Horizon: Zero Dawn Log 4

After an extended holiday break from Horizon: Zero Dawn (look, Skyrim is a lot of fun, and then I got a Switch and Breath of the Wild for Christmas, and some things just have to take precedence, okay?), I’m finally back to the world of post-post-apocalyptia.  The break from the game was a good one, although there were a few technical challenges jumping back into a game that I haven’t played in a few months.  Wherever I last left off was very near an area that was marked off for a fight with a big machine called a Rockbreaker, which is essentially a giant mole, and purely by accident I wandered into this fight totally unprepared.  I had muscle memory left over from playing Zelda, and Horizon is already a game that’s designed to make you feel like a weak puny human fighting against giant carnivorous machines, so things got awkward pretty fast.  I kept jumping when I meant to dash, and I realized (as I predicted I would back when I started playing Breath of the Wild) that I had become spoiled by the ability to climb any vertical surface; I desperately wanted to be able to climb up on some rocks to get away from the evil mechanized rodent that was making my life miserable.

It was all very comical if you like to watch people floundering around in games they are bad at (I don’t; seeing a person play a game badly induces a certain amount of anxiety in me that I have to very carefully monitor so I don’t start bossing around a person who’s just trying to have fun).

Long story short, my re-entry to Horizon: Zero Dawn was less than smooth.

Once I got the hang of the controls again and beat the Rockbreaker with many, many arrows to the face, I jumped back into the main story.  I last left off in the middle of a subplot where Erend, a dude that Aloy meets briefly before the Proving and who acts as a point of contact when she reaches the Carja city Meridian, is trying to find out who killed his sister Ersa.  Erend is a perfectly cromulent fellow, though he reads as relatively flat to me.  His characteristics can be boiled down to drunk, affable dwarf (he belongs to the Oseram tribe, who are tinkerers who wear big leather aprons and billowy clothes that make their proportions look much more stout than you would expect for a human), heavy emphasis on the drunk.  Like pretty much all the plot points up to now, it’s a perfectly fine story, if a little cliche.  I could have done without yet another manfeels story (the first part of the quest involves you following Erend around the city as he drunkenly tries to figure out what happened while wallowing in self loathing over not being able to take care of his sister).  I had a brief glimmer of hope that this was going to be something more interesting when the investigation of the ambush site revealed that it had been staged and there was a possibility that Ersa was not, in fact, dead.

Moving on quickly through the investigation, you eventually get sent up into Oseram territory where you get to see that the Oseram not only look like dwarves, they build like them too.  I saw at least two primitive machines that had been built to do hard labor like sawing timber into planks and hammering out iron bars, but there was no one minding these devices.  It was a nice bit of world building that fell flat when you stopped to realize that there was no one actually operating these contraptions.

You see that giant iron bar on the anvil? Yeah, it just gets hammered over and over in the same spot. No one moves it or changes anything out, so I’m left asking, “What’s the point?”

Eventually the plot concludes with Aloy and Erend taking down a group of Oseram who faked Ersa’s death and kidnapped her on the orders of this dude named Dervahl who resents the peace that’s developed between the Oseram and the Carja since the new Carja king took power.  We get to meet Ersa, which is super cool because she’s obviously way better than her brother, but she’s only on screen long enough to die in Erend’s arms and give him more of the manfeels.

Me too. I’m sorry that your sister still hardly got any character development before she died to double down on your whole grief thing.

The thing is that I don’t dislike Erend; he’s a perfectly fine character, and in the process of tracking down his sister’s kidnappers he gets a bit more development to help the player feel attached to him.  Still, I don’t like him enough to sacrifice Ersa for his development.  This is the second time you’ve killed off characters that were way more interesting, Horizon, and I’m done expecting better things from you story-wise.  Let’s just keep this relationship professional and move on to the end.

At the same time the plot with the Oseram and the Carja are moving forward, there’s another branch of the main story that’s devoted to Aloy seeking out information about the woman who is totally her genetic sister might be her mother.  It has a much more heavily sci-fi flavor to it than the Carja stuff, which gives me the impression that the game’s writers really wanted to try to have a scenario where they could do sci-fi and gritty fantasy in the same world but weren’t sure how to make them interact in a way that wasn’t tonally dissonant.  I haven’t finished either quest line yet, so there may still be a moment where the two stories intertwine, but for now it feels like exploring the history of Horizon‘s world is a totally separate thing from dealing with its present day politics.


