Great Moments in Comic History: The Walking Dead in Color!

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This is the fifth and final entry in my limited edition miniseries covering some of my favorite landmark stories from modern classic comic books. For those of you who don’t want to wait for the trade paperback collection, the back issues are here, here, here, and here.

At first I was looking at the 80’s and 90’s, but then it occurred to me that if anything we’ve probably got more comics than ever with better art and writing, and more diversity in those titles. Great moments are still happening on a monthly basis so why wait a couple decades to acknowledge them?

I’m breaking form for this final entry in a few ways. Previous titles were the big dogs at Marvel and DC; this one is from the always up-and-coming and increasingly impressive Image Comics. Also, I defined “great moments” as stories that represented game changers in their respective worlds, set a benchmark for quality, or stood out as a defining moment for a classic character. But some things you just can’t categorize, so today I’m remembering The Walking Dead #75, in which Robert Kirkman trolled his entire readership, gave me one of the most memorable and unexpected issues I’ve ever received in the mail, and created possibly the only genuine “you had to be there” moment I’ve ever been privy to in the medium. I don’t think this counts as spoilers.

There’s a fan backstory leading up to this issue and what made it so special, but we’ll get to that later. The issue begins as a typical continuation of the ongoing arc in which Rick’s motley crew is settling in a new community named Alexandria. Rick himself has resumed the sheriff duties of his previous life and the story features The Walking Dead in classic form as Rick struggles with balancing justice against the common good. In this case, his feral nature from the hardships of his previous experiences gets the better of him and he becomes the threat he’s supposed to be protecting the Alexandria from. That’s when Michonne clobbers him from behind with a rock and the issue ends.

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….or does it?

After the traditional Letter Hacks section in the original print of the comic, the story picks up on the other side with Rick waking up and finding himself in a strange new world in full color, which was an absolute first for the black and white comic. From there, it’s nine pages of complete WTF.

Rick is inside of an alien spaceship, where they have replaced the hand he lost at Woodbury with a cybernetic one. After suiting up in a superhero costume, he falls out of the ship into the middle of a warzone filled with zombies, aliens, and deceased comrades come back to life as superheroes. Michonne shows up wielding a lightsaber and explains that this was the plan all along. The zombies were just the beginning of an alien race’s nefarious plan to harvest the Earth’s water supply.

And then BAM! A robotic arm reaches out and crushes her skull. It’s the Governor’s head mounted on a robot body with Rick’s dead wife Lori clinging desperately to his leg demanding that Rick join the alien overlords or die! Now, at this point I genuinely feel sorry for people who thought this was all canon, but they were out there.

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If nothing else the “not to be continued” on the last page should have clued everyone in, but humor is lost on the humorless. To be fair, this was a doozy of an in-joke, though. Since the beginning of The Walking Dead, the letters section had been inundated with demands to reveal the source of the zombie infection. Kirkman glibly claimed that aliens did it which was satire on several levels, not the least of which was the fact that Image threatened to pass on the comic when he pitched it unless there was more to it than a zombie apocalypse. He pulled the alien concept out of his ass to get the publisher to green light it. After the comic was an instant smash hit he didn’t really have much fear of cancelation and it was pretty obvious to readers from the tone of the book that no, there would be no goddamn aliens.

Still, Kirkman joked repeatedly that maybe aliens would arrive in issue 75. It was clearly a joke. Clearly. But that wasn’t all. Foreshadowing the gag even further was the variant cover for issue 50, which was a joke cover portraying the characters as superheroes like so:

That’s two years in advance, kids. Rest assured no readers thought this shit was really going to happen. So when issue 75 rolled around and it was just another issue, it was quite a shock to finish the letters and then find complete insanity on the other side. People who’d been reading the comic complete with fan mail from the start would probably be the only ones to fully appreciate the hilarity of the bonus story that closed the issue, but those of us who did laughed until we died and rose again, still laughing.

As a bonus on top of the bonus, The Walking Dead #75 closed with the first official look at the primary cast of the then-upcoming television show, but what made this one the most memorable issue for me was the complete audacity and years-long build-up that led to the creation of the bizarre alternate universe story that also marked the first time the biggest black and white comic in the industry appeared in color.

Sadly, this little slice of weirdness has been expunged from collected editions of the comic since trade paperback collectors probably wouldn’t really appreciate what went into it and would see is as a pointless affront to their super-serious “graphic novel” series. The only way to read it is online or in the original issue. Nonetheless, for those who were there and got the joke, this was a one of a kind experience for a comic that was only known before and since for dark and gritty tales of horror. And in my book, that makes it a great moment in comic history.

Great Moments in Comic History: Pryde of the X-Men

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The history of modern comics has been an interesting one for sure, and it’s only getting better. So far during my ongoing limited-edition miniseries about unforgettable and influential stories from comicdom’s past I’ve focused on past decades, but the medium continues to grow and evolve and comic history is still being made today. So for my last two entries are going to focus on more recent events that will likely be looked upon fondly by the connoisseurs of sequential art narrative for decades to come.

A great moment in comic history is made up of storytelling landmarks of resounding significance, definitive moments for classic characters, or of sheer artistic quality. This week, I’m going back a mere 6 years to Giant Size Astonishing X-Men #1, which served as the grand finale for Joss Whedon’s brillliant run writing Marvel’s premiere mutant superteam. If nothing else, John Cassaday’s artwork assured its place in the hearts of comic fans, and the story also debuted Marvel’s SWORD organization (Sentient World Observation and Response Department – kind of like an intergalactic SHIELD) but the reason I’m choosing this issue in particular is to highlight one of the most underrated characters in Marvel’s stable. Because what Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men did more than any of the other awesome things it did was show that Katherine “Kitty” Pryde is the coolest member of Marvel’s coolest team. There will be spoilers, as always.

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As with most any good comic story, the groundwork for the big splash was laid out well in advance. Absolutely anybody looking for a great comic series to test Marvel’s waters would do well to start with Astonishing X-Men: Gifted and carry on all the way through the 25 issues ending with the Unstoppable arc, which we’ll be dealing with today. Knowledge of the X-Men definitely helps one appreciate the story more for sure, but the run is pretty much designed to welcome relative newcomers as well. It’s hard to do that since the X-Men represent possibly the most convoluted mess in all comicdom, but I’d say this pulls it off as much as could be expected.

Writing the X-Men was a dream job for Joss Whedon, who (before The Avengers) was best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Seeing that he’s on record as saying Kitty Pryde was a primary influence for that character, it was no surprise that she ended up on his 2004 rebranding of the team after a long absence. The storyline picks up after Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run that saw former Hellfire Club White Queen Emma Frost join her former enemies and the mutant island of Genosha completely destroyed, among other things. The run started small and slowly built up to cosmic world-ending proportions before the big finale which put the fate of Earth entirely in the hands of arguably the X-Men’s weakest member from a power perspective.

