The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 117 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Why Marvel and Rockstar’s Free Max Payne 3 Comic Book is a Good Thing

Leaving Proof 117 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Why Marvel and Rockstar’s Free Max Payne 3 Comic Book is a Good Thing
Published on Wednesday, May 16, 2012 by

Yesterday, video game publisher/developer Rockstar Games, in association with Marvel Comics, released part one of a three-part digital comic book entitled Max Payne 3: After the Fall. The 14-page chapter can be downloaded as a zipped PDF from the Max Payne 3 comics sub-site and it can also be read in its entirety on GameSpot.

The free comic, which is supposed to fill in readers on the events that occurred between the end of 2003’s Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne and the just-released Max Payne 3, is written by game lead writer and Rockstar Games VP of Creativity Dan Houser and Sami Järvi (a.k.a. Sam Lake), the lead writer on the first two Max Payne games developed by Finland-based Remedy Entertainment. The book’s art team consists of Spanish illustrator Fernando Blanco (Manhunter, Army of Darkness) on line art, Matt Wilson on colours, and Greg Horn on covers.

Before we start looking at what this partnership between Rockstar and Marvel means in the grand scheme of all things comics, if you’ll indulge me, here’s a brief backgrounder on my experience with the Max Payne series: The first two entries in the franchise are probably two of my favourite games on the PC. I really enjoyed the deliberately cheesy noir-styled writing coupled with what was then the novel “bullet time” mechanic and rock-solid third-person shooter controls. A large number of other gamers did, too: Max Payne and its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, sold a combined 7.5 million copies (on PC, PS2, XBox, and Game Boy Advance) and the original game has recently been ported to the Android and iOS smartphone and tablet platforms.

Despite my history with the popular video game franchise—or perhaps because of it—I regarded the announcement of Max Payne 3 warily for a number of reasons. While the first two games were developed by Finland-based Remedy Entertainment (although Max Payne 2 was developed in conjunction with Rockstar Vienna), Max Payne 3 was to be a wholly “in-house” Rockstar Games production made by the publisher/developer’s Vancouver studio. The early preview screenshots and videos of the game, which revealed a new, generically bald-pated look for the protagonist and a rather baffling decision to set the majority of the game in the tropics, made it look less like a true successor and more like a different third-person shooter altogether that had the Max Payne franchise tag haphazardly slapped onto it. I also felt that the original developers had taken Max Payne’s story to a satisfying (if somewhat open-ended) conclusion with the sequel, and that a second sequel would likely result in diminished narrative and creative returns (a.k.a., “The Curse of the ‘Threequel'”). I do try to approach popular entertainment like comics and video games with as open a mind as possible, though (you have to, if you want to write about them for any length of time), so I set my predisposition aside in reading Max Payne 3: After the Fall.

While we only get a relatively brief read with After the Fall that consists almost entirely of exposition by way of flashbacks, the fact that the actual Max Payne game writers are directly involved in the creation of the comic means that the comic book faithfully retains the franchise’s dark humour and that it will almost assuredly avoid the kind of sloppy and embarrassing canonical slip-ups that can often be seen in video game novelizations and similar types of tie-ins.

Bungie and Marvel's "The Halo Graphic Novel" was a critical and commercial hit

More important than how the comic book eventually pans out creatively or technically however—although I have to stress that what we’ve seen so far of the comic book is nothing less than well-executed and solidly entertaining work—is what this collaboration between Rockstar and Marvel represents in terms of its distribution and revenue model. This isn’t the first time Marvel has teamed up with a major seventh-generation video game developer or publisher to create a licensed comic book, of course; 2006’s The Halo Graphic Novel that Marvel created in conjunction with Halo: Combat Evolved developer Bungie Studios was a surprise critical and commercial hit, debuting at #2 in the Nielsen BookScan sales charts for graphic novels sold at bookstores (the highest-ranked debut at the time for a non-manga/non-movie tie-in title) and at #33 overall on Amazon. But The Halo Graphic Novel was sold and distributed like it was just any other graphic novel or trade paperback, via the usual online and brick-and-mortar sales channels. Max Payne 3: After the Fall is entirely digital (although very limited edition print copies will be made available in raffle drawings) and it is free to read or download, requiring no purchase of the video game it is tied to. Whatever profit Marvel makes from this joint venture will have come from Rockstar Games’ development and marketing budget for Max Payne 3.

