All Shiny And New

After all the relentless existential angst of Nier: Automata, I decided that I needed to cleanse my palette with a game that would present no emotional demands.  I just wanted something that would be fun and a little mindless, but not another button masher.  Essentially, I was looking for a game that would be just about the mechanics; an exercise in refining specific motor memory.  What I landed on was the 2016 parkour simulator Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.

If you must know the premise and plot of the game, it goes like this: in the near future the city of Glass is the crown jewel of Cascadia, a corporate oligarchy where everyone is mandated to work for one of the handful of privately owned companies that provide all the infrastructure for society.  Among the outlaws who refuse to submit to these conditions are the Runners, a loose network of people who live on the rooftops of Glass’s cityscape and survive by working as extralegal couriers for the people who need to operate outside the corporate system.  The game’s protagonist is Faith Connors, a Runner who has just been released from a detention center where she was imprisoned for some undefined infraction (it’s apparently explained in a tie-in comic, but this information is entirely irrelevant to the story here).  Through a series of happenstances, Faith becomes caught up in a plot to enslave all the citizens of Cascadia through a nanite injection that would directly connect them to the Grid–Mirror’s Edge‘s version of the internet–and allow the corporations to manipulate their emotions directly.  There’s also some stuff about Faith’s sister whom she was separated from as a child after their parents were murdered, but the emotional beats of the plot are all relatively rote.  The first entry in the series, Mirror’s Edge, takes place in a separate continuity, so this game’s effectively a reboot.

All that’s unimportant though, because the reason you play a Mirror’s Edge game is because you want to move very quickly through very shiny environments while doing some slick physics-defying parkour.  The thing that I enjoyed about the first game in the series was that within the framework of a first-person game, it did so many different things with movement from what you typically encounter.  The game was about fluid movement where the challenges all revolved around the player’s ability to traverse courses without interrupting the flow of action.  Things like hard landings or mistimed jumps create little hiccups in the experience that always felt really satisfying to iron out.  With Catalyst I was hoping to get more of that.

In a lot of ways, the core appeal of the original Mirror’s Edge is intact in this game.  You still spend most of your time running courses and figuring out how to move as efficiently as possible.  Unlike in the first game, you get to operate within a relatively large open world, which means that if you feel like it, you can just run around rooftops without having to give any thought to the story (except that you do need to complete the story in order to have the entire map opened up, so I guess don’t ignore it?).  There’s a wealth of activities to do while you explore, from running deliveries to distracting guards to finding collectibles to running courses that have been recorded by other players.  In the week that I spent playing the game, I saw way more content than I expected.  Unfortunately, the volume of content has one massive downside: virtually all of it (except for collectible hunting) is built around beating a clock.  Deliveries require you to get from one point on the map to another within a strict time limit; obstacle courses have incredibly strict time requirements to earn three star ratings; messing with guards require you to get from one group of enemies to the next within a time limit just so you can get more time added to your clock and move on to the next group.  All of these activities are variations on a theme, which makes sense because the core mechanic is moving fast, but they’re just not that engaging in the long run.  After I spent a solid hour trying to complete one side mission that was supposed to be completed in under a minute and a half, I decided to just stick to the story missions; they never have time limits built in, and they lead to interesting new environments instead of requiring the player to replay the same section of the city over and over again.

To be fair, there is certainly some appeal to practicing a routine over and over in order to be able to perform it as efficiently as possible.  The evenings when I did bother to do the delivery missions typically felt very meditative, assuming I was in the mood for a repetitive task.  The problem was that there was so much repetition.

I’m going to move on to a different game now that I’ve finished the story for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, but I’ll keep this one around on my hard drive for a while, I think.  There may come a time when I want to go back and just do some running to beat a clock; now just isn’t it.

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Re-Reading Magik (Part 4)

One last dimension to the Magik miniseries that I want to talk a little bit about (and I’m not sure how in depth this will end up being, but it feels like an integral part of all the other stuff discussed previously) is the fact of Illyana’s experience as a girl.  She’s abused, and she’s corrupted, and these two things really can’t be separated from narratives about the role of women in our society.

