Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - DM Turnstile

I'm not feeling well this week, so short entry with no scans.

Being a college gaming club, we faced the problem of turnover--players graduated then moved away. Paul was the first to go. After he left, my friend Homer stepped up to take over the DM duties for our weekly D&D fix, starting an all-new campaign with new characters.

Homer's campaign was fundamentally different from Paul's. We didn't level up as quickly and the emphasis wasn't so much on huge, high-powered combats. I think I was playing either a mage or fighter mage, but I don't remember for sure. Homer liked Moorcock's stuff a lot, so we ended up on this ship, sailing hte seas of fate, drifting through fogbanks and ending up in alternate realities where we might fight giant monsters or just hordes of enemy solders.

The one particular adventure I remember was almost dreamlike, a battle constructed specifically to feel like a video game, We faced an infinite horde of enemies, and were immediately surrounded by zero-level fighters. Once each player had killed 10 zero-level fighters, ten first-level fighters took their places, then 2nd-level and so on. I died pretty quickly, but some of the other guys may have made up to the 3rd-level guys. It's amazing how even low-level fighters can tear you up if they get to roll enough times.

Homer's campaign only lasted one semester, then he left. Another guy named Rick then took over, actually continuing with the characters from Homer's campaign, since we weren't very high-level yet. But Rick wasn't as enamored of the Moorcock concept, so he ended up landing us permanently in a new land, with a map based on England.

It's funny how a campaign in the same game system, with the same characters, could turn out so differently with a different GM. Rick's game had a completely different flavor than Homer's, but I don't remember a single memorable adventure. I do remember sitting down with Rick and coming up with a different rule for determining initiative in combat,and I remember that my character had a brownie familiar who spent one night Dimension-Dooring all over a castle to recon something. I don't remember why we were there or what happened, only that I totally abused the rules, because the brownie was only supposed to be able to cast one Dimension Door a day, and I had him bamfing all the castle like Nightcrawler.

It's strange, because we basically had Saturdays broken down into two halves, morning and evening. And even though the evenings were the serious D&D games with the better gamemasters, I don't remember them nearly as well as the morning round-robin games with rotating gamemasters.

Next week: more superheroes...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


As I said a couple of days ago, I have a new novel idea I've been toying with. And it strikes me that one element of my personal creative process seems to be one that I don't see remarked upon very much by other writers.

That element is this: although the initial idea arises as something positive--the type of story I very much want to read--the development of that initial idea is governed at least as much by negatives--the kinds of things I want to avoid in telling the story.

For instance, the current project is another period piece somewhat like Death Wave, but a more fantastic, science-fictional story with greater scope and maybe a Cthulhu-style horror tinge to it as well. And as I was developing the idea, I became intrigued by the idea of setting it in Tulsa.

But from there on, I started defining it by negatives: I don't want it to be the typical story set in the city where the author lives just cause the author wants to tell everybody how awesome his home town is, so I'm thinking of making Tulsa alien and strange and downright scary. I don't want the book to follow the basic Cthulhu storyline, with doomed hero fighting a losing struggle against an immensely powerful entity that cannot be defeated, only delayed for a time. I don't want the villain to be the basic stock villain everybody uses: a greedy wealthy industrialist, for example, or a secret government conspiracy plotting to destroy freedom for the greater good, or God help me, Nazis.

A certain part of me wants to think that every writer does this--defines the story before writing it as this, but not that, circumscribes it, places limits on it, assigns it a certain format like a sonnet or a haiku--but I either take it to an extreme or else do it poorly, because I find myself writing things that I like but have no confidence in. In my quest to avoid cliche, I also manage to avoid audience identification, leaving my story filled with characters and events which are unlovable and unbelievable, but are at least not cliches, thank God.

I want to think I'm getting better at this. At least, I hope I am, because I really need for this next book to be The One, if you know what I mean. I think I've got the technical ability. Now I've just got to hit on The Story and The Character that will click with agent, editor and audience. No easy feat, and as the years press down on me, I find myself believing less and less that I will ever manage it.

But I keep trying, thinking every time, "This is The One." I hope I'm right this time, but there's a lot of words between me and that goal.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 1993

Yeah, I know. More Batman.

Actually, while I was in the thick of the Batman series a few weeks ago, Sargon the Terrible mentioned this one other Batman theatrical feature I had skipped. I blew it off at the time because number one, I only had this movie on VHS, and number two, it's part of the vast DC/Warner animated universe that I couldn't do any justice to in a single post, and number three, well, I was already up to my neck in Batman and didn't want to get any deeper in the weeds.

But Sargon had the DVD, and I've had a few weeks away from Batman movies (though not from Batman, if you've been reading Out of the Vault on Saturdays) , so here goes--"Batman:Mask of the Phantasm."

The movie was an outgrowth of the Batman animated series produced by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. The series was immediately embraced by fans because of its darker, more mature feel, truer to the character than either the sunny Hanna-Barbera Super Friends-style Batman cartoons of earlier generations or Burton's dramatic, but odd interpretations. The animated Batman had all of moodiness of Burton's films without the weirdness. Timm and Radomski's Batman was a modern-day noir hero, Sam Spade with a cape.

