The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

August Closeout: Reviews of Punisher #14 and Captain Marvel #2

Greg Rucka and Kelly Sue De Connick are two very different authors as far as tone, subject matter, and writing style.  But both are examples of excellence when it comes to focusing on character(s) as the motivation and origination of action.  Plot happens because of what the characters (large and small, on and off "camera") are doing.  Plot does not just happen to the characters.

I appreciate this kind of writing and that is why I buy these comic books.  I picked them up last night from my local shop (please go out and support your's wherever it is), Beyond Comics.

Both were good this month.

Punisher #14

Greg Rucka is winding up his run on Punisher.  With only three more issues to go, including issue 14, he is wrapping up his story of the Punisher against The Exchange.  The Exchange was a new type of organized super-crimial group for the Marvel Universe.  The focus was staying under the radar and organizing along corporate lines.  It was the internet startup of criminal groups, peeling off talent from AIM, Hydra, even SHIELD.  However, it got sloppy as it got successful, and some of its more freewheeling employees ended up having a gunfight with a rival organization in the middle of a marine sergeant's wedding.  Sergeant Rachel Cole-Alves survives the massacre, but her new husband, her friends, and her family, do not.

Her quest for vengeance, mirroring the origin of The Punisher, brings her into alignment with The Punisher, Frank Castle.  For issue after issue, Castle has be methodically hunting down leads and leaving a trail of bodies to get to the heart of The Exchange.  Cole-Alves started to do the same, and now they are working together.

Last issue, they pulled a caper that gave them a key to try to set up to get to the very top of the Exchange.  This issue, they put that plan into effect.

The issue is very satisfying.  It shows Castle and Cole-Alves working effectively as a military team, executing a daring and highly lethal plan that builds on everything they have been doing to date.  It is exciting, and, as with every issue in this run, I had not had my fill when it was done.  I wanted more and was disappointed only in the realization that I had to wait another month, and that I was only going to get two more like this.

Yes, there is also the 5 issue mini-series to cap off the run (Punisher War Zone), which I am happy is coming, but the fact that the series is going to be over is very disappointing.

The only other thing that I found disappointing from the issue was the art.  Some of it was done very competently, but artist Mico Suayan lacks the skill shown by series mainstay Marco Checcetto.  This deficiency shows up especially in the drawing of characters' faces when shwing strong emotion (fear, anger, etc.) and by the feeling I got that the backgrounds were flat and uninteresting in many panels.

In the end, the art got the job done, but it did not live up to the high quality of the writing.

Bottom line though, buy this book.

Captain Marvel #2

Last month I gave a somewhat luke warm review to Kelly Sue De Connick's first issue of Captain Marvel.  After a month's reflection, I still feel the same way.  The story, for me, was too slow, and I was put off by the art.  This contrasted with the terrific writing for Captain Marvel by De Connick in the pages of Avenging Spider-Man (reviews here for issue 9 & 10), where she got the tone, pacing and character just right and I really liked the art.

So, how does Captain Marvel #2 stack up?  For me, she did considerably better, though things still start out slow.  Slow is not necessarily bad, in any case, but there can be a fine line between a slow burn and ponderous pacing.  I felt that we tipped more into slow burn territory with the start of issue 2.  By the end of the book, the story's pace has picked up considerably, and delivers some solid action, as well as promising more.  The direction of the story certainly takes a left turn, as we go from gettng background and character information on Carol Danvers, to suddenly jumping into a mysterious time travelling (and possibly alternate timeline) adventure, which Captain Marvel in the middle of World War II action in what appers to be the Pacific, but one where seemingly alien craft are working with the Japanese forces.

It is a little confusing, but the reader is sharing the confusion of the character, Captain Marvel, as she tries to make sense of having be apparently ripped out of her time and place and popped into some other place by powers unknown for reasons unknown. 

Because I trust the writer, I know that it will all become clearer as the story goes on, and I was both intrigued by the wild development in the story and happy with how the action unfolded in the last two-thirds of the book.