“Do You Think, If We Hadn’t Been Given Rooms Next To Each Other, That We’d Have Ended Up Being Friends?”

The first time the football fans descended on campus at the University of Georgia my freshman year, I had one clear thought that has remained with me nearly fifteen years later: I do not want to be one of these nostalgic alumni invading student space when I get older.  At UGA, it was simply understood that six Saturdays a year, if you lived on campus, your home was commandeered to serve the wants and needs of ninety-plus thousand football fans.  Living in one of the dorms located on one of the most central quads, I awoke to see a sea of red, white, and black outside my windows on these days.  I’ve never been a fan of large crowds, and the nature of game days only exacerbated that antipathy to the point that my negative feelings spilled over into a dislike of football in general.  I’ve mellowed a bit in the intervening decade; I have generally positive feelings toward my alma mater‘s team, even if I wasn’t directly caught up in the excitement of the last football season.  Still, I’ve never forgotten that I resented having my space invaded by people who weren’t students.  Nostalgia, I figured, was for people who couldn’t get over the fact that they were past that stage of their lives.

Even though this distrust of what I termed nostalgic alumni became deeply ingrained while I was a student, I wasn’t so good about follow through after I graduated.  Rachael and I spent a couple years away from Athens, but we jumped at the chance to move back when she decided to go back to school and I got a job at a school in the area.  I mostly stayed away from campus (living in a different part of town that’s not especially popular for student housing helped), but there was always the occasional sting of nostalgia.  College can be a really special time in your life, especially when you contrast it with all the responsibilities you have as an adult.  Living in your old college town, no matter how sensible you try to be, does carry with it some danger of trying to ingratiate yourself back into campus life.  What you inevitably find, though, is that you’re getting older, the students aren’t, and gradually you find yourself having less and less in common with them.

This is okay.

Each cover features one of the characters doing something perfectly mundane, like texting while you wait for a ride, or hanging out on power lines with birds, or channeling Joan of Arc. (Cover by Lissa Treiman; Image credit: Comic Vine)

For folks who don’t want to fall into the nostalgia trap, but do want to enjoy a bit of fond reverie, there’s a comic series that can scratch that itch.  Giant Days, written by John Allison with art primarily by Lissa Treiman, is the story of three girls who become friends in their first month at university (it’s set in England, so you call college university) and then have a variety of adventures that evoke all the things you remember fondly about your own time as a practice adult.  Our protagonists are Susan, a die hard cynic; Esther, a goth party girl who subsists on drama and whimsy; and Daisy, whose home school education has imparted her with remarkable book smarts and a naivety about the world that her friends find endlessly charming.  The chief unifying factor among these friends is their proximity to one another: they all live on the same hall in their dorm.  This fact of physical closeness breeding new and interesting relationships is one of the most delightful aspects of college life that Giant Days hits on, and then it just proceeds from there.

Did I mention there’s an issue just about dealing with being sick when you’re on your own for the first time? There is, and it’s glorious. (Artwork by Lissa Treiman, colors by Whitney Cogar, letters by Jim Campbell)

The plot lines that spin out from this simple set up are incredibly low stakes affairs; while the world is a little zany, and some strange fantasy elements can wander in from time to time, the guiding ethos of the series is that it’s a story about young folks just learning about themselves and about being an adult in an environment that’s designed to let them do that learning in a relatively safe way.  No one’s ever in mortal danger, although things do turn serious on occasion (the third issue revolves around Esther being targeted for sexual harassment after the purveyors of a campus website take photos of her at a party and place her on a “Hottest First-Years” list).  These are stories about growing up, so while the tone is generally silly and lighthearted, you can’t escape some moments of gravitas.  In the same issue where Daisy celebrates her eighteenth birthday (partly by accidentally getting high on ecstasy at a club and deciding the sound of the hand dryer in the bathroom is the best song she’s ever heard) she also realizes that she’s attracted to women and gets rejected by a friend whom she hopes wanted to be more than that.  Both facets of the story are played so well, and the goofy highs (even if you’re like me and never were a hard partier in college, you probably still have some memories of moments where things got out of hand in ways you didn’t expect) only magnify the depth of the serious lows.  This series feels like a distilled version of the college experience, which makes it a perfect fit for nostalgia trips because most folks are going to remember those same extreme moments of their own matriculation much better than the mundane stuff like the homework and the reading that we all did because even then it wasn’t all fun and melodrama.

