5 Spoiler Free Reasons You Should Go See Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out last week, and it was fantastic! I waited eight days to post this, hoping that most people who visit this blog would have already seen the movie by now. If you haven’t, don’t worry: there be no spoilers here!

If you’re one of those people who thought it didn’t live up to the hype, let me ask you: what could have? GotG v1 was so good, how could anything that follows it live up to the expectations that followed? But I argue that Vol. 2 did live up to the hype, and here are my 5 spoiler-free reasons why:

#5: Expanding the MCU

I won’t go into specifics, but the Guardians franchise are setting up the cosmic cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) quite well. There were a few after credits scenes that I’m looking forward to seeing fleshed out after Infinity War wraps up.

#4: The Jokes

If you thought GotG v1 was funny, you might die from laughing at v2 (or walk away with abs, for sure). The movie was wall-to-wall jokes, and none of them fell flat. James Gunn is proving himself a director who knows comedy.

#3: The Stakes

Last time, the Guardians protected a planet from a would-be destroyer, who also had his sights on the rest of the galaxy –– but anything beyond Nova wasn’t an imminent threat. In v2, the threat is most imminent and almost destroys the galaxy in one fell swoop. If the Guardians weren’t there, Earth, and the rest of the Milky Way, would have died out in 2014 (the year the movie takes place). The stakes are definitely high!

#2: The Drama

The “family” of Guardians carry on their misfit nature right from the beginning. They seem to be holding together by a thread, yet show the kind of compassion that only a true family shows. And there’s plenty of conflict among them. They haven’t changed the team dynamic from v1, which is probably the best move they could have made.

#1: Relatable Heroes

Before Guardians, I was getting bored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of the characters in the greater MCU have become just a bit too dark for my tastes –– and, personally, I’m done with hero vs. hero scenes. Guardians not only knocks it out of the park with the morally questionable villains that feel like they’ve got real reasons for doing what they do, but the heroes…the heroes!

I’ve never seen such a collection of heroes that relate to the common person as well as the Guardians do. Star Lord is my spirit animal, growing up without a father and dreaming up the awesome men that father could be (I also relate to the superhuman charisma he’s got, but you knew that already). But beyond my personal experience, parental abuse, autism…this movie makes misfits like all of us Terrans feel like we could be Guardians of the freaking galaxy!

So, when are you going to see it?

How I Fell Into Game Design

Believe it or not, and probably unlike others in this industry, game design wasn’t my first choice for creative outlets; I sort of fell into it. In fact, it wasn’t even on the radar until a few months before I launched the Jadepunk Kickstarter. And after that Kickstarter happened, I fell into the gaming industry…hard.

I’ve always been a game hacker, whether it was Mutants and MastermindsGURPS, or Fate Core; whatever I’m playing tends to get a warped around my preferences. The reason is simple: no one was making the games I wanted to play.

What I Actually Wanted to Do

This can be found on the Fate website somewhere, but I only looked into game design to find someone to make a game based on my fiction. I didn’t think I was capable of making a game because the task seemed so…professional (I had no idea that indie games even existed back in 2012).

What I’ve always wanted to do, since I was 10, was be the next Marvel Studios. My first love is comic book writing. But when Marvel and DC closed their open submissions back in ’09, I felt like I needed a different route to break into comics. Maybe if I published a novel, which must be easier than breaking into the Big 2 (yeah, right!), then I could have my agent pitch me to Marvel. But then I got hold of self-publishing, moved down that route, and overplanned the release of a book that didn’t even exist yet (remember those posts about letting perfect be the enemy of great?).

I still had the plan on using books to break into comics even after the Fate Core Kickstarter, but then I impressed so many people with my Fate articles and Fate Core Star Wars implementation, that it just seemed like launching a Kickstarter for one of my fictional settings was the thing to do.

But then Jadepunk was so well received, and I was just slammed by thinking that this is what I do now. I’m a game designer. And really, that felt odd. I’m a helluva game hacker, but gaming theory…I took a game design 101 during my time at the Art Institute. But I’m a systems guy. All my life, I’ve taken martial arts systems apart, figured out how they worked in relation to their why, then put them back together, often with some pretty great results. For me, game design is another exercise in this process.

But, with all the self-reflection I’ve been doing in my most recent posts, I believe I have begun to pick myself up from my hard fall into this industry.

Gaming is a Part of What I Do

I’m not about to leave the industry behind. I have come to enjoy playing with systems and, the best part, interacting with other gamers that I would never have met were it not for my launching Jadepunk. But I think I know where gaming belongs in my life.

That post I made on settings vs. systems last week hinted at it, but I was exploring the concept for myself (you all just got to read along with my internal monolog). Releasing a systemless setting gives me the starting point for all kinds of things: system conversion documents, supplements to explore the fictional worlds, and (the best part for me) an ability to easily bridge out into all kinds of fiction (prose, scripts, even poems, if the muse descends). Sure, I could do that with a game/system combination, but then I would feel beholden to the fanbase of the system, kind of like how I’ve been with Jadepunk and the Fate community. But while Fate is bigger than Jadepunk, Jadepunk is also bigger than Fate. I’ve got more stories to tell with that setting and several others.

So I’m going to continue making games (especially those I’ve promised to continue producing for, like Jadepunk), but I’m going to be shifting a large part of my activities toward my true passion: fiction.

