*Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey — Recommended

One of the most amazing things about the explosion of graphic novels in the current era is how many great non-fiction comics have come out. One might argue whether or not book publishers are too focused on “graphic memoir” these days, but if I can read more stories like this bizarre true-life story of Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer, I don’t mind.

The early 1900s was the “heroic age of Antarctic Exploration”, where daring men struggled to find out more about the ice-bound seventh continent. Shackleton’s third try involved a plan to walk across Antarctica, coast to coast via the south pole.

Nick Bertozzi presents all this in honest detail, but he doesn’t skimp on the dry humor. The first, failed expedition is summed up in three panels, with tiny figures engaging in this exchange:

“We all have scurvy, we should turn back.”
“But we’re only 460 miles way from the Pole!”
“I’d rather live.”

His use of white space is also amazing. When he uses the little people in wide panels, the scale reminds us of what a sparse, desolate environment they’re exploring. The panels without borders similarly open up the pages. He combines maps, diagrams, and more traditional comic storytelling, using whichever techniques better convey the information coherently and effectively. For example, here’s a breakdown of the expedition crew:

Shackleton page by Nick Bertozzi

It’s difficult to keep all the men straight, with so many of similar looks and character, but I do adore that he drew all the little dog heads, since they were such an important part of the mission (although it did not end well for them). Bertozzi’s use of detail throughout the book brings home the difficulty (and somewhat foolhardiness) and danger of this expedition, making it both real to the reader and entertaining.

Shackleton’s determination to keep returning to an uninhabitable place that almost killed him comes across as rather pig-headed, but the historical English setting of his homeland provides a (perhaps superficial) explanation, what with the stiff upper lip determination of his people. His search for national pride and glory was a significant part of his motivation.

The tasks needed to accomplish this are astounding. The men had to physically break a path for the ship to proceed, for example, and when they got stuck, they spent the winter camped on the ice (with a football game as a distraction and a bicycle trip past penguins). When the ice destroyed one of the ships, they hiked, considering carefully every possession they had to carry, before settling into a new camp. The trip began at the beginning of August, 1914, and concluded with an appeal for rescue in May, 1916, after a daring small boat trip to a whaling station.

Breaking ice and unpredictable currents put them at the mercy of wind and water forces much greater than any man. Yet the crew’s attitude, full of determination and good humor in the face of life-threatening adversity, is the kind of strength not much celebrated any more. Amazingly, no human life was lost (although the same can’t be said for everyone’s toes). Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey is a fascinating book about an adventure most readers know nothing about. Bertozzi takes just the right tone, light and straightforward. I’m not sure I respect Shackleton’s sincerity, but reading this in a comfy, warm home was a lot more enjoyable than being there.

There are preview pages available at the publisher’s website. Bertozzi was interviewed about the book at the National Geographic website. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

New Kingsman Trailer Emphasizes Action

I’m guessing the folks behind Kingsman: The Secret Service want to show viewers what they’re waiting for, now that the film has been moved from next month to next February. Here’s the official second trailer. (For comparison, I previously posted the first.)

This one has more Samuel L. Jackson as the bad guy, a lot less Michael Caine. It’s centered on an action scene with Colin Firth and his umbrella — yay for more Firth! — with a lot more of the action scenes shown overall. I was more interested in the class conflict and cheeky humor of the first one, but I’m not the target for this kind of movie; the audience that is will likely be more attracted to this kind of spectacle. Plus, the trailer has a snippet of a new track from Iggy Azalea featuring Ellie Goulding.

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A Curious Man

The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley

I hadn’t thought about “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” in years. I remember reading it as a kid, before the internet made it much easier to find these kinds of weird factoids and information about different cultures.

And that’s why Neal Thompson’s biography of Robert Ripley appealed to me — it reminded me of a long-ago time when the world was a much larger, more unusual place. Ripley lived during the days when travel was exciting, dangerous, and exotic. Newspapermen could change the world … while making a good living. And cartoonists could make a fortune.

A hundred years ago, Ripley went from shy, young, aspiring newspaper cartoonist to globe-trotting, athletic millionaire. Thompson intersperses background factoids through Ripley’s life story in a reminder of his style and what made him famous. He began by drawing sports cartoons, in a time before photography, before moving to New York and being sent overseas. He was almost 30 when he created his famous comic strip, which developed slowly, over several years, in between competing in handball, a short failed marriage to a showgirl, and an around-the-world trip, where he combined curiosity and parochialism. Later, he wound up looking for women and drinking his way across South America, pastimes that punctuated his life.

His strip led him to radio shows, films, books, lectures, and celebrity appearances, as others did the work, uncredited. Later chapters begin to resemble a tabloid, rolling out scandalous stories and freak show examples. There’s not much sense of the man; he’s portrayed as something to watch, with no indication of what might be going on in his head.

