Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Joe Casey And Nathan Fox And Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers And So Much More

"Nathan Fox's art on a Joe Casey story is like getting a million dollars and then finding out you won't have to pay taxes on it." -Bleeding Cool forum user alekesam.

I haven't gushed about Joe Casey or Nathan Fox on this website, and the Captain Victory relaunch is the excuse I'm going to use to do so.

The first order of business is that the colorist on the Captain Victory relaunch, Brad Simpson, is inevitably going to get a short shrift, so that's why he's getting mentioned first. For the Nathan Fox pages, everything looks bright and trippy and wonderful. For the flashbacks done by other artists, or for Off Brand MODOK the colors get muted like they're supposed to. During the main storyline, Simpson's color work is heightens the tension and keeps the mood dialed up at 11, if not 12. Look at the whites and blues in the first panel below.

Casey's a comics writer who'se bibliography and volume means he comes up with something great fairly reliably. Trouble is, he might have to get through two or three bad ideas first. Before Captain Victory, his most recent work I liked, Butcher Baker The Righteous Maker seemed to be Joe Casey saying "fuck it, I'm gonna die on this weirdo comics hill, but just after I plant my flag, let me take potshots at Mike Huddleston, who draws this thing." His next two comics, Sex and The Bounce, (Batman after he gives up the cowl and Spider-Man as a person in 2013, respectively) were unremarkable or straight up bad.

That said, he's been in comics long before that, so he was the other X-Men writer while Morrison was on New X-Men, he did the glorious pacifist Superman arc in Action Comics and also was joined by Ashley Wood on Automatic Kafka. For things Kieron Gillen fans care about, he did Vengeance, which introduced America Chavez as Ms. America and The Ultimate Nullifier, both of whom would go on to be in Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson/Norton's Young Avengers.

He's a lifer and a genuine weirdo in an industry where weirdoes with opinions run the joint. He goes for a kind of vulgar existensialism (see Vengeance or Butcher Baker), and his subversive take on superheroes is, when it's good, a couple degrees to the left of what I expect. I repeat: Pacifist Superman. His dialogue, though, in an attempt to be cool, can be painfully corny in hindsight.

I've never thought about a Joe Casey event comic because what I read of his work tends to have the scale one finds in those things anyway.

But when I like Joe Casey most often is when he's playing off in a corner somewhere and gets to make something weird, and that leads me to Dark Reign: Zodiac, which in turn, leads me to Dark Reign: Zodiac's penciller, Nathan Fox. Nathan Fox's style I'd describe as obviously influenced by Paul Pope, but with a delirious messiness to it that obscures or takes credit over an insane amount of detail. It reads quickly, but if you slow down, you see the hundreds of tiny flourishes.

DR: Zodiac was a blink and you miss it 3 issue mini during the Dark Reign era where Norman Osborn was in charge of just about everything, and the heroes went underground. Osborn's big moment was saying to the other major villains on his level "just don't kill puppies on television and you can do whatever you want."

Joe Casey apparently looked at that and said, "well, not every villain is magically going to be Neutral Evil, so can I get three issues to write Chaotic Evil dudes committed to mayhem?"

And Marvel said yes.

Penciled by Nathan Fox, the series was unabashedly mean-spirited. It included a hospital bombing, the savage beating of Johnny Storm and the on panel dumping of skulls out of a burlap sack (below). The opening scene is the investigation of the severed torsos of 100 H.A.M.M.E.R. agents in a warehouse. Nathan Fox's pencils made the experience messy, ugly and stunning. Yes, the heroes, when they weren't beaten to a pulp looked unblemished, but everyone else looked lived in.

Maybe the best moment was a faked Galactus attack.

The Casey/Fox team would reunite on Haunt for about 10 issues, or as long as it took Todd McFarlane to step away from it and then step back to it, to kill the momentum the new team built up. Before Casey/Fox, it was an Image project involving a future fascistic religion, a priest with the ghost of his brother who was a SWAT team member that had an off-brand Venom symbiote attached to him. Dreamed up by Mr. McFarlane, Robert Kirkman and Greg Capullo, the series was a laborious mess.

Casey/Fox looked at that and said "what if we lean more heavily into the b-movie aspect of the whole thing," and made it Awesome. It got wilder, under the Casey/Fox pencils, and apparently, further away from the vision that Todd McFarlane had for the character. McFarlane would take his toys back later, but those 10 issues were gleeful genre work. To go back to my point about Mr. Fox's delirious messiness and detail, just look at the electronics falling out of the helmets in the third panel.

