dragon prince

dragon princeThe Dragon Prince is quite simply wonderful. Netflix’s new epic fantasy is intended for kids, but like all great literature it is able to speak to everyone.

There are often facile lessons, or missing nuances, in young adult fantasy (okay, in adult fantasy, too). But not so The Dragon Prince. The balance of light and dark rings true. There are unlikely alliances, unbreakable oaths, and awakening magic. The action is exciting and the world-building immersive.

And while The Dragon Prince is an unabashed, sweeping saga, it is also warm and funny. There are elements of Heavy Metal, hints of ElfQuest, a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings, and even a bit of Archer in the character renderings. Snarky and self-aware, the dialogue slips in plenty of pop-culture: “I was trying to sweep the leg”, “Winter is coming…eventually”, and “Say ‘hello’ to my little friend” are all uttered at various points.

It’s been a long time since I so thoroughly enjoyed an animated series the way I enjoy this one.

The Background

dragon princeLong in the past, humans discovered dark magic and were driven to the edge of the continent by elves and dragons. The story begins a few years after King Harrow murders the ancient dragon king and destroys his egg, bringing the humans and the elves to the brink of war. Elvish assassins infiltrate the kingdom to kill Harrow and his heir, Prince Ezran. Rayla, a young elvish assassin, finds she cannot take an innocent life. Instead, she helps Ezran and his half-brother Callum escape the assassination attempt after Ezran discovers the dragon’s egg hidden in the castle dungeons. The three then embark on a dangerous, epic quest to return the dragon’s egg to its mother.  

The Details

Created and written by Aaron Ehasz (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Futurama) and Justin Richmond (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception), The Dragon Prince is richly imagined and beautifully presented, with gorgeous artwork, a soaring score, and a full magical world.

Like many fantasy sagas, The Dragon Prince is stuffed with creatures borrowed from the classic, but they have been tweaked to fit their new world. The huge worm is a mountain dweller. The giant spider is an illusion. The dragon-slayers are not the good guys.

The characters are fully developed, diverse and inclusive, with their own complicated relationships and internal lives. The emotions behind their actions feel honest. The moral lessons are clear but the story refrains from hitting viewers over the head with them. The characters are almost entirely normal people–or as normal as elves, mages, and royalty can be. Some are clearly the bad guys, but they have recognizable reasons for what they do. There are, so far, no real caricatures among them.

The Actors

dragon princeThe three main characters are strongly drawn without falling back on genre stereotypes. Jack De Sena plays Callum, the fourteen year old half-brother to the heir apparent, with an excellent blend of adult responsibility and adolescent insecurity. Paula Burrows portrays the elf-assassin Rayla with terrific conviction and a charming, thick Scottish accent. Sasha Rojen plays the child-prince Ezran as a thinking, feeling, learning person with convincing agency and autonomy.
The secondary characters are also well done. Luc Roderique is King Harrow of Katolis, stubborn, proud, and trying his best to protect his people. Jason Simpson plays Viren, the King’s treacherous advisor, who may or may not be a good man underneath it all. Viren’s children Claudia and Soren are portrayed convincingly as close siblings by Racquel Belmonte and Jesse Inocalla. And Jonathan Holmes gives the elvish assassin leader Runaan a fierce and enduring code of honor.

The Conclusion

It’s rare to find something so well-done, so dedicated to its vision, so vibrant and enjoyable.

The Dragon Prince is that something. I recommend it without reservation.

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

maiden voyage

maiden voyageThe Maiden Voyage and Other Departures by Jessica McHugh is a collection of six loosely related stories that hinge on a promising steampunk concept. In McHugh’s take on the early nineteen-tens, the world is polluted by industrial pollen technology and humanity shares the stage with apisthropes–bee/human hybrids living in disguise among humans. There is intrigue. There are power struggles. There is still a lot missing.

McHugh’s style is vivacious and energetic, but there is no nuance to her storytelling. The hybrid idea is full of possibility. However, the driving conceit quickly loses its steam to superficial characters, thin plots, and a lack of historical context. The collection oscillates between four fairly-convincingly related tales and two weak vignettes that have to name-drop to create any connection. The big picture simply isn’t there.

