Category: Reviews

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes by North, Charm, & Renzi

The ninth volume collecting The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl collects five issues from early 2018 and came out in late 2018, with yet another lightly modified “funny” song lyric for a title: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes .

As usual, I got to it three years late, after the series ended. (See my post on Vol. 8  for similar tardiness, and links back to even earlier tardiness.)

This time out, regular series writer Ryan North and colorist Rico Renzi are joined by a new artist: Derek Charm, replacing Erica Henderson. Henderson had drawn the first thirty-one issues of the series, the short previous series, and an original Graphic Novel, which were probably as many Squirrel Girl pages as all previous artists put together. (She defined the look and style of SG for this era, at the very least, and seemed to work very closely with North on stories & plots, too.) So this was kind of a big deal, especially since the SG audience was proverbially heavily pre-teen and female, which as an audience is often not happy with change.

Charm is a cartoonier artist than Henderson, which is a nice change-up. SG is a bit cartoony story-wise (if that makes any sense), so it’s appropriate and gives a different energy to the pages. I’m sure some people hated it; some people hate everything. But it works for me.

As always, we have an epic four-part story and a single-issue story in this volume. The epic story has possibly the lamest villain in SG history, on purpose, but is mostly a Kraven the Hunter story about redemption and what it means to be a good person. (Well, it aims at that, but it’s about a comics character whose characterization is dependent on the needs of random stories and editors over the course of multiple decades, so I don’t actually buy any of it.) Also: the Power of Friendship!

The single-issue piece is mostly-silent, an exercise in North writing something the youngest end of the SG audience can entirely read themselves. It’s fine, too.

Squirrel Girl is, as always, relentlessly positive, so the fact that the trade paperbacks are pretty slim is appropriate: a bigger dose of this would be too much. I also have to admit that my eternal favorite character is the mildly nihilistic Brain Drain, not the perky Doreen or any of the others. This is still very good at what it does, and what it does is still a good thing to have in the world: the transition to Charm gave it a different look, but the essentials stayed exactly the same.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Pennyworth: The Complete Second Season
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REVIEW: Pennyworth: The Complete Second Season

It’s pretty impressive that Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, who twisted Gotham into a funhouse mirror image of the comic book source material, got invited to do it a second time with their Epix series Pennyworth, purportedly the origins of Alfred. But which Alfred? And for which version of Batman?

Pennyworth: The Complete Second Season, with Covid-19 interruptions, finally arrived at the end of 2020 and is now available on a two-disc Blu-ray set from Warner Archive. You can decide for yourself if the series needed its connections to the Batman mythos, needed to exist at all or is entertaining. As with Gotham, the chaotic and uneven storytelling continues here in this weird, alternate reality of the world.

While it looks like the 1960s, the politics of England is decided more fascistic, and lots of secret organizations are having a secret war with the kingdom’s fate at stake.  In the first season, it was the SAS is battling the Raven Society for control of the country, with the good guys getting help from the No Name Society. We pick up a year later and everyone has received a promotion with the Ravens now the Raven Union and the No Names have taken a new title: the English League which sounds like a soccer club.

Alfred (Jack Bannon) has had father issues in print and onscreen, but here the stakes are higher with his father trying to kill the queen, forcing the son to kill the father. Already unsure of who he is and what he really wants, this act has rattled Alfred, who spends a lot of season two adrift. Things don’t get better when his lover Esme (Emma Corwin, now an Emmy nominated actress for her superior work on The Crown) is killed and he takes up with the wife (one-time Huntress Jessica De Gouw) of his former captain, Gulliver “Gully” Troy (James Purefoy). He, therefore, wants to flee the bleak London future and find the funds to emigrate to Gotham City.

Newly arrived from Gotham to work with the League are Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), bringing us closer to the birth of the Dark Knight and Alfred becoming the noble butler. But first, they have to fight for seven episodes and what could have been entertaining Moonlighting banter, the awkward writing robs us of a good thread. By season’s end, they marry and, surprise, have a baby girl, not baby Bruce.

