Author Archives: Matt Petras

Review: Trainwreck

trainwreck0Amy Schumer is an important comic pop culture icon thanks to her often intelligent, subversive satire on gender politics and her inherent existence as an empowered female public figure. With Trainwreck, a movie she wrote and stars in, Schumer makes a consequential dive in her career into not just film acting but also into screenwriting. There is a clear attempt to bring a feminist mentality draped in the familiar sleaze that director Judd Apatow has made a staple of modern comedies and it occasionally shines through, but not without some clawing and gasping for air required to brave the unfortunate misogyny and homophobia that ends up ultimately defining the movie more than anything else. Trainwreck is a well-acted movie with some hilarious bits, but as a whole it’s a massively disappointing movie that embraces the kind of straight male thought process it appears on the surface to reject.

Schumer’s main character, naturally named Amy, is not the playful kind of sexually promiscuous woman that modern feminism champions, but the “whore” boogieman that patriarchy loves to demonize. It’s admirable to have a female character that is portrayed as a more average, conflicted character rather than a lazy, feel-good role-model, but that foundation isn’t built upon in any compelling way. Instead, the cheating, aimless woman who jumps from man to man is just a foundation for an aggravating redemption arc, in which the apparent harlot becomes a civilized member of society who strives for a monogamous relationship and perhaps two-and-a-half kids.

What’s so problematic about this is that the movie never even attempts to demonstrate that Amy actually desires monogamy over the casual sex her character shows throughout the vast majority of the movie to love. Sure, it’s apparent that the repeated personal failures of cheating and the drunken, confused mornings in strange beds distresses her, but to say that those two things accurately sum up a sexual lifestyle focused on casual sex is ludicrous and insulting to people who decide monogamy isn’t for them and that sex is an activity sought out for no-strings fun. And that is exactly what the movie preaches, when it gives us a redemption arc about a woman who loves casual sex and doesn’t understand the appeal of monogamous relationships realizes she is broken, something the character says in her own words actually, whenever she accepts society’s obsession with monogamy despite growing reason to be skeptical of such an obsession. trainwreck2

The movie’s entire selection of female characters really is sad, too. There’s a lot of woman poked fun at for being too prudish, there’s a few other women that pose as straw-men for women who love casual sex actually being serial harassers and creeps, there’s a woman in charge of a sex-focused lifestyle magazine who is morally monstrous and cartoonishly blind to the sexism she promotes, and so on and so forth.

Trainwreck is a romantic comedy and the obligatory love interest is Bill Hader’s Aaron, a conflicting character. On one hand, Hader does a wonderful job of portraying a charming and lovely man and has great chemistry with Schumer. Scenes that eschew dialogue for simple moments of kissing and touching are beautifully done. However, Aaron’s character falls pretty squarely into the “nice guy” archetype; you know, the kind of guy Men’s Rights Activists love championing in the face of those blasted, cheating whores who usually go for those handsome assholes. As a whole, the relationship between the two never justifies itself logistically either, the movie never showing evidence to support either of them liking each other to such the strong extent that they do.

Aaron, who is a doctor for famous professional athletes, has a friend in LeBron James, whose character is easily the most consistently feminist part of the movie. He shows genuine, cute concern for his friend Aaron’s pursuit of a woman, not getting tripped up on inappropriate sexual objectification through uncomfortable guy-talk and convincing Amy to pursue Aaron seriously when he could easily slide in for a hook-up. trainwreck3

And listen, the movie really does manage to be funny pretty often. There are lots of great little bits, like when a bunch of men have really hilariously barbaric yet realistic conversations about sports stars. There’s an entire movie-within-the-movie toward the beginning, when Amy goes on a movie date, and it is hysterical but wholly unrelated to the rest of the movie. There’s good drama too, with a sweet father-daughter relationship between Amy and her dad that culminates into a particularly sad and brilliantly-written speech.

It’s just not enough to counter-balance the much more focal portions of the movie that are so problematic. There’s a consistent streak of homophobia in the movie, from subtle to incredibly, horribly uncomfortable. The movie pokes fun at John Cena’s masculinity in a role he plays early in the movie, but it quickly devolves into lazy and unfunny exaggeration that portrays him as almost certainly gay rather than simply less masculine that he’d like to think he is. What’s much worse is a scene almost at the end of the movie in which Amy attempts to sleep with a stereotypically gay but actually straight or bisexual boy played by Ezra Miller, a gay actor defined by his moving role as a gay teen who faces horrible adversity in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The scene ruthlessly mocks him for enjoying to be submissive in the bedroom through acts that will come off as extremely mundane for any sexually-active gay or bisexual man in the audience. It ends with a sequence of events that embodies the “trainwreck” descriptor more than anything else in the movie, when the movie mocks him again with an out-of-character decision to hit Amy across the face without any kind of consent, prompting her to violently punch him in the face, sending him literally crying to his mother as Amy learns he is 16 and faces no legal repercussion and no extra challenges to face in the movie; in fact, her getting fired at the magazine she worked at seems to have empowered her to take on better career opportunities.

trainwreck1 I don’t want to sound hyperbolic when I said that the scene gave me a physically discomforting feeling in my stomach and made me want to leave the theater. What makes this scene so much worse is keeping in mind a previous moment in the movie whenever Amy combats another character who says that she doesn’t know how to tell her kids about gay people by muttering, “you can just tell them they’re people,” or something similar. Trainwreck is an excellent example of homophobia hidden behind disingenuous Hollywood liberalism.

