The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins

By Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch | Published by First Second

I’m a newcomer to The Adventure Zone podcast (only 24 episodes in at this point, so no spoilers, please!) but quickly fell deeply in love with it. My timing was good, actually, because it just about coincided with the release of the graphic novel based on the first arc of the podcast’s first season (also known as the Balance campaign). Initially, I thought I’d simply enjoy the graphic novel instead of reviewing it because the podcast is so important to me. It’s been a really tough year and The Adventure Zone made me laugh and gave me something new to feel enthusiastic about, and for that I will be forever grateful. Happily, however, the print adaptation is just so damned good that I find I have to talk about it!

The Adventure Zone started as a special episode of the McElroy brothers’ long-running and much beloved podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me, but proved so popular that it became a series in its own right. Summed up by eldest brother Justin McElroy as “the story of four idiots that played D&D so hard that they made themselves cry,” it’s the story of a human fighter named Magnus (created by Travis), an elf wizard named Taako (created by Justin), and a dwarf cleric named Merle (created by the boys’ father, Clint) who find themselves working for an organization that’s trying to round up and dispose of dangerous magical relics. They’re guided by youngest brother Griffin, who serves as Dungeon Master and portrays a fantastic array of NPCs. The improvisatory results are hilarious, profane, and wonderfully endearing. And, eventually, capable of evoking tears, though I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I love that the family known for a goofy advice podcast started The Adventure Zone as a lark and ended up creating something genuinely moving.

The graphic novel adaptation is not a word-for-word copy of the podcast. Most of the out-of-character moments have been omitted, and what remains almost reads purely as a fantasy story, except that Griffin occasionally pops in to request perception checks or give out inspiration points, which reminds readers that there are unseen players behind the characters on the page. It’s a neat way to focus on the world the McElroys created without completely shutting them out of it. Some of the dialogue is different (though many favorite quips have made the cut) and some of the names are different (licensing issues, one assumes) and a couple of pivotal events play out a bit differently, but the feeling is the same.

Plot-wise, at this point in the story the trio of adventurers is doing a job for Merle’s cousin, Bogard, who has hired them to convey some of his belongings to another town. Along the way, they come upon evidence that Bogard and his bodyguard, Barry Bluejeans, have been abducted by gerblins. Now our heroes must save them! Along the way, they discover a mine renowned for its mystical ore, an evil drow named Magic Brian who is after something particular that our heroes can’t seem to make out, and an orc woman named Killian who is so impressed by their skills that she takes them to meet her employer. Also, Taako gets a cool umbrella staff! (Really, Taako is the best.)

What’s neat is that, given that the McElroys started working on the adaptation after the Balance campaign concluded, they’re able to add some foreshadowing along the way, like a certain character’s cameo appearance or a seemingly very significant pause when Killian’s boss sees the guys for the first time. (I haven’t finished Balance, so I don’t know what this is foreshadowing, but I’m sure it’s something!) Too, Carey Pietsch’s art (so fun and expressive throughout) includes some in-jokes for McElroy fans, the most adorable travel montage ever, and a dramatic reveal that literally gave me goosebumps. I especially appreciated getting to actually see Magnus engage in various foolhardy exploits. This volume ends with a teaser for the adaptation of the next arc—Murder on the Rockport Limited—and I’m really looking forward to seeing how Pietsch depicts Magnus’ more inspired feats from that adventure.

Ultimately, I’d say that the podcast is funnier, whereas the graphic novel presents a more cohesive story. Both are fantastic, and I recommend them heartily. Lastly, I’ll close with this excellent fan film made using audio from the podcast. If you’re not familiar with The Adventure Zone, this will give you an idea of the lovable silliness that awaits.

Nancy Drew: The New Case Files, Vols. 1-2

By Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Sho Murase | Published by Papercutz

You might wonder why I read a couple of Nancy Drew graphic novels, but when I tell you that these volumes comprise parts one and two of an arc called “Vampire Slayer,” perhaps you will understand. It was the unlikely union of Nancy Drew and Buffy—and yes, said show is specifically referenced in the endnotes—that compelled me and my compatriots at Triple Take to make this our pick for this month. I admit I didn’t expect to like this very much, but the story turned out to be even more blah than I was anticipating.

