Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Image 20th Anniversary

Since I have been shilling for this company for several weeks now on the AICN site with reviews of many new Image books, I figure it's time for a bit of a talky talk about what this company is doing right now and why I like it so much. Basically to breakdown their position in the industry, which I think finally a realization of what the company could have/should have been at launch, but now twenty years on. It is not all peaches and cream I would argue - and I'll get to why - but the intent of what the publisher was when it launched, that of some of the biggest talents in the business having a home to do their own thing, is coming into its glory. The irony, I would argue, being that I never for once thought of the original Image staff was realizing the "height of their creative freedom" or however you want to phrase it.

What I mean by that last part is that, well, look, I grew up with those books. I read pretty much all of them as they came out - WildCATS, Youngblood, Spawn, etc. - because they were the "Big Thing" on the block. And it was pretty well obvious to even fourteen year old me that they were what they were; and that was Jim Lee drawing the X-Men again with a space theme, Liefeld doing the Avengers with more blood and guts and so on. Obviously they weren't all like this, SAVAGE DRAGON was and still is a prime example of what that company was supposed to at its heart. Hell, a lot of the three of you who may read this post may even disagree with this line of thought in general and say they were really letting their creativity flow with this jaunt (and I would agree with that from a literal artistic point, i.e. linework) but I'm just calling it the way I saw it then and the way I see it now in hindsight. And, yes, I bought all 14 parts to Extreme Prejudice, which I a prime example of why I do not think I have to go any further saying that most of these talents were going with what they knew in that in hardly any time after Image was launched, they were doing giant ass crossovers designed to get you to buy most of their books.

Twenty years on and Image's biggest seller, THE WALKING DEAD, is also a hit TV show. Now, that is also partly a sign of the times as much as it is a realization of what the company has become, but either way it is a big deal. Whereas the company was founded by talent moving from the "Big Two" of (mostly) Marvel and DC Comics, now it seems like it is the place those companies go when it comes time to root for talent. Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, Matt Fraction, and even the biggest name in the business, Brian Michael Bendis, all had if not their starts their big breaks with books they moved with the big "I" on their covers. Sadly (well, okay, that's probably harsh because I've like what they've done since with some of my favorite characters) lots of those names have left and stayed gone but, again a sign of the times (I hope), it has prompted one of those two companies to make its own imprint for creators to house their own stuff. Oddly enough though, not many have taken them up on that offer. Hmm....

There is a slight downslide to the prominence Image has seen in the past couple years, some of which I think can even be attested to the success of WALKING DEAD, and that is if there is any sort of "speculator boom" going on in the world of comics right now, usually it resides with the Indy publisher. Since this is the place that Hollywood is now looking first for optionable properties, it is also the place people willing to drop three or four bucks on a new #1 are going to in hopes they may get ten even twenty (and right now in the case of TWD almost two-hundred) times their money back. Obviously this is not going to be the case all the time - the issues going for over a grand, not the speculation part - but that it has happened to one series and may happen to another (CHEW #1's are going for over $200 now and it is also in TV development) which could easily be enough get people who do no normally buy Image books to start paying attention, for less than stellar reasons. I also doubt this would reflect on the Editorial Staff of Image's scouting policy, i.e. trying to find more of these "hits" out of pitches that look like they could be appealing to a network, but I could also see the temptation being there. Just because you're adamant about being faithful to your husband, it doesn't mean that if shirtless Tim Riggins happens into your life that that ruleset does not immediately go out the window.

Right now, though, I think Image is actually becoming that bright spot in the industry of just burgeoning creativity. Not that the other Indie producers out there - Dark Horse, Oni, Top Shelf, IDW, etc. - are not doing their own quality workload of creator goods, but every month it seems like Image is in overdrive and bringing six new pieces of creator owned content to shelves. There's a great diversity of books there, from Noir to Fantasy to Horror to long-running serials (hell, The Darkness still exists even, and has had some really good runs) and on and on. They are not always winners, that's the downside to the volume aspect of things, but it's rare that the new #1's flowing out of the company are not worth a look, even as just a campy piece of genre fiction. I'm as differentiating as anyone when it comes to my tastes and my Image pulls now are double that of my Marvel or any of the other Indie companies I mentioned and equal to that of my DC pulls which are pretty high right now as I'm flush with New 52 titles. And it looks like more will be getting added to the mix as some big name talents in the industry, Brubaker, Hickman (who never really went away from the company) and Brian K. Vaughan are starting to make their home there. If it's good enough for some of the biggest names in the business that should have no problem getting their creative-owned work published through the Big Two, then that should be an indication of how well things are going over there. If that is not a sign of success for the original mission set forth twenty years ago, I really do not know what could be.

