Friday, August 12, 2016
It feels good to hold this book in my hands. It's 220 pages, full color, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. This book is the counterpart to the Field Guide to Superheroes project I did with Vigilance Press, and both ultimately have their roots in a course on the Heroic Epic I took with Darren Miguez back in Vegas, so long ago I honestly don't remember the date.
The original list of 40 villainous archetypes didn't change too much from my initial list all those years ago, though it grew a little to include 21st century boogie-men like the Terrorist and the Evil CEO. A handful of the characters in this book were invented long ago for the Worlds of Wonder setting, but I always had more ideas for heroes in WoWo than I did villains, which is why the Field Guide to Superheroes was so easy and the Handbook took many years. I have come a long way when it comes to collaboration; I have learned to let artists design, because they do that better than me, and I have learned a bit about how to nudge concepts artists give me into something I am more enthusiastic about writing.
One of the key parts of this book is the YOUniverse, which is a setting embracing the concept of public domain. There are several public domain characters in this book, including the Black Terror, Hugo Danner, Stardust the Super-Wizard, Women in Red, Miss/Black Fury, Green Turtle, Night Bird, Wolf Savage, and even Dracula, Robur the Conqueror, Captain Hook, and the Egyptian sorceress called the Beetle. Other public domain characters -- like Sherlock Holmes, Amazing Man, and Lash Lightning -- feature in the background of these characters even if they're not personally represented. But all the 55 characters in the Handbook are public domain, even if they did not start off that way. I did this for a very specific reason: I was tired of inventing settings which, a few years later, I could not continue writing because someone else owned them. This happened with Worlds of Wonder. I didn't want to spend all that time making something and then be unable to develop it. Mike was totally supportive of the idea of making the characters public domain, which was totally against his own self-interest. I can't express how grateful I am.
The idea of including support for running super villain RPGs came from reader feedback. I was initially cold on the idea, as I prefer games in which the players cooperate and are heroic. But as I delved into the idea and read up on what other writers had done with it, I began to see how I could help GMs and players in an all-villains game. I ended up with nine different campaign models for super villain gaming, and most of them, I would totally be happy playing in.
We priced this book at $20 which, honestly, is a steal. For a book this size, with interior color art, the fair price is at least $25 and maybe $30. If you buy the print book, you also get the PDF for free (something I first saw with Evil Hat's Fate games, and loved).
If you are interested in super villains -- how they are portrayed in comics, TV and film, the stories they tell, and the symbolic meanings they embody -- I think you'll like this book. And if you're a gamer, you'll love it.
Check it out.
Friday, August 5, 2016
I also managed to avoid watching any of the many (so many!) trailers and promo spots for the new SUICIDE SQUAD film. I did, however, read that the film went back for extensive re-shoots after the two-hit combo that was BATMAN V SUPERMAN and DEADPOOL. The first film was panned for bleak and pessimistic tone and for being a confusing muddle; the second took the superhero audience by storm, proving that a film does not need to cost $250 million to be fun, edgy, or funny. I haven't reviewed DEADPOOL here and it seems too late to do so now, but I'd like to go on the record as saying I respect Ryan Reynolds as a man who not only isn't afraid to make fun of himself, but who is talented enough to do it well.
But back to SUICIDE SQUAD, which I approached with a relatively open mind.
SUICIDE SQUAD is not a bad movie, but it is a deeply flawed movie. This flaw does not lie in the performances, which range from serviceable to solid to, actually, rather touching. Everyone will rave about Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, for good reason. She is charismatic and her tale is half the movie. But I was personally struck by Jay Hernandez's El Diablo, a character I had never heard of till now and would have pegged as "one of the guys whose head blows up to show the audience how those neck-bombs work" if I was just looking at the cast photo.
Likewise, the flaw is not in how the film was shot, which is serviceable enough if as hard to follow as you would imagine when all the bad guys are wearing black and it's always night out.
The flaw is not in the casting, though I have to agree with friend of the blog Marc Singer who notes that Will Smith is playing the wrong part. He really should be Flagg in this movie. But Smith is a talented actor and Deadshot has been re-imagined to suit him. He pulls it off. Like many, I was not quite sure what to make of Jared Leto's Joker before the film began, and I have heard horror stories of his performance on the set, but honestly his take on Joker was solid. His physical appearance has been pushed so far into "edgy" that it is a self-parody, but the performance itself is perfectly good. Honestly. I mean, if you're a Jared Leto hater, you really should not let that stop you from seeing his Joker. He's good. There's even a couple references to well-known Joker/Harley moments in this film. Fan service!
