Tag: Reviews

Welcome Back to Astro City

One morning when I was fourteen years old, my uncle asked me, over Sunday breakfast, if I'd heard of Astro City.

"It's great," he told me. "There's this kid who comes to the big city because he wants to get a job as somebody's sidekick."

"Sounds like something out of The Tick," I said.

"Kind of," he responded, "except that it's played totally straight."

So I picked it up, and Uncle Jon was right -- it was wonderful.

I don't remember if #4 or #5 was my first issue, but in short order I'd bought all the back issues too, including the trade of the original miniseries. I haven't missed an issue in the 16 years since. And most of them have been downright sublime -- while, at worst, some were merely all right.

Astro City has disappeared a few times over the years, usually owing to writer Kurt Busiek's chronic health problems. Yesterday, after a nearly three-year hiatus, it relaunched with a new #1. And it was delightful.

Straight away we're introduced to a new character (though one, Kurt teases, who we've seen before) called the Broken Man. He looks like Bowie in Labyrinth or Dream in Sandman, and he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly as he narrates the rest of the issue.

And what an issue it is. It's new-reader friendly and makes for a great jumping-on point -- but it still manages to pack plenty of nods in for the old fans. Brian Kinney, the kid who came to Astro City in 1996 to become a sidekick? He's in there. And some other familiar faces are too.

It feels like going home. It feels like checking in on old friends you haven't seen in years. And there's only one other comic book that makes me feel like that: Love and Rockets. I think it takes a pretty specific set of variables -- a strong, singular vision by the same creators over a sustained period of time, who are willing to let you feel that passage of time as their characters grow and age, and who are confident enough in their world-building that they can take a break from the same old characters, explore the world, and check back in on the old cast a few years later.

Reading Astro City is like coming home. There's a purity to it, and a joy, and an earnestness. In a time when the superhero genre and superhero fandom are dominated by cynicism, Busiek, Anderson, and Ross aren't afraid to show a world that's bright and full of wonder. And to tell a story that has a complete beginning, middle, and end all in one issue, even if it is Part One of something.

It's not entirely free of irony -- the Broken Man makes a crack about the previous story arc a couple of pages in that made me laugh -- but it's cheerful. It's a book that remembers that superheroes can be both fun and awe-inspiring.

Or not. Because, as much as anything else, it's also a book about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in an extraordinary world. Regular folks, going to work, living their lives, raising their families.

And that's why Astro City struck a chord. And why it continues to resonate, two decades in. The title aside, it's not really about the city -- though the city is certainly important -- and it's not about superheroes -- though they're pretty important too. It's about people.

And in the new Astro City #1, Kurt Busiek delivers a solid story, with faces new and old, new mysteries, and the prospect of plenty of adventure to come.

As for Brent Anderson, he's really hitting his stride again too. I was a little disappointed with some of his recent work as he began experimenting with digital inking, but in this issue he's back to his crisp old self. His Samaritan, in particular, is a joy to see again, and he handles the rest of the sizable cast with aplomb. Whether he's doing an action scene or just swooping in on an ordinary family, he keeps the action brisk and dynamic. And I'm particularly fond of the new, Kirby-inspired alien character who shows up near the end of the issue.

Ross's cover (I got the "main" one, I guess?) is great as always, but this time it's more remarkable for its composition than for its detail, as 2/3 of it is the dark shape of two doors opening out on the world. It fits the story nicely -- both reflecting the mysterious door as a focal point, and drawing attention to the reader looking in on this world from outside, another key element of the story.


So, by all means, go out and buy the new Astro City #1.

And in the meantime, the original, 1995-vintage Astro City #1 is free on Comixology.

If you want a few more recommendations, my favorites are the first three trades, Life in the Big City, Family Album, and Confession. You can read them in any order (chronology is important for the later ones, namely The Dark Age and Shining Stars, though those appear to be out-of-print at the moment anyway).

And while I urge you to support your local comic shop or independent bookseller, well, if you'd rather do the Amazon thing here are some links that I'll get a kickback on:

  1. Life in the Big City (original miniseries -- 6 self-contained issues)
  2. Family Album (ongoing series #1-#3, #10-#13 -- some self-contained issues and short story arcs)
  3. Confession (ongoing series #4-#9, a single story arc, plus a short story from #1/2)
  4. Tarnished Angel (#14-#20, another arc)
  5. Local Heroes (#21-#22, the eponymous 5-issue miniseries, the Supersonic one-shot, Since the Fire 9/11 tribute -- mostly self-contained single-issue stories; I think there's one two-parter in there)

...and from there it looks like kind of a mess, with The Dark Age and Shining Stars apparently out of print for the time being. I'm guessing that'll change soon; maybe I'll update this post when they're easily available again. Meantime, it looks like the individual issues are pretty easy to get ahold of.

