Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Geld by George Mann (Warhammer 40,000 Audio Drama)


Few settings have changed in such a short time than Warhammer 40,000. The sudden jump alone from the last Black Crusade to Guilliman's resurrection would have been enough, but every other day new developments take place. The galaxy is both brighter and darker, and many stories of late have focused primarily upon how the setting as a whole is coming to terms with these developments. The Geld is just one of these, but it's a rare example of a faction stopping and looking back once more, to ask if a situation warrants the re-activation of an old idea.

The Synopsis


Times are desperate for the Raven Guard. As the chapter finds itself beset on all fronts by enemies, a particularly well entrenched Alpha Legion warlord by the name of Mazik the Unfixed has denied all attempts to oust him. With his fortress posing a tactical threat and the chapter in great need of a victory, Chapter Master Shrike considers if it is time to approach matters by an unconventional means. Summoning several officers and a member of the Knights of the Raven Chapter to his chambers, he announces one simple decree: The re-formation of the Mor Deythan. Few among the chapter and its successors still possess their primarch's dark gift, but enough are known to formulate a small ad-hoc unit for this situation.


The battle to come is to be a trial by fire, and their performance will be judged in the conflict to come. Yet, as they enter the corrupted halls, many come to wonder if they are not playing exactly into the Alpha Legion's hands once more...


The Good


The benefits of stories like The Geld is that they have the freedom to experiment with certain key ideas. While they lack the inherent length to push the entire narrative of the setting forward, the stylised presentation, sound effects and capacity to utilise a talented cast all benefit many shorter stories. This is the case here with The Geld, as the focus is on presenting a good battle and an engaging quest. It experiments with larger questions about the setting and even makes them a key part of the overall narrative, but it never overburdens the whole story.


The reformation of the Shadow Masters into a single unit is a big one, but the story handles it well and only up to a point. Anything more than an experiment would likely require a full novel to fully explore, so we have a brief depiction of Shrike's summons, the theories they have in mind, and then the action itself. It's a controlled and direct method of examining the themes in question while not limiting the larger impact this might have later on. Equally, we do start to see just why this development would take place now as much as anything else. Along with the darker state the galaxy is in, and the major threats facing them, the change in leadership to Shrike has left him more open minded to unorthodox methods of resolving their problems.


The actual scenes confronting these points, questioning them and then deploying the unit into battle are told throughout the first half of the audio drama. As the unit ventures deeper into the fortress, the story cuts back to earlier points in the tale to flesh them out. While this Christopher Nolan style nonlinear narrative is becoming overplayed, it definitely works here. As this is intended to be a quick and action heavy tale, by mixing up what could have been a slow first act into the more battle-centric later segments, it becomes a far more thematically coherent experience. 


The Geld is also one of the novels to use Chaos to its fullest, with Warp spawned insanity seeping into every fight. While there are good stories which stick to this, and old sin among writers is to depict Chaos as an attribute. Something added to existing space marines to give them a bit more firepower, rather than going full Lovecraft. Here though? Not only is the fortress itself heavily implied to be a full on daemonic TARDIS, but no single fight is ever the same. Time loops, hunters in the dark, mirror images and stranger things still all come into play, and no single battle could ever be considered to be "conventional" in any respect. Better yet, while the capacity to wraith-slip is a key factor in this conflict, it's not a gamebreaker. More than a few post-Heresy developments arise here which counters it, and it's down to the characters themselves to overcome them. While a few might not seem obvious at first, they end up making an incredible amount of sense once you put two and two together.


As for the combat itself? Much like George Mann's writing, it knows when to be schlocky and when to have fun with some scenes. While quite a few are extremely well told and embrace the dark thematic drama of a man hunting through enemy territory, others focus upon very overt descriptions. They are the sort of insanely over the top actions and visuals you could see them showing up in a film by someone so bombastic as John Woo or with Schwarzenegger in a starring role. Of particular note is the final battle itself where the squad is being thrown around and a swordsman makes a rather dramatic save by parting a mutant head-to-groin. It's far from bad, but it's the kind of hyper-kinetic savagery you'd expect more from a Last Chancers novel over some of the more recent Warhammer 40,000 releases. Then again, with this sort of semi B-movie plot, it adds to the charm.


Yet, while there is plenty of good, there's a notable amount of bad as well.


The Bad


None of the characters are particularly memorable. The Raven Guard themselves are hardly bad and there is certainly a few hints of characterisation about them, but little really sticks. Of those present, only Shadow Captain Qeld and Mordren stand out. The former because he is the protagonist, and the latter because he is the only non-Raven Guard member. Also because of the awesome Eastern European accent. This could have been offset more by discussions or interactions, but there are large chunks of the tale where the group exchanges no words and even split off entirely from one another. We didn't need much, but something to help them comment or focus on one another would have seriously improved the tale.


Equally, the enemies themselves are problematic in their presentation. While the variety of enemy encounters and how they are dealt with does provide the book with its greatest strength, the way they are seperated out hurts it. They seem too much like levels in a video game with so little to break them up, and given how each challenge is overcome with a new objective in mind, and little lasting impact, it's an easy comparison to make. Especially when you consider that Mazik himself is waiting at the end, for a Turok style boss fight atop of his fortress.


There seems to be little serious impact on the events of the story as things progress, and the group just bulldozes through the opposition. It's lively, loud and engaging, but offers little in the way of substance from the mid-point of the narrative onward. While the tale attempts to add the sense of a ticking clock thanks to the battle playing on outside, and the Raven Guard beset by a vast number of foes, it's not enough to really work within the story. It's too distant and disjointed to really impress upon the listener a sense of true desperation. 


Most of these would be forgivable, but perhaps the most frustrating sin of the story is how it fails to really utilise the Raven Guard. What we got did not need to be especially in-depth, as the early part showed, but there are a few easy characteristics which can always be implemented to give them a greater sense of identity. Usually, this is something core to their character, or even just a commonly known trait. It's part of why so many short stories on the Blood Angels tend to focus upon their inhereted curse. With this though, there simply wasn't enough there to get an impression of this. There was little in the way of guerilla fighting or skirmish tactics, even in the wider battle, nothing in the way of their internal culture and even Corax's teachings. 


