Monday, May 30, 2016

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 1

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a child back in the '70s, I couldn't get enough Doctor Strange. Steve Ditko's psychedelic dimensions, along with the restrained majesty of the doctor himself, enwrapped me in imaginary worlds that my child-mind had never even considered before. My life since then has been a series of attempts, through various means, to kick my perception of reality into other, more interesting realms, whether through writing, roleplaying, or (earlier in life) psychoactive substances. I gave up the drugs and alcohol a long, long time ago, but I admit to hanging upside down to get a different view of a place, or spinning around in circles until I'm dizzy, then watching the sky as my senses try to catch up again, to real-time. Yes, even now.

So I was hoping for the same thing, the same sense-reeling sweet confusion that had so effectively introduced me to meta-realities as a youth. But I forgot that when I entered the fray of understanding, in the early to mid-70s, Doctor Strange had been around for ten years already. The story, the character, and the comic had already evolved for ten years from the earliest works.

And those early stories really, really sucked.

It's only about halfway through this volume that Stan Lee does anything of substance, and even then it's a hackneyed, derivative work based on pulp sorcery fantasies of earlier decades, but without the nuance and panache of, say, Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance. That said, though the story is awful, the visuals, while restrained, at first, by the very nature of their setting, become something spectacular once we are introduced to the bizarre dimensions of Strange's enemies: Nightmare, Tiboro and The Dread Dormammu. Then we see what I remember: Alternate realities that have little to do with our own, which became a hallmark of subsequent appearances of Doctor Strange.

Now I think I need to read the later volumes and leave the origin story to the movies. I sincerely hope they can do a better job in that medium. I have high hopes!

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ritualized Magic in RPGs: Danger versus Reward

This is how I picture summoning magic: Dangerous, rewarding, and a lot like real work. I'd like to see more ritualized magic of this sort in gaming. DCC has a good outline of how such magic might be undertaken, but the Lamentations of the Flame Princess' spell, "Summon", most clearly signifies for me the possible consequences, intended or unintended, of such a risky practice. I'm from the old school of Howard and Leiber, where only the desperate or the insane practice magic and such rites can, and most likely will, go horribly wrong. It's a far cry from "I cast magic missile" . . . 

I'll admit that I like "gritty" settings better than "heroic" settings, but only if the gritty setting has a risk/reward differential where the stakes and consequences are potentially devastating and SUPERnatural: Succeed, and you win big, fail, and you fail utterly. I also prefer low-magic environments, for the most part (of course, there are exceptions I rather enjoy - give me a dose of old Arduin Grimoire once in a while, for an example of ridiculous high magic). Magic should be uncommon, if not rare, thus preserving its, well, magical nature. It shouldn't just be a cheap substitute for technology, in my humble, Luddite-esque opinion. I'm also a fan of making characters work for their bread, really puzzling things out and making them happen, thinking their way around issues and having to do some investigation, some study, and some investment to get around problems. Since magic is another way of bypassing problems, it should not be without cost. Mess with the laws of reality, and expect to be messed with, says I. What systems have you played in or game mastered that reflected the difficulty, cost (monetary or otherwise), and danger of ritualized magic like this? What did you like or dislike about the system itself?


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Unflattening

UnflatteningUnflattening by Nick Sousanis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sousanis' syncretic work, while not as paradigm-shifting as he likely hopes it will be, is still a fantastic example of what can be done with the comic/graphic form, which is sort of the whole point of the book: to point out the potential of the comic as philosophical map. It is a meta-example of itself, and it is very, very well done.

Here, text and image flows and flows intentionally, with both words and pictures pointing the way for readers - and see-ers - through a sometimes (and again, sometimes intentionally) meandering argument for the primacy of comics over mere texts. While much of the information is, or should be, covered in a college general education curriculum, Sousanis has a gentle, yet insistent way of directing one's eyes and thoughts along his pedagogical paths. I would love to see more involved texts constructed in this way, allowing the student to absorb the entirety of ideas through pictorial forms, then "crunching" the details through text. The two can work together, even in separate volumes.

