God of War III and Exploring the Space Within

The attempt to add shades of gray to Sony's anti-hero in his final installment may have come too late, but is admirable regardless.

Ok, just finished God of War III, and I have to say, one of the best endings to a game I’ve ever played. Although an argument can be made that the complexities introduced to Kratos’ character in the last quarter of the game (that deep down, locked within him, there is some good and that his real weapon is hope) can seem tacked on when viewing the game, and series, as a whole, I had no problem with it. My theory as to why these sort of character inconsistencies never bother me in games has to do with player involvement, being that if a character has you hooked at even the simplest level, it’s easier to project into them your own personality and motivations, and personal contradictions and complexities, regardless of (or at least giving some leeway to) how the character may be written. So when Kratos’ fight becomes something within his soul, as opposed to an arena of demons, on the one hand it feels tacked on, but on the other, I appreciate the effort and I enjoy it immensely, because I really relate to Kratos already, being that I am a very angry guy, but I’m still a human being.

What’s more interesting to me though was that in a sense, moments like God of War III’s trip into the soul, where the player’s interaction with the character becomes in some sense more internal and psychological, has practically become a prerequisite for many ‘Triple A’ games. My four most recent game obsessions, Batman Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II, Fallout 3, and now God of War III, have all had moments where the player is thrown into the mind of the character, be it due to hallucinogenic drugs, virtual reality, or a plunge into unconsciousness/death. When these are done well, they’re awesome, even if in almost every case that I can think of, the degree of ‘gameiness’ tends to be toned down for a more basic interaction with the ‘space of within.’ In every case, though, the moment is more than just a cinematic or cutscene, and this very basic interaction, which propels the psycho-spiritual events forward, is somehow intensely rewarding.

In Fallout 3, which is perhaps the least internal of these, but which conforms to the requisite of jarringly defamiliarizing the player and game environment, you walk through a Pleasantville ideal that inspires much of the branding within the game’s fictional universe. In Assassin’s Creed II, you pay a hallucinatory visit to Altair, if only to reveal information about his past. In Batman, you take a journey into the world of the mind a few times, but the most memorable is when Batman himself becomes Bruce Wayne in the alley of his parent’s death. In God of War III, Kratos finally forgives himself for murdering his family, and discovers that it is hope, not anger, which has always been his greatest weapon.

While Batman Arkham Asylum’s moment is easily the one with the most impact, if only because there is a rich mythology and the moment has never been captured in a game, most gamers can agree that these moments are prevalent in some of the biggest titles around.

A scene portrayed countless times in comics and films finds a freshness, and power, when brought into the world of this awesome game.

Now I am pretty lapsed, and I missed the PS2 era, in which, I am guessing, these sort of trips into the mind and psychology of the character, where the physical world is left behind for the internal, which is always intensely less familiar to us (but always aiming to feel more familiar, in some deeper or nostalgic way), may have come about to begin with. Regardless, this is an aspect of games that I find tremendously interesting.

The more I think of the possibilities, the more I realize these are just baby steps of a new development in a medium that, as it reaches, ever so steadily, its technical apex, this need and hunger to ask deeper questions and express deeper human needs becomes ever greater. What an exciting time to be a gamer!

musical interlude: Sonic Adventure 2 v.1

yo I’m knuckles the fightin’ freak, pumpkin hill, I know that it’s here, I sense it in my feet!

this music, combined with the most tedious mission objective in the most boring stage with a boring character.

waaat the fuuuuck happened to you Sega?

Voices from the Nerdosphere pt 1: Video Game Developer Blogs

One of the reasons why we started Ninja Dog Corps was to open up our in depth, nerdy discussions to a larger audience. We’re still getting our feet wet over here, but it’s nice just casting our thoughts out into internet-ether.

Sometimes it seems like we are alone, chatting away on facebook or even loudly in public spaces about the failings of Terminator Salvation,  or the sorting out the virtues of Assassin’s Creed. It doesn’t really matter where we are, a nice restaurant, or walking down that most deviantl of streets in Toronto, Yonge Street – our various geekeries are always on the mind. I find it amusing how disinterested everyone looks and sounds as I go about my day. People idly chat away at those “whatever” kind of topics, but no one ever seems really passionate about anything.

At least, not loudly in the way the Ninja’s Dog’s bark.

