“Become your own army” – The team burns down a road less traveled in Uncanny X-Force #11

UXFORCE2013011-int-LR-2-acff9Moreso than any other book on comic shelves, Uncanny X-Force embraces a time many comics fans would much rather forget. Placing Psylocke and a mohawked Storm of the late 80s-early 90s age of X-comics is a stylistic gamble and teaming them up with Puck, Bishop and Spiral just drives home how much comics have changed. When most of these characters were part of the new age of Marvel, they now have a place as exhausted, twisted and worn out killers, left to be the last resort of the mutant race.  In Uncanny X-Force #10, the heroes were assaulted by the memories of the people they once were, killers and heroes who’ve lost so much in the past to be the people they are now. The message, of course, was that it’s hard to be hero, painfully hard to put the safety and well being of others ahead of yourself and in some ways, it’s not always a choice worth making.

Bishop’s quest to save the team from the revenants in #11 reduces a man who was once a savior and soldier into an opportunist and survivor. Having spent so much of his life outside of a time he once tried to save, he knows the high costs of failure. Sam Humphries draws heavily from Eastern mysticism and the film “No Country for Old Men” as Bishop assembles the tools he needs to rescue the people he doesn’t know are worth saving and it’s a memorable moment as he dispatches the spirits of pasts left unlived.

UXFORCE2013011-int-LR-4-4b061Storm, Psylocke and Puck’s eventual triumph over their shadows shows something eternal about these characters, namely that regardless of who they’ve become, our choices don’t define who we are. Puck and his doppelganger made different choices but both know what it means to fight, to have to fight. Both Storm’s understand the powers they control but only one knows the consequences. Betsy knows what she can do but her strength is in choosing not to. It’s a well written moment and one which shows the power these sometimes less than moral heroes still have.

Humphries’ work on the title hasn’t always been consistent and a rotating art team hasn’t helped the book stay thematically or tonally consistent and a constant narrative shifts from the French thriller of the Fantomex stories to the psychedelic head trips with Psylocke and Storm and the down and dirty club battles of the series’ beginning haven’t helped the book. However, focusing on these complicated characters and the people they could and want to be is sure to benefit a series in need of focus.

Stray Observations

COURTOFOWLS1Note 1: The nice thing about Villain’s Month is at least I can ignore the issues that are terrible. Note 2: DC and Marvel need to be giving Matt Kindt better books to work on.

  • The Court of the Owls have been one of the best parts of the New 52 and the group’s one-shot in Batman and Robin #23.2 is a fun and horrifying look back at the society that controlled Gotham long before Bruce Wayne put on the cowl.
  • Brian Wood is finally making Star Wars cinematic in this week’s #9, setting up three climactic stories as Leia, Han and Luke all find themselves running out of time as Vader and Boba Fett close in.
  • It’s interesting to see how Jonathan Hickman has differentiated all of the infinity books and taking galactic betrayal to the Avengers’ doorstep in Avengers #19 is a gut punch I would never have expected.
  • Oppenheimer plays all of his cards in Manhattan Projects #14 and seeing the team of decimated psychopaths is the closest this book has come in making these characters even slightly sympathetic. Just slightly.

“You can’t follow every order” – A Grand Theft Auto IV Retrospective Part 2

3769_gta_ivIn part 1 of the retrospective, I examined the role of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, namely the conflict between control and openness the game world. 

There is nothing more shocking than the moment players take their first steps as Niko Belic. Niko has a real sense of weight, a presence in the world. He can’t stop on a dime, he rounds corners, subtly shifting his body weight to his side, leaning on one leg and raising his often busy trigger finger to prep for one more kill. Every moment in controlling Belic has presence, a place. He’s not of Liberty City but he is Liberty City, a weapon in the hands of the highest bidder.

