Friday, October 30, 2009

Unseen Academicals

Every new Pratchett book that comes out now is bittersweet. It's always terrific to get a new one and at the same time I have to wonder if it will be the last book before he succumbs to Alzheimer's. Setting that aside Unseen Academicals was a mid-range Discworld book; not one the best but far the painful worst.

This might the most British book that Pratchett has ever written. Considering that he's done multiple Shakespeare parodies that's quite an achievement. This time around the topic up for skewering is football (a.k.a. soccer but they don't try to Americanize the references for the releases on this side of the Atlantic) and the culture that surrounds it in the U.K. which I only know from imported sitcoms on PBS and passing references to it from the BBC. Consequently I suspect a lot of the book went over my head which may be why I found it lacking in the usual wordplay that Pratchett indulges in. The humor this time around seemed to be more situational than funny narrative asides.

For those who have not heard of him (though I suspect that anyone who stumbles onto this post has) Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series, an extremely long series of satirical fantasy novels which started out as straight parody of some of the bigger names in the field at the time and wound up exploring the human condition.

This time around the wizards of the Unseen University have to play a game of football or risk losing a large bequest. Over the years the game has transformed in the rowdy streets of Ankh-Morpork into something that is less like a sport and more like a riot. The patrician of the city seizes the opportunity to bring the game under control and commissions the wizards to establish a league. Complicating this plot are the common man who feel very possessive about their game and don't really care to have someone tell them how to play. On top of that there's the tale of two star-crossed lovers separated by team loyalty, a busy body cook, a dwarvish fashion revolution, and an extremely intelligent goblin who harbors an extremely dark secret.

That goblin is the real focus of the character arc in the book and that might be the biggest flaw. He is given a storyline of self-discovery that Pratchett has used many times before. The notes are changed a bit but the song remains the same for these characters which makes them feel a bit redundant in the scope of the entire series. Oddly though he did add a new minor character to the cast as a paid to be evil within limits wizards who I hope to see again since there isn't anyone else quite like him around.

This is the longest Discworld novel and somehow it never feels like it drags. Pratchett keeps spinning new plot thread after new plot thread and while I felt that they didn't dovetail very well they were not dull. This is a surprisingly dense novel in that regard.

As usual for Discworld I laughed, I didn't cry (no one saw anything so they can't prove it), I enjoyed it. I can't say I'd recommend it as a first Discworld novel for someone who hasn't read any of them since I don't think it ranked among the best (go with Guards! Guards!, Small Gods, or Reaper Man if you haven't). Of course if you love your football then you'll probably appreciate Unseen Academicals even more than I did.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review - Dororo

by Ozuma Tezuka
2009 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material: Japan

Dororo was a huge disappointment for me though not as disappointing as creating an Astroboy animated movie and watching it open sixth in the box office returns last weekend. The first two volumes were pretty good and all of the terrific buildup in them vanished in an abrupt conclusion.

In a vaguely seventeenth century Japan a local lord makes a pact with forty-eight demons to exchange his unborn son for political power. Each of the demons take one body part from the child and it is born horribly malformed. After being abandoned the infant is found by a kindly doctor who cared for him. The child developed abilities to compensate for his missing body parts and the doctor fit him with prosthesis so that he could look normal. Upon reaching adolescence the child started attracting spirits to him and through these spirits he learned that if he killed a demon that held a body part he would recover it. So the doctor outfits his body with weapons and the boy sets out to build himself.

That's both extremely condensed and extremely confusing so let me break it down like this: it's a samurai, steampunk, six million dollar man versus the mythical monsters who stole his body parts. He finds a kid sidekick in the self-proclaimed world's greatest thief Dororo and they wander from village to village having exciting battles and then getting run out of town.

Tezuka's plotting wasn't as straightforward as that. For the first two volumes there's a slow burn building with the demons, the father turned despot who now has a second son, and the secrets that Dororo carries. And then it suddenly ends. There's a sixteen page chapter where Tezuka stuffs as much resolution in as he can and then it's over. I can understand why that happened but it doesn't make the whole product enjoyable to read.

That's a shame since the first two-thirds are pretty good. Dororo features an exploration of some Japanese mythology where nine-tailed foxes drive wars and spirits of wealth lure travelers to hidden treasures. The main character is almost as monstrous as the beings he fights and his slow recovery of his flesh is compelling. I wanted more and I was left on a very bitter note.