Kitty’s abilities are limited to phasing through solid objects, and she can only do that for as long as she can hold her breath. The misconception here is that she’s just a girl who can walk through walls, and with a lesser character that might have been true. But Wolverine used to be just a dude with claws too. She went through a lot of phases and codenames before settling on plain old Kitty Pryde, has been the new girl, been dragon punched by Deadpool for laughs while playing as Wolvie’s sidekick, had her role in the classic 90’s cartoon handed to Jubilee, was recently wasted in the film adaptation of Days of Future Past in spite of Ellen Page being perfect for the role, and has just too often been discounted as a character.

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….aaaaand now you’ve pretty much seen her entire role in the last film. Even Ratner did better by her.

The theme of Whedon’s run was ultimately Kitty becoming a true independent badass of a woman by resolving her outstanding issues on the team, including her romance with Colossus and bitter past with Frost. Becoming intangible may seem like a novelty when you’re amongst titans who can control the weather, level buildings with eyebeams or your fists, enter minds from across the globe, or whatever, but Kitty shows that it’s not about the size of your powers, it’s how you use them. Her resilience and intelligence made her a force to be reckoned with when the Hellfire Club took out the rest of her team in their own mansion and it was up to her to rescue them alone. And when all of the world’s greatest heroes combined were rendered useless against an unstoppable world-destroying threat, it was left to Kitty to stop the Earth from destruction.

The grand finale had the X-Men on a planet called Breakworld, which was planning on destroying Earth by firing a massive bullet called the Retaliator through space because of a prophecy where Colossus is destined to destroy their planet. Oblivion loves company, I guess. Unable to stop the launch of the world-shattering projectile from outside, Kitty Pryde phased herself inside of it before it launched and found herself trapped hurtling towards the destruction of her home planet, leaving her team facing a genocidal madman bent on using Colossus to destroy his own planet.

Meanwhile, back on Earth the other X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Earth’s other heavy hitters are made aware of the threat and gather themselves to save the planet, but they are stopped by a signal being sent out from the missile that targets their minds and leaves them stuck in their own world-saving fantasies, unable to act in real life. The Sentinel that destroyed Genosha –which has since become sentient and is experiencing great regret at its past actions- attempts to make amends by placing itself in the path of the bullet, but nothing can stop it.   

Kitty’s exhausted, and the unique properties of the intergalactic projectile seem to have fused to her when she phased through its mass. She feels like she’s got nothing left. She shares a touching personal moment with her former enemy Emma Frost via telepathic link and says a little prayer just before the bullet hits New York City…..

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….and goes straight through it without leaving a dent as she phases the whole goddamn thing through the entire planet. That’s what you call a show-stopping moment.

The tragedy is that with her sacrifice, Kitty is lost to the X-Men, still hurtling through space to god knows where, but that’s a hell of a way to go out. On the plus side, the X-Men saved two world from obliteration, Logan has a new protégé in Armor, and Beast is invited to join Lockheed and Agent Brand in SWORD (who would get their own spin-off), and Scott and Emma are still happy together after a major test. After the long, hard, crazy road Astonishing X-Men wound through, it was a fantastic and memorable way for Whedon and Cassaday to ruin the comic for the poor suckers who had to take over the title by being too freakin’ good an act to follow.

The initial run of this series was an instant classic recalling the glory days of Dark Phoenix Sagas and other stories that have stood the test of time. It was technically four arcs with great stories and character journeys and moments for the entire cast, but at the end of the day it’s paced as one story about Kitty Pryde evolving from the X-Men’s kid sister to a true heroine of epic proportions in her own right. And rarely does a superhero comic so truly live up to the adjective in its title.

It’s a fond wish of mine to see the whole thing on the big screen someday. If only there was a major film writer/director who was a proven hitmaker and had experience making blockbusters about Marvel superhero teams who could do this title justice…

 

How The Legend of Korra Restored Balance to Media Politics

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Man, it’s really over huh? In spite of a rocky start filled with Avatar fans complaining that the new show isn’t enough like The Last Airbender or was trying too much to be like the previous show or that Korra wasn’t as good as Aang or whatever, The Legend of Korra built an amazing narrative over the course of four seasons, endured being kicked off of its own rerun-packed kiddie network to become a mere webseries, and recently brought it all home with a closing scene that should probably qualify as an American animated television landmark even though it was never broadcast on television. Not too shabby.

Yeah, I’ll admit it, the first season started off with an amazing concept of abandoning the feudal-era setting of The Last Airbender by kicking the narrative two generations forward to an early 20th century steampunk setting, but kind of let me down with characters that didn’t seem as fresh as the previous series. I wasn’t crazy about the pro-bending storyline either. But during its run, Korra built up a lot of steam and made is seemingly unmemorable cast unforgettable by the time it was through.

Not only that, but it bested its parent series in terms of philosophical themes by presenting one of the most nuanced and frankly mature depictions of politics I’ve ever seen. The emergent theme of the show was never good versus evil, just like the Avatar isn’t about fighting evil. It’s all about balance; something we almost never see in the modern era. That makes the ending of the show especially bittersweet, because in spite of (or because of) its artistic merits, we’ll likely never see anything like it on television again. There will be minor spoilers

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Most shows are pretty complacent when it comes to their villains. You take a mean-looking dude
or perhaps a femme fatale and you have them do really bad stuff in the name of badness. They want to kill people because people are good and they’re bad. They want to take over or destroy the world and laugh maniacally while they do it because they’re so eeeeeevil. They’re businessmen who want to destroy all that’s good in the world because money. They’re oppressive governments run by Nazis and sadistic tyrants who want to rape damsels, lock people up, and do other bad stuff because that’s how they roll.

But let’s look at Korra’s gallery of rogues for a minute. Season one featured Amon, an Equalist fighting for the rights of those who were born without the gift of bending and are rendered second class citizens because of it. That’s….not evil at all. That’s a just cause. It’s just that he was planning on doing it by eliminating bending altogether and destroying someone else’s gift is a dick move.

Season two brought about Unalaq, Korra’s own uncle who was in touch with the world’s spirits and didn’t believe in their imposed segregation from humans or the abuse of their territories suffered at human hands. His goal was to reunite the estranged Northern and Southern water tribes via spiritual portals and restore balance by setting the spirits free to roam the world once again. Again, unity and equality. Too bad his religious devotion to balance included civil war and unleashing and embodying ultimate evil to counterweigh the Avatar’s goodness. Too much goodness isn’t a reason to do bad.

The third season unleashed a group of Red Lotus anarchists whose goal was to eliminate the social order that puts people in a place where they can oppress other people. Just like in our world, oppression relies on authority and on the artificial divisions of country and culture that inspire people to treat one another as enemies over superficial differences. In the past, they had attempted to kidnap Korra from her traditionalist teacher so that they could attempt to educate her in alternate worldview instead of the traditional status quo perspective each Avatar has had formally instilled in them without fail. A noble goal, but not one worth accomplishing by slaughtering world leaders to incite chaos or kidnapping children.

