Songs Lost and Forgotten

A few years back, I picked up a book called The Hum and the Shiver, by Alex Bledsoe. It wound up taking me forever to get to reading it, so I finally got the audiobook1, which just happens to be read by one of my favourite narrators, Stefan Rudnicki. And I loved it.

There are currently five books in the Tufa novels: The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and the one I’m currently reading, Gather Her Round2. They tell the stories of an insular group of people living in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, a group of people who have some strange connection to music and the magic that it can make. Each of the novels stands alone as a single story, but each one also layers in a lot of information about the Tufa3 and their community of Needsville, and their history4.

The upshot of this is that you get a growing richness to the books, and a real sense of the community. There are some little side threads that weave through a couple of books, telling more of the stories of some secondary characters. And Needsville changes, based on the events of the book, large and small.

The first thing that attracted me to the books was the idea that these were mining the same vein that Manly Wade Wellman dug in with his Silver John stories. There’s the emphasis on music, and the backdrop of Appalachia, and some of the dramatic polarity of city vs country.

There are also elements of some of Charles de Lint‘s stuff, especially his Newford books5: modern world with old magic still lingering, tight-knit communities of outsiders, emphasis on music and old stories, stuff like that.

There are some interesting themes in the Tufa books6, themes that I like quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned tension between city and country, which could also be phrased as new vs. old, or tradition vs. innovation. There are looks at responsibility vs. freedom, and the weight of the choices you make in life. Ideas of what an insider or an outsider is.

And there’s lots of exploration of death.

Bad things happen in these books, sometimes to good people, sometimes to bad. There’s a thread running through all the books that shows how the death of an individual changes the world around them. Some of what happens is genuinely heartbreaking, though the stories themselves are pretty life-affirming. But to get to the new day, you’ve got to go through the night.

The books also take a look at traditional definitions of good and evil, and does a great job of showing why they aren’t clean. With few exceptions7, everyone has understandable reasons for their choices, even when they are not really good choices. Even though the Tufa are divided into two camps, and the two camps have somewhat different values8, neither can be said to be purely good or purely evil.

I like that.

And, of course, those who know me know that the music angle will always hook me9. Especially as it draws on folk music10, and has been useful in pointing me towards artists and songs that I hadn’t heard of before. Alex Bledsoe has even put a Tufa playlist up on 8tracks:

Songs that evoke the feelings of mysteries, sadness, isolation and hope of the fictional Cloud County, TN. Some of these songs are also mentioned in the Tufa novels.

This series has totally hooked me. I grab the new books whenever they’re published11, and I usually also get the audiobook, just so that I get to have Stefan Rudnicki tell me another beautiful story in his glorious voice12.

You should check them out.

  1. These days, I do a lot of my fiction “reading” via audiobook, usually on my commutes. []
  2. It’s the latest one, as I write this. []
  3. That’s what they call themselves, and that’s what outsiders call them, too. []
  4. I don’t want to give away too much, but you find out in the first book that
    Spoiler
    they’re descendants of the Tuatha de Danann, exiled from the British Isles in the distant past.
    It’s a pretty big revelation in the first book, and forms sort of a foundation for a number of plot points in the later books. []
  5. Okay, these are all good. All of them. But my favourite has got to be Someplace to be Flying. It stands alone more than a lot of the other books; if you’re not gonna start at the beginning with the short story collections, I recommend this one as a taster. []
  6. Okay. These are what I get out of the books. I can’t claim that they’re universal, or that the author intended them. But such is the nature of talking about someone else’s art. We all get something different out of it. []
  7. Looking at you, state patrol officer from the first book! []
  8. Though not as different as they like to pretend, I think. []
  9. Those who don’t know me could probably guess that from the quotes on this blog. []
  10. Like the Silver John stories, like the Charles de Lint books. []
  11. And, if I sometimes regret that Alex Bledsoe isn’t giving me more Eddie LaCrosse books right now, well, he gets to write what he wants. I’m not the boss of him. And I’m grateful for both series. []
  12. Honest to god, both his voice and his performance are just amazing. Deep, rich, warm, expressive – first time I heard him do an audiobook, I made note of the name so that I could find other stuff he’s read. []

Mage: Discovered, Defined, Denied

It was announced recently that, after an 18-year gap, Matt Wagner is going to be doing the third volume of his Mage trilogy, Mage: The Hero Denied.

If you’re not familiar with the comics1Mage is a modern fantasy series, featuring Kevin Matchstick, a man who gets caught up in a mystical war between good and evil. Guided by the World-Mage Mirth, he reluctantly squares off against the Umbra Sprite and his five sons, the Grackleflints. The whole battle centres around the Umbra Sprite’s quest to find the Fisher King and sacrifice him, bringing about a new dark age on earth.

Well, that’s the first series, Mage: The Hero Discovered. I’m not going to go into much more detail about the series for fear of spoilers – you’ll find enough of those in the Wikipedia article and interviews I linked2. Suffice to say that the books are great, and I’m rereading them in preparation for the beginning of the third series, this summer.

How do they hold up?

Well, honestly, the first series feels a little dated. Part of that is that it is dated – it’s over 30 years old. And while I love Matt Wagner’s work, both as a writer and as an artist, he has grown and matured as both in the time in between. By the time the second series starts, in 1997, his skills are greater, and the execution is better. The second series also feels a little less tied to a specific time and place than the first3.

But the stories are good. Pure. Solid. They deal with mythology and archetypes and humanity and choices. With belief and doubt. With sacrifice. And there are a couple of scenes in each series that always give me a lump in my throat.

The stories are very much tied to Kevin Matchstick’s age. Discovered is a young man’s story, about finding his place in the world, and figuring out how things work. Defined is a mature man’s story, about growing into responsibility and self-awareness. After 18 years, I’m very curious to see what Denied chooses as its themes.

Gameable Bits

Anyway, as I’m reading through Mage: The Hero Defined, I keep coming back to the thought that it would make a great setting for a game. Here’s the basic setup elements:

  • A number of archetypical heroes from the past, and from various cultures all over the world, have manifestations in the modern world. These make great PCs.
  • In addition, there are other beings of power – witches, giants, ghosts, mages, possible Olympian gods, young women with magic baseball bats and classic cars – who make great PCs for players who don’t want to pick a heroic avatar.
  • Nasty creatures – trolls, bogarts, harpies, kelpies, red caps, succubi, etc. – are preying on mortals.
  • Due to the machinations of the Big Bad, these nasty creatures and the heroes and the heroes’ companions are all drawn to a city where an evil plan is coming to fruition.
  • Hilarity4 ensues.

One of the key bits from the comics that made me keep thinking about it as a game setting is that each of the heroes has a tag, relating to which heroic archetype they represent. So, you’ve got the Coyote, the Ulster Hound, the Hornblower, the Olympian, the Monkey King, the Sun Twins, the Dragonslayer, and so on. That just sounded so much like the high concept from a Fate Core character that I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Even the non-heroes – characters like Mirth, Edsel, Sean Knight, Gretch, Isis, Magda, Ishtar – are drawn from archetypical sources, giving them fairly prominent high concept aspects, as well: The World-Mage, Bearer of the Weapon, Ghost Defender, Head-Baning Giant, Weird Sisters, etc.

Throw in a little bit of power using extras and stunts, and it becomes pretty easy to build pretty much any character that appears in the comics, and to extrapolate to your own characters in the same setting.

And, in Fate Core, building antagonists is easy5. So, not much of a problem to build monster-of-the-week-style challenges for your characters. A little more time investment required for bad guys that are gonna stick around for a bit, but still pretty quick. And since a lot of the nasties are drawn from world mythology6, you’ve got a rich vein of source material to mine for it.

So, yeah. I figure a couple of hours of prep work, tops, and then you’re ready to have the greatest heroes of the ages drawn to Montreal to thwart the Pale Incanter’s scheme.

