Checkpoint Reached! #1

This is Checkpoint Reached!, where I take stock of a month’s worth of gaming and invite you to do the same. This month, I’ve been playing Dragon Age InquisitionTales from the Borderlands, and Life is Strange.


Dragon Age Inquisition (PS4)

8.26 Sera

I spent an inordinate amount of my final months in Columbus playing my roommate’s Xbox copy of Dragon Age Inquisition, during which time I completed every non-DLC achievement except beating the game on nightmare mode. I rolled an elvish archer and all-around paragon of good will and mercy (much to the chagrin of my more chaos-hungry party members). Heck, I romanced Josephine, perhaps the nicest and least mischievous member of the inquisition.

So my second time around, on the PS4, I’ve decided to try to be bad, which admittedly does not come easily to me. I’m aiming to get with Sera this time around (in keeping with the rebellious streak) but in the meantime I have seriously alienated Blackwall and Solas (though, let’s be honest, screw Solas). So it goes. This time around I’m a human rogue, but I’ve exchanged my arrows for daggers and am trying (and, largely thus far, failing) to get better at tactical fighting. Between the loss of range I enjoyed as an archer, and the ramped up difficulty of nightmare mode, I’ll admit that I’m struggling quite a bit. I’m still at a point where regular enemy encounters spend most of my party’s potions and send me scrambling for the nearest camp…and that’s just in the Hinterlands.

I should note that Inquisition was both my first Dragon Age and my first Bioware game. My RPG history has predominately been of the Japanese variety, with the notable exception of Skyrim back in 2012. Typically I’m daunted by the prospect of diving into a mythos of which I am ignorant, but Inquisition never really gave me the sense that my failure to play prior games put me at a disadvantage. The game does a good job of introducing its main factions and conflicts and then sets you on a course to recruit or ruin those factions as you wish, though I get the sense that you’ll always essentially come out the good guy no matter how ruthless and aloof you choose to be (time will tell, should I ever make it to the end of my renegade run).

Bioware games are lauded for player choice, and to that end I can’t say I’m overly impressed by Inquisition. I’ve seen clear differences in the ways my party members interact with me, depending on what I choose to say, but the actual game world and major plot points seemed essentially etched in stone. Major choices on missions seemed more likely to affect the way that particular mission unfolded, but the ultimate conflict and its resolution seemed nothing short of inevitable. I watched my roommate make a couple significantly different choices in his play through but the results did not meaningfully differ from those of my own game.

That said, there’s a reason I played the game so thoroughly in my first play through and was still willing to get it again: it’s fun. Character classes and abilities differ significantly enough that swapping roles (or rolling new inquisitors) is legitimately refreshing. While fetch quests and typical RPG grind fare aren’t particularly novel, I’ve found the chief pleasure of heading out to battle is the endless bantering between party members. Each of your nine potential companions is fully-realized and excellently acted and integrated into this world, and the camaraderie (or lack thereof) between such diverse personalities is well worth mixing up your party to experience.

I’m looking to eventually try out the multiplayer component of Inquisition, so if you have the game and a PS4, please let me know if you’re interested in trying it out together!


Tales from the Borderlands (PS4)

8.26 Atlas Mugged

Borderlands has always had great characters and a universe begging to be elaborated, but it’s probably fair to say that plot is not the primary driver of most players’ trips to Pandora. So when you strip out the guns and the looting and the exploration, what’s left of the Borderlands soul?

Turns out, a whole lot.

Telltale Games has a proven track record when it comes to methodic and emotional storytelling. Their The Walking Dead was the first iteration of that franchise to truly get my undivided attention, and The Wolf Among Us consistently impressed me with its narrative sleight of hand. But both of those series were based on properties already lauded for their complex storytelling, whereas Borderlands is predominately popular for its action and player agency (if, by agency, you mean whom to shoot first and with which kind of gun). To that end, if the challenge TTG faced with prior games was proving they could tell as good a story as the source material, with Tales the challenge was proving they could tell a better story; or, at least, they’d have nothing to fall back on if the story fell flat.

With four of five episodes released, it’s safe to say they have met that challenge rather gloriously. Tales from the Borderlands is instantly recognizable, even though its primary cast is almost entirely comprised of brand new faces. The macabre post-apocalyptic humor is ever-present, but Telltale has figured out when to let that humor fade into the background, either to remind us of the high stakes of living in such a dangerous world, or to impress upon us that even bad people are still, ultimately, people. Revenge, betrayal, greed, love, and friendship drive this story, and for perhaps the first time in a franchise overflowing with death, I actually found myself upset when people got hurt or killed.

