Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Another Cleric Revision

[Take 2, from the same rules tinkering project]
Cleric. Those who pursue power through faith are clerics. These are fighting men who have sworn special oaths to the gods, which in turn allows them to call on the power of the gods. This power may be manifested in spell-like miracles or control over the undead, for the undead are sensitive to divine power.

Wisdom is the prime requisite for clerics and they gain benefits for having high Wisdom scores. The demi-human races may be clerics, but require twice times as much XP as shown below to advance in level.

Clerics may wear any type of armor, employ shields, and can use any weapons except for “technology” weapons (bows, crossbows, gunpowder weapons, and slings).

When attacking the undead, Lawful clerics roll 1d6 per level for damage, in addition to normal weapon damage. So, a 1st level cleric attacking skeletal undead with a club will do 2d6 damage. A 2nd level cleric attacking a shambling corpse with his bare hand does 3-14 damage (1-2 for the fist plus 2d6 for his level). Further, starting at 2nd level, clerics can do extra damage to undead at range, with or without missile weapons. A 2nd level cleric can do extra damage, as above, at a range of 10 ft. A 3rd level cleric can do extra damage at a range of 20 ft., and so on in 10 ft. increments. A cleric can, at 2nd level or higher, split the extra damage between multiple undead, so if the first undead monster is brought down to 0 hp, the cleric can attack a second undead monster with the remaining points. If the cleric is Neutral, undead suffer no additional damage, but cannot attack anyone on a round that the cleric is “attacking” them (a number of undead equal to the level of the cleric). The Neutral cleric does not have to be damaging the undead, but simply concentrating on them. If the cleric is Chaotic, the cleric gets extra dice of damage as above, but this is subdual damage only. Once the undead is subdued, it will obey the Chaotic clerics’ commands for one round per level of the cleric.

Although most clerics do not begin gaining the ability to invoke miraculous aid until they become acolytes, bonus spells gained by high Wisdom can be gained as early as 1st level. Technically, there is little game mechanic difference between miracles and magic spells, but clerics invoke their miracles differently. The cleric must only be able to speak out loud and give a short speech beseeching divine aid. There will always be some manifestation of presence associated with the spell. For first level spells, this could be a dim glow, a moving shadow, or a startling breeze.

It is through the structure of the organized church that the cleric is taught the mysteries of the clergy, and their powers come from invoking the names associated with their faith. At low levels, clerics can invoke the powers of the church patriarchs, like Milula; local gods, like Raglala of the Whitewood; minor divinities, such as the angel Ulnemne; high prophets of the church, such as Anna Lagnemne; or demigods, such as Izapisne, Izumud, and Rudemne.

Level Level Title Experience Points Hit Dice Fights As Spells
1 Exorcist 0-1,500 1d6 F1 (d6) 0
2 Acolyte 1,501-3,000 2d6 F1 (d6) 1 1st level
3 Subdeacon 3,001-6,000 3d6 F1 (d6) 2 1st level

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Magic-User Class Revision

Those who pursue power through mysticism and spellcraft are magic-users. These men have devoted their lives thus far to the study of magic, so that they may work miracles through study like as clerics do by invoking the gods. While the rewards of powerful spells await them later in their careers, the starting magic-user has but one spell he may cast. He must memorize the spell from his spellbook, and cast the spell that same day or else loose it from his memory. Once a spell is cast, the magical energy actually leaves the caster's body, taking the memory of how to cast the spell with it. There is a chance, however, for magic-users of high or exceptional intelligence to be able to recall a cast spell – literally holding the magical energy in place with mental prowess. Otherwise, all cast spells must be re-memorized the following night.

A magic-user must have his hands free and be able to speak to cast a spell.

Intelligence is the prime requisite for magic-users, and they gain benefits for having high Intelligence scores (see Ability Scores).

Humans and demi-humans can all wield magic and progress as magic-users evenly at lower levels. Only at the highest levels do demi-humans slow in their advancement and full-blooded humans begin to outperform them.

All this studying has left the magic-user with little time for martial training, nor is it allowed. Each magic-user makes a pact with the shadow of night, that they will live by the spell, and defend themselves in combat with nothing but a dagger. Magic-users can wear no armor at 1st level, and only slowly over time learn to cast spells in armor.

At any time, the magic-user may research new spells. The magic-user may research a spell of any spell level that the magic-user is able to cast. Thus, a journeyman could research only 1st level spells, while a medium could research 3rd level spells. Your DM has guidelines for spell research.

Level One
Title: Journeyman XP: 0-2,250
HD: 1d4 Fights As: 1st level

Special Abilities: Each journeyman has a spellbook he was given at the end of his apprenticeship.

Spells in Spellbook: 4 1st level

Spells Memorized: 1 1st level

Journeymen can read and write in one of the languages they can speak (modified by Intelligence).

Limitations: Cannot wear armor while casting spells.

Obligations: Journeymen must give at least 100 gp per year to the regional guild of magic or incur their wrath.

Level Two
Title: Prestidigitator XP: 2,251-4,500
HD: +1d4 Fights As: 1st level

Special Abilities:

Spells Memorized: 2 1st level

Prestidigitators can read and write in one more language they can speak.

Limitations: Prestidigitators may attempt to cast spells while wearing light padded armor, but with a 3 in 6 chance of spell failure.

Obligations: A prestidigitator must best one other magic-user each year in a magic duel (or at least one before leveling). The regional guild of magic expects 200 gp per year. They are expected to purchase any new spells.

Level Three
Title: Medium XP: 4,501-9,000
HD: +1d4 Fights As: 1st level

Special Abilities:
Spells Memorized:
2 1st level 1 2nd level

Mediums can read and write in one more language they can speak.

Limitations: Mediums may cast spells in light padded armor at no penalty or may attempt to cast spells in heavy padded armor or light leather armor with a 3 in 6 chance of spell failure.

Obligations: As per Journeyman, though guild dues are 40 gp per year, and duties may include supervising journeymen.

