Review Or Die

Recommending Comics for New Readers, from A to Z

One of the things which has frustrated me over the years is the insular nature of comics. The mental checks I have to do to see if a recommendation is something a human being could be expected to read without having Wikipedia open is only possible because of a memory for minutiae so vast that it overrides non-vital areas of basic human functionality, like the ability to recite the alphabet without singing the song under my breath. The first time you’re asked to explain the difference between a graphic novel and a comic, or what a trade paperback is and how that’s different from a graphic novel, you see how difficult the subject is to penetrate for somebody new to comics. And just for the people who aren’t familiar, here’s a quick guide.

Comic: A comic, while defined as a story told through the marriage of words and pictures, is the colloquial term for a single ‘issue’, which is published periodically like a magazine.

Trade paperback: This is a compilation of previously published issues, usually containing a story arc and not necessarily done in paperback: colloquially, they are known as a ‘trade.’

Graphic novel: A comic story published in a single installment. Having a sequel does not stop it, or its sequel, from being considered a graphic novel.

Anyway, what really clinched my problems with accessibility was Guardians of the Galaxy. After finding out that in order to read the Abnett/Lanning run of Guardians of the Galaxy that inspired the film I would need to read Marvel Annihilation, an 880 page event ‘comic’ spread across nine titles, conveniently collected in a $90 omnibus, I sat in stunned silence. Gee, when reading a comic requires research with a page count higher than my college textbook and a price to match, how is it possible that comic book movies gross over a billion dollars in theaters, while only four comics in January of 2015 managed to sell over 100,000 copies in the United States?

So here I am, with a list of recommendations for people new to comics, from A to Z (with a few missing letters). Here are the rules for constructing the list:

1. I have to have read it. I’m not here for hearsay.

2. The comic must be available to read in digital (Kindle or Comixology) or trade paperback format. You can usually find comics like these in your library system, in comic shops, or online through digital retailers.

3. The comic must not be bogged down by continuity in a way that makes it confusing to just pick up and read. If one quick question can get a reader on track, or prior stories are not required for you to follow and enjoy it, it’s fair game.

And finally, I made an effort to avoid repetition so as to provide as many options as I could for new readers, or people who may only be comfortable with one area of comics. So let’s begin, shall we?

A – The Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Amazing-Spider-Man-33-page-01 The Stan Lee and Steve Ditko run of Spider-Man, starting from his very first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, showcases all the best elements of a superhero comic. Peter Parker is an immensely identifiable protagonist, with strong characterization and top-notch art and writing throughout the run. The focus on Peter Parker as much as Spider-Man keeps the world grounded, and it is all the better for it. While some may find the storytelling conventions a bit dated or familiar, it’s only because it codified those conventions in a way every Spider-Man creator (and so many more) since has striven to emulate.

You can find these stories in the Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man collections.

B – Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

year-one While superhero origins tend to be told and re-told, Batman Year One is a story so good that it has served as the definitive origin for the character since its publication in 1987. It is wonderfully atmospheric, evoking pulp and noir in every panel. The story pulls no punches, showing Gotham as a world gone mad – and a man who becomes a haunting specter to the criminal underworld is the last, best chance to save it. And watching the film adaptation, the amount that was lost through the well-crafted internal monologues that make up the bulk of the textual narrative is simply criminal.

Batman Year One is available in trade paperback, but the latest edition is radically altered with new coloring – and I agree with the artist that it soils the story. The two trades with a checkmark have the original coloring, while the Deluxe Edition does not. Batman Year One

C – Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

CH860417_JPG This newspaper strip is a modern classic. Endlessly creative, the sharp wit and philosophical bent is elevated by the gorgeous artwork. This strip about a mischievous boy and his sardonic stuffed tiger serves as one of the smartest and most optimistic comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, despite its deceptively simple premise. Cliche as the line is, I have laughed and cried over this strip, and I say that happily. Watterson never compromised his artistic integrity, writing far more strips than were ever completed: because he never settled for putting out anything less than his best, for the readers and himself.

The best way to read this is with The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which contains every strip in its original format.

D – Dragon Ball, by Akira Toriyama

ksadksa For those who know of Dragon Ball Z by reputation (undeservedly known as an anime about pointy haired people shouting and occasionally throwing a punch when the animators could afford it), the original Dragon Ball will come as quite a shock. Dragon Ball is a Japanese action-comedy inspired by Journey to the West, with the purehearted and naive martial artist Goku traveling along with the genius teenage girl Bulma to collect seven mystical artifacts that can combine to grant any wish. Its pacing is pitch-perfect, with an elegance to the writing and art that shows why it remains an inspiration to any aspiring manga creator to this day, and a timeless pleasure to read. A note: while Dragon Ball Z is a continuation of Dragon Ball in Japan, it is marked as a separate series in the United States.

I strongly recommend the Dragon Ball VizBig editions (a larger format than the typical manga publication), along with Dragon Ball Z in the same format.

E – Doctor Who Endgame, by Alan Barnes and Scott Gray

DWGN4 I’ll cop to it: I couldn’t find something that started with E. But I am recommending the Doctor Who: Endgame trade paperback, continuing with The Glorious Dead, Oblivion, and The Flood trade paperbacks, which completes a nine year run on the comic strip that covers the entirety of the Eighth Doctor’s tenure as the star. This British comic ‘strip’ was originally published in 7-9 full page installments in Doctor Who Magazine, an unusual format that reads beautifully in the magazine sized compilations put out by Panini Books. The work that writer Alan Barnes, followed by Scott Gray, put in shows with strong characterization and clever storytelling, using their limited page count with a deft hand to take full advantage of the flexibility it offers. You don’t need to be a Doctor Who fan to enjoy these comics about a time traveling adventurer: if you like a cunning hero with a sense of humor, this comic is a perfect fit. And as a bonus, there’s a great inclusion of bonus materials from the creative team, discussing the making-of for each story with a nice frankness.

All four trades can be found on Amazon, though you may have to settle for a used copy of Endgame.

F – The Far Side, by Gary Larson

Gary Larson’s Far Side is one of the strangest comics to ever hit the newspapers, and also one of the funniest. Praising a comedy is as difficult as criticizing it, but the utter irreverence and off-beat tone make this strip one of the most unique voices in comics. Anyone who enjoys a good laugh, and I’ve never met someone who doesn’t, should be introduced to the Thagomzier immediately.

The Complete Far Side is your best bet for reading the comic.

G – Gunnerkrigg Court, by Tom Siddell

00001064 Gunnerkrigg Court’s genre mash-up of slice of life, fantasy, horror, adventure, and comedy is the type of mix-and-match that you can expect from webcomics, but Tom Siddel balances it out with surprising deftness. It draws you in with an atypical protagonist and an intriguing atmosphere, asking questions that demand answers until you find yourself pausing only because it’s 3:00 AM (though you didn’t really need to sleep, did you?). The art improves with every page, and it remains one of the most well drawn webcomics out there. While Gunnerkrigg Court is approaching its tenth anniversary, it is not yet complete – and I’m glad there’s so much more to come.

You can read Gunnerkrigg Court online here.

H – Harley Quinn, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, and Chad Hardin

Harley-Quinn-1-Page-2 Harley-Quinn-1-Page-3I freely admit that I am in love with the husband and wife team of Palmiotti and Conner, who took the Bruce Timm created character of Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn and updated her for a solo series in DC’s New 52 universe. The team produces a stylish and expressive art that I adore, with gleefully dark humor and innocently crazy protagonist. It completely embraces the ridiculous world of Harley Quinn, with a wheelchair bound Cold War cyborg spy, a talking stuffed beaver, and vicious roller derby battles that never stops being funny.

Harley Quinn has been collected in trade format, with one collection out so far in Harley Quinn: Hot in the City and another to come with Harley Quinn: Power Outage this April.