If you’re a fan of Borderlands, you absolutely should play this game. But with a game this accessible — you can buy it on iOS and Android, in addition to on gaming consoles and computers — I extend that recommendation to anyone who enjoys dark humor and doesn’t mind a little cell-shaded gratuitous violence every once in a while. Watch this trailer to get a general sense of things, and if your interest is piqued try out the first episode for just five bucks.


Life is Strange (PS4)

8.26 lifeisstrange

Dontnod’s time-bending romp through the Pacific Northwest hipster high school scene is the other episodic tale I’ve sunk my summer into, though it has a lot less blood and a lot more awkward teenage dialogue than Tales from the Borderlands. This month saw the release of this game’s penultimate episode, and raised the ante for cliffhangers in a game that has already caused me to gasp and scream at my screen more than most.

Life is Strange is the story of Max Caulfield, an unassuming photography student at prestigious Blackwell Academy whose painfully normal life takes a wild turn when she witnesses a drug-related murder and then wakes up minutes before the murder with an opportunity to stop it from happening.

The time-rewind mechanic could easily have been a simple gimmick that would have broken lesser stories. Instead, Life is Strange accepts that players will rewind decisions they don’t like, and makes a point of presenting equally interesting alternatives to most conversations. Sometimes, you need to make the wrong choice, and then rewind to take advantage of the knowledge you gleaned with it. Other times, there is no clear right answer, and consequences of decisions do not become obvious until later on (sometimes even a couple episodes later).

Even when you are incredibly careful, Life is Strange is ready to sucker punch you emotionally. It has quickly become a game worthy of trigger warnings: self-harm, suicide, rape, and domestic violence all show up in some fashion; even euthanasia plays a focal role in one chapter. While my own decisions have mercifully kept fellow Blackwell students alive, I’ve watched livestreams with players whose choices led down darker paths.

Occasionally awkward animation and perpetually awkward dialogue (it’s rare for a conversation not to include the word “hella” at least once) lead to a misguided laugh or two, but for the most part this game’s heart is too strong to be overcome by those moments of unintended campiness. Life is Strange treads dangerous waters, but it also addresses its subject matter with a gravity and respect for nuance I don’t often see in regular conversations and have basically never seen in a video game.

It’s safe to say no game has made me groan or facepalm as much as Life is Strange, but it’s also fair to say no game has never made me feel pain, shock, or surprise like Life is Strange. For that power alone, I recommend others give it a whirl. Once more, five bucks gets you the first episode, and the rest of the game will sell itself. Here’s the trailer:


That’s about it for me this month. I downloaded, but still have not had a chance to experience, the pleasant surprise that was DLC for the delightful Never Alone (a game developed with and about the Iñupiat, an indigenous Alaskan people). What have you been playing? If you’ve played any of these games, what are your thoughts?  If you haven’t, any questions? What are you playing? Let’s chat.

ADAMancy #3 – Condensed Serial

Maybe by thinking about what is lost when we extract having-to-wait from a story, we can also appreciate the stories we still wait for.


Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: Dark Victory was published across thirteen issues (fourteen, if you count #0), between December 1999 and October 2000. It is the sequel to Loeb and Sale’s rather more popular Batman: The Long Halloween, which likewise ran from December to October (1996-7). Original readers wanting to discover the identities of Holiday and The Hangman, each book’s respective serial killer, needed to wait nearly a year. Today, thanks to the magic of trade paperback collections, you need only wait a few hours.

I began (and shortly finished) Dark Victory this morning, and it reminded me of that magic: a year of story, finished before my third cup of coffee. As I turned my attention to this week’s ADAMancy, I wanted to discuss the impact of seriality, and especially the odd way that something designed to maintain suspense for months is transformed when it becomes something you can finish in an afternoon.

As I wrote, I realized that I was retreading old ground for myself, and (worse) not doing a terribly good job of it. This subject is the theme of a seminar paper I wrote during my last semester in graduate school, and rather than rehash the paper, I have decided to simply publish it here.

It’s academic, yes, but hopefully not too pedantic. If nothing else, my goal for this week is to get us pondering how we consume media, and how media was designed to be consumed. Maybe by thinking about what is lost when we extract having-to-wait from a story, we can also appreciate the stories we still wait for. Those midseason cliffhangers, the speculative discussions between episodes, the uncertainty as to who will survive (and how)… in many ways, they drive comics, they drive television, and they drive an increasing number of episodic video games.

