Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why Saga Is More Than a Comic Book

Before I begin my review, which of the following appeals to you?

a) Star Wars
b) Romeo & Juliet
c) A Game of Thrones
d) All of the above

Right answer? When it comes to Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga, any of them are enough to make the comic book series worth a lifelong obsession.  But Saga's brilliance does not end with its seamless integration of science fiction, fantasy, war, and star-crossed romance.  In terms of action, reading the series is like letting someone else push the gas pedal until even your thoughts can't catch up to your body.  The comic also deals with heavy real-world themes through a plethora of diverse, well-rounded characters that are drawn with astounding imagination and detail.  To put it plainly, Saga is an artistic and literary masterpiece.

(source: Wikipedia)

The main characters (pictured above) are Alana, from the planet Landfall, and Marko, from Landfall's satellite moon Wreath.  For ages, Landfall has engaged in battle with Wreath for reasons no one seems to remember.  Since destroying one would destroy the other, Landfall and Wreath have outsourced their war to other planets.  Alana and Marko are on the run with their newborn Hazel to avoid the conflict and the people that want them dead.  An adult Hazel narrates along the way.  Her commentary fits well with the story, foreshadowing events to create tension on behalf of the characters as well as adding a dry humor common with the series in general.  What I most appreciate about Alana and Marko's relationship is that, despite my earlier comparison to Romeo and Juliet, theirs is more honest and flawed.  They have lied to each other and fought with each other about the banal and the serious.  Volume 4 most vividly portrays a trap that all relationships can fall into.

A ruthless freelancer called The Will, sent to find the couple, becomes another high-profile character.  He's the kind of antagonist you root for - or at least I do.  The Will is hung up on another freelancer named The Stalk, and he unwittingly takes a little girl under his care after rescuing her from sex slavery (like I said, heavy stuff).  At the same time, he shows he's not afraid to kill to get what he wants.  Complicated doesn't even begin to describe him.  My anticipation for his first confrontation with Alana and Marko keeps stacking up as the narrative progresses.  In the meantime, I'm deeply invested in seeing him get his act together.  I admire Vaughan for making me sympathize so much with him.

So many other characters arrive on the scene with different gender identities, sexualities, appearances, and complex world views.  Staples has drawn a world with species I could never have conceived of - such as that of Prince Robot IV.  He has a man-like body with a television for a head.  How the creators turned something that sounds so ridiculous into one of the most fearsome antagonists of the series, I have no idea.  I just know they did it.  (It could be the fact that his hand can morph into this.)

Not only are the characters well fleshed out, but also the storyline.  Saga is exciting, addicting even.  The quick transitions from subplot to subplot propel me to keep reading even when I have a week's worth of to-do list items ahead of me.  Vaughan always knows the right moment to pause on a scene: right before a revelation, right after a revelation, a character about to die, etc.  It's not fair play.  It's like he wants me to never put his work down.  At least I've gotten good at guessing when someone will die. With war, what else can one expect?

My only disclaimer for Saga is that it 100% earns its mature rating.  The language, violence, and sexual content do not bode well for the squeamish.  Once you plunge into the world, however, you barely even notice.  Some graphic sexual images did feel like overkill, but I will blame that on the creators ensuring the comic book doesn't become a movie.

In conclusion, Saga deserves all the praise it has received.  The creators have given birth to a diverse, beautifully rendered universe for characters that feel more human than some actual people I know.  They handle the most delicate issues with the right percentage of heart, sarcasm, and unconventional beauty.  They make me fall more in love with their fictional world with every panel.  I don't think my body is ready for the next installment.  If you find me crying here in the near future, you'll know why.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jersey Boys in Vegas

