One For the Road – Spawn #50

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Out of everything I’m including in the “Greatest Hits” of my comics collection, Spawn is probably the least sophisticated (and I started with a 90s Spider-Man spinoff). Known for a meandering sketch of a plot and over-the-top violence, and also for the work-for-hire legal dispute between series creator Todd McFarlane and writer Neil Gaiman (whose creation Angela became a staple until fairly recently)–ironic, considering McFarlane had left Marvel waving the banner of creator’s rights. All this aside, though, Spawn‘s fiftieth issue is an entertaining kickoff to an arc, in which undead killer Al Simmons (the titular Spawn) finds himself fighting through hell itself. The issue is divided into two parts: the first, drawn by McFarlane, shows Al forced to make a choice: use his powers to cure his former friend Terry of a fatal tumor, which will result in him being sent back to the hell which (re)created him, or watch the man die and stay on Earth. The second part, drawn by Greg Capullo, depicts the first consequences of that choice–namely Al’s struggle to survive in the second level of hell, and Terry’s return home after a miracle recovery. McFarlane scripted both parts.

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As a writer, McFarlane is awkward, rambling, histrionic, literalist, and, above all else, a square. Funny, considering he was a key auteur amongst the founders of Image Comics–artist-writers who had formed the nucleus of the “extreme” style pervasive to late 80s/90s superhero comics. These were guys who traded in “cool” (or at least an adolescent idea of cool): heroes adorned in black ops gear and carrying massive guns, with no qualms about ripping bad guys apart. Spawn, as a character and a comic series, isn’t that far off this path, but its digressions and personal quirks cast the whole in a different light from Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S or Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. McFarlane strains under self-seriousness, narration as obvious as a brick (“Boundless joy informs her very being. Birds. The sky. Everything seems so wonderful.”), Stan Lee minus the winking humor. Narration piles on dialogue, rarely allowing a scene to breathe. McFarlane only steps out of his way for a single scene, where one character finds out about another’s health problems. He only has one narration caption for this page: after a “Forgive me?”, McFarlane adds “She always has.” It’s a rare moment of restraint, poignant where the rest of the comic is melodramatic.

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Much of this is informed by a dorky romantic streak which tilts at moral ambiguity, even as McFarlane’s writing itself is thudding: Al’s predicament–that of being an unwitting soldier of Hell sent back to earth, after his murder–rests on a demonic pact he made in order to see his wife, Wanda, again; five years had passed, though, and Wanda remarried to Terry–hence Al’s hesitation to damning himself again to save his friend. McFarlane repeatedly stresses the twin pulls of anger and love running through Al, the series presenting him with ways acting on one or the other always leads to disastrous consequences (ultimately, Al saves Terry because he vowed to always keep Wanda happy). In many ways, Spawn tries to eat its cake and have it, too, being a violent, juvenile power fantasy while showing more realistic consequences to acting out such notions. It’s also, then, a boy’s adventure story, infused with the gritty detail of Bernie Wrightson’s horror comics depicting buckets of gore (thanks to inks by McFarlane and Danny Miki, who work in scratchy speed lines more than the crosshatching techniques common to their peers), while also being a heartfelt letter to holding onto love no matter what pain it brings. That McFarlane communicates this through awkward, stilted prose even becomes endearing.

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Yet, as befits any comic from a publisher named “Image,” it is the illustrations which make Spawn pop. McFarlane and Capullo are complementary, their pages baroque, fragmented pieces, panels illustrating minor elements of a scene or even a character’s mental state more than any sort of linear action. When Al saves Terry, a lace tying together what remains of his face is torn, spilling green energy into the hospital room. McFarlane lingers on the tear along four panels, flecks of dead skin spraying into the air with the broken fabric. In the second chapter, Capullo creates a collage for Al’s descent through Hell, making the character’s signature cloak out of drawings of all the characters seen in the series up to that point. Such layouts suggest a comic made as a fever dream, as barely held together by the conventions of the superhero comics which birthed it as Spawn’s face. Colorist Brian Haberlin completes the look with sickly earth tones and effects which recreate the appearance of light bouncing off grimy, slick surfaces before reaching the eye (an ambulance surrounded by large, red dots as it speeds towards the viewer).

