Monday, October 26, 2020

Run the Reviews: Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski Part 2

Aaaand I'm back! And we're right into more of this Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski run that, like myself anytime I decide to take back up jogging, started off strong and confident and quickly devolved into broken bodies weeping on the floor. 

The next thing up to talk about in this run was "The Other," another much maligned tentpole event of this JMS era. Here's the thing about "The Other," it's not that it's a particularly bad story, it's just overwrought and overextended. It was JMS' last run on his Totem plot and making Morlun a large player in the pantheon of Spider-man villains, earning him the title of the one foe that "finally killed Spider-man." This story was also the payoff to a running plot of Pete's powers being on the fritz and having to rely on some of his new allies to help him out of the bind, particularly Tony Stark. And that payoff was that, yes, Peter "died," but he was also really just entering a new stage of his spider powers developing, so he shed his old skin, literally, and became a new and improved (!!) Spider-man, complete with webs that shot out of his wrists naturally, not through tools of his design, and that totally didn't have anything to do with the super successful Spider-Man movies Sony were putting out at the time where he had natural web shooters. Also, he apparently got weird stinger jabber things that came out of his wrists as well and that he used all of like twice before this run ended. It was weird. As a capper to what JMS had been doing with the totem stuff all this time, sure, whatever, it did its thing. As one last push to solidify Morlun as an all-time Spidey baddie and then to wrap up his tenure in Peter's life, sure, check that box also. And as something that was twelve parts of melodrama galore, it pretty much let us know that the darker material  like Sins Past wasn't going away anytime soon.

Spider Man – The Other | Worldwalker

At the least I can give JMS credit on this, it wasn't like he mislead us about the shift he was making. Hell, the art style switch alone to Mike Deodato Jr. with "Sins Past" was a pretty big precursor that the "fun times" were over. Deodato very much has a cinematic and more dramatic style than something like what John Romita Jr. brought to the table with a more cartoonish affair. This change was dramatic to the point where even during "The Other" when the parts that ran through the newly launched FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN title featured art from the much loved and missed Mike Wieringo, Ringo's art was the one that felt terribly out of place despite it being such a perfect style for Spider-man. It would have made a seamless transition for a post-JRJr timeline, but it was obvious that's not JMS was playing at anymore. There is no greater proof that the darker shift was in full effect on this era of Spidey when Ringo's more jaunty and light hearted affair looked so out of place alongside the other titles that "The Other" crossed into and the brutal, bloody battles with Morlun and then very animalistic imagery as Peter wrangled with and submitted to the totemic forces to get back to his loved ones. JMS does use this rebirth to really bring home some melodrama into Aunt May coming to full grips what this double life could mean for her nephew and their little family and it makes MJ realize just what her encouragement means to Peter each night in his fight just to make it home because, finally, he didn't and succumbed to the job for once. At the end of the day, it was a capper to the cornerstone theme of JMS' run, but that run was more and more showing that it was getting cannibalized by forces beyond the creative teams' control. Enter "Civil War." Mother$@#!ing "Civil War."

It's going to be hard for me to not discuss this next and penultimate chapter in the JMS Spider-Man era without first clearing my opinion of Civil War proper, since the two things are pretty much intertwined for the rest of the run. And, my opinion of that universe shaking run is that, well, it was pretty much shit. It's the worst payoff of the past couple decades trend at that point of comic books being written by grown ups for mostly other grown ups. Now, I opened up Part 1 of this series talking about how I was brought back into comic books because of ones like what JMS was writing in RISING STARS and that played more toward mature angles and took more "real world" views on how things would work, and yeah, that's totally what I wanted at the time and still do, but in their own places. The issues that come about analyzing a perpetual fictional universe like the Marvel one in that light is that, a) you will never, ever properly get to analyze, discuss, debate, propagate whatever the idea itself because the opportunities aren't as plentiful as you think they are even with dozens of titles and the benefit of such broad, serialized storytelling and b) you either have to live with the consequences of those "debates" (and usually the battles and deaths that ensue from them) for years and years of storylines to come, or you have to pull some bullshit to make them go away and become forgotten. The amount of sweeping of broken pieces you have to displace under rug way more often than not make you forget that the rug was supposed to be something pleasant that brought the room together. Instead you're just left with a raggedy, lumpy ass rug from all the junk you pushed underneath it and then you're off to find a replacement rug. 

Another way to say all that is to reference one of the many, many great Heath Ledger Joker moments from "The Dark Knight; "You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it!" 

"Civil War" was a bunch of dogs in a writing room thinking they caught the biggest, coolest tire (take) on superheroes ever and that they were going to tell such gritty, realistic material and it was going to be the hottest shit ever. Instead it devolved into just every piece of schlock that makes Big Two comic book events unbearable ninety percent of the time. Mischaracterizations, big dumb fisticuffs for the sake of having them and the property damage to match to add "weight" to the story, and "shock" deaths that are usually significantly more empty than impactful. And "Civil War" had that all in spaces, especially in the main series itself. In tie-in issues there was definitely some good work going on, particularly in the characterization department, like the work Brian Michael Bendis did with characters like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in his AVENGERS books and, as I will get to soon, what JMS partly did in this AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. But there was some straight up insulting bullshit being piled high in front of us as well (again, as I will get to in the JMS stuff) and watching the "wouldn't it be cool if we came up with this very realistic reason to have superheroes fight and sell more books" story degenerate into a goddamn Thor clone killing C-tier characters (ugh), such brilliant and "future thinking" minds like Tony Stark and Reed Richards running a gulag in another dimension because that was the best idea they could come up with when of course they met resistance to their pro-registration stance (ugh), and then the wet fart follow up to the series that was the extra edgy "Dark Reign" era where the Avengers were made up of super villains like Norman Osborn and Bullseye (ugh). I've disliked many eras of the Marvel and DC Universes in the twenty years I've been really back into comics, and the couple years surrounding "Civil War" and then "Dark Reign" pretty much take the cake.

All that said, let's go back to this JMS Spider-man run and say a few nice words about it before I pack this away with one more rant or two (oh goodie!!). 

Heroes And Shots Fired: Civil War – Heroes And

Playing to his strengths and developing as what I assume the writing room and editor pool imagined the whole build to and execution of "Civil War" to be, I am going to give JMS credit as being pretty much responsible for the best-handled material surrounding this whole ordeal here in his Spidey run. Well, outside of the "Bucky" Captain America material that Ed Brubaker wrote and that followed Steve Roger's demise in the wake of the titanic clash of superheroes. Fully riding the Stark train, Peter has become the apprentice of Marvel's "futurist" to the point that he's accepted a powerful new costume upgrade from the man and is accompanying the man to Washington D.C. where the beginnings of the Superhero Registration Act are coming together. And this is the last time frame where the idea of Civil War is somewhat cohesive and sensible. Tony knows that some very scared and/or power hungry government officials are going to push for a program that gets superheroes at the least under the American government's thumb, at the most gets itself an army of superpowered individuals who don't want to retire but also want to be out there saving lives. He knows this and sees it as a future the world is moving but also understands this is more a game and power grab to these people and presents a case as such and that these powers already do a fine job of saving the world without being on a leash, especially one that could make them targets in their other lives. The way he figures it, if he at least makes a compelling enough case superheroes work in their current form, he can run out the clock and the monotonous churn that is government will work this notion out of the political zeitgeist of the time. Having Peter there with him to, of course, make some impassioned pleas about the notion of how not every superhero is doing what they do because they were always aspiring to be that presence, but they happened into the powers and were compelled to out of a sense of greater responsibility. 

Obviously, we all know how that works out. An elementary school and six hundred students in Stamford go "kaboom!" during a superhero showdown and the Registration Act goes from an item that Stark hopes would die in committee to the unanimous will of the people and then the event known as "Civil War" proper really takes the grips of this run. Then flows forth upon it all the brutal mischaracterization and nonsensical leaps of logic that mired that event and the Marvel Universe for the better part of a year. In the span of seven issues after the more levelheaded "Mr. Parker Goes to Washington" arc, we see Peter Parker, the quintessential "everyman superhero" who has ALWAYS lived in fear of what would happen if one of his villains found out his real identity and went after MJ or Aunt May, just casually ripping his mask off on national TV at the behest of Tony Stark. The same Peter Parker who recently had to live in Avengers mansion with MJ and May because a villain who didn't even know Pete was Spidey and was just trying to get back at Pete and Tony destroyed their homes. The same "futurist" Tony Stark who knew this Registration Act would become an issue at some point but did no planning for that future. The same Tony Stark whose skyscraper HQ Pete lived in with was where Pete saw his Aunt threatened by a very tech savvy newbie villain named Tracer who got past its defenses literally just twelve issues earlier. "Sure thing Mr. Stark! Yoink!" Then Peter sees the dumber aspects of "Civil War" like gulags and villains being conscripted to fight against Captain America's resistance and, like me to a lot of Marvel comics at the time, and just three months into the war of civil says "I'm out" and goes on the run with what family he has left as the superhero world implodes around them. 

