Friday Feature: Summer Spectacular Vol. 1

We Prometheans have been a tad busier this summer than we thought we would be, and that’s made it hard to keep up with our regular posts. We love bringing you a new article every week, but there comes a time when we just have to take a break. We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished. With the exception of last December, we’ve been going strong for nearly a full year!

With that in mind, we’ve decided that we have earned a little bit of a rest, but we’ll be back in September with our trademark brand of geekiness that folk have come to expect. In the mean time, I am going to be doing a Friday Feature here and there, just to keep the dust from settling.

Welcome to the Promethean Playground Summer Spectacular, where we recommend our favorite beach reads, shows to binge-watch after the sun goes down, and games to play when it’s just too hot. And maybe we’ll throw in a cocktail recipe here and there to keep it fresh.

Beach Reads

I’ve always thought it was a little bit unfair to the beach that the only books we ever bring out there are harlequin romances and bottom-shelf fantasy. I get that we want something that’s relatively easily digestible when we’re relaxing in the warm, salty coastal breezes, but there’s something to be said for taking that time to really delve into a book you’ve been meaning to read for years!

Last year my summer book was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, the year before that I brought Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the beach – both books I had started long ago and never finished until I carved the time out of my summer vacation to get going with them again!

I’m going to recommend classic sci-fi for you all as this week’s beach read: Dune by Frank Herbert. I read this one something like 5 years ago between shifts bar-tending at a lakeside resort in Texas. I’ve written about this story before on the Playground, so long-time readers will be familiar with some of my thoughts, but there’s a lot about Dune that appeals to me. It’s a different kind of sci-fi than I’m used to. Interstellar travel is available in Dune‘s universe, but it is costly. There’s a mystical/spiritual/religious element to the story of Arrakis (the desert planet on which Dune primarily takes place), which I really enjoy. And Dune sets up a complicated political landscape that makes for good dramatic storytelling.

Binge-Watch Shows

I always think winter is a better time to pack on new shows to binge-watch, because that seasonal affectiveness disorder makes you not want to leave the couch anyway, but never-the-less we all have to come in from the pool at some point in the summer, right? So if you’re not caught up on your favorites, why not then?

This week I’m going to tell you that, if you haven’t by now, it’s time to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. The follow-up show to AvatarLegend of Korra, just began it’s third season and it served to remind me how absolutely amazing Avatar: The Last Airbender really was. (NOTE: We are talking about the Nickelodeon cartoon, not the pathetic attempt to make the cartoon into a movie.)

This show was and still is, broadly speaking, my favorite show ever. Sure I enjoy other things here and there, but Avatar has it all: humor, action, drama, characterization, a complex and compelling setting, and feelings (I weep like a child in season 3 when [spoiler redacted] reunites with [spoiler redacted], and there’s nothing anyone can do about it).

Fun fact about Avatar: The Last Airbender – each of the trademark “bending” styles is based primarily on a real-world martial art style. Airbending is based on a style called Ba Gua, which is reflected in Aang’s quick, circular movements. Waterbending is based on Tai Chi, which emphasizes slow, flowing movements that are more interested in healing than aggression. Earthbending is based on a style called Hung Gar, which uses strongly-rooted stances and powerful strikes. Finally, Firebending is based on Northern Shaolin kung fu, which is an aggressive, fierce, and powerful martial art, much like the benders from the show.

Summer Games

In the video game world, the summer slump is the time right before big publishers begin gearing up for their Fall and Christmas releases, where they expect to make their real money for the year. In spite of that (or maybe because of it) Steam has a now-infamous Sale every summer where games are marked down by very enticing amounts. I feel like I was pretty responsible this year, with the Steam Sale, and I still ended up buying about 8 new games. Summer gaming slump, my butt, now my backlog is even more embarrassing!