It’s appropriate, although a bit of a shame, then, that so much stimulating conversation about the the nerdosphere happens on the double-you-double-you-double-you. Recently I’ve taken to reading the blogs of Iroquois Plisken, Leigh Alexander, and Michael Abbot, to name a few on the gaming side of things. There’s also a tremendous amount of good comic’s discussion going on, like Timothy Callahan, or the folks at Funny Book Babylon, to name a few. I’ve included a few on the side bar to the right of this page, and we’ll be adding more in the future as we go along, maybe citing a recommended reading post to go along with it.

Today I’d like to point out to a few game designers who also maintain internet web journals. Many of them peel back the curtain, and offer an insight into the production/development of games that communicate the struggles and the concerns of game making (and makers). Some of them make games that I haven’t played, some of them make games that I will likely never play, but it’s interesting to see the thought process behind these works. As a gamer, and one who is vocal about the potential of games, it’s cool to know that many in the industry feel the same way, and humbling to see thier struggles made bare.

Steve Gaynor of Fullbright : comes to us from 2k Marin, where I’m sure they’re busy putting the finishing touches on Bioshock 2. Recently he posted of a list, Design of a Decade , which looks at some of the most significant games from the past 10 years in terms of innovative design. I took to heart this post from 2006 about the value of keeping a notebook. I agree, it’s good for the soul.

Jordan Mechner’s blog: includes thoughtful pieces on art, cinema, and comics, all this from the man who brought us Prince of Persia. I find it interesting that he’s remained in close contact with his creation all these years, and in it’s various incarnations. He helped reinvigorate the series with The Sands of Time, wrote a comic, and is even lending a hand in the blockbuster movie from Disney. Even more impressive, Mechner displays a keen understanding of the unique power inherent in each medium.  Lastly, don’t forget to check out his sketchbook entries.

Scott Rogers of Mr Boss’ Design Lair : has worked on everything from the first God of War, to most recently Darksiders, Maximo and even way back, Pac-Man World for the PS1. I’m quite fond of his level design drawings, which have a charm and immediacy about them independent of the game they’re meant for.

Clint Hocking of Click Nothing : comes to us from Ubisoft Montreal. He’s worn several hats but most recently he took up the role of Creative Director on Far Cry 2. One of his most talked about pieces is a thoughtful critique about Bioshock.

Soren Johnson of Designer Notes: has worked on the Civ games and most recently was a designer/programmer on Spore.

There are a number of  God of War alumni: who have blogs but have remained stagnate for months or years now. Too bad though, many of them illuminate the challenges of combat design, and much to my surprise, many of them drew their inspiration from Street Fighter, of all things.

Of course, how can I forget the God of God of War David Jaffe. I love that his writing, and of course his games, come from a sincere, passionate place.

As an illustrator, I naturally gravitate towards other visual artists. I was surprised to find that many developers have some kind of background with the arts, either formally educated or self taught. Steve Gaynor took up illustration and transitioned in the sculpture, and a similar story is shared by Keita Takahashi. It’s something we should probably look into further in another post, perhaps.

I think this is a good place to stop, I’ll have to revist gaming blogs another time, next up – maybe comics!

SNES is one sweet console.

Have you ever wonder what happens when your significant other is a gamer AND a pastry chef?

This happens:

Yes, that’s a cake. A freaking SNES cake. A very nice gift my sister made for her bf. Funny thing is this cake caused him more pain and agony than it is meant to. He was (or I was told) screaming in pain as he cut it. Can’t blame the dude, it’s his all time favorite console. Unfortunately(?) they had some left over and decided to give me the “controller”. I swear I have never hesitated for so long before biting into a cake. The moment I bite into it I felt like something died inside of me. It’s as if I just killed a part of my childhood. Thing taste good though.

And for all the doubters.

Finally Finished Final Fantasy XIII

On a peaceful Saturday, with my sister playing Darksider next door sending over sounds of destruction and screams of rage, there is no better time to relax and write up something for this blog for once.

For some strange reason, I have this urge to play RPGs during winter/Christmas time. Fellow Ninja Dog Corp member Rey also suffer(?) the same problem. Sure there are many RPGs out there on various handheld console but I can’t bear the pain seeing my PS3 sitting there gathering dust (which it did during my run with Persona 3 Protable). So in comes Final Fantasy 13.

