Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Best birthday weekend ever?

The best, four-day birthday weekend ever started Friday morning. I was at Wheaton College, giving a 45-minute presentation on local documents to NIDL (Northern Illinois Depository Libraries). They seemed to love my presentation, as did my boss who was there.

That evening, Megan, Tyler and I had our first non-family house guest since Megan arrived, my old friend Ronny. We fed him dinner, I ran them through two quick chapters of a classic Marvel Super Heroes module – M1, The Breeder Bombs -- with Megan playing Spider-Man, Tyler playing the Thing, and Ronny playing Nightcrawler. They did a great job -- I was particularly impressed with Tyler's job as the Thing – and a great time was had by all.

On Saturday morning, I took Megan and Tyler to Half Price Books and gave them some money to buy me a present. Then we went to downtown Bartlett, bought some candy at the candy store there, and walked around to visit the other shops. In time for lunch, we headed to downtown Elgin for Beef Villa, which sends me a birthday card redeemable for a free Italian beef every year, so that's the only time we ever go all the way to Beef Villa. All the food is great there and all the portions, except for the size of their hamburgers, is generous.

After that we went to Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin (Megan's first visit) and spent a wonderful hour and a half there going through their extensive comic book collection. We checked out a near-record 22 books, including things all three of us wanted to read like Top Shelf's Owly and Johnny Boo, and a videotape of Mystery Science Theatre 3000: the Movie. We were leaving just as this big event was starting at the library. The Jesse White Tumblers were arriving – including Jesse White himself who walked right past us. I wanted to stay longer, but Megan and Tyler had enough of the library.

Next we went to Mainstreet U.S.A., a skating rink in what passes for Streamwood's downtown that has been around since I was young. It cost more to get in than I thought it would -- $21 – but it was worth it because it was Tyler's first time ever on roller skates and he surprised everyone, including himself, by loving it. I was so proud to hear him say he was so proud of himself. He fell a lot, but always got right back up and tried again (which is not typically like Tyler). I was also pretty proud of myself for falling the least of the three of us.

We were surprisingly not too hungry at dinner time so we all ate light at home and then headed over to my mom's house where all four of us watched MST3K. Tyler and I loved it and laughed a lot. Afterward, we went home and, exhausted from our full day, coasted into bedtime.

On Sunday, I had to go into work. This was a last minute change of plan that had only sprung up the day before when my coworker Neda called in sick in advance. While I was at work, Megan watched Tyler. Six hours was their longest time alone together yet, but they got along great and had a good day.

After I had come home, had dinner, took them to Mom's house to walk her dog, and then drove Tyler to his mother, Megan and I went to see She's Outta My League at the Picture Show. I thought it was surprisingly good and gave it a B+. Then we came home and watched Chaplin on DVD, a movie I wanted to share with Megan because that was, what I consider, an A+ movie.

Monday, my actual birthday, had some disappointments. Due to some bad scheduling, Megan and I were stuck in a laundry mat for almost two hours. We were both excited about going to Wheaton College to see the C.S. Lewis collection there, but on that day – of all days! – the building was closed for a staff meeting. I’d been waiting until my birthday to show Megan one of my favorite movies, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but she didn’t enjoy it. No one did particularly well at bowling that night and Tyler got his feelings hurt that he lost. Still, an unexpected highlight was our walk through downtown Wheaton instead of Wheaton College. We all had a good birthday dinner at Culver’s with my mom. It was great having the three of them sing happy birthday to me. Megan’s cake that she baked turned out great. I really like the copy of Essential Iron Man vol. 3 that was my birthday present. And after we dropped off Tyler, we went back to Mom’s house and finished watching Harvey there, a classic favorite of mine and Mom’s that Megan and I had started watching before my birthday weekend.

So, while it may have been too much to ask for everything to go perfect for four straight days, it was still a fantastic four-day birthday weekend extravaganza and deserves the title of best ever!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Garham to Greyhawk Campaign: Session Three - pt. 2

Manga slunk off to go follow Ruben. The two of them tried a new tunnel and found it blocked by nets strung with bells. Manga plucked out a bell and set all the bells ringing. When they returned to the party, there was much scolding and slapping to be had again.

