A View from Atlas Park: A CoH Comics Comparison Conundrum

It makes an intuitive kind of sense that a computer game based on comic book superheroes should have its own comic book. CoH is based on superheroes, superheroes appear in comics, therefore CoH should have its own comic, right?

CoH has had its own comic for a while now, starting with the first 12 issue series released by Blue King Studios and now continuing in an on-going series from Top Cow Comics. The original series was written by Rick Dakan, original lead designer and later content contractor for CoH, while the Top Cow series has been written by some very recognisable names in the comics world: Mark Waid, Troy Hickman and Dan Jurgens. So why isn’t it working out?

How do I know it’s not working out? Well, the comic has gone from a free ‘extra’ given to all US subscribers to something everyone can download for free off the internet. You can buy it from your local comic shop too, but I wouldn’t bet on that lasting for too much longer (since you can already download it for free and I doubt lots of people are going to pay good money for something they can get for free). In fact, I’d give it six months or so before the comic drops from monthly release to perhaps “special” release only, maybe used to facilitate new in-game issues. Perhaps it will disappear entirely. But let’s get back to why the comic isn’t working.

The CoH comic isn’t working because it doesn’t feel like City of Heroes should. Players of CoH reading the comic don’t get any further insight into Paragon City, what goes on or the backstory for why things have worked as they currently have – for that, you have to read the novel. Nope, the comic feels like another generic superhero story, which is sad given the richness of the CoH environment. Worse still, the characters do not behave as they should according to the information that exists about them within the game itself.

The first Dakan-written series fell into the trap of “not feeling like the game” because it focused on three heroes of indiscriminant level – War Witch, Horus and Apex. The constant focus on these three characters tended to limit the scope of the story and they tended to spend time doing what you couldn’t do in-game (ie get called up for jury duty or sit around your apartment). These comics had some other weaknesses at the start – some layout issues could be seen, while this was Dakan’s first attempt at writing comics which was painfully apparent at some points early on – but this series did get better. Unfortunately, by the time it had improved in quality, a lot of players were already past the point of caring.

Another problem with this first series was the announced idea that what appeared in the comic and what happened in CoH would coincide, so that players could experience the introduction of the Kheldians both in-game and read about them in that month’s comic. I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen. MMOGs being as they are, it is difficult to get content ready and tested according to exact timetables, so sometimes things slip. This may have effected the release of the comic, which doesn’t help build up goodwill among readers.

Since the comic was also meant to be a ‘free’ bonus for subscribing to CoH, it was to be mailed to all US subscribers. However, judging from the number of complaints about comics not arriving that could be seen on the forums, I’m guessing that things didn’t always work out.

After issue 12, the series was moved to Top Cow. Mark Waid, a CoH player himself (at the time, anyway – don’t know if he still is) was the writer and gave us our first detailed look at the Signature Heroes that made up the Freedom Phalanx. It was a bad move. After an initially interesting “heroes lose their powers” angle (which I still contend was preparing the player base for ED), we got to see the Freedom Phalanx at their lowest ebb. Statesman was a self-important git. Synapse was whiney. Sister Psyche was insane. Manticore was arrogant and impulsive, and it says something about how poor the other Freedom Phalanx looked because he was also the most likeable of the characters shown. In and of itself it wasn’t a bad idea to show the Freedom Phalanx stripped of their power, but because we hadn’t seen them before at their peak, all of them came out looking pretty pathetic. When a comic makes the allegedly greatest heroes in a superhero universe look like people you’d leave a party to avoid, it’s not a good thing.

This first story arc did have some interesting parts – such as how Statesman and Lord Recluse got their powers (although this did raise a general “what the-?” from long-time players of CoH, given that it seemed to change what we already knew about Statesman) – but on the whole, it looked like a backward step for Cryptic because the Blue King issues had been much stronger in recent issues.

The second story arc, written by Troy Hickman, was stronger than Waid’s, but still focused on the Freedom Phalanx and didn’t really make them look particularly good either. Statesman and Sister Psyche – two allegedly experienced heroes – made mistakes that would get the average CoH player kicked out of their pick-up team for screwing up the mission. Statesman, who has a backstory that included surviving a nuclear explosion, gets sent to hospital by an exploding Circle of Thorns mage. There were other moments that grated and again, these comics could hardly be seen as the best advertising CoH could have.

The most recent issues, written by Dan Jurgens, have been among the best CoH comics yet released. The main narrative concerns Back Alley Brawler’s relationship with Manticore (both the current and previous versions) and gives up a lot of backstory for both characters. A reader could, god forbid, actually start to like a few of the Signature Heroes that appeared. The Back Alley Brawler emerges as one of the most interesting CoH characters as a result of his actions in these comics. However, the final issue is a little bit of a let-down – I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but let’s just say it’s probably not Back Alley Brawler’s finest hour – but it was still the strongest comics arc we’ve seen yet.

All in all, it can be said that the CoH comic has fallen below expectations in what it sets out to achieve – to be an involving advertisement for CoH. In my opinion, one of the big reasons for this failure has been the decision to focus on select characters for the entire run of the series, whereas I see something more like Astro City working out better for CoH. Have the actions of one or two heroes be the focus for a short story arc before moving off onto other charcters would be a lot more interesting than seeing the same heroes issue in and issue out. It also lets different heroes fight different different villains based on their security level, rather than seeing the Freedom Phalanx lose to enemies that you should be able to beat by level 20.

I like the idea of a CoH comic and its ability to help build an involving backstory around the Birthplace of Tomorrow. At the moment it isn’t living up to this potential, which is a big missed opportunity for Cryptic.

– UnSub [email protected] 20 January 2006

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