HAT TRICK

HAT TRICK
Written by Jason M. Burns and Drawn by Armando Zanker
Published by Outlaw Entertainment

I like to refer to writer Jason M. Burns as “King of the High Concept”, and with HAT TRICK, he taps into that talent once again. Down on his luck magician Ray Kalpino finds his career near its end when he gets a message from a lawyer stating that he’s inheriting something from his (wildly successful) magician uncle’s estate. Shattered when it turns out that all he’s getting is the man’s stage-prop top hat, Ray tosses it away in disgust, but when the hat comes to life and sucks him inside and into a magical world… well, that’s when shit gets (un)real for poor Ray. He’s the “chosen one”, and it’s (supposedly) his duty to free the Magicverse from the evil entity at its heart: his deceased uncle.

However, Burns’ gifts let him down in far many ways with this one. The biggest one is that Ray never comes to life as a character on the page. First, his stage name is The Amazing Don Key. That’s right: Don Key. And yet even though he hates the name, and when people run it together as one word, and isn’t successful with it, he hasn’t changed it. It sets him up as a complete loser, and one you can’t quite believe in; because even the worst loser would have dumped that name early on… or never chosen it at all. Instead, it comes across as pandering to the younger demographic that the book is aimed at.

You also never quite feel like Ray’s character arc really gets moving. He perfunctorily moves from moment to moment, and when his “hero’s journey” gets moving, it reads in paint-by-numbers fashion. There’s nothing new or different about it, and when it comes to mastering magic and fighting a family-level evil, well, a lady named Rowling kinda cornered that market over the past decade.

Burns layers as much sincerity into the book, certainly; he never cracks the reality behind his story, investing it with all the belief in his characters he can muster. And artist Armando Zanker delivers some charming art. But these things aren’t enough to counter the deficiencies in the plotting and main character. We’ve seen much better out of Burns… and I’m certain we will again.

Marc Mason

METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY (novel)

METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY
Written by Raymond Benson
Published by Del Rey

I don’t play video games. I say that to establish that I have absolutely no idea what METAL GEAR SOLID is, except that it’s a video game. I have no stake in this novelization from a fan perspective, nor do I have any working knowledge of the universe it takes place in. So in saying that, I remind you that a book of this nature, in order to be successful, must:

1. Explain the milieu and its background thoroughly enough that a newcomer can understand it.
2. Create compelling characters and scenarios that anyone unfamiliar with MGS2 can get excited by and enthused about
3. Tell a good story. This is a novel; if you’re expecting someone to read your video game-based novel, especially a consumer unfamiliar with the game, you must give them a compelling reason.

SONS OF LIBERTY fails across the board.

Chapter one actually gets off to a good start. The reader is introduced to a fine character in Snake, and set up for him to be the hero we follow on this prose journey. We get a minimal idea of what Metal Gear is (giant war robots, I guess), and an exciting action sequence. Terrific. But as we get into chapter two, we’re suddenly following a different character, Raiden. And the book falls apart.

Raiden is tasked with infiltrating a base where the President has been taken hostage by meta-powered terrorists. In his ear are a superior who gives him minimal information and is obviously hiding something, and occasionally his sometime girlfriend chimes in as part of the mission and quizzes him about nonsense. So he travels through this base, doing his own infiltration work, and as he achieves each objective, he gets a little more experience, but he also manages to only find himself deeper in trouble.

In other words, he levels up, but only finds himself behind the eight-ball even worse.

Each chapter, indeed, reads like an adapted chapter from a video game. Which would be fine… if this was a video game. But as a novel, it’s awful. The plot jumps all over the place (over a hundred pages in, I still had no idea what exactly was happening). The character of Raiden is such a blank slate that you cannot empathize with him or find the slightest bit of caring about his fate.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that SONS OF LIBERTY never really achieves the status of “novel.” There’s no cohesive or intriguing narrative at work here at all.

