Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Wednesday Comics: DC, September 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 June 3, 1982. 

Adventure Comics #491: Adventure returns as a digest of mostly reprints, but there's a new Captain Marvel story by Bridwell and Newton. Satan assembles Ibac, Sabbac, Master Man and Darkling to get rid of the Marvel Family and Kid Eternity. The heroes are on a hike when it gets uncommonly dark. Realizing Darkling is responsible, the Marvels try to transform, but the darkness is so intense even magic lightning can't get through. Having been given the power to see in magical darkness, Master Man puts his hand over Kit Freeman's mouth before he can use his power. Billy Batson tricks Sabbac into conjuring a flaming light and Kit uses it to burn the gag from his mouth and says his magic word. He summons Zeus, who brings along three Shazam lightning bolts for the Marvels. Ibac, Sabbac and Darkling are defeated, but Master Man summons four gods of evil.

Arak Son of Thunder #13: Thomas and Colon/Acala continue Arak's adventures in Greece. A chance encounter with some dead monks and soul-taking Keres demons, leads to Satyricus and Arak impersonating the monks at a monastery and agreeing to investigate a story of demonic influence in some neighboring caves. Inside the cave, the satyr mysteriously falls asleep, and a swooping Keres causes Arak to become lost. He finds a thread which leads him to a tapestry which depicts his native land and He-No the god of thunder.

In the Valda backup by the Thomases and Colon, the gifts of treacherous Hun ambassadors are ensorcelled and meant to harm the Charlemagne. Valda prevents the king's own sons from killing their father who they perceive as a stag thanks to the magic. She destroys the cursed helmet, and the king plans to punish the huns for their treachery. It's interesting how different Colon's art looks here when he inks it himself compared to the main story with Alcala inks. This is more cartoony and cleaned lined, and the other grittier.

DC Comics Presents #49: Thomas/Kupperberg and Buckler bring Black Adam and Captain Marvel over from Earth-S for a team-up with an unusual angle. After a terrorist bomb shakes an ancient Egyptian temple, the Billy Batson of Earth-One has a dream about becoming Captain Marvel. Black Adam turns up on Earth-One intent on conquest, and Superman needs Captain Marvel's help, but he'll need Billy Batson and the secrets of the temple to get him here. 

Fury of Firestorm #4: Conway and Broderick/Rodriquez have Firestorm at the mercy of Killer Frost, lest the people of New York suffer. Her first demand: bring her actor Curt Holland (a Burt Reynolds stand-in) to be her consort. Firestorm heads off to do that, but first has a pointless but Marvel-style fight with his teammates in the JLA who want to help, but won't let Firestorm do it, his way. Eventually, they talk it out and collaborate with Ronnie on a plan involving a device built by Stein and Red Tornado impersonating Holland. It works, and Frost is defeated. 

Justice League #206: Conway is joined by Infantino for this one with Tanghal's inks reining in some of the excesses we see in his work on Flash. In the 25th Century, Thomas Parker recounts to his son one of the Justice League's adventures, while the two visit an exhibit in the JLA's honor in the Space Museum. Unknown to the League, the demons Abnegazar, Rath, and Ghast had caused the mystic Jar, Bell and Wheel used to imprison them to be left behind in the Souvenir Room of the original Secret Sanctuary when the Justice League moved to their satellite headquarters. The artifacts were eventually discovered and used to free the demons from their crypts. The demonic trio attacked the satellite and then battled the heroes a second time at Stonehenge. They trick Zatanna into using her magic to destroy the 3 objects that can imprison them, but they are defeated when she uses her magic to recreate the Jar, Bell, and Wheel and imprison them again. 

I've said before Conway's run here is generally good, but uneven, and this is one of the less good issues. It feels like a Silver Age throwback, and not just for Infantino's art.

Sgt. Rock Annual #2: Kanigher and Spiegle have Rock sent on a special mission to rescue a man with sensitive information who has fallen into German hands--and if he doesn't think he can rescue him, Rock is to kill him. A hard enough assignment any time, but harder still because the man in question is Rock's younger brother. With the help of the Haunted Tank crew and Mademoiselle Marie, a handpicked group of Easy rescue Larry Rock, though a rogue's gallery of villains get in their way: the Iron Major, Helga Voss, and a over-sized robot called the Goliath of the Western Front. Larry's been tortured and has a head trauma causing him pain. He wants desperately not to fall into German hands again. He attempts to get Rock to kill him, and when he won't, Larry jumps from the top of a cable car in the mountains. Rock tries to save him, but can't keep a grip. Mission completed, Rock and his men return to Easy. This was a good one, justifying the extra-page count, I thought.

Weird War Tales #114: Kanigher and Carillo bring back G.I. Robot (JAKE-2) with a cameo by the Creature Commandos. I suppose the story is a silly if you think about it, but I also feel like it's probably the most poignant of the week, even moreso that Kanigher's other effort Sgt. Rock. There is pathos in Sgt. Coker's devotion to his robot "buddy," in a way perhaps more now than in its era. JAKE always seems to have some humanity, but his mute, inexpressiveness never allows you to know whether it's an expression of his soul or just his programming, when he sacrifices himself for others or even puts his arm around a frightened princess.

Wonder Woman #295: Thomas/Mishkin and Colan/McLaughlin are keeping it topical with this storyline about a nefarious video game. Wonder Woman stops a riot in a department store caused by a rush of people trying compulsively to pick-up the Commander Video. The villain here, the Sandman foe last seen in 1974, General Electric, is in prison, but he has taken over the mind of the warden and many others by means of his game. Electric contacts General Darnell, another of his mind controlled lackeys, and has him transfer bombers and nuclear missiles to the prison just as Wonder Woman bursts in after destroying Steve's Commander Video game. She attacks Darnell, but the controlled general brands her a traitor, and she's on the run to try and stop the weapons transfer. Her jet takes a hit from a missile at the transfer site, and she falls unconscious and into the hands of the military.

