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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls Creator: Ken St. Andre interviewed

I have not met Ken St. Andre in person.  But I’ve been familiar with his game and ancillary products for more than 30 years.  He and I have been on social media as “friends” for about 10 years, and I’ve felt very fortunate to get to know him, if from a distance.  His game Tunnels and Trolls is a game that allowed me to burn off some hours of loneliness when I was in Fargo ND during my Master’s degree classes, alone.  And prior to that I loved how the game could be played as a single player or with others.  In 2004 I interviewed Gary Gygax for a couple different websites that have long since passed over the rainbow bridge, but it was still a privilege to do so, and now with Ken, I interview another of the three who started it all (That would be, MA Barker, Gary Gygax/Dave Arneson and Ken St. Andre).  

I am very excited and happy to present my interview with a game maker and bright mind, Ken St. Andre.  My first question has to be, what books and life experiences would you suggest contributed the most to your development of Tunnels and Trolls?  You were a librarian in your secret civilian identity, would you say you guided readers of fantasy to those same sources?

Ken St. Andre: When I first created Tunnels and Trolls in 1975 I was already a Librarian, and a long-time fantasy fan.  I had been an Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Fritz Leiber fan since I was a teenager some 15 years earlier.  I was also a huge fan of the Arthurian stories and everything to do with Medieval Romance.  I would not say I guided my players to those sources – I didn’t do an actual bibliography of the fantasy people should read until 1979 or so, when I was editing Sorcerer’s Apprentice Magazine for Flying Buffalo, but the first edition did mention Tarzan and Conan and Lord of the Rings.

The game Tunnels and Trolls is often called the second modern RPG, D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne each being born around the same time as T&T.  What was your main motivation in creating your game?  Did you read the other games and say I can do better?  Or was it basically a desire to cover areas in your work that were not covered?

Ken St. Andre:  You should understand that in the middle 70s I was already deeply involved with fandom and gaming.  I helped start a fan group in Phoenix where the chief activity was to get together on Friday nights and play board games.  In high school I was lucky enough to be in the first class to attend Maryvale High School in Phoenix.  I started the chess club there and the creative writing club.  I had already made my own Jetan Set, (from the Chessmen of Mars), and created my own Star Trek Board Game, Tarzan Jungle game, Barsoomian Hero Game.  I had already created a half dozen Diplomacy variant games for Diplomacy fandom. 

When I started to hear about a new game called Dungeons and Dragons in December 1974, I knew this was a game I wanted to play, but D&D was not happening in Phoenix, AZ at that time.  It was brand new.  I did not actually see or encounter the game until one Friday night in April 1975, when I was late to a gaming session and missing getting into the RISK game already in full swing.  One guy had brought his new white box edition of D&D to the party, and I wound up reading it for about an hour, while everybody else was playing RISK.  There was a lot about it that I did not understand.  I was not a miniatures gamer.  At least half of what I read did not make any sense to me, and there was no one around at the time in Phoenix to explain it, at least, no one I knew.   But I understood the basic idea of role-playing, and I said to myself that night, ‘What a great idea!  What a lousy way to do it! I will make something that I can play.’ So, I had never played D&D,  I didn’t even read the whole rules set.  I did not know that Professor Barker and Empire of the Petal Throne even existed.  I went to the public library the next day and checked out everything I could find on Medieval weapons and mythological monsters, and started taking notes and creating tables.  Based on the ideas that I had gleaned the night I spent reading D&D, I set down to create a game I could play with my friends – already used to playing my games, with rules that made sense to me.

For example, I had never seen polyhedral dice.  I decided my game would use all 6-sided dice.  I had no idea why characters moved in inches. I threw that out.  I need a quick way to measure how tough my monsters were going to be, that is, a quick way to give them a dice rating and a toughness rating.  I invented the monster rating system.  I needed a way to make checks against attributes to see if things worked or not, I invented my own saving rolls system.  I did not try to find out more about D&D.  I didn’t care about that game any more.  I wanted to invent my own game.  I didn’t know Empire of the Petal Throne existed.  It is just luck that T&T was published and copyrighted a few weeks before Empire was.

Being published/going through Flying Buffalo and Rick Loomis did T&T have a chance to become a huge success? I know it vied for space on the shelf with the vast number RPGs that exploded on the scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, but TSR and to some lesser degree Runequest released a lot of product, it seemed hard for me to find sellers of all the games…

Ken St. Andre: Tunnels and Trolls never had much of a retail presence, although there was a time in the late 70s when Flying Buffalo actually had a marketing person who tried to promote the game.  I self published the first edition of T&T, typed it up myself on my Remington 1907 typewriter, got my friend Rob Carver to contribute illustrations for the first edition, pasted it up with help from my friend Mark Anthony.  Flying Buffalo came into the picture at the end of the year when I asked Rick Loomis to try and sell the 40 copies I had left over of my initial 100 copy print run.  It turns out that he sold them all very quickly at the first gaming convention he took them to, and then he tried to buy the game from me.  I never sold him the rights, but made an author’s publishing deal with him.  When the first edition sold out, Rick wanted more, so I made a second edition, incorporating art from my new friend Liz Danforth, and all the improvements and suggestions that my gaming friends and I had come up within the first 6 months of playing.

I have a great appreciation for T&T for its solitaire play ability.  I also really enjoyed the flexibility of races and classes available to the players.  In many ways T&T was innovative and less rule centered and far more about fun than the other games on the market at the same time.  Yet, while there were moments of humor, T&T was never silly. The flavor and options to use the game master’s own input made T&T open to development in ways I saw that were stunted by others.