The Gothic flourishes seen in these pages alleviate McFarlane’s weaknesses as a writer. If his exposition on the mechanics of Spawn‘s Heaven and Hell is overwrought, it’s in service of imagery that conflates years of time and anguish into singular images. If his emphasis on just how much Al loves Wanda is treacly, it’s paired with panels of genuine intimacy. Even though McFarlane often doesn’t grasp what he reaches for, his attempts to address feeling in a genre which, at the time, was moving towards an idea of masculinity informed by the worst excess of the 80s are admirably earnest.

One For the Road – Crying Freeman #1-3

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Viz Media’s reprint of Crying Freeman (these three issues collecting the first eight parts of the series’ initial arc) sets the tone in the first issue’s cover. A man and a woman, Yo and Emu, hugging one another–nude, though Emu’s hair covers her breasts–a vast cityscape behind them. Both are physically together, but are looking away from each other for different reasons: she is content, staring upwards to her right and light reflecting off her glasses; he is wary, eyes cast to his left and a knife clutched in his teeth. Love and sex is the explicit center of the image, but violence is lurking at the edge, ready to intrude.

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This is the couple’s central dilemma. While painting Hong Kong, Emu sees Yo, a hitman for the Chinese mafia, assassinate rival gangsters. Their introduction appears cordial, with her taken by how he sheds tears after his murders, but this is loaded by the fact Yo cannot leave any witnesses. Mutual attraction, however, complicates the matter. After tracking her down to Tokyo, Yo cannot bring himself to kill Emu, instead the two have sex. Rules broken, both are put in the crosshairs of the Chinese and Japanese mobs, as well as the police.

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Ryoichi Ikegami punches up scripts from Lone Wolf and Cub writer Kazuo Koike with striking compositions. Aside from the aforementioned cover image, there’s Yo staging himself within a frame (which held a portrait Emu had painted of him), or the way a “Krak” sound effect cuts through two panels when a gun is fired. Layouts tend towards the asymmetrical, particularly to emphasize Yo’s movements in fights. During a post-coital ambush, he leaps down on two mafia goons, a haze of speed lines as he murders them in large, rectangular panels; the actual moments of death then depicted in panels tiny and square, life trailing away from them. Ikegami, however, breaks this direction whenever Emu and Yo make eye contact. Their close-ups are often a split-panel, micro-symmetry within a chaotic whole. Complementary.

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This emphasizes an aspect of Koike’s plot which doesn’t manifest until late into the third issue (around parts 7 and 8): the couple as equals. At rest, Emu appears to the casual observer dainty and helpless. Yet, she is shown throughout tending the estate of her deceased father while pursuing her own artistic ambitions. She verbally shuts down a Tokyo cop, who alternates between threatening and coddling when questioning her about Yo’s identity. She refuses to be condescended to, let alone intimidated. When inspired to act, she pulls a disappearing act on the crooks and cops tailing her, making fools of them. Both Yo and Emu are quiet personalities, far more capable than their demeanor lets on. Oddly perfect for one another, their initial attraction and dalliance drives both to break from lives they are trapped in–she as lonely heiress, he as a gunman for a rigidly-structured gang. Neither seems convinced theirs is a relationship which will last, Yo even says they can’t be together, but what they have seems enough. Better a short time of partnered liberty than a lifetime of controlled loneliness.

If I Were Only Sitting in a Chair Until 2018, I’d Want to Wipe Out the Universe, Too

