In the world of 2021, not much has changed. Hope and optimism dares to tread across the jamb as COVID vaccines get into the arms of people across the world and, for independent comickers, conventions start to return…kind of.
After attending only a few shows in 2021––their first in nearly two years––D. Bethel (of the webcomic, Long John) and Kyrun Silva (of Taurus Comics and the 4 Tales Podcast) reconvene to share their experiences, fears, and surprises with the fact that comic shows and conventions have become very different beasts from what they were before, and how difficult it may be to adapt.
Con Artists #01 – StocktonCon, pt. 1 : The drive home from the first day of the show. Kyrun and D. discuss making sales, confidence, and the comics they grew up reading and enjoying.
Con Artists #02 – StocktonCon, pt. 2 : The drive to StocktonCon to start Day 2 of the show. They discuss the importance of continuity, the level of fan engagement and ownership over continuity, and Dan’s strange reading habits growing up.
Marvel announced yesterday that it would be tapping into the dramatic podcast medium––citing popular true crime NPR podcasts, Serial and S-Town, as specific inspirations––using one of its most iconic superhero characters, Logan (as Wolverine), set to debut in the spring.
According to the press release, the 10-episode series, titled Wolverine: The Long Night, will be a crime narrative with Logan (voiced by British actor, Richard Armitage, most recently known for his role as Thorin in The Hobbit films) not as the protagonist but as the focus of a criminal investigation by a pair of detectives:
It follows agents Sally Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Tad Marshall (Ato Essandoh) as they arrive in the fictional town of Burns, Alaska, to investigate a series of murders and quickly discover the town lives in fear of a serial killer. The agents team up with deputy Bobby Reid (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) to investigate their main suspect, Logan (Richard Armitage). Their search leads them on a fox hunt through the mysterious and corrupt town.
The podcast series will be a timed exclusive to users of the podcast aggregator and broadcaster, Stitcher, but only to those who subscribe to its premium services, and then only until fall 2018, after which it will be widely distributed. It’s an interesting and rather safe experiment with the debut being locked behind a paywall, but it will undoubtedly bring new listeners (and new premium subscribers) to the already prominent podcast-streaming website. In theory, if The Long Night does not perform well, then at least it died in front of a relatively small and curated audience.
The teaming with Stitcher pulls some interest as it will undoubtedly guide a lot of fan attention toward the service, a service which has been under scrutinyabout its business practices before. But since the deal is about timed exclusivity and doesn’t seem to be a production partnership, skeptical podcast fans need only to wait six months to listen using their preferred services. It is interesting that rabid fans won’t be able to simply download the episodes directly from Marvel at the outset, which possibly speaks to the fact that Marvel may be hedging their confidence until they see its success.
The prospect of an audio dramatized version of comic book characters isn’t wholly new––characters such Superman and the noir hero The Shadow were staple radio plays back during the medium’s heyday––but the podcast angle is new and seemingly novel. However, podcast-based audio drama is in a veritable renaissance currently, and this move is a logical, albeit a relatively safe, step. Disregarding the commercial availability of audio dramas through companies like Big Finish, fictional podcast dramas have had many iterations and successes through the years, with productions like The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Homecoming, and Welcome to Night Vale having been around for awhile to varying degrees of popularity (with Welcome to Night Vale being the standout from this list).
However, like NPR diving head-first into the podcast medium with Serial (it had been podcasting its broadcast shows, but Serial was its first main effort to produce a podcast from scratch), Marvel’s entry into dramatized podcasting could produce a similar effect, especially using one of its most popular, vexing, and mysterious characters. Logan’s past is a game of retcon darts where anything can be added if it’s thrown hard enough at the board. This canonical malleability makes Logan a logical candidate for a short experiment such as this and likely explains (in the only rational way) why Marvel would not use the current Wolverine in the form of Laura Kinney as the star of this series. With Logan as the focus of their first foray into this new medium (which will directly follow his return to the Marvel universe), if The Long Night succeeds it could really raise the visibility of podcast dramas in the eyes of a wider audience just as Serial did for its user base.
Overall, this seems like a promising project. Written by Ben Percy, a veteran comics writer though one whose résumé is filled with mostly DC credits, it’s emboldening to see this project hire a person already comfortable writing in a serialized format with superhero characters, even if this story will be (and I apologize for using the heavily flogged descriptor) grounded and a bit more subdued. Some may wonder if Fox is involved, but––if I’m correct––this venture doesn’t need any approval nor collaboration with the owners of the film and TV rights to the property. At the time those contracts were signed, new media was probably not part of the deal and, in theory, Fox could do something similar with its filmic version of the characters. As it is, Wolverine: The Long Night is tied to the comic book version of the character rather than extending from the cinematic interpretation. This distinction will surely please the fans yearning for a non-comic book adaptation of the mutants that are separate from version seen from Fox.
