Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Two for Team Tondro

I am obliged to note a couple of recent publications which include my work. It was an honor to be asked to participate in these projects and I learned much while working on them.

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.

The second, released at almost the same time, is Drawn from the Classics: Essays on Graphic Adaptations of Literary Works, edited by Stephen Tabachnick and Esther Saltzman, published by McFarland. Stephen wrote to me and asked, "What do you want to write about?" and I suggested Beowulf or War of the Worlds, as I have long desired to write an essay on Killraven. Alas, Stephen (to his credit), said, "Oh good, let's do Beowulf." I am sad. But! The Beowulf project came out pretty good and I learned at the last minute about Alexis Fajardo's delightful Kid Beowulf series, making the essay better thereby. I refined the project at the Popular Culture Conference a couple of years ago. This book has Gemma Bovery, Dracula, Moby-Dick, Poe, Othello, Heart of Darkness, Alice in Wonderland, and a lot more. 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

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four is the latest addition to the long list of "Super hero movies embarrassed by their own genre," of which both Man of Steel and the first X-Men movie are both excellent examples. Do you remember the "yellow spandex" joke? Bryan Singer loved his characters and knew he was making a superhero movie, but he nevertheless thought the audience wasn't ready for one. He had to make a superhero movie that was actually a science-fiction adventure film, the Matrix with claws. And Josh Trank has, like him, made a superhero movie which is actually a science-fiction adventure film. The difference between these two movies lies in that word "love." Singer loved the X-Men. Bryan Singer fell in love with Kitty Pryde at the same age all the rest of us did. Josh Trank does not love Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny and Ben. If he did, he would not have made a movie embarrassed to be itself.

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.

There were parts of this film that made me smile. Sue, like most of Stan Lee's heroines in the Marvel Age, was a part-time fashion designer, so naturally in this film it is Susan who makes their uniforms. There was even a moment when I actually sat up in my chair and thought this film was about to turn great -- it was when they rolled a chimpanzee into the teleport machine to test it. Because, come on, if you are going to put a chimpanzee in the machine and send him to another dimension (which should have been called the Negative Zone or Counter-Earth, by the way, not this Planet Zero crap), then surely you will use four such apes and set up 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

Steven the Great

Every business has its luminaries. In the business of roleplaying games, those luminaries are people like Monte Cook, Steve Jackson, and Robin Laws. I don't personally know any of those people. But I do know one guy who is, without question, a gaming luminary, and that guy is Steve Long.

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.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Yes, that is a rat in a pointy wizard hat. I couldn't help it!

"Rats Magica," my alternate campaign setting for Ars Magica, has been published by Sub Rosa magazine. In Rats Magica, players take on the role of six inch rats with incredible (at least, for rats) magical powers. They contend with unhinged cat familiars, an expansionistic Bee King, hired rat catchers and, of course, the Order of Hermes, who wants to use them for arcane experiments and make them all pet familiars.

The art for this article is just so wonderful. I couldn't believe how awesome it all looks. You can check out Sub Rosa here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Comic Books to Film: Gotham

A decade and a half ago, the X-Men film made a gajillion dollars in its opening weekend and, as a consequence, the "Young Bruce Wayne" television series then in development was abandoned in favor of the pot of gold surely waiting at the end of every summer blockbuster rainbow. Today, with plenty of failed super hero movies behind us, we seem to have made a 180: television can't get enough superheroes. Arrow is popular and, from what I hear, smartly written (it takes more than Green Arrow to get me out of my cave). Agents of SHIELD was widely panned by fans last year (and by critic Andrew Wheeler in a bewildering example of narci-masochism penned for the otherwise-excellent ComicsAlliance) but hit storytelling gold when, the very week Hydra was revealed on big screens in the Captain America, we discovered Agent Ward was a wolf in sheep's clothing. It felt like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was moving forward in real time. I was hooked. This season we're getting Gotham, Flash, and Constantine, Daredevil and three other shows are in development for Netflix, a Supergirl series was just picked up, and even Powers got off the ground. What's next? Not even Plastic Man would surprise me at this point.