There’s a lot of aimless plotting going on as if they didn’t know they had eight episodes to work with and carefully plot everything out. By bringing in Thomas, Martha, and Lucius Fox (Simon Manyonda), too much bat-mythos is entering Pennyworth threatening to derail its ability to surprise us. Mostly, the big arc is dealing with Project Stormcloud, a “terror bomb” that smacks of the Scarecrow’s fear gas. It’s mostly Alfred and Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) versus Colonel John Salt (Edward Hogg) with the bickering Americans in the background.

As with the wretched Gotham, all sorts of storytelling possibilities are ignored in favor of frenetic pacing and lapses in story logic. In theory, a third season may happen and may find a new home at HBO Max, but no announcements have been made.

The 1080p high-definition transfer is perfectly fine with solid DTS-HD audio. The discs do not have any special features.

The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956 by Charles M. Schulz

This is, as far as I can tell, the last of the books collecting Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips that I’ve never written anything about here. I read the hardcover soon after it came out in 2005, just before this blog existed, but did mention the 1957-58 volume early the next year . (I believe all of my other Peanuts posts can be found through a post on the first book from 2016 and from a 2017 post on the final odds-and-sods volume that collected the odd bits of string from the whole history of the strip.)

So I have thrown around a lot of words about Peanuts over the past decade and a half. And not just me: Schulz is one of the towering masters of the form, so plenty of other people have been pontificating about his work (mostly positively, I think; is there anyone who hates Schulz?). There’s no dearth of discussion of the ol’ round-headed kid, is what I’m saying. You don’t actually need me here to say anything about this book.

But I am here, and I did just read The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956 . And it’s…just fine, actually.

This is a middle period: any strip that runs for a really long time will have at least one of those, where it was one thing, and will someday become something slightly different, but right now is just running its gag every day, trying some small tweaks as it goes and starting to speciate. In the mid to late ’50s, Peanuts was as general as it was ever going to be: the kids basically were kids, doing kid things in a kid world, and occasionally even seemed to be specific ages (just old enough for school, generally).

So the initial shock had worn off. Charlie Brown had settled down into a sad sack rather than a trickster, but all of the ritualized humiliations were still gathering. This book sees him lose kites to trees, but not gloating trees. Lucy pulls away a football maybe once. The whole baseball team loses, but it’s not all on his head yet. He was the central kid in a world of kids, in that imagined green and glorious ’50s suburbia full of other kids just like himself. Franklin was still a good decade off; even Peppermint Pattie wouldn’t appear for a while – these are all the white kids in the relatively nice neighborhood, for all Original Pattie teases Charlie Brown about the relative poverty of his barber father.

The kids tease each other in kid ways and do goofy kid things. Sometimes surrealistically, as comics can: Linus can blow square balloons. But mostly naturalistically. Pig Pen gets more page-time here, and is still as one-note as he was in the previous book.

On the other side, Snoopy is getting odder, more specific and less realistic. He doesn’t have thought balloons yet, but he clearly doesn’t think like a dog anymore. Not only does he think he’s people – lots of dogs think that – but he can convincingly act like people, more and more.

Peanuts would become magnificent in a few years. But strip comics rarely become magnificent immediately. (Counterexample: “‘ja think I’m a cowboy?”) Schulz was, at this point, writing a Zeitgeist strip, about the consensus best possible life in the best possible nation in the best possible moment in history, for an audience that loved to hear that. He was good at that, but he was better than that – you can see how he got better in later volumes of this series.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez

I’ve tagged this book fantasy, but that’s overstating it. This graphic novel has two storylines, in two different times – 1856 and 2016, in the same place, wherever that is – and the first scene has a mysterious character appearing in 1856.

I probably shouldn’t say more than that. But that character’s appearance is the fantasy element. It’s not otherwise a fantasy story. I say that in case it helps calibrate expectations.

That’s A Gift for a Ghost , the first full-length comics story by Spanish cartoonist Borja Gonzalez. This edition was translated by Lee Douglas. The character I alluded to is the ghost.

Well, maybe. That’s one way of interpreting it. There are many ways to give a gift to a ghost.

Teresa is the oddball sister in an aristocratic family in 1856, the one not named after a flower. She’s coming up on her debut, but would much rather write Poe-influenced poetry and spend time in her own head than practice her piano and brush up the other skills that will get her a proper husband. She likes to sneak out to walk in the quiet at night; she meets what looks like a talking skeleton in the first scene. Her story is about what happens next in her life: what her family demands and expects, or what she actually wants, if she can figure out what that is.

