Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands DVD

Heavy Gear Battle for the Badlands DVD Cover with Mecha GearsWanting to get deeper into Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear: Blitz! game and setting, I ordered Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands from Netflix with low expectations. Friends had warned me that the animated series isn’t very good and they were right. They maybe should have said. “Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands? We don’t talk about that.” Released in 2002, Battle for the Badlands is a collection of five episodes from the second act of the 3D computer animated series, presented as a single film with one opening sequence and one set of credits at the end. Besides the lacking animation and uninspiring stories, there is also little attempt to explain any of the action onscreen to the viewer. You either understand a traveling arena with mecha whose pilots are trying to kill each other in between sanctioned tournaments or you already follow Heavy Gear. But then there’s very little for a Heavy Gear fan to get out of Battle for the Badlands except to see the Gears in motion, but for that, there are video games which I bet are far more entertaining. The question I kept asking myself throughout the DVD’s hour and 39 minutes was “Why was this ever made in the first place?” Most of the other movies involving gaming I’ve seen are worth seeing at least once, but I suggest staying away from this dull stinker. If you have to see it for yourself, watch any five minutes of Battle for the Badlands; it will never get any better. That said, if you are a fan of the podracer scene from The Phantom Menace and its double-headed announcer, this may be the film for you.

The Good in the Badlands and the Gaming Connection

The only reason I would consider watching Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands again is to study the Gear designs up close and in action. The beauty of Heavy Gear really comes down to the wonderful aesthetics of its Gears and they fortunately are in 95% of the movie. It is easier to spot what a particular Gear’s part does when it is blown up on screen as opposed to trying to figure out the detail on a 28mm figure. MRFs or Medium Rifles are just as ineffective in the animation as they seem to be in the game and there are plenty of Light Rocket Pods (LRPs) and Medium Rocket Pods (MRPs) in the film, though when the rockets and missiles fire on screen, they’re slow and kind of impotent. There’s not much variety in the Gears themselves with the Southern pilots using a variety of Jagers plus one Cobra and a Rattlesnake. It looks like the Northern Gears may be Hunters with a Mad Dog thrown in. One cool detail in the DVD is the existence of “Gear Beat” magazine, which is Terra Nova’s version of “Tiger Beat”. Something I’ve also not encountered in Blitz is a Vibro Naginata, which is wielded by the villainess Yoji in the show. While I’m unfamiliar with the Heavy Gear RPG or miniatures game of the early 2000s, the current iteration of the game is far, far superior to anything in the animated series. I would not even have this DVD on in the background while painting because the animation and dialogue are really that bad and distracting.

Plot, Characters, and Dialogue

No matter how wonderfully designed the Gears are, if the story is subpar and the characters are flimsy, it all adds up to a steaming wreck. The stories could be lifted from RPG adventures or Heavy Gear scenarios, but poor ones at that. The good Shadow Dragons from the South battle against the cheating Northern Guard team, Vanguard of Justice. First they do it aboard a gigantic Mag Lev train, then in the mysterious MacAllen Tunnels and Waterloo Arena, then twice in the main tournament in Trash City Arena to see who will become Heavy Gear Tournament Champion, and yet again, in a third tournament (with a twist) in Trash City Arena. Along the way young Marcus Rover is shown to be far superior to his older teammates, a teenaged ace who fights with honor. Despite being the protagonist, he’s also nearly as shallow as the GREL soldier Sebastian or his Japanese ally Tachi who fights with his great grandfather’s Vibro Katana. They are all cardboard cutouts and the Battle for the Badlands makes no attempt to even have a moral of the story, except for “Don’t cheat!” As for the cheaters themselves, they’re drawn from old clichés, ranging from the Russian sniper Serge to the Dreadnok-like Rank. They certainly cheat and double-cross at every turn with zero consequences from the Heavy Gear Championship Tournament organizers and with the complicity of announcer Maddox, who even remotely pilots a gigantic dragon Mega Gear against Marcus Rover during one of the arena combats. In a setting where Southern Gears derive their names from serpents and other reptiles, it’s odd that no one comments on this draconic Mega Gear or even on Major Drake Alexander Wallis III’s first name.

“Hot metal-munching mama!”

The dialogue is horrible stuff. I love some pretty bad puns, but “This is what I call a Gear death experience,” is pushing it. “Goodness gearacious!” is over the line. Marcus Rover has a constant refrain throughout the film, “Dragons forever!” What this means and who it inspires is anyone’s guess. There were a few little gems. One character exclaims, “Hot metal-munching mama!” My favorite lines though followed a character’s apparent death. After one character mourns, “He was like a father to me,” the other responds “He was like a commanding officer to me.” Very dry and these came from the villains’ team.