Go ahead. Read the comics. Give it a try. Let me know how it goes.

  1. And can’t be bothered to follow any of the links above. []
  2. After 30 years, are spoilers still a concern? Best to be safe, I guess. []
  3. Okay, that last bit is just my feel. Objectively speaking, the second series hits the time and place even harder than the first, but has more of a mythic overlay to it. Somehow, it doesn’t feel as dated to me. []
  4. And by “hilarity,” I mean chaos and carnage. []
  5. And will get even easier and better, I’m betting, with the publication of the Fate Adversary Toolkit coming this summer. []
  6. Maybe leaning a little heavily on the Celtic and Greek. []

Mask of the Other

motocover

Mask of the Other is a modern Lovecraftian horror/military adventure novel by Greg Stolze. Here’s the sell text from the back cover:

In 1991, a squad of US soldiers in Iraq stumbled across the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s secret occult weapons program. Mask of the Other tells their story.

In 1974, something two armies couldn’t kill was buried under the wreckage of Varosha, during the invasion of Cyprus. Over the next three decades, teams of Turkish soldiers repeatedly attempted to poison it, burn it, or blow it to bits. They only succeeded in keeping it pent up, waiting.

In 2001, a skirmish in rural Afghanistan somehow escalated to the point that an entire village was wiped out, along with most of the personnel of a private military company. The only survivors were four Americans suspected of looting Iraqi antiquities a decade earlier.

In 2004, those same Americans were hired to provide security for a mining firm looking to restart operations on the abandoned island of Hashima. Both they, and the man who hired them, knew that the island’s abandonment in 1974 had left it as the home to far worse things than smugglers and squatters.

Mask of the Other takes modern ghost towns, low-intensity combat zones, international espionage and corporate intrigue, weaving them together with the ineffable horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It’s a war story, a survival tale, and an account of existential survival against incredible threats.

Now, bias alert. Here’s a list of reasons that you might decide my review of the book is biased:

  • Greg Stolze, along with John Tynes, bought a bunch of my writing back in the days of Unknown Armies.
  • I got to know Greg back in those days, and we’ve been friends ever since.
  • Greg sent me a .pdf of the book back when it was first released, for free.
  • I backed the Kickstarter for the audiobook version1.
  • In general, I like Greg’s writing, both his fiction and his game material.

So, those factors may indicate that I am predisposed to like this book, and you’d be right, I guess. But I try to be honest in my reviews. I think the above points make it more likely that I’d read the book, certainly, and to write a review if I like it2.

This review is coming very late – the book was released over a year ago, and I started reading it then, but I got distracted and never got back to it. When the Kickstarter for the audio version of the book came along, I backed it at a high enough level to get the softcover version, as well. I just finished listening to the audiobook this afternoon, so it’s time and past time to write a review.

The sell text above hits the high points of the story. The book actually weaves a few different narrative tracks together, some of which come together later in the book, and some of which are more in the nature of vignettes, filling in some blanks from the story and illuminating the nature of the threats facing the characters3. This does a good job of controlling the revelations of information for the reader to heighten suspense, because sometimes it’s scarier to be surprised and sometimes it’s scarier to see it coming.

I had a bit of a problem with this approach, though, especially in the earlier part of the novel. The chapters don’t progress chronologically; that is, they jump forward and backwards in time. Each chapter starts with a date/place heading, so it’s not that huge a deal – except with the audiobook. With a written text, you can flip back to the chapter’s beginning, and to other chapter beginnings, to help keep track of where you are in the story’s timeline. You can’t do that with the audiobook, though, and with all the jumping around in the start of the book, it’s not hard to lose track.

It’s not a huge problem, though; just something that caused me a little confusion. And, as the book proceeds, the narratives come together and begin to advance in a more conventional manner, the problem evaporates.

The story itself is a lot of fun, and really quite disturbing in many places4. Greg uses a couple of very common monsters from the Lovecraft corpus, and uses them pretty much in their conventional roles, but throws a couple of awesome twists in to move them from standard tropes up to things of real horror again. The deep ones are nasty and terrifying in their breeding program and level of infiltration, and the shoggoth pulls some tricks that show why they were essentially an Old One doomsday weapon.

The main characters of the book – the squad of soldiers – are great. They make the same kinds of desperate, foolish, awesome decisions as player characters in an RPG5, and enjoy the same kinds of great victories and horrible defeats. The horror of Lovecraft’s stories is often so cosmic, that it is removed from personal horror, but this story does a good job of showing how the cosmic horror leads the characters into personal horror. Their choices, and the consequences of those choices, really drive the most disturbing parts of the novel.

Of course, some mention must be made of the narrator of the audiobook. His name is Trevor Dutton, and Greg described his voice as “gravy on gravel.” I can’t do any better than that; it’s a smooth voice, with a bit of a rumble in it. He doesn’t do a lot of voices, but reads clearly, and at a good pace. I believe he produced the book, as well as reading it, so he’s responsible for the sound effects interspersed throughout. The first time I heard one of the sound effects on the recording, I was startled, but they work really well, and I wound up enjoying them a lot6. All in all, a fine job of reading.

End result? I really enjoyed Mask of the Other. It hit all the right buttons for modern Lovecraft fiction, as far as I’m concerned, marrying his stark, horrific universe with the more personal, immediate horror of modern sensibility. It’s a tough balance to strike, and Greg Stolze hits it about perfect. If you like Lovecraft, Delta Green, or just modern horror, you should read this book.

  1. Some may view this as bias, some may view it as further endorsement. I leave it to you to decide which it is for you. []
  2. I don’t write reviews of things I don’t like. I’d rather celebrate and share stuff that I think is good than whine about or tear down stuff that I don’t. After all, opinions are very subjective, and there’s lots of good stuff out there, so why not focus on stuff I like? []
  3. Most of the illumination is some form of “See? This is why it’s very, very bad.” []
  4. Which is what one looks for in Lovecraftian story, after all. []
  5. And, incidentally, so completely unlike the rather sterile, cerebral characters of an actual Lovecraft story. []
  6. Mostly. There were one or two little tinkly musical stings that struck me as kind of incongruous. []

Twittering Throne of the White Birds

I haven’t talked about books in a while, and now I have three that I want to tell you about, so I’m putting them all in one review.

The reason I’m doing this is Twitter. I found out about each of these books on Twitter, tracked them down, read them, and thoroughly enjoyed each one1. More and more, I’m using my Twitter feed to find out about good books and authors that I might not hear about otherwise. These three books are just the first that I’ve picked up this way – there are more that I’ve found and read2, and others3 that I’ve been teased with, but that aren’t yet released.

So. Yeah. Twitter is fast becoming my go-to book recommendation service.

Enough about that. Let’s talk books.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Throne is note-perfect sword-and-sorcery, in the tradition of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, but with a more modern sensibility to things like the inner lives of the characters, diversity, language, and the like. It takes the rollicking, swashbuckling, over-the-top action and adventure of the pulps, and adds character depth, ambiguity, and actual moral dilemma, creating a novel that is both exciting and rich in story.

It’s set in the pseudo-Arabic city of Dhamsawat. I say “pseudo-Arabic” because it’s not set in the real Middle East, even by cleverly changing the names, but in a fantasy world that combines the best of the 1001 Nights and real touches of history to create a place and time that is richly evocative of a fairy-tale Arabia. The main character, Adoulla, is a ghul-hunter – the last of a mystical order that hunts down and destroys the undead ghuls and the sorcerers who create them. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s cynical and irreverent, but still has the heart of a hero4, though he’s slowing down and thinking about retiring before he gets killed.

And so, of course, he gets dragged into one last case by an old flame5.

