OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 1

Hey there, folks!  John here.  I’ve got some exciting news about the brand new project I’ve recently launched out of financial desperation and intellectual curiosity: Operation Backlog Slog.

Beginning December 1st, I swore off purchasing any new music, movies, TV shows, video games, graphic novels until I finish my existing stockpile of each.  I haven’t done a full inventory yet, but I’ve got at least 10 video games, 10 graphic novels (here, plus hundreds back home), two high-capacity DVD binders full of movies and TV shows and several albums to go through.  In order to keep me on track (and to offer some potentially helpful recommendations to you, dear reader), I’ll be posting some details about what I’ve consumed here on WITWAR.  Without further ado, here are the highlights from Operation Backlog Slog: Days 1-5!

COMICS:

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen (Archaia) – Wow.  WOW.  This book is amazing.  I mean, I thought the first one was amazing, but this is a case where the second volume in a series completely surpasses the first.  Petersen tells a story that is both grand and small at the same time, and brings an unexpectedly impressive dramatic weight to what could have easily been a throw-away children’s animal adventure story.  While Mouse Guard features brave warriors, clashing swords and a kingdom in peril, it avoids falling into the all-too-common trap of simply tearing pages out of the  Tolkien (or Alexander Dumas, for that matter) playbook.  Petersen chooses every word and action carefully, making sure that every little detail helps to develop a character or reinforce the story’s theme of “be your own mouse.”  Consequently, this relatively small book is densely packed with awesome storytelling goodness that makes you want to take in each page slowly, savoring every detail before moving on.  There are substantially more single- and double-page splashes this time around, but Petersen doesn’t use them as an excuse to draw a regular panel in larger scale and call it a day.  Far from it!  These splashes are spectacular widescreen freeze-frames that boast a level of imagination and detail I’ve not seen since Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in SlumberlandMouse Guard is a fantastic all-ages book in the best sense of the term, providing a story that children will enjoy as well as a subtlety and sophistication to the narrative that adults will appreciate.

Night Trippers by Mark Ricketts and Micah Farritor (Image) – This is a very interesting twist on traditional vampire stories, one whose hook involves a cadre of vampires working to bring about the downfall of society during the Swinging Sixties in London, England (and one rogue Teddy-Boy bent on slaying them all.)  The story is fairly straightforward and offers few surprises, but uses an interesting technique to peek into the minds of its characters.  Whenever a normal comic would use a thought balloon or a caption box, Ricketts and Farritor add in a separate, red-tinted panel where the character speaks his or her inner thoughts directly to the reader.  It takes some adjusting to at first, but turns out to be an excellent technique that only slightly reminds me of the “confessional” on MTV’s The Real World.  The real star in Night Trippers is Micah Farritor, though, whose illustrations have a style that is one part Ben Templesmith, one part Gabriel Ba, and three parts I-have-no-idea-where-this-comes-from.  If you’re a fan of the art in 30 Days of Night or The Umbrella Academy, you’ll find a lot to like here.

TV SHOWS:

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (Jim Henson Studios) – It only took me 20 years to finally track down a way to watch this series, but it was well worth the wait.  Hooray for Netflix’s instant viewing!  The Storyteller was a fantastic but short-lived series produced by The Henson Company in the mid-1980s that featured advanced puppetry mixed with live-action storytelling.  The series used folktales that were well-documented by historians but had fallen through the cracks of popular fiction, which gave each episode a very strong piece of source material on which to build without falling into rote fairytale territory.  While some of the visual effects seem outdated today (especially blue-screen projections and other optical special effects) the puppets are as outstanding now as they were 20+ years ago. The tone of the series was far darker than traditional muppet far, which is great for those of us who are a bit older now than when it originally aired.   It’s not too scary, though, so you don’t have to worry about your kids having nightmares as a result of it.  If you already have Netflix and are intrigued by anything I’ve said, I suggest you add it to your instant queue.

