It’s To The Tune Of “She’s So High”, Okay?

the-fly-1986-screenshot-4

He’s blood, flesh and bone
Transported chromosomes
New touch, smell, sight, taste and sound

But somehow he can’t believe
That this has really happened
The experiment went wrong
And something weird has happened
Yeah, yeah

‘Cause he’s the Fly…
It’s revolting, skin is moulting
He’s the Fly…
Not Seth Brundle but a bundle of man and insect
He’s the Fly…
It’s revolting

Stuck to the roof above
At first his lady love
Thinks he’s the best of everything

But what could a fly like he
Ever really offer?
He mutates more frequently
And it becomes a bother

‘Cause he’s the Fly…
It’s revolting, skin is moulting
He’s the Fly…
Not Seth Brundle but a bundle of man and insect
He’s the Fly…
It’s revolting

He opens the machine
Plans to merge with his queen
Make a genetic family

But somehow she can’t believe
That this is gonna happen
Also she’s pregnant as well,
And she can’t let this happen
Yeah, yeah

‘Cause he’s the Fly…
It’s revolting, skin is moulting
He’s the Fly…
Not Seth Brundle but a bundle of man and insect
He’s the Fly…
It’s revolting

Fake Openers For Fake Thinkpieces

‘”I-want-to-fit-in,” enunciates Patrick Bateman, brought to a kind of synthetic half-life to a pre-Batman Christian Bale in 2000’s American Psycho. The evenness of the statement is made clear as sublimated fury, not only desperation to fill some gaping chasm in the heart of the secret self, but also rage at the very act of being questioned in his carefully modulated banality. Bateman was in murders and acquisitions mergers and acquisitions, chosen by Bret Easton Ellis to represent a particular kind of 1980s successful homogeneity, but in the modern era, he might well have functioned excellently as an executive for the Disney Channel with his obsession with middle-of-the-road pop music, and his burning, all-consuming desire to conceal the monster within…’

‘The Laysan duck is what’s known as a ‘dabbler’, a form of surface feeder. Endangered, and restricted to the Hawaiian Islands, it’s somewhat ironic that it was first codified by Lionel Rothschild, scion of the great Rothschild banking house of Europe. A consummate zoologist, Rothschild was also the banker that the spectre of his name conjures up, and a member of the British Parliament. He was, in fact, a dabbler, but like the Laysan duck, dabblers in the world of big business have become endangered, even as the wealthiest 1% grow to control more wealth and assets. The key to that control, it turns out, is accretion and segmentation rather than diversity…’

‘Snap! Crackle! Pop! The onomatopoeic elves that guard breakfast cereals represent a simple elegance that has continually resisted attempts to modernise (or as the Simpsons would have it, Poochify) them. But does the iconography of the breakfast table hide a deeper cultural conservatism? “Breakfast is seen as family time,” says Gregory Baines of the National Nutrition Council. “We live in an age where people increasing divide for lunch and purchase cooked dinner, but breakfast is still mostly prepared at home, and shared by at least most of the family. Preserving the icons of earlier, ‘family-oriented’ campaigns taps into this nostalgia.” It seems straight forward enough, but one of those breakfast icons is under threat, with calls for the Lucky Charms leprechaun to be abolished as promoting pagan practices recently renewed…’

NB: These are not real hot takes, and I vouch for neither the facts nor opinions therein.

Superman (vs Batman?)

I’ve been thinking a bit about Superman this weekend. I’ve been reading the tie-in miniseries to DC’s big summer event “Convergence” (I haven’t touched Convergence itself, which everything seems to be screaming was a wise instinct). On Saturday, I got the back half of a set of two-part miniseries’ I was particularly interested in. Goodbyes to Renee Montoya (in a poignant piece bringing what is, effectively, several characters’ two-decade story to an end), Wally West and his kids, and Barbara Gordon as Oracle, complete with her two strongest relationships intact: Black Canary and Dick Grayson. All these comics meant a lot – not the least for the way in which the creative teams managed to craft some great stories around the limitations of a crossover – but also for the fact that, for these characters, who have been gone for a while, they served as a proper goodbye, rather than the truncated semi-appearances that they had in the immediate pre-Flashpoint era.

