Broken Age: An adventure worth waiting for

Broken Age: Shay

Shay, one of the two heroes of Broken Age, is stuck on a spaceship. Each day he gets dispatched to some random corner of the galaxy, on a quest to rescue helpless creatures. Every time, Shay saves the day with remarkable ease, and is rewarded with pellets of nutritious, easily digestible space food. Endless repetition, meaningless quests, manufactured “danger”… yes, Shay seems to be stuck in a video game. He gets his own squeaky voiced companions, creatures called Yarn Pals who give helpful, overly frequent instructionsThey bring to mind a certain N64-era fairy.. Shay’s world is all soft, plush edges, with no real consequences.

Meanwhile, the world of Vella, Broken Age‘s other protagonist, seems just as cheerful at first glance. The citizens of her town of Sugar Bunting seem to spend their time harmlessly making elaborate cakes and pastries. That’s until they mention that Vella is scheduled to be dressed as a giant cupcake and offered as a sacrifice to Mog Chothra, their flying Lovecraftian monster god. The other teen girls on the sacrificial docket seem to think that whomever the monster chooses to eat “wins” the beauty pageant, but Vella isn’t content to be monster chum. Her resolve to escape that fate (and her chipper-with-a-hint-of-anarchic demeanor) drives most of Broken Age‘s plot. While Shay plays video games and gets filled with ennui, Vella has to survive the potentially flesh-rendering consequences of a more brutal kind of game.

Broken Age: The Pyramid

Broken Age creator Tim Schafer seems here to be gently poking the noses of the mainstay genres of the video game world. The sacrifices to Mog Chothra echo the endless bloodletting demanded by some FPS and MMO games. And the bright, aggressively cheerful decor of Shay’s spaceship gives the impression of an endless game of Candy Crush in space. While the basic critique (i.e. men drive spaceships in video games while women get eaten by monsters) may be cheeky, it’s never heavy-handed or distracting. Instead Schafer is using Broken Age to gently suggest a third way, proposing through example the kind of game where character and story are kept paramount, supported by satisfying gameplay rather than sacrificed at its altar.

That may sound like a familiar recipe to some fans of adventure games. If you’ve followed the genre from King’s Quest through Sam and Max Hit the Road and Grim Fandango then you’ve probably already heard of Broken Age, which follows in the tradition of those games. The project began in 2012 as a Kickstarter campaign called “Double Fine Adventure”, and managed to capitalize on the pent-up desires of a devoted cadre of adventure game fans, to the tune of $3.3 million. Even with this windfall, the development process was protracted, raising concerns of sprawl and mission drift. The release of the first half of the game in early 2014, in order to raise more money through early salesI specifically waited for the full game release to play the game, which I can’t help but feel was the better choice. At the end of the first half of the game, the complete story is only just beginning to come into view. I can easily imagine how the abrupt ending left some reviewers unsatisfied in 2014. didn’t exactly help. It seemed possible that the convoluted origin story or its status as a Kickstarter icon might overshadow the final game.

Broken Age: Shay and Vella

However once I started playing, I realized that those fears were unfounded. The game opens with a refreshing lack of preamble. You choose to start with either Vella or Shay, leading them through their introductory puzzles by employing the time-honored combination of pointing and clicking. In true adventure game tradition, you try to grab anything that isn’t nailed down find a hammer to deal with anything that is. Sometimes you must combine inventory items in bizarre ways to advance. But, as in the best of the LucasArts adventure gamesDay of the Tentacle, 1993., puzzles are solved largely through talking with the inhabitants of the game’s world. Each minor characters will tell you about their problems, and give you hints as to what you need to do to help them. Their problems mostly range from wacky to ludicrous, but the story manages to keep them grounded in relatable emotionI really felt for several of these characters. Vella’s grandfather, for instance, who carries on the martial spirit their people left behind in favor of cupcake frosting. Or Twyla, a girl whose depression after not being eaten by Mog Chothra feels surprisingly universal. As for the mayor who needs glue to keep his sandcastles from falling apart, or the lumberjack who needs wood so he can make a “sample stool”… well, this is still an adventure game. You’re going to have a few wacky item exchange quests.. This is where the excellent voice cast shines. Navigating Broken Age‘s dialogue trees is, for the most part, delightful rather than tediousThere is one tree (an actual tree) who talks far too much. The insider joke is appreciated, but I could have done without most of what comes out of his mouth.. Masasa Moyo (Young Justice, Team America: World Police) and Elijah Wood (Some Movie About Hobbits) both do fantastic work making Vella and Shay charming and memorable. The rest of the voice cast is largely delightful, giving shading and pathos to cartoonish charactersJennifer Hale (Regular Show, Mass Effect, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) gives superb depth to the voice of the maternal computer of Shay’s ship. Cameos by Jack Black and Wil Wheaton don’t prove too distracting..

