Sunday, April 20, 2008

Amazing Spider-Man #555-557

Release Date: April 2008

Cost: $3 per issue

Normally I would only review a single issue at one time, but since Marvel has decided to publish ASM an abnormal three times monthly it makes more sense to talk about all three issues as a complete story.

I'll give a quick recap for those who might not be familiar with the current publishing cycle of Amazing Spider-man: ASM has always been the best selling of the Spider-man titles and the most important storyline-wise. So it must have made sense to Marvel to cancel every other Spider-man title and publish 3 times the number of ASM books, with all 3 issues making up a self-contained story. To complicate matters further the title has no consistent creative team as writers, inkers, and pencillers change every month. This wouldn't be a huge problem except for the fact that each creative team has control over every new character that they create. Thus, some interesting characters introduced six issues ago have not been seen or heard from for two months. This makes any storyline seem disjointed, and each set of 3 issues doesn't seem to connect to the previous or subsequent story arc.

All of this might make it seem that I am unimpressed with ASM right now, but that isn't exactly true. The Brand New Day concept isn't bad. The past 2 years of Amazing Spider-man storylines have mostly dealt with plotlines outside of the Spider-man universe. Major Marvel events like Civil War have dominated the Spidey landscape taking the character too far from the tried and tested status quo. To correct this, Marvel brought in a deus ex machina and erased the events of the last several years from Spidey's timeline. Now I am not a fan of timeline changes; writing should never be so ridiculous that it has to be fixed by magically erasing the past, but something really had to done.

After this "correction", all ASM stories have been published under the "Brand New Day" moniker. They make an attempt to return Spider-man to the status quo.

This brings us to issues #555-557. These issues quite nicely point out the current problem with Amazing Spider-man. Even though there is three times the comic every month, there isn't three times the story.

Our tale begins with Spider-man and Wolverine talking about breakfast cereal. Riveting stuff. Dr. Strange sends them on a mission and the duo end up saving a professor from Mayan warriors. Oh and there is a blizzard. The subsequent issues deal with the extreme cold, more Mayan warriors, a death deity, and the required plot twist/double cross. Despite all of this the story falls flat. The issues do nothing to advance Spider-man's personal storyline and are completely forgettable. I also have very little faith that Mayan Death Deity will become a re-occurring villain.

I find it ironic that the move to publish ASM three times monthly was done in part to emphasize the importance of title, but they have decided to focus on storylines that might not have made the cut for Web of Spider-man 15 years ago.

All in all the story will take you about 45 minutes to read. At $3 an issue that is about $12 dollars an hour worth of entertainment. For the Spider-man fanatic this will be a must have, but anyone else should pass these issues by.

I can only hope that next month brings a better story or Brand New Day will be another failed concept in Spidey publication history. Clone saga anyone?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Retro Review-Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels

Release Date: 
June 3, 1986 (Famicom Disk System)
October 1, 2007 (Nintendo Wii Virtual Console)

Cost: $6 (Nintendo Wii Virtual Console)

For most of us who grew up North America in the 1980's Super Mario Bros. 2 conjures up images of Shy-guys, using the Princess to float around, and Birdo (one of the first trans-gendered characters in video games). However, this actually isn't Super Mario Bros. 2. This game is actually the Japanese game Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic with characters from the Super Mario universe inserted in for the North American audience. You see the real Super Mario Bros. 2 was too close to Super Mario Brothers 1 and Nintendo figured that a North American audience wouldn't like so similar a game. 

When it was finally released in N.A. the game was retitled Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels. Originally available for the SNES as part of the game Super Mario All-Stars, it is now available for download on the Virtual Console. This will allow a new generation of gamers decide if Nintendo was correct in thinking that we wouldn't enjoy so similar a game.  

True, it is very similar to Super Mario Bros. 1 in terms of gameplay, sound, and graphics, but it does have one very important is insanely hard. 

Right away in world 1-1 you will notice a difference in the difficulty level. First, there are mushrooms that don't make you bigger, they kill you. We have been trained to run at the first mushroom that we see, so it is no surprise that I was killed on world 1-1. 

I managed to overcome my Pavlovian conditioning and made it all the way to world 3. and found a warp zone. I was expecting to jump ahead a few levels, but I was astonished to find out that this warp zone sent me back to world 1. What the heck! It took me hours to make it here! Now you sent me back to world 1? Despondent, I shut off the game before I lost my mind. (There are more examples of how difficult this game is, but I want you to be amazed and angered by yourself).

