ShiftyLook – Retro Namco Games in Webcomic Form!

Oliver Davis chats to the creators behind ShiftyLook, a site that has been steadily reviving old Namco Bandai arcade game characters into their own webcomics…

Me, geeking out for Marv Wolfman

“Why so many net launchers?” inquires Alpha Man, from Planet Alpha, pondering over the Brav-Mobile’s net-launcher heavy schematics. “Cuz, duh – net launchers,” Bravoman points out.

“…agreed. Add a few more.”

This is taken from the 10th April edition of Matt Moylan (writer) and Dax Gordine’s (artist) Bravoman webcomic for ShiftyLook. Bravoman first appeared in the 1988 Namco arcade game of the same name, where he uses his telescopic limbs to fight his foes. In Japan it was entitled Chouzetsu Rinjin Beraboh Man, which literally translates into “Super Unequaled Man: Absurd Man”. The comic shares its source’s approach, its spirit infectiously innocent.

The character is one of the many Namco Bandai video game properties that ShiftyLook have adapted into Internet strips. Wonder Momo (Jim Zub, Erik Ko and Omar Dogan), Sky Kid (Jim Zub and Jeff Cruz) and The Five-Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies (Ben McCool and Dean Haspiel) are a few others. Oh, and ShiftyLook have also just announced a Time Crisis webcomic at London’s MCMExpo, with art by J.J. Kirby and a script by Marv Wolfman – the creator of Marvel’s Blade, stream-liner of pre-1985 DC continuity and owner of the coolest name in comics. @ShiftyLook tweeted the below picture as a teaser…

Webcomics are a strange medium, particularly when the storylines are continuous. Whereas the average physical comic ranges from 22-25 pages, their Internet counterparts posses about five panels as a maximum, taking more after their newspaper strip cousins.

Having so little space with which to work, however, can be as inspiring as it is limiting. Jim Zub, writer of Wonder Momo and Sky Kid, and with whom I had the pleasure to talk to, described the difficulties of planning a 26-part story in this way. Each issue requires not only character development, but also story progression and humour too. The more out-and-out webcomics are almost set up like a joke, a panel devoted to each premise, complication and the all important punchline. In the action-orientated titles, the punch-line is replaced by a cliff-hanger. It makes for a thrilling pace.

Telling an overall narrative like this may seem fragmented, but instead it creates a rather immersive, episodic structure. The stories and characters are as easy to pick up as they are to leave. And, most importantly, it’s pretty bloody fun.

Speaking with Zub, Moylan and Marv Wolfman, the creators at ShiftyLook all appear to work with the same ethos – that comics no longer cater for the pre-teen reader. Over the past few decades, the two large publishers, Marvel and DC, have steadily darkened in tone. The last page of Detective Comics’ first issue, as part of DC’s New #52 relaunch, had the Joker’s facial skin suspended in a Gotham City Police Department evidence room. He’d cut off his own face to assume a new identity, the results displayed in graphic detail. Even the titles more aimed at children are bogged down by moral dilemmas a bit too mature, their protagonists struggling with mortgages, bosses at work, or maybe even children of their own.

Their argument is an insightful one, it coming from those working inside the industry. The Avengers movie, one of the biggest selling films of all time, had very little impact on sales of The Avengers comic; in 1988, Spiderman had a monthly circulation of 271,000, but two decades later it has more than halved at 106,000. Webcomics, however, go from strength to strength. Penny Arcade can receive up to 500,000 visits every day, and with devices like smartphones and tablet computers becoming increasingly popular, the format can only spread further.

The publishers have forgotten how to write comics for all ages, preferring to cater for the elder fan, ones who won’t take too kindly to the innocence of the Silver Age. “You’re reading a comic about Bat Man,” Zub stressed passionately, hinting that if the book’s tone was any less than moody, readers would become embarrassed with the hero’s central premise. In so doing, a lost generation of comic book fans has been created, unable to get a foothold into picking up their favourite monthly titles.

And this is what ShiftyLook’s hidden modus operandi appears to be. Great writers, with great artists, telling fun stories for that forgotten audience. Toy Story was aimed at a young audience, yet it appeals to all with its devotion to classic storytelling and ode to a prelapsarian youth.

It helps that they’re rebirthing characters already pre-charged with nostalgia. I spent a lot of pocket money on Time Crisis in Margate’s seaside arcades whenever we visited my grandparents. Many more would have grown up with the other characters ShiftLook are adapting.

If you have children, then it’ll fit their tastes perfectly. And, jealous of their laughter, you’ll probably subscribe to the RSS feed, or maybe even add ShiftyLook to your browser’s start-up page. The webcomics are only a few short panels, after all, designed to be consumed in small, indigestion-free chunks.

And it might help recapture something you’ve lost, a sense of innocence masked by too many superheroes dying, or Amazonian goddesses snapping people’s necks. Comics don’t always have to be cynical; sometimes you just need a whole bunch of net-launchers.

Oliver Davis

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