This week Gotham debuted and Agents of SHIELD kicked off its second season. I watched both and really enjoyed both. Today, let's talk about Gotham.

Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and, especially, Year One, made me a member of the Jim Gordon fan club, so I'm a soft sell on Gotham. Ben McKenzie's Gordon is a bit too clean-shaven and crew-cut for me; Miller always drew him with that great Tom Selleck stache. But he totally sells this role and his performance is both nuanced and compelling. Donal Logue is great as Harvey Bullock, a more famous replacement for Gordon's original partner, Flass. I'm used to thinking of Bullock as a good guy not a corrupt cop, but I'm totally prepared to go with it in this case as long as the show keeps Logue on screen.

There was a lot going on in this first episode, and that was probably the only thing I didn't like. A young Selina Kyle had bookend scenes and her constant cat-posing was just silly. I suppose that's exactly what a kid who styled herself Catwoman would do -- walk around posing like a cat even when no one is watching -- but I don't think the director wanted me to laugh at those scenes. Poison Ivy and especially Riddler get better first appearances, but most of the criminal world-building this time focused on Penguin. Other than the fact that Oswald doesn't like his Penguin nickname, a writing shortcut I find overdone, this is the most interesting version of the Penguin I've ever seen. When a show can convince me the Penguin, of all people, is interesting, they're doing something right.

Penguin's boss is Fish Mooney, an original character created for this show. I like her, and creating her is a great decision. We know she's going to die, because she's not a famous character (they certainly aren't going to kill off Penguin, for example), but she is tough, glamorous, and dangerous. There's something weird going on with her character as well; one of her first lines establishes that she is vain about her hair, but when she nearly clubs Penguin to death with a baseball bat (!) I swear I think I saw her check to see if her wig was in place. I definitely want to see more Fish.

Barbara and Rene Montoya were unexpected. When I first saw Barbara on screen, my first thought was "That had better be Sarah Essen," because Erin Richards would have made a phenomenal Sarah Essen. But no, she's Gordon's fiancée instead, who was something of a non-entity in the comics, a mousy, brown-haired, stay at home mom completely overshadowed by the blonde, tough as nails, and brilliant (remember: the first person to deduce Bruce Wayne was Batman), Sarah. This Barbara is going to be a much stronger character, while Sarah has been promoted into obscurity. She's now Gordon's boss, but never leaves her desk and doesn't seem at all interesting. And then there's Rene, who apparently has a history with Barbara! For those new to Gotham City, Rene Montoya is lesbian, and when she walks into Barbara's art gallery and Barbara responds with a testy, "I'm engaged now..." this can really mean only one thing: Gotham's writers have shifted the love triangle off of Barbara-Jim-Sarah and onto Jim-Barbara-Rene. Wow. That is gutsy.

We also got Alfred. Now, it would be hard for me to pen a better paean to Alfred Pennyworth than those already written by Chris Sims, but let's just sum it up with: Shakespearean actor, Special Forces soldier, part-time surgeon, and Batman's butler. Alfred is so cool, you have to get someone of Michael Caine's caliber to play him. And while what we got of Alfred was all right in this pilot, I definitely would like him to get more screen time. What I don't especially want is to see more Bruce. He's finely played and actually well written. I have no complaints with that. But this isn't a show about Bruce Wayne and I don't want it to become one. Is it possible to have a show with more Alfred and less Bruce? I don't know. But I hope so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monster Manual Podcast

Last week I got to talk with Steve Townsend, one of the freelancers who helped write the newest Monster Manual for D&D. Steve wrote half the background text for the book, every odd letter (A, C, E...) which means he got to write Giants but not Dragons. Still, pretty jealous.

I've been playing the new D&D a little and I enjoy it. It looks like a solid game.

You can hear our podcast here: