Image Comics Final Thoughts – Saga, Vol. 3

For 18 issues now Saga has refused to disappoint and Volume Three finally brings our various storylines and characters together in a tense, dramatic moment.


With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Of course, occasionally I may even explore comics outside of Marvel if they come highly recommended or simply peak my interest. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

saga volume 3 coverWriter: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Issues: Saga #13-18

Saga continues to blow me away with every volume; soon I shall catch up to its current issue and experience the agony of having to wait for the next volume. For now I’m still catching up on back issues, and Volume Three finally brings our various storylines and characters together in a tense, dramatic moment that’s deliciously spread out between issues #17 and #18.

The end of Volume Two featured an epilogue that we now know took place a bit in the future – Prince Robot IV meeting with D. Oswald Heist, the cyclopean, eccentric author that wrote the star-crossed romance book that so infatuated Marko and Alana. The two start with verbal jabs, then relax into a casual interrogation, then go to full blown standoff. Volume Two ended with the ‘camera panning up’ to reveal that Marko, Alana, Klara, Izabel, and Hazel had already been there for weeks, and currently hiding from their robot pursuer.

Volume Three jumps back in time a bit to have out heroes first landing on the planet Quietus, and the remote lighthouse that Heist lives in. First they’re attacked by bone-creatures in a very Dungeons & Dragons moment, and Klara (Marko’s recently widowed mom) loses an ear in the fight. Artist Fiona Staples has never shied away from explicit sex or violence, but always in service to the story and never particularly gory or gratuitous. In both the strong language and portrayal of mature themes I’m constantly reminded that I’m not reading a mainstream Marvel comic, in a good way.

Our heroes make it to Oswald Heist’s and the slightly crazy but lovable old author instantly becomes a delightful character, if he wasn’t already from his introduction at the end of Volume Two. The universe is filled with all manner of inventive alien creatures, and thus far Vaughn and Staples have done an excellent job creating a truly memorable supporting cast. This creates a constant state of anxiety as, like Game of Thrones, you never know when they’re going to actually kill someone off! In fact, most of my favorite characters have been slain (The Stalk, Barr), and sadly Heist also does not survive the end of this Volume.

Saga #16

You can tell Brian K. Vaughn really loves the Heist character, as he’s an obvious cipher for many of his thoughts and opinions on being a writer, and a writer’s relationships with artists, other writers, and the audience. Much of Marko and Alana’s scenes in Volume Three are mostly just them hanging around Oswald’s place talking books, relationships, or the nature of war, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t riveting.

Of course that story is only part of the Volume. Our other team, The Will and his partner Lying Cat, has grown over the course of 12 issues to include a rescued slave girl from the sex planet Sextillion and Marko’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn. The Will was hired to track down Marko and Alana, and Gwendolyn arrived with a personal vendetta and a desire to keep The Will focused and on target, despite his recent loss of his ex-girlfriend, The Stalk, back in Volume One.

After the climactic star ship battle at the end of Volume Two, The Will and crew have been stranded on a lovely grassy planet. The Will begins to have doubts about the mission, wanting to hang up his life as a bounty hunter, but Gwnedolyn will have none of it. We get a few nice scenes of her learning to use his exotic lance-saber weapon and dealing with repair guys, but it all comes crashing down for them when they learn (too late) that the food on the planet contains a powerful hallucinogenic. The slave girl is coerced by the planet’s visions of her mom to stab The Will in the neck. Gwendolyn realizes what’s happening (thanks to Lying Cat) and saves them all, though now ironically she renews their pursuit of Marko, this time to learn a healing spell to save The Will.

Saga #14

Like the end of Volume Two our stories intersect in an exciting way. The timeline finally matches up with that scene of Prince Robot IV and Heist. A wounded Heist was just about to get through to Prince Robot IV when Klara, spurred by her feelings for Heist and her general passionate demeanor charges from their hiding spot and attacks, leaving both her and Robot IV wounded.

At this point Gwendolyn, dressed in The Will’s magical bullet-proof cloak, barges in the front door. Lying Cat pounces on Klara, and Gwendolyn and Heist see each other with weapons drawn. Gwendolyn reacts first by slashing him through the eye with The Will’s lance, killing him instantly. Nooo! Gwnedolyn’s reaction is equally incredulous as issue #17 comes to a crazy close.

In the final issue, a very distraught and upset Gwendolyn advances on Marko and Alana on the top of the lighthouse. Marko doesn’t exactly say the right things and Gwendolyn attacks, causing him to push his wife and newborn off the edge. Turns out Alana’s wings do in fact work – and she blasts Gwendolyn and everyone escapes. For a volume that was mostly talking and not a whole lot of action, these two final issues were exhilarating and fantastic, a very satisfying payoff to all the events thus far.

Saga #18

Even so, our characters are split up again and most end up surviving (save for poor Oswald). Both Prince Robot IV and The Will are very wounded and I’m not sure if Lying Cat permanently lost one of her eyes when Klara gouged it. We’re introduced to another viewpoint in a pair of journalists on Landfall asking questions and seeking the truth about Marko and Alana’s escape and possible union. Their queries get them attacked by another freelancer, The Brand, that poisons them and prevents them from continuing their investigation. At the end it’s revealed that The Brand is The Will’s sister, so our roster may be expanding even more.

