Archive for November, 2011


kirbsday: Jimmy Olsen 136

Happy Thanksgiving!  Talking about comics saves me from listening to my mom’s stories about the Library Board, so…

In the previous issue of Jimmy Olsen (#135, back here), Jimmy discovers the ethically dubious clone farms of the DNA Project, but when the Evil Factory unleashes an “uncontrollable organic murder machine” only the Guardian can save a powerless Superman.

Hulk-Jimmy effortlessly bats around the Guardian–a genetically augmented clone of a 1940’s crime-fighter associated with the original Newsboy Legion.  Luckily the Project defeats the giant via chemical warfare:

…delivered by microscopic naked Jimmy Olsens.  Oops, I meant microscopic uniformed clones of Scrapper, one of the boys in the Legion.

To defeat a giant, kryptonite-saturated clone, stolen from your own illicit clone of America’s favorite teen sidekick, you must use miniature illicit clones of the sidekick’s sidekick, kitted out for chemical-biological-radiological warfare!  Of course!  Straight out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.


The DNA Project : Newsboy Legion :: Cheyenne Indians : Buffalo.  Let no part go to waste!

Helpfully we cut away to the villains, where Simyan and Mokkari clarify the differences between the Project and the Evil Factory:

MOKKARI: “The Earthmen experiment for progress, but we work for Darkseid, ruler of Apokolips!”

SIMYAN: “Our offspring shall bring Apokolips to Earth!  Chaos in place of order!”

Obviously, since they’ve grown humans into “beasts of burden,” hauling heavy objects around, which is totally different than cloning Gabby a zillion times and making him answer switchboards.*  Apparently that is the view of Superman, who is just delighted about this whole thing.

He goes on to enumerate the classes of clones:

  1. Normals, like Jimmy, Scrapper, and Gabby, who are apparently the labor force.
  2. Step-Ups, like Jude and the Hairies, technicians with “hair-trigger minds!  And they can come up with mechanical wonders like the Mountain of Judgment!”  (We meet some more Step-Ups this issue who invite Superman and Jimmy to a Friday-night “sing-in.”  I bet Superman has some really weird weekends, come to think of it.)
  3. Aliens, like . . . Dubbilex!

Meanwhile the Evil Factory is about to unleash a new monster to harass the Project…

* =What if the Evil Factory did clone a bunch of Gabby’s to operate the Apokolips switchboard: this would explain the “Hello?  Inter-Gang operator?  Could you connect me to the Murder-by-Lay-Away program” stuff we’ve seen previously.

well, so…?

This issue has a weird falling action problem, which reads very similarly to some of Kirby’s work in The Fantastic Four in the mid-1960’s.  Because the last issue ended on a huge cliffhanger, this issue opens with a whole lot of action, but then the back half of the issue is taken up with explication and everyone catching their breath.  It works in an arc, but reads oddly as a single issue.

Also, I’m sorry, but the Guardian is a lame character, and I feel like Kirby is indulging himself here.  (He’s definitely earned it!  I’m just sayin’.)  Charitably: Kirby knew that the reintroduction of Marvel’s Golden Age characters – Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch – helped build excitement at the dawn of the Silver Age, and so creating a Space Age version of the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian now that Kirby is working for DC might be the same type of thing.

But Marvel’s reboots were men in crisis: Captain America is initially a crazy person with PTSD, the Sub-Mariner is a fishy conqueror maddened by lurvvvve, and the Human Torch (for the first few issues) was a Rebel Without A Cause But With A Flamethrower.  The characters were compelling and were given a lot of room to strut their stuff.  The Guardian is just one more dude in a very crowded comic, who seems like a personality-less clone of Captain America, even if the Guardian came first.  Even among the Newsboy Legion, Superman is handling most of the exposition that might be given to nerdy Big Words, and poor everyboy Tommy hasn’t said anything in months now that everyboy Jimmy Olsen is getting top billing.  (You see this crowding in other Kirby comics, particularly his late 1970’s run on The Black Panther, where the incredibly cool title character more or less gets lost amid Kirby’s madcap fecundity.)  Obviously I like Kirby a lot, but a more restrained approach here might have given these characters a better chance to find an audience.

the anti-life equation in action

The most charitable interpretation of the DNA Project is that it’s an operation which by necessity must be large-scale but also very hush-hush.  So they solve their manpower needs by growing their own.  But I would feel a lot better if just one of the characters would give a smidgen of push-back against a secret government eugenics program, even if it is for “progress.”

One of the things here is that we’ve heard mention of the Anti-Life Equation in Forever People #1 and New Gods #1–“the outside control of all living thought!”  Here we’re seeing the DNA Project and the Evil Factory actively programming living beings into weird bio-niches by manipulating their genes.  It may not be the Anti-Life Equation exactly–we’ll see it in a couple of weeks–but it’s certainly related: if genetics are destiny, anyone who controls your genes is controlling you.  And Superman is a huge booster of this technology, even though he’s just been beaten up by the technology literally run amok.  Maybe he just needs a few more beatings.

isn’t this a gaming blog?

