Background: Like many, if not most, American males, I grew up as a fan of comic books; reveling in the adventures of superheroes and heroines that used fantastical powers to save the world from equally powerful villains bent on destruction, misery and the control of others. From the various Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman stories, to the more complex themes from Marvel's Incredible Hulk; I'd sit and read the morality plays disguised as kids fare, learning numerous moral lessons as they soaked inside my fragile, relatively untwisted, mind. Back in the 1960's, the hero would simply live by some absolute moral code and everything would turn out okay, just so long as he didn't deviate from the path of righteousness. Marvel was the first major comic company to introduce moral ambiguity into my life, showing that the good guy didn't always win and that good intentions lined the road to Hell. As time advanced, the art form advanced with it, a lot of ideas coming from Japan in the form of manga and anime, such as the exploits of Captain Harlock; a man dedicated to a lost cause, fighting long after everyone else gave up. The societal changes from my roots until the initial wave of anime included such minor events as the escalation of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the rise of influence by third world powers thanks to the varied energy crises brought on by our dependence on foreign oil; each of these adding to an evolving mindset shared by many others as we learned about the shades of gray our initial heroes could never fathom.
As time passed further on, television shows built the backs of the written comic book form in terms of delivery became increasingly popular (examples such as Firefly, Babylon 5: Crusade, and even Dilbert being but a few of them). One of the interim causes for the pop culture connection was the evolution of the comic book from the Marvel/DC duality to the diversity offered up in the 1980's with the rise of the independents. Out of that wave came the popular graphic novel; a self contained story focusing on a limited subset of a comic universe that probed into darker areas in order to grab the attention of a more adult audience; one familiar with the basics of the genre but hungry for something deeper, largely explaining the popularity of Moore's Watchmen and Miller's The Dark Knight series. From those humble roots, technological advances made possible a new means by which to tell such stories over the internet using a popular program called Flash, such as the subject of today's review of Broken Saints: The Animated Comic Epic.
Origins of the show: Broken Saints was the brainchild of a videogame producer legend by the name of Brooke Burgess, a young man too stupid to know when to quit and too stubborn to listen to his peers at Electronic Arts where he cut his teeth in learning the story telling process. No look at the series would be complete without exploring the roots of the man behind the scenes of the project and while there are numerous accounts, here's a quick version partially derived from his own description in the extras portion of the DVD set. After the infamous Dot-Com crash sent ripples throughout the global economy, Burgess took a long look at the incredible hours he was working at EA, deciding he was finished and that he was sick and tired of creating the electronic equivalent of opium for the masses so he cashed in his stock options and sailed around the world in search of something better for himself and his family. The South Pacific ended up being his home for a number of months, the warm isles, the friendly natives, and the low pressure life he had never known having a profound effect on him. He still had the creative urge though and it called to him with increasing frequency so he left the idyllic life and ventured up north to Canada, forming a bit of a partnership to try a new form of story telling using the basic graphic novel/comic book approach with a touch of modern technology in the form of Flash and the internet, to weave together a dark tale of greed, corruption, and prophecy and tell it...for free as a download.
Partnering up with a local corporate interest and a handful of friends, Burgess ended up producing a highly literate story that wasn't just eye candy, didn't rely on supernaturally gifted meta-humans parading around in skintight outfits, and took some devotion to keep up with (the opposite of most stories told in our "serve it up with fries", fast food culture dedicated to the lowest common denominator). With Flash expert Ian Kirby handling the technical matters, art by Andrew West (and no matter what anyone tells you, in the comic genre, the artist is the one most connected with the way a story comes across to the public), and composer Tobias Tinker setting the background's subtlety; Burgess harnessed all the skills he'd gathered from his production works and forged a compact to get the story done, and done right. The series was called Broken Saints, and detailed the not too distant future based on trends in technology, politics, and current events in such a way that a very dedicated following ensued.
Series: Broken Saints revolved largely around four main characters from different parts of the world. The cynical North American Raimi Matthews; a white, sheltered computer programming geek living in the lap of luxury; Oran Bajir, a Muslim terrorist with a deep hatred of the West; Kamimura, a Shinto monk with a sense of the future; and a white female orphan living in the Fijian islands with her adoptive family named Shandala Nisinu. The story started off with little bits and pieces of the quartet suffering from some sort of hallucination that involves them breaking down physically and mentally. None of them have any connection to one another but their dream of an impending doom slowly draws them into the thick of a military industrial complex plot centering on several key advances in technology being used by a handful in order to further their own interests. Without spoiling the story or many subplots too much, each of the four faces a series of tests that challenges them to break free of their preconceived notions of their lives and upbringing in order to face the coming crisis.
