Are game-based comics worth reading?
It's a GameSpot-Comic Vine team-up as we get gamers and comic fans to assess titles based on Mass Effect, Gears of War, God of War, Halo, and the NES-era Nintendo lineup.
The world of comics has turned to video games for inspiration for decades, from DC Comics' Atari Force up until today, when nearly every AAA franchise seems to spawn its own adaptation. Now that Comic Vine is under the same roof as GameSpot, it seemed like a natural next step to team up and tackle the question of whether these adaptations are worth the paper they're printed on.
To that end, Comic Vine editor-in-chief Tony Guerrero and GameSpotters Brendan Sinclair and Caroline Petit read through a handful of comics based on some of the biggest names in gaming: God of War, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Halo, and in a throwback decision, the Best of the Nintendo Comics System. Guerrero then wrote up his assessment of the titles from the perspective of a comic fan, while Petit (in the case of Mass Effect) and Sinclair wrote up their impressions coming more from a gamer's perspective.
Do gaming's biggest franchises lend themselves to comic adaptations? Are the stories and characters worthy of carrying their own series? Can these comics be enjoyed by the heavy and casual gamer? Here are our takes:
Marvel, hardcover, $24.99
Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev
GameSpot's take: When I first picked up Halo: Uprising, I was curious how the comic book would fill its pages with a mostly silent protagonist like Master Chief. As it turns out, writer Brian Michael Bendis side-stepped that conundrum by giving Master Chief a secondary role in the book. Set between the events of Halo 2 and 3, Uprising tells a mostly self-contained story about a pair of civilians in the luxurious resort town of Cleveland (this bit of sci-fi puts the emphasis on the latter half of that duality), and how they try to survive a Covenant invasion. Meanwhile, Master Chief appears for sporadic action sequences that focus on his being a badass and the Covenant grunts being terrified of his Reaper-like inevitability.
Halo fans will no doubt recognize much of this universe, as artist Alex Maleev packs in a wealth of detail true to the shooter series. From the doors on Covenant ships to the armor and armory of Master Chief, Uprising properly approximates what Bungie put into its games. And when Maleev has to go beyond what appears in the original Halo trilogy, he produces images that don't seem incompatible with Bungie's universe (with the possible exception of female lead Myras Tyla, a heavily tattooed Lady Gaga-like pop singer). Some readers might decide Maleev actually puts too much detail into his art, as the abundance of lines gives virtually every panel of the comic an exceptionally grimy, gritty look. That lends itself well to images of Cleveland under siege or Master Chief's battle-scarred armor, but some settings like the ordinarily gleaming Covenent ship interiors are given a far different character by a surplus of soot.
While the trappings and world of Uprising are very much reflective of the Halo universe gamers know, the story itself is only loosely tied to the franchise. This same story of two survivors on the run from an invading force could be told in any number of sci-fi universes with minimal changes, and the Master Chief subplot is little more than an unrelated montage of him whipping alien ass. It's a solid and entertaining story for interested readers; it's just not intrinsically Halo.
Comic Vine's take: There's no doubt that even comic book readers that don't know anything about the game would have an idea what to expect. Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev have successfully collaborated on several projects at Marvel. Paring the two on a video game comic was odd and enticing.
I won't go into the stylistic difference in the art here and the graphics from the video games. The gritty nature of Maleev's art fits in with the main focus on the story. We're in the middle of a war. Sci-fi usually varies between having a brand new/sterile feel or being worn down from some apocalyptic event. Halo: Uprising shows a future on its way from the former to the latter. Bendis immerses us right into the action. We see there's a conflict and the plot of the story will introduce us to our unlikely hero, a concierge at a hotel in Cleveland that is attacked by an army of Covenant shock troops. We do see Halo fighters but they are the secondary characters. It would be easy to assume the comic would focus more on Master Chief or actual soldiers but that isn't the case.
Pulling the story away from the fact this was meant to be inspired by the games results in a pleasant story. There is action and suspense. The characters are developed and the story makes you want to know what will happen next. Having played the game a little, this wasn't what I thought the comic would be like. Bendis and Maleev are good here even if the story isn't quite the greatest project they've collaborated on before. You can jump in and enjoy the story. There might be a little bit of confusion as to how it relates to the game but there is enough story and set up for this to stand on its own.