Sub-Class: Witch
Witches (and warlocks) will likely never set foot in a wizard's guild, and have had no regimented schooling under a mentor. Instead, witches have been instructed in the casting of spells by otherworldly spirits. They are subject to the limitations of magic-users, but none of the obligations. The disadvantage of being a witch is that they do not have spellbooks. They only have access to the number of spells they can memorize, and use simpler memonic devices (beaded strings, clay tablets, etc.) to help them rememorize.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Across the Universe Reviewed

Across the Universe is something I had been waiting to see for awhile. I wanted to see it for the Beatles songs, but kept putting it off because I knew it was other people covering the Beatles…and I remembered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The year was 1978 and a stinker of a movie starring the Bee Gees of all people wrecked some careers and marred a lot of great Beatles songs. Would this new movie do better?

Yes, and right from the start, with Jude (Jim Sturgess) on the beach singing the beginning of “Girl” more hauntingly that it’s ever been done before. I’m hooked. But then the movie does something odd. It cuts to an idealized American prom dance where the kids are dancing and singing to “Hold Me Tight.” Then it cuts to Jude again, in the Cavern Club in Liverpool, listening to the Beatles singing “Hold Me Tight” while his homely Liverpudlian girlfriend also sings “Hold Me Tight.” As any Beatles-phile could tell you (and only a Beatles-phile would know this, being lost on anyone else), if the Beatles are still performing in the Cavern Club, then it’s 1962 and there’s no way any Americans know that song yet. So, in this way we subtly (too subtly?) learn that none of the characters are singing Beatles songs in the movie – like the movie Moulin Rouge, we’re just interpreting their dialog through the medium of the Beatles music.

And most of the time those Beatles songs do sound very good. Evan Rachel Wood, who I watched grow up on the great TV show Once and Again (ironically, I had preferred as an actress the older girl who played Sela Ward’s daughter at the time, yet she’s the one who has since sank into obscurity) has a great voice and does justice to every song her voice touches, as does Sturgess. There is a phenomenal gospel-like rendition of “Let It Be.” Most of the rest of the supporting cast falters, not up to the material – including Bono, who sleepwalks through “I Am the Walrus.” Joe Cocker steps up to do what he does best, covering Beatles songs, and in this case “Come Together.” In an unusual and semi-successful move, British comedian Eddie Izzard (I had to look this guy up online to find out who he is!) sort-of recites “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” with plenty of ad-lib diversions. It is funny, but more bizarre than funny. Sometimes the movie monkeys too much with the music, like “Blackbird,” which Wood sings almost entirely without instruments. Well…there’s a reason that “Blackbird” is a classic and that is because the song is perfect as it is. The adage, “If it ain’t broke” should have been remembered here.

The assortment of songs is pretty diverse, ranging from beautiful ballads like “Something” to nasty bits like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” This reflects the movie’s balanced view of the ‘60s, showing the good and the bad of that culture in those times. The songs give us some wonderful moments. I already mentioned the moving rendition of “Let It Be”, which becomes about race relations. There is also the scene when Sturgess is chanting the mantra, “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” in a futile attempt to stave off the riot going on around him. Some songs have curiously been stripped of their sexual meanings, like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which becomes about military indoctrination (and what a shocking scene when the Uncle Sam posters animate!), and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, which becomes about broken soldiers (its sexiness restored by song’s end only to show how the soldiers have grown to love morphine). These new layers of meaning overlaid on familiar songs surprise and, more often than not, work.

Not that the movie is perfect. There is a lengthy subplot about Sadie and JoJo forming a band, falling in love, breaking up, and making up. I get that Sadie represents Janice Joplin and JoJo represents Jimmy Hendrix, but…why romantically link those two? And while it’s kind of nice to see other music from the ‘60s represented in this way, I don’t think Joplin and Hendrix represent the best alternatives to the Beatles the ‘60s had to offer. If we really have to have pseudo-cameos like this, I would have preferred a Dylan-like character being a mentor figure encountered in a coffee shop, or something like that. Worse is the subplot about Prudence, the lesbian hanger-on who brings absolutely nothing to the plot of the movie except to give the main characters a chance to show how accepting they are. She chews up about 20 minutes of screen time that could have been spent with Sturgess and/or Wood covering “missing” songs that would have fit so well, like “Yesterday” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” Lastly, while the surreal elements like people dressed as blue meanies work well during the pyschedelic scenes and I can accept that the dance numbers are never meant to be taken literally, there is just an overwhelming amount of surrealism here that grates after awhile. Does there have to be so many characters in masks? I got tired of trying to interpret what they all meant (my mother provided an interesting interpretation of the masked women dancing on water and falling into the water, dead, right before the Viet Nam scenes – she believes they represent the My Lai Massacre).

I had originally planned to give this movie a B+ based on my minor problems with it, but after I watched this with Megan, we found that days later we were still discussing the movie and singing the songs from it. It’s a movie that stays with you and keeps you thinking -- makes you re-evaluate the Beatles ouevre and what it can be re-interpreted to mean -- and that surely deserves an upgrade to an A-. Unlike Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the movie that could never take itself seriously, Across the Universe is a loving tribute to the Beatles and their times.

Lastly, I had recommended this movie to my mother and she loved it. Unlike me, who was born in 1971 and missed the wonderful ‘60s entirely, she could speak to me about the authenticity of the movie. Though she’s never seen New York City in person, she said that the psychedelic NYC of the movie accurately reflected the Minneapolis she had known back then. Across the Universe makes me wish I could have seen it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Fighter Class Revision

[Continuing the D&D rules tinkering of the previous post.]

Those who pursue power through force are fighters. The unwilling, conscripted serf. The civic-minded villager just hoping to protect his village. The fighting man (or woman) who wishes to ascend through the ranks of a great army to the heights of secular power. Along the way, these fighters will become formidable warriors, impressive leaders, controllers of land, and wielders of authority. Fighters are assumed to move up a strict chain of command, gaining higher ranks as they rise in experience.

Strength is the prime requisite for fighters and they gain benefits for having high Strength scores (See Ability Scores).

All races have fighters who advance evenly at lower levels (demi-humans of officer ranks or higher will begin to advance more slowly).

Fighters can use any weapon or any armor. However, when in civilized areas or with their units, they are expected to use weapons and wear armor appropriate for their rank. An infantryman, for example, can wear platemail armor that he finds in a dungeon, but may be penalized for insubordination by his commanding officers if he returns to camp wearing it.

