Game Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is out. But is it a game? Or is it the most brilliant money making scam in internet history?

Movie Review: The Avengers

Okay, okay, I posted my Avengers review. Get off my back already, geez.

The Most Important Comic Book You've Never Heard Of

Action Comics #1. Detective Comics #27. Why is All-American Men of War #89 as important as these great comics -- and why have you never heard of it?.

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

If you thought Superman was a total tool before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Mass Effect 3: The Official Review

Mass Effect 3 isn't the end of the world, it just portrays it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Defense of Fanboys

Fanboy. It's the dirtiest word in comics. Spend a little time on any comic book forum or website and you're bound to see it sooner or later, hurled as a dismissive insult by those who see themselves as above the fray. "Dude, you're taking things too seriously", these missives usually start, "stop being such a fanboy." The implications and definitions are clear: fanboys are deluded nerds who spend their time debating whether Superman could lift Thor's hammer, while the enlightened comic cognoscenti are worried about loftier ideals such as structure, tone, characterization. You know, the art form. In other words, stuff that faboys wouldn't understand.

Well, I'm here to say that not only should fanboys be respected, they should be both nurtured and courted. Because there's nothing as important to the future of comics as the fanboy.

In order to understand why the fanboy is so important to the future, though, we first need to understand how fanboys were regarded in the past. How did we get here? Once upon a time, strange is it may be to consider now, the fanboy stood at the pinnacle of the comic industry. Perhaps no fanboy has been as renowned or influential as Roy Thomas, who was emblematic of a whole movement of fanboys: the second generation of comic creators, those who grew up reading comics and wanting to write and draw comics from childhood. Thomas, in fact, got his start in comics thanks to being a fanboy; his work on the underground fanzine Alter-Ego became a focal point for the comic community and led to his eventual career at Marvel. Fanboys had taken over the industry.

And then something happened -- something called Watchmen. With a more cynical era came a more cynical view of comics; they were deconstructed and dismantled and while it led to some amazing and mature stories, it also led to some disillusionment for fans. It was no longer cool to just have fun reading superhero comics, because the emperor had no clothes. And this feeling -- that the hobby had been revealed as being, well, juvenile -- was only exacerbated by the exploitation of the fanbase by comic companies in the mid-90's that nearly led the to collapse of the entire industry. Gimmicks, holograms, variants and the speculation bubble was pushed along with shoddy art and half-assed storytelling in an attempt to turn a quick buck and the result was the mass exodus of fans who had been hit with this one-two-punch. The fanboy was gone and so was the money and the sales figures.

Which brings us to today and to a whole new generation of creators who have followed in the footsteps of Roy Thomas. Only, this new generation are the readers who grew up with Watchmen and lived through the deconstruction. Like scarred survivors of some pulp art holocaust, today's band of new fans and new creators live with a post-modern kind of post traumatic stress disorder. Everyone's versed in every aspect of the medium and the genre; they've read Understanding Comics and The Dark Knight Returns and the eat up Warren Ellis' blog posts and creator and reader alike foster a sort of hipster detachment. Characters and genre conventions are just pieces to be pushed around the game board, because we all know the rules now. We're in on the joke, and anyone who isn't in on the joke is the joke; we're smarter and cooler than they are because we care about the craft, we don't let ourselves get emotionally invested in kiddie stuff and they do.

In other words: they're just fanboys.

The mistake in this line of thinking is that it refuses to consider the idea that someone who has an emotional investment in a work can also apply critical thinking to it. You're either a fan or you're a critic, this line of reasoning states, and you can't be both at once. Well, that's just wrong. People who are fans of a series or character or story can also apply critical thinking to it. Being a good story and being an enjoyable story aren't necessarily the same thing. There are plenty of comics that I enjoy for personal reasons that I think objectively aren't good; and on the flip side, there are plenty of powerful, well made comics that I don't actually like. The idea that being a fan of a comic prevents you from applying objective criticism to it is patently absurd. Being a fan -- understanding how and why a character or a series has been successful in the past -- doesn't lead a reader to being less critical in their approach to reading comics, but rather to being more critical. Indeed, when Alter-Ego came out back in the 60's it wasn't remarkable because it about comics, but because it treated comics seriously and applied critical thinking to reviewing them. The wave of fanboys that became creators in the late 60's and early 70's were brought in by the big companies precisely because they had been doing this sort of critical thinking on the genre and the form. In other words, fanboys and objective criticism weren't mutually exclusive, because the fanboys were the critics.

Even if none of this were true, however, fanboys would be deserving of respect anyone for a simple reason: we need them. Comics need them. Comic book creators need them. Comic book publishers need them. Since the comic first debuted, fanboys have been the lifeblood of the business. The bond that forms between a fan and the characters and series that they love is one of the main things that keeps bringing people back, keeps filling stores and shows and keeps sales up to the point where the publishers can keep putting out new stories. It's a beautiful thing, really, this fandom. In a media savvy world, where everyone is aware of all the behind the scenes tricks, the fact that a reader can still allow themselves to be emotionally invested in the lives of a bunch of drawings is magic. Maybe that magic is gone for you and for me, but for those who still allow themselves this suspension of disbelief -- this willful innocence -- it's wonderful thing that we should praise, not mock. Because when the fanboy disappears, comics will disappear with them.

So think about this next time you call someone a fanboy, or the next time someone calls you a fanboy. And when they tell you that you're taking these comics too seriously, answer this: you can take yourself too seriously, but you can never be too serious about your comics.

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Tales From the Vault: WONDER WOMAN #215

What can even two super-heroes do against the awesome might of Mars, the God of War?! Your answer to that question will depend entirely on whether or not you consider Aquaman to be a super-hero. Let's find out the answer... together!

Details: This issue comes to us with a cover date of January, 1975, with a story credited to writer Cary “Nord” Bates and the art team of John Rosenberger and Vince Colletta. Of course, merely by typing the name “Vince Colletta” I have made myself the target of a thousand infuriated internet art policemen, but so be it. Plus, I wanted to reiterate how much I loved John Rosenberger on Cheers.

I’d also like to mention the cover, which is classic mid-70’s DC, complete with an ineffectual Aquaman watching the action helplessly in the background. Hey Aquaman, how’s your son these days? Oh, right. And, of course, this cover is vastly more fun if you read the “Super-heroine Number One!” blurb with an offensively racist caricature of a Chinese accent. I can’t wait to read the actual story.

Especially because that story is titled “Amazon Attack against Atlantis!” Yes, folks, it’s another Amazon Attacks! Or, rather, the original Amazon Attacks. Place your bets on how many infants will be murdered before Batman uses the Books of Magic or something to defeat, I dunno, Hera. Vegas has the over/under at eleven.