One thing Square Enix loves to do with FF is to give them an overly complex story and bombard the user with hundreds and thousands of names and terms. It seriously feels like I’m watching James Cameron’s little speech at E3 again. FF 13 definitely didn’t disappoint in this regard as I have no f’ing clue as to what is going on at first. The fact that they start you off in what’s practically a war zone with people throwing these terms around certainly doesn’t help. Thankfully there is an in game encyclopedia that gets updated as you progress. My advice for people planning on playing this game is read the damn encyclopedia.

As you get past the first story arc (where shit goes from bad to worst) things slows down and the focus shifts to the characters and the events leading up to the war zone at the beginning. This is where FF 13 really shines in my eyes. Unlike other RPGs where once you recruit a party member they become your eternal friend and tags along no matter what, your party in FF13 actually shows emotion and personality and splits up due to disagreement on ideals and goals. From that point on you’ll switch back and forth b/w characters and get to witness the drama that follows.

Fun fact: Around 10 hours into the game, I was sharing my thoughts of this game with my fellow ND Corp members. That’s when I realize I haven’t been to a single town yet. How can this be? RPG with no towns? Considering the story and the setting of the world I’d say it’s only reasonable to have no towns. Its definitely unconventional in RPG standard and I applaud Square Enix for pulling it off.

Character development is one of the biggest reasons why I enjoyed this game as much as I did. I honestly can’t remember when’s the last time where my most hated character (Hope in this case) eventually became one of my favorite in the game as he matures. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the villains. I find them very uninspiring and everything feels forced about them. Imagine a wrestler trying way too hard to get the crowd to boo him but instead gets no reaction at all. That’s the feeling I got from the villains in FF13. I know they like giving us crazy/strange looking last boss, but the last boss is just….well, lets just say it doesn’t look very threatening.

On to the battle system. To be honest I wasn’t expecting too much at first. Based on the trailer the battle system seems to be too complicated for its own good and stuff happens at a very fast pace. Thankfully that’s not the case. You only control one character at a time but you have a certain degree of control over other characters. The way it works is each character has different roles (attacker, healer, enhancer, etc…). You can preset 5 (or was it 6?) different combination of roles in the menu and you can switch them anytime during battle. Because each role has a rather limited number of skills the AI won’t go casting something stupid or unnecessary. With shit happening rather fast on the screen you really have to pay attention and switch roles accordingly or else you are good as dead. I’m guessing they (Square Enix) expects us to die quite a few times so they made it that when we die we start right before we engaged in battle rather then the last save point. I think I gameover’d at least 20 times in this game (which is very high for a rpg game). Overall I’m very pleased with the battle system. It’s not too complicated or too flashy but has just enough to keep you constantly thinking and occupied.

One thing I must mention is the game is super linear. All the maps are literally one straight line. I can guarantee you that you’ll never get lost in this game. For those who are used to the open world games these days might not find this very appealing, but I’m actually glad they made it this way. With the game being linear you don’t have to worry about the flow of the story being broken by some unnecessary side quest that requires you to travel to the opposite end on the world map while your princess is kidnapped and set to be executed in a few hours.

So, is this game worth the $90 (yes that’s how much I spent importing this)? I’d say yes definitely. It’s a game with a decent story, fun characters, good battle system, and of course amazing graphics. Though it would’ve been better if they gave us more interesting villains and boss battle.

I actually wanted to go more in depth with the story but 1. I don’t want to spoil anything and 2. It probably wouldn’t make any sense  lol

Lastly, for those who are deciding whether to play this or White Knight Chronicles, please just stick with FF13. Having played both I can tell you how disappointed I am with WKC. Unless you REALLY enjoy grinding online getting equipments and trophies, I seriously can’t recommend WKC. The characters and story is total trash and the battle system gets boring real fast.

Dynamic Nerdosphere Interconnectivity – or how I learned to love twitter

Believe me when I say this – but I’m sick of hearing about it too. You know, that blue bird, 140 characters, inane posts from people you don’t really care about…Ashton Kutchener (and no I’m not going to bother to check if that’s how you really spell his name).


It seems like I can’t watch a TV show without the host trying to pimp his twitter, and even the newspapers, already losing relevancy in a world of highspeed communication, have brought themselves so low as to promote their twitter account. Of all the social networking sites that I’ve signed up for over the years, your friendsters, your myspaces, your bloggers and facebook, twitter was the one where I joined in, simply because it seemed like, society demanded it of me.

