Monthly Archives: May 2012

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Fangs…

Is he going to go there? Will he at last cross the final frontier and lose your respect forever?

In a word: Yes.

In more words: I LARP. Or more accurately I have LARPed. I am one who LARPs. You might call me a LARPist or, if we must be vulgar, a LARPer. How many ways can I use the word LARP? Far more than you have any interest in.

This post really doesn’t have much to do with anything aside from musing on the subject of LARP (Live Action Roleplay) and my experiences with said activity. I am writing this from my phone, sitting out next to one of the campus buildings about which I used to ply my pretentions with 30-odd other individuals. This was in late high school through early undergrad mostly, and in the intervening years the “scene” as it were has pretty much sputtered out of existence. Still, I sit here on a muggy summer night and everything comes flooding back (including the omnipresent smell of clove cigarettes, cause yeah, some stereotypes are true).

On that subject of stereotypes though, why do we have them? Why is it that I feel the kneejerk reaction to hide my enjoyment of LARP even from other nerds? Why does it have this reputation as the gutters of the roleplaying hobby? In seven or so years I’ve never heard a good answer. I don’t even really get how it’s that “weird.” Vampires (which is really the main type of LARP I’m talking about here) are such a huge part of our popular culture. I’d argue that vampires are more prevalent and recognizable in “American” mythology than they are in Eastern European, where the original legends began. It shouldn’t be any stranger to pretend to be a vampire than it is to pretend to be a soldier or a secret agent, which at this point I’d say a broad section of Americans have done in mediums like video games. As for the walking around and fopping about part, I can understand there’s maybe a leap there from a mainstream audience perspective, but what I don’t get is the way other roleplayers and tabletop gamers will look down their nose at you. You do all the same things you do at a game table, except you know, not sitting down. That’s really what it comes down to. Do something so brazen as to stand up while you’re talking and suddenly you’re on a fast train to Crazytown (which honestly also gets kind of a bum rap; they have some lovely bed and breakfasts).

In any case, I digress. Digression is basically the whole point of what I’m writing here, really. I’m not here to convince anybody that LARPing is “cool.” What I will say openly and without shame however is that LARPing is “fun.” Wanna fight about it? I bid Potent and win on ties…

Could we have all found something better to do with our Saturday nights? Probably. With thirty people though this thing was undeniably a party. Socializing was always the name of the game. Sure, you could skulk around with your cape in the corner, brooding about your tortured soul, but you kind of missed the point. Sure half the people there were always plotting the demise of the other half, but it made you want to bring some popcorn. In the game I played in characters tended to drop like flies, meaning you never knew who the new situation was going to force you into association with. The notion that LARPers had no social skills just failed to hold water under those circumstances. The players came from a wide spectrum too. You had your goths and punks and your pimply dorks, but you had country boys and clean cut jocks too. Everybody had fun with it, and if you’re having fun isn’t that what matters at the end of the night?

I know I’m coloring things with nostalgia a bit. The personalities that are attracted to LARP sometimes foment out-of-game dramatics that aren’t fun for anybody, and there will always be those lowest common denominators to act as spoilers in even the best situations. I stopped LARPing primarily because somewhere it lost that spark that kept me coming back week to week. What was it? Hard to say, but I keep coming back to the old stomping grounds looking for it. Maybe I just need some active imaginations and a little rock, paper, scissors…

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Heavy Metal

Now there’s a nice straightforward title! I was originally going to review The Shadow #2, but Diamond Distributors are a bunch of failcakes and shorted my friendly neighborhood comic shop. I was then going to post some creative writing which has finally unstalled itself, but frankly it’s not quite ready for prime time (even less so than the stuff I do put up here). So, musings and excelsior ensue!

In the course (such as there is ever one) of today’s ramblings, I will treat with the subject of Heavy Metal magazine. I’m not going to go too in-depth on the history of the magazine itself, as honestly that’s just expertise I don’t really have. Rather, this is about my relationship with said magazine over the years. There was a time when Heavy Metal was a nerd-culture institution and an almost universal part of a young geek’s transition to *ahem*, manhood. This doesn’t really seem to be quite the case anymore, though. I’d argue that taking a cross section of nerds my age would likely reveal me to be fairly exceptional in having gone through “the Heavy Metal phase.” For one reason or another, I have for most of my life been steeped in the ephemera of the generations immediately preceding my own. Some of this is due to having a young aunt whose popular culture I precociously absorbed, and some is simply due to the fact that my parents had me fairly young by contemporary standards. As such, the debris of misspent youth most parents have tucked away by the time their kids are properly cogent was more readily accessible during my own formative years.

