Monday, 13 November 2017

The Longest Journey Series Retrospective – Part Three: Dreamfall Chapters (2016)

This is a multi-part series retrospective on Ragnar Tørnquist's Longest Journey Series, made up of The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters. Part One is here. Part Two is here.

                                                                         



It took seven years for The Longest Journey to see a sequel, and when Dreamfall arrived the gaming landscape had come a long way. It would take another ten years for Dreamfall's follow up to arrive, and when it did the gaming landscape had moved even further.

Where TLJ was a standard point-and-click affair, and Dreamfall a third-person action-adventure, Chapters would instead present itself as a full blown episodic drama, a format popularized by Telltale's The Walking Dead and Dontnod's Life is Strange. The adventure game, long thought dead, had now been resurrected in a new form, and it seems fitting that The Longest Journey would see a revival along with it.

Chapters is in many ways the biggest departure from the series so far. Like the contemporaries that influenced it, game-play is paired down to a bare minimum, with character interaction and dialogue taking on a a greater focus. It would also be the first in the series to give the player binary choices that would impact the plot of the game. One of the neat tricks it does is trigger a message stating 'The Balance Has Shifted' upon an important decision being made. In any other game this would be a simple reminder to the player, but in a series that has constantly framed 'The Balance' as a critical, world shaping power, this gives your decisions real weight.

Dreamfall had finished on a cliffhanger, leaving many plot threads unfinished. I can't imagine what it must have been like, waiting ten years, not knowing if Zoë would even come out of that coma. Indeed, the series was in a precarious position, and it was only the changing landscape of crowdfunding that gave it new life. Tørnquist and new developer Red Thread seem to have been very aware of this, and go to great pains to truly bring together a satisfying conclusion.

Like Dreamfall, Chapters is less of a self contained story and more an installment of a larger series. Going from Dreamfall to Chapters feels natural, and the two clearly compliment each other as part one and part two of the same plot.

The story picks up almost immediately where we left off with Zoë in a coma, Kian imprisoned and April dead. It doesn't take long to get the plot moving however, with Zoë finally awaking and moving to a new city, Europolis, and Kian escaping to an uneasy alliance with the Marcurian rebellion. It also introduces a new character, Saga, who's life we play through gradually, and who's importance does not appear to be immediately apparent.

If you thought the politics would stop with Dreamfall then you'd be very much mistaken. In many ways Chapters itself becomes more overtly political in telling an allegory for the current climate. In Europolis, we see a crisis unfold around the coming election, as the two main parties are represented by a right-wing fascistic bully and a morally compromised centrist, while the far left struggles to make a diffidence due to constant infighting. Kudos to Tørnquist for so succinctly framing the problems that continue to plague western politics.

In Marcuria, the Iraq War allegory mostly gives way to a focus on nationalism and xenophobia. Onor Hilloriss, a minor villain, is clearly a stand in for many right-wing European politicians, and definitely influenced by one from the UK in particular. Through Kian we see more of the Azadi's compromised occupation and how it was intended as a mostly benevolent campaign that was, instead, prolonged and manipulated by the powerful few for their own ends. A clear representation of how many feel about the never-ending War on Terror.

Chapters weaves these stories intrinsically into each other, showing that both Zoë and Kian's struggle to find a place in the world is absolutely tied to mankind's self destructive impulses. The political chaos in Europolis and Marcuria is caused by the exact same longing that the characters suffer from, and sticking with the themes of the earlier games, the only cure is to move forward. The past can never be regained.

And it's these themes that are so wonderfully brought to a head in Chapters in bizarre and wonderful ways. Not only does the game draw back to characters and storylines from the first entry in the series, but it expands the scope even furthers, from The Balance, to The Dreaming, to Storytime itself.

It's fitting, in a way, that each entry in the series has evolved in tandem with the adventure genre. The Longest Journey couldn't have stayed a point-and-click adventure game, it had to evolve with updated technology and changing audience tastes. Just like the characters, you can't stay in the same place forever, you just can't, you have to keep moving. It's how you stay alive.

Thus, over the course of three games, we see old lives put to bed and new ones embraced. Zoë finally finds her place in the world, Kian brings an end to the Azadi occupation and April finally realizes her destiny through reincarnation as Saga, becoming the old lady in the comfy chair that was recalling the tale all the way back in The Longest Journey.

On it's own, Dreamfall Chapters is a fine and inventive episodic drama. As the final entry in the series, it ties everything together to make them all greater than the sum of their parts. The stories and lives we witness are universal, but what's even more wonderful is just how broad the scope is.

This isn't a story about mighty warriors or powerful space marines. It's a story about artists, farmers, mechanics, bar owners and computer programmers. It's a story about the dispossessed, the persecuted and the downtrodden. It's not a power fantasy, it doesn't offer any easy answers, but it's comforting too. It lets the player into the lives of it's characters and shows that we aren't the only ones who struggle to find our place in the world.

This is only reinforced by the diversity of it's characters. Back when I was talking about The Longest Journey I already mentioned that the cast was pretty diverse to begin with, but the decision to put LGBT and POC characters front and center brings it's themes of belonging right to the forefront. A less diverse game would have been unquestionably a weaker one.

Gripes? I have a couple. The change in Kian's voice actor between games is pretty jarring, particularly how he goes from soft spoken in Dreamfall to deep and gravelly in Chapters. His redesign also looks lighter skinned, so take that as you will. The game also struggles to shake it's predecessors obtuse puzzles every now and again, in contrast to it's contemporaries more straightforward solutions. Still, these are all minor, and the freedom to choose the path of the story, and explore Marcuira in full for the very first time, more than makes up for it.