Friday, March 2, 2012


The above is a term that I have heard brandied about pretty regularly the past few months amongst the video game podcasts I listen to about those digital distractions, to the point where I found myself dissecting it in my head whenever I had spare moments for thought. It's also a term that seems somewhat "contentious" to me because there is a lot of personal interpretation in the word. Not a strict definition of what the word means, mind you, but how it is implemented , which in and of itself seems like a big bit of clusterfuckery saying it like that. Basically, everyone has their own idea of how you get immersed in a video game, or what a game does that is immersive to them, without any dispute that being immersed means to more or less be enthralled by what you are playing. That defining of immersion is kind of what I wanted to discuss with this.

The common discussion about immersion has been coming up a lot recently because of really one title, and that's Skyrim. Given trends on that word coming up though, it seems the idea of open-world games in general is the big culprit in garnering the label, which I believe is immediately unfair. "A lot of shit" going on does not necessarily an engrossing experience make. If filling a world with lots and lots of "shit going down" was all it took to create a riveting piece of media, Michael Bay would be THE filmmaking genius of our time, walking stereotype Autobots and all. I personally feel that Skyrim is immersive because of its breadth and, more importantly, the quality of storytelling within its massive confines (and the contradiction of those two words should show how special that particular game is).

The world of Skyrim can be overwhelming, sure, but I think that is more a case of the game giving you a ton of freedom to let it become overwhelming if you let it. You don't have to take all those quests, but they are there for the taking and exploration is such a big, wonderful, sometimes powerful experience (try and tell me you don't get a little twinge of epic swelling whenever you come up a mountain crest to the sound of the Nordic bellowing and a Dragon swooping over all the gorgeous landscapes you see before you) that it's very easy to do nothing but explore and stockpile missions like a crazy cat lady does feline companions. And in that world there are some great big storylines to partake in, there's tiny errands you can do that make the town feel more alive, besides the activities the NPCs are always one and lines they are spouting and so on. One of the best examples of how that game drags you in is a little cabin I found about twenty hours before I hung up the game until DLC time. All it is is the fire-gutted shell of a one-room place in which you find a charred corpse and a scroll about an immolation spell. It's one little microfraction of an aspect about the game and it tells you a little story in a world full of them waiting for you to discover.

But there is caveats to all of what I just typed, as there are definitely chinks in the armor of a game that I personally find immersive but has elements that can take you out of the experience. The combat is not exactly though most in depth of mechanics and does not engage you in combat terribly well. While there is a mega crapton of things to do in the world of Skyrim, the main story is not particularly the most momentous one to show up in a video game (though it does have its moments), to the point where I logged in 130 hours on the game and did not even finish the main quest. Some of the level mechanics as well, particularly the Smithing and Enchanting chains, are basically a grind as well, and ones that can "break" the game by making your character too powerful too early. Speaking of breaking, I really doubt it goes without typing more than a line here to acknowledge the bug issues the game had on launch, which could literally break the game for you. A black screen is not exactly the most immersive of experiences, as The Sopranos has taught us.

