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Review: “Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I” by Tony Lee et al.

Title: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I
Writers: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, & Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Josh Adams, Paul Grist, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg, Kyle Latino, & Deborah McCumiskey
Series: Doctor Who (Series 2, 2010) #1-12 + Annual 2011
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Comics, 2015

How do you explain Doctor Who? The Doctor is an alien who looks human (“No, you look Timelord!”), the last of his kind, travelling all of time and space in a vessel camouflaged to look like a 1960s British police telephone box. There’s a fair bit of tourism, to be sure, but the Doctor is always willing to help someone in need…and since his ship has a habit of depositing him when and where he’s needed rather than where he wants to be, he has ample opportunity. When critically injured he regenerates into a new body, thus allowing the showrunners to do a semi-reboot every few years without actually hitting the reset button and starting from scratch. Clear as mud? Good! Let’s move on to the book, shall we? This particular tome is a collection of Doctor Who tie-in comics starring the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy and Rory Pond, set during Amy and Rory’s honeymoon in between the fifth and sixth seasons of the revived series. It’s status as canon is questionable, but even with the occasional inconsistency* it shouldn’t be too hard to square things given the shifting nature of the timeline.

Doctor Who is at its most fun when it’s reveling in its core of whimsical lunacy, but there’s a deep vein of tragedy and determination to the character of the Doctor, and it’s the moments that this is revealed that make the franchise one of my favorites. Thankfully, this collection does both elements extremely well. There’s whimsy galore, from spam email infecting the TARDIS’ mainframe and manifesting as holograms to Kevin, a robotic tyrannosaur that briefly joins the adventuring. There’s a story that functions on one level as a standard Doctor Who romp and on another as an homage to the show Castle, transplanting the cast of that series to a space station. There are also more serious moments, such as a conversation between Rory and the Doctor about how much Amy means to them both, or between Rory and Kevin about finding your place and purpose in the world. These moments serve to ground the characters, making the Doctor, for all that he is an alien, very human. There’s a wide variety of art styles, and while I’m more a fan of some than others, they all seem to work for the stories being presented.

Most of these are written by Tony Lee, with the exceptions being the stories from the 2011 Doctor Who Annual. Spam Filtered (art by Andrew Currie, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the TARDIS overrun with holographic spam mail after Rory and Amy use it’s extra-temporal internet connection to check their email, forcing the TARDIS to set down and reboot. Unfortunately, the planet they land on is scheduled for destruction in about an hour…. The art here is pretty good, especially when it features the Doctor or Amy. Rory kind of gets the shaft, though. Also, the leader of the Scroungers is totally Danny Trejo. In The Ripper’s Curse (art by Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, & Tim Hamilton, colors by Phil Elliott) the Doctor and company get sidetracked to Whitechapel, London just in time for Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. The art on this one is shared among three artists, which leads to some small inconsistencies in the visuals, but the colorist is the same all the way through and helps to smooth things out with a painted (maybe watercolor?) aesthetic. It was different. I liked it, most of the time anyway, though I’m starting to think nobody can draw Rory properly. They Think It’s All Over (art by Mark Buckingham, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) has our protagonists once more sidetracked on their way to their football match, this time a case of right place, wrong time. This time, they’re in the ninth century, stuck between the invading Vikings and Alfred The Great’s defending Britons. Good story, and it includes a scene that should help explain just why the Doctor and Rory are two of my favorite characters ever, in different ways. The art was good, as is expected from Buckingham. When Worlds Collide (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) gives us a minimalist, geometric aesthetic that actually worked better than I’d expected. The story involves a strange resort built on a rift allowing for different spaces slightly out of phase with each other….until an accident merges them all. Suddenly, there’s a dozen Amys, a dozen Rorys, and a dozen Doctors….and a whole army of Sontarans. Also introducing Kevin the Dinosaur! Space Squid (art by Josh Adams, colors by Rachelle Rosenberg) was weird. I think the writer had a fixation with the television show Castle (and who can blame him?) because the side characters are all named after the cast of that series. Commander Katic, Major Fillion, everyone down to Ensign Quinn. It was honestly a bit distracting, though I did laugh when I first noticed. The likenesses aren’t bad, either…most of the time anyway. The story involves a mind-controlled cult on a space station that wants to enslave the galaxy to their giant squid god. Yeah, you read that right. It’s not Cthulhu though, unfortunately. Body Snatched (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the Doctor set off to save his friend Trevor, the Horse Lord of Khan. It seems Trevor has had his mind transferred into a bioengineered plant person on the hospital planet of Bedlam….Smith’s art is once more strangely suitable for the story being told. Silent Night (art by Paul Grist, colors by Phil Elliott) is a “silent” tale featuring the dynamic duo of The Doctor and…Santa Claus? Odd, but fun. Not sure how it fits in with last year’s Christmas Special though… Run, Doctor, Run (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Blair Shedd) is an homage to the Looney Toons, featuring a planet without conventional physics that makes up and down unpredictable. Down To Earth (written by Matthew Dow Smith, art by Mitch Gerads, colors by Gerads & Kyle Latino) was a nice little tale featuring an alien stranded on Earth who would rather just stay if it’s all the same to everyone. The art was good, too. Tuesday (written and art by Dan McDaid, colors by McDaid & Deborah McCumiskey) is told in the form of a letter home to Amy’s parents detailing a few of their adventures. The art was odd, but it worked.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, nothing too severe. Several murders, played to be quite scary in The Ripper’s Curse. A couple scantily clad characters. Minor sexual innuendos in the form of a couple “little blue pill” jokes in Spam Filtered or Rory’s sudden enthusiasm for a beach vacation at the thought of Amy in a bikini. Some prostitution in The Ripper’s Curse, nothing too explicit.

