Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Body Beneath: Collecting Issues of the Comic Book Series "Lose"

A Body Beneath: Collecting Issues of the Comic Book Series A Body Beneath: Collecting Issues of the Comic Book Series "Lose" by Michael DeForge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Striking, funny, disturbing, beautiful, original" claims the blurb on the back cover. Well, yes and no. DeForge himself admits that the earlier works included here (and the even earlier works not included) were weaker material.

But, at first, I was disinclined to agree. I really enjoyed the comic "It's Chip," with its morbid and surreal exploration of bullying and acceptance . . . of a sort (Important safety tip: do NOT read this to your child, or they will come out as warped as my children did after reading Dante's Inferno to them at a young age . . . unless you, like me, prefer warped children who grow up into warped adults. "Welcome to the fold, kid!").

But, like most collections of short stories - whether text or graphic - things get "uneven," as they tactfully say, as it goes along. That's not to say that any of the stories are really bad, none of them are. But with many, I had the same feeling I had when reading Clowes' The Death-Ray: "What's the hype? Why all the aloofness? You really think you're cool and condescending, don't you?" Truth is: I'm not a hipster. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I tended to like the shorter to mid-length pieces in this collection, but one of the longer ones stood out: "Living Outdoors," a psychedelic trip through, among other things, psychedelic trips. But the work also explores the complexity of relationships and associated emotions. It's the kind of story that sticks in the cranium after the end in a way that many of the other stories didn't.

My favorite, though, was "Recent Hires," the tale of a self-abusing worm of a man who goes to desperate measures to elicit sympathy from women he likes. A strange, pitiful, very funny tale that is one of the more "straightforward" comics of the bunch. Still evocatively drawn, but with a tighter plot than most of the other pieces in the volume.

As I've said earlier, there are no poor pieces in the volume. Just a couple that I found really boring. I'm sure I was missing the point. I just don't get the hipster "vibe". Maybe I'm a hipster because of that. I'm not cool enough to know.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A Field Guide to Getting LostA Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All your life, you've never seen
A woman taken by the wind

Fleetwood Mac, Rhiannon

I simply could not get these lyrics out of my head as I read Rebecca Solnit's remarkable book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Truth be told, Solnit could be an amazing philosopher if she organized her thoughts a little more tightly. But she is, at heart, a cultural historian, an activist, and a journalist, and not a philosopher. I admit that I went into this book hoping for something to act as a compliment to one of my favorite reading discoveries of recent years, Frederic Gros' A Philosophy of Walking. So in ways, I was both disconcerted and pleasantly surprised that Solnit's work was not what I was expecting.

Is any book exactly what we were expecting? What a boring world that would be, if that were true of all books.

My "gripe" about the book, as outlined above, has more to do with me than with her. And it is a very minor complaint overshadowed by Solnit's brilliance. Most of the time, I felt that the book delivered on its title. At times, I was lost, but not lost in a panicked or annoyed way. I was glad to be lost in Solnit's reflections on everything from the death of friends to disconcerting dreams to desert tortoises. Solnit's thoughts flow with great ease, internally, though they may seem a little jumpy when bouncing from subject to subject. Transitions aren't her strength. Immersion is.

Take, for instance, the exploration of what "lost" means:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by, the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss."

If I based my assessment of the book on prose alone, I would grade this book among the best. Her turns of phrase are scintillating, her metaphors envelop the heart and mind, and her sometimes strange insights are enlightening and beautiful, as demonstrated in her musings on butterflies and their transformation:

The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle . . . the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.

I found this paragraph poignant, mostly because of my background. I was raised as an Air Force brat: Born in Germany (on U.S. soil, literally - when the military builds a hospital overseas, they fly over a dump-truck load of dirt from the States and drop it into the pit that will serve as the hospital's foundation. So, yes, I can be President of the United States, technically), then moved from place to place, Texas, the Philippines, back to Texas, to Italy, Minnesota, Nebraska, England where I graduated high school (barely), then on to adult life in Wyoming, then Pennsylvania, California, Utah, and, now, Wisconsin. And these were "living" situations, not "traveling" or "touristing". I was resident there. I lived there. In the Philippines, we lived in a house on stilts and my dog was eaten by the locals; in Italy, we lived among the Italians for most of our stay, only moving into Base Housing a few months before we left; and I came back from England with an accent - which was great for getting dates, incidentally - and colourful phrases and words like "sod off" and "wanker" - which doesn't get you dates. You can imagine the impact that this had on my life. I left a lot of friends behind, most of whom I've never seen again. I don't have a "home" to go to. Home is wherever my family is (currently my parents are in California, though I don't consider it "home") or wherever I happen to be (Wisconsin feels more like "home" than anyplace else, probably because we've been here 20 years). But part of my "home" exists only in my imagination, in memory. The base we lived at in Germany has been made into a public airport. The base I lived at in the Philippines is literally buried under volcanic ash. San Vito, Italy is now, partially, a town - they tore down the barbed-wire-capped fences and let people build residences and stores and markets when the Air Force moved out. Still, about 80% of the property there is simply abandoned. The base I lived at in England, RAF Chicksands, is now a British spy base - they won't let me back on except for short tours that are very strictly shepherded (my brother went on one a few years back and didn't even get to see our old house, though it was, literally, just down the hill from where the tour guides took him). So while I got to see the world anew every few years, there is some residual pain from the friends I left behind or who sometimes, because of the nature of being Air Force brats, left me behind.