So far Saga has focused almost entirely on the relationships and situations of our main and supporting cast without pulling back the scope to the greater war around us. The political implications of Marko and Alana having a baby haven’t really been explored yet, other than our two pursuers being hired to catch them. I’d love to see that make headway, as long as it doesn’t sacrifice the excellent plot and pacing that Saga has provided so far. For 18 issues now Saga has refused to disappoint and it’s quickly becoming one of my all time favorite comics.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Avengers: The Initiative, Vol. 1-2

Avengers: The Initiative was a lot more fun that I expected but still not nearly as enjoyable as New X-Men when it comes to super-powered teenage drama and action.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

avengers the initiative coverWriters: Dan Slott, Christos Gage (#11-13)

Artists: Stefano Caselli, Steve Uy (#12-13)

Issues: Avengers: The Initiative #1-13, Annual #1

Out of the literal ashes of Stamford, Connecticut, the site of the devastating superhuman bomb that claimed hundreds of innocent lives, rose a new hopeful training facility for registered super-powered people. The Civil War was over. Tony Stark won, and his Fifty States Initiative plan was going into full effect – a super-powered team in every state to combat the many threats of the Marvel Universe. These teams needed a place to train and recruit, and thus Avengers: The Initiative was born.

Avengers: The Initiative was originally crafted as a six issue limited series depicting the drama and complications of the training facility. Before the first issue was even published, Marvel decided to make it an official ongoing series, making it the third Avengers title at the time (New Avengers, Mighty Avengers).

Like New X-Men, Avengers: The Initiative centers around young, inexperienced teens with extraordinary powers and the drama that ensues when you throw them together. While I enjoyed the characters and writing of New X-Men more, Initiative does have an immediacy to its plot and pacing that I found compelling.

The story begins with a new busload of recruits coming to the training facility (with some of the dorkiest superhuman names I’ve ever seen): Hardball, Cloud 9, Trauma, MVP, and Komodo. They are later joined by a few others like the Eric O’Grady version of Ant-Man (Irredeemable Ant-Man), Thor Girl, and Ultra Girl, as well as the cast of the New Warriors, though none of them are given much time to develop. Our first team is our central focus, though much of the focus is also on the training facility’s instructors: Gauntlet, Hank Pym (Yellowjacket), War Machine, Henry Gyrich, Baron Von Blitzschlag, and later Taskmaster.

avengers initiative #4For me this was a ton of mostly new characters that I had to adapt to, and Dan Slott does a decent job making me care about them. Hardball and Komodo develop an adorable teenage romance, Trauma is trained by temporary instructor Dani Moonstar (depowered and coming from New X-Men) to become a healer and therapist rather than a frontline fighter, and Cloud 9 is given the wide-eyed uncertainty that makes her the most relatable in this whole mess.

In the very first issue MVP is killed by Armory, a woman with an alien gun that washes out of the program. Trauma is able to shapechange into your deepest fears (making him a Boggart from Harry Potter). When he turns into a giant spider she freaks out and starts firing everywhere, and MVP saves Cloud 9 but takes a shot in the head. His death and subsequent cloning go from mysterious side plot to action-packed main plot in the second volume.

The first volume, “Basic Training,” is mostly concerned with introducing our characters, the facility, and how the Initiative works to capture registered heroes like Spider-Man (they fail) and fight bad guys like Hydra (they win). Issue #4 suddenly ties in with World War Hulk – one of the few ongoing series to do so, and it’s actually a lot of fun. Most of the original Initiative team is sent to help clear the streets, but they get a bit high and mighty and decide to take on the Hulk and his alien buddies, which doesn’t end well.

In Issue #5 we’re introduced to the Shadow Initiative, Henry Gyrich’s personal hit squad that doesn’t exist in any records – consisting of Constrictor, Bengal, Trauma, Mutant Zero, and the Scarlet Spiders. None of them are really given any time to develop (and barely introduced) but it still manages to be a really fun issue, ending with Trauma trying to harness Hulk’s fears into various forms (Abomination, Juggernaut, Bruce Banner). It doesn’t go well, and Trauma is hospitalized for several issues. Don’t mess with Hulk.

avengers initiative #9The second volume picks up with the dead MVP thread that had been effectively layered in earlier. Cloud 9 and former instructor and New Warrior Justice had seen that he was alive and well back at home, and it’s revealed that the triplet Scarlet Spiders are also all clones. MVP is described as the Ubermensch, the perfect human who doesn’t have any actual superpowers, so he’s cloned recklessly by Blitzschlag. Eventually this leads to Pym and Blitzschlag outfitting a newly cloned MVP with Armory’s old tactigon alien weapon that they’d surgically removed. Problem is the weapon is semi-sentient, and drives the new clone insane. The newly created villain calls himself KIA (clever) and goes on a murderous rampage, putting the entire facility under attack.

KIA kills one of the Scarlet Spiders, Trauma, and Slapstick, and seriously wounds War Machine and Constrictor. The exciting plot brings together the bloated cast of the former New Warriors, our new recruits and instructors, and even Iron Man and the Mighty Avengers into a final showdown against KIA. Cloud 9 is able to stun him with a kiss (not sure if that was part of her gas powers or if the clone remembers he had a thing for her) and they slap a head device on him that scrambles his brains. By the end most of the New Warriors leave to form a Counter Initiative to make sure this kind of thing happens again.

“Killed in Action,” ends up being a really fun story with a satisfying ending, but there’s just too many characters to keep track of and care about. I liked our original recruits just fine but the New Warriors just seemed like they were in the way. The Annual issue is made up of several short stories that delve into the backstories of some of the recruits and instructors. It was interesting but mostly unnecessary – like, one of the stories is about Armory who got kicked out back in the first issue.

avengers initiative #12

Avengers: The Initiative was a lot more fun that I expected but still not nearly as enjoyable as New X-Men when it comes to super-powered teenage drama and action. Stefano Casselli’s art has a bright, youthful tone that matches well with the series, though I wasn’t a fan of the temporary art change for the last two issues in Volume 2. Everyone looked completely different, and it was horribly distracting. Issue #13 also seemed like a pointless one-off that included a whole other busload of recruits in a minor adventure.

The Initiative continues for a solid 35 issues and does tie-in to all the major Marvel Events that happen throughout the next few years, including Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and ending with Siege in 2010. I’ll probably stick with it but seeing as how our initial team of recruits graduated in issue #12 (and are dived up into various states and teams) I don’t know how much I’ll care about future recruits.

Shadowrun 5E “Not With a Whimper” Epilogue & Recap

Our first mission was designed to bring our street-level runners together and throw them into an exciting plot involving gang warfare.

Watch our sessions live on every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

Read the Session 1 Report
Read the Session 2 Report
Read the Session 3 Report

Since Shadowrun is composed of smaller individual runs or missions than your typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure or dungeon crawl, I’ve opted to include a recap session at the end of each mission. This session will serve three purposes: 1) Recap the entire mission, going over how the runners handled the situations and the paths and choices they made, 2) Allow for feedback from my players to better improve my GMing and mission-building skills, and have an official forum for out of character discussion of mechanics, character advancement, buying/selling loot, etc, and 3) Give me another week to write the next adventure!

“Not With a Whimper” was our very first full length Shadowrun adventure, and one that I wrote myself from scratch. It was designed to bring our street-level runners together, embroil them in an exciting plot involving gang warfare, and give them an important NPC ally that can act as a Fixer for future jobs.

It was composed of five scenes: Redd’s Bar, Redd’s Bar after the bomb, the inside of a DocWagon vehicle, return to Redd’s now-destroyed bar, and Jay-T’s Automotive. My players all created their characters separately, mostly unaware of whom each other were playing. They were all in the bar coincidentally looking for work when a bomb went off, destroying half the bar and spurring them into heroic actions of trying to save the people inside.

Shadowrun Now Without a Whimper Scene 4

One of the people they saved was an ork gang leader named Jeremiah Redd, the owner of the bar. He invited the players into the DocWagon ambulance that arrived to give them the job of investigating the bombing (and to offer some free healing after the blast). The players nicely followed suit, and I sprang the trap of the fake DocWagon medics that were attempting to subdue Redd. The players immediately felt protective of him and intervened, defeating the fake medics and nonviolently bringing the vehicle to a stop. [Read Session 1 Report]

Before they could even interrogate the one foe they’d left alive, I’d set up a random encounter with some Halloweeners in the bad neighborhood they happened to stop in. The players managed to negotiate their way out of a fight, trading the vehicle for their lives. Redd then finally offered them the official job of tracking down the culprit to the bombing.

The players returned to the bar (reusing meticulously crafted scenes in Roll20 – woo!) to investigate and look for clues, leading to a fun bit of role-playing and exploration. I set it up as a fairly easy trail to follow, leading to a car bomb in the alleyway. The players traced it to a Jay-T’s Automotive. They arrived to a car garage and auto parts shop in the dead of night. I built it with multiple entrances and security measures, and emphasized a stealthy approach. [Read Session 2 Report]

Shadowrun Not With a Whimper Scene 5

Memorably the players decided to go through the front door, disabling the keypad and alarm only to be spotted by the video camera just inside. The roto-drones activated and I was on fire with the dice, resulting in a tense but brief combat encounter as the players took some pretty big hits. The drones went down but dwarf rigger Jay-T was alerted to their presence and tried to make a run for it, leading to an interesting set up for my boss battle of the adventure.

Jay-T made it to his truck only to spectacularly critical glitch on his mounted grenade launcher, resulting in its complete destruction. Before he could even leave the garage the elf adept busted the passenger side window, and the street sam followed up with a deadly OHKO with her hunting rifle. The players wisely used healing and first aid to stabilize him, but he remained unconscious and thus unable to be interrogated.

Still, enough clues were discovered on his computer to put him as the guilty party behind the bombing. The further implications of why he did and any accomplices he might have had have only been teased and shrouded in mystery. One final twist revealed that Jay-T was actually a member of Redd’s gang, making his involvement all the more distressing. [Read Session 3 Report]

At the end of the adventure our new runners had earned the gratitude and respect of Jeremiah Redd as well as some Karma, Nuyen, and Jay-T’s truck. No doubt Redd will have some future work for the runners as they try to unravel this plot. We had a lot of fun with it and all the feedback was incredibly positive. Looking forward to unveiling their new mission next week!

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Ubisoft

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 1, 2013

Blood Dragon box art

There was a moment late in the game when Blood Dragon’s protagonist Sergeant Rex Power Colt (voiced by 80s/90s sci-fi action hero Michael Biehn) picks up the ultimate weapon called the Killstar and yells out the opening lyrics to Stan Bush’s “The Touch.” The ridiculousness of everything I’d experienced reached a heightened level of awesome, and I let myself get completely immersed in Blood Dragon’s loving embrace  of cheesy 80s sci-fi action films. It’s low-hanging fruit to be sure, but the music, writing, and plot effectively capture the nostalgic era that the developers clearly adore. I just wish its open-world gameplay and art design were as equally inspired and interesting.

I’d never played a single Far Cry game before, and thus didn’t really know what to expect out of this well-received stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3. The 80s homage definitely appealed to me over the modern day jungles of the main series, and the much shorter run time helped motivate me to give Blood Dragon a shot.