In the Huntress backup, Alfred has been poisoned by a unknown, time-release toxin by a mobster out for revenge. When threatening the life of the thugs responsible doesn't yield any useful information, she rushes him to the hospital. Not knowing what the toxin is, the doctors don't know what to do. A desperate Huntress decides to science this herself. After all, she watched her dad do this sort of thing and she's had "two courses in organic chemistry." This being a comic, she's successful and Alfred lives.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Swords Against Sorcery: Wizard's Challenge!

 Last night, I did the first playtest of the Bronze Age comic book Swords & Sorcery system I have been working on. I made a few pregens and this was the line up:

  • Oriax the Red, Gladiator Champion (Aaron)
  • Thunda, Barbarian Acolyte (Andrea)
  • Korag, Primitive Warrior (Jason)
  • Kharron, Cursed Warrior (Paul)

The adventure began with the heroes all at a seedy tavern in the city of Djadishar. They are surprised by the sudden appearance of a robed sorcerer with a brass dome over his head like Mysterio. He said he was Narznn Gath and he was here to cause the death of the heroes as his divinations had showed they would thwart his plans in the future. The other tavern patrons rise up, seemingly under the sorcerer's control to take.

Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery comics tend to get to the action very quickly, typically with foes the heroes can deal with relatively easily. Here it also serve the purpose of giving everybody a try with the basic mechanics.

The heroes fairly easily dispatch the unfortunate tavern lowlifes. They figure they had better take the fight to Narznn Gath or he'll keep coming after them. Thunda and Kharron, with their combined occult knowledge, know that he is reputed to dwell in the Tower of Eyes deep within the hellish Desert of Urrd. The heroes aren't eager to cross the desert with a wizard waiting for them. They want to try for the element of surprise. Maybe swifter mounts of some sort or magical transport?

Kharron knows a sorceress who lives in a villa on the outskirts of Djadishar who might be able to help. The decide to seek out Yasheeng of the Gossamer Veil. 

Kharron actually failed his roll here, but with a "fail forward" sort of mentality, this just means a complication down the road.

Yasheeng agrees to see them and even his an idea that might help, but there's a catch. She has a magical mirror which can allow them access to the idyll plane where Zaarzog the Demon dwells. There grows a tree whose fruit can secure the cooperation of the winged creatures than nest in the caves of the Vestari Mountains nearby. However, in return for her aid she wants the large opal at the bottom of the pool near the tree--and she wants a few drops of Kharron's magical blood to ensure they don't double cross her. The party agrees, and jump threw the mirror.

They are greeted to the scene of glade with a small hill and a huge, gnarled tree with strangely fleshy leaves. At the center of the glade is a limpid pool with a giant statue of a seated demon on the far side. While Korag climbs the tree to gather fruit, Kharron dives into the pool after the mikly-colored, potato-sized, gem. Thunda investigates the statue and notes one of its eye sockets is empty, but the other has a white gem in it.

When Korag picks the large, pear-shaped fruit, thick juice drips from the sap. When it hits the ground, wriggling creatures began to grow, ultimately to two-foot tall goblin-things. When Oriax cuts down a few, more grow from the spilt blood.

Meanwhile, Kharron as emerged from the water with the jewel which feels strangely warm in his hand, but then, the statue comes to life with a grinding of it's stone joints. Thunda calls upon her gods and the demon is transfixed for a moment, buying them a little extra time.

Oriax runs to their aid, while Korag jumps from the tree and kicks his way past goblins to the portal. Kharron taunts the demon with the stone--perhaps unwisely, as it snatches him up. 

Oriax attacks but his blade is no match for stone. Kharron manages to pry himself loose. They all try to make for the portal, but Kharron is tripped and pulled down by goblins. Thunda comes to his aid, and everyone runs through the portal, a grasping horde of goblins on their heels.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Dr. Banner or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gamma Bomb

This is a post in my Omniverse series of a "realistic," shared superhero universe. The original version appeared in the Gplus days in February 2018.

The official narrative regarding the creation of the Hulk prompts one to question: Just what was going on at Los Diablos Missile Base? Let's review the eyebrow raising details: Bruce Banner is given a shocking amount of freedom to place restrictions on and make demands of the base’s military commander, a Russian scientist has somehow gotten security clearance, the control room is grossly under-staffed, and the detonation is down to just one push of a button. Ultimately this is all the result of the government's Cold War mentality, but the immediate cause of the irregularities in the base’s operation and the tragedy that followed is Dr. Bruce Banner.

The first mystery (this one obscured by governmental secrecy) is just what the gamma bomb was. It was not a gamma ray weapon—though that was exactly what Banner had dangled in front of the Army to get his project off the ground. Once he had funding and security clearance, Banner went for something more daring: he planned to build the K-Metal Bomb the German’s had sought near the close of World War II, but never perfected. He hoped to use the K-Metal (or Kryptonite as it was becoming popularly known) to power a weapon that would weaken and incapacitate but not kill (in a manner similar to so-called “slow kryptonite” developed years later by Metallo) and would also not destroy infrastructure. “Gamma” became the Army’s codename for this weapon.

Not only were the generals incredibly interested in what Banner was offering, but Banner’s secrecy (either conscious or unconscious) regarding the physics involved only served to leverage a virtual celebrity status for him. A status coupled with Cold War thinking regarding means and ends would prove disastrous for more than one person present that faithful day.  Truth being more complicated than fiction, Windsor-Smith's version of these events in Monster would split Banner into two characters: a traumatized victim of a sadistic experiment and the sadistic scientist running the experiment. 

Dr. Leonard Samson, psychiatrist, wrote extensively about the psychological dynamics of the principles after the fact. That Banner was rigid and emotional repressed was obvious to virtually everyone, but Samson argues that he projected his anger for his mentally ill and abusive father onto the bellicose General Ross and taunted him in a passive aggressive manner. (This, incidentally, only served to heighten Ross’ daughter’s attraction to the emotionally unavailable scientist.) It was Banner who demanded and got unprecedented control over the test and a limited, handpicked staff. 