Illyana Rasputin is fourteen years old when this series ends. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I got to thinking about how Illyana being female shapes our perception of her experience because of the analysis that Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men did during their coverage of the “Inferno” crossover event which serves as the climax of this version of Illyana Rasputin’s story.  “Inferno,” which happened in the late ’80s, is mostly the story of Madelyne Pryor, Cyclops’s first wife and a clone of Jean Grey, entering into a deal with the demon N’astirh that threatens to turn all of Earth into a hellscape.  Running parallel to Madelyne’s story is Illyana’s; they have a lot in common as morally gray women acting with extreme agency at a time when Marvel’s editorial policy ran heavily towards social conservatism.  The event ends with both women being effectively removed from all the ongoing X-Men stories at the time as Madelyne dies and has her memories absorbed into Jean Grey, and Illyana gets de-aged back to her pre-Limbo seven year old self.  While there’s a lot to unpack about “Inferno,” the salient point that I’m reminded of with regard to Illyana and the Magik series is the use of corruption and demonic influence as coding for both sexuality and societal nonconformity among marginalized groups.

Compare innocent, six-year-old Illyana… (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

With corrupted Illyana. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

With Illyana, those codings get amplified by her coming-of-age narrative.  This story takes place over the course of seven subjective years, and that passage of time gets reflected most strongly in the way Illyana’s character design develops.  When she first finds herself trapped in Limbo, she’s dressed in a baggy shirt and pants to denote her childishness.  She’s just been pulled into a world where survival is difficult and not assured, and her clothing highlights her young age and lack of preparation.  Under Storm’s tutelage, Illyana wears a long nightgown that emphasizes her innocence in contrast with the corrupted, adult-presenting and sexualized part of her soul that Storm tries and fails to excise.  After Cat abducts Illyana, she dresses the girl in a leotard made of animal skins.  We’re meant to take the wardrobe change as a signal that Illyana must begin to grow up by abandoning unnecessary attachments and niceties, but there’s also a connection between her appearance and Cat’s; Illyana still looks like a child, while Cat, a skilled and ruthless fighter, is sexualized as almost a matter of course.  Cat’s style of resistance to Belasco’s depredations in Limbo is far more physically aggressive than Storm’s, and that aggression gets paired with a more overt sexuality (Storm is also, of course, an old woman in this story where Cat is in her prime).  Belasco’s corruption also manifests explicitly in Cat’s appearance; her face is meant to appear feline (though in effect it’s mostly just sort of alien looking).

Illyana’s wardrobe change into the leotard is clearly evocative of Cat’s own (highly improbable) outfit, but she still looks like a child. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Storm when she had fully embraced the demonic influence looks very different from how Illyana sees her throughout most of the series. (Pencils by Ron Frenz, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

We even see this pattern reflected in Storm.  Although the majority of the story features her as an old woman who has done everything she can to separate herself from Belasco, a sequence in the third issue where Illyana travels back in time to see the moment when Storm almost deposed Belasco as ruler of Limbo shows her in a highly sexual outfit at the same time that she’s most accepting of demonic influence.  In moments where Storm resists the draw of that power, she’s depicted in flowing robes and hair that hide her body (the one clear exception is the sequence in the first issue where she bathes while talking with Cat after initially rescuing Illyana; this is mostly just a long established thing where if Claremont can justify it, he will write Storm bathing or otherwise going au natural).  There’s a clear connection being drawn between Belasco’s influence, moral compromise, and how sexualized a given character appears.

Here Illyana is about thirteen. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

For Illyana, the leotard becomes her default outfit for the remainder of the series (she’s wearing robes at the start of the third issue, but then she inexplicably changes into her adventurer’s clothes between panels without leaving her bed).  The simple outfit helps the artists delineate how Illyana is aging by showing her features slowly maturing.  By the time of the final issue, Illyana has clearly reached her teenage years, although she remains unsexualized–at least, until the moment of self actualization when she conjures her soul sword.  The leotard has shrunk and ripped so that Illyana sports a bare midriff; she fully fits the mold of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars heroine.  This is where the pattern of corruption and sexualization breaks down, but it’s important to note that in place of demonic influence, Illyana is depicted in scant rags at her moment of clearest personal agency.  The sequence where she finds herself tempted to violently end Belasco as she takes on more demonic features is an extension of the danger of that agency.

Like Storm, when Illyana is at most in tune with Belasco’s corruption, she appears as a scantily clad demon. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

This all gets hammered home most strongly in the post-battle scene where Illyana contemplates how she’s been shaped by Belasco and Storm’s influence.  She stands on the balcony of Belasco’s castle, looking for all purposes like a full-grown woman despite only being around fourteen, and makes the decision to return to Earth.  When next we see Illyana clearly, she’s magicked a new outfit that de-sexualizes her, presenting as still innocent because she doesn’t want to worry the X-Men any more than she knows they already will be.

