Tuesday, March 6, 2018

13th Age: The Game

When I started writing this, I found that about half of what I was writing wasn't about the core game itself, but rather about the campaign I'd built around it, when the intent was to really review the game. As such, I'm shunting that information into a follow-up post about the campaign and sticking to talking about the actual mechanics of 13th Age here. I am, however, including a short run-down of my history in gaming.

I started when I was nine years old, at a friend's birthday party. He'd snuck into his older brother's room and made it out with some of his gaming books - namely, a copy of Expedition to Barrier Peaks and most of a Fiend Folio. All he knew was that it was some kind of game, and that his brother and his friends really liked it and yelled at him whenever he tried to get into the room if they were playing it. The books got passed around but, well, none of them actually told you how to play the game, so most everyone lost interest and walked away.

Everyone except me - I read through and, with my limited understanding of the rules and a set of Yahtzee dice, we set off for glory. It was, as you can guess, a complete and utter bodge of a game, with me making stuff up on the fly, and while I don't recall much of the sessions, I remember skipping whole rooms because I just didn't understand what they were telling me to do. At the third session, his brother found us playing and, rather than being angry, was elated and let me borrow his books for a weekend. I basically memorized them.

In the ensuing decades, I ran and played a bunch of games, but in the end, I've always come back to Dungeons and Dragons, and I've played every edition up to 4th edition, and until picking up 13th Age most often played 3.5 or Pathfinder.

A friend told me about 13th Age and loaned the book to me and after only a few pages I was pretty well hooked. It did a lot of things I wanted in an f20* game, while having a few flaws that seemed easy enough to file off. After playing for the better part of two years, here's my rundown. First are the things that 13th Age keeps from previous editions of the game. Second are the things that 13th Age doesn't do that some people might find integral to their gameplay. Third are things that 13th Age really innovates, either coming up with new mechanics whole-cloth, or incorporates from other games in a unique way. Last are positives and negatives.

Things 13th Age Keeps

The basic tropes
Y'know, elves, trolls, orcs, fighters, barbarians, druids, that kind of thing. You're definitely playing in a D&D world if you're playing from the resources in the 13th Age book.

You roll a 20-sided die for almost everything, adding or subtracting numbers and comparing them against a target number to determine success. More on this in the innovations section, but it's nice that they keep this basic mechanic in place because it's familiar and it works.

Of all the 4th edition mechanics, this was probably my favourite, from a player perspective. Instead of having healing spells that add some random number of hit points to your character and can be mechanized so hard that you can literally have practically infinite healing in a stick, you have a set number of times in a day that you can roll a few dice to get back hit points, and then you either rest or, well, die. There are spells and items that can effect this, but it sets a pretty hard limit on PC resources.

Simple stat blocks for monsters
Most monsters can be written up on the front of a 3 x 5 card and I've yet to find one that can't fit on both sides. This is similar to 4th edition monster presentation, although the mechanics are quite different.

Straightforward character abilities
Another adaptation of 4th edition design strategy, with the exception of a handful of highly narrative spells or abilities, most character abilities can be summed up in a single sentence on a character sheet or, again, a 3x5 card.

Things 13th Age Doesn't Do

Everything has a stat block
3.5 and Pathfinder have a lot to recommend them, but the feeling that I needed to know the Wisdom score of ever random peasant farmer wasn't one of the pluses.

The golf club effect
In 3.5 and, to a slightly lesser extent, Pathfinder, at a certain point a martial character could expect to keep three or four weapons on them at a time in order to actually be effective at attacking all enemy types. That isn't an issue in 13th Age - you can have the same weapon at the start of the game as at the end, without much effect on how difficult it is to hurt stuff.

Technically, this isn't true. Treasure, including gold, is still part of the game, but there are no rules for how to spend it or how expensive things are or any of that. My players are currently at epic level, and I think the richest of them has about a thousand gold pieces - it just doesn't come up that much in the game's mechanics and you can step right past it if you want.

Tactical map combat
There's no counting squares, no facing, no real need for miniatures. We still use them fairly often, because while you don't use an actual combat, whether you're in melee combat or not does matter for the use of some abilities, and moving around in combat can still create problems for your character, but it's not represented in blocks of formal movement around a map.