I – Genuinely can’t think of a comic that fits my criteria for this letter

J – JL8, by Yale Stewart

9 JL8, formerly known as Little League, is a fan comic that stars the Justice League in an elementary school setting. Created in the style of a newspaper strip, its lighthearted tone pokes a little bit of fun at DC, but is mostly about the adventures and childish hijinks of adorable little kids who happen to have superpowers. Funny, sweet, and occasionally poignant, I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys DC movies and can laugh at the fun of it all.

The first comic is here, and you can read the rest through Stewart’s official JL8 tumblr or facebook page.

K – Knights of the Dinner Table, by Jolly Blackburn

knights-of-the-dinner-table-comic-150 This is, oddly enough, the first traditionally published indie comic on the list. In 1990, Knights of the Dinner Table served as a single page backup feature in Shadis magazine poking fun at Dungeons and Dragons, and is now with the put-upon Gamemaster B.A. Felton and his players, old school gamer Bob, newbie fighter Dave, rules lawyer Brian, and role player Sara. We see them game together, with all the ridiculous things that happen in any good RPG campaign – mishaps, arguments, GM and player trickery, rival groups, and the fun of slinging dice and fighting orcs. It is now on its 217th issue, having moved from one-off jokes to ongoing stories of longer campaigns. You can pick up any issue and read it just fine, but going back and starting from the beginning is how I’d suggest you enjoy it. If you know even the basics of what Dungeons and Dragons is, you’ll enjoy the Knights of the Dinner Table and their adventures in Hackmaster.

You can read back issues through the Bundle of Trouble trade paperbacks, KenzerCo’s digital copies available on their website, and get a sampling of some of the humor from its web strips – though the longer storytelling will only be available in back issue or trade paperback format. Check out the early classic with Lair of the Gazebo.

L – The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, by Don Rosa

01 - [The Last of the Clan McDuck] If anybody reading this knows my blog, you knew this was coming. I will review this in time, but for now, suffice to say that this twelve part epic tale of Scrooge McDuck’s life before the Disney comics is masterfully done. Poignant writing, great jokes, a wonderful overarching plot, and some of my favorite Rosa artwork, this story is a perfect introduction to a beloved character, and a great read in its own right. It was my introduction to the character in the comics, and I happily recommend it to anyone for that same purpose.

You can find the Gemstone or Boom-published trade paperbacks through your library or occasionally at a comic shop, as the Fantagraphics release is a ways away.

M – Mickey Mouse, by Floyd Gottfredson

gottfredson-1930-6-28 It may sound like I’m biased towards Disney on this list, but that’s only because of the ubiquity of the characters. You don’t need to know a whole lot to understand the world of Mickey Mouse, and Gottfredson’s work on the everyman hero is rightly praised. I particularly love the elasticity and urgency he brings to these static images, something that is normally difficult to do in the span of a smaller space of a newspaper comic. The strip runs the range from straight comedy to mad science, adventures in far flung lands, dinosaurs, detective tales, and the occasional bits of romance that gives this something for everyone.

The Fantagraphics editions of the books are the definitive way to read his stories and include a wealth of bonus features, though you would be well-advised to skip the introductions preceding each story. They do little more than tell you the plot or ending of the story, in what I can only assume is a deliberate effort to spoil the reading experience.

N – Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki

nausicaamanga1 My initial reaction when I heard that Hayao Miyazaki had drawn a manga series was shock, glee, and a rather speedy run to get my hands on a copy. While fans of his are likely to have seen this pre-Ghibli Miyazaki work, Nausicaa’s manga (created so that the movie could be funded due to its basis as an existing property) extends the story far beyond the confines of the two hour film. You can see the animator’s hand in every panel, and even those who haven’t seen the movie can feel the inimitable atmosphere and tension that he excels at. There are few things I will call an epic, but this is most assuredly one of them.

Nausicaa has been collected in the oversized Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Box Set, to best showcase Miyazaki’s unique art.

O – The Order of the Stick, by Rich Burlew

oots0022 How odd that I would make note of how I view the word ‘epic’, only to find none better to describe The Order of the Stick. Its beginnings as a humorous riff on Dungeons and Dragons quickly gave way to a fantasy tale in a Dungeons and Dragons world, but never shed its sense of humor. Rich Burlew’s simple art style gives a unique feel to this party of misfit adventurers, and the emotional torque he can generate from his characters is a masterclass of strong plotting and character arcs. For non-gamers, if you don’t get the jokes early on, don’t worry. Such jokes taper off quickly (replaced by much better ones), and you won’t need to understand Dungeons and Dragons to grasp the idea of swords, sorcery, and an epic tale that knows what the best stories are always about: the human condition.

While you can read the whole of the webcomic here, he has three print-only books (On the Origin of PCs, Start of Darkness, and Snips, Snails, and Dragon Tales) that serve as backstory and side adventures, while the trade paperbacks that collect the webcomic itself included ‘deleted’ scenes and invaluable commentary. If you like the story, check the physical copies out, as it makes a great story even better.

P – Power Girl, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Amanda Conner

4cd9c7d391bcf I have never laughed, on a pound-for-pound basis, at any comic as much as I have with the Palmiotti/Conner run of Power Girl. This twelve-issue run showcases a superheroine finding herself as well as finding friendship, and is an utterly human examination of this character without ever descending into tedious monologues of contemplation. And Conner’s artwork is, in my opinion, among the best DC has ever produced. Stupendously expressive, lavishly drawn, and stuffed to the gills with sight gags, she deserves all the accolades she gets, and a few more on top of that. The only reason I hesitated to put this comic on the list is because it is so good, it could spoil your ability to enjoy other great stories simply by not measuring up to the heights this achieves.

The Palmiotti/Conner run of Power Girl was recently re-released in trade format, Power Girl: Power Trip. This includes four issues written by Geoff Johns that showcase Conner’s artwork, as well as everything that I have railed against in this article about accessibility to people who haven’t been reading comics since the 1980s. While they’re fine reads if you have more of an understanding of the character, feel free to skip them and get to the good stuff, or just enjoy her gorgeous artwork.

Q – Questionable Content, by Jeph Jacques

1882 Questionable Content, despite its name, is a slice-of-life comic with a PG-13 rating. Originally a comedy with a romantic main plot (with some jokes more suited for music nerds), it shifted towards exploring its cast and characters. It dips in to the realm of drama when the story calls for it, but with anthropomorphic PC robots and a background superhero known only as “Pizza Girl” inhabiting its pages, it can never descend to a world of tragedy. With a good sense of comic timing and constantly evolving art, each update is generally worth a smile and a bit of a laugh. Sometimes that’s all you need to start the day.

You can read Questionable Content at Jacques’ website, and he has collected (with new artwork) his comics in trade paperback format.

R – Rurouni Kenshin, by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Kenshin Rurouni Kenshin is another in the long list of comics that brought a smile to my face the moment I was reminded of it. The story of a master swordsman who has sworn to never kill again, and the world he left behind drawing him in once more, effectively blends good drama with excellent action. I want to particularly praise the characterization of the villains in this series, which defies expectations and creates a subtlety not present in many such characters. He never took the easy way out with his characterization or storytelling, and it leads to a story that retains the traditional format of action manga without becoming predictable. The final arc is my favorite storyline, and the fact that its animated adaptation was cancelled before reaching that arc is utterly criminal.

You can find Rurouni Kenshin in the oversized VizBig format, which I highly recommend.

S – Sonic the Hedgehog, by many different hands

STH56 Sonic the Hedgehog is a member of the Freedom Fighters, some of the last remnants of organic life on a world which has been conquered by the mad Dr. Robotnik, who roboticizes the population to turn them in to mindless automatons. The comic originally had a much more humorous tone, similar to its TV series progenitors (as the games never had much of a story), but in time grew to tell a story all its own that still continues 23 years later. I’m bending my own rules a bit here, but I personally believe the comic took off around Issue #25 with Sonic Archives #7, and I think it’s a great place to start. Notes from the editor catch you up without ever having to go back to the older issues. Sonic has had many authors and artists over the years, but I’d recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the games, a fan of the old TV show, or just enjoys an action/adventure comic and doesn’t mind the funny animal people starring in it.