Random DNA Project Event Table, roll 1d10 once a day

  1. Bio-ethicist attempting suicide due to discovering true purpose of Project
  2. Step-Up’s trying to contain an industrial disaster (hydroponic mold hallucinogens in ducts?) by ministering to repair-chakras
  3. DNAlien awakens confused, goes on rampage; must be subdued without damage.  Power = infectious rage-aura.
  4. Simyan or Mokkari, maybe with lobotomized Slave-Olsens dressed as soldiers, steal miniaturized naked enraged Superman clones
  5. A lost female Outsider gets past the Mountain of Judgment, threatens to reveal DNA Project to American public.  Presence of woman at Project discombobulates all of the Normals.
  6. Mountain of Judgment docks for refueling.  Project’s Step-Up’s inspired to defect; Olsen-Soldiers called to restrain them
  7. Normal-Tommy series slated for extinction due to redundancy.
  8. Mini-Scrappers stage military exercise against Mini-Flippers, damage heavy water coolant for nuclear reactor
  9. Normal-Big Words series develops inferiority complex with Step-Up’s, begin campaign of sabotage
  10. Emergency evacuation requires getting convoys past the haywire Zoomway

one last thing

Does anyone have experience with the mid-80’s DC Heroes RPG?  I tried looking at it, and it seems like it’s based on two look-up tables, but everything is all “RAP this” and “AP that,” and it confuses my brain.  How well does it capture the themes at work in a DC comic, specifically the Fourth World stuff, which is all about destiny, free will, warfare, and friendship?  I can tell you right now that my beloved Marvel Super Heroes does none of those things, and I can’t imagine the DC game does either based on its vintage.  But at least the DC game has already statted up a whole bunch of these characters so I don’t have to.


my son the convention DM

This is Javi wearing his Halloween costume: a green slime in disguise. He will not be wearing it while DMing, as the mask makes it hard to see the numbers on the dice.

In the early years of being a parent, people would talk about how the first year of a child’s life was the best time of all. I believe that this nonsense is part of the directed forgetting we evolved so that humans will have multiple kids and ensure the survival of the species. If we really remembered what it was like to change our shirts six times a day because spit-up leaked through the cloth forever worn over our shoulders, and be woken up at each of the hours of the morning that go wee, wee, wee all the way home, procreation would come to an abrupt halt after we’d done it once.

The thing that kept me going through the various torments of early childhood was the knowledge that the best times were yet to come. Not wanting to be the kind of parent who already has their kid’s college picked out or expects them to follow precisely in their footsteps, I didn’t have specific moments in mind. However, this is definitely one of them: my nine-year-old will be DMing his first convention game next weekend at Anonycon in Stamford, CT. Here is the description we came up with for his event:

D&D Classic – The Dungeons of Ramburgh (D&D 4e)
By Javi Allison. The people of Ramburgh are being tormented by undead monsters from the desert. Will your heroes find fame and fortune in the streets of the city and the dungeons beyond, or will your corpse soon join the ranks of those shuffling toward Ramburgh? This adventure was developed and playtested in the D&D afterschool program at Hunter College Elementary School. Javi is one of the program’s most talented DMs, and will have adult help managing the rules (4E Essentials), but grownups should still expect a different kind of D&D: fresher, funnier, weirder! Paragon-tier pregens will be provided, or you can bring your favorite 11th level characters from LFR or your home game. (Reminder, LFR Characters cannot receive XP, GP or items from this adventure … but players can still have fun. ;-))

The reminder was thoughtfully added by the convention organizers, who put together a great event every year. I’m looking forward to it!


deck of many tortures

A silly thing first, then a serious question, then Joesky tax.

I attended my second session of I6: Ravenloft last week.  (The rest of the guys have played several more sessions since my first bout of Shukenja-envy).  Naroia, playing a Kryptonian Assassin, decapitated vampire lord Strahd with a single strike.  Which apparently didn’t do the trick, but whatever, the guy’s going down.

Surprisingly, assassinating Strahd von Zarathustra was not the highlight of the evening, because our DM (“Naked Sam”) busted out a deck of many things.  I knew to stay away from it–I had seen Tavis mercilessly pummel the after school class with it last year–but I got peer pressured into drawing.  I wound up with +60,000 experience and was now Chaotic Evil, which just goes to show you should always give in to peer pressure.

But don’t give in the way these guys did!  It is not best practice.

  • Kryptonian F/M/T drew The Void, so his soul got stolen by a demon, and dragged off to hell.  But we remembered that souls can’t leave Ravenloft so must be in the castle somewhere.  I looted his soulless shell of all its magic items . . . just for safekeeping.
  • Kryptonian F/M/T’s player then grabbed a replacement character who drew The Void again.  That demon really likes collecting souls.  I am not sure who got this guy’s magic items, but I feel that I earned them.
  • Sensible Half-Orc lost all his magic items, got +50,000 XP which is total bullshit, gained the service of a henchman, and then his henchman immediately betrayed him.
  • Kryptonian Assassin couldn’t kill Sensible Half-Orc’s new henchman in single combat, even though it would mean gaining a new level.  But our assassin is now Chaotic Good.
  • Normal Magician lost all magic items and also lost 10,000 XP.

Painstaking game theory analysis confirms that the other players made the crucial mistake of drawing terrible cards.  Like playing a Cleric with less than 30,000 XP, this is simply sub-optimal play and they should try harder next time.  You’re welcome.

As a suitable reward for my skill, I also got a ring of wish.  That is how the game is played.  Who’s the Shukenja now?

the torture debate

Also that session, we had the age-old “What do you mean, you kill the helpless prisoners?!” intra-party feud.  There were these Witches who had been rendered harmless, but Sensible Half-Orc decided to kill them anyway despite my character having loudly sworn to protect them from mistreatment.  (This was before I became Chaotic Evil.)  It was, at least for a second or two, potentially a bad scene.

