Ready Player One

ready_player_one_cover
Source: Wikimedia.org

I just finished a marathon reading session of Ernest Cline’s debut science fiction novel: Ready Player One. The rate with which I tore through this thing (four days) is evidence enough that it is highly enjoyable and totally engrossing. First published in 2011, I would imagine most of the intended audience (super-nerds and ’80s buffs) have already heard about this book and probably already read it. But there are rumors of a Steven Spielberg-directed movie coming out in 2018, which will prompt a new batch of readers to try this best-selling sensation before then (myself included). Ready Player One is an interesting collection of nostalgia-driven pop culture references and hard science fiction. Cline is clearly a big nerd himself, and the densely-packed pop culture references are clearly an homage to his own interests and obsessions, readers need look no further than the photo on the back of the novel, showing him leaning against a Delorean a la Back to the Future. Nevertheless, Cline also developed a comprehensive and immersive world that artfully draws upon the real world just enough to allow readers to fill in gaps and picture the story fully in their heads. I find that these sorts of reality-adjacent science fiction or fantasy novels find great success by drawing upon the familiar and emphasizing those small differences that drive their plots: think Harry Potter or Ender’s Game.

The basic premise of the novel is that, by 2044, the world has run out of fossil fuels, which combined with global warming and economic stagnation, has led to a prolonged global recession. The world is in rough shape. However, at the same time that the real world started to go down the tubes, a brilliant video game designer, James Halliday, developed a vast, free virtual reality that allowed people to escape from the sad doldrums of a society in decline. Dubbed OASIS, this virtual reality video game quickly grew into the dominant source of information, economy, and leisure for a majority of the world’s population. Then, upon Halliday’s death, the multi-billionaire released a video introducing a contest that would grant the winner full inheritance of his fortune and control over the fate of the OASIS. The ensuing competition drove a pathological obsession with Halliday’s formative decade, the 1980s, and makes for a fun future that’s obsessed with our past. Our hero, the poor and miserable Wade Watts, has dedicated his life to the search and the book chronicles his adventures searching for this fame and fortune.

1035x1298-ernie-cline-official-author-photo
Author Ernest Cline and his Delorean. Photo Cred: Rolling Stone

I greatly enjoyed the novel, finding myself fully engrossed and drawn to the wonderfully detailed world of the OASIS that Cline developed. The puzzles and references that shaped Halliday’s Easter Egg Hunt were fun, nostalgic, and definitely cleverly constructed. I also found Wade’s characterization to be pretty fitting: a flawed loner with some serious self-esteem issues, but just enough courage and plucky cleverness to get things starting to go his way. Supporting cast like Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto were also pretty well done, though definitely cast over a bit during the novel’s second act. I didn’t want to put the book down, so I can’t say enough about how much fun it was to read, which is a tribute to Cline’s world-building. I don’t want to elaborate too much on the plot, as it is much more fun to be surprised, but I will say that it is wonderful and most definitely worth reading.

However, there were a couple of nit-picky criticisms to clal out as well. First, Cline makes a point early on that Halliday’s obsessions are with all things nerdy, repeatedly listing “movies, comic books, TV shows, music, and most of all, video games.” But then, there are never any comic book references, so why even say it? There were critical mentions of movies, shows, and songs, but none of the quests and almost none of the references were to comic books. I know this is a pretty minor complaint all told, but to call it out then not deliver is like a false promise. It seems like Cline was pandering to hook people early then forgot to deliver (or didn’t know as much about them himself, but wanted to be inclusive to all of “nerd-dom”). I was definitely disappointed, but I still did enjoy my fair share of Star Wars, Monty Python, and other awesome references throughout the book.

Second, I felt like Cline missed out on an opportunity to focus more on the “real world” of RPO outside of the OASIS. Yes, some important action happens there, and he does keep Wade and others at least relatively aware that their lives inside of OASIS are not their “true selves,” but beyond a few platitudes about starving citizens and decaying urban centers, Cline largely neglects any societal warnings or present day allegories that are so common in classic science fiction. It seems somewhat like a missed opportunity, but even so, a book made mostly for amusement rather than allegory and social commentary is still a good book if it succeeds at amusing readers, which Ready Player One certainly does. I just wish Cline had taken the concept a little deeper with those topics, giving the story a little more edge and philosophical oomph.

