Wednesday, June 29, 2011

step one: check.

Team USA took their first step in the march back to World Cup supremacy on Tuesday, beating Korea 2-0.

The US Women, as previously noted have had a comparatively rough time of it lately in the World Cup; after winning the inaugural competition in 1991, taking third place in 1995 and winning it all again in 1999, with the memorable finish from Brandi Chastain, we've been stuck in third place since. (This, of course, discounts the success the women's national team has had in the Olympics: winning gold in 2004 and 2008 makes it hard for anyone to feel like we've not been performing.)

But before thinking about winning it all once again, the team had its hands full with the first round of pool play. Korea proved a capable opponent, despite being ranked only 8th in the FIFA World Rankings to Team USA's first. The first half of action was a sloppy affair, as neither side was able to connect for a goal.

In the second half, the big story got its traction. Lauren Cheney put the ball in the back of the net with a header from an Abby Wambach cross. Cheney was not a normal starter for Team USA, but got the nod for this game from coach Pia Sundhage over Megan Rapinoe. As the Women's World Cup was still being built up to, there were whispers among many soccer fans about the inconsistencies of this squad. Coach Sundhage knew that something had to change and took a bold risk in inserting the more-recently experienced Cheney over Rapinoe. She also demonstrated the kind of leadership that recognizes Rapinoe as the type of player to overcome what some might see as an insult. The gambit obviously paid off, and Team USA now has something positive to focus on, instead of subliminally addressing those whispers.

Team USA has plenty more ground to cover in order to be mentioned with some of the classic teams that came before them, but what we saw on Tuesday (in the second half, at least) is a positive sign of things to come. The women get their next chance to prove their mettle on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN 2 at 10 AM local time, and will be simulcast on ESPN3.com.

Friday, June 24, 2011

comic for the week of 06/22/11.

Just one again this week. There is certainly a feeling in my brain that comics are becoming something that's more of a rarity for me. At this point, I feel like I buy more Vertigo, Image, Icon, IDW, Dark Horse (etc.) than Marvel and DC combined. Which is weird, but also nice. And yeah, I know that several of those are sub-imprints. Regardless...

Fables 106 - I don't know how to talk about this book without spoilers and without blatantly bragging about how right I was. So, I guess that's your warning. There's gonna be spoilers. Mister Dark is gone! It seems like it was way, way, way too easy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the waiting and the anticipating is actually better than the gift. So the North Wind goes all kung-fu on Dark and our shock revelation is that Bellflower and her husband (both of whom we knew long, long ago - just another example of the great plotting by Willingham) have been called to trap them both. No need for Ozma here. Of course, that kind of bums her out (& Pinocchio, too) but there's no doubting that the gang is all happy and relieved - except Bigby, of course. Dad went and sacrificed himself nobly, so now we'll have the new relationship between the Big Bad Wolf and his absent father to deal with - not a bad thing. Flycatcher finally gives us some honesty (they weren't going to make it!), the cult of the Blue gets even deeper (he did come back! He was just too quick for any of us to see), a nod to Rose Red's future (ohhhh, possibilities!) and the ending gives us a new direction for the Wolf clan. All this and we didn't even get to see the Dark City or the previously-Fat Lady. What a book.

Again, when there's only one, I'm not going to get into double duty. But Fables just crossed 100 issues about six months ago, and now it's finished with this arc. If you're waiting for a jump-on point, this is it!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

(the) winter (of) sports.

This is the worst time to be a sports fan.

Late June to early August has always been a tough time. There are years when we have the Summer Olympics to get us by. There's a brief respite for the Tour de France, although it's lost some of its luster recently. And yes, I am excited about both the upcoming Women's World Cup as well as the 15th WNBA Season. But there's no denying these are dark times.

The NBA, NFL and NHL are all done with their seasons. MLB, for those who care, hasn't really picked up any steam yet, by this point in the season. But most importantly, for now, the two behemoths of American sports, basketball and football, seem to be on a collision course with no righting in sight.

The NFL is already locked out and the NBA appears to be heading that way. As though sports fans weren't already mired in the traditionally worst time of the year, that slog is now compounded by the fact that it might stretch on even longer.