And, of course, Peter pays the price for everything because that's what Peter does, and because editorial by that point had a certain state of "normal" for Peter Parker in mind and they needed something dramatic to get there. Enter "Back in Black," a story centered around the aftermath of the Kingpin, fresh with knowledge of Peter unmasking on TV, ordering a hit on the Parker family that succeeds in critically injuring Aunt May, and also putting a bullet in the potential for this Spider-Man run going down in history as anything but mired more in shock and controversy than living up to its potential, at least in my eyes. Now, I don't know if this arc was JMS' one last grasp at striking out at "Civil War," I actually don't know if that story is something he was onboard with from the get go and he took it to its logical - i.e. of @#$%ing course this is what would happen, what did you think would @#$%ing happen??!? - conclusion with Pete's identity out there and this was always the plan or it was just his last ditch effort to make the next, most controversial story of his tenure work. If it's the former, sure, as much as I dislike Civil War as a whole, given the stakes and storylines that broad and reaching an event as that story wanted to be, May's all but certain death in the manner it transpired at least feels like an accurate consequence. If the run had ended that way I wouldn't have liked it, not because I'm opposed to a death like Aunt May's (and it's not like she hadn't taken a dirt nap before in my comic book reading background) but because it was in purpose of an event I abhorred for several months, BUT at least it would have made sense in the form of a price paid for the arrogance and stupidity about in the Marvel Universe at the time. As a means to an end for the final chapter of this rapidly deteriorating run by Joe Michael Straczynski, well...

Amazing Spider-Man: One Moment in Time – Comics Talk News and Entertainment  Blog

Cue Ralph Wiggum going "Stop, stop, he's already dead!" With May nearing the end and desperation running rampant, Peter Parker tries to pull out all the stops to save his most beloved relative, first trying to get Doctor Strange to work his mojo and then ended up in the presence of a more diabolical and malevolent mystical Marvel character, Mephisto. We know the deal. Marvel's version of the Devil offers Peter his precious Aunt back in exchange for his precious marriage. It's a veritable "Smeagol's Choice" of bad options. MJ makes the decision for him, the spend one more night in each others' arms, and then POOF goes twenty years of one of the biggest growing points of Peter Parker's existence on the comic book page and the potential for more as well, as both the marriage is erased and so is the last minute reveal that MJ and Pete were to have a daughter together had they continued on. Pete had officially been put through it all, ring the bell, he was done. Except that he would just be back next month in a "Brand New Day" and it would be like it was a season of "Dynasty" that never existed. 

Much like the idea of a not living Aunt May, I'm not necessarily opposed to such a dramatic shift in the life of a comic book character like this because, well, that's comic books. What has been written can be unwritten. What has been unwritten can be rewritten. These characters... these icons have been here longer than most of us who currently partake in their adventures and they will be here probably longer than most of our progeny. The status quo is meant to be shaken up. What does get to me is when the apple cart is overturned because someone looks at the cart and says "wouldn't it be fun to just @#$%ing flip that thing over?" and not because, hey, maybe the wheel on that apple cart was old and dated and rotting and needed some modernization. "One Day in Time" irks me because it was a combination of the two, except also someone purposefully sabotaged the shit out of that wheel. Someone high up in the company disliked the idea of a married Peter Parker because it "aged" the character. Which, y'know, is not an incorrect viewpoint. I get that these characters need to stay a semblance of "timeless" because, as I stated a second ago, they belong to the generations, not just a generation at a time. Everyone can identify with a single protagonist because that's a path we all take for a while, not everyone takes the married one. But we as humans are constantly growing, and while marriage might not be a branch all of us protrude as we age, it's absurd to think that single people or young people who don't know squat about relationships can't imagine a character they love and identify with ninety percent of the time can't at least wrap their head around. Most of us literally watch a long-running relationship and all the joys and rough patches they entail play out in out lives by watching our parents grow as we grow. So, I'm not necessarily going to agree that getting rid of one of the premiere relationships in all of comics was a must because of "accessibility" issues, but I can buy a viewpoint that says there's more storytelling pathways without it.

BUT, the hamfisted approach to the dissolution of this once premiere institution in comics on top of the overwrought build to it never once left me feeling like this was happening because someone in the Bullpen saw a greener patch of grass this way, but because they had spent a decade sowing the current field with so much "Clone Sage, reemergence and then death of Peter's parents, and now all this Civil War bullshit" salt. A continuity wiping deal with the devil that absolutely HAS to happen because a beloved character is at death's door? That HAD to happen? You couldn't just have had Pete and MJ get, y'know, divorced? I understand that comics get absurd at times but come on, people in their 20's get divorced; it's not exactly outside the realm of reason that Pete and MJ could have a split but still be in each other's spheres of interaction while Pete goes back to his swinging bachelor days. Lord Odin forbid you reset the character - the quintessential "everyman" character - in a realistic way that happens to millions of us every day. People grow apart, learn from it and move on, and sometimes they come back together again, which easily could have been a thing to happen decades later with a different Bullpen in place to be the ones to make that decision. "One Minute in Time" was the nuclear option for a problem that should have called for a fly swatter, except the people with their fingers on the nuclear codes ran mad scientist tests on the flies for so long the swatter no longer cut it. JMS, for all the enjoyable, sometimes downright classic rejiggering he did of the Spider-man lore was also complicit in the careless manipulating of it that led to this story. I know he clashed several times with his overlords but it's not like he wasn't sewing parts of his own onto the Frankenstein's monster that was the mess of a continuity that was the life of everyone's favorite wall crawler.

Spider-Man: Brand New Day - The Complete Collection Vol. 1 (Trade  Paperback) | Comic Issues | Comic Books | Marvel

Again, I'm not going to say that, with the gift of hindsight especially, this Spidery reboot at the time was the wrong call. I read most of Brand New Day through the glory of dollar bins about a year or so behind schedule and read all of the Dan Slott as primary writer material and can say that since Brand New Day hit this has probably been the most consistently enjoyable the character has been since I started reading him in 1994, and I've now read something like 400 of the 500 issues of Amazing Spider-man to have been released since. The highs aren't quite as good as those that JMS injected into the veins of the book and character early into this century and some of the lows have been near as low as some of the more rancid material I've now spent 8000ish words discussing, but it has been infinitely more consistently enjoyable and that makes it, uh, a long-running tentpole comic book. That's how it works. That's really what you can hope for is that the good runs more plentifully than the bad and sometimes you get something that's truly classic. We had that with JMS' Spider-Man, in my opinion, for about three years and then it pretty much went to the gutters of the comic book world. 

That also makes this run a product of its time. The early 2000's was so full of creative and editorial teams so confident and desperate to make their marks on the comics they were writing and to have comic books make their mark on the world at large because of the mainstream exposure the film industry was granting them that everyone was shooting their shot and either hitting the bullseye or blowing half their toes off their foot. For every CAPTAIN AMERICA by Ed Brubaker and company there was a half dozen runs like this. The true tragedy is that the vast bulk of those books, whether they went on to become the true classics or true duds, almost never hit as hard and awesomely as this JMS run did for its first third. Expectations were already so high and when JMS and JRJr nailed them out of the park for so long right up front you couldn't imagine this run wasn't going down as one of the all-time greats. Then the reality of what the mainstream comic book would was about, especially during this time period, settled in and really put a beatdown on those hopes and expectations. That seems like a downer to say but, honestly, that's kind of where this material kind of left me by the time we made it out of the aughts and it's a shame that this run became the rule not the exception for that time period because it truly was exceptional for a time.

Aaaaand that's that is that. Holy hell that went way longer than I expected it to, but it was also such a lengthy run that had so many tentpole events either of its own devising or because of the greater universe around it that I felt it was correct to get in there and get a little more detailed about the specific arcs instead of taking it more as a whole. I'm hoping/imagining that as I do more of these I'll get better at doing more "broad strokes" about these things from the various standpoints that are world building, tone, etc etc. But, yeah, I'm putting this monster to bed. If anyone has something they want to strike up a conversation about after all this, go for it. It's been, uh, six years since anyone left a comment so that'll be weird but welcome. Thanks for anyone bothering to give all this a whirl and I'm hoping to polish off my GOTHAM CENTRAL omnibus this week and put a couple thousand words down about the Brubaker/Rucka Batverse next time around. Still debating if I want to reread Brubaker's CATWOMAN run to include in that but it was so much more Brubaker's baby and it's own thing that I think I'll stick with the main things. But that's me and that's this, you all be safe out there. Cheers...