This level of attention to detail is thankfully also present in the game’s graphics and sound design. The score is orchestral without ever being intrusive, and pairs well the lushly hand-painted settings. The background art was always a delight, even if I never warmed entirely to the characters’ facial design. The game reserves its greatest attention for the design of its puzzles, which manage to be clever without sacrificing difficulty. It’s a complicated feat of balancing, but the puzzles should be challenging enough to satisfy long-time adventure game aficionados, and accessible enough not to frustrate determined newbiesMy ten-hours of play time involved two glances at a walkthrough. In both cases, I later noticed dialogue cues that I had missed, which would have given me hints to the solutions. The game organically provides gentle hints when you seem to be stuck, in a way that’s less obtrusive than any other similar system I’ve seen.. If you do get frustrated, you can flip back and forth between Vella and Shay’s storylines, giving even the least-connected sections of their two stories a feeling of unity. It’s a trick lifted from Day of the Tentacle, but it’s used in a more leisurely way here, since the puzzles in the two storylines only occasionally interact directlyMy take: Vella’s storyline is better, because she is better. I felt bad for Shay, but Vella is master of her own destiny. As well as the master of cheerfully blowing things up.. It also works to freshen up settings that are reused (an understandable requirement, given the level of detail in the background artwork). Watching how Shay and Vella approach the same places and characters highlights the contrasts between the two.

Broken Age: Meriloft

The detail put into settings is even more impressive given how easy the game makes navigating through them. Clickable hotspots, a serious bugbear in previous generations of adventure games, are well designed and never overlapping, although their boundaries are occasionally defined a little on the large side.I was impressed at how the game managed to balance clear hotspots and detailed art without resorting to the heavy highlighting of objects used in, for example, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series. This was necessary in The Walking Dead because of its more photorealistic graphical style, but still tended to distract from visual composition. Broken Age really is on another level entirely from Telltale’s games in terms of its artistic design, especially its use of scope and perspective. On the other hand, Telltale’s games tend to be released in a relatively timely fashion, give or take some Game of Thrones episodes.. Broken Age does an admirable job smoothing out rough edges, through eliminating busywork and useless inventory items, or with a double-click feature that makes navigation between multiple screens quick and easy. There are a couple of puzzles that require too much walking back and forth to solve, and one or two steps along the way that lack clear cues to their solutions, but these issues are minor.

Although Broken Age may not open the floodgates to a flurry of new point-and-click adventure games with charmingly handcrafted aesthetics, maybe that’s okay. Shay and Vella both have to learn to strike out on their own, to ignore the restrictions of the roles they were born into. Broken Age tries to do something similar, positing that a video game doesn’t need to spawn a half-dozen sequels, take 100+ hours to play, or have more than 2.5-ish dimensions. It just needs to take you on a journey. With its memorable story and charming characters, Broken Age follows its own meandering path to that goalThe kind of path that involves a little help from 100,000 Kickstarter backers.. And if there’s not a crowd following in its footsteps, well, it seems like the kind of game that would be more comfortable striking out on its own.

Broken Age: Spaceweaver

 

Broken Age
Double Fine Productions
2015
Available on Steam, Playstation Store, Google Play, and Apple AppStore

 

Justice League Meets Inside the NBA on TNT: An Appreciation

When I visited my Local Comic-Book Store this week, I was given an incredible birthday present. As I picked up this exciting new adventure in cross-genre interactive comic-book marketing products, the immortal words of Steely Dan rang in my head: “you wouldn’t even know a diamond if you held it in your hand / the things you think are precious I can’t understand,” to which I say damn straight Donald Fagen and/or Walter Becker, that couplet in fact describes precisely my relationship with this unexpectedly wonderful gift.

Called by some1Me. the plastic dashboard Jesus of comic books, this really is the long-awaited Justice League/TNT’s Inside the NBA™ crossover (the crossover love that dare not speak its name, that our hearts have always longed for, but which, for understandable reasons2E.g., a lingering sense of sanity., our brains weren’t even aware of, etc. etc.). It’s here, and it’s clear, that is makes no goddamn sense at all, but life’s un-looked-for joys are always its sweetest.

Looking at this cover, I was excited for what promised to be sixteen glorious pages of Shaq dunking on Batman! The Flash going for a steal from an (exceptionally diminuitive) Barkey! Superman and… some other guy! Wonder Woman using her lasso on… is that Derek Fisher? Okay, to be honest, I have no idea what this cover is promising, other than the Jedi ghosts of superheroes and a team of retired sports stars wearing primary-colored shirts. To find out if the book delivers on this, we must look deeper. Follow me inside… if you dare.

