Wednesday, April 28, 2010

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender

So far the site's content has been pretty comic book heavy, so I'd like to switch gears to movies and animation for a minute.

Back in 2005, Nickelodeon premiered a new animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show, heavily influenced by Asian culture, depicted a world divided into four "nations," each in control of its own natural element: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. Each nation has a set of individuals known as "Benders" who possess the power of elemental manipulation, granting them the ability to control and wield their nation's element as a weapon. According to legend, one Bender will possess the power of the Avatar, allowing them to master each bending art, starting with their native element.
The power of the Avatar is rotated among the elemental nations so no one nation has control over this power indefinitely. When an Avatar dies, their spirit is reincarnated into a member of the next nation in the Avatar Cycle. The Cycle changes according to the seasons, with each nation and element representing a different season: Autumn for the Air Nomads, winter for the Water Tribe, spring for the Earth Kingdom and summer for the Fire Nation.

When the series began, we were introduced to Aang, an airbender, just as he learns that he will be the next Avatar. Unable to cope with the responsibility, Aang flees from his home on the back of his flying bison, Appa. During their flight, Aang and Appa are confronted with a storm that forces them deep into the ocean freezing them in a state of suspended animation in a giant iceberg. Shortly after Aang's disappearance, Lord Sozin, leader of the Fire Nation, kills the current Avatar Roku, a member of the Fire Nation as well. Knowing that the next Avatar will come from the Air Nomads as dictated by the Avatar Cycle, Sozin and the Fire Nation launch a genocidal campaign against the Nomads. With no Avatar, no one will be able to stop the Fire Nation's quest for world domination. After being discovered by two waterbenders, Katara and Sokka, Aang is trained in the various bending arts and they assist him defeating the Fire Nation and restoring order to their world. 

I was late to the Avatar party. I would never have known the show existed if my brother-in-law, Robert, hadn't introduced me to it. Initially I was struck by the three key elements to the show's success. First, the series had a unique visual style, a combination of traditional American animation and anime (Japanese animation). This allowed the series to maintain a strong sense of East Asian influence, yet appeal to a larger North American audience unfamiliar with Asian art styles. Second, Avatar is very cinematic in both direction and scope. The camera angles, the meticulously choreographed fight sequences and the attention to detail in this fictional world were not something I found to be common in most Nickelodeon cartoons. They seemed to accomplish so much more and crafted a story that would rival anything found in most films. Although geared primarily towards children, the show is much more mature than most would think. Finally, the show teaches you a lot about friendship and family. You watch as the show's three main protagonists grow closer and very fond of one another as they move through their journey, willing to sacrifice their very lives for one another. You care about them and that helps you engage in the show on a deeper level than just entertainment.

I'll admit that I have yet to see every episode, most importantly I missed the series finale, it's highest-rated episode to date. I plan on going back and watching the DVDs, but what I saw I really enjoyed and think most people will if they give it a shot. If animation is not your thing (and it really should be), you'll be happy to know that on July 2, 2010, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender will hit theaters, a live-action version of the animated series. The final trailer was released this past Friday and I've added the video below. Check it out. Although I will always prefer the original source material, I have to admit the movie looks pretty good.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Free Comic Book Day - May 1, 2010

I just wanted to remind everyone that this coming Saturday, May 1, 2010, is "Free Comic Book Day." For those who don't know, "Free Comic Book Day" is a nationwide promotion where retailers and the larger comic book industry hand out free comics books to the public in an effort to help promote the industry and to bring new readers into shops.

"Free Comic Book Day" is always held on the first Saturday in May and has been since it started in 2002. To give you an idea how this promotion works, it's important to point out that you can't walk into a comic book store, pick any issue off the shelves and walk out without paying for it. Instead, retailers make available specially printed copies of free comic books chosen by the publishers to anyone who enters the store. Often times these issues are re-prints of titles that the publisher wishes to promote, however there are instances where a publisher, typically an independent company, will issue a brand new book hoping that the added exposure will build a fan following for their new title. In addition to the free comics, retailers often offer discounts on other comics and trade paperbacks and some even have creators at their store to sign books and do sketches. It's a good day for comics and comic book fans. I try and hit multiple stores because each one offers something different. Be mindful, however, that the store may limit how many comics you can take in an effort to ensure that everyone who comes in can get a free comic.

