Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Salireta: City of Heroes

[Written for, but never submitted to, Kenzer & Co. for the Kingdoms of Kalamar -- and before the City of Heroes video game]
SALIRETA: CITY OF HEROES

A Sourcebook for the Kingdom of Kalamar

by Scott Casper

Welcome to Salireta! One hundred and fifty miles upstream of the capital, Bet Kalamar, Salireta is a small but important port city along the Badato River. It has a rich history, almost as old as the kingdom itself. The appellation, City of Heroes, dates back only 200 hundred years, when the first of several Kalamaran heroes called Salireta home. Today, it is a thriving city, built on river travel commerce, logging, and agriculture.

Bet Kalamar and Salireta

To understand Salireta, one must look at its relationship to its considerably larger neighbor. Bet Kalamar eclipses all other cities in the Kingdom of Kalamar, if not the known world. Bet Kalamar is the largest of cities -- grand in its excesses. Not counting lands handled by lieges, the king directly controls a roughly 300-mile radius of land around the sprawled metropolis, because Bet Kalamar and its suburbs need that much farmland to support them. There are cities the size of Salireta and larger within five miles of the capital, few of which delude themselves into thinking they have any autonomy. Smaller towns fan out from the capital in a fifteen mile radius. Everywhere else there are much smaller farming villages and thorps. Between all of these locations is a vast network, a web, of commerce that connects them. Salireta is very much a part of that web, yet it still retains much character from its frontier days when this was not yet so.

History & Background

Salireta in 30 IR

It was only 29 years since King Ali Inakas established the Kingdom of Kalamar, and nine years since Rulakan and Fulakar seized the throne. To the northeast of Bet Kalamar, the Paliba Woods remained unexplored, and considered beyond the frontier of Kalamar's immediate holdings. The carpenters of Bet Kalamar must have salivated, thinking of all that unused timber, but instead they fought over scraps from lesser, closer copses that have since all been decimated. In fact, Rulakan did indeed have plans for a great logging enterprise situated where the Badato River met the Paliba Woods -- the modern site of Salireta. But he was swayed by advisors who warned that the Paliba was reportedly full of goblins, and would have been too costly to clear out.

The reports of goblins in the woods, as it turned out, were greatly exaggerated. Oh, there were goblins there all right, but they were not great in number, and they had no wish to draw the ire of the First Legion stationed in the capitol. Aside from their wastes found floating down the Badato, and the occassional raid on a village, the goblin threat existed only in rumor and fairy tale.

Now, at this time there was already a small thorp of farmers and herders living in present-day Salireta. It is thought that there might have been only four large families of initial settlers, which made them brave people indeed. Yet for their bravery they were rewarded with ample wood for building, water for drinking, and land for farming and grazing. Life must have been difficult, for it was a ten mile hike to a village downstream that had a mill. This tiny community had attracted a blacksmith before attracting its own miller.

Almost nothing is known of The Smith, except that he was responsible for organizing the first militia in the area in response to a goblin raid. The Smith's name remains unknown, and there are no written records of his existence, which has lent an appealing air of mystery to the countless retellings of the goblin attack. A mythology of sorts has arisen around The Smith, and the more glib-tongued bards present him as Salireta's first hero -- almost single-handedly fighting a horde of goblins. It is unlikely, of course, yet goblins are the first boogey-men most children here learn to fear, and The Smith is the fairy tale hero who drives them off in each night's bedtime story.

Moving back into the province of facts, it was in the spring of 30 IR that The Smith's thorp is mentioned in any documentation. Prince Fulakar himself was leading the First Legion north along the Badato River, to engage in some violence far afield. By some chance, they continued past the Wooded Road (it might have been washed out, which has always been a problem) and Fulakar first eyed the site of Salireta. He remarked it was a promising location and went to investigate. The settlers, he learned, were illegally free serfs, yet he uncharacteristically spared them from execution. Instead he ordered that enough men be left behind to construct a watchtower on the spot. It was a long overdue precaution against goblin attacks from the Paliba Woods, and the tower's garrison would need food. The settlers would provide it -- in addition to other heavy taxes -- to make them pay for their arrogance in wishing to be free. Whether or not The Smith actually spoke to the prince and convinced him to be so lenient is questionable, but it is usually a glib-tongued bard who raises such questions.

The Legionnaires, disgruntled at having to miss out on the spoils of war, were vindictive towards the settlers. Much of the labor of constructing the watchtower was done by local hands -- after a full day of their regular chores. It would take until the following summer for the watchtower to be completed. It remained for 42 years -- longer than The Smith ever did.

Salireta in 100 IR

The thorp struggled hard over 70 years to grow into a village. It had its biggest setback nearly three decades ago (72 IR) when orcs and hobgoblins marched over the P'Sapas Hills and charged down into Kalamar. The watchtower was razed, and most of the people were killed or taken for slaves. That might have been the end of the village, had it not been for Baron Balamir Aroposi. Baron Aroposi was overseeing the defense of the region, and was determined to keep the humanoid invaders from getting any closer to the capitol. He was also an ambitious man with eyes on the throne in Bet Kalamar, which had been disputed since the death of King Kolokar in 89 IR.

To secure the Badato River, the baron dubbed one of his knights Baronet Pilamel Salireti and dispatched him to construct a new keep where the village had been. There were low expectations for the young baronet, but this suited the baron who feared granting power to competent vassals who might turn against him.

In the previous decades, Salireta had been a frequent stopping point for the Badatarans. These nomadic anglers had been moving up and down the Badato for years without making any permanent homes, choosing instead to follow the spawning habits of the trout that populated the river. When Pilamel neared the ruins of the village, he found the Fishermen waiting for him with a proposition. The village needed new people, and the Fishermen wanted to settle down.

New Monster: Berlodaemon

[From the aborted project with Rob Kuntz, The Waystation of Water.]
BERLODAEMON
FREQUENCY: Uncommon
NO. APPEARING: 4-24
ARMOR CLASS: 6
MOVE: 6"
HIT DICE: 2+2
% IN LAIR: 10%
TREASURE TYPE: O
NO. OF ATTACKS: 2
DAMAGE/ATTACKS: 1-3/1-4
SPECIAL ATTACKS: See below
SPECIAL DEFENSES: See below
MAGIC RESISTANCE: 15% to 1st level spells
INTELLIGENCE: Semi- to low
ALIGNMENT: Neutral Evil
SIZE: S-M (4-5' long)
PSIONIC ABILITY: Nil
Attack/Defense Modes: Nil/Nil
LEVEL/X.P. VALUE: IV/120 + 3/hp

The berlodaemon appears as a giant lamprey that pulls itself forward on two strong but stubby legs, dragging its body behind it. A third limb, like a deformed arm ending in claws, grows out of the top of its head. It is amphibious -- more like a frog physiologically -- and inhabits the stagnant mires and stinking cesspools of Hades. They are the bottom of the food chain amongst daemonkind, normally feeding only on what wayward souls fall their way. As such, they are seldom summoned to the Prime Material Plane on purpose.

The arm of a berlodaemon is capable of grasping and using simple tools, but is more often used for clawing at its prey. Much worse than its claw attack is its bite, for the berlodaemon's mouth functions much like a real lamprey's mouth. Once attached, the daemon can suck blood almost indefinitely (its lower body can swell up like a balloon). Blood loss amounts to an automatic 1-4 points of damage per round, and it cannot be dislodged unless it takes at least half its full hit points in damage.

The lowly berlodaemon enjoys few of the special abilities common to most higher daemons. Of the spell-like abilities, they only retain detect invisibility at will. They have 60' infravision and 90' ultravision. They still take only half-damage from acid, cold, and fire, and are immune to poison and paralysis. They can be harmed by normal weapons, though nomagical weapons that are not iron or silver do -2 points of damage.

As an amphibious creature, the berlodaemon can breathe both air and water, and can swim in water as fast as it can crawl on land.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Favorite Marvel Comics Character by Month in the Silver Age

I had the idea for this mini-project while browsing The Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index (http://www.samcci.comics.org/) for the umpteenth time.

Jan. 1961-Oct. 1961 No superheroes yet!
Nov. 1961-July 1962 Thing (Fantastic Four #1-5)
The Fantastic Four had no in-house competition for superheroes at first during this formative first year, but no one could match the Thing for unprecedented pathos in a superhero character.
Aug. 1962 Spider-Man (Amazing Adult Fantasy #15)
Until Spider-Man, that is – the ultimate teenage geek wish-fulfillment fantasy. The first story is one of the best origin stories ever.
Sept. 1962-Feb. 1963 Thing (Fantastic Four #6-11)
The jury was still out at this point as to what would happen with Spider-Man. Luckily…
Mar. 1963 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #1)
The saddest thing is that Marvel was STILL hesitant about Spider-Man, and only launched his new title bi-monthly. So we get this flip-flop between Spider-Man and the Thing for awhile.
Apr. 1963 Thing (Fantastic Four #13)
May 1963 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #2)
June 1963 Thing (Fantastic Four #15)
July 1963 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #3)
Aug. 1963 Thing (Fantastic Four #17)
Sept. 1963-June 1964 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #4-13)
July 1964-Sept. 1964 Thor (Avengers #6-8)
But what’s this? The Avengers was just starting to live up to its potential of being the best superhero group of them all, thanks mainly to its powerhouse Thor, who always stole the show.
Oct. 1964-Jan. 1965 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #17-20)
Steve Ditko showed he really shines on these multi-issue storylines, so much so that he just seemed to be phoning in the single issue stories here.
Feb. 1964 Captain America (Tales of Suspense #62)
Meanwhile, Jack Kirby was doing great things with Capt. America , making him better than he ever was in the ‘40s.
Mar. 1964 Thor (Journey into Mystery #114)
Oh, and Jack Kirby was transforming Thor from a superhero comic book into a modern Wagnerian opera.
Apr. 1964-Feb. 1966 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #23-33)
The last, great Ditko issues.
Mar. 1966-Apr. 1967 Thing (Fantastic Four #48-61)
Just in time for Kirby to rebound on the FF and turn this into his truly innovative work.
May 1967 Goliath (Avengers #40)
But I can’t help it, I still really like the Avengers, even though Roy Thomas was comfortable with keeping it a 2nd-tier team. And Goliath was Henry Pym at his best for the next 15 years.
June 1967 Thor (Mighty Thor #141)
The FF was taking a breather from greatness, allowing other stars to shine again.
July 1967 Hulk (Tales to Astonish #93)
Aug. 1967 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #65)
By now, the Thing’s pathos was wearing thin, and the cosmic storylines made Reed’s brain more important than superpowers.
Sept. 1967 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #52)
Oct. 1967 Thor (Mighty Thor #145)
Nov. 1967 Goliath (Avengers #46)
Dec. 1967-Feb. 1968 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #69-71)
Mar. 1968 Hulk (Tales to Astonish #101)
Apr. 1968-May 1968 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #59)
And in some months, none of the titles were so great anymore. John Romita’s Spider-Man was certainly a let down from Ditko’s greatness.
June 1968-July 1968 Captain America (Captain America #102-103)
Aug. 1968 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #1)
Wow, what a comic book this started out as! Why didn’t more readers get it at the time? Thank goodness it was bi-monthly, though, or no one else would have had a month to shine.
Sept. 1968 Captain America (Captain America #105)
Oct. 1968 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #2)
Nov. 1968 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #66)
Dec. 1968 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #3)
Jan. 1969 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #82)
Feb. 1969 Dr. Strange (Avengers #61)
Best all-issue ad for Dr. Strange’s comic book he ever got! Even, in my estimation, beats out Silver Surfer this month.
Mar. 1969 Capt. America (Captain America #111)
A sample of how good Steranko could be.
Apr. 1969 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #85)
May 1969 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #86)
June 1969 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #6)
July 1969 Capt. America (Captain America #115)
Aug. 1969 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #7)
Sept. 1969 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #8)
Oct. 1969 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #9)
Nov. 1969 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #10)
Dec. 1969 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #11)
Jan. 1970 Capt. America (Captain America #121)
More uneven goodness from Cap.
Feb. 1970 Black Panther (Avengers #73)
Roy Thomas seemed to understand that the Panther worked best as a solo hero.
Mar. 1970 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #14)
I first read this, years later, retold for Spidey Super Stories!
Apr. 1970 Scarlet Witch (Avengers #75)
May 1970 Scarlet Witch (Avengers #76)
What a classic this two-part story was.
June 1970 Human Torch (Fantastic Four #99)
Because his relation to Crystal always made a good excuse to show off the Inhumans again.
July 1970 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #100)
Only Reed could guess exactly which robot-using villains made all those robots.
Aug. 1970 Mr. Fantastic (Fantastic Four #101)
A reprint of this issue was my first FF acquisition!
Sept. 1970 Silver Surfer (Silver Surfer #18)
Back as a hiccup, better than it had been before, and then gone again as it was getting good.
Oct. 1970 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #89)
Fighting one of his greatest enemies, naturally.
Nov. 1970 Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #90)
Dec. 1970 n/a
Nothing good this month, signaling the end of the Silver Age.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Origin of Captain Marvel Annotated - p. 3

Billy suddenly finds himself back where he started, as if he had just woke up from a dream while he was standing there. The clock tower now says five minutes to one, so the whole story so far has taken place in one hour. Then the scene cuts to the next morning. Most retellings will later cut straight to the next morning and have Billy actually waking up after the events in the cave with Shazam. The death of Shazam always ends with Billy turning back into himself, even though he does not say “Shazam” to change back as he normally has to do. Power of Shazam explains this by having Shazam be the conduit through which the powers of the gods are passed down to Capt. Marvel, whereas in the original version Shazam passes the power of the gods directly to Capt. Marvel before his death. Perhaps the death of Shazam unleashes so much magical energy that it disrupts Capt. Marvel temporarily. Billy was either teleported back to the subway entrance, or perhaps was unconscious and returned there by the “phantom companion.”