So that was actually Kenny Smith on the right, or, sorry, Kenny “The Jet” Smith,3“The Jet” is silent. and Ernie Johnson in the middle. Turns out I’m not that good at identifying sportscasters by their comic book representations. I swear, Kenny looks more like um, Stephon Marbury maybe. Anyway, after highlighting the architectural oddness of the Barclays Center, we get right down to some serious actionexposition. The hosts of Inside the NBA by TNT® are, for poorly explained reasons, racing from Brooklyn to Madison Square Garden, reenacting the career arc of any given critical darling indie band.

Note the intense Dutch angle that the larger panel is framed with. The Flash’s antenna thingy is literally bursting out of the frame. Can you feel the excitement‽ Chris Webber is a cheater, of course, but we all knew that already.

I was astounded to learn that this was not, in fact, even the first Justice League/ItNBA-TNT℠ comic. The first installment was only distributed at last year’s All-Star game in New Orleans. I had originally assumed that it would detail Chris Webber’s heinous duplicity, but, upon acquiring an exceedingly rare pdf copy, I learned that in fact it mostly focused on punching things and playing basketball, two elements which ::SPOILER ALERT:: do not really feature at all in this issue.

Much like Kenny THE JET/Batman, this whole comic is a partnership that reeks of desperation. As you may be aware, the official comics license for the NBA is held by Marvel, a boondoggle which has led to such creative supernovas as the Tim Duncan/The Punisher crossover. So you can just imagine the panicked state of the DC execs, as they beat their heads against the tasteful rosewood inlays of their in-office bar carts, trying to figure out how to get in on all that mad professional basketball cash.

Well, all credit is due to whichever genius realized that there was a whole un-comics-licensed reservoir of permanently indentured [former] NBA stars working as commentators at TNT’s Inside the NBA©. Every comics-buying girl and boy4Median age: 38. Which is a good thing, considering anyone younger than a high-school junior wasn’t born when Sir Charles retired from the NBA. is sure to be just as thrilled by the antics of Shaq, Barkley, and Kenny Smith as they are by the lesser lights of LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Mikhail Prokhorov.

I’m not sure if this was the intended effect, but one thing that I am learning from this experience is that the hosts of ©==TNT’s-insyde-teh-NBAzzzz==© are terrible people. Ernie is perving on Wonder Woman, Shaq is a bit slow, and they all cheat as bad as Chris Webber.

Look, true nonsensical comic crossover transcendence is hard to come by. For every The Avengers On Late Night With David Letterman or Superman vs. Muhammad Ali you have Archie Meets the Cast of Glee or Spiderman trying way to hard to buddy up with President Obama and not really impressing anyone in the process.

So you will understand the standards that I’m applying when I say that the image of Sir Charles Barkley performing some sort of bizzare crotch surf on Barry Allen’s back in the middle of the East River has made this entire project worthwhile. This is exactly what I came here for5Actually, as I explained earlier, I came here to see Batman dunking on Shaq, but this will suffice..

Superman, on the other hand, has no problem carrying Shaq like a giant baby6Somewhere, Noelle Stevenson is very very happy., in what is more than anything a Botticelli-esque depiction of the human form. If the rest of this comic consists entirely of the superheroes finding new and interesting ways to carry around basketball players, then I will accept it with grace.

Some excellent invisible jet action on this page, but what I really want to highlight is the cameo by NBA-TNT-APOCALYPSE-HOUR-ON-THE-TVⓅ guest and NBA Inside Stuff host Kristen Ledlow. You didn’t think they were going to go all the way through this comic without giving her a shout-out, did you?

No. That is assuredly not a thing that you ever thought.

The people inside the orange SUV have their priorities straight. You can almost hear them.

CHILD: Woah! We almost fell off that bridge! Nice driving, mom.

MOTHER: I’m amazed you could look away from your iPhone for long enough to notice.

CHILD: Why are we hovering several feet off the ground? Couldn’t they just have pulled our car back onto the road? Was this really necessary?

MOTHER: Probably not, but hey, is that Shaq?

CHILD: More importantly, did he really just call himself Diesel? He knows that no one ever actually called him that, right?

But no, it was just that stupid Superman, stealing ShazaamKazaam’s thunder again.

But Shaq is okay with it. Just like he explained early in his rap career, before briefly moving into his basketball sideline, he “knows he got skillz“.

Yes, Barkley is in a wheelbarrow. The Flash, the fastest man in the universe, a hero who can vibrate through solid matter, who routinely breaks the space-time continuum by running into things excessively quickly, has declined to carry him.

Charles is fat, is what they’re saying.

Luckily for Charles Barkley (who, lest we forget, has had his basketball skills stolen by aliens, once challenged Godzilla to a game of 1-on-1 street ball, and was thoroughly walloped by MJ in his only finals appearance) this probably doesn’t even make the top 10 most embarassing events of his career.