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Run the Reviews: Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski, Part 1

Alright, so here's this thing. This is going to be me, hopefully, getting back to my "roots" where on a semi-regular basis I threw a couple thousand words at my first and most consistent hobby passion, comic books. Also continuing here will be an old tendency of mine to use pop culture references I don't actually understand but occasionally see "the kids" using on the "social medias" and think it has a ring to it that works. So, named after the only main stream musical act to emerge in the last decade that I know anything about and kind of like, I'm calling this "Run the Reviews," because when I find the time to I'll be doing just that: Going over comic book creative runs that that I've been able to get in rereadings of while the world is on fire and that had a big impact on me and/or on the world of comic books, for better or for worse. Examples I have on the forefront of my brain are the recently ended and properly epic run of THOR by Jason Aaron (y'know, once that WAR OF REALMS omnibus finally hits), the Greg Rucka/Ed Brubaker piloting of the Batverse in the early 2000's, and maybe, possibly, I'm not sure how I feel about it because of the fuckery perpetrated by one half of the creative crew, but I may do the seminal Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson work, TRANSMETROPOLITAN, because it is an election year (ugh) after all. Again, though, I really, really don't know how I feel about giving the former of that team any attention given the accusations leveled against him earlier this year as the comic book industry had itself a "Speaking Out" movement by a lot of women in the industry being mistreated by a cavalcade of dipshits in its halls. If anyone actually reading this wants to chime in whether they think that would be in bad taste or if the work deserves some attention given the political zeitgeist going on out there, especially since I would both emphasize repeatedly in the piece as I will here, fuck Warren Ellis for treating people that way, then maybe I'll go through with it if the interest is there. But, there's plenty of other stuff to talk about regardless, and I'm going to start with an era of comic books that is special to me for many reasons; the Spider-man run by Babylon 5 creator Joe Michael Straczynski that kicked off the 2000's for the beloved wall-crawler. 

Now, I do have a bit of history with this book to start off with here. One, JMS was a HUGE factor in rekindling my love of comic books back when I was college aged. I spent a ton of time and allowance money from ages 11-15 reading comic books whenever I could, but eventually the 90's being the 90's drove me away. My funds were limited so I couldn't keep splurging for the endless crossovers that were becoming an annual norm in all my favorite books since I read mostly Spider-man and X-men comics and they were always driving the money train that was a twenty-part crossover every summer. On top of that, I may have been young but I wasn't (totally) stupid, and I could tell that material like "The Clone Saga" and "Onslaught" were all of not good, derivative, and just an endless churn of generic to the next big storyline. So I quit. I decided to fuel my video game and Magic: the Gathering habits instead of funneling my errand-earned cash into funny books. A few years later when I was old enough for "real jobs" and making more than the few bucks my parents handed me in a week, I stumbled into a new comic shop that had opened up in my small town looking to see if they had Magic cards. They did not, sadly, but what they did have was an ear to my plight with comic books line those outlined above and a guarantee that, given the way I was talking and the maturity level I appeared to have, that they would find me some comics that were more my speed and devoid the tertiary bullshit that ran comics into the gutter in a 1990's decade that was rapidly ending. So I had no less than seminal works like WATCHMEN, PREACHER, and THE SANDMAN trade paperbacks thrust into my greedy little hands, but also some stuff fresh to the stands that fit that "mature readers" bill, like the newly launched AUTHORITY, 100 BULLETS, and the first foray into comic books by J. Michael Straczynski, RISING STARS. 

J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars comic lands film deal | Movies |  Empire

And I loved all that stuff. Couldn't get enough. I loved how they were comic books that dealt with big philosophical and morality questions, something I appreciated in those highly formative years, and that they didn't talk down to me or try and manipulate me into buy eighteen more comics in titles I wasn't already reading. But I especially liked the books that turned super heroics on their head, being a big fan of those big, bright, and inspirational figures growing up, but now at an age where cynicism was taking hold, for better and worse. So when I saw that JMS was going to take his brand of outside the box thinking and put that stamp on Spider-Man, hands down my favorite comic book character during my first tryst with comic books, that was a big move to getting me try Big Two supes books again for the first time in half a decade. I was willing to put a lot of trust into a writer that blew my mind and rekindled my love of comic books in general, and it was a move that... well, let's just finally get to the nitty gritty. 

So, near twenty years on from that run originally being published we've now got two volume omnibus collection of it that I decided to pick up because I'm both a whore for big hardcover collections and I wanted to see how the run held up to time and memory. Opening these books up and letting that nostalgia wash over me I can immediately say this; no matter some of the commentary I'm about to make on this run as a whole, it took not even an issue of it to remind me that this is pretty much hands down the best rendition of Peter Parker I've ever read and may ever read. At least to start. JMS did truly just "get it" when it came to his presentation of the twenty-something genius loser and responsibility addict that was Peter Parker. How the character just quite could never get a break and how that left a stamp of cynicism on him because he just always kind of expected something bad to happen in the back of his mind, but he always, always, always worked his way back to the positive. The grit was always there. He would get beat down and get back up and do the work with a quip in his mouth and a plethora of ideas in his head to tackle whatever obstacles were ahead of him, even if they did beat him down to a pessimistic fugue he'd have to battle back alongside whatever villain was tormenting him that day; lather, rinse, repeat. But it was just the full boat of why Peter Parker/Spider-Man is one of the all-time greats as a character, put on full display against an unstoppable nightmare of a new foil in the form of Morlun to kick off this run. 

I don't really plan on getting into any great super detail about these runs when I cover them, I want them to be kind of a broad strokes of character handling, greater themes, artist work alongside the scripts since it'll probably be rare that it's a pure one-to-one writer/artist collaboration. But with this Spider-Man run here there will be a lot of plot dissection because, holy hell, did JMS and his collaborators go beyond the norm to shatter some of those institutional values with this run. The foremost being the vampiric being known as Morlun and how he represents a shift in the Spider-Man lore, moving the source of Peter's powers from a highly coincidental bite from an irradiated spider to being a fated bite from totemic power to make Peter the representative of that (super)natural force for his generation. Yup. Comic books everyone! I personally don't remember how controversial that was at the time; I think one thing comic book fans have come to reconcile over the duration of their fandom is that sometimes big profile runs are going to happen where a writer decides it's time to fundamentally shift something to their own needs, and this was a HUGE one, except at the same time it wasn't. It both kind of took the randomness out of Peter getting his powers and made it more "special" that he was fated to be the inheritor of this kind of power, but then again the randomness of fate is pretty integral to the character. It's that "shit happens, you swallow it and move on" battle against the chaos of the world that made Peter who he was in many ways, from the death of his parents at a young age to the "natural 1" die roll that is his failure to stop a burglar that so happened to be the same one that murdered his beloved Uncle Ben. So, I don't recall if there was a fervor against this approach or not when it hit the stands two decades ago, but, in the context of reading this run now so long since, it works in that it was very much a shift in that it "changed everything we knew" about the character and was a focal point for literally years to come, but it could have been an awkward way to leave things for writers who followed Stracynski's run, had it not ended in such a character altering way. But we'll get to that, many many words from now. 

The 20 greatest (and 10 worst) Spider-Man villains of all time - Page 16

Back to Morlun. Morlun was introduced almost immediately into this JMS run and may still be the most definitive thing about it. He was a vicious, remorseless, absolutely terrifying force of nature that was as casual about the death he caused as he was sitting down to have brunch. He's the complete antithesis to everything about Spider-Man's regard for life but he was an amazing "unmovable object" to the "never say die" attitude that defines Peter Parker and his alter ego. Honestly, as someone who would consider myself a big Spider-Man fan in that I've read several hundred issues of the character but not such a "super fan" that I'm collecting his every issue and have his webbed face on my boxers right now, it's in my opinion one of the most iconic encounters I've ever seen the character have. JMS and artist John Romita Jr., for this part of the run, created a monster that, yes, deliciously played to everything that makes Spider-Man great as he proceeded to throw everything at the character from pure physical abuse to playing to his regard for human life as he would drag Spidey back to battle by taunting him with civilians he considered less than chattel. Say what you will about this "Totem era" of Spider-Man in complete hindsight, but if you focus on this opening arc and climactic battle, this is an all-time great.

The Totem material also gave us the character of Ezekiel, who was every bit a potential parallel to Peter as Morlun was an antithesis. Bright and jovial and chock full of spider powers of his own, but also wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ezekiel was essentially the "Ghost of What Peter Parker Could Be" with how he used his intelligence to build himself a company and a fortune instead of using every last penny in his wallet to make web fluid. Really, that's another theme of this run that has stuck over the years and I've never figured out if it was divisive or not; the idea that Peter Parker could be, y'know, a super genius and not dirt poor. Yes, JMS for about half his run on this book depicted Pete still as a character pretty much rubbing two pennies together for warmth - on a teachers' salary this time around not a freelancer's - but as he had Pete and Mary Jane reconcile and then the DISASSEMBLED era of the Avengers started to beat at Pete's door, it was very much obvious that the thought processes of a man with Peter's intelligence who was, y'know, married to a supermodel turned aspiring actress living on a shoestring budget didn't make much sense. Between Ezekiel being the model for it and then his transition into becoming Tony Stark's apprentice a couple years later, this was very much the era of admitting that Marvel's marquee "everyman" character was anything but that and opened a can of worms with Pete/Spidey that ran it's own course during his run and that Dan Slott ran with heavily for the decade he touched the character.