Deciding to avoid the bells and take a side passage untried, the company found a passage blocked with rubble, a second passage guarded by a goblin sentry who spotted them and ran to warn others, and – avoiding chasing the sentry – they moved on and found down a third passage a room that was defended by eight adult goblins and five young ones from behind a wall of stakes on a ledge. Manga’s sleep spell put all but three adult goblins to sleep. Two of the goblins moved to block the openings to the ledge on either side of the stake wall. Ruben and Kevlamin stepped up first to oppose them, but Kevlamin stepped back after being seriously injured and Ruben was killed. Clair stepped up to take Ruben’s place and Thelonius advanced to take Kevlamin’s place. Meanwhile, the third goblin was waking others, but the Halfling slingers soon decimated them and the sleeping goblins. The two remaining goblins, both seriously injured, surrendered. Kevlamin told them to choose which would be spared and the goblins turned on each other and strangled each other to death. The treasure haul from this cave was 16 sp, 11 suits of goblin-sized leather armor, and 8 spears.

Returning to the entry cave, barricading them in with stakes, the company chose to stay here and rest while Thelonius prepared his healing ceremony and Manga re-studied his sleep spell. After an hour, Archippos and Nodwick arrived from outside, escorting a prisoner they had caught snooping around nearby. Kevlamin recognized the man as Flex, brother of Ruben. Flex was also a skilled fighter (and even better equipped than Ruben ever was) and was accepted into the company as Ruben’s replacement.

After eight more hours of rest, their stay was interrupted again – this time by an attack. Four goblins were trying to squeeze through the stockade wall one at a time while a bugbear gave them cover fire with a bow and arrow while crouching behind the wall. When Clair managed to hit the bugbear with a thrown spear, the bugbear announced a retreat. The bugbear and all but one goblin were cut down by the Halfling slingers as they fled. Kevlamin claimed the bugbear’s bow and arrows and brigandine armor, while Flex took two morning stars for his own. But it was decided even the entry cave was too dangerous and the company abandoned the caves altogether to go rest back in town. Nodwick complained about all the suits of leather armor he had to carry, though at least the hireling finally had work to do.

Despite Flex’s protests, the friends voted to dispose of Ruben’s body cheaply out in the forest.

In Garham, Kevlamin sold the leather armor to the militia and impressed the militiamen with his tale of bravery in the caves. His altercation with the men-at-arms at Garrison Keep two weeks earlier was forgiven and forgotten. Kevlamin wished to have the bugbear armor refitted to his size, but found it would cost 5 gp he did not have to spare to have a blacksmith and a leatherworker do the refitting together. Flex stopped grieving for Ruben long enough to sell all of his late brother’s equipment. With the money, he was able to carry out Ruben’s unlived dream of owning a pack mule someday. It was around this time that Manga revealed that this was only his magic name – that his true name was actually Rex.

On the 27th, with the friends all healed up and better equipped than ever, they returned again to the Roaring Wolf Caverns. Once again they found the entry cave abandoned – or so they thought. When Flex went to squeeze through the gap in the stockade wall blocking the tunnel to the deeper caves, a carrion crawler reared up, grabbed him with a tentacle, and Flex fell slack in its grip. When Kevlamin and Rex ran up to help out, they too fell victim to its tentacles. Although the insectoid monster had three living shields in front of it, Clair ordered the Halfling slingers to open fire and helped them by throwing more spears. Clair accidentally knocked Kevlamin unconscious with a spear, but the Halflings managed to kill the crawler. After 10 minutes, the paralytic secretions from the crawler’s tentacles wore off on Flex and Rex. But the entry cave no longer seemed like a safe place so they retired to the ravine and made camp under the cloudy, afternoon sky.