Which brings us to the oddest figure in this drama, “Igor Starsky,” the Soviet spy. Igor had been assigned to establish a relationship with Banner in graduate school—something not easy to do with the young physicist. For reasons of his own, Banner suffered Starsky’s presence, but seldom showed him any genuine warmth. When they were working together on the gamma bomb, he often treated the man like a lackey. Samson surmises that Starsky’s presence on the project was merely another way for Banner to assert his mastery over Ross, his father surrogate. He was the personification of foreign power in Ross’ domain. Banner would deny ever having considered that Starsky might be a Soviet agent, but he pointedly did not reveal any more of the science involved with the project to his colleague than to the military.

Why did Starsky attempt to kill Banner in the gamma bomb test when his presumed mission was not yet completed? Clearly, he had reason to resent Banner for the treatment he had received, but wouldn’t have stealing Banner’s secrets for his government been revenge enough? Samson believes Starsky’s murderous feelings against Banner were a reaction-formation of his attraction to the scientist. His tolerance of abuse had been the masochistic, unconscious expression of the depth of his feeling, but in a pivotal moment he pushed the button to free himself from Banner, and perhaps the intensity of his own feelings, once and for all.

That isn’t, of course, how it turned out.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Wednesday Comics: DC. August 1982 (week 4)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, we check out the comics hitting the newsstand on May 27, 1982.

Action Comics #534: Wolfman and Swan/Hunt bring back Satanis and Syrene. Superman is pulled into the 14th Century by Satanis, as he's been trapped there by, well the actual Devil, but he still plans to conquer all of time, using Superman's physical might to do it. Satanis and Syrene are still vying for the Runestone of Merlin. Their magical duel somehow splits Superman into two duplicates.

In the Air Wave backup, Air Wave becomes aware of alien invaders with a plan to scour the Earth of life. It turns out one of his teacher's may well be part of the invasion force.

All-Star Squadron #12: Thomas and Gonzales/Ordway have revealed Hastor as the villain behind the fake alien invasion. We're given an extensive retelling of the Golden Age Hawkman's origins to explain it all, which is a bit tedious to me, but was probably necessary for the reading public in 1982.  Hastor comes by his power via a device that channels the brain waves from comatose scientists, the originators of this plan to save mankind, which he's co-opted for evil. He's confident in his ability to best the All-Stars, but acting on a complicated hunch, Hawkman uses the ancient sacrificial knife (his psychic connection to his previous life, Prince Khufu) to battle Hastor, on the astral plane. When Hawkgirl adds her psychic energy to her beau's, they are able to beat their old foe. The captured All-Stars use their mental energies to keep the flying eye from crashing, and the day is saved.

Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #6: No sooner have the Zoo Crew defeated the Yolk Monster from last issue, then they see more of these things attacking the White House. They rush to save the day with Oklahoma Bones Jr. and his snake coming with them. It seems this is also the work of the ambassador from San Salvador who is really Bones' old nemesis Baron von Vermin. He tells the Crew about the Space Bunny who bought the eggs from another world and buried them on Easter Bunny Island. The Space Bunny encased himself in a cocoon and buried himself on the Island, too, in case the eggs were ever awakened.

The Crew goes to revive the Space Bunny to help against the monsters, which once awakened, he does. He also turns von Vermin into a statute and embarks on a mission to subjugate the Earth. He captures all the Zoo Crew easily, but Captain Carrot manages to escape by changing back in Roger Rabbit and slipping his bonds. After eating a cosmic carrot to turn back super-powered, he manages to tie the Space Bunny's ears into a knot, causing the being to blast himself when he tries to use his powers.

Detective Comics #517: Conway/Levitz and Colan have the non-vampiric Batman return to Wayne Manor and struggling to control his unholy urges. He does wind up losing control with a criminal, though. Father Green shows up to provide Alfred the secret origin of "the Monk" (really one Louis Dubois) and his sister Dalia. He also suggests he knows a way to cure Batman.

Meanwhile, Gordon and Bard get closer to uncovering the puppetmaster behind the shady political doings in Gotham. Vicki is still at the party, but she's offered a ride home by Dick--who is still under the control of Dalia.

In the Batgirl backup by Burkett and Delbo, Barbara figures out how do de-snakify her legs by thinking hard. She is forced to adopt a shorts or skort version of her costume for the rest issue. The doctor's tell her she's got to get some venom from the serpent that bit her to save herself. She tracks down Lady Viper and snakewoman to snakewoman, defeats her, leaving her confined and taking the venom. Cured, Batwoman returns to deal with Lady Viper, but the villainess has been in snake form too long and devolves into a snake permanently.

New Adventures of Superboy #32: Bates and Schaffenberger reveal a rift in the Superboy Revenge Squad as s renegade member Trohnn (the extra "n" means extra nefariousness!) tries to destroy Superboy...not at the time the others want to do it, I guess? Anyway, this leads the other members try to secretly work to save the Boy of Steel.

In Dial H for Hero Bridwell and Bender switch up the formula as Vicki has to undial from a superhero identity to save herself as she is trapped on a world where she has super-strength, but the heroic identity doesn't. 

Tales of the New Teen Titans #3: Wolfman and Perez reveal the origin of Changeling. I'm not sure what of this issue is there invention or what has appeared in previous issues. I would guess most of the stuff post his original stint with the Teen Titans (his time on the TV show Space Trek: 2022, the attempt on his life by his former guardian who had taken over the identity of the super-villain, Arsenal) is all new, and likely the stuff before that is greatly expanded. Anyway, this seems less padded than the last issue and the juxtaposition of Gar's self-important narration with actual events is a nice touch. It's interesting how much body hair Perez makes Gar. That kid is as hirsute as Wolverine! 

