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On Liking Things

Before I get started, this has completely unfiltered spoilers for Secret Wars and basically everything I’ve read from Nick Spencer’s run on the Steve Rogers side of Captain America.  I haven’t really read any of his post Secret Wars Sam Wilson stuff, so I don’t know how relevant it is to the discussion.

I’ve been following the whole Hydra Captain America since it all went down with Steve telling a scientist “Hail Hydra” and it’s engendered a lot of discussion.  However, I think a lot of it is misguided and actually offensive in how sort of childish and immature the discussions have been.  Literature is all about emotion, specifically the type of emotion it engenders in its audience.  This emotional reaction is in a lot of ways, the main goal of all types of literature, or if not the main goal, one of the major ones.  Humans, being rational beings, tend to attach themselves to things that they find emotionally appealing and detach themselves from things that they find emotionally repugnant, regardless of how irrational it is.

The discussion about Nick Spencer’s Captain America work, specifically the stuff about “Nazi Steve,” as I like to call him (because I thought it was from a movie), has fallen into this territory and a lot of the discussions around whether or not it should or shouldn’t be done, and whether or not anyone should actually like it have really been, for a lack of better phrasing, stupid as goddamn fuck.  Specifically, it’s a perfectly acceptable to not like the story, find it offensive and think that thanks to the political climate and burgeoning white nationalism in the United States to think the story might be in poor taste.  Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with taking any of these positions, and they’re perfectly rational positions to take, actually.  Social critique is actually a very important element of literary criticism, and while there are people who are taking it to a rather vocal extreme, it’s still a rational side to take on the whole thing.  Taking a work within the context of which it was created is a valid thing to look at when doing literary criticism, so to look at a story where a symbol of liberty, democracy and the ideal of America is corrupted, either in universe or at a meta level (or both), into a far-right authoritarian terrorist owing fealty to alien elder gods during a time of high anxiety about white nationalism and feel like it’s not exactly a good time to write it is perfectly valid.  At the same time, it is equally valid to say that this is exactly the time to write this story, mostly because of that context.  Both sides, of course, are right, because literary discussion doesn’t exactly have “right” answers.

Literary criticism is about looking at something from a specific angle, and no angle is truly more “valid” than any others.  I tend to think post-modernism is stupid bullshit, as an example, but a person who looks at Jack Keroauc’s “On the Road” from a post-modern perspective is no more or less right than if I looked at it from a Marxist or modernist perspective.  Also, what the critic takes away from that is generally pretty valid, provided they can back up what they’re saying with textual evidence, and people who have been arguing they don’t like Captain America being the leader of Hydra because it makes Captain America into a Nazi, the thing he was literally made by two Jewish comic creators to fight, has a lot of textual evidence to back up what they’re saying.  The people arguing against that also have a lot of textual evidence to support their point of view.  I don’t agree with them, but they do have it.

This comes back, however, to the comic itself.  The actual discussion is less about the critique of the story from one literary perspective or the other, and more about people’s emotional response to each other’s arguments.  Many people, on either side, are generally now allowing anyone to really have that discussion, mostly because they’re saying that the other side truly isn’t a valid discussion, and therefore that other side should just shut up.  They will completely disregard the other side’s points, deliberately misinterpret them and throw them back as if they have defeated their argument, when in reality, they’ve just said they didn’t like what they said, so they shouldn’t be allowed to say it.  In something completely unrelated, it pains me when my students don’t listen to me when I try to teach rhetoric.

Look, is it okay to be offended by a piece of work?  Yeah, it totally is.  Especially when the story features a subversion of a work in a way that is extremely off putting.  It doesn’t mean the people who are saying that Steve Rogers should never be a Nazi are right, but it doesn’t make them wrong to say that they don’t want to see this kind of story, either.