Anyhow, all this to say...I love me some Astro City, and the new #1 did not disappoint. I'm glad it's back.

Go Team Venture

I just watched the season premiere of The Venture Bros.

Not only was it worth the wait -- now that June is here, I'm glad it was delayed. Because not only was it worth it, now I've got something to watch as all my other shows are wrapping up their seasons.

Venture Bros. is certainly one of the smartest, and may indeed be the best show on television.

Mark my words: the show will have the legacy of a Buffy or an MST3K: a show that seems, deceptively, like it's just a novelty, but when you scratch the surface shows that it is deceptively intelligent and truly unique. A show that, on those strengths, attracts a cult following, and in the years to come gains recognition as a treasure and a high water mark of the medium.

A decade from now there'll be college courses taught on The Venture Bros. Hell, Todd Alcott's analyses are halfway there already.

I can't think of another show that's quite so fearless in constantly evolving and changing its status quo -- and in simultaneously painting its characters in an unflattering light. One or the other, sure -- but both?

Not bad for a show that, at first blush, looked like it was just a cute little Hardy Boys/Jonny Quest spoof.

And which is still that, too -- and does a fucking great job of it.

Rapture of the Nerds

Rapture of the Nerds is about what you'd expect from a collaboration between Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow: brimming with big ideas, clever in the technical details, a little on the unfocused side when it comes to actual storytelling.

I enjoyed it. Didn't care much for any of the characters, but I don't think you're supposed to. Some of the plot developments were predictable, many weren't; in at least one case a Chekov's Gun feels like it doesn't quite fire, but for the most part the authors do a great job of following up on the plot threads they start. The climax is clever if, again, unfocused and over too soon.

Well, I guess this makes for a somewhat unfocused review lacking in followthrough, too, which is appropriate enough -- I thought I had more to say but I guess I don't, and anyway I'm tired. The book's well worth a read, and since it's creative commons you can read it for free and then decide if it's worth more than that to you.

Free Comic Book Day Musings, 2013

A highlight reel from the last couple days on Brontoforumus:


The Tick

(Originally posted yesterday, 2013-05-05.)

The free Tick is pretty great but makes a basic storytelling mistake in not introducing the supporting cast. I know who Tick and Arthur are, but Bumbling Bee and Rubber Ducky aren't referred to by name until pages 12 and 13, and they never say Cod's full name, unless Cod is his full name.

I know there's a general backlash against techniques like the 1960's era of characters all addressing each other by name on the first couple of pages, and the 1990's method of just having each character's name appear in a caption when they first appear, but there are still ways to integrate it organically in the story. Arthur addresses Bumbling Bee as "Bee" several times in the first few pages, and she later tells Cod she wants to "meet up with Ducky". Those could trivially be changed to the characters' full names without seeming out-of-place.

And again, Cod is referred to as "Cod" exactly once in the story, and I assume that's one more shortened name.

For all that it's still a perfectly fun Tick comic. Arthur gets a vacation, Tick gets an undersea adventure, there are hijinx with the other heroes, and eventually Arthur gets to save the day. It's enjoyable. I would buy more Tick comics if they didn't charge seven bucks for 20 pages. And I heartily recommend the Complete Edlund collection, even though it is really pricey for its quality of materials. ($35 for B&W on newsprint -- but you will definitely get $35 worth of enjoyment out of it. I keep meaning to do a full writeup of it.)

The backup stories and prose sections aren't bad either. But given the latter's repeated reference to how this is bound to be some people's first Tick comic and be introducing people to these characters for the first time, it's that much more baffling that they dropped the ball on actually introducing the characters.


Superman

(Originally posted yesterday, 2013-05-05.)

DC, of course, has spent the past two years on a big relaunch, where its continuity is fundamentally changed and all the characters are redesigned.

And so, for the Free Comic Book Day issue of Superman, which is likely the first Superman comic many people have picked up in years, if not ever...

...they reprint the Donner/Johns/Kubert issue from, what, 2006, 2007, that introduces Chris Kent.

Lois still knows Superman is Clark Kent. They're still married. His costume still has red trunks on it. And the story is best-known for the introduction of a character who was written out pretty soon after, who nobody really remembers, and who sure as hell doesn't exist in the New 52.