Oh, hey, look, it’s Reggie Miller. I would use his appearance to make a joke about unsatisfying conclusions to things, but 1. that wouldn’t be fair to one of the greatest outside shooters in NBA history and 2. Batman’s “punchline” speaks for itself. Unfortunately, this is the only “punch” we’ll be getting in this entire mystifying, preposterous, deeply unsatisfying comic. The best that I can say for it is that it answers one of my most pressing questions, of whether DC can still make comics as horrifically offensive as in the 80s, as cheesily trend-chasing as in the 90s, while accessing the potentially lucrative “post-ironic” boom of this decade, the answer to which question I would say is a solid “Yak-em!”

Thanks Shaq. “Yak-em” for_ever.

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1. Me.
2. E.g., a lingering sense of sanity.
3. “The Jet” is silent.
4. Median age: 38. Which is a good thing, considering anyone younger than a high-school junior wasn’t born when Sir Charles retired from the NBA.
5. Actually, as I explained earlier, I came here to see Batman dunking on Shaq, but this will suffice.
6. Somewhere, Noelle Stevenson is very very happy.

The Best Animated Series-es of 2014: Over the Garden Wall

If you’ve talked with me at any time over the past three months, you probably already know about my favorite animated series of 2014. Over the Garden Wall is the kind of show that makes you want to talk and talk and talk about it to everyone you meet and then, for a chaser, spend a few hours reposting tumblr gifs of elaborate OtGW fanart. I may go a little overboard expounding on its virtues, but that’s only because its virtues are manifold. Hand-painted backgrounds that animation geeks can’t help but drool over. Witty, eminently tweetable dialogue. And storytelling that’s designed to awaken giddy, rapt, childlike attention in all of us1See, I’m already gushing. You were warned..

The word “timeless” has been pretty well hijacked by Kay Jewelers and Disney DVD rereleases, but it’s the most appropriate way to describe Over the Garden Wall. The show works to dislocate viewers from their temporal positioning, to create a purposeful sense of fluidity. It invites you into its intertemporal space, syncretically drawing upon the art of multiple decades, centuries even, to construct a spare yet charming world of myth and discovery2I’d call it a postmodern fairytale, but that would invite comparisons to Shrek, or at least to Fractured Fairytales, which is in a completely different tonal universe..

The premise is simple. Two brothers, Greg and Wirt, are lost in the forest called the Unknown. They befriend a talking bluebird named Beatrice, who serves as their (somewhat acerbic) Virgil3The name is no coincidence; recall that Beatrice herself serves as Dante’s guide in Paradiso. Tempermentally, though, this Beatrice could not be further from Dante’s objectified paragon of femininity., and their quest to return home leads to encounters with strange people and creatures. Using these basic ingredients, this show accomplishes more emotional movement and character development over the course of its two hours total run time4Divided into ten episodes of about twelve minutes each. than most shows can in a 20-hour season. Wirt and Greg feel like very real brothers, with a very real mix of annoyance and concern for one another. And the subtle growth of the relationship between Wirt and Beatrice is a joy to watch and rewatch5and rewatch for a second time, and a third, and a fourth….

Every one of the fantastically diverse characters on the show, down to the most minor, has their own concerns and desires, or carries the weight of some personal tragedy. From the pastoral, pumpkin-headed residents of Pottsfield in “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” to the frog steamboat crew in “Lullaby in Frogland”, every gorgeously rendered character is given memorable shading6Literally and figuratively — the frogs, for instance, are well-dressed and officious, but also love music, and occasionally revert to their amphibian nature in unexpected ways. The show’s universe is rich and fully realized, full of surprising perils and gentleness.

Four paragraphs in, and I haven’t even touched on the show’s secret weapon: its fantastic songs. A list of all of my favorites would basically comprise the entire soundtrack7But “Langtree’s Lament” and “The Highwayman Song” are both highlights, while Potatoes and Molasses would be the Unknown’s version of a breakaway pop single., so I’ll focus just on the introductory theme, “Into the Unknown”. Its melancholic piano intro leads into authentic crooner vocals from Jack Jones. “Led through the mist by the milk light of the moon,” he sings. It would all feel like cheap pastiche, or some painfully cheesy lounge singer, if it weren’t perfectly executed. But it perfectly evokes a melancholy emotional register. So when Jones asks “If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?” you can’t help but feel uncertain as well. The question is raised and not answered. Is is meant rhetorically? Or is it just meant to be the moment when a first-time viewer asks themself just what is this show? And, perhaps by way of answer, the key shifts, and the song turns in a gentle breeze, wafting across a landscape both familiar and not. In just the first sixty seconds, we can already see how the show will incorporate elements from disparate times and places, executing tricky tonal melds while effortlessly keeping the whole harmonious. The two keys reflect both the show’s eerie and pastoral sides. The song is comforting and unnerving all at once, as it leads to the sepia tones of the title card, gorgeously bordered with what look like tiny elves and a winged skull.