Lastly, this is not a criticism as much as a statement: Ready Player One is not for everyone. It was definitely written with an audience in mind – an audience that loves video games and nerd culture or grew up in the 1980s and is nostalgic for their youth. I, myself, was born a little later, but under my dad’s cultural stewardship, I grew up loving an appreciating a lot of these classic cultural phenomena. Sure, some of the references to arcades and TRs-80s were a little before my time, but Cline did a great job filling in the gaps to help paint a great picture of each cultural tidbits’ significance. If you can read this review and say, “hey, that sounds good,” then you’ll love it. If you hated the ’80s or were born in 2001, this may be a little much for you. And that’s ok, Cline, like his character James Halliday, just wants to share his interests with other people who appreciate them. Now go on, give it a try, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to put it down. Rating: 9 of 10

Advertisements

Hawkeye in the Heroic Age

Hawkeye is one of the most iconic members of the Avengers, and has appeared in more issues than probably anyone but the big three. Nevertheless, he can’t seem to avoid getting the short end of the stick. Whether it’s his brainwashing in the first Avengers film, an inferiority complex driving him to become Goliath, or his string of middling solo series making it hard to sell the idea of Hawkeye having a life outside of the Avengers. He is undoubtedly a fan favorite, but his role in the Marvel Universe is sometimes in flux.

Before reading any of this Heroic Age material, it helps to know what Hawkeye has been up to for the past decade, so here’s a brief recap. Warning, there are definitely some *spoilers* for the 2002-2010 timeframe, beware! Clint Barton had a rough beginning to the 21st Century, he was killed in the Scarlet Witch’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs bonanza in Avengers Disassembled, only to be reborn in the House of M alternate reality excursion and find his alias had been taken up by a Young Avenger (Kate Bishop, who’s great btw), forcing him to take up a different identity as Ronin (shmeh). Then, in case that’s not enough, Clint finds Mockingbird in the Secret Invasion storyline, who had been long dead in the Marvel canon, only to find out she was a Skrull impersonator, making the loss fresh all over again. He and Bobbi do eventually reunite at the end of Secret Invasion, but even that reunion isn’t all sunshine and happiness. Bobbi’s traumatized by years of imprisonment and torture by her Skrull captors and she can’t bring herself to trust Clint. They had a weird kind of resolution in the four-issue New Avengers: The Reunion mini-series, which led directly into this time-frame, but the flawed nature of their relationship really comes to a head during this time period.

detail20
Cover Artist: Paul Renaud; Source: Marvel.com

Hawkeye and Mockingbird: Average arc overall. The writing has some decent humor and the relationship between Hawkeye and Mockingbird, which is the central focus of the title, is done fairly well. The author (Jim McCann) references their past pretty well, bringing back baddies that have haunted the two in earlier arcs. The art, primarily penciled by David Lopez, was solid, but not spectacular. The supporting cast was pretty underdeveloped and the rationale justifying their involvement in these arcs was thin. Just inventing a tiny quasi-governmental agency with five people in it just seems kind of lazy in order to enable hi-tech gear and bad guy chasing, but I guess that’s not really the point. I think the plot was average at best, but it’s slightly better than that because of the character interactions which sow the seeds for future stories involving the two. The complicated relationship is basically made into a mutually-detrimental spiral that made both of them into worse versions of themselves. The resolution to end their highly flawed romance is a reasonable conclusion that McCann builds to pretty well. It makes the six-issue arc an important read for fans of either title character, though it’s still probably not good enough to buy the book. Rating: 6 of 10