Things 13th Age Innovates

Instead of skills that are tied to a specific ability that may or may not ever be used (seriously, whose idea was it to have "Use Rope" as a discrete skill), 13th Age characters have backgrounds, descriptions of what they did before adventuring or the things that lead them to become adventurers. Backgrounds in my current campaign vary from the concrete, like "Seer" and "Bodyguard," to the more abstract, like "Pyrophile."

Escalation Die
In the first round of combat, nothing much special happens. In the second round, you get a +1 on all attacks. In round three, that's +2, scaling up to +6 by round seven, should things get that dire. This is best represented by having a six-sided die on the table, the escalation die. This has several effects. First, it discourages PCs from using their strongest attack in the first round. They'll usually only have one chance at that, and if they try it when they have the least chance of it succeeding a couple of times, they'll soon learn to wait a round or two. Second, it builds a nice sense of mania into the combat. By the time you get up to +4 on the escalation die, your PCs will hit so easily that they'll start coming up with crazy ideas for attacks and in-combat actions that really just make the game fun.

Game Mechanics
The mechanics are really a synthesis of several different f20 games, but in the end, you roll a 1d20 and determine the effect, and then maybe roll your damage dice. Which - get this - you get one damage die per level. Yes, a barbarian with greataxe is rolling 10d12 for damage at 10th level, but don't worry, the monsters keep up with you.

The game comes with 13 of them already written out for you, but there are various builds out there - basically, icons are characters, concepts or beings that your character is somehow connected to. It's essentially a mechanic that tells you when the big movers and shakers in the campaign world do something that impacts your character. I really like this because I tend to create these complex, deep campaign worlds and then forget to have the players actually interact with them. This mechanic takes that out of my hands and puts it in the PC's hands.

Monster Mechanics
This is a frickin' DM's paradise. You roll 1d20 and you rarely, if ever roll damage or really make a decision on what the monster does, mechanically. Damage happens, status effects happen, and as a DM you're free to build up cool and interesting characters without worrying about whether the dice will let you do it. It's really quite wonderful. (My favourite is building encounters that degrade as they go on - someone uses a fire attack, the environment gradually burns down around them inflicting damage, causing issues with ranged attacks due to smoke, collapsing floors to make movement difficult, etc.)

One Unique Thing
This might be my favourite thing about the game - every single PC has something about them that makes them special, different from everyone else in the game. This can seem sort of silly, like my rainbow-coloured half-orc, but even then, it has utility in the game. Gorvak, the rainbow-colored half-orc is kind of a legend at this point, and specifically because he stands out in a crowd. You never have to question whether or not he's in a fight, and tons of people know him because of it. Everyone else has their own special thing, too, and all of them get use in the game, some more than others.

Positives and Negatives

+ Fantastic bestiary - It is, quite simply, the bestiary by which I judge all other bestiaries, with sections on ecology and use in game that just make them sing.
+ Fights are simple - I like theater of the mind combat, and the lack of a combat map can actually make fights more strategic, just in a different way.
+ Improvisation - In the last session, I improvised an epic-level fight on the fly. Try that in 4th edition.
+ Light narrative structure - With Backgrounds, Icons and the One Unique Thing, I can tell stories with my players without requiring them to take a writing course.
+ Straightforward play - We've never taken more than a minute and a half to look up a rule.

- DMs can roll a lot of dice - While you only roll a single die for each monster, you can easily have 15 different monsters in a fight - using an online dice roller evens this out, though.
- Fights can take a lot of creativity - Where the monster mechanics are so simple, unless you do something really interesting with the encounters, they can feel kind of same-y.
- Treasure doesn't matter - I grew up basing my games off of the information in a module, and playing lots of Final Fantasy, and not having long lists of game-impacting magic items feels wrong somehow.

* This is the term some people use to refer to games that operate off of the rolling of a 20-sided die, but may not use the actual Wizards of the Coast d20 mechanics.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Weird Al's Ill-Advised Vanity Tour: My Impressions

Weird Al is known for, well, quite a few things. At the most basic, though, he’s known
as a parody artist, for talking the most popular songs of an era and reworking the
lyrics and the sound with hilarious results. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” becomes “Like
A Surgeon,” Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” become “Eat It,” and so on, and over time
most artists came to regard it as a sign that they’d “made it,” if Weird Al did a parody
of one of their songs (with the notable exception of the artists behind “Gangster’s
Paradise” who were …not please with Al’s version, “Amish Paradise,” at least initially.

