Sunday, May 21, 2017

Two Interpretations of Deadly Black Goo

In 1982, the cult classic Creepshow hit cinemas. Written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, this anthology film was designed to be an homage to the beloved EC horror comics of the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Similar to the comics, it features five unconnected stories, some serious, some darkly humorous, and some a mixture of both. Also like the comics, the theme that irresponsible behavior leads to severe consequences is prevalent. Murderers never get away with their crimes, and despicable people get what's coming to them. (Interestingly enough, King himself plays a yokel named Jordy Verrill in one of the segments, to great effect.)



Five years later, Creepshow 2 was released. Though produced by the same team, it is, like many sequels, generally considered to be inferior to its predecessor. It still packs a wallop, though, with its top-notch special effects and eerie cinematography, and features a fantastic animated frame story involving a young horror-comic fan and a group of bullies. It only has three stories (a fourth was planned but never completed), but all are arguably excellent. It takes a different approach in the way it connects to the comics, which is quite satisfying. (King has a bit part in this one, as well, as a truck driver who makes a couple of flippant remarks about a hit-and-run.)



The second story, “The Raft,” is based on a yarn that King published in Gallery in 1982 and later appeared in his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. Four college kids are headed to a mountain lake in late September for a weekend of sex and recreational drug use. To reach the eponymous raft, they must swim fifty yards or so through icy water. Already, viewers are wondering why the hell they thought it was a good idea to do something better suited to summer weather; the only explanation seems to be that the place will be deserted, thus giving them carte blanche to party down unobserved. I have no idea what's supposed to be so special about the raft, but it's clearly a big deal to these idiots.

Once they reach their destination, they notice a black slick in the water that appears to be moving. One of the girls foolishly sticks a finger in it and is pulled off the raft and devoured. Naturally, the other three are panic stricken, realizing that trying to get back to shore is highly unlikely to work, as the thing can probably move faster than they can swim. To make a long story short, two of the others get eaten, and the remaining one, cold and exhausted, decides to make a break for it. He manages to reach shore, but the goo turns into a wave and engulfs him.

The nature of the black stuff is never explained, and it leaves viewers to speculate about what it might be. As the story ends, the camera pans over to a “No Swimming” sign hidden in the woods, which serves as a kind of catharsis. One has to wonder, though, about the lake's previous visitors. It doesn't seem as though they were eaten because it would have been a big deal, and everyone would have known to stay away. Is the sign even related to the ooze, or was there some other reason that swimming was forbidden? The sign has clearly been there for a while, as vegetation has grown around it, so what are we to conclude? It would be fair to say that the thing hadn't always been there, that its incursion into the lake is, in fact, fairly recent, and that the sign was just thrown in as a joke to wrap the story up neatly.



One of the most well-known monsters in Dungeons & Dragons is the black pudding. Not unlike the goo in Creepshow 2, it is a large, moving mass of hungry darkness. It has been a part of the game since its first edition. Incapable of thought, it is an amoral killing machine that hangs out in the shadows of dungeons and caves, waiting to devour hapless adventurers. When Paizo introduced the Pathfinder roleplaying game, it included the black pudding in its first Bestiary. After much demand from fans, it received its own miniature in the latest set; it looks about as silly as you'd imagine, but I had to have one.



I've always found it humorous that the creature is called a black pudding because that's the name of a dish popular in England and Scotland. Over here, we associate “pudding” with the sweet, creamy Jell-O stuff. On the other side of the pond, it can refer to a number of different things. Yorkshire pudding, for example, is a kind of bready thing served with beef and gravy. Pudding in a general sense can refer to dessert. (In a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, the quixotic Mr. Badger requests whiskey for pudding, as well as for all of the other courses, resulting in all of the actors deciding to cut the sketch short for being too silly.) A black pudding, however, is something else, which Americans are likely to find distasteful.



The author/intelligence agent W. Somerset Maugham once remarked that if you want to dine well in England, eat breakfast three times a day. The British are not known for their cuisine (which might explain why there are so many Indian restaurants there), but the “full breakfast” is exquisite. In addition to eggs, bacon, hash browns, and sausage, it also includes baked beans, half a tomato, and mushrooms, things not normally associated with breakfast in the States. I have had the pleasure of having this meal a few times. Its preparation is pretty time consuming, so it's not something one would simply whip up on a whim. The other common ingredient in this meal is black pudding, which is essentially—get ready—fried blood. Yes, sir. They mix blood with fat and barley and fry it up in a skillet. The resulting concoction is indeed black.

But enough about that.

I have read Stephen King's nonfiction works On Writing and Danse Macabre, both of which contain autobiographical information, and he never once mentions having played D&D. It seems unlikely that he ever took an interest in it, as most of his time has been consumed by writing. The game was first released in 1974, the same year that King's first novel, Carrie, was published. Its success wasn't immediate, and he received a relatively small advance, so he continued writing furiously, not seeing it as his breakthrough. When the novel was published in paperback, his work finally paid off, and once his subsequent novels 'Salem's Lot and The Shining came out, he had established himself as America's premiere horror author. Even after that, though, he continued to churn out novels, stories, and screenplays like mad. He does not appear to be a gamer.

What I'm getting at is that the thing in the lake and the black pudding have nothing to do with each other. King did not get the idea for his story from D&D. They serve similar purposes within their respective narratives, but they are unrelated. Both are derived from an idea that has likely crossed all of our minds at some point: the menace of shadows. Fear of the dark is a common thing, especially among children, and what are shadows if not fragments of darkness that constantly surround us? Light and darkness coexist, but darkness is more pervasive. You can find areas of complete darkness (inside the earth, for example), but areas of light without shadow are nonexistent. Once you introduce an object into light, a shadow is cast. And what if those shadows have the power to hurt us, devour us? It is also clearly a metaphor for the idea of becoming lost in the darkness.



In the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead,” the Doctor and his allies are threatened by the Vashta Nerada, creatures that live in shadows and, not unlike piranha, skeletonize those who happen into their territory. This is, of course, a different concept than an ooze that devours you, but it's kind of the same thing.

In short, stay out of the shadows, and don't swim in remote mountain lakes unless you're looking to become a slime's next meal.









Monday, May 1, 2017

Comic Books: Writing or Art?

Since at least the 1960s, there has been a lot of debate about which aspect of comic books is more important, writing or art. One could reasonably argue that both are indispensable, as the medium represents a marriage of the two, wherein neither is more important than the other, but it appears that many fans fall into one camp or the other.

When comics were a new thing during the 1940s, the quality of art varied wildly. Much of it wasn’t very good because it didn’t have to be. Many publishers would hire anyone who could get the job done in a hurry. Comics were considered kids’ stuff, and kids, after all, are hardly aesthetes. By the 1950s, however, the standards began to change. In the pages of Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories, for example, readers were treated to the sensational work of such luminaries as Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Johnny Craig, and Jack Davis, whose art made fans’ blood run cold with their macabre renderings.