The absolute best place to buy Sonic comics is the Sonic Archives directly from the Archie website, which offers heavy discounts and promotions.

T – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Ninja Turtles Hard to believe that a one-shot parody book of Daredevil could spawn a multimillion-dollar franchise, but it did so with good reason – really great source material. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird wrote and drew every page together, and that fusion makes for some incredible stories. Their initial run of 15 issues was two people clearly having a blast writing and drawing whatever they felt like, with aliens, urban crime, mysticism, and a heart that gave the series a charm that never let it descend into farce. Other artists and writers worked on the Turtles, but it is the Eastman and Laird work that I truly enjoy. Every time I open up my collection, I am in awe of their combined artwork and the unfettered freedom shining on every page.

IDW collects the Eastman/Laird specific material in its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The Ultimate Collection, covering the original 15 issues they produced together, their solo efforts, and the twelve part epic “City at War” that capped off the original series.

U – Uncle Scrooge, by Carl Barks

Uncle ScroogeWith good reason, Carl Barks is the maestro of Duck comics and an inspiration for not just artists on this list, but of masters such as Steven Spielberg and Osamu Tezuka. What elevates his work above the rest is a word I tend to use when praising series quite often: elegance. He never wasted a page, a panel, a line, or a word, keeping the stories tight and atmospheric in a way that makes the execution a marvel to behold – and the stories themselves become timeless reads. Superbly executed action, adventure, comedy, and a wit that never dulled, there is a reason that even after sixty years of publication, he remains The Good Duck Artist.

Fantagraphics is currently collecting his Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck work (which is wonderful in its own right).

V – ery sorry, but I whiffed this letter.

W – Welcome to the Jungle, by Jim Butcher and Adrian Syaf

dfaef1cf78e9fddff3e1be8ef317762b The Dresden Files is my favorite book series, and the stories produced specifically for comics are a pleasure to read. Welcome to the Jungle is a prequel to the books about this Chicago-based wizard detective, a man with a nose for trouble and a mouth that gets mundane and supernatural criminals alike ready to break that nose. Written by Jim Butcher, author of the books, his first crack at comics paired with artist Adrian Syaf brings visual life to the world of The Dresden Files in a way never seen before. Welcome to the Jungle is self contained, requires no background knowledge, and is a great comic for anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery and all its trappings.

You can find Welcome to the Jungle in trade paperback format, with making-of information and some commentary from Jim Butcher.

Honorary mention: Watchmen almost made the list, as it is a comic which is studied to this day. But I believe that it is better suited to people more familiar with comics, or are interested in critical study of the medium, rather than someone who doesn’t know where to start.

X – X-Men, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

UncannyXMen101 Marvel is generally not my forte, but Chris Claremont carved a space in the Marvel Universe all his own. From a reprint-only title, Claremont brought X-Men to superstar status with detailed characters, emotional conflicts, and real world subtext (barely hidden subtext at times, but that’s okay) that X-Men would be known for to this day. Claremont is known in comic book circles for his verbose style and numerous plot hooks, but I don’t mind it at all because the characters are so fleshed out. The reason his comics have endured is because he stuck with his vision to the end, and the X-Men media created since then, from cartoons to movies, have drawn from his work. The message of prejudice, exclusion, and the threat of losing a single being simply because they are different is a timeless one.

You can read his run on X-Men with Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men Volume 1, or the Uncanny X-Men Omnibus collections of his work.

Y – Young Justice, by Peter David and Todd Nauck

Young Justice A comic produced by Peter David, a very funny and intelligent author, took the idea of sidekicks teaming up and came up with a radical (for DC, anyway) idea: make a traditional superhero team without grim and gritty drama, and have fun with it instead. With the core three of Superboy, Impulse and Robin helming the book, it had a large cast of sidekick characters and a sense of fun even as the team matures. It has all the good of a team book, with action, interplay and character beats, without the overdramatic writing that can plague this type of comic. Young Justice is a great way to be introduced to the DC universe of that time and see superhero action from someone who knows comics backwards and forwards, and is smart without being too clever for his own good.

You can read it here on Comixology, and the first issue is free.

Z – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, by Shotaro Ishinomori

page 13 page 14 I have been waiting for this comic to be reprinted for decades, and the moment I saw that it would be, it took me less than 60 seconds to submit my pre-order. Originally serialized in Nintendo Power, this loose adaptation of the Super Nintendo classic by manga maestro Shotaro Ishinomori so perfectly captured the haunting atmosphere that I felt playing the top-down games that it is his work, not Nintendo’s, that I imagine when I think of The Legend of Zelda. This adventure shows a young man, a kidnapped princess, an evil wizard, a knightly rescue, and Ishinomori defies the idea of a fairy tale telling by injecting every panel with a visceral sense of dread and darkness. This is a masterclass in visual storytelling, and nicely written to boot, and I can think of nothing better to end this list.

Showing off the Shelves

Comics have been a part of my life since I was young. I learned the proper way to read a Silver Age comic book (soap, hot water, dry your hands, find a clean space, don’t bend the cover back, dog-ear nothing, the grading system works like this and I only want you handling Fine Minus or less, and here’s how we keep reversible tape from getting on the cover…), I learned how to follow an ongoing plot from “Sonic the Hedgehog”, I learned what the concept of sarcasm was from “Garfield”, and that’s all before the age of eight.

The 90s weren’t a kind time for comics aimed at kids, at least not with the superhero material I liked to read. I busied myself with the DC and Marvel’s animated projects, anime, and my passion for television, but comics were always important to me. Discovering “Calvin and Hobbes” from trade paperbacks at a relative’s house was like drinking clean water for the first time.

But getting back in to comics over the last five years has been a godsend for me as a reader and a person, and a big part of why I’ve been able to do that is thanks to being pushed towards Disney comics. The stories and artists that I enjoyed most from Disney were collected in trade paperbacks, which were easier to find than scouring garage sales, conventions, eBay and Craigslist for back issues (though I do that too: I’m looking at you, Gladstone’s Disney comics. See you at FallCon!) When reading the forwards/making of sections, I could see the where the influence of specific writers and artists that I admired came from, and in turn, who they influenced.

Add to that my own love for superheroes, an impulse purchase or two, and the recommendations of friends, my collection grew from a Christmas present of “Batman: Year One” and a few “Knights of the Dinner Table” trades (not pictured, as the now 50+ volume collection is current stored in a box), to something that has my shelves bending from the weight. I’ve had more fun going back in to comics than I have with… well, just about anything I’ve done the past few years.

I’d like to share the five shelves of books I’ve managed to get a hold of as of 09/15/14, with the arrival of the last volumes of “Dragon Ball”, the first four “Knuckles the Echidna Archives”, and the Palmiotti/Conner run of “Power Girl.”

09-15-14 A 09-15-14 B 09-15-14 C 09-15-14 D

Are you my mummy?

Are you my mummy?

Naturally, this doesn’t properly represent the size of the books in question, as they’ve been pushed flush with the edge of the shelf for this post.

The disparate sizes in printing for newspaper comics astounds me: “Wednesday Comics” (not pictured above because it doesn’t even fit on the shelf) is my tallest vertical format book, while “Terry and the Pirates by George Wunder Volume One” is the largest horizontal format that I own. The source material being drawn and printed in a different size has a lot to do with it, but it’s just how different they are that baffles me. Just take a look:

Vertical format

Vertical format

Horizontal format

Horizontal format

The oversized editions of comic books, which you can see with the Absolute Edition of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” up above, are generally what I shoot for when I shop. They tend to have the most bonus materials, and allow you to see the detail of the art much more clearly – especially with someone as wonderful as Perez.