The movie opens with a typical shot of Gotham City. One of the innovations used to enhance the moody feel of the series was to airbrush the backgrounds on black paper, giving everything a dark, gritty feel.

Some crooks are meeting to discuss the distribution of counterfeit bills, when Batman swoops in to break up the meeting.

You can see that though the animated series took a lot of inspiration from Burton's Batman, they still stuck with the classic comic book version of the tights, rather than the movie's body armor approach to the costume. There's a fight and gangster Chuckie Sol flees. But in the parking garage, Sol runs into this mysterious apparition.

And here you see the real secret to the success of Timm and Radomski. They were thieves. They stole shamelessly, from everywhere. For instance, compare the Phantasm above with the Reaper, from the comic book storyline Batman: Year Two, below.

Okay, you say, so they took inspiration for this storyline from the comic of the main character. That's not exactly stealing. Dude, we haven't even gotten started yet.

So the Phantasm kills Chuckie Sol (though in true kid-movie style, the "murder" of Sol turns out to be more like "avoids being killed by Sol, whose murder attempt backfires and kills himself instead"), and witnesses think Batman did it.

But before Batman can track down the mysterious phantom killer, old flame Andrea Beaumont shows up in town.

Andrea was a girl that Bruce fell for back in his pre-Batman days, leading to a sequence that helped answer a question that's been nagging at me for a while. When I was writing up Batman: Year One, I mentioned how the scene in "Batman Begins," where Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne wears a ski mask in his first outing, was inspired by the comic. But the pictures didn't really back up my assertion, and I couldn't figure out what had brought me to make that linkage.

That's because I had forgotten that "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" filled in the missing links. In the movie, Bruce Wayne's first battle with criminals starts with him in a stocking cap, just like Year One...

But then he pulls it down to form a ski mask as in "Batman Begins."

Though he eventually wins the altercation (after an action sequence that steals from such sources as "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), the crooks aren't very impressed. "They weren't afraid of me," Bruce growls later. "I've gotta' strike fear into them from the start."

Which will eventually lead to the creation of the Batman. But first, Bruce falls in love with Andrea, taking her to the Gotham World's Fair (which looks an awful lot like the 1939 World's Fair in New York City) before getting into an altercation with some street thugs on motorcycles, which leads to this stunt...

stolen quite shamelessly from a certain other influential animated film...

In the modern day, the mysterious Phantasm continues to kill off criminals, and we learn through flashbacks that the gangsters were all affiliated with Andrea's father.

Leading the film to take a rather sharp turn halfway through, as we learn that the sharp-nosed young thug in the upper right of the photo above grew up to become this guy...

Possibly the best all-around interpretation of the Joker on screen, ever (not speaking necessarily of this particular film, just the animated series version of the Joker in general). Between the sharp writing and Hamill's voice work, we're given a character who manages to walk the line between loony and genuinely frightening, making for a memorably entertaining murderer. Ledger's Joker was a work of art, but in some ways, you could argue that he was almost a brand new character in a familiar costume, while the cartoon Joker manages to capture the best versions of the comics character and bring them to life.

As the Joker is killing off the last of the gangsters and seeking to lure the Phantasm into a trap, the police continue to hunt down the Batman, in a scene that seems suspiciously reminiscent of a certain other confrontation in a certain Miller comic.

Oh yeah, and you can't have a comic book adaptation nowadays without the obligatory shout-out to the comics creators...

Anyway, it all leads to a final confrontation between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker that is downright operatic in its combination of over-the-top emotion and fiery destruction. Oh, and in a lot of ways, it steals shamelessly from "Batman Returns," (released the year before this film came out) what with the exploding park and the woman Bruce loves who seemingly dies while exacting vengeance, leaving Batman broken-hearted while barely escaping with his life.

And yeah, I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek about the thievery bit. All creative people steal, or take inspiration from, the things they like. I haven't even mentioned the scene stolen straight from the Bible. What made the animated Batman so successful was that it wasn't just a regurgitation of stale tropes from here and everywhere. The makers of the series stole a lot, from everywhere, but they gave everything their own spin and made their work into its own coherent whole. It can be argued that "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" was the best big-screen adaptation of the character ever, at least before "Batman Begins" (and some who bear no love for Nolan's film might even end the sentence before the qualifier).

I don't know if I'd go that far. While the film is pretty well-written, with a sophisticated noirish mystery plot that spans years, the animation ranges from passable to crude. The budget was limited (it was originally supposed to be a simple direct-to-video release, actually), with bits of the animation being farmed out to different studios, and the schedule appears to have been pretty tight. The animation is nowhere near as smooth and dynamic as, say, your usual Disney feature or the best Japanese releases. I'd love to see the guys with the dramatic chops of folks like Timm and Dini get hooked up with a really big budget and a studio with Disney's animation expertise.

Then again, I sort of did once. It was called "The Incredibles." But that's a completely different subject.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Conestoga Non-Report

My home town con, Conestoga, is running this weekend, but I'm not there. I was invited as a guest once more, and accepted long ago, before I had any idea what my employment situation would be. As it turns out, I started my job just in time to be eligible for a paid day off the day after the conventions ends. And my work schedule just changed so that I work all weekend instead of just half of it. So I got double-whammied and missed out on everything, which hardly matters, because I was only scheduled for one panel anyway. It's not as if they were counting on me for much.

