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Dear Video Games: Comics can change, why can’t you?

Sections: Exclusives, Features, Opinions, Originals

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batgirl
I’ve happily entered my local comics shop countless times, but I’ll never stop being intimidated by the singles wall. I don’t really know what else to call it, but it’s the wall housing all the recent, single issues of currently-running books. Marvel, DC, IDW, Dark Horse and however many other publishers, all competing for real estate so fiercely all it would take is one clumsy misstep to send entire sections of the wall to the floor. Inspect closely and you’ll find them all arranged alphabetically, but the myriad colors, fonts and other stylish comic book trappings make that hard to process for all but the most grizzled veterans of the hobby. If you’re trying to get into comics, the wall is the last place you want to start. You can try talking to the staff, if they’re friendly, or you can hit the trade section and browse spine titles like a normal person.

When it comes to more insular nerd media, comics are so much more physically imposing than anything else. Many of these titles have been running for decades, so where the hell are you supposed to start? How important is context? Is that number one issue really going to be a fresh start, or is it going to assume I read the series before it was rebooted? The barrier of entry is insane, or so it seems. On the contrary, you can just pop into a GameStop, find the relevant shelf to your interests and find something to play just based on the cover and/or title. No guesses, no messes. Accessibility is key, if you want more people to spend money on your thing. It’s so much easier to play video games. It almost seems like developers and publishers really know how to get people into the hobby.

However, when it comes to inclusion, when it comes to actually letting people in, you can’t get better than comics right now.

It doesn’t matter who I am, I can walk into a comics shop and find something for me. I don’t just mean something fun to read that matches my tastes, I mean for me. I’m talking about representation. I can find comics written and drawn by and for men, women and children of all ages and cultural backgrounds. The best part? They’re all on the shelves next to each other, separated only by the alphabet (or grouped together by publisher on the trade shelves). I can walk into the good ol’ LCS and snag a collection of Strangers In Paradise just as easily as the latest issues of Superman . I can even throw some manga or local comix in for good measure.

When I walk into a game store, what do I see? The same thing we’ve been seeing for decades: scruffy, brooding white guys and cartoon animals. Or anime people.

assassin's creed unity

Things are beginning to get better. At E3 this year, we saw a handful of major, AAA games with female protagonists. Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge and Bayonetta all made headlines. Yet, these games are not normal; they’re still surprises. That’s crazy. Half the population of gamers gets what, a third of the real estate, if that? Then we have companies like Ubisoft making ridiculous claims about costs, and other developers either shuffling awkwardly in silence or addressing the problem later. Sunset Overdrive’s creators announced customization for protagonists, even taking the time to jab at Ubisoft, but they did it on YouTube, far away from E3 and its attending shareholders.

Yet, I can just saunter into the LCS and pick up Batgirl, right next to Batman. Or Batwing, which is (or was, when it started) set in Africa! Each book with its own high-tier creative talent.

Speaking of Batgirl, DC recently announced a new creative team, and a new look for the character. With the new look comes a new tone, that of a more colorful, lighthearted take on the character and her surroundings. Yet, when I turn on one of the smash-hit Arkham games, I’m suddenly dragged kicking and screaming back into the 90’s. Everything is dark and muddled, tonally-confused as it desperately tries to appeal to the “mass market.” Barbara Gordon is still Oracle, a disembodied voice, trapped in a wheelchair despite having been back on her feet in the comics since 2011. Supposedly Rocksteady plans to give her a bigger role in the fourth game in the series, but she’s still Oracle. She’s still carrying the bullet Alan MooreJoker put in her spine years upon years ago. Do we really need four of these games? Five, counting the handheld spinoff? Can’t we tell new stories without having to anchor them to the previous games? Maybe, but we’d have to get rid of the people who think violently ripping duct tape off of Harley Quinn’s face over and over again is hilarious first.

thor

Thor is going to be a woman soon. Captain friggin’ America, the whitest dude to ever white dude it up on comic book pages, is handing over the shield to a person of color. You wouldn’t know it from watching any Marvel movies or playing any Marvel video games, but it’s totally happening. Iron Man is changing too, supposedly becoming more of an anti-hero and possibly a villain in the future. Time and time again, major comic publishers are willing to make major changes to their fictional status quos at the conclusion of big storylines. But in AAA video games, the storylines never end. They repeat over and over as the number at the end of the titles rises, or the subtitles become more and more redundant. Very rarely does something new happen, and when it does it’s billed as a reboot.

Things are getting better. Indie games are becoming more and more prolific, and those titles tend to explore more varied narrative territories. Rise of the Tomb Raider is becoming a major force again in the AAA world. More and more developers seem to be vocalizing a desire for change. The final hurdle is money. The people in the suits calling the shots. The ones who say people don’t buy games with different protagonists, yet decide not to market them or put them on platforms with smaller bases. That awful cycle of confirmation bias needs to be broken, and the only way that’ll happen is if consumers vote with their wallets.

Maybe, one day, we’ll see a Batgirl game on the shelf.

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  • BornIn1142

    Batgirl over Oracle is not a victory. All that restoring her ability to walk did was make a unique character a generic one, make the point that one can’t be valuable while also being disabled, and put Barbara Gordon into a specific role by supplanting another character who fit the role far better.

    Furthermore, I don’t want to come off as cynical since I find many of these trends in comics quite agreeable, but you do realize that the changes announced by Marvel are not going to be permanent, right? They are gimmicks, the likes of which have been repeated many times over the years, and which always result in a return to the status quo.

    • Lucas White

      Oh, totally. I don’t think I did a good job making it clear, but what I was going for is that Oracle’s presence in the games has been relatively pointless, and even since her character has changed dramatically in the comics the games are still doing the same thing (although Knight seems to be putting her on-screen finally).

      Also yeah, changes like this in comics are hardly permanent, but they do tend to stick around for at least a year or more depending on how well-received they are. The ripples also tend to last even longer. Still, gimmicks or not, they’re still risks being taken by people in power, which is interesting.