Sunday, August 26, 2001

Review: "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman

A storm is coming, and its name is Neil Gaiman.

Acclaimed for his work on the classic "Sandman" comic, Gaiman has since turned his attention to novels - and he just keeps getting better.

"American Gods" (William Morrow) is easily his most ambitious book so far, and it firmly establishes him as one of the best fantasists in the business.

Shadow is a man that made a mistake - one he's spent three years paying for. As his parole hearing approaches, Shadow wants only to put the experience behind him, to return to his wife and his old life. But those dreams are shattered when he's released a few days early - to attend his wife's funeral.

On his way home, he meets a man named Wednesday who offers him a job as a bodyguard. His mysterious employer soon reveals himself as Odin, the All-Father of the Norse pantheon, and he begins to lay out Shadow's part in the coming war between the new gods of technology and the old gods who came to America with the first settlers.

Shadow's journey will take him to every corner of the country and some places that perhaps mortals shouldn't tread.

"American Gods" is a bit darker and grittier than any of Gaiman's previous novels, and it's definitely the most far-reaching. The book tackles some serious social issues as it entertains, making some pointed statements about spirituality and morality in America.

At the same time, Gaiman manages to address those issues without being heavy-handed or judgmental. For the most part, he leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions as he concentrates on spinning a gripping tale of adventure.

While perhaps a bit more serious than his other novels, "American Gods" still has a flair that's uniquely Gaiman. It's filled with a colorful cast of over-the-top characters, and the whole story has a fairy-tale feel to it. That's what Gaiman does best, and he's in top form here.

Another interesting aspect of "American Gods" is Gaiman's interpretation of the "old gods." He takes the reader's vague concept of mythological gods and turns them into believable characters that the reader can identify with. He also sprinkles legendary figures from King Arthur to Johnny Appleseed in cameos throughout the book.

"American Gods" shows Neil Gaiman stretching his creative muscles and the results are fantastic, delivering a solid story now and a great promise for the future.

Sunday, August 12, 2001

Review: "The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic" by J.R.R. Tolkien, et al

With the first movie in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy due out in December, the rush is on. People will probably get sick of seeing the name J.R.R. Tolkien under my byline between now and then, but it's a subject near and dear to me.

One of the first entries in the Tolkien bonanza is "The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic" from Del Rey. The adaptation, in graphic novel format, is illustrated by David Wenzel and adapted by Charles Dixon and Sean Deming.

I'm always a little leary of any adaptation of Tolkien. His work has been abused quite often, and it always leaves me furious. I once saw a stage production of "The Hobbit" in which Bilbo Baggins struck down the dragon Smaug with his short sword Sting, something that seems ridiculous to any devoted Tolkien-ite. And I don't have to tell any fan of "The Lord of the Rings" about the disastrous cartoon adaptations of the books.

Every now and then, I get a pleasant surprise, though. Wenzel, Dixon and Deming follow Tolkien's vision closely, while adding an appealing visual dimension to the story.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the gorgeous cover by Donato Giancola. His rendering of Gandalf shows the imperious wizard I imagined on first reading "The Hobbit." His vision of Bilbo is one of the more realistic I've seen - even more so than the slightly bulbous-nosed rendering of the hobbit inside.

But that's not to take anything away from Wenzel's artwork. Wenzel strikes a delicate balance between classic comic book art and the more somber works of artists known for their interpretations of Tolkien's world, like Alan Lee and John Howe.

More impressively, though, Wenzel does something that's very tough - and that is to draw characters that are recognizable from the image in the reader's mind. While the Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield of my mind aren't exactly the ones that Wenzel put on paper, they're close.

By the very nature of the graphic novel format, though, there are weaknesses in this offering. One thing that makes Tolkien's work so appealing is the language - not just the language of the narrative, but the songs and legends as well. This book gives the reader snippets of some of the more important songs, but most of that is lost.

The book also seems a little rushed. Again, that's probably due to the format. The graphic novel calls for near-constant action, otherwise the art component would get a little boring. "The Hobbit" loses a little of its charm in the transition, but it keeps enough of it to satisfy Tolkien fans.

All in all, the strengths of this adaptation far outweigh the weaknesses. It will be a welcome addition to any Tolkien fan's collection.

Sunday, August 05, 2001

Review: "Windhaven" by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle

During the last few years, George R.R. Martin has become one of the most recognized names in fantasy with his "Song of Ice and Fire" series, which has garnered several awards and a spot on the best seller list. Lisa Tuttle's most recent novel, "The Pillow Friend," won some of the top honors in the speculative genres - including the Locus Poll Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

But both writers have been around - and winning awards - for quite a while. Back in 1981, the duo teamed up for a novel called "Windhaven." For the book's 20th anniversary, Bantam Spectra has re-released it in a new hardcover edition.

Windhaven is a world of islands, wracked by violent storms which make ocean travel dangerous and at times impossible. The star sailors, who originally colonized the world, brought with them a metal cloth that they learned how to fashion into wings that allowed them to ride the storm's fierce winds.

Since that time, the flyers have become revered members of society, a caste the equal of the ruling Landsmen and far above the land-bound. Tradition dictates that the wings be passed down to a flyer's firstborn child when that child comes of age.

That's all about to change, though. Maris of Lesser Amberly is a land-bound child that dreams of the skies. She's adopted by the flyer Russ and trained to soar on the winds. But then her adoptive father has a son. By tradition, the wings must go to that son, but Maris' step-brother Coll has no desire to fly. Together, they challenge the age-old customs of flyer society and win. But that's where the real problems begin.