In 2016, there are three girls – probably about the same age Teresa was in 1856, sixteen to seventeen. Gloria, Laura, and Cristina. They hang out, wander around, try to figure out life. They’re forming a punk band, the Black Holes, and one of the girls is writing songs – they squabble about that, maybe, a bit. Their story is about secrets and their interactions: there’s less at stake, maybe. 

The two stories – they are both quiet, subdued stories, for all the teenage angst in both of them – intertwine, in ways that one would not expect across a hundred and sixty years. Gift is subtle and will not make itself obvious: if you’re looking for something flashy and obvious, you will not enjoy it.

Gonzalez’s art is equally subdued and quiet: he draws all of these young women (and all of the characters are young women) without faces. Does that make them unknowable? Or just distanced that much father, so the reader has to spend more energy to figure them out? That will for each reader to decide.

I found this book deep and resonant; I don’t think I got all it had to give, but I got enough to want to see what Gonzalez does next.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Invisible Differences by Mademoiselle Caroline and Julie Dachez

I tagged this as “non-fiction” and “memoir,” but it’s isn’t, exactly. This is the story of Marguerite, a twenty-seven-year-old French woman who gets diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s written by Julie Dachez, who is now thirty-six and who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2012.

So the reader’s assumption is that Marguerite has been constructed to be somewhat different from the real Dachez. Some details are not what actually happened to Dachez, for whatever reason, and those changes were large enough that she changed the name of the central character, while still presenting it all as “my story” (though “my” here tends to attach to Marguerite).

That’s Invisible Differences , a graphic novel published in 2016 in France and translated by Edward Gauvin for a 2020 English-language publication. Well, actually, I’m still simplifying. I originally thought Mademoiselle Caroline was purely the artist, but the book itself makes it clear that she also adapted Dachez’s script – maybe it wasn’t quite in comics-panel form to begin with, maybe it was but Caroline made changes for better panel flow and readability, maybe some other complicated working relationship to end up with these finished pages.

So it was written by Dachez and Caroline, to some degree. It’s the story of Dachez, to some degree. It’s accurate and realistic, but maybe not “true” in the purest sense of that word.

I know that people on the autism spectrum are often concerned with little details like that, which is one reason I go into such detail here. (The other is that I am concerned with those details, and fascinated by them, even though I’m not on that spectrum.)

Since I’m American, I’m used to seeing the competing “America is better than anyone in the world at X!” and “America is totally horrible at Y, unlike these other countries!” arguments. Invisible Differences is partially the same sort of thing applied to France. As Dachez and Caroline present it, Freudian psychotherapy still rules mental health in France, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is underdiagnosed and undertreated, particularly in women. There’s an extensive section of notes at the end about what Autism is and how it’s treated in France, which could be helpful to people newly diagnosed and their families and friends. 

I’m happy to note that my own son (diagnosed as various things on the spectrum in his first decade-and-a-half before the ASM-5 consolidated it all into ASD in 2013) had good support and care; it’s rare to see some health-care thing that the USA actually does better than an EU country. This is more a book for people getting this diagnosis in adulthood, or maybe adolescence, than the typical US timing of early childhood.

There isn’t a whole lot of “story” here; it’s about who Marguerite is, how she learns there’s a label and an explanation for some parts of her life that have caused her friction and anxiety, and how she transforms her life to align with what she learns and what she decides she wants to do with her new knowledge. It’s a profound journey for her: she was unhappy in really central ways that she doesn’t seem to have even thought were able to be changed until her diagnosis.

I’m going to see if my on-the-spectrum son is interested in this book; if he does read it and tells me anything, I may add notes here or later. But, for now, and speaking purely as someone who knows a person on the spectrum, this is a thoughtful, honest book that I think will be great for ASD-diagnosed people, particularly those coming to the diagnosis later in life.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Stories from the ’90s by Rick Geary

Self-publishing can strip out a lot of the standard bullshit of publishing. If this book had been published by a Fantagraphics or Dark Horse, it would be called something like Prairie Moons and Night Drives, or maybe True Stories and Other Lies.

