Thursday, December 29, 2022

[Book Club] A Dungeon Hiding in Blindsight (part 2)

This continues my discussion with Anne of DIY & Dragons on the dungeoncrawling implications of Peter Watts' Blindsight. You can read part one here.

Trey: Going back to the alien a minute, it strikes Rorschach's innards are perhaps less a dungeon and more a haunted house. A number of the dangers are really psychological (or neurological) but not less real for that. In that respect it resembles other sci-fi haunted houses like in Planet of Vampires or Event Horizon.

Anne: That's a good way of describing it and gets at one of the things I found most fascinating (and frustrating) about Blindsight as a book. Because on the one hand, it's really interesting to see someone take the various real-world quirks of the way human consciousness works and try to turn them into dungeon hazards. On the other hand, there were points where one character is explaining something to another where I felt like, "ah yes, Peter, I too read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I may be off on a tangent, though!

I think both the Rorschach and the Borg illustrate the difficulty of trying to represent an intelligent but non-conscious entity trying to communicate with humans. Presumably that's something that dungeon masters would find challenging to represent too. I wonder if the rise of chat-bots will make us more accustomed to the way that computers talk and make it easier to fake, though?

Trey: That's a good point. We're becoming more aware all the time of what non-self-aware AI is capable of! For dungeon purposes I think the easiest way to handle this is to have the creatures not communicate really. 

Anne: Or maybe be really obviously like old video game NPCs? They have a line or two of dialogue, and if you try to keep talking to them, all they can do is repeat it.

Trey: I like that. I've toyed with something like that with some monsters in my games, but I don't know if I pulled the effect off.

Anne: It might also be worth noting that killer dungeons of this or any sort seem to work best with either the tournament or zero-level funnel format. To experience them as intended, you need a good supply of characters to get killed, without slowing down the overall momentum of the game too much.

Trey: That's a good point. They are dying dungeons, for sure. 

A Blindsight like or inspired dungeon potentially allows for a different sort of exploration, though. Rather than only the physical exploration of a space, it allows the unraveling of a mystery, though not of the whodunit sort.

Anne: Yes! The payoff for flinging all these imaginary lives into an imaginary meatgrinder can't just be imaginary money. It needs to be knowledge. Ideally, some kind of understanding of the rules for how the killer dungeon operates, so you can learn to avoid its dangers.

Monday, December 26, 2022

[Book Club] A Dungeon Hiding in Blindsight (part 1)

This is the second in a series of chats between Anne of DIY & Dragons and me about dungeoncrawling (or dungeoncrawling inspiring) science fiction. This installment's topic: Blindsight by Peter Watts.

Trey: So, obviously (like Roadside Picnic) Blindsight isn't strictly a "dungeoncrawl" novel--but I think it has some interesting things that might inform dungeoncrawls.

Anne: It certainly has a section of dungeon-like exploration. And one that's kind of consistent with a scifi mini-tradition of people using clones or backups to explore an alien space so deadly that it requires multiple "lives" to traverse.

Trey: Yes. It's a "killer dungeon" as many sci-fi ones are.

Anne: I'm thinking of Aldis Budrys's Rogue Moon and Robert Silverburg's The Man in the Maze as the earliest examples I'm aware of. But Alistair Reynolds's "Diamond Dogs" novella would be another more recent example. I think I've jumped the gun a bit here though. We should probably say a little more about Blindsight generally before getting into the details.

Trey: Good point! Blindsight concerns what happens after Earth receives an alien visitation (not unlike Roadside Picnic in that regard!), but technology is advanced enough that humans can pinpoint where the visit came from in the edge of our solar system and sends first probes and then a (trans)human team to intercept. What they find isn't some more and fuzzy first contact, but a vast and alien intellect with which no communication is really possible. An intellect that wants humanity dead. It takes a while for the team to piece this together though, but all the while the alien is trying to kill them.

Anne: It's been a few years since I read it, so forgive me if I'm remembering wrong, but the near-lethal dungeon is a kind of trap, isn't it? The alien made something that was almost too dangerous, but just safe enough that the team would give in to the temptation to explore it. And while they're focused on the threat of the environment, the alien intellect is up stuff in the background.

Trey: The alien lives in a high radiation environment so some things are hostile because they just are, but it is effectively experimenting on the explorers. This is killer dungeon where the dungeon and the monsters are inseparable.

Anne: "Inseparable" is a good way of putting it! The amount of connection between the intelligence (which calls itself "Rorschach"), the space the human team is exploring, and the monsters that live inside that space is one of the few things the team successfully learns.

Trey: Yes, it's an interesting concept we haven't quite gotten in dungeon ecology (I don't think). The living dungeon where the monsters aren't just local fauna/flora but essentially cells in a great body. I'm sure someone has suggested that, but I've never seen it actually carried through.

Anne: The dungeon as body of giant monster is more of a scifi concept than a fantasy one, and it does lend itself to drawing on real-world biology as a starting point. The film Fantastic Voyage (with the shrink ray and submarine going inside a human body) is one approach, but it focuses on the sense of wonder, and maybe the didactic opportunity, more than the unsettling or horrific feeling you could get from realizing that the dungeon itself is alive.

Trey: I think it's perhaps rpgs have tended to be rather conservative in their approach to fantasy. From a practical standpoint that presents a low bar to entry, perhaps. There are rpgs with living dungeons though, 13th Age, for instance. Mostly nonbiological but I think there have been a couple of those.

Anne: The Borg Cubes in Star Trek are kind of like living dungeons. I mean, the ships themselves are entirely mechanical, although they function more like bodies than like starships. The Borg themselves are cyborgs, but their bodies seem to be mostly robotic, with only a vestige of biology remaining. In that case, the individual Borg are kind of like cells within the body. 