Synopsis: The action starts off with a bang, as Wonder Woman is just finishing what appears to be a spirited verbal beatdown of the god of war, Mars, who… uh, is on the JLA satellite for some reason. Hanging out, tossing back a few beers with his buds I guess. Actually, it turns out he’s being tried by a jury that consists of Aquaman, Black Canary, Green Arrow, Elongated Man and Batman. What, were the Inferior Five busy that day? Strangely, Mars seems perfectly at ease with being put on trial by this collection of ragamuffins, and merely states that it is Diana’s word against his. It’s a stalemate.

Except, Mars hasn’t factored in the testimony of Aquaman! Seriously, a supervillain forgot to take Aquaman into account? That’s almost impossible to believe. But, sure enough, Aquaman jumps up and exposits that they’re right in the middle of a series of trials designed to prove that Wonder Woman is still worthy of membership in the league, and as part of this he has been following her around, watching her every move. Pre-code this is what would have been referred to as “stalking”. Good cover story, Arthur! Of course, given the total creampuff lineup the JLA is sporting in this issue, the idea that they would have to spend more than one second debating Wonder Woman’s merits is pretty hard to believe, but whatever.

(Yes, fine, Wonder Woman requested these tests herself. It is kind of ironic that the tests takes the form of a series of trials that seems directly patterned on the legend of Hercules, though, given Diana’s history with him).

Anyhoo, back to the story, which goes like so. Aquaman is flopping around uselessly in the East River one day when he sees Wonder Woman flying overhead. Suddenly, a big arm made of water reaches up and smacks her down. Aquaman briefly panics, apparently assuming Wonder Woman can’t swim, but she’s fine: using her magic lasso, she, uh… throws it up in the air and then climbs it like a reverse “Indian rope trick!” Say what? That’s… crazy… wtf. Oh, wait, I can fanwank my way out of this; she must have lassoed the end of her invisible plane. Sure. Of course, she seemed to be flying under her own power here, but… you know what, let’s just move on.

She then corrals the waterspout with her lasso and spins it counter clockwise, causing the water to disperse harmlessly and ending the threat. Aquaman is duly impressed, then jumps onto the shore and resumes his aggressive stalking, using a “land-pack” that consists of a suit stuffed into a sack. Diana, for her part, is doing the same thing, except she’s using her lasso to switch costumes because “Diana’s costume has been treated with a special solution that transforms it under the vibrations of the magic lasso!” Why doesn’t it surprise me that the Amazons have mastered the art of vibration based powers?

Rushing to her job in the U. N. Crisis Bureau… wait, holy sh*t! The U.N. is responsible for Crisis?! Let me guess, the Monitor is actually Kofi Annan? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being sanctioned because he’s secretly developing the anti-life equation? Darfur was caused by Wen Jaibao punching the walls of reality? I have to say, this actually makes world politics a whole lot easier to understand.

Also helping to understand the inner workings of the U.N. is Aquaman, who manages to secretly eavesdrop on these classified briefings by having a tank full of goldfish telepathically relay the info to him. Then he trails behind Diana and her boss as they wander around to find a cheap lunch in Manhattan. Now, that seriously is a job for the Justice League. Suddenly, though, a guy walks by with a bunch of dogs that abruptly transform into huge wolf things and attack Diana right in the street! Oh noes!

Luckily, Diana remembers her I-Ching training and karate chops the crap out of them, including one wolf which still looks a lot like a huge, fanged poodle (which is… awesome). Then we get a half page of U.N. personnel trying to figure out if Diana is actually Wonder Woman, and… wow, I couldn’t care less about all that secret identity bullhockey. Even when this issue came out it was tedious and hackneyed.

Also not caring about it is Aquaman, who is too busy explaining plot elements as part of his deposition to the JLA. See, while this is going on, a horde of telepathic fish is trying to contact him, but they can’t because this mysterious figure who has been causing the attacks on Diana zaps them all senseless. Or, as senseless as a pile of fish can ever be, I guess. At the same time, Wonder Woman realizes that the Amazons aren’t answering their “mental radio set” or the “omni-viewer”, so she starts becoming concerned and decides to fly to Paradise Island to check on them using her “robot plane”. Quotes courtesy of Jack Kirby.

Interestingly, Aquaman isn’t sure what to at this point:

Aquaman: Paradise Island’s location is a secret that no man is supposed to know! If Wonder Woman flies there by air – I can swim fast enough to trail her by sea – but should I?

Leaving aside for a moment the idea that Aquaman can swim as fast as a jet, I find this bit of soul searching to be interesting, especially in light of the fact that just two issues earlier, in Wonder Woman #213, Flash follows her to Paradise Island without a second thought, even following her onto the island (getting by the “no man shall set foot on the island” thing by hovering in place an inch off the ground, which is a serious cop out on his part). In this comparison, Aquaman comes off a lot better than Flash, who seems a bit disrespectful if not outright disdainful of their customs. Have some respect, Barry, you knob.

Before he can decide what to do, though, Aquaman realizes he’s been out of the water for an hour and needs to get wet or else he’ll die from “air-aches”. Um. Okay, whatever. Rushing over to a nearby fountain, he reaches in to restore himself when it suddenly turns into a giant gusher of pure crude oil. And not only does this prevent him from getting his fix of h2o, the gusher hits Diana’s plane flying overhead and then magically turns to solid coal, trapping it in place.

Wow. I don’t know if Mars is behind this, but the least he could do if he’s going to kill the JLA is do it in a more Earth friendly way. Oil, coal… how about using solar power or wind turbines next time, huh? Taking over the world won’t do much good if the world dies from carbon emissions, dude.

Diana, though, has other things to worry about. She flies up into mid air and using… a cloud?... as leverage, she lifts her plane and the coal pile right up into the air, smashes the coal all to hell and jumps in her plane and flies off. Man, someone is going to be surprised when they go out to their car in the morning and find it buried under a half ton of coal. Luckily for Aquaman, the coal doesn’t land on him, but he’s got other things to worry about, namely the “air fever” that is about to claim his life. Lying on the ground, he’s about to kack when a bunch of kids rush up and stare at him. Like they’ve never seen a guy passed out on a New York sidewalk before, sure; Mars, I’ll believe, but this is pushing the limits of fantasy. Anyway, Aquaman is too weak to say anything, but he does have enough energy to suddenly do a huge karate kick and clobbers a kid’s can of TAB, dousing him with soda and restoring his energy. That’s just gross.

But things are going from bad to worse: Diana arrives at Paradise Island to discover that it’s missing! And Aquaman gets a telepathic message from a panicked minnow in the sewers, who gives Aqauaman terrible news. No, it’s not about being flushed by some kid’s mom, it’s about Atlantis being attacked… by AMAZONS!!! Yes, the missing Paradise Island is now parked directly above Atlantis; apparently the island moved when Ben turned the magic wheel under the hatch or something. But however it got there, the war is about to begin.

Turns out that Hippolyta and all the ladies have been ensorcelled by Mars, which we discover when Mars shows up and tells Wonder Woman his plan. I think this sort of thing is how Batman got his rep as such a great detective; it helps when villains tell you what they are doing and why. Essentially, it turns out that Mars is bored of war and because of this, he is no longer gaining as much energy from warfare as he used to. He needs some new, exciting type of war to recharge his batteries, so he came up with this plan.

