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.

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Forward Momentum

There are  a lot of lessons that can be learned from the 8 Bit era of video games:

-Vegetables are always good for you (especially mushrooms)

-It’s dangerous to go alone.

-There’s always a proper order in which to tackle things (like robots)

-Looks can be deceiving (or box covers aren’t everything)

Mario 1

but the most important is one simple statement…

Move Forward.

In many of those classic games there was no going back. All your character could do was continue forward. You might have missed a power-up, you might have forgotten to grab a coin, or you may have timed a jump poorly and been de-powered; but none of it mattered. You had to keep moving forward.

In a weird way, that was one of my first life lessons; that regardless of what has happened sometimes all you can do here is

Move Forward.

Mega 1

Those early games taught me that sometimes all you can have is your forward momentum; and sometimes that will have to be enough. Much like the games that we loved, life is full of ups and downs and sometimes it will throw things at us that will try to bring us to a screeching halt. It will put people in our path, some to help and some to hurt. It will throw us into the middle of a storm and not tell us how to swim. It will throw you into a no-win situation and expect you to come out on top.

In the games, it was the past that educated you. You had to learn from your mistakes – and there would be many. You had to remember what had come before, to better understand it in the future. More importantly, you had to understand that you couldn’t dwell on what happened before, because what was after was just around the corner. You couldn’t help but to…

Move Forward.

This is a lesson that I still struggle with today. Things happen and I want to dwell on them. I let them sit and fester inside of me and let life pass me by. I don’t want to move forward, I want to go back to the way things were. I want to correct the mistakes of the past. I want to go back to a time when there was still a chance for something good to happen…but I can’t…and neither can you. All we can do is…

Move Forward.

Link 1

Much like the games, it is healthy to reflect on what has happened before, but only with the knowledge that it’s to help you in what is to come. Dwelling in the past, trying to get back there, does no one any good. The past is there to educate the present and to effect the future. Mario learns the same way we do; through trial and error and continuing on, despite circumstances.

There are things in life that we will miss; relationships that we didn’t take the chance on, job opportunities that we let slip on by, and many others. There are mistakes that we will make; hurting someone close, choosing the wrong side, ignoring the obvious among other things. This is the way of things, one of life’s few constants. Nonetheless, if we are to keep living all we can continue to do is take one step on and

Move Forward.

It is one of life’s hardest lessons, and one that many of us still have a hard time overcoming. It’s a lesson that’s hard to teach, let alone grasp. Yet, the 8bit games that we love gave us a simple visual metaphor for that exact thing. Whether they knew it or not, those creators were teaching us something as kids that would help us for years to come; a lesson we could pass on to everyone who came after.

There will always be days that seem dark. There will always be times when it seems like we can’t move on. Luckily, there was an Italian Plumber who struggled with the same thing, and showed us the answer. We are indebted to the pink bottomless pit that reminded us what matters is the journey forward. It is in the sacrifice of the blue hedgehog that we were able to see that going onward, despite all obstacles is always the greater path.

To no matter what…

…Move Forward

 

To Sort or Not to Sort: The Wisdom of Hufflepuff

Poor Hufflepuff. You are truly the least appreciated of the Hogwarts houses. The ambitious go to Slytherin, the wise go to Ravenclaw, the brave go to Gryffindor, and Hufflepuff gets the leftovers.

January-16-2013-14-16-54-h9658CFEA

The Sorting Hat’s song from The Order of the Phoenix seems to say as much:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
I
ntelligence is surest”
Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

On the surface, it seems that Helga Hufflepuff got stuck with the students that nobody else wanted. But if we read on, we see that Hufflepuff was actually the wisest of the four founders. The Sorting Hat continues:

So Hogwarts worked in harmony
for several happy years,
but then discord crept among us
feeding on our faults and fears.
The Houses that, like pillars four
had once held up our school
now turned upon each other and
divided, sought to rule.
And for a while it seemed the school
must meet an early end.
what with dueling and with fighting
and the clash of friend on friend.
And at last there came a morning
when old Slytherin departed
and though the fighting then died out
he left us quite downhearted.
And never since the founders four
were whittled down to three
have the Houses been united
as they once were meant to be.

I propose that Hufflepuff didn’t “teach the lot and treat them just the same” because she got stuck with the leftovers; she did this because placing greater value on certain characteristics and separating these people into different groups was antithetical to her character. “Take the lot and treat them just the same” is the value that is at the core of every Hufflepuff’s character. Just as Slytherins are driven by ambition, Gryffindors by courage, and Ravenclaws by intelligence, Hufflepuffs are driven by justice, equality, and inclusivity. In a word, Hufflepuffs are driven by the most powerful magic in the world: love.

