Stuff in Steptember 2020

Alright, that was a bit of a tough Summer. It started with my cat getting sick and requiring multiple ER trips to receive fuzzy diagnoses on the back of very not-cheap medical procedures and ended with me going to the ER for a maddening fever caused by an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. We’re both better! But damn, let’s hope this American Autumn is only slightly vicious. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

Comics

My reading energy comes in spurts and ebbs. I’ll go weeks without reading much outside of news periodicals and essays on classic sci-fi movies or whatever, then I’ll have a month where I’ll read a couple of prose books, then I’ll reacquire a steady habit of reading weekly comics for a string of months then fall off again. My level is on the low end now, basically catching up on the floppies, but I have a read few notable things recently, like the current run on Avengers by Jason Aaron and company.

Via some otherworldly flair, Aaron has become one of Marvel’s most crucial scribes, with notable works in just about every corner of the universe. If you’re familiar with his bibliography and general grind then what’s happening with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes makes perfect sense. It’s a mix of classic wrapped in ribbons of dread, oddity, humor, occult and meanness. So yes, very Jason Aaron. The writer, who boosted his career with works like Scalped and Wolverine, totally gets the pop aspect of a title like Avengers, and its need to appeal to a wide base. But he doesn’t skimp on the deeper Marvel lore. Yeah, you got Iron Man and Captain Marvel, but you also have Blade and Ghost Rider. It’s all tied together with Ed McGuinness (style) art, big and bouncy and fluent. The book’s true power is derived from the litany of villains, from the Winter Guard, to Dracula, Squadron Supreme and now, as of issue #33 (art Javier Garron and Jason Keith) the guardian of night travelers, Mr. Moon Knight. It’s a comic series that’s very easy to dismiss, commercial in every way, but it succeeds because of how the creative team and editorial play off of the mainstream expectations.

I was reading Dr. Strange: Surgeon Supreme and was alarmed to find a eulogistic afterward on the final page of #6. I guess I’m not that surprised, Strange went like two decades without a title before this recent entended run that spanned multiple writers. Aaron, Donny Cates, and finally Waid. It’s definitely a neat era, with Aaron recalibrating Stephen to sync with the movie version, Cates having a short go with a lot of neat guest starts and Waid bringing it home by taking the character faaar away from home. I wobbled through a lot of the resurgence, I mean magic-based stories can be a little boring for me because plot can be overly bendy with lack of rules, but I really thought Waid’s efforts were generally delightful. Dr. Strange visiting alien planets, or trying to figure out how to kick Galactus out of Magic Town took a problematic character archetype and presented it with new challenges. This last arc, with Kev Walker, a vastly underrated talent who excels at doing the normative superhero thing and slamming it against eccentric characters and locales, brought a nice thrust and swerve. Ah well, that’s comics, I guess.

One of my all-time favorite horror comics unleashed a sequel in Nailbiter Returns. It’s just starting out, and I’m not sure I love what’s been done so far, but the general atmosphere of the plot and setting is kind of a guilty pleasure. You’re really not supposed to make light of murder in the way that the Josh Williamson and Mike Henderson do, but they navigate with a certain grace and guffaw that feels kind of like that friend that makes messed up jokes you can’t help but smirk at.

Movies

I watched Gemini Man (Ang Lee) last night and pretended it was a Deadshot movie.

For the first time in a long, long while I actually sat down and paid attention to Star Wars. It was sort of educational, as my eye for film, script and all that higher art jibber-jabber is more refined. The only thing I really have to say is that it cemented for me that The Force Awakens is one of the weakest entries in all of the canon, because not only does it mimic the plot, dialogue and scenery of Episode IV, it also employs the same relentless editing and pacing style. I’m not really all the down on the Sequel Trilogy, it’s just that you basically trace all its problems back to TFA.

TV

Way back when, in the time of preteen, Eerie, Indiana was a show that absolutely delighted me. For much of my life, it’s occupated that ill-defined space in my mind of something I remember fondly but also not too well. There was a kid, his town was weird af and it was funny but also suspenseful and mysterious. I figured I’d never really get to understand why I liked it so much — who would have time to watch a children’s show from the ’90s, and how exactly would I watch it??

Then Covid-19 plus Amazon Prime teamed up and gave me a venue and means to re-enter the extraordinary town of Eerie.

