Friday Feature: Sixth Gun

I’m not really sure when the “fantasy western” genre appeared on the scene, but with titles like Pretty Deadly and Sixth Gun on the comic landscape, I’m really happy it did.

Sixth Gun is one of the best comics nobody is reading. It debuted on Free Comic Book Day 2010 and it’s still ongoing, so it has some momentum behind it now. I’ll confess that I’ve only read volume 1 of this particular wonder, but I look forward to getting caught up on it soon.

The concept might seem a little “trope-y” to regular fantasy or western readers (maybe, I don’t actually read that many westerns). There are 6 cursed, magical guns, created by some sort of pact with the devil. The first gun belonged to wicked Confederate General Oleander Hume, who gave the other five to his trusted inner-circle. Each gun holds a different special power. One can summon the ghosts of those that the gun has killed, another immolates anyone hit by its bullets, another fires with the force of a cannon.

At the beginning of the story, Hume’s personal firearm is in the hands of someone else, and his inner circle is on the hunt for it. When the current owner is killed in a hail of gunfire, his daughter picks up the Sixth Gun to enact vengeance on his killers – only to find that the gun is now bound to her until her death.

Writer Cullen Bunn is now on my list of creators to look out for. He’s writing two upcoming villain books that I’m pretty excited about: Sinestro over at DC, and Magneto for Marvel. If you’re a fan of either of those characters, be sure and keep an eye out for their upcoming solo titles, written by Cullen Bunn.

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Kamala Khan: Phil Coulson 2014

The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.

It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.

Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).

Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.

Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.

Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.

The dramatic conclusion to Kamala’s fan fiction…

Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.

If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important  in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.

It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.

Everybody knows that feel. Well… Except for the boot thing I guess.

Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.

Friday Feature: Twitch Plays Pokemon

The Internet is a weird place.

Sometimes, those oddities give birth to something that is nothing short of amazing.

I give you, Twitch Plays Pokemon.

For the uninformed; Pokemon is a game for Nintendo’s handhelds that involves a character traversing environments, catching creatures, and battling them against other trainers to gain badges. It’s a classic role playing game in every sense of the word. It’s actually not that hard when playing on your own; but when it’s over 20,000 people, that’s a different story. But we’ll get to that.

Twitch (or Twitch.tv) is a video streaming website where game players can go and stream their gameplay live. It’s amassed millions of viewers and much like Youtube, has it’s own batch of celebrities and high profile streamers that people will tune in and watch. You can find just about any game being played and watch for hours; while chatting with others enjoying it at the same time.

Which brings us to Twitch Plays Pokemon.

What at first glance seems to be one of the worst games of Pokemon being played ever, is actually one of the greatest social experiments of our age being played out on the internet. Unlike every other stream out there, it’s not just one person playing the game. It’s actually everyone in chat who has control over what the character does.

Instead of talking about the game being played, the entire chat window is filled with, “up, down, a, b,” etc., as all the viewers try to push the character through the game. As I said earlier, this would be no big deal if it were one person playing the game. Yet, in this case there are thousands now, and some of those people have other goals in mind.

Yes, there are thousands of players trying to play the game properly, but for every one of them there is another who is trying to keep them from progressing. Thus, the game becomes one of the most infuriating things to watch on the internet. The character spins around, goes back and forth, lets go of important items, releases pokemon, and so much more to its detriment because of these players. Yet, it is this back and forth that makes this game so interesting to watch.

Despite the back and forth, Twitch Plays Pokemon is halfway through the game. It’s an incredible accomplishment considering how the game itself is being played. Yet, this is not the most interesting story to come out this. That honor goes to the overarching meta-narrative that the players themselves are creating.

Because there are so many people playing, the character does things which he wouldn’t normally do and the community has taken upon itself to explain these things in some of the most hilarious ways. Certain items have become divine relics, mantras have been created, and when a pokemon is released a different pokemon is then blamed for the action. Just go through the Reddit page for that stream and you’ll see just what I am talking about here.