Love can’t conceive of closing the door to anyone, but instead welcomes everyone in and “treats them just the same.” If you ask me, if it had been up to Hufflepuff, Hogwarts would not have been divided into houses at all, and the conflict between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and all the historical fallout of their rift, could have been avoided.

The Sorting Hat itself acknowledges the wisdom of Hufflepuff:

And now the Sorting Hat is here
and you all know the score:
I sort you into Houses
because that is what I’m for.
But this year I’ll go further,
l
isten closely to my song:
though condemned I am to split you
still I worry that it’s wrong,
though I must fulfill my duty
and must quarter every year
still I wonder whether sorting
may not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
the warning history shows,
for our Hogwarts is in danger
from external, deadly foes
and we must unite inside her
or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
l
et the Sorting now begin.

In one of my classes this year, we took the Enneagram personality assessment.  Like the Sorting Hat, the Enneagram classifies you into a certain personality type, but takes your self-assessment into account as well.

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-284

I ended up as a Type 5, also called “The Investigator.” These types are focused on gathering knowledge and wisdom. (Classic Ravenclaw). Some of my friends were Type 8, or “The Protector.”  They are natural leaders who are driven by a desire to protect the weak and fight injustice. (Gryffindors for sure). Others were Type 3, “The Performer.” These types are very driven to succeed in life, and to project an image of success to the world. (Hey there, Slytherin). Type 9, “The Mediator,” is good at connecting with others and desires peace and harmony. (What’s up, Hufflepuff).

The idea behind our class taking this assessment was to get an insight into one another’s personality types and communication styles, so that we can better understand each other’s weaknesses and learn from each other’s strengths. However, what the activity turned out to provide was a simple and systematic way for the class to stereotype each other and write each other off. Fives rolled their eyes at the impulsiveness of the Eights. Eights were appalled by the opportunistic attitudes of the Threes. Threes admonished the Nines to stop letting people walk all over them. Rather than creating an opportunity for greater understanding among the class, the Enneagram assessment gave us a ready-made system of division, and we hopped right on.

I don’t mean to trash the Enneagram; it’s one of the more open-ended personality tests out there, and can be a useful tool for self-reflection and self-improvement. But my class is one example of the way that categorizing people into “types” creates division rather than harmony. It’s important to acknowledge diversity, but in order to draw strength from diversity, we have to get mixed up in communities of people who are different from us.  I think Helga Hufflepuff understood that.

The true greatness of the Hufflepuff spirit is celebrated in this Wizard Wrock classic, “The House of Awesome Theme Song,” by The Whomping Willows. Check it out. Regardless of our differences and our House loyalties, we’re all members of the House of Awesome.

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.

Yorick Brown and Women After Mass Descruction

031512-y-the-last-man

So, I was a little late to this game.

Nearly 12 years late, to be more precise.

But I finally was introduced to Y: the Last Man, a comic book series that follows the story of Yorick, the last man on Earth after a mysterious plague wipes out every other male on the planet in an instant, and his Capuchin monkey (also a uniquely surviving male), Ampersand. He’s hoping to find his fiancée who was in Australia when the “plague” hit, but before he can get there, he’s obliged to let top scientist & cloning expert Dr. Allison Mann trace what might’ve made him & Ampersand immune; and secret agent “355” is assigned to help them get from D.C. to Mann’s lab in California.

The comic (created by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra) is apparently was originally released as monthly & bimonthly serials from September 2002 through March 2008. But, I blazed through the 10-volume edition in about 2 days.

(This would explain my initial confusion over the pacing — it takes place over the course of about 5 years, but it took me a little while to grasp that).

The series is referred to throughout the interwebs as “beloved”, and mixed sighs of relief & groans of despair emerged this January when the years-long attempt to turn it into a movie seemed to have officially failed. It has a strong, loyal following, and many fans have since endorsed Vaughan’s current series, Saga (including our very own Stewart Self).