Unknown Soldier #266: Continued from last issue, the Unknown Soldier's planned execution of the beloved Major he believes murdered the general in charge of "Bannon's Marauders" has to wait as Rommel's forces are attacking. Rommel seems suspiciously aware of their tactics, and it turns out it was the Lieutenant who had recently been captured by the Germans but "escaped," who has betrayed them and killed the General. The exonerated Major carries the day and is appointed General by the Unknown Soldier, who I guess can do that. The mystery here to me is why the Major never mounted any defense when charged with killing the General. Did he think he was covering for his men?

In the Kanigher/Severin Enemy Ace story, a passing French plane injures von Hammer as he is riding along in a car, so he's recovering when Balloon Buster challenges him to another duel. A younger pilot goes up in his place and gets shot down. Von Hammer and Savage plan to meet again, but when they do they are both forced to land on the French side, and von Hammer is taken captive. In the final story, Kanigher/Evans revive the Viking Commando for some reason. The Commando gets arrested and sent for a psychological evaluation as the brass finds it hard to believe he's really a time-displaced warrior from the 12th Century.

World's Finest Comics #282: Burkett and Novick open with Superman and Batman tracking down the Weapon-Master's lost stash of weaponry stolen from the Fortress of Solitude. They find the time-displacer at the hands of some low-level criminals. One of them activates the weapon and sends Batman back in time, forcing Superman to travel back to Earth's prehistory to save him. In the past they discover a civilization of extradimensional, winged-tiger riding wizards, the Eldiran, who are working to prepare the Earth for maturity so it can bring forth it's children (whatever that means). One of wizards tries to sabotage the mission, though, and Superman is threatened by a magically enhanced fire-lizard from a volcano, until Batman makes the malefactor undo the spell. This story is crazy, but not in a particularly interesting way.

Barr teams up with Gil Kane for this issue's Green Arrow/Black Canary story. Canary is kidnapped by Slingshot, and GA is lured into a trap to get her back--a cannier trap than he knows, as Slingshot is in the employ of the mother of a criminal he accidentally killed back in Flash #217. She plans to destroy the archer by tricking him into killing again! Rozakis and Infantino bedevil Hawkman with a precarious situation and annoying alien who hulks out when he feels unwanted in "Doctor Katar and Mister Plert." The ending, if genuine, seems to rush Katar's reuniting with Shayera, but this storyline hasn't been great so that may be okay.

Finally, Bridwell and Kane bring back Kid Eternity foes Her Highness and Silk who are working for Marvel family baddie Aunt Minerva. They plan to get the wealthy to a charity circus starring the Marvels so their houses can be robbed. Kid Eternity's intervention helps the Marvel's quash the plot.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Planet of the Apes Episode 3

This is a repost from a few weeks ago on the Flashback Universe Blog and a reminder that Jason Sholtis and I are reviewing the entire, single season series over there, once a week on Tuesday!


 "The Trap"
Airdate: September 27, 1974
Written by Edward J Lasko
Directed by Arnold Laven
Synopsis: The gorillas pursue our heroes to the ruins of San Francisco. When they are buried underground in an ancient subway station during an earthquake, Burke and Urko are forced to work together. Above ground, Galen and Virdon try to figure out a way to help Burke, with the reluctant assistance of several gorilla soldiers.

Trey: This episode was written by Edward Lasko who wrote a lot of TV back in the day, including episodes of Six Million Dollar Man, Mannix, The Mod Squad, 4 episodes of Wild Wild West, and one bad episode of Star Trek, "And the Children Shall Lead." How does he do here?

Jason: Well, it ain't Shakespeare! This episode had some of the clunkiest dialogue yet in the series, perhaps due to sloppy editing and time pressures in the production schedule. 

Trey: We're only two episodes in!

Jason: Three! Anyway, I'm not familiar with much of Lasko's work, but I get the feeling the old pro blasted this one out in one sitting, turned it in, congratulated himself on another job done, cashed his check and never looked back. All that said, I must admit that fun and amusement could still be harvested for those sympathetic to the franchise or 70s TV in general. 

Trey: Our perpetually on the run protagonists hide out with the Millers, a family of humans refreshingly at least passively resistant to ape hegemony.

Jason: Urko and Galen both know the town in question has a reputation for harboring fugitives, which suggests some kind of human resistance or at least non-compliance. Unless Astronauts intrude from the past in even greater numbers than the apes would care to admit!

Trey: Some bits and pieces of old wiring from a nearby ruined city give Virdon the hope there might be some near functioning technology left there.

Jason: Wires mean hope to Virdon, but Burke remains, perhaps sensibly, totally unconvinced.

Trey: I get that Burke is supposed to be more of the pessimist/realist about the prospects of returning home but given that his buddy has a wife and family he wants to get home to, he seems kind of dismissive and flippant at times! Show some sensitivity, guy!
Jason: We all cope in our own way! At least Burke is willing to go along with Virdon's plans, because what the hell else are you going to do on the POTA? I suppose he could settle down and begin a new life in a human village, but the company seems pretty lackluster thus far. 

Trey: The ruined streets of San Francisco are obviously a city street set on a studio backlot, but they dress it up nicely post-apocalyptically.  It does seem awfully well preserved for a nuclear holocaust, though.

Jason: It looked surprisingly good, I thought, though as the episode wore on it was clear they shot a handful of streets and alleys from every conceivable angle. I felt a twinge of sympathy for the studio workers who had to clean up all the apocalyptic mess after shooting. 

Trey: The ancient subway station and train, on the other hand, needed a bit of work. It looks like the small tram for a studio tour.

Jason: I didn't think of that, but now that you mention it, yeah, last stop, tour over.

Trey: Pretty good action sequences this episode.

Jason: Urko brought some appreciable gorilla-strength to his struggles with Burke, tossing him around effortlessly, which was the first hint of a disparity that I've detected in the series. 

The epic mano a mano brawl between Urko and Burke was an especially fun flavor of cheese. Between flying kicks and Judo chops, Burke and Urko engage in a verbal struggle straight out of a Marvel comics fight scene! Burke attempting to pummel the denial out of Urko, whose mind was blown by a poster advertising a rather barbaric-looking zoo that featured a gorilla behind bars. 