The clock tower shows it is almost 8 am the next morning.

Billy’s newspaper is called the Morning Herald. Both New York City and Chicago had newspapers called the Morning Herald in the 19th century, though they were both defunct well before 1940 in our world.

The headline says “Maniac Scientist Threatens U.S. Radio System: Demands $50,000,000.” This was more money than the national debt in 1940, which stood at less than 43 billion dollars. While still an outrageous demand, radio was crucial to communications in the U.S. back then, far more so than it is today. The article goes on to call the maniac scientist “phantom scientist” and “mad wizard,” as if directly alluding to Billy’s phantom companion and the wizard Shazam. The deadline of “midnight tonite” gives the rest of the story a sense of urgency, due to end in 16 hours, 24 hours after the story began. That the article was written in haste for the morning extra is evident by the misspelling of tonight as “tonite.” The article is also the first mention of Sterling Morris, who Billy soon meets in the story. The name “Sterling Morris” seems invented from whole cloth and is not suggestive of any other names important to the radio industry I have found, although “sterling” refers to silver, providing connotation for Morris being rich.

American radio was threatened by something more mundane in 1940 – the threat of monopoly, held jointly by RCA and NBC. The FCC was the real-life “hero”, forcing NBC to sell off some of its stations.

P. 7: “Skytower Apartments” is a generic enough name that it does not narrow down where Billy lives except to cities with skyscrapers. Interestingly, when searching Google for both “Morning Herald” and “Skytower Apartments” today, the top hits for both refer to Australia.

It is convenient to the plot that Billy goes straight to Sterling Morris, president of the Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation instead of the police. The Wisdom of Solomon would tell Capt. Marvel that he is withholding vital information from a police investigation, but Billy may distrust conventional authority figures who all failed to save his parents or protect him from his uncle.

Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation may have been named for Amalgamated Broadcasting System, a short-lived radio network that was on the air for less than two months in 1933. Little could Capt. Marvel’s creators know that the NBC affiliates sold off in 1940 would grow into the American Broadcasting Corporation – ABC – four years later.

Though Hammond strikes a blow for equality in the workplace by defying traditional gender roles, the male receptionist does not prove to be a recurring character.

This is the last page of the Captain Thunder ashcan, except for the artwork from the last page of this issue (with different dialog). There is a strong shift in the story at this point, from the deeply meaningful, mystical origin story, to an adventure tale that seems to be a cross between a Superman story and an action-oriented movie serial.

P. 8: When Billy shares what he knows with Sterling Morris, Morris mocks him and asks why he did not say the “Phantom” was in “City Hall” or “the Capitol at Washington.” Perhaps Morris is voicing his frustrations with the FCC’s recent actions, as outlined above.

Morris is wearing pince-nez glasses, as popularized by President Teddy Roosevelt (though there is little other physical resemblance to suggest Morris is meant to look like Roosevelt).

After securing a promise from Morris to give him a job if he finds the “madman’s” laboratory, Billy is next seen much later that night, still mulling over how to get into that apartment building. As the next page makes clear, it is almost midnight again – meaning Billy has wasted as much as 15 hours on the first step. It would have been no difficulty at all for Capt. Marvel. He has either forgotten about his dream-like visit to Shazam or simply remained skeptical of it, as he has not have even tried saying the magic word all this time.

P. 9: After finally trying out his magic word, Capt. Marvel jumps from the roof of a nearby skyscraper to the penthouse apartment of the Skytower Apartment building. Capt. Marvel has either chosen not to fly or, at this time, cannot fly.

Few superheroes in 1940 could fly, and the standard for them all, Superman, would not be flying for another few years. It is a shame that Capt. Marvel, with such varied sources of power, would display no more abilities than any Superman-clone in the comic book market displayed. If we assume that Billy’s world was the same as ours, except that what happened in Fawcett comics was real, then Superman would also be a comic book character, and one Billy would undoubtedly be familiar with. Superman was enormously popular in 1940, thanks to his appearances in comic books, newspaper comic strips, and radio. If Capt. Marvel was limited to only what abilities Billy could conceive, Superman likely would have been his model.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Origin of Captain Marvel Annotated - p. 2

It is curious that Achilles here represents courage, when Achilles is normally associated with invulnerability.

The title of Shazam’s book is visible in two panels, but sadly illegible. The characters are likely not from the English alphabet.

If Shazam has been active for 3,000 years, then he predates the Roman names of at least two of the gods who gave him their powers. Since being published by DC comics, Shazam has been depicted as even older and said to derive his powers from different deities than Capt. Marvel, though this is clearly not the case in the original origin. Shazam could hail from the early period of Greece, which seems appropriate given his patron gods, though it is difficult to identify his heritage except that his skin is fair and centuries spent underground could have changed that from any shade. Shazam has been amazingly good at remaining anonymous while fighting evil over three millennia, though he has likely used aliases. Odysseus, Jason, and Beowulf all fit within Shazam’s timeline.

The word “historama” delivers about 53,400 hits in Google today, though it cannot be found in the Oxford English dictionary. It may have been coined here. It would be nice if the historama was the globe, with images superimposed over it, but instead the historama appears to be a flat image projected on the wall, like a movie, only from no visible projector. Again, the fantastic elements are limited to what concepts Billy is able to comprehend at his age, or perhaps by Billy’s level of comprehension.

The historama is a “super-television screen.” The first working television was invented in the 1920s. More advanced, the historama is clap-activated, anticipating the Clapper light switch by about 40 years.

Billy’s “wicked uncle” is not named here and is last seen here for possibly almost eight years, his next known appearance being in Captain Marvel Adventures #88 (Sept. 1948). There are physical similarities between Ebenezer Batson (as he is later named) and Capt. Marvel’s arch-foe, Sivana, and most of their differences are simply distorted characteristics of Ebenezer (Sivana is more bald, has thicker glasses, is more wrinkly, etc.). The concept of a child’s parental figure playing the role of villain in his fantasies can be traced back to Peter Pan, where many stage productions have the father and Captain Hook played by the same actor.

Roy Thomas understood the connection between Ebenezer and Sivana, but simplified it by combining them into one character for Shazam!: the New Beginning.

No explanation is given for how Billy’s parents died. It may have been a recent event for Billy, as he does not appear noticeably younger in the historama as his uncle is kicking him out of his home. That Billy’s father had an intact fortune in money and bonds to pass onto Billy at the height of the Great Depression shows that Billy would have been extremely lucky. Of course, having a fortune willed to you during the Great Depression would have a very common wish. There is accumulating evidence to suggest that Capt. Marvel is not just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but is specifically part of Billy’s wish-fulfillment fantasy.

In Power of Shazam, Billy's parents are archaeologists and killed by Black Adam (who would not debut in the original continuity for another five years).

P. 5: Shazam says he has spent his life fighting “injustice and cruelty.” Injustice is one of the Seven Enemies of Man. Since cruelty is not one, Shazam may just be speaking in general terms here, or perhaps Injustice was his principal opponent and cruelty is his blanket term for the other six.

By making Billy his successor, Shazam becomes a father figure for Billy.

Billy gains the powers of Shazam by speaking his name. The concepts of magic words and true names having magical power are deeply rooted in folklore.

Billy is transformed into an adult by speaking his magic word. In Power of Shazam, Billy’s father is shown to look identical to Captain Marvel and in Kingdom Come, Billy is shown to look identical to Captain Marvel when he reaches adulthood (through mundane aging instead of magical means). It is a common wish for children to wish to be adults, thinking adults have easier lives.

Although Fred MacMurray is often cited as the inspiration for Capt. Marvel's appearance, the earliest appearance of Capt. Marvel scarcely resembles him at all.

From Wikipedia: Captain Marvel wore a bright red costume, inspired by both military uniforms and ancient Egyptian and Persian costumes as depicted in popular operas, with gold trim and a lightning bolt insignia on the chest. The body suit originally included a buttoned lapel, but was changed to a one-piece skintight suit within a year at the insistence of the editors (the current DC costume of the character has the lapel restored to it). The costume also included a white-collared cape trimmed with gold flower symbols, usually asymmetrically thrown over the left shoulder and held around his neck by a gold cord. The cape came from the ceremonial cape worn by the British nobility, photographs of which appeared in newspapers in the 1930s.

It is also worth noting that the armbands on Capt. Marvel's costume look like bracers, or armor that goes over the forearms, furthering the militant look of the uniform. I think the “flower symbols” look like daggers, but that’s just me. Michael Norwitz says E. Nelson Bridwell had identified the "flower symbols" as moly. Allium Moly does have splayed yellow leaves, somewhat similar to the design on the cape. Moly, of course, also sounds like the "moley" in Billy and Capt. Marvel's favorite catchphrase, "Holy moley!"

Captain Marvel is first named by the narrator, but first hears his name from Shazam. In the ashcan version of Capt. Marvel’s origin, he was to be named Captain Thunder, but the name was dropped over copyright concerns.

Shazam charges him with “sacred” duties, which might be a pun or meant to be taken literally given that gods are the source of most of his powers. “To defend the poor and helpless” and “right wrongs” are democratic ideals, with the former a liberal democratic ideal. Crushing evil, on the other hand, is much more heavy-handed and suggests that the war against the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man is an active one (hence inspiring Shazam to give Capt. Marvel a military-themed uniform?).

That Capt. Marvel calls Shazam “sire” can mean that he recognizes Shazam as his master (Jeff Smith would have Capt. Marvel call him “master”) or can mean that he recognizes Shazam as a father figure (Shazam, in a magical sense, sired him just now).

Shazam has discharged his duty to pass on his legacy to Billy just before being killed, making him the second father figure Billy has lost. Shazam will return, though, as a spirit to guide Capt. Marvel. In Power of Shazam, Shazam does not die and goes back with Billy to Fawcett City.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Origin of Captain Marvel Annotated - p. 1

The Shazam Archives Vol. 1 Annotated
Whiz Comics no. 2 (Feb. 1940)

Pg. 1: Billy’s hometown is not identified, but the general consensus of the Marvels of Shazam Yahoo!group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marvels_of_shazam/) is that his base of operations is specifically said to be, or at least strongly hinted at being, New York City later in the original series. Of course, many superheroes would come to inhabit fictional cities. Later, when DC took over publishing Capt. Marvel, Billy was said to live in Fawcett City, named for the original publisher. Capt. Marvel fan Walt Grogan writes: "E. Nelson Bridwell confirmed it was New York City in an issue of Shazam! but there were enough hints in Whiz Comics and Captain Marvel Adventures to suggest it was New York. The biggest hint was that New York was probably the only big city that Captain Marvel didn't visit in his city-visiting stories -- most likely because it was his base. There was also a story that said Amalgamated Broadcasting was in fact based in New York and that's where Sterling Morris had his office. So all signs point to New York as Cap's hometown."