I loved this book6, mainly because of all the ways it subverts genre tropes. First off, a non-European-based fantasy world is a treat. No clones of Arthur and his knights or the Fellowship of the Ring showing up. Characters of different races and cultures – sure, pseudo-British and pseudo-German cultures are fine and good, but we’ve seen a lot of that over the years, and it’s nice to get a different perspective on things. Faith is dealt with in an interesting, two-edged way, showing both admirably pious characters and villainous zealots. And a nice contrast of ages, as the older characters7 and younger characters each show very different strengths and weaknesses.

And every one of the heroes kicks ass. The aging ghul-hunter? Kicks ass. The pious and naive young dervish bodyguard? Kicks ass. The angry young nomad shapeshifter? Kicks ass. The old alchemist, worried about her husband’s failing health? Kicks ass. Her husband, the mage, who spends his own life-force to power his magic? Kicks ass.

The bad guys are suitably detestable, whether they are the shadow-jackal servant Mouw Awa8 or simple thugs in the street. Perspectives shift and change as the simple question of who is raising the ghuls evolves into a desperate race to save the entire city.

It’s a wonderful book, and you should read it. If you like sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it handles the genre. If you hate sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it subverts the genre. It’s clever, and dotted with little delights to keep you reading. Go buy it now.

White Horse, by Alex Adams

The only reason I found this book was because I butted into a conversation about chickens9 on Twitter, and Alex Adams was involved. We bantered, and she followed me, and I followed her, and then I checked out her page, and found that she was an author with this book coming out, and it sounded interesting, so I bought it10.

The story is a little bleak. It tells the tale of Zoe, a young woman who survives a multi-stage end-of-the-world scenario, and is on a journey from the US to Greece. It flashes back to the time before and during the… well, Apocalypse, I guess… slowly building a very compelling, ground-level view of how the world ends. There’s scientific hubris and human fear and agression and sheer bad luck all mixed together in bringing things to the point where most people are dead, a lot of technology is trashed, and strange things are happening to the survivors. By showing it through Zoe’s eyes, the whole thing is personalized, and the impact of it is visceral. Chaos, confusion, fear, loss, and desperate hope all get some page time as we see the world fall apart.

In the midst of all this grimness, Alex Adams weaves some solid literary magic. She plays with you. She teases you with a couple of wonderful bait-and-switch-and-switch-again threads that follow Zoe through her journeys, both inner and outer, leading you to the edge of revelation before showing you that – again – things aren’t what they seem. I don’t want to give away what those threads are, or where they eventually lead; discovering and following them, thinking you’ve got them figured out and finding that the author is still a step ahead of you, that’s one of the great joys of this book.

I’m gonna be honest: I almost didn’t finish this book. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic book, with some great writing and compelling characters. And I’m not afraid of a bleak story.

What got to me, what almost made me stop reading, was the lack of any really likable male characters11. Well, okay, not really lack of them, but the nice guys were pretty quickly removed from play, and the male characters that took the centre stage were all unmitigated bastards. I hated them. They were vile, brutal men, and they made me want to throw the book across the room.

Why didn’t I stop? Well, because I’ve been reading a fair bit about privilege, and I thought it would be enlightening and good for me to read a book where I wasn’t given a character that I, as a straight white male, could identify with as my proxy in the story. I mean, I read a lot of books where I am given that character, but other readers – women, non-white, non-straight readers – aren’t. So I wanted to see how that made me feel, to raise my awareness of such issues.

That’s the end of my little political tirade, by the way.

I’m immensely glad that I didn’t stop reading the book because Alex Adams – and I picture her with a saucy, knowing smirk when I think about this – plays games with this, too. Expectations are both fulfilled and confounded, understanding dawns as the final tricks are exposed, and the issues are revealed as both subtler and more complex than they first appeared. And I am left marveling at the craftsmanship and beauty of the story, and the delicate, artful way that my emotions and reactions have been led to the end.

Normally, I read a book, enjoy the story, and move on to the next. White Horse lingers with me, making me think about how I read it, what it did to me, and how I reacted to that. It has shown me something new about myself and about the world. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it’s one that I’m immensely grateful I was able to take.

And I’m eagerly looking forward to Alex Adams’s next book.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has written some of the most entertaining – and profane – writing advice I’ve ever read and enjoyed. So, I wanted to read his novel when it came out.

First things first: if you have a problem with coarse language, avoid this book. Because the language is coarse like a cheese grater rubbing on your most sensitive bits. But Chuck uses obscenity like the craftsman he is, building brilliant, dark images and situations with finely crafted expletives, each polished to perfection. He is deliberate and inventive in his cursing, understanding the rhythm and pace of each horrific bon-mot he includes. He is an artist in vulgarity, and worth reading just for that.

Anyway, with that caveat out of the way, on to the book.

This is the story of Miriam Black, a young, troubled woman who just happens to be able to tell when people are going to die. When she touches someone, she sees the time, place, method, and circumstances of their death. She can’t change anything about it, though; what she sees comes true, and if she tries to change things, she winds up contributing to the death she’s seen. This has, as you might imagine, messed her up some, and she currently wanders the highways and by-ways, hitching rides and living hand to mouth. She isn’t really a nice person, but she is someone you can root for.

Two things come into the picture that change things for her – the first is a vision of the death of someone that she doesn’t want to die, and the second is someone who has figured out her secret.

The book is fiercely focused, and quite short. There are no wasted words, no distractions, nothing to take you away from the story. It is a brutal trip through a pulpy charcoal sketch of bad people and nasty situations, and it drags you pretty aggressively through to the end at top speed. Along the way, you see how Miriam got to be the way she is, and what she’s really made of.

There’s a dark delight to the story, a nobility in the seediness of the situations and locations, and great heroism happens on very human scales, feeling more real and immediate than all the over-the-top thrillers. It’s a very human book, with messy, damaged characters, rife with good12 intentions and stupidity, fear and hope, desperation and resignation.

It’s not a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. And the darkness in it is wonderfully entertaining.

Word is that Miriam’s coming back, too. And that’s good.

  1. That’s the quick review. []
  2. Like John Scalzi’s Redshirts and John Horner Jacobs’s Southern Gods. []
  3. Like Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son. []
  4. As well as the appetite. []
  5. Yeah, there are a few nice noir touches in there, too. []
  6. So much so that I’ve used it as the loose basis for a D&D adventure. []
  7. Including the main character. []
  8. Easily one of the best-written, creepiest bad guys I’ve read. []
  9. Evil, stupid creatures. Ambulatory plants motivated by pure malice. []
  10. Authors on Twitter take note: being a friendly, approachable human being is good marketing. You don’t always have to be hard-selling your stuff. That said, no one begrudges you a little self-marketing either. Mix the two – like the authors I’m reviewing here – and you’re golden. []
  11. There was another, subtler issue, as well: the fact that Zoe was determined not to kill, even when her opponent was someone that I, as a reader, really felt should have been killed. But there’s another dynamic, only partially gender-based, at work there – in the bleak, post-apocalyptic world, we expect life to be cheap. But to Zoe, it wasn’t. It was the most precious thing there was, and I finally started to get that later in the book, and began to understand the strength it showed. Just a different kind of strength than we’re used to in the kind of book I expected this to be. Again, my expectations were confounded, and brilliantly so. Bravo. []
  12. Or not so good. []

Atomic Robo – Why Was I Not Informed?!?

I can’t believe I just found out about this.

Last week some time, Fred Hicks tweeted1 about this comic called Atomic Robo. The tweet included this link, which you should check out. I did. And it intrigued me so much, I immediately went and bought all the Atomic Robo comics2.

There are currently five complete series of Atomic Robo up on Comixology, each series running from four to six issues. In addition, there’s a sixth series that is in progress3 and three Free Comic Book Day issues. I read them all in a binge over the weekend, and am now very sad that I’ve finished them. Gonna have to reread very soon.