As fighters advance in level, they become more experienced at commanding others. This is nonmagical coercion, and only works on NPCs. NPC fighters receive a CHA-based saving throw when not in on an open battlefield (See Saving Throws). Fighters can be commanded to fight or perform other duties befitting a soldier, but are still subject to morale rolls. A fighter can use this ability only once per week of game time, though a higher-level fighter can automatically counteract the orders issued by a lower level fighter.

Level One
Title: Hastat XP: 0-1,750
HD: 1d8 Fights As: 1st level

Special Abilities: Hastati can request to be supplied with small shields or javelins, as needed, at any time.

Limitations: The hastati cannot leave their base unless at war, transferred, or on special missions. Hastati are expected to wear no armor but shields and only throw javelins in warfare (but suffer no such restrictions on special assignments).

Obligations: The hastati serve as light, front rank infantry. They are expected to fight in centuries, units of 100. A hastat is answerable to every officer in his century, which is overseen by a prior (senior) centurion.

Level Two
Title: Principe XP: 1,751-3,500
HD: +1d8 Fights As: 2nd level

Special Abilities: As hastati, except

Command up to 2 levels of fighters for 2 rounds.

If firing a bow, principes may fire two arrows per round.

Principes can request the use of a pack mule, as well as being supplied with padded armor, small or medium shields, javelins, or short swords as needed.

Limitations: Cannot leave base unless at war, transferred, on special missions, or one week's leave for the year.

Obligations: Principes are second rank infantry. They typically fight in six coordinated contubernia (48 soldiers in total), commanded by an optio (junior) centurion.

Level Three
Title: Triari XP: 3,501-5,500
HD: +1d8 Fights As: 3rd level

Special Abilities: As principes, except

Command up to 4 levels of fighters for 4 rounds.

Attack twice per round with a bow on foot, or once from horseback.

Charge on horseback into melee (no attack bonus, but move at horse’s speed).

After attacking with a short or medium-length melee weapon, triarii may attack again at the end of the same round, against the same target, with a punch or a trip (see Combat, Unarmed).

Triarii can request the use of a riding pony, as well as being supplied with up to leather armor, any sized shield, helms, javelins, short swords, or spears as needed.

Limitations: Cannot leave base unless at war, transferred, on special missions, or two week's leave for the year.

Obligations: Triarii are third rank infantry. They typically fight in three coordinated contubernia (24 soldiers in total), supervised by an optio centurion.

Level Four
Title: Cavalry XP: 5,501-8,000
HD: +1d8 Fights As: 4th level

Special Abilities: As triarii, except

Command up to 8 levels of fighters for 8 rounds.

Fire three arrows per round with a bow on foot or two arrows per round on horseback.

Throw a second dart or javelin at the end of the round if on foot.

Charge on horseback into melee (double damage with piercing weapon, plus trample attack for 1d6 damage).

Cavalrymen can request the use of a light warhorse, as well as being supplied with armor up to heavy chainmail, any shield, helms, and any weapon as needed.

Limitations: Cannot leave base unless at war, transferred, on special missions, or four week's leave for the year.

Obligations: Cavalrymen ride in small groups of one contubern (8 soldiers). They are led by a decurion (cavalry officer).

Sub-Class: Barbarian

These primitive warriors advance just like the fighter, and share the same advantages (they command other barbarians instead of fighters). They suffer none of the limitations and obligations of the fighter, but do have three special disadvantages. They command troops as if two levels lower than a fighter and can only command other barbarians. They can never keep more treasure/gear than they can carry. They shun magic and will avoid melee with magic-using/enchanted beings and refuse even beneficial magical aid -- in both cases unless a special saving throw is made (roll level or less on 1d12, see also Saving Throws).

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Cleric Class Revision

[Because I'm always tinkering with the D&D rules, here is a part of an effort I had made in 2007 to micro-manage level advancement for character classes in a different way from the published rules, along with some information specific to a campaign setting I was toying with creating at the time.]

Those who pursue power through faith are clerics. These are fighting men who have sworn special oaths to the gods, which in turn allows them to call on the power of the gods. This power may be manifested in spell-like miracles, or control over the undead. Clerics are organized, and generally Lawful in nature (see Alignment). Their church is hierarchical, so that a cleric advances through ranks of increasing importance.

Wisdom is the prime requisite for clerics and they gain benefits for having high Wisdom scores (see Ability Scores).

The demi-human races may be clerics, but require three times as much xp as shown below to advance in level.

Clerics are decreasingly restricted in the use of armor and weapons as they rise in level, though they can never use edged magic weapons (i.e., any bladed or pointed weapon). Clerics of even the most vile and despicable nature must avoid this taboo, for its origin hails from an ancient pact the gods made after a great war.

After a cleric has proven he is worthy of becoming an acolyte, he may petition the gods for spells. Divine magic does not work in quite the same manner as a magic-user casts spells. The cleric must only be able to speak out loud and give a short speech beseeching divine aid. There will always be some manifestation of presence associated with the spell. For first level spells, this could be a dim glow, a moving shadow, or a startling breeze.

If the cleric has the option of petitioning multiple gods, they cannot be diametrically opposed in Alignment.

The undead are particularly vulnerable to the presence of the divine. All clerics can affect them, but with different results depending on Alignment. In any case, when turning undead, clerics roll 2d6. A result occurs if the result is the same or higher than the number needed (shown below. A successful turning lasts for 3-12 rounds, and affects 2-12 undead monsters. A cleric can only attempt to turn an individual undead monster once per week. If a turned undead monster is attacked by anyone, the turning is broken and the undead may attack back.

If the cleric is Lawful, the undead are forced to flee. Turned undead will move away from the cleric at full movement rate until cornered or time has elapsed.

If the cleric is Neutral, the undead will ignore the cleric as if he was not there.

If the cleric is Chaotic, the undead will obey a simple one-sentence command.

Level One
Title: Exorcist XP: 0-1,250
HD: 1d6 Fights As: 1st level

Special Abilities: The first mystery of the church shown to the newly ordained cleric is how to invoke the names of the potentates of the church, such as the patriarch Milula, to summon divine power. Focused through a holy item, the exorcist can use this power to make weaker forms of the undead recoil, or turn. Your DM will know your chance of undead turning (See Monsters & Treasure).