This exact shop configuration exists in Athens, except they’re stacked on top of each other. There’s a reason I find this comic so charming. (Artwork by Lissa Treiman, colors by Whitney Cogar, letters by Jim Campbell)

If this all sounds like something you think you’d relate to, you should check Giant Days out.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #6”

The fifth issue of The Wicked + The Divine marked the end of the series’s first arc.  It ended without much of anything resolved; Laura still doesn’t know who killed the judge, and Lucifer, who was everyone else’s prime suspect in that murder, has been summarily executed by Ananke for being troublesome.  Everyone knows that the gods aren’t faking their miracles now, and Laura has inexplicably shown a bit of a divine spark herself in the form of lighting a cigarette with a finger click–once.  The resolution is mostly just an emotional one (Laura has been through a remarkable ordeal what with getting an up close view of her new friend’s head disintegration) as we’ve been given the dime tour of the world and (Gillen and McKelvie hope) a reason to want to know what happens next for our protagonist.

In a sea of glam headshots, Inanna’s is perhaps the glammest. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Fortunately, I super dig The Wicked + The Divine, so we’re going to keep going.

Issue six picks up a month and a half after Lucifer’s death with Laura trying to resume a normal life.  She’s failing miserably, as one might imagine a person does after having several near death experiences and seeing someone else’s violent death up close.  While going about her life, she constantly clicks her fingers, hoping that she’ll perform another miracle.  A chance encounter with some fellow Pantheon fans who are wearing cheeky postmortem Lucifer tribute merch leads to her vomiting in a dumpster (twice).  She feels unable to talk with her parents about the traumatic stuff she’s experienced.  Laura is not coping well, and it’s not only because of what happened with Lucifer.

Just imagine walking around all the time clicking your fingers and hoping that you accidentally light something on fire. That’s pretty much what half of Laura’s life has been like since the last issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Naturally, because this is a fantasy story, Laura doesn’t get to fade back into fandom obscurity as someone who just had a weird thing happen in her vicinity that one time; she ends up getting contacted by a member of the Pantheon whom we haven’t yet met in person (although we have heard a few bits of gossip about him).  The god in question is Inanna the Queen of Heaven, the kinder, gentler pansexual member of the Pantheon and Baal’s ex-boyfriend (if you haven’t grokked it by this point, The Wicked + The Divine is delightfully queer).  His visual design is highly reminiscent of Prince with a strong preference for shades of purple matched with gold accents; there’s a strong sense of spectacle associated with the character as McKelvie and Wilson showcase three different outfits for Inanna in this one issue (most of the Pantheon members we’ve met so far have stuck to more or less one central look with small variations throughout the first arc).  Inanna likes to be seen, even when he’s trying not to draw attention to himself (Laura mocks his choice of low-profile meetup attire as he’s hanging out in a graveyard in a purple trench coat with matching tiger print boots).

Tell me you don’t look at this face and instantly want to trust him. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Despite the ostentatious quality to Inanna’s mere presence on the page, he comes across here as an incredibly warm, caring person.  He’s mindful of personal boundaries (before comforting Laura with a hug he asks her explicit permission), he explains that he remembers Laura from before the Recurrence (they were both attendees at the previous year’s Pantheon fan convention Ragnarock, an affair that has mostly been the gathering place of stuffy academics but will most assuredly be a giant party now that the Recurrence is in progress), and he’s genuine in his praise of the positive qualities he sees in Laura.  Inanna’s talent is making the people he’s with feel like they’re the most important thing in the world to him, and while that level of charm should normally engender some feelings of caution, it’s hard to dislike him.  On the spectrum of artifice to authenticity that all the Pantheon members exist along, Inanna rings in strongly on the authentic side.  He’s so good at authenticity that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s also performing.

Laura does, but she’s also been through a really terrible month. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The actual plot points of the issue are relatively thin.  Inanna discloses to Laura that he’s divined how the men who attempted to murder Lucifer back in the first issue relate to the Pantheon: they weren’t religious extremists but fans.  Because it’s divination, the details beyond that are extremely fuzzy, and Inanna charges Laura with trying to find more information about them.  Laura agrees and reluctantly uses her newfound status in Pantheon fandom to start connecting with other fans in the hopes of figuring out what’s going on.  The rest of the issue is devoted to explaining a little bit of Inanna’s background (he saw Laura arguing with an old dude who hates Millennials at Ragnarock and was impressed with her fearlessness, and now that he’s a god with less than two years to live he never wants to be afraid again) and showing the personal fallout of Lucifer’s death for Laura.  It’s a remarkably thin chapter if you’re here for the murder mystery, but Inanna is such a delightful new character that I feel inclined to overlook that (I am, of course, also inured against the frustrations of month-to-month comics reading since I stick to trades).