I could say more — lots more. About its spot-on voice casting. Its unbelievable art direction. The way it works as a treasure trove of visual nods to history of western animation without ever feeling gimmicky or pedantic. If we still lived in a society with a unified culture, where everyone would gather around to watch the same channel, this is a show I would want broadcast every year sometime just before Thanksgiving8Just like The Wizard of Oz. Or Die Hard.. Like I said at the start of this series, 2014 was a fantastic year for animation, and Over the Garden Wall was its graceful centerpiece. This is a true masterpiece. I cannot recommend it any more highly.

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1. See, I’m already gushing. You were warned.
2. I’d call it a postmodern fairytale, but that would invite comparisons to Shrek, or at least to Fractured Fairytales, which is in a completely different tonal universe.
3. The name is no coincidence; recall that Beatrice herself serves as Dante’s guide in Paradiso. Tempermentally, though, this Beatrice could not be further from Dante’s objectified paragon of femininity.
4. Divided into ten episodes of about twelve minutes each.
5. and rewatch for a second time, and a third, and a fourth…
6. Literally and figuratively
7. But “Langtree’s Lament” and “The Highwayman Song” are both highlights, while Potatoes and Molasses would be the Unknown’s version of a breakaway pop single.
8. Just like The Wizard of Oz. Or Die Hard.

The Best Animated Series-es of 2014: Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty

You don’t have to be a nice person to write comedy. In fact, certain events this year may have reminded us how it helps not to be. Comedy, it has often been observed, is almost always funny when it’s mean. Comedians, whether they’re insulting North Korea or denying allegations of decades of sexual abuse, typically need a certain kind of skewed, often cynical outlook. It’s this in part that allows them to reconfigure the world, to twist it, into the material for good comedy. And while some comedians may be charming people, keeping the darker elements of their work out of their personal lives, others can be at times, quite plainly, dicks.

Maybe this kind of dicks

The two creators of Rick and Morty, Justin Roiland (voice actor for the Earl of Lemongrab on Adventure Time and creator of the now-horrifying unauthorized web series House of Cosbys1It was horrifying to begin with, but now it’s even more horrifying.) and Dan Harmon (best known for this show, Community2Which I imagine you haven’t heard of, as I don’t think it gets much attention on the internet.) would seem to exemplify this. Both are, at the least, prickly personalities, judging by the various disputes with employees that have sprung up on both Rick and Morty and Community. Both bring to the table a certain hard, usually heavily cynical comedic edge, albeit in two very different flavors.

Their two distinct voices define the show3Notably, these are not the two distinct voices of the two titular characters, both voiced by Roiland; he is reported to have a long history of talking to himself., with, if I were to grossly oversimplify, Roiland providing the whiz-bang cosmic non sequiturs and Harmon the fleeting moments of sentiment and emotional honesty that provide necessary shading to the show’s hard-edged characters. What they both share is a desire to undercut moments of expected sentiment, and a gleeful urge to tear apart the formats of both family sitcoms and twisty sci-fi in pursue the most comedically satisfying outcome at all costs.

You May Call Me Snowball, Because My Fur Is White And Fluffy

Take, for example, standout episode “Lawnmower Dog”, in which Rick (Morty’s grandfather, and a dimension-hopping, alcoholic, mad scientist) builds an intelligence-enhancing helmet for Snuffles, the family dog. Rick lays out the initial salvo of cynicism right away, telling Morty’s father “I thought the whole point of a dog was to feel superior, Jerry. If I were you, I wouldn’t pull that thread.” Morty is the only one who defends Snuffles as good enough, for being just what he is. At first, the episode’s ensuing chaos seems a tad predictable; Snuffles gains hyperintelligence, builds a robot army, and enslaves the human race, commanding them to roll in feces and bark out Christmas carols for his amusement. The story twists back towards sentiment when the family’s lives are saved only by Snuffles’ loyalty toward Morty, the only human who treated him well. What the hazy fog of good feelings briefly obscures, though, is all the ways that the relationship between Rick and Morty mirrors that between Morty and his dog. Rick has a genuine affection for his grandson, but that never stops him from putting Morty in horrific danger, or emphasizing his mental superiority and Morty’s mental deficiencies, at every opportunity4As the season progresses, Rick’s true reasons for keeping Morty around are explored in horrifying detail.. Rick doggedly follows his own maxim vis-a-vis avoiding thread pulling, and quashes any attempt by Morty to improve himself, or do anything that might drive him away from Rick or make him cognizant of their somewhat abusive power dynamic.