Exorcists are not entrusted with miraculous prayers (i.e., spells) by the church, but if they possess exceptional Wisdom they may have the ability to invoke them anyway (bonus spells are applicable, even though clerics do not officially start gaining spells until 2nd level). The bonus spells must be chosen from the start from the cleric spell list and cannot later be changed. Each spell may be cast once per 24 hours, during nighttime.

Spells: 0 (but see above)

Exorcists can read and write in one of the languages they can speak (plus more if Intelligence is high or exceptional).

An exorcist can request up to 90 gp worth of purchases (including items, animals, and hirelings) from the church before undertaking a quest.

Limitations: Exorcists may wear padded, leather, or scalemail armor (armor of chainmail or better is forbidden). They may use shields and helms. They may fight only with a weapon that normally has neither blade nor point.

They are expected to tithe 90% of all wealth gained or earned to the church.

Obligations: Exoricists are defenders of the local congregation from the spirit worlds. An exorcist will also have duties at a shrine or chapel that could be as mundane as singing in a choir, tending a garden, or writing documents, but most likely will involve guard duty. Duties will be excused during church-approved quests.

Level Two
Title: Acolyte XP: 1,251-2,500
HD: +1d6 Fights As: 2nd level

Special Abilities: As an exorcist, but the acolyte may call on a local god, like Raglala of the Whitewood; a minor divinity, such as the angel Ulnemne; or a high prophet of the church, such as Anna Lagnemne, for divine spells. The acolyte can pray for a new 1st level clerical spell (plus possible bonus spells for high Wisdom) once every 24-day and can cast it (them) from the beginning of dusk to the end of dawn.

Spells: 1 1st level

An acolyte may request up to 180 gp worth of purchases before a quest.

Limitations: In battle, acolytes may wear armor up through chainmail, but are still limited to blunt weapons.

Acolytes must tithe 80% of all accumulated wealth.

Obligations: An acolyte serves in a shrine or chapel, answering questions from lay visitors, tending to the needs of the faithful, and assisting with services when not on quests.

Level Three
Title: Subdeacon XP: 2,501-5,000
HD: +1d6 Fights As: 2nd level

Special Abilities: As per an acolyte, except as follows. A subdeacon may call on a demigod for their divine spells, such as Izapisne, Izumud, and Rudemne, or any demigod so long as it is recognized by his church and not of an Alignment that runs counter to the general behavior of the subdeacon. The subdeacon can pray for spells once every 22 hours and can cast spells up to one hour before dusk and one hour after dawn.

Spells: 2 1st level

Subdeacons can read and write in one more language they can speak.

A subdeacon can request up to 360 gp in purchases before a quest.

Limitations: Subdeacons must begin choosing a permanent Alignment, and can only call on deities of a similar Alignment from then on without serious repercussions (left to the DM, but should include loss of all clerical powers). For example, if a subdeacon always obeyed mortal laws, a Chaotic demigod would not answer his prayers.

In battle, subdeacons may wear up to heavy splintmail armor. They may wield any blunt weapon and only one bladed/edged nonmagical melee weapon (chosen upon reaching 3rd level).

Subdeacons must give 70% of all wealth to the church.

Obligations: Subdeacons help with the administrative duties of a shrine or chapel. They may preach to the local lay people or conduct other services tasks as needed.

Level Four
Title: Deacon XP: 5,001-10,000
HD: +1d6 Fights As: 3rd level

Special Abilities: As sub-deacon, but deacons may cast 2nd level cleric spells by invoking a demigod of his Alignment. The deacon can pray for spells once every 20 hours and can cast spells up to two hours before dusk and two hours after dawn.

2 1st level 1 2nd level

A deacon can request up to 700 gp in purchases before a quest.

Deacons can wear any nonmagical armor without restrictions.

Limitations: Deacons must act of one Alignment. A pattern of transgressions will be answered by no deities answering prayers for spells (read as no spellcasting ability) until the deacon has in some way atoned (as detailed by the DM).

A deacon may choose one additional bladed/edged nonmagical weapon, either for melee or hurling (such as an axe).

Deacons must tithe 60% of all wealth to the church.

Obligations: The lowest in the hierarchy of church rulers, deacons are in charge of shrines, are personally responsible for the preaching to and conversion of non-natives in their region, and oversee the exorcists, acolytes, and subdeacons in a parish.

Sub-Class: Druid

The druids worship the old gods, primitive deities such as Dapanna-Abadin, Mitanikala, Ruag, and Ututrabu, who ask blood sacrifice of their followers. They advance in level just like a cleric, but gain none of the special abilities past 1st level, except for spell casting. They suffer none of the limitations and obligations of the cleric class.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Last of the Comic Book Eulogies