But, since Rick Geary assembled it himself out of his archives and published it himself, it can be exactly what it is: Stories from the ’90s . Simple, clear, true.

Geary has been assembling his shorter stories into various books for a few years now; I think this is the most recent one, but I hope there’s at least one book’s worth left of newer work. Already available are Early Stories  (pretty self-explanatory), The Lampoon Years: 1977-1988  (mostly single-pagers from National Lampoon in its declining years, though Geary’s work was excellent), and Rick Geary’s Book of Murder  (stories about murder, more and more straightforwardly as his career went on, over a roughly thirty-year span). Older Geary fans may remember At Home with Rick Geary (from 1985) and Housebound with Rick Geary (1997); I think most of those pieces have been collected in these four books now, along with a lot of other material.

Stories from the ’90s is even bigger than the previous books – they all landed in the 80-90 page range, while this one tops out at 120. (And is slightly more expensive, though slightly cheaper than his more recent individual Kickstarted books – as usual, pricing is complicated and based on multiple factors.)

And, of course, the whole point is that its full of oddball Geary stories. There are some long ones, like “Prairie Moon” and “Tragedy in Orbit” and “Mr. Nickelodeon” and “Our Illustrious Visitor of 1959,” but that’s only “long” in context: there are a passel of three-pagers and a half-dozen longer than that, but most of the work here is in single-page form. Geary was always deeply quirky in his short comics, full of strange transformations, matter-of-fact narration of bizarre events, random juxtapositions, and a sprightly, conversational tone no matter the style or matter of a story. This book has one Mask story – yes, the  same character the movies were about; it was a comic first, with work by a whole lot of different people – a couple of Geary-esque retelling of unlikely historical events, and a whole bunch of one-pagers on topics like “Desperate Clergy,” “Secret Places of My Shameful Past,” “Transgression Hotline,” and “Yes, It Happened.”

Geary’s art is mostly softly rounded here, full of people pulling faces during their madcap antics. His lettering is precise and lovely, either in bigger stories or framing those tiny little boxes of enigmatic objects he did a lot early in his career.

This is one of the most Rick Geary books possible, and it is wonderful. The only way I know of to get it is directly from the author, but don’t let that stop you: he uses one of the major amalgamators for merch (Storenvy), and it all works well. Hornswoggler says check it out.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart

So this is much more of a conventional superhero thing than I thought it was. Oh, it’s pretty good – Lemire is a strong writer, as always, and Ormston does that pseudo-horror look that is nearly a Dark Horse house style (or maybe just rules the Mignolaverse). But I was expecting something quirkier. (Note that Black Hammer is four years old. I had plenty of time to get more details; I just didn’t bother.)

It’s not clear if this was really a team. No name for the group is given in this first collection. But a half-dozen of the superheroes who used to defend Spiral City have been stuck on a farm somewhere in the middle of nowhere for ten years, after a battle with Darkseid “the Anti-God”. They saved the world, and ended up here. The creators don’t tell us how or why in this story – I’m sure it becomes clear later.

None of them are Black Hammer. Black Hammer isn’t the name of the group either. Black Hammer was another guy, the one who died as part of the whole saving-the-world thing. (Or maybe afterward, discovering that they really can’t get out of this small bit of farm landscape with one small town.) The actual hammer he used – this is a superhero comic, so obviously “Black Hammer” is a large Black man who carries a hammer to hit things with until evil is vanquished, because superhero comics are still written for the particularly stupid children of 1938 – is lying on the ground in a field, as if to shame Chekhov into thinking a gun on a mantlepiece could ever be sufficiently obvious.

