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Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair

Before Watchmen - Ozymandias

After reading and reviewing  Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, I was left with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist trying a second book in DC’s spin-off series. And of course, it had to be Ozymandias.

The books themselves are hardcover volumes with lovely, glossy pages and vivid colours. The title and contents pages are done in classic Watchmen yellow. At the back of the book are several pages of extra artwork, mostly character sketches—a joy to browse.

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Ozymandias #1-6 Collected – Writer: Len Wein; Artist: Jae Lee

As soon as I read the first few pages of Ozymandias’ story arc, I was hooked. Firstly, Len Wein’s writing style was much more lavish, rich, and just delightful than J. Michael Straczynski’s in Nite Owl. I relished his command and confidence with language. As the story is an autobiographical account, this works well: Wein gives Veidt a grand, egotistical voice that adds to the almost-deification of mortal into god, as Veidt attempts to change the fate of humanity.

Jae Lee’s also provides stunning line work to complement the story. The best parts of Lee’s art included daring side-profiles and powerful illustrations of movement and combat. A visually marvellous work.

The Ozymandias arc provides backstory into Veidt’s early life and then his choices in the lead up to the events of Watchmen. It’s a thought-provoking character study of a man whose lofty ideals justify personal atrocities. Overall, a great read. Liked how it tied into 20th century events. Loved that the Comedian got some screen time, too. 4 out of 5 stars.

The Curse of the Crimson Corsair – Writer: Len Wein & John Higgins; Artist: John Higgins

Reads a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean. Young Scotsman Gordon McClachlan survives a shipwreck and is scooped up by the undead crew of the Flying Dutchmen, captained by the Crimson Corsair, a tough guy in a bandanna who says creepy things. McClachlan must then embark on a quest to regain his soul. I’m still not too sure where this story fits in to the whole Watchmen universe. It stands alone; perhaps a sister story to Tales of the Black Freighter, the serial pirate-horror comic that was interspersed throughout the story of Watchmen. Maybe I missed something? Altogether entirely average: entertaining but only moderately satisfying. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Dollar Bill – Writer: Len Wein; Artist: Steve Rude

Bonus story! Gotta love that. A short snippet of Dollar Bill’s life—from athletic but academically-stunted high school student, to struggling actor, and eventually to caped mascot. Because he draws heaps of publicity, Dollar Bill is accepted into Minutemen, but almost as soon as his adventures begin, he meets his tragic end. 3 out of 5 stars, I guess. It was a little funny.

Redeemed the series for me! I may pick up yet another volume. Stay tuned :)

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Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr Manhattan/Moloch

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Before Watchmen: DC’s spinoff prequel series to the 1986 genre-defying graphic novel that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. This is the first of the prequels I’ve read. I’ve been pretty reluctant to pick it up, because I’ve always seen Watchmen as being a standalone masterpiece, especially impressive as a closed-off, non-continuous work. I like books that are complete, elegant, finished, structured, polished. But the nature of comics universes is to expand and expand upon storylines…even if the original creators aren’t involved and don’t approve.

The lovely hardcover copy that I got my hands on (Thanks, local library! I have loved you since I was three years old!) collects several issues together in one lightweight book. The stories are all written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by various artists. There are some pleasing elements here and there, but overall, nothing astounded me.

I’ll review each character’s arc separately.

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Nite Owl #1-4 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Penciller: Andy Kubert

Interesting glimpse into Dan Drieberg’s childhood life, his idolation of the original Nite Owl and eventual assumption of the superhero mask. Followed up by a rather trite and predictable homicide mystery where prostitutes are being murdered and the Nite Owl gets to boink a sexually liberated vice-queen with lots of gratuitous boobs and butt perspectives. The fragments of Rorshach’s past were exponentially more intriguing. 2 out of 5 stars.

Dr Manhattan #1-4 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Artist- Adam Hughes

Marginally more compelling. Straczynski takes Dr. Manhattan’s omniscient, omnipresent abilities and uses that to tell a story that breaks down linear time and unfolds into multiple possible narratives. Basically expands on the events and potential of Dr. Manhattan as told in Watchmen. We get to meet Dr. Manhattan when he was little Jon Osterman, and also his German father and Jewish mother. 3 out of 5 stars.

Moloch #1-2 collected – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Artist – Eduardo Risso

Entire life story of Moloch the Mystic. Fairly cliche but reasonably entertaining. Not sure if the change of heart towards the end of his career was entirely believable, but I found myself feeling extremely sympathetic towards the poor, sad, pointy-eared chap. I liked this story arc particularly because it showed how Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (one of my favourite characters in the Watchmen universe for his fascinating personality) manipulated ol’ Moloch and many others. 3 out of 5 stars.

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Overall, Before Watchmen seems to be a step backward into a more traditional form of superhero storytelling. There were elements that strongly repulsed me, and other elements that I enjoyed. Despite my mixed feelings, I’ll probably try another in the series. I would probably recommend this to Watchmen fans because you do get more fleshed out back-stories to some of the major events of the original graphic novel.