Trey: Very true! It strikes me that the Rorschach and its cells introduce a way to deal with the problem of the typical, distasteful narrative of dungeoneer in D&D. If dungeons arrive unbidden and spew forth creatures that you can't communicate with and want to kill you, well clearing them out is a bit easier to justify.

It's kind of the premise of my "Apocalypse Underground" series of posts from years back.

Anne: I wonder if that's something that living dungeons often have in common? They represent a threat that almost has to be explored because of the danger it poses. Roadside Picnic's like that too - the Zone appears one night, and everything inside it is contaminated and ruined by its appearance. At least some of the people going in are the ones who were displaced by it showing up.

Trey: That's a good thought. People who are displaced and lose their homes and livelihoods may need what valuables can be wrested from the dungeons.

to be continued

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Wordbuilding Through Social Connections

I've written before about the ways D&D is like (and could be more like) wuxia media. Reading a couple of works by Gu Long before delving back into Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong again, I've been struck by something else D&D-ish fantasy gaming code steal. 

Unlike most Western fantasy fiction and perhaps even Western adventure fiction (which is, admittedly, the more analogous genre to wuxia) wuxia fiction world building doesn't rely as much on description of locales above the single building level. Jin Yong's fiction does give us some local color at times--a description of the region of Lake Tai or the steppes of Mongolia--but it's a relatively small amount compared to say Robert E. Howard's Conan for the page count. Gu Long's stories sometimes come across as almost taking place in a vague "Wuxia-Land" comparably to a "fairy tale" Europe of knights and dragons--or the environs around a D&D dungeon containing the necessary locales at not much else.

What really does the worldbuilding heavy lifting in these stories is the description of the world of the Wulin or Jianghu: the styles, techniques, and personalities--but particularly the relationships between practitioners. This is seen most robustly in Legend of the Condor Heroes with its generations of shifu and students. 

Sometime before the main action of the story the five greatest martial artists of the land came together in a contest to decide the possession of a legendary manual of kung fu secrets. These masters each had a distinct style and resided in a particular cardinal direction. By their nicknames they are the Northern Beggar, the Southern Emperor, the Central Divinity, the Eastern Heretic, and the Western Venom.

These characters' influence is felt throughout the story, and their various students and scions interact, jockeying for power, playing out old enmities, and uncovering secrets.

I think this factional approach could be put to could use in worldbuilding in fantasy games. Instead of inventing various cultures and regions (though there's no reason you can't do that too) establish a relatively culturally homogenous region and instead link characters in some way to various factions. The Icons of 13th Age sort of do this, I think. (I think, because I've really only ever read about 13th Age.)

This sort of approach makes the worldbuilding potentially of more interest to players because it more directly impacts them in play. Maybe they don't start out knowing much about other factions, but if the game is run in the right way, they soon will--or at least will be motivated to learn more.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, March 1982 (week 4)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, we bring 1981 to a close with the comics hitting the newsstand on December 24, 1981.

Action Comics #529: Wolfman and Swan start this issue with a new problem, I think to misdirect from the inevitable conclusion. Superman can seem to see all the disasters that seem to be occurring over the Earth. The now-friendly Brainiac shows up and reveals that the disasters and Superman's inability to perceive them are all thanks to his Doomsday machine from last issue. He fixes Superman's senses, but the two of them don't know any way to stop the device other than restoring Brainiac's memories and evil personality. Brainiac suggests this would be a fate worse than death. You would think this would be the point where Brainiac reconsiders and heroically sacrifices himself to save the universe, but no. This is the point where Superman performs brain surgery without Brainiac's consent in the name of the greater good. That done, they head off to defeat the Planet-Eater.

In the Aquaman backup, he's still on the planet Vortuma helping the hexapodal aquatic sapients against the Land-Masters--who are revealed to merely be the same sort of beings in environmental suits allowing them to go on land.

All-Star Squadron #6: It's now December 22, 1941, and the JSA has disbanded with most of its members enlisting in anonymity. The All-Star Squadron, however, remains to protect the homefront. There's a lot of business to develop the characters and their relationships more, but in the background there's the machinations of Baron Blitzkrieg who has a plot to replace Churchill with an exploding robot. Luckily, Plastic Man is there to save the day.

Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #1: This new series by Thomas and Shaw/Andru replaces Adventure Comics. Superman tries to prevent a beam from Pluto from hitting the Earth, somehow sending Supes to an alternate earth and splitting the meteor he was using as a shield into 6 pieces. This is an anthropomorphic animal Earth, and the meteorite winds up imbuing the inhabitants that come in contact with it with super-powers. The first becomes Captain Carrot and tries to help Superman track the other pieces until the Man of Steel is caught in a space barrier. Captain Carrot proceeds go it alone, recruiting other super-powered animals that will form the Zoo Crew! The new team rescues Superman and stops the Plutonian menace.

Detective Comics #512: Batman escapes Dr. Death's deathtrap, then takes Robin to the hospital. A whole lot more people have been exposed to the toxin now and Death is holding Gotham for ransom. Batman tracks Death to his hideout and forces him to reveal the antidote lest he die as well. Meanwhile, Vicki Vale has figured out Bruce Wayne is Batman and seems to have uncovered that Robin's mysterious new girlfriend is a vampire, though Vale doesn't realize it yet.

