OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG) Episode 6

Hello, dear readers. I’ve got just one item to review today, but it actually gave me a lot of food for thought that I’ll be focusing on more than the review itself. The book is What Would Google Do?, by Jeff Jarvis (of Buzzmachine.com and City University of New York,) and it raises a lot of great points about the ways the internet (and Google) have changed the way organizations work.

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BOOKS: petpluto Reviews Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

I’ve seen the movie; I’ve read my friends’ reviews of the book. And now I’ve read the book (a book I conveniently stole from another friend, who needs the book back due to it being a library book). And I have to say, I’m pretty glad I saw the movie before I read the book; otherwise, I would not have been interested in seeing the movie in the least. Which puts me in the minority among my co-bloggers, who liked the book more than the film. I started reading it while at the friend’s house I then liberated it from, and I was immediately drawn in to its teen-pretentiousness, and its less than stellar writing. And this may partially be because I have really never been into YA novels; I was reading The Odyssey when I was in fifth grade, so I kind of missed this important book category. But my initial review of the book is this (and it helps if you’ve seen Sports Night to appreciate the inflection of the words): “Took two people to write that [book]?” Now, Isaac was speaking of the song Happy Birthday, but I think the incredulity of his response still stands. Continue reading

BOOKS: John Reviews “Comic Books: How the Industry Works” by Shirrel Rhoades

While the rest of the world may wrinkle its nose at the very mention of comic books, calling them “infantile” or “low-brow” or things too offensive to repeat, those who embrace the medium know that this signature brand of sequential art storytelling offers a type of entertainment that simply cannot be found anywhere else (even in other sequential art media such as movies and animation.)  Yet, at the end of the day, a comic is a consumer product like any other.  It is this examination of the blurred line between business and art that makes Shirrel Rhoades’s latest tome, Comic Books: How the Industry Works so incredibly fascinating.  (Then again, I have worked in the comics industry and have experienced much of what Rhoades writes about firsthand, which might make it a bit more interesting for me than for the average reader. )  Acting as a textbook of sorts, Comic Books covers anything and everything that has to do with comic books from multiple perspectives.

As a former publisher of Marvel Comics who has dabbled in academia, magazine publishing and movie production, Rhoades is able to approach the subject of comics from several different perspectives.  He offers a history not only of the medium itself (all the while making reference to Scott McCloud’s similar work in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art)  but of the industries that feed into and out of comics as well.  He explains the nuts and bolts of the comics industry and its connections to the industries related to it, from book publishing to newsstand distribution to motion pictures to licensing consumer products.  He explores the “Manga invasion” and the advent of digital distribution, as well as Hollywood’s mad rush to capitalize on all things comic-related.  Most importantly, though, he breaks down the job environment in the comics industry and spells out exactly what readers should do if they wish to make a career out of their passion.

There is no question that Comic Books: How the Industry Works is a textbook (why else would it be priced at $99.95 for the hardcover?)  yet it is written in a highly relatable, conversational style that would feel right at home in a column on ComicBookResources or Newsarama.  The traditional textbook presentation of factual information is frequently livened by notes in the margins, which either provide relevant popular culture information or amusing anecdotes from Rhoades’s days at Marvel.  Some of these anecdotes are incredibly valuable, providing insight not only into the day-to-day world of comics production but into the personalities of the movers and shakers who make the industry run.  Rhoades includes scores of quotes and interviews from all the biggest names in the industry, from DC’s Paul Levitz and Marvel’s Joe Quesada to multimedia legend Stan Lee and business mogul Avi Arad.  Tons of lesser-known (yet just as important) industry experts share their advice as well, and sometimes the most insightful information comes from these fame-dodging, hard-working individuals.  If you plan to interview for a job with one of the major industry powerhouses, this book may provide an excellent primer for you.  Heck, you might even be interviewing with someone who was quoted!