Predating X-Files by about two years (though I guess I watched it around ’97 or so) the show is about a malcontent named Marshall (Omri Katz) investigating the strange and supernatural occurrences of his new midwest town. The premise is wide and the plot is episodic, but there’s a snappy continuity to the show that makes for wonderful worldbuilding. Anything can happen in Eerie, from alien visits, to deals with demons, warped alternate dimensions, sentient tornados and erranding for Old Timey Ghost Tobey McGuire. The show starts to crackle once The Kid with the Gray Hair (Jason Marsden) shows up about halfway in, and the first season ends with one of the very best episodes of I’ve ever seen, of anything, across all TV (seriously), “Reality Takes a Holiday.”

Then, apparently, Eerie, Indiana got canceled.

That’s the most interesting part of my binge watch, I suppose. For a decade or so I thought I had just stopped watching the show because the timeslot had changed or maybe I just watched less TV one year to the next and fell off, but no, the reason my memory of it stopped so abruptly is because the show did as well. What a shame though, huh? The adventures of Marshall and his sidekick Simon (Justin Shenkarow) operate under a formula that grounds the viewer but promotes ingenuity in plot. Nothing ever gets too serious, and there’s a tenor to it that allows the main duo to travel all the way to the edge of insanity and safely back. There are creative choices in this show that amaze me, like when a movie mummy is accidentally pulled out of the TV, but instead of a shuffling monster Mars and Simon find themselves saddled with a really confused actor. An episode in particular that I must shoutout is “The Lost Hour” which stuck with me for two decades. It’s a time-travel adventure with a bold twist that expanded my sense of story and possibility. I’m glad I got to come back around to Eerie, Indiana. It’s not next-level good good, but without a doubt one of the better single season shows out there.

So I fell into an unintentional Garth Ennis Television (Slow) Marathon. Slightly after the start of all…this I started to watch Seasons Two of Preacher, and boy, it took me until this month to get done with Season Four. It was a slog at times, which is upsidedown because I loved the performances from the trio of leads (Ruth Negga; Dominic Cooper; Joe Gilgun) and the set pieces were grandiose, ruthless and the good kind of terrible. Yet, after a solid first season, the story sputtered, and it all got a little incoherent for the sake of being edgy and gross. What’s goofy is that I only read the first trade of the source material (art by the great Steve Dillion) and I had a similar experience with it: took me forever to get through, crafted very well, and I had a hard time caring.

The Boys is another Ennis thing that I watch but didn’t read. It’s an avalanche of brutality, but it has a splattering of soul and kindness as well. There’s work to be done in terms of character arcs and plot tension, but it’s got me interested. I do need to bestow praise on Antony Starr as Homelander, one of the pinnacle villains of the times. A savage, scary character wrapped up in a flag and a smile, and you love to hate it.

Finally, I’m just starting to get back into the Netflix Marvel batch (which I thought I’d have to abandon). I decided on The Punisher because I heard very positive things, and it fell a tiny bit behind my expectations. Just a tiny bit. This show is decidedly NOT Ennis (though it nods to his work [with Steve Dillion again] very occasionally). Frank’s a little too rounded I guess, showing actual emotions. I guess I’m just very locked into the “Welcome Back, Frank” period of Punisher — a too-stoic killing machine that is more vessel than man. That would be a difficult protagonist to write and create around for a show, especially in the depicted style of Netflix series. Still, Berthenal is truly great, and the action scenes are intense and vivid. There’s a sly superhuman element to Frank Castle’s feats, which does just enough to make The Punisher better than say any other show or movie about a military-trained revenge guy.

Video Games

No new games, generally, but as mentioned in my Arkham post the two games announced at DC Fandome, Gotham Knights and Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, pretty much guaranteed that I’m getting a new system sooner than I expected. Those two are pretty much locked in as my big game buys in ’21 and ’22.

A Correct Ranking of the Batman Arkham Games

With no traditional venue to premiere news about extracurricular comics media DC held an event dubbed “FanDome” a couple of weekends back. A bunch of nerdy, fun things were announced, but what’s happening in the video game realm is what I’m most hyped about. For years, the speculation around the next projects from game studios Rocksteady and Warner Bros. Montreal has been hot tea, and we finally got to find out they’re giving us Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League and Gotham Knights, respectively.

Those two studios combined to deliver the Batman: Arkham Asylum series of games, considered by critics and fans to be gaming’s most successful superhero adaption. Well, for me it absolutely is. The Arkham games are probably the most loyal I’ve been to a franchise since the 2000’s era Pokemon or Super Mario Bros. games. I don’t play a whole lot of mainstream console offerings, but I always made sure to find my way back to the Arkham-Verse as soon as able.

