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Tell A Tale of The Guardians of The Galaxy!

Longbox Graveyard #167

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy return to theaters this week. I’m already a fan of the first movie, and of the comics — both old and slightly less so — so it didn’t take a lot of convincing to part with five bucks American to download the first chapter of Telltale Games’ Guardians of the Galaxy on my iPad.

I’d noodled around a bit with Telltale’s Walking Dead Game, and admired the conversational interface and the emotional stakes of that game, but I wasn’t especially eager to dwell in that dour world, and the game never grabbed me.

Guardians, though … Guardians is something different.

This game is frankly irresistible. You’re on the spot right from the opening screen, with ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” pouring from your speakers over an image of the Guardians punching each others’ lights out. It’s just a main menu, but it’s buoyant, happy, and demands your affection, like a puppy that’s jumped in your lap. And the game that follows is every bit as engaging, masterfully capturing the spirit and tone of the film, whisking us away on an adventure that promises a battle with Thanos, but is really more about the relationships at the heart of the not-so-dysfunctional family that is the Guardians.

The set-up could come straight from the comics — the Nova Corps calls in the Guardians to help run down Thanos, and after squeezing the Corps for future favors (or not, as you wish), we are off on an interstellar treasure hunt. There’s an alien enigma, and the Kree show up, and of course Thanos is there to chew the scenery. The game also takes a couple unexpected swerves that I won’t spoil, save to note they are completely in character and reinforce the story’s core theme of families and what makes them tick.

The interface is simple and easy to use — at least on touch screens. Back in the day we would have called this a point-and-click game. Now it’s about swiping and touching, but really, these kinds of controls haven’t changed all that much since Dragon’s Lair. Most action scenes are navigated with “Quick Time” events. Shooting and punching baddies is accomplished by tapping targets on the screen before they disappear. You dodge danger by swiping the screen when prompted. It’s pretty hard to fail, though I still managed it a time or two.

Sometimes you tap or swipe the screen to move things around. Sometimes you walk around and explore places. Star Lord flies around a bit, which was cool. There was a walking mechanic that required incessant screen-swiping that I could have done without, but for the most part, the game’s interaction economy is spot-on: not so much that you can’t appreciate the story, but not so little that you can afford to take your eyes away from the screen.

Even more engaging than the action scenes were the conversations, which don’t seem to find their way to different destinations so much as they unfold with differing tones — you can be thoughtful as Star Lord, or a dick (or both!), it is up to you. Sometimes the best response is to just let the timer run out and say nothing at all. I appreciated how the game let me do things my own way, even while guard-railing my characters — at one point, Gamora said that she’d never heard me talk this way before, causing me to reflect that, yeah, Peter is more self-centered than I was making him out to be. Gamora had rightly detected that it was me who was chatting her up, and not Star Lord! Cool.

And it is Star Lord that you control in this game. Aside from throwing a punch or two on behalf of other characters during the Thanos fight, it is Star Lord’s thoughts and actions that you will steer through each scene. Star Lord’s voice performance is probably the poorest turned in by the sound-alike voice cast, but that’s mostly down to Chris Pratt’s unique range — he really is a master at sliding between sweet and smarmy. The supporting voices are pretty strong, with Rocket being especially on-point. I would love to see succeeding chapters put other members of the Guardians in the driver’s seat, if only to see how Telltale handles a conversation tree when all I can say is, “I am Groot!”

The game’s technical performance left a bit to be desired. I played on my iPad Pro, and the textures still swam around on me from time to time, and a few of the load times had me tapping my toe. Prompts didn’t always respond to my first tap, despite hitting a static green bullseye dead-on. Based on this performance, I’d hesitate to recommend this game for lower-end mobile devices. I would expect console versions to run crisply, but fumbling for buttons on a controller doesn’t sound like a lot of fun compared to tapping screen prompts.

The art gets the job done. The ships and space scenes are tight, and the environments are adequate. The character models have kind of a second-tier CG animated series look to them, but they work — Telltale’s animators do a fine job of wringing sometimes subtle emotion from them. Body animation is about what you’d expect, though I found Star Lord’s walk cycle a little stiff (and he walks a lot in this game). Lip synching is (usually) convincing. Scenes are well-lit, somehow giving us clearly-visible characters even inside the murkiest spaceport dive bar.