The fact that it is raining is suggestive of it being spring, though this issue was on sale in January. Of course, rain in January is not uncommon in some parts of the country, particularly California. In the 1987 relaunch of Shazam: the New Beginning, Roy Thomas located Billy in San Francisco.

The time on the clock tower is five minutes to midnight. Midnight, also known as the "witching hour," has strong supernatural connotations.

Though it appears that Billy is answering the stranger honestly about sleeping in the subway station, it is not clear whether Billy is choosing to be honest or is compelled to answer. After his initial question, the stranger only talks in commands to Billy, with his first command appearing in bold, colored letters – a technique used no where else in the first issue. In no later interpretation of the character does Billy live in a subway station. It would be extremely difficult for Billy to escape the notice of the authorities in such a public place, and it is important to Billy’s origin that he have no parental figures, not even as a ward of the state. Billy has been forced by his own circumstances to grow up, just as speaking the magic word “Shazam” will force him to literally grow up. This parallelism, the same theme seen through the lens of the mundane and then the magical, is at least as old as Peter Pan, and can be interpreted as how a child interprets the mundane world around them through their own magical lens. This thematic parallelism will occur again.

Pg. 2: The stranger is referred to as Billy’s “phantom companion,” further reinforcing the impression that the stranger is supernatural in origin.

The headlights and grill of the subway car are suggestive of a face, with the headlights even compared to a dragon’s eyes. That the car has no driver may be further evidence that the train is alive. One year later, Disney released the movie Dumbo, featuring an even more anthropomorphic train. The weird symbols on the outside of the train my show that the train is non-sentient, but magically animated. A tilde-like wave shape is repeated outside and inside the train, and a sun symbol is visible inside the train. These could represent water and fire, though without obvious symbols for air or earth, an alchemical connection seems less likely. One of the symbols on the outside of the train is the Star of David, an important symbol in Judaism. It is surely no coincidence that so many comic book creators circa 1940 were Jewish.

Always absent from later retellings are the two alien figures standing before the subway car after it stopped. It is possible that the lizard-like humanoids, noticed by neither the characters nor the narrator, are not real, but are artworks on the cavern wall, like the symbols on the subway car. It is odd, though, that these creatures are rendered no less realistically, and no less 2-D, than Billy and his companion in the same panel. These creatures may have been controlling the car, or simply passing by. There is the possibility here that this underground lair is shared by multiple intelligent species. This also presages the appearance of aliens later in the series, though later monsters will tend to be rendered more cartoon-y and less sinister-looking.

The subterranean lair is not here identified as the Rock of Eternity, but it probably is.

P. 3: It is interesting that the statues are “the seven deadly enemies of man” instead of “the seven deadly sins.” Only three of the seven are the same in both versions – Pride, Envy, and Greed – with Hatred, Laziness, Selfishness, and Injustice replacing Anger, Sloth, Lust, and Gluttony. Aesthetically, the longer title fits better over the entire row of statues. Or it could have been a conscious effort by the comic book’s creators to separate them from their religious connotations. Other elements of religion will soon appear without their religious context. It could also be that young Billy can only identify the enemies using terms he understands. This would make sense if much of this is actually going on inside Billy’s head, a journey of self-discovery where Billy reviews what he knows so far of human nature, translated literally on the page. Jeff Smith has commented before his revision of the origin on how he liked the Tiki-like quality of the statues. If this is true, there may be a Central Eastern Polynesian connection to the statues, and/or the enemies.

It is later revealed that the seven enemies of man are contained within the statues. In Jeff Smith's retcon, the statues open their eyes as indicators of how active the enemies are on Earth.

This is the last we see of Billy's phantom companion for about 50 years. When Jerry Ordway rewrote Capt. Marvel's origin, his big revelation was that the phantom is the spirit of Billy's dad. When Jeff Smith rewrote the origin, he turned this on its head by having Billy recognize the phantom as his dad right away. Michael Norwitz recalls an interview where C.C. Beck, or someone else from the original series, identified the phantom companion as Mercury, messenger of the gods.

Literary precedents for old, bearded wizards abound, with Shazam fitting the mold of Merlin and Gandalf. Merlin was imprisoned underground and Gandalf was imprisoned on a rooftop, while Shazam seems incapable of leaving his spot, even with the threat of death literally hanging over him. The stone block hanging by a thread has an obvious mythological precedent in the Sword of Damocles, the legend of a sword hanging over a ruler’s head by a hair and representing the perils of leadership. The books and scrolls around Shazam represent his knowledge, and the fact that the book must be close to four feet tall shows he is very knowledgeable (indeed, he even claims omniscience). It is telling that the globe is positioned to show the Americas. With so much unrest in Europe and Asia circa 1940, it is curious that Shazam looked to North America for his champion, yet he must have sensed or known the pivotal role the United States would soon play in world events (and certainly lends credence to his claim of knowing everything).

Lightning and thunder accompany Shazam speaking his name, foreshadowing the visual effects of Billy’s transformation to Captain Marvel. The flames on the brazier suggest the appearance of wind too, though this is never an effect associated with Billy’s transformation. Shazam does not change when he says his own name.

Pg. 4: Much has been written about the six beings that spell out the acronym SHAZAM. From these six sponsors, Billy will gain the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Of them, Solomon is Hebrew, Hercules is Roman (called Heracles in Green myth), Atlas, Zeus, and Achilles are Greek (though Atlas is called the same in Roman mythology too), and Mercury is Roman. It is frequently pointed out that Solomon hails from religion while the others are from mythology, but little is made of the geographic location, with all of them originating within just a 1,500-mile diameter along the Mediterranean. Close to the opposite side of the globe from the Mediterranean is the very Polynesian region of the Pacific that makes Tikis. So the sponsors of Capt. Marvel and the enemies of man are not just morally opposed, but geophysically opposite. Still, this polarity is likely symbolic and not meant to speak to cultural value.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More Misc. Avengers Graded

The following are the latest mildew casualties from my collection:

Avengers #62 (Mar. 1969, reprint). “The Monarch and the Man-Ape!” Grade: A. I don’t usually discuss the art as much as the writing, but it is clearly John Buscema who brings power and grandeur to Roy Thomas’ tale of a guy wearing an ape suit kicking the Black Panther’s butt.
Avengers #71 (Dec. 1969, reprint). “Endgame” Grade: B. So many epic-worthy ideas crammed into this issue, like a novelist’s notes, without ever being finished into something that works. Yellowjacket holding his own against Sub-Mariner? Black Knight knocking out Kang in one hit? Roy Thomas has a strange grasp of the relative power levels, or else he was just really swamped with editing work at the time and had to crank this out in a hurry.
Avengers #166 (Dec. 1977). “Day of the Godslayer” Grade: A. It may have been impossible to live up to the promise of part one as super-Count Nefaria mauled the Avengers like crazy. As fun as it is to see a villain able to duke it out one-on-one with Thor, the way the Vision beat him seemed like a cop-out to wrap up the story quickly. The art looks a little rushed too. Busy month for the inker?
Avengers #170 (Apr. 1978). “…Though H--- Should Bar the Way.” Grade: B+. Possibly the slowest lead-in to an Ultron two-parter ever. Jocasta is inexplicably powerful compared to later appearances, but the effort to stop her is practically buried under a bunch of sub-plots.
Avengers #171 (May 1978). “…Where Angels Fear to Tread.” Grade: A-. The best part here is Thor talking about how he feels about the Catholic Church and God, which was almost never touched on in his own comic. The worst part is how Ms. Marvel is forced in the story as an obvious bit of cross-promotion. The fight against Ultron is okay, but has been done better before and since.
Avengers Annual #9 (1978). “…Today the Avengers Die!” Grade: A++. My copy is in tatters because I literally wore it out by re-reading it as I grew up. Bill Mantlo was never too successful with ongoing series, but he could write fill-in issues better than anyone else in the business. Don Newton draws the Avengers fantastically, as he would a few more times in the ongoing series before his untimely demise. Best of all is Arsenal, a robot menace who's powerful, mysterious, and personal for the Avengers -- Ultron done right! I must have subconsciously learned from Mantlo when it comes to writing superheroes. When I wrote “The Last Fantastic Four Story,” I paced it much the same way, keeping the strongest hero busy rescuing someone else to give the weaker heroes time to shine until the strongest hero returns for the grand finale. Superb.
Avengers #173 (July 1978). “Threshold of Oblivion” Grade: B+. I never read the whole “Korvac saga” and these issues didn’t make me want to. It’s hard for me to get excited about a villain who hangs around the house all day in his robe, gloating because no one has noticed him. The best stuff here is Jim Shooter riffing on Tony Isabella’s Champions book and some delightful interplay between Hercules and the Black Widow, as well as some Dr. Who references at the end. This is also around the time when George Perez started doing all the covers for the Avengers, even when he was not the artist inside. They look great and gave the book more consistency, at least on the outside.
Avengers #174 (Aug. 1978). “Captives of the Collector” Grade: B. Uh-huh. The Collector takes down every Avenger there ever was, but gets beat by Hawkeye. More of that silly Korvac stuff stuff. At least he’s moved from his robe to a T-shirt now. Still, the Collector is a great villain that always lets a writer get inventive.
Avengers #181 (Mar. 1979). “On the Matter of Heroes” Grade: A++. David Micheline’s stellar stint on the Avengers has begun. John Byrne’s artwork is top notch and lovingly embellished by Dan Green. The then-new character Peter Gyrich is a scream and (again, then) highly original. And what a cliffhanger ending!
Avengers #182 (Apr. 1979). “Honor Thy Father” Grade: A+. It bothers me a little that such veteran superheroes were fooled so long by rather obvious illusions, but this is a perfectly-paced story and such a treat to see Klaus Janson inking John Byrne’s art.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Unique Encounter Area: the Shrine to Ethics

[Last submission to Kalibruhn, and the only one playtested in my South Province D&D campaign]
The Shrine to Ethics

Word has only begun to spread about this location along a lonely stretch of road in the hills. No one knows the identity of its builder, though it is clear that the man was a spellcaster of some sort, and that the shrine was not here more than 25 years ago.

The shrine consists of a curved, roofless, stone wall eight feet tall and ten feet in diameter. There is a wood and iron bench, uncomfortably tall, chained to the inside wall. In the middle of the shrine is a well. The well's three-foot high retaining wall is made of the same limestone as the rest of the shrine. Except for a wooden bucket on a rope on the edge of the well, there is nothing else in here -- no icon or holy symbol of any kind. The average traveler may think the shrine has been robbed by sacrilegious bandits, but such is not the case. Its builder apparently intended it as a test of certain virtues.

The first virtue tested is trust. There is a plaque on the inside of the well, just under the rim, that reads, "The suspicious will not drink here." Its logic has thwarted many a traveler from a cool, refreshing drink. What's more, the water in the well is magical, so that anyone drinking it will be able to read invisible writing on the wall that reads, "The merciful will enjoy their rewards." Then a large fire salamander (the animal, not the extraplanar monster) scurries up out of the well and moves threateningly at anyone in the shrine. It squirts acid, but automatically misses unless it is attacked first. If no one makes any move to attack the salamander, it looks up and speaks, saying, "This is the reward for your show of mercy. If you will toss a valuable gift into the well, I will give you something in return." This is the third test, for generosity. If something of great value (relative to the finances of the traveler) is tossed into the well, the salamander will scurry back down and fetch it. But when the item is returned, it will be more valuable than before. If no such sacrifice was made, then a fire salamander three times the size of the first one emerges from the well and attacks.

