Uncanny Marvel NO.

The House of Ideas is overflowing, not with creativity, but with blood.

That’s the image I had in my mind as I stepped timorously through its doors four months ago, and the image I haven’t been able to shake during my visit. It’s an outsider’s view, the sort that frankly I think is hard to convey to anyone who has spent too long living inside that house. Some will argue that inexperience precludes passing judgment. I’d argue ingrained bias precludes rejecting the judgment I pass. Put simply, I had nothing to lose coming into this, and I’ve still managed to lose it.

I continue to meditate on the concept of superheroes. On justice. On hope. On the great responsibility that people who have great power are supposed to exercise.

That was the advice I was given through Peter Parker’s eyes.
But Peter Parker is dead. And Axel Alonso’s looking a lot more like the Kingpin than Uncle Ben.

A well-meaning friend heard about my decision to, for all intents and purposes, sever all ties with Marvel comics, and wrote this blog in an attempt to counter my position. It is the proverbial “don’t let a few bad eggs ruin Easter” argument combined with the notion that the company must offer something worth sticking around for, or they wouldn’t be the top dog after all these years.

I’m going to begin by addressing Avengers Arena directly, more specifically my friend’s comments, because I don’t think he properly understands the extent and the reasoning behind my vitriol. His language makes light of the situation, including Arena as one of several “titles that quite a few fans don’t favor or approve of.” Later, he points out an impending death and notes “I can see why this would make some fans angry” before likening that death of my favorite character to a major change made to one of his favorite characters.

I’ve pointed out a great many unlikable things about Avengers Arena but the one which has infuriated me like no other, and the one which nullifies every pacifying remark anyone has ever attempted to sling at me, is the solicit for the book within the pages of Avengers #1, which explicitly pitched the book to people who believed Marvel had too many teen characters and who hated characters like the Runaways and the Academy kids. This solicit promised that group — of people who do not want to see those kids around — that they would be pleased by Arena.

This is not, my friend, merely a matter of me being annoyed by the book. It is not a matter of my approval or favor. It is not even a matter of fearing for this character or that’s well-being.

It is about a company which, right in front of me and my proverbial “I love X-23” t-shirt and collection of Runaways books, says to the guy who hates my guts “pst, wait’ll you get a load of this.” It is a company which actively promoted its book to non-fans in such a way as to implicitly (but no less clearly) state “if you have invested time, money, and emotion into these characters, you’re about to be really upset.”

It is about a company which has no respect for its readers or their dedication, telling me that they would rather take the favorite characters of a guy who has spent literally hundreds of dollars across many years and many series investing in them and feature them in a slaughterhouse designed to royally piss me off on the off-chance that there are enough haters or ambivalent casual readers to sell a single ongoing title.

This isn’t just a book where Marvel said “well, some of the fans may not like the direction we take this, but it’s interesting and for the best.” This is a book where Marvel said “screw the fans, those characters are disposable.” And I’m sorry, but I don’t actually think anyone else really has a fair comparison. An unpopular narrative decision with your favorite character’s motivations hardly compares to this. At least he was still alive. At least his change had a chance to be redeemed. But what redemption is there for death?

The longevity of comic fan commitment is, if I’m honest, only as intimidating as it is baffling. For in the face of my worries that characters I love would die, the resounding response I got (beyond “who cares”) was “don’t worry, they won’t stay dead forever. Give it five, ten years, and they’ll be back.”

Never before have I encountered such nonchalance towards waiting for a decade or two for something to happen. And yet there it is. Five years ago I was a freshman in college. Five years before that and I was still on the bottom of the high school food chain. A tremendous amount of life happens in five years. It’s a long freaking time. And perhaps if you’ve spent your entire life being indoctrinated into the cult of comic groupthink, then that’s a reasonable period of time to wait to see if the things you loathed are retconned or redeemed.

But I’m an outsider. I’m trying to find excuses to stay in an industry I didn’t grow up in — to decide if this is something I want to make a permanent fixture in my life. And if waiting five or ten years is what it takes for Marvel to finally apologize for something that really hurts me today, then that’s about five or ten years too long. And when I see that something like “One More Day,” perhaps the most mind-numbingly awful event in comic history of which I’ve yet been made aware, which outright ruined decades of character development for one of the most iconic couples in American comic history, has gone six years without being retconned, what hope do I have that the deaths of a few obscure teenagers are going to get the makeover treatment any sooner?