He was also known for his high-energy concerts, featuring elaborate costumes and
stage sets and videos between songs. Because of their complexity, his concert tour
appearances tended to be basically the same at each stop.

The thing is, only about half the songs on each album are parodies, and fans, the
kind of fans who pay tickets for concerts, love those original songs. Added to that,
his concerts are, by his own report, kind of exhausting. So, this time around, he
decided to do a very different kind of concert. He’d have an opening act, followed by
Al and his band sitting down and playing a bunch of their originals. He was up front
that only those who are really into his music would be up for it, an audience that
includes my wife and I, and so we bought each other tickets for Christmas and, on a
chilly night in March, headed to the Music Hall in Portsmouth.

The opening act was Emo Phillips, who was significantly funnier than I remembered
from his appearances on Night At The Improv and Caroline’s Comedy Hour, and I
remember him being the funny. After he had finished making us all laugh, there was a
quick break while the stage hands set up for the concert, and then the guys walked
out and sat down. Al’s guitarist to his left, bassist to the right, drummer behind and to
the left, keyboardists behind and to the right, and after a bit of banter, they got into their
set list.

“Midnight Star”
Off of “Weird Al In 3-D,” this paean to the supermarket tabloid has always been a favourite of mine. The
vibe of playing this in concert was fun, with the musicians interacting more and it was obvious they
genuinely found it as funny as we did.

“The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota”
Showing that sometimes art imitates life, Minnesota was actually the home to the biggest ball of twine in the
world prior to the release of this song but, whatever. This song’s a light mockery of weirdo Americana, and was
obviously familiar to the audience as we all sang along to the chorus, at least. The highlight, though, was the
guy in the center of the auditorium who stood up and held high his sign emblazoned with “Twine Ball Or

“Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White”
This was the first song of the concert that I’d really hoped I’d hear and I wasn’t disappointed. The acoustics
were still getting nailed down at this point, so I think people who didn’t know the song couldn’t understand
the lyrics, but I did, and it was magical.

“Let Me Be Your Hog”
Yep, he played all 16 seconds of this magical gem.

“Truck-Driving Song”
Probably my favourite original off of “Running With Scissors,” this was an excellent rendition of the song,
made better by Al trying and often failing to reach the low notes, and settling for a sort of buzzing baritone
that was kind of adorably frustrating to him. His vocals were still strong, though, and this is the first time
the band really got a chance to show off. Al’s the mad genius in the lab but, sincerely, they are a huge part
of his success, and here we got to see just how true that is.

“You Don’t Love Me Anymore”
This was his longest banter of the night, as he told the story of how his label forced him to do a video like
Extreme’s “More Than Words” even those this wasn’t, y’know, a parody of Extreme. At all. This was the
second song that I really wanted to hear that night and it did not disappoint, at all. While it might have been
hard to here, I think “Stuck In A Closet” and “Let Me Be Your Hog” got Al and band ramped up for the
remaining songs.

From the first guitar lick, you can tell that this cromulent and wonderful song is a Doors pastiche, and he
sells it here, going all Lizard King, especially as he narrates the open letter to the barista. The rest of it’s
excellent as well, though, and really showcases the range of the band.

“Dare To Be Stupid”
So, if they’re doing a stripped down, mostly acoustic set, how did they pull off this ode to Devo? Easy - they
reskinned it as a Grateful Dead pastiche and, dang it, it worked really, really well. Like, really well.
Thankfully, they didn’t go on as long as the father of all jam bands, and just let the song come to its
naturally conclusion, somewhat longer simply because of the more laid-back playing style.

“If That Isn’t Love”
No, not a cover of the Elvis song, but another Weird Al song, a Hansonesque song about the way that
you show love changes as a relationship goes on. It’s hilarious, and genuinely kind of touching. I didn’t
know I wanted to hear this song but, there you go.

“Don’t Download This Song”
Al was cruel here - he made us think he was going to do the Hamilton Polka, and then he gave us this.
Still, anything that sends up those weird fundraising songs from the 80s is all right by me. Still, because
of what he pretended to promise, this was my least favourite song of the night.

