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Archive for the category “Op-Ed”

Comics, Barriers to Entry, and Ultimate Spider-Man

News of Brian Michael Bendis signing an exclusive contract with DC had me thinking about Ultimate Spider-Man, arguably the best thing he’s ever written. The voice of the series is singular and unique, and the consistency of Peter Parker’s characterization and writing makes him a lot more like Jack Knight than the original Spider-Man. As part of a separate continuity (which I would explain to a layman as ‘Like how the movies aren’t the same as the comics’) known as the Ultimate Universe, it’s also incredibly accessible to new readers. So when I was at a used book store talking to a guy who wanted to start reading comics, I recommended a copy of Volume 1 – Power and Responsibility without hesitation.

And my appreciation is precisely why it is so frustrating to deal with the way that Marvel has collected this series. Not just for me, but for the potential millions of readers for whom picking up the title is a horrific amount of work. That might seem dramatic, but one sentence alone can illustrate where prospective (and experienced) fans can and will get stuck:

There are eight Volume 1s of Ultimate Spider-Man.

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Showing off the Shelves – 484, for my Dad

This column has been in the works for awhile. It was originally intended to be a lighthearted thing, a regular Showing off the Shelves. But much like writing as a whole, like life as a whole, it has been difficult in recent months due to the sudden passing of my dad. I’m dealing with that now, as much and as well as a person ever really can – but I wanted to share a piece of what and why I collect, because it is perhaps the most enduring part of what he left me. Perhaps letting this out raw and unrefined is for the better.

I’ve often described myself as a second-generation nerd. My mom collected Star Trek fanzines and novels, and was annoyed by the 2009 reboot of the series for failing to take the EU in to account (my delight in watching her act like I do when I’m annoyed by something nerdy was also what had me start watching TOS in earnest). My dad, however, was the first person to tell me that a season of television was bad – the third season of Trek, to be precise, and the budgetary issues that caused it. It was the first time I was aware that television had seasons, and would set the stage for my interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of television. Not for the sake of knowing, but to better understand the art form that would spur me to become a writer. I am, at heart, someone who will always enjoy serial media more than a standalone piece, and it is comics and television that made it so.

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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.

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.

Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 2)

Part 1 can be read here.
Fallout Logo

6. The Curse of Voice Acting

I have nothing but admiration for voice actors. The truly talented ones, the ones who aren’t just reading off the sheet, are character actors, able to find just the right spot within their range and create an entire personality around it. There is so much depth and emotion that comes from a good performance by a voice actor that even the most stock dialogue is given personality. It allows for greater immersion in to the game’s universe, and the writer can convey things in a way that pure text can’t. Listing the voice actors whose work I so admire in gaming would be doing a disservice to those I would invariably forget, whose work I do not know, or simply do not have the space to discuss.

So when I say that I don’t want voice acting in an Obsidian-based Fallout game, it’s not because I think there’s a lack of talent out there, or because I don’t enjoy voice acting in gaming. It’s because voice acting has made games much, much more difficult to develop.

RPGs are, by their nature, dependent on dialogue in a way that most games are not. With a larger cast of characters and heavy narrative, it’s only natural: it becomes all the more complex when choice is introduced in to the game, as is common in WRPGs. Lines have to be crafted depending on your response, lines have to be crafted for other characters depending on your response, entire story paths are laid out due to a push of a button.

Unfortunately, these exact points in RPGs have frequently forced writers work around voice acting, rather than use it solely as a tool to better tell the story.

For example, Fallout: New Vegas’s DLC. There were four story packs, Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road. Combined, they were budgeted for 10,000 lines of dialogue. That’s 2,500 lines per 4-10 hour experience, compared to the 3,000 lines of dialogue you are likely to hear in an average motion picture, and the 63,000 lines in the main game.

To better understand what that limitation means, let’s look at what you can reasonably extrapolate to be each individual DLC pack’s design objectives:

A: Tell a complete story without requiring you purchase other DLC

B: Interweave with the other DLC

C: Relate to the main campaign so as to not feel too separated from the main game

D: Be playable in any order

E: Be 4-10 hours long

And of course, you won’t hear every line in a single playthrough – like the rest of New Vegas, the choices you make in the story impact NPC reactions and their dialogue.