All told, the arc we’re moving into will best be read mostly as the second half of a larger story that Gillen and McKelvie began in the first five issues.  Lucifer’s death was a good point of resolution in miniature, but there are lots of things that still need to addressed with regard to the plot that was set in motion at the beginning.

This outfit feels more like a color variant on a Michael Jackson ensemble to me, but Inanna’s not about being boxed in by what people expect him to be. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

“I Often Travel With My Teleporting Dog.”

Our hero has led a very charmed life. (Artwork by Christian Ward, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It is my custom, on Free Comic Book Day, to visit a local comic shop and, in addition to collecting the free books, buy a couple of other items that I’ve had my eye on.  It’s just good manners to give business to a shop that’s letting you get free stuff, after all.  Last year, one of the special purchases I made was the first issue of Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward’s ongoing Marvel series Black Bolt.  It was a really good number one, and though I don’t buy floppies (they’ve always been too expensive for me to justify as a monthly expense), I earmarked the series as one that I would definitely revisit when it got collected in trade.

Flash forward past the Oregon move to some time in late November.  Because I follow Ahmed on Twitter, I’ve been hearing for most of the year people talking about how much they enjoyed this series.  There’s an announcement that the first trade goes on sale in early December, and so I buy it digitally (it is great having disposable income).

This is a good book.

My experience with Saladin Ahmed as an author doesn’t extend terribly far; he wrote a short story that appeared on Podcastle which I adored (“Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy”), and his novel Throne of the Crescent Moon was a really fun read (if you enjoy high adventure but want a setting that’s not medieval European fantasy, you could do a lot worse).  Mostly I’m familiar with him as a comic nerd who spent a lot of time researching the progressive roots of Golden Age comics and posting cool panels of the same on Twitter.  Based on those credentials, I was excited to see what he would do with a character like Black Bolt.

This is the inner monologue of someone who is about to be taken down a whole lot of pegs. (Artwork by Christian Ward, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The story for this first volume revolves around Black Bolt finding himself wrongfully held in a prison where the Jailer tortures prisoners to death before resurrecting them to do it all over again.  He gets caught up in the escape plan of a motley crew of petty criminals and reformed villains who need his immense power to help them break out (Black Bolt’s signature power is the sheer destructive force of his voice, but he’s also able to do a lot of other cool stuff that boils down to “I always win” powers).  Of course, everyone’s powers are neutralized inside the prison, so it takes some doing before Black Bolt can talk his way out of the situation.

This is the most thoughtful Crusher Creel has ever been portrayed; it’s a really good look on him. (Artwork by Christian Ward, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The ringleader of the would-be prison breakers is Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man.  Creel has a long history as a Marvel super villain with remarkably low ambitions.  He tends to stick to bank robbery and crimes of that sort, which makes him a perfect foil for Black Bolt, who is Inhuman royalty.  The two men have had very different lives, but the circumstances of their imprisonment lead them to develop a really engaging and interesting friendship.  Creel provides an excellent opportunity to explore and critique the superhero trope of the greedy villain, as Ahmed provides context and backstory for Creel’s actions that place him in a far more sympathetic light than he usually appears.  At the same time that Ahmed and Ward are ennobling Creel, they use him to poke fun at the airs that Black Bolt has always put on.

Raava is unapologetically herself at all times, and I love her for it. (Artwork by Christian Ward, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The supporting cast are equally fun and memorable.  Aiding in Black Bolt and Crusher Creel’s great escape are Blinky, a fish faced girl who was thrown in prison for stealing just enough money to buy herself some food; Molyb the Metal Master, a reformed super villain who has spent decades coming to terms with how his own behavior alienated and ultimately led him to execute his husband; and Raava, a Skrull pirate woman who I would seriously read an entire series about.  They provide a wide spectrum of compromised behavior to drive home the thematic point that life circumstances don’t always give people the luxury of holding on to moral rectitude and surviving at the same time.  Much of this first arc of Black Bolt is about the title character becoming aware of his own relative privilege, and it hard for him to not do that when he’s constantly confronted with the contrast between the decisions that landed his compatriots in prison and their dignity as unique persons.

After reading and re-reading this story, I’m still thinking about the way its pieces fit together, and I’m eagerly awaiting the second collected volume to come out soon.