We've already covered extensively why this is happening in both of these leagues, so for now, let's focus on the positive: there are reports that the NFL sides might be close to reconciliation. The NBA can learn from this NFL experience and perhaps avoid actually locking out.

But even more importantly, we can shift our focus from those leagues to the alternatives. The aforementioned Women's World Cup features not just a strong US team, but a hungry one. The Tour de France, free from those Americans that some claim the French love to hate, might have a chance to stand on its own, as opposed to being hounded by the WADA for violations; focusing on the actual sport and its real winner could prove to be a successful formula. And the WNBA is becoming a refined product on its own, not merely the litter sister league of the NBA.

The WNBA is trying to make summer - this ironic winter of sports - its time to shine: by celebrating 15 years of existence, the league gets to simultaneously advertise its product as well as remind viewers that this league is no longer an experiment. Love it or hate it, the WNBA appears to be here to stay. The human aspect of sports is really what captivates people, and the inclusion of fan voting on the top 30 WNBA players of all time seems a great place to start.

Bicycling Magazine says that of the 200+ riders who will take place in this year's Tour de France, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, two Americans, are some of the most worthy riders to watch. Perhaps America will once again have riders come from seemingly out of nowhere to challenge for the yellow jersey, enabling us to focus on the sport and the will of those who participate.

The Women's World Cup, taking place in Germany, presents a similar opportunity for the American women to take on the shadow that's been hanging over their program - in this case, for the last twelve years. In 1999, Brandi Chastain sealed a victory for America with her iconic penalty kick and celebration, but Team USA has been mired in mediocrity since then. Team USA is ranked first in the world, currently, and needs to perform in order to maintain the enthusiasm that is beginning to dwindle.

So while the millionaires of the NBA and NFL fight with their billionaire owners, take some time in this traditionally dark period to try to get back to the great storylines that make us truly care about sports.

Friday, June 17, 2011

comics for the week of 06/15/11.

I'm going to write a long-form entry about why I think the DC Reboot is a terrible idea, and why it's insulting to me as a long-time fan. Batgirl will be Exhibit A.

Batgirl 22 - This book is so good! And they're going to throw it all away. So, so, so, so dumb. Stephanie Brown is a character that the fans have fought on behalf of for a long time. Now, she's going to be swept under the rug. (I mean, maybe not? I have no idea! None of us know what's coming. But it just seems this way.) Regardless, this issue gives another compelling case that the single-issue story is NOT dead. Steph goes to London to team up with Squire, but she's really supposed to be there for a Batman Inc. meeting. (Providing the hook to next issue...brilliant writing!) The way the two girls play off each other (repeating lines, juxtaposing experiences as sidekicks versus being their own people) is reminiscent of those issues with Damian and Supergirl, but this one is better. There's a great plot involving Greenwich Mean Time and a baddie who's got a grudge against Knight, and all kinds of great British slang! What's not to love? The art's great, even if it's not Nguyen (what happened?) and the characters are worth our time and investment...except for the fact that they're not because they'll be gone in five months. Major bummer.

Invincible 80 - First of all, check out the cover! That's awesome! I wonder if Ottley ever thinks to himself, "If I knew I was gonna be drawing this (and getting paid to do so!) when I was a kid, I would have pooped my pants!" Cuz I would. Jesus, this book has just got something for everyone. I called out Page 9 on Twitter as being specifically written for a couple friends - how can Kirkman be so good?? Seriously, he takes the time to knock himself in the best way possible and then goes HARD after DC for this madness. It's not passive-aggressive, it's straight aggression and it comes off as delightful and deserved. At the same time, it's only one page in the book, and it's not beating us over the head with a semi-political point. What a writer! Regardless, tons of stuff happens in this issue, including Nolan and Debbie leaving the planet, Mark totally realizing William is gay (I'm glad this was followed up on, because, like I said, I didn't think it was totally obvious), Invincible showing compassion for a bank robber (is this going to come back to haunt him, or will this be the introduction to a new ally?), Eve and Mark dodging the baby issue and, of course, the climactic fight between Mark and Dinosaurus. Man. I did not think, last issue, when I saw that he was coming back, that it was going to go this far. I'm not going to spoil the ending except to say that this has major possibilities to change everything. The dino was not messing around.