But we can't have Stephanie Brown appear in Smallville, because that might confuse people.


Star Wars

(Originally posted earlier today, 2013-05-06.)

The Free Comic Book Day issue is pretty much the perfect little Star Wars story: somebody for some reason decides it would be a great idea to fuck with Darth Vader, and then learns that it really isn't after all. Also Boba Fett gets to shoot some dudes.

I think it's Wood's best Star Wars comic yet; all of my complaints about the pacing-for-the-trade present in the main series are gone here, it's over and done in pretty short order.

It's so easy, after the last 4 movies, to think of Vader as a gigantic pussy. This comic doesn't just play him as a stone-cold badass, it actually uses his engineering talent cleverly too (spoiler: as he's crawling around the outside of the ship, his would-be assassin tries to jump into hyperspace -- but Vader's already destroyed the hyperdrive with his light sabre).

Anyway. It's free (though you've gotta sign up for an account); it's well worth reading. It comes with Avatar (the Last Airbender) and Captain Midnight, too; haven't gotten around to reading those yet.


Digital Freebies

(Originally posted earlier today, 2013-05-06.)

Anyhow, for those who missed FCBD, Bleeding Cool has a list of freebies available at Comixology, the Dark Horse store, and elsewhere. No Tick, sadly, but definitely check out Star Wars.

KDE under Mint

Still sitting up in the ER with my wife. She's sleeping and I've nothing else to do, so here goes, a post about my ongoing Mint experience that I mostly banged out yesterday:


I've got KDE running under Mint, behaving mostly the way I like my desktop to. There are a lot of fiddly little things that just don't work quite right for some reason -- Alt-Tab works, but Alt-Shift-Tab doesn't; the taskbar is just slightly too big and I can't drag icons to reorder them even though it's explicitly set to manual order; the themes are all slightly off from what I'm used to (Oxygen is too bright and Oxygen Cold is too dark); and I'm typing this in gedit because Kate won't let me type in documents where the lines go above a certain number of characters. I'm sure all these problems are fixable -- and hey, maybe if I'd just installed Mint KDE from scratch instead of starting with Cinnamon and then adding KDE, I wouldn't have had them in the first place --, but it sure has been a fiddly pain in the ass.

In short, despite the problems I've had with it, I'm inclined to believe the hype that OpenSUSE really is the best KDE-based Linux distribution.

So for now I'm keeping it installed, running updates from a chrooted YAST every day, and hoping one of them will eventually fix the damn thing.

The Thing About Grimm

You know, I like Grimm, mostly. I like its oddball setting and I love its supporting cast.

But it's got the Star Wars problem: the dullest, most tedious, least charismatic person on the show just so happens to be the main character.

Actually, the two dullest, most tedious, least charismatic people on the show are the main character and his girlfriend.

So really that makes it more like Episodes 2 and 3, I guess.

They've spent, what, twenty episodes now on this fucking amnesia plot? But they forgot the part about giving it any kind of stakes or giving me any reason to give a fuck. Oh no, Juliette might leave Nick? Oh no! Because I am so emotionally invested in their characters and their relationship!

She can leave on a bus or get hit by a bus for all I care, and take Nick with her. I'd watch the hell out of a show that made Hank or Wu or even Captain Renard the main character. And if Monroe and Rosalee were the leads? ... honestly, why aren't they? There's a couple I've developed some genuine affection for.

That one the other week where Nick, Hank, Rosalee, Monroe, and Bud all pulled off a caper together was really Grimm at its best, for reasons Les Chappell at AV Club pretty much nailed. The show diverts itself from the monster-of-the-week formula for a bit to acknowledge that oh yeah it's already got a whole bunch of monster races to work with already, and it ropes in most of the best members of the supporting cast to generally be charming and clever. Even Nick is pretty inoffensive, and Juliette...well, Juliette is barely in the episode, which I guess also counts as a win.

I really like parts of the show. I just wish they wouldn't pad them out with so much bullshit.

Minty Fresh

I've been giving Linux Mint a shot.

Now, OpenSUSE is still my primary distro (for now -- more on that in a minute), but I've kept my old Kubuntu drive onhand, originally because I've got OpenSUSE on a 128GB SSD and could use another drive with some extra storage, but over time I also learned how useful it is to have a second Linux distribution installed for those times OpenSUSE craps out. (More on that in a minute.)

