Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Review – Naruto Volume 28

Written by – Masashi Kishimoto
Art by – Masashi Kishimoto
Published by – Viz Media

It’s been two years since Naruto left to train with Jiraiya. Now he reunites with his old friends to find out he’s still not the most accomplished of his former team mates. But when ones of them are kidnapped, it’s up to Naruto to prove he’s still got the stuff to save them!

I know that the above will mean absolutely nothing to 99.9% of the people reading this review but please stick with it, Naruto is one of my geek loves and I thought it was about time that I spread the love around a bit.
As a comic fan you get used to people looking at you strangely more often and not conversations I have with the general populace go
Stranger - So what are you into?
Nick - I like reading comics.
Stranger - really (incomprehension painted all over their face) aren’t they just for kids? Anyway did you see the football/rugby/any other sport last weekend?
Nick - sigh (and I get stuck in a one way conversation for the next hour over the merits of the Welsh rugby team).
So you can imagine what throwing an obscure Japanese manga series into the mix does, that sh*t really blows peoples minds.
So what the hell is Naruto? I hear the one person still reading cry. Please allow me to explain.
Naruto Uzumaki is a very unhappy twelve year old boy, orphaned, shunned and mistreated by the rest of his village he day dreams of one day becoming a ninja and ultimately the Hokage (village leader). But the villagers have a very good reason for the way they treat Naruto, twelve years ago the village of The Hidden Leaf Village was attacked by the Nine Tailed Demon Fox. In a bid to save the village the Fourth Hokage sacrificed himself by sealing the demon in the new born Naruto. The Third Hokage then forbade any mention of the attack by the Nine Tailed Fox; naturally the villagers were angry at the death and devastation wrought by the demon and ultimately take out all their fear and loathing on the young Naruto.
The first part of the story follows Naruto as he trains to become a ninja, along the way he befriends the two other members of Team 7 Sasuke Uchiha and Sakura Haruno. Under the guidance of team leader Kakashi Hatake Team 7 must learn new abilities to aid them on their quest to become fully fledged ninjas and Naruto’s ultimate dream of being Hokage.

Boiled down to its essence it’s easy to write of Naruto off as a simple coming of age story but this is manga/anime your dealing with people so there’s a hell of a lot more going on than first meets the eye.
I first came across Naruto about four years ago whilst searching on the website TV.com were it was consistently number 1 in it’s top 10 list of cartoons. Now I’m a sucker for a good cartoon or anime so taking a chance I managed to get hold of the first twenty or so episodes of Naruto and that as they say was that. My obsession lasted all summer, I watched the first 200 episodes back to back, even when I hit the 170 mark and the English dubbed versions ran out I ploughed on with the English subbed versions till I reached the final 200th episode.
Highlights of the first 200 episodes for me were the team from the Village Hidden in the Sand made up of siblings Gaara, Kankuro and Temari. To say that these kids are messed up is an understatement and you really do have to see some of the stuff that Gaara pulls to believe it.

Another winner for me is the bushy browed one himself Rock Lee who is quite frankly a ridiculous character, but he does manage to kick all kinds of ass - spectacularly.

Unfortunately at that point real life took hold and Naruto disappeared from my life until about two weeks ago. Whilst on Twitter a tweet popped up that someone had read and enjoyed the first volume of Naruto so after a quick search on the web I managed to work out that after watching 200 episodes of the anime I was up to volume 28 of the manga (there are a lot of filler episodes in the anime). Well who could resist, certainly not me, a quick click and I was on Amazon ordering volume 28 for an earth shattering price of £4. So I waited with baited breath for the postman to deliver the book, would Naruto be as good as I remembered or had I gone slightly mad back in the summer of 2007.  
The answer to this question is both yes and no.
Volume 28 picks up 2 years after the end of episode 200; Naruto has been away travelling with Jiraiya and returns to the Village of the Hidden Leaf seemingly a changed person. The young hot headed boy has been replaced by a more thoughtful teenager but a quick reveal of his sexy jutsu (don’t ask) shows that the changes may just be superficial. There are two main stories running through volume 28, the first deals with Kakashi testing both Naruto and Sakura to see how far their skills have progressed in two years. This nicely mirrors the first test from the beginning of Naurto and acts a reminder as to what has come before and shows how much Naruto and Sakura have developed. The second story is perhaps the more interesting of the two and shows the kidnapping of Gaara by the mysterious Akatsuki organisation. Overall I enjoyed the book but I had a nagging doubt at the back of my mind that it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it after all this was the first volume of Naruto I had actually read. To me Naruto is a very visual show the jutsu’s (special moves) are great to watch and the fights and there are a lot of them, sometimes go on for five or more episodes. Unfortunately the book felt a bit static to me and it just didn’t catch the visual flair of the anime. Also there androgynous nature of some of the characters is confusing, I was convinced that one of the members of the Akatsuki sent to kidnap Gaara was a woman but in fact it turns out that he/she is in fact a he.  Another problem I had was with Kankuro who looks exactly like his brother Gaara when stripped of his makeup and head gear, I got really mixed up at a point in the book,  just who had been kidnapped -Gaara - and who was in hospital poisoned – Kankuro - who I thought was Gaara – arhhhhhhhh.
Undaunted by this disappointment and with a stroke of good fortune I have managed to get hold of Naruto Shippuden (the new name for the anime after episode 200 and denotes the two year break) and I have watched the first three episodes and once again I am totally and utterly hooked. The anime does a brilliant job of capturing the books but it magnifies everything that’s great about them by about 100%.