I also read Dan Jurgens and Norm Rampund’s Convergence: Superman. As much as this was a goodbye (and indeed, it promises a new status quo for those characters were we ever to see them again which might well change the nature of things), it also felt like saying hello again, because this was Superman, in a way I hadn’t seen him for a while. Whatever your opinion of the merits of the story (which I liked a lot), its greatest strength was the deployment of Superman in a way that was authentic to his character and served by it. Though there have been some offshoots and some derivatives we’ve seen lately – some of whom call themselves Superman, right enough – it felt like seeing an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.

It was only natural to contrast this with the dominant Superman images of late – the post-Convergence Superman of the bloody knuckles and the buzzcut, the rainswept wrathful god of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (vs, damn it, it’s not a court case) and wondering how it keeps coming to that.

I’m not – exactly – going to post a full exegesis of Superman’s character, because fundamentally everyone reading this is likely to know what it is, or at least what I’m suggesting it is, in its core aspects. Honesty, decency, integrity, selflessness, bravery and compassion. Superman. You know what he’s supposed to represent.

Why do people keep trying to change him? That isn’t an empty rhetorical question, nor an implied attack. I’m not even saying people are wrong to – I’m just thinking about why they do. And I think, fundamentally, I’ve arrived at an answer today.

The common objections to Superman tend to amount to the idea that he’s boring, usually expressed by the idea that nothing ever challenges him, that everything is too easy to be interesting. I’ve always found that to be a pretty fallacious argument, because superhero stories generally manage questions of scale effectively. You can say that you find the threats faced by Superman unbelievable, but not that he’s not threatened – he’s routinely put up against his betters in power, or his ostensible equals in ingenuity. He often wins, but that’s because he’s the hero of the story, and they usually do, at least in superhero stories. There’s no qualitative difference in six guys with sticks fighting Daredevil and six guys with space lasers fighting Superman in terms of the threat; the actual threat level is zero, it’s an invented scenario, and the characters are in the same amount of danger at all times – whatever the author wants to happen to them will happen. No-one ever says The Hulk isn’t threatened, or at least, not in the way they talk about Superman.

If your argument is that he’s too “cosmic”, that space aliens and herculean feats feel too “big” for you, that’s a different story, and I hear that argument bandied about a bit too. I’d be much more inclined to believe it if I heard it more often about any of the other fundamentally implausible superhero characters. But while there are always personal preferences, the numbers don’t stack up – readers (in so far as the word ‘droves’ can apply to comic books nowadays) flock to equally implausible premises, the Flash has proven successful on TV and for all the complaints leveled at the Thor films, the fantastic setting is rarely among them.

So, what are we left with? That he’s a milquetoast, a goody-goody. For all the jokes about it, however, no-one seems to count that as a principle mark against Captain America, or Captain Marvel, or any other character you might choose to seek to raise to moral stakes. These are stories about heroes for the most part after all, and heroes tend to be – on average – good folks.

These are all questions, and I said I was thinking about answers, I know. So, what do I think it is?

I think it comes down to the assumed nature of the audience, and the assumed nature of their wish-fulfillment fantasy.

It’s no secret that WB/DC is actively courting, as its primary demographic, males between 15 and 35. Studies suggest that the lower end of that age range may not be their core demographic at all – at the very least- but it’s the demographic where they’re targeting their marketing and their aimed appeal. So, why don’t they want Superman?

It’s part of the reason that DC places such a primacy on Batman (to be fair, to usually significant success) because the nature of the fantasy in that demographic has changed from what DC comics were originally designed for. In his initial incarnation, Superman was aimed at kids, usually just preadolescent, and was a power fantasy. The essence was pure wish fulfillment: what if I secretly had the power to reshape the world as I saw fit?

Superman’s moral sense made that acceptable, rather than monstrous – the audience knew Superman was genuinely looking to help others and would generally succeed. Rendered palatable, it becomes a scenario of power capable of surmounting challenges, a fantasy not restricted to, but common to children.