In any case, I think summer is the best time to plop down on the couch and play games with a pal, so I’m going to tell you to check out a game called Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine. As you might guess from the little subtitle there, Monaco is a heist-themed game. Players can choose from a handful of characters with different skills (knocking out guards, picking locks, digging tunnels, etc.) and play their way through increasingly difficult scenarios with up to 3 friends at a time. It’s a great same-couch game because it actually requires a lot of communication, especially as the difficulty escalates, and you just can’t beat physical presence for communication, no matter how awesome your mic is.

A Genesis for Generation Y

I’ve said from time to time that I think we would be better off if we could just stop using the word “Millennials” to describe my generation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word written down where it wasn’t meant disparagingly, and it often comes with very little other information to describe what it means.

So, for a bit of background, let’s learn about Generation Y (which is a boring term, but so far doesn’t carry the weight that “Millennial” does) in America.

We are the generation born from around 1980 to around 2000. We were all children when 9/11 happened, and the “post-9/11” global politic has been the one that has shaped us most into adulthood. We are the first generation to have “grown up” with the internet, and we respond quickly to technological advances. We are, generally speaking, more politically liberal than our parents. We are less religious than previous generations, and we are often anti-religion. We have (or had) great expectations of educational and economic success, and have been characteristically disappointed by the world we found ourselves in after school. We also had great expectations of our impact on the world, and have met with frustration over perceived inability to affect change.

I’m sure you can quickly find out more about us, but this paints a broad-stroke picture of the generation of people I believe the graphic short-story Genesis (created by Nathan Edmonson, Alison Sampson, and Jason Wordie) was written for.

The comic is bookended with the simple phrase, “They said I’d change the world for better or worse.” This is an idea that has been offered to the members of Generation Y since the beginning of our education. We were told the stories of Martin Luther King Jr., of John F. Kennedy, of Mother Theresa, even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We were told all of these stories and then we were told that we could do so much more!

These were the kind of expectations with which we approached adulthood.

In the comic, the main character becomes a priest, determining that religion was how he would make a difference, but he quickly discovers that — despite the fact that he is speaking to people, and they seem to be listening — nothing is changing.

I can identify with this sentiment, partially as a preacher and partially as a member of this generation. I value words, partially because I was taught that what we write and what we say matter, but also because most of my work as a preacher is centered around words. Words spoken in worship, words in lessons, words in sermons. But at the end of the day, saying something is not the same as doing something, and speaking about change is not the same as seeing change happen.

In the comic, by means of some mystical encounter, the main character gains the ability to change the world just by imagining something. He can create with mere thoughts.

Suddenly his perceived impotence to change the world is gone, and he sets about “fixing” the world. He makes food grow where people are hungry, he provides shelter for victims of a hurricane. He provides for the world in the best way he can imagine, and the world loves him for it.

Then, in an act of selfishness, he changes his wife’s body and it results in her death.

From that point on, his imaginations are dark and twisted, and he is afraid of his own mind. He curses the being that gave him his powers over reality. In the process of trying to undo the damage that he’s done, he learns how his abilities are limited. He can manifest things from his imagination, things that already exist somehow, but he can’t create from nothing.

Eventually, through effort and wrestling with himself he comes to realize the following: He has the power to destroy, the power to change the world, and the power to hurt people – all powers he already had before the mystical encounter.

Without spoiling the rest of the comic, I believe this is the crux of what we are meant to read in this book. It’s the message that Generation Y has to hear, so that it doesn’t get bogged down in the places where it feels like the world is out of its hands. Generation Y needs more than words to take advantage of its power, but the power is still out there.

And like another comic we all know and love told us, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Friday Feature: Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man

DC’s massive “New 52” reboot has been met with, we’ll say, a mixed response. Of the 52 books originally launched with the reboot, a few didn’t make it past their 6th issue, others have lost creative teams, and others just never had the stuff to grab new audiences the way the relaunch was supposed to.

But Jeff Lemire’s relaunch of Animal Man was one of the books that gained critical favor relatively quickly and managed to retain it throughout its run.

With the exception of a few hiccups and minor missteps, Animal Man has been the book to read from the New 52. The title ceased as of March this year when Lemire said he felt like he had finished the story he wanted to tell, and, according to his blog, appreciated that DC let him end the story on his own terms.