Trey: That poster and all the posters in the subway station demonstrate that printing technology suffered in the future!

Jason: Again, here I empathized with the beleaguered art department temp that had to crank these out before lunch. They were indeed crappy. 

Trey: Irritable Urko is amusing. He's constantly "fed up with this shit!" He's like the lieutenant tired of the cops that don't play by the rules.

Jason: Mark Lenard's back pain may be the inspiration! Roddy McDowell's ape-gait looks more sustainable...

Trey: Zako, Urko's lieutenant, gets to shine a bit this episode. I wonder if we'll ever get a payoff on his discovery of the truth about the past?

Jason: It would be nice! Zako's climactic choice is a dramatic highlight of the episode, indicating that gorillas are more than jack-booted thugs and that perhaps Urko is just an exceptionally grumpy ass.

So, what's your verdict on this one?

Trey: Overall, this is at its base a pretty cliched basic plot: enemies have to work together. I think it comes together pretty satisfyingly, though, and I like the way Burke maneuvers Urko. This also increases the stakes for Urko. These humans are not just a threat, they're a threat to his worldview. You?

Jason: My bottom line: I'm still entertained. Onward to Episode 4!

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Superhero Challenges

Something I've noticed about comic book superhero storytelling over the years: often the solution to the obstacles faced don't have their solution in the direct application of the hero's most powerful trait. Superman, for example, may use his strength or other powers in overcoming the central problem in one of his stories, but the powers alone are seldom sufficient. It's not accident Superman foes are often smart/clever guys like Luthor, the Toyman, or Mister Mxyzptlk because they facilitate these kinds of stories. Even in clashes with villains that have vast powers like his own like Phantom Zone criminals, the key to his victory brains not superhuman brawn. Sure there's his tussles with Doomsday and maybe Mongul where this maybe isn't true or is less true, but I think those are the exceptions.

I feel like the same thing is true of other heroes like Spider-Man and the Flash. Again, their solutions to problems will include use of their powers, but its less often the obvious, most direct use of their powers. Spider-Man, known for his agility, maybe have to bring his intelligence or just brute strength to the table.

There are exceptions. Interestingly, I think this is not true of nonpowered/low powered heroes--or at least less true. It seems like Batman and Hawkeye generally achieve victory by just...doing their thing. The Hulk, though hardly low powered, may be another outlier, but I would need to read more Hulk comics to judge.

Does this have application to superhero gaming? It could, but it's obviously much harder to implement there. The game becomes unfun when it's about "guess what the GM is thinking" to accomplish your goal. Still, I think GMs could be mindful of this when playing adventures, making sure to introduce obstacles that might suggest out-of-the-box thinking and reliance on less used traits.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Wednesday Comics: DC, August 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 May 20, 1982.

Brave & the Bold #189: Kanigher and Aparo continue Batman's team-up with Thorn. Sort of, because no matter how many times Thorn helps him out, the Dark Knight is determined to go it alone. He tracks the Nazis to a secret base in (of course) Brazil, but he walks into a trap. The Nazis have captured Rose Forrest, who is still looking for her father's corpse, which was stolen by them as a means of coercing her to giving them what they want. When she learns that the Nazis have dumped the corpse in the river, Rose runs into the jungle and disappears. Thorn appears out of nowhere to help Batman break free and together, they take down the Nazis and sink the cannister of Inferno to the bottom of the river. Batman is curious about Thorn's real identity so he uses hypnosis to try to get her to spill it, but even she doesn't know.

Legion of Super-Heroes #290: Levitz and Giffen/Mahlstedt kick off the Great Darkness Saga in earnest. The Legionaires fail to keep creatures serving the Darkness from stealing 3 mystical artifacts across the world. During this, drama ensues as Chameleon Boy faces fallout from his recklessness on Khundia, Lightning Lad suffers from a neurologic condition, Saturn Girl and Timber Wolf try to deny the unresolved tension between them, and the Legion prepares for elections, with multiple candidates throwing their hats into the ring.

Meanwhile, on a barren world, the Master of Darkness feeds off the magical artifacts, then decides it's time he move to draining the living.

Green Lantern #155: Barr and Staton/Smith have the Guardians condemn Dalor to a Ritual of Endurance, which will either clear him or kill. This strikes Hal Jordan as a primitive way for them to operate, but hey, the Guardians are the boss. Jordan is tasked with going to Dalor's home planet to break the news of his death to his wife and kid, as it is assumed he won't make it.

Upon arrival, Jordan discovers that its a pervasive cultural trait to show gratitude for others' good deeds in any situation with gold. Dalor was just following his customs. Jordan realizes he messed up and flies back to Oa, entering the test to save Dalor. He does, but appears to drain his ring, and Dalor returns the favor and rescue him.  After Dalor heads home, Hal reveals that he just faked running out of power to see if Dalor would rescue him. The Guardians commend Jordan for learning a lesson.

House of Mystery #307: Jones and Sutton have Mary show up in Maine, 1964, with Andrew still chasing her. He rescues a young girl, Deedee, from drowning, and then her really trusting parents pretty much trust him completely and let him stay at their house. That night Mary appears and threatens to kill the kid if he doesn't give up his time-traveling ring. She reveals that the child is a young Deborah Dancer. When Andrew gives up the ring, Mary tries to kill him anyway. Adult Deborah in the future looks back through time and is able to take control of her past self long enough to save Bennett from death, but he can't travel time anymore.

Next up, Kelley and Matucenio tell the story of a "mad bomber" who decides to go after the girl who rejected him in high school, only to be killed by his own device and a miscalculation.  The last story by Jones and Spiegle is an EC sort of riff and probably the best of the issue. A mobster trying to escape a hit has an associate fake his death while he hides out in a bomb shelter. When time passes and he hasn't heard anyone, he tries to leave, but finds he's been buried alive! Sure that he has been betrayed, he digs his way out to find that the city has been destroyed by nuclear war and he'll now join it in death since he left his shelter.