So, obviously it means these packs have to, in some ways, focus less on character interaction than the main game. It certainly helps that The Courier isn’t given a voice actor, but how else do they accomplish this?

Well, every DLC pack starts by separating you from your companions. Then, you’re removed from the main setting of the game. You’re put in to a new setting which is contained (Old World Blues, Dead Money), separated from much of civilization (Honest Hearts), or simply desolate (Lonesome Road). All three of options lead to a minimalist cast.

The effects of the DLC affecting the main story of the game would require recording more dialogue, so the stories are essentially self-contained. Old World Blues, the most blatant example, outright brainwashes your character so you can never discuss the events of The Big MT outside of the DLC.

A greater emphasis is put on atmosphere and visual storytelling. Dead Money with its terrifying, cramped setting and survival horror elements. Honest Hearts with its vast wilderness. Old World Blues and its strange, broken high tech environment. Lonesome Road with its horrific landscapes and monster design.

And a number of other, very clever devices were used to help tell the story within that budget constraints – such as mute characters, characters who were discussed in the main game but only introduced in the DLC, journal entries from dead characters – to tell a story in a setting that made sense.

Other tricks in dialogue have to be used as well, not just in the New Vegas DLC, but through most RPGs: While your (often mute) player character can pick multiple dialogue options, they might end up getting the exact same response, or the writing is subject to dialogue-splicing. Here’s an example of the latter:

Option 1

PC: So where can I get some grub in this armpit of a town?

NPC: Elda’s Diner, just down the street.

Option 2

PC: Any recommendations on where I can get something to eat?

NPC: The same place I eat every night: Elda’s Diner, just down the street.

Option 3

PC: I’m looking for Tommy Two-Tone, you know where he hangs out?

NPC: That rat? Yeah, I know where he is. Heh, the same place I eat every night: Elda’s Diner.

PC: Where’s Elda’s Diner?

NPC: Just down the street.

This is just sample text I wrote to illustrate the point. You can see the various tools being used in dialogue trees to create fully fleshed out dialogue on a budget.

While dialogue-splicing this does create more of a variety in how you’re able to interact with characters, relative to the amount of dialogue that’s actually recorded, the responses can often feel bland and lacking in characterization due to the (understandably) utilitarian nature of the writing. Another issue in this process is that voice acting requires that the dialogue be finalized earlier in the production process in order to allow for beta testing.

Anyone who isn’t Hunter S. Thompson will tell you that writing is rewriting, so this loss of opportunity for iteration creates a lack of polish to the dialogue that might otherwise be allowed.

And most damningly, reactivity to your actions is drastically reduced. They can’t afford to include as much dialogue in the game, so they don’t write it. The choices you have in conversational dialogue become two, perhaps three, and rarely more than that, because the responses must be limited to reduce studio time. On top of that, there are less ‘triggers’ (consequences occurring in later events due to a specific action within the dialogue) in order to reduce the amount of lines that must be recorded later.

The writing becomes less nuanced as a result, and the game, no matter the talent behind it, loses the opportunity for some creative choices. These issues are not unique to the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, though the implementation of their workarounds might be.

And from the perspective of voice actors, they’re forced to read for a performance that will be used to fit the needs of any number of splices that occur within in a dialogue sequence, which does reduce studio time… and the quality of their performance. As much as I love many different parts of Alpha Protocol, including its excellent audio engineering and performances, once I caught on to the use of dialogue-splicing I could not un-see it.

Now, after all that, I want to clarify my position. Voice acting is not bad, it is restrictive.

Voice acting also can add emotional depth to a scene, integrate gameplay and story, and bring a new dimension to a character. In particular, voice acting lends itself well to humor and the nuances of speech: the subtle anger when speaking a name, a breathless joy upon being reunited with someone thought-long lost, and so much more. And when I think of my favorite vocal performances in gaming, they tend to be from RPGs.

And like I said, not having voice acting is a restriction too: Portal could not have been the same game without a voice actor for GLaDOS.