Even now, months later I’m not entirely sure I’m using it correctly, but a week ago I happened upon an interesting phenomenon that makes me believe that twitter still has a purpose yet. For lack of a better term, let’s call it Nerdosphere Interconnectivity, to which you might argue, has existed since the early days of the internet, it’s called links, and so we’ll further add *science* to my newly invented term and call it, Dynamic Nerdosphere Interconnectivity.

My Twitter account is populated by a smattering of various representatives from different fiefdoms in the Nerdosphere – from “Internet Jesus” Warren Ellis (the comics Planetary, Nextwave), videogame creators like David Jaffe (God of War, Calling All Cars), to artists/illustrators like Paul Pope, critics like Roger Ebert, and even more off the beaten track – architecture site BLDGBLOG‘s companion account, or mixed martial artist Joe Lauzon, and ring girl Arianny Celeste.

The interesting little bit here is how these seemingly disparate elements sometimes converge. Like the time Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski (and yes I bothered to check the spelling on that one) posted about reading a certain comic:

Cliffy B: Reading “Old Man Logan” – Mark Millar always delivers. 32 minutes ago from txt

A comic that I had just gifted to my brother for Christmas. And Marvel.com editor Agent M (who I also follow) picked up on this:

Agent_M: @therealcliffyb If you’re a @Marvel Comics fan, we should chat. Maybe do an interview with me for Marvel.com?

I haven’t bothered to check up on this if anything has actually come into fruition, because I’m not very thorough, nor am I a journalist – but it does point to the (dynamic) interconnectedness of our Nerdosphere. Afterall, why wouldn’t Bleszinski be a fan of Wolverine or Mark Millar? In the same way that many FPS games model themselves after Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, or if you’re in the sci-fi mode,  James Cameron’s Aliens. Unlike the call-and-response dialog that would happen before, where George Lucas creates a work decades after being inspired by Flash Gordon and Lord of the Rings, the “lag” between the creator/creation/inspiration cycle is in many ways shortened. George Lucas may have never actually spoken with say, JRR Tolkein, and I never had the chance to meet Jim Henson, but today in our twitter age, you can comment on Iron Man director Jon Faverau’s twitter (and he used to be fairly into myspace, back in the day – weren’t we all…), or David Jaffe’s account, and potentially even expect a response – so long as you aren’t a total internet asshole about it. In the case of Twitter, creators can exchange thoughts amongst each other with something approximating an actual conversation.

You might think my geekier pursuits have little in common with the macho world of Mixed Martial Arts, and yet Joe Lauzon proudly proclaims in his profile “Guy from Boston that fights in the UFC and plays a ton of video games.” Former UFC Heavyweight Champ Josh Barnett‘s account has a painting of the Warhammer 40k universe as his backdrop, you know, Space Marines in impossibly clunky armor, Space Orks, the tabletop board game you play with painted miniatures?

We live in a world where inspiration comes from the most unlikeliest places, and it’s application even more unusual.

Famously, current Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva  watched Ong Bak and became obsessed with Tony Jaa’s reverse-elbow uppercut. Even though it was a move performed in a movie, Silva spent extra time – on his own  outside of his regular gym – perfecting the move. Come fight night, this happened.

Twitter might not inspire someone to achieve a fantastic KO (or a elegant piece of music, or a thought provoking film), but as a vehicle for connecting artists, martial or otherwise, it can help generate dialog, and when all the disparate kingdoms of the Nerdosphere are talking, we just might see something fantastic.

For now though, I’ll just post about Chanukah.

Some Top 10 Picks of the Last Decade

Not only is it the end of the year, it’s also the end of the decade. So, being the comicbook nerd that I am, I decided to throw my own 2 cents about the comicbook world over the last 10 years into the ocean that is the interweb. That said, I wracked my brain on how to divide my kudos to the medium that keeps on giving, trying to jam pack as many of my faves as possible into whatever lists I could think off. The result is 3 sets of top 10 picks that have no particular order that hopefully don’t overlap (ie; Millar & Hitch are in one list so Ultimates won’t be in any of the other 2). Now enough yakking, release the lists!