Have you ever “fallen” into something that you really enjoyed, but knew that it really should have been your side gig?

The Strength of the Comic Mini-Series

With the dozens upon dozens of ongoing monthly comic book titles that have been canceled in recent years, it’s a wonder why the Big 2 still pursue that as a business model for new titles (old titles have the staying power of time behind them, so they’re exempt from this rant).

Here’s my trouble with releasing an ongoing series before the market has been primed: it’s hype. Period. They want to hype something that’s going to “last forever, so get on it in issue #1.” It’s BS.

I get wanting to release a new title to expand your listing on Comixology (or bookstore shelves…if those still exist by the time you read this). But this practice demonstrates short-term thinking on the part of the executives and creative directors. “Get the numbers up this quarter, we’ll worry about next year when it comes around. Besides, we’ve got 14 big crossover events ready to launch between now and then, anyway. Ka-ching!

N0w, you know me. I don’t like to complain about a problem unless I can provide a solution. Fortunately, I come from an era (the 90’s) that saw a fairly stable Big 2, while many other companies struggled to maintain ongoing titles beyond their flagships (like the Big 2 right now).

Embrace the Mini-Series

Remember those 3-9 issue story arcs that used to be used to test the viability of a new line? They’re still around, but the lines they produce don’t seem to have any staying power.

Here are a few titles that did it right.

The merc before he got the mouth. #1 of 4.

The ragin’ cajun. #1 of 4.

Fathom: Dawn of War. #1 of 4.

That last one is of special note. Anyone remember Fathom when it first released?

Fathom. #1 of 9.

At the time, it felt like Fathom broke the mold. A new series, from the late and great Michael Turner, that was never meant to be an ongoing series.

In fact, all of these were marketed as a limited series. You know what they all share? Damn compelling stories! Did they sell super well? I honestly have no idea. But that’s shallow thinking. Here’s why.

They Created Loyalty

There’s a saying in marketing that it’s better to go deep (long-term thinking) than wide (short-term thinking). The difference is in how you treat your customer. Deep thinking engages with them one-on-one (or as close to it as possible), recognizing that they (not your Wizard Mag. or Facebook CPM ads) are the ones who will grow your brand by talking about it. Wide thinking is the “get a billion people to see your Twitter post” marketing scams. Without the deep connection, the people looking are not going to convert long-term, they just want to see the immediate spectacle – and have been given no personal reason to stick around.

Here’s what those mini-series did:

Gambit

When Marvel saw that Gambit was a hit with fans, this solidified their loyalty within the X-verse. People (like me) tuned into X-comics that heavily featured Gambit. But, he wasn’t as big a hit as Wolverine, and thus didn’t deserve an ongoing title. But his mini-series scratched an itch with fans (brand loyalty) and helped enrich and already slammin’ ongoing title (X-Men, Vol. 2).

Some people today fail to see Gambits appeal. But, let’s be honest, most of his more recent mini-series are pretty terrible in comparison to him taking on the Assassin’s Guild in New Orleans. (Maybe some of the new generation should look a little further back on Comixology to learn why Gambit is so beloved by so many. YMMV, though, as all of this is subjective.)

Deadpool

Personally, I credit Deadpool’s current popularity all the way back to this title. Before this title, he was a token ninja with a healing factor. He also wasn’t anywhere near as insane as he’s portrayed now. He was someone who couldn’t die, and so looked at life as something to laugh at. (I like both versions, really, but it’s important to note where he came from.)

After this mini-series, we started seeing more and more Deadpool in our comics, but it was still some time before he got his own ongoing title. But in that decade or so between, Marvel was building incredible brand loyalty for the character, starting with this mini-series.

The Fathom Lines

The first Fathom series (1-9) established a comic line, with multiple spin-offs, that is still going strong to this day (often in mini-series format). Hell, this one is potentially the best of the bunch because it launched an entire comics imprint (Aspen Comics), named for the main character of the Fathom comic.

And that brand allowed a truly incredible 4-part mini-series, Fathom: Dawn of War, to become a deserved hit. It’s my belief that Dawn of War wouldn’t have achieved the reception that it did if it wasn’t for Fathom‘s success. And Kiara, the star of Dawn of War, has gone on to lead multiple titles of her own since that time.

What Do You Think?

Should comics, and comic franchises in general (movies, TV, etc.), start being more responsible with how they market their comics? Should we see an “ongoing” series restart from the same title so many times (how many #1’s has Marvel put out this year)?

In fact, should the TV properties do the same? Agents of SHIELDThe FlashArrow, and Supergirl are all going pretty strong (deserved of the “ongoing” title). But while Daredevil was groundbreaking, the second season was less so – it felt to me like two mini-series (Punisher’s origin and Elektra’s origin; awesome as they were) smashed together. I would have preferred to have them as their own standalone mini-series shows (with Daredevil co-starring). This one is less cut and dry, however, as a movie could be seen as a “mini-series” of a kind, and Netflix is a more complicated animal than comics and appointment TV.

Anyway, I’ve beat this horse enough. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Intrepid Stories: Too Close to the Sun

Intrepid City 0:2

TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN
By Ryan M. Danks

The XS–9 rocketed out of Earth’s atmosphere. Propelled by prototype plasma engines, the experimental air/space hybrid plane was the pride of Valiant Industries’ R&D department, which they claim is light years ahead of their competitors.

