Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper

This should be out with the new comics this week. It's the latest from Kevin Huizenga (KH.14, for your checklist), which I do believe is intended as the start of his third ongoing series with as many publishers. Buenaventura Press does the honors this time; it's a 32-page b&w pamphlet, priced at $3.95.

At risk of oversimplification, I'll call this a video game comic. In fact, it's almost precisely the opposite kind of video game comic than the last one I reviewed, the First Second-published Prince of Persia, which connected to its source material mainly through basic setting and cultural-mythical inspiration, and a distinctly literary take on the games' visceral connection with time. It was a heavy work, which promoted the virtues of those proper contemporary comics you might spy on some big box bookshelf, to the side of the superhero things and a bit away from all the manga.

Huizenga's comic, on the other hand, is not a thing of literature; it's a one-on-one fighting game comic. And its focus is squarely on the game; there's probably less story in here than most actual fighting games, which perhaps places its sympathies with the wing of gaming commentary that suggests we'd all be better off tossing the whole 'story' notion altogether and focusing intently on design and play. And if the First Second book was analogous to the pageant of gloss and handsomeness a high-profile game release can be, this Buenaventura production is the oddball personal concoction you might hear about on a message board and download for free, poking around to figure how the hell it works since there's no instructions included and it looks to be poking at whatever genre reveals itself at first blush.

But even then, I suspect I'm selling Huizenga's work short. This isn't so much like a game as it's supposed to be a game, albeit as a comic - the artist refers to it as "an open source comics game" on the back cover. There really aren't any instructions included either; I expect we're meant to observe Huizenga's play and follow up with our own, arriving at individual discoveries. You'll recall a few of these types of strips popping up in Huizenga's anthology contributions (Blood Orange had a few, I think), so you know he's been playing for a while. I'm sure it's no coincidence the same style was used to kick off Ganges #2, in the form of Glenn Ganges becoming enveloped in an obscure Asian PC fighter, as a sort of overture to the FPS corporate madness that would follow.

Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper isn't an overture to anything, though. It's strip after strip -- ranging from 1/8th of a page to over 3 pages in length -- seeing one simply-designed, oddly-named character ("#1 Song"; "Bride to Be") encounter a challenger, then deciding whether to Fight or Run, unless the other character chooses first. All a Running character needs to do is evade the challenger's attacks until they're out of range, while a Fighter must give it their all, to the finish. There are many special moves to witness, from sticky tongues to bodily multiplications, to character leaping into and out of one another, or ripping down the sun and moon to use as weapons.

The only character we're told anything about is Chopper, a humanoid-looking thing and well-balanced choice who's granted a whole stats page full of unhelpful numbers and opaque trivia. "Events are not what he would basically describe as wrong with him." Yet you'll get to 'know' a lot of characters the way you become familiar with fighting game characters: through their handling. Minimal designs filled out by how they get around their world, which is all combat, so moves are all that matters. Unless you Run.

As you might have guessed, the comic is loaded with studies of movement and creative fragmentation of the page, the 'game' screen expanding or contracting to sell the swiftness of Chopper's moon chop or afford Kid Cocktail a few beats to react after growing six new legs and preparing to stomp his challenger. One segment is devoted entirely to Chopper mutating into an increasingly dense web of heads and limbs and torsos, panels starting out flat screen wide to catch it all, but then breaking off into small panels so as to indicate that only details of the bigness of Chopper are possible, until he falls apart from his own ambition and #1 Song (a mildly alarmed cartoon piggy thing) wins without moving at all.

It's a funny, dizzying experience, particularly when Huizenga's later matches reveal the logic behind his design. Chopper faces off with Hander (who has a hand for a head), who opts to Run. During his flight, Hander leaps onto his head/hand for better traction, tricking Chopper into leaping onto his own head, winning Hander's escape. Minder (box for a head) encounters Make a Wish (vortex for a head), and their Fight causes all the world to break off into cubes and swirls, both characters leaping into one another's zones of influences, panels within panels, frames within frames, striking at anything resembling their foe to inflict damage.

It certainly helps that Huizenga is a fantastically talented formalist, always willing to twist the field of play in some novel way; I imagine a few of these matches would seem unimpressive as isolated in a larger book somewhere, but together they really convey the chaos that lies at the heart of high-stakes fantasy combat where so many elements can take such damage. I suspect future developers won't make as interesting a use of the levels. But then again, player levels in a lot of games aren't quite as fine.

They'll all do well to make note of the possibility of Huizenga's simple construct, which sees Chopper's final match turn into a big Run, his flight going on so long it becomes his life, passing through symbols of youth and progress and heartbreak and love, until he catches fire and his head ascends into the cosmos, so all the world may live in his shadow. Until, one presumes, some other player kicks it down and chucks it at some tough motherfucker's face, since life's got no story once you look at it long enough, as a simple plane of activity for things to tromp on. And boy, this thing can play forever.