Archive for the '4 elements' Category


4 Elements: Scarlet Spider

October 4th, 2013 Posted by Gavok

Recently, it’s been announced that Christopher Yost’s Scarlet Spider is on its way out, ending in December at issue #25. Even with the news that Venom is ending at the end of this month, Scarlet Spider‘s cancellation hits harder. It was really a better book, starring a character who will probably fade into obscurity, while Venom will continue to be a staple in the Marvel Universe.

Scarlet Spider stars Kaine, clone of Peter Parker and co-star of the infamous Clone Saga from the 90’s. After that editorial horror ended, Kaine vanished in the public eye, only appearing in the alternate future series Spider-Girl as the grizzled mentor character. A few years ago, Kaine reappeared during Spider-Man’s Grim Hunt storyline for the sake of being killed off immediately. Then he was resurrected as some kind of spider creature during Spider-Island and when everyone was cured of their spider powers, it reduced him to a less scarred and super-jacked version of Peter Parker for the first time since his birth, curing him of his madness.

Now, when you go through all that backstory, it’s not hard to understand why the series didn’t last. Fresh take or not, he’s a toxic character with a longwinded origin. Still, Christopher Yost was able to make it into one of my favorite Marvel titles.

A lot of the fun is explained in the tagline of “All the Power and None of the Responsibility!” Superhero comics are about escapism, but sometimes it can be frustrated when you see your favorite character held back morally. It’s necessary, but when people call out Peter Parker for being a flake or a coward, there’s part of me that just wants him to go, “You know what?! I’m Spider-Man! That’s why I was late! Suck my balls!” Instead, he has to shut his mouth for the greater good. He lets people talk down to him, he refuses to ever kill and he’s overly selfless out of guilt. It’s what defines him and I would never want to change any of that, but there is that desire to see the catharsis of Spider-Man completely cutting loose.

That’s really what Scarlet Spider is. Kaine doesn’t really care about the Uncle Ben or Gwen Stacy situations because that wasn’t really him. He’s his own person and he’s selfish and doesn’t think of himself as a very good person. When he sees an old woman about to be hit by a car, he stomps down on the car’s hood (sending the driver flying out the windshield) and proceeds to scream in the old woman’s face and curse her out for being so stupid that she almost just died. All while he’s in his street clothes because he doesn’t care that he looks exactly like Peter Parker with a crew cut. After all, who’s going to care in Houston, Texas?

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4 Elements: Gangster Squad

January 22nd, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I’ve long enjoyed Los Angeles as a setting for crime movies or novels, especially ones set just after World War II. It’s not my favorite, on account of New York between the ’60s and ’80s being the best setting for everything, but it’s up there. The way it sprawls, the cities that make up what we think of as Los Angeles and their own little cultures and legends, the interstates, the desert, the mountains… I can’t get enough of Los Angeles. It’s beautiful.

With the exception of going to LA whenever I can to visit friends, though, my LA experience is limited to movies, music, and books. Which is cool, yeah, but that’s pop culture, right? It isn’t true. It might be accurate, but it isn’t real. My friend Tucker put me onto this fantastic book a couple years back, John Buntin’s L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. It’s really great. It’s a history that runs from the ’20s up through the Rodney King riots, and it really enhanced my mental picture of LA as a location and a culture. It almost retroactively justified my love of Los Angeles, in a way.

Gangster Squad debuted with a trailer that was something like this one:

They got me with the Just Blaaaaaaaaaaze!, Emma Stone as a cutie pie of a tired moll, Anthony Mackie, and Michael Peña. The rest is aight — Gosling was cool in Drive, Brolin is pretty okay, ROBERT PATRICK — but that’s what hooked me. All my friends who are smart about movies began each conversation we had about Gangster Squad with “Mannnnnnnnnnnn,” but I kept the faith, even after stories of reshoots and rewrites. Saw it release day, even.

I saw Killing Them Softly a couple weeks beforehand and didn’t really like it. I thought it was okayish, but a mess. But the further I got from it, the more I liked it. I thought about it a lot and finally got what they were going for. And now, I’m afraid I’ll love it if I see it again.

Gangster Squad is like that, but inverted. Here’s four reasons why.

Gangster Squad isn’t boring, but it ain’t new. If you’re going to it in search of spectacle, you will find it. Things explode while dudes walk away from them, there’s a posse up scene, there’s a plucky ethnic sidekick, and Ryan Gosling’s character approaches a shoot-out like life is cheap and he got bullets three-for-one at the gun store.

