Saturday, December 27, 2014

Digger (graphic novel)

Digger, Ursula Vernon, Sofawolf Press, Graphic Novel/Webcomic, 850 pages, November 15, 2013. 

Synopsis: Digger Is a story about a wombat.

More specifically, it is a story by author and artist Ursula Vernon about a particularly no-nonsense wombat who finds herself stuck on the wrong end of a one-way tunnel in a strange land where nonsense seems to be the specialty. Now, with the help of a talking statue of a god, an outcast hyena, a shadow-being of indeterminate origin, and an oracular slug she seeks to find out where she is and how to go about getting back to her Warren.

My thoughts: If you've not heard of Digger already, don't be daunted by the page count. This is due to it being a webcomic, but I promise it has a definite beginning and end. If you're like me, you'll wish there were another 850 pages once you've concluded it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Digger is an epic, in essence. It details the adventure of the titular wombat "Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels", or Digger for short. Interestingly, Ursula Vernon began it with the intention of scrapping it after a few pages. She warned readers to not become attached, but few could help it, not even her. Digger was a charming character, despite her gruff and practical attitude. She was snarky and knew how to turn a phrase. Vernon's strength in characters reveals itself quickly. Digger, Ed, Grim-Eyes, Bone-Mother, and many other adventurers endear themselves to the reader, and I was extremely sad to say farewell.

In 2012, Digger won a Hugo Award for the Best Graphic Story, which independent stories such as this webcomic hardly win. There is good reason for this choice, though. With such a large scope, and writing as she went, Vernon did a magnificent job of tying themes together and wrapping up the entire story well. Such themes include divine status, logic, sense & order, and traditions.

The graphic style that Vernon draws is beautiful in its own way. Inspired by other dramatic, monochrome artists such as Jeff Smith (Bone), she prefers sketch-like drawings, but in an earthy way. This works very well, and I loved the artwork. She rendered her Characters well, and I loved their expressions.

These points aside, Vernon still had the challenge of making this world at least somewhat relatable. It's acceptable to write a world filled with nonsense, but that gets out of hand quickly and loses appeal. Digger was the shining light of reason for us. She was in the same position we were: stranded in a foreign land where many strange things occur. She must make sense of things, as wombats are fond of doing, and thus arranges the world in a way we can understand. As time goes on, the story makes complete sense after all. What makes it doubly as effective is that all characters residing there don't regard it as nonsense. They already understand, it's natural to them. This helps to endear them to readers, and sets up for communicating the great epic that takes place.

There is reason behind my review being vague on plot details, and it is that you should come across everything for the first time when reading Digger. It's safe for all ages, but I would say that older readers (16+) would have a better grasp on what's happening. If you enjoy graphic novels and/or heroic stories, please make time to read this. You will be glad you did, in my opinion. There is the free webcomic online, and also print editions of the episodes and an omnibus.

My rating: 5 stars

Read Digger online
Buy the Omnibus

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On the recent absence

Please forgive me for not updating Heavenward Reviews for the past few weeks. The end of the semester demanded my attention, and plans for getting home as well. Now it's the holidays, so this coming Friday I should have a new review up. If you're reading this, thank you for sticking with me.


Friday, November 28, 2014

ibb & obb (video game)

ibb & obb, Sparpweed, Puzzle Platformer, Indie, Co-op, May 26, 2014.

Synopsis: ibb & obb is a two player cooperative game set in a puzzle filled world where gravity goes both up and down. You can only succeed by working closely together. Find a friend for some true local co-op couch fun or match up online.

My thoughts: Are you looking for another fun puzzle game? As a fan of the genre myself, I can say I look often. This game stood out for it's art style, co-op, and simplicity.

When it comes to puzzle platformers, ibb & obb uses a recently popular mind-bending alteration on physics. Many of its peer platformers have also used dual or mirrored characters, but not quite in this same way. In those, you the player are able to control both. Here, each character must fend for himself, but also cooperate to succeed. It has taken cues from the co-op element of Portal, but is still self-contained.

While I typically don't enjoy platformers in the genre, this was an exception. Simplicity is key, and the developers executed it very well. It doesn't remain the same throughout, and there is clear progression in the art, but it's always minimal, clean, and fresh. The smooth dream-like artistry behind it, including the music, is excellent and I applaud it.