Here’s the premise: Nancy and friends Bess and George are on their way to see the hot new movie, Dielight. If they arrive in costume, they get a discount, so when they are chased by a pointy-toothed guy in the cemetery (is it supposed to be a fun twist when it’s revealed that he’s actually running from Nancy’s dog?) they assume he’s headed there, as well. He doesn’t show up for the film, but Nancy spots a mysterious-looking cloaked figure lurking alone in the back of the theatre.

Afterwards, tooth dude pops up again and introduces himself as Gregor Coffson. He is super intrigued by the fact that Nancy is a detective and asks her out, prompting this oh-so-hilarious exchange:

Nancy: Thanks… I’m flattered, but I already have a Ned… I mean… boyfriend.

Gregor: So?

Ned: Hi. I’m boyfriend. I mean Ned.

Gregor: Oh.

Oh boy am I ever rolling on the floor now. *eyeroll*

Anyway, things don’t improve very much from here. Gregor indicates that he has a secret, but he won’t divulge it until he is sure that he can trust Nancy. And because Nancy is a big nosypants, she ends up hanging out with him all the time, oblivious to Ned’s growing jealousy. At first I was pleased that Ned was confident that Nancy would not cheat on him, but that doesn’t last long and he soon begins throwing jealous hissy fits. Gregor’s secret turns out to be totally lame—someone’s stalking him because they think he’s a vampire—and so does the resolution of the story.

Ultimately, the adjective that most comes to mind when describing this story is “lazy.” In addition to the fact that Gregor’s secret is a letdown and Ned’s reaction predictable, there are other signs of shoddy craftsmanship. Gregor claims not to have a cell phone, but then how is he receiving threatening text messages from his stalker? The big reveal (spoilers, if you care) that the stalker is actually Gregor’s long-lost sister Garina is torpedoed when Nancy refers to the girl as Garina several pages before the existence of Gregor’s twin even comes up. And I’d swear that one scene of Gregor and Nancy sitting at a table was simply copied and pasted from one place to another, with only a slight adjustment of Gregor’s arm and the application of some green tint to Nancy’s shirt to differentiate them.

Probably they thought that only kids would read this and no one would notice, but kids deserve effort and originality, too. About the best thing I can say about this is that Nancy’s friend, George, is appealingly androgynous. She should get her own series.

Additional reviews can be found at Triple Take.

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: A-

From the back cover:
Flung far across the universe, from star to star, faced with monsters, magicians, and maybe new friends… an Earth girl named Zita must find a way home.

I’m always impressed by children’s fiction that doesn’t underestimate its audience, especially stories with multiple plot threads that wind up stitching together in a way that’s both surprising and perfect. Holes by Louis Sachar is the best example of this that I can think of, but Zita the Spacegirl does an admirable job, too.

One sunny afternoon, Zita and her friend Joseph discover a smoking hole in a field where something fell to Earth. Despite fretful Joseph’s entreaties, Zita clambers down and discovers a big, tempting red button. She pushes it, as you do, and a portal materializes. Strange tendrils snake out and grab Joseph before the portal zaps shut. Though she flees initially, Zita is unable to leave Joseph to his fate, and so summons the portal once more, jumping into it herself. There’s no dialogue throughout this section, which employs some excellent nonverbal storytelling to convey Zita’s state of mind as she steels herself to do what she must.

She winds up on a strange world full of bizarre creatures and peculiar robots. Some are adorable, like the Miyazaki-esque grass-clod critter, and some are sweet, like the hulking and clay-like Strong-Strong, who carries her away from a robot altercation. In quick succession, she spots Joseph being whisked away, the button is stepped on, and she meets Piper, an unscrupulous inventor who offers to repair the button. After perusing a book of creatures (which contains an entry for “dozers,” which simply must be an homage to the doozers of Fraggle Rock) to identify Joseph’s captors, Piper points her in the right direction for a rescue and pretty much washes his hands of her.