My process of mourning the end of one of my favorite comics came as soon as I opened the first page of issue #29, the final issue, and I’ll miss the Animal Man solo title until DC decides to bring it back to life. Animal Man is currently represented in the pages of Justice League: United, but if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s a book with more shortcomings than positive traits.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool character. He’s a celebrity actor, a family man, he has a dorky name, his power set is just described as “animal powers,” and he has a confusing back story (that maybe involves “aliens”), but in the hands of a good creative team, he is unquestionably my favorite hero. Good writers can tell very potent stories about Buddy Baker and his family. Lemire is one of those writers, from book one, Baker’s driving motivation is his children and his wife.

Because of this, his heroics are often reluctant. While it seems like Buddy gets some pleasure out of his powers, he would give them up in an instant if it meant his family would be safe.

A-Man and his family…

In Lemire’s storyline, however, Animal Man learns that he and his powers play an important role in the cosmic makeup of the earth. He is the Avatar of “the Red,” the aggregate of all animal life, is is responsible for defending it from the other kingdoms of life: “the Green,” plant life, and “the Rot,” decay. Each kingdom has an Avatar, which are responsible for keeping life in balance.

So Lemire sets a cosmic stage in which to tell an intimate story: the story of Buddy Baker’s relationship to his family. If this sounds like your cup of tea, there’s nothing to wait for! Hit up your nearest local comic shop and pick out as much as you can of Lemire’s run on Animal Man. Then when you’re done, go back and read Grant Morrison’s run, from which we get my favorite single comic chapter ever: The Coyote Gospel.

Friday Feature: Transistor

A little while ago (2011) a brand new game studio, called Supergiant Games,  showed up at PAX with a cute little action game. Gameplay-wise, it was nothing to shake up the action game scene, even by indie game standards What made this game truly unique, though, was it’s art-house style and peculiar narrative design.

In Bastion, the landscape itself formed up around the protagonist as he made his way through the game, fighting off enemies as they popped out of the ground. Much like the land itself, the narration of “The Kid” and his story happened only as you played. None of the story was told through cutscenes and the narrator only ever responded to the player’s actions. These two components of Bastion gave players the feeling of more involvement in the story. Rather than playing the game to reveal the story, the story was about what they were doing.

Of course Bastion was still a very linear game, but its claims to fame – gradual terrain and responsive narration (not to mention the absolutely unbelievable soundtrack by Darren Korb) – are no less well-earned.

But just last week, Supergiant Games released their second title: Transistor. 

Transistor is more than just a worthy successor Bastion.

The gameplay feels like a natural progression from where Bastion began. Both games would comfortably be described as “action” games, but Transistor incorporates strategic “tactics”-like elements (other “tactics” games include Final Fantasy TacticsAdvance WarsFire EmblemX-COM, and The Banner Saga) that make Transistor feel a bit more grown-up. Less technically speakig, of course, Transistor is just plain fun! As the titular weapon downloads more “Functions” (the game’s name for your attacks), experimenting with different combinations becomes almost as entertaining as the plentiful battles that adorn your journey.

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back. It’s even more than that, I don’t want to spoil any of the story, because it’s worth your investment. Suffice it to say that it rivals or even surpasses its AAA, giant game company, contemporaries while coming from a still-very-small studio.

The story is probably best described as a sci-fi noir romance. It has classic elements of all three genres, but it adapts them into something wholly new and claims it for its own. Where both Bastion and Transistor are set against the backdrop of collapsing “civilizations,” Transistor‘s approach is able to carry the romantic sub-genre in a way that Bastion wouldn’t have been able to, and as a result the protagonist is far more sympathetic, even while silent.

The game also carries on the grand tradition of having an unparalleled soundtrack, something I find to be an asset to any game, but it makes ones like Bastion and Transistor really stand out from the crowd. Darren Korb’s work is the music that the games industry deserves.

All-in-all, Transistor is just worth your time and money, don’t be kicking yourself when it starts getting tossed around as a possible game of the year – play it now!