***

This is not a particularly well-crafted book. Worldbuilding is cursory, with little detail to anchor us to the locations. The dialogue is frequently anachronistic, with profanity thrown in for shock value. And the characters are stereotypical (even the apisthropes), underdeveloped, and drawn with a heavy hand.

My two immediate issues with The Maiden Voyage are the slapdash writing and sloppy editing:

“Mama opened the door and hollered for the nursemaid, Helga, but she was outside with the butler overseeing the installation of a beeswax and jellyglass fountain the Goswick’s had rented for the evening, and it had only just given its first spurt when Edith’s Vagnerian voice tugged her inside.”

Another example:

“The gentle voice that cooed from behind him didn’t look like it belonged to the raven-haired woman standing in the doorway.”

I know mistakes happen. Typos and misspellings get missed. But this inattention to detail is found throughout the book, and is the kind of distraction that keeps me from caring about the characters or their fates.

***

Each story in the collection happens in the same alternate past, and is meant to connect to the others if only tangentially.

The Maiden Voyage

The title novelette fumbles an opportunity to provide exposition and context for what comes after. The protagonist is a newborn apisthrope, a drone born without any memory or history of his kind. This information is bestowed by a female shortly after he is born. Apparently, apisthropes have existed for eons. But instead of giving the reader access to any background information, McHugh glosses over it.

Large Blue, Little Darling

The second story expands on another variety of hybrid creature (butterfly/human) to no real end. The piece is more a vignette than a full story, and a sloppy throwaway of a vignette at that. The editing is atrocious, with dropped words, incomplete rewrites, and muddled points of view.

maiden voyageThere’s Nothing Between the Sky and Sea

While this moves the general storyline to America and introduces the Wright brothers (and sister Kate), the historical connection is once again tenuous and the story fails to build on what it has. The existence of a pantheon of bee-gods is mentioned in passing, as is a human who is able to channel other personalities like a medium. There is more included here than can be effectively addressed in one short story.

Pain Like Honey Wine

This introduces a tragic hero, London slums, and human-hybrid S&M to the mix without stirring many emotions. I felt as if this story could have been a broad parody, but the blend of sentimentality and undercover rebellion is too strong for that reading.

Forgotten in El Paso

This one is an inconsistently moody ghost story that neither adds nor subtracts from The Maiden Voyage’s  general concept. It takes place in the West, and expands oddly on the human/spider hybrid introduced in the first tale.

America or Bust

The final piece has a preternaturally gifted teenaged heroine, incomprehensible motivations for the villains, and one character who seems to exist only to reveal that another is gay. It also revives an antagonist from the first story, and teases more to come.

***

McHugh clearly has a good sense of humor, and, despite the editorial issues, an engaging style. Perhaps if the tales comprising The Maiden Voyage had been played more for laughs rather than for drama, the whole enterprise would have worked. As it is, The Maiden Voyage comes across to me as a fast and loose draft of a good idea rather than a fully-fleshed world.

disenchantment
disenchantment
Bean, Elfo, and Luci

Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new series for Netflix, certainly has its own unique charms. It is no Futurama. It is certainly not The Simpsons. While there are, of course, similarities to Groening’s earlier work, this new show is something that aspires to be a heartfelt, ongoing saga while still capturing the goofy spirit of the other series.

So far, Disenchantment has had some difficulty in finding its direction. The first season is a rather uneven journey, but it’s definitely on the right track.

***

The series follows the adventures of Princess Tiabeanie Mariabeanie De La Rochambeaux Drunkowitz of Dreamland, known more economically as Bean. She is a boozy, rebellious teenager who is constantly at odds with her father, King Zøg, her stepmother, Queen Oona, and her half-brother, Prince Derek. Bean’s only friends are her nursemaid, Bunty, Elfo the renegade elf, and Luci, Bean’s very own personal demon. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, Queen Dagmar, who died when Bean was just a baby.