Twitch Plays Pokemon is the internet in a nutshell. There are those who wish to use it for good, and there are others who want (as Alfred put it), “to just see the world burn.” You should definitely give it a watch, if only for a couple of minutes. It has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and scream all at the same time….Seriously. I mean, 22.3 million viewers can’t be wrong?

You can watch it HERE

Everyone Looks Classier in a Mech-Suit

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Zord

Gundam

Evangelion

Jaeger

Titan

 

Geek culture has always been infatuated with big robots. Whether in manga, anime, video games, or television, there have always been stories of pilots and their larger than life suits that save the day. As always, the question is, “why?” What is it about this “mecha genre” of story that draws so many of us to it, and keeps us coming back for more?

 

 

The answer is they are always relatable stories.

 

Not in the sense that we all would want to pilot multi-story mechanical monstrosities (though that would be a selling point for many of us,) but rather it is the motivation of the pilot that makes these stories reach out to us. It is the “why” of the pilot that keeps us all tuned in.

 

Why They Fight

 

…because there are things in this universe worth fighting and dying for.

 

The Power Rangers fought to protect Angel Grove (in Power Rangers.) The Voltron pilots protected the galaxy itself (in Voltron), and more recently, the Jaeger pilots (from Pacific Rim) fought to prevent the invasion of Earth from Lovecraftian creatures from another dimension.

 

 

In all these expressions of the genre, the pilots and other characters are fighting to protect something. That “something” may be existence itself, while for others it’s simply protecting a way of life. In some of my personal favorites, they are fighting because it is the only option; and it is the right thing to do. Regardless, in each instance the pilots are fighting for the greater good…for something worth fighting for.

 

Simply put, a man will go to great lengths to protect something that he loves. It is a simple and relatable truth that sits at the heart of the much of the mecha genre. We all would care to believe that, if given the chance, if given the ability, we would rise to the occasion and fight.

 

Why they Use Mechs

 

…because what they are fighting is both literally and figuratively bigger than themselves.

 

These are stories of men and women taking on gods and monsters; of fighting ideals and political machines; and these are things that a person cannot do on his own. They simply do not have the power. In many cases, they are completely powerless before their mech comes into the picture. Take for instance the more recent film, Pacific Rim. In it, the world is on the brink of being destroyed, and conventional wisdom and warfare has done nothing to stop the creatures from carving paths of destruction. It takes the creation of Jaegers (the mechs of this universe) and their pilots to finally turn the tide.

 

 

They use and choose to pilot their mechs because it gives them a chance; a chance to survive, to hold the line a little longer, to fight back the end for just one more day. The giant suits in all these examples are the equalizer; they are the one thing that puts the pilot on the same level as whatever they may be fighting.

 

In the real world there are bullies, anxieties, stress, social structures, and physical conflicts that can make anyone think that the situation is, “too big for me.” Life can have a way of making us feel utterly powerless in the shadows of these type of problems. The mecha genre tackles that internal fear on a very literal level; showing our heroes and heroines taking on creatures and powers that outclass them in many ways. Yet, they have the one thing that many of us hope for; a way to fight back, a way to win.

 

Why There’s Always A Team

 

…because, in the end, you can’t always do it on your own.

 

For Voltron and The Megazord to be formed, all the pilots are needed to come together to construct them. Jaeger pilots go into The Drift and let their minds fall in sync with each other to pilot their suits. Even in the Gundam series, the individual pilots have to overcome their differences and act as a team to fight back against the opposing forces.

 

 

With certain exceptions, most entries into the mecha genre revolve around a group of individuals who are fighting together. Ideals, god creatures, militaries, and monsters are too large for just one man or woman to tackle alone… even in a large multi-story death machine. One of the best examples is in the PSOne RPG Xenogears, where by the end of the game the pilots are tasked will killing their universe’s equivalent of god. Nonetheless, in most cases of the genre it requires that the team to come together, sometimes literally, to defeat what lay ahead of them.