“Nature Trail To Hell”
This is a personal favourite of mine, and I agree with him that this really ought to be the title song of a movie,
but thankfully it isn’t so he was able to sing it for us without any complications. This is just a sweet little
ditty about, well, a nature trail to hell, shot in 3-D so it feels like the guts are really spilling out into your lap.
Just gruesome enough to appeal to a teenage me, and funny enough to continue appealing to me
decades later.

“Jackson Park Express”
Yeah, that mega-track from “Mandatory Fun.” Before the song, he told us it was the most challenging song
of the night for them and, yeah, it was. You could hear a few miscues with the musicians, but given the
difficulty of the arrangement, and the hilarity of the lyrics, we all pretty much agreed to overlook it. This
isn’t my favourite Weird Al mega-track, but it’s a good one, and they did it a good turn.


I feel like if you’ve read down to the point where you’re reading about this song, it needs no introduction or
explanation. For any of you whippersnappers asking, “What’s ‘UHF?’ Is that a sports team?”, ask your
parents. For everyone else, yeah, it was as good as you think.

“Why Does This Always Happen To Me?”
While we were waiting for the concert hall to open up, we headed off to a local used music/DVD/video game
shop called the Bull Moose. If you’re in Portsmouth, check it out, because it’s fabulous. We found they had
“Poodle Hat” on sale, used, which includes this song. Christy wasn’t too familiar with the album, and neither
was I, but both of us remembered this title and joked that we hoped Al would play it to refresh our memories.
He did! Thanks, Al!

“One More Minute”
Should I have been nervous that as soon as he started playing a song in which the narrator says they’d rather
jump into a huge pile of thumbtacks than spend time with their lover, my wife little squealed with glee and
clapped her hands? Nah, nah, we’re probably fine. Anyhow, I was really hoping for this song, too, and it’s
even better in person than it is on the album, or in the video.

“I’ll Sue Ya!”
When I first heard this song, I really wasn’t impressed because it sounded like a kind of dumb joke being told by
a lousy comedian. So, when Al introduced this as a dumb joke being told by a lousy comedian, well, it was kinda
hard to hate it after that. Still not my favourite, but a decent amount of fun.

“Unplugged Medley”
This was the last official song of the night, although even Al joked, “Well, this is our last song unless, I dunno,
we come back for an encore, but who does THAT?” The answer, of course, is that Al always does an encore.
Anyhow, he actually dug into his parodies here but, like “Dare To Be Stupid,” restyled each of them. We got a
bluesy, Eric Clapton version of “Eat It,” a lounge singer’s interpretation of, “I Lost On Jeopardy,” a Santana
pastiche of “Amish Paradise,” Stan Getz’s “Smells Like Nirvana,” “White And Nerdy” a la Buddy Holly, and then
Ricky Valley’s version of “I Love Rock Road,” finishing off with an ear-shattering, triumphant, wailing Mariah Carey
cut of “Like A Surgeon.”

“Johnny B. Goode”
No tricks, no goofing around, no pretending, this was just a straight up cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode,
one that leaned into the song’s proto-Motown song and guitar licks. They didn’t overstay their welcome, though.

“The Saga Begins”
Okay, this made me tear up a little bit, because while the evening was great, there weren’t any songs so well-known
and popular that the entire audience could sing along, and part of the Weird Al concert experience is singing the
songs with him, when you can. The hall was packed, and about 900 people belted out the story of Obi Wan Kenobi
and The Phantom Menace for the duration, and so when the stagelights went out and the house lights came on, I
left rather satisfied.

I’ve been to two Weird Al concerts before, and neither were a bit like this one, and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe
Al will get back to his old way of performing, maybe he won’t, but I really feel like Christy and I got a chance to be
part of something special last night, and it’s a concert we’ll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Micro-Horror: It's Not A Nighmare

It’s important for you to know that this didn’t start out like a nightmare. I made sure of that.

I made sure the spring sun was unclouded and at its peak so that you’d see a field of flowers like a cornucopia of reds and browns rather than the rust-red of dried blood, and sent a gentle breeze through so that you’d think that the susurrus of noise came from the trees blowing in the wind even though it came from the low hissing of the flowers.