So when I swapped in a new drive, I put Mint on it, as that's a rapidly growing distro and the one a lot of disgruntled users seem to be checking out since the releases of Unity and GNOME 3.

My first reaction is that the default installation looks pretty and clean. 'Cept maybe the menu, which is too busy.

And my next reaction is that there's a pretty good complement of programs installed...up until I open the terminal and find that vim is not included. Yes, I realize it only takes a minute to install, but I'm one of those guys who is immediately suspicious of any distro that doesn't come with vim out of the box.

My next reaction is my usual complaint about GNOME: it's just not configurable enough, and the various configuration options are spread across too many different places.

You can choose themes in five separate categories -- Cinnamon Themes, Window Themes, Cursor Themes, Icon Themes, and GTK+ themes -- and you can mix and match among those, which is good. But I don't see anything as simple as a color chooser. Your colors are determined by your themes. Want your panel to have a widget style like Nightlife but a blue highlight on the active program like in Blanka Teal? Tough; can't be done. Want to use Adwaita for the window theme but not want the active titlebar to be the same fucking color as inactive title bars? Can't do that either; if you're going to want a colored titlebar you're going to have to go with one of the more oldschool/minimalist window styles like Atlanta or Metabox. (Or hunt for themes online, a thing which I don't really ever do because I find them almost uniformly to be worse than the ones bundled with the DE.) For extra kicks, you can combine the Mint-X GTK+ theme with the Atlanta, Bright, Metabox, or Simple window themes and get a color scheme where the active window title text is white and inactive windows' title text is black.

Oh, and there's also a "keybinding theme" under themes, which is bullshit because keybindings are not fucking themes. This unfortunately seems to be a trend in Mint/Cinnamon -- cramming shit sideways into categories it doesn't really belong in because the designers apparently can't figure out where else to put it. Want to make Mint stop playing a sound at startup? It's under Login Window -> Accessibility. Yes I had to fucking look it up.

Special Bonus: Login Window is one of many settings that does not appear under either the Cinnamon Settings or System Settings panel. Why the fuck are there two different control panels that between them still don't have an exhaustive list of configuration options? Who the fuck knows. That's rhetorical, by the way; I'm sure if I asked some GNOME developer would be happy to point to the usability study that demonstrates this is an awesome fucking idea and anyone who complains about it is objectively wrong and just hates change.

Though speaking of hating change, if you want your taskbar to look exactly like Windows 98-XP's, then Mint is the distro for you. Menu in the lower left, Show Desktop button, QuickLaunch bar, list of open programs, system tray.

Prefer to move it to the top, or change it to a GNOME 2-style top-and-bottom split? Totally doable.

Want to stick it on the left- or righthand side of your screen because oh, I don't know, you bought your computer monitor sometime in the last five fucking years and it has a 16:9 or 16:10 screen ratio? Too fucking bad; you're going to have to find a third-party panel if you want some of that action.

And I think that's my biggest gripe about Cinnamon: the stated goal of the project is to make GNOME 3 behave like GNOME 2. Which is fine if you liked GNOME 2, I guess, but it's ultimately subject to the same sort of design philosophy that users shouldn't have too many choices in how their computers look, feel, and behave (and many of the choices they do have should be hidden in bizarre, inexplicable, inconsistent places).

That's why I'm still a KDE guy -- and it's also why I was still a KDE3 guy for years after the release of KDE4. (4 still hasn't caught up to 3 in some obvious and fundamental ways -- really simple shit like being able to drag a launcher from the menu to the panel. And I'll hand that much to Cinammon: it does that, which puts it ahead of KDE in at least one respect.)

And while I was easily able to find a widget to switch between workspaces, it only has 2 by default, and I can't find anywhere to change it to 4. Maybe it's in there somewhere, or maybe it's not because of Cinnamon's GNOME 3 underpinnings -- I remember that GNOME 3 has an arbitrary number of workspaces, starts with one and adds more as you drag programs to them.

I did see an interface where I could drag a window to another desktop -- repeatedly and accidentally, until I turned off the hot corner. Have I mentioned yet that I fucking hate hot corners? I've got this thing about interface elements that appear by accident, when I'm trying to do something else.

I could probably set up a hotkey to bring up that screen without using a hot corner, and I expect it'd be useful -- and maybe give me some clues on how to have more than 2 desktops. I'll look into it. But binding it to a keypress is not in the same control panel as setting it to a hot corner, and I'm going to have to look up where to find it.

Oh and also the package manager is both slow and hideous.