Ken St. Andre:  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, many gamers thought that T&T was silly gaming.  They especially picked on the spell names.  I didn’t have Magic missile and Fireball and Cure light wounds, and Charm monster.  I had Take that you fiend, and Poor baby, and Yassa Massa.   The first four editions of the game were all less than 60 pages long, and the longest sections were the weapons tables and the spell books.  From the beginning the game was meant to be something that the players could make their own.  Eventually a default setting – Trollworld – came to exist based on the world that I and my friends played in – but it was always big, and wide open.  Dungeons and Dragons developed out of miniature wargaming.  Tunnels and Trolls developed out of comics and literature.  Wargames are all about rules and the simulation.  Literature is all about the stories.  Although both games had the same inspirations in fantasy, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax came at their game from one direction and I came at mine from an entirely different worldview.

DT&T: I will ask many more questions here but, to begin, what started the desire to create a Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls?

Ken St. Andre: DT&T is the brainchild of Steven S. Crompton, an artist and writer who has done quite a bit of work for Flying Buffalo over the years.   T&T went out of print in 2011.  Rick had printed some 5000 copies of T&T 5.5 back in 2005, the same year FIERY DRAGON did the 7th Edition rules. T&T was one of the three major products that Flying Buffalo produced.  It couldn’t stay out of print.  Kickstarter was just getting going. 

Steve came up with the idea of getting the old gang back together to do a really nice – DELUXE – version of the game, and financing it through a Kickstarter campaign.  At the beginning of 2012 it seemed we had a choice to make.  Either do a new and better edition of Tunnels and Trolls, or let the game die out.  It’s my game.  I never intended it to let it die out.

We had some conferences that got the old gang back together – basically me and Liz, James Bear Peters, and Rick Loomis, with Steve himself as Chief Engineer.  (Note:  I did not call him the editor – Liz is the editor – Steve is the guy who’s job it is to pull all the pieces together and make the book/Game happen.)

It has proven to be a bigger project than we thought it would, and there have been some major setbacks in getting it finished, but we’re almost there.  It will be done in time for Gen-Con or we may all flee the country.

 Anytime I hear about a project noted for its elegance and simplicity over other works that are complex and complicated becoming Deluxe or going through a new revision I worry.  I think there is always a worry of losing the ease of play, in the case of games, and wonder if the new version of T&T in DT&T will be more rules and more complexity.  Is that going to happen, in your opinion?

Ken St. Andre: Whenever a game goes into a bigger, fancier edition, it is bound to get a little more complicated, but Deluxe will be very close to 7.5 in complexity. I wasn't adding any complexity to the rules--just better examples and stuff. Liz kept trying to make the game crunchier but mostly I and the members of Trollhalla managed to convince her that her elaborations and improvements were not such good ideas. For example, I have character level in 7.5 determined by the highest attribute. Liz wanted to go back to the idea that it had to be a key attribute for the character class, but the more she experimented and got feedback, the more it wound up being the way I wanted to do it in the first place. So, the game description is glitzier and a bit better organized, but the rules are basically unchanged.  We did include a hell of a lot of info about Trollworld, our setting, that most players have never seen before.

In Stormbringer you had the massive task of recreating in game format a character who is so very complex and dark, I couldn't imagine the game prior to reading it over.  Now, I read and enjoy Michael Moorcock's work.  I am not a fan of his characters in the sense of liking them as I would any of the characters of Robert E. Howard or Elizabeth Moon, but rather, I find them to be very nuanced, very complex, and worth digging into.  Elric is very deep and beyond nuanced, he is beautiful, yet a very ugly person in his cruelty. 
So, and this might seem unfair, but I don't mean it to be, when you make a game that features him, and his evil sword, are you celebrating the evil he does, are you suggesting by the game that players should be similarly motivated?  Or, if not, how do you create, through game play, the world of Moorcock's amazing subtlety and grace, without removing so much of its intrigue, darkness and the individual raison d'etre found in the books?  I am not a Pollyanna suggesting we should all play ultra moral High Crusade Paladins, but Elric was a troubled fella. 

Ken St. Andre: Elric was/is a troubled character, but he had his moments of peace. However, Elric is a NPC in my Stormbringer game.  Players take the roles of other heroes, and their characteristics and strengths are determined by their nationalities.  Stormbringer is mostly not a dungeon delving game -- it's more sword and sorcery intrigue.   I, of course, don't suggest anything in the game rules, except that players should roleplay their characters to the best of their abilities. And if the character you're playing happens to be a mother-raping, demon-summoning badass, well, the opposition created by the Game Master for you to play against, is still probably worse.

Tell the readers of this, please, what your dream project would be, if you could assemble a staff of your choosing and had unlimited funds. Would it be fantasy oriented?  Would it be a pen and paper and dice game, or would you make it a video game?  What haven't you done yet that you long to do in the game world?

Ken St. Andre: There are three dream projects I would like to do, but don't think I'll ever be able to.  They are all more-or-less computer games of the mmorpg type.  1). I'd like to set up Trollworld as a massive fantasy world for players to adventure in with rules basically taken from T & T.   2). I'd like to create an incredible space conflict and exploration game called Lords of the Spectrum that is based on Doc Smith's Lensman series--not a Lensman game, per se, but a galactic conquest game based on Lensman-like ideas.  3). I'd like to create a computer based mmo superhero rpg called Liberty City where lots of different things are happening all the time and players can make their own superhero characters and play them. They could also be villains.  Such a game would require both extensive scripting and a better AI for the NPCs than anything I've seen yet.   These are all very hard things to do, and I don't expect any of them to ever happen.  (And did you know, I do have a superhero version of Tunnels and Trolls called Power Trip?)