No, the flaw in this film is entirely structural, and comes from the film's last-minute rewrite, reshoot, and tonal change in the wake of BvS/Deadpool. And, unfortunately, it is obvious from quite literally the first few minutes of the film, because the two headliners -- Smith's Deadshot and Robbie's Harley -- are both introduced to the audience AT LEAST THREE TIMES EACH. And then Amanda Waller goes on to be rescued TWICE. And the people who were written into the script to die don't die, because the climax has been re-shot to make it more optimistic and less in line with "the DC Murderverse." In this, SUICIDE SQUAD resembles nothing so much as the latest attempt to make FANTASTIC FOUR, when Josh Trank's bizarre and relatively interesting body horror movie which just happened to have the names of four people from an old comic book was cut in half and given a head transplant from a lazy superhero paint-by-numbers TV pilot.
Let's take these one at a time and start with the character introductions. Now, this film has an ensemble cast and aside from Joker and Harley (thanks, B:TAS!), most people in your target audience are not going to know who any of these people are. So it is absolutely necessary to introduce them. But this film does so serially, introducing them first, and then again, and then again: once in a more subtle "let's show them to you and let you learn about them from what they do" way (Deadshot and Harley in their cells, interacting with guards) and once as pure exposition: Amanda Waller walks into a room with a few generals and just straight up shows them her laminated copy of WHO'S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE. Now, I don't know for sure which one of these two introductions was David Ayer's, but the second one feels like flop sweat. "Audiences are never gonna keep track of all this shit. They need to be spoon-fed." And then we get a purely unnecessary scene in which Deadshot makes so many head-shots that he literally burns holes through three metal targets, just to show us (AGAIN!) what he can do. And so the introductions seem to go on forever and ever, strung out all the way to Slipknot, last to appear and introduced with a single line of exposition. When I saw that, I knew my first guess about "dude whose head blows up to show the audience how that works" was wrong. If that intro had been much earlier in the film, and less time had been spent going over and over Deadshot and Harley, we might not have seen the strings, and the repeated introductions of the same characters makes the first reel of the film take forever.
The Squad loads up on a helicopter and flies out to Midway City where the big bad is. Except that ... Their mission is not to take out the big bad? Their mission is to rescue someone? And then they're done? Flagg says explicitly this. The seams of the rewrite is showing. Was SUICIDE SQUAD originally more of an Escape from New York plot (OMG YES) in which the Squad has to go into this war zone and bring out someone, but along the way they learn the real truth and take it into their own hands? I would have loved that movie. It looks to me like the whole big bad CGI fest at the end is tacked on from the rewrite. But back to Waller. We spend quite a long time working our way through the streets of the city (um... Who shot down the helicopter? How come this is never addressed? Seams. Something big was cut -- probably a big sequence in which an army is initially sent into the city, only to be converted into minions of the Big Bad, and we would see the converted-army's anti-aircraft weaponry being set up or something). And when she is rescued it's played as a climactic moment; the entire Squad is shocked to learn Waller is the person who has been trapped. And then they put her on a helicopter and she gets ONE MILE before she is shot down and captured AGAIN.
Okay, this is just really obvious. Characters have had a lot at stake rescuing Waller. El Diablo violates his code to rescue her. She murders perfectly nice innocent people as she is rescued. The Joker shows up and rescues Harley, and Deadshot lets her escape. Big shit went down. And then, five minutes later, Waller is captured again, Harley has returned to the group, Diablo is again afraid to use his powers. It's like the whole fight to rescue Waller the first time was for nothing. The audience's investment has been wasted. The seams are showing. Unless you're John Byrne, the man who killed Wonder Woman twice in three issues, no writing team would fall back on "well, let's just re-capture Waller" unless there was simply no time, budget, or logistics for any other option. Waller's recapture sets up the new climax, with its CGI Big Bad on a closed set. I wonder what the original ending of the movie was gonna be like.
And I'm pretty sure Boomerang and Katana were going to die. Let's be honest, for a group called SUICIDE SQUAD, very few members of the team die in this movie. In THE DIRTY DOZEN, the original template for Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, only one man survives. In this film, there's Slipknot (who cares) and, in the climax, El Diablo. That's it. Everyone else makes it, and it's a big cast. Who else died in the original ending? My money is on Boomerang and Katana, because they are watered-down versions of Deadshot and Harley. Boomerang is basically a normal guy who, instead of shooting guns, throws things, killing people except with less reliability. He flirts with Katana in a way very similar to the way Deadshot and Harley bond, only not as well. He's more laughed-at than laughed-with. He inexplicably carries around a stuffed unicorn, his surrogate for Deadshot's off-camera little girl. Harley is pining for Joker, whom she actually believes to be dead for a while, just as Katana is pining for her long-lost husband. The scenes in which Katana talks to her sword are parallel to Harley's recurring glimpses at her phone, where Joker is texting her. One has a sword, the other a baseball bat. The only reason you create two pairs of characters this similar is if you intend to kill off one of the pairs to create catharsis surrounding the survival of the other pair. Boomerang and Katana's deaths become "it could have been me/us/them" moments for both Deadshot/Harley and we, the audience. But instead, out of a fear they'd be accused of "Murderverse" again, of being "too dark and gloomy", Captain Boomerang and Katana are spared. Flop sweat strikes again.