Incidentally, if you ever need a pick-me up, try and explain the plot to Crisis on Infinite Earths in depth to someone who has never read comics. Just watch their expression and you’ll get a real clear picture about why DC and Marvel have trouble finding new readers… and a good laugh in the process.

I am probably the bane of publishers when it comes to my shopping habits – bargains, deals and sales are what I shoot for virtually without exception, and since I’m on a budget, Amazon is my go-to for purchases. But if you’re willing to dig and be patient, you can find even better deals in person. I was able to obtain ten volumes of the out of print “The Spirit Archives” for 15 dollars apiece, so long as I bought them on the spot. It was Eisner’s post-war work and the books were in top-notch condition. How could I say no? (Mostly by ignoring the screams of my wallet)

But this brings me to a less rhetorical question. I have waited for the Fantagraphics Don Rosa box set before I continue Don Rosa in Review, so things have stalled a bit on that front until its publication. So looking at this collection, do you have a particular thought as to what I should take a look at in the meantime? Kindly leave a comment and let me know, and I’ll make that a priority.

And of course, any suggestions as to comics I should pick up are GREATLY appreciated! I know no matter how many comics I read, there will always be more to enjoy, but that’s half the fun.

“From the Files of… Mike Hammer” in Review

Mike-Hammer-strip

They dropped the package at my door in the dead of Minnesota winter, where the bright and unclouded sun shone down in a sweet lie – just touching the door handle with your bare hands would burn you with winter’s grip. Ten seconds is the longest you can open the door for without protection, or the ice will burrow in to your bones, like a parasite that drinks the heat from you. I couldn’t close the door before the count hit fifteen.

“Every time a package comes, you do this,” I swore at myself. “The comic can’t be that good.” I rubbed my hands together, a few moments reprieve before the parasite stole that too. I tore open the package straight down the middle, the way an animal gets its meat. In a way, that’s all I was. Weeks of waiting had made me hungry.

The cover was nothing special, with a design decades out of date. Solid red, the hue somewhere between blood and roses. A square-jawed hero eyeing a smoking dame – both of them with cigarettes. And the name: “From the Files of… Mike Hammer.” At first glance, it looked more like a romance than a two fisted detective strip. But the collection was complete, and I figured for the price, I’d have a decent afternoon’s read.

I opened to the first story, and by the time I got to page three I was reading as fast as the bullets flying on the page. In the middle of a strip, I couldn’t help but curse. Only one thought ran through my mind: I would kill to write like this.
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First Time at the Movies – Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka posterWhere I knew I would be most tripped up in this series be in the following categories: sequels, remakes, adaptations, and iconic classics.

Willy Wonka fits two of those categories – the adaptation and the icon. Personally, I’m of the opinion that an adaptation should (at its finest) take what was brilliant about the original, hone it as highly as possible, and alter it as necessary to suit the medium. There’s a reason the property was picked up for adaptation. It’s special, not just as a work, but to the people who loved the original.
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First Time at the Movies – Escape from L.A.

Escape from LA

I sat here, in the same chair, looking at the same monitor I watched Escape from New York on. The opening credits began. The same director, producer, and star returned for the sequel. Shirley Walker, the composer for Batman the Animated Series and my personal favorite TV composer ever was involved with the score.

Sure, co-writer Nick Castle left, but surely that’s not reason enough to worry. And yeah, the script for the movie was commissioned in 1985, with the final product released in 1996, but that surely means it was just given more love and attention. Kurt Russel produced the movie, but it’s not like a star being involved in the production has ever been associated with poor quality. Yes, someone warned me away from the movie, but I came in wanting to give it a fair shake. I was untainted by nostalgia. I was ready. My mind was open.

That’s a mistake I won’t be making again.
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An Interview with Jason DeMarco

I’ve been watching Toonami since 1998, and to this day, I marvel at what it’s accomplished. The Cartoon Network, now Adult Swim, animation programming block played a large part in bringing anime to the United States, was the Western progenitor of microseries with programming like The Intruder, IGPX, and Star Wars Clone Wars, and was responsible for airing some of the finest programming of its time.

Toonami’s reputation as an outstanding cartoon block has as much to do with the packaging surrounding it as it does the programming itself. No other block would take commercial time to speak to the viewers like an individual about topics like anger, experience, courage, or discuss the fear that comes with following your dreams.

A great deal of the tone, style, and quality of Toonami’s programming and packaging can be traced back to Toonami co-creator Jason DeMarco, who currently holds the position of Vice President, Creative Director, Adult Swim On-Air.

When you first think of marketing, certain stereotypes can easily come to mind – the used car salesman trying to pass off junk as gold, or someone who treats their audience like sheep. It might surprise you to know, then, that Jason DeMarco is one of the most sincere people I’ve ever met. I personally believe his work on the Adult Swim Singles Program, an annual release of free music singles from various acts, is as much a matter of promotion as it is a chance for him to share the music he’s passionate about.

Toonami, I think, is no different: each week is an opportunity to help bring what he loves to millions of people. There is no irony to his love of animation, television, and the work he does each week: the six hour weekly block remains an unpaid side project in addition to his day job.

I was fortunate enough to conduct an email interview with Mr. DeMarco, where we discussed the return of Toonami after its cancellation in 2008, his role at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, and the future of the better cartoon show.

(Note: I’ve inserted relevant video links after the answers. All parentheticals after Mr. DeMarco’s answers were added after the fact)

Read more…

First Time at the Movies – Escape from New York

Escape From New York (1981) Original v2

Escape From New York was probably just the right thing for me to start this series with. It’s an action movie by a well known writer/director, so the story is elegantly streamlined in a way that is perfectly suited for the big screen.
Read more…

Intro – First Time at the Movies

I don’t watch many movies.

I’ve never been sure why, really. I hear people talk about their favorite movies, how they have movie nights, how much a certain work influenced them. But it was never like that for me. I grew up with television, and prefer that medium above all others. There are so many facets to the way one can tell stories with television, so much investment in the characters on screen. Never have I experienced a story the way I did with the DC Animated Universe, which lasted from 1992-2006, across seven television series and four movies.

I’m not averse to other kinds of stories. Books, comics, video games are all things I will happily indulge. But I shied away from movies, seeing them only rarely after the age of ten. Even now I only go to the theater a few times a year, with the caveat that I always see two movies at a time – to double the chances of enjoying myself.

“If only it were ten, twenty minutes longer,” my friends would hear when I came back and engaged in the obligatory post-game discussion/argument. When I first watched The Breakfast Club just a few months ago, I found myself baffled by the movie’s editing. A scene would stop, and I would wonder where the ending had gone. Hints and buildup would permeate scenes, hooks I was sure would be followed up on – but the payoff never came. It was as though the script had been gutted. Sure enough, the original cut was 150 minutes long, trimmed to 97 minutes for its theatrical and DVD release.

I wish I could watch that cut.

My goal in life is to work in television as a writer, and eventually, a showrunner. I have no interest in writing for films. Anywhere from one to three years working on a script over which I have zero ownership or creative control? I cannot imagine a more nightmarish existence. But the more I talk with and learn about people who tell stories, the more I see how much movies mean to them, and the more I find myself frustrated that they don’t mean that much to me.

But as I said, I rarely watch movies. It was only this year, after much prodding and a bit of yelling (“You’ve never seen Raiders!?” was a phrase uttered with the same intonation as “How can you not know what indoor plumbing is!?”), that I saw the Indiana Jones trilogy. Further interrogation of my viewing habits by friends and family led me to realize one thing:

I’ve never given any real attention to movies. I’ve taken general education film courses in college, but they focused more on the history and technical aspects of film, and I was using them largely as an avenue to better understand television. My actual experience as a film-goer is almost nonexistent, and as such I have managed to deny myself an entire medium of storytelling.

