Category Archives: GIMMGP

Listmas 2013: Howard and Nester Comics

HowardNester

For those of you who were readers during the glory days of Nintendo Power, your first exposure to video game comics probably involved Howard Phillips and his good friend Nester.  These goofy stories were a source of tips and humor in the earlier issues of NP.  As the president of the Nintendo Fun Club, Howard Phillips would play the straight-man to Nester’s stubborn and off-the-wall antics.  Over the course of 21 issues, the lovable pair were immersed into the hit video games of the day, often to comedic results.

As a celebration of Listmas 2013, I am taking a break from the usual comic book analysis to share my three favorite Howard and Nester stories from pages past (hit the issue links for the full comics).  Here we go!

March/April 1989

07-1

As a kid who spent much of his time at the local library, the thought of finding a Legend of Zelda book seemed like a dream.  Granted, I wouldn’t have dismissed some of the classics like Nester here, but I definitely sought out the more off-beat stuff in the stacks.  I especially love Nester’s indignant reaction to finding Howard in his story, even though the bow-tied knight is just trying to help.

May/June 1990

14-1

This comic was the first time I had ever heard of QA departments and play-testing in video games.  Until that time, I just assumed that the developers made the games correctly on the first try.  What can I say, I was a naïve kid.  At least I knew better than to assume the world of game testing was as fantastic as Howard and Nester would make it seem.  If only we could just hop into a game to test for bugs.  Then again, that’s a lot of pain and respawning for anyone who is testing Call of Duty…

December 2012

LastNester1

Okay, so this one isn’t technically a “Howard and Nester” comic.  After Howard Phillips left Nintendo back in 1991, Nester carried the torch in his own adventures for many more issues.  It was in Issue 55 of Nintendo Power when Nester’s Adventures went on hiatus.  The plucky mascot showed up for three more special comic appearances: as a college student in #100, as a father in #231 (the twentieth anniversary of NP), and once more in the final issue of Nintendo Power, #285.  When the last issue hit store shelves, I made sure to secure a copy from my local bookstore.  This comic is a total tear-jerker to longtime readers of Nintendo Power (and to anyone with a heart).  I hope to someday share in this bittersweet sort of moment with my future children.

Looking back at these comics, I am really impressed with how well the artwork has stood up over time.  The facial expressions on Howard and Nester are very emotive, and the shading is especially nice throughout the series.  Special thanks to Tiny Cartridge for posting the final comic, and to the Howard and Nester Comics Archive, where you can find every one of these fun-filled stories.  Merry Listmas, everyone!

Tactical Espionage Comics

It must be difficult to be a comic book writer with a hit video game license.  Oh sure, there is the joy of working with an established property that has a built-in fanbase, but think about the pressure involved.  Most of the other media based on video games must appease fans of the source material and bring new converts to the series.  On top of ensuring wide appeal, there are all sorts of choices to make about the direction of the comic.  If the writer has little experience with the game, there might be a desire to write a spin-off story built on basic elements of the original property.  The hope is that established fans will appreciate fresh adventures for their beloved characters while those who have no ties to the video game will still have a solid comic to read.

On the other hand, there are writers who are massive fans of a licensed property and just want to see the video game translated directly onto the printed page.  They are not trying to create new worlds for heroes to explore or insert characters of their own design to tag along for the ride.  These video games are popular for a reason, so why mess with success?

MetalGearSolid1

MetalGearSolid2In the past, I have criticized IDW Publishing for taking creative liberties with their video game licenses.  The Belmont Legacy strayed rather far from the path of Castlevania and I think the comic suffered for it.  When it came time to publish a series based on Metal Gear Solid (September 2004), writer Kris Oprisko followed Solid Snake’s near-silent footsteps rather directly.  He realized that, “the story in the game is already a great one,” and he was “not trying to change the elements that made the game so popular.”  Oprisko believed that the high tension and suspense of Metal Gear Solid’s story juxtaposed against action-packed gameplay would translate quite well to the pacing of comic books.  The resulting product was extremely faithful to the original script of the game and managed to present the property in a new format that flows smoothly from page to page.