As for me, I think it’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons and Captain America holding goddamn Mjolnir and being considered worthy is pretty high up there.  I’m guilty of not liking it for political reasons (also not liking it because I’ve never liked anything he’s ever written and because the story doesn’t even make sense within itself, and it requires itself to even work, because it doesn’t work without the context), but mostly I just thought it was stupid because the whole “twist” was going to have the dumbest twist so Spencer can put everything back into the toybox when he’s done.  There’s no way that Cap would permanently become a right-wing authoritarian terrorist.  I think what pushed me over the edge was actually seeing Cap holding Thor’s hammer over the broken bodies of his friends.  Sure, it might be a fakeout, but Mjolnir has become something of a symbol to white supremacists everywhere.  It’s hard to want to see that be a thing in the best of times, and not just because Steve has always sort of represented a quasi-leftest, pro-diversity sort of character.

This New Captain America Stuff is Stupid, and I Like Stupid Comic Book Stuff

I haven’t spoken about comic books on this blog since 2011.  That’s so crazy.  I used to do those “what should they fix” for DC on the lead up to the New 52.  Considering how the New 52 turned out, well, I’m guessing no one at DC comics reads my blog.  That’s insane, because so many things have happened in the world of comic books since then, and I never even got a chance to blog about Secret Wars, which might be my favorite event book ever.  I guess I really only come to this well when I have something to bitch about, and well, Secret Empire #0 has given me a lot to bitch about.

Secret_Empire_0_Cover

Copyright Marvel Comics and Disney

God that makes me so mad.  I guess they’ve made a point of pointing out that Hydra isn’t always a Nazi organization, but Steve Rogers joining, and having always been a part of, a secret, far right authoritarian terrorist organization is not a good look, no matter how much Nazi shit you want to scrape away from it.  I guess Steve is the “good” part of the right wing authoritarian terrorist organization.  Also, he wants to put mutants in camps.  It’s wonderful.

The whole thing is stupid comic book shit, and I’m not even going to make a big deal about it being in bad taste because Trump got elected because this was in the can before he got elected, so there was no way to stop it from happening.  Also, I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the real world ramifications of making Steve Rogers a violent, right wing authoritarian.  It doesn’t help that the whole thing will be retconned away at the end of the story, having just been a stupid thing that changes nothing, because mainstream super hero comics will always return to the status quo no matter what.  It is hurtful, in a way, I guess, for a lot of reasons, but that “Hail Hydra” scene really managed to make me rethink comic books

Right from the get go, I knew this was going to be temporary.  If it wasn’t the original plan,  it would be overturned eventually.  There was no way Marvel was going to keep Steve as a member of Hydra for long, and it’s not like they’re going to kill him again, they just did the whole passing of the mantle thing a couple of years ago.  No, I knew it was going to be brainwashing or cosmic cube shenanigans or a Celestial or Franklin Richards going through puberty, or whatever as some sort of explanation and it was just throwing the whole “nothing ever matters in super hero books” right in everyone’s faces.

The full page panel of Steve saying “Hail Hydra” was like a crystallized moment in time.  A moment that said “none of this stupid shit matters” and I almost stopped reading super hero comics right then.  I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to, Al Ewing and G. Willow Wilson are still making great comics and Superman is a lot of fun, but it was the most impermanent “shocking swerve” I’ve ever seen.  I was six when Superman died, and even then, I knew he was going to come back, because that’s what comic book characters did.  I always knew it wasn’t going to be permanent, but there was something about this one in particular that shook things up and made me really want to evaluate my hobbies and what I really enjoyed.

I won’t like, the political implications of it didn’t make me happy, but what really made me sad was seeing a character I like a whole lot get transformed into the opposite of what he was in what was the most lazy way possible.  Consider the alien suit for Spider-Man, which slowly tried to transform him into something different, corrupting him.  It was a slow burn story, and while we all knew Spidey would get the red and blues back, it didn’t matter, the story was about the struggle.  None of that is here.  Steve is just the opposite of what he was, and apparently he always was that.