*One that springs immediately to mind is Jack the Ripper, here shown to be an alien stopped by the Doctor and friends, elsewhere stated to have been “stringy, but quite tasty” by Madame Vastra.

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Review: “The Untold Tale” by J.M. Frey

Title: The Untold Tale
Author: J.M. Frey
Series: The Accidental Turn #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: 2015, REUTS Publishing LLC.

There is very little Forsyth Turn doesn’t know. As Shadow Hand, the king’s spymaster, he wages in secret the war his famous older brother carries out in songs and tales told in every tavern throughout the three kingdoms. Kintyre is everything an epic fantasy hero is made of—strong, brave, and oblivious to what’s going on around him. While Kintyre is off gallivanting about the world with his loyal sidekick and magic sword, slaying first and asking questions later if at all, Forsyth quietly manages the family’s holdings and keeps up with the mountains of paperwork generated by his legion of spies. Through this legion, Forsyth knows nearly everything there is to know about the world he lives in…which is what makes the girl so fascinating. Rescued from the clutches of the evil Viceroy by Forsyth’s men, Lucy Piper (Pip to her friends) is brought to Turn Hall to recover from the tender attentions of the Viceroy’s sidekick and torturer Bootknife, attentions that have left an intricate lattice of artistic scrolling vines carved into the flesh of her back. For anyone to have resisted Bootknife long enough for the carvings to become so intricate is alone enough to earn Forsyth’s attention and respect, but Pip also represents a complete mystery. In a world where Forsyth can usually match a face to its family heritage at a glance, Pip’s bronzed skin and the shape of her eyes are like nothing he’s ever seen. Then too there are the things she cannot know but does—such as the fact that mild-mannered minor nobleman Forsyth Turn, Kintyre’s worthless younger brother, so shy and graceless, is really the Shadow Hand of the king. Could it be true? Could the Viceroy really have managed to call down one of the legendary Readers, one of those all-powerful beings who watch all that happens from on high? But surely not. Readers, the Great Writer, the world being born from the nib of a pen, that’s all just mythology and nonsense…isn’t it?

