Monthly Archives: May, 2008

Vanity, Villains and Vulgarity

As may be obvious, getting out more than one post a week is proving challenging, so expect that as the current pace for the moment. Unfortunately, despite not having the time to write multiple posts, I still find the need to discuss multiple topics, so expect the following to be long, meandering, and occasionally incomprehensible.

When Good Meta Goes Bad

T Campbell writes about a number of webcomics that have recently tossed meta-humor into their strips… often with terrible, terrible results. There isn’t too much I can say he didn’t already cover – he even cops to the fact that his own work doesn’t so much dabble in metahumor as dive in head first, and that any criticism he tosses upon others is also a warning to keep a close eye on his own comics.

But the things he said needed to be said. Least I Could Do seemed especially in need of being taken to task, wherein what starts out as some clever tongue-in-cheek self-mockery suddenly turns into Sohmer explain how his comic is awesome, and everyone else sucks.

Hint: If you need to brag about how cool you are, you’re doing it wrong.

Black and White and Dead All Over

You know what is cool? Dead Winter. I’ve mentioned the comic before, ever so briefly – but at the time, the comic was only a few months old, while now it has had a chance to much more firmly establish what it is and what it is all about.

Interestingly enough, things don’t appear to have moved all that quickly – our main cast has mostly come together and is making their way out of the zombie-infected city that used to be their home. But we’ve learned quite a bit more about some of these people, and the stakes have continued to rise as they try and find their way to safety.

What I love the most about the comic, though, is the fact that the zombies are rarely the threat, in any given circumstance. They are omnipresent, constantly seen in just about every single update, even if as no more than misty figures in the background… but right now, our protagonists are less concerned about the zombies, and more worried about Frank, homicidal chef and all-around unpleasant guy.

The zombies are… an obstacle. A dangerous, deadly part of the scenery. But they are, in classic zombie style, slow enough to be avoided in most circumstances. A danger only in numbers, or if you get cornered. A danger when you are distracted. But they aren’t the villain of the scenario – just a hazard that keeps the cast on the move in their search for safety.

Penny Arcade Adventures

So, in the past few days, I have played through and completed On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 1, which is the first in potentially a long series of Penny Arcade video games.

The game itself isn’t bad – it is short, though with new episodes planned, from the sound of it, four months apart, the length is entirely reasonable. The game system is straightforward, but with enough quirks to avoid become redundant (at least during the 5-6 hours of play.) It isn’t an especially difficult game – I only died once or twice in the entire thing, and there is absolutely no penalty for defeat, as you just get bounced out of a fight and have to start it over again, sans any consumables used during the battle.

What the game is, however, is wholly and unabashedly Penny Arcadian. Every random bit of dialogue, the hundreds upon hundreds of little details and jokes scattered throughout the game, the storyline and the art – all bring together the best elements of the comic strip and the skills and talents of Gabe and Tycho. The game is incredibly funny, from the most profane depths to the most profound observances. The vulgar jokes and toilet humor fit side-by-side with a brilliant apocalyptic tale about clockwork robots, cannibalistic hobos and a cult of mimes that worship “Yog Sethis, the Silent One.”

That’s really the success story of the game. Penny Arcade has fully translated itself into the medium of a video game, and indeed, provided the strongest element of the game in its sense of humor, characters and story.

Given how many other attempts for webcomics to branch out into other media – such as the attempted animation series of PvP and CAD – have met with a somewhat tepid response, and have suffered from difficulty capturing the heart and soul of the comic in a new format… I find the solid first step of the Penny Arcade Adventure line to be a definite milestone for webcomics as a whole.

Admittedly, it has never been argued that Penny Arcade has established itself as a brand well beyond what most other webcomics have – the success of PAX and Child’s Play make that exceptionally clear. But I still feel this sets the stage for more attempts by webcomics to push their boundaries ever further.

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Several topics, each better than the last.

Chainmail Bikini has announced its trek to the land of the Eternal Hiatus. Chainmail Bikini was, in and of itself, nothing too special – another comic about D&D that makes all the usual jokes about all the usual subjects. It had quality art, but its true claim to fame was being written by Shamus, who had produced the absolutely brilliant DM of the Rings.

Sadly, Chainmail Bikini never quite lived up to its predecessor  – despite having a genuine artist on board, it didn’t bring anything new to the table, and while DM of the Rings had carved out a dynamic little niche on its own, Chainmail Bikini wasn’t saying anything Knights of the Dinner Table hadn’t already said a decade earlier. Sure, the art was nicer – the art was spectacular, in fact – but as a comic entirely driven by humor, the art was also largely irrelevant. The humor itself wasn’t bad – just nothing new, and nothing strong enough to really draw in an audience.

Thus, in many ways the end of the comic almost leaves me hopeful – with this out of the way, perhaps Shamus will find himself stumbling upon a concept for another webcomic as unique and addictive as his first. He has already been doing a number of short comics at his blog, all focused around video games and the inevitable stupidities that come with said video games. From what I can tell, they’ve been funny, though my lack of video game knowledge has rendered several of them mostly inaccessible to me. Still, it definitely provides some hope for whatever he comes up with next.

Until then, however, we’ve got Darths and Droids, which has now smoothly settled into the true void left by DM of the Rings – and, 100 strips in, is going strong. Taking the Star Wars movie as its set-up, and using a game system that seems an amalgamation of all sorts of game out there, it manages to hit all the elements DMotR did… and even add one more. The “art” (screenshots) are well-chosen for maximum effect, the jokes manage to riff on both the mentality of game players and the inherent silliness of the subject matter… and it also manages to present the gamers with increasingly distinct personalities. Oh, in DMotR you had that to some extent – Legolas was played by the power-gamer, Gimli by the role-player.

