Archive for the ‘Books/Comics’ Category

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family

Friday, October 26th, 2012

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family

Everything has it’s time; the often short period where you can say a particular movie, video game, toy… – the list is endless – is either so great or relevant that it fits neatly within the much wider, global context. Usually, this period is brief, but this shortfall is typically more than made up for in the quality of the item in particular. The Simpsons was once such a T.V. show. For a period during the mid to late 90‘s, the writing staff succeeded in creating a show that brilliantly satirised popular culture; better still, enjoyable escapades for the folks in Springfield would always be assured, supported often by a broad array of celebrity voice talents. Nowadays, the arrival of yet another new episode of The Simpsons is proving more and more that this once brilliant animation’s time in the sun is long gone. To quote the Thick of It character Steve Fleming, ‘It’s just not buttering any parsnips anymore!’. The sooner the series bows out, the better, as with each new season is going to make it difficult for this end to appear at all graceful.

Tie-in’s were always going to be a foregone conclusion with a franchise as popular as The Simpsons – toys, comics, even atrocious sounding songs; The Simpsons seems to be particularly potent in attracting a large array of assorted consumer tat. The only thing I have consistently enjoyed amongst these is the comics, and these rather ace (but dubiously made) slippers. There were also some other literature-based Simpsons tie-ins, such as Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life, which would make for excellent toilet reading. Another one of was the The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family, which probably remains to this day the most comprehensive companion for any T.V. show in history.

The book is essentially an episode guide for the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, – including the Tracey Ullman shorts – providing fans with a handy reference point for every episode during the show’s initial 8 year run. There is enough detail in the book to make any Wikipedia editor out there smile. It’s all here – every storyline, every character, every D’oh! – all laid in chronological order, season by season. Readers will happily go away with a much more thorough knowledge of their favourite Simpsons episode, as well as some insight into some of the hidden jokes. As a show that is very much contemporaneous in its humour, a quick flick through this book helps provide those who are watching the older episodes for the first time with the necessary knowledge to see them chortling abundantly.

Between each Season, there are a few bonus sections setting out things such as a complete catalogue of Krusty the Klown’s merchandise, the synopsis of every Itchy and Scratchy Episode and a list of every coach gag from every episode. Although placed understandably as an effective ‘break’ between each season, I get the impression that some of the details in these short sections – such as the couch gags, for example, – could have been placed under each individual episode, as opposed to being cast to their own individual section.

For a book that also purports to be the “complete’ guide to the series, the level of detail on what may the most least known and obscure part of Simpson history is somewhat meagre; I am, of course, referring to the early shorts. A paltry two pages is all that is granted to them, with only a basic synopsis of each shorts story and a brief quote or moment of notability. This is somewhat frustrating, given that the vast majority of Simpson fans across the world were not able to – and probably never will – get an opportunity to view them originally. There is also a general impression that the books level of comprehensiveness does not extend to ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of the shows creation. Sure, we get to know who wrote each episode, and who voices the many myriad of different characters, but it would have been nice to at least gain a sneak-peak into the making of an individual episode, how the writing process works…you get the picture.

The book must have been popular enough when it was released as a  number of sequels (if they could be called that) were published, covering seasons 9 and onwards. Only a series that has been as popular and influential as The Simpsons could command such an impressive publication pedigree. I get the feeling though that the book is representative of what is now a by-gone era. In the time before lightning fast internet connections and the instantaneous supply and demand of facts, the only way that fans of a T.V. show, band or any other pop-culture item could learn more about their obsession is through books such as these. Now, by simply typing an individual episode of The Simpsons into Wikipedia, nearly all the facts (and then some) of that episode that can be found in the Complete Guide can be displayed in front of you – free of charge. The rather obvious money-swindling purpose of the book put aside for the moment, it is still nice to have a physical copy of such information; a copy that is well-presented, detailed and very much an essential parts of any die-hard Simpsons fan collection.

(Image courtesy of mycomicshop.com)

The Funday Times

Friday, September 28th, 2012

The Funday Times

It’s Sunday. Dad’s just returned from the newsagent, with the weekend paper in tow. A fairly familiar image, and one that is still ongoing in our household (albeit now via digital form). The Sunday Times was the paper of choice in our household, and bound together in the main body of the paper was a broad range of supplementary magazines and papers to satisfy the reading pleasures of even the most rapacious of readers. Dad would typically work his way through the main edition, as well as some of the opinion supplements; Mum would have a gander at the property and fashion sections; and, as a young reader, I would happily work my way through the best section of all – The Funday Times.