Gears of War
Wildstorm, hardcover, $19.99
Joshua Ortega and Liam Sharp
GameSpot's take: For better or worse, the Gears of War comic is true to the game. It's loud, violent, grim, and superficially reflective to the point of being satirical. In fact, this story's roots as the first six-issue story arc of an ongoing series pushes the tale further into the realm of parody than you'd think.
Because comics can't assume that every reader has read every issue from day one, they typically include numerous throwaway lines to help cue new readers into the various personalities, back story, abilities, and limitations of the characters. For Gears of War, that means first and foremost establishing what Marcus Fenix is. Instead of simply showing us that Fenix is the ultimate badass, Ortega tells us about it at regular intervals, whether by having new recruit Jace Stratton fawn over the sci-fi answer to Audie Murphy or having a group of bruisers in a bar apologetically back off once they realize they're dealing with THE Marcus Fenix. Oh, and Dom's wife will be brought up whenever possible.
Just as writer Joshua Ortega mimicked the ham-fisted exposition of the games, so too did he accurately adapt the story's tone. The Gears of War story--appropriately dubbed "Hollow"--is about a bunch of soldiers who brutally kill the Locust hordes, which span the rainbow of different types featured in the game. The soldiers are pretty generic, and fit neatly into various states of "grizzled," substituting a defining attribute for a personality. That attribute can be "old," "pro athlete," "jerk," "husband," "rookie," and in one case, "Marcus Fenix."
At various points along the way, these soldiers will cease being inhuman killing machines just long enough to reflect with stoicism about the horrors of war. They'll also bring a child along with them into an enemy enclave for poorly thought out reasons, because they are heroes, and child endangerment is incredibly heroic.
As for the visuals, Liam Sharp's art doesn't attempt to mimic the look of the Unreal Engine 3-powered game, and the book is probably better for it. Strange and obvious as it is to point out, this looks like a comic book. Unlike Halo: Uprising or God of War, which attempted to offer a very distinct visual style that would be the first thing people notice about the book, Gears of War takes a more utilitarian approach to the art. While they may often resort to the same palette of browns and grays as the game, Sharp's panels are generally clear and distinct, and his attention to detail on game elements like the Gears' uniforms and the Locust hordes comes through well.
Comic Vine's take: Gears of War is a game I haven't played. Seeing Liam Sharp handling the art was a great incentive to read this series. With the gritty nature of the story and the big battles that occur, he was a great choice for the book.
The story presented here doesn't completely explain everything right away. We get the idea that there's a big war going on against evil forces (the Locust Horde). It's a violent war and it's refreshing to read a comic that didn't have to hold back or water down the violence. As much as I enjoyed the art, it was sometimes hindered by the color.
As the story progressed, I never really found myself completely attached to the characters. If anyone was killed or injured, I wouldn't really care too much. You do start to wonder if they're going to survive it all but with so many soldiers, it didn't really matter who made it and who was a casualty. We also had some stereotypical characters. There was a lot of brooding going on. Sure it was a bad situation but basically it felt like it all boiled down to a bunch of soldiers with big guns fighting off an alien race.
This was the only selection here that I didn't read straight through. I would read an issue or two and then jump to another book. Looking back, if I didn't return to finish the first arc, it wouldn't have mattered too much. This isn't to say it was a bad read. There just wasn't a lot that made me want to go back. Towards the end, I did start wanting to know who would survive.
There is more to the Gears of War story, as the series made it to issue #23. I am a little interested to see what happens next. With the one lingering plot line that was left unanswered, it might be enough to make me return to this comic universe.
Mass Effect: Redemption
Dark Horse, softcover, $16.99
Mac Walters and Omar Francia
GameSpot's take: Though the Mass Effect series of games involves the vast Milky Way galaxy and a host of spacefaring races, it is, at its core, the story of Commander Shepard, and those few individuals Shepard forms connections with throughout the trilogy. Mass Effect: Redemption takes place after the attack on the Normandy that opens Mass Effect 2, during that period when Shepard was essentially dead. Redemption avoids any mention of Shepard’s gender or discussion of choices she (or he) might have made during the first game,so nothing here will conflict with your sense of who Shepard is. But despite the fact that she doesn't appear in this story (at least not in the traditional sense), Shepard is the driving force behind its events. Her presence is felt even in her absence, which goes a long way toward making Redemption feel like a core part of the Mass Effect saga, rather than a side story.