Along the way, Zita is joined by a variety of creatures and encounters still more. First is Mouse, the giant mouse Piper travels with, but she later runs into a mobile battle orb called One, meets a rickety and timid robot calling himself Randy, and is reunited with Strong-Strong. All of these critters are loyal to Zita, who is smart and brave and emotive, and defend her against mechanized predators and turncoats alike. The plot is clever and satisfying, but it’s actually the bond between Zita and her friends that’s the best part of the story, and I was happy that she didn’t need to part with them all just yet.

Although I did like Zita the Spacegirl very much, a couple of things bugged me. First, the existence of how the button came to be is not explained. It’s powered by a missing part from Randy, so… did someone take that power source, affix it to a button, and send it to Earth specifically to transport Joseph? I think that they probably did, but it’s never outright specified. Also, One tells Zita she’s “many thousands of light years from home.” How does he know that? Does he recognize she’s from Earth? Are humans regular space travelers on this planet? What year is it supposed to be in Zita’s timeline, anyway? Probably these are the sorts of questions only a stodgy grown-up would ask so I should loosen up already.

Hatke’s art is beautifully suited to the story. As I mentioned, he does a terrific job conveying actions and character emotions through nonverbal storytelling, something I am always a huge fan of. All of the color is lovely, and he does some really nice things with light, from the warmth of a sunny scene to a brilliant beam in a climactic moment. Additionally, the creature designs are quite imaginative; I think I will always remember the little scavenger bot who emits a little heart when it spies a bit of scrap that suits its fancy.

In the end, Zita the Spacegirl is a thoroughly charming story that any kid would probably enjoy. Even better, the cliffhanger ending and author’s acknowledgments promise “many more” adventures for our plucky heroine. Count me in!

Additional reviews of Zita the Spacegirl can be found at Triple Take.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Dreaming Collection by Queenie Chan: B+

From the back cover:
Where dreams turn into living nightmares… Behind the gates of the exclusive Australian boarding school, Greenwich Private College, wait beautiful Victorian architecture, an excellent education, and a terrible secret: students have been known to wander into the surrounding bushlands and vanish… without a trace! Mysterious forces are at work, and as the rigorous atmosphere of the school starts to slowly crumble around them, twin sisters Amber and Jeanie are about to learn that the key to the school’s dark past may lie in the world of their dreams…

Due to unexplained family circumstances leading to the departure of their father for Singapore and the sale of the family home, twin sisters Amber and Jeanie find themselves shuffled off to Greenwich Private College, where their aunt works as headmistress. Said aunt promptly heads off to a symposium and funeral, leaving her nieces to get used to the place on their own. Before she leaves, she cautions the girls to hide the fact that they’re twins, since the Vice Principal is really weird about that.

Pretty quickly Amber and Jeanie begin hearing rumors about disappearances at the school, and the weird dreams they begin sharing, together with a mysterious sealed room and a bizarre series of paintings, suggest that there may be some truth to the legends. After a clandestine midnight party involving a séance, one classmate (Millie) goes missing, and Amber starts acting strangely. Jeanie begins to investigate the earlier vanishings, assisted by a young teacher whose roommate disappeared eleven years ago, and gradually uncovers what’s been going on.

As I read, I kept feeling like I was playing one of those first-person adventure video games like Dark Fall, where one explores the deserted building where one’s brother was last seen and looks for clues to his disappearance. The fact that the school is set in the middle of the Australian bush, and is quickly isolated by torrential rains and flooded roads, only reinforces the feeling. The interiors of the school are lovely; I wish there actually was a game based on this series, because I’d love to be able to wander about the place.

There are some minor things I could complain about. Amber is occasionally kind of annoying, one classmate pops up a couple of times only to dispense important information, and Jeanie fails to realize that tugging on the cloth under a candelabra is going to make it fall over and start a fire. Also, one of the best moments is when some of the vanished girls suddenly emerge from the bush to surround the school, looking for all the world like they’ve simply been caught out in the rain in their nightgowns. Jeanie implores her classmates not to let them in and then… we don’t hear about them again for quite some time.