Stan Lee, a writer, felt that art was more important. He never drew a single panel, yet he worked as art director at Marvel during its early years, along with his many other duties. Despite the stories that have circulated about the contentious relationship between Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Lee considered Kirby to be the best artist around. He not only insisted that Kirby draw most of the covers (according to How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, Stan considered the cover to be the most important page of a comic because a good one increased the odds of a sale) but also strongly encouraged other artists to emulate his style. As a result, Marvel’s Silver Age aesthetic is defined by Kirby’s work. It wasn’t until after Kirby left to work for the competition and Lee handed the Editor-in-Chief position over to Roy Thomas that the “house style” began to evolve.



In A Look Back, a career retrospective of master horror illustrator Bernie Wrightson, the artist remarked that he was disinclined to read comics in which he found the artwork inadequate, regardless of how good the writing was. He went on to relate a story of how some of the “old guard” (artists who had been working in the industry for decades) were incensed by the high quality of art that began to emerge from the pens of younger illustrators, most of whom were unmarried and/or childless, during the Bronze Age because they had families to support and were concerned that the editors would make them work harder. (Why anyone would continue to work in a field of notoriously low pay when so many other lucrative options were available is a perhaps the real issue.) Wrightson maintained that this was not his problem and that he was always going to do his best work, an opinion shared by his colleagues. Despite this resistance, some of the best comic art ever produced came out of the 1970s.



Some of the best art of the period came to us from the Philippines. The work of artists such as Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, Rudy Nebres, Tony DeZuniga, and E. R. Cruz graced the pages of Marvel and DC’s horror, science-fiction, and sword-and-sorcery offerings. Many of the stories in these magazines are forgettable, but the illustration sticks with you long after the story itself has faded from your mind. The art is simply breathtaking, and it’s impossible to consider the Bronze Age without taking the work of these men into account. I was amazed to learn that Alcala and Redondo, both of whom are noted for their amazing pen-and-ink work, were capable of completing nine pages in a day.

The 1980s was, arguably, a less remarkable era for illustration, which is not to say that there weren’t artists doing great work. John Byrne, George Perez, Rich Buckler, Dave Gibbons, and Mike Zeck spring to mind as standouts. But it was during this period that writing began to challenge art for dominance. While readers have always appreciated a good story, there were only a handful of writers, such as Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Len Wein, and Denny O’Neill, who rose above the rest (it is worth noting that Starlin, who was as an artist as well, was one of the first popular writer/illustrators). Readers seemed to be more interested in what happened rather than how it happened. In other words, events were generally considered more important than sophisticated narrative details. The death of Gwen Stacy, for example, is probably the most significant event of the Bronze Age, and some have claimed that the decision to kill her off was primarily motivated by a stagnation in creativity. Many comics were little more than showcases for the “monster/villain of the month,” which is fine but doesn’t really allow the comic to go anywhere.

The publication of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns changed all that. These comics broke new ground and attracted the attention of the mainstream media, which was virtually unheard of. Creators were galvanized to find new ways of working, and there was a real incentive for writers to produce stronger material. Despite this, much of the writing during the next decade or so was terribly uneven. Part of the problem was that some writers tried to reproduce what Moore and Miller had done without understanding what their work was really about.      

During the early 1990s, many artists became “rock stars.” When Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Mark Silvestri, et al. left Marvel to form Image Comics (for better or worse), fans really began to take notice. Though there has been a backlash against some of these creators, at the time they were the vanguard. Wizard, a trade magazine of the period, featured a top ten artists list in each issue, accompanied by photos, and for the first time fans were able to put faces with names. Of course, creators had been attending conventions for a long time, but not everyone had an opportunity to meet their favorites. There was also a similar list of writers, but it was clear that the artists were the headliners. In much the same way as artists at Marvel during the 1960s were encouraged to draw like Jack Kirby, artists in the 1990s were encouraged to draw like the Image guys. The quality of comic art suffered almost irreparable damage as a result, and it took many years for it to find its footing again. Perhaps this is why writers began to take center stage.



These days, it appears that writers are held in higher regard than artists. One rarely hears the name of an artist associated with a comic-book-inspired film or television show, but the writers are virtual celebrities (which is odd because television and film writers rarely get any credit). Almost everyone knows who Stan Lee is, but Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, is still practically unknown outside of comic fandom. There has also been a fundamental change in the way comics are drawn, especially at Marvel, and some older fans have decided that the new stuff just isn’t for them.

According to a recent feature in Bleeding Cool, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso essentially remarked that artists aren’t very important to comic sales in the current market. If the sad state of art at Marvel these days is any indication, I can believe it. I’m sure it’s become clear from this article that I am more interested in art than in story. This is, of course, not to say that writing isn’t important to me, but I look at it this way: If a comic is poorly written but illustrated well, I can at least look at the art. If the writing is really good but the art sucks, it’s no good to me. I guess what I’m getting at is that comics are, above all, a visual medium. If art isn’t important, then why have it at all? Just read a novel.

Does Alonso’s assertion mean that the institution of comic art is nearing the end of its rope? Perhaps in a sense. While there are still many seasoned fans who flock to conventions to acquire commissions and original art, it is likely that the new generation of comic enthusiasts are less interested in such things. The generation gap is widening, and those of us from the old school will have to content ourselves with the books that have already been published.


Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.      

Monday, March 6, 2017

Vampirella #38

By the time I started collecting comics, Vampirella had been absent from the racks for about six years.

The original series ended with issue #112 in 1983; its companion magazines Creepy and Eerie also concluded as James Warren, owing to health problems and other concerns, decided to close up shop. The property was subsequently acquired by Harris, which handled a variety of periodicals such as Guitar World, when it was auctioned off, but the company didn't begin publishing new Vampirella material until 1991.

Fan reaction to the stories, which were published in color comics rather than black-and-white magazines, was mixed, but the books sold fairly well. Drakulon's favorite daughter reached the peak of her popularity in the late 1990s when “bad girl” comics, oddly, became a thing, and many prominent writers, including Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek, contributed to her adventures. Harris held onto her until 2010, when it surrendered the lovely vampiress to Dynamite.

Admittedly, I had never found the character particularly worth looking into. For one thing, unlike the throngs of quasi-pretentious geeks/community-theater actors who played White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game around that time, I had never thought much of undead blood-suckers. In Bernie Wrightson: A Look Back, I found that the famed horror artist's opinion mirrored my own. “They tend to be snotty,” he remarked, “and like being vampires.” Other than Marvel’s Morbius (who became a vampire as a result of a failed experiment), it didn’t seem that vampires were ever looking for a cure. As Wrightson expressed, they didn’t appear to have a problem with their condition, and they even possessed a certain “coolness” factor that reminded me of the popular crowd in high school. Remember that Ray-Ban commercial where the vampires are immune to sunlight because they’re wearing designer shades? Ugh. (Trivia: The concept of vampires’ being killed by the sun originated in F. R. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, not in Dracula, the novel of which it was an unauthorized adaptation. While Dracula was weakened by daylight, it was not fatal to him.)

