Monday, November 22, 2010

The Catyclysm

I try and keep my personal stuff separate from what I write on here. However, given as there is a rather large overlap between video game culture and comic culture (read- two different species in the genus Nerd), I'd like to take a brief moment to talk about World of Warcraft.

WoW is the most successful MMORPG to date, with millions of subscribers who shell out 14.99 a month to play. It's built on the popular Warcraft series, which has a long established continuity and canon, as well as an enormous fan-base. This, of course, all belongs to Blizzard. This group of development geniuses has produced 3 huge titles, with the recent Starcraft 2 being a multimillion copy seller in days, and a professional sport in Korea (the good one in the south).

Not only do they have huge profits from incredible games but they also have an insanely loyal fanbase, to whom they sell comic books, action figures, trading card games, and even steins. STEINS. LET ME REITERATE: THERE IS A WORLD OF WARCRAFT STEIN. These are fanboys of the highest regard. I should know. I was one.

You see, way back in the days before I was this titan of awesome, I played a lot of WoW. I was no casual, to say the least. My main, a Gnome Rogue, was level 80, with around 35 days (840ish hours) of play time. This does not include tens of alts with a day or two on them, as well as my original hunter who had a good 5-7 days (120-168 hours). In short, I wasted a lot of time.

This is not to say it's not fun. It's a great game. Incredible, in fact, with a great world and so much lore you can be lost in it. It appeals to the base desire for progress we all have as well. Getting to the next level is like crack, and getting that bit of binary code that means your character has a new sword that does a whole 20 more fire damage is like winning the lottery. The game trains you subconsciously. It's powerfully addicting.

It also always seems like there are people having more fun that you, and the more you play the more fun you have. You'll see somebody zoom by on a flying mount and just NEED to have one. "That is the coolest thing I have ever seen", you'll say to yourself, and then grind for hours to get the gold to buy some gryphon or wyvern. You'll get it and it's great, and then you'll go back to the grind.

At a point the game stops feeling like a game and more like work. That's when the suck happens. You just grind and grind. Finally you get to the good content and it's all fun again. Then you hit the level cap.

This was the most fun and least fun of the time I played. I found myself stuck between trying to get into dungeons and raids, just waiting to find other people who wanted to kill the same guy as me. I spent more time waiting than playing, which takes a lot of fun out of the game. As a rogue, i was not in demand for raids. Everyone wanted tanks or healers, and I was neither. It was a lonely place for the stealth class.

So, in April of 2009 I quit. I have not regretted the decision to go cold turkey. I don't think that it was a coincidence that my life got a lot better after I stopped playing WoW, but that's another story. I haven't wanted to play at all, but when I'm on stumbleupon late at night and I find myself on a page about World of Warcraft, I find it hard not to care the slightest bit about a new raid or content. I was full on addicted for a while, I admit it, and being reminded about the game always makes me think of how much I enjoyed playing it.

All this new Cataclysm stuff now has gotten me thinking about it. I'm interested to see what they do, but at the same time I don't want to get sucked into that mess again. I know it sounds stupid, after all WoW is just a stupid game, but I got way too deep into that mess. I can still rattle off lore and stats in my head. I can remember lucky item drops or sweet kills. I can also remember being up until three in the morning because I was lonely and bored and angst-ridden.

Cataclysm is like the crappy boyfriend who you've broken up with more times than you can count because, lets be honest he ruined your life, coming back saying "baby, look, I've changed". I want to see if it's better, or if the Barrens looks cooler, or if there are new quests and maybe Gnomes have their city back (it's been YEARS). But, that said, I don't want to get hurt again. I don't want to relapse. I know it's trying to be a new game, but it's also the same old crap.

It was an addiction. It was an unhealthy way for me to avoid problems and pretend to be some lovable rogue hero when in reality I was kind of a jerk who needed therapy more than experience points. Facing that reality was the last thing I wanted to do, and so I found a virtual world to hide in. Some people have drugs, some people have booze, and I had a video game. It sounds so stupid now that I'm actually writing all this down, but back then I bought into that. Even though I had no job and now girlfriend, even though my grades sucked, even though I was not as awesome as I thought I was I had a level 80 rogue with some epic gear. I had slain dragons and saved worlds. So what if I was a C- student?

I look back on a lot of that with regret. I get the feeling I missed out on a lot because I was too busy sitting in front of my laptop playing with strangers. I wasn't even playing with real life friends, as most people do. I was alone. I might have been on a server with ten thousand people in chat, but I was by myself late at night, and that sucked.

It's nice to be a different person now. If this was anything, it was cathartic. I'm not anti-WoW, it's a good game but I'm not for it either, given my experience. I've sworn of MMOs, given as with my history I'd end up having to make a choice between real life and a virtual one. This sucks, as the DC Universe and Lego Universe MMOs look interesting, but I'd rather have a girlfriend than phat lootz any day of the week, month, or year.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Knight, the Devil, and Death: Grant Morrison's incredible saga of the return of Bruce Wayne

I had a discussion with my girlfriend recently about the academic legitimacy of comic books when compared to other finer arts and literature. Let me say that I agree that while graphic novels are part of the collective monomyth and all those Jungian archetypes, they can never hold the true legitimacy of real literature because of the simple fact that they are comics. Comic books often have multiple writers and reboots, with different people establishing different ideas on how they want to see characters. That alone seperates comics into their own separate and distinct universe which allows them establish their own stories that flow with changes in culture. Comics adapt and change with society, and while they provide good mirrors to culture, establishment of canon prevents the vast majority of running superhero comics to be counted as true literature.

