Saturday, September 12, 2009

Zuda Review: The Symptoms

What's to Like:
The Symptoms is a September '09 Zuda submission featuring the tale of a band of rockers with unique powers brought together in the face of an ambiguous threat to the entire world. Creators, William Sliney and Dave Hendrick, put together a very attractive package, complete with well-composed, not to mention functional, page layouts and fluid sequentials. The art is rock solid at the start, with anatomy and facial expressions stylistically similar to Ex Machina's Tony Harris - actually, the coloring and effects in the scenes featuring Kinger are all reminiscent of that fine work, and that's no slight, gentlemen. Well done. The character scripting for The Symptoms, heard almost entirely via narration, is smooth and to type. It just feels genuine as it's read, and each character has a unique flavor to his or her personality, even in the brief introductions provided.

What it Lacks:
The art on The Symptoms definitely impresses at points, but it is not consistent throughout and actually seems to deteriorate a little (okay, just slightly) as the screens progress. Whether this is due to rushing, fatigue or simply a purposeful stylistic distinction rests with the creators. Regardless, it's a point of fact worth noting. The primary flaw with this submission is the story presentation. The Symptoms is set up as a series of three vignettes introducing the three bandmates in completely separate situations until their chance, excessively convenient meeting on Screen 7. Despite the really well-scripted scenes within these vignettes, there is almost no dialogue among characters in the entire submission, and the conflict against which they ultimately join forces is ambiguously represented and utterly undefined. Okay, so they hook up, rock out and throw down on some green zombie-dudes called Zenos...AND...? It's nice to get such a quick and convenient understanding of the characters, but that recognizability comes at the price of actual story. There are a ton of possibilities for drama that could dominate this submission and make it absolutely compelling. What leads Kinger to shoot himself in the eye? Where do the Zenos come from and what are they after? What happened to Reap at 16 to make him realize his size was so scary to others? But, alas, none of these angles are exploited in the least to make me want to come back to this tale.

My Zuda Rating:
3 Stars. Interesting concept and characters. Art with great potential to only get better. No hook to get a better rating.

My Vote?
Nope. I know I wouldn't check this one each week to see what's going on.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Zuda Review: WheelJack Union

What's to Like:
Mike Odum's submission to the September '09 Zuda competition is called WheelJack Union, and it is a technically sound piece of comic art. Odum works his black-and-white style to full effect, emphasizing stark contrasts throughout and skillfully shifting his use of black, in both degree and porportion, dependent upon the atmosphere and motion being conveyed. The linework is splendid, clean and consistent throughout, reminiscent of classic giant robot archetypes - Gigantor and The Iron Giant come to mind, but only in terms of the simple geometric shapes that comprise the machine.

Where WheelJack Union really shines is in the sequential aspect of the work. Odum shows off natural aptitudes for page composition and pacing that are truly rare for Zuda competitors. The camera in the tip of his pencil twirls the reader about the French battleground that opens the story, always providing dynamic scenes and evolving perspectives that synergistically craft a larger sense of the visuals than the simple 2-D pictures taken separately. Screen 2 is just a beautiful, exemplary piece of comic art, but it's only one example of Odum's mastery with the visual flow of WheelJack Union. Even when he launches into the oft-obligatory "recap" page that so often bogs down Zuda competitors, the transition is navigated seamlessly amidst a hot firefight and lasts a total of one single screen. And, when it's done, the reader better understands the story history and immediately dissolves back into the battle without a hitch. Impressive work there. One other quick note of praise for the creator's technical prowess: the lettering is truly gorgeous. Boxes and balloons are carefully placed to accent the art and supplement pacing, and the sound effects are expertly executed in terms of both placement and style.

What it Lacks:
All those kind words about the art and storytelling craftsmanship are not, unfortunately, accompanied by high praise for the characterizations within. The overall story itself is interesting as a World War II "What If" sort of tale, and the WheelJack robot has enough visual appeal and action potential to keep the reader interested. However, there is not much appeal to the human characters at the core of the story, and I attribute that to the scripting of the dialogue. It is not very distinctive among the characters, and the interaction between the WheelJack creator and the military officer on Screen 6 is particularly awkward. This is an area in which assistance from a writer or editor might improve the final product and make WheelJack Union a must-read on Zuda.

My Zuda Rating:
4 Stars. SO close to 5 Stars - I just want to like the non-robot characters more.