Hulk Was A Really Good Series

A couple years ago I mentioned that I was pleased that part of Marvel’s trend towards letting legacy heroes pass their mantles on to women and characters of color involved giving Jen Walters, the long-time She-Hulk, the adjectiveless Hulk moniker.  The Hulk books have never drawn much of my interest, but I’ve always liked Jen as a character, and it bugged me that her superhero name was forever marked as being a distaff version of her cousin’s.  In this post I said that if we had to differentiate between Bruce Banner and Jen Walters’s version of the Hulk, we could do a lot worse than just identifying them by profession.

All the covers in this series are pretty spectacular, by the way. (Cover by Jeff Dekal; Image credit: Comic Vine)

That series ended up back in the news recently as it was placed on Marvel’s list of to-be-cancelled series in the immediate future.  It would be an understatement to say I’m less than pleased with the whole “Legacy” event and branding serving as an excuse for Marvel to essentially shove all but its most popular diverse characters back into obscurity.  I know that Jen has been a character who’s never been that successful at maintaining an ongoing solo series (I think Hulk might be the fifth series she’s headlined in her history, and all told by the series’s end she’ll have only had one hundred sixty-three issues to her name), but I’m still disappointed that she was first stripped of the Hulk title and now she’s getting canned again.

Anyway, after I heard that the series was being cancelled, I decided I might as well check it out.  Fortunately, the first eleven issues are available on Comixology Unlimited (I am enjoying that subscription more and more) which cover the first two story arcs plus a standalone issue, so I downloaded them and got to reading.

I hate when my furniture is arranged to accommodate a larger alter-ego too. (Artwork by Nico Leon, colors by Matt Milla, letters by Cory Petit)

My initial skepticism about a Jen Walters series that wasn’t lighthearted only lasted until about the end of the first page.  There’s a panel where Jen, in the midst of getting ready for her first day back to work after waking from the coma she fell into after her injuries in Civil War II, goes to check how she looks in her mirror by the door and remembers that she has it hung to accommodate Lawyer-Hulk’s extra stature.  It’s a laugh-worthy moment, but it also communicates immediately that things are off for Jen.  Readers familiar with her history will recognize that it’s odd Jen isn’t making use of her green persona; she typically prefers her Hulked out form because in addition to the super strength she gains a boost in confidence.  By issue’s end we see that something has changed Jen since her injury and the news that her cousin Bruce was executed; her transformation is triggered by negative emotions and reminders of what happened to her cousin, and it’s ugly.  The confident Lawyer-Hulk isn’t what Jen’s holding in.

The first issue was enough to convince me that this series is worth reading in full.

Broadly speaking, Hulk‘s first arc revolves around Jen’s attempts to cope with the way her trauma has impacted her life (there’s a quite touching parallel story involving a client of Jen’s who is dealing with the fallout from her own trauma) while the second explores Jen’s attempts to incorporate this new aspect of herself into her regular identity while she works to help a man who has been dosed with a mutagenic drug that turns him into a monster similar to a Hulk.  That arc ends on a bittersweet note as the victim falls into a coma after being subdued with no indication that a cure will be found for his condition.  Overall it’s heavy stuff, but none of it is treated with the heavy-handedness that I originally feared might be applied to this series.

Then there’s the eleventh issue.

That one is… not so good, mostly because there’s a sharp shift back towards the silliness that has pervaded Jen’s previous series.  We get a return of Jen’s narrative ability to break the fourth wall in the form of her constantly fighting with an obnoxious caption box that’s trying to narrate events as though she were in the middle of a sappy romance story (the actual subject of the issue is Jen’s tentative steps back into dating life).  It’s a hard tonal shift from the first ten issues, and I think the zaniness clashes too much with the serious nature of the majority of the series.  Still, one bad issue doesn’t spoil the whole thing; those first ten are absolutely worth your time.

Following the eleventh issue, the series was renamed She-Hulk (stupid “Legacy”) with the same writer.  I can’t speak to the quality of those issues since they’re not included in the Unlimited library, but I am curious enough about the series that in the event of them going on sale or getting collected I’d be willing to check them out.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #5”

If you’ve made it to the fifth issue of The Wicked + The Divine then it’s time for congratulations: we’re about to hit on our first major character death and the test of how attached one has become to a character comes sharply into focus.  Did you like Lucifer’s devil-may-care attitude and casual disdain for the norms and systems that keep society operating in a way that’s not total chaos?  Too bad; she’s dead.