I am still not sold on the art.  It has a definite aesthetic which sometimes produces some wonderful and striking panels.  However, as a whole, it still feels muddy and dark to me, and I would prefer a cleaner line and a brighter pallet. 

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the book.  I am still in "like" with it, and not yet in love, but it appears to me that this is a reader-writer relationship woth the time to invest in, so that is what I am doing.

Check it out.


As has been my custom over Rucka's run on Punisher, here are some other views on issue #14:

IGN (8.5/10)  "Get ready for perhaps the most badass Punisher moment ever."

Comic Vine (Recommended) "If I had to sum up this issue in one word it would be 'heavy.' That's the perfect way to describe the overall tone and mood of the book; from the writing to the art. If you are into comics that are deep, gritty, action packed and weigh really heavy like a good episode of, say, 24 (remember that show?) then there's really no reason for you not to be reading THE PUNISHER on a consistent basis. Not only does Rucka capture Frank Castle's character perfectly in this issue, but he does it effortlessly."

More as they hit the web.

08/28/2012 update

CBR (4.5/5 stars) "'Punisher' #14 is yet another example of just how effective an editor can be to the overall cohesiveness of a monthly title. While most of the credit for this comic should rightfully be placed on the shoulders of Greg Rucka, if Steve Wacker hadn't convinced Rucka to write this book and supplied the writer with an amazing array of reliable artists with similar visual sensibilities, this title wouldn't be nearly as compelling."

Weekly Comic Book Review (A-) "A really, really fantastic read that manages to pull the reader in and get him/her truly involved.  Issues like this only make me more upset about this series’ cancellation due to poor sales.  Seriously, what’s wrong with you people?"

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bending Breakout: Marvel Heroic Role Playing Actual Play

Marvel Heroic Role Playing has been the first game that I have felt comfortable running for a while.  I have been out of the game master game for a long while, and while my son and I valiantly tried to get me to get a D&D 4th Edition game off the ground, I felt there that I had lost my mojo.

However, MHRP has really allowed me to find my way back into mastering a game.  I have published one actual play account already and this is a second.  So far, this has all been one-shot stuff.  But it has been fun, and has made me think that running one-shots is a pretty good way to flex those long dormant muscles, as well as being a lot of fun.

This time around, I ran the game for some old role playing friends that I visited on the West Coast and one new person I had not met, but who was taking a break from another game happening in the house.  I decided to run the shell of the Breakout event, though I knew we would perhaps get through just the first few scenes of the first Act.  I have an idea to mix up Breakout with The Hammer Falls, with a few ideas taken from the Fear Itself arc from Thunderbolts to really mix up a What If? scenario.  However, this was not the time to try to do that.  This was the time to let people rifle through the big stack of official and fan made datafiles and take some heroes for a spin.  We ended up with Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and Firestar (from Marvel Plot Points; but played with a twist, since we were in a "What If? scenario, Firestar in this reality was a guy and not a gal).

I played the intro pretty straight, though I took on the additional "What If?" of Bruce Banner being held at the Raft instead of Sentry.  Thor was coming to see Banner; Black Widow had SHIELD VIP minder duty.  Captain America was on a helicopter on the way back from Washington, DC, and Firestar was out flying patrol over the city.

All heck breaks loose, the lights go out, and things start happening.  Widow and Thor are in an elevator, momentarily stuck.  Cap's air transport is going down, and he is working with the pilot to get it safely into the drink as close to the Raft as possible.  Firestar sees figures riding the lightning out of the Raft, but makes the decision to tackle the bigger problem of the villains left in the prison, rather than chasing the figures seeming to make a break for it.

Widow quickly acrobats her way out of the top of the elevator and gets the access to the hallway above open.  Thor is about to squeeze through when something (or someone) blasts through the elevator like a missile, leaving Thor surprised.  Cap gets himself and his pilot to safety.  Firestar sees Count Nefaria blast out of an elevator shaft and pause to hover above the raft.  Then stuff really starts happening.