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Even transplanted to outer space locales filled with talking raccoons and Kirby krackle, these Marvel movies can’t stop presenting themselves as the same piece of filler. Big ideas and dynamic character designs as backdrop to plots which can best be described as marketing for the next installment, nearly every scene is resolved in the least interesting way possible (visually, thematically, or structurally). Former Troma writer James Gunn is able to hit-and-run with some quirky touches–including a soundtrack of oldie pop songs and a left-field semen joke–but Guardians of the Galaxy is unmistakably rote. Avengers‘ quasi-dysfunctional group dynamic (complete with Chris Pratt as Tony Stark with the serial numbers filed off), fight scenes which seem to have edited out 90% of the fights (such as when the film cuts away from Dave Bautista’s Drax having a disastrous showdown with genocidal bad guy Ronan the Accuser), the aforementioned dangling of plot hooks (a sibling-rivalry plot between two adopted daughters), even the walking back of “serious” consequences are all out of the Marvel playbook, and all frustratingly done before. Most egregious is Thanos–the craggy, purple space demon who briefly appeared in the credits for Avengers, to be the Marvel Movie-verse’s ultimate evil: his first appearance involved sitting in a chair and glowering; his second appearance is more of the same (though now voiced by Josh Brolin). Presumably, this is all Thanos is doing until 2018. Yawn. The rest of Guardians? Space battles yanked from an overblown Final Fantasy cutscene and a Care Bears ending where the heroes hold hands, defeating the villain with the power of friendship. This shit’s too impersonal to even be called an accountant’s impression of a movie.

One For the Road – Green Goblin

green-goblin-7_hahaha A curious relic from 90s-era Marvel, Green Goblin was the publisher’s attempt to turn Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis into a full-blown superhero. They had similar success with the Punisher and Venom, though the Goblin posed an interesting challenge, in that the identity’s first bearer, Norman Osborn (who was dead at the time in Marvel’s universe), had murdered Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and was such a horrifying monster he screwed up his son Harry (who also took over the role before dying, also temporarily)(Only Gwen has remained dead out of this group). The series, drawn by Scott McDaniel and written by Tom DeFalco, never sidesteps this dilemma. Using the superhero model passed down from Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man, tension is created between two perspectives: the new Goblin, college dropout Phil Urich, sees his accidental inheritance (both the costume and dosing on the serum which gave his predecessors super-powers) as a ticket to fame and fortune being New York’s latest hero; the people of New York, especially those within the orbit of Spider-Man, regard this new figure with suspicion and fear. green-goblin-2_warriors Not without reason, either. Phil is mostly an introverted figure, cluttering up pages with narrative captions of him pining–for success, for the attentions of a female co-worker, for peer acceptance. He imagines himself being smoother than he really is, often stammering out sentences when he attempts to speak. McDaniel lays out pages like a panic attack, with plenty of alternation between panels that are long/thin and short/wide, the world as seen through a nervous Gen X-er. Unlike other costumed characters, putting on the mask doesn’t alter Phil’s personality much. Peter Parker as Spider-Man is bolder, more flippant; the Osborns became cackling chatterboxes when they slipped into the Goblin persona. Phil remains quiet, stuck in his own head as he flies through the night sky on a jet-propelled glider, occasionally breaking the silence with a “lunatic laugh”–really a device in the mask intended to weaponize sound. This fact is noted by another Spider-Man enemy, the Rhino, during a brawl in the series’ second issue. Phil’s own insecurities exacerbate an already inflammatory identity into something eerie and unknown. green-goblin-2_phil Even the comic’s creators seem ambivalent about their protagonist. New York–under McDaniel’s sketchy line work and the dark green/black/brown color scheme of Gregory Wright–becomes a series of distorted blocks, resembling a German Expressionist painting more than a bustling city. DeFalco’s efforts at replicating teen speech (“Mega-cool” a repeat offender) and the constant asides about marketing and image (one recurring gag involves the Green Goblin cycling through poor attempts at a catch phrase) mark Phil as a bigger dweeb than Spider-Man ever was. The way he fixates on his co-worker, Lynn, and follows her around (in and out of costume) borders on stalking, implying an undercurrent of sociopathy on his part. This takes on larger implications in the context of the Marvel Universe: the Osborns, Norman especially, were self-centered (if not outright selfish) people, regarding everything in terms of whether they can use it to attain their goals. Early-to-mid 90s Spider-Man comics dealt with the subject matter of the Goblin’s lasting, painful influence (The Clone Saga being a direct consequence of Gwen Stacy’s death; Harry also had been shown to devise ludicrous schemes, implemented in the event of his death, for tormenting Spider-Man). One particular idea which was expanded was the idea of madness being entwined with the Osborn family, as seen in Spider-Man: Legacy of Evil. Though he never exhibits their paranoid hallucinations, Phil is shown to be haunted by this specter at all time. It manifests throughout the series: sometimes it’s how the mask appears to watch Phil from the football helmet he hid it under, others it’s the Goblin’s hazy outline appearing in a smoky sky (a riff on what had become a cliche image in Spider-Man comics). DeFalco, McDaniel, et al continually stress something dangerous lurks beneath Phil’s awkward demeanor. Something already inherent to the boy, which now has an outlet. That perhaps, rather than rehabilitating the image of a villain, readers were seeing the meek beginnings of a new terror. green-goblin-7_catchphrase