The idea behind the comic is simple: in the 1920s, Nicola Tesla built a robot. Ever since then, the robot has been fighting crime and dealing with weird technological mysteries, alongside his team of Action Scientists. What more could you ask for? It’s written by Brian Clevinger, drawn by Scott Wegener, coloured by Ronda Pattison, and lettered by Jeff Powell.

Now, the link above gives you a really good overview and teaser to the comics, so I’m not going to go into much depth about them. I’m just going to talk about why I like them, and why you should go buy them.

  • Echoes of some great sources. You see the influence of Hellboy, Planetary, Indiana Jones, and Buckaroo Banzai4 in the story and structure, and the influence of Mike Mignola and Dave Stevens5 in the art.
  • Transcending its influences. The influences in the book are visible, but the comic is not just a pastiche of the sources. It takes elements from the sources and turns them into something new, exciting, and brilliant. Standard tropes are lampooned or inverted, all with smart, savvy commentary on the sources.
  • Taking chances. The stories jump all through Atomic Robo’s6 history, and deal with everything from Nazi super-tanks to time-traveling7 dinosaur geniuses to the evil manipulations of Stephen Hawking. It does unexpected things, smart things, things that fill me with mad glee.
  • Smart, yet absurd. One of my favourite moments in the books – one which, for me, sums up the heart of Atomic Robo – is when a giant monster rises from Tokyo bay, and Robo says, “Why do we even have the square-cube law?” There is something sublime about that image: a sentient, atomic-powered robot built by Nicola Tesla complaining about a violation of physics.
  • Trusts the readers. In that moment I described above, there is no explanation of the square-cube law. The book trusts the readers to get it. With the tangled, time-jumping stories, the book trusts the readers to keep up. The comic treats the readers as intelligent, creative, adaptable people, and trusts them to be able to follow along on the mad, joyous ramble through the story.
  • Fun. Fun! FUN!! The stories, situations, and characters are just a whole lot of fun. The art is clean, kind-of-cartoony, with great monsters and expressions8 and fights and motion. It’s just an amazingly fun comic.

Here’s a link to the official website of Atomic Robo. You should go buy all the comics.

And Atomic Robo folks? Please make more. Very quickly.

Thanks.

  1. Actually, he retweeted. But anyway. []
  2. Well, not went so much as fired up Comixology on my iPad and downloaded them. I love you, Comixology! []
  3. On issue #4, as I write this. []
  4. To be fair, I’m not really a fan of Buckaroo Banzai, but that’s more of an issue with the execution than the idea. The idea of Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers rocks. What they did with it just didn’t work for me. []
  5. And probably others – I’m not an art guy. I can’t really talk intelligently about it. But the style reminds me a little of Mike Mignola, and Robo looks a bit like The Rocketeer, so there you go. []
  6. Yes, the robot’s name is Atomic Robo. Why else would the book be called that? []
  7. Or so he claims. []
  8. Atomic Robo has the most amazingly expressive face, considering he doesn’t really have a face. []

The New 52, Week Four and Beyond

Well, I’m somewhat behind with this post, what with traveling and all. It’s barely relevant1 anymore, but my compulsive completist side says I have to post it.

All-Star Western #1

I liked this one, provisionally. It’s got a nice mix of Jonah Hex with something out of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, set in late-1800s Gotham City. There’s creepiness and brooding western action. All in all, it’s a good mix, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes.

Aquaman #1

I’m not an Aquaman fan. I did not expect to like this book. That said, they tackled a lot of concerns I have with the Aquaman character head-on in a clever way. I found myself really enjoying the story and the take on the character.

Batman The Dark Knight #1

This was a solid Batman story, but not as engaging as Batman or Detective Comics. Still quite good, though, and laying foundation for better stuff to follow.

Blackhawks #1

I hate G.I. Joe. Just want to put that out there as the reason I was initially predisposed to hate this comic, which seems to be doing the same sort of thing. But it’s doing it better than I expected, with some interesting quirks and twists. I’m actually interested in what happens next, which I did not expect.

Flash #1

Never been a huge fan of Flash. He’s got a reset, no longer married to Iris – after the Brand New Day reset for Spider-Man, I’m very leery of this kind of thing. But the setup for the book is interesting, and is using Barry’s skills as a forensic scientist as much as Flash’s speed. So, I’m intrigued.

Fury of Firestorm #1

I haven’t read any Firestorm books for years. I always thought the dual nature of the hero – two minds sharing one body – was interesting. This book seems to be taking some neat chances with the ideas behind the hero. I hope they keep it up.

I, Vampire #1

I really wanted to like this book. But the first issue is a disjointed garble of flashbacks, with no help trying to put them into a sequence that makes sense. Disappointing, because it looks like there’s a good story lurking in the background that I’d like to read.

Justice League Dark #1

Okay. I like any comic that has John Constantine in it. Unfortunately, this one also has Shade, whom I really dislike. This is causing me no small amount of cognitive dissonance. The underlying story has some promise, though. Let’s see where it goes.

New Guardians #1

Here’s the thing, DC – flashbacks are cool and all, but you really need some way to show when you’re switching timeframes from the past to the present and vice-versa. Points for flagging that the initial scene takes place in the past, but minus points for not showing when we jump to the present. I mean, the GL mythos is tangled enough that it’s almost impenetrable for newbies like me. You gotta give us a fighting chance of understanding how the pieces fit together. This was not as bad as in I, Vampire, but it still was a major impediment for me.

Savage Hawkman #1

Never been a Hawkman fan. I’ve said that about other heroes, but the difference here is that this book didn’t do anything to change my mind. I just didn’t care enough about the character to get into his angsty wonking about being Hawkman and all that stuff. Oh, well.

Superman #1

We get another relationship reset here, a la Brand New Day, and I’ve already mentioned how I feel about that. That said, this book has a good story, and some great Superman moments. What I like best, though, is the way this Superman – older, more mature, less wild and carefree – contrasts with the Superman in Action Comics. The differences – and the similarities – between the two are wonderful to see, and really make the character richer.

Teen Titans #1

Starting fresh with this book. Tim Drake’s Robin showing some good leadership potential as he starts to build the team. An interesting threat in the background, and the beginnings of fun group dynamics. I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Voodoo #1

Wow. Shapeshifting alien stripper hunting men. Someone has watched Species too many times. Not a good book so far. If they can pull it out of the smut-spiral, it might have some potential, but I’m not hopeful.

 

So, that’s a look at all the new #1s. I’ve been reading the new #2s as they come out, and am generally pleased, though nothing has really changed my initial impressions of the books I’ve been reading so far. I plan on giving the books three issues to grab me; if they can’t manage it in that time, I’ll stop reading. There are a few – Action, Detective, Batwoman for the three most obvious ones – that have already really hooked me, and I’ll be continuing. Others are gonna have to fight it out.

DC isn’t just putting out the New 52, though, and I’m happy to see that. Last week, they released Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, which was a really great look at the Penguin2, and they’ve released The Shade this week, which I haven’t read yet.

All in all, though, I think this New 52 launch has been a good thing, especially coupled with the day-and-date electronic sales model.

So, congratulations to DC Comics. I think you’ve done a great thing.

  1. If it was relevant at all to begin with, of course. []
  2. They also released Supernatural #1, which was less good. []

The New 52, Week Three

So. Let’s see what we’ve got this week.

By the way, I have come to the conclusion that the mysterious cloaked woman I have spotted in several of the books probably appears in all of them, but I just haven’t seen her. In some, she is very obvious. In others, not so much. This is obviously something leading up to a big tie-in or reveal, so keep an eye out for her. I’m gonna stop mentioning when I see her.

Batman #1

I like this story. It does a good job of laying out the situation for newcomers to the series1, while pushing into an interesting storyline that looks to go in an unexpected direction. It also ties in nicely with Nightwing #1, so bonus points. And, I have to say, I was nicely baffled by the opening sequence. Good stuff.