Raimi is the most knowledgeable of the group as he works for the central player of the conspiracy, a company called Biocom, and his thirst for having an edge in the form of information sets him down a path that ultimately costs him everything, and everyone, that he cares about when he sees something going on but wants to know more. Oran is a captured man used as a lab rat for the project, proving much more resilient then the enemy seems to appreciate. Kamimura walks a path set forth before him when he was forced out of his Buddhist temple over caring for a material possession given to him long ago; knowing deep down that it plays a key role in his destiny. Shandala is confronted with her past in the form of a man that appears to be friendly but is suspected of ill intent by her current family when he seeks to reunite her with her biological family far away from her paradise home.
The original version of the story was handled with relatively static pictures, limited animation, and word balloons used to convey the words of the cast. This was updated awhile back with voice actors and the current four disc version I'm reviewing enhanced most of the visuals and audio tremendously from the original version I saw glimpses of back in 2001. The story took years to release originally, one chapter at a time, with Burgess running out of money before he got too far into the story. When faced with the prospect of having to sell out to continue, he and others took jobs to continue, refusing standard methods of paying for bandwidth like banner ads, corporate sponsorships, and the like; holding fundraisers, using donations from the legions of fans, and moving the project into the home of one of his peers to cut costs.
The story itself used the graphic novel form with numerous quotes from literature (Shakespeare, Einstein, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, among others) as well as direct bits from the comic books and pop culture movies it bases so much of the story on (though these are done in a seemingly more random, at times forced, manner) in order to tell the deeper direction the lengthy series is heading. The multitude of visual clues is especially plentiful in this newer version (almost as if when going over it, a number of people tossed in new suggestions to enhance the previously sparse work). The result of all this is that the initial disc is slow going on a scale that will require patience well beyond the norm for such a work. That was likely one of the reasons the series was such a hit with the internet geek crowd, many of whom probably researched the clues and quotes or got them outright as nods from Burgess and others involved in the process.
To decipher the hidden and obscure meanings of each chapter, especially the earlier ones, will take most people more than a single viewing and I hate the idea of spoiling the 12 hour series for you by disclosing too much but the blend of elements here, while seemingly pretentious at times, really does make more sense the second (and later) times through it, especially if you take the time and listen to the audio commentaries (each episode has one, led by Burgess in each case but supplemented by others involved in the project). Exactly what happens to the characters, how they meet up, and how they resolve their own destinies as four separate "broken saints" (translation: each has a near infinite capacity for good or evil, corrupted by their past and in need of resolution by the end of the story; much like all of us though on a grander scale) and the cross and double crosses each partakes in make this one of the richer tapestry stories I've seen this year.
Okay, all that said, when I first started to watch the four disc set, I thought it was a piece of crap full of all the same pseudo mumbo jumbo baloney I've heard from new age self help types since the 1970's. It was almost painful to watch and listen to, with my brain telling my body to leave the room. It made no sense, the characters were unsympathetic, the voice acting stilted, and the writing of the type you'd find in the speeches of super villains throughout comic book history (you know the kind). Somewhere into the story though, it started to pull together and make more and more sense; still testing my patience but doing so less and less as I watched it for increasingly lengthy amounts of time (a funny coincidence being that the chapters got longer as the story progressed too; pretty fricking smooth on the part of the creators I'd say). To make the most sense of something, I sometimes had to back up, rewatch it, and pay closer attention (and contrary to what you may think, the best works of literature also require an active mindset so it wasn't like I had no experience doing so) but the rewards were numerous, even when I disagreed with a stated premise, belief, or course of action by the characters (I was once part of the military industrial complex so I wasn't without a background knowledge here). For whatever flaws I saw, there were a great many ideas worth considering, ending up with the set rating a Highly Recommended from me, nearly a collector status except for relatively minor issues I had with the layout. In short, if you have any comic collecting friends on your Christmas list this year, Broken Saints might be an excellent gift for them.