This is not the most profound philosophical treatise I've read. Not by a long shot. But the arguments presented are "good enough". What's truly eye-opening here is the use of the graphic form as a sort of thought map. I can't think of another graphic novel that has done it better than this. When I read this book, I am inspired and want to leverage this carto-graphic technique, despite my meager skills as an artist. Well, that's what collaboration is for.

Anybody want to collaborate? I've got ideas; lots and lots of ideas. And I can draw on a napkin as well as the next guy. But don't ask me to draw on anything more permanent. I'm just not up for it.

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The Gods of HP Lovecraft

The Gods of HP LovecraftThe Gods of HP Lovecraft by Aaron J. French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I won this on a Goodreads Giveaway. This is the second time! So, if you're curious, yes, they actually do give books away - just the luck of the draw, I guess. Of course, I fell compelled to write a review. Stupid conscience!

I remember clearly the day I was first introduced to HP Lovecraft. I was in 8th grade and a friend of mine, John Hayes, was telling me about this cool new book he was reading while we were in the school courtyard on lunch break. He pulled the book out of his jacket and showed me: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos: Vol. 1. He then offered to let me borrow it, so long as I returned it. Of course, with a cover like that, how could I possibly resist?

In the intervening . . . many . . . years, I've read my share of Lovecraft and his contemporaries. Back in the '90s, I was taken in by the Chaosium Cthulhu fiction series, which varied greatly in quality from book to book, especially in regards to contemporary authors published therein, but overall, it was a welcome series, especially in what was a publishing wasteland of Cthulhu mythos fiction.

Since that time, several short fiction venues featuring mythos fiction have come and gone and sometimes come again. Much of the burgeoning of short mythos fiction is due to the work of two editors, Ellen Datlow, and Paula Guran, two of the sweetest and simultaneously most evil people in the writing industry. They have worked harder than any others to nurture a market for contemporary fiction centered around Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Their effect on the field cannot be overstated.

I don't envy Aaron J. French following in their footsteps. Those are some big shoes to fill.

But regardless of history, the "proof is in the pudding," so to speak, right? The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft features twelve stories written by contemporary writers. Each story is centered around an entity from Lovecraft's repertoire and has an illustration of said monster/god/thing by one of three very talented artists: Paul Carrick, Steve Santiago, or John Coulthart. There is also an afterword to each story, written by Donald Tyson, giving an overview of the monster/god/thing in the story preceding it, ostensibly for those who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft's zoo, though one would think that the target audience for this work is composed of those already familiar with Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub Niggurath, etc.

As with any anthology, this is a mixed bag. Some stories are very good, some not so good. At least two are spectacular. My notes are sparse, as I want to keep things spoiler-free, but honest, as always.

Call the Name by Adam LG Nevill (Cthulhu)

Don't let this discouraging start make you put the book down. Yes, 112 pages could have been cut from the beginning of the story, and the rest of it could have been given a lot of breathing room so that it didn't feel like one giant info-dump, but it wasn't horrible. Okay, maybe it was. This had the feeling that it was written in a hurry for the anthology and not carefully crafted. I know Nevill is capable of doing better than this, so I am a bit disappointed. Two stars for this one. Still, carry on! I promise, it gets better!

The Dark Gates by Martha Wells (Yog-Sothoth)

Okay, it gets better slowly. When you state that the "usual things" aren't working and your talking about Occult sorcery, that really cheapens the dialogue and guts the story of any mystery. This was written as if it was lifted directly from a Call of Cthulhu adventure. I would be very surprised if it wasn't. Call of Cthulhu roleplaying adventures are great to play (I did so just a couple of months ago), but not so great to read, at least when it's written with no subtlety, no mystery. At first, I gave this three stars, but on further reflection, I'm dropping it to two. I love roleplaying games (in fact, I'm going to be a moderator on a panel about roleplaying games and writing at Wiscon this year), but I roleplay to roleplay, and I read to read.