I knew virtually nothing about Vampirella; my opinion was based on the images I had seen in various magazines such as Wizard and Previews, which, like a lot of the art in 1990s horror comics, tended to be kind of gross (one cover has her lasciviously bathing in a fountain of blood) and over the top. I assumed she was a “standard” vampire, who just happened to be scantily clad and sexy, rather than an altruistic, non-undead superhero devoted to ridding Earth of evil monsters, who came from a planet where blood was akin to water (this version of her origin was later retconned, but the principle's the same). Interestingly enough, Trina Robbins, who designed Vampirella's costume, told Comic Book Artist in 1999 that a teacher with whom she once coffee had grown up enjoying the original magazine but had been “horrified and repulsed” by what she had seen in recent publications.



What I perceived as Harris' mishandling of the character kept me away for a long time, but I became curious when Dynamite released a paperback compilation of her original stories in 2013 (over 500 pages, culled from the first 37 issues, for a very-reasonable $25). Being a fan of Bronze-Age horror magazines, I felt that I needed to at least give the gal a chance. And, man, am I glad I did! I discovered a treasure-trove of fantastic material and became a fan immediately. I picked up the new series by Nancy Collins and Patrick Berkenkotter that started a few months later and found it to be likewise excellent, though in entirely different ways.

Since then, Vampirella has become one of my favorite characters, and I have collected most of the magazines (either in their original form or in reprint compilations such as the excellent Vampirella Archives) and all of the comics Dynamite has released.

For those of you who don't know, Vampirella was originally conceived as nothing more than a horror hostess. During the early 1950s, EC Comics found success with Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, hosted, respectively, by the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch. When Warren started its line of horror magazines, it borrowed this idea, giving readers Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and Vampirella (if you find it unfair that the women are outnumbered, you might want to check out DC's oft-overlooked Bronze-Age gem The Witching Hour, in which all of the stories are hosted by females). After a handful of issues, the editor decided that Vampirella was falling short of her potential by merely bookending stories and deserved a feature of her own.

Warren's magazines were anthologies, featuring several stories by several creative teams per issue. By the time Vampirella established itself, every issue included a tale starring the vampiress along with several others, some of which were parts of series but most of which were standalone stories. The themes in Vampirella's stories varied. Sometimes she'd fight monsters. Other times she'd face evil wizards or alien invaders. Her adventures were an interesting mixture of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, which reflected the genres that Warren's magazines made extensive use of (while it's usually associated with horror, many stories were sword & sorcery, science fiction, or weird western). The artwork was consistently spectacular, executed by such greats as Jose “Pepe” Gonzalez, Gonzalo Mayo, Esteban Maroto, Jose Ortiz, Alfredo Alcala, Luis Bermejo, and Rafael Aura Leon (Auraleon).



I selected #38 (November 1974) to discuss both because it's the earliest full issue in my collection and because it contains a mummy story, which is of particular interest to me. The issue comprises six tales, and, like most of Warren’s magazines of the period, it’s a great-looking package. The cover, by Manuel Sanjulian, is a real beaut; it possesses many of the attributes that made classic horror so compelling, juxtaposed with Vampi’s stunning figure. (I was born too late to enjoy Warren’s mags during their original run, and I envy readers who were able to get this much awesomeness for a mere dollar at the local newsstand month after month. Granted, a dollar was a lot more money back then, but comics are four bucks these days, and they arguably aren’t as good.) There was a major Universal Monsters revival going on at the time, coupled with the fact that the Comics Code Authority had finally relaxed its standards, leading to a resurgence in monster comics (it should be noted that magazines were not forced to adhere to the Code, which is how Warren and its ilk were able to flourish). It’s hard to deny that, for a horror magazine, Vampirella had a touch of class.



Vampirella starts things off with “The Mummy’s Revenge,” by Flaxman Loew and Gonzalez. Vampirella’s most prolific illustrator, Gonzalez uses many different techniques in his storytelling. Here, he juxtaposes light and dark (not unlike the Renaissance artist Caravaggio) to create a feeling of endless dread within eerie catacombs. You can almost smell the dust and decay as the undead emerge from their niches. (Am I the only one who likes the smell of old comics?)

Touring Italy’s Museum of Antiquities, Vampirella encounters a young antiquarian named Bruno Verdi. She accepts his invitation to dinner, and after the meal he takes her on a tour of the catacombs beneath the city, where untold thousands of souls were lain to rest. The vampiress soon realizes, however, that Verdi has left her to be torn apart by the undead, including the mummy of Ptolemy, who, strangely enough, is a vampire. With the help of Amun-Ra, Vampirella escapes and heads to Verdi’s apartment, where she gets her revenge by feeding on his blood. He and the mummy, which is still back in the tomb, simultaneously crumble to dust, and Vampirella, when questioned about her evening, humorously remarks that her date “went all to pieces.” (This may seem corny, but horror and humor have gone hand in hand for decades. The EC stories almost always ended with the host’s dropping a pun or two, a tradition which has been picked up by the new quarterly Warren pastiche The Creeps, which I will no doubt write about eventually.)

Mummies have been popular fixtures in horror fiction since the 1800s. The discovery of the strangely intact tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter in 1922 brought immense public attention to the discipline of Egyptology, and the mystique of perfectly-preserved corpses from millennia ago compelled even more writers to pen horrific tales of the risen dead. (H. P. Lovecraft even ghost-wrote a story for Harry Houdini called “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” which is definitely worth checking out.) The new medium of film made the prospect of such tales even more promising. Universal and Hammer each produced their own versions of the mummy story, and there have been numerous others since then. Marvel published The Living Mummy in the pages of Supernatural Thrillers in the early 1970s, and all of the horror magazines featured bandaged abominations at one time or another. For Vampirella, mummies are just another kind of monster, nothing to write home about, although the revelation that she was, in fact, Cleopatra in a previous life adds more weight to the story. Exactly how she was supposed to have been born on alien planet and also undergone reincarnations on Earth is a question better left unasked.

Five more excellent tales follow.

Gerry Boudreau, Carl Wessler, and Maroto give us “Gypsy Curse,” in which a rich count marries a gypsy maiden but succumbs to a terrible curse when he chooses to mistreat her. Maroto is another of Warren’s most skilled artists. His airy ink work, combined with his phantasmagoric layouts, imbues his stories with an almost dreamlike aspect. It is interesting that the “gypsy” is a stock character in fiction (as a fortune teller and/or dabbler in magic of questionable ethics), but to the Romani, to whom the term refers, it is often considered a slur. Because of this, it is used far less frequently these days, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the image of an old, cloaked woman residing in a tenebrous wagon parked in the forest, ominously prognosticating with her tarot deck.