Illyana gets ready to go home. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Of course, all the stuff that I’ve laid out here isn’t really that unusual; we’ve been using overt sexuality as a code for moral turpitude in women for pretty much the whole of Western civilization.  In Illyana’s story that same trope gets recapitulated in familiar ways that result in her expressing extreme discomfort with the complete, complex picture of herself.  She’s every teenage girl who gets bombarded with negative messages about their own bodies and desires, just with an extra coat of demonization thrown on top.

Illyana makes herself “presentable.” (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #21”

The first thing you must understand about reading The Wicked + The Divine is that under no circumstances do you trust Ananke.  At this point in the series it’s become abundantly clear that whatever she is doing is bad business for everyone connected to the Pantheon, and there’s no real explanation for what her aims are.  We’ve gotten a few rumblings from her about the “Great Darkness” and that whole story she fed Cassandra about her role as a guide to keep the gods from going so far off rails that they plunge the world back into a pre-civilized state, but given that this issue has Ananke killing regular folks (pour one out for Minerva’s greedy parents) and actually telling Woden that she left bait in Owly deliberately for Team Underground to find (not to mention all the ways we see that she manipulated people behind the scenes in Woden’s flashback issue) it’s pretty safe to say that you should take any justification Ananke offers for her actions with a salt lick.

The colors are nice on this cover, but like it’s subjects, it’s just kind of there. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue for the first time features neither a god nor a god-like character (I’m still pretty unsure how to classify Ananke since she basically has a power portfolio like the gods but not their apparently limited life span); instead it features Woden’s Valkyries doing their thing.  This is probably one of the few covers of the series that I feel very neutral about, mostly because the Valkyries have felt from the beginning like a background feature to me.  They serve as proxies for Woden to exercise his powers, and via the subplot with Kerry getting booted out of the group (and the plight of Eir, the pink Valkyrie assigned to babysit Sakhmet) we learn that they’re a heavily mistreated part of the Pantheon’s extended entourage.  Besides being modeled on artificially formed girl groups (I’m thinking specifically of Japanese idol collectives, although Gillen and McKelvie might be pulling inspiration from elsewhere), the Valkyries are just… there.  You generally want to sympathize with them because their relationship to Woden definitely has shades of Ke$ha and Dr. Luke, but they’re otherwise really flat.  That the reason they feature on the cover of this issue is because they’re the conduit for a new toy that Woden has devised only hammers that point home harder.

Sure, Laura. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Despite the relative flatness of the Valkyries, there are some good character moments in this issue.  Baphomet tries to extend an olive branch to Baal by way of delivering Inanna’s last message to him (I guess he just really needed to vent about Baal beating up and imprisoning the Morrigan), adding to the small but not insignificant pile of evidence that he is not a complete and total loser.  Amaterasu, on the other hand, demonstrates one of her worse qualities when she panics and flees from Valhalla after Ananke threatens her.  The fleeing isn’t so bad, but the fact that she forgets to take Minerva with her really is.  The recurring theme around Amaterasu seems to be the fact that she’s a very pleasant person so long as things don’t get heavy, but as soon as there’s major conflict you cannot count on her for anything (she does, in the very first arc, completely abandon Lucifer to prison despite being one of her best friends; I guess Amaterasu is just that scared of Ananke).  Dionysus and Laura have a nice moment during the assault on Valhalla where he reiterates that he doesn’t want anyone to die, and Laura, with literal skulls in her eyes, agrees.  I totally believe that she’s going to uphold that promise.

There is a lot of nonsense that happens in this issue, but at least it’s fun-to-look-at nonsense. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Baal, you a liar. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

And… that’s sort of it for this issue.  While I think this arc is a ton of fun, it lends itself better to being read in one go.  Particularly in an issue like this where so many pages are built around action without a whole lot of dialogue, the actual content feels slim.  You have things like the sequence where Ananke murders Minerva’s parents before taking Minerva down to the mysterious sacrifice machine that Woden’s built in the Valhalla basement, which have barely any dialogue at all.  The silent panels are effective for conveying the terror of this moment where Ananke reveals emphatically that she’s a ruthless killer, but they also read extremely quickly.  Your attention bounces from the actual disintegration of the parents to Minerva and Amaterasu’s shocked reactions to a sort of slow-motion sequence where Amaterasu bolts while Ananke grabs Minerva, and then the scene ends on a gag about the documentary crew huddled in the corner of the room who everyone else forgot about.  It’s a really fun two pages, but it’s over incredibly quickly.  That’s not the only sequence in the issue that devotes a lot of space to a single, temporally swift moment, but it’s exemplary of the style of the issue.  Fortunately, the next issue closes out this arc, which means that a lot of stuff is going to happen.  There will be death and destruction, and also more than a fair few feels.