For many audiences, the flaws in SUICIDE SQUAD produced by the tortured method of the film's production may not be obvious. Viewers will complain about the beginning of the film, which will seem to repeat itself or drag. They will complain about the film "skipping around a lot" or "not making sense," as if films like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR make a lick of god-damned sense. What these audiences are really seeing is how a film becomes compromised when the studio panics. I don't know what Ayer's original film would have been like. Maybe it would have been dark and gloomy. Maybe it would have been pessimistic. But it still would have had some strong performances, a dynamic and charismatic set of leads, and a pretty interesting Joker. It would have rewarded audience investment. It would have had a better payoff. The seams wouldn't be showing.
Friday, March 25, 2016
Superman gazes over the ruins, then looks to Batman.
SUPERMAN: "The spear is in a fountain, in the center of the building not far from where we fought."
BATMAN: "I'm on it."
WONDER WOMAN: "We'll hold him here."
Batman raises his grapple gun, fires it, and vanishes into the ruins.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
The first is Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, edited by the peerless Gail Ashton and published by Bloomsbury. Gail asked me, "What do you want to write about?" and I said, "Anything but King Arthur." Her reply was, "That's good, because Dan Nastali has already got that handled." Properly chastised, I dove into the intersection of Dante and comics, a project which took two years and included presentations at the Denver Comicon. The final essay is titled "Nightcrawler's Inferno and Other Hellish Tales: Comics Adaptations of Dante." Besides the Claremont story -- possibly the comics adaptation of Dante most useful in the classroom -- I tried to cover every other version I could find, which included Gary Panter, "Mickey Goes to Hell", Kid Eternity, Stig's Inferno, and so on. As you can see from the cover, Tolkien and Potter are only some of the many other topics in this book. Check out the table of contents.
See it here.
There are more projects of mine in the pipe, but it is very encouraging to see these collections completed and released. And I am humbled by my distinguished company within them.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Anyone watching this movie can see the part of it that Josh Trank liked. It's the character bits that dominate the first half. Reed and Ben as kids. Reed and Ben in high school. Ben seeing Reed leave the old neighborhood. When Ben says to Reed, who insists that he can go home any time he wants, that "it looks to me like you are home," it's well done and Jamie Bell totally sells it. Whatever the faults of this movie, Bell and the other performers in the film are not the source of the problem. They were given ordinary people to play, and they played them. In the second half, their characters turn into caricatures reciting the screenplay equivalent of stock footage, but that is not their fault.
the Red Ghost. Because, come on, you are putting a chimpanzee in there already! And there's four chairs in your teleport machine! I mean, you are already most of the way there! It's like launching a rocket into orbit and then deciding, you know what, hell with it, let's just circle the planet a few times and go home. WHO DOES THAT?
Sadly, there are no Russian-gorilla-version of the FF in my future. But so far, I was still with the film as a science fiction adventure flick. It had five dudes and one girl who just happened to have the same names as characters from a Marvel Comic I grew up with, which was sort of weird, but hey. That's cool. They're going to another dimension, let's see where this goes. The tension on "Planet Zero" (please see above note concerning the Negative Zone) was not bad. Victor (I am not calling him Doom, I don't care how much wine I've had, because that dude was not Victor von Doom. At best, he was a Starbucks barista who thought Victor von Doom would be a cool name and started to write it on his nametag) says, "I made it" while everyone else is saying "We did it," which is a great, efficient way to say what Josh Trank is trying to make this movie about, which is self-centeredness vs community. The crash back to Earth, the transformations, it was all okay. It wasn't the FF, but it was an okay science-fiction adventure. And then Reed wakes up with his arms and legs stretched out, and he looks GREAT. I mean, this movie is really working at that moment. That shot, with Reed stretched out and obviously some kind of lab rat, is the best single moment in the "body horror" movie that Josh Trank really, really, wanted to make instead of the superhero movie he got saddled with.
And then Reed escapes the lab and the rest of the movie is just crap.