Quips about the rather dubious name aside, The Funday Times no doubt had an important place within the routines of many houses up and the down Britain. Newspapers in Britain have, by my estimation, always had an aversion when it came to the “funny pages”. Sure, you may find half-a-page or more of strips in papers like the The Sun, but this type of content would never have spread over to more than pages within the daily newspapers. Today, the landscape for this sort of content is even more bleak, as it seems puzzles are deemed more palatable then killer strips à la Calvin and Hobbes. The Funday Times remains, I think, the only attempt by a national newspaper to emulate the success over the Atlantic of the “funny pages”; although its target audience sharply changed over the course of its history.

The Funday Times first made its way into the many assorted supplements of The Sunday Times in 1989, remaining a regular feature up until 2006, when it was gradually retired. A typical issue would include a broad selection of different strips and cartoons from a number of different sources. At one point, in the early 2000’s, there were The Simpson’s strips, as well as offerings from the back catalogue of D.C. Thomson characters (Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx etc). Even Asterix made an appearance, albeit in serialised form. There were also a number of additional regular features that helped to fill the gap between the strips, including features, letters, puzzles and articles, all of which were targeted towards younger audiences. A rather un-shabby offering of content, and more than you would come to expect from other children’s comics.

One of the best things about the comic, looking back, was the logo. It essentially boiled down to a re-tweaked version of the actual Sunday Times logo, except the Funday had the  Lion and the Unicorn on either side reading and chortling what was, presumably, a copy of the Funday Times. A small, and rather insignificant, detail, you may think, but one which helped to sum up what you could expect from the Funday. It was rather sad to see it replaced by a generic, lettered-only title towards the end of the comic’s life-cycle.

There would occasionally be a feeling of déjà vu in some of the content. Those who read the Beano or Dandy on a weekly basis would have found some repetition in the serialised strips on offer in the Funday, as there were only ever going to be a limited number of capers that Dennis the Menace could get up to before it became somewhat grating. The Funday’s appeal could also start to wane, depending on your age. With features and content clearly aimed at the pre-teens and earlier, I found by the early ‘noughties that I increasingly steered away from the Funday, leaving it to be consigned either to the bottom of the bin or as lining for the cat litter tray. I’m pretty sure that the increase in  rather boring and Hello-esque features such as this was one of the factors that led to the supplements general decline.

It’s hard to say what eventually killed off the Funday Times. Certainly, a general reduction in paper circulation invariably involved some kind of rolling back amongst the weekend newspapers. I also have the feeling that its disappearance had something to do with the fact that it just wasn’t very good anymore. More and more of the supplements pages were gradually turned over to features that were either boring or not particularly relevant to an older audience. The selection of comics also began to suffer as well, to the point of which that nearly all of the big names and strips that once adorned the pages had vanished completely. Whatever the reason for the Funday’s demise, it’s a shame that it’s still not around in it’s original format. For I like reading news as much as the next person; but it’s always nice to forget all that, just for a few minutes at least’, and have a good laugh at some hilarious, cartoon antics.

(Image courtesy of jonathenen.com)

The Vicious Vikings

Friday, August 31st, 2012

The Vicious Vikings

What have the Vikings ever done for us? Well, quite a lot, if you happen to be British. That’s what Terry Deary posits in the delightful book The Vicious Vikings, which forms part of the semi-legendary Horrible Histories series. Contained within the series many myriad forms is a refreshing and always hilarious historical take on peoples and periods of the past. The series attempts to teach us about ‘the things that teacher never tells you because teacher’s too chicken-livered’. Misgivings about the current state of school provision in the U.K aside, these books were a staple diet for myself growing up, and I imagine many history aficionado’s today look back on these books and smile.