At the point of that disturbing scene, the movie truly lost me, but the rest of the movie was still poor. You see, there was a moment earlier in the movie whenever Amy shows a strongly-worded distaste for cheerleaders, saying that they will lose women the right to vote. It’s perhaps the only opinion on gender politics the character expresses the entire time, but she throws it away to perform as a cheerleader for Aaron in a big, aggrandized apology over a fight that seemed to require compromise from both of them in the first place. It’s an ending I’m glad was rushed, because I wanted the whole thing to end.

I laughed during Trainwreck, and am impressed by the performances, more than a few jokes, some of the drama and a character moment here and there. Unfortunately, what stuck with me much more was the movie’s backwards messaging that proves sexist, with some thoroughly troubling homophobia along the way. For a movie with so many filthy, raunchy jokes, it’s hard to think of a movie in recent memory more antagonistic towards sexually-free liberation.

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Godzilla in Hell #1

hell1After almost two years since his masterful Godzilla: Half-Century War storyline, James Stokoe returns to IDW with the new comic Godzilla in Hell. Devoid of any dialogue or narration, the first issue of this new miniseries impresses with something fresh and fascinating. Godzilla in Hell #1 is an abstract, twisted comic that portrays a disempowered and frightened Godzilla: a far different angle than is per usual. Stokoe’s incredible, highly-detailed and sharp art carries this creepy, weird, and most importantly fantastic comic.

Godzilla is dropped into Hell, or at least an approximation, and is forced to deal with strange monsters that dig into his psyche and unsteady his footing. To an entirely-literal eye, this first issue doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that isn’t the point. Stokoe skips over a grander narrative and gets right to the action and to his scared, desperate Godzilla. Figuring out exactly what is in these panels takes time because of their esoteric visual nature and lack of any text description, which really is genius; this commands the reader to examine the art thoroughly, which leads to deeper interpretation conjured up by the imagination. Formations tempt Godzilla into thinking this new landmark he discovered is primed to be ruled over by him just as other places have been, but these formations are mean tricks.

What the monster is actually subjected to is much uglier monsters that are genuinely discomforting to look at. Just like the obscure, dialogue-free art forces the reader to process what is happening visually more thoroughly, these beasts featured without any text to distract from them forces the reader to myopically focus on the horrific designs of these creatures and imagine the rest. Tension and dread is created through lack of detail, giving readers only enough to serve as a beginning to whatever the caverns of their minds put together.

Absolutely essential to this comic’s effectiveness is Stokoe’s art, which is as phenomenal as ever. All the facial expression on Godzilla’s face is exaggerated enough to effectively paint a picture of the trauma he’s put through. The level of detail is insane, perfect for a story like this that calls for a lot of scanning. The colors are suitably dark and lacking in much variety, creating an unsettling atmosphere. Some zoomed-out shots show off impressive scale, but a general lack of background detail helps to make the comic feel dream-like.

The comic really does read like a particularly nasty nightmare for Godzilla. This is such a treat because it allows for the disempowered Godzilla on display here. Depictions of Godzilla have always been varied, but that variety is usually about his morality, while empowerment stays more of a constant. The interesting decision to forgo text isn’t the only unique thing about this stellar first issue.

Story and Art: James Stokoe
Story: 9.5  Art: 9.25  Overall: 9.5  Recommendation: Buy

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The Brothers Behind Riverman Media

A large pizza rolls down a snowy hill, smashing evil skeletons as it gets closer and closer to its destination. Wings flap as a flying man straight out of Greek mythology tries his best to traverse as much as he can. The weight of a large silver-mining company on his shoulders, an executive fights werewolves to defend his livelihood.

These are just a few of the games from Riverman Media, a game development company made up of just two people: brothers Jacob and Paul Stevens.

“Until we became adults, we played every game together. Actually, we still do, for the most part!” said Jacob via Skype interview.

Jacob (Left) and Paul (Right) Stevens. Taken from Riverman Studio Website.

Jacob (Left) and Paul (Right) Stevens. Taken from Riverman Media Website.

After Jacob and Paul finished schooling from Northern Arizona University and Arizona University (CORRRECTION: UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA) respectively, both with degrees in computer science, they got to work on game development full-time. Over the last decade, the duo have been releasing games on mostly iPhones and iPads, with one release on the Wii’s old online store for digital games, “WiiWare,” and some for Windows computers. Jacob does the art and music for the games, while Paul does the programming.

Their first games were first Cash Cow and then Primate Panic, both released for Windows. Cash Cow, a puzzle-game based on familiar mechanics of matching shapes together, is probably their most mass-market game, Jacob explained.

“A lot of people, including our relatives, still play [Cash Cow] all the time,” Jacob said.

The two then developed a game called Madstone for WiiWare, which released in 2008. The game was another shape-matching puzzler, which received some negative reception. IGN critic of the time Mark Bozon gave the game a 4/10, writing “it’s a title that isn’t worth your cash, your Wii storage space, or or [sic] attention.” He criticized the game for overly simplistic gameplay, lack of pointer-controls and widescreen presentation, and a dearth of game mode variety.

“Ultimately I think [the review] drove us to make better and better stuff, even though I don’t quite agree with their review,” Jacob said with a laugh. “I do think that it’s intelligent critiques that push you forward.”

Reception was not entirely negative, however. Nintendo Life critic Spencer McIlvaine gave the game a 7/10, writing “Madstone provides just enough new ideas to make it worth checking out.” The review praised the retro aesthetics and simple-to-play mechanics.

Madstone. Image from Riverman Media Website.

Madstone. Image from Riverman Media Website.

The two were invited to a “Developers Summit” hosted by Nintendo of America in April of 2008, before the release of Madstone. The two said they loved the event, focused on interaction with fellow indie developers as well as guidance given by Nintendo employees. This was one of Paul’s favorite moments of his tenure with Riverman Media, he explained.