Then I guess Marvel decided to make it worse.  Today, in Secret Wars #0, we discover that the Nazis really won World War II.  The desperate Allies used the Cosmic Cube to alter reality, thus changing Steve Rogers from Hydra Agent into Captain America.  I mean, obviously, that’s not how the story is going to go.  Obviously, the real twist was that the Nazis altered it, then the Allies altered it back, but it doesn’t stop it from feeling really gross.  Other than how messy on all fronts an Axis victory would actually be (unless they mean the Allied invasion was stopped), it’s just not cool to double down on the Cap is Hydra thing by really doubling down and also declaring the Nazis won World War II.  There’s a lot of cultural baggage to that war, and to say “nah, the only reason the Allies won is because of a magic space cube” is terrible.  Coming back and being all like “oh, but no, it was how we all remembered it” at the end really isn’t going to help much, because we’re still stuck with having to deal with 8 issues of Nazi victories and more Nazi Steve.

Still, one thing I think is especially weird is that Steve wants to put mutants in camps.  Jesus, why?

Number 5: X-COM 2

xcom_2_cover_art

Copyright Firaxis Games and 2K Games

I don’t like to put up games where I didn’t finish, but it’s hard to not put up a game I had to put down because it accidentally got my brother killed.  In the game, in real life my brother is fine, but it’s hard not to love a game where I had to put it down because some dude with a sword named after my brother got sacrificed for the mission.  Of all of the games I played this year, none of them were quite as moving or affecting as X-COM 2.

I didn’t really get into the first X-COM (of the new series, I’m too young to have been a big fan of the real original) for a lot of reasons.  It was a good tactical game, and did a good job of making it feel like there were consequences for mistakes, all that good stuff.  However, the tutorial was too long and had too many moving parts at once and it was just hard to get into.  Great game, just didn’t like it.

Fortunately, X-COM 2 manages to do a better job of easing the player into the game.  The tutorial is stronger and does a good job of introducing the player to the new things without just tossing multiple things at once at the player.  It doesn’t however, make the game any more gentle, making no bones about showing its lethal side, right at the beginning.  This is what makes the game work, it’s a brutal, challenging tactical game that demands a lot from the player, and continues to pus their tactical acumen to the edge, and beyond.

As a lover of tactical games, it’s hard not to love every heart pumping, stress inducing moment of X-COM 2.  It’s relentless, requires planning multiple moves ahead and doesn’t shy away from forcing the player to make difficult choices, which brought me back to the moment where I had to sacrifice my brother.  All of my characters are named after real life friends and family members, and my brother wound up running in and taking a bullet for the mission, getting in the way so they could succeed.  In an action game, it would have been a climactic moment.  In X-COM, it’s business as usual.

X-COM 2 expands on everything the original has.  First, classes have a lot more options.  Sure, it does kind of suck that when a unit promotes, the player doesn’t get to chose what they promote into, but when they do get into their unit classification, there’s more than one track to fill out, so when two great rookies promote into the same thing, picking different talents will allow them not only to compliment the fire team, but also each other as well, if they wind up fighting together.  Maps, too, are huge improvements over the previous game, which is saying something, because if there was one thing X-COM did great right out of the gate, it was map design.  2, however, adds so much more, but making routes and objectives so much more complex, right from the get go.  There is still a bit of enemies getting instant reinforcements, or aliens suddenly appearing on the map when they weren’t there before, which does work sometimes, but is often more a frustration than actually making a more tactically rich game.

The new stealth system (which may have been in one of the expansions, but I don’t know) is very nice, giving the player a slight edge they’ll need, since the player is almost always outmanned and outgunned right from the start, with reinforcements just making things worse.  The inability to return to stealth, even when no enemies are around is kind of dumb, as is the “aliens suddenly know where you’re at” aspect of it, but it does mean that setting up an ambush is more than just sitting on Overwatch and waiting for your sniper to blow grunts and serpents away.