White Collar (USA) – If you’re anything like me, you’ve been praying to the gods below for ABC Family to change their mind and order a second season of The Middleman.  While the likelihood of that is still mathematically indistinguishable from zero, fans of Wendy Watson (real name: Natalie Morales) will be happy to hear that she’s got a new job fighting crime with the FBI on USA’s new quirky police procedural dramedy White Collar.  The series, for those who are unfamiliar with it, revolves around convicted high-profile grifter and art thief Neil Caffrey, who has agreed to help the FBI catch some of its most wanted criminals in exchange for a reduced sentence.  Saved By the Bell fans will be pleased to hear that Tiffani Theissen is also on the show, playing the lead FBI agent’s wife.  The plots themselves are somewhat stock, and the quirk of having an ex-con help the good guys is done much better on Leverage, but it’s worth watching if only for the few scenes where Natalie Morales acts circles around everybody else on-screen.  And guess what!  Mark Sheppard (known to Firefly fans as Badger, and to Middleman fans as Manservent Neville) makes a guest appearance in an episode.  That guy has the best agent ever.

MUSIC:

Who Killed Amanda Palmer? by Amanda Palmer – Yowza.  To say that Amanda Palmer (of The Dresden Dolls fame) has issues would probably be a gross understatement, as would that she turns her inner baggage into music that is incredibly awkward and rollicking.  I’m not normally one for girl-with-one-instrument type music, but Amanda puts enough power, rage and soul into her piano-playing to keep me interested.  Her lyrics are personal and edgy, allowing her to bare her soul without putting the listener to sleep.  I almost feel bad for her pianos, because she must go through them rapidly considering how forcefully she attacks each melody.  Her calmer songs are a welcome oasis in a sea of torment, and the best of all is her downright-poppy ironic abortion ballad “Oasis.”  I found the music video to be hilarious, but I could see it being considered horribly offensive by anyone who is vehemently anti-choice and does not have a strong sense of humor.  I’ll let you decide, if you dare!

P.S.: Neil Gaiman is a big fan of hers, and actually wrote the prose piece on the album’s back cover and inside notes.

VIDEO GAMES:

Half-Life 2 as presented in The Orange Box (Valve) – Talk about value!  I picked up a pre-owned copy of this game for $15, which puts it roughly at $3 per game.  While I still haven’t touched either of the HL2 expansion episodes, I’ve been playing through the main game for my first time and really enjoying it.  Outside of Fallout 3, the Half-Life games are pretty much the game industry’s high-water mark for outstanding story in a first-person shooter.  Silent protagonist Gordon Freeman spends most of the game getting chased from point A to point B, but the little interactions along the way with Dr. Vance, Barney Calhoun, Alyx, D0g and all the rest make it seem dreadfully important and immersive.  The gameplay is, with one exception, supremely tight and constantly engaging.  Valve put a lot of energy into the creation of a physics engine for this game, and by golly do they put it through its paces.  The Gravity Gun is one of the all-time coolest weapons in video game history (barely surpassed by the portal gun from HL side-story game Portal) and using it makes even mundane shooting-gallery sections exciting.  My only real problem with HL2 is that, for a game that is 100% A-to-B linear with pretty much zero opportunity for exploration, the proper path from A to B is frequently difficult to discern.  I must have followed every dead end and blind alley in the first 8 chapters, and not because I wanted to.  It’s a weird complaint to have, and I’m probably the only one who has this problem, but I would’ve liked it to either have been easier to follow the straight line or have had multiple, branching paths that would make all the blind alleys a little less pointless.  At the end of the day, though, Half-Life 2 is still one of the best first-person shooters ever made, and well worth a look even if you’re not a fan of the genre.