My Vote?
Possibly. I'm only a few submissions into my review, but WheelJack Union is definitely in the early lead.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Zuda Review: Zamir

What's to Like:
Pablo Zych puts down a quirky and enthralling artistic effort with Zamir in the September '09 Zuda competition. The style is evocative of children's stories dark in tone and memorable. Just browsing the pages, particularly during the forest scenes, the feel is reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are. And that's a good thing. The creatures are sufficiently strange and ephemeral to make Guillermo del Toro jealous, and they are well-suited to the nightmare tone Zych is trying to establish in his story. I found myself revisiting Zamir a number of times after the first read, just to examine the hypnotic visuals.

What it Lacks:
Unfortunately, as is often the case on Zuda, the story does not rise to the level of the art. The general notion of a quest through a dark forest to find a witch who kidnapped our hero's son absolutely fits with the visual stylings visited upon us by Mr. Zych. However, the pacing is choppy at best, as too much set-up is crammed into the 8-page Zuda submission. I would love to see eight screens packed with Zamir's travels through the forest, rather than endure a contrived device to get him to the witch's house and establish what is to come. This art deserves patience on the part of the creator as much as the readers. Let us savor it! Additionally, the scripting is poor. The tone and content of the characters' speech is not consistent with the setting, particularly during the interactions between Zamir and the witch. This is another classic example of a skilled artist with bottomless potential who will benefit immensely from collaboration with an experienced writer of similar talent and tastes. A writer to pace this story in a suspenseful and mood-inspiring manner in combination with adding true flavor to the personalities of the characters - he or she would make ALL the difference in this submission.

My Zuda Rating:
3 Stars. I initially rated Zamir 2 stars but, upon a few re-reads, it really grew on me, and I think the art alone deserves 3 stars. This work is a good writer away from being 5 stars.

My Vote?
No. While I would love to see another submission from Mr. Zych, I have no interest in following this particular story.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Zuda Review: Rogue Royal

Rogue Royal by Chris Garrett

What's to Like:
Adolescent anime with attitude, that's what Rogue Royal feels like. Garrett's submission to the August '09 Zuda competition is fast and fun, utilizing a single botched weapons transaction and its disastrous/hilarious aftermath to establish his protagonist, her motivations and personality. This is smoothly executed, as the character lives up to the rogue portion of the strip's title, and she's a lovable one at that. Her volatile emotions, which drive the story, are wonderfully evident on her face and in her posture throughout the story, and it's the unexpected, yet perfectly timed, shifts in her mood and expressions that have the reader wanting more page after page.

There is a sweet consistency between the art and story in Rogue Royal. Garrett shows a true knack for comic pacing and enhances this essential aspect with shifting perspective and scale. The reader always knows where the protagonist is in relation to her enemies, and her every motion and look blends naturally into the next, even when the next one isn't exactly anticipated. Great work. The overall style of the entry is skillfully maintained throughout, including the rough-hewn but well-placed sound effects. Rogue Royal is a nicely realized vision of the main character in a catastrophically funny predicament.

What it Lacks:
Just one technical criticism - the lettering and word balloons could be crafted more cleanly, but that's a minor issue that only detracts minimally from what's otherwise very visually pleasing work. The only area in which Rogue Royal is really lacking is direction. No overarching storyline is established, and that leaves the impression that an ongoing comic would simply provide repeat episodes similar to the one presented here. Really, there is nothing wrong with that approach, but it would represent a general departure from the Zuda offerings out there now (Night Owls not withstanding...). I realize the synopsis provides the backstory for the submission, but absolutely none of that information is even hinted at in the eight pages presented for the competition. Anticipation of learning more about the character and her journey involving her larger conflict might build to more enthusiasm, which may, in turn, translate into more votes.

My Zuda Rating:
4 Stars. Fun and funny and showcases some true artistic and storytelling talent.

My Vote?
No. As good as it is, Rogue Royal simply does not leave me wanting more.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Zuda Review: Physikon

Physikon by Alexander Drummond Diochon

What's to Like
Physikon offers up an interesting story concept that leaves the reader at first concerned for the apparent tragedy that inherently follows the protagonist wherever he goes and, later, perplexed as to whether his entire story is a trumped-up hoax. Diochon does a worthy job of keeping the reader off-balance and in a way that maintains curiosity for what may come. It's an effective strategy for the Zuda competition in that it may elicit votes from those who enjoy the ideas enough that they want to see the story continue.