Of course, telling the details to Diana might have been a tactical flaw, but what do you want? I mean, he’s only the god of war, tactics aren’t his strong po… oh, wait. And sure enough, Wonder Woman figures out a plan right away which she immediately communicates to Aquaman using sign language. Do they teach ASL in Atlantis and on Paradise Island? Regardless, the plan is like so: a horde of whales swim up out of nowhere and prevent the Amazons and the Atlanteans from getting at each other. While this is going on, Wonder Woman attacks Mars. He easily deflects her attacks, slapping her around…

…but suddenly, he shrinks down to regular ol’ human size, instead of being god-tall, and Diana socks him in the gut with a karate chop. Turns out, the energy of setting everything in motion drained all his remaining power, so by preventing the sides from warring, the whales also prevented Mars from replenishing his energy, making him easy prey for Diana.

And that’s that. Aquaman finishes his story (by the way, his testimony is backed up by a "lung fish", which can "not only mimic human speech -- but repeat word for word what it has heard". That's right folks, someone has finally found a pet more annoying than a parrot) and the rest of the Justice League (if you can call them that) render their verdict: they’ve found him guilty and are going to send him to the “top-security interplanetary prison”.

Whoa, what? On who’s authority? Is this one of those Dr. Light brainwashing moments, where the JLA arbitrarily decide to take one of Earth’s elder gods and throw him in the space clink? Don’t the other gods have an issue with this? And wouldn’t this provide exposure to exactly the kind of exotic warfare he needs to replenish his bored batteries? I dunno, y’all, this seems like a really shady deal all around. But,


Extras: One thing that caught my eyes was a page advertising DC subscriptions. The top half is trying to sell you on The Amazing World of DC Comics, which was an in-house magazine with interviews and behind the scenes look at DC. I used to actually own a bunch of these and like a fool I sold them; now I wish I had them back, because I’m sure they’re fascinating. I doubt they can match the kind of whacked out, adult themed discussions Marvel was printing over in FOOM but if I get the chance to land some of these cheap I’ll definitely be looking into it.

The bottom half of the subscription page is for actual comics. It includes a long note trying to explain the pricing, since some titles are bi-monthly “100-Page Super Spectaculars” and others are monthly, regular size comics that may sometimes have 60 page specials mixed in. DC swears that “the subscription price is never more than the cost of buying sinlge copies at your local retailer”, but since the price for a subscription is $3, and the cover price of the monthly titles is 20 cents, you can see that a year should only cost $2.40. Man would I not have wanted to be in the subscription department to try and figure out the exact mix of 20 cent and 60 cent issues they had to send – or had already sent – to give someone the correct number of comics for their money. Add to this the fact that the price went up to 25 cents just a couple months later and this is a disaster waiting to happen. Plus, the titles listed appear to be a completely random cross section of comics DC was publishing at the time – even though this ad is in Wonder Woman, for instance, Wonder Woman itself isn’t listed as one of the options, though you can of course order a sub to titles such as Shazam!, The Witching Hour, Young Romance and Tarzan.

I have a feeling this ad wasn’t real successful.

My Grades: Um. This comic had its moments. It’s interesting in that it’s not as campy as a lot of the fun, campy stuff DC was putting out at the time, but nor is it as serious as some of the more serious stuff they were producing either. It felt like Bates was trying to write a solid superhero adventure but got bogged down by some of the trappings of the genre that DC was forcing him to include, like the secret identity stuff, which was already outdated when this appeared. It’s hard to dock someone points for being alive in the wrong time period, though, so I’ll give this a B for the 1970’s, even though it’s only a C+ at best for me reading it now.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seven Questions with TOM BREVOORT

Today, the Vault is excited to present seven questions with Marvel editor Tom Brevoort. For those of you who were hoping for more from the small press and self-published creators we've been talking to in Voices from Artists Alley, don't worry; there's another convention coming up next month, so you can expect to see more interviews soon. But today, we're going to head back to the big guns: over the last twenty years, Tom Brevoort has overseen a number of acclaimed and popular projects including current series such as New Avengers, Captain America and Fantastic Four as well as some of the industry's biggest events, such as Civil War and Secret Invasion. Tom was gracious enough to spend his valuable time answering some of the longest questions ever composed in interview history, so won't you do him a solid and take a couple minutes to read his thoughtful answers?

1. While you are well known as the editor of such bestselling titles as New Avengers, you also oversee a number of somewhat lower profile books as well. What can you tell us about the projects that you have coming out soon, and which books should discerning comics readers keep an eye out for that they otherwise might not be aware of?

This is such a broad question that it's difficult to know where to start, and it's hazardous in that somebody's sure to take offense if I leave their project out. But let me just work my way down the list. As I have for the past decade, I'm continuing to edit the AVENGERS family of titles, NEW, MIGHTY and DARK, as well as CAPTAIN AMERICA (currently on hiatus while REBORN plays out), SECRET WARRIORS and FANTASTIC FOUR (on which Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham just began an excellent run) and a bevy of limited series, one-shots and side projects. But if I had to aim people at a few special projects, the three I'd want to bring up would be 1) THE MARVELS PROJECT, in which the award-winning creative team of CAPTAIN AMERICA, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, tell the undisclosed origin of super heroes in the Marvel Universe. 2) NOMAD, GIRL WITHOUT A WORLD, wherein Sean McKeever combines his skill at writing teen drama with super heroics set firmly within the landscape of the main CAPTAIN AMERICA series, with artwork by David Baldeon, and 3) STRANGE, Mark Waid and Emma Rios' reinvention of Stephen Strange, no longer the Sorcerer Supreme and on a journey of discovery as a result. All three are high-quality projects, each with a very specific sensibility and a unique flavor. I really dig them.

2. There seem to be as many different styles of editing as there are editors in comics, with some taking a hands on role in shaping the direction of the books and characters while others act more as facilitators for whatever the creative team feels like doing. How do you define your own role as editor?

I think there are different editing styles even within the hands of a particular editor, depending upon the needs of the project and the creative team. Every interaction I have with various creators is different, and so I don't have a single way that I edit comics. But my log-line description of the role of the editor (at least when it comes to editors who work on company-owned properties such as Marvel and DC possess) is that he's a combination of the coach and the manager of a ball club. The editor doesn't play in the game, but he gets to select who does. He can switch out a substitute, or call in a pinch hitter as needed. He can call for a specific play. And it's his job to make sure that the team is at the ballpark on game day, ready to play. The editor is also not the star. While in the day-to-day course of doing the job any given editor may throw off story ideas or ways of restructuring or improving a particular tale that others then get to make hay out of, the editor really belongs backstage, directing the action from there. The creators do the work, so they deserve and get the credit. Editors get the blame. That's not a condemnation of the system in any way, merely a statement of fact--and one that a would-be editor needs to embrace before he's truly ready to play in the big leagues.