No I did not.  What are 5 movies that inspired you with regards to writing and creating adventures and T&T?

Ken St. Andre:  And here your questions fail. I can't say I ever drew much inspiration for T & T from the movies. I like movies, but all the good sword and sorcery films came years after we all started playing frpgs, and none of them can hold a candle to a good rp campaign. Perhaps the best is the Japanese anime: Record of Lodoss War--I think that's the title. But since that is really based on That Other Game, and I never saw it all, I can't even claim that as an inspiration. So, sorry, there is no list of movies for T & T watchers.

Is there a science fiction or fantasy book that would be too hard to adapt into game, either boardgame or RPG?

Ken St. Andre:  I like to think that I'm creative enough to make a game out of anything, and I think most other game designers are, too. That being said, there are books and comics  that don't seem interesting enough to make a game out of, or the games that could be made don't seem worth making. The purpose of any game is not to retell the same story as the book, but to look at the central conflict in a new fashion and explore other possibilities that could have arisen. IMHO.

You retired some short time ago, what changes have you gone through since, regarding game writing, just life changes, and has the additional time to write changed HOW you write?

Ken St. Andre: This question is hard to answer. The big change in a person's life when retirement comes, is having more free time to do things. The challenge is using that extra time productively. I had a big surge of inspiration and activity in 2012 and 2013.   I started my own imprint called Trollhalla Press, and created a whole new line of solo and g.m. adventures for Tunnels and Trolls. I did the writing, chose the artist, did the layout, and then got Flying Buffalo to publish them all. So for the first couple of years after retiring I had a big surge of creativity and drive that resulted in at least a dozen new scenarios and a novel (Griffin Feathers), and the Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls project. But lately, I've slowed down, and it seems like new brainchildren are getting further and further apart.  As for how I write, no, that hasn't changed at all. I simply sit down and dive in.  Write till I'm finished. Revise. Find an artist. Do the layout. Publish.

What movie, book, song or poem would you most like to adapt into game form?  Why?

Ken St. Andre: What makes you imagine I would want to turn someone else's inspirations into a game? I did that once with Moorcock's Elric stories and the game was called Stormbringer. It was, imho, a very good game, and I was proud of it, but I really liked Moorcock's writings anyway.  Now, I have no desire to turn other properties into a game--I'd rather work on my own ideas, few and far apart as they may be.

What is the future of table top games , both boardgame and RPG? Will the internet and Collectible Card Games kill the table top for board and RPG games?

Ken St. Andre: I believe that as long as there are tables there will be tabletop games. Playing face to face with other players is a different experience than computer or console gaming. This is a big world we live in, and there is room for every kind of game imaginable.  The last 50 years have shown us new ways to game, but the classics are still with us, and I hope they always will be.

Thanks Ken!

Find Ken on TWITTER
Find the new and soon released at DT&T

Friday, June 26, 2015

Black Tiger: Chuck Dixon Interviewed

Black Tiger

If you click upon the link directly above this sentence, Black Tiger is a brand new One Shot from celebrated writer Chuck Dixon, and fan favorite artist Graham Nolan.  It comes from India, and I thought, since I really did like Virgin Comics back in the mid 2000s, I should promote this work to help a bit.

Welcome back Chuck.

You are famous for writing great action scenes and dialogue, but what makes it feel real, the verisimilitude, is that you don’t place mountains in Minnesota or everglades in Nevada, you get the details right.   So with a character in India, how do you know those details?  Did you go to India?  What kind of research did you do?

Chuck Dixon:  For the culture and locales I rely heavily on the folks at Graphic India. I'm not one for reading a book or taking a tour and acting like I understand the country like a native. That's insulting. So, I pestered them with questions before writing the script and made all the changes they pointed out afterwards. It's a superhero story so there's some level of forgiveness. I wanted to get the attitudes right though. But I did watch LOTS of Bollywood movies to learn what their potential audience expects from their entertainment. That's something I could get my head around.

Is the primary audience for this work India?  Or is the hope to set the work in India, thereby gaining that home audience and then swing the American market over, due to the Chuck and Graham followings, and US super heroics comic book shelf?  Is your comic going to come out in English for American audience and the Indian audience?  How many versions with the many, many people and language groups of India would there be?

Chuck Dixon: With 1.5 billion potential readers in India I think the US market is a sideshow for this project. It will be consumed digitally through a motion comic over there. That allows the comic to appear in the many languages that are spoken there. It's also a less expensive delivery system than print. I hope our American fans pick it up. It's me and Graham doin' the superhero thing again.

For comic works in India, are action heroes/super heroes a vital genre, or are they rather rare there?

Chuck Dixon:  Superheroes are starting to appear more in their movies. There's one popular series featuring a powerful superhero named Krssh. Classic goodguys and bad guys with a masked hero and supervillains. The series is up to its third movie.  Action flicks they have lots of. Tough cops and tough gangsters and heroes of the people.

Is the Black Tiger a cultural icon that is easily recognizable in India, or is it a wild animal found in the jungles of India?