I end up thinking about the games a lot, they were remarkably good, and stand as a sneaky important entry in the Bat mythos, as some of the ideas and choices seeped into Batman stories across other media. Below, I’m going to take the totally unrequested stab at ranking the four. A bunch of spoilers ahead.

1. Arkham City (2011)

While I probably had more grueling periods of angst and wait during my SNES days, I remember the gap between this game’s annoucement trailer and release requring master-level patience. It was sooo fucking worth it.

There are several fictional settings worthy of the video game treatment and Gotham is perched on a gargoyle at the top of the list. When the collective developer community basically perfected the open-world style game in the mid-2000s it made a Batman game in that style inevitable. We needed it.

The eagerness I had while sitting through City’s initial loading screens and cut scenes culminated in something close to euphoria once I got to actual gameplay. You’re dumped into a neighborhood reformatted as a prison and all at once the Dark Knight’s arsenal of paraphrenia, his unique style of movement, and the character’s overarching mise en scène become finally actualized in digital glory.

Arkham City is still a remarkably polished, glitch-less peice of art painted over with an incredble amount of brooding detail. The graphics and neonoir feel of Gotham (or rather, a section of it) is evident, but equally inspiring are smaller details like the various interfaces, menus, etc. City is one of the prettiest games I’ve played, but it’s also dour and spooky and filled with the exact type of dread that keeps a player on their grind.

On top of the design, the game very likely is the best in terms of story and character. The game’s final act twist seriously fooled me, and it brings me shame; I should have totally seen the imposter Joker thing coming. But that’s kind of the beauty of it: Arkham City is so stylized, loud, nuanced, plentiful and exciting that the finer details go unnoticed. Also, this is the one where Rocksteady started to break out some of the deeper mythology, like Calendar Man, Deadshot and Jack Ryder, not to mention elevating Professor Hugo Strange to the primary antagonist. These characters bustle in and out of the game with grace due to an efficient and flexible storyline and side mission dynamic.

A smattering of favorites Hunting down the mass of Riddler Trophies, a tedious task but very satisfying// Playing as Catwoman in those side missions added a level of artisanship that worked in so many ways. The alternate ending was lit// The Mr. Freeze boss fight is sickenly ferocious on the higher difficultly levels. All the helper icons and other benefits are taken away, and he wrecked me for hours// The Ra’s al Ghul glide-y side mission is one of the best segments of the whole franchise; the assassin enemies were great as well//

2. Arkham Origins (2013)

Entries #2 and #3 could be swapped, it’s close. The fuzzy ranking math goes like this: Arkham City is better than Arkham Asylum because it improved on nearly every aspect of it, and Origins is basically an ultra deluxe supersized DLC of City. It’s got new enemies, weapons, characters, missions and near-total redo of the map. There are a few bugs scattered throughout the game but it’s mostly an excellent time.

When announced, there was a smidge of controversy over Warner Bros. Montreal making a spin-off/prequel to City, as some considered it an imposter money grab. It created resistance and played down the release, and I get that, however, you’d be a foolish fool not to acknowledge how thoroughly enjoyable the game is.

First, the story is about as good as its predecessor and mimics many of the same beats, including a similar twist regarding the Joker (fool me twice…). The plot truly keeps the mystery alive despite the prequel recounting the first meeting between (the Arkham-verse) Joker and Batman during the Christmas Season. For something so trodden WBM spices it up with dynamic cut scenes and crafty use of comic book lore. The game is packed with secondary villains as well (Copperhead!), and features some of the most satisfying boss battles I’ve ever played (Deathstroke!). Special shoutout to the enemy that makes you counter their counter. You proffered a grand challenge, sir.

The game is mostly a breeze, which isn’t a great thing under critical review, however, the overall entertainment factor keeps you chasing the next clue around another shadowy bend. I think it’s apparent that WBM was unable to actually alter the gameplay or narrative of the mainline Rocksteady games, so there’s some cleverness in how the story and gameplay suss out.

A smattering of favorites: I remember liking the whole vibe of Anarky in this game. The Occupy movement had emerged a little before Origins came out and his message and theme adapted nicely to the world of Gotham//The map is sneaky great//Being able to digitally recreate crime scenes is a master move addition by WBM, a snappy interpretation of Bat’s detective prowess (and filthy wealth)//

3. Arkham Asylum (2009)

The first time I became cognizant of Arkham Asylum was reading a short preview of it in a Game Informer of something. I totally, aggressively even, dismissed it as another installment in a storied line of plodding and halfbaked Batman video games. It seemed to me that in a world post-Vice City it was very misguided to box Batman inside a restrictive mental hospital of halls and cells. Dumb ass me.