MetalGearSolid3Staying true to the plotline of the video game is only part of the equation, though.  The artwork has to maintain the spirit of the game and manage to stand out from the original as well.  For this project, industry veteran Ashley Wood pulls off just such a look.  The artwork for Metal Gear Solid features Wood’s typical use of mixed media, with some scenes painted with soft features against moments of bold line work through digital techniques.  Generally speaking, when the plot becomes more information- or stealth-driven, the art seems muted with blurred edges and soft features for character designs.  These pages enhance the mood of secrecy within the plot just as harsh lines and bright colors heighten each fight scene.  Unique paneling methods blend the codec scenes and piles of background information rather seamlessly into the narrative so Solid Snake can keep moving through the story without breaks in the action.  Mr. Wood does a fantastic service to the source material, and he would go on to illustrate a comic for Metal Gear Solid 2, as well as work directly on a video game in the series, MGS: Portable Ops.

In the world of comic books based on licensed properties, there seems to be a mix of spin-offs and faithful adaptations.  Some series use this print medium to provide new tales for the source material, and quite successfully.  There are defunct television shows and movies that have gone on to thrive in the comic book community and provide hope for seemingly forgotten fans.  At the same time, comics that remain true to the original can tell a familiar story in a new light and bring people who may have missed out to take a chance on a beloved classic.  When either form works, the result can be engaging and entertaining for fans both old and new.  It all comes down to which sort of story will suit the original best, and just what kind of adventures readers want to have next.

Choosing Sides

With the arrival of a new generation of consoles comes a fresh batch of loyal fans screaming incoherently at one another.  All across the internet, lines are being drawn in the virtual sand and mindless skirmishes are waged on every form of social media.  Even at my workplace, where people generally keep their geekier hobbies close to the chest, I hear soft insults hurled back and forth between cubicles; murmurs of which console provides a superior experience.  Of course, none of this nonsense is new to me.  I lived through the Console Wars of the ’90s, when every system had a hero to idolize and follow into battle.  As a devout Nintendo Kid, I knew where my loyalties should be lain.  From the Mushroom Kingdom my brethren and I launched vicious fireballs, scorching the Green Hills of Sega-Land.  In spite of my family’s entertainment coming exclusively from Nintendo products, I had a hidden curiosity to learn about the edgier console that the enemy so fiercely protected.

In the darkest of night (read: mid-afternoon while my mother shopped for groceries), I snuck towards the neutral zone and gathered propaganda which was highly illegal in the Mushroom Kingdom.  I have kept these remnants of my disloyalty secret until now, but I cannot hide my shame any longer.

SonicandKnuckles1

The first issue of Sonic the Hedgehog hit store shelves way back in November 1992.  Archie Comics was given the task of creating a four-issue miniseries to coincide with the debut of the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon show.  Since the concept materials for the television series were shared between DIC Animation and Archie Publications, the comic closely resembled the world depicted in the cartoon.  Based on the success of the mini-series, Sonic and his friends graduated into a full-fledged comic book run that started in May 1993 and continues to this day.  With over 251 issues in print, Sonic the Hedgehog earned the Guinness World Record of longest running comic series based on a video game.

SonicandKnuckles2I picked up my first Sonic comic in August of 1995, when the debut of a certain echidna was still rocking the gamer world with stackable cartridges.  Sonic and Knuckles No. 1 boasted a giant-sized 48 page collector’s edition at the low-cost of two dollars.  At the time, I had only encountered Knuckles in magazine advertisements and brief play sessions at friends’ houses, but the bright red marsupial seemed so damn cool.  Handled by Patrick “Spaz” Spaziante and Harvey Mercadoocasio, Archie veterans who contributed extensive work to the Sonic comics, the cover art featured all sorts of nods to Sega games.  There was of course Sonic and Knuckles, along with graffiti that referenced Sonic Spinball and a Sega Saturn hidden in the pile of Swat-Bot remains.  A perfect blend of elements to catch any young gamer’s eye.

