Thursday, September 29, 2011

Buried in Brant's Tomb

Some choose monsterhood, while others have monsterhood thrust upon them. It can’t be said that the City fails to honor its heroes, whatever their failings. Case in point: the General Brant Monument—better known as Brant’s Tomb.

“Tomb” is perhaps something of a misnomer, as it implies a place of interment, of rest. The thing that was once war hero Hannibal T. Brant may be (strictly speaking) interred, but he definitely does not rest.

Brant spends periods in quiescence, so the solemnity of the monument is not disturbed for many visitors. Others are not so lucky. Brant rages within the burial vault, cursing those that imprisoned him and demanding release in a hoarse, but still commanding, voice. The doors shake with the force of his blows, but they hold—as they were made to do.

Even more unnerving are the times he begs or pleads, his voice quivering and broken with muffled sobs. There may a scratching sound, like nails dragged across stone. It can go on that way for hours. At times like these, some have been moved to cautiously approach and stare through the narrow gap in the vault doors—only recoil in horror at the glimpse of an angry yellow eye in a chalk white face, marred by spider-web cracks, staring back at them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Spirit of the Wolf

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"Spirit of the Wolf"
Warlord (vol. 1) #68 (April 1983)
Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Dan Jurgens; Inked by Mike deCarlo

Synopsis: Mariah finds Rostov brooding beside a small pond. Jennifer believes she has found a cure for his lycanthropy, but Rostov wonders if she has a “cure for love.” He kisses Mariah, but after a moment she pushes him a way: “there are too many memories…to much pain” between them now.

Rostov thinks back to how proud he was of her as a fencing student, and how he fell in love. They had a time of happiness, but then his curse manifested. He began to hunt—and kill.

He meant to Gitana, his gypsy grandmother, for help. She told him the story of the origin of his wolf’s blood, but had no cure. With this sad news, he began to push Mariah away. He feared the curse might hurt her, or that it might be passed on to their children.

Then Mariah disappeared in Peru. Rostov roamed the world, searching in vain for a cure for his curse. He chanced to meet Professor Lakely and learned from him about Skartaris—a land of eternal sun. Rostov saw his chance to cure himself and find Mariah. Of course, the wandering moon of Skartaris dashed those hopes.

Machiste appears and tells them Jennifer is ready to cast the spell to separate the wolf spirit from him. They return to the castle:

The spirit leaps from his chest, a wolf of shadow! Now, however, Rostov can control it. He’s free to live—and love…

Machiste has something to say about that...

Mariah stops the two from fighting. She will not be fought over—she wishes to choose the fight. Rostov must beat her.

The two square off, but Mariah quickly gets the upper hand with some unorthodox Skartarian moves:

Mariah wins, but when Rostov gets angry at her tactics, the wolf attacks.  Rostov quickly pulls it off her.  He looks to the sorceress for an explanation.

Jennifer tells him that he's free of the wolf, but he still must control it. Rostov realizes he isn’t yet free.

He bids Mariah goodbye and sets out with the wolf at his side.

Things to Notice:
  • Travis Morgan, the titular Warlord, only appears in one panel this whole issue.
  • This issue repeats (in an abbreviated form) the story we got last issue.
  • Mariah was only 15 when Rostov became her fencing instructor. 
Where It Comes From:
This issue continues the "doomed romance" theme from last issue, though without most of the gothic trappings.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Life and Death in the Dung Ages

If you like your fantasy of the dark, darkly humorous, and dirty variety exemplified by Warhammer fantasy, then I’ve got a couple of book recommendations for you. Jesse Bullington’s two (standalone) historical fantasy novels are just the sort of grubby, violent, and irreverent stories you’ve been looking for.

I’ve mentioned The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart before. It’s probably the more humorous of the two and maybe the most violent—though that’s a close call. Bullington’s latest effort, The Enterprise of Death has a bit more sympathy for its protagonists perhaps but doesn’t lose the qualities that made Brothers Grossbart entertaining.