Y’know, Ananke, if you just stopped manipulating and killing people, things might not turn out so bad all the time. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Free Comic Book Day 2018

It’s May, and that means that Free Comic Book Day has come and gone, and I have a new pile of comics to talk about!  Because we moved this year, I’ve been wondering for a couple months what I was going to do for Free Comic Book Day because the one downside of our new neighborhood is that it’s entirely too cool for a comics shop.  Without a place that’s truly local, I had to figure out where I would trek to for the day; unlike in Athens, I actually had a ton of options for shops that I could check out, even if none of them are located super close to where I live.

Pictured (left to right, top to bottom): Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 5, Ms. Marvel Vol. 8, Saga Vol. 8, Berlin, Strangers in Paradise XXV #1, Maxwell’s Demons #1, World’s Greatest Cartoonists, Barrier #1

Eventually, I settled on checking out Books With Pictures, a local intersectional feminist comics shop that I’ve heard about from a few people who are knowledgeable about the Portland comics scene (I’m still tickled that I live in a place where there’s a comics scene at all).  It required riding two buses across town and back (which was actually quite pleasant, although I almost missed my transfer because I had to look up where the stop for my second bus was after I got off the first one), so the whole outing ended up taking about two hours.

The shop itself is extremely bright, which is really nice (I’ve been in some comics shops where they’re designed not to allow any natural light in, and those places always just feel super cramped and depressing) and the staff were all very friendly (they all wore paper crowns to help customers pick them out in the crowd).  Like with most comics shops, they had a system in place for customers to get their free comics; when I went in I was given a paper bag with instructions to pull five free comics from the shelves and then stand in line to have a staff member seal up my bag.  Because it was my first time at this shop I wasn’t really familiar with the layout, so I ended up getting in line before I’d picked out my books, so I ended up with stuff from the mature readers section at the end (my biggest regret is missing the new issue of The Tick, because New England Press always puts out a very nice standalone issue with a couple of complete stories for Free Comic Book Day).  That was mostly okay though, because I didn’t see a whole lot that I was especially interested in when I looked at the FCBD inventory list ahead of time.  The big draw of the day for me was taking the opportunity to buy paper copies of new trades for the ongoing series that I follow from a local independent business (I can order books from Amazon anytime, but they’re, y’know, evil, so it’s nice to occasionally be able to direct my money elsewhere).

This brings me to a point that I try to make every year, but I don’t feel like I can say it often enough.  The comics publishing industry is a messed up thing where publishers and distributors have managed to create a status quo where retail has to carry pretty much all the financial risk for selling product.  When you walk into a comic shop, everything they have in their inventory has already been bought and paid for by them; they can’t return unsold books to the publisher the way that text-only bookstores typically can.  This even includes the free issues that stores offer up on Free Comic Book Day.  Comics shops are risky ventures that only survive because of dedicated patrons who guarantee a certain number of sales from month to month.  It’s a bad system, but the prospects of changing it any time soon are slim to none.  This doesn’t mean you have to go out and do a regular pull list to support your local (unless you have the money and interest to do that); I’ve never had a pull list, and I don’t read comics month-to-month.  Read comics in whatever format you like (I’m partial to digital because it saves physical space and is much cheaper, although I will absolutely buy trades of my most favorite series–it makes it easier to loan stuff out in the hypothetical world where I know someone who’s into comics and hasn’t read what I have).  The thing you must remember though is that if you enjoy Free Comic Book Day, when you go to a comics shop, you should go with the intention of buying some stuff.  It’s an expensive advertising event for shops, and the only reason it continues to happen is because they hope to bring in some extra sales with it.  Obviously, don’t spend more than you can afford, but be mindful that if you walk into a comics shop on Free Comic Book Day and walk out only with the freebies, that business has lost money on you.

Anyway, here’s what I picked up:

  • Berlin – This is a sampling of a three volume graphic novel (about to be released as a hardcover omnibus later this year) about the city of Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic and through rise and fall of the Nazi government.  This one’s going on my to-read list.
  • Barrier – Brian K Vaughan’s name is a pretty big draw in comics right now, and this series about a Texas rancher and a man from Honduras crossing paths feels like something really interesting.  I think it’s meant to be a miniseries (Vaughan has two other ongoing series at the moment, so I am very doubtful he could juggle a third), so I’m hoping to check it out later when it’s all finished and collected.  The horizontal format makes for some interesting panel layouts and really emphasizes those big, wide open skies in the Texas setting.
  • Strangers in Paradise XXV – This issue falls in the middle of a long running independent series, and a whole lot of what’s going on (there are these women who seem to be on the run from the government, among other weird things) didn’t make much sense to me as a brand new reader.  The first few volumes are available on Comixology Unlimited, so I’ll go back and read some of the series’s beginning to see if it’s something I’d like to invest my time in long-term.
  • Maxwell’s Demons – It’s a story about a ten-year-old boy genius.  It’s not really my thing (the narration feels overwrought), but the art is nice.
  • World’s Greatest Cartoonists – I have learned over the years that whatever Drawn & Quarterly puts out for Free Comic Book Day (see Berlin above) is probably worth my time, even if I end up taking a pass on reading more of it.  The flipside of that is stuff put out by Fantagraphics; they’re a publisher that tends more towards the super experimental indie side of comics, and much of what they produce is just not my speed.  This sampler of short stories from a variety of artists has some okay stuff, but much of it is just not in my wheelhouse.

Re-Reading Magik (Part 3)

The Magik miniseries ran from the fall of 1983 into the winter of 1984.  That’s the same year that the original Ghostbusters was released and Jack Chick published his infamous anti-Dungeons & Dragons tract, Dark Dungeons (there’s a throwback post for you).  These three things all hail from disparate parts of the pop culture landscape; one was an obscure religious tract detailing the dangers of using one’s imagination, one was a major vehicle for a few of the late ’70s and early ’80s biggest comedy stars, and one (the subject of this series) was a tie-in to a comic that spun off from the Uncanny X-Men right when it was turning into Marvel’s biggest cash cow.  These creative works had nothing to do with each other, but they all feel tapped into a major phenomenon of that era: the satanic panic.

To get an idea of what the satanic panic looked like, here’s a bit from a post by Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk:

The rise of charismatic Christianity and talk of “spiritual warfare,” along with movies like The Exorcist, fueled a new dualistic supernaturalism among Americans. This was given credibility when we watched the news and witnessed the evil, grisly acts of murderous cults like the Manson “Family” and Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (Jonestown). A “satanic panic” arose in the 1980’s fueled by revelations of “repressed memories” indicating that large numbers of children had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). A new diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder looked a lot like demon possession. Christian comedian Mike Warnke made a meteoric rise to popularity, with outrageous claims of having been delivered from Satanism. He told stories that scared the pants off Christian parents and youth alike who flocked to hear him speak and to buy his books and recordings. Preachers engaged in a focused critique on rock music’s occult influence on young people, especially in the “heavy metal” genre. These years saw the rise of the “New Age” movement. Popular Christian fiction writer Frank Peretti wrote best-selling books about “spiritual warfare against a vast, seductive New Age conspiracy” that was taking place in towns like yours and mine.

This account is specifically from a white evangelical perspective, but it still captures the zeitgeist that much of America was feeling in the early ’80s.  The supernatural was real, and it was dangerous, and the worst thing it could do was get to your children.  Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wanted to poke fun at it, Jack Chick wanted to capitalize on it, and Chris Claremont wanted to use it as a backdrop for his version of a “Little Girl Lost” story.

It’s sort of comical how obviously Belasco’s design is cribbed from traditional depictions of the devil. Also, note Illyana’s caption at the bottom of the panel where she admits to herself that she’s attracted to what Belasco’s offering despite knowing it’s dangerous. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

In retrospect, I think it was this evocation of the satanic that really appealed to me when I first read Magik about a decade ago.  In the years immediately after I graduated college I was very deeply immersed in the white evangelical subculture, and while this was the late ’00s, within white evangelicalism we were still in a lot of ways stuck back in the ’80s.  The concept of spiritual warfare, which asserts that all worldly conflicts are also overseen by equivalent conflicts between the forces of God and the devil, was a major aspect of white evangelical life.  It’s easy to see the echoes of this concept descending from the satanic panic of three decades earlier.  The conflict of Magik resonated with other Christian-branded media I consumed at the time like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (published in 1986), which tells the story of a battle between angels and demons in a small town where a New Age cult has infiltrated the community and begun brainwashing people into devil worship.  At the time I didn’t really grok that these different areas of pop culture were related in theme because they were all made in a span of time when much of American pop culture was preoccupied with these motifs.

