Friday, June 5, 2009

Thoughts on E3, The 10-Cent Plague and Batman & Robin #1

I got to spend at day at E3 this week for Animation Magazine and walked away pretty impressed by the video game industry, which has changed a lot since the last big E3 I went to in 2006. Aside from toning down the noise, bright lights and over-the-top booth babe pandering, the games themselves were noticably brighter, less violent and more fun. I think a lot of this has to do with the success of casual games, the Nintendo Wii and the runaway success of things like Rock Band. (How cool-looking is that Beatles game? Yowza!)

Yeah, there were still plenty of violent games as well, but even those were sharper looking and more stylish than the somewhat ugly and overbearingly geeky fare of just three years ago.

Relating to comics, there were some very cool game on display, with Batman: Arkham Asylum looking like the best Batman game ever. There were batarangs to throw, an RPG element, "detective mode," tons of comics-related cameos including Commissioner Gordon, Oracle, Zzasz and a few others, and some really great action sequences. It was especially cool to watch Batman glide down from the rafters to rescue a prison guard held hostage in one sequence.

Next to this, the DC Universe Online MMORPG looked a little dull. I'll admit I didn't give it a spin and that the pleasures of that kind of game come from playing with others. But despite the long development, it just didn't pop enough visually to stand out from some truly cool-looking stuff.

Amond the cool-looking, I'll count Marvel Alliance 2 from Activision. The trailer for this was running on huge screens at the Activision booth in between trailers for DJ Hero (which looks amazing, cool and super sexy) and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. It looks to take a cue from Civil War, with rival teams of Avengers lead by Captain America and Iron Man squaring off, with a third team of more villainous characters entering the fray. The HD visuals were truly stunning — you could see the cloth and chain mail in Cap's costume, for example. And the lineup of characters itself was promising, including everyone from Luke Cage and Cable to 1980s faves Firestar and Cloak & Dagger. Here's a look at the trailer:

It's also clear that video games have a cultural cachet with both youths and adults that the comics industry hasn't had since the 1960s and likely never will again. But comics do have one thing that video games, for all their immersiveness and entertainment value, still can't quite match, and that's in telling stories. Which is not to say that there aren't good stories being told in games, but the interactivity of the experience scratches a different itch (I think) than the kind of straight storytelling you find in comics, novels, TV shows and movies.

All of which leads into my second topic, which is David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), which came out last year and I finally got around to reading just now. For those who don't know, this is a thoroughly researched account of the anti-comics crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It makes for fascinating and entertaining reading for anyone who ever wanted to know more about this topic. What came through most vividly for me was the vehemence of the attacks on comics, and the accounts of the comic book bonfires are especially chilling. Hajdu does a great job digging into the reaction of the folks on the receiving end of this — the writers and artists who were vilified and deprived of not just their livlihoods but their outlets for creative expression. It also has interesting bits from the kids of the time, who, being kids, didn't have the tools to really protest their parents' and teachers' attacks on the comic books they loved to read.

The book is subtitled "The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America," and that's the one area I thought the book fell short — in putting these events into the context of censorship and ratings systems both before and after the Comics Code. It's interesting to read at the end how the publishers installed Charles Murphy to head up the CMAA expecting him to be a figurehead of sorts. But Murphy turned out to be a hard-core believer in the code and enforced it far more vigorously than anyone expected. It would have been interesting to read more about how the anti-comics crusade compared to earlier American censorship efforts, talk about how the Code evolved and changed the comic book industry, and how these events influenced later attempts to either rate or regulate everything from movies to song lyrics, TV shows and most recently video games.

I got a bunch of great previews this week that I hope to read this weekend and write about next week, but I did get around to reading the much-anticipated Batman & Robin #1 (DC, $2.99) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I'm on record as very much having liked Grant Morrison's first Batman arcs back in 2006 (I think). But I found later arcs to be more arcane and difficult to really get into and follow. (Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, I'm looking at you). This was much better and has some real promise, but I'm afraid I don't see much reason to get really excited — yet. I think the problem is that Morrison isn't the best fit with Batman. Morrison's ability to get weird in interesting ways is a much better fit for the misfits of Doom Patrol (still my favorite long-running Morrison series), New X-Men, or the experimentation with new ideas like We3. None of which will stop this from being a huge commercial hit for DC, but I'll be quite interested to see how far Morrison can go with Batman and how many folks will stick around for the ride once the novelty wears off.

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