Today, Horrible Histories can be found on a seemingly infinite different mediums: the T.V., stage, in magazines and even soups to name but a few (ok, the last one’s not true – but mark my words! One day!). But back in the day – well, the early 90’s to be precise – you had to make do with reading them in books. The very first Horrible Histories were published in 1993 by Scholastic, allowing younger readers to get their teeth into The Terrible Tudors and The Awesome Egyptians. The series picked up steam, and in the following year three more were published – The Blitzed Brits, The Vile Victorians and The Vicious Vikings. Typically, the books were written by Terry Deary, with illustrations by Martin Brown, though other authors and illustrators (Peter Hepplewhite/Mike Phillips & Neil Tonge/Phillip Reeve) have also contributed towards the series to date.Personally, and no disrespect to the other contributors, I have always preferred the Terry Deary/Martin Brown editions, as I just can’t get enough of Brown’s excellent illustrations. This is the part of the reason why I like The Vicious Vikings so much. That, and how can anyone not find the Vikings really cool?

The Horrible Histories tend to follow a somewhat familiar narrative formula, and The Vicious Vikings is no exception. After the introduction (typically involving a witty diatribe against teachers) and a brief explanation of the eponymous subject, a brief timeline goes over some of the more noteworthy events contained within their history. This is typically the best part of the book, both in terms of accuracy and detail, and a level of unexpected historical research can be detected throughout the whole book. This may come as a surprise, considering that this is a children’s book. Leading on from the timeline, there are specific sections on different parts of Viking and Scandinavian culture; ranging from Viking society, through to Scandinavian literature and folklore, right through to women in Scandinavian society. A comprehensive, yet easily digestible, package, and one which would no doubt earn nods of approval from certain academic circles. All-in-all, the book clocks in at a very manageable 128 pages, giving no excuse to anyone to at least sample parts of it.

The book can be criticised for having a distinct pro-English bias in it’s presentation of Viking history. There is a heavy focus towards the Viking invasions and the history of Scandinavian people in relation to the British Isles. This may not be a necessarily bad thing, considering that the book was, and I believe still us, aimed primarily at British children. And it’s not as if the link is completely tenuous: the impact of Scandinavia on the British Isles is immense, from the names of towns (York comes from Jórvik, meaning “port of the chieftains”) and even the English language. It’s also not as if the book completely disregards solely Scandinavian history, as attention is given to some intricate aspects of Scandinavian culture, such as mythology, Viking excursions to the Americas and even the runic alphabet. Such levels of detail may sound boring, but they are presented in such a great way that even today I still chuckle as I read through it.

As already said, I am a huge fan of Martin Brown and this particular Horrible Histories allows Brown to go wild and really show of his style. Some personal highlights for me include a drawing of a 15th century European showing off a gift he has received from a supposed native american (shown below), a how-to demonstration of how to build a longboat and a delightfully cynical comic involving the Luna massacre. The book could not possibly work as well as it does without these fine illustrations, and Brown and Deary’s collaborative work will surely go down into history, as the collaborations Dahl/Blake already have.

Oh Martin Brown. You so funny.

For a book that is nearly 20 years old, It has aged incredibly well. Reading through it again in preparation for this post, I found myself guffawing, intrigued and delighted in equal measure. And although the torch for the series is now firmly being held by the Horrible Histories T.V. series (and for good reason – it is awesome), forgetting this series humble origins would be folly, as there is an entire library of learning and enjoyment to be had. Other series have come and gone attempting to repeat the success of Horrible Histories, such as the Dead Famous books, but for me, there will always be one premier children’s history book that should be set-text for all schoolchildren in every classroom. Just don’t tell the teachers what Terry Deary has been saying about them. It might not go down a treat.

(Cover image courtesy of goodreads.com; Illustration is copyright Martin Brown 1994)

Yu-Gi-Oh! Volume 1

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Yu-Gi-Oh! Volume 1

I came to the whole manga/anime scene a little later then you might expect. The majority of people, it seems, tend to embrace it in their early teens, and shed it pretty sharply before adulthood; in my case, I wholly embraced it in my early adult-hood and can’t seem to keep myself away from it. A worrying cycle, and one which I have difficulty explaining whenever my interest/obsession is revealed in public.