I'm sorry, but it is. Because now Josh Trank has done all the parts he really enjoyed doing -- the character moments and the body horror and the science fiction exploration -- and Josh Trank figures that it's time to do all the superhero movie stuff now because he can't put it off any longer. So everyone learns how to use their powers in 30 seconds, we get some shots of them kicking the anonymous ass out of soldiers and jets and targets, we get uniforms and we get "Doom."
(Whose powers make no goddamn sense. Apparently he can make people's heads explode, but he only does that on Earth. When he goes to "Planet Zero" [again, Negative Zone or Counter-Earth] he can control the planet itself but ... can't do the head explode-thing any more? Because Reed and Johnny and Susan and Ben are protected by their six figure salaries, I guess. I really did wait for a moment where he tried to blow Reed's head up and Susan says something like, "it's our containment suits! They protect us from his powers!" or Reed says something like, "He can't drain our bioelectric fields because our powers have the same source his does!" or some bullshit explainer like that. Nada. I'm not saying that would have been a good solution to this crappy last reel, but it would have at least shown some effort.)
The whole fight scene and the FF's triumphant return to Earth is just such a step-by-step paint-by-numbers, with ham handed exposition of the movie's theme, a caricatured antagonist, and special effects substituting for character agency, that an audience member would be excused for falling asleep. Josh Trank's heart is not in it. His heart left when Reed crawled out of the lab.
And that is the great irony of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four. When the corporate pencil-pushers come in to take over the research lab and sell out to the government is the exact moment Josh Trank sells out the movie he wanted to make for the movie he felt his corporate masters wanted. Josh Trank should never have been hired to make a superhero movie. But he was hired, because 20th Century Fox did not want a super hero movie, only the super hero $$$. They, like Josh Trank, are embarrassed by their own genre, by the characters they paid millions for. Josh Trank set out to make a movie about body horror -- well, he succeeded. And the shocking, uncomfortable transformation that occurs is inflicted upon the film itself. The body of this film, this character-driven science fiction adventure film with sincere performers, this film that actually could have been pretty good, is exposed to transformative cynicism and disdain and turned into a "dark, grounded, realistic" ... and boring superhero movie that has no love for its source material.
Maybe that's not horror, but it is horrible.
Monday, November 24, 2014
Steve rejuvenated Hero Games and the Champions RPG with his book Dark Champions, which became an instant classic and the cornerstone of a whole series of books that kept Hero Games more or less in the black for years. Marked by exhaustive research and filled with enough story for many campaigns, the Dark Champions line perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 1980s 'dark and gritty' comics, what many people now call the Iron Age. Champions was my game throughout high school and my undergraduate years, and I went back to Steve's books constantly. They were a well that never ran dry.
You'd think that would be enough for one guy. But it was not. Steve re-invented himself, joining the design and writing team for both the Lord of the Rings RPG and the Star Trek RPG, two of the biggest intellectual properties in the world. These are projects millions of fans would give anything to participate in.
As Brandon Blackmoor instructed me once, the only way to make a small fortune in the gaming industry is to start with a large fortune, and Hero fell victim to economic pressures and collapsed. And this is when Steve started what, to me, seemed like the third great phase of his career in gaming, because he got together with a couple of other gentlemen and they bought Hero Games. Famously prolific, Steve proceeded to rewrite the product line from the ground up, in the process creating a single "Heroic Universe" in which all of the games of the Hero System fit. So, for example, Fantasy Hero's "Turakian Age," a sword-and-sorcery setting dominated by an evil lich, was actually the same world as the pulp adventures of Justice, Incorporated, the modern-day superheroics of the Champions, and the far-flung adventures in Star Hero. Film audiences are used to the idea of a shared universe now, thanks to Marvel's success, but this was ground-breaking stuff in the '90s. I myself wasn't entirely sure it was the right way to go. But it had vision, and I don't think anyone other than Steve could have pulled off a project so damn big so damn well.
Somewhere in all this, Steve allowed me to join Rogues Gallery, which was the Hero System fanzine, and I humbly contributed my occasional pieces, surrounded by people like Steve and Aaron Allston and so many other amazing talents who graciously gave me helpful advice. When I applied to grad school, I applied to the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and was accepted. Steve lobbied hard to get me to move there, where I could join his gaming table and, potentially, help write on the sprawling new line of Hero Games products. I didn't take him up on his offer. Maybe I should have.
This week I learned that Steve has developed colon cancer. As I think you can tell by now, this is a guy for whom I have nothing but admiration. If there is anyone in the world who can kick the shit out of colon cancer (you have to laugh, people. You have to laugh) it's Steve.