The adventure starts off completely linear, forcing you into a humorous and very self-aware tutorial. A recurring problem throughout the game immediately surfaces this early: just because you make fun of something and mention how dumb it is, doesn’t give you a free pass to actually do the thing. In other words making fun of how tiresome super linear and simplified tutorials are and then giving you a super linear and simplified tutorial doesn’t make it all that much more fun to experience.

There are a few times where it eschews this common gaming-parody tendency (like the surprising lack of a final boss battle), but all too often Rex bitches about doing something and you still have to do it. Most of the side quests, for example, are seemingly interchangeable “go rescue this guy from this group of bad guys” or “go hunt down this creature.” Rex remarks “blah blah kill blah blah,” which is funny and on point, but is in fact what you end up doing.

Far Cry® 3 Blood Dragon2015-4-16-16-39-4

Other than the enjoyably cheesy dialogue cutscenes, presented in tiny retro-style comic panels, the opening and first few missions are incredibly linear and play too much like a mediocre shooter. Despite its retro sci-fi setting (2007 – the future!) Rex is still armed with your basic heavy pistol, sniper, assault rifle and shotgun. His one unique tool is the cybereye, which lets him zoom in and automatically mark any enemies he sees. This reveals them as thermographic images – critical for a stealthy approach.

I don’t play a lot of stealthy first-person shooters, but the ones I have played that give you the option, I often enjoy taking that route (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored). Blood Dragon encourages the stealthy approach to the many enemy strongholds that dot the island, at least to get far enough to shut off the alarm system. The alarms are clearly marked on your map and if an enemy gets to it after spotting you, a huge contingent of forces spawns in and runs at you, making your job extremely difficult. Rex also can’t take a whole lot of hits, despite being a super-powered cyborg soldier, and can only carry a limited number of healing items. This combined with a lack of mid-mission saving definitely led to some frustrating woes before I got a handle on the stealth systems.

Thankfully I enjoyed the stealth gameplay, and the game mechancis make it fun. All enemies give off a red glowing aura, the cybereye lets you mark and track them, and stealth takedowns are incredibly fun, easy, and can potentially take down multiple foes together in a chain. You also get access to the bow early on, an ideal long-range stealth weapon. The only thing you can’t do is move bodies, so once you start killing you need to move quickly.

Far Cry® 3 Blood Dragon2015-4-22-16-35-22

The world opens up after you take your first stronghold, with the help of the titular blood dragons. These giant glowing laser-shooting lizard-dinosaur things roam the world with impunity, often getting into random battles with creatures and other cyber-soldiers. Each stronghold is protected by a dome that keeps them away, so a major strategy in taking down strongholds is to sneak in and disable the dome.

Looted cyber-hearts from enemies can be thrown and act as a lure for the giant creatures, resulting in a very satisfying and angry pet that be somewhat directed around. The blood dragons are a lot of fun, both as a useful tool and a fearsome foe, and when you finally have to take one down later in the story, it presents just the right amount of terror and awe.

Taking down strongholds is the main purpose of the open-world gameplay, as they lead to sidequests, provide fast travel opportunities, and give you a safe place to respawn. They’re also entirely optional, as are collecting the various collectibles dotted around the world (CRT TVs and VHS tapes, naturally).

Far Cry® 3 Blood Dragon2015-4-22-15-53-50

The sidequests can give a few mini-opportunities for stealth, but often I could just go in guns blazing and kill them faster than they could kill the hostage. Even with rewards doling out nice weapon attachments and upgrades, I mostly skipped them (that and two of my favorite weapons, the bow and mini-gun, had no attachments to earn).

The main story is only about half a dozen missions long and as the case with many open-world games there’s an awkward disconnect between continuing the story and just roaming around doing your own thing. Frankly the art design and level design of the world just weren’t interesting enough to make me want to explore the world, and given the retro sci-fi setting that is a hugely wasted opportunity. The mundane island dotted with the occasional enemy fort doesn’t contain a whole lot of secrets, and while there are a few variety of enemies, they all basically look and behave the same, save for the inevitable zombie-types that crop up later on. The blood dragons do add a unique twist to exploring the island but unlike say, Skyrim’s dragons, there’s no real incentive to fighting them.

Blood Dragon makes up for its lackluster open world gameplay with its fantastic story and main missions. In fact, I would recommend anyone taking on Blood Dragon to mostly stick with the main story. The comic-style cutscenes are extremely well done and often laugh out lout funny, and the missions throw a lot of unique curveballs at you that keep them fresh and interesting. Stealthily planting bombs on a dam early on goes awry, and ends with Rex taking down dozens of soldiers, helicopters, and jeeps with the newly acquired Terror 4000 (the awesome mini-gun). Holding down the fire button on the mini-gun results in Rex screaming and yelling incoherently while you fire; if that doesn’t endear you to his personality than this game probably isn’t for you.

Far Cry® 3 Blood Dragon2015-4-23-16-30-10

The story has Rex fighting back against insane rogue army general Dr. Sloan, a classic hyper-conservative, war-mongering villain that looks and sounds like General Treister from The Venture Bros. Rex is aided by Sloan’s former research scientist Dr. Darling, and she sends you on missions to undermine his control. Many of them involve large underground facilities, often with several big rooms of soldiers where a stealth approach comes off like a tactical appraisal, not unlike the Batman Arkham games.

There are a lot of fun scripted moments, like using a flamethrower to take out blood dragon eggs a la Aliens, hang-gliding your way through enemy blockades, avoiding cyber-sharks in the water, and eventually riding your own weapon-mounted blood dragon for the on-rails finale. The adventure ends much, much stronger than it started, and I found myself fist-pumping and giggling along with the game.

