Thursday, July 30, 2009

MAN TRUE--"Three Links To Doomsday!"

Well, I didn't intend for this to happen, buuuut . . .submitted for your further edification, three articles that caught my eye this week:

Courtesy of the brilliant (and, unlike me, funny and insightful) folks at Seebelow, the most concise and plain-spoken explanation of how the Watchmen film managed to be utterly faithful to the source material and still managed to totally blow it. Here's a taste:

"The Russians expect Dr. Manhattan to do things to them. They know he's American. They're afraid of him. The movie spends two hours pointing out that they're willing to go to the brink of war in the face of him. In order for the plan to have worked, New York would have had to have been hit first. So in just this one example of the film deviating from the original story it manages to butcher it and makes itself insipid even if you don't remember the original story at all. You're trying to prevent nuclear apocalypse?

You don't nuke people! The giant squid works precisely because it is absurd, ludicrous, so completely out of the pale that its sheer implausibility forces people to stop before unleashing their own destruction while also providing an enemy that is unfathomable, alien and yet still
possible to defeat (since clearly the body in the New York City aftermath is dead) while Dr. Manhattan as global annihilation is familiar, as nuclear as the other warheads, and provides at once no more threat than the stockpile of warheads we've already had mentioned several times in the film, while also being totally unstoppable.

Why should his act unite the world? They can't do anything about it. There's no 'alien corpse' to give the world a rallying sign, nothing that can be stood up to and fought. There's just a blue god who wipes cities off the face of the earth for the terrible crime of being populated by a species that... was about to wipe those cities off the face of the earth."

Courtesy of the well-regarded Mightygodking, an interesting run-down of how DC totally blew the return of Jason Todd. I hadn't really thought of how bad they'd mishandled things, but MGK makes a very thoughtful case here. He also points out that Red Robin has one of the ugliest costumes ever, which, y'know, he really does. It's well worth a look, even if you couldn't give two shits about Jason Todd (which, at this point, all right-thinking people should)

Finally, and I saved this one for last because it makes me gnash my teeth to admit he has a bloody point, the following rather trenchant observation from an interview with my often-nemesis Russel T Davies, specifically:

"But the people who loved the original series [of Doctor Who] when they were young are now in their 40s, and I’m not remotely interested in making a show just for them. That would be tragic. It’s too good an idea to be pigeonholed away with that small of a demographic . . . If they’d wanted a cult "Doctor Who" for the cult audience, I would have made that. I equally know how to do that. And when the BBC first asked me to bring back "Doctor Who," the first thing I did was make sure it wasn’t for a nostalgic cult audience, and it was going to be for everyone. "

Hands up, everyone, who can think of at least one industry that should desperately heed that advice? Anyone?

Sunday, July 26, 2009


In the late 90's, the 2D fighting game--that last bastion and lifeblood of arcades everywhere--were falling on hard times. Whereas earlier in the decade, Capcom's Street Fighter II and its descendants ruled the arcades and brought in tons of money (admit it--the last arcade machine you probably saw in laundromats, supermarkets, and 7-11s was probably a SFII machine) as the new millennium dawned, they were looking a bit long in the tooth. While there were artistic if not financial successes (Street Fighter 3: Third Strike comes to mind)

Capcom's main competition, SNK and their King of Fighters and related series, weren't doing much better, but less because of creative doldrums (not with games like Garou and the Last Blade series) and more due to finances, which saw the company bought, smashed into the ground, and sent into a tailspin they would spend the next three years trying to get out of.

In the midst of all this, came a game from an unknown (at the time) group Arc System Works and the even more unknown Daisuke Ishiwatari. Ishiwatari's great loves, were video games & heavy metal music, and even those who sucked at fighting games found a game of their own in spotting all the metal references peppered within the game.

Enter Guilty Gear.

For fans of the fighting genre, however, Guilty Gear functioned most strongly as a Third Alternative to Capcom's muddling along whilst lacking in innovation (again, Street Fighter 3 excepted) and SNK's continuing evolution of its various series (which. as much affection, as I have for it, tends to be rather stilted at times) GG was fast, rewarded aggression and played with an energy sorely lacking in fighting games at the time. Moreover, it had an art style somewhat apart from the Big Two. Edgier, and a bit livelier.