While the use of vague links back to the older Heresy does work, there's simply not enough said about the modern chapter. That and, when we do get it, it seems to be falling back into the Fifth Edition's Blood Wolf Nemesis curse. You know the one, where everything was defined by one single thing which related somehow to their name. In this case it's ravens. Shrike's throne has raven wings, there are ravens all about the fortress monastery, the Chaplain present has a giant raven's skull for a helm, they carry raven's skulls on their belts, and the mention of ravens comes up a great deal. On the surface this might seem fine, and it is admittedly more restrained than with the Space Wolves. However, when one of the first concerns about a fallen marine is if the skulls on his belt can be recovered along with his gene-seed, a defining theme has reached the point of borderline caricature exaggeration.


The Verdict


The Geld is fun but ultimately fleeting. George is a talented enough of a Mann to turn what could have been a forgettable or overly gimmicky tale into something entertaining, but it simply lacks staying power. If he had pushed things a bit further or even reworked a few chapter elements into something more engaging, this might have been fine. Without this though, it's something best left to Raven Guard fans or those interested in a more straightforward but highly entertaining bolter porn tale. 



Verdict: 4.7 out of 10

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Star Wars - Crimson Empire Vol. 2: Council of Blood by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley (Comicbook Review)


The odd thing about Crimson Empire is that, despite the cliffhanger ending, it was ultimately a complete story. Kanos had beheaded his arch-foe, the New Republic has claimed a world, and slipped back into the shadows to continue his personal war. While it was clear that the authors desired a trilogy, after such a definitive end it seemed like the sort of move which brings the likes of the Matrix sequels to mind.

Thankfully, it seems as if Richardson and Stradley took a long hard look at what worked with their first chapter, and asked one another "What can we do next that we couldn't do there?"

Synopsis

In the wake of Jax's death, the Empire's growing instabilities have led to a council taking power. Rather than a single dominant leader, a variety of generals, politicians, bankers and even aliens now have a voice within the Remnant. However, politics and backstabbing are still rife within this turbulent time. Despite his oath of vengeance, little has been seen nor heard from Kir Kanos in months, yet when Imperial leaders start to die with only the Royal Guard's symbol left at the scene, it seems as if his personal crusade is far from over. Amid this, operating on her own, Mirith Sinn has taken to hunting Kanos in a desperate attempt to bring him to justice.

The Good

A major strength of the original Crimson Empire was its apparent simplicity. Along with rapidly bringing the reader up to speed on current events within the first act, it was a streamlined experience. The focus was placed on a few key characters above all others, the full history of those involved was told through flashbacks and it led to a definitive final scene. Due to its nature as a sequel, Council of Blood couldn't quite follow that same format. It instead, rather than trying to rehash the same exact format, questioned what the previous book couldn't do and what they could build upon with a sequel.


The big point in its favour immediately is how the book broadens its focus without ever losing track of events. You have three major worlds with separate concurrent stories, and the comic bouncing back and forth between each of them in turn. This is used to build up the villains, but also to much more easily handle the complex schemes at work. Rather than simply killing the Dark Lord and leaving it at that, Crimson Empire took the opportunity to ask "What next?" With Jax dead, the Empire has left a massive power vacuum, and others beyond the Imperials and New Republic would seek to take advantage of that. We see multiple details of just how Jax was previously holding the Empire together and the problems his death creates with internal feuds flaring up, and enemies seeking to capitalize on his end. 

While the actual politics in question is far from deep or truly detailed (look to A Song of Ice and Fire to see how well it can be handled in a fictional setting) it's enough to give the comic more substance than you might expect. The figures involved are big, bold or are presented to work through others so it's easy to follow, even when several separate conspiracies start to collide with one another. It's a "wheels within wheels" situation, closer to what you would expect from the Houses of Dune over star wars. Due to this, the sudden murders and the obvious threats on display, it sidesteps many of the immediate issues which turned people off the politics within the prequels.

Better yet, rather than discussing the actual actions themselves or outlining the possible threats, it manages to fill in the reader exactly as it's taking place. Depicting and fleshing out one after another after bombshell after bombshell is dropped, including a rather sinister figure who is seeking to further distabilise the Empire's power. One who will become very prominent later on in the New Jedi Order.

The switch from guerilla combat to cloak and dagger work is one which definitely benefited the story on the whole. While it admittedly lost the inherent simplicity of the original - and that's the last time we'll discuss that point to avoid hammering it into the ground - it gained far more substance for many characters to work with. This is most evident with Mirith Sinn, who is given substantially more to do here. Whereas the original comic presented her as an obviously competent figure but never gave her a chance to shine, here she's clearly among the New Republic's best agents. While her role is initially unclear, the fact she so easily adapts to her environment and only fails at one moment due to a turn of events no one could have predicted gives a far more positive impression of her skills. Furthermore, when she is involved in frontline fighting, she's obviously lagging behind Kanos but stands head and shoulders above almost everyone else. It's a great change of pace, and a fantastic way of utilising a skilled character without the protagonist utterly overshadowing them. 

The comic's use of Kanos himself is certainly curious, as it seems not know quite what to do with them. Then again, that goes doubly so for Kanos himself. While he still has a clear objective and a goal in mind, much of the force which drove him is gone, and he's somewhat unfocused. It's actually a surprising moment of real life hitting the story, as Jax was the focus of his duty-bound hatred for so many years. With him gone, he lacks some of the rage which kept his determination going to the point where he questions a few of his life goals. It's not enough to redeem the character abruptly, nor even to add a lighter shade of grey, but it reflects somewhat on the "What next?" focus of the book. The impact of this on Kanos' life is evident even in the final pages, and it takes speaking for some time with Sinn before he comes to terms with the situation in question.