Top 10 Creative Teams (1+1 = instant magic)

  1. Joss Whedon & John Cassaday
  2. Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev
  3. Ed Brubaker & Micheal Lark
  4. JMS & Oliver Coipel
  5. Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting
  6. Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley
  7. Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis
  8. Jason Aaron & Ron Garney
  9. Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch
  10. Brian Michael Bendis & Stuart Immonen

Top 10 Minis/Maxis/Limited Series (Stories spanning from 2-12 issues with a beginning, middle, and end)

  1. DC: The New Frontier
  2. We3
  3. Hellboy: The Wild Hunt
  4. Superman: Red Sun
  5. Identity Crisis
  6. NEXTWAVE: Agents of Hate
  7. Spider-Man: Blue
  8. All Star Superman
  9. Batman: Year 100
  10. Green Lantern: Rebirth

Top 10 Story Arcs (includes specific story arcs that happen within an ongoing title as well as entire series)

  1. Wolverine: Old Man Logan
  2. New X-Men: E is for Extinction
  3. JSA: Thy Kingdom Come
  4. Y: The Last Man (Entire Series)
  5. 100 Bullets (Entire Series)
  6. Planetary (Entire Series + Specials)
  7. Spider-Man: Coming Home
  8. Superman: Brainiac
  9. Negation (Entire Series)
  10. Fables: The Good Prince

So there you have it. Over the next week or so, I’ll try to break down those lists and give a more in depth explanation as to why these lists are the way they are… hopefully. Haha.

Dante’s Inferno: The Video Game: The Demo: The Review

I've decided to display images from various illuminated texts, rather than screens from the actual game. Gustave Dore, Canto 31

Last night, my bro informed me that the Dante’s Inferno demo was available on the PSN, and while I’m not a big fan of game demos, I decided to grab it.

I guess Visceral Games loved the PS3 enough that they released the demo to us weeks ahead of the 360. Additionally they announced the other day that the Sony version would be essentially the definitive version, with tons of Special Edition like extras (artbook,soundtrack, even a digital copy of the epic poem) all in the normal ed of the game – no need to preorder or to shell out extra dough for it. The 360 version lacks these frills completely, bummer.

So with that much Sony love, I thought I should at least give the demo a go. After watching two movies (The Prince of Tides and The Four Feathers) I was good to go on EA/Visceral Games action epic.

Broadly speaking, I’ll say that I enjoyed the demo, having played it twice now, but I do have some concerns…

First of all, lets get this out of the way, the game is nearly straight out plagiarizing God of War. I don’t know if they had access to the source code or anything, but everything from the control set up, to the opening of treasure chests (fonts in this game) and the red and green orbs is GOW.

I’ll try and leave it at that , as far as GOW comparisons to go ( and fail miserably, as you’ll soon see) – this is going to be discussed endlessly when the game comes out, and then brought back up again once GOWIII arrives. Instead lets talk about Dante’s Inferno.

Bottecelli - Map of Hell

Back at Sheridan, I was supposed to read the original poem, I didn’t. At least not thoroughly – so I can’t talk about how exact a representation this game is. My gut reaction is that it isn’t.

What I can talk about is the stylistic choices Visceral has made, many of them feel shallow, or at the very least, ill considered. Already, I find myself breaking my promise and thinking about that other game, where on the graphically limited PS2, legibility was a primary concern. Bad guys in DI are hard to discern amongst the murky browness of the stages, but as a rule of thumb, I simply starting attacking at the nearest thing that moved. Still, even the grand Boss of the demo, Death incarnate, seems to be an amorphous black shade, and not intentionally so.

I have a hard time trying describe the look of the titular character – he’s bare chested, yet his arms are heavily protected. He wields in one hand, Death’s scythe, and the other, a holy cross (that shoots out glowing crosses, like a divine care bear stare). On his head he has what seems to be a iron crown of thorns, and facially, he reminds me of my  barber.

Oh, and about that chest, he has some kind of magical tapestry stitched onto it, the art constantly shifting around – it’s bloody and makes squishy noises when he pokes at it, and I don’t really know why he should be this way.

Sometimes, the game goes into a 2D animated cinematic, which to me, evoked those McFarlane/Korn music videos from the years ago. I was later told that they were supposed to resemble stained glass windows, which I think missed it’s mark by a wide margin. Other times, the game uses CG cinemas, and other times, it uses in game graphics, and regardless of the style, you’ll frequently see bare breasts. All of this seems kind of inconsistent and poorly paced…but bear in mind we’re dealing with a demo here, so we’ll let that slide.

It’s as if Rob Leifeld, Todd McFarlane and an army of Metal album cover artists collaborated on this game, which is to say that it’s kind of cool in a hollow sort of way. Then again, that other game isn’t all that different – but DI has a weird image (Image?) within an image effect, as if a game was made through the lens of GOW and then filtered and distorted.