Batman, on the other hand, has become a fantasy not just of power, but of defiance. Criminals run Gotham City, but Batman defies them. The media say that he’s a menace, but he defies them. The police hunt him as a vigilante, but he defies them. Wronged grievously, now he’s going to set everybody straight about what’s what, even if they hate and fear him. It’s why arguably the longest shadows cast over Batman come from The Dark Knight Returns, because that book is fundamentally a fuck you to everyone: street gangs and the urban poor who comprise them, disaffected yuppies, the government, the military, the establishment, Superman, lovers and friends. All of them are responsible for part of the world Batman lives in, all of them are trying to restrain him, all must be defied. Batman’s not just about fixing the world, he’s about beating people to do it – and I don’t just mean violently. Batman punches up against authority figures, and down against criminals – he is, quintessentially, a man going it alone. In The Dark Knight Returns, Robin and the Sons of the Bat both volunteer, but ultimately there’s no sense of peerage there – they try and fail to fully comprehend and live in Batman’s shadow, carried on in his wake – and that is the best anyone can do, in that narrative.  This is reinforced in tonnes of ways in other Bat-narratives in varying degrees of subtlety: it’s why Batman falls on goons and they’re just out cold, or why he disappears when his friends are halfway through talking to him. It’s why Alfred and Robin are around, most often nowadays, to be pushed away in the service of “the mission”, so Batman can have people he cares about, but who just “don’t understand”.

It’s not just about power, it’s about feelings of persecution and alienation. “Screw all of you. I can handle this without you.” Spider-Man feels a continual tension with how much the community dislikes him, but Batman to a degree relishes it – it’s his chosen modus operandi. He doesn’t play well with others, and more and more the narratives that surround him suggest that he’s right not to, because they’re holding him back.

It’s not the only construction of Batman’s character by a long chalk, but it’s a common one. It’s so common, I think, because it speaks to elements of the demographic DC are attempting to chase, and it’s the element that translates well into that version of adolescent angst and persecution complex. Batman as a two-fisted Holden Caulfield.

It’s a notable aside, by the way, that this is particularly true of Batman, who exists in a bubble of rarified privilege – a straight, white, physically perfect, genius billionaire tough-guy. This is the guy who modern society most wants to embrace as a part of the community, the dominant paradigm of “people like us”. Bruce Wayne is effectively as far from an “outsider” as one can really be – which is probably why his “alienation” narratives are so easily appropriated by privileged people who still want to feel like their anger and difficulty with isolation is justified; an audience crying out that despite all these advantages they have it worse off than anyone knows.

This is the narrative of “the badass antihero”, a dominant cultural icon I’m sure I don’t need to analyse or explain. Badassery tends to be a function of being capable of “playing by your own rules”, walking away from the conventions that restrain you from being all you can be. That’s the fantasy – that you could take all comers, and march your own route without people being able to stop you.

Although I’ve spoken about this as an adolescent fantasy (particularly a male adolescent fantasy, and particularly still a privileged male adolescent fantasy), it’s not the only walk of life it translates to. Particularly following the path of DC’s assumed secondary demographic – men between 30 and 50, say, they’re also a demographic who are attracted to the narratives of how they’re being unfairly oppressed by strictures, and how “badasses” break out of them. Call it the Breaking Bad effect, men restricted and feeling isolated by economic pressures, unfeeling bosses, an uncertain world, and the sense that they don’t have the opportunities that their parents had.

None of this is to say, by the way, that these are bad metaphors, or wrong topics to analyse – I love Batman (though I prefer him less like this, which he often is) and Breaking Bad was great. I do, however, think that because of the culture of privilege with which the idea of this coveted outsider status often interrelates, and because of the reprehensible behaviours it can be used to justify (particularly towards the genuinely disenfranchised), it needs to be analysed, and not uncritically presented as a heroic narrative.