What all this means for Magik is that while it’s pretty obviously a story about abuse, when I first read it I was drawn to the corruption elements in the story because they reflected the internal struggle that white evangelicals recapitulate for themselves all the time.  When you see the world as being fundamentally a struggle between your baser nature (never forget that the Calvinist idea of utter depravity is the harm that keeps on harming) and the influence of a morally upright divinity trying to exert its influence on you, it becomes pretty easy to relate to the scared little girl who finds herself attracted to the temptations of power offered by the red man with horns and a tail (and only a left arm because who doesn’t love visual coding to reinforce the untrustworthiness of sinister people?) while continually chastising herself for being tempted at all.  Even the final issue’s conclusion, where Illyana sees herself succumbing to Belasco’s influence and choosing to spare him to keep from becoming exactly like him, is fraught with subtext about refusing to engage with the devil using his own methods.  Illyana wins the fight, but her solution for coping with the corruption is to bury it inside her.  In the final pages of the series, she uses her powers to not only escape from Limbo, but to also alter her appearance so that she doesn’t look like she’s just spent seven years in hell.  It’s one last bit of obfuscation to help the X-Men accept her as an innocent victim when she feels at least partly complicit in the changes that have happened to her during her formative years.  Inside she feels depraved, but she puts on a shiny facade in a way that’s highly reminiscent of the ethos of white evangelicalism to never let inner difficulties show because those simply aren’t accepted by the larger community.

There are words to be said about Illyana’s appearance as this story progresses, but I think that will have to wait for another entry. Suffice it to say, her growing horns and a tail are pretty extra for a sequence that’s more satisfying to read as her reclaiming her agency from a long time abuser. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #20”

I don’t think it’s much of a secret that out of the entire Pantheon, I have something of a soft spot for both Cassandra and Baphomet, so an issue that centers around Cassandra learning that Laura is alive while also giving us a ton of new information about what Baphomet was up to after Ragnarock is going to be right up my alley.  Besides featuring a couple of my favorite characters, this issue has the bonus of being the mid-arc breather in the middle of The Wicked + The Divine‘s version of an action movie.  While it’s not exactly accurate to say that all the plot stuff stops, the focus has decidedly shifted back onto character interactions and complicated feelings over McKelvie drawing awesome fight scenes.

This is the most dignified Cassandra gets to look in this issue; every interior panel involves her being angry, confused, or recovering from the effects of getting miracle-whammied. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Apropos of this issue being Cassandra’s reintroduction following the hiatus between the third and fourth arcs, she and the other Norns get the cover for the issue.  Like the others in this set, they’re depicted in the middle of a performance, although unlike in their debut at Ragnarock there’s a hint of color to it this time.  The whole image is far less abrasive than that stark black and white splash page from issue #10, but it still conveys a certain imperiousness that Cassandra would find very satisfying (especially since one of the series’s best running jokes is her undignified indignant tantrums whenever someone does something against her perfectly reasoned advice).  Since all the covers in this set are more about showing the gods being dynamic instead of just posing in static glamour shots, it makes sense that these would be the way they most want others to see them.  I find Cassandra so endearing because she’s perennially frustrated with not being taken seriously, and this cover’s a chance for her and the rest of the Norns to project how they see themselves.

Aw, Laura. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The frame for this issue is Laura’s reunion with Cassandra in the rubble of what was formerly the Wilson residence.  It’s emotional in all the ways you would expect for Cassandra, who is only comfortable with the open expression of feelings like contempt, anger, and resignation, while Laura is much more reserved.  That reservation is understandable; in the past couple issues we’ve just gotten a few glimpses of Laura’s emotional state in the aftermath of Ananke trying to kill her and blowing up her home.  She’s on a mission right now, and that’s what she’s trying to focus on.  The brief moment that she and Cassandra have here is just a small outlet for all those pent up emotions that we’ve only otherwise seen conveyed through Laura’s performance at her premier (“Persephone’s in hell” is not exactly a subtle message).

Other important details that we glean here are the fact that not only do Laura’s powers work on Cassandra (remember, Cassandra has the unique talent of being immune to all divine performances because she’s a stone skeptic and nihilist) but they work at a distance via other god technologies.  An established thing about the Pantheon are that their fans have to see them in person in order to experience their miracles because they don’t transmit through recordings; yes, you can handwave that Owly is special because it’s something that Minerva created (probably with Woden’s help; I’m not sure if that’s ever been made clear), but the fact remains that Laura can miraculously communicate over distances with even the most divine-averse individuals.  She’s not an official part of the Pantheon, and there’s good reason for that (one other small evidence to throw onto the “Persephone is something weird” pile is the fact that she was able to break through the walls of Valhalla, which, given the mad scrambling that the Morrigan and company did while trying to escape, is probably not something that just anyone can do).