“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “It’s a metafictional world, the girl is trapped inside her favorite book, we’ve seen that before.” Well, yes. I suppose you may have. It does bring Inkheart to mind, though that was sort of the polar opposite to what’s happening here. Such a metafictional narrative is itself a fantasy trope, if not a widely used one. But that just strengthens my point. J.M. Frey is a master of the fantasy trope, both the good and the bad. The central conceit here is that The Adventures Of Kintyre Turn were written by a stodgy (and frankly, downright lecherous) old man who ripped off, er, faithfully followed every single convention of his genre when creating the world his characters inhabit. Women exist solely to be damsels in distress, fainting at danger and then falling into the arms of the Conquering Hero. Minorities and non-humans are scattered through for flavor, but only in background roles or to be the Exotic Other. Quests all follow a certain formula. These tropes are so ingrained in the fabric of the world that they remain true even when the author isn’t writing. By dropping in an outside observer, Frey is able to really examine each and every one of these tropes even as she makes use of them herself. The result is truly incredible, a novel that is by turns hilarious and heartrending, at times a love letter to the entire genre, at others a biting indictment of its more appalling conventions. Beyond its agenda, though, the fact remains that this is simply a stellar book. The characters, while initially suggested to be little more than the stereotypes they inhabit, are all real living breathing people, and whatever you think you know about what’s going on is just waiting to be upturned. I would recommend this book to anyone with a healthy love of the fantasy genre, or just a love of good stories. I do offer fair warning, though, there’s quite a bit of sexual content in the back half of the book. It’s necessary to what Frey is trying to do here, but does render the book unsuitable for certain audiences.

CONTENT: Intermittent R-rated profanity. Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Moderately explicit sexual content, scattered throughout the back half of the book.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. VII: The Troll Witch And Others” by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell, & Richard Corben

Title: The Troll Witch And Others
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Additional Artists: P. Craig Russell & Richard Corben
Series: Hellboy
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2007

That figures. I stated in my last Hellboy review that I couldn’t wait for the next volume to figure out where the story was going, and so of course the next collection was an anthology. Oh well, I like those best anyways….While he still handles most of the art, this time out, Mignola collaborates with a couple guest artists for special occasion stories.

We open in Malaysia, 1958 as Hellboy investigates a local creature known as The Penanggalan, a demon born when an old priestess accidentally kicked her own head off. (“That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” “I did not say it was true, only that I believe it.”) A short, predictable, and delightfully strange tale. We then move on to Alaska, 1961 as Hellboy investigates claims of a monster haunting the grave of Hercules in The Hydra And The Lion. Mignola is the first to admit that this one doesn’t make a lot of sense, but in Hellboy’s world that really doesn’t matter too much. The Troll Witch takes us to Norway, 1963 as Hellboy investigates a series of horrific murders. This has the distinction of being one of the only stories where Hellboy doesn’t get to punch something, which leads to a bit of a subversion of your expectations. The Vampire Of Prague is set in 1982 and is Mignola’s first time writing for P. Craig Russell. This is some good stuff. I especially enjoyed the part where the vampire is chasing his own severed head down the street…. Dr. Carp’s Experiment takes us to New York, 1991 as Hellboy and the BPRD investigate a newly-discovered secret chamber in a notorious haunted house. This one was good, I always love a good time travel story. The Ghoul is set in London, 1992, and is one of the strangest Hellboy tales I’ve seen. It features our favorite demonic hero beating the crap out of a ghoul who speaks solely in creepy poetry, and a puppet theatre production of Hamlet. Makoma is another weird one, this time a collaboration with Richard Corben. Mignola draws the framing story set in 1993, while Corben draws the legend being narrated. I’m not entirely sure how to understand this one, but it seems to be about Hellboy in a past life. Sort of a “Wheel of Time” thing where everything repeats throughout time. If so, it sheds some light on Hellboy’s eventual battle with the Ogdru Jahad….

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Mild sexual content, and some non-sexual nudity. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “Midnight In The Garden Centre Of Good And Evil” by Colin Sinclair

Title: Midnight In The Garden Centre Of Good And Evil
Author: Colin Sinclair
Series: Invaders From Beyond
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Solaris, 2015

This is not how it was supposed to work. A couple months ago, Miller was knee-deep in a graduate degree studying agricultural science. Now, after a bender left him and his future father-in-law’s car upside down in a lake, he finds himself without a fiancé and cut off by his parents to find his own way in the world, working a dead-end job at a garden centre in the middle of nowhere alongside an eclectic crew of fellow misfits. Then just as Miller adjusts to his new life, starts to think the future might not be so bleak after all, that’s when the aliens show up….