It also doesn’t work at all when transposed to Superman. Superman, unlike Batman, is not motivated by a sense of alienation. It’s antithetical to almost everything about the character – because unlike Batman he has every reason to be alienated and manages to overcome it. A literal alien, he nevertheless ends up with two sets of parents, a best friend, a devoted girlfriend/spouse, a set of allies and friends who respect and love him and a community that embraces him. Superman has the power to do anything, and nobody to defy. There are tyrants and villains for him to fight, absolutely, and in some stories they seem to be winning, but fundamentally, his core narrative is about how people will embrace you, if you give them the chance, and if you care about them back.

Batman’s afraid. This isn’t particularly deep analysis, it comes up all the time. He’s afraid, and he uses his fear to drive him to make a world he finds less scary. The shadowy forces of nameless crime, twisted monster criminals determined to commit atrocities, allies more powerful than you who you can’t really trust: the Other, who might be plotting against you. Superman, on the other hand, has no reason to be afraid. To borrow from Grant Morrison’s commentary about All-Star Superman:

“He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”

Superman doesn’t need to be afraid, to put up walls, to go it alone. Superman isn’t being pushed aside by necessity, it’s his whole goal to draw people close to him – and the narrative reinforces that this is a rewarding experience. That’s part of what makes him do things like ask people to stop fighting him all the time – because he’s had an opportunity to consider that care and co-operation is what gives you the best outcome. He’s not afraid of weakness, so he can afford to care about and trust people. He can be open without being vulnerable, because he’s invulnerable.

And openness is antithetical to the anti-hero narrative, because the anti-hero narrative presupposes that people are out to get you. It plays into your sense of being wronged, so you can feel justified about it. Perhaps the best thing about Superman is he’s genuinely above that impulse, which is pretty unworthy, when you think about it.

Unless you change him. You make a world that hates and fears Superman, that scrawls “false god”  on his statues, that hunts him down with secret government projects. You isolate him by making him an “unwilling killer”. You make him scowl, and you put blood beneath him, suggesting that he’s keeping people out, in anticipation of the next violent confrontation. Suddenly, it’s about “badassery” again – Superman may be hated and feared, but he’s going to do things his own way, damn the detractors, who just don’t understand him.

He’s gone across to the demographic I was talking about before, because he doesn’t challenge their sense of isolation, he reinforces it. He’s trying to make them buy Superman comics, and (from a financial perspective, more importantly) see Superman movies, because he’s telling a subcategory of alienated young men that they’re right to feel alienated, that the best heroes are persecuted.

The tragedy, of course, is that this is a pretty terrible idea. For three reasons:

1) Because it’s going to reinforce a “heroic” narrative that rejects co-operation and understanding in favour of apex predator competitiveness and resentment.

2) Because – and this is important – it’s going to create a message that the most privileged group (Superman’s a white straight American male, remember) is the one who is the most persecuted. Note that, in so far as we see superheroes of colour on the big screen (noted exception of Blade but that’s nearly 20 years ago now in his first incarnation) they’re fundamentally well-integrated co-operative types – Anthony Mackie’s easy-going, community spirited VA counselor Falcon, and Terence Howard/Don Cheadle’s decorated and establishment War Machine – they’re not complaining about how they’ve got the short end of the stick. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is allowed a degree of angst and inner turmoil (to the credit of the character) but note how it is all couched in a narrative of atonement – when Black Widow went it alone, she was a “monster”, and she’s trying to make up for that by becoming part of a community; the same goes for Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, in ways I won’t detail because Age of Ultron is just out. The exception to this is Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent Mystique, who in the for some reason glossed-over Days of Future Past is allowed to walk her own path as an actualised person despite the “handicap” of being a woman (though the X-Men are always a special case).