Those first couple years of this run were absolutely fire though, as far as I am concerned both currently having reread this and was then originally reading it. JMS was running with this Totem material as the primary focus and for me it worked. As I said above, while Morlun was pretty much the high mark, the rotation of unstoppable "primordial forces" antagonists gunning for Peter were properly daunting. The newly revamped mythos of JMS' on the character also played well with his history of many animal themed villains, Ezekiel was great as a relatively fun loving example of what Pete could be and also a little bit of an Uncle Ben fill in, and the primary relationships of Peter between his Aunt May (who discovered Peter's secret after his overcoming of Morlun) and his revitalizing of his relationship with Mary Jane were as emotionally fulfilling as the fisticuffs were properly energizing. I can't say this enough either; as much as I'm not so much an overall fan of John Romita Jr.'s art, for his something like three year tenure on this run with JMS, his style was a perfect match for the storytelling therein. It was impactful when the punches were landing, there was a lot of great emotion and character work going on in his facial expressions and body language, and it had the perfect balance of grit and "cartoonishness" to juggle how JMS' scripts were equal parts "jaunty" and harrowing. 

For three years this one-two punch of what JMS was putting out there with his character work and mythos rewriting and JRJr's pencilling ability were creating possibly one of the best and defining runs on the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man that we had ever seen. 

And then "Sins Past" happened.Sins Past-The Gwen Affair - The Green Goblin's Hideout

In short, I absolutely despise this story. It completely took me out of the run seventeen years ago and it made me do a simple "oh, yeah, still terrible" and debate cancelling this whole reread when I made it to this story arc this time around. This story, quite frankly, should not exist. The Crib Notes premise of this story arc, for those who do not know, is that two super-powered people who look awfully like Peter's deceased first love, Gwen Stacy, and Peter himself come gunning for Peter's head. As the story plays out we find that these two kids were the love children of Gwen and... Norman Osborn(??) from several years warped into believing Peter was responsible for their mom's demise and their current state of genetic disrepair (their DNA is unraveling because of the messy chemicals they inherited, hence the quickened aging as well). The original pitch of this tale called for this to be a story where Gwen and Pete did indeed hook up in their youth and Gwen hid the children from Peter for reasons, and then those kids were found out and raised by Norman to hate Peter/Spider-man. But instead, shot down from on top, JMS instead still ran with the story and made their father Norman, because Gwen felt sorry for a creepy old millionaire twenty-some years older than her once upon a time. It is, quite frankly, abhorrent. If in its original form, there could have probably been something here, I guess. There could have been something about the revelation of Pete having kids that could have pulled at his relationship with MJ, there would have been something extra sadistic and next level malicious about Norman turning the kids on Pete; as much as it may be a step too far on futzing with the history of Spider-man it would have at least made a more functional stance. 

As is, though, man this story should have been abandoned like the kids were. The justification that is presented as to why Gwen would fall for an even then shifty and unbalanced Norman Osborn are laughable at best, gross at the least, and to what greater purpose the kids even existed in the first place I'm still not sure. They don't even survive the arc! So why were they even introduced?!? To show that Osborn is as despicable a villain as could be? He'd already had plenty of that over forty years at that point. If, assuming this story had been told in its original form, it was just to flesh out the idea that, yes, two teenagers gave into their hormones and indeed did the humpty dance it... what? Makes Peter and his relationship somehow deeper than his one with MJ, who he had been married to for something probably like five-ish years or so (because it's so hard to gauge actual comic book time passage) and they hadn't even taken that step? To serve as an educational tale of why you should wrap your web shooter? I have no idea what purpose this six issue excursion into the sex life of Gwen Stacy would perform in either version of it other than just make Osborn a bigger bastard than ever before, which is both kind of boring and further pointless in that Osborn barely even shows himself in the rest of JMS' entire run, so there's not even any sort of extended payoff! This not only runs through territory of Peter's past that no one was really calling to be mucked about with, but it was a substantial tone shift in what this run had been up to this point, one that still had an overall very jocular sensibility to it despite the stakes it occasional raised through the roof, and it absolutely never fully recovers. 

There is some solid storytelling in this run after that "landmark" tale, but the damage really was done by that point. A good bit of the characterization remains strong. Peter and MJ dive deeper into what makes them work even though there's always tension. Aunt May gradually accepts a world where her dear nephew is always in such danger but is always so selfless, even if he gets hatred for it nonetheless. The couple arcs after "Sins Past" are enjoyable enough and play with that idea I mentioned earlier of a Peter Parker whose life isn't always just wasted potential and living paycheck to paycheck. There's a story where he's visited by an old high school buddy who is desperate for financial success and praise from the scientific community for a project he has been working on for years and he asks Pete to help him keep moving by talking to Tony Stark for him. Hijinks ensue and the character (of course) biffs his experiment up and becomes like a Molten Man variant type character that Pete smacks down in a couple issues, but not before the guy destroys both Pete and MJ's apartment and Aunt May's house. But the point of that story is it shows the level of brilliance Pete could have been playing on that this unstable friend of his, who still wasn't playing on Peter's intelligence level, was just a couple steps away from monumental scientific breakthrough. The character is and has always been too bright to just be some dude slinging photos for a living, and I do agree with this assessment of JMS' and how he made that a major point of dispute with his run.

Likewise, the following story is about a now homeless Parker family getting settled into Avengers Tower as he had finally made the big leagues and became a member of the team during the Brian Michael Bendis take on the book. Again, another decent story here, Pete gets in to some shenanigans involving AIM and some makeshift evil Avengers they had created to cause havoc around NYC, and he really proves his worth to the team and starts gaining confidence playing on a new level with all these living legends around him. He also starts getting more into an "understudy" role with Tony Stark, May starts seeing more of the life he lives and getting some catharsis by becoming friendly with Avengers butler and confidant, Jarvis, and MJ... well, okay, MJ just kind of gets tossed in some awkward story blip where its insinuated she's going to Stark Tower at night to hook up with Tony and she keeps pursuing her acting career. Not the best use of her, though JMS does continually beat home how much of a rock she is to him in these strenuous times. Regardless, these are solid moments with some decent character work and that continue themes that JMS had been playing out well the entire run. And then "The Other" and "Civil War" happened and, yeah, that was the last time I could label this run as "enjoyable" with "passable" being the most praise I could heap on the remaining stories to be told under the pen of Joseph Michael Straczynski. But I'm going to get into that in a second post because this is becoming a MASSIVE endeavor and, yeah, I'm going to have some wordy-ass thoughts on that stuff.

Hopefully this has all been entertaining enough. As I do them more and more of these I would imagine I'll start figuring out if I'm taking the right approach to this kind of coverage with how much of the material I'm calling out, if I'm analyzing the right thing, what amount of detail needs to be put where, etc etc. But yeah, this is my first run and I should be wrapping this in the next day or two, even though I could, quite frankly, shit on "Civil War" as a concept for probably half a novels' worth of words. But thanks again for trying out this lengthy endeavor and, yeah, take care. Cheers...

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

There's Just Too Much Noise...

Another week it happens. Some piece of (possible) fuckery goes on in another hobby I enjoy and the Internet websites and Social Media houses that touch that particular jaunt of mine collectively lost their minds. In this case it was the most recurrent of hobbies in my life, Magic: the Gathering, as Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the makers of Magic, announced that they were going to publish a made to order box set with a limited ordering window featuring The Walking Dead crossover cards, that would present mechanics unique to only these cards and have art based off the characters on the television show. The takes, expectedly, were hot and heavy. 

This was the end of the game. Well, it wasn't the end of the game but it was another couple feet of growing circumference to a snowball WotC kicked downhill when a couple years back they made unique cards only achieved by buying a box of the newest expansion set to their product line. Well, okay, maybe it's not even so much as a slippery slope as it's just uber greedy capitalism at work making a product people felt like they needed to order anyway just to be safe that if they needed these cards down the road and they got prohibitively expensive in the interim by their limited nature. And then, well, what's even the problem with these cards being expensive and limited, there's Magic cards that are highly expensive because of their supply just being THAT outpaced by demand all the time and the fanbase just accepts those as part of the game, so why not these ones? And then that led to asking why we're complaining about these limited cards when there is an entire subset of Magic cards called the "Reserved List" that WotC promised not to ever reprint again (long story) and because of that and how old these cards are by now (twenty-plus years), some are the price of a mortgage payment, if not more, and we've come to accept that as a part of the game, so why not this? Cries for boycotts, cries of quitting the game, cries for firings for those that okayed this product and that have been pushing cards and products for a few years now that many feel have made playing the game a frustrating and turbulent endeavor. On and on and on it went for this past week and, while most of these positions did indeed have some slivers of merit and/or truth to them, it all became so apparent that our ability to hold onto a point or to embrace a life preserver of saliency in a tossing sea of constant turmoil is next to nonexistent, even when just discussing the things we overall ENJOY as a community. 