Kite (2014)

Yasuomi Umetsu’s Kite is a tricky proposition for a remake. A film whose protagonist, a schoolgirl assassin working for rogue cops, is an ongoing victim of statutory rape and brainwashing by her caretakers is uncomfortable enough when depicting animated drawings, never mind real live people. The update–from director Ralph Ziman and screenwriter Brian Cox–doubles the discomfort, transporting the anime’s tale to a candy-colored future ghetto borrowed from a EuropaCorp production. It’s swarming with roving packs of grime-stained brown and black people, free-running around tenements while menacing lily-white teenagers with Japanese names, a xenophobe’s idea of multiculturalism. The handler for India Eisley’s Sawa is even portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in menace mode. While Ziman tries to sand off the edges (Jackson is never portrayed molesting his charge), the character is no less horrific: an adult man doping a teen girl into a zombified super-state before dangling her in front of a sex-trafficking ring. He even gets upset when she opts to slaughter a roomful of traffickers, rather than be passed along for a better sabotage position. Kite 2014 otherwise seems confused about its sexual content, frequently stripping Eisley to a shirt and panties and teasing half-reveals of her body, acting as if she is empowering herself rather than being exploited.

Even the action is muddled and dull, though accomplished (lots of slick tracking shots). Like her anime counterpart, Eisley’s Sawa has a special gun which fires exploding bullets, yet her preferred murder weapon is a tucked-away blade–potential squandered (what, no exploding bullets to a bad guy’s genitals?). Further, Umetsu used guns in the anime to show Sawa is conditioned to kill: she’s desensitized to violence until a failed attempt forces her into survival mode. Ziman portrays Sawa as a miniskirt-sporting Hit-Girl knockoff, adorned with arterial spray.

Empathy Is Too Much For You

Love the use of fulcrum shots in this Tove Lo video. The fixed nature of the camera creates this disorienting effect, where the background appears to move rather than the subject. It’s heightened by match cuts swapping out locations, clothing, and fellow revelers/lovers, Lo’s face the sole constant as she’s propelled along by her surroundings. These cuts intensify in the back half, the image of Lo sobbing in a bathroom a frequent, key interjection. The video tracks the singer’s day-long recuperation from a night of grief-fueled debauchery (“Gotta stay high/all the time/to forget I’m missing you”), on through a brand new night to start the cycle over again. Moral crusaders upset at the explicit sexuality and drug use of “Habits” posit Lo is setting a “bad example,” or that she “needs help” if this is how she deals with loss (specifically, the song’s about a breakup, but the self-destructive reaction is also common in the wake of a loved one’s death). Apparently, it never occurred to them Lo, the video’s director, or anyone else involved in the production of both song and video might have already considered this? Or that there might be some point here?

One For the Road: Prelude

Amazing Spider-Man #377 - My first comic

New Year’s resolutions are not something I’ve ever really considered doing. Just never saw the appeal. But, this year has left me drained of enjoyment for art and entertainment I’ve previously loved. Comics culture is tiresome, and the comics themselves largely seem to provide diminishing returns for increasing costs. This is compounded by living 30-40 miles from a comic shop in any direction, along with a few personal goals I want to attain (which would be easier if I freed up time taken by my usual hobbies). So, with the year almost over, the timing just seemed right to set forward at least one resolution: no comic books for six months.

This also seemed a good time to take stock of my collection. Pick out some personal high points, reread them, write about them. Something to remind me this hobby is more than a habit before I hit the reset button.

Stay tuned. Or don’t. It’s your business.

What Social Life? – Movies 2014: November

Not a whole lot of movies this month. Mostly because the majority of what I watched was partial viewing (including Jaws, Ghostbusters [again], and a frankly bizarre mermaid movie which was left on during Thanksgiving dinner), and I’ve been sticking to cataloging movies watched start to finish.

