Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why wait to play a Swordmage?

I know at least one gamer who is impatiently waiting for the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide to come out.  It's not because he is a huge Forgotten Realms fan.  It's so that he can check out the new Swordmage class.  He has always been a big fan of the Gish concept, and sees 4th Edition D&D as the first edition of D&D that can handle the concept easily.

Wizards of the Coast recently excerpted the Swordmage at their website.  Its a nice excerpt, but not really playable.  If you are looking to play one right away though, you still might be in luck.  Simply check out RPGA's Living Forgotten Realms Campaign Character Creation Guide

The preview material contains 4th Edition write-ups for playing a Drow, Genasi, and yes even the Swordmage.  Well, at least up to level three.  Still, that would be enough to get you through H1: Keep on the Shadowfell.

Or I suppose you could just wait sixteen days.  But who has that kind of patience nowadays?

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories: DVD Extras (Part 2)

Here are a few more of my favorite comics that didn't make the list.

AC-Confessions Astro City:  Astro City by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross is an amazing accomplishment.  By paying close attention to the way comic books have evolved over the years, Busiek created a brand new comic book universe that feels as "lived in" as the mainstream Marvel and DC universes.

With this amazing four color backdrop, Kurt Busiek proceeds to tell deeply personal stories.  While there are plenty of traditional superheroics going on, the focus of the stories are always more personal.  A child feeling neglected who just happens to be part of a super-powered family.  An ex-con who is attempting to integrate back into society who just happens to be a former supervillain. 

These are great stories.  It didn't make my list though because Astro City is too reminiscent of Marvels (also by Busiek and Ross).  Heck, the current storyline, Astro City: The Dark Age, was originally pitched to Marvel Comics as the plot for a Marvels II project.

FromHell From Hell:  Alan Moore and Eddie Campell's amazing researched comic book about Jack the Ripper.  If you have a chance to pick this up, make sure to pick up the annotated version.  Frankly, the amount of research that Alan Moore put into this book is amazing.

Despite the research, Alan Moore makes no claims to have "solved" the Jack the Ripper case.  In fact, he makes the opposite claim, that the evidence is simply not available to solve the case.  Nevertheless, he tells an entertaining tale.

Why didn't it make the list?  Well, I have an awful lot of Alan Moore books on the list already.  Also, as much as I like the book, Jack the Ripper is a bit overexposed.

Incidentally, if you have seen the movie "From Hell", it is only very loosely based on the comic book.  It especially differs in it's portrayal of Inspector Abberline and making it into a whodunit.  Not that I didn't enjoy the movie, it was just a very different beast.

HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Ground Zero:  Peter David and Todd McFarlane brought us this incredibly entertaining story.  Written during the grey Hulk era, the hulk is not a simple minded monster that wants to be left alone.  Rather he is highly intelligent and actively malevolent. 

As smart and bad as the Hulk is during this era, his enemy the Leader proves to be smarter and worse.  The Hulk ends up being trapped in the Leader's web.  Despite all odds, the Hulk manages to get the upper hand.  Until the Leader cheats.  The storyline ends with the Hulk apparently dead and the Leader triumphant.  Not necessarily what you would expect.

Why isn't it on my list?  Well, as much as I enjoy it, it is also the most standard superhero book.  It was fun, but not especially deep.  Although in all fairness, it was pretty damn deep for the Hulk!Hellboy

Hellboy:  Mike Mignola's masterwork, Hellboy is a strange mixture of pulp adventure, Lovecraftian horror, classic faerie tales (especially Slavic ones), and Nazi menace.  It's a mixture that probably shouldn't work, but does.  It's a little like Indiana Jones, if Indiana Jones was a 6' tall, red-skinned, demon with a great big right-hand made of stone.

I was a bit of a latecomer to the Hellboy party, but I have made up for it by collecting every Hellboy story I could find.  With it's odd mixture of influences and sense of fun, its sometimes as if Mignolta was writing Hellboy just for me.

I guess I didn't put it on my list because Hellboy is a bit too personal of a comic book for me.  All of the books on my top ten list I have no problems recommending to the world.  On the other hand I can see Hellboy being a bit off-putting to some people.