The weird thing about Gangster Squad is that you have to make a mental adjustment when you start watching it. I was expecting something in the vein of a knock-off Michael Mann or Tony Scott flick. Modern action and nihilism in an old setting. Instead, about ten minutes in, I had to readjust my expectations. There’s a strange noise filter over most of the movie, the dialogue is a bit much, and the gunplay is actually much more subdued and boring than I’d expected. I honestly had a moment where I thought “Wait, is this a weird period homage kind of movie and not a real movie? Why are they talking like that and why does it look like this?”

The setup is familiar, but one of the first details they reveal during the movie almost lost me entirely. Josh Brolin plays O’Mara (cool, Irish cop), a WWII vet (even better) who did some secret spy stuff during the war and is some kind of super-soldier (nah son). Ryan Gosling plays Wooters, another WWII vet (Wooters and O’Mara bond over the war at one point and it is the saddest, limpest thing since “O’Mara, you’re basically Captain America. Can you go kill some dudes for me, Nic Nolte playing Police Chief Bill Parker?”). Wooters is… dirty? Probably? He hangs out with mobsters, but he never actually does anything that’s dirty, so whatever. Some kid he liked dies in a shoot-out and Wooters has a change of heart and decides to start killing criminals. He also murders two criminals in the street immediately after but it still somehow a cop/allowed into crime clubs. Who cares. Emma Stone plays Grace Faraday, Mickey Cohen’s etiquette coach slash girlfriend. Great name. Flat character. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen like a Dick Tracy villain crossed with the Joker.

The rest of the cast are just sketches. Anthony Mackie’s Coleman Harris is good with a thrown switchblade (sure, okay), hates heroin, and patrols whatever they said the black part of LA is. Robert Patrick and his Sam Elliott mustache is an ancient gunslinger by the name of Max Kennard. Michael Peña’s Navidad Ramirez is obviously Max Kennard’s illegitimate son who is following in his father’s footsteps and has the best name in the movie. (#2 is Grace Faraday because it’s a classy classic, followed by Coleman Harris. #worst is “Wooters.”)

That’s all they are. They’re a brief sentence and a one-liner in a gunfight to remind you that they have a personality.

Gangster Squad mines a rich period of American and Los Angeles history, but mucks it up for no reason. Part of my interest was seeing how they’d fit an action/adventure narrative into the very real story of Mickey Cohen. As it turns out, the answer is “They’re going to rewrite the story of Mickey Cohen entirely.”

Here’s a short list of things Mickey Cohen got up to in real life: sexual extortion, blackmail, boxing, bootlegging, walking into hotels and just firing his gun to try and draw some dudes out, sold love letters to a dead man to the news, and owned a bulletproof Cadillac.

Here’s a short list of things Mickey Cohen does in Gangster Squad: talks about boxing, orders hits, looks menacing, sets up a telephone scheme, says “I’m God,” and I guess goes to jail shortly before getting out of jail in the ’50s so he can hang out with Billy Graham and them.

He’s a cartoon, a Hollywood villain, and is nowhere near as amazing or fascinating as the real Mickey. He’s just some goon with a lot of other goons under him. He’s boring. He’s not scary, or charismatic, or anything. He’s Sean Penn in eight pounds of makeup, and that just isn’t interesting, especially when compared to the real deal. Mickey was flamboyant and charming. Penn doesn’t rate.

It doesn’t help that the squad of super cops all have gimmicks like they were superheroes. O’Mara is Captain America, Gosling is good at walking between crime and law (note: he doesn’t do this in any of the movie), Harris throws switchblades with deadly accuracy, Ramirez is plucky, and Kennard is I guess so old that he only knows how to use revolvers.

I realize that having regular dudes wouldn’t make for the most exciting movie, but we basically had regular dudes in real life and Cohen was eventually put away. Regular dudes on the warpath against an overwhelming threat? That’s great.

Everything doesn’t have to be the Dirty Dozen, and when you jazz it up like that, you lose a lot of the texture that made that time period so interesting. Open corruption, hard-driving politicians and cops attempting to clean up the joint, and actual factual race riots in the precincts are way more interesting than “oh yeah, this guy can throw a knife really fast.”

They should’ve mined that, instead of just taking the setting and stopping there. Real life is already rich and it doesn’t need generic embellishment to be watchable.