Night Force #1: Wolfman and Colan/Smith continue the story they started in the preview. At the Potomac Psychiatric Hospital, patient Vanessa van Helsing sees visions of demonic forces, calling to her to join them. Baron Winters grants an interview to Jack Gold and tells him about Vanessa.  At Georgetown College, Professor Caine continues his experiments in parapsychology. He discovers that his experiments are taking place at the same moment that Vanessa is experiencing her paranormal visitations. Baron Winters arranges to have Vanessa released into Caine's care, which seems really unorthodox psychiatric treatment to me, but hey, it was the 80s.

Meanwhile, strange supernatural occurrences begin taking place all over Georgetown.

Sgt. Rock #366: Kanigher and Redondo repetitively tell us what a badass soldier Rock is as he tries to make his way back to Easy after leaving the hospital and has a hard time, allowing him to prove himself an ace artillerist, skilled frogman, and decent glider pilot.

DeMulder gives us a sci-fi tale of how communication barriers and misunderstand leads to war between humans and aliens. Then there are two Battle Album features: one a topical rundown of the Ninja, and the other about a futuristic tank. Finally, Bisson and Hardin provide an unexpected gremlin story where the creatures actually save a bomber from bad weather in WWII.

Superman Family #221: I thought it was over last issue, but nope, Kupperberg and Mortimer think than can get at least another installment from this Master Jailer thing. Supergirl tracks down the villain, but he converts her into light-energy with another weapon he devised and sends her into space. Supergirl manages to alter her course, sending herself into a space-warp that returns her to normal. She returns to Earth and captures the Jailer. At last. Kupperberg/Delbo do better with Jimmy Olsen. I mean, the story has still been a bit padded, but the end is kind of clever if convoluted. Jimmy has revealed Clark as Superman realizing he was being manipulated, but not realizing Clark actually is Superman! He hoped to give Supes room to catch Brainstorm, which he does ultimately by cluing Clark in. He tricks Brainstorm when he thinks (correctly) that he has siphoned some of Superman's power into Jimmy, and the villain is defeated.

O'Flynn and Oskner continue to do good stuff with Lois Lane. I should clarify that to say, I don't know it will much appeal to the average reader of superhero comics now or then, but I think they are accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. This story ties back in to a 70s LL socially relevant yarn about tainted water in an inner city school, but now Lois and a photographer stumble onto a plot to cause fear flashbacks in those who ingested the tainted water by reactivating the chemical as a trial run for spreading it in the entire city's water supply.

In Mr. and Mrs, Superman, Bridwell and Novick bring back the Archer, another Golden Age baddie. On one hand, it's nice to see these historic Superman foes revived. On the other hand, most of them seem ill-conceived as Superman foes.

Warlord #60: I detailed the main story in this issue here. In the Kupperberg and Duursema Arion backup, Arion goes astral (I guess) himself to do battle with Daanuth, and proves himself more than a match for the evil sorcerer.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Revisiting Weird Krypton

This post originally appeared in June of 2015...

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Krypton.

Superman's home planet is pretty weird. Weird enough that it makes a good substitute for Carcosa in McKinney's supplement. You can keep the polychromatic humanity (that might explain the Krytonian flag). Then, check out the maps of Krypton for places to visit:

The highlights there ought to be pretty obvious, but let me fill in a couple of salient points of adventure and/or danger:

Jewel Mountains: Formed by the accumulated carcasses of prehistoric, giant crystal birds.
Gold Volcano: It should be mentioned that gold is so common on Krypton as to not be particularly valuable.
Fire Falls: A fall of a fiery fluid from the planets core, inhabited by mutant fish-snakes whose bite is poisonous.
Scarlet Jungle: An expanse of forest in red and purple, including huge maroon mushroom-like growth. It home to at least some disease-causing spores. Then,  of course, there's the herd migratory, vaguely humanoid-shaped plants.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Wheelers in Sang

After a bit of a hiatus, our Land of Azurth 5e game returned last Sunday with the party headed to Sang to find the Clockwork Princess in the mysterious Junk City. It seems that ability of the leaders of Yai to spy on people through Azurth fails in the vicinity of the Junk City. It's a blind spot. Still, they saw the Princess before she entered the blind spot.

Using the flying ship re-acquired last adventure and why super-fan Irwin-37 as the pilot, they plan on flying to Fort Daldon, a waystation not too far from the Junk City. The group wants to do reconnaissance on the city, but they have to abort when their ship mysteriously starts to lose power.

Instead, they land in the desert near the fort. Their landing apparently annoys some burrowing dragonish creature, and they have a fight on their hands. After killing the beast, they head to the fort. Black smoke rising from it is an ominous sign. Even more concerning are the weird, wheeled people they fight when they call out at the fort's portcullis.

Forced the climb over the gate, they find evidence of the slaughter (and possibly cannibalism) of a caravan and the burning of some of the buildings. Sneaking around, they find some people tied on in the base of a tower, then the marauders attack. They call themselves the Wheelers.

Caught off-guard by the speed and the ferocity of the assault, it takes the part a little while to rally, but when they do they triumph over the Wheelers. They still don't know what's going on, though.


Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Wednesday Comics: DC, August 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 May 13, 1982.

Batman #350: My brother had this issue, but I don't think we bought it off the stands when it came up. After the bite last issue, Robin is starting to not show up so well in mirrors. He heads home to the Batcave and invites Bruce and Alfred to a party at Dala's house. Bruce and Vicki go to the party at Dala's place, and Bruce notices that Dick is acting even more strange after last night. He follows Dick and Dala, trying to figure out what's going on. He loses track of them, but finds blood on the floor. Looking out the window of the room, Bruce spots Dala taking Dick downwards to the back of the house. Bruce keeps following, this time as Batman. He finds Dick's clothes on the ground and hears laughter, then the Monk lunges at him and bites his neck. Batman fights back, but it's already too late. 