Firestar, true to his name, decides that the Count needs more fire in his life and starts raining down fiery blasts down on him.  This gets the Count's attention, but does not seriously inconvenience him.  Captain America then steps up and, with the SHIELD pilot providing some covering fire, throws his shield, making it ricochet to strike Nefaria from an unexpected angle.  Cap did well and manages to inflict some physical stress on Nefaria.  Then Cap chose Nefaria to go next so that Black Widow and Thor would have plenty of time to bat cleanup in the round.  Nefaria lets loose with just about everything, attempting to fry Cap, Firestar and the SHIELD pilot all at once.  Firestar takes some physical stress, Cap manages to get himself and his shield between the agent and the blasts, keeping them both safe.  Black Widow then on her turn starts sniping with her widow's sting from down in the elevator shaft.  Her goal was not to cause direct damage, but rather to set Nefaria up to be disoriented for Thor's attack.  This she does exceptionally well with a d10 complication.  Finally, Thor blindly blasts his way out of the elevator with Mjolner leading and finishes off Nefaria in a one hit strike.

The heroes then gathered into a single team to determine the next course of action.  On the one hand, they knew that Bruce Banner was trapped down in the Raft with scads of supervillains who had just been released from their restraints.  Also, they knew that there had been some "leaders" (at least the first ones out) in the breakout.  However, they determined that Banner/Hulk could care of himself while they tried to get the prison under control.  Since that was their goal, they knew they needed to get power back up and take control of the control room.  They determined Black Widow was the natural leader for the mission since the had the SHIELD access and knowledge of Raft operations.  Widow then determined that rather than going through the direct route where they might have to fight through dozens of villains, they would take a more indirect route through the belly of the raft and come up through the main service conduits to the power plant and the operations center.

On the one hand, this meant getting through a series of dropped security bulkheads.  On the other hand, they had a THOR.  So this was proving easy.  Then Thor's player had to step away from the table.  So, I spent a Doom Pool die to make it official, and had Widow, Cap and Firestar trapped between two armored doors while Thor got dropped out of the raft and into the river by a trap set up by Typhoid Mary, Vermin, Zzzax and Hydro-Man.  They would have had to face the first three if they had gone back to check on Thor, but they were focused on going forward.  So, Hydro-Man tried to take them out by himself.  He did a major area attack and got lucky, taking Firestar to d12 physical stress.  Widow got herself to the ceiling with her swing line, and Cap is an Olympic level swimmer, etc. and was fine.

Widow then turned to attack and dealt some stress to the overconfident (and quite dumb) Hydro-Man.  Cap swam to the bottom of the quickly filling section of tunnel and recovered Firestar and rolled a recovery action on the stricken hero.  This brought Firestar back up enough to focus, and Cap then pointed him at Hydro-Man, whom Firestar quickly flamed into oblivion. 

Having stressed out the bad guy, the water started to recede.  Black Widow then started in on the far bulkhead door and pulled a MacGyver, using power from her bracelets to jump the mechanism to raise the door.  Low and  behold, there was Thor, who (by a little of Bullpen fiat) had transported himself back with Mjolner.  They then proceeded onward until they had to choose between the control room and the power plant.  They decided to split up.

Cap led a team consisting of Firestar (whose scientific know how was needed to deal with the generators) and Thor, whereas Black Widow split off to take the control room on her own, as she had the necessary access and resources to take it, or so they thought.

Black Widow easily made it through the access tunnels to the Control Room.  There she found former SHIELD agent and Raft Inmate Mentallo using a mysteriously powered control panel to direct confederates to take possession of a momentarily subdued Bruce Banner.

In the meantime, Cap's team entered the power plant to find a villain with his hands in the reactor core, muttering about burning the drugs out of his system.  The villain turned, showing himself as Graviton.

As Rob Donoghue would say, it was then On Like Donkey Kong!

Black Widow acted first in the action order.  She blasted the monitor in front of Mentallo to disrupt whatever control he was exercising over the other goons and/or Banner.  He was taken unawares,  but was soon threatening terrible vengeance on Widow.  Widow then chose Thor to go next.