Colonel Cole Stewart leaned into the cockpit and watched the pilot, Captain Martin, fly.

“You should be strapped in,” Captain ‘Marty,’ as Stewart’s team took to calling him when they boarded, said.

“‘Should,’” Stewart said. “Sounds like a suggestion.”

Marty shook his head, but couldn’t help smiling. “Damned PJs.”

Behind Stewart, in the staging area of the plane, he could hear members of his team telling their new rookie the story of their last operation in Eastern Europe.

“This one guy just wouldn’t go down,” Staff Sergeant Briggs said. “No matter how many rounds I pumped into him, he just kept coming.” Most people would have used their hands to mimic the actions of shooting something, but Briggs pointed his loaded .50 caliber machine gun at the rookie.

The young man’s discomfort was blood in the water for the rest of the team.

“Face was weird, too,” First Lieutenant Lane said. “Pale, with red eyes and big fangs. It was like a friggin horror movie.” She formed her hands in claws and made a menacing face at the rookie, which had a more horrifying effect with Brigg’s machine gun in his face.

The rookie tried to laugh it off. He seemed sure they were joking with him. But everyone else was straight faced. “Serious?” He said.

Stewart’s attention was drawn back to the cockpit by a blinking light on Captain Marty’s touchscreen. “Did something pick us up?”

“Naw,” Marty said. “Nothing can pick us up this high up. That there’s Ground Control reaching out.”

Marty touched the answer button, but it didn’t activate the comms system. He tapped it several times. Nothing. “Stupid geniuses. They make a plane that can drop Paratroopers into an LZ from high orbit, but they can’t get the console to answer phone calls.”

“That’s why I don’t listen to their suggestions to buckle up,” Stewart said, slapping Marty on the shoulder. He stepped back into the staging area, where his Paratroopers were gearing up for the mission ahead.

After breathing on his helmet’s tinted faceplate and wiping off the fog, the rookie leaned back and looked at Briggs. “So, how did you end up stopping him?”

Briggs was too busy connecting his machine gun to his armor’s mechanically-assisted control arm to notice the rookie was talking to him. Lane got his attention for the rookie by smacking Briggs in the chest. “What?” The big man said.

“The ‘vampire,’” the rookie said. “How’d you stop him?”

“Vampire?” Briggs smiled and looked around at the amused faces of in the staging area. “Well, the Colonel killed him,” Briggs said, nodding toward Stewart, who was chambering a round into his sidearm and holstering it in the automatic ejection mechanism in the thigh plating of his armor.

Stewart made the ejector open and close a few times by waving his hand passed it; he still didn’t trust the high-tech gear his superiors forced on his team. Stewart preferred the old parachute and flak jacket rig that never failed him before.

The rookie looked up at Stewart as if to ask how he did it.

Stewart shot Briggs a look of displeasure for getting him involved. “I carved his heart out,” Stewart said. He drew his large carbon fiber knife a few inches out of its sheath, installed in the chest plating of his containment armor, to make his point.

The rookie whistled. “Damn, sir. You’re hardcore.”

Everyone in the room tried to contain their laughter but failed miserably. Everyone but the rookie.

Lane grabbed his shoulder. “Thanks for this,” she said between laughing fits. “Truly. Thank you.”

“Aw, what?! You mean you didn’t–” The rookie got up and moved to the back of the staging area. “You guys suck,” he said as he passed hysterical team members.

The team member the rookie sat down next to offered him a cigarette. He took it, lighting a match on the ‘No Smoking’ sign.

Lane wiped a tear of joy from her face and tossed Stewart an extra magazine for his rifle. “So, Colonel, you finally get hitched, and leave your bride at the altar to go on an OP?”

“I didn’t leave her at the altar,” Stewart said, slapping the magazine and racking his weapon. “The limo just dropped us off at different airports.”

“You afraid married life will suck the adventure of you?” Briggs said, elbowing Stewart in the arm.

Stewart pressed a touchscreen on his forearm to fiddle with his containment armor’s settings –– an excuse to look away. “If I didn’t come, one of you would get eaten by a werewolf or something. Eh, Rook?”

Everyone laughed at the rookie’s expense. He turned a faced the wall.

“I can go on a honeymoon anytime,” Stewart said, placing his weapon in the mechanical holster on his back.

Lane smirked. “I’m sure she felt the same way.”

Stewart was about to respond when Captain Marty called out from the cockpit: “Finally got in touch with Control. They’re calling off the mission.”

“They give a reason?” Stewart asked.

“NASA is reporting some kind of ‘cosmic storm’ headed our way. They’re not sure what it is, but they don’t want to take any chances.”

Briggs looked disappointed. “We came all this way for nothing?”

“Has situation on the ground changed?” Stewart asked.

“Negative,” Marty said. “This seems like a safety procedure for our benefit.”

“Sounds to me like more suggestions,” Stewart said. “We all know what we signed up for; mission first.”

“Hooah!” The team yelled in unison.

Marty shook his head. “I’ll let Control know we aren’t diverting course, then.”

“PJs,” Stewart shouted. “Mount up!”

They all locked their helmets into place, rechecked their gear, and climbed into the jump pods – one for each team member.

Stewart waited until they were in their pods, then locked his helmet into place. He listened to the internal atmosphere regulators pressurize his suit, then checked his oxygen levels; which wouldn’t be a concern while inside the pod – the emergency oxygen was for orbital emergencies.

