OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 11

Today I’ve got another interesting assembly of media items for you: A neo-classic fairy tale, a comic odyssey into very weird territory, some side projects from favorite artists of mine, and a whole slew of Mega Man-related media.  Let’s dig in!

BOOKS:

The Princess Bride: S. Morganstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (The “Good Parts” Version) by William Goldman (Harcourt) – Perhaps it’s because I spent decades watching and loving the film adaptation of this story, but I can honestly say that The Princess Bride is one of the few books I’ve read that is not better than its movie.  To what do I attribute this?  First and foremost, William Goldman’s prose writing style is very different from his film writing style.  Where The Princess Bride film flows smoothly and swiftly through each scene at a steady (but not rushed) pace, the novel tends to get bogged down with asides and false exposition in order to keep up its book-withon-a-book illusion.  So much time is spent convincing the reader that S. Morganstern was real and that The Princess Bride is actually abridged from a longer, more boring text that the rhythm of the story often flies recklessly off the rails and crashes into a mountainside for several pages. There is, of course, something to be said for such thoroughness in crafting an elaborate practical joke on the reader, but when it impedes the telling of the story it tends to get annoying (Michael Crichton did a slightly better job with his faux-Beowulf epic Eaters of the Dead, relying heavily on endnotes, a preface, a foreword, an introduction and an afterword)  That said, the Princess Bride novel does succeed in several ways where the film failed.  The characterization is far deeper in almost every case, as additional segments that would have been cut for time (such as Inigo’s decades of training, Fezzik’s tragic past, Buttercup’s “royal education” and Westley’s checkered journey) all provide valuable glimpses into the personalities of these characters, helping them transcend their roles and become easier to relate to.  Also, the character of Prince Humperdinck is decidedly different in the novel, seeming to have more in common with Ronnie from Jersey Shore than Chris Sarandon (in physique as well as general demeanor.)  The scenes involving his Zoo of Death are some of the best in the novel, and it makes me sad that the reason they could not be included in the film was because the cost of filming them was prohibitive.  Additionally, the later editions of the novel include the “sample chapter” of a sequel story entitled Buttercup’s Baby.  This passage, while entertaining in its own right, is a great case of a franchise that suffers with additional installments.  I understand and respect William Goldman’s position on the book, which is that he will write it when he feels he has a story that can measure up to its predecessor and not an instant before.  If only we could get the big Hollywood studios (and New York comic companies) to agree to such a rule.  Bottom line: If you grew up watching the film of The Princess Bride (as I did), the additional sequences are more than enough to make this a worthwile read (despite all the fake book-within-a-book asides.)  If you’ve never seen the film (inconceivable!) reading the book first will help you understand the movie better and probably enhance your enjoyment of it.

COMICS:

Doom Patrol Vol. 1:  Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison and Richard Case (Vertigo) – Last year, DC Comics published a line-wide event called Final Crisis in which writer Grant Morrison took superheroes into strange and often confusing territory.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the fact that much of the same weirdness (and indeed, some of the same exact elements) was already on display in Morrison’s 1989 run of Doom Patrol.  For those who are unfamiliar with the book, the Doom Patrol is a superhero team made up of strange and somewhat tragic superheroes (a race car driver whose brain was transplanted into a robot body after a fatal crash, a man who is possessed by a radioactive parasite, a woman who can control the size and shape of her body, and a rotating cast of other freaks and weirdoes) led by a wheelchair-bound eccentric scientist called “The Chief.”  For the record, the Doom Patrol and the X-Men premiered within a month of one another in 1963, so don’t go crying “rip-off!”  The series had fallen into irrelevance prior to Morrison’s run, and because of this he was allowed to take the team in a bold new direction that was intended to bring it back to its bizarre, dark roots.  The result is unlike any other superhero book I’ve ever read: A team whose existence is frought with heart-wrenching tragedy must take on the strangest and most avant-garde villains the world has ever seen, because they’re the only ones who can handle such surreality.  From metafictional “Scissormen” who seek to destroy the universe that spawned them, to a multidimensional being that sustains itself through the pain of others, to the halleucinations-made-real of one of their own team members, the Doom Patrol just can’t catch a break.  Morrison’s grasp of both human drama and abstract surreality creates a narrative where you really feel connected to this group of freaks and misfits, even if you can’t always understand exactly what they’re saving the world from at any given time.  It’s a transcendent work that deserves to be recognized alongside books like Watchmen, Sandman and The Dark Knight Returns, or at least Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. We’ll see if my perception of the series changes with subsequent volumes, though…

MUSIC:

High Speed Access to Brain by Rehasher – I’ve made it no secret over the years that I’m a big fan of Less Than Jake.  In fact, I would say that they are in my all-time top 10 favorite artists list (though I’ve never made that list formally, so I don’t know what number they occupy.)  So when I heard that Roger the bassist/second lead singer had his own project called Rehasher, I wasted no time in tracking down the album.  How does it sound?  … On the good side of average.  Sadly, without the other things I love about LTJ (Vinnie’s lyrics, the horn section, and the shared vocals of Chris and Roger) High Speed Access to Brain sounds unfinished.  There are standout tracks, of course, (“My Compass Must Be Broken” is my personal favorite), but on the whole the album sounds rather a lot like a collection of halves of Less Than Jake songs.  I’d recommend checking out “My Compass Must Be Broken” and seeing if it strikes your fancy, otherwise this might be best left for LTJ completists.

The Chainsaw Trio by The Chainsaw Trio –  Once upon a time, there was a band from New Jersey called New Blood Revival.  Lead singer Matt Witte used the powers of his soothing, crooning vocals to sing entirely unsettling songs about brutal relationships and deviant acts, and it was glorious.  But all things come to an end, and New Blood Revival disbanded.  Witte went on to form a new band called The Chainsaw Trio that sounds a bit more surf rock than NBR, and unfortunately takes less advantage of the fantastic juxtaposition of Witte’s vocals and shudder-inducing lyrics.  Flashes of NBR’s brilliance remain, though, in songs like “Feels Like Heaven”, which features a chorus that sounds like a love letter to chainsaws and the destruction they cause.  The down-n-dirty surf guitars (like the down-n-dirty surfing the Jersey shore is known for) sound fantastic on nearly every track, but most are not particularly memorable.  “Lie to Your Girl, I Want to Be Your Man” is enjoyably clever and dark, and opens the album nicely, and “Warm up the Oven” closes it with that wonderfully slow, grim sensibility.  For NBR fans like me, this album is a mixed blessing:  It’s great to hear Witte back in action, but much of what made NBR great is gone.  (then again, their first album was nowhere near as good as their second, so maybe there’s hope yet.)

Vox Inferne by The World/Inferno Friendship Society (Team Science) – What a curious item this is.  In advance of their next full-length album, The World/Inferno Friendship Society has released a three-song 7″ record featuring one old track and two new ones (new to me, anyway), all performed  a cappella (though occasionally with piano accompaniment.)  The familiar track here is a new recording of “Paul Robeson,” the only New Jersey resident the band considers heroic.  While this rendition robs one of their most kinetic songs of its frustrated, destructive energy, the lyrics are 1000% clearer and easier to understand.  This version is much more of a memorial than a call to arms, and succeeds in that respect.  The opening track, “The Devil Boys’ Last Hurrah,” is a spooky olde-timey ode to the days of their misspent youth.  If the song is to be believed, there were even stranger, cooler, more romantic and chaotic kids out their than World/Inferno themselves, and this song is for them. The subject matter fits perfectly with Bridgewater Astral League, but the band has grown and improved its sound so much since then to listen to them in sequence would sound jarring.  Enjoy this trip down the back alleys and abandoned warehouses just off Memory Lane.  Finally, the most distinctive track of the album is “Istanbul Drowned Blue Shoes.”  It is a tale of an incurable scoundrel, a jilted lover, and the beautiful pair of two-tone shoes that meet an unfortunate end.  It’s probably about a good deal more than that, but the rest of it went over my head.  What makes this song distinctive, though, is its use of background vocals in lieu of percussion.  The chant “Istanbul! drowned blue shoes!” and its variations is quirky enough to grab your attention and catchy enough to not let go until long after the song has ended. Also, Infernites will be pleased to hear that this song features the vocal talents of former World/Inferno bassist and background vocalist Yula Be’eri.  All told, this is hardly an essential piece of the World/Inferno catalogue, but it certainly entertains and intrigues enough to warrant a listen (if you didn’t throw out your record player.)

