Quiet Revolutions: The Capcom 5

I admittedly am not a hardcore videogame player. I own a PS3, which I solely bought because it was cheaper than the BluRay players on the market at the time and it is used almost solely to run Netflix and play PS2 Japanese action game collections. Even when I was younger, I was more interested in watching people play videogames. The first game I ever finished on my own was “Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.” That should tell you about enough about my personal experience.

That being said, like many middle class white people, I am a total Japanophile. My favorite games today are generally messes of otaku imagery (“Devil May Cry 3″), virtually incoherent conspiracy and crime games (“Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty,” “Yakuza 3″) and the insane brilliant dreams of developers who rarely care about a Western audience (“Catherine,” “Katamari Damacy,” “No More Heroes 2,” “Persona 4,” almost anything Square Atlus releases). As such, Nintendo remains a fascinating force in the way in which I understand Japan.

Yep.

Moreso than any other of the main videogame publishers, Nintendo was able to sell their own brand of  Japanese culture to a Western audience. Looking at their products strictly as are, products such as “The Legend of Zelda,” “Super Mario Bros. 3″ and particularly “Final Fantasy,” were all able to draw off the player’s imagination to fill in more of the cultural gaps that a Western audience  wouldn’t be able to catch onto. Nintendo was able to keep these core franchises as products that Western audiences would always be able to want more of. People bought Nintendo’s newer systems almost solely for these franchises, which ended up helping them to win the console wars with Sega.

Things changed in 1996. The much hyped release of the Nintendo 64 initially was able to make huge sales with games such as “Super Mario 64″ and “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” were able to hold sales steady but their refusal to upgrade their drive from a cartridge based system to a disc based one turned off may third party developers. Franchises that formerly were published by Nintendo, namely “Final Fantasy” jumped ship and began publishing games for Sony’s PlayStation. Other huge names such as Capcom and Konami vastly began solely publishing their larger franchises on the PlayStation where they had more room for improved graphics as well as larger games.

Creating this was worth Capcom jumping ship for.

Nintendo knew their next console had to run on a disc based system in order to pull in third party developers and the GameCube was meant to do that. Despite the smaller discs, the system was certainly easier to develop for and they were capable of creating some memorable games that took advantage of all the system’s capabilities.

Possibly the best looking game Nintendo has ever published.

That being said, in 2002, the GameCube was losing the newest console war with the PS2 and the XBox. Badly. They had sold around half a million copies of the console and there was almost no way for them to compete with Sony’s behemoth. Nintendo was looking for any and everyone that could help bail them out and Capcom answered with a plan, code-named “The Capcom 5.” Capcom announced their partnership with Nintendo that year, claiming that they intended to help boost GameCube sales by releasing a series of 5 titles solely for the console, each one intended to push what the system could do as well as what Capcom was capable of. What came out of the partnership was a little less than that and ended up almost dooming Nintendo.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to be hitting each game by the time of their intended release. I have played all of these games, with one notable exception, and will be giving my perspective, not as an experienced gamer, rather as a judge of what the experience was and what the intent of each experience was. Then, we’ll get into the moment when my favorite little purple box got fucked.

“P.N.03″ is an experience that I should probably have loved. Its from Shinji Mikami of “Devil May Cry” fame and takes a lot of cues from those classics, namely an over the top visual style and ridiculous, highly stylized gunplay but it is just morbidly unexciting. The protagonist jiggles her ass while she fires lasers, leaps and jumps around robots and blows her way through room after room of enemies. This is dull and repetitive, with times in which it feels downright unfinished. This is cyberpunk intended for the masses but there’s a reason it sold poorly and didn’t do much to jump-start Capcom’s collaboration.

The second game was more of a success but certainly one with some stipulations. Mikami-disciple, Hideki Kamija, who had also worked on “Devil May Cry” and would go on to direct “Bayonetta” and “Vanquish”  was back to work on “Viewtiful Joe,” a stylish, self-aware and utterly addictive side scrolling beat-’em-up homage to arcade games like “Double Dragon” and   “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time.” Joe is a nondescript protagonist who is sucked into a movie to save his girlfriend. There, he becomes a superhero, able to control the flow of time. He dodges bullets, slows down to deliver brutal beatdowns and speeds up to fly through his enemies. Making the game even more meta and satisfying is the ridiculous sound effects, namely a girl yelling “Just go for it!” every time a battle starts and the crowd cheering enthusiastically every time you unleash a particularly devastating combo. It is addictive, refreshing and unbelievably fun and it sold well too. Capcom’s initial release of 100,000 copies sold out almost immediately and it would go onto sell around 275,000. That being said, Capcom was not impressed with the sales, particularly not after they had attached such high profile talent to the game and after the critical and commercial failure of “P.N.03.” They had bigger hopes but there was only more failure to come.

I’m not alone in saying that I haven’t played “Dead Phoenix,” the third game of The Capcom 5. That’s because no one has played it. “Dead Phoenix,” originally a 3D shooter where players controlled an angel who fought demons and other assorted fantasy monsters was planned, teased and canned after it dropped off the map, with some believing that the engine was stolen and used on a revitalization of Nintendo’s “Kid Icarus” game. Since neither of those games were ever released, the amount of work that was done on “Dead Phoenix” is a little up in the air. A trailer was shown and some screenshots have floated around the Internet but the game dropped off the map, continually souring Nintendo’s hopes for sales.

That being said, I’ve played the shit out of the fourth game, as has nearly everyone that has picked up a controller in the last 10 years. This was Capcom’s hail-mary for the project. This was the one hope they had in selling units and helping Nintendo out of the hole. This was a revolution all to itself. This was “Resident Evil 4.”