New Adventures of Superboy #27: A husband and wife team of Kryptonian criminals arrive on Earth and claim to be Superboy's biological parents who left him on the El family doorstep. We'll have to wait until next issue to find out what sort of scam they are running, but I'm not convinced. In the second part of the Rozakis/Delbo backup, Superboy solves the mystery of a seemingly forgotten exploit of his younger self. He discovers he self-hypnotized himself to forget the events after his mother chastised him for using his powers to get an unfair advantage on the report he was writing for school on the space launch.

Unexpected #220: The opener here is sort a riff on the EC Comics yarn "All Through the House" except the escaped criminal dressed as Santa is caught, the wife isn't murdering her husband, and the real Santa is perhaps the one that phoned in the tip leading to madman's capture. The next story by Drake and Vicatan has an unscrupulous owner of the Stanhope Nuclear plant get his comeuppance when his daughter elopes with the radioactive guy protests the shabby treatment he got by the company outside Stanhope's mansion.

Kelley and Magalpo have some would-be drug smugglers becoming sacrifices for a serpent person cult in Central America. Finally, Cohn and Cullins present the story of a troll that runs afoul of a wizard and gets transported to a different world. Luckily, he's able to find a new home under the Brooklyn bridge. 

Unknown Soldier #261: Can Bob Haney go too far? I think he can! Exhibit A: this story. The Unknown Soldier has to infiltrate a castle in occupied France where his sweetheart, the Chinese pirate Jade, is being held prisoner. Their escape and defeat of the Nazis includes the Soldier's most outlandish disguise yet: the Beast, as in La Belle et la Bête.

The other two stories are one of those "tragedy of brothers on opposite sides" Civil War pieces by Haney and Estrada, and the Enemy Ace backup by Kanigher and Severin. Von Hammer duels his doppelganger but chooses not to send the plane down in flames. Still, the guy dies. I wonder how von Hammer doesn't get court martialed for shooting at his fellow Germans? 

World's Finest Comics #277: Burkett and Heck open this one with Batman and Superman dealing with a madman trying to start a plague by releasing a bunch of stray animals as carriers of the virus. Barr and von Eeden have Ollie released from jail after Morgan Thorpe is killed by one of Green Arrow's arrows. Now, Queen's got to investigate and clear his alter ego's name. The story ends with a fairly literal cliffhanger as the Emerald Archer is pushed on a rooftop. Kupperberg and Spiegle confronting her evil doppleganger in the dark dimension and freeing Jeff Sloane. 

Hawkman receives an urgent message from Hyanthis ruler of Thanagar asking for his help and saying the world is in ruins. Katar doesn't have any way to get home since Shayera took the rocket, so he heads to the JLA satellite to get help. Bridwell and Newton end the issue with a charming Captain Marvel Jr. tale of a professor who perfects a seed from which a giant tree grows that he plans to climb to reach the Moon. Marvel has to deal with the all the consequences.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Evil Wizard Explains It All

 Our Land of Azurth 5e campaign continued last night with the part "thought projecting" themselves back to the future they visited before to fulfill Kory Keenstep's unorthodox scheme of making a new film to rouse the Land of Yai from its isolationism. The arrive in the future unscatched except for Shade who has somehow thought herself into a rabbit body. They play around with their ability to think up equipment but realize they can't create a new elven form for Shade--at least not without expending too much energy.

The team goes about their tasks. Most of them are getting footage of generally dystopian events while Kully goes to deliver to the party from the past cryptic messages. After filming their past selves' entrance to the roving Castle Machina, they decide to go to the camps outside of the ruins of Rivertown and do some interviews. Waylon asks after the confused young man they met last time, Roderick Drue. They don't find him, though.

Later, when they are camping, Drue approaches the camp. He asks them for the book, The Wizard of Azurth. When he realizes they don't have it, he becomes angry and transforms into an older and more imposing man who looks like a film negative. This is the Wizard of Azurth! He reveals the young Drue had long ago returned to his own time and that the Drue they met was merely a thoughtform of himself created with the aid of Mortzengersturm in 1893! 

The Wizard reveals how he has been after magical power in an attempt to obtain immortality. He had hoped he would find it in the Land of Azurth, but when he finally achieved the means to travel here in person, he found a post-apocalyptic wasteland. He did meet several child-like, alien creatures, faeries really, who had a copy of the book and were obsessed with it. He coaxed the simple creatures into using their vast powers to create the Land of Azurth from the story book in that wasteland. In the process, they became Azulina and her hand-maidens, and Drue became the Wizard of Azurth.

Since that time, he has realized that that book, imbued with such magical energy, is the object he needs--but the book is lost. He had hoped to use the spy apparatus in Yai to find it, but the city's defenses have kept him out. The party, perhaps unwisely, volunteers the information that it is perhaps no longer so difficult to get into the city. The Wizard, though, is still focused on using a page from the Book of Doors

The party did have that book, but now they only have one page. They fool the Wizard into believing the page they have is the entrance to Yai. They turn it over to him and while he examines it, quickly think themselves back to Yai. All except Erekose who can't seem to make it work! As the furious Wizard advances to attack, the party slaps around their friend's sleeping body until he snaps back.


They get Kory to make a VHS tape of the Wizard's confession so they can show it to the Elders of Yai. Surprisingly, they are able to convince the Elders to view it and the Elders are convinced. They agree to join the resistance. They tell the party where the Princess Viola is--the Junk City of Sang.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Jianghu Dungeoncrawl Sources


After my previous blogpost, fellow blogger and Asian Cinema-phile Steve suggested a couple of martial arts films that actually have some vaguely dungeoncrawlish sequences:

Masked Avengers (1981)

House of Traps (1982)

18 Bronzemen (1976)

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, March 1982 (week 3)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around December 17, 1981.