After a few hours, a large force of eight goblins on foot, eight more riding wolves and charging with lances, and four bugbears at the rear began to advance down into the ravine towards them. Rex insisted he had only memorized Magic Missile this time, but everyone else assured him he must have been mistaken. For the good of the company, it turned out that he was. His sleep spell and the Halfling slingers made the charge largely ineffectual and only three goblins on wolfback reached the company. Flex and Rex managed to dodge their attackers, but Thelonius was nearly skewered by a lance and only his armor and helmet saved his life. Clair convinced the Halflings to help her lift Kevlamin and Thelonius and take them to the safety of the caves. Flex and Rex would not listen and stayed to fight, even though the bugbears were even now kicking awake the sleeping bugbears on the slope of the ravine. Rex was skewered on a lance and killed. Only then did Flex flee into the caves to join the others in finding a safe haven, or a hidden exit, from the lair of their very would-be killers…
((Ending XP))
Clair – 792 xp
Kevlamin – 923 xp
Flex – 443 xp
Rex2, Setch, and a TBA PC for Joyce will all begin next time with 222 xp

Garham to Greyhawk Campaign: Session Three - pt. 1

Garham Campaign
Session Three – May 8, 2010 (Planting 22, 610)
Kevlamin Serpenthelm human (Suloise) shield-bearer (1st level fighter)(Kevin)
Clair, halfling shield-bearer (1st level fighter)(Megan)
Ruben Soot, human (mixed race) shield-bearer (1st level fighter)(Ruben) - deceased
Flex, human (mixed race) shield-bearer (1st level fighter)(Ruben)
“Manga” Rex, human (mixed race) medium (1st-level magic-user)(Pablo) - deceased

What had gone before: the battle with the bugbears in the Roaring Wolf Caverns had been
inconclusive, with the two sides disengaging – your side because the Halfling slingers had fallen back after four of their members went down, leaving you with no backup, and the bugbears chose not to pursue because they were all injured. Retreating to the ravine outside the caverns, a serious argument ensued between Claire, who wanted to continue pressing against the bugbears before they could regroup, and Kevlamin, who felt their fallen friend Seth deserved a proper funeral. Fredegar, leader of the Halflings, agreed with Kevlamin. Two of his slingers would recover, but two of them – Gerontius and Merimac – were dead and needed funerals as well. Leaving the Hobbits to care for their own in the forest, the friends returned to Garham with Seth’s body and quickly had two more decisions to make – how much to spend on Seth’s funeral and whether to keep Seth’s things or find family to give them back to.

It was formally decided at that point that all decisions for the group would be made by majority vote of all members due an equal share of the treasure ((which included the NPC Thelonius, whose votes were determined randomly)). After much consideration of what to do with Seth's remains, and some negative opinions expressed by Claire and Kevlamin of his value while alive, it was decided to save money on a funeral and burn his remains themselves out in the forest. For at least some appearance of decorum, they brought all his possessions to his cousin Setch ((the name chosen by Seth's player for his next character, though he was not playing this day)). Setch vowed revenge against the bugbears, but was still in training and could not accompany the friends until his training was over ((when he next attended)).

Late on the following day, on the 17th, the friends rendezvoused with their whole party and trekked north once more across the Greenridge towards the ravine where the Roaring Wolf Caverns waited. It had been two weeks to the day since the friends had taken the offer of Lilyana Ortiz to go on an adventure in exchange for her sponsorship into the Adventurers Guild of Greyhawk.

The entry caves still seemed deserted at first, so the company returned to the caves where they had left off. After surprising a lone goblin and overrunning a party of six goblins armed with javelins by force of superior numbers (during which, a Hobbit slinger named Seredic proved himself a noteworthy fighter), all seemed well for a rematch with the bugbears.

