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Worth A Look

Worth A Look

I have always had too many hobbies, especially when I was younger. Like a lot of people, some of these fell away for awhile, some of them I picked back up for nostalgic reasons or with a new appreciation. Some have been left behind. For me, one passion remained constant throughout (aside from writing). With comic books, I stopped reading them for over a decade. Sure, there was the occasional trade paperback here and graphic novel there, but there was a long time where I checked out of the culture and community for good (until I was drawn back in, pardon the pun). With regard to other nerdy passions, I started playing music rather late and I basically stopped drawing for a long time before starting up my first webcomic in 2007.

But my oldest nerdy pastime––one that never went away––has been playing video games. I’ve always kept in touch, I’ve always had an ear to the discourse, and I’ve always followed the developments. It’s strange, then, that I never really thought about video games critically until relatively recently. Until I started using the tools I was practicing as a college student and graduate student, I never really absorbed games as statements on (or of a) culture.

However, there were a few times when I played a game and recognized that there was something more here, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. Metal Gear Solid was one (as was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater after it). Another was Shadow of the Colossus. There was also Red Dead Redemption. When Red Dead was released, my excitement was tempered with shock because as a fan of its predecessor, the Playstation 2 game Red Dead Revolver, I had no idea that it garnered enough attention to warrant a sequel––not from the fans nor from the industry. But I greeted it with anticipation and my reaction to it was on par with most people who played it––I loved it.

Image Source: Bullet Points Monthly

It felt big and cinematic, the story felt important, but what it was trying to say eluded me if only because I wasn’t thinking about that with regard to games. More importantly, I wasn’t quite sure about how to analyze a text like this. My instinct when it comes to fiction is to be enveloped by its tone and characters. Though I had become more critically aware of movies and books (what with my English degrees), such skepticism never leapt the barrier into video games.

Now, as a neophyte pop culture critic, I would like to analyze this medium but worry if I could do so as objectively as I would like. It is one of those “special” games to me, a pane in a stained-glass assemblage that is my personality, nostalgia, and taste. Furthermore, so much time has passed since its release that I wonder––with all the developments in the technology and expectations––if I could go back to it without some immediate deconstruction of my love for what made this game great in 2010.

Furthermore, most of the conversation around the game has been cultural rather than critical. Most discussion I come across is done by those who love it like I do, so the talk is mostly about how it has become “the game of its generation” or how video games can have impactful, cinematic storytelling while also being good games. While I don’t disagree with those sentiments, I haven’t found any real conversation around the game that delves deeper than a nigh dilettantish affection for the game, so I let more time pass and the possibility of actually developing a thesis around it slip away.

And then I found the brilliant podcast, Bullet Points. In a way, linking to Jess Joho’s article is a slightly veiled excuse to gush about the Bullet Points podcast and its long-form criticism companion site, Bullet Points Monthly. The core of Bullet Points is the trio of critics Ed Smith, Reid McCarter, and Patrick Lindsey who all write freelance for a variety of different culture sites. Their monthly episodes bring in assorted guests (such as Joho) and, together, approach video games new and old with an intelligent, skeptical scalpel that makes for an engaging listen. Each episode focuses on one game (ostensibly their focus is games with shooting mechanics, hence the title) that they all play and come to the recording session with their individual critical takeaways from the experience. Bullet Points Monthly contains articles written by the hosts with one guest contributor to hone their experiences into deft and penetrative articles about the game to be discussed on the upcoming podcast episode.

Back to Red Dead Redemption, their talk about the game (Episode 24 of the podcast) immediately gave me what I was looking for, which also pointed to article Joho wrote for the discussion and is also a perfect example of what I hoped to see in the discussions about this game––an incisive dissection of what this game means:

Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just portray a revisionist western story. The game itself plays like it’s a revisionist western cowboy on a quest to erase the past misdeeds of its genre—only to perpetuate those same misdeeds under the guise of revisionism or redemption.

It gave me a place to start, critically, with which I can go back to the game without the worry of being dragged down by old controls or distracted by out-of-date graphics. A lot of times their discussions touch on cinematic criticism or literary criticism but never as a crutch. Instead, they are citing those critical fields as peers to the texts being discussed on the podcast, which is exactly a tenet Andrew and I yearn to do on this very website with a similar general theoretical approach. If Bullet Points continues to do more writing and discussion like this, then I am even more excited for not only what other games they turn their attention toward, but also what I will have to say about games in the future, because it’s one of the first times in a while where I’ve been inspired to go play a game with a critical eye. It’s as if hearing them do it––and do it so well––finally gave my brain the permission to hop the fence and give this thing called video game criticism more of a shot than before.

Canon has been an undercurrent of a lot of what Andrew and I talk about on the podcast lately, though not necessarily whether it’s good or bad, necessary or fanciful. There is no doubt that canonizing properties has been a long-standing tradition for a variety of reasons: first, a continuity helps keep future iterations and sequels in line so that the thematic or tonal essence of a property is preserved; second, that universal structure helps to also solidify, as Mike Chen notes, “the backbone of a community” as well. This has been put to the test in the last decade.

From the dissolution of the Star Wars Extended Universe by Disney to the increasingly interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, canonicity has become an important talking point in the nerdy-geeky world in some form or another. Both Marvel and DC, in their comics divisions, are struggling with it; it’s hard to decide whether the best move is to honor the canon established by including the upwards of seventy years of existing stories (for some) or to start anew and revised in a clean cut with the hopes of attracting new readers to old characters made relevant once more. Either way, our tendency towards canon development fosters in readers a deep attachment to the characters and their stories. While the emotional importance of canon among fans is undeniable, and is something that Mike Chen paints with affection in his article, he touches on what I think is the more damaging––and therefore more pertinent––side of canonicity: gatekeeping.