  • Godzilla (1954) – Dir. Ishiro Honda
  • The History of Future Folk (2012) – Dir. Jeremy Kipp Walker & J. Anderson Mitchell
  • Danger: Diabolik (1968) – Dir. Mario Bava
  • Godzilla Vs. Megaguirus (2000) – Dir. Masaaki Tezuka
  • DeepStar Six (1989) – Dir. Sean Cunningham
  • Interstellar (2014) – Dir. Christopher Nolan: At the Henry Ford Museum’s IMAX
  • The Secret of Kells (2009) – Dir. Tomm Moore
  • Total Recall (1990) – Dir. Paul Verhoeven
  • Absentia (2011) – Dir. Mike Flanagan
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
  • Hercules (2014) – Dir. Bret Ratner: Also saw the extended edition.
  • Mr. Jones (2013) – Dir. Karl Mueller
  • Almost Human (2013) – Dir. Joe Begos
  • Bloodsport (1988) – Dir. Newt Arnold: Fight to surviiiiiiiiiiiiiiive
  • Event Horizon (1997) – Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
  • Never Cry Wolf (1987) – Dir. Carroll Ballard
  • The Stuff (1985) – Dir. Larry Cohen
  • Hard Target (1993) – Dir. John Woo: Van Damme KOs a rattlesnake.

Total: 18 (YTD: 196)

Remember when everyone said Captain America 2 was best movie of the year? Yeah, neither do they–perhaps too busy overpraising that raccoon movie. Winter Soldier does have the distinction of being the first Marvel movie to have proper fight sequences. Previous entries hemmed and hawed around giant blobs of CGI crashing against one another, with Avengers out and out discarding its main villain with a gag so we could go back to watching trillion dollar space worms brought down by plastic toys. Here, audiences get to see actual people delivering complete attack chains, with an emphasis on blocks and knife swipes. Captain America is portrayed as a human wrecking ball, knocking aside black ops nasties; Winter Soldier a Terminator, sniping and exploding before moving in to slice and smash. Even on the supporting edge, Black Widow and Falcon lay down suppressing fire, the former then taking high ground to drop hurricanranas on goons, the latter charging secondary villain Crossbones for a straight up fistfight. Yet, to say this is anything extraordinary would be a lie: this year has shown far better fight movies (The Raid 2–which came out the same week–and John Wick), and way better spectacle flicks (Transformers 4, Need for Speed, Interstellar), each loaded with surprising, personal details and character beats woven into the fabric of the action, where Cap 2 offers mere competence. The rest of the film is as cowardly as the Marvel series has been thus far. Pumping up audiences for anti-authoritarian cheers in a tale of compromised spy agencies, Cap 2 suggests throughout that perhaps leaving the safety and freedom of the world’s population to a select group with little to no oversight may not be the best plan, only to back off when the implication extends to the merchandising (Black Widow even tells a Congressional committee “You need us” before walking off with a smirk). Even SHIELD still exists at the end of the thing when by all accounts it shouldn’t (otherwise Marvel wouldn’t have the TV show). But, hack movies oversold as something great are a dime a dozen in the Hollywood landscape.

On the other end of the hack spectrum, Bret Ratner’s Hercules came and went with little regard (thought there is some controversy). Not that it’s particularly good: despite a huge portion of its theme being the line between myth and reality, the film still uses CG when it doesn’t need to (lots of Peter Jackson-style battle sequences), even when it’s established early on these effects are meant to signify when scenes are not real, an inconsistency which drags an otherwise charming Dwayne Johnson vehicle down. Johnson, typically, is the movie’s saving grace: Ratner smartly accentuates the actor’s physical presence, a massive frame draped in a cloak made of lion hide. Even without his comic relief nephew spinning tall tales of his Twelve Labors, Johnson’s Hercules is a larger-than-life figure in every frame he’s in, outright challenging the need for gods and myths when this flesh-and-blood man exists right in front of us. Johnson, like Schwarzenegger before him, is the special effect.