New Magic Item - The Cauldron of Abeshi

[Also submitted for Kalibruhn]
The Cauldron of Abeshi

The Saga of Resloven tells of how Resloven came to the house of the wizardess Abeshi during his long quest. When it came time to leave, he asked for food to take with him. Abeshi took a flagon of ale and stirred the drink into her magic cauldron with some bread crumbs. She then fished the crumbs out of the cauldron and gave them to Resloven to take, explaining that if he left these out on the ground overnight, the light of dawn would change them into a full-grown stag for him to eat. Resloven then did what any epic hero would do -- he left the bread crumbs and stole the cauldron, earning the enmity of Abeshi for numerous chapters thereafter.

Whether Abeshi crafted the first of these magic cauldrons is unknown, but her name is eternally connected to them thanks to the poem. The original one stolen by Resloven is still believed to exist, though a few copies have been made by other wizards since.

The cauldron is 33 inches in diameter, made of iron that magically resists rust as if it were steel, and decorated with two demonic faces on opposite sides holding functional rings in their mouths. The poem is misleading in terms of what ingredients the cauldron requires. Anything can be used -- so long as it is itself non-magical -- for the true catalyst is that it must be mixed with at least one pint of golden ale. Any other drink, or another color of ale, will fail to work.

Once the items have spent at least three minutes soaking in the golden ale inside the cauldron, they will hold the enchantment for 24 hours. During that time, if the soaked ingredients are all touched by the first rays of dawn simultaneously, they will grow into a large, healthy stag. It will be able to understand the first task outlined for it to do, and follow it to the letter. This task can be anything from fighting a monster, to guarding a camp, to giving a ride, or even allowing itself to be slain for somebody's supper. After it has been given a task, the stag becomes a non-magical animal, only semi-intelligent, and cannot be dispelled or returned to its previous form.

The cauldron can be used to create a stag once every three days.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

New Monster: Melhukiskata

[The description of this monster was submitted to Rob Kuntz for inclusion in his Kalibruhn campaign setting back in 2002. The AD&D stats have just now been added.]

MELHUKISKATA
No. Appearing: 1-2
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 2
Move: 9"
Attacks: 2 hands
Damage: 1-4
Special Attacks: 4 in 6 chance of surprise, Strength-draining poison (save vs. poison or lose 1-6 points per round, renders unconscious at 2), adhesive fingers (open doors check to break free), bites for 6 points of damage (unconscious foes only, automatic hits each round)
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: Semi-
Alignment: Neutral

The hunters of the northernmost forests of Kalibruhn share that terrain with many strange and dangerous beasts. One such predator is the melhukiskata, or "sap snatcher."

So stealthy is the melhukiskata that it is rare for one to be spotted on the move. Those who have seen them report that its body is three feet long, shaped like a weasel or badger, but can walk like a bear. It is covered with shaggy, grey-brown fur all over, down to the tip of its two-foot long tail. Its mouth is elongated and oddly eel-like, while its feet are wickedly taloned. The most unusual features of the beast, though, are its fingers -- for instead of forepaws, the melhukiskata has fingered hands. Odder still, the fingers are long and stiff, and grow out like antlers. The longest of these antler-like fingers yet seen on a melhukiskata were five feet long.

Tracking the melhukiskata is difficult, for when it does travel it often walks backwards, dragging its huge fingers behind it as if to sweep away its trail. Perhaps because of this so many folktales describe the melhukiskata as a clever animal. More likely, such behavior is instinctive. In no other regard does it appear to be smarter than a dog.

The unwary traveler through a deep forest is unlikely to notice the melhukiskata, obscured by underbrush, fallen leaves and branches, or just partially underground in a hole of its own digging. At a distance, the beast's enormous fingers look like tree branches or broken antlers. Only when its prey draws near does it raise its hands and strike. The anticipation of the hunt causes the melhukiskata's fingers to exude a sticky adhesive that only looks like tree sap. The sap-like adhesive dripping off the fingers also serves as a strength-draining poison. Most victims will, when caught by its hands, thrash around and cut themselves on the sharp edges, allowing this poison into their blood. The melhukiskata anchors itself with its talons, waiting until the victim grows too weak to continue this game of tug-of-war. The melhukiskata then relaxes, ending the flow of poisonous secretion. Once it dries, the melhukiskata can let go and move closer to eat. Its eel-like mouth can latch onto its prey, in case the victim's strength returns before the beast is done feasting.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Jermlaine

[Early for Christmas, and also my earliest written work reposited so far, first shared with the Greytalk listserv, I believe, back in 1997 (the song specifically refers to an article that came out in Dragon magazine that year).]

Without Bigby and Tenser
The Circle has six men.
The Suel in the tunnel
Know Elayne's a vixen.
But do you recall
The most famous jermlaine of all...?

Rudolph the red-nosed jermlaine
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glowed.
All of the other jermlaine
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any jermlaine games.

Then one foggy Pelor's Day,
Rary came to say,
"Rudolph, in my Desert Bright,
Won't you guide my troops tonight?"
Then how the jermlaine loved him,
As they shouted out with glee,
"Rudolph the red-nosed jermlaine,
You'll go down in history!"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Rant

It's been a long time coming, but tonight [in October 2004] I found the missing 2nd ed. AD&D editorial I had written for TitanGaming.com. For anyone who might still be perusing this site, enjoy...

AD&D, 2nd Edition

by Scott Casper

So, where was I? Last time, I tried to make the case that AD&D, 1st ed., was a great game system. So why replace it with 2nd ed.?

Dragon magazine was full of promotional pieces for 2nd ed. back in the mid-80’s (though nothing compared to the hype machine for 3E!). I won’t try to summarize them all here (I seldom re-read the Dragons from the late ‘80s anyway and have most of them boxed up), but will instead try to summarize the most significant changes that were made to the rules.

Some changes were only cosmetic, such as interior color art and name changes. It is worth mentioning first that the cosmetic changes made to 2nd ed. turned out to be the most controversial changes. Although all the OD&D and AD&D 1st ed. books were black and white, no one cared at the time (indeed, some people used their Monster Manuals as coloring books!). When 2nd ed. AD&D was released partially in color, buyers balked that they only went halfway! Name changes made in 2nd ed. seemed at best arbitrary and at worst embarrassingly lame. The change from clerics to priests may have seemed arbitrary at the time, but was actually symptomatic of something slightly more sinister. It is no secret in the industry that post-Gygax TSR had a condescending attitude towards its customer base (you know, like Marvel Comics today) and wrote down to a lower grade level than TSR had previously done. Granted, TSR was looking to attract fresh blood to the gaming market, but few would agree that clerics should become priests just because cleric isn’t a word in common usage. Worse still was what happened to demons and devils. It was also no secret that the presence of demons and devils in the Monster Manual was ammo for the game’s (mostly religious) detractors. Changing the names to baatezu and tanari was a shallow attempt to dodge the issue, which backfired and raised the ire of many fans (TSR had actually become quite good at dodging issues; many fans were aghast when one of Dragon’s previous editors told us at a GENCON seminar that TSR actually had a policy of never mentioning suicide in their products because of D&D’s past -- and false -- association with suicides).

Some changes were good ones. Gone was the exclusiveness of the Illusionist sub-class -- now every "school" of magic had its own specialists. Despite exacerbating some old problems (Can an illusionist cast spells from a diviner’s scroll? Can a necromancer train a transmuter?), the new specialty magic-users opened many new options for players. Likewise, the notion of specialty priests (tailored to individual deities) may have been 2nd ed.’s most-needed, and best-loved, innovation. The Cleric class had come a long way from the thinly-veiled Christianity of earlier editions, and could now accomodate any fantasy religion.

AD&D 2nd ed. displayed a shift, not only towards younger gamers and more options, but towards favoring the players over the Dungeon Master as well. The THAC0 game mechanic (a number needed to hit AC 0) was not new to AD&D 2nd ed., but had been floating around unofficially in Dragon magazine for several years. Yes, it helped simplify combat in that the DM no longer had to look up the "to hit" number off a chart, but adjudiating combat was always part of the DM’s job. Now, players told the DM whether or not they hit their opponent, instead of the other way around. Likewise, saving throws went from being covered in the 1st ed. Dungeon Masters Guide to being covered in the 2nd ed. Players Handbook. The power to decide if a PC survived a poisonous bite had shifted to the player. And these are only examples from the rulebooks. They were followed by endless supplements called Complete Guide to Fighters, Complete Guide to Elves, ad infinitim. Then came more hardcovers called the Players Options series. If a Dungeon Masters Options was ever in the planning stages, the notes must have become lost.

It must be pretty clear by now what I think of 2nd ed. AD&D as a game system -- and I’ll freely admit that some of that is biased by disappointment with the company that produced it at that time. Back then, when my friends were jumping on the 2nd ed. bandwagon and starting up campaigns using the new rules, I clung all the more tightly to good ol’ 1st ed. AD&D. So, when I try to think of something nice to say about 2nd ed. AD&D, it’s how it turned me into an even more devout 1st ed. fan.

Favorite Music by Year

As a side project while I cataloged today (yes, working a Saturday [in June 2006]), I thought I would go through each year's top 40 songs and pick the best one of them from each year I've been alive. Well, the top 40 lists were so lame that I had to scrap that and jump to top 100 lists (found at www.musicoutfitters.com/resources.htm). Surprises so far -- until 1996, 1982 was the worst year for music ever. Who knew?

I've gone through the discographies of the Beatles' solo careers and modified my list accordingly. The top 100 lists are useless if they don't score the Beatles high enough.

1971 – Give Me Some Truth, John Lennon
1972 – American Pie, Don McLean
1973 – Band on the Run, Wings
1974 – Cats in the Cradle, Harry Chapin
1975 – Instant Karma! (We All Shine On), John Lennon
1976 – Silly Love Songs, Wings
1977 – Hotel California, Eagles
1978 – With a Little Luck, Wings
1979 – Old Time Rock and Roll, Bob Seger
1980 – Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), John Lennon
1981 – Watching the Wheels, John Lennon
1982 – n/a
1983 – Every Breath You Take, Police
1984 – Nobody Told Me, John Lennon
1985 – The Power of Love, Huey Lewis and the News
1986 – Got My Mind Set on You, George Harrison
1987 – I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for, U-2
1988 – End of the Line, the Traveling Wilburys
1989 – We Didn’t Start the Fire, Billy Joel
1990 – Free Fallin’, Tom Petty
1991 – Beauty and the Beast, Celene Dion & Peabo Bryson
1992 – I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston
1993 - Have I Told You Lately, Rod Stewart
1994 - You Don't Know How It Feels, Tom Petty
1995 - Breakfast at Tiffany's, Deep Blue Something
1996 - n/a
1997 - Truly, Madly, Deeply, Savage Garden
1998 - My Heart Will Go On, Celine Dion
1999 - That Don't Impress Me Much, Shania Twain
2000 - Yellow, Coldplay
2001 - Only Time, Enya
2002 - We're Going to Be Friends, White Stripes
2003 - Red Right Ankle, Decembrists
2004 - n/a
2005 - n/a

[July 2006 Addendum]

My dad had encouraged me to do the 1960s. I finally got around to it. After reviewing the Beatles' discography it was really easy, though usually I would have preferred to list an entire album instead of just one song from it. I went with U.S. release dates instead of U.K. release dates, when they differed.