To rectify that, Review or Die will have a new feature – First Time at the Movies. The column will run every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, starting tomorrow.

The rules are simple:

If I haven’t seen it as an adult, it’s fair game.

Nothing I write will be spoiler free.

I’m not an objective reviewer, I’m a viewer with an opinion (to ape SF Debris), so don’t look at this as an attempt to declare what is empirically good or bad. This is all a learning experience on my part.

If I have different cuts to choose from, I will stick with what people would consider the truest viewing experience, such as the Final Cut of Blade Runner and the theatrical release of Alien.

I’ll be focusing on movies that have proven influential in some way, be it through cultural osmosis or sheer quality, which means older films are the primary focus for now. Suggestions are welcome, and I hope you enjoy the show.

Next time: Escape from New York

I Dig Giant Robots: An Interview with George Krstic

Everybody’s got a Firefly. That show that just gelled perfectly with your sensibilities, that you would follow to any timeslot, and was cancelled without sense or ceremony.

Megas XLR

My Firefly is Megas XLR.

I saw the original pilot in 2002 at a friend’s house. It was eight minutes long, aired as part of an event to determine what should be picked up as a full series. I barely remember what aired alongside it, but Lowbrow, the pilot that would eventually become Megas XLR, had me hooked.

The show was a mishmash of giant robot anime, gaming, science fiction, comedy, rock, with an animation style and quality that blew its contemporaries out of the water. It felt like the show was the answer to a question I’d never even realized I was asking. When Lowbrow premiered as Megas XLR in 2004, I was there like a midnight showing for a new Batman movie. And for the entirety of Megas’ time on the air, I would catch every episode, new or rerun, that crossed my path.

Two seasons of 13 episodes apiece just wasn’t enough.

It turns out that I’m not the only one that thought so: After information was brought to light that the rights to Megas XLR may no longer be in Cartoon Networks’ hands, the fans made their voices heard. Chris Prynoski (supervising director for Megas) had his animation company, Titmouse, immediately figure out if there was a way to get the rights to the series back.

Cartoon Network does own the rights, but had ‘written off’ the series (you can find out the technicalities behind that here). Titmouse is currently in talks with about purchasing or licensing the rights to the IP. While talks are ongoing, I had the opportunity to speak with George Krstic, co-creator of Megas XLR and current Titmouse employee, about Megas and its role in things to come.

This interview was conducted via Skype on 12/16/12, and transcribed (with minor edits for the sake of readability) due to problems with the original audio.

Hi! This is so cool to have you here, it really is.

Thank you for having me, this is cool for me as well. As we were chatting before, it’s always cool to connect with fans, and have someone out there who remembers our show, so this is awesome.

I’d like to know a little bit about you and your background, so where did you grow up?

I kinda grew up all over the place, mainly in a really small town in Ohio, but I had a lot of family in Europe, so we would spend a lot of time, you know, traveling around Europe. And, you know, went to college in New York, at a small art school called SVA (Editor’s Note: School of Visual Arts), though I think it’s gotten bigger since then, and I met a bunch of wacky animators and crazy film-makers, and those are the guys I’ve been working with ever since. It’s the same team of people behind Titmouse, and we did Downtown together, and then we did Megas, and most recently we were working on Motorcity. And the interesting thing that all three of those shows have in common, as I’m sure you know, is that they got canned pretty early on. In fact, Megas was our longest running show, oddly enough, we got two seasons on that. But yeah, that’s kinda me in a nutshell.

I read that Chris Prynoski, and I apologize if I’m mispronouncing that…

You got it, got it in one.

That he kind of dragooned you out of live action, in to animation.

(laughs) That’s a very interesting phrasing, you’re absolutely right. Basically, after college I went in to live action and I was working on a bunch of really crappy TV shows, but I was learning the trade as it were. And Chris called me and he said “Hey man, I actually sold a show to MTV, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, will you come and be the story editor on the show?” And I asked what a story editor does, and he was honest and said “I don’t know.” So I was like sure, that sounds great. So we kind of figured out everything on the fly, kind of like what we were talking about earlier, we got to learn the job on Downtown. But I thought it came out pretty well, we got an Emmy nomination. We only got one season, but I don’t see that as our fault, just kind of the network was going through some changes at the time. But yeah, Chris kind of sucked me back in to animation and I’ve been here ever since.

With all the references going on in Megas I’m kind of surprised that animation wasn’t your goal from the beginning. What made you start with the ‘crappy TV shows’ that were live action?

That was basically the first job that was offered to me, and as we spoke earlier, the dirty secret is that I can’t draw to save my life. So those two things added up to me going in to live action. I teamed up with Chris, and I also teamed up with Jody, who are artists and directors, so that way we could balance each other out where I would take point on story usually, and they would obviously take point on the visuals.

Very cool. You know, I’m a little unclear as to what exactly Chris Prynoski’s role on the show was, because it looks like animation works a little differently in terms of a showrunner’s role in live action. Can you clarify that for me?

Well, each show is different, each genre is different. For Megas, Chris was our supervising director, so he would set the directing tone, and we had a number of other directors who worked under him, our episodic directors. And Jody was the art director, he set up the visual look and feel of things, and Chris would work on timing and action and things like that.

That is an excellent triangle right there.

Yeah, the Triad of Evil.

So, Downtown, at this point has been cancelled: And you’re sitting there waiting to write/draw/direct something. How did you get the opportunity to make the Megas pilot, Lowbrow?

It’s a bit of a long story, but if you’ll bear with me…

We were still working on Downtown at the time, and I think one of the weekends Jody and I were hanging out, and we were watching one of those robot fighting shows, Robot Wars or something along those lines, and we were watching Macross, and we were playing videogames. And literally we said “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could create a show that had all three?” And that was the inspiration, and from there, we put together a little trailer, outputted it to video, and shoved that videotape in an executive’s hands at ComiCon that summer. And we thought we’d never hear back from her, but three months later she called us and said, “Hey, I’m interested in this thing, whatever it is.”

And that’s how the process began. We did that small pilot, called Lowbrow, and it was part of a voting program called, I think, “What a Cartoon”, and we actually got voted by the public to a series. And that is the winding story.

Cool. Does that original pre-pilot pilot still exist?

It exists and I think someone’s actually posted it to youtube.

Okay, well I’m definitely going to have to look that up. I’m gonna come back to the way the pilot developed in to a series in a little bit, but I wanted to talk about the cast for a bit.

Please.

So, in any other show, Kiva would be the hero, Gorrath would be the villain, and it’d be a tense dramatic battle across space and time for the future of humanity… and instead we have Coop and Jamie, who are a well-meaning slacker, and just a slacker. What was the idea behind that dynamic in the cast?

Well, as with everything on the show, we wanted to take the archetype, where there was an archetypical story or character, and kind of flip it on its ear. As you pointed out, in those shows – usually it’d be the shounen shows – which would be the pretty boy who would drive the robot and be all angsty. So we were like, “Hey, let’s have a big guy who’s happy and just wants to have fun: He’s gonna be the hero.”

That was kind of our ongoing theme, “Let’s take what’s expected and make fun of it.”

That certainly explains casting Peter Cullen as the villain.

Of course! You have to make Optimus Prime the villain once in awhile.

Zanzoar

Zanzoar

I’ll admit, I am a big huge TV junkie and I was just shocked when his character just sliced that robot in two.

(laughs) That’s right, we also had Megatron in there as well. I think – didn’t Megatron play a good guy?

Yup, yeah he did. It was a remarkable set of bait and switches. I love that episode.

I heard part of it was the cast of Cowboy Bebop that went in to picking the main cast, is that true?