The Longest Journey series was intend to have one more entry, The Longest Journey Home, a sort of interquel set between TLJ and Dreamfall that would have followed April and gone back to the series roots as a classic point-and-click. It was set as a stretch goal for Chapters' funding, but the goal was never met, forcing Tørnquist to put the project on ice. In a way, I'm glad that this happened. I don't think it would be in the series best interest to see a sequel so immediate or nostalgic. I'd much rather see Tørnquist come back to it in another ten years time, when the gaming industry, and the world in general, has once again moved on.


All things considered, Chapters is a worthy conclusion, and elevates the series to that lofty status of high art. The worlds of Arcadia and Stark closely mirror our own, and gently warn of the pitfalls of historic reverence, and encourages us to take hold of our own destiny. I can't recommend the series enough. If you've never played them before, you have to check them out, and if you're a long time fan, they are absolutely worth a revisit.

Jack Harvey 2017. Dreamfall Chapters is (c) Red Thread Games

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Longest Journey Series Retrospective – Part Two: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006)

This is a multi-part series retrospective on Ragnar Tørnquist's Longest Journey Series, made up of The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters. Part One is here.

                                                                          



The Longest Journey itself was tight and self-contained enough that a sequel wasn't immediately expected. Even so, it's not hard to imagine what an immediate follow up to the game might have looked like. The continuing adventures of April Ryan, exploring more of Arcadia and Stark and foiling the further machinations of the Vanguard. There have been worse proposed point-and-click sequels.

But TLJ didn't get an immediate sequel, instead it's follow up Dreamfall arrived seven years later, and was a departure in both game-play and storytelling. The action in Dreamfall is more immediate, more dynamic, and the writing is both deeper and further reaching. Where TLJ was a mostly well written quest made of familiar fairy tale tropes, Dreamfall seeks to explore bigger ideas.

Once again, it's the writing that's the strength. There's not a lot to really say about the game-play. Dreamfall leaves behind it's predecessor's classic point-and-click presentation to give us a more action-oriented third-person focus. Though there are Tomb Raider inspired climbing sections and the occasional stealth sequence, the game is mostly business as usual in talking to characters and using inventory items to solve puzzles, albeit in a very paired down, more focused way.

Beyond that the most maligned part of Dreamfall was it's combat sequences. These are finicky and just plain bad, but the worst part about them is how unnecessary they are. There are only a handful over the course of the game, and most could have easily unfolded as cut-scenes instead. It's likely that the move to a console market demanded action, action, action, but it's a real shame that this does nothing but blot an otherwise wonderful game.

Indeed, it's not just the combat that is affected by the move to a console release. While the game's graphics hold up quite well, and still look crisp and atmospheric today, the game is cut into tiny pieces and riddled with loading screens due to the limitations of the console generation at the time. This is a problem that also plagued Thief: Deadly Shadows, and both game words feel tight and claustrophobic in the wrong sort of way.

Still, that's not to say Dreamfall doesn't do interesting things with it's new graphical engine. In fact, Dreamfall plays with cinematic convention in a way only video games can. There are two specific occasions where this really shines. First is when the player returns to Newport, no longer rendered as a painterly background but instead as a full 3D map, except due to the engine limitations Newport actually looks worse than in TLJ. It's smaller, tighter and less flashy than when we last visited it, but this actually works in the game's favor since it mirrors Newport's own fall from grace.

As we return to April Ryan's old place of work it's a grim and gray affair, just as how the once bustling Venice is also on it's last legs. Dreamfall uses what it has with it's limited 3D maps to evoke a specific reaction from the player.

It does a similar thing when the player first returns to Marcuria. As we leave the Journeyman Inn, the camera focuses on the the Inn's sign, before pulling back to the same angle that it was framed at during TLJ. While the character is amazed at the new world they have entered, the player mimics their amazement at seeing a familiar place now rendered in more detail.

And indeed, the entire experience of Dreamfall is all about playing with the familiar and the unfamiliar. The game starts with a flashback to to Brian Westhouse, a minor character from the first game, traveling from Tibet through a hole in reality, but before we get a handle on things we are pulled away from Brian's story, and what unfolds in the prologue wouldn't become relevant until the next entry in the series, Dreamfall Chapters.

We are instead introduced to Zoë Castillo, who appears to be somewhat of a replacement for April. She's also a disillusioned student who's struggling to find her place in the world, and just like TLJ, the game starts us with her morning routine to give us a baseline normal before her world is turned on it's head. Like April, Zoë starts to uncover a strange corporate conspiracy that is somehow connected to the magical world of Arcadia. The player is lulled into thinking that this is mostly a remake of TLJ and Zoë is going to be revealed to be another shifter with a role to play in an ancient prophecy.

Instead the game pulls the rug from under us, revealing that Zoë is actually a dreamer, and has a much different role to play. Zoë gets caught up in an international conspiracy that involves the use of dream machines intended for mass surveillance. In a weirdly pertinent twist, Zoë teams up with a corporate whisleblower who wants to leak these surveillance plans to the press. Despite coming out in 2006 the game has strong parallels to the NSA and Wikileaks scandals of the New 10's.

It's not just the Stark portion of the game that gets political either. The Acadia plot seems separate from Zoë's main arc, and instead follows two further characters, April, now a revolutionary leader, and Kian, an assassin sanctioned to kill her.

After the events of TLJ, the Vanguard's forces occupying Marcuria are deposed by a technologically and socially superior nation that decides to leave a military presence to impose it's own values of society and religion on the reluctant Marcuirans. This in turn leads to a rebellion that isn't above the use of terror tactics.

In case you haven't noticed, this mirrors the unfolding of post-invasion Iraq, with Kian and the Azadi standing in for the Western coalition and April and the resistance standing in for the insurgents. I'm astounded that Funcom and Tørnquist had the balls to frame the west as the bad guys and the insurgents the sympathetic characters, but it does seem that the subtext was lost on most people.