Final thoughts
After reading volume 28 I am at last able to contrast and compare the two sources and I am falling down squarely on the side of the anime, this I realise may be sacrilegious to some people but frankly I don’t care, each to there own  I say. So when someone asks me what I like I’ll say oh I watch a little known Japanese anime series called Naruto, it’s all about a boy who has got a Nine Tailed Demon Fox sealed in him and if they start waffling on about football/rugby I will unleash my Shadow Clone Jutsu on them. Believe it!!!!!!!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

There Can Be Only One – Highlander an Appreciation

From the Dawn of Time we came, moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the Time of the Gathering, when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you, until now.

So there those big moments in life that define pretty much who you are and to a lesser extent there are those geek moments in life that define your geek life. For me one such moment was when I first watched Highlander, I can still clearly remember it.  The video man round our way ran his shop from his car, one Friday night he turned up with a new rental called Highlander. This would have been around about 1987 I was gearing up to leave school and so was still a tear away ahem, an impressionable teenager. Highlander quite literally blew my mind and as I creep ever more slowly to my 40th year it still continues to blow my mind. I have owned this film on nearly every format that’s been available through the years an ex rental video tape, video tape, DVD, DVD Special Edition and finally Blu-Ray and watching the Blu-Ray has in some one inspired me to commit to blog my appreciation for this film.

I’m not really sure if I can put my finger on why I love this film, for me the sum of its parts is greater than it whole. The central idea of Highlander is that immortals live among us battling one another through history till the time of the Gathering when the last remaining few will battle for the Prize, as an idea it kick’s ass. Being immortal and living for ever is such a staple of fantasy but who hasn’t day dreamed of being immortal? But what this film does really well is also show the realities of living forever, for me there are three key scenes in the film demonstrate this brilliantly :-

First off there is the films emotionally packed middle, accompanied by Queen’s haunting Who Wants to Live for Ever, Connor MacLeod watches helplessly as his beloved wife Heather ages before his very eyes. One moment they are a young couple full of life with years ahead of them but then time cruelly catches up with them and Heathers inevitable death comes to pass but not before she makes Connor promise to light a candle every year on her birthday and remember her. After her death Connor buries her in the mountains leaving his clan broad sword as a grave marker and then burns their cottage symbolising he is leaving that part of this life behind him.

The next scene is between Connor or Russell Nash as he is now living by and his (good as) adopted daughter Rachel. It’s a very simple scene (if I remember rightly she is doing up his tie for him) but with some amazing dialogue which perfectly shows how Heathers death affected and continues to effect Connor

Rachel - Will you listen to me for one moment? You can't hide your feelings from me! I've known you too long.
Connor - What feelings?
Rachel - How about loneliness?
Connor - I'm not lonely. I've got everything I need right here.
Rachel - Oh no you don't. You refuse to anyone love you.
Connor - Love is for poets.

Like I said simple but effective.

Lastly there is the scene in Connor’s Den in his modern day New York apartment, it’s almost like stepping back through history with him. The den is adorned with the artifacts and objects he has collected through his long life. Again it’s a simple device but it really hits home that Connor has lived all these lives down through the ages.