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Now you may have noticed that the first three seasons had antagonists that skewed heavily towards the leftist values of freedom and equality. Most of the time, it’s extreme conservatives and their desire to control people’s behavior and enforce order at the cost of freedom or to exploit others for personal gain (the “virtue of selfishness” as Ayn Rand called it) who end up being the default villains. Three consecutive seasons with liberal villains is just about unheard of, particularly in a series as progressive, modern, and philosophical (hippy dippy, if you like) as Avatar.

But then there’s the final season, in which an Earth Kingdom general named Kuvira attempts to pick up the pieces of the chaos brought about by previous seasons and return order, first to her country, and then to the world, whether they want it or not. She’s portrayed as a powerful, reasonable, poised, and extremely intelligent woman; not a maniac. In any other show, a character like this would be a heroine. Yet even Avatar Korra and her newfound lust for peace and willingness to compromise were unable to dissuade her in another excellent lesson that sometimes giving peace a chance just isn’t enough, as much as we wish it were.

So we finally get our traditional conservative villain. But when you consider what came before, you can see Legend of Korra’s brilliance shine through, even in utilizing a cliché. With Kuvira anchoring the parade of big bads, the overall arc of the show becomes a microcosm of history in which extremists ironically bring about and strengthen the very things they were trying to prevent or eliminate by their own actions.

Kuvira’s rise to power is precipitated by the Red Lotus’s assassination of the Earth Queen. The Red Lotus were former co-conspirators of Unalaq that escaped when the spirits were set free and their leader gained airbending abilities as a result. Add in Amon’s terroristic social agitation and you’re looking at a world where people are afraid and looking to a powerful figure promising to keep them safe, even at the cost of their own liberty. Chaos begets order, which will cyclically devolve back towards chaos. One extremity inevitably rises up to push back against the other. Balance.

It’s still very unusual for shows to make their villains as human and relatable as Legend of Korra did. It was a refreshingly realistic, complex, and adult look at the human mind and the way it processes politics and morality without regard for the consequences of bringing those beliefs to fruition. All of these individuals were looking to correct perceived unbalances and do what they thought was best for the people. The same as the Avatar. They had friends, they had family, they had lovers; they had lofty goals based on respectable ideals. But where each of them turned the corner was in using their higher purpose to absolve themselves of personal accountability for their actions and ignore the people they hurt on the way to accomplishing their ends.

Four Great TV Characters Who Are Gamers

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Gamers are pretty used to turning on the television and finding entire worlds where everybody has better things to do with their time than play video games. You know, saving the planet, falling in love, fighting crime, and whatnot. And when it isn’t that, it’s shitheads on the news blaming all of the world’s evils on us. A lunatic shot up a school. Video games often feature shooting. Coincidence? I think NOT!

Considering we make up a near-majority of the population, you’d think gamers would be better represented in American media, but considering the media purveyors consist mostly of a generation who fears the hobby on both a personal and professional level, we shouldn’t be surprised. But that doesn’t make the ban on representations of gamers a blanket one. Here are four awesome characters from television that are shown to actually enjoy playing video games. And only one of them is pure evil! I’ll take it.

Jimmy Shive-Overly

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FX’s You’re the Worst is probably the most underrated show on the air right now. In fact, I can’t think of anything else on basic cable or network television that makes me laugh out loud half as often. This is the kind of comedy show that reminds me that television can still surprise me with unexpected humor when I thought I’d seen it all. But we’re not here to talk about the state of sitcoms.

The show’s co-protagonist Jimmy is…well, he’s kind of a British me. Snarky, cynical, obsessed with brutal honesty, and utterly unwilling to bother with petty social graces when there’s so much horrible shit in the world. He can often be found playing up some Borderlands while wallowing in his own misery. And yes, this is what I consider positive representation for gamers. Or at least relatable representation. Okay, I take what I can get.

One of his funniest scenes involves a child offering friendship to the depressive adult, who responds with a lengthy rant about the absurdity of the notion of him relating to a mere child when his mind is so full of deep, soul-crushing, intellectual thoughts about the nature of big important stuff. Then the kid points out that his father gets early review copies of all the new games and Jimmy quickly reconsiders the offer. Irony attained.

Logan Griffen

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Alright, Gamemoirers. Close your eyes. Not literally because then you won’t be able to read the words, but picture you are now an immortal creature of the night. Drink a little blood here and there, and you can live FOREVER! What would you do with all that time? Damn straight, game like crazy. Being a vampire or a classical geek means you don’t get along with sunlight or other people and have no life anyways. It only makes sense for Logan Griffen to consolidate and be both.

Moonlight was a one-season wonder show that set out to retread all of the popular vampire-crime-fighter-meets-girl tropes. Not the most flattering description, but for what it’s worth the show was actually pretty good (and sparkle-free!). While the tall dark and handsome lead Mick was kept busy being all dreamy and manly and stuff, when he needed some help cracking his case he knew the value of nerd power.

Logan would usually be found in his vampire man-child cave playing some Halo or slamming on his Rock Band set-up. I’m sorry, Mr. Dark Romantic Hero, did you need something hacked before you get back to your slo-mo superjumps and torturing yourself over your impossible and dangerous love with that hot mortal girl? Sure, I’ve got a minute. I’ve got ALL the minutes.

Logan’s best moment comes in the series finale when he did something I would never have expected to see on a network television show clearly aimed at the female demographic. After spending the series just being the laughable loser that the romantic man of action uses as a means to an end, Logan finally leaps into action with the epic battle cry that shall resound in the hearts and minds of gamers forevermore: “Leeerooyyy…Jeeenkiiinssss!” I’ll buy that for a dollar.

Tim Bisley

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By now you might be noticing an early emerging trend that these gamer characters are not necessarily the best role models. That may be true, but neither are you. Or anyone else, if you look close enough *cough*billcosby*cough*. Actually, I kind of like this trend. Idealized characters are lame and unbelievable. They aren’t people, they are symbolic fantasies who are occasionally played by real life rapists. On some level, I think most of us prefer the warts and all approach to character development. It’s why socially incompetent heroes like Batman and Spider-Man will always be cooler than shining beacons of perfection like Superman and Captain America.

And that brings us to Spaced, where Simon Pegg’s character Tim deals with a break up by playing Tomb Raider and deliberately killing Lara Croft over and over in an amusing and slightly disturbing fit of misogynistic impulse. This is a particularly humorous illustration of the way people often displace their emotions in inappropriate ways. How much you want to bet those shitheads tweeting threats to online females under false pretenses are not really fueled by a lust for journalistic purity at all but by displaced romantic frustration? No takers? Thought so.

One sign of a really great show is that its characters are all messed up and you love them anyways. In fact, this is kind of what geek-flavored shows tend to be about. With all that social non-acceptance out there beating us down, we’ve had to focus on ways to love ourselves as we are and you can’t do that while you’re lying about who you are. Tim and his friends may be prone to insane neuroses, but at the end of the day, they’re still awesome people. Awesome people whose arguments occasionally become live action representations of Tekken matches.