Thor advanced swinging mighty Mjolner to subdue Graviton.  Graviton simply pointed at Mjolner and Thor found himself humbled on his knees, momentarily unable to even lift his mighty hammer.  Thor picked Graviton to go next, deciding to try to get the worst of it over while other heroes would have time to act.  Graviton fired a mighty blast of force at Thor, staggering, but not disabling the mighty son of Asgard.  Graviton picked Mentallo to go next.

Mentallo put a great deal of thought into trying to immobilize Widow, trying to regress her mind back to her time in the Red Room, under painful and shocking training.  Widow, however, shrugged off the mental stress with that self-same Red Room training and a handy plot point.  Mentallo chose Firestar to go next.

Firestar summoned his most powerful energy blast to go full force, toe to toe with the master of gravity.  Graviton easily captured the energy and began to convert the molten globe of plasma to his own uses.  Firestar picked Captain America to go next.  The Sentinel of Liberty threw his shield into center of the energy fields Graviton was manipulating in order to disrupt his planned attack.  He managed two effects, both robbing Graviton of his stunt die, and inflicting some severe Emotional Stress on the villain.

For the next round, Cap chooses Thor to go first.  Thor again struck with Mjolner, this time overwhelming Graviton's defenses, inflicting physical stress on the villain.  Thor chose Graviton to go again, and Graviton unleashed a brutal multi-target attack.  Thor, however, used his Anti-Force SFX and reflected the d12 of physical stress back on Graviton, taking him out.  Graviton chose Mentallo to go next.

Mentallo continued his relentless mental assault on the Widow, showing her scenes of her friends dying, of her efforts failing.  Widow put almost all of her Plot Points into resisting, and then, activated a counter attack, kicking Mentallo into unconsciousness.  Widow chose Firestar to go next.

Firestar flew to the power controls and quickly managed to restore enough power for Widow to start locking up the prison, isolating inmates and regaining control.  Reacquiring a view into Banner's cell, she saw the Hulk just finishing mopping up the cell with the goons who had been trying to kidnap Banner while he was incapacitated.  She contacted Captain America on what to do.

Cap said, "Let him go."  So, Widow cleared a path for the Hulk, and he left the Raft and headed to New Jersey.

And, we were out of time.  The session was a lot of fun.  I am still quite a rookie at running and explaining the system.  The basics are easy,  but elaborating how to make Opportunities, Assets, Stunts, and counterattacks work are still a work in progress.  Also, Milestones have not yet played a big part.  Mostly, this is because I have run limited one-shots that have not been to coherent as far as short or long term story goals.  Mostly they are just slugfests.  These are fun, but I need to flex some other "Watcher" muscles.

With a little more planning, I would like to develop some short act/action scene milestones and unlockables that could bring those into play even for a one-shot.  The issue, as always, is time.

I was very grateful to find the materials on which will make writing up and producing custom Datafiles extremely easy.  The resources on the web for this game are amazing.

So, after a third play, with a second time being a Watcher, I am ever more a firm lover of this game and the system.  The best thing is that I am still just scratching the surface, and more and more interesting and helpful materials, official and unofficial, keep coming out.  Thus, it is easy to have a very rich play experience with relatively low investment, and without even too much prep. 

Thanks to everyone out there making with the awesome on this.  It's great!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

First August Reviews: Avenging Spider-Man #10 and Hawkeye #1

This month is starting off with me getting comics on the day they come out.  Good for me, less so for my wallet, but whatever.  Thanks to Beyond Comics, for being there when I want to spend my dough!

This week's comics are brought to you (seperately) by the Husband and Wife writing team of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction.  That is a lot of writing talent under one roof!  This month opens with two great books from them, one each respectively.

First I'll take a look at the conclusion of Kelly Sue DeConnick's story started in Avenging Spider-Man #9 and conveniently concluded in Avenging Spider-Man #10, then I'll talk about Matt Fraction's Hawkeye #1.

Avenging Spider-Man #10
More Fun!  More please!