NewFrontierThe New Frontier:  Darwyn Cooke's amazing blending of political allegory and superhero comic history.  Set in the late 1950's, superheroes are in decline after being investigated by Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

With the exception of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman the Golden Age comic heroes have given up the fight.  A new generation of heroes is ready to take it up, but can they overcome the paranoia and mistrust of their own government?

Honestly, this is a great comic which makes great use of Darwyn Cooke's unique style.  It was even made into a great animated movie.  It would definitely be on my top twenty list, even if it didn't make the top ten.

KravensLastHunt Kraven's Last Hunt:  I love Spider-Man.  He was my favorite superhero when I was a kid, and the first comic book I ever collected.  So I feel a little bad that there were no Spider-Man stories on my top ten list.

If I was going to put one story up there, Kraven's Last Hunt by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck would probably be it.  It is a bit of an odd Spider-Man story in that it doesn't have a lot of Spider-Man in it.  In the first issue, Kraven, who was a bit of a second-string villain to this point, goes a bit over the edge after his inability to defeat Spider-Man.  He shoots Spider-Man full of drugs, buries him, and then proceeds to take over his identity.

Why isn't it on the list?  Well, it may not have aged as well as some of the comics on my list.  Many parts of it require a bit of suspension of disbelief to understand the motivations of the villain. I still love it, but I wonder how much of that is because the story is good, and how much of it is because I was a 15 year-old kid who loved Spider-Man when I read this the first time.

Well, that's enough of me musing about my favorite comics for awhile.  Hope you all enjoyed this series.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories: DVD Extras (Part 1)

I bet you figured I was done with my Top Ten Favorite comic stories once I hit number one.  Shows what you know!  Seriously though, I thought I would briefly touch on a few more comics I love that didn't make the cut and why they didn't.

vendetta V for Vendetta:  I have to admit I like this book a lot.  Alan Moore and David Lloyd's create a complex morality play.  The protagonist is V, a terrorist waging a one man war against an England that has become a complete fascist state. 

V for Vendetta raises more questions than it answers.  V does many unconscionable things.  His treatment of Evey is horrific, even if it does help her reach a new level of enlightenment.  But that is sort of V's point.  He is born to tear things down, not build things up.  That is a task he leaves for his successor.

As to why it didn't make the list... well, honestly I can't say why.  Partially, its because I felt the list was starting to become "My Top Ten Alan Moore" stories.  Also, I felt that it was too similar to Watchmen, which was on the list already.

DKR Batman:Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller:

Batman: Year One is frankly one of the best retellings of Batman's origin story.  It almost makes the whole "dress up like a bat to scare criminals" shtick look like the only logical course for Bruce Wayne.  

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is the story of a long since retired aging Batman taking up the mantle again.  The world has changed though, and Batman is branded a violent vigilante who must be brought down.

Between the two of them, Frank Miller helped to redefine Batman for a new generation of comic book readers.  So why didn't they make my list?  Mostly because I felt Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again was a better example of this kind of deconstructive storytelling.

Concrete At least one commentator has wondered why Paul Chadwick's Concrete series was not on the list.  I am a big fan of the Concrete series, which might be best described as a superhero comic without the superheroics. 

Concrete is the story of a man who is abducted by aliens and finds his mind transplanted into a nigh indestructible cyborg body.  However, rather than decide to try to save the world by punching out bad guys, he uses his newfound fame to become a writer and use his words to elicit change.

Most of the drama in Concrete comes from his feelings of alienation and the fact that he has to deal with the all too fragile world around him.  He cannot have a physically intimate relationship with the woman he loves.  His strength and weight make him unable to sit in normal chairs or even dial a phone without breaking it.  Concrete is not bitter though, more wistful and melancholy as he tries to make the best of the hand life has dealt him.

So why didn't it make the list?  Well, even though I am a fan of Concrete, I do tend find the book a bit to preachy for my tastes.  Also, Paul Chadwick's political views fall quite a bit left of mine, and mine are pretty left already.  Still, if I had put together a top twenty list, I am sure it would be on it.

UnderstandingComics Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud literally changed the way I looked at comic books, manga, and animation.  It is probably the most in-depth look at the mechanics of how comics work ever created. 

This comic about comics is so good, it's almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn't read it.  It is especially impressive because Scott McCloud has to create an entire nomenclature to discuss comic in a scholarly manner, since it has never been done in such depth before.  Nevertheless, it is a relatively easy read, since Scott manages to inject a lot of humor into what would otherwise be a rather dry subject.