We avoided it because I respect Sensible Half-Orc’s player (co-blogger Charlatan), and also as a relative interloper in the game I didn’t want to make a gargantuan stink, as a colossal stink was quite sufficient.

But torturing and killing helpless prisoners seems to be an inescapable intra-party fault line within Dungeons & Dragons, even serving as a practical example of Alignment in the Moldvay Basic rule book.  But it’s actually kind of a serious problem, partially because it’s so revolting that there are bound to be strong feelings at the player level, which naturally creates a social temptation to break the taboo.  Plus some people might think that it’s the most sensible course of action given the fictional circumstances.  And all of this gets masked as “playing the alignment” of a fictional person, giving everyone some plausible deniability to stake out stronger positions.  It’s pretty much a recipe for coercion if not literal backstabbing.

I’m wondering how other groups / OSR bloggers / whoever have addressed this topic in play.  Our group avoids some stuff by explicit consensus: intra-party violence is on that list come to think of it, as is torture.  Other stuff seems to be handled by implicit consensus: I’m not sure a Thief has ever properly picked the pocket of a party peer.  But murdering captives, as distinct from torturing them, apparently is a live issue for us.

Given that Dungeons & Dragons will inevitably and repeatedly lead to these types of situations, and given that the rules of the game will almost inevitably lead to enormous tension at the table-level, I’m astonished that this topic is so rarely discussed.  To my knowledge, nothing in TSR-era D&D, Dragon, etc. ever seriously looks at this.  You see the “what do you do with Orc babies?” thing on places like RPG.Net sometimes, but even there it usually becomes a big messy thread (endemic to the venue, I guess).

Anyway, it ended up being no big deal, but I personally would have had more fun if it hadn’t occurred.  That’s probably as much my fault for taking an unexpectedly principled stand as anyone’s.

joesky tax: why are we fighting, anyway?

Perhaps the most common occurrence in Silver Age super hero comics is when two super heroes meet for the first time, they always get into a fight.  This is pretty much the super hero equivalent of the obligatory “assessment joust” in Arthurian legends.  This chart uses the Marvel Super Heroes system but hopefully is simple enough to work with others.

When a costumed player encounters a costumed super hero NPC for the first time, the player makes a Popularity roll.  If the player is part of a team, the player with the lowest Popularity should roll.

  • WHITE – NPC has no idea who you are, so you’re obviously a menace.  Fight!  Roll on table below at -3.
  • GREEN – NPC has heard rumors of you, but is intensely suspicious.  Fight!  Roll on table below at +0
  • YELLOW – NPC has heard of you, but doubts your ability and commitment.  Fight!  Roll on table below at +3.
  • RED – NPC respects you, but has a lot of work to do.  No fight, unless you start one by bothering or delaying the NPC.

On a yellow or red result, the NPC might become genuinely friendly if the player impresses him or her in some way.

Why are we fighting?

1d10 Roll Motive
0 or less NPC mistakes you for a new villain. NPC is probably snide and dismissive about it, too. Media may begin covering fight, which could harm your Popularity. NPC will be breezily apologetic if proven wrong.
1 NPC was alerted to weird phenomena… violently paranoid crowds, mountains appearing in street, cops & robbers mind-swapped, wildly levitating cars, money turns to liquid, etc. NPC blames you. Will fight until convinced this isn’t your fault, probably by a Reason feat. Villain… Loki, Mole Man, Silver Surfer, Diablo, Miracle Man, Enchantress, Tiboro, Leader
2 NPC is an impostor out to sully the original’s good name. All primary stats at -1 column, and powers crudely simulated by technology. Impostor may think the player is a fellow villain or potential dupe, respectively, and will try to team up instead of fight. NPC is really… Chameleon, Mysterio, Skrulls, Commie, alien, random bozo
3 NPC believes you’re an impostor (Commie, alien, android) or have been mind-controlled somehow. You’ll have to do something only the real you would do. NPC is primed to think this way b/c tracking down… Chameleon, Mysterio, Skrulls, Puppet Master, Purple Man, Demon Duplicators
4 NPC is mind-controlled by villain… Enchantress, Puppet Master, Hate Monger, Purple Man, alien, Commie. Villain is using NPC for a specific purpose, you just got in the way.
5 NPC is just an illusion created by villain… Loki, Baron Mordo, Mysterio, Mastermind, alien, Commie. Goal is to set you against the NPC later on, or to evaluate your abilities.
6 NPC is helping… army, scientists, SHIELD test new equipment, but your presence is screwing up the test. Dummy, do I have to knock you out of here?
7 NPC coping with super-angst and will lash out in grief, rage, or despair. Keep making Psyche feats at the start of each round until a green result, at which point NPC will calm down. No apologies, will just zoom away. NPC’s loved one stricken with rare blood disease; only cure is in… Latveria, Wakanda, Zemo’s South American fortress, Limbo, Asgard, Mandarin’s Chinese redoubt.
8 NPC has to attack you to prevent catastrophe (your girlfriend’s house is actually an alien egg, your car is a four-dimensional bomb, unless your HQ is destroyed villain will demolish city), no time time to explain! Villain… Mad Thinker, MODOK, Mandarin
9 NPC is acting under orders (Nick Fury, Thunderbolt Ross, Senator Byrd), media hoopla (J. Jonah Jameson, Red Chinese propaganda), or the suggestion of some other contact to arrest/capture you: the way you handled last case has serious implications
10 NPC thinks he’s the better man to handle this case or otherwise has precedence, so butt out junior, this is too dangerous for you. I said butt out!
11 or higher NPC wants to test player’s abilities for special mission together.