Grand Admiral Thrawn. Artist: Tony Foti (from Star Wars: The Card Game)

I am on the verge of arguing that gatekeeping mentalities are at the heart of the problems that are tearing the nerd world––and, by proxy, popular culture––apart. As these properties and franchises expand outward from the once niche pocket of fandom to greater cultural acceptance (something we all wanted in the first place), it is admittedly hard for some fans to accept that people that have only watched the Marvel movies can call themselves fans of Marvel.

But here’s a fact: they are.

But so many of us try to keep people like them out. Post-2005 Doctor Who fans. Fans who discovered Star Wars with the prequels. Abrams’ Star Trek fans. Mario fans whose first game was Super Mario Sunshine. For some fans, any of these people should have their fandom challenged and tested by their own twisted metric, but it means nothing. As much as we would like to––and as much as we already assume to––have ownership over the properties we have built the core of our personalities around, we simply do not. Passion and fervor, while important for the survival of a fiction, are not authors of it nor the metric for deciding who gets to like it. We cannot decide who gets to love movies, games, cartoons, comics, and television shows. Besides, what good does keeping people out do? If anything, Chen argues that it could even damage our identity within a culture:

[G]eeks often discover their passions while searching for some form of acceptance. With geek culture exploding into the mainstream over the past decade, it often becomes less about ‘are you a fan?’ and more about ‘how much of a fan are you?’ But fandom—the enjoyment of creativity and art—shouldn’t be placed on some finite metric to be analyzed and judged, as long as it’s being expressed positively.

Being a fan of the Marvel comics is not the same as being a mason, nor should it be, with tests to administer and rituals to memorize. They are meant to be enjoyed; again, what good does it do to actively damage a person’s enjoyment of something you or I enjoy so much? Instead, we need to look at things like canon as what it is: fiction. And fiction is meant to be fun. I don’t know about you, but even if someone comes to a fiction later than me or for different reasons than me, if we’re all enjoying it then it’s elevating not only the culture as a whole but, if I were to be honest, also my enjoyment of it.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Batman: The Animated Series has become a show whose perennial place in nerd culture is all but assumed and revered. Andrew and I discussed the show, albeit briefly, back in Episode 59 – BTAS, as a segue to talk about dreams and dreaming in fiction, but the show, obviously, has done a lot more than that throughout its 110 episodes across seven years of airing (I’m including The New Batman Adventures in the tally). When talking about the show, one conversation that must surface is its diversity of storytelling and the risks it took. What set the show apart from not only every other animated series on American television may also have set it apart from nearly any other television that aired at the time of its release. Namely, it’s willingness to have strange, experimental episodes that challenged the expectations of superhero fans and television viewers.

Sure, it will be remembered for its strong, more traditional, Batman stories like “Heart of Ice”, “The Demon’s Quest”, and “Robin’s Reckoning (Parts 1 and 2)”––the last of which won an Emmy––but it will also be remembered for its non-traditional, esoteric stories like “Perchance to Dream”, “Legends of the Dark Knight”, “Over the Edge”, and “Almost Got ‘Im.” It was a show that learned to take risks, and what’s fascinating is that, apparently, a lot of that ethos was there from the start.

Concept art from the BTAS Writer’s Bible. Art by Bruce Timm. Source: io9

One of my prized possessions, creatively, is a book written by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd called Batman: Animated which covers the history of the show and is filled with amazing photos of everything from concept art to marketing photos for Batman-branded soap. But a bit of space is devoted to the development of the idea of what Batman: The Animated Series would be, hinting at the thorough show bible that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Mitch Brian put together. Basically, a show bible is a treatise on the characters, stories, tone, and plan for a tv show used to keep the studio on track as well as acting as a set of guidelines for artists and writers hired to work for the show. Somehow––and thankfully so––the show bible has gotten out there in pdf form and it is as glorious as I was hoping it would be.

The cover to Batman: Animated by Paul Dini & Chip Kidd, art by Bruce Timm.

Whitbrook points out in his article (which also has a link to the pdf) that the show bible takes firm stances in how the creators saw the show. Even if the show wiggled its way out of those chains a bit as it went on (you can’t not have a bat signal), its overall view of the character himself was carved from stone and rooted in change from the status quo:

One big emphasis throughout the bible is an ardent desire to tell darker Batman stories; after all, the last solo Batman TV series before this one was Batman ‘66. Like Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, The Animated Series sought to distance itself from that interpretation. Sometimes it did so subtly, with mentions like “no Bat Signal or hotline” to keep him separate from the Gotham police, or by making Robin an occasional partner rather than a full-time companion.

While the show worked its hardest to separate Batman from his previous televised iterations to make him into the brooding loner we all know and love, what Whitbrook’s article and its attached copy of the Batman: The Animated Series show bible illustrate (pardon the pun) is how something as important and groundbreaking as this show actually came together through an almost supernatural synchronicity of passionate, creative people who were willing to break the rules every now and then and try something new with, at the time, a forty year-old medium and a sixty year-old character.

Although I court a lot of pushback as soon as I say it, I feel pretty lucky to have grown up reading comic books when I did, in the early 1990s. For those with vehement dissenting positions to this opinion, I offer a truce by completely agreeing with you when you say the content of this point in comics history was rather lacking as creators felt the need to push good taste to its limits in many different ways. However, these comics were connecting with kids––with me––and while I can’t say their influence was all beneficial, they certainly stirred the imagination. With that in mind, a lot of choices made both narratively and, especially, artistically at the time are nigh inexcusable when held up against modern criteria.