I know, I know. "Welcome to the Internet, old man." I more than get it. I stopped reading the comments ages ago because I knew to endure them was to watch a descent into madness and pain, but I think we're just administering to ourselves a new level of self-harm with how we interact over, well, everything, but especially things we "love." As I was demonstrating above with this most recent Magic-related outrage, it's not that valid points weren't being brought up, it's that a point was brought up and then someone would go "yeah but" and then someone would move onto a "well, how about this" AND THEN someone would say "well what about this tertiarily related thing that's a good point but not exactly on the matter at hand" and then a completely contrarian viewpoint would be aimed at the whole fracas for the sole purpose of adding more chaos.  All the saliency in the world doesn't mean a lick of nothing if we just "Purple Monkey Dishwasher" (to reference an old Simpsons gag) out way out of any sort of relevant discussion when an event occurs, a decision is made, whatever the case is, and we spend the equivalent amount of time to a goldfish's memory of taking a shit before we yell over each other and lose all focus. 

Like, that's the thing about it that kind of astounds me, we blow through our outrage and hot take counterpoints so fast that even the trolls and shitposters can't get in on the action. Nevermind not reading the comments for takes so inane and ignorant they may as well come from a Presidential Daily Press Briefing, you're lucky to get three threads in before even the commentary from proven community leaders - whatever that means anymore - is either burned at the stake by the group or sounds as conspiracy theory laden as a QAnon Sub-Reddit. And that little jab in that last sentence at "influencers" or what have you is there for a reason, because one of the reasons, in my opinion, that we have reached such levels of disarray is that these "discussions" (if you can call them that), these debates, these hot takes, insipid takes, troll takes, non-takes, and on on and on, happen in a vacuum absent of the people making these decisions because a) the influencers do their work for them by being either the leader or target taking the bullet for the media teams and b) absolutely NONE of this shit means anything to the executives at the top who only care if their business calls result in the money making machine go "brrrr." They don't care about the noise unless it finally overwhelms the almighty dollar blower. 

That point A above, as much as I cannot reiterate how the cynicism innate to modern late-stage Capitalism will kill us all shortly after it kills the things we love first, is probably the greater culprit more than anything. PR management has been relegated to the hands of people who have become lucky enough to have jobs that actually pay their bills in hobbies they enjoy because their personalities, antics, enthusiasm, hot takes, whatever, have led to an Internet presence that affords them that ability. Some are honest people who genuinely care about the medium or game they are commentating on. They love movies or comic books or Magic cards and are over the moon they are making money touching that entertainment form. But that also means they have an agenda, no matter how altruistic they may think they are being when they upload a YouTube video or shoot off a series of tweets. 

Controversy means clicks, clicks mean prominence and money. It really is that, simply. Even if you swear your clicks are coming from a reasonable and measured place, turmoil pays. Because that's a big aspect of being an "influencer," you're not there to be objective, this isn't journalism (in which objectivism was stabbed ten times in the face and buried in a shallow grave back in the 80's anyway), you're there to shill, whether it's actual pertinent points for a challenge to a hobby you love or just whatever noise you can supply to get through the day so you can get back to the perks of a career path that got you making clips of, I dunno, applying make up for the 'Gram for a million followers, not applying it at the counter of what few retail outlets remain for a buck more than minimum wage. Fuck, I'm doing it right now. There's thirty of you folks, probably bots, that click this pile of run on sentences any time I put one up. And I truly, genuinely take time to talk about hobbies I like in this space because I find it a nice outlet since I don't have as many real world conversations about them, but I openly admit it would be cool if these diatribes became a thing more people came to see because I a) want to discuss my hobbies with people in a space that isn't 280 characters at a time and b) I would like things to get to a point where at the least something like this became popular enough to get some income from it all, probably to fund said hobbies. And coming from my experience of writing thousands of words at a time about comic books for over a decade elsewhere, I can tell you firsthand that being a louder voice participating in the noise is what keeps the churn going. Controversy pays (even though I didn't make a cent doing that old gig) because it's always easiest to go with the fresh object of community excitement/ire. 

And like I said before, you can move up into that "voice of the community" because the people who would usually be losing their minds in boardrooms to perfect messaging are instead more than happy to let the person who makes their money grabbing clicks take the line of fire because that's just the deal. The noise feeds itself because there's no one at the company responsible for yelling over it with a megaphone. Or when they do it's "community outreach" it's basically to keep just enough of the torches away from them because they know they'll just be rekindled in the direction of some sort of new shitstorm a week later. Ultimately, as I mentioned before as well, if the product keeps selling and the shareholders are happy and therefore the CEOs that are above most noise that doesn't come from a regulatory body anyway, then this is just how things are going to work going forward. What's even worse is that as much as I wanted to keep this more just a running commentary on things that I love, this is really the blueprint for discourse in America in general for all things. Every day there's something new and on the range from "annoying and overblown" to "holy shit how is this reality and why is it not being addressed by goddamned anyone?" and nothing really changes because the public gets tired and the people who only care about a payday keep on cashing those checks and capital gains. But I digress.

I apologize that all that mess was definitely more a "stream of thought" type ramble, but I thought it kind of fitting. It's just frustrating because it's a broken system with broken people just wading through broken products to enjoy a few their hobby at the end of a broken day of work. The worst of it all is two-fold; no one is innocent and it also renders us impotent to maintain a proper, actually justified level of outrage when an atrocious enough of a situation arises to deserve it. Not only are there no real "innocent" commentators out there because even the best examples of "good faith" commentators are still pouring gasoline on fires simply by addressing the subject matter tearing at a community at the moment, but when something horrific happens that tendency to go from "well this" to "well that" to "how about such and such" still corrupts much needed positive attention.

Earlier this year there were "Speaking Out" movements in two other hobbies I adore; comic books and pro wrestling. Now, I get that those things always get messy because at the end of the day it's a matter of accusing and the accused, but I think the mess comes from more of the point I've been beating at this whole time. I get that sometimes, unfortunately Accusers are liars, or that at the end of the day sometimes the Accused are so beloved they're teflon to the accusations. That's a mess that also involves the "Court of Public Opinion," employers of all of the above, law enforcement, judicial systems, etc. But, what I do think needs to happen is that these things need to NOT BE GODDAMN FORGOTTEN IN JUST A MATTER OF WEEKS, but we have rendered ourselves just so tired of all the noise that essentially that's what happened in both cases. Sure, some people did get good and messed up right off that bat. There were such an overwhelming amount of women speaking up at certain wrestlers (like Joey Ryan) or people in the comics biz (like Dark Horse editor/writer Scott Allie) that the axe fell on them swift and hard. But in a lot of cases there was some damage control, some suspensions, some "heartfelt" apologies issued and self-exiling, and then... eh? 

Worst of all this is that I'm nearing something like two thousand words on this stream of whatever the fuck and it's not like I have a solution. My solution is really just writing this, hoping I don't sound like an out of touch or off base asshole and hoping it means something to whoever reads it. Ideally, deeper and more meaningful discussion is a good prescription as long as it keeps getting refilled, over and over again to overwhelmed a decent amount of the rabbling, but the rapid barrage that overwhelms a communal issue from the get go will still drag long prose like this down. And it's just simply how we work now as a society; this is were the Internet has brought us, for better or for worse. It's made finding a home to discuss and share our interests and likes and what makes us happy one of the simplest things in the world as long as you have a connection, but it also made fandom chatter explode into a cacophony of disarray and vitriol when even the slightest bit of ire is raised in said communities. I don't know what the solution is, hell, I'm not even sure I've made an overall point now as I stumble to wrap this up, but I hope whatever this weird exercise was prompted whoever out there bothered to read it to think maybe a little more civil, maybe a little less reactionary, and maybe to share it amongst their peers so at some point a man can possibly make like five bucks off of the metrics.

Also, yeah, I'm going to duck out of these kind of "state of things" pieces I've drawn myself into writing (like I said, they're "easy") and I think I'm ready to just talk comic books for a bit. They're what I did for thirteen years, quarantine has given me the ability to put some time with them again under my belt, and they've been my primary hobby, no exceptions, for twenty years now. Time to give them the proper amount of love and attention over hot messes like everything above. Cheers...

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Video Game Industry is Starting to Remind Me of Early 2000's Pro Wrestling

 As I would like to have hopefully gotten across through the variety of postings I've made here, I am a nerd that enjoys a wide swath of things. I would say that comic books and video games have by far been the longest running hobby passions of mine that I've indulged in, each has occasionally tagged out to other pursuits, like Magic: the Gathering and, while I've got the wrestling reference just hanging there, yes, professional wrestling consumed me (and let's be honest, a great deal of the country) for most of the back half of the 1990's and early 2000's. 90's wrestling was the highest mark for the sport(s entertainment) for obvious and well-deserved reason. Some of the most energizing, charismatic stars of all time in the industry, such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "2024 Republican Presidential Nominee" Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels, and on and on and on rose to prominence in both the wrestling world and the pop culture world at large. It was a heyday for their brand of badassery and flamboyancy and also a glorious transition of the actual in-ring action as wrestlers from all corners of the world, from Japan to Mexico, were influencing up-and-comers such as Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, Chris Benoit (I know, I know, we don't say his name) or becoming the influencers like in the cases of Eddie Guerrero, Jushin "Thunder" Liger, and Rey Mysterio Jr. The in-ring performances were growing at leaps and bounds, the "promos" the stars were cutting every show were the stuff of meme legend to the point that they're still quoted today by 50 and 60-somethings that haven't moved on and probably yell at a grocery store clerk once a week because they had the "audacity" to tell them it was store policy to wear a mask right now, and there was just a huge amount of momentum behind the pro wrestling business spurred on by these performers and the vicious, "anything goes" competition driving most of the industry at the time between the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). 