The unfolding of this project will be intriguing as it could possibly open up an entire new medium to not only its fans but new fans who may have been unable to fully enjoy other iterations of superheroes, such as those with visual impairments. While audio drama may be viewed as an old or outdated medium, audio books have never been more popular. Even audio book services like Audible are producing original audio book and dramatized content for their subscribers. When looked at critically, audio drama holds a lot of potential in our digital and mobile context. With Marvel dominating the cinematic space and having broke new ground (even if the momentum has waned a bit) in new media with its Netflix shows, that the company is looking at new ways to present its characters to the world outside of traditional media is heartening and, more importantly, smart.
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.
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.
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.
It’s weird to think about, but video games didn’t officially become protected expressions of free speech until a 2011 Supreme Court casejudged 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.
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.
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.”
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).
I remember having a semantic debate with Andrew back in high school regarding the correct phraseology to use when discussing the completion of a video game’s content. Basically it came down to two choices: did I beat the game or had I won the game?
This was back in the nineties when declaring a victor in order to make discussion about games as clear as possible mattered, because most games were basically the same thing. Most games were linear, most games had a story to tell, most games had an endgame scenario and player reward of some sort. But that’s gone now, and the need to declare a proper usage seems less significant now that there are games that can be beaten (as if the game were the opponent) and games that can be won (as if the end game or post-game content were a reward––with moregame). Some games now don’t ever end due to being competitive arena-type experiences or challenges to accomplish a new personal best.
There’s also the idea that people just aren’t finishinggames any more, which speaks more to how culture uses video games. I would say that in the eighties and nineties, since most games were basically the same thing, sitting down with a game involved pretty much the same process: 1. learn the mechanics, 2. Master the systems to 3. Complete all the programmed tasks and see the ending and/or credits. Now that’s only one of a variety of processes need to have at the ready when sitting down with the game. In fact, the first step of most gaming experiences now is simply figuring out what kind of game it is before loading in a proper order of operations. Gone Home is not Call of Duty which is not The Last of Us which is not Geometry Wars. The spectrum is only gaining more colors and variations.
Lewis Beard’s Paste article looks at how endings have changed over time and how seemingly harmless new systems fundamentally changed how games are made and played (New Game+). With that in mind, he looks at the modern state of game endings and why, perhaps, they just don’t matter anymore, and that’s fine. It’s just part of the evolution of this field and culture that, with hope, has no end in sight.
This is a harrowing article that really shows how much damage the #GamerGate crowd is doing to video games culture beyond just people trying to play and talk about games on the internet. I just know this: the only other time I have seen or heard of doxxing being used was by white supremacists, which is not the best company to keep.
Academia has been having a hard time in the last few decades as it has become the focal point for not only violence but general cultural ire due to the rise of trigger warnings and “safe space” debates. But it comes down to a simple point of fact: a university campus is a place where you gain education through trial and error. If it’s a safe place for anything, it’s a safe place to fail and try again with guidance (if you want it) and feedback (which you’ll get no matter what). That pressure from outside the academic sphere––in this case, virulent gamers who feel they have been tasked with the job of gatekeeping an open medium––is permeating inward is, in my eyes, a direct violation of what academics is about, a point to which A.D. Andrew hints at the end of her article:
Everywhere, academics with a digital focus are forced to make that choice. Can we afford to exist publicly? Others are making the choice in a different way—by not writing that article, by not pursuing that line of thinking. We talk often about the people silenced by online harassment, but research is being silenced as well. We are losing knowledge and with it, the potential for growth.
The problem is that #GamerGaters and sane people all agree on a fundamental point: video games are amazing. Why can’t it just stop there?
Comicsverse is a podcast I have found over the last few months and really enjoy. It’s dedicated to a nigh-academic (but still incredibly silly) look at comics––mostly Big 2 stuff––that really dives deep into the psychology, cultural criticism, and craft behind some of the biggest titles and their characters. I haven’t listened to every episode, instead focusing mostly on their X-Men-related podcasts (including a recent, really good interview with Chris Claremont).
The most recent X-Men podcast, titled “The Dream”, looks at the series and concept as a whole rather than focusing on a specific story arc or character, which is nice, and goes into great depth on a few topics I touched on in my own conversation about the X-Men with Elijah Kaine. Mostly, the panel-based seminar discussion focuses on the idea of “Xavier’s Dream” and how, over the course of the series, it has been iterated on, challenged, and damaged. They also have some fascinating investigations into the X-Men metaphor for minorities and how the characters have echoed specific real-world ideologies throughout history. It’s definitely worth a listen, though I must warn that even though the humor can get juvenile and a little annoying, the overall content actually makes the tiny cringes I went through worth it. They also bleep out the F-word with probably the worst sound effect I have ever heard, which can be a deal breaker when they go on F-word-fueled tangents.