Interactive Tragedy: The Kobayashi Maru, Storytelling, and Videogames

SPOILER WARNING: The Banner Saga, Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us.

Shakespeare is famous more for his tragedies than his comedies (or histories or poetry), but Shakespeare is far from the only tragic playwright. Aristotle believed that the purpose of tragedy is catharsis – the purging emotions like fear and anger through art. Shakespeare’s tragedies were famous for all (or nearly all) of the main characters meeting an untimely demise at some point during the story. This tradition continues in movies like The Departed and Pan’s Labyrinth, and to some extent in noir comics like Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal and Fatale .

One of the features of many of these stories is he often rapid decline and unravelling of the lives of people who would be “normal.” Tragedies are easily identified by the untimely demise of the main characters, often as a result of their own actions.

Tragic storytelling has long been a feature of art, but rarely is interactive storytelling (a-la video games) truly tragic in the Shakespearean sense. Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us, and most recently for me, The Banner Saga, are recent exceptions to this rule. These games, all of which rely on emotional investment in the primary protagonist to tell their story, are tragedies.

The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional “test” given to Starfleet cadets in the Star Trek universe. It is designed to be an unwinnable scenario – the cadet receiving the test encounters a disabled ship in the Klingon neutral zone. Rescuing the ship will violate the treaty and provoke an attack from the Klingons, but leaving the ship stranded will undoubtedly mean the death of the ship and its passengers. The test became part of the mainstream canon thanks to the 2009 Star Trek movie, in which James Tiberius Kirk cheats the test and reprograms it in order to make the scenario “winnable.”

Kirk famously insists that he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

Interactive tragedy feels like a no-win scenario. In the realm of video games, it can be particularly frustrating. No matter how meticulously you play through each chapter, it’s often cut-scenes or non-interactive moments that snatch your beloved characters away from you. Sometimes, however, it’s a result of the choices you make that the characters you have invested in have to die.

My recent experience with The Banner Saga left me reeling a little bit. The story begins in a world already engulfed in tragedy: the gods are dead, giants and humans have been at war, mysterious creatures called Dredge are now invading the homes of both, forcing an uneasy alliance between them. Above all, the sun has stopped moving through the sky and the already-restless world is bathed in ceaseless daylight, offering the weary stragglers and survivors of two wars no night in which to find sleep.

The game centers around managing your struggling caravan of refugees as you make your way from one overcrowded stronghold to the next. The days tick by while your resources are soaked up. Many times, a week or more would go by between towns where I could restock our carts of food and supplies. Many times I was only able to buy a couple of days worth of rations on each stop.

With every day that goes by after your food runs out, your clansmen, fighters, and allied giants will die off in greater and greater numbers. Before I finally reached the final stronghold where we were forced to turn and fight the approaching Dredge, an inland sea at our backs, my caravan had gone for 4 days without food.

[Major spoilers follow for The Banner Saga] When we were making our final stand, my character’s daughter stepped forward. The party had been given a single arrow, forged from metal imbued with a dead god’s power, and it was the only weapon that could take down the large, vengeful Dredge called Bellower that had been hunting us throughout the game. She was a master archer, and I was less skilled. Despite my insistence that Bellower’s vengeful nature would make the wielder of the magic arrow his primary target, she said, “It’s time for me to decide what happens to me,” and took the arrow into battle where she would be sure to make the shot, and sure to incur Bellower’s wrath.

There was nothing I could do to stop it. We brought down the giant Dredge, but we watched the young woman crushed in his hands.

In the course of the game, I’d lost several friends to unforeseeable consequences of decisions I’d made for the good of the caravan. My most trusted friend lost his arm defending us. I was responsible for destroying a magnificent bridge, constructed by the giants, in a vain attempt to slow the advancing dredge army. Hundreds of fighters died under my “command.”

But this moment, this excruciating moment, was when I realized the tragedy of this story. As we floated her body away on a boat we’d set ablaze, I realized there was no other way it could have gone. Whoever shot that arrow was going to die, and though part of me wished that I had given it to my own character, my character’s daughter had a point: it was her turn to define what would happen to her.