This is definitely a sandbox to which I intend to return.

Click below to access a PDF of my paper:
Seriality in a Culture of Binging

ADAMancy #2 – Burnout

It remains a view shared by many people: comic films are a bubble, and a burst is coming.


“I think I’m done with the whole superhero thing.”

Saturation. Exhaustion. Burnout. The words differ, but the sentiment I’ve heard echoed numerous times since last month’s San Diego Comic Con remains unwaveringly simple: Hollywood’s capes-and-tights fixation is starting to catch up to audiences.

This weekend at D23 Expo, Marvel Studios unveiled more of their so-called Phase Three plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including a discussion of the upcoming Doctor Strange and several new minutes of (exclusive to attendees) footage of next year’s Captain America: Civil War. The latter seems to be shaping up to be the biggest Marvel film yet, potentially eclipsing the scale of this summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

In an industry predicated on bigger meaning better, it is difficult to imagine where the studio can possibly take this universe; there does not seem to be much room left for expansion. The number of important characters in a Marvel film has quickly grown to the point where no character’s arc feels like it has been given adequate time to develop, and this is a difficult problem to remedy when taken in consideration aside another major complaint I’ve frequently seen levied against the second Avengers flick: namely, that it is too long.

Furthermore, Age of Ultron was a film that jumped directly into its action without bothering too much with an introduction, making it the rare franchise film that presumes its audience is already acquainted with the franchise. Yet true familiarity with MCU canon constituted seeing eight or nine of Marvel’s ten prior films (Guardians of the Galaxy remains isolated thus far, and Thor: The Dark World’s events were largely incidental to Ultron’s plot). The closest any other franchise has come to expecting this much of its audiences was Harry Potter, and those films capped out at eight.

By 2019’s Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2, that “required reading” list will boast 20 titles.

Marvel Studios could easily boast having singlehandedly saturated the superhero movie market, but they aren’t the only kids on that playground. Other Marvel properties helmed by Sony and Fox (Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool) have also graced the marquees and coming attractions. And the ubiquity of Marvel in the cinemas has awakened a sleeping giant in the form of a DC no longer content to just produce a handful of Christopher Nolan films and call it a day.

The sequel to 2013’s gritty Superman flick Man of Steel quickly mutated into a much bigger movie, and next year’s bombastically titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is now set to kickstart an extended cinematic empire to rival Marvel’s: at last count, there were eleven films in production or development.

Meanwhile, on televisions and laptops, we have Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Powers, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders for Marvel and Arrow, Gotham, Flash, iZombie, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Lucifer, Preacher, and Titans for DC. It’s a lot to keep up with for the few who are trying, and even the most well-intentioned can quickly lose heart at trying to figure out what “counts” and what doesn’t. Casual fans are lucky enough to differentiate DC from Marvel; having to separate Arrow from Supergirl or to remember that the X-Men are Marvel, but not Marvel Marvel, is probably asking too much.

Part of me shrugs at what I perceive to be a veritable bounty. This is clearly the golden age of comic-based entertainment, however you feel about the state of actual comics. I have yet to dislike a single Marvel Studios film. I’m excited by the coming DC movies, even if I feel they are darker and grittier than they probably ought to be. I’ve yet to find a Marvel or DC show unwatchable, though the range of quality is definitely wider there. For me, if they build it, I will come.

But I am increasingly rare amongst filmgoers. Those who haven’t given up are starting to see the writing on the wall. “I’m just going to stick with the Marvel movies. I don’t have time to add all the DC stuff,” says one person. “I think Age of Ultron was it for me,” says another. “Nothing but superheroes. Doesn’t Hollywood have any new ideas?” complains a third.

And what about people who haven’t gotten into the craze yet, the elusive “new audiences” that Marvel and DC undoubtedly hope to capture with their barrage of movies? Age of Ultron is hardly the kind of film you release if you’re concerned about catering to fledgling filmgoers, and each new Phase raises the must be this tall to ride bar a little further out of reach.

On the flip side, how many times have we witnessed Thomas and Martha Wayne getting gunned down in an alley? The price of accessible movies is endless reboots and origin stories, constant reintroduction of characters in lieu of new development and action. When Spider-Man swings into the MCU for Civil War, he can either get bitten and discover his powers all over again (alienating established audiences) or act like we all know who he is already (alienating new audiences). This is a problem that has plagued comics for a long time, which is why we see events like Flashpoint and Secret Wars and their subsequent reboots: attempts to make decades of story accessible to brand new people without (hopefully) losing the people who have been there over those decades.