The Protomen (Act I) by The Protomen – There is no possible way for me to objectively review this album or any other by The Protomen.  I am simply too enamored with the band’s concept: The Protomen exist to construct a multi-part rock opera that recounts the epic tale of Mega Man.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Mega Man, the little blue robot who has starred in over 50 video games on every major platform over the past 23 years. (WARNING: I’m about to geek out even more than usual, so prepare yourself.)  Finally, someone is giving Mega Man’s story the treatment I have always felt it deserved.  The Protomen have taken the essential concepts of the Mega Man series (if not every plot detail) and crafted a tale of Orwellian dystopia and tortured fraternal conflict.  In The Protomen’s opera, Dr. Wily rules the world, and humans are slaves to his robot army. Dr. Light builds Proto Man to fight Wily’s army and save the world, but he is defeated and destroyed (though he might have succeeded if even one human had come to his aid.)  Years later, Mega Man learns of his “brother”‘s fate and vows to save humanity and exact revenge on Dr. Wily, only to find that a rebuilt Proto Man now serves as Wily’s second-in-command.  The opera focuses heavily on man’s passivity in the wake of totalitarian regime (or just industrialization,) and society’s tendency to value heroic personalities and gestures over actual attempts to change the world for the better.  The best example of this is when the rebuilt and disaffected Proto Man taunts a crowd of humans, asking them, “is there not one among you who values courage over life?”

Musically, The Protomen produce a rock opera more grim and harsh than any I have heard before.  It borrows from some of the common elements of Mega Man theme music without copying any directly (presumably for copyright reasons.) This is heavy rock with powerful vocals (sometimes distorted a bit too much for thematic purposes), metal guitars and electronic effects.  There is also a strong Southern blues-rock element to some of their songs, most notably “Unrest in the House of Light,” where Dr. Light (sounding more like Johnny Cash than his traditional James Mason) tells Mega Man the tale of his brother’s betrayal and death.  It’s bleak and grim, and the emotion is palpable.  I’ve embedded a fanvid of it below, along with the official video for the opening track, “Hope Rides Alone.”  Check them both out, if only to experience something wholly unique and unexpected.

Act II: The Father of Death by The Protomen –  How do you follow up an amazing rock opera about the story of Mega Man?  With another rock opera, this time a prequel!  The Protomen’s second album, Act II: The Father of Death, turns back the clock and examines the story of Drs. Light and Wily, partners in science and friendship whose clashing ideologies were the spark that ignited global annihilation.  The story begins with Light and Wily finishing their construction of humanoid robots who would replace human workers in the most dangerous and menial tasks.  Light sees this as a great day for humanity, and an end to the back-breaking toil that claimed his father.  Wily sees nothing but individualistic opportunity, recognizing that humanity will become placid and complacent (and ripe for the conquering) when the need to work is removed from daily life.  The catalyst is the death of Emily, Light’s true love and the first person ever to be murdered by a machine (at Wily’s behest.)  Light is branded a murderer and exiled, Wily takes control of the media, and by the end society is completely dependent on Wily’s robots for survival.

This album focuses far more on human drama than robot drama, and does a great job of blending themes such as the importance of survival instinct and society’s tendency to blindly trust any information they receive from a powerful source.    A great many more liberties are taken with the Mega Man story here, but since this time period is rarely ever mentioned in “canon” materials, it … aw, who cares?  It’s dramatic and exciting and dark and brilliant!  Act II also moves away from the electronic elements of its music, focusing more on traditional instruments.  There are even some interesting surprises, such as the rock horn section on “The Hounds.”  I’d like to think that it’s for more than that reason that “The Hounds” is my favorite track, since it also happens to be a brilliantly catchy indictment of society’s blind acceptance of broadcast information (as sung by Dr. Wily!)  It’s worth noting that there is also a female presence (not exactly something Mega Man is known for) on Act II, but sadly all of Emily’s best moments are after her death, sung from beyond the grave.  Act II is even more mainstream-friendly than its predecessor, and might be better for non-fans to start with, but I’m left wanting a true sequel to Act I.  To be continued…

VIDEO GAMES:

Mega Man 9 on Nintendo WiiWare (Capcom/Inti Creates) – ONE-SENTENCE REVIEW: Capcom must have access to a time-traveling device (be it DeLorean, Police Box, or telephone booth) because Mega Man 9 feels like it was plucked from the golden age of platform gaming and brought forward to the present for us to whole-heartedly enjoy.