In giving you a smaller slice of Far Cry’s open-world gameplay Blood Dragon is mediocre at best, with a boring world and bland art style. The real treat comes from the excellent story and soundtrack by Power Glove, though I presume many of the references and nostalgic enjoyment are lost if you didn’t grow up with and adore 80s sci-fi action films like Terminator, Aliens, and Robocop. Stick to the main story and immerse yourself in an impressive and well-scripted 80s-tastic adventure.

Far Cry® 3 Blood Dragon2015-4-23-17-2-34


  • Well-realized story that hits all the right notes for 80’s sci-fi action genre
  • The blood dragons are scary, powerful, and awesome additions to any situation
  • Large open-world island with tons of strongholds and side quests
  • Fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack by Power Glove


  • Bland art and level design
  • No mid-mission saving
  • Forgettable and recycled side quests
  • Mostly boring, conventional weapons
  • First-person vehicle driving is a nightmare

Final Say: A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.


Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – World War Hulk

With a much more focused, smaller story, World War Hulk presents a fun and exciting epilogue to the awesome events of Planet Hulk.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

world war hulk coverWriters: Greg Pak (World War Hulk, Incredible Hulk, Aftersmash, Warbound), Christos Gage (Iron Man, World War Hulk: X-Men)

Artists: John Romita Jr. (World War Hulk), Koi Pham (Incredible Hulk), Leonard Kirk (World War Hulk: Warbound) Andrea Di Vito (World War Hulk: X-Men), Butch Guice (Iron Man), Rafa Sandoval (World War Hulk: Aftersmash)

Issues: World War Hulk #1-5 & Prologue, Incredible Hulk #106-111, World War Hulk: X-Men #1-3, Iron Man #19-20, World War Hulk: Aftersmash #1, World War Hulk: Warbound #1-5

I freaking hate the Sentry. He quickly became Marvel’s de facto Get Out of Any Situation Free card ever since his introduction back in New Avengers. He’s apparently the most powerful hero on Earth but no one knew it thanks to some mind trickery. And he’s eventually the only one that can stop the Hulk when he finally returns to Earth to exact his vengeance from the end of Planet Hulk. Boo!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Planet Hulk became one of my favorite comics: an extended, crazy alien adventure for our big green hero as he fought in gladiatorial battles, forged an alliance of brotherhood with his fellow gladiators, and eventually lead a giant rebellion against the planet’s overlord. Just when things were going so well, the shuttle Hulk was unceremoniously tricked and shot off into space in explodes, destroying the entire planet, including Hulk’s new bride and unborn child.

A spaceship full of survivors including Hulk’s Warbound survives, and they vow to return to Earth to punish those that sent him there and destroyed his world. When he arrived in the Summer of 2007 – it’s World War Hulk!

As far as major events go, World War Hulk is actually pretty minor compared to previous world-altering juggernauts House of M and Civil War. Hulk and company arrive on Earth’s moon and quickly dismantle Black Bolt (in barely a panel or two), then broadcast to Earth with the promise that he’ll take down the rest of the Illuminati the same way – Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Dr. Strange. Namor and Professor X are also members of the secretive superhuman society, but the former voted against sending the Hulk away, while the latter was too busy dealing with the aftermath of House of M to even show up to the meeting.

World War Hulk #2b

Since Hulk isn’t a murderer – an important theme that’s examined throughout the arc – he gives everyone in Manhattan 24 hours to evacuate before he invades. And invade he does – having a mostly empty playground of city to destroy lends itself to some pretty epic battles and confrontations. Iron Man is first on the list, and as the then current Director of SHIELD he takes on Hulk with missiles, satellites, and his own Hulkbuster armor (which looks really dumb by the way, the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron’s looks way cooler).

Hulk defeats Stark, and he becomes his first defeated prisoner in a long line. Hulk soon tangles with the Mighty Avengers and the Fantastic Four, beating them all in turn (with the occasional help of his Warbound buddies). The five issue main event arc moves rapidly as Hulk subdues all that oppose him, with only Dr. Strange really putting up a big fight. Strange summons a portion of an ancient demon-god and goes toe-to-toe with Hulk for quite awhile (causing a ton of spectacular damage in the process). Eventually he can’t control the power and rage the demon provides, something Hulk knows all too well about, and he’s finally defeated.

world war hulk #4Hulk sets up a gladiatorial arena, enslaves the fallen heroes with the same obedience disks he was given back on Sakaar, and makes them fight each other. There’s some fun opportunity for vicious battles between Mr. Fantastic and an armor-less Tony Stark, but the art is completely tone-deaf to the material. I’ve never been a fan of Romita’s Saturday Morning Cartoon look, and for a comic that’s about 80% gigantic bloody battles, it really doesn’t mesh very well.

World War Hulk sets up some great grudge matches, like Hulk versus Thing, but Romita’s art lends itself to lots of bright explosions and childish faces rather than violent melee attacks. A hugely wasted opportunity, and one that really holds the whole event back from greatness.

The Sentry, Marvel’s annoying ace-in-the-hole, finally deigns to leave his house and unleash his full power on the Hulk. Sentry is an agoraphobic schizophrenic, something we’re reminded of constantly, with the power of a million exploding suns. Whatever. He blasts through Hulk’s arena just as Hulk reveals that no, he is in fact not a murderer and just wanted to prove a point to the world about who the real monsters are (pullin’ for you, Hulk!). Hulk and Sentry have a climactic battle, which mostly involves Sentry blasting Hulk with his full power and Hulk punching the shit out of Sentry.