It was not to be. An initial encounter with two bugbears led to being boxed in with three bugbears sneaking up from behind. The slingers were drawn into melee with the bugbears at their rear. Two more Halflings – Odovacar and Hamson – were killed and two more knocked unconscious. In the front ranks, Ruben, Claire, and Manga did most of the damage to the bugbears, with Manga emerging seriously injured. Worse yet, the bugbears seemed to be targeting the two people in the best
armor, perhaps mistaking them leaders. Thelonius was knocked unconscious and Daphne was killed by a bugbear who brained her with a morning star. Three bugbears were killed before the last two fled.

Unable to carry out so many dead and injured quickly, the decision was rest up in a cave, turning it into a stockade surrounded by the sharpened wooden stakes found throughout so much of the complex. Guards had to stay alert, for the bugbears would return with bows and arrows and fire on the stockade before fleeing.

Once Thelonius was awake, he recommended staying here long enough for his healing ceremony and then make a run for the exit. Scouting parties found the entry caves were being infrequently patrolled so it just came down to timing their run for the exit just right. On the morning of the 22nd, with goblins and bugbears pursuing them, they managed to run out into the morning sunlight-bathed ravine with their dead.

The first decision that was made was to retreat from the ravine. Then the friends decided they should find Archippos and Nodwick, who had been left outside in the ravine four days earlier and were now missing. Backtracking towards town, they soon found the two missing hirelings at a new campsite. Archippos reported seeing goblins coming and going from the ravine almost every night.

On the way back to town, the friends saw Attloi wagons parked in the poachers-woodsmen's camp. The friends decided not to investigate.

The friends then returned to Garham to restock on equipment. Clair traded in all their fishing gear (since they had decided never to pursue Old Whiskers on the lake) at the Bigfish Trading Store. Torches and lamp oil were the highest priorities, since they had used up all their light sources in the caves. They still planned to rely on poaching in the forest rather than buying rations in town. Kevlamin spent 7 sp to secure two rooms for them at Fester’s Hostel for the next five days.

Because Daphne had proven invaluable to the party, it was unanimous that she be given a more proper funeral. At the expense of 10 gp, she was given a wake at the Garham Chapel, to be followed by a funeral pyre set adrift on Diamondfish Lake that Godsday evening. Her possessions were given to the church, which would use them to outfit any adventuring clerics ((read: future PCs)) in the future.

Ruben was very interested in acquiring a horse when marketday came around on the 24th, hoping to find one cheaper than they were sold for at the stables in town, but found even a pony there beyond his means. The horse-trader promised to still be in town on the 26th, when the market reopened after Godsday.

Ruben also took it open himself to find out more about the mines that the bugbears threatened. He decided to go straight to Balabar Smets at home and ask for information, even though Kevlamin warned him about the surly guards at his manor. Sure enough, the guards were uncooperative and mocked him. Manga, growing restless from this prolonged stay back in town, had followed Ruben and decided to attack the guards. Ruben joined in. Though they managed to knock down and hurt one of the guards, Manga was knocked out by the other and Ruben fled when outnumbered. Later that day, the friends found Manga, instead of being killed or arrested, unconscious and naked, left up in a tree. Kevlamin bought him new robes and a dagger, but after Manga woke up there was much scolding and slapping to be had.

On the morning of the 26th, the friends set out early, met up with their squad of Hobbit slingers along the Woodsmen's Trail, and returned to the caves. Ruben volunteered to scout ahead while the others reset stakes in the entry cave to turn that place into their fall-back stockade.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cartoon Art

[A sketch I'd done at work circa 1996, when I was hugely into The Far Side.]

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Collecting Comics

[The rest of my Free Comic Book Day script.]
Hi, everyone! Thanks for coming. The flier says I’m going to talk about comic book collecting and I had planned on doing a comic book Q&A – but that’s okay, I can give a short talk to you about collecting comic books to kick things off and then get to questions. If you didn’t come with a question to ask, that’s okay too! I prepared some questions for you – all you have to do is pick one and ask it when the time comes.

