Astro City is Amazing

Astro City is amazing.  

This is not news to anyone who has read it, but to those unfamiliar it really needs to be brought to your attention.  Astro City is exactly what superhero comics should be.  Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson, along with Alex Ross and various other artists, letters and inkers, have created an amazing world where they tell genuinely mature stories that happen to have superheroes.

For the most part, mature in superhero comics means the exact opposite of mature.  “Mature” comics are usually as juvenile as possible, all blood and boobs.  Good comics that could be called mature are almost unfailingly gritty deconstructions. Stuff like Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns.  Astro City manages to be as thoughtful and mature as those comics, but not be cynical at all.  It is proof that superheroes can be mature and self-aware without losing any of the hope and wonder.

Astro City is an anthology book, taking place in, fittingly, Astro City.  The city features a variety of superheroes and superheroines that are analogous to but not identical to popular DC and Marvel character.  It is not just popular characters with the serial numbers filed off, but roughly similar characters that fit into the same archetypes.  The details of Astro City’s Samaritan are very different from Superman, but they do share similar looks and powers.  The reader’s knowledge of Superman helps fill in the blanks with Samaritan, but he is unique enough that he doesn’t just feel like a knock-off.  The same is true of the somewhat Fantastic Four like First Family.

What sets Astro City apart is that while the usual sort of big super hero stories are frequently happening in the background, the book is about more human concerns. A story that takes place over a couple of issues features Astra, the youngest member of the First Family, realizing that her life is nothing like that of a normal child and leaves her home to find out what that is like.  Her family freaks out, understandably, and go pick fights with their rogues gallery to find her.  It has plenty of superheroes fighting, but the focus in on an abnormal girl trying to experience a normal like.  Wanting to know is the grass is truly greener on the other side or not is a pretty universal desire.  That is where Astro City excels; it takes larger than life characters, but tells very human, relatable stories.  There are no simple fights in Astro City, everything is about something real.

It weaves these very human stories together as it also creates a history for Astro City.  Each issue shows another character or idea or place that is but a footnote in the current story, but eventually these footnotes build up into a very real seeming history.  It creates the feeling of a large universe that the reader only gets an all too brief glimpse at.

 Astro City isn’t the only comic that does these sorts of things.  All-Star Superman has a very similar combination of true heart and larger than life story.  Starman does a similar trick of creating history in dribs and drabs.

I haven’t yet read all of Astro City. I had only read a couple of issues before picking all of the first two series in a Comixology sale.  I read those thirty or so issues fast enough, though.  I am going to be looking into picking up the rest of the series 20 year history as soon as I can.

Astro City is amazing.

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2

Atlus has really milked the Etrian Odyssey series. Since the first game came out in, in 2007, they have released 8 games in the series, depending on how you count them. I am counting both Etrian Mystery Dungeon and the very conceptually close Persona Q. It isn’t a series that has undergone much of an evolution either; it started as a throwback, which left it little space to really grow. There has been consistent incremental improvement in interface and playability. That is enough forward momentum to keep the series in many players’ good graces. The Untold games have seen the biggest changes to the formula, remakes that optionally replace the player generated blank slates with a pre made party and add in a story. Etrian Odyssey Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight follows the same recipe as The Millennium Girl, but manages to improve on it in all ways, save one.

eou21

Etrian Odyssey 2 was the one game in the series that felt the most like a cash in. The others all featured improvements and changes of some kind, as small and incremental as they may be, but EO2 was absolutely just more of the same. It had a full new dungeon to explore and a few new classes, but otherwise not much was new. It is the black sheep of the series, not because it does anything wrong but because it lacks the unique traits that make EO3 and EO4 stand out. EOU2 is easily the most polished of the series in a lot of respects and it fixes the biggest problem that EOU1 had: Grimoire Stones. Grimoire Stones were an interesting idea, if inferior in every way to sub-classing, that just didn’t work in the first game. Getting them and managing them was always a hassle. The systems just didn’t make sense and in the end I simply ignored them and used the skills that my characters naturally possessed. In this game they have been altered enough that became useful, vital parts of my strategy. You can get stones for skills that you already have, making them even stronger, or like general sub-classing to get extra skills. It took a completely worthless and cumbersome system and turned it into something actually useful.