Of course, some audiences are going to disappear regardless of what the studios do. For better or worse, some audiences view the output of Marvel and DC in terms of genre rather than character or story. These viewers have a quota for “superhero movies” of any stripe, and once they’ve seen too many they’re ready to move onto something else. I could argue — and perhaps some time I will — that this is an incredibly myopic way to view the MCU and DCEU, but it remains a view shared by many people: comic films are a bubble, and a burst is coming.

My concern, and the concern I think must be shared by the people behind the coming deluge, is how to retain the audiences who are willing to stick around but are finding it increasingly difficult to do so. The alternative is that today’s mainstream becomes tomorrow’s niche: a dangerous proposition as the casts and costs continue, like Icarus, to soar.

Monthly Pull #1 – August 13th, 2015

Alright, honesty time. I sat down to write out this inaugural Monthly Pull thinking I was going to recap everything I’d read this month. And I got about halfway through before I realized it was, well, outrageously boring. I’ve committed to ensuring Novelly Graphic is worthwhile, and what I’d written would’ve been letting us both down. SO. This month, I’ve chosen instead to only discuss a few of the reads that struck me most.

That said, I’m also including a complete list of all the comics and trades I read this month at the end of this post. If you see anything on that list you’d also like me to talk about, let me know, and I’ll gladly oblige in a separate post.

Good? Good.


Ms. Marvel #17

I didn’t necessarily gasp at the end of the last issue, but seeing Carol Danvers standing side-by-side with Kamala definitely warmed my heart. G. Willow Wilson has done a great job with the various mentors she has brought through this title — perhaps most memorably, the team-up with Logan — but this was the one we were all waiting for, and it’s a fitting way to end the world.

8.13 MsMarvel

Ms. Marvel #17 is surprisingly somber. While Carol and Kamala seek Khan’s kidnapped brother and her backstabbing one-time-crush and worry about how an entire world is threatening to wipe out everyone she has ever known or cared about, they happen upon a roomful of kittens. Kamala, naturally, wants to save them all, but Carol reminds her about how high the stakes are and delivers some seriously tough news about heroism: sometimes, you aren’t going to be able to save everyone.

Maybe it’s just the way Adrian Alphona draws feline faces, but that particular moment stuck in my gut. I’m used to Ms. Marvel being poignant, but it tends to be fairly lighthearted. This is precisely the kind of difficult lesson our hero needs to learn if she’s going to be Avengers-quality material, and that makes it bittersweet as a reader. On the one hand, Kamala is sort of the emodiment of the meme-ish “precious cinnamon roll, too pure for this world” that we’d like to protect from anything too upsetting. On the other hand, the world is legitimately ending, and no one comes through that kind of trauma unscathed.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. There’s some hilarious awkwardness to kick off the issue, and Princess Sparklefists makes it clear she’s not in the mood for trifling when they finally do get near Kamran’s hideout. But make no mistake; while other books may bear the “Last Days” banner without really incorporating the Incursion, Wilson has fully integrated it into her story, a crucible through which Marvel’s best new hero is being further, if painfully, refined.

Daredevil #17

I was legitimately shocked when I saw the final page of Daredevil #16, and I didn’t think anything would be worse than the wait to see what would happen next. Leave it to Mark Waid to prove me wrong, because #17 ends on an even bigger and more devastating cliffhanger. Throw in the end of the world and the ostensible clean slate of the Marvel relaunch, and I honestly have no idea whether Matt Murdock is going to make it out of this story intact.

8.13 Daredevil

One of the things that made me love Netflix’s latest Daredevil is that series’ handling of Wilson Fisk, and the way Fisk and Murdock both have enormous egos that are almost backed by their actual skill and abilities. These are well-matched characters, and so it never really feels out of place for one of them to have outsmarted the other one. Daredevil #17 delivers one of those great Kingpin moments where the pieces fall into place and you realize the guy who looked like a bluffing fool is actually holding a straight flush.

I really liked the issue’s handling of time, swapping back and forth between the present fight between Daredevil and Ikari and the past events which led up to the fight. While hardly a novel convention, it worked well here, slowly manipulating your perception of the fight and, more importantly, of what would constitute an optimal outcome. When a third fighter joins the fray, the panic becomes palpable…I’m pretty sure I let out an audible “NO!” right along with Matt.

Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #2 & #3

I mentioned in my Secret Wars primer that this book made me nervous, and that continues to be true three issues in. That said, while I can’t be sure this isn’t a case of “careful what you wish for,” for the time being I’m still very much on board.

Having also read Spider-Man: Reign this month, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this Battle World and the AU featured in Reign. Both feature a kind of totalitarian regime, and both feature a retooled Sinister Six legitimized by the government in their pursuit of Peter Parker and his family. The tone of Renew Your Vows, mercifully, is decidedly lighter, though still grim in comparison to the 616 Spidey we’re used to.

8.13 ASMRYV

Yeah.

The general conceit here — and I’m not sure I’m buying it — is that now that Spider-Man has a family to protect, he can’t afford the level of moral discernment he used to possess. In an ironic reversal of One More Day, we still get the sense that ultimately Peter Parker can’t have both his family and his soul. That’s a depressing position to take, and I’m hoping Slott isn’t quite so cynical. Certainly the moments with MJ and their daughter, Annie, give me hope. Here is the classic story of power and responsibility, but with higher stakes. What responsibility does a powered person have to use their powers to help people, in a world where being powered is against the rules? A fantastic family moment suggests that personal consequences be damned; time will tell just how dire those consequences are.

Halfway through this miniseries, I can say that this is almost the Spider-Man comic I’ve been hoping for. I don’t feel that Peter’s dark streak is entirely justifiable here, and my hope is that in a less oppressive universe — one without an anti-power dictator — Peter wouldn’t feel so either. I hope Marvel looks at this as a kind of proof of concept, because a married Spider-Man raising a new generation of hero alongside his quite capable soulmate is a book I’d happily read for more than just five issues.

The Wicked + The Divine

8.13 WicDiv

I realize I’m super late to the party here, but for the two of you out there who still haven’t heard: Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie have created a modern masterpiece. Here’s the premise: every ninety years, twelve “gods” become incarnate, hijacking the lives of twelve teenagers and imbuing them with supernatural power. Catch is, after two years of living it up and doing miracles, they all die. The Pantheon, as it is called, draws from all over mythology and religion, and there’s no telling which gods will appear each cycle. We follow Laura, a girl who may as well be fandom incarnate, in her quest to get as close as possible to the Pantheon and maybe, just maybe, snap up some of their magic for herself as a tradeoff for her utterly mundane existence.

I happened upon WicDiv by chance, as the first volume was part of what I got for donating to an Image Humble Bundle a little while back, and I read it along with a few other first volumes of Image books I’d not paid attention to when they came out (Sex Criminals, The Walking Dead, Deadly Class). I recognize that this creative team has already established a pretty devoted following based on their other works (especially Young Avengers and Phonogram), but this was my first encounter.

And I was hooked. In fact, I’m so strongly convinced that the first volume speaks for itself that I’m not going to even try to explain why. You can get a copy of the first trade — Issues #1-5 — for a mere six dollars right now on Amazon. If you like fandom, mystery, or mythology, or just appreciate impeccably-paced storytelling, you owe it to yourself to give this book a try. I might also argue it’s worth checking out just for the art, but I’m assuming you have eyes.

8.13 WicDiv_

PICK OF THE MONTH
The Wicked + The Divine #13

F&$#ing Tara.

Really there’s no proper way to review this heartbreaker that doesn’t begin that way. For twelve issues, she has remained an enigma, only ever brought up to be disdained, and here at last under the beautiful guest artistry of Tula Lotay, we meet the first (though our last) member of the current Pantheon. I can’t remember the last time a delayed reveal so fittingly lived up to the suspense.

WicDiv #13 is one of those rare pieces of serialized fiction that functions powerfully as a standalone piece without losing any of its power as part of a larger whole (and if I weren’t so convinced people should give the whole series a go from the start, I’d definitely recommend picking up this issue as a trial run). To be sure, this issue carries on the larger narrative of murder amongst gods, as well as Ananke’s recent behavior. But in many ways, this isn’t an issue about Tara of the Pantheon. It’s an issue about stardom, sexual harassment, online bullying, and the devastating consequences of treating people as if they aren’t people.

8.13 WicDiv13

The most powerful moment in the issue for me is a two-page spread featuring dozens of tweets directed at Tara’s social media account, calling her a whore, begging her to just die already, threatening to find her and rape her, etc. etc. The words had a familiarity because I’ve seen these tweets posted by actual women — friends and celebrities alike — with far too great a frequency over the past couple years. But my shock is secondhand. Too many women don’t need to open a comic book to see this kind of harassment; they need only open their own Twitter mentions.