In the Catwoman backup by Jones and DeZuniga, Selina wakes up next to a dead woman after her kidnapping in the previous installment. Selina impersonates the woman to find out why she was killed, leading her to have have to go on stage as a stripper in a club. When she sees one of the murders, she gives chase, following him onto the rooftops. When she doesn't quite make a jump, she's left vulnerable to the crooks attack.

Flash #312: Bates and Infantino have Flash investigating a series of crime that have the hallmarks of his enemy, Heat Wave. What's odd about that is that Heat Wave has apparently reformed and gotten a straight job. The Flash doesn't believe his old foe has really changed at first, but Heat Wave ultimately helps him stop the imposter.

In the Dr. Fate backup by Gerber/Pasko and Giffen, Fate manages to escape the Nihil-verse thanks to his link with Inza but in the process discovers her indiscretion with Copeland. Back in the Tower, Inza is angry that Kent won't share things with her. Kent claims not to remember a lot--but does remember seeing her with another man. The argument ends with Kent sleeping on the couch and waking up in the morning to find Inza gone. Worse yet, outside the Tower he finds the red gem from before the size of the sun and covering much of the sky. Vandaemon is back, and this is all thanks to the farmer from the first part, who is actually Ynar, a renegade Lord of Order.

G.I. Combat #243: In the first Haunted Tank tale, Kanigher and Glanzman kill off Slim, who at least in the last few years of his 21 years in this magazine, had always been the naysayer and complainer. Most of the issue is introducing his replacement Bill Craig, a 30-year veteran and cavalryman from WWI. He, of course, saves the crew here. Except for Slim. The second Haunted Tank tale finds Rick still dealing with Slim's death and blaming Bill. After Bill saves them again--riding a horse, no less--Rick accepts the new crewman.

Kashdan and Amongo give us a story told from the point of view of a bayonet used by a G.I. in the Pacific against the Japanese. There's an uncredited story about a heroic meterologist dying (but still succeeding) in an attempt to seed clouds the thwart the Germans with rain shortly after D-Day. Finally, the Mercenaries are back and in Sierra Verde fighting a Colonel Furioza and his bandits on behalf of some poor villagers. Again, they achieve the mission, but don't get paid. 

Jonah Hex #63: Fleisher really likes to pour the hardship on Hex! The offer of passage back to the States turns out to be ploy to shanghai Jonah. After a beating and some threats to Mei Ling, he goes to work. Then there's a cholera outbreak on the ship, and he gets sick and in delirium, hallucinates traumatic memories of his alcoholic and abusive father, He survives cholera (though the rest of the crew don't) and saves Me Ling from the cruel captain, but rashly throws him overboard, leaving only nonexperienced sailors on the ship. They drift for weeks until a storm wrecks the ship. Jonah and Mei Ling escape in a lifeboat but only after sharks kill the ship's doctor and Jonah get's bitten. His wound becomes infected, but they are rescued by a ship bound for San Francisco. Jonah recovers, but Mei Ling decides to leave him again when they reach port.

Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1: DC had an ad in last weeks comics saying annuals were returning, and here's the first one. Levtiz and Giffen/Patterson have Brainiac 5 trying to cure young Danielle Foccart of her intractable neurologic disorder. Unfortunately, it instead results in her being possessed by Computo who is out for revenge against the Legion. Most of the team is defeated and captured, but Danielle's brother, Jacques, becomes the new Invisible Kid and saves the day. Between this issue and the Dr. Fate backup in Flash, Giffen's art is really starting to take on his (earliest) distinctive style.

Saga of the Swamp Thing #4: Pasko's story in this issue is a wrongheaded to me in a couple of ways. First off, it's clearly inspired by the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81 (and if the story alone didn't make you think of that, its last caption references them) so it's perhaps a little too soon to make flippant popular fiction about and a horrific event on the first anniversary of its ending. Second, the suggestion that somehow kids of the era were easy targets for murder due to being made too trusting by television promoting kindness and friendliness (presumably Mr. Rogers is his target here) somehow makes it even worse as it indicts positivity and sort of victim blames. Beyond that, the story about a demonically possessed children's tv host is pretty much par for the course for early 80s horror fare.

The Phantom Stranger backup by Barr and DeZuniga has the Stranger intervening to save a woman who has been turned into a mental zombie by a mystic incantation that saved her life, and finding himself in the clutches of his nemesis, Tannarak.

New Teen Titans #22: Wolfman and Perez have most of the Titans in a dire situation. Captives of Brother Blood, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and Raven are thrown in a pit inhabited by a monstrous spider-like creature, as is Robin, but only after he's tortured by Brother Blood's Confessor for information. The remaining Titans attack the Church to rescue their teammates, but Brother Blood outplays them with the aid of Bethany Snow, a newscaster who is secretly a member of his cult, by making it appear that their attack is unprovoked and smearing them in the public's eyes. Cyborg causes tBlood's escaping airship to crash, but that was yet more manipulation and Blood is still very much alive, but the Titans are accused of trying to murder him.

Superman #373: Bates and Swan/Adkins continue the Vartox story. Vartox and Lana Lang continue their wedding plans, but Vartox's old flame, Syreena, mind controls Vartox into thinking Superman is trying to steal Lana away from him. Vartox heads off looking to kill his Kryptonian friend. We get Syreena's origin in this issue. It turns out she was a criminal who tried to seduce Vartox to manipulate him, but wound up falling for him. When he discovered the truth, he let her face justice, and he assumed she died later when their planet was destroyed.

The Rozakis/Schaffenberger "In-Between Years" story is even more pointless that usual. An ancient Inca crown is stolen from Prof. Lewis Lang, and Pete Ross (visiting Clark at college) and Superboy get it back for him. That synopsis makes the story sound like it could be more interesting than it is, but really it hinges on Pete knowing Clark is Superboy, but Superboy not knowing Pete knows for it's "drama."