As much as I’ll tell you that I prefer default Etrian Odyssey, with its absence of story and free party creation, when given the choice in these last two games I have chosen story mode both times. While I enjoy the old school vibe of this series, I am a player that grew up on SNES Final Fantasy and Lunar games. I love goofy RPG stories. The ones in these two games haven’t been great, but other than a tendency to slow the pace of the game to a crawl for stretches I have actually enjoyed them. I liked the cast and tenor of this game more than the previous one, though not by a wide margin. Each games male and female leads are a wash, but while I really liked Raquna, but Flavio and Betrand are both really interesting characters. Betrand’s big secret actually gives a reason for his presence that previous game’s party seemed to lack. My biggest problem with EOU1’s story was that it spoiled the big twist at the end early on, but there is no such twist in this game.

eou22

My problem with EOU2’s story mode in its party set up. I hate that party. Not the characters, the classes. I don’t tend to use Protectors and while I might use one character for buff or debuffs, I wouldn’t have two devoted to that. Also, as great as the main character’s Fafnir class is, I really don’t like having all of my elemental attacks on my primary physical attacker. I know there are ways to get those classes to work, but it was not any party that I would have ever put together and trying to make a group I didn’t like work caused me a lot of frustration.

eou23

The frequency of these games have not lessened my enjoyment of them. I still really enjoyed Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 despite fighting through Etrian Mystery Dungeon earlier this year and Persona Q last year. This series has found a niche that it can effectively exploit. There are others that try to hit this same niche, but none do it better than EO, and EOU2 is the best so far. It is just a little better than what came before it, but that is enough to keep me coming back every time. With Etrian Odyssey V on the horizon, I couldn’t be happier that this series keeps chugging along.

Hold It!

2005 was a big year for video games. It was the zenith of the PS2, and it competitors, generation and handhelds were on the rise. The great games that hit during that year include Resident Evil 4, Shadow of the Colossus and Psychonauts. Or Call of Duty 2, FEAR and God of War. The Nintendo DS was coming into its own, with games like Nintendogs, Animal Crossing Wild World and Mario Kart DS. The game from that year that had the biggest impact on me, though, was Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. In fact, it is the game that kept me from drifting away from playing video games.

I didn’t actually play Phoenix Wright in 2005, though. While that was a great year for games, it was also a year that I starting giving up on the hobby. It sounds silly to say now in light of how completely its successor dominates my playtime, but the DS didn’t interest me. I had liked the Gameboy Advance, but most of what it offered was watered down SNES ports. The PSP didn’t seem like it was for me, either. I didn’t even have a PS2, all I had a Gamecube. A Gamecube that got a lot of use playing RE4 and Fire Emblem: Paths of Radiance. In late 2005, I did get a PS2, and glutted myself on its wide pool of JRPGs. While the next year did account for a lot of time spent playing games, outside of a few standout titles (Dragon Quest 8, Final Fantasy X) glutting myself on mediocre RPGs really didn’t turn things around for me. I was just killing time. It wasn’t until the fall of 2006, with the release of Pokemon Pearl, that I turned around on the DS. I had been out of the Pokemon game since really early in Silver/Gold days, and the new one looked sure to reignite my interest.

pwaa1

I still remember that first DS. It was a black DS lite, and I bought it with Trauma Center and Star Fox Command. I thought Star Fox was okay, but it didn’t light me on fire, and Trauma Center, despite its wonderful concept, was simply too hard. I couldn’t make it past the midway point of the game. I ended up spending most of my time with Pokemon Pearl and finding cheap GBA games.

One of the things that drew me to the DS was that it seemed to have new kinds of games, experiences I’ve never had before. Trauma Center fit that mold, even if I eventually sold it back to Gamestop for Lunar Knights. Another one that really intrigued me was Ace Attorney, but it was really hard to find for a while. It did get a reprint sometime in 2006; I found it while out Christmas shopping. Buying something for myself while Christmas shopping is a big no-no, but I couldn’t pass on it. It was a revelation. Sure, it was essentially a simplified version of the adventure games that had repeatedly failed to catch my interest, but something about it just clicked with me.

pwaa3

The game is ridiculous, bearing little resemblance to an American courtroom and hopefully just as little to a Japanese one, with larger than life characters and a delightful anything goes mentality. This is a game where spirit mediums are called to the stand to have ghosts testify or where in the middle of the climactic struggle to save Phoenix’s friend turned rival Edgeworth from being found guilty of murder you cross-examine a parrot. Still, the logic of the puzzles was always solid and the characters stood out as being incredibly well-written. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