There is hardly any story, which is fine with this game, and what exists is only shown visually, and you are up to interpret it. It's not as integral, but makes for a neat dynamic if you think about it. I think this part could be developed further. While it's clean, and I like that, it's not overly progressed. It appears, and then goes nowhere. Because of this, it doesn't stick with you long after you play. It's good and lovely mental and cooperative exercise, but not much more.

The puzzle difficulty is variable, and you can choose to pursue more challenging ones that don't hinder you from the main drive. Co-op makes this a lot of fun, as you decipher these physics traps together. It's a good communication and team-building exercise also. It certainly delivers on mental puzzlers, and if you enjoy them, I recommend it to you.

My rating: 85/100

Official Site

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dear Esther (video game)

Dear Esther, The Chinese Room, Exploration, First-Person, Narrative, February 14, 2012.

Synopsis: Forget the normal rules of play; if nothing seems real here, it’s because it may just be all a delusion. What is the significance of the aerial -- What happened on the motorway -- is the island real or imagined -- who is Esther and why has she chosen to summon you here? The answers are out there, on the lost beach, the windswept cliffs and buried in the darkness of the tunnels beneath the island… Or then again, they may just not be, after all…

My thoughts: In recent years, there has been a notable rift in video game styles. Some excel, some flop, and some are financially successful despite their quality. This rift nearly always has to do with "story," which is integral to game success. Story is necessary to establish timeless association, connection with a game. This is why games with good story release well-received and remain well-received.

Now, story must be visually presented in a video game. Retro games prove that absolute best resolution isn't necessary for good story. At the same time, however, poor visual presentation will cloud and possibly ruin the story. They must be in tandem. Now to my point. Dear Esther provides both visuals and story in extremely fine beauty, and sets you free to explore it. Set against moody oceanic weather, open to explore the island, and surrounded by Jessica Curry's haunting, exquisite soundtrack, this is an experience you'll never forget. Storytelling comes in a whole new fashion here, and I absolutely loved it.

If you don't enjoy first-person exploration games, or narrative-driven games, this might not be your cup of tea, but I would suggest watching the trailer, and if you like what you see, please play. If not, the soundtrack is available separately, and is definitely worth listening to in full.

My only criticism of this game would be that it seems too short. I was finished in about 2 hours, and for some it would take just over an hour. There is new narrative to find by replaying, and I will definitely do it again soon, but I wanted to stay immersed in that world much longer.

There is no adult content of any sort, that I have run across or heard mention of, or violence. The only reason I'd suggest it for 16+ years is that anyone younger would have a difficult time understanding the story. I highly recommend this game.

My rating: 94/100

Official Site
Buy Dear Esther
Listen to the Dear Esther soundtrack

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Boxers & Saints (graphic novels)

Boxers & Saints, Gene Luen Yang, First Second, Graphic Novel, 512 pages, September 10, 2013.

Synopsis: In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.
But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

My thoughts: It is rare to find a story set in historical account in the fashion that Luen Yang presents. He drives to the heart of the Boxer Rebellion, the people. Specifically Little Bao, from his youth to where the rebellion begins. He explains what could incite such a group to take up arms, in the mere visual story. The visual art seems to be simple, but conveys a lot more than you would first suspect.

Clean lines, vibrant colors, and striking expressions may lead you to think that these novels were created for younger readers. And while they do appeal visually, the topic is a very serious one. Gene Luen Yang does not let the dramatic presentation get in the way. On the contrary, he uses it to drive the story. Chinese story is rooted in this presentation, including the puppet shows Little Bao loved as a child. The bright colors and exaggerated expressions pay homage to Chinese dramatic history. He uses this style to represent both sides, which I find interesting.

In the second volume, Luen Yang presents the other side of the rebellion: the victims. This is a valuable addition, balancing out the story as a whole. Neither side is completely virtuous in this story, and as such both sides had to be presented. In the second title, the similar visual style signifies something important. While Vibiana, the opposite protagonist, was a Christian, she was just as much Chinese. It did not remove her heritage, her association with her people, her country. This visual style, representing Chinese tradition, still applied to her. It was still her history.