So why would I suggest a six million dollar budget for Obsidian’s Fallout when that’s not enough to support full voice acting? There are two reasons: The first being that full voice acting isn’t the only option for voice acting at all. Fallout and Fallout 2 used a method where major and memorable characters had voice acting, though not necessarily for every line of dialogue. Minor characters, or less important dialogue sequences, didn’t use voice acting at all. It was used at critical junctures to help emphasize elements within the story and setting, without eating up the entirety of the game’s budget. It was used as a tool, and to great effect.

But the second reason is this. Good voice acting does, as I’ve said, add a lot to the dialogue. But for that potential upside – there is, after all, bad voice acting – it incurs not only a large cost, but the need to sacrifice certain creative choices. Those choices, like the ability to write complex dialogue, reactive dialogue, and reactive quests, are Obsidian’s greatest strengths. Why, of all things, would you ask them to sacrifice that?

Part 3 will be posted tomorrow, discussing some of the Obsidian Entertainment staff that deserve to be involved in a new Fallout.

Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 1)

Fallout Logo

Why should Bethesda, the current owner of the Fallout franchise, give Obsidian Entertainment, developers of Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, six million dollars?

The answer’s pretty simple: I want them to make a new Fallout game.

“But Mathias,” you exclaim because you’re pretty sure that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard, “You can’t produce an open-world 3D game worthy of Fallout with that small of a budget! Skyrim’s budget was 85 million dollars!

That’s absolutely true. But  Skyrim was a Triple-A game with a budget to match, designed to push the limits of an open-world game on the hardware of PCs and consoles. That’s not what I’m asking for in this article, nor is it what Obsidian is best at creating. While I’m looking forward to playing Bethesda’s Fallout 4, Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas proves that there’s room for success outside of the main, numbered Fallout titles.

So let’s take a look at the first in a four-part series to help answer this question: Why should Bethesda spend this kind of money for another Obsidian-made Fallout?

1. Six Million Dollars

It’s a fair question to ask why I’d pick that specific number. Wasteland 2’s budget was approximately $3 million, a game of a similar scope and genre to the first Fallout game. Project Eternity, Obsidian’s current Unity Engine RPG, is budgeted at $4.3 million, is roughly identical to the budget for the original Fallout (when adjusted for inflation). So why six million?

Bethesda is known for its lush production values and immense worlds. I believe they wouldn’t put their name on a product that didn’t represent the scope of play that Bethesda is renowned for. If Project Eternity can promise a truly expansive game with a budget of $4.3 million, then it stands to reason that Bethesda would want Obsidian to push themselves that much further, especially with the foundation their work on Eternity has given them.

2. Fallout: New Vegas Was Profitable

While the creative vision of a game is important, video games are a business. So what is the monetary advantage in giving Obsidian this money to create a new Fallout game?

Let’s not forget that the game made $300 million within its first month of release. With six DLC packs, an Ultimate Edition, and two and a half years since its launch, it’s unlikely that the game stopped there. People loved New Vegas, Metacritic issues or not, and they proved it with their wallets.

And this with only 18 months of development. 

The names Fallout, Bethesda, New Vegas, and Obsidian all have their own forms of brand recognition, meaning the publication of a new Fallout title is not only good for the built-in market, the market makes it good for the publisher. For a less expensive game that plays entirely to the strengths of Obsidian’s staff, I can’t imagine it being a poor investment.

3. Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, and the Unity Engine

Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game and Watch, Game Boy, and mentor to Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto, had a phrase that I have always loved: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.

The concept is wonderfully simple. By examining older, less-cutting edge technology and finding new ways to utilize it, you have access not only to affordable development tools, but an enormous base of understanding available for such technologies. This allows developers to move away from just recreating the basics. Quoting Brian Fargo, producer of Fallout, Fallout 2, and the upcoming Wasteland 2,

We get access to a huge code and art base immediately, and stuff that’s streamlined already for the system. So we are able to get things up really really quick. And that’s the biggest difference – that ability to do that. With Wasteland, we are a year in, and it would have taken at least two years to get this far if we had started from scratch.