Returning back the game hours later, I really started to get into it. Yes, it is much harder than the Super Mario Bros. you remember, and, yes, it will drive you to the brink of insanity, but you will have fun with this lost little gem. 

It currently costs $6 to download to your Wii, if you have a SNES you could pick up a used copy of Super Mario Allstars for about $15. You will get at least 6 hours worth of entertainment out this, probably more. I still haven't finished this game yet, but I feel that I have my $1 per hour of entertainment out of this game. 

For any Super Mario fan out there, if you haven't played this game yet, what are you waiting for? For anyone else, especially if you can't handle dying repeatedly during a gaming session, let this one pass on by. 

Oh, and one final tip: the red piranha plants can rise out of the pipes even when you are standing on them. Treachery!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Secret Invasion #1

Release Date: April 2, 2008

Cost: $3.99

Well, it is that time of year again: the birds are singing, the snow is melting, and the House of Ideas is getting ready to wow us with another big event storyline. This brings us to Secret Invasion, the latest in a string of high-profile, universe-changing storylines from Marvel comics.

In the past, these big event crossovers have allowed for some of the most memorable and beloved storylines in comics. Some are well received (Infinity Gauntlet) while others are immediately forgotten (Contest of Champions II). They let us see our favourite superheroes working together to prevent the end of the universe as we know it, and, year after year, we clamour to read the latest epic.

Lately though, Marvel Crossovers have been pretty disappointing. Yes, they have been commercially successful, but all too often they have started out strong but ended with a lacklustre finish. I cite Civil War and World War Hulk as examples of this. So I was slightly trepidatious when I reached for the first issue of Secret Invasion.

Brainchild of Brian Michael Bendis, Secret Invasion involves the realization that the shape shifting aliens known as the Skrulls have been secretly impersonating Marvel heroes and villains for years. Bendis has stated that this story has been planned for years, and that there were clues hidden in all of his books since 2004.

Now the Skrulls are making their move and I must say, original fears aside, issue 1 of 8 did not disappoint. Firstly, I should note that the cover was exceptional. Gabriele Dell'Otto gives us a iconic image of Skrulls posing as heroes. The title graphics are great, as the lettering really invokes a 1950's sci-fi invasion of the body-snatchers feel. The front cover is easily destined to become as recognizable as the first issues of Infinity Gauntlet or Kingdome Come.

For the most part, the art is solid. Jae Lee can really tell a story, which, for those artists coming out of the Image era, is no small feat. I do have a few problems with flow; at times the jump from panel to panel was unclear (the section in the Thunderbolts Mountain is an example of this) and this hurts the reader’s ability to piece together an already complex series of divergent storylines.

The main storyline has our heroes investigating the crash landing of a Skrull transport in the Savage Land. Upon opening up the transport the heroes discover the ship full of Marvel Heroes (essentially themselves) wearing costumes from the 70's. Bendis wastes no time in establishing the seriousness of the Skrull threat. The Skrulls manage to take out Iron Man, his entire computer network, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Baxter Building. In addition, more major characters are revealed to be Skrulls.

This issue demonstrates the incredible potential for this storyline as a giant bottle of white out. Much in the way that DC used Crisis on Infinite Earths to correct their storylines, Marvel has the chance to fix or change any storyline of the last 20 years. Did your favourite hero die? Don't worry that one was a Skrull. Did your favourite hero get a new stupid costume? Skrull. Did your favourite hero get married? Or took up knitting? Or acted in a way totally different than 30 years of character development would dictate? Skrull. Skrull. Skrull.

I am not saying that Marvel will use this series as an opportunity to change history, but not everyone can make a deal with Mephisto and erase 10 years of storylines.

All this aside, issue #1 was solid read and I immediately wanted to read issue #2. In many ways that is the litmus test for a great comic. I still must caution that Marvel crossovers historically start out strong and end with a whimper. So, should you buy it? It took me about 20 minutes to read and it cost about $4, but will you get $12 per hour worth of entertainment for this? The series lasts until November, so you will not see a collected edition in hardcover until December, and you probably won't see a TPB until March or April of 2009. If you are a Marvel fan buy it now, but if you are just interested to see what might be happening over in the Marvel Universe, wait until the trade comes out.

On a final note boo-urns to Joe Quesada for a letters column that shamelessly promotes other Marvel TPBs that deal with Skrulls or the Secret Invasion. We know what is out there; don't push it on us.