Midnight In The Garden Centre Of Good And Evil is a very British book in its language and vocabulary. That’s not a bad thing, to my mind, but is something to know going in. Not everyone watches as much Sherlock and Doctor Who as I do. Equal parts comedy and horror, the book demands comparison with Shaun Of The Dead, possibly crossed with Kevin Smith’s Clerks (I can’t say for sure, not having seen that one). It’s a quick read, and I managed most of it at a single sitting–the last two-thirds, to be precise. While not bad, it didn’t really suck me in until that point. The only real complaint I had with the book is how much information is left obscure, lost between the lines. While Brackett’s establishment is undeniably shady, it took most of the book for me to connect the various offhand hints and realize that its real income is dependent on the marijuana being grown in the basement tunnels. (Admittedly, this may have had something to do with my own lack of experience with that particular plant beyond the requisite stoner characters in various films.) Plus, you never do find out Miller’s first name so far as I can find looking back. It’s not a big deal, given the first-person narration, but serves to illustrate my point. Anyway, if you’re looking for an irreverent comedy-horror combo, this just might be the book for you.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong horror violence, occasionally gruesome. Moderate sexual innuendo, mostly in the form of crude jokes made by one or more of Miller’s coworkers.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. VI: Strange Places” by Mike Mignola

Title: Strange Places
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2006

“Don’t mess with me, lady. I’ve been drinking with skeletons.”

Seriously, how many characters do you know who could deliver that line in all seriousness? Pretty much just Hellboy, which goes quite a ways towards explaining his appeal. The entire series is so….over the top, ridiculous, ambitious….not really sure of the best word to sum it up, but you have to admit it’s pretty great. This time around in The Third Wish, Hellboy is pitted against the Bog Roosh, an undersea witch who wishes to save the world….by ending Hellboy once and for all. Sure, Hellboy has rejected his birthright as Anung Un Rama, the Right Hand Of Doom and devoted his life to saving the world, but so long as he exists someone could use the power of his hand to loose the Ogdru Jahad and burn the world. The Bog Roosh would end this threat once and for all. Then, in The Island Hellboy washes up on a forsaken island and is given a lesson in the origins of the world and all things that culminates in his death. Kind of. Maybe. Guess we’ll have to wait for the next book to see how that works out.

I won’t pretend that I understood everything that happened here, but I don’t think you’re meant to. Mignola is giving you an inside look at the creation of his world, true, but what is left out is as relevant as what is shown. We’ll see where the path Hellboy is set upon leads, I suppose. The book is filled with scattered moments of Hellboy being delightfully himself, and that is most definitely worth the rest of what is undoubtedly one of the darker entries in this series so far.

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Little to no sexual content. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “The Martian” by Andy Weir

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Broadway Books, 2015

The Martian had been on my list of books to read for a long time, a product of numerous recommendations from discerning friends. Then I saw the trailer for the upcoming film based on it, and had to read it immediately.

Six days after landing on the surface of Mars, an unforseen dust storm forces the Ares 3 crew to abandon their mission and head for home. En route to their ascension vehicle, botanist Mark Watney is hit with a piece of debris and his vitals flatline on the monitor. Heartbroken but resolute, his crewmates successfully reach orbit and begin the long journey back to Earth. Back on Earth, the world mourns Mark Watney as the first man to die on Mars. There’s just one problem….Watney’s not dead. Yet. Alone on Mars, one hundred and forty million miles from home, Watney is going to have to use all of his ingenuity to salvage what he needs to survive from the scant resources available to him. It will be four years before NASA can mount a rescue mission, even if he manages to alert them to his situation. He’s got food for about a year, if he stretches it. Unless Watney manages to pull off a miracle, he’s still going to be the first man to die on Mars, even if everything else goes his way. And Watney knows better than to count on that happening….