“We grew up on Nintendo. It’s what we love,” said Paul.

In 2009, the brothers released a port of Cash Cow for iOS, published by Chillingo, the publisher behind smash-hit Angry Birds. In 2011, IKAROS, a procedurally-generated endless runner, Space Frak, a shoot-em-up, and Deathfall, an arcade-style game, released on iOS, all games made and released quickly as experiments in iOS game development, Jacob explained.

Space Frak was originally released as an ad-supported game, but the team didn’t like that model for game development, leading to that version being replaced with the $2, ad-free version available now. Deathfall, a $3 game, is very similar, in terms of gameplay, to another game released by Riverman Media during that time, called Fat Roll Santa, released for the holidays. Because Deathfall was the more popular game and Fat Roll Santa was so tied to a certain time of year, the two decided to cease support of Fat Roll Santa, which is no longer available to download, according to Paul.

Noticing a trend? Riverman Media is not prone to releasing games with micro-transactions or ads, both models popular to implement into mobile games.

“We don’t really understand ad-supported or freemium games because it’s not what we grew up with,” said Paul via Skype interview.

Jacob said similar things, offering more comments about these practices.

“I really don’t have any principal against in-app purchases, but in practice I think it makes games less fun,” said Jacob.

Games including in-app purchases have been widely criticized by players and pundits alike, one of the loudest critics being former Reviews Editor for Destructoid and The Escapist and current independent games critic Jim Sterling. In a half-star out of five review for The Escapist, Sterling described free-to-play mobile game Dungeon Keeper Mobile, published by Electronic Arts, thusly:

“A cynically motivated skeleton of a non-game, a scam that will take your cash and offer nothing in return. A perversion of a respected series, twisted by some of the most soulless, selfish, and nauseating human beings to ever blight the game industry.”

Sterling recently reviewed Riverman Media’s latest game, The Executive, for his website The Jimquisition, and awarded it a 9.5/10. He praised the game highly as “brilliant,” and pointed to the lack of micro-transactions as its best feature.

“No bullshit premium currencies, no insidious paywalls. It’s sad that such a thing should even be worthy of praise, but that’s the world we live in now,” his review states.

The Executive. Image from Riverman Media.

The Executive. Image from Riverman Media.

The Executive is widely loved by not just iOS-focused websites but also general video game enthusiast sites, in fact. Kotaku writer Mike Fahey wrote that it’s “a brilliant amalgamation of classic concepts that’s dressed to impress – and it certainly does.” App Spy and Touch Arcade both gave the game a 5/5, and Pocket Gamer gave it a 9/10.

The Executive, a $3, soon-to-be $5 (after the launch sale) beat-em-up game with elements of platforming about an executive of a silver-mining company fighting off werewolves, went through a three-year development cycle and was made with a myriad of influences, Paul explained. He recounted a story about driving home from a video store, thinking about the blisteringly fast and action-packed Jackie Chan movies, and how they’ve barely been properly represented in games. Mad Men’s suited characters also found themselves in Paul’s (CORRECTION: JACOB’S) brain when brainstorming for The Executive, which was originally called “Linear Ninja” behind the scenes, he said.

On the subject of the abnormal enemy designs in the game, Jacob told me a funny yet accurate comment he said he has said on multiple occasions.

“I was trying really hard to make a game that wasn’t as strange as Pizza vs. Skeletons, but I guess I failed,” said Jacob with a laugh.

Pizza vs. Skeletons. Image from Riverman Media Website.

Pizza vs. Skeletons. Image from Riverman Media Website.

Pizza vs. Skeletons was their game previous to The Executive, released in 2012 to similar acclaim, brandishing a 90% score on the review aggregate site Metacritic. The game is hard to describe, the best genre descriptor being a platformer, but with lots of other elements. It took 9 months to finish, according to Jacob.

Riverman Media focuses mainly on developing games for iOS devices, finding Apple easy to work with, Jacob explained. He also sees the marketplace as both advantageous and disadvantage for them to release games in.

“The App Store is oddly more competitive and less competitive. It’s more competitive because there are a hundred games being released a day… it’s less competitive because the scopes of those games is usually small compared to a console game,” said Jacob.

The team would like to get more games on home consoles in the future, because of the additions of a controller and a television, Paul explained.

Riverman Media also offers consulting services to other designers, and have helped small, college-enrolled indie game developers as well as big, non-game companies on general design. Fees are sometimes charged for these services, but small, local jobs to little guys tend to be free, Jacob explained.

The two developers have been passionate their whole lives together. Jacob had been doing art and music since a young age, learning through self-teaching and various lessons.

“Video games are really the perfect melding of [technology, art and music] for me,” said Jacob.

Programming is something a lot of people probably see as dull, but it’s far from that for Paul.

“To me, programming is like playing with Lego’s, except rather than a physical creation it’s on the screen,” said Paul. The process of building something others can interact with is still present, he explained.

Their passion doesn’t seem to be dying any time soon, either.

“We both hope to do this as long as we can,” said Paul.

