Saturday, November 24, 2012

Scott Pilgrim: A re-retrospective and reflection.

            I go back and forth on how much I actually like the Scott Pilgrim series.  It’s one of those things that triggers the elitist muscle in my brain when I hear people talking about it and I wonder if people understood it the same way I did and do now. I think a lot of people just saw the character as someone like them who got a girl and fought with swords and missed the big point that was left at the end of the series.

            Scott Pilgrim does have a lot in common with a lot of people in my generation, which is what makes him such a phenomenal character. However, what makes him so realistic as a person are his glaring flaws. He’s selfish and self-absorbed. He’s lazy. He doesn’t have a job. He’s a mooch both monetarily and emotionally. Most importantly, Scott exists in a world where he is the protagonist and only is story matters, which is one of those important themes that’s left lying around.

            Memory plays a big part in the story. Both Scott and Ramona are confronting their past relationships. The way Scott remembers things shapes his character, and when the realization of how he has been making the same mistake as Gideon is what allows him to actually see his mistakes and grow from them as a person.

            Memories only ever give one side of the story, and that’s whoever is remembering them. It’s easy to alter what happened to make yourself the victim of the hero, or that everything was some wonderful fairy tale like Scott does. That’s what allows us to look for other people to blame and avoid growing up.

            There is an interesting parallel between him and Gideon that makes the finale. When Scott finally gets it, he grows up over the space of 5 pages.  Brain Lee O’Malley makes it visible on his face. You can see a difference in the way he speaks and the way he looks. The new shirt and new sword and the “power of understanding” are just the trappings of his newfound maturity and his realization that he’s actually done a lot of wrong to a lot of people and he starts to make it right.

            A lot of comics are about growing up and learning to live with your mistakes. That is literally the entire plot of The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter messes up all the time and has clean it up. He’s a superhero because he knows it’s the right thing to do. He isn’t in this for vengeance or power, but because he made a mistake and it cost him his uncle. He grew up when Uncle Ben died and now he does everything he can to make sure that tragedy doesn’t happen to anyone else.

            And that’s growing up. It’s dealing with your mistakes every single day. When Scott confronts his demons (literally) in volume 6 he and Kim have this exchange

K: If you keep forgetting your mistakes, you’ll just keep making them again.
S:  I don’t care! It’s better than having to live with myself!

And Kim’s right. It’s not until Scott actually looks his mistakes dead in the eye that he realized exactly what he’s done and what he needs to do. He starts changing right there. Actually seeing everything you’ve ever done and how it’s affected other people will do that. Change is what we get when we grow up, and sometimes it sucks. Believe me. I’m 21 years old with an English major who cleans hookahs for 7 dollars an hour. In the 4 months I spent without a job I had a lot of time alone to myself to think about a lot of things. Now that I actually have a reason to get out of bed again all of that’s settled and starting to clear up.

One of the reasons I like Scott so much as a character is because I see a lot of myself in him. I get so concerned in my precious little life that I forget that other people actually have feelings. We all want to be the protagonist of the world so badly that we overlook everyone else’s subplot. We let our own stories take over what really happened, and we end up hurting people we care the most about just by being insensitive.

Scott and I learned it the easy way. We’ve both left people feeling terrible and went on our merry way wondering why they were upset. That ex-post facto realization hits like a train. It makes you change your life and try to undo every bit of hurt. But you can’t. There’s no undo button, no control-z. Things can’t be the same, but you can go forward.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Avoiding the Call of Duty

             I find it difficult to criticize the writing in a Call of Duty campaign, because I imagine most people who purchased the game will be letting that mode gather dust. Call of Duty is a game less about people and motivations and more about guns. I’ve spoken a lot about mainstream games and comics being written for 14 year-old boys. Call of Duty is no exception either.

            It’s hard to play through this game with a straight face. Everything the characters say is, at best, a point of ridicule. Every word your commanding officer says is some variation of the word “cocksucker”. It’s Life Free or Die Hard, complete with the catastrophic destruction and cyberterrorism.

            One of the games most laughable points is its repeated attempts to mention recent political events. The game takes place on board the state of the art battleship Obama (despite his desire to cut military spending). The terrorist leader repeatedly mentions rallying the 99% against the 1%. Even David Petraeus makes an appearance after his recent disgrace. Noriega shows up as well. It’s one of those games where they say words without really knowing what they mean, but they still bring it up.

            However, I think the real trouble that Call of Duty presents is not the fact that it’s poorly written and boring to play, but that it creates an idea of masculinity that is outright ridiculous. The men in this game are presented as an ideal to strive for. They are the best of the best of the best, the shield of freedom, etc. These people barely emote, and even barely register the consequences of their actions (and US foreign policy), until it comes back to bite them in the ass.

The U.S. Military is clearly the star of this game. However, it’s really hard to support them when the first level of the game has you mowing down Angolans with machetes with a helicopter. Afghans on horseback charge at your automated drones only to be mowed down by the hundreds. When you use your billion dollar drones in third world countries to enforce policy and essentially go after a personal vendetta, it’s pretty easy to see the 99%’s argument. I don’t support the protagonist, but the terrorist begins to make a pretty clear case.