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Book Review: All You Need is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka

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Speedy book review time!

All You Need is Kill is a Japanese military sci-fi novel published in 2004. A manga adaptation was released in the first half of this year, and the recent blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow is based on this book. It follows the experiences of Keiji Kiriya, a junior soldier in the United Defense Force, an army fighting against alien creatures called Mimics. Keiji is violently slaughtered during his first real battle—and that’s where the story really begins. Keiji finds himself trapped in a time-loop, Groundhog Day-style, where he relives the battle again and again, dying dozens of times over.

At 60,000 words (probably around 150-200 pages?—not sure, I read this in e-book format), this book is, in theory, a breeze. But it dragged on and on for me. Not sure if this was because of the translation from Japanese to English. I found the translated prose clunky and awkward, and rather unpleasant to read.

Although this is a prose novel, the entire time I felt like I was reading a manga. The voice of Keiji wasn’t particularly convincing, and I felt that his and Rita’s characters lacked depth and reality. The supporting characters were caricatured. I didn’t develop a connection with any of them. There is generous use of profanity and violence, which I didn’t find too gratuitous, but again, it was done in such a mundane way that there was no shock or emotion connected to it.

What did I like? In the book we get a brief but intriguing back story about the Mimics. We also find out a bit more about the robotic suits called “Jackets” which the UDF soldiers wear to enhance their fighting prowess. Generally, there are some major differences between the book and the movie, and perhaps because I watched the movie first, I kept comparing the book to the movie.

In his afterword, Sakurazaka tells us that the plot to All You Need is Kill was inspired by video games—the fact that you can die, reset and repeat, and are subsequently perceived as a warrior of great skills. It’s a fascinating concept, but unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed by the source material. I’ve seen other reviewers give it five stars though, so I’m sure people disagree!

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

 

WIN_20140607_145510WARNING: Mild, non-specific spoilers

I’m a bit late getting onto Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A slim 178-page novel published in June 2013, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a melancholy tale of a man who returns to his childhood neighbourhood and becomes swallowed in memories of eerie events that took place forty years ago. The book has been well-received by critics and readers alike.

Is Ocean a fantasy novel? It certainly has fantasy elements, but I’d probably describe it as a work of magical realism. Is it an adult’s book or a children’s book? I believe the target audience was adult, but the way it reads certainly puts me in mind of two of Gaiman’s works aimed at younger audiences, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. According to Gaiman, Ocean grew out of a short story into a deeper and more complex tale.

The protagonist reflects on events that are haunting and sinister, and the line between fact and fantasy is persistently blurry. That everything is seen through the eyes of a child adds a layer of poignancy and powerlessness. There is a villain, who is villainous in both real-world and fantastical ways. There are the three remarkable women who live at the end of the lane, who are practical and yet powerful in indescribable ways.

Gaiman’s voice is that of a child; the prose is unembellished and he writes with simplicity, creating an air of spookiness and letting the events drive the story. He fills the reader with a curious blend of horror and beauty.

I think what made this book were the small touches: the details that remind you of being a child. The loss of a comic book; the pure joy of a delicious meal; the dread of shadows in the night. What I didn’t like about it was the ambiguity and the lack of resolution. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most of the time I relish the beauty of ambiguity, but this time, there wasn’t enough resolution to satisfy me. What of the conflict between the narrator and his father? What of his absent mother and annoying sister? Is it implied that everyone just sort of fades away into adulthood and later life? And maybe I’m missing something, but whose funeral is he attending?!?

Better to approach this book as a short story, I think. No character really changes all that much. It is a chilling and elegant tale, a slice of the past, an unsettling blend of fantasy and reality.

Book Review: Dune – Frank Herbert

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This book took me a bloody long time to read.

I bought it a couple of years ago, started it, slogged through the first 200 pages, and put it down.

It stayed on the floor next to my bed for many, many months.

Late last year I tried again. I started from the beginning, slogged through 300 pages and put it down for a long time.

On the weekend, I finished reading Dune. It feels like a milestone.

As you can tell, for me, Dune was not an easy book to get stuck into. The first third of the book is slo-o-ow. The problem is that Herbert has crafted an incredibly complex, interplanetary world tangled with political intrigue, feuding houses, invented jargon and lots of characters with funny names. It takes a good few hundred pages to immerse oneself in the world of Arrakis & beyond. There are a ton of characters, some of them with similar-sounding names, that initially fly over your head. Herbert doesn’t spend a lot of time describing each character or letting you get a deep sense of who they are, so you have to rely on your own efforts to remember.