Birds of Prey #1

This has some potential, but I don’t really have any investment in the characters. I mean, I know who Black Canary is, but I don’t really know all that much about her, and I have no idea about Starling. Still, the set-up has some interest to me, so we’ll see where it goes.

Blue Beetle #1

I never got into Blue Beetle, much. I liked the Ted Kord Blue Beetle in the Justice League books, but I don’t know much of the backstory, beyond he’s got a magic bug talisman that gives him superpowers. That means that I don’t know how much of the backstory of the scarab told in this book is rehash, and how much is new. Not that it really matters; I was pleasantly surprised by the story, and the ideas – it’s a good book. I just wish I knew more Spanish so I could follow the dialogue a little better. It’s not that there’s a lot of it in Spanish – it’s just that I’m kind of a completist, and I hate feeling that I’ve missed something.

Captain Atom #1

This is not a bad book, I just don’t care all that much about the character, and the story has yet to grab my interest. Some neat stuff, but not enough for me to buy in completely.

Catwoman #1

This book is the clearest example of why people are upset about the portrayal of women in comic books, I think. It’s pretty much all T&A, heavy on the sexualization, and empowering the female character in a very stereotypical dominatrix way. This is a real shame, because the character deserves better than this.

DC Universe Presents #1

Nice recap of Deadman’s origins, along with throwing in a nice twist. Boston Brand’s crisis of faith could make for some very interesting stories, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.

Green Lantern Corps #1

Of all the Green Lantern books so far, I like this one the best. It’s got an interesting threat – one that’s on a scale with the Corps – and solid characters. Some of the best stuff is character stuff with Guy Gardner and John Stewart, but the book does not skimp on action, either. Good fun.

Legion of Super-Heroes #1

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love me my Legion of Super-Heroes. Yeah, it’s corny, and campy, and has a convoluted membership awash in soap-operaesque drama, but I love it. This book makes me want to track down the LSH stuff from the past couple of decades that I missed, so I know the new faces and understand the current status quo. For example, reference is made to a lot of Legionnaires dying – I need to know about that!

Nightwing #1

This book meshes nicely with Batman #1, giving a look at a different part of the emerging story. It is well-done. The character moments with Dick and the circus are particularly good, reminding you that, though he was Batman for a while, he has a different core than Bruce does. It doesn’t make him weaker, it doesn’t make him stronger, but it makes him different. You can see the mark Bruce left on him, but he is more than just an ex-Robin. I really liked it.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1

Hmmm. Red Hood, Speedy2, and Starfire. Okay. The book is full of gratuitous violence, and, as usual, Starfire is displayed very gratuitously. That said, there’s an interesting story lurking in the background that’s got me intrigued. I’ll give it a chance.

Supergirl #1

Nice action scenes. The beginnings of a mystery. Looks like Supergirl is being re-origined again. This makes, what, eight times? Nine? The only character in comics that I can think of with more convoluted origins and versions is Jean Grey. Still, having her show up on Earth with no idea how she got there, remembering Krypton like it was yesterday, could make for some interesting stuff.

Wonder Woman #1

I was really not expecting to like this series. Instead, it may be one of my favourites. They’re drawing in the Greek mythology lurking in the character background, and running with it. I like that. A lot. I like the story, I like the characters, and I like the nasty twist they’re putting on things. I’m really looking forward to the next issue.

  1. Really? Newcomers to Batman? I guess there must be some. Or, at least, newcomers to this incarnation of Batman, with the son and the multiple (ex-) Robins. []
  2. Yes, I know he’s Arsenal, now. He’ll always be Speedy to me. []

The New 52, Week Two

So, let’s see what we’ve got from DC’s New 52 this week. I’m still loving the day-and-date electronic sales, and am rapidly becoming an even bigger DC fan. Not everything is perfect, but there’s some good stuff going on.

Batman and Robin #1

The main story in this one is framed by the start of a new, very cool-looking storyline. This is good. What’s not so good is that the framing story is better than the main story. Yes, as a new #1, a jumping-on point for new readers, it’s important to establish who the characters are and what the situation is. But the main storyline is just Batman (Bruce) trying to keep Robin (Damian) from being a perfect cocky little shit. And failing. I’m hoping that, now that the dynamic has been spelled out in big, bold letters, the book backs off on this aspect of the mythos. It’s hard enough to like Damian at the best of times – and he is not being shown at his best.

Batman has an interesting little character moment that’s been a long time coming in the sewers, but outside of that, he seems more like Mr. Wilson trying to babysit Dennis the Menace than the Dark Knight. As I said, I hope they get over this bit and on to some good stories.

Batwoman #1

I liked the Batwoman run in Detective Comics a lot. This picks up from that, and does a pretty good job of giving us a tough, smart, female hero. There’s not a lot of meat to the story – again, it’s trying to lay the foundation for new readers, I think – but there are hints of good things coming, and the character scenes in the book are very good. Bette Kane is back, trying to earn the right to be Flamebird to Kate Kane’s Batwoman, and there’s some understandable tension between Kate and her father after the revelations in the Detective Comics storyline. All in all, I’m hopeful for this one.

Deathstroke #1

I’m not really a fan of villain books1, and Slade Wilson is definitely a villain. Not even the Punisher is as much an unmitigated bad guy as Deathstroke the Terminator. I’ve enjoyed seeing Deathstroke opposing many different DC heroes and teams, right back to The New Teen Titans, but I’m not sure how much I’ll be grabbed by a book with him as the star. On the other hand, his miniseries in Flashpoint was pretty good.

This book is also pretty good. It latches on to the idea that, legendary super-badass or not, Slade Wilson is getting old and, while it may not be slowing him down much, his clients are starting to think it is. So he’s gotta prove he’s just as hard, just as nasty, just as scary, and just as effective as he’s always been. I’m going to give it a couple of issues to win me over.

Demon Knights #1

The Demon Etrigan, Madame Xanadu, Vandal Savage, the Shining Knight, and three others I don’t recognize get caught up in an invasion, led by the Questing Queen and Mordru2. It’s set in the middle ages, and looks like a great deal of fun.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1

As might be expected in a comic starring Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos, this is a pretty weird, silly book. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. I liked the bizarre story and the strange characters. It had a nice touch of the absurd mixed in with the horror and action. I’m not really a fan of the art style, though. It’s a little muddy for my taste, though well-done. But for me, that’s a little quibble.

Green Lantern #1

With Blackest Night and Brightest Day, it seems the Green Lantern mythology has become very complicated. Now there are rings of all sorts of colours. Sinestro has a green ring back, endorsed by the Guardians, and Hal no longer has a ring. Having followed neither Blackest nor Brightest, I’m a little out of my depth with the background, but the story itself is not bad, if a little trite3 – ex-superhero dealing with the difficulties of returning to normal life. Could be interesting.

Grifter #1

I’ve never read anything with Grifter in it, except for his appearances in Flashpoint, so I don’t know much about the character. Because of that, it was nice that the series is starting with an origin story. It’s a pretty good story, too – reluctant, misunderstood hero, alone and on the run from the police and military and his entire life, a mysterious4 threat tied to his origin, and general confusion about what’s going on. I’m liking it so far.

Legion Lost #1

The Legion of Superheroes has changed a bit since I used to read the series. The look of Tyroc is far less 70s funk, and they’ve brought along Gates and Chameleon Girl, along with heroes I’m more familiar with: Wildfire, Dawnstar, Tellus, and Timber Wolf. The team has chased a bad guy back from the future to stop him from releasing some sort of pathogen5 and, predictably, they get stuck here in our presence.

I like the story, but that may be because of the love I have for the LSH. It was the first series6 that hooked me with an ongoing storyline – the Great Darkness Saga. So, I’m more forgiving of some of the oddities and awkwardnesses7 of the book.