The cirrus clouds, strewn across like the sky like so much cotton weaving, did not move, but I knew you would not stand still long enough for that to matter because the canopy swing I’d made was so beautiful. It looked like ivory in the sun, gleaming and bright.

It was only natural that you’d want to take a seat there, in that beautiful moment. I was worried you might have noticed something when for a moment a tendril of cloud reached across the sun and the lights dimmed enough you might see the swing was made of bone, but the dream reasserted itself well enough and you sat and were trapped.

You’re mine now. That probably scares you. Good. Fear is the first emotion I’ll drain from you. Then hatred, then sadness, then desire, then anger, and then onward, deeper. Oh, you may wonder what will happen to your hope. That’s easy: you’ll kill it yourself. Your kind always do.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Odd Duck

So, after the disappointment of "Young Sheldon," and hearing not-so-great things about Netflix's show about a young boy with autism, I thought, "I could write better than that."

I don't necessarily think that's true but, well, I tried.

Exterior shot of a largeish house. Not opulent, but with more square footage than a suburban home, and with a large lot. There is a main part of the house and then an extension that was obviously added on later, being of a slightly different architectural style. The driveway has about a dozen cars parked in it, and there are more cars on the road.

A family pulls up to a kerb in an early ‘90s Honda Accord. The car is in good condition, the family neatly dressed. Mom, IRENE, is in her early 40s and looks tired. Dad, STANLEY, is a bit doughy and pasty, but smiling genuinely. As he comes onto the sidewalk, two of his kids emerge on that side, on on the other side. The kid on the other side of the car is CALEB, a tall, muscular young man, perhaps 18 or 19. He’s in a high school jacket. He rounds the car confidently.

The first out of the car on the other side is a teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15. Her hair is straight and falls over her face. TAMAR is slender and attractive, but moves hesitantly and is a bit coltish and uncertain of her limbs. The third child is a boy of 10 or so, but he moves with the gait of a younger child. In particular, his hands move almost as though he’s wearing mittens - fingers together and thumbs dangling - while his walk is a sort of shuffle. He is the first to speak. When he does speak, it is without affect.

Benjamin: How long are we going to be here?

Irene: Oh, a few hours. We’re staying for dinner.

(She moves over by his side and hunches over so her face is level with his. His gaze drops.)

Benjamin: Will there be hot dogs? I’ll only eat if there are hot dogs.

Caleb (walking by, swatting his brother on the shoulder in play, speaking too loudly): They’ll have dogs. That’s all Uncle Kevin can cook without burning it, anyway.

Irene: Caleb!

(A voice calls out from the front door. Kevin is a middle-aged man perhaps a few years older than Stanley. The two are fairly obviously brothers.)

(Caleb crosses into the house, to the sound of someone shouting his name out. He raises a hand in greeting and is gone.)

Kevin: Nah, he’s right, that old grill I had burnt anything you put on it. Got a new rig now, though. Hey, Stan-o, want to check it out?

(Stan looks at his wife for a second, gets a nod of assent)

Stan: Love to? What’d’ya get this time?

(Stanley strides up into the house, their chatter continuing.)

Irene (to her daughter): Tamar, I can you …

Tamar (her body language already defensive, she redoubles her defenses): Mom, Tami. Please.

Irene: Fine, Tami. Can you … can you just have a good time? Try?

(Tamar just snorts and walks in.)

Irene (sighs) (looks down at Ben): Well, at least you’ll come in with me.

Ben: I really don’t want to, but, yes, I will. (He takes her hand and begins walking up to the house) (he holds up a finger, admonishing) So long as there really are hot dogs.

Irene: I don’t know why you’re like this. This is your family, and you love them and they love you.

Ben: Well, I wish they wouldn’t. Especially Uncle Kevin.

Irene: Uncle Kevin loves you …

Ben: He grabs me, and his beard is scratchy, and he smells. I don’t love him.

(Irene stops, whirls Ben sideways. He yelps as she gets down in his face.)

Irene: Uncle Kevin is a good man, and he has never hurt a hair on your head. You will be polite and you will be friendly today, you understand. No (she pauses, trying to find the words) being you in there. No being the way you get.

Ben: I understand. (He doesn’t. The cadence of his words is off, almost stuttering.)

Irene: I’m sorry, Ben, I know that it’s hard for you to be around people some times. I know that, but, today, please? For me?