I love Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña, but what the heck were they doing in this movie? I will check out anything that Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña choose to do, pretty much, but Gangster Squad was amazingly mis-written from their perspective. Outside of a joke about Ramirez’s heritage being the reason why no one will partner with him but the dude who is obviously his absentee father and the black folks in LA hanging out with other blacks, that’s the only attention given to race in the movie.

Jackie Robinson was doing work and getting hate around the time that Gangster Squad was set, but somehow a black cop and a Mexican cop can hang out with white cops in bars and don’t get crap from their fellow police on account of their skin color? Nah, son. False. I don’t need a movie-stopping break for a discussion of the black and brown condition, but don’t suggest that things were all to the good by omitting the ugliness, either. They threw in a racial slur toward Mickey Cohen and that’s about it. It shatters what little verisimilitude the movie has, because America was wild racist in those days, including and/or especially the police.

Their roles are actually pretty symptomatic of what’s wrong with Gangster Squad. Instead of including them and doing a little extra legwork to show how they fit into the culture of the day, they’re just included in the crew with barely a mention given to their point. Coleman Harris is anti-heroin, Mickey Cohen deals heroin, so of course he’d be down with murdering him. Really? No. That is straight out of a comic book. O’Mara wouldn’t have gotten stand-up guys for this gig. He would’ve gotten a bunch of bent cops with guilty consciences.

Instead, he’s got the most unlikely Benetton Brigade ever, a big fat dollop of untruth that’s stinking up the whole movie. It’s pretending to be race-blind, and that’s terrible.

Ryan Gosling has a weird baby voice. Maybe I’m late to the party or something, but I’ve really only seen dude in Drive and he barely spoke in that. But in Gangster Squad, he says a lot of things, some of which are actually pretty cool but most of which are just “Because the genre demands it!” nonsense. “Don’t go,” he says, as Emma Stone walks out the door. “Don’t let me,” Emma Stone says, in the least convincing delivery of her life. “Please leave,” I say, watching this movie and wishing it was over.

Gosling’s baby voice distracted me the entire movie. His voice is pretty okay in real life, as this youtube video I found by searching “Ryan Gosling” shows, but his voice in Gangster Squad is like a pinched and nasal cross between his actual voice and some kind of awful Edward G Robinson impression, see?

But he waffles back and forth between baby voice and real voice and it doesn’t work at all.

Props for that scene where he fires at a car that’s speeding away, because his body language there is impeccable, but that’s in the trailer.

There’s probably a really good cut of Gangster Squad that halves the Gosling/Stone scenes, jacks up the police brutality, and ends with the whole squad dying that’s really, really good. As released, though? No thanks.

You should read L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City instead, and then catch the television adaptation of it whenever Frank Darabont gets around to completing it. Gangster Squad is worth waiting for until it comes on TBS at 0300.

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4 Elements: Captain Atom

October 2nd, 2012 Posted by Gavok

12 months after DC’s problematic reboot made its way onto the scene, we finish the month of getting various #0 issues of DC properties. A couple comics are canceled as of their #0s, which includes the clever use of which in Resurrection Man. For years, that guy’s been wandering around while wondering who he really is and where he comes from and to have his story end in the origin issue is kind of perfect.

One comic I’m disappointed to see go is Captain Atom by JT Krul and Freddie Williams II. Not at all surprised, granted. In fact, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did (I had similar feelings about ill-fated comics Azrael and Magog). The series was selling terribly and did even worse than Hawk and Dove, which makes me incredibly disappointed because that means at least two people were buying Hawk and Dove before that got the axe.

I feel Captain Atom got a bad rap and was far better than most gave it credit for. It’s no surprise why. Captain Atom is a bunch of comic book wrongs somehow making a right. That’s excluding Williams, who while there are a couple issues that seem a little too fluid and melty, his art is great stuff. I mean, this is a comic written by JT Krul. That is NOT a name that makes you optimistic. You can reboot continuity all you want, but people will still remember a tripping Roy Harper holding a dead cat and thinking it’s his daughter. The fact that he hasn’t worked on anything notably good since then keeps that red flag flapping.

Then you have Captain Atom himself. Captain Atom is one of those guys who I really want to like, but know it’s a hard sell. He’s pretty boring most of the time. He’s a Superman-level hero without much of a spark. He’s so boring that they’ve given themselves no choice but to try and turn him into a villain three times and all three times it went horribly wrong. There have been times when he’s shown promise. I thought he was the perfect ambassador character to interact with the Wildstorm Universe during Captain Atom: Armageddon. I’ll even say that I didn’t hate his portrayal in the days of Extreme Justice. Judd Winick was able to make something of him in Justice League: Generation Lost but, oops, Flashpoint happened and that character growth no longer matters.