I recently read a novel based on another game, GEARS OF WAR, and it achieved everything on the list above, and did so with flair and fun. So it isn’t impossible to take a game property and get a solid piece of prose out of it. But unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for this effort.

Marc Mason

DUNGEON: EARLY YEARS VOL 2

DUNGEON, THE EARLY YEARS, VOLUME 2: INNOCENCE LOST
Written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, Illustrated by Christophe Blain
Published by NBM

DUNGEON, THE EARLY YEARS is a graphic novel following the misadventures of Hyacinthe, also known as the Night Shirt, who cannot seem to catch much of a break. Having not read Volume 1 of THE EARLY YEARS, I headed into this bizarre fictional world blind to its foundation and the origin of these characters, yet I did not feel lost in the slightest as the book moves quickly, bursting with action, excitement, and illicit sex.

Hyacinthe is a man, or should we say penguin, who tries to do the right thing but seems to end up with the wrong result. He liberates the ill-gotten gains of a band of criminals, tries to give it to a charity and almost gets arrested. He arrives at the home of his lady love, Alexandra, with a bottle of wine and a bouquet of roses yet ends up killing the man who attacked her, practically gets molested by the lady in question and walks away from their tryst with a case of gonorrhea and crabs.

By the end of the first chapter he manages to save the day for one lucky couple, reuniting them in the face of impossible odds, but the same cannot be said for his love life as the next chapter opens several years later with Hyacinthe standing at the grave of his wife, who was murdered by his old lover, Alexandra. Hyacinthe is a man lost, though even after things seemingly continue to fall apart, including the city of Antipolis in which they live, eventually it becomes clear that occasionally one’s world must be destroyed before it is to be healed.

‘Animal Farm’ meets a pornographic ‘Robin Hood’ in one of the most unique graphic novels on the market today. The characters range from birds of prey to heifers, cats, rabbits and a few fantasy creatures such as demonic goats and elves, and the city itself is a sight to behold. The sky is filled with spires, balconies and gargoyles while the ground level consists of cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, a perfect setting for the clandestine stories contained within. Blain’s artwork is a blend of impressions from childhood cartoons and mature illustrations while his intoxicating colors bring the story to a psychedelic level. Sfar and Trondheim’s characters never cease to surprise and the ever-present wry humor carries the book from ‘noir’ to ‘wildly trippy.’ DUNGEON is a perversely enjoyable read, highly recommended for anyone with an open mind and a desire to open it further.

Avril Brown

JOE AND AZAT

JOE AND AZAT
Written and Illustrated by Jesse Lonergan
Published by NBM

JOE AND AZAT is a brilliantly funny and beautiful story based loosely on the creator’s time in the Soviet Republic Turkmenistan serving in the Peace Corps. This graphic novel manages to convey the bonds of true friendship and the joy and pain of following your dreams using only the most succinct dialogue and elemental, uncluttered artwork.

Joe is an American Peace Corps volunteer who is slightly taken aback at the radical differences between the culture he came from and the one he must adjust to for the next two years of his life while living in Turkmenistan. Bombarded with naïve questions concerning American customs from curious locals, overcharged for toothpaste at the village bazaar and constantly in danger of being forced into bribing someone, Joe is surviving by following the basic rules of Turkmenistan. When Joe accidentally breaks the most important rule of all (Never lose your passport), an acquaintance named Azat lends a helping hand and becomes his best friend.

This short and sweet book introduces the reader not only to the eternally optimistic Azat, but to the eclectic crew of people in his life, including crazy relatives and a secret girlfriend. Azat’s brother considers himself the Turkmen Chuck Norris, likes to pick fights when he’s drunk, and rather than walking, he elects to consistently shadowbox his way from Point A to Point B. Gulnara is the woman Azat’s heart desires, but her father refuses to allow the pair to marry. Convinced he can win his lady love by following through on his lofty ambitions of becoming a wealthy, successful businessman, Azat’s spirit never falters, not even when the end result is seemingly a shadow of the dream.