Of course, I know now that it really isn’t anything new, just a sterling example of a type of visual novel-esque adventure game that has been popular in Japan since the days of the Famicom, but for me it was all new. Before, the games I played were all RPGs of some kind or action games. I moved from Mega Man 3 and Final Fantasy to Mega Man X and Final Fantasy III to Mega Man Legends and Final Fantasy IX. To me, that is what video games were. Sure, I dabbled in RTSes and sports games, but my gaming diet consisted mostly just those two types of games. With the DS and Phoenix Wright, I found something different.

pwaa2

With Ace Attorney 6 announced and more importantly announced for a Western release, I felt an urge to go back to the game that started it all. Playing the version of the AA Trilogy game for 3DS is it just as good as ever. Enough time has passed that while I recall the gist of the game, I don’t remember each beat of the story and every puzzle. It is almost like playing the game for the first time. Not quite, though. It is hard to find that magic of the first time, when the player has no idea what to expect. The boundless creativity and wild west anything goes approach of the DS and Wii has faded again, being replaced by an endless parade of sequels that play just like you remember. Games like Ace Attorney struggle to sell up to expectations.  Video games are still enjoyable, sometimes comforting, but despite a burgeoning and diversifying indie scene, I look back with more than a little sorrow for that brief window when it seemed like games could be anything.

What I Read in August 2015

Another not quite banner month for me. The quality of the titles I read made up for how few of them there were. I can guarantee that I will have read more books next month, if only because I am already at three right now. Also, starting next month I am going to include comic collections I read in this write up. This likely means that these posts will be lengthened by one or two entries every month, since I tend to go through at least that many every month. Often I nab them on sale on Amazon for a 3 or 4 dollars and watch them crash my Kindle.

psych

Pysch’s Guide to Crime Fighting for the Completely Unqualified
Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster

Chad Gervich

This is a fine companion piece to the series.  It is written in character by Shawn, with both willing and unwilling help from the rest of the cast, as the series goes along. Each chapter seems to be written a little past when the previous ones were.  If the show works for you, then the book will as well. This book is pointless, but it perfectly captures the tone and feel of the show.  If Shawn were to have written a book, this is what it would be.  Part self-aggrandizement, part nonsense and wholly unable to stay on track. It is just a ton of fun.

summerland

Summerland

Michael Chabon

Reading a new Chabon is always a delight.  Even going in expecting something a little watered down, thanks to Summerland being a YA book, I was still excited to get to it.  In some ways, it is a little watered down.  This is a book intended for a younger audience and its subjects are aimed at them, but that does not stop it from also being rich and fulfilling.

Summerland takes a kind of hero’s journey and filters it through several kinds of myths and the great American pastime, baseball.  It works better than it should.  Ethan Feld is terrible at baseball, but he is scouted by a “hero recruiter” anyway.  When the mischievous and downright villainous Coyote tries to destroy the lodgepole, the great ash tree that ties all the worlds together, he joins up with his friends Jennifer T Rideout and Thor Wingnutt to stop him.

It eases the reader into it fairly complex and somewhat whimsical fantasy world easily and effectively sets the heroes on their path, but the back end rushes through their adventures so fast that it feels like it is falling apart.  It reads like a book that was originally going to be a trilogy, but the writer decided last minute to do it in one volume and jammed two books worth of plot into the back half.  The events and developments still feel right, but they don’t get enough time to settle.  

Despite the rushed ending, Summerland is still an excellent novel.  The writing is better than the typical YA book, and the margin between it and the median is significant.  

tea

The Eyre Affair

Jasper Fforde

It hadn’t read any Fforde all year, and a book club I’m in decided to read this, so I thought it was worth another run through.  Thursday Next remains one of my absolutely favorite characters and this book remains a perfect mashup of classic literature, mystery and weird alternate reality scifi.  The plot stays fairly simple if only to allow the readers to absorb the strangeness of this world as they go and still follow along.  That doesn’t mean it is an easy book the read, you will be absolutely lost if you don’t have at least a passing knowledge of classic lit, specifically and obviously Jane Eyre, and British history.  As much as I think Fforde has improved as a writer since this book’s publication, it is hard to match the sheer originality of this first entry to this series.