I’m not sure those modifiers all line up, but it’s a start.


party gaming to celebrate the digital release of the D&D comics

A while back I ran a public open-table OD&D game as part of the opening ceremonies for the Doomslangers exhibit at the Allegra LaViola gallery. One of the players was Kevin Pearl; when not scouring dungeons, he is part of the comiXology Social Media & Production Team. So when they were preparing for the launch of the Dungeons & Dragons comics from IDW Publishing on their Comics by comiXology service, Kevin reached out to me to put together a gaming event as part of the launch party.

If you’re in NYC and free this Wednesday night, come play with us at Jim Hanley’s Universe; check out the flyer image at right, or the press release below, for details. If you’re coming, be sure to RSVP at the Facebook event page!

Even if you aren’t in the area, or need more lead time to arrange your gaming schedule, I think this is a noteworthy development in a conversation we’ve been having here at the Mule. To review what’s gone before:

The scenario I ran for the Doomslangers show where I met Kevin was a room I created for the Tower of Gygax at Gen Con, which first got me excited about the possibilities for party gaming: ways to do outreach to new players through a reduced barrier to entry, and to entertain existing ones on a larger scale through audience participation and easy drop-in/drop-out. I ran this scenario again at Jaysoncon, where the Tower of Gygax approach worked as well for the small audience celebrating Jayson’s birthday as it did for the hordes who queue up at Gen Con to see how long they will survive before death means they have to give up their seat to the next player in line.

My experience trying to run 4E for a mixed group of experienced current players and newbies or long-lapsed ones at the D&D installment of Ryan McGinness’s  50 Parties series pointed out some of the issues that have to be taken into account to make this kind of public, all-access gaming work. The bachelor parties and birthday parties for kids and adults my fellow Mules and I have done since then are attempts to try out solutions.

I’ve said before that there are  interesting questions for the OSR about the interface between this kind of party gaming and the long-form campaigns that we normally celebrate. There is also an important conversation to be had about commercialization and commodification of our scene. Ryan McGinness told me that he created 50 Parties  in reaction to “the proliferation of parties with corporate sponsorship, where you’re always going to a party that exists to showcase the introduction of a new brand of vodka”. At the time this seemed as far away from my geeky world as could be, but in NYC these worlds are now in collision.

The fact that I really like both vodka and the IDW D&D comics doesn’t blind me to the issues here. How can we keep the collision of worlds from being a disaster and instead ensure that we get their planet’s women and Coca-Cola in exchange for our surplus ray-guns and radium saucers? I’ll have more to say about this down the road; for now, here’s the press release:

Harken to the call of adventure as comiXology, IDW Publishing, and legendary comic shop Jim Hanley’s Universe team up for an unprecedented Dungeons and Dragons gaming event!
In honor of the latest release of IDW’s massive collection of fantastic Dungeons & Dragons comics on Comics by comiXology, comiXology and IDW Publishing will be hosting an evening of classic Dungeons & Dragons gaming at Jim Hanley’s Universe in New York City! Gaming oversight provided by Tavis Allison of
When: November 23rd, 2011 6:00pm
Where: Jim Hanley’s Universe on 33rd Street, right next to The Empire State Building in New York City.
What: Come prepared with a Dungeons & Dragons Digital Comic already downloaded on your device and receive a free comiXology t-shirt that adds + 5 to your base Awesome factor! Didn’t understand that last joke? Worry not as players need not be experienced in the grand tradition of D&D to play. Adventurers of all levels are invited to take part in an evening filled with magic, adventure and a whole lot of geeky fun. So gather up thy lucky dice, digital devices, and whatever else one might need to slay Orcs or hunt for treasure and come join us on November 23rd at Jim Hanley’s Universe.

what does it take to run a Dungeoneer bachelor party?

I am happy to say that my friend – New York Red Box’s foner, known to those who follow the White Sandbox campaign as the player of E.N. Lightenment, cleric of the Killing Frost – is getting married. I am further happy because his brother has had the wisdom to hire my company Adventuring Parties LLC to put together the bachelor party.

As often happens when you make a business out of a hobby, this involves doing stuff I would be delighted to be asked to do for a friend for free. The main advantage of being able to treat it as a job is that I can better justify to my wife why I will be schlepping out to Harrisburg, PA to play roleplaying games all weekend. (My first instinct was to reach out to Rob Conley and see if Adventuring Parties could employ his immense talents for this gig, but apparently PA is so large that I am still closer to Harrisburg than other Pennsylvanians are. Who knew?) Justification was achieved without having to make rhetorical arguments about how she should be glad Adventuring Parties isn’t in the traditional bachelor party business, in which case I would be going away all weekend to get drunk and hoot at strippers.

The other advantage is that having a budget for this party allows me to indulge my passion for stuff. We chose Paul Jaquays’ classic Night of the Walking Wet scenario as the basis for the bachelor party, first published in his Dungeoneer fanzine in June of 1977. The party favors for guests reflect this theme:

I had a great time at the North Texas RPG Con going through Badmike’s giant bins of Judges’ Guild stuff and picking up these later issues of Dungeoneer, so I am happy that giving these out to the party guests will clear the way for me to have this experience all over again at NTRPG this year.

