Written by Josh Breidbart

Something, Something, Menu Pun

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/17/01172017-feeding-time/

I was never able to get into Destiny, to join the chorus of millions of other gamers who were promised the second coming of Halo. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, by any means. In fact, as an avid gamer, it’s hard not to have a certain level of respect for the game. The mechanics, the shooting, the level design, the structure. On a gameplay level, it’s amazingly designed, to a point where everything feels and reacts perfectly for optimal action and fun. It just feels “right” – yet I can’t bring myself to play it. And it’s not because I have problems with the (perfectly fine) art design or the (admittedly less fine) story. It’s because for every minute spent shooting and exploring, I found myself spending five minutes doing this:

As readers of this blog know, I’ve played a great many games, and I can’t even keep track of how many of them stumble when it comes to the menu. Skyrim, No Man’s Sky, and most recently the fabulous Let it Die are just a few examples. I love being able to fiddle with visuals, item management, crafting, lore reading, and the like, but it’s a problem when those features start taking up more play time than the game itself. When you spend a majority of your time in a menu, THAT RIGHT THERE is the game. And that’s a fucking waste.

A good menu is intrinsic to a positive gameplay experience. It should be clear, only a few levels deep, and most critically, it should not take away from the point of the game itself. In Destiny and games like it, the sprawling, multilevel menus quickly become exhausting instead of exhilarating. If I wanted to organize my shit, I’d start with my sock drawer.

Maybe it’s the fat kid in me, but a game menu should be a lot like a good restaurant menu. Your time with it shouldn’t dominate the experience. It should efficiently map out your meal, introduce you to your options, and highlight anything unusual (alternate game modes, special dishes intended for more than one person, optional bosses guarding special drops, deserts that need 45 minutes of prep time). It should be instantly understandable, instead of a tome to study and revisit as you proceed through the meal (although TGI Friday’s might disagree). And if you’re really in a five star restaurant, the interaction with the menu should reflect and enhance the experience to maximum effect. Man, I’m hungry.

When this works, when the menu feels intrinsic to the game, intuitive, and completely unobtrusive, an immersive experience is easier to achieve. It could be a detailed piece of the gameplay design like the HUD in Dead Space, or a minimalist map like the one in Shadow of the Colossus; every game’s needs are different. I even have a fondness for Uncharted’s use of Nate’s notebook, where information grows as he literally takes notes through the game. For that game, it works! Heck, one of my favorites was the main menu in Brutal Legend, brilliantly building on the rock and roll motifs it references.

When a menu feels like it’s there to serve the game without intruding, it helps build an atmosphere. But when it doesn’t… you get something like Fallout 3 (and 4, from what I hear, though I never played). The menu starts with a bang as your “pip-boy”, an in-game steampunk iWatch, where you can equip and use items, check your skills and stats, read your health and radiation levels, change settings and so much more. Your survival depends on this little doohickey, considering how many people I took out who lacked said luxury item. But the more I played, the more wondrous sites I explored and treasures I found, the more I found myself in that menu, sworn to carry the burdens of my wasteland collection, constantly checking and comparing gear and new skills, allocating health kits and items so I wouldn’t be stuck moving at a snail’s pace from carrying more than allotted. Fallout 3 is a game about survival in the nuclear wasteland, so I get that resource management should be a vital component in building that fantasy. But what I’m describing isn’t resource management. It’s resource accumulation. My abundance of items and stats had to be carefully managed, not to survive, but rather to make it back to base or the quest zone with as much of the stuff as I could carry. That’s not surviving, that’s treasure diving. In fairness, I loved Fallout 3. I just wish so much of it wasn’t spent in that goddamn pip-boy. It felt like carrying a Gameboy through a Mad Max movie.

Look, I know you can file most of this rant under “this shouldn’t affect anyone unless they have issues”. I guess I just like games, and this one aspect of them gets treated more as a technical element when it can and should be just as intrinsic to the game design as the combat mechanics. It should set the stakes, maintain a theme, get you where you want to go, and most importantly, get you out. Because in the end, you’re not here for the menu. You’re here for the feast.

Hey, sound off below on your favorite menus. Maybe I haven’t been to the right restaurant yet or don’t know what to get there.

I’m Super, Thanks For Asking

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/12/01122017-whats-eating-you/

You know, it’s weird; I’ve brought up Dragon Ball Z what feels like a million times, and yet I have never expanded my scope beyond that series’ incarnation. Goku and friends’ expansive adventures span multiple television incarnations; Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT, and most recently, Dragon Ball Super (and Dragon Ball Kai, I guess – it’s just Dragon Ball Z streamlined and re-edited, but its contribution for re-engaging the kid audience shouldn’t be understated). But I never bring up the alternatives, and it’s because they never really resonated with me. And I didn’t mind; they were padding that gave the legend more structure and “legacy”, I suppose, beyond what I believe is the franchise’s greatest chapter. But I never really engaged myself because, tonally, everything apart from Z is very different. However, with Dragon Ball Super’s first English dub episode premiering last weekend, I thought I’d expand my horizons a bit.