What I Watched August ‘15

Movies

X-Men First Class – This movie has not aged as well as I had thought it would.  I remember really enjoying this movie when I saw it theaters, but watching it for the first time since I found it incredibly disappointing. Other than Fassbender’s excellent take on Magneto, it mostly just jumps from scene to scene without telling much of a story. ***

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation – see review here ****

The Three Amigos – A family favorite. This farcical western is delightful, with Chase, Short and Martin all giving funny performances.  It is just a delight. ****

Fantastic 4 (2015) – see review here *1/2

Goldeneye – I know this is an unpopular opinion right now, but I prefer the Brosnan Bond movies to Craigs.  I like Craigs, but I grew up with Brosnan.  Goldeneye is his first and best.  Trevelyan doesn’t quite live up to his billing as an evil Bond, but the rest of the movie works almost perfectly. ****

Tomorrow Never Dies – This is the one of Brosnan’s films that I didn’t see more than once.  It tries to be future looking, dealing with China and powerful media empires. I don’t think it is quite as engaging as Goldeneye, though.   ***½

The World is Not Enough – In some ways this is movie has the wheels starting to fall off the Brosnan as Bond train.  Things are getting really dumb and they weren’t that smart to begin with.  Still, Brosnan remains as charming as ever and some of the set pieces come off well. Uneven, but fun. ***½

American Pie – I don’t know why I sat and watched this Saturday morning while doing laundry. It wasn’t any good 15 years ago, and it isn’t any good now.  There are some brief glimmers of comedy here, but it isn’t enough to sustain it. **

American Pie 2 – Pretty much the same as the first, just a little more strained and unnecessary. *½

American Wedding – This one at least tries to do something new and interesting, but letting the characters age at least somewhat, but it still has little to recommend. Like many things people liked about high school, it is kind of embarrassing looking back on it. *½

The Man from UNCLE see review here ****

TV

Psych S2 – There is just something soothing about this show to me.

Wet Hot American Summer – There is a hard to accept air of unreality about this show.  It has actors, many of them very good and/or famous, playing characters that are upwards of a quarter century younger than they currently are. This is compounded by them playing characters that they played 15 years ago. The show really runs with the weirdness of its set up.  And with the pointlessness of being a late comer prequel to a movie that just didn’t need one.  That doesn’t stop them from adding an origin for nearly every element from the original movie.  This is a strange, entertaining beast.

Now Playing in August ‘15

The new job is really putting the squeeze on my gaming time. For what I think is the first time since I started doing this monthly post I managed to not beat a single game. Still, I did spend some considerable time with a pretty solid trio of games.

Beaten

None.  I beat no games in August.  I didn’t have a ton of time to play games and I sunk that time into games that never end.  

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 – I am close to the end here and I’ve really enjoyed. I just couldn’t punch it through before the end of the month.  I will have a full review coming soon.

Pokemon Alpha Sapphire – This got sidelined for Etrian Odyssey, but there is no chance that I don’t get back to it sooner rather than later. There is something about this generation of Pokemon that  just doesn’t click with me.  I never beat Sapphire or Ruby back in the day and I am not really loving this one, despite all of its very real improvements on X & Y.  I think it is the Pokemon selection.  I can’t really find monsters that I really want to use.

Dragon Age Origins – This game finally wore me down and I just couldn’t keep going.  It really is very well made.  I like the game; I just wasn’t currently enjoying playing it.  Some day, though.

Star Wars KotOR – I gave up on this because I wasn’t enjoying trudging through the portion of the game I’ve already beaten and because my laptop is limping and gasping like it is about to collapse.  I will beat this game one day, but it likely won’t be this year.

Elliot Quest – I’ve made some small progress on this game.  It is a mostly delightful little 8-bit throw back, with shades of Zelda 2 and Kid Icarus, but honestly more fun than either of those.

Upcoming

Super Mario Maker – I’ll get this next week and likely lose my life to it.  It looks so great.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Another new game the looks incredibly good.  I am a fan, but not a super fan, of this series.  For some reason, though, I can’t imagine not playing this game right as it comes out. It is one of my last connections to so called “hardcore gamers.”  It feels like the last game of a dying age and I need to witness it.

Ace Attorney Trilogy – I’ve played these games before, but I picked this up on its slight sale the other week and with the announcement of AA6 the time felt right to give these another look.

LBX – Some friends sold me on this tiny robot Pokemon game.  I hope my money was well spent.