So basically, the game looks kind of stupid, but somehow I’m ok with this. You get a glimpse of further stages at the end of the demo (each one patterned after the “levels” of hell, and modeled after the deadly sins), and while it all looks kind of samey – I could see myself getting used to DI’s skulls and guts and blood aesthetic.

Gustave Dore - The Flaming Spirits of the Evil Counsellors

At the end of the day I want to just beat the shit out of hell’s minions, and on this, DI delivers.

The demo doles out a new set of abilities every few minutes, which interrupts the game-flow, but when you do get down to the berserker action, it is incredibly satisfying. Halfway through I found myself wailing on hordes of bad guys, sometimes grabbing and tossing them, other times jacking them up into the air, mixing in a magical ice dash attack or using my care-bear-crucifix-stare. The breadth of your moveset, even in this brief demo, is varied enough, and the controls solid enough, that you can creatively mix and match attacks and feel confident enough that you’ll connect with them. That’s a key ingredient in these types of games, and with the promise of tons more moves in the full game, I’m sure that at least in terms of combat, DI is a very solid effort.

Lastly I’ll mention that DI calls upon another gaming fixation that seems to have cropped up in many games in recent years, the morality system. You can choose to either “punish” or “absolve”, your foes, punishing them powers up Death’s Scythe, and saving them powers up your Care Bear powers. My main concern here, is that like inFAMOUS, it impacts your powers, but not necessarily the world or the story in any meaningful way.

If DI is an echo of GOW, I would hope that it copies one thing above all else, crucially, which is “that moment”. And I can’t really describe it more than that, but GOW I (and II in some ways) had “that moment” which elevated the game beyond a frivolous action romp, and actually gave you a moment of pause. “That moment”, which we often attribute to more artsy games, like Ico, or SOTC, or even something like Flower, and in some ways is expected for those games, was  a nice surprise in GOW. The dev’s at Visceral, if they’ve truly done their homework, would do well to keep that in mind, but I fear that emulating this aspect of GOW might be harder than the other more salient aspects.

Willian Blake - The Whirlwind of Lovers Canto V "The Carnal"

Willian Blake - The Whirlwind of Lovers Canto V "The Carnal"

Dante’s Inferno: The Game: The Demo feels like a guilty pleasure, perhaps that might be enough for some, and maybe even appropriate given it’s sin-filled content. When the full game comes out, we’ll know if the game aspires to be more – shouldn’t the Divine Comedy deserve that?

New Header Image

Check out our super sexy new header image, curtosy of Eshwin. So long, generic urban streetside, hello vicious ninjitsu canine!

My Batman: You Should Have Seen Him …

The following article is about My Batman, the Batman interpretation that to me, is the definitive, ‘proper’ Batman. For this, I not only look specifically to the comics, as they are the source — any other novelizations, television series, or film, is merely an adaptation of that source — but it so happens that my definitive Batman can be found in one, single Batman comic, published in September 1988, Batman #423, also known as You Should Have Seen Him …

Although I am picking one specific comic, that comic is actually part of an era of Batman that I am partial to, and so some history is necessary before I get into my review.

The year is 1987. Beside the Indian Grocery store that my mom frequented, was a comic book store called Target Comics, run by, what appeared to be to my 7 year old eyes, a biker gang, although they were likely just stoners who liked rock ‘n’ roll and read a lot of comics in between perfecting Motorhead riffs. And it was amidst this rock ‘n’ roll troupe that I began my first foray into the world of comics, and to their credit, they never kicked me out or scolded me when 90% of the time, I never had enough pocket change to buy anything.

My first comic book that I think I ever bought was the first issue of the relaunch Aquaman title at the time. Although I never had enough pocket change or meager allowance money to buy subsequent issues of that particular series, I did, on one particular day, see a ‘value pack’ of Batman comics. The 3-pack was such a cool deal that I had just enough to get it, and so I did. Contained in that 3-pack were Batman #414, Batman #415, and Batman #416. While Batman #415 was part of the larger ‘Millenium’ storyline that told its story among various titles across the DC universe, Batman #414 and Batman #416 were self-contained stories about Bruce Wayne written by Jim Starlin, a fascinating and by all accounts, grossly underrated comic book writer of the 80s. While Batman #414 dealt with Bruce Wayne’s relationship to a woman whom he is unable as Batman to save from a serial killer due to a bad hunch, and the grief that follows, Batman #416 deals with the schism between the first Robin turned Nightwing, Dick Grayson, and Bruce Wayne/Batman. More broadly, the issue deals with the challenge set by father and son in expressing their need for one another, even if the son must go his own way. Both stories are remarkably nuanced and emotional, with action either being secondary or existing purely to further the emotional journey of the characters.