Tony Isabella wrote, “the golden age of comic books is when you’re 12.” So, let me tell you briefly what collecting was like when I was 12. It was 1983 when I was 12 and this comic book came out when I was just entering Tefft Middle School. It’s from Marvel Comics. Marvel and DC Comics were the two big companies back then and that’s still basically true today. Back then, there was a lot of company loyalty among fans. Marvel’s loyal readers didn’t read DC’s books. We were called Marvel zombies. The companies even played up this rivalry and every year the two companies would have a baseball game against each other. Marvel was producing around 40 or just over 40 comic books a month back then. This comic book cost 60 cents. If I had $25 a month back then, I could have bought every comic book that came out every month. Nowadays, $25 would get me six comic books. Only six.

Back in the ‘80s is when collectors started being told to bag their comic books in plastic sleeves to protect them. If I recall correctly, we were told to double bag them, but I’ve never seen comic book stores doing that and I certainly could never afford to do so. Between the sleeve and the comic would be a cardboard sheet that would keep your comic book from bending. And you were supposed to stand up your comic book collection instead of laying them down flat, as there was less risk of them bending if standing up. We were also told to change the plastic sleeves over time, though that could get pretty expensive if you had a lot of comic books and I never did it. I had to throw out a lot of comic books because of that. The plastic sleeves are supposed to keep mildew away from your comics, but if mildew does get in, or you put a mildewy comic book in plastic, the plastic sleeve is no good. And, eventually, the mildew will spread even inside the other plastic sleeves around them.

If you wanted to buy this same comic book today, there’s three ways you could do it. You can go to a comic book store, check for this in their back issue bins, and pay maybe $3 for it. You could go online and try to win it in an ebay auction. You might get it for only $1.50 that way. Or you can go to Marvel’s web site and subscribe to their digital comic book collection. For $10 a month, you can access thousands of comic books from Marvel’s history online. You can buy digital comics from almost every company except DC Comics, which has refused to jump on this bandwagon.

Now, you might wonder why a comic book from almost 27 years ago now costs $3 when it used to cost 60 cents. That’s simple economics – if something is harder to find and people still want it, you can charge more for it. Now, back in the ‘90s, this principle fooled a lot of people into thinking that they could invest in a comic book that would become hard enough to find that it would be worth hundreds of dollars. Only comic books from the 1960s or earlier are that hard to find and that rare and valuable, but the whole speculator craze of the ‘90s turned a lot of people off of comic books when they found out their collections were worth almost nothing. So, if you do collect comic books, learn the lessons of the past and ONLY buy them if you like them, not to try to make money off of them.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Comic Book Q&A - pt. 2

Q: What’s the interest in publishing comics with characters not seen in 60-70 years these days?
A: As you know, you can’t make your own comic books featuring Superman or Spider-Man and sell them, because those characters are the property of DC Comics and Marvel Comics respectively. But there were many comic book companies that published comics in the 1940s and 1950s –Better, Centaur, Fawcett, Fox, Hillman, Lev Gleason, and Quality are just some of the better-known ones – that went out of business. For the most part, no one ever bought the properties of those companies so, over time, they became public domain characters. Anyone can take a public domain character, like Amazing-Man or Black Terror, and write and sell new stories for those characters. The only catch is that you have to base your character off the original stories – you can’t borrow from anything another publisher using Black Terror is doing nowadays. The benefit of using a public domain character is that you aren’t trying to introduce a brand new character into a crowded marketplace. These characters have history to them – often just a few issues’ worth published decades ago -- but at least some history. There aren’t any public domain characters featured in our Free Comic Book Day giveaways, unfortunately, but the big company cashing in on public domain characters right now is Dynamite Comics, but DC, Marvel, and Image have been using more public domain characters too.

Q: Why do you only hear about superheroes when it comes to American comic books?
A: Because the superhero genre is a creation unique to comic books. There were some precedents for it – some clues that this was coming, but no one noticed them at the time until Superman seemed to come out of nowhere back in 1938. Before that, most comic book stories were adventure stories with ordinary detectives, explorers, or pilots, or they were funny animal stories.