He could probably use some help paying medical bills, but no one's asking you to throw money away. Steve has written and edited more game books than most of us will ever own. Whether your interest is in organized criminal networks or Mesoamerican mythology, Steve has written something that you are interested in, even if you don't know it yet.
Take a look at his books on Amazon.
And here's the Hero Games store, where you can browse tons of other books he has written.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Birdman is a complicated film. There's a lot going on in it, and it is saying a lot about a lot of different things. In all this, it is strengthened by technical virtuosity and truly remarkable performances by pretty much everyone involved, but especially Keaton who, to be fair, is certainly given more opportunity than anyone else.
Alejandro Inarritu has called the superhero genre "cultural genocide" and "very right wing." This second accusation is pretty old and has been maintained by a large number of comics critics and creators since at least the 1950s. When Frederic Wertham and Gary Groth both agree on something, I'm not certain they're right. I've spent some time arguing against this idea that there is something inherently fascist about superheroes, so I'm going to pass on it here, partly because -- among all the things Birdman is saying -- this is actually not even close to the most interesting.
Even the accusation that superhero films are "poison" and "cultural genocide" is not really the focus of this film; the criticisms directed at superhero films are really more about action films in general, and America's obsession with the big box office weekend, the entertaining "popcorn film," the blockbuster. Birdman has a very clear argument about these movies, and that is that these movies are illusions. They are distracting phantasms which indulge our desire for psychological numbness. There's a very good reason why we all want to be numb: because we are all basically alone and our existence has no larger meaning. We all know this, but we don't want to confront it, and so we go into narcissistic denial over this simple cosmic truth. We fantasize about incredible power (and here's where the superhero genre is the best example) because, ultimately, we lack all power. Much of this is explained in a key moment in the film by Emma Stone's character Sam, when she, fresh from rehab and so at least briefly inoculated against psychological numbess, shouts to her father, in a rage, that he has no value, that the universe does not care about him, and it never will. The dread which haunts Keaton's character Riggan Thomson is basically existential, and his various hallucinations (and despite what some critics like to say about reality being inseparable from illusion in this picture, Inarritu actually makes everything pretty clear, at least until the very end) are his mind's attempt to impose order and some measure of control on a chaotic and oblivious world.
There's a second point being made in this film, one much more intimate and not existential at all, and that is about confusing love with admiration. This, too, is spelled out in the film, a film which is filled with people who want love but accept admiration instead, who want to love but instead offer praise, who want admiration and end up accepting love, and who admire but, in giving voice to that, instead offer love. In all these cases, the people involved can't tell the difference. To be popular is to be wanted, to be desired is to be looked-at, and everyone is confusing respect with intimacy. Which isn't to say we don't want both; we do. But they scratch different itches and love and admiration work differently. The first is basically private. The second is basically public. And as our 21st century social society becomes increasingly public, intimacy becomes increasingly hard to find and preserve ... or even recognize. We all want love, but it's so hard to make and keep a one-to-one personal relationship. Instead, we embrace circles of a thousand facebook friends or twitter followers. And the craziest part is that those social networks are actually easier to create and maintain in our new world than an honest personal relationship based on intimacy and, yes, respect. Who has the time for THAT anymore?
As a film, Birdman is very "meta." Keaton, who resurrected the role of Batman for American cinema back in '89, is playing a former Hollywood superstar who was famous for a superhero trilogy twenty years ago. Ed Norton, whose public reputation as a prima donna is based on his dedication to the art of acting, plays an incredibly talented egotist who can't get it up unless he's on stage, because that's when he is at his most "real." And although the movie is called "Birdman," it's really based around a production of Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a story I teach every semester in my freshman English class. In a movie which is always showing us multiple versions of itself, Carver's story is also one with multiple versions, one which was famously altered by its editor before being published, and one which Keaton's character Riggin has obviously altered yet again for his stage performance. All of this is very intricate and will no doubt give critics, scholars, and readers much to talk about in the year to come. About ten minutes into this film, I realized it was, like the Watchmen graphic novel, basically made to be the subject of a dissertation.
But, amidst all the black comedy and the suffering, there's also some pretty simple, pretty straight forward messages in this film. First, good art, Inarritu maintains, is about reality, depicting the human condition in a way so sincere that it is painful and, in this way, helping us to learn something about that human condition. Second, what we learn is that human beings are desperate for affection. And that, in turn, is because we sense our oncoming mortality. We understand, deep in our bones, that we are a quintessence of dust. Our life -- and these lines are quoted in the film -- is a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Is it so surprising that we seek shelter in larger-than-life heroes? And is it so terrible? Inarritu may find any suggestion that superhero stories might be meaningful to be pretentious posing. But I can respectfully disagree with him on that score while still finding much in Birdman to admire.