Sunday, August 14, 2016
Once again, I find myself posting a farewell on this blog. The end? I don't know. But I'm switching my focus to my new "official" website, matthewjconstantine.com. You'll be able to read the same amazingly on-point ranting about how great Star Trek is, how terrible the 90s were, and how handsome Jason Statham is (Jason, you gotta get back on the horse, man. Do Crank 3, already!).
In the Mouth of Dorkness has been an amazing outlet for me for several years. Brad has moved on to One Perfect Shot (and the ITMODcast, of course). I hope to continue to engage folks through my new site. So, please come join me. I've got some big stuff planned in the near future. Well, it's big to me. See you there.
Chaosium’s “Cycle Books” are a fantastic series of themed anthologies (for the most part). But they do have one thing that I’m not thrilled with, usual series editor Robert M. Price. It’s not one thing I can necessarily point to. Sometimes his introductions give away major plot points and spoil the story’s surprise. That’s annoying. Especially as short stories often live and die on their dramatic or surprising endings. He also has a sort of Tom Snyder style pomposity. There’s something in his writing style that makes me think of a boorish cocktail guest, speaking too loudly, relentlessly name-dropping, and smoking especially rank cigarettes. And finally, I find myself in disagreement with him on his interpretations of Lovecraft and the Mythos on a semi-frequent basis. However, I must admit that his knowledge of the subject is deep and profound, with a wide reach. He frequently pulls stories and information from surprising sources.
With “The Yith Cycle” he has collected several stories either directly involving the Great Race of Yith, or dealing with related topics like mind transference or unusual time travel. The Great Race featured in the original H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow Out of Time,” which is among my very favorite. Their history is strange and convoluted, but the gist is that they’re aliens from somewhere very distant, who transferred their minds into creatures in Earth’s distant past. From there, they reached forward into the minds of various beings throughout Earth’s history (including the protagonist of “The Shadow Out of Time”) and into our far future. In that future, in a time after Humanity has passed into forgotten history, they will eventually project themselves into beatle-like things in that future. The Great Race is not especially evil or hostile. In fact, while they certainly couldn’t be said to have Humanity’s interests at heart, they are fairly civil, and for an alien species, somewhat relatable. Simple, right?
The anthology starts with the novel, “The Purple Sapphire,” which I have reviewed previously. I was not a fan. And in truth, I just don’t see why it was included. Connecting it to the concepts of the Yith seems like a stretch. You could have put in H. Rider Haggard’s “She” or any number of other “lost civilization” or “reincarnation” novels and it would have had just as much point, and perhaps less racism (perhaps?). From there things improve. There are several good stories and interesting reads. I especially liked ‘The Horror from Yith,’ a round-robin story by three authors. Each segment explores and expands upon a theme, using some recurring characters. One of the authors has a follow-up story included, ‘The Changeling,’ which is also quite good. ‘The Sands of Time’ is a cool old science fiction story, reminding one of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others of his ilk. And the next story, by Richard L. Tierney is quite interesting, building on Lovecraft, but also on ‘The Sands of Time,’ and using other genre references. It has a very 70s, anti-hero kinda thing going on.
One thing that started to bother me a lot were the typos. I know Chaosium isn’t a big publishing company, but I found the frequency of typos, especially in the second half of the book to be off-putting.
The book would have been stronger without the inclusion of “The Purple Sapphire,” but features enough good stories that anyone interested in The Great Race should certainly give it a read. If you want a bit more science fiction in your Lovecraftian, cosmic horror, this is the way to go.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Monday, August 1, 2016
Fantasy isn’t my genre of choice. I’m a Science Fiction fan. Even when it’s mostly a matter of aesthetics, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, for example. I prefer laser guns and repulsor beams to spells and magic carpets. Yet, there are plenty of exceptions. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is the obvious. I can’t get enough of those stories. And like many lonely, sad teenage boys, I read Michael Moorcock’s Elric with great eagerness (though I preferred Corum). And then there’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. They’re something else.
Contemporary Fantasy literature tends to be descended from two major figures in the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. There were others, of course, but those two represent two of the major themes and styles. Tolkien’s side of the spectrum is High Fantasy, with lots of magic, destiny, mysticism, and Medievalism. Howard’s is more Low Fantasy, focusing on Nietzschean individualism, earthiness, and Antediluvianism. Yet, those two ends of the spectrum are not the final words on the genre. There are other voices that have done a great deal to influence writers over the decades. And Fritz Leiber is up there at the top of the list. Reading the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, you can’t help but feel like you’re entering a familiar world, even though things are very weird. Dungeons & Dragons, deeply rooted in Tolkien though it is, was obviously trying to reach for something from Leiber. In spite of the 30s/40s origin of the characters, the feel the stories elicit is of those wonderful 70s paperback covers. There’s a pulpiness, sure. But there’s also wistful nostalgia, bitterness, and hints of psychedelia, that makes it feel far more modern.
