Sunday, April 20, 2008

Amulet - Book One The Stonekeeper

Amulet – Book One The Stonekeeper (Scholastic) - $9.99
Written and illustrated by Kazu Kibuishi

Synopsis: After a family tragedy, Emily, Navin, and their mother move to an ancestral home to start a new life. On the family’s very first night in the mysterious new house, Emily and Navin’s mother is kidnapped by a tentacled creature. Now it’s up to Emily and Navin to figure out how to set things right and save their mother’s life.
The book opens with an eleven page prologue covering the tragic event that forever changes the lives of Emily, Navin, and their mother Karen. This nicely sets the stage for the rest of the book as it transitions from tragedy to the family beginning a new life. Emily isn’t happy about the move. She doesn’t like the fact they are moving to a small town in the middle of nowhere. Financial difficulties have forced Karen’s hand unfortunately. The house is in need of a lot of work as it hasn’t been lived in for a while. It previously belonged to Karen’s grandfather, Silas Charnon, but he disappeared after the death of his wife. He was a puzzle maker, though as Karen comments, his puzzles looked more like toys or machines. While cleaning upstairs, Emily stumbles across Silas’ library and uncovers a hidden amulet. That evening Emily is awakened by a voice speaking to her from the amulet. She and her mother notice strange noises coming from somewhere in the house. They look for the source and determine it is coming from the basement. Karen descends into the basement and is attacked by a strange creature. Emily and Navin rush down the stairs when they hear her scream, but she is nowhere to be found. Emily notices a door however and they find a huge subterranean cavern on the other side. They eventually catch up to the creature that swallowed their mother, but then end up having to flee from it. The amulet again speaks to Emily and tells her where she needs to go to find help. They manage to escape the creature but are unaware someone is stalking them. They reach the destination given by the amulet and find a huge house sitting on a island of rock in the middle of a small lake. Before they can determine how they want to cross, someone approaches in a boat. When the individual notices them, they decide to run away, but find their path blocked by the dark character that has been stalking them. They are saved by the boatman, Miskit, who turns out to be not a man at all. Miskit takes them to the house where they find their great-grandfather Silas. He reveals some of the secrets of the amulet to Emily and places it in her final charge. Emily has the choice to accept the power of the amulet and Silas’ legacy or to turn away. With time running short to rescue her mother, Emily has to decide on a course of action. Accept the power and responsibility or find another way to save her mother.
This is an outstanding book that is perfectly suited for both children and adults. The art is quite excellent and is in full color. The story is engaging and highly entertaining. There are many great touches along the way. I particular enjoyed when they arrive at the house and Karen determines they can’t sleep in the house given its current condition so they have to attack it. Brandishing brooms as though they are weapons of war, the three line up in the entryway and then charge forth in unison. Then there is the scene where they are camped out with sleeping bags in one of the rooms upstairs. Emily starts to complain about the move again and when she comments about how her father would have approached things, Karen starts to break down. Emily realizes the mistake she has made and quickly apologizes. It turns into a nice family moment and also demonstrates some small amount of growth on Emily’s part. I really like Kazu’s character designs, as well as the overall look of this project. The characters have a very simple animated feel similar to a Hayao Miyazaki project, although there is a sort of a Don Bluth vibe to the book that I really can’t explain. Miskit and the other denizens of Silas’ hidden home are the charming sort of characters one would expect from a book aimed at a younger reading audience. The character stalking the children is particularly menacing in appearance. One thing that really impressed me with Kazu’s storytelling throughout the book is his use of the characters’ eyes as the primary communicator of what is actually happening to them. In fact, it might be possible to read the story without actually seeing all of the specifics of the surrounding action and still have a reasonably fair idea of what is going on just based on the strength of the characters’ expressions. I’m not certain how many books this series is supposed to run but I am definitely looking forward to the remainder of the story.