We Smoke the Northern Lights by Laird Barron (Azathoth)

Now, NOW things start rolling. And I wouldn't have expected anything less from Laird Barron. It's metafictional as anything I've read, and the tongue-in-cheek humor in this piece is really, really well-played. It's as "gonzo" as I've ever read Barron, and it's fantastic tale of a hedonistic pair of boys stripped straight from Archie comics, the secret machinations of a dark corporate entity, and extraterrestrials . . . maybe. Five enthusiastic stars!

Petohtairayn by Bentley Little (Nyarlathotep)

Not bad. Not particularly great. It has an interesting academic veneer to it, particularly about shared mythologies, but I was bored much of the time. This is one in which the lead character simply gives up. Just gives up. And doesn't give much of a struggle in the process. "Meh," said the story, and "Meh," says I. Three stars.

The Doors that never Close and the Doors that Are Always Open by David Liss (Shub-Niggurath)

A pedestrian plot with some klunky usage, but not too bad. Another story in which main characters simply succumb to fate in the end, but at least this guy had some fight in him. Still, not enough to earn more than three stars.

The Apotheosis of a Rodeo Clown by Brett J. Talley (Tsathoggua)

Finally, another story with VOICE (Barron's was the first). That's partly what's lacking in many of these stories, but not here. The narrator was believable, with believable feelings, actions, and interactions. And the twist ending was very, very well done. Four stars, and I'll be reading more of Talley's work, for sure.

Rattled by Douglas Wynne (Yig)

This was a solid story that will stick with you. Coming of age meets reptilian horror. I really liked the character interactions, especially the portrayal of intra-family relationships. This is a well-written story that deserves attention, even if you don't like snakes. Especially if you don't like snakes. My only problem with it was that the reveal was a bit too soon and could have been saved for better effect later on. Still, a solid four stars.

In Their Presence by Christopher Golden & James A. Moore (The Mi-Go)

I love the Mi-Go. They are probably my favorite entity among all those of the Cthulhu mythos. But I have to be honest: there is just a touch too much treacle in this story (yes, I'm being serious - treacle in a mythos story). So it's 4 stars for "In Their Presence". Still, a great story from Team Golden-Moore.

Dream a Little Dream of Me by Jonathan Maberry (Nightgaunts)

On the other hand, I hate werewolves. Just hate them. With a passion. Especially when they show their faces in a Lovecraft mythos story. Stupid werewolves. I enjoyed the noir pastiche, but . . . werewolves. No. Just no. Three stars.

In the Mad Mountains by Joe R. Lansdale (Elder Things)

Well, Mr. Lansdale, you had me until the ginormous info-dump about 3/4 of the way through. The story never recovered after that and, in fact, foundered on the rocks of triteness and hyperbole. That's really too bad, because I was really enjoying this read until that point, and the Elder Things are my second favorite mythos baddie. Three stars.

A Dying of the Light by Rachel Caine (Great Race of Yith)

This pushes ALL the right buttons! This is a Lovecraft tale worthy of the name. If all the stories were this good, it would be the greatest Lovecraft anthology of all time. Alas, it is only one story, but one that deserves a resounding five stars! So good! Definitely the best story of the anthology. Possibly one of the best contemporary Lovecraft mythos stories I've ever read - and I've read quite a few. I would love, love, love to see what she could do working with Gemma Files!

Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves by Seanan McGuire (The Deep Ones)

Not bad, not terrible. I felt like it "telegraphed" a bit too early and was a bit too eager to explain everything. Could have been more understated and it would have improved the story, which seems to be a problem with most mythos storys, nay, most of horror in general, these days. Three stars, almost four, but not quite.

So, overall, three stars for The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft. The art wasn't quite enough to push it to four stars, though it was very good art (especially Steve Santiago's "Azathoth" - wowsers!). A must for the completist, and I'd say that Caine's and Barron's stories make the book worth the price of admission. Someday, someone is going to reprint all the best non-Lovecraft Lovecraft stories in one volume, and it would be a crime if those two stories aren't in it.

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