The art is nicely executed and very pleasing to the eye, with a cartoonish quality that contrasts with the dark tone of the plot, yet somehow paradoxically energizes the isolation displayed by the protagonist during the extended flashback. Particularly striking are the panels in the flashback that bring into play symbols of death in an almost surreal manner. Diochon's use of grim reapers, tombstone shadows and disembodied hands is masterful and leaves the reader with a feeling of the morbid reality faced by the cursed narrator. Those are the panels that persist in memory hours after reading Physikon, and that is a compliment to the talents of the creator.

What it Lacks
There are a number of potentially viable plot strategies available to those aspiring to win the Zuda competition, but the two most common are the recap and the "middle-of-the-action." Physikon goes for the recap, to me the less effective option, but Diochon skillfully uses four full screens for a nicely accomplished, faded flashback sequence that truly engages the reader and pulls real emotion for the main character. However, this is framed by a sequence that sets up the flashback and accompanying narrative with a tale told by the protagonist to other potential cast members revealed near the end of the submission. This part of the work muddies the story so clearly presented in the flashback and, frankly, occupies too large a portion of the eight screen allotment. An entire splash screen is utilized as an underwhelming reveal for the other characters, when that space would have undoubtedly been more effectively utilized for images evocative of the emotion so pervasive during the flashback. Basically, everything that worked in the recap was nullified by the rather cumbersome effort to introduce all the ancillary characters and get their names into some of the word balloons while establishing a somewhat confusing link to the narrator.

My Zuda Rating
3 Stars. Fascinating core concept and great art weighed down by an over-done framing mechanic.

My Vote?
No. Simply not in the top tier of this month's entries.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Spoiler-Free Movie Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I should start this review with an admission that I am an old-school Joe guy. Well, not THAT old-school. I'm talking Swivel-Arm Battle Grip, not Kung-Fu Grip. Yeah, it was 3-3/4" Snake-Eyes and Duke and Cobra Commander for me. I mowed my Mom's best friends' yard at age 11 to earn 10 bucks in 1982, just to buy my first Joe figure. It was a straight-arm Snake-Eyes and the Rapid-Fire "RAM" Motorcycle. Man, I was happy. My Joe collecting addiction lasted well into my 20's, and it expanded to the point I actually possessed a full set of the figures produced domestically at one point. So, it is from that perspective that I anticipated the G.I. Joe movie ever since I heard about its production back in 2008. Of course, I'd seen the repetitive trailers featuring the scene leading to the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, so I, like anyone else with a television, had a pretty good idea of what the film would look and feel like. To me, the aesthetics of the characters and action appeared to be fairly consistent with the stories I knew from childhood and adolescence...and adulthood. Being that these stories grew from a marketing campaign for a toy line, one could only expect so much Oscar-level quality from a live-action film based on the same. Personally, I just hoped for fun action and a few nods to the toys and cartoons that were such a part of my imaginative life.

The Plot
Fun is what I wanted from this movie, and fun is absolutely what I got. The writers clearly knew both their material and the audience attached to it, so they provided plenty of singular moments for the fans to appreciate. These included timely iterations of the full array of catch-phrases ingrained in the larger pop culture and all of the signature weapons and visuals associated with the core group of characters featured in this film. Scarlett had her cross-bow; the Baroness had her rectangular glasses, and Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow sported the mark of the Arashikage ninja clan on their swords each time they crossed them in battle. These were the Joes I knew, a few quirks and changes of accent aside, and the most important of their enemies were there, too, mostly intact in terms of their images and personalities. The well-crafted and consistent flashback scenes provided context for the events occuring in the movie's present, and they were simply cool in their own right. The fight scenes involving Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow as children were amazing - who knew 8-year-olds could have moves like that?

There are two obvious influences on the story direction. The G.I. Joe cartoons of the early and mid 1980s began with a couple of 5-episode, formulaic mini-series that can be summed up pretty quickly. Basically, Cobra developed a super-weapon of some sort (the MASS Device or the Weather Dominator), used it on high profile targets, and the Joes responded, only to lose to the super-weapon's power before developing a plan to overcome it, a plan ALWAYS benefiting from the assistance of an inside Joe or two previously captured by Cobra. Anyone who ever saw these cartoons will see the clear parallels to the movie script. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I like that approach. Naturally, that means there are some very transparent sub-plots in the film, each with readily predictable outcomes, but these merely add anticipation of their resolution over the action-packed flow of the film.