Last month I loved Avenging Spider-Man #9, with guest star Captain Marvel, and the love continues this month.  DeConnick does a terrific job with both heroes, doing terrific justice to both characters.  She plays them smart, funny and always heroic.  Last month I gave only middling reviews to the actual debute of DeConnick on Captain Marvel #1, but I will definitely stick with the series because she can write and write Captain Marvel especially well.  Even though I felt Captain Marvel #1 was too low key for my tastes, Avenging Spider-Man #10 shows what DeConnick can and will do with Captain Marvel, and it is a lot of fun.

Spidey also is done justice in this book.  DeConnick plays him pitch perfect, and he proves a good foil to Marvel.

I won't spoiler the story, just say that the police, rent-a-cops in Iron Man cast offs, corporate and ex-corporate folks as well as the hero/villain introduced last issue, Robyn Hood (with a "Y" for Freedom) (yeah, she's kinda crazy) all play their parts well and provide a satisfying set of personalities to aid, inhibit and befuddle our heroes.  I really enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Also, I have to credit the artists on the book again, it looked great!

I look forward to more from DeConnick with her blend of light comic touch over serious political and character issues.  Captain Marvel is a keeper, and she can write my Spider-Man anytime.

Hawkeye #1

This is a new title (ahead of the universe bending Marvel Now! new titles), which explores the "off duty" life of Clint Barton, Hawkeye.  The first issue is a very good start.

I read an article where writer Matt Fraction described Clint Barton as the "Jim Rockford" of the Avengers.  I was intrigued by that take on the character, and I think Fraction has made it work in spades.  Of course, I think he has done more than just make Barton into the scrappy, never say die, never give up (on a client or other things) PI type, he has also gotten the interplay of dark and light in Barton's personality tuned just right.  Fraction has done this hat trick before with Tony Stark on Invincible Iron Man; Danny Rand on the Immortal Iron Fist, and with the cast of characters in the current run of Defenders.  He knows all about getting to the person behind the mask.

Barton can be a real jerk (much moreso that we ever saw from Jim Rockford).  When he acts that way to his fellow heroes or the average guy on the street (which he can do), you cringe (good example of this for the character was Avenging Spider-Man #4 (written not by Fraction, but by  Zeb Wells).  Hawkeye was a criminal for part of his career, and part of what led him there was that he can have a very BAD ATTITUDE.

Of course, when he channels that attitude against guys who are even bigger jerks than him, then we are very happy.  No cringing, pure applause.  Of course, if that was all there was to Clint Barton, he would not be the hero that he is.  Even though he can default down to a jerk, he can and does work hard to rise above his limitations.  Often these are his physical limitations, because he is "just a guy."  He is on a team with gods, robots, geniuses, and monsters.  He is just a guy.  With some sticks.  So, he makes himself a hero by running into situations that no sane person would ever approach.

But more importantly, and Fraction totally sells this in the first issue, Barton knows how to exert himself to rise above being a jerk.  He can make bad choices, but when the chips are down and it really counts, he makes the right decisions, the hard decisions, the personally costly decisions, and he backs them up with every ounce of skill and determination at his disposal.  This was well captured about the character in Jen Van Meter's limited series, Avengers Solo, starring Hawkeye.  Fraction doubles down on the premise.  As much of a flawed jerk that Barton can be, he is, in the end, a "do the right thing" guy, and the extremes that he is willing to go to in order to make the right thing happen define his heroism.

The plot of the book almost doesn't matter, because the character stuff is so rich, but basically Fraction sets the scene for Barton as a resident of New York and what he can and will do when he is not leading the Secret Avengers or standing beside Thor, Captain America and Iron Man in some cosmic showdown like AvX.  He solves smaller problems, for people and dogs, in his neighborhood, and I'd say it probably is one of the best first issues I have read since Punisher #1 by Greg Rucka.

The art is perfect.  It's like Barton's neighborhood, a little rough, but with a classy heart.  It totally fit the writing and I look forward to much more from this team.

Good stuff.