“Swords Against Death” is the second collection of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser stories. Leiber went back and arranged the stories into chronological order, and fleshed some things out in the 60s. So in this volume, the two heroes (?) are fast friends, well acquainted with each other, and building something of a reputation. Over the course of the stories, they achieve some victories, finally put to rest some ghosts, and gain some weird patrons. They also explore the world enough for you to get a sense that Nehwon is far stranger place than expected. Lankhmar, the city where most of the stories are based, is a kind of fantasy, urban archetype. All the seedy, degenerate, corrupt, and exciting things you’d expect in a medieval or ancient metropolis are present and thriving. But leaving that city, the world around is strange and fractured, wild and weird.
For Fantasy fans, Leiber’s stories are must read classics. For fans of tabletop RPGs, especially games like D&D or Rolemaster, these tales are an absolute must. But for folks who simply enjoy well told tales, these stories are also quite good. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a great odd couple team. Fritz Leiber is a solid writer, and more ‘Literary’ than a lot of his contemporaries, who manages to inject a good deal of humor along with a lot of sadness in to his adventure stories.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
I recently did something I’d been debating for a long time. I plunked down the $75. for the new edition of Chaosium’s classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, “Horror on the Orient Express.” I got one of their ‘damaged’ copies which saved quite a few precious pennies. And it’s in fine shape. Looked like it could have come right out of the delivery box at a store. A slight crinkling on the box near one corner is all that could be seen as ‘damage.’ And the box is a monster. It’s over-full, with a daunting amount of material to sift through.
Here’s the thing, though. I’m not really a pre-made adventure guy. Since I started running roleplaying games when I was a lad, I’ve almost always written my own stories, and improvised the rest. I’ve read published adventures from companies, but usually to get ideas. I’ve played in some, but the best ones didn’t seem pre-made, because the game master (storyguide, DM, whatever) made it his own (I have, sadly, not had a female GM to the best of my knowledge/memory). Once, long ago, I ran the haunted house scenario from the Call of Cthulhu basic book, but I guess I re-worked it enough that the one player familiar with the scenario didn’t recognize it for what it was until the climax. So, I’m worried about the idea of running not just a published adventure, but an entire campaign. The reports I’m seeing on this game is that it takes a year or more to go through the whole thing (real time). That’s huge.
The obvious thing to do, and what I likely would do, is to run a shorter published campaign or some adventures to get a handle on the process, and on how I would make them my own. But there, I’m still running into my old problems. I’ve been bad about connecting with the gaming community in my area ever since I moved here 8 years ago. And I haven’t managed to do a good job of convincing my friends to try it (other than a brief, dramatically failed attempt a couple years ago). Yet, the draw of the hobby keeps me going; keeps me hoping and spit-balling.
So, start small, huh? OK. This new version of the campaign has several side adventures that are scattered across time, going all the way back to ancient Rome. One of the first is set in Victorian London. That got me to thinking, maybe I could run that side adventure as a kind of preamble. That’s a start, I guess.
And, with a scenario set in the late 1800s that leads into the greater Orient Express campaign, it got me to thinking about connections. One of the challenges that face a lot of RPG groups when a scenario or campaign begins is ‘why are we all together?’ But the Call of Cthulhu RPG takes place, typically, in a time when social groups were common; gentlemen’s clubs and the like. That presents a solid way to join the characters together. Add in a few bits, and it’s not too hard to have them be members of a group that’s large enough to use for replacement characters (should the nearly inevitable event of character death/madness happen). A few more bits, and you could have a club with some ties or interests in the occult. In the case of “Horror on the Orient Express” it even gives a link across the years between the events of the 1800s and the primary campaign in the 1920s. And of course, Professor Smith, as another link between the eras, can be linked with the social club.
Now, the 1890s and 1920s were hardly times of enlightenment. Women (all women over 21) didn’t get the vote in England until 1928. But, while that was the reality, and I don’t like to completely shy away from real life evils, making some things a bit more pleasant for potential female players is also a concern. Since Call of Cthulhu typically favors more intellectual and artistic characters, and those people tend to be on the forefront of social progress, I got to thinking that making an element of the characters’ social club women’s suffrage would be interesting. I think adding some era-grounded politics will help set the stage. Especially since there are some red-herrings about communists and the like in the campaign. Because I always like to dream bigger than I should, it also might work to help set the stage for a future campaign. If “Horror on the Orient Express” turned out well, I’d love to follow it up with another London based campaign, “Tatters of the King.” Again, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I love to plant seeds in one story that might bloom in a future story. So, even if I have no idea how this trip on the Orient Express might go or how it might end, I figure I’d try to drop in a few bits to introduce themes from “Tatters of the King.”