Book of the week goes to Invincible. As great as Batgirl is and as hard as I'm trying to convince people that the DC Reboot is a bad idea, using Batgirl as the prime example, Invincible wins for page 9 and the shocking ending. When Robert Kirkman is on his game, I'm really not sure if there's anyone better right now in the comic book medium that can outwrite him. He's got long-term plans, he's got great artists, and he knows how to alternate between that soft and hard push that readers emotionally react to. Great stuff.

Monday, June 13, 2011

and so it ends.

The NBA season is over. The worst thing about that is the break might be longer than people anticipate.

The best thing about it, in some people's minds, is that the Miami Heat lost the title. The better way to put that, though, is that the Dallas Mavericks won the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

There's a lot to be said about the Heat and the way they joined forces and the incredible team that they've become and the team they'll inevitably continue to be. But as Rick Carlisle, head coach of the Mavericks, said, "Their time is later. Our time is now."

After Gregg Doyel of CBS asked LeBron James if he was 'shrinking from the moment' there were columns galore (including mine!) about how ridiculous that notion was. James was and is the best basketball player of his generation. He's (almost) undoubtedly the best basketball player on any court at any time. But as the disappearing act continued to hit new highs (or lows, as it was) almost everyone wanted to get in on the act.

As much as this criticism is (now-) warranted - James scored 107 points over the six games in the series, but only 18 of those in the six collective fourth quarters - James and the Heat are not and should not be the story here.

Dirk Nowitzki is finally an NBA champion, and Mark Cuban is so happy that he cursed on live television. More importantly, the magical post-season run that the Mavs and Nowitzki have gone on is now complete. No more having to live with the nightmare collapse of the 2006 Finals against the Heat. Although Jason Terry and Nowitzki are the only players from that team still with the Mavs, there's been a subconscious sort of collective scar hanging over the Dallas team for the last five years. No one will have to deal with that ever again.

And the Mavs won not only Game 6, but the series as a whole. James' disappearing act notwithstanding, Dallas played phenomenal defense. Head coach Carlisle showed a willingness to go to a zone to throw off the Heat, as well as to alter his starting lineup when he sensed things weren't working. Nowitzki played his tail off the whole series, even when feeling under the weather. When the Mavs lost Game 2 and Nowitzki complained in the post-game press conference that he needed help, Terry, Jason Kidd, Deshawn Stevenson and Tyson Chandler all took turns standing up in the next few games.

Now, the narrative shifts once again. First, the fear of the lockout. The two sides are far apart right now, but should get a deal done to have a season. Secondly, though, we'll get to continue our obsessive tracing of the journey of the Miami Heat. Will Dallas be able to retool and get enough rest to fit a returning Caron Butler back into a system that wants to defend a title? Will Chicago or Atlanta or Boston give the Heat a more serious challenge for supremacy in the East? Regardless of what happens, it's a long wait until next season. Sunday ended a long, beautiful season in a way that everyone, regardless of which team they were cheering for, could cheer about.

Friday, June 10, 2011

comics for the week of 06/08/11.

Trying to continue with comics is about to get a lot harder for me. Every day that goes on, I get less and less enthused about this DC reboot. It's looking like I might be dropping close to everything. Prove me wrong DC! If the books are good, I'll still want to buy them. But it's hard to keep buying product from someone who's punching you in the face.

Batman and Robin 24 - Jason Todd's story continues. It's getting less compelling. I love Winick writing Jason Todd, but it feels like something is missing from this story. The call to care about Scarlet is foreign, because I've never really cared about her in the first place. The weird animal mercenaries were off because they felt more like a Morrison creation. And most of all, the art is just awful. It's this pseudo-looking paint job, I don't really know what it is, but it's really bad. I like the relationship between Dick and Damian but all I can think is that in four months it's not going to exist. This DC reboot isn't just threatening my future with comics, it's affecting my current enjoyment.

The New Avengers 13 - Mockingbird is going to die! Oh wait, no she's not. We were never really worried, but at least now we have a reason for that crappy 1950s Avengers story (with terrible Chaykin art!) - it gives us the Nazis version of the Super Soldier Serum. Sure, that seems like a good idea to put into Bobbi's bloodstream. I know Clint is desperate and all, but really? Would he just whole hog like that? (Oh yeah, it's Hawkeye. He definitely would.) Anyway, this story, FINALLY, seems like it's wrapping up, so maybe we can get some forward momentum going now. I can see what people were complaining about with Bendis in regards to the compressed storytelling on Daredevil now. Let's go!

The Unwritten 26 - Citizen Taylor concludes and we get ready for the real second arc of this book. It's about to get seriously good. And it was already so good before. Tom Taylor comes out of the auction like the triumphant hero we know he is and when he, Savoy and Lizzie get back home, they're ready to move on to the next step. Whatever that is, it'll be great. They get the treat of meeting with Freaky Puppet Lady Nun, who doesn't seem all that eager to help the auctioneers, despite the guarantee that she's a bad guy. There's an allusion to an agreement she had with Wilson, and there's more proof of the power of the Cabal, albeit on a delayed time table. This really is the best book coming out right now.

TPB: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft - Let me start this by saying that this is EASILY the best new comic that I've read in a long, long time. Better than Scalped, for sure, maybe even up there with the excitement that I felt when I first read The Unwritten. Locke and Key is a series that I've been trying to get into for a while but now that I've read the first trade, I feel like it's going to happen. It's reached a critical mass. The story concerns the Locke family, who relocates to Keyhouse, because the father is killed by one of his ex-students (he was a guidance counselor). There are three kids (boy, girl, boy) and a mom leftover and the deceased dad's brother is the kind uncle figure. The house has doors that can be changed by certain keys. The one that figures prominently in this book is the Death Door, wherein if you unlock it with the right key, when you step through, your body dies and your ghost is free to go where you please. When your ghost decides to come back to your body, you live again.

The concept is fascinating, the art is amazing and the story is one of a kind. It's a medley, sure, and there are familiar tropes, but good Lord! What an incredible book this is. If you haven't been reading Locke & Key, like me, the trades are available all the way through the fourth series (there's going to be six?) and the fifth is currently coming out. I highly, highly recommend you hop on board, get caught up and get into this series. It's mind-blowingly good.

Book of the week goes to Locke & Key purely out of shame that it's taken me this long to get on the train. A series this good has been coming out for almost three years and I'm just now getting into it? The Unwritten will have to be bumped this week, just to excuse my ignorance. Go get it!

Monday, June 6, 2011

the finals: where amazing basketball is ignored.

If you follow basketball at all, or perhaps in more than a half-hearted manner, you know that the NBA Finals are happening. You know that LeBron James teamed up with Dwyane Wade in South Beach and brought Chris Bosh with him to play for the Miami Heat. You know they're playing against the Dallas Mavericks, with loyal soldier Dirk Nowitzki raising his game to the highest level it's ever been just in time for the most important games of his career. You probably also know that the Heat beat the Mavs in the 2006 Finals, in a series that some remember with more than a glint in their eyes for the way the refs called the game and the amount of times Wade went to the line.

If you don't follow basketball, you're probably much like the gentleman behind me at the bar last night, explaining the game to his wife: "Remember when we were at Brad's for Easter? And we were watching the NBA Playoffs? Yeah, this is still them. Can you believe it?" And I mean no insult when I say this, but you're probably the type of person who is interested in stories with headlines like this: "Mavs Motivated by Miami's Premature Celebration?" and "Is LeBron James 'Shrinking' From the Moment?".

As I said, I mean no insult, but it has to be said: these headlines, these stories, are inane. They're pointless, beyond striving for clicks in the Internet era, and they ignore the fundamental truth to what's been an amazing post-season for the NBA: the Finals are happening and they are demonstrating some great basketball!

For those who complain that the NBA is a one-man offense, isolation play after isolation play, we've seen what happens when two superstars and a legitimate third option come together. We've seen what happens when they don't have anyone to back them up (the troubles of the Miami Heat in December and January weren't because James or Wade were struggling) and we've seen what happens when role players step into their roles willingly and successfully: Udonis Haslem is averaging 5 points and 2.6 rebounds in the Finals, while Mario Chalmers joins in with 11 points and 2 assists - does anyone think it's a coincidence that the Heat are playing at the level they are?

On the other hand, the Mavs swing the ball with precision. In last night's game, they had 18 assists on 28 field goals, hardly a sign of a team that's dominated by one presence, even though everyone on the court knows Dirk is a born shooter. Jason Terry shot a poor 38%, while still kicking in 15 points and Dallas still had a chance to win the game.