But that just makes work this weekend all the worse. Not only is the job itself really draining, but knowing that I'm missing the one big weekend a year I get to see many folks I know from neighboring states just adds injury to insult.

The one bright spot: I did spend a couple of hours on Friday night and a couple more on Saturday night at the con, and somehow even that little exposure got me playing with an idea for a new book. I don't know if it'll go the distance yet, but it has some interesting possibilities.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Out of the Vault - DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Part 3

This is it, the big finale of Frank Miller's DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

As we saw in part 2, Miller's Superman had let himself be beaten up by a giant Brainiac robot while Batman had finally made his big public debut by leading his bat-army in open rebellion against the government.

Issue 3 opens with Batman making a video-conference call to a weird green alien with wife and son who turns out to be Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who left Earth long ago. Hal is convinced to return to Earth, at least temporarily.

From there, we see the aftermath of the battle in Metropolis, with lots of grit and floating debris which was clearly influenced by the fact that 9/11 was so fresh in people's minds. Captain Marvel has a brief scene with Wonder Woman and dies.

And it's supposed to be powerful and sentimental (Wonder Woman even cries), but the problem with this scene is the same as with all the other scenes in this miniseries that try to evoke strong sentiment.

Number one, Miller takes the lazy way out by not giving the characters any on-screen time to build a connection with the audience, but just depending on the audience's connection with the characters through other artists' work. For instance, up to this point, Cap has appeared in ten panels and spoken four lines of dialogue. Then he dies and we're suddenly supposed to feel this big wave of emotion, when Miller has given us no reason to care. Miller does the same thing, but even more egregiously later, when Superman digs through the rubble of the Daily Planet building and finds a locket with photos of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It's supposed to be this powerful moment where Superman says goodbye to Lois, but how powerful can it be when there has been absolutely no mention of Lois before? Last issue, Supes was fucking Wonder Woman and has acted all along as if Lois never existed.

Number two, it's hard to feel the emotions Miller wants us to feel in these moments because these scenes are bracketed by silly political satire and ever-more-incoherent diatribes that create emotional distance from the story and characters. What's more, he has suddenly gone from portraying completely fictional cabinet members (like SecState Robert "Buzz" Ruger-Exxon) to caricaturing actual members of the Bush administration like Ari Fleischer and Donald Rumsfeld.

And Peter Sanderson, for one, wrote a very long, three-part review that takes a generally positive view of the series overall, and seems to be colored in part by the fact that Miller's political message in issue 3 has basically morphed into "Bush sux, y'all." But taking this fantasy story into the real world gives it all kinds of disturbing dimensions, especially when you've cast Batman's army in the Al Qaeda role.

So Superman leaves the wreckage with his daughter, and there are some nice graphic effects (including one very graceful image of the two flying with delicate linework that looks as if someone else ghosted in just that little fragment--Miller's work is a lot of things, but it has never been delicate or graceful) as Superman schools his daughter on the need to be a good servant and steward to mankind. But then a holographic Batman appears to the two of them, thanks to a tiny transmitter implanted in Superman's head by the Atom. Batman orders Superman to work for him, and Superman falls in line, becoming Batman's stooge.

Batman has basically become a good guy version of Luthor at this point, a parallel made more disturbing by the fact that Miller depicts Bruce Wayne as having shaved his head bald. Miller's Wayne looks more like Luthor than his Luthor does.

Meanwhile, Carrie has hunted down a young precog who calls herself Saturn Girl, who has an ominous warning.

That's right, the mysterious assassin with the Joker smile and the Judge Doom eyes who died in issue two has come back in issue three. And Carrie is worried because she has also killed the guy pretty dead recently.

So now it's time for the big finale. Superman causes a distraction by battling U.S. troops, blowing fighter planes and helicopters out of the sky, and having an epiphany that he's actually not human after all...

Yeah, that's not an ominous sign or a complete betrayal of the character or anything. And the thing is, Miller might have made it work if he spent more time on Superman's character instead of wasting so much page space on meaningless kibitzing by anonymous observers and media talking heads. Half the series reads like comments from Internet trolls, which may be a satirical comment by Miller on the state of comics fandom, but that's not what I paid eight fucking bucks an issue to read.

Meanwhile, Lara and the Atom free the Kandorians, who then help Supergirl destroy Brainiac. It also looks as if Atom dies. Which is to say, one of the Kandorians tells him that he should take refuge on her body to avoid destruction, so he leaps onto her eyeball to swim in her tears, at which point the Kandorians ALL CUT LOOSE WITH THEIR HEAT VISION. Great plan, Ray.

And then there's Batman, who has somehow off-screen allowed himself to be captured by Luthor. Seriously, he's just suddenly a prisoner in Luthor's headquarters with no more explanation than Luthor saying, "You picked the perfect day to blunder into my hands." Luthor beats up Batman while he gloats about his plan to destroy the world with orbital weapons, and Batman gloats about how Luthor's about to die. And then Green Lantern shows up to disarm all of Luthor's orbiting nukes, Flash shows up to free Batman, and suddenly, there's a new Godfather in town.