Everyone loved wrestling; a lot of us lived and breathed wrestling. And then the wrestling industry just kind of shat itself into oblivion with pretty much one man to blame. But it was great for a while there. When WCW came right out and challenged WWF to a programming battle on Monday nights during the "Monday Night War," every week it was just dizzying the amount of one-upmanship that was occurring, the levels that the stories were going to to outdo each other (though, admittedly, some of this material was pure "shock" value in its most abhorrent form), and the in-ring exhibitions the talent was putting each other through on TV and in Pay-Per-View to enthrall the masses. And then it just kind of stopped. WCW at a certain point both kind of just "out shocked" themselves and started putting out derivative storyline after derivative storyline recycling the same "who's the newest member/traitor" gimmick to their New World Order gimmick that really ramped up the fervor and excitement around pro wrestling at the time, but would also contribute heavily to its decline, especially once you had a generational millionaire-turned billionaire like WWF Owner/Inheritor Vince McMahon as the de facto leader of the business. 

Unfortunately, the fallout the unfolded in the falling of WCW led to exactly the expected: With no real competition to his company at the time, Vince McMahon leveraged his television presence and money to go out of his way to ensure he wouldn't have any real competition for decades. Any wrestling talent that had a modicum of buzz around them when WCW packed up production went into (now) WWE's coffers. Any wrestling talent building a name for themselves on the Independent circuit went into Vince McMahon's rolodex. Any talent on the international stage that wanted to make their bones in America basically reported to V-Dog or no one at all. Yes, there were the occasional nuisances, like ill-fated Total Nonstop Action (TNA) that was formed around mostly WWE castoffs as the bloated roster from WCW's additions to the ranks resulted in some fat trimming to be done, but for almost twenty years until just recently when the billionaire son of the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to get him in the game with All Elite Wrestling (AEW) one industry ran through one man because he took his enormous wealth and took the creative talent that made pro wrestling tick and made it exclusively his.

So, when I see a multi-billion dollar video game and tech company throwing billions and billions of dollars to acquire as many software producing studios as they can possibly acquire in the span of just a couple years, excuse me if I don't happen to get a bit of the drizzling shits of "oh, not this BS again."

Obviously, I'm talking about the $7 billion mega purchase of ultra-AAA videogame development studio Bethesda by Microsoft about a week and a half ago. Needless to say, the ramifications of such an aggressive move by one of the three big video games publishers and console producers is just beginning to be felt, but the message was loud and clear up front: When the going gets tough, the tough buys up market share and intellectual properties. 

From the shrewdest of shrewd business move standpoints, this absolutely makes sense. Microsoft took an absolute drumming this past gaming generation, with numbers showing that the Playstation 4 outsold the X-Box One by almost two hundred and fifty percent.  And while there are many factors that could pertain to exactly why this generation turned out so lackluster to the newest X-console, hands down one of the most glaring ones is that, well, there wasn't much reason to buy one over the offerings of their rivals in Sony and, to a lesser extent, Nintendo. There was simply next to nothing you could buy on a X-Box that you couldn't get on any other console from a gaming software standpoint, as Microsoft had an exclusive showing that was highlighted essentially by your standard expected titles from the publisher - a new Halo, a new Gears of War, and some Forza racing games - and very not much else. Meanwhile, Sony leaned heavily into their own studios they own or have very close relationships with - the Naughty Dogs, Guerrilla Games, Insomniac Games, etc - as well as leveraging their relationships and sales leads to pull some clutch "timed" exclusives and really push the "must own" feel of the console. Nintendo, as always, was more than content to be the place you go to for Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, and other Nintendo mainstays and has done quite well for themselves, being the number two selling console of the generation despite entering it years after the PS4 and X-Box One launched. 

Adding Bethesda to the roll call of their studios now means Microsoft adds titles like the Elder Scrolls series who, for example, their last entry in that lineage, Skyrim, sold 30 million copies alone. And this acquisition isn't coming in "hot" per se, but it is a follow up by Microsoft for a purchasing spree they went on just a couple years ago with essentially the same message; We'll buy ourselves to a reputable lineup. Again, this makes complete business sense on Microsoft's part and I don't think anyone can fault them in that regard. They got buried on exclusives and they, as a company in general, not just the X-Box division, are putting a lot of weight on their Game Pass as a growing point. Microsoft first and foremost will always be a computer company and their Game Pass means infinitely more to the company than just being a console mover; it's a revenue stream that has literally over a billion potential customers worldwide through Windows users on PC and so on.

And that's where I, as a general video game consumer and fan and someone whose fandom of another entertainment medium who watched a industry tentpole with a big bankroll go hog wild locking up a dominance of the market, get a little wary. Also, yes, I am a dedicated Sony Playstation fan, those console have always served me right because of that big advantage of theirs; their dedication to having their own lineup of studios that create consistently fantastic exclusive titles. But that has nothing to do with this particular acquisition from my own personal standpoint. Bethesda was responsible for about two purchases a generation from me given my purchasing habits, while Sony always ropes me for a dozen and that's not changing. The current loss of one publisher means nothing to me personally and, again, it is a completely understandable and legitimate get for Microsoft going forward, all factors considered. But I've seen where this goes.

I remember going from a diehard pro wrestling fan that just LIVED the sport(s entertainment) for a solid decade from mid-90's to the mid-2000's to someone that just dropped the industry for dead as soon as Vince McMahon fully got his mitts on it. I lived for getting to school on Tuesday mornings to talk about the previous night's shenanigans and rallying like-minded friends to each chip in ten bucks and group up to get each Pay-Per-View. I mowed extra lawns to get mail order Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) VHS tapes sent to my old, old ass because that was where the really wild stuff happened. And then it was just gone as far as I was concerned because WWE not only succeeded in acquiring all the talent, they then succeeded in turning that talent into one of the most shallow pools of creativity I ever witnessed simply because they didn't have to try. They didn't have to worry about another company beating them because they bought most of the tools that could be used agains them, Vince McMahon just had to worry about beating himself and driving too much of the fanbase away in general that they couldn't make money squaring off again themselves. At least in my case, that was a losing proposition that went on for over a decade.

Again, I don't think that video game nerds worldwide are going to wake up tomorrow and find out that Microsoft has hovered up another thirty software developers and Sony and Nintendo will basically exist to make their own games... but isn't that what Microsoft will inch towards?  Seven billion dollars to acquire such a large studio is at the same time not chump change to be throwing around in the video game market, but it's also a proverbial drop in the bucket for a company like Microsoft on the whole if they really want to push that Game Pass long game. Like I said earlier, literally something like one-in-six people on the planet run their consoles or computers through a Microsoft operating system. What if Microsoft throws enough money around, acquires enough studios, and makes their Game Pass lineup so undeniable that, say, ten percent of those MS users sign up for the $120 it costs annually? That's twelve BILLION dollars in revenue annually. That's a Bethesda and a half just in one year, though that’s just talking gross sales and rough napkin math. But is that not worth it? If buying a Bethesda a year for the next five years means you're looking at a gross of nine digits a decade on the way to establishing gaming software dominance, how do you not pull that trigger? That's just basic business building; if you can spend the money and the revenues are there, you go spend that money and you grab that slice of the pie. 

Obviously there's hoops to jump through, supposedly. There will be anti-trust laws and merger acquisition procedures and blah blah blah. Let's be serious though and acknowledge that in this day and age of hyper capitalism none of that matters. Look at how stifled our Internet access is in this country, with basically a handful of companies running the broadband show nationwide, with large swaths of land covered by only one or two of them at a time with no real semblance of competition to be had, meaning the quality usually sucks, the customer service usually sucks, and the prices aren't much better. Because the arguments will be the same as they are for any oligopoly industry; there's just enough oddball small "local actors" enough other big tertiary companies touching that industry that there's enough "competition" happening to look the other way. Google is laying fiber now so that's a whole fourth company in the national mix on Internet, that's good enough. They even tried their hands at a video game streaming service once upon a time so, y'know, of course there's a "healthy" rivalry base. As long as something like a Steam still exists and you have college kids grinding away in their dorms to put their home brews to markets like it and, of course, the lobbying money is good, legislators who get paid to decide if big money is going too far will look away from a company like Microsoft sucking up developers like Spaceballs vacuuming up Planet Druidia's air. 