Picture: Broken Saints was presented in a letterboxed widescreen with an approximate aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (much like some of the classic Disney animation features-that's how I knew the ratio). It was not anamorphic as advertised which disappointed me but it was remastered, refinished, recolored and otherwise enhanced far beyond the original project ever hoped to be. It looked so much better than the original version (from the depth of the textures added to the cleaning up of the programming used to animate it) that this alone warranted buying this new set over the older one released in Canada awhile back. Some of the extras looked kind of weak but considering the source of the material varied so much, I wasn't surprised (clips from the cable shows like G4 looked great while webcasts and home videocamera shot bits varied tremendously.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of the newly mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital English track that had the most separation (and an audio/video optimizer on one of the discs for those who care) or the 2.0 Dolby Digital original version that had the music and sound effects only. I liked the new track and found the voice actors to be almost universally appropriate for their parts. The music and sound effects added something to the premise as well, making this a well deserved update if you downloaded and saved the original version (now called the Classic version by the way). There were times when the dialogue or actors sounded stilted in their delivery but these were few and far between for the purists out there, and you can always rely on the classic track if you don't like them. The subtitles were in English, French, or Spanish but I'm not going to kid you and say I speak the languages well enough to comment on the accuracy of translation (though the English dialogue track versus subtitle tracks showed some liberties were taken from the original word balloons.
Extras: A detailed explanation of each and every extra could easily fill a book but I'll try and cover all the bases as best I can. First off, there were audio commentaries for every episode, often going into some of the surrounding hardships faced when making the episode (relatively unrelated to the story itself) or personal anecdotes by Burgess and his peers. It should be clearly stated that Burgess was the driving force behind the commentaries, almost as if he was the go to guy about all aspects of the series in each of its incarnations. In another life time he'd be the high priest, the philosopher king, or the professor of absolute knowledge but while the others had a fair bit to say, he was the central figure around the story and DVD set (some of the others preferring to let their work speak for itself). I listened to numerous commentaries before writing this (I put one on when doing various writing projects even now) and each one seems to fortify my belief about who was what here but they were decent in all cases. There were a number of Easter Eggs on the discs that gave cute glimpses into the antics taking place, some of the fun the cast had, and other things for fans to find too. The first disc had a moderate length (under 20 minute) production feature about how the animation was handled (not too differently from the Flash used to animate award winning My Beautiful Girl Mari, for example) but it wasn't full of nerdy techno-babble that regular folks shy away from. There were some trailers for the series, a possible game, and the DVD itself that were kind of standard. There was a longer audio feature that spent a lot of time on the vocal cast and some of the recording sessions but it didn't do a lot for me outside of some minor observations made by the actors (many of whom looked nothing like they sounded by the way). The minor extras on the disc were disposable to me too; brief clips of Burgess and friends goofing off mostly. The second disc had what amounted to a lengthy lecture by Burgess at the Walker Art Institute (where he reminded me very much of a late night infomercial but with the kind of heart needed to sell the most jaded on his project; it being only partially completed by this point). There was a panel discussion from a webcast years back, some innovation design of a Biocom blueprint for the geeks out there, a weirdly twisted tour of Burgess' apartment (I wanted to look for his stash of porn laying about but couldn't see it; good luck finding this one too), a press and interview section where bits from lots of programs were collected, some more trailers, and a demonstration of some of the visual techniques used for the project. The third disc had some tarot readings that detailed more of the background but don't watch this one until you finish the series as it had spoilers. It also had an extension selection of fan contributions submitted over the years to the official website, some music files from the show, some DVD ROM material and wall papers. The fourth disc had a lot of minor stuff and I kept tripping over the Easter Eggs by mistake while trying to find all the regular features. The documentary used to introduce the show at the Sundance Film Festival was the longest and best extra but the shorter version gave a decent overview too. There was more fan material, more material related to the original (and many) webcasts, and the original chapter of the show included as well. The four disc set itself was held in a book form keeper case with an interesting plastic cover (each corner having a cardboard figure of one of the leading characters. There was a paper fold out of the Biocom blueprint and an eight page booklet breaking down the episodes, their running times, and plot synopsis too.
Final Thoughts: Broken Saints began slowly but soon established itself as superior entertainment on all levels, forcing me to use my brain rather then experience it's splendor mindlessly like some of Burgess' old games used to do. In almost every way, I think he and the team producing it succeeded in presenting a modern tale about big brother, religion, and the problems with relying too heavily on our social conditioning to guide us onto the right path in life. The boxed set was jam packed full of many extras and as much as Burgess seemed to be on a mission in most of the clips and interviews, I can hardly fault the guy considering how much he went through to get Broken Saints: The Animated Comic Epic made as cheaply as it was done yet keeping its street cred by virtual of never selling out in the face of adversity (essentially practicing what it preached to the audience). Great job!
If you enjoy animation like Broken Saints, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of anime reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.