Enjoy this one image of Tara; we won’t meet her for like another eight issues. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson)

The issue starts off with a continuation of a visual gag that Gillen and McKelvie have been working into the beginning of every issue where the god on the cover is directly referenced in the first panel of the issue (this technically isn’t true for issue #1, but given that we see in the conclusion of this arc that Lucifer is doomed, the splash page of the skull feels appropriate).  Our focal god on the cover here is Tara, a god that has been much maligned by everyone in the story (everyone thinks she’s stuck up and weird, and because we haven’t met her, we don’t really have any grounds to naysay it).  The panel shows Lucifer defacing a poster with a stylized portrait of Tara, just the latest bit of destruction in Lucifer’s sort-of-rampage away from the prison where she’s been held.  It’s a fitting place to start since it’s Lucifer destroying the icon of another god, and this issue is all about her fascination and disgust with the Pantheon’s obsession with image.

Of course, Lucifer isn’t just defacing property; she’s also causing mass chaos; cars and police officers in riot gear are on fire, and a crowd is forming to watch the spectacle of the god who’s decided to stop acting like she isn’t a god.  While all this happens in the background, Lucifer meditates on Tara’s philosophy (which seems to apply to most of the gods): “If you exist, you’re staring at me.”  On one hand that’s an absurdly egotistical statement, but on the other, it’s undeniable that the gods are fascinating figures from whom everyone seems unable to look away.  Even Cassandra, who actively decries the Pantheon, is obsessed with making her documentary about them.  We’re clearly supposed to absorb Lucifer’s contempt for Tara (and by proxy, all the gods), but there’s also a strong ironic undercurrent; you can’t exactly wander down the street wreaking havoc without wanting at least a little bit for people to see what you’re doing.

Lucifer’s inability to effectively rebel against the nature of divinity is probably her great tragedy. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Before too long, Lucifer’s stunting attracts the attention of the rest of the Pantheon; Laura and Cassandra are also there as bystanders desperately trying to be part of the bigger story (they’re actually pretty significant players, but only at the end).  The gods with whom we’re most familiar show up to try to get Lucifer to stop what she’s doing in their own individual ways.  Amaterasu, who was friends with Lucifer before they ascended, tries to sweet talk her back to jail, but Lucifer is having none of that.  In a sequence that highlights just how much Lucifer doesn’t get along with the high profile Pantheon members, her greatest contempt seems to be reserved for her best friend.  I think this is best exemplified when Lucifer mocks Amaterasu for using diminutive versions of their stage names; aside from Cassandra mentioning in the first issue that Amaterasu’s real name is Hazel and that Lucifer’s last name is Rigby, we don’t get much information about who any of the gods are apart from their divine identities.  It’s a barb that resonates with Lucifer’s mockery of Cassandra back in the first issue as well; the fact that Cassandra is trans and therefore assumed a new name as part of her transition seems at least in Lucifer’s mind to fall in the same vein of prioritizing image over authentic identity (Lucifer’s also being a jerk because she believes that’s what she does, but two things can be true).  Lucifer’s ire towards Amaterasu is especially fierce since they actually have personal history before the whole godhood thing happened.

Lucifer has had it with your hippy-dippy crap. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

When Amaterasu’s attempt to reason with Lucifer fails, Baal and Sakhmet step in to beat her senseless.  This is the first really “comic book-y” moment of the series; several super powered individuals engage in a street brawl that involves lots of face smashing and explosions.  It’s a lot of fun and a good reminder after so many talking heads in the course of the first four issues that McKelvie is a very accomplished artist with a lot of flexibility in the sorts of scenes he can draw.  While Lucifer gets her butt handed to her by Baal and Sakhmet, Laura decides it’s time to call in that favor that the Morrigan owes her, so she goes running into a subway tunnel towards and oncoming train.  The Morrigan saves her and agrees to provide cover for Lucifer so she can escape and hide from the rest of the Pantheon.  This is generally a good thing for Lucifer, because she’s pretty beat up by the time she, Cassandra, Laura, and Morrigan take shelter in a house just on the street that Lucifer has been terrorizing.  Laura is desperately trying to calm things down as she urges Lucifer to hide in the underground with the Morrigan and demands that Cassandra and her film crew stop recording for just a minute.  Lucifer disagrees with this last point.