This is Heavy Gear? Animation and World

When not in their Gears, the characters’ animation from Mainframe Entertainment ranges from barely passable to awful. I was surprised to see that motion capture was actually used. Faces are usually expressionless and resemble mannequins. The shot of the crowd cheering is especially obnoxious. I know this was 2002, but World of Warcraft introduced /cheering that was much more lively two years later in 2004. Every environment in WoW also has more depth and occasionally the only texture in Battle for the Badlands is a skin applied to one of the surfaces in the background. By the end of the disc I would have settled for static frames with voiceover as is sometimes done to save money in animation. At the same time the directing and visual narrative is consistently strong. The animators went for cinematic shots found in Hollywood blockbusters, eschewing simpler shots common in 2D animation. Make no mistake about it, a lot of effort went into Battle for the Badlands with battle damage on gears and attention to lighting sources and shadows, but to no avail.

The other sad part of the animation to me as a fan of Heavy Gear: Blitz is that while I am aware that Gears have multiple movement modes including Walker or Ground (wheeled), I really hadn’t realized how much like roller derby Heavy Gear actually is. At times in the animated series, they are actually skating by crossing their Gears’ legs over and not just moving directly forward on their wheels. The world onscreen is also a puzzling one. I know it’s the Badlands and it should be a rough place, but where do the tens of thousands of spectators actually live? What do they even subsist on in the desert landscape? What powers the huge arena video screens? Why in such a desolate area are there giant roller coaster cars that seat six 25-foot tall Gears each? Obviously so the Gears can race each other for the audience’s entertainment. Phantom Menace podracing indeed.

Web Comic Creators Stan Yan and Kevin Freeman on SubCulture

Way back in 2003 or 2004 I picked up The Wang from writer-artist Stan Yan at Comic-Con. It had nothing to do with gaming (at least, not that I recall). Years passed and then I had a Random Encounter with Stan Yan’s SubCulture, written by Kevin Freeman. While it is a web comic, the pair also sell printed collections of the strips. It revolves around a comic book store and the twentysomething, listless main character Jason. When not reading comic ashcans, Jason is fond of the occasional dungeon delve and playing Space Jaunt with the rest of Subculture’s characters. Space Jaunt is Subculture’s science fiction space odyssey game. While gaming references abound in Subculture, I’d say that maybe less than a third of it actually pertains to RPGs. However the whole of Subculture is good stuff, well written by Kevin Freeman and evocatively drawn by Stan Yan respectively with the end result being a pretty funny strip. As a web comic, it’s also free and worth checking out.

The Process of Making the Subculture Web Comic

Stan Yan holds the printed version of Subculture at Comic-Con in 2012 in front of a zombie posterCG: How do and Kevin know one another and what’s your process like for working on SubCulture?
SY: I responded to an ad on Digital Webbing’s message board back in 2006. He was looking for an artist for SubCulture, and I was ironically the first to respond. Kevin typically e-mails me script ideas. Kevin gives me quite a bit of creative freedom in his scripts, and he rarely objects to geeky little things I put in that are not in the script, like t-shirts on the characters and such.
KF: We are in synch almost all of the time. We are of similar age and have similar life experiences, so working together has been very easy. Plus Stan is very professional, which makes my job that much easier.

CG: How many times do you two reject a strip as not being funny enough or put it on hold and then what is your backlog like? Do you have a number of backup strips in case you run into problems during a particular week?
SY: We rarely agree to reject a strip, but we often collaborate on fine-tuning jokes. I might even add a panel for pacing purposes without consulting with him first. I have yet to have him tell me that I was wrong for adding a panel. Once with a storyline where Jason goes with Noel to buy a new car, Kevin asked me to draw Noel in some provocative clothing. I guess I went too far, and he had me change the school-girl mini-skirt to low-rise jeans. That’s one of the few times outside of typos, where Kevin has asked me to change anything. My backlog used to be one month, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been sadly working week-to-week. With, our recent guest artist, Corie Marie Parkhill, I’ve been able to build a 2 week backlog, but I’m seeing that go away quickly as I finish up with my summer camp teaching season and do a weekend-long convention this weekend. No backup strips. If something goes wrong, we’re sunk!
KF: I try to stay about six weeks ahead, just in case I get hit with a case of writer’s block.

D&D players talk about 5th edition but their GM is still focused on first edition and his Wilderness Survival Guide in web comic strip

Other Projects for Subculture’s Creators

CG: I know your Wang is pretty nice, but what else have you been working on?
SY: I’m currently working on writing and coloring a post-apocalyptic car race adventure webstrip called REVVVelations: at www.squidworks.com/revvv, I just finished writing and illustrating a comic book for the Melting Pot restaurant, I’m working on writing and partially illustrating a promotional comic book for the GalaxyFest convention, and I hope to resume work on a graphic novel about my best friend’s battle with cancer.
KF: I’m working with small-press publisher Action Lab entertainment as well, where I do a lot of editing. I’ve also got a story in the pipe with artist Des Taylor, but it probably won’t hit the shelves until sometime in 2013. I am a college professor in real life.