Set in 15th Century Europe, The Enterprise of Death concerns a necromancer’s apprentice on the run from her evil master, and the friends she makes along the way—which include real historical figures mercenary/artist Niklaus Manuel Deustch and drunken eccentric Paracelsus. There’s plenty of corpse-reviving, cannibalism, witch-hunters, prostitutes, and pox along the way.

Sometimes Bullington hews close to history: there’s a monstrous voice-mimicking hyena that comes right out of Pliny. Other times, he goes his own way, like with his interesting take on vampires.

Bullington’s gritty and ironic novels are a nice palate cleanser from typical secondary world fantasies with protagonists with heroic destinies going about saving the world—and they don’t involve a multiple volume commitment.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bring Out Your Undead

There certainly are a lot of different types of undead in D&D and games inspired by it, aren't there?  As Zak pointed out in his Alphabetical Monster Thing, the D&D way seems to have been find a synonym for the name of a monster you’ve got, and you’ve got a new monster (e.g. ghost, spectre, wraith, phantom, etc.)

So what do we do with all those? Fight them, sure--or ignore huge swathes of them, maybe. I wander though, if one assumes all those undead types exist, what does say about the metaphysics of the world that includes them? Are the names distinctions without a real difference (other than game mechanics), just variations among individuals, or do they represent some sort of like a power level hierarchy in some fighting anime?

Characters might not know (or care) about the answers to these questions, but they might impact the setting in some interesting ways they would be in a position to uncover.

Any thoughts on the use (or lack of use) of the multiplicity of undead?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: The Mark

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"The Mark"
Warlord (vol. 1) #67 (March 1983)
Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Dan Jurgens; Inked by Mike deCarlo

Synopsis: In Mungo Ironhand’s castle in Wizard World (the high magic past of Skartaris) Jennifer is trying to cure Rostov’s lycanthropy (but having no luck) while the rest of our heroes watch. Morgan and Mungo busy themselves drinking martinis.

Suddenly, Rostov (in wolfman form) bursts free from the magical energy that bound him and goes after Jennifer. Machiste and Morgan are unable to restrain him. Jennifer, unphased by the snarling manbeast right in front of her, casts a spell that somehow blocks the moon's power and returns Rostov to human form.

Jennifer decides that understanding the origins of his curse might help her cure it. She pulls shard of crystal from a small chest of Mungo’s. They can use it to look into his past.

Mikhail Ivanov Rostov, a Cossack, happens upon a gypsy camp where he sees a girl, Gitana, dancing. It’s love at first sight. The problem is Gitana is the woman of Ostrap, a man with a fondness for handle-bar moustaches and pink clothes.

So it’s a duel with sabers over a pit of snarling wolves. Mikhail makes quick work of his rival. He swoops up the swooning Gitana, carries her off to her wagon, and (in a bit of Comics Code approved raciness):

“The smell of blood mingled with the scent of perfume…And in that night they both knew love for the first time.”

There are trials ahead for the lovers. Mikhail is shot in the back by an angry gypsy. He’s near death, but Gitana performs a magical ritual to save his life. She must use the blood of a wolf to sustain him.

Mikhail recovers, and the two are wed. Soon Gitana is pregnant. When their twins are born, they discover that the magic she used to save him had a price:

Mikhail snatches up the bestial child and takes it out into the snow. He raises it above his head to throw if off a cliff, but he can’t go through with it. Holding the child close, he jumps himself.

Gitana is left with her one surviving infant—a girl. Rostov is the descendant of that girl and inherited (according to Jennifer) the “chromosome imbalance” leading to lycanthropy.

