THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (12/17/14 – Quality in Games Journalism)


Having played a lot of commercial graphic adventure games, I can assure you this is not generally how they read. I presume you're familiar with the genre - computer games, historically, in which you walk around a series of screens collecting items and solving riddles, until you walk onto the wrong screen and die, at which point you restore the game from the last point where you remembered to save and continue forward, inch by inch, until nothing works anymore and you buy the hint book, only to discover that you left the wrong key on a now-inaccessible table four hours ago and you have to start over from the beginning. At least, that was the classic concept, from back when games were supposed to last you a month and sadism was all part of the fun; today, the emphasis is more on guided exploration than the omnipresent threat of calamity.

Into this scene walks Corto Maltese: Secrets of Venice, a new French-produced game based on the beloved Hugo Pratt creation, available now in English for desktop and tablet formats via Steam or the App Store and probably other venues; I played on my iPad, which cost me $4.99. You'd be forgiven for thinking it an appetizer for the character's return to comics under a new creative team in 2015, but actually it's a very Pratt-centric work, quite reverential. In fact, two of the major forces behind the game are former Rizzoli editor and Pratt associate Marco Steiner (who co-authors the game's script with French writer Simon Guibert) and Swiss photographer Marco D'Anna; the two have collaborated in the past on photographic surveys of locations from Pratt's work for Rizzoli's later Corto Maltese color editions, culminating in the 2011 publication of I luoghi dell’avventura, a purportedly expansive travelogue which functioned as catalog for a contemporaneous exhibition at the Museo d'Arte di Lugano. These are researchers, and their participation suggests a potential answer to the very immediate question of how to tell a new story with a character so completely associated with its original author: tell a story *about* the character instead.


From what I can gather, the game was at one point titled "In the Footsteps of Corto Maltese", which is not nearly as gamey as SECRETS! OF! VENICE!, but a good deal more appropriate to how the thing is set up. You don't actually play as Corto Maltese; instead, the game adopts a first-person perspective, so that you're simply *you*, albeit a version of yourself prone to heavy drinking in the great modern-day city of Venice, making you easy prey for an insane café owner who dopes you up with a slow-release poison and forces you to search out the six pieces of a fabulous jewel, because that's what happens in graphic adventure games.

As a result of the toxin, however, you begin to hallucinate events from the life of Corto Maltese, which are presented through re-purposed panels of Hugo Pratt's art, set adrift in dreamy b&w. Or maybe you're glimpsing the past, or a parallel world, since you're also handed a seemingly incomprehensible edition of the Gazzetta Veneta, which has apparently been written by six women from the Pratt albums; as you progress, your blurry vision clears enough to read more and more of the paper, which offers little tidbits of information and Corto lore, including some goofy speculations (Corto Maltese totally would have liked the V for Vendetta movie, you're assured) and special bonus treats, like Pratt watercolors, and notable sequences from the original comics presented as cute little animations. While this is happening, characters from the Pratt comics (Rasputin!) or historical personages important to Pratt himself begin to invade the present-day world. And everything -- everything -- is written in the rather ostentatious, imperfect English glimpsed up top, which sometimes enhances the surreal atmosphere and sometimes leaves you scratching your head.

So, basically, you try and navigate these differing layers of reality with the aid of an impossible compass which coughs out puzzles for you to solve (again: that's what happens in these things). The game was developed by Lexis Numérique, a well-regarded French house which unfortunately went out of business earlier this year, toward the end of production. Still, it appears the scheme developed by Jérôme Pélissier (interactive scenario, art design, game design) & Jean-Christophe Petit (lead game design, level design) fundamentally holds true - the compass and whatever you're looking at are rendered in typical, modern color graphics, unless the b&w 2D element of Pratt's work is seeping through. When you solve all of the necessary puzzles on one screen, you automatically navigate to the next, with the screen transitioning via pans over live-action images by D'Anna and two other photographers, Marco Schievenin & Mathieu Détaint (also one of the game's producers).


The result is an impressively eccentric transposition of various fictions onto dubious reality, your vision oscillating between gaming 'realism', actual photographic realism, and drug-induced bande dessinée messages from beyond, with an additional layer provided by the puzzles themselves, which frequently force you to minimize the game and search the genuine internet for comments left by characters on certain public websites or walk around an island via Google Street View to identify a certain box number some unwitting resident has posted, which then figures into the plot.

However, there are not so many of these moments. Often, the compass will simply spit out a match-the-colored-circles-with-wires minigame, which gives the impression of your attempting to repair a malfunctioning piece of machinery in order to progress, which can be taken as an unintended metaphor for adventure gaming itself, so intent on providing exploratory stories, but often prone to leaving you fiddling with tests or walking back and forth from location to location, wondering what the fuck to do - that's the 'game,' goes the old criterion, and how much 'game' should be in a game is among the preeminent questions in gaming today. Secrets of Venice, infatuated as it is with tales from the past, is appropriately old-school in this way.

I wish I could comment further, leaving a definitive statement as to the game's quality, but I'm stuck behind a door locked with a keypad. Rasputin has thrown a bomb in the room, and a man who may be the ghost of William Butler Yeats is attempting to defuse it, but there is no danger; you don't die in these games anymore, so he works at it forever. The bomb never goes off, patiently ticking while I fiddle with the keypad like a character straining to locate a sequential panel in which to escape. I'm sure there's hints online.


PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.




Earthling: A 208-page Drawn and Quarterly edition of a 2011 work by German cartoonist Aisha Franz, her first bookshelf release in North America. "Set in a soulless suburb populated by block after block of identical row houses bordered by empty fields and an industrial no-man’s-land," it looks set to provide a downcast view on two girls and their mother, all of them seeking a way out from the deadness of getting on with things - surreal and fantastic elements intrude. Definitely the premiere original on offer this week. Samples; $19.95.


The Complete Junior and Sunny by Al Feldstein: The newest among IDW's reprint packages, this time coming from editor Grant Geissman, who fronted HarperDesign's 2005 EC overview Foul Play! It's a related topic, dedicating 400 pages to a small batch of teen humor comics (Junior Comics and Sunny, America's Sweetheart) that Al Feldstein put together in the late 1940s for the aggressively sensational Fox Feature Syndicate - the reputation of the works is that of Archie, taken as far into licentiousness as anyone felt eager to go in '47 & '48. If IDW's press release is still accurate, we'll also be seeing Feldstein's work on 1948's Meet Corliss Archer, an early media license comic based on a popular radio show; $49.99.



Trilogy USA: Continually pressing forward with Hermann Huppen, Dark Horse and Strip Art Features now present a 160-page omnibus of Stateside-set albums made in collaboration with the artist's son, writer Yves H. The contents include Blood Ties (2000), Manhattan Beach 1957 (2002) and The Girl from Ipanema (2005), with the latter I believe seeing English translation for the first time. They're all dark crime comics, out to "paint a picture of a new Babylon," per the publisher. Samples; $19.99.

Dream Logic: I very hazily recall the original release of this stuff through Marvel's creator-owned Icon imprint back in 2010 & 2011 - it was four issues' worth of 48-page art books by David Mack, mixing comic stories with process work and various illustrations. Now it appears the project has gone to Dark Horse, which is presenting it at 9.2" x 12.3" in hardcover format. Some new material will be included; $34.99.

Anna & Froga: Thrills, Spills, and Gooseberries (&) Pippi Won't Grow Up: Two for all ages from Drawn and Quarterly, both from continuing series. Gooseberries is the publisher's third hardcover release (7.8" x 9.9", 40 pages) for Anouk Ricard's crew of kids 'n creatures, while Won't Grow Up is the third hardcover (7.5" x 9.5", 56 pages) seeing Ingrid Vang Nyman draw Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking in wild-looking comic form; $14.95 (each).

Rumble #1: Since it's the end of the year and all, I get to thinking about some of the older critical favorites out there - the kind of stuff that showed up on a few Top Whatever lists from years past, but maybe isn't as visible right now. For example, back in '12, there was a small upswing in passion for a particular monster fight storyline in the Hellboy spinoff B.P.R.D., "The Long Death"... in retrospect, it may have been the last really strong reaction to that series from a wide grouping of writers before it sort of descended into the sphere of read-by-people-who-still-read-it. Anyway, here now is an original Image series by the artist of that storyline, James Harren (whose excellent grasp of action dynamics formed the center of the praise), working with longtime B.P.R.D. writer John Arcudi on a concept involving a scarecrow warrior-god, assuredly resulting in big monster fights. Preview; $3.50.

Sandman: Overture #4 (of 6) (&) The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures: I continue to feel the urge to highlight new issues of Vertigo's Neil Gaiman/J.H. Williams III-fronted genre-hopping fantasy extravaganza whenever they arrive. Issue #3 was a western and a romance comic, fyi. Meanwhile, Thunderworld continues writer Grant Morrison's disquisition on assorted Time Warner superhero holdings, this time Fawcett's own Captain Marvel, as drawn by Cameron Stewart of DC's much-discussed Batgirl revamp; $3.99 (Sandman), $4.99 (Thunderworld).

Age of the Wolf (&) Stickleback: The Number of the Beast (&) Judge Dredd: The Daily Dredds Vol. 1: THREE from 2000 AD this week. Age of the Wolf collects a really violent super-together-woman vs. werewolves serial from Alec Worley & Jon Davis-Hunt, just blood gushing everywhere. Stickleback is the second volume of a very lavishly illustrated fantasy/crime/horror series from Ian Edginton & D’Israeli. And Daily Dredds is a 350-page brick of weekly and daily newspaper strips from the Daily Star in the 1980s, written by John Wagner & Alan Grant and mainly drawn by Ron Smith and Ian Gibson, which constitutes a pretty tight classic Dredd lineup for a greater media offshoot; $27.99 (Wolf), $26.99 (Stickleback), $52.99 (Dredd).

Dorohedoro Vol. 14 (&) Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin Vol. 8: Just listing some ongoing manga here, no big deal. Dorohedoro is Q Hayashida, softcover from Viz, while Gundam is Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, hardcover from Vertical; $12.99 (Dorohedoro), $29.95 (Gundam).

Batman: Kelley Jones - Gallery Edition: Finally, witness the launch of Graphitti Designs' variation on the lucrative IDW "Artist's Edition" format, a 12" x 17", 248-page hardcover compendium of original art produced by one of the defining 1990s Bat-artists, reproduced in color from the original boards, of course. Collects issues #515-519 & #521-525, written by Doug Moench and mostly inked by John Beatty. A similar edition of Frank Miller's Ronin is due in the future; $125.00.