The first "inFAMOUS" game sold an estimated 1.2 million copies

I’ve made the argument before that the graphic novel-style cutscenes in video games represent a new and vital arena for the showcasing of comics and sequential art, and indeed, if one were to consider the graphic novel-style cutscenes such as the ones in the Max Payne and inFAMOUS franchises as examples or variants of sequential art in their own right, their readership would rival that of the best-selling comics of all time. Comics-inspired cutscenes, much like a game’s musical score, can serve as a vital part of a hybrid medium like video games. Max Payne 3: After the Fall may be distributed as a digital comic book and a free marketing enticement separate from the game, but for all narrative intents and purposes, it is really an extension of Max Payne 3‘s in-game cutscenes and pre-rendered cinematics.

What graphic novel-style cutscenes and Marvel/Rockstar’s Max Payne 3: After the Fall show us is that sequential art doesn’t have to be a stand-alone enterprise, nor does the cost of its purchase have to be born directly by the reader. Just as certain video games have introduced legions of new and young listeners to classical and orchestral music, the right video games also offer comics creators the opportunity to reach audiences who might never even consider reading a comic book on its own. And as a marketing enticement, it works, too: I might have previously viewed Max Payne 3 with a slightly cynical gaze, but the extent to which the game and comic book’s writers have tried to link it to the previous installments in the series has me softening my stance a bit, and for the first time since the details of its development were publicly confirmed by Rockstar Games three years ago, I’m actually considering getting it.

Discuss this article below or contact the author via e-mail
5 Responses
    • Dark Horse recently did a Dragon Age comic written by the game’s lead writer.  This kind of colloboration is big towards bridging comics and video games.  Fans of the game’s stories will want to know that the comics are faithful.

      There are a ton of comics out there based on video games.  The recent Uncharted from DC Comics was very good.

      But just having those video games represented in comic form isn’t enough.  There needs to be a method for it to get out there to the gamer in a way that the gamer will want to read it.  If they wanted to read comics they would have already been in the brick and mortar stores buying.

      Things like what Marvel and Rockstar is doing is a great step in the process.  There needs to be more of it.

      Why not put an advertisment at the end of a game that says “for more of the story check out the comic series from so and so” or in the case of Max Payne, at the beginning of the game have an ad that says “to learn what happened to Max between #2 and #2 check out the comics”.

      • I think comics can be fully integrated into comics beyond just being an “extra” promotional item to a video game. There are all sorts of practical and stylistic incentives for a video game developer to use graphic novel-style 2D cutscenes instead of traditional cinematics: (1) They’re a lot cheaper to make, (2) turnaround is quicker, and (3) it uses less rendering resources.

        It can also be a “marketing bullet point” if done in collaboration with a known comics publisher brand or a high-profile creator and promoted smartly. For instance, I might pay attention to a video game I would have otherwise ignored if, say, its  graphic novel-style 2D cutscenes
        were illustrated by Frank Cho or Leinil Yu or Eduardo Risso or whoever or if the cutscenes can be viewed independent from the in-game context as digital comic book (with additional pages, even) as an unlockable bonus if you complete the game. 

        • The creators are HUGE to this type of thing.  Alot of the times, the movie tie-in comics have 2nd or 3rd tier creators.  That’s meant to showcase the medium to new readers?  No, these NEED top tier creators, the best of the best, so show new readers just what comics are capable of.

    • It’s a natural pairing, but yeah, it could be pushed more than it has in the past. 

    • […] A few years ago, I tried to make the case for the tie-in digital comic book as a viable medium to serve as an extension of (or even an alternative to) the video game cutscene. Comics require fewer resources to create than full motion animated video while still offering the same potential as a tool for exposition and forwarding the game’s narrative. “Graphic novel-style” interludes—what are basically digital minicomics—have long been a video game cutscene design staple. Why not further expand digital comics’ role in video game storytelling? […]

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