[The following should -- hopefully! -- be the last comics pulled from my collection for mildew infection.]
Marvel's Greatest Comics Starring the Fantastic Four #56 (May 1975). "When Calls Galactus." Grade: B. Reprinting FF #74, where the return of the Silver Surfer and Galactus should have been much better than this fight between three of the FF and Galactus' Punisher robot (yet another robot, this one without any of the personality of the Sentry). Galactus looks great, everything looks great, but...the whole thing about the Surfer hiding out in the Microverse from Galactus occurs off-panel and is explained to us at the very end. The most important subplot is Reed lying to Sue to keep her out of the fight.
Marvel’s Greatest Comics Starring the Fantastic Four #59 (Oct. 1975). “Shall Earth Endure.” Grade: B+. Reprinting FF #77 when, if you were reading the FF at the time, you were sticking around just for the art. Though Kirby is still at the height of his powers, Lee has slacked off at this point from giving him narrative structure. This whole storyline just doesn’t make much sense. How long was the Silver Surfer in the Microverse, and how did Reed know when the Surfer left? Shouldn’t they have been searching for him harder instead of slugging it out with the Psycho-Man for so long (not that they aren’t gorgeously choreographed fight scenes)? What’s to stop Galactus from coming back and threatening Earth to get the Surfer to work for him again any time he wants?
Avengers #143 (Jan. 1976). "Right Between the Eons". Grade: B-. Englehart meant for this to be the last Kang story, which is odd because he only devotes half of the comic and half of the Avengers to dealing with one of the Avengers' oldest and most important foes. George Perez's art has never looked worse than with Sam Grainger inking it.
Fantastic Four #139 (Oct. 1973). “Target: Tomorrow.” Grade: C. Reed and Sue’s breakup was one of the most natural changes Thomas ever affected on his characters (given how sexist Reed always was), but that is relegated to a single page while Ben, Johnny, and Medusa take on a revamped (but still boring) Miracle Man. Thomas unpersuasively tries to raise the stakes by (somehow?) tying the Miracle Man’s powers to our nuclear arsenal. And, in true Lee/Kirby fashion, the FF don’t win the day so much as are bailed out by a (literal) dues ex machine.
Fantastic Four #174 (Sept. 1976). “Starquest.” Grade: B-. This is epic? Reed finds a switch that turns off all the Mekkans? Johnny is imprisoned in a water bucket and forced to watch Gorr, a yellow Beast-like character, steal his scenes? It’s John Buscema’s art carrying the FF at this point (it may also be worth recalling later that this was one of the stinkiest cases of mildew infestation I ever encountered in my collection).
Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #18 (Sept. 1976). "The Dream Is Dead." Grade: B+. Likely attempting to outdo O'Neil's road trip for Green Lantern and Green Arrow, Englehart here sends Dr. Strange and Clea back through time to rediscover the magic of America, literally. This requires a bit of historical tweaking, making Sir Frances Bacon and Ben Franklin real mystics, so they don't freak out when Dr. Strange casts spells around them. Intriguing concepts to say the least, but...it seems hard to believe that a human wizard, Stygryo, can elude Strange so many times in a row, and Clea is still being treated as painfully naive, allowing herself to be seduced by Franklin just because Strange won't put out all the way for her.
Superhero Catalog of Games, Books, Toys, Puzzles; Vol. 1, No.1-5 (1976-1977). Grade: D. I loved these catalogs when I was growing up. They are chock full of comic book-related merchandise, accompanied by snazzy art and text done by people like Roger Stern, Rick Veitch, Jim Salicrup, Karl Kessel, and Bob Budiansky (all just starting out?), helped initially by Marie Severin, and master Joe Kubert slapping a brand new cover on each issue. I used to dream about having all the cool stuff pictured inside. But one day I talked my mom into sending away for the Spider-Man webshooters advertised. In the days before silly string, these were cheap, wrist-mounted plunger-shooters. I was so disappointed, that I'm giving the serial a D!
Eternals: When Gods Walk the Earth #1 (Jul. 1976). ""The Day of the Gods." Grade: B. Semi-promising re-start of the New Gods with gorgeous Kirby art and an interesting anti-hero in Kro, but too talky, as Kirby tended to get when he wrote himself. Ikaris, or Ike Harris, is simply boring (the shroud gun that takes him out of the fight basically just throws a sheet over his head). Nice foreshadowing for the arrival of the Celestials.
Eternals: When Gods Walk the Earth #7 (Jan. 1977). "The Fourth Host." Grade: C+. Kirby makes the Celestials look awesome, but the story fails every time a character opens his mouth. Ajak the Eternal is the only Eternal present and spends most of his time groveling like a pansy to the Celestials, except for when he's going down with one punch from an ordinary human.
Eternals: When Gods Walk the Earth #8 (Feb. 1977). "The City of Toads." Grade: A-. Here the Eternals saga kicks into high gear, with the exciting elements of undersea Lemuria, the "return" of Ransak (= Bug from the New Gods), the love/hate relationship between Thena and Kro, and Kirby actually showing the philosophy of the characters instead of telling us (tellingly, the Eternals get bored and leave when an anthropologist tries to sum up their backstory).
Taking a Chance...With No Chance to Win (1976). Grade: D+. Mercifully short, preachy story about kids learning the dangers of cigarettes from a fellow student. Maddening that I can't place the artist, as it looks like it was ghosted by a professional.
Man Called Nova #11 (July 1977). "Nova No More." Grade: B-. Ugh, here's Sal Buscema again! And Wolfman's dialogue is as exposition-heavy as ever. It's so hard to take the Sphinx seriously in his goofy costume, but the Sayge/Sphinx relationship/mystery is maybe the best thing to come from Nova's comic book. Star Trek jogging Nova's memories after the Sphinx tries to suppress them is a nice touch too. Looks like the "proving you're a man by standing up to a superior foe even as he kicks your butt" storyline was a cliche even as early as '77. And is Bernie the first gay supporting cast character in comics, or does he just look gay because he's from the '70s? Hard to tell.
Man Called Nova #12 (Aug. 1977). ""Who Is the Man Called Photon?" Grade: B+. Did I say the Sagye was the best thing out of Nova's comic book? No, it's this, which is not only part one of a crossover with Amazing Spider-Man, but part one of an honest-to-gosh murder mystery with superheroics. Rare as this is, the mystery isn't all that original. Spider-Man is suffering from the de-powering Marvel was subtly doing to him in the '70s, as a suspect with no superpowers is briefly able to hold his own against Spidey (and the same thing happens again in part two). Plus Nova, as Richard Ryder, punches Peter Parker and Peter actually seems to be knocked back by it. And then there's that goofy scene where the soon-to-murdered physicist guesses Peter is a superhero just by using anagrams of his name.
Daredevil: the Man Without Fear #150 (Jan. 1978). "Catastrophe." Grade: B+. Carmine Infantino and Klaus Janson put their all into the artwork here, perhaps inspired by their chance to work with Jim Shooter. Matt's dream sequence deals with the difficulties of proving mind control in a court of law. The dashing Paladin is introduced in a pretty good fight scene that gives DD competition to catch the Purple Man. And the last two pages set us up with an daring, edgy cliffhanger that wraps up Shooter's stint on the book.
Daredevil: the Man Without Fear #151 (Apr. 1978). "Crisis." Grade: B. Edgy material, with Matt's girlfriend Heather's father committing suicide, Matt revealing he's DD to Heather, Heather blaming Matt, Matt blaming himself, and Matt giving up being DD until he sees a boy almost killed by a hijacked bus. Though Heather's problem is nicely left lingering, Matt's defeat of his self-doubt is more pat, with him deciding all he can do is try his best by story's end. I'm skeptical about burning clothes making enough smoke to smoke the bad guys out of the hijacked bus. Guest-artist Gil Kane's art is almost unrecognizable under Janson's inks and might just be layouts. Most of the plot is left over from Shooter's run that just ended.
Daredevil: the Man Without Fear #152 (May 1978). "Prisoner." Grade: B. Infantino's art looks pretty good here, with Janson's inks giving it a modern, gritty look that conceals Infantino's Silver Age origins. DD solves Foggy's love life problems with depressed Debbie in interesting, superheroic fashion, we get an interesting teaser about what Deathstalker (a super-cool villain) is up to, but then have to wait through a dull Daredevil/Paladin fight that is there to remind us that Paladin is tracking down the Purple Man (since DD is too busy with other subplots). Busy, busy!
DC Comics Presents Superman #3 (Nov. 1978). "Riddle of Little Earth Lost." Grade: A. Superman teams up with Adam Strange, thanks to a pre-Marvel David Michelinie channeling Julie Schwartz. This is a smart sci-fi mystery, with the two heroes mysteriously appearing on each other's adopted worlds -- or have the planets changed places around them? It's all thanks to an obscure Strange villain named Kaskor, who even makes use of Superman's little-noted vulnerability to red sunlight. Best of all is the gorgeous art of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
DC Comics Presents Superman #4 (Dec. 1978). "Sun-Stroke." Grade: B. Superman teams up with the Metal Men in a story that doesn't take itself too seriously, even as the Earth is threatened by an obscure Hawkman villain named I.Q., no less. Highlights include the giant monster Chemo sitting patiently listening to I.Q.'s exposition and Superman triple-checking I.Q.'s math and proving him wrong (something that would never happen post-Crisis when Superman was dumbed down!). Len Wein turns in some above-average writing, and we're treated to more of Garcia-Lopez.
Mickey Mouse and Goofy Explore Energy Conservation (1978). Grade: C-. Long, preachy story where Mickey teaches Goofy about energy conservation and then, because there are more pages to fill, Goofy dreams about a talking ball of energy preaching to him some more. Best moment is Goofy envisioning what his children would look like.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ratatouille Review