So what is the story of Dune? It’s an epic. A science fiction epic, and, I do have to conclude, a veritable masterpiece. It deals in prophecies and legends, decades and centuries, emperors and rulers of great houses. Essentially, it chronicles the rise of a messianic figure: Paul of Atreides, the fifteen-year-old son of a fallen house, who through immense personal skill and cleverness and the investment of numerous past generations, rises from the dust to be a leader of men.

It’s a great tale, and I’ve encountered nothing like it before. The thing that makes it most unique, I feel, is the setting. Arrakis is a desert planet, largely uninhabitable, a sea of barren dunes, swept with dust storms. The native people, the Fremen, dwell in cave networks and in the underground, and flourish in a completely fascinating way of life. I enjoyed reading about the technicalities of sand travel, particularly the stillsuits that conserve every drop of the body’s water. Herbert really makes you feel the thirst of the people on Arrakis—the preciousness and sacredness of water, the parched nature of the land and of the desiccated bodies of its inhabitants.

I also enjoyed the way Herbert portrays the Bene Gesserit skill of intuitive logic (is that an oxymoron?) that both Paul and Jessica utilise. Many of the dialogue scenes are layered with undercurrents of unspoken meaning and suspense. The conversational parries are just as tense as the sword-fights.

What didn’t I like about this book? At first, Herbert’s writing style really grated on me. He uses words like an old chef tossing ingredients into a food processor: I feel like he throws phrases together out of a vague sense of meaning—at first, the phrase doesn’t really make sense, but if you just let it flow over you, you get an impression of what he is trying to say. Especially in the bits where he writes about floating consciousnesses and all that…I decided it was best to just accept and not over-analyse. As I read on, I got used to his style and actually started to enjoy and appreciate his literary technique.

I suppose another thing that wasn’t quite to my tastes was the two-dimensionality of many of the characters. The males are variously skilled and heroic, or evil and leering and conniving. The females are generally either haggard crones or beautiful and talented. The bad guy is a paedophilic homosexual. On the flip side, Dune is a book that focuses more on events, motives, intrigue, treachery and plot than on subtleties of character. It covers broad themes and provokes thought about the worship of a hero figure, the origin of religion, the interplay of humans and environment, and many other ideas.

Overall, I can see why Dune won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1966 and lives on as a classic. It’s a game changer, sweeping in scope, and quite different. But I’m not sure if I’ll read the sequels…

Review: Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.” — Vladimir Nabokov, 1963.

Goal #5:  Read and review at least one book per month (1/32).

Unfortunately I read this book in fragmentary spurts during semester and exam period, so it exists in my mind as an eloquently written, morally disturbing blur. I can’t give a detailed review of Lolita–a lot of plot details escaped me whilst I lay clutching my Kindle in a somnolent haze after an evening of study–but I’ll tell you as best I can what I thought of this controversial classic.

Lolita is a narrative of events, told in retrospect from the highly coloured viewpoint of one Humbert Humbert (pseudonym), presumably from his prison cell. H. H. is a respectable European scholar with good looks to boot when, after failing an earlier marriage, he comes to the United States to write. He also has a dark secret: an irrepressible taste for prepubertal girls.

He takes up tenancy in the house of the widow Charlotte Haze, and immediately becomes infatuated with Charlotte’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita/Dolly/Lo. Humbert’s increasing obsession with Lo and Lolita’s emerging precociousness combine to produce a spiralling succession of bizarre and chaotic events that make the reader more and more uncomfortable with each of Humbert’s passing thoughts.

Lolita has been described as a tragicomedy. I found it more tragic than comic, for in spite of Humbert Humbert’s intensely sophisticated and artful prose and his attempts to justify his own shortcomings, the reader sees a man who is weak, morally conflicted and, ultimately, despicable. Nabokov’s book, I believe, is a piece of art because one has to struggle not to sympathise with the central character; not to be unconsciously persuaded by H. H.’s eloquent and intelligent sequence of thought.

Nabokov’s rich, brimming prose, dripping with puns and multilingual word-play, is made even more amazing by the fact that, although Lolita was originally written in English, Nabokov’s first language is Russian. His descriptions skip from metaphor to metaphor in a way that is always acutely lyrical, never jarring. In particular, the build-up to the violent final climax, phrases like “the sun was visible again, burning like a man” and “the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees” leave the reader shivering in nervous anticipation.

Yes, okay, Lolita is essentially a story about a paedophile. Some people describe it as the story of a perverted adult destroying the the innocence of a young girl’s childhood. But others have described it rather as the story of the exploitation of a weak man by a corrupt child. I feel like the novel stood at a midpoint. Nabokov himself said that there is no moral to Lolita, and I agree that the book does not convey one. He also said that he detests symbols and allegories.

In summary, Lolita was neither a pleasant nor an easy read. It was different, and artful, and elegantly disturbing. Both Nabokov and our dear Humbert Humbert are writers of astounding aptitude, but, unlike most books, Lolita will not generate in you a sense of fondness for a single one of its sorry characters.