At this point, Miller has gone completely the opposite of his previous story. In DKR, Miller's Batman was a tired old man, a perfectionist too aware of his own failings, a hero regarded as a villain by the world at large, unable to kill even when the victim eminently deserves it. And now, Batman is the revolutionary leader of an army of terrorists (but, y'know, "good" terrorists according to Miller, because they're standing up to The Man), casually ordering deaths left and right. He's a criminal mastermind headed for fascist dictator territory, Che Guevara in tights. I think Miller wants us to admire that, but it's hard to tell.

So the "bad" guys are defeated and the "good" guys have won. But then Carrie is attacked by that goofy immortal assassin again, and Batman rushes back to the Batcave, where he learns that the mysterious hero-killer is none other than DICK GRAYSON???

And if there was something disturbing about the Joker's love-notes to Batman in DKR, this scene is just downright revolting.

Cuz look, if you think Dick Grayson's a lame character, fine, you've got a right to that opinion. But the dynamic between Bruce and Dick has been pretty well established for years now, Bruce as the stern, demanding, emotionally distant father figure, Dick resentful of living in his shadow but still striving to live up to his expectations. It wasn't world-shakingly original, but it worked.

Miller throws all that away and has them cussing at each other like that married couple in "The War of the Roses." It's strongly implied that they were lovers, and they have nothing but homicidal contempt for each other now. Dick has threatened to rape, torture and kill Carrie, and Batman beheads Robin before killing him. These are not the characters we grew up with; hell, this Batman isn't even the same guy we saw in Miller's previous series. These are asshole strangers in familiar costumes, and it pisses me off that they've somehow blundered into the story I was reading. Doesn't this place have security guards to keep the drunks out?

Then we get the "heartwarming" ending.

And in the end, it's all just baffling. I can't tell what Miller was trying to do here, and I can't tell if he failed or succeeded. Was this a serious adventure story, or an Andy Kaufman-style spoof that, like Kaufman, ended up more uncomfortable than funny? Is Miller advocating action against militaristic governments like Bush's, or is he goofing on the idiots who think revolutionaries are cool? Does he seriously think his darker take on Batman and Superman is good, or is this a coded message to the Image fanboys saying, "If this is what you like, then choke on it." Does he seriously think his running commentaries enhance the story, or is he making fun of Internet trolls?

I can't tell, and really, if this story were any good at all, I should be able to.

This is the Miller I hate, the Miller who made "The Spirit," and unfortunately, I think it's the Miller we're stuck with from now on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Spaceships and Special Guest Stars

I mentioned a while back that I'd picked up a copy of a science-fiction game titled Starships and Spacemen that I'd considered running. I had chosen not to, but I still found myself intrigued by the idea of playing a space travel game.

One advantage to our gaming group was that it was set up as an official club of the university, which meant that we were actually disbursed funds. But since we didn't do anything except meet once a week in the basement of one of the buildings, we had no expenses. So once a year, the club's president would just go around and ask if there were any games we wanted, then buy them for us. I got myself a Monster Manual and a Fiend Folio that way. And one semester, I asked for a copy of Traveller.

Traveller was the science-fiction role-playing game, put out by Game Designers' Workshop. I was really looking forward to getting the game, because unlike Starships and Spacemen, there was a wealth of supporting material for Traveller: adventure and campaign supplements with intriguing names like "The Spinward Marches" and "Research Station Gamma," along with supplementary rules for giant ships, space trading and smuggling, or being a mercenary. And the game was a proven success, a big seller dominating the science-fiction game market the way Dungeons and Dragons did the fantasy market. Even the books themselves had a distinctive identity, with each book featuring the same sleek black design. Traveller looked like a quality product that I would love playing.

So I eagerly opened up the box and looked through the books. I wasn't as thrilled after paging through the books a little. The game seemed really dry, and the space travel rules looked complicated and technical, closer to real space travel than the swashbuckling fun of the "Star Wars" movies I really wanted to emulate.

Still, I didn't want to judge the game without giving it a try, so I dug into the first booklet and started rolling a sample character. One feature of Traveller's character-building concept was to give your character a past to justify his skills. All characters had past military experience, and you would roll for how their military careers had fared--how their skills had developed and how many times they'd been promoted. And, just incidentally, whether they'd been killed while in service.

Three dead characters later, I'd had enough and quit.

I could have ignored the results, I guess, and just kept playing, but I felt a bit like that chick in "The Emperor's New Groove" when she says, "Why do we even have that lever?" Planting a big, stupid, non-fun gotcha in the character creation process made me not trust that there wouldn't be more.

Never have actually played a game of Traveller to this day, and the books are long lost (though I just downloaded a free PDF of the original starter rules for the cover image above; checking the Classic Traveller rules, I see that the survival rule is still in there, though there is an optional rule that says you can waive the death and just make it so the character was injured and therefore booted from the service). And with two bad science-fiction game experiences under my belt, I decided to give up on science-fiction gaming.

Then one Saturday, I found out that Jose was going to run a Space Opera game. Space Opera was another Fantasy Games Unlimited release that competed directly with Traveller. And though it didn't have quite the wealth of supporting material that Traveller did, it had a lot, and the flavor seemed closer to what I wanted to play. I forget why I missed the start of the campaign, but when I sat in on my first adventure, the characters were already in the middle of assaulting a secret base. Rather than have me roll a new character and sandwich me in somehow, Jose let me take over the two NPC's he had accompanying the players: a certain roguish space smuggler and his eight-foot-tall furry co-pilot.