Particularly noteworthy is the speed with which developers can generate content, allowing them the opportunity to see what does and does not work during development, and more importantly, fix it. Art is experimentation, RPG design is iteration, and the more they are able to do both, the better the game will be. Again, to quote Brian Fargo,

Nothing replaces iteration. Nothing. There’s no amount of pre-planning in the world that will make up for iteration time. It’s all about getting the game in and working, so you can start iterating and making it better. The faster you get there, the better the game.

It’s part of why the Unity Engine is such a critical element for Project Eternity‘s success: While it’s true an understanding of the mechanics, level and story design for an open-world RPG are all being brought to the table by the Obsidian team, Unity offers a wealth of resources that wouldn’t be available in a newly developed engine. This allows them to redistribute their efforts in a way that creates a better workflow, as shown in this comparison chart between Project Eternity and the typical Obsidian development cycle.

Support, documentation, and multiple iterations of said engine for the purposes of increased functionality and ease-of-use allow Obsidian’s team to focus their efforts where they belong: using existing tools to better shape the entire gameplay experience, rather than fighting with the engine to conform to their needs.

With Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and now Torment: Tides of Numenera budgeted at $3-4 million apiece, they promise isometric RPGs that are likely to be as expansive as Fallout, perhaps even Fallout 2. All three use the Unity Engine, and all three are made by designers who worked on the original two Fallout games. So let’s do the obvious: let Obsidian use the Unity Engine to develop an isometric Fallout game.

If you look at the video demonstrating the some of the graphical elements introduced in Project Eternity, you can see that type of lateral thinking at work. Rather than use 3D graphics for the backgrounds, which would likely pale in comparison to games with a much larger budget, they spent a little more money to use 2D, hand-painted backgrounds. This was the same method they used to render games in the Infinity Engine and creates an artistic look that, relative to its contemporaries, looks new and visually impressive.

They made a number of other smart choices too. Instead of sticking solely with what worked in the past for the sake of nostalgia, they did make changes: higher resolutions, producing the game in widescreen, dynamic lighting to feel a greater sense of integration between the characters and objects, and running water and ‘wind’ for trees/bushes to create a less static environment. These changes are small, and make all the difference in the world when it comes to making the game feel modern.

Project Eternity won’t have the photorealism present in a game like LA Noire, because it isn’t necessary for them to provide that specific kind of immersion. They’re using older development ideologies to create a specific effect within the budget they have available, not pushing graphics for the sake of pushing graphics.

To my delight, inXile has agreed to share their Unity Engine tools and technology with Obsidian Entertainment, and vice versa. Not only will this improve Project Eternity, it would improve what Obsidian would be able to do for a new Fallout. Take a look at what the Unity Engine allows a group of small developers to do at the alpha stage of Wasteland 2 – a game that just happens to be an isometric, post-apocalyptic RPG.

4. The Game Won’t Be Buggy

Whether you agree with the rest of this article or not, for those of you who played Alpha Protocol or the launch version of Fallout: New Vegas, there has to be a “Yeah, but…” going through your mind.

Just hear me out.

No one on the planet is defending how bad the launch version for New Vegas was, including Obsidian. In fact, the CEO of Obsidian Entertainment publicly stated that after the launch of New Vegas, the company did an overhaul of the entire quality assurance process to optimize bug removal. Add to that Obsidian’s experience with the Unity Engine after Project Eternity, their technology sharing with inXile, and a gameplay style they’re more familiar with, and you have a recipe for the polished game a paying customer deserves.

There is one point I need to mention in relation to Obsidian’s reputation for buggy games: While Obsidian has worked to optimize and streamline their process, QA is a two-way street between the developer and publisher. The inner workings of game development sequestered the same way as sausage-making, which is why I was so shocked to read another quote by Brian Fargo:

[Obsidian] did Fallout: New Vegas, the ship date got moved up and, who does the QA on a project? The publisher is always in charge of QA. When a project goes out buggy, it’s not the developer. The developer never says, “I refuse to fix the bug,” or, “I don’t know how.” They never do that. It’s the publisher that does the QA, so if a product goes out buggy, it’s not the developer’s fault.