Often comical and at times achingly heartfelt, JOE AND AZAT is the tale of two men from different corners of the world, both physically and culturally, who form a connection guaranteed to endure whether or not they ever see each other again. Lonergan’s words are like his artwork: devoid of unnecessary flotsam and instead cut directly to the meat of the emotional material. Black and white was an obvious and fitting color choice, and the thick pencils and mainly bare background highlight the essence of the story as well as drawn attention the more prolific pages. Lonergan delivers merriment and poignancy with every word balloon and every panel, making this an easy choice for readers of good judgment in search of a novel which captures a bit of the indomitable human soul.

Avril Brown

HAUNT 1

HAUNT #1
Written by Robert Kirkman, Illustrated by Todd McFarlane, Greg Capullo and Ryan Ottley
Published by Image Comics

From the collaborative creative genius of some of the hottest minds and hands in comics today comes HAUNT, a unique tale of a vengeful ghost who wants revenge on his murderers which will coincidentally save the world.

Daniel and Kurt Kilgore are about as opposite as brothers can get. While Dan is a disillusioned priest who has been cheating on his boss with a prostitute on a regular basis, his brother fights a secret, bloody war for our country as an uber-spy who occasionally ignores the orders that even he cannot stomach. Though Kurt knows the lives he must take in the line of duty are for the greater good, Dan does not see it that way and only listens to his brother’s confessions to fulfill his duty. Throw in the fact Kurt is killed in the line of duty and returns to haunt his brother until he solves his murder, not to mention a past conflict over a woman and you have quite a strained sibling relationship. And this is only the beginning.

Solid, believable, flawed characters make up the roster for this visually stunning comic, but the introductory issue of HAUNT should have hit the brakes a bit in terms of plot development. Before the reader gets a chance to know the characters and receive more than a vague hint of why the Kilgore brothers are the way they are, one of them is dead and back again within the span of one page, pleading for help from his angry priest brother. Flashback scenes in subsequent books would be a boon for the advancement of the story as well as the characters progression.

There is much to say about the artwork, but a brief summation is ‘fan-freaking-tastic.’ McFarlane, Capullo and Ottley combine their talents to create an evocative, vivid and action-packed book quite pleasing to the eyes. The last several pages are a testament to the artists’ ability to drop jaws using only pencils, colors and well-planned panels. An entertaining, albeit rushed, plot and amazing art make for a compelling comic worth checking out.

Avril Brown

UNKNOWN: DEVIL MADE FLESH #1

UNKNOWN: THE DEVIL MADE FLESH #1
Written by Mark Waid, Illustrated by Minck Oosterveer
Published by BOOM! Studios

Though the title of the book is UNKNOWN, the book itself should be anything but considering its undeniable ability to bring goosebumps and white knuckles to anyone who picks it up. The introductory miniseries of UNKNOWN was creepy, clever and just downright awesome, and judging by the first issue of Volume Two, THE DEVIL MADE FLESH is once again going to cause skipped heartbeats in the ribcages of its readers.

Picking up not quite where the last series left off we find James Doyle, former partner to famous investigator Catherine Allingham, looking for a job. When questioned about his history the past year by his prospective new employer, Doyle’s memories are somewhat hazy. He vaguely remembers his former boss, a genius obsessed with the idea of life after death considering her terminal brain tumor (which, incidentally, should have killed her six months ago), but the details are still out of his grasp. He seizes the chance to piece together the puzzle when he meets up with Catherine’s newest partner, Adriana, but he ends up learning more than he bargained for.

Just as sharp and shiver-inducing as the first series, this is a guaranteed must-read for any fan of the first volume of UNKNOWN. DEVIL MADE FLESH is heavy on the mystery and will keep you guessing at every turn. Although this issue is a bit of a heartbreaker, it is without a doubt an excellent comic and a no-brainer buy for any paranormal comic fan. The vivacious chemistry of Waid and Oosterveer carries into this sequel series, and it is refreshing to read and see the same voice and artwork which made UNKNOWN such an incredible book, leaving me confident this dream team is going to blow me away…again.

Avril Brown