You put a character that’s hard to pull off with a writer who can’t pull off something readable and… you get something good! There’s something inspiring about that. I still won’t buy anything with Krul’s name on it that involves a bow and arrow, but I’ll be a little more open-minded to his future work.

I feel that Captain Atom is the best use of the New 52 concept trying something new. New 52 is essentially DC’s Ultimate Universe, only it’s the new mainstream instead of a parallel. Too many characters are nothing more than a reset button for the sake of telling the same stories, but you have guys like Morrison’s Superman who go in a slightly different direction. Captain Atom strays away from the original concept while holding onto just enough, making him a cross between pre-Flashpoint Captain Atom, Dr. Manhattan and the Sentry.

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4 Elements: Mega Man

April 26th, 2012 Posted by Gavok

Kids these days with their video games don’t know how good they have it. They have fully-realized stories right off the gate, treated to enough exposition and neat-looking cutscenes to paint a picture of what their game is all about. Guys like me and our Nintendo Entertainment Systems only got two paragraphs in the second page of the instruction manual and an ending. And if you were renting the game? Chances are you had to make a guess at what was going on.

The Mega Man games always had the barest of plots with just enough to make the sequels different in some way to what came before them. It got to the point where it would be, “The villain is this guy Dr. Cossack… oh, wait. It’s just Dr. Wily,” followed by, “The villain is Proto Man… oh, wait. It’s just Dr. Wily,” and so on. Just an excuse to keep giving us more of the same addicting gameplay. The endings were pretty dull until the SNES days with Mega Man X and Mega Man 7. The latter of which had the crazy-ass moment where Mega Man downright threatened to murder Dr. Wily on the spot.

While the later games introduced more story and cutscenes and even alternate futures and realities, the original games remained pretty barren. That is, until they released Mega Man: Powered Up in 2006, a PSP game that recreated the first game with new graphics, included a couple new characters (one of which being pretty racist-looking), gave everything a personality overhaul and allowed you to play through alternate versions of the game where the different boss characters switch places with Mega Man’s role and act as protagonists. While it crapped the bed in terms of sales, the ideas from it would be reused in the current Mega Man series released by Archie with Ian Flynn on words and Ben Bates on art. It’s a great comic and my only wish is that I’d be able to send it back in time to my ten-year-old self.

The series has finished its first year with twelve issues and three story arcs. The first covers the story of Mega Man 1, the second introduces Time Man and Oil Man from Powered Up (they fix the Oil Man controversy by putting a scarf over his mouth) and the third goes through the plot of Mega Man 2. The gist of the origin is that in the future, Dr. Light and his friend Dr. Wily have created a bunch of “Robot Masters” to help perform duties that will help out the human race and make the world a better, safer place. Due to Wily’s checkered past and notoriety in the public eye, Light insists that he stays out of sight for the press conference and the lack of limelight drives Wily over the edge. He rewires the six Robot Masters to do his bidding, has them attack the general public and plans some world domination. The only robots left unaffected are Rock and Roll, two housekeeping robots of Light’s who Wily felt were under his notice. With great reluctance, Rock volunteers to have himself turned into a battle-ready robot so he can bring his brothers back home and prevent Wily’s plot to take over the world.

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7 Elements: Carnage USA

April 15th, 2012 Posted by Gavok

The whole 4 Elements article concept is David’s baby. The four ties into the four in 4thletter and 4thletter comes from David’s name because he’s an egomaniac, an Eggo maniac and possibly a Lego maniac. You can also say that the four comes from there literally being four elements, but I’m pretty sure there are like a hundred of those things, so that’s definitely wrong.

This is David’s site and all, but Carnage USA is my comic. It’s a comic specifically made for ME. Me. Gavin Jasper. And since I’m Gavin, which starts with the seventh letter of the alphabet, that means I need to talk about the 7 Elements.

Carnage USA is the sequel to last year’s Carnage, both by Zeb Wells and Clayton Crain. Carnage was the story that returned Carnage from his grizzly death of being torn in half in space by the Sentry back in 2005. It acts as a loose sequel to the character’s most mainstream adventure Maximum Carnage while introducing yet another symbiote anti-hero in Scorn. By the end of the story, not only is Cletus Kasady alive and reunited with his blood-red costume, but he’s also on the loose and nobody knows where he’ll end up next. All we know is that he has something bad on the horizon.