I still dream of those places that are no longer places. Or no longer the places I know. Yes, everyone goes through that to some extent: buildings are torn down, people move, parking lots are made over old fields. But I'm talking about something more profound here. I cannot go back to Clark Air Base housing in the Philippines. San Vito has little, if any semblance to the place I knew as an adolescent. Chicksands is strictly off-limits to me outside of a guided tour to the place I once delighted in roaming and meandering around at my leisure. In many ways, I was born lost, I grew up lost, and I will always be lost, whether I'm looking forward or backward on my life. I still dream of those places, wandering around, always looking for friends who are not there in places that are strange, alien, twisted. I am often lost in those dreams and awaken confused and grasping for something to ground me, an anchor in the place my body occupies at the time.

The places in which any significant event occurred become embedded with some . . . emotion, and so to recover the memory of the place is to recover the emotion, and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion. Every love has its landscape. Thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you're present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination with all the atmospheric effect and association of a powerful emotion. The places inside matter as much as the ones outside. It is as though in the way places stay with you and that you long for them they become deities - a lot of religions have local deities, presiding spirits, geniuses of the place. You could imagine that in those songs Kentucky or the Red River is a spirit to which the singer prays, that they mourn the dreamtime before banishment, when the singer lived among the gods who were not phantasms but geography, matter, earth itself.

Amen, Sister. Hallelujah!

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Bringing My #Amreading List Down to 100

After working on it for over a year, I've finally done it: Brought my "to read" list on Goodreads down to 100 books.

"But Forrest," you say, "why do you suck and why are you such a loser that you limit your to-read list? You loser . . . who sucks."

There are several reasons. Here are a few.

  1. Someday, I will die. I don't want to leave an overly long "to-read" list behind. It's just rude.
  2. My list serves, simultaneously, as a long-term buy list and a short-term "get this from the library or buy it on the cheap and read it soonish, like within the next three years or so". Some of those long-term buy books are very, very expensive, and I really do want to own a copy. So if my list is filled with a plethora of books I might want to own, I could be spending money on them, rather than saving up to buy the books I know I want to own.
  3. Which brings me to the next point: Every book is a new, undiscovered adventure, but I've been lost in the wilderness (seriously, truly lost, where I-might-not-make-it-back-alive kind of lost) a couple of times and know the value of a good map. I consider book reviews as maps by those who have gone before me. Some of these people I trust very much, but everyone makes mistakes and everyone has differing tastes. So I like to read from a variety of "maps" (i.e., reviews) in order to make a well-informed decision about what I am going to read and what I'm going to bypass. Keeping my list to 100 books forces the issue. If I think I want to read a book, that means I might have to jettison one from my list to keep it under 100 books. Which one do I really want to read the most . . . really?
  4. I write. A lot. Novels, short stories, book reviews, and role-playing game supplements. I love writing. And I love reading. But I don't have time to do as much of both as I'd like. And reading is so much easier than writing that I need to limit myself with the amount of reading I do.
  5. Just because a book didn't make the list this time around doesn't mean it will not make it on the list down the road. There are a lot of books floating around on Goodreads. If a previously-jettisoned book (jettisoned from my once huge to-read list) finds its way back into my feed and I am taken in by it again, then maybe I should reconsider it. Again, though, limiting the list makes me really have to think about it.
  6. I physically own about 20 of the books on my list at any given time. I'm usually reading two or three books. I'm hoping that keeping the list to 100 forces a little better "burn rate" of reading and reviewing. Again, if I want to free up space on my list, the best way to do that is to read the books I already have physically in hand. Besides, I have a practical side that hates to keep things around that I'm not using. In some ways, I'm kind of an anti-hoarder.
  7. Which brings me to my last point: In some ways, I'm kind of an anti-hoarder. I live in a small house quite intentionally. I'm forced to only keep those things that are essential. My wardrobe is small, but unique and, for the most part, well made. If I had my druthers, for example, most of my shoes would be doc martens. Alas, I only have two pair now. Those suckers are expensive. But they are beautiful and comfortable and they last forever. Shouldn't my book collection be the same, physically and virtually? Why live a lie?
There you have it. I know many readers who would consider me a spartan tightwad who hates books. They couldn't be further from the truth. I LOVE books, but I have an addictive personality, too. I could spend all my money and time on books and just bury myself in them, but I've tried that before and I just wasn't happy. Give me the best of the best and let the others fade away. My self-esteem isn't reliant on being attached to stuff, not even books. Besides, I have one of the best public library systems and one of the best university library systems in the world in my backyard here in Madison, Wisconsin. You can't ask for much more than that. Well, you can, but you might be greedy and ungrateful. I don't have time for greed. Leave that to the politicians. I'll be content with being content.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Beyond the Silver Scream Cover Image