It’s an uncomfortable relationship by design, and Rick and Morty never allows sentiment to fully obscure that discomfort. It isn’t an easy show to watch. But it is incredibly light on its feet, with manically clever design, and it has given us some of the funniest moments I have seen in a long long while. For that, even more than its many other virtues, I declare it one of the best animated series of the year.

Look Rick, I I I just don't know

Next time: Somewhere, lost in the clouded annals of history, lies an animated series that few have seen. A mysterious show, called “My Choice For Top Animated Series of 2014″. Which is… maybe not the best name for it. Let me get back to you on that.

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1. It was horrifying to begin with, but now it’s even more horrifying.
2. Which I imagine you haven’t heard of, as I don’t think it gets much attention on the internet.
3. Notably, these are not the two distinct voices of the two titular characters, both voiced by Roiland; he is reported to have a long history of talking to himself.
4. As the season progresses, Rick’s true reasons for keeping Morty around are explored in horrifying detail.

The Best Animated Series-es of 2014: Space Dandy

Space Dandy1Or スペース☆ダンディ if you’re into both reading Katakana and putting stars in the middle of names. begins with a tautology. The very first sentence of its introduction gets translated as “Space Dandy is a dandy guy, in space!” or just “Space Dandy is a space dandy!”2The former is from the dubbed version of the show, which aired on Cartoon Network, while the latter is from the subtitled version, which can be found on Hulu and elsewhere. Having sampled both, I would say that although the dubbing effort is admirable, and certainly above average for an anime comedy, I still prefer to watch with subtitles. While the latter might seem to be the result of a translator throwing up their arms in despair, I would say that it more accurately captures the spirit of the show. The show follows the adventures of Space Dandy, a pompadour-sporting, massively unsuccessful space bounty hunter, whose tumultuous travels across the galaxy are unimpeded by such minor considerations as death, bankruptcy, or logic.

This utter disregard for continuity or consistency is one of the series greatest strengths. It is used as license to tell a wildly diverse set of stories, from lazy psychedelic quests to teen musicals to genuinely moving personal dramas. The animation also changes wildly to match the different stories being told — the show’s 26 episodes were storyboarded by more than 20 different artists, giving it an anthology-like feel. I can’t imagine the amount of effort it took to produce, given that in nearly every episode there are new backgrounds, wildly off-model character designs3In one episode, Dandy is visited by dozens of alternate versions of himself from parallel dimensions. My jaw was on the floor., and a crazy array of new and bizarre aliens4And that’s not even mentioning the musical episodes, the integrated CGI sequences, and the wild hand-painted interstellar vistas..

Space Dandy was not precisely what I expected, given that it was hyped as Watanabe Shinichiro’s return to science fiction fifteen years after his now-classic Cowboy Bebop. Aside from the general design of the protagonist and the very idea of a “space bounty hunter”, there’s very little in Space Dandy that resembles the operatic melodrama of Bebop. Instead, in its lighter episodes Space Dandy proudly flaunts its sophomoric sense of humor5Some might justifiably find this offensive. Others might find it amusing. In general, I found it easy to take the show’s humor in the lighthearted way it seemed to be intended.. It took me a few tries to get onto Dandy‘s wavelength, but once I did I realized that the show is a celebration of the wild power of animation and imagination when unleashed in tandem.

A drunken and lonely night at the end of the universe.

In the show’s final episode, Dandy, for once in his manifold existence not botching things, has to choose between an opportunity at unimaginable power and just being who he is. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that he reaffirms the claim made in the introduction. Space Dandy is just… Space Dandy. This a show that pairs incredible technical ambition with a protagonist who has nearly no ambition whatsoever, and still manages to tie all of the show’s insane “plot” elements together in its own, laconic kind of way. Space Dandy succeeds at expanding the possibilities of animation in a half dozen directions, and looks pretty cool while doing it.

Next on the list: just runnin’ around, a hundred days, a hundred times, dot com…

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1. Or スペース☆ダンディ if you’re into both reading Katakana and putting stars in the middle of names.
2. The former is from the dubbed version of the show, which aired on Cartoon Network, while the latter is from the subtitled version, which can be found on Hulu and elsewhere. Having sampled both, I would say that although the dubbing effort is admirable, and certainly above average for an anime comedy, I still prefer to watch with subtitles.
3. In one episode, Dandy is visited by dozens of alternate versions of himself from parallel dimensions. My jaw was on the floor.
4. And that’s not even mentioning the musical episodes, the integrated CGI sequences, and the wild hand-painted interstellar vistas.
5. Some might justifiably find this offensive. Others might find it amusing. In general, I found it easy to take the show’s humor in the lighthearted way it seemed to be intended.

The Best Animated Series-es of 2014: Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman - working hard to look stupid.