Brave & the Bold #184: This is a Christmas story by Barr and Aparo teaming Batman and the Huntress. The Huntress comes to Earth-One to spend Christmas with her quasi-family, Batman. The holiday spirit is soured when records from an arrested mobster appear to show that Thomas Wayne had financial deals with the mob, and his former accountant's records seem to confirm it. Bruce decides to give up the cowl and the Huntress frets that that decision will lead to his death just like it did for her father. In the end though, the accountant was the dirty one and Thomas Wayne is exonerated.

Legion of Super-Heroes #285: Levitz and Broderick/Tanghal have the Legion in the market for a new cruiser on Nullport, but they uncover a Khundish plot. The story introduces H'Hrnath, the cigar-chomping, hard-bargaining, equine manager of Nullport. There's a Dream Girl backup by Levitz and Giffen where she works to restore the Naltorian precognitive abilities.

Green Lantern #150: Wolfman and Staton finally close in on the reset I had been anticipating since the outset of this storyline. First though, a defeated Jordan is taken by St'nlli to Qward. The Qwardians have developed their own Antimatter Lantern Corps, but they need to reverse engineer Jordan's ring to maybe keep their lanterns from dying in 24 hours. Rebuffed by the Guardians, Arisia shows up to help Hal, who reveals this has been an undercover mission all along. They defeat St'nlli, but with an army of Antimatter Lanterns against them, they only triumph thanks to the timely arrival of the Green Lanterns. 

With the Qwardians thwarted, the Green Lanterns return to Oa, where the Guardians given Jordan their verdict. Even though they don't like his recent approach to his duties, they can't ignore his outstanding history as a Green Lantern. As punishment, they command him to leave Earth and not return until his penance is paid. They give him only 24 hours to resolve things back home. Immediately, Hal recharges his ring and returns to Earth, where a lot of story threads having been coming to a head in his absence.

House of Mystery #302: The cover here is completely misleading and seems to reference the story in the next issue if the blurb can be believed. Jones and Sutton again pick up the saga of I...Vampire after Bennett faked his death and started walking across Kansas a couple of issues back. He visits the home of the man he switched places with after the auto accident. The guy's widow, June, takes him on as a boarder and the family grows fond of him. Then her son gets a stake through the heart in an attempt to kill Bennet. Realizing he's brought more death to the people he cares about, Bennett tries to leave. The Cult of the Blood Red Moon catches up to him, and June is killed by an arrow helping him escape. Bummed out by having caused the deaths of an innocent family, he wanders sadly into the night.

Mishkin/Cohn and Redondo/Pabulos present a tale of a roulette game where years of life are the stakes. There's a jokey, alien invasion one pager, then a Christmas tale by Jones and Spiegle. Charlie and Benny are barely scraping by, and Charlie is even considering putting his mentally handicapped brother in an institution, but then a thief who has stolen a Santa disguise leaves his loot and their house, giving them a green Christmas.

Phantom Zone #3: Gerber and Colan/DeZuniga continue the Phantom Zone criminals' assault on the Earth. Supergirl escapes the disintegration pit they through her into but is very week. Batman encounters Jer-Em, the mad prophet, and barely makes it out alive. Meanwhile, Superman and Kweskill continue to try to find a way out of the Phantom Zone, encountering dangerous and bizarre beings, including a Kryptonian wizard who tells them Aethyr, the sentient universe of which the Phantom Zone is a manifestation. 

Sgt. Rock #361: Kanigher and Redondo phone in the main story about two Colonels wanting to know who really leads Easy Company. All the flashbacks tell us it is of course Rock, but none of the Combat Happy Joes say so, fearing that Rock will be moved to a different job or something. Kanigher and Mandrake do a little better with a short about a downed Japanese pilot and a gunner from a sunk U.S. ship fighting to the death over a life preserver. Then there's a story of Celts versus Romans with art by Duursema. Finally, Creamer draws a story about a cowardly Huey pilot in Vietnam who declines to pick up a group of soldiers in desperate need of evacuation only to discover upon his return to base that his brother was among them.

Superman Family #215: After a rocky start last issue, the two Supergirls, who have switched time periods, manage to pull things together and defeat their admittedly B-lister foes, even though classic Supergirl has her powers diminished by the future orange sun, and future Supergirl has her powers increased almost beyond control by the yellow sun of the 20th Century. Then, future Supergirl hypnotizes classic Supergirl so she forgets the whole thing. In Mr. and Mrs. Superman, Superman has to attend Lois's and Clark's anniversary party, but how can Clark be two places at once? With the help of Batman is disguise, of course. 

Rozakis and Calnan/Hunt deliver the obligatory Christmas story when Superbaby helps Jonathan Kent play Santa Claus for the kids at Smallville Orphanage. O'Flynn and Oskner/Colletta Lois Lane teaches a cocky journalism grad about first-hand experience in the sort of crazy-ass reporting she seems to do. Kupperberg and Delbo have some fun with Jimmy Olsen investigating an attack with an acid-tinged cream pie on a rival newspaper publisher, where culprit turns out to be a gruntled, former cartoonist.

Warlord #55: I detailed the main story in this issue here. Kupperberg and Duursema start their high sorcery Arion series as the new backup. Atlantis is beleaguered by the advancing glaciers of the Ice Age and the displacement of "primitives" that live north of them. Only the arrogant young high mage Arion is able to keep the ice at bay--but now it seems his magic has left him. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Jianghu Dungeoncrawl

A few weeks ago over on Twitter, Erik Jensen of Wampus Country fame had the idea to run Temple of Elemental Evil in Shaw Brothers kung fu style. I think this is a very good idea So good, I'm going to do it myself. Well, maybe not the Temple of Elemental Evil, but some classic D&D module I'm going to reskin as a sort of wuxia adventure.

