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Webcomics Time: Der-Shing Helmer!

Have you read any comics by Der-Shing Helmer? No? Shame on you! As artist-writers go, Ms. Helmer is up there with the best of them, and frankly, she’s more than the webcomics scene deserves. She took a hiatus that lasted a couple years, but now she’s back and better than ever–and producing two comics simultaneously, no less!

helmer01

I suppose I’m biased, given that Helmer works in one of my personal favorite genres–long-form speculative-fiction adventures–but her writing stands up beautifully regardless of one’s preferred subject matter. Her worlds are original and very completely realized, a tough thing to pull off. Her characters are complex and unique. Her writing can be a talky at times, but not so badly that it distracts from the experience. These are stories one will remember and think about.

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Game Over: The Failings of Season Four

Game of Thrones is starting to grow soft. No, not soft on brutal violence and the wholesale incorporation of dark themes; all that stuff is still in there. Rather, the show’s writing has begun to take a very by-the-numbers approach to its story, delivering more or less exactly what viewers have come to expect without doing anything really surprising. It goes through the motions, and that’s all it does. No more really needs to be said, but there’s no limit to my ability to carry on about things that irritate me, so let’s take an in-depth look at why Season 4 failed to live up to the example of preceding seasons.

The Season Four experience captured in one thrilling image

Lack of Direction

All the season’s problems eventually fold into one larger problem: that there is no singular direction in this season, no one overarching plot that all the other storylines play into. The other seasons used the leadup, climax, and end of the war as a sort of “meta-story” unifies the more personal storylines into the context of a larger arc. This technique worked brilliantly to explore the concept of how individuals’ actions affect events on a global scale.

So, with the war more or less over, what’s left to do? Well, not a whole lot, as it turns out. The Lannisters have more or less total control of the country, leaving them with nothing else to conquer. Most of the Starks are dead. Neither Stannis nor Daenerys are in a position to begin their invasions, so their activities are largely quotidian. The Greyjoys don’t do much of anything. The Wildlings eventually attack Castle Black but we don’t see much of their preparations for it. The Tyrells are nonentities. The White Walkers are hardly in evidence. With no particular goals to aspire to, much of the action consists of little more than characters shuttling back and forth between different locations, sometimes with minor skirmishes thrown in. Never do we get the impression that we’re witnessing a defining moment in this world’s history; it’s by and large a story of mundanities, and even some of the more interesting predicaments the characters face prove to be more pedestrian than they have in the past.

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Last Month: January 2015

Hello, and welcome one and all to this, the first installment of this to-be-monthly retrospective of the things that I read and watched over the course of the previous lunar cycle. By posting more frequently, I hope to improve the quality (and, probably, the accuracy) of my commentary. At the end of the year, recommendations, awards, and condemnations will be selected from these, so if any of you wish to speculate wildly about winners and losers, now would be a great time to start.

Without further ado, here we go!

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Books

Finn, Brunton. Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. (Non-fiction)

This book has an excellent topic, one which has not yet (to my knowledge) been explored in such depth. What is spam? Why is there so much of it when no one likes it? Finn\’s examination of spam covers nearly every conceivable angle: history, sociology, technology, warfare, and even a smattering of drama. Spam is depicted here as something akin to a force of nature, an unwelcome but unstoppable flow of garbage that has nonetheless defined much of the way that the internet functions.
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Media Summation: 2014

It’s that time of year again! Read on for the best and worst of 2014. Accolades are given to A.M. Homes, George Saunders, Tim Kreider, Sheri Fink, Joe Ollmann, Gabrielle Bell, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. Stern talking-tos are given to Scott Bradfield, Jonathan Miles, David Sedaris, Mark Singer, Jesse Reklaw, Jeff Smith, and Wes Anderson. Apologies for any typos; I’ve been working on this all day and I can’t stand looking at it anymore.

My recommendations are marked with stars (★) because god forbid I use the same system two years in a row.