Guitar Hero: World Tour (Activision) – So, how does last year’s arch-rival to Rock Band stack up against its competitor?  Decently as a companion, but pales as an alternative.  The avatars are residents of the deep troughs of the Uncanny Valley, and don’t even have the benefit of the haze afforded to their Rock Band counterparts.  The song list is different, but I haven’t yet unlocked enough to know for certain which is better.  I can say that GHWT‘s downloadable content selection is far inferior to its rival’s, and only had three songs that might’ve tempted me to plonk down my hard-earned Xbox points.  To its credit, though, the character customization features are far superior in GHWT, and it offers the ability to customize instruments.  If you love Rock Band and have gotten bored with the songs, or if you want to take your character design to the next level and really make your living-room band stand out, pick up a copy of the game.  Otherwise, spend that cash on downloadable songs.

Half-Minute Hero (XSeed) – Yup, I’m still playing this game.  I bought Half-Minute Hero expecting a few hours of enjoyment from a humorous parody of Japanese RPGs, but the depth of content is so great that I still can’t see the bottom after nearly 15 hours of play.  Of course, I’m trying to get every unlockable secret and achievement as I go, but even without that there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Since each adventure is only 30 seconds long (ok, sometimes up to 1 minute long) it’s perfect for portable play, where you may have to stop your game at any time.  The graphics are charmingly bad in the style of 8-bit Final Fantasy games, but the gameplay is deucedly clever and at times has more in common with action-puzzle games than JRPGs.  The humor of the English localization is wonderful, and there are numerous nods to American pop culture jokes and memes (such as a LOLcat-style enemy) that typically don’t make it into such games.  Add to this the fact that there are 4 different types of games included on the cart (traditional RPG, real-time strategy, top-down shooter and action puzzle) and you’ve got one of the best values for the PSP.

Spyborgs (Capcom) – It’s always so heartbreaking when a game you’ve been anticipating for years finally hits … and it’s just plain bad.  I wanted to like Spyborgs, I really really did.  In fact, there’s still a lot to like about it!  The premise is fun and innovative, the characters have personality, the art stands out and is exciting, and the numerous upgrades and ancilliary items add replay value.  All these features can’t save a game that isn’t fun to play, though, and somewhere along the line Spyborgs‘s gameplay flew off the rails.  3-D brawlers are rare, doubly so for the Wii, and now we know why: Unless you use the Classic Controller or the sideways wiimote controller setup, the controls will be horribly awkward and make the game less fun to play.  Spyborgs has little-to-no attack variety and an interface that makes you feel like you’re fighting with your character instead of fighting as him/her.  It’s really a shame, too, because there’s so much potential here for a great game.  Who knows? Maybe Capcom will learn from No More Heroes and do a redesigned port for one of the other major systems with more responsive controls and a deeper combat system.  For now, though, stick to watching this trailer of the game that might have been.

That’s it for now!  Expect more updates (hopefully daily) coming soon!

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3 Responses

  1. I categorically disagree with you about the appeal of White Collar, especially in terms of Leverage doing the premise better (because even with the draw of Christian Kane, who I absolutely adore, Leverage was boring and – at least the episode I saw – not well written). It’s Matt Bomer all the way, baby! Maybe Natalie Morales would (or could) act circles around everyone else, if she were given much of anything to actually do. But, until then, White Collar’s charm for me is the Ocean’s Eleven-esque cool-Frank-at-the-Sands type dialogue… And Matt Bomer.

    Both Mouse Guard and Night Trippers seem like really, really cool comics. I now want to read them! And Jim Henson’s Storytellers looks awesome as well!

    Congrats on thinking up a good name to go along with this cool concept!

  2. Of course I agree on Mouse Guard. I need to get the hardbacks next year if I can scrape up some money. I also have been considering that I will need to start focusing on my bookshelves more since I can only afford an ever decreasing number of titles on a regular basis. I also think that I will eventually start cracking open the long boxes to do posts on possibly random samplings of the titles and issues I already own. I look forward to reading your posts. Music, Comics, Movies and Videogames are all close to my heart as well.

    My family has been enjoying White Collar a lot. I liked the woman they had on that had been Ness from Las Vegas, but she didn’t make it out of the pilot. I love having dub dub on the show though. I will watch her wherever I can. I would give a limb for a few more seasons of middle man done at the same quality as the first one.

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