There’s a real disconnect between the player and Belic which never entirely goes away in Grand Theft Auto IV. Belic is a killer, a man trained to extinguish lives and, after seeing the atrocities in an unnamed Eastern European war, lacking the moral compunction to think about his actions. Players demand freedom, control of their destinies, fate and action. Niko pivotally lacks that control, seeing his actions as an inevitability. Niko kills, has killed, will kill again.

3In a way, Niko is guided not only by the hand of the player but by the voices of Liberty City. He’s controlled like a marionette by an ever increasing number of low-lives, from the soon-to-be-pinned coke dealer Elizabetha Torres, the perpetually chasing his past Packie McReary, the soon to be gone Jon Gravelli and the man grabbing at an impossible dream, Jimmy Pegorino. The story of Grand Theft Auto IV maintains a consistent tone of failure, both personal and of the American Dream, by focusing on these characters, eternally looking to seize something a country promised and the entitlement which comes with our perceived privilege.

Where previous franchise entries focused on characters seizing power through brutality and deviancy, Grand Theft Auto IV is defined by the disconnect intrinsic between a guarantee and fruitless action and that disconnect is defined by two distinct American moments, the rise of “The Sopranos” and the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Much of the final act of Grand Theft Auto IV draws heavily from “The Sopranos,” namely with paranoid mafioso Phil Bell and the escalating tensions between the Alderney and Algonquin mob families but the game never shies away from the show’s idea that what we’ve been promised is long since gone. Tony can never be the gangster his father was. He’s wracked with guilt, self doubt, stress and depression, constantly at odds between his fraying mental state, family constantly being pushed to its emotional breaking point or the pressures of the throne. Tony tries constantly to sit in his castle, look out over his kingdom and be content but he can’t. The dream is gone, long dead before the time he made his first kill.

In the above video, Tony and Dr. Melfi discuss Tony’s view of himself, namely the conflict he’s internalized between what he does and how he tries to embrace and avoid connecting his actions with how he feels about them. Tony has tried to embrace this life where he’s disallowed to acknowledge what he does and the impact it has on his psyche. He establishes that he wants to be “Gary Cooper, the strong silent type” and sees anyone who doesn’t follow the same credo as weak although he sees that weakness in himself. It’s an attitude many of the characters in Grand Theft Auto IV identify with, none more acutely than Niko. As the game progresses, Niko’s connections with key characters, namely Roman and Katie McGreery shows that he can acknowledge his emotional separation between what he does, what he’s forced to do and how he feels about it. In “That Special Someone,” Niko acknowledges the emptiness of the life he’s built for himself, saying “What am I good at Roman? What is my trade? I deal in death because that is all that is open to me.” It’s a rare moment of candidness for a man players have spent over 20 hours killing with but it shows the power of human connection. Niko’s violent actions have had real psychological consequences and by acknowledging them, the brutality in the game’s climax is heightened and given unexpected emotional weight.

GTA-IV-grand-theft-auto-iv-15673900-1280-720The dream Americans, Tony Soprano and to a lesser degree, Niko Belic, all believed they’d be working to crumbled on September 11, 2001. Before then, America was invincible, invulnerable to the seemingly never-ending conflicts and bloodshed in the Middle East. In one day, it was impossible to ignore those conflicts anymore as the War on Terror began in earnest, focusing on killing anyone who didn’t believe in what was perceived as freedom. The Other was to be feared, wanted you dead and was ready to kill themselves to get at you. No cost was to high to destroy what you held dear.