4 1/2 zombies (out of 5)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bride of the Water God

Bride of the Water God [vol. 1 & 2] (Dark Horse)
Written and illustrated by Mi-Kyung Yun
Synopsis: When Soah’s impoverished, desperate village decides to sacrifice her to the Water God Habaek to end a long drought, they believe that drowning one beautiful girl will save their entire community and bring much-needed rain. Not only is Soah surprised to be rescued by the Water God – instead of killed – she never imagined she’d be a welcomed guest in Habaek’s magical kingdom, where an exciting new life awaits her. Habaek, the mysterious Water God, is cursed to live in the form of a little boy during the day – while he turns back to his true adult self at night. His new human bride, Soah, thinks that she’s been married to a child and has no idea that the attractive ‘Mui’ is actually the indecisive adult Habaek. Surrounded by a cast of colorful elemental gods and their servants, Soah is tempted by flirtations from both ‘Mui’ and the rascal Huye. Things get even more complicated after Tae-eul-jin-in spills a surprising secret, and Soah audaciously plots to uncover the truth for herself.
Two volumes in, I can say without reservation this is an absolutely outstanding series thus far. Korean creator Mi-Kyung Yun is spinning a really engrossing tale and her art is remarkably beautiful. The first couple of pages of each volume have been in color with the remainder of the pages in black and white. The opening page (in color) of the second volume is nothing short of stunning (honestly, it should be framed and hanging on a wall as an oversized print).
Bride of the Water God features a very interesting mix of characters. Soah is the protagonist, a human who finds herself in the land of the gods, and the Water God Habaek is the one to whom she is sacrificed. The other principles are Murah – the Goddess of Cheongyo Mountain, Mu-san-shin-yeo (she goes by Yohee), the Fire God Judong, Huye, Tae-eul-jin-in, and Seowangmo, Habaek’s mother.
Soah is chosen by her village to be the sacrifice to the Water God Habaek in order to bring rain and end a great drought. In some respects this might seem a great honor as one would expect the villagers to seek to offer their most beautiful maiden. Sacrificing anything less than the most beautiful of the eligible candidates would certainly seem like an insult to the Water God, and it wouldn’t make sense for the villagers to risk his wrath when they so desperately need his favor. Soah does not see things from this particular view. She clearly feels betrayed and the value of her life unappreciated, but to her credit she does not try to escape the duty. Yet her thoughts indicate she doesn’t care what happens to the village once she has been set afloat the ocean to wait for the Water God to claim her.
When Soah is first introduced to the gods (after being discovered on the shore by Yuk-Oh, who is in charge of the palace where Habaek resides), she initially mistakes Huye for the Water God. Her thoughts upon glimpsing him from behind filter back to whispers she heard from some of the villagers – “They say once you see him, you never forget him.” “I heard he’s a terrifying monster.” “Yes, I also heard he eats people.” Yet when he turns and shows his face, her thoughts quickly change – “The god, this being, is beautiful … “ Yuk-Oh introduces Huye (Soah is disappointed he isn’t who she thought he was) and then presents Habaek, who turns out to be a young boy. Habaek is rather rude to her initially (he even insults her beauty in later conversation, saying he “told the humans to offer the most beautiful woman”, and that he “won’t let it rain for five hundred years”).
Soah encounters Tae-eul-jin-in when she becomes lost while wandering around the palace. He introduces himself as a doctor and inventor. Soah learns from him that it has not yet rained. She rushes back to Habaek and admonishes him for not fulfilling his end of the bargain. Habaek belittles humans for being selfish and thinking they can so easily sacrifice just one and they themselves can then be safe and live. Soah withdraws, upset that she allowed herself to be tricked by his childish looks and forgot he was an ill-tempered god.
Soah learns much later in conversation with Murah that Habaek has given rain. She also discovers Habaek had previous brides. In another encounter with Tae-eul-hin-in, Soah learns that Nakbin was Habaek’s first bride and he loved her very much, but she died.
While Soah is enjoying a walk in the forest along with Habaek and the other gods, she is attacked by a crocodile-like creature. Huye takes the bite intended for Soah and then slays the creature. Soah twists her ankle during the encounter so Huye decides to carry her. Habaek is clearly irritated that he was powerless to help Soah.