It was in this way that as a bawdy preteen I happened upon a small stack of Heavy Metal magazines, crushed beneath the weight of old issues of Popular Mechanics and a pair of Dungeons and Dragons books (which would ultimately have perhaps an even more profound impact). These Heavy Metals were of the vintage stripe. Crumbling pages of Moebius and Giger. Also, you know *ahem*, women. Also things that ostensibly weren’t human but ‘looked’ an awful lot like women, at least in the areas a kid like me most cared about. Around the same time I was also introduced the eponymous 1981 film, but at this point I can’t honestly recall which came first. I’ll admit, at the time I thought the movie was pretty much the coolest shit ever. These days though I can only really consume it if contemporaneously consuming some quantity of alcohol.

My enjoyment of those older magazine issues however, continued to be profound. It was strong genre material that, for whatever other faults it might have had, resolutely refused to pull its punches. By way of illustration, the story of “Den” (also adapted into the film version) is really just another riff on John Carter of Mars. However, what sets it apart from the pack is its fearlessness in portraying the more lurid elements of Burroughs’ mythology that most other visual representations of the same tend to ignore or back away from. As a nerd coming into his own, this was exactly the sort of thing I had been searching for. Given the circumstances, you can understand my enthusiasm when later in high school I obtained a copy of the current publication. Upon reading it I was… strangely disappointed. “Strangely” I say, in that while all the lurid elements were there in full force, perhaps even moreso than I remembered, the undergirding stories were gauzy and flimsy, the barest excuse to bare skin. That was really what it had become: just a skin mag. I was somewhat deflated in my enthusiasm.

Nonetheless, about a year ago or so I decided on a lark to give Heavy Metal another try, for old times sake. These were also incidentally the first issues I ever obtained completely legally as a theoretically adult person, which was sort of a milestone in itself that had to be reached. I was… once again disappointed, but in a surprising way. The shift in the magazine I had noticed a number of years earlier now seemed to have been completely reversed, all the way to the other end of the spectrum. Gritty science-fiction still played across an illustrated environment, and with greater depth than I had noticed from the magazine’s intervening years. The stories and comics were oddly flat though. Some violence and sexuality was there, certainly. It felt restrained though. Unnaturally tame.

It was in pondering the conundrum of Heavy Metal’s shifting focus and loss of it earlier mystique that I happened on what I consider the reason behind its institutional decline: graphic novels and trade paperbacks. Over the last decade the publication and ready availability of these writ large comic books has skyrocketed, and in concert with an overall “maturing” of the medium, not to mention the rise  of adult oriented imprints like Vertigo and MAX, has effectively undermined Heavy Metal’s one time monopoly. The once unique combination of content and presentation that Heavy Metal pioneered has now become so proliferated that it ceases to be exceptional. The “Heavy Metal phase” I mentioned earlier still exists, it’s just that most of those who go through it nowadays don’t spend much of it actually reading Heavy Metal…

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Earth Two #1

What a title right? Confused yet? Good, I’m so glad. What it refers to in this case is the comic book being published as part of the “second wave” of DC’s New 52 continuity. This will no doubt come as a disappointment to those of you whom I am sure were hoping I would discuss the quirky but underrated mid-90’s sci-fi series of the same name. Can’t win ’em all I suppose.

What am I talking about though? Earth-who? Maybe I should digress for a moment. DC Comics  began publishing in 1934 as what was then called National Comics (they later renamed themselves “Detective Comics” or “DC” and then still later tacked another redundant “Comics” onto their company title, because reasons…) In 1938 National created an unexpected hit with the character of Superman, a distinct animal from the pulp heroes and mystery men that predated him and which spawned an entire sub-genre of “superhero” books that would ultimately dominate the industry to this day. There was a massive rush to put out new caped characters in an attempt to replicate the breakout success of Superman. Some of these, like Batman the next year and Wonder Woman in ’41, formed dedicated fanbases of their own and generated significant sales. Others, like Green Lantern, the Flash, Sandman and Dr. Fate, were well-received but failed to move books as readily as their counterparts. The solution? Collect those characters into a single book and consolidate their fans behind a title that ‘would’ sell. Enter the Justice Society of America, comics’ first proper team book and two decade antecedent of the better known Justice League.