An atmosphere of fear looms over Liberty City. When Niko drives Roman home in the game’s first mission, Roman acknowledges recent terrorist events in the city. Hove Beach has been separated from the rest of the city, driving into the airport is enough probable cause to send in a SWAT team and weapon dealers have been driven into hiding. Beyond that, there’s a real sense of “us against them,” an attitude former President George W. Bush epitomized in his speech post-9/11, and it’s shown in much of the game’s dialogue. Before she’s taken down by the feds, Elizabeta Torres sees enemies all around her. Jon Gravelli wants to protect what was once his from the new crime syndicates while he still has the power to issue orders. Many of the news reports attribute acts of violence the players commit as the actions of terrorists.

gta_4_breedbeeld_wallpapers_1920x1200_03In a way, moreso than any of the characters, the constant blare of the radio is the greatest, most prominent voice in establishing Grand Theft Auto IV’s themes and ideas. A nonstop parade of delusion, fear and disbelief, the radio stations and DJs of Liberty City embody the narcissism and purposeful ignorance of the world outside of its own self-contained bubble. Serving as something a greek chorus, the music of the game’s many stations goes a long way in establishing the bizarre American culture clash which occurred after 9/11, namely a renewed sense of self importance and meaningless celebration and the aforementioned “us against them” spirit.

On The Beat 102.7, Nas’ “War is Necessary” combines the rapper’s   worldly conscious views and his focus on posturing street cred which was so intrinsic to the NYC rap scene he came up in during the ’90s. It’s a song about fear and taking power, never fully supporting violent action or discrediting the results of order being created at the barrel of a gun. The new remix of Audio Two’s “Top Billin” tries to find a connection to the New York, and by extension Liberty City’s, street past, where  hustle led to radio play, and a new culture of privilege built on the past, echoing the conflict between Dwayne Forge and Playboy X. There’s a sense of division to much of the music playing on the radio in similar ways, between the murderous, empty debauchery of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights,” to the haunting, drug addled nostalgia for a past which never was on Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses,” to the sexual frustration and violent frenzy of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to the pumping beat of empty promises of LCD Soundsystem’s “Get Innocuous.

That sense of division, the conflict between how we feel and how we present ourselves is paramount to all of the voices of Grand Theft Auto IV. Niko, surrounded by the sounds of a city trying to come to terms with trauma anyway it can and the looming shadow of the expectations of how a gangster should behave and feel, is defined by the horrors he’s seen and the rare moments of hope he can gain by finding people who care.

Next Up: The Grand Theft Auto IV retrospective concludes with the death and rebirth of RockStar.

“I had to see for myself that the future was worth fighting for” – Battle of the Atom focuses on the war of identity and fate

xmba1iIn 50 years, the X-Men have become the ultimate example of creating an all encompassing universe within a universe. There’s history, pathos and a real sense of connection between readers and the characters. From the soft relaunch of the title in Giant Size X-Men #1 back in 1975, the franchise has capitalized on the idea of a world filled with heroes defined by their emotional and physical distance from the world. Being defined by separation, a feeling many comics readers may have felt at one point, brings the idea of social isolation into the world of myth, where each decision has earth shattering consequences.

Since House of M in 2005, the X-Franchise has been defined by consequences. With the mutant race pushed to the brink of extinction, every action had to be weighed by every possible reaction. Every battle, every retreat, every search for a new home had a real sense of danger and unpredictability. Characters could die, heroes would have to make the tough decisions and live with the consequences and real change would have to be made in order to stand in a world which hated and despised the race like never before.

x-men-battle-of-the-atom-exerpt-2I don’t know that I love Brian Michael Bendis’ approach to the X-Men. I like it and I appreciate the way he’s been clearly building to something with every issue but it makes for noticeably low stakes arcs and it’s not until now that the consequences of All New X-Men’s premise begins to really shine. There were always going to be a sort of cosmic punishment for Beast’s actions in All New X-Men #1 and it’s only now that it seems like something is really coming. After Scott takes a Sentinel blast in Battle of the Atom #1 and Current Cyclops fading from existence, the characters really begin to consider the consequences of their meddling in time. It’s something which feels like it should have happened much sooner and something the genius Hank McCoy should have probably foreseen and, strangely, it’s the same problem Bendis had with another universe shaking event this summer.

