Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Dog & Bastard

I created the Dog & Bastard pub in 2012 for my One Page Dungeon entry for that year and it has appeared in every rpg adventure I've written since, a little Easter egg for any regular readers.

(There are a couple of others too, for anyone counting.)

Every now and then I do a quick search to see if it's come up in anyone's game play reports, and today I discovered this:

This is from 2020 and is quite an interesting coincidence. I'm going to assume that popular comedian Jon Richardson is a secret gamer -- it wouldn't surprise me at all -- and has played or read one of my adventures at some point.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Marvel 1991: Marvel Comics Presents #72 (sort of)


I did wonder why the digital version of this issue was so cheap.

It turns out that all we're getting here is the Weapon X bit, and not the other three stories, so it's nine pages of a larger story, and moreover it's the prologue, so it's more about setting up the feel and mood and less about character and plot. With all that in mind, I don't think I can give it a fair review.

On the plus side, it does mean that I can move on quickly and at least attempt to catch up with the entire Marvel 1991 project. Ha ha.

What I can say that it looks amazing. These pages don't tell you much about what's going on -- which to be fair is true of the entire nine pages we do get -- but my gosh, just look at them.

(Click to just look at larger versions.)

My introduction to the work of Barry Windsor-Smith was his Machine Man miniseries as reprinted in the Marvel UK Transformers comic in 1985, and I fell in love with the art even if I didn't quite understand the writing. There's nothing quite like it, even today. Sometimes it's clean and simple, and feels a bit like a European artist like Moebius, but then there explosions of noodly detail and an emphasis on mood over plot progression that come across almost like Japanese manga.

You can see elements of all of that in the Weapon X story, and for that reason if nothing else, I will probably pick up the rest of the story at some point, just not in this format.

Zero Cables for you, Marvel Comics Presents #72, but that's only because you've been released into the world in a crippled and incomplete state, you poor thing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

DLC for the FF GBs

On Monday night I dreamed that I visited my Korean cousin in Toronto. I don't have a Korean cousin in Toronto, so I suspect this is my subconscious telling me I'm sad about Kim's Convenience being cancelled.


While there we went to whatever the Canadian equivalent of a charity shop is, and I was excited to find a bunch of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I managed to plug a couple of gaps in my collection, and found a second copy of Blacksand! to probably sell, but alas even in the realm of dreams Allansia eludes me, which probably says something about my sense of self-worth. I also discovered that Vault of the Vampire is called Vault of the Vicar in Canada, no doubt to some obscure Canadian law about promoting vampirism, or a general Canadian fear of the clergy perhaps.

The most interesting find was a series of short, 30 to 50 page books that were designed to be used in conjunction with the main FF adventures, as side quests of sort. They had GREENSPINES and everything. The main books would be edited to add something like this:

You now have the opportunity to embark on a sidequest. Select a book and turn to 1 in that book. If you survive your sidequest, follow any special instructions there, or return here to continue on your adventure.

If you would rather ignore the distraction of another quest and continue on your journey, turn to 87
Would this work in practice? I remember there being a disclaimer in the shorter books warning against the potential unbalancing effect of sidequests on the main book -- again, that tells you something about my subconscious -- but it seems like a viable idea, a sort of analogue DLC to make replays of one's favourite FF adventures a bit more unpredictable and interesting. You could tailor the digressions so that they would be suited to certain books over others, both in terms of game balance and setting, so you don't suddenly end up fighting a bunch of medusae on a pirate ship or whatever.

(I suppose in theory you could do this with the existing books. Start Caverns of the Snow Witch, then interrupt it to play Moonrunner, then jump back, although that seems clunky and excessive. If you paired up the right books it might just about work. Hm.)

I woke up before I could try any of the new books, but if I dream about them again, I will report back. Meanwhile, if anyone has a copy of Allansia they don't want, let me know.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Marvel 1991: Darkhawk #1

By complete coincidence, I'm looking at this a week after Marvel published a Darkhawk 30th anniversary special, which answers one question I had about this comic.

