be very different, and so the distinction and critical approach needs to be different as well.

When I review something, I'll place it into either category before the actual review, because I'll use a slightly different approach when reviewing each one; you can't judge a family-friendly action movie based on the moral questions it raises (usually, anyway...) and you can't judge a noir drama based on how good the CGI chase scenes are.

Anyway, these are the criteria that I'll be judging films on. Note that not every category is equal in terms of significance, and that their importance varies between the two major categories I set up earlier.

Entertainment - Simply put, how much fun was the film to watch? This 'fun' can range from action sequences, laugh out loud moments, suspense and terror, mind-blowing twists and story quirks etc. The primary criteria for the 'Fun' category.

Script/dialogue - How strong was the script? How was the film's pacing? Was the story hard to follow? (and should it have been?). Also considers the dialogue in the film, judging the lines themselves rather than the execution (for the most part).

Acting/voice-over - How did the actors perform? Specifically, how well did they perform given the context and how did they carry their lines?

Depth - Takes into account everything from the plot, the significance of the film, motifs and symbolism, creativity and originality etc. In general, is the film though provoking, with a lot of substance? The most important criteria for the 'Art' category.

Audio/visual - Basically judging sound editing and music, as well as the visual look of the film. How good was the CGI, if any? How was the soundtrack and how well did the music fit the scenes?

At the end I'll take all the scores and assigning a final score to the film, which may or may not be an average.

These criterion will also be used for reviewing TV shows/episodes, if I ever do any.

You'll get a better understanding of my system after you read a couple of reviews, so stay tuned; after I explain my review process for comics and games, and release the first schedule, I'll put up some film reviews.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Method

I think it's important to explain my review process so that you, the readers, have a resource to fall back on if you have any questions or concerns. I'll be explaining my general approach to reviewing any material, and I'll also go into the specifics of reviewing movies, comics, and games.

The General Approach

Mini rant

I'm not a fan of rating things out of ten. For some odd reason, it's become the most common system, but to me it makes no sense. You've probably heard this particular question before but, what's the difference in value between, say, a 3/10 and a 4/10? Other than some abstract feeling of magnitude, nothing really separates those two scores. More importantly, the level of dislike (in this case, anyway) varies quite a lot from person to person. One person may think 3/10 is just a placeholder score implying that the particular product is really really bad, while another may actually have given a precise 3/10 score based on utilitarian considerations. Combine this with the fact that different mediums have wildly different expectations from scores, and this seeks to confuse people even more.

A good example is comparing games and movies. As far as movies go, in a ten-scale system anything 6 and above is considered "good", with anything 7.5 and above being rare. For video games, anything above a 9 is considered good, something between 8 and 9 is considered decent, but perhaps flawed, 7-8 considered barely considerable, and anything below that garbage. What creates this discrepancy? Is it the fact that games tend to serve as good entertainment more often than films? I don't know, but I do know that there is a huge difference between the ten-scale systems of films and games. As I said earlier, this serves to confuse people, especially on sites where both of these mediums are portrayed.

Bottom line is...rating things out of 10 does not seem to be a good approach, which is why I don't use it.


Now, moving on that what system I will use...choosing between a 4 star and a 5 star system, I prefer the 5 star one, since it gives slightly more leeway. I won't do half stars, either, because then the 5 star system becomes a compressed version of the 10 point system...

That essentially leaves us with 6 possible scores, which makes things a lot simpler and less murky. This is usually what I consider the scores to mean:

5 - Perfection, or as close to it as can be gotten. Usually denoted to things that are both excellent in quality and are highly creative. Highly recommended even for non-fans of the genre/medium/series. Rarely handed out.

4 - Great, something which is definitely worth investing in. Usually given to things that are highly creative and done well, or things which are excellent in quality but might lack originality. Definitely worth it for fans, recommended for non-fans. Uncommon rating.

3 - Decent, something which may be flawed but has enough redeemable qualities to make it worth picking up. May not be the most well crafted and might lack originality and punch. Recommended for fans, maybe worth getting for non-fans if it is interesting enough. Ideally, the most common rating.

2 - Mediocre, something which has some serious flaws, lacks polish or is very formulaic or boring. Usually not recommended, fans may enjoy it but non-fans should probably stay away. Hopefully an uncommon rating.

1 - Bad, plain and simple. Little to nothing good about it, very poorly made, no creativity and/or a bore to experience. Fans should stay away because it's an insult to them, non-fans shouldn't waste their time. Again, hopefully a rating that won't be common.

0 - Apocalyptic. More of a joke rating, reserved for something that is really really terrible, or something which was expected to be good, but ended up with a rating of 1, and so has been bumped down out of shame. Hopefully never given out, ever.

See? Simple stuff. The explanations weren't even necessary; just by looking at the number, you can know all that you need to know.

Of course, some may consider this too simplistic. For example, something might have really good qualities but be brought down by a fatal flaw, perhaps inspiring a rating of 3, while something may be a solid piece of work but without anything particularly engaging, also getting a 3. How do you distinguish between these two similarly rated products? Doesn't a situation like this prove that the 5 star system is flawed?

Well, I would respond that even a ten-scale system can't really alleviate the issue. However, I do recognize the problem, which is why I will be adopting another level of criticism; essentially, a categorical approach to a product's qualities. That means that I'll be reviewing an item based on several different criteria, varying by medium, and give a score for each criteria. I'll then give an overall rating to the product, and that rating may or may not be an averaged score based on the previously rated criteria.

This post is getting rather lengthy, so I'll cut it short here and make another post detailing the different criteria I'll be using for the different mediums. So, for now, adieu!