Reviews: Cuanta Vida
A Melodrama On A Black Comedy's Stage - An ill-fitting combination.
First, a confession: I’ve never played TF2. My first real exposure to it was in September 2010. I’d heard of the game, but had written it off as just another FPS. One day, I clicked a link on tvtropes, a youtube compilation of domination lines. I key into sounds, especially voices, and this one was no exception: This was Crocodile Dundee after the psychotic break, Jack the Ripper reincarnate, a voice that instantly conjured up images of a Bowie knife held to my throat. His video confirmed my assessment: The Sniper loves his mum, but he sure as hell doesn’t love you. In little under seven minutes, I knew exactly who this character was… and I wanted to see more of him and the rest of the RED Team. I can’t exactly say the same for the boys of Cuanta Vida. The comic began in 2008, a year before Cerberus Syndrome hit the game like a shot from a loose cannon, but why are most of these hardened PMC Assassins treated as reluctant greenhorn soldiers without pay or leave? (These aren’t our hired guns, yes, but they’re hired guns nonetheless.) Why has the land-grab, and surveillance, been going on for forty years after the Announcer’s disappearance and a company merger? These questions, and the Ontological Mystery at TF2’s heart, are casually dismissed in favor of standard BL melodrama. Gabry and Liam are our Ore-sama and Cool beauty, since they’re also the most competent fighters, they have to die, and quick. Our heros, Jeremy and Jordi, are also this, but with the puppy kitty dynamic added. Everyone else is flat, stereotypical, and underdeveloped, except the BLU Engineer… The author waffles, when focusing on plot, she forgets to add character, and vice-versa. After a while, she seems to realize that this isn’t quite the story she wanted to tell… and when she tells her own, her characterization and storytelling skills improve dramatically. Jeremy and Jordi of CV are likely headed for an overwrought, violent end, echoing many older, shoujo-aimed yuri and yaoi:“No climax, no point, no meaning.” But Jeremy and Jordi of TITWIYEH are just starting out, in their own cute take on Boy Meets Boy. Finally, Kytri’s art needs improvement, RED Scout’s pet bird is less of a chicken… and more of a dove. Huh.
Follow Up - Whole Series Review
The “war”, or lack of it, is over. Our heroes have escaped, found comfort in each other’s arms. Was there ever any doubt that they’d do otherwise? No, not really, and I’m kicking myself for expecting the author to add in a little conflict at story’s end. The problem with eliminating conflict from a TF2 story, from any story, is that conflict is the meat in a sandvich: Who are the Team fighting? Why are they fighting them? What are they fighting for? In Cuanta Vida, these questions are answered simply with, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” but they aren’t elaborated on. The mistake that Thompson makes is not asking why the characters and situation of TF2 are the way they are. Why do the characters love the ones they love? Hate the ones they hate? Why were they fighting the war, and each other, in the first place? Money? Bloodlust? Recognition? Who even hired them? In Cuanta Vida, we aren’t shown this; we aren’t even given many of our leads names. Contrast Cuanta Vida’s lack of plot and characterization with “the most labyrinthine story in Valve history,” found in the media (including webcomics!) of a well-known videogame franchise: Team Fortress 2. The backstory: Death, undeath, and backstabbery. The plot: One maniac, Helen, rules the entire world with the help of her P.A. Miss Pauling, and the paid-for support of our anti-heroes, who serve as mere distractions for the two men Helen is playing for patsies. Our antiheroes are getting fed up with being treated in the same manner. The characters: Sure, all of ‘em love killin’, and none of ‘em give a crap about their bosses, but who could’ve guessed that Heavy is a highly literate girl-drink-drunk veteran of a gulag? That Scout has a thing for hot moms? (Well, Freud.) That Jane Doe has high tea? That Tavish Degroot has firsthand knowledge of the occult? That Dell Conagher likes fine art, and rooms with Pyro? That Medic isn’t a Nazi? That nearly all of these sociopaths, Spy and Mr. Doe in particular, have a soft spot for kids? And that’s not all. Medic could be Jewish. Pyro could be Dell’s robot. Who knows what Hidden Depths the characters might yet have to show?
"Better on DVD" in Comic Form
If Cuanta Vida has a worst problem, it's the pacing of the entire last third or so of the comic not meshing well at all with the update schedule. Now that it's finished, new readers will probably have a much different experience than long-time followers with the ability to parse the final act act all at once instead of the extremely short time frame being an extreme contrast against two or three updates a month. Ultimately, calling CV a deconstruction of TF2 isn't really accurate, for better or worse. There is no answer to the original questions of how the conflict, played straight as presented in the game, can possibly work. It's almost an homage to The Big O and one can practically hear Schwarzwald saying "...and waiting for us were not gods, but only this abandoned equipment." Perhaps the author decided not to write something that would conflict with the canon that's been established since the comic began, perhaps she felt it was best left to imagination, perhaps she never cared to begin with. The focus very quickly shifts to the characters and never goes back, exploring different directions the cliches they're based on can go. The biggest folly of most TF2 fanwork is a complete unwillingness on a creator's part to admit that the characters not only aren't three-dimensional, but were deliberately crafted not to be. The result is wildly out of character nonsense with forced character traits based on an arbitrary idea of how the classes must behave. Despite it's long-running character development for the main protagonists, CV does not fall into this trap. The BLU and RED Pyros, despite behaving very differently, are still loony pyromaniacs. Bleu is still a Spy; the fact that he has a kind heart and isn't cold-blooded like Rojo or a natural schemer like Gabry doesn't raise him above the others, it makes him a terrible Spy (indeed, we see later that he's just as effective as Rojo when breaking his principles is the lesser of two evils.) Cuanta Vida is a fun romp through the cliches and mindless violence of Team Fortress 2 from a perspective other than the player's. The romance is believable, the cast are all true to their classes, and the setting is faithful to the source material. The ending is a well-deserved prize for the heroes, and it wouldn't have been any different if the mysteries of the setting had been answered.
...and really quite boring, at least if you look at it on its own merits: the plot is often lost under heaps of drama and romantic development, the dialogue is sometimes awkward, and the art, while consistent, has a distinctly amateurish feel. But compared to the source material, it's actually very interesting. Cuanta Vida takes Team Fortress 2's basic background story and recalibrates it for drama, creating unique characters loosely based on the original classes and exploring the canon of the tf2 universe from their perspective. What stands out about CV is how different its mood is from the original game's. The angsty, drama-oriented comic is so radically divorced from the lighthearted game that the two are barely recognizable as related to each other. Whether or not this is a good thing is entirely subjective: if you have, quite understandably, become obsessed with the game's vibrant characters or entertaining setting, you may well find Cuanta Vida to be an interesting and satisfying read. And for me? Well, suffice it to say that I don't play tf2 for the plot.
Your Mileage May Vary
Cuanta Vida can best be described as a darker take on the world of Team Fortress 2 (though it also contains quite a bit of light-hearted moments to invoke Mood Whiplash). How well you receive it will depend on what side of the fence you sit in with regard to whether TF2 supports this sort of alternate character interpretation. The story starts strong, but the plot starts going onto the emotional lives of the character it loses its focus. The first significant character death in particular feels forced—it comes off more as the Author killing them off via sheer Diabolus Ex Machina. The unrelenting Bad Things Happening to the BLU Team also stop losing its tragic impact as there are very few moments that ease off the pressure and let the characters do anything other than react. Much of the supporting cast get no focus at all. It's not terrible, but it's not great, either.