Saturday, April 26, 2014

Kong: King of Skull Island by Joe DeVito with Brad Strickland and John Michlig (2004)

Cover blurb

In 1932, American showman Carl Denham returned from a mysterious, hidden island with a priceless treasure – a treasure not of gold or jewels, but the island’s barbaric god, a monstrous anthropoid bearing the name of “Kong.” The savage giant escaped and wrecked havoc through the concrete jungle of Manhattan, but within hours of the beast’s death plummet from the peak of the Empire State Building, his body - and Carl Denham - disappeared. Twenty-five years later, the son of Carl Denham makes a shocking discovery that leads him to the site of his father’s greatest adventure and to answers that will unlock the secrets surrounding nature’s greatest miracle… and history’s greatest mystery.

Authorized by the estate of King Kong’s creator, Merian C. Cooper, Kong: King of Skull Island is a lavishly illustrated novel that acts as both prequel and sequel to the classic novel King Kong. Created by the acclaimed illustrator Joe DeVito and co-written by DeVito and top fantasy and science fiction author Brad Strickland (with John Michlig), Kong: King of Skull Island remains true to the classic Kong legend while illuminating new discoveries that will deepen the original story. Introduction by special-effects master Ray Harryhausen (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad).

My thoughts

Kong: King of Skull Island is a sequel to the classic 1933 film King Kong that pretends that the official sequel, Son of Kong, never happened. After the events of the movie, Carl Denham, the showman who brought Kong to New York, disappears along with the body of the giant ape. Fast forward to 1957, when his son, paleontologist Vincent Denham, finds his father’s map showing the hidden location of Kong’s home, Skull Island.

Denham recruits an elderly Jack Driscoll – the hero of the first film – to take him to the island. Once there, Denham is injured while making his way to shore and ends up in the care of an elderly native woman known as the Storyteller. She lives up to her name by telling Denham a story about a native princess, the tribe’s first encounter with white people, a cult that worships an evil beast god named Gaw, and young giant gorilla who would one day be known as Kong…

Kong: King of Skull Island is part-novella, part illustrated coffee table book. DeVito provides the background story and illustrations while Strickland and Michlig flesh out the text. The art is a mix of black-and-white drawings and full-color paintings. I preferred former to the latter, as most paintings appeared hazy and washed-out, like looking at a scene through a greasy lens. That’s not an indictment of DeVito’s artistic skill, which is considerable. It’s more a reflection of my own taste in art than any failings of the artist.

As for the text, it’s serviceable. The movie was a non-stop thrill ride, and Kong: King of Skull Island has plenty of action scenes for adventure lovers. But the book also delivers some heavy-handed messages about cultural relations and – strangely – religion while trying to explain away many of the mysteries of the setting: Why did the natives build a giant wall? Where did Kong come from? And why do the islanders make sacrifices to the giant ape? The authors’ skills are not up to telling anything more than a simple action tale, so when they try to get profound, it comes off as awkward and forced. They would have been better off if they had stuck to the film’s pulp adventure tone.

Kong: King of Skull Island is probably not worth tracking down unless you’re a big fan of the original movie. I give the book’s creators credit for trying to expand the film’s universe, but at the same time feel like they missed the point: King Kong was about mystery and adventure, not self-reflection and religious mysticism. The book is a better sequel than Son of Kong, but still lacking when compared to the source material.

  • The book was released as an iPad app a couple years ago by the company Copyright 1957. Some samples of the app can be viewed on the company’s YouTube feed. (I haven’t seen the app, so I can’t say how it compares to the book.)
  • The production company Spirit Pictures announced in 2009 it was making a CGI movie based on the book. There has been little news since then, except for a false rumor last year that horror director Neil Marshall was helming the project.
  • Joe DeVito is an illustrator and sculptor. Samples of his work can be seen on his official website,
  • Brad Strickland has penned more than 60 novels, mostly science fiction and fantasy, according to his Wikipedia page.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island by Weta Workshop (2005)

Cover blurb

It was an uncharted island somewhere off the coast of Sumatra, it was a land whispered about by merchants and sailors. It was a place so unbelievable that no one dared believe in its existence. Except for one man, the extraordinary Carl Denham. Many will, of course, remember his show on Broadway and its tragic ending. But New York is not where the story ended, it is where it began.

In 1935 a joint expedition of several prominent universities and organizations called Project Legacy was launched. Its stated mission goal was to create the first of several field guides to Skull Island, a land filled with creatures existing outside their time, where dinosaurs roamed, evolved, and still lived. Only a year later it was discovered that the island was doomed; the geological forces that had formed the island were now tearing it apart. There were only seven more abbreviated expeditions to the island before its destruction and the start of World War II.

The journals, sketches, and detailed notes to the scientists who braved Skull Island would have continued to gather dust on shelves across the plant were it not for the work of the authors of this book. Here for the first time is there work, collected in a comprehensive editions of the natural history of this lost island. Here is The World of Kong.

My thoughts

You may or may not have fond memories of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. As for myself, I enjoyed the movie but wish Jackson had curbed some of his cinematic excesses. (He almost lost me when he had T. rexes swinging through vines like Tarzan.) Most of the movie was set on Skull Island, a prehistoric isle that was King Kong’s home. The World of Kong is a glimpse of that world, and it may please even those who didn’t like the film.