Frank Underwood

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How do you even define what constitutes a villain anymore? Fire up your Netflix and watch House of Cards before you attempt to answer. Following in the morally questionable footsteps of Breaking Bad, this one decides to go one further. Walter White was a teacher with the good intentions of providing for his family from the start, but when we meet U.S. Senator Frank Underwood he is already a nasty piece of work with one and only one goal in mind: crush everybody not aligned with his own self-interest. And after a hard day of political intrigue, sex, and murder he likes to wind down with a little Call of Duty. You know, just to focus on that last one for a while.

A gamer in the Senate? Say it ain’t so, ’Murica. Actually, within a couple decades, it’s likely a big chunk of our government will be made up of gamers. Don’t rejoice just yet though, my geeky brethren and sistren. Have you not played online? The gamers who rise up to inherit our awful government probably won’t be lovable Zelda girls or harmless Final Fantasy fanboys. We’ll still be wasting our lives doing the things we love as often as we can. The winners are always going to be the ones willing to sell their souls and ruin the things they love most to get what they want.

Senator Underwood may play Call of Duty, but I’ll bet my PlayStation he is a spawn-camping piece of shit. Think about how the guy lives. He’s never given a fair shake in his life. Every person he meets as he climbs to ladder towards the White House is nothing but one more way to add to his score. Kind of the way people use each other in multiplayer gaming.

But while some of us are more than willing to play fair and enjoy a well-played match for its own sake win or lose, there are always the modders and the glitch-exploiters and other people who are willing to suck all of the enjoyment out of playing the game as it was intended because beating other people is the only object to them. Fun is a buzzword for losers. These are the people who will rise to the top. And that’s Frank. He already has everything he could ever need or want in life. All that’s left is the thrill of destroying another human being just because he can. He’s the hardest core gamer of them all.

Their Generation: Is Gaming Becoming a Spectator’s Sport?

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Being a parent is a great tool for learning life lessons. I know I’m the one who is supposed to be imparting life lessons to my progeny, but I’m a gamer and I don’t want to grow up. Anyways, there are those moments where you realize that the things young people do make no sense to you at all. When you cluelessly say something to your kid that makes you sound like your own clueless parents did when you were young and with it and they just didn’t understand. Only now it’s you, gramps.

My son always had access to video games, but he never really started playing them for reals until he discovered Minecraft. I was really pleased because out of all the available games, that one personifies limitless creativity the most and if there was one thing I could will into my child, that would be it. Creativity means never being bored and always looking forward to the next adventure with a positive outlook on how you can make it yours. So craft your mines, kid. Craft ‘em like there’s no tomorrow.

But after a few months, he wasn’t so much about playing Minecraft anymore. What he really wanted to do was watch other people play it on Youtube. For hours. All the time. As soon as he woke up. Until he went to school/bed. Just watching people play Minecraft. Did he want to play it anymore? Not really. My reaction?

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“Let’s Play” videos are a handy tool. On occasion, I’ve used them to pass a particularly troubling platforming puzzle, check out an alternate RPG timeline, or demonstrate a section of game in a post. Other people use it to explore older games or gauge whether a title looks good enough to buy. But it was always a means to the end. It never occurred to me that people would choose to watch other people play a game in lieu of playing it themselves.

I remember the nightmares of youth , waiting for your turn to play that awesome new game at your friend’s house and then having your parent tell you it was time to go home just as it came up, having just barely laid hands on the controller. This was life-ending trauma back in the day. I was a bit concerned when my son decided it was more fun to spend hours on end watching a zany Brit play a game he could himself be playing at that moment. It just didn’t compute. But the videos didn’t seem to have any content I could object to other than it being boring and stupid, so what’s to be done?

Eventually, he started splitting time between watching the constant stream of videos being uploaded by his favorite professional Minecraft players and re-enacting them. He was only building whatever he saw the other guy build. So now my joy at seeing my son blossoming into a creative-minded gamer was being smothered by the celeb-obsessed human centipede culture that is our internet. And here’s me being the broad minded idealistic dope who doesn’t want to stifle his child’s hobby of choice by trying to force him to do things my way: THE RIGHT WAY! [clears throat]

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Oh my God, he’s PETTING the dog! PETTING IT! What’ll Stampy think of next?

Up until last week’s episode of South Park I thought the kid was just a weirdo like his dad. I’m an old school nerd; liking stuff nobody else gets way too much is the story of my life. I’m not going to oppress my child into not enjoying things he loves. Fuck those people. But watching that episode showed me that he’s not a weirdo at all. This is a big thing and a lot of children would rather watch videos of other people gaming while acting like they are auditioning to be Nicktoons characters than play actual games. The only thing worse than being weird is being normal. God help me, my son is normal.

And it was right in front of my face all along. It then occurred to me that when we have other kids over, there are conversations about this. A neighbor kid came over once and started watching Grand Theft Auto videos on our wi-fi, which was awkward. In fact, all of my son’s acquaintances seem to be into this.

And that’s the moment where I realize I’ve become a clueless adult who is terrified that insignificant youth entertainment trends are going to ruin a world that was already being ruined by my own parents and theirs before them. The world is in a constant state of being ruined, but never seems to actually get ruined. All in all we’re all just bricks in the wall. And now I’m quoting fifty year old songs. Fetch my dentures.

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This is the competition for my son’s love. I am so screwed.

But personal reflections aside, what does this mean for the future of gaming as a medium? There are few things I think are less fun than watching other people play video games when I have the same game and could be playing. And yet people make a living releasing these videos and garnering viewers and subscribers by the hundred thousand. I found fanart dedicated to these people. FANART!   In my day, you made fanart for the video games, not for people who post videos of themselves playing the video games. And that’s how you’re supposed to do fanart. Kids these days don’t know nothin’….

If the games themselves are no longer the main event, where does that leave the industry? It shows how behind the curve I am that I raged when companies attempted to purge the net of Let’s Play vids. I mean, what a petty thing to do. It’s not like people are going to watch videos of a game rather than play it. Except what if they are? Pressing buttons and aiming cursors and figuring stuff out is haaaaard. And if there’s one thing the internet has done steadily, it’s make people lazy on a grand scale.

What if any challenge is too much of a challenge? Why go through all that trouble of getting good at stuff when you can just experience it vicariously on Youtube? People educate themselves politically on Twitter now and any attempt to explain the concept of metaphor when discussing a story in a manner that isn’t regurgitated from a celebrity blogger is met with slack-jawed derision. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the idea of actual fun became passé too.

Like Prince said, it’s a Sign O’ the Times. Wait, that song is how old? Surely I can find something more up to date. How about “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake”? I don’t care if I’m old and my ideas about gaming are dated; your music is shit, Generation Z. But your games are awesome. WHY DON’T YOU WANT TO PLAY THEM!?