Despite Pixar's reputation (and Brad Bird's reputation specifically) for excellence, I avoided Ratatouille in theaters because...well, it has rats in it. A lot of rats in it. Crawling all over people's food. Sounds like a recipe for a horror movie, but like I said, this is Pixar and Brad Bird. Combine the two, and they can do ANYTHING. And here's they've taken what is on the face of it a horrible concept -- rat helps man cook -- and made another masterpiece of a movie out of it. So why was I so surprised? Well, this movie is all about surprising you and making you look past your expectations. Talking about a movie full of surprises necessitates a lot of spoilers so – SPOILER ALERT!

Remy is a classic character, like the coal miner's son who wants to be a poet, but a rat. The interplay between young dreamer Remy and his practical, clan-oriented father is spot-on and well-dialoged. The rest of the rats seem to just be there for comic relief, but these two shine as real characters. When Remy starts meeting humans, you’d expect him to be able to talk to them. Not that it makes sense for a rat to be able to talk, but because it makes it easier for the storyteller. Lazy writers condition us to be lazy viewers and accept things like this so the story can move along faster, but this movie does not take the easy way (with two exceptions. Remy has to be able to understand French – vital to the whole movie is that the two are able to communicate somehow -- and Remy is able to control Linguini’s limbs by simply pulling his hair. Deleted scenes show Remy running down Linguini’s arms inside his sleeves and moving his hands from underneath, which would have been more believable, but this is simpler and allows for puppeteer metaphors that are exploited for humor in the dialog).

If the movie has a wrong note at all, it is the love interest sub-plot. That Linguini and Colette are linked together romantically at all feels tacked on and artificial to me. It would make more sense if she were playing him to find out his secrets, but that would have introduced another subplot entirely, and it wouldn’t look “right” for the only important female character to be unsympathetic. And Colette is a surprisingly sympathetic character. Colette starts off looking like a typical Disney anti-stereotype, all anger and sass, like Meg from Hercules. But we wind up seeing her getting some of the most important moments in the movie. We’re introduced to her character flaw early on -- that she idolizes Gusteau’s appreciation for “the new,” but she does not feel ready to embrace “the new” herself. The movie pauses every time Colette is forced to deal with something new. In this sense, the movie is almost more about Colette than Remy. Remy’s epiphany, that he already knows who he is and should stop feeling torn between two worlds, is rather obvious and told to us by Remy’s imaginary companion, Gusteau’s “ghost.” But we watch Colette struggle towards her epiphanies, first when she has to choose between accepting Linguini’s (accidental) advances or macing him, then when she has to choose between slapping Linguini or simply walking out on him (the agony on her face is amazing considering she’s just a drawing!), and ultimately when she has to decide if she really believes in what Gusteau stood for.

Linguini, a comic klutz, surprises us too. I didn’t know how he would wind up not killing Remy when they first meet, as that was what he’d been told to do. But when it happened, it was so obvious – Linguini just started talking about his problems in front of Remy. For a klutz, Linguini is remarkably self-aware and an excellent friend to Remy. That’s one of the things this movie does – it presents you with character after character that surprises you when it makes you care about them. You care about Remy, despite him being an (ugh) rat. You care about Linguini because he is so good to Remy. You care about Colette because she is growing as a person before our eyes. You care about Gusteau’s legacy, even though we never really meet the character except on TV or in Remy’s imagination. And then there’s Anton Ego, the restaurant critic who is presented to us in a way that signals “this is the main bad guy” to our lazy viewer expectations. We’re led to expect this through the whole movie until the moment when Anton has HIS epiphany that leads him back to his childhood and how food really mattered to him as an expression of motherly love – and suddenly you care about Anton in a way that’s making me misty-eyed just typing this! And, like Colette, it’s all wordless! You just see these amazing epiphanies happen before your eyes and you see more truths laid bare before you than most live action movies are capable of doing.