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Knight (Console Version)

Batman: Arkham Asylum’s release back in 2009 was an amazing surprise that changed the way action elements in games were made, evident in releases like Shadow of Mordor and Witcher 3. Arkham City in 2011 tweaked and expanded the original foundation, fitted then with an open-world structure, enough to give the game a unique feel without stripping the formula of what made it so engaging in the first place. Now, this year’s Batman: Arkham Knight has done the same thing, offering more welcome tweaks and a big expansion in the form of the Batmobile’s offerings of high-speed travel and tank battle. Those gameplay evolutions along with the most interesting story of the trilogy, one that is sure to please even the most hardcore comic book readers, makes Arkham Knight a fitting conclusion to Rocksteady’s three games, even though it is troubled by some technical hiccups and downright embarrassing portrayal of women.

arkham knight

Scarecrow takes over for Joker as the main antagonist this time around, but don’t expect anything nearly as memorable as the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately, he serves mainly as a catalyst for getting Gotham evacuated again to give players a very video gamey playground to mess around with, as well as a catalyst for the developers to play around a whole lot with fear toxin as a plot device. Because of everything done with his fear toxin to create disturbing and exciting hallucinations, his disappointing role as the lead villain is easily forgivable. Sometimes the fear toxin leads to some cheap, that didn’t really happen! cop-outs, but it’s mostly great stuff. It also helps that there is certainly no lack of villains to go around, the titular Arkham Knight, an interesting riff on an established character that ties in thematically to the arc of the whole Arkham series, being the other most notable.

As a whole, the narrative is great. As always, the voice performances are top-notch stuff, making this game indistinguishable from the most high-profile animated films in that regard. There are constant twists and turns until the very end of the game, keeping one guessing the entire time. It’s a lot like The Dark Knight Rises in that it constantly punches Batman in the gut time and time again, testing his psychological and physical strength ruthlessly. Arkham Knight takes advantage of what’s become a common storytelling strategy in superhero stories in the modern age, that being displaying a hero’s strength by forcing him to overcome conflicts that exploit his greatest weaknesses. Along the way, players are treated with some truly high-concept, abstract, and daring segments that offer some of the most killer story beats in games the past few years.

Sadly, the biggest problem with the game cuts away at the narrative, one of its strongest facets. Almost point-for-point, Arkham Knight does a hugely disappointing disservice to the most prominent female characters of the series. Oracle, Poison Ivy and Catwoman, characters that at their best serve as some of the most fascinating and empowering female characters in superhero fiction, are treated miserably in this game. Oracle and Catwoman are stripped of any agency for the vast majority of their screen time, captured and in need of saving. Poison Ivy’s role is particularly laughable, serving as the first villain to challenge Batman at the start only to almost immediately give in and aid him in whatever he asks throughout the game. Not to mention the fact that the prison guards throw her in jail with mostly just underwear; it would be a shame to give up that eye-candy, after all.

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Things get a bit better towards the end of the main story, what with advancements like Harley Quinn’s inclusion in the plot featuring legitimate agency, but let’s be honest here; a character whose defining character trait in this series being her obsession with a man getting some decent screen time isn’t exactly a shining moment for feminism.

The PC version has secured Warner Bros. into quite the media spectacle, thanks to its prominent technical issues. I played the Xbox One version, and I can attest to an experience free of any regular framerate drops or similar glitches. The game did crash around three times, and another time Batman got himself stuck in the environment (even though he visually wasn’t touching anything, frustratingly) so bad that I had to restart to the last checkpoint. Thankfully, the game saves very frequently, so this isn’t too alarming of a problem.

On a more positive note, Rocksteady has done a tremendous job creating a Gotham to explore. This is truly a current-generation video game not possible on the PS3 and 360, with a gorgeous and massive city. There is a tremendous degree of draw distance and complex lighting and smoke effects, helping its world feel more and more alive. Great care was also taken to recreate iconic scenery, like Wayne Tower, Ace Chemical and the GCPD Building.

Grappling, gliding and swinging around in this world has never been quite this joyful. Like Metroid Prime 3 did for the Prime series, Arkham Knight doesn’t make players re-obtain abilities that were already available by the end of Arkham City. This not only means that the player is able to feel instantly powerful, but also means that the rest of the game is able to up the ante more and more. Upgrades to the boost ability after grappling to a surface make for a particularly pleasurable experience that feels almost like true flight. It works so seamlessly and quickly that it makes for an absolute blast. I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun screwing around in an open-world.

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The other method for quick travel in this game is the Batmobile, this game’s big new toy. The car is able to go blisteringly fast, forcing players to be wary of how much pressure they apply on the trigger to drive it, making for an intricate and dynamic driving experience. It has become a common complaint that the car is unwieldy, but I’d say with the proper amount of effort controlling the Batmobile is quite rewarding. It integrates into the rest of Batman’s antics without a hitch, too. There is a really remarkable satisfaction to diving off a building only to pull up toward the ground, calling the Batmobile to pull up underneath to catch Batman after the momentum from the dive has worn off.

Holding the left trigger instantly transforms the Batmobile into a tank: a necessary step Batman had to take to deal with the vast numbers of enemy tanks to deal with. There is a bit of a logistical hoop to jump through concerning Batman using guns, given his iconic, strict policy against firearms formed through the trauma of his parents’ death by gun shots, but it works. The plot conveniently pushes Batman into a corner, and he still refuses to kill. It’s worth it for the tank combat, because it’s a ton of fun. Dodging enemy missiles and taking down tanks to charge up a bar used to execute special abilities like missile barrages is sweet. Battles are intense, challenging and add much needed diversity to the Arkham formula.

That isn’t to say that the tried-and-true gameplay of the Arkham series isn’t enjoyable anymore, because that certainly isn’t the case. The hand-to-hand combat and stealth sections have only gotten more complex and challenging, adding another layer of nuance and satisfaction. Arkham Knight’s challenge is refreshingly respectful to players, expecting them to be caught up with the series enough to skip over introductory and boring sections at the beginning, without going too fast or forgoing any optional resources for newcomers or lapsed veterans.

Additionally, this installment features a bigger emphasis on puzzle-solving, and it is all rather clever. The environmental manipulation and use of gadgetry required to best these challenges offer some intellectually-rewarding bits that thankfully manage not to cause the pacing to suffer, like in other action games such as Uncharted 3. If the player finds him or herself particularly wrapped up in these puzzles, there are tons and tons of optional Riddler trophies to find, as always. The bulk of these collectables are hidden behind inventive little puzzles throughout the game’s world.