Rhoades manages to cover the entire creative process, from editorial and creative (managing, writing and drawing) to the pre-press “bullpen” (where teams finish and clean up artwork) to manufacturing and printing, to distribution, to retailing, to (finally) buying the finished product.  He analyzes the differences between the different markets, and explains the relative merits of selling comics through newsstands versus comic shops versus bookstores (and even direct to the Web.)  Diamond Comics Distributors, one of the biggest powerhouses of the industry that is still below most customers’ radar, is explained and discussed in detail here.  His advice extends to both aspiring writers/artists and aspiring entrepreneurs, and he provides valuable insight on the advantages and disadvantages of opening a comic shop.  References to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and his pearls of wisdom are copious, as well they should be.

Sadly, even for a book released in 2008 Comic Books is already showing its age.  Mentions are made of DC and Marvel’s film successes and failures, but almost no attention is paid to the (at time of publication still upcoming) Iron Man and there was no mention at all of The Dark Knight or Watchmen. Several of the companies and lines mentioned as being highly successful or up-and-coming (Tokyopop, DC’s MiNX) have suffered serious setbacks and have either shut down entirely or drastically reduced their output.  It is a testament to the lightning-fast pace of the industry that even if the book were to be released now, it would be obsolete in several months’ time.  The comic book industry is in a period of flux and upheval, and who knows what will happen over the next few years as technology makes print media increasingly more obsolete.  Yet the lessons remain invaluable, as history lessons often do.  His discussion of work-for-hire assignments versus creator-owned assignments is oddly prophetic, actually, given that it predates Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman’s now-infamous videoblog manifesto on the subject.

Put simply, this book broadly explains in just over 300 pages what thousands of articles in Publishers’ Weekly, Wizard Magazine, Comic Book Resources, ICv2, Newsarama and a host of other comic-related media all examine constantly with microscopic precision.  It’s not a complete replacement for everything you would learn if you spent years obsessively following every bit of industry or insider information to make its way to the Web, but it provides a solid foundation of knowledge about the industry as a whole.  More than that, it serves to inform those who would only pay attention to one aspect (e.g., “How can I get Marvel to offer me an exclusive contract?”) of a much wider scope of information, which will better prepare them for work in any given aspect of the business.  After all, someone who knows how every department in a company works may have a better chance of getting a job than someone who only knows their own department.

I would recommend Comic Books: How the Industry Works to anyone who reads comics and wants to know more about how (and more importantly, why) they are made.  I would especially recommend it to anyone who is even remotely thinking of pursuing a career in the industry.  Rhoades’s explanations are wonderfully insightful and injected with enough humor and references to real-world events to keep readers interested throughout.  It might make more fiscal sense to pick up the paperback version (only $35 to the hardcover’s nearly $100), and those who are interested in further exploring the history of the comic book as a medium should check out Rhoades’s companion book: A Complete History of American Comic Books. If you’re looking for a comics retailer near you, you can call 1-888-COMIC-BOOK or visit the Comic Shop Locator Service’s website.

In the vein of those big websites (you know the ones,) I’ll include the following list of recommended related titles.  “If you liked this, you might also like …”

A Complete History of American Comic Books, also by Shirrel Rhoades.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Reinventing Comics: how Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form, also by Scott McCloud.

Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones.

Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society by Danny Fingeroth.

Comic Book Comics, a monthly comic series chronicling the history of the comics medium, written by Fred Van Lente and illustrated by Ryan Dunlavey.  Published by Evil Twin Comics.

Weekly columns by industry veterans Brian Hibbs (“Tilting @ Windmills“), Rich Johnston (“Lying in the Gutters“), Steven Grant (“Permanent Damage“), Joe Quesada (“My Cup O’ Joe“), and DC Comics President Paul Levitz, among many others.