Chuck Dixon:  Tigers are native and part of the culture the same way grizzly bears and bald eagles are here in the USA. As far as I know there aren't any black tigers. Siegfried and Roy would have let us know if there were, right?

What was your reaction to the Virgin Comics that came out in the mid 2000s?  What, from the outside looking in, did they do wrong, and what did they really do well?

Chuck Dixon:  I'm not sure I was paying enough attention at the time. I recall that they invited me to write some pitches for them. I wound up doing a limited series called The Chosen that eventually appeared from another company.

I am aware that you probably aren’t a historian of comic books across South Asia or elsewhere, so I apologize if this is out of play… How long have there been comics in India?

Chuck Dixon:  No clue. I can't imagine a publishing plan that would work given the diversity of languages.

Tell us a bit of the character’s story?

Chuck Dixon: Black Tiger has some elements of Batman but with an Indian twist. Rajan Shah is an orphan who receives a gift from a mysterious benefactor. He becomes a successful lawyer but becomes frustrated with the gap between the law and true justice. From his secret benefactor he receives the power of an ancient gem and learns that he's the world's only guardian against a cabal that threatens to take the whole planet for their own. That's the elevator pitch. It's more layered than that. But there's loads of action.

Sounds great, anything else we should know?

Chuck Dixon: I'd like to mention that this is an all-ages book. 
One of the things about Bollywood entertainment that I appreciate is their ability to handle even more mature material without the sleaze. They aim at the widest, most universal audience they can reach. I like that.  It's the same approach I used back when I was writing for DC and Marvel.

Thanks Chuck!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Many Conans to choose from

It might be that you've just finished all of the lovely Conan books from Dark Horse.  Good reading, and some fine art.  Roy Thomas and John Buscema created many years of fine work at Marvel Comics, and a fine assortment of people did Savage Sword of Conan over the same period.  But, despite the good works and fun reads, there are some points to make and things to show you that you might have missed.

Larry Hama was a writer of many stories in the Conan corner of Marvel, appearing in Savage Sword of Conan, and the mainstream color comic Conan the Barbarian.  But CTB sales began to droop so Marvel canceled the comic, and relaunched it with new ideas, and a different look.  Larry Hama wrote it, and Barry Crain drew it.  I thought that it was very good, in that it had jettisoned many of the trappings that had become the norm when looking at Conan the Barbarian.  Sadly the art was a disappointment to many, and it hurt the relaunch.  I enjoyed the book though, and especially for the writing.

Roy Thomas returned to Conan writing with Conan the Adventurer.  It was an ok read, but mostly for the lush art by Rafael Kayanan.  Sometimes a great artist or writer are all a book needs.  I think this worked that way for me.  I like Roy Thomas but, his work on Conan seemed to use short hand notes, developed from the years of writing the main title CTB.  Here though, watching the artist go bongo with details and obvious love on the page was a joy to view.

Chuck Dixon knows Conan.  Conan and many other characters, Chuck Dixon knows.  Conan the Savage was similar to the Conan by Larry Hama in that it was a reboot to an old book that had lost some readers over time.  The work here was brilliant, and thought the new era and magazine was as good as the best of SSoC and better then the rest.  I would also say, Chuck and Larry seemed sympatico in their treatment of the character, which is very important in a time with two or more series on the stands, and having, perhaps, mutual readers.

Conan Saga was a sort of best of magazine which often featured spectacular cover art by former artists of the comic Conan the Barbarian or Savage Sword of Conan.  Some people preferred it over the product that was on the shelf, others bought it as completists, and lastly some people bought it for the cover art alone.  It was a pretty looking magazine, and it served as a bridge for some people who could not afford the back issues and couldn't wait for the days when archives and reprint tpbs would come and collect the series. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

About those Gays and Blacks and Women and Immigrants and ...

It occurred to me that the US is going through a number of changes in popular culture.  It isn't all because of the changed culture caused by electing a Black US president.  Obama is a powerful voice for change, I agree, but, if the momentum for change had not been swinging towards this direction it would never have happened. Gay marriage was not an easy fight, but it has recently been gaining victories and is now in the Supreme Court where a final decision can be made.  More than gay rights, transgender people have been recognized as having a status, and whatever a person's gender, orientation, or beliefs, it seems that the US is becoming more and more secular in its values, and by that I mean, following the writing of the constitution rather than the bible.  This isn't good or bad, in my opinion.  I am a Christian*, but I recognize that 1) there are many different brands of Christian, 2) our country has laws, rights, and values that are codified to allow freedom of expression, and belief, and 3) we do not live in a theocracy.  So, I think the answer is, if you do not like the government, or the government's decision, you have a right to protest, or a right to vote and try to change those decisions.

I consider myself to be a Monarchist so, despite people wishing to know my voting record, it won't do you any good to know.  I choose a candidate by his moral standing in my mind.  And if you need any hints, this will confuse you too, I've voted 3rd party, GOP, and Democrats in almost equal numbers in the presidential elections since 1984.  I just don't find the answer in people on earth to run this country. 

The world might be quickly moving towards a governments in countries of secular western civilization versus those in Africa and the Middle East that are religious theocracies.  The culture clash is ongoing.  And the culture clash ongoing is one that will be very hard to solve.  It is about how Americans see their country too, the secular humanists versus the bible toting religionists.  Where it ends up I don't know, but you can see it in society.  Political correct speech causes people on either side of the spectrum to shout down anyone who has offended one side or the other.  This has led to a culture of bruised feelings and hyper sensitivity. 