1961 – Travelin’ Man, Ricky Nelson
1962 – Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler
1963 – Puff (the Magic Dragon), Peter, Paul, and Mary
1964 – Twist and Shout, the Beatles
1965 – You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, the Beatles
1966 – Yesterday, the Beatles
1967 – A Day in the Life, the Beatles
1968 – Hey Jude, the Beatles
1969 – Something, the Beatles
1970 – Maybe I'm Amazed, Paul McCartney

Later additions:
2006 - Ashley, Marla Sokoloff
2007 - Dance Tonight, Paul McCartney
2008 - This Is Not a Test, She & Him
2009 - I'm Yours, Jason Mraz
2010 - Don't Look Back, She & Him
2011 - Paradise, Coldplay
2012 - Skyfall, Adele
2013 - Queenie Eye, Paul McCartney
2014 - A Sky Full of Stars, Coldplay

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Misc. Avengers Comics Graded

Avengers #30 (Jul. 1966). “Among Us Walks a Goliath” Grade: B+. Hawkeye taking out both Power Man and the Swordsman is a little unbelievable, but excitedly handled. Goliath is doing something almost as interesting.
Avengers #40 (May 1967, reprint). “Suddenly…the Sub-Mariner!” Grade: B+. “It’s hard to believe that the Sub-Mariner AND the Cosmic Cube are not a larger threat than this, but the Hercules vs. Sub-Mariner battle is fun.
Avengers #46 (Nov. 1967, reprint). “The Agony and the Anthill” Grade: A. The Whirlwind has never been more capable than when he trapped Goliath and the Wasp, then challenged and eluded both Capt. America and Quicksilver.
Avengers #54 (Jul. 1968, reprint). “And Deliver Us from…the Masters of Evil!” Grade: C+. Roy Thomas didn’t do his homework on the Radioactive Man and Klaw, and Jarvis is so out-of-character that Roger Stern had to explain it away 20 years later.
Avengers #55 (Aug. 1968, reprint). “Mayhem Over Manhattan !” Grade: B-. It continues to baffle how weak Thomas thinks Klaw is, or how these 2nd-string heroes could beat so many powerful villains.
Avengers #59 (Dec. 1968, reprint). “The Man’s Name Is…Yellowjacket!” Grade: C+. It’s clear Thomas didn’t like Goliath, so Pym’s imaginary death scene seems particularly vicious. I always liked his Yellowjacket identity later, but I wouldn’t have had I read this “origin” story first.
Avengers #61 (Feb. 1969, reprint). “Some Say the World Will End in Fire…Some Say in Ice!” Grade: A. Both Roy Thomas and John Buscema are at the top of their game, but the Avengers are just window dressing as Dr. Strange takes on Surtur and Ymir of Asgard fame.
Avengers #63 (Apr. 1969, reprint). “And in This Corner Goliath” Grade: B. Losing Hawkeye for a new Goliath was pointless, but somehow it’s always good to see Egghead again.
Avengers #72 (Jan. 1970, reprint). “Did You Hear the One About Scorpio?” Grade: B. Neatly ties into 3 other titles, but Zodiac detracts, rather than adds, to Scorpio’s backstory. And how did Nick Fury hide his eyepatch while disguised?
Avengers #76 (May 1970, reprint). “The Day the Earth Exploded” Grade: A+. Sure, the science is hokey and Arkon is just Super-Conan, but man, what a ride!
Avengers #137 (Jul. 1975). “We Do Seek Out New Avengers!” Grade: B+. By now in his run, Steve Englehart had really made the Avengers his own. This is a nice set-up to an even better part two (I bought part one years later after reading part two).
Avengers #138 (Aug. 1975). “Stranger in a Strange Man!” Grade: A-. This was my first Avengers comic book as a kid, and my favorite comic book ever from 1975. I loved all the mystery. There was a lot more to puzzle through, a lot more continuity for a young kid to figure out, but I worked hard at it and it made me want to give up Batman comics for Marvel.
Avengers #139 (Sep. 1975). “Prescription: Violence!” Grade: B. The whole “Wasp in critical condition” angle had already been used to death by 1975, but the main point of this issue is to re-set the Whirlwind as a solo villain after Thomas made him a team player.
Avengers #140 (Oct. 1975). “A Journey to the Center of the Ant” Grade: A-. The Beast shines, as does the art of George Tuska and Vince Colleta, which graced this title for too short a time. Oh, and it’s also a homage to Avengers #93.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ayesha: the Return of She Reviewed

[from 2004]
Ayesa: the Return of She is the sequel novella after She, written years after the first for closure. It begins with a framing device of the fictional version of the real publisher explaining how he came by this manuscript, the deathbed "confession" of his old friend, L. Horace Holly. It may serve to ground the accompanying narrative in reality or explain the real gap between publications, or some combination of both.

The story begins 20 years earlier in 1885 wth Holly, already an old man, and his adult, adopted son Leo Vincey, having retired from their African adventures and returned to England. Leo is despondent -- for 2,000 years of reincarnations he was the love of the immortal Ayesha, but she died in the Caves of Kor (in the last story). Despondent to the point of suicide, Leo ha a vision showing him a journey he can take to see Ayesha again. The vision is clear enough that they know the location is in Central Asia. Both men -- for both love Ayesha, in their own way, as they love each other -- vow to take the journey. Unless you are a big Latin buff, you will come to despise the term "crux ansata" by novella’s end, considering how often it is used to describe an element of both the vision and their destination.

Sixteen years of travel are quickly summarized at the beginning of chapter two, only hinting at their adventures in T(h)ibet and China. The important points are that they learn many dialects and much of Buddhism on the journey. The rapid travel log slows down (relatively -- they do spend six months there) when Leo and Holly reach a Buddhist lamasery near the end of their journey. It is important for Hagard to draw parallels between the Ayesha back-story and the beliefs of Buddhism, as more than one character does for him, as if to say, "This is a story about religion, not magic." I hazard a guess here, as I have not researched it, but I suspect Hagard was intentionally distancing himself from the spiritualism movement of his times. Of importance to the plot is that Leo and Holly find corroboration for Leo’s vision in the lamasery library. Also, their new friend Kou-en (the falsest sounding note amongst the Asian details – perhaps an inside joke for a friend named Cohen?) relates an experience from one of his past lives about how he encountered "She" and how she made him worship her, foreshadowing (or, if you read the earlier book, reminding) both the power of Ayesha and the evil purposes she will put it to.

Chapter three resumes the travel log, with Leo and Holly crossing the desert beyond the lamasery and reaching the mountain range where Ayesha is supposedly hidden. The detail is complete, but fails to build atmosphere. The chapter literally ends with a cliffhanger, but the suspense is marred by heavy-handed symbolism – Holly is kinda, sorta crucified before they both fall into the abyss.

The first three chapters are fairly lackluster, but chapter four is when the going gets good. It initially begins with more symbolism – Leo and Holly’s fall into the abyss ends with them being "reborn" in water (not unlike a Christening) and then being rescued. Their rescuers are the beautiful Atene, Khania (a female Khan; Hagard just makes up titles as he needs them) of Kaloon, and her ancient great-uncle, the shaman Simbri. Kaloon is one of Hagard’s hidden lands. If the size of the armies fielded later are any indication, Kaloon and its environs must boast a population of at least 600,000. The people of Kaloon are mostly of Mongolian descent with a trace of Macedonian. Two thousand years earlier, an army fielded by Alexander the Great traveled this far and, instead of conquering, settled down and mixed with the indigenous people. Kaloon’s people are primitive agrarians, having forgotten all other deities save the spirit of the volcano, Hes. The Khan seems a savage madman, but he is in fact a victim of his wicked bride. Their wedding was a political union and, although the Khan loves Atene, she does not love him. So she has solved that problem by administering a poison to her husband that makes him not love her, and their estrangement is what has driven him mad – particularly sense he is fully aware of her conspiracies, which also include wanting to see her husband killed. The Khan is introduced to us as a villain, hunting down one of his own relatives and letting his hounds kill the man, but before his death becomes the most sympathetic character of all.

The politics of Kaloon lead to much of the book’s most successful suspense, but also suspenseful is the "fatal attraction"-like relationship between Atene and Leo. By an amazing coincidence (said to be destiny at work, but still…), Atene and Leo were husband and wife in an early incarnation and Ayesha had come between them.
Atene is irresistably drawn to Leo and yet at the same time jealously angry at Leo's insistence that he loves the spirit in the volcano instead. Whether or not Atene is willing to kill him to keep him from Ayesha is suspenseful right up until the climax of the book.

This section runs through chapters four, five, and six, culminating in Leo and Holly's harrowing escape from the vengeful Khan Rassen. This is the climax to "act one," and the book gets no better until the climax to "act two."

The novella does not actually use the term "acts," but the book has clearly begun a new section when Leo and Holly reach the volcano. The pace slows back down, Leo and Holly are exploring again, and a new "mystery" appears. It actually isn't much of a mystery to guess who the shroud-wrapped guide is who leads Leo and Holly up the side of the volcano, but it is atmospheric -- not unlike the Ghost of Christmas Future with color and gender inverted.

There is an odd scene on the mountainside where Leo rushes to the rescue of a local girl who's about to be burned alive by a witchdoctor with a cat on his head. Perhaps Hagard felt his heroes had been escaping dangers too often and did not seem heroic enough, though by now it's very clear in the story that no harm can befall Leo and Holly because Ayesha is protecting them. Perhaps the scene is only meant to introduce the priesthood of the College of Fire, the servants of the Hesea, high priestess of the goddess Hes.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Reviewed

I had trouble articulating the trouble I had with the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but after reading reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes web site, I feel more confident that the problem was mainly one of pacing. It had the rapid-fire pace of a slapstick comedy, but cerebral comedy like this needs more time to internalize. I think the movie would have done better if it had been 20 minutes longer. At least half of that extra time should have been devoted to Marvin – the best character from the book, and perfectly cast by the combination of Alan Rickman’s voice and Warwick Davis’ emoting through a costume (seriously, no one does that better; many actors don’t emote as well even with their faces showing). There was lots of good Marvin dialogue cut from the book and I can’t figure out why.

Of course, the main reason I can not give the movie a better grade than a B+ is that I never though the book was that good. And I’m only referring here to the first book in the series. I liked Restaurant at the End of the Universe better, and thought Life, the Universe, and Everything was the best of them all. And then there are Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books that I thought were even better than the Hitchhiker series. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, beginning with the Earth being destroyed, way too depressing. As the Tick would say, “That’s where I keep all my stuff!” Blowing up the Earth as a joke just does not work for me, never has, and the book never gets far enough past that joke to keep it from my mind. At least the movie stresses real strong at the ending that everything is good as new on our back-up Earth, but it is hard to accept that.

Yet, despite my misgivings, I was used to be enormously excited about Hitchhiker’s. And it was not so much the book itself, but how well the book translated into other media – radio, text-based interactive computer games, television, and the list just kept building over time. Hitchhiker’s was an okay book, but a multimedia sensation because nothing had ever been so multimedia before. Had the movie version rode that momentum and come out 10 years earlier, it would have been a huge sensation. As it was, the movie was more like a nostalgic nod.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Four Million Reviewed

[from July 2006]
O. Henry’s The Four Million will always be remembered, if for nothing else than the oft-borrowed “The Gift of the Magi.” Henry’s narrative voice, even 100 years later, sounds so honest and fresh that when the story does feel dated (like when a cab turns out to be drawn by a horse instead of horsepower) the effect is jarring.

The stories here are meant to be representative of the people of New York, with the premise being that any inhabitant of that city would be worth meeting or have an interesting story to tell. Most of the stories prove this claim, though some suffer from repetition. Most end in O. Henry’s trademark “surprise twist” endings – sometimes they seem “slap-your-forehead”-brilliant, sometimes they elicit a smile, and still other times a groan.

Also worth bearing in mind before tackling these stories is the racism of the times. Irishmen’s brogue is always spelled phonetically to call attention to their accent. Negroes are negatively represented. Asians are non-existent in this New York. I had to look up what a “dago” was, as that term for Italians seems to have been largely forgotten, but it gets used repeatedly here. One could also make a case for sexism, as the women here tend to be weak and in need of rescuing, yet most are strong or at least maintain their dignity. Their frequently repeated plights are merely meant to tug at the heartstrings, perhaps the strings of what might have been a largely female readership.

“Tobin’s Palm” is a story about two superstitious Irishmen trying to turn their luck around. It’s one of the more racist stories, but has one of the most enjoyable surprise endings.

Everyone knows “The Gift of the Magi” – if you haven’t read it, you’ve surely seen it on TV disguised in one form or another. It is, despite its ubiquitous nature, a truly moving tale with a great ending.

“A Comspolite in a CafĂ©” is a slight joke-story about hypocrites.

“Between Rounds” starts out as an interesting “apartment-building-as-microcosm-of-society” story, but -- probably because of its lesson of “people don’t change” -- the story “goes nowhere”.