The other thing this movie does so well is surprising you with situations where you don’t know where the movie is going to take you next, yet makes it look perfectly natural when it takes you there. Just over halfway through the movie, it’s reached a sort of equilibrium where Linguini and Remy are working well together and everything could have ended at that point semi-happily and you wonder where the movie will go for the rest of it – and then Remy finds the will, Remy is found by Skinner, and a fantastic chase scene elevates the whole movie to a new level for the final third. Skinner’s comeuppance, coupled with the unfortunate but comedic imprisonment of the health inspector, could easily have been glossed over in a lazy movie, but these actions have real consequences here. Of course they would, but we’re not used to seeing realistic consequences when they run against the heroes in a comedy. And yet, that’s just the twist ending that we get here – that the happy ending is entirely different than what we were expecting. Gusteau’s restaurant isn’t saved, just the people. Since the main theme of the movie is embracing something “new” (which isn’t really about cooking, but about challenging your preconceptions about other people; just like Remy isn’t really about being a rat, but about being a person who’s different from us), of course it doesn’t end with everyone embracing the “old” restaurant, but – again – we are caught off guard by our own preconceptions. A deleted scene would have introduced us to the old restaurant, coldly opulent, filled with unhappy-looking rich people, with a long zoom in which would have contrasted the long zoom out at the end through the warm, friendly bistro filled with happy-looking proletariats (both human and rats). These bookend scenes would have shown us how everyone has grown and been transformed by movie’s end, but the first scene might have foreshadowed too much – that there was something wrong with the “old” restaurant that we don’t see until the end, and then that too seems obvious.

And there is so much else to recommend! Little things, like our first view of Linguini being seen through the fire from a flambé dish, foreshadowing that his arrival at the kitchen is going to be his baptism of fire. And the fact that all the celebrities providing voices are not using their normal voices. As if they were not hired for who they are, but what their voices brought to the role. I didn’t recognize anyone, not even Peter O’Toole, while I watched the movie, but I wouldn’t have replaced a single one of them. For a movie with so little room for improvement, I give it an enthusiastic A+.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Students in HECC

[A one-panel strip idea I had to replace the unpopular (with the staff) "Journey into College". It ran this one time only in the ECC Observer Feb. 18, 1993 issue. Their lack of confidence in it is evident from its small space allotted. The people aren't that great, but those are some of the best cars I've ever drawn.]

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Journey into College - Vol. 1, No. 2

[From the ECC Observer, Nov. 3, 1989 issue.]

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Misc. Comics Graded (the Project Continues)

[More eulogies for mildewed comics trashed from my collection. Now, I'm using reprint titles instead of "pretending" I had copies of the original stories.]