We were assaulting some military base or something. It was pretty fun for me, less so for the other players, just because the base was very tough, and they were first level characters barely able to do anything. The NPC's I was playing were higher level, and so were doing most of the actual fighting. My two characters would sweep through the base, taking down defenses while the PC's followed in my wake.

The next adventure, I rolled up my own character and joined the party. We got swept up in another attack on some military base or something (I think we had joined some kind of "rebellion" fighting against some sort of "empire," if you can believe it), and it was very tough. Space Opera had sounded like a fun game with the "Star Wars" flavor I was looking for, but combat in the game was tough and deadly, totally unlike the movies. Jose's solution to that was to have a couple of Mary Sue NPC's tank for us, which left the players feeling futile and useless.

We played for a few weeks, but nobody was having a whole lot of fun, so the game petered out. Never have played a proper sci-fi game since. I did buy one other game called Homeworld: The Mechanoid Invasion Book 3, with humans and alien allies fighting an invasion by giant bug-shaped robots (the only Kevin Siembieda/Palladium game I've ever bought), but I don't think I ever even got a far as generating a test character. I think I just bought it because the illustrations looked cool, and I wanted to steal ideas for my V&V campaign. I don't even remember now.

If you've had a good experience with Traveller or Space Opera or one of the other space games like Star Frontiers or even (gasp!) the Star Wars Roleplaying Game itself, let me know.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Blast From the Past-Big Audio Special

No Movie Monday today due to disruptions in work schedule, so for one week only, enjoy this Big Audio Special.

In 1946, Standard Oil sponsored a splashy new radio show titled Let George Do It. It was a wacky comedy starring Bob Bailey as George Valentine, a veteran returned from the war who placed a classified ad in the paper advertising his availability as a troubleshooter.

Do you have a crime that needs solving? Do you have a dog that needs walking? Do you have a wife that needs spanking? Let George Do It.

He was aided in his adventures by his teenaged assistant Sonny Brooks and Sonny's gorgeous older sister, Claire. The production values were first-rate, including a full orchestra, though the writing was less so. There are only a few of the first season's adventures on Internet Archive, but they include mysteries and other capers like finding a wife for George's pig farmer cousin and helping a western movie star overcome his fear of horses.

By the second year, Sonny was gone, and Claire had evolved from Sonny's ingenue sister to "Brooksie," George's sexy secretary/girlfriend (played for mucht of the series by Virginia Gregg who, among a host of other roles, played the voice of Norman Bates's mother in "Psycho" and did the voice of Tara on The Herculoids). George was less wacky troubleshooter and more straight-up private eye and there was no more mention of dog-walking or wife-spanking. Instead, there was simply a terse statement along these lines (there were several different variations)

Personal Notice: Danger is my stock in trade. If the job's too tough for you to handle, then you've got a job for me, George Valentine. Write full details.

This would be followed by an excerpt from the letter from that week's desperate individual in need of help. Murder and fraud followed George everywhere he went. The show also featured several well-known radio voices as guest players, like Howard McNear and William Conrad.

In January 1949, the orchestra was replaced by an organ as the budget dropped. The show continued to run until 1954, with Olan Soule replacing Bailey for that last season and Pream Coffee Creamer replacing Standard Oil as the sponsor. Bailey moved on to star as my personal favorite radio detective, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

You can find episodes here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Out of the Vault - DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Part 2

So last week, we saw Frank Miller return to the storyline that redefined Batman, made him feel relevant and modern again. And we saw how the sequel seemed to have trouble measuring up. But surely Miller still had some gas left in his tank. Surely he still had some surprises in store for us.

He did, but that doesn't mean they were good surprises.

In the first issue, Miller had set up the world in fairly simple terms: Batman is gathering an army to fight a revolution against a corrupt United States government that has fallen under the influence of Luthor and Brainiac, fooling the public with a holographic President. Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel all work for Luthor, because Brainiac is holding their respective loved ones hostage--Mary Marvel for the Captain, the island of Themyscira for Wonder Woman, and the bottled city of Kandor for Superman (Lois Lane is never, ever mentioned, either in DKR or DK2) [ETA: Okay, reading ahead, I do see that I missed one mention of Lois, but I'll talk about that next week].

Issue 2 opens with more media talking heads, this time addressing the vital issue of the day: the government is banning a rock concert featuring three girls dressed as former superheroines. Only this time, Miller uses caricatures of real-life media figures George Stephanopolous, George Will and Don Imus (and I think the fat guy at the top is supposed to be Rush Limbaugh maybe--hard to tell).

Five full pages we spend on the debate over hot chix rights, after which Batman crashes the Batplane into LuthorCorp headquarters in the infamous scene which led to this comic being delayed for several months (the issue was being prepped for release when 9/11 happened, and suddenly the idea of crashing a flying vehicle into a skyscraper didn't seem so heroic).