The Water God Habaek is an interesting case. While Habaek may seem to be hard and insensitive, he is something of a tortured soul. He is stuck in child’s form during the day (where he has no powers) and is free to regain his adult form (and powers) during the hours of the night (it hasn’t been revealed as yet how and why this came to be). When in his natural adult form, Habaek is known as Mui. Habaek doesn’t initially reveal his situation to Soah, and when he later meets her as Mui, he leads her to believe that he (Mui) is Habaek’s cousin.
When it is revealed Habaek’s mother, Seowangmo, is coming for a visit, Judong tells Soah Seowangmo is the Goddess of Punishment and Torture (but he tells her she shouldn’t worry because Seowangmo is also the Goddess of Love and Beauty – then again, she is also the Goddess of Disease so … ). Soah is very frightened when she is brought for an official audience with her. Habaek is not pleased with her interest in his bride and angrily orders Soah to go off with Yohee while he remains to speak with his mother.
Following her second meeting with Mui, Tae-eul-jin-in reveals to Soah that Habaek and Mui are one and the same. He tells her she can ask the others if she doesn’t believe him. When she does make such an inquiry, Murah tells Soah not to believe Tae-eul-jin-in.
Seowangmo wants Habaek to send Soah back, but decides it is her responsibility as a mother to help the couple when Habaek tells her that he is deeply in love with Soah. She gives her servant two potions, one for Habaek and one for Soah. Unfortunately, her servant mixes them up and Habaek receives the wrong one. Soah decides to ask Mui directly if he and Habaek are actually the same person, but she discovers him half-conscious on the floor. She kneels to help him and Mui, in a disoriented state, embraces her and calls her Nakbin. Soah is confused regarding his behavior since she knows Nakbin was Habaek’s bride.
Soah later asks Tae-eul-jin-in if he was being truthful about Mui. He guesses Murah told her not to believe him and tells her that Murah has feelings for Habaek and therefore has no reason to like or help Soah. When Soah relates the events of the prior evening to Judong and Murah, Judong accuses her of liking Mui. Murah says Judong is being ridiculous because if Soah really does like him, it would be a true betrayal of Habaek. Some time later, Soah has the realization that not only was she shocked to hear Mui calling out Nakbin’s name when he embraced her, but that she is also jealous of her.
While most of the other gods appear to each have their own hidden agenda (Murah, for instance, is in love with Habaek and certainly sees Soah as an obstacle, just as she did with Nakbin), Huye is the biggest mystery. He is very kind to Soah on several occasions, even going so far as to tell her that if she has a problem, she can tell him and he will help anytime. He appears to have some interest in Soah which may or may not be altogether honorable. It is alluded to in a brief flashback that he and one of Habaek’s brides (Nakbin in all likelihood) may have been more than just friends. Habaek is trusting of Huye (he tells him on one occasion that “he is the last one and if you betray me I’ll never forgive you”) and yet seems to have some apprehension in regards to Huye’s intentions with Soah. Huye presents Soah with a comb during a visit to the night market as a belated welcoming gift. Mui remarks to Soah that a man giving a lady a comb as a gift means he’s proposing for marriage. It isn’t clear if Mui is being truthful in this instance or simply gauging her reaction.
Soah is a very conflicted character. She is both strong and weak. She considers herself to be a phony bride (this harkens back in part to her not caring what happens to the village). When Mui tells her to go back, that he will help her to return home, Soah tells him that she is never going back because Habaek loves her deeply (this occurs the evening following her meeting Seowangmo – prior to Tae-eul-jin-in telling her that Mui and Habaek are one and the same). She twists a few of the comments Habaek made to her upon their initial meeting and tells Mui that Habaek said she “looked very nice”, implied that he called her “the most beautiful woman” and that he told her he would protect her for the rest of her life (it is after this meeting that Habaek tells his mother, in his second audience with her, that he deeply loves Soah). Soah wonders that had Huye been Habaek when she first encountered him whether she would have fallen in love with him. She finds herself attracted to Mui (even though she is uncertain about his being Habaek – and she is unsure whether she wants that to be the truth or not). When Mui asks on the night of their first meeting if she is afraid of Habaek and why she didn’t run away, Soah relates a tale told by her grandmother where Habaek grieved over a person who drowned and turned them into a water lily so such a thing wouldn’t happen again. She concludes by saying she wasn’t scared because she believes anyone who would grieve so much for a person’s death can’t be such a bad person. She is very frightened when she meets Habaek’s mother, but after seeing how coldly Habaek greets her, she realizes that Seowangmo perhaps seemed very lonely. When Soah finds Mui collapsed on the floor (and after he embraces her and calls her Nakbin), she rushes to Tae-eul-hin-in’s room and locates medication he administered days before to Habaek. She can’t get Mui to swallow it from the bottle in his now unconscious state so she puts it in her own mouth and administers it to him in that manner. It is moments such as these that help define her as a highly intriguing and empathetic character.