3. Over the last year you've been involved in an ongoing project on your blog where you are trying to trade up from some random back issues to a copy of Fantastic Four #1. For me, it harkened back to the old days of collecting when fans would write each other through lettercolumns and swap back issues. What brought this about and do you have anything similar planned for the future - say, perhaps a run at Captain America Comics #1?

As you probably know by now, my Trading Experiment finished up earlier this month, when I did in fact trade for a copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #1, which will be auctioned off to benefit the Hero Initiative. We're talking now about possible ideas for follow-ups, though I don't think trying to go back as far as CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1 is very realistic--for all that it's rare and valuable, there are a lot of copies of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 out there, far more than there are copies of books like CAP #1. You can go to any comic book convention and see dozens of FF #1s floating around. Plus, I wouldn't want to simply repeat myself. This whole experiment was inspired by the works and the writings of Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman. First together then separately, they pioneered a specific kind of genre--the "real world adventure", wherein they would take on a quest or a mission of some kind, and then recount the adventures they experienced while attempting to fulfill their mandate. Danny's slightly better known in the States as the guy whose story the film "Yes Man' was based on. So I was rereading their collection of works, spurred by their respective new releases Friends Like Me and America Unchained, and thinking about something similar that I could do (without all of the traveling and expenses and upheaval of lifestyle that they regularly engender) and that's where I hit upon the notion of the Trading Experiment. One of the other elements that runs through Dave and Danny's books is a feeling of the overall generosity of spirit of people, and that was certainly borne out by my experiences with the Tradees, who typically offered more than they were getting, and in many cases donated rare comics without asking for anything in return, just wanting to give to a good cause. So it was a lot of fun, and hopefully we can come up with a worthy successor concept down the line.

4. One of the more interesting things you've been doing on your blog is posting some internal memos and directives from Marvel's past. One of these that caught my eye included a release schedule that had a number of Avengers issues, such as #504, that were never produced due to Disassembled and the launch of New Avengers, which suggested that the decision to do those projects came about pretty late in the publishing process. I'm wondering just what the genesis of that decision was - did you or other members of the editorial team come up with the idea for New Avengers, was it the result of a pitch from Brian Michael Bendis, or did it come about through some other fashion?

NEW AVENGERS came about at one of our creative retreats, where the senior editorial staff gets together with most of our key writers to chart out the course of our publishing plan and our stories for the next year or so. At this particular retreat, a lot of time was spent in trying to drill down to the essences of what each series was meant to be about, in an attempt to either pull them back on-message a bit more, or alternately finding new and interesting avenues to take them in. And as we discussed AVENGERS, Mark Millar said that he didn't understand why the Avengers were so often all these second string characters that he had never heard of. What made the idea of the Avengers cool to him was the notion that it would be the book with all of the biggest and best characters in it. After some discussion, we broke for dinner, where Mark and Brian discussed these ideas a bit further, and by the time everybody came back in the next day, Brian had put together the outline of his pitch to take over the series, what eventually became NEW AVENGERS. So the story and the approach of AVENGERS: DISASSEMBLED and NEW AVENGERS was Brian's, but the instigator of the concept was Mark and everybody else who was in on those discussions at the time.

5. As a reader of New Avengers, one thing that frustrated me was the disbanding of the New Avengers team in Civil War, as so much of the series up to that point seemed like setup (for instance, the introduction of new members like Sentry and Ronin, Spider-woman being a double agent, the subplot with the new Black Widow and SHIELD, etc.); having the team disband before any of that was addressed led me to question the purpose of those stories. I'm wondering in general, how do editorial and creative teams handle interference from mega events, and specifically how much of what Bendis originally had planned for New Avengers ended up being used in New Avengers or Mighty Avengers and how much of it had to be scrapped?

Interference from mega-events makes the assumption that people are being coerced into participating in these stories, which really isn't the case. While it's true that CIVIL WAR changed the trajectory of some of the stories that Brian was developing (including the groundwork for SECRET INVASION that he was laying), the conception and development of CIVIL WAR came out of another of those creative retreats, and Brian was there in the room to discuss and debate the storyline, and was completely on board with participating. He did some of his strongest work on the CIVIL WAR issues, I thought, particularly the Luke Cage issue and the CONFESSION epilogue issue. Of course, there are degrees of involvement--if you're writing Captain America and Captain America is going to play a major role in an upcoming event storyline, then it's going to impact upon you in some way. But that's all part of the deal when you're playing in the shared universe sandbox of the Marvel Universe.

6. One of the main events that spun out of New Avengers was Secret Invasion. You recently posted on your blog an original draft from Bendis for this story and in it the big casualty was Hercules rather than Wasp (who died in the published version of Secret Invasion). When it comes to planning these events, how are these kinds of decisions made? Was this change a result of Greg Pak's desire to use Hercules, or Dan Slott's interest in exploring the effect of Jan's death on Hank Pym? Or is it the other way around, where those projects came about because this change was made? Or some combination of the two?

It's different in each of the cases you cite. Hercules dying at the end of SECRET INVASION was just a notion that Brian was toying with at the outset of outlining his story, one that he didn't get very deep into thinking about, as we at that point were beginning to plan to launch INCREDIBLE HERCULES out of WORLD WAR HULK, and that sidelined his thinking. But it was Brian who decided to make the Wasp the final casualty, building off of seeds he'd left himself in early issues of MIGHTY AVENGERS, and it was Dan, coming onto MIGHTY as Brian cycled off, who chose to pick up that baton and run with it in terms of exploring how her demise would affect Hank. Ideally, this is how our stories and creators should synergize, with each one finding inspiration and building on the work of the others.

7. Lastly, what's one specific storytelling technique your creators use that you could share with new creators to help them hone their craft?

There are couple of concepts and ways of thinking that came to the fore during the craziness of the Bill Jemas-era--Bill could get overly dogmatic about his thinking, but he made a number of really good, really important points with regard to telling stories that can be embraced by a broad audience, which should be the goal of any storyteller. Start at start--tell your story from the beginning, and take the time to introduce your characters and make me feel for them. Keep your storytelling straightforward--while it seems clever to try to employ byzantine storytelling structures, often a new writer's reach will exceed his grasp, and they'll often try to disguise an inability to generate empathy or reader involvement with their ideas by the use of complicated narrative tricks. There's nothing wrong with being straightforward and clear. Don't play exclusively to the cheap seats--while we love our hardcore longtime audience of readers (of which I am one), if you're creating material aimed at them exclusively, if your plot turns on being conversant with an earlier story published two decades before or you don't identify or characterize the shocking mystery villain you've brought back out of the shadows on the last page, you're talking past most of your potential audience. Finally, have something to say--understand the metaphoric content of your stories and make them about something that relates to your readers' lives. This needn't be a straightforward one-to-one affair, but the best, most successful, more memorable stories are about something more significant that one super hero pounding another, and speak to the common experiences, fears, dreams and desires that everyone share.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Voices from Artists Alley: TYLER JAMES part 2

We wrap up our week of conversations with the self-publishing set with the second half of our talk with writer and artist Tyler James. In case you missed yesterday's segment, where Tyler talked about his own projects, now is the time to read it. DO IT. Okay, back? Good, then let'stake a look at the second half of our interview, where Tyler discusses a topic near and dear to my heart: how to break into comics. But while I've been talking to you guys about how to submit within the system, Tyler focuses more on how to create your own system to get your ideas seen.