 

This again hearkens to the simple fact that we need each other. John Donne said, “no man is an island.” For all the flash, the mecha genre tries to communicate the fact that if humanity is to succeed – humanity has to do it together.

 

 

There’s a lot of reasons why we all watch our shows with big robots, and some may be more shallow than others. Yet, these shows speak to us on very base levels; they tell a relatable tale in a completely unrelatable situation. We will never fight literal monsters, nor will we ever be fighting inside of a giant robotic cat. Nonetheless, we all have our own “monsters” we fight on a daily basis, we all have our ideals and way of life that we will fight to protect.

 

The big robots that we love to watch give us hope. They represent our ability as a species to overcome what is put before us; no matter how big or small. The very tangible mechs represent the intangible spark that we all share that gives us all the strength to stand up to adversity.

 

Maybe these seemingly ridiculous shows are trying to say that despite the odds being stacked against us…

 

…we still have a chance.

Friday Feature Valentine’s Special: Games to Play with Your Sweetie

Way back in the “early days” of home video games, a multiplayer game meant squeezing onto a couch or laying on the floor with three of your closest friends and playing Mario Kart, Goldeneye, or Super Smash Brothers (sorry Sony, you sucked at multiplayer back then). Trash talk, Cheeto-fingers, and red-eyed sleep-overs were the landscape in which these games found their own.

But these days, multiplayer is primarily an online affair, playing with people you’ve never met over unfathomable distances in a, generally speaking, much more hostile environment. The trash talk is still there, and there might be red-eyes, but don’t you dare get your Cheeto-fingers on my Xbox controller. Or my keyboard. I mean it! Wash those hands…

In any case, co-operative gaming doesn’t always work as well over the internet, so co-op has mostly gone out of style. But every now and then a quality same-couch co-op game hits the shelves. These games are worth highlighting anytime of year, but why not think of good games for geeks to play with their significant others on this most heart-shaped of holidays. (And if you’re celebrating Galentine’s Day, or even Palentine’s Day, these will be great games to play while sharing a single-person’s smirk over such a ridiculous greeting-card-joke of a holiday. Much love to my single friends and rivals.)

Portal 2

Portal 2 co-op gameplay.

Portal 2’s co-op mode is an awesome exercise in team-building and puzzle-solving. The puzzle’s aren’t so difficult as to make you fight with your partner, but they’re challenging enough to give you the satisfaction of solving something together.

Super Mario 3D World

Finishing a level with friends!

Like many of the recent console Mario games, Super Mario 3D World has some great built-in co-operative play. All of the charm that keeps Mario a mainstay in the gaming landscape, now with friends! (Also the kitty-cat suit.)

Rayman Origins and Legends 

Rayman: Legends’ beautiful game art only makes a smooth platformer even better!

The past two Rayman games have been just awesome. It’s a 2D side-scrolling platformer like classic Mario, Sonic, and Rayman games, but better than all of those. Rayman has consistent, easy-to-learn controls and intuitive level design that makes it a much better game than almost any other in the genre. It’s co-op is just icing on the cake, but the game is way more fun with a friend.

Left 4 Dead Series

It’s teamwork through the bitter end in the Left 4 Dead series.

If your sweetheart has a zombie-apocalypse survival plan, this is the game for the pair of you. The Left 4 Dead series is primarily designed to be played online, and it’s same-screen functionality limits the game to only two players. But two is the number to beat on Valentine’s, right? Each mission is split up into roughly four sequential chapters, usually with an epic finale that is as crazy as it is fun. Zombies are instanced differently for each playthrough, so it’s got great replayability, too!

Halo Series

The Halo series co-op is great for couples that like shooters!