I have no idea if I’ll eventually run this campaign or not. No idea if it will go the distance, or if it will be successful enough to demand a follow-up. For now, it’s just a lot of reading and dreaming.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
After his many misadventures in “The Hard Way Up,” John Grimes is given a mission nobody wants with a ship captained by a guy who really doesn’t want John around. But things go off the rails pretty quick, with John and a tough lady cop stuck together in a dilly of a pickle.
A. Bertram Chandler published “The Broken Cycle” eight years later than the stories in “The Hard Way Up,” and it’s clear tastes had changed a bit, or the author had become a bit more untethered. There is some strong language and some semi-graphic sex. Where earlier Grimes stories would have been solidly PG, this book roves into more R-rated territory. And the sexism is still there, even if it’s been tempered a bit by modernity.
The story is fast paced and mostly unexpected. There was a point where I could tell there wasn’t much left of the book, and I had NO idea how things could possibly wrap up. Often, I had no idea where Chandler was taking me. One of the strengths of these Grimes stories is they read fast. That helps to gloss over some of the shortcomings. In the case of this book, there really isn’t much story or seemingly much point. It’s just some stuff that happens. It’s kind of like a filler episode from a TV series. I don’t feel like anything of note was advanced, but it’s still perfectly enjoyable to read it while waiting for a better story (hopefully) in the next book. Had the book been longer or less readable, with no more content, it might have become a grueling slog.
I’m taking a break from John Grimes now that I’ve finished the first omnibus in which I found this. Baen published “To the Galactic Rim” a few years ago as the first part in their complete reprinting of Chandler’s Grimes stores. Fans of classic science fiction should go get these. While I didn’t love this particular book (I enjoyed it just fine), the omnibus in general is great stuff.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Thursday, July 7, 2016
The third book in A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes series, “The Hard Way Up” follows Grimes’ first foray into commanding a vessel of his own. Across seven short stories, we’re treated to Grimes and his crew facing off against various Science Fictional dilemmas and foes.
It’s classic Golden Age Science Fiction stuff. Rocket ships, bug-eyed aliens, space dames, and Australians. Interesting worlds and trouble with authority. It’s solid entertainment. This isn’t high art. This isn’t going to change hearts and minds. This is fun, adventurous fiction. A great read. It was written in the 60s and early 70s, so there is some of the typical sexism and I think a bit of racism; but not worse than usual from that time. Otherwise, a great read.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
The first thing you’ve got to know is that chances are, you’ll be reading a newer edition of this book, and it’s meant to be for the “Savage Worlds” rule system. The blurb on the back says it’s for “Cinematic Unisystem,” and that all the rules are contained within, but I’m assuming this is an oversight from when the new edition was printed. You will need “Savage Worlds” if you wish to use the book as is. That said, I don’t think it would take much effort at all to convert this over to any number of game systems, and dropping out any mechanics, it would work just fine as an alternate universe sourcebook for “Call of Cthulhu.”
That bit of bookkeeping out of the way, let me get on with it. “Eldritch Skies” is a slightly pulpy Science Fiction game that uses H. P. Lovecraft’s writings as a basis. It strips away a good deal of who and what came after Lovecraft, trying to stay only with what the man himself wrote (which still includes the creations of some others, like The King in Yellow and the Serpent People). Lovecraft often read like Gothic horror, but the content was often more in line with Science Fiction, so this works surprisingly well. The cosmic horror is still present, but it is not as gloomy. Humanity’s place in the universe is tenuous and unassured, but it isn’t destined for some immediate, ugly end. This might be a bit odd for many, more used to “Call of Cthulhu’s” darker, constant existential danger. An “Eldritch Skies” series need not end with everyone dead or insane. It could very well end up with folks in some pretty good places. But the universe will still be a dangerous place, filled with extremely alien threats, and like all life forms, Humanity’s time will pass.
In “Eldritch Skies,” the events of various Lovecraft stories, particularly ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ and ‘The Shadow Out of Time,’ and some others have happened. The governments of the world became aware of aliens and the forces of the so called Mythos. They became aware of Deep Ones, the Great Race, the Elder Things, and more. And they began to explore the weird technologies, and weirder ‘magics.’ It didn’t take long for history to take a new path, culminating in the achievement of interstellar flight in 1996. The default time for this game is 2030. Humanity has been in space for some time. We’ve discovered some worlds, set up some colonies, made some enemies, and learned some new lessons. We share the dark with the malevolent and the apathetic. We scrounge resources and hunt down ancient artifacts to learn new sciences. It’s a big, dark, weird universe, and it doesn’t care. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; nobody waiting to rescue us or show us the way. Some of the life out there doesn’t even seem to know we exist, and that might be the best possible situation.
I love this setting. Lovecraft’s more Science Fiction side has often been my preferred, and those few authors who lean in that direction tend to make me happier. I like space based Science Fiction where the aliens are really alien. And I enjoy that while this game is dark, and there are dreadful dangers, it is not without joy or hope or excitement. It is much more how I actually see the universe, empty of the divine, but open for those willing to reach. And that’s a great place for roleplaying. It’s the stuff of drama and character.
Since first hearing about this book a few years back, my imagination has run wild. It’s a setting I very much want to visit. I’d love to play, but I’m much more likely to run something in it. There is so much potential, so much to explore. And that it’s rooted in one of my favorite author’s work, but taking it in such a different direction than is normally done...That’s exciting.
-Matthew J. Constantine
In spite of being into the hobby of Tabletop RPGs since I was a lad back in the 80s, and in spite of being a science fiction nerd, I have never played the grand old game of “Traveller,” not only one of the first commercially available rpgs, but THE Science Fiction game. It’s squarely set in the Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke/Niven side of things (less woo, more tech). I always meant to get around to trying it, but never did. Then a few years ago, I saw a review of “Diaspora” from VSCA Publishing. It grew out of a group’s enjoyment of Traveller, but hunger for a different style of play. They’ve used the Fate system, which I’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t used at all. Generally, it looked like a very group storytelling focused, harder Science Fiction game than is typical; and that made me curious.
I’ve skimmed it a few times, reading a couple chapters several times over the years since I bought it. But this time around, I decided to get serious and really read it thoroughly. And that became a strange trip. Early on, reading about system creation and character creation, I kept thinking; “stop everything! I want to grab some friends and start playing this game right now.” But then, as I got into the ‘mini-game’ sections about melee, space, and social combat...my excitement kinda died, and reading the final section of the book was almost an afterthought.
The system and character creation segments are great, and I very much want to use them in a game at some point. What makes it different from many games I’ve seen is that it’s such a group effort. The group, including the referee/game master/what have you, all take part in the creation of the setting you’re going to play in (a small collection of linked star systems called a ‘Cluster’). Each person takes some ownership over a system, and as a table, you all make choices and forge the relationships between those star systems. This is where tech levels and resources are figured out. A player roles for certain numbers, but then interprets those numbers in whatever way makes sense. There is a great little example, where they present a set of rolled statistics for a system, then show multiple variations on what that might mean. You could easily have two players roll exactly the same numbers, but come up with completely different systems when they interpret what those numbers mean. I like that a lot.
Then, with those systems as a background, you all create your characters. And part of character creation involves linking yours to another, so that while not every character has a direct connection to every other character, the group as a whole is linked in some way (like a chain). I also really like that the characters don’t start out as low level schlubs who have to crawl and beg and fight to be able to gain enough power to do anything of note. You’re playing characters that are important people, interesting people, shapers, doers, legend makers. If you take the a skill at what they call ‘apex’ level (and you will take one at that), you’re not just good at something, you’re legendary. You’re the neurosurgeon who was brought in when the president had a brain tumor. You’re the actor who keeps winning the top award for performance in the 3D Vids. You’re the barroom brawler who rose to be Zero-G boxing champion of the Antares system. You’re the soft-spoken politician who swept the planet in a grassroots campaign of reform. Essentially, you’re playing important people. Not necessarily famous, but important to how the future of the cluster is shaped.
Then the game lost me. Once it got past the creation of the setting and the characters, it gets into plug-in mini-games for determining various types of conflict. I didn’t care for any of them, particularly, and I don’t care for the extremely ‘plugged-in’ feeling of them. It’s almost like in a lot of older computer rpgs, where your party icon might be wandering around a large map, then you come across a monster and it zooms in to a little tactical map and do a totally different kind of game. I didn’t like it in computer games. I really don’t like it in a tabletop game. Combat tends to be one of my least favorite parts of a game, because in a lot of systems it stalls the story. These plug-in games seem to do that on another level.
So I did what I find myself doing so often. I mentally edited things. I started looking at it like a salad bar; take what I like and leave the rest. There’s so much good stuff about ‘the table’ having control. A lot of stuff encouraging group connection and determination. The way system and character creation is done, you might not even have a game master when you sit down to the table. And I could see the game master job changing hands multiple times during a campaign. That’s kind of exciting. I like when players and their characters are drivers of the story and plot. But I don’t see myself running or getting together a group for Diaspora as it is. I think it will be like some other games with interesting mechanics I’ve read. It will inform how I run a different game. It does make me interested in other Fate games, as the mechanics for that seem very easy and intuitive. I’ve heard very good things about “Mindjammers,” and could see using some of the better elements of “Diaspora” with that or a game like it.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
I cut my teeth on “Worlds of Wonder” from Chaosium, which used their Basic Roleplaying System. That’s the same core game mechanic (rules) as “Call of Cthulhu,” “Stormbringer,” and of course, “RuneQuest.” And I know that I used to flip through the "RuneQuest" books when I was first starting out, looking for little ideas and variations I could use in my own games. But I don’t think I ever really embraced the game or its world, Glorantha.