Still, one sure way for a graphic novel of any kind to win my heart is to maintain a certain creepy atmosphere, and The Dreaming accomplishes this admirably. From the first volume to the last, Chan never allows the suspense to flag, and though there are a couple of points about which I’m a little fuzzy, the conclusion hangs together very well. The fate of the twins is especially intriguing, and I have some questions I’d love to discuss with someone else who’s read it. (Seriously, let me know if you’re interested!) In fact, some of the best elements of the story, especially the common ground between the present set of twins and the last set to inhabit the school, are things that I’m determined not to spoil.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Dreaming this much, but I have to say that it has quite effectively deposed Nightschool as my favorite OEL series. I can see myself rereading it again in the near future.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books 3 by Svetlana Chmakova: B+

Nightschool’s first two volumes introduced us to two groups of characters, the first being teen witch Alex Treveney and the denizens of the night school in which she enrolled to search for her missing sister, Sarah, and the second being a team of young “hunters” who are looking for Alex after she unwittingly injured several of their number. In volume three, the way in which these two groups will combine starts to take shape.

With the help of one of the few people at school who still remembers Sarah—and a nifty, nicely depicted scrying spell—Alex catches a glimpse of her sister’s fate. More significant, however, is a partial explanation for Alex’s occasional bursts of magical violence. The origin of this power ties in with a member of the hunter crew, and suddenly things start to make a lot more sense. I’ll always be happy to get answers to mysteries, but even better is just enough of an answer to feel like satisfying progress has been made while opening up even more potential directions for the story to travel. Chmakova handles this adeptly, and I find I’m even more excited to find out what happens now that I actually have a grip on what’s currently happening.

The one drawback to this series is that, for those following the story in the collected volumes, as opposed to its monthly serialization in Yen Plus, there’s a six-month wait until the next installment. Ideally, one would stockpile all of the volumes until the finale then gobble them up all at once, but when something is this good it’s hard to summon that kind of patience.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs: B

From the front flap:
Poignant, funny, and utterly original, Ethel & Ernest is Raymond Briggs’s loving depiction of his parents’ lives from their chance first encounter in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s.

Ethel and Ernest were solid members of the English working class, part of the generation that lived through the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. Briggs’s portrayal of how his parents succeeded, or failed, in coming to terms with the events of their rapidly shifting world is irresistibly engaging, full of sympathy and affection, yet clear-eyed and unsentimental.

I’m pretty sure Ethel & Ernest is the first nonfiction comic I’ve read, but it’s definitely a nice medium for telling a story like this one, which depicts the evolving relationship between Ethel and Ernest, the parents of creator Raymond Briggs, as they meet, marry, encounter newfangled gadgets, digest political prognostications, have a son, grow old, and pass away.

Briggs never outright tells us much about his parents, but rather shows it through their interactions. His mother is older than his father, for one thing, votes for a different party and considers herself to be middle class and proper. Ernest votes Labour and is inclined to think of himself as working class, and is occasionally chastised by his wife for the uncouth things he says. Still, they clearly get on well, and Briggs paints their eccentricities lovingly.

My main complaint about Ethel & Ernest is that it seems to move too quickly. It focuses on acknowledging historically significant moments and inventions, with a few personal milestones thrown in, and doesn’t really focus much on their day-to-day life or feature scenes that last any longer than a couple of pages. It works as a quick retrospective of their life, but not as deep and moving a one as it could have been.

I liked what was there, but I wanted more. Perhaps that’s the American in me, and even this is far more than a Brit from that era would’ve dreamed of sharing, but it seems I could’ve loved these characters if given the chance, but instead I only sort of mildly enjoyed them.