3) Because it’s been pretty much proven to be wholly ineffectual. Man of Steel made money, and in many ways wasn’t a bad movie (there’s a lot of good in there, which I’m willing to discuss another time), but it didn’t do Marvel business really, nor draw anywhere near as much affection from the broader audience or critics (though there are vocal defenders, who, interestingly enough from a wholly unscientific observer analysis seem to group in the demographic who enjoy “badass antiheroes). The aggregating complaint over time? Not necessarily that it was “too dark” (although that’s common) but that it’s joyless. This feeling of joylessness doesn’t come from the disaster or the stakes (no-one says that about the full scale alien invasion in The Avengers or the fact that the American government is planning to kill everybody in Winter Soldier), or even the civilian casualties (which are played sadly more as a non-entity than a plot point) but because the narrative is an isolating one. The Marvel movies have successfully perfected, at the least, one formula – ostensibly isolated characters coming together, co-operating and letting other people in. The wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy ended with our ragtag hero team literally joining hands and winning with the power of love. There are tensions in letting other people in, but the Marvel movie universe also posits distinct rewards, and the audiences respond. While it doesn’t always hit the mark, the MCU at least, I would say, generally tries to be an inclusive one, rather than an exclusive one. It’s exclusionary elements seem to be bugs, not features. This might be why the Marvel movies seem to be more popular with a more diverse movie-going audience.

It’s no coincidence that DC chose Zack Snyder as their centrepiece director, and the blame can’t be laid at his feet, because this is the man who made a version of Watchmen that pretty clearly posited Rorschach as the hero of the piece and Warners knew what they were getting when they hired him. The manner in which the direction of DC has refocused implies a degree of line-wide refocusing on “badass rebels”: look at the concept art of the DC Cinematic Wonder Woman, scowl and sword aloft in grimy armor, ready to fight all comers. No open-handed diplomat there. (Big aside: They’ve done this for Aquaman too, but he’s actually a perfect character to do it with, so I have less qualms about it – Aquaman’s narrative is that of an outsider, and he has the 21st century Western World pretty much constantly fucking up his protectorate, mixed with the responsibility of being a sole and absolute ruler – he is alienated and has reasons to be angry, plus by virtue of standing for the environment and by casting a person of colour, they change the goalpost of what being a rebellious outsider means. I actually dig this construction a fair bit – pending script).

They’re trying to get lightning to strike twice (or more, remember how many Batbooks we ended up after the launch of the New 52?), but the problem is they kill the distinctiveness and interest of their universe by doing so, and more, that this is unlikely to be out of a great artistic fidelity to the cynical, but out of a cynical cash-grab itself. It’s using cynicism for cynical ends, and it’s scaring the fearful, Othering the Othered, and alienating the alienated to do so. That’s pretty much the antithesis of everything Superman stands for.

The Alcoholic’s Alphabet

A is for Advocaat, thick and disgusting. 
B is for Brandy, to be enjoyed whilst degusting.
C is for Crème De Menthe, delicious and minty. 
D is for Drambuie, warming the flinty.
E is for Eblana, Irish Whisky plus junk. 
F is Frangelico, first distilled by a monk
G is for Grenadine, viscous and red. 
H is for Honey Mead, which goes straight to your head.
I is for Irish Cream, oft served with milk. 
J is for Juniper, key to gin drinks and their ilk.
K is for Kahlua, with its rich coffee flavour. 
L is for Lillehammer, which I advise you to savour.
M is for Mastika, which you don’t often see. 
N is for (wait for it!) Noyau de Poissy.
O is for Ouzo (which I’ve never liked). 
P is for Punch, which is so often spiked.
Q is for Queen Mother, the Patron of Gin. 
R is for Royals, with whom trouble I’m in.
S is for Sambucca, served whilst on fire. 
T is for Tequila, the bane of the liar.
U is for Umbrellas, a cocktail accessory. 
V is for Vodka, for which chilling is necessary.
W is for Whisky, drink too much and you’ll lurch.  
X is for Xtabentún, which I had to research.
Y is for Yellow Submarine, named after the tune. 
Z is for Zima, discontinued to soon.
These are the letters, recorded in drinking. 
I’m disturbed at how many I knew without thinking. 

