Monthly Archives:January 2011

When heroes die

31 Jan , 2011,
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Fantastic Four #587 - Cover Art

They usually go out with a bang, jump into the gaping maw of a dragon, or get overrun by hordes of icky things from X dimension like the Human Torch in the latest issue of Fantastic Four.

I glanced through Issue #587 of course. What self respecting comic lover wouldn’t? But since I’ve never been a big fan of Marvel’s favorite super family, All I’m gonna do is applaud Jonathan Hickman, whose list of writing credits is something I can only dream of emulating, for doing it again.

He delivers a powerful finish.

Ultimately, this post isn’t just about The Fantastic Four (The Fantastic Three now), or poor Johnny, who bought it in a bad way.

Rather, it attempts to dissect another storytelling tool – the death of the hero, as opposed to that of the invincible hero who does no wrong, who cleaves through a thousand orcs a minute, takes down gods with a toothpick, and against all odds, refuses to die.

I can count at least two handfuls of writers who are guilty of this crime, of falling in love with their own creations, so much so that they can’t leave well alone and retire Mr. Uber Protagonist when it’s well past time to do so.

And R.A. Salvatore, the man behind Drizzt Do’Urden, is arguably the guiltiest of the lot.

Drizzt - You don't want your character to be this guy.

Drizzt, as everyone who has even remotely touched a fantasy book will know, is a collection of some of the worst tropes in popular literature (he probably invented some of them himself), disguised as a much maligned dark elf trying to make his way through the world.

He’s sulky, depressing, and two-dimensional, armed with two magic swords that would cost any other adventurer three arms and five legs (at least according to the Dungeons and Dragons rule books), and yet, when the literary gods of the Forgotten Realms (Oghma, for one) should have smote him for being such an affront to character development, he persists.

Like bad fanfiction.

My point is, a well written character knows when to exit the stage, and a decent author will know when this exit should be. Typically, it’s at the most crucial point in the story – the height of dramatic tension, where the hero’s quest is jeopardized by the appearance of the villain or by overwhelming odds.

Just think about it. You’ve got the macguffin, you’ve slain the big, fat, ugly dragon, and you’re about to get the payoff and the girl. And BAM! There’s a double cross, and the BBEG’s really the dude that hired you. Two million henchmen file in, train their guns at you. What do you do?

It is at this point that a heroic sacrifice will prove, ultimately, that good triumphs over evil, and make for a poignant, bittersweet victory that sits well with the audience.

Johnny, in #587, does this. He punts The Thing through the portal, and takes his place against the hordes of demons that have come calling. Sure, it’s likely he’ll be back in ten issues or twelve. Maybe something magical happened, his death is retconned (like so many other deaths in the Marvel universe) and he’ll be as good as new, but you can’t deny that when he goes down, he goes down in style.

Me, however, I prefer my heroes to stay dead.

Fantastic Four #587 - That's what I call a last stand.

In the real world, death is final. Everyone struggles with their mortality, even heroes. And that’s why it makes their deaths more resonant.

So even if you’ve worked a main character up from clueless rube to super sleuth, feel free to let him save the world, and go down with the sinking ship, burning tower, or exploding space station. That’s how your character becomes a legend, and not a bad trope. When you dare to let go.

Just, for the love of god, don’t pull a Drizzt, or rely on Deus Ex Machina, or alternate dimensions, and all that jazz.

Unless, of course, that hero you’ve created is a cash cow, and your publishers are adamant that you keep him alive so you can rake in the dough.

In which case it’s all perfectly legitimate.

But can you live with yourself if you do that?

Nekomimi~! =^^=

28 Jan , 2011,
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Cat ears cat ears cat ears~! =^^=

Just got the nekomimi headband (cosplay cat ears) I ordered from Etsy in the mail today, and I have to say, it’s just purr-fect. =^^=

*has a himbo moment*

The fur’s incredibly soft, and the texture’s great. The plastic band rides really comfortably on my head, and the ears are positioned just about right too.

If you wanna make one of these babies on your own, I’ll be working on a tutorial for cosplay cat ears pretty soon, so keep your paws, I mean fingers, crossed.