 

“Lucky Stiff,” by Boudreau, Wessler, and Ramon Torrents, is the curious story of a mild-mannered office worker who becomes bewitched by the gorgeous new file clerk. Readers are given a glimpse into the possible, horrific outcome of their rendezvous, but he never reaches her house because fate has other plans. The archetype of the “crazy cat lady,” which has become so popular these days, is flipped on its head in this yarn, and we are given just a hint of the twisted world of the girl in the office who seizes the attention of every man who crosses her path. Not unlike the hapless sailors enchanted by the sirens’ song, they are bound to be undone by their own appetites.

Next, John Jacobson and Felix Mas offer up “Out of the Nameless City.”  Fans of H. P. Lovecraft will immediately recognize his fingerprints in this tale, and there are several things taken directly from his work. Set in 1926, the year Lovecraft’s groundbreaking “The Call of Cthulhu” was written, this story concerns an actor believed to be the key to the resurrection of ancient gods and the man who tries to stop it from happening. This story’s execution, viewed both as a pastiche and a story unto itself, is practically flawless.

“On Little Cat Feet,” by Jacobson and Auraleon, is a tale of bizarre witchcraft. When an elderly landlady kicks a witch out of her boarding house, the sorceress, having transformed herself into a cat, returns to seek revenge. But she finds that her former roommate, a sculptor, has a bizarre way of creating her statues. There is quite a bit of humor in this story, but there are also moments that are bound to make readers chuckle in “self-defense” because it’s hard to know what to make of them. Warren’s magazines often feature particularly weird stories, and this is definitely one. It makes you wonder how on earth the writer came up with it.

The issue concludes with “Trick of the Tide,” Jack Butterworth and Isidro Mones’ short-but-sweet yarn of a treacherous man named Gabriel Greaves who earns money fishing corpses out of the Thames and the waterlogged corpse of a woman he murders for her husband’s money. Not surprisingly, things do not turn out terribly well for him. Let’s just say that he learns the hard way that being an opportunist can have dire consequences.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Allure of the Undead

“Though it can seem sudden, death is more of a process than an event.” – Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I have been fascinated by the undead for a long as I can remember. Frankenstein’s Monster is the first horror character I can remember falling in love with, and my predilection for this sort of thing has only grown as the years have passed. (Stephen King and George Romero’s film Creepshow, in which the undead figure prominently, came out when I was eight years old, and despite my pleas, my father, probably wisely, would neither allow me to watch the movie nor read the tie-in comic book. Of course, I have both now and cherish them all the more because of it.)



The concept of the deceased returning from the grave in drastically-altered form is not a new idea. Folklore from all over the globe teems with it. I suppose it’s because the concept of death’s being the end is so hard to swallow. Our consciousness seems like something that should endure indefinitely, yet few of us can hold on for even a hundred years.

 

In a recent interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson asked Larry King whether he wanted to live forever, and, without missing a beat, King replied, “Yes.” Tyson was somewhat thrown by King’s response, as he seemed to prefer the idea of making the most of each day, knowing that we are only given a limited amount of time. If we were to live forever, he maintains, there would never be any sense of urgency to do anything worthwhile. While I can understand Tyson’s point, I tend to agree with King’s position.

It’s fair to say that most people expire with a lot of things left undone, so it makes sense that we would conceive the notion that the dead sometimes come back. It is also related to the fact that humans are a fearful species. As if there weren’t enough reasonable things to be afraid of, we like to invent things that give us the willies. We also, apparently, need a way to keep people from wandering around after dark, lest they get into trouble. Unfinished business is, of course, just one reason that the dead might return. Someone’s disturbing their grave, an insatiable hunger for the flesh and/or blood of the living, revenge, being forced to haunt a house or some other location as a form of punishment, and being reanimated by magic or arcane science are others.

    

Of course, this sort of thing is very popular in works of supernatural horror and fantasy; in fact, it could prove challenging to find a book or movie in these genres that doesn’t contain at least some element of it. Arguably, the most popular “species” of undead is the vampire. These days, we differentiate vampires from zombies, but in many old tales they are essentially the same thing: creatures from beyond the grave who seek out the living for sustenance. Although vampires had been a part of European folklore for centuries, John Polidori wrote the first piece of vampire fiction, “The Vampyre,” in 1819 (during the same session in which Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein, interestingly enough). Of course, Bram Stoker would attain far greater success for his novel Dracula some eighty years later. Stoker considered calling his novel The Un-Dead, and this was, for all intents and purposes, the origin of the term (“undead” was previously just another way of saying “alive”).



Stoker also penned The Jewel of Seven Stars, a horror novel about an ancient Egyptian mummy. During this time, Egyptology was very much en vogue, and it therefore stood to reason that stories about mummies returning from their tombs would follow. Of course, writers such as Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, and M. R. James popularized the ghost story around the same time. Thus, vampires, ghosts, and mummies were the first three kinds of undead to capture the popular imagination. Bloodsuckers, check. Incorporeal representations of formerly-living people, check. Artificially-preserved, bandaged corpses that can curse you, check. Zombies as we know them came along later, although the idea was, in a way, alluded to in the Epic of Gilgamesh. (It is interesting that this, the world’s earliest surviving work of literature, would contribute something so vital to our modern speculative genres, despite the fact that horror and fantasy are frequently repudiated by the “intellectually elite.” Also, while I am not a big fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre, I consider 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead one of my favorite horror films.) 




In the realm of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien introduced us to “wights” in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similar to “undead,” the term originally referred to living beings, but Tolkien uses it to describe demonic spirits who possessed the corpses of those who had fallen in battle. Frodo and the hobbits encounter some in the Barrow-downs, an ancient burial ground beyond the Old Forest, and only manage to escape with the help of the mysterious Tom Bombadil. (This was entirely omitted from the film version, incidentally.) Wight was later appropriated by fantasy authors and game designers as the name of a powerful type of undead.



When Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) came along, its creators were fond of the idea of variety, so they invented numerous species of undead for adventurers to encounter. In 1988, TSR published Lords of Darkness, which was designed to be used with the then-current version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This book is interesting because it focuses on ten undead types (skeletons, ghouls, shadows, spectres, vampires, et al.) and includes complete scenarios for each. In 2009, Wizards of the Coast, having acquired the game from TSR, released Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, a supplementary book for 4th-edition D&D that, in addition to nine detailed scenarios for both low- and high-level characters, gives players everything they could ever want to know about the various kinds of undead, including ecology and physiology (the latter of which is, to quote Tori Amos, “kind of gross”).

While the basic creatures can be found in the Monster Manual, this book provides players with all the details concerning every type of undead they could ever want, plus a whole section of new monsters, including subsets of well-known creatures, and even includes templates for creating your own. Some of the more interesting creatures include:

Blaspheme: A monster crafted from pieces of corpses and given life through magic and then tasked with guarding wizards' libraries.