BOOKS: John Reviews “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Once again proving that Hollywood hasn’t had an original idea in decades, that new movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings is based on a YA novel of the same name.  (While we’re on the subject, Sexdrive is based on YA novel All The Way, but I couldn’t find that at Barnes & Noble.)  It’s a little bit Romeo and Juliet, a little bit When Harry Met Sally, a dash of Sid and Nancy for that punk rock flavor, and just the slightest hint of my personal favorite YA novel ever, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Steven Chbosky.)  I may have had my personal misgivings about the title (An infinite playlist would require no effort, since you would hear every song ever recorded in every possible order an infinite number of times) but thankfully the story itself shines through its veneer of hipsterness.  The beginning may be fraught with attempts to establish the characters as awesomely post-hip (or pre-hip, whichever is supposed to be more desirable), but the characters gradually shed their meticulously-designed skins and become real people.  Well, as real as any fictional character can hope to be.  In the book, as in the life of the average 21st-century teen, truth and beauty is hidden under a layer of makeup and faux-vintage apparel.

I’m not sure how closely the movie will follow the book, but here’s the original story:  Nick is an 18-year-old bassist for Queercore (a genre?) band The F*ck-Offs.  His bandmates (a guitarist and a singer, but no drummer) are both gay, making Nick the only straight guy in the band.  He’s just been dumped by his girlfriend Tris, who(m) he loved with a passion heretofore unknown by the likes of mortal man, even if it was only for six months.  Nick is devastated by the break-up, and can barely hold himself together on stage when she shows up three weeks later to see The Fuck Offs perform …  and already has a new boyfriend.  Desperately wanting to both avoid her and hurt her at the same time, Nick makes a bold and desperate move: He asks the girl standing next to him in the audience to be his girlfriend for the next five minutes.
Norah is a girl balancing an equal number of prospects and problems.  The genius daughter of a multi-millionaire record exec, she has decided to defer her acceptance to Brown University so she can do volunteer work at a kibbutz in South Africa.  In addition to desiring to help her fellow man, she hopes to surprise her on-again-off-again Israeli-American boyfriend Tal, who is already there doing work.  She and Tal have had their troubles in the past, and he’s even gone as far as calling her frigid, but she’s willing to change herself and her life to make things work.  So when the random-but-cute “No ‘mo” bassist for the band that just played asks her to be his girlfriend for five minutes, she’s surprisingly conflicted.  Then it hits her: This is her friend/nemesis Tris’s ex, the one who wrote songs for her while she cheated on him behind his back.  Still not sure if it’s the right thing to do, she agrees out of pity for him and spite against her.  Then the night takes on a life of its own…

The rhythm of Nick & Norah is an interesting one, in that each chapter’s narration alternates between Nick’s perspective and Norah’s.  Events overlap to varying degrees, sometimes picking up right where the previous chapter left off, other times showing the same scene from the other side’s perspective.  It makes the book relatable to both male and female readers, since it never gets too girly or too boyish.  It also allows both characters’ inner motivations to be much more clearly developed, and for actions that seem inexplicable to one to make perfect sense to the other.  You should be able to see yourself in at least one of these confused youngsters, if not both.  This also allows for two different sets of supporting characters, as both Nick and Norah have friends who interfere with their lives for better or worse (sometimes both!)  The other members of The F*ck Offs are more than stereotypical gay teens (or stereotypical musicians, for that matter) and Norah’s hard-partying best friend Caroline is not just a Tara Reid wannabe.  Even Tal and Tris get chances to show their humanity instead of falling into typical “Evil Ex” roles, which is partly helped by Tris occupying the triple role of friend/rival/cheating ex.  If they manage to keep this level of characterization in the film, it should stand apart from regular teen movie fare.

The authors certainly do make a strong effort to keep Nick & Norah hip and quirky, which can be a bit much at times.  Both teens are from Jersey (represent!) but are more comfortable wandering around Manhattan at night than anyone I knew when I was their age.  The detail used to describe everyone’s fashion choices can be a bit much, but it serves as a reminder of how important those things are to a teenager, even one in a queercore band.  They also seem to enjoy naming objects, ranging from Nick’s Yugo (Jessie) to the jacket he lends to Norah (Salvatore).  I’d tell you the significance of the name Julio, but that would be a spoiler.  Yet perhaps this was the authors’ intention, to show how hard we try to be cool when we’re that young.  I did enjoy the fact that they name-checked an equal number of real and fictional songs, making the world of Nick & Norah closely resemble ours without being tied directly to it.  They include a map of the NY metropolitan area at the beginning of the book, complete with landmarks visited throughout the story.  This is very much a New York and New Jersey love story, and I really hope the movie was shot on location.  It would be a different tale if it were in a different city.