I probably don’t need to tell you, the good informed reader, that “Resident Evil 4″ is incredible. It may be the game that has defined the last two console generations, integrating sublime over the shoulder 3rd person shooting, unobtrusive quick time events and seat gripping tension to a franchise that was formerly known for plodding point and click style problem solving. “Resident Evil 4″ turned down-on-his-luck cop Leon from “Resident Evil 2″ into a zombie killing master, popping heads into gory and ever so satisfying balls of red goo and making every enemy his bitch. With that came the ridiculously entertaining “Mercenaries” mode, where players tried to rack up the most kills in a row, slaughtering zombies and chainsaw wielding psychopaths until time ran out. Sure, the dialogue is cheesy as hell, the story at times, makes little to absolutely no sense (seriously, I have played this game about 4 times and I still don’t really know why they inject Leon with the plagos) and the graphics, while impressive, don’t stand up unbelievably well today but this game was a triumph and it showed exactly what the GameCube was capable of.

The creation of “Resident Evil 4″ is a story into and of itself but the basics are that Capcom desperately needed to revitalize the franchise and after trying out a haunted house vibe, filled with spectral beings and falling furniture, they abandoned the vision for a cultist filled zombie shoot-em-up, survival horror hybrid. While the first vision would go onto become “Devil May Cry” with the help of Kamija and Mikami, the first ended up being a horror ride that sold unbelievably well. Too well, in fact, but we’re going to get into that later.

Like many people who’ve played it, I have a lot, as well as very little, to say about the final game, “Killer7.” A stylish, first person shooter meets on rails clusterfuck of a game, director Suda51′s masterpiece is a glorious mindfuck, with mixed up identities, invisible undead creatures, post-modern themes, child slavery, wheel-chair bound men with sniper rifles and a whole bunch of shit most people wouldn’t believe.

“Killer7″ is insanely unnerving, riveting and undoubtedly difficult to explain, combining themes of neo-noir, corporate conspiracy, otaku, James Bond and globalization into a story that surprisingly holds together, even when the unintuitive controls don’t. It’s a game for those with a taste of the surreal, similar to the “Metal Gear Solid” series as a game that works better for those who prefer to watch and experience a game rather than rush through it. All of this has made it one of the biggest cult successes of gaming, with fans all over the world eagerly awaiting ever release from Suda51.

So, with an instant classic, two fantastic games and only a pair of duds, how did the Capcom 5 go so unbelievably wrong for Nintendo? Well, Capcom got greedy. Really, really greedy. This isn’t a story about games flopping. This is a story about a company permanently ruining itself by killing off third party support.

Capcom saw the success of “Resident Evil 4″ and “Viewtiful Joe” and saw a market for the extremely Japanese “Killer7″ for those with access to Sony’s platform and ported their games over to the PS2. None of the games held up as well, with “Resident Evil 4″ particularly showing a noticeable drop in textures as well as graphics and the control scheme of “Killer7″ becoming particularly more difficult to use. For the most part, it panned out for Capcom. After “Resident Evil 4″ sold around 1.6 million copies on the GameCube, they raised that number to well over 2 million copies on the PS2, with gamers not caring a bit over the drop in quality of the title. “Viewtiful Joe” was also able to sell even more copies, bolstering the audience, giving the studio an opportunity to make a sequel and leading to the rise of a short-lived and pretty terrible anime based on the property. This left “P.N.03″ the only Nintendo exclusive of the bunch and those guys were pissed. Really, really pissed.

Every game of The Capcom 5 had proven that the GameCube was unprofitable, with Capcom porting over each of the games to other systems almost immediately after they were completed. This flew in the face of Capcom’s earlier announcements that the games would be exclusives, particularly the highly anticipated release of “Resident Evil 4.” Capcom had found that the secret to success in a highly diversified market was focusing on multi-platform releases, banking on the fact that their beloved properties could sell much better to an audience that had any number of consoles instead of the one that was perpetually in last place. Nintendo learned that they would never truly trust Capcom again.

Nintendo may rightfully have viewed Capcom’s action as a betrayal. By the end of the console war, the Gamecube had only ended up selling 22 million copies, even less than the Nintendo 64 and only a fraction of the PS2′s 150 million copies. Relationships were permanently soured with Capcom and Nintendo flat out refused to release many of the developers games on the platform and even on the Wii. One of the most brutal moments of Nintendo’s callousness was when third party characters were announced for Nintendo’s landmark fighting game “Super Smash Bros. Brawl,” Nintendo refused to allow any Capcom characters in the game, instead choosing Konami’s Solid Snake and former rival SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog. To this day, relations with Capcom have been rough and it can be difficult to find any of the developer’s games available for the Wii or even on the Virtual Console, the re-release of “Resident Evil 4″ being the most notable exception.

The Capcom Five was Nintendo’s failed experiment in depending on a third party to prop up a failing console and it was Capcom’s chance to prove themselves in a market where they were producing some of the most innovative games around. It’s a shame that the companies are still on such poor terms but recent 3DS games such as “Resident Evil Revelations” may prove that there is hope for two of the titans of innovation to once again work together on something great.

Happy Birthday, “Slanted and Enchanted!”

Some times, I see people I haven’t seen in years and I’m amazed that they’re, y’know, older. Some times, I go through my DVD and CD collection and see movies that are, y’know, older and it’s just amazing to me. “The Matrix” is 13 fucking years old! Can you believe that shit?

Watch it again. It still looks incredible.

That being said, there’s one that struck me unbelievably. Is it because they’re possibly my favorite band of all time and it’s their first album, possibly the best thing they ever recorded? Is it because it defined the sound of a genre? Is it because it created indie rock in the ’90s? Is it because it has gotten me out of more dark funks than almost any other record, although it may have the greatest suicide song ever on it?

All of these things are probably true but I still have to revel over the fact that Pavement’s “Slanted and Enchanted” turned 20 years old on Friday.

You better believe that I sat in my bedroom around 1 a.m., drinking heavily and cranking this shit until the people living above me started stomping and yelling. “Slanted and Enchanted” is one of the best albums of all time and if you haven’t listened to it yet, what the fuck is stopping you?

When most bands at the time were still busy trying to live in the glory anything-goes-days of ’80s indie rock, Pavement wasn’t willing to be weird for the sake of being challenging. It is really hard to go back and trace Pavement or Stephen Malkmus’ influences and it;s much more simplistic and valuable to simply trace what inspired the group. Namely, California, garage rock, surfing, weed, booze, the sea and self-loathing. Past that, it’s clear the group had been inspired to some degree by the success of college radio, namely R.E.M and Smashing Pumpkins, going so far as to namedrop the latter in their second album, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.”