Things to Notice:
  • Mungo yet again shows he has some source of knowledge on modern earth for his "humorous" references.
  • The events in "the present" of Skartaris are really only a frame for the sort of gothic romance tale.
  • The panels in the story of Gitana and Mikhail often have a tattered parchment sort of border.
Where It Comes From:
This is issue is sort of a gothic romance.  In keeping with that feel, Mikhail Rostov seems to bear a resemblance to the werewolf Quentin Collins in the gothic soap Dark Shadows (1966-1971):

"Gitana" is a Spanish word meaning "female Gypsy." Gypsies are, of course, another gothic staple.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Museum of Dangerous Art

A façade of steel plates and heavy bolts with a thick, round door, at home on a vault or boiler room, isn't what one expects from an art gallery, but then the City's Museum of Dangerous Art (Open weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Godsday noon to 6 p.; Admission 25 cents; free on Loonsday) isn't the usual sort of gallery.

The anonymous group of prominent collectors (rumored to have been the shadowy cabal called the Unknown), whose sponsorship made the museum possible, are presumed to have had two goals: one was to encourage the appreciation and study of thaumaturgical artworks, and the other was to imprison these works where they can do the least harm. The collection includes paintings, sculpture, illustration, handcrafts, and film; the only requirements are that a work has some aesthetic purpose--and that it’s potentially harmful.

All of the art exhibited is placed behind wards or otherwise neutralized so that viewing them is not dangerous.  Patrons are reminded not to touch the art.

Here's a small sampling of the art in the collection:

Still [sic] Life
Title only given on typed card attached to frame.
Media: Oil on canvas.  Artist: Unknown, but believed to be van Snood.
Desc.: A bowl of decayed fruit which returns to freshness as the painting drains life from a victim (causes energy drain per hour like a hit from a wight).

Old Hag Quilt
Media: Hand-stiched fabric. Artists: A witches coven in the western Smaragdines.
Desc.: Appliqués in black and white show the successive phases of the moon interspersed with a nightscape where a female figure appears then moves to the forefront of the image.  The last square reveals her face to be a skull.  The quilt causes nightmares in anyone who uses it.  After a fortnight, a hag crawls from beneath the quilt.

Abode of Demons
Media: Marble. Artist: Unknown.
Desc.: A statue of male figure whose open cloak revealed distorted, demonic faces.  It's unclear what the activating mechanism is, but for every hour of darkness (sunset to sunrise) the statue is activated, 1d4 shadows emerge from inside the cloak.

Other malign works exhibited include the Damnation Photo, the Recursive Horrror, Grasping Hands, and Summer Daisies and the dreaded Sunny Day in Crayon (Queenie, age 4).

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Cabinet of Curiosities

I mentionted back in April that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had another collection in the works bearing the name of the learned (and fictious) Thackery T. Lambshead: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.  The volume is subtitled "Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories from Top Authors & Artists," which means it's enough weirdness to fill a couple of d30 tables of the bizarre. 

The book's conceit is that Lambshead has died and a cabinet of "artifacts, curios, and wonders" was discovered in his estate.  Famous authors (abetted by artists) relate vignettes and short-stories about these items.  For examplle, Cherie Priest details "the clockroach," and China Mieville reveals the "Pulvadmonitor" (and what it has to do with the British Dental Assocation Museum).  Other contributors include Michael Moorcock, Ted Chiang, Alan Moore, Caitlin Kiernan, and Tad Williams.

Some of my favorites are the shorter entries in "A Brief Catalog of Items." The names alone are evocative in many cases: "Bullet Menagerie," "The Decanter of Everlasting Sadness," "Mellified Alien," and "The Night Quilt, American."

Plenty of inspiration to be had.  Check it out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Wizardwar

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

Warlord (vol. 1) #66 (February 1983)
Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Dan Jurgens; Inked by Mike deCarlo

Synopsis: Having stepped through the magic mirror, Morgan and Jennifer arrive just in time for Jennifer to stay Machiste’s hand and keep him from braining Rostov. She holds the combatants long enough for everyone to calm down so that introductions can be made. Mungo Ironhand is (unsurprisingly) particularly taken with Shakira.

Rostov and Mariah go off to have a private talk. Jennifer tells the others that they must prepare to fight the Evil One for the sake of the future. Mungo carries the Hellfire sword, but its gem is missing, so it’s without its anti-magic power. They’ll have to find some other way.

