‘Assassin’s Creed’: The Comic Book

The thing that struck me most about reading the first issue of Titan Comics’s Assassin’s Creed was its focus on an element of the video game series that has faded in its interest for me over the years. This issue spends much of its time, not in the past, but in the present with a character who will be experiencing the simulated memories of an Assassin.

I was fairly intrigued by the first Assassin’s Creed game’s decision to frame the experience of playing an assassin during the time of the Crusades with a conceit that allowed the game to justify some of the more game-like qualities of a somewhat historical simulation. While most of the player’s time with the game is spent in the guise of Altair, the game’s titular assassin, the game also featured brief narrative vignettes that concerned a character named Desmond Miles. In the present, Desmond was actually hooked to a machine called the Animus that allowed him to “play” his ancestor’s past (his ancestor being Altair) through the simulation of that period created by the machine. You know, like he was playing a video game.

This conceit, of course, made an allowance for the strange narrative trappings of video games, like the fact that despite Altair’s past having already been written, that the player can still experience his failure should that player fail a mission while playing the game. The player’s failures were Desmond’s, not Altair’s, and, thus, reloading from a checkpoint became a part of the fiction itself, not the weird phenomenon of infinite resurrection that troubles those concerned with the narrative logic of video games.

However, what was initially to some both a clever and intriguing conceit became a weight around the series’s neck. Having to work in Desmond’s adventures in the present alongside the far more interesting characters and gameplay of the Assassins of the past became more and more awkward as the series evolved. Basically, one had to play through the Desmond bits so that one could get back to the actually good bits, the lives of the Assassins.

Following the death of Desmond, it has seemed that this framing device has been pared down more and more in the game, a device that initially seemed quite important to the series and its themes. While the conceit of the Animus as the entry point to the worlds and times represented in Assassin’s Creed remains, there is no longer an identifiable protagonist that exists outside the part of the story that the player spends most of their time experiencing in any Assassin’s Creed game, the past. In the latest installment of the series, Assassin’s Creed 4, for example, the acknowledgment of the “present day” mythos is virtually nonexistent. While the present is referred to through bits of audio, there are no more side trips to the present.

In other words, the franchise seems to have eroded the significance of a “real” protagonist tied to a simulated identity more and more as the series has continued. So, when I read the first issue of a comic book based on the series and that comic spent most of its time in the present with what seems to be the series’s protagonist, Charlotte de la Cruz, I was a little surprised. Maybe later issues in the five issue arc that are currently planned for this series will end up spending more time with de la Cruz’s ancestor Tom Stoddard during the time of the Salem Witch trials, but there is very little 17th century Salem in the first issue.

There are hints of some ideas here that probably couldn’t be explored easily through a story told in a video game, or at least given the series’s current move to stick to the past dominantly for the sake of the gameplay that people expect of the series. For instance, the comic book introduces a female protagonist that will be experiencing the past of a male assassin. Also, de la Cruz’s distant relation is ethnically different from his ancestor. He is white, while she identifies as Hispanic, a fact that de la Cruz herself notes that she finds weirdly alien. Either instance could offer the potential for some interesting exploration of gender identity or ethnic identity when experienced through a simulation.

However, it’s hard to tell if such an intent exists here, given that most of this issue is spent rushing from event to event in order to quickly familiarize the reader with the basics of what has become a relatively complicated mythos in its video game form. The issue features a couple of fight scenes in the past, one in the present, the establishment of de la Cruz as a character in the present, the aforementioned need to familiarize the reader with the mythos on the whole, the introduction of additional characters, and a brief glimpse at the world of an Assassin and Templar occupied Salem. As a result, it’s hard to know how to feel about this first issue, except maybe kind of breathless.

A cast of present day characters, for example, get introduced that will serve as de la Cruz’s support team while she travels through her ancestor’s memories. But none of them get anywhere near enough panels to say much about who they are and what they are all about. De la Cruz’s background is established very quickly as well. She is currently a bank teller working off her student loans, who is also already committed to an anarchic, populist, and anti-corporatist philosophy of her own. She’s tough, but cares about people. That’s all I’ve got at this point in the story.

Again, though, it is simply hard to judge the series’s potential from this brief, breathless introduction. I heard “Assassin’s Creed set in Salem” and was immediately pretty intrigued. My initial thought was that the book would feature a female assassin that was also one of the Salem witches, which seemed a pretty unique approach to the series. However, while I suppose that Stoddard could be a male witch (there were a few men who were accused of witchcraft during the actual Witch Trials), the brief snippet of time spent with him seems to indicate that he will probably be someone observing the consequences of the trials as he concerns himself with his own mission, which is, of course, probably related to that mission but also less imminently perilous to his person.

Stoddard watches a witch hang in this first issue and doesn’t intervene, which is something very upsetting to de la Cruz. While she attempts to make Stoddard save this witch, she finds that she can’t “play” this out like a video game. The Animus boots her out of the Salem simulation because she has gone “off script.” This wasn’t something Stoddard actually did in the past. Once again the game-like conceit of the video game series is acknowledged at this moment (you can fail if you go off script), which again may be something interesting to explore (an Animus user whose own personal values don’t coincide well with their ancestor’s), but once again, this moment of ethical aggravation for de la Cruz is too briefly represented to know if the idea will be developed later. The issue moves onward too quickly to the next event to decide if it is a moment of any note.

If you were to ask me whether or not I’d check out a second issue of this series, I’d probably respond at best rather noncommittally at this point. There are some things here that are interesting, gender bending in simulated spaces and the problem of pre-determined ethical “choices” in the context of an interactive medium. However, I don’t know that I would commit any additional cash to finding out whether anything interesting pans out in this regard. Maybe if someone I trust really, really recommends it in the future, I’ll pick it up in trade paperback. In the present, I’ll stick it out with the video game version of this story.

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