Dragon Ball Super takes place about one year after the end of Dragon Ball Z, before the events of Dragon Ball GT (potentially writing the latter out of existence, to the celebration of most fans). It revolves around the Saiyan warrior Goku and his bestest bud and all-time greatest character ever, Vegeta, as they continue their adventures, defying impossible odds as they bring their legend to a galaxy where everything is solved through a vague understanding of the martial arts. There’s not really much here for new fans of the show, as much of it relies on the foundation laid in Z. Not to say that the plot is deep or nuanced. In fact, it’s paper thin, a tenuous structure to hang adventures on. The fun of Super is in watching the characters we already love and having fun with them. The show is about 74 episodes deep in Japan, but the English version only just premiered the other day. The first few episodes are loosely based on the recent movies Battle of Gods and Resurrection F, but from there the show has split off in its own unique direction involving parallel time periods, inter-dimensional martial arts tournaments, and the only game of baseball I’ve ever enjoyed (fans of the infamous DMV filler episode should not miss this one). Before the dub was released, I saw a few scenes and read some descriptions of what happened, not unlike how I went into DBZ with the knowledge of what had already aired in Japan all those years ago, but I still never felt too much urge to watch it without dialogue to follow. Audio, it turns out, is the real deal breaker for me.

Though I am one of the ADD generation that enjoys working while listening to a show, Dragon Ball Z was never that for me, drawing me in with long takes and protracted action. And I associate a lot of that with the sound of the show. Of fire exploding from one’s body. Of the earth trembling as it tears asunder from a massive power level. And really, the dub. Those voices of Goku, Krillin, Piccolo, King Kai and Vegeta (both original actor Brian Drummond and Chris Sabat) have a special place in my heart – they are how I got to know these characters. It’s always difficult to invest fully in the show without their participation, which is arguably what kept me from getting more involved with Super until now. But now that I’m here…

Oh jeez. Wow. Oh man, this is fucking goofy.

The plot isn’t even really worth getting into for more than a paragraph, again, a flimsy wire hanger to hang a shirt that is super old, but still holds emotional significance. Goku is getting by, working as the worst field-plower on the planet. New character Beerus is having a destructive food tour across the galaxy. And Mr. Satan is in a Bert-and-Ernie relationship with Majin Buu. Seriously, are they a couple? Can they please be a couple? At least they’d have a stronger relationship than, say Gohan and Videl. She’s taken on what was formerly Chi-Chi’s role, back when Gohan’s mother tried to keep him focused on studying instead of fighting. Not to say that Gohan needs to be a fighter, considering that he did a lifetime’s worth of fighting with Cell when he was only 12, but the poor kid looks like he’s been bullied into becoming a nerd and it’s just sad. It really says something when Vegeta has some of the healthiest relationships in this universe, both romantic and paternal (related: Jesus Christ is Goku a bad parent). Sitcom filler tropes get a workout, with Goten and Trunks searching for the “perfect wedding present”, eventually settling on “toilet water” after a comical misunderstanding. Dragon Ball Z this is not. And while none of this is offensive to my sensibilities, unlike a certain movie about a deity of dubious mortality, it’s just silly and, other than dicking around with these characters, doesn’t seem to have a reason to exist.

There is one scene I’d like to talk about in a bit more detail though, and that’s the end. Goku has a garbage job plowing fields, because keeping the planet from being blown up by aliens is apparently not all that lucrative. Sure, he’d rather return to the training he enjoys, but food and housing and tutoring to turn Goten into a wet noodle like his brother aren’t free. Suddenly, a car rolls up, and an old friend drops him a shitton of money to go do more of the thing we all want him to do, which Goku “reluctantly” accepts.

My point is that nothing is written in a vacuum, even something trying to be goofy. It all means something. Goten’s adventure, for example, was a proven formula that the show’s writers could make fun of in an attempt to fill time and demonstrate the characters’ caring in a world that is super goofy. And given that the moneybags scene is one of the few that overlaps with the companion manga, which is far more streamlined than the show, it hints that it’s an important one. And it just feels oddly meta, to bring this guy out of retirement and do his old thing for a bajillion dollars. It makes you wonder how Akira Toriyama was approached about this. Not to save the world, but to just flex his muscles and let others do the heavy lifting. To quote Chi-Chi when he brought the money home, “Yeah, sure, whatever, just make sure to drop by from time to time.” Classic Toriyama women…

I guess Dragon Ball Z is Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball Super is… different. The Z characters are back, but tonally, it’s far goofier and jokey (some of which lands, and some of which is just cringe-worthy). Dragon Ball Z was always a goofy show, but on a much grander scale, with stakes that always felt dire. In all the episodes I’ve seen of Super, but especially episode one, the vibe seems to be more “chill out, we’re only here to have fun”. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it explains why I never got into the original show or later attempts. Because it wasn’t why I related to or liked the show. For me, the heart of Dragon Ball Z has always been one message: never give up, no matter the odds. Super retains aspects of that message, but the show feels… brighter. More optimistic. Even the literal color palette is less washed out than Z’s, more saturated like a coloring book. And with the advent of colorful new transformations like Super Saiyan God, Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan (wut?), and Super Saiyan Rosé (somehow not a Super Saiyan with a yacht that vacations in the Hamptons), it’s hard not to see this as something, literally, more colorful than its predecessors. And though I don’t think Super can or ever will resonate with me like Z did, I don’t think it wanted to to begin with. And if that means more episodes like this one

That’s fine with me.


Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/10/01102017-projecting/

Though I have limitless access to the Unlife backlog through the wonderful world of internet, I find myself saving out every Unlife image from the website direct. It doesn’t raise our numbers in any meaningful way; I just like having that instant access to our work. Maybe it’s egotistical, but I’m a fan of what we’ve done here. I like having it at my fingertips to show off to others and myself. But with each file I save, the file name and strip number rises up, bringing us today, where I see we’re at…

Wait, 509?! When did we hit 500?!

Last month, actually. Yeah, passing by with little warning or fanfare, Zack and I leapt past our 500th strip, and simply proceeded to 501 in order to conclude the James vs. Mica fight, at that point our most immediate concern. Business as usual. Instead of saying thank you, we poured our appreciation into the comic, its quality rising to Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan heights.

It’s not like this would have changed the content of the strip or blog post in any meaningful way. 500 is little more than a number that looks nice. Maybe it’s a “men, amirite” thing, but anniversaries tend to mean less to me because they are just a number. If anything, I get more excited for the number to that’s to come than the one I am observing. Gifts are a nice, if that’s your annual tradition, but Zack and I save the presents for Hanukkah (though I did get a Chinese Food takeout menu under my door… NoriMori, was that you?!).

Still, the fact that I didn’t mention it at the time doesn’t mean I don’t take in the significance of 500 strips. It’s no small task to not only not burn out in that time, but to stride even further and grow stronger than before. It’s a lot for both me and Zack to have come this far with such an obvious ascent in quality, especially into such unknown territory. I’m sorry if this all comes off as bragging, but I am exceptionally proud of what we’ve accomplished in Unlife, which has gone far beyond the scope of anything Zack or I have accomplished previously. Most creators only dream of getting past episode one, and here I am, more than five years in, the comic taking a very different shape than I could have anticipated back in strip 1. Guided by the characters, the audience, and my own life, it has expanded beyond its original boundaries, moving forward, growing into its own story. It’s bittersweet to think of how two of the original main characters I planned to focus on have been sort of… left behind, as the story moved on without them. Such is Unlife. Even James seems to finally be moving on a bit (though, as always, he did find a way to drag his feet along the way). Now here he is, his arm severed, a gun to a bigot’s head after throwing down with an evil politician’s lesbian zombie vizier. Who the hell saw this coming at strip 1?

Hell, I’m just realizing I’m fast closing in on 100 blogs for Unlife, which I started writing a little over a year ago. Bananas.

How should we celebrate a 500th strip anniversary for Unlife? We have a history of cruel timing regarding annual events, something that has shaped the tone of the story. A good fake out probably would have been to kill James (and I know we have a few people on Team Mica here… I do read the comments). But you know we won’t, because this isn’t a story about James’ delayed death. This is about what comes after. What’s scary. What can be overcome. What we really are when we walk the earth after we’ve been told we’re already finished, when we push beyond how we feel and even the realms of what’s supposed to be possible. It’s about who we are in that moment. And in that moment…

Honestly I feel like I overslept, talking about something this important without any fanfare, but maybe this is as a good a time as any to say I’m really glad to be here today. Happy 509th strip, everyone. To Zack, to Jena, to all our fans, and everyone that helped us get to this point. It’s been hard getting here at times, putting our hearts and souls into every update, sharing this with the world. It’s an accomplishment I don’t mind bragging a bit about. I don’t feel bad saying that we were victorious in making it this far, like James, no matter how much it hurt. And I know we’ll make it even farther. But it’s not about hitting a number for us, reaching out for a 1,000th strip or even a 1,000,000th strip. It’s only about taking that next step. That next stride.

To lumber forward, at first as a zombie and maybe next as something more alive.

God’s Not Dead – A Film Review

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/05/01052017-turnabout-is-fair-play/

God damn, where do I even start with this one…

This vacation, I promised myself I’d catch up on an ever growing list of entertainment that demands consumption (The Last Guardian, for one). In the end, I only found time for one, but it found a way to stick with me like a catchy song that I positively hate. Pure Flix’s movie “God’s Not Dead” is the story of… you know what? It’d be easier if you just watched the trailer.

A film heralded for either affirming the Christian faith or being “so bad, it’s good”, the film is about a college freshman named Josh Whedon (ho’ boy…), as he faces off against his Philosophy 101 professor, Hercules (fine, Professor Kevin Sorbo). After a confrontation in which our hero refuses to sign a paper that God is dead, required “to make the most of his time”, the professor proceeds to give up 20 minutes per class to let a student talk about God. What follows are intertwining tales of people finding faith and the idea that everything, good and bad, happens for a reason, and are all a part of God’s complicated design. The celebration of God and divine intervention leads to a series of coincidences intended to leave the viewer with the feeling that God, is in fact, not dead.

Though the setting of a majority of this film is a philosophy class, the discussions rely on circular arguments and semantics (neither of which constitute philosophy, which is the study of knowledge and existence, not the study of “you can’t prove it, so I don’t have to either”). For the record, there ARE philosophical arguments that can be made about the existence of God, many of which are fascinating and would make for a very powerful film about faith, but for the life of me, I can’t recall the movie making any. Instead, we stick to why atheists are wrong and bad for claiming God is dead.