And astoundingly, even though the scene has zero emotional resonance, and actually even less because of the ridiculous joke names Miller gives to the members of Luthor's cabinet, it still managed to anticipate or inspire at least one facet of Nolan's later Batman films, that of a cape that can be made rigid and used as a weapon.

And yes, as near as I can tell, Batman did just disembowel that guy. The Batman who prayed for Harvey Dent's rehabilitation and found himself unable to kill the Joker even after the villain had just killed an entire pack of Cub Scouts at the fair somehow has no problem killing U.S. government officials. Cause, you know, they're the real bad guys and all.

Meanwhile, as Batman is beating the crap out of Luthor, Wonder Woman flies to the North Pole to find a battered Superman in the wreckage of the former Fortress of Solitude, licking his wounds from the beating he received at Batman's hands last issue. And though I didn't mention it specifically last week, it needs to be said: though Miller's art in this series is pretty bad throughout, and his costume redesigns really bite, Wonder Woman turns out the worst of the lot. Miller's Wonder Woman is hideous.

We learn that Superman and Wonder Woman have a secret love child, a daughter named Lara. Superman, however, has given in to despair. He has no fight left in him. So Wonder Woman punches him, then screws him (in a series of 5 full-page panels which avoid nudity, leaving the couple wrapped in Superman's cape as they soar into orbit, then crash down into a volcano, causing an eruption--SYMBOLISM!)

At this point, the whole story erupts into mindless action. Luthor and Brainiac, determined to punish Superman for failing to stop Batman, send Brainiac out on a rampage, disguised as a giant alien robot. The plan is to humiliate Superman by making him publicly show himself a coward. So Superman decides to go Gandhi.

This is a ridiculous surrender by a guy who would never submit like this under any other writer. And judging from the overwrought reaction we see from all the people on the ground, I guess we're supposed to care. And maybe we would, if this Superman bore any relation to the real character we grew up with, other than the costume (and notice the insignia--it's more like the Fleischer animated Superman of the 40's than the modern iteration).

And meanwhile, Batman and his crew, now also including Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, are breaking into Arkham Asylum to free the most dangerous man in the world.

Plastic Man? This is what Miller had up his sleeve? Plastic Man is some sort of mad god now?

And meanwhile meanwhile, there's some dude with a Jokery face who wears an Ace of Spades over his left eye like a member of the Royal Flush Gang and dresses in costumes of other heroes (like Cosmic Boy and Element Lad of the Legion of Super-Heroes, or a certain other company's wall-crawler in this scene) offing heroes.

Who is he? Who knows? Who cares? He appears out of nowhere killing the Guardian and a few pages later is killed himself after he sets fire to Martian Manhunter (who is now a powerless drunk).

And meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, the National Guard has assembled to stop the Superchix concert, causing a national media sensation. Holy God, is this story all over the place or what?

Finally, as Brainiac is about to finish off Superman once and for all, his daughter shows up to kick ass.

And now we understand why Miller bent over backwards to show Superman as a weak-willed stooge--so that he could show us what a bad-ass his daughter is. It's clumsy and artificial and forced.

And finally comes the big climax, where Batman and his army finally make their big public debut, saving the Superchix concert from the National Guard while Plastic Man screams "Rodney King! Rodney King!" And I swear to God, it seems like Miller's trying to make some kind of political point here, but I can't fucking tell what it is, because it's going in so many directions.

By the end of the issue, there's been a whole lot of action, but damn little story, and I don't care about any of it. The villains are too obvious, the morals are confusing, and the characters aren't so much cardboard (Miller tries to give them some sort of depth) as just completely askew. Nothing makes any damn sense.

But at this point, I still have enough fond memory of DKR to still give Miller the benefit of the doubt. He's trying. I mean, he's failing totally, but he's trying some new things, at least. There's no way Miller can make this story good, no matter how good the third issue is, but I figure this second act muddle is as bad as things can get, right?


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Crunchy Time

What a pain. Having to buy new car insurance at the same time that taxes are due, and still not caught up on bills from last year's big mistake. I had forgotten how much it costs to be broke. You have to pay extra for everything. Luckily, it looks as if I'll be getting a tax refund this year. It won't catch me up (not even close) but it'll help.

Luckily, I have the blog, which gives me something to do, even if it sometimes feels like a second (unpaid) job. Since the election, I've virtually given up on writing or submitting for publication (and frankly, I had mostly given up on it before that, when I found out just how hopeless my marriage had become). But I may have to curb the blogging soon and concentrate on trying to get published again. I don't know if it'll succeed or not, but I've lost over two years of production over personal issue and it's eating at me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - It's the Law

One day, Paul suggested we try an experiment with a new product that had been put out by a company called Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.). It was called Arms Law, and it was basically a substitute combat system for D&D.

One of the silliest of D&D's silly rules was Armor Class, at least on the face of it. Basically, in D&D, armor made you harder to hit.

When you think of it in wargame terms, it makes perfect sense. Remember that the kinds of miniatures wargames that D&D evolved from featured highly abstract combat. When you roll to hit, what you are really rolling is whether you hurt your opponent. Armor protects you from damage. Therefore, whether you dodge the blow or whether it glances off your armor makes no effective difference; you're still taking no damage.