All those items could be perceived as an assemblage of arguments as to why even such an immense, content littered world could not be immersive to some. I personally think the sum is greater than the parts and have not had any hands on experiences with bugs that ruined my experience. But this all bleeds into my point that more content does not exactly mean more outlets to immerse the player with. I have played plenty of open world games and have been felt completely underwhelmed with all presented before me. Truthfully, one of the biggest release of this current generation - Grand Theft Auto IV - left me pretty cold. While that particular version of Liberty City was also massive, I thought there was also some pretty massive gaps between what was interesting and worth doing and not. The mission designs were pretty top notch, as Rockstar has been the trendsetter for open-world story missions since the PS2 era, but pretty much everything else in the city I found lackluster. The NPCs were about as empty as a trip through the Jersey Shore, the "Friendster" stuff that took up the brunt of your side mission time was twice as annoying as it ever was entertaining, and... okay. I'll leave it at that because I feel like I'm piling on at this point. My point, essentially, is that the game was a big ol' bag of shit to do, and not much of it, I felt was worth doing.

Taking all of that big pile of letters above and let's start to move into mechanics, which is where I really think this discussion is make or break. Mechanics alone can make an immersive game, in my opinion, but that never lasts. I've spent hours upon hours of my youth with the Tetris, in several incarnations, and as those little tiles are falling faster and faster and you're just begging for a straight piece to finish off four lines. First thing I did when I received my Kindle Fire for Christmas (thanks wifey!) was download Angry Birds (and yes, I see the irony in welcoming in a spanking new piece of tech with a "welcome to 2009" event) and waste a handful of hours hurling some poultry at some pork. But these experiences are always finite; eventually a great mechanic is going to wear thin, most likely sooner than later without something else to bring them together. A riveting story mayhaps? Or a big old open world with a multitude of things to do so that you can connect average mechanics without having to rely on one or two highly polished ones? That's the ticket.

If you take everything negative I said about GTA4 a paragraph ago, replace it with hunting, poker, horse wrangling and a (again, in my opinion) the early 1900's Western Frontier, you now how what I believe to be one of the best and most immersive games of this generation: Red Dead Redemption. Instead of NPC's that are just walking streets saying occasional bland lines, you have cobblers, saloon regulars, people on the trail who are trying to ambush you. Instead of "friendster" phone calls, you are hunting grizzlies and cougars, lassoing and breaking stallions, hunting treasure, etc. None of those mechanics as I experienced them were the greatest thing ever, but they all had their couple hours of fun before jumping to a different one or going back to story missions, made the world much more real, and really helped with the breadth and tone of the story, which was also excellent. Mechanics are just as important as setting and story, it's just a sliding scale how much you want to lean on them as far as making highly polished ones that are the highlight of a shorter, more focused game, or lots of little ones that help realize the much larger world of a much grander game.

That is going to bring me to the last point that I think is highly important in that immersion factor and that's execution, execution, execution. It's not just finding that swath of mechanics to use, it's motivating the player to use them and avoiding repetition to the point of over saturation. It's integrating them into your story and, obviously, pulling off that story with quality characters, plot threads, pacing, etc. Atmosphere is a plus too. Bioshock, I personally believe, is one of the best and most immersive games ever, and you can boil down the mechanics to being a somewhat mediocre shooter, minimal character customization via the tonics, and a pretty decent hacking mini-game. But Rapture is probably the most realized and unique environment I have ever played in, the story is... well, we all know how amazing that is (despite overstaying its welcome by probably an hour). If you can completely sell the highlights while keeping your less enthralling mechanics and gaming points to the bare essentials they need to be in the game, you can easily have that immersive experience.

Alright, time to shut up about this (I always love how long winded I let myself get on these things, when I know no one's really going to read it, but I like to type away sometimes). The last idea I wanted to put forth about the subject is that I think it is safe to say you don't have have an immersive experience to be a great game, but all great games are immersive experiences. I've played a lot of games (a fucking lot, with a lot more to go so says the stack of gaming boxes as tall as my cat here) and the ones that I consider truly great pull me in completely while I've noticed that the "almost greats" always seem to be just lacking somewhere. Maybe the story did not hit as high a notes as the others, maybe I was not as whimsically lost in the setting as I were those others, maybe it was a bunch of mechanics that worked well but did not feel made the game stand out, and so on down the line. Like a great movie, a great, immersive video game I absolutely lose track in, lost all sense of time with until it's over or a realize, fuck me, that's the sun coming up. But like a "pretty good" movie, a game that is doing lots of things well but not completely selling me, I'm checking the time, I'm waiting for this bit to end so I can hit the pisser, I'm actively watching the time because I have other stuff I could be doing, but I'm overall having my moments with the experience. That's why I think this is a concept worth discussing and breaking down to see if there is a method to it all, or if it is just one of those things that you have to place on the true creative geniuses of a medium being just that. You cannot replicate it but you can study it and learn from it as you try and bring out your own masterpiece.