In light of the speculator market and the inflated sense of worth the industry had of itself at the time, for a fan the early ’90s were quite exciting in spite of all of that. It was this excitement for not only the characters, stories (what there were of those, at least), and creators that drove us back to the shops every week, but it was also the industry as a whole during this time, especially during the flashpoint formation of Image Comics. I remember the creation of Image Comics happening. I remember thinking it was really weird. I remember being really excited for it, as well. (A good documentary about the formation of Image Comics exists, called Image Revolution, that is well worth the viewing.)

Cover from Youngblood #1 by Rob Liefeld, the first comic published by Image Comics. Source: Geek.com

As the ’90s faded away and the market crashed and Marvel went bankrupt and the industry and its fans actually had some time for critical self-reflection, Image Comics, as it had started out, became the pennant we could all point to and say, “That, right there, is what was wrong with comics in the ’90s.” In some ways, such assertions are very true. Fast-forward twenty years, though, and the “worst” in industry has become the outstanding front runner for thoughtful, challenging, and earnest comics above almost all other publishers. The about-face is astounding and couldn’t have been written better for fear of being too cliché and feel-good. But it all comes down to the principles that formed the bedrock (or badrock, harhar) of the company, as iterated by Jensen in his article:

Image had two rules: all comics were owned by their creators, and no Image creator would interfere with another’s business.

As it stands today, Image Comics is a beacon in the industry and is at the top of its game. I’m sure many people lament the 180-degree turn from its superheroic start––I experience light pangs as I think about it but shrug them off––but there’s no doubt that what Image is doing today aligns (at least in theory) with the concept that founded the company: complete independence. Because of that, Image books are bringing more attention to creators, more good to the industry, and better comics for readers, and I wouldn’t trade that for the gun-toting, veiny-muscled, blood-soaked comics of yore any day of the week.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Source: SAG-AFTRA

It may surprise some reading this that the voice actor’s strike against the video game industry is still in effect. We discussed it back in October on Episode 112, around when it started, and even though the media coverage around it has died down, many voice actors are still struggling to get their voices heard, pardon the pun. In fact, the loudest spike I’ve heard on the incident since that initial furor was at the beginning of December during the 2016 Video Game Awards. Video game voice actor monolith, Nolan North, won the award for Best Performance through his work on Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and had some choice words to say about the strike, albeit in vague––and, perhaps, surprising––terms:

Ian William’s article highlights the major developments that have happened since the strike began, but a point relevant to North’s speech stuck out to me. This strike is not about voice actor vs. developer––let’s be honest, each needs the other. However, North sees it this way, as do many others, and it makes me wonder if this narrative is constructed by certain parties or one that organically surfaced due to the limited media attention as well as general reader ignorance of how games are made. Perhaps it’s both. Either way, this false conflict between developer and performer isn’t good for either side and, especially, for the creative side of the industry as a whole:

“I know who wins the battle between game developers and voice actors. It’s the game corporations.” -Keythe Farley, National Chair of the Interactive Negotiating Committee

While the plight of voice actors in video games have been only recently brought to light through the strike (and mostly forgotten), a highly visible topic over the last five years or so has been the rather horrible working conditions developers have to slog through to get games done. From the frightening revelations of the dying giant, Konami, to the recent issue of Crytek employees not getting paid for months only to have the company shut down a bunch of its studios once the news went public (which highly reeked of the almost immediate implosion that was 38 Studios). However, if the voice actors can get the deals they need to be able to do their best work, it could be the first step the industry needs to reconstruct as a whole. The squeaky wheels get the grease, but a smart mechanic realizes it may be indicative of a larger problem.

Not to get somber, but Bill Coberly’s article hits on something I think we’re only going to see more of as, especially, my generation extends into old(er) age. A big aspect of our parents’ culture that my culture (basically Generation X and Millennials) have rejected is the idea that the things which brought us joy as children must be abandoned to be successful or healthy as adults. Some people fully embrace all of nerd culture and plaster their homes and themselves completely in things that they loved as children (tattoos of cartoon characters, clothes patterned with triforces, or shelves lined with Marvel toys, for example), others have that one activity––playing video games, reading comic books, loving science fiction––that they bring with them into adulthood, expectations be damned. As time moves on, more and more people will have experiences like Coberly did with his father. “My Name is Ozymandias” is a touching piece about Coberly finding save files for Civilization IV on his father’s computer after his father died. His dad was a “normal” guy whose “quirk” (by old world standards, that is) was that he loved strategy games and RPGS, and apparently played Civ IV nigh obsessively. The piece is a powerful reflection on their relationship, how games unite father and son, and what to do with the digital data left behind for survivors.

This last aspect is incredibly interesting because save files are, in essence, verbs in stasis. They are records of us doing something and stopping so that we can come back later and pick up from where we left off to continue to do. In this case, the “do” is to play Civ IV.

Screenshot of Civilization IV. Source: Ontological Geek

Coberly inadvertently points to a larger cultural place video games (and other sundry nerdy things) will inevitably play in family relations. There may be, if not games, then franchises or love for a genre that may be passed on from parent to child. Or, perhaps, even save files. I think of games built around crafting and creation––can servers of Minecraft be part of a heritage? Can we inherit the hard drive with my mother’s Steam library downloaded on to it?

While not involving a death, I have had a moment where video games, in this case, played a particularly powerful role in my relationship with my father. My dad is decidedly “old school.” He does not dalliance with video games beyond Tetris or Spider Solitaire. When he was young, he buried himself in the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ross Macdonald‘s world of crime and detection and expressed himself by drawing Martian vistas and alien women in gauzy veils that hugged their curves. But he abandoned most of that with maturity. By the time he was my father, he was an academic of philosophy and history, and was nerdy about them as long as they were huge books with full indices and academic references.