While the game does frame the Azadi occupation as immoral, through Kian's eyes we see that it was done with the best of intentions, and most Azadi leadership just wonder why the Marcurians can't get with the program and civilize themselves. The Acradian plot would be explored in more depth as Dreamfall Chapters rolled around, but it's seeds are planted in the most wonderful ways here.

The game ends with Zoë's plot mostly wrapped up with the discovery that a sister, Faith, unknown to her, was a critical part of the dream machine's development, and her vengeful soul haunts the data-sphere, threatening to end everything. Zoë sacrifices herself to lay Faith's soul to rest, and ends up trapped in a coma. On the Marcuria side, Kian, doubting his loyalties, unintentionally triggers a sting operation against April, which results in her death and his imprisonment. All things considered, the story ends on a grim note, and a final cliffhanger hinting more to come.

Unlike The Longest Journey, Dreamfall is undoubtedly part one of a multi-part story, with clear intentions of a continuation further down the line. This makes it difficult to judge on it's own merits, and had Dreamfall never seen a sequel it would be safe to judge the game poorly on it's decision to stretch out the plot over multiple games. That being said, Tørnquist and his team have to be commended for their decision to expand the story and take it to strange new places like The Dreaming.

Indeed, Dreamfall is a wonderful example of playing with audience expectations, forcing players to second guess where they think the story is going. Zoë is not April 2.0, but the step-by-step realization of this is part of what makes the plot so joyful. The Azadi are not the expected evil occupiers we originally assume them to be, and setting right what once went wrong is not shown to be as easy as fighting an end boss or defeating a horde of enemies like most games suggest it would be.

Though Dreamfall's story ends with many threads still hanging, it's an ambitious and lofty project, with aspirations that go far beyond the standard affair of action-adventure games. It wants to explore big ideas, both political and metaphysical, and it wants to build on the foundations of the adventure genre while both taking it in new directions that the advancing technology and graphics would allow.


For a sequel to a fine 1999 point-and-click adventure game, it far exceed what anyone would expect, and as we'll find out next time, it's follow up would be great launching point to take the genre even further.

                                                              

Jack Harvey 2017. Dreamfall is (c) Funcom

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Longest Journey Series Retrospective - Part One: The Longest Journey (1999)

This is part one of a multi-part series retrospective on Ragnar Tørnquist's Longest Journey Series, made up of The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters.

                                                                                                                 





Some games are a cut above. They're not necessarily the best games ever made and they're not always my favorites, but there's something that sets these games apart from the rest of the gaming mainstream. They elevate themselves beyond their genre trappings to tell stories that get to the heart of the human condition. They have things to say.

Some of these games are shooters, like Spec Ops: The Line, RPG's like Fallout: New Vegas or small Indy throwbacks like Undertale. Most of these games are deliberately written as subversion, taking a familiar genre or setting and twisting it to examine a universal truth. Only a few of these games are created from whole cloth, rather than as reaction, and even fewer maintain their themes across several installments.

I never expected The Longest Journey to join the ranks of these games, and even morose I never expected the entire series, with Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters, to join these ranks either. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Longest Journey series is how each individual installment dosen't stand out on it's own, but experienced together they becomes a powerful story of life and the inevitability of change.

But we'll get there in due time. For now, I'm going to dig in to the first installment, 1999's The Longest Journey.

TLJ is the most traditional of the three games. It was released on the tail end of the golden age of point-and-click, where pixel graphics were beginning to be discarded and 3D was leading to games with more dynamic game-play. TLJ reaped the progress of this era, with graphics that were, for the time, more realistic than the cartoony visuals used in genre classics like the Monkey Island series, and using a refined version of point-and-click mechanics that replaced the big list of 'use on' and 'pick up' with a simple eye, hand and mouth.

The opening hours of the game are notable for two things. First, setting up a baseline normality to better present the more fantastical parts of the plot later. We begin the game as April Ryan, a disillusioned art student who just needs to work on her painting and get paid for her part time job. These little tasks really set the scene, and allow us to get into April's head so that when the plot proper gets going, we understand the stakes and the emotional turmoil she is experiencing.

Second, the game has a good run of avoiding a lot of point-and-click adventure bullshit. A lot of the tasks make sense in a logical way and I found I didn't have to resort to a walkthrough early on like I do with a lot of these kinds of games. That being said, as the plot progresses, the puzzles too begin to get more obtuse. This is heralded with the notorious 'rubber duck puzzle' which is asinine for the sake of being asinine.

In the end, I, and I imagine most people, gave in to a walkthrough at points. Many may not agree, but I feel this is acceptable when the game is so story focused. I'd rather just bypass figuring out some harder puzzles if it means I can get on with the plot.

It's for the best really, as the plot here is TLJ's greatest strength. As the story progresses, and April begins to investigate some shady corporate goings on with the mysterious Vanguard, she discovers she is a 'shifter' who can travel between the worlds of science and magic (described in the game as Stark and Arcadia) that were long ago separated to prevent catastrophe. Legend has it that a guardian must come to watch over The Balance, and April seems to be that prophesied guardian.

The visuals are well designed for this tale. Stark and Arcadia both have a distinct style that sets them apart, and while the blocky character models really do look dated now, the painterly backgrounds still maintain some stunning visuals, especially in places like downtown Venice and the Alchemist's fortress.

Likewise with the strength of the writing. Just like the day-in-the-life opening, once we finally get to city of Marcuria we get to experience the boots-on-the-ground nitty gritty of the place first. We learn about map distribution, dock work and the running of the Journeyman Inn, which would go on to be a well trodden location over the course of the series. While the stakes may involve world ending prophesies, April spends much of the game talking to working class people and dealing with working class problems. This in turn ties in to her character's development.