… Which is wrong, because atheists don’t believe God’s dead. They believe he doesn’t exist.

And I feel like that misunderstanding of the argument is a microcosm of the issues with this movie.

I’d like to preemptively extend an olive branch regarding my next argument: religious fanaticism is a pretty easy brush to paint a villain with, in film or any other medium. The idea of sacrificing free will to an almighty voice that doesn’t have to answer to anyone is an easy (and at times, lazy) out for character development, and if you are a person of faith seeing that kind of depiction, you might feel as though your religion is being picked on. How you bully someone who is so clearly in charge is a bit odd to me – for example, the year itself, 2017, is determined by how many years have passed since the birth of Christ – but I get it. If I felt that people were after me and misunderstanding me, I would want to speak up for myself, and I would want that representation to be something more positive.

But my problem here is the misunderstanding of the fight they are fighting. The idea that liberals and people of different faiths are rotten because of their lack of a Christian faith is disturbing. Especially because none of the movie’s “good Christians” show growth or, comically, evolution. I am not saying they should grow to love or question God more, but Josh Whedon never advances as a character, and that’s a problem. He’s right at the beginning, he’s right at the end, and all he does is study in between. Instead of showing Josh’s development, that middle time is spent painting how “wrong” the other side is, while our stalwart hero was right all along. That isn’t a story about faith; it’s a story about stubbornness. This isn’t about a kid who has to struggle to retain his faith, who is outnumbered and fears he’s wrong. In fact, only a handful of people ever think he’s wrong, and he ends up convincing all of them by the end (and the ones he doesn’t convince lead awful unfulfilling lives… or die). Isn’t faith about finding assurance in the unknown? Isn’t it about believing without proof or justification, even if the whole world is against you? But the world of this film is clearly turned against those who don’t believe. It’s not a movie about faith; it’s about conversion.

I can go on forever about the things that make this movie so disturbing, between its openly racist and sexist portrayals, the way the “characters” are more like odd caricatures, the bizarre cruelty of every nonbeliever depicted, the preachiness of those who believe, and the punishment visited on those who don’t. But I think the biggest thing I want to mention is the title.

God’s Not Dead. That’s the crux of the movie, the argument, the battle of wills, that the whole plot is built upon. And yet at no point is it made clear on either side why it’s important to establish that God is dead. On the one hand, concluding he’s dead, apart from not actually being what atheists think, is an incredibly closed-minded attitude to bring into a Philosophy class, one that has no place in any college. On the other hand, if God is alive… well, what does that mean? How does that change literally anything? It’s fine that this kid argues with his professor; arguably, that’s what College is all about. But whether he’s dead or not, why would that stop the celebration and thanksgiving of his followers… this is the very essence of the movie, and it’s never explained why establishing this is important.

See, someone being dead does not belittle or end their accomplishments. Has there ever been an important figure in our history that post death, became irrelevant? Did Martin Luther King Jr.’s death mean all he accomplished for civil rights has to be thrown out? If an artist dies, does that mean their works should be tossed out of the museum they’re being kept in? And if you’re looking at it from a Christian perspective, isn’t the fact that Jesus – otherwise known as God – died to save humanity more important than the fact that he came back?

But you know what? I think the people who made this movie need to be validated in life. And as far as I can tell, that yearning for validation in this world before the next seems prideful, antithetical to the very nature of what Christianity was founded upon. My knowledge of Christianity is admittedly limited, but I was always under the impression that Christians do charity work because it’s what Jesus would have wanted, keeping his teachings alive, even if there is no actual second coming on the horizon. What is to be gained in the semantics of dead vs. not dead, other than the pride and glow of being told “You were right all along”? What martyr’s story ends with “and then he won everything and hooked up with a hottie at a concert”? Religion should be about doing what’s right, not doing it because you are right. Right?

The point is that it’s just a simple way to rephrase an argument that isn’t even happening to make the person posing the question correct. There is literally no atheist arguing that God is dead, nor would it change anything if he was. Hell, when did he die? Does it matter?

I think of the counterbalance to movies like this, specifically “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, about the Scopes “monkey” trial. Religion “lost” in that play/movie, with the liberals in the argument depicted as right minded, rewarded for fighting the good fight. And yet, it never calls religion “wrong”. Rather, over-reliance on it, to the exclusion of thought, is the enemy. To quote the play itself, “The Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” Religion is not an excuse to stop growing and learning. It should be a guide, not the navigator.

For a movie taking place in a philosophy classroom, God’s Not Dead gets an incredible number of arguments wrong about the nature of religion and why people believe. The film even claims that morals would not exist without religion, and though an argument can be made that religion may have been how humanity first conceived of morality, the idea that it’s the glue that keeps society from pulling itself apart is absurd, considering how many conflicts have started over religion to begin with. And the idea that organized religion ever did do that does nothing to strengthen the argument that God is or is not dead. All it does is prove that the business of religion has a good PR person. No point is made about why the premise of the movie is important except to state that “My faith matters more than yours, now that I’ve rephrased your argument.” And the only place where God seems to play any factor is in a scene of divine intervention…

In which he kills a liberal for being an atheist. Don’t worry – there are two pastors there to convert him. After which they celebrated his demise by going to Disney World.