I took a chance one day as he was up visiting my wife and me for a weekend. As mentioned, my dad is a history buff, especially of California transportation––especially of Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. Having played through Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, and knowing how much effort they put into recreating late 1940s Los Angeles, I figured he would at least have fun tearing it apart as I drove around in old cars and showed him a digitized version of his former home.

My dad actually has memories of when L.A. actually looked like this. Source: Rockstar Games

The following was a comment I wrote on the defunct gaming website, Known Griefers, as a response to their question: What is a game that you have bonded with family over? It has been edited for grammar and accuracy.

My dad was born in 1940 in Hollywood, CA. Late 1940s & 1950s L.A. was his stomping ground and he remembers it fondly. He became a professor of philosophy and taught that for forty years before retiring to become a professional historian of none other than 1920s-1950s L.A. When he drives through L.A., he sees none of the modern desolation that has descended upon that city. Instead, he still sees bright trolley cars clanging their bells down the street and dudes who wear fedoras and three-piece suits while Duesenbergs and Hudsons grumble down the street in jet-black finishes.

Basically, my dad still imagines an L.A. Noire world. So, having played the game extensively, I nervously asked him if he wanted to see a video game I owned last time he visited. He begrudgingly agreed and as soon as the game loaded and the city opened up on my television, any hint of skepticism evaporated. We looked at as many cars as possible and he drove me around the city on memory alone. We wandered through the lobby of Union Station and even got up to the rail yards. We scoped out the Hall of Records and tried to get into the Roosevelt Hotel, but couldn’t. While it isn’t an exact replica of the city (we tried to find his aunt’s house, to no avail), it was pretty damned good, enough for an old man to nearly be brought to tears by it, as if he were looking out a younger pair of his own eyes at the city he once saw so clearly and now only sees in nostalgic visits. If I had any complaints about the game (which were very few), they lost any validity because of the game’s ability to make my dad experience something he never thought he’d get a chance to do again.

While not a lineage passed down from one generation to the next like Coberly experienced, this is an instance of a “new” technology, a “nerd” technology, one pushed off as “childish” and “immature” really helped strengthen the bond between father and son in a way––and I say this without hyperbole––no other medium could have done and it will be something I never forget.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

It’s weird to think about, but video games didn’t officially become protected expressions of free speech until a 2011 Supreme Court case judged it so. I think what adds to the surrealism of that realization is how prevalent video games were as a topic of discussion in popular discourse leading up to that decision. Violent video games and their effects on children through to “hot coffee,” Grand Theft Auto, and the mercifully forgotten Jack Thompson were just bookends on a narrative full of ups and downs. According to Patrick Klepek’s article, however, the fight had been waged in the court system long before the Supreme Court ever got their hands on it.

Source: Waypoint
Source: Waypoint

By 2011, the video game scene was pretty much United States-centric as an industry with developers such as Rockstar being brought under the microscope to search for corroborating evidence that they were as bad as Camel using cartoons to sell cigarettes to children. In 1993, however, Nintendo was king. And, despite their stateside headquarters in Seattle (and, for a long time, a majority stake in the Mariners), it was very much a Japanese company. That’s why Klepek’s overview and interview of how Nintendo went under the gun to defend video games is well worth the read through, because I wonder if they would be as hearty today. Part of me thinks Nintendo would be excused simply because it’s a multigenerational institution at this point, and our culture is comfortable with its presence and practices (I think of John Denver being called in front of the PMRC in the mid-1980s to defend against censorship in music). However, another part of me wonders if they’d be excused because the company has become so divorced from modern gaming that it’s not even in the conversation for many people.

Either way, the company went to bat for the industry at a critical time, and Klepek’s interview and overview should be read and supported by all gamers. Also, a big welcome to Waypoint, the official gaming wing of Vice. They headhunted Austin Walker away from my favorite gaming site, Giant Bomb, to become editor-in-chief, and as sad as I was to hear that he was leaving, as soon as they said Vice had sniped him, it made total and complete sense. They already have a lot of thoughtful critical articles up at Waypoint, and I suggest you check it out regularly.

Worth a Listen:

This is the last I’ll mention it, possibly, but the recent election left a lot of people scratching their heads (as well as angry, horrified, and dreadful, for a variety of reasons). The last place I thought I’d find any decent, rational conversation about it would be a podcast associated with the humor website and listicle factory, Cracked. Editor-in-Chief, Jack O’Brien, sits down with Cracked.com‘s executive editor of humor and well-informed dude, Jason Pargin (aka David Wong), who wrote a widely-circulated article post-election titled, “Don’t Panic.”

ear_crackedpodcast_1600x1600_cover_final-1024x1024
source: Earwolf

While I will not say that what is discussed in this podcast is gospel and should be fully obeyed, they go out of their way to be as inclusive as possible while doing their best to recognize their own privilege and points of view. That said, it’s a great starting point for conversation about the election and what progressively-minded people can do in its aftermath.

Most importantly, I never thought I’d be pointing toward anything that had to do with Cracked. It was brought to my attention by friend of the show, Walter, and I thank him for doing so. I’d have to listen to the episode again to assess how much of it is simply two white guys calming each other down in the face of an open nativist being elected into office or if it actually has some salient points. At the very least, none of the topics or points of view are radical in the episode and serve as an excellent start to a conversation that we all could use to help balance the discourse and get people to start listening to each other rather than just yelling (though I’m not disparaging the yelling, either; sigh. It’s a complicated issue).