In conclusion, Boxers & Saints presents a valuable window into a historical event many Americans are not well aware of, and what it means to exert influence rather than simply communicate. I recommend it to anyone interested in dramatic story, Christian ministry, or historical China.

My rating: 5 stars

Buy Boxers & Saints

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mother, Come Home (graphic novel)

Mother, Come Home, Paul Hornschemeier, Fantagraphics, Graphic Novel, 128 pages, May 5, 2009.

Synopsis: Mother, Come Home quietly studies the inner lives of recently widowed David and his 7-year-old son, Thomas; both are unable to deal with their grief directly. Thomas, protected by a lion’s mask that his mother gave him, constructs an identity for himself as “the groundskeeper”: ritual and routine, already important to children that age, become paramount to him. He struggles desperately to keep up appearances while his father, a professor of symbolic logic, becomes lost in abstractions. Father and son begin to retreat into their fantasies, but only one emerges.

My thoughts: If you have any interest in reading the graphic medium, this story is an essential one. Please be aware it is a dark subject, but this is what people have to experience at times. It is the story of a son and father who have lost their mother/wife. It is not a daring fight against evil, or the neighborhood kids whiling away summer days. The characters have been deeply changed, and are fighting to regain any parts of themselves they can still find.

While I am still learning more about the graphic novel medium, Mother, Come Home stood out among those I've read. The art style lands far closer to Will Eisner's command of the page, and draws you into the surreal, then stark world you accompany Thomas in. Hornschemeier uses an ornate, tragic palette, and attention to Thomas' focus. Through these the reader understands just how Thomas feels.

Death is a tragic event. It changes everyone it touches. Now, Thomas must survive. I highly recommend this story, because there are others who must survive.

My rating: 5 stars

Buy Mother, Come Home

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Stubborn Fool (music)

Stubborn Fool - Brother Oliver - Americana - October 16, 2014

Track Listing

  1. A Change of Scenery
  2. Coffee and a Cigarette
  3. Can You Feel the Dissonance?
  4. Stubborn Fool (Album Version)
  5. Headwater
  6. What Will Be Will Be
  7. Burn It Down to the Ground
  8. Interlude
  9. This Creature Inside Me
  10. Hey Hey Look Around
  11. Old Soul
  12. Let That Old River Run

My Review

It doesn’t take fame and record-breaking sales to produce good music, and Brother Oliver is proof of this. Having only recently arrived on the Americana scene, duo artists Andrew and Stephen Oliver have gained a lot of attention with their debut LP, Stubborn Fool.

Hailing from Michigan, they stir the air with rooted vocals/instruments and potent themes. Andrew’s ephemeral voice pairs well with his intentional acoustic harmonies. Sometimes mixing in pointed brass, minimal percussion, or other textured instruments, they manage to give each song its own voice. At times, Andrew layers his voice over, illustrating a dichotomy within himself: the theme behind this album.

Stubborn Fool quite honestly delves into his (and our) conflict with sin nature. According to the artist: “The weasel on the cover symbolizes the flesh, the inclination in us all to hate and fear.” This candid exploration thankfully has a course, and is balanced well, for the most part, over the course of the album.

There are four chapters, each preceded by an instrumental diorama. “A Change of Scenery” opens the first of these, which identifies the conflict between us and our sin nature. “Coffee and a Cigarette,” the first vocal track, serves as a fit prologue to this exploration. “Can You Feel the Dissonance?” jumps right in to the dichotomous theme, and involves the listener by asking the uncomfortable title question. “One seeks for answers in a deep and dark abyss. One takes his chances on a calculated risk. Can you feel the dissonance?” “Stubborn Fool (Album Version)” takes a personal turn, referencing resulting actions rather than internal conflicts alone. It makes sense that this track should take focus in the album. “This old man’s a stubborn fool...there’s a little bit of him in me and me in him, I cannot hide it.”

The second chapter, heralded by “Headwater,” attempts to reach the root of the problem, in order to resist the flesh. “What Will Be Will Be” begins as a plea (“God please speak to me. I’m having trouble listening.”) and finishes as an intriguing altercation between reassurance and self-pity. Now, I’ll admit that “Burn it Down to the Ground” is still making me wonder about what it’s saying. At this point, I believe he comes to terms with his flesh and takes up the fight against it. It could be that I’m daft, but I like music that makes me think long after it plays. This album definitely qualifies. Irregardless, this track has meaningful setting and actions, which I appreciate.