While I think you could use D&D for this, it does give me an excuse to try out another system. Perhaps Osprey's Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades? If not that, one of the other wuxia games I've got, but haven't played.

The only question is: what adventure to run?

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, March 1982 (week 2)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around December 10, 1981.

Batman #345: This one has a pulpy feel. It reminds me a bit of a Shadow or Doc Savage adventure. It begins with the mysterious Dr. Death killing a would-be betrayer with poison. Later, Robin is covered in dust by a mysterious flying figure. Batman discovers it's a toxin, and it's a race against time to save his partner. In the morgue, they discover the henchman killed earlier died of the same thing, but now they are caught and put into a death trap by Dr. Death! I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Karl Hellfern, homeopathic practitioner to the wealthy, has just come to prominence in Gotham.

There's a Catwoman backup here by Jones and von Eeden. Selina is hired to solve the mystery of some disappearing trains. She discovers the trains are apparently being diverted by ghosts!

Flash #307: Bates and Infantino/Smith are back. The Pied Piper returns with a scheme to both defeat the Flash and get revenge on his wealthy parents who have disowned him (and used their money and influence to hide the Piper's true identity). In the Dr. Fate backup from Pasko and Giffen and Mahlstedt, Totec sends Fate to a realm of the dead where his undead followers attack. Meanwhile, Totec begins a plan to usher in the Fifth Sun and return himself to godhood. Fate escapes from the undead, but then has to face a monster created from Inza's jealousy.

G.I. Combat #239: In Kanigher's and Glanzman's first Haunted Tank story, a maverick general who his superiors feel is reckless sort of proves them right by losing his son's life and then his own in a daring tank assault on a German fuel depot. In the O.S.S. story, Kana the Ninja is again dealing with anti-Japanese prejudice while trying to fight the Japanese. Next up, Boltinoff and Patricio have a woman inventor rescuing a squad of G.I.'s sent to destroy the cannon she made, which had fallen into German hands. Drake and Matucenio tell the story of a wastrel Balkan Prince who is forced to join the army by his father. He dies attempting to surrender to the Germans but his father is told he died a hero to spar his feelings.

In the last Haunted Tank story, Jeb and crew find a small Dutch doll with the mysterious message attached to it - "Aidez Vous! Denise." He leads them to a village being held captive by a German Panzer and associated troops. After defeating the Germans, they return the doll to the little girl who saved her town.

Jonah Hex #58: Jonah befriends a burly but simple-minded guy with a beloved dog who may be the only one that knows the location of a treasure. The only problem is the bad guys would like to get ahold of that information, and contrive a plan to kill them both.

The El Diablo backup continues to be good. This time El Diablo and his creator most face a renegade medicine man and his creation who looks a bit like Marvel's cowboy Ghost Rider. In the end, it's revealed that this white clad specter was sort of the original El Diablo.

New Teen Titans #17: Wolfman and Perez come up with a pretty good one here. One of the best so far of this run, to me. Wally's friend Francis Kane is dealing with a mother so overcome with grief for her dead husband and son that she spends all her time doing seances trying to contact them and blaming Francis for living, and weird manifestations of poltergeist type activity. Francis' mother believes she's possessed. Wally enlists Raven and later the rest of the Titans for help. The activity threatens large swathes of the city, and it looks like Francis may indeed be possessed but Cyborg realizes its magnetism, not magic. The reader finds out at the end that the silhouette of a devil has actually be Dr. Polaris with his horns, trapped in some other dimension and trying to use Francis to get out.

Secrets of Haunted House #47: This the last issue. It has a cover by Denys Cowan. They saved a few decent stories for end, I guess. Timmons and Carillo have a man planning to marry a woman then kill her for money. His plan is complicated by the boogey man he's had trapped in his closet with a light since his childhood. His would-be victim innocently releases the little man with predictable results. Sciacca and Estrada present a sort of Dorian Gray riff where a curse mirror turns a guy into a serial killer and reflects his moral decay. Kelley and Bisette present an atmospheric vignette about a ghostly woman cycling from girl to old woman while pursuing her animated, possessed teddy endlessly through the rooms of a haunted house. Kupperberg and Vicatan have an immortal witch undone when she mistakes two little people for children and tries to feed on their youthful life force. Finally, Cavalieri and La Roque present an unusual violent tale of a disturbed woman whose childhood trauma causes her to go into a dissociative state and attack when she holds a knife. Her son is killed and her husband soon to follow after a set of kitchen knives is delivered to their home as the result of a contest.

Superman #369: Superman learns the true meaning of Christmas. Not really, instead he fights the Parasite who has being using the actions of the unwitting FBI agent Cory Renwald (the kid raised by the Kents before Kal-El's crash as we saw a couple of months ago in Superboy) to set a trap. Superman overcomes the villain and gets a nice holiday moment with his almost-brother.

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Entertainment Industry in Yai

 Our Land of Azurth game continued with the party awaiting the archivist in the ancient, abandoned lounge in the depths of the city of Yai. Unfortunately, the Archivist returns in the custody of young guards of Yai who arrest the party. The leader would have summarily executed them had not one of his juniors named Irwin-37 recognized them as the characters from a popular entertainment. In an attempt to prove who they were he asked trivia questions about their adventures, but they barely remember the details and didn't do so well.

Still, it was good enough to so doubt and they were escorted to the city so that the Elders could decide what to do with them. They find out on the way that the show about them is the creation of the reclusive celebrity producer, Cory-01.