X-Men: Misfits 1 by Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, and Anzu: C-

Having fortified myself with some small exposure to Marvel-style Kitty Pryde, I felt equipped to tackle the first volume of Del Rey’s X-Men: Misfits for Manga Recon. Whether you’re an X-Men fan or a shojo manga fan, you’re bound to be disappointed (if not dismayed) by this hybrid.

In this shojo-style X-Men “remix,” Kitty Pryde is a fifteen-year-old girl who is an outcast because of her mutant abilities. When Magneto invites her to attend Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters, she accepts. Apparently, she’s the first girl to qualify as a gifted youngster in quite some time, because when she gets there she finds herself surrounded by members of the opposite sex.

Kitty quickly falls in with the wrong crowd: a group of boys calling themselves “The Hellfire Club.” Fans of the comic series will recognize this name as belonging to a band of villains, but here it’s more like a host club of rowdy hotties with disdain for normal people. Kitty starts dating Pyro and ignores many signs that he’s a creep until he finally gets in an altercation with humans while on a school trip to New York City.

Some scant attention is paid to Kitty learning to control her powers and accept her mutant identity, but it’s all very shallow. Some important things happen without any insight at all into her feelings (her first kiss with Pyro, for example) and other moments are too on-the-nose to carry much weight (“But am I really ready to accept this part of myself?”). The best thing that happens is that she quietly befriends Nightcrawler and Gambit, both of whom treat her much better than her so-called boyfriend does.

Kitty is rendered here about as vapidly as possible. She has a tendency to sprout cat ears and a tail when flustered or when she spots cute boys and is often depicted in the act of flailing her limbs around. She’s also extremely dumb where Pyro’s concerned—evading him for an afternoon after he breaks into her room then engaging in smoochy times with him at the next available opportunity. One wonders what Iceman, who leaves her a token of his affections in the final pages, could possibly see in her.

Anzu’s art has been described by Publisher’s Weekly as “shojo parody.” I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion myself, but I hope it’s true, because these pages are positively slathered in screen tone. Her artwork wouldn’t be bad if it were less cluttered; some of the guys genuinely look quite studly and even if Beast does bear more than a passing resemblance to Pokémon’s Snorlax, he is still kinda cute.

Coming on the heels of the incredibly kickass Kitty I just read about in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, this incarnation is downright lame. Also lousy is the implication that this is what someone thinks shojo manga is all about. The preview for volume two promises a fashion show and a cooking showdown. Gee, I can hardly wait.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books 2 by Svetlana Chmakova: B

nightschool2Home-schooled weirn (witch) Alex Treveney had no interest in attending the nightschool that caters to her kind until her older sister went missing while on the job there. Several thwarted attempts to gain unauthorized entry leave Alex with no alternative but to enroll, and she spends her orientation tour scoping out the place and her first class proving just how ahead of the other students she is.

Meanwhile, three Hunters that encountered Alex in a graveyard the night before are still unconscious, victims of a violent magical attack that Alex has no memory of inflicting. Their leader, Daemon, is out for answers, and one of the magical sources he turns to in his search will soon become Alex’s new teacher.

After the exciting introduction to this supernatural world afforded by volume one, volume two gets down to the more mundane business of introducing Alex to the school and showing what the Hunters do while they’re at home. It’s still interesting, but it doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the debut volume. I also found it odd that the volume’s cliffhanger moment goes to a subplot about a seer under Daemon’s guardianship rather than to our main character, who shows another glimpse of a possible dark path when a classroom challenge causes her to access further levels of magical power.

If you’re looking for a fun story to put you in the Halloween spirit, you really can’t go wrong with Nightschool. This particular volume may not be full of action, but it does flesh out the world and set up some things to look forward to in installments to come.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books 1 by Svetlana Chmakova: B+

nightschool1From the back cover:
Schools may lock up for the night, but class is in session for an entirely different set of students. In the nightschool, vampires, werewolves, and weirns (a particular breed of witches) learn the fundamentals of everything from calculus to spell casting. Alex is a young weirn whose education has always been handled through homeschooling, but circumstances seem to be drawing her closer to the nightschool. Will Alex manage to weather the dark forces gathering?