Guilty Gear was a cult success on the Playstation, and gave rise to Guilty Gear X, which got a higher profile and actually made it to arcades, the proving ground for 2D fighters. This would eventually begat an entire series of games, which, tragically, made pretty much the same mistakes as the series that Guilty Gear had once been such a welcome alternative to. There were the constant incremental update that promised big things that never broke into the next work in the series, the continuing piling on of more and more layers to the fighting engine, making the damn things so dense and overcomplicated that casual players soon shied away from the games, fearful of needing a 40 page FAQ just to have a hope in hell of winning a round.

So clearly, something had to be done. That this coincided with both Capcom and SNK revisiting their series (now necessitating some innovation, both in terms of updating the 2D fighter for the more demanding HD era and, especially in Capcom's case, making a viable bridge to a franchise whose last game was a full ten years ago) was either coincidence or happenstance means little, what matters is, there seems to be, in this generation of 2D fighters (which, if you'll remember, were supposed to be deaded once and for all a 3D became more cost-effective) is a turn towards freshness, a move back towards accessibility, and an attempt to justify that 2d games can still hang as a viable genre in the late-era of polygons.

Enter Blazblue: Calamity Trigger. Arc Systems Works (now Arksys) decided to point Guilty Gear in another direction and start fresh. Hence, Blazblue, which in many ways has a lot in common with the initial series--it's a fast, aggressive fighter that prizes speed and pressure over turtling and has that same extreme art style . . .

. . .but it also has lush HD graphics, a substantially beefed up story (and story mode--we'll get to that in a bit) and a really wicked sense of humour about itself--seldom do games come with their own sketch comedy parody included as an unlockable, and certain characters constantly remind the player that Blazblue comes with No Fourth Wall Installed (one of the characters, Taokaka tends to face the player and declare various silly things) and the whole game, can at times seem like a parody of 2D fighters, in a sense.

Of course, it's also a pretty damn good fighting game, with an engine that is at once easy to pick up and play and do well with but at the same time has a tremendous amount of depth. Each character has a specific system that can be exploited--for example, Rachael controls winds and lighting, Bang Shishigami has an arsenal of nails that can be utilised for various attacks, Ragna can drain the life out of his opponents, vampire-style. Varying each character's style in such a way--for me, at least--keeps the cast distinct and makes the cast somewhat differentiated from the common types you see in these games (the chick, the speed character, the joke character, the brick, etc.) This, coupled with the smaller cast (12 characters) keeps things distinct, which is a problem occasionally in larger casts.

Visually, it's a feast. Lush, fully-animated 2D sprites play out against hyper-detailed 3D rendered backgrounds. Everything looks fluid and colourful without being "OH GOD MY EYES MAKE THE COLOURS GO AWAY" Mind you, the usual caveats apply here--if you're not a fan of the anime style stuff, this is probably not going to sway you from that way of thinking.

And that brings us to the story mode, which, if the art style looks like anime, the actual story content's soaking in it. Every anime cliche is either hewn to in a tried and true way or (in the case of Bang Shishigami, who is probably everything Dan Hibiki dreams he could be) exploded and parodied and generally not taken seriously. In the midst of all this, or upon fulfilling certain conditions, your character is presented with a branching path in the storyline. Each path causes the story to take a different turn (it's been described as being somewhat RPG-ish, but unless you consider a Choose Your Own Adventure book to be an RPG it's uh, not) If you're OK with these kind of conventions, this won't be a problem. If you're not, the bits that seem to take gleeful delight in deflating those conventions might be to your taste.

In any case--and this is nothing unique to me--people have been saying Blazblue was quite a surprise. Perhaps some of that was due to the soft bigotry of low expectations, some of it was possibly due to its being wedged between two higher-profile releases (KOF XII and Street Fighter 4) and probably some of it's due to the fact that even at it's peak popularity, Guilty Gear was a well-regarded cult hit at best.

However it happened, Blazblue has earned a seat at the table, and I look forward to the inevitable (hopefully) sequel.

Monday, July 20, 2009

And Now, A Brief Statement of Policy


Hell of damn NO I will not be watching bloody Torchwood: Children of Earth. I've watched two series' worth of that awful, awful dreck, and I don't care how damn brilliant it's supposed to have gotten, after 26 episodes one jolly damn well should have risen above "not bad" long before now.

Never mind I've already heard how the whole thing goes and honestly? It's the same old crap. Lift me, Lord, to a place where I don't have to suffer through RTD's Buffy fanfic filtered through a Warren Ellis lens.

And the fact it's being lauded as some brilliant quantum leap forward in SF TV? Please. That says more about the soft bigotry of low expectations and the degradation of most people's critical capacity far more than it speaks to any quality inherent in the show.