5. Fallout: New Vegas Was Great

Obsidian’s work on Fallout: New Vegas may have resulted in the infamous Metacritic debacle, but I’d argue that there were two aspects in reviews that influenced its score.

The first is simple: many of the initial reviews that led to it were based on the frustration towards the launch version of the game. Properly patched, it was a far different experience. Obsidian had never developed an open world RPG in the 3D, voice-acted realm of modern gaming, but they built upon the well-crafted work that made Fallout 3 so popular and made it their own, altering game mechanics, reintroducing the faction system, and populating it with memorable characters and some of the levity that made the original Fallout games so great.

The second, and certainly more subtle, is something only noticeable upon replaying the game: The narrative of New Vegas was built not on length, but replay value. The reactions characters had to the Courier made the game more multifaceted, often only showing the whole picture of a character by using different approaches with them on multiple playthroughs. I found discussion of this kind of reactivity to be lacking in some of the reviews and discussions I’ve seen in New Vegas.

I’m not going to do a full review of the game here, but its gameplay, world building and narrative were really all I could ask for in a game developed the way it was. My only real complaint about the game was related to certain elements of the writing, which we’ll discuss tomorrow in Part 2 with “The Curse of Voice-Acting.”

Op-Ed: How I’d set up the Disney comics line

There are still no American Disney comics being published. This bothers me because I got in to Disney comics during the beginning of BOOM!’s run, and I never got the chance to see what are known by Disney fans as the best series of comics during their original published run. I’ve been excited to read new material, but since BOOM! went… boom, I’ve had the opportunity to look at old Gladstone and Gemstone reprints. I’ve read old reprints of great Disney artists past in compilations, and to seriously examine why I like the Disney comics I do… and why I don’t like the comics I don’t.

Since I have no expertise, no financial or creative stake in it, I feel completely comfortable armchair quarterbacking what the new publisher (whomever they may be) should do as though I were some sort of authority. So, in this hypothetical world where I have the opportunity to outline the creative direction of Disney comics, here’s how I’d run the joint, both in terms of new stuff and in comparison to the days of old.

The Titles

Darkwing Duck

This is a property so good that I can’t believe it was untapped as long as it was. Darkwing Duck is, and I mean this, one of the best modern comics I’ve had the pleasure of reading. One of the most creatively interesting things about Darkwing Duck is that it has the ability to switch between dramatic and funny at the drop of a hat, all without breaking tone. With lush, gorgeous art from James Silvani and some excellent comedy, the cartoon king of cool deserves a place as the comic king of cool.

Now, the original BOOM! Darkwing Duck series had more than its fair share of gaping, monumental problems, but they occurred later in the run when executive meddling had taken its course. In the hands of James Silvani (the best Disney artist working today) and Aaron Sparrow, the original creator of the comic, we could have more stories like The Duck Knight Returns, which they had the most direct influence on… and not so much like its final arc.

What I’d change: The original trades were done in 4-issue story arcs that were meant to be read as trade paperbacks. I like reading longer stories, but the four-issue lock lacks narrative flexibility and can ruin the pacing. Give them the freedom to write a story as long or short as it needs to be. And for God’s sake, give James Silvani credit as a co-writer.

DuckTales

When Marvel realized that comics continuity was too difficult for a new reader to penetrate, they created the Ultimate Universe, which served as a fusion of old, new, movies, and What If?s, all wrapped in the veneer of a modern day setting. That’s ostensibly what the BOOM! DuckTales was supposed to be.

It really, really wasn’t.

That legendary disaster aside, it’s not actually such a bad idea, especially when combined with the Darkwing Duck universe and its crossover potential.

What I’d change: You don’t need to make it a straight adaptation of the cartoon. If you wanted to, you could bring in Brigitta MacBridge, use Barks/Rosa’s backstory for Goldie, include some hints of Paperinik, but keep Fenton, Launchpad, Webby, and the TV version of most events if you wanted to. The big selling point of this comic is an opportunity to give creative people an opportunity to play with Scrooge McDuck and change things beyond the status quo without affecting the core Disney titles. It doesn’t need to be a continuity-heavy work, but that flexibility of changing elements of the status quo can allow more storytelling possibilities.