SonicandKnuckles3The story within Sonic and Knuckles No. 1 was a sort of follow-up to the events featured in Sonic 3 (or Sonic #13, for fans of the comic book).  The Floating Island (home to Knuckles and the “only great natural wonder untouched by utter devastation”) has wandered over the safe haven of Knothole Village.  While Sonic and Tails have some experience with Knuckles and his hovering home, the rest of the village is highly alarmed at a giant chunk of rock floating over their humble abode.  Our heroes are sent to investigate the island and find that munitions, retro rockets, and a series of robots have become part of the surroundings.  After a fight with Knuckles (and the first boss of Sonic 3), Sonic and Tails explain to the echidna that someone has obviously hijacked his home.  Sure enough, Dr.  Robotnik has taken over the Floating Island and fitted it with all sorts of tech to turn it into a giant military machine.

Rather than watch his home become a weapon, Knuckles destroys the Chaos Emerald that powers the island, which causes Robotnik to abandon ship.  As the island starts to descend, Knuckles reveals a spare emerald, which halts the cataclysmic crash and saves the day for all involved.  Following the main story, there are two shorter tales that feature Knuckles protecting the Floating Island and citizens who inhabit it.  The first of these stories sets up for the next special issue from Archie Comics (Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble) and the second is a sort of educational comic about a solar eclipse.

SonicandKnuckles4As with many of the spin-offs of the Sonic comics, Sonic and Knuckles No. 1 features a series of artists working on each story.  The character designs remain generally similar to the cartoon show, but there are little nuances between each story.  The main tale features art with minimal line work, mostly relying on facial expressions to convey action and moods.  Action scenes are rife with comic book onomatopoeia to move the story along.  The separate Knuckles tales use quite a bit more shading and lighting effects throughout the artwork, which compliments the more mature nature of the character.  Due to a lack of fight scenes and limited action, the other two stories rely on extra dialogue and further detail in character drawings to flesh out the story.

Following my initial betrayal of Nintendo, I went on to purchase piles of Sonic comics (particularly the Knuckles and Tails spinoffs).  For many more years, my family pledged loyalty to the great Nintendo, finally conceding to the onslaught of the Sony Militia in 1997.  While I carry the remnants of my rabid fanboyism to this day, I have come to realize that dedicating oneself to something as silly as the console wars is a waste of time.  There are plenty of amazing games to be played across all kinds of technology.  Limiting yourself to a single console or device out of a bizarre dedication to a giant corporation only serves to cut out dozens of wonderful experiences from your life.  So let’s drop all this nonsense of “Microsoft versus Sony versus Nintendo” and just concede that the Sega Dreamcast was the best of them all, shall we?

Welcome to the Mushroom Kingdom

What defines the canon of a series?  Is it only the material produced by the original creators, or can it extend beyond such a narrow scope?  Video games and comics are both extremely murky waters to travel when it comes to canon.  Batman has seen so many alternate dimensions and series reboots over the course of his career that it has become difficult to tell just who is under the cowl anymore.  The Mario Brothers have a particularly bulky catalog of material as well; spanning video games, television series, comics, and a particularly awful movie.  Across these various appearances, Mario and Luigi have transformed numerous times to suit the context of the medium.  The overall tale of these plucky plumbers has grown into a massive media empire that has some difficulty in tying each entry together.

EPSON MFP image

When Super Mario World debuted back in 1990, the main story of the video game has the brothers going on vacation with Princess Toadstool to a place called Dinosaur Land.  Sure enough, Bowser and his brood follow the trio to this new land and proceed to cause all sorts of the usual trouble (kidnap the princess, try to stop the brothers, etc).  Shortly after the game’s release, the Super Mario World television show premiered.  A Saturday morning cartoon, this program featured a similar scenario to the video game, but built a more prehistoric world out of the Dinosaur Land setting.  While the cartoon took some creative liberties with the game world and premise (why are there so many cavemen?), it featured plenty of material straight from the original source.  Around the same time, a monthly comic was  being published in Nintendo Power that didn’t even set foot in the Dinosaur Land of the video game.

EPSON MFP imageSuper Mario Adventures made its first appearance back in January 1992 in Volume 32 of Nintendo Power.  The story was written by Kentaro Takekuma (co-author of “Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga”) and the art was handled by Charlie Nozawa (pen name Tamakichi Sakura), who has worked in comics and video games (“Shiawase No Katachi” and “Tower Dream” respectively).  The main story arc ran for twelve issues, followed by a bonus comic which was based on Super Mario Land 2 for the Game Boy.  Neither of the plots for these comics follow the storyline of any particular game, but both of them feature key elements from the popular Mario titles at that time.