But ranty time is over now. More likely than any of this signaling a descent into the Wall-E-esque dystopia I’m picturing, gaming is transitioning to the mainstream the way other forms of competition and expression have and this will all balance itself out. I wonder if there was a point back in the olden days where people who grew up playing baseball or football on the playground scoffed at the notion of crowds gathering to watch other people play their sports. I mean, what kind of loser wants to watch a bunch of dudes toss balls around when they could get their own ball and be doing it themselves? And televised dance competitions? GTFO.

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Gaming is never going to be something I‘d rather watch than do, but nobody is Clockwork Orange-ing me in front of Youtube either. I always tell people there’s no wrong way to game (usually while silently raging about somebody doing it wrong), but I always assumed that gaming would involve the actual playing of games. But who the hell am I to tell people how to enjoy any entertainment medium? Plus I’d kind of like to see the first Halo and Street Fighter gold medals awarded at the Olympics some day.

With society having left me behind, I reckon I’m only a few years away from arthritis and dementia demolishing my headshot and combo skills. What will I do with myself? I was planning on staking out my front window waiting for some punk kids to accidentally throw a ball or frisbee onto my property so I could quickly hobble out out there and claim that since it’s on my property, it’s mine now like old timers did when I was a kid, but now that everybody is busy on Youtube that plan’s shot. This is why the Who hoped they’d die before they got old.

Maybe I could knock on their door and shake my fist and shout “get on my lawn you daggum kids!” so I could regale them with tales about how in my day you had to put cartridges and discs into a gaming console and use a controller to play the game yourself. We didn’t have fancy videos to play the games for us. We knew the value of hard work in the good ol’ days.

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The amount of dedication it takes to properly manipulate a plate of Cheetos with no hands will never be truly appreciated.

It’s kind of funny that with all the leaps and advancements gaming has made in the decades since it became a thing that I never foresaw the culture taking this kind of turn and becoming something I can no longer relate to. But that’s alright. In the grand scheme it’s not any more ridiculous than anything else about our popular culture. The fact that gamers are becoming increasingly vacuous is nothing so much as a sign the medium’s widespread acceptance, which was pretty much inevitable from the get-go.

So get your game on, Youtubers. Or, you know, watch other people get theirs on. I’m not personally pleased about a branch of entertainment where interactivity and expression is the whole point moving towards becoming a spectator’s sport, but it stands to reason that sooner or later gaming would follow in the footsteps of other recreational activities where most people’s consumption habits have gone from active to increasingly passive. Who knows, this could be trend that leads to us one day finding ourselves routinely gathering to cheer prime time televised League of Legends broadcasts with plates of wings in front of us and beers in our hands.

Five Epic Wins and Fails in Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s that feeling again. That don’t want to write on the internet/don’t want to socialize/don’t want to go to work/don’t want to eat or sleep feeling/DVR is filling up with unwatched shows feeling. There must be a new Bethesda or BioWare RPG in town. Wait, it’s a BioWare title with Bethesda elements? Mein gott! What life-devouring chimera has gaming wrought?

A game as big as Dragon Age: Inquisition comes packaged with expectations, not the least of which is finishing a trilogy that has spanned this console generation and is bleeding into the new one. Some of them are going to be met or exceeded, and some are not.

So, fellow gamers, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Lets’ go with the good news. If I start negative my fellow Biodrones may toss bee grenades at me before I can get to the good stuff. Here are five features in Dragon Age: Inquisition that make me say yay.

Good God, the SCOPE!

This is how I look every time I open up my map.

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Holy shit, this game is big. Not necessarily in literal surface area, just….in everything. So much to do, so many free-roam locales packed with hidden depths; you could literally eat away as much time as it takes to play through an entire action game’s campaign just aimlessly wandering and collecting materials as soon as you finish the prelude without giving a damn about any quests at all. You also get an entire town crammed with characters with lots to say at your disposal.

And when you earn your official Inquisition hideout? Well, refer back to that gif. I had no intention of spending five hours just walking around it seeing what there was to see, talking to recruits, and perusing the facilities, but I did. It took me about that long before I even stepped outside of it. And I don’t think I’ve seen it all. YOUR HEADQUARTERS HAS ITS OWN FAST TRAVEL STATIONS. That’s just your base. Think about that. I’m about 40 hours in and I’m not even very far into the narrative as far as I can tell and I still have more active sidequests than I can keep track of. And I’m not even looking for sidequests. They just fall out of the sky. You will not be bored or underwhelmed with the amount of places to go or things to do in this game. I promise you that.

 

NPC Love is the Truest Love

It’s all fine and dandy romancing your companions, bonds forged in blood and all that. But I’m the hero. The whole world loves me! I shouldn’t have to fraternize with my battlemates. Nobody wants a spurned lover with a sharp object covering their six. In Inquisition, you get a couple more options in the form of advisors. It could be a really good thing for future games to litter more romance options aside from the playable cast across the game. It makes the world feel more alive and gives you someone new to visit.

This was kind of great for me because I wasn’t really feeling my companions that much. I love me some Sera, but who could date that? Girl’s cray. It’d be like going out with a female Deadpool. Or me. And Vivienne may be gorgeous, but I don’t heart the stuck up attitude. I had my longing sights set on the lovely and demure diplomat Josephine, but she’s not a fighter…is she a lover? I got a bit of a thrill seeing her actually respond to my advances against odds. It was an unexpected treat, for sure.
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You Can’t Fight in Here, this is the War Room!

The War Council is one of the coolest new features in Inquistion. You have your advisors enter a room and look at your war map, where you can send out teams of diplomats, soldiers, or spies to help with your pacification of Ferelden and Orlais. The missions are combinations of alliance-building favors, side quests for your friends, and more story missions and areas to explore which can be unlocked based on how much power and influence you accumulate for the Inquisition.

In addition to that you have a list of perks offered by each of your advisors which can be unlocked as you gain influence and can get you things like rare equipment and materials, new dialogue options, and various other bonuses. The whole setup is really damn cool and adds a new wrinkle to the series. Plus, the missions take place in real time and not game time so if one takes several hours to complete, you can start it before you turn in for the night, and wake up with it already completed. It’s pretty much the only way to convince myself to get sleep anymore.

 

Combat is About Compromise

I’m of the opinion that the original Dragon Age: Origins is still the best of the series in terms of combat. The sequel made the grievous mistake of going for the less RPG-ish button mash approach while eliminating a lot of my favorite things like badass kill animations and booby traps.

Inquisition finds a very nice medium between the casual and hardcore RPG by allowing the player to button mash if they wish, or simply hold down the attack button and let the turn-based do its thing. Although there’s still no kill animations (whyyyyyy?) there are some traps and the game offers some pretty great grenades and really effective status ailments. Also, being able to shoot arrows and walk at the same time is badass. Sometimes it’s the little things

If you don’t have Sera armed with bee grenades, you are playing this game wrong. I can hear her giggling at the baddies fleeing with arms flailing even though she isn’t. I should probably see someone about that. Pitch grenades allow you to coat the ground in tar and slow enemies down so you can hurl laughter at them. Also arrows, bees, and hellish infernos. Have I mentioned the hellish infernos? Before just now, I mean. Fire has never been more fun in an RPG. Sooooo prettyyyyyy….