“Good luck,” Marty called over his shoulder as Stewart climbed into his pod. The Colonel gave him a thumbs up.

“Mic check,” Stewart said, as he tapped buttons in his pod’s touchscreen to set the landing coordinates.

Each team member reported in and called a positive sync to his coordinates.

“We’re good to go, Marty,” Stewart said through the comms. “Open the launch bay doors.”

“Copy that,” Marty’s voice came back through the comms, clear as day.

The bay doors opened, giving the team a good look at Eastern Europe through the windshields on their pods.

“Beautiful,” someone said. Stewart thought it was the rookie. Whether it was or not, the rookie was the one Briggs made fun of for being “sentimental.”

“Want to take a picture to show your mom, Rook?” Lane called out through the comms.

Stewart grinned as he looked to the West. He couldn’t see the United States from where he was, and Intrepid City was quite a bit inland, but he knew his new bride was down there somewhere. They had known each other for a few years, though Stewart never let his team know about her. There was a certain distance he liked to keep with them regarding his personal life. But Angela had insisted on some of his team being part of the bridal party. And he had to admit that he liked it when she took naturally to them as part of his extended family.

“What the hell is that?” Briggs shouted through the comms, breaking Stewart’s reverie. No one could see Briggs pointing, but they didn’t have to. It was obvious what he was pointing at: far above the Earth’s north pole was a blue and purple cloud, half as big as the planet, descending like a hungry monster looking for something to eat.

Stewart was at a loss for words. “I have no idea. Marty?”

The Captain must have been paying attention to his instruments, trying to line up the small launch window over the LZ. From this height, if the team dropped outside of the window, they would end up in a different country altogether. He didn’t respond to Stewart’s question. Instead, Captain Marty shouted “Clear to launch!” over the comms.

“Copy that,” Stewart said. “Leave the space dust phenomena to the scientists. We’ve got a job to do.” He counted down from five, knowing that after he took off, each of his teammates, in order, would launch one second after the previous team member.

“Two. One.” He pressed the ‘Launch’ button and readied himself to take a few Gs as he rocketed down through the atmosphere. But while the ejection rockets screamed to life, his pod’s safety latches malfunctioned. One side released as expected, but the other stayed locked in place, causing his pod to violently turn, slamming into the drop pod next to him. His windshield cracked from the pressure, and red lights reported a systems malfunction.

The team stepped on each other as shouts of panic and concern came through the comms all at once. Stewart was too busy trying to deactivate the pod’s rockets to join the chaotic conversation.

Like the rest of his team, Stewart was trained in emergency procedures during a drop, but when his pod was pointing at the rest of his team, like a missile taking aim, there was a new level of stress added to an already technical situation. 

Stewart’s pod bounced back and forth between the bay door and the pod next to him. By the time he got the rockets shut off, he his pod had wedged between the neighboring pod and the bulkhead of the ship.

“You all right down there?” Captain Marty said.

Stewart craned his neck to get a look into the other pod’s windshield. The pods were at an odd angle, but he could see the rookie’s eyes, wide with fright.

“Oh, sh–?” The rookie said, starting to hyperventilate. Everyone could hear it, now that they had regained their comm discipline.

“Lock it up, Rook!” Stewart yelled through the comms, trying to get the Paratrooper under control before he did something stupid, like eject while they were wedged up against each other.

The rookie, eyes about to bug out of his head, nodded. “Y-yessir.”

Stewart took stock of his situation. The way he was wedged up under the bay door, the rookie still had a clear shot to drop. Maybe if he did it would dislodge both of their pods.

“Alright, Rook. Here’s the plan. You’re going to launch your pod, and–”

“I would caution against that, sir,” Marty said. “I’ve got you pulled up on my sensors, and if he launches, it’ll more than likely tear both your pods apart. And being right under the engines, if you rip into that bay door, you could cause a catastrophic event.”

“Damn,” Stewart said.

“Maybe we should do what Control said and abort mission,” Marty said. “I can have us on the ground in–”

“Negative,” Stewart said. “We’re carrying on with the mission.”

“Want to tell me how that’s possible?”

Stewart looked out over the other pods. His team wasn’t hampered as he and the rookie were. 

“Lane.”

“Yessir,” she called back, a sense of urgency and concern in her voice.

“Restart the launch sequence. Get down there and kick some ass. The rookie will stay here until we get this sorted.”

“You got it, sir,” Lane said.

“You copy that, Rook?” Stewart said, making eye contact with the rookie.

The rookie nodded an affirmative.

“This sounds like a call to abandon you, sir,” Briggs said. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.”

“I’m not dying, Briggs. I’m just stuck. Get your ass down there and complete your mission. That’s an order!”

“On your mark, First Lieutenant,” Briggs said after a brief moment of silence.

Lane restarted the countdown. Stewart and the rookie watched the rest of the team launch, one by one –– a perfect execution.

“They just showed us how it’s done,” Stewart said, trying to keep the rookie talking, so he didn’t think about being stuck. “And how we’re about to do it.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“Colonel,” Marty said. “I’m getting some strong electromagnetic signals from that storm. I think it’s time for us to bug out of here.”

“Hang on a sec,” Stewart said, clicking through his pod’s touchscreen.