One of the most notable aspects of the game, I've found, is it's use of what I like to call 'anti-worldbuilding'. Off world colonies, badger people, mutant cybogs, talking trees. TLJ and the series as a whole will often be free to pull out whatever it likes without fear of contradiction because it gives us very little to contradict.

Indeed, world building isn't really necessary, for the only world that matters is April Ryan's world. As the game progresses, and through her dealings with crisis both big and small, April agonizes about her place in the world, the people she loves, and the life she has lived. Should she accept the offer to become the guardian or return home to an art career she found no love in?

Tørnquist makes heavy use of contrasting characters to mirror April's plight, from fellow man-out-of-time Brian Westhouse, to newly liberated talking crow... uh Crow. The game gives no easy answers, presenting both destiny and the decision to screw it as a false binary, and indeed, the game saves it's greatest twist right until the end, emphasizing this point.

As it turns out, April Ryan is not the chosen one. The Balance rejects her, and indeed the true chosen one is revealed to be little more than a secondary character that was being manipulated by other parties. In a bittersweet end, April is left to find her place elsewhere. While she hasn't had to sacrifice her old life, she hasn't been shown a better path either. It's a journey she'll have to take on her own. In life, there is no hand holding.

The game ends with an epilogue of (seemingly) an aged April and Crow telling the tale to a young audience, and hints that there were greater things in her life yet to come. It's a neat and tidy ending, and while it leaves the door open for future installments, there are no hanging plot threads or unanswered questions. If no further installments had followed then it would still have been a great tale.

The Longest Journey isn't a perfect game by any means. The maguffin hunt really drags on into the later chapters and doesn't add a whole lot to the story, and, as mentioned, a lot of the puzzles can be brain explodingly obtuse, but it's a story that is well executed with a wonderful cast of characters and real heart to it.

One of the things that stands out to me is that were The Longest Journey released today it would be denigrated by some portions of the internet as an 'SJW' game. The story is about a strong independent woman and her life, loves and aspirations, with a surprisingly diverse cast. Heck, one of the first characters you speak to is your lesbian landlady.

There's a false narrative that's been created in recent years that games that celebrate diversity, that have female or non-white characters, LGBT, race and gender themes, are only a recent occurrence that has been 'inserted' into the genre artificially. TLJ clearly shows that such a sentiment is complete bunk, but it does to some degree reveal why such a misconception is easy to believe.

When I used to read PC Zone magazine back in the day, The Longest Journey sat on the top ten list of adventure games, side by side with the other top tens. While not what one would call a AAA title, it was viewed as an equal side by side with games like Baldur's Gate, Quake 2 and Age of Empires. This was because, all in all, PC gaming, and gaming in general, was more niche back then, and genres generally had a more equal niche within that niche.

Over time, the mainstreaming of consoles and the popularity of more 'dynamic' titles resulted in games like TLJ being left behind, and the thoughtful, deep writing, in many ways, got left behind with it. It isn't that the fans went anywhere, so much as that the fans of other genres grew exponentially larger. By today's standards TLJ is much more what people would consider 'indy'. Small team, simple game-play, and a focus on pushing boundaries when it comes to writing.

The Longest Journey wouldn't see it's sequel arrive until seven years later, and by then the video game industry's landscape had evolved much since 1999. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey would be a very different game than it's predecessor, but as I'll explain in part two, this would only go on to make the series all the stronger.

                                                 


Jack Harvey 2017. The Longest Journey is (c) Funcom.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Gentlemen, let's broaden our minds!



The day has finally come. (Or days, if you count Monday, Wednesday and Friday) It gives me great pleasure to present to you all my three appearances on the wonderful BatMinute '89 podcast.

For those of you who don't know, the purpose of BatMinute '89 is to take a look at Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman, and spend each episode of the podcast talking about a single minute of the film. I had the honour of being invited to talk about minutes 40 to 42 (That's going from Vikki Vale leaving Wayne Manor to the Joker's coup against Grissom's mob, if you're familiar with the film.)

Niall and Jon do a great job on the podcast, and while it took me a bit to get in to the swing of things, I really enjoyed it, and it was good to get the chance to chat a bit about the fundamentals of Batman as a character in podcast 41.


The three shows are linked below, but the whole series is worth a listen. I look forward to the guy's work in the future and should they decide to cover Batman Returns and beyond, I'd jump at the chance to come back on the show.

Minute 40: ​A Bungling Butler and a Laughing Lounge Lizard

You can also find them on iTunes if that's your jam.

That's all for now Batfans. Stay tuned for more short stories, columns and comics, same Jack Blog, different Jack Post.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

September Update – Delays, Set-Backs and Changes






The big announcement this month is not a new project or release but instead a little bit of bad news. My computer recently got hit with a hard drive problem that ultimately resulted in a complete system reset, losing all files saved on the PC.

Fortunately all of my creative work has been backed up, so no damage has been done to my progress on the John Paul Jones Comic, the novel that I'm working on, or any of my other smaller projects you'll be seeing in the coming months.

Most of what was lost was merely, 'stuff'. Some fan art, drawing references, reaction images and save files from older games that don't have cloud storage. Still, this has led to a lot of disruption, with a lot of time being spent on getting things reinstalled, getting my music library back up to date, and so forth. You can probably imagine.

So while no serious damage has been done to my creative output, it is both a physical and emotional setback, and as a result has led me to change some of my plans for this year.