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Do it Yourself Awesomeness

I’ve been known to whine about excessive looting in games and how it takes away the joy of really earning and cherishing your gear in favor of constantly farming and praying to get something better. Inquisition throws a crapton of loot at you at all times, but the vast majority of it is just to sell off or discard. The real game is in crafting and personalizing your gear.

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While you will eventually need to upgrade, you usually spend a lot of time with your chosen loadouts before that happens and that is great. In addition to the core weapons and armour, which you can build to your own specifications depending on which materials you choose, you can craft, find, or buy additional components and magical runes which you can then mix and match to build the gear of your dreams. And the best part is that the components are reusable so you don’t have to worry about attaching them to one weapon and then finding a better one; you can just remove it from the old and busted and add it to the new hotness. This should be the shape of RPG’s to come.

 

So I’m pretty pleased. Dragon Age: Inquisition has taken most of the things I loved about the first two games and amped the scope of the narrative and the explorable world to truly epic proportions. And as you may have noticed, they have learned a lot from the Elder Scrolls games. If there’s any concept better than a BioWare/Bethesda mash-up, I have not imagined it. But it’s not all flowers and sunshine. Here are five things that make me want to strangle a nug with my bare hands.

Stop Glitchin’!

I think I can say with some confidence that Inquisition was instantly the buggiest thing I’ve ever played. And I once gave myself a headache trying to kill a backwards flying/teleporting dragon who wouldn’t leave me alone to let me fast-travel in Skyrim for an hour before quitting. While I haven’t encountered anything game-breaking (yet), things like my character’s hair turning gray in cutscenes, NPC’s walking waist-deep in the ground, conversations stalling (every time Loghain speaks especially…another reason to hate that asshole), and not being able to switch characters has been typical, as are enemies that respawn at the same time you kill them, or possibly before. I’m pretty sure once I was fighting the same bear twice at one time.

The most persistent bug I’ve found is in the radial menus where you select potions, grenades, and the like. I have to close it and re-open it every time I switch characters or it doesn’t work. This is a constant thing, not a random glitch. But the big one is the nastiest thing that can happen in a game: a full freeze. And it happens a lot. Once the whole console froze on me five times in one day. It was possibly God telling me to go outside or talk to my family or something, but still. If you want that, set the house on fire or something. Don’t mess with muh vidya.

Oh, and the freezing usually happens during a save or load operation, meaning that when you restart, the last save is corrupted and my PS3 has to spend several minutes recovering memory before I can play again from the one before that. So don’t play on only one save.

 

Where Princess Mononoke At?

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I’m not at all opposed to mounts if they are done right and granted, it’s pretty badass that my Dalish heroine can ride into battle on the back of a trumpeting elk beast. But unfortunately once you get to said battle you have to stop, wait a second or two to climb down, and then wait for your party to appear out of thin air before you commence asskickery. The uses for a mount are just not really fleshed out in this particular game.

One of my favorite features of BioWare games is the random dialogue between various combinations of party members. These spontaneous little conversations and interactions between characters do so much to make these virtual people real and contain some of the funniest and most memorable moments in their games. But those don’t happen when you are riding. You party just kind of….vanishes. I miss them already.

Another reason is that the world is so full of crafting materials and lootables that you either have to ignore them all or hop off of your mount so often there’s no point in having one. You may as well just walk and see how Iron Bull and Dorian or Solas and Cassandra will get along together. Plus, you can’t fight when mounted, which sucks.

Mounts are a good idea, but the execution here is flawed. Maybe if your whole party could have their own mounts and engage in combat from horse/halla/lizardback and you could snatch materials from there, it’d be pretty epic to explore the landscape that way. But as it is, it’s often more trouble than its worth unless you are just looking to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible while ignoring everything else.

 

Artificial Unintelligence

I love games that give you the option to micromanage, but it shouldn’t be a necessity. And when the games makes it a necessity, but won’t let you do it right……grrr. Previous Dragon Age games let you go to crazy lengths programming each individual character on how to react to any combat situation. When to go for the combo attacks, which enemy to target, etc. I cannot for the life of me understand why they took that away.

Now your AI combat options are as follows. You may tell them to “follow” a specific character or whichever you’re controlling, or you may tell them to “defend” ” a specific character or whichever you’re controlling. I’m not sure I even get the difference. When I attempted to turn AI behaviors off and just have them just fight without goddamn following anyone, they stopped doing anything at all and just stood there.

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Thanks, guys. Seriously.

And since they also took away the ability to switch between ranged and melee weapons, I find myself wading into the fray to support my tank and then find that my archer and/or mage have run right up on us and are getting creamed by the giant hammer-wielding maniac I’m flanking when I had positioned them elsewhere. I shouldn’t have to slow-mo the entire battle to babysit my ranged attackers into staying at range. Maybe if I tell them to follow each other? I haven’t noticed if that even works, but even if it did I shouldn’t goddamn have to when I already told them where to go.

 

Loathing Screens

Sometimes I feel like BioWare is trolling us with these load times. Just firing the game up takes way too long. When the “press start” screen comes press starting doesn’tregister for a few seconds so you end up mashing it until you’re sure it was read. Then it will make you wait for it to connect to the Dragon Age servers. Sometimes over a minute. Dude, even my phone can connect to my wifi in seconds and it’s not even close to up to date.

Then it must “enumerate” your save files which took a really long time until I realized it was taking all day to individually read the data on each of my 25 saves (the maximum allowed) because it…actually, I don’t even know why it was doing that. And if you select “load” it enumerates them all again. It got much better when I deleted the extras, but still: what the hell? I’ve never had this be a thing.

Then you get to the actual loading screens, which feature three text cards you can cycle through. Some of them are of the usual “gather stuff to have more stuff!” and “if you kill all of the enemies, you will win!” variety, and some are giant walls of involved text lore that require you to scroll down. Except that halfway through the load time, the screen blacks out, usually when you are not done reading the thing they put there for you to read and you spend another 30 seconds or so fuming that they are showing you a black screen instead of the wall of text they expected you to read in the thirty seconds previous but you couldn’t even focus on because you were worried that they were going to black out the screen before you were done. The fuck, BioWare? The fuck.

 

Thank You, Herald, but Your Loot is in Another Level

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This is not exactly a Dragon Age-specific problem, but Inquisition is the worst example I can think of. Getting loot drops for equipment that you can’t equip because your level isn’t high enough is just about the most annoying thing I can think of, and a sign of shitty loot design. You have limited space in your inventory, why the hell would you want it clogged up with stuff that would be killer to have now but will likely be mediocre by the time you reach their stupid arbitrary level requirement?