I forced myself to read every single tweet. And even though it only takes a few before you get the gist of things, I never felt like I had gotten used to it or had become numb to it. Each new tweet still stung, the two or three positive ones easily drowned out and forgotten. And that was me, a guy, reading fictional tweets directed at a fictional character. Reflecting on the fact that real people receive these kinds of messages in real life — and with numbing regularity — makes me wonder, in awe, how thick a skin it takes to be a woman (especially a famous one) in this kind of world.

A lot of comics get called “thought-provoking.” The Wicked + The Divine #13 actually is.


Read since last post:

A-Force #3
Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #2, #3
Archie #1
Batman #42, #43
Batman: The Long Halloween (TPB)
Batman: Hush (TPB)
Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity (#1-3)
Captain Marvel (2014), Vol. 1 (#1-6)
Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps #1, #2
Daredevil (2014) #17
Deadly Class, Vol. 1
Giant-Size Little Marvel: Avengers vs X-Men #3
Inferno #3
Inhumans: Attilan Rising #3, #4
Moon Knight (2014) #13-#17
Ms. Marvel (2014) #17
Saga #30
Sandman #21-37, Special #1 (Finished Omnibus Vol. 1)
Secret Wars #5
Sex Criminals, Vol. 1
Southern Bastards #10
Spider-Man: Reign (TPB)
Starfire #2, #3
Uncanny X-Men (2013) #35
Velvet #11
Wayward #1
The Wicked & The Divine, #1-#13

ADAMancy #1 – Alternative Perspectives

When you come into a comic book movie expecting adaptation, you shortchange your ability to enjoy it for what it is.


Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released to American film audiences on May 3, 2002, a fact that has taken a few moments to sink in for me since it means I was still in seventh grade at that point and I could have sworn I’d been at least a couple years older. Clearly, my memory of the time is unreliable, though of two things I am certain. First, there was Spider-Man-branded cotton candy available at the concession stand which I greatly enjoyed. Second, seventh grade me thought the movie was incredible.

Prior to 2002 I was pretty naive about comic books writ large. I had sporadically read Sonic the Hedgehog comics (courtesy of Archie) for a few years, and even dabbled in what I considered the tremendously edgy spinoff comic Knuckles (it had dating and kissing and teenagers! So mature!). Of course, I’d seen all sorts of covers and collectibles in the local Comic Corner (the oversized closet that was the town LCS which, in the very center of the town’s only real strip mall, was very much not in the corner of anything). But unlike my friends who’d spent many a Saturday watching X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series, I remained oblivious to the import of names like “Marvel” and “DC.” I went to the Comic Corner for two things — Sonic comics and Pokémon cards — and that was pretty much it.

Yet in early spring, one slightly thicker book caught my eye. It featured a slick-looking red and blue hero swinging past realistic skyscrapers. On the bottom right corner of the book were the words “Power and Responsibility.” That book — the first trade paperback of Ultimate Spider-Man — would be the first Marvel product I owned. It also ended up acting as a kind of gateway for me: not long after, I would want the omnibus hardcover for my birthday, and I began buying single issues of Spidey instead of Sonic.

The movie I saw in theaters shortly thereafter felt pretty true to the comics I’d been reading. If you’d complained to me that a Spider-Man origin story ought to have, say, Gwen Stacy in it, I’d have sincerely told you there was no one called Gwen Stacy in the comics, and that the film was faithful to Parker’s story, and that you should shut up. I was still too ignorant to know the difference between Earth-1610 and Earth-616. I didn’t know that comics feature alternate universes. I didn’t know there were other versions of Peter Parker, and even if I had been told I probably wouldn’t have cared. My Spider-Man was the only one that mattered.

I’m not sure whether the Sam Raimi films were ever officially declared adaptations of the Ultimate universe version of Spider-Man. I do think it’s fair to say that the first film was a much closer telling of Power and Responsibility than of the earlier Amazing Spider-Man stories. Still, the film has its differences, too (Look ma! No web-shooters!), differences which would become more pronounced and exacerbated as the trilogy unfolded. Even if Sony began with the intention of filming Ultimate Spider-Man, the movies quickly became a different universe in their own right.

Really, they always were.