If you head out to a shop this year, and  you have a few bucks to spend, try to pick something up besides the free comics. This promotion wasn't set up just to promote comics, it was also set up as a way to get people in stores to help retailers with sales. Although the comics are free to the customer, the retailer does have to pay for them, so they do take on a good deal of cost to offer this promotion to you.

To get a look at the titles available this year, check out this link:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Artist to Watch - Francis Manapul

I'm starting a new feature on the site called "Artist to Watch." I'll highlight a comic book artist who I think is putting out some of the best artwork in the game right now. The individual may not be a new artist per se, but they are someone who I feel deserves to be recognized for the top-notch work they are releasing on a regular basis. The post will provide some biographical information, a bibliography, some art samples, and then a brief story about my first experience with their work.

I couldn't have picked a better artist for the inaugural edition than Francis Manapul.

The Filipino-Canadian artist got his break, and is most easily recognized, for his work as the penciller on Top Cow's Witchblade. He began working on the title in 2001 and stayed on the book until 2005, pencilling a total of 23 issues. Following his work on Witchblade, Manapul stuck around the Top Cow offices providing interiors for other titles such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Darkness and The Necromancer.

Since 2007, Manapul has been an exclusive artist for DC Comics. He's drawn interiors for Adventure Comics, Superman/Batman, and he just recently signed on to draw the new ongoing Flash title written by Geoff Johns.

Manapul has quickly turned into my favorite artist working right now. He refers to his style as "Americana." His figures tend to buck the trend of the traditional superhero model. Gone are the excessive muscles and gargantuan physiques of male superheroes, and he avoids the tendency to overly sexualize female characters. His characters are expressive and each one is unique when compared to the rest. His work is clean and it reminds me a lot of the artwork we used to see in the 1960s and earlier.

There are two things Manapul does extremely well. The first relates to movement. He draws motion better than anyone I've seen, and this ability is on full display with his Flash artwork. The Flash is a character who is always moving and most artists tend to draw him almost in a blur. When you draw the Flash this way you lose the little things that makes him such a cool character. It's important to show his speed, but at the same time include enough detail to see what the Flash is doing while running so fast. To illustrate my point, look at his cover to The Flash: Secret Files and Origins. Here we have a series of images where Barry Allen dons the Flash costume. The image is dynamic. You get a sense of motion yet you can stop and appreciate the little details like the costume exploding out of the Flash's ring, Barry pulling down the mask and before you know it the Flash is right in front of you.

In addition to motion, Manapul draws animals so well it should be illegal. Most artists will tell you that animals are tough. During his run on Adventure Comics, the script required Manapul to draw Krypto, Superman's pet dog, quite a bit. I couldn't stop staring at the images of Krypto in every issue. I told myself that if I ever met Manapul at a convention, and he was sketching, I would ask for Krypto. His illustrations made Krypto feel "real," but not photo referenced. He was even expressive, capturing the little tilts of the head that give dogs their personality. I've never been so fascinated with an artist's rendering of a pet in my life.

The first time I saw Manapul's work was in Superman/Batman #60. In this issue, the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight find themselves mysteriously transported to a city in an alternate reality that is an amalgam of Metropolis and Gotham City. In this reality, not only have the cities merged, but the heroes have as well. Superman and Batman find themselves facing off against the the Justice Titans, a conglomeration of the JLA and the Teen Titans. The cover hooked me and the interiors were even more impressive. Manapul drew issues 60 and 61 and both are worth checking out.