For me though the best scenes in the film are that of the Quickening, it’s jammed pack full of fantasy clich├ęs and sword fights on top of mountains but it gets me every time. Ramirez played by the brilliant Sean Connery tracks down Connor to the Scottish Highlands in order to prepare him for the coming battles and to make sure that he doesn’t lose his head. It plays out like an 80’s soft rock video but given director Russell Mulcahy’s background in music videos it’s hardly surprising. Although I’m still not sure what the hell is going own with the whole deer possession thing, very strange.

The three main cast members in Highlander are also worthy of a mention. First up playing the title role of Connor MacLeod is Christopher Lambert, who as a Frenchman had to be taught English in order to play the leading roll. Given that however Lamberts portrayal of Connor is pretty good and his Scottish accent is not at all bad. However his American accent in the modern day setting does have a distinct French flavour. Next up is Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez played by the indomitable Sean Connery. Ramirez is supposed to a 2400 years old Egyptian living out his immortal years in Spain, but its Sean Connery, so what you end up with is a 2400 year old Scots man. But hey it’s Connery and he does lend the film a certain gravitas. Last but no least is the scene chewing acting behemoth Clancy Brown playing the very, very bad man the Kurgan. The Kurgan is the villain of the film and wants to win the prize for his own dark means; he is from a particularly vicious clan of killers from the Russian Steppes and as Ramirez points out to Connor the Kurgan’s like to "toss children into pits full of starved dogs, and watch them fight for the meat for amusement” which is nice. Perhaps not surprisingly then it’s Connor and the Kurgan left to fight it out for the Prize at the end of the film.

Another important part of the film for me is the soundtrack. The original musical score was composed by Michael Kamen however the soundtrack also includes several songs by Queen most noticeably Princes of the Universe and the Brian May penned choker Who Wants to Live Forever. Although there was no official soundtrack released to accompany Highlander the songs that Queen composed for the film can be found on the 1986 album A Kind of Magic.

Final thoughts

So there we have it a small blog post in praise of one of my favorite films Highlander, for me it’s a classic film that I never get bored of watching. Yes it’s got its flaws, but dodgy accents and ropey special effects aside I still love it and will continue to do so. Remember there can be only one, which is sage advice for the Highlander franchise as we don’t under any circumstances acknowledge the existence of any sequels, we really don’t.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Review – Fables Legends in Exile Volume 1

Written by – Bill Willingham
Pencils by – Lan Medina
Inks by – Steve Leialoha & Craig Hamilton
Colours by – Sherilyn van Valkenburgh
Letters by – Todd Klein
Published by – Vertigo

Who killed Rose Red?
In Fabletown, where fairy tale legends live alongside regular New Yorkers, the question is all anyone can talk about. But only the Big Bad Wolf can actually solve the case and along with Rose’s sister Snow White, keep the Fabletown community from coming apart at the seams.

Fables Legends in Exile is the first collected volume of Bill Willingham’s ongoing series for DC Vertigo. This monthly comic was first published in 2002 and this first volume collects together issues 1 to 5. Yes I’m late to the party but this is the great thing about coming back to comics after an extended break there are loads of great series out there with loads of published volumes just waiting to be read.
So if like me you’ve been living under a rock and you’re not aware of what Fables is I’ll try and provide a brief outline before I expand on volume 1.
In Willingham’s Fables fairy tale and folklore characters have been driven from their homelands by the evil Adversary, the Fables have now somehow travelled to our world and live in a suburb of New York called Fable Town. Fables who look like humans live happily alongside us (the Mundanes) and the other Fables folk who are non human looking, live up at the Farm. The fables community is ruled over by the Mayor Old King Cole, but the real power lies with his deputy Snow White. So there we have it that’s the basic principle behind Fables.
Legends in Exile kick’s of with a possible murder, Rose Red has been the victim of a violent and bloody attack in her apartment and her current whereabouts are unknown. As Fabletown’s sheriff the Big Bad Wolf, now in human form and known as Bigby, is in charge of the investigation and is charged with unravelling the mystery of Red’s apparent disappearance. Bigby is helped in his investigation much to his initial annoyance by Red’s sister Snow White the no nonsense Deputy Mayor. But not everything is as it seems the party girl Rose Red unbeknown to her boyfriend Jack, was engaged to be married to reformed pirate Blue Beard (look how well that turned out for his other wives) and with the appearance of Snow White’s philandering ex husband Prince Charming things get complicated, really quickly.
I thought Fables was a great read, Willingham’s central concept for Fables is quite brilliant and although the characters are well known to everybody they are written differently enough to be interesting. Bigby is perhaps the most interesting character in volume 1, the reformed Big Bad Wolf is now able to take on human form although his shadow does appear to be still that of the wolf – nice touch. Bigby is portrayed as the classic noir detective and although he appears to solve the mystery surrounding Rose Red’s disappearance quickly, he drags out the reveal of events until he can manoeuvre Snow White into a position when he can confess his true feelings for her, which she quickly rebuffs. The other great Bigby moment is when one of The Three Little Pigs escapes from The Farm and crashes at his apartment. It only lasts for a page but its laugh out loud funny and keep your eye for the pig, he does turn up in some unexpected places throughout the book.   
The art work and colouring through out the book is of a very high standard, although it does feel a little old school to me, it very much feels like a proper comic and is different from the kind of work that’s on offer today but seeing as the issues were published back in 2002 it is perhaps understandable.
The original series covers by James Jean and Alex Maleev are also included in this volume and are great pieces of work but they do seem to have a very unsettling and other worldly quality to them.