 A prime example of the divided culture in America was the movie American Sniper.  I know dozens of people who saw it and their appreciation of it played out directly vis-a-vis their political party or cultural view.  People who were/are Republicans, Conservatives, Rural, and Religious loved it, and Democrats, Liberals, Urbanites, and less Religious or Atheist and Agnostics hated it.  Despite the movie itself being of extremely high quality, AS A MOVIE, the people criticizing it took it task for being factually sloppy.  The movie itself didn't suggest it was moment by moment exact facts, but the point is, the movie was a very clear marker between people in this culture.

One of my all time baseball heroes was a player who I never was able to see play.  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, and made an enormous impact in sports, but also, in society.  He wasn't chosen as the first black man to do so because he was docile and gentle towards whites, he was chosen because he was made of courage and steel.  He was a warrior for what is right, in the end.  Segregation is often considered a choice, but it isn't.  If segregation is a choice then why is there areas of intense economic inequity followed by generational poverty it is wrong.  Robinson was heroic, and, he stood up when many others would have wilted.

In 1990 my wife and I visited family on the West coast of the US and Canada.  We had the good fortune to meet up with some friends who we weren't related to, and we were invited to their home, where a set of grandparents were.  A discussion arose about baseball and how that grandparents team was "Full of Darkies" and "They might be stupid but they can run those bases"... I had never, ever encountered a person who was so openly racist, and, frankly, so stupid.  To see it in full bloom, and it was, this man was in his 90s, so clearly he had felt this way a very long time, it was ugly.  I was changed from someone who was not racist, to a person who hated racism.

Michael Sam announced to the public that he was gay before the NFL Draft.  He was thought to have been a prime draft pick by some scouts of talent, less so by others.  He ended up being picked in the final round of the draft.  His stats in the pre-draft combine didn't help his cause in being drafted higher.  Some football analysts and scouts suggested his gay orientation would be a distraction, or a problem in the locker room.  Others suggested he had been drafted so low because he was thought to saying he was gay as a game of chicken, almost telling the NFL that he was go so that if he was drafted low, he had an excuse for it.  It really doesn't matter in the end.  If he'd been great, the gay aspect of his life would be downplayed.  As it was, he wasn't great.  And at this moment he seems to not be going forward in his football career.  I think it took a great deal of courage for Sam to tell people he was gay.  And it took more courage to do so prior to the draft.  I don't, however, see his announcement of being gay as being as enormous a moment as when Jackie Robinson entered MLB, or the first gay marriage took place, legally recognized.

I think that change is good, and diversity is great.  But I do think that there are an enormous number of people who you'd think would be tolerant and interested in free speech, who are absolutely opposed to it.  They prefer no challenges to their dogma, and refuse to allow discussion if they can cut it off immediately.  I understand that different groups have different goals.  But when society changes it is healthy usually.  When a society or nation refuses to change, despite the changes happening, the laws do not reflect the change, and the society cannot respond to challenges.  When something is so stiff as to be unable to bend, it will break.  Diversity brings more answers to the question at hand, so, we should welcome the opportunity to have more answers, rather than focus on the many different new questions being asked.

Which brings me to the final point... Immigration. I've lived briefly in Texas, and Arizona.  I've seen what different cultures do when they meet.  And I have come to the conclusion that most people want the same things for themselves and for their families, not all, but absolutely most.  But, while I think that is the truth, it is not the truth to say we should liberalize our policy towards immigration, or that we should allow all of those who have illegally entered and worked in the US to stay in the US.  The American dream of safety and happiness for the family, a dream to succeed, a dream to be fulfilled in your endeavors outside of work, are all good things.  But the reason they exist is because there have been many generations working to achieve it.  To give away all of the benefits might sound lovely, but you do not succeed as a society by not following your own rules.  There are a great number of hard working people who legally immigrated.  And I've read what they've said about the current issues, and basically I agree, which is, allow people to apply, be generous with the opportunity to try, but do not let an unlimited number get citizenship, nor do not let citizenship come without any cost or effort.  A best friend told me that her mother was a legal, that she spent years learning English, and that she has her citizenship certificate on her dresser, so that every morning she sees it as she goes off to do the things she does in her day.  It is a matter of pride.  That to me sounds like a very good thing.

((Images used copyright their respective holders))

*As a Christian I get asked by a number of people who I think are going out to play devil's advocate, do I believe that gay people are sinners going to hell.  My typical response is that everyone is a sinner, except for the one major exception in Jesus Christ, and that sinners are all hellbound according to the rulebook.  But I don't think I am going to go that way here.  I believe that the bible is vital to my life as a Christian.  And this is an area that I do not understand or believe.  In the past people who had diseases that made them crippled were said to be plagued by demons.  In the present we use medicine.  So my answer is I don't know, I am inclined to say I believe in God, but I believe I am called to love my neighbor.  So I refuse to judge in an area I am confused by.  And that is all I can do.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Comic Books: The Holocaust, The Civil War, The Depression and More

I have been asked a number of times if there are comics that are good for the modern classroom.  I've also been insulted by professors of university who asked my opinion of what books to include on a syllabus and I mentioned a graphic novel and was mocked or laughed at.  Comic books and their extended and collected form cousins the "Graphic Novels" are looked upon differently in the present.  Perhaps this is because they have so changed the movie world with their success, or maybe because comic books for the last 40 years have not been aimed mostly or much at children as the readership.   