There are arranged marriages, diplomatic debacles, political machinations, crusades, curses, enchantments, and the occasional tavern brawl. There are witches, wizards, debauched fairies, transformed princes, giants, griffins, and three-eyed counselors. Castles, dungeons, and side-quests abound. There is also a whole lot of family drama.

disenchantment
Zog and Oona, Rulers of Dreamland

I think Bean’s relationship with her father is well-done. King Zøg has what may be a good heart inside his crusty royal shell. And for all her push-back, Bean loves her dad. I also find Queen Oona refreshing as the not-actually-mean stepmother, who manages to be both bizarre and boring in her stepdaughter’s eyes.

***

The characters are portrayed by Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Matt Berry, David Herman, Maurice LaMarche, Lucy Montgomery and Billy West, with great enthusiasm and thoroughly random accents.

Unfortunately, the main characters’ personality traits are also somewhat random from one episode to the next, which makes it harder to become fully invested in them. Bean’s scattershot behavior is at least excusable for a confused teenager, but the writers don’t seem to have a good handle on Elfo and Luci. Both of these characters are frequently out of character, with Elfo in particular swinging wildly from innocent to cynical and a number of points in between.

On the other hand, the minor and incidental characters are wonderful, my favorites being the King’s two pages (who I suspect are Akbar and Jeff) and a knight’s overprotective mother.

***

Disenchantment is not quite a sitcom like Groening’s other shows. It is a sharp comedy with a lot more going on inside the jokes. It mocks the conventions of the whole fantasy adventure genre while embracing the threats and dangers inherent in it. Disenchantment is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and other times quite sentimental. The show has already taken a few serious turns. There have been several on-screen character deaths (some more permanent than others), played for comedy and for genuine tragedy.

The initial impression I get of the series was that it is still feeling its way. The thread connecting all the scattered plot points was too obvious to ignore, but still hard to follow. Then the final few episodes managed to not only tie most of the story together, but to take it into unexpected and promising territory. That sudden turn is one of the strongest reasons I can give to watch.

With all its inconsistencies and slightly blurred focus, I like Disenchantment. A lot. There is an unexpected and welcome warmth to it, and what I hope is the promise of something more substantial to come. 

 

castle rock
castle rock
Scenic downtown Castle Rock

Castle Rock is Hulu’s finely-crafted ode to Stephen King’s intricate world-building. The series is faithful to the author’s voice and deep sense of nostalgia, and brimming over with familiar names and references. Originally released on July 25 and with the first season still unfolding, it has already been renewed for a second season. If it can grow past the limits of the familiar and the nostalgic, I am heartily behind it.

“People say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was this place.’ And they were right.”

So many threads from King’s mythos are knit together here that anyone familiar with his work will have no problem finding their bearings. The show is built layer upon layer, with a deeply felt sense of the community and its people. It highlights the skill King has always had of making his world big enough for his characters to have lives outside the confines of any particular story.

castle rock
Henry meets …someone

Castle Rock also evokes all the familiar themes of King’s work. It features good, decent, damaged people fighting their dark sides and often failing. There are the expected flashbacks to twelve-year-olds facing the origins of coming horror, godly true believers and evil incarnate, pedophiles, and magical African-Americans. And, of course, there is well-placed classic rock and blues.

“Nothing stays dead in this town.”

The cast is outstanding. André Holland plays Henry Matthew Deaver, death-row attorney and prodigal son at the heart of the unfolding mystery. Bill Skarsgård is…unnatural…as The Kid, a nameless prisoner discovered in a pit at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Scott Glenn gives retired sheriff Alan Pangborn a determined vitality, while Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand shows a quiet desperation beneath her ambition. Rounding out the main cast are Jane Levy as Jackie Torrance, writer and font of local knowledge, and Noel Fisher as Dennis Zalewski, a Shawshank prison guard who sets the story in motion while trying to do the right thing.