“Sir, I need to insist that we follow procedure and head back to base. I can’t close the bay doors, but you could–”

“What did I tell you about procedures, Marty.” Stewart found a ‘Help’ file that showed a digital overlay of how to manually eject a pod from the launch bay. It indicated a lever above the pods. He looked out his windshield and saw that his rockets had melted the switch above his pod, welded it right into the bulkhead, but the rookie’s lever was still intact.

“Sir, I–” Marty began but cut himself off. “Sir, your pod is registering an open hatch. I think you’ve got a breach.”

“It’s not a breach,” Stewart said, as he crawled out of his hatch and into open space, protected by his containment suit, which had oxygen for ten minutes of floating, or five minutes of strenuous work. “I let myself out.”

“What? Why–”

“Here’s the plan,” Stewart interrupted him again, not wanting the Captain to scare the rookie. “I’m going to pull the manual override on the Rook’s pod. The rockets won’t launch, so both pods should come loose nice and easy. Nothing breaks on your pretty ship.”

“And, then you come in the emergency hatch and ride home with me?” Marty said.

“No. I’ll jump in the Rook’s pod. We can share a seat all the way down to the LZ. It’ll be fun. Right, Rook?”

“Um,” the rookie’s uneven voice came back. “I guess?”

“That’s the spirit,” Stewart said, climbing to the end of his pod and transitioning to the other, careful not to lose his grip. He had some zero-G training, but not much.

Marty disengaged the plasma engines. “I’m going to slow our orbit so the pods don’t fly off out of control, but you’d better hurry. I’m getting electromagnetic interference with my comm signal with Control. That storm is going to hit any second.”

Stewart looked out the bay and saw the storm, closer than it was before he tried to launch. “Once we’re loose, you take off immediately. Understood?”

“Copy that.”

Stewart climbed over the rookie’s pod, noticing the young man’s nervousness through the windshield. “No worries, Rook. This is what we trained for.”

“Actually, sir, this is my first Orbital Drop. I trained with parachutes, like most PJs.”

Stewart climbed past the windshield. “An ‘OD’ is like a roller coaster with a really long drop. You’re going to love it.” He got to the manual override and pulled on the handle, which felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. He cursed the designers at Valiant Industries for the umpteenth time.

“Isn’t it a bad omen that they refer to this as ‘ODing?’”

“Probably.” Stewart gave up on pulling the handle. He got it halfway to the ‘Disengage’ label on the bulkhead, but his arms were exhausted.

“What’s going on out there, Colonel?” Marty said, urgency evident in his voice.

Stewart braced himself on the bulkhead and stomped on the override switch. “When I get back to base, I’m kicking someone’s ass for designing this hunk of junk!” A final kick sent the lever home.

The rookie’s pod unlatched and floated away, slightly toward the rear of the ship –– their momentum was slowed, but not stopped. It clumsily brought Stewart’s damaged pod along for the ride.

“Colonel,” Marty said. “We’ve only tested opening pods in space during situations of emergency extraction. Who knows what could happen if you try to shut it again outside of an atmosphere? It may not seal properly. Maybe you should let the Rook bug out, and you can ride back with me.”

“Negative,” Stewart said. “I’m finishing my mission.”

“Dammit, Cole. You’re putting your crew’s life in danger.”

Stewart ignored him, kicking off the ship and floating for a heart-wrenching distance before he was in range to grab onto the rookie’s pod. “You’re clear, Marty. Take off.”

The comms scratched back an incoherent response.

“Marty? Did you copy? I said take off.”

Stewart switched his position on the pod and looked back at the ship. The cosmic storm wasn’t far off, and electricity was arcing off the ship’s hull.

“Marty, do you copy?”

“The fzzzzssh storm fzzzzzsh,” Marty said.

“Colonel?” The rookie said, craning his neck to see the ship through his windshield. “Shouldn’t we–”

He cut himself off as the XS-9 silently exploded, sending debris flying in their direction.

“Oh, crap. Oh, crap.” The rookie was hyperventilating again. That got the Colonel worried, hanging outside of the pod as he was. He switched positions and looked down into the windshield.

“Get it together, Rook. We’re almost through this.”

“I can’t do it, Colonel. I can’t.” He was punching every button he could find. “I’m sorry, but I–” In his panic, the rookie hit the ejection button. The pod’s side panels flew off the pod, sending Stewart tumbling away from the core structure of the pod.

Stewart pushed the panel he was holding onto away from him, which slowed his uncontrolled movement a bit. He was able to see the rookie, helplessly floating in his seat. The distance between them expanded quickly, as Stewart’s momentum sent him in a descending orbit toward the Earth.

“Dammit, Rook!” Stewart regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He knew they were the last words the rookie would ever hear.

The storm descended on the rookie’s pod. Electricity arced through the pod’s structure, where the rookie was sitting. Stewart watched his teammate fry.

“Rook!” He yelled, before realizing that no one was left to hear him.

Anxiety started to take over. Stewart’s armor wouldn’t survive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. And even if it did, he wouldn’t survive the impact that came a few minutes later.

Thoughts of his bride came to his mind. Regrets. He pushed them out, trying to get a grip, determined to find a way to back to her.

Debris from the XS-9 fell past Stewart. His orbit had taken him back toward the ship.

“Marty?” Stewart hoped against hope. He had no control of his movement, but he could turn his neck. And he tried as hard as he could to see behind him, where he thought his pilot might be.

