james, why haven’t you been boring us with your blogging lately?
Lately I have been experiencing a rolling series of professional ethical crises in my new job! It is
But gaming-wise I could tell you about the latest adventures of my beloved Sir Carabad who went to to war on King Arthur’s behalf against Rome. Sir Carabad was part of a peace envoy lead by Sir Gawaine to parley with the Emperor of Rome, when Gawaine went psycho-killer and beheaded one of the defenseless diplomats and then led the Romans into an ambuscade and slaughtered them. (As related in Book V, Chapter VI of Le Morte.) Mallory for some reason leaves out the part where Sir Carabad, who was participating in the negotiations in good faith and who has an irrepressible urge for Justice, challenged Sir Gawaine to a duel after insulting Gawaine’s family as a bunch of backstabbing sadists.
Or I could tell you about or Barbarians of Lemuria game, in which I have sworn eternal revenge on Tavis’s buxom yet treacherous barbarian Zharrna, who stole the skull-sized ruby from the Pyramid of Skulls.
But that’s a story for another time maybe. Here’s what I’ve really been concentrating on:
watchmen ’66! now, with more KA-POW! and SOK!
The comic book world has been roiled up for a couple months now over DC Comics’ effort to wring every last dime out of their most prestigious property by releasing a bunch of Before Watchmen comics. Other than general disinterest, I have no strong feelings about this. Alan Moore sternly disapproves, but I suspect Alan Moore sternly disapproves of almost everything at this point.
Mainly, I figured if DC was going to exploit this terrible idea, why couldn’t I? And thus, I decided I wanted to run a few games of Marvel Heroic Role-Playing set in the “Silver Age” of the Watchmen setting. It’s one of those terrible ideas that I can’t say no to. (As one Red Boxer phrased it, “When I play super heroes, I want to be Captain America, inspiring millions by punching Hitler in the mouth. I don’t want to be raping people to death. Thanks but no thanks.”) Plus, it returns Watchmen to its Charlton Comics action hero roots: Moore and Gibbons coming to pick a fight with Ditko on the man’s own turf.
(As I assume all readers know, Ditko is a die-hard Randian; Moore seems to be an acolyte of Crowley; Watchmen is, at least partially, an agon between Moore’s and Ditko’s ethical systems. I would love to figure out a way to fit L. Ron Hubbard into this somehow, and then we could have all of the Twentieth Century’s great crackpot philosophers in one bundle.)
but watchmen isn’t a standard superhero world, is it?
I’d argue it totally is. The first few times I read Watchmen, I was struck by how spare and under-populated its super-world was: as a Marvel Zombie, I owned The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which listed 960 pages worth of characters, compared to the mere 6 major and 8-10 minor super-folk of Watchmen. Also, comics fans tend to talk about Watchmen as a “realistic” setting. But check it out:
By the mid-1980’s, you’ve got mass-produced electric cars and airships (possibly operating on anti-gravity–it’s not clear how Archie stays aloft), a bio-dome in Antarctica, cloning, a disintegration chamber, widespread genetic engineering (including the four-drumstick turkey seen in issue #1), glider wings, grapple-guns, infravision goggles, laser pistols, psychics, psychic sensitives, a “solar mirror weapon,” man-made tachyon pulsars, and teleportation blink-bombs. All of that stuff would have been in development and even more exotic in the mid-60’s.
I think mainly what’s going on here is that super hero tech exists, but it’s expensive, and a lot of the people we see in Watchmen aren’t especially economically successful.
Ozymandias has a mutant lynx, an Antarctic Fortress with a disintegration box, multiple tachyon-pulse satellites, and a giant psychic suicidal xenomorph. But then, Ozymandias is brilliant and has absolutely tons of money.
A rung or two down the economic ladder, Nite Owl II owns a radar-invisible submersible aircraft with missiles and flamethrowers (and a hidden runway). Plus he’s got night-vision goggles, a laser gun, an owl-car, and a proto-type exoskeleton. Not bad for a talented millionaire.
A rung or two lower still, Laurie Juspeczyk grew up in Beverly Hills with a super-hero for a mom and the best trainers money could buy. By the time she’s 16, she’s evidently an extremely capable gymnast, martial artist, and detective.
In the Watchmen world, if you’re clever, rich, and motivated, you can be a super human.
Watchmen also contains implications of psychic phenomena. The Giant Space Squid was cloned from a the brain of a “psychic,” and Ozymandias boasts that “sensitives” all over the world will have nightmares for years. Nobody responds to this by saying, “WTF are you talking about, ‘psychic’? I call bullshit on that, Ozymandias.” (The characters object to the feasibility of other parts of his plan, but that aspect just slides by unremarked.) Apparently it’s an accepted thing in this world, though kept entirely off the illustrated page.
Deschaines, or the xeno-organism based on his brain, could apparently transmit thoughts like telepathy, and others can receive those impressions at least on a subconscious level.
Curiously, Robert Deschaines was also described as a “clairvoyant” and a “medium.” A medium is a term usually associated someone who makes contact with the spirit world of ghosts. That’s an interesting concept. Doctor Manhattan is, fundamentally, a ghost: a disembodied intelligence who took on material form but was never fully committed to the material world. (Some of the ghosts in Inferno have a similarly screwed up perception of time.) Are there other beings like Doctor Manhattan out there in the quantum foam, things that people like Deschaines could communicate with?
This line of thinking might imply that Moloch the Mystic was more than a mere stage magician; his act may have included genuine hypnotic abilities or mind control. Considering he spent several decades worrying the Minutemen and the Crimebusters, and apparently his arch-foes were the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan and the extremely formidable Comedian, he probably had more going on than just a pinstripe suit and a .38 revolver.
(That’s admittedly a whole lot to infer from a stray comment about Deschaines, a character we never see. But I think it’s self-consistent.)
The genetic engineering stuff shows up with Bubastis’s debut around 1975; Ozymandias notes that “eugenics” has taken great strides since 1960. Via comic book logic, it’s impossible to imagine that this wouldn’t get used to genetically engineer humans or animals to perform certain tasks. There’s the possibility of transgenic animals or people with grafts. We don’t see any–but the plot never takes us toward genetics in any serious way. We do see a roast turkey with four drumsticks in issue #1, though, so the technology has become sufficiently cheap and commonplace to have routine domestic applications.
The other thing we’ve got going on is cloning. So it would be possible to mass-produce or create one-off duplicates. Deschaines’s brain isn’t just cloned, it’s cloned and augmented in unspecified ways to create the Space Squid.
Just as importantly, Ozymandias’s plan depends on the fact that you can encode memories onto cloned brain tissue. The volume of memories may not be very great compared to a true human, but it certainly sounds like the Giant Explodey Squid had at least an encyclopedia inside. This suggests that cloned humans could be grown with memories of the original, or with specially encoded skill sets, or both.
Surprisingly, we don’t see much of computers in the Watchmen World. With all the money in the world, Ozymandias is rocking what looks like an Apple IIe in his corporate HQ. I guess most of the R&D budget went into these wackier technologies and computers are languishing behind.
Did the Comedian receive some kind of steroid treatment? He seems to bulk up a lot over the course of 20 years, and is still a huge guy in his early 60’s. My preferred explanation is that he’s been in the military for 40 years and it shows, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to take steroids either, and it might explain a portion of the character’s aggression. (As a reader of the comic, I don’t like this theory, but as a gamer looking for hooks, it doesn’t sound absurd.) The problem with this idea is that you’d think we would see other juiced folks running around, either as CIA operatives or as criminal goons. We don’t see anything like that.
But we do hear about various villains. Not just Moloch and the Big Figure, but Jimmy the Gimmick, the Underboss, the TWilight Lady, and Captain Carnage, as well as old-timers like Captain Axis and the Screaming Skull. There were apparently a fair number of these guys in the early 1940’s–see Hollis’s dying flashbacks–and in 1977 the Comedian teases Nite Owl II by suggesting he’s only comfortable fighting guys in Halloween suits, which implies there are still several around.
Interestingly, there may also be super heroes unaccounted for. During the first and only meeting of the Crimebusters, Captain Metropolis opens the meeting by saying, “Let me say I’m pleased to to see so many of you here.” The whole cast is present for the meeting, so you’d figure Captain Metropolis would say something like, “I’m so happy you all decided to come.” But Moore’s a careful writer, and the implication is the actual attendees are a clear majority, but not the entirety, of those invited. Who the heck else did he invite? Mothman’s been committed by then, Hooded Justice, Dollar Bill, and the Silhouette are all dead, and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have sent their designated replacements. There must be other super heroes out there who just never enter into the story for whatever reason.
I grant this is a little weird, given how tightly structured Watchmen is, and how comprehensively Moore and Gibbons designed their world around their six protagonists. But it’s not unprecedented in comics. Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men rarely involved other aspects of the Marvel Universe; Ditko’s Doctor Strange almost never had cross-overs.
We can theorize a leaping, capering character in Greenwich Village–the Village Idiot–possibly based around Ditko’s Creeper. Maybe a Southern version of Hawk & Dove, Freedom Rider and the Nighthawk. Charlton’s Nightshade never shows up in Watchmen, but might be a refugee from the paranoid Meta-Zone of Ditko’s later Shade the Changing Man series, which could be the source of all the aliens that Captain Atom was always fighting with, as well as the inter-dimensional space Doctor Manhattan teleports through.
Anyway, I do think this is a viable concept. The trouble is thinking of a precipitating event…