Assorted minor characters are well represented by the talented likes of Ann Cusack, Terry O’Quinn, Frances Conroy, and Rory Culkin, among many other.

castle rock
Sissy Spacek, the Once and Future Queen

But the absolute standout is Sissy Spacek. She brings the same convincing blend of fragility and strength to Ruth, Henry’s fierce and failing mother, as she did to her portrayal of Carrie in 1976. Episode 7, “The Queen”, is a star-turn.

Castle Rock‘s Needful Things

As good as Castle Rock is, it isn’t perfect. It takes itself very seriously, and the portentousness does wear after a while. At times the plot twists broadcast themselves, as when Alan teaches Ruth how to do sleight-of-hand. And a few characters have (so-far) opaque or non-existent motivations. This ends up creating inconsistencies in otherwise beautifully drawn characters. One false note is Jackie Torrance’s actions upon meeting the Kid. Another is Alan Pangborn’s wild goose chase. Both are clearly the needs of the plot, and not natural reactions from the characters. The sudden addition of Henry’s son to the goings on also feels like a set-up rather than a character-driven decision.

And just and aside:  While this is definitely a show for adult audiences, the graphic depiction of animal deaths surprised me. Human carnage? Not a problem. But I didn’t expect the Mr. Jingles stand-in to meet that particular fate on-screen.

The emerging evil in Castle Rock is signaled by wildfires, mass shootings, suicides, and ugly family conflicts. But while all the trappings and affected characters are comfortably familiar, the show has not so far taken that familiarity in a new or challenging direction. Castle Rock is a wonderfully done pastiche of all things King, but I am interested in seeing it grow beyond that. There are still three more episodes for Season One.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

evolution

evolutionThe odd and resonant Evolution is a beautiful and seductive slice of art-house horror. Written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the French-language film circles around its central mysteries without addressing them directly. Its elusive nature is one of its greatest strengths. Evolution left me wondering what the rest of the story could be, but it was satisfying all the same.

***

Evolution is told through the point of view of Nicolas, one of several young boys being raised on a barren, rocky island. The island is populated solely by the boys and their respective mothers, and the nurses and single doctor of the island’s clinic. The boys all resemble each other, as do the mothers, as do the nurses. Their lives are a monotony of the mothers taking the boys to the sea, washing them, dressing them, feeding them, medicating them. At intervals the boys are brought to the clinic. While the boys are allowed to play they are not permitted to swim.

But Nicolas does swim, one day, and sees what he believes is a boy’s body tangled among the rocks far beneath the surface. His mother brushes Nicolas’s story away as imagination after she investigates. But her denial only raises Nicolas’s suspicions, and he begins to doubt what he has been told. His experiences at the clinic deepen his misgivings about what is happening to him and the other boys. A sympathetic nurse reveals some of the secrets of the island’s inhabitants, allowing Nicolas to recognize that his mother has been lying to him all along.

***
evolution
Nicolas, Mother, and Stella

The cast is tiny, with the focus almost entirely on only three actors. Their restrained performances carry the film easily. Max Brebant is fascinating as the main character, Nicolas–a strange, impassive child who conveys emotion with blinks and sharp intakes of breath. Julie-Marie Parmentier plays the character known only as Mother with the kind of cool, dutiful, detached affection reserved for other people’s pets. And Roxane Duran portrays the kind nurse, Stella, who actually does love Nicolas–although we can only speculate why.

***

Evolution is also an incredibly subtle film, and watching it is like watching a dream unfold. The dry landscape of the island is grey and stark, while the world beneath the sea is rich with color and life. The film moves slowly, and with a finely-controlled sense of what will be left unknown. There are lingering scenes of the ocean, closeups of the characters’ pale faces, repeated, ritualized scenes of the children’s daily routines and of the women taking lanterns to visit the sea at night. The susurrus of the sea, the crunch of feet on sand and gravel, and the murmur of soft voices make up the soundtrack, with only the barest synthetic tones added to certain scenes.

evolution
The clinic

But the film is also ripe with nightmare images. There are shelves full of malformed fetuses preserved in jars. The dim and decayed hospital where the boys waste away drips with water and sagging paint. Food is grey and muddy, and looks as if it is filled with worms.  Even blood takes on a greenish tone when it is spilled.