And you see, that’s the irony of it all. In trying to tell me “this isn’t so bad,” what my friend actually said was “heck, we’ve all had our favorite characters butchered and destroyed; everyone who invests time and money and emotion into Marvel ends up getting screwed over and angry.”

To quote my friend, “But did they survive? Yes.”

Sadomasochism, it seems, is an acquired taste. Despite the inevitability of suffering, people choose to persevere.

And so to the numbers game. My friend points out that 31,000 people are enjoying Avengers Arena.

I’d point out that at its last issue, 22,000 people were enjoying Avengers Academy, the book which directly preceded Arena, and had one of the main characters of that book quite literally blown to shreds in the very first issue of the book he had been used to promote to them. I’d also point out that in less than four months, Arena has lost over 50% of its readership, so a lot less people are enjoying it than thought they would…and I imagine most of those Academy readers — you know, people who bought the book because it had characters they knew and liked in it –are part of the 33,000 people who have stopped reading it.

So yes, people are enjoying it. But more people have decided they don’t enjoy it than have decided they do.

I accuse Marvel of being a bloodbath. Let’s look at some of the other books which are enjoying success right now (as my friend pointed out).

Age of Ultron — a series in which everything is terrible, a lot of people are dead, and all signs point to at least some significant deaths being permanent (or at least “wait five or ten years” permanent).

Superior Spider-Man — a series whose whole premise depends on the headline-grabbing death of Peter Parker, and whose readership largely agrees that its chief purposes are to make life hard for the inevitable return of Parker and to once more make sure that he never gets back together with the woman who was — six years ago — his wife.

Wolverine‘s first issue — as with many first issues — sold well, but released to mediocre reviews. Not that it matters, because plans have already been revealed from Marvel that next year they are killing Wolverine.

Guardians of the Galaxy has sold well but has infuriated almost all pre-existing fans of the series and the cosmic universe in general; even the most accepting among them are having difficulty truly embracing the book. So here again is a series that Marvel banked on attracting new fans with even if it meant completely disregarding all the ones they already had. Besides, there’s a movie coming out soon, and that’s clearly all that actually matters.

And what’s on the horizon, aside from the “shocking” conclusion of Age of Ultron, the death of Wolverine, the continuation of Avengers Arena (along with Hopeless’, as of today, promise that most kids will be dead by the end of the arc)? Thumbing through the solicits, one finds Thanos Rising, “the book so blood-soaked you’ll be glad it’s a mini-series.” No, really.

Marvel NOW is new, and as a new thing it is going to have inflated sales. Just ask the people at DC, who have already had to cancel a variety of underperforming New 52 books and who don’t seem to even be agreed on whether or not they’re actually making substantially more money than before (nevermind the fans who are livid over how many of their favorite characters were either retconned out of existence or distorted so terribly as to defy recognition).

There’s no reason to believe that this moment of prosperity is anything beyond artificial; Marvel knew how to make a lot of money right now, but when the dust settles and all the new fans with no established devotion to the company peter off in pursuit of something new, will Marvel have been wise to have alienated hundreds of thousands of fans across the various corners of its readership? I sincerely doubt it.

This isn’t a matter of whether Marvel has talented people working for them. It’s not a matter of whether they have a rich history filled with incredible, lovable characters. X-23 is still my favorite, even if I refuse to buy the book she’s in.

This is a matter of a toxic, abusive relationship.

Yes, my friend. Marvel’s a talented guy. He makes you feel good. He buys great gifts. He knows how to cheer you up. You’re right, friend, he does “know how to make you smile.”

But he also knows how to beat the crap out of you because it fits his mood. He knows how to take you for granted and ignore you for months or years at a time.

He knows how to never actually apologize, because he knows that you’ll come crawling back to him no matter how badly he treats you. He promises to do better, that it won’t be like the other times.

But of course it will, and you both know it. You both know that it’s impossible to be a fan of Marvel without having your heart ripped out and dribbled up and down the proverbial court like a useless piece of rubber rather than your real emotional core. Yes, you’re right, there are books that I can read right now and love, and that will put a smile on my face.