But what about the romance?  That’s the core of the book, isn’t it?  Take it from me, this is where Nick & Norah really stands out.  The authors manage to weave a narrative that shows what happens when two very real people, with all their idiosynchracies and hang-ups, manage to connect in an increasingly isolating world.  It’s not love at first sight by any means, and these two hormonally-charged and emotionally-troubled teens can’t decide whether they desperately want each other or if they’re just desperate.  (WARNING: Things do get hot and heavy in one chapter, but it’s nothing they couldn’t show on prime-time television and no explicit words are used.) More than anything, they want to get to know each other, and that forms the crux of the story.  One of Nick’s friends sums it up when he explains that The Beatles had it right all along, that what love and relationships are really about is not a hot lay or a marriage prospect, it’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

I saw so many parallels between the story of Nick & Norah and the story of my own relationship that I couldn’t decide whether the writers were stalking us or just exceptionally good.  Obviously not everyone will be able to relate to it perfectly (after all, I wasn’t a bassist in a queercore band) but this ballad may very well strike a familiar chord or two along its way.  Even if none of the events match up to anything in your life, cohn and Levithan have done such an exceptional job of rounding out these characters that they may still feel like you and your friends.  I dare you, dear reader, to give this book a try (preferably before you see the movie) and play along at home by making your own soundtrack.  Here’s mine:

1. Teenage Bottlerocket – “So Cool”

2. Mad Caddies – “Game Show”

3. The Smiths (or Reel Big Fish f. Rachel Minton) – “Ask”

4. The Epoxies – “It’s You”

5. Green Day – “Extraordinary Girl”

6. Common Rider – “Carry On”

7. Edna’s Goldfish – “1,800 Miles to Nowhere”

8. Deal’s Gone Bad – “Movin’ On”

9. Mustard Plug – “Something New”

10. No Doubt – “Underneath It All”

11. The World/Inferno Friendship  Society – “Only Anarchists Are Pretty”

12. NOFX – “USA-Holes” (or any snotty political-punk song of your choosing)

13. The Pipettes – “Because It’s not Love (but It’s Still a Feeling”

14. The Reunion Show – “Too Much”

15. 311 – “All Mixed Up”

16. The Architects – “Help”

17. The Toasters – “Underground Train”

18. Stephanie White and the NJ Philth Harmonic – “Teardrops”

19. The Slackers – “Stars”

20. Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer – “This Briskness (Java)”

21. The Cure (or Goldfinger, or Codename: Rocky) – “Just Like Heaven”

22. Tim Armstrong – “Hold On”

23. Beastie Boys – “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”

24. The Gadjits – “This Could Be Permanent”

25. Cruiserweight – “There You Are”

26. The Clash – “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”

On the offchance that there are people out there who want an annotated version of this list explaining why I picked each track, let me know.  I’ll put it as a separate entry if demand warrants.  For those who know me personally, I’ll be happy to make a copy for you.  Enjoy!

P.S.: After watching the trailer again, I’ve already noticed some big differences from the book.  Nick is now Norah’s five-minute-boyfriend (instead of the other way around), Norah’s friend Caroline has a bunch of new adventures after being driven home by the F*ck Offs, and they all apparently spend a huge chunk of time trying to find the Where’s Fluffy show, ultimately missing it.  In the book, they stumble upon the Where’s Fluffy show by coincidence in the middle of their date and get to hear at least two songs before leaving.  The rest seems to be bang-on in spirit, even if it doesn’t follow it to the letter.

15 bones to pick with the Heroes Season 3 premiere

Time to settle in, folks. This is gonna be a long rant.

Heroes is an interesting show because it succeeded where so many of its predecessors had failed: It is a popular, critically acclaimed prime-time drama that features superheroes as its primary focus. I give it credit for that, and for some of its fresh takes on existing ideas from the world of superhero fiction. But that’s as much praise as I’m going to send its way in this post. The rest of it is reserved for the MANY problems with the two-hour premiere of its third season, the “Villains” story arc.