Pavement became most famous for Malkmus’ ability to bend and twist lyrics, creating words that rapidly become mazes. What can start as a simple love song is sure ot morph into an ode to summer, a sorrowful look at a girl who doesn’t have a future or a way to escape the feelings that haunt you every day.

Malkmus wasn’t always this indirect. On the particularly obvious ode to R.E.M., “Zurich is Stained,” he croons, “you think it’s easy but you’re wrong/ I am not one half of the problem/ Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault/ just hold me back or let me run,” the themes and intention could not be more clear. It’s rare to see Malkmus this honest and the song’s lighthearted sense of escape is what makes it such a memorable, albeit short track.

That being said, Malkmus at his most honest and most memorable is “Here.” It’s the most memorable, maybe most well known track from the album and pretty much was on every depressed teenaged kid’s walkman in the mid-1990s. “Here” is unapologetically a suicide song, from the first lyric, “I was dressed for success/ but success it never comes,” you’re definitely in for a a bleak look at a tortured soul. What’s interesting about “Here” is the way that Malkmus pleas for attention. The memorable line, “I’m the only one who laughs/ at your jokes when they are so bad/ and your jokes, they’re always bad/ come join us in a prayer/ we’ll be waiting, waiting there,” is a cry for attention from a man who knows he’s not going to get noticed. It’s an achingly beautiful track and certainly one that would define the band’s image (that is, until “Cut Your Hair”).

“Slanted and Enchanted” was an album that didn’t set out to revolutionize anything. This was an album made by guys who knew what they wanted to make, knew what they wanted to sound like and knew what their image should be. It’s such a fully realized album and such a sweeping, well thought out statement that it can be hard to deny the power of the laid back, sun-baked look at lives and loves lost on an emptying beach.

Album À la Carte: “Volume One,” “Volume Two” and “A Very She & Him Christmas”

One of the criticisms that has been leveled at me by many people (readers who hate my writing, readers who hate my opinions, my mother, a variety of mental health experts, women I’ve dated, people on “The X-Files” comment boards, additional women I haven’t dated and a variety of professors that have nothing but my well being in mind), is that I hate joy. This simply isn’t the case. I just happen to hate unearned, frivolous, mindless joy. Joy needs to be earned, needs to be celebrated and should be found in the exemplary moments of life.

That’s why Zooey Deschanael bothers me so much. She’s the embodiment of excitable twee-ness, mostly by choice. While Michael Cera’s role as the lovable, goofy, awkward hipster kid was mostly put on him by producers and casting agents, Zooey sought out the role, becoming the embodiment of what it means to be the image of millenial faux-uniqueness.

I think that’s what at least partially gave birth to She & Him, Deschanael’s collaboration with folk singer-songwriter M. Ward. I think to some degree, she was trying to escaper her public image, show that she could stretch herself and also to continue to show off that she could in fact sing after “Elf.”

M. Ward was certainly an accomplished guy before the collaboration and he remains so, with meandering, soulful folk hits, a distinctive but soothingly memorable voice and songwriting that many of his contemporaries could only envy.

The collaboration between the two began over email, with the primary musical influence being the ’60s California music scene and 2008′s “Volume One” shows it. This isn’t the folk or soul that M. Ward’s fans were used to, it’s the sound of usually well thought out vanity that doesn’t feel unearned.

I rather like “Volume One,” particularly going through the hits (the cover of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is a rare low point). Deschanel sounds like a great beach karaoke singer, which in no terms is meant to be an insult. She deeply gets the music and this may be a symptom of the album being recorded separately. There’s a sense of honest collaboration but Deschanel makes M. Ward’s songs hers. Once again, not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination and the two proved they could work together when they toured the album.

“Volume One” was a smash with critics and pleased a lot of fans as well, which inevitably leads to a second album. Oh yeah, it’s a double-mother-fuckin’-triple feature in Album À la Carte, y’all! Don’t say I’m not a crowd pleaser. This is the gift that keeps giving! Get some!

Before we get there though, we’re going to have to look at how M. Ward was influenced by his first collaboration with the Manic-Pixie-Dream Girl made flesh. Collaborating in folk supergroup Monsters of Folk (which will probably get the Album À la Carte treatment in the future) and released another solo album in February of 2009, “Hold Time.” Although the album received most of the attention for his earlier collaboration with Deschanel and two of her appearances on songs, “Hold Time” is at minimum, an album worthy of analysis on its own merits.

“Hold Time” is all of what makes M. Ward into an artist to recognize, mixed with some of the experimental tendencies that he picked up working on other collaborations. Sure, some of the songs are a little distracting with their guest stars, particularly in Deschanel and Lucinda Williams, however, it all manages to hold together well enough. Ward mixes the classic folk lyrics that he manages to work so well with and combine it with the sounds of electro influenced beach rock. It holds together remarkably well.

Which brings us to “Volume Two.” It bares mentioning that this album was almost solely put together because of how well received the first one was and how well Ward and Deschanel were received while touring in support of “Volume One.” That being said, Deschanel was receiving even more attention than other based on her appearance in “500 Days of Summer.” For me, the album’s release was strictly capitalistic but, as far as, twee pop albums go, it’s almost worth a listen for a variety of not-always compelling reasons.

The thing that’s immediately noticeable about “Volume Two” is the diversity of voices. Even from the first track, M. Ward lends his voice to the chorus, giving a slightly more ethereal quality to the track, especially as Deschanel tries her hardest to do an impression of soul. It’s not that she’s reaching but on the whole, she’s going for something decidedly less light hearted than the always snappy pop of “Volume One.” Tilly and the Wall also makes an appearance on “Volume Two” in the album’s single, “In the Sun.”