And the distortion of reproductive roles creates powerful discomfort. There is the bizarre birth ritual enacted by the mothers, the rapt faces of the nurses as they watch and rewatch a film of a caesarian section being performed, the experiments on the boys that echo the way male seahorses carry their young. The intimate interactions between the boys and the women around them are not exactly sexual but are still deeply uncomfortable to watch.

***

Evolution haunts me as a blend of folklore, fairy tale, and exquisite body horror. At first glance it seems a superficial story, but Nicolas’s naivete underscores how much more to this film lies below the surface. This is not a case of an underdeveloped plot stretched to movie length. Evolution is instead a rich, convoluted tale which we can only glimpse through the eyes of someone who is unaware of the bigger picture. It is artful, and disturbing, and quietly horrifying. I highly recommend it.

regrettable supervillains

regrettable supervillains Jon Morris’s The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains is a natural sequel to his The League of Regrettable Superheroes. Let’s face it: Without anyone to fight against, the superheroes are just a bunch of folks running around in funky spandex underoos. Let’s also face that very few supervillains will have the gravitas of Magneto, the moral certainty of Thanos, or the creepy menace of the Joker. Morris is here to once again tell us about all the also-rans who didn’t let their deficiencies stop them.

No matter the shape, size, or strategy of the four-color finks gracing these pages, every one of them had the potential to join the ranks of comicdom’s icons of iniquity. It was only poor sales, inopportune timing, and occasional overshadowing from bigger baddies that consigned so many of these scoundrels to the scrapheap of comic book history. Until now!

***

Morris documents a remarkable assortment of semi-menacing figures that are very much the products of their times. The thirties and forties saw an awful lot of gangsters and confidence men–as well as Mother Goose, Satan, and Captain Black Bunny–before the comics went to war. The fifties and sixties ushered in a bunch of do-badders like Cat Girl and Tino the Terrible Teen, who would fit comfortably in a Batman episode. The seventies and beyond took both oddly concrete and weirdly conceptual turns, with Generic Man, Captain Law, and Uzzi the Clown all serving up exactly what their monikers promise.

regrettable supervillains
MODOK, as lovely as ever

Several of these menaces to society did go on to have fairly (by Regrettable standards) long careers. Batroc the Leaper hassled Captain America over multiple issues. The Human Flying Fish caused trouble for Aquaman, on and off. Swarm stuck around to threaten Black Widow, Ghost Rider, and a few lesser X-Men. And MODOK became the go-to adversary for Marvel, taking on Ms. Marvel, Deadpool, Iron Man, the Hulk, and a slew of other A-list superheroes.

***

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains offers an evildoer for every taste. These are a few of my favorite also-ran bad guys:

From the Golden Age of comics (1938-1949):

  • Nazis: Captain America wasn’t the only Nazi-puncher of the Golden Age. Nazis were a favorite–and obvious–target for pretty much everybody in the 1940s. It’s not like Captain Murder, the Human Fly, and Mister Banjo didn’t deserve it.
  • The Jingler: “The Jingler (aka “the Jingler of Death”) begins his career not as a vile poet, but merely a pretty bad one.”
  • Reefer King: “One Mary Jane-laced menace is the so-called Reefer King, a shady dealer of ‘funny cigarettes.’ (At no point in this story are the illicit cigarettes referred to as marijuana or cannabis.)”
regrettable supervillains
Mod Gorilla Boss–stylish and surly

And from the Silver Age (1950-1969):

  • Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral…it’s all three! That’s some good science.”
  • The Human Flying Fish: “a villain so remarkable he deserves two adjectives in his nom du crime.”
  • Mod Gorilla Boss: “We never learn his name, nor how he discovered his transformational fluid, or even why he was into mod fashion. In fact, the story sheds absolutely no light on the backstory of this bizarre villain.”