Black Hammer, the series, is not exactly a pastiche – it’s not “doing the favorite superhero stories of my youth, only as if written by a functional adult” like Astro City has generally aimed for, or “I want to tell stories of these existing characters, but the IP owners haven’t hired me to do so, so decipher this really transparent code” like a dozen others. The characters are pastiches, though — most of them very obviously so:

  • Golden Gail is Mary Marvel, with the serial numbers crudely altered
  • Abraham Slam is the standard WW II strong guy, powered by gumption rather than magic or superscience
  • Barbalien, Warlord from Mars is J’onn J’onz lightly run through a Edgar-Rice-Burroughs-inator
  • Madame Dragonfly is Madame Xanadu with details changed, your standard ’70s horror host with weird and mysterious powers (and a tragic backstory involving accidentally creating a muck-monster boyfriend and eventually losing him)
  • Col. Weird is an ’80s-style reimagining of Adam Strange, transformed by his journeys through the Anti-Zone into a distracted, ghostly, transitory presence
  • Talky-Walky is Weird’s robot sidekick, more or less an equal member of the group on the farm
Black Hammer: Secret Origins  collects the first six issues of the main Black Hammer series, beginning when those six have been living on “The Farm” for ten years. Some of them may have been aging, such as Abraham (though this is unclear: we don’t know when this story takes place and he’s been around since 1939 without any powers to keep him young), while Gail has definitely not been aging, which is a plot point.
Speaking of the unclear timeline: Gail and Abe are clearly WWII heroes, with forty or fiftyish years of history behind them. That puts us in the ’80s or ’90s. Weird and Barbalien are ’50s characters with some history as well, Weird specifically a ’50s character with a later (’70s or ’80s) spin put on him. Dragonfly was probably the “newest” character if we think of them as being part of an established universe. But all of them probably had at least a decade’s worth of adventures behind them, and most of them multiple decades.
This is a combination “introducing the team” arc – they each get an extended flashback to show their origins and life back in Spiral City – and examination of how well they’re all getting along here on the farm. Abe is doing best: he’s making time with a local age-appropriate waitress (ex-wife of the unpleasant local sheriff) and finally gets into her pants during this story. Gail is doing worst: she’s stuck in the superhero body of her nine-year-old self and has been repeating the same grade in a crappy rural school every year. Barbalien might be becoming a churchgoer. Dragonfly is mystical and detached, and clearly has Deep Secrets that readers will need to wait to learn. Weird is barely sane at the best of times, fading in and out of reality. Talky is just keepin’ on keepin’ on.
Near the end, there is a Shocking Event from Outside, and everyone who has ever read a superhero comic will immediately see the next three or four plotlines coming out of that. (Most obviously: Black Hammer II! The sensational character find of whatever-the-hell-year-this-is!)
I’m being pretty dismissive here, because this is all very deeply derivative stuff. Lemire makes that clear in the sketches and other materials collected after the story: there are even ’80s DC Universe-style character sheets for all of the major characters (and several who didn’t make it in). The derivative-ness is the point. This is a story for people who want more stories about superheroes like these, written by someone who understands how actual human beings talk and drawn by someone who has experienced actual cast shadows, studied the ways clothing actually drapes, and experienced the touch of actual human women.
That is not my particular jam, but I’ve started this, so I think I’m going to try to read it far enough at least to see how they get back to Spiral City. (And how long Black Hammer I stays dead: my bet is not all that long.) But know that this is very much a “wouldn’t it be cool if Jeff Lemire could write without those suits at DC screwing it all up?” book.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board by Kristen Gudsnuk

Hey! Remember when I said that I thought Kristen Gudsnuk’s middle-grade graphic novel Making Friends  was a lot of fun, but that I missed the random background goofiness in the world that Gudsnuk brought to her previous book (for adults, as much as any book about superheroes is) Henchgirl ? Sure you do!

Well, Gudsnuk had a sequel to Making Friends a couple of years ago – I just found out about it recently, since I guess I don’t spend as much time keeping track of comics for middle-graders as I should – and I’m happy to report that Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board  shoves the Weird Stuff meter way over into the red zone before it’s done, in a very integrated and fun way. So I do hope to keep using Gudsnukian as an adjective and looking forward to the day when everyone does.

Making Friends followed seventh-grade motormouth Dany – seriously, she’s one of those people (I was intermittently one of them at a slightly later age) who cannot shut up to save their lives even though she knows she’s saying things the wrong way – as she adjusted to life in middle school, where her old friends had a completely different schedule. She thought her life would be perfect if she just had one really good best friend, so, when a magic sketchbook fell into her life from her deceased Great-Aunt Elma, she made herself the perfect friend, Madison Fontaine.

(See my post on the first book for more on where it went from there.)

