Pairing Your Media: Examining Metal Gear Panel by Panel

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This article is part of the Pairing Your Media series. These articles aim to help you find media to enjoy alongside your games. Our previous installment, about John Carpenter’s The Thing, can be found here.

Like so many fanboys before me, I’ve recently been dealing with the problem of championing a dead franchise. It’s been roughly two years since the release of Metal Gear Solid V, and regardless of how I felt about the game when it first came out, there can be no denying I’ve built up a tolerance to what was once my drug of choice. As the side ops and subsistence missions wore thin, I began to move back through the library, re-examining titles to try and glean as much from them as I could.

Twin Snakes, Portable Ops, even the seemingly forgotten Ac!d games have all served as a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Despite this, I pressed onward, exploring expanded content and side-stories. Eventually I discovered the work of Ashley Wood, an artist who can truly be described as having grown and grown with the Metal Gear brand; acting as a breath of fresh air for longstanding fans such as myself.

Wood began his career with the Metal Gear franchise in 2004 with IDW’s adaptation of Metal Gear Solid as a 12-issue comic book. The comic likely came about to generate buzz for the then upcoming Metal Gear Solid 3, offering access to the story for those unfamiliar with it, or unwilling to devote the time necessary to play previous games in the saga. Largely a 1:1 replication of the story, this commitment to retelling the tale goes beyond that of simple plot beats, with Wood emulating the graphical limitations of the game in his artwork. Broad, flat, overlapping brushes mimic the low-poly faces and textures of the Playstation 1; with camera angles ripped straight from the game further easing newcomers into a version of Shadow Moses that they can relate to the franchise as a whole. This style is swapped out for Wood’s signature sketch work with careful consideration throughout the story, punching up character introductions and creating action sequences that bristle with energy. This becomes more prevalent as stealth sequences fade from the story, with harried linework helping to maintain a breakneck tempo throughout the combat set-pieces that define the latter half of Snake’s mission.

The series was successful by IDW standards, moving roughly 10,000 units per issue, and warranted a follow up. In 2006 publication began on an adaptation of Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty, with Wood continuing his role as illustrator throughout all 12 issues. The run shows a remarkable trust between Konami and IDW, as there are pronounced deviations from the source material in an attempt to refine some of the excesses inherent in the second game. There is revisionism here, and one can’t help but wonder how responsible Konami was in these changes.

The narrative focus shifts to make Snake a larger player in the events of Big Shell, but the attempt to redefine Raiden’s character goes beyond merely pushing him to the side. An early dialogue with Solidus via a mysterious phone conversation hints at his backstory as a child soldier, giving a very different first impression than the green rookie of FOXHOUND that audiences were initially presented with. In keeping with this, Raiden is envisioned as an older, hardened, rough around the edges combatant. His hair has transformed from an even blonde to a wild mass of dirty textures on pure white. The figure is hardly recognizable as the “prettyboy” Kojima once asked Shinkawa to produce, and seems to be a first pass at grittier designs built out further in later titles.

Despite these adjustments, Wood clearly understands core elements of the source material. His work in these issues incorporates flat geometric shapes and sharp, angular planes of coloration, creating a look that emphasizes glitches, artifacting, and digitization. Through these intentionally low-fidelity images, Wood reasserts thematic material tied to notions of reality in the digital era that would otherwise be lost in a print medium. This look defines the entirety of the run, with no attempts made to recreate the visuals of the game. Characters are lit with wild contrast; emotion and tone taking precedence over visibility and clarity. Dense shadows and stark silhouettes replace the flat, limited dynamic range of the PS2, allowing for a wealth of drama to be communicated across still images.

The relative success of this series led to continual work with Konami, and Wood’s eventual inclusion into the official Metal Gear canon. His work was collected and released as a digital comic for the PSP, and was eventually adapted into a motion comic with full voice acting support from the franchise. It was also during this time that he would illustrate the cutscenes for the oft overlooked Portable Ops. Again, Wood shows an understanding of the source material, abandoning reflexive digital shading in favor of a more traditional look; a welcome change given the title’s focus on Cold War geopolitics instead of futurist speculation.

This look carries over to his work in Peace Walker, with both installments emphasizing clarity of motion and elimination of visual clutter. Snake is still accurately envisioned as a grizzled mercenary operating in South America, but there’s a fidelity to these images, a cleanliness in faces and framing that other installments lacked. Wood understands that this is storytelling in a different fashion, with each frame being given a limited amount of screentime, placing a demand on the viewer to unpack visual information quickly. Audiences aren’t given the luxury of dwelling on images, and coherence is required as a byproduct of the motion comic format. This, coupled with the limiting screen size of the PSP, led Wood to a style that is more focused and refined than his previous entries.

This choice to include Wood’s work in the Metal Gear canon sits at the center of an important conversation surrounding the series. Kojima is one of a select few individuals that can still have the auteur label justifiably applied to him, especially in his chosen medium. To see him adopt a Western made tie-in (that could have easily been ignored as a cash grab) into official productions is a resounding testament to his willingness to experiment with new collaborators, and simultaneously refuse to leave any aspect of the brand unexamined. While longtime illustrator Yoji Shinkawa was capable of designing characters and environments to bring a shared vision to life, it took an individual like Wood to bridge the gap between these designs and Kojima’s cinematic flair. And when the storytelling in question must be able to balance Kojima’s signature vacillations between camp and earnestness, his ability to draw out the subtleties that exist between those two poles was necessary to the growth of the series.

I once heard an interpretation of Metal Gear Solid 3 arguing it was not to be thought of as the factual version of events as they happened, but as the legend surrounding Big Boss demands they be retold. A man who can control hornets, a cosmonaut with the rage of the sun, and a nigh unstoppable super soldier capable of defeating them; are we to take these moments as factual, or as a story that has been turned to myth over time? Wood offers a vision similar to this, his images of hyperactive sketchwork barely capturing motion, pixelated masses pulled from security cameras, and shadowy figures whose only photos survive in redacted documents telling a black ops saga spanning decades.His work provides a means of seeing the series in a new light, reexamining and refining nuances that could easily be overlooked in the scope of a 15 hour game. And in an era where all we’re left to do is reexamine old content, this fresh perspective on the franchise is not something to miss.

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