All of that above is just "end game" speak though, in a world where MS has spent their way to dominance. I'm being over reactive and somewhat spastic to focus on that considering the X-Box currently is the definitive loser this rapidly passing generation. We're not in the "Vince McMahon is swimming naked in his spoils" stage of the industry but in the Monday Night Wars stage, and the thing about that battle was the escalation, which was as thrilling as it was destructive. Talent was being pulled from all points on the globe to satiate WCW and WWF's need for freshness to fight their battle, and it was glorious while it lasted, but that furthered wrecked an Indy scene that really didn't have much way in the legs back then, hell, it straight up murdered ECW as WWF pulled from the talent so much to the point they just bought the company after the strain was too much. My point here is, what is to stop the same escalation of arms from occurring as Microsoft and Sony come to similar blows? My first reaction to this Bethesda purchase, aside from the undeniable moment of "oh shit, that's huge," was an immediate "well then, who does Sony buy in response?" If you're Sony and you just got handed the news that you're just not going to be able to promote two of the biggest gaming franchises in the business in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls titles, wouldn't the first reaction be as one of the money men in the company to call a meeting and debate the merits of a retort? For example, the company has been really close to Capcom the past few years to the point of basically funding Street Fighter V, what's the downside in this new normal to just throwing $2 billion at them and locking up having Resident Evil, Street Fighter, and freaking Monster Hunter in your ranks as a retaliation? Why not go full Japanophile and snag SquareEnix while at it, wrap up Final Fantasy check books are being opened? Hell, it’s not like they’ve been innocent this whole time, when buzz was hitting its peak for No Man’s Sky, they put their money and stamp on it to capitalize and made that launch a debacle in its own right  

It took nearly twenty years for pro wrestling to "recover" from the fallout of fallout of a two company war that featured pocketbooks as much as it did creativity. And I put those apostrophes around the r-word in that last sentence because the ratings for your average WWE program as the war was breaking wide open for the company was pushing someone like 8 million viewers. Now even the company that "won," through years of self-inflicted stagnations, gets more like 3 million viewers a show. And despite as much energy and enthusiasm their biggest "competition" in that time frame, AEW, has garnered in the past year, even they basically only get a little over a million to tune into their live show every Wednesday. Now, there is hope around that company because their ratings draw VERY well with a younger crowd which is where pro wrestling has been really hurting during this post-war wasteland - a significant amount of wrestling fans identify in a 50+ age range, meaning they hopped on during the "Monday Night Wars" and have mostly stuck around - but the damage of this was obvious and it's that pro wrestling went from being the talk of school hallways and water coolers every Tuesday morning twenty years ago and launching the careers of one of the biggest movie stars of all time, to a niche product that is BEGGING people to get their grandkids interested in to build some momentum into this next decade. 

Again, I know a ton of that comparison word soup above is not exactly "good faith" arguing and I'm not saying I'm pretending it is. For one, as big as pro wrestling was in its biggest years it WISHES it had anything resembling what an average year looks like for how many people and how much money interacts with the video game industry today. WWE's current net value isn't even what Microsoft paid for Bethesda, and that's after a couple deals with Fox for broadcasting rights of one of their shows and a Saudi prince who, y'know, had one of our journalists murdered because Vince McMahon hangs out with the best people, put a billion-plus dollars into their coffers. As of 2018, $43 billion was spent on video games in the US alone; the markets aren't even comparable. Except, you would think with that kind of money out there there would be more than just three company pushing consoles and then a couple more on top of that pushing streaming services like Microsoft's Game Pass, the Stadia experiment that Google is running, Steam, and whatever other software publishers are hosting their products online via a client of their own. And that's because video games are still an exorbitantly cost intensive market to get into and not many companies the combination of money, software expertise, or just the simple desire to get into a fistfight with such entrenched rivals, especially one with pockets as deep as a company like Microsoft. 

And that's why I feel like eerily like I did near two decades ago when a product I deeply loved was at its absolute best, before it dragged itself to absolute lows. Video games are arguably the best they've ever been between the power of the tech, big AAA developmental studios and folks in their basements alike pushing themselves to make something epic in their own rights, and the investment level of time you can put into a digital world you love and enjoy can be nearly limitless. But you can see the cracks forming a bit. Those worlds are costly to build and maintain, so when companies find one that enthralls the masses they will do ANYTHING to keep them on that high. Diminishing returns are at an all time high. Big pockets and mergers sucking up the talent are primary weapons of war. It's pretty much never been a better time to be a gamer, and that's why I'm getting a little anxious to see where we go from here, because I've been here before. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

The General Problem

 I hate to say this, but I'm at a bit of a Magic: The Gathering crossroads of two distinct problems going on with the game and life in general. The first and much greater source of turmoil is the game itself, which will lead into the second, but obviously I'll get there in due time. Basically, my time and money vested into this game stems 90% from the Commander format; it's all I play in paper and all I buy for when it comes to purchases cards as well. I have dabbled into Arena a bit, mainly due to the pandemic and my finding time during furlough/unemployment to give streaming via Twitch a try and it's... fine. It is what it is, and that's Magic in a way that incentivizes you to spend money for digital goods. As a device for Magic in that format, it's perfectly good as a program that lets you play Magic in that way, but when I spend money on hobbies I prefer to have something in return, which is why I prefer paper and which is why I hands down prefer Commander because of its longevity as the hands-down most popular format in Magic and how well the staple cards that define it retain their value. The downside to all of that, though, is with the popularity and money that Commander, well, commands, has placed the format in a position where Wizards of the Coast (who publish the game) focus so hard on it now as a money-maker, that the cards they design with the format in mind have kind of gotten me to the point that I honestly don't know how much I enjoy playing it anymore. 

A lot of this newfound disdain for that game isn't particularly all that "new" but it's been the slippery scale of what I call "The Oloro Effect" that has been going on since I basically got back into the game way back around the Commander 2013/Return to Ravnica era. Oloro, Agless Ascetic on its face isn't exactly the most offensive card but it - and honestly Commander 2013 in general - was kind of the start of a trend in design that really started to permeate into the game bad design. Oloro gaining you two life just by being your general is somewhat innocuous, but it fundamentally warps the game around it regardless. Since a game of Commander is typically a slow-burn of players doing mostly setup for the first handful of turns, Oloro just by sitting there in his big comfy chair, moments away from doing an Al Bundy "hand in the pants" recline, in netting you probably ten points of life which is a leverageable resource and a not insignificant thing. It's ten more life you can use to wipe the board with a Toxic Deluge, it can put you right on the path to winning with a Felidar Sovereign the turn after you put it on the table, it's a free, non-interactible way to slowly drain the table with Sanguine Bond type effects. It does so much and you don't even have to cast it, and that's just from a little thing like life gain, one of the most looked down upon as "filthy casual" archetypes of deck design. Oloro was probably the biggest example of how things could be "pushed" when the design teams that create Magic: the Gathering cards really focus on the cards that serve as the backbones and thematic focuses of a Commander deck: The General

                                                        Oloro, Ageless Ascetic

As offensive as Oloro was, it was kind of a different thing back then when it was about a dozen generals being designed specifically for the format and once a year. Like, lets be honest, something aound half the generals from Commander 2013 alone were problematic in how they warped the game around them by providing rolling or even cascading benefits just for existing. You had Prossh, Skyraider of Kher whose nature of making more tokens the more you cast it lead to engines with sacrifice effects that looped the game into oblivion. Derevi, Empyrial Tactician and the ability to just ignore the damn casting cost and whatever "Commander taxes" may be applicable to the card was just as format warping then as it is now. The problem, aka "The Oloro Effect", that has happened repeatedly since then is that not only have designs like this become a thing we've all come to expect year-in, year-out with annual Commander preconstructed decks and that do continue to be norm ever since that 2013 batch, powerful abilities that are generically good have been showing up on Legend after Legend after Legend card in just every single set release for several years now to the point that I think the game has just devolved to a point where invariably every time you sit down for a game of Commander now, there's a deck at the table that, whether or not someone is planning to be malicious with what their deck is doing, it's inanely powerful merely due to the existence of a General that does broken things that could even be disguised as "fun."

I sit down with my normal group of Commander playing nerds. We all pull out our decks from varying degrees of "fun" to "I think this if fun but it ends up being really not" to "specifically not fun." Whatever, the variety of Magic is the spice of life or some "sew it on a throw pillow" type saying. Teysa Karlov hits the table and then the game is basically over because that's how it works. Teysa, thanks to her doubling on death triggers basically means nothing good is happening when she is successfully cast, because even if you are playing a bunch of cards that are individually not very exciting by themselves in a deck she commands, whenever Teysa shows up to the party they immediately are hopped to the gils on PCP. Hell, those decks are usually just a buttload of commons and uncommons like Doomed Traveler  and many cards of that ilk; but even something like that turns into a board shattering terror because then it may as well read "when this card dies, get two bodies, that will then be sacrificed to this other effect, which will net the controller more bodies or mana or cards" and on and on and on into oblivion. Teysa can hit the board and immediately be met with a Swords to Plowshares or whatever but she will still completely shift things because inevitably some critters will be thrown on the value pile of sac effects Commander games are rife with and put that player in a position where, yeah, sure, Teysa costs two mana more now due to Commander Tax, but they probably refilled their hand and either have a plethora of blockers now or forced the other players to burn through their own boards with a Grave Pact. The text on her card is that generically powerful that even her death basically means nothing unless it happens so repeatedly as to make her uncastable and is also accompanied by multiple effects that wipe multiple permanents from play because so many can be an engine with her. And that's exactly how that game went and we gave it hell and then yeah.