“This is strange and scary and definitely not how things are supposed to work.” -Cassandra’s brain at this moment. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

The main event of the issue though is the flashback to what happened the night of Ragnarock.  This entire sequence is done in this lovely three color palette of white, pink, and blue that helps keep everything firmly grounded as not just a flashback, but Laura’s memories of what’s happened the last couple months.  Gillen cheats a little bit with the narrative here, because so much of this flashback is about scenes that Laura only heard about after the fact from Baphomet, but that’s honestly a minor quibble.  The important thing is that Laura is using her powers to dump a whole lot of exposition into Cassandra’s brain, and the coloring that Matt Wilson does here helps immensely in keeping that fact front and center.  A few of the pages here are composed of recycled panels from issue #11 (in at least one case, there’s an entire page reproduced exactly); it’s a common trick that Gillen discusses frequently in his writer notes of seeing how the creative team can creatively use artwork to expand the page count of any given issue where they’re working with a specific production budget.  I haven’t bothered to count the pages in issue #20, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a little longer than average because of all the artwork that Wilson only had to recolor instead of McKelvie reproducing it from scratch.

Besides showing that Baphomet was actually extremely upset about the Morrigan being captured, this panel also nicely showcases the two ends of the color spectrum used in the flashbacks: neon pinks for heat and rich teals of various values for cool. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Production wonkery aside, the important story beats to gather from this sequence are that Baphomet ended up having too much of a conscience to go through with murdering Inanna (but not enough of one to not blow up a church), Inanna ended up being the person who was murdered in Laura’s place when he and Baphomet showed up to rescue her, and Laura spent over a month in a dark pit while she hid in the Underground with the dude with the worst PR in the whole Pantheon.  There was also some canoodling because Baphomet, pulling a page directly out of the playbook that Marian used to comfort him after his own parents died, tells Laura way more about himself than he probably should, including the fact that he is not actually Baphomet (he’s really Nergal, which is the name for a bunch of Underworld type gods in various tabletop RPGs; this is the kind of obscure thing that absolutely would bug Cameron endlessly even though no one else would know or care; heck, I’ve googled this factoid multiple times, and I’m still not sure which Nergal he’s embarrassed to be associated with, although my personal headcanon is the dude from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy).

I can’t stop laughing at this panel. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Anyway.

This is friendship. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This issue is full of feels for several of my favorite characters, and it does a lot to recontextualize Baphomet’s actions during the “Commercial Suicide” arc so that he doesn’t seem like quite the selfish jerk that he came off as at the end of issue #12.  Laura is drowning in grief on top of her already manifest depression (pretty sure suddenly becoming a god doesn’t do anything to alleviate already present mental health issues), and Cassandra is still the best person to rant about everyone else’s stupid decisions.  Next issue will get back to the regularly scheduled mayhem.

Bonus panel! This exchange precedes Laura initiating sex, because who doesn’t think nerd pedantry is the hotness? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

We Are Falling, But Not Alone (Nier: Automata Final Log)

Following the third ending of Nier: Automata, the player gets a bunch of new options for the remainder of the game experience.  At this point, you’ve effectively played through all of the primary content of the game, and to save you the frustration of having to replay a bunch of stuff that isn’t novel, you’re given access to a chapter selection when you go to start a new game.  It’s nice because it includes all the major movements of both the 2B/9S story and the 9S/A2 story in a continuous sequence.  I didn’t bother to replay from the very beginning at this point, so I don’t know if the game is designed to allow a player to play both halves in immediate succession; it’s hard to say if that sort of experience would enhance or detract from the story, since the two halves seem very distinct in tone.  Instead, I jumped directly to the final chapter where 9S and A2 face off at the top of the tower because I wanted to see what 9S’s ending would look like if you choose to play as him for the final battle.

What you get in this fourth ending (canonically called ending “D,” so I guess I viewed them all in the right order) is 9S succeeding in killing A2 before the tower begins to fall apart.  As it’s collapsing around him, 9S accesses the tower’s network and discovers that it’s not trying to destroy the human server on the moon; it’s trying to send all of the data collected by the androids and machines out into space.  All of Adam and Eve’s memories are preserved, and 9S has the option of adding his own data to this Ark; for my part I elected to have 9S turn the opportunity down.  He’s a nihilistic manbaby, so he can expire on Earth for all I care.  The ending is a lot more positive than I anticipated since it turns on 9S realizing he was wrong to try to destroy everything, but it still ended up feeling a little hollow; I have a hard time accepting a five minute redemption arc for a character who spends the second half of the game fully invested in wiping out all machine intelligence because a girl he liked happened to die in a military operation that the androids initiated (seriously, if the machines can learn to peacefully coexist with androids, then the androids, who think themselves sentient, should be able to deescalate tensions as well).