The artwork is Tezuka's usualy mix of extremely cartoony figures and detailed backgrounds. It can be offputting when drama is placed on characters who look like they're fresh from a Warner Brothers cartoon though it didn't bother me. The action sequences in Dororo tend to be fast and chaotic and that did throw me briefly since it was hard to follow some of them. This only lasted a page or two and the conclusions returned to Tezuka's exceptional storytelling. In fact the one high point in the third volume is that the action in its first story is better structured visually.

I cannot in good conscience recommend Dororo. It's effectively an unfinished work and if you enjoy the story you will wind up just as disappointed as I was. I honestly did not know about the abrupt conclusion when I started which just made it worse. I do recommend Tezuka's work highly; just go with something like Buddha or Blackjack instead of this and you'll be more satisfied.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review - Hellboy Library Edition Volume 1

Hellboy Library Edition Volume 1
Containing Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil
Written by Mike Mignola and John Byrne; Art by Mike Mignola
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist for Mike Mignola
1997 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist (Drama) for Mike Mignola
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

It's rare for an ongoing series by one creator to improve over time. It's far more common for them to spend their effort on the original work and slowly run out of ideas or burn out. With Hellboy I initially didn't care for it. As time went by and people kept raving about the series I decided to give it another chance. What I found was that the earliest stuff was shaky but Mignola found his footing and took things in a better direction. So as I look over the first volume of the Library Edition which contains the first two miniseries and pair of extremely brief preview stories I am inclined to give it a bit more slack because I know what's coming.

The titular character is a paranormal investigator who is usually called in to deal with the problems where hitting the paranormal creature repeatedly is a good idea. He mysteriously appeared in 1944 at a moment the coincided with a failed attempt by Nazi occultists to awaken Lovecraftian horrors. After spending fifty years looking into other people's weirdness his origins come back to haunt him as one of the occultists returns to use Hellboy.

One of the biggest problems I had with Hellboy that I can still see is that Mignola's plots in these books seem to revolve around "What would look cool" instead of making sense. I'll complain loudly when there's too much exposition but the stories in these pages go the opposite route of containing far too little. This is especially a problem in the second story, Wake the Devil, where even knowing what's coming I still have trouble following it. As a broad example of this kind of thing, there is a monster that gets hit and turns into bones and this is a major plot event with no explanation of how or why it occurs. It's just an excuse to show the creature suddenly becoming a skeleton.

Another problem is that when there is a plot it's not a very engrossing one. The first story is essentially Hellboy and crew go to a haunted house where they stay the night and punch deep ones. With the second there's... um... well there's vampires... and a goddess I think... and there's something about an iron maiden that I didn't really follow... well see the above paragraph. There's some exciting action scenes and some spooky locations and some creepy monster monster designs but they just don't come together well. It's stuff that's cool without putting them into a story that's as interesting as they are.

Which isn't to say it's all bad. Occasionally things will come together just right for a flash of brilliance. In particular the climaxes of both stories are better than they deserve to be given their lackluster set up. Yes, the bad guys are going to get beaten and the heroes triumph but the way that things are brought together at the ending is entertaining. The metastory that is being developed in this book is far more interesting than the actual stories and that is what can carry you on to the point where Hellboy starts developing depth.

Mignola's artwork is an acquired taste and when I first read Hellboy I had not acquired it yet. He has a way with heavy shadows that flattens out the perspective. It drove me crazy until I got into the groove of his sharp edged line work that takes advantage of those heavy black areas. It's a very impressionistic style that I've come to appreciate as the look for the creatures of the night.

The Library Edition volumes of Hellboy are the best produced volume of comics that I have on my shelves. They're oversized but not so monstrously oversized that they're uncomfortable to read. They feature the heaviest paper stock I've seen; it's something that I've only encountered before in art books. The cloth binding has no dust jacket to get torn but still looks nice thanks to the embossing and plate set in the front. Oh, and it costs about as much as the first two Hellboy trade paperbacks so it's a bargain as well.

I said a lot of negative things in this review but when it comes down to it I found Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil to be blandly average comics. Mignola uses these as a launchpad and turns the series into something that explores folklore in a way that I have enjoyed quite a bit. Still I'd recommend starting with the second volume of the library edition and then going backward if you're a newcomer to Hellboy. And whether you are or not if you want to get Hellboy then the Library Editions are the best way to own the series. I wish all of my collected editions were as nice as this book.