Let's go to the tape!

Scott Harris: I’m not too familiar yet with web comics, but I’m curious just what the business model is. You publish your stories and you’re building your readership, but just how do you make this financially viable? Do you have sponsors that advertise on your site? Or is there some other way?

Tyler: You know, there are a number of different business models. I’m also a two time competitor on Zuda Comics, Super Seed was a competitor on Zuda. There, it’s owned by DC Comics, their business model is they’re looking for comics properties. They post them online for free and then they’ll eventually collect them in a trade and sell those, and also look to exploit them into other media. So that’s what the big DC/Warner Brother model is, that’s their apparatus.

A different business model, and really the self-publishing model, is something that’s been around for the last ten years or so, and that’s comics like PVP. The web comic world is huge. Basically what you do is, you put your comic up for free and support yourself by posting ads for other sites, by selling things like collections of your book at shows or online; and then other merchandise, T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, prints, and that’s the business model. And, you know, it’s tough because there’s a lot of stuff out there but on the flip side, some of my comics had more eyeballs on them than some of the lower selling Image titles in the last month. Simply because it’s online, free – it’s exposure.

And I really think, to work for Marvel and DC, the way to do that is not to just submit story after story of your take on Superman because if you look at everybody that’s working on big name comics, they’re bringing an audience with them when they get there. If you don’t have a web presence you’re shooting yourself in the foot nowadays. That’s just what I’ve been seeing. And as I’ve been putting up content on a regular basis, using social media, you find that you can really start to build a name for yourself.

I also teach a class. I’m from Newburyport on the North Shore and I teach a class on creating comics and writing for comics and graphic novels. And I write a column every Monday on the Comic Related website, it’s called Creating Comics: the Art and Craft.

This is something I'm personally interested in: how do you contact and form relationships with artists? Do you meet them at conventions, or do you usually contact artists online?

Sometimes. Chris Gibbs is around the corner; I started chatting with him at a show and he did a pin-up for CounterTERROR for me, which is cool. But there are a couple sites online – Digital Webbing is probably the most popular one, if you just post an ad and they have a section for collaborations and a section for paid work.

A project I’m working on is going to be trying to improve on that process, make it easier to match up artists with writers and writers with artists online. But for now, [it's] posting stuff on forums going on sites like Digital Webbing or Comics Space and just find an artist you like and contact him directly.

I teach a course on writing, and one of the things we do is we look at solicitations for artists. And there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and you do see a lot of the wrong stuff out there.

I don’t know if you saw the announcement that Marvel did; in their open submissions for artists, they hadn’t actually picked anyone for five years. Very, very rare is the publisher that will see a script, love it so much that they say we got to get this guy and find an artist for it. The business just doesn’t support that.

So if you really want to write comics, you’ve gotta write comics and get them in comics form. I’d suggest starting with just short stories, five pages, eight pages, learn how to work with artists because that’s a big process. For me, I’m lucky that I have a modicum of artistic talent that I don’t necessarily need anyone to tell stories. Like [Super Seed], I did everything on that one, I did lettering, I did coloring, I did the production, I did everything.

But to do things at a higher level, I can’t do everything. So on Tears of the Dragon, this is gorgeous stuff, I have a colorist in Canada and the artist that I’m working with [in Indonesia]. And this is better than the last thing I did working with an artist.

I think it’s really frustrating to send stuff out and not hear anything back. [But] it’s well within your power to make books happen. And rather than sitting on the sidelines and hoping that someone else is going to make it happen, I’d just encourage you to take a shot at it. Do something small, especially since I assume you don’t have a huge war chest ready to throw at the top caliber artists. But there are people that are out there that will work for art supplies, that will work for credits as long as they know you’re going to be pushing forward with it.

Nobody’s going to sign up sight unseen for the deals of “you’ll get paid on the back end of it so draw my 70 page graphic novel”, because it just takes too long. You’re asking too much of someone’s time for that. But can you get someone to do a five page or eight page story for some art supplies and a little bit of beer money? Yeah. And if you’re willing to put in a little bit more, you can get guys that are really goo. I mean, this artist that I worked with here, he’s doing work for Boom! Studios now. He’s a year or two away from Marvel. He’s that good. And because I’ve had other work out there before, and I’ve worked with other artists, he was willing to give me a pretty good deal on a page rate. A lot less than he should be charging. But that’s because I have work out there.

Now, if you don’t have any work out there, an artist is going to give you, you know, 80 hours or 100 hours of work, so you just gotta think of it from that perspective.

But make it happen. Take control.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Voices from Artists Alley: TYLER JAMES part 1

Our final interview from last Sunday's New England Comic Con was so sprawling and epic that I had to split it into two parts. Our subject? None other than writer and artist Tyler James, who has been featured in the Zuda webcomic competition twice. This first half -- the Fellowship of the Ring of Tyler James interviews, if you will -- discusses Tyler's various projects, including those Zuda series as well as many other comics. Here we go!

Scott Harris: Hi Tyler. Would you mind introducing yourself to those few readers out there who aren't already following your work?

Tyler: Hey, I’m Tyler James, I’m the creator-slash-writer-slash-artist of a number of comic titles. Most recently I’ve been working on Over, which is an online graphic novel, it’s a romantic comedy, sort of a cross between Chasing Amy and Forgetting Sarah Marshall and it updates Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I’m also the writer on a fantasy comic called Tears of the Dragon, which updates Tuesdays. And I’m probably most known for my series Super Seed, which is about the world’s first superpower fertility clinic. So, that’s kind of the stuff I do.

So the material debuts on your website and then you collect it into printed form?

I’ve kind of in the past six months really been getting into web comics. Prior to that I had been posting my stuff online just, you know, finish something, put it online and get some feedback. With Over, it’s my first foray into actual being on a regular, scheduled delivery of content and it’s actually a great experience just in terms of putting out work on a regular basis, seeing readership build, getting feedback. So I’m definitely a convert, as opposed to just when you finish a page or finish something you put it online, to actually delivering it as if you were a content provider. People get on your schedule and know, hey, it’s Monday, new page is up.

Over is just the latest in a long line of projects you've put out in the past couple years. Can you give us an overview of the various titles you've worked on?

Well, Over is a story about an indie comic book creator – he writes a fantasy comic that’s pretty popular – it’s been months since he’s written that comic because for the last six months he’s been working on a graphic novel that he thinks is going to be this great, romantic piece and it’s all about his failed relationship with his last girlfriend.