Beyond that, I’d strongly suggest bringing Donald back in to the fold. If you want a good example as to how the character dynamics could work with such a huge cast, take a look at The Arcadian Urn. But under no circumstances are the writers of Rightful Owners or Dangerous Currency allowed anywhere near this reboot, which will start at Issue #1.

Fillmore!

This is going to sound strange and obscure, but hear me out. Fillmore was a 26 episode series that ran on Disney, which was basically a 70s style buddy-cop show set in middle school. The cops were safety patrollers, counterfeiters were making phony baseball cards, and the ‘mayor’ was the Principal. It was an excellent series with clean animation, interesting characters, and great mysteries. Contingent on creator Scott M. Gimple’s involvement, I’d ask him to revive it as a comic book in a heartbeat. It has no continuity that you’d need to know in order to start the series again, and if you never knew it was a TV show you could pick it up without a problem.

I’ll be talking about Fillmore in a future review in detail, but I think that it could be perfect for comics, allowing for a greater flexibility in cast, recurring villains, ongoing plots, and bigger visuals.

What I’d change: I’d probably ask him to be a little more generous with the screen time of Fillmore’s partner, Ingrid Third, but beyond I honestly believe that the series’ formula was honed to perfection. What Gimple wants as a writer to improve that, I’d gladly give him.

Gargoyles

For those of you who are just Duck-and-Mice fans, Gargoyles was a Disney Afternoon show that ran for three seasons, though only two count for our purposes. Created by Greg Weisman, the show boasted the most impressive continuity in a cartoon of its time, and a desire to tell serious stories to kids in a way they could appreciate.

Personally, I have some issues with the show, but it’s mostly because I think Weisman is a better comic writer than TV writer due to the way he handles ensemble casts. But my opinion doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is the enormous number of fans who DO still exist. Greg Weisman’s show has created one of the most enduring fandoms, and makes Firefly fans devotion almost look small in comparison. Which is why when he had the opportunity to continue his show as a comic under Slave Labor Graphics, it was a nerddom’s dream come true.

And because he is Greg Weisman, demigod of stories cut short, it was cancelled because Disney raised the licensing costs.

This is a comic than can give serious critical acclaim to the Disney lineup, and brings in a pre-built audience with a love for comics. The Gargoyles license belongs to Disney, but the story belongs to Weisman. And while the story’s not exactly my cup of tea, it’s a story that he should be telling, and can do for years to come. He might be working on Young Justice right now, but… well, let’s be honest, no matter what you think of the show, it’s Greg Weisman working on TV: It’s gonna get cancelled.

What I’d change: Nothing, as far as I can tell. The comic was incredibly successful, critically acclaimed, and suffered no editorial nonsense. What is there to change? But if he can get a co-writer so he can release more issues a month, including his numerous spinoff plans, I’d be happy with that.

Mickey Mouse

Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. Buddy, you put out some truly terrible comics.

When I read an issue of Mickey Mouse from Gemstone, I’m absolutely baffled. Who writes these bland stories, lacking characterization or thrilling action? Why is there no tension, or an intellectually engaging mystery? Where’s the sense of danger? Why is the art so workmanlike, without creativity in the visuals or action? Why is Mickey’s face pale? Why is he ever wearing anything but his classic red shorts outfit? It’s partly it’s because Egmont is responsible for these stories, but partly because… well, these guys are no Floyd Gottfredson, a true master of the character and craft. These are people who are writing and drawing new Mickey stories because there must be new Mickey stories, and little is done to be innovative. It makes collecting his comics very much a waste for me.

But there should still be a Mickey Mouse comic.

What I’d change: Don’t mistake me, Mickey Mouse is one of the greatest comic characters of all time. And it’s almost entirely due to Floyd Gottfredson’s hand, because I have never read a Mickey Mouse comic that stands up to even a lesser Gottfredson tale.