Here is the cover image for Beyond the Silver Scream, a 0-Level "funnel" adventure compatible with Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. +James V West is responsible for this awesomeness. It definitely captures the spirit of BTSS - an adventure that starts in your local movie theater in the late-'70s, but leads you and your high school buddies far afield in time and space! James claims that the guy with the fingerless gloves is based off of Judd Nelson. I think it's actually a teenage me. That should tell you something about my teenage years . . .

My hope is to have this adventure all printed up and ready to roll (or photoned-up for those who would rather have a PDF) by the time Garycon rolls around. Those who have seen the manuscript and/or play-tested it have had some good things to say about it. Hopefully you will, too!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Null Singularity

Null SingularityNull Singularity by Steve Bean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For me, writing and tabletop roleplaying scratch two sides of the same creative itch. As I've examined the two hobbies (neither pays enough to be a profession . . . yet), I appreciate the creative freedom that each allows. I consider writing a very "open" individual creative act, one in which I can let my imagination run free. If I use the excuse of "poetic license," I can write whatever I want, rules of grammar be damned. At least for myself. Of course, there is an audience "out there" that I need to think about for works that I'm planning on having pub(lic)ished. Even then, my own wild flights of imagination fuel the writing.

Tabletop roleplaying is, or should be, in my style of playing and game-mastering, an "open" group creative act. Rules are there simply to adjudicate situations which characters do not fully control (e.g., combat resolution, "finding" of secreted doors or traps, etc). In other words, the game master facilitates the players as they cooperatively (NB: This does not mean "without internal conflict") "tell" a story where the outcome is not entirely known until the moment dice are rolled to determine the consequences of a particular course of action.

Of course, like any other group activity, you'll sometimes have someone who spoils the fun.

Sometimes, it's the game master herself!

We call this, in the Roleplaying Game (RPG) world, "Railroading". A Railroading game master pushes player characters into situations where they have to follow certain plot points in a certain order so that the story can be completed in the "right" way. Needless to say, this tends to stifle players who value, above all else, the right to choose their own character's actions. There's an old adage among game masters that "it doesn't matter what you plan as a GM, the players are going to screw everything up in the first ten minutes anyway". The character is, after all, hers or his, not the gamemaster's. Some systems (rightfully, I think) eschew the term "game master", instead using "judge" to reinforce the idea that the person in charge should be impartial, more of a facilitator than a dic(k)tator. The literary equivalent is the overbearing editor who simply will not allow the writer any creative freedom, who dithers with the author's work so much and in such a specific way that the author's work is no longer his own.

But there are instances where a writer works under self-imposed constraints in order to "squeeze" their own creativity. Italo Calvino's excellent If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is a prime example of this. In this novel, Calvino uses a complex mathematical iteration, as outlined in the book Oulipo Laboratory , to write what is one of the most brilliant second-person narratives in all of literature, possibly the only brilliant second-person narrative in literature. He purposefully used the constraint of the form to discipline the work and to create self-referential loops that, rather than alienating the reader with academic sterility, actually bring the reader further "in" to the story. The Oulipo, a rather exclusive and somewhat secretive group of writers and philosophers, have created an entire literary movement (though I doubt they would characterize their efforts that way) around this idea that creative writing can benefit from being constrained.

Until the last few months, I must admit that, while I have used Oulipo techniques to generate some of my own works, the idea of constraining my gaming was anathema . . . until Black Sun Deathcrawl! Here, author James MacGeorge opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be done with gaming constraints. "BSDC," as it is popularly known, showed that, with its existential, even nihilistic atmosphere, gaming with constraints could be, dare I say it? Fun and full of despair?