The third chapter begins in the odder, light-hearted instrumental piece “Interlude”. It is placed well, giving a moment to reflect and relax before moving on with the story. However, the following tracks muddy up the division of the story. In “This Creature Inside Me,” he has definitely resisted, and recognizes his sin nature as needing to be separate. “I just wish that this creature inside me, would stay at a distance.” This would have been better placed in the previous chapter, leaving only three chapters. The next track takes on a different voice, and this is where the third chapter ought to begin. “Hey Hey Look Around” speaks directly to the audience. “Free your mind from the space that you take up. We’re in love with ourselves in need of a break up.” “Old Soul” is a moody instrumental piece that fits right in the middle without needing to announce a chapter. It precedes the end, which is quite fitting. The finale has become my favorite, because of the subject material. “Let That Old River Run” is about grace. If you take anything away from this album, this song is the key to it. The whole story leads to this conclusion, and it is a delight. “Let go of what you've done and let that old river run.”

My Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (film)

Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios, James Gunn

Synopsis: Light years from Earth, 26 years after being abducted Peter Quill finds himself the prime target of a manhunt after discovering an orb wanted by Ronan the Accuser.

My thoughts: Here arrives the latest Marvel installment. Not the next sequel, prequel, or tie-in, but a new team. One part Terran, four parts alien. People have called this a filler story, but it's actually much more. It's a key move in the direction of Marvel's Phase 3, and it's a heck of a ride, mistakes notwithstanding.

James Gunn had the tough task of introducing all 5 characters well enough, but still leaving screen time for plenty of spacey action. While he did so, he altered some origin story details, and this bothered me. Being a Rocket Raccoon fan, I have read his original appearances. He wasn't precisely "experimented on," and this may end up cheapening his story in the Marvel film universe. But it could be possible he doesn't remember exactly what happened, and assumes. Considering this, they might be perfectly in line, which I'm hoping for, but it's looking grim.

Old Ranger Rocket was designed and voiced wonderfully. I knew going in he would be my favorite character, but they captured him just right, apart from his origin. In the coming film, I hope they heavily feature the other guardians also, notably Drax. I never felt Drax or Gamora's characters shine through, except when they were exploited for humor. I didn't feel much for their losses, cheer them on when they got the upper hand, etc.

Groot was likewise amazing. His balance between gentle giant and brute warrior was spot-on. :SPOILER: I loved everything about him, until Gunn made a Hollywood-like move with his last words, "We are Groot". Why not throw away years of history and suddenly add a fourth word to his vocabulary? Because it needed to be a tender moment? The comics achieved that quite a lot without compromising the character. :END SPOILER: This was my biggest disappointment with the film.

Starlord, Peter Quill, was the most complicated character of the film, but a bit less rounded. He's an 80's-loving, artifact-thieving, and wise-cracking momma's boy. We see his fun side, and his tender side, but I don't think his motivations were fully expressed. They're there, but could be deeper. While I enjoyed Chris Pratt's portrayal, I think it could have used a bit more cooking.

Now for the plot. A fun-loving outlaw steals a valuable object, high-up baddies pursue him doggedly, and he must side with the law to save the galaxy. The way this plays out, and how they end up doing the saving, seemed very nearly cliched and Hollywood-like to me. While it was intense, that's what I see in it.

The action and tactical genius exhibited by the group was highly entertaining, Rocket of course being the mastermind behind most of it. If you're looking for intense fight scenes set to awesome 80's rock and roll, this delivers right to your door.

As a note before I finish, there's a lot of good with this film, and I'm mostly highlighting the bad. Go see it for yourself, because I don't want to spoil much, and I'd have to in order to show you just how good. Trust me in that Marvel continues to do humor well, also. Don't let the heavy critique worry you. If you plan to see it, and I recommend that you do, know there is some mild language and intense scenes of violence. Here ends the critical part of my review.