I think the key for the best works in a classroom is to not aim it at the classroom.  Well written fictional tales help the reader, of any age, become part of the story.  When the story happens in a setting that the classroom is devoting time towards, then the teaching becomes all that much more easy to do.

The use of history as a backdrop for a drama is very powerful, since I am a historian by Master's Degree (NDSU) I enjoy this a great deal due to my personal interest.  But it also is useful for teens and adults who think or feel that history is a collection of names and dates and events that mean something for some reason and you memorize them and ones you puke them out on paper you never have to remember them ever again.  In fiction, and in historical fiction and non fiction that is illustrated and well told, the reader is able to absorb the events, and then they will understand the event, and to hell with the dates, names and numbers.  If the purpose of education, the comics posted here in pics will help show the evil that was the Holocaust, the horror that the banality and mundanity of a nation becoming evil was.  While it can be said that a number of past leaders of the world were evil, here was a case of nationalist racist hatred that was adopted and accepted by a vast majority of the people.

My son, 16 years old now, talked to me about how the history classes he has taken addressed various times of humanity's story.  A great deal of it would have been enhanced by reading material such as Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapicz's Civil War Adventure. The idea that people can from words alone see pics in their head is not enough.  Seeing the events unfold through the gift of story telling is far more effective than simple lecture, or simple photographs or maps.  Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapicz know what they are doing as well. 

Osprey Publishing released a number of fact based war stories that hit the mark for quality, and for wildly entertaining stories.  Sadly, they landed on the market with a thud.  Osprey is a great, amazingly awesome publisher.  So I highly recommend this books.  They can likely be found cheaply, and they will entertain fans of the genre.

Joshua Dysart is a fine writer and his take on the formerly stodgy and old character Unknown Solider was eye opening.  His stories are found in the real world, in Northern Uganda where war crimes, atrocities and discoveries of terrible secrets occurred.  Among the secrets discovered, child soldiers fighting for the leaders with their own, heartless, agendas.

War Brothers covers the story of child soldiers.  As such it is a real life horror story, and one that should be read by anyone thinking that the wars in Africa are not worth your time to know about.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Transcending time, going back when life was epic: Ancient History in comic book form

The subject of Ancient History could cover many areas of the past.  But, it is almost always aimed at the ancient Near East, the cultures of the Levant, and in particular, the events and history of Greece and Rome.  That is by no means a bad thing, but, people who are looking to learn about the ancient past of China, or any other people with a written history or collected history of the past, you need to then take a course about that people rather than a course called Ancient History.  Graphic Nonfiction has released biographies of important people of the past.  Alexander the Great, Spartacus and Julius Caesar are just three of them.  They are hybrid books, being pretty and comic book/graphic novel looking on the outside, but, more didactic and less story and more facts to read on the inside.  They are interesting, especially for the younger reader looking to learn about such figures, and, they fill a gap between wordy biographies in prose, and pure fiction in comics.  They are recommended for people who wish to augment their learning on the subjects, but are not also more deep than a textbook or wordy biography.

Frank Miller's 300 is a visual treat, and tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae, between the Spartans and some of her allies, versus the assembled might of Persian empire.  The last stand of the 300 Spartans became legend, and the three days and many killed Persians slowed down the southern thrust of the Persian invasion, as well as gave time for the defense of the rest of Greece, as well as gave the Greeks a legend and a feeling of pan-Hellenic pride. 

There are a buttload of people who aim complaints at this book, the movie as well.  They suggest it is filled with testosterone and lies of propaganda that crowd out the reality of Athens and the rest of Greece doing their part.  Or in fact more than their part, that Sparta was always a credit hog, and Thermopylae is a clear case of that. There were accusations of bigotry and bias when the Spartans mocked Athenians for having gay lovers, when it is likely that the Spartans themselves had that as well.  But all the complaints, however valid, ignore the power of the book, and movie thereafter, that Sparta was different, and what they did was amazing.  I am not suggesting 300 is perfect.  But I do think Frank Miller captured the spirit of the moment perfectly, if he did not capture the reality of it, so.

BRATH by Chuck Dixon and Andrea Di Vito was such a breath of fresh air when it appeared on the shelves in 2003/2004.  A work done for the CrossGen world, a publisher that was not long for the world at that point, Brath captured the ideal of Celts versus the Romans with spectacular story telling, stories, and without excess attention to comic book convention.   I believe that it was worthy of being captured in TPB, and people who are able to make it happen, over at Disney, who purchased many of the rights to CrossGen books, ought to collect the series.  Even counting Conan, Brath is the best barbarian comic around.

AGE OF BRONZE is a wonderful long form story of the Trojan war, between the city of Troy and the Achaeans, or, the Greeks.  The original work of Homer the blind poet, found in the Iliad is amazingly brought to life by talented story teller Eric Shanower.  Each story panel is deeply rendered and the many layers of story telling allow the reader to feel, taste, smell, and experience the battle, the broken hearts, the anger, of the great poem ever told. This is a fantastic series, well worth anything you spend to buy it.

Graphic Universe and Marvel Illustrated are examples of different publishers utilizing similar ideas.  Each used modern comic book technology and format styles to retell the stories from classical myths.  The cover art is great, drawing the reader in, and the stories within are abridged and broken down for the reader versions of the myths for the reader to understand.  There are many of these, and some you can find for low prices.  The stories are not aimed for the young, or the low achievers in reading, just, they aim to quickly and ably tell the story, so that it flows, and the reader need not bring any foreknowledge to the books.  If you can buy them cheaply they are a bargain.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Manga that I have Read

I was told a short while back that I read far too many comics from the west.  I was encouraged to read a vast number of different manga, different genres, different styles and even different target groups.  Well, I have no intention of debating or arguing about what I've read, I like what I like so that is not going to change.