But you know what? I bought every issue of The Runaways because that book put a smile on my face and made me happy. I loved that series and those characters. And do you know what some of my favorite characters, whose adventures made me happy, are up to right now? Fighting for their lives in a death arena because someone thought that’d be neat.

You know what else put a smile on my face and came from Marvel? Seeing Laura Kinney, the girl who never had a life of her own and was always being used by other people for their violent ends, finally getting to explore her humanity, to make friends, to pursue romance, to stop being a cold killing machine and start having real heart. And do you know where she is now? Fighting for her life in a death arena where someone is trying to use her to kill her friends and has a chemical which can make her do that… because someone thought that’d be neat.

So here’s the lesson I’ve learned: every time I invest myself into getting to know a character or group of characters because they make me happy, I run the extremely real risk that Marvel will kill them off, forget about them, or ruin their character so badly that the name is the only thing that character still has in common with what I had enjoyed.

I get why people need to defend their cognitive dissonance, to delude themselves into avoiding the reality of the situation. But I’m new to the game, and I haven’t put on the blinders yet. My decision here is probably the last chance I’ll have — because if I can get through this series this early into my relationship with Marvel, then they’ll own me for life. I won’t be able to say “no” because I’ll look back and I’ll say “hey, it sucks, but it’s not as bad as the time they took my favorite character and a whole bunch of other kids I really loved and murdered them because The Hunger Games was doing well at the time,” and no matter who dies or what terrible excuse there is for superheroes to fight each other instead of fighting evil, injustice, and (eyes up front, class) greed, I’ll just say “I want more.”

So I’m sorry, my friend, but this isn’t “just one silly book.”

This is Peter Parker being dead, and those with power being completely irresponsible.

This is the House of Ideas, overflowing.

And whether you see it or not, it is overflowing with blood.

Bioshock, Baptism, and Blasphemy

In a small-town diner not far from here my father and I bowed our heads and prayed for the breakfast a waitress had just set before us. It’s an everyday occurrence — not the diner, but the prayer. Though sometimes it settles into the dangerous realm of rote, the intention is at least an honest one: pausing to recognize that I’d have nothing, not even the food and drink necessary to keep me alive, were it not for God’s grace. I am an unabashed Christian. I’ve been going to church my entire life, first because it’s what I was taught, and later because it’s what I chose. I have been baptized. I have prayed to have my sins washed away.

And as I prayed this morning, I was wearing a t-shirt featuring Songbird, a creature who figures prominently into the video game Bioshock Infinite. I was also wearing that shirt when, twenty minutes earlier, I read an article about another Christian. I presume he does not own a Songbird shirt. Perhaps he did, and has since burned it. Or perhaps he returned it to the store where he bought it, just as he returned the nigh-unplayed game itself. Returned the game, as it were, because he considered it religiously offensive. Blasphemous, even.

I always try to be cautious when discussing someone else’s faith or morality. It’s a dangerous thing to question someone who acts of religious conviction — to doubt whether he should or should not do something which he feels strongly, spiritually led, to do or avoid doing. But many atrocities have been committed in the name of God; many hands have been stayed when they ought to have been lifted, and for the same reason. Put simply: while it is never my place to judge another believer’s heart, having a critical spirit when it comes to things done “for the faith” is, I think, prudent.

And honestly, I’m a little bit mortified by this particular player’s decision: his justification for it, and the implications thereof.

For the unacquainted, Breen Malmberg demanded (and received) a refund for his copy of Bioshock Infinite on the basis that “there is a section of the game that is so offensive to [his] religious beliefs that [he] cannot proceed with it any further…The player is forced to make a choice which amounts to extreme blasphemy in my religion (Christianity).”

I’ll begin by noting that I, and many other Christians, would outright dismiss this statement as untrue. The baptism scene in question — which occurs within the opening minutes of the game, and remains an important reference point throughout — has little to do with Christian sacrament. In fact, it is a baptism of an entirely different religion — one which renounces the Lamb and Savior we already have in favor of a new doctrine of human endeavor; one which clears God off the pedestal so as to replace him with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

It does not take much to recognize that this is a cult — one patterned after Christianity, for sure, but a cult nonetheless. And your “baptism” makes you no more complicit than one who undergoes a Christian baptism instantly becomes a Christian for having done so. From a narrative standpoint, it is necessary for infiltrating the cult you are trying to steal someone away from. From a religious standpoint, it is necessary for establishing the dangers of dogma.