“The Skylight Room” is a real tearjerker of a story, a surprisingly engaging read about a woman too good for New York and how her dreams of being saved our answered. Also of interest is how the story begins, and works, from the rare second-person perspective. I actually took the time to re-read this one. Right up there with “Magi,” this is my other favorite story from this collection.

“A Service of Love” is sort of a variation on Magi, with a young couple giving up art in order to pay the bills. Not one of the best.

“The Coming-Out of Maggie” is a slight story, notable for its twist ending, where the “prince charming” and the “villain” turn out to be the opposite of who you thought they were.

“Man About Town” is the inverse of “Comspolite” – a man goes around looking for a “man about town” to see what he’s like without realizing he is one.

“The Cop and the Anthem” is one of those familiar stories, like “Magi”, that’s been borrowed so often it feels very familiar without having read it before. Soapy is a bum who wants to get thrown in jail for a little winter comfort, but as soon as he wants to get arrested he can’t.

“An Adjustment of Nature” is a “buddy” comedy of four guys trying to “save” the girl they admire from falling in love. One can imagine Ben Stiller elongating this into a whole movie.

“Memoirs of a Yellow Dog” is notable for having the only non-human narrator. It’s also a pretty funny story about a hen-pecked husband and the dog his wife dotes on.

"The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein" is notable for being one of the few stories where the twist ending is a character getting his comeuppance. Despite the title, this isn't sci fi or fantasy. Sadly.

"Mammon and the Archer" is a "father knows best" story that whimsically turns the axiom "you can't buy love" on its head. Amusing, without offering any real surprise.

"Springtime ala Carte" is a sweet story, but its twist ending is the most far-fetched coincidence in the collection.

"The Green Door" is another sweet story, another with a helpless woman needing to be saved. It starts off wonderfully atmospheric, almost magical, and it's a shame that everything is explained away by the twist ending.

"From the Cabby's Seat" may be the weakest story here, relying on a twist ending that is not believable. "The Romance of a Busy Broker," listed below, uses the same ending, but has a better and slightly more believable build-up to it.

"An Unfinished Story" is a mild tearjerker about a poor shop girl who, inspired by the photos she keeps of men she admires, chooses her dignity over a date with "Piggy."

"The Caliph, Cupid, and the Clock" is a fine tale, propelled along by the delightful character of "Prince" Michael, a silver-tongued hobo who believes he is royalty in disguise and has the speech and manners, if nothing else, to back his claim. In fact, it would be nice if Michael's true status was more ambiguous by story's end. A longer story would have served him well, too, for he is a character who could have held a novella together. This story, however, is actually fairly slight and beneath him.

"Sisters of the Golden Circle" differs in that the twist -- the wife letting her husband be arrested falsely -- occurs mid-story, and the explanation only comes at the end. The explanation, though, is entirely unconvincing and it seems to me divorce should be impending for these newlyweds.

"The Romance of the Busy Broker" -- see "From the Cabby's Seat." This broker may be the first character with Alzheimer's Disease (albeit unnamed) in fiction.

"After Twenty Years" is a fairly familiar story of two young crooks who grow up, one goes straight, and they find themselves on opposite sides of the law. The "twist" ending here is entirely predictable, but getting there is not unpleasant.

"Lost on Dress Parade," with its morale that it is better to be yourself, seems like it was a worn-out cliche before O.Henry even got his hands on it. But Towers Chandler (what a name!), the architect who pretends to be rich once each week, and the girl he meets are too charming to be quickly dismissed.

"By Courier" is a fun little story. The twist ending explaining the gentleman's seeming infidelity is not nearly as much fun as getting there, as the gentleman and his lady communicate -- or fail to communicate -- through a street kid who's language skills are not up to their's.

"The Furnished Room" has a twist on the twist ending -- it actually does not end happily! Perhaps another one or two such endings before reaching this close to the end would have made this story, about a man trying to find his lost girlfriend by seeking out boardinghouses she might have stayed at, seem less out of place. The details of how the man searches the rooms are engaging -- possibly a good lesson for gamers looking to rely on fewer die rolls for searching.

"The Brief Debut of Tildy" is almost another unhappy ending, nor does it have a twist ending so much as a joke ending that reverses the previous tone of the story. Tildy is the ugly waitress, always living in the shadow of beautiful Aileen, who feels beautiful when a customer kisses her. His apology near story's end explains all, but is too obvious an explanation to count as a twist ending.

The Gods of Pegana Reviewed

[from April 2006]
The Gods of Pegana is such a short work -- little more than 30 pages long -- yet it holds astonishing significance. In the space of an ordinary author's short story, Lord Dunsany wrote an entire fictional mythology. More significant, the planet named in the mythology is Earth, but it is not our Earth. The gods, their people, and some of the strangest nomenclature in literature are utterly alien. The Gods of Pegana is not only one of the earliest works of fantasy fiction, but one of the earliest examples of the alien horror genre. Indeed, Lord Dunsany predates and inspired H.P. Lovecraft and all who followed him.

It may be inaccurate to call this a short story. It is a sort of free verse poem, but deeper than that, it is written with the alliteration and repetition of oral tradition, with a narrative voice reminiscent of the Bible. The bizarreness of Lord Dunsany's inventions ring true because they sound authoritative and familiar. And -- deeper still -- there is much that IS true behind these alien parables, timeless themes that will always resonate. Paramount among them is the fear of endings, whether it be personal death or the end of all that is. When Mana-Yood-Sushai (the creator deity of this alien pantheon) awakes, he will mock the smaller gods for their games with worlds and people and will end everything to start over, we are told. On a more personal level, human characters are introduced who come face-to-face with Mung, the personification of death. Which group has it worse, those who fear death or those who fear the mocking before death? This ties in with a statement made at the very beginning, that no one knows whether fate or chance controls the universe. Mung tells those whose lives he ends that it is fated it should happen, that they could take no other path in life other than the one that leads to Mung. Yet, if chance is the answer, then Mung is wrong or lying. Does Mung lie to console those whose lives are about to end? Mana-Yood-Sushai is fated, it seems, to eventually awake and end all that is, but if all is fated, then why does he mock the smaller gods? The fear of endings, then, is the fear that it IS chance
that governs us.

Another reoccurring theme is that wisdom means knowing that you do not know anything, ala Socrates. The wisest of the prophets, such as Yonath, knows this, but the hypocrisy of later prophets is borne out by their tales of knowing they tell their followers. Bad fates tend to befall these "false" prophets, or at the least an encounter with Mung. The Gods of Pegana does not speak well of religion, suggesting that it tells people not what is true, but what people want to hear (incidentally, there is in the introduction a comment about Allah that would seem
most politically incorrect in most areas of the world today, though it
was probably not intended as such).

The Gods of Pegana is a fast read, but a rewarding one, and something
everyone should try.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Village of Arun'Kid Retroconverted to OD&D

The Invasion of Arun’Kid
by Scott Casper -- 2002
Published by Kenzer & Co.
Retroconverted to OD&D (1974 rules) by Scott Casper -- 2003

DC conversions note: Any skill check that isn’t covered by an OD&D game mechanics can be considered automatically successful if it has a DC of 12 or less, or a 3 in 6 chance of being successful otherwise.

Key NPCs and Monsters

The Villagers of Arun’Kid

Emeriki, male human adept: AC 7; MV 12”; C 2; hp 7; AL N; Str 10, Int 10, Wis 12, Dex 13, Con 14, Cha 15.
Spells: Cure Light Wounds.
Items: Leather armor, quarterstaff, pouch of mistletoe and holly, 1 sp, 1d4 cp.

Keviri, male human veteran: AC 9; MV 12”; F 1; hp 6; AL N; Str 12, Int 6, Wis 5, Dex 13, Con 12, Cha 7.
Items: Peasant’s outfit, club, 1d4 cp.

Ku’Roli, male human acolyte: AC 7; MV 12”; C 1; hp 4; AL N; Str 10, Int 12, Wis 12, Dex 12, Con 11, Cha 11.
Items: Leather armor, quarterstaff, sling and 6 sling stones, wooden Holy symbol, 1d6 cp.

Tuveri, male human veteran: AC 6; MV 12”; F 1; hp 7; AL L; Str 13, Int 9, Wis 8, Dex 11, Con 10, Cha 12.
Items: Leather armor, small shield, short sword, shortbow, quiver of 20 arrows, 1d2 sp, 1d4 cp.

The Gnome Invasion Force

Barston Barleten, male gnome swordsman: AC 2; MV 3”; F 3; hp 16; AL L; Str 12, Int 11, Wis 11, Dex 11, Con 13, Cha 11.
Items: Platemail armor, small shield, short sword, sling, 10 sling bullets.

Darton Barleten, male gnome medium: AC 9; MV 9”; MU 1; hp 5; AL N; Str 9, Int 13, Wis 12, Dex 12, Con 11, Cha 11.
Spells: Sleep.
Items: Dagger, 25’ of rope, spell component pouch, traveler’s outfit, flask of oil, torch.

Karston Barleten, male gnome swordsman: AC 7; MV 9”; F 3; hp 17; AL N; Str 11, Int 12, Wis 11, Dex 13, Con 12, Cha 12.
Items: Leather armor, club, short sword, backpack, crowbar, 30’ of rope, torch.

Larstin Barleten, female gnome seer: AC 9; MV 9”; MU 2; hp 8; AL N; Str 9, Int 13, Wis 12, Dex 14, Con 13, Cha 12.
Spells: Charm Person, Light.
Items: Robes, dagger, 30’ of rope, spell component pouch, 2 small sacks.

The Hermit’s Farm

Dak’Wi, male human curate: AC 7; MV 12”; C 5; hp 7; AL N; Str 12, Int 14, Wis 17, Dex 12, Con 7, Cha 17.
Spells: Cure Light Wounds, Purify Food & Drink; Bless, Speak with Animals.
Items: Leather armor, spear, shortbow, quiver of 18 arrows and 2 silver-tipped arrows, holly and mistletoe, wooden Holy symbol of Belanar, Potion of Clairvoyance, spell scroll (Cure Light Wounds, Hold Person), miscellaneous goods in his home.

The Mausoleum

Ver’Kusi, wight: AC 5; MV 9”; HD 3; hp 15; SA energy drain; SD silver or magic weapons needed to hit; AL C.

The Lord’s Forces

Captain Turigath Fobolid, male human lord: AC 2; MV 6”; F 9; hp 50; AL L; Str 16, Int 14, Wis 12, Dex 12, Con 15, Cha 12.
Items: Platemail armor, small shield, heavy lance, shortbow, quiver of 20 arrows, Sword +1, +2 vs. Lycanthropes, gold and jeweled cloak clasp worth 60 gp.

The Brigand Camp

Dergog, male goblin veteran: AC 7; MV 9”; F 1; hp 6; AL C; Str 11, Int 10, Wis 10, Dex 12, Con 11, Cha 8.
Items: Leather armor, battleaxe, quiver of 7 javelins, 1d6 cp.

Geledari, male human medium: AC 9; MV 12”; MU 1; hp 5; AL C; Str 9, Int 13, Wis 11, Dex 12, Con 12, Cha 11.
Spells: Light.
Items: Traveler’s outfit, 2 throwing daggers, 1d10 cp.

Hanari Sar’Di, male human hero: AC 5; MV 9”; F 4; hp 22; AL C; Str 14, Int 12, Wis 12, Dex 14, Con 12, Cha 13.
Items: Chainmail armor, composite short bow, quiver of 20 arrows, iron Holy symbol of Ranaka, Sword +1.

Ranagari, male orc warrior: AC 5; MV 9”; F 2; hp 7; AL C; Str 13, Int 11, Wis 10, Dex 13, Con 13, Cha 9.
Items: Chainmail armor, sword, dagger, shortbow, quiver of 12 arrows.

Taserusi, male human veteran: AC 5; MV 9”; F 1; hp 6; AL C; Str 12, Int 10, Wis 10, Dex 11, Con 11, Cha 9.
Items: Chainmail armor, battleaxe, shortbow, quiver of 18 arrows, 1d8 cp.

Other NPCs and Monsters

The Villagers of Arun’Kid
Commoners, male (50), female (10) human: treat as peasants, as per Chainmail rules.