Bone Yard: A huge mass of animated bones, such as those from a desecrated cemetery.

Deathtritus: Dead flesh, dirt, and crushed bone animated by necrotic energy.

Deathtouched Golem: An animated amalgam of corpses, grave dirt, hangman's nooses, and tombstones.

Nighthaunt: Cursed soul of someone who has eaten food infused with necrotic energy.

Skin Kite: A gliding mass of, well, skin that attaches to a target and eats its flesh until it can split in two, not unlike a dividing cell.

Wrath of Nature: A mindless embodiment of death, created by pollution.



Another interesting type of undead, which appeared in earlier versions of D&D but is not included in the current one, is the Crypt Thing. This creature appears merely as a skeleton in a robe, but it’s tricky. Many dungeons are actually tombs, with the adventurers’ objective being to destroy its chief inhabitant. This is often a “lich,” an undead wizard. The Crypt Thing’s job is to trick explorers into thinking that it is the lich. When it touches them, they are teleported to another part of the tomb where deadly traps await. 

   

It is also worth mentioning that Richard Lee Byers’ Haunted Lands trilogy (Unclean, Undead, and Unholy), published under the Forgotten Realms banner, is a veritable feast for undead lovers. One of the main set pieces of the series is the “Manufactory,” where undead are created for the army of the lich Szass Tam. The operations of the place are supervised by the foul Xingax, the enormous, mephitic aborted fetus of a demigod (yes, really). He transforms Tammith, a young girl who sells herself into slavery to pay off her father’s gambling debts, into a vampire, and though initially a villain, she eventually becomes an ally of the heroes and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections of a Former Otaku

If you walk into a chain bookstore these days, it's a safe bet that you'll find a section devoted to manga, i.e. Japanese comics, often a rather large one. In the current market, manga is published in book form; these books, called tankobons, are compilations of comics that have been published previously, making them the equivalent of American trade paperbacks. (Some people like to call them graphic novels, but in most cases I think this designation is erroneous. Watchmen is one notable exception; even though it was originally published as a twelve-issue limited series, it has been in collected form for over thirty years and comprises a complete story.)



Instead of being published in monthly comics, as they are in America, manga are released in monochromatic, phonebook-sized magazines (there are some exceptions, but this is the way it is done for the most part). Some of these, such as Shonen Sunday, come out weekly and are sold everywhere. Rather than just featuring one story, these magazines are anthologies of numerous series. They are printed on cheap paper and are, not unlike newspapers, considered ephemeral. People read them on the train and toss them when they’re done. Fans of a particular series can purchase tankobons, which are of considerably higher quality and often even have dust jackets, at a later time. Some places even rent them out, not unlike the video stores of old. I once tried to purchase one from a shop, only to find out that it was not for sale.

For me, seeing such a huge volume of manga readily available is stunning. Frankly, most modern series are of little interest to me, though I do find the odd one here and there that gets my attention (examples include The Sacred Blacksmith, How to Build a Dungeon: Book of the Demon King, both fantasy series, and the various horror manga of Junji Ito, such as Tomie and Uzumaki). During my fervid manga period, which lasted from 1994-2000, there were only three companies translating and publishing manga: Dark Horse, Viz, and Antarctic Press, and their output isn't what you'd call huge. Comic stores usually had a single shelf devoted to manga, and I always wished there was more available. The most popular title of the time was probably Ranma ½, Rumiko Takahashi's comedic saga of a teenage boy who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. Today, Takahashi is better known as the creator of the fantasy series Inu Yasha, which is a pretty clear indication of the delineation between older fans and newer ones.



In those days, manga was actually put out in comic-book form. The tankobons were broken up into chapters, translated into English, and then republished. In addition, the pages were reversed because Japanese read right to left. Many mangaka, i.e. manga artists, disliked this, and many “otaku,” American manga fans, did, as well. (In Japanese, “otaku” is a multi-purpose word roughly the equivalent of “geek,” but in America it is used specifically for fans of manga and anime.) Some series were later recompiled. After a while, the publishers decided not to reverse the art and to start putting the books out in their original form rather than breaking them apart. This proved to be a good decision, not only because it ultimately made more sense but also because it made manga easier to get into mainstream bookstores.

I read a ton of manga and watched a mountain of anime during those years. I was even a member of an anime club that met in a community center in Atlanta once a month. I frequented a Japanese bookstore that sold untranslated manga (so I could at least look at the art) and even tried to learn Japanese because there were so many series that interested me that had yet to be translated.

Most of the anime I absorbed has fallen by the wayside, but a few series remain favorites: Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair, and Urusei Yatsura.



Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991) is an eight-episode cyberpunk OVA (Original Video Animation) series heavily influenced by Blade Runner. It chronicles the adventures of four women calling themselves the Knight Sabers who wear “hardsuits,” technologically-advanced exoskeletons, and battle rogue androids known as “Boomers” in the Tokyo of 2032. It features gorgeous character designs by Kenichi Sonoda, the creator of the popular manga Gunsmith Cats. One of the most notable aspects of this series is its hard-rock soundtrack, which is a perfect fit for its gritty, violent world, where everyone is at the mercy of the evil Genom corporation.



Dirty Pair is a futuristic sci-fi series about the Lovely Angels, two beautiful but dangerous women named Kei and Yuri, who work as troubleshooters for the WWWA (Worlds Welfare Works Association). They succeed in solving all of their cases, but something invariably goes terribly wrong, resulting in massive property damage and casualties. Hence, they are more commonly known as the “Dirty Pair,” a name they despise. Creator Haruku Takachiho originally published several novels featuring the Pair before bringing them to the screen. The 1985 TV series ran 24 episodes, and there are several OVAs and a film. The TV series, which is the most comedic in nature, is by far the best, as far as I’m concerned.



Urusei Yatsura is a romantic comedy about an alien girl named Lum who falls in love with a boy from Earth named Ataru Moroboshi. While he is fond of Lum, Ataru is a lecher who cannot commit to one woman. As such, Lum gives him electric shocks whenever he chases anyone else. Naturally, Lum has friends from the stars who make further trouble for her beloved, whom she calls “Darling.” It’s also extremely weird, which is one of the main reasons it appeals to me. The title is derived from an untranslatable pun, so for the most part it has been left as is (AnimEigo, the company that released the anime in the States, retained the title but put “Those Obnoxious Aliens” in parentheses). The series is based on Takahashi’s earliest ongoing manga. The TV series, which ran from 1981-1986, comprises nearly 200 episodes, and six movies and an OVA series were also produced.

Most popular manga have been made into anime, and in many cases the anime proves superior, as the writers are able expand the stories and inject more drama (in the case of Urusei Yatsura, they often become far crazier). The series that I adore in manga form are Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku.