That said, the biggest flaw in this book is the lack of examples of Ripley’s work. It’s a crime to talk about a cartoonist while not reprinting the art he’s known for. The book follows the old-fashioned approach of putting all the photographs together in one short (16-page) section, with a promise that downloading an app and scanning the page would show videos and cartoons. I didn’t bother to try.

As for the famous strip, there’s one poorly reprinted example at the end of the book. It’s a disappointment. Believe it or not, the comic is still running, now done by John Graziano. You can find out more about the book at the author’s website. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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Arrow: The Complete Second Season

I found the first season of Arrow a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t tried it on the CW, but I discovered it on disc, and watching several episodes at once allowed me to appreciate the character aspects of the superhero adventure series.

Last week, the second season came out on home video. Thankfully, the first episode is a refresher. “Year One” consists of character profiles and event summaries from the first season, reminding the less-than-devout viewer where things left off.

That leads into the season premiere, with Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) and Diggle (David Ramsey) journeying to the island to convince Oliver (Stephen Amell) to return to the city. The island flashbacks have become even more prevalent and substantial, with a parallel team of Slade (Manu Bennett) and Shado (Celina Jade) replacing the original mentor. I’d rather see more character work, less tropical suspense and conspiracy, but the latter is more true to current superhero trends.

Stephen Amell in Arrow

Stephen Amell in Arrow

There were several changes in season two that I enjoyed even more, and a couple that really turned me off. I miss Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell); I thought he was an important character to keep Oliver grounded, as opposed to his fun but unrealistic heroing buddies. There were more of those this season, with Felicity joining the team of Queen and Diggle and Black Canary (Caity Lotz) appearing frequently. It was neat to see more women as substantial cast members (although I’m still disappointed by a late-season plot point with one of the female characters I won’t spoil).

However, I dislike hero shows where all or most of the cast are super or vigilantes. Having a good mix of regular people and the more extreme is more entertaining to me to watch, but this season has a lot of supergroups, from ARGUS and the Suicide Squad to the League of Assassins. Most everyone had abilities of some kind, with the only exceptions being Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Thea Queen (Willa Holland), who each got kidnapped and threatened. Even Felicity is a super-hacker, and Diggle ran around with an attack group for a bit.

Manu Bennett as Slade Wilson and Emily Bett Rickards as Felicity Smoak in Arrow

Shouldn’t Felicity look a bit more worried about the sword at her neck?

If I had any advice for the show, it would be to rebalance the personal moments against the multitude of action scenes — more relationships instead of more explosions, more family moments instead of more island flashbacks. But there are plenty of other shows to watch for character work, and (until later this year) few with this kind of superhero adventure.

And now I’m going to contradict myself, since one of the high points of season two for me was the introduction of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) in episodes 8 and 9, in preparation for the upcoming spin-off Flash TV show. He does a wonderful job bringing some lighter touches to the sometimes dour CW superhero world.

Special Features and Formats

Colton Haynes as Roy Harper and Willa Holland as Thea Queen in Arrow

Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) is a bad boyfriend to Thea (Willa Holland) when he’s on drugs

As in the previous set, most of the extras are deleted scenes from various episodes. Beyond that, disc three has 26 minutes of the “Arrow 2013 Comic-Con Panel” with executive producers Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, Katie Cassidy, Colton Haynes (Roy Harper), Stephen Amell, Emily Bett Rickards, David Ramsey, and executive producer Greg Berlanti. At the time, they were promoting this season, so the entertainment comes from seeing how they were plugging items that the viewer now knows how they turned out. Plus, they tease the audience with relationship hints, and I liked the surprise guest.

Disc four has a small grouping of extras. “From Vigilante to Hero” (24 minutes) features mostly the producers discussing the Arrow’s anti-hero status. They summarize and show clips from what they see as key moments from the season, many of which deal with the decision whether or not to try and kill someone. It’s a difficult question, one that can inspire lots of discussion.

Katie Cassidy as Laurel Lance and Stephen Amell as The Arrow

Katie Cassidy as Laurel Lance and Stephen Amell as the Arrow

“How Did They Do That? The Visual Effects of Arrow” is about as generic as the title suggests. It’s only 11 minutes about the computer-generated effects involving the plane scene from the first episode.

“Wirework: The Impossible Moves of Arrow” is a 10-minute analysis of how they needed to start using wires as characters became more super-powered this season, so people hit would fly farther. The Gag Reel, five minutes, features people falling down, breaking up, or props going awry. Deathstroke doing the robot dance was pretty funny, and I felt for Black Canary trying to do the salmon ladder exercise.

The Blu-ray season set also comes with DVD and UltraViolet copies of the episodes; there’s also a DVD-only version. (The studio provided a review copy.)

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ComiXology Announces Second Wave of DRM-Free Comics

In July, ComiXology announced that certain publishers would provide DRM-free backups of the digital comics you rented through their service, moving them closer to being purchases.