Okay, so that game is a wrap but whatever, at least a Massacre Wurm did something cool during. Let's shuffle up, let's try that again. What's that? Oh, a Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow deck now. Cool. So now what happens here is literally even the cheapest and most generic of creatures becomes a potential game ending threat. No one at the table can let a single 1/1 creature get through because what happens then is what happens every game you don't dare to kill relatively inane creatures in a Yuriko deck; Yuriko fucking Batman smoke bombs her way onto the board and then starts being simultaneously a kill condition and a card advantage engine thanks to her reveal mechanic. And that's pretty much it, because the design is so "good" on Yuriko you can never truly kill her because Ninjustu lets her cheat costs, once the deck gets rolling your opponent is just going to have counter magic to save her Ninja minions from Wrath of God sweepers, and just a simple unblocked Ninja could flip a, like, Treachery and effectively mean Yuriko by simply existing is dealing as much as fifteen damage to your average Commander table. So, effectively, you only put the deck in its place by killing every single generic (and usually unblockable) creature the deck puts into play which, again, no one will do because no one wants to waste spot removal on a goddamn 2/2 with no real abilities, and then hope they haven't maxed out their hand on counter magic to effectively neuter the one real threat to the deck and that's sweepers. Oh, and that's also assuming part of her reveals aren't any of a half dozen extra turn spells that essentially means she'll just kill the board at once. Yuriko is fun y'all. No, really she's a blast. 

Y'know what is the sad part of that last bit of sass, though? Yuriko SHOULD be fun. Ninjas, as a matter of proven scientific fact, are cool. Ninjutsu as a mechanic is cool and one of the few good things to come from Kamigawa block as a whole. But because of course every Legend card in the game of Magic these days needs to come with at least three different mechanics on it to potentially be the lynchpin of a deck, something as simple as "the Ninja Commander" becomes one of the most frustrating experiences playing the game can hand a table.

Fallen ShinobiHigure, the Still WindInk-Eyes, Servant of Oni

Whatever though, shake that one off, guess it's time to power up my own general a little bit and go less "universal fun" leaning and more toward something efficient. So I pull out good old Lord Windgrace and decide to go some "lands matter" on everyone's asses. And things are going good for roughly five turns. I got my usual bit of ramp onto the table thanks to the dumb stupid dumb engine Windgrace himself is, I've stockpiled a decent graveyard to help churn lands and card advantage, and I just hit the biggest threats on the board with a very thematic Windgrace's Judgment and a Beast Within and am ready to drop a butt-ton of threats down with the Landfall mechanic staple, Rampaging Baloth. It's how I like to play Magic, just some value churn, some big dumb beefy boy Beasts to stomp the table aaaaaaand, oh. The mono-blue player drew a Power Artifact, so his Urza, Lord High Artificer, which is several engines in and of himself, instantly gives his deck an infinite loop because the Power Artifact combined with the Basalt Monolith on the table gives him the mana to do so and yay, there goes that game.  Infinite mana is obviously the bigger problem but it having an always accessible outlet because of the deck General is just backbreaking. 

It's kind of tiring, is what it is. And I know that the Magic community in general is in kind of a "power creep" fatigue when it comes to how cards have been designed in recent years, which is why half of the Magic posting you see on social media was so bitter and gripe-filled that Wizards of the Coast had to emergency ban essentially the best decks in multiple formats. The reason I love Commander so much is that thanks to its "mostly casual" nature and the longevity of games kind of cuts some of the "raw power" out of the equation, but when the power is inherent to the card the entire deck is based around, well, that's when the game loses its luster. I don't blame someone for wanting to play a Yuriko deck because, again, Ninjas are cool. Batman is a ninja for shit's sake, and Batman is the coolest (like in that new "The Batman" trailer).  But Yuriko literally turns generic creatures into game breaking threats. I don't blame someone for wanting to play a mono-blue artifact deck, that's a combination as old as Magic, but it's already a generically powerful one and the last thing it needed is a general that just wins basically on the spot when he hits the table given the advantages of blue spells and the junk blue mages have laying around. And triggers are fun! I play Panharmonicon in as many decks as I can justify and it's just pure fun, so in that regard I'm not about to get in that Teysa player's grill or anything, but having doubling effects like hers, or, ugh, Yarok, the Desecrated attached to a creature you have access to any time you want is just so generically powerful, it skews anything "fun" you may have been planning with those abilities. 

And there's just so many, many more offenders of this and they are, unsurprisingly, some of the most popular Commanders being registered on the Internet at EDHREC. Korvold, Fae-Cursed King is just an insane value engine the can kill you in a singular attack and will mow through a game as soon as it hits. Muldroth, the Gravetide is also in that vein of being "mayonnaise in cardboard form" for its generic ability to just be inane card advantage just by being played and there being a graveyard full of toys waiting for him. Golos, Tireless Pilgrim is literally designed to just be a one-card machine by giving you up to three free plays for as long as you have the mana to activate him. Fun fact, I myself have a deck that Golos heads up; it's a deck that actually features pretty much every card that has a "you win the game" condition on it. The deck is terrible. It's just a bunch of clunky enchantments that need to hit several milestones to trigger, and even then they usual do so on an upkeep so the table has plenty of time to deal with your board, especially as they can see everything coming. But, Golos is just so stupidly, generically powerful that sometimes you play him, get a handful of free cards, and unless you get wiped multiple times he just pieces together a fistful of things that work together at once and that's that. Even a deck full of Mayael's Aria and the like can be broken when it's Golos yeeting them onto the table. 

Power ArtifactBasalt MonolithUrza, Lord High ArtificerSad Face Teacher Bad Grade Rubber Stamp - Simply Stamps

It's tiring because so many times it boils a game down to someone already having a piece on the board and the simple matter of playing a card that always hovers off to the side of the game waiting for their chance to dominate it because there wasn't a Counterspell at the table. Or because the spot removal isn't good enough because the ability is just THAT GOOD that even answers are resolved into another handful of problems compounded by the inevitable return of the general two extra generic mana later. The games become so linear. Formulaic. Anti-climatic. For every game that "feels like Commander" to me where the board advantage rotates several times, the graveyard player survives a couple clearings of that zone, the token player rebuilds from not one, not two, but three board wipes and you get an hour-plus of just battlecruiser Magic, there's a half dozen games where a everything comes to a big "crescendo" of asking "do you have the other piece?" when some general with a dumb ability comes crashing down and essentially ends the contest. I've enjoyed like twenty percent of the Commander bouts I've participated in this year and the vast bulk of them usually boil down to "well, screw that General" because they ended the game in the most predictable way ever and there was nothing to really stop them or they warped the games around them because the dedication to making sure they don't do what they do simply by existing gave the game to the person who wasted no resources contributing to the problem at hand. 

And with that out there, with the format that brought me hardcore back into the game after a decade-long absence and with a pandemic enveloping this country and, sadly, leaving many unemployed in its wake, myself included, I'm not sure I get enough out of it to keep participating. Having extra time on your hands to reevaluate, well, pretty much everything in your life leads you to some pretty easy revelations, especially when there's things like a, y'know, mortgage on the line, and two of those linear lines of thought like "I need to pay these bills" and "these valuable game pieces I own are quickly losing their engagement value" become easy combo together into "maybe it's time to sell (most of) them out." With several years of The Oloro Effect in place and domino after domino falling into place to create more and more just broadly powerful and non-interactive Commanders becoming so overwhelming because of set after set after set creating dozens more of them, it becomes a little harder to hold on when every game falls into the same trap in their wake. 

I don't want to think like this but it's kind of just the way it is. I see the hype train building for Commander Legends come this October and I don't think "man, more cards to build into/around all these decks!!" I think "man, a whole set dedicated to probably making the same mistakes that haunt the game every new release." I don't want the cynicism to be there but when you have to make decisions like the one I'm leaning towards - and I will say here, I'm not looking for pity, in fact I find myself very lucky I'm in the position I am to (hopefully) live through this clusterfuck of a situation by liquidating pieces of a "kids game" - but when the enjoyment is collapsing game session after game session because the cards that serve as the fundamental pillar of the format I love keep leading to uninspired game after predictable game, its easy to see cynicism for realistic courses of action. I do hope I'm wrong. Maybe this stretch has just been the product of a playgroup that has gone stale. Maybe in a world where virus that has killed hundreds of thousands is taken seriously and people can start playing Magic with each other in convention halls and more regularly in gaming shops, some idealistic Magic nerd is going to be all "here's my Shattergang Brothers deck; it's as unassuming and durdly as Gomer Pyle. PS: Screw Korvold" and warm the cockles of my black heart. But, until then, this seems to be the path both the game and my own personal self are on unless something shifts in both the world of the game and the world that we play it in, and I feel like both are very much victims of "it didn't have to be this way."