Liara takes center stage in Redemption, and the book chronicles her efforts to recover Shepard--or what's left of her--in the wake of the attack. The story benefits from being largely set on Omega, the criminal-infested station far outside of Citadel space that is one of the Mass Effect series' most memorable locales. Unfortunately, the book's art doesn't quite capture the pulsating, dance-hall ambiance of The Afterlife club, or the dingy feel of Omega's back alleys. But Omega is nonetheless an intriguing, noir-ish setting for a detective story, and Liara's investigation brings her face to face with Mass Effect 2 power players like Aria T'Loak and the Illusive Man. These interactions ring true to the personalities of the characters as they behave in the games, and I think that if I'd read this book before playing Mass Effect 2, these appearances would have informed my understanding of those characters a bit. On the other hand, Miranda's appearance here doesn't shed any light on her motivations, and feels wasted.
Liara occasionally has to get her hands dirty, and when the biotics start flying, she seems somewhat more powerful and capable than her already quite powerful and capable video game counterpart. And one character, a drell named Feron who joins Liara on her investigation, makes one "shocking" revelation too many, in a bit of plotting that's clumsier than almost anything in the games themselves. Throughout, the art style is too clean; Liara's face is unblemished when it should be careworn, and armor looks immaculate, when it should appear well-used. But despite these missteps, Redemption is a breezy, readable Mass Effect story that sets the stage for important events in both Liara's character arc, and Commander Shepard's.
Comic Vine's take: I remember reading the first issue when the comic mini-series first came out (see my review here). Perhaps it should be noted that I didn't read the rest of the series after the first issue. With this comic actually written by the game's creator, you know there should be a close tie to the actual games. The story of Liara focused on finding the remains of Shepard was enough of a driving force to carry the series; the biggest problem I had was the art and color.
When I read sci-fi comics, the way the colors are used becomes a distraction. This is usually a problem when the comics come from an existing property such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, etc. With Mass Effect, the colors pulled the story away from the idea that this was supposed to be a tie-in to the video games. The different aliens looked far less impressive that their video game counterparts. Overall, it just felt a bit generic to me.
Storywise, despite only being three issues, it felt like it dragged on at moments. There were too many different obstacles thrown in simply to lengthen the story. It's a typical tool to use but I started questioning Liara's intelligence when she kept falling for being double- or triple-crossed. At the end, it was an alright story. It served the purpose of bridging the gap between the first and second game. From a comic reading perspective, it didn't offer too much. You don't feel or get a sense of the relationship between Liara and Shepard. Yes, she's determined to find him at any cost but you don't really know why. That could also make it hard to care about the outcome of her mission.
God of War
DC, softcover, $14.99
Marv Wolfman and Andrea Sorrentino
GameSpot's take: The first thing that stands out about the God of War comic is the art of Andrea Sorrentino. Once you get past the traditionally illustrated cover, the art looks like a moody, sometimes muddy amalgamation of painting and photography with a heavy digital assist from Photoshop. Sometimes the effect is stunning, but other times the result can be distracting, or even chuckle-inducing (much like the violence in the God of War games themselves, one could argue).
Regardless of whether the art style is one you like, it's distinctive, and lends the story a very specific tone. It matches the world of God of War well enough, with one dominant color typically drowning out the rest of the scene the same way Kratos' anger overshadows any possible storytelling subtlety in the series.
That's something also well reflected by the writing of Marv Wolfman, a comics scribe with previous game experience on DC Universe Online and Planetside 2. Wolfman's story tells parallel tales of Kratos in search of the healing ambrosia of the gods, once before he kills Ares to become the God of War, and once after. Although his motivations differ on the two journeys, they express themselves the same way: through wanton violence and rage that pushes him to persevere. It's a shallow story, but a well constructed one that properly reflects the series distinctive brand of over-the-top mythology. If fans can enjoy the art style, they'll find DC Comics has produced a tale suitable for the God of War.
Comic Vine's take: The idea here screams comic books. There is so much story to tell, so many battles that this should be a great comic book adaptation. The results were a mixed offering.
The whole premise feels perfect for a comic adaptation. There is a lot of story to tell and even though this was a six issue miniseries, the story started to feel rushed towards the end. The entire idea of Kratos embarking on this mission to save his daughter was the perfect comic book incentive. There was plenty of obstacles and threats he could face. Where things started to fall apart a little is we started getting flashbacks mixed into the present storyline. Usually there is a clear distinction between the present and the past, that wasn't quite the case here. Mixing the two has its benefits but if it's not fully clear, it ends up hindering the overall story.