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

It’s no surprise by now that I’m a fervent X-Men apologist and proudly so. Such sentiments are only bolstered by their very strange treatment by Marvel over the last eight or so years. Most of my conspiratorial talk is just for fun, but there are some details that eke through and seem just a bit too shady to be mere coincidence. There was the omission of any mutants from the cover of Marvel’s 75th Anniversary magazine, which was given away for free (which Andrew and I discussed early in our show’s history). Since then, they have made Cyclops––the boy scout figurehead of the mutants (ostensibly the Superman of the X-Men)––a terrorist murderer (#cyclopswasright), they have legit killed the most famous mutant character, Wolverine, and now they are having the team nobody really knows about (but they really want people to know about) fight the team they want everyone to forget about in the “Inhumans vs. X-Men” event (but not before they have a prologue event literally called “The Death of X”).

source: marvel.com
source: marvel.com

Comicsverse are, admittedly, as apologetic about the X-Men as I am, but they approach this topic with a collectively cooler head. Jack Fisher’s article looks at what he describes as the problem with this fight beyond the obviously corporate undertones that poison the well. He sees this forced skirmish as a severely problematic one based on the origin of these teams and how these continuous “…vs. X-Men” storylines are doing more cultural damage in the long run even if books are being sold. Fisher boils it down beautifully:

Whatever the outcome and whatever the legal undertones, the concept between Inhumans vs. X-Men is flawed. On one side, you have a minority that has been forcibly sterilized twice in the past decade. On the other, you have a team with a tradition of racism, xenophobia, and slavery. It’s not a battle between heroes as much as it is an exercise in contrivance.

I don’t know much about the Inhumans, but it seems that in the cinematic universe they are building them from the ground up. On more than one occasion, it has been noted (especially by co-host Andrew) that they’re just trying to slot them in the empty socket where mutants normally go. But that exacerbates the problem, I would argue.

It’s not as the Den of Geek article linked to in the last paragraph argues that the Inhumans are “the same basic idea, but with the serial numbers filed off.” It’s worse than that. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mutants were created to represent the minorities of this country and to dramatize their plight and struggle to accomplish two things: first, it presents these otherwise uncomfortable and possibly unknown issues to the predominantly white readership; second, it gives minorities (be it color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation) a safe place to go in the world of comics. The X series of books is about showing what true prejudice, bias, and hate looks like and having the minority survive.

And what happens?

In 2005, editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada instructs the X-writers to kill off all mutants except for 198. Genocide. Narratively (and creatively), it made sense. Mutants work best when they are a minority. But they were also presented as being the next stage in human evolution. With so many mutants on the planet (by 2005, at least) it seemed that theory was correct––science wins again––until they were forcibly made a minority again. That, of course, was the big event. But the small things, such as the omission from the Marvel 75th Anniversary Magazine cover, killing off fan-favorite characters, pitting C-level characters against them, etc., when piled together that makes a pretty loud squeaky wheel. Holistically, it looks like corporate monkey-wrenching and favoritism and simple catering to what is popular right now. But that isn’t all of it.

When taken in as a whole with the knowledge of what the X-Men actually mean, it looks like the type of thing the scared majority does to keep a minority down, and, in this day and age, it’s rather sickening.

With Halloween behind us, a lot of Lovecraft-focused articles circulated around the internet in celebration of the ghastly day. Mostly well-trod biographies or overviews of his racism, these are valid and important conversations to have as they can add a lot to the knowledge of the casual consumer. Much like the Luke Cage article I shared before, the most interesting article that I saw this last week was a roundtable discussion of Lovecraft and his work by three writers whose works have been influenced by his mythos: Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, and Ruthanna Emrys.

Cover image from The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, source: barnesandnoble.com
Cover image from The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, source: barnesandnoble.com

The conversation is important because, despite being short, it digs deeper than a normal roundtable usually goes. The interviewer gets right to the point and discusses Lovecraft’s racism and what his legacy should be in a modern context, and––even better––the writers don’t shy away from giving tough answers.

As a reader of both Lovecraft and Lovecraft criticism, I belong to a few Lovecraftian fan pages on Facebook in the hope that there will be discussion as found in Joel Cunningham’s article. However, on the whole it’s a rather soft engagement with the material. What frustrates, however, is whenever an article that addresses his racism or intolerance starts making its way around the internet, the claws come out and the hate speech––for lack of a better word––fills the subsequent comments. Just as bad is the insistence on apathy in many cases, and that is a tragedy.

To say anything about Lovecraft’s work requires an acknowledgement of his love for the sciences. Like, a capital-L Love. The scientific method is all about asking questions, not picking sides. Science seeks to find how things thread into their place within the context of the universe and to see how that weave is part of a larger puzzle, a puzzle getting larger all the time. Science does not reward partisanship or apathy, it rewards the explorer. The fact that most Lovecraft stories warn people away from the scientific method is because Lovecraft himself was intrigued by the seemingly infinite possibility that science could offer us and then turned it on its ear for dramatic purposes. Why? Because horror stories are fun.

Again, referring to that previous Luke Cage roundtable I previously linked to, this type of conversation that these writers have about Lovecraft are the types of conversations we should be having because they are new and interesting and the ultimate outcome of this discourse is not to decide whether Lovecraft should be banished from modern thought or not––far from it. If we did that, we would be unable to have some interesting conversations. If anything, it would actually more firmly establish his place in the canon as someone worth talking about. Simply brushing off his racism will only keep him from reaching that place where I, most certainly, and most Lovecraft fans feel he should be woven into.