The only reason Understanding Comics didn't make it on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories is that it is not technically a story.

KC-Superman Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross: Set in the future of the DC Universe, most of the old generation of superheroes have retired and have been replaced by a newer and more violent breed.  When Kansas is irradiated and rendered uninhabitable by their antics, Superman comes out of retirement and reforms the Justice League to police these new heroes.

However, in the attempt to restore order, the Justice League begins to trample over the very freedoms they are trying to protect.  This is a familiar theme in comic books, I can't call Kingdom Come the most original story.  Still, between the amazing artwork by Alex Ross and the sense of grandeur imparted by Mark Waid's storytelling, this story has never been told better.

As to why it isn't on the list, it is mostly because it shares too many similarities with Marvels.

Tomorrow, I will look at a few other great comic books that didn't make the list.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories #1: MAUS


When I was first coming up with this list, the hardest part was coming up with an order.  That is probably not surprising since many of the stories I listed are so different that they are hard to compare.  I had no problem picking number one though.  Maus is my absolute favorite comic story. 

Maus is very different from most of the comics on the list.  For one thing, it is non-fiction.  Maus is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.  It also recounts the difficult relationship Art Spiegelman had with his father, mostly in describing the interviews Art had with his father about his experiences during the war.  This is later complicated by the fact that his father dies between the first and second volumes.  The writing is emotional, raw, and real.  Unlike the neat little packages of fiction, Art never seems to come to terms with how he feels about his father.

In a stroke of genius, Art Spiegelman chose to present all of the characters in this biography as anthropomorphic animals.  The Jews were all mice, the Germans cats, the Poles pigs, etc.  He used this artistic conceit to great effect on many occasions, like when Vladek and his wife Anja are trying to masquerade as Poles to avoid imprisonment.  During these sequences, they are shown as wearing cheap Halloween style pig masks. This simple artistic trick highlights how precarious their situation was and how easily a single misstep could bring ruin.

Maus is an example of the heights to which comic books can rise.  Like prose or video, comics can be used to tell any type of story.  There is no reason for the medium to be limited to stories of over-endowed spandex wearing super-humans beating on one another.  As Scott McCloud points out, the focus of American comic books on superheroes is more of a historical fluke than anything else.

Maus is a truly shining example of the best comics have to offer.  I just hope that some day, the rest of the medium will catch up.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories #2: Watchmen

Watchmen There are a lot of great comic books in the world.  There are few that have been as lauded as often as Watchmen has.   It is the only comic book to ever win a Hugo award.  It is the only comic book to ever appear on Time Magazine's "100 best English-language novels", despite not actually being a novel.  It is also being made into a major motion picture that will be released in March 2009.

Watchmen begins simply enough.  The age of superheroes is over.  Most are retired or working directly for the US Government.  When the former "superhero" known as the Comedian is killed, the vigilante Rorschach begins investigating the murder.

The story then begins to go in directions far removed from a simple murder mystery.  In Watchmen, Alan Moore begins to play with many storytelling techniques he would latter perfect, including heavy symbolism, no thought balloons, text pieces inserted into the comic, and even a pirate comic within the comic used as a dramatic echo of the main plot.

Using these tools Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons weave a complex morality play.  They do not take the easy road and tell you who is right and who is wrong.  Instead, they present their characters with a no win moral dilemma, and leave it up to the reader to decide who is right.

Watchmen would be innovative if it was released today.  It is not surprising people were stunned by it when it was first released in 1987.

Sorry for the delay in posting #2 on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories.  Tune in tomorrow for #1.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A few quick comments on the Adventurer's Vault preview

Wizard of the Coast recently released an excerpt from the upcoming Adventurer's Vault.  It gave a list of some of the Figurines of Wondrous Power and showed a stat block for the Onyx Dog.  A few thoughts:

  • The conjured creature rules are interesting.  They act less like creatures and more like "extra powers" since you must spend a minor action to make them Attack, Move, or use one of its own Minor actions.  I am not sure if I like it or not yet, but it should prevent a lot of potential abuse.
  • The fact that the conjured creature lasts for up to eight hours was an interesting choice.  It is counterbalanced by the fact that they cannot be healed.
  • Personally, I am glad to see the Figurines of Wondrous Power back on the magic item list.  I always liked them.  Also, they are a distinctly Dungeon & Dragon magic item.
  • Finally, what the heck is up with the picture of the horse underneath the stats for the Onyx Dog?  I know it is probably the supposed to be an Obsidian Steed, but they couldn't dig up the dog picture?