I was over a friend’s sister’s house with a beer in my hand when someone there mentioned they had Asylum on PS3 and I figured “what the hell, let’s see what the damn thing do.” I was stunned. Stunned. I played about ten minutes of the combat Challenge Mode and could not believe how rendered everything was. What totally gripped me by the throat were the dozens and dozens of animations derived from the sinisterly easy-to-learn combat mechanism. It wasn’t the days of Rock’em Sock’Em beat-em-ups, Bruce was kicking ass. Stylishly.

The utilization of the whole Batman allure is really what Rocksteady should be commended for. This isn’t a game of fighting waves of enemies in a simple string of buildings and courtyards, it’s an exploration of a whole ass island of dangerous goofs, and it concentrates heavily on an often underutilized aspect of Batman — his unrivaled skills of search and stealth. The invention of Detective Mode is one of the most lasting trends in modern gaming, and though extremely challenging at first I found myself having a blast stalking and subduing enemies.

I try not to penalize the first game of a blockbuster franchise for being subdued, and Rocksteady was extraordinarily smart for limiting the scale of the project to what it did, but it does sag toward the end with repetitive tasks and a weak sauce final boss fight. It hasn’t aged too well, especially when the sequels improved just about everything. Still, so many parts of the game are thoughtful and fantastic. The very smooth grappling and gliding, the Metriod-style world, the voice-acting and animations… It’s hard to really explain how refreshing playing Asylum for the first time was. Something similar to seeing Iron Man in theaters. You just knew things were going to be different.

A smattering of favorites: The opening sequence is a true harbinger, it basically promises you a good time// Riddler’s role and omnipresence work so, so well. Filtering the Easter Eggs through his side quest bullshit made a lot of sense//That Killer Croc mission is annoying, but mostly because it’s so spooky//Why is throwing the remote control Batarang so damn cool??//The Scarecrow stuff was very neat, and makes his whole (oversized) role in the below entry superfluous//

4. Arkham Knight (2015)

So yep, the most recent, and largest, most stuffed game is my least favorite. That’s the case for quite a few of the fans, which is unfortunate because the love seeps out of every pixel of the third Rocksteady game. I guess even great things become rote.

I mean, Arkham Knight great, great game, and needs to be experienced if the previous offerings made you squee in costumed vigilante delight. The inclusion of the Batmobile is reason alone to give it a spin. In another example of their ingenuity, the studio somehow overlayed a racing game on top of an open-world map; it’s concurrently disorienting and awesome to jump in and out of the Cape Crusader’s legendary vehicle, experiencing basically two different modes of play in the same environs.

The Batmobile was atop the fan wish list since its cameo in Asylum and Rocksteady delivered in abundance. They obviously dropped an abundance of man-hours into making the gameplay work, and in a true money paw moment, the designers make you use that thing OVER AND OVER. Again, it’s a well-designed mode of play, but I remember the exact point Knight broke me: during a mid-game mission where you have to clear a portion of the city of the Arkham Knight’s tank toadies. My multiple failures, combined with the infinity of the dark, Halloween-ish atmosphere just got to me. The series had played itself out somehow.

Some aspects took small steps forward but failed to really advanced. The map is smaller than you might expect; combat is basically the same; the plot is competent but unmemorable etc.. There’s a lot to love of course: The way the Joker pops in and out of gameplay as a fear-toxin hallucination is nearly brilliant, villains like Deacon Blackfire and Professor Pyg are fresh additions, and given that the setting is (finally) Gotham City proper there’s an army of secrets and side quests to be uncovered. It’s a fitting finish in the studio’s attempt to make the “ultimate Batman simulator,” and definitely graded at a B+ or better.

A smattering of favorites: The DLC is pretty legit, especially the Batgirl one//Beating that final Bat-Tank mission outside the GCPD is extremely satisfying…for the wrong reasons//The part where you find Man-Bat is fucking incredible game design. Big ups to my heart for not giving out//The final (real) ending is confusing and dumb and fun and craft and I hate/love it//

I think the new games announced at DC FanDome are extremely appropriate directions for Rocksteady, who need to shake off their Bat-habit, and WB Montreal, who can push forward the format and style of new Batman games. Both have my money and time reserved.

Stuff in August 2020

You’re all aware that there’s a dizzying amount of media out there to consume, so much so that can paralyze a man in his weak attempt to even stay somewhat abreast of current trends and topics. I thought this semi-informal blog space could serve as a bit of a journal as to what the hell I’ve found myself watching/reading/listening/playing/pondering. Hopefully, it’ll come in monthly segments.