The original same-couch co-op shooter! Sure, it doesn’t make any sense in Halo, Halo 2, or Halo 4 for there to be 2 Master Chiefs running around side-by-side, but THAT’S SO NOT THE POINT. The Halo series has a lot of staying power in the industry because it has a quality story, sure, but it’s actually just a fun game. The first Halo game revolutionized the way we play console shooters, and the industry has never looked back.  Being able to play it with a partner just made it better.

Diablo 3 for Consoles

4-players on this screen, but play with 1-3 lovers at any given time.

The Diablo series made it’s home on computers before it (only recently) made a foray into the living room, but when it did make the trip, it brought with it the fun and excitement of a same-couch RPG game (an ultra-rare item, for those keeping track). Much of Diablo is about finding the best loot, so be sure to share!

Borderlands Series

Borderlands 2 lets you bring you co-op partner online to meet up with two other players!

Borderlands is like the spiritual child of the Diablo series and the Serious Sam series. It’s a loot-grindy, gratiutiously violent, hilarious game. Bonus points for being same-couch co-op and not taking itself too seriously.

Did Han Shoot First? The Question of Canon

Recently Harry Potter creator JK Rowling made big headlines in both the geek and mainstream press for this controversial statement:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron…I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”

Needless to say, Rowling’s remarks inspired rage, fury, and heartbreak in thousands of Harry Potter fans who believe that Ron and Hermione belong together, this blogger included. But on the other side of the coin, thousands of Harry/Hermione shippers have found themselves vindicated by the most authoritative voice in the Potter fandom — the creator herself.

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Which raises the question: who is right? Do the Ron/Hermione shippers win the fight because their version of events is printed in millions of books that will be read for generations, or are the Harry/Hermione shippers right because of the fact that the creator of these stories would change the outcome if she had it to do over?

Another Rowling revelation some years back created greater media frenzy, but was for the most part accepted as canon by the Potter fandom: Dumbledore is gay. This character detail, while never explicitly stated in the text, makes sense of Dumbledore’s complicated relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Since this extratextual detail complements the  existing canon, it was accepted as canon by the readers. So the authority to declare canonicity seems to rest not on the voice of the creator, but on the consensus of the fans.

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When the creation becomes bigger than the creator, the question of canonicity becomes complex. One fandom perfectly illustrates this complexity, and the push and pull between the authority of the creator and the authority of the fans can be succinctly summed up in three words:

Han shot first.

The abominable quality of the Star Wars prequels aside, George Lucas created rage and frustration by altering the content of the original trilogy. Like Rowling, he realized that if he had it to do again, there are things about his movies that he would change.  Unlike Rowling, he did go back and make those changes, and he refuses to release the original theatrical versions of the films, making dusty VHS copies of the original trilogy the only way for fans to enjoy the unaltered movies that they love.

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A new scene featuring a CGI Jabba the Hutt is one of the many alterations made to the “special edition” re-releases of Star Wars

In case this is your first day on the internet, the most controversial alteration in Lucas’ “Special Edition” re-releases of Star Wars happens in Han Solo’s introductory scene. He’s confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who makes it clear that he’s going to kill Han to redeem the price on his head. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo under the table and coolly walks away, establishing his character as a charming but cutthroat rogue. In the altered version, Greedo shoots at Han first, missing at close range, and Han immediately fires back, killing Greedo. Fans argue that this alteration completely ruins Han’s character arc. If he is not first established as something of a selfish cad who will do anything to protect his own hide, his growth into a hero who will risk his life to save his friends has no meaning. What on the surface appears to be a minor CGI alteration is in fact a major change to the story.

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Frame from the altered “Greedo shot first” version of Star Wars

Fans claim that the true canon of Star Wars is made up of the three original, unaltered films. But they concede that they have little power to wrest creative control from Lucas, even if he is violating the canon.

But sometimes fans do gain control.

Some stories in the nerdverse have long outlived their creators. The best examples are DC and Marvel superheroes. Since some of these characters have been around for close to a century, the people who now write their stories were once the fans who idolized the characters. The fans have literally taken over creative control of the canon.