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I really love Arkham Knight and still find myself excited to tackle its side missions despite having already beaten the main story. Prompting these side missions does make one feel a lot like the Dark Knight, either stumbled upon by exploring (patrolling) the city or deciphering intercepted audio from crooks around the city that automatically plays, with directions to their whereabouts.

The most positive thing I can say about my time with Arkham Knight is that I was always excited to start it up again, really. It’s an exciting game, with a story that impresses so much that it doesn’t feel out of place in discussion of great Batman stories, despite its dreadful problems with women. Exploring the city is a blast, whether it be through swinging and grappling around or driving, both at breakneck speeds. Tank combat finds itself a welcome addition alongside the still engaging fisticuffs and stealth. Batman: Arkham Knight successfully ends one of the most beloved triple-A game series of the last decade.

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The Secret Loves of Geek Girls Kickstarter is a Big Success

A Kickstarter anthology book featuring prose, comics and more from Hope Nicholson and an assembled selection of female creators, called The Secret Loves of Geek Girls has been successively backed with 25 days to spare.

“It’s been very nice to see all of the support of the comics and geek communities rally behind the book, and I’ve been touched by all the positive words,” said Nicholson, a comic book editor and publisher, via email interview.

The book is a collection of mostly-original text and comic stories, along with some essays, about the romantic and sexual lives of women in the geek community. Some of these stories are from familiar names like Margaret Atwood, an award-winning Canadian writer of fiction and essays, and Marguerite Bennett, a writer on recent DC Comics and Marvel Comics releases like A-Force and Lois Lane.

Investing money nets one a tiered selection of rewards, like copies of the book at the bottom end of the selection and exclusive bits of original artwork at the top.

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This Canada-based project had a goal of raising $37,000 in Canadian currency, which converts to $30,160 in United States currency, according to the Kickstarter page. As of the writing of this piece on the afternoon June 29th, 2015, it’s at around $50,000 Canadian, or around $43,000 American.

250 (CORRECTION: 1,500) copies are to be printed as a part of the Kickstarter campaign, but distribution to backers isn’t the end of this book’s release. “Any extra books will be available through my website, some local comic and book stores, and at conventions,” she said. Digital copies will also be sold on her website and through Comixology, she said.

The Kickstarter page can be accessed by clicking here.

The book’s premise rests on a notion that, “[t]here is a desert of [dating] information geared towards the women in fandom,” the Kickstarter page reads. Nicholson hopes this book can help fill the gap and aide troubled female geeks.

“I think that [our dating/sex life] is always something that’s kept very close to us, for the reasonable fear that if it’s public our discussions will be labelled as gossip or drama,” she said.

Particularly afflictive subject matter has been avoided in this collection, in order to maintain a more comfortable atmosphere, she explained. “[S]ome [stories] are analytical, others are very funny, others are very sensitive and touching.”

One story included is called “Firsts” and is a comic from Gillian G, a woman known for her webcomic “Jerkface A-Hole,” available here. This story is about, as the Kickstarter page details, “the legacy of a woman with absolutely no game.”

When asked how much of the story is autobiographical, she wrote, “All of it. Unfortunately.” in an email interview.

The character she created for her webcomic drew on parts of her own personality, which meant there were some similarities between this new story and that.

“The main character [of “Jerkface A-Hole”], although quite different from me, faces a lot of the challenges I face: being outside of the norm, being very small and runty for her age, and not being focused on dating,” she said.

Gillian is feeling the pressure of working within a small piece of a larger collaboration.

Image Taken from Kickstarter Page

Image Taken from Kickstarter Page

“It’s hard to pare down the stories of shame, humiliation, and ridiculousness to make just one 5 page comic. That’s my primary challenge,” she explained.

Another contribution to the anthology, this one untitled, is from Roberta Gregory. The Kickstarter description reads, “Roberta Gregory illustrates the downside of five decades worth of drawing adult comics.”

“… I have been mostly out of the publishing and media loop for the last several years, due to having a very demanding day job (that I just retired from),” Gregory said via email interview. “I was beginning to feel that I was a bit of a has-been but apparently folks still remember me.”

Gregory feels she will be bringing something different to the anthology.

“I am probably one of the oldest and less ‘techie’ of the women in the book. But I am looking forward to providing a different point of view based on my own perspective,” she said.

She has a long public history with comics that began when she was inspired by California-based underground comics from the 70s, many very adult in nature, she explained.

“Especially back in the day, the response I got to my comics (particularly from some men) was often kind of disturbing, but it was certainly in tune with the era,” she said.

Her comic strips and other work can be viewed on her website.

Another story is “Both Sides of the Table and Between the Sheets,” from Janet Hetherington. It follows her young experiences at conventions, which represents her passion for fandom, she explained via email interview.

“I have never lost my passion for fandom… from a teenager reading science fiction and drawing early comics, to university journalism student helping organize early conventions like Maplecon and writing articles for Amazing Heroes magazine, to a self-published writer/artist (Eternal Romance) and comics writer (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Honey West/Kolchak the Night Stalker,” she said.

Most of the story will be text, with some illustrations, posing as a detour from her recent focus on screenplays, she explained.

Another contribution is an essay tentatively entitled “How Fan Fiction Made Me Gay,” from writer JM Frey.

“I’m going to try to find a more poetic title for the essay,” she said with a laugh via Skype interview.