Dead or alive, if God was around to see this, do you really think that’s the message he wants to share?

Kappa Gamma Sigh

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/03/01032017-broken/

Back in college, I was the President of a fraternity.

I bring this up because recently I was informed that this brotherhood wasn’t a real fraternity (it was), and I am prone to take statements like that personally. I suppose it has to do with one of my sore points: I can’t stand having my life, my experiences and choices, being called “invalid”. I may be too sensitive, but I’m a writer – that’s kind of my deal. In the grand scheme, a statement like that about my fraternity is minuscule, even more so than the organization itself, which is mostly gone.

But the truth, my pride aside, is that I never thought of it as a fraternity anyway. It was a club, the prime goal of which was recruiting new members. Arguably, that was all we did during my time with them. Sure, we had some events and gatherings. The frat was focused on theater, so we found ways to showcase that, some traditional (showcases) and others more experimental (guerrilla Shakespeare, which is exactly what it sounds like). The experience felt like the Borg, one new member never enough, needing to spread our fold in the face of extinction, survival our only goal. It’s why I don’t really talk about it – sometimes, it felt less like a community and more like a pyramid scheme. One semester, we lost our only applicant before she was accepted, and I remember how we all reacted: endless conversations about the minutiae of how to make it more difficult to drop, and none at all about their reason for dropping, or why only one person had applied, or what the point of this frat even was.

Personally, I joined the frat because it gave me priority housing.

Yep, I went through the hassle of pledging and all the rest of it out of my anti-social desire to avoid having a roommate. There was also the added bonus of being able to choose a room next door to my girlfriend at the time (younger Josh couldn’t see how that could possibly backfire). The fraternity was a fun group, and many members were already my friends. But the whole thing felt like a hassle by the end, instead of an honor, which is a shame. I never got that sense of brotherhood that frats are famous for. It just never clicked.

So does that mean it wasn’t a real frat?

There’s this need for me to confirm that I did have a real brotherhood when even now, I have to admit to myself that the feeling was always absent for me. There were some great events and wonderful people I met through Kappa, and I do not regret my time with them. My brothers and sisters aren’t part of my active network, but there was a bond forged between me and the brothers and sisters in my pledge class that I still remember fondly, and I have kept some of those relationships going independent of my relationship with them through the frat. In the end, the group felt like an obligation when I wanted it to feel like family – but considering how annoying family obligations can sometimes be, maybe it was more like a family than I thought.

Fun fact: that person who told me my frat wasn’t a “real” frat? My actual, biological brother. Womp womp.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Review

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2016/12/22/12222016-it-is-pretty-funny/

Have you ever pick up a book thinking it was about one thing, only to realize it’s about something completely different? I know people always say that thing, something something book by its cover, but when a story completely catches you off guard, it can be jarring. Like firing an arrow at a target, only to have it bounce off and hit the assassin sneaking up behind you. Not that anything I’m speaking of reflects the content of Stephen Collins’ graphic novel “The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil”, but I couldn’t think of any beard metaphors at present time.

So I originally bought this book looking for grooming tips. Morality aside, I’ve always wanted a gigantic beard and this book even had illustrations.

Seriously, this book was a gift, and as soon as I saw it I decided that the beard must be a metaphor for misunderstood creativity. The idea of uncontrollable output. And due to the fact that the novel never spells it out for you, you might construe it as such. On the fictional island of Here (surrounded by a dark sea and a distant shore, known as There), we meet Dave, a bald man living an average life with an unaverage tiny hair sticking out from under his nose. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, the hair begins to grow, and soon sprouts into a beard of unimaginable size. It can’t be cut and it can’t be stopped, and it eventually threatens (well, inconveniences) the residents of Here. The book explores Dave’s journey as the beard slowly consumes his life and the lives of those around him.

I don’t get to read many graphic novels I know nothing about going in, and was saving it for a good reading day. Again, I thought I knew what it was about, so I figured I’d save it for a day where my creativity had hit a wall. And once more, that metaphor can work in regards to understanding the book. But when I read it, the metaphor that came to me was that the beard instead represented… depression. There’s a weird solitude to Here, where things aren’t perfect, but are orderly and ordinary, ideal compared to the dark and violent unknown of There. Here, things move in unchanging patterns (even if their origin is mysteriously unimportant), and it’s safe. Calm. Knowable. Any veering from those patterns is forbidden. Until the Beard casts a shadow over Here, to the point at which the other residents have to deal with it. Some attempt to explain it. Some attempt to manage it. Some grow from the experience, while others ostracize Dave for being different and not being able to control or fix his situation. But Dave doesn’t grow. Only his beard. He can’t shave it, get rid of it, or even get someone else to fix it. It just continues, inexorable. Until eventually, he’s cast out for it, consumed by the unknown blackness.