(Ben nods jerkily. Irene strokes his cheek and Ben consciously chooses not to recoil.)

(They near the door when Kevin’s wife, Amanda, appears. If Irene is beaten down by life, Amanda is exploding with life - her clothes, demeanour and speech are just bursting with enthusiasm. Near the door, we can hear music playing - Lisa Loeb’s, “Stay.”)

(Amanda and Irene are talking amiably as they walk into the house. Ben is still holding onto his mother’s hand as they are about to enter. He drops her hand with a gasp.)

Ben: Mom! My duck! It’s in the car!

Irene: Go get it, then. I’ll be just inside.

(Ben hesitates)

Irene: Just inside, Ben, honey. I promise, I won’t go any further than the front room.

(Ben runs to the car.)

Amanda: It’s good to push his limits, you know.

Irene: Yeah, I know, it’s just … I never know if I’m doing it the right way with him.

(Ben is in the back seat. He snatches up a small rubber duck and turns around. His mother’s gone, inside the house.)

(He moves up the walk at a quick shuffle. In one hand, he holds the duck in his palm, rubbing it vigorously with his thumb. He repeatedly “throws” his other hand, whipping his forearm and leaving his hand to flap at its extent.)

(We see the interior of a large, open room. A half dozen or so grown-ups are here, all with plenty of space between them. There are trays of food scattered around, and the music is playing at a sensible volume. No one is shouting, although conversation is animated.)

Ben (he’s obviously saying something he’s heard before):: You can do anything you set your mind to. You can do anything you set your mind to. You can do anything you set your mind to.

(We are looking right at his face as he closes his eyes. The camera pans around behind him and we’re behind his head. The camera pushes through, telling us we’re looking at things through his eyes.)

(The song’s light bass line now sounds fuzzy and muffled. The acoustic guitar sounds tinny out of pitch. The vocals are in tune, but sound much brighter and louder, with an uncomfortable amount of vibrato. The adult’s faces are all a little blurred and indistinct. Their speech overlaps as before, but is now flattened out - it’s impossible to tell what they’re saying. Every bit of bright green in the room glows painfully. Ben takes a step into the house, and the thick pile of carpet makes a loud crunching sound, like glass being crushed while the shards rub against each other noisily. He closes his eyes again, and we get a shot of his hand working that worry duck. He opens his eyes again, and takes a few more steps, his shuffling gait more pronounced as he works hard to crush as little of the carpet as possible, just brushing it aside. He sees his mother at a counter that adjoins a large kitchen and heads toward her.

He’s then grabbed by a pair of giant arms made of ropy, tree-like muscle and lifted bodily off the ground. As this happens, we hear the sound of a wood rasp at work and his vision fills with stars and bolts of light, growing a bit indistinct. He cries out.)

(The scene bolts back to being from everyone else’s perspective as Uncle Kevin has grabbed his nephew across the chest - gently, not actually holding him in place, but just kind of a backwards hug. He’s rubbing his chin stubble in Ben’s scalp. Ben’s feet are on the ground.)

(Ben pushes back against him hard, and yells again, wordlessly, and then runs off down a nearby set of stairs.)

Kevin (to Irene and Amanda at the snack bar): Huh. Kind of an odd duck, isn’t he?

Irene: Yes, I suppose so.

(Title for the show comes up: “Odd Duck.”)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Favourite Book, Part Three

I’d spent my early years with a loving and supporting family and classmates and friends who seemed to accept and understand me, but at around age nine that kind of fell apart.

First of all, you're missing an "of."
Second, though, this just looks like
a bunch of people with flippers
for hands, unless I'm focusing on it.
I found that friends would trick you into thinking they were doing things for you, when really they were just using you to get something they wanted. I learned that my family loved me, but they didn’t really understand me, in a lot of ways. And even the most sincere friends could, at times, be insincere, and family could hurt family. There were ways to tell when this was happening - tone of voice, posture, body language - but I didn’t seem to understand these things as easily as everyone else did.

Even just simply socializing, hanging out with friends, became a bit of a minefield, and I was unprepared for the experience. It was like I’d grown up with native fluency in a language, only to wake up one morning to find that I had the vocabulary of a toddler and someone had changed all the rules.

