Roleplay and the Art of Storytelling

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art – Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

For a few months now, my 9-year-old and I have been playing our own “role playing game” based on his favorite TV show, The Walking Dead. I put RPG in quotes because the fact is, while we did make character sheets in the early going, we’ve never used them, nor do we make maps or roll dice. We just pick which character or set of characters we want to play as, and one of us serves as game-master, pitching out scenarios and asking the other what their response will be. It’s a very free-form version of roleplaying, basically an interactive way of telling each other stories using these characters and scenarios. We mix and match characters from the show, the comic, and the videogame, so Darryl can interact with Dwight when they stumble across Clementine and Lee wandering the Georgia wasteland. It can be a lot of fun, and my boy came up with a very entertaining do-over of the war with the Governor which ended with a much more satisfying death for that old bastard than what we got on the show.

However, after several weeks of playing for fifteen or thirty minutes before bed a few nights a week, I noticed that our narrative thrust was suffering from some of the same inertia as the show frequently does. A lot of time was being spent navigating a bus down abandoned-vehicle-choked back roads, fighting zombies and ill-tempered human survivors in the woods or at one broken-down compound or another, then hitting the road again. We were trying to juggle too many characters, completely forgetting some were even on hand while continuously focusing on our favorites. In short, what started as an enjoyable diversion became dull (more for me than him) fairly quickly.

So last week, after the boy caught me rewatching episodes of Netflix Daredevil series, he abruptly switched gears and suggested that instead of Walking Dead, we should start a new game involving everybody’s favorite blind-attorney-turned-vigilante from Hell’s Kitchen. Now it could be just my own prejudices and personal predilections at play, but right away, I was more into our little no-rules RPG than I had been for a long while. Part of the reason was the freedom that came with playing only as one lead character, rather than trying to juggle a Michonne/Rick/Darryl combo, then needing to switch to play as Tyrese/Sasha/Carl when the scene shifted. I liked the focus, and my familiarity with the character was enough that I didn’t need dice or stats to know what my guy was capable of, what kind of damage he could inflict on which type of nemesis, and what his specific limitations were. And whether I was the quester or the gamemaster, I felt like I never ran out of options, and I could be a lot more creative than the “zombie/bad human attacks, kill zombie/bad human” status quo we’d been mired in. I think we both felt the change, because suddenly we were jumping up and acting out our fisticuffs and pitched supervillain beatdown campaigns. New York City was an instantly more exciting backdrop than the endless rural South, and I could be attacked by anyone from Tombstone to Elektra while receiving unexpected aid from the Punisher or SHIELD, or having a chance encounter with Spidey and Doc Ock.

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I think what really got my juices flowing more than anything was the simple narrative elegance of those classic Daredevil stories, and the endless options afforded by the Marvel Multiverse, and although he’s read and seen more Walking Dead than anything from Marvel, Ash was equally inspired in his yarn-spinning–the narrative twists he’s come up with have been smart, exciting and frequently hilarious. Not a lot of laughs as humanity dies off one by one, but when guys dress up in longjohns to prowl for crime, well, there should always be room for a good gag or seven. Rather than open-ended wandering through an apocalyptic wasteland with no end of danger, misery or suffering in sight, we get to indulge in boss fights with nigh-invulnerable mob goons in a cramped midtown alley or the Silver Samurai suddenly bursting from a shipping container on a fog-shrouded New York dock.

This is not to say that Daredevil is a better, more tightly constructed vessel for storytelling than Walking Dead (I shouldn’t have to say it because it’s just a simple, straightforward–and utterly subjective–factpinion). But there’s something to be said for the sense of mission, purpose, and the possibility for achieving a goal–stopping a bad guy, saving an innocent, getting through the night without killing anyone, even when/if they’ve more than earned it–beyond mere brute survival. My point being that all the problems I’ve had with that wildly popular zombie narrative on the screen seem to be so much an organic part of its overall structure that they couldn’t help but reassert themselves even when we had nothing holding us back but the limits of our own unrestricted imaginations.  Then again, maybe I was just dragging my own subconscious baggage with me into our gameplay.

Anyway whatever else happens, whether our next RPG is based on Mad Max or They Live, I just hope I’m not begging for Jon Bernthal’s character to die (when he joins season 2 of DD as the Punisher) the way I was for him to bite the big one when he played Shane on WD. Know what I mean?

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The Best Book We All Weren’t Buying

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These guys, am I right?

By now it’s a given that the Platinum Age of Television began on Jan. 10, 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos, when indie cinema sensibilities started trickling down into the storytelling on that “vast wasteland” people of a certain age used to call the Idiot Box. After that defining date, cable TV–both premium and basic–began to allow for a model that let tightly contained long-form narratives like Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica (at its best anyway) Breaking Bad (and its so-far worthy successor Better Call Saul), Orange is the New Black and even The Walking Dead unfold over shorter seasons, without outstaying their welcome, and often telling stories as worthy of our time and attention as any Great American Novel or Important Awards-Baiting Film. The upside of this is more great entertainment at the click of a button. The downside is constant access to and constant replenishment of the narcotic that’s been my biggest bane since early childhood.

