WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew pauses his walk down the Star Trek Nostalgia Trail and attended a day of PAX West (starts at 2:14) while Dan dips into the history of his favorite comic book franchise by reading Marvel Epic Collection Vol. 5: X-Men – Second Genesis which collects the early issues of the great X-Men reboot from 1975 when the “All-New, All-Different” X-men were added to the team (Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler) and started the 16-year run of writer Chris Claremont (18:17).
FINAL FANTASY VII AGAIN: (28:23) September 7th marked the 20th anniversary of Squaresoft’s (at the time, now Square Enix) breakthrough hit, Final Fantasy VII. Dan and Andrew talk less about the game itself and instead talk about the impact the game had on gaming and nerd culture.
NOTE: Sacramento’s Crocker Con | Art Mix is happening September 14th at the Crocker Art Museum at which D. Bethel will be exhibiting with his wares. Come by and say hi!
Whatever your thoughts may be about BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, there is no doubt that something happened during its development that lead to such a rocky debut, a series of choices so clouded in the public’s questions and shrouded in the mystery a company like EA’s BioWare can afford, the game was otherwise assumed to be relegated to the “well, that happened” category of games and we (as the gaming public) would be forced to move on.
This frankly bizarre secrecy around AAA game development shines a light on a major deficiency in the community––companies can bury “failed” games in mystery because they can get away with it. Though not focused on a failed game, a few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about the legal troubles of rockstar game studio, Rockstar Games, against which the developer filed suit, in a bit of irony. The development of Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian was mostly kept behind curtains, allowing the game to speak for itself when its time finally arrived, which had the aggregated conclusion of “it’s fine.” Though these are two of many examples, most of the community has accepted the idea that we will most likely never know how the choices were made, for better or for worse, and these companies will keep their business secreted away behind blast doors.
Luckily, some people are starting to catch on to the fact that “video game history” isn’t relegated to the eighties and nineties alone; it’s happening now. Right now. Mass Effect: Andromeda got a lot of dirt piled onto it. I enjoyed it for what it was and what it’s worth, but the tidal chart of nerd judgement is rather unforgiving. If something doesn’t meet a certain standard (a standard I believe is often rather arbitrary), that game, movie, comic, or tv show is dumped upon. There is no critical middle anymore in popular culture. And such a strong negative reception can taint a studio or franchise for a long while, a stain nobody can afford to live with. So, with things like Jason Schreier’s article coming so soon after Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s release, it can shed some much needed counterpoint onto the conversation.
To be clear, Schreier’s article isn’t an apology for the game. Instead, it’s investigative; he isn’t casting judgement, but instead acknowledging that something happened and the public reacted to it and he simply wanted to find out why:
[To] those who worked on it, Mass Effect: Andromeda felt unusually difficult. This was a game with ambitious goals but limited resources, and in some ways, it’s miraculous that BioWare shipped it at all.
This is an effort to chronicle recent history rather than simply cast it in one light or another, but to try and find out the whole story so historians have all the pieces with which to assemble hindsight instead of waiting for a day when only two or three members of the team are alive to tell the tale. This has actually been a trend I’ve seen recently and it warms my heart to see members of the games press turning a historical eye to the industry instead of being the first to give readers a hot take (not that hot takes and investigative pieces are mutually exclusive). Waypoint published a fantastic oral history of Halo, a genre of historical recording of which I’m growing fonder (more on that in a future episode). Waypoint also published a fascinating look at development documents for what would have been the sequel to the 2012 Square Enix-published Sleeping Dogs. I think the industry needs to be more self-aware, or else corporate red tape could actually contribute in the hindering of keeping this medium from becoming the art form it deserves to be.
Way back in Episode 58, Andrew and I discussed our (and listeners’) “gateways to geekdom,” accepting that the road to fandom is not necessarily––perhaps rarely––a straight path. A lot of us come to our passions through strange on-ramps or off-ramps from one fandom or medium to another. Popular culture has definitely done this with superheros and their stories with the rise of superhero cinema. It certainly wasn’t the comics industry who were making amazing books that the populace grabbed onto, but filmmakers who loved the comics and finally, finally, started making good movies based on those properties. Does that make cinematic universe enthusiasts any less of a fan than comic book readers? Ultimately, no. A fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man.
The fewtimes we spoke with friend-of-the-site, Elijah Kaine, he mentioned his initial gateway into comicsdom––of which he has become thoroughly ensconced and well-read––was not comic books but the X-Men animated series, and this was probably the “in” for many X-Men or comic book fans. How many people started reading The Walking Dead because they watched the AMC tv show first? During my teenage years, my severe interest in Japanese feudal history and martial culture could be traced back to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Highlander. But they were gateways for me to walk through and soak up the world on the other side of the jamb.
Mike Diver’s article hints at something a bit more nuanced. He discusses the fact that he’s learning about DC’s characters by playing the fighting game that uses them. Sure, he’s also jumping online to mine wikis, but the fact is he’s actually getting a strong sense and knowledge of these comic book characters by playing a video game set in that world (but in its own continuity). In fact, it may be fair to say he’s becoming a fan:
Here I am, playing, and learning—and with superhero fiction such a staple of modern entertainment, it’s good to get deeper into its (to me, at least) weirder corners, via the accessible “in” of an easy-to-pick-up fighting game.
This intersectional literacy is probably the most common method of knowledge creation and meaning-making, more than traditional, antiquated, or teacher-centric educational models would lead us to believe. While my previous examples were my gateway to an interest in the topic, sometimes there are non-traditional texts––like video games, comic books, movies, tv shows, etc.––that actually gives the user information that would otherwise only be learned in that actual field. I wonder how many people learned legitimate history from playing games like Age of Empires, or gained a knowledge about different aspects of our world’s cultures from playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? How many learned about the intertwined influence of economics and politics by playing Crusader Kings or Civilization? How many people developed an interest in the hard sciences because they watched Star Trek? The answer to all of these questions is likely the same: many more than you would think.
WEEK IN GEEK: Both Andrew and Dan saw Wonder Woman this week and decided to bring in a third voice to discuss the movie, Mary Traverse (from our friendly rivals, The Nerdhole), and they go pretty deep into this excellent, excellent movie.
THE GREAT WAR: Noting the novel decision to set Wonder Woman during World War I, Dan and Andrew discuss that war’s place in popular culture.
For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.
-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“Is She With You? (Wonder Woman Theme)” by Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL (from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
-“En Avant La Musique” by Manuel Dante Mathieu Faivre, Miguel Vladimir Saboga, and Yvo Abadi (from Valiant Hearts: The Great War)
-“Wonder Woman Theme Song” performed by the Ron Hicklin Singers (written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimble)
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.
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.
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.)
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.