I was surprised when I saw the one of the writes on The Dark Knight Rises helped create the main villain in CoD, but I saw the similarities between him and Bane almost instantly afterwards. He’s a bad guy who presents high ideals but has low motives. Standard. The US military is Batman, diving in from above with fancy toys.

The key difference here is there is no real emotion other than overly macho posturing. It’s over-the-top to the point of comedy, and any options for serious dialog or an honest discourse about the costs of being a soldier are quickly brushed aside in favor of more excessive violence. In a game that centers so heavily on the idea of the “Call of Duty”, any real mention of what it means to those around you to answer is quickly swept under the rug.

One of the biggest missed opportunities in game comes in a brief expository moment, where you walk in on a husband and wife arguing about his duty to the military versus his duty to his family. It’s a surprisingly powerful moment that isn’t given the time it really deserves. It’s interrupted by more macho posturing and a few jokes about wives and forgotten entirely. This was a completely missed opportunity by the story team to actually add some actual realism and sincerity to a game that desperately needed it.

Call of Duty is a game that desperately needs some form of contrast in all the high-testosterone posturing, but any opportunity for actual discussion is completely missed. I’m not saying that every game needs to be deep or poignant, but mercilessly and robotically shooting foreigners makes me feel uncomfortable after too long.

Gamers deserve mainstream titles that challenge their views and beliefs the same as comics. Only this way can we actually grow as a medium and get some actual credibility.

(Yes I am familiar with Spec Ops: The Line. I’m playing it next week and going to revisit this.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Love and Marriage (and Reboots)

            One of the most interesting things to note in all of the reboots that have taken place in that few years is the re-bachelorization of pretty much every superhero. Lois Lane is no longer Superman’s girlfriend, The Flash is no longer married, and Spider-man no longer loves Mary Jane. All of this, of course, is done with the idea that marriage ages a character and makes him or her less relatable.

            Now, while this does have a decent point, I don’t think it’s actually an accurate statement. It also says something fairly disturbing about how the (mostly male) writers view marriage and women, as well as their audience.

            In a recent issue of Superman, he quits the Daily Planet pretty much because he uses his X-Ray vision to read a text message from Lois Lane’s new man about them moving in together. Now, this version of Supes has been crazy for Lois forever but never done anything about it, and then gets mad that she’s with someone else. Now, I’ve been on the internet/in high school enough to get the concept of “The Friend Zone”, but as someone who is no longer fourteen I don’t want Superman acting like he is.

            Yes, you might make a character more relatable to one group of people, but what about the rest of us? As more and more superhero comics are made to be relatable to fourteen year-old boys and people with the mentality of same, people who aren’t are just going to stop reading them.

            I’ve had a really hard time trying to get back into the New 52 because of a lot of those choices. I hate that the Flash is unmarried and that there isn’t a “Flash Family” anymore because that dynamic made the character. Superman is kind of a prat without Lois Lane, and whenever he shacks up with Wonder Woman (as he’s done recently), he gets all moody.

            I talk a lot about how comics should be for everybody, and no comic should be more inclusive than Superman simply based on what he represents. Seeing him being your friend from high school who pined after a girl but never did anything and then got mad when she started seeing someone else is just shameful. Nobody wants to watch the world’s greatest hero act like he’s fourteen. We have enough culture already geared towards teenage boys and man-children.

            So, the solution? Honestly, we need more female writers and creators who will target a different audience. We need new voices to characters, not just new backstories. Having actual women writing will hopefully thin out the creepy stuff as well as some of the frankly misogynistic mentalities that comics have been coming out with.

            One final note: Eventually all these heroes will get remarried so what is the point of all this? Seriously. Heed my prophecies, kids.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bravest Warriors #1 [review]

            It’s been months since I’ve bought comics, but I made a trip down to Salefish to order Cow Boy (The best thing I’ve read so far this year). As luck would have it, Bravest Warriors #1 came out today, and buying it alone reminded me just why I liked Wednesdays so much. Having a new comic in my car while trying to drive home to read it is just excruciating. Now I know what all you goyim go through on Christmas.

            I’ve been stoked for Bravest Warriors since I first read about it in February, and seeing it officially as a thing is just wonderful. It’s by Pendleton Ward and has the same art/humor style as Adventure Time. The tagline summarizes it best: Four 16-year old heroes-for-hire warping around galaxies and saving cute alien worlds with their emotions.

            The first issue does a great job of introducing the characters both through narration and dialog, using the premise that they are relaxing with a movie night. There’s Chris, the ultra-rad dude who “isn’t afraid to put safety first in the kitchen. Wallow is a super-nice, super-big samoan dude who “can bench-press like a billion pounds. Danny “laughs at danger even when danger hasn’t told a joke yet”. Beth has the same Princess Bubblegum science attitude when she makes cupcakes fight to the death. There’s also Plum, the unofficial 5th Bravest Warrior who immediately reminds anyone familiar of Marceline the Vampire Queen.