Last weekend, another Marvel property was brought to cinema audiences in the form of the spectacularly panned Fantastic Four (the film currently boasts a whopping 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and a not particularly more encouraging 27% on Metacritic). I’ve not yet seen the film, but I had been optimistic about it in spite of all the controversy surrounding its production. Much of that controversy can be boiled down to a complaint which gets applied in the wake of every new comic-to-film adaptation: they’re not being true to the comics.

Not long ago, I probably would have been in the group screaming in protest of the perceived bastardization of a beloved story. I have long maintained that, given the cost of these productions, fans who may only get one shot at seeing the characters they love brought to life on the big screen have a right to demand that that be done properly. Fans ought to recognize the thing they have supported in these movies; after all, were it not for fan support, the franchise would likely have never been deemed film-worthy in the first place.

There is, to be sure, an element of truth to that argument. At the same time, I think about what made Ultimate Spider-Man so great for me as a young reader, and I think a major part of it was that the creators of that story did not feel tethered to the life and times of the original Peter Parker. Responsible handling of the spirit of Spider-Man was still there, but the actual execution was wildly different. And that was OK, because this was a different universe.

I think a major driver of aggravation directed towards film adaptations is that despite names like “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a lot of people are still treating the movies more like remasters of the universe they know than as if the movies legitimately constituted a separate universe. Which, according to the Marvel Wiki, is precisely what the MCU is: Earth-199999. (And yes, I know that the FOX and Sony films are not part of the MCU. That’s beside my main point here.)

In fairness, I do think there’s a bit of unnecessary trolling going on that contributes to some of this aggravation. Using titles like “Civil War” and “Age of Ultron,” which are specific titles of major comic book events, sends the message of adaptation even if in reality the film will share little more than the name. It’s not clear to me what the benefit of, say, Age of Ultron as a title really was, since the name (as opposed to any other name) will only meaningfully attract the comic readers who already have specific associations with that title. In other words, you confuse or aggravate the readers without any perceivable benefit for all the non-readers. What’s gained?

Naming conventions aside, however, the general point still holds: people do not think about the MCU as its own no-strings-attached-to-616 universe the same way they have thought about the Ultimate universe. For some reason, changing media also changes perspective; the fact that one of the universes also has actors and sound has clouded the fact that it is still, at its core, an alternate universe where only some characters or events should be expected to mirror their counterparts in another universe. And I think that’s a shame, because it greatly dilutes the enjoyability.

Most people I know who enjoy the so-called Nolanverse Dark Knight films are able to do so for one of two reasons. Either they are ignorant of the comic books, and thus have no expectations to be lived up to or dashed, or else they perceive those films not as an adaptation of some existing Batman story but rather as an elseworlds/AU that is not meant to be compared to or compatible with any extant Gotham tale.

To be sure, you needn’t be fond of something simply because it is an alternate rather than an adaptation. It’s fine to say “I don’t like that version of Batman” or “I prefer a different take on Harley Quinn.” But saying that the film universe version of a character is bad is really just the wrong way of saying it’s failing at the adaptation it was never intended to be. Moreover, people who prefer a film version of a character to that character in the comics aren’t wrong or deceived to do so, and I see far too many people acting otherwise. “You don’t really like Loki. You just like the film version.” Why not be more accurate? Liking the Earth-199999 version without knowing the Earth-616 version is no greater a sin than only knowing or liking an Earth-1610 version.

Probably a significant part of this is that people confuse their disappointment that a movie isn’t what they were expecting with their appraisal of what the movie actually tried to be. A long-time fan of Amazing Spider-Man could easily have hated the first Spider-Man film purely because it was not the  motion picture 616 story she was looking for, thereby never appraising it as an adaptation of 1610 (or, better yet, as a standalone version with its own idiosyncrasies). When you come into a comic book movie expecting adaptation, you shortchange your ability to enjoy it for what it is.

The whole purpose of an Ultimate universe was accessibility, to make it possible for people like seventh-grade me to enjoy something called Spider-Man without having to first know decades’ worth of backstory. The MCU, and developing DCCU, are just new variations on that theme. Some will be awfully familiar and rewarding, while others will be completely unrecognizable. Love what you can, leave what you can’t. And let these new universes be the first or only universes some people know; the universes you love aren’t going anywhere.

Well, until the next Flashpoint or Secret Wars, anyway ^_^


What do you think? Do you struggle with treating non-comic versions of characters/stories as their own beast? Should films be reserved for faithful adaptation of existing stories? Have you ever preferred an alternate version of a character to the original? Let’s chat!