Also on the stuff tip: Needing to deliver a gaming experience worth paying for gives me the motivation to bust out the top-shelf liquors and the foxiest strippers, so to speak. Here is the kit I’m bringing to assist me in playing the role of Judge for this expedition:

The ones you might not recognize here are a Men & Magic-styled compilation of the Adventurer Conqueror King rules that face towards the players, which I’ll be using to help us get on board with domain-level play if we choose (this is a good scenario in which to levy mercenary armies and undertake the rebuilding of a ruined stronghold!), and the spellbook compiled by the mages of the White Sandbox’s Grey Company, which will add a little Eldrich Weirdness, Arduinian gonzo, and player-driven inspiration to the incantations our casters choose to memorize. Both were compiled and laid out by Red Box’s jedo, who makes it look easy, and printed via Lulu.

The White Box and those two Dungeoneer issues were bought by my first wife’s elder siblings at the Argosy Book Shop in Grand Rapids, MI. (In case mentioning a former marriage, like giving knives, is considered bad luck for a soon-to-be newlywed, let me point out that it wasn’t until my second wife that I got to have a D&D bachelor party; the fact that you’re doing this right from the start predicts a lifetime of happiness without requiring a do-over.)

At NTRPG Paul said that he remembered cold-sending issue #1, on top, to area stores like this one in hopes that they would pick up a subscription. I should have put issue #5 on top in this picture, because it is the one on whose cover a bearded, big-footed, cigar-smoking wizard in a hat marked DM poses the question at hand:

I like how the cover implies that the essential test of one’s ability to defeat a deity is one’s willingness to plunk down 60 cents (50 p in the UK!) for dis ‘zine. It would be good marketing to say that I similarly trust that anyone savvy enough to hire Adventuring Parties has what it takes. But in this case, I know that to be true just because everyone there will be friends and family of my friend Carl, and there is no better recommendation for people I want to party with in the realm of the Slime God.


kirbsday: mister miracle 1


A few minutes ago, the topless girls were chanting peacefully outside Trinity Church.  Across Broadway, the NYPD had sealed that entrance of Wall Street from all pedestrian traffic.  A few Wall Street brokers were arguing with the cops, trying to get to work but unwilling to walk a block out of their way.  Most of the protesters had gone around to Nassau and Pine, but there were five or six milling around in front of the church, dressed up as cardboard houses, I guess to symbolize something.  I’d been part of the mass demo earlier, but was standing around chatting with one of the church vicars and checking out the topless girls.

A very mellow and quiet scene – until a wall of about ten cops rushed into us, shoving us all back with nightsticks and shouting.  They knocked the girls down; the girls scrambled out of the way.  A church security guy whisked the vicar and her church buddies away.   I was part of this wave of about 20 pedestrians, on-lookers, protesters and fake-houses being rapidly forced down the street.  Everyone was compliant and backing up as the police kept shouting.

An older black guy fell down the the police were going to trample him.  I tried to help him up, and was yelling at the cops that we were backing up but let me just get this guy on his feet.  The police kept shoving me back.  Finally I got the black guy on his feet–and the police shoved him right down again, and pushed me away, shouting the entire time.

Things eventually settled down, and luckily the girls andthe black guy were fine.  (The cardboard houses were ruined.)  I have no idea what set the cops off.  At that moment, everything had been peaceful and chill; Broadway was practically deserted.  I’d gone there precisely because it seemed out of the way.  The scary and upsetting thing about this was that it was an unprovoked show of force that wouldn’t even pause so that you could help someone comply safely.  Total, unquestioning obedience was not enough.  Totally trivial stuff in the big scheme of things!  But still more than I’d bargained for on Thursday morning.

the show must go on

Which, maybe, segues into Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle, a series about a super escape artist who simply wants to live his life, even though there’s a war of the gods raging all around him.  We’ll see later on that the lead character escaped from the police-planet Apokolips, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I love that cover.  I had heard about Mister Miracle for years, and thought the idea of replacing the traditional climactic super hero fight sequence with an escape artist bit was brilliant, but I only got to read the series only a few years ago.

It opens with a brave young man trying to come to the aid of an aging escape artist persecuted by a reluctant dwarf:

They become friends:

and team up to scare off some Inter-Gang thugs who have a score to settle with the old man:

The mob leader, a guy named Steel Hand with a radioactive hand made out of steel that can slice through two feet of titanium and literally crush to pieces an arm-wrestling robot, is determined to humiliate Mister Miracle (the old guy) in something called “The Big Trap.”  Apparently Steel Hand and Mister Miracle had a running bet that Mister Miracle couldn’t escape Steel Hand’s traps, and as Steel Hand gained more and more power in Inter-Gang the fact that this old coot continued to defy him became an increasing liability.

It turns out that Scott Free is something of an escape artist too, though is methods are unconventional:

Scott explains that he’s an orphan, whose only inheritance is a bag of strange gadgets.  “Scott Free” was a nickname given to him at the orphanage so that foundlings would “feel as individuals.”

Steel Hand personally supervises a sniper in killing Mister Miracle while practicing his act.  The old Mister Miracle is pretty philosophical when he learns that the Big Trap that Steel Hand had in mind was death itself: “Funny fellow, Steel Hand!”

What happens next writes itself:

OMG again with theHello!  Get me the secret Inter-Gang missile site!” stuff.  Being the phone operator at Inter-Gang has got to be one of the best jobs.

anything to add?

Mister Miracle is the only one of Kirby’s Fourth World titles to focus on a single protagonist.  Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is inherently a double act; The Forever People are a team.  Orion dominates the pages of The New Gods but as we’ll see that title is just as much about the broader Fourth World setting as it is about its anti-hero.