This first issue is very much an origin story, but there is a "created by Tom DeFalco" credit and the issue is written by Danny Fingeroth, all of which implies an earlier appearance. There is a preview in February 1991's Marvel Age #97 but it seems no one counts that, so yes, this is the character's first appearance. Happy 30th, Darkhawk!

I have read other comics featuring the character -- most recently, Infinity Countdown: Darkhawk because Death's Head is in it -- but they have all been later appearances, and I gather the character has had a bit of a conceptual and visual redesign since then, tying him to some of Marvel's cosmic mythos. Which is a good thing, because here at the start he is ill-defined and uninspired.

Part of the problem is that the storytelling is a mess. It manages to be both paced at a breakneck speed, to the extent that it feels like there are missing panels in the way it jumps from scene to scene, but also oddly devoid of actual content, because not much seems to happen. The Darkhawk suit is introduced, that's good. We see it shoot a laser thing. Okay, so that's a thing it can do. What is the helmet about? What does the single Wolverine claw do? What do the wings do? There's a mysterious tramp wandering about who seems to know what Darkhawk is but vanishes and that's a valid bit of mystery storytelling, something I'd expect to be left hanging and explored later. So too with the early appearance of the Hobgoblin. On the other hand, basic functions of the character design should probably be at least hinted at in the first issue, but it feels like they ran out of room and then you look back and realise that they had plenty of time and space, but wasted it somehow. It feels like that awful early-2000s trend of "decompressed storytelling" only a dozen years early.

I don't want the entire backstory in #1, but we can do better than "he is grey and has a laser" can't we?

We don't get much of a feel for Darkhawk's civilian identity either. He is an older brother -- maybe a teenager? -- and he has friends. I think that's about all we get. It's all so vague and again I don't want everything, laid out in the first issue, but there's a vast gulf between "everything" and "nothing" and they somehow manage to miss it.

The visual design is soul-sapping too. He is grey. All over grey. Grey is difficult to make interesting and, well, they don't manage it. There is a chest logo of sorts, but it's tiny and black. Black on grey. Darkhawk does have his helmet, wings and claw thing to break up the block of grey, but it's not enough. Black Widow has a similar colour scheme around this time, with a grey bodysuit and metallic wrist things, but at least with her you've got the vibrant red of her hair to provide some contrast. Not so with Darkhawk, although who knows under that helmet?

(I do know, and no.)

Even the logo is uninspired. They could have got some sort of bird or wing motif in there, but no, let's just do block capitals with a perspective slant. Job done, let's go down the pub.

It's an odd comic. It seems to be going for gritty urban crime in tone, and Mike Manley draws it like that -- and well, to be fair -- but then a teen superhero turns up and shoots lasers out of his nipples. This should be a bit of a clash, but because the superhero has this grey, featureless design, that clash doesn't quite happen. Perhaps that was deliberate, but I don't have any confidence that it is, because it more feels like bored creators going through the motions.

I've given the comic a bit of a kicking here, which isn't quite fair because it's not bad by any means. The only dodgy bit is the pacing and the rest of it is fine, but it all feels so oppressive in its dingy dullness that I can't say it was good either. You want a brand new character to make a splash, but this is about as splashy as a puddle on a rainy day in Peterborough.

I give Darkhawk #1 two Cables.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Some Clever Pun About the Contra Games, or the Iran-Contra Affair, or Something

Contraband is a 144-page graphic novel from TJ Behe, Phil Elliott, Ian Sharman, and Cherie Donovan, with a cover by Marcus Hohl. I'm reviewing the 2008 edition from Slave Labor Graphics, but a new edition is being released in May 2021 by Markosia. I believe that the only major change is the cover; pictured is the new cover design.

The graphic novel is set in what was probably an alternate future in 2008, but is more like an alternate present these days, in which all the buzz is generated by "citizen journalists" using their smartphones to record the world around them, freed from requirements foisted upon them by editorial departments, advertisers, or shareholders. With this democratisation of content comes a darker side, with the app/network Contraband chasing and encouraging sensationalist content, most often of a violent nature, and offering cash for ever more extreme footage.