The essay is a full-frontal defense of fan-fiction as an art form and its ability to give women and minorities stories that represent them more, as opposed to the mainstream of narratives in geek culture focused on characters that are straight, white, male, etc. Without fan-fiction, she may have never realized the complexities of her sexual identity, lost in the “homogenous,” small-town culture she grew up in, she said.

The best she has gotten with labels is identifying as a demisexual, panromantic grey ace. Demisexuality is a term used to describe people who are only sexually-attracted to someone once a strong emotional bond is formed. Being panromantic means she is romantically interested in people regardless of gender. Grey ace, she explained to me, is a more specific descriptor that falls under the spectrum between sexual and asexual. Asexuality describes someone more or less personally uninterested in sex; grey ace essentially means someone somewhere in the middle: partially asexual.

“Fan-fiction taught me to see unresolved romantic tension not just through male and female characters,” she said.

Fan-fiction has received criticism from big voices, such as George R.R. Martin, creator of Game of Thrones, who has described the practice before as lazy. Frey defended fan-fiction with an unapologetic bluntness, deeply taking issue with the notions that it wastes talent that could be put towards building original properties and that it is legally problematic.

“Fan-fiction is what gave me the tools and the understanding to realize who I was,” Frey said.

Hope Nicholson; image taken from Kickstarter page

Hope Nicholson; image taken from Kickstarter page

She feels that the notion that fan-fiction is less valuable because it isn’t based on original properties is steeped in capitalist ideas that aren’t very artful. She doesn’t like the idea that some art is lesser because it isn’t financially profitable, she explained.

“This idea that fan-fiction isn’t really art is capitalist bullshit,” she said.

Another story is a comic called “Better than Fiction,” from Sarah Winifred Searle. It is about the relationship between fiction-writing as escapism and real-life happiness.

“… it’s about my journey from relying too much on that escapism to finding fulfillment in reality,” Searle said via email interview.

This entirely autobiographical work is much more personal than her past work.

“I’m getting braver with my autobiographical work and it feels good, even cathartic,” she said.

Her website can be viewed here.

Many of these women were brought on board the project through social media or convention friendships with Nicholson, or because of kind words about their work through word of mouth, Nicholson said. Everyone I interviewed expressed excitement to be involved in this project.

“Considering how frightening, alienating, and dangerous a place the nerd sphere can be for women, this project is an oasis,” said Gillian.

Movie Review: Inside Out

insideout1It’s been tough to be a Pixar fan the past few years, what with the total artistic flop of Monsters University as well as superior competition in the realm of animated film, like Frozen. That’s precisely why a downright incredible film like Inside Out is exciting for the film industry and especially exciting for fans of the once does-no-wrong animation studio. This wildly creative, emotionally-resonate and hilarious movie about what happens in our minds is not just better than the past few years’ worth of Pixar movies, it’s by far one of the studio’s best efforts.

The movie does good right from the start, with its protagonist Riley, an easy-to-like 11-year old girl who loves her family, her friends, and hockey. It’s great to have an unconventional sports-loving little girl star a movie that doesn’t simply pander to that audience. Riley isn’t a fantasy and not even exactly a role-model, but a real, honest-to-goodness person who doesn’t always make the right decision. The movie does play it safe with racial representation, unlike Dreamwork’s Home this year, but the background characters are suitably diverse for what that’s worth.

If you’re not yet privy, Inside Out’s premise focuses on the interworking of Riley’s mind, personified as five colorful characters named Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear, along with some others along the way. Most of the movie is spent in her mind, leaving the bulk of the charm to the all-star cast of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling and Jon Hader. The casting is perfect, each actor representing their respective emotion to a tee and pulling off endearing, hilarious performances.

The movie focuses on Joy and Sadness to deliver a theme about those two emotions in particular. Literally, Inside Out is about Riley’s family moving to another town during a pivotal moment of her life; the last bits of pre-pubescent childhood. Thematically, Inside Out is a surprisingly poignant, warm and complex affirmation of the relationship between joy and sadness along with all the rest of the emotions, as well as a coming-of-age story.

Perhaps the most impressive quality of Inside Out is its total and utter lack of missed potential. This fun look at the mind feels complete and massively inventive, throwing in lots of actual psychological jargon without being stuffy or confusing. From the part of the brain that produces dreams seen here as a movie studio producing short skits, to the sprawling rows of shelves containing orbs shown for long-term memory, Inside Out never ceases to be clever. It’s the kind of movie that had me constantly worrying it would misstep and half-ass an idea, but it never did. It just kept delighting and surprising.

As a work of film craft, Inside Out is magnificent. For the most part it’s standard Pixar, with a huge variety of color and the silkiest, most expressive and detailed CG animation possible for its time. At one point in the movie it takes things further, however, with experimentation in its animated style that makes it look unlike anything typically seen on the big screen. The plot calls for this shift in style in the exact same way as other animated movies, but the results are hard to argue with. Inside Out is also easily Pixar’s most cartoony movie yet, with energetic slapstick that often feels like Looney Toons.

Inside Out is a classic work of art that does more than it has to for the simple sake of being good. Pete Docter and the rest of the crew didn’t just check boxes to get an Oscar and butts in seats and toys on shelves (although they’ll be sure to get all of those too); they put their minds together and created something truly special.

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Review: Justice League #41

JL 41 aThe start to Geoff John’s latest Justice League story not only manages to thrill; it also raises the stakes to become something more exciting than it’s ever been before. Indeed, Justice League #41 makes the years of previous issues all feel like build-up to what is happening now. So many characters, some warm and familiar heroes, others new to the game of fighting injustice and still to prove themselves, have made their way to this point in the story, each established as something bold and worthy of attention in their own ways. Darkseid needs defeated, and the group of people expected to accomplish that goal are more fascinating than they’ve been this entire run. Justice League #41 is an epic comic book filled with character, action, and, above all else, excitement.