But Darths and Droids has that, and also manages to make some of the characters likeable – like Sally, the younger sister of one of the players, who seems to grok roleplaying in the way that only a child’s view of make-believer really can. (And who manages to make Jar-Jar Binks an enjoyable character, even as the power-gamer playing R2-D2 makes the droid seem like a colossal jerk. Seriously, that’s impressive.)

So, what could possibly be better than a comic about a game that uses movie screenshots to tell its story?

How about a game about a comic that tells its story through… fisticuffs!

I think it is safe to say I’m excited about On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and rather amazed it is only a week away from launch. Even better, Penny Arcade is celebrating the occasion by producing their own prequel comic for the game. I continue to find myself amazed that they’ve captured an interesting and exciting backdrop (steampunk adventures in the 1920!) that still feels completely and fully Penny Arcadian. The same sense of whimsy, the same saucy humor.

I suspect May 21st will be a day to remember.

The Man in the Iron Mask

With the onset of allergy season, I’ve finally been persuaded that Durkon was right.

Anyway – so there was this Iron Man movie that just came out, and, like, it was really good.

But it very much got me thinking about the character. I mean, I’ve never really liked Iron Man. I’m not even talking about whatever nonsense is going on with his current situation and the entire Civil War storyline – I’ve simply never found the character interesting.

Discussing it with my friends, I claimed that he simply wasn’t an iconic superhero the way others were – and I know that term is something of a meaningless buzzword, but what I meant was that there was almost no identity to Iron Man himself. Tony Stark had character, sure – he had all manner of flaws, and thus plenty of opportunity for character development and progress and redemption.

But Iron Man was just… an armored suit. Just some guy with a fancy piece of technology – indistinguishable from any number of nameless soldiers in power armor. Tony Stark wearing the armor was no real different than Tony Stark without it, whereas other hero/secret identity relationships were complex and intriguing. Superman vs Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne vs Batman, Spiderman vs Peter Parker.

While there are also some that have no real seperation from their costumed selves, that is usually because their secret identities are almost meaningless behind their superhero nature. The X-Men are primarily defined by being mutants, sometimes on the run, sometimes fighting for their people – but Cyclops is Cyclops, and Scott Summers simply happens to be another name that character sometimes uses. B

But Iron Man is just a metal soldier. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark – it is just a suit of armor Tony wears. And there is no real personality behind that mask, no new persona.

Or, at least, that is how I previously viewed things.

As mentioned before – the Iron Man movie was really, really good. It had fantastic acting, a great balance between character development and action scenes, and some damn fine humor worked into the mix. Great graphics, solid pacing, etc, etc.

And after seeing it, I came to realize that Iron Man was iconic, in certain ways. Was, in fact, almost the perfect superhero icon for the modern age. The businessman, the industrialist, the playboy – that is Tony Stark.

But the inventor? That’s Iron Man.

Iron Man is about imagination, and pushing the limits of technology. And, of course, about doing good  with that technology. It is not just about wearing some power armor, but wearing the absolute best power armor that the human mind can build. About doing so through trial and error, and eventually getting to feel the raw enjoyment of success, the thrill of flight, the sense of accomplishment.

Iron Man is the suit of armor – but also everything that went into making that. And realizing that suddenly made the character interesting and appealing.

I have to rate the Iron Man movie as the best superhero movie I’ve seen. Because making a movie about character I already like – that’s easy. But making one that takes a character I’m indifferent towards, and propels them into one of my favorite characters?

That’s a whole lot more impressive to pull off.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

You\'ll Have That RobotWhen I was browsing through my backlog of comics, one of the ones I had fallen behind on – and was expecting to shortly put aside – was You’ll Have That. For pretty much all the same reasons as I mentioned on Monday regarding Taking the Bi-Pass.

YHT is another slice-of-life strip without much in the way of an agenda – more polished artwork and presentation, to be sure, but how much more does it have to offer? Isn’t it just another collection of the same sort of casual jokes and storylines seen in so many other places?

So I was wondering – and then I actually bothered reading through the missing month or so of comics, and found myself hurtling through the archive to get caught up, eager – even desperate – to see how the current storyline was going to end, and what the fallout from it would be.

The storyline in question (SPOILERS!) involves Steve (best friend of Andy, the strip’s main character) discovering that his girlfriend once briefly starred in a “Girls Gone Wild” style video – at which point he breaks up with her. And… it’s a reasonable sort of thing to have happen, which isn’t to say his response is itself reasonable but that it is typical – it seems true to life, and exactly the sort of dumb situation that makes for the usual ridiculous drama.

This, really, is YHT’s strong point – it manages to wander along through the normal elements of life, and it does have its share of boring (which is to say ordinary) events wander in along the way… but it also brings in an appropriate amount of excitement, without ever making it seem forced or out of place. When relationships form or break apart, when new characters enter or vanish or suddenly start punching people in the face… it all feels natural.

Which is why it can be easy to think that nothing much happens in the comic, right up until things get shaken up. And YHT seems to be doing just that, while also not letting its current moment of drama overwhelm the entire focus of the strip. That kind of balancing act can be hard to pull off – but clearly it seems to be working, as I find myself eagerly awaiting each update, when not so long ago I was planning on ditching the strip entirely.

This week, we saw yet another moment of change as Steve decides to shave his head. I’m reminded of a similar recent storyline from Girls With Slingshots – but while that one spent what seemed like ages building up to the moment of eradication, YHT dove right on in. For the better, I think… the longer the build-up, the more likely that the culmination of the storyline won’t live up to expectations. GWS – which is otherwise about as excellent a strip as can be found – does seem to have its one weakness in overindulging in redundant jokes rather than actually cutting to the point.

You’ll Have That, on the other hand, simply does its thing and then moves right along. And given that’s usually how life actually works, that can be awfully compelling indeed.