The Gnome Invasion Force
Gnome veterans, male (9), female (1): AC 7; MV 9”; F 1; hp 6 (x3), 5 (x5), 4, 3 (x2); AL N.
Items: Leather armor, spear, sling, 10 sling stones, 25’ of rope, small sack, 1d4 sp.

Gnome warriors, male: AC 4; MV 6”; F 2; hp 13, 12 (x2), 10, 9 (x2); AL N.
Items: Chainmail armor, small shield, short sword, sling, 10 sling bullets, 20 ft. of rope, 2 small sacks, 1d8 sp.

The Hermit’s Farm
1-4 giant rats: AC 8; MV 12”; HD 1/2; AL N.
1 giant eagle: AC 8; MV 3”/18”; HD 1; hp 5; AL N.
2 pixies: AC 6; MV 9”/18”; HD 1; hp 2 each; AL N; SD always invisible.

The Mausoleum
1 giant spider: AC 8; MV 12”; HD 1; hp 3; AL N.
6 dog zombies: AC 8; MV 6”; HD 1; hp 5 (x2), 4 (x4); AL N.

The Lord’s Forces
Human warriors, male (9), female (1): AC 4; MV 9”; F 2; hp 11, 10 (x3), 9 (x5), 8; AL L.
Items: Chainmail armor, small shield, short sword, quiver of 10 javelins.

The Brigand Camp
Brigands, male (7), female (8): AC 7; MV 12”; HD 1; hp 5 (x5), 4 (x3), 3 (x4), 2 (x3); AL C.
Items: Leather armor, handaxe, shortbow, quiver of 12 arrows, 1d4 cp (x6); leather armor, spear, dagger, 1d4 cp (x4), leather armor, dagger, 4 darts (x5).

Human veterans, male (5): AC 7; MV 12”; F 1; hp 7, 6, 5, 4 (x2); AL C.
Items: Leather armor, short sword, shortbow, quiver of 15 arrows, 1d4 sp (x3); leather armor, short sword, dagger, 1d4 sp (x2).

Goblins, male (3), female (1): AC 6; MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 5 (x2), 3 (x2); AL C.
Items: leather armor, mace, quiver of 7 javelins.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Misc. Amazing Spider-Man's Graded

I had to do this project for the worst possible reason -- rampant mildew in my collection is forcing me to trash all my comic books from the 1970s. Before throwing them in the garbage, I risked my lungs on one last look at each of these...

Amazing Spider-Man #98 (1971, reprint). “The Goblin’s Last Gasp!” Grade: B+. Smarter-than-average Green Goblin story, thanks to the first serious treatment of drug abuse in comics.
Amazing Spider-Man #128 (1973, reprint). “The Vulture Hangs High!” Grade: A-. A successful way to bring back the Vulture and make him interesting was to have him not be the real Vulture and make it a mystery.
Amazing Spider-Man #133 (1974, reprint). “The Molten Man Breaks Out!” Grade: B. I can see where making the Molten Man actually molten was supposed to make him more interesting, but it doesn’t work and – as Karl Kessel showed 25 years later, didn’t even need doing.
Amazing Spider-Man #141 (1974, reprint). “The Man’s Name Appears to Be…Mysterio!” Grade: A. I’ve always liked Mysterio adventures, as they always challenge Spider-Man cerebrally, where it really counts.
Amazing Spider-Man #147 (Aug. 1975). “The Tarantula Is a Very Deadly Beast!” Grade: B+. My very first Spider-Man comic book from when I was growing up. I’ve always liked the Tarantula despite him being a weak villain, just as much as I’ve always despised the Jackal for being played up as a major villain but being so weak.
Amazing Spider-Man #148 (Sept. 1975). “Jackal, Jackal, Who’s Got the Jackal?” Grade: B. Sigh. Did I mention not hating the Jackal already?
Amazing Spider-Man #149 (Oct. 1975, reprint). “Even If I Live, I Die!” Grade: C. The whole “clone saga” got stupider the longer it stretched on – every time there was a clone saga. You’d think they’d learn…
Amazing Spider-Man #150 (Nov. 1975). “Spider-Man …or Spider-Clone?” Grade: A-. At least the “clone saga” ended with this nice conclusion, with Spider-Man – like many young people – questioning his own identity. Today, his surprise love for Mary Jane seems forced, but back then it read as powerful.
Amazing Spider-Man #151 (Dec. 1975). “Skirmish Beneath the Streets!” Grade: A-. Probably the most exciting Shocker story of all.
Amazing Spider-Man #152 (Jan. 1976). “Shattered by the Shocker!” Grade: B. So what a let down part 2 was.
Amazing Spider-Man #166 (Mar. 1977). “War of the Reptile-Men!” Grade: B+. Oh, secret shame…Stegron was such a goofy character, but he just looked so cool!
Amazing Spider-Man #193 (Jun. 1979). “The Wings of the Fearsome Fly!” Grade: B. What? Spider-Man spends all issue hunting down the Fly, but the police beat him to it? Hmm, if it’s a tribute to Steve Ditko’s brand of storytelling, then I’ll let this pass…
Amazing Spider-Man #194 (Jul. 1979). “Never Let the Black Cat Cross Your Path!” Grade: B. Marv Wolfman really believed in this character, and so did Spider-Man’s editors for a long time, but I never bought into her as a romantic interest for Spidey and, ultimately, neither did most of his readership.
Amazing Spider-Man #198 (Nov. 1979). “Mysterio Is Deadlier by the Dozen!” Grade: A-. Wolfman really got it right here – re-introducing the Burglar after 17 years was exciting!
Amazing Spider-Man #199 (Dec. 1979). “Now You See Me! Now You Die!” Grade: A. The exciting was really building up to the revelation as to why Uncle Ben died. I’ve read a summary of what happened in #200, but never got to read the whole thing.
Amazing Spider-Man #216 (May 1981). “Marathon” Grade: A-. A pretty fun race-against time story.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Alternate History of U.S. Elections for a Superhero Universe

[Originally posted to Superland in Nov. 2004]

1944
Since WWII was already over, FDR retired to several years of well-
deserved rest before polio claimed him. His Vice-President Harry
Truman becomes President.

1948
Harry Truman had not proved to be a popular President and barely wins
re-election.

1952
Eisenhower wins the election.

1956
Eisenhower easily wins re-election.

1960
John F. Kennedy wins. The superhero community had received cryptic
warnings from the Legion of Superheroes to stick close to Kennedy.
Unfortunately, many misinterpreted this to mean voicing public
support for Kennedy. The superheroes were unable to prevent the
first, lethal shot that assassinated Kennedy, though the gunmen were
captured before any further shots could be fired.

1964
Andrew Johnson, also backed by the superheroes, wins by the largest
margin in decades.

1968
The superheroes publicly broke with Johnson over Vietnam, a sentiment
that was picked up by the general populace. He dropped out of the
race when the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey to run. Humphrey beat
Nixon by a narrow margin.

1972
Again disappointed with their President, the people chose Nixon this
time by a clear margin. Nixon soon betrays their trust and is
replaced by Vice-President Ford.

1976
Ford loses to Carter by the largest margin since Johnson.

1980
In an extremely tight race, Reagan manages to beat Carter by a mere
0.7% of the popular vote.

1984
Despite much superhuman outcry, Reagan again squeaks into the White
House.

1988
The superhuman community rallies behind Michael Dukakis who beats
George Bush. Dukakis proves to be a good President, exemplified by
the peaceful resolution of Iraq's invasion of Quwait. However,
Dukakis makes the mistake of promising universal healthcare in four
years, a promise he has not kept by...

1992
A tepid economy and an unkept promise cause a fickle Democratic Party
to cast off Dukakis in favor of rising star Bill Clinton. Bush tries
running again, but loses again, this time to Clinton. Clinton proves
to be an enormously popular President. Many chargest made against him
by the Republican party are revealed to be hoaxes by the superheroes.

1996
Bill Clinton is re-elected in a landslide victory over Bob Dole. With
the superhumans still deflecting Republican plots, Clinton is free to
complete Dukakis' goal of universal health care.

2000
Vice-President Al Gore rides the coattails of his predecessor to an
easy, landslide victory over George W. Bush. His Presidency is marked
by the fall of international terrorism, as the superheroes crush Al-
Qaida.

2004
George W. Bush runs again on a platform of appealing to people with
his folksy charm instead of the issues. Al Gore easily wins re-
election by another landslide.

Pantheism in the Flanaess: the Draken Pantheon of Ahlissa

[An almost-complete article, circa 2005, cannibalized for parts in other South Province-related articles]

It has long seemed a shame to me that fantasy campaign settings, despite multiple deities in almost every one of them, never quite seem to “get” polytheism. Most modern people have only been exposed to monotheistic religions and this shows in the campaigns I have experienced and the published material I have read where, instead of a true polytheism, the worship of individual deities is treated as competing monotheisms. Where is the sense of kinship among clerics who worship from the same pantheon? Why does each set of clerics duplicate the same hierarchy for their faiths instead of a shared hierarchy? Why does each god grant the same spells, instead of a cleric asking the appropriate deity from his pantheon for each spell he needs?
The above paragraph poses more questions than this article is long enough to answer. With those questions in mind, however, this author hopes the reader will approach the attempt below to forge a unique, pantheistic vision for just one geographic region of the Flanaess, with an open mind.

OVERVIEW

The Draken Pantheon is the relationship of gods as the people of the Draken Peninsula have come to understand them. These relationships are a mixture of truths the gods passed down to their followers and beliefs generated by their followers that the gods have never refuted. There has been no effort made to distinguish fact from fiction, theology from folklore, in this article.

The Draken Peninsula extends west of the Thelly River as far as Onnwal, and includes the Principality of Ahlissa (formerly South Province and Idee). 1Within this region, the Church of the Draken Pantheon is often considered synonymous with the Orthodox Church of Aerdy. As soon as the recent past, the Church of the Draken Pantheon was actually a heretical branch of the Orthodox Church of Aerdy and condemned as such in the cathedrals of Rauxes. Since the fall of the Great Kingdom, the Orthodox Church of Aerdy has schismed along lines similar to the new political boundaries of the former kingdom. Hence, much of the southern Great Kingdom now resembles the Draken Peninsula in faith while the northern Great Kingdom has moved towards the regional theology of the former North Province. 2

Dwarves, gnomes, and elves had all dwelt in separate areas of the peninsula before tribes of human Flan migrated here sometime before 4970 SD (-546 CY). Three hundred years later, the Oerdians migrated to this area and either eradicated, assimilated, or simply drove out the native Flan. As was Oerdian custom, the gods of the slaughtered natives were adopted so as to appease them. The Oerdians saved excellent records of the local Flan religion, and gradually converted the migrating Oerdians. By 100 CY, the Draken Pantheon was officially adopted when the reigning herzog of the South Province of Great Kingdom converted.

The gods of the pantheon are largely agricultural, warlike, and patriarchal. Urbanization (and its more civilized deities) has been slow in finding acceptance here. The Flan and Oerdian gods do not overly get along, but they do not war against each other either. Rather, they seem content to affiliate as pleases their worshipers.

Idol worship is common, with every shrine having at least one figure meant to represent the appropriate deity. The idol may be abstract or highly representational, depending on the artistic tastes of the community. Some idols may have multiple faces, either representing more than one god or the same god facing multiple entrances to the shrine. Local wealth plays a large role in the decoration of shrines, but the general rule is that villages have wood-carved shrines, towns have ironwork chapels, and cities have silvered cathedrals. A shrine is often little more than an open-roofed structure with a bench and an idol inside. Chapels vary widely in form, but are always roofed structures that hold at least one shrine inside. The length of the cathedral is devoted to a primary deity (most likely Zilchus or Hextor), with the wings of the cathedral being filled with shrines to the rest of the pantheon. Temples belong to an older organizational model for the church and are usually older buildings devoted to a single deity, whereas a chapel or shrine (especially a shrine) may be dedicated to several gods and a cathedral is definitely dedicated to multiple deities.