Marvel Tales #10 (Sept. 1967). "Kraven the Hunter." Grade: B-. Reprinting Amazing Spider-Man #15, plus an early Thor tale, a Human Torch tale from Strange Tales, and a Wasp-narrated back-up from Tales to Astonish. The tales are decreasingly good, from a Lee/Ditko classic, to good-looking Kirby art, to a typical Tales to Astonish pre-superhero alien tale (with the Wasp tacked on as a framing device), to an early Thor tale that falls extremely flat (R. Berns, an obscure early writer for Marvel, treats Thor's hammer as his central motif and reduces it to a gimmick, while Sinnot's art has none of Kirby's later sense of mythology).
Marvel's Greatest Comics #24 (Dec. 1969). "Death of a Hero." Grade: B+. Lee and Kirby not quite at their Fantastic Four-best. Hurt mostly by the then-new inking of Chic Stone. Lee shows how he earned equal billing with Kirby for dialogue, as the death scene at the end really makes the story. It's hard to imagine a battle between Iron Man and Attuma of Atlantis being so bland, but Lee and Heck pull that off next. The Watcher tale is Tuska's first silver age art for Marvel and looks to have been inked by him as well in an almost Wolverton style. Lastly, Ditko shows what he can do on a Dr. Strange tale, making it look spectacular even without the aid of any major villains. Plus pin-ups!
Marvel's Greatest Comics #26 (April 1970). "A House Divided." Grade: A-. Lee and Kirby are at their best here when they're playing the Thing for laughs, such as having him try on a Beatles wig or having him stub his "pinky toe" in a tantrum. Lee also understood the importance of continuity, having Sue startle a taxi driver while invisible (like in FF #1) and referring to captured skrulls (from FF #2) and Dr. Doom's time machine (from FF #5). The story, though, is weak, with Gideon's "master" plan to have the FF kill each other too dependent on coincidence and lucky misunderstandings, and Gideon's morale reversal at the end seems entirely unconvincing. Following that is an Iron Man story that starts out pretty good, with Count Nefaria forcing Tony's gambling addicted cousin Morgan into trying to trick Tony into thinking he's gone crazy. Compare this to a Lee-scripted story, using Mysterio or Dr. Faustus to explore the hero's psyche. Here, guest writer Al Hartley adds a very DC-like twist where Morgan's scheme to make Tony think he's seeing aliens backfires because he really does see aliens! And they're green men from the moon named after cheeses! Hey, that's okay, because the next story is an A+ Kirby masterpiece, one of the first Captain America stories from Tales of Suspense. Hard to believe this confident inking is from the same Chic Stone whose inking looked so feeble on Kirby just a short while ago. Last is another Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange story, part of the classic Eternity saga, in which Dr. Strange has to fight the traps guarding the Ancient One's mind. Pretty cool idea (it came from Ditko -- cited as plotter).
Mighty Thor Starring in Marvel Spectacular #15 (June 1975). "This Battleground Earth". Grade: A. Reprinting Thor #144, Colleta on Kirby still looks good to me. The Enchanters are formidable foes for Thor and their battle is full of creativity. Not sure how Odin forsaking the power of the rest of the pantheon also drains the rest of the pantheon. Wouldn't it give them power back? Ah well. We even get the Warriors Three in a back-up!
Mighty Thor Starring in Marvel Spectacular #17 (Sept. 1975). "If the Thunder Be Gone." Grade: A. My first Thor comic book. The Circus of Crime are such colorful foes. The Golden Bull is an intriguing Biblical infusion, nicely complementing Thor's inherent paganism. Odin continues to be the worst parent ever.
Mighty Thor Starring in Marvel Spectacular #18 (Oct. 1975). "The Wrath of Odin." Grade: B+. Is Odin nuts? He forgives Loki constantly, turns his "omniniscient" eye away from his every transgression, yet he watches Thor, Balder, and Sif like a hawk and punishes them for any little thing. Who's the supervillain here? The back-up feature, concluding the Harokin mini-saga, is great, with Harokin being escorted into Valhalla in a sequence that just drips with genuine mythology.
Marvel's Greatest Comics Starring the Fantastic Four #84 (Jan. 1970). "Our World -- Enslaved." Grade: B+. Magneto has taken over Atlantis' army (apparently Namor's generals are incredibly subservient, or just battle-hungry) and used them to attack New York City. Somehow, all this takes place over hours without a single casualty. Romita Sr. and John Verpoorten do dismal justice to following up Kirby on art chores. Redeeming this issue is a very telling appearance by then-President Nixon, unsure of who the enemy is but determined not to lose, and the ending itself. Magneto's unwillingness to stop using his magnetic power, even to free himself from Reed's magnetic inversion cone, perfectly demonstrates the limitation of being a villain and unable to change one's self for the better. Reed gives a great mini-speech at the end about how Earth will know peace when every man calls his fellow man brother -- maybe a little cheesy, but you can tell Lee believes it.
Invincible Iron Man #77 (Aug. 1975). "I Cry: Revenge." Grade: B. My first Iron Man comic book. Arvell Jones' ridiculously bad art starts ominously with a worm's eye view of the Mad Thinker's crotch and doesn't get much better. The Iron Man/Yellow Claw battle is good, imaginative, and clearly the highlight of the issue, though it is interesting to learn that the Black Lama has been working behind the scenes for the last two years' worth of Iron Man issues. I suspect this whole "War of the Super-Villains" story arc was set up to make new villain Firebrand into a major player, but since he was never used since until killed off, it's pretty obvious that letting him beat Iron Man when his armor was almost out of power doesn't make him a better super-villain.
Invincible Iron Man #113 (Aug. 1978). "Horn of the Unicorn." Grade: B-. I didn't follow Iron Man closely between '75 and '78, but apparently a lot of goofy things were happening. Jack of Hearts had been following Iron Man around like a sidekick until page 4 of this issue. Reminescent of Superman's robot stand-ins, Tony had been using a Life Model Decoy to protect his secret ID (an LMD is a synthetic copy of Tony's body, but with a brain of limited programmed thoughts, which should raise a lot of ethical issues that are ignored here). And then there's Tony's romance with Whitney, the former villainness Madame Masque, which is not only weird because their relationship is so public and yet raises no public concern, but because he kisses her through her gold face mask. The identity of the "Other" is pretty obvious from the silohuette for anyone who knows his Iron Man foes. Artwise, Rubinstein's tight inks, which usually help any artist, can't seem to rein in Trimpe's bad handling of faces. And the worst offense of all is dumping Jasper Sitwell as a supporting cast character, Iron Man's best supporting cast member from the '60s. But the Unicorn's upgraded costume is impressive and the fact that he's both crazy and dying make him an interesting villain, bumping up this issue's grade.
Invincible Iron Man #114 (Sept. 1978). "The Menace of ...Arsenal!" Grade: A+. So hard to throw out! The guest-artist is Keith Giffin and this early work of his might be his best ever. Why did Marvel let him go over to DC?? In this issue, we get to see the Avengers working together -- including two of my favorites, Yellowjacket and the Beast. The Unicorn's rematch with Iron Man is bumped up a notch, taking place in Avengers Mansion and against most of the team. But the real thrill here is Mantlo's ultimate creation -- the robot Arsenal. The mysterious robot surprise attacks the Avengers and takes down a whole bunch of them before they know what hit them. Maybe Wonder Man is taken down a little too conveniently so Iron Man can shine, but it's hard to complain about an otherwise note-perfect battle. Luckily, I didn't have long to wait until the Arsenal story was resolved in the best Avengers Annual ever.
Invincible Iron Man #115 (Oct. 1978). "Betrayal". Grade: C. So we went from one of the best Iron Man issues ever to this, and how bizarre that, back in '78, going from Giffin to Romita Jr. on art chores was a downgrade -- but that's how young Romita Jr. was then and how unpolished his art skills were until the '80s. And we go from a powerhouse like Arsenal to the Ani-Men, goofy mercenaries who can barely hold their own against Tony without his armor. A lot of this issue, though, is turned over to summarizing the Unicorn's history. And was anyone really surprised to see Madame Masque go bad again?
Invincible Iron Man #124 (July 1979). "Pieces of Hate." Grade: B+. Mantlo is, for better and worse, gone from Iron Man and Michelinie and Layton have begun their classic stint together. Bethany is Cabe is already Iron Man's best romantic love interest ever, practically rescuing Iron Man from Melter, Whiplash, and Blizzard with her diversion and beats Whiplash herself (though it makes Whiplash look like a wimp). Her interest in Tony and lack of respect for Iron Man is realistic and yet surprisingly novel. Awful dark ending, though, when Justin Hammer causes the Iron Man armor to kill an ambassador.
Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #15 (June 1976). "Where There's Smoke." Grade: A-. Englehart, Colan, and even inker Tom Palmer were at the top of their game back here, producing a truly mature body of work with Dr. Strange. This is a slice of life issue, but with Dr. Strange that cant' be boring. Homeless man James Mandarin inventively forces Dr. Strange to take him in by attempting suicide on his doorstep. Wong goes to a convenience store and has to confront whether he is a bad Asian stereotype, serving as Strange's servant (and answers such concerns most capably). Addressed, but not resolved here, is whether saving the world with magic powers makes Dr. Strange a messiah. Less convincing is Dr. Strange and Clea's inability to cope everything on Earth was a recreation made by Eternity, especially since Clea is from a magical universe where strange things would normally happen. And, at the cellular level, don't we all die and get replaced every day?
Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #16 (July 1976). "Beelzebub on Parade." Grade: A. Clea plays helpless hostage while Satan unintentionally helps Dr. Strange do some soul-searching. Still well-written.