When he finally delivers it to the publisher, his publisher tells him it’s absolute crap and it’s unpublishable and he doesn’t understand how that’s possible. But what he ends up finding out is that there were about five good scenes and in those five scenes, it kind of explains what went wrong with his relationship. And at the same time, he kind of deals with a number of hijinx with all the stupid, crazy things people try to do to get over bad breakups. That’s kind of what Over is all about.

It’s in the vein of some of the more recent comedies like 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, something like that. It’s my attempt at doing something a little different. But it’s got a lot of inside baseball because the protagonist is a comic creator, a lot of self-referential comic book stuff, so comic creators really dig it but I think comic fans will enjoy it. There’s a lot on inside jokes to enjoy.

Tears of the Dragon is sort of my attempt to do an epic fantasy piece, you know, Lord of the Rings, Willow, Princess Bride are all kind of inspiration for it. It’s a story that starts out with two dragons in love and at the same time, there’s a king who is dying without an heir. And there’s two rivals for the throne, and one of the rivals is a war leader, the other is more of a man of the people. And the man of the people ends up, to try to become king, he goes back to an old custom where before you become king you have to slay a dragon. Now dragons are very rare, but he tracks down a dragon and kills a dragon and he end up killing a dragon that’s the great love of the other dragon and that basically sets off his slow demise. Just in that initial act.

That’s what kicks it off. It’s a fun story. I’m working with a talented artist from Indonseia who’s just knocking it out of the park.

And then there’s Super Seed, it’s about the world’s first superpower fertility clinic and abhout kind of the pros and cons of a world with superheroes. And the idea behind that is, if you look around the world now, people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have kids the way they want – sperm donors from Olympic athletes and Harvard PHDs go for top dollar and the idea is, just how much would people pay for Superman to be a donor?

So there’s just a lot of different story ideas to play with there.

And I also have a book that’s a collection of [some] of my different stories. CounterTERROR is kind of an action-slash-horror mashup. I. C. E. is a comic that competed on Zuda in July and it’s sort of a political thriller that deals with the war on terror and the torture debate.

Tomorrow: Part two of our interview with Tyler James focuses on the business side of things. Just how do you go about assembling a creative team and setting up a successful self-published comic? Tyler tells us his secrets!

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Voices from Artists Alley: CHRISTOPHER GIBBS

One of the more difficult ways to make your living is by being a commission artist. These are the guys who spend long hours at conventions and shows, doing sketches for people and selling prints both in person and online. Even though it's a tough row to hoe, it's also a way for artists to get their work out into people's hands -- both readers and publishers. Make a name for yourself at conventions with hot artwork, and you might end up landing a bigger gig with someone down the line.

At the recent New England Comic Con, I had a chance to talk with one of these unsung commission artists, Christopher Gibbs, and we briefly discussed some of the challenges of breaking into comics as an artist.

Scott Harris: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. What can you tell our readers about yourself and your work?

Christopher: My name is Christopher Gibbs. I’ve been an artist struggling in the trenches for a while, so to speak. I’ve been pretty much a commission artist until recently. Most of my stuff for sale right now is sold through I also sell through ebay, facebook… people find me and buy my stuff.

You mentioned you were mainly a commercial artist until recently. Does that mean you have some projects being published in the near future?

I do, actually. I started doing cards for a company called Monsterwax. I’m also doing cards for Rittenhouse for an upcoming Marvel set. And I have two comics that are in the works at the moment that I can’t really talk details on yet. So, I kind of got real busy in the last two months. But It’s a good busy.

Do you have your own personal website to showcase your artwork?

I do not have a personal website as of yet. Just through facebook and myspace currently, and twitter. And the simple email address, you can find me anywhere through that.

How did you get started as an artist? Did you study art in school?

I did go to art school ever so briefly, but I kind of realized quickly that I was spending a lot of money to not learn a whole lot, so I moved on from that and went on to school for other things.

I started drawing at a young age. Gave up drawing for about ten years or so and decided that I really wanted to get back into it and kind of devote myself to it full time. Which is what I’ve been doing for the last couple years. Kind of the darker edge of things is where I started out, the horror end, the gothic end. I have been branching out and doing a lot more comic stuff, but it still has my edge to it. I’m bringing a different style into more mainstream comics.

I recently did a pinup/promo piece for [Tyler James’s] CounterTERROR book, which I did the pencils and ink on and he just got back to me with the color work on it yesterday, as a matter of fact. It was a piece that I had done for him a few months back.

Thanks very much for your time, Christopher, and good luck with those upcoming comic projects.

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Voices from Artists Alley: ALAN HEBERT, JR.

Today's guest in our weeklong series of interviews with independent comics publishers is Alan Hebert, Jr. Alan is the head writer for HB Comics, which is a bit different from many of the self-published works we've been talking about in that they are ambitiously planning not just one title, but a whole shared universe. But why should I try to explain it when we have the man himself right here to spill the details? Take it away, Alan!

Scott Harris: Thanks for agreeing to chat with us, Alan. What can you tell our readers about yourself and the projects you have here?

Alan Hebert, Jr.: Well, I’m the comic book writer; my brother [Chris Hebert] is the artist for Lazerman and I’m the writer of it. We’ve been doing this about a year now, we’ve got the first four issues out of Lazerman. It’s the story of a hardcore comic geek who ends up actually getting superpowers. So it’s kind of a semi-spoof on superheroes, but also very much a thorwback to the classic Silver Age superheroes. We’ve got a lot of very classic themes going on, some very intentional, some played for comedy, some not. We think we really have a unique bok here.

In addition to that, we also have our second title of this universe, Vindication, which is more of a straightforward team book. They’re in a shared universe; Vindication premiered it at the Chicago Comic-Con last month.

You mentioned the Silver Age influence. Maybe this is a bit to technical, but is it more in the style of the Marvel Silver Age stuff, or more like DC Silver Age material.

It’s kind of both. It definitely has elements of both Marvel and DC. The influence I would say is more of the classic characters. The characters, you have your Supermans, your Wonder Womans, Batmans, your Spider-mans, your Captain Americas, all of them sort of play into that. In some ways its also a tribute to all of them. Because when I say spoof, there’s two ways to spoof. You can do a spoof that’s sort of insulting and a spoof that is more honoring. And we do definitely the more honoring. We’re laughing along with it. And saying, look at how great this is, even if sometimes it’s [silly].

And you’re self-publishing this?

Yes, we self-publish. We’re situated right here in Boston. Like I said, we’ve been doing it for about a year now, and Lazerman 1-4 make up the first full story, the first complete story, and we just came out with 4 a few months ago so we’re really proud to get that done.

Do you have any plans to collect this first Lazerman arc in a trade?