The plot of Carnage USA has Cletus venture to Doverton, Colorado, where he goes to a slaughterhouse and kills the entire stock of cows. The symbiote grows off the meat and expands to the point that he’s able to infect and assimilate the entire town through plumbing. A handful of the Avengers (Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine, Hawkeye and Thing) are sent to go deal with it and find a town of frightened human puppets before Carnage takes them too. Spider-Man gets away and the government goes to plan B… while trying real hard not to move to the dire plan C, which is to blow the county to kingdom come.

This miniseries helps support the idea that in comics, there are no bad characters, but bad writers. For such a mainstream villain who got his own popular videogame back in the day, Carnage’s death was met with little backlash. For years he’s been seen as nothing more than 50% shallow Venom mixed with 50% shallow Joker. Nobody’s ever really tried to write something decent with him and whenever he got the spotlight with his own one-shot, it was usually a bunch of gory dreck that didn’t do anything for me.

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4 Elements: My Favorite Comic Book Story

May 30th, 2011 Posted by Gavok

As of today, I am no longer a man in my 20’s. I was wondering how to be all sentimental about such a change and decided that I would do a 4 Elements post on my favorite comic story. That’s a hard decision to make, really. What to choose? I love Watchmen and all, but I don’t know if I’d rank it that high. Hell, I love Kingdom Come more than I should, but even that rings hollow. Maybe there’s some Deadpool story buried in there that I should gush over.

In the end, I decided to go with a short story from a 90’s What If issue. Yes, I’m terrible. In fact, most of the issue is terrible. It’s What If #34 from the second volume, otherwise known as What If No One Was Watching the Watcher? Years back when I ranked the top 100 issues of the series, that one only made it to #57. Despite being a humor issue, it featured 19 pages of unfunny jokes and inane concepts. The only reason it ranked so high was because of the opening 7-page story.

The story, written by Scott Gimple and drawn my Tom Morgan, came out in 1992, only a month or so after the finishing of Marvel’s hit Infinity Gauntlet series. Now, I’m a fan of violence and fictional destruction, but strangely, there’s a major lack of it in this story. In fact, the only actual action comes from the first page as this reality’s Thanos gives the business to Galactus, Eater of Worlds.

Yes. My favorite comic book story is What If Thanos Changed Galactus Into a Human Being? Rather than imprison him in energy cubes like in the original story, the omnipotent Thanos punishes Galactus by sending him to Earth in the form as a human. In his naked, human form, Galactus finds himself in a Kansas trailer park. With no memory of his true identity, hungry and entranced by the sound of nearby music, he stumbles into the home of Gertrude Rebmann, a waitress, single mother and Elvis enthusiast. At first, she’s horrified that there’s a naked dude collapsing at her front door, but then we get a good look at Galactus’ human form and she’s even more shocked.

Complete cosmic coincidence, Galactus had been transformed into a form that looks and sounds just like Elvis Aaron Presley. Gertrude is sure it’s him and spends the next few hours feeding him, playing him Elvis records, reading his life story via magazines and showing him some of his movies. Since Galactus has amnesia and he’s a complete match – even down to the singing talent – he agrees that he is indeed Elvis. He doesn’t understand it, but he knows he has a second chance and he intends to do it right this time.

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4 Elements: Darkwing Duck

May 26th, 2011 Posted by Gavok

Excluding Gargoyles, Darkwing Duck was always my favorite part of the Disney Afternoon. I always felt that although Disney is great at showcasing their many properties, Darkwing got the shaft. Sure, it got an NES game, but when the cartoon ended, so did the franchise. Darkwing fell into obscurity, only to become a piece of nostalgia years later.

But what a show it was. Funny and filled with adventure, it acted as the way lighter comedy counterpart to Batman: The Animated Series. It had plenty of character to go around. Not only with our egomaniac mostly-competent hero, but they stole the best character from Duck Tales for the sidekick role and the youthful ward seems to have more gusto than the title character himself. If a superhero is defined by his villains, then you can see the reason the show was so great through the likes of Darkwing’s rogues gallery. Except for that one walrus guy. He kind of sucked.

I never expected to ever see Darkwing again. Whenever a new Kingdom Hearts game came out, I’d half-heartedly hope that maybe we’d get some kind of return appearance, but no. He doesn’t rank with the feature film big shots. Alas, he’d only live on in Toon Disney reruns.