And lastly from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Ghetto-Blaster: “Ghetto-Blaster hearkens back to a trend in comics when writers clearly named the villain after something sitting on their desks or stored in the hall closet.”
  • The Golden Fuhrer: Proving that Nazis never go out of style for punching–“Who knew that the reanimation of Nazi corpses could be such a good career opportunity?”
  • Tapeworm: “Tapeworm would be one of the most unnerving supervillains in existence even without considering that apparently he smells terrible.”
***
regrettable supervillains
Good ol’ reliable Nazis

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains relishes the inherent silliness of these awkward bad guys, but it comes across to me as less gleeful than Morris’s earlier book on superheroes. The tone may be unavoidable, though, since villains are not generally known for their fun-loving ways, and their roles are by definition dark. But there are still plenty here who are not so much wicked as just cranky and misguided. There are even a handful who occasionally turn good. Morris’s snarky descriptions of the unlikeliest criminal minds continue to be a fun read.

Overall, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains serves up some truly remarkable examples of how polite society’s fears get translated onto a comic books pages. It’s an interesting, four-color peek into the back pages of history.

of-dice-and-men

Revisiting another blast from the past

 

 

Of Dice and Men

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It

David M. Ewalt
Scribner: 288 pp., $26

 

 

 

 

Back in 2013, when David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men came out, I had not played Dungeons and Dragons in probably twenty years. I had no expectation of ever playing again, and only picked the book up out of nostalgia for my misspent youth. But by the time I got around to reading it, I was back in the game and stumbling my way through a new campaign, bolstered mightily by the mercy of some friends who had never stopped playing. Let’s face it, David Ewalt speaks true when he says that “the system encourages long-term engagement, and its one reason why D&D fans are particularly devoted to their hobby” (96). Somehow, despite growing up and assuming our adult responsibilities, a great many of us cannot say a permanent goodbye to D&D.

“The people you play games with become your clan.  They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world.” –David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men

Ewalt describes a similar trajectory for himself, and uses that as the peg to hang his narrative on. A substantial amount of the book is illustrated with passages describing Ewalt’s reintroduction to the game, his fellow players (including both their real-world jobs and their characters’ professions), and his current, ongoing campaign. Much like Shakespeare, these passages play a whole lot better than they read. This is not his fault, nor is it a criticism. D&D, no matter the version in use, is meant to be lived.

Ewalt’s style is light, quippy and a little snarky (“D&D scenarios are the microwave dinners of the role-playing world” (100)), but he covers a lot of ground. He starts his journey with a brief history of chess and that game’s evolution into progressively more elaborate war games—from strategy-based systems to miniature-fueled reenactments. He outlines the development of a scattered historical gaming community brought together at conventions. And then he introduces us to the young Gary Gygax, who was deeply into historical gaming before he discovered the joy of gaming and turned it into his life’s work.

Ewalt also gets into the politics behind the scenes of the game at TSR, the personal and business conflicts, the royalty issues, the copyright infringement cases (both by and against TSR and Co.), and the creep toward mainstream popularity and mass-market merchandising that might ring a little strangely for the hard-core among us. He includes the financial mishandling and collapse of TSR, Gygax’s death, and the survival of D&D through its purchase by Wizards of the Coast. Of course, all this is all related in the same adventurous tone as his campaign recollections. It goes down easy.

He even touches briefly on live-action role playing, but until he needed to research it had never done it, and sees it as something ‘other’ than a traditional RPG. The friends I had who were involved in LARPs did not do tabletop games, so Ewalt may be on to something, there.

And because you cannot discuss D&D without it, Ewalt reviews the dark time in the nineteen eighties when the game and its players became synonymous with the seduction of black magic and insanity. This particular slice of awfulness was served during my prime playing days, when Tipper Gore and other parental McCarthyites became determined to save us all from the overblown, misunderstood, and purely imaginary dangers that RPGs and heavy metal music were blamed for promoting.

As a player himself, Ewalt understands very well the group dynamics that are the heart of the game. He describes familiar personality types that just don’t fit anywhere, even in the odd assemblage that is a gaming group. But he also describes quite vividly the emotional bonds that hold even the prickliest mix of players together: “even when a game is over, the bonds that have been created persist…The people you play games with become your clan.  They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world” (119).