SPOILERS ON!

Let’s count the Marvel and DC Comics references, shall we?

1-2) If you thought elements of season one were a little bit too reminiscent of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s legendary X-Men story “Days of Future Past,” you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

One of the most famous X-Men stories in the titles history

One of the most famous X-Men stories in the title's history

Dystopian future where mutants (er, I mean strangely evolving humans) are hunted and put in concentration camps? Check. Time-travelling future version of a hero who is sent back to alter a pivotal moment in mutant/human relations? Check. Admittedly, they flipped the pivotal moment: Instead of preventing the assassination of anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly, our hero committed (or attempted to commit) the assassination of pro-mutant Governor Nathan Petrelli.

3) X-Men fans might also recognize the none-too-subtle homages to Emma Frost (a.k.a. The White Queen) in Ali Larter’s new character.

Does that outfit look familiar?

Does that outfit look familiar?

Compare: Emma Frost is a tough-as-nails, beautiful, results-driven woman who dresses in white lingerie, uses sex to advance her career goals, and is known as the White Queen. Tracy Strauss is a tough-as-nails, beautiful, results driven woman who dresses in white lingerie (at least at home), uses sex to advance her career goals, and may soon be referred to as “The Ice Queen.” Emma can turn her skin into unbreakable diamond, Tracy can turn things to ice. The powers are different, but thematically similar.

4) What about the new villains we were promised? Might they seem a bit familiar (at least in this pairing) to Marvel comics readers? Let’s see, we have a mutant with magnetic powers (Magneto), one with fire powers (Pyro), Peter is trapped inside the one with sonic powers (Avalanche), and a fourth who has yet to use his powers on-screen. If his power is a six-foot prehensile tongue (Toad), the ability to create illusions (Mastermind), shapeshift (Mystique) or just kick serious ass (Sabretooth) then their little criminal fraternity (The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) is a complete set of rip-offs.

5) It seems Mohinder Suresh couldn’t decide which superhero he wanted to rip off more: Captain America or Spider-Man. Injecting himself with an untested serum designed to give superhuman abillities (a twist on Cap’s super-soldier serum origin) he gains superhuman strength and agility, as well as the ability to stick to walls (he was totally sticking to them, by the way. They didn’t even try to make it look like he was actually gripping anything.) But what’s this? Could he be turning from Spider-Man into the Man-Spider?

Yes, it really happened in the comics.

Yes, it really happened in the comics.

The fact that he’s drinking so much milk seems to hint at increased bone growth, so he may end up more like Marrow (or Abomination from this year’s Incredible Hulk movie.)

6) This last homage is from DC Comics. In the year-long weekly series 52, (its name an homage to 24‘s title and episode structure) Lex Luthor cracked the formula for unlocking the potential for metahuman abilities in most human beings (delivered via syringe) and plans to sell it to the world at large. While initially warned that using the formula on himself would have disastrous consequences, he eventually does it anyway and gains phenomenal powers before said consequences nearly kill him. Mohinder Suresh stumbles upon a formula for unlocking the potential for metahuman abilities in all human beings (delivered via syringe) and plans to make it available to the world at large. He knows that the formula is untested and that using it on himself could have disastrous consequences, but he does it anyway. The serum gives him phenomenal powers, but it remains to be seen whether or not the consequences will nearly kill him.

Now that we’re done with the frequent nods to comic books, let’s move on to the horrible inconsistencies in story and in common sense!

A) Sylar has the power to throw an armored truck with his mind, but can’t break open a slotted wooden closet door?!! Let’s count the ways he could have gotten around that

0) Before we start, his super hearing (remember that power? apparently he doesn’t) should have told him right away where Claire was hiding. That’s just inexcusable. Then again, he’s never used his super hearing, so maybe he forgot he even had it.

I) TK smash the door. If you’ve got enough brute telekinetic force to flip a truck, and enough precision to slice the top of someone’s head off without harming their brain, you should have no problem with a door that any normal human could kick open.