I had mixed feelings on the art. Andrea Sorrentino has been blowing me away on the current DC title I, VAMPIRE. His style here is a bit different. He does capture the raw essence of the story and delivers big epic scenes required for the battles. There were moments where it felt a little too processed or photoshopped. A couple instances had Kratos with an odd expression on his face.
Because of the characters and all the threats from the gods, there is a lot of potential in this franchise (as those that have played the video games already know). This could easily have been a longer running series and perhaps one day we'll get to see more.
Best of the Nintendo Comics System
Valiant, hardcover, out of print
Various creators, frequently with George Caragonne receiving top credit.
GameSpot's Take: To be honest, this 1990 compilation of NES-era comics was included to be the comic relief of this feature. However, it wound up being secretly the most fascinating of the comics here by a mile. On the surface, this is just a collection of stories from comic books made primarily as quick money marketing tie-ins to Nintendo's best sellers. There's the Game Boy comic that features Nintendo's first portable hardware as a portal to another dimension where the heroes and villains of Super Mario Land come to life. Zelda, Metroid, and Punch-Out!! also receive the comic treatment, as does Captain N: The Game Master, which was based on a Nintendo-focused animated series running on TV at the time.
However, it doesn't take long for the expectedly surreal (a comic based on the Game Boy?) to become unexpectedly so, as the first issue of the ongoing series based on the portable gaming system introduces us to Herman Smirch, a hypocrite who has a Rambo poster on his wall at home but tells a homeless veteran that "Beggars should all be shot!" As if that characterization of Smirch as a jerk wasn't on-the-nose enough, he loudly rails against liberal politicians going soft on crime, but steals a Game Boy from the electronics shop where he works because he believes it's owed to him. And we're still only on page three!
By page six, the minions of Super Mario Land antagonist Tatanga have hypnotized Smirch, saying that his weak-willed bitterness, fear, and hatred have made him an ideal pawn. "Weak men always invite oppression," chides Tatanga henchman Pionpi. Clearly not everything in here is a Nintendo of America-approved marketing message. Mario calls Brooklyn "a cultural wasteland." A mother scolds a child for being excited about the Super Mario Land characters appearing in real life, saying, "It's just someone trying to sell us something else you don't need!"
(Parts of this book scream of legitimately creative people attempting to mitigate the tension between their artistic ambitions and their commercial needs. Unfortunately, an attempt to find out if those ambitions were ever fully realized in other projects shed light on the sad story of Nintendo Comics System writer George Caragonne. After leaving Valiant, Caragonne co-founded the Penthouse Comix label for the notorious skin magazine, then reportedly spiraled out of control on drugs and ultimately committed suicide by jumping from the top floor of the Marriott Marquis hotel lobby in Times Square.)
While there are bizarre highlights of social commentary to be found in the Nintendo Comics System, the bulk of the compilation as, alas, every bit as mediocre as had been expected. The art varies from acceptable to embarrassing--with the most attention clearly paid to detail-intensive pictures of Nintendo products--while the writing is on par with your average Saturday morning cartoon. While none of the semi-subversive messages slipped into this simple money grab are particularly brilliant or well executed, their presence in a marketing tie-in instantly elevates the collection from dull-as-paste pablum to intriguing novelty.
Comic Vine's take: This hardcover collection of the "best" in Nintendo Comics was truly something. I had the original Nintendo NES and subscribed to the Nintendo Power magazine, and this collection will appeal to those that recall those early days and still hold a place for them in their hearts.
The art is typical for the time. It's not spectacular but it wasn't meant to be. The stories can be a little fun and zany but this is more about the nostalgia. Younger gamers that are now familiar with the characters might get a kick out of it but will most likely be scratching their heads from time to time. For regular comic readers, it would be hard to read the entire collection at one time. For those that are not familiar with the characters or games, there isn't a whole lot of an appeal for them.
With the long running success of Sonic the Hedgehog and the recent return of Megaman from Archie Comics, there seems to be a market for comic book video games with these types of characters. I would think many would enjoy a Mario or Link comic book, provided it had a good creative team and wasn't made simply to be another product to sell. Simply put, this book wasn't really good. I wanted to like it. It really got hard to read at times and I did find myself having to skim through some of the pages in order to get past them. I somehow (and thankfully) missed these comics when they first came out. If this is the "best" from them, I'd hate to see the worst.