Of course, for all this, the book benefits from a massive amount of action. From running gun battles to starship engagements and airborne assaults on an enemy fortress, any time you start to adjust to a new status quo it throws something new into the mix. It helps to prevent the book from dragging and even when it seems to calm down for a time, you always know that something large, violent and likely explosive is going to come out of the woodwork. It's not utterly random nor even unheralded, but you can never quite tell just what might play out unless you're paying close attention to the comic's events. The heightened nature of the combat allows it to also be more evenly distributed throughout Council of Blood. So whereas we had two large battles during the second act of the first volume, here there's far more variety to the combat and intense fighting.

Another bonus in the book's favour is the artwork. While he was always skilled, Paul Gulacy seems to have settled into the exact tone of the comic's darker nature and has paid more attention to the finer details. You can pick out minute qualities, small signs of age and use on items, but without sacrificing bold style of the series. There is also a much broader variety of aliens on hand. Rather than having brief cantina-style appearances early on, the more prominent number of aliens here helps to make the galaxy seem more varied and ultimately fleshed out. The more subtle expressions and ability to convey a broader variety of emotions through the individual panels certainly makes the story all the stronger. As does the capacity to focus upon multiple figures within running battles over the more singular combat we had previously. 

Unfortunately, while the tale took a few steps forward, there's no denying it took one or two back as well.

The Bad

You likely noticed that, for all the praise offered to the comic, little time was spent discussing Kanos himself. The truth is that, while he still plays a very prominent part, much of the time he is out of focus. In a Batman Returns move, the writing team seemed much more invested in exploring the shifting dynamic between the villains over the main character. As such it takes quite some time before he truly gets involved in the story, and even then it doesn't quite reach the legendary quality built up about him in the initial story. It's not that his skills have diminished or even that he's being presented in a worse light, but there are fewer opportunities for him to pull off the spectacular victories of the first tale. 


Along with the above factor, another notable issue is that the story seems to skip a point in their development. Kanos' turn makes sense as outlined above, but some of Sinn's development takes place off-screen. While the book dangles the possibility of her vendetta over the tale for a time, she eventually admits that her hatred had died away some time ago. Yet, even counting for this or a few reasons she might have started to forgive Kanos, it's a stark contrast to the ending of the previous book. It's only made all the worse by that most frustrating of tropes, where the story tries to push a romantic link between the two leads. It doesn't come completely out of nowhere, but when combined with the previous events, it becomes egregiously out of place. 

Another definite issue is how the comic can't decide whether or not it wishes to be a stand-alone chapter or leave events for later tales. While it quickly and quite satisfactorily ends a few key figures within the story, others disappear for another day. This certainly makes a great deal of sense in one case, but when it comes to others it has the story just peter out. There's little in the way of a truly climactic ending, and what we get is definitely rushed, bereft of the sense of finality it needs. Because of this, it lacks the impact of the previous book and fails to end on a high note, leaving the promise of more but failing to satisfy you. 

Yet perhaps the most frustrating flaw the comic unfortunately suffers from a few idiot plot moments to try an encourage it to follow certain paths. These are largely minor or are handled in a way which either a character's overconfidence or inept nature could excuse them. On a few occasions, it becomes quite questionable though, such as one moment which treats Kanos as if he was unaware of the Empire's worst excesses of tyranny. Or at least those of Vader himself, which unfortunately contradicts much of what we saw in the first volume. This is partially thanks to the ambition of the book requiring such conveniences, but it's hard to justify or accept them when they create obvious problems rather than bypassing them. In fact, the only thing which does prevent these points from marking down the book further is thanks to the pacing diverting your attention away from them, or disguising them within some otherwise well executed scenes of character development. 

The Verdict

While there are certainly a few apparent flaws with Council of Blood, the overall story still works extremely well. The fact that Richardson and Stradley didn't rest on their laurels, and understood the need to push to new boundaries without betraying what came before. Something which, to be honest, the franchise needs a lot more of these days. Overall, it had some interesting politics, dealt with the repercussions of the past events well, and the action was still solid despite a lack of a major duel. It set up events for new adventures with some interesting new players, and a strong final chapter overall. Unfortunately, we ended up with Empire Lost, but that's a rant for another time.


Verdict: 7.5 out of 10

Monday, 15 January 2018

Deck Casters (Video Game Review)



Deck Casters is a game you might have seen before under a very similar name. Originally released on console under the name of ArmaGallant: Decks of Destiny, the developer claims that this has merely been “based” on his previous outing. In truth, little has changed and the few alterations made have definitely been for the worse.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Blade Runner 9732 (Video Game Review)



Much like motion controls, VR is all too often used as a gimmick. It’s a way to make an otherwise basic game stand out, and more often than not the best releases on this new medium are the simplest. Fewer still can be called games, and more often than not can simply be marked down as interactive experiences. Blade Runner 9732 falls into the latter category, offering an environment for the user to explore. However, this passion project by Quentin Lengele helps to highlight the benefit of the medium over traditional film.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Yume Nikki (Video Game Review)


At first glance, Yume Nikki looks as if it is a wannabe attempt at a genre. Made with RPGMaker, and retaining a description which seems like it’s equal parts Fran Bow and Alice: Madness Returns, it would be easy to write this off as an experiment by a first time developer. However, this is another example as to why you should never judge a book by its cover. Yume Nikki is a masterpiece rendered in 16-bits, and the best part is that it’s absolutely free.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Black Library Opens Its Doors To Submissions


In a follow-up to yesterday's story, Black Library has announced the return of Inferno! as a short story anthology. While sadly lacking the comics angle of its previous incarnation (and we do have Titan Comics covering that at the moment) it's to be used as a platform to test out ideas and experiment with short story concepts. The announcement goes as follows:

"For the past 20 years, the Black Library has been bringing the Warhammer universes to life – from the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium, through the Underhives of Necromunda to the sprawling realms of the Age of Sigmar and the savage sports fields of Blood Bowl.

We have seen empires rise, kingdoms fall, heroes corrupted, saviours fulfil their destinies and worlds ended.

As part of this celebration, we’re bringing back a classic title from the Black Library archives – Inferno!

Released between 1997 and 2004, Inferno! was our bi-monthly magazine packed full of comics, short stories and artwork. Plus, it’s where many of our established authors published their first stories for Black Library before going on to greatness.

We’re giving Inferno! a new lease of life as a collection of short stories, penned by new authors and old, and showcasing the best works from across our many universes.

We are looking for talented writers to be a part of this new anthology and celebrate this incredible milestone for Black Library.

We are looking for exciting and dynamic characters who drive an absorbing plot that captures the grim darkness and unique tone of our universes. As Inferno! has always delivered the very best from across all of our settings, we are encouraging stories set in Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Warhammer 40,000, Blood Bowl and Necromunda!"

While Black Library typically opens itself up to these sorts of submissions once per year, this is one which has arrived to far more hype and greater promotion than previous efforts. The guidelines themselves seem to reflect this, as they both cover far more numerous topics and leave themselves open to more varied ideas. Rather than submitting a full story, the entries only require that the tale in question fit into at least one of the following genres/situations: Heist, Detective/Police Procedural
Adventure, Mystery, Ghost/Paranormal/Horror, War.

The proof of a writer's skill will stem from both a synopsis of the story and a brief extract. 

More than a few fans are already predicting that Black Library will have to deal with a few thousand Kharadron Overlord heist stories.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Warhammer 40,000 Inferno! Magazine To Return?


A recent timetable outlining events and workshops at Warhammer World unveiled something of interest. While lost among some of the more pressing notes of late, a small mention in the Black Library segment noted the following:


Suffice to say, this is big. For those not in the know, Inferno (Or rather, Inferno!) was the big promotional magazine for stories and lore in general. It hosted a number of long-running comics we have covered on here over the years, such as Ulli and Marquand, Titan, Bloodquest and a staggeringly large number of one-shot concepts. More than this, however, it was where many short stories and experimental concepts were first tested, with more than a few Black Library series showing up within its pages. If you have ever wondered why a few early books in the company's flagship series tended to be anthologies, notably the Gaunt's Ghosts work Ghostmaker, you need look no further than this book.

The fact that they are openly appealing to new writers and seeking submissions suggests that it will once more become a test bed for ideas, and a promotional piece for shorter tales. With Titan handling the longer running comics, this could be a fun return to the shorter one-shots and brief arcs which the likes of Kal Jericho benefitted from over the years. We will only learn more as the company opens up about this news.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Doctor Who: Second Empire (Webcomic Review)


It's rare that we look into webcomics here. In fact, in all the years The Good the Bad and the Insulting has been running for, this is the first time one has received a proper review. There are two reasons for this. The first is that most of the big ones (barring one exception we will get to one day) are well known and have been better reviewed elsewhere. The other is that many are years spanning sagas, more than a few of which have yet to end. 

To try and summarise their full strengths, qualities and ideas all in one piece would be a difficult thing to compile. Certainly, one could cover a general view of the comic as a whole, but it would lack the depth and detail it deserves. The Second Empire sidesteps both of these issues, as it's not only criminally overlooked but it ended some time ago. Plus, it helps that it's associated strongly with a franchise we often look into - Doctor Who.

Synopsis

Doctor Who: Second Empire sounds like a failing in the making: Turn the Daleks into the heroes. By rights, this should have been a recipe for disaster, and yet Mechmaster - writer and graphics artist - managed to make it work, by both tweaking past details and using a continuity often overlooked these days: The early Daleks comics.

The story follows Black Dalek General Xenol of the First Conquest Army. Xenol is one of an older generation and has begun to realise that the Daleks are becoming weaker with every passing decade. As their genetic code is altered by the Emperor, they become increasingly subservient and drone-like. Relying more and more on slave species and their own computers, they are decaying from within even as they conquer new territories. The final straw for Xenol is when his new recruits arrive, and he realises to his horror that they have been denied names in favour of alpha-numeric codes.

Along with the Empire's chief scientist Yttral and First Captain Anzollo, they instigate a rebellion to reclaim their future from the tyrant Golden Emperor.

The Good



The very idea of humanizing the Daleks seems ludicrous in more than a few ways. A big part of their appeal is as unrepentant killing machines, after all. What nuance or detail is offered by stories is usually presented to give them a different "flavour" of villain each story. The thing to remember here is that the comic still treats them as villains, but they're a lighter shade of grey. The Daleks of this story have individual quirks. friendships, rivalries and personalities which helps to define them from one another. The fact that they have names at all makes them infinitely less drone-like, and it gives them more of a human factor. The added bonus is that, throughout the comic's run, they are typically pitted either against the Emperor's forces, or unfeeling mindless machines.

The personality quirks alone quickly establish that this is following a very different continuity from the television show, and it's going in its own direction. While the TV stories frequently get the odd nod or mention, the impression is that this is a universe without the Doctor and that Davros wasn't quite able to finish his work. We even get an answer to that latter point partway through the story. The best part of all of this is that it's able to convey much of this world-building without veering away from the central tale, either through discussions or arguments at various points. This makes it very familiar to old fans yet also very distinct from previous fan-works.

it's also a testament to Mechmaster's skills as a designer and writer that he manages to make so many of these Daleks distinct from one another. Yttral's unique eye-stalk allows him to be quickly picked out from the crowd while retaining a familiar body type, and Xenol's black designs stand out even among familiar types. There's certainly colour-coding at work here to make certain characters stand out from others, but there's also a boundless creativity when it comes to the Dalek bodies themselves. Many designs have been lifted from various eras, comics or events, have been mixed from various shells or in a few cases are wholly new. Through this, Second Empire avoids the issue of the series becoming little more than a sea of mono-coloured pepper pots zapping away at one another.