Widowmaker: A weird, four-issue follow-up to the Hawkeye and Mockingbird series. This arc can’t make up it’s mind whether Hawkeye or Black Widow is the main character. The first-person narrative jumps between the two of them. It’s really abrupt and felt like a rushed, half-developed story. I’m not entirely sure what the writer, Duane Swierczynski, was thinking here, and the artist team of David Lopez and Manuel Garcia did an okay job, but the result is just average fare. I didn’t like the bags drawn under Black Widow’s eyes. It made her look like she was always half asleep, it’s an odd look for a superhero. I think that the whole purpose was to set up a situation for Hawkeye to get hit in the back of the head, which sets up for the following arc, which is far superior to this one. Black Widow is a great character, but her team up with Mockingbird and Hawkeye here seemed like a stretch. And her character had no personality. She just seemed really flat. The new team up of Hawkeye and Mockingbird so soon after their “conscious uncoupling” was just kind of awkward. It undid some of the character development of the previous arc, which was its whole selling point. I’d say Widowmaker is worth skipping, as there aren’t really any other plot lines that ripple through later beyond Hawkeye’s one bonk to the head. Rating: 4 of 10

detail21
Issue #4; Cover Artist: Mike Perkins; Source: Marvel.com

Blind Spot: This four-issue arc is a little hit and miss (pun very much intended). With writing duties back with Jim McCann, and art by a team of David Lopez and Paco Diaz, the series regains some of McCann’s earlier tone in the Hawkeye and Mockingbird series. Conceptually, Blind Spot is pretty interesting: what if Hawkeye went blind? How does the world’s best marksman deal with not being able to see his targets? It’s a pretty cool examination of Clint Barton’s character as he struggles to do without his greatest asset and deals with some long-repressed family issues at the same time. The problem is that while this arc is intriguing, it’s not really all that innovative. It basically riffs on Ed Brubaker’s inventive run on Captain America almost a decade earlier, except it swaps out Bucky for Barney. The whole brainwashed vengeance using a childhood best friend/brother to become the evil version of the hero themselves isn’t particularly original, but in McCann’s defense, it does allow for an interesting look into Clint Barton’s past and his strength of character. Barney acts as a Baron Zemo and Barney’s interactions were all pretty well done. The only problem I had was that with Tony Stark’s tech, Clint never really went blind. It would have been much better to see him fight unassisted than to have the hi-tech bailout. It seemed like a cheap way to deal with the culmination of the blindness problem. Otherwise, this arc did accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time. Rating: 7 of 10

During this gap, there’s a wonderful, incredible series by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu that covers both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop in a 22-issue instant classic. Go read it now! Or check out the review here.

detail22
Cover Artist: Ramon Perez; Source: Marvel.com

All-New Hawkeye (2015): After making his name with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition writing for another swashbuckling archer, Jeff Lemire came to Marvel to try a turn on Clint Barton. Partnering with Eisner Award winning artist, Ramon Perez, this series seemed like a good choice to follow up on Fraction’s run. A quick five-issue series here tried to tell two different stories simultaneously. One was a retelling of Clint’s origin story through some beautiful, purple-hued flashbacks, and the other was an odd arc involving Clint and Kate breaking into a Hydra base for a secret weapon. The flashback sequences were clever and helped to showcase more of Hawkeye’s origin story. Perez’s artist style in these memory sequences was absolutely beautiful, all washed purples and sketched in a really wonderful way. The cover art, especially in Issue #1 (to the left) was also stunning. The interior art outside of the flashbacks was also good, but Perez’s flashbacks scenes were definitely the highlight. The banter between the two Hawkeyes was also pretty good (though nothing like Fraction’s in the preceding Hawkeye run). Unfortunately, the primary arc (at least the present day one) was nothing special. I never really understood what Barton or Bishop’s relationship to SHIELD was and what the whole point of those weird kids was. The resolution seemed even more bizarre, as they were about to allow Hydra to just take them back, until the kids went all Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Hydra agents. This arc is a decent read, but I was not really impressed with the plot development in Lemire’s primary story line. There is hope for future runs, but this is worth flipping through for Perez’s art, though I’m not sure if I would buy it. Rating: 6 of 10

Daredevil Miniseries: An Ending and a New Beginning

Following the mediocre Shadowland event, the Daredevil character was ready for reinventing. Two vastly different miniseries were written within a few short years of the event to provide very different codas to this chapter of Daredevil. As I had previously written here, the Shadowland event was not a great success, and did some damage to the integrity and principles of Matt Murdock’s character. In order for either, or both of these “endings” to work, they had to attempt to reestablish Daredevil as a wholly good person, flawed perhaps, but good and not the selfish monster of Shadowland.