Friday, February 17, 2012


Yeah, I really need to get back to writing something besides AICN reviews. So, speaking of which, we just rolled out our year end column(s) for the site last week and I figured I might as well get back in the mix of things with some talk about things I consumed (figuratively and literally) in 2011. So here's some lists* with some pretty brief notes (*lists that are, for the time being, kind of "incomplete" in that I have a stack of games to play still and some movies I really need to watch, but I figure I've consumed the essentials. Addendums to follow though). The funny thing about all of this being that I've been actually working on this for two weeks or so but kept catching up on more media from 2011 as I was preparing this and then had to keep making new additions/edits. Anyway, just a few standard categories with five entries each. Nothing really comics based since that's the kind of spiel I've already got going on.

Best Movies (I saw) of 2011:

This one is always incomplete it seems, because all the Oscar Bait always comes out so late in the year, it's usually February by time I see all of that stuff (that I'm interested in) that gets nominated. I'm actually getting pretty well caught up by now given all the movies that got added in the wake of the Golden Globes and Oscar noms and Blu-Ray and so on. Basically now I'm down to character pics, like "The Iron Lady" and whatever that thing is where Christopher Plummer was gay in and so on.

1) Moneyball - The only thing I saw that had a real solid dramatic premise. Brad Pitt was both charming and depressed as he portrayed Billy Bean and, given how Hollywood dramatizations tend to go, the conversion of the A's story to the big screen was properly melodramatic without getting overly so. Plus it's a subject matter that I always enjoyed so this is probably the best thing I've seen given how much more I still have to go at the moment.

2) Drive - Violent Noir done oh so fucking right. Everything about this movie seemed built for me. All star cast with people I love; Gosling, Perlman, Cranston, etc. Beautiful direction taking on a nice dirty deeds get even dirtier plot with the most fantastic soundtrack bringing it all together. Loved the slow burn for the first hour as well, it really, really pushed everything to the brink and made the "shit going down" all that more brutal and wonderful. Such a great movie.

3) The Muppets - It's the fucking Muppets. Come on.

4) Hugo - Finally saw "The Artist" yesterday but this remains the top of my heap. What I truly loved and appreciated about the movie is the world it inhabits of the train station and all the fun and quirky bit characters that have their own time in the sun to really flesh out that domain. I also highly enjoyed the ride of this whimsical affair with it's appropriate highs and lows of the current story and history of Hugo and then how Scorcese weaves that into his love letter to the Black & White film era. Everything about it is as masterful as you'd expect from that man. Also, it's a travesty Sir Ben Kingsley didn't get a Supporting Actor nom as he more or less killed in this. Can't wait to watch it again.

5) The Artist - Glorious as I thought this was, there was really just one reason I think it fell shy of being my fave/best I saw; predictability. Love how it was shot, and it definitely was not just "gimmicky" with the silent black-and-white treatment. Dujardin killed, the humor was great, the time capture spot on, etc. But, end of day, you knew the plot beat-for-beat as it unfolded. Everything else was glorious, but Hugo had glorious in spades and the process of it turning into its own love letter to a filmmaking period gone by was something I didn't completely expect.

Best TV (I watched) of 2011:

This one is definitely going to be awkward because it's the year I cancelled my cable. So I'm more or less limited to what I got to see via Hulu, Netflix and, uh, more "unsavory" means. But still, I watched a good big even without that sooo...

1) A Game of Thrones - Never felt prompted to read the series (there's only so much of a saga I can take in prose, re: The Wheel of Time) but I loved the idea of Political fantasy and was amped this made it as a show. And the show is pretty fucking awesome. Depressing as hell, but perfectly shot and acted, especially on the part of motherfucking Dinklage. Looking forward to my Blu-Ray set of this.