It made me think of old friends whose issues became too much to deal with. I, and others, grew through dealing with them, but ultimately, they shared Dave’s fate. It wasn’t their fault, per se. There isn’t always a solution to every problem. And even when there is, sometimes the solution feels too painful to attempt. And so the beard grows. How desperately I wished I could cut it off of them myself. “Fix” them. And I think, sometimes, even they wanted me to do that too. But they couldn’t stop that twisting darkness from springing eternal, until eventually I had to say goodbye.

I loved this book. The writing, the art, the themes of the story – they both resonated and made me jealous, made me wish I could produce something similar. Maybe I’ll be inspired to do so after this. But I hope works like this, works that make me think about things I never thought I’d revisit and things I never thought I’d have a new perspective on, spring eternal like the Beard.

My highest recommendation.

Monk Funk

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2016/12/20/12202016-visceral/

I adore Bloodborne, don’t you?

Not many people know this, but I made a game once.

Well, not just me. It’s important to note that games require an insane amount of work to get done in under 80 million years. I had only a semester, and I had to do it with a team of five. It was a class I took out of Cornell in ’02 with a few others. Though I did take up the expected job of writer, I was also the sole artist for the entire game.

It was a turn-based RPG about a bad-ass monkey named Monk Funk (yep) whose barber is kidnapped (yep). It was a notably simpler game than what I originally pitched, which featured a blind samurai who uses sound to illuminate each level and travels with a baby named Meatshield (yeah). But I wasn’t the programmer, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to code a game on a Mac in 2002. So my samurai yielded the floor to Monk Funk.

Yeah, this was a special kind of something.

I’m not sure if the thing can be shared or played anymore. If I could, I would. I totally would. I can’t say it would be “good” or “worth your time”, but it certainly exists (UPDATE: I found where it was originally posted. Not only is the link dead, but only the Cornell students are listed as having made it. THANKS GUYS!!!). Quality aside, the art was a huge strain to take on alone, especially for someone who isn’t an art major, ESPECIALLY especially for someone who was also trying to turn his passion project into a webcomic (a previous incarnation of Fenix Gear that we don’t discuss ever).

Not to mention, you know, the usual college course work.

I bring this up because it was during this project that I fell down a flight of stair and twisted my leg.

No, I didn’t mistype that. I missed one step and ended up the hospital the night I planned to work on the final boss.

I was leaving the cafeteria and I missed the last step, causing me to plummet to the floor. Literally, just one step off and my leg twisted all the way around and remained incapacitated for the rest of the semester. I dropped my dinner tray, and my friend Spunky laughed her ass off at me before realizing it wasn’t a joke. Once she realized the situation was more dramatic than a comical pratfall, she laughed even harder. I was wheeled out on the stretcher past my friends making their way to the upcoming dinner rush. I was later told there was no fracture, but I wouldn’t be able to put weight on it for a few months – a pretty tricky ask on the icy hills of Ithaca in winter. The timing couldn’t have been worse. But somehow I found an insane balance between the painkillers from the hospital and the energy drinks from the Rite Aid. I came home on crutches, sat down, and got to work.

What I created was an abomination of insanity. Fueled by my homemade not-quite-jet fuel, I concocted a final boss: my professor, with an Afro. His name was Fro-do. Yes.

YES! I turned this in for a final grade!!

And I got an A.

Sometimes you get hurt. You fall down. You can’t do a thing to stop it or fight it. But you keep fighting. And who knows how – but somehow, you get to the finish line. Maybe it’s limping on crutches. Maybe it’s fueled by quantities of caffeine and high fructose corn syrup that should be illegal. But as long as you keep fighting, pushing through the hurt, the pain, the damage, refusing to give in, you’ll make it. The result may not be pretty…

But at least you got through it.

Was the Bible a First Draft?

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2016/12/15/12152016-hooked-on-a-feeling/

Author’s Note: The following should be read with a degree of patience and an acceptance that many people believe many different things. If you have problems with that… go away, I guess?

I sometimes wonder if the Bible was a first draft.

I mean, inherently, it isn’t. It’s been translated and retranslated, retold and reprinted so many times that the text we read barely resembles the original anymore. But I’m referring to the initial draft put out into the world. First edition Bible with God signing copies at Bethlehem and Noble’s. Did God make it all up in one shot and didn’t feel like bothering with revisions? Was it still a work in progress, and the holy men bouncing ideas around just had a deadline to hit? Or maybe there is no God and existence is meaningless and we all die alone. Who knows?! All I know is, I’ve never written something good that didn’t have a shitty draft first.

Looking at this as a writer, I know that everything I have ever written, whether a blog like this, a chapter like the above, or even a tweet, goes through a rough draft, retinkering, and extensive notes before I consider it ready. Often, I’ll return to the drawing board completely for what’s called a page-1 rewrite. Either way, you have to ask what the process of writing that book initially must have been like. And I kind of wonder what those initial sparks were that never made it into the final book.

Comically, I like to imagine God hunched over his Macbook (his OS: Original Sin), pecking out stories and wracking his brain. “Oh fuck, how am I supposed to get them out of Egypt? Uhhh, plagues. Plagues should – no, no, then Pharaoh loses his arc. Maybe if he chases them out…” Every story I’ve ever written has a companion document called the “Series Bible” that covers the history, the themes, and all the intimate background details that you need to make a story feel lived-in and true. Then again, my series Bibles never end as living documents, but as collections of outdated ideas and moot points next to the world I finally create. So maybe it’s not so different at all.