Godsday observances vary widely by locale, yet some common themes may be seen in them as well. For example, a living sacrifice is almost universally required, though whether it is animal or human is often a matter of geographic preference.3

OBSERVANCES IN PRYMP

The most urban area on the Draken Peninsula is the city of Prymp. It is a small city, but a new city. A young city has little use for old gods and old ways. Most Godsday observances, particularly in peacetime, are more entertainment than solemn reverence. At dawn, followers of Pholtus light candles and march to the cathedral. There, the most pious (decided by size of contributions) are allowed to light a golden brazier that is called “The Lighthouse of the Sun” before the cathedral. References specifically to Pelor are not made at the cathedral, though the older sun god receives his due at some smaller chapels. The highest-ranking shining priest of Pholtus leads prayers to Pholtus, wishing him godspeed in his journey across the heavens and vowing to maintain order on Oerth in Pholtus' absence. At this point, the warrior-clergy of Heironeous come forth to protect the brazier. Since their following in Prymp is small, their part of the ceremony is largely for entertainment value, as the clerics parade about the brazier, displaying their martial prowess with the battle axe. They extinguish the brazier, give their sermons, and carry the brazier back inside. By now a large congregation has gathered to follow the clerics into the nave of the cathedral. There, the clerics of Hextor wait to engage in ritual combat with the clerics of Heironeous. Though no love is lost between these two groups, the battle between them on Godsday is symbolic and bloodless. After this “dance” is complete, the clerics of Heironeous yield and the Hextorites begin their ceremony. They display their sword prowess as they ritually sacrifice an animal (usually an aggressive one, such as a jackal or even a bear). The highest-ranking Hextorite gives sermons on the glory of battle and honors those who have done bloody deeds, such as the veterans of Ahlissa's many conflicts with Idee and Nyrond in the past. Next come the clerics of Fharlanghn, who tell the congregation stories of far-away places. For the remainder of the morning, clerics of Olidammara perform music and share wine with the congregation - sometimes with a prankish splash in the face.

With the passing of noon comes a procession of Zilchite clerics, all pomp and splendor, handing copper coins to the children thronging the aisles in anticipation of their handouts. After they give, they take - collecting donations from the congregation while the church leader preaches fiscal responsibility and respect for authority, plus more propaganda the city's civic leaders have paid for them to say. The Zilchites end their part of the ceremonies by blessing the largest donors with holy water. Next come the clerics of Delleb, storytellers who regale the audience with stories of Prymp's past. Clerics of Celestian then lead a prayer for those who sail the sea (the only official nod to water deities is often made here) and divine the chances of stargazing that night (the closest most people in Prymp come to hearing the results of a predict weather spell). Before supper, clerics of various deities come together and lead the crowd in prayers of thanksgiving. Afterward, most law-abiding citizens leave the cathedral for supper. Those who stay are served a very light meal of water and fish, while clerics of Kurell amuse them with bawdy jokes and riddles. Those who stay do so at their own risk, for the clerics of Kurell are known thieves and recruit laymen thieves to help them work the stay-late crowd. What keeps people staying late, besides the lowbrow humor, is the chance to observe the unannounced arrival of the clerics of Trithereon. They keep an eye out for pickpockets at work, capture them, and punish them to the delight of the audience. Clerics typically receive paddling. Laymen thieves often meet far worse fates.
The cathedral can only hold so many, and the Godsday theatrics always draw a huge crowd, so clerics wait outside throughout the day to prosthelytize to the overflow.

OBSERVANCES IN TRENNENPORT

Far across the Ahlissan Coast from Prymp is the smaller port town of Trennenport. Godsday observances are considerably different here because the community is smaller (approximately one-seventh the size of Prymp), poorer (possessing a chapel instead of a cathedral), and less subtly evil (worship of good deities is strongly discouraged here). The only structured godsday observances are led by the clergy of Hextor. The Hextorites beat gongs, clang swords, and speak prayers asking for victory in all conflicts and thanks for staving off defeat. They do this in the early morning, late afternoon, and late at night. The late night sacrifice is human, always someone weak and powerless. More mercurial are the services to Procan and Kurell. The clerics of Procan beat drums and their followers chant to the rhythm of the waves on the bay - and try to be as loud and disruptive as possible during the early morning ceremony of the Hextorites. The clerics of Kurell foment chaos in their own fashion, refusing to use the chapel in town at all. Rather, the priests spread the message by word of mouth as to where and when each Godsday's services will be. Since the Procan services are disruptive and the Kurell services typically end with group theft, the Hextories often figure into their ceremonies as authority figures come to end the proceedings.

GODS OF THE PANTHEON 4

The following 20 deities are the most prominent deities in the Draken Pantheon and are arranged in descending order of relevance to their followers in the region, as well as the relative importance of each god to the others. This is not always an indicator of the personal power level of each deity, or whether one is a “greater” or “lesser” god. This is also not a comprehensive list of deities, as there are many “hanger-on's” that are affiliated with the Church or considered semi-official.

Zilchus is considered the head of the pantheon. He is a leader and father-figure, though he has no children himself. He is the patron of the Oerdian people, and is responsible for their possession of the Flanaess. Those who wish to improve their lot in life revere him and tithe heavily to his church in coinage. He is the chief deity for whom temples have been built solely for his worship. Most iconography shows Zilchus as a king-like figure. He has no special holy days besides each Godsday. Atroa is the wife of Zilchus. One story is that Atroa wooed him by whispering words of love to him on the wind. He followed her voice to the east, unknowingly leading his followers behind him.

There are six greater gods in the pantheon - Procan, Zilchus, Pelor, Beory, Nerull, and Incabulous.

Procan the Elder, despite his prominence in the Orthodox Aerdy Church, has a minimal role in the Draken Pantheon. He is thanked for having provided the Oerdians with safe passage to

Pelor is the sun personified. He rises at dawn from his golden palace, and rides through the daytime sky on his horse-drawn chariot. The daily task literally takes its toll; the ride kills his horses, tarnishes his chariot, and turns Pelor into an old man each day by nightfall. Luckily, a lady star tends to Pelor each night, three comets seek out fresh horses for the next day's ride, and three planets mend his chariot. Before the Oerdians came to the Flanaess, Pelor was still young and vital enough to drive the chariot alone. But now Pelor is an old god, and young Pholtus often takes the reins for him while Pelor rests in the back. It is vital that the chariot not slow down or deviate from its course, for Nerull is always looking to overtake it and plunge the day into night.

On the first Godsday of each month, wooden icons of Nerull are burned, and icons of Pelor are submerged in holy water. Animal sacrifice is expected from his followers only once a year, on Goodmonth 18. Clerics in training must still sacrifice animals for advancement. A birch tree might be burned to commemorate an important event. One story tells of Pelor leaving his chariot one day because he heard two young warriors cry out for his aid while they were battling a dragon. The sky went dark as Pelor descended to Oerth, wrestled the dragon bare-handed, and strapped it to a plow for the two warriors to use. Pelor once dallied with the moon, Celene, in his youth, and courted Atroa before she married Zilchus.

Beory, the Oerth Mother, usually appears as an old hag. She may be as young as she likes, sometimes reverting from old to young and back in the same day. She often appears to be pregnant, for she is the godess of fertility. She can do good during the day, under Pelor's influence, or evil during the night under Nerull's influence, but always balances the two. She is the caretaker of the whole world, and her worshippers commonly appease her to keep the Oerth fertile and the rain falling. Although recognized by clerics of the pantheon, her most devout followers practice the "Old Faith" of druidism. Each festival week is an important time of sacrificing for the druids. Animals are sacrificed, and the higher level the druid the more intelligent the animal should be. Sacrifices are held at night. Beory has only family ties to the pantheon (she is the aunt of Velnius), and only cameos in much of the pantheon's mythology. One story tells of how Celestian and Fharlanghn were both wanderers of Oerth, until Celestian offended Beory by proclaiming the sky had greater beauty than the oerth. Beory appeared, picked up Celestian, and threw him far into the sky.

Nerull is night, darkness, and death. He has pursued Pelor and influenced Beory since long before the Oerdians arrived. Nerull schemes against Zilchus, believing that death is the ultimate power and that Zilchus encroaches on his sphere of influence. Nerull taunts Erythnul. Nerull is seldom worshipped, being a deity most people try to ward away. Instead of offering sacrifices, many burn effigies of Nerull. Still, fear and respect for the King of the Dead is common. The popular book, The Dance of Nerull, illustrates how everyone -- no matter their rank in life -- will succumb to Nerull. One story suggests that Nerull has a list of items of power he needs to ensure that even the gods will die. Some stories are humorous, making Erythnul the butt of Nerull's jokes. The god of slaughter is portrayed as a bumbler in these stories, delivering the wrong souls, and being punished with a beating from his own mace.

Incabulous, once placated like Nerull, has seen any prominence he once had on the peninsula decimated by the last outbreak of the Red Death. Now Incabulous is shunned by all but the mad and those few brave or foolish enough to call themselves his clerics are tolerated at best and usually shunned.

There are twelve lesser gods recognized in the pantheon -- Atroa, Pholtus, Telchur, Velnius, Celestian, Ehlonna, Fharlanghn, Hextor, Obad-Hai, Heironeous, Erythnul, and Geshtai.

Atroa has already been mentioned. She has served as matriarch of the pantheon in times of crisis when Zilchus has had to leave his golden throne.

Pholtus too has been mentioned in his relationship to Pelor. From Pelor's chariot, Pholtus watches his followers to see if they have strayed from the path of righteousness.

Telchur is most often encountered in the mythology as a pawn of Beory or Nerull in some winter-related nasty business. Telchur is an angry god, bitter for being half-forgotten by mankind.

Velnius is the cousin of Beory and the father of Atroa. Velnius sleeps on the highest cloud in the sky, pestered awake often by his wind daughters with stories of the mortal world.

Celestian has wandered the heavens since Beory launched him into space, but will occasionally return on the back of a shooting star. Ahlissan pirates, for all their evil, revere Celestian as a god of navigators.

Ehlonna was the patron goddess of all wild things that dwelt in the Thelwood. One day, she prophesized that the Thelwood would be overwhelmed by evil and become a forest of bones. She was so despondent that she turned her back on the Thelwood -- and even her own followers in Ahlissa for a time. Luckily, she loved the roses of Ahlissa. A centaur brought her roses to remind her and she came back to care for Ahlissa's horses, still forsaking the wood.

Fharlanghn has crisscrossed the Oerth, making paths for the Oerdians to follow. It is said that Fharlanghn is most interested in the affairs of man of all the gods, and so any passerby on the road may be Fharlanghn, casually observing or looking for good deeds to reward.

Hextor was once a powerful general in service to the Overking of the Great Kingdom. One day, he met six arch-devils on the field of battle. After bragging that he could defeat them all, the devils countered that he would then need six arms. They whisked him away to the netherworlds and grafted the arms from four devils to his torso. They transformed Hextor into an instrument of evil that eventually transcended its torturers and ascended to godhood. Hextor is worshipped by warriors everywhere. He is mistakenly viewed by some as a champion of the underdog, but in truth mankind is just fodder to Hextor now, tools in his plans for further conquest. Hextor was the favored deity of the Chelors, making him extremely popular under their regime.

Erythnul, representing all monstrous gods (Gruumsh is often mistaken for Erythnul by laymen), is seen as the simple country cousin to the rest of the pantheon. Portrayed in folklore as a bumbling oaf who is easily used by deities and mortals alike, Erythnul is either uncaring about such effrontery or cannot deny its veracity. Erythnul's worship has been tolerated where monstrous mercenary troops were used (i.e., South Province), and generally despised everywhere else those troops went.

1 Although an entirely different pantheon has been well-developed by the Living Onnwal group and can be found at http://www.onnwal.org.uk/ataglance-gods-osperm.php, this list should be considered an alternative to that body of work and not supplemental.
2 “The Orthodox Church of Aerdy” is a term that was coined on the Greytalk mailing list circa 1998. The term has been borrowed here, but not used as originally intended (used elsewhere, for instance, as a monotheistic church of Pholtus).
3 The above four paragraphs are altered, but originally appeared in “Ahlissa: a Grehawk Gazeteer” in Oerth Journal (v.2, n. 16).
4 A substantial amount of the following information was shared with the Greytalk mailing list by this author circa 1999.