There’s a load of exposition in this double-sized comic that doesn’t directly follow the Justice League heroes. This sets up the immediate story, which charms as a simple crime-scene investigation, but also the larger story that spans planets and paints a picture of a gigantic war that all of humanity should be concerned with. The interesting storytelling continued from the last issue, detailing the war of two planets, is expanded upon here from the present to set the stage for what’s to come, and it still rocks with a tale that reads like scripture. It’s also brought down to Earth some here, as a focus on a particular caped hero takes readers on a more personal route through all of that heavy plot.

Whenever the microscope is put on Batman, Wonder Woman and all of the rest, Johns takes the time in his script to remind readers why these characters are so special and worth celebrating. Grand, sweeping narration led by the team’s leading woman muses on what it is that drives these heroes, bringing things back to simple childhood moments that are emblematic of larger motivations. Once that’s finished, the fun banter one comes to expect from a blockbuster superhero story is on display, but not without more subtle and touching character beats, the best of which forcing Shazam to face mortality in a way he never has in his short time alive.

The character drama and overall interaction is lovely. The tension between Superman and Lex Luthor continues to grow and the latter’s role in the league grows ever more complicated, thanks to a twist that ties into the latest conflict. Hal Jordon slides back into this book elegantly while simultaneously serving as a crutch for the new, young lantern Jess to fit more comfortably. The only noteworthy flaw in this whole book is the unfortunate lack of Aquaman, who is almost entirely absent from the events of this book. For an issue that is so celebratory of the team and such a culmination of everything before, it’s especially problematic not to see him.

Around half of this comic is a shining example of superhero action done right, with Jason Fabok’s art exploding off of the page to a degree more than competent as a replacement to artists like Jim Lee and Ivan Reis. Splash pages are plentiful and filled with color, striking amounts of detail, and pitch-perfect movement and expression. It all has an impressive shimmer to it as well, thanks to the fine coloring duty of Brad Anderson. The villain at hands lays into each hero in battle individually, not just through specific physical attacks but also psychological. It’s even in the action that the characterization shines.

Despite all of the troubles concerning New 52 continuity, Johns has managed to craft a new wave of Justice League lore DC Comics fans can be proud of. Justice League #41 is the amalgamation of a few years’ worth of comics, and the kind of thing geeks dream of.

Story: Geoff Johns Art: Jason Fabok
Story: 9.5 Art: 9.5 Overall: 9.5 Recommendation: Buy

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Esposito Keeps Writing Comics Through Adversity

When Joey Esposito receives a rejection from a publisher after pitching a comic, he’ll re-write and try again, with a multitude of publishers on the table. He acknowledges his flaws, laughs off the unpleasant feelings, and resolves to get better. For him, it’s another day on the job of writing comics.

Ex-IGN Comics Editor Joey Esposito spends his days doing what he loves: creating all sorts of comic books through amiable relationships with artists and other creators.

“I love spending my days writing… but it’s hard,” said Esposito via Skype interview.

joey1After spending a few years at IGN doing reporting and criticism of almost entirely comic books, Esposito delved into comic book writing, dropping his former career completely in October of 2013. Before leaving IGN, Joey had already made a bit of a name for himself in the realm of comic book creation with work like the first volume of Footprints, a detective comic starring Big Foot along with other cryptozoology creatures, and Captain Ultimate, an ongoing all-ages superhero comic.

He is happy with this decision and has experienced nothing but total support from friends and family, he said.

“[My father] will pitch my books to anyone who will listen!” he said, laughing.

Those comics are primed to receive continuations. Footprints: Bad Luck Charm is a double-sized one-shot that features two stories, one a prequel and the other a sequel to the first volume. This comic was successively funded on Kickstarter, receiving $7,410 by June 1.

The book is in color, as opposed to the black and white presentation of past Footprints work; this is because Esposito couldn’t imagine the setting of Las Vegas being portrayed without color, he said. He was prepared when asked what excited him most about working on more of Footprints.

“I just love these characters,” said Esposito, referring to creations such as a seductive Loch Ness Monster and a sleuthing Big Foot.

Multiple new issues of Captain Ultimate are completely done, but the creative team is waiting for the right moment to release them, said Esposito.

Boy Akkerman, the artist for the series, finds Esposito a joy to work with, he said via Skype interview. “He doesn’t detail every part of the page,” which “gives a lot of leeway.” Large armies and groups of people are especially enjoyable for Akkerman to draw, which he says there are a lot of within coming issues.

Issue #1 of this series, which is published digitally from publisher Monkeybrain on ComiXology for $0.99, released in July of 2013, followed by #2 in September, #3 and #4 in October, #5 in March of 2014 and #6 in August, representing an odd release schedule. This was identified as a problem when I spoke with Esposito, who explained a new strategy to get the book on track.

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Although the creative team has “some issues in the can,” their primary focus at the moment is getting the first six collected into a physical copy, said Esposito. Once that is taken care of, the team plans to put out issues digitally on a regular schedule, get those published physically, and so on and so forth.

“I think it’s important to get it in front of kids at book stores,” said Esposito.

It hasn’t been easy for Esposito to find a publisher; in fact, the pitching process is one of his biggest struggles as a creator, he said. He has pitched work to all sorts of publishers, all of which want their pitches done a certain, unique way, he explained.

Two upcoming projects he is writing pitches for are Ends of Olympus and Speakeasy. The first is a superhero comic inspired by Superman and his friend Jimmy Olson, predicated on the following scenario: What if Olson abused his friendship with Superman and became a greedy reality star obsessed with fame? An official description as well as a black-and-white preview is available here.