Monday, May 8, 2023

Journal of Eternian Studies: The Search for Skeletor

Skeletor is the principle antagonist of the so-called Masters of the Universe myth and literary cycle. His inhuman physical appearance, magical power, and dedication to conquering Eternia through usurpation of the power of Castle Grayskull are consistent throughout the various stories, but other aspects of his character, including his origins and the seriousness of his menace, vary wildly.

It has long been the prevailing view among scholars that his depiction as blue skinned links him to the Gar people1. The Gar civilization existed on the so-called Dark Hemisphere of Eternia, but came into conflict with groups on the Light Hemisphere in the islands of the Ocean of Gnarl and on the land bridge between the continents. By the time of the Randorian Renaissance, the Gar were a ethnic minority who suffered a good deal of prejudice owing to the belief that a Councilor of their ethnicity had betrayed and murdered the founding hero King Grayskull in the service of King Hiss of the Serpent Men2.

Later stories explicitly make Skeletor King Randor's brother Keldor who was transformed by forbidden magic, in some versions specifically Hordak worship. While the identification is not without controversy, Keldor was depicted as Gar, or at least half-Gar. There are scholars that argue that Keldor himself is a fiction created for later anti-Gar polemics, but the more common view is the he was indeed Randor's half-brother, a perhaps the illegitimate offspring of Miro and a Gar woman. Keldor was, for a time, a serious rival to Randor's power owing in part to a strong powerbase among traditionalist Gar clans.

Skeletor, however, existed in myth and legend prior to his association with Keldor. He was depicted as an otherworldly or demonic entity who had arrived on Eternia through accident or intention, but now wished to re-open that portal to bring his people through to aid in his conquest.

What is likely the oldest known legend associating the two is curiously restrained regarding the specifics of their relationship. Keldor is shown as meddling in dangerous magic and disappearing after a mishap. Skeletor is depicted as attempting to thwart any investigation into Keldor's current whereabouts. The gaps n the narrative invite the audience to assume that Skeletor and Keldor one and the same, but do not make the link explicitly. It is argued that this structure is an indicator of the stories origins as Randorist propaganda either during the time when the throne was contested or shortly after Randor secured it. Further, the effectiveness of such propaganda would hinge on Skeletor as a character already known to the intended audience.

It could be that Skeletor's pre-existing Gar traits made this linkage with Keldor possible, but it is also possible that Skeletor's Gar coloration is a later addition. Certainly it is no accident that Skeletor's shade of blue has a long association with the supernatural in the Eternian mind. It has been suggested that both the Gar people and Skeletor are depicted as blue simply because of the rarity of the blue pigments in the Light Hemisphere used in art in the Gar ruins on Anwat Gar to depict rulers such as Shokoti and the persist association of the Gar with magic due to their status as diviners and purveyors of charms and curses.

Recently, archeological evidence of a skull faced god or demon that appears to have been the focus of ritual activity in the region around Castle Grayskull in the putative era of the first "He-man." Any correlation of this entity with Skeletor or the Gar is highly speculative.


1. The Gar were typically depicted as blue-skinned. Whether they literally were, either naturally or as some form of body-adornment, or this depiction has symbolic significance is unknown.

2. If there is any truth to this allegation at all, it likely conveys persistent Serpos worship among the Gar during the period where Goddess worship was becoming dominant on the Light Hemisphere.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Toward a System for Four-Color Sword & Sorcery

I've been thinking about cobbling together a system for a Bronze Age of Comics Sword & Sorcery rpg, a rarefied genre, perhaps, but one I'm quite fond of. I figure it will be a Frankenstein's monster of ideas from Year Zero Engine games, Broken Compass, and a few things from 2d20, maybe. Like all of those games, I'm thinking its a d6 dice pool system. The base roll will be akin to the Attribute+Skill of those systems.

The attributes with the appropriate flavor came relatively easily:

  • MIGHT: Force and physical power.
  • DARING: quick motion and boldness of action.
  • INTELLECT: Intelligence and reason.
  • INSTINCT: Intuition and perception.
  • CUNNING: Deception and manipulation.
  • PRESENCE: Charisma and force of personality.

The skills though have been much harder. I was never able to get the list as comprehensive and right-sized as I wanted. Ultimately, I decided to go the direction of some of the 2d20 games and the Atomic Robo rpg (which uses a form of Fate) and go with something a bit broader than standard skills. I settled on calling them "Domains."

  • SWORDS: The use of weapons and the general application and defense against violence. It also covers a practical knowledge of armor, weaponry, martial styles, tactics, and strategy. 
  • DEEDS: Acting boldly and physically to alter or navigate the environment or withstand its rigors. It is used to climb or leap, push on despite exhaustion, or smash physical obstacles, but also to pass detected, hide, or hold one’s drink. 
  • WILDS: Wisdom taught by the wilderness and living close to nature. It covers discerning the best way to move through difficult terrain, finding or building shelter, and tracking and reading sign, but also interacting with wild and domestic animals and knowledge of plants. 
  • CITY: Knowledge born of the habitations of humans and their societies. It covers a character’s learning and ability to find and acquire new information, but also their sophistication in regard to social graces and etiquette. 
  • WORDS: Relating to and communicating with others. It is used to influence, inspire or sway others through impassioned or reasoned arguments–or lies, or to discern the intent of others doing the same.
  • SORCERY: Knowledge of the arcane or occult arts. It covers the reading of mystic tomes, the recalling of esoteric lore, the performance of spells or rituals, and sometimes resisting the effects of magic.
The astute reader will note they form pairs of sorts. I think 36 possible combinations of the Attributes and the Domains covers pretty well most relevant skill areas. Some are obvious like Might+Swords being used for melee attacks, but others are perhaps less so but hopefully make sense, like Intellect+Wilds being used to navigate by the stars or identify medicinal (or poisonous plants). Some combinations might seem equally plausible for some actions, but I see that as a feature not a bug.