Bojack Horseman works hard to present itself as stupider than it is. Its sarcastic humor, frequent cutaways, Hollywood mockery, and furry-convention-appropriate anthropomorphic animal characters all combine to give it the feeling of an Adult Swim-reject, a show for late-night stoners to vaguely pay attention to while consuming an x-tra large cheesy bread order. It’s easy to watch the first few episodes and dismiss the show as exactly that1Which largely explains the show’s mixed critical reception..

Bojack as a child

The Netflix release model encourages shows meant to be consumed in a single sitting, which can be both an asset and a hurdle. Bojack Horseman basically requires that you watch at least four or five episodes to penetrate its shallow exterior and reach its cynical, yet surprisingly powerful heart2You could even call it… a Trojan Horse of a show?. It’s actually about the inconclusive existential journey of the titular Horseman, a washed up sitcom actor voiced soulfully by Will Arnett, a story delivered with an outlook and comedic sense worthy of Samuel Beckett. The show comes by its absurdism honestly; for every animal gag like “Cameron Crow-e” (actually a raven), there is a moment of both philosophical exploration and character-driven pathos3Exhibit A: Mr. Peanutbutter, the show’s most optimistic character, sums up his outlook as “The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”4Exhibit B: The show’s recently released “Christmas Episode” turns on a dime from cheesy 80s sitcom tropes into a exploration of the problem of evil, with Santa Claus standing in for an absentee God..

In its penultimate episode, “Downer Ending”, the show reaches its apotheosis. Bojack, unable to cope with the reality of the life he has led, tries to rewrite his own biography (symbolically and literally). In the process, he takes so many drugs that he descends into an unfiltered glimpse of his own psyche, complete with nightmarish visions, fantastically animated deconstruction, and an idyllic vision of an alternate life, followed immediately by the crushing realization of the illusory nature of that vision. The refusal to stop at the expected epiphanic moment is telling. This is a show that, whenever it reaches what seems to be an conclusive emotional point for any of its characters, keeps seeking a deeper truth in their flawed natures. Like The Sopranos, Bojack Horseman stunningly renders the drain that each character is circling5I would draw special attention to Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), Bojack’s agent. While she seems to be the most competent and composed member of the cast, the episode devoted to her is unsparingly brutal, and gut-wrenchingly human (if that can be said of the struggles of a pink cartoon cat/human hybrid [and I believe it can])., exploring diverse shades of depression, stagnation, and failure.

All of this may make it sound like a very dour show, and at times it can be. But in among the unflinching bleakness, it’s also terribly funny, from note-perfect 80s parody and pastiche (like the sweater and mullet Bojack wears in his sitcom flashbacks) to pure absurdity (I don’t have space here to explain the comic perfection of Vincent Adultman, but it’s worth it to find out for yourself). Its this successful marriage between comedy and unsparing darkness that makes Bojack Horseman one of my top picks of the year.

Next on the 2014 animated countdown: A comedy about eternal recurrence… in space, baby.

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1. Which largely explains the show’s mixed critical reception.
2. You could even call it… a Trojan Horse of a show?
3. Exhibit A: Mr. Peanutbutter, the show’s most optimistic character, sums up his outlook as “The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”
4. Exhibit B: The show’s recently released “Christmas Episode” turns on a dime from cheesy 80s sitcom tropes into a exploration of the problem of evil, with Santa Claus standing in for an absentee God.
5. I would draw special attention to Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), Bojack’s agent. While she seems to be the most competent and composed member of the cast, the episode devoted to her is unsparingly brutal, and gut-wrenchingly human (if that can be said of the struggles of a pink cartoon cat/human hybrid [and I believe it can]).

The Best Animated Series-es of 2014: The Legend of Korra

Korra: so badass

The question when The Legend of Korra began was whether the show could ever make itself more than an asterisk on the successes of The Last Airbender. Throughout its run Korra has been hampered by these kind of external questions. Even after it proved that it could stand outside the long shadow of its parent show, there were budget cuts leading to animation limitations in Season 2, an early leak of several episodes, Nickelodeon tossing the show back and forth between cable and online-only, and a certain fan-favorite relationship that may have been restricted in its depiction by Nick’s standards and practices.1If you’re reading this footnote… then you probably already know what I’m talking about.

Asami - shocking!

All of these things have distracted from the strengths of the show, strengths which were on clear display in the two seasons that aired in 2014. The continuously dazzling animation, from the 1920s-Shanghai streets of Republic City to the dreamscapes of the Spirit World. The spectacular voice cast, especially P. J. Byrne (Bolin) and John Michael Higgins (Varrick) as the show’s most reliable comedic engines, J. K. Simmons (Tenzin) as its grounded heart, and, most of all, Janet Varney’s exception realization of Korra’s emotional turmoil and growth. Season 3’s core was a dark psychological journey, as Korra faced symbolic rape and loss of her agency at the hands of Zaheer and the Red Lotus, leaving her de-powered and struggling.