When I heard that the folks at Moon Design were working with Chaosium, including some of the original developers, to bring back the classic edition of the game, I figured I had to chip in, so I supported their Kickstarter campaign. My hardcover copy recently arrived and I’ve been picking through it for the last week.
The first thing I noticed is that this game is very much of its time. Now, I don’t mean that to be too harsh, but as I read through it, I was reminded of a lot of the things about early roleplaying games (rpgs) that were problematic or frustrating for me. Thankfully, the core mechanic of this game is fairly easy and intuitive. But explanations can get a bit obtuse, and frankly, the game is far, far more ‘crunchy’ than I enjoy. (Crunchy is a term applied to games with more complicated, often math heavy rules). There are still some pretty strong traces of strategy games and miniature combat rules floating through the book. That’s fine for folks who are into that kind of thing, and the gods know, "D&D" is still sick with it. But it’s not my thing, and I don’t feel like it’s as present in some of the other Basic Roleplaying System games ("Call of Cthulhu" being the one I’ve had the most experience with). I kept finding myself thinking; “well, I wouldn’t use that,” or “I’d cut that whole bit out.” Not that there’s anything wrong with modifying rules to fit your style, I just found myself doing more mental editing of these rules than I’ve done to any in a long time.
The second thing that struck me about "RuneQuest" that I really didn’t remember from reading it as a lad is that it’s a Bronze Age game, not a Medieval game. It’s a very, very High Fantasy Bronze Age game. Magic and gods are real, frequent, and important to everyday life. There are parts of it that feel almost like Tolkien’s “Silmarillion,” they’re so out there. And while there are obvious callbacks to Tolkien and European mythology, the setting has its own vibe going on. There are hints of Sumerian and Greek, bits of maybe Mesoamerican, and other stuff that’s just pure fantasy. In this High Fantasy/High Magic world, there are lots of different intelligent species, and things we’re not used to being intelligent that can talk and do other things. It’s certainly not my usual type of Fantasy setting, having more of Narnia than expected. But it could be interesting for a change of pace. It’s probably the closest to a "Dungeons & Dragons" game I’d likely run (well, maybe "Earthdawn"…). But at least it doesn’t have levels and alignments.
Overall, "RuneQuest 2nd Edition" is a nice little look back at the early days of gaming, and a much better alternative to "D&D." But it’s also a reminder of how far games have come, and I don’t know how likely I am to ever run it. Too much number crunching, too much paperwork, and maybe a bit too much regimentation. Still, I find the Glorantha setting intriguing. It’s very much not the kind of Fantasy I tend to like, and very much not the sort I’d be inclined to run a game in. But it has enough of that ‘old school gaming’ vibe, without the terrible base mechanics of "D&D" (or "Rolemaster," or some of the others of the era). I don’t know. Maybe, if I had a group of friends who wanted something more in the vein of 70s rpgs...Maybe I’d give it a go. I’d still probably strip some of the more unwieldy bits.
-Matthew J. Constantine
A couple years ago, I read James Stokoe’s awesome “Godzilla: Half-Century War” and knew that here was a comic artist/writer to watch. A lot of comic artists think they can write and are totally wrong, so it’s nice to see one who actually can. With “Wonton Soup” Stokoe lets his imagination and bent sense of humor off the chain. Someone called it a mix of “Iron Chef” and John Carpenter’s “Dark Star.” OK. I’ll give him that. But I also see a lot of the kinda cruel humor of “Lexx,” too.
The story is about a couple of space truckers, one a prodigy chef who’s left school to taste life, the other a spaced out sex fiend losing himself in narcotics and anyone (or thing) that’s willing. They go around getting into trouble, eating and smoking whatever they can get their hands on. It’s stoner comedy, with meta references and a wild sense of fun (tinged with some bitterness). The art is surprisingly vibrant for black & white, with Stokoe’s usual sense of strange.
My only complaint about the book is that it’s sort of food porn, but the food is all Dr. Seuss nonsense. I mean, it makes sense in the context of the story, but part of me kept wanting the cooking scenes and food parts to be more serious and real. Probably a completely unfair expectation, but I couldn’t help it. I found the sometimes extensive food porn parts less exciting because I couldn’t sample anything or use any of the techniques myself. Silly, huh?
Years ago, I worked with an artist to write a short comic called “ProxyFight.” We worked long and hard on the six pages. Both of us were fans of “Lexx” and other weird science fiction films, TV shows, and books. Reading “Wonton Soup” made me so nostalgic for my time working on “ProxyFight” and all the other stuff the artist and I had planned to follow up that short with. Alas, that never happened, but I still have those memories. By far the best collaborative experience I’ve had. It made reading "Wonton Soup" oddly personal.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Sunday, June 19, 2016
“I’m heading out to kick some more ass, but I need an army...Anybody want to come with me?”