Who would it be the worst thing for? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Again, Lucifer’s disgust with the spectacle of godhood doesn’t stop her from being obsessed with playing into it.  She’s just shown the world that the powers of the Pantheon aren’t an elaborate hoax, and she doesn’t want that moment to pass undocumented.  Her motivations for all of this seem to be a mixture of general weariness of the games the gods play with mortals’ expectations about them, a desire to lay bare what it means to be part of the Pantheon, and that immutable need to perform and be seen performing.  In the second issue Lucifer told Laura, “I need to be on a stage.  If I can’t do that, it’s all so awfully pointless.”  Being cooped up in a jail cell for a crime that she didn’t commit where she’s unable to be in the spotlight is an unbearable punishment to Lucifer, and so she decides that it’s better to bring the full wrath of the Pantheon down on her head so that she can be seen for what she is (or at least, what she thinks she’s supposed to be) one last time.  The whole episode screams hard of Lucifer having something of a death wish, even as she jokes about shacking up with the Morrigan after they’ve escaped from the fight with Baal and Sakhmet.

Before the fugitives can make good on their escape, Ananke steps in to make it clear that someone needs to be held responsible for the mayhem, and she summarily executes Lucifer in view of everyone with a display of her own miraculous power.  Like something of a Greek chorus, Ananke pronounces her moral over the gods’ reckless display of power: “Generally speaking, gods desire nothing but adoration.”  It’s true that Lucifer’s last stand gets everyone’s attention, and this was a major goal, but Ananke’s proclamation flattens out the complexity of Lucifer’s motivations for rebellion; she was both trying hard to fulfill a role she thought she had to own and railing against the artificial nature of the Pantheon’s celebrity.

A lot of chaos and paradox. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Ananke’s epigram on Lucifer’s death is only the most public one.  In the aftermath of the execution, Laura tries to process what’s happened and how she feels about Lucifer’s death.  Though it was founded on more than a few lies and only the cruelest bits of truth, Laura clearly thinks of Lucifer as a friend.  The careless afterthought of a final gift that Lucifer gave her, a pack with only one cigarette left, sums up the ambivalence that Laura feels about this episode of her life.  She’s just been through something extraordinary, but all it’s done is helped her realize that she’s not happy with her life.  Instead of doing the watching, she needs to be the one watched.

The Women of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I mentioned on Friday that I was generally not impressed with the treatment of women in Breath of the Wild.  I don’t suppose I should really be surprised about this fact; Nintendo is a very conservative Japanese company with a corporate identity as being a producer of family friendly entertainment.  This is perfectly fine, except that “family-friendly” is often code for “featuring non-progressive depictions of gender roles and identities.”  You get that in spades throughout Breath of the Wild.

“I know, it really sucks to be a woman in Hyrule.” (Image credit: Fandom Wikia)

Perhaps the most egregious offense in terms of weird regressive characterization comes from the Zora Champion, Mipha.  Like all the Champions, Mipha was defeated by Ganon when he attacked Hyrule a hundred years before the start of the game.  That by itself isn’t so unusual, but what is is Mipha’s relationship with Link.  Where the other three Champions express respect and affection for Link in their various ways, Mipha has the misfortune of being in love with Link who was generally unaware of her romantic feelings.  Unrequited love is a perfectly fine story point, but it feels really icky given the fact that Mipha has been dead for a century and she’s still in love with this guy who was never interested in her in the first place (we all know that Link and Zelda are OTP).  Rachael commented once we finished the Zora section of the game that she was really mad that Mipha’s entire character seems to revolve around her undying love for Link (this is definitely not a crush; she made a suit of armor for him because he was the guy she wanted to marry) while other Champions appear to be psychologically healthy.  They all regret that Ganon bested them, but it’s actually possible for Link to help achieve the goals they all had in death; Mipha just really wanted Link to love her back, and all she gets is the consolation prize that he’ll accept her help.  It’s a raw deal, and because there’s literally nothing else about the character, she ends up feeling like the flattest in a cast that’s already mostly one-dimensional.

While Mipha is perhaps the most egregious example of poor female characterization, you get a lot of other more minor examples.  Many of the villages, if they have female characters, rely on a relatively narrow range of character types, from the painfully shy girl to the fawning fangirl.  Essentially, most any given female character is likely to be defined in relation to a man.  Even the Gerudo, who are effectively an all female race in the context of the game, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the fact that they have to travel all over the country because they can’t find husbands in their home town where men are forbidden.  Perhaps most bizarre of all is the near total erasure of queer characters from the world.  Among the Gerudo you would think that at least some lesbian relationships would occur, but these sorts of dynamics among characters are left invisible.  Gay characters hardly fare better; the only character who reads as gay (primarily because of Japanese stereotypes about gay men) is Bolson, the head of the Bolson Construction Company.  His interactions with Link are on the flirty side, but there’s little beyond that.