The story doesn’t really start moving until the arrival of the X-Men of the future in the issue’s final pages and their introduction in All New X-Men #16. There’s a real shift of tone there and some interesting character development, playing off of Jean Grey’s shifting world view. A young woman now aware of the massive power and potential she has and will gain, Jean has become a reckless force in a team which demands caution. Her terror at being unable to read Xavier’s mind is palpable and the way the issue re-shows the events leading up to her realization is the rare time this sort of page-filling gimmick plays off.

ANXMEN2012016004scol-2c4ceWhat’s important about Jean’s escape from Westchester is the way it focuses on the nature of fate and identity. There’s a real sense of attention to who the X-Men of the future are and how they came to have evolved to this point. The Xorn reveal to be a new Jean gives the book a sense of cycles repeating, one Grant Morrison played with in the first time Xorn revealed his true nature, but there are also complications. Is this a new Jean, another resurrection of a character who’s never stayed dead long or have the return of these characters shown a world where Jean survives only because she doesn’t belong. Magick’s vision of a twisted and shattered future world give credence to both interpretations but what’s important is what’s left. The first two chapters of Battle of the Atom set up the idea that consequences are what we make of them and how we define ourselves and our actions are the only things that have an impact one the world we create.

Stray Observationstwoface1658-642x362I think I’m going to be saying that DC is having a rough week for the next four weeks or so, but holy god, I just, I don’t, I can’t, oh, let’s just get into it.

  • Let’s get this out of the way. The hologram covers look great but are as empty and lightweight as the stories they hold. The bland, dark origin stories in the Joker, Creeper, Poison Ivy and Desaad stories are shiny and little else.
  • Peter J. Tomasi’s Two Face in Batman and Robin 23.1, however is exceptional. It’s great peak at my favorite Batman villain and the twisted brand of justice he imposes on a city without a hero and makes the prospect of his upcoming story in the title even more exciting.
  • Robert Venditti and Rags Morales also give a suitably epic scale to Green Lantern 23.1: Relic. There’s a real sense of myth making to the villain’s origin and the full page splashes give the story a real sense of history, like a legend passed down from generation to generation.
  • Superior Foes of Spider-Man #3 is the first issue of the series which doesn’t entirely click, namely because it spends so much time in Boomerang’s head but a panel of Abner holding a sign reading “LOL” more than makes up for the rest.
  • Batman Black and White #1 is the sort of miniseries DC needs to be doing more often. Artist and creator driven with an eye on the medium’s past as well as it’s up and coming writers and artists is the sort of book which demands an audience. Plus, it’s great to see Chris Samnee absolutely deliver on the Caped Crusader.

“After the war, I thought nothing of doing bad things” – A Grand Theft Auto IV Retrospective: Part 1

GTA-IV-grand-theft-auto-iv-15673914-1280-720Grand Theft Auto is the ultimate male escapist fantasy. Grounded in a heightened reality of prostitutes, car chases and sweltering machismo, the series gives the player the ability to assert authority and control at the barrel of a gun. With only two weeks left until the release of Grand Theft Auto V, I stepped back into this world by replaying the previous entry, Grand Theft Auto IV and looking at a game which defined a console generation and offers clues to the next step. I’ll be trying to focus on some of the game’s elements and themes in each new post and how each worked together to create one of the most important games of this console generation.

Released in 2008, near the beginning of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 life cycles, Grand Theft Auto IV was a media event. Virtually every outlet covered the game, paying particular attention to the way Liberty City, a pastiche of New York and New Jersey felt like a living, breathing character. IGN gave the game a perfect 10, world’s worst grandpa Peter Travers reviewed it as a movie in one of his worst pieces of writing and others called for the game to be burned. This was all to be expected by Rockstar Games, which had become the focus of media’s distrust of the video-game industry following the “Hot Coffee mod” debacle of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Controversy and game worlds were the primary focus of the media but no one noticed how the game tried to bridge two exceedingly different worlds.

grand-theft-auto-iv-screen3Grand Theft Auto IV exists in the precarious place between the past and future of open world games and that’s the world between scripted and unscripted moments. In a way, Liberty City feels vibrant and living. Traffic changes as days turn into night, you’ll bump into sleeping homeless people in Chinatown and women are catcalled on the streets and respond viciously. It’s enough to often make it feel like the world is responsive and bustling, used to just one more gun toting psychopath carving a new home in America.