We are, we’re looking at publishers right now, so hopefully we’ll have some quotes back and decide which way we want to go with that. But we’re definitely going to put it in a trade. And then we’ve got issue 5 planned for probably the end of November. Vindication #2 is supposed to come out at the end of October.

Besides Lazerman and Vindication, do you have any other series that are going to take place in this shared universe?

We have two more definite titles planned that will be coming out in the next year or two. And we’d like to keep four in rotation, and maybe some new series here or there. But definitely there will be four.

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Voices from Artists Alley: SAM COSTELLO

Another day, another interview with a small press comic creator. And what could be a better compliment to your morning bagel than a brief chat with Split Lip writer Sam Costello? He's like human cream cheese, y'all. Let's get right to it!

Scott Harris: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Sam. What can you tell the readers out there about yourself and your work?

Sam Costello: My name’s Sam Costello, I’m a writer of all sorts of things, including comics, based in Providence, Rhode Island. The main comic I have these days is a series called Split Lip. It’s a horror anthology. I write them all but they’re drawn by different artists from all around the world. I post them online at and then also make them available in print.

Is Split Lip self-published, or do you have a publisher you work with?

Basically, it’s self-published. I did have a publishing deal in Australia for a little while but unfortunately that company went out of business, but I don’t hope there’s any relationship between them publishing me and going out of business.

When did you start working on this?

Split Lip debuted in October, 2006, so we’re coming up on the third anniversary now and we’ve published about – I think we’re in the middle of the 27th story on the website right now and it’s about 300, 310 total pages of comics available on the site. But of course, I had started working on it a little before that, I started at the beginning of 2006 actually writing the stories, finding the artists, that sort of thing.

Okay. So the stories debut on the website first, then you compile them into the trades?

That’s correct. The stories get serialized on the website, three pages every Sunday. So you get the new stories coming online, then basically I put out one collection a year. So right now we’ve got Volume One, that came out in 2009; Volume Two should be debuting in probably January, 2010.

And the series is mostly horror?

Yes, it’s basically entirely horror. It’s the kind of thing, if you like Twilight Zone, if you liked the original Tales From the Crypt, you’ll probably like this sort of thing. It’s more about scaring you, more about ideas and mood and tone. You’re not going to find vampires, you’re not going to find zombies, you’re not going to find any of those sort of traditional, archetypal horror concepts. It’s very much about trying to push in some different directions that you don’t find in a lot of modern horror comics.

So it sounds more like it’s more of an atmospheric type of horror, like Poe.

Yeah, there’s definitely some of that. It’s difficult, you’ve got to walk that line between having the atmospherics but also the action. People are looking for certain things out of horror, so some of the stories are a little bit more low key, some of them are a bit volent, some of them are a bit scarier, some of them are a bit more strange or weird. It kind of runs a gamut.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Voices from Artists Alley: JOE HALEY and JOHN HALEY

First up in this series of interviews with the indie and small press creators who are the lifeblood of comics is a double barreled shot of adrenaline straight to the heart: Joe and John Haley. This brother team is... actually, they're not a team so much, since they were appearing at the New England Comic Con to promote entirely unrelated projects. On the other hand, Marvel Team-Up used to have much more random excuses than brotherhood to throw people together, and if it works for Spider-man and Brother Voodoo, it can work for these guys. Let's jump right in and allow these two to tell you about Joe's comic The Underburbs and John's superhero novel Legendary Sidekick -- in 4D!

Scott Harris: Let's start with you, Joe. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with The Underburbs. What can you tell us about that project?

Joe: The Underburbs is a series that I’ve been working on with my friend T. J. Dort since about 2005. We’ve got eight issues out now. It’s basically -- the story that there is this vampire girl – I’m gesturing with my hands, by the way, our [readers] should know that – there’s a vampire girl that’s comes from the evil dimension to try and take over the human world on Halloween night. Basically, she has like this magic scroll, turns people into monsters, but that’s really about as far as she’s plotted out. She just kind of expects people to sort of follow along with her and they don’t, because they’ve got their own problems in real life to worry about. But meanwhile, there’s like a girl who volunteers herself to be turned into a witch to try and stop her.

And you've been self-publishing this since 2005?

Joe: Yes, this is self-published. [Our imprint], Roiling Boil Press is basically a two-man operation, writing and drawing and distributing. We started working on it [in 2005]; the first issue came out in October, 2006.

How about you, John? What can you tell us about your new novel Legendary Sidekick - in 4D!?

John: Legendary Sidekick is about a guy who gets out of college and decides to become a sidekick for a superhero. So, he lives in a world where superheroes exist and it’s fairly normal. He winds up getting in way over his head and basically ends up having to be chosen by God to defeat demons. There’s an interplanetary war… pretty much what it is, it’s a series of journeys through time and space and each journey is meant to read as a different short story almost, where the genre practically changes. You have samurai at one point, cowboys, knights and castles, demonic creatures and then the regular super hero stuff is where we start off.

And this is also self-published?

John: Yes, this is self-published, so I also made up my little company called Dazzlingly Brilliant Books – and that little Chinese character actually means “smile”. I got the name from my Dad, who gave me a saying: if you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit. I don’t know if I can say that. You can always replace it with little swirly things and asterisks on the site when you retype it I suppose.

Obviously, you're both long time fans of comic books.

John: Yeah, we just have different ways of expressing it. For example, I did draw scenes from the book by hand, but because my drawings basically suck compared to everything else here, you don’t see them in the book. But I do draw them to visualize, and I don’t want to toot my own horn or anything but one thing I was proud of in this book is that it does create a lot of strong visuals. Which I do with words, where my brother’s art is beautiful.

Joe: Yeah, I do my visuals with visuals.

Lastly, do you have any websites where our readers can check out your work online?

Joe: Yes I do. I’m on deviant art, so it would just be I put a lot of convention sketches, things like that, covers. The actual comic isn’t online, but it can be ordered online.

John: Yep. And I’ve got my book on a site called, which is a self-publishing site for writers, and from there I have some free downloads, short stories and stuff like that. You can see a book review and interview for the book. And, of course, the book itself is on there and on Amazon as well.

Thanks very much guys, I appreciate the time. Hopefully my readers will check our these projects. Good luck.

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Voices from Artists Alley

Everyone loves a comic book show. Sure, Comic-Con in San Diego gets all the big press, but for most fans, just heading down to the local hotel complex to browse through a hundred long boxes in the renovated dining hall provides just as big a thrill. And even if you can't afford the big back issues up on the display wall, just getting a look at them in the flesh -- seeing those crisp Golden Age Adventure and More Fun covers, for example -- is exciting enough.

But as nice as rifling through the bargain bin can be, the big draw at most conventions is the chance to meet the people who create these stories. After all, back issues you can get at your local store or online. But when was the last time you were able to buy a conversation with Walt Simonson on eBay? That's an experience that can only be found in one place on Earth, the most magical street this side of Diagon Alley: Artists Alley.