“In the Sun” is the most notable album off the album, the primary force that drove the album unexpectedly to #6 on the Billboard Top 200. It’s interesting to compare this song to the breakout hit of “Volume One,” which I would pick as “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here.” There, Deschanel frolics her way through Beach Boys inspired chords and a hyper saccharine vocal performance. Here, Deschanel channels that sweet, flirty, innocent pop of days now long gone. It’s the kind of song designed to make listeners feel nostalgic for a day they weren’t alive for and the very cute “Grease” meets “Breakfast Club” inspired music video suits it wonderfully. This is infectious indie pop at it’s best and barring the hysterical screen cap, its one of the best music videos since Feist’s “1234.”

Really, the record only stumbles when it falls back a little hard on what the group had done before. “Don’t Look Back” is far too close to being “Change is Hard” and “This is Not a Test” from “Volume One” and they stumble a lot because of it. That being said, songs such as “Lingering Still” takes it’s time mixing South American guitar and chorus/verse/chorus song structure that fits the lyrics wonderfully and “Ridin’ in My Car” is a wonderful homage to original song writers NRBQ, The Beach Boys and, oddly, The Pretenders.

Throughout the album, there’s a sense of pouty sadness. Deschanel is putting on a brave face, kissing off guys she misses on “Get Along Without You Now,” trying to deal with how she feels on “I’m Going to Make it Better” and remembering how heartbreak feels on “Over it Over Again.” It’s not a sad record and I think Deschanel wrote the songs predominantly to fit into the musical themes Ward was working on and that she was playing to her strengths, but it is certainly noticeable. It particularly makes “Home,” an ode to the promised land of surfers, a place “where your heart is home” and people who apparently clap together all the time, something that really stands out on the record.

As a whole, “Volume Two” is an album in the midst of something of an identity crisis. On one hand, M. Ward was giving a lot of great, very compelling beach rock odes to work with while Deschanel squanders many of them on not unbelievably compelling covers and lazy pop song writing. it’s still listenable and I think the album is much more interesting than “Volume One” but their earlier album certainly holds up as a cohesive package considerably better.

So, what do you do to follow up a wildly compelling second album after a critically and culturally beloved first record? Why, you follow in the noble footsteps as notable not-sell-out Hanson and release a Christmas album! What else could possibly show your artistic integrity.

Even moreso than “Volume Two,” “A Very She & Him” Christmas” feels very much like Deschanel’s vanity gone wild. It’s full with her at her most lounge-singer/Tinkerbell worst, yet it often works in spite of itself. I’m one of those guys who can’t stand even vaguely sexualized versions of Christmas carols, yet I kind of love what she does on “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.”

That being said, I really enjoy when the pair go back to what made “Volume Two” so compelling. At a couple of points, M. Ward takes a more active role in the sound of the group. He does a little bit of backup singing early in the record but he and Deschanel perform an enchanting call and response style sound on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that recalls Sinatra, if only he’d grown up in northern Kentucky.

What doesn’t work, as usual, is when Deschanel steps out of her comfort zone and you can tell M. Ward knows she’s not working. When Deschanel tries to channel ’50s lounge acts on some of the more classic songs, M. Ward is virtually invisible, contributing nothing more than lightly twinkling guitars and not a lick of vocals. Instead, he lets us cringe through often testing versions of Deschanel slurring her way through classic tunes.

My favorite song comes late in the record and it’s not even one of their best. Deschanel and M. Ward end up paying tribute to one of the group’s most direct influences with a cover of The Beach Boys’ classic “Lil’ Saint Nick” and although Deschanel can’t keep up with Brian Wilson’s elaborate composition, they do an admirable job putting their own spin on an iconic track.

“A Very She & Him Christmas” is a wildly unnecessary album but if you like the group as is, it can be worth a look. This isn’t wildly offensive in any way or even vaguely pretentious, it just is what it is. You know exactly what you’re going to get and they goddamn give it to you.

So, that’s She & Him in the entirety. I feel like someone shot pixie dust directly into my mouth. All in all, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s collaboration may have been a lark but the massive success proves rightly that they have chops when working together. M. Ward’s newly released record continues to show off his willingness to experiment and Zooey is, well, she’s on a slightly above average Fox sitcom. Also, she recorded this…

Goddamn, I have to wash this glitter out of my ears. I’m going to listen to nothing but Sonic Youth for the next couple of days and hope to god I can recover. This was far too much twee for one post.

Giving a shot in the arm to a dead drone

“The Office” has been sort of a punching bag for anyone who loves television. Originally descending from the exceptional British show, “The Office” was originally a romantic, sweet, funny look at the world of dull cubicle life. It was something anyone who has sat and stared at a wall could associate with and enjoy. It helped make the single camera sitcom into a mainstay on American television and for three seasons, it was one of the most watchable shows on television.

Then things started slipping and they went straight down the hill. Season 4 is decidedly one of the worst seasons of television to come out in the last decade and things strangely never recovered. Season 7 was little more than fan service and wish fulfillment and Season 8 struggled to find a compelling plot line without Michael Scott or a decent relationship to care about. I, like many fans, couldn’t keep watching it. Things had become embarrassingly bad, with most of the characters becoming little more than exaggerated cartoons and the romantic relationship between Andy and Erin couldn’t have been less compelling.

So, I was hoping to see “The Office” finally be put out of it’s misery. With most of the actors seeing their contracts finally running dry and others seeing new opportunities on the television landscape, it seemed like the perfect time to kill the show. That being said, there are now rumors that the show will be revamped with a brand new set of characters replacing those that are leaving.

I mean, there’s hope that things could change here. “The Office” has always had good luck introducing new characters when needed. Karen and Andy were both great additions to the show’s cast in Season 3 and the addition of minor characters like Charles in Season 5, David Wallace in Season 3 or Holly in Season 4. The problem is that it’s not always easy to add another player into a long running show.

The annals of television history are littered with shows that tried to add late run characters into the mix, only to fan backlash. Commonly called “Cousin Oliver Syndrome,” inspired by the obnoxious eponymous “Brady Bunch” character, these additions usually serve as little more than a last breath for a show. Characters such as Romo Lampkin from “Battlestar Galactica,” Dawn from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Agents Doggett and Reyes from “The X-Files” or Coy and Vance from a reference that no one else probably understands or remembers.