Even without the benefit of the creative graphics, the actual personalities of the figures involved are bold, likeable and extremely notable from one another. While you do end up with the odd character who can be mistaken for another - largely due to a lack of appearances - most of the time you can quickly pick out who is talking and when. Yttral's scatter-brained nature, Xenol's habit for speechmaking, Anzollo's risk-taking enthusiasm and Grexnarl's anime-esque exaggerations stand out through the simple dialogue. While these might sound simple, and they admittedly are to a degree, it means that you instantly know who is talking and when. Even when several characters share the same body type, it's difficult to lose track of just who is speaking at what moment.

The comic is also notable for its ability to benefit from large-scale battle sequences and some surprisingly spectacular visuals at times. While the admittedly somewhat basic CGI might seem crude, it nevertheless manages to capture the retro aspects of 60s designs while opening itself up to more modern technology. Along with also working well with the more colourful aspects of the setting, the ease in which it displays large-scale events and countless figures more than makes up for some of the overly smooth textures. The comic frequently displays dozens if not hundreds of Daleks at a time, and even when it doesn't you can count on some very active and highly details panels. From multiple interceptors chasing a single saucer through a nebula to the control console intensive throne room of the Golden Emperor, there are times when you should stop and simply admire what's going on. Something you can easily do thanks to the comic's brisk pace.

While Second Empire could have easily been bogged down by details, concepts and facts, it rarely manages to drag at any point. Even when it is focusing upon massive scale action - such as the major conflict between the two Dalek forces - there's always enough action going on to keep you invested. The dialogue is usually detail or tactics heavy, but it's kept light enough that you never get lost in the details. It's enough to give the larger scale action more substance and depth, and it allows some of the more complex military manoeuvres to still have some impact. While it doesn't reach military science fiction levels of detail a-la Honour Harrington, it's still enough to give it more of a general edge over most stories. This prevents the sheer level of combat, the constant action and heavy engagements, from falling to the Michael Bay or JJ Abrams sin of becoming white noise.

Perhaps the best part of the comic overall is now it manages to blend humour and drama without missing a beat. The comic is surprisingly heavy on jokes, from playing up character quirks to many of the more insane moments stemming from their war machines. The comic is able to easily skirt back and forth between a gag and surprisingly effective drama with the ease rarely seen outside of an Edgar Wright film. Plus, some reference heavy moments notwithstanding, it does also manage to balance one against the other with few difficulties. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work.

The Bad



Along with being humour heavy, Second Empire is also extremely reference heavy. This actually isn't a bad thing in of itself, as it doesn't go full Family Guy and make an aside every two pages. Nor does it quite pull a frequent "Hey, see what I did there!?" bit to try and reinforce points when they're not needed. That said, more than a few do stand out as being oddly immersion breaking. To give a quick contrast, a chase between several fighters and a lone saucer works despite a few Star Wars references as it serves a later point. The same goes with a surprisingly effective shout-out to the Prisoner, and even an Aliens visual gag partway through the tale. When handled individually, these are fine and cause no issues at all, but there are points when the comic can end up presenting them back to back, one after the next. Furthermore, a few others exist purely for the sake of making the gag itself and prove to be surprisingly irritating. A big visual one is when a Dalek shows up with a Godzilla tail (no, really) or a rather big Warhammer 40,000 one, it's much harder to accept and move on.

The comic also falls into a few webcomic sins, such as how there are definite moments where it tends to overflow with dialogue. These moments are thankfully rare, but frustratingly they tend to arise at the worst of moments. For example, the technical conversations or more heated exchanges have the habit of bumping up sentences of word balloons to full paragraphs at times. Something which isn't an issue usually, but when it's in the middle of a full action sequence or even an interesting major plot twist, it's easy to find yourself skim reading through it. It creates these odd lumps of text where things slow down, and simply considering bypassing them wouldn't be unforgivable given how often this happens toward the end of the story.

Second Empire also suffers from a few issues in terms of narrative cohesion and control. For one thing, introductions and conclusions tend to be a major failing at times, when you can end up struggling to decide who to follow. The two main characters are introduced with little real establishment of their history, or even details behind their past actions. The same goes for the Golden Emperor, but because these three appear on the first panels it's easy to forgive. That said, when it pushes to add in the likes of Aychemex with little previous history, it's much more difficult to swallow. Grexzol becomes a recurring character with a few major moments, but outside of the prequel comic which was added later on, he had no introduction at all. Even a few of those there at the start, such as Grexnarl are difficult to pick out for some time due to some surprisingly sproadic appearences. The fate of a large number of Daleks is left unanswered by the story's end as well, to the point where a few effectively disappear off-panel, despite what seems like a full finale.

The actual story itself, while interesting in concept, tends to lose some steam when it is pulled away from the action. Or, at least, it seems that is what Mechmaster thought, as there are very few moments where the tale slows down or even pauses between battles. You might get a dozen pages or so, but often this is in preparation for an attack or to introduce a new technology. For all the conversations made and points brought up, the story never seems to pause long enough to highlight a few differences between how the two groups of Daleks might operate. Sure, we know one prizes individuality and qualities which are not suited to drones, but we gain little insight into what the Second Empire is seeking to accomplish between the attacks. There's very little time spent delving into the bigger questions, or even just showing the Daleks between their main functions.

Moreso than anything else however, after the last of the main conflicts are finished, the comic unfortunately drags itself out for an extremely long duel. It's a solid and engaging fight at first despite the bulbous body types involved, but after a point it's difficult to become fully invested in it. It's obvious how things will end and, combined with the sheer volume of dialogue, this makes it one of the comic's weakest parts. Even when it is tied up, there's a borderline deus ex machina which arises, and the comic only just averts thanks to some clever foreshadowing earlier on. While you can see some logic to the finale itself, both in theme and concept, that doesn't prevent it from feeling like a letdown, as it follows on from several of its strongest moments.

The Verdict



Second Empire is far from perfect, and it's easy to see why someone might dislike it. You definitely have to be a Who fan of a certain mentality, and be patient with it at times. What's more, it can be easy to roll your eyes at some of the more ridiculous moments where the comic goes shout-out heavy. Even with that in mind, however, the comic still offers plenty of engaging action, a new take on an old villain and plenty of fantastic visuals.