Except that in terms of flavor, it makes a ton of difference. If armor poses no trade-offs, such as protection vs. maneuverability, then there is no reason for anyone not to wear the heaviest armor they can find at all times, hence the need for artificial restrictions on armor wear by character class. You're trading one convenience (armor's damage absorption folded into the To Hit roll) for one PITA (armor restrictions by class).

So the dudes at I.C.E. came up with Arms Law, and looking at the ads, it seemed really cool: detailed charts for every weapon with more realistic To Hit and Armor rules and extensive critical hit tables. Paul picked up a copy and we grabbed some characters and tried to run an encounter.

Arms Law basically consisted of a booklet printed on cardstock, with every page perforated so you could tear it out and hand it to a player. On every page was a table. You can see a sample to the left (and as always, you can click it for a larger version).

This is a To Hit table for a broad sword, with lots of tiny numbers in 20 columns. And looking at the table, you can see the big differences between Arms Law and D&D. The 20 columns across the top are armor classes, ranging from 1 at the right (naked skin) to 20 at left (full plate, with overlapping plates to protect joints). But Arms Law handles hit resolution and armor very differently from D&D.

Number one, attacks are rolled on percentile dice, which gives a wider range of possible results, and there are percentages far above 100 on the chart, which is due to Arms Law using an early version of "exploding" dice. Basically, if you roll a critical success (96-00), you roll again and add the result to your first roll, continuing until you roll something less than 96.

So say I'm attacking some native dude in a loincloth and little else. In D&D, I would roll on a chart that correlated my level against his armor class and told me whether I damaged him or not. With no armor protection, he would be much easier to hit (even though it seems counterintuitive for a guy with no restrictions on his movement), but if I hit him, I would do the same range of damage as if he were wearing a full suit of plate armor.

Arms Law took a more realistic and more detailed ("crunchy," as the kids today like to say) approach. Say I rolled a 38 against my nearly-naked opponent. Unless I had huge bonuses to hit from level and expertise and magic pluses, I would miss, because I do no damage if my roll is below 80. On the other hand, if I were fighting a guy encumbered with a full suit of plate, I would hit him for one point of damage, possibly more with pluses. But if I managed to roll an 80 against my naked opponent, my damage would start at 8 points, while the same roll would only do 4 damage to a fighter in plate.

Basically armor made you easier to hit, but harder to damage, which just felt right. Also, the better your roll to hit, the more damage you did, so there was never the disappointment of making an awesome roll to hit (which we house-ruled as double damage on a natural 20) only to roll a one for damage.

The other big difference in Arms Law was the use of critical hit tables. Say that with bonuses, my roll ends up being 92 against my loincloth-wearing opponent.The To Hit table gives me a result of 12BP. The letters indicate a critical hit, meaning that after I apply my damage of 12, I go to column B of the Puncture table and roll again. I roll a 56 and discover that I have wounded his thigh, doing 3 extra damage, plus bleeding damage of 2 per round, plus he's stunned and unable to parry next round. The results go all the way from a piddly point of extra damage to instant death plus a bonus against your next opponent.

"Cool," we thought, and started playing. And soon, the problems became obvious.

Number one, although the rules were very detailed for man-to-man combat, there was very little in the way of rules for fighting monsters. Monsters fought by slightly different rules in D&D, based on hit dice, not level, and we quickly learned that Arms Law just didn't handle them well. There was a footnote in the book that I.C.E. would be coming out with a future companion product known as Claw Law that would handle monster combat, but that didn't do us any good at the moment, did it?

Another problem was that the Arms Law charts didn't scale. Like Arms Law, D&D had twenty armor classes (ranging from 10 to -10), but unlike Arms Law, the D&D charts had an easily discernable pattern that made it easy to scale them. What if you had a set of magical armor that was better than plate? The rules gave vague suggestions, but no hard and fast answers. Or what if you had a lot of bonuses and rolled really well on your exploding dice, so that your roll ended up above 200? The charts only went to 150, which limited you to 8 damage against a fully armored opponent (yes, you got a column E critical as well, but it still felt like your roll of 200 was being wasted somehow).

Also, the rules for determining pluses very infuriatingly vague (which made sense given that the product was supposed to be for use with any system). For instance, in D&D, characters of high level hit much more easily than characters of low level. How to account for this in Arms Law? See rule 5.24, presented here in its entirety:

A combatant judged to be at a certain level of experience may be given an offensive bonus by the referee.

That's it. That's the whole rule. There's no table or guidance to suggest what that bonus should be, just an indication that a bonus might exist (a completely different rule on another page suggests 5% per level, but you really have to hunt for it).

So in the end, we abandoned the Arms Law experiment. The tables were unwieldy, the monster combat was awkward, and the conversion rules were too vague. I.C.E. eventually brought out more supplements (Claw Law, Spell Law, and Campaign Law) to produce a full game system called Rolemaster (which was also the basic system I.C.E. used for Middle Earth Role Playing, or MERP).

