I should have really liked Burn the Orphanage more than I did. But I am, as always, getting ahead of myself.
The second oversized – and a bit overpriced – issue of Sina Grace and Daniel Freedman’s Image mini-series is a good time, as any, for me to examine the problematic nature of the series. Or, to be more exact, the problematic nature of my response to series. Because, really, I should have liked – no loved – Burn the Orphanage; yet two thirds of the way through the series, I find myself running not so much cold as lukewarm.
Buying the first issue of the series was a no brainer for me – It was called Burn the Orphanage (great title), and the cover was a simple yet effective shot of the main character, in all his 1980s NES tough guy design – the wife beater, the slightly torn jeans, the bandana, the arm band… it was like someone took Double Dragon (possibly my biggest time waster age 7-10) and made it into a comic. I was sold. So, coming on release day, I demanded my pre-order copy which I sat and read with glee. And… it was good, not brilliant but quite nice.
The story focuses on the above-mentioned tough guy, Rock Hard, as he sets out, along with two friends, to find and kill the man who burned the orphanage in which he grew up. SPOILERS – he does. The whole thing is played like a Walter Hill movie – everything is played at a certain artificial, fantastic, remove. There isn’t any pretend at realism, which is good. This is unabashed fight comics, people are either with Rock or against him, and the whole 1st issue is one fight after another. And I’m down with it – I’d loved to have a comic which was Scott Pilgrim with the alt-rock soundtrack replaced by Warrior Soul hard rock and with all the talky bits removed.
The main problem with the first issue was that it wasn’t out there enough – the glory of these old beat’em-up video games (Double Dragon, Streets of Rage) was they didn’t really care for any consistency of presentation; two guys were punching their way through oddly dressed gangsters quickly, which gave way to punching through armies of ninjas followed by robots and monsters… it was all about the gameplay. Burn the Orphanage #1, perhaps due to limited space, only had some small-time punks and “stripper ninjas”, and a lot of the action feels rushed instead of indulged: this type of comic calls for a Lone Wolf and Cub-style decompression of the battle scene (showing moves and counter moves), but issue #1 seems to skip all of it and go straight for the finisher. It’s a great finisher, mind you: the double spread of that final jump kick in issue #1 is one the best-of-the-year single images – simple and powerful at the same time, it captures completely the feel of the rest the series. It’s everything that cover promised and more.
So, issue #2 came out – about three months after #1. That’s quite a long time, but it’s forgivable because – a) it’s pretty long b) it’s pretty, and c) it’s not like there are some complicated plot threads that you might have forgotten between the two issues: the only relevant plot point is that Rock killed some guy last issue. Easy. As the back matter states, the creators plan was to move the story from NES to Super Nintendo, so the plot moves from Double Dragon to Mortal Kombat – with Rock drafted by an evil witch for some multi-dimensional fighting tournament against demons and monsters.
So, yeah, it’s stupid – but is it stupid enough? No, it’s not. Again, large chunks of action are simply skipped over in an attempt to squeeze too much story into a single issue; again, the fights aren’t as impressive as they ought to be; again, there’s a strange feeling of squandered potential. There is, also, a strange sense of pathos to the plot, as if we are supposed to take the emotional element of Rock’s story seriously this time, but we can’t. Shifting from parody to tragedy is hard, and Grace and Freedman aren’t there yet.
I guess you can justify it by turning to the source material – the “plots” and “characters” of these early fighting games were that overblown and melodramatic, but do Grace and Freedman mean to mock or revel in these elements? If it’s mocking they’re after, then it does not come out well – the story is too sincere. If it’s meant as a tribute to these stories, well… they suck. Which is fine; you don’t play 16-bit fighting games for their plot and dialogue, but what’s the point of using them as a basis in a medium that cannot copy their good parts? It’s like trying to adapt a Joe Satriani album into a novel: you can do it, technically at least, but the end result is bound to be crappy, and it probably will not represent Joe Satriani’s work as well as any single minute of his music.
A comic that borrows from old video games is not a bad idea, in theory; comics have made progress over the years by borrowing ideas and techniques from other mediums, and video games always felt a bit like comics’ younger brother (a.k.a. the other new-medium-to have-no-initial-public-legitimacy; the newest corruptor of misguided youths; the land of the geek and the home of the social outcast). It seems like there should have been a lot more medium cross-pollination aside from Scott Pilgrim and the straight plot adaptation of stuff like Halo and Assassin’s Creed.
I’m still going to buy issue #3. Partly because I hope it will redeem the series as a whole and partly because I honestly have no idea where they are going with it. I want to be shown the error of my ways by Grace and Freedman. They’ve got one more chance to K.O. me.
 And, just to be clear – I am a trade waiter by nature, I don’t usually go for singles.
 The prerequisite “Big-Guy” and “The-Girl”; the arcade version came with another option, but he wasn’t ported into the comics
 And that joke would have been funnier if they would have pixilated the hell out of them.
 A small subplot about Rock’s friends could be excused from the issue altogether without any discernible effect.
 Initially, at least. By now video games are universal. In fact, they dwarf just about any other medium in terms of sales and size.