Even when the story does fall prey to its weaker aspects, it's easy to keep going due to its brisk pace, as you know something fun will be along very soon. Plus, and it has to be said, the more effective jokes quickly override the bad ones when it works best due to their volume. Even if you don't like one, there's usually a good one you can count on showing up a few pages later.

If you're open to the ideas outlined in the synopsis and have no issues stomaching a few too many shout-outs, then Second Empire is well worth a read. It's short enough to go through in a single day if needed, and the major narrative arcs are very easy to follow even if you're just flicking through the story. While personally, I would suggest starting with the prequel sub-comic known as Trapped in Amber, you can still use the main comic as a solid starting point for the series.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Idiot's Guide To Writing Fight Scenes


In almost everything covered on this blog, from film to fiction, fight scenes tend to be an essential part of them. These can be large scale battles, individual duels or even abrupt skirmishes, and yet they always show up. As such, more often than not these are typically praised or criticised on how they establish certain sequences. It's high time we went into this in a bit more detail, if only to cover where a few criticisms are coming from. That and, to be honest, there are more than a few aspiring writers out there who struggle when it comes to this sort of subject matter.


Now, just to establish a few things first - These are very general rules. Every author tends to approach combat in a different way, from emphasising upon individual blow-by-blow accounts to more atmospheric descriptions which help to build up more of an individual image in a person's mind. Some even detail them purely through the eyes of others, or try to work around them in their stories. None of these are issues which invalidate the quality of the work in question, nor is there an inherently wrong way to approach this. After all, both Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig take more of an off-handed approach with their combat scenes. That doesn't change the fact that one is an award-winning author rightfully praised for their work across multiple genres, while the other one inflicted Star Wars: Aftermath on an unwitting populace.


Another point is simply this - I am not an author. Any stories I pen on here or in private are for personal entertainment and to help stay in perspective when it comes to criticising the plot, structures, and presentation. I simply read a lot, run RPGs and try to maintain an open mind. As such, this is only coming partially from experience, but a great deal is coming from examples found across a multitude of works, from comics to films to literature.


Finally, there are exceptions to these rules. They are not set absolutely in stone, but nor are they guidelines. These are just the stage-by-stage basic establishments that seem to work best when penning fights. However, those who do subvert them or twist things about tend to be those who have penned them a few hundred times over. It's always worth mastering something before you try to completely subvert it.


With that done, here's an idiot's guide to writing fight scenes in a few basic stages.



Establish the Scene




This sounds like something basic, doesn't it? A minor thing which should be there on page one. Quite literally in many cases. However, there are more than a few situations where people get this wrong. If you have two people fighting somewhere, you need to give the reader an anchor to work onto. Something for them to latch onto and focus upon as you build up the scene.


The easiest one of these is the most literal version, where a writer will establish the scene in question. They will pick an environment and general area, then begin to outline it either prior to or as the story leads into a fight. If a place is in ruins, describe their nature and the general state of them. Use the character's inner thoughts to evoke an image or define the boundaries. If it's a much broader setting such as a city or you plan upon having them engage in a running battle, outline the general architecture, the basics of the location and the most notable details of the landscape in question. This is akin to building an establishing shot of a scene, where films will offer a broader view of an environment or basic landscape to give the audience context to what will follow.


If the actual setting in question is more nebulous for one reason or another - or you specifically want to avoid going into visual details for story reasons - have it focus upon the protagonist or the situation in question. Describe them, detail them, and find other areas to help give an impression of the situation you are leading into. For example, while it leads into a very brief and one-sided engagement, the introduction to Ahriman: Exile features the aftermath of a fight. It focuses upon the remaining loyalist marine wandering through a world which is the antithesis of reality itself, and works to create a bleak atmosphere by describing him, reflecting upon what has happened and making it clear just what his mental state is like. You "see" very little of his actual surroundings, but you are given a clear enough of a depiction to understand just what is going on and visualise the events in motion.


As this plays out, you can utilise it to build towards a moment of conflict. While establishing a scene, atmospheric details or even personal thoughts can lead towards a fight. Simply throw in a smoking gun. Perhaps something is wrong, perhaps something is out of place in the scene, or even note that whoever you are following is fleeing from someone. In the above example, the marine in question was part of a small scouting force slaughtered by traitor astartes, and he is the only one left. It works these details into the build-up of the scene, creating tension as it goes along.



Hook the Audience



Source

Ultimately, you are going to need one single moment which hooks the attention of the audience. This somewhat ties into that final point in the above section, in that you need something to encourage specific investment in this moment. Just something to help it stand out and to encourage the reader to focus upon the events which follow, above even those that had been there before.


Often the best way to do this is by introducing the actual opponent in question, if not hinting at their existence. Usually the impression of a threat, or something indicating that the protagonist is in for the fight of their lives is enough to accomplish this, but you can do far more than simply throw it in there. In fact, you can build towards it throughout an entire story for additional impact. This does not need to be overly nuanced or extremely subtle, but simply well handled. Several of the best examples of this stem from the late great Terry Pratchett's works, specifically Night Watch. Many of the hooks implying impending fights and grabbing the audience's attention stems from previous events or a connection to a core issue within the narrative. Here's a few examples:


For example, midway through the story Vimes, the protagonist, stumbles upon an Unmentionable (secret policeman) and clubs him. He is not a fan of them, and is seeking to throw a spanner in the works. The hook here stems from the realization that he not only has friends, but the leader among them is a sociopathic knife-nut, Carcer. The same one he was attempting to arrest during the opening act of the story.


During a later moment when they burn down the headquarters of this group, the Cable Street station, Vimes is forced to return in order to avert a horrible mistake. However, he is interrupted when he hears the sound of someone coming, with an unsteady gait and the rattle of a swordstick. This is the leader of the group, and someone Vimes knows is a skilled combatant who will likely seek his own twisted form of retribution.


