Think back, it’s not that long ago. But it is before YouTube, before Facebook, before Miley. In the early ‘90s, videogame arcades (already a dying form, even back then) were rejuvenated by pared-down videogames that came in the form of an entirely new genre. The truth is, the genre in question, the tournament beat-em-up, had already been around for some time. But the mythology is far more interesting. As the story goes, something popped with Street Fighter II. What gamers were presented with was a simple raison d’être for playing the game—you’d want your chosen fighter to win an international street fighting tournament.
The experience of the tournament-fighter, as distinct from the side-scroller, meant a very different set of expectations from gamers, and as a consequence, a very different kind of output for game designers. Simplicity was key. Rather than meandering odysseys that took players across rolling landscapes, urban or otherwise, tournament-fighters focused the action on just a handful of arenas. The plot was similarly pared-down—fly to India, beat up the street fighter there, then it’s off to Brazil, then Russia, then Japan. If you wanted any more plot than the one or two single-screen cutscenes, you’d have to wait for the movie. Either, as it turned out, the lukewarm live action, or the far superior anime.
But within less than half a decade the genre itself evolved. First we saw Mortal Kombat (yes, kombat, with a kay) mash-up Asian myths into a dark fantasy setting where the world as we understand it is and always has been at war with a mythic realm called Outworld. And after that Tekken and Soul Caliber, and suddenly we found ourselves awash in storytelling and entire fictional worlds, every bit as vivid and engrossing as any of the great works of fiction.
No matter how far back in time this evolving drama of storytelling and world-building played out, no matter how far removed the medium of videogames is from comics, what those popcultural experiments from Street Fighter II right the way through to the Tekken Tournament card game for the Android that earns you points on the actual PlayStation 3 game demonstrated was the success of an idea. And that idea was sublimely simple—that critically acclaimed fictional worlds could be built from highly structured, highly pared-down environments.
Understanding that story, the story of the development of vast worlds from very basic, strongly rule-governed elements, is what will allow you to appreciate the work of writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads on their nearly two-year long running passion project, the Activity. The book plays out in the frighteningly real world of military special forces operators.
What really makes the book so entirely arresting is how easily it reads like the product of investigative journalism. This isn’t the kind of war comicbook that the British Invasion writers and artists of the ‘80s always spoke so fondly of as artifacts from their youth. Those stories, focused on the “horrors” of combat, seemed to venerate moments from the then recent past, even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such books imagined stories as playing out during the Second World War. The Activity which chronicles the actions of the Intelligence Support Activity team “Omaha,” attempts a very different set of subgenres than simply the deployment of abstract emotions like “honor” or “cowardice” or “bravery.” Instead, what Edmondson and Gerads offer is the real-world, lived-in experiential scaffold that would validate those abstract emotions.
“Buddy System,” issue #15 of the Activity, finally gets into what would be usual terrain for any espionage/military thriller—the simultaneous focus on crumbling relationships within the team, and vast geopolitical goings-on that push the team into high gear. The fact that every issue has slowly built up these tensions, both the interpersonal and the geopolitical tensions, for nearly two years now, really is the wonder of this book.