Shirow is probably best known for Ghost in the Shell, which will soon be released as a live-action film starring Scarlett Johannson, but I prefer Appleseed (1985-1989). Following World War III, Deunan Knute and her companion Briareos Hecantochires (named after the one-hundred-armed, fifty-headed monster from Greek mythology) join the police force in the city of Olympus, battling threats from both outside and inside the utopian metropolis. There have been several animated versions produced, but none of them seem to quite capture the spirit of the manga. 

  

Maison Ikkoku, which ran from 1980-1987, might seem like an odd choice, seeing as how it’s merely the story of a broke university student, Yusaku Godai, and the young apartment manager he falls in love with, Kyoko Otonashi. A widow, Kyoko is afraid to love anyone else, and Yusaku’s constant financial struggles and perceived duplicity certainly don’t make things any better. There is nothing even remotely supernatural or speculative about it. But something about it grabs me and won't let go. Its cast of wacky characters is certainly an element of its appeal, as is its frequent hilarity. It’s a huge story, spanning several years. I’m not sure of the exact page count, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands. 

I consider myself a “former” otaku because while I still enjoy manga and anime, I am no longer fanatical about them and am more interested in other things these days. (I never learned much Japanese, incidentally.) I know a few current otaku, and it’s clear that we are speaking different languages when it comes to our favorites. They have never even heard of the stuff I like and vice versa. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Magic of Miniatures

Diminutive representations of warriors, wizards, and monsters have been, in one form or another, part of fantasy gaming since the dawn of the hobby. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was an avid wargame player and often supplemented the miniatures provided with his store-bought games with inexpensive toys (such as a now-famous set of rubber dinosaurs that inspired such iconic beasts as the Rust Monster and Owlbear) or made his own. In the mid-1970s, fantasy-miniature manufacturers began to spring up, making it far easier for gamers to procure the creatures they needed for their pencil-and-paper quests.



Strictly speaking, miniatures are not an indispensable element of role-playing games (RPGs). The Game Master (or Dungeon Master if you're talking in D&D terms) is responsible for describing the players' environments, so it's entirely reasonable to play a game completely within the framework of interactive storytelling. However, to avoid confusion, visuals are often provided. These can take many forms. The most common is a map, typically drawn on standard graph paper, with each square corresponding to a span of distance, such as five feet. Some game designers prefer to use hexagons (or “hexes”) instead because they more accurately represent the ways in which a character can interact with its surroundings. In games such as Metagaming Concepts' The Fantasy Trip or SPI's Citadel of Blood and Deathmaze (the latter two, while excellent, are only RPGs in the loosest sense of the term, but the principle’s the same), punch-out cardboard “counters” are used either to designate player and adversary positioning or to construct dungeons. But for those who are seeking an arguably richer gaming experience and are willing to shell out the extra cash, miniatures are always an option.


In the early days, companies such as Grenadier, Ral Partha, and Citadel cast creatures in lead and pewter. Today, minis of this nature are produced by Reaper, Iron Wind Metals, et al. One of the potential drawbacks of metal miniatures is that they need to be painted, unless you're okay with your figures' looking vaguely silver-ish. For some, this has become a hobby unto itself and is, in fact, a frequent point of pride for players of games such as Warhammer (the Games Workshop magazine White Dwarf is essentially a showcase of miniature painting). During the 1980s, Ral Partha obtained a license from TSR to produce miniatures to be used with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and these high-quality figures are still prized by collectors.



In the current market, the majority of miniatures are rendered in plastic and are pre-painted. In 2003, Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), which had acquired TSR's assets in the wake of its bankruptcy, began manufacturing miniatures of this kind for D&D and continued to do so until 2010. Twenty-one sets were released, including both player-characters (humans, elves, dwaves, halflings, et cetera), monsters, and occasional “dungeon dressing,” i.e. pieces such as statues, portals, and sarcophagi.



Adopting the booster-pack model of its own wildly successful collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, WoTC originally packaged eight random figures of varying rarities in each box.
The “common” minis comprise the most frequently encountered creatures in the game, such as skeletal warriors and animals, which Dungeon Masters require in large numbers. The “uncommon” figures represent the less-common ones. The “rare” slot is reserved for dragons, deities, unusual monsters such as Mind Flayers or Beholders, and popular characters from the publisher's novel lines, such as heroic dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden and sorcerer Elminster Aumar from Forgotten Realms and vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich from Ravenloft. The minis varied in size from tiny to huge. Naturally, there was only one rare in each box, and these often showcased the most impressive sculpts and paint jobs.



These miniatures are convenient for players because they can be used right out of the box. While the primary purpose of the miniatures was that they be used in the RPG, the first seventeen sets included a card for each figure that could be used in a two-player tabletop skirmish game that pitted bands of minis against each other. The game proved fairly popular for a few years, with gaming shops hosting weekly tournaments with prizes provided by WoTC. In 2008, with the release of the fifteenth set, “Dungeons of Dread,” the skirmish rules were changed to reflect the impending release of the fourth edition of D&D. Unfortunately, because of this a significant number of players decided to abandon the game.



WoTC gradually converted all of the old sets over to the new rules free of charge, but by then the damage had been done. After the seventeenth set came out that autumn, the company announced that it was no longer going to support the skirmish game and that it had decided to restructure the line. One of the major changes was that heroes and monsters were now going to be released in different sets, ostensibly so that players would have an easier time getting figures to represent their characters. The player-character sets would be non-random, while the monster sets would include one visible figure. Additionally, the figure count for the monster boosters was reduced from eight to five (the heroes came three to a pack).



These turned out to be a disastrous decisions. Players were irritated by the reduction in figure count, and the new sculpts and paint jobs, particularly those of the heroes, left a lot to be desired. Moreover, not all of the visible minis in the boosters were equally desirable, and players wouldn't buy a set with a visible they didn't want. Stores refused to order more boosters because they couldn't sell what they had. By the time the third set in this format came out, WoTC knew that the end was near. The company only released one more set, 2010's “Lords of Madness,” which was, again, “blind” and included six figures per booster. It did go out on a high note, though, as the quality was excellent.

In 2011, WizKids, the manufacturer of the Heroclix and Mage Knight miniatures games, began producing figures for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. To make a long story short, Pathfinder is a fantasy RPG published by Paizo that is based on D&D’s 3.5-edition rules. This seems odd, but it was made possible by WoTC’s Open Game License, which essentially permitted anyone who wanted to use the rule sets of any of their games, including the ones it acquired from TSR. It seems foolish in hindsight, but at the time it was designed to kickstart a resurgence in tabletop RPGs, which were quickly losing players to online games such as World of Warcraft. In any event, the Pathfinder minis have proven, through twenty-four sets of various sizes (some as few as two, others as many as 55), to be of superb quality. In 2014, WoTC gave WizKids a license to produce D&D minis. So far there have been ten sets, again of varying sizes. As a whole, these minis have been excellent, as well, though the figure count has, unfortunately, been reduced again, to four per booster.