Alright, I kind of do actually like Doggett.

If it was up to me, in case you thought it actually was or that my opinion really mattered, “The Office” would have better luck resetting the whole story, like an anthology. “American Horror Story” boldly made the decision to do the same and it’ll be better able to maintain it’s inspired incoherent madness by doing that. Similarly, “The Office” could really benefit from trading in the entire cast, finding new, compelling stories and building off of a base that wasn’t corrupted by seasons of abuse of the characters and audience intelligence.

Quiet Revolutions: X-Force

There are few names in the comics world that draw such universal ire as Rob Liefeld. Just writing his name hurts my fucking hands. Liefeld was a longtime artist for Marvel before he was given a hold of X-Force, one of God knows how many spinoffs of X-Men, where he developed such characters as the wise-cracking Deadpool and the perpetually steroid choked Cable, a time traveling murderer who’s fighting for the future of mutant kind.

Under Liefeld, X-Force was a massive hit in the early ’90s, although for myself and plenty of other fans, it was viewed as one of the worst books Marvel has released ever.

This isn’t a backlash against something that was successful or something that didn’t meet expectation. This was a backlash against something that was the absolute worst thing that had happened to comics since the Spider-Man clone saga, since the death of Superman and since Jason Todd’s illicit, fan decried murder.

We’re going to need a little more background information to truly flesh out what is so wrong with all of this. It’s just a character, right? Deadpool is kind of popular and beloved, what’s so wrong with all of this? Well, I’m going to fucking tell you. This isn’t one of those friendly Quiet Revolutions where I talk about some dude or dudette who made something great and changed pop culture in a minor but noticeable way. This is one about a guy who almost ruined comic books forever and who’s damage is still being repaired.

And he’s still getting fucking work.

By the early ’80s, comics had a problem. The initial fan base for the medium was growing up, wanting more mature books that they could associate with rather than the whiz-bang whimsy that was being produced. Although still hampered by the Comics Code which restricted some violence as well as drug content in the medium, DC and Marvel both made deals with the government to produce more mature books that would speak on social issues. DC published the now infamous Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossover “Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” where it was revealed that the Green Arrow’s sidekick was addicted to heroin. This, along with the publishing of “Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” are commonly cited as the beginning of the Bronze Age of Comics. Characterized by over the top violence, drug related content, horror, gore and occasional dips into philosophy or character motivation, the Bronze Age marked something of a low point for many publishers as they all scrambled to put out the edgiest, darkest and grittiest books possible.

DC had plenty of problems making the jump into the Bronze Age (check out some ’80s issues of Batman if you need proof) but Marvel really struggled. Marvel had been the real pioneering force of the Silver Age, with imaginative, goofy and often fun blockbuster titles. Readers, however, were jumping ship and they needed to prove that they could compete with DC in creating a book for a more mature reader.

We all know that gun is making up for something.

In 1989, Marvel thought they found a solution. Plucking rising artist Rob Liefeld off of his work on “New Mutants,” they allowed him to revamp the title, adding characters, changing the team and creating a book that would define the ’90s. I once again want to stress that none of this was a good thing.

The main star here was Cable, the summation of everything that is Rob Liefeld. He’s a muscle head, a shoot-first ask-questions-never soldier from the future and he didn’t give half a shit what the rest of the world thought. Speaking about the creation of Cable, Liefeld said, “I was given a directive to create a new leader for the New Mutants. There was no name, no description besides a ‘man of action’ the opposite of Xavier. I created the look, the name, much of the history of the character. After I named him Cable, Bob suggested Quinn and Louise had Commander X.”

In all honesty, not a bad idea in conception. X-Men needed the shot in the arm of this kind of action but goddamn the rest of that quote is just painful to read and it speaks volumes to the laziness of the creative team behind the title. None the less, “X-Force” became one of Marvel’s best selling titles, with some numbers stating that it was outselling “Amazing Spider-Man,” an unprecedented success for the company.

Before we take the next step, we’re going to have to discuss the art in “X-Force” and more importantly, Liefeld’s style as a whole. Now, I’m not a big art guy in comics. I don’t want to see anything going for photo-realism or things that are more of the popcorny, crowd pleasing stuff. I like comic art to be symbolic, rife with detail and showing a general care for what’s being displayed. For reference, the below picture is one of my favorite pages of any comic ever.

Hellblazer #1, 1988: Hunger” – Constantine deals with a demon summoning heroin junky who may have unleashed an ancient and terrible Sumerian god on London. It’s a hell of a first issue.

Liefeld isn’t a fan of this kind of elegant, horrifying simplicity. It’s hard to classify his art style because almost no one ever did anything like him before. His characters are covered in lines, seemingly in an attempt to show character age or brow furrowedness (?), everyone has an absolute fuck ton of belt pouches, he has no idea what the female body looks like and no one has feet that look normal. Seriously.

Look at the size of that fucking gun! And how many fucking pouches do you goddamn need? How big are Cable’s arms?What’s coming out of Deadpool’s back? Oh, God…
Where are the feet? Why is his package so prominently displayed? Why is his costume a turtle neck with a hood? Why is there so much wrong here?

Sure, we’re just kind og beating up on his art but it does at least suit the books. Things are Xtreme with a capital “X” and we’re supposed to love it because of it but it just doesn’t really work for me. The problem was, Liefeld thought this was all his, especially as “X-Force” continued to do better and better. When he didn’t feel like he was getting payed enough, he left Marvel and that’s when the revolution really started and the damage got intense.

Liefeld went on to form Image Comics with some of his buddies from Marvel, primarily to deal in creator owned comics that could be as gritty as possible. He took most of the hot young talent from Marvel and formed a group that would give us such great works of art as this.

A bullet that can both shoot someone’s eye through their skull as well as knock their head off.