But this isn’t really a game that’s going to win you over with screenshots. The heart of the game is … well … its heart. There’s plenty of derring-do in abandoned fortresses and Kree battlecruisers, and the game does deliver with a Guardians vs. Thanos beat-down that works in an Intergalactic Wrestling Federation sort of way, but the real action in this game comes through the conversations and the relationships between the characters. In this, the game reaches back to the core of comics storytelling. After all, in the long run, there’s little doubt our heroes will defeat the big bad … but will Gamora be able to deal with her daddy issues? That’s harder to predict, and its a unique pleasure to play to find out. Yep, it’s all about the feelz, and I welcome it. I already have plenty of games where you solve everything by shooting at it.

I also enjoyed the little touches and side-gags. Rocket and Drax both got off some zingers that were entirely in character. Helping Groot ride out a hangover was appropriately gross (and all I did was listen to it). I loved that a random piece of email from the Universal Church of Truth was helpfully flagged as spam.

The chapter was just long enough for me. I didn’t clock it, but it felt like it took a bit less than ninety minutes to play the whole thing. Content felt equivalent to about three issues of a comic series. The ending came at the right time and didn’t leave me hanging so much as feeling intrigued. Some of the asides clearly set up later chapters — like Gamora’s communication with her sister, Nebula — and I think I saw Moondragon in the bar, but for the most part the chapter can stand on its own, and in this it does a better job than your average, decompressed modern comics issue.

One area where this game was more setup than payoff was in development of emotional relationships. By the end of my play-through, I’d pissed off Rocket, softened-up Gamora, forged a strong bond with Drax, and sealed an alliance with the Nova Corps, but none of that mattered in a major way in this chapter. Given that this game is scheduled to run five chapters, I can’t blame Telltale for deploying their chess pieces for later, and if I wasn’t allergic to pre-orders, I might have opened my wallet for the season pass upsell that followed the closing credits.

Once I’ve cooled off a bit I might even go back and replay the game, to see what happens if I zig instead of zag, and I can see where a player might dive deep into this thing to ferret out the different permutations of every scene. The closing score screens provide a roadmap for where I took the story, compared to the community at large, hinting at the different outcomes.

But I don’t much care about multiple outcomes — for me, I was just glad to while away a rainy afternoon with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and feel a part of their family and their troubles. Emotional reactions of any stripe are difficult to elicit with games, so hats off to Telltale for not only accomplishing this rare feat, but also making it the center of their game. If I come back for the second chapter, it won’t be to learn more about the MacGuffin that permits Peter to speak with ghosts — it will be to see if I can continue to win Gamora’s trust, and to learn if Rocket really means it when he keeps acting like I’m driving him out of the group. The game-making side of my brain tells me the actual number of outcomes isn’t that large, but my illusion of control is such that it is easy to believe my decisions created a unique outcome.

I am happy to suspend my disbelief to ride along with the team. I wasn’t much interested in investing this kind of time and emotion in Telltale’s Walking Dead or Batman games, but this Guardians of the Galaxy game really was delightful. As an experience, it was a bit more than a comic, and a bit less than a movie, but thoroughly unique and enjoyable. I hope I walk out of the theater after seeing Guardians 2 feeling half so positive! Recommended.

NEXT MONTH: #168 Wonder Woman: All All-Star Sensation

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Warlock

Longbox Graveyard #21

In issue #11 of Longbox Graveyard I decided that Jim Starlin‘s Captain Marvel wasn’t so marvelous after all. This week, I take to the spaceways with Starlin’s Warlock, and things are better. Quite a bit.

There’s a quantum leap between Captain Marvel #32 and Strange Tales #178 — a quantum leap and five months, if my comic book database’s information on publication dates is to be believed. In that period of time, Jim Starlin apparently developed the pull to go from having left Captain Marvel over a dispute to getting to pick his next assignment (and start drawing it that very night) — and that next assignment proved to be Warlock.