While it’s strange that the miniatures for two rival games are made by the same company, it does effectively guarantee that both lines will adhere to a high standard, as I can imagine that there is some healthy competition between the designers going on. (The Pathfinder minis do tend to look a bit better, it must be said.) 



Fortunately, those who still enjoy the D&D skirmish game have not been left out in the cold. When WoTC stopped making cards, they gave a free license to a group calling itself the DDM Guild, allowing it to design stats for the forthcoming releases. When WizKids took over, it was permitted to continue. It’s hard to find skirmish players these days, but for the hardcore fans it’s still one of the greatest games around.

There are, of course, dozens of miniatures companies not mentioned here. These are just the one with which I am most familiar. If you’re interested in RPGs and their ilk, miniatures can make great additions to your fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, they have become considerably more expensive in the last decade or so, but you can find bargains on eBay if you’re looking for singles or multi-figure lots.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of a game table covered with heroes and magical creatures. Even your non-player friends will be intrigued. It’s the best way to bring your imagined adventures to life.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Valley of the Worm

Robert E. Howard is best remembered for his greatest and most influential creation, Conan of Cimmeria, but his oeuvre comprises more than just adventures set in the Hyborian Age. He was, in fact, one of the most prolific writers of the pulp era; he contributed historical fiction, horror, sports stories, detective tales, and westerns to a variety of magazines.

Marvel began publishing Conan comics in 1970, originally in Conan the Barbarian and then in Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan (the latter of which, taken as a whole, remains one of the greatest achievements in the annals of comic history). Along with its acquisition of the Conan stories, Marvel gained access to Howard's entire body of work. In addition to the adventures of King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn, Howard penned fantasy tales featuring heroes that were designed to be one-offs, and Marvel adapted some of these for its comics and magazines.



In Supernatural Thrillers #3 (1972), Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and Ernie Chan gave us their spectacular version of “The Valley of the Worm.” Originally published in Weird Tales in 1934, “Worm” is a sword & sorcery tale told by James Allison, a man on his deathbed reflecting back on the most remarkable of his many previous lives.

He explains that as a man called Niord he fought a monstrous “worm” (he chose the word because it was the closest approximation he could think of for the creature) and that this served as the basis for all the well-known heroic tales of the ancient world. To avenge the slaughter of his tribesmen, he ventured into the part of the jungle most feared by the locals and battled the enormous, serpentine horror, which had emerged from a black pit in the earth. Though he was triumphant, it was at the cost of his own life.

Like most of Howard's stories, it is rich in detail and wonderfully realized. It unfolds at an excellent pace and builds to its climax in an immensely satisfying manner. Though we are essentially told from the beginning how the tale will end, it still packs a punch. Thomas was the man behind Marvel's acquisition of Conan and had a real flair for adapting sword & sorcery tales, as well as coming up with new ones.         

By the time Kane began working at Marvel in the early '70s, he had already been in the industry for thirty years. His work for DC on such titles as Green Lantern and The Atom helped to propel the publisher to new heights during the Silver Age, the era in which superheroes took the world by storm after having diminished in popularity following the Second World War. He soon established himself as one of one of the industry's fastest and most reliable artists, and he illustrated more covers for Marvel during the Bronze Age than anyone else. His style mixes well with a variety of inkers, perhaps because it is fairly loose. Chan later developed a reputation for inks that were overpowering, especially when he worked with John Buscema on various Conan stories, but here he seems to follow Kane's layouts closely. 

  

Interestingly enough, this story was adapted again four years later by Richard Corben and published as the graphic novel Bloodstar. This version, which received critical acclaim, is obviously much longer, and Corben arguably improved upon the original story by providing the characters with greater depth and imbuing the overall narrative with more emotional weight. (It is worth noting that Kane conceived and illustrated the pioneering sci-fi/sword & sorcery graphic novel Blackmark a year before the Supernatural Thrillers adaptation.)   

One of the particularly intriguing aspects of this tale is the use of the word “worm” to describe the eponymous monster. Readers unfamiliar with the language of fantasy will likely only associate it with the rather unpleasant creatures that eat dirt and are used by fishermen as bait, but its use as a term for dragon goes back thousands of years, to the mythical tales of Germany and Scandanavia. (It is also sometimes spelled “wyrm.”) The most famous of the Anglo-Saxon epics is Beowulf, which features a fire-breathing dragon in its third act and was a huge inspiration for the works of fantasy luminary J. R. R. Tolkien.   

In the first chapter of The Hobbit, the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield describes the dragon Smaug as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” Personally, I prefer the spelling “wyrm” not only because it differentiates itself from the aforementioned annelids but also because, frankly, it just looks cooler. In modern fantasy literature, particularly in Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives, wyrm is used interchangeably with dragon, probably because writers get tired of using the word “dragon” all the time. (Admittedly, the non-alliterative “Dungeons & Wyrms” doesn't have the same ring to it.) Moreover, “worm” refers to a completely different kind of monster, the most recognizable of which is the massive, armored bane of adventurers known as the “purple worm.”



(On a related note, a lot of people don't realize that Tolkien's use of “dwarves” as a plural for dwarf is nonstandard, which is why Disney's film is titled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fantasy, “dwarves” has been adopted as the standard, and I tend to agree with Tolkien's assertion that it has a better sound to it. This is, after all, the man who famously made us aware that “cellar door” is the most pleasant-sounding phrase in English (though he was not the first to do so), so it's fair to say that he know whereof he speaks.)

Allison declines to mention the age in which the story takes place because he believes that “historians and geologists would rise up to refute [him],” but he provides us with a few potential clues.

Niord utters phrases such as “By Ymir's Eyes!” on  a couple of occasions and  alludes to the name's being highly significant to his tribe. According to Arthur Cotterell's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Classical Mythology, Ymir is “the first living creature” in Germanic mythology, a frost giant (251). Not unlike the titan Cronos in the ancient Greek myths, he is overthrown by his offspring, in this case Odin, Vili, and Ve. (Odin, of course, is famous for being the father of Thor; the others are far more obscure.) All of creation then springs from his ruined corpse. Fans of Conan will recall that the Cimmerian frequently references this primordial being in his oaths, which is not at all surprising considering Howard's practice of appropriating deities from various mythologies for his own purposes. It is therefore likely that we are dealing with Howard's version rather than the “actual” one.

Niord identifies his tribe as the Aesir. This term, within the context of Germanic mythology, refers to a branch of the gods. In Howard's Hyborian world, the Aesir are the denizens of the country of Asgard; this is also the name of the home of the Germanic Aesir, analogous to the Mount Olympus of the Greek gods, though Howard's race is mortal rather than supernal in nature. Similarly, shortly after entering “The Country of the Worm,” Niord's tribe is set upon by Picts, though they eventually make peace and become allies. These are not the historical Picts, formidable warriors from what is now Scotland, but are, rather, the fierce Native-American-inspired race created by Howard.