In the more vibrant areas of the domed city they are imprisoned while awaiting an audience with the Elders. Irwin-37 reveals that the city is indeed a ship, an ark, sent into space in a long, elliptical orbit to return to Earth after the planet had sufficiently recovered from a cataclysm and could be repopulated by the people for the ark. Apparently, though, something went wrong as they arrived to a world still dangerous and overrun with mutants (which he assumes the party to be). Irwin-37 tells them it has been generations since they landed, but the Elders feel the outside is full of contagion.

After Irwin leaves, a weird, unicycle vehicle brings a mysterious visitor and his body guards. He somehow is able to free Kully and beckons him to come forward. Kully is reluctant, but the visitor reveals himself to be Kory Keenstep, his father! Kully goes with him.

Kory reveals himself to be the producer Cory-01. He connived his way into Yai society using tech from the Toad Temple. He noticed they had read the Azurth book, so he sold them on further adventures of our heroes. He later revealed that he had come by these tales by spying on the party using a device of Yai.

Unfortunately, his production has been shut down due to the Elders' concerns that it was corrupting the morals of the youth. Kory has an idea to convince them using a "ghost trick" he got from an old book he read in Yai. He claims to have a way to send Kully back in time to haunt the Elders and somehow change their minds. He offers Kully a disguise that looks like the outfit warn by the mysterious stranger the party meet in the future.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party got an audience with the Elders. Well, not in person with the giant images of the three Elder's heads. They don't want to listen to the party's concerns about the Wizard and the shadows. They are aware of the Wizard's menace, but dismiss his ability to effect them. The party does get through to them sufficiently that they at least agree to consider their words.

The group is moved from the jail, at least, to better quarters, but they are still prisoners. Kully returns and tells them what his father said. Later, Kory comes to visit and they try to convince him to help, but predictably he is unwilling to stick his neck out--until they mention the Shadows. He's heard them talk about what they saw in the future when he was spying on them, but didn't see any of the events they were describing. He tells them he can send them to the future again, and they can get the images he needs to make a special--essentially a propaganda film to convince Yai to join the fight against the Wizard. The party doesn't trust him, but they agree.

Convincing Irwin-37 to give them a visit with Kory the next day, they are surprised to see the time machine he promised isn't a machine at all but more like a magic ritual. This is why he couldn't send any Yai folk through time: they don't have the talent for it. He explains it won't be their bodies but their "thoughtforms" or something. 

The party prepares. Kully is to go to the location of their other selves and film them--becoming the mysterious stranger the others always suspected he was. The rest of the party will stay hidden and film the Gloom Elves and their Shadow allies outside.

The ritual begins, but it doesn't go as smoothly for Shade as for the others...

To be continued.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Can Willow be Redeemed by Moebius? Let's Take A Look

The original version of this post appeared in 2017. Then, I was criticized by a couple of people for being unduly harsh to the film Willow. On reconsideration, I suppose that is fair, though I still maintain it doesn't quite come together with anything like the same magic as Star Wars. There is now a new Willow series on Disney Plus and the comments I've heard haven't been great, but I'll reserve judgement for now.

Moebius's concept work, which I first glimpse in a magazine around the time of the movie's release is as great as ever. Perhaps it doesn't suggest a weird fantasy Willow or anything that radical, but it does at least suggest to me a decent Studio Ghibli-esque film might have come from the material. Let's take a look and (re-)imagine:

Here's the titular hero and (I believe) one of his Nelwyn fellows. Nothing of the pastoral gentility of a Baggins, nor the too literal "small folk" of the film. These guys make me think of Howard's diminutive and declining Picts in "The Lost Race," but also aboriginal peoples like the Emishi (in Princess Mononoke) or Ainu. A sense of the Nelwyn threatened by humanity (or Daikini) would have been nice. I like the long earlobes, too.

Madmartigan is the rogue with the heart of gold Han Solo type, but with a bit more wastrelness, he could have been a wuxia sort of character or Sanjuro from Yojimbo or Mugen from Samurai Champloo--both of which are great swordsman, too. Moebius gives us a design that completely fits with those characters, suggests a world of ronin or wandering swordsmen of some sort.

So at this point, you might be thinking, "basically he's just going to say Willow should have been more Asian?" So now I'm going to throw you off:

King Kael here (General Kael in the film) is described as "bestial" in the third draft of the script, which he obviously is here. Perhaps he is a lover of Bavmorda transferred by her magic? A reverse Beauty and the Beast (there's maybe a bit of Cocteau's beast about him. Maybe?) Or is he the captain of the flying monkeys, so to speak? Anyway, he fulfills a bit of a Witch-King of Angmar role, so fleshing out his badass villainy would have been good.

Now, it's back to the Asian stylings. The mask suggests (to me) childhood mindwarping courtesy of Bavmorda for the warrior woman Sorsha. Maybe she's just go a slight blemish, but has been convinced its a horrible disfigurement a la (some accounts of) Doctor Doom? Maybe her inhuman beauty as a daughter of the Tuatha de Danaan-esque folk of Tir Asleen is her disfigurement to her witch queen mother? Note that the mask isn't just a human mask, it's go that single Oni horn. Probably means something.

Lastly, I believe this is one of two fairly divergent designs Moebius did for the brownies--but in an earlier script draft Willow and baby get captured by elves who are described as wearing "samurai-type outfits and angry little haircuts." These are guys who (in the script) collect baby tears as part of their gig. Now think of these sinister little guys, like a mashup of the Indian in the Cupboard and the evil faerie of del Toro's Don't be Afraid of the Dark remake. I think we could do without the French accent Lucas specifies for their leader, though.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Weird Revisited: Sin's Queen

The Phlegethon is a river of blood, formed from the runoff from infernal slaughterhouses and soul-rendering plants. Where it snakes through the city of Dis, one finds dens of depravity and vice run by the crime family that bears its name.  Belial is the boss here, and despite what you may have heard, Belial is a woman.