Mister Miracle is in some ways a conventional super hero title–seemingly normal kid gets something to believe in, puts on a crazy costume, uses some mysterious gifts to beat mobsters–but again the main focus of every issue isn’t punching out a villain but rather getting out of some deathtrap.

It’s an inspired idea–Kirby like a lot of kids of his generation idolized Harry Houdini, so turning Houdini into a super hero is perfectly understandable.  But the storytelling need to put the hero into deathtrap after deathtrap is itself a pretty harsh creative constraint, as we’ll see in the issues to come.  It reminds me of the whole Flipper Dipper concept: sure, you’ve got a SCUBA nut on the Newsboy Legion, but that means that every issue you’ve got to find some excuse for him to go diving.  But Flipper Dipper is just one kid out of the six or seven main guys in Jimmy Olsen, and if he doesn’t get his spotlight scene that’s not a crisis.  Here, “super escape artist!” is on the cover each month.

The other thing that’s a little frustrating is that what made Houdini cool is exactly what makes Batman cool: in theory, you can do it yourself; Mister Miracle, however, has crazy scientific gadgets from another planet that he uses to not only cheat death, but to cheat the terms of the wager.  And most of the time there’s barely any explanation.  It’s like his super power is, “cannot get hurt.”  (This is a good idea for a  first-level Shukenja spell.)

But the romantic ideal of Escape is still a pretty cool idea for a comic, especially in the broader Fourth World context of Orion the good soldier and the Forever People trying to prevent Darkseid from acquiring “outside control of all living thought” via the Anti-Life Equation.  Mark Evanier has noted that Mister Miracle also was a metaphor for Kirby trying to escape the creative constraints that were limiting his career and his artistry, and that visually Scott Free was modeled on Jim Steranko, an outstandingly illustrator and graphic designer (and actual former escape artist) who Kirby saw as a new hope for art in comics.  I don’t know enough about that stuff to comment directly, but I’ll try to learn more as we go along.


intergang terror taxi chart

How did Inter-Gang (or the Maggia, or your Silver Age super-world’s version of the Five Families) modify their getaway vehicle?  This chart is written with Marvel Super Heroes in mind but I’ll try to keep it stat-less.

  1. Pistons Glisten, Ultra-High Performance.  Take a decent upgrade (+2 column shifts in Marvel) to the car’s Speed, Control, Body, or other relevant stat.  If you feel like it, upgrade multiple stats.  (Taxis in Marvel Super Heroes default to Typical Control, Good Speed, and Good Body.)
  2. Weapons of the Gods.  You don’t need this chart to put machine-guns in the headlights, though that’s a classic.  Instead:  cannonball ninja, hypno-headlights, poisoned hood ornament for ramming, carzooka.
  3. Peril of the Palooka Passenger.  Joey Bananas is a big burly dude (Excellent Fighting, Excellent Strength) in the passenger seat with magnetized boots so he can crawl out on top of the car and punch anybody.  He’ll stay attached to the car despite its maneuvers (or if it crashes…)
  4. Weird Travel.  Flying car and boat car are classics of course.  Maybe turns into a pogo car, stilt car, hovercraft car, hangglider car, blimp car, expands into Bigfoot with car-plow to smash through traffic.
  5. Hands Off!  Electrified, camouflage, timed mines, robot pheromones, quicksand finish sucks people inside
  6. Crash Proof.  Reinforced, with multiple safety harnesses, to ignore crash damage.  Drive accordingly.  (In Marvel Supers: car absorbs 50 points of crash damage for passengers, but restraints mean that they can’t leap free.)
  7. Healing Factor.  Everyone in the Marvel Universe has a “healing factor,” so obviously some cars have it too.
  8. Knight Industries 2K11.  Terror Taxi is intelligent.  Terror Taxi hates you.  Terror Taxi is, frankly, HAL in a car’s body and Michael eventually was killed by carbon monoxide which is why the series was canceled.
  9. Double Trouble.  Yes, the car splits into two motorcycles, or a go-cart and an auto-gyro.
  10. Pick One and Roll Again.  If your second roll is a 10, then the Terror Taxi you just rolled up is a decoy, and the real action is really with a perfectly ordinary, nondescript car heading in the opposite direction.



Kirbsday: New Gods 1

Smash cut to the end of the world:

And the creation of a new cosmos in its aftermath:

Eons later, grim Orion of the New Gods, “wielder of the Astro-Force,” (the weird modern-art tubing thing you see him standing on in the cover) travels to one of these worlds guided by his carefree friend Lightray:

And receives a mission from the gentle High-Father, who can literally read the writing on the wall:

You can’t quite tell in the picture, but yes, that is a giant fiery hand writing on the sacred Source Wall at the heart of New Genesis.  The characters discuss the Life Equation, which has something to do with the Hand, the Wall, and free will.  (“It is eternal!  It is the Life Equation!  And its power is part of your Wonder-Staff!”)

The guy on the far right, Metron, gives us a little bit of explanation for the Anti-Life Equation, which was a McGuffin sought by Darkseid within Beautiful Dreamer’s brain in Forever People 1.  Also, note that Simyan and Mokkari, researchers at the Evil Factory, spoke of coming from a place called Apokolips, ruled by Darkseid.  So we’re getting some mild connections between the series right now.