“Novelly Graphic,” Eh?

Today marks the official relaunch of Novelly Graphic, and I wanted to mark the occasion by drawing your attention to a couple new pages on the site designed to clarify what precisely you’ve signed up for here. You have signed up, right? No? You can do that by clicking the menu/widget box in the upper righthand corner.

Right, so, now for what you’ve signed up for. Essentially, Novelly Graphic is an outlet for my thoughts on visual storytelling, predominately of the comic book and video game variety. Of course ideally, each post will transcend my voice: much as I love to share my opinions, I think this will all be vastly more worthwhile if posts become jumping-off points for conversation.

Check out my Statement of Intent if you’d like to know a bit more about what led me to (re)create Novelly Graphic and what I hope to accomplish here generally. If you’re more into the nitty-gritty, I’ve also broken down What to Expect on a monthly basis. Presently I’m committed to a guaranteed six posts per month (first post coming Monday!).

For what it’s worth, this is at minimum an exercise to keep me thoughtful and productive while outside the Ivory Tower. I’m committing to write on a consistent schedule simply because I need to be writing, irrespective of your silence or participation. My hope is that I can engage you (or that you will give me feedback to aid me in doing so). Should I succeed, you’ll become this blog’s raison d’être long after I’m gainfully employed.

Welcome to Novelly Graphic, readers. Hope you survive the experience!

The Ethics of Art Theft

Is there a blurry line between stealing and celebrating art?


 

Earlier today, Jordie Bellaire (whose incredible coloring work seems to appear in every other book in existence these days) called out a website for art theft. The ensuing Twitter saga ultimately led to the conclusion that the site itself was actually a bizarre scam presenting Google image search results in lieu of actual products, but “WallpartPosters” is hardly the only place one might go when trying to secure wall-sized prints of comic (or other) art. As Bellaire noted, “It’s just ugly, lots of artists are just tired of it. It’s happening all the time and no one cares to stop.”

It’s hardly the first time I’ve seen artists perturbed (understatement much?) at attempts to profit freely off of their hard work; last month I was introduced to Hiba Khan by virtue of some sleazy entrepreneur’s attempts to claim her work was public domain — by virtue of its existence on the Internet — and then sell products emblazoned with it.

The obvious problems of theft notwithstanding, cases like these have led me to wonder whether (and where) there is a place for custom-designed products featuring others’ work. In Khan’s case, someone was actually trying to make money off of her painting, and she expressed intent to sell shirts of her own, featuring that work, once it was finished. The damage to her is thus fairly clear. But what if she never intended to sell those shirts, and you wanted to wear her design? In days past, you might have bought iron-on transfer paper and printed out an 8 x 10 to DIY it. Would that have been unethical? And if not, is it any less ethical to order a custom shirt or poster made with the image file an artist (or their employer) has already made available, especially if they don’t sell shirts or posters?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I recognize that people — perhaps including the artists mentioned here — might simply say “yes, this is unethical.” And insomuch as the work is theirs, the conversation might just as well end there. However in a world increasingly rife with fan culture, edits, and other creative undertakings, intellectual property ethics aren’t always in keeping with intellectual property law, and assumptions of ownership seem to be cloudier these days than they were ten or twenty years ago. Just look at what has happened with the Suicide Squad trailer from SDCC. What once might have been looked at as free viral marketing (and, heck, is looked at that way by many other companies) was perceived by Warner Bros. Pictures as despicable piracy (read: theft) and damaging besides.

This all sort of hit home for me last night, as I spent an hour or so fruitlessly trying to track down a poster I was sure must exist but evidently does not. I wanted to add Sara Pichelli’s cover art from last year’s Ms. Marvel #1 to my wall, but it does not appear that I will be able to do so since neither Marvel nor Pichelli sells such a thing. In the grand scheme of things, this is a trivial concern. But if I’d wanted to express my love for the book just a tiny bit more than I do, I might have ended last night trying to upload that image to a site just like WallpartPosters, not to earn or take any money from the people who created the art but simply because there was no viable way for me to give them money for the product I was seeking.

Are fan culture and artists’ rights inherently at odds with one another? Is it actually unethical to seek services for creating posters or shirts to celebrate something you love when those posters or shirts aren’t otherwise available to buy? Is it truly reprehensible for websites to exist to provide those services? Why don’t larger companies (such as Marvel) simply run their own version of these services (so that the covers or panels they own can end up on the bodies and bedrooms of their fans)? I’d love to hear what you think.