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A character’s look and personality can change significantly as creative control changes hands over the years

And yet this doesn’t end fan dissatisfaction with new developments in the canon. The need to cater to these fans, along with the unwieldy nature of storylines that span multiple decades, have resulted in the ability to completely erase canon with the universe retcon.

A controversial universe retcon recently took place outside of comics in the world of another character who has been entrusted to multiple creators, Doctor Who.

Warning:

In the 21st century, the character of the Doctor has largely been defined by the fact that he is a remorseful war criminal, having been forced to destroy his homeworld of Gallifrey in order to save the rest of the universe. This was undone in the 50th anniversary special of the show, when the Doctor, with the help of his previous regenerations, is able to save Gallifrey. While the episode was a fun excuse to get David Tennant back on screen, fans argue that this retcon cheapens the Doctor’s character and robs the show of much of its philosophical depth. While they are willing to go along with new developments that new creators bring to the story, fans feel that the canon is insulted by creators who undo things.

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Retcons provide a “big friendly button” to creators who want to rewrite canon

Perhaps the best way to understand the slippery nature of canonicity is to look to a book that has generated a more hardcore fandom than Star Wars and Doctor Who combined: the Bible.

The Bible has dealt with all the canonicity issues at play here. 1 and 2 Chronicles are the “Special Edition Re-release” versions of 1 and 2 Kings, with alterations that seem to do nothing but make the story less interesting. The New Testament is to the Old Testament as new Doctor Who is to old Doctor Who; a fresh spin to an old franchise that messed with the original series but managed to attract a whole new group of fans. The Book of Revelation is the series finale that disappointed all of the fans, who have been writing re-interpretive fan fic ever since.

The lesson is that every fan creates their own canon. The original creators provide the material, but we pick which parts are most important to us. It’s what makes the geek community beautiful — we don’t just love a movie or book or TV series; we let our imaginations run wild in the playgrounds that the original creators provided for us. We’re not just observers; we’re participators, co-creators. Our passion gives the creation of one person a life far beyond what they intended. For better or worse, when Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Doctor first made their ways outside of their creator’s minds and into ours, their worlds became something that we all share ownership in. Hopefully, taking a cue from the Bible fandom canon wars, we will learn to play nice.

But seriously, Han shot first.  

Friday Feature: Outerlands

I don’t think we’ve ever featured a Kickstarter before here on the Playground; but this one is pretty special.

 

 

Outerlands is a proposed six episode documentary series on the culture of video games by Area 5 Productions. To oversimplify; they want to make something akin to the “This American Life,” of video game culture. These guys are storytellers, and fantastic ones at that. They have a love and passion for the topic matter and have a unique visual style that sets them apart from other documentarians.

 

 

What makes their pitch different from many others is that they don’t just want to talk about games. They want to talk about everything around them as well; the people involved, the niches that have arisen, and the unexplored corners that many of us don’t even know exist. On the Kickstarter page, they’ve already discussed talking about things like speed runners, the “gamification” of things outside of games, sexuality in the game-space, e-sports, and many other topics. They want to highlight and critically look at every aspect of a passion that many of us enjoy.

 

This is probably my favorite 1Up show episode. It covers the PS3 launch, and boy were times different then…

 

For those of us who have been around a while; Area 5 isn’t an unknown name. These guys are the ones who helped create the 1Up Show back in the day, CO-OP after that, and have been making some of the best documentaries on gaming since then. Their two most recent were the well received I Am Street Fighter, for Street Fighter’s 50th anniversary, and Grounded, a “making of” for The Last of Us. Suffice it to say, Outerlands is their passion project.

 

 

This is a great chance for something we all enjoy to be seen in a different light. to see stories that might not otherwise be told. Outerlands is a great project and I hope that you all will give it a look. These guys deserve the chance to make this.

 

You can support them on Kickstarter HERE