“To the fall of empires and the illusion of republic” – Hickman’s East of West is a brutal, relevant peak at a fractured America

03-27-2013-072657PM-2Early Saturday morning, I hauled myself out of bed, tossed back a handful of generic aspirin and drove myself to a story. A group of motorcyclists were going to the biggest man-made cross in Illinois to have their bikes blessed before the summer riding season. I was shooting photos, one of the parts of my job I like the best, and it’s the sort of opportunity most smalltime reporters love; a potent image juxtaposing the the holy and the unholy, rebellion and contemplation.

I live in what most Illinois and American citizens would call the middle of shit nowhere. In all honesty, it’s God’s country, one of the most conservative areas of one of the most liberal states in the country, a place where every once in a while, you’ll see a license plate damning abortion, a place where coworkers readily and happily blame women as willing victims of sexual and domestic abuse, a city where I once received gruesome hate mail for supporting the state’s marriage equality bill.

eastofwest2-726x248We’re a nation constantly divided by extremes. Even in areas which seem unanimous in their voice, there’s often dissension. Jonathan Hickman is tapping into that dissension in his second Image series, the apocalyptic western “East of West.” With only one issue under Hickman and former “FF” super-star Nick Dragotta’s belt, the team has already crafted a compelling tale of vengeance, cultural hate and ideologies that never die.

Hickman’s clearly playing a long, dangerous game in his first issue. After an introduction that wisely leaves its faith in the reader, we’re brought into Death’s inner circle. A hardened, bitter badass that’s two parts Jonah Hex and one part pure unadulterated rage, Death’s one of the most compelling parts of a book that begs to be deciphered. His quest, which seems to be half vengeance and half Arthurian quest for the Grail, is intriguing and pairing it against the other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s brutal, childish rebirth is bizarre and awesome.

East-of-West-Three-HorsemenWhile Hickman’s holding readers at arm’s length and trusting them to hold on for the ride, the art is compelling, welcoming and fascinating. Dragotta’s apocalyptic imagery as well as his attention to detail in the Civil War flashbacks is impressive and recalls Jerome Opeña’s down and dirty looks at flawed men and women but he admirably gives the child Horsemen an appropriate and unnerving youth that drives home the horror of the things they say and do.

In a book that features such iconic images as three children slaughtering a wounded man and Death kneecapping and murdering the president, the most striking visual is Hickman’s map of the new America, one fractured into seven nations, each bordering up on each other and given passive aggressive, grandstanding names, each with a name trying to declare themselves the real America. It’s a fractured nation, one with a never ending Cold Civil War and one that recalls our own country at it’s pessimistic, deadlocked worst.

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RIP LucasArts

super-star-wars-return-of-the-jedi-02Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and Lucasfilm has turned the company into one of the biggest content producers of our time, even moreso than the company once was but it signals something different for many. With comics now a part of two of the largest media producers on the planet, there’s been a concern that business dictates art in the worst possible way.

Today, Disney closed LucasArts, the videogame arm of LucasFilm and a 30 year institution which released some of the greatest games of all time. LucasArts used to be a seal of quality, one that represented unique designers with a perspective, an eye for melding the cinematic with gameplay and the ability to create a tight experience rewarding for every player. It’s certainly a company that I have fond memories of and until the early 2000s, had a sterling track record that was interrupted by licensed flops such as “Star Wars: Kinect” and bevvies of other pap. I’m not here to remember the failures though and this is about celebrating a titan cut down before it could prove itself to its new owners. Look into your heart Disney, you know it to be true.

Maniac Mansion

“Maniac Mansion” is, to borrow a turn of phrase, an adventure game for the morbidly impatient. There’s so much not only to do, but also needs to be done, that it’s neigh impossible to figure out everything in your first go but that’s sort of the genius of the game. An homage to ’80s slasher movies but with a touch of camp charm for some much needed humor, the game works where series like “Monkey Island” often fell short. It’s fun, challenging and occasionally, legitimately thrilling.

Indiana Jones’ Greatest Adventuresindiana-jones-greatest-adventures-02
A standout in the realm of LucasArts’ massive catalog of action-platformers, “Indiana Jones’ Greatest Adventures” mashes the only three movies that matter into a single great cartridge. While the “Super Star Wars” series was renowned for its difficulty and massively long boss health bars, this just feels right and nails the character so well. Blending platforming, twitch shooting and whip action that feels straight out of “Super Castlevania IV,” it’s one of the best movie-licensed offerings on the Super Nintendo.

Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire

“Shadows of the Empire” is one of LucasArts most ambitious console releases. A third person shooter/flying simulation/uncomfortable 3D platformer, “Shadows” is well loved for being such a bold step forward for the Star Wars license as well as the company. It’s flawed though. There are some far too slippery controls, jet pack platforming requiring pin-point accuracy and hit detection that could be described as wonky at best but when the game clicks, it really works and is a fun battle through some familiar characters and situations.

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader38He’s in your sights and you cool your thrusters to match speeds. As you line up, a pack of TIE-Fighters picks you up and there’s no time. Shots start nailing your tail, sending shocks up your arms and you knock out the bogey, jam on the orbital break and pull a hairpin turn  to get out of your pursuers’ sights. There’s no time to rest though and you break off from your team to take out the bastards who put you as dead to rights.

“Rogue Squardron II” is my favorite game of all time because it gives you those moments. A beautiful launch title for the Gamecube, you’re immediately thrown into the cockpit of some of the most iconic cinematic spaceships and sent into dogfights throughout the galaxy. The controls are tuned to give the player complete control of each ship and it’s up to the player to figure out how to defeat the hordes of foes arrayed against you. It’s relentlessly difficult but never unfairly so and mastery of each ship gives players the necessary edge to complete the missions made famous in the Star Wars but the real joy is the little moments the player makes for themselves. Taking those last few shots to nail a bomber before escaping from your enemy’s sights, pulling up as hard as you can to blow out the thrusters on a hovering platform, shooting down a pair of massive Star Destroyers after your companions have long sense returned for repairs all provide a charge that few games could ever script out for the player.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

The fastest selling Star Wars Game ever, “The Force Unleashed” feels now like the end of LucasArts. Eschewing so much of what made its games great, the freedom, the intuitive gameplay that goes hand in hand with plot, the compelling, likable characters, “The Force Unleashed” is a fun to play disappointment. Recalling “God of War” and “Devil May Cry” in its brutal and over the top combat system, it’s a game that feels forced into the franchise’s canon and out of place with the series. Protagonist and bad hair-cut enthusiast Starkiller downs Star Destroyers with the help of the Force and a series of really frustrating quick time events, relentlessly murders Jedi and takes on hundreds of stormtroopers without even once having to jump down a garbage chute.

The game is scripted within an inch of its life with long, unskippable cut scenes and unintuitive and frustrating pattern based boss fights. While much of the gameplay asks little of players but to creatively smash together their favorite Force powers, everything lacks impact, importance or heart and after dropkicking your 519th Jawa, nothing can make you sympathize with the dickish protagonist you’re stuck with. It’s a fun game but a lack of agency, inspiration and engaging action, it ends up somehow being less enjoyable than watching Episode II. And in the words of Liz Lemon, seriously, that one was just the worst.