The Kobayashi Maru is a simulated tragedy to teach Starfleet cadets a lesson about “real life” no-win scenarios they might encounter as the commander of a starship. It’s not real, but unprepared cadets would go into the test expecting to pass it, and would be shocked into learning a lesson that they will be making hard decisions one which lives would depend in their careers with starfleet.

Tragic plays, novels, and movies offer emotional catharsis, benefiting the viewers and readers. They’re also simulated tragedy in that they’re not “real” events. It’s not a lesson learned, like with the Kobayashi Maru, but it’s an emotional investment in art that changes you for the better.

Video games walk a line between what the (admittedly fictional) Kobayashi Maru does and what Macbeth does. They are interactive, like the Kobayashi, and decisions you make will affect the outcome of the story, the “lives” of some of the characters depend on you. Emotional investments are part of what makes these tragedies meaningful, like in other tragedies, but the impact of your own decisions on the stories gives the a different character. It’s one thing to watch Macbeth’s downward spiral into oblivion, it’s an entirely different and deeper thing to be the cause of it.

Simulated tragedy hurts. Interactive tragedy hurts worse.

Friday Feature: Lazarus

We’ve gone a few weeks without a Friday Feature around here. I’ve been working 2 jobs and honestly, the Feature column has taken a back burner to other things. I was happy to have it as a weekly column, but it looks like that won’t be possible anymore. So from now on, I’ll be posting a Friday Feature whenever I can get around to it!

This week my fanboyish affections are turned to Lazarus, a comic book by Greck Rucka and  Michael Lark. I got a week behind in my monthly readings, so this month’s Lazarus actually came out 2 weeks ago, and I’m really sorry I waited to read it!

 

The basic premise behind Lazarus is that the world (or at least the United States) has been broken up into feudal oligarchies ruled by a handful of absurdly wealthy families. In this dystopian future, these families are known for particular industries or territories, and there is at least some cooperation between them for economic purposes, but they operate in a cutthroat system and most families will gladly betray another for a leg up.

Every family has one member who is their “Lazarus,” (from which this book takes its name) who is a specially trained and specially engineered. The Lazarus is the guardian and assassin of the family, all-but or perhaps entirely unkillable. Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of the Carlyle family and the protagonist of the comic. Forever doesn’t seem to fully understand the intrigue of her family, but she is a capable soldier and is loyal, almost to a fault.

While the politics of the Carlyle family is interesting and offers compelling drama, Lazarus sets up another, even more interesting drama about the “waste” (the tasteless but honest name that the ruling families assign people who live in their territory, but do not serve them directly as serfs and who are not a part of the family). Focusing on one family in particular, the creators tell the story of some of these poor folks who, in the midst of a natural disaster, lose their home and are left high and dry by the Carlyles, who offer no help. Their story of coping with a system that leaves them powerless, poor, and hungry is set up early on, but in April, we really got to see it follow through.

I won’t spoil anything about it, but it’s satisfying to see that storyline explored with so much effort, rather than just letting it drop in favor of Forever’s story.

Lazarus is a violent book. Blood and dismemberment are, if not frequent, more common than in other books, so, it’s definitely a “rated R” read.

Writing Sexy Well

99% of the time, when someone talks about the sexualization of pop culture, they mean it in a negative way. I’m guilty of this negative thinking, of course. I get annoyed when characters (especially female) are included in stories just to be sexy counterparts to the main character. The writer of Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick, calls this the “sexy lamp” paradox — if a character could be replaced with a nice looking lamp and not really change the story at all, then you have a problem.

To be honest, though, I wouldn’t want a comic culture completely devoid of sex (or sexiness). After all, sex is a pretty natural and (nearly) universal aspect of humanity. It’s valuable to have art and stories that address sex in a comfortable and honest way, while still dealing with the strange social conventions (and shame and discomfort) that come with it.

That’s what Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky does.