The big success story of Image was Spawn. Todd McFarlane had come with Liefeld and his anti-hero from hell was a huge success, sparking some of the highest sales for a first issue that the industry had ever seen. The massive sales of Spawn quickly launched a bust comic market, with non-fans buying and selling issues rapidly, devaluing almost everything in their path. The bottom of the industry rapidly began to drop out as no one was holding onto anything but Image kept pumping out book after book. Liefeld has gone on record as saying that “Youngbloods” was a mess and he can’t entirely be blamed for how the bottom dropped out of the industry, but he pressed hard to pump out books that virtually demanded people keep buying. It’s a tricky area and I can’t really blame him for what he did but it’s hard to look at him in a favorable light.

Liefeld would go on to leave Image comics behind over creative disputes but the company would go on and a variety of artists would be inspired by what he did. the biggest of Liefeld’s disciples would follow all of his master’s worst tendencies while offering almost nothing of his own. His name is Mark Millar and he’s almost a worse asshole than Liefeld.

Millar was probably always more of a golden boy of the industry than Liefeld. His “Superman: Red Sun” was a hit for DC and he continued to release graphic novels to critical acclaim, most notably “Wanted” and “Kick-Ass.” The problem here, is that Millar is a psychopath. It’s the worst sort of Gen-Y garbage imaginable, with predominantly male protagonists aggressively acting out their violent fantasies, often on women. It’s essentially escapist frat-guy comics at their worst. For the love of god, “Wanted” ends with the line “suck my fucking dick,” spoken directly to the audience.

It’s easy to hate Liefeld but it’s hard not to respect the guy. He openly admits that his success is mostly from buying into the zeitgeist and has openly compared his fame to that of Britney Spears. He’s skeezy, has stolen art from others, at one point used Image to promote his own imprint and inspired a creator that I have a personal vendetta against. That being said, Image paved the way for “The Walking Dead” and published my all time favorite comic series, “Astro City.” Liefeld’s truest contribution was opening comics up to the moment, giving people exactly what they wanted, perhaps while not even knowing what it was they needed. He defined the look and feel of comics in the ’90s and is hated more than anyone else in the business. He definitively proved that in a medium as visual as comics, you don’t need to show anybody anything special.

But, I’m canceling my Grifter subscription this month.

I should sleep more but until then, how about some meandering thoughts about death (in comics)

I’ve written a little about my spattering of bizarre habits, particularly some intense bouts of insomnia mixed with the rich and frothy taste of self loathing. Currently, I’m in my 28th hour of consciousness, awaiting the light hallucinations that start to affect those that make it to around hour 30.

This isn’t a pity party at all. When I tell people that this is something that I just sort of do, they’re often confused. It’s not a choice I make, it’s just something that happens as a result of something like a thousand of other factors and I deal with it. Plus. it gives me a convenient extra eight to nine hours of time to watch shit that no one has any possible need to watch. For example, last night, I watched an entire season of the rarely remembered “X-Men: Evolution,” a weirdly anachronistic take on the origin stories of the iconic characters, by trying to remain faithful to some of the stranger intricacies of the comics all while trying to make a slighly soapy high school drama. It’s most notable for how weird Magneto looks and how oddly sexualized the 14 year-old Kitty Pryde is.

I had to wade through tons of DeviantArt porn to find this.

I think I’ve stated here before that I was never much of a Marvel fan growing up. I’m a steadfast DC Comics fan and the X-Men books always seemed so dense, loaded with characters and filled with back stroy. Spider-Man was really easy to jump into, something that was simple and easy to care about. You could associate with Peter Parker as a character and the connection between he and his alter-ego felt right. It was strong enough to support the sometimes far too Silver Age inspired stories.

That being said, I’ve been reading some of the X-Men books lately and some of it is probably worth reading. I always enjoyed the landmark maxi-series “Civil War” but most of the X-Men, other than Cable and Bishop and a few members of the New Mutants, don’t even show up in the series proper. I went back and read “House of M” after that and goddamn is that a totally different beast.

Without getting into the plot, mostly because people I come in contact with rarely care at all about comics anywhere near as much as I do, “House of M” manages the tricky balancing act of telling an X-Men story that almost any comics fan could understand. I don’t give half a shit about the New Avengers, Hawkeye or Magneto’s extended family but it reads like a book that doesn’t care if you understand or not. That’s always been one of Brian Michael Bendis’ strengths. Unlike his DC counterpart, Geoff Johns, Bendis really understands the way that the characters are almost more of an icon than a hero and he is able to play with what makes them so special, without pandering to those who haven’t heard of the characters. By doing this, he can make anyone understand the devastating finale to the story and engage in the personal struggles well known characters, such as Wolverine, have to face when coming up against what may be the end of the mutant race.

Contrast that with Geoff Johns’ latest huge project, DC’s “Blackest Night.” Although “Brightest Day” may have been his more recent series, “Blackest Night” stands out more as it was his first chance to truly influence the greater universe after proving himself on several beloved series, namely Green Lantern.

Unlike “House of M,” “Blackest Night” is kind of a mess that fans either love or hate. Here, it’s all for hardcore DC fans. If you don’t know all of the ramifications of “Identity Crisis,” haven’t heard of little known characters such as The Elongated Man and the Atom or weren’t able to whether Grant Morrison’s twisting, alternate-universe laden, New Gods killing, oddly focused on Frankenstein epic “Final Crisis,” almost every sentence of the thing isn’t going to make a lick of sense. Hurting things even further, classic heroes that even non fans are familiar with are regulated to roles as zombies or corpses, with Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Kyle Radnor, Zatanna and Resurrection Man playing major roles. It’s a good thing the art is rock solid or this would be barely worth skimming over for someone who wanted to get into the guys and gals in tights.

This is one of the most coherent images of the whole series. It's also in the preview issue. It also only makes the bare minimum amount of sense.