I couldn't be happier to know that Manapul is back doing interiors on a regular basis with the Flash. The first issue arrived in stores on April 14, 2010 and you should still be able to get a copy at your local store. With Geoff Johns on writing duties and Francis Manapul on art, this should be a run for the ages. No pun intended.

Sites of interest:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kick-Ass Movie Review

With a marketing campaign centered around a 12-year-old girl cursing and shooting people in the face, it's no wonder this movie tanked at the box office. But should it have?

Adapted from the eight-issue comic book written by Mark Millar and drawn my John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass tells the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), your average American high school student. Dave is a bit of a nerd. He doesn't run with the popular crowd, he has trouble with the ladies, and he spends most of his time either reading comics books or furiously masturbating in his bedroom fantasizing about his English teacher. Oh how I miss high school....but I digress. One day while sitting in the local comic shop with his friends, Dave is struck by one of the most important philosophical questions of our time....Why hasn't anyone ever tried to be a superhero?

Think about it, millions of people have read comic books and watched superhero oriented movies and television shows, and even more have probably fantasized about what it would be like to be Batman or Superman. How is that no one has ever put on a make-shift costume and prowled the streets to dish out vigilante justice to the criminal element? Well the short answer is that any asshole who put on a pair of leotards and a mask would probably get shanked by a drug dealer name Lil' Big within the first 15 minutes of patrol. But this little nugget of truth is not enough to stop Dave from ordering himself a wetsuit online, doing a few sit-ups, and taking to the streets as Kick Ass.

Needless to say, Dave gets in over his head. And by over his head I mean he gets stabbed and hit by car during his first confrontation with a pair of carjackers.  Now at this point, after months of rehabilitation and shitting into a plastic bag, most people would come to the realization that they don't have what it takes to be a superhero. In fact, they'd probably come to the conclusion that no one does. Comic books are fiction. Fantasy really. But Dave isn't most people. He's been bitten by the superhero bug and soon finds himself back in uniform. This is when the movie really gets interesting as Dave is introduced to two of the most fascinating characters to hit movie screens in a while: Big Daddy and Hit Girl, played brilliantly by Nicholas Cage and Chloe Moretz.

Big Daddy and Hit Girl are a father-daughter team hell bent on taking down the mob. Gone are the days of the citizen arrest. These two are out for blood. And lots of it. When Kick Ass finds himself trapped in an apartment with several drug dealers about to kill him in ways he never imagined, Hit Girl comes to his aid. More accurately, Hit Girl and two samurai swords she wields in such a way as to make Akira Kurosawa nauseous. Now this sounds like a character you've seen in a dozen action movies prior to this. What makes Hit Girl so special, and so controversial?  Did I mention she's played by a twelve-year-old girl?

Chole Moretz steals the show as Hit Girl. Period. She's violent, she's foul mouthed, and she's cute as a button. A real triple threat. When she's on screen you love every minute of it. When she's off screen you can't wait for her to return. This girl is going to be a huge star. Her stunts were top notch, many of which she did herself, and she delivers one of the movies shining moments in a gut-wrenching scene where she attempts to rescue her father before he is killed by the mob. The audience whimpered. It was very moving. And she also delivers the movie's most memorable line where she tells Kick Ass the best way to contact her and Big Daddy if he needs any help. I won't spoil it here. You have to hear it for yourself.

As good as Moretz was, everyone else came a close second. There is not a single misstep in the casting of this movie. It's rare that I go to a movie and don't come out complaining about someone's performance, but every actor completely owned their role. Two cast members deserve special mention: Aaron Johnson and Clark Duke.

You can't review a movie called Kick Ass without mentioning the lead actor. I don't know much about Aaron Johnson. I can't name another movie or television show he has been in. But I do know that he was spectacular in this movie. He is a character that you like instantaneously and you find his pathetic attempts at heroism inspiring. You believe that he wants to do the right thing. That he's tired of being bullied and sitting idly by while criminals and assholes treat good people like garbage. You root for him the whole way through and that helps you buy into the movie and the premise that, even after nearly being killed, he would go back out and do it all again.