Mister Terrific #1

Again, I’m not familiar with Mr. Terrific, so it’s good that they’re doing an origin story. I like the hero – nice combination of haunted and driven, relying on intelligence and tech8 to fight crime. I think they’re jumping at the twist a little early in this one – I don’t know the character well enough to care deeply about it yet. But it is a good twist – no denying that.

Red Lanterns #1

More lantern mythology. Atrocitus lacks direction, so decides to become an avenging angel. I dunno about this one. On the one hand, that is one bad-ass kitty cat he’s got. On the other, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in a book about taking savage and bloody vengeance on all and sundry. I don’t think that’s totally the direction the book is going – there are strong intimations of more complex and interesting stories – so I’m going to give it a bit of a chance. But it’s going to need to work hard to win me over.

Resurrection Man #1

I liked this book. Resurrection Man is another new hero that I’m not familiar with, but this book is less of an origin story than some of the others. This works, mainly because of the mysterious nature of the origin. There’s a bit of a The Fugitive vibe being set up, with what looks like both Heaven and Hell hunting for him, coupled with a built-in story generator – the feelings that draw him to perform certain acts and go certain places. It’s got a nice mix of creepy and action.

Suicide Squad #1

I have mixed feelings about Suicide Squad, both as a group and as a book. The basic premise is interesting for about five minutes, then quickly reveals itself as an excuse to write about the main characters being absolute bastards. On the other hand, the story in the book was pretty good, even if they did telegraph the twist in it a little bit. And I like the character of Harley Quinn.

There’s been a bit of Internet grumbling about Harley’s new look, and it is certainly a more gratuitously sexy look than in a lot of other versions9, but I gotta say that those complaining must not have seen her in the Arkham Asylum video game. There’s also been some complaints about Amanda Waller’s new look – slimmed down and sexied up. There may be some merit to this complaint, but it seems like an awful lot of noise over a single panel. Anyway, the look of characters in comic books change all the time, whether as part of an editorial decision or because a different artist brings a different take to the character. With the relaunch, I figure you gotta expect even bigger changes, and I can’t see bashing an entire book because you don’t like the look of a single character.

But that’s just me.

Superboy #1

It’s not the Superboy I grew up with – it’s the post-death-of-Superman, clone-grown-by-secret-project, funky-telepathy-telekinesis Superboy. This first issue focuses on the lab and the shady secret agency that grew him, with hints of agendas and plots and secrets. There’s some strong association to the feel of the Project: Superman miniseries from Flashpoint and the Superboy origin and recruitment from the Young Justice animated series. It’s got some promise.

 

I plan to continue with Week Three of this little series of posts next week, but it’ll probably be delayed some, as I’ll be traveling. Still, I’ll be able to get my comics electronically, and can read them on the bus and in the hotel at night, so hopefully I won’t fall too far behind.

I generally give a new TV show or comic series three issues to grab me, and that’s what I’m thinking with the new DC universe. I’m only going to write about the new #1s, though – after that, I just won’t have much new to say. I may post a scorecard a few months down to take a look at what I’m still reading, though. We’ll have to see.

  1. Matt Wagner’s amazing Grendel is a notable and sublime exception. []
  2. Whom I remember fondly from his attacks on The Legion of Superheroes in the 31st century. Guy’s lived a loooong time – right up to when Darkseid drained him dry in the Great Darkness Saga. Good times. []
  3. I saw one scene in an old Lethal Weapon movie, for example. []
  4. Speaking of mysterious, this is the second comic that I’ve spotted a strange, cloaked and hooded woman floating in the background of a panel. Wonder what’s up with that. []
  5. Which has not been explained yet. []
  6. Well, first superhero series. Mike Grell’s The Warlord was a long time favourite before that. []
  7. It’s a word if I say it’s a word. []
  8. And money. Lots and lots of money. []
  9. Especially than in the animated series. []

The New 52, Week One (Plus History)

I love comics. And I’ve always been a DC guy1. Over time, I’ve branched out into a lot of other companies, including a lot of the smaller press ones, but I’ve always – at heart – been a DC guy.

So, I was somewhat concerned when I started hearing rumours of a relaunch of the DC titles. And when those rumours were confirmed, I have to admit that I had the initial, knee-jerk reaction common to most fans2 and started mourning the loss of the comics I loved.

But I hate that reaction.

A little research turned up more information, and I started to become cautiously optimistic. Then I discovered that the entire New 52 thing was going to be introduced by another big crossover3 event called Flashpoint. I figured that I could either check out Flashpoint and see what kinds of things they were trying to do, or I could just write off DC and cut waaaay back on my comic buying.

Given that option4, I rounded up Flashpoint and started reading.

Flashpoint

Well, these big crossover events get pretty tangled, so I was very grateful to find Allyson’s Attic had a reading order list for the various books. That was immensely useful, so thanks for that, Allyson!

In general, I was blown away by the Flashpoint stuff. I realized pretty early on that this was a throw-away universe/continuity/whatever, so they felt safe taking some big risks in storytelling, knowing that the reset button5 was coming. That said, I was still very pleased by the size of the risks they took, and the stories they got out of it. I mean, when you start off with sinking Western Europe, and the Amazons invading England, you show people you’re serious about doing big things.

Flashpoint was made up of a number of miniseries, with a few one-shots and a single continuing series (Booster Gold) thrown in. Each of the miniseries focused on a different hero or group, and showed you a twist in the way they were in this new timeline. I don’t want to spoil things too much, but Flashpoint won my heart the instant I realized that Slade Wilson and Travis Morgan6 were waging piratical naval battles in the water above sunken Paris.

The things the series did with Batman, with Superman, with Dick Grayson and Frankensein’s Monster were just brilliant. I wasn’t too impressed by some of the other books, like The Outsider, The Canterbury Cricket, and The Secret Seven7, but most of the books were just good reads. I was even impressed by how the Flash8 was worked into all this.

And then it ended, and it left me pretty jazzed for the New 52.

Justice League #1

This was the first book to come out, and they started it pretty slow. The default assumption for the universe seems to be that Superman is the first open superhero, and he popped up on the scene about five years ago. Batman was around before then, but he was mainly regarded as an urban legend. So this book opens up five years before NOW (with NOW defined as the current time-point in the bulk of the new DC continuity) with the first meeting of Batman and Green Lantern.

There’s some neat stuff that happens, though as I said, it starts slow. They seem to have gone back to basics with the characters – Batman is grim, pessimistic, and kind of a dick, while Green Lantern is cocky, smug, and kind of a prick. The bulk of the issue is devoted to setting up the expectations of both the characters and the world: the characters are as stated, and the world thinks they’re dangerous criminals.

I liked the issue, and I’m heartened by the fact that they’re taking their time with the storytelling.

Action Comics #1

Restarting the numbering on Action Comics is a pretty big deal. The fact that DC did so, in my opinion, shows that they are seriously devoted to the new universe, and I like that.

Story-wise, this book presents a younger, cockier, less-boyscoutish Superman than I can remember seeing. He’s still a nice guy, and he still values life, and still upholds justice, but he’s going after people that the law can’t touch. And he seems to be having fun. That right there is an interesting take on things, and it was surprisingly refreshing. I found myself liking the character, and the book, a whole lot more than I expected. And for those of you on the Interwebs complaining about Superman’s costume in the book, get a grip.

Animal Man #1

Never followed Animal Man previously. No real reason – I just didn’t. This story struck me as very human. Buddy Blake is a pretty normal guy, and the story is, in large part, about his concerns for his family. He’s grateful for his wife’s support, he worries about his kids, and he hopes he can make them all proud and keep them all safe. So that’s where he’s going to get hit, and the hit, when it comes in the book, is really pretty awesome. Definitely hooked me.