If you enjoy the wilder side of comics, you have to look to Tom Scioli. Clearly an artistic descendant of Jack Kirby, Scioli’s storytelling is balls-out crazy. I first came across his work on Godland, a wild take on The Fantastic Four. But after meeting him at a convention, I had to read The Myth of 8-Opus, which was marvelously weird. And then...And then he took on Transformers VS G.I. Joe. Holy Mother of Crap. I’ve been sitting on American Barbarian for a while, now. But this week, it was time.
“I’ve got God’s balls right here!”
Like some kind of 70s, Saturday morning cartoon, jacked up on some hard drugs, and pumped up with unchained comic book imagination, American Barbarian tells an odd tale. The red, white, and blue haired warriors who have traditionally defended a good kingdom have produced an ultimate incarnation. When a giant, evil, Egyptian Pharaoh with tanks for feet roars across the world, only one man can stand in his way. Well, one man and a bunch of other weirdos he recruits for the efforts.
It kept reminding me of weird stuff like the Thundarr The Barbarian cartoon and Killraven comics. But with Scioli’s particular brand of over the top weirdness. It’s a refreshing bit of fun that absolutely revels in the comic book medium, blazing with colorful splash pages and likes of insane dialog. A must read.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Paul Pope is one of those names in the comic field I’ve heard bandied about for many years, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from him. I saw Battling Boy go by once upon a time and purchased it with little reason. I finally picked it up this week and gave it a go.
Playing with various comic tropes and variations on classic characters has become almost a subgenre in itself. This one takes us to a world kinda like our own, but with a dieselpunk twist. A major metropolis (here called Arcopolis) is under siege by a chaotic wave of various monsters. It is protected by a Rocketeer-type hero, but things don’t go well. In the meantime, the son of a Thor-like god-hero is nearing his coming of age, and is sent down to this troubled world to become a man. Pretty simple, but it works. There are a lot of little nods to comic book traditions.
The art is weird and a bit ugly, but in a charming way. And it’s colorful, with a peculiar color palette. It works fairly well for the story and setting, especially when it comes to the monsters. There is some clever work in the dialog and a pretty good story. If I can complain about anything, it’s that the book doesn’t feel complete. I don’t just mean that it’s open for continuation, but that it feels like it should have been half again as long, with a bit more of a conclusion. Still, it’s good and worth a read.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Giannis Milonogiannis takes us back to New Athens, 2049. More cases of cyber-crime hit the city, and the Special Police have to figure it out and take it down. The second volume of this old-school style cyberpunk comic series is more of the same. But that same is some very enjoyable stuff.
The writing is quick and confident. The art leans far more into the realm of manga/anime than I like, but not so far that I couldn’t make my way through. A lot of Cyberpunk anime draws pretty blatantly from William Gibson specifically among genre titans, and this does the same. I was frequently reminded of Count Zero and some stories from Burning Chrome. Evil megacorporation; scientist pushing things too far, cyber-psychosis, the slums, cyborgs, and some explosions. But it’s all handled well, and worth reading for genre fans.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
I’m a longtime Cyberpunk nerd. William Gibson, Blade Runner, the works. Giannis Milonogiannis dives into the classic tropes of the genre, filtering it through the Cyberpunk anime of the 80s and 90s, without picking up too many of the latter’s bad habits.
The story is pretty typical of this sort of thing. Cops VS corporations, corruption and cyborgs, and of course, A.I. and transcendence. But it’s all a lot of fun to read, and with a good use of rough artwork to create a mood. And the setting, a post flood, reconstructed Athens, Greece is certainly different.
The stories are efficiently told, without seeming too rushed. It took me back to some of the things I enjoyed in Cyberpunk years ago. If you’re into it, too, check out Old City Blues.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Sunday, June 12, 2016
“When the stars are right…” Throughout the ever expanding Lovecraftian circle of weird fiction, there is an impending doom. People who set themselves against the powers of the Great Old Ones and various cosmic menaces are fighting a holding action, a war of delays. Eventually, the Universe will shift and Humanity as we know it will fall. In some versions, we will become so alien ourselves that we will simply meld into the inhuman world to come. In other versions, we will be swatted away like gnats. But that doom lurks inevitably in our future. With the Darrell Schweitzer edited anthology Cthulhu’s Reign, that future has come. Here are stories set during or after that ending of all our tomorrows.
After recently reading the really solid anthology Rehearsals For Oblivion, I was surprised and happy to find another anthology filled with solid stories. Not every one was a classic, but I don’t think there was a dog in the bunch. I’m not a fan of authors playing with tense, I’ll admit. So Mike Allen’s ‘Her Acres of Pastoral Playground’ didn’t thrill me. I’m a traditionalist. I like third person or first person, past tense; and first person only when done well. But that’s my own literary prejudice. Anyway, many of the stories were quite good, capturing very different moods and different versions of life under the crushing heel of apocalyptic revelations. Brian Stableford’s ‘The Holocaust of Ecstasy’ is probably the weirdest, most out there of the stories. Fred Chappell’s ‘Remnants’ leans further into the realm of outright science fiction than you often get with Mythos stories, which I enjoyed.