However, I was completely unaware of its fan following, reputation, or that Vaughan was at all involved with Saga when I picked up Volume 1 last week. My boyfriend had been suggesting it for months, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

The scenario propelling the story really is fascinating — it asks us, what would literally happen to modern society if all the males died? As the kind of “foreword” to Volume 2 points out,

  • 495 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are now dead
  • 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers are now deceased
  • Israel is the only country with a wide range of skilled soldiers still alive (none of the US army’s 200,000 female troops have ever participated in ground combat, and only 13 nations besides Israel trained them to see any)
  • Worldwide, 85% of all government representatives are now dead
  • Though 51% of the planet’s agricultural labor force is still alive

In the series itself, these statistics & the “plague” create some interesting specifics:

  • The new US president is the former Secretary of Agriculture — everyone above her in the line of succession was male
  • Supermodels have found new jobs — one is a mortician & body collector for the government
  • The US congress is now suddenly almost entirely Democrats (though the wives of deceased Republican congressmen want to change that by succeeding their husbands’ seats)
  • Geopolitical power is determined almost entirely by what military roles women happened to be allowed into before the plague
From p. 48 in Volume 6

From p. 48 in Volume 6

I was intrigued, for sure. The first volume piqued my interest, enough even to carry me through some eye-roll-inducing moments in 2 & 3 (“[Motorcycles] are tougher to score than Double-A batteries for your vibrator, lady.”) and straw-man feminists (the Daughters of the Amazon cult is especially noxious, but in hindsight maybe it’s realistic & interesting that terrorists would co-opt such a loaded title).

Even with the eye-rolls I endured at moments in Volumes 2 & 3, I was hooked by the end of Volume 4.

Despite the comic’s title, the story isn’t really about Yorick, the “Last Man”. And, to be honest, he isn’t even the most interesting character (I rank him at #4 on my personal list). In this way, he reminds me of Piper Chapman on Orange is the New Black — he & Piper are the trails we follow as the reader (or viewer), but they really serve as a conduit to introduce us to other, more interesting characters’ paths along the way. The series is really about women; not men, or even one man.

And what a well-developed, complex, and compelling bunch of women they are!

My top “interesting character” is Agent 355, a sort of extra covert agent from a historic government security ring who is escorting Yorick & Dr. Mann in their journey. Through multiple flashbacks sprinkled believably throughout the 5-year story arc (and this is another way it reminds me of Orange is the New Black), we come to understand a fair bit of what made Agent 355 who she is today. Her personality and her motives are not neatly packaged & served up as an inevitable product of her experiences, however — she has her own agency and makes her own choices as an individual, not just as an agent, nor just as a woman. We see her character turn from reluctant to willing killer, and then in a way circle back again.

355

Next on my list would be “Alter” Tse’elon, an Israeli Defense Forces Colonel who becomes the de facto Chief of the General Staff, and appears up throughout the series, across multiple continents. Her motivations are mysterious; she makes up her own moral code and refuses to deviate from it, to the point of becoming a very flawed character (but flawed is real; realer than the Strong Female Character Trope, I’d say). And I think she is her own unique, complex brand of disturbed. Think Dexter Morgan or Macchiavelli’s Prince, perhaps.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Third, I choose “Beth #2” on my “interesting character” list. She’s a determined survivor, and uses her well-honed savviness & empathy to successfully interact with potential threats & allies around her. She’s a former flight attendant and a lapsed Catholic, yet she shelters herself in a church through most of the series. And, honestly, she just seems cool.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

There are other characters I found fascinating — Dr. Allison Mann, who was on the verge of cloning a human when the plague struck and may be the only way to figure out what spared Yorick; Yorick’s confused, angry-yet-penitent sister Hero; a lesbian Australian spy named Rose, and even the aforementioned ex-supermodel-turned-mortician, Waverly. But those earlier three are at the tip-top of my list.

Yorick himself is not a flimsy character, I should point out. Yes, he can be immature & annoying at first (he is just a 22-year-old when it starts, after all), but if you read further into the series (ahem, Volume 4…) you realize this is an intentional and temporary choice by the creators.

An element I find fascinating about Y the Last Man is how humans need to find a cause & reason for this “plague” — to the point of even creating a new mythology to explain it.

The Daughters of the Amazon (my least favorite part of the series, as I found them to be rather straw-man feminist-y with weird, brainwashing/predatory lesbianism aspects) have concluded that Mother Earth saw fit to purge herself of the mutant males. The newly populated “Sons of Arizona” believe it’s a conspiracy by the Federal government in order to usurp states’ rights, and that a shadow government is lying in wait. A tiny, ancient Vatican order believes God wants the church to pull the world out of this new “dark” age through a second Virgin birth.

The remaining populace seems desperate to find a way to explain, and maybe even justify, what has happened — and to justify their own responses to the crisis.