Besides, Gundam 00's second season just started, and as it was pretty good from the outset, I'd rather spend my time watching that if it's all right with everyone, thankyewverymuch.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Just Sayin'--Rogues, X-Men, and Character Stuff

I've often enjoyed Mike Carey's run on X-MEN. It had the advantage of being something fresh an exciting in the long history of the book, which was even more astonishing when you consider that M-Day all but murdered the forward momentum of the entire concept for no real upside that I've been able to discern.

Naturally, Carey was punished for this and X-MEN was turned into a continuity clean-up book, which--don't get me wrong--has been nominally good, but hardly seems worth the trouble when you get right down to it.

Anyways, of late, Carey's been on a mission to fix Rogue, who was one of the later newer X-Men to really break out. Part of that was because of Rogue's gradual prettifcation (eventually supplanting Kitty Pryde in the Which X-Men Do Maladjusted Fanboys Crack One Off To Sweepstakes) but mostly it's because her character is naturally compelling.

As with the best X-characters, her power is her curse--sure, she can steal people's powers, but she also steals their memories in a violent, invasive kind of way. Over and over, stories involving how bad Rogue has it involve her stealing someone's memories, often finding their innermost secrets or, more recently, losing her mind or going catatonic or whatever.

The blueprint of this trope of hers is best exemplified by her first opponent, Ms. Marvel. For years onward, the repercussions of her stealing Ms. Marvel's powers (apparently permanently) was, basically her storytelling engine. And it was a damn good one, because in addition to not being able to touch anyone without essentially brain-draining them, thus isolating her within herself, she now had the added burden of trying to be a hero with a pretty serious black mark on her record (I mean, for all intents and purposes, by invading her mind--and permanently stealing her memories--and taking her powers, she's committed the superhero equivalent of rape, hasn't she? Never mind she didn't know any better, she was being manipulated--the assumption of guilt's the same no matter the mitigating circumstances) which means her ongoing search is for a way to live some kind of a normal life, but also to redeem an irredeemable act.

(Mind you, given how ham-fisted this kind of thing is treated in superhero comics today this may be opening a Pandora's Box to look at what Rogue did in these terms, but ah well, we can dream we have writers who can rise above the juvenile, can't we?)

Because it's so heinous however, Rogue, like Batman, is destined never to fully redeem herself, but that's what makes it an evergreen storytelling engine, dunnit?

Had no real beef with anything Carey mentioned in the article above--reading it simply meant I could serendipitously share my thoughts on the character with y'all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Dream X-MEN Story, By Kazekage, Age 8, Mrs. Douglas' Class

I've always had this idea for a great X-Men story, and it goes something like this:

The X-Men are doing their usual thing--hanging around and waiting for someone to attack them--and all of a sudden Apocalypse drops out of the sky. He does his usual stuff about how he will make rivers run red with blood and the sun will darken with the ashes of burnt bodies and he will sit on a throne of skulls and only the strong will survive. . .

And as he's doing this, the X-Men walk away, disgusted. Heard it so many times and so many ways, and they're just tired of it. Every panel is people's feet walking away in the foreground as Apocalypse gets smaller and smaller in the background.

And all the while, Apocalypse is still doing his usual tired spiel, only with added desperation now. "Come on! Throne of skulls! Rivers of blood! Survival of the fittest! C'mon guys!"

And that's the last we ever see of Apocalypse.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #7--Wherein We Sock It To Shellhead, One Last Time

It has been argued--not least by the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai--that Iron Man Week, while judged a success by any measure for the Prattle, it lacked a proper cap wherein I stopped being a passive observer of Iron Man's vast and mostly dull history and said something about my feelings on the character and how he should ideally be presented.

They also reminded me a week was seven days, so there's that as well. Thus, only a little late, and for your further delectation, I present the final installment of Iron Man Week:

There's a scene in an Iron Man issue (from the first Layton/Michelenie run, round the #150s I want to say) wherein Iron Man's trussed up in front of a laser cannon by the Living Laser. He finds out in short order that his hands are bundled up in aviation tape, and thus firing his repulsors would only blow his own hands off. If he tried to yank the cables restraining his arms, the cannon behind him would fire and probably vaporize him.

He seems utterly trapped.