These are obviously ridiculous flights of fancy. God would never use a laptop. He’s a desktop kind of guy. But when a writer has no choice but to play God to achieve their task, how can you not equate the two? I believe in a higher power of some kind, something too great to fully understand, but if you look at it as a writer, someone who created the raw material and let the characters write themselves, sometimes clearing the board and recasting for a new season here and there,… I mean, am I crazy? I wonder, if there is an almighty, if that is the reason why so much is mysterious. Things considered standard aren’t even part of our programming. We are instead left to figure it out for ourselves. Maybe he just didn’t do enough research before writing his first draft.

Or maybe God doesn’t exist and it was just a bunch of dudes in a writer’s room (and you know it was guys – no affirmative action or equal opportunity in effect back then), tossing a plush dreidel back and forth as they spitball ideas based on “history” for their educational series. I wonder how long it took them to write. To settle on the right stories and edits. I wonder if they knew it would be edited by kings and monarchies over centuries, so it didn’t matter how final a draft it was. It was final enough. I wonder if we need to update it again to sync with our current values, and who would be up to such a task. Who can be trusted, when everyone has an agenda they are all too willing to share?

In seriousness, I know the Bible took a long time to write and faced multiple rewrites that were more difficult than we can imagine with how different the politics of religion were back then. But for each piece, there must have been a first draft. And for each first draft, I can’t help wondering how well it was written. Could even the most famous and holy of texts have started with the same shitty prose and undeveloped characters that the rest of us peons write?

A rough draft is necessary. It’s where you figure out what works and what doesn’t. Where you first establish the illusion of a story, even though it’s merely a bunch of shapes on a page. Where you first assemble the nuts and bolts that are never again exposed, because they become human.

I guess I keep on this because I WANT to see that humanity, because if you can see beyond the bluster and “how it’s supposed to be”, then you can understand the purpose behind the work. Maybe we can see past the hypocrisies and semantics of what’s in the text and see the intent that goes beyond words and sentences.

And if they had a shot to rewrite it today, based on the effects of their work, how much they would change?

Fight on! Spider-Man!

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2016/12/13/12132016-so-hard/

Man, oh, man, where do I even begin about this Spider-Man Homecoming trailer.

Before we start, let’s be super clear: these are general impressions because, shockingly, until the movie comes out, I can’t form a full opinion. I can, however, see certain warning signs based on the information that I do have. You know, kind of like how people get nervous about a certain Presidential cabinet even when it’s not in effect yet. Yes, it’s only a trailer, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the final product is going to be just as bad as advertised.

So all that said, let’s take a look at that new trailer.

Hold on. Sorry. Gotta change the language settings.

Looks pretty neat. But hey, who’s the Filipino kid with the Legos? Is that Ganke? He’s not in the Peter Parker comics…

I want to talk a bit about a word that should not come up when talking about a Spider-Man movie: appropriation. Google the word, and you get a definition like “The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission”. The following concept may be hard to follow because Marvel owns all it’s heroes and stories, therefor, allowing it to use them as they see fit. But the most common use of the word appropriation is in regards to cultural appropriation, when people of one culture adopt the certain aspects of another, usually for aesthetic purposes and in a pick-and-choose fashion.

So, back to Ganke, the aforementioned Lego kid (or, I guess he’s Ned Leeds, I think, according to IMDB); Now, a while back, Marvel was asked if they would consider a Spider-Man movie about a hero that wasn’t Peter Parker. Would they feature the new and hugely successful Spider-Man from their Ultimate Universe line, a half-Black, half-Latino kid named Miles Morales? Between his proven popularity and the fan base’s growing calls for more diverse super heroes, he seemed like a slam dunk. But Marvel opted for the Spider-Man we’ve all known and been comfortable with taking a subway late at night with for years. And you know what, fine. Spider-Man is their character, and they should do what they want with him. Use Peter Parker. Give him a fresh take. Great!

Except it doesn’t feel so great when the “fresh take” turns out to be lifting the iconic pieces of Miles’ backstory, and then giving them to the white Spider-Man.

Again, I haven’t seen this movie yet, so who knows – the trailer might just be incredibly misleading. And, again, these stories all belong to Marvel, and they’re allowed to mix and match as they see fit. But am I the only person who thinks this is wrong? To have this new hero, with his own unique lore, who overcame audience skepticism towards and resistance to the idea of “Black Spider-Man” to become a beloved staple, a character people are clamoring to see on screen – only to have his story stripped for parts and given to the white guy that’s been front and center for 60+ years? Why does this movie’s “Ned” look and act and share a favorite hobby with Miles’ best friend, Ganke? Why do the characters appear to attend a charter school, like Miles does? Why does the villain look so reminiscent of the Prowler, Miles’ arch nemesis? Why is the main source of tension in Miles’ books – letting the proven super heroes do their thing while the baby hero stays in school – seem so omnipresent in this movie?

Now, can these story elements all be applied convincingly to Peter Parker? Yes. Should they, when they belong to another character, one who has had less time to prove himself and is still making his mark? I just don’t think so. It seems… wrong to me.