Worth a Look: Luke Cage Edition

Worth a Look: Luke Cage Edition

Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage has a lot of people talking a mere week and a half after being uploaded to Netflix’s servers, and for good reason. While ostensibly linked to the more popular popcorn faire that is the “superhero genre” of films created by Fox, Sony, Warner Bros., and Marvel over the last sixteen years, Netflix has done more to push the genre forward and upward with its four seasons of shows than has really been done since The Dark KnightLuke Cage alone has elevated the discourse in our popular culture to the point where the greater populace can not only talk about blackness in America, but it’s getting white America to listen to conversations about blackness in America. The last time a live-action superhero production instigated a larger conversation about deep-seated issues in America was not this summer’s Captain America: Civil WarBatman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, nor X-Men: Apocalypse, but last year’s Jessica Jones––a Marvel/Netflix (Martflix?) show. Like Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage approaches its issues in a variety of incredibly subtle, as well as not so subtle, ways, but the fact that it’s approaching them at all––and giving these issues narrative prominence––sets it apart from most other entries in the genre.

source: BlackNerdProblems
source: BlackNerdProblems

Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m an English teacher (albeit not one of Literature, but of Composition and Rhetoric), but I noticed right away how many books dominated the show (at least in the front half––I’m not quite done with the season yet as of this writing) and how diverse Cage’s tastes were––in terms of race, sure, but also in terms of genre.

Dr. Tara Betts briefly discusses the books given center stage in the show, but expands that view into a full reading list that addends and complements the show. Some are a bit jokey (the Where’s Waldo? choice), others are referential (picking a Geoffrey Canada book since the writer was referenced by Cottonmouth at one point), and others are thoughtful on a pedagogical level (Acres of SkinCutting Along the Color Line), all of which could be used to describe the show itself.

Like I did for the “Worth a Look” about Stranger Things, I’m featuring this article even though I didn’t read it yet because it boldly sports a spoiler warning, and I––wishing to hold onto some aspect of nerd integrity––want to watch the rest of Luke Cage clean.

source: iO9.com
source: io9.com

Evan Narcisse’s article is presented as a dialogue between four writers discussing the major cultural issues as presented and challenged in Luke Cage. In fairness, many articles have been written about this aspect of the show, but this gathering of different points of view on the same subject is an attractive and important approach. Especially as a white dude from the coast of California––and as a teacher––it’s these discussions that I need to find and listen to.

Worth a Look: Edutainment

Worth a Look: Edutainment

The history of edutainment is actually really interesting because of how many people got involved in it at various points. In our limited discussion a few weeks ago, we mentioned a few of the “highlights” that we could think of, but there’s so much more to see when you look into it. Perhaps what Jimmy Maher’s article points out the most to me was that I had actually played a great many of these games. My father was an early adopter of computers and computer games; it should come to no surprise that he would later earn his graduate degree in Educational Technology.

Maher does an excellent job of describing the history in a way that felt very personal to me, having lived through the era. As a young person growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I distinctly remember regularly going to the “computer lab” on campus to use educational software. Of course, most of the software we were allowed to use was of the uninspired educational variety. Stuff like the original Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit focused more on the educational component, essentially replacing the classroom facilitator with a soulless computer. But, as it ends up, I got lucky because of a chance to experience some of the more engaging educational titles that my father would regularly bring home, games from the likes of Spinnaker Software, which felt more like entertainment and less like a relatively boring math lesson.

One thing that stands out in Maher’s summation of edutainment software is that two of the most notable, recognizable, and arguably beloved edutainment titles, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Oregon Trail, are not regarded as particularly educational by most education professionals. That’s sort of amazing and probably says something about the field of edutainment: the most memorable, most popular edutainment titles are not actually good edutainment.

I suppose this would almost qualify as a “News Blast,” but it fit really well into the discussion of entertainment products that are educational. Dan and I did not really speak much to tabletop games as being educational, but it’s actually not uncommon at all. What is most interesting about this is that this board game is being utilized to both educate children about the menstrual cycle and also to make them more comfortable talking about it.

Look at all the fun being had there. Fun. Period.
Look at all the fun being had there while kids learn about physiological processes. Fun. Period.

I don’t intend to dwell too long on this article or the game presented in it. But as an avid tabletop gamer, I can appreciate implementing board games for educational purposes. It’s not often that I play a tabletop game and learn important elements of biology, physiology, or anatomy. If anything, my experience has been that tabletop games punch their hardest in the educational category in matters of history. One of the more popular board games around, a Cold War simulator known as Twilight Struggle, features a rulebook that describes the historical events featured on every card of the game.  The fact that I learned practically everything I know about Operation Paperclip and the Cambridge Five from this board game says something about the educational elements of tabletop gaming.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

That the comics industry works through strange machinations puts the whole situation mildly. It’s an industry perpetually flailing for readers and sales, but its movies are making more money than any other adapted medium in history. Combined with all of the crossovers and events that “The Big Two” (Marvel Comics and DC Comics) push––and the associated bumps and crashes in sales––there is no doubt that there is something funky about how the comics industry works, but it also that blame has been mercurial, shifting scapegoats depending on the ails of the current generation: people aren’t reading comics anymore because of video games; people are waiting for the trade paperback collections instead of buying individual issues; the movies and tv shows are more accessible and modern than the books; print versus digital distribution, etc.

smallbannerwithads
source: The Outhousers

The problem this has caused shows that the blame-shifting that moves the industry has done its job rather well, getting the industry to blame itself rather than looking for a deeper seed. This Outhousers (what a name) article does a fine job at pointing the finger away from general culture (which does have its share of culpability, just not nearly as much as we apparently want to foist upon it) and toward the one constant in the last, at least, thirty years of the industry: a monopolized distribution system.

Diamond Comic Distributors is the only distributor for the Big Two as well as the other top-tier publishers such as Image, Dark Horse, Oni, etc. While that in itself is not inherently bad, a look at its practices and demands upon the publishers (and creators) reveals a rotten core tethering together the ever-changing problems from which the industry suffers.