Eventually the two weaken themselves enough that Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner, whom we haven’t really seen since before the Planet Hulk arc. Bruce is prepared to make nice when Miek, Hulk’s first friend and ally from Sakaar, stabs Rick Jones and in trying to get Hulk to return. He reveals in a crushing twist that he saw the loyalists from Sakaar plant the bomb on the ship, and allowed Hulk to think it was the heroes back on Earth that did it.

world war hulk #5

Naturally Bruce immediately Hulks out again and beats the shit out of his former insectoid friend, feeling a mixture of fury and shame at everything that’s transpired. A now freed Tony Stark uses the opportunity to activate his overhead satellite laser things, blasting Hulk back into Bruce and reducing him to a seeminly catatonic state. They place him in a “secure” location far beneath the New Mexico desert, and thus ends Hulk’s misplaced rage.

Planet Hulk made me fall in love with the big guy. I’d never really cared about Hulk before then but coming to grips with being a monster with the soul of a human was captivating, not to mention just how exciting and action-packed all his alien-filled battles were. World War Hulk gives us some fun battles with famous heroes but the art is nowhere good enough to make them as fun as they should be (see Thunderbolts for some worthy art of awesome fight scenes). Greg Pak (who also wrote Planet Hulk) gives us a fun epilogue to those events, and the end twist is absolutely gut-wrenching (and perfectly in line with Miek’s vengeance-fueled character). I just wish Marvel didn’t need to rely on the lameness that is Sentry to solve yet another major crisis.

I also attempted to read several World War Hulk tie-ins in chronological order during the event, giving some extra backstory and side stories during Hulk’s rampage. Hulk’s big solo series of Incredible Hulk starts off shaky, giving us mostly needless backstory on the events of Planet Hulk – useful if you hadn’t read it, but then why are you now reading Incredible Hulk? Eventually the focus shifts to Hulk’s unlikely and unasked for allies known as the Renegades, a random group of heroes that had tussled with Hulk before during another bout of misunderstanding involving She-Hulk’s origin. Angel, Hercules, and Namora are joined by newcomer Amadeus Cho, who’s adamant about getting through to the Hulk and talking him down.

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Normally this would be a tiresome storyline with some C-list heroes but Pak actually does a great job with the cast and what they can accomplish. Cho, the “seventh smartest person in the world,” is a surprisingly fun and enjoyable lead character, full of bravado, conviction, and a bit of youthful naiveté. His passion to stand up for the Hulk in spite of everything that’s happening is admirable and though the team can’t really affect the main storyline they still work to help the people displaced by the now mostly destroyed Manhattan.

Iron Man’s solo series tie-ins are less thrilling seeing as how he gets himself captured after the first issue of World War Hulk. Issue #19 basically shows that first issue from Stark’s perspective, which doesn’t really add anything, while he’s barely present in #20 since he’s captured by Hulk the whole time (the focus leads to Dugan and SHIELD trying to pick up the pieces). The tie-ins are wholly unnecessary, but at least I can go back to reading Iron Man now!

In terms of just plain fun, the World War Hulk: X-Men tie-ins do a great job giving us exactly what we want to see: the Hulk fighting the X-Men. All of the X-Men. Also a few members of X-Factor, Excalibur, and all the teenage New X-Men. In three issues Hulk shows up at Xavier’s mansion, demands that Charles turn himself over as a member of the Illuminati, and the X-Men defend him. There’s some brutal fights here (and I enjoyed Leonard’s artwork here more than Romita’s in WWH) including Hulk absolutely crushing Wolverine’s face, bending Colossus’ arms back, and surviving the X-Jet crashing into him.

World War Hulk X-Men #2

In the end Mercury of the New X-Men has an emotional breakdown in the poignant graveyard. Yes, Xavier’s has to have it’s own damn cemetery – who the hell would send their kids to a school that has to have its own cemetery?? Anyway, Cessily cries about how they’ve lost so much in the wake of the Decimation and throws the rage back in Hulk’s face. Hulk is mollified and decides to leave them alone, correctly guessing that Xavier has suffered enough.

Finally World War Hulk has its own epilogue series called Aftersmash, namely Damage Control and Warbound. I skimmed through Damage Control on Marvel Unlimited, and it looked like a fairly boring story about a few heroes getting together to clean up the mess that is New York City. Warbound, however, stars the remaining members of Hulk’s alien crew. It’s awesome for fans of Planet Hulk as they really didn’t get much to do during World War Hulk.

world war hulk warbound #3With Hulk out of the picture they attempt to get away, and find themselves in New Mexico. An old Hulk villain named the Leader harnesses Hiroim’s powers to generate a gamma-dome, trapping a number of innocent people inside. It’s a fun little story that gives our displaced crew some nice action and drama, and introduces an interesting new character in SHIELD agent Kate Waynesboro. Unfortunately only the first three of the five issue arc is on Marvel Unlimited, forcing me to look up how it ends on WIkipedia. Dang!

With a much more focused, smaller story, World War Hulk presents a fun, action-packed epilogue to the awesome events of Planet Hulk. I do wish it had used the same artist. As a crossover event it ranks as very minor, only really affecting the Hulk himself. His solo series transitions into Incredible Hercules with sidekick Amadeus Cho – I may have to give this one a chance as it lasted for nearly 30 issues! Unfortunately World War Hulk acts as the climactic ending point for the Hulk as he’s written out of the Marvel universe for the next several years. And just when I fell in love with the character! Good night sweet, misunderstood prince.