That is, until BOOM! Studios announced a Darkwing Duck miniseries. I was jazzed! Eventually, the idea became so popular among the masses that the company turned it into an ongoing. I was more jazzed! Then I read the first issue. That made my jazz flux levels go even higher! I even got to do an interview with writer Ian Brill one time! My jazziness… it… I… I was pleased, okay?

Darkwing Duck has finished up its first year via twelve issues (three story arcs) and an annual that featured a short story by the series creator Tad Stones. The main series is written by Ian Brill with James Silvani killing it on art. In a time when my favorite characters like Venom, Deadpool, Juggernaut, Booster Gold and Luke Cage have their own fantastic comics going on (by “Deadpool” I mean Uncanny X-Force. Sorry, Daniel Way), I can still tell people with a straight face that my favorite comic series being released today is Darkwing Duck. I get a lot of skeptical looks, but I stand by my claim. With those twelve issues plus one released, I’ve found myself blown away thirteen times in the past year.

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4 Elements: Onslaught Reborn

April 1st, 2011 Posted by Gavok

Currently, Sean McKeever and Filipe Andrade are releasing Onslaught Unleashed, the latest chapter in the saga of Marvel’s sinister hybrid of Charles Xavier, Magneto, Juggernaut and Apocalypse. With the recent surge of popularity of this once-toxic property, it made me reflect on the recent comic miniseries Onslaught Reborn by Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld. I’ve always felt the need to talk about it, but never got around to it.

I rag on Jeph Loeb a lot. A LOT. A WHOLE. FREAKING. LOT. It was my bread and butter for a couple years, but with Onslaught Reborn, I can’t continue that hate. It’s no Long Halloween, but this comic is Jeph Loeb’s best work in the past decade. There’s no murder mystery, so that helps a lot. There’s also a reason for there to be a big ensemble cast instead of adding in extra guys from all over for no reason.

Then again, the whole Earth/Counter-Earth thing boggles my mind. Didn’t the Heroes Reborn characters stop existing or something when things returned to the status quo? I mean, I guess not, but in that one Thunderbolts storyline… No, I’m not falling down this rabbit hole. I have a review to write.

To catch you guys up on what’s going on for this story: Onslaught was this big bad from the 90’s created from Xavier mind-raping Magneto and gaining his powers and corruption. Once defeated by the team of Mega Man and Venom (with Arthur as their helper character), Onslaught turned into some kind of evil black hole fog thing and a bunch of superheroes sacrificed themselves like lemmings. Franklin Richards used his childhood omnipotence powers to create a second Earth on the other side of the sun where these dead heroes would live on in EXTREME recreations.

That brings us to our story, which takes place a day after House of M. As Scarlet Witch has removed the powers of most mutants, the mutant magic of Xavier and Magneto has merged together to recreate Onslaught as his own being. Now he’s out to track down and I guess take over Franklin Richards. Franklin sneaks away to the Counter-Earth he created, where he meets the teenage girl version of Captain America’s sidekick Bucky. He and all the heroes of Counter-Earth, as well as a couple villains, have to team up to take down Onslaught.

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4 Elements: Persona 3 Portable

March 29th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable is published by Atlus for Sony’s PSP. Shigenori Soejima designed the characters for P3P, and also the characters for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 and Catherine. His style is sharp and clean, fit for animation but just as attractive in the form of still images. He has a nice sense of fashion, and seems to be fond of shirts that ruffle, dark jackets, and black slacks. Shoji Meguro, composer of Persona 4‘s soundtrack, also did a solid job here. The score never interferes with the gameplay, instead enhancing the mood as needed. I like P3P quite a bit, though I’m maybe halfway through it thus far. I keep flirting with writing about it, though, and you know what? Enough pussyfooting. Four things about Persona 3 Portable that I enjoy:

Persona 3 Portable is about personal growth. The central metaphor for the Persona series, at least as far as I’m concerned, is growth as an individual. The characters must embrace their hidden talents or, as in Persona 4, come to terms with themselves before they can be turned into something radiant. In Persona 3, the cast is privy to a secret that most of society does not know. To make it through this horror, they have to depend on and learn to trust each other in battle. They form a group, Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad or SEES, that go out at night to try and make the world better.

The high school simulation puts the interpersonal growth of your character under your control, and that growth directly affects your performance in battle. You are in charge of making friends, and that involves what is essentially a dating game. You can hang out with people, you personally choose answers to their questions that reflect a number of different personality choices, and you can even date people. The role-playing aspect is interesting–if I choose an option I don’t necessarily believe, I get a slight pang of guilt. That doesn’t fit the character I’m choosing to play. These (fictional) characters are granting me a large measure of trust, and betraying that feels wrong.