  • Naturally, the John Paul Jones comic has been delayed again. While I don't anticipate it to be impacted too much, I'm not ready to put a hard deadline on myself at this point. More than ever it's status is 'when it's done'.
  • Further Convention appearances this year are now unlikely. Originally I was planning on going to York Geekfest in October, but it appears as though the convention itself has folded. I had a number of other alternatives planned as a fall back, but given current events I'm not sure I'll have time to wrangle anything before the year is through. I will still be heading to York in October with a friend anyway, if anyone is interested in saying hello.
  • The chance of getting an Obscure Comic of the Month column out in time is now unlikely, and this has led me to think about making some changes to the series as a whole. A few of the more recent columns I've worked on were written by the seat of my pants, and recently I've grown a little disinterested in the project. Since I don't want to subject readers to work that I feel is becoming sub-par, I'm putting the column on indefinite hold.
  • Instead I've thought about writing more articles on a variety of subjects in place of Obscure Comic of the Month. These would probably be longer and more infrequent, but certainly with more depth and a higher quality of writing, which I hope will draw a broader audience. I'll still come back to the obscure comics now and again, but more when I have something interesting to say, and less when I'm just trying to fill up a column for the month.

Other than those changes, however, there is still content on it's way. As previously mentioned I'll be appearing on three of next week's Batminute 89' Podcasts and I'll be posting the links right here. There should be a new illustrated short story out for your viewing pleasure before Christmas, and my Ebook series from Less Than Three is planed to continue into 2018.

In the meantime you can find all my usual updates, off-the-cuff thoughts and artwork over on my Twitter, Tumblr and Deviantart, and If you'd really like to give me a boost, consider checking out my book of Illustrated short stories and my Ebook fantasy series.

Thanks for reading.


Jack

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad - A Look Back at Star Wars: Crimson Empire

This column normally takes a look at obscure comics. For every every sixth month, instead of taking a look at a comic that nobody talks about, this special edition will take a look at a comic I feel not enough people talk about.

                                                         

Star Wars: Crimson Empire by Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley and Paul Gulacy – 1998 – 2012



Contains Massive Spoilers

What's cooler than the Emperor’s Imperial Guard?

Crimson Empire was a mid-nineties Star Wars Expanded Universe comic following the exploits of Kir Kanos, last of the Imperial Guard. It was followed by a sequel in 1999, Council of Blood and after nearly a decade and a half, finally concluded in 2012 with Empire Lost. Crimson Empire is an all time classic, and Council of Blood, in my opinion anyway, manages to outdo even that. Empire Lost? Not so much. I'm going to take a look back at all three books, talk about what makes the first two so great in the face of their weaknesses, and why Empire Lost failed to escape it's own.

But first, a little history.

Crimson Empire was a follow up to Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy's Dark Empire, one of Dark Horses' Star Wars mainstays at the time. Dark Empire was framed as the official continuation of the Skywalker saga, with a plot that saw the resurrection of the Emperor in a clone body, and Luke's flirtation with the Dark Side. It was well revived at the time, but fans clashed over Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which also framed itself as the official continuation of the Skywalker saga, albeit in a different way.

While Dark Empire and the Thrawn Trilogy don't directly contradict each other, and supposedly both slip into the EU time-line seamlessly, they do feel like they're from alternative universes. Dark Empire drew heavily from science-fantasy, with an anything-goes kind of attitude to the force that brought us talking trees and ancient tribes. Thrawn on the other hand was much more interested in the military aspect of the setting, exploring the politics of a post Return of the Jedi universe.



This was even reflected in the artwork, where Empire had a fantastical, almost concept-art inspired style to it, Thrawn's artwork was crisp and detailed, with every character, ship and blaster drawn like you were almost looking at stills from the films.

To put it bluntly, Dark Empire was interested in the Stars, and the Thrawn Trilogy more interested in the Wars.

I still prefer Dark Empire, but only by a very slim margin. In the end, it was Zahn's approach that won out, and the EU would embrace more detailed and coherent world-building instead of the kitchen sink approach, and do away with the more 'Space-fantasy' inspired aesthetics.

Out of this came Crimson Empire. While obstensively a follow up to Dark Empire, it has more in common with the Thrawn books. The artwork is crisp and brand loyal, and the story is concerned with the minutiae of the Imperial Guard's back-story.

And from this approach comes Crimson Empire's two most prominent characters, Kir Kanos and Mirith Sinn. Kanos is a gruff, brooding, reluctant anti-hero, Mirith is a smoking hot, red-headed femme-fatale with a dark past and a penchant for latex catsuits.



If you're a fan of the Star Wars EU, you'll probably notice those descriptions not only match that of Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade, but also a dozen other EU characters I could name. Despite feeling cool and expansive at the time, the Star Wars Expanded universe really suffered from a lot of it's writers having similar tastes, and as such is rotten with brooding badasses and sexy seductresses. Heck, if you only had a passing familiarity with the characters, you'd be mistaken for thinking that it is Mara Jade on the front cover of Council of Blood.

Now this didn't bother me at the time of course, but going by today standards it's easy to see Crimson Empire starting on the back-foot, with a bunch of character archetypes that are far too common even now. That Crimson Empire is still a classic, though, is because it shines through in spite of these limitations.

Crimson Empire's story is a fairly straightforward one, Carnor Jax, one of the Empire's last Imperial Guard, has manipulated his way to the throne by conspiring against the clone Emperor and killing off his compatriots. He didn't reckon, however, on his old sparring buddy Kir Kanos surviving. So Kanos teams up with the rebels in an 'enemy-of-my-enemy' alliance to finally bring Jax to justice.



It's a standard revenge plot used to info-dump some back-story about the Imperial Guard through flashback. Nothing particularly complex or new. Ultimately, it's safe to say that Crimson Empire has more style than substance.

But what style it has. From Jax's dark-lord design, to General Antilles Super Star Destroyer emblazoned with Rebel Alliance sigils, to the Emperor being overly polite to his prospective trainees while Vader berates them in a wonderful good-cop/bad-cop routine, to Jax and Kanos' final, issue-long duel, and Dave Dorman's amazing, amazing covers, there isn't a moment when pure style isn't just bleeding out of the page.