You can see why Warlock appealed to Starlin. He was cosmic (check), under-developed (check check), was ripe for reinvention (check-and-re-check) and had messianic overtones and a budding death complex (ka-CHING!). Add Thanos, stir, and serve, and Starlin could pick up exactly where he left off with Captain Marvel.

Not quite “exactly,” actually … because in that five-month gap, Jim Starlin evolved considerably as an artist. The powers-that-be also appear to have realized that the best way to employ Jim Starlin was to just let the guy go off and do what he was going to do, without saddling him with a lot of name characters or continuity or cross-overs (at least until the Warlock saga was clumsily concluded in Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2, but nothing lasts forever).

Warlock starts with a bang — our golden-skinned spacegod is quickly pulled into conflict with the Universal Church of Life, which we just as quickly learn is headed up by Warlock’s own future self, the Magus. The Magus is even more glam rock in appearance than Warlock, being painted silver and sporting an afro that, yes, reminds us this was 1975, even in outer space. The Church gleefully exterminates non-believers, which might have made them a poor stand-in for Thanos, except that Thanos is cleverly cast as Warlock’s circumstantial ally, for some long-range, diabolical reason that I can’t remember right now (and which was probably made up later in any case).

the very-glam Magus!

So far we’ve got all the best parts of Starlin’s uneven Captain Marvel run — an outer space epic, Thanos, and a spacefaring superhero — but this story is made considerably better, due to the focus afforded by Starlin’s creative control, and by the smart introduction of supporting characters for sex appeal (Gamora, the “deadliest woman in the universe,”) and comic relief (Pip the Troll).

the deadliest woman in the universe (also the greenest)

Warlock, himself, is a bit of a stiff, but seems like a well of bottomless depth compared to grim old Captain Marvel, and when Warlock goes off into his self-important soliloquizing about life, the universe, and his Hamlet-like relationship to everything, we don’t mind so much, because there’s usually someone around to tell him to stop being such a knucklehead and like, you know, take a stand, or something.

Also working in Warlock’s favor is a frothy cocktail of Michael Moorcock character tags. He’s got a magical jewel in his skull (like Dorian Hawkmoon), and that gem sucks souls and has a powerful and evil will of it’s own (like Elric’s runeblade, Stormbringer), which gives the character a stage for internal conflict as he decides whether to let his gem loose and wipe out a bunch of mooks. And like Elric, when armed with such an awesome trump card, it seems the only bad guys worth fighting are either rogue gods or sheer weight of numbers, which Starlin ably renders with page after page of his weirdly wonderful, vaguely reptilian aliens, most of which seem to sport a single eye.

Starlin seems less interested in contorted panel layouts here than he was on Captain Marvel, but he makes up for it with those aforementioned mass alien battles, and with an overall improvement in his art that probably owes more than a bit to consistent inks from Steve Leialoha (Starlin had seven different inkers in eleven issues of Captain Marvel). Starlin does channel his inner Steve Ditko, particularly in Strange Tales #180, where our hero travels, Lewis Carroll-like, down through a trap door and into a surreal sham court of mouthless defense attorneys and monstrous magistrates who have decided Warlock’s guilt before the first arguments are heard.

Warlock goes through the looking-glass

But moreso than Lewis Carroll or Michael Moorcock, the fantasy author I was most reminded of while re-reading these books was Jack Vance, whose Cugel the Clever stories bear a striking and I am certain entirely accidental resemblance. Like Vance, Starlin’s strengths are in plotting and world building, where thinly-developed characters service set-piece situations pregnant with allegory. Warlock isn’t nearly the self-deceiving rogue that is Cugel (that role is reserved for Pip), but he does share some of that character’s babe-in-the woods naivety. He stumbles from one outrageous situation to the next because, well, the author wants it that way, and it’s convenient to explain the wise hero is so much less perceptive than the audience because of his self-absorbed nature.

Which makes it sound as if I dislike Warlock, which isn’t true at all, but as was the case when I revisited Vance a couple years ago, I found Starlin’s Warlock stories were still quite good, just not in the way I remembered. The second time around, I enjoyed Vance’s stories more for their language and sense of humor than their dialogue and narrative, and returning to Warlock I found I far better enjoyed the supporting characters, the bad guys, the big battles, and the sinister church than the tiresome Adam Warlock, who pegs wildly between apathy and rage (which, to be fair, gives him one more emotional setting that Starlin’s Captain Marvel).