Your character is the only one in the game that can create and utilize multiple Personas, while other players are stuck with Personas that are a reflection of their own personality in some way. Your character being able to possess several Personas is a nod to the fact that you, the player, are one of several billion possible people. So, since you can’t possibly have one specific personality, you’re given a selection.

Building relationships in the simulation portion of the game gives you greater power when it comes time to dungeon crawl. The stronger your relationships, the stronger your Personas are. It’s a fitting simulacrum of real life. The better your friendships, the better your mental health, and the more self-actualized you can afford to be. It’s like having a safety net. You know that you have help if you need it, and that lets you push forward.

To summon their Personas, the characters place a gun, called an Evoker, to their heads and pull the trigger. Rather than a spray of blood, what looks like broken glass erupts out of their skull and the Persona appears. Aside from being a cool visual, I think this represents something more. To really open yourself up, to share that light that’s inside you, you have to put yourself at the whim of others. You risk being ostracized, embarrassment, and most of all, failure. The gun represents a tool to engineer the death of yourself, of your ego, and that allows your Persona to appear fully formed. Maybe you like to sing at karaoke, but it takes six shots of tequila to get you there. Those shots are your Evoker. The gun is the equivalent of pausing, taking a deep breath, and stepping forward.

Going to high school requires making friends. You can’t make friends without opening up and genuinely building a relationship. Making friends makes you stronger, and more reliable in times of danger. Being stronger allows you to protect those friends. The act of protection forces you to open up and embrace your skill. And so we return to begin again. Everything is related, and all of it is more easily mapped to growing as a human being, than growing as a fighter or magician or whatever.

P3P is a PSP adaptation of a PS2 game, and required a bit of adjustment to fit the smaller screen and new context. P3P‘s story is told by way of a visual novel, which is an interesting way to do this type of game. Animation is kept at a minimum, and dialogue is still spoken, but the visuals are near-static images, and events are explained via stage direction. Rather than seeing someone slam a door, you hear the sound and you read the little caption box.

More than anything else, P3P reminds me of radio plays. Everything hinges on the actors involved and your own imagination. While comic books give you most of an image and let you fill in the blanks, P3P works more like an illustrated novel. Physical action is left entirely up to your imagination, while the look and personalities of the characters is given to you.

Strangely, this makes it even easier to be drawn into the game. The tradeoff between the specificity of animation and the freedom of imagination means that you have much more invested in the story. You create significant portions of the game as you play, and what you create fits into what is already created like a lost puzzle piece. Aigis, a robot girl, breaking into a character’s room is paced according to your own thoughts. While listening to a conversation that’s set around a table, you choose the table setting and the location of where the voices are coming from.

This is largely done unconsciously and entirely on the fly, but it helps make your playthrough yours, rather than something you watch. It’s the equal and opposite brother of Hideo Kojima’s cinematic heavy Metal Gear Solid franchise, where you aren’t so much a part of the story at hand as along for the ride. In P3P, you are the ride. The characters move and think as you want them to. The only time you don’t have a significant amount of control over them is when you’re dungeon crawling.

P3P is full of things to do. I don’t really dedicate a lot of time to playing games any more, and ones that require huge time investments to be enjoyed tend to get sold asap. In P3P, you can pick it up and go out and work on your friendships. Maybe you want to finally hit a certain rank with the Gourmet King, or begin dating Yuko. You can check and see when they’re free and then pursue them. You can get short interactions with them or longer, more involved conversations.

Or you can run through a few floors of the dungeon. The floors tend to be short, maybe five minutes long on average, and are randomly generated, so while they are same-y, they aren’t identical. Each set of floors is themed, enemies vary from floor to floor, and there are lost souls or treasures to be found in each section.

There’s also a quest system that’s handled by an otherworldly woman named Elizabeth. She isn’t familiar with our world, so she requests certain items or to go on dates with you to explore the land. These quests give you bonus items or cash, and provide short-term goals in long-term gameplay.

Part of the high school simulation is building your stats. You have Academics, Charm, and Courage to worry about. These can be increased by studying, doing dangerous things, drinking coffee, getting answers right on a test, or any of a dozen things. Having a high Charm means that you can talk to certain girls or get specific prizes. High Academics helps you score higher on tests.