If you’re into Cosmic Horror or Apocalyptic Fiction, this book has plenty to enjoy. It’s a different take on themes Lovecraftian, a different angle to enjoy the Mythos from. And there are lots of interesting ideas in it for readers who also enjoy tabletop roleplaying in the sandbox of Lovecraft and his disciples, as I do.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Thursday, June 9, 2016
There’s been a lot of back & forth about H.P. Lovecraft being racist. There was a kerfuffle a while back about getting his bust removed from the World Fantasy Award. Was Lovecraft racist? Yeah. Read his letters. He says some awful stuff. Stuff that was fairly in keeping with guys like him, from his background and geography, at his particular point in history. And that racism leaked into his fiction, mostly in the guise of sinister, swarthy foreigners. You could read a lot of his work and unless you’re looking for it, miss those dashes of racism. The same can not be said for other writers. Robert W. Chambers, who wrote the fantastically haunting collection of short stories “The King in Yellow,” for example, also wrote the terribly racist (not to mention goofy and overwrought) “The Slayer of Souls.” And then there’s John Taine’s “The Purple Sapphire.” Wow. Lovecraft’s racism seems to me to have been the product of a sheltered upbringing, a dreadful time in American race relations, and general ignorance. John Taine’s racism seems similar to that classically British, condescending contempt for all people not “like us.”
In this particular book, the racism is directed primarily, and persistently against Asians, particularly Tibetans. There is so much talk of them being “filthy,” “dirty,” “covered in filth,” etc. that I thought there might have been some kind of cultural reference (Taine’s culture) that I was missing. But I don’t think so. In the author’s eyes, as seen through his characters’ eyes, Tibetans are dirty, ugly, filth covered sub-humans. And I’ll tell you, that gets mighty old, mighty quick. I’m used to swallowing a bit of old timey bigotry. It’s unfortunately part of the package when you’re a fan of the pulps and movie serials of the early 20th century. But this book goes beyond the usual levels. It reminded me of when I tried to read “Heart of Darkness,” but was defeated by the rampant hatred of non-whites that was clearly coming from the author, and not just a character. At the end of the day, the racism was enough to spoil this book. But it didn’t stop there.
Getting past the chauvinism, it’s also a pretty terrible book. At nearly two hundred pages, there’s almost no story. There are long, tedious sequences of characters talking in a strange, stilted way that feels like a mid-level melodrama from the dawn of sound in motion pictures. You can tell the author thinks he’s writing clever dialog. But unless it’s packed with amazingly witty references that went over my head, it’s not clever. It’s just stilted and lame.
The only saving grace this novel has, if it has one, is that the female lead is surprisingly useful and competent. I was struck on numerous occasions by how unlike many contemporary female characters she was. None of the characters were especially interesting or well realized. But she was on an even level with the two male leads. So, there was that. And that alone.
To sum up; this book sucked.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
What follows is not meant to be a scholarly exploration or dissertation. S.T. Joshi and others far, far more qualified and eloquent than myself covered any territory I might wish to navigate. Instead, it is simply my random thoughts about the Mythos (some call it the Cthulhu Mythos; Lovecraft called it Yogsothery; I’ll almost certainly use different names on different occasions). In part, this is to solidify or hash out some of my own interpretations that might appear within my fiction and in Lovecraftian roleplaying games I might run. And in part, as with all these blog posts, I hope (usually fruitlessly) to instigate some conversation on the topic. I called this “Part 1” because I assume I’ll want to revisit the subject at some point.
You will no doubt notice that my ideas of the Mythos are heavily colored by the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game. Absolutely. And I also don’t worry too much about ‘canon.’ This is true. Like Lovecraft, I tend to pick and choose, lift what I like, drop what I don’t, and re-combine it into something more to my liking. Any writer, or artist, or musician does the same thing. They’re not always honest about that. I stand on the shoulders of giants (and dwarfs, and mortal men).
First up, some thoughts on hierarchy, gods, monsters, and the nature of the Universe. Lovecraft postulated a specific type of universe in his fiction. He broke with a good deal of horror tradition by putting forth a universe where there was no Divine. The God of the Bible is a myth, and nothing more. He takes that one step further and puts Humanity in a universe where we are completely alone, just a biological infection clinging to life on the surface of a rock ball, hurtling through a soulless void. For some, that idea would be bad enough (I actually find it exhilarating and liberating, but that’s another post). Lovecraft then populates the universe with beings so alien, so powerful, so mind blasthingly outside of our understanding that they seem to be gods; are worshiped by some as gods. But they are not gods. The gods of our mythology are at best made up, and at worst, masks pulled over the more terrifying reality.