Anyhow, well, I've been spending rather a lot of time with Mint, mostly because I broke OpenSUSE. It started with an nVidia driver update, but after I reinstalled my kernel it turned into a kernel/init/systemd problem. It's been frustrating as fuck and ate up pretty much my entire weekend. Eventually I just decided to reinstall outright -- and I'll tell that story tomorrow.

Whatever happens, I'll keep Mint around as a backup boot. But the way it is, I couldn't use it as my primary OS -- not without installing KDE on it, at least.

This Week on "Nobody Involved with Bones Gives a Fuck Whether Computers Behave in a Remotely Rational or Coherent Fashion"...

...somebody gets an E-Mail -- "probably spam" -- and it allows Angela to decrypt every encrypted E-Mail she's ever gotten.

This somehow manages to be the stupidest thing in an episode about a mutant virus injected into a blogger with a microneedle that, still attached to her skeleton, then manages to jab one of the interns and infect him too.

Well maybe next week's episode will be less stupid.

...wait. Season finale? Fuck. That means another Pelant episode.

Well, maybe they'll finally just fucking shoot him and next season's premiere will be less stupid.

Wilkinson Sword Razors

So I was in the Wal-Mart the other day (a place I hope to spend less time now that I have a job again) and noticed they had double-edged razors priced ten for $1.76. It was a brand I hadn't tried yet, Wilkinson Sword, but that's about the lowest price I've ever seen on razors so I picked up a pack.

They're pretty good! I've been using them for two weeks now and I'd say they're not quite as good as Bic (still my favorite) but are as good as most other brands I've tried. Perfectly decent shave, only the occasional nick, and you can't beat that price. Recommended.

Saga: Sexy, Funny, Thrilling, and Sad

Spoilers for Saga #11 follow.

When I first opened Saga #11, I was sitting in the lobby of Big-O Tires waiting for an oil change.

And I was like Wow, that sure is a giant splash page of two people fucking right on the first page.

So I quickly flipped to the next page. And on page two, it was naked people talking about how they'd just finished fucking.

So yeah it wasn't a very good comic to be reading in public so I put it back in my bag and read Bravest Warriors instead.

But when I did get around to reading Saga, in the privacy of my own home, it was a legitimately great comic.

First of all, that sex scene? Pretty hot. Not just because of the graphic first page (not the most graphic thing Fiona Staples has shown us in the book to date), but because of the banter afterward. Alana acknowledging she lost control, with a few choice dirty words -- it's a side of her we haven't seen before, and it's sexy.

But it's also funny. Vaughan's good at witty dialogue -- and it bears adding that these characters have their own voice. There may be a whiff of Y in the deadpan lines that make me chuckle, but it doesn't feel like Yorick Brown arguing with Agent 355 and Dr. Mann. It's most definitely Alana and Marko talking -- it feels easy and natural from these two warrior fugitives in love.

But that's a flashback. Specifically, to Hazel's conception. Back in the present, we pick up at last month's cliffhanger: the Will has found the fugitives, there's a hatching baby Timesuck about to wipe out both ships, and the Will's ship's hull's been breached and Lying Cat's been sucked out into space. The end of last issue strongly implied Lying Cat was dead, but it was a fakeout; the Will is having none of it. He leaps out into space without a suit, saves Lying Cat, and gets the fuck out of Dodge. It's the strongest Fuck Yeah! moment in the issue; the Will lives up to his name and rescues a beloved character, Hazel's narration and the laws of physics be damned.

But while the Will's party makes it out unscathed, Marko's doesn't.

Marko's mother urges him to take the crash helms and teleport out with Alana and Hazel. Marko instead throws them into the ship's reactor, thinking that this way his parents won't have to sacrifice themselves. He's half-right.

It turns out the peaceful, pastoral image of Marko's father threading flowers on the cover is foreshadowing -- because he doesn't make it out. He uses the last of his strength casting a spell to hold the ship together. And, barring any further unreliable-narrator shenanigans from Hazel, he's really gone. We've known it was coming for months, but we didn't know it would be so soon.

This book, man.

I'm not sure when the last time was that I read a comic that put me through this wide a gamut of emotions -- quite possibly The Love Bunglers. Vaughan and Staples sing here; it may be the best issue yet of what's already become one of my favorite series.

If you're not checking out Saga -- and you read this far down anyway -- give it a look. #1 is free on Comixology.

And if you dig Brian K Vaughan, check out The Private Eye, his new DRM-free, pay-what-you-want comic with Marcos Martin on art.