Yet even if Booker’s undergoing a baptism from this heretical preacher did constitute blasphemy, I am nonplussed by Malmberg’s conclusion that the game is asking him to blaspheme. Perhaps had this occurred in the first Bioshock, wherein the line between player and protagonist is far less distinguishable, the experience vastly more personal, I might understand. But Infinite makes it very clear that you are playing through Booker — that he is not you, that he has done things you would not, that he will likely continue to do so. His actions are not, strictly speaking, your own.

Booker is not a Christian. He does not believe in God or sacraments. For him — like the many atheists who have played Bioshock Infinite — being forced to undergo a baptism is, at worst, an obnoxious inconvenience. I’d hope no reasonable atheist would feel that by getting baptized in this game, she had somehow been baptized for real. And as a believer, you ought to be able to personally consider his actions blasphemous without feeling culpable yourself.

Yet Malmberg’s words belie an inherent inability to dissociate himself from his character’s actions, which begs the troubling question of the many other actions he’d be committing in the game which don’t bother him. He admits to having been a big fan of the previous two Bioshock games, both of which feature gratuitous murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of other people, often in ghastly ways. One notoriously violent action is taken out of player hands — you are, just as with the baptism, forced to commit it (by following a command prompt) in order to progress. If Malmberg is so concerned about culpability in Booker’s sins, what then of Jack’s? Certainly a violation of the Ten Commandments must rank higher than an action whose sinfulness is, clearly, not even taken for granted by all believers.

It’s a point seemingly lost on Malmberg, who goes so far as to say “The difference here is that you are forced to make a decision that violates those beliefs in order to continue with the game – which is not something I have run into very often.” One would think a guy who knows the relevance of “A man chooses, a slave obeys” had encountered being forced to murder — a violation of Christian beliefs — at least once before, and would know better.

Of course, Malmberg doesn’t know it, having not played past the opening of the game, but there actually is something to be said for those who are religiously offended by the latest Bioshock.

Infinite‘s problem isn’t in what it shows, but in what it abstains from showing. Irrational has crafted a fantastic cult and a society which has taken real-world extremes to their utmost expression. If Rapture demonstrated what happens when you take God completely out of the picture without questioning it, then Columbia shows us what happens when you focus on “God” completely without questioning that focus. Or, more accurately, what happens when you focus on one person’s understanding of God without questioning it.

We live in a world with an increasing tendency to produce superstar religious leaders, who sway millions with their messages, often (tragically) towards values which are contradictory to actual gospel teaching. One needn’t visit an imaginary world to see charismatic leaders convincing a lot of well-meaning people of terrible things. Just last week I heard a rap song which specifically called out a dozen or so “false teachers” who are currently well-respected in the American church. This is a thing which does happen. Portraying it in a critical light is something I applaud Irrational for daring to attempt, especially in an industry which tends to punish cerebral exploration (though happily that is beginning to change).

The issue with Infinite is that it provides no foil. We are given the negative side of religion, the religious, racist zealots who toss around epithets like candy and say horrible things while metaphorically crossing themselves. What we aren’t given is a real Christian: a person who is a “good guy,” who isn’t a hate-filled bigot, but who still believes in God and baptism and salvation. For a game which celebrates grey areas so much, the binary nature of religious representation is disappointing at best. One could argue the game actually implies that none of the evil in the game would exist were it not for religious faith of some form.

The original Bioshock offered Tenenbaum: a brilliant scientist who realized that her faith in science and in Ryan had led to terrible things, who did not repent of science but rather of her unscrupulous pursuit thereof. Industry was the God of Rapture, and she renounced the religion without renouncing the God. It’d have been nice to see someone like that in Columbia — a person who saw the dissonance between the original Eden and this so-called new one, rejecting not Comstock’s God but Comstock’s understanding of Him.