X-COM was rewarding in a way that a lot of games have not been.  It’s brutal and viscous, and honestly, it’s actually kind of unfair, but that’s the point. It pushed me.  It made demands of my skills, and I made a point of reaching them.  Sure, the game cheats, but if it didn’t, it wouldn’t quite be the same.  It’s pretty awesome like that.

The Proper Use of Expanded Universes

I touched a bit on this in my Gears of War 3 review last night, but one thing I’m getting pretty sick of is an overuse and misuse of expanded universe references in video games.  While it’s well and good for video games to develop beyond the game disc and branch out across multiple mediums, especially in particularly rich settings like Mass Effect or Warcraft, there’s been a trend that tie-in books and comics are becoming less and less about expanding the world a little bit and are becoming more like required reading.

Expanded Universes, by definition, are designed to expand upon the original story.  Ideally, they’re supposed to add something that the original work didn’t really get a chance to cover, like Han Solo dropping his cargo or David Anderson’s term as a Spectre.  Maybe it’ll go in depth on a side character or fill in gaps the audience didn’t even know was there in the first place.  That’s cool.  These may not be literary masterpieces, but the idea of going in and expanding on a cool world to give more to the readers is nice, and the best part is, they’re completely optional.  If someone doesn’t really want the specifics on something and would like to leave it up to their imagination, it’s not going to affect their enjoyment of the original work.

Lately though, it’s starting to get out of hand.  Gears of War 3 introduced at least three new characters with previous relationships with the characters the player is already familiar with.  Unlike in the original work where the relationships and situations are eventually explained somehow (either directly or through implication), a lot of these characters were just dropped in like the player had come in after missing the first 20 minutes.  For instance, there’s a character named Sam who has never appeared in any of the games and doesn’t get along with Baird, a guy introduced pretty much in the second level of the first game.  It’s never explained why they hate each other, nor is anything really implied about their relationship.  There’s a new girl, she doesn’t get along with a guy in the group and it’s never explained why.  The character was apparently introduced in one of the Gears of War books by Karen Traviss (who also wrote Gears of War 3), and while I’m sure Traviss’ novel certainly has literary merit, it shouldn’t be required reading for me to get a handle on who this new person is in the game.

Pictured: A literary masterpiece

Compare this to Mass Effect, which has several comic book mini series collections, a handful of comic books and a cell phone game, all of which go out to explain something in the game (Anderson’s time as a Spectre, the Illusive Man’s possible origin and how Jacob got recruited into Cerberus), but none of them get in the way of the story.  Anderson mentions his past with Saren a little bit, but doesn’t go into too much detail and the Illusive Man’s origin is neat and all, but overall, it’s of no real consequence to the overall story. It’s there, it’s cool and it doesn’t intrude on the original work.

The problem with the way games like Gears of War are introducing these Expanded Universe elements is that to a lot of players, this stuff may not have happened at all.  To this section of the audience, apparently some cool stuff happened off screen and they never get to find out about it.  It’s like Aggra’s sudden appearance in World of Warcraft when the player is going into Deepholm (or if they roll a Goblin).  She’s apparently Thrall’s girlfriend (wait, what happened to Jaina?) and she did technically appear during the Elemental Invasion event before her “real” appearance in the book the Shattering, but most of what we find out about her and how she got into this relationship with a guy who’s pretty much the main character of World of Warcraft is detailed only in this book.   Suddenly, a girlfriend appears, they’re in love and then they get married (at least Jaina got invited to the wedding).  There’s some development for this somewhere, but most players are getting left in the lurch.

Subtitle: Shit that happened off screen durinng patches

The audience shouldn’t have to be doing extra homework just to keep up with a narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with expanding out from the original work, filing in blanks or something like that is well and good.  However, it’s problematic when doing so is leaving part of the audience out of the loop.  In jokes, winks to more dedicated fans or some references are great, but introducing plot points whole hog in an expanded universe and only half explaining (if at all!) what they mean is just lazy.  At least take some time to get some exposition out of the way for the people who didn’t check out the extra stuff.