Or least, Belial is now.  Like all hell lords (ladies), Belial can take many forms. These days, Belial appears as a beautiful, dark-eyed woman, usually dressed in black. Her shadow is a deep red and tangible, like velvet.

The Phlegethon family runs brothels catering to unusual, often violent tastes, torture clubs, and brutal fight club gambling houses. Phlegethon’s entertainments draw hell denizens--both devil and damned--as well as visiting debauchees from all over the multiverse.

Combat: Belial uses a cat o’ nine tails when when she wishes to draw out the encounter.  She bleeds her foe tauntingly before the final kill. She carries a silver-plated infernal pocket pistol for those occasions when she can’t be bothered. It fires bullets specially crafted from truly depraved souls that cause lingering pain and disturbing nightmares even after they’re removed unless a their curse is removed.

Diabolical Abilities: Belial can know a mortal’s secret sins or secret desires of a carnal or violent nature at a glance. Her breath can cause an intoxicated delirium. Her slightest touch can cause intense pain or pleasure.

Pacts: Belial may be summoned with a drop of blood shed by a willing victim in either fear or ecstasy, caught in a silver chalice, and then boiled away over a small flame. Belial can reveal secret sins or desires of anyone (for a price) or provide instruction in techniques to prolong pain or pleasure.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, March 1982 (week 1)

I'm reading DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! Today, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands on the week of December 3, 1981. 

Arak Son of Thunder #7: Thomas apparently wasn't up to writing chores this month as he's "plotter," and Conway and Barr are "scripters." Colon/Rodriquez still do the art. Arak and Valda end up in Rome seeking help from Pope Hadrian. He doesn't know much and suggests they go to Byzantium. They also meet the Wandering Jew and discover a subterranean people, the descendants of the followers of Pope Ursilus (presumably a standin for Antipope Ursinus give the years. Maybe just a typo?) who are followers of the mad, Black Pope. Arak is like someone's pseudohistorical D&D campaign.

DC Comics Presents #43: This is a fun issue by Levitz and Swan. Mongul takes Superman captive as he menaces Earth with the Sun-Eater, and Jimmy Olsen summons the Legion of Super-Heroes to help--the issue reminds us of Jimmy's history with the Legion. It also creates so tension in that the last time the Legion tangled with the Sun-Eater, Ferro Lad had to sacrifice himself to do it. Wildfire does here, but "sacrifice" is much less permanent for a guy made of energy, in fact it's turned into an end of the issue joke. Swan's stiff, more normally proportioned Mongul leaves a lot to be desired.

Ghosts #110: There isn't much worthwhile in this issue. There's a weird intro that promises "The Shattering Secret of Squire Shade" and then doesn't deliver. Unless the secret is that his carriage turns into a sleigh and his horses into reindeer at midnight on (presumably) Christmas? Anyway, Levitz and Gonzales present a vaguely Christmas story where toys commanded by an electronic device take revenge on a mean store owner. Then Kelly and Trinidad expect us to side with TV Network execs (I guess) as they plot and carry out the murders of every critic in the country after one of their fellows commits suicide following bad reviews. In Kelly's second attempt he's aided by a Paris Cullins who hasn't yet developed his distinct style for the story of a family plagued over the generations by the spirit of a cruel ancestor who is given a chance to walk the Earth again by replacing his doppelganger descendants.

Justice League #200: This is an issue fondly thought of by many, and I see why, but it's not my favorite of this Conway run. It does have an all-star cast of artists, though: Perez, Broderick, Kane, Infantino, Bolland, and Kubert. It riffs off the Appellaxian invasion from the origins of the JLA but adds the twist of a portion of the story where the newer League members must fight the original ones. It's got that hero vs. hero action, teams splitting up--all the classic superhero tropes.

Weird War Tales #109: This issue has a great cover to me. Kanigher replaces DeMatteis on the Creature Commandos and his characterization and dialogue is more consistent with the teams' origins, but at least this first part of the story has a bit less of the "war is hell" aspect of Dematteis' yarns, and he uses a lot more bombastic, Marvel style alliteration. Spiegle's art is probably more consistent with better visual storytelling than what we've got previously, but he doesn't really have a flair for monsters. Kashdan and Zamora follow-up the Commandos with the story of robots used as weapons in futuristic war, who wind up manipulating humans into staying in a continuous state of war to prolong their existence.

Kanigher and Hall/Celardo present an unusual War That Time Forgot tale by moving Circe to Dinosaur Island and having her turn hapless G.I.s into dinosaurs. Finally, Kanigher and Randall present a short, and obvious story about WWI soldiers fighting in a graveyard and dying in the same open grave.

Wonder Woman #289: True to form for Thomas, this issue re-introduces the Golden Age villain Dr. Psycho (though maybe we saw him briefly the issue before). This creates a bit of a continuity glitch, as Psycho had a few appearances in the 60s, starting in the nebulous period between the Golden Age and Silver Age continuity. These have been retroactively deemed appearances of this Dr. Psycho, but the original Who's Who lists this as his modern first appearance. Anyway, Psycho siphons ectoplasm from Steve Trevor and becomes Captain Wonder. The misogynist villain who is literally kind of a mental parasite is rife for modern use, and I think Grant Morrison made good use of him in this context in Wonder Woman Earth-One. Anyway, Silver Swan also makes an appearance at the end of this issue, promising an even bigger conflict next month.