But I should say first, I might not read a lot of manga presently, that has not, by any means, been the case for the entire history of my reading comics.  Additionally, I might read a lot more comics if I had the money to buy comics or people sent me comics to review instead of the pdf baloney things.  I love Japan, it is my spirit home, and I belong there, I believe it.

Moving on... so for the people who do not read manga and think it is all one sort of story, such as all ninjas, or samurai, or porn or cute talking cats or pandas, Japan's offerings in the world of comics are vast, diverse in genre, and are aimed at the very young to adults.  The Japanese are not embarrassed to say comics are lovely, exciting, fun, bright.  There are many comics/manga to choose from when discussing Japan but this is an article discussing the manga that I've read and enjoyed.  (I've read more that I disliked, but, that isn't important for the purpose of recommendations.)


The best Manga I've ever read, is also one of the best comics I've ever read, from any country.  LONE WOLF and CUB by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima is the story of the samurai (lone wolf) who served a Shogun, only to be betrayed, and flees with his young child (cub), crossing feudal Japan along the way.   The stories are brilliant, violent and beautiful, evoking the best of Kurosawa samurai films.


Here now I present the character of Go Nagai's MAZINGER Z, or straight Mazinger as he was called in his American comics appearance.  He was a robotic hero, enormous, and allied with the good humans of Earth.  Go Nagai's mind created many fantastic works, I loved this book.  But it wasn't aimed at me.  The franchise of works surrounding Mazinger Z included cartoons, comics, toys, and more.


Masamune Shirow wrote and illustrated APPLESEED.  It is about a post non-nuclear apocalyptic world,  where some new states have risen, but former great powers have been on the descent.  The two main characters are members of a security force in a wild often chaotic perhaps even lawless area.  One is a cybernetically enhanced female, the other is a robot with many human characteristics.  Together they are a team, but they are also the leaders of a greater team unit dedicated to fighting the young rebels, or the crime syndicates or the people who have been enhanced and wish to try out their new martial skills.   At one time I owned the videos for it as well.  But this series didn't linger nearly as long as the others.  Not sure why not.


I met the next wave of manga with DARK ANGEL.  Kia Asamiya is a spectacular talent, able to write and illustrate, and has a grasp of drawing out the heart of mythologies at the same time applying what he understands and makes it understandable for modern and young audiences.  I didn't, actually, believe that I would like Dark Angel.  I thought that it would be silly or foolish, filled with vulgar or adolescent humor.  But the story about a young angel/phantom saint rising to his journey to become a mature veteran and worthy of his title was very moving.  I am not suggesting I would buy more, since I have very limited resources, but I liked it, even to say, a lot.


Many people are familiar with Akira, and it hit the US from highly acclaimed creative talent Katsuhiro Otomo, writer, artist and director.  In both feature film and manga he told the story of Tetsuo who lives in Neo Tokyo.  A nuclear war destroys Tokyo among other cities in 1982, and it takes until 2019 for the Japanese to recover and rebuild.  Street gangs, motor cycle gangs, psychic powers and violence all become the focus of society.  Meanwhile the government faces terrorists, and tries to reduce the threat of gangs, and of the people who have pyschic powers, called Espers.  The work is very good, intriguing and worth your time.


This work by the great creative artist Hayao Miyazaki is a comic/manga, like Lone Wolf and Cub, that is among my very favorite works.  It isn't my favorite Japanese work, it is one of my favorite works period.  I was in my glory watching Princess Nausicaa floating across the horizon, directing hordes of insects, or attacking enemy sky ships, and outsmarting the enemy every time.  The work is such a triumph of positive energy I both cried, and gave a victory cry when events happened.  Miyazaki is famous for his other works, but I am really not interested in liking what other people like because other people like it.  I love Nausicaa, and I do recommend it. 


I will receive shit for this choice, but please give me a moment to make my case before giving me that shit.  For some stupid reasons I liked the character of Spawn by Todd McFarlane. However, while I like the costume, have enjoyed some of the stories, I find the character to be utterly flawed and rather stupid.  His origin is downright stupid and I can't get over it.  But, the fact is, I still like when there have been alternative versions of the character that allow me to forget the aspects of the character I dislike.  Thus, I like Medieval Spawn, Mandarin Spawn, and Hellspawn.  And I really liked Shadows of Spawn, which was a Manga take on the character Spawn, utilizing the concept, but putting it through a manga and Japanese blender.  If you hate Spawn, you might like it, or not. But if you hate Japan and Spawn, you will definitely hate it.  But if you answered differently to those questions, that is, do you like Spawn at all, and do you like Japanese manga, you might like this. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Coming Out Party

Recently, Marvel has created some stir in the fannish community by the revelation that X-MEN founding member Bobby Drake (Iceman) is gay.  Not being a long-time follower of the X-Men myself, and being more familiar with later incarnations of the team, I couldn't say if this particular ret-con is out of character or not; but I thought that the scene in ALL-NEW X-MEN #40 in which the reveal takes place was well-written and touching.  But it put me in mind of another mutant who came out of the closet; the first Marvel character to do so, in fact.

So let's take a look at Northstar.