But that was a long couple years ago and now Casey and Fox are reunited to work on a Jack Kirby revival for Dynamite, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers.

It's great. Kirby's influence in superhero comics is massive, where any single issue he wrote or drew could have 10 ideas. This being comics, only three of them were worth following up on. Kirby's writing style was bombastic, and while there were tiny details (the man is called The King by the industry today) there were few tiny statements. Kirby's work that reflected Kirby was grand and sweeping.

And here's the thing: Joe Casey knows bombast. Joe Casey knows glorious comics idea that works on the page, but not out loud. It's a fine line between monkey punches robot and Nextwave punches Fin Fang Foom, but Joe Casey has been on the right side of that before, and with Nathan Fox, he's on the right side of it now.

(I pause here to mention Joe Casey's other Kirby comic, Godland, ended last year. Godland's penciller, Thomas Scioli is a dead ringer for Kirby. Godland is the first 100+ issues of the Fantastic Four with the serial numbers filed off, updated for this century, gone wild.)

Assisting Nathan Fox is a murderer's row of alt comix talent, the first issue includes Jim Rugg and Ulises Farinas, the second involves Michel Fiffe and the promotional material says Benjamin Marra, Jim Mahfood and Farel Dalrymple are forthcoming. Nathan Fox draws most of the pages in each issue, while the guests contribute whatever flashback sequences or a scene to add up to a total of 22 pages a month. I think that's what makes Captain Victory so exciting to me personally, is that the pencillers are working outside of their wheelhouse. Yes, they have done superhero jobs before, but their work generally is usually much smaller in scale.

Those pencillers are all talented enough that when they get out of their comfort zones, their work will still be good, and it's in service of a series who's ethos is bombast and crazy ideas, so it'll congeal. It feels new not because it is, but because it's unexpected coming from the people making it.

I did not expect a Jim Rugg Kirby crackle, but those crackles looked real hype when he did draw them. I know Michel Fiffe does COPRA, but that doesn't prepare me for him doing crazy sci-fi.

Captain Victory is the stage and direction I didn't know I wanted to see Casey and Fox tackle. It's hard to imagine a higher compliment.

All images are pencilled by Nathan Fox. Colors: Jose Villarubia (Zodiac), Brad Simpson (Captain Victory) and Ivan Plascencia (Haunt).

Joe Casey might like this one. These Mad Dogs Of Glory by Modern Life Is War. Title says it all, don't you think?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Harassment and Hashtags

I'm not sure what's repeating myself, what's transcendently obvious and what's bandwagon jumping on something that every point I could make has been written about better by people directly affected and deeper in the community than I am. The first 17 minutes of this podcast are instructive.

Here goes: #Gamergate started off as a new edition of an old saw (games journalism is too dependent on personal friendships, inside sources, "exclusives," etc etc), if in fact, it was ever anything more than a way for Zoe Quinn's vindictive ex to get back at her. If I was a teenager now, maybe, if my life zigged and not zagged, I could see getting up in arms about "integrity" but as it stands, I'm not a teenager, so I don't have a lot of patience for the people that keep the hashtag going despite the persons from 4chan and random people interested in mayhem joining the hashtag.

As I did journalism in high school, I'm aware of the limitations of an enthusiast press, especially in a time when people don't want to pay for actual journalism by professionals.

I'm at a loss as to what to say about the persons who terrorize Ms. Quinn. They are the true and willful authors of her degradation, they are doing a thing they likely believe to be directly harmful to a human being. In this respect, they're bad people. I cannot see myself or any of my friends, no matter how warped by circumstance, terrorizing her.

The worst part is of course, the harassment and threats that Ms. Quinn faces hourly, if not minute to minute. The saddest part is that the people who terrorize her, if given distance and I imagine, a couple years to grow up, might be fans of her work. They're terrorizing a game developer, chosen because she's a woman with an opinion they don't like and can be brought via slander into the conversation.

Pause. The second saddest part is that the people who terrorize Ms. Quinn value the mealy and unappetizing present over the possibilities of the future.

Pause again. Were the world two degrees to the left, they're terrorizing a person who might have been their friend.

(Reminder: Terrorizing people is bad. You shouldn't terrorize anybody.)

Harassment of women with opinions will continue to be more visible on the internet, which allows us to recognize it publicly as abhorrent. Before this, the harassment of female developers wasn't so obvious. Given a timeline beyond my lifespan, the sexism will be corrected, slowly. While we live, we push the stone as far along as we can.