FULL REVIEW:  This one’s hardly a new release, but since I wasn’t reviewing video games at the time of its arrival, I’ll touch upon it now.  The Mega Man franchise has grown and changed substantially over the past two decades, and Capcom determined that people don’t want to shell out $50 at retail for a 2-D platformer starring Mega Man anymore.  This looked like the end for my favorite video game series as I knew it, until the downloadable game market took hold on this generation of consoles.  Now Capcom realizes that those same people WILL shell out $10 online for a downloadable 2-D platformer starring Mega Man, and will do so in staggering numbers.  Mega fans like me couldn’t be happier about this, especially since series creator Keiji Inafune decided to turn back the development clock and make what is, essentially, a brand new retro video game.  Everything in Mega Man 9, from the graphics to the music to the gameplay itself, is designed to perfectly replicate the platforming video game experience circa 1990.  Specifically, Inafune’s intent was to bring the series back to the way it was after Mega Man II. While this means a loss of certain gameplay mechanics that have become series mainstays since 1989 (such as the ability to slide under objects and the ability to charge mega man’s plasma cannon for more powerful blasts) the experience of playing the game is an almost perfect replication of that from the good old days.  Pretty much every part of Mega Man 9 is a celebration of lost arts in video game design, from low resolution sprite-based graphics to chiptune music to punishingly difficult 2-D platform action.  The difficulty curve is a bit of an issue, though.  Since it is designed to be a serious challenge for veteran players, anyone new to the series (or anyone who found the old games to be very difficult) will become all too familiar with the “game over” screen very quickly.  Thankfully, Mega Man 9 continues the tradition of offering the player an infinite number of continues (as well as a game save feature to replace the old password system,) so with enough persistence and dedication anyone can defeat the evil Dr. Wily.  IMPORTANT NOTE:  The biggest drawback I found to purchasing Mega Man 9 on the Nintendo Wii is that the gameplay suffers from slight input lag on some high-definition televisions.  While slight lag may not be a huge deal when playing most Wii titles, in Mega Man 9 precision timing is absolutely crucial.  My advice is to purchase this game on either the Xbox or PS3 (which were both lag-free on the same TV) or make absolutely sure you have calibrated the timing on your nintendo wii to the microsecond.  Finally, I’ll leave you with the official Mega Man 9 trailer, and a Penny Arcade cartoon that perfectly sums up my experience playing the game:

Mega Man 10 on Playstation Network (Capcom/Inti Creates) – Just like in the old days, Capcom keeps cranking out the Mega Man goodness.  Since Mega Man 9 was so successful in its efforts to create instant nostalgia, they’re back again with an even more exceptional $10 outing in Mega Man 10.  A few important changes were made this time around, and since the game is otherwise exactly on par with part 9 (reviewed above) I’ll focus on the differences.  First of all, this is the first “classic” Mega Man game to feature the ability to select from multiple player characters at the start.  Now, in addition to playing as Mega Man himself, you can play as his sometimes-anti-heroic brother Proto Man.  Proto Man offers a greater challenge for veteran players (he takes twice as much damage per hit) but also acts as a repository for lost gameplay mechanics such as the slide and charged attack features.  His special weapons are the same as Mega Man’s, and his story follows the same progression (but with slightly different text pieces and 8-bit art pages.)

Speaking of story, the narrative in MM10 is unusually topical.  It centers around a dangerous outbreak of “roboenza”, a computer virus that is causing robots to develop crippling flu-like symptoms.  It’s up to Mega Man and Proto Man to recover the components necessary for Dr. Light (with Dr. Wily’s help?) to create a cure for Roboenza and save the robots of the world.  In order to do so, the Blue Bomber (and Red … somethingorother) must defeat a new group of 8 robot masters including the likes of Sheep Man and Pump Man (I kid you not.  They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel for robot masters these days.)  The boss layout in MM10 is actually one of the most well-designed and intuitive iterations in the franchise’s history.  Just by applying standard Mega Man boss weakness logic (fire vs. ice, electricity vs. water, etc.)  I was able to play through most of the game in the “right” order on one try, making the experience much less trial-and-error based and much more enjoyable.

The difficulty has been modified in MM10, most likely in reaction to players’ complaints about its unforgiving nature in the previous installment.  Now there are three difficulties: Normal (which is still easier than 9‘s normal), Hardcore (as its name implies, for hardcore gamers only), and Easy (a first for the franchise, and a welcome one in the eyes of new or young players.)   Easy mode not only increases damage dealt by the player and reduces damage taken from enemies, it also adds platforms in areas where complicated or difficult jumps are required.  Very classy, Capcom.  I’m impressed.

The only area where Mega Man 10 feels inferior to its predecessor is in its music.  That’s not to say that the music here isn’t very enjoyable in that retro-tastic sort of way, but it lacks the memorability of MM9‘s themes.  Of course, this could just be the effect that The Protomen have had on me, where now anything less than incredible dramatic rock opera seems inadequate.

I would recommend Mega Man 10 to any fan of old-school 2-D platforming, and I would especially recommend it to more casual nostalgic fans.  It has just as much charm as MM9, but the addition of an Easy Mode and the ability to play as Proto Man (with those sorely-missed gameplay mechanics) make it more accessible to those of us who don’t consider ourselves Hardcore (or even the dreaded XhardXcoreX.)

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One Response

  1. really its a very nice blog thank you for the information and was soon in your new looks.

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