Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pulp based on gaming based on comics based on pulps (The Freedom Phalanx)

I totally admit that when I learned that The Freedom Phalanx existed I was immediately seized with morbid curiosity. I’m a huge fan of the City of Heroes MMORPG – haven’t played it in a while due to time constraints and computer issues, but it still ranks as one of the reasons I’d really like to get a beefy machine online in the house again – and in the past I sampled the tie-in comic books which were published when the game was first getting off the ground. Those comics were not terribly good. I’ve also been known now and then to pick up professional, published prose fiction based on well-established comicbook superheroes, from short story anthologies focused on Batman’s nemesis the Joker to original novels starring Daredevil. These have also been not terribly good; not terrible, really, but nothing to get too excited about. So by the literary/algebraic calculation of multiplicative not-terribly-goodness, I just kind of expected a novel based on an online video game to be wretched. Compellingly so, perhaps, but still a trainwreck.

But funny enough, it actually wasn’t a total disaster. I might even go so far as to say it was pretty good. Still not something to get excited about, of course, and despite the fact that several of my buddies are also (former) CoH players who also have various reasons to enjoy a little light genre reading, I’m not rushing to press my copy into any of their hands. But I was sufficiently entertained in the process of reading it, almost as much for the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of it as for the narrative experience itself.

Yeah the whole 'Go, Team!' pose really counts as a spoiler, doesn't it?
I thought the subject matter was handled reasonably smartly, for one thing. Given the fact that American superhero comics have been around for over seventy years, and the current playing field of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) was more or less formalized fifty years ago, anyone wanting to tell “original” superhero stories has two choices: create an entire world out of whole cloth which is as unique as any genre-bound modern invention can be, or use analogues and pastiche and so on to leverage the world-building done in the past half-century to your own creative advantage. The people who designed the CoH game went the latter route and I can’t really fault them for that. Their goal was to program a comicbook world in which players could create their own brand new superheroes to work their way up from rookie to legend,a nd they succeeded by just sketching in the milieu and then focusing on actual gameplay and whatnot. So does their world have any hero in it like Superman? Yes, he’s called the Statesman, and he’s your basic guy in a cape who flies and hits things really hard and so on. An Iron Man? He’s called Positron and his proprietary-tech armor is exactly what you’d expect. In a few cases they changed things around a bit to yield results with a bit more synthesis to them than simple name-and-color-scheme changes. Synapse is like the Flash with the addition of electrical powers. Manticore is a blending of Batman’s motives and methods with Hawkeye’s trick arrows. Sister Psyche falls into the token female role of a Wonder Woman, but instead of being a distaff Superman she has an array of mental powers from mind-reading to emotion-projection. (Those five heroes are the ones on the cover of the book above, and you should be able to match the descriptions up with the images without my help, which is one of the virtues of comics tropes that I do so love.)

Anyway, these transparent homages can be the best of both worlds in a decent writer’s hands, because the writer can utilize parts of the originals’ backstories and just make passing reference to them which the audience, familiar with the source material, will just get. (Manticore fights crime because his parents were murdered? No need to dwell on explaining that connection.) The primary benefit to this, to my mind, is that The Freedom Phalanx novel is not a collection of origin stories, because it doesn’t have to be. The author isn’t obligated to explain why someone who has abilities far beyond mortal men then proceeds to put on a garish costume and mete out vigilante justice; those are just the ground rules everyone already accepts. The novel can drop the audience into a world with decades of adventures having already happened, and it doesn’t feel disconcerting.

But at the same time they can deviate from the source whenever that serves the story. Statesman, for example, gets not only a daughter but a granddaughter. The Freedom Phalanx itself, from whence the title of the novel, is a heavy-hitter team of heroes, equivalent to the Justice League or the Avengers. Or rather, it was, but then disbanded long ago and may or may not ever reform. (Though the title kind of gives that away. But still.) The real comics could never afford to have their marquee all-star teams simply stop being published for decades, but in the hypothetical history of a video game superheroes world it works.

To me this is where it gets interesting. Comics have an economic incentive not too change too much, to preserve an eternal status quo wherein what you got in an X-Men comic a few years ago is what you’re going to get today and tomorrow, the better to hold onto lifelong fans who are willing, happy even, to buy the same mental comfort food over and over and over. City of Heroes has the same limitation, but amplified, because the main story they’re selling is the one someone creates by playing their own character in the gameworld; the trappings of the gameworld have to remain essentially constant. So a novel fleshing out the backstory of the gameworld should have zero suspense to it, because any reader familiar with comicbook tropes and/or the nature of the game (and the target audience no doubt is intimately familiar with both) will fully expect the status quo not to be challenged. None of the main characters can die and nothing earth-shattering can happen because all of those characters and their world persist in the game that people continue to subscribe to.

So of course the good guys are going to win and of course the Freedom Phalanx is going to end up re-established with the cast of the novel as its core roster. (Also, of course the main bad guy Lord Recluse is going to be defeated but inevitably escape total destruction because he’s the main man in the companion game City of Villains.) The entertainment value of the story and any momentum it might generate is going to come from the how-factor, the details of the victory and any little twists and turns that can be wrung out the premise. And the novel really worked for me on that level. There’s an overarching plot about numerous bad guys teaming up to take over the city, a threat which only the combined forces of good can withstand, but the heart of the book is about the personal crises the individual heroes face which prevent them from just banding together and smacking down the villains on page two. Statesman is functionally immortal but his wife isn’t, and her declining health drives him to distraction. Sister Psyche’s powerset makes her uniquely vulnerable to being overloaded and exploited, and she spends most of the book imprisoned and out of commission (though I give the author a huge amount of credit for having SP ultimately rescue herself rather than playing the damsel in distress). Synapse isn’t entirely convinced he even wants to be a superhero, despite his powers, and Positron desperately wants to be a superhero but is hobbled by his own inexperience and insecurities. None of these are particularly groundbreaking, I concede, not even in the sense of “yeah, a novel can really get into those interior conflicts way better than comics” because comics have been hitting beats like that for years. But even if it wasn’t breathtakingly daring storytelling I thought it was better than it could have been. I had expected a few hundred pages of the heroes behaving inexplicably like idiots spinning their gears before finally arbitrarily changing tactics and winning against the evil forces in a final showdown. Instead I got something at least halfway intelligent about characters with recognizably human flaws put through extreme circumstances and pushed to the brink before the final win against evil which, clearly, I both wanted and needed all along.

Plus, the novel had just enough Easter Eggs within it to make me happily geek out a little whenever I recognized a passing reference to something from the game, like recognizing the interior layout of a combination factory and warehouse because it was one of the maps a player must navigate in the early levels. At the same time it wasn’t like choking down an all-you-can-eat Easter Egg buffet with endless, gratuitous references to the CoH game. So both the winks and nods and their relative restraint got my approval.

Anyway, any day when I go trawling through what has every right to be the lamest peripheral cash-in dreck imaginable but end up finding something crafted with a modicum of thoughtful respect for the genre, the source material (and its proto-source material) and narrative in general is a pretty good day as I tally them.

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