4cb77c8496568
Daredevil: Reborn #1; Cover Artist: Jock; Source: Marvel.com

Daredevil: Reborn: First, the in-continuity, glorified reboot for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, written by Andy Diggle and art by Davide Gianfelice. Diggle was the very same creator who led Matt Murdock through the wringer with his cap of the Daredevil, Vol 2 run in 2011 and the Shadowland event. So this Reborn arc set out to examine the fallout of Matt’s self-destruction, and, I think, to remind audiences that he was still a hero. The whole premise was pretty hokey though: rather than face the consequences of his actions, Matt flees to the Southwest, while his friends are left to clean up the mess he left. His retirement from the hero biz is short-lived and not particularly believable, since the first inclination of something being wrong in this run down Southwestern town drives Daredevil to suit up and take down the crooked cops and drug runners ruining the town. Even his “unlikely ally,” the blind kid with an abusive father figure, didn’t feel very inspired.

The art was ok, but nothing special, and the whole concept felt more like a means to an end, rather than a cohesive story arc. Overall, this four-issue miniseries is definitely skip-able. It’s a below-average look at the complex character and just feels like a letdown after the strong work Bendis and Brubaker had put in only a few years earlier. Just head right into Waid’s relaunch (I’ve heard it is good, but have not yet had a chance to read it).

Rating: 3 of 10

 

537678d20a08d
Daredevil: End of Days #1; Cover Artist: Alex Maleev; Source: Marvel.com

Daredevil: End of Days: In contrast, the End of Days arc is Bendis’ homage to the character of Matt Murdock. Rather than accepting some of the bizarre creative decisions that followed his run, Bendis chose to ignore them. That’s right, he just kind of retcon-ed them out of his continuity. Instead, Bendis wanted to right an arc that would act as a eulogy to Daredevil and provide closure for some of the more serious emotional developments of his own, Eisner Award-winning running (reviewed here!). This series also featured a number of classic Daredevil creators who came together to collaborate on this classic tale of Daredevil’s final days. With art from David Mack, Klaus Janson, and Michael Lark, covers by Alex Maleev, and writing credits for Ann Nocenti, Bendis, and others, it truly felt like a group effort. That made this miniseries a truly collaborative sendoff for such an iconic character, and one that capped decades-worth of material. Though the plot elements drew mostly from Bendis’ own run, there were certainly references to crucial developments during Nocenti’s and Miller’s runs as well.

I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, since it happens in the first issue and the title largely gives it away, but this whole story is about the fallout from Daredevil’s eventual death at the hands of Bullseye. The death scene is brutal and sudden, which makes it rather shocking and gives the whole event a more realistic and less romanticized version of Daredevil’s death than I would have expected. Bendis’ writing throughout the arc is phenomenal, as is his ability to integrate all of the key supporting cast from across Daredevil’s history into important roles in the story. Told through the eyes of Ben Urich, the quest to find a fitting eulogy for his friend felt like a good blend of personal and documentarian qualities. The art, though varied, really did fit the mood, and the composition of each book seemed very well-measured. The stylistic changes were considered much more thoughtfully than the average comic is, and made for a very well-composed story.

My sole complaint regards the ending, which is also a bit of a *SPOILER*. The revelation of who Daredevil’s successor was seemed ok, even if he was clearly unequipped to fully fill Matt’s mantle (no innate superhuman abilities or sensory perception). But I really didn’t think it made sense for his daughter to be this new embodiment of Stick. Was it really meant to be Stick’s spirit reincarnated? Was it a metaphor? Why would she have been waiting around for Timmy? It didn’t really make any sense to me. But that was just the final 10 pages, so hardly enough to spoil a tremendous effort.

Overall, this End of Days series was a great and fitting conclusion to the Daredevil mythos. While definitely a “What If?” or “out of continuity” story, the tone and plot progressions seemed to truly follow how each character might have been expected to behave. Bendis’ run on Daredevil is probably a prerequisite in order to properly enjoy this miniseries, as it was designed more for fans of the character than to simply appeal to general comic readers. But either way, it is a great read and a very well-executed miniseries. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 8 of 10

 

 

Bossypants – More than a Memoir

bossypants_cover_28tina_fey29_-_200px
Source: Wikipedia Commons

The brilliant Tina Fey, famous for her writing of the cult classic, Mean Girls, writing and starring in the Emmy award-winning comedy, 30 Rock, and her years on Saturday Night Live! as head writer, host of Weekend Update, and professional Sarah Palin impersonator, has written her first book. For someone whose fame stemmed from her extraordinary talents as a comedy writer, it is no surprise that this book was an instant bestseller for its laughs and its deep reflections on the rise of a woman in comedy.