Now excuse me while I go bug my girlfriend with them.

Nyan~!

Raising Kane

27 Jan , 2011,
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Solomon Kane - Poster Art

Solomon Kane is a name pulp fiction lovers, especially those with an appetite for old school sword and sorcery might find familiar. He’s a figment of Robert E. Howard (the same guy responsible for Conan the Barbarian)’s imagination, and a handful of his early adventures graced the pages of Weird Tales, a periodical in the ’30s that also carried the works of H.P. Lovecraft (the founding father of tentacle fiction) and Clark Ashton Smith (a nightmare spinner in every vein).

Kane also made an appearance in several Marvel and Dark Horse runs, and having garnered something of a cult following, it was inevitable that he’d hit the silver screen.

News about Kane’s Hollywood stint was already circulating since last year’s San Diego Comic Con, together with talk about movie related tie-ins and new comic releases, so I was pretty excited when the movie opened here.

Having caught the disaster that was the Green Hornet (which I will write about in a day or two), I entered the theater hoping that Kane would dare to be different, and prove that you don’t need a $120 million dollar budget to do things right.

True enough, Solomon Kane turned out to be a pleasant romp. Opening in North Africa in the early 1600s, where Kane sacks an Ottoman fortress with his mercenary crew, only to run into ensorcelled mirrors, demons, and the Devil’s Reaper, a creature that reminded me a whole lot of the Lich King.

Fleeing this entity, Kane seeks shelter in a monastery, taking up the mantle of a pacifist. His reprieve is short lived, however. The abbot, who has felt the proverbial disturbance in the force, expels him, sending him back to his father’s lands. Along the way, Kane is ambushed by brigands, rescued by a family of pilgrims, the Crowthorns, and when they run afoul of evil forces commanded by the wizard Malachi, resolves to rescue the daughter, Meredith, and perhaps find redemption in the process.

I actually enjoyed following Kane’s character arc. His transformation from murderous plunderer to pacifist Puritan, to wrathful avenger developed nicely. There were strong, religious underpinnings, and a fair share of symbolism , but none of it was particularly sanctimonious or standoffish. Instead, it served to empower the story by crystallizing the beliefs and superstitions of the setting.

Another element that really wowed me was the choreography. The sword fights, especially with Kane going up against Malachi’s cronies, and again with the Masked Rider, were visually impressive, rife with dynamic movements and tight camera work. It was apparent that a lot of it was skill, rather than CG.

CG, as a whole, was used sparingly. That, of course, heightened anticipation, and made the appearance of the demon in the final scene a whole lot more impactful.

Admittedly, the movie had its flaws. For one, the pacing, especially during Kane’s journey with the Crowthorns, was a little too slow for my liking. It was also quite apparent, when it was revealed that Malachi dwelt in his home, that there was going to be a “SOLOMON, I AM YOUR BROTHER!” moment later on.

It’s a pity that Solomon Kane is showing on only a handful of screens here, and that its run is only 2 weeks.

Fortunately, though, there’s going to be a DVD release (if there isn’t one already), and those who’ve missed this amazing flick can pick it up at Borders or Kinokuniya, or something. XD

With a Dream and a Prayer

22 Jan , 2011,
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It’s awesome when you’ve got a friend in Japan. It’s even more awesome when he’s willing to hit up conventions for you just to get ahold of exclusive releases like Ougon Musou Kyoku, 07th Expansion’s doujin fighter based on characters from “Umineko no Naku Koro Ni” – a popular visual novel and animation series famous for it’s deeply involved storyline, complex plot twists, and supernatural themes.

Ougon Musou Kyoku - Opening Sequence

Initial Impressions:

Aptly titled “Symphony of Golden Dreams”, the biggest draw about this game has definitely got to be the score, hands down.

From the outset, you are blasted with solid, orchestral music and smooth vocals that play compliment to the mind-blowing introduction sequence.

Again at the character selection screen, you’re regaled by the game’s female ensemble as they vocalize a catchy, if sinister tune, nevermind that its in ear-grating Engrish, and this trend continues throughout the game, as you play through seven stages (called Movements, in true musical fashion) of intense, arcade fighting action.