Clark Duke plays Dave's best friend Marty. Marty is skeptical of the whole idea of an average citizen becoming a costumed vigilante. He even tells Dave that no one as ever tried it because they would probably get killed day one. In this way, Marty represents the audience. He says what we're all thinking when Dave suggests that someone should become a real-life superhero. He also acts as a big part of the film's comic relief. Much of his performance is in subtle little glances he gives throughout the movie, but a simple look will make you laugh  your ass off. Duke isn't in the movie a lot, but when he is he's gold.

Finally, let's give it up for director Matthew Vaughn. Prior to Kick Ass, Vaughn directed two other movies: Layer Cake and Stardust, two movies that couldn't be more unlike Kick Ass. His choices in cinematography, music, and visual style all come together to make Kick Ass an all-around bad ass flick. There's not a decision he made that didn't work. I very much look forward to seeing his next project whatever it may be.

I can sum this movie up in one word: Fun. It's not a masterpiece. It won't win an Academy Award, nor will it make anyone's list of the top 100 movies of all time. But it will give you an enjoyable 2 hours at the movies. The more I think about it, the more I enjoyed it. As I sit and type this I wish I could see it again. Kick Ass is a definite 4 out of 5 star movie. I'm disappointed that it didn't have a stronger opening weekend. I think more people need to see it. Hopefully it will sell a shit-ton of DVDs. If this movie is any indicator of what the summer movie line-up will bring consider me on board.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Guild

The other night I was scanning the iTunes store looking for new television shows to download when I came across a web series called The Guild. The pilot was free so I decided to take a chance and check it out. I had never heard of the series so I went into the pilot cold with zero expectations. When the first episode was over I was happy to know that I now had a new series to add to my list of "must watch" shows.
The Guild is an independent web series following the fictional day-to-day lives of seven online gamers who spend all their time in front of their computer screens playing a MMORPG. The guild is called the Knights of Good and the members include: Vork, Bladezz, Tinkerballa, Clara, Zaboo, and Codex.

Each episode, which varies in length from 3-8 minutes, begins with a webcam vlog by Codex (Felicia Day) where she brings the viewer up to speed on what happened in the prior episode and then sets up the events that will take place in the remainder of the show. Although the show centers around the group's involvement in an online multi-player game, the episdoes are written in such a way as to offer something to viewers with no familiarity with such forms of entertainment. The majority of the series focuses on the guild's offline activities, including the guild assisting one member in getting out from under the thumb of his overprotective and controlling mother, to chronicling Codex's awkward attempts to woo her new stuntman neighbor. It's a look at the personalities that make up the online gaming community and how, through years of acting as an organized gaming entity, these personalities come to develop lasting friendships.
While it's true that the series is geared towards gamers and card-carrying-members of the geek community, I belive most viewers will find the humor refreshing and the character personalities are truly something to behold, drawing from a wealth of gamer stereotypes.

The Guild is the creation of actress and avid gamer Felicia Day. After years of gaming, Day decided to turn her love of video games into something a bit more productive, leading her to write a pilot originally created for television. After concluding that the show's premise targeted a niche audience as opposed to a mainstream viewership,it was decided to turn the show into a web series instead, a decision that proved to be very lucrative in the long run. In addition to being an award-winning series, the show has it's own line of merchandise, three seasons of DVDs, a distribution deal with Microsoft, and in March of 2010 the show was adapted into a three-issue comic book series from Dark Horse Comics. Not bad for a show that started on YouTube.

What I like most about the show, and find most refreshing, is the presence of three female leads. Up until this point the average gamer was depicted as an overweight male in his late 20s or early 30s who may or may not have seen a naked woman that he didn't have to pay for. It's about time someone spotlighted the female gamer.

If you're interested in checking out something new with a sharp sense of humor, give The Guild a try.