Surprisingly, genderqueer characters are slightly better represented than gay and lesbian characters (though really only slightly).  Again, because the Gerudo are an all-female race and they forbid men from entering their city, the player has to solve the problem of how to make Link appear female so that he can gain entrance into the town.  The solution comes in the form of a character outside the town who is biologically male but wears Gerudo women’s clothing.  Other characters in the game alternately gender this person as male or female depending on whether they’re aware of the character’s sex.  When Link finally encounters the person and has a conversation, the player has the option of interacting with the character as either male or female; it’s a small, pleasant moment that you’re given the choice to decide how you’ll respond to a character’s preferred gender presentation (there’s not really enough information to be sure of the character’s preferred gender identity).  The scene’s almost perfect in this respect, except that it ends with the punchline of a gust of wind blowing aside the character’s veil to reveal their beard underneath and Link responding in shock.  It feels like the intended read is that if you treat the character as a woman, you are being fooled.  I was left with a bad taste at the end of the scene, but it came close to being a pleasant surprise (I know that the value of almost is subjective, so you’re mileage may vary on the quality of this moment).  Perhaps more interesting and respectful than the clothes seller is the way the game treats Link’s own use of female coded clothing.

Rachael and I were pretty delighted by the whole subplot of Link needing to get some women’s clothes in order to enter Gerudo Town precisely because it gave us the chance to reconsider Link as a genderqueer character.  Back when everyone was still anticipating Breath of the Wild, there was a lot of speculation over whether this was going to be the Zelda game where a female protagonist would finally take center stage.  The first images of Link showed a character who was exceptionally androgynous, perhaps the most androgynous we’ve ever seen in any Zelda game.  It was quickly confirmed by Nintendo that Link was canonically male, but then the game came out and everyone learned about Gerudo town and the women’s clothing you had to wear to gain access.  Because the game is flexible in how it allows you to use equipment, there are no hard and fast rules denying players from using the women’s clothing in other contexts.  The game clearly doesn’t mean for you to use the women’s clothing regularly (its defense is abysmal and unlike other special outfits it can’t be upgraded), but you’re not barred from the choice.  Even more importantly, the aesthetics of the clothing on Link’s body don’t read as humorous like in some other games that have depicted male characters in women’s clothing.  Link’s androgyny makes the clothing look attractive on his body, and there are no situations where he’s humiliated or made the butt of a joke for wearing that particular garment.  While he’s wearing this outfit, all characters simply take it for granted that he’s female.  It’s because of all these small details that Rachael and I agreed that this is a Zelda game where Link is a genderqueer character.

Of course, we can’t discuss a Zelda game and its treatment of gender without at least touching on Zelda herself.  The lore of the Legend of Zelda franchise has long necessitated that while Link fulfills the role of hero, Zelda is typically stuck in a more passive support role.  Perhaps with the exception of Tetra in Windwaker, this Zelda is the most explicitly uncomfortable with her identity.  Through the memories that Link can recover from visiting various spots around the world, we learn that Zelda’s relationship with her Champion was a complicated one.  From Link’s ordainment as the Hylian Champion, Zelda resents him for representing her own inability to act independently.  She doesn’t like having a dedicated bodyguard, and it takes Link saving her life a couple of times before she accepts his value (the fact that Zelda even needs to be saved by Link has complex tones to it; at the same time she begins to see and appreciate Link’s dedication to her well being, we’re also seeing evidence that she really does need a bodyguard; Zelda’s ambitions, like Mipha’s, are undercut by the story’s needs).  Even after Zelda accepts Link, we still see that she feels uncomfortable with her pseudo-priestly duties and would rather devote her time to developing as a martial leader so she can help defend Hyrule.  The final memory in the series has Zelda accidentally embracing her power as the avatar for the Triforce of Wisdom to save Link from certain death, which is great except for how it continues to undermine what she has really wanted to be able to do since the beginning.  The summit of Zelda’s story is her learning to accept a role she’s never really wanted, and (given that I haven’t finished the main story yet) I’m not sure that we see any sort of resolution for her that is built around just accepting what she was destined to do from the beginning.  Zelda’s struggles in Breath of the Wild are probably the more well developed for any character in the game, but even they are founded on a narrative that requires her to accept the passive role while Link goes off and has all the adventures.