I have to admit this excerpt whetted my appetite for The Adventurer's Vault.

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories #3: The Sandman: Season of Mists

SeasonofMists Taken as a whole, Neil Gaiman's series The Sandman is probably my favorite comic book series.  On the surface it is the story of Dream, one of the seven immortal beings known as the Endless.  Each one embodies a concept over which they have dominion: Destiny, Death, Dreams, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (formerly Delight).

This is really just the jumping off point for Neil Gaiman's storytelling though.  Since his main character is the "Prince of Stories", Gaiman felt entitled to tell any story he wanted.  Horror, comedy, high concept fantasy, mythology, and countless other genre's make an appearance.  Yet despite this, all these disparate story arcs eventually connect and merge until at the end it truly feels as if it is the inevitable conclusion of everything that came before.

Frankly, don't have the words to sum up the series.  Thankfully, Neil Gaiman was asked to sum up the Sandman in one sentence and did so brilliantly:

"The King of Dreams learns that all things must change or die and makes his choice".

That brilliance is why I love this series.  But this is a list of my favorite storylines, not complete series.  So I am going to narrow my focus down to a single arc: the Season of Mists.

Even among the cornucopia of pleasures that The Sandman provides, Season of Mists stands out.  It starts simply enough.  After a family meeting, Death basically uses guilt to convince dream to free an old lover that he cosigned to hell.  He knows to do that he must cross paths with Lucifer, who he had offended earlier in the series.  He girds himself for battle and prepares to storm the gates of hell itself.

Up to this point it is a pretty typical comic book plot.  But when he gets to hell he finds it empty.  He eventually finds Lucifer, only to find out that he has tired of his duties and decided to quit.  He kicked all of the demons and tortured souls out of hell, which is causing no end of chaos.  He then locks the gate and gives Dream the key, making him the new ruler of hell.

The key proves to be as devious a revenge as any could imagine, since there are many gods, demons, and manifestations of abstract concepts who desire it.  Dream is trapped by his overwhelming sense of responsibility to consider all who desire the key.  Meanwhile, the devil relaxes on a beach.

Seriously, Lucifer has never been written better.  Well, maybe in Paradise Lost.

Tune in tomorrow for #2 on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories #4: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Black Dossier

blackdossier Another entry by Alan Moore on the list, this time paired up with artist Kevin O'Neill.  It is also the most modern comic on the list, having been published in November 2007. 

The first two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had a pretty simple concept: Transplant the concept of a Superhero team to 19th century Britain using a literary pastiche of characters from that era.  They were good comics, but not what I would call groundbreaking.

The Black Dossier is a completely different animal.  The framing story is moves the League timeline ahead to late 1950s, sometime after the fall of Big Brother's England.  Two mysterious figures steal the "Black Dossier" which catalogs all known information about the various incarnations of The League.  A gadget loving womanizing spy named "Jimmy" (James Bond) and a young woman named Emma Night (pre-marriage Emma Peel) are sent to track down the thieves and retrieve the Black Dossier.

The framing story is not what makes this book so interesting though, its the contents of the Black Dossier itself which are sprinkled throughout the book.  There is a Shakespearean "historical" play detailing the founding of the league by Prospero under the patronage of the faerie Queen Gloriana.  A sequel to Fanny Hill detailing her sexual encounters with the Lilliputians.  A Bertie Wooster and Jeeves story detailing their brush with Lovecraftian horror.  Even an inset Tijuana Bible.

What is truly amazing is that in each of these segments Moore apes the style of the original authors.  The Shakespearean section is written in iambic pentameter and contains numerous instances of Shakespearean style humor.  The Bertie Wooster section could be a Bertie Wooster and Jeeves short story... if it didn't contain Cthulhu. 