Without a voice like that, Infinite risks tossing the baby out with the bathwater, offending believers who feel lumped in with the zealots because the game fails to provide a representation of true faith for them to relate to. I wasn’t offended when Booker chose to undergo a charade baptism and I couldn’t stop him. Nor was I offended when he told Elizabeth that he had more regard for her than for “God.”

For who is “God” to Booker Dewitt? Who is the God of Bioshock Infinite? Does He exist? What do His followers look like? Sadly, we don’t know, because Irrational never bothered to tell us. The god of Columbia is a sham, his followers delusional bigots. What god, precisely, should Booker fear? Respect? Love?

There is an argument to be made that Bioshock Infinite is religiously offensive. You just won’t find it in Breen Malberg’s refund request.

Bioshock Infinite: A Filthy Reflection

It is both impossible and deceptive to attempt a discussion of Bioshock Infinite without raising the matter of racism and xenophobia. The game goes beyond mere representational homage and into explicit commentary: shoving your face in this seedy side of America’s past and making you grapple personally with how pervasive the mindset was and still can be in a society which accepts, overtly or implicitly, the notion that some human beings are naturally superior to others. It comes at a time when America finds itself once more in the midst of an identity crisis, wrestling with whether some of its citizens are treated as second-rate, inferior, or despicable simply because of the way they were born. The honest player looks in this mirror and sees filth: not because the glass is dirty, but because it clearly reflects dirt.

I find it’s not so much the flagrant “preserve racial purity” banners which got to me as I explored Columbia, but rather the minor encounters with NPC’s, be it the girls at the beach talking about the scandalous moment when “an oriental” had the audacity to ask for the time to a mother scolding her son for kissing an Irish girl (spawn of one of those potato eaters) to the black man who apologizes for his cigarette as if enjoying a luxury on his own time and dime were a sin for which one needs pardon. Stand near the bathrooms for long enough and Elizabeth asks why separate facilities are needed for whites and colored people. Booker says that’s just how it is, and Elizabeth naively notes that it seems unnecessarily complicated. Oh, Liz, if only “complicated” could cover it.

This isn’t a game about white guilt. By the time the credits roll, Infinite makes it quite clear that power abuse and treatment of people based on differences is a hardly a one-way street. But to the extent that the majority of people who will be picking up a game with two attractive white people with guns on the cover are probably going to be white people who have enjoyed massive, unearned, invisible privilege their whole lives, Infinite definitely hones in on that angle of its message.

Making a point about America’s sordid past (and, I’d argue, insidious present) is, sadly, not even reliant on hyperbole. While the stylized nature of the Hall of Heroes is starkly offensive, it affords a very real look at how history is written by victors. Blacks, Irish, Asians, Natives, and anyone who treats them as normal, equal human beings, all are portrayed in Infinite according to a model which seems frighteningly accurate for the time, and I find it grimly shocking how some people consider the game itself to be racist for having the guts to just show that racism and xenophobia.

A racist game would have you throwing stones at an interracial couple, nodding in agreement with gossiping white girls on the beach, indignant at the sight of a mulatto on break, scoffing with the socialites at the idea of fair pay and equal treatment. Infinite has you furious, but in a different way: ready to go on a killing spree in the town square not against the Vox Populi with their modified rocket launchers but against the bonnet and briefcase-bearing bourgeoisie whose tongues and tarnished minds are weapons far more dangerous.

I’ve been told that last year’s Django Unchained is required viewing for anyone who wants to have a modern conversation on the state of racism in culture and media. I’ll add Bioshock Infinite to that required list. The fact that a game like this can be made — and made so well — is a sign of the times for sure. Years ago, Ken Levine brushed off the naysayers who called what he makes unworthy of the title “art,” and proceeded to design a masterpiece. It’s one of gameplay, of narrative, and of mental provocation, but perhaps most importantly it’s a masterpiece of social commentary, too.

Bioshock Infinite: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Disclaimer #1: This post is heavily spoiler-driven. Under absolutely no circumstances should you read it without having completed Bioshock Infinite. I don’t care if you don’t think you’ll ever play it — if you play video games, you should probably play Infinite at some point, so don’t read this. BUT PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG TO YOUR GAMING FRIENDS. Because I want a discussion/answers/corrections and that won’t happen if this sits here unread by anyone but my nongaming friends.

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