Yup, absolutely. I think that was it, there wasn’t anything else. We were huge Bebop fans, and we thought Spike and Faye were amazing voices, and were like “Wouldn’t it be great to work with them?” And then obviously the secondary cast, where people that were in franchises or films that we really loved as kids. We had Michael Dorn from Next Generation, we had Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead movies, and we had Clancy Brown from so many movies. So we were just nerding out.

I looked up David DeLuise’s past record and I was trying to find out how many voiceover roles he had, but how did you go from – and I say this with all the respect in the world because I love his voice work – but how did you go from Cowboy Bebop to David DeLuise?

We wanted to take that expectation, in most shows that hero would be all angsty, and he’d have a certain kind of voice, but Coop isn’t that guy. We wanted kind of that big, full-bodied guy who loves life, and that was David DeLuise.

Huh. And see, I always thought he had a great traditional hero voice, but it really shows what that combination of art and voice work can do. I love animation… if I dork out just a little bit over the process in this, I’m sorry.

Anyway…

So once the pilot was selected, what was the process that went in to making it a full series?

With any series you have to, obviously, you start with the scripts and – but once we had most of the first season down, we went to storyboards, design, layout, and then we would send a lot of the animation and the coloring overseas, we’d get that back, we’d do retakes… which, if you didn’t get what you wanted, you send it back. Then we start cutting it in, laying down color, laying in all the sound effects, etc. Obviously here in the US, we record the voices, and in Japan they record them last, so we recorded voices in there as well.

And then the train was a-rollin’, at any one point in the series you might have seven shows that you’re working on at the same time. And yeah, that’s super-simplifying the process, but that’s basically how it went.

How long did production on Megas actually go for, from Episode 1 to Episode 26?

I think we were in full production for, I think, two years, something like that. Because we did not have a hiatus, we just ran, we got greenlit for a second season while we were still finishing the first, if I’m remembering that correctly. If we did have a hiatus it wasn’t too long, but I do remember the same crew working throughout both seasons.

What was a typical day going to make some giant robots like for you, personally?

It would really vary depending on what the schedule called for. When you’re in an executive producer or creator position, you’re kind of asked to oversee a lot of aspects. So one day you might sit in a script meeting, you might give notes on an animatic, you might go to a voice record, you might go to a board pitch, you might meet with voice actors, so it really, really varies. It’s not kind of, like, set in stone, it’s very loose and very flexible.

Were your days twelve hours then? I hear that 12-16 is, for the EP jobs…

Those days were eighteen hours, definitely, if not more.

Wow… that’s incredible. When you sat down in a room to write episodes, did you write them for specific actors, because the idea that you can decide to have a villain voiced by Bruce Campbell who’s just a giant chin, and write it, is so fascinating.

(chuckles)

Magnanimous_2

Magnanimous

I’m curious if that’s the way that worked.

I mean, what would happen is when we created that character, Magnanimous, we used Bruce Campbell as an inspiration. And obviously we wanted to use him as a voice, but sometimes those things don’t work out. Luckily we were able to get Bruce, he was very excited about the project, he was very cool. Sometimes it didn’t work out: We wanted to get General Zod from the old Superman films, but it didn’t happen. I forget what reason it was, but he was the inspiration for a character. But we tweaked things, we work around those things.

Were there any episodes that you had in mind where you just couldn’t get them to work, no matter how hard you tried?

Not really. I mean, we never killed an episode. I see that as kind of like giving up. I hear that that happens on other series, not necessarily always on animation, but… so I’d say no. I’m really happy with all the episodes. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but we had a lot of fun making both seasons and I think that each episode has a lot to like.

And what was your favorite episode that… well, I know you had a hand in all of them, but what was one, or a couple of, your favorites?

I really like “Bad Guy”. I think that was my all time favorite. And a close second would be the series finale two-parter. That was also solid, I thought.

That was one thing that really struck me, looking at it as a fourteen year old and looking at it now: It was the only two-parter you guys had, and it didn’t feel like a different show, but it had a very different tone compared to the rest of the show. At least, it felt like it to me. What was your thinking making that different kind of story?

That was a good observation. We got cancelled in the middle of the second season, we knew we were done. So we wanted to go out with a bang, sorta wrap things up, so we went a little darker, and then we felt because we went darker, the comedy would play a little better. So that’s why, yeah, you’re absolutely right, we did alter the tone a little bit.

I guess there’s no delicate way to put this: But what was it like to be cancelled on Megas?

I mean, obviously it’s not great to get any project cancelled, but that’s part of the business. And we got cancelled on Downtown, and we recently got cancelled on Motorcity. Every show gets cancelled, it’s not as heartbreaking as one might think, it’s just part of how things work, unfortunately. Maybe one day we’ll get to a point where we can make a show as long as we want, but we haven’t found that balance yet.

How much of you would you say is really in Megas?

Well Coop is based on a good pal of ours, who still lives in Jersey City, and Goat is actually based on a pal of ours who lives in Jersey City named Goat. So we took inspiration from a lot of people who we know, and a lot of pals, and a lot of experiences, so there’s a lot of us in there, and there’s also, you know, there’s our specific things that we’re really in to, that we’d work in visually. We had a great group of designers, and you can tell the things that they were in to. Whether it was Star Blazers Yamato, Gatchaman, G-Force, etc., everybody on the show put some of themselves in to the show. And that’s what I like about it.

And now the “Bring Back Megas” movement…

Yes.

To be perfectly candid, this is odd.

(chuckles)

From the outside looking in, you see this kind of thing going on with Firefly, sending nuts in to save Jericho, but this is very different in that Titmouse is actually trying to purchase or license the property. But I only have an outsider’s perspective on it. I’m curious what it’s like for you, to see all the support going on.

It’s wonderful to see all the support, and part of the reason we’re doing this is because of all of the fans kind of rallying behind it. We’re still in the early stages of talking to Cartoon Network about exactly what we could do, whether it’s getting the rights back, or actually purchasing a license to our own show, or trying to get it resurrected somewhere else. There’s a thousand different things that we’re talking to them about, seeing what’s realistic, but yeah, we kept getting emails, we kept getting, any time we went to a convention… people are actually calling up Titmouse and asking about Megas. So it’s been long enough that it’s been dark: Megas is playing everywhere in the world, except for the United States, which we thought was odd. We want to do anything we can to bring it back.

The Nielsens are such an odd system.

(chuckles) It’s a very outdated system, and it’s, I’d say it’s catastrophically wrong, many times. I think that in five years, no one will be using Nielsens.

Really?

I think so, I think things are changing, I think TV is changing, I think the way we access entertainment is changing. So I think that the days of sitting at home, making an appointment and watching the big box, I think those will come to an end in five to ten years.

Television is such a very odd… When I look at Megas, I swear this is what came to mind when I saw the Bring Back Megas movement, is Baywatch. In the first season, the ratings were junk. But David Hasselhoff, for whatever reason, managed to figure out that this was probably the most genius idea that had ever happened in terms of making him money.

(chuckles)

So he actually bought the rights to the show, and put it in syndication.

I didn’t know that, that’s awesome.

So I guess my question to you, at least the first one is: Is Megas the next Baywatch?

Well… (laughs) It’s apples and oranges, obviously I’d love to see Megas… if nothing else, I’d love to see it get in to the hands of people who care about it. Even if it is a DVD box set. I’d just love to give the fans something other than watch the cut-up episodes on youtube, and if we can do better than that, absolutely. I mean sure, let’s do fifteen more seasons, I don’t know how long Baywatch ran. But there was a very specific reason that Baywatch was successful…

(laughs)

Our show doesn’t have those things, we’ve got other things. We’ve got giant robots.

Well… it had two giant reasons it was successful, I suppose, but…

Yeah, the acting and the writing, right?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Just gorgeous cinematography.