The Adventurer’s Alphabet

A is for Arrow, pointy and sharp. 
B is for Bolos, stringed like a harp.
C is for Collapsible Pole, 10ft in length. 
D is for Dwarven Helm, increasing your strength.
E is for Elementals, sent from the Planes. 
F is for Foraging, and surviving on grains.
G is for Gauntlet, both a challenge and glove. 
H is for Halflings, and the homes that they love.
I is for Illithid, the flayer of minds. 
J is for Jermlaine, ugliest of fey kinds.
K is for Killing, let’s face it, your role. 
L is for Liches, who conceal their soul.
M is for Mimics, disguised as stuff. 
N is for Naga, one or two is enough.
O is for Owlbear, the magical beast. 
P is for Purple Worm, seeking flesh for a feast.
Q is for Queendom, a common land label. 
R is for Rapier, for the quick and the able.
S is for Spellbook, precious to a wizard. 
T is for Tyrannosaur, the terrible lizard!
U is for Umber Hulk, with mandibular jaws. 
V is for Vampires, par for the course.
W is for Wizard, quick to anger and subtle. 
X is for Xorn, who eats detritus and rubble.
Y is for Yuan-Ti, the deadly snake-men. 
Z is for Zombies, who now live again.
These are the letters, often written as runes. 
NOW LEARN THEM, ADVENTURERS OR GO TO YOUR TOMBS. 

A Hypothetical Excerpt From Quentin Tarantino’s Abandoned Silver Surfer Screenplay

For casting, I imagine Samuel L. Jackson as the Silver Surfer, and Steve Buscemi as Reed. 

INT. BAXTER BUILDING – CONTINUOUS

NORRIN:

So, I’m out there with Galactus, and he’s hungry – AGAIN – and I’m not talking some In & Out, stoner munchie shit, I mean HUN-motherfucking-GRY, alright? Planet hungry.

Norrin gestures with his hands indicating an object about the size of a basketball. Reed is reading a thick textbook, doesn’t look up.

NORRIN (CONT’D):

Did you ever see “Babette’s Feast”? Where that Swiss general–

REED:

(still not looking up)

Swedish.

Norrin still has his hands up, but Reed has broken his train of thought. He turns and walks towards Reed, who still doesn’t look up from his book.

NORRIN:

What?

REED:

The General in “Babette’s Feast” is Swedish, not Swiss.

NORRIN:

(Irritated)

Swedish, Swiss, Swahili, it doesn’t fucking matter. It’s not important to the story. The point is, Babette makes these little quails in puff pastry, with their little heads sticking out, and the General, he comes along and bites into the HEAD of a quail and sucks the whole thing inside out. That’s how fucking hungry Galactus is.

REED:

It’s important.

NORRIN:

No SHIT, it’s important! The motherfucker eats planets.

Reed slams the book closed, puts it on his lap, looks up at Norrin Radd, the Silver Surfer, standing over him.

REED:

No, it’s important that the General is Swedish, okay? “Babette’s Feast” was made in fucking DENMARK. It brought Danish film to the attention of the wider Western world. Danish-Swedish relations have a complex history. All the Scandinavian countries do, and “Babette’s Feast” fucking comments on that. So if you say he’s Swiss and not Swedish you’re just fucking trivialising the culture that it’s commenting on.

NORRIN:

How is this relevant to MOTHERFUCKING GALACTUS?!

REED:

Galactus eats planets, right? He consumes an entire world’s culture, leaves it with nothing left. That’s the fucking tragedy, not the missing rocks. It’s the culture of a place that matters, and if you want to come here and tell us ‘Oh, shit, Galactus’ you have to acknowledge it.

There’s a tense beat as they watch each other. Norrin takes a deep breath.

REED (Cont’d)

Otherwise, you just consume culture and leave behind nothing but shit, Norrin. You’re just like Galactus then.

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.

For those of you who never knew or who might not remember, HeroQuest was a board game, of a sorts, released in 1989, at a notable time in home gaming entertainment. Sandwiched between the Dungeons and Dragons and sword-and-sorcery b-pictures of the mid-80s, and the rise of the PC in the mid-90s, it was a strange crossover/partnership between American board game makers Milton Bradley and British tabletop miniature makers Games Workshop, now most famous as the manufacturers of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 (the spiritual ancestors of Warcraft, and thus World of Warcraft, the multibillion dollar juggernaut).