Read this book. Do it now! Okay, fine, you can finish the one you’re in the middle of first, but then you really need to read The Martian. No excuses! Why? Because The Martian quite simply the very best book I have read in a very long time. Most of the book is focused on Watney, understandably, and his mission logs are undoubtedly the high point of the book. The humor and sarcasm unleashed by Mars’ lone inhabitant is truly a wonder to behold. But even the characters back on Earth, the personalities at NASA, are all very well developed and unique characters in their own right. At times, I literally laughed out loud while reading. I was banned from reading the book after my wife fell asleep, for fear I would wake her with my laughter. And yet  the book is also a very real, very raw examination of the human will to survive. There’s more profanity than I would prefer, but if anyone has the right to curse it’s the guy stuck a hundred and forty million miles from home.

CONTENT: R-rated language throughout. Mild sexual innuendo. Occasional violence, of the accidental variety, and its aftermath.

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Review: “Pile Of Bones” by Bailey Cunningham

Title: Pile Of Bones
Author: Bailey Cunningham (Apparently a pseudonym for Jes Battis)
Series: Parallel Parks #1
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Ace, 2013

Every sci-fi/fantasy novel has a learning curve. This one? This one’s got a corkscrew.

Oh, and I got this book in exchange for an honest review through the Goodreads FirstReads program. This in no way influenced this review, except to ensure it exists as I likely would never have read it otherwise.

By day they’re a group of grad students, toiling away at never-ending stacks of grading (or “marking” as the Canadians apparently call it) and trying to figure out just what they were thinking when they decided to join academia. But by night…by night they are whisked away to another world entirely, living out very different lives as characters in the pseudo-Roman city of Anfractus. In our world, Andrew is a slightly introverted scholar of Old English epic poetry. In the other, he is Roldan, a majorly introverted would-be auditor, able to hear and speak to the lares that share Anfractus with its human visitors. In our world, Carl is an overly-confident historian studying Byzantine buttons. In the other, he is Babieca, an overly-confident would-be trovador skilled both at music and theft. In our world, Shelby is a slightly awkward scholar of Restoration literature that has been studied until there’s nearly nothing new left to learn. In the other, she is Morgan, a no-nonsense sagittarius, one of the bow-wielding guardians of Anfractus and the de facto leader of the company. In our world, Ingrid is a single mother studying elementary education. In the other, she’s Fel, a sword-wielding gladiator and one of the many keepers of the peace in Anfractus. It’s all fun and games, until our protagonists find themselves embroiled in an assassination plot that threatens to upset the balance of power both in Anfractus and back in our world….

The idea behind this series is brilliant, and the world created therein is fascinating. The character you assume in the other world is very real, complete with a backstory and distantly-glimpsed memories of a time before you played them, and while there are often a number of striking similarities there can also be drastic differences as well. You might find yourself back in our world marveling at the behavior of your other self, wondering why in the world you said or did something on the other side. One of the more amusing scenes was the moment our characters returned from Anfractus, only to suddenly remember at the same moment that they’d hooked up on the other side. Anfractus may seem like fun and games, a live-action version of Dungeons & Dragons, but it can be deadly as well. Injuries sustained there will follow you home, as will the grudges of those you’ve crossed. If you’re not careful, you can wind up very much dead in both worlds.

Like I said, the concept is fascinating. The execution…can be incredibly frustrating. Anfractus comes with its own extensive vocabulary that is never clearly defined, forcing you to figure things out by context clues. That technique is all well and good here and there, but when employed on this scale it can be just confusing. You even have to figure out that Andrew and Roldan are the same person (kind of) in different worlds and how that works. I actually set this aside for a few weeks after about a hundred pages (things with deadlines take priority) then started the book over from the beginning when I came back to it, and that did help a bit. I enjoyed the first part a lot more when I was able to figure out what was going on. A glossary would have been helpful. For all that, though, I have to admit that I did enjoy the book. The characters were engaging, as nerdy or more than I am myself, and despite what I expected most of the way through, I think I actually will end up trying to get my hands on the other books in the series….so long as I can get them from the library.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong violence. Awkwardly explicit (yet not graphic) sexual content, mostly of a homosexual nature.

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