I don’t want to bash Johns. He’s a writer who really understands how to work a big, bombastic story, particularly in the Green Lantern universe and he’s proving how talented he can be on his current titles, even “Aquaman,” but here, it all feels just really wrong. For example, “Identity Crisis” is one of my favorite series of comics ever. It’s smart, exceedingly well written and pencilled, dynamic and doesn’t seek to change everything about the DC Universe just for shits and giggles. It’s telling a small story about the sacrifices family make in order to live with heroes they are and aren’t related to, it’s about the men and women who stand behind those who wear the mask and it’s about the sacrifices people have to make in order to defend the greater good. It’s heady stuff, maybe not perfect for non comics fans but it layers stories and symbols onto what’s already a deeply compelling package.

I know this is rambling but we’re getting to my real problem with “Darkest Night” and it’s one that I’ve been thinking through since the books debuted a couple of years ago. Death has always been one of the biggest jokes in comic book history. Ever since the now infamous “Death of Superman” arc, fans have joked that killing off comic book characters has always just been a stop-gap before their inevitable return. It was true for Jason Todd, it was true for Superman, it was true for the Flash and more recently, it was true for The Human Torch. Hell, a really funny dude who wrote a pretty alright movie even made a docu-comedy about it. It’s definitely worth a watch although some of his facts are a little off but it’s way too funny if you’re into pop criticism.

“Blackest Night” tried to acknowledge the emptiness of the threat of death in comics by wantonly having characters come back to life, only to get murdered again and again and again as zombies. Fuck, Marvel had done it with the oh-so-shitty “Marvel Zombies” series and DC was willing to bet on it too. The problem DC had with this, however, was respect.

As Sue dies in her husband’s arms in the first issue of “Identity Crisis”, we’re greeted with a haunting image. The Elongated Man, unable to control his powers, wraps his flaccid body around his wife as his gelatinous jaw unhooks from his mouth. He looks feral, out of control and deeply, deeply wounded. Sue’s murder feels permanent. It’s a turning point for so many characters and it is one of the few images, along with the death of Jean Grey in “Dark Phoenix” and the image of Dr. Light’s crimes, also in “Identity Crisis,” that truly moves past the medium. This is haunting stuff and it’s emotional, regardless of your connection to the characters.

That’s what makes this feel so wrong, so deeply uncaring. The zombified Elongated Man attacks Hawkman and Hawkwoman with his zombified ex-wife (who is inexplicably wielding a bloody spear) and murders the hell out of the partners. It looks cool, yes, but as soon as I took a second to remember what I loved about all of these characters, I felt betrayed. I know the point of “Blackest Night” was to look at the way death changes our perceptions of people and events and I know that because of this, I’m meant to feel betrayed by the fact that friends are trying to murder each other. More than that, it feels so wrong to force these characters into situations like this. It’s not emotionally devastating, it’s emotionally manipulative.

If you’ve made it this far, leave me a comment about artists respecting characters and fiction. I’m going to try to get some damn sleep.

Mad Men: “The Dating Game” : There’s a bad moon on the rise for the men and women of SCDP

Holy shit.

That’s all I really had to say about last night’s “Mad Men.” It’s not because of the murder sequence, which telegraphed itself far too much with off kilter camera angles and the regrettable shoving of the corpse under the bed. For me, this was all because of the ways we fear who we are, regardless of how much we want to change. For me, it made for one of my favorite episodes of “Mad Men.” Ever.

Let’s start with Don. He’s really shoved off to the side this week with a fever and after spotting one of his former conquests in the company’s elevator, he’s haunted by it, only a little less than Megan. After he goes home, his fever breaks and he slips into a series of dreams, all showcasing his inner turmoil. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think “Mad Men” has ever done dream sequences particularly well. Often resorting to far too obvious symbolism or having characters explicitly say what’s on their minds (Betty’s drug addled vision while she gives birth to Gene is a particularly odious example), and this was no exception. Don’s woman constantly knows what he wants and is able to break him down, forcing him to remember the pleasure that he took in betraying Betty. Don is a man that at one point fundamentally needed to cheat on his wife and as hard as he’s trying to stay honest to Megan, it appears that it is inevitable that he can stay honest. Who knows if he even wants to? Shoving the body under the bed works wonders in showing that he barely cares. Don has never been horribly interested in keeping his affairs behind closed doors and here, he revels in the pleasure of his power, even if he panics at the chaos he has wrought.

A drunken Peggy is trying to maintain who she is, but she might be slipping. She’s just barely putting up with the work Roger is unfairly throwing at her, the extra responsibility she has in creative and the way people are starting to see her as a symbol. Taking Dawn back to her apartment as the Speck murders have everyone scared, she drinks heavily and her insecurities start tumbling out. She tries to connect to Dawn, based almost solely on how she as once a stigmatized character at Sterling, Cooper all before the bombshell of her wondering if she wants to keep living the way she does. She doesn’t want to be a woman trying to be a man. At some point, Peggy wants to just be happy and it is the sole thing that separates her from the man Don Draper has become.

I think my previous “Mad Men” related entries have probably made it abundantly, creepily clear how interested I am in the development of Sally Draper as a character and this is why. While she starts the episode pelucvant, rude and not as grown up as she would like to be, she challenges her grandmother, eventually learns about the murders and finds out that she might not quite be ready to be the adult she wants to be. The image of her lying under the bed is a telling one and it is handled much better than the echoing image that appears in Don’s story.

Uncharacteristically, the real star of the episode is Joan. Christina Hendricks hinted that Joan would play a much bigger role this season than she had before and it is episodes like this that show why she needs to. As fans of the show, I don’t think any of us were hiding under the illusion that Joan and Greg would stay together for long. He’s always been a character that’s hard to see a silver lining in, whether in his piss poor doctor skills, flightiness, or the fact that y’know, he’s a rapist. The writing’s been on the wall for a long time and Joan takes command here. After Greg returns from his first tour, only for Joan to find out that he’s volunteered to go back, she throws him out of the house, even referencing the rape from Season 2. This is Joan at her most powerful and although it may hint towards a little more of a relationship between her and Roger, the independent Joan is the one that I would like to see much, much more of.