The book is essentially a field guide to the wildlife of the island, showcasing not only the many animals seen in the movie, but also a wide variety of creatures that never received any screen time. The central idea behind The World of Kong is that Skull Island’s dinosaurs didn’t stop evolving when the rest of their kin went extinct 65 million years ago. That’s why we get T. rexes – here dubbed “V. rexes” – with three fingers instead of two and velociraptors the size of horses. The team as Weta Workshop – the special effects house that worked on the movie – let their imaginations run wild, but at the same time kept most of their animals grounded in the science of paleontology. Anyone familiar with prehistoric wildlife will recognize the inspirations for many of the creatures showcased throughout the book’s pages.

The artwork itself is gorgeous, capturing the moody atmosphere of the island. As for the text, there is no overarching story, just descriptions of each of the animals. Sometimes the folks at Weta get a little carried away, such one entry about an implausibly large spider that eats dinosaurs. And the artists are too focused on depicting predators, leaving one to wonder how all those carnivores managed not to starve to death. Those are just minor complaints though: The World of Kong will please anyone who loves fantasy illustration or dinosaurs.

  • While many of the animals in the book didn’t make it into the movie, some of them were featured in the tie-in video game.
  • Two of the animals featured in the book – the Triceratops-like Ferrucutus and the eel-like Piranhadon – were in scenes cut from the theatrical release of the movie. However, their scenes were restored in the extended edition of the film. (The extended edition is, in my opinion, the superior version.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tyrannosaurus Wrecks by Glen Frank (1985)


TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS is a science fiction game for two to four players depicting a hunt for the biggest game imaginable - dinosaurs. Each player controls one Hunter, who has traveled into the past in a time machine to try to win fame and fortune by becoming the most successful dinosaur killer.

My thoughts

Ah, the ‘80s. I was a kid watching Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday morning TV and playing video games on my Atari 2600. But some of my fondest memories were those rare visits to a bookstore in a college town near where I grew up. It kept all the respectable stuff up front, but in the back of the store was a room – a glorious room – stocked with pen-and-paper roleplaying games and other nerd manna. That’s where you would have found Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

Tyrannosaurus Wrecks calls itself a board game but really it is a microgame – a genre that seems to have died out with the rise the modern video game. Microgames were games published in paperback booklets. They often came with punch-out cardboard pieces that substituted for the plastic pieces found in regular board games. Many were wargames, but in truth they covered a wide variety of genres. Their rules were complex and chaotic, with the authors usually more concerned about creating a roleplaying experience than delivering balanced gameplay.

As advertised, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks puts players in the shoes of time-traveling, big-game hunters out to bag dinosaurs. Scientific accuracy is the first thing to be thrown out the window as the game mixes a dinosaurs from a variety of eras into the same setting. Dinosaurs are placed on the playing board in different locations depending on the scenario. Hunters start at locations randomly determined by a roll of the die. Players have 20 turns to kill as many dinosaurs as they can and return to their time machines or risk being stranded in the past.

At its heart, the game is all about tables. Shoot a dinosaur, roll a die and compare the result to a table to see what happens. Move into a new space, roll a die and look up what happens on an event table. Start a turn, roll a die to see if the volcano erupts. As you can see, there is a lot of dice rolling in Tyrannosaurus Wrecks. In fact, at the start of every turn, you must roll a die for each and every dinosaur to determine what direction it moves. This is not a game for people with short attention spans or who do not like repetitive action.

I enjoy Tyrannosaurus Wrecks for what it is while recognizing that, from a gameplay perspective, it probably isn’t very good. This is a game you play just to see what crazy things will happen rather play to try to win. Maybe it's just the nostalgia speaking, but if you are in the mood for hunting dinosaurs, you can’t go wrong with Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

  • While the game is advertised for 2-4 players, it plays perfectly fine as a solitaire game. In fact, it may play best solo as there isn’t a lot of downtime between turns.
  • More information about the game can be found on its BoardGameGeek entry page.
  • As of this writing, the game is available as a print-and-play PDF file from It is also available on the publisher’s website.
  • None

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Half-Past Danger by Stephen Mooney (2013)


Summer, 1943. Sargent Tommy “Irish” Flynn is leading a squad of U.S. soldiers through the jungles of a remote South Pacific isle when he stumbles upon a secret Nazi base. Before he gets a chance to report what he saw, his squad is attacked and decimated by a pair of T. rexes, with Flynn the only survivor. Fast forward two months: Flynn, now deeply haunted by his experience, is recruited by the U.S. Army and MI6 Agent Miss Huntington-Moss to return to the island, find out what the Nazis want with the dinosaurs, and stop them at any cost.

My thoughts

Half-Past Danger was a six-issue comic miniseries that was apparently a labor of love for its creator, Stephen Mooney, who provided the art and story. It’s an obvious homage to the pulps of yesteryear and to early comics such as The War That Time Forgot. Mooney’s passion for the subject shines through, particularly in the illustrations, which are excellent.

I wish I could say the same for Mooney’s storytelling abilities. The first issue provides a nice setup, but by the second issue Mooney is in too much of a hurry to get to the action. He spills the big secret of the island and devotes the remaining issues to a series of chases, each more implausible than the next. There also are a couple of plot twists that frankly don’t make a lot of sense. And, to be honest, he overuses T. rexes – I would have liked to have seen a wider variety of dinosaurs.

That said, I don’t want to come across as too negative because I enjoyed the comic despite its flaws. It’s fun, brainless entertainment, and the artwork alone is worth the price of admission. Half-Past Danger is worth picking up if you come across it.