II) Freeze the lock, then smash it. He’s got ice powers, and they make things brittle! Now even a child could kick the thing open!

III) Turn the lock to liquid. Another power he has, but never uses. That poor guy from the Burger King and Arby’s commericals died so that we could see it in action, yet he’s never once used it. what a gyp!

IV) Blow the lock, and the entire door to bits with a nuclear fireball. Apparently all they’re good for is making a tiny light show while standing on the edge of a roof and looking menacing, though.

V) I wish there was a way to have him use Charlie’s power of instant learning, but I can’t think of one. That’s never-used power #3.

Instead, what does he do? He demonstrates some strange new power we’ve never seen before! It’s either stealth-like-ninja powers of hiding in plain sight, or he actually did learn Candice’s powers of illusion even though he couldn’t manifest them at the time.

B) I am very disappointed in Noah Bennett. Who leaves their top-secret files on the most dangerous super-criminals ever apprehended by the company in a cardboard box in plain sight in their home! Not even a locking file cabinet! Talk about security risks. What if Mr. Muggles decided to do his doggy business in the box when no one was home?

C) I am also disappointed in the Company’s attempts to apprehend Sylar. They had him dead-bang in broad daylight on a suburban street. “Hmm, what team should we send after the dangerous sociopath with the inherent knowledge of patterns and a list of powers so long even he doesn’t seem to know how many he has? I know! Let’s send the girl whose power is to breathe in any atmosphere. He can’t possibly defend against such power! And for armament, let’s give one of them a taser and let the other fend for herself. After all, what possible defense could he have against an ordinary taser and … nothing?” Somebody should have been fired for that.

D) I’m also disappointed in the Company’s lack of security contingency measures. They put all of their most dangerous super-criminals together in one area of the facility, and linked all of their cells’ security measures on the same electrical circuit. If somebody cuts the power (or shorts it out, like Elle’s involuntary lightning spasm did) they all go free! Why would there ever be a backup for such a thing, right? Furthermore, why didn’t they just kill the supervillains? It’s not as if the Company is above killing superhumans who refuse to go along with their plans. Noah Bennett and Claude had to do it all the time! The only reason they didn’t kill Adam Monroe was because they couldn’t kill him, no matter how hard they tried!

E) Since when did Linderman become The Great Gazoo to Nathan’s Fred Flintstone? (or, if you prefer BSG references, the Number Six to his Gaius Baltar).

F) What’s up with this new speedster lady? Initially, when Hiro stops time, she stops with it. She’s got a vapor trail, but she’s stopped. Suddenly she starts walking and talking, and we learn that she’s completely unaffected by this time-stopping power. Then she peels out at her normal superhuman speed while time is still frozen. If that’s all true, why would she have been stopped in her tracks in the first place? Would she even have noticed, or would she have just kept running?

G) And speaking of Hiro’s time-manipulation abilities, he’s an awfully big hypocrite. He claims he won’t travel back in time ever again, but he does it for fun at his desk all day long ! How does that make any sense?

H) Future-Peter claims that he had to act the way he did because no one would understand what he was trying to do (namely to change the future for the better.) Does anybody remember that whole chunk of Season 1 that was dedicated to somebody from a dystopian future travelling back in time and telling our heroes how to avert the coming catastrophe? Clearly Nathan understood the meaning of “save the cheerleader, save the world” then, so why couldn’t he have been reasoned with again? It seems to me like Peter just wanted an excuse to kill his big bro.

I) Finally, I know that this season is called “Villains” and is supposed to be different from last season in that it actually has bad guys, but it seems like they’ve added far too many. How many do we need? We’ve got Angela Petrelli (the biggest of the big-bads, though no one ever seems to acknowledge this), Sylar, Adam Monroe (possibly, if Angela’s dreams are true), The Ghost of Linderman, Daddy Parkman (who may be behind the Ghost of Linderman), Tracy Strauss, Future-Peter, Future-Claire, the Speedster, and the Level 5 Gang. Plus we know that either Hiro or Ando will turn rogue at some point, and there’s a good chance that Suresh will end up being the leader of an evil faction as well. Maybe, just maybe, we might actually get to see a good fight between heroes and villains this season. But judging by the strength of these episodes, I somehow feel they’ll manage to screw even that up.