(laughs)

Television is may be the, and I apologize if I’m editorializing a little bit here, but I’m really curious to hear what you think about it since you work in this business. Television is unique in that there hasn’t been really, creator-owned content, and really can’t be the way that television has traditionally has been delivered. It’s been produced by soap companies, networks, and government subsidies for PBS… and now with what Titmouse is doing, and the work I’m being seen done with Arrested Development coming back on Netflix for a fourth season, it makes me curious what you think is changing in television.

Well I think again, it’s the aspect of distribution. As before, it was very traditional, and there were a lot of gatekeepers, and now with the broadband aspect, and the fact that you can access entertainment on a cell phone, or through a browser, I think that’s changing. The playing field is being broken up now, and the blockers are being lifted. It’s gonna be a new world out there soon.

Do you think Megas could be one of the pioneers in that new world?

Well that’s what we’re trying to do, that’s why we’re talking to everyone and anyone… we’re talking to video game companies, we’re talking to, you know, online distribution. We’re trying to find a way to… all we are is just, we’re just a bunch of storytellers. We just wanna tell stories. We’re not in this to make money, we’re not in this to create empires. It’s just the people who own the distribution are very specific about how they control things. If you don’t get the ratings, if you don’t sell the ads, if you don’t sell the toys, etc. They cut off distribution. So we have to find a way to get these stories out there, and to fund these stories.

But looking at this, it’s kind of a brave new world out there,so that’s why we’re exploring all these other options. That’s why Titmouse and I are talking to everyone and anyone, trying to figure out what this new model is.

Assuming that you removed the BS&P, the restrictions so that you weren’t worrying advertisers… without those restrictions, in this hypothetical place where you can create Megas for the first time again, in this new distribution model, what do you think you might have done differently with the show?

Honestly, I really feel we made the show we wanted to. The creative executives were awesome, they really supported us. And the comedy was the kind of comedy we wanted to explore. So if we could do it again, obviously we’d probably try to redefine the designs, and some of the storytelling, but I feel pretty good about what we did, and if we can capture that tone again? I think that’d be a big win.

It’s unusual and very gratifying to hear a creator to say of a cancelled work that they’re happy with the result.

Absolutely. All of our shows we’re very happy with, because they’re all passion projects. They were shows that we came up with that our team, that have been working together for years, put their heart and soul in to it. So we’re very proud of each of our shows. And we’re proud of the next shows that we’re working on, we have a lot of stuff in development that we’re very proud of, so hopefully one or two of those things will go as well. But yeah, absolutely, each show that I’ve worked on I’m very proud of.

I think you have good reason to be with how much fan support you’ve been getting for bringing back Motorcity and Megas… I told some people that I was going to have the chance to talk to you, and they didn’t know what they wanted to ask about Downtown, but they at least wanted to say that they loved it.

Well we appreciate that, I’ll definitely let Chris know.

I’ve heard you talk about you wanting to have some toys for Megas.

Yes, absolutely.

Now what kind of toys, in particular, would you really most want to see?

Something that I’ve been talking to people on twitter about is we’re seeing what the reality is of putting out die-cast toys for Megas. Because that’s something that I know personally, die-cast robots. And I think there’s a market for it. But we’re trying to figure out what the reality is. Some of the things we’d like to do is, you know, die-cast magnetic Megas so you could take the car off. Obviously his chest would open up, and different weapons would come out, and things like that. But this is all still in very early brainstorming stages.

Sure. I can’t imagine how complex the rights issues must be.

Yeah, they’re kind of a mess, but hopefully we’ll work through that.

I can tell… I actually looked up the tax-write off that Cartoon Network did.

Oh wow.

Yeah. I had a lawyer look at it, and he was still a little baffled, and he explained it to me. I kind of understand what happened, but just looking at it, it really does surprise to me to think that quality is not banked on first and foremost as the cash-making method for television. And I’m not trying to dismiss Disney or Cartoon Network or anything like that. Oftentimes, we just end up seeing these shows we love getting cancelled, and we end up wondering why.

Yeah. But then again, quality and also, what’s interesting to one person is not to another. It’s all very subjective. And as I mentioned earlier, the networks are also using an outdated system of gathering information on what’s popular and what’s not. So I have a feeling that sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we didn’t make a connection. Other times, they’re probably horribly, horribly wrong. And in the three shows that we’ve gotten cancelled, probably somewhere in there they’ve been horribly wrong. I’m not sure if each time they’ve been wrong, but they probably did not get each one right.

Yeah. Because the second that word got out that Megas was in any way open, the floodgates really just opened. The internet gave a voice to the people who didn’t have access to those Nielsen boxes.

You’re absolutely right. The thing is, those voices were always there, they just didn’t come together until recently. I’ve been getting emails since we were cancelled, consistently, people asking “Where can I find it”, are there any merchandise, what’s going on, and Titmouse as well. We’ve been hearing you, and we’re gonna try to do something about it.

I’d like to talk a little bit about what’s also going on in the future, because I’ve heard some stuff from you. Something about some stuff on SyFy, something at Nickelodeon… what can you tell us?

I can’t really say much because we’re in very early development, but I have a series, a live action series at SyFy that’s in development. Hopefully we’ll find out if it’s going next year. And I also have an animated series at Nickelodeon in development. In addition to that, Titmouse has just… like fleets of shows in development, which I’m very excited about. So I’d say in the next year or so, my hope would be that we get at least one show picked up. But you never know: We might get everything shot down. That’s part of the biz.

I don’t think I’ve spoken to anybody who worked with you who was not just elated to hear that the show might be coming back, and that you guys are doing as well as you are. And that these opportunities for new shows, and the goals for Motorcity and Megas are happening.

That’s very cool to hear. And that kind of stuff gives us the energy to keep moving forward, because at the end of the day we’re fans, just as much as fans of our shows are. So we are the nerds who go to the conventions, and we geek out on the same stuff, so it’s really awesome to hear that kind of thing.

You’re the first generation of what they call the ‘remix culture’, I think.

Is that what they call it?

Yup. Taking the things that are old, making them new. Homages, parodies, all those things just coalescing as things are made new. You are, I think, leading, along with Titmouse, a very unique charge to change television.

We’re trying, we’re trying and we’ll see what happens. I’m sure we’re gonna fail you in some way, but that’s how… I don’t mind failure, because obviously we learn from failure, we make the next thing and it’s better for it. I’m happy to keep trying, as long as you guys will come along for the ride and watch this crazy stuff we’re making, I’m happy to keep beating my head against those walls.

Of the shows that you’ve worked on, what do you think is maybe your favorite story to tell about the production?

You know what, I would have to say that there’s a lot of great stories with Megas, because that was a show that I had a hand in creating. There’s all kinds of great stories, there’s all kinds of painful stories too, but I’ll give you one story to kind of close things out which was pretty awesome, going back to Bruce Campbell.

We wrote Magnanimous with him in mind, and we reached out through official channels to his managers and agents, and we’re like “Hey, we’ve got this crazy MODOK character that we want Bruce to voice, and we kind of based it on him.” And we got stonewalled. We couldn’t get through, couldn’t get anything. So then Chris Prynoski went to, I think it was a screening of Evil Dead 2 or 3, I couldn’t go, and Bruce was appearing and there was a Q&A. And Chris actually brought the script with him, and at the end of the Q&A, as Bruce was kind of being shoved away, Chris broke through all the bodyguards and was like, “Mr. Campbell, please read our script, we have a show!”

And Bruce was cool enough to say like, “Hey, let the kid through.” And he took the script, and he actually read it, and was like, “I love this show, I wanna be part of it.” I think that story kind of sums up how people reacted to what we were doing, and also how crazy we were. That one of us basically attacked a celebrity to make him part of our show.

Wow. Same strategy that got the show started to begin with, I guess, huh?

