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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Mogworld and Jam: Yahtzee Double Feature

To explain that rather incoherent title: I started the Library of Alexander nearly a year ago after several times being told I was good at recommending books. I always like to tell people, as articulately as possible, the merits of books I have been reading, films I have been watching.

This little double feature is in recognition of the novels written by the individual by whose example I owe this project of mine: therefore, Mogworld and Jam, by Yahtzee Croshaw.

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Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is the authour of Escapist Magazine’s online video series, Zero Punctuation, where he reviews video games in a rapid-fire, vitriolic and breathtakingly vulgar fashion. If you’re a gamer or just appreciate clever and uproariously funny humour, do go watch a few, but best not to do it where your boss or your children will hear you!

More recently, Yahtzee has produced novels, deriving inspiration from his area of expertise – video games – and from the humorous style of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, authours whose work he is well-aquainted with.

First, Mogworld, the story of a young student of the magical arts named Jim. Killed during a war between his and a neighboring kingdom, he is unexpectedly resurrected, along with his crypt-mates, by a sorcerer and forced to endure a life, undying, as one of his workaday minions.

When a mysterious force descends on the castle and erases the sorcerer and his castle entirely, Jim and a few survivors flee, Jim trying to reconcile his survival instinct with his craving for demise, and together they’re caught up in a series of bizarre entanglements with blockheaded adventurers, mad cultists and bizarre entities that ends with the discovery that, in fact, the world in which they live is being mangled by overworked programmers trying to get the kinks out of their new Massive Online Game.

Mogworld is a study in Yahtzee’s brand of humour. Puns, snark and satire abound, and the sheer absurdity of the situation, from the civil-service way the zombies run the castle to the simple fact of the fantasy-undead-sorcerer protagonist named Jim, is all a massive send-up of fantasy in general and online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and Age of Conan in particular.

Jim and his much-resented companions wandering aimlessly into peril is highly amusing, and forms the links in a chain of themes about the concept of heroes as opposed to protagonists that comes up periodically, and the comedy of some of the basic nature of multiplayer games taken to its logical conclusion.

While a great showcase of Yahtzee’s sense of humour and grasp of gaming, the story holding it together is a bit muddled. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the big twist, that the whole story occurs in an MMO, is, as my revelation implies, declared up-front on the back cover. This makes the story lacking in any verve and turns it into essentially an elaborate joke book. The characters are sympathetic and have a charming arc, but it isn’t built as solidly as it might be as the plot seems to consist of trudging around a great deal. So it’s funny and clever but not as structured as might be.

Jam, coming out a year and a bit later, is best described by Yahtzee himself: “It’s about an apocalypse. With Jam in it!” It derives specifically from a reference Yahtzee made in a review of one of the many zombie apocalypse games he was called on to review:

“Honestly, at this point you people just won’t be able to cope if civilization ends any other way, will you? If the @#%*ing Daleks invade or the entire world gets covered in carnivorous jam, you’ll have to make papier-mache zombie facsimiles just to get through the day.”

He took this one of his many bizarre throwaway remarks and ran with it. Travis, an unemployed nerd and his roomate and neighbours wake up to find Brisbane covered in a layer of three-foot-deep strawberry jam, which devours any organic matter it comes in contact with. Thrown together with a pair of suspicious American military officers, they navigate the silent city and the sea of spread, tangle with the various deranged survivor cults that arise, and try and discover the origin of the jam and the fate of civilization.

Jam flat out fixes most of the shortcomings of Mogworld. The story has a clear direction, and the characters are more varied and have stronger arcs that reconcile humour with satirical realism. The humour is more precisely applied, whereas Mogworld seemed determine to cram a joke into every sentence, so I found myself laughing more often. The scenery is also more vivid, possibly because Yahtzee lives in Brisbane and doesn’t need to make it up, save only the jam.

The time with the survivor cults is funny but the plot gets bogged down in places, just making jokes for their own sake. They represent doldrums of the narrative which ultimately serve a purpose but often feel like asides.

In general, Mogworld and Jam both feel like great ideas with too little structure. Remove the extraneous stuff and both would end up being dreadfully short. Given Yahtzee’s manifestly busy life as gamer, reviewer and columnist, one suspects that he had limited time to dedicate to editing. With more time invested, Yahtzee could be the match of Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman.