Fortunately, he gets the Laser monologuing, and as anyone who saw The Incredibles can tell you (when they're not spinning a line of bullshit about an alleged Ayn Rand subtext in the movie) monologuing will get you in trouble every time. Iron Man burns through the tape on his hands, repulsors the cables, and tucks and rolls just before the cannon fires.

This, to me, is Iron man's Crowning Moment of Awesome. The subsequent fight afterwards isn't bad either, as Iron Man breaks out his jet-powered roller skates which are basically his version of Kuribo's Shoe.

Now, why this moment?

Because it plays to Iron Man's strengths as a character--he's physically able to go toe to toe with an enemy, but he also has the added advantage of being able to out-think them. And it's the way that he out-thinks people that sets him apart from Marvel's other scientist heroes.

Tony Stark isn't Reed Richards. He will never build a portal to the Negative Zone or invent cloth that never tears or looks like stuff from Dave Cockrum's old sketchbooks, he works in a more practical arena.

Moreover, his gift is more reactive science than proactive science. Richards comes up with wacky Grant Morrison-style inventions because he's an explorer. Stark developed the Iron Man suit (as I said in my post about the movie) to provide a means to keep himself alive and to escape.

So Tony Stark's gift is that he can innovate under pressure and, once he's got the bit in his teeth (so to speak) he won't stop improving something until it's perfect. Layton has mentioned in interviews that Stark suffers from a kind of obsessive-compulsion, and there's certainly something to that--witness the constant evolution of the Iron Man armour as only the most obvious example.

More than that--and this is a flaw only hinted at and largely ignored because it's easier to write stories about a bad heart or falling off the wagon--there's an element of being Iron Man that for Stark is an escape. As Iron Man, he's no longer Tony Stark, multimillionaire industrialist, or ladies' man, or what have you, but at the same time he is. One of the things seldom explored (and now that it's been written in stone that Secret Identities Are Bullshit, sadly lost) was the idea that in a way, as Iron Man, Tony Stark went incognito at his own company as just another employee, and thus Iron Man became in it's own way, another secret identity. No one ever did anything with it to any great extent, but the potential was certainly there.

Moreover, since we seem to be on a somewhat psychological kick here, as O'Neil elucidated in his Iron Man run, the armour was initially a means of escape for Stark, a way to escape inner pain. The exact nature of that inner pain's never really fully explored, but it's easy enough to draw a line through the character's history and connect some dots. Stark loses his parents at an early age, but is a child prodigy and finds early success in innovating existing technology. He grows up a child of privilege, but lacks a family and thus is further isolated by the demands of running a company, maintaining his family fortune, and the constant pressure in the technology line to forever innovate and never stand still. It leaves little time for friends, even less for a social life of any consequence. If he's connected to the rest of humanity at all, it's through a wall of money and isolation.

Ironic, then, that locking himself in a suit of armour is itself an escape from a very locked-in life.

On the technical end of things, as we've mentioned before, Stark has a tremendous sense of responsibility when it comes to his inventions. The idea that he things he builds may be used to kill people is ultimately not something that sits well with him. The Armor Wars is an concrete example of that--the Iron Man armor is a deadly weapon on the order of a loose nuke, should its secrets get out. There's plenty of stories that can be told there that reflect our own feelings about the advance of technology and is it moving too fast and can you really ever keep it out of the "wrong hands" in a world where information runs around the globe at the speed of light and can be accessed almost anywhere at any time?

It would behoove, however, to do those stories in a way that doesn't make them immediately dated by the next presidential election. Just sayin'.

It's that sense of responsibility that keeps Stark connected to the larger world, in a sense. Rather than being a distant, remote, technocrat, convinced he knows better than anyone how to run the world in an orderly fashion (i.e. "douchebag") Stark should, motivated as he is by his past career as an arms dealer, the responsibiliy for what he's done and what was done in his name should, ideally, motivate him to focus both his corporate and intellectual gifts toward improving the human condition and generally making the world a better place, not unlike how Gilded Age robber barons like Carnegie and Flagler became humanitarians in the twlight of their lives or how Nobel became known more for lauding great acheivement in the humanities and sciences rather than, y'know, "that asshole who invented dynamite." Stark's quest to improve himself (psychologically and, through the Iron Man armour, physically) expands to the macro level of trying to improve the entire world.

To boil it down to the most visceral and basic, level (and I'm borrowing from he damn movie again) Iron Man stories should never forget Rhodes' reaction to seeing the Iron Man suit for the first time: "That's the coolest thing I ever seen."

Iron Man should always--always--be really damn cool.