It’s now a little later in the school year: there’s still a gaping hole in the gym ceiling from , and Dany has been using her reality-warping powers in lots of ways, none of which could ever backfire on her…as far as she’s ever foreseen. But Madison is now even better friends with Cara McCoy, another cheerleader, and Cara is not Dany’s biggest fan. Cara isn’t a “mean girl,” though she does get mean in the ways middle-schoolers do. Honestly, it’s pretty clear than Dany can be annoying regularly, and is exhausting nearly all the time.

So Dany thinks: I just need to use the notebook again, to make things better. I’m too busy and too lazy to get everything done – what if there were two of me? So she uses the notebook to create “Cloney,” a version of herself with a ponytail who lives in a “Pikkiball.” And it actually seems to go OK at first: the two Danys get along with each other, Cloney is happy to take original Dany’s place at school, and nobody is an evil twin or from the dimension of death.

But there’s other stuff going on in the background. Dany’s parents have mysteriously won the lottery. Her mother has lost a lot of weight suddenly. Some other relatives, we see later, have had equally surprising life changes. All soon after Great-Aunt Elma passed and her stuff was bequeathed to her family – interesting!

Gudsnuk doesn’t underline that; the reader has to pick up on it. Or maybe it’s that Dany doesn’t pay much attention to it, since she’s self-absorbed in the ways only a twelve-year-old can be, and the book is from her point of view.

But Back to the Drawing Board is a book where things get even nuttier than in the first book. It builds slowly at first, but the back half of this one is full of all kinds of weird magical powers and events: it is (he said approvingly) deeply Gudsnukian and lots of fun. There is an even bigger magical conflict at the end of this book, and, this time, it’s not all Dany’s fault – though she and her friends do need to be the ones to make everything right.

Gudsnuck has a slightly looser line here than in the previous book, as if she’s drawing at white-hot speed and trying to get to all of the good stuff in her head. I found it a bit too loose here and there, but it works almost all the time. And her people are energetic to a fault: she’s particularly good at a cartoony open-mouth pose when they run into yet something else bizarre and unexpected.

Obviously, the core audience for this book is middle-school girls. But I’m about as far from that demo as you can get, and I’m looking forward to Book Three later this summer, so take that as a recommendation. If you’re an adult, I’d still start Gudsnuk with Henchgirl, but, if you like that, you’ll get a hoot out of these books, too.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW:  Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

REVIEW: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Reviewing any adaptation requires two trains of thought: is it a good representation of the source material, and is it a good story standing on its own. Frankly, I don’t play video games or watch much animation these days, so in watching the 4K Ultra HD release of Sony’s 2005 Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, I had to view it as a story only.

I do know how wildly successful and popular the Final Fantasy franchise has been through the years and apparently this seventh iteration was a real big deal once upon a time. So, I’m told the film begins where the game left off which means it has to recap enough for those, like me, new to this, and fast enough so as not to bore the diehard fans.

Apparently, the film left something to be desired and the 100-minute film was beefed up with more material and it’s this “Complete” version we have, now running 2 hours 6 minutes. That’s a good thing since this takes some getting used to. Apparently, the evil Sephiroth tried to suck the soul out of the planet, only to be defeated by Cloud Strife, but not before the major city of Midgar was destroyed. Now, two years have passed and our protagonist is asked to aid the world once more in defeating the antagonist, who has managed to send his spirit into the terrible trio of Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo.

There’s fighting, magic, meaningful exchanges, and action. Does it make a whole lot of sense to someone new to the franchise? No, not really. Too many elements show up without context so it’s a nicely produced CGI animated feature that doesn’t work for outsiders. Watching it can feel endless for those not in the know and for those familiar with the franchise, I’[m told this is a very strong, successful entry.

The film is released in a combo pack containing the 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Digital HD code. The anime CGI animation is quite strong with striking visuals. The 4K version is stronger than the Blu-ray, especially with the color grading, but both have a relatively weak source material to work from given the film came out 15 years ago. As a result, there are some transfer issues, more notable in the Blu-ray than the 4K so it’s nice to have both. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Japanese track is excellent, superior to the English track.