Overall, this is a very complex tale with two primary characters that seem reluctant to trust not only in themselves, but the other as well -- two characters who are searching for the sanctuary and contentment they may only find with each other. There are clearly many challenges that remain ahead, certainly in the form of the goddess Murah and likely from Huye as well when his intentions become known. I’m most definitely looking forward to future volumes to see how the story continues to play out. In conclusion, I have to say this is really an exceptional and entertaining manwha series. Honestly, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
5 zombies (out of 5)

(as a bonus, here is the first page of the second volume that should be a framed print -- minus the text of course)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Who is the perfect paramour?

There has been much opinion and discussion of late in regards to the developing relationship between Diana of Themyscira and Tom Tresser (AKA Nemesis). Amy Reads (she of the exceptionally written blog Arrogant Self-Reliance) has expressed her own, perhaps undefinable, dislike of Tresser. I also have not found the romance to be particularly agreeable. While I've been reading comics for nigh on three decades (let's not think on that now, shall we?), I don’t have quite the same DC ‘credentials’ as many others may. I cut my comic teeth on Spider-Man and Marvel, but I wasn't all that far behind on DC titles. It wasn't long after my exposure to the X-Men (the next real comic book I knew outside of Spider-Man) that I became a reader of DC's Vigilante (the Adrian Chase version), which grew out of a cross-over between the Teen Titans and the X-Men. From there I became a reader of the Teen Titans, then the Justice League (the Giffen/DeMatteis version), the Flash, Green Lantern, Legion of Super-Heroes, L.E.G.I.O.N., Hawkman, and a few others. Vigilante was mid-80s, the others followed in the late 80s and early 90s. So you might say I have a decent foundation in DC titles (though not quite as strong as what I have in Marvel titles, much to my disappointment these days --- but that is a topic all its own). Even so, I wasn't reading Wonder Woman or Suicide Squad at the time, so I had no knowledge of Tom Tressor. In fact, my first exposure to the character (to the best of my knowledge) has been in recent issues of Wonder Woman (a title I started reading during Greg Rucka's excellent run). If you're familiar with the issues in question (written by Allan Heinberg and Jodi Picoult --- with very definite input from editorial), then you're quite familiar with the portayal of the character. I don't know what he may have been like before those issues, but I do know what he was like in them. He was rather dismissive of Diana (in her guise as Diana Prince) and possibly even a little chauvinistic. In fact, the only woman he seemed to give any respect (and I use that term somewhat loosely) is Wonder Woman.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily have to make him an ass. It could simply be a case of, what with his years of experience in covert operations and the like, Tresser finding Diana Prince to be sorely lacking as a suitable partner and thereby being somewhat annoyed that he has been ‘stuck’ with her. He also claimed he works alone and if that is indeed the case, one could certainly understand his not wanting to break in someone as inexperienced as she in their line of work (according to her resumé) -- though Diana did point out he worked with the Suicide Squad and other individuals in the past, so it seems a rather ineffectual argument on his part.
Then there was the time (in a Jodi Picoult scripted issue) when a somewhat groggy Tresser was disappointed that he had missed seeing Wonder Woman and commented that he ‘bet she looked hawt’. Now, should we put that down to the head injury causing him to think and say something out of usual character or is it a case of said injury temporarily removing the filter that would otherwise keep him from speaking what is actually on his mind. Personally, I’m going to have to go with the latter on that one.