At a certain point in the game, you can walk a dog. While walking the dog, you may be joined by a teammate, and you’ll have a brief characterization-building conversation. There’s nothing particularly deep to it. It’s just another information delivery system.

These choices, and the others I didn’t mention, make for a well-rounded game. The way I’m playing now, I’m not going for 100% completion and maxed out relationships. Forget that–grinding sucks the fun out of everything. Instead, I dabble and try to get a taste of everything. It’s made for an interesting experience, one where I’m okay if things don’t happen like I wanted or if I miss something. I can always do something else, and it takes no time at all.

The art’s really nice. I wasn’t familiar with Shigenori Soejima’s art prior to playing Persona 4, but his work in P3P is crucial. He has to provide a solid foundation for your imagination to fill in the blanks due to the overall lack of animation, and he does it well.

Characters are extremely well designed, and change as events in the game progress. Junpei has peachfuzz on his chin and a habit of wearing tank tops. Your character likes earphones. Everyone has summer, winter, and other special outfits. Mitsuru’s high class nature and faux French affectations come through in her design. Fuuka is stylish, but subdued. Yukari’s pink sweater and heart choker suggests things about her character. Aigis’s limbs give her a creepy flair, like a clockwork teenager. I think my favorite design is Akihiko’s, with his red sweater vest, suggesting a preppy kid, but his ever present bandage and fighting gloves suggest otherwise. There’s real personality in the designs, but working within the constraints of a school uniform.

I like the way Soejima uses colors, too. Yukari’s black uniform is hidden beneath her pink sweater. Ken’s rocking a black and orange color scheme that works surprisingly well. Aigis is mostly white, save for her major joints and weapons. Mitsuru is black, white, and then red. Black, and to a lesser extent, red, is a dominant color in most of these designs, thanks to the school uniform, but the way it plays with the rest of the colors in these designs is interesting. The designs pop, distinct from each other but clearly related. The palette uses soft gradients and bright colors, and the end result is a game that’s really very nice to look at.

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4 Elements: Axe Cop

March 18th, 2011 Posted by Gavok

There was an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled The Big Tall Wish. The episode – and recent graphic novel adaptation – is about an aging boxer named Bolie who is about to take part in a match against a young fighter who will no doubt beat him. Adding to that, he busts up his knuckles before the match. There’s a little boy named Henry who looks up to him and Henry makes a big, tall wish that Bolie would win the fight. Despite the beating Bolie takes in the first round, reality twists and he finds himself standing over a beaten opponent. He’s the winner.

Nobody notices any foul play. Everyone celebrates his miraculous victory. His fist isn’t even all that hurt anymore. He finds Henry and tells him that this isn’t right. Henry warns him about how disbelief can ruin the wish, but Bolie, as a hardened adult, can’t handle it. There are too many holes in the story. The reality is that he could never win that fight… and so he didn’t. Reality sets itself back to normal with Bolie on the mat getting counted out. With no memory of the alternate reality he created, Henry becomes disfranchised with the idea of wishes and loses a big piece of his childhood. The story has a great message to it, but it’s so damn depressing.

The existence of Axe Cop has that same moral as Big Tall Wish, but comes off as a celebration rather than a damning. If you haven’t heard of Axe Cop, it’s a young, but explosively popular webcomic series by the brother duo of Malachai Nicolle and Ethan Nicolle. It’s the adventures of a gruff, enigmatic and at times deranged police officer who goes around killing bad guys with a fireman’s axe. The big twist and selling point is that the artist Ethan is 30-years-old and his writer brother Malachai is only six. It’s such a brilliant little concept. It’s brilliant and I’m glad to see how successful it is.

The webcomic has been released in a volume recently, which has added commentary by Ethan about every little strip and how they came to be. A few weeks ago, the first issue of their Dark Horse miniseries Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth was released. In it, Axe Cop and his partner Dinosaur Soldier (AKA Flute Cop, AKA Avocado Soldier, AKA Ghost Cop) go up against an incoming planet that they can sense is evil. They destroy it, but a couple survivors come to Earth and plan to turn it into a Bad Guy Earth by taking a device that turns bad people good and reprogramming it into a device that turns good people bad.

I’ve seen people hate on the comic and give it the damning of being all, “wacky ninja cheese random.” I can see where that argument is coming from, but I think Axe Cop deserves a pass. If it was an adult who wrote it, then yes, point at it for being stupid. Someone like that should know better, I suppose, but a child adds extra dimensions to it that raise it to something far more intriguing.

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