It's not just the big stars who show up at conventions to mingle and mix with the fans, though. Take a look around Artists Alley and you'll likely see a dozen or a hundred unknown faces, sitting at table after table promoting titles and characters you've never heard of. These are the up and comers, the dreamers and the people who work in comics not for fame or fortune but simply because they love the medium. And the sad thing is, while you line up behind forty other fans to have Geoff Johns sign three dozen copies of his latest crossover for some online auction, most of those independent creators on Artists Alley sit alone, ignored, talking mostly to each other while people with DC and Marvel in their eyes wander by in an oblivious fog.

Hey, I've done it too. But in our zest to meet the famous, we sometimes forget that those people once were unknowns too; and that the richest ideas don't come out of editorial decrees, but out of individual visions. As I've discussed before, I learned that myself purely by accident when I passed my time in line for some star by chatting with Alex Robinson, whose little indy book -- Box Office Poison -- went on to become one of the most acclaimed (and one of my favorite) comics of the decade.

So what other voices are out there right now, struggling on the convention circuit to find a few people willing to give their book a try? That's what I'm aiming to find out in my new feature, Voices from Artists Alley. In this (necessarily) sporadic feature, I'll be heading to comic conventions when I have the chance and conducting interviews -- not with the big stars, but with the creators in Artists Alley, the men and women who are chasing the dream. Not a dream of movie rights, action figures and Wizard promotions, but the ultimate dream: making good comics that tell good stories.

Starting tomorrow, then, I'll be presenting a series of interviews I conducted this past Sunday at the New England Comic Convention in Boston, where I had the opportunity to talk to six of these new voices in comics about their projects. I hope you'll give these interviews and these comics a try. And the next time you're at a show and you head down Artists Alley, take a minute to look around.

Because you never known who or what may be there, just waiting for you to find them.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Game Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2

At long last, the comic book event of the decade is finally here and the seemingly endless wait is over. And funny thing: it's not even a comic book. No, it's Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, the most hotly anticipated super hero video game of all time. Lucky for you, I've spent the last few days slaving and toiling over this game in order to bring you all the news you need to know about this game. So what are we waiting for? Let's get right to the review.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
Marvel Comics and Vicarious Visions

For those who have been living in a cave for the last few years (and weren't able to build a Playstation with a BOX OF SCRAPS), Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is the sequel to one of the most popular games of 2006. The original was a tour de force action role playing game (in the grand tradition of, for example, Gauntlet) which explored the farthest corners of the Marvel Universe while allowing you to play any number of classic Marvel superheroes (and if you wanted to spring for the character expansion packs, even some villains). For comic fans, it was about the most perfect blend of video games and superheroes that had ever been attempted.

So how does the sequel fare in comparison? Well, for the most part it does pretty well, though there are a few slips here and there. Let's start right up at the top with the storyline.

Unlike the first game, which featured a totally original storyline, MUA 2 uses the infamous Civil War story as the basis for the game's plot. Now, Civil War is one of the most popular (and at the same time, most controversial) comics of the past decade, so this decision makes sense in a lot of ways. Mostly, it allows the game to feel current and relevant to comic fans; as awesome as the first game was, it was very rooted in classic Marvel characters and storytelling. Unfortunately, that's not really how Marvel rolls these days, so even when the game was new it already felt a bit nostalgic (which to be honest was one of its draws for some players such as myself). The new game, then, manages to seem much more contemporary by tapping in to this Civil War setting (and also by incorporating some elements of Brian Michael Bendis's Secret War limited series).

Have no fear, though: if you're one of those people who didn't care for Civil War, you're in luck, because in many ways the version in the game is actually better written than the comic was. A few small changes were made which result in the characters seeming to be, well, more in character than they were in the comic. For example, Cap's first thought when faced with the Superhero Registration Act is to go to Congress and testify against it, and even after he begins his rebellion (triggered by his fight with Maria Hill, which in this version takes place after the act is passed rather than before -- another small but important change) his focus is on trying to convince the voting public to repeal the law. Likewise, the pro-reg group seems more understandable and sympathetic here, thanks in part to Mr. Fantastic sharing his future history theorems with everyone prior to sides being chosen (rather than keeping it to himself until it's too late for anyone to care any more).

From a storytelling point of view, then, the game gets a big thumbs up, because it actually improved upon the source material. I won't give too much more away, but suffice it to say that the lame ending to Civil War is also gone, instead replaced by an outside threat that forces everyone to realize how stupid they are all acting -- a sentiment anyone who has read Civil War can probably agree with.

As nice as the story is, though, adhering to Civil War does cause some issues with the actual game play. Because some characters are important to the storyline, they become unavailable during specific sections of the game. Even if you select the side that the character conforms to (i.e. Captain America is on the anti-registration sid,e of course), you still may not be able to play them. My plan to play Cap through the whole game was derailed when, due to a plot point, he was "unavailable" on my team roster -- and remained that way for about a quarter of the game. Needless to say, this was kind of annoying, and if you want to play other heroes (such as Luke Cage, Mr. Fantastic or Iron Man) you should be prepared to swap them out, because chances are you won't be able to actually play them the whole time.

Another thing that is less inviting in this game compared to the last game is the team bonus. One of my favorite things about the first game was the ability to create your own Marvel hero team, complete with name, roster, logo and special team bonuses. That seems to be completely missing from the sequel. Likewise, the alternate costumes are for appearance only, rather than having different abilities that allowed for more strategy. Instead of each character equipping items for specific boosts, the entire team benefits from the use of items. And the new fusion system -- where each hero supposedly has a unique interaction with any other hero -- is a slight letdown, as there are really just a handful of interactions depending on what type of character you have (i.e. energy powers, martial arts, super strength, etc.).

Beyond the character play, a couple other small things irritated me. Being able to rotate the camera seems like a simple, vital part of pretty much any game these days, but while you can sometimes do it here, other times you get stuck with specific camera angles that make it very difficult to figure out what you're doing (for instance, when a giant truck is blocking your view of the battle). And there are places where the environment conforms to a linear storyline -- there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to, say, walk down that hallway over there or fly up onto that rooftop, but for some reason, I can't do it. Instead, an invisible barrier prevents me from exploring, as if I were playing Castlevania of something.

That's not to say the game isn't enjoyable, though; most of these are fairly minor points. If you liked the first game, chances are you'll like this one too. It looks great and the story is interesting. I do have to add that, on the normal difficulty mode, it didn't seem as difficult as the first game (which itself wasn't particularly difficult). And while the voice acting is uniformly good, watch out for Thor, who sounds eerily like the Ben Franklin from those Ask a Freemason ads on the radio. I'm not sure why they decided to cast Ben Franklin as Thor, but that one voice really doesn't work at all for me. But if little things like this don't bother you, then by all means, grab your shield and start slinging it.

Because Lord knows that Tony Stark needs to be taken down a notch.

My Grade: This gets a B. I thought about slipping it down to a B-, but I suspect that playing this with four people instead of solo is going to be a blast, and that will make up for the disappointments.

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