Despite my antipathy towards 9S as a character (hacking is fun, but seriously, 9S suuuuucks), his ending does help bring into relief the thematic thread through all the characters’ various endings.  The chief motif of Nier: Automata is that beings with an ill-defined purpose and a sense of self will struggle to make meaning of their existence.  The machines and the androids both are fighting in a proxy war for their creators who are all long dead, and some of them have begun to understand that fact.  The leader of the pacifist machine village, Pascal, is an active student of philosophy because he wants to help usher his followers into a future that’s guided by their own sense of purpose rather than something that was given to them.  The YoRHa androids are all invested in the war because learning the truth is likely to set them off on a death spiral.  This is a significant implication of the late game revelation that 2B was actually a 2E–Execution–unit whose primary mission was to repeatedly kill 9S in order to prevent him from learning the truth about YoRHa high command.  Because of 9S’s superior analytical abilities, YoRHa assumed that he would inevitably figure out what happened to humanity and the YoRHa androids’ own origins as technological descendants of the alien machines, so they needed someone to eliminate him whenever he got close to the truth.  The death of 2B during the virus attack undermines that strategy, and we see from 9S’s story in the second half that all this forbidden knowledge combined with his grief over 2B’s death drives him to utter madness.  He’s the character who most quickly assumes that all machine behavior is ultimately meaningless, and when he learns that his own actions have no inherent meaning anymore, he goes off the deep end.  A2 has an inverted narrative where she moves from nihilism to a newfound appreciation for all the creatures just trying to live their lives around her.

All in all, this is perhaps the most existential game I’ve played in a while.

Rounding out the experience (because of course there’s more) is the fifth major ending, which helps contextualize all the repetitions of the story that the player has had to experience in order to get the full game.  The Pods 042 and 153 have developed their own self awareness as they follow 2B, 9S, and A2 through their various adventures and have also grown attached to the androids.  Following the last ending, we see that the Pods have been recording all of the data of the entire story, and part of their mission has been to observe events to their ultimate conclusion.  The complete destruction of YoRHa marks that, so they start to delete all the data (there’s no one left besides them to observe it), but the player and the pods have the option to halt the process and preserve everything.

I have a deep affection for interactive credits in games.

This is where the last major twist of the game comes in.  If you elect to half the data erasure, then the credits turn into a long bullet hell sequence in the style of the hacking minigame (but with way more things to dodge).  The difficulty gradually scales up as the credits roll, and eventually (unless you’re especially good at this particular kind of game), you take three hits from all the debris and fail the sequence.  While the final credits song plays on a continuous loop, the game asks if you give up, and messages from other players who have completed Nier:Automata appear in the background.  If you choose not to give up, then the credits start from whatever checkpoint you last reached, and you can keep going until you fail again.  After a few failed attempts (assuming you don’t give up), you see a prompt with an offer of help from some random player.  You don’t have to accept it, and you’re free to try as long as you want to get through the credits by yourself.  I’m stubborn, and I tried for a long time until I accidentally accepted help from someone.

This is some dramatic stuff.

Once you accept help, the sequence changes dramatically as a battalion of hacker icons like your own surround you and add their own firepower, making it remarkably easy to finish the credit sequence.  As you finish out the credits this last time, you can still be hit, and every time you take damage, one of the helpers is destroyed with a small message stating that so-and-so’s data was lost.  When you finally reach the end, the game congratulates you on completing Nier: Automata, and it asks if you want to help others reach the ending as well.  The stipulation is that if you agree to do this, then your save data will be erased.

Suddenly everything about the ending sequence gets recontextualized as you learn that those players who were helping you reach the end of the credits have already done so, and they sacrificed their save data to do it (barring, of course, any quirky tricks like creating a duplicate save file).  Gamers are a weird bunch when it comes to record keeping, and the prospect of deleting a save file on a completed game can be a pretty compelling disincentive from helping others out.  Despite that obstacle, clearly a decently large number of players agreed to do just that (or least the game gives that appearance).  In the face of an ultimately pointless activity (you’re trying to get to the end of a credits sequence), people will band together to accomplish their goals.  Or they won’t (the messages that other players leave can be either encouraging or discouraging).  Either way, Nier tells us, we should spend our time the way we want to spend it, and people will be there to help one another out.  Existence is a big scary thing that’s sort of incomprehensible for everyone, but at least we’re muddling through it together.