Batgirl #1

I’ve always liked Barbara Gordon, first as Batgirl, and then as Oracle. I liked the recent Batwoman run in Detective Comics. I think that there are interesting Batman stories to tell that benefit from9 a female point of view. So, I was happy to see her getting back into the game. They haven’t dismissed everything that happened in Alan Moore’s stunning The Killing Joke – Babs was still shot, still crippled. But in the new universe, she regained the use of her legs after lengthy rehab, and is putting on the cowl again.

There was a lot about this book I liked – Barbara as a strong, smart, resourceful, determined woman, both in the costume and out of it; Jim Gordon’s worry and devotion to her; her own fears and doubts and her struggle against them – but there was some ham-handed stuff that just didn’t work well. I mean, having a roommate introduce herself by saying, “I’m kinda an activist,” and point to a big Fight The Power scrawled across the living room wall in fresh paint. I know they have a limited amount of space to introduce the characters, but that one hurt.

Not enough to turn me off the book, though.

Batwing #1

Okay. A black Batman works for all the same reason a Batgirl or Batwoman works. It gives you access to stories that you couldn’t tell otherwise. And setting the thing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is brilliant. Batman stands out as a sort of dark anomaly in the US – a savage force lurking inside civilization. Batwing lives in a more openly brutal world, with people who aren’t going to be frightened by a bat. He faces horrific conditions without the supporting infrastructure that Batman has. His world is not Batman’s world, but he still tries to do Batman’s work. The character rocks, and the book rocks.

Detective Comics #1

Like Action Comics, it’s a big deal that DC started Detective Comics over at #1. This is a great Batman story, and the Batman in it is less of a dick than the one in Justice League. That may be because this is set later in his life (in the NOW), or it may be because he isn’t interacting with any other superheroes on his turf, so he doesn’t need to do the alpha dog thing.

But this is hard. Core. Batman. It is nasty, and brutal, and glorious, and heroic, and dark, and disturbing. The Joker is awesome and terrifying, and the story that this kicks off really bears watching. It looks to be amazing.

Green Arrow #1

Like Animal Man, Green Arrow was just not a hero I ever followed. I liked Frank Miller’s bitter, disillusioned socialist version in The Dark Knight Returns, but other than that, he didn’t really appeal to me. I’m not sure if that’s changed with the new book, but they seem to be taking a different tack – one more inspired by the Smallville Oliver Queen. He is sort of the anti-Batman, now: rich, dressing up to fight crime, but with a larger support team and less brooding. It bears watching.

Hawk & Dove #1

Well, Hawk and Dove were always heavy-handed heroes. That hasn’t changed. There’s not really anything subtle about the avatars of War and Peace, and not really anything subtle about the book. We get that Hank’s angry. Of course he’s angry. He’s Hawk. And Dawn10 is keeping a secret from him, something about his brother, and she’s anguished about it. I’m going to give it one more issue just because it had the line, “Nobody likes zombies anymore!” Maybe it’s just first-issue jitters. Or maybe it just doesn’t work for me.

Justice League International #1

I dunno. This is, like the JLI books of the 90s, a light superhero comic. It’s got a bevy of good comedy-fodder characters – Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Rocket Red, maybe Plastic Man – but it seems to be trying too hard. The story has potential, more because of the political aspect of being a supergroup assembled by and reporting to the UN than because of the awkward comedy so far.

Men of War #1

Really mixed feelings about this one, caused by the fact that there are two stories in the book. The first shows how Corporal Rock became Sergeant Rock, and it is pretty good. It gives some insight into the man beyond his sleeveless shirt and crossed bandoliers, and it places him and Easy Co. firmly in the DC universe, with the appearance of a superhuman11. I liked it.

The other story is an anvilicious tale of the Navy SEALs in a modern conflict. It reads like a re-purposed propaganda script, and it drove me nuts. I hated it.

But Sgt Rock. Sgt Rock. Okay, I’ll go another issue.

OMAC #1

I remember liking OMAC back when he was a back-up feature in (I think) Warlord. I realize that the idea went through some changes just prior to Final Crisis, because Brother Eye was zapping folks into OMACS left, right, and centre in that arc, but I never really figured out what the changes were. Now this book makes it look like DC is splitting the difference, with one OMAC, linked to Brother Eye, but with transformation and taking over the body and consciousness. I hope that they stick with one OMAC – hard to have a hero book with a random hero every issue12.

There’s plenty of Kirby-esque weirdness going on the book, which is good. The art captures the Kirby style without just aping it – the influence is very recognizable, but the artist’s own style shows through. All in all, I really liked the first issue.

Static Shock #1

Static has moved to NYC, giving the book even more of a Spiderman feel than the character had previously. This is not a bad thing – adolescent superheroes trying to sort out regular adolescence coupled with the complications of super powers is a pretty good mix for pulling stories out. Look how many great Spidey moments came from just the struggle of a teenager to prioritize things.

That said, I’m hoping the book stretches out beyond that bailiwick. If it stays there, it’s going to get more and more comparisons to Spiderman, and the storylines starting to be developed look to deserve better than that. I have hopes – the last page13 had a cliffhanger that really caught my attention.

It’s a good book, so far.

Stormwatch #1

I was leery of Stormwatch in the DC Universe. The types of stories told in the various Stormwatch series, including The Authority, are both bigger and grimmer than we usually see in the more mainstream comics. And the inclusion of Martian Manhunter on the Stormwatch team really made me nervous. After reading the first issue, I’m still nervous. There’s some less-than-elegant exposition dropped on you14, and MM’s reason for joining Stormwatch is a little too trite for my taste, but the basic story told in the book is as big and grim and awesome as I could have hoped. I’ll give them a couple of issues to decide if the mix is chocolate and peanut butter or cheerios and spam15.

Swamp Thing #1

I like Swamp Thing, whether he’s Alec Holland or just the memory of Alec Holland in a plant elemental. He is, after all, the source of my all-time favourite comic character, John Constantine16, and the big green thing that saved us all at a certain seance in Washington DC by arm-wrestling the hand of destruction17. But I hadn’t followed it the past little while, so I was kind of taken aback by this book. Alec Holland alive and human and working construction was not a sight I was ready for. Is that something that happened in the main continuity, or is it something new?

Anyway, there are some neat things happening here that may (or may not) be linked to what’s going on in Animal Man, and a return of a great foe from the old Alan Moore days of Swamp Thing. It looks promising.

Digital Sales

One of the other things DC did with this relaunch was go to day-and-date electronic sales for their comics. I love this, because I love reading comics, but I have waaaaaay too many of them in my home. So, now I can buy the book electronically on the same day as the print version becomes available, and store them on my computer, read them on my iPad, take them with me on my iPhone, the whole thing. My only complaint about the setup is that I can’t subscribe to the digital comics, getting them automatically downloaded to my devices when they become available. That’s not a big complaint, but it is a complaint.

In fact, looking through the Comixology site while I was getting ready for the launch of the New 52, I wound up buying a number of other comics. These were mainly old series that I had read long ago, but wanted in a convenient, portable form. No hunting for back issues; they were all there to be downloaded. I spent more than I had intended on rounding out my collection in light of the long plane trip coming up for me.

So, yeah, as far as I’m concerned, every comic company should go to the day-and-date electronic sales format. But that’s just me.

So?

There’s plenty of complaining on the web about this new launch. I think there’s something kind of disingenuous about accusing a company of making a cash-grab – companies exist to make money, and that means getting us to give it to them. It’s not a cash-grab, it’s business. And there’s been some complaints about the new costumes, which doesn’t bother me – if there’s one thing we know about comic books, it’s that each artist puts his or her own stamp on a character and costume, and both things change and evolve as the book goes on. And there’s been some public squabbling about gender and race employment and portrayal, and I’m just gonna steer right clear of discussing that.