Speaking of Darkseid of Apokolips, Metron also delivers massive spoilers:

High-Father is mad, but I’m so grateful I didn’t have to play coy about this for a zillion more weeks.

orion to apokolips

From Forever People 1 we know that Darkseid is already on Earth, which apparently leaves an entire planet controlled by a Space Caveman:

Yes, the nearly naked Space Caveman is wielding a “Beta-Club.”  I’m still thinking of running a Fourth World game using a super hero RPG, but sometimes Encounter Critical seems like the better choice.

then to earth

Their battle is interrupted by Metron (the blue-headed dude a few panels ago) who teleports in to tell Orion that there’s more at stake, specifically, four experimental test subjects from Earth:

Orion frees the hostages and fights Kalibak briefly, before helping the humans escape:

then to war

Orion and the four humans flee to Earth, where Orion bellows a challenge to Darkseid, wherever he might be.

some value added

It may not be clear reading this, but New Gods 1, like Forever People 1, is so dense that it’s hard to summarize without, like, posting the whole issue.  And that’s especially interesting since so little actually happens in this issue: Orion visits home, receives a quest, invades the enemy’s headquarters, and (after an argument with Metron) rescues some innocent villagers.  Although there are some fights in this issue, they’re almost afterthoughts, which is unusual in a Kirby comic.  The whole thing is pretty much exposition and characterization.

And it’s pretty good characterization, too.  Our main focus is on Orion, but he’s first contrasted to Lightray, one of the young princes of New Genesis, who has few cares and loves to laugh.  Orion, however, is almost joyless.  “My destiny is battle!  I wield the mighty power of the Astro-Force!  It is a grim and fearful responsibility!”  But High-Father has responsibilities too, particularly to look after the younger gods and to sustain New Genesis’s relationship with the Source, yet High-Father is patient and nurturing in spite of his burdens.  At the climax of the story, Orion’s brutish courage is contrasted with Metron’s dispassionate self-interest, and it turns out that Metron is right: Orion is urgently needed on Earth, and there’s no time to waste kicking Kalibak’s ass.  The one character who seems to be closest to Orion’s temperament is Kalibak himself, which isn’t surprising since they are half-brothers.  (Shh, it’s a secret!)  So even though Orion is depicted as brave and heroic, he’s also got some serious psychological problems that he himself cannot see.  Good thing he’s been entrusted with the ultimate weapon!

The other curious thing about this issue is how it begins.  For three months, readers have been following the antics of Jimmy Olsen, occasionally catching a glimpse of some larger plot involving a mysterious villain called Darkseid.  With Forever People 1, things suddenly start rushing to the fore: the Boom Tube, Apokolips, the Anti-Life Equation, Mother Box–but we still don’t really know what the hell is going on.  And so with New Gods 1 Kirby finally rips back the curtain and we get to see everything. It’s a really well done piece of large-scale storytelling which works beautifully when viewing the work as a whole.  How it would have come across to a little kid trying to read random issues each month, who knows.


devious wessex trap

I am currently engaging in a real-life hexcrawl of Jeff Rients’s Wessex campaign setting.

map copyright Jeff Rients

Now, Jeff made some mapping errors, I think.  Hexes 0113 and 1004 are both hilly as fuck, 1004 especially.  Most of the line between 1310 and 1403 isn’t as hilly as depicted.  But also, the roads are wrong.  Here is a rough sketch.

Also, the City of Christminster, in addition to housing the invisible college of wizardry, perhaps with Roger Bacon as its master, harbors Wagon Pixies who set cunning traps for outlanders.  To wit:

The discerning eye will notice that, due to the slope, you not only have to find Reverse, but have to be going really fast to overcome gravity.  But if you mis-shift into First Gear, that means you will smash into the lower car.  If, however, you manage to get into Reverse, you will race back into the wall.  Either way, you must Save versus Liability at -5.

Maps of an Anarchy-period keep, Tintagel Castle, and Merlin’s Cave to follow next time I get wifi, which may be after I get back.


kirbsday: forever people 1

Jack Kirby came to DC Comics with big dreams.  By 1970, the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs had gone on strike.  Frustrated that Marvel Comics had been stiffing him on plotting and scripting credits, as well as cheating him out of some of the profits off the enormously popular characters he’d created, Jack Kirby decided to withhold his best ideas from Marvel, and store them away for a later time.  Now, working for Marvel’s only serious rival, Kirby had a chance to bust out all the idea’s he’d been saving up.

The first three Kirby issues of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen are practically exploding with energy: temporary autonomous zones, techno-hippies, and genetic engineering all mingle in Kirby’s psychedelic collage alongside 1940’s legacy characters transfigured by the Space Age.  But Jimmy Olsen was only an overture to the three other titles of Kirby’s Fourth World Saga: The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mister Miracle.

And it’s here, with Forever People 1, that the Fourth World Saga really gets going in earnest.

rrraBOOOM, behold four crazy-looking dudes on a . . . Super-Cycle.  They have arrived on our planet and scare the hell out of some motorists.  It turns out these motorists are friends of Jimmy Olsen’s, which is a plot point.  But let’s meet the gang:

From left to right:

  • Vykin the Black.  Yes.  I know.  But it was the 1970’s.  If DC did a super hero comic featuring radioactive alter ego’s of Bill Cosby, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammed Ali, they would have been called “The Black Blacks.”  I would like to think Kirby knew better: he didn’t call Flipper Dipper “Black Flipper Dipper,” because that would have been crazy.  Vykin is the custodian of the Mother Box, that red thing he’s holding.
    • Mother Box is a living computer that communicates in R2D2 language.  There’s a lot to say about Mother Box, but for now it’ll suffice to know it’s a sentient, telekinetic Tri-Corder and an object of almost religious veneration.
  • Mark Moonrider is to the Forever People what Tommy is to the Newsboy Legion: the handsome, no-personality dud against whom all the other characters are variations.  It’s a pity: “Mark Moonrider” is a pretty awesome name.  His super power is a megaton touch, but it’s several issues before we see it used.
  • Big Bear pilots the Super-Cycle and is popular in certain types of clubs.  He also has the power to look kinda cool despite being dressed in yellow, which is an unusual feat in super hero comics.
  • Serifan is your basic flower-plucking, telepathic cowboy from another dimension.
  • Beautiful Dreamer (not depicted here), as a woman, naturally starts the issue trapped in the villain’s refrigerator, and the boys have come to Earth to rescue her.  She has illusion-type powers.

They’ve arrived here through the Boom Tube from a place called Supertown to rescue Beautiful Dreamer from Darkseid.  Jimmy Olsen’s friends take some pictures, at a time when Clark Kent is feeling some super-angst:

It is so lonely to be the most beloved guy on Earth.  But then Jimmy shows Clark the photos his friends took of the Forever People, the Boom Tube, and a glimpse of Supertown.

Normally I’m a big fan of Kirby’s art and layouts, but these three panels are a mess, and the artist who retouched the faces didn’t do the story any favors.  But I love how annoyed Clark is by Jimmy’s prattling.

Eventually Superman rushes out to find the Forever People, and blows up an Inter-Gang chopper that was sniping at them.  But the kids don’t believe him when he says he’s not from Supertown.

dang it, Superman

These kids have just told you that they’re searching for their friend, Beautiful Dreamer, who has been kidnapped, presumably by the dudes who were just shooting at you from a helicopter.  And your only motive to help is so that they’ll owe you a favor?!  Also, maybe the reason you’re lonely is that even when you meet your first batch of Supertowners, you’re like, “These kids are nobodies, just a means to an end!”  This ties into Superman’s ethical faults in Jimmy Olsen 135, where it simply never occurs to him to take Jimmy seriously as a person.

this is already 680 words long

Darkseid’s Gravi-Guards show up out of nowhere and kick everyone’s ass!  But the Forever People start acting crazy.

The Forever People are basically tag-team partners with the Infinity Man, who dwells beyond the reach of physical law but not beyond the reach of a good tanning salon, and swaps places with the kids.

The Infinity Man reveals that Darkseid kidnapped Beautiful Dreamer because she can process the Anti-Life Equation, which is mentioned here for the first time and assumes a ton of importance later in this series.  Darkseid shows up out of nowhere and says Beautiful Dreamer is too resistant to his influence.

Superman rescues Beautiful Dreamer from Darkseid’s radion-bomb, and the Forever People give him driving directions to Supertown.  Moonrider and the others, however, give him grief for running away from the conflict with Darkseid.

Superman doesn’t care: he’s so lonely.  But he decides, mid-way through the Boom Tube, that Earth needs protection against Darkseid, the Anti-Life Equation, and “a strange new super-war!”  So the Forever People more or less guilt-trip Superman out of his one shot at happiness.

A few obvious points:

  • We’ve already seen a group of weirdly dressed, peace-loving young idealists with advanced technology and an outlandish vehicle who protect a utopia.  I don’t know what’s going on with that.
  • Superman and Jimmy Olsen are hanging out at The Daily Planet rather than lurking around the DNA Project, so this story occurs either before or after the plot currently running in Jimmy Olsen.  Kirby and Lee practically invented tightly-integrated cross-continuity over at Marvel several years ago, so this was a deliberate choice.
  • This isn’t a Forever People story: this is a Superman story.  (In fact, I first read it in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told.)  Superman is the viewpoint character, he’s the one who ultimately saves both Beautiful Dreamer and the Infinity Man from Darkseid, he’s the one with an internal conflict, and the resolution of that conflict is the climax of the issue.

My presumption is that Kirby wanted to use Superman, as DC’s most recognizable and popular character, to introduce readers to this new series, and this publishing objective outweighed sweating continuity concerns.

On the self-plagiarism issue, I suspect Kirby really grooved on the idea of free-spirited kids with weird vehicles: he’s introduced four such groups in four months with escalating power levels (Newsboy Legion, Outsiders, Hairies, Forever People).  The Forever People are certainly the oddest: they don’t come from Earth at all.  Their extra-dimensional origin means that they’re already involved in a war against Darkseid and his minions, and neck-deep in the Fourth World stuff.  But it’s also a little strange to write a series that hopes to tap into the happenin’ youth culture that stars teenagers from outer space.  It makes the Forever People easy to idealize, but hard to identify with.

It is common to say that the Forever People is Kirby’s love letter to the hippies.  But the characters aren’t pacifists.  When they realize their friend was kidnapped, they race pell-mell to the rescue, even if that pits them against Darkseid (who we’ll soon see is one of the most powerful super villains in the universe).  Mark Moonrider specifically chides Superman for shirking his duty to fight against Darkseid.  And their moral example convinces Superman not to desert.  So here hippies are encouraging Superman to go to war–or at least, to be engaged in the struggle against mankind’s true enemy.  Superman was pretty self-centered throughout this story, and it’s only after meeting the Forever People that he sees beyond his immediate need.

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2011

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