Shadowrun 5E “Not With a Whimper” Session 3 Report

The thrilling conclusion to our first Shadowrun adventure ends with a showdown in the automotive garage.

Note that since my players will read these I have to avoid spoilers and background information while the current mission is still in session. Look for our epilogue episode and write-up for more in-depth analysis and feedback.

Watch our sessions live on every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

Read the Session 1 Report
Read the Session 2 Report

Last week we had to end our session at a tense moment. The players’ stealthy infiltration into Jay-T’s Automotive repair shop and garage had failed, and they’d managed to dispatch the two roto-drones that attacked them in response, though not without taking some damage.

The immediate combat encounter had ended, though the feeling of adrenaline pumping action when you’ve been found out had dissipated in the week in between sessions. We have relatively shorter sessions for most tabletop roleplaying gatherings at about two and a half hours and the players needed some gentle nudging to get them back on track with the severity and immediacy of the situation (one of them was actually trying to go off and loot the store).

I found it rather humorous that although they’d been caught by the security camera and fought drones, the players continued to act cautiously and stealthily. While the decker was trying to loot the store (something I’d have to remind them to do when they were leaving) I had their target flee to his nearby car in the garage. The elf was looking through the door’s window at the time and caught him. He attempted to sneak out and engage him in conversation, which definitely seems like the standard modus operandi for our sneaky-social elf adept/face.

A successful dice roll got Jay-T to listen briefly, but he was definitely in fight or flight mode, and not yet interested in negotiating or talking. I really enjoyed the banter that my curt responses elicited from the players as they tried to surmise if he was the guilty party in the bombing, and/or if he’d just turned traitor or if he was blackmailed.

Jay-T, in his modified, weapon-mounted Toyota Gopher truck could be considered the boss battle of the adventure. I was worried I might have overwhelmed myself by including a getaway car and all kinds of unique rules for this final moment. I had given myself as much information and statistics as I could regarding the vehicle and its parts, and that definitely came in handy. The players reacted cleverly, knowing they didn’t want the vehicle to leave the garage.

Not With a Whimper Scene 5

Up until this point I’d been rolling fairly spectacularly. The previous drone fight saw the drones dodging attacks and laying on the hurt, and most of the players were forced to use Edge to take them down. Even simple tests like the elf sneaking with 9 dice and me rolling 4 dice on a perception test and beating him were happening more often than not. My luck finally ran out during this boss battle in a rather epic way: Our first ever critical glitch.

Jay-T’s truck was just starting up, and I used his first initiative pass to fire his rear mounted grenade launcher at the doorway, where most of the players were gathered. I needed to get 3 hits to hit the spot, otherwise scatter rules apply. I missed, and one of my players helpfully pointed out that I’d also glitched, rolling 1’s for half my rolls. Miss + Glitch = Critical Glitch! What should’ve been a horrifying attack instead ended with the mounted weapon sputtering, smoking, and crashing down off its mounts into the bed of the truck. Jay-T cursed inside.

With no drone support in the garage the players could all surround the truck and attempt to disable it before Jay-T could escape into the car yard. The troll shaman cast a ball lightning at the truck, though its armor absorbed half the damage. The street sam sprayed the truck and its hefty armor negated all the damage. The decker jacked into the matrix and began putting marks on the vehicle. The adept thought a bit outside the box, and smashed the window of the truck on an impressive 4 success roll versus the glass’ armor and structure rating, breaking the window on the passenger’s side.

This could’ve lead to all kinds of interesting possibilities, but it was the street sam’s turn next, and she decided to take advantage of the now clear path to take a shot at Jay-T himself. I admit that while the players were all deciding on increasingly dangerous and risky ways to capture him alive, I did mention that just attacking him and doing damage could put him down without killing him. Probably.

The street samurai picked up on this, shouldered her high-powered hunting rifle, and shot Jay-T right through the car window. I allowed him a defense test but with a negative modifier, as he was a sitting duck inside the not-yet moving vehicle. He took the full brunt of the attack, and with a 12DV and -4AP, it ended up doing 10 damage after resistance, putting him at 0 physical health. His head slammed against the steering wheel, horn blaring. The fight was over after a single combat turn.

We took a break and came back to the players investigating Jay-T’s office and computer while also using First Aid and Healing spells to stabilize him. I didn’t let them actually revive him (Shadowrun has pretty strict healing rules) but they could at least save his life for the time being, but unable to question him. I did have contingencies for a dead (or might as well be dead) or escaped Jay-T in his computer. The decker was able to hack into his emails and messaging and I teased some information on who he might’ve been involved with.  Without being able to talk to Jay-T directly, however their ultimate resolution would be limited.

Jeremiah ReddThey called up Redd and met at a safe spot to hand over Jay-T’s bloody body. Redd was concerned but satisfied that he was left alive, and the players had been nothing but straightforward and helpful to him throughout the adventure, earning his trust (Loyalty +1 as a contact) as well as their promised payment for investigating the bombing. I also doled out the karma rewards which I’d broken down into steps for completing various tasks, like aiding bombing victims and tracing the car bomb back to Jay-T’s Automotive.

Thus our very first Shadowrun mission concluded! “Not With a Whimper” was something I put together myself, wanting to involve street gangs and get the players involved with a reliable ally and fixer (quest giver) for future missions. I was very satisfied with how the players generally stuck to my script, and pleasantly surprised at some of the crazier tactics they used to handle the various situations.

Stay tuned next week for our full Epilogue and Recap breakdown episode where I recount the entire run as my players give their feedback, comments, and concerns. I will lift the veil somewhat in the hopes of improving the experience and learning what worked and what didn’t. After that we’ll move onto our next adventure!