For the uninitiated, ‘manga’ and ‘anime’ would translate most easily to ‘comics’ and ‘animation’, and refers to anything made in or influenced by Japan. As a sub-culture in the western world, the U.S. seems to be the place where it has gained the most traction. Dragonball Z and Pokémon are two examples from the top of my head of series that have gained the most appeal in the west. But the whole industry generally is still very much specialist, and (in my view) against the mainstream. Another series I can claim to have a long-standing interest is the Yu-Gi-Oh franchise, in it’s many myriad forms.

‘But isn’t ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ that ridiculous children’s show about card games?’, I hear one of you mutter (in my head, if nothing else). And you’d be correct. As East-to-West adaptations go, the Yu-Gi-Oh! TV series is only just scraping the bottom of the barrel; laughable english dubs, bizarre story alterations and a borderline baffling level of censorship. 4Kids, the company responsible for dubbing the show, did make attempts to amend this by offering uncut versions of the episodes but, for whatever reason, only a handful of these volumes were released before they were quietly discontinued. For those of a confused, audacious nature, original collections of the Japanese episodes with horrendous english subtitles can be tracked down. Just have your Japanese dictionary on-hand at al times.

But before the anime series (plural), came the manga series, a familiar journey in Japan. Manga artists produce a popular series, which is then produced into an adapted anime series. First serialised in Weekly Shōnen Jump (a comic book aimed at young teenagers) in 1996, the series remains the first and only major success for its creator, Kazuki Takahashi. The story revolves around a teenager named Yugi Mutou, who has inherited a mysterious item from ancient Egypt known as the Millennium Puzzle. After successfully completing the puzzle in the opening chapter of the story, he brings about the return of the ‘shadow games’, and the Puzzle’s last owner, who uses the ‘shadow games’ to inflict punishment on deserving adversaries of Yugi and his friends, Katsuya Jonouchi (Joey Wheeler), Hiroto Honda (Tristan Taylor) and Anzu Mazaki (Téa Gardner).

If, at this stage, you are wondering how the ‘Duel Monster’s’ game is involved, you may be disappointed to learn that it doesn’t initially. Innocently introduced in chapter 9, it only becomes a mainstay in the plot after the seventh volume. Instead, each chapter typically revolves around a particular type of game (board, card, table-top…quite a few, as it transpires). A somewhat formulaic pattern, but this is pretty standard for most manga series (Bleach, for example, devolves into an almost farcical cycle of repetition). If nothing else, Takahashi can be praised for his creative flair when it comes to deploying both his knowledge of many different games and in using them as successful plot devices. In this respect, the manga appeals well to its target audience (younger males), whilst risking alienating older and female audiences.

There is also a distinctly dark undercurrent, epitomised most easily in the form of Yami Yugi, the inhabitant of the Millennium Puzzle. The volume’s first chapter involves Yugi getting on the wrong-side of a school bully, who demands Yugi pays him for ‘protection’. The ‘other Yugi’ manifests himself and challenges the bully to a partially sadistic game involving a knife and yen notes. As you would expect, the ‘other Yugi’ wins, and the bully faces a forfeit in the form of a penalty game (illustrated below), and it’s examples like this that make the manga ‘sadist-lite’ in its execution.

Remember kids, greed is baaaaaad

The appeal for me comes from the whole Egyptian subplot, which works incredibly well as a story device for the entire series, even after Duel Monsters becomes the series sole focus. The pay-off for this particular plot device is quite long, however, and is only truly resolved after 3 long story-arcs; for the Egyptian-card-hating nutters out there, be prepared to wade through many Duel Monsters battles before you have any chance of getting

I’ll always have a soft-spot for Yu-Gi-Oh. I still like to play the card game occasionally (the same can’t be said for other contenders) and even find myself watching the anime – and reading the manga – again and again. Whilst the manga nowhere near matches the utter genius and scope of classic series such as Akira, there is something alluringly Pokémon-esque about the whole franchise. Maybe it’s the focus on games. Maybe it’s the Egyptian sub-plot. Or maybe it’s just the surprise of how different the manga is, when compared with the english TV show. In the words of Yugi himself, my attraction to this series can be described as ‘something you can show, but can’t see’. So I tip my hat to you, you crazy haired, game-obssessed, goofball.

(Cover art courtesy of amazon.co.uk; Yu-Gi-Oh! manga frame courtesy of mangareader.net; Yu-Gi-Oh! is a registered trademark of Kazuki Takahashi 1996 etc etc please don’t sue me)