2) Community - At this point I've watched so many Sitcoms it's one of those deals where my top tier is pretty much set and it really takes something special to breech it. And this is something pretty damn special. So much so that when I had some time off around Christmas the wife and I watched every single episode of it twice within the span of ten days. And hell, I'm down for a third.

3) Boardwalk Empire - This one is kind of cheating because I'm only halfway through the first season since I just got the Blu-Ray set, but damn this is good shit. Writing, acting, love the time period, the whole nine. I really miss HBO these days.

4) Justified - Everyone keeps saying this is like Deadwood (sans all the cocksuckers) meets Walker Texas Ranger (sans all the poor choreography) and I actually agree. And it works awesomely. Really liked the villain Margo Martindale played (Mags was truly disturbed/terrifying at times) and enjoy Raylan and Boyd as characters.

5) Modern Family - Everything I said about Community pretty much rings true for this as well. I'm not as attached to the characters as I am Community but enjoy how equally zany the plots tend to be, given their different context.

My apologies to Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead and so on, as those are the quality shows I was already watching that I now have to wait for box set due to my telling Comcast to go screw.

Best Beers I Drank in 2011:

Okay, only note here is that this of what I drank IN 2011, not of 2011 because that's a whole spiel of it's own once you get real deep into beer snobbery. And yes, I dedicated a bit of my time and effort to becoming more versed in the ways of beer this past year, to go hand in hand with my not being much of a drinker these days. I found myself basically just having a nightcap here and there, so why not try all the craft beer I could since there's a lot better access to it around the city? So out of 182 different beers I had, this are my faves that I tried.

1) Southern Tier Pumking - If there's any style and/or season I prefer it is the fall stuff, Pumpkin beers and Oktoberfests, with the former being a bigger priority in my book. Southern Tier's Pumking was easily my favorite of those types. Nice and sweet because of generous amounts of Nutmeg, good body on it, and nicely alcoholic at 8.6% So glad I still have a bottle left.

2) Founders Breakfast Stout - Coffee, Chocolate, and Oatmeal are my favorite types of dark beer and this has all three and in excellent equilibrium. I am very much a kind of guy that has certain styles he likes during certain times of the year, but I could drink this every one of the 365 days we and I usually don't bother with dark beers once the temps get over 50.

3) Ballast Point "Victory at Sea" - Another dark one and another one full of lots of robust flavors. The name of the game with this beer is vanilla and lots of it. But it wasn't sickly sweet like a lot of the vanilla based beers I've tried have. There's a lot more balance with some coffee and subtle chocolate taste to go with the v-word. I liked this so much that I'm now looking into ordering a couple bottles from a place in Florida I found since the 2011 batch (I got a 2010 last Feb when I first tried this) either never found its way to Pittsburgh, or sold out immediately if it did.

4) Thirsty Dog "12 Dogs of Christmas" - This is following my love of the Pumking for its use of nutmeg. Nice, sweet taste with a little bit of a malty finish. Little bit of caramel and vanilla in there and not overly spiced like a bunch of the winter ales I tried were. I'd really like to get something like this year round if I could, but that's the breaks with these seasonals.

5) Bell's "Oberon" - And, yes, the last of the best beers I had is was also a seasonal release. This one is a summer release in a Belgian Witbier tradition. Big, wheaty taste and body, nice bit of citrus to finish it off and linger on the tongue. Very crisp, very refreshing. This is the beer I want to drink anytime the sun is out and there's a ball game on.

Best Video Games I Played in 2011

Much like movies, I usually don't have a full grasp on this subject until a few weeks into the new year, simply because things are so backloaded toward the end of the year and I need time to catch up. Judging by feedback around the net though, I don't think anything on my backlog pile is the kind of stuff that would be hopping over what I've got here. So, without further ado...