Stradely's artwork is just incredible, where even just a close up on some leather gloves can become visceral and vivid. If it wasn't for some incredibly unfortunate moments with Sinn's boobs I'd say the book had some of the best artwork of all time.



With a grim and uncompromising ending, Crimson Empire may not be the most original of stories, but the writing and artwork have such style that it burns itself into your memory like the burning Empire sigil on the cover. It's a book as cool and badass as the legendary Imperial Guard long deserved.

Of course there was no way a story as badass and memorable as Crimson Empire wouldn't be commissioned for a sequel. While Jax had been brought to justice, his conspirators on the Imperial Council still lived, and it would be up to Kanos to track them down and bring them to justice too.

It would have been easy for Council of Blood to simply repeat the revenge plot of Crimson Empire, but Richardson and Stradley had more loftier ambitions in mind. Council of Blood instead focuses more on showing us an Empire in decline, with the major villains of the Star Wars films now long gone and the rest slowly being undone by backstabbing and bureaucracy.



The whole experience has a great feeling to it. The Imperial's situation is reminiscent of a receding Eastern Roman Empire slowly becoming Byzantium. The story is chock full of characters with ulterior motives and goals, including the self appointed 'Emperor' Xandel Carivus, sleazy Hutt Grappa, the sympathetic ally Baron D'Asta and the first appearance of Nom Anor, herald of the Yuuzhan Vong.

Despite the story having a sharp focus along a closely nit series of plot-lines, the Star Wars world has never felt bigger, drawing inspiration from both the same hard science-fiction and pulp fantasies that the original films did. The Vong's presence here is particularity interesting, since Anor's intentions are never revealed within the comic itself, surrounding the character with an air of mystery and dread.



With this expanded focus, Council of Blood brings with it the depth that Crimson Empire lacked. The titular council is made up of believable and well rounded individuals with their own goals and motivations on display. Plus there are a lot of cool little details in how it serves as a companion piece to Crimson Empire, like how in the original Carnor Jax's elite guard were simply black armoured stormtroopers, exposing Jax's arrogance and pride at being that last of the 'true' Imperial Guard. Come Council of Blood, the fact that Carivus' own men do wear the red of the Imperial Guard slyly hints at his attempts to subvert the Imperial pecking order.


But if you thought that all these wider themes would mean that style would take a back seat you'd be sorely mistaken. This really shines through when it comes to the characters. Grappa is spiteful, petty and melodramatic in ways Jabba never was, and his Zanibar allies feel genuinely fucked-up frightening. Gulacy's art is even better this time around, and the space battles and combat really sing with intensity. It's everything you could possible want in a Star Wars comic and it fits nicely into six solid issues.



You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned either Kanos or Sinn in my praises for Council of Blood, and that's mainly due to the story being more of an ensemble piece. This is no bad thing though, Kanos and Sinn spend most of the plot being manipulated into place by other characters, and Kanos is at his best when he's just getting out his blade and cutting folks up as his bounty hunter alter-ego Kenix Kil.

Council of Blood wraps up nicely, if less spectacularly than Crimson Empire with Kanos flying off into the stars, still loyal to the dead Emperor. It would be a bittersweet and fine ending for most stories, but seeds were sown for a third in the trilogy, and the EU's tendency to reference and interconnect everything leaves the story in an odd place, with no mention of Kanos in the EU after his vow to kill Luke Skywalker.



I suspect Richardson and Stradley asked writers to hold off using Kanos in other stories, with the intent of concluding his story on their own terms. Kanos would show up, however, in a couple of short comics, though I've only read one, which deals with Kanos' time as a bounty hunter, and it doesn't really add anything to the main canon of the trilogy.

So Kanos would hang around in continuity limbo until 2012, and I was ecstatic to find out we'd get to see the end of his journey in Empire Lost. The hype only increased when I looked at the back of the book and saw what appeared to be him tussling with New Republic versions of the Senate Guard from the Prequel Trilogy.

“Cool,” I thought, “It looks like Kanos is going to be doing battle with his metaphorical successors. That's interesting, resonant and a symbolic way to round off the trilogy.”



As it turns out, these guys never actually show up in the comic.

The moment you open the book something just feels... off. Gulacy's art, once the shining star of the series, looks awful here. I'm not sure if the problem is Gulacy doing his own inks this time around or if Michael Bartolo's digital colours are a bad fit for his style, but the whole thing is a mess. The characters look wooden, stiff and uncanny. There are some seriously questionable panel compositions that look melodramatic and comical, but overall the art is just bad, bad, bad.

The disappointments wouldn't stop there though, because the problems of the 90's era EU would finally be coming home to roost.

A few pages in we're finally reunited with Kanos, who looks more like Commander Shepard from Mass Effect here, and this only cements my lack of enthusiasm.

See, I could go on an extremely long rant about how the default male option from a sci-fi RPG saga represents everything wrong with the diversity of character we have in storytelling today, but it'd take me too long. So let me put it like this:



When I started reading Empire Lost, I expected seeing Kanos again would be like coming home to an old friend. Like slipping on a comfortable old jacket. But after years of characters like John Shepard, Marcus Fenix, Kyle Katarn, Alex Mason, Christian Walker, latter day John McClain, Bill Roenick and many, many other gruff, brooding white guys, Kanos just didn't hold any appeal for me any more. It's like going back to the old café you used to get breakfasts from as a kid and realising that the breakfasts don't taste all that different from the millions you've eaten at Denny's.

This wouldn't be too bad if Empire Lost handled Kanos like Council of Blood did, but this is the character's swan song, so it's got to give an emotionally satisfying ending to what feels more like a collection of tropes in armour than an actual character.