Advertising

Last week, or maybe two weeks back, I forget, I watched this video about comics needing to advertise in order to pick up the new readers they need.  I can’t help but agree with him.  The guy doing the video, Bob Chipman, made a lot of really excellent points about continuitious storytelling working well in other forms of media and explaining that all people need to get involved with comics is to just pick up an issue.

For the most part, it works pretty well.  While there is 50-70 years of continuity to wade through, unless the title you’re picking up is the X-Men, there have only been a handful of “defining” moments in most superhero comics over the decades and most of the big ones have happened only within the past 15 years (again, X-Men notwithstanding).  So, while that mountain of continuity may seem really intimidating to the average reader, if there was a way to show them that, until recently, most of it is made up of self-contained stories, than there really being this huge, 50 year compilation of stories.

Maybe you've heard that these guys have a complex continuity?

However, part of the problem with convincing people comic continuity isn’t a big deal is that, well, that’s going to be really fucking difficult.  After all, there’s over 9,000 trade paperbacks of Batman out there, and people are going to see them and say “that’s a lot of Batman” and they’re going to walk away.  It’s easy to make a surface comparison of jumping into Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the fifth season and jumping into Spiderman now, but Buffy only has 144 episodes and a much more truncated continuity, while Spiderman is all over the place.  There’s a cognitive barrier that’s going to be difficult to break down.

Comics’ first wave of advertising needs to be aimed at that very mindset.  It needs to be aimed at breaking down the idea that you need to pick up 50 years worth of issues, and slogging through Stan Lee’s writing, just so the reader can make sense of the current issue of the Future Foundation.  It certainly wouldn’t behoove them to denounce their previous continuity, since new readers will get curious and pick up some of the backlog, but it would serve them best to show that new stories are out there, with accessible concepts and cool ideas.  They need to say “hey, we’re starting a new story arc of the Future Foundation where Doctor Doom summons a time traveling demon and you should check it out” and they need to say it on billboards, magazines and television and not just in New York and LA.

I think Doom's time traveling demon would be a huge hit in the Midwest.

That’s the last thing.  They need to move out from the whole East/West coast thing.  Yeah, there are a lot of people out there, the majority of the country if you count the whole coasts, but that doesn’t mean everyone.  I don’t just mean they need to move their advertising of cool new stuff to national magazines and prime time network television.  I mean, we need to have comics that move away from the giant metropolises like New York, or places that are totally not LA and New York.  While I don’t expect Wolverine to come crashing through the Devon tower in Downtown Oklahoma City or something, having more comics set in places like Chicago, New Orleans and Houston would probably help move some demographics that aren’t really represented in the comics buying community.

I wonder if Morrison and DC called it Project: One More Day

I was going to write a review of Harry Potter, but I think that can wait. DC announced what they plan to do with Superman with the reboot.  Surprising no one, and seriously disappointing me, DC decided they were going to break up Clark and Lois and reset the entire Superman mythology.  Again.

I'm fairly certain DC has done this before

I can’t say I’m surprised, because I was pretty sure that’s what they were going to do with this.  I mean, we did know that Grant Morrison wanted to play around with Supes’ origin a little bit and he kind of hinted that was what he was going to be doing with Action Comics.  A little irritating, since we’ve had a new origin for Superman every three years for the past decade (not an exaggeration.  Two of them were by the same author), but OK, it’s Grant Morrison and the pitch is at a place in Clark Kent’s life that I can’t recall ever being explored.  Except for Smallville, but that doesn’t count.

No, what gets me is that the “present” continuity (Morrison’s pitch takes place in the past, around when he’s in college), Clark is going back to being a swingin’ single with a love triangle between him, Lois Lane and some other guy.  It’s kind of like what they did with Spiderman, but with less guts.  All DC is doing is rolling back the clock to retell stories that have already been told.