1) Skyrim - Fucking Skyrim. Played this thing for 100+ hours, did not even finish the main story (which, yeah, could be perceived as a knock against this game) and I still loved all my time in it. The world of Skyrim is probably the most enjoyable experience I've had in gaming this generation as it hits bunches of sweet spots in my gamer lobe. I love the world; the harsh elements, the random stories hidden within the environments, the fucking dragons!! etc. The combat is better than Bethesda games have been in the past, if not for you have some more customization over how your character engages in it and it feels like there's a lot more feedback, especially with shields and more physical forms of action. And even though I have not finished the main story yet, there's plenty of great tales within the game and, honestly, I did not leave my experience with the game incomplete because of quality, but because the quantity of stuff I had done contributed greatly to my being so backlogged on games. All things equal, this is pound for pound my favorite game of this current generation.

2) Portal 2 - Arguably the best storytelling I've enjoyed in a video game, that's why this is here. Well that and the sweet ass mechanics this game was originally renowned for. The introduction and story arc of the Wheatley character (wonderfully voiced by Stephen Merchant) and how the "relationship" between Chell and GLaDOS gets turned on its ear and the disembodied voice of Cave Johnson are pretty much the best written parts I've enjoyed in a video game. And, yes, there's those mechanics I've mentioned ala the Portal gun, and it does not get old, especially when the gels get added to the mix and some of the puzzles do get pretty devious in design. Such a great game all around and something I really owe it to myself to run through again.

3) Saint's Row the Third - Going with more excellent writing, SRt3rd is the epitome of "that's so stupid it's fucking brilliant" writing. The gags are amazing as well as the characters which are so non-chalant about their particular brands of crazy (outside your own character) that it makes, say, escaping from a bunch of gimps with riding crops up their whatzits pulling chariots of dudes shooting at you while you escape on your own chariot being pulled by a guy that speaks in autotune not seem so crazy. SRt3rd also happens to be a very well executed open world crime game, so there's that too.

4) Batman: Arkham City - Everything I loved about Arkham Asylum but in an open world setting that I (apparently being in the minority) enjoyed more than the "Metroid" style setup they went with AA. Given, I think there are a couple things about Arkham City here that are a slight bit inferior to its predecessor, namely I did not think the main story was as tight and the idea of Arkham City itself seemed kind of odd as a thing that would even exist, but those are really my only picked nits when it comes to this game. The combat is even more focused and loaded with options and mechanics for comboing which makes what I personally feel is the best combat I've played in an Action game even better. And all the goodies and side quests and continuity Easter Eggs within the open world were very cool to absorb as I played, being the Bat-geek I am.

5) Dead Space 2 - I admit I only kind of liked the first one due to a couple outliers; those being combat controls I thought were a bit twitchy and absolutely godawfully repetitive missions of the "go get this and fix a thing" variety. The atmosphere, though, was absolutely glorious in all its tension filled, eerily soundtracked glory. Dead Space 2 here takes that big positive, keeps it up to par, and then drastically improves those first two knocks against it to beyond even just a "passable" level but to being actually really damn good. There's more mission variety, more interesting weapons (though, admittedly, there's still four that stand out over the rest to the point where you won't bother with the others), and it's just as tension-filled and gory as ever, with a bigger and more interesting story to boot. It was not unlike the big jump in all around quality that the Uncharted games made from 1 to 2 and while I may not think it has that extra flair and depth that makes UC2 one of the best games I've played this generation, it was definitely enough to be one of the five best games I played in a pretty good year for gaming.

And I think that is going to be that for these lists. I was thinking of doing music, but I barely bought twenty albums this year and basically listened to four of them over and over again (those being, for shit's sake, "The King is Dead" by The Decemberists, "Endgame" by Rise Against, "Good For Me" by The Swellers, and "Major/Minor" by Thrice). I plan on (hopefully) putting something up here every two or three weeks when I have something more (hopefully, again) thought provoking on some entertainment industry point or whatnot, or maybe something more frequently if I have a review or something I feel I should write. Anyway, time to finally put this to bed, and here's some links to our @$$ie columns for comic books in 2011. Cheers...

Day One - Best One-Shot, Best Team, Best Cover Art, and Miniseries

Day Two - Best Moment, Best Villain, Best Art Team

Day Four - Best Hero, Best Writer, and Best Ongoing Series