Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Comics and Consoles

Comics and videogames are often held up as brothers in arms due to their shared disdain by the masses. Videogames journalist Kieron Gillen asks, can they learn from one another, or are we fooling ourselves?
14 September 2001

The ninth and - if we're to accept the word of the French theorists Alain and Frederic Le Diberder - tenth art forms couldn't be further apart.

Comics came into being the second a proto-picture was juxtaposed with proto-writing. Videogames were only made possible when a computing-machine reached sufficient power to create an interactive, entertaining simulation. Comics is a form that generally - though not necessarily - cause a response in its audience through narrative. Videogames generally - though not necessarily - cause a response in their audience through implied sensation. Games come in boxes. Comics mostly don't. They couldn't be more different. What can we really gain through comparing them?

Well, both are generally considered geekmedia: forms only favoured by the lonely. The depressed. Those with amusingly shaped teeth.

Correction: Ten years ago, both were considered geekmedia. As a glance in any leisure magazine will prove, for videogames, this is no longer true.

And ten years ago comics were at the height of a DEADLINE/post-WATCHMEN period of youth-culture acceptance, with the seeming possibility of a general adult embracing of the form. Games, however, were at their height of ghettoisation. Nintendo, with its brilliant, precise marketing to the children and young teen demographic placing it in a seemingly unassailable position, secured profits at the expense of locking the form within the toy market. The changes in the ten years between then and now can be condensed to three words: The Sony Playstation.

In terms of the actual machine, nothing divided it from its competitors. The success, and the transformation of the form's perception into something an adult could at least feel at home dabbling in can be put down to two separate factors.

The first was marketing.

Sony's advertising for the Playstation was considered among the best in the world. Futurist yet grounded imagery proliferated through the ads, which were so effective that by the end of the decade the four iconic symbols of the Playstation joypad became identifiable brand symbols. To the average consumer of mass media, an advert featuring a square, circle, triangle and cross is immediately identified as related to the Playstation.

Youth culture was brutally assimilated, with pop-stars being brought into the projects to add glamour by proxy. Famously, at the 1995 Glastonbury festival, thousands of serrated pieces of cardboard bearing the Playstation logo were given out for use as roach paper. Microsoft have put aside half a billion pounds for marketing their forthcoming X-box console.

So. Comics can escape the geekmedia label by spending a grotesque amount of money on aspirational marketing. With the state of the coffers of the major publishers, this suggestion isn't exactly of much practical use.

However, it wasn't merely the change in marketing that lead to the popularisation of games. This is the second factor: In 1995, the games' subjects changed and changed hard.

During the mid-nineties PlayStation revolution, while the experience remained identical to previous generations - in terms of actual play experience there's little to differentiate TOMB RAIDER from previous platform orientated puzzle games - the subject altered drastically. TOMB RAIDER is Indiana Jones with implants. RESIDENT EVIL was pure George Romero tribute.

Even the theoretically geek-core science-fiction games, such as racer game WIPEOUT, sucked in pop references. Juxtaposed with the beat-heavy soundtrack, the radically arranged impossible city streets, and neon lights burning holes through post-Tokyo and curved-E edges, WIPEOUT was like playing a dance video. And as the Designers Republic-created iconic characters of WIPEOUT swayed through the video of Fluke's Atom Bomb, the loop closed. Games were pop were games.

Games' topics changed from geek-subject to pop-subject, and people were interested. The money without the art simply wouldn't have worked.

The most fascinating thing about the period is that the games that Sony conquered the world with were, according to the vast majority of videogame critics, manifestly inferior to the games that Nintendo's craftspeople were making. The videogame explosion wasn't connected to when they were actually best, but rather when their topics engaged the widest audience.

Games became cool when they were advertised as cool, and their subject matter was cool things.

As a side note, the current launch of Next Generation software, such as Sony's Playstation 2, has been considerably less successful than expected. The marketing is equally sharp - what's changed is a gradual increase in the geek-quotient of the games. Compare the superficially similar TOMB RAIDER (Contemporary setting, iconic female lead) to late-period Playstation game LEGACY OF KAIN (Fantasy world, vampire lead character with latent sexuality of the archetype entirely removed). Those who didn't follow this trend are limp re-treads of past glories, such as TEKKEN TAG TOURNAMENT or RIDGE RACER V. When offering the same old thing, or something the audience doesn't want, games are less successful.