What he saw sent a chill up his battle-hardened spine. One of the XS-9’s engines spun toward him as it descended, out of control, into Earth’s atmosphere.

Stewart was spared the quick death of being smashed by the engine, as it flew past a mere three feet from him. But he couldn’t avoid being engulfed by the cloud of superheated plasma the engine was spewing in every direction as it spun.

He panicked and tried to scrape the coating of plasma off his armor, but he knew that the only way to save himself from burning to death was to take the suit off and expose himself to the vacuum of space.

There were no good choices for Stewart, and as he tumbled toward Earth, he considered which death he preferred. But before he could choose, the cosmic storm surrounded him on its way to the planet.

Electricity arced through Stewart’s suit, shattering his weakened armor. He screamed through the pain until he couldn’t hear his cries anymore.

Stewart’s last thoughts before he blacked out were of his wife, and how sorry he was to have missed their honeymoon.

Intrepid Stories: Justice

Intrepid City 0:1

JUSTICE
By Ryan M. Danks

Aaron Adams sprinted down the alley, police sirens at his back. He shifted the semi-automatic pistol into his left hand and pulled the door to the chop shop open.

“C’mon,” Aaron called behind him.

Mal’s breath came hard as he ran through the door. Inside the garage, he struggled to catch his breath while checking the ammunition in his pistol.

Aaron, his breathing as steady as if he had taken a brisk walk, looked out the door, then shut and locked it.

“They staked the place out. How did they know?” Mal straightened up and put his gun in his belt. “We need to get the hell outta here. Reggie and Danny won’t talk, but when the police get an I.D., they’ll come here.”

Mal nodded toward a sedan parked in front of the closed garage door. “Load it up; I’ll grab the keys.”

Aaron didn’t move. “They already know to come here.”

“What? How would they–” Mal turned to face Aaron, his eyes narrowing.

Aaron set his gun on a push cart and looked around the chop shop. No weapons within reach – except for their firearms. The concrete had been cleaned of the oily grease stains that usually covered it. It was just as he left it; just as he planned it. He looked at a desk on the side of the room, beneath the only window in the garage, and nodded to himself.

Mal drew his weapon and aimed it at Aaron. “You set this up?” Sunlight from the window glinted off the gun’s chrome finish.

“The dealership was never the job.” Aaron’s hands were a blur as he disarmed Mal and struck him in the face with his palm, sending the bigger man reeling. The gun clanked on the ground. Aaron ignored it and stepped toward Mal. “You were.”

Shaking his head, Mal recovered from the hit and adopted a rudimentary boxer’s stance. “I’m gonna–”

He was interrupted by a jab to the mouth. Aaron followed up the attack with a round kick to Mal’s knee, then went back up to the face with a right cross. His moves were fluid, practiced – a stark contrast to Mal’s street-learned brawling.

Mal hit the ground, blood trickling from a fat lip. He spotted the gun a few feet away and crawled for it, but Aaron kicked it away. Then he snapped his foot across Mal’s jaw, knocking him on his back.

The sounds of his opponent moaning in pain were sweet music to Aaron’s ears. He mounted Mal and began pounding away. The wet sound of flesh hitting flesh echoed throughout the chop shop.

Lost in the moment, Aaron kept at it. He knew he had won, and now was simply being cruel, but he didn’t care. He had waited too long for this. Even after Mal’s guard dropped –– when he was utterly defeated –– Aaron didn’t stop. His rage consumed him.

Mal reached a weak hand up to push his attacker back. Aaron trapped the arm with lightning fast hands and punched Mal one last time. Then he stood, blood dripping from his dark knuckles. 

Looking at his handiwork: the blood covered canvas of Mal’s face, Aaron decided that he wasn’t proud of it. He closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath, taking a step back to let Mal roll on his side and spit blood and teeth onto the concrete.

“Why?” Mal said.

Mal’s broken voice was exactly how Aaron had imagined it. But hearing it for real frightened him. Was he becoming like Mal? Never.

“Two years ago, you tried to rob a store in East Lake, but a man stopped you. He told you there was a better way to make a living.”

Aaron grabbed a work rag that hung from the push cart he left his gun on and wiped Mal’s blood from his knuckles.

“He tried to help you. And for his trouble, you found him at a bus stop a week later and drove by with your friends; the same friends who are getting arrested right now.”

Aaron picked up his gun and wiped his fingerprints off of it.

“So,” Mal said, getting his knees under him so he could sit up. “I popped a few caps in a good Samaritan who didn’t know enough to keep out of business. Why the hell do you care?”

Aaron’s eyes narrowed. He wanted to hit Mal again. Kill him. “As your bullets tore up the bus stop, my father covered me and my mom with his body,” He lifted his shirt. A circular scar marred a wall of otherwise perfect abs.  “But he didn’t stop all of them.”

Mal’s mouth fell open. “Look, man. I–“

“His last words to me were to take care of my mother, but she succumbed to her gunshot wounds that same night.”

Still covering the grip of the gun with the towel, Aaron cocked the hammer back and looked down the front sights at Mal. “Since then, I’ve devoted every waking thought to taking you down, dreaming about what it would feel like to wipe you off the face of this planet.”

The metal door behind Aaron quaked as a fist pounded on its other side. “Police, open up!”