Image Comics Final Thoughts – Saga, Vol. 2

Saga’s sophomore volume continues to teasingly expand the fascinating sci-fi world while keeping the focus on the burgeoning family dynamic and relationship between our two star-crossed lovers.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Of course, occasionally I may even explore comics outside of Marvel if they come highly recommended or simply peak my interest. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

saga volume 2Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Issues: Saga #7-12

I’m one of those lame comic book fans that still mostly only thinks of Marvel/DC and superheroes (and Transformers!) when people mention comics. The fact is there are a ton of really fantastic sci-fi, fantasy, noir, etc themes and genres out there just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid comic fan.

I’m still in the tentative early stages of exploring comics beyond Marvel, and Image Comics’ Saga represents my first real steps outside of my comfort zone. I couldn’t be more impressed. Brian K. Vaughan’s fantastically relatable and grounded writing coming out of Fiona Staples’ insanely creative alien mouths is an amazing combination. Saga’s sophomore volume continues to teasingly expand the fascinating sci-fi world while keeping the focus on the burgeoning family dynamic and relationship between our two star-crossed lovers.

Volume 2 picks up right where the first volume left off: Marko’s parents magically teleported to his and Alana’s treehouse rocketship after he breaks the family sword. Marko introduces them to his wife, a winged Landfall woman that is his people’s sworn enemy, and they are understandably not amused. Before they can even sit down, Marko teleports down to the nearest planet, where his mom had banished the ghost teenager Izabel that was acting as baby Hazel’s babysitter and soul host. This is getting crazy to type and would be absolutely impossible to follow without reading the previous volume. Saga is definitely made in the mold of modern serialized television shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead where the ongoing narrative assumes you’ve kept up since the beginning.

Saga #7

For the first few issues our family splits between Marko and his mom Kara on a hostile planet, and Alana and her father-in-law Barr back on the ship. Barr and Alana’s relationship starts out tense, but quickly warms up as he’s surprisingly accepting of her. His skill as an armorer comes in handy as he crafts Alana a form-fitting, bullet-resistant outfit, and the two quickly form an adorable bond.

Marko’s mom is decidedly less thrilled with their actions, and the two butt heads even while running into giant naked alien ogres and creepy witches with upside-down faces. Fiona Staples’ masterful art style particularly shines with exotic and crazy alien creatures and Volume 2 presents several delicious opportunities to show them off. Thanks to a trick dream sequence we also get to see more of my favorite alien from Volume 1, the spider-like The Stalk.

While Marko’s and Alana’s stories deal with the older generation, the hired bounty hunter The Will continues on his journey to hunt them down, and gets the majority of the B-story line. He’s still thinking about the underage slave girl back on Sextillion, the one he wanted to rescue but couldn’t. A representative of the Wreath council that hired him shows up to personally persuade him to continue the job, even while he wades in despair after The Stalk was mistakenly murdered by Prince Robot IV in the first volume.

Saga #8Her name is Gwendolyn, and she happens to be the ex-fiance of Marko, whom we’d only been teased about previously. She becomes a major cast member as she joins The Will and Lying Cat, helps rescue the slave girl using both her political acumen and magical skills, and reach the tree-ship right as all hell is breaking loose on the nearby orbiting planet.

Marko and Kara had found Izabel and returned to the ship, just in time to see Barr succumb to his terminal heart condition from pumping more magical power into the tree-ship. Poor Barr, and poor Alana for briefly meeting what would’ve been a fantastic grandfather to Hazel. And poor Kara I guess, though we’re not really given a chance to glimpse beneath her stony and aggressive exterior just yet.

The planet breaks apart and hatches a giant space creature. Gwendolyn, fueled by her own personal vengeance toward the man who spurned her, fires a missile at Marko and Alana. They decide to ram the missile, knowing it wouldn’t explode that close to its own ship. The missile bounces off and hits the space creature, who retaliates by blowing a hole in The Will’s ship. The entire sequence is action-packed and exciting, and a fantastic way for our two main storylines to converge without even having the two sets of characters meet each other.

That sequence happens in issue #11, so we get one more to end out the volume. Issue #12 finally returns to a major character from the first volume, Prince Robot IV, who has an old-school television set for a head. I’m honestly not sure if we’re suppose to sympathize or hate his character, and his backstory and situation seem complicated and much more embroiled in the wider politics of the ongoing war compared to the others. He essentially represents the winged Landfall faction’s hunt of Alana & Marko while The Will obviously represents Wreath’s.

Saga #10Prince Robot visits his only lead on his hunt for the AWOL prison guard Alana and escaped prisoner Marko – the author of the cheesy romance book that Alana was crazy about. There’s some fun flashback sequences in nearly every issue of Volume 2, including when Alana and Marko first met. Apparently she was super into this book that represented two different alien creatures coming together to love each other. Prince Robot hunts down the one-eyed author on a remote planet, and the two have a tense and interesting conversation on the nature of war, peace, and writing.

It’s revealed at the end that the whole situation is a bit of an Anne Frank/Inglorious Basterds moment, as Alana and company hide out upstairs during the exchange. Volume 1 ended with the cliffhanger of the grandparents appearing, and I was satisfied and intrigued that Volume 2 continues with another great lead-in to the next Volume, which I’ve already purchased!

Saga continues to impress, making me fall in love with its characters and reread nearly every page to absorb the fantastic art and writing as much as possible. I simply cannot recommend this series enough if you love really creative science fiction.