It is not a terribly complex or even well-balanced game, compared to the finely tuned fantasy board games now on the market, but long before I ever knew the precise combination of the words “Dungeons and Dragons”; back when a “roleplaying game” meant nothing but I still had a good conception and not too much dignity for playing ‘let’s pretend’: in short, when I was five or six years old, Hero Quest was a kind of gateway drug. It is to roleplaying games what billy carts are to Formula One racing, but for a (precocious) five year old being asked to play with the older kids next door, it was (if that five year old was me), a seed planted that would be hugely influential later in life.

In Hero Quest, one takes the role of a Dwarf, Elf, Barbarian or Wizard and completes a series of modular dungeons, designed by placing doors, furniture and blockages on a predefined map grid. One person takes the role of the “Evil Wizard” Morcar (aka Zargon, for our less well-named American cousins) and manages the monsters and the traps. The others try and survive, moving their way to end points on the map. Monsters appear when the players enter rooms or trigger events, and the Evil Wizard moves them around. Basic statistics never change (as such), but there are both equipment to purchase and quest based special items that change the number of dice you roll to move and to fight. It’s that simple.

It’s also one of the most ’80s things imaginable, with its ravening Barbarian and its glam rock Wizard:

Heroquest_GameSet-board-game-complete-contents

pic338410

As a child, I played it as a child might, relatively simply chopping and slicing with my Barbarian while my next door neighbour ran us through an adventure or two. Somehow, that set passed to me, and as I grew older, I lost bits and pieces. I cannibalised miniatures for dioramas and D&D and more complex Warhammer and the set became an incomplete shadow of its former glory – too lost to play, too precious to be thrown away.

At my first year of university, that changed when I went to grab a DVD at a friend’s house and found that he owned the only other copy of the game I’d ever seen: a likewise broken-down childhood copy, incapable of being played due to missing cards and missing pieces…until we realised that between us we had a complete set. We were both RPG players, and once we knew we had a complete set, we had to play it. We talked about it with a couple of other friends, and it became apparent that they had fond, if fuzzy, memories of this old game too.

So began Hero Quest: The Revival. My friend took the role of Atha the Barbarian, our other friends became Rando the Wizard (yes, a reference to the Amazing Rando, Wizard of Speed and Time), and Uk, the doughty Dwarf. They were joined by a rotating cast of Elves, played by casual gaming friends and corralled room-mates, based on who could make the time to play. I was, perhaps appropriately, the “Evil Wizard”.

The informal nature of the thing led us to relax our rules about drinking at the gaming table, the 80s cheesiness brought out a sense of both nostalgia and self-parody, a kind of whimsy that most of our games didn’t share. There was nothing serious about Hero Quest, no real narrative arc to pick up and go – and for that reason we played it sporadically, reserved for the occasions when we never had more than the right number and the right people, taking a back seat to bigger group activities (particularly as we progressively coupled up and uncoupled and married off and got 9-to-5 jobs and focused on other games and movie nights and everything in between that makes up life). We gained a semi-permanent Elf in the past 18 months.  Life got in the way, and it would take a couple of hours to do two-to-three scenarios, so we made progress very slowly.

We had the first two major expansions, and we found a website with the rules for the rest. For the last eight years, chipping away by degrees, we pushed through the game. As these things do, it grew an increasingly complex (and ridiculous) mythology: Elves kept dying, so they became a single family bent on avenging each other: being near-immortal Elves they were going back in the generations not forward – fathers and mothers avenging daughters and sons. Atha the Barbarian (the character with the lowest Mind score) was given the Talisman of Lore, making him a genius of slightly above average intelligence. The Wizard’s propensity to hit monsters with his staff instead of casting spells gave him a garrulous brawler’s personality. My inability to drunkenly read a card saying “You find a box lined with velvet” gave rise to the Dwarven material of Belvet, the most expensive substance in the world, cloth spun from gold-flecked moss found in the deepest of gold mines (and a further slip-up gave rise to the Belvet Fox, a literal enchanted talking fox responsible for carrying the party’s equipment, to whom I gave a voice like Ronald Coleman). Uk’s player began a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying game (now long since dead) during the overall tenure of the Hero Quest run, and as Hero Quest shares DNA with Warhammer’s Old World, our Hero Quest characters became the epic legends of that later game: Princess Uk was the storied ancestor of the Dwarven noble PCs, a huge statue of Rando stood at the University of Altdorf, the Elven departure was caused by the dozens of lives lost in the early days (Elves were very perishable for some statistically unlikely reason, but also capable of Punisher-esque feats of vaguely Edda-like brutality). Since it made no mechanical difference, we determined that Atha’s Talisman of Lore allowed him to live forever (though at a price), and later legend tells that he slew the Chaos Gods at the very end of time. There were no Firmirs (a Cyclopean monster unique to the Hero Quest game) by the time it became Warhammer’s setting, so we declared that the party killed them all between them.