But I still think you can do a great Mickey Mouse comic today. It just needs to be treated like any other artistic project, allowing the team to push themselves to mastering the comic book format for an American audience. First and foremost that means a dedicated writer/artist team working on it who can stay on the title for a long time to come. On top of that, it needs to be removed the Gottfredson/past comic book continuity to give the writers a fresh slate, and an opportunity to place it in the DW/DT universe.

And there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t include Donald and Goofy as supporting characters if you wanted to. This is especially true considering DuckTales, which didn’t use Donald as more than a series of small guest appearances, and the slippery nature of comic book time. The dynamic of the ‘big three’ of Disney is an opportunity that’s better explored in the Kingdom Hearts game than Disney comics, and that’s just not right to me.

One big area of change, and perhaps a key to the comic’s success, is Mickey’s character. He needs to be written not just as an everyman, but a character with qualities and emotions all his own. This makes him not just funnier and a more dynamic, less reactionary character, it makes him relatable. Right now, no kid wants to play as Mickey Mouse, because there’s nothing to imitate. It is absolutely my opinion that it’s not just because the stories are boring, but because his character is written like a newspaper strip character, and that just doesn’t work when you bring it to the comics. Barks didn’t imitate Taliaferro.

In terms of tone, you need the kind of dashing, swashbuckling action that made Gottfredson’s work so powerful. A smart hero who can outthink his enemies more than outfight them, but can still mix it up, is a hero that kids can really get engaged in. Written with just enough of an ‘edge’ (meaning that Mickey could punch people and leave a bruise, have firearms get involved, or even consider the possibility of a villain dying) you could have a children’s comic that made people see Mickey for what he was intended to be all along: Doug Fairbanks.

Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck

Originally I was writing the Uncle Scrooge entry and wondered if there should be a separate Donald Duck comic. But quite frankly: No, there shouldn’t be, and there shouldn’t be an Uncle Scrooge comic either.

What I’d change: The reason I wouldn’t separate these two characters is because they’re intrinsically linked. You can have separate stories starring these characters, but by segregating them you’re often forced to publish substandard work to fill out the page count rather than emphasizing the best of the best. Typically that’s taken the form of the tame Egmont Duck stories and the outright insane Italian stuff, and you’re left with an uninteresting tiresome comic.

That may make my desire to publish it at 64 pages sound insane, but hear me out. It’s a matter of what the expanded page count will allow them to publish. They can reprint the longer Barks, Rosa and European reprints (yes, there are some truly great European Disney comics), but more important still is allowing brand new Duck stories made for the comic, without imposing a particular length. This also gives them an opportunity to introduce stories starring characters who don’t get the chance for the spotlight, including Gyro, the nephews, Beagle Boys, or Magica.

Each issue should include one headlining adventure story, two backup 10-15 pagers (be it the traditional gag stories or a short adventure, such as “The Island at the Edge of Time”), and at least one of the 1-4 page gag story.

The Muppet Show

I confess, I haven’t read the Muppet comics. My knowledge of the Muppets is very, very limited. But Roger Landridge’s work on the BOOM! series has been acclaimed, he’s been wanting to do it for a long time, and if it means a talented man making great comics I’ll be happy. I don’t want Muppet comics, I want Roger Landridge’s Muppet comics.

What I’d change: Don’t cancel the title after ten issues because of the line folding.

Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories

Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories should be the great bastion of creativity and experimentation. An anthology comic starring whatever Disney comic characters the writers want to use, the content can and should be made of  various stories of different lengths starring different characters, with no central title to it at all. But I think releasing it as a 32 page comic is a mistake: It should be 64.

What I’d change: WDC&S tends to be the backup book, and I don’t think it needs to be. The reason I want a 64 page WDC&S isn’t because I want that many more short gag pieces, but because it gives them freedom to be more experimental in their content. If they want to do a continuing 10-page feature on the misadventures of Goofy, by all means, do exactly that. If they want to simply publish a 22 page story as a ‘pilot’ for a new series, or just as a one-off that’s too short for a graphic novel? Do that too, because there will be room! This should be a place where comics can be a grand experiment, not just a matter of churning out reprints month after month. If someone doesn’t like an individual story, they’ll have that much more to choose from. The reader will get more from it, and so will your artists.

 

So what else would I do?