What really makes this one a problem is that the level advancement in Inquisition is slllloooooow. Making you work for every level isn’t a bad thing in and of itself at all; in fact, I applaud it. But when it takes hours of gameplay to gain each new level and they are giving you equipment multiple levels above you, it’s an unnecessary annoyance. Make it so you get loot that’s appropriate to your characters’ level. Why is that so hard?

 

Just to reiterate, I am obsessed with Dragon Age: Inquisition. I raged, quit, and determined never to buy another Team Ninja game when Dead or Alive 5 froze as often as this one does. So why does this one get a pass? It’s just that good. Even though the game feels broken at times, but it is so goddamn massive and fun that quitting it is simply is not an option. It’s one of the deepest and most involved video games I’ve ever played.

Further evidence? I haven’t even fired up the multiplayer. I am so immersed in the adventure and story that I can’t even consider tearing myself away from the single player. I don’t even want to be writing this right now. On that note: I’ve got to go.

Great Moments in Comic History: One Bad Day

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Welcome to my third tribute to look into the modern history of comicdom and bring you back some of the medium’s most memorable stories. Like I said before, some make it because they represent an important landmark, some are defining moments for classic characters, and some are just so flat out brilliant that they cast an endless shadow. This one is all of those things.

Batman: The Killing Joke has retained its status as one of the absolute defining stories of the Caped Crusader since it debuted in 1988.Unlike previous entries, it isn’t an entire arc, but a single issue, albeit an extended one. Still, it’s a single issue that has remained in print for over 25 years. Tim Burton calls it the first comic he ever loved and used it as the inspiration for his 1989 film that redefined how Batman and the Joker are portrayed outside of comic books for all time to a generation that grew up with Adam West battling Cesar Romero. Old school spoilers ahead.

In addition to presenting what has become the Joker’s definitive origin story as told by one of comicdom’s most storied and brilliant writers, Alan Moore, The Killing Joke is also a defining treatise on his “two sides of the same coin” relationship to Batman. But arguably the most far-reaching event in the story is the paralyzing of former Batgirl, Barbara Gordon.

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Yeah, Joker was not messing around. As part of his crazy nostalgia-fueled plan to drive police Commissioner Jim Gordon as insane as he is to prove a point that all it takes is “one bad day” to break somebody and turn a man into a monster he puts a bullet in Babs, strips her down, and has a little impromptu photo session which he later shares with her mourning father.

The ultimate irony of this act –which Joker is not even aware of, but would surely have appreciated- is that after all the dangers she faced at the Dark Knight’s side serving as Batgirl, she gets taken out in a random act of senseless violence perpetrated by a madman while she’s sitting quietly at home.

While this could arguably be seen as a “woman in refrigerator” situation, DC actually made this the best thing to ever happen to the character as the aftermath of this event leads to the wheelchair –bound Barbara eventually taking up the mantle of the superhacker Oracle where she became a much more effective and unique character than she would have been as just another character in a batsuit.

In spite of the brevity of the book, The Killing Joke features a wealth of character development between hero and villain and could be considered the definitive story of the two. Everything from the opening scene in Arkham Asylum to the final confrontation ending in Batman laughing for the first time (either while devolving into madness, killing the Joker, or simply in response to the grave irony, depending on your interpretation) every panel screams “classic storytelling”.

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Brian Bollard’s art is some of the best ever featured in a Batman story and with Alan Moore’s genius brain directing it with precision, the result often has me flipping back and forth to marvel at the artistry of the transitions between Joker’s nostalgic origin story fantasies and the returns to real time as he attempts to justify his very existence. And I have to say that it’s a pretty special comic that can convincingly pull off an original musical number.

Among the insane visuals and numerous artistic flourishes associated with Joker’s tragic past and his insane homicidal present, there are a few moments of such genuineness from that you actually can see things his way, if just for a second. One panel of real emotion and confusion from him goes so far. Coupled with his amazing monologue about the random, disgusting, unjust, horrifying randomness of the world we live in and with insanity being the only way he could cope with living in an insane world, you can really feel sorry for the guy, even having just watched him gun down and violate one of the DC Universe’s most beloved figures. Moments like this are what keep people reading comics for their entire lives looking for another moment of such pure storytelling excellence.

Is The Killing Joke the greatest single issue of a comic book ever? Possibly. I haven’t exactly read them all, but if anybody has ever read a better and more definitive self-contained sequential art story in a mere 46 pages I’d love to hear about it. It’s essentially a short story that costs as much (or more) than a full graphic novel and is worth every penny.

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This image alone is worth it.

If you know much about Alan Moore, you may have noted that the man is often as looney as he is brilliant, showing once again that genius and madness are not separated by a solid line. Sometimes you get Watchmen or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen repelling Martian tripods, and sometimes you get Lost Girls (look it up) and antichrist Harry Potter battling Mary Poppins. With The Killing Joke, Moore created one of the defining Batman stories and then decided it was garbage once everybody liked it. He’s just that big of a troll.

His claim that the story adds nothing to the mythos of the Dark Knight is true in the sense that these themes between Joker and Batman existed before, but there’s little doubt that Moore did an exceptional job crystallizing them. DaVinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and I’d say that distilling the essence of Joker’s psyche and dynamic with his nemesis as they had been built over decades into a single story is quite a worthwhile addition, even if it technically added nothing new.

Moore also publicly regretted crippling Barbara Gordon, claiming if he knew it was going to be perpetuated by other writers, he’d never have done it. This is even more baffling since as Oracle she became a much more unique, interesting, and inspiring character. Even if that was the only thing that happened in the whole book, it’d have been worthwhile. I’m chalking all this protesting up to artistic eccentricities.

Thankfully, we don’t need the author’s permission to enjoy his work and The Killing Joke is about as enjoyable as superhero comics get. There’s a long list of classic Batman stories and this one is near the top of just about any possible discussion of the best of the best. It’s brilliantly plotted, looks like a million bucks, brims over with artistry in both words and visuals, rocks the world of each major character within its pages, and changed the Batman mythos and the way people look at it forever. And people are still arguing about that last page over a quarter century later. Sorry, Moore. History has spoken.

Great Moments in Comic History: The Terra Within

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Welcome to the belated part two of my series chronicling some of the most memorable comic book storylines. Like I said before, out of the countless tales spread across the medium over decades past some arcs remain memorable and classic reads. Such a story can attain this status because it represents an important milestone for the art form, a defining moment for a classic character, or just be so awesome that nothing else ever lives up to it.

Last time I delved into a defining moment in the life of my favorite comic character, Deadpool. This time I’m going for historical significance and taking you back to DC Comics circa 1984 and the then-New Teen Titans and their wave-making arc The Judas Contract. The primary events took place in Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44 and the 1984 Annual, although as with most key arcs, the groundwork had been laid throughout the run. There will be spoilers, although I’d say the statute of limitations has expired after 30 years and much of this will be common knowledge to veteran comic geeks whether they’ve read the story or not.