“This is the mature, gritty side of superheroes I love,” said Esposito,

The artist on the book, Drew Zucker, had nothing but good things to say about the project and Esposito.

“Joey pretty much gives me the freedom to do what I need to do visually,” said Zucker via Skype interview.

Joe Badon, the artist who does Speakeasy, said the same kind of stuff as the other artists.

“He’s a very agreeable guy and he likes to collaborate,” said Badon via Skype interview.

Speakeasy is something Esposito has only teased publicly as “Bladerunner meets Cheers,” along with the occasional panel. He is tightlipped on details despite two issues already being completely finished, because he doesn’t want to excite people for a book that doesn’t yet have a publisher, he explained.

He did provide me with these completed issues and, for what it’s worth, I found them to be very, very good. Esposito is playing with tried-and-true archetypes and clichés, but has put enough of a spin on things to make for a warm, easy read. I was initially concerned that Badon’s art wouldn’t work as sequentials, because the images Esposito teased on his Twitter seemed like the kind of well-produced, static images one usually finds on a cover. Thankfully, I found the finished work to be stupendous; the quality of art work is something I’d expect out of something from Image Comics.

Badon doesn’t like when he opens a comic to find art that looks much worse than the cover, he explained.

“I’ve always tried to make interior art as beautiful as I can,” he said.

Esposito allowed me to run some pages as a preview, which can be viewed at the bottom of this piece.

Thus far, neither book has found a publisher. These failings can frustrate Esposito, but he keeps positive.

“I think I’m gejoey4tting better. I’m working on it!” he said with a laugh.

After all, it’s not all bad. Esposito told me that his 2014 comic Pawn Shop has found a publisher, which will allow it to be sold physically in stores. This is a “slice-of-life” comic that tells the tale of four city-dwellers, all indirectly connected by a little pawn shop.

Pawn Shop is Esposito’s favorite work of his so far, even though “it’s definitely the black sheep,” he said. “It’s the kind of story that made me want to tell stories in the first place.”

Esposito seems to keep his head up and look forward. When I asked him what he’d ideally love to do, whether it be creator-owned projects or books for large publishers about established properties, he told me he “wants to do it all.”

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Exclusive Speakeasy Preview: 

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Review: Ragnarok #5

ragna5The fact that the upcoming Thor movie has the subtitle Ragnarok only makes the central gimmick of IDW’s Ragnarok, a comic written and drawn by beloved Thor writer/artist Walter Simonson about Thor himself, even more fun. Simonson’s knack for epic storytelling and kinetic, killer art work has worked out well for this series thus far. The latest issue is a good time, despite being one of the weakest entries so far. The world-building and characterization is still big and neat, but there is a lack of the action that made past issues especially shine.

In this issue, the God of Thunder sets off on his journey to find the Well of Wisdom in order to learn up on things after his leave of absence. Along the way, he has some interaction with some other unimportant characters that shows off this book’s flair for comedy and charm in the writing. The protagonist is powerful and seemingly unstoppable, which is played up for laughs at the expense of surrounding characters. This book is certainly a bit of a power fantasy.

That isn’t to say that there won’t be challenges for Thor, evident in the building up of a nefarious, imposing foe. It’s here that the art is at its best, with the hulking, fiery baddy atop his throne. The intense coloring gives off a bit of a glowing effect, and the page-long scene as a whole looks straight out of Hell.

Once Thor reaches the well, there is some solid, creepy interaction with a bit of a strange character. This scene sets up a generational connection between Thor and his father that adds legacy to this epic. Ending this issue is the obligatory vague preview for what’s to come in the form of a sort of prophecy. All of this manages to make everything generally grander, which is important for a high fantasy book like this.

This is a good issue that adds more meat to the tale Simonson is telling with some fun dialogue. It just isn’t as exciting as past issues without dedicated action.

Story and Art: Walter Simonson
Story: 7.0 Art: 7.75 Overall: 7.0 Recommendation: Read

IDW provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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Review: Deadly Class #13

DCLASS13Today, some of the most popular pieces of episodic entertainment embrace the concept that anything could happen. So much of the appeal of things like the massively-successful Walking Dead franchise manage to excite in large part thanks to the unpredictability each slab of content brings to the table. Deadly Class, one of the best comics that Image is currently publishing, is another piece of media that forces those who experience it to constantly remain on their toes, ready for the next big twist.

Suffice to say, writer Rick Remender began his letter column this issue by writing, “Let’s take a moment and let that sink in.” Deadly Class #13 is one of the most shocking and gut-wrenching issues yet with some killer art as well as some tragic and captivating character progression, even if it isn’t as profound or viscerally satisfying as this series’ best issues.

Case in point, the first half or so of this installment is nothing special in terms of plot, with dull and sparse narration along with a decent escape montage. Wes Craig’s art is as fantastic as always, with tons of boldly contrasting colors, a convincing sense of movement, and sharp detail. The dialogue is as raw and creepy as ever, as well. It’s not until Maria fully confronts the evil men from her past that this issue kicks into high gear, with depressing musings on revenge and some seriously sick action.

Once that scene is over, another begins that ultimately builds up to the excellent finale to this chapter. There is some amazing storytelling here, with a slow burn that only gets tenser and tenser as it progresses. With this issue, Remender has done a remarkable job of raising the stakes higher and higher, only to completely flip the expected ramifications of those stakes at the end. The pages that reveal the big twist take their time for maximum discomfort. It’s so good.

The best thing about Deadly Class is its horrifically dark narration, and that is in short order here. Still, Remender and Craig still tell a damn good story.

Story: Rick Remender Art: Wes Craig
Story: 8.0 Art: 8.75 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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