When you open this book, you are met with seven full pages of roaring praise for this memoir. There isn’t much more I can say in this review that hasn’t been captured a hundred times by all of its fans, but I wanted to just reflect on a few of my thoughts while reading. From the first page of the book, Tina Fey captivates readers with a heart-felt and hilariously self-effacing account of growing up as a delightfully weird kid and struggling to find her way in the big world of comedy. The great appeal of this book is how it straddles the line of being funny and still recounting the very real and sometimes upsetting travails of a hard-working, talented person’s rise to fame. Fey is honest and humble, treating readers to see behind the veil of the world of comedy and the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes.

Fans of Saturday Night Live! and 30 Rock are invited to relive these shows through Fey’s eyes, reading about the creative process behind famous political sketches and the team of writers that delivered hit jokes on both shows. Fey’s relationships with other SNL heavyweights Lorne Michaels, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Myers are also fleshed out in a way that all fans of the show will love. There is an insight into the creative process and writing timelines that gives readers a whole new appreciation for these shows and the genius of writers like Fey who make them possible.

giphy
This brilliant moment is a collaboration of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Seth Myers. No wonder it’s so iconic. Source: virginiachance.tumblr.com

More than just a comedic memoir, Fey also recounts how difficult it can be for a woman to break into comedy, even one as brilliant as herself. Fey humbly recounts how she witnessed the transition of SNL from an “old boy’s club,” where the female comedians were often relegated to roles as props, girlfriends, or wives, into a show dominated by some of the best female comics of the century: Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Kate McKinnon (not to mention Fey, herself). The systemic biases in these shows, and all of the previous steps on Fey’s journey, including Second City improv culture frowning upon a stage of only women, citing that at least one man was needed to keep the comedy going. These and other stories, only added some extra punch to Fey’s charismatic storytelling, making its message all the more important for everyone, not just women, to read and appreciate.

The sole flaw I found in this book is that, at times, Fey seems to expect that the entirety of her readership is female. This may just be that the style of some jokes felt like an “am I right, ladies?!?” sort of feel, but her “advice” segments in the memoir were largely focused on women: breastfeeding, skin care, and a few other topics. She even had an offhanded joke, where the punchline thanked men for reading. These moments were relatively brief, but as a man reading these few sections, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I wasn’t necessarily invited to. Is it because Fey just didn’t expect men to find her funny due to the same sexist social pressures she mentions over and over in this book? Or was it because, as a male reader, I am just unaccustomed to some of these topics and jokes? Either way, these slightly awkward moments are brief, and usually interrupted by some joke or reference that brings you right back into the story.

I also wonder if some of the self-effacing humor goes a little far. Fey is a bright, super talented, attractive woman, but she is so down on herself that it seems kind of sad. The jokes are all funny, but did she really think she was fat? Or that her troubles are so meaningless just because there are people out there with more physical dangers? I would like to believe that it is all a show, but does this insecurity, whether real or feigned, lessen her message about a strong woman breaking into a male-dominated world? Probably not, Fey seems confident in her awkwardness, making some of the self-deprecation seem almost like an act to further our amusement. After all, she is a professional entertainer. And a good one at that. Her strength of character is on display, and moments of weakness should really be welcomed and be viewed courageously for being so honest.

Overall: don’t let those comments dissuade you in the slightest. This book is a must-read for all fans of Fey, TV comedy, or autobiographies. I tore through it in a matter of days. The tone and style of the writing grabs you from the first page. Fey graciously invites readers into her hilarious and interesting life and leaves us wanting more. She lays laugh-out-loud humor into a heart-felt story with more ease than anything else I’ve read. Though I don’t normally read memoirs, this one is an instant classic and almost flawless.

Rating: 9 out of 10