Finally, once it is all over, once Vimes is home, he returns to the graves of his fallen friends, only to find that the hardboiled egg he once asked for - part of a running joke - has been smashed. Cue surprise attack from Carcer, out for revenge.


There are no pages upon pages of information here, nor some extremely slow build which is dragged out across a chapter. Each one is just as long as it needs to be, to lead into the situation and have the reader stop and have a quiet "Oh crap!" moment at each one. It can accomplish this because of how it incorporates smaller points and elements introduced earlier into the story to speed things along, and keep it at a brisk pace. What's more, you can even have multiple ones across a few pages to keep the reader's investment going and create a constant build-up. In the first example cited above, there's a follow-up moment where Carcer comes to understand he can get Vimes killed by focusing upon a very easy, very inexperienced, target. In the second, there's a much earlier one told by the environment itself, leading the protagonists into a very dark setting.

This isn't to say that you need to disregard a slow build-up entirely of course, it just depends

While much of this also comes down to suspense and build-up, you can work around this. How and when you direct it into the story, from the start of the fight scene to the beginning of an entire saga, is up to you. It all depends upon the theme of the fight in question, and the weight of events you want it to have. It's all down to the story you want to tell and the tone you wish to maintain, from a Tarantino-style Inglorious Basterds build-up with a split-second of violence, to a Star Wars Luke vs. Vader style fight. Genre can matter to this as well, somewhat, but that often comes down to splitting hairs. Most of the time, what works for one will lead into the other.



Plan Ahead, Build A Rhythm, Maintain A Perspective




The first two pointers are often the easiest to maintain and establish, but it's the next few which tend to matter the most. Especially when you are aiming to pen a very combat heavy story, or a great number of individual fights. It can be easy to visualise how a fight looks in your head, but it's more difficult to convey via the narrative itself. Just as a poorly defined environment can leave a reader confused, having a character perform seemingly physically impossible actions can completely throw them out of a sequence. Often, the more complex or acrobatic a fight is, the harder it is for the reader to keep track of events.


The best way to avert the obvious issues with fight-scene clarity is to plan ahead. Rather than simply winging-it, build a guideline and a basic plan of how you want things to progress. Consider how the general actions will play out, what turning point there will be in the battle and what sort of loss might be caused by this. If you need to pencil this down via storyboard work, or even use miniatures to figure out events, then both are perfectly viable means to help you translate this concept onto paper. Once you have a clear image in mind, however, you then need to consider how best to follow-through with presenting and outlining the work in question.
Perhaps the best way to accomplish a clear and focused fight scene is to build a rhythm within the sequence or even the narrative in question. Recurring elements, character traits or even defining qualities are all via
ble options, besides simply focusing on utilising the same tactics over and over again. 


For example, think of Gotrek from the Gotrek and Felix books. Anyone who has read them will immediately know what sort of combatant and character he is - an extraordinarily fast, hard-hitting and extremely tough axeman who won't rest until the enemy lies dead at his feet. He can take punishing blows which would fell most men without slowing down, and sheer stubborn belligerence constantly overrides any sense of fear he might have. That benefits the story, and the entire series, as it leaves the reader something familiar to consider and a baseline link to work from. You have a general impression of how Gotrek fights, what he can withstand, and the sort of moves which makes his fights so satisfying. This allows you to have a series of building blocks to work with, but it also means that you can re-arrange and easily play about with them as needed. Even he ends up performing an insane series of Indiana Jones stunts to win, there's an in-series rhythm to his actions to fall back on to reinforce it.


Another example of this sort of action stems from more of the world you wish to build and the tone you wish to maintain. Every setting has its own internal set of logic and what benefits it the most, from the Witcher/Hexer books to the Orcs series. In that particular case, some of it can be put down to the differences in high and low magic, but also the harshness of the world, the figures involved and the impact or seriousness of the risks taken. Both are similar to be sure, but anyone who has looked into either can attest that there are some very notable differences. If you wish to maintain a realistic tone, then having someone backflip out of the sky John Freeman style and fight army divisions with his bare bear hands will stick out like a sore thumb. Equally, if you have someone turning a crossbow into a sub-machine gun, bereft of the long and difficult reload times, that's going to quickly take the reader out of the experience.


Moreso than anything else though, you need to consider how the blows themselves are going to be exchanged and ultimately how the fight will be paced. If you build a constant pace to it, a constant exchange of actions going back and forth from one foe to the next, then you are evenly dividing the focus between them. You are never allowing one to be forgotten or come seemingly out of nowhere with an action, while also serving to better build an image of events going on. This doesn't need to be a swing-block-swing situation involving swords or fists, but it can be almost any overall action. A tense scene with someone hiding from a pursuer can be fitted into this by going back and forth between the character and those hunting them, with minor actions or even internal thoughts working towards this effect. 


Equally, maintaining a perspective by following one character during this sequence of events can be used to create a cohesive series of events. By showing it through their eyes, or even just following their actions, you can have far more control over how much you want to reveal, and just what they know. This also permits you to consider just how much of the environment you need to initially introduce, or what to reincorporate in more detail during the fight. The same goes for their thoughts, or even when and how you wish to introduce surprises as events play out, without it seeming cheap to the reader.



Concentrate Upon Character Depictions




Fights should not be there purely to convey action. While there is such a thing as mindless entertainment, with books you still need to think about how this is going to benefit the story as a whole. Even if this is intended to be a one-shot idea, perhaps a chance encounter with some thugs, you should consider how it serves the characters involved. After all, if it's really adding nothing to the overarching mythos of your book, the core story, and isn't supporting the characters, there's no reason to have it.