Given my high regard for his work, it seems odd to find myself somewhat let down, but his own example is to always point out the flaws, the better to see them someday improved upon.

Both are fun, but unless you are a gamer, only Jam is likely to commend itself. It is, in any case, the better-written and conceived of the two, as well as being extremely funny, but unlike some of the Zero Punctuation videos, neither is burdened down with sexual innuendo or swearing. Definitely light, but definitely fun.

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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in Book

 

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Joker: A Comic Flop

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Creepiest. Cover. Ever.

Post-Christmas letdown and a rather dull January gives me the need to discuss something in that vein.

Yet another of my catches in trawling the seas of comics, especially Batman ones, I came upon one graphic novel that is entirely focused around none other than his most feared nemesis.Joker, by Brian Azzarello, takes the form of a noir crime story centred on one Johnny Frost, a small time gangster in Gotham City. Determined to be somebody in the city’s criminal circles, he boldly volunteers for the job everyone else dreads: he goes to pick up the Joker, who has somehow contrived his release from Arkham Asylum.

The Joker takes the ambitious Johnny on board as his wheel man, and from that position he gets to watch as Joker reclaims his slice of the Gotham underworld, culminating in a bloody and characteristically chaotic showdown with his rival, Two-Face, and finally the inevitable confrontation with the Dark Knight himself.

I like the noir storytelling style, with Frost narrating as if you ended up chatting with him in a dreary bar. It sets a good atmosphere of anxiety as he watches the Joker wreak bloody havoc on the city.

The Joker has always been the best-known Batman villain, and he became more iconic than ever since Heath Ledger’s absolutely staggering performance in the Dark Knight. This version of the Joker both looks like Ledger and is clearly cut from the same blood-soaked purple cloth.

Artist Lee Bermejo’s style is absolutely perfect. The Joker’s weather-beaten, deformed face is really disturbing, and the whole colour palette gives it the bleak noir/horror film mystique.

The story is an intimate look into the life and behaviour of this iconic lunatic. Different people have different ideas of exactly what makes the Joker tick. When I was a kid watching Batman: the Animated Series, it was making the whole city the punch line of a very lethal joke. In the Dark Knight he’s trying to make a grand point about what a joke civilized behaviour really is.

The thing is, this graphic novel doesn’t really give me any sense of what makes him tick, or if it does, it’s not terribly fascinating. The Joker kills lots of people, but his desire to do so is driven mainly by his reasserting control of the mob. Swap out the Joker for any old psychopathic mob boss and there’s really no big difference. The only particularly grotesque, above-and-beyond thing he does is flay a lackey alive, and that scene’s done and gone quickly enough.

I was expecting to get an in-depth examination into the monstrosity of the Joker. I wanted to see him play hideous mind games with jittery mobsters. I wanted to see him come up with deviously brilliant plots that you’re horrified to realize are funny when seen from that twisted point of view. I wanted to see him abuse Harley Quinn…

Wait, what? Okay, before anybody gets the wrong idea from that, I shall explain. I don’t want to see Harley Quinn abused. I want to see the Joker being abusive, if you see what I mean.

There is a brief scene where Harley (the Joker’s long time sidekick/girlfriend/punching bag) does a kind of reverse-striptease, very seductively putting on her signature costume. At first glance it creeped the heck out of me. I took it for a symbol of the Joker’s power to control and twist the people around him. I thought it would be the first step on watching their cycle of zanily murderous antics and gut-wrenching exploitation. While a definite case of Women in Refrigerators, it would have been a great demonstration of the horror in the Joker’s character. But Harley never even talks, or does anything else. She’s just window-dressing.

The point is that the effect the Joker has on the people around him is a key way to characterize him, but not much of that happens. There’s nothing about this guy that says ‘I’m the Joker’ except his appearance. He doesn’t even laugh much. He’s just some guy. A mob boss with an itchy trigger finger and a really bad complexion.

Joker, therefore, is like someone built a beautiful Halloween Haunted House and then forgot to put in any decorations, special effects or scary props. The visuals are superb, but the story they’re used to build is unremarkable, the dialogue is boring, and the characterization, which seemed like the main point of the story, is dreadfully shallow for the central character and virtually nonexistent for everybody else.

I have to ask, Joker: why so serious?

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Graphic Novel

 

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