It’s a bold statement, but also not much of a surprise––as an independent comicker, if you want to get any ground in comic stores around the country, you must meet the demands of Diamond, and their barrier to entry is unreasonably high. Some of it comes across as honest gatekeeping, which is fine to a point; you want only good comics to make it to stores, but it also puts an extreme burden on pretty much any independent creator unless you have found word-of-mouth/viral success through the internet. Even then, it’s still best to pitch to a publisher and have them deal with the distribution.

The Outhousers article shines a bright light on the issue, but being an independent blog in its own right, I wonder how much change it can actually inspire. I’ll just do my part, then, and keep the conversation going.

For all of the video games that land onto store shelves or on the front page of an online retailer, it’s astounding to see how many games are out there right now. From what I have come to understand, mostly from listening to gaming podcasts that have interviewed developers (to having interned for a startup developer myself back in the late nineties/early aughts), what astounds even more is how many games don’t get made, despite going into production.

source: Vice Gaming
source: Vice Gaming

Development is shut down all of the time with apparently little cause given, in many cases. Luke Winkie’s article presents a fascinating case study into one example of this, through the lens of a developer who worked on the nearly-finished Infinite Crisis, a MOBA featuring all of DC Comics’ major characters, before it was shut down.

I argue that the saddest part of a game getting shut down mostly has to do with the ache of possibility, that a game with promise won’t ever see the light of day. What’s heartwarming, though, is that an unreleased game seems to have little effect on a developer’s resume, often because it’s not the developer’s fault that a game got pulled. It usually has to do with business decisions from investors and the like, people gauging the market and finding it unfit for whatever they had already pumped thousands or millions of dollars into.

What this tangentially touches upon is another heated conversation in the gaming world right now, one about the poor working conditions afforded to people who work in the industry. If there is a bright spot, it could be that despite all the other issues you have to face as a game developer––working within strict budgets, big teams, time crunches (and long hours), aggregate review scores, etc.––working for years on a game that never gets released doesn’t damage your possibilities to continue working in the industry at all. In fact, the bigger the “failure,” the better it could be for you.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

While not about a particular aspect of nerd culture, Frankenfield’s article finds a thread strung through most aspects of geekdom: a legitimate choice between independent and “mainstream” products. In most nerdy and geeky venues, these exist side-by-side––I think of the gaming scene (specifically video gaming; Andrew will have to answer for the tabletop angle) where venues as amalgamated as Steam as well as the more hierarchical PSN or XBox Live give independent products prime real estate in an effort to get both triple-A and the snarkily titled “triple-I” titles on players’ screens. For all the drama that has surrounded video games press in the last few years, it has acted to level the playing field, not through any particular agenda as much as finding good indie games and wanting to share. For all nerdy avenues, Kickstarter and other crowd-sourced funding platforms have been key in getting independent products more mainstream attention, even if it never officially achieves that status.

Comicsverse

More than ever, the line between “independent” and “mainstream” is blurring, and I think it’s a good time to ask some simple, problem-posing questions: how and why? I think the second question is easier to answer than the first. The divide is closing because traditional “mainstream” products have become less satisfying over time. Perhaps that’s the wrong word; mainstream products have become predictable and staid even though they still rake in profit. But we see this most popularly, I think, with television (though an argument could be made for any nerd media right now). Even though the major networks are still the ratings kings and producing the most popular content, the revered content is made outside of those avenues, the top producers of which are probably HBO and AMC, currently. It was them, and networks like them, that pioneered the “new golden age of television” in which we now find ourselves. NBC, CBS, and ABC are not the trailblazers here, even if they are the “winners” using outdated metrics.

As for the “how”, that is an answer that produces the most consternation and danger as this movement progresses. The nice thing about the mainstream system is that it provides traditional and, for the most part, proven processes for bringing projects to life. The problem is that, over time, the process became corrupted by brown-nosing who-you-knows with impenetrable baselines for entry. The rise of the independents, as Frankenfield illustrates, took advantage of new media and presented new content on its own terms, letting the audience find it, even if that audience was niche. The problem with this is––and I saw this all the time in webcomics––that, arguably, the independent road to success can only be travelled once. Again, with webcomics, the success of strips like Penny Arcade or PvP or Axe Cop led to unwarranted (and unproven) codification of paths to success and many eager creators became wrapped in false righteousness when their duplication of Penny Arcade‘s arc didn’t provide the same results for them.

With new media––specifically, internet-based media––it seems that roads to success are made out of sand and are erased as soon as they are coursed. It makes “success” a much more malleable phrase for independents than a mainstream product ever could find. It’s why maintaining a self-sufficient comic through ads, Kickstarter campaigns, and regular Patreon contributions could be seen as more of a success than the new Ghostbusters, even though its gross revenue is approaching $220 million dollars (I’m this fully cognizant of the fact that those returns are less than the production budget and marketing budget combined, but there was also Zoolander 2; check those numbers).  Whether it’s in the black or not, people still paid $220 million dollars to go see it, which is impressive from an indie standpoint, but to many it’s a mainstream failure, whereas in the context of self-sustaining webcomics we could mean an amount that simply covers hosting costs. If anything, its this relative definition of success that’s going to be making the biggest marks on pop culture in the future, and Frankenfield points to specific examples of this––Louis C.K. and Chance the Rapper––to get this point across.