Zaheer

As with the emotionally self-immolating Zaheer, the show has always had compelling adversaries, and Season 4’s Kuvira acted as a fitting summation in that respect. Her strength, charisma, and relatable intentions gave viewers a direct taste of how her appeal operated on Bolin and the citizens of the Earth Empire, making her certainly the most realistic and understandable fascist leader in the history of young-adult television.

LOK kuvira

Kuvira represented an essential part of Korra’s journey towards maturity. Korra began the show as something of an archetypal “strong” female character, but the show was willing to explore beyond that, and examine the nature of strength. In the show’s deeply humane vision, true strength means understanding and empathy, even towards those who injure us, even towards those who have no empathy themselves. Kuvira, as Korra’s final enemy, exemplified what Korra had once thought of as her strengths — her muscle, her bravery, and her willingness to rush headlong into action. In defeating Kuvira, but not destroying her, Korra learns to empathize with and forgive her immature shadow self, and find the compassion to accept it.

The Avatar

Like many young adults, Korra faces a world that alternates between telling her precisely what to do and telling her that she’s useless. She goes from glorified to victimized and back and forth again. The show was, perhaps, an action show2A really really excellent action show., but the way that Korra finds, reshapes, and discovers herself elevated it and turned it an indelible depiction of adolescence and maturation.

Korra

Check back tomorrow for another of my top animated series of the year. Tomorrow’s entry: a dark horse cartoon.

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1. If you’re reading this footnote… then you probably already know what I’m talking about.
2. A really really excellent action show.

My Top 5 Animated Series of 2014: A Not-Exactly Ranked List

2014 animation

2014 was a ridiculously good year for animated series. I’ve compiled a list of five of my favorite such shows of the year and placed them in a not-exactly ranked order1Or, more precisely, a not-exactly-unranked order2If you must know, I would say that the bottom four choices could be put in basically any order, but my top choice is pretty solidly the pinnacle.. It’s a startlingly diverse list, the scope of which I think shows the artistic breadth and depth currently at work in the medium.

For more proof of this, you need only look at the many worthy, innovative, and highly recommended shows that didn’t quite make my list:

  • Steven Universe, which continues to have incredible art and music, and is just beginning to realize the potential of its premise,
  • a strong partial second season of my favorite animated show of 2012–13, Gravity Falls (including a possible series-best episode),
  • the utterly charming and delightful Bee and Puppycat
  • the incredible spastic nonsense of Bravest Warriors, which actually toyed with something more resembling a plot this season,
  • a wildly variable but still typically hilarious season of Archer,
  • a set of Adventure Time episodes that might not all match up to the series’ best, but made for some some incredible highlights,
  • the whimsical and beautifully designed Wander Over Yonder,
  • the surprisingly good and still improving Star Wars Rebels,
  • the vast number of shows I haven’t watched yet, like Clarence and Regular Show, maybe even Ping Pong the Animation, I just don’t know yet.

Feel free to give me more suggestions for the latter category or tell me how wrong I was about everything in the comments.

Tomorrow: the coronation of the first entry on my list.

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1. Or, more precisely, a not-exactly-unranked order
2. If you must know, I would say that the bottom four choices could be put in basically any order, but my top choice is pretty solidly the pinnacle.

Welcome to the new Tenzons

Welcome to the recently resuscitated Tenzons. This newest design was inspired by Art Deco and Modernist poster art, as well as, more specifically, this advertisement, which encourages you to “eat fish”.

Mangez Du Poisson

While most “popular” sites have tended in recent years towards fixed-width, easily manageable, user-friendly web design, this is not the case on Tenzons. Our new layout scales adaptively, sometime in unpredictable ways. When your browser window is resized, it is my solemn promise to you that things will happen. Strange things. Unpredictable things. Is the content mobile friendly? A better question would be “is the content not mobile unfriendly”?

The typeface used here is Inder, developed by Eben Sorkin and Irina Smirnova. It was inspired by German art noveau style lettering and the Amsterdam School of architecture.

As you may not remember, Tenzons began in the long-ago days of 2007, inspired by then-prominent trends in obtuse literary fiction and cat dressage. The design was significantly different, but the inane ramblings I posted were largely similar. The site has been dormant for a number several years, gathering its strength, licking its wounds while still finding opportunities to accrue new ones.

But now, due to the lack of any sustained reader outcry in opposition, I have decided to restart the site. Like the mystic nautilus, it will traverse the deeps oceans of the internet, making its was largely undetected and undisturbed, with only a few bubbles and the swaying of the sea grass to mark its passage.