Interstellar

While one of the bigger talking points regarding Interstellar has been comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the connection between the two films is weak. Formalist compositions and man-vs.-cosmos themes aside, Christopher Nolan doesn’t appear to be taking Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opera as much of a signpost. 2001 had little interest in its human players outside of the mechanics of its millennia-spanning tale of evolution and first contacts. They were such passive creatures, Kubrick had HAL-9000 seize the reigns to move the species along. By contrast, Interstellar‘s idea for humanity’s leap forward–blasting through a wormhole to find a new planet, before Earth becomes a toxic hellhole–is a backdrop for the dramatic arc of its people. Though Nolan, ever the lover of storytelling aesthetics, uses his gazillion-dollar equipment (including the much-touted 70mm IMAX) to demonstrate spectacle, he always roots it in human perspective. Tight-angle vehicle shots used for outer space suspense are used equally in a whimsical scene where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his kids chase a drone for its solar cells, panoramas only used to denote when characters feel insignificant or threatened. In this respect, Interstellar treads more in the territory of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, especially when it comes to its male lead.

A former astronaut, Cooper has been grounded after public opinion turned against the space program (seen as frivolous in the face of global famine and dust bowls). Raising  a family on a Midwestern farm, he ruminates on humanity giving up its “place in the stars” to worry about “the dirt.” Hints of a crash he survived suggest some bitterness for never achieving a dream, tempered only by a sense of fatherly responsibility–a more explicit version of Close Encounters‘ Roy Neary. At first glance, Cooper’s mission (made clandestine for the same public opinion reasons) would appear to align his twin motivations, but only pronounces the tension between them. The time and space required to undertake this journey strains his relationship with daughter Murphy. The effect is magnified when Cooper’s crew needs to account for relativity: a black hole dubbed Gargantua looms in the would-be colony galaxy, distorting time. Hours and days for the astronaut crew become lifetimes back on Earth, demonstrated by a disastrous trip to a planet rocked by mountain-sized tidal waves. After escaping that world, Cooper borders on falling apart as he watches decades of video messages–including the birth and demise of a grandson he never got to see. Nolan uses Cooper to push past the initial triumph of Neary’s choice, to go with the aliens in Close Encounters‘ closing moments, to the inevitable regret which comes with leaving behind loved ones.

The film then criss-crosses between Cooper in space and adult Murphy on Earth (played by Jessica Chastain), attempting to finish an equation which will make mankind’s exodus possible. These interstitial tales weave closer together, reflecting and commenting on one another, a father’s attempt to reconcile with his child. People’s place in the stars or the dirt become distant, rearview concerns to its place with one another.

Always Sometimes Monsters

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A mumblecore road movie told with the open-ended mechanics of early computer RPGs like Wasteland, and the aesthetics of a 16-bit Final Fantasy, Always Sometimes Monsters casts a wide net thematically. Its title, explained by developers Vagabond Dog in a Nietzschean monologue, posits every action the player takes as being amoral, even cruel depending on the perspective. Right and wrong do not exist, only costs, benefits, and consequences. Portraying a customizable Writer–race, gender, even sexual orientation are decided–players are tasked with reaching an ex’s wedding within a month. Starting practically broke and on a tight schedule, how to progress from city to city (five in total, though the last two are limited to single buildings) is left up to individuals through a series of mini-games: do you knuckle down in the hope sweat and toil gets you enough money for the trip; or do you lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead? The latter certainly becomes enticing when a lack of cash forces you to sleep in alleyways and forage in dumpsters–as can happen in the game’s early portions. Three primary municipalities along the way–ghetto Dubstown, blue-collar Beaton, and dusty pit stop Salt City–show stark class divisions: political and economic elites keep the working poor in a stranglehold, holding all the jobs, the buildings, and the healthcare decisions (a doctor refusing treatment for a friend who OD’ed). All sides resort to extreme measures (striking workers with a unique form of vandalism; a company exec attempting to bribe the Writer for good press) to attain their goals. The Writer, and the player by extension, is given little choice but to operate in a morally, ethically bankrupt status quo, or else go hungry on the streets. While often disingenuous–Vagabond Dog seem to think smug posturing is a better political alternative to empathy and collective action–this college freshman, both-sides-are-bad political philosophy takes a backseat to the game’s primary function: tossing players into financial ruin, then tasking them with survival.