As an 80’s child, the phrase ‘Star Wars is the mythology of our time’ has become something of a truism for me. It is now essential to mention Joseph Campbell when discussing the symbolism of Star Wars. It is certainly something George Lucas is not averse to claiming himself. Here he discusses the ‘meaning’ of the franchise with Bill Moyers in the run up to The Phantom Menace, when the decline commenced in earnest. So when I first heard that Cliff Bleszinski while promoting Bulletstorm in a Gamasutra interview had described Mass Effect as the Star Wars of our generation, I sat up and took notice. Games now routinely trounce Hollywood box office. Could the Star Wars juggernaut have met its match with this Bioware title?
And guess what kids!? Dark Horse Comics has published issues based on both of these properties in the past week – Star Wars Revelations #5 by Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson; and in the opposing corner Mass Effect Invasion #2 by game writer Mac Walters collaborating with John Jackson Miller, art by Omar Francia. Both comics are not native to the medium, so whatever narrative advantages they have from either film or gaming they leave behind. On this level playing field – who comes out on top? Which ‘mythology’ gets to define the noughties?
I have already written here before on my love for Dragon Age, Bioware’s *other* blockbuster game series. Unfortunately I never got to try out Mass Effect, but thanks to the anecdotes of devoted friends I am familiar with the overarching storyline. Star Wars conversely I am all too familiar with – and in recent years my antipathy towards Lucas and his empire has grown. So neither book has an immediate advantage over me either. I was also curious to see how easily I could grasp what the storylines of these two books midway through their respective plots involved.
Mass Effect comics have enjoyed a perfect storm of nerd attraction. The manager of Kings Comics in Sydney, Jim Papagrigoriu mentioned to me in passing during an interview that the Dark Horse adaptations are snapped up at conventions, where as a retailer he has a broader spectrum of customers. Mass Effect has engendered intense loyalty in its fans and it was quite the coup for Dark Horse to snag the rights. Invasion revolves around game companion Aria, whose native biotics abilities allow her to fling electricity at opponents. Her homebase of Omega is under attack, the titular invasion being at the hands of a strange alien race, and Aria has agreed to an alliance with Cerberus to protect her station. The issue opens with a description of Omega as a place of deadly, shifting allegiances and powerplays – one could also say it is a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy‘ – but faced with the external threat of invasion, the inhabitants follow Aria’s lead. Unfortunately the plans of the Illusive Man and Cerberus are not so straightforward and our protagonist soon finds herself betrayed.
Mass Effect prides itself on its shifting moral compass and as seen here, the lines between good and evil are not as clear as in Star Wars. However, this issue suffers from a curious stop-start structure, which I could not understand at first until I realized that the story beats and exposition were being delivered in a similar manner to game cinematics. So characters narrate or tell us directly about Omega’s history, or the nature of these villains, through somewhat stilted dialogue, before an action sequence abruptly commences. There is an imbalance here which unfortunately renders all the passion and emotion of the plot like so much white noise. Francia’s clean artwork – perhaps hints of Gene Ha’s influence here – delivers what is expected. There is an interesting action sequence with Aria seeming to burst out of a series of collapsing comic panels mid-fight. However, in the main the book seems to be trying to carry over the storytelling approaches of the game to the comic format and it is a poor fit.
Tom Taylor’s Star Wars Revelations also happens to involve an invasion from an alien force from outside the galaxy and serves up a collection of morally compromised characters, anti-heroes and fair-weather friend antagonists. Perhaps thanks to the story being five issues in, Taylor wastes less time on exposition and introduces some properly based battle scenes. Most impressive though is the encounter early in the issue between protagonist Finn and his Jedi mentor Dray – who is completely barking. Mumbling about prophecies and demanding his student join with him, all the while randomly cutting down anyone who happens to be in his vicinity, Dray is a delight. Taylor introduces a welcome degree of sardonic humour to the ascetic Star Wars universe. This is the greatest advantage Star Wars Revelations has over Mass Effect Invasion – the former can take elements of the franchise and spin off them off in an entirely different direction.
Ultimately that is my greatest objection to Star Wars in recent years. It is still too tied to the imagination of one man. Whenever a different creator’s vision enters the frame – say Clone Wars by Tartakovsky – undiscovered potential is revealed. It would be a shame for Mass Effect to become similarly limited in its scope.
As for this bout, Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson are the clear victors. Not only have they delivered a gripping comic, they are helping to salvage an imaginary world that’s been tarnished for fans in recent years.