It’s no secret that I hold Marvel’s persecuted mutants close to my heart, and to that extent, I cherish the filmic versions a bit more dear than many MCU properties if only because of my nostalgic tie to them (while wholly acknowledging that Marvel makes better movies, on the whole). That being said, I have long felt that it would be a mistake for the X-Men and their associated titles to move from Fox to Marvel Studios. To be frank, I was hoping to write an article about it, but Kyle Anderson at Nerdist hit that nail before I did.

source: Marvel
source: Marvel

I echo Anderson’s point wholeheartedly that the X-Men work best when mutants are the only super-powered people on the planet. I realize this only really exists in the context of the movies as they have been wholly integrated into the Marvel Comics universe since their inception, but as an easily digestible metaphor that can make the largest impact, it’s a context that is much more effective than if they had to interact with super-soldiers and aliens (though X-Men: Apocalypse got a bit close to that mark and, according to Bryan Singer, is a direction he wants to go in the future).

But, referring to what guest Elijah Kaine said during our Shortcast, there currently is room in popular culture for more than one continuity. Naturally, we all assumed it would be a stark line between Marvel and DC because that’s how it exists in the print world. However, we aren’t seeing an effort really coagulating on the DC/Warner Bros. side of things despite their best efforts and it’s also smart to think of things existing more broadly. We have the MCU, we have the Arrow-verse, and we have the X-Men continuity, among others. It’s a much more nuanced and multi-faceted world we live in than, perhaps, we want, but I think, overall, it is better for it.

NOTE: Kyle Anderson is the co-host of a podcast I’ve talked about before––Doctor Who: The Writer’s Room––in which he and Erik Stadnik talk about the writers from classic Doctor Who (1963-1989). They provide incredibly in-depth critical analysis of scripts and their writers that, I would argue, makes it essential listening if you are a fan. This may also make me a bit biased toward Kyle Anderson’s argument, though I didn’t realize he was the author until after I had read the piece.

and, in a slightly different interpretation of the column’s title, here is a video that is “Worth a Look”:

In reverence for the 30th anniversary of The Transformers: The Movie, everybody needs to watch this.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Andrew and I do our best to steer away from politics or politically-charged issues if only because those topics––no matter the side you stand for––can be frustrating discourse. Of all comic book figures used to translate the world of political friction, the X-Men seem most ripe for such utility if only because they were born from it.

Art by Stuart Immomen. Source: Comicsverse
Art by Stuart Immonen. Source: Comicsverse

I’m not going to speak to the thesis of this article, though it is well-written and cogent, but it shows a technique that I appreciated and of which I would like to see more. Comic books––well, comic book characters, at least––have jumped the divide between niche and the mainstream. If we want the source material to make that same leap, I think using these properties as lenses through which we can explain and analyze the crazy world around us––like we do with literature and movies at this point––should be done more. Whether you agree with Jon Barr’s article or not, take note of what it’s doing and you’ll see the sketch of an important step to improving the cultural validity of comic books.

The incredible point the article makes has to do with a dangerous side-effect of using fiction as allegory or critical lens:

The biggest disparity between the X-Men universe and the gun control debate is this concept of a ‘good guy.’ The world of the X-Men have those heroes to rally behind as an example of how powers should be used.

For the sake of storytelling, clear lines sometimes need to be drawn between things like “good” and “bad,” even when those distinctions are either blurry or rare in real life. The growling of political discourse has done a lot of vilification of the “other” side when, if we were all at a barbecue together, we would all probably have more in common than not. Though there may be more “good guys” than “bad guys” on either side of any debate, it is nice to use popular culture as an avenue for intellectual investigation. As the article admits, using the X-Men as spokespeople for only one side is not only irresponsible, but the X-Men themselves have been figuratively on both sides of what is arguably the same issue as gun control. But I like that possibility. If the X-Men are about anything, it’s giving anybody who feels on the outside a place to belong.

As I progress further and further into nerd culture commentary, a major thesis that continues to bubble to the surface is my strange and possibly nebulous feelings about nostalgia. Specifically, I am kind of appalled at the persistence of the idea that hardcore fans of a property deserve even a modicum of ownership over its evolving direction in popular culture. Respect and rightful say are two very different things.

source: Nerdist.com
source: Nerdist

I want to say this basically started with the spark of superhero cinema––with things like the first few X-Men movies and their proud abandon (at the time) of the technicolor, exaggerated costumes of the comics in favor of matching padded leather or, more specifically, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 which really spearheaded the movement toward “gritty” and “grounded” nerd cinema. You could even argue that it started with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, but it didn’t hit a fever pitch until the turn of the century.

Since then, we have also seen reboots of properties from the 1980s that received similar “maturetreatment with efforts like the 2011 Cartoon Network Thundercats show that added liberal dashes of The Lord of the Rings to the popular ’80s toyline. Similarly, G.I. Joe made the tonal shift in 2009 with an animated series, G.I. Joe: Resolute, which pushed the beloved and silly franchise into serialized storytelling more commonly found in prime time drama, and did so to much acclaim. Similarly, the Arkham series of Batman games not only revolutionary gameplay but showed the players an even darker world than what we saw in the Nolan films with Gotham being a true den of sin and the rogue’s gallery being more grotesque and twisted than we’ve seen since the Burton films. Arguably, this is also what happened with Casino Royale which killed what little was left of the classic camp during Pierce Brosnan’s tenure. While these examples are the more well-regarded ones, the dark side of the trend has been things like the Michael Bay Transformers series and their dudebro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cousins.

Benjamin Bailey’s Nerdist article confronts an idea I’ve longed wanted to approach, but couldn’t really find my thesis without sounding petty and bitter (when I didn’t want to––I do love nostalgia trips). The idea that the franchises of our youth are nigh required to meet our adult sensibilities as they met the sensibilities of our youth is a strange request from rebooted or extended franchises. These properties spoke to us because they tapped into a piece of the zeitgeist that others couldn’t find or hold onto. Why should we expect or want anything different when reexamined for modern audiences thirty years later?