To quote Nicki Minaj (a series of words I’ve never started a sentence with): “You can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.’’ Or as Azealia Banks said (another series of words I don’t think I’ve ever written), “Black culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?” It just feels fucking weird that Marvel would do this to a character whose apparent reason for existing in the first place was to break down those boundaries and face both the good and the bad.

Every day, I see children wearing Spider-man backpacks and talking about his adventures. His triumphs and his faults. And race doesn’t seem to come into it, ever, really. Men, women, black and white, Spider-Man’s fans just want to be like this person because he stands for something more. And I know most of them don’t know who Miles Morales is. And now they won’t. Miles and his creators worked hard to blaze his own path and his own story. But that’s been sacrificed on the altar of a God with half a century of his own rich lore, who didn’t need any more, but who will own it now. Because it sold more. Because it tested better with audiences.

And that seems weirdly shitty to me.

PS: Also, is it me or does it seem like the inspiration for Miles Morales, Donald Glover, is playing a villain, or at the very least, someone of dubious enough character to associate with the villain? Just saying…

Hey, Marvel. What are you wearing?

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2016/12/08/12082016-now-what/

For a while now, I’ve been voicing my frustration with the unchanging structure of Marvel’s cinematic universe. But even further stuck in my craw has been the treatment of their streaming content: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and most recently, Luke Cage. Every one of these shows started with such potential. But somewhere around the last few episodes, they all hit the same snag, all promising the moon, never quite getting off the ground, the ultimate payoff feeling shoehorned and unearned. It has kept me from wholeheartedly recommending any of the shows to anyone, their individual parts unfortunately greater than any whole. But if I could fix one thing, just one goddamn thing, it would be this:

Stop ending every season with the “getting the costume” moment.

This makes me so mad I hardly even know where to start. No matter where the show is going, at some point the black hole of that costume moment starts making itself felt, and by the end of the season everything that the show could have been is swallowed up in the service of “Uh oh, it’s just like the comics everyone…”. It’s happened in every season of every show thus far. In Daredevil season 1, Daredevil gets his costume. In season 2, he gets his stick, and Elektra and Punisher suit up. In Jessica Jones, Purple Man literally turns purple, and Jessica wears an outfit from her comic. And Luke Cage might be the worst. Several episodes after an actually pretty clever shout-out to the original Powerman costume, fucking Diamondback can’t decide if he wants to dress as Snake Man or Proto Man, so why not both? (Oh, and as a bonus, Misty Knight appears for literally no reason at all during the closing credits of the finale in her FUCKING AFRO COSTUME GODDAMN IT!) Diamondback is the worst offender of all, because he so completely undermines what the show has been building. He shows up halfway through the season, replacing another villain, Cottonmouth (looking nothing like his comic-book counterpart, I might add) who is a great, nuanced, magnetic character, maybe the best villain Marvel has had yet. But he doesn’t offer an opportunity for a costume moment, so forget the Hercules versus King Eurystheus (look it up) parallel the writers have been building up. Instead, we get a boring superhero brawl with the worst villain Marvel has produced to date, a character who actively ruins the show.

I don’t really care about the costumes specifically, or about whether or not they look cool. It’s the too-tight focus, the sterile package, the unmistakable scent of the factory: reducing these shows to action figures in the Marvel comics continuity they emerged from, instead of works (of art, even) that stand and evolve on their own terms. And I’m not the only one who feels let down. After 4 seasons worth of these shows, not one of which has maintained popularity after the excitement of its initial release, the pattern should be obvious. But Marvel can’t seem to figure it out.

No one watched Jessica Jones looking for a super hero brawl. They watched to feel empowered by the story of an invincible woman exacting revenge against the embodiment of everything women fear in men of privilege, who’s very word is the law. People connected with Daredevil, a man with a disability trying to reconcile competing father figures and his own internal demons as a poor Batman. They didn’t fall for the show because Punisher has a skull on his shirt!

Speaking of Punisher…

In Daredevil season 2, Frank Castle gets into a bloody fight. By the end, his white shirt is stained with blood, forming a skull akin to his comics costume. It’s an amazing and organic moment that pays homage to his origins without making it all about him suiting up in spandex. And then it’s ruined: he gets into costume and saves the day with a sniper rifle like he’s goddamn Steve Buscemi at the end of Billy Madison. GOOD THING HE WAS IN THE COSTUME!!!

So why is it that the climax of every single Marvel TV season is built so tightly around moments that have, consistently, not worked?

I sometimes get the feeling that the first and last episode of every season is written in advance, and creative writers are given carte blanche on the rest of the sandwich. And those creative decisions are great. I never liked Daredevil or Luke Cage more than I did in the early episodes of these series, when I was introduced to them in lights that were more entertaining and relatable than any throwdown with Mysterio. Jessica Jones may not be MY Jessica (I’m more of a comics fan on that one), but she became a standout hero, attracting fans who had never known the rush of empowerment that a superhero fantasy can provide. That is the magic of these shows. And I wish someone at Marvel would figure that out before Iron Fist or The Defenders premieres.

Or maybe it’s all just building up to Wilson Fisk wearing a purple ascot. Glad we had five seasons of TV to build up to that important moment.