Specific Questions About Subculture Itself

CG: Looking back, what are your favorite story arcs so far on SubCulture?
SY: I’m still very fond of the storyline where Arthur goes to Bart to get dating advice, and they’re forced to talk in gamer code, since Travis is eavesdropping on them. I think it’s a strip that is in the second printed collection of webstrips.
KF: That’s probably mine too. I also like Babs’s cosplay party storyline, and any time we do a convention story that is a lot of fun.

CG: What does XP on the Hoof that your gaming buddy John says mean, Stan?
SY: Honestly, I don’t know where that saying originated, but basically he’s talking about how fighting certain creatures is like money in the bank. He’s typically being sarcastic about it to taunt the game master, or if he’s game mastering, he’s typically trying to goad us into a battle we can’t win. At least, that’s how I take it.
CG: If Kevin would be a Bard, what would your D&D class be?
SY: I’d also be some sort of performer — probably a jester, with absolutely no battle skills.

CG: Is Bart based on an actual comic shop owner or is he more of a stereotype?
SY: I understand that Kevin based Bart on a comic book store owner he knows or knew. Lots of things we wrote for Bart are things that actually happened, like sleeping on the back table, slathering everything in ketchup, and probably lots of other stuff I wasn’t even aware of when I was drawing it.
KF: Bart is an amalgamation of a number of people–Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, the shop owner of a store I worked at in Alabama, and Weird Pete from Knights of the Dinner Table, just to name a few.

CG: What do Bart, Babs, Arthur, Jason, Travis and the rest of the crew usually play as in SpaceJaunt?
SY: I think no matter WHAT game they’re playing, they’re always playing certain archetypical characters for them. Babs typically plays a seductress who probably flirts with Jason’s characters. Arthur normally plays a woman of some sort. Jason probably plays a character that is as bland as he is at times. I imagine he’s more of a utility player than a role-player. Skip will always play a ruthless, bloody barbarian, if not an assassin. I imagine Travis is a thief and scavenger, but I can see him trying to play a paladin before he went against his alignment in looting or pillaging along with Skip’s character and ending up as a level 1 fighter.
KF: Yep. They tend to stick to archetypes based on their personality, regardless of what they play.

In web comic strip a player loses a Warhammer 40k wargame and then immediately goes to buy a new army on the last panel

Stan’s 3.5 D&D Campaign and Kevin’s 40K Days, Background in Gaming

CG: I know your gaming group hasn’t moved beyond 3.5 to 4th Edition. What’s your campaign like and why have you guys stuck with 3.5?
SY: My theory is that John doesn’t want our spell casters getting too powerful, and on the flip-side, we probably don’t want him unleashing unbeatable spell casters upon our party either. At any rate, I think we’re happier with our ability to truly role-play our characters in 3.5, and we don’t want to risk the faster-paced 4.0 degrading that at all.
CG: What about sci-fi RPGs like Space Jaunt/Traveller, do you play in any of those?
SY: We play one space RPG — Gurps space right now.
CG: What about 40K? You have a nice 2010 Space Marine panel in a SuperCon strip.
SY: Kevin used to play, but I haven’t. I admire the game pieces, though. We will have a 40K storyline coming up. I hope I can do it justice in light of the fact that I don’t play.
KF: I was heavy into 40k for years and years until I moved to North Carolina. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the hobby any more. But I still subscribe to White Dwarf and pick up the books and supplements. I’ve always been loyal to Imperial Guard!
CG: How did you get into gaming in the first place?
SY: My friends got me into it in 5th or 6th grade: Basic D&D. I still have the set and introductory modules!
KF: I started about that same time, back when D&D was at its peak, but started with AD&D rather than the pink box. I collect pre-1983 D&D stuff. It reminds me of my childhood.

SubCulture comic strips and cover art are copyright Stan Yan and Kevin Freeman and used with permission.

Wizzywig: Where Hacking and Tabletop Gaming Collide

In addition to a latex sword for LARPing, some Paizo GameMastery Map Packs, and other gifts, my wife surprised me on my birthday with the graphic novel Wizzywig by Ed Piskor. Wizzywig follows the life of the fictional Kevin “boingthump” Phenicle, a composite character blending several real life hackers, most notably Captain Krunch and Kevin Mitnick. Piskor varies his engaging narrative frequently, switching mostly between Kevin Phenicle telling his story in the first person to Kevin’s best friend Winston’s radio talk show with smaller chapters each with a dozen characters giving a man-on-the-street perspective in their own single panels adding further variety and perspectives.