COMICS: John Reviews ‘Zombies Calling’ by Faith Erin Hicks

Hey, kids! Do you like zombie stories, but have to wait until you’re older to watch R-rated movies like Shaun of the Dead? Well, you don’t have to wait any longer for your living dead fix! Faith Erin Hicks’s first original graphic novel, Zombies Calling, is a fun-filled and action-packed horror tale that has all the fun of popular zom-coms like Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead and (to some extent) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with a PG rating!

Jocelyn (or “Joss,” as she prefers to be called) is a reasonably typical Canadian college coed. She’s terrified of her mounting student loan debt, is enamoured with British culture and positively obsessed with zombie media. She claims to know all of “the Rules” of zombie fiction, though she has a much harder time remembering to study her actual coursework. On an otherwise ordinary day, her most exciting dreams and worst nightmares are realized as zombies overrun the campus! Joss quickly barricades herself and her friends (studly, dimwitted jock Robyn and sardonic mall-goth Sonnet) in her dorm room where they plan to use Joss’s knowledge of “the Rules” to survive until help arrives.

Will Robyn, Sonnet and Joss survive the zombie outbreak? Will Joss still have to face the nightmare of insurmountable debt? Will she ever get to realize her dream and visit Merry Olde England? And what’s the deal with the zombies, anyway?! The answers to all these questions and more are waiting to be read by you in Zombies Calling!

Judging by her love for the subjects in this book, Faith Erin Hicks must be nearly as zombieand Britishobsessed as I am. There are dozens of homages to the great creators and works of the sub-genre, from the first pair of zombies exclaiming “Grr! Arrgh!” to Joss’s scathing derision of the lone “fast zombie.” Pay close attention to the posters on Joss’s dorm room wall for a few more nods. Joss longs for a zombie-destroying cricket bat, but has to settle for a change jar and, later, a spork (which makes for some of the best humor in the book!) And what would a piece of zombie fiction be without some form of social commentary? The zombie master puts things into a very humorous perspective that anyone can understand, but college students will especially appreciate.

It took until nearly the end of the book for me to stop judging it by standards that do not apply. Zombies Calling is not cut from the same cloth as any of its predecessors, with the possible exception of Shaun of the Dead. If you are expecting a dark tale about the collapse of society in the face of rampant consumerism (of flesh!) or any other heavy social metaphor, you are looking in the wrong place. This is a light-hearted look at zombies that stabs the fourth wall with a mighty jab from its blood-covered spork. Its ideal adaptation (in my mind) would be an animated prime-time special on Cartoon Network. I say a special rather than a movie because it is rather short in length, only taking one hour at most to read through (if you’re not hunting for homages.)

Faith Erin Hicks not only wrote Zombies Calling, but pencilled, inked and lettered it as well. She admits that her style is reminiscent of Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim) and Andi Watson (Clubbing, Glister, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and I completely agree. In particular, Sonnet bears a striking resemblance to Charlotte, the protagonist of Clubbing. The characters each have their own unique looks (Sonnet notwithstanding) and the action is kinetic and dynamic without being graphic. Also, it’s very funny to watch Joss fend off packs of zombies with nothing but a hybrid utensil. The panel layouts are straightforward and easy to follow, which is perfect for an all-ages (or at least ages 8 and up) book.

I would recommend Zombies Calling for anyone who enjoys zom-coms and can laugh at their better-known conventions, but doesn’t require layers of subtext underneath the menace of flesh-eating undead. It may still be a bit too much of a horror book for younger readers, but I would put it on par with your average R.L. Stine book in terms of scariness. As joss would say, it’s bloody brilliant!