Thanks Jean-Luc

OK, this isn’t as stupid as One More Day, since in the new continuity, Clark and Lois have just met and there was no selling the marriage to the devil or anything, but we all know how this is going to turn out.  In about two years, they’ll be in a relationship.  Within a decade, they’ll be married again.  There’s nowhere else for this story to go since it’s pretty obvious that Clark and Lois are going to end up together.  It’s part of the whole mythology, along with Krypton and super strength, Lois and Clark are in love.  We can throw Lana Langs and Loir Lemarises at Clark until people get tired of reading about him, and we know that he’s going to wind up with Lois.  There’s no tension here.  At least with Spiderman, there’s a chance he might end up with someone other than Mary Jane.  It’s not likely, but it’s not like she’s been a foregone conclusion for Parker from the beginning like Lois was.

It is really silly to be upset about this, but let’s look at Superman for a bit.  Almost nothing happens to this guy.  He’s become so iconic that it’s hard to write anything about him or change anything fundamental.  He’s transcended being a fictional character and has become such a cultural icon that change for him is nearly impossible.  When something big happens to him, and it sticks, that’s a good thing.  It’s something that should be embraced.  Rolling it back just means readers are going to have to relive what they’ve already seen.

Case in point.

It’s things like this that give comic books a bad rap, super hero comics especially.  No one is going to want to read about an “All New, All Different Superman” because 1. he’s not really new or different and 2. it’s the same crap we read already.  Storytelling is not repetition, it’s change.  I think it’s high time one of these publishers realized that to change, you have to do more than renumber the issues and rewrite someone else’s story from when you were a kid.

Reboots and Continious Storytelling

I was going to do a little filler about rebooting Donna Troy today, but I started thinking about it, and after realizing I didn’t want to do a bunch of research on a character I don’t like very much, I started to think about the nature of the upcoming DC Reboot.  The more I think about the nature of the reboot and what’s going on with it, the more negative I am towards it (those costumes.  Oh my god, they are the ugliest friggin’ costumes since Rob Liefeld).  It seems like a lot of the reboot is designed to “correct” mistakes and bring things back to how they should be rather than really fixing serious continuity errors that the DC Universe is rife with (like Donna Troy).

Look at Superboy's "cape." It's a goddamn piece of paper taped to his shirt

The truth is, I really dislike the idea of just snapping back to the status quo anyway.  I’ve written that it’s a serious shortcoming of the medium before and I’m of the belief that an inability to grow and change causes more damage to comics than continuity lockout.  Over the past few years, I’ve also noticed that I care more about the big events like Infinite Crisis or Secret Invasion, no matter how bad those are (and they both were), than I do about regular issues.  Obviously, there are exceptions, but for the most part, I basically lose interest in comics until summer.

See, here’s the thing about those big events, as lame as they are, it’s when things are actually happening and the story changes.  Unless you’ve got Geoff Johns, Matt Fraction or Grant Morrison on your book, it’s unlikely the story is going to advance very far until the big event hits.  This is one of the things that made Dark Reign or 52 worked so well is because they advanced some kind of story and change up what’s going on.

One of the things that made the Emotional Spectrum from Green Lantern so successful was that it was pretty much the only thing that’s happened to the entire Green Lantern line since Hal Jordan died.  Hell, the catalyst for Jordan’s death came from a Superman event, when a Superman villain (Cyborg Superman) blew up his home city.  It’s just not a line where things happen, at least, until recently.  It’s pretty much what killed Jordan in the first place.

See, here’s the thing.  There’s no chance that Batman or Spiderman is going to end any time soon, and that’s OK.  What writers need to do though is not go back in time.  We need to stop bringing characters back to life or having old heroes “reclaim” their old identities.  Bucky Barnes should have stayed as Captain America and Dick Grayson should never be Nightwing again (I like the idea of both him and Bruce calling themselves Batman).

There are some titles that manage to keep their changes better than others (X-Men does a pretty good job with this, unless it has to do with Magneto), and Marvel does a little better about it than DC, but it’s still not very good.  Look at titles like Fables or Hellblazer, where there are real changes and character development actually sticks.