Yeah, that’s true, I wasn’t even thinking about that. I mean, that’s what I’d say to your listeners and yourself and anyone else: If you wanna make something, just do it man, find a way. Don’t do anything that will get you in jail, don’t attack anyone physically, even though we did. Just do what you gotta do to get your stories told.

I think listening to this that a lot of people that watched your show, and the shows that you and Titmouse are going to affect are going to do just that.

I wanna watch your guys’ shows. I’m just as big a nerd as anyone on the con floor, so I can’t wait to see that stuff.

Well thank you very much for talking with me. Is there anything you’d like to say that I just should have asked, shouldn’t have missed, or you just wanna say?

No man, I think you did it all. Thank you again for the opportunity to listen, well, not to listen, but to speak to your listeners. And yeah… it was very cool. Thank you for having me.

Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 4)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

8. They Don’t Have To Make Fallout (or) The Merits of a Spiritual Successor

Feargus Urquhart has mentioned his fervent desire for Obsidian to work on a new Fallout game, including New Vegas 2. But I suspect that if any Obsidian staff are reading this, there may be a part of them thinking about the complications that presents.

Specifically, the relative lack of freedom in order to conform to Bethesda’s view of Fallout: there’s no way for them to change much of the status quo in that world, drastically alter core aspects of the gameplay in their own way, or move the story further ahead in the timeline. Doing so might interfere with the production of Fallout 4, and those limitations must, understandably, be in place.

Couple that with the eighteen month development time for Fallout: New Vegas (compared to the four years spent developing Fallout 3), you can see the potential frustration present in such a proposal.

Licensed games, of course, have always had that limitations: but in a franchise that had been a part of their lives as developers for so long, I can imagine a much greater desire for control over Fallout than they would have for the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth.

But, as I said, they don’t have to make a Fallout game.

Earlier, I mentioned Troika’s efforts to create a post-apocalyptic RPG of their own. During its prototype development, Troika co-founder and Fallout designer Leonard Boyarsky said:

As far as overall feeling of the game, we’d really like to capture a distinctive mood and style like we were able to in Fallout. Whether this will be similar to Fallout’s style and mood or something totally different is not something we want to discuss yet. From a gameplay/system perspective, this game is definitely a spiritual successor to Fallout.

Obsidian could do that too. Developers have been doing it for decades when the publisher is unwilling to relinquish the property, the team dissolves, or a key creative staffer moves to another company. There’s even a name for this kind of design: the spiritual successor. Whether it’s design choices, writing, the setting, or outright gameplay, it creates a new, but familiar experience for players who enjoyed the original title, while still improving on what came before.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Fire EmblemTear Ring Saga

Total AnnihilationSupreme Commander

System ShockBioshock

Final FantasyThe Last Story

Planescape TormentKnights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Wasteland Fallout

That’s right: For those of you not in the know, after Electronic Arts published Wasteland, Interplay was unable to get the rights to develop Wasteland 2. It was from this that a post-apocalyptic RPG was put in to development at Interplay, taking design cues (open world, the setting, choice and consequence oriented writing, and certain elements of the dialogue in particular) from the original Wasteland. However, the gameplay, setting, and methodology behind the storytelling was revamped, creating a fresh experience that improved upon the elements that made Wasteland such a beloved title.

In the cases of these spiritual successors, each of them acclaimed in their own way, you can see that it wasn’t the setting that made them successful: It was the people behind them. With the utilization of new and different design choices, the titles managed to create a fresh but familiar experience, beloved in their own right rather than as just extensions of their predecessors.

The reason that spiritual successors are often necessary isn’t because of a lack of interest in the original title, rather, it’s because game developers generally do not own the rights to the content they create. In the case of major game development, they make pitches to the publisher the same way a director or screenwriter does to a studio.

If the pitch is accepted, the publisher will fund the game’s development, distribution and marketing costs in exchange for the intellectual property rights, the majority of the profits, and a say in how the game is developed.

Now, this series isn’t intended to rail against the evils of publishers. After all, a similar system has been employed by television, comic strips, comic books, and movies since the inception of their mediums. And given the choice between the developers at Obsidian working on a Fallout game, or a new intellectual property set in a post-apocalyptic world, I would be tempted to pick Fallout.

But they don’t need the Fallout license to create a good game in that vein. The SPECIAL system, combat, and the setting itself aren’t why people love the series. If that were the case, Fallout Tactics would be looked at far more fondly than it is. It’s the reactivity, consequences, tone, the way you shaped the world with your presence, and the voices of talented developers that make Fallout, if you’ll pardon me, special.

Bethesda can provide Obsidian with a license to the setting, and the funding to develop the game. The profits for a spin-off title on the PC could be theirs. But if the setting isn’t necessary to create a new title that kept the things that make Fallout great, if there is an additional freedom to be gained by using a property that Obsidian owns outright, that leads only the question of funding – and if Bethesda is needed for that at all.

9. Kickstarter

I suppose it had to come to this, didn’t it?

I’m not going to run over the merits of kickstarter and crowdfunding in general as a concept, either as a whole or specifically as it relates to the gaming industry. Talking about it would entail my discussing developer/publisher relationships, the horrors of crunch time, intellectual property rights, inflated budgets in the gaming industry due to bleeding-edge technology, my frustration with Metacritic, and so much more.

What I will talk about, however, is what it is allowing developers to do. I mentioned before that movies, television, comics, comic strips and gaming were handled the same way: The creator of the property generally does not hold the rights to said property. I hold no malice towards the system, and I hope to enter one of them someday. But when I look to kickstarter, I see it as an opportunity for something that has not always been readily available: independently created content that might not otherwise have mass appeal.

Mass appeal is the operative phrase when it comes to kickstarter. Imagine my shock when the new Tomb Raider, which holds a Metacritic score slightly higher than Fallout: New Vegas, sold 3.4 million copies (not counting digital sales) – and was considered a failure.

But Obsidian Entertainment isn’t Square Enix, they’re a medium-sized developer. This is a big part of why Project Eternity, a game which appeals to those who played a style of RPGs which largely stopped development after Icewind Dale II, is a workable model.

The entirety of Project Eternity‘s development costs have been funded at $4.3 million, from (roughly) 75,000 backers. The developers have been paid, and every copy that is sold upon launch is effectively profit: there are no more costs related to development to cover.

And even if they sold another 75,000 copies at a theoretical budget price of $30, it would generate $2.25 million in income for Obsidian – a little more than half of Project Eternity‘s final budget.

Obsidian has already promised an expansion pack for Project Eternity to be developed without using their kickstarter’s money, and expressed their desire for full-on sequels. It’s unknown whether these sequels were self-published through the profits from Project Eternity or funded through kickstarter, but the scope for what they consider a success, and what they’d need to continue the franchise, is vastly different than that of a big publisher.

When you add together the idea of lateral thinking with withered technology and the concept of spiritual successors, you get a better understanding as to why crowdfunding has been successful for gaming. The most successful gaming campaigns are, for the most part, either licensed sequels or spiritual successors to past games. Torment: Tides of Numenera, Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, Shroud of the Avatar, and Broken Age being just a few of the bigger names.

You could claim that these successes are born wholly from a sense of nostalgia or brand loyalty, but I disagree. I donated for a boxed copy of Wasteland 2 without ever having played Wasteland, the original Fallout titles, or any inXile game – nor am I much of a PC gamer. I was simply fascinated with the prospect of playing this kind of game.

There is, of course, another option. It worked for Veronica Mars, Leisure Suit Larry, and Shadowrun Returns: License the property to Obsidian for one title and let them do a kickstarter to fund it. While such propositions from publishers were offered to Obsidian, they were all related to new IPs, not a license. A Fallout title would give Bethesda the best of both worlds – minimal investment, and the profits from what I believe would be a great game.

And no matter how it was funded, for newer fans who only know Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, I suspect there are more than 75,000 of them with an open enough mind to take a look at something new.

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