Empire Lost's biggest problem of all is the weird intersection it sits between the original Star Wars Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, the 90's EU and the 00's EU, all of which have their own themes and aesthetics that struggle against each other.

This is most prominently seen in the use of Luke, Leia and Han. In Crimson Empire and Council of Blood, the Skywalker clan never appear, spoken only of in hushed whispers. This gave them a mythical sort of status that loomed large over Kanos' street-level adventures. Seeing Kanos and Sinn interact face to face with Luke and Leia just kind of feels at odds with the story Crimson Empire wants to tell. Mirith Sinn dressed in a leather fetish catsuit standing next to Carrie Fisher as classic Leia can't really get any weirder.


There's loads of other issues like this. Prolonged foreshadowing to the New Jedi Order series sits awkwardly in the plot. Boba Fett shows up to confront Kanos, which should have led to an awesome showdown, but instead only serves as a pointless cameo. Having a rogue Imperial fleet using Prequel-Era ships sounds like a cool idea, but seems to serve no more purpose than the Fett cameo. Finally, all references to the Dark Empire series have been dropped in favour of nods to the Thrawn saga instead.

All this clutter leads to Empire Lost lacking an identity of its own, when it's preceding books both had a strong unity of vision. It's a shame too, because Empire Lost is filled with good ideas. The main villain, Devin was a former assassin for the Emperor, and his back-story is a mirror to Kanos'. However, Devin is just kind of pulled out of nowhere with little foreshadowing, and fails to serve as the 'Evil Kanos' that the plot needs him to be.

Still, there are moments where that familiar style still shines through. The first panel we see Kanos back in full regalia sent a shiver down my spine, and the final battle between the classic Imperials and Devin's prequel-era splinter group is a great thing to behold. Another nice detail I like is Han and Leia's war weariness and their optimistic relief that an end to the conflict is finally in sight. This is kind of sad in light of where the Star Wars galaxy was to go after the story's conclusion.


Even so, the whole book fails as a satisfying ending for Kanos. The original Crimson Empire was framed as a tragedy. A story of a good man bound by a code of honour that drives him to acts of violence in the name of an evil regime. If ever there was to be a fitting end to Kanos' tale, it should have been his own death, by his own hand, or in a final misguided confrontation with Luke.

Instead, we get Kanos' redemption. Now don't get me wrong, I would still have been happy with Kanos turning from the Emperor and renouncing his original vows if it was written well, but in Empire Lost this all happens far too quickly and easily. Where the previous books hinted at Kanos' doubts, he still had a ways to go at the end of Council of Blood. Here though? It just takes one conversation with Devin for Kanos to throw down his arms and turn to the New Republic. It doesn't feel earned, and smacks more of a reluctance to tell a more daring tale.

In the end, Empire Lost just sleepwalks along to a conclusion. While it is interesting to see the Republic win the battle that finally closes the book on Palpatine's Empire, it could have been so much more solid than this. The demands of Empire Lost to serve as a satisfying conclusion were much higher than that of both Crimson Empire and Council of Blood, and it misses the mark horribly. I can't even say that the art saves it.



I don't know if I'd have been happier without Empire Lost. On the one hand it's nice to finally find out just what happened to Kir Kanos and Mirith Sinn, but soon enough the new mandate from Disney hitting the continuity reboot button would render that little titbit mostly irrelevant anyway.

Still, in the words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad. The entire Crimson Empire saga has been re-released by Marvel now, and it's well worth the entire package. So what if Empire Lost is a disappointing ending? Crimson Empire and Council of Blood still stand up well today, and that's worth any trade off in my opinion.

Crimson Empire is a mixed bag in every respect, but the good outweighs the negatives so much that I still think they're some of the best Star Wars comics ever written. Maybe one day we'll see a retelling of the saga in the new Marvel continuity (now there's an idea to play around with), but until then, if you want to see a gripping tale where the legendary Imperial Guard are rendered as power-armoured space-ninjas, then Crimson Empire's got your back.

                                                     

Jack Harvey 2017. Star Wars: Crimson Empire is (c) Disney/Marvel/Dark Horse where appropriate. Images used under fair use.

Monday, 31 July 2017

For Your Taste Buds Accordingly Part Two

I mentioned about a year ago that my planned webcomic, Sea of Spheres, was being put on hold while my life sort of figures itself out over then next few years. That doesn't mean I've left the characters behind though.





I comissioned the wonderful Willoh to do a piece on Leo and Eva. I'm really happy with what she came up with. I like to see other artists give their own take on my characters, because I'll often pick up on things they've added or changed and work them into my own designs. Plus, it's always good to throw a decent artist some money once in a while. You can find more of her artwork at willohdraws.tumblr.com

Other than that, here's what's been going on recently.

  • As mentioned previously I'll be at Carlisle Megacon on Saturday 19th August. Much the same as last time I'll be selling print copies of Tales of the Modern Realms and promoting my Ebooks, but I'm also hoping to have some prints on sale. Keep an eye out for me.
  • I'll be a guest on the Bat Minute '89 Podcast some time at the end of August. I'll be posting the link to the show here once it's broadcast, but I do encourage you to follow the whole series. It's a great bat-time.
  • Work continues on the John Paul Jones comic, as ever. Turns out comics take a lot longer than anticipated (though especially when you start work on a bunch of other projects,) but I'm determined to get the whole thing done by the end of the year.

Other than that there'll be a Obscure Comic of the Month Special Edition coming in August just before I fly off to the states for a couple of weeks. As ever, you can support me by checking out Tales of the Modern Realms, The Reminiscence of Good King Carnack, and The Scars of Jocasta Lacroix.