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

The way women choose to react — or react despite their best efforts — to this new world varies widely. Looting & pillaging is rampant at first across much of the world, but some communities (like the released convicts from a women’s prison) shape a successful society almost immediately. Many women turn to self-medicating or suicide. Some attempt to (almost literally) fill the exact roles that men filled (like the women joining the “Sons of Arizona” or the Republican congressmen’s wives who want to take over their seats). Others proclaim to reject everything about patriarchal society, but seem to fail miserably at doing so (the Daughters of the Amazon). Still others are content to take what they like from the old world & abandon what no longer works, without worrying over anything but what feels right to them in this new time.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

What I appreciate about Y: The Last Man is that the comic doesn’t say that there’s a “right way” for women to respond to the tragedy, nor a “right” way to shape the new society. We don’t get the answers to all our questions in the end, and therefore we don’t get the easy out of knowing who to blame. Life was complicated before all but one of the men died, and it stayed complicated and confusing after. Everyone is still a little bit right and a little bit wrong (well, maybe some people are a lot a bit wrong) yet it’s clear how everyone can believe they’re the hero of their own story — not just Yorick. He’s just the vehicle to let them tell their stories.

Sacrificing Peter; or Why the Amazing Spider-Man may not be so Amazing

I’m a fan of superheroics. Whether it has been Superman, Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern; I’ve always had a soft spot for those sorts of stories. Yet, despite my ever changing tastes there has always been one character that will always stick with me…

Peter Parker.

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Let’s rewind a little bit…

Growing up, school was always rough for me. By the time I had reached middle school being picked on had become routine, and the question had become whether or not I was going to get beat up in the process. I didn’t have many friends, and the fact that I was into video games, computing, and Star Wars sure didn’t help my case any. Most days ended with me getting home and wondering if I should ever go back to that place.

I dreamed of escape. I prayed for some way to fight back. I hoped for a way to make it all end.

It was about that time that I ran into Peter.

To this day, I can’t remember what exact series of events led me to stumble into Spider-man’s adventures, but it was just what I needed at the time.

Here was a story about a kid in high school, not too unlike myself. He was picked on, beat up, and could talk to girls just about as well as I could. (Which was not at all.) He was completely powerless until one day when some spider bit him. Then everything changed…

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It was complete and utter wish fulfillment for me. I saw myself in Peter Parker and took hope that if this nerdy guy can make it, albeit with superpowers, maybe I could get through this as well.

I firmly believe that Peter Parker is one of the reasons I made it through those rough years. Many, many years later now, I can still look back and read those comics and feel that connection to the character.

It’s probably why I was so shocked to see Peter as a skateboarding hipster in the newer film, The Amazing Spider-man.

My initial reaction was that my own nostalgia was getting in the way, but the more I thought about it, the more it got to me. This Peter was cool, a social outcast, maybe; but cool nonetheless. This Peter saves a nerd from getting beat up in the film, a role classically reserved for Peter himself. This Peter could charm Gwen Stacy.

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Everything had seemingly flipped upside down.

The Amazing Spider-man was a good action movie and did well enough that the sequel is coming out this summer. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t feel like a Spider-man movie.

The CG may be better, and Andrew Garfield’s body build looks better in the suit than Toby Maguire’s did, and the fight scenes may be a heck of a lot cooler; but there’s something missing.

What made Peter Parker so wonderful for so many of us was that he was just some kid thrown into unimaginable situations. He had the same problems that we all had; being picked on, school, girl trouble, plus the added stress of super-heroics and all the problems that caused.

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In this new film, Peter might has well have been destined for fights and tights. His parents were scientists and if the trailer for the sequel is to be believed, it’s implied that his father is responsible for many of Spider-man’s classic foes.

This cheapens his hero’s journey and takes away something that made him so amazing (pun intended.)

It is not heroic to fix your father’s mistakes, nor to solve your own. What makes Peter great is that he was an average kid, with un-average powers, that decided to put life and limb on the line for others for no other reason than he believed it was the right thing to do.

It is the fact that Peter is just, “one of us,” that makes his choice to don the mask truly incredible. He’s not just another guy in tights fighting super villains. He’s our “friendly neighborhood Spider-man!” For better or for worse, the new film seemingly loses that amidst the spectacle.

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It’s ironic that my last post here on the Playground was about the dangers of nostalgia and how it can effect our experiences; and one could argue that I need to listen to myself on this one. The difference here is that unlike other “re-interpretations” [see Transformers] that keep the spirit of the original, The Amazing Spider-man completely changes the core of the main character.

This is not the Peter Parker who inspired me to survive. This is not the nerd who had to be set up on a date with the prettiest girl in school by his aunt, because he was too busy with science projects. This “new” Peter is hip and trendy and coming from a totally different place. He’s the outsider, the underappreciated genius, the teen with the charming smile. Growing up, I would say I want to be this Peter; yet I look to the classic interpretation and know I am him.

As I have said in previous posts, I am glad we are getting more Spider-man stories. Nerd culture is better for it, and they always make for a good summer blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that we had to sacrifice Peter Parker to make that happen.

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