Comics can be critiqued through various schools. Wonder Woman has seen her share of feminist theory for sure, but the fact of the matter is that comics are just comics, and despite how people like myself dress them up for academia, they are largely inaccessible save to those who truly know the canon. And yes, there are widely acclaimed graphic novels in the academic community. Persopolis, Maus, and American Born Chinese instantly spring to mind, but these are self-contained personal stories. They could be actual books if their authors had chose to format them that way, but they chose to do them as graphic novels instead.

Comics books and graphic novels are entirely different entities. A graphic novel is exactly what it says it is: A novel with pictures. These can legitimately be called literature. Maus is just as moving as Eli Weisel's Night. However, the vast majority of superhero comics can not be held at that same literary level. It's a sad fact, but it's one we as comic fans have to deal with. The idea of comics studies seems fun, but unfortunately its a field that will never take off. It's an interesting topic, I know, but the very nature of the comic book defies literary criticism.

I write about comics because I enjoy them. I think analyzing the heroic ideals of batman or the meaning of death in comic books is fun. I am aware that I am weird. However, it's very hard to translate comics outside of their perscribed universes. You can compare Superman to Jesus or Hercules, but not to Shakespeare. Nobody in Othello had heat vision, and Romeo and Juliet were not retconned back to life. It's easy for comic fans to see parallels because all of our heroes originate from basic ideas.

Also, superhero comics today are based around canon established decades ago, meaning the writers are generally basing their stories on what they read as a kid. Geoff Johns obviously loves the silver age Justice League because they are all apparently back, and any newer hero is sadly displaced. However, we as comic book readers love when canon ties together (this will come in later). The whole genre is based on appealing to fans and attracting new readers, which is what separates superhero comics from the rest of literature. There is a fan base. It needs to be appeased and new readers need to be brought in to keep DC and Marvel floating. This commercial drive is the wedge that will forever split the mainstream comic book from graphic novels like Maus.

I say this all sadly. I'd love to spend my life writing about comics, but there is very little legitimacy. Comics are fun, but will never be fully accepted. It's something we as fans and readers need to accept, deal with, and then go back to enjoying the best publishers have to offer.

The best, of course, being Grant Morrison (finally on topic now). If there is one man who could bring a shred of academia to the comic community, it's him.

Grant (can I call you Grant?) is intelligent, and his stories play on two levels. At first, they are just exciting and fun and suspenseful, really everything a comic book needs to be enjoyable to read. However, without a decent understanding of gothic art or mythology, a large portion of his Batman and Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne is completely missed. I have so much to say about the honest-to-go masterpiece I finished today. It is, in my opinion, the best series I have ever read. Yes, Geoff Johns, I enjoyed Blackest Night, but Grant brings a hefty weight of actual intellectual content that actually makes comic books seem a bit smarter. Your zombie heroes were cool, but Grant Morrison has a grasp on the English language and culture as a whole that makes him better than really any other comic writer I have ever read.

Morrison does this incredible thing where all of his storylines come crashing together. I find myself rereading him over and over to try and catch all his references not only to other comic books but also to literature, art, and music. I cannot possibly list them all, but they are without question phenomenal. He may know everything, or is consistently on Wikipedia.

Let me give an example of this (spoilers)

Thomas Wayne AKA Dr. Hurt has been repeatedly referred to as the devil. With his mask on his shadow looks like a horned demon. He is the Devil referenced in the title of Knight, the Devil, and Death, which is a famous piece of Gothic art. At one point the Joker gives a brief monologue about a banana, and how it represents the "primal gag": The fall. He then tosses the peel on the ground. Keep this in mind.

At the end of the arc, Hurt is running away from Batman and encounters the Joker. The Joker and Hurt are not on the best of terms. Sitting on a stump, the Joker points to a gun on the ground, and says "Betcha can't reach the gun before me, gambler." Hurt races for the gun, slips on the banana peel and falls, only to be buried alive while the Joker laughs about how his plan went to Hell.

Hurt is very clearly now the Devil. He gambles and falls. The fall refers to the Devil gambling with God and being sent to Hell.


It is also only one of the little details that takes many rereads to notice. Anyway, it's late. Sorry about the rant at the beginning, but it's my blog so deal. Grant Morrison, If you ever read this, thank you for an amazing story. You're what's right with comics today.

In summation- If you want an example of a phenomenal superhero comic- this is it. It's canon heavy and Wikipedia will help with a lot, as well as the annotations. Without them I would have missed so much. They do great work, and the fact that there is so much information present gives credit to Morrison as a writer. The entire arc is nothing short of brilliant, and the best today's comics have to offer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hast Thou Considered the Shepherd?

God bless Joss Whedon. Though his shows may be dead he lives forever in our hearts and in Dark Horse Comics, where his Buffy: Season 8 and Serenity/Firefly graphic novels are released unto an adoring public.

I, being a die-hard browncoat, picked up The Shepherds Tale on Wednesday. It's the long awaited backstory of Shepherd Book, the enigmatic preacher from the Serenity crew. It does a fantastic job telling the story of his life, right up to the point where he is killed on Haven in the movie. I'm not going to go into a lot of spoilers, but it's a very compelling story.

It's also got some great monologue. Book is very philisophical, and there is a fantastic point where he is talking about soup. It's honestly brilliant.

Book's story is told through vignettes, almost like they're flashing before his eyes as he passes away. They go further and further back in time until his childhood. The entire painful, violent, lonely, and abusive. At the end, Whedon reveals that part of the story is centered around "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?" by The Mountain Goats. For those of you familiar with the song, it explains a lot about the book's tone (no pun intended).

Firefly fans: It's a must-read
Everyone else: you could probably care less, so watch the show and become a Firefly fan.

Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod- listen to this whilst reading.