BOOKS: John reviews Alex Robinson’s “Too Cool to Be Forgotten”

Have you ever had that horrible dream where you find yourself back in high school, dreading the inevitable pop quizzes and lunchroom social climbing?  I know I’ve had variations of that nightmare every few months since graduation.  But what if you really were transported back in time and forced to relive your most awkward teen years?  Alex Robinson tackles this idea in a surprisingly gripping, funny and touching way in his latest original graphic novel, Too Cool to Be Forgotten.

The story begins with 39-year-old Andy Wicks seeking the help of a professional hypnotherapist to cure his addiction to smoking.  A prematurely balding mid-level manager at a moderately successful software company with a wife and two daughters (one from his wife’s previous marriage), Andy’s life is about as mediocre as can be imagined.  He has had no luck kicking his addiction to cigarettes, and so agrees to put his skepticism aside and attempt hypnotherapy for the sake of his wife’s (and children’s) health  Under the hypnotic light, he is getting very sleepy…

…When he wakes up, he finds himself (much to his surprise and alarm) in his old high school.  As if that wasn’t odd enough, people seem to be reacting to him very differently.  When he checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he is shocked to find that not only is he back in his high school building, he is sixteen years old and back in high school! Is he doomed to repeat the most awkward and embarrassing years of his life all over again?  Will he be able to return to the future without making drastic changes to history?  Will he learn why any of this has happened?  Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.  You’ll have to read it for yourself to learn the truth.

I will gladly tell you, however, that the book is a joy to read from start to finish.  Hollywood executives, if given this premise, would probably have turned out a typical drek-fest (“It’s 13-going-on-30 BACKWARDS meets Never Been Kissed!  We’ll cast We’ll cast Jennifer Garner and Miley Cyrus as “Andie Wicks,” take out the smoking angle, and make it a musical!!!”)  Thankfully, Alex Robinson refuses to go down that road.  The result feels much more like a combination of Superbad and Garden State, with a spoonful of generic John Hughes thrown in to give it that distinctive ’80s flavor we all know and love.  Speaking of that ’80s flavor, Alex stuck to actual high school yearbooks for his stylistic inspiration instead of the more “traditional” movies of the era.  He remarked in an interview that, “I don’t know how it was for other people but I was really surprised looking back at how un-eighties [kids in the eighties] actually looked. There were still a lot of kids with long hair, almost more seventies looking, instead of the spikey, new wave look that Hollywood featured at the time.”

Swinging back around to my Judd Apatow and Zach Braff comparisons, I would say that Alex shows in Too Cool To Be Forgotten that he has the same talent for giving characters realistic voices for both comedy and drama, letting them show more personality and depth of character than the average teen story.  The book gets a bit emotionally heavy toward the end, but it is handled in a way that reminds me of the most human parts of Garden State (specifically the conversation between Andrew and his father near the end of the film.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the exceptional quality of TCTBF‘s artwork, which manages to capture the feel of vapid teenageriness as easily as it expresses deeply powerful emotional imagery, though the transitions between the two are sometimes less than seamless.  Still, there are pages that will stick in your memory long after you read the book, and ones where you’ll understand the emotions of the scene before you even start paying attention to the panels themselves.  I’ll throw out three other (wildly different) artists that I was reminded of at turns: Webcomic superstar Scott Kurtz (of PVP fame), legendary (and somewhat legendarily awkward) comix artist R. Crumb, and king of unusual panel layouts J.H. Williams II.  I’ll warn you, though, visual art is not really something I have as much familiarity with.  When it comes to those comparisons, your mileage may vary.

I highly recommend Too Cool to Be Forgotten to anyone who enjoys character-driven stories that feature light-hearted humor mixed with real, touching moments.  I especially recommend it to anyone who has ever woken up in a cold sweat, panicked that they didn’t study for that final exam or that they’ll have to go stag to the prom (even when they know their prom happened years ago.)  Those nightmares may never go away, but maybe TCTFB will help you appreciate how lucky you are to have gotten out of high school alive.

P.S.: It’s worth noting that TCTFB is a very quick read.  If you’re determined, you can probably read it from start to finish in under two hours.  I recommend that you take your time, though, since some of the more subtle bits of dialog and artwork are what make the book such a joy to read.