ComiXology logo

Now, ComiXology has announced a second wave of publishers included in the program. Joining the previous list of Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Zenescope Entertainment, MonkeyBrain Comics, Thrillbent, and Top Shelf Productions are

  • IDW Publishing
  • Valiant Entertainment
  • Oni Press
  • Fantagraphics Books
  • Aspen Comics
  • Action Lab Entertainment
  • and a bunch of smaller publishers: Th3rd World Studios, A Wave Blue World, Blind Ferret Entertainment, Caliber Comics, Creative Impulse Entertainment, Devils Due Entertainment, GT Labs Comics, and Kingstone Media

So my question is, who’s left? DC and Marvel, obviously — they likely hate the idea of non-restricted releases. But comparing ComiXology’s list of Featured Publishers to these two press releases, Boom! Studios also isn’t included, which surprises me, nor is Archie or Avatar.

Also, an IDW representative clarified that their “TMNT, Godzilla, and Cartoon Network titles… are restricted per licensor request” but all their other books are available as DRM-free.

Disney Achieves Four-Quadrant Success by Appealing to Female Gamers

Disney Infinity characters

The Disney Infinity video game, a way to expand console gaming sales by constantly selling players new figures and characters, appeals much more to women and girls than the company expected. Instead of a 70/30 male/female split, the franchise breaks out 55% boys to 45% girls.

It helps that you can play as Elsa from Frozen or Merida from Brave, female characters with abilities and appeal. That makes Infinity “a four-quadrant franchise for the company in the interactive space, which is the first that we’ve ever had,” according to executive producer John Vignocchi. “When you hit a four-quadrant property, that’s when you’ve made something with long-lasting staying power at the company.”

Who would have imagined that not driving away girls would mean a more successful property? That might be what young male gamers are so afraid of — inclusion is so much a smarter strategy for companies that they’re going to have to share. Plus, the Infinity concept is great. You can play Marvel superheroes against classic Disney animated characters.

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*The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place — Recommended

Would you like to read a mashup of Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and Lumberjanes? Then The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, out next week, is the book for you.

The seven young women at St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls have been sent there because their parents find them too unladylike in one way or another. To make clear the “shame” they each bear (and help the reader keep them straight), each is referred to with a demeaning adjective, such as “Disgraceful Mary Jane” or “Dull Martha” or “Dour Elinor”. The seven are as follows

  • Dear Roberta — a normal girl who isn’t yet sure what she wants or is capable of, someone whose gentle nature can’t stand up to her stepmother but with surprising powers of observation
  • Disgraceful Mary Jane — a too-friendly flirt capable of attracting almost any man
  • Dull Martha — a nice young woman willing to work hard
  • Stout Alice — whose solid physicality and acting skills allow her to impersonate the missing Mrs. Plackett when needed
  • Smooth Kitty — a plotter and organizer whose father would only consider a male heir
  • Pocked Louise — a scientist and aspiring doctor who values intelligence over appearance
  • Dour Elinor — a proto-goth with a taste for the morbid and macabre

When their headmistress is killed, the girls decide they’d rather stay together than go back to their previous lives. They attempt to hide the death from the neighborhood in order to run their own establishment, but their efforts are complicated by a murderer who won’t give up when it appears that Mrs. Plackett is still alive. While Louise works at solving the mystery, the girls learn more about their departed guardian and forge deeper bonds with each other. They only want to make their own choices and their own way in the world at a time when women’s independence was considered laughable.

Julie Berry writes with wonderful skill, capturing the details of life in 1890 and conveying them as part of a gripping page-turner. I wanted to spend a lot more time with this group of enchanting, imaginative young ladies. The book is intelligent fun, and the sisterhood inspiring. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

There’s Going to Be a Supergirl Show!

This is surprising but exciting news. I guess superheroes are still a hot trend.

Supergirl comic

According to Deadline.com, CBS has committed to a Supergirl series produced by Greg Berlanti, who’s also been responsible for Arrow and The Flash. Ali Adler will write the pilot; she previously worked on No Ordinary Family and The New Normal.

The title character will be Superman’s cousin, and unlike the long-running Smallville, she’ll have and use superpowers for heroing. “Also closely involved in the development of the project has been DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer Geoff Johns,” of course.

CBS was the only network without a superhero series — Fox has the hotly anticipated Gotham, the CW hosts Arrow, The Flash, and iZombie, ABC runs Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and NBC is launching Constantine. Warner Bros. TV, which produces all these shows (except for the Disney/ABC/Marvel one), is doing very well on the small screen.

Supergirl is the second female-led hero series announced (scratch that — it’s fourth, see the comments); Netflix is working on a Jessica Jones series as part of their Marvel character programming. CBS traditionally has older-skewing shows, so it’ll be interesting to see how an action series centered on a young woman does for them. Let’s hope they ditch both the belly-baring crop-top costume and the “look at my crotch” current redesign for something more timeless.




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