Lastly, these games have been defensive stands, where a lot of analysts assumed that Miami would be smacking around the Mavs with their star-studded offense. No team has scored more than 95 points in the three Finals games so far. With the exception of Game 1, where the Mavs just came out flat, both games have come down to final possessions.

Instead of enjoying the game or analyzing what actually happened on the court, a lot of the media are simply crafting their narratives. Who cares that Dwyane Wade played a monster game last night, with 29 points and 11 rebounds, let's ask about LeBron not being the alpha dog. By pigeon-holing the games and the Finals as a whole into the story-structure that they want, a lot of the media, and the people who read those stories, are missing out on the high level of basketball that's being played.

Friday, June 3, 2011

comics for the week of 06/01/11.

I missed the last two weeks, but I'm not going to play catch up. Instead, let's talk about DC's new approach relaunch everything! I'm not a fan. I don't like being pandered to, and I feel like this is pandering in the largest sense possible. But, perhaps, I'll get into this in more detail soonish. For now, some notes on some books.

Abin Sur: Green Lantern 1 (of 3) - An interesting look at what might have been. Abin Sur is a great template for any GL story and he's used to perfection here. The contrast between him and Sinestro is striking, and even more so, the ways in which he and Hal approach the Guardians; some similarities, sure, but... I loved the last page with Sinestro and Atrocitus and am willing to buy this side mini-series, even though I usually veto things of this nature. The only way it would be better is if Johns was writing it, although Adam Schlagman does a fine enough job, but especially if someone else was on the art duties. This book calls for something other than the super cartoony tone, which is all I got out of it thus far. Not bad art, by any means, but not really fleshing out the tone of the book, in my opinion, either.

Flashpoint 2 (of 5) - The source of all the controversy! The book that I was barely even willing to buy! Well...it turns out that it's pretty good. The art by Andy Kubert is solid and the writing from Johns even feels like there are little subtle nods to everyone about what's going on and what's happened in the past. ("What kind of name is Eobard?" I love it!) The real pull to things like this is the trivia (that's why they're good in small doses, like the five-issue miniseries we have here, not the company-wide relaunching they're aiming for) so, naturally, I'm curious as to who the Gimp/Sonar is in the beginning of the book. But it's great to see Aquaman and Wonder Woman freed as the primal forces they always could have been. The intrigue with Thomas Wayne is a great thing, too, but it plays out a little too much like Bruce here. I suppose that's the point, but it's over the top by the end. Speaking of the end, I like the twist and wish they'd go forward with something along these lines, but we all know that won't be the case. Regardless, Flashpoint has turned into a solid read and I'm sure that, with what we know of the ramifications looming at the end of August, it'll shove plenty onto our plates in the next few issues.

Shield 1 - Great issue, super confusing, tons of fun, and felt like only a part of the story. This could be the one-line description for every single issue of Shield we've gotten so far. As I said above with the DC renumbering idea, I'm not a fan of arbitrarily going back to number one. I get that they're different stories, but it's still the same book; why not keep the numbering? Aside from that small complaint, I think this was a nice re-intro to the series. Someone who hadn't read the first ... chapter (?) could conceivably pick this up and not be too lost. (At least, not more lost than me, and I read the whole thing.) The battle lines are drawn between Newton and da Vinci, but I get the feeling that we'll be learning more backstory and filling in the gaps with Tesla and Leonid in this arc than actually seeing the battle, or the outcome. I'm fine with that, of course, because Hickman is just doing a great job with this idea. I did wonder as I was reading through the character bios at the back, if there were any living relatives of Newton's to whom Hickman's going to owe an apology (or more) to. Great stuff, as always.

Book of the week goes to Flashpoint for making me eat my words. I love it when a comic turns out better than I thought it was going to be, and that's the case when Geoff Johns plots an event. It's almost always better than I anticipate, and that's always a good thing. I love the alternate-world idea, always have, and am intrigued by what's going to happen here in this world to affect our own so drastically. (I know, I know! They're not different worlds. This is our world. Deal with it.) If you weren't picking up Flashpoint before the August 31 news, I'm sure you are now.