Interest in superhero comic books dried up after WWII and then the only comic books that were selling well, except for Superman and Batman, were cowboys and funny animal comics. Now, cowboy comics, or westerns, disappeared back in the 1970s, but funny animal comics have never gone away. Disney comics have been around almost since the very beginning and are still published today – though not always by the same company.

After superheroes, the comic book industry tried other genres and some – gangster, horror, supernatural, comedy, romance – did sell very well for a time, but none of them have had the staying power of superheroes. Remember, Superman has never had poor sales in his 72 years of existence. And, ever since the genre as a whole made its comeback in the late 1950s/early 1960s, superhero comics have stayed the best-selling comic books.

The benchmark for a best-selling comic book always used to be 1 million copies sold in a month. Back in the 1940’s, lots of comic books sold over a million copies a month. Most comic books don’t get even close to that anymore. The last comic book to pass that amount was an X-Men comic book and that was almost 20 years ago – but it was a superhero comic book that last passed that amount and the industry is betting that it’ll be a superhero comic book that passes that mark next time, if it ever even happens again.

Q: What is the significance of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman?
A: DC Comics sometimes refers to them as their “trinity”. These are the only three superhero comic book characters ever that have always been in continuous publication from the very earliest years of the history of comic books. Think about how many comic books that is. These characters have been published in thousands of comic books, since 1938, 1939, and 1941 respectively. Now, in Superman’s case, that’s because he’s always been a popular character. Believe it or not, there was a time in the mid-1960s when Batman was not a popular character. His titles were almost canceled. Then the live action TV show with Adam West came out and gave the Batman comic books the shot in the arm for sales that they needed. Wonder Woman is a much more unusual case. Wonder Woman has never been as popular as other superheroes, but DC Comics started publishing Wonder Woman under a special contract with the man who created the character. If DC ever stopped publishing Wonder Woman comics, ownership of the character would revert back to the creator or his family. So, in order to keep the character for its licensing value, DC has never stopped publishing Wonder Woman.

Now, that feat is remarkable for superheroes, but there is one other character that has stayed in print just as long without stopping – Archie Andrews, who first appeared as a teenager in a humor comic book back in 1941 and has stayed a teenager ever since.

Q: What is the meaning of “The Golden Age of Comics” and the “Silver Age of Comics”?
A: The 1940s is known as the Golden Age of Comic Books because comic books have never sold better than they did in the 1940s. But it wasn’t known as the Golden Age of Comics at the time. When the kids who grew up in the 1940s came of age in the late 1950s, the nerdiest guys who still loved their comic books from the 1940s would write to comic book editors saying that they needed more comic books like they had back in the “golden age” of comic books. You remember what I said about the golden age being whenever you’re 12 – well, that was the golden age for them. Only, when they said it back then, the name stuck and we’ve been calling it the “Golden Age” ever since. And they were successful too – comic book editors brought out new versions of old favorite characters – the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and so on – and those characters ushered in what was then called the Silver Age of Comics.

The Silver Age of Comics was a new boom, or surge, in comic book popularity that lasted until the end of the 1960s. During the Golden Age and the Silver Age, most of the comic book characters still around today were introduced.

Now, comic book collectors like being able to categorize things and it long bothered people that the Golden Age ended in the late 1940s and the Silver Age began in the late 1950s – what to call the years in between? So they made up the name “the atomic age”, that few people other than old comic book collectors use. Likewise, the decade before the Golden Age became known as the platinum age, and the decade after the Silver Age, the 1970s, that was called the bronze age. Things get a little trickier after that because all these newer names started coming about in the 1980s and, then, they called the 1980s the modern age. But, of course, the 1980s isn’t modern anymore and it seems silly to call the last 30 years the modern age when every other age was only 10 years long. Some people have suggested names for these decades – my favorite was calling the 1990s the zirconium age – but for the most part not enough people have been able to agree on any new names for ages. Nothing has really stuck. Maybe someone in this room will come up with the name that will wind up getting used for the comic books made after 2000.