Comics:

The funny thing about loving a medium that’s also a periodical is that it never stops throwing NEW in your face. Up until a year ago, I was sickeningly behind on my single issues and my backlog has returned from the grave. Here’s what I’ve caught up on recently —

Join The Future (Kaplan; Kowalski; Simpson Otsmane-Elhaou) is a clever, pulpy take on Western comics. It follows a young girl on a vengeance quest and handles the themes of nostalgia and the casualties of technological advancement. Pretty straightforward so far but the series has room to grow.

Star Trek, after a lean decade-plus, is having a bit of a resurgence, so it would be easy for a fan to miss Star Year: Year Five. There’s an impressive authenticity to it, not only in the character’s voices but in the flow and verve of the plots and surprises. Marrying the mighty charm TOS charm with sensibilities of modern TV storytelling makes for a great read. Issue #12 (Lanzing; Kelly; Mckeown; others) ends the first half of the story, and while it’s a bit uneven on the art (three pencilers!) there’s a lot to like at halftime

Another franchise having a tiny bit of a moment is Suicide Squad, with a new movie (HOPEFULLY) coming out next year, a new game set to be formally announced within the month. Presently, the Suicide Squad comic (Taylor; Redondo; Lucas) is *ahem* killing it. Taylor is one of the medium’s best writers, repeatedly proving himself extremely apt at giving readers the dirty and the sweet in the same package. He and Redondo quickly craft an alluring narrative in the new Squad series; The got me to care about the new cast of characters far quicker than I would’ve expected. I’m almost not comfortable with it

In the same general subgenre of bad comic book dudes, I like much of what Hellions #1 (Wells; Segovia; Curiel) did with its fantastic cast seemingly gathered by a random X-Villain generator. It still needs to do some plot things to really hook me but the demeanor of the first issue rocked it.

Just a periodic reminder that Immortal Hulk is still one of the best comics being published. A generational work, absolutely.

Movies:

These COVID times have flipped modern American cultural norms on its damned head, so there’s a lot of comforts I miss or long for, but one thing that has me hurting is being able to go to the movies once or twice a month. I don’t think I will feel that sense that things are returning to normalcy until I’m in a jam-packed theater watching a grandiose CGI battle.

It’s been a light few weeks in terms of movie-watching for me but one joint I did catch for the first time is Trees Lounge (1994), written/directed by Steve Buscemi. It’s a low-key film following a town drunk committing unimpressive debauchery, ranging from cringe to criminal. It’s very Bukowski, concerned with the people in between the cracks of life, and that meshes well with much of the casting, which has a bunch of current day medium-big actors in bit roles. Buscemi is one of those talents that everyone knows and most underestimate, and this slightly autobiographical work further demonstrates his depth and apparent soulfulness.

TV:

Wings, lots of Wings.

I like to have sitcoms play in the background as I do other things (see the rest of this list), so I end up (re-)watching a lot of shit with laugh tracks and quippy snark. My choice lately has been the overlooked but also maybe overrated 90’s workplace comedy, Wings. It’s dated (what isn’t?) and mostly survives on the strength of its very good ensemble. More on sitcoms to come!

Video Games:

I don’t game as much as I would prefer. I feel guilty when I pour hours into a console, but I do try to play one major release once every year or two. I’m kind of considering getting the new Avengers game, but if I’m being real, I just am sitting over here waiting for that new Cuphead DLC.

The overarching aesthetics of the Lego games aren’t my cup of chamomile but I had to snag Lego DC Super-Villains when it went on sale last month. It’s fun, at this point the brand has nailed their formula, and I’m simply smitten by any game that allows me to play as Mirror Master.

I try not to indulge in phone gaming too often as I know it can be a critical time soaker, but I’ve found a weakness for Void Tyrant (Armor Games). It’s based on blackjack, but dungeon crawling and deck-building are way more important elements. The replayability is truly incredible, with a nice balance of luck and skill making each run a different ride. I actually spent money on upgrades, which is probably a first for me.

Board Games:

In May, after failing to find a Switch at anything near a reasonable price, I bought my girlfriend Disney’s Villainous as a birthday gift and it kind of opened us up to a hidden paradise of gaming that I previously thought unapproachable. We’ve since moved to oft-recommended Pandemic (finding a bit of a second life, for obvious, bummer reasons) and recently picked up Codenames: Duet. It’s wild how far tabletop has come since my not-to-distant youth.

That’s it for now, but I should have more unsolicited opinons in about a month. Stay safe!