Meanwhile, Rostov tells Mariah how he came to the inner world to find her and hopefully to find a cure to his lycanthropy. So far, he has been unsuccessful in the second goal; Jennifer Morgan is his last hope. Mariah dashes his hopes of reconciling with her, as well. She’s in love with Machiste now.

When the two rejoin the group, Jennifer tells everyone that they must form an alliance with all the wizards of Wizard World. She has a plan to draw the Evil One from his lair so they can destroy his source of power—the Necronomicon. They plan to take all the remaining gold he so covets and place it beyond his reach, protected by a potent spell. Then he’ll have to come to them.

Sitting in his lair amid large (though not Uncle Scroogian) piles of gold and gloating to himself, the Evil One decides to scry what the other wizards are up to. He sees them hiding all their treasure in a step pyramid. He swoops in to steal it now that it’s in one place. He howls with rage when he finds he can't penetrate the pyramid and vows revenge.

Meanwhile, our heroes teleport into his liar. Jennifer uses magic to locate the Necronomicon, but the Evil One appears before they can grab it. Morgan’s response:

The Evil One isn’t even fazed. He entraps our heroes in bubbles of mystical energy. He demands they tell him how to open the pyramid--before he kills them. Mariah, begging for her life, agrees to tell him. The secret (she says) is hidden in the pommel of her sword:

Unfortunately, that trick doesn’t stop him either. He puts an unnecessarily convoluted spell on our heroes so that their brains will convince their bodies they’re dead, and thereby kill them.

As luck would have it, the Skartarian moon chooses that moment to rise over an opening in the top of the cave. Rostov turns werewolf and attacks. As a “mindless beast” he’s free from the Evil One’s spell. The Evil One blasts him, returning him to human form. The Evil One’s distraction, however, weakened his spell, allowing Jennifer to break them free.

It’s a battle of sorcery! Jennifer and the Evil One seem at a stalemate. Thinking fast, Morgan knocks over the podium holding the Necronomicon and yells to Mungo. Mungo uses his magic to guide the book into a pit of fire.

The book destroyed, the Evil One reverts to Craetur and lopes off. Before they can possibly give chase, the cave ceiling begins to collapse, suggesting the volcano is about to erupt.

As our heroes watch from a safe distance, Morgan asks why Jennifer didn’t destroy Craetur. Jennifer replies that the thing embodies evil, so it can never truly be destroyed.

Things to Notice:
  • Mungo again shows he has some source of knowledge on modern earth for his "humorous" references.
  • The Evil One isn't just a would-be conqueror, he's a greedy would-be conqueror.
  • At first Jennifer seems not to be a match for the Evil One, then later she is.  Perhaps he just got the drop on her the first time?
Where It Comes From:
This issue largely ties up a number of loose ends from previous Warlord stories.  Morgan encountered the unopened black pyramid in the modern era in issue #31.  Mariah, Machiste, and Mungo first encountered Craetur before he became the Evil One in his volcano lair in "Book of the Dead," a back-up story in issues #41-42.

The Evil One's visual appearance is that of a devil or perhaps the Devil.  His lair also fits the common conception of Hell.  And then there's his name!  Given that Wizard World is inhabited by centaurs, dwarves, and other creatures of mythology and folklore it's a bit surprising a link was never explicitly drawn between the Evil One and at least the popular conception of Satan.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dangerous Fairies to Know And Love

Blackwood's Guide to Dangerous Fairies is a novel by Guillermo del Toro and Christopher Golden that serves as a prequel to the recent remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.  What's most interesting (and most game-inspirational) about it is that Blackwood's tragic story is interspersed with an (un)natural history of malign fairies of the world, illustrated by Troy Nixey standing in the the fictional Mr. Blackwood.  Nixey's art reminds of Guy Davis or Duncan Fegredo--which means it really fits the material well, even if it doesn't exactly look like the work of a guy (Blackwood) who the movie tells us that some people thought was "better than Audobon."  Check these out:

Croque-Mitaine: Bogeyman en francais.

This is an Oakman.  It has a evil Swamp Thing sort of feel, I think.