I set about learning the language of socialization, but it wasn’t easy. My major hiccup was not understanding when people were being sincere, and so how could I know? I couldn’t well ask someone, “Excuse me, are you being untrustworthy right now?”, so, it became a matter of trial and error, a conscious effort to determine what sincerity looked like, how to tell when a friend was angry even when they said they weren’t, and whether a grown-up was really in the mood to talk.

It was really hit or miss, and I did actually ask questions like the one above, naively assuming that people who were trying to deceive me wouldn’t go so far as to lie about such things. Just watching people move wasn’t enough. I had to bring in some heavy hitters.

Ah, this was a sight that
promised an entirely wasted
Friday night.
Three things really helped: books, Dungeons and Dragons and comic books. Some time, I’ll need to write about prose books and tabletop RPGs and how they formed my socialization, but we’re aiming at talking about my favourite comic book here, and I’d intended to do it in two blog entries and I’m not sure I’m going to get to it in three. Anyhow, what makes comic books so handy for learning body language can be summed up in one name: Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby’s impact on comic books really can’t be overstated. I know that’s a cliche, “impact can’t be overstated,” but, seriously, you can’t. His artistic style didn’t just merely make an impact, it’s still making one. Have you seen the Doctor Strange movie? You know that weird trip Strange takes when he first meets the Ancient One, falling through a multiplicity of dimensions before landing back in our world? That’s Kirby, through and through.

You even see it in some of the dramatic poses in other Marvel movies, like the big group shot near the end of The Avengers, right before they take down the Chitauri, and some of the slow-mo shots in both Civil War and Winter Soldier.

I've used this picture before, but it's worth reusing. This what
football looks like in Jack Kirby's head.
Kirby had an ability to make it look like a static page was moving, using simple line-art, perspective and anatomy to give great, pantomime indications of what was happening in the panel, and while I didn’t actually collect much Kirby at the time (he was over at DC Comics), Marvel’s artist bullpen was very much The House That Kirby Built, and it made for a wonderful catalogue of body language. I mean, yes, the motions were over-exaggerated and it wasn’t perfect, but it was something, and more importantly, it was honest.

Worth mentioning here that these issues haven’t gone away at all, I’m just 40 and I’ve spent a lot more time watching how people behave. I’m still genuinely terrible at it, though, compared to most, so if you think that I’m missing what you think is an obvious social cue, do me a favour and let me know, politely if you can.

If your face doesn't look like
hers when you're reading
comics, find better comics.
Anyhow, the summer before I turned nine, I got a new weapon in my socialization arsenal: I discovered that there were entire stores dedicated to selling comics. The first time I walked into 1 000 000 Comics at 2400 Guelph Line, I think my heart actually skipped a beat. Of course, I made a beeline for the latest issue of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, but after that? After that? I just kind of stood there, overwhelmed by the sheer number of titles on offer.

One of the titles I’d been buying, when I could find it, was Marvel Saga, which is another odd purchase for a young boy, as it’s basically a rundown of older Silver Age stories, entire issues condensed down to a handful of pages with a few panels of action, but it was handy for getting an idea of the kinds of stories you could expect from the different heroes.

I picked up a Captain America comic, a World’s Finest comic and an X-Men. They were, somewhat disappointingly, basically the same thing as the comics that I’d been pulling off of grocery store shelves, but in the next couple of months I was able to figure out what my tastes were, and they ran heavily toward the X-titles.

A lot of ink has been spent in long arguments about whether the mutants of the X-titles are supposed to represent teen angst, anti-gay sentiment or anti-semitism, but all I can say is that when someone was repulsed by Beast for his appearance, or Phoenix felt separated from humanity because of her abilities, I felt like I knew exactly what they were talking about.

And so it is that comics transitioned from being something that transported me to strange worlds, to being something I used to understand the real world, to being something that connected my imagination to my social life to my reality. And it was in this time that I found the comic that brought all of that together for me: New Mutants Annual # 2, which I’ll talk about next week. Hopefully.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

My Favourite Book, Part Two

Last time I talked about the first time I ever bought comics. I ended up with about one hundred and twenty of them and used them to figure out how comic books are constructed.