When the book first began it’s monthly run, I was resistant. First of all, I had just read a book by Matt Fraction that I didn’t really like, so I was suspicious of all the hype he was getting as a writer on a new Image title. Secondly, there was just so much hype. After a while, reading comic journalistic outlets became frustrating. “We get it, already, Sex Criminals is starting soon…” Thirdly, I thought the concept of the book sounded kind of lame. The back cover reads: “Girl meets boy, girl hooks up with boy, and for the first time in their lives they find themselves alone, together. So they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

That summary is eye-roll inducing at best.

But I waited a few months and the hype didn’t die down. Every month Sex Criminals was getting rave reviews and was earning more and more buzz in the comics community. The first issue went into 5 print runs. That means it sold out at least 4 times before they quit selling it.

I wasn’t even convinced by its popularity until I saw the 4th printing cover of issue 1.

When I saw it, I was ready to pony up the dollars to check it out. Unfortunately my local comic book shop at the time sold out of that printing and so I didn’t get to read it until this past month when Volume 1 of Sex Criminals was released. It collects issues #1-5.

I don’t want to spoil the comic too much because it’s worth reading on your own another time but here’s the core concept: whenever Suzie (the female lead) or Jon (the male lead) orgasm, time stops around them. The first volume is mostly about the conditions under which they meet and decide to attempt the “crime” that earns the book its title.

Despite the setting, the majority of the book is actually a realistic (or at least believable) look at how adolescent-to-teenage people encounter sex. In Jon’s words, “Back then sex was everywhere… and, like, nowhere at the same time. Right?”

Suzie and Jon are introduced to sex in different ways. Perhaps both in ways that women and men can identify with respectively. Suzie “stops time” before she understands what sexuality is, and is met with resistance whenever she asks questions from those who might know. Her mother refuses to answer anything and offers only shame, her doctor dissuades her from experiencing (or asking about) sex until she’s married, even her peers can only offer more confusion – since they are equally uninformed.

Jon doesn’t get it either – he just understands sex as something adults did “like doing your taxes,” and then doesn’t understand why he wants so badly “to do his taxes.” Instead of seeking answers from someone who might know, Jon goes to the next best authority figure: porn. For both of them, sex is a secret and opens them up to a world of more secrets.

Suzie calls it “the Quiet” – the period after sex when the time stops around them – because the rest of the world stops making any sound. (Jon calls it something else, decidedly NSFW.) The Quiet seems like a good metaphor for the way adolescents and teens are exposed to sex for the first time. It’s secret, but it’s all around them; it’s private, and it’s weird; it’s confusing and it’s unfathomably desirable.

Suzie and Jon’s first time together in the Quiet.

Aside from the way Sex Criminals handles the attitudes of each character toward sex, and the development of each one’s sexuality, the book also does something impeccable. It is honest about how funny sex is! Let’s think for a second and be honest with ourselves – sex is weird and fun and awkward and it makes us giggle. While the humor in this book doesn’t always stem from sexual encounters, it’s disarming and makes the whole book feel more authentic.

When you pick up Sex Criminals, keep an eye out for the subtle (or not so subtle) jokes in the background. Plenty of the porn titles seen in the background of a sex shop had me laughing outloud while I read.

It’s refreshing to see a comic book that is so comfortable with sexuality. I was suspect of the campy, B-Reel movie plot that is teased on the back cover, but this book has a lot more going for it that can’t be summed up in cover quotes and blurbs. Pop-culture has a love-hate relationship with sex – it either falls into the trap of feigned maturity (masking immaturity) that oversexualizes characters and situations (usually female characters), or it avoids the topic of sex entirely. It’s not that every comic book has to mention sex to tell “real” stories, but telling stories about human experience must sometimes require acknowledging our sexual natures.

Sex Criminals is definitely the exception to the rule. It’s disarmingly tongue in-cheek, but without belittling sexuality; it speaks seriously about social conventions of sex, but without being a treatise on sex-positive child-rearing.

Comics have grown up. For real this time. Instead of pretending to be grown-up by being ridiculously violent, now they’re effortlessly comfortable with their own sexuality. That’s a good thing, and I’m interested to see if it’s a new trend or just a flash in the pan.