To sum it up: Of Dice and Men is a light yet reasonably comprehensive read written by a person who loves Dungeons and Dragons and always has. Ewalt hits most of the major points of the game, its major contributors, and its development without ever bogging down or preaching it. If you want a refresher course in why you also love playing D&D, this may be exactly the book for you.

The League of Regrettable Superheroes

Revisiting an oldie but goodie

Some comic book superheroes make you think, and some make you wonder. Guess which ones show up in Jon Morris’s The League of Regrettable Superheroes?

“More sophisticated storytelling, including such high-profile critical successes as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, encouraged a new generation of innovative writers and artists to invent some of the most fascinating, thoughtful, well-crafted superhero tales ever produced. We won’t be talking about them, though…”— Jon Morris, The League of Regrettable Superheroes

This labor of love appears just in time for Antman to hit theaters, and reminds us that there were plenty of other righteous crusaders out there who were even more awkwardly conceived of than he. Like Bee Man. And Doll Man. And Nature Boy. There is a great spirit of throw-them-at-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks to many of these comics, and a cheerful disregard for logic and continuity. It’s hard not to feel some affection for these guys once we get to know them.

And we do get to know them, through all the profiles of poorly-conceived and coolly-received superheroes stretching from the thirties into the nineties. Some of them simply missed the mark. Many of them seem to be full-out messing with us (Mother Hubbard? Really?). The whole thing is an extremely amusing snark-fest, but it has to be. Some of these characters are so ungainly the only other option for them is tragedy. For example, there is one benighted creature called Brother Power the Geek, a hybrid hippy/Pinnochio who straggled through two issues before being put out of his misery by the publisher.

Morris, who also runs the comic blog Gone and Forgotten, shows us how all these heroes fit into the grand scheme of things. He provides us with a concise and witty history of the evolution of superheroes in the comics, and the various cultural fashion trends that they followed on the way to their flame-outs. Heroes may be more than merely men, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, after all. All of them arise to face the main threats of their particular days. The early Golden Age years had gangsters and Nazis to battle, the fifties and early sixties had rogue atomic power and the Cold War, and the seventies, eighties and nineties had, well, other stuff—more Russians, and some angst.

Morris breaks his chosen heroes out alphabetically by era for ease for reference. And he does pad his catalogue a little bit by including a few characters that were actually advertising gimmicks or product tie ins, like AAU Superstar and NFL Superpro. But these shills did actually appear in comic books, making them superheroes in a very broad sense.

There are quite a few female superheroes documented here, too, ranging from the humanly heroic Pat Parker to War Nurse to the ghastly Fantomah to the happily married Pow-Girl and the cheerfully odd Squirrel Girl. They are, like their male counterparts, representative of their eras. However, in one unexpected and disturbing illustration, the 1976 character Captain Ultra shoves to the ground a female superhero who dares to flirt with someone else. I didn’t think the seventies were still so cavalier about casual dating violence, but I guess I was wrong.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The illustrations are generous, with at least one full page of each entry devoted to a cover or a representative inside page from the comic. The art, in all its four-color glory, is frequently familiar. Many of these titles came and went by way of Marvel and DC, and more than a few big names have been involved in these misfires. Even such giants as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, and Stan Lee produced some less-than super heroes in the giddy rush of the early days and in the quest to stay relevant in the following decades.

In my humble opinion, some of the more colorful superhero failures from each era are, to begin, these three from the Golden Age (1938-1949):

  • Atoman: “If Atoman’s origin isn’t the first in comics that directly references Albert Einstein, it’s certainly the only one that makes mention of Nobel-snubbed physicist Lise Meitner.”
  • Doctor Hormone: “Apparently, eternal youth and half-animal soldiers could take Doctor Hormone only so far.”
  • Madam Fatal: “Resembling something like a mix of the films Taken and Doubtfire, Madam Fatal represents one of the truly unique characters in comics.”

And three more from the Silver Age (150-169):

  • Dracula: “he ended up clothed in a skin-tight purple bodysuit, with a broad red belt and some sort of bat-eared bonnet.”
  • Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: “a plump but athletic character.”
  • The Sentinels: “In their civilian identities, they wore domino masks as part of their musical gimmick, like a really toned-down KISS.”