It was the memory of this ‘forgotten Batman’ of my youth that inspired me to dig through a back issue bin at my last comic book convention and seek out more forgotten Starlin issues, where I came across an issue that captures, in my mind, everything Batman is to me: Batman #423: You Should Have Seen Him ….

Told in the words of three different police officers sitting in a diner after their shift, each with their own ‘Batman encounter’ to tell of, the issue bears conceptual and structural similarity to Batman #250: The Batman Nobody Knows! (1973), written by Frank Robbins, in which a group of kids trade wildly imaginative (and inaccurate) campfire stories of their witnessing of Batman (the concept was later adapted to the animated show The New Adventures of Batman to pay tribute to both the Golden Age Batman and the Batman of The Dark Knight Returns, and then again in the animated film Gotham Knight). However, instead of colorful reimaginings, what we get from the resting officers of the law are accounts of three different men in one, of a hero as complex as any one of us, whom we both admire and relate to.

In the first story, a young, poor, black man named Kenny is about to throw himself off of a bridge, gaining the attention of the police and a crowd of onlookers. He explains that as a junkie, he is incapable of recovering his life from the mess it has become. Arriving on the scene is Batman, whose presence only seems to provoke the man further. After some back and forth, Kenny says, “Listen man, I’m poor, I’m black … I got a jones I can’t shake … got no family, no job … no future … ain’t no better life waiting for me.” The junkie then jumps, and Batman leaps after and catches the man in mid-air while suspending both of them from his Bat-rope.

Batman: “That was real stupid, Kenny. You threw your life away! Wasted it! By all rights, you should be dead now! But you’re not! You got another chance. It’s time to start over Kenny, get on a drug rehab program. Clean up your body and your life. Quit looking for excuses to fail! You’ve got as good a shot at life as anyone …”

While we live in the kind of sad society that thinks of dialogue as this as over the top, or conjuring elements of an ‘after school special,’ I can’t think of many moments in comics as awesome as this. Here’s Batman saying to a very troubled, angry, self-hating young man, with very little to live for, to get his life together. It’s not a deep or complex sentiment, nor is it ‘badass’, but it’s to the point and it is, in a sense, what Batman is saying to all of us who’ve been in Kenny’s situation, if even slightly. Who among us is so foolish and arrogant, and, well, darn crazy enough not to listen to Batman when he lays it down like that? The significance of this entire episode is not only its ability to motivate anyone from shaking the excuses they make for themselves, but that during this time in the 80s, drugs were becoming an ever increasing problem in America, as were racial tensions. Whether or not many of the comic’s target audience were even reading it at the time, it is essentially Batman saying to the nation’s youth, ‘Quit making excuses and get your shit together!’

Here, Batman is speaking in a tone which could be considered self-righteous, but the fact that Batman not only stops the man from committing suicide, but stays behind to lecture him, conveys that he’s not simply a hardened vigilante who goes after murderers and robbers, out for vengeance or to maintain some abstract sense of order, but rather, that he genuinely cares about this person. He wants this man, this junkie, to make something of himself, to rectify his mistakes, and very unlike the sullen, stoic Batman of later comics, he speaks his mind to him in broad daylight. Sure, there’s a time for lurking in the shadows, but sometimes, you just need to come out with it.

As a segway into the second story, the cop who’s just been told this tale replies, “the Batman I saw was a totally different person.”

He tells of a Batman not unlike the dark, violent character of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Christian Bale’s Batman interrogating Detective Flask in Batman Begins (“SWEAR TO ME!”). A young punk threatens to kill an old lady inside a held up convenience store. Batman swears that if the gang member pulls the trigger, he’d inflict endless pain upon him … endless because Batman would not let him die, no matter how he suffered by his hand. The scene ends with Batman hurling the young man through the window.

This Batman is true to familiar form, but I will not discuss it in great depth here, as it has been the aspect of the character most seized upon and popularized by comics and film. I will say that it’s cool when Batman ‘gets all badass’ like he does here, but it doesn’t reach sublime depths of storytelling or characterization on its own. It is, however, a necessary incident within the larger fabric of the comic, for its plain acknowledgement of violence, juxtaposing one extreme of the character with the contradicting gentility of the third and final story.

As the second cop concludes his story with the line, “That Batman is one tough ol’ mother. Mean and cold as ice,” a third cop, Officer Kirby Jackson, approaches the two and states, “No, he’s not.”

Kirby Jackson tells how he cornered two, very young homeless children in an alley, Batman showed up, and the kids threatened Batman and the police officer with a baseball bat. While the police officer was scared for the kids, knowing Batman only as a dark, violent character of the night, Batman says unexpectedly, “Can we talk about this?” The children, coaxed by his understanding and ease with them, tell their story. Their mother had died in a car crash, and their father had lost his job soon after. In an attempt to make ends meet by cheating in a poker match, he was killed, leaving the orphaned brother and sister in the hands of the foster care system. The two siblings, having been told that they would be placed in different homes,  ran away and chose to live on the street, out of a shipping crate underneath an underpass, eating scraps. They couldn’t bear to go on without the only family they had left: each other.

The following moment the cop describes is gut wrenching:

“That’s when I saw it. He turned his face away from the fire, hoping the shadows would hide it, but I saw it anyhow.”

A single tear falls down Batman’s cowled cheek, and Batman promises that Bruce Wayne will find a home in which the children can live together.

This is the moment that makes the comic for me, because it’s not only unusual for the character in terms of what is most often written, it addresses what kind of a man Batman is. In the first story, he is direct and firm, the voice of sanity and divine purpose to a soul that’s lost its way. In the second, we see the anger and the hatred contained within him at a person who would hurt another for personal gain He is the vengeful angel we’ve always known … but in this final story, Batman is simply a man of unbridled compassion and sympathy. He’s a human being.

I remember after reading those first Starlin Batman comics, #414 and #416, I was introduced to such graphic novels as Arkham Asylum, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns, by my uncle. The darkness and violence and psychology of those elaborate and by now famous titles captivated me as I moved into adolescence, but years later, as an adult male, they barely scratch the surface of what Batman really means to me. While they delivered the necessary ‘push’ for Batman to remerge into the mainstream as a dark and brooding figure of the night, they also began a trend that, by the time the late ‘90s came around, had turned Batman into a shallow, callous jerk. Another unfortunate result is that from the standpoint of the non-comic reading mainstream, Batman was most defined by the 1960s show, a respectable and historic pop culture product, but still campy, superficial, and comedic. Just about everyone who doesn’t know the legacy of the character well enough, but ‘just kinda’ knows it, thinks that it was Frank Miller who was most responsible for the rehauled and grown up Batman, responsible for Batman being a serious, mature character from the pulps, as opposed to the Adam West incarnation of the 1960s. The truth is, the ‘darker than dark’ Batman of Frank Miller, later co-opted by Tim Burton and popularized through subsequent writers, is to the campy 1960s Batman what a 14-year old’s perception of the world is to an 8-year old’s perception of the world. It’s grown, but not ‘grown-up’.

Actually, as my review of Batman #423, proves, Batman had been grown-up and smart for some time , thanks to writers like Jim Starlin who were carrying on the tradition of Dennis O’Neil, the real deal when it came to the intelligent design of Batman’s evolution (it is debatable what influence Frank Miller had on Starlin, as some of Frank Miller’s work came slightly before or during it, although it is inarguable that #423’s Batman is a much different hero than Frank Miller’s in terms of TDKR or Year One.). Batman was not campy in those early 70s-80s comics and he wasn’t a super-dark sociopath either. Batman, for all his tragedy, was a smart, committed, responsible man who cared for the well being of others, and who used every means at his disposal to help those people he could still save. His life experience had predisposed him to a hatred of criminals, commitment to his objectives, and a slightly rigid, if ontological sense of right and wrong. As abnormal a man as he may be, Batman’s sanity, rarely, if ever, escapes him. Most importantly, Batman had sympathy for the weak, and it was out of this sympathy that he sought to protect and help them.

Based on that acceptence of the character, Batman #423 is my definitive Batman comic … not Year One, not TDKR, or anything which has come after. The reason being that through contradiction and extremes, we find the man caught within, and it not only makes us understand him, but care about him. In the 22 pages of this monthly issue published over 20 years ago, more is covered and established about the character than in most trades or graphic novels, or for that matter, Batman films.

Anyways, that’s ‘My Batman.’ What’s yours?