Mal looked from the door to Aaron, a glimmer of hope in his eye. “All they’ve got on us is attempted Grand Theft. You really want to go down for Murder One?”

Aaron grabbed Mal by the collar and stuck the gun in his eye. It would only take an instant to avenge his family and ensure the protection of any victims Mal might hurt in the future. He was a criminal of the worst sort. He deserved it – and Aaron deserved this. His hand shook with elation, and fear.

Then Mal whimpered, and Aaron was reminded of his humanity. He wasn’t the young man his father had demanded, with a stern hand and a warm smile, that he turn out to be. He yelled and threw the gun across the garage.

Mal sighed in relief, “Thank God.” But Aaron wasn’t done with him. He dragged Mal to the desk at the side of the room. Mal slipped in his blood as he struggled to get his feet under him.

The sound of a battering ram hitting the door shook the walls. The locked bent, but didn’t break.

Aaron slammed Mal against the side of the desk and pulled the top drawer open. Then he pulled Mal’s face up to his. “It was never about me.”

Aaron leaped onto the desk, slid the window open, and leaped out as the police knocked the door open.

Mal looked down at the open drawer. There were photos and material evidence of several crimes that he had committed over the last few months – since Aaron had joined the gang. It was enough evidence to put him away for a decade, maybe longer.

“No.” Defiance turned to a drawn out whine of despair as the police grabbed Mal’s arms and forced them behind his back. He struggled with all his broken might as they read him his rights.

Aaron walked into his apartment and dropped his keys next to a happy picture of his family. He picked the frame up and admired his parents.

“Justice,” he said, aware of the fact that he had almost gone too far. But this time was personal. Next time would be easier.

He put the picture back on the end table and looked at the wall in front of his couch. Most people would mount a television there, but Aaron had covered the wall with newspaper clippings and photographs, connected by relevance with colored strings. Other than the picture of his family, the “Wall of Crime” was the only form of decoration in the room.

Aaron pulled the cap off a marker and drew an X over a picture of “Malcolm ‘Mal’ Matthews.” Then he followed a string that led from Mal’s picture to a newspaper clipping with multiple strings branching from it, a small web of interconnected criminal activity. The article was titled: Gang War: East Lake Boys at Odds with The Shadow Mafia.

“Time for something a little more ambitious,” Aaron said, capping his marker.

Why City of Heroes was the Best MMO

I started playing massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) during the beta of Star Wars Galaxies in 2003. And while SWG had mee hooked for over a year, it couldn’t compare to City of Heroes. Make your own superhero? It’s like they made the game just for me. But there are other reasons why I considered CoH the best MMO yet.

While working at a cyber cafe, I walked behind someone who was decorating his wookiee’s house, and I thought “they made a Star Wars SIMs?” Once he explained to me what I was looking at, I got onboard in a big way. Within a week, half of the cyber cafe – and all of the staff – were running through the Tattooine desert on our way to Jabba’s Palace (thank God for auto-run during those days before speeders).

And I still hold that Jump to Lightspeed was the best video game expansion of all time – nothing since has even come close to that (and it blew EVE Online away, even a decade after it was released). Once I was able to get into space in an excellent first-person space simulator, I never touched the ground game again.

swg-thetotalexperience

It was a great year, one in which I gained a solid ten pounds of soda and chips around my midsection.

Then I Became a Herocity_of_heroes_key_art_2_by_pixel_saurus-d550gtu

When City of Heroes launched in 2004, I happily bid the galaxy far, far away a fond farewell. After growing up on comic books, this game was a dream come true. I got to create my own superhero and go to town on villains in a way I had only managed in my imagination in the front yard or (much safer) at the dinner table playing roleplaying games.

CoH’s graphics blew SWG’s away – though both are nearly 8-bit pixels by today’s standards – and the combat system was top notch. Unfortunately for me, I expected the same level of quality from future Cryptic Studios games, which resulted in several instances of buyer’s remorse.

But it wasn’t just the combat system or graphics that made CoH better than even World of Warcraft, which also launched that year (and which I played for about eight years). It was the level of customization.

wall2-1440x900

Everyone in SWG and WoW looked the same, fought the same, and had the same skills – pretty much whatever was “OP” at the time was picked up by everyone. But CoH, at least at launch, only had six types of consumables, and that was the only gear you got. There were zero “gear raids” and even superheroes with the same power sets looked drastically different.

And even within those power sets, heroes were often different. In CoH, you got to pick two primary power sets that determined how you fought, and then secondary power sets that could customize your character further, and included things like travel powers. (Flying is way cooler than riding a speeder through pixelated terrain or having a griffon take you on a predetermined route.)

Even DC Universe Online failed to offer the same level of customization – though they got close with their costume design, they failed miserably in power design (and their custom powers were atrocious and practically unusable).

fb-share

DCUO could have been great if they had given the fans what they wanted and were not beholden to the whims of a particular game developer (“super strength isn’t a superpower” puh-leeze!). The fact that you couldn’t mimic almost any of the Justice League characters with your power sets (Flash with fire powers? sure. Superman with…ice? You got it.) was bad enough, but then you throw in the fact that you are second stringers in the universe, acting as “support crew” for the big heroes, and you have a recipe for a mass player exodus, which happened, just not as quickly as I suspected it would (I even held out far longer than I should have because I wanted to like the game).

champions_online_cover

Champions Online, created by the same studio that designed CoH, tried to step up to the plate after CoH started to show its age. It promised a lot and did give me many hours of fun, but it was launched, like so many other Cryptic Studios games, in an incredibly unfinished state. They knew that PvP was a big deal to CoH players, who had to wait years before it was implemented, but Champions launched it too quickly, with far too many unbalances (anyone recall katana bleeding?).