Every comic would have a letters page, to be handled by the writer, editor and artist depending on who is best equipped to respond to a particular letter. There is to be no snark at a reader’s comments: The Gladstone letter pages were wonderful and should be used as a template for how a creative team should respond to fans: Thoughtfully, respectfully, and great fun to read even twenty years later. While the letters page tended to be populated by adults in the older Gladstone/Gemstone titles, I found the Gemstone responses (at least in the Mickey comics) to be rude, and that’s not going to fly when you’re dealing with small children.

All crossover stories would be published under one title. By that, I mean if Darkwing Duck and DuckTales cross over for a story arc, their story will only be told in either the Darkwing Duck or DuckTales comic. If that means twice-monthly issues for the duration of a crossover, that’s just the way it goes. I despise having to open different longboxes to switch between JLA and JSA for each issue. There is absolutely no need to confuse and frustrate a reader the way DC and Marvel tend to.

Story arcs. While they’re not necessary, they are a great tool of modern comics and if/when used, should be handled with care. Locking a reader out of buying a comic because you’re meant to read from issue one like a graphic novel isn’t acceptable. An issue that’s part of a story arc must have a short recap in the form of a caption so that a first time reader can jump in, and hopefully refresh the memory of people who, well, haven’t read the comic in a month or so.

Reprints that are too long for a single issue, generally expected to be Italian comics under the WDC&S and Uncle Scrooge/Donald Duck title should be split across two issues rather than consume the entirety of the page space of the backup features.

I encourage writers to develop one-shots so they learn how to effectively manage their storytelling, and not just decompress it because you can.

Each title will be given an annual with a larger page count, to be marked as simply as (Title) #13 rather than as (Title) Annual #1. It’s easier for collectors, and doesn’t force the writers and artists to abandon what they’re doing in the main title to concentrate on something completely different. If they want to do a one-shot, an anthology collection, a continuation of the story, that’s fine, but it’s a change of pace that should be fun for the readers and creative team.

Colorists work under the supervision of the original artist. I firmly believe that their job isn’t to decide what the coloration is meant to be, but to bring to life and enhance the line-artist’s work. And I say this because if the original run of Barks comics had one flaw, it’s the abysmal coloring. It was partly due to the 4-Color press technology of the time, which I can understand. But mostly it had to do with incompetent colorists who, because of the way the studio was set up, didn’t work with the artists and completely ignored coloring directives… and all the while they did it badly. That’s just not okay.

You’re insane. You’re changing everything. What is WRONG with you?

This is absolutely drastic change from traditional Disney comics. It isn’t what any fan remembers reading as a kid.

Nor should it be.

A comic series that tugs at your childhood is a wonderful thing, and so is sharing that childhood love with others. While reprints of classic Disney comics should be a part of the line, and reprint compilations are absolutely wonderful (I gave my nephew a copy of Fantagraphics’ “Only a Poor Old Man” this Christmas), the comics deserve more than nostalgia. Carl Barks, Floyd Gottfredson, and Don Rosa aren’t artistically or culturally relevant because of the format they used, they’re relevant because they told great stories that happened to be in a certain format.

There was no Gottfredson before Gottfredson, Barks before Barks, or Rosa before Rosa. And even Rosa, whose admiration for past comics is well known, wasn’t Carl Barks after Carl Barks! He couldn’t be. It’s not a matter of a lesser talent at all, it’s a matter of him being a different artist, not a slavish imitator. By playing to his own strengths and telling the kinds of stories he wanted to tell, he created some of the most interesting work Disney has ever put out there.

I’m not saying that we should ignore the works of the past, nor that we should entirely stop reprints of these great works. But to only print and reprint comics in that format, and to value a comic because it is the best of a particular format rather than wanting a good comic in its own right simply because that’s the way it’s always been done? That’s just plain foolish. I believe that the best creators can use what’s been done before them not just as a tool for their own stories, but to improve on what has been. They can bring new, exciting ways of telling stories that feel true to those characters. There is no need to force someone to work under an artificial format that’s been in place for seventy-odd years just because that’s the way it’s always been.

But that’s just my opinion. What do you think?

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