I would like to discuss the implications of this film in the future of the Marvel film universe. Guardians of the Galaxy takes place far from Earth, but there are a few tethers to the story. First, there's Peter Quill, who originates from there. Second, this isn't the first time we've seen The Collector. He appears to be collecting the Infinity Stones, which appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger, then in Thor 2. This makes 3 of the 6 found. And a third tether is of course Thanos, who appeared briefly at the end of The Avengers.

Now, I will make a few predictions here. Phase One of the Marvel film saga led all the way up to The Avengers. So we can safely say the climax of that phase was the Chitauri invasion led by Loki. Phase Two is still being released, but with the Guardians in theaters, the only film we have to wait for now is the climax, Avengers: Age of Ultron. This will conclude the phase, and very likely change the game for the future, just like several of the films in this round. Phase Three begins with Ant-Man, immediately bringing in a new character, instead of waiting until the end like in this phase. I believe this phase will be a longer one than the last two, since three stones have yet to be discovered.

Now, if the first big threat was Loki leading an alien fleet against New York, and the second is Ultron, which we'll see very soon, what could follow these? Only Thanos, the biggest baddie of them all. And since both the Avengers and the Guardians have a huge beef with him, it stands to reason that the crossover rumors are going to be true after all, with even more possible attendees. It's going to be a huge throwdown. And I can't wait to see Rocket in the middle of it all.

I was given early access to see the film by Walt Disney Studios. I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions here are my own.

My rating: 8 stars.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Medici Boy

The Medici Boy, John L'Heureux, Astor Blue Editions, Historical Fiction, 328 pages, April 7, 2014.

Synopsis: The worlds of art, politics and passion collide in John L’Heureux’s masterful new novel, The Medici Boy. With rich composition, L’Heureux ingeniously transports the reader to Donatello’s Renaissance Italy—directly into his bottega, (workshop), as witnessed through the eyes of Luca Mattei, a devoted assistant.

While creating his famous bronze of David and Goliath, Donatello’s passion for his enormously beautiful model and part time rent boy, Agnolo, ignites a dangerous jealousy that ultimately leads to murder. Luca, the complex and conflicted assistant, will sacrifice all to save Donatello, even his master’s friend--the great patron of art, Cosimo de’ Medici.

My thoughts: The Medici Boy was a conflicting read for me. There is a very clear mastery in the book. Firstly, of first-person writing, the use of which was well justified, I found. L'Heureux wrote more showing than telling. He also mastered the feel of Renaissance Florence, and Donatello's workshop. Many writers could learn from the simple, stripped down focus and immersion he brings to the reader.

As for the historical aspect, everything is kept in accurate reference, and aligns very well with the time period and sequence of events. But it is this accuracy that brings up the controversy. Sodomy frequented the streets of Italy, despite being a severe crime. Near the start of the book, graphic detail becomes overbearing and unnecessary, in my opinion, and is brought up too often later on as well. Yes, this book concerns the forbidden, but there were still unnecessary sequences that put me off. The other part of the historical accuracy concerned the artwork of Donatello, his processes of creating it, and the political patronage who supported it: Cosimo de' Medici. This is the part I enjoyed the most; I was able to see the Italian Renaissance workshop beauty and atmosphere.

I loved how this was a simple story about a simple, yet privileged man. There were no world-altering events, drastic secrets revealed, or wildest dreams realized. It was the life and story of a man who had the privilege of knowing Donatello, and what he did with it.

One aspect that readers have reported having trouble with is associating with the characters, Luca especially. I, on the other hand, think that the characters were well illustrated, but Luca was illustrated through the others. If you remember, this is a recounting of events by Luca himself. He wouldn't write excessively about himself, being from that era. Like many other real authors, his writings would reveal himself through others he wrote about. I respect L'Heureux for taking advantage of this. There were a few times, though, where current novel style showed through, from Luca's hinting at future events. This detracted from the atmosphere of the time period, as I doubt this would be done in such a memoir as often as he did it.

In conclusion, I don't recommend this to anyone uncomfortable with the topic of sodomy, as it plays a large part in this novel, as it did historically. But, if you can stomach this, the era immersion is wonderful, and so are the characters.

*This book was provided free by the publisher and Blue Dot Literary. I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions expressed are my own.*

My rating: 4 stars