Secret Service agent makes off with GURPS Cyberpunk cover in Ed Piskor's WizzywigMidway through Wizzywig I was surprised to recognize an event from tabletop gaming history pop up amidst the hacker chronicle. On March 1, 1990 Steven Jackson Games’ headquarters in Austin, Texas was famously raided by the Secret Service causing a “catastrophic interruption” for SJG, nearly shutting them down. I had only just started playing D&D at the time in 6th grade and was unaware of the raid, but it has come to have notoriety within the gaming world and helped in the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

While Piskor’s version of the GURPS Cyberpunk cover is close to the original it also reminds me of the artwork for the Crazy Occupational Character Class from Palladium’s RIFTS. The entire episode only appears in Wizzywig for half a page with Kevin “boingthump” Phenicle having no connection to it. We can get a chuckle out of the “media” reaction to the GURPS title below, but actual links between role-playing game supplements and possible criminal activities – however minor – can sometimes exist.

Black and white comic book panels from Wizzywig with talk show host and pundit showing alarm over GURPS Cyberpunk title

While the basic D&D and AD&D books of the 1980s were short on descriptions of how to actually pick pockets or locks, I had multiple friends trying to play the role of Thieves in real life. Were these inspired by the actions of their RPG characters? Yes. Did they ever keep a pilfered wallet or actually steal anything? No (not that I’m aware of). It’s unlikely that an RPG manual ever provides as good an example of criminal activities as fantasy fiction might. It’s also much more likely though that best-selling mainstream authors like Michael Crichton or Stephen King or popular TV shows like Dexter will be the ones to provide information on how to commit crimes and cover one’s tracks. Can a person learn about poisons from reading fantasy novels or from RPGs? Certainly, but an innocuous cookbook or encyclopedia is a more likely source. It’s also laughable to think that I can pick locks just because I have manipulated lock picks onscreen with my characters in Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas. While I do make my PCs roleplay out their bribery attempts and attempts to intimidate or interrogate NPCs when I GM, actual knowledge of anatomy, torture devices, or the criminal underworld is not required.

Where the worlds of hacking and role-playing games do collide though is in the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. While Ed Piskor never goes into why exactly Kevin Phenicle hacks in Wizzywig, most actual “classical” hackers want uninterrupted access to knowledge. Many role-players want to know what it’s like to lose a comrade, win a war, or save the princess. Arguably the lowest level of hackers and the lowest level of gamers enjoy simple brute force attacks before they mature into wanting to do more with their respective hobbies. Gamers and hackers also want the freedom to game how they want to with many hackers hacking into games to improve them. While some sandbox video games are allowing more and more freedoms in gameplay, nothing has come close to replacing the freedom enjoyed by tabletop role-playing gamers.

Panels from Wizzywig are copyright Ed Piskor and used with permission. Views expressed are my own and not Ed Piskor’s or Top Shelf Productions’.

Jeffrey Moy and Video Game Gals

Comic graphic novel cover with two drawn attractive women dressed as an elf and a wizard for Video Game GalsI have followed the progress of artist Jeffrey Moy on Video Game Gals for the last few years at Comic-Con. An artist within the video game industry, Moy has worked on Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and X-Men Legends as well as comics properties like DC’s Legionaires and usually has a table in Artists’ Alley at Comic-Con. Currently he is working on a Star Trek/Legion of Superheroes crossover for IDW and DC as well as VGG. My interest in Moy’s work though was always based on the introspection he shows in his Sketch Games sketchbooks and his process of creation, based more on my interest in comic book creation than anything to do with gaming. However at Comic Con 2012 Moy had the sequential art with him for the first Video Game Gals graphic novel and I sensed some gamer roots in his panels. The project is rapidly nearing fruition and Moy has taken it to Kickstarter to get the book made.

The heroines of Video Game Gals are just that, video game gals, women who play video games, but in Moy’s setting games are closer to a virtual reality, slightly reminiscent of Star Trek’s holodeck mixed with the world of Tron. As he explains in the original Sketch Games, “As each character enters a realm, they download a “skin”, which contains information on their mission as well as how they will appear in the game.” What caught my eye this year was that they are playing in a fantasy setting reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons or Gauntlet. While Moy has played Dungeons & Dragons, he describes himself as more of a board gamer and plays such modern classics as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and the Battle Star Galactica board game. The D&D influences in VGG can be seen in a beholder-like creature and a gelatinous cube or slime engulfing a hapless male adventurer.

Pencil sketches for Jeffrey Moy's Video Game Gals showing attractive female protagonists

Uninked Penciled Layout from Page 21 of Video Game Gals

Moy’s Kickstarter campaign ends August 19 with a goal of $25,000. We recorded a video interview on July 13 at Comic-Con about his Kickstarter campaign, Video Game Gals, and Moy’s gaming background amidst a lot of background noise.

Kickstarter Ashcan cover and Video Game Girls page art copyright Jeffrey Moy, used with permission.