            There’s a lot of Adventure Time visible in Bravest Warriors, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s a solid book in it’s own right and I’m really excited that it’s here. It’s funny and unabashedly positive (which there isn’t enough of in comics), and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

            The back-up story (which is something more comics need to do) is also great. It’s another solid story that does a good job characterizing the team while they play laser tag against each other for who will get shotgun in their spaceship. It also has one of my favorite lines in the first issue, “My instinct to heroically sacrifice myself for the team beat out my incredible killer instinct”.

              It’s things like that which showcase just why Bravest Warriors is good. It’s funny. It’s sincere. Most importantly there’s a heart to it that makes you like the characters immediately. The thing about that line is it wouldn’t work without the face. Chris is serious about his instincts. You can see the same line from Finn in Adventure Time and not roll your eyes because you know they both mean it.

              Bravest Warriors is good, and I can’t wait for the next issue. There are variant covers out the wazoo so pick your favorite. It’s definitely a buy. It feels nice to be this excited about a series again. Pick it up at your local comic book shop before the cool Star Wars cover is gone.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Think of the Children!: Censorship and Taking Offense

            Censorship is a funny thing. It’s not really ha-ha funny, but there it’s something that interests me a lot. Aside from the FCC (which deals only with content on public airwaves, meaning AM and FM radio and over-the-air TV) the vast majority of American media is self-regulated. The MPAA, ESRB, and CCA are all industry based regulatory bodies who have no actual power to prevent content from being released, but do control what major stores or theaters will carry. Most theaters will not show movies rated NC-17 or that have not been approved by the MPAA, and most stores don’t sell unrated games.

            Of course, with the Internet being incredible for disseminating digital content, selling something in a store is no longer important, meaning more and more content can skirt past regulation. And while the ESRB is weak (at best) the MPAA has a lot of weight in terms of mainstream movie content. A lot of their rules are interesting and their policies on sex in cinema (especially homosexual sex) have come under a lot of scrutiny in the last decade.

            The marketplace does a phenomenal job of regulating indecency (a term that I don’t like to use but will anyway) simply because if something makes the vast majority of viewers uncomfortable, they won’t watch or play. Advertisers will pull out and the producers ultimately lose money. The only time the government will step in if it is being broadcast over the air, on networks like Fox, NBC, or ABC or on AM or FM stations. The last big to-do was the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, but honestly the FCC can’t really do too much except send out fines. They may be big fines, but honestly it’s not as bad as the advertisers that would leave.

            More recently there was the Don Imus incident. He didn’t get pulled off the air by anyone, but by the market. Advertisers said they wouldn’t support him, and CBS chose to go with that.  That’s the lesson, do or say something that goes too far and people will treat you like you have the plague.

            Comics went through all of this in the ‘50s thanks to Dr. Freric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. After the book incited a moral panic and led to a congressional inquiry into the business, companies formed the Comics Code Authority, which placed draconian censorship rules on the medium and decimated the titles available, leaving mostly only superhero comics.

            Comics couldn’t even use the word “zombie”. It was bad, and it nearly destroyed comics. However, after Dr. Wertham’s panic stopped, pretty much everyone forgot about it and the code and the Comics Code Authority are no longer things. The symbol for the CCA has actually been adopted by the Comic Book Legal DefenseFund, which is a pretty great organization in the fight against censorship.

            I stand strong against censorship, and believe (like a true American) that the market will decide what is and isn’t appropriate. If most people find something offensive then it will go away simply based on backlash. If you find something really offensive and most people don’t then try and explain your point of view. Back during the summer there was the whole thing with Daniel Tosh making some rape jokes, and I’m sure a lot of boys who have grown up on X-Box live where rape is a verb of choice didn’t really see what the big deal was.  Granted, explaining anything to a 14 year old boy is damn near impossible, but they need to get it sooner or later.

            However, sometimes if something offends you it may be just you (this does not include rape jokes, those are not cool, just making that clear) . There’s a group out there called One Million Moms, which is a part of the American Family Association. They are awful. They have a serious problem with gay people, calling for boycotts of everything from Glee to Friggin’ Archie Comics, mostly for featuring homosexual characters. When you’re offended by Archie, that’s the time to reconsider your life.

            America is meant to be a place of tolerance for our fellow man/woman/dog regardless of who they are. A lot of people think this means we have to tolerate offensive humor, but they’re wrong. One of the most interesting things about American culture is how we slowly come to national terms about what’s acceptable. If someone does something uncool with the majority they get punished for it in the most American place they can: the wallet.

            After OMM made their statements about a gay wedding in Life with Archie #16, CEO John Goldwater responded with this:

"We stand by Life with Archie #16. As I've said before, Riverdale is a safe, welcoming place that does not judge anyone. It's an idealized version of America that will hopefully become reality someday.

We're sorry the American Family Association/ feels so negatively about our product, but they have every right to their opinion, just like we have the right to stand by ours. Kevin Keller will forever be a part of Riverdale, and he will live a happy, long life free of prejudice, hate and narrow-minded people."

America. F$#% yeah.