Me, I come down pretty positively on the whole thing. If this is a cash-grab, DC has successfully grabbed my cash, and I have no regrets about that. I think the fresh start presents the opportunity for a lot of interesting new stories, and I want to see them. I’m hoping that DC will continue to take big risks with the books and stories, doing audacious, challenging stories that will equal some of the things they did in Flashpoint. I think I’ll be a little disappointed in that, but I’m willing to give them the chance to prove me wrong.

I’m more excited about buying and reading comics than I have been in a long time. That’s really all it comes down to.

  1. I don’t dislike Marvel. I think Ultimate Spiderman is one of the best series ever, and Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spiderman are examples of great storytelling in any medium. But first and foremost, I like DC. Something about Batman, Superman, hell, even the Legion of Superheroes, just grabs me. I have a theory that your preference probably relates to what you started reading first. []
  2. “Keep your hands off my stuff! Don’t go changing things I like!” You know what I mean. []
  3. You know, I kinda hate those, especially when they happen so frequently. And especially especially when they put a gun in Batman’s hand and then kill him like a punk. Thank you, Final Crisis. []
  4. As those who know me will tell you, it wasn’t really a choice. []
  5. Well, not quite reset, but set-back-to-more-traditional-status-quo button, anyway. []
  6. That’s Deathstroke the Terminator and the Warlord, for those who don’t know. []
  7. Really, I have no idea why Shade the Changing Man keeps coming back. None. []
  8. I’ve never really cared for the Flash much. I don’t dislike him, not like I do Shade (see above), but he just never did much for me. []
  9. Maybe even require. []
  10. Who seems to be Deadman’s girlfriend. How does that work, exactly? Is that left over from one of the infinite crises that have plagued the DCU? []
  11. Which does not go all that well. []
  12. Though Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency did it with great aplomb, making a great series. But even it was a limited run. []
  13. Actually, this bears mentioning: pretty much all of the new books end with a page that has caused me to go, “No way!” Detective Comics was the most pronounced (and horrific), but the gang at DC are working really hard to hook you into issue #2 of all the books. And good for them! []
  14. I’m looking at you, Projectionist! []
  15. If you have tried cheerios and spam and like it, I don’t want to hear about it. It’s just a bit of rhetorical metaphor. Leave it be. []
  16. And if you think I’m not terribly afraid about what DC is gonna do to my John Constantine, you really need to buy a clue. []
  17. Hey, DC! You know what you need to round out your new books? Night Force! []

Cthulhu Purist How-To

Graham Walmsley launched a preorder for his book Stealing Cthulhu over on Indiegogo, which is the UK version of Kickstarter. I got in on it, and just finished reading the .pdf version of the book.

I like it a lot.

It’s Graham’s1 guide to creating Lovecraftian scenarios for roleplaying games. Now, I bought it to use with Trail of Cthulhu, specifically my Armitage Files campaign, but it’s stat-free, and easily applicable to any gaming system where you want to run the types of adventures it describes. The advice is about how to build the right kind of scenario, and how to tell stories that reflect the ideas within the more purist H.P. Lovecraft stories.

This is important to understand. Stealing Cthulhu focuses on what Trail of Cthulhu calls the Purist mode of gaming. Things are bleak, horrific, deadly, and maddening, and you count it as a win if you run away successfully from the monster at the end of the story. You can’t actually win in Purist mode. You can only survive2. The stories that inspire this book are things like The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness,  The Shadow Out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu.

Graham is a perfect person to talk about constructing this style of scenario. He’s written a quartet of Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, published by Pelgrane Press. I haven’t read them all3, but the ones I have read are solid, scary, and original. So, I’m going to trust his take on the subject matter.

But you do need to know what you’re getting into. This type of scenario is not going to suit all players; some people want more heroic escapism in their games. They want a chance to defeat the bad guy and triumph. If you’re looking for advice for that type of game, while there is some applicable advice in this book, you should probably look elsewhere. This is all about the joys of going mad while being shredded by something with too many mouths and dimensions.

Now, in addition to his advice, he also passed the book around to Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, three other folks with mad Cthulhu cred, and had them annotate it for him. So, you get Graham’s take on things, coupled with a very knowledgeable peanut gallery tossing in their opinions. It makes for a good read.

Now, in talking about a book like this, it’s hard to keep from just paraphrasing bits of advice from it, so I’m going to talk about it at a pretty high level. If you want more details, go buy the book4.

The main advice in the book is to steal from Lovecraft, but to then twist it to make it fresh again. Now, that doesn’t sound like something you need a whole book to say, but it’s the discussion behind that simple statement that make up the meat of the book. Graham talks about what it is useful to steal – creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, and descriptions – and how to twist them to make them seem new without sacrificing the Lovecraftian bleakness and horror of the original. To do that, he5 talks a great deal about what each of the things discussed mean: what they symbolize, what makes them horrific, and how to strip them for parts. It also talks about how to work in things that gamers like but that don’t often show up in Lovecraft’s Purist stories – things like gunfights, actual mysteries and investigation, magic use, and cultists.

This section leads off the book, right after the introduction, and makes up a little less than half the page count. It is filled with examples and references, and is a thoughtful discussion of how all the moving parts of a story fit together to produce the effect you’re looking for.  Graham points out not only what works, but some common pitfalls to avoid. The tone is somewhat scholarly, which is kind of fitting for a Cthulhu resource, and is offset by the more chatty tone of the annotations6.

The next section of the book cherry-picks some of the best elements of the mythos and shows how to ring them through the changes described in the first part of the book. It’s not exhaustive7 – there are only fifteen entries – but it illustrates the ideas in the book wonderfully. More than that, you wind up with the skeletons for two or three different scenarios for each entry, ready for you to flesh out and add the stats from your favourite system.

Graham finishes off the book with three appendices: Miscellany, where he lists the notes that don’t fit anywhere else in the book; Bibliography, which again is not exhaustive but very focused; and Cthulhu Dark, his rules-light system for running Lovecraftian roleplaying games.

Final assessment? The book is very focused on producing one type of play experience. That’s not to say that it’s not useful if you don’t want to create the kind of adventure where your investigators die horribly in the ancient catacomb of a bizarre church, but that you will find less useful stuff if you’re trying to do something more heroic. I don’t think this is a bad thing, any more than I think a hammer is a bad tool because it doesn’t tighten screws well. The book sets out to do a very specific thing, and succeeds in doing it very well. But with so many games trying to encompass a multitude of play styles, it’s important to know that Stealing Cthulhu doesn’t follow that path. Buying it with the wrong expectations will lead to disappointment.

I do have one little niggle. I’m hoping the .pdf version I’ve got is going to get another editing pass before it heads to print. There are a couple of typos, and some missing or inaccurate footnote references in it that I’d like to see cleaned up. In general, though, the text is pretty clean.

***Edit***

I have just had a brief exchange with Graham Walmsley. He informs me that there are hidden things in the book, and the typos I have noticed may be part of that. So, it looks like my little niggle, cited above, may just be me not getting the hidden stuff. I shall have to reread with an eye to that.

Thanks, Graham!

If you like the stark, eerie horror of Purist Lovecraftian games, this is the book for you. The advice is useful, and the scenario skeletons littered throughout the text are a gold mine of ideas, assuming you don’t just lift them outright and hang some stats on them. If you want to run a Purist Lovecraft game, in any system, this book will fill you with joy and your players with dread.

Which is how it should be.

 

  1. Is it all right if I call you Graham? Thanks. []
  2. And often not even that. []
  3. Because a friend of mine is going to run a couple of them, so I’m being a good player and keeping my nose out of them. []
  4. If the ideas I’ve outlined above sound at all interesting, you really should just go buy the book. []
  5. And his annotators, as well. []
  6. And kudos to Graham for keeping in the stroppy, argumentative ones. I enjoyed the contrasting ideas presented, and think it ultimately reinforced your theses. []
  7. I was sad to see Ghoul left off the list, though the reason for that is explained in the Afterword, and I accept it. []