That's all for now, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Obscure Comic of the Month - Professor Elemental Issue Two

Obscure Comic of the Month takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                                        

Professor Elemental Issue Two by Chris Mole, Paul Alborough and various – 2013




Have you seen this ape? Missing since last Tuesday one Ape mostly orange haired with hat, ill-fitting suit and ill-mannered disposition. Answers to the name Geoffrey, particularly when shouted at a hysterical pitch and high volume.

Way back when I reviewed issue one I noted that a lot of the original weaknesses were resolved in the following volume. Indeed, issue #2 is a much more robust book, with a full spine suggesting it has the ambitions of a full blown graphic novel. Professor Elemental Issue Two for all intents and purposes feels more like the real start to the series, with issue one being little more than a taster.

But how does this new batch of stories measure up? The new crop of stories are an improvement upon those in the first issue, all feeling stronger and more confident in what made them great. Large Animal Legislation and Steampunk Superheroes both take advantage of the Steampunk genre trappings to tell familiar stories through the batty lens of the Professor's character, the artwork itself is lovely and each story has a charm of its own. Especially Metadimentional Voyage, where each dimension is depicted by a different artist.



The variety on display is also very imaginative. Last Night I Dreamt I went to Manderly Again, easily the highlight of the book, is pretty much a straight up horror story, and genuinely creepy at that. Belvedere Bully and Young Geoffrey a both children's book-esque stories that tell softer tales about the character's respective childhoods.

Really, if one kind of story doesn't work for you then you're right on to another that probably will, and there are enough stories in the book that you won't feel short changed. That being said, the order the stories are placed isn't structured to play to their strengths, Tempestuous Teapot and Large Animal Legislation, both covering very similar themes, are positioned back to back, giving the reader a sense of deja-vu.



Similarly Last Night I Dreamt I went to Manderly Again is immediately followed by The Case of Aunt Fanny's Horn, another story with creepy horror elements. These two stories could have done with being separated by a lighter hearted one. The last two stories also both end on cliffhangers. It may be a minor quibble, but some many similar stories being clumped together can give an unfair impression of a lack of originality.

My main complaint from issue one, that the stories don't draw enough from the character's chap-hop roots, is also repeated here. While there are nods to various songs like Fighting Trousers, the book again feels more interested in Professor Elemental the character, over Professor Elemental the musician. 



This is fine, but Elemental the character only has a limited shelf-life against the many other steampunk comedies on the shelves, while Elemental the musician is something the world of comics doesn't have anywhere else. Capitalising upon the chap-hop connection seems like a wise direction to take, but the comic itself seems resistant to go beyond steampunk-comedy trappings.

Even so, Professor Elemental Issue Two is still a good time with great artwork and fun stories. You could do worse for picking up a small-press anthology.

                                        

Jack Harvey 2017. Professor Elemental (c) Paul Alborough. Images used under Fair Use.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Obscure Comic of the Month - Amongst the Stars

Obscure Comic of the Month takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                   

Amongst the Stars by Jim Alexander, Mike Perkins and Will Pickering – Planet Jimbot 2015





Contains spoilers

A trippy tale of science fiction brought to you by the talents of Eagle/True Believers award winner Jim Alexander (GoodCopBadCop, Metal Hurlant, Wolf Country) and Eisner award winner Mike Perkins (Captain America, Ruse, Stephen King's The Stand).

Amongst the Stars is a comic that's big on ideas and low on page count. It's a comic that seeks to explore the deeper questions on the meaning of life and the nature of our place in the universe and it looks to do all that in under fifty pages.

Jim Alexander's cosmic fable is split across four different narrative strands, a murder in Turin, a party in New York, the last days of a dying race on the other side of the galaxy and the love life of a disabled astro-physicist who is almost definitely not Stephen Hawking. Through each of these strands Alexander draws parallels between the interconnectedness of each set of characters. Isn't the disabled astro-physicist's attempt to connect to with his daughter just like the disabled alien's attempt to convince their partner to accept their fates?


You've seen these beats before, but it would perhaps be unfair of me to write Aleander's story off as merely Cloud Atlas on speed. Alexander's little, and maybe too short, tales do resonate with an emotional effectiveness that could easily have devolved into whimsy. It's blatantly obvious that William Holland is a knock off Stephen Hawking, but that doesn't really stop you from being drawn into the story and believing in his character.

This slight of hand is mostly pulled off thanks to Mike Perkins' excellent artwork on the book, which really reminds me of the black and white era of 90's Doctor Who strips (which I've covered in the past,) particularly in regards to the alien sequences that make a bold use of clear white space to communicate the strangeness of their culture and the way they perceive reality.


And perception really is the main focus of the book. For what little plot there is it mostly concerns the alien race's last ditch attempt to save themselves backfiring when they accidentally interface with an old movie camera. Beyond that the beats are much more primal, raising questions of where our animal brains begin and where our human souls end (or should that be the other way around?)

Once again, most of the heavy lifting is done by Perkins' art. Beyond the Stars really wants to be more of an experience than a story. It'll end far sooner than you'll expect it to, and while it will leave you with thoughts to ponder, I do wonder if the story could have done with more time. Alexander's big ideas are still only touched upon rather than examined and, as mentioned earlier, the story will remind you of far deeper, richer works that cover similar ground.


So all in all Amongst the Stars is effective at what it sets out to do, though what it does has been done more effectively, and at length, many times before.

The book also comes with a back up strip in the form of Growing Pains. If you've ever read a 2000ad Terror Tale then you'll know exactly what you're in for here. It's a short, humorously told horror story with a grim twist at the end. It's a fun and unexpected addition to the end of the book, even if it does have practically nothing to do with the main plot.

                                        

Jack Harvey 2017. Amongst the Stars (c) 2015 Planet Jimbot. Images used under Fair Use.