That is, until it’s not. Outside of the free wheeling rampages and lazy drives, Grand Theft Auto IV is rigidly and tightly scripted. Missions such as “The Snow Storm” feel as if players should have a limitless freedom to confront holed up gangsters but basically boils down to wandering derelict hospital halls with assault rifle roaring and the live-wire chase and shootout of “No Love Lost” show the rigid scripting of the even through cutscenes. Player control is severely limited and the game expects player responses and are designed to challenge those.

grand-theft-auto-4-niko-shotgunSome of this sort of scripting is to be expected. The game notably and simply provides a player tutorial for the first few missions, introducing the concepts of driving, shooting, escaping police and other ideas. It’s a long tutorial, easily stretching for over three hours and the game constantly introduces new elements inorganically. There’s a lot of one and done concepts throughout Grand Theft Auto IV, with characters using the subway to steal cars, the knock out sucker punch, the melee weapon counter attack, and pulling over cars while masquerading as a police officer.

Many of these are used exactly once but the intelligence of the game’s design is the little things these concepts teach. When tracking down a van full of stolen televisions in “Crime and Punishment,” players see the way traffic reacts to a police car with sirens blaring, usually pulling over and getting as far out of the way as possible. It’s a useful skill, one a canny player can use during car chases to clear the roadway or simply to navigate traffic as quickly as possible. It’s one of the rare concepts the game explains subtly, without a pop-in. There are lots of small lessons in playing Grand Theft Auto IV, whether strategically using the police cars, pulling a gun on a driver to stop traffic or using 911 for your own selfish needs. The intersection between hand-holding and player self-teaching illustrates the game’s difficulty balancing the ways players can control the situations the story forces them into.

4590-gta-iv-screenshotThose scripting issues show the delicate balance between player control and scripted set-pieces which have become such a harsh focus of criticism during this console generation. Rockstar as a developer seems to have a difficult relationship with players in particular. On one hand, Grand Theft Auto IV is a sandbox designed for maximum player enjoyment. There are guns everywhere, cars waiting to be raced, crashed and destroyed and a seemingly endless number of diversions from bowling to delivering drugs but there are still boxes designed around them. Players can’t find the carbine assault rifle until “Hostile Negotiations” and players are unable to reach Alderney until driving Playboy X home in “Blow Your Cover.”

It’s an intentional design, one clearly meant to emphasize story over player control. A consistent theory has floated around the internet for years in which Rockstar, dissatisfied with players happier to use their games as violent toy boxes than as stories, focused Grand Theft Auto IV on requiring players to complete quests before being able to access the good bits. It fits in line with the company’s more recent offerings, notably the more story focused Red Dead Redemption and the ultimately linear L.A. Noire, but there’s more going on in Grand Theft Auto IV’s intentional design choices, and it’s one aimed not only at limiting player control, but also limiting the protagonist, Niko Belic.

Next Up: It’s time to examine Niko Belic, the face of Rockstar’s changing focus, as well as the characters he surrounds himself with in Part 2 of the Grand Theft Auto IV retrospective.

“It’s time to come back” – DC and Marvel end events by looking forward

Justice-League-23-Trinity-War-Finale-Forever-Evil-Earth-3-Crime-Syndicate-DebutWith the New 52 entering it’s second year and the newfound status quo of Marvel Now having enough time to settle in, both DC and Marvel are trying to find ways to up the stakes in their respective universes. The problem with both is trying to find a way to respect the past while looking forward. Marvel has had a much easier time with the balance, namely because the timeline hasn’t been reset but has made a concentrated effort to make their books friendly to new readers but DC’s slightly unexplained past continuity allows them to play fast and loose with the rules of the timeline.