The level of customization was top notch, though you had to pay for most of the good stuff (consumers of the industry had not cozied up to the idea of microtransactions yet). But the real let down for this game, which had an incredible setting (probably because it came from a tabletop RPG), was the lack of finish at launch. It didn’t get its legs until the mass exodus had already happened.

And both DCUO and Champions had a similar problem: the entire game was practically solo-able. If you can play it by yourself, then you don’t need the moniker “MMO” do you? CoH, on the other hand, had incredible team and role mechanics, with an incredibly innovative sidekick system that allowed for low-level heroes to play with their more super friends in high-level content. The game thrived on group play and had the population (for most of its years) to capitalize on it. Only WoW had almost as good of group mechanics with a population to support it for so long (but even WoW raids can’t match the elated feeling one got while playing on a team with a tank, blaster, controller, and healer who knew what they were doing).

city_of_heroes_key_art_by_pixel_saurus-d54mqmm

Just as it is unlikely that there will ever be another game with a crafting system that can rival SWGs, there is likely never again going to be a superhero MMO that can rival City of Heroes. I consider it a great travesty that so many other games are supported by their game design fans through mods, but CoH was left in its digital grave. A Kickstarter was launched that promised to create a similar experience, and I did back it…years ago. Nothing yet, unless you count an amount of lore that suggests the designers should have been novelists instead. And with the speed that they’re moving, it’s probably best to wait for Marvel to bankroll a real MMO and not the MOBA game they’re passing off as one.

There were some runners up for my favorite games, Guild Wars 1 and 2 were both fantastic, and I greatly enjoyed the level of customization in Black Desert (maybe too much customization?), but they still didn’t compare to CoH.

What about you? What was your favorite MMO? (If I trashed it above, please realize that this is an Op-Ed piece based on my experiences.)

Who’s Your Favorite X-Men Character?

Someone asked me recently who my favorite X-Men character is. I’ve had a few over the years, Wolverine, Gambit, Cyclops, Rogue, Storm, Iceman…Professor X, himself. I even count some of the X-Villains, like the Brotherhood of Mutants, in my list (Magneto and Sabretooth at the top of the list). But having to narrow down a favorite? That’s hard.

Which Version?x-men-storms-costume-evolution

Just about every X-character has undergone changes over the decades-long history of the franchise. So a discussion on favorites almost needs to start with choosing an era. Or does it?

My favorite X-Men era is 1991 through 2000 (Jim Lee’s run before the “update” to black leather after the first movie released). But your era might be older, newer, or even *shudder* the black leather period (hopefully it was because you didn’t know they existed until the movie was released and those were the first comics you could find). In fact, my X-era includes several versions of both the X-verse (Age of Apocalypse happened during that time) and the characters (anyone remember bestial Wolverine?).

So let’s just not split hairs and say “who’s your favorite X-character from any era,” or “who’s your favorite, and which era/version.” How’s that?

Narrowing the Fieldx-men200pg00finch

I mean, there are so many X-Men characters (even my first paragraph listed over half a dozen), I’m not sure it can be done. For me, it’s like choosing a favorite best friend among brothers, because I grew up with these characters. But I can at least narrow my list down to three.

My three favorites all happen to be named in this picture.

My three favorites all happen to be named in this picture.

Wolverineessential-wolverine-2-paperback-l9780785164289_2610

Who’s list of favorite X-Men character is not going to have Wolvie in it somewhere? (Will the real outlier, please stand up?) I was one of the people who threw a fit that he was being played by an actor who was taller than Cyclops, but I eventually got over it (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was better than their representation of Gambit).

James “Logan” Howlett (did they retcon that to make is middle name official yet?) is the barbarian class of the team and pretty much defined what that means in comics for everyone ever since. Before the Avengers movies, I think his rage was more famous than The Hulk’s.

Psylockeeb25fe0fffc42096198340b7332d0f0c

Psylocke is probably not going to make it on everyone’s favorite X-Man list (she’s an X-Woman, but still). She’s been through more retcons, personality changes, and even bodies than anyone else in the X-verse, par none. And with all of that, hers is the only costume the movies got practically perfect. Go figure.

But for a comic book loving martial artist who loves both Japanese and British culture, how is she not going to be on my list? She can make her own lightsaber (after a retcon to her powers). How cool is that?!

Gambitgambitsolo

Here’s one X-Man that people just love to hate, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. The ragin’ Cajun was one of my favorites since my introduction to the X-Men in the ’90s cartoon series. But the movie version in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, no thanks. They didn’t even bother to use his dark past of betrayal against mutant kind (which was incredibly well-told in the comics).

Gambit’s almost as agile as Spider-Man, has red eyes, can make anything explode(!), and is smooth with the ladies. What’s not to like?

What About You?

I cut a lot of X-Men to get down to my three favorites. Nate Grey, Magneto, Nightcrawler, Colossus…a lot of great heroes were left on the cutting room floor.

Can you do better?