EPSON MFP imageThe main story of the comics begins with the Mario Brothers, plumbers extraordinaire who have been called to the Mushroom Kingdom to repair the palace pipes.  After getting most of the plumbing complete, Mario notices an outlying green pipe that seems to have no match.  One familiar green pipe sprouts several others, as Bowser and his forces wage an attack on the palace.  The King of Koopas issues an ultimatum: Princess Toadstool must marry him or he will turn the entire kingdom to stone.  Unlike the fair damsel of the video games, Toadstool is a woman of action who takes a troop of soldiers to meet Bowser head-on.  After a week spent turning Mario back from stone, the brothers set out to find the Princess and help her deal with Bowser.

From this point on, the story features plenty of interesting twists on familiar elements.  Princess Toadstool outwits the Koopalings and makes a daring escape, Mario has to be saved by the Princess and Luigi, and a horde of Yoshis end up being the saviors of the entire gang.  There is even a scene where Mario plays therapist to a Big Boo and finds out exactly why the ghosts are so shy when faced by people (childhood bullying that led to anthrophobia).  The comic is full of fun moments like these that help ground these fantastic characters and show them in a new light.

EPSON MFP imageThe artwork suits the lighthearted nature of the story quite nicely.  Plenty of cartoon flourishes show up throughout the work, such as quick gags and goofy violence.  The character proportions are kept similar to that of Super Mario Brothers 2, with Mario being shorter than the Princess and his younger brother.  The facial expressions of every character are full of emotion, using various eye and mouth shapes to convey their mood.  Backgrounds are handled with varying levels of detail; sometimes little more than a splash of color, other times there are plenty of flora and fauna that flesh out a scene perfectly.  Bright colors are used for the entire comic, resulting in a wonderful world inhabited by interesting characters.

Super Mario Adventures takes the familiar story of “Mario saves the Princess” and turns it into a work that is wholly unique from other entries of that time.  Instead of Mario solely making his way through Dinosaur Land to save the pitiful Princess once again, every character has a moment in the spotlight and the chance to be a hero.  I personally prefer this tale to the schlocky Super Mario World television show, and maybe even to the story in the video game.  With all of this material to consider, just which story is canon to the Mario Universe?  Instead of getting so hung up on just which plot is the “correct” version, Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and other beloved video game characters) has this to say:

“If you’re familiar with things like Popeye and some of the old comic characters, you would oftentimes see this cast of characters that takes on different roles depending on the comic or cartoon. They might be businessman in one [cartoon] or a pirate in another. Depending on the story that was being told, they would change roles. So, to a certain degree, I look at our characters in a similar way and feel that they can take on different roles in different games. It’s more like they’re one big family, or maybe a troupe of actors.”

Just like the Link to the Past series, all of these comics can be read over at Old Game Magazines.  Please be sure to check it out and follow them for other great pieces from video game magazines of yesteryear!

Digital versus Physical Media: A Rival Schools Story

Recently, I was introduced to the digital comics platform Comixology by a co-worker of mine.  As a man who is used to good ole’ paper and print media, the idea of buying a comic book and reading it on my iPad was a bit jarring at first.  All of the warm fuzzies of getting a new issue or an old gem from the comic book store were gone, replaced with the cold indifference of an online transaction.  Where was the smell of the ink, the satisfying noise when a page is turned, the familiar heft of a single issue as I removed it from a generic brown paper bag?

Then again, the frustrating ads and underwhelming preview filler were gone, along with the inconvenience of a limited print run being sold out at stores.  Come to think of it, I didn’t even have to leave my house and search the darkest nerd dungeons for the rare comics I hoped to find (in this case, the lackluster Castlevania series).  Maybe this shift to digital media won’t be so bad.  All of the comics I missed during their first publication will hit a cloud server, just waiting to be purchased and adored.  What could possibly go wrong?

RivalSchools1

RivalSchools2Way back in 2002, the folks at Dreamwave Publishing earned the rights to produce comics based on several different Capcom franchises (Mega Man, for instance).  Unfortunately, when Dreamwave lost several of its writers because of pay disputes in 2004, many of the licensing rights were sold off to other companies, most notably to Udon Comics.  After successfully overseeing the Street Fighter series (don’t worry, it’s coming soon), Udon seemed like the perfect match for the cult classic fighting game, Rival Schools.  The story and art were handled by Corey “Rey” Lewis, who had previously worked with Udon on the bonus “mini” comics in the Darkstalkers series.

RivalSchools3The general plot of the comic is mostly unchanged from the video games: in the Japanese city of Aoharu, there have been several attacks on and disappearances of students and staff from local high schools.  Some of the more gifted attendants of these schools have decided to investigate these conflicts, and each of these characters has their own motivation for doing so.  While the perspective of the comic does shift between different characters, much of the focus is on the students from Taiyo High School, particularly Batsu Ichimonji.  This bare-knuckle brawler has transferred to Taiyo High to investigate the kidnapping of his mother, who was the lunch lady at said school.  Once arriving at Taiyo, Batsu joins up with the other members of his team from the video game, and the trio decides to investigate the ominous Justice High School which seems to be involved with all of the attacks.  Rey does a great job of expanding the story from the original material, with plenty of additional exposition and detail to flesh out the characters and their interactions.

RivalSchools4The artwork is a bit of a departure from the video game, but not to the detriment of the comics.  Corey Lewis brings his unique look to Rival Schools, which is a nice blend of American comics and Japanese manga styles, with a dash of graffiti art for the action scenes.  All of the characters retain their original designs, but their facial expressions and details in movement are distinctly “Rey” in their execution.  The specific use of line work stands out for each emotion, with sharp edges in the face and body to express intense feelings/actions and softer edges for a muted tone.  The background art is rather minimalist in most scenes, but there are little details that enhance each panel instead of just serving as window dressing.  Most unique to this comic are the battle scenes between characters.  Instead of opting for the usual “BAP” or “POW” of most comic series, Rey infuses the actual moves and button executions from the video game to convey attacks.  While it sounds a bit ham-fisted in description, this style suits the fighting quite well, and the distinct lettering that Rey uses complements the overall style of the comics.  The entire series is presented in black-and-white, which further ties the work to the various Japanese manga from which this story seems influenced.

When the Rival Schools comics first hit shelves back in April 2006, I scooped up the first issue and devoured it whole.  I had played plenty of Rival Schools back in college, and its sequel Project Justice stands as one of my favorite games of all time.  In June of the same year, the second issue made its debut and included most of the other characters from the game outside of Taiyo High.  I was so eager to read the rest of this four-issue series, I couldn’t wait for the other installments.  But after several months of waiting, it seemed like this beloved series wasn’t going to be finished.  Years went by, and nothing was heard from Udon on the future publication of Rival Schools.  I had pretty much given up on being able to complete my collection, and moved on to other comics.

RivalSchools5As I was re-reading the first two issues for this article, I decided to give my search another try, just to see if Udon ever commented on the lack of closure.  It seems that back in 2009, Udon decided to post the entire series online as a free-to-read webcomic.  I was so excited, I was finally going to enjoy the previously unreleased third and fourth issues of Rival Schools!  I promptly followed the link….and encountered a 404 error.  I tried accessing the comics directly from Udon’s website, and found no evidence of a release on their Rival Schools page.  After reaching out to Udon through Twitter, I found out the sad truth: the third and fourth issues of Rival Schools are currently unavailable.  The entire series was removed from Udon’s website, potentially never to return.

So as I sit here with my unfinished Rival Schools series, I am once again conflicted with the rise of digital media.  There are plenty of advantages to this trend.  I can carry around an entire library of comics on a single device, there are plenty of rare comics that I finally have the chance to read, and the sheer convenience of an issues being just a click away.  But there are situations like this one, where a series that was exclusively digital has been lost to the swirling vortex of the internet.  At least if there was a print version I could embark on a quest to find a copy.  As it stands, I am at the whims of Udon and Capcom, waiting for the chance to read a comic book.  How odd that the “digital versus physical media” situation that is currently affecting video games can make the leap to comics as well.