The Huntress backup by Levitz and Staton sees her battling the Crime Lord, who's a crime boss really into the SCA--or at least wearing armor and carrying Medieval weapons.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Solar Wars: The Hutt Crime Family

The Hutt crime family was one of the most powerful criminal organizations of the Imperial era. Based on Mars, its reach extended throughout the system, owing to its connections to Nar Shadaa in the Jovian Trojans. It's most famous boss was Jaba, often called "Jaba the Hutt," who took control after a gang war in 3244. During Jaba's reign, the Hutt family was involved in smuggling, piracy, drug and weapons trafficking, and the slave trade, and well as various forms of cybercrime. 

Jaba's base of operations, his so-called Palace, was a former monastery of the Bomar sect, located in the Martian desert. Jaba's palace was in really a fortress, guarded by a compliment of his soldiers and any number of bounty hunters and contract killers vying for employment. Jaba was rumored to keep a unique, genetically engineered creature called "the Rancor" in a pit beneath the palace that he used to dispose of those that had displeased him.

This is a follow-up to this post.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, February 1982 (week 4)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around November 26, 1981. 

Action Comics #528: Wolfman and Swan bring back Brainiac (previously reformed by Superman's actions). He's arrived to get Superman's help to stop a Death Star-looking doomsday device he built in his villainous days, which is now headed for Earth. No disrespect to Swan, but as a kid reading comics in the 80s, the Buckler cover was more enticing than the Swan interiors.

Adventure Comics #490: With this issue, we say good-bye to Adventure Comics in this format and to Dial-H for Hero as its own series. While I can't say I'm super enamored of the concept, it wasn't really done any favors by the very episodic nature of its stories (even in an era of more "done in one.") While there was a sort of ongoing background plot with a shadowy Big Bad, that was never really given the attention it needed.

Anyway, this final issue has got some interesting designs but also some of the worst looking art in places. A villain called the Abyss transports our heroes to some weird worlds like something out of 70s Marvel but cycling through different super-identities is a winning strategy. At least in the story--not for comic sales.

All-Star Squadron #6: Thomas and Buckler continued travails of the All-Stars within days of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. They rescue Hawkgirl from sacrifice by the Feathered Serpent, but he still manages to gain supernatural power over people with "pure" Native American ancestry and decides to revive an empire. He even starts pushing around his Nazi Allies. Eventually, our heroes defeat him, and he's revealed to be a German in redface. His power is dissipated, and everyone goes back to normal. The JSAers who intended to give up their costumed identities and enlist are confident they are living the homefront in good hands with these new heroes.

Detective Comics #511: Bruce is convinced there's something more to Reeves' colossal political blunder that cost him the election, and he's right. Reeves finds out himself that the architect of his downfall was Rupert Thorne. Meanwhile, Dick decides to go back to college. Then, Batman tangles with another one-off Conway villain: the illusion producing Mirage.

New Adventures of Superboy #26: Inventor Phineas Potter wants to help Clark out, so he doses him without his knowledge with a spray that makes him irresistible to women, which complicates his activities as Superboy. There's also a gang convinced the inventor gave Clark some pills to make him bullet proof. It all works out in the end, of course. In the backup by Rozakis and Delbo, Superboy goes 4 years into the past (1962, specifically) to do research for a school paper on a space flight and sees his younger self thwarting saboteurs in an incident he no longer remembers. But why not?

Unexpected #219: This issue feels like left over Time Warp material or maybe a test run at a new sci-fi anthology. Helfer and Estrada have the cover story maybe inspired by the Outer Limits episode "The Invaders." Tiny aliens are pursued by very early animals including cockroaches and have the misfortune of trying to hide in a roach motel which gets tossed into a pile of garbage and burned. Mayer and Matucino follow it up with a convulted sci-fi yarn about a space traveler who hitches on to a ship that is unfortunately run by long-lived beings. He ages, imprisoned there, and the alien captain plans to use the human as a patsy for his crimes, but ultimately, he somehow gets the girl and immortality. 

Kashdan and von Eeden present the story of a feral human child raised by aliens who gets revenge on the man who killed her parents. Cohn and Giffen provide the only non-sci-fi story in the group about the devil trying to sell prosperity to a town for a price--it's the same deal he gives Nazi Germany.

Unknown Soldier #260: A crew mutinies and takes a Q-boat into a fjord to surrender to the Germans. The Soldier goes in disguised as a ruthless German commander to shock the crew into not turning traitor. Turns out those boys were just tired and want out of the war, so once the real Nazis are dispatched, Unknown Soldier is willing to say they were killed in action and let them go. Such is the war as portrayed by Haney and Ayers/Talaoc.

In the backup, we get Enemy Ace by Kanigher and Severin. A general decides von Hammer is too important to the German war effort to let him lead his squadron anymore, so they send in a ringer, but Hans ain't having it. He stills a plane to go and join his men.

World's Finest Comics #276: Barr pens the first two stories this issue. Dr. Double X breaks out of Gotham and tangles with both Superman and Batman, putting Batman in a death trap where Superman might inadvertently cause his death. Then, Oliver Queen is caught in a prison riot thanks to a loss of power. He has to improvise a bow and arrow to keep the assassin Slingshot from killing an ex-gang boss. 

In the Zatana story by Kupperberg and Speigle, a trick gone wrong leads to her manager being nabbed by demons. Zatanna must cross through the portal into the demonic realm and encounters and evil version of herself. Rozakis' and Infantino's Hawkman pines for his missing wife, feels guilty about flirtation with Mavis, then here's from birds that something is weird with the weather. Weather Wizard is the cause. The Captain Marvel (really Marvel Family) story by Bridwell and Newton has the Marvels trying to find off invaders from another dimension and needing help from some aging vets--who somehow get help from dead comrades in arms.