The subtitle of Steve Bean's Null Singularity explicitly states that the adventure is "Inspired by James MacGeorge's Black Sun Deathcrawl, and this is clearly the case. The goal here is not to be heroic, not to defeat the powers of evil, the goal is to survive as long as you can. Defeat and death are inevitable. You will die! If you're lucky, you'll have the luxury of being driven insane before the unavoidable doom that awaits you, whether it is slow asphyxiation from lack of oxygen or being slashed to ribbons by the claws of the XenoHorror. Space is big and powerful. You are puny and weak. All is hopeless.

But it works. Perhaps it is the constraints themselves that allow for a full player immersion into the heart and mind of a character that is low on resources and in a great deal of trouble, an existentialist escapism that safely allows the player to face her worst fears, then walk away from the game table physically (though not psychically) unscathed. A story will play out and, judging from the mechanics, a very fun, if fatalistic story is to be had by players and judge alike. In other words, you won't mind being "railroaded", so long as you go into this knowing that you're going to die in the end. It's kind of like life that way, isn't it? There is a certain dark wonder to it all: the universe is doomed, you are low on resources, you are rather likely to go insane simply as a result of being where you are and realizing what is happening, and it is . . . awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

Mechanically, Bean's repurposing of the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules show just how resilient the DCC ruleset is. I am continually amazed by the different "flavors" of DCC that crop up. It is possibly one of the most malleable systems around. Null Singularity uses the skeleton of the DCC rules, but clothes it in its own . . . let's call it: "EVA Suit". Once you've participated in one of the scenarios in the book, you'll understand why this nomenclature is the only adequate description of this particular flavor of the rules. "Extravehicular activity" indeed!

All-in-all, I highly recommend Null Singularity. At $8+shipping for the hard-copy zine, it's definitely worth skipping Starbucks for a day. Available from Steve Bean Games. Get it while there's still time . . . before the Null Singularity swallows all of reality and your frail, puny body along with it!

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Beyond the Silver Scream

I am happy to announce my forthcoming DCC-Compatible adventure, Beyond the Silver Scream.

You and dozens of your closest friends put down the bong and fill your jeans and leather-pants pockets with quarters. But tonight, you're not heading for the arcade. You're headed for the old downtown theater (the one that shows naughty movies at midnight) to see the newest horror flick: 'Screaming Sorority Girls from Planet Playtex' . . . but you've bought in to more than you bargained for tonight, and soon find yourself in the mysterious shadow realm . . . Beyond the Silver Scream!

This DCC-Compatible adventure is a 0-level funnel pitting you and your high school buddies against cloaked cultists and mutant abominations as you pull up your courage to rescue your favorite crush from the clutches of sinister powers you thought only existed in bad '70s horror movies. See: dark rituals played out before your eyes; hear: fuzz-toned 8-tracks of your favorite metal bands; feel: the excitement of adventure; smell: the charnel-house odors of blood-soaked mudpits; taste: . . . um. Nevermind. You probably don't want to share in any meals on this adventure. Better hope you don't get the munchies!

Artists include: Nicolo Maioli James V West, David Lewis Johnson, Matt Hildebrand, and newcomer Thomas Gile.

31 pp. And fully compatible with the DCC Role Playing Game.

Anticipated release: Garycon (or earlier, if I can swing it)!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Space Riders Volume Uno: Vengeful Universe

Space Riders Volume Uno: Vengeful UniverseSpace Riders Volume Uno: Vengeful Universe by Fabian Rangel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Balls-out, retina-melting, soul-nuking pulp scifantasy in brilliant - and I mean BRILLIANT - color! This is a love song to Jack Kirby and an (hopefully ironic) ode to EE Doc Smith's Triplanetary (except this is really, really good, whereas Smith's book was "Not Scottish,", as I like to say).

Capitan Peligro, the one-eyed commander of the skull-ship Santa Muerte, along with his compatriots, the robot Yara, whose breasts are lethal laser-weapons and First-mate Mono, the mutant mandrill (who I am hoping is named after one of my newest favorite bands, Monolord, though I doubt it); this motley trio is assigned to carry out missions as Space Riders of the Earth Interplanetary Space Force (sort of like the Scout service arm in the Traveller tabletop RPG).

Now, pile onto this gonzo-eyefull of goodness a dose of meaningful plotting, with (very short) stories of love, family, and revenge, and you've got one helluva great ride! My only regret? The plot arcs are outlined here (and one played out in full), but there's so much more to learn, love, and enjoy!

If you have any liking for Jack Kirby's comics from the '60s or '70s, this is for you. Think Doctor Strange visuals meet Sgt. Rock attitude, set a-tremble by acid-laced stoner metal and solid storytelling, and you'll see the tip of the iceberg. Well, maybe the top crystal. But why settle for that? Jump in and explore!

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