For the next few years, I added to my collection only in fits and starts. I wasn't much for whining, and my parents weren't much for giving into it, but I did persuade them, on occasion, to let me pick up a comic book from a supermarket spinner rack or the magazine shelf of a book store. These comics were selected opportunistically, picked out based on the colours on the cover and whether the movement caught my eye.

I mean, really.
So very cool. (I still
like the black costume
This being the 1980s, I ended up with a lot of Thor and Spiderman, which suited me just fine. Thor had plenty of action, Norse mythology and plots that arced long but that I could pick up easily if I missed a few issues, and Spiderman had terrible quips, interesting villains and an engaging secondary cast. It also felt strangely real in a way I honestly sometime found off-putting.

Peter Parker was a loser, yes, but he felt like someone I knew, or could know, and it made me uneasy about my life and the lives of my fellow nerds. Most of us were just barely holding onto our dignity and social standing. If one of us was bitten by, I don't know, a radioactive seagull and drawn into a complex web of costumed mobsters while trying to maintain a secret identity, it'd be overwhelming.

Before you say it out loud, yes, I recognize that I worried about some weird things as a kid.

Anyhow, my comic book collecting was sporadic at best and as time went on, my collection began to fall apart, literally and figuratively.

I learned quickly that it was unwise to take a comic book to school. The front cover would wear off just getting carried around in a backpack, and could fall apart completely before you got home, assuming that a well-meaning teacher didn't take it from you beforehand. They could go to birthday parties and like, but other kid's mothers might not be keen on their kid's friends bring them over.
They really did kill a
character, too. Stayed dead
for, like a decade, too.

Even just keeping in my room wasn't enough because some of my more pious friends took it upon themselves to save me from the danger of comic books. That's how my latest find - a long white cardboard box made for holding comics - ended up in the closet. Which, in the interests of full confession, is the real reason I cleaned out my closet in the summer before 3rd grade. You're welcome, mom.

I didn't stop collecting, though, and slowly I built up a decent-sized collection. It was mostly Marvel, although I had a soft spot for 80s Batman, the Dark Knight Detective. I also picked up Legion of Superheroes whenever I could. It had the cheesiest plots and dumbest hero names, but there was something compelling about it. Tales of the Legion of Superheroes #329 probably ranks in the top 10 of my favourite comics of all time.

Absolutely no regrets - could
probably do another blog entry on
this game's impact on my DMing. Hrm.
Still, though, it was rare to get two comics in sequence, and I didn't have much money, having saved up and spent most of it on a Nintendo and a bunch of games. At the time, it seemed basically impossible to find a steady source of comics. It's not like there were stores that specialized in selling them.

My next big moment was buying a comic book with my own money. My choice was odd: The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Volume 2, issue 3.

I wish I could say that I bought it because the content was intellectually stimulating, but the truth is that it was a honkin' 64 pages long, and the front cover showed a mostly naked woman with clouds covering her naughty bits.
I am a shallow person.

Of course, the titillation factor was short-lived because, as other readers of this title know, this is basically a reference book for the Marvel Universe. I mean, it's right in the title, so it shouldn't have surprised me but, here it was: 64 pages of dry narratives of a superhero's life, accompanied by diagrams of their equipment and how they work. No, really. Have you ever wanted to know how Daredevil's grappling hook baton works? Well, even if you didn't, you'd know if you, too, had OHOTMUDE vol. 3. (That's what the cool kids call it.)

There was something else about the Official Handbooks, though. They presented the information in an almost journalistic style. The tragic circumstances that lead up to Daredevil taking up his cowl were just . . . delivered, almost without context, which enabled me to contextualize the events in a different way, and see them in a more subjective way

That's really the only problem I have with comics as a medium. With the exception of a few especially daring creators, the events that happen in a comic book are pretty objective, but presented in still frames that don't always give all of the information necessary to get the objective truth, and that can be problematic when you're someone like me, someone who has trouble understanding context.

Plus, statistics! Who doesn't want to know that Doctor Druid has the physical strength of an individual who engages in limited regular exercise, and the exact number of pounds of TNT that are equivalent to a blast from Cyclops' eye-beams? This nerd, right here.

I collection the Handbooks to this day, as anyone who followed my blog during my, "making Marvel RPG characters," phase can attest.

In addition to my buying it with my own money, the Handbook represented still another chapter in my comic book collecting, though: I bought it in a comic book store.