Ayn Rand vs. Aleister Crowley: FIGHT!

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 awesome sucky.

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…


19 Responses to “Ayn Rand vs. Aleister Crowley: FIGHT!”

  1. 1 Otto
    September 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    This is an excellent post, both for roleplaying and as an examination of the Watchmen world. I would love to see some hypothetical versions of other Charleston characters.

  2. 2 Otto
    September 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    How about a whole campaign where the players participate in a Quixotic preparation to combat aliens? Plenty of room for espionage and super science while remaining faithful to the original. Corporate Ozymandian X-men?

  3. September 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Otto, thanks for the praise. There is a lot I would like to say about a few of the themes in Watchmen, but it veers toward blather, and I would then have to post actual gaming content to make up for being a windbag. I am slow at generating such things in formats useful to others, so it’ll have to wait.

    One possibility, suggested by my friend Forager, is that Shade the Changing Man ends with an attempted alien invasion. In canonical Watchmen, Adrian faked the whole Dimension X thing, but you could maybe tweak it a little bit and say this is really happening.

  4. September 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    By the way, the Charlton “action heroes” who don’t have analogues in Watchmen include:

    * Nightshade
    * Judomaster
    * Son of Vulcan
    * Sarge Steel
    * Our Fightin’ 5
    * The Sentinels (The Brute, Helio, and Mentalia)

    And maybe a couple others I missed.

  5. September 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    FYI, the Crowley/Hubbard connection comes via California acolyte Jack Parsons. Parsons would have been right at home in an Alan Moore story, I think! :-)

    Nice exploration of the Watchmen world. For some reason I never thought about a Watchmen version of Nightshade. I wonder if any backlash against Dr. Manhattan (a la the movie’s version of events) would ever impel a future Laurie to don that black mask?!

  6. September 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    What’s so stupid about Adrian’s plan, of course, is that it would only be a matter of time before the USA and the USSR had another serious conflict of interest, at which point the old nuclear tensions come roaring back. Adrian would have to hope that his Dimension X hoax would buy him enough time to somehow trigger global nuclear disarmament, and then set to work reforming the fundamental logic of industrial capitalism.

    Tragically, we know from September 11, 2001, while there may be a period of a few months of traumatized camaraderie and international goodwill, it doesn’t last forever. Adrian would have to be prepared with yet another hoax, and another…

    Cygnus, do you know the Cobweb story that Moore and Gebbie did about Parsons? It’s pretty interesting.

    Nightshade is an odd character, even for Ditko. First of all, she has a hideous costume: a skirt, pony-tail, bug-eyed mask and all. Her power set is vaguely defined and seems to grow with each issue: first she’s got darkness bombs, then can turn into a shadow herself, then is an alien, then got trained in karate by Judomaster’s disciple Tiger…

    Interestingly, Moore and GIbbons say that the Laurie version of Silk Spectre was based on Nightshade (as the love interest for the Captain Atom analogue) but also on the Phantom Lady, whose copyright Charlton briefly owned. The Phantom Lady’s super power basically consisted of a pair of DD’s, but in her earliest incarnation had a “black light projector” that blinded enemies in darkness and rendered her invisible. You’d figure that overlap of darkness-themed powers would show up in Watchmen somewhere…

  7. 7 Alders
    September 22, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Nostack: The September 11 attacks were a terrorist attack targeting the United States launched by a vastly militarily inferior group, not an invasion from outer space by horrible aliens of unknown power potentially threatening the entirety of the human race. Whether it’s an effective plan or not, the two situations aren’t remotely comparable.

  8. September 23, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Thanks for the Cobweb mention — didn’t know anything about it. (I tailed off the comics scene in the early 1990s…) I did know about this other comic adaptation of Parsons’ life, though…

    The more I think about the psychic thing, the more it amazes me that so many of us back in the day thought of Watchmen as the “superheroes, but in the REAL world” book. :-) Maybe it’s important to always keep Moore’s two big early-80s superhero projects in mind at the same time: Watchmen and Miracleman. In the latter, there really were aliens who could deliver psychic blowouts to humans!

  9. September 23, 2012 at 3:01 am

    Cygnus, one of the main point of my little unpublished essay about the themes of Watchmen is that when comics fans talk about how “realistic” the world is, I think they mean three things.

    One is that Moore and Gibbons really do a fantastic job of world-building. From the Mmmmmeltdown candies that take advantage of our nuclear anxieties, to the Varga illo of Sally, to the little text pieces that close out each chapter, it feels extremely convincing and amazingly self-consistent.

    Another is that super heroes are depicted in extremely disturbing ways, because the sheer act of putting on an owl suit, building an owl-themed aircraft, and dedicating ten years of your life to putting thugs in the hospital is going to psychologically screw someone up in profound ways. (Just to take one of the least disturbing protagonists as an example.) Part the reason we’re disturbed is that we get to see the psychological adjustment to such a bizarre career, at which Moore really excels. Another part of it is the unflinching depiction of savage violence which would necessarily be part of that lifestyle, which Moore and Gibbons dole out very infrequently and tantalizingly, like a strip tease.

    But third and maybe most importantly, a lot of Watchmen is mundane bullshit. Dude is running out of sugar cubes and can’t get the lock to his front door fixed. Cab driver is breaking up with her girlfriend. Two retired super heroes get together to reminisce about old times. Freakin’ news vendor won’t shut the hell up while a kid is trying to read his comic. There are a ton of “muggles” in Watchmen, just running around doing whatever it is muggles do. This, I think, contributes enormously to the feeling of verisimilitude. It grounds all the exotic world-building extrapolations, and also provides a baseline to measure just how screwed up the “super heroes” are.

    While I find Bernie the News Vendor somewhat tiresome, his presence (and that of muggles like him) is sorely missed in the movie, because the value of everyday life is one of the chief themes of Watchmen. I don’t read a lot of comics published now days, but it seems that very few of them feature large supporting casts of muggles: it’s mainly just Hero A whose love interest is Heroine B, who is an alternate-universe cross-sex clone of Villain C.

  10. September 23, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Great points. I always thought Miracleman took something of a nose-dive when his “muggle” wife was phased out of the story (after the birth of the uber-baby). She was the POV character that helped keep it all grounded, similar to Watchmen’s corner crowd.

  11. September 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    “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?”

    From my (admittedly limited) understanding, that’s a facet of Hubbard’s philosophy as well. Just saying…

  12. September 23, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Ha ha ha ha! Oh, that is AWESOME. Thank you. You’ve got weird alien Thetan shit to tie together with various Zones of Shade’s series. You’ve got Laurie actively working through some of her “engrams” in Chapter IX. You’ve got the Veidt Method published in place of Dianetics. And you could totally have someone like Moloch starting up this weirdo cult-thing in the mid-60’s as a religion to take advantage of people.

    (Sorry, Scientologists out there. Not intending any serious slam on your deal, just the connections are too good not to riff on.)

  13. September 24, 2012 at 3:56 am

    Ahh James, your job may suck but you can always function as a psychic parser of sequential art & games.
    The term “weaponized Jimmie Olsens” is an ongoing reference in my household. (Or at least I hassle my wife with such terms.)


  14. September 24, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril” is a good source for linking L. Ron Hubbard into crazy fictional plots, including a zombified H.P. Lovecraft.

  15. 15 jason
    March 28, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Sorry for the ressurection here but thinking of watchmen as Rand vs. Crowley is nor at all accurate. Then again calling old crow a crackpot isn’t either. In all seriousness, Crowley had more in common with Rand philosophically than Moore does with Crowley. The aspect that they veer away from each other is the idea of leopards changing spots. For what it is worth the core of their philosophy is secular humanism and mysanthropy. How Hubbard fits in is tangentially at best through Parsons though Crowley didn’t know nor have contact with Hubbard but Crowley’s future heir, Grady mcmurtry did through the same science fiction book club that Parsons met Hubbard through.

    Moore is very left leaning in his philosophy whereas Crowley was very much of the aristocracy being the son of a wealthy brewer. Magically they have much in common but Watchmen is more an analysis of politics and various aspects of philosophy than Moore presenting his own though showing the fundamental blindness of randian thought.

  16. March 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Jason, point taken: the post title was basically a click-bait frame for the matter of Moore appropriating/transforming/critiquing the work of Steve Ditko, whose politics and ethics Moore quite obviously does not share, and I suspect views as puerile.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2012

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