This admittedly ties somewhat into the Gotrek example cited above, but there is far more to this than just that. You need to seriously consider just how a character will move, act and behave during these sequences. If you create a man who is two meters tall, is in full plate armour and carries a tower shield, then how is he going to fight? Obviously, somewhat defensively, relying upon taking blows over dodging them. If someone has little more than a loincloth and is carrying a bronze sword, then the chances are they will be relying upon sheer speed and dodging attacks under most situations. It's a clear-cut and bold way to keep track of things, and that's what many of these stories need. You need to know more or less exactly how they will fight, act and kill in order to best utilise and describe them on either side of a battle. Both so you can create a clear visual distinction for the reader to keep track of, and make logical sense of their actions, but also how it compliments their personality.


The "five man band" is something often brought up in this regard, where you have a distinct role within the group aligning with a trope. This goes as much for their abilities as it does their personality, and one is quite often shaped by the other. This means that fight scenes or even moments of action are an excellent moment to explore these quirks, or even character evolution after it has been established. How they behave, how they act or their focus in combat should be determined by prior events somehow, and it should link into their motivation.


After all, if a series has a Knight Errant sworn to slay a demon and said demon shows up in a battle, you know that there is a risk of them breaking away. What will this lead to? How will this affect the flow of battle? What impact will this have following the engagement, if they are successful or not? A writer should consider all of these going into writing the fight itself. Without this sort of motivation, action or even exchanges, the fight can easily devolve into a simple exchange of parries and slashes. To what degree you wish for this to influence the fight is entirely up to you, but it should always be present to serve a greater purpose. That and also to make the fights unique, as this is a very easy way to prevent relentless violence from becoming white noise within the plot.



Make Every Punch Count




Any fight is going to be a battle of endurance. Rarely will someone walk away from an engagement without a scratch on them, and even those who do will often be drenched in sweat from the exertion. While the degree to which this is true will ultimately vary depending upon the species or rule of the setting you are writing, one thing should be clear - You need to make every punch count.


This isn't to say that you need to throw your character through a meat-grinder in every engagement, but there should be some aspect of a threat to it. Even if a Jedi is using the Force to move at incredible speed and deflect blaster bolts back at his opponents, there always needs to be an element of risk to the situation. A reminder that one bolt in the wrong place can take them down, or even that the situation is challenging even with their skills. Even if it's simply due to the sheer weight of numbers, you need to present an element of challenge and risk to the battle and a reminder that they are not immortal. Even if they are superior in every way, there are still opportunities to dealy this realisation. Superman, for all hsi power, is often knocked around by enemies as strong as he or even the impact of certain weapons. Corvus Corax, demigod that he is, slaughtered his way through an entire armoured division of troopers in Raven's Flight, but he still risked death due to the variety of forces opposing him.


The ability to take wounds and be worn down is a good way to hold the reader's attention, as they can carry over from one fight to the next. Lasting damage or losses are a notable factor in many battles, after all, and the need to recover from them or how it can influence someone's capabilities is an interesting premise for combat. If they are brought low due to an error on their part, or a minor wound from a previous battle wearing them down, that opens up story opportunities.


Even when you are seeking to subvert this by making an army seemingly invincible, you still need to emphasise this in some way. Work towards creating this sense of being an unstoppable juggernaut, and how borderline supernatural it is. Without that, this invulnerability can lack the meaning it needs to make the book seem incredible.


Keep It Short



I'll freely admit I cheated a bit with this one, but this was needed to prove a point. Out of all of these sections, which was the one you were ready to skip the most? Really, which was the one which you just took one look at, and then your eyes glazed over somewhat at the sheer length of it. For most of you that was likely the third point here. Now, those of you who took the time to read that, you will there are good points to it and that it offers some of the most essential information on this page. That doesn't help when it is so daunting it puts readers off, to the point where they risk skipping it. Especially when it could have easily been broken up into two halves.

The same is true of sentence structures, and it's essential in combat that you don't ramble. While you can get away with long paragraphs - and despite what some say to the contrary you should not be relentlessly limited to five words or less for every sentence - it always slows down events. Having a thirty-word weighty sentence helps to build atmosphere, with more detail and eloquence than you would get otherwise. Yet if you try to add that into the middle of a brawl, it will stand out like a sore thumb. In a moment of hesitation, or concussion you might be able to get away with this. Keep in mind, however, that those are always going to be the exceptions rather than the rule.


The shorter sentences also means that your fights in question will not drag on too long within the book. You can use fewer actions or statements to convey what is going on, and run far less of a risk of them outstaying their welcome. While this isn't to say that you need to constantly limit yourself, keep in mind one thing - Pacing. You have built up to a scene, created tension and then delivered a moment to hook the reader in and grab their attention. You need to offer something short an immediate to retain it, and for the event itself to remain tightly written to keep them going.



Use The Right Word At The Right Time




This is a very simple rule above all others - Choose your words very carefully. This is true of all stories, depending upon how you wish to write them and the nature of the universe in question. After all, part of what helps inspire the atmosphere within some Black Library novels is the choice of archaic words or rarely utilised statements to emphasise a clash of ages. This is especially true of the Fabius Bile books and, equally, you wouldn't expect to see modern day slang in a fantasy novel. Well, most of them anyway.

So, with combat, you need to carefully consider how to phrase actions and introduce elements as it goes along. The right mix of phrases can easily make or break a scene, to the point where you can create a personal black-list of words to avoid depending upon the genre, or even the individual situation in question. Using "suddenly" tends to be a big one with many authors, when you need to add in something new, as it's a cheap and very awkward way to introduce something different into a scene. You can probably think of more than a few others such as the ever cheesy "it was too late!" or "never" and even the wrong active verb. Using the wrong one can destroy a scene entirely.


Beyond even this, however, you need to also need to consider just how emotive and immediate the actions in question are, and when to let the reader's mind take over. While there is certainly a place for descriptive engagements they can have very different effects on a reader. For example, take the following:


"He delivered one solid punch after the next, driving them into Brian's stomach."


It's short, direct and simple. In most cases this can work. What about this though:


"He rained blows down onto Brian, burying his fists into his guts."


One is more directly descriptive, but the other is punchier (no pun intended) and gets its point across much quicker. Which ones you feel work best will be down to you, but you should always keep in mind how it will be read when the story is given to someone else.