What made “Mystery Date” so perfect was the way that all of these character interactions reflected off the central theme of not knowing who an individual is or what they are capable of. While Sally is forced to deal with the very real and very topical threat of a killer who seems to have no motive, Don has to deal what he just may be capable of, Peggy fights back against an identity that she’s cultivated and may no longer want and Joan finally defeats the threat she always knew but wasn’t able to face. Ultimately, it’s a perfect example of what the show has done in some of it’s other great episodes such  as “Three Sundays,” “Maidenform” and “The Jet Set.” It’s “Mad Men” firing on all of its symbolic cylinders and it makes for great, unbelievably compelling television.

Album À la Carte: “Break Up”

When I originally came up with the Album À la Carte project, the focus was almost solely going to be on celebrity vanity projects. I didn’t want to do side projects as much as pithy reviews of the shitty records that people put out when no one else cares about what they’re doing. Whether it’s Shaquille O’Neal’s rap album, Macho Man Randy Savage’s groundbreaking album or any of the other pieces of garbage that the marginally famous people put out.

Scarlet Johanson has been one that fascinated me in particular. She released “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” an atrocious album full of Tom Waits covers in the late 2000s, pissing off pretty much everyone that it came across and it was the epitome of the vanity project. While publications such as “Rolling Stone” were far too willing to give the album the credit that advertisers demand people like me who actually have, y’know taste and respect for Tom Waits, thought it was weak, limp and poorly though out.

For her second album, she decided to fiver her work some level of respect among music fans, recruiting beige indie favorite Pete Yorn to add vocals and music to her work. It was a solid combination. Yorn is a talented guy and he manages to do a lot with a little. That being said, it’s nothing particularly special.

“Break Up” was the result of their combination. Coming out several years after it’s recording in 2007, the album already felt like a lark and Yorn describing the collaboration as “Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg” made the whole thing sound moefully more pretentious than intended. That being said, they did capture both the sound and the style of bouncy ’60s French pop and were able to create something unique.

I really enjoy most of “Break Up,” a;though it feels very inconsequential. It’s actively poppy, fluffy and grating at times, but unexpectedly it all sort of ends up working. I enjoy the sound of people making what they want to, even if it doesn’t feel like something that should be celebrated. The album doesn’t feel like something that has to or demands to be listened to but here, that’s not a bad thing. Where Johanson demanded attention by covering the dissonant sounds of Tom Waits, here, she doesn’t care if you watch her frolick.

Listeners are going to take what they want from “Break Up.” for some, it’s a thoughtful look at the complicated feelings that are still present as a relationship implodes. The sense of lust, loss and words left unsaid all populate the lyrics and the jangling pop compliments the bitterness well. This isn’t required listening but it is interesting, well made, comfortingly experimental music made for anyone to get into.

Pete Yorn hasn’t dramatically expanded his work sense “Break Up,” but some of the studio work that populates his collaboration with Scarlet Johanson is apparent on his self-titled 2010 album. There’s plenty of echo, smart twinkling guitar and tight vocals. I think he benefitted a lot by having a female singer to comliment his dstinct vocals, but he succeeds well enough on his own.

Like I’ve said, I enjoy “Break Up” and it’s worth a listen, even if it’s not a particularly active listen. It’s a fun tribute to a style that hasn’t been popular in a long time and the sexy playfulness of Yorn and Johanson’s style is worth listening ot for even the most cynical of romantics.

I know “Star Trek: Enterprise” and “First Contact” sucked, but come on…

If you’re a huge Trek nerd, like me, you know that today, April 5 as the future anniversary of the first contact between humans and the Vulcan race. After having developed the warp drive. Zephram Cochrane would lead the human race in their first alien contact, prepping them for the development of the United Federation of Planets and ignoring some time warping Borg.

Did you know that there are women that occasionally want to be around me?

So, let’s celebrate this one moment of fake nerd nonexistent history by doing what we always do, posting inane stuff on the internet. But yeah, check this  shit out.

Going Your Own Way…to prop up the corpse

One of my favorite things about watching a show slowly die is the desperate struggle to keep it on the air. Usually, writers resort to broadening the humor, trying to provide fan service, or, regrettably, aggressively awful stunt casting to try to drive up interest. My beloved “Up All Night” has been trying this for the last couple of weeks, pulling everyone from Henry Winkler, Stevie Nicks and Sharon Osbourne. It’s troublesome but it can be fun, or so producers believe.

The king of this was “Full House.” Struggling in it’s first season to find an audience, particularly because the Olsen twins could barely utter a word, producers brought in The Beach Boys to perform about three times. It’s a horribly shitty episode, where not only do you have to suffer through two terrible renditions of “Kokomo,” strangely including Brian Wilson, but also what may possibly be the worst rendition of “Barbara Ann” you’ve ever heard.

More often than not, it’s the struggling sitcom that has to book talent for their endeavors. Before it was even sort of a hit, “30 Rock” was forced to take on Jerry Seinfeld in a back scratching deal that ended up being far funnier than it ever had a right to be. Jerry was no stranger to this song and dance, having appeared on the then struggling “Newsradio” as a dickish interview subject for Phil Hartman and he was game to come back to NBC again. Seinfeld mainly used his appearance on the show as another in an endless stream of attempts to promote “Bee Movie” and Tina Fey managed to make him look like little more than a crude and capitalistic business man. It’s funny, fairly smart and the Seinfeld-vision bits are inspired.

“Freaks and Geeks” knew it was getting canceled by the time “The Little Things,” one of the show’s best episode’s ran. Although the whole hour focuses on Amy’s ambiguous genitalia, winning the show a GLAAD award, a subplot has Vice President George Bush entering the school for a speech. While he’s never seen, Ben Stiller plays a neurotic secret service agent who ends up spending time in the guidance councilor’s office, mostly trying to find the right career to enter. It’s pretty funny but the writing was already on the wall for this beloved show.

In a block that has made FX one of the homes of alternative comedy on cable, “The League” has been the only show that has continuously struggled in the ratings department. Trying to bolster the show, they’ve added the gimmick of mostly filling every couple of episodes with wooden NFL players who look so uncomfortable, they might as well be in a 7th grade play. Chad Ochocinco was the only one to ever really pop on screen and even he’s obnoxious as fuck here.

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