When tooth fairies go bad--the toothbreakers.

Just flipping through the pictures ought to provide plenty of monster fodder for fantasy, urban fantasy, or horror games.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Weird Days in Aldwood

Aldwood is the most isolated of the City’s districts—and not simply because of its location. Wooded, quiet Aldwood has been entirely overtaken by a fictional world.

Aldwood was a normal, suburban district until Midsummer’s Eve some thirty-four years ago. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the night of the final Broad Boulevard performance of the musical adaptation of the popular children’s fantasy, The Magical Monarch of Mu. Aldwood residents reported hearing strange music that night, and laughter. By the next morning, the forest had grown thicker and wilder, and many trees had become animate—and opinionated. Stands of man-sized mushrooms had cropped up, and fanciful creatures were encountered with regularity.

Many of Aldwood’s residents chose to flee. Law enforcement was dispatched to investigate. They were naturally disinclined to negotiating the cession of the district with an animate, pumpkin-headed scarecrow, but attempts to reclaim Aldwood by force were repulsed by a cast-iron giant, smartly-uniformed elfin pikemen, and china doll marital artists.

The next two years saw intermittent skirmishes between the City and the invaders. Reconnaissance confirmed that many were identifiable characters from The Magical Monarch of Mu. Attempts to locate the author F. Marsh Loam for questioning proved ineffective, even with thaumaturgical aid. Ultimately, pragmatism prevailed, and a peace treaty was signed making Aldwood a reservation within the boundaries of the City.

Visiting Aldwood is allowed, though only through the checkpoints guarded by the diminutive and quaintly armored soldiers of the Monarch. Care should be taken to stay on designated roadways: The new Aldwood is somehow larger than the old, and it’s easy to become lost. Politely refusing offers of food or drink from the natives is generally advisable. Most everything in Aldwood is highly magical; “naturally” occurring soda fountains, gumdrop fruit, or moonshine distilled from genuine moonlight are novel treats, but they may also carry hidden risks.

Taking items or creatures beyond the boundaries of Aldwood is illegal, but collectors and thaumaturgic researchers are often willing to pay adventurers a handsome sum for specimens. Beyond run-ins with the authorities, expeditions carry a degree of risk. While most denizens of Aldwood are benign, some are not, and many are surprisingly resistant to harm.

Some scientists worry that the annexation of the earthly plane hasn’t ended with Aldwood, and that the bubble of fictional reality continues to grow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Animated Interlude

My issue by issue review of DC's Warlord will return next week.  Today, take a look at these pics related an appearance by Travis Morgan and friends (and enemies) in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon:

A turn around of the Jennifer Morgan design for the episode by Zealand (Steve) Jones.

A cameo by Machiste, Mariah, and Shakira from the episode.

A rather barrel chested Warlord action figure.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Toward a Taxonomy of Magic

Discussion last week got me to thinking (tangentially) about different magic systems in media and how they might be categorizes. Maybe taking a closer look at these sorts of models might suggest variations for gaming systems? This analysis is in the formative stages, so bear with me here.

It seems to me that on one side we have ritual-based systems. Spells in these systems tend to be specific, discrete entities with distinct effects. Some sort of ritual (of varying levels of complexity) is involved in their production. Effects may be flashy and visual, but just as often there is no visible connection between caster and effect, other than the caster's ritual performance. Magical duels are games of "oneupmanship" with canny spell choice winning the day.  Various ritual magic systems in the real world are examples of this, as are many popular rpg systems. Card-based systems of various manga and anime (and the card games they support) would probably be a variant. Interestingly, this sort of system is otherwise not particularly common in media.

On the other end of the spectrum are energy-based systems. These portray magic as some force to be manipulated and wielded. Effects tend be very visible. There may be talk of spells or “cants” or “weaves,” but these tend to be portrayed more like maneuvers or techniques rather than strict formula. Magical duels are marked by a concern with the comparative "power levels" of the participant, not in the advantageousness or disadvantageousness of the spells they choose to employ.  Most comic book mages (outside of John Constantine) wield this kind of magic--and so does Green Lantern, for that matter. Many literary mages are off this type: The Aes Sedai in the Wheel of Time series, the Schoolmen in R. Scott Bakker’s Three Seas novels, and the Warren-tapping mages of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series are all examples.