The other big influence is clearly Star Wars. With regard to the latter three Star Wars films, it is my opinion that the G.I. Joe film out-George Lucas'ed George Lucas on some counts. The last hour or so of the movie involves one massive assault on an underwater citadel and requires the juggling of battles in up to five different theaters at once, much like the Star Wars staple of converging conflicts in three separate domains at climactic moments. The editing and direction of G.I. Joe are so skillful that each of these micro-conflicts segues from one to the next and back again without losing intensity or significance, all while maintaining the momentum of the overall battle. Impressive stuff. The creative forces behind G.I. Joe offer more than a few blatant nods to Star Wars, including one that drew howls of laughter during the seminal throwdown between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. Hey, Snake Eyes and Darth Maul are the same had to happen. Again, fun.

The action sequences are expansive and exaggerated to the extreme. The oft-viewed Paris sequence is much more involved within the final edit of the film, and it ultimately employs six different Joes chasing the villains via four different, high-speed methods amidst gunfire, explosions, flying cars and exploding Parisians. This and the aforementioned assault on the underwater lair each involved prodigious amounts of special effects depicting advanced military tech that has always been a Joe trademark. Swarming submarines and roaring aircraft were ever-present and usually seamlessly included in the visual progression of the film. Unfortunately, there were a few moments wherein the CGI was pretty bad by modern standards, but these were only a very few, thankfully.

The Actors
Again, nobody is winning awards for portraying a hero or villain in a movie about characters originating in a line of action figures. Nevertheless, there were some notable performances, and no one was just flat-out bad. It really felt like each of the actors embraced the traditional personality of their assigned character and did not venture very much outside of that. Channing Tatum's Duke was a substantial departure, more maverick and down-and-dirty point man than inspirational leader, but he sold it beautifully. The scene-stealer to me was Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow. His turn as the ninja assassin and arch-nemesis of Snake-Eyes was tinged with edge and attitude. The hatred for Snake-Eyes was palpable in their interactions, and the man held his own in blade-to-blade combat with the legendary Ray Park as well.

The Verdict
A fun, enjoyable watch. Mixed in with my own sentimental attachment to the property, that assessment meant a good time for me, well worth the price of admission. If you like over-the-top action films with some ooh's and ahh's and a laugh or two, you'll like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

Zuda Review: Octane Jungle

Octane Jungle by Morgan Luthi & Mike L. Kinshella

What's to Like:
Cool stuff here. These guys drop the reader right into the middle of a car chase that is both exciting and well executed technically. The primary protagonist is immediately introduced in the heat of a common conflict for him, and the fact that said conflict involves roaring engines, grappling hooks and buzz-saws emerging from car trunks just makes it fun. The dynamism that pushes this entire sequence is a huge credit to the creative use of lettered sound effects and the spectacular bouncing among different views of the chase participants. Octane Jungle is a good example of the measured, organic use of narrative in a comic. The spot-on pacing of the chase amidst the running exposition by our hero, Jackson, drives the reader excitedly through the story, culminating in a funny and unexpected pay-off when Jackson's mission is revealed.

The creators also manage, in the eight brief Zuda submission screens, to round out a very interesting supporting cast, my favorite of which, The Baron, never even utters a word - testament to the clever use of textual references and, okay, bad-ass pictures of the little guy checking his rear-view mirror for an impending crash and then down-shifting to pull his buzz-saw closer to the remaining pursuer. Then, Luthi and Kinshella work in two screens of foreshadowing that serves to both flesh out the role of Jackson and his crew in the larger world of Octane Jungle and to bring in a major (and hilarious) antagonist for them. Excellent and fun storytelling that takes advantage of most of the distinctive elements of the comics medium. Even the lettering is expertly crafted. I found the shadowing and general style of the word balloons to really blend with the rest of the artistic stylings.

What it Lacks
Honestly, I can only bring up one major criticism of Octane Jungle: the coloring. The monochromatic, neon palette used to various degrees throughout the work is harsh and really tough on the eyes. It washes out what is otherwise sharp, edgy artwork and makes entire images indistinct from the backgrounds within the same panel or even page. The surrealist coloring job significantly detracts from what is otherwise an awesome read.

My Zuda Rating
4 Stars. Give this thing the detailed, full coloring that it deserves, and you've got a 5-star winner. It's going in my Favorites, no doubt.

My Vote?
Octane Jungle
won me over despite my issues with the coloring. I think this is where my vote goes for August, '09.