Also included in this collection is a short prose story entitled A Wolf In the Fold, usually I skip these but decided to actually read this one and I’m so glad I did. The story chronicles Bigby’s life as The Big Bad Wolf and the start of The Adversaries invasion of the various Fables lands. You also learn how the wolf first meets Snow White and Rose Red. This was a fantastic short story and really filled out the back story in Fables that you just wouldn’t get from reading the comic in isolation.

Final thoughts
Although Willingham’s concept for Fables is a brilliant one he does pull off a massive slight of hand trick with the reader, at its heart this first volume is basically a whodunit murder mystery that Agatha Christie herself would have been proud of. That being said I’m a massive Christie fan so this book hit all the right notes for me and I will definitely look forward to reading more Fables.
So if you haven’t read Fables and you can get hold of it (not an easy task) its well worth checking out, it’s a high concept book that works brilliantly. And remember people keep your eyes peeled for the porker.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Review - 10thology

I have written another guest review this time its for Rich McAuliffe's Everything Comes Back to 2000ad site. I review 10thology the anthology book recently released at CICE.

10thology is the brain child of Stuart Tipples, his idea was a seemingly simple one 10 stories, 10 pages, each with a Welsh flavour, written by and drawn by Welsh creators. Sounds easy.

Yes I’m being facetious, it’s testament I think to Stuarts sheer bloody mindedness and hard work that 10thology exists at all. That he and the others involved in the project have produced such a high quality book is something I think to be applauded and congratulated.

I have to admit I have been scratching my head somewhat over exactly how to do this review, I know albeit slightly, some of the creators involved and Wales suddenly got a lot smaller. I had visions of a mob of pitchfork wielding Welsh comic creators descending on my home much like the scene in Frankenstein (not that I live in a castle). So I will try to be honest with the review if I don’t like something I like to think I have the balls to say so, but I like to think that I can also give a reasoned and articulate reason as to why I didn’t like it. Conversely, if I like it expect much praise.

You can read the rest of my review here

Thanks to Rich for allowing me to do the review and posting it up on the site.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Review – Breathe

The guys over at Geek Dome have been kind enough to post up my review for Breathe. Here’s an extract and if you click on link below you can head over to Geek Dome and read the rest of the review.

Written by – John Sheridan
Art by – Kit Wallis
Published by – Markosia
Tread softly in the bulrushes, lest you wake the dragon
Breathe is four issue mini series from 2007 published by Markosia. Set in China 1796, it follows the story of Mi Ling a young village girl who in an effort to escape the drudgery of her everyday life walks and dances in the nearby fields and mountains collecting flowers and doing girly stuff. However Mi Lings peaceful existence is shattered after an act of extreme violence involving her family, this sets her on a path of revenge that will lead to revelations, murder and heartbreak.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Review - Stiffs

Written by – Drew Davis-PJ Montgomery-Joseph Glass

Art by – Gavin Mitchell

Colours & Lettering by – Adam Caldwell

Quality, that’s the first thing that springs to mind when I think about Stiffs (yeah stop sniggering), it looks amazing for a self published comic, the pages are weighty and the art and the colouring are brilliant throughout.  My next thought is Welsh, this comic wears its heart on its sleeve and it’s unashamedly Welsh.