If I have one complaint about the book, it's that it is so densely packed with literary references that it is a difficult read.  Not that its not worth it, but  it reminds me a bit of what it is like to read Russian literature.  In any case there is a great site that gives page by page Annotations.  I highly recommend reading it through while referencing the annotations at least once.

Tune in tomorrow for #3 on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories #5: Batman: The Killing Joke


Speaking of Mad Geniuses, Alan Moore makes his first appearance on this list with The Killing Joke.  In my opinion, Moore has churned out more comic classics than any other writer.  In The Killing Joke he is paired up with the amazingly talented Brian Bollard.

The Killing Joke is the definitive exploration of the Joker and his relationship with his greatest enemy.  Early in the comic, Batman asks Alfred "How can two people hate each other so much without knowing each other?"  The comic then proceeds to delve into the Joker's psyche, and what a surprising journey it is.  As it delves into his origin story, you begin to feel empathy for this murderous clown, even as you watch him commit atrocity after atrocity.

Of course, just when you feel you understand what motivates him, he lets you know that even he is not sure if he is telling the truth.

If you liked The Dark Knight, take the time to read The Killing Joke.  After all, Heath Ledger did.

Tune in tomorrow for #4 on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories #6: Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina

Man searches for the meaning of life, finds out he is the product of a hack.I consider Grant Morrison one of the "Mad Geniuses" of comics.  I think his work helps stretch the boundaries of the medium.  On the other hand, occasionally he stretches the medium to its breaking point and when he does his writing can border on incoherence.  Still, I am willing to grant the occasional grand failure among grand successes.

Animal Man is an example of Morrison nearing the edge, but not going over.  Morrison was brought on to revitalize Animal Man, a truly minor hero in DC's pantheon.  It worked, but it is doubtful DC was expecting what they got.

Morrison presented Buddy Baker as an Everyman hero.  He is the type of guy who started wearing a jacket over his costume because he needed somewhere to hold his keys.  He has a wife and kids who actually act like you would expect them to act.  He is a super hero primarily because he has super powers and figures he should try making a living that way.  After all, if you had super powers, would you go work at Walmart?

If all Morrison did was establish this niche for Buddy in the DC Universe, Animal Man would be a decent comic.  Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina brings it to the next level.

In Deus Ex Machina, Buddy Baker slowly comes to awareness that he is a comic book character.  I am not normally a fan of breaking the fourth wall.  However, in this case Morrison uses it as more than a simple gimmick.  It is an integral part of Buddy Baker's search for meaning.  Unlike most of us, Buddy gets to meet his maker.  He gets to ask him all of the questions we would in that situation, often getting less than satisfying answers.  Whether this makes him lucky is a matter of debate.

Tune in tomorrow for #5 on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Comic Book Stories #7: Daredevil: Born Again

Look boys and girls!  Its Daredevil and his junkie porn star girlfriend! I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Frank Miller.  I feel some of his early work, Batman:Year OneThe Dark Knight Returns, and his early Daredevil stories, are comic book classics.  I also have a great deal of respect for his Dark Horse work, like Sin City and 300

On the other hand, I can't even read some of his more recent creations.  I picked up the entire run of DK2, but I could never get into it.  I never even made it past issue two of All-Star Batman and Robin.  I think the problem is that the machismo and misogynic tendencies, which were always present in his work, have truly gotten out of hand.  That being said, I really loved Daredevil: Born Again

The basic premise is simple.  Matt Murdock's former secretary and girlfriend Karen Page has fallen on hard times.  She is now a heroin addict and a porn star.  Low on cash and desperate for a fix, she sells Daredevil's secret identity for drug money.  This knowledge ends up in the hands of the Kingpin who uses this knowledge to destroy Matt Murdock's life.  He destroys his life more utterly than I have ever seen on the pages of a comic book before or after.  He destroys him financially.  He destroys him professionally.  He destroys his reputation in both identities.  As an afterthought, he even blows up his house.

Frank Miller does not shy away from showing us how devastating it would be to suddenly lose everything and what effect it has on Daredevil.  Matt Murdock does not heroically persevere;  he breaks down.  All of which makes his eventual "rebirth" all the more dramatic.

Honestly, Daredevil: Born Again is not just one of my favorite Frank Miller stories.  It may be the best Daredevil story ever written.

Tune in tomorrow for #6 on my Top Ten Favorite Comic Stories.