I just returned from Las Vegas (happy 21st to me!), and I thought I should jot down a review for the show I saw there: Jersey Boys.  The show tells the story of the band The Four Seasons through the perspectives of each of its original members.  As you watch their rise to fame, you see the families they leave behind and the tension between them build.  Tommy DeVito's tendency to overspend becomes just one of their problems.  But of course none of this drama happens without belting out some of The Four Seasons' hits!  If you're into how-they-began stories, Jersey Boys makes for a fun ride even if you're not familiar with the group.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I'll start with the most important thing.  The actor playing Frankie Valli?  He has a voice like the sunrise.  That lead singer has a range I could never hope to reach after decades of singing lessons, and the other members did not have bad voices either.  My sister adores The Four Seasons and is the reason I know their music.  During the show, she would often clap before the song was even over.  Not that I blamed her.  Those songs had a true sixties/seventies swankiness to them that I wanted to sing and dance along to.  Additionally, I liked hearing Bob Gaudio's backstory for the songs he wrote.  Several of them were placed in appropriate parts of the narrative to resonant with whatever scene just happened.  To be honest, the plot didn't have much more to it than the characters' monologues, but I found them interesting enough not to care.  Tommy, Frankie, Bob, and even Nick had a chance to bask in the attention, and they made for funny and honest commentary throughout.

The staging for Jersey Boys deserves a review of its own.  There were so many moving parts - literally!  After the intermission, a drum set slid onto the stage as the drummer played, but then kept moving until it disappeared into the other end.  Couches, tables, bars, and more rotated around so quickly you barely had time to register that the scene had changed right in front of you.  For one scene, lights blared at the audience while the performers played with their backs to us like they were in a concert and we were watching from behind.  One of the coolest moments in the show.  It placed me right with The Four Seasons as I saw even their concerts from their point of view.

Jersey Boys provided fantastic music, emotional backstory, and nice one-liners that had me cheering at the end.  It's a shame that the show is closing out in September.  If you happen to have the chance to drive down to Vegas to see this for yourself, I would 10/10 recommend.  If not, well, you can rent the movie at least.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Rosie Project

Nontraditional romantic comedies, not an easy find.  But you discover one in Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project.  Don Tillman, a genetics professor with Asperger's, goes on a quest to find human companionship, and he does it the best way he knows how: a sixteen-page questionnaire called "The Wife Project."  When he meets Rosie Jarman, however, chaos ensues.  The good kind.

(source: Chris Dorward "the rosie project")

What I love best about this book is that it breaks down the perception that people on the autism spectrum don't care about personal connection.  They want friendship and love as desperately as anyone else, but don't have the automatic social skills to get it.  That's why I find Don an especially compelling protagonist.  Don's perspective offers unique humor and refreshing frankness.  I haven't read anything like it before.  Simsion captures the voice, the logic, and the emotions of how a real first person narration would sound from a person with Asperger's syndrome.  Despite his limitations, Don unwittingly manages to express genuine tenderness - such as when he develops a friendship with an old woman named Daphne.  In one of the book's most moving scenes (slight spoiler), Don learns her husband used to buy her daphne flowers for her birthday, so he buys them in his place.  She cries, and he doesn't understand why.  Talk about a punch to the feels.

Rosie also defies the typical rom-com tropes.  She has spiky red hair, a willingness to call out the sexism in Don's Wife Project, and a tendency for direct confrontation.  My mother once threw water in her sister-in-law's face to make her shut up.  I imagine this character doing something quite similar.  Rosie wants to find out who her biological father is, so Don embarks on the Father Project with her.  The Father Project functions as an effective subplot that propels the characters forward as individuals and as a pair.  It had several twists, one of which literally made me gasp aloud.  Snaps to Simsion for surprising me!

Anyway, as their friendship grows, Rosie disrupts everything in Don's flawless schedule and Don realizes how much he enjoys it.  Along the way, he develops stronger empathy and social skills without losing his core identity.  Theirs is certainly an opposites-attract relationship, but it works for them and the story.  If you're down for an entertaining read, a cute romance, and an authentic reflection of the Asperger's experience, pick up The Rose Project as soon as you get the chance!