With regard to cultural exchange between comics and videogames, however, evidence would seem to show videogames are the greater recipients. Dave Gibbons created the lush backgrounds for PC adventure game BENEATH A STEEL SKY. Warren Ellis acted as creative consultant to Rage Software for their HOSTILE WATERS, resulting in perhaps the best plot for a strategy game yet. The forthcoming first-person shooter MAELSTROM features 2000 AD scribe Robbie Morrison on scripting duties. Rebellion, new owners of 2000AD, have stated a desire to have John Wagner polish the script for their currently in-progress JUDGE DREDD game. It's interesting to note that Shigeru Miyamato, hailed by journalists as the greatest game designer in the world, was originally a cartoonist.

Ironically, while games riff off the energy of comics, games which directly take comic characters - and especially American superheroes - as their subject tend to be either entirely unconnected with the character (John Ritman's Spectrum version of BATMAN was an isometrically viewed arcade-adventure game where the caped crusader explored a Dali-influenced imagination-scape) or just unconnected with being a good game.

While the most obvious example of a failure is the Nintendo 64 version of SUPERMAN, recipient of sub-twenty-percent marks from the specialist press, the most impressive failure was Cryo's version of HELLBOY, which turned the noir pulp of the comic into software that forced experienced videogame journalists to excuse themselves from a presentation due to laughing fits. Finished, but never released in the UK, games journalist myth alludes to a warehouse full of the things somewhere, waiting to be unleashed when we least expect it...

When a license turns the other way, the story has been equally unimpressive. The licensed comics of the Japanese icons - Sonic, Mario, et al - have been produced to generally forgettable effect: there's certainly no visible sign of a Transformer's style retro-cult forming. Clashes with the producer's brand can also have interesting effects - the early nineties British-originated STREET FIGHTER comic closed due to Capcom's displeasure with their interpretations of the characters. The final issue explained these facts sorrowfully, before devoting the last few pages to small-font text describing how they had planned to close the story.

In terms of marketing, though, nothing quite matches COMPUTER WARRIOR (from the eighties version of EAGLE) where young Bobby Patterson found himself able to enter his computer and participate in videogame's worlds. Bringing RESCUE FROM FRACTALUS home to a young comic reader's house only to discover the rather more...basic visuals must have been a heartbreaking moment.

On the current shelves, the most prominent example of games coming to comics is Top Cow's ongoing TOMB RAIDER, based around the adventures of the silicon- (and silicone-) enhanced TOMB RAIDER heroine, Lara Croft. Not that having the most desirable games-license for teenage boys seemed to matter that much to Top Cow: In her first comic appearance, a WITCHBLADE cross-over, Lara was mistakenly called 'Laura Croft' throughout the entire thing. One can only presume Top Cow thought the readers would be looking at something else.

But the appearance of Lara Croft (the first genuine icon of gaming to be owned by a software company rather than a hardware manufacturer, as with Nintendo's Mario or Pokemon) in comic form was as inevitable as her appearance on lunch boxes. Lara - pneumatic physique legendarily created by a mouse-slip of artist Toby Gard, increasing the breasts by 150% rather than 50% - is clearly ideal fodder for the Bad Girl end of the comics market, with an automatic built in audience from games.

Which is where the crux of the matter lies.

To push a media, it must originate its own characters. The main reason games companies turn so often to comics for inspiration, whether they buy the license or not, is that they are developed concepts which they can package. Whether in visual vocabulary (Manga for Japan, 2000AD for British developers) or characters, games will continue to plunder comics for inspiration. The prime reason for software house Rebellion's acquisition of 2000AD was their decades of copyrighted characters, which Rebellion can now use at their leisure.

And comics? Bar the lesson in raising itself from niche to mass culture, and a vague urge to capture in comics that sense of energy that the best games posses, all games can offer comics is a licensed drip-feed of the most obsessive slice of their own market. And this leads to the question:

Is an influx of more obsessives what comics really need?

Kieron Gillen is an award-winning videogames journalist.

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