The Teen Titans started with the creatively bankrupt idea of having all of the annoying kid sidekicks of the DC superheroes join forces. Robin! Kid Flash! Wonder Girl! Speedy! Aqualad! Like the Justice League but inferior in every possible way! All of that meh in one book! But in the 80’s the concept was relaunched with a slew of original characters augmenting the sidekicks and a more mature worldview and the Titans we know and love were born.

Continue reading

Regret Nothing: Seconds is a Worthy Successor to Scott Pilgrim

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I could cry for the time I’ve wasted
But that’s a waste of time and tears.
And I know just what I’d change if went back in time somehow
But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

-Willie Nelson

But what if there was, Willie? It’s been four long years without anything new to read from Bryan Lee O’Malley. This absence has been conspicuous because in that time, the film adaptation of his instant classic Scott Pilgrim series has become the epitome of the kind of awesome cult flick that geeks can still call their own. The dreaded mainstream has taken Marvel and DC’s heroes out of nerdville and made them into pop culture prom kings and queens, but we’ll always have Scott. Some things just weren’t meant for the mainstream.

Nonetheless, Scott Pilgrim was that rare work of art that perfectly melds self-aware pop counterculture sensibilities with deeper themes and metaphors that are somehow both extremely relatable and ingenious on a level that too few works are even willing to strive for these days. I’m still kicking myself for being stupid enough to put off reading it for as long as I did just because the drawings were cartoony (it took the film to convince me). Bryan Lee O’Malley is one of a kind and it’s about freakin’ time he gave us another helping. Seconds, if you will.

Seconds is that follow up four years in the making. No pressure, though. It’s only got to blow my mind, make me laugh, get me thinking deep philosophical thoughts about the nature of life, and make me feel deep human emotions from looking at little chibi people the way the once in a lifetime epic that preceded it did. Easy peasy. How do you follow up Scott Pilgrim? You give the reader something they would never have expected. Again. Continue reading

Should Loot be a Driving Force in Video Games

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Start a conversation about Borderlands. Start a conversation about Destiny. Start a conversation about Diablo. What are you going to end up discussing more often than not? Dat loot. Who doesn’t love that feeling of gunning down an enemy and seeing something super-shiny and potentially valuable pop out of its lifeless corpse? Nobody. That’s who. But is this increasingly prevalent Skinnerian gameplay mechanic hurting the gaming experience more than it’s helping?

In-game reward systems have been something I’ve been struggling with for nearly as long as I’ve been gaming. Going all the way back to early RPG’s which combined the ability to use currency to purchase weapons for your characters with random drops and chests in dungeons. You could blow all of your hard-earned money from hours of grinding on a fancy new sword for your warrior and then immediately find a chest containing something better, making your purchase a gigantic waste.

As gaming has gone on to improve and mature in so many ways, this is one area that has failed to evolve with it. In fact, it has gotten progressively worse and now we may be reaching a breaking point. Games like Borderlands and Too Human throw so much loot at you that it becomes a massive distraction. With limited menu space and limitless items being chucked in your direction as you play the game you quickly have to begin sorting out what you want to use, what you want to sell, and what you need to discard to make room for more stuff to use or sell.

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Choose your weapon.

Deciding which weapon or armour you want to equip can be a titanic struggle in and of itself. There are typically several attributes, buffs, and sometimes bonuses for equipping certain items together where the player needs to decide which attributes they value over others to decide which way to go. This could take seconds or several minutes. And even if you take an hour calculating the best possible configuration of equipment to maximize your effectiveness, there are odds that the next enemy you kill will drop something so good that it will all but require you to equip it, meaning you no longer get the matching set bonus and potentially making the rest of your equipment no longer worth having. Back to square one.

Dragon Age II fixed this by scattering personalized upgrades for each secondary character across the game and players rebelled and demanded moar loot. Inquisition has sought to balance it out somewhat with an impressive focus on crafting and upgrading your own weapons, but it suffers from constant loot drops that clog up your inventory and make money all but worthless. Then there’s the fact that most of the good drops are unequippable for hour and hours thanks to maddening arbitrary level limitations (which no game should do, ever)coupled with very slow character leveling.

Then there’s the co-op factor. Some games subscribe to a first-come-first-serve rule on loot drops where it’s a race to claim each item, leading to a non-cooperative atmosphere in what is supposed to be a cooperative game. Others randomly assign loot, often giving members who may not even be able to use the item and may have only minimally contributed to the fight the spoils and leaving others in the cold. Destiny solved this problem somewhat by having different drops for each player, but it isn’t a game to bring up when idealizing loot mechanics.

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Pictured: becoming legend by shooting fish in a barrel.

Surely you’ve heard of Bungie’s now legendary Cave of Wonders, which was a low-level enemy spawn point where players could sit back and endlessly shoot the fodder, which would in turn drop stuff as good as any other enemies in the game since Destiny’s system doesn’t differentiate between the weakest and strongest foes in terms of loot. Well, until they patched it, a whole lot of players decided that instead of, you know, PLAYING THE GAME they’d just shoot into that hole in the ground to get the best equipment as fast as they could rather than obtain it via doing things that are fun.

This is probably the biggest single indicator that gamers’ ideas of what they want out of a gaming experience are changing in disturbing ways. Rather than exploring and achieving, we are becoming obsessed with immediate and constant positive reinforcement in the form of flashy (but usually useless) in-game rewards. I’m beginning to think that we may never get to a point where games are willing to make you really earn your rewards, lest gamers lose interest and move on almost immediately.

I actually found no small amount of satisfaction in working towards goals in Destiny; saving up and buying the legendary gear of my choosing instead of just going through motions and hoping for a random drop that suited both my playstyle and aesthetic desires. I’m glad Bungie left this option in, but I wonder if anyone else felt the same way when all I hear from other players is “lootlootlootloot”.

Diablo 3 ran into problems when gamers found out that the best way to get good gear was not playing the game, but in paying for it in its notorious Auction House, where real money could be traded for fictional goods. Naturally, this was exploited to the point where there was no practical reason to grind when you could buy for a fdiablo 3 auction houseew bucks what could take you dozens of hours to attain in-game.

In multiplayer gaming, nobody wants to be caught with underpowered gear. In PvP or co-op, you want to bring your A game without being held back by weak stats, and when a game’s culture starts to revolve around exploiting gameplay mechanics or auction/trade systems to attain the strongest equipment, then something is wrong.

Why should we be happy hoping for random drops? And is anybody pleased with a game that all but requires you to pay real money for the gear to compete? Is any of this potentially more rewarding than saving up for something that is perfect for you in-game and then buying it and knowing that you’re not going to get its like from the next chest you run across or enemy you kill?

I, for one, would love to see more gameplay rewards based on achievement and dedication rather than random loot mechanics. A focus on branching upgrades for equipment (something Destiny flirts with) instead of having the player constantly changing gear and perpetually seeking something better would put a lot more focus on the gameplay and exploration instead of hunting for exploits and really invest players into putting more thought into what they want out of their gear instead of just letting whatever random drop is the strongest rule their world. If nothing else, it’d be something different.