So I’m not sure what to make of it entirely.
I have a hard time putting my finger on what exactly it is that I think I don’t like about him. Maybe it is simply a case of my believing he isn’t good enough for Diana, and that is that. But if that is really all it is, then it seems a rather anemic argument. Because when you get right down to it, who really is ‘good enough’ for Diana? If you want to try and measure someone up against everything that Diana is … well, you’re going to find the line of those who can even be considered to be in the same ‘sentence’ a rather short one --- as in, maybe zero individuals. Outside of possibly Superman (and frankly, he bores me as a character), I’m finding it difficult to come up with anyone who possesses even to some minor degree the number of intangibles that make Wonder Woman such a unique and wonderful character. Sure there are characters who have this part, and that piece, as well as their own distinguishing attributes, but none that really come close to encompassing the collection of traits that define Diana.
It seems an impossible task. Or perhaps improbable would be more appropriate a term. So if it is indeed improbable to find someone very clearly ‘deserving’ of Diana’s favor, then why not just anyone? Why not Tom Tresser?
I must admit, having the luxury of going back to re-examine those story arcs written by Allan Heinberg and Jodi Picoult after having read Gail Simone’s four issues has changed my opinion somewhat. I’m finding myself a little less dubious of Tresser as a potential love interest for Diana. Seeing those issues again now, he doesn’t seem as much the stereotypical male jerk I thought at first encounter. But hey, end of the day, he is still a guy. And much like the rest of us guys, he’ll still end up being a jerk on occasion. Diana has been around long enough that it shouldn’t come as a surprise to her. She’s had enough dealings with Wally (more so in his early days), Bruce, Hal, Oliver (he teaches a university-level class on the subject), and Carter, among numerous others, that she really should have a decent handle on the male creature. So you know, if she is ok with Tom - warts and all as they say - after all that, then I guess there really isn’t much more for the rest of us to say.

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say more though. Actually I’m shifting the topic a bit however. Amy Reads mentions in the same blog post that she finds the idea of a Batman-Wonder Woman pairing appealing to some degree. I also find the idea intriguing. It is not a combination that I had given any real thought to previous to reading a JLA arc several years ago that I believe was written by Joe Kelly. In that particular arc, there was sexual tension that seemed to be developing between Batman and Wonder Woman. I don’t know the timing of this particular arc in relation to the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, where I understand something similar was in place (sorry --- I wasn’t watching it regularly at the time --- yes, yes, shame on me). Perhaps Joe Kelly was inspired by the cartoon, perhaps the cartoon took something from Kelly’s work, or perhaps they all independently came up with their own angles on it. I don’t know and frankly it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that it put the characters in a new light for me. I saw possibilities that previously were not a consideration. And I wanted to see those possibilities played out. Even though I’m not so sure it is really a good pairing. There are aspects of it that make sense. Batman is the true persona. Bruce Wayne is a beneficial identity that allows him the resources to continue his mission. By the same token, Wonder Woman doesn’t really have much in the way of a civilian life herself. So in effect, his ‘lifestyle’ wouldn’t necessarily be an inconvenience for Wonder Woman (though if she were again to become an emissary for Themyscira, there could be some potential conflict in their ability to effectively match schedules). I’m just not so certain Batman would be willing to make enough room in his life for Diana. I don’t know that he would give her the necessary time and attention to make a relationship work. I’d like to think that maybe Diana could loosen him up a bit and pull him back from the edge of that chasm of compulsion he likes to hover over, but I don’t believe he would allow himself that comfort. I think his obsessive nature when he is working on a case would eventually wear on her. I’m not saying Diana would be needy (I’m saying the opposite really – she would allow him much more leeway than just about anyone else), but there is give and take in a relationship and I think Batman would be lacking in the give aspect.
I like the idea of the relationship in theory, but I’m not so certain such a relationship would actually work in practice. But who knows, maybe Clark (and Dick and Tim and Carter and hell, maybe even Oliver) could knock some sense in him at some point.