I bought the Rolemaster boxed set in the mid-80's, thinking it might be fun to see if Arms Law worked better as part of an integrated system. But by then, I no longer really had anybody to game with, so the box just sat with my piles of other old games, with the books occasionally taken out and thumbed through, but never actually used. An experiment that failed.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Movie Monday - Secret of the Incas

People are starting to talk about this one as one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones, so I might as well jump on that bandwagon. It was released in 1954, featuring Charlton Heston as the "hero," several now-familiar faces from 60's and 70's television in supporting roles, and a host of big names in the crew--Wally Westmore on make-up, Edith Head on costumes, John Fulton doing special effects. And it even opens with the Paramount mountain. So why have you probably never heard of it?

We'll get to that.

The film opens with Harry Steele (Heston) as a tour guide in Cusco, Peru, scraping what money he can by fooling tourists just off the plane into thinking he was sent by the airline to show them around. Harry is a rough-and-tumble guy who wears a familiar-looking ensemble.

Here's another look at the full schmeer.

The bloused pants tucked into the boots look a little high-water and the ascot looks a little silly, but overall, he's got the Indy look (though to be fair, other heroes from 40's serials had similar looks). And his rugged, tall good looks are catnip to the tourist ladies, including Richie Cunningham's mom.

Another local expatriate by the name of Ed Morgan, a guy with some shady connections, wants to hire Harry for a job, and also to ask about a certain stone that has turned up missing--a stone that points the way to a legendary Incan relic made of gold and covered with diamonds.

Steele turns Morgan down, and shortly afterward, someone takes a potshot at him.

Peril! Unfortunately for the sniper, he was told to miss on purpose. Even more unfortunately, Steel hates being shot at and takes out his anger on the hit man before confronting Morgan. Morgan wants Harry to cut him in on the treasure, but Steele claims to know nothing about the stone.

And then the Dame shows up in the bar, flustering a nameless patron.

That's Alvy Moore. His face, if not his name, would become well-known in households across America as Hank Kimball on Green Acres. But back to the dame. She's gorgeous.

Her name is Elena Antonescu. She has fled to South America from Romania, behind the Iron Curtain, and wants Harry to take her to the U.S. (she just happens to be that "job" Morgan was trying to set Harry up with). Having spent some time supporting herself as an "entertainer," she knows how to manipulate men. But Harry's a tougher nut to crack. He wants nothing to do with her until he finds out that the Soviet official chasing her has his own private plane. Harry just happens to need a plane.

Harry rats her out, then the two of them steal the Soviet's plane in the middle of the night and fly north. Elena thinks Harry's taking her to Mexico, but Harry takes them on a detour to Machu Picchu. He does have the stone showing the location of the ancient golden sunburst, and he plans to get rich off it. And on the way, he indulges in a little jungle romance with Elena.

Unfortunately for them, Machu Picchu is a little crowded when they arrive. There's an archaeological expedition there, opening up the very tomb that Steele has come to raid. The expedition is led by Dr. Marcus Welby, M.D.

That's Robert Young as Dr. Stanley Moorehead, an American archaeologist. He has just uncovered an ancient mummy which the crowd of assembled Incas venerate as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy that will restore the greatness of their people. Moorehead immediately falls for Elena, and though he has feelings for her himself, Steele gladly throws her at the professor to keep him occupied while Steele tracks down the sunburst.

And up to this point, the film has been a pretty taut adventure, with Heston surprisingly grimy and edgy as a greedy, two-fisted anti-hero, with an interest in archaeology (but only as far as it pays). Then the Incas decide to perform a ritual in honor of the mummy, and suddenly, it's a musical.

That's Yma Sumac, who had become reasonably famous as a singer with an incredible range, able to go from low alto to nearly ultrasonic mezzo-soprano screeches in seconds. She sings a couple of songs in the film, incomprehensible foreign mutterings (authentic Quechua? who knows?) alternating with otherwordly trills that sound almost like they came from a Theremin. Oh, and lots of goofy faces.

At this point, the film seems to lose focus, going off on a couple of different tracks. Elena is torn between Steele, a tall, handsome rogue who is using her to get rich, and the professor, a shy, bookish dude who proposes to her after knowing her for only one day (and who can get her guaranteed entry to America). Meanwhile, the Inca continue to celebrate the opening of the tomb while Steele wanders around waiting for his chance to steal the sunburst. It's almost as if the filmmakers realized they didn't have enough script for a full feature, or maybe they were running out of budget, so they just decided to pad it out with musical numbers and stock footage. But the energy and tension of the movie's first half just drains away.

Anyway, Steel sneaks off during the night to track down the sunburst in a scene that fans now reference as the inspiration of the map room scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

But there's a fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench. Ed Morgan has figured out where Steele was headed and followed him, and takes the sunburst for himself, leading to the big anti-climax.

It's not a bad movie overall. It's certainly got its good points, especially in the first half, and it could well have served as one of the inspirations for the later Lucas/Spielberg films. But watching something like this leaves me a little torn.

On the one hand, I like the simplicity of it, the rawness. And I do get tired of the formulaic nature of every big studio film now, the way every single film looks like it has been run through the Truby plot press fifty times until all the interesting wrinkles have been ironed out.

But on the other hand, formulas become formulas because they work, and "Secret of the Incas" could have used a little formula in the second half to build the kind of memorable, emotionally satisfying climax that might have made the film a hit in its own right, rather than a virtually forgotten public-domain footnote to a much superior film.

The film can be watched in pieces at Youtube here.