Taken together, these clues suggest that Niord lived in the same age as Conan. This does not, however, assume that they were contemporaries. In fact, it's fair to aver that he actually predates the Cimmerian, possibly by centuries. His is a story concerned with the establishment of a civilization, whereas Conan's is one of traversing a world where many already exist. In any case, it is reasonable to argue that Niord is a figure from prehistory, from sometime after the sinking of Atlantis and before the first of humankind's records were written.        
  


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Awakening


In 1899, Kate Chopin published a short novel called The Awakening. Considered controversial at the time for its feminist themes and the candid way in which it deals with female sexuality, it has gone on to become a major headache for unsuspecting high-school and college literature students everywhere. 

Thankfully, this essay has nothing to do with it. 

The “awakening” I’m referring to was—for lack of a better term—an event that took place during my freshman year of high school, though it was not related to school itself. In June of 1988, I celebrated my fourteenth birthday. One of the gifts I received was a Nintendo game called The Legend of Zelda. Since then, it has spawned numerous sequels across numerous systems, has been featured in cartoons and comic books, and has appeared on t-shirts, tote bags, and even cereal boxes, but at the time it was a brand-new thing. I had gotten a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) the previous Christmas, and, having grown weary of Super Mario Bros., the game that came with it and of which I had at one time been a rabid fan, and Elevator Action, the second title I had picked up, I was eager to get into something else. I had no idea what Zelda was all about. At that time, the Internet as we know it today didn’t exist, of course, so you could only get information about NES games from Nintendo Fun Club News (the precursor to Nintendo Power), to which I did not have a subscription, or from word of mouth. I didn’t know anyone who had played the game, but I had seen a lot of commercials for it, so I decided to give it a shot. After all, Nintendo had cultivated a reputation for quality, so the odds of its being a letdown were slim. 



I imagine that for many players Zelda was a revolutionary game, as it was for me. Up to that point, most console games lacked an adventure component. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros., for example, only allowed you to go in a predetermined direction, and backtracking was not permitted. If you missed something, you had no choice but to suck it up and keep going. Zelda was different. Its world was open and, for the time, vast. You could revisit areas again and again. In fact, one of the chief elements of the game was exploration. You were not told what to do or how to do it. You had to figure everything out through trial and error, to traverse deadly forests and spooky graveyards to find the entrances to the game’s various levels. You had to determine how weapons and items worked and when they should be used. A map and instruction manual were included, but they only told you so much. Every now and then a wise old man in a cave would give you a clue, but it was often cryptic. For the most part, you were on your own. 
 
 

Computer-game players were already familiar with this kind of thing. Games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Bard’s Tale worked this way. The difference was that while these games required exploration and puzzle solving, they lacked action. The outcomes of battles were resolved by the computer, in a fashion similar to tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). In a sense, the computer rolled the dice for you during an encounter and told you the outcome. In many of these games, the player controlled an entire party of characters rather than just one. The reason for this is that tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) are designed to be played by a group rather than an individual, with each player having a specific function within the party (a fighter for combat, a wizard for magic, a cleric for healing, et cetera). 
 
 

Zelda, by contrast, was an action game through and through. It required fast reflexes and could be terribly frustrating at times, particularly if you wandered into an area filled with monsters you were not prepared to fight. Like computer adventure games, it had an overhead view rather than a side-scrolling one. Its closest antecedent was the Atari 2600’s Adventure, but while this game required exploration and experimentation and featured rudimentary action sequences (mostly running from dragons or trying to stab them), it was much smaller in scope, did not allow you to carry more than one item at a time, and had primitive graphics due to the system’s limitations. No one had seen anything like Zelda before.  

As I recall, it took me about a month to conquer it. For those four weeks, it was pretty much all I thought about. I even took the map with me when we went on vacation. It was the most immersive game I had ever encountered. But the experience of playing the game, while rewarding, was not the most important thing. I got something much greater out of it. It was my introduction to fantasy.

 

As an avid collector of Masters of the Universe (MoTU) action figures and a devoted fan of the tie-in cartoon during my younger years, I had been exposed to the concept of fantasy, but I had never really thought of it as a genre. I didn't even know what “genre” meant. I just found it cool that the warriors fought with swords and axes and that there were magic and monsters involved. D&D had become huge by the early 1980s, and many toy lines reflected its influence. I was a fan of many of the MoTU knockoffs, as well, including Thundercats, Blackstar, and The Other World, the first two of which also had their own cartoons. There was even a toy line actually based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was the preeminent version of the game at the time. The most memorable figure was probably Warduke, who was later made into a miniature as part of the D&D Miniatures set “War Drums.” Of course, there was also the D&D cartoon (the “Advanced” was likely removed to prevent confusion, although that didn't stop DC Comics from using it in the title of its early-'90s comic book series), which was fairly controversial due to the absurd allegations that the game was linked to suicide, antisocial behavior, and devil worship. I can remember watching it standing up so I could keep an eye on the door of my parents' bedroom. Not even kidding. 
 
 

By the time Zelda came along I hadn't given fantasy much thought in several years, having become instead interested in Garbage Pail Kids, Madballs, and horror films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Soon after I began playing it, I became intrigued by Zelda's fantasy setting, and when I had finished the game I began looking for others in a similar vein. When school started, I met a guy named John (with whom I remain friends to this day), who was a computer- and console-game enthusiast, an RPG player, and a fan of speculative fiction. He was the first full-on nerd I had ever met, and I mean that as an enormous compliment. He introduced me to D&D, Commodore 64 adventure games (with their cloth maps and copy-protection wheels), and Dragonlance novels. (I subsequently turned him onto Forgotten Realms novels, thus returning the favor.) It didn't take long to realize that I was onto something big. At the start of 1989, I began collecting comic books. I had grown up enjoying Superfriends, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and The Incredible Hulk on Saturday mornings, but I was a reluctant reader, so I had never bought many comics. Even though most comic books are not fantasy in the strictest sense, they feature speculative tales of a similar nature and borrow elements from fantasy, so there are, therefore, a lot of crossover fans. There's a reason that many comic-book shops also carry RPG books and accessories. 
 
 

The “awakening” was, hence, my discovery of fantasy fandom. In the span of just a few months, I had found my niche, and I have remained there ever since. Today, I have a comic-book and magazine collection that would have made fourteen-year-old me lose control of his bodily functions. I have well over 700 miniatures, a plethora of dice (especially d20s, my favorites), and a number of publications related to fantasy games going back to the 1970s, which are just engaging to read. I have used my writing ability as a means of sharing my passion, contributing to the hobby, and “giving back” to the community. I have found incalculable joy in the books and games I have picked up during the last 28 years.  

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if I had never slid The Legend of Zelda into my Nintendo Entertainment System in the summer of 1988. Traversing the environs of the fictional world of Hyrule helped me discover myself.