Over the course of 2015 I intend to switch to a new format in which I review things throughout the year and drop this annual post format, which has gotten to be unmanageably large. Check back every now and then for more reviews, and we’ll meet here next January to sort out the winners.

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Webcomics Time: Cute ‘n’ Creepy

I\’ve been getting back into reading webcomics again, so it seems only fitting that I also get back into the business of reviewing them. That said, my \”Circuit Reader\” series was a bit of a huge time investment, so instead I\’m switching to a more reasonable length. Gone will be the extreme nitpicking, and in its place I will endeavor to provide a brief but entertaining look at many of the fine (and not so fine) examples of sequential art on the interwebs.

For this episode, we\’ll be looking at two nice comics, one by a famous dude, and one by two not-so-famous dudes. The theme is \”Cute \’n\’ Creepy\” and the comics are Broodhollow and Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo.

Broodhollow

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Kristofer Straub\’s name should be familiar to anyone in the webcomics world, having created numerous popular features, most notably the spacefaring gag strip Starslip Crisis (later Starslip), which was probably the only science fiction series to make art history jokes. I never warmed up to post-reboot Starslip, so until recently I hadn\’t read Straub\’s work in quite a while. When I learned that he had returned with an all-new feature, I was eager to check it out.

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You Can’t Go Home Again

Gone Home

There’s one thing I want to be clear on upfront: I expected to love Gone Home. It’s a game from the same traditions I hold in highest esteem: peril-free adventures, stories told through ephemera. Critical consensus was that it was phenomenal. So I was ready to explore the empty mansion; I was psyched to unravel the mystery of the family’s absence.

Suffice it to say, my high expectations were dashed and ultimately the game proved to be my greatest disappointment of the year.

Many people have played this game and enjoyed it greatly, and I don’t want to dissuade anyone from that opportunity. Indeed, if you have any interest in this type of experience, I’d encourage you to buy it, if only to encourage the creation of more projects in this vein. That being said, I do want to discuss some of the issues that led to my disappointment in the game, because I want the next adventure to be better. (To those of you who haven’t played it, be forewarned that this will contain spoilers. Scroll down to the bottom of the review if you want a quick summary of the story.)

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Media Summation: 2013

Here is the third annual summation of all that I read/watched/played this year. Titles appear in the order that they were read/watched/played. Unreserved recommendations are in bold. Mini-reviews, where applicable, appear in italics. So, read on and perhaps you’ll find something you might like. Satisfaction is not guaranteed, however.

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What I Read: 2012

Welcome all to the second annual end-of-year roundup of various media I consumed this year. This year I kept a list, so this is guaranteed to be comprehensive. Instead of alphabetical order, entries are listed in the order read (within each category). As in last year, recommendations are in bold. Mini-reviews provided below entries, as applicable. Starred entries I only read part of, usually books of short stories. Note: also includes movies!
The happy winners
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Myst in Retrospect: The Book of Ti’ana

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of Ti’ana, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.

Harbor in D'ni

We’ve reached the end of the Atrus-centric installments, which leaves only one direction to go: the backstory. Backstory is an important part of any fictional universe, as the additional details we learn from it add to the believability of the world overall. The Myst series, having created this vast edifice of D’ni to support Atrus’s story, has an almost infinite amount of space for additional backstory. We want to know more about D’ni, its inhabitants, and its history. Myst: The Book of Ti’ana, and our final two games, Uru and Myst V, give us a glimpse of the days before Atrus and the span of the D’ni society of old. As we move through the D’ni-centric arc, we’ll consider the following questions: can backstory itself be a story? If not, what does it take to make a backstory into a frontstory? Let’s begin.

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Myst in Retrospect: Riven

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Riven, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com

Gehn's effigy

Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, and Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst‘s design and built upon it rather than simply aping it, creating a completely fresh take on the existing concept. Beyond the continued storyline and identical control scheme, there is practically no resemblance between the two. It isn’t so much Myst II as it is Myst 2.0– a second release which corrects the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators consider their past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.

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