Of course, it’s a spectrum with many systems showing some elements of both. Also, what characters say about there system is often not completely congruent with how they appear to work; Doctor Strange mentions a lot of spells and rituals, but the appearance of this magic tends to be energy manipulation. Still, I haven’t been been able to think of one so far that does seem to fit. Obviously, there are other parameters to consider--external versus internal power source, for instances--but I think this divide is the most generalizable.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

You Might Not Be Afraid of the Dark

I saw the long-awaited (I attended a teaser panel on it at Comic-Con in 2010) remake of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark this weekend. It was directed by Troy Nixey (the artist on Dark Horse’s Jenny Finn) but bears the obvious stamp of script-writer and producer Guillermo del Toro.

In brief, both versions involve a couple moving into an old house where a basement fireplace ash-pit door is opened and tiny, malevolent creatures are released (these are, as Roger points out, the obvious inspiration for Fiend Folio’s meenlocks). The creatures set their sights on the one who freed them--a young housewife in the original, a little girl in the remake--and cajole then terrorize before making their move.

The remake has better special effects and more atmosphere, but doesn’t have the same sort of unsettling, ruthless economy of the original. Of course, I saw the original when I was much younger, so it might not evoke the same dread in someone seeing it as an adult for the first time. The remake seems like Nixey and del Toro set out to make a film that could scar the psyches of a new generation of kids, but the MPAA stymied that a bit with an R-rating.

Many of the changes are del Toro’s usual preoccupations. The creatures of the film are explicitly fairies and they have a taste for teeth (recalling the “tooth fairies” of Hellboy II). The grounds of the Blackwood Manor recall Pan’s Labyrinth. These additions at once lessen the horror but add some depth by explicitly connecting it to the traditions of horror fiction and authors like Machen (who gets namechecked in the film).

If you like the work of del Toro or have fond memories of the original TV movie you probably should check this one out.  It just probably won't deliver the chills you remember back in the '70s.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Random Magical Junk

Never let it be said that hobogoblins are welchers.  Here's something magical from the bindle of the croaker (medicine man) hisself:

  1. A wooden toy gun. When aimed at a target, and the bearer says “bang,” it fires. The invisible projectile does 1d3 points of damage and has range like a small sling.
  2. A souvenir doll of a grinning man. Anyone who sleeps within 20 feet of the uncovered doll must make a saving throw or awaken feebleminded.
  3. An expensive wristwatch that appears stopped--yet somehow never manages to have the right time.
  4. A set of 2d6 erotic picture postcards. Most are mundane, but one of them can fascinate the viewer.
  5. An old kerosene lantern that, when lit, casts darkness.
  6. A wrinkled First Class Boarding Pass for the RMS Titan. If a person holding the pass concetrates hard on the image of someone they wish to kill, the pass will grow cold and damp in his or her hands, and the intended victim responds as if they are drowning in cold water.
  7. A cast iron skillet +1 against husbands (+2 if they are cheating husbands).
  8. A necrophiliac Tijuana Bible.  It draws all undead from a 10 mile radius to it.  Unintelligent undead are unable to resist its call; intelligent ones are not forced to respond, but may come out of curiousity or desire.  Undead tied to a specific place are tormented by the comics' seductive pull.
  9. A half-smoked cigar. If lit, it is particularly noxious. Everyone but the smoker within 20 feet must save or become nauseated.
  10. A wooden case containg a flea circus staffed by atomies, who can either be a help or a nuisance to the owner depending on how they’re treated.
  11. An ever-full can of baked beans.  It refills in 1d4 hours after being emptied.
  12. A roll of electrical insulating tape that gives anything it's wrapped around electricity resistance (absorbs the first 10 points of electrical damage per attack).