It was a silly place, but it had its epics too: more than most games it let the dice and the coincidences do the loose storycrafting, leading to some amazing pitched battles, like when Rando, bereft of spells, punched his way out of an army of chaos warriors, or when Uk Thunderfist leapfrogged the Barbarian to slay the mighty Witch Lord with a single swipe of the Spirit Blade (I was pissed). Eight years is a long time, not quite but almost the length of our friendship, and a chance to sit down and play it was always something to look forward to. As time went on it became less about finishing it (though we made a kind of steady progress) and more about the ritual of the game: unlike other RPGs where there was a story to tell for as long as people wanted to tell it, this had a definite end-point, even if that felt a fair distance away even while it grew closer.

This is not the story of how we reached the end-point, at least, not in that sense.

At 2:30am tonight/today – Easter Sunday – I killed them all.

Evil Wizard triumphant. Atha’s unwillingness to throw a 150gp spear (they had some 5,500gp in hand, if you’re curious), allowed a single goblin to get away and set off a chain reaction, summoning the terrifying Ogre Champions of this high-level expansion, Against the Ogre Horde. This expansion assumed the final defeat of the Witch Lord, the canonical enemy leader of the early game (which, indeed, these players had managed) and scaled accordingly, but I took the mundane plot of Ogres rampaging for food and rewrote them into what I thought was a sufficiently epic threat – a new super-mutation of Orcs, rising in strength and cunning as they consumed, and consumed the power, of their fellows, free from the Witch Lord’s strictures that prevented them from doing so.

In the Carrion Halls, where the Ogres feasted on the flesh of their brethren, our Heroes fought for their lives against impossible odds…

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…and lost.CBwtwTwUMAIPPMM

They were so close, though. Outmatched, outnumbered, they killed every ogre on the board. We had always had a rule that one Hero making it out allowed the others to be revived, and the Barbarian had only to cut down one Orc and two more Goblins for a straight run at the exit with his fallen companions. A well timed Sleep spell by the Wizard had created a bottleneck I didn’t, couldn’t expect, blocking up a narrow corridor with one of my own best monsters. The Elf passed through solid walls before being overwhelmed in a corridor. Uk Thunderfist killed Ogre after Ogre thanks to an enchantment of Courage which worked like berserker rage. They almost made it.

But they didn’t. I did what I had set out to do: I “won”. Unlike an RPG proper, Hero Quest doesn’t engender necessarily the same feelings as running a roleplaying game: there is enough of a board game aspect to make it clear how to win and lose.

But after eight years – after the Heroes always fighting and holding on and beating the odds – I had learned not to expect a win, even when I did my damnedest to make each battle count. When the last Hero fell, and Atha’s player walked into the darkness of that outer void known as the living room to sip their last drink, someone muttered “I didn’t expect it to end like this”.

I didn’t expect it to end. It was the background hum of our friendship, a way of marking the time.

I’m seeing the players tomorrow – we all speak basically every day. The game isn’t our friendship, by any means, but it was an artifact of it: an echo of shared childhoods, a memory of both epic adventure and goofy jokes.

Rando’s player said to me, as we packed it up: “Now it goes into storage. And some day, when you have kids, and they’re old enough [if they’re precocious enough, maybe 5 or 6], you’ll take it out and play it with them.” And I will.

It’s 4:00am on Easter Sunday, and I’m up writing this tribute. They were silly things made of plastic and card and 80s excess and whimsy.

They were the stuff dreams were made of.