The conclusion of Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and The X-Men #35 is in a difficult place. One of the few Marvel series to survive the Marvel Now relaunch, the series has always thrived on the company’s rich mutant history. Going back to the idea of a school and safe haven for the mutant population. The now concluded Hellfire Saga has paid off storylines from the last year, even going back as far as the first issue and Kade Killgore’s threat to destroy the Jean Grey School.

WOLVXMEN2011035-int-LR-2-0f635There’s a satisfying sense of completion to The Hellfire Saga, with the return of Brood’s intelligence, Quentin Quire’s longstanding struggle between heroism and rebellion and the slow dissatisfaction of many of the teen members of the Hellfire Club. Some of these characterizations date back to 2011’s Schism event and others go as far as Kurt’s death in Messiah Complex. It’s nice to see a book that pays so much attention to a franchise’s past in this day and age but what’s more important is how much attention is paid to the book’s internal continuity. The emotional payoff of Broo’s return is a moment which only has so much impact because of the way the last 17 issues of the book have featured characters struggling with their companions status.

Wolverine and the X-Men #35 is all about creating an ending and, in some ways, a new start. The appearance of Kurt at two points in the book is a tease for Aaron’s upcoming Amazing X-Men but the issue itself is mostly focusing on tying up a variety of story threads. The only noticeable loose end is the revolt of the White Queen and Kade Kilgore’s entrapment in the Siege Perilous. It’s an interesting move to create an issue which feels like a finale, particularly with the rest of Marvel’s line seemingly setting up more with each consecutive issue.

Justice-League-23-spoiler-preview-how-The-Outsider-came-to-Prime-Earth-from-Earth-3Geoff Johns has struggled to set up some consistency within the DC universe in some of the company’s biggest books, namely Green Lantern, Justice League and Justice League of America. The New 52 hasn’t given a lot of time to longstanding character interactions and storylines, which is a double edged sword. In one way, there’s room to overlook or acknowledge past stories without addressing them and, in others, it forces readers to struggle to deal with the variety of continuity complications intrinsic to the revamp.

Justice League #23 is clearly an issue long in the making and very aware of the universe’s age. From the opening pages, Johns sets up the League’s backstory, including their battle with Darkseid in the series’ first 6 issues as well as their battle with Starro in The Brave and The Bold #28 in 1960. It’s a canny piece of establishing the team’s shared universe and goes a long way in showing the tragedy the teams befalls after interacting with Pandora’s Box.

Justice-League-23-Trinity-War-Finale-Forever-Evil-Earth-3-Crime-Syndicate-AtomicaJohns does a great job in letting the teams’ short histories speak for themselves, with the mutual suspicion between Superman and Batman paying off, Kal’s tenuous relationship with Wonder Woman, the relative short tenure of Simon as a Green Lantern, Constantine’s dangerous work on both sides of ARGUS and the Atom’s mysterious allegiances. It’s smart work for a series which hasn’t gotten enough credit for the way it tries to link a large series of characters.

Johns’ attention to character details leaves all of the Leagues broken and battered by issues end and makes the reveal of the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 into a truly dangerous, powerful moment. There’s real promise sense of dread, like the heroes have truly failed to stop evil at issue’s end and using the potential of characters and a fresh, still relatively uncharted universe elicits a sense of danger and fear of the unknown that would have been difficult in the Pre-New-52 timeline. It’s an impressive feat and the only thing holding the book back is a somewhat unfinished plot made necessary by the continued need for cliffhangers.

tumblr_mpp2yjJtT21qjzyxso1_1280Justice League #23 and Wolverine and the X-Men #35 both build endings out of potent beginnings, drawing characters’ histories, regardless of how long or brief, into focus to cause the most potent dangers and the most powerful denouements. It’s a sight mostly unseen in mainstream super-hero comics and the power heroes can have, whether or not they stop evil or are destroyed by it.