As we move further into the 21st century, a similar phenomenon is occurring in my other favorite serialized storytelling medium. In the funnybooks, the indie comics sensibility has made definite headway into the mainstream, allowing for a greater diversity of art styles, narrative approaches, creators and characters. This is probably most evident in one of Marvel’s most popular recently launched titles, Ms. Marvel, in which a teenage daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim herself develops superpowers. The subject of personal faith probably hasn’t been this front and center with a mainstream superhero since Daredevil’s Catholicism. But the book’s second boldest choices have less to do with featuring a Muslim female than with its choice to be irreverent, smart, and boundlessly interested in the lives of young urban people coming of age in a way that’s reminiscent of a basic cable dramedy. And the art style is reflective of that in a way that’s hip and indie without losing track of the fact that’s it’s set in the Marvelverse, intricate and detailed without being overly busy, cartoony without seeming juvenile.

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Marvel seems to be leading the pack with this kind of book, letting writers and artists who’ve done great work in and out of the mainstream take a book and character and really put a strong creative stamp on them. Hawkeye would be another prime example, a book that felt like a wiseass character-driven cable action comedy series from the first issue, and that has made some of the boldest creative choices of any recent superhero book while keeping things on a mostly small, narrowly focused scale. The most acclaimed issue so far is an almost wordless noirish detective adventure told from the POV of Clint Barton’s recently adopted dog. It’s hilarious, clever, and a masterpiece of visual design.

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Both of these books have received attention, acclaim, and whatever passes for reasonably strong sales in the current comics market, but by far my favorite book representing this trend toward smart, funny, indie explorations of the Marvel world seemed to slip through the cracks. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man just ended its run after a mere 17 issues. Granted, that was five more than its originally planned twelve, but when it got the initial extension, I imagine all involved were hoping for an ongoing. I was (and yet also wasn’t!) It’s a curse that’s also a blessing, in its way, because writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve Lieber were granted the freedom to make the book they wanted, and to give it a proper ending. In the past, in comics as in TV, this opportunity to close the loop was rarely afforded, and many books and arcs were left open-ended as their titles died on the vine. Much like a particularly satisfying show that ends while still at peak creativity (many of my friends kept whining for more Breaking Bad but I thought it ended right when it should), there’s plenty to be said for a short-run comic that sets out to tell a tight yet sprawling story and is able to do so within some nicely defined parameters, escaping the trap of treading water and giving in to mediocrity due to creator changeover or simple exhaustion.

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Focusing on a new incarnation of the Sinister Six and pretty much eschewing Spider-Man altogether is a terrific choice, because from the title on down, it establishes these characters as the coattail hangers they are. Because this is not just a story about bad guys, it’s a story about losers, about the guys on the margin who are always being beaten down by the heroes, manipulated by the major players and big bosses, and left to fend for themselves when the shit goes down. They may have big dreams and big plans, but they will never be A-list baddies no matter how hard they try. It’s just not in the cards. Personally, having written my first book, The Villain’s Sidekick, about just such a guy, I am of course all about this. And I’m sure there’s a whole other level of fun for Spencer and Lieber just getting to play in this little corner of the Marvel sandbox, where they get to dream up lives and backstories and motivations and nuances for these characters that haven’t been considered or explored in their entire histories, which in the case of guys like Boomerang and Shocker runs to nearly half a century each. A key difference between my story and this one is that Spencer succeeds at keeping his anti-heroes very much on the wrong side of the law. There may be one–the more recently conceived Overdrive–who longs to flip from bad to good like Hawkeye or Scarlet Witch before him, but in the end it’s a pipe dream and he’s just another sorry schmuck whose life is defined by a long string of rotten luck and poor choices.

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Many of Spidey’s more infamous gangster-type rogues and bosses put in appearances–from Tombstone, who’s daughter joins the new Sinister Six (who, it’s worth pointing out, only boast five members throughout the series, yet keep the name regardless), to the Owl, to Silvio Silvermane (who’s severed yet still chatty head is both a major McGuffin and constant thorn in the various characters’ sides). There are superfights and action sequences and occasional stakes, but this is really one of those books where it’s all about the largely comedic dialogue (and the amazing, perfectly complementary artwork, which is filled with clever gags of its own). Fred “Boomerang” Myers narrates the book, and despite his many machinations and double-crosses and general not-a-good-guy-ness, I found myself rooting for him to pull out some kind of small victory, even if it was the hollow win of a nefarious plan gone right for once. He frequently introduces a staple character with the dismissive eye-roll line: “This guy, am I right?” If you’re familiar enough with the Marvel stable, you’ll find yourself agreeing time and again.

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And just to demonstrate that creating a fun book that asks you to root for the bad guys isn’t as easy as it might sound, I recently attempted to read the first volume of DC’s apparently popular Harley Quinn solo series. Also a comedic farce about a villain’s lackey, the words that came to mind while I tried to wade through it’s soup of moronic slapstick violence, terrible puns and cheap jokes was “hot garbage.” I think Harley’s a great character in the right hands, but this book seemed pitch at a level just south of adolescent. At one point, while she helps an aging cybernetic Federal agent (real name: Sy Borgman; hilarious…) snuff some Russian sleeper agents (who really don’t deserve their horrible, played-for-laughs deaths) they take out a female spy named, get this, Ivana Brekemoff. Again, hilarious! Right? No, me neither.

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Suffice to say, if you enjoy the company of wiseass wannabes and amoral a-holes with wicked senses of humor and the scruples of a basement rat, if more than once in awhile you find yourself wondering what the henchmen are thinking, how they live, or what they do with their downtime, you could do a helluva lot worse than giving Superior Foes a shot.

http://www.amazon.com/Superior-Foes-Spider-Man-Getting-Together/dp/0785184945/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1423863876&sr=1-2&keywords=superior+foes+of+spider-man