Stiffs is the creation of writers Drew Davis, Patrick Montgomery and Joseph Glass and follows the adventures of Don Daniels and his spliff toting monkey Kenny. Horror stalks the South Wales Valley’s in the guise of the walking dead, zombies and it’s up to Don and Kenny to sort this shit out before it get’s out of hand.

I picked this 12 page preview of Stiffs up at CICE and I have to say it was money well spent. The story hits its stride straight away and finds it voice immediately, which is refreshingly Welsh, not just pretending to be Welsh I mean proper Welsh butty, ewe listening to me. The dialogue is fresh and sharp, with loads of great one liners and it’s quite often the monkey stealing the best ones.

The art by Gavin Mitchell is excellent and reminded me of a lot of Mike Mignola, especially the last zombie filled splash page. The colouring by Adam Cadwell (of the superb web comic The Everyday) is also excellent with the use of lime green put to great effect. Both artist and colourist have done a great job.

I for one can’t wait for more of the story to unfold and as great as this preview is it just isn’t enough, roll on issue number one proper.

I was luckily enough to catch up with the guys at CICE and have a little chat with them and they even signed my copy of Stiffs for me.  I also managed to get a short interview with one of the writers PJ via email, so here it is.

Nick - So how did the three of you Drew Davies, PJ Montgomery and Joseph Glass, get together in the first place?

PJ - Drew and I were friends already, as were Drew and Joe. Drew and I had both been telling the stories which would eventually become Stiffs on our respective blogs. It was on a trip to the Bristol Comic Expo where Drew introduced me to Joe, and the three of us realised that our stories might be good fodder for a comic.

Nick - Have you always been interested in comics and was it always part of the plan to produce your own stuff?

PJ - I've personally been reading comics since X-Men #52 in 1996. That was my first one, and I've been hooked ever since. I've always wanted to be a writer though, and it wasn't long after getting into comics that I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing them too.

Nick - The art in Stiff’s is of a pretty high standard, how did you come across Gavin Mitchell?

PJ - Gav was a lucky find. We'd been looking for an artist for a while, and Gav happened to be friends with a friend of Joe. Joe was put in contact with Gav, and we sent him some pages to see what he could do. It turned out that, not only is Gav a bloody talented artist, but he just got what we wanted to do with the book. I can't imagine anyone else drawing Stiffs now.

Nick - I’m a big fan of Adam Cadwell’s The Everyday, how did you get Adam on board as the colourist?

PJ - Again, that was Joe. We knew The Everyday, but it was Joe who just sent him an e-mail on the off chance. Thankfully, Adam, like Gav, liked the idea and got what we were trying to do with it, and he and Gav have become an excellent art team together.

Nick - Where did the inspiration for Kenny the spliff smoking monkey come from?

PJ - Believe it or not, Kenny was Drew's imaginary friend growing up. In fact, and you'd have to confirm this with Drew, but I think that there's a story about a time when Drew broke the dishwasher, and genuinely tried to blame it on Kenny. Kenny was a part of the original stories Drew wrote, and we decided to keep him in, because a) he's so much fun to write, and b) he's a unique selling point for a horror comedy book.

Nick - How have you found the process publishing your own comic?

PJ - It's been difficult, if I'm honest. It's taken us a long time to get this far. Finding the right printer, and getting the money together has been tough, but it's also very much worth it!

Nick - How was CICE for you and the guys?

PJ - It was really good. The atmosphere in general was fantastic, and people seemed to like Stiffs. We sold a number of copies, and have had nothing but good feedback. It's a really good feeling. We'll definitely be back at CICE next year.

Nick - Where can people get hold of Stiffs?

PJ - At the moment, it's being stocked in The Comic Guru in Cardiff, and is also available through his website, or you can contact Drew, Joe or myself directly. (You can find the guys on Twitter @PJMontgomery @DrewnoD @josephglass)

Nick - And finally when can we expect more Stiffs?

PJ - I can't give you a definite date, but it will be later this year. Keep an eye out for it!

So there we have it a brief review of the Stiffs preview and a short interview with PJ, if you can do, I would urge you to pick a copy of Stiffs you won’t be disappointed.

A big thanks to PJ for doing the interview.