Character Select - Take your pick!

Gameplay:

Ougon players get their pick from a plethora of characters from the franchise, including Battler, Ange, and Beatrice,  as well as the Lucifer, the leader of the Sisters of Purgatory, Beatrice’s manservant Ronove, Kanon and Shannon, and the enigmatic Virgilia.

This line up might seem a little skimpy at first, but like all doujin games, there’s little doubt content patches will introduce additional characters and options in months to come.

The controls are easy enough, and fairly intuitive. Ougon Musou Kyoku works with three primary buttons corresponding to a Light Attack, a Medium Attack, a Heavy Attack, as well as a Tag button for you to switch between your primary and reserve combatants, as well as a taunt button for health recovery. Pressing two or more buttons in tandem with specific keypad commands initiate enhanced attacks, and pressing all three Attack buttons at once activates Meta World mode.

The real mechanics come from how battles are structured.

Each bout is team based – you pick two characters, who share a common health pool, with an additional caveat – you don’t stock up your own power gauges each time you deliver an attack. You stock up that of your reserve partner’s. This forces players to master not just one character or play style, but a good mix.

Tag System

Tag, you're it!

Each time you tag in and out, your character also enhances their partner with a short lived buff.

Battler, for example, has the power of Resurrection, which recovers a small amount of health, while Eva-Beatrice increases the damage your character inflicts, if only for a short while.

Lucifer prepares to unleash her Meta World attack.

The Meta World:

Activating Meta World mode causes the background to subtly shift and gives you a quick boost for some 20 seconds, but there’s an additional benefit.

With at least 3 stocks in your power gauge, you can also deliver your most devastating attack.

This attack not only wipes out three quarters of your opponent’s health bar, but also comes with requisite cut-scenes, flashing lights, bells and whistles and magic circles as well.

How cool is that?

Characters & Graphics:

While the character designs for Ougon are true to the anime, and a lot of work was put into the animation for enhanced moves, rush supers and Meta World ultimates, there’s little to set them apart mechanically from similar, fireball tossing, uppercut inducing archetypes in the genre.

Battler plays like a typical, balanced protagonist with his four moves – a projectile, an anti-air move, a downward attack from mid air, and a charging attack, while Chiester410 is a projectile spamming turtle with an uninteresting moveset, rather than a cuddly gun bunny (or precisely because she’s a gun bunny). The game’s witches, such as Ange, Beatrice and Virgilia are a little more dynamic, but there’s truly little to write home about.

Despite slipping up a little on the mechanics aspect, Ougon redeems itself in every other way. Character sprites are crisp and beautiful, stage backgrounds are detailed, and little things like wisps of smoke and butterflies that flit about as you beat the crap out of your opponent is always a plus.  All in all, it’s visually top notch, and it’s hard to imagine that this is 07th’s first fighting game. It certainly looks like they’ve been doing this shtick for years!

Conclusion:

My real grouse about this game is a purely technical one. It’s just not keyboard friendly. Enhanced moves, Meta World Activation and the like require you to jam two or more buttons together, and these buttons, such as those defaulting to Z, X, and C on your keyboard, suffer from something called Keyblocking. This means, of course, that you’re best served with using a controller pad, or a console controller pad with a USB adapter or you’re at the mercy of the keyboard gods and bereft of your most potent moves.

Otherwise, it’s a fairly good buy. It’s something new and fun, and if you’re a fan of the franchise, something to tide you over till your next Umineko fix.

Mystery, mayhem, Mechanika, oh my~!

19 Jan , 2011,
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Lady Mechanika Issue #1 - Cover Art

I’m a sucker for steampunk. There’s something inherently fascinating about Victorian glamor, and how it gels so well with clockwork contrivances, wind-up killer robots, flintlock pistols affixed with laser scopes, and welding goggles as fashion accessories. Which, of course,  accounts for why, even before my copy of Joe Benitez’s Lady Mechanika shipped, she’d already got her hooks in me.

I first discovered this gem of steampunk coolness in the pages of Previews magazine two months earlier, during one of my routine visits to the comic store. Of course, the first print of this new Aspen title had already sold out by then, and I had to wait for the second print, which hit shelves only a couple days ago.