Fans of Martin who are expecting something like "Song of Ice and Fire" will be disappointed. It was written long before the current series and at a time when his focus was on science fiction rather than fantasy. On the other hand, fans who approach it with an open mind will find a lot to like.

The most intriguing aspect of "Windhaven" is the layout of the book. At first, I was a little disappointed that what I expected to be the main conflicts - the challenging of tradition and the struggle for acceptance - were seemingly resolved early in the book. But, like Maris, this novel also challenges traditional ideas.

Rather than one continuous story with a beginning, middle and end, "Windhaven" is more like a collection of short stories that reflect the pivotal moments in the life of someone who has had a great impact on her society. At first it may seem a little disjointed and choppy, but viewed as a collection of scenes, it becomes a powerful tale of change and the consequences of that change.

Some online fans of Martin have been critical of the book because it's unlike his more recent work. I disagree. There are numerous similarities between this book and his newer works, especially in the characters. Maris is a great deal like Arya in her strength and determination, and I have to believe that perhaps Val One-Wing was a forerunner to the Imp - a character who is exceptionally unlikeable - but somehow the reader ends up pulling for him.

If you can approach this book without preconceived notions of what it should be like, it will make an enjoyable interlude during the wait for the next volume of "Song of Ice and Fire."

Thursday, August 02, 2001

Stan Lee I'm not, but I keep trying

I've always been a fan of comics. As a kid, I can remember wanting to go to the grocery store every time my grandparents went, because I knew I could talk them into sparing 50 cents for the latest issue of "The Lost World of the Warlord," "The Incredible Hulk" or "The Uncanny X-Men" - and every now and then I even talked them into a little more for "The Savage Sword of Conan."

I remember going into the store with my grandparents or my mom and going directly to the magazine rack, where I'd look at comics while they shopped. I'd always pick a few that I'd ask for. Sometimes they'd come home with me, sometimes not. I had much more luck with my grandparents than my mom.

Most of those comics are, unfortunately, gone. Unlike the neatly-packed and well-organized boxes of plastic-bagged comics I have now, I didn't think of them as collectibles. I read them several times and then they were discarded - usually stained and torn, and occasionally colored on.

Still, I was always fascinated by the artwork and the idea of these brightly-costumed, muscular heroes who used their superpowers to save the world.

To be completely honest, I'm pretty sure I dreamed of growing up to become one of them, no matter how unrealistic. I think I always expected my mutant powers to develop in my teen years - and, in truth, I'm still waiting. The only one I've noticed so far is the uncanny ability to make everything I touch go haywire - not very useful.

Comics have changed a lot since the days when I could get my weekly fix for 50 cents or less. Back then, they were made cheaply and intended to be disposable entertainment for kids just like me at the comic stand in the grocery store. Now, many of them are better packaged with stiff covers and printed on slick pages - built to last for collectors. There's also a downside to that, though. All of the few titles I still collect cost over $2 per issue - an amount of money that would have seemed like a small fortune to me in those days.

The change in price also makes me wonder how many kids today will grow up with comics the way I did. I don't know if many grandparents will be as willing to drop $2-3 on a comic book. Then again, as far as I know, a lot of grocery stores don't even sell comics anymore. The grocery store or drug store comic book rack where I spent so many hours as a kid is perhaps becoming a thing of the past.

My fascination with comic art hasn't disappeared, though. I've even gone so far as to attempt to create my own comic book a few times. The first attempt, I believe, was in junior high. I came up with a character I named Vigilante.

Even then, I knew my weaknesses when it came to art. Vigilante's torso was built like a WWF wrestler, but he wore a mask that covered his face, eliminating the need for me to give him one. His hands, too, were always balled into fists and always rested on his hips. It didn't take me long to realize that, since this was the only pose I could draw well, an entire comic would be pretty boring.

I tried again in high school. This time I would be the writer, while a friend of mine - and a pretty good artist - would do the artwork. This one had a chance, but it never quite materialized.

Recently I decided to give it another shot, when I received "How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics" by Frank McLaughlin and Mike Gold.

First, let me say that you need to read the book all the way through before attempting the exercises. It's a little inconsistent in that some of the early exercises include facial features and hands before the writers have discussed them. The reader will be a little lost if he hasn't read ahead.

Despite any confusion that might cause, the book has some solid tips and puts the artists' techniques in simple language. They made it sound so easy that I had to pull out my sketchbook and give one of the exercises a shot.

I don't think Stan Lee will be giving me a call to launch his next comic. But it was one of the better drawings I've done. Of course, this was drawn from an exercise, so I had a finished reference point to look at. It was much less difficult than drawing a character out of my imagination, which I haven't worked up the confidence to try yet.

I still have the same weaknesses. I thank McLaughlin and Gold for putting a mask on the character in this exercise, or it would have been a complete disaster. As it is, the face still could use a lot of work. And I won't even talk about the hands, which are closer to talons. Hmm ... every superhero has to have an Achilles' heel, though. Maybe hers is arthritis.

"How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics" does have a good examination of facial features and hands, but it was hard for me to apply the exercises to my own drawing. As much as I like to draw, I guess I've just got to face the fact that's not where my talents lie.

The book did help my figure drawing a little, but that's always been my strong point. Still, it was an enjoyable read that offered a good overview and some interesting insights into drawing female comic characters, both good and evil.

It's not quite as in-depth as some other books on the subject of comic art, but it's a solid starting point - especially for someone who just wants to draw for the enjoyment of it.

For now, I guess I'll content myself with reading comics and appreciating the artwork of people who know what they're doing. But when those mutant powers finally reveal themselves, who knows?