This still doesn’t explain what all this Earth Two business is about though. Well, in addition to simply having a great personal love for the Justice Society it’s important to have them in mind as pretty much all iterations of the “Earth Two” concept would end up revolving around this group of characters. Now, after the end of the Second World War comic book sales, in particular the sales of superhero titles, began to decline. Most of their original readership had outgrown them and new buyers weren’t lining up like they had hoped. This coupled with growing scrutiny from conservative censors and led to the cancellation of most cape books, with the notable exceptions of Superman and Batman who endured this nadir relatively unscathed, albeit not without a degree of adaptation (this was the era in which Batman initially shed many of his darker trappings and became the campier portrayal familiar to viewers of the 60’s television series). However, as the baby-boom grew into demographic age and the aforementioned censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority cut into otherwise lucrative horror and thriller lines, DC was convinced to try the superhero experiment once again. Rather than simply relaunch many of their older characters though DC opted to reinvent them in new forms, starting with the Flash and Green Lantern. This created a slight snarl for attentive  readers though, namely how both versions of these characters could coexist and have both teamed up with established characters like Superman and Batman. Well, in short (too late) those characters from the 1940’s that didn’t quite make the leap to the revival of the 60’s had still existed, just on a parallel world that came to be known as Earth Two (ohhhhhh!)

Now, the complete history of both the Justice Society and Earth Two is even lengthier and more convoluted than what I have already expounded. Point is, skip ahead a few decades, crossovers, and retcons to 2012 and we are basically back in the same square. The New 52 has ostensibly rebooted DC’s continuity once again and Earth 2 is looking to reintroduce us to the characters who are perennially left behind. Not all is business as usual, however. Until now a central conceit of the Earth Two concept and the Justice Society has always been a rooting in the 1940’s. The characters represented therein have always either been aged versions of the original “Golden Age” heroes or younger successors appropriating their iconography as a sort of “legacy hero.” It seems as though with this most recent iteration that this is being more or less scrapped. Instead, the more traditional heroes such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been active for perhaps a pair of decades prior to the present day and the characters native to Earth Two such as The Atom and Hourman are modern reinterpretations. Hmmmmm…

The cover of Earth 2 is perhaps rather misleading. On the surface it would appear to prominently feature DC’s “big three,” but reading the issue itself will reveal this to be a bit of a misnomer. I might dance around this fact for spoilers sake, but in the grand scheme it’s hard to talk about otherwise: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all dead by the issue’s end, paving the way for the emergence of the re-imagined denizens of Earth Two. How do I feel about all of this? Well… it’s complicated.

As you may have intuited from my previous review of The Shadow, the grounding in the 1940’s has always been a big part of what has sold me on the enterprise with regards to Earth Two and the Justice Society. The doing away with it seems a little arbitrary and I’m not one-hundred percent sure how my feelings on it will ultimately pan out. That said, I have developed an appreciation for the characters themselves independent of their Golden Age heritage, and as such am at least willing to see what the series has got to show me before passing a definitive judgement. Moreover, the book does have some points in its favor right out of the gate. Nicola Scott’s artwork really pops, and especially in the splash pages the care and detail of her craft is apparent. As far as writing is concerned, it’s hard to go wrong in this area with James Robinson, who’s 1993 The Golden Age (in addition to being a favorite of mine) has informed the portrayal of the Justice Society in one way or another for most of the last twenty years. As for the content of the issue itself? Well, like with The Shadow its suffers from being the first entry in an ongoing series in that not a whole heck of a lot happens. Well, that isn’t strictly true. Plenty happens. Shit blows up, people die. The overall story is not significantly advanced though, it’s pretty much all setup. My investment in the property and the pedigree of the players involved has enough of my interest to keep me on the book until it can hit its stride though.

Until next time, true believers!

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