Northstar was a member of ALPHA FLIGHT, a team of Canadian superheroes introduced in X-MEN #120 in 1979 as part of Wolverine's backstory.  Northstar, and his sister Aurora, were mutants with the powers of super-speed and light generation.  Northstar was aloof and arrogant and tended to be kind of a jerk.

A few years later, in 1983, Marvel had the team's creator, artist and writer John Byrne, write an ongoing series about the team.  Byrne wasn't crazy about the assignment; he had created the team as a one-off group whose sole purpose was “merely to survive a fight with the X-Men.”  He felt the characters were too one-dimensional.  One of the things he did to try to give them more variety was make Northstar gay.
Byrne had drawn a super-hero parody called "Gay Guy" for his college newspaper when he studied at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, which poked fun at gay stereotypes.
He could not explicitly say Northstar was gay, of course.  Marvel's Editor-in-Chief at the time, Jim Shooter, was vehemently opposed to having openly gay characters in Marvel comics; and in any case, the Comics Code, which was still in effect at that time, prohibited That Sort of Thing.  Still, even without coming out and saying it, Northstar's gender orientation was pretty easy to pick up on.  Byrne was not exactly subtle.
When Byrne left the book, Bill Mantlo took over writing it.  Mantlo began a subplot in which Northstar develops a mysterious illness which is slowly killing him.  Well, mysterious to his team-mates, maybe; but it's pretty clear Mantlo was working up to revealing that Northstar was dying from AIDS.
The Higher-Ups at Marvel would have nothing of that, and had Mantlo re-write the story so that Northstar was a magical being and his illness was due to him being too long separated from his home.  As writer Peter David later observed: "Yes, that’s right… he wasn’t gay. He was just a fairy. That’s muuuuch better."
In fairness, Byrne had always drawn Northstar with slightly pointed ears and Namor-like facial features, so making him an elf is not as completely out of left field as it might seem.
Well, Northstar got better.  And time passed.
In 1992, Scott Lobdell, who was writing ALPHA FLIGHT at the time, wrote a story in which Northstar finally came out and said what fans had long suspected.  This time, the writer had the full support of his editor and of Marvel’s E-I-C.
It played out this way:  Northstar finds an abandoned baby left in a garbage can and takes the baby to a hospital.  Tests at the hospital shows that the baby has AIDS, and the tragic story about the baby makes headlines.  This outrages a retired superhero named Major Mapleleaf, (Canada, remember), whose own son had died of AIDS, but “because he was gay, he didn’t rate.”  Mapleleaf takes out his anger at an unfeeling Society, which only embraces the ill when they’re cute, in true comic book super-hero fashion:  by trying to beat the snot out of Northstar.
In the heat of the slugfest, with both men trading punches both physical and rhetorical, Northstar tells Mapleleaf that he is gay too.  Mapleleaf is not impressed and lectures Northstar on hypocrisy.
One the battle is over, Northstar, shamed by the encounter, gives a press conference to admit to the world that he is gay.

The story caused a brief stir in the real world too.  This was the first Marvel hero to be openly identified as gay.  Granted, I’m sure most people in the general public had no idea who Northstar was, but still, he’s a Marvel Hero and the news media took notice.
At the time, I couldn’t help but compare Northstar’s coming out with that of a character over at Marvel’s Distinguished Competition.  Earlier that year, in the FLASH, one of the supporting characters also announced he was gay, albeit in a much less public and more understated fashion.
The issue started out with Wally West, who had taken on the role of the Flash after the death of Barry Allen during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, hanging out with the Pied Piper, a reformed villain who, it had been recently revealed, was now working to help the poor and homeless.  After learning about about Piper’s change in careers, Wally and he had become friends.
Since Piper used to hang out with other super-villains, Wally asks if the Joker was really gay, like everybody said.  Piper replies that he never hung out with the Joker – the Joker isn’t the kind of guy you ‘hang out’ with – but that as far as he could tell the only person the Joker loved was the Joker.  Which seems to me like one of the more accurate observations I’ve read about the character.
The Piper goes on to say that the only super-villain he knows for a fact to be gay is himself.  “But of course you already knew that,” he adds with a smile.

Wally didn’t.  He gapes for a panel, and then suddenly “remembers” a lame excuse why he has to run off.
Piper ruefully watches him speed away.  He expected Wally to react this way, but had really hoped he wouldn’t.
In the course of the issue, Wally has the chance to think things over and realize that he was kind of a jerk to Piper; and by the end of the story he apologizes.  Oh yeah, there was a fight scene involving the Flash in the middle; gotta have a fight in there somewhere; but the “coming out” subplot was handled on a personal and sensitive level.
In Northstar’s case, the writer never had the opportunity to really follow up on the character’s public announcement.  The book got a different editor about that time who hired a different writer.  The change doesn’t seem to have been because of the Northstar story; but regardless, the new creative team never returned to that particular story and wasn’t for a couple more decades that Northstar got a steady boyfriend and married him.
Like the FLASH story involving the Pied Piper, the scene in the recent ALL-NEW X-MEN issue in which Jean Grey talks with Bobby Drake about his orientation is a quiet vignette; (well, quiet for a super-hero book, anyway); a personal conversation between two friends.
In re-visiting the Northstar story, I think I’m willing to cut it a little more slack than I did back then, despite its gratuitous slug-fest and Northstar’s Big Public Confession.  I suspect that the writer and his editor were very conscious that they were creating a Milestone and wanted to make it Significant.

But I think it’s the personal moments like the one between Pied Piper and Wally, or between Bobby and Jean, that are most meaningful and make the better stories.