The rest is washing up: Ms. Quinn will live with this the rest of her life, regardless of whether she remains in the games industry. Her terrorizers will forget all about this next year. We hope that Ms. Quinn will continue to make games, we understand if she doesn't.

I suspect I'll write this next year and the year after that. I believe the year that I won't be compelled to write this is coming. I do not believe I will live to see it.

"Get the fuck out/here there's no interest in what you're about.../we're here together/we're here to stay" Three's A Party. Kid Dynamite. Short. Fast Loud. Hit play already. This post was edited at 7:30ish pm the same day it was published. It was edited again a couple hours later.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Shadowrun And The Glory

Shadowrun Returns is an cRPG videogame based on the tabletop gaming system of the same name. Shadowrun: Dragonfall is that videogame's expansion. Like most videogames, Dragonfall is the better game, since much of the trouble in making the first game is making sure that the gears and wheels under the hood work, but also, discovering what that game is. But there's one mission of Returns that is more memorable, for the right reasons, than everything from the expansion.

The Shadowrun setting is basically Red Harvest or $106,000 Blood Money dramatized by Lord Of The Rings characters. Death is cheap, people willing to do bad things abound, people willing to do good things usually aren't. Corporations run the world, and everyone employs mercenaries (Shadowrunners) for missions, which usually involve repossessing a rival corp's technology or board member. Often killing and hacking (called decking) are involved.
(A long aside on names. Shadowrun Returns is the base game, but Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the expansion. There's no semicolon in Shadowrun Returns. Ugh. Therefore, I'm referring to the base game as Returns and the expansion as Dragonfall because it makes my life and your reading experience easier.)

I'm going to be spoiling the coolest part of the Returns game, so if you actually intend to play it, turn back now.



It's one of my favorite moments.

I am currently right at the last mission in Dragonfall, so while I have not beat it yet, I feel comfortable talking about Dragonfall as a full experience. Perhaps the story will implode just before the finish line, but so far, the story is a defter thing than its predecessor. There are actual headscratchers in terms of "okay, what am I contracted to do versus what can I do versus what is the right thing to do versus what is the decision the genre demands?" and three or four of those headscratchers in Dragonfall.

But. There's a sequence in Returns that is better than anything in Dragonfall thus far and one that I have never seen on a game table or in a videogame.

The setup is this: You're on a run (what the missions are called) and the run is grab some things from a corp's office, fight through a big headquarters tower to get there. (It's a dungeon, inverted.)

Traditionally, in Shadowrun, these things end in only a couple ways: The party escapes or the party dies. You have variations on the theme (they barely escape with their lives, they escape, but one of them's a traitor, they leave a lot of dead, but a couple get out, they get out with not quite the information they were paid to get, it was a trap) but that's how those things tend to roll.

You die or you leave.

On this run, the group doesn't quite get what they need. That won't help out the customer, but they're so close and they can't wait till the next evening. So what do they do? They have the main character stay in the tower to complete the mission when everyone else shows up tomorrow morning for work.

What you do not do in videogames or Shadowrun, or at least the ones where you're an adventuring group, is stick around. (Unless you're Viscera Cleanup Detail, which, is a game precisely about what you suspect it is but cannot bring yourself to believe, a videogame about cleaning up the corpses left behind by the successful execution of a FPS level.)

The game is get in however you have to, get out however you have to. Returns compels you to stay.

Maybe I'm hyping this up a bit much. There's a save point, so it's technically a success state of one part of the mission and moving on to the next one, but I've never heard of a run continuing into the morning. Ever. 10:30 am in the Shadowrun universe might as well be genuinely unknown territory. Every run happens at night, at least all the ones I'm aware of. You're dead or you leave. You're alive and you're still there is new territory.

Remaining there into the morning completely changes how I feel about the space. That's new! As for the contents of the mission, I won't spoil that, except that it's good genre fun and you get to see the results of your work.

Taken as a whole, Dragonfall is surer. Dragonfall is more dexterous. Dragonfall is better in genre. Dragonfall's challenges are harder and its combat arenas better designed. Dragonfall's NPCs are more textured and one of those NPCs has a genuinely surprising backstory that actually lives up to the talking around it in the first two thirds of the game.

But Dragonfall, at least just before the final boss mission (or what appears to be the final mission) had nothing so daring as a corp building at 10:30 am. Dragonfall is a better videogame. Despite that, in five years, I suspect that I will sooner remember that moment from Returns than I will anything from Dragonfall.

A stand alone directors cut edition of Dragonfall is released September 18 for $15. I think and hope you'll like it.

This song is called Hunting For Witches and it is by Bloc Party. Go.

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