This is not exactly the prettiest movie ever made considering the inherent source flaws, the animation detail which is well below modern standards, and the bleak color spectrum content, but Sony appears to have done everything within its power to make this look as good as it can. Mild adds to sharpness and a fairly good HDR color grading run have improved the look of the movie a good bit over Blu-ray but do be aware that the steady stream of aliasing remains for the duration.

There are no new features, but the 2009 Blu-ray release’s special features carry over intact. These include Legacy of Final Fantasy VII (6:38);  Reminiscence of Final Fantasy VII (23:55); Reminiscence of Final Fantasy VII Compilation (29:43); On the Way to a Smile-Episode: Denzel (28:07), an OVA focusing Denzel, set between the game and the film; Sneak Peek at Final Fantasy XIII (7:12); five trailers for Advent Children Complete.

REVIEW: Batman: The Long Halloween Part 1

REVIEW: Batman: The Long Halloween Part 1

Warner Animation has been more miss than hit when adapting long comic book serials into a 90 minute or less feature film. Thankfully, they finally learned the lesson and are adapting Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s thirteen-part Batman: The Long Halloween into two films. The first part is out tomorrow and I am quite pleased with it.

The overarching plot has to do with the serial murders of people connected to crime boss Carmine Falcone (Titus Welliver) as the triumvirate of Commissioner Gordon (Billy Burke), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Josh Duhamel), and Batman (Jensen Ackles) all occurring on holidays. The hunt of the Holiday killer propels events as each attempt to thwart the next killing fails, leaving the good guys reeling and Falcone scared.

Set early in Batman’s career, a recurring theme is his lack of skill and experience as a detective. This is hammered a little too hard and neglects the years Bruce Wayne spent training before returning to Gotham City to assume the guise of the Dark Knight.

The adaptation, written by Tim Sheridan and nicely directed by Chris Palmer, is more faithful than its predecessors while still modifying events, none of which are objectionable. There is a lot of duality seeded throughout but my favorite are the subplots contrasting the marriage of Jim and Barbara (Amy Landecker) Gordon (complete with young Babs and James Junior) with that of Harvey and Gilda (Julie Nathanson) Dent. Another nice touch is the stirring romance between the bat and the cat, as Selina Kyle (Naya Rivera) gets more screen time.

Loeb has a formula for Batman stories which started here, stretching out a story to ensure each key member of the rogues’ gallery gets used to help spur sales. But, as we see so many of them locked up in Arkham Asylum, it feels overstuffed considering where we are in the Caped Crusader’s career. And the extended use of the Joker (Troy Baker) begins to feel like padding, slowing the actual mystery. Instead, I would have preferred seeing more of Gordon and Batman sifting through the clues with Julian Day (David Dastmalchian), better know as Calendar Man.

An interesting point is raised that the Gotham underworld is under attack, not from Holiday, but from the increasing number of crazed villains drawn to the city or its protector.

The suspects are nicely given their moments, notably Carmine’s son Alberto (Jack Quaid) and rival Sal Maroni (Jim Pirri). Others are mentioned but we don’t get to them until part two. Speaking of which, we end the film on a fine note, not a cliffhanger, but questions left to solve and the viewer eager for part two, scheduled for digital download on July 27 and on disc August 10.

The look is wonderfully atmospheric and the thick outlines of the characters actually work given the subject matter. The action sequences are thankfully not overblown and the Batmobile gets some nice moments. All of this is well-supported by Michael Gatt’s score.

The movie is out on Blu-ray and Digital HD and looks just terrific on disc, with a good, solid color scheme, and no obvious errors. The key extra contained on the disc is the most disappointing DC Showcase offering of the lot. Sheridan utterly fails in adapting The Losers, a collection of World War II heroes who lost their solo strips. Rather than give us an interesting, character-based story about heroism and loss during the war, we get the trite visit to Dinosaur Island. Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner, Sarge, and Pooch are joined by the token Henry “Mile-a-Minute” Jones, and the Chinese Special Agent Fan Long. It’s such a wasted opportunity.

Sadly, there is nothing else of note other than the obligatory Sneak Peek of Batman: The Long Halloween – Part Two (9:10). The disc is rounded out with From the Vault – Batman: The Animated Series: “It’s Never Too Late” (22:24).