It’s hard not to think about Vampire Knight when one first learns the concept of Nightschool: after the day class has gone home, the school turns its facilities over to a night class populated by vampires, weirns, and other supernatural students. In their execution, however, the two series could not be more different. Vampire Knight might take the prize in the artistic category on account of its sheer prettiness, but the characters in Nightschool are more interesting and the story more instantly captivating.

There’s a lot going on in this first volume—though it spans but a single night—and we follow several characters at different times, but the protagonist seems to be Alex Treveney, a young weirn (witch) who is being homeschooled by her older sister, Sarah. Sarah has just recently been hired as the night keeper at the school and tries to convince her sister to attend, but Alex will have none of it. Alex can be a little prickly, but she obviously cares about her sister, even if she doesn’t always follow her rules. Sarah is more extroverted and really gets into her job at the school, forming extracurricular clubs for the supernatural students and campaigning for them to finally get their own yearbook. We’re also introduced to some Hunters, a band of teens tasked with hunting down dangerous vampires and weirns, and seem to have quite an extensive organization backing their efforts.

An intriguing story is brewing here, with hints that Alex may unknowingly be susceptible to an evil influence and an appearance by a mysterious black-winged student who imprisons Sarah and eradicates her memory from all except for Alex. Could this be an attempt to lure Alex to the school? I’m not sure how all of the elements will eventually fit together, but it seems to’ve been well-planned and I’m looking forward to Alex’s journey to rescue her sister. The worldbuilding is nifty, too, with spell casting having a certain look, references to a treaty between humans and vampires, and young weirns being accompanied by little astral beings (Alex’s is particularly endearing). Also, there’s some snappy dialogue—I detect some Buffy the Vampire Slayer influences—though the presence of emoticons in the speech bubbles is an amateurish touch.

Chmakova’s art has obvious manga influences, utilizing the occasional chibi form as well as shorthand like sweatdrops, veinpops, et cetera. It still retains a certain Western feel, though, since she doesn’t try to make the characters into Japanese clones and, in fact, has assembled an admirably multi-ethnic cast. The occasional sprinkles of cute don’t hurt, either. Take a look at this adorable panel:


I’m so easy to please sometimes. Seriously, it just takes a cute little bat.

If you’re looking for a spooky and original story to get you into the Halloween mood, Nightschool is a great choice. The first volume ends in a place that made me glad to have volume two on hand, though, so keep that in mind.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books is published by Yen Press. Two volumes have been released so far and a third is planned for October 2010.

CSI: Intern at Your Own Risk by Sekou Hamilton and Steven Cummings: C

csi-internAs part of the Las Vegas Police Department’s Outreach Program for high school students, five teenagers earn the right to serve as interns to the CSI unit. Among them is Kiyomi Hudson, who is intrigued by the murder of a classmate, Gretchen Yates. While she and her fellow interns—a creepy guy, a nerdy guy, a jock, and a rather jerky normal guy—perform their normal internly duties of watching demonstrations of forensic techniques and solving sample cases, Kiyomi also spurs them into investigating Gretchen’s death which leads to a (theoretically) dramatic conclusion.

I don’t watch CSI or any of its spin-offs, so some of the presumed appeal of this story is lost on me. Apparently, it features some characters from the show serving in an advisory capacity to the interns, but the only one I recognize is Gil Grissom. Taken only on its own merits, CSI: Intern at Your Own Risk isn’t bad, but it certainly could’ve been better.

The main problem is the disjointed nature of the storytelling, which cuts quickly between a facilities tour, a sample case, and the investigation into Gretchen’s murder. The characters are pretty stereotypical, too, and I found the identity of the culprit completely easy to guess, though not the exact nature of his or her motivation. Some of the dialogue is awkward and I had to laugh at the line “We’re on the scene of last night’s grizzly murder.” Oh no! Poor bear!

Still, now that the concept and group has been introduced, I might actually be interested in seeing the team work another case. Hopefully, if there is to be a next time, the result will be more polished.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.