(Isn't it weird that we still call it footage, even though video isn't measured in literal feet any more? I wonder if that term will ever go out of use?)

Contraband is too plausible to be science fiction, as aside from one notable exception, most of the technology is commonplace now, although it perhaps wasn't in 2008; Contraband itself is more or less TikTok, only eight years early, so that's some eerie prescience from Behe. It's also not quite a technothriller, because there aren't many car chases or explosions, although there are a couple of both. The most appropriate genre is probably some sort of modern noir, given how everyone and everything in its world is awful. It does remind me a bit of Black Mirror, but I hesitate to compare the two because (a) the original book predates the TV series by three years, and (2) I've always thought that Black Mirror was a bit rubbish, and this is much better.

(There's your quote: "Like Black Mirror, only not rubbish!")

The story follows Toby, a cafe worker and one of these citizen journalists, who one day records the wrong person and then gets drawn into a conflict between the creators of the Contraband network and the activists who see it as a social ill and wish to shut it down. It unfolds as a sort of low-key espionage thriller as Toby becomes a double agent, being pulled by both sides while trying to keep his head down and stay alive, and also find one of the activists, who has been kidnapped and is being tortured live on Contraband.

The art team give the book a lo-fi indie feel, which fits in well with the idea of all of this happening at a street level, below the noses of governments and big media corporations. A more flashy look would have probably been a bit of a stylistic clash, because it's a grubby story about a grubby world. The storytelling is clear throughout and the shifts from slower, talky scenes to the more energetic action sequences are well handled.

In terms of writing, the characterisation is good, in particular the "villain", Tucker, who comes across as a complete scumbag, as befits someone who runs a video-sharing network that encourages people to beat each other up in parks for money. The protagonist Toby is also well-written, stuck between powerful forces and forced to serve two masters; it would be an easy mistake to write him like an idiotic slasher movie victim, someone who could get out of the mess they are in if only they were less stupid, but it always feels like Toby is in an impossible situation with no easy escape. Charlotte, the kidnapped activist, is another character that could have been mishandled but works well, off-panel for most of the book as the unseen impetus for Toby's quest, but in true noirish tradition, it's not quite that simple, and from the very first pages -- and in flashbacks throughout -- we see that she is no weak-willed damsel-in-distress.

The plotting is also strong, with good use of flashbacks to add context and texture to the main kidnap storyline, and it all culminates in a perfect noir ending complete with twists and turns that upend things again and again, and force you to look at the characters in new ways, even as you turn the final page. The twists feel earned, too, even one final revelation that could have come across as arbitrary, but just about works.

Jarvis Stevens, the chief activist opposing Contraband, doesn't quite work as well. He feels a bit undefined in comparison to Tucker, and his pro-legislation stance appears to be portrayed as an inherent good, which feels a bit odd in a book that overall seems to want to be counter-cultural. I suspect the first is a deliberate choice to contrast the leaders of the two factions, but the latter feels a bit off; by the end of the book it's clear that there are no real heroes or villains, which makes Jarvis less of a shining white knight, but I'm not sure Behe makes the right moves to get there, and it feels less like a twist and more like a mis-step. NOt a huge one, I should clarify, and while it may distract a little, it doesn't harm the book.

The script is also overly wordy in a few places. You'll get a panel which looks like it's taking about five seconds of time but there are reams of text that would take five minutes to actually speak. In fairness, it only happens a couple of times and only in the first half of the book, but it does make a few scenes difficult to get through.

All that said, I like Contraband quite a bit. It's entertaining and interesting throughout, and delivers a satisfying ending that caps everything off in a perfect way; I've written enough things -- including reviews! -- to know that the climax is often the most difficult thing to get right. You can write 140 good pages, but if the last four don't work, then more often than not, the whole thing fails. That's not the case here. It's a bit of a cliché to say so when you're talking about this sort of subject matter but I am also impressed with how prescient the core idea is; in 2008 it probably came across as a bit of an oddity, but in 2021 it feels like sharp social commentary.

Anyway. Contraband good. Buy it if you like stories about the effects of social media on society, or you want to see how noir can be updated to the modern day without devolving into pastiche.