Had this been a mini-series (not that we had such things in 1975), Warlock would have been a classic, but with the conclusion of the Magus storyline, the book lost its way. With Warlock having witnessed his own future death in issue #11, and the meter running on that event, it’s almost like the series was just marking time until it can conclude. Issue #12 was a tongue-in-cheek solo story staring Pip the Troll, which is fun enough, but the sense of relief coming off the page when Warlock is written out of the issue doesn’t bode well for the character’s long-term health. When Warlock returns to battle the Star Thief the book feels desultory, like a last place baseball team playing out the string. By the time Warlock fights his way across the universe to confront a villain (Star Thief) who is then defeated by a minor character of no consequence to our hero, the book feels ripe for cancellation. When your most thrilling moment is Warlock fighting a dumbass space shark (I wish I was kidding!), cancellation could not have come as a surprise.

It was a surprise to the creators, though, or at least to whoever wrote the letters page in fifteenth and final issue of the run, who seemed certain he’d be “back in sixty,” though with the final caption on the final page of the story reading, “Fin,” someone seemed to be in the loop about what would happen next. Books did come and go all the time in the 1970s, and Marvel bi-monthlies were always on life support, so with it’s weird outer space stories and lack of recognizable supervillains, it isn’t a surprise the book went down so much as it lasted as long as it did.

Marvel did have an eye toward finishing stories even if their books were cancelled, and Warlock was no exception, leading to a strange coda in a pair of 1977 Annuals — Avengers Annual #7, and Marvel Two-In One Annual #2. Even with two double-length stories to bring things to a conclusion, there’s plenty of shoe-horning here — Gamora is killed off between issues, and to no one’s regret the silly subplot where Warlock has expanded into a giant many thousands of time larger than the sun is forgotten. Plenty of pages have to be turned over to the headlining Avengers, which further cramps the Warlock story, but Starlin turns it into a kind of old home week, bringing in Captain Marvel and Moondragon as well as Warlock, and pitting them all against Thanos, who is yet again trying to blow up Earth’s sun. It’s a lot of fun, actually, to see Starlin take on the Avengers — Starlin draws a great Iron Man, and Starlin seems especially at home writing and drawing the furry blue version of the Beast, who so adequately covers Pip’s comic relief role that Starlin can lobotomize his little troll sidekick and keep the story going without missing a beat.

The result is a fun, old-fashioned superhero beatdown, with plenty of spaceships blowing up and the Avengers in mass combat with disposable aliens that I remembered after thirty years (Qu’lar the Massive!). It’s the same story, really, that Starlin told back at the end of his Captain Marvel run, but it holds together better this time around, and when Warlock dies at the end, only to find himself inside his soul gem surrounded by the blissed-out spirits of every soul he’s claimed, it’s actually kind of sweet, and a better conclusion to Warlock’s tale than you would have thought possible for the last page of an Avengers book. The second part of the tale, in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2, reduces Warlock to a ghostly cameo, and while Starlin handles Spider-Man and (especially) Ben Grimm nicely in the story, it’s still Spider-Man in outer space.

And that was it! The worth-what-you-paid-for-it summary of Starlin’s publication history over at Wikipedia shows Starlin mostly doing various one-offs and fill-ins for Marvel after that, and some work for DC, too, most notably scripting work on Batman. I gather his most ambitious work was for Metamorphosis Odyssey, which started in Epic Illustrated and would evolve into Dreadstar, a series that yet lurks somewhere in the Longbox Graveyard. (And for a peak at some of this work, be sure to visit the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More).

But Starlin’s cosmic superhero work in the Bronze Age was pretty much over with the end of Warlock, which was a shame, because Starlin’s “Cosmics” were a real breath of fresh air in the 1970s, offering rare reinventions of conventional characters and some mind-expanding plots.

They were among my favorite books as a teen, and they held up pretty well, easily earning a spot in the Collection.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #22 Glorious Bastards

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