There seem to be different strata of these things. Some are powerful on a multiverse level, others are galactic scourges, others dominate worlds, and yet others slink in the shadows, hunting for scraps. Cthulhu, the most famous of these things, is to my mind nothing more than a very ancient, very powerful, very strange being from another world. Likely part of or a last remnant of some ancient, ultra-alien civilization. Some say he is trapped, but I think it more likely that he simply sleeps, under the ocean (or in a pocket dimension) in a weird city, filled with alien architecture. And while he sleeps, psychic projections of his dreams have tainted Humanity, especially the more sensitive and artistically prone, leading to cults and myths and even some ‘revealed’ knowledge. But Cthulhu isn’t the chief of these aliens; he isn’t a god, he isn’t the ultimate evil. Whatever he has planned, no matter how unfathomable to humans it might be, it is still the plan of a thinking being. He/it may not conform to the physics we understand, but he conforms to some deeper, physical truth we haven’t grasped. Like all the ‘beings’ in the Mythos, he exists in the Universe and follows its rules. The rules only seem to be broken due to our lack of understanding. Once again, I cite Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the case of Cthulhu (and many of the other alien beings/species in the Mythos), there is some technology, some scientific understanding that is either beyond our current understanding, or more troubling, beyond our capability to understand (at least with our current physical brains).
Now, where I’ll probably get controversial is with my take on a few of the others. Hastur, Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth, and Azathoth, in particular. I think of these not as beings; not as consciousnesses, but as embodied concepts or forces. Azathoth is blind creation, the Big Bang. When an atomic bomb is set off, it momentarily communes with Azathoth. Azathoth lives in every star, in the heart of every atom. The ‘Blind Idiot God’ is simply manifest creation, spewing forth into the void. Hastur, on the other hand, is manifest entropy; the chaos of ultimate dissipation; the winding down and crumbling of all things. Shub-Niggurath is the manifestation of biology, of organic life. She is the drive behind certain types of matter coming together and forming into basic life forms, evolving into more complex forms, and spreading throughout the Universe. She is the drive for survival inside all life to its cellular core. And Yog-Sothoth is, in a sense, the binding agent. He is physics; he is reality; he is spacetime. These manifest concepts occasionally coalesce into things more rightly thought of as beings. They become avatars of their associated ‘god.’ The King in Yellow is a shadow, a reflection of Hastur. He is a concept, become flesh. A bringer of chaos and madness; a Typhoid Mary of Entropy. The Black Goat in the Woods is a similar residue of Shub-Niggurath. And when a so called wizard tries to gain Outside knowledge from Yog-Sothoth, he or she taps into an avatar of the concept, perhaps seeing weird glowing spheres or monstrous tentacle things. If, at the core of all reality, there is a burning mass of something, with things dancing around it playing insane music, then that thing is but a bleed-off of the idea of Azathoth; something of flesh and blood (even if it isn’t flesh and blood as we understand it).
Compared to those manifestations of concepts, beings like Cthulhu, Dagon, or Tsathoggua are almost (I stress almost) comprehensible. Though defying our common understandings of life, they still seem to be individual things, things that are the result of something similar to evolution some kind of environment somewhere else in the Multiverse. And on a much more relatable level are species not too dissimilar to our own. I don’t just mean Ghouls and Deep Ones, which seem entwined with us in some way; offshoots of a close branch on the evolutionary tree, or something produced by genetic tampering. But things like the Flying Polyps, the Elder Things, the Mi-Go, or the Great Race of Yith are not so unlike us as to be incomprehensible. They are alien, with alien thoughts and alien feelings. They may be technologically and culturally very different, possibly much more advanced, but they are just other creatures, such as ourselves, clinging to the faces of planets, trying to survive in a universe that carelessly grinds us all into dust. Their plans, schemes, civilizations, and kingmaking is no less pointless than our own. Perhaps we will never share enough common reference points to be able to satisfactorily communicate or cooperate with them, but we could potentially operate on roughly the same level with a bit of time and development. I suppose the same could be said for Cthulhu and others more on his level, but the scale of time and development would likely be in the billions of years, as opposed to hundreds or thousands.
Codifying the Mythos is tricky, and perhaps ultimately pointless. It is malleable and changes with each author who dabbles in it. I think that’s part of what makes it so wonderful and strange. The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, by the nature of its game mechanics, needed to do just that; to solidify and classify the unimaginable. There are times where that makes some sense in the game, but I feel that once you go beyond species like the Mi-Go or the Deep Ones, you’ve really entered the realm of Clarke’s ultra-tech, where rules of what is and could be break down. How does that play out in a story? How does that work in a game? That is up to the author, I guess.
-Matthew J. Constantine