And a final sextet from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Assorted lesser X-Men: Snot, who does exactly what you think he does; Maggott, “whose power is ‘being infested with parasites’”; and Beak, “He has light bones and weird feathered limbs, but he can’t really fly; his only offensive power is pecking.”
  • Skateman: “one of the few street-level vigilantes in the history of comics to have taken justice into his own hands while wearing pristine white booty shorts.”
  • Thunderbunny: “All Bobby must do is concentrate, clap his hands, and he is transformed—into a giant pink rabbit clad in Spandex!”

As Morris points out early on in The League of Regrettable Superheroes, the overwhelming majority of superheroes have bizarre origin stories—and many of the characters he profiles here are no more or less unlikely than Superman, Spiderman, or the Flash. Many he includes aren’t really that bad at all, despite being variously irradiated, immolated, and reconstructed by aliens. Some of the “regrettable” titles were even modestly successful in their time. Surprisingly, several of the characters he pegs as failures were, by his own admission, interesting and had fairly decent runs. Some have even been revived at least once. They just didn’t strike the same chords with the American public as the ones who became the big guys did, and so fell by the wayside rather than striking gold in reboot and retcon heaven. Some of these heroes may even be worth tracking down and getting better acquainted with through the rather colorful resources of the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus.

As always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

 

misfits and monsters

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits &Monsters is, not surprisingly, pretty strange. Goldthwait–a man known for his incredibly dark sense of humor– writes, produces, and directs the new comedy series airing on TruTV with a fully self-aware sense of the absurd. So far, the half-hour episodes play more like Tales from the Crypt than the Twilight Zone. Foul language abounds, blood flows freely, and even the background characters are scathingly cynical. Truly, there is something for everyone.

It Begins With Bubba
misfits & monsters
Seth Green is not a werewolf in this show

Misfits & Monsters begins its run with “Bubba the Bear”, a fairly standard tale of a children’s cartoon come to life. Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) stars as a mild-mannered voiceover actor whose work comes back to bite him. Bubba the Bear is the role he inherited when the original voice actor had a breakdown and was institutionalized. But Bubba isn’t happy with how he is portrayed, and breaks into the real world to make his point. Graphically.

The episode’s dialogue is at once predictable and surprisingly, deeply snarky. Confronted by Bubba, Green’s character justifies his work with,“Stuttering’s just a tradition…like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Hugh Grant.” And when Bubba comes for revenge, he declares it “time to get all Revenant on your ass.” 

“Bubba” ends exactly as you expect it to, which is quite all right.

A Shaggy Dog Tale
misfits & monsters
A political animal

The second episode is “Face in the Car Lot”, a 1970s-set extravaganza of politicians and other creatures of the night. Starring David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) as car-salesman turned presidential candidate Del Wainwright and Tara Lynne Barr as the plucky reporter trying to prove he’s a werewolf, this episode plays like an extended comedy sketch.

When asked what scandals may come up during the campaign, Wainwright confesses, “I ate a toddler once. When I was a werewolf.” This is not enough to derail his campaign–not by a long shot. A hippy vampire shows up with evidence of the crime, but  the political machine just keeps rolling. Many of the lines are lifted almost verbatim from current commentary, tweaked lightly for lycanthropy. It is at once enjoyably silly and quite uncomfortable to watch.

More Misfits & Monsters, Please

There are six more episodes to round out the first season, but TruTV doesn’t give viewers the opportunity to binge. Which, based on the first two installments, I totally would. What I’ve seen so far of Misfits & Monsters is refreshingly goofy. The show is smart enough to be interesting but not so full of itself to wear out its welcome. The stories presented thus far are pretty standard, with the plot twists broadcast early on. But Goldthwait still gives them enough of a snarky twist to make their conclusions funny and satisfying anyway.

I would have to categorize Misfits & Monsters, broadly, as familiar tales well-told. And I look forward to more of that in the rest of the season.