Set in 19th Century England, Lady Mechanika is a tale about its namesake character. The big M is a lass whose traumatic past has left her bereft of her memories and her limbs, and armed with a whole lot of new hardware (it’s a pun, get it? XD).

Like other good, old fashioned Victorian protagonists, she works as a private eye, tackling crimes and mysteries run-of-the-mill bobbies shy away from. Very Holmes-y, really. She’s aided by Littleton, her Watson, and you can imagine there’s a Moriarty’s lurking in the shadows, up to something nasty.

As it turns out, her adventure begins with a thread to her past – another girl with mechanical grafts turns up in the city, dead.

Benitez's dynamic art and paneling are obvious from this page...

... and this page, for example.

Character hook’s in your face, and the plot’s just as straightforward. Villains are (presumably) introduced nice and early, and you instantly get the feel that there’s something rotten going on (as if shady, masked characters toting guns and running a poor girl down aren’t obvious enough).

The story picks up from there, and leaves off with a sort of a mini cliff-hanger (also involving shady figures), but no real surprises there.

Whenever I read Benitez’s work, I get the feeling that he’s better at character and world creation than at storytelling, and I get this same vibe from Lady Mechanika.

Still, while he might not be a genius storyteller, he’s an incredibly talented artist. The penciling and inking is top notch and reminiscent of his work on The Darkness and Magdelena. The characters, especially, are gorgeous, and the costumes really evince a strong, Steampunk feel.

Colors are vibrant, the use of splashes, like reds and blacks, deliberate, and the backgrounds are generally impressive. The paneling is clean as well, which contributes much to the overall readability of the comic and its visual appeal.

I’m definitely looking forward to more Lady Mechanika in the weeks to come, that’s for sure. You can bet your pocketwatch on it. XD

Season of the Kitsch

17 Jan , 2011,
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Season of the Witch - Poster Art

There’s something about good ol’ Nick Cage, and it’s that he’s just not a fantasy kinda guy. And Season of the Witch, which opened here recently, proved me right on all counts.

Set sometime during the Crusades, Season of the Witch casts Cage and Ron Perlman (who was THE Hellboy) as disillusioned knights co-opted to transport a witch (played by Claire Foy) purportedly responsible for the Black Death to a distant monastery, where she’s supposed to be stripped off her witchy powers.

Predictably, Cage and Ron are joined by a band of hackneyed characters – the fresh face rube, the old has-been, the typical dour faced cleric, and a sneaky rogue type fellow.

In RPG (Role-playing Game) terms, Season of the Witch is essentially a glorified escort quest, and our party of adventurers appear to be haphazardly thrown together, quite possibly so they can be killed in a variety of silly ways.

Even the ending, with its big, hellfire and brimstone reveal, seemed trite and entirely too expected.

See, I’m normally all for fantasy stories, especially those with a strong supernatural bent, but Season of the Witch was a real disappointment.

First off, the acting was lackluster.

Having watched Cage shamble around in a trench coat, doing the wizard thing in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I was actually hoping that picking up a sword and donning plate armor might lend him a little more character, but sad to say, his performance was only passable, and among the two leads, it was Ron Perlman who stole the show.

The supporting cast, too, was only adequate. They delivered their lines, sure, but proved mostly forgettable save for the witch. But then again, who doesn’t like witches?

Beyond these apparent flaws, Season of the Witch also failed on other counts.

While the director had, at least, managed to convey a sense of bleakness and despair with his portrayal of the-stricken city and countryside, the abject lack of actual spellcasting, and the magical elements, which were somewhat downplayed until the very end, dampened things a fair bit.

The witch’s tricks were kinda cheap (as in visually cheap), and many other matters defied conventional arcane wisdom (it’s a well known fact that the Key of Solomon summons, rather than banishes demons, for example, and not vice versa).

Ultimately, by the time Nick’s band of greatly depleted adventurers hit the final encounter, I was almost half asleep with boredom.

In summation, watch this film only if you’re a die hard Nicholas Cage fan, or don’t care much for the film’s numerous pitfalls.

If you’re a true, blue fantasy fan though, you’d probably want to avoid it like the plague.

Character Building

15 Jan , 2011,
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Creating cool characters like this teenaged fire-starter is easy, if you know how. XD

Awhile ago, I started a series of free lectures and workshops at *SCAPE, with the express intent of helping up and coming comic book and manga hopefuls prepare their first manuscript.

And after almost a full term, and after working with a number of people both on and offline, I’ve come to realize that one of the greatest hurdles many aspiring writers need to overcome is actually one of the earliest and most essential steps in the entire process – that of writing a compelling lead character.

In a sense, I was lucky.

Having played Dungeons & Dragons for almost two decades, I already had an existing framework I could use to mold story characters.

It was easy enough for me to assign a value to the character’s physical and mental attributes, to think of him as somebody with a class, with skills, feats and powers that closely resembled what I wanted to accomplish in the tale. And once I had these things in mind, all that was left to do was to flesh the character out – to put him in a costume, craft a legitimate background, and turn him loose. In fact, many of the characters that populated my worlds were created with this very approach.

And since my preferred genres were either traditional or urban fantasy, everything fell into place nicely.

Of course, I don’t expect people to pick up Dungeons & Dragons, just so they can use it as a writing tool. The character creation process, however, isn’t too dissimilar to what we, as writers, tend to be accustomed to.

Typically, you’ll begin with a concept.

When you sit down to write a lead character, there’s a good chance you already have an idea in mind. You should be able to visualize how this character looks like, maybe how he’s dressed, and how he acts.

Maybe you’re basing the character off somebody you know, or it’s an idealized version of yourself, or something really radical. You’ll want to pen these things down. Just a sentence or two will do, just to give yourself and your readers the gist of things.

You’ll want to follow this up with a longer description about the character. Touch on his costume and appearance, his mannerisms, his likes and dislikes. If you’re a dab hand at drawing, maybe include a character sketch of some sort. Make it a point to describe anything interesting about the character – a scar or tattoo, and how he acquired them, or maybe a favorite scarf, or piece of jewelry.

Finally, write a little background. Explore the character’s past. How did he turn out the way you envisioned him? What did he have for breakfast that morning? Anything at all that you think might make your character interesting to the audience.

If it’s a fantasy story, you could include a vignette about your character’s coming of age ceremony, a knight’s test, or a stint at the mages’ guild. If it’s something a little more modern, maybe include a short paragraph or two about his family life, or school life. If your character has special powers, don’t forget to talk about that as well.

And finally, jot down a list of character goals. What do you want your character to accomplish during the course of the story? How do you want him to grow, and what kind of challenges do you intend for him to overcome?

Once you’re done, give the character a good once over, and ask yourself if you’d be interested in reading more about someone like him.

If not, then well, it’s back to the drawing board.

Keep working at it, and eventually, you’ll have this entire process hard-wired into your system. And when you do, you’ll find that creating characters becomes something that’s almost second nature.

But in the meantime, keep writing! XD

A monster of a movie

11 Jan , 2011,
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Monsters - Poster Art

I watched Monsters last night without knowing quite what to expect.

It was actually one of those GV Surprise Screening things, and I’d bought the ticket on a whim, on an evening when I had a whole lot of time to kill, and a whole lot of nothing to do.

It was the only indie film showing at GV anyway, and after reading the premise (photographer escorts boss’s daughter through alien infested Mexico to safety) I figured that it was still better than The Ghosts Must Be Crazy and the handful of god awful romcoms screening at the time.

So there I was, hoping that it’d be another mindless, B-grade horror flick, but at least one I might actually not hate, and actually looking forward to letting my overtaxed cranium shut down for an hour or two, when I was quickly proven wrong.

Oh so very wrong.

Sure, it looks helluva like a low budget, sci-fi horror flicks with rubber monsters (in this case tentacle monsters) in the first 10 minutes, but that’s where all semblance of BAD stops.

That’s when you discover that it’s the first 10 minutes are an elaborate ruse by the director, Gareth Edwards, to contextualize the rest of the story and tell you what it’s NOT.

And if it’s not about monsters with tentacles menacing the poor, clueless sod of a male, white protagonist, or doing nasty things to the obviously blonde female love interest, then what’s Monsters about, ya think?

As it turned out, Monsters proved to be a powerful tour de force, one that combines the road movie with elements of romance, whilst putting a spotlight on cross-border politics in Mexico and the US, photojournalism ethics, and our definition of what’s alien, and what’s not.

Being a photographer, I also found the plight of the male lead, who claims no publication pays him to shoot what what he likes (which is, of course, true), and how he’s forced to shoot suffering, or to stage his shots so they can sell (for up to 50 grand, even. O.o ) pretty resonant.

Ending was a bit abrupt, and the scene with the aliens meeting and exchanging err… sparks, was kinda sketchy, but all in all, it was decent.

Monsters opens in theaters next week, I think.

Awesomeness on a stick… tube… thing.

7 Jan , 2011,
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Behold the Ophion! XD

Here’s a shout out to Kit, the genius behind Kitsabers who made me this kickass lightsaber, which I’ve dubbed the Ophion.

I commissioned this bad boy from him back in December, when I started messing around with FightSaber, a local theatrical group that does Star Wars themed combat choreography live, on stage.

While I handled the schematics and design, Kit was the one who put up with my unreasonable demands, and cobbled everything together, and just in time for Singapore’s EOY2010 too.

Kit’s lightsabers are stunt ready, capable of handling full contact sparring thanks to the super resilient polycarbonate blade (polycarbonate is a material used to make bullet proof glass and industrial grade components).

They’re also incredibly balanced, some three inches above the hilt, which traditional swordsmiths will attest, is the perfect pivot point for a real blade. How cool is that?

He can even stick in sound boards, strip lights, and frills that will make your lightsaber look and sound as authentic as the real deal.

A closer look at the handle and curved hilt.

Note the grip and the thumb guard. XD

If you’re into Star Wars, and don’t feel like being a generic Jedi with your LucasArts endorsed Force FXes,  or if you want a custom piece that screams you, you, you that you can show off to your friends, be sure to check out Kit’s work.

The Force is strong in him, IMO.

Something to sink my teeth into

4 Jan , 2011,
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Drain - Cover Art

One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a copy of the Drain TPB (trade paperback), which I’d been dying to get my hands on for the past year and a half.

Released in late 2008, it was one of those Image titles that had slipped past my geek radar, and when I’d finally resolved to track it down, I’d discovered, too late, that the handful of copies actually available in Singapore had been sold out.

Why did I want Drain so bad? Considering how 2009 (and by association 2010) was the year of vampire movies (including, but not amounting to those about vampires that sparkled in the sun), I was seriously craving a solid vampire fix. One that had a proper narrative, and didn’t, for want of a better word, suck.

Drain is a hauntingly beautiful work, written by Marvel’s C. B. Cebulski and painted by Sana Takeda, a Japanese illustrator with several American comic book credits.

It tells the tale of Chinatsu, a Japanese vampire with a centuries old blood feud against her maker. It’s a revenge story, but it’s also got lesbian vampires (and you can’t go wrong with lesbian vampires) and strong cultural underpinnings.

Drain’s filled with the requisite gore and violence I’d come to expect of the genre, and it’s elegant gore, splashed across ephemeral, watercolored landscapes with dashes of flying cherry blossoms, water features, and freshly fallen snow.

In other words, it’s stylish, and where vampires are concerned, you can’t really argue with style.

I can see why he wants a piece of her. XD

Get what I mean? XD

Character designs are dark, fleeting and sensual, embodying both danger and mystique. The paneling, story flow, and action sequences are boldly reminiscent of wuxia (Chinese martial arts) comics, especially in the use of dynamic poses, strong lines, and lettering.

I was also impressed by the decision to use multiple full page spreads (again very wuxia style) to convey action and dramatic tension, as well as the artist’s attention to detail. You know an artist is putting in lots of effort when you can count each individual drop of blood in a frame, or study the intricate lacework on a character’s stockings.

It’s arguably the best Christmas present ever. XD