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.

The Eggs At The Buffet

If you’ve been paying attention to comics culture lately, you will have noticed two furors breaking out over the last 72 hours.

For those who tune into this blog and notice that, aside from occasional jokes, etc, I usually use this blog to comment on furore of one kind or another (and yes, it has turned out that way), that’s a function of having a professional space to review and comment, and this, personal space which has become increasingly used for venting.

Sorry, but them’s, as they say, the breaks.

Anyway, the recent problems can be pretty easily summarised:

1) A known comics professional said he was tired of a “vocal minority” being appeased in the form of costume redesigns for female characters; and

2) A variant cover to Batgirl was released referencing her sexual assault at the hands of the Joker in The Killing Joke, was objected to, and was withdrawn by its artist and the company, amid cries that the artist and the company were “capitulating to [eugh] SJWs”.

I’m not going to comment on the merits of either position in detail, but to be clear on a few dot points:

  • The creators of the “example” costume redesigns listed have come out and said they were come up with by the professionals for their own reasons – in some cases, clearly, those reasons were to combat sexist costuming, but that’s not precisely the same as pressure; and
  • The variant cover in question did not reflect or comment upon the issue inside, was against the wishes of the core creative team who were pushing for a particular direction, and was, to say the least very problematic.

That being said, I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics: there have been better thought-pieces. I want to talk about the tone of the objections, which are the same objections that form the backbone of the GamerGate crisis facing gaming, and a proliferation of other sexist complaints. To boil it down in a nutshell, the myth is this:

“Minorities are taking X away from us!”

It’s not often phrased precisely that way, but it comes close enough ever time to be clear. The objection to giving people what they’re looking for (like, say, representation), is that, by the objector’s argument, that means a missed opportunity to give something more to the objector.

This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of any commercial enterprise as it exists in the modern world AND fundamentally misunderstands the culture of privilege surrounding white, heterosexual, cisgender males between 18 – 45, the most powerful and wealthiest demographic.

I’m going to dig into this using one of my favourite metaphors: food.

The Objector sees himself (and lets not lie, statistically, it’s VERY likely to be himself), as a paying customer at a buffet. It’s not all you can eat, he needs to pay for each item/trip, but he’s not under any time pressure and can be at the buffet as long as he wants.

Our guy refuses to eat eggs. He claims sometimes claims to be allergic, or to object to the practices of the egg industry, but this is cover for the fact that eggs aren’t to his taste. We know this, because he’s been known to eat cake containing a little bit of egg, even when he knows it’s there, because he likes the cake so much. He won’t eat eggs on their own though, because he doesn’t like them. They’re not “for” him.

People often talk about the benefits of eggs, how good they are for you, but because he doesn’t like them, he tries to find all kinds of reasons why eggs are pernicious (I know about the actual problems too much egg consumption might cause, this is a metaphor, folks [yolks? haha] {these asides are why things like this don’t make it to the other blog}), but ultimately it’s because he doesn’t like how eggs taste, make him feel, and he’d rather eat the other things that the buffet has to offer.

Every time the buffet adds a plate of eggs, the Objector objects. Because he’s looking at that part of the buffet at any given moment – all he sees is that there are more eggs, and that the eggs are “filling” a spot at the buffet where something he likes could go.

But here’s the trick: NOTHING has been subtracted. There has only been the addition of a plate to the buffet. The portion to which he has access hasn’t diminished at all. It’s only the percentage which caters to his tastes – and his alone – which has been altered.

This is often referred to as “the slice of the pie”, but I don’t want to mix my food metaphors (eggs and pie?! Is this a quiche?!), so let’s keep calling it a percentage. This is the key point where the category error creeps in, and it’s the thinking that underlines all these problems.

“Wait a minute!” cries the Objector, turning to camera and breaking the Fourth Wall. “If my percentage has decreased, then what I actually get has decreased, because surely there are only so many plates that can be served at the buffet!”

Well, here’s the thing, Objector. The beauty (and the monstrosity) of capitalism is that the producers of product want all the money. Products are sold to us at inflated prices for many reasons, but one of these reasons is so that in addition to a profit, there are funds available to source the ingredients for the meals at the buffet and the staff to prepare them. In other words, as long as the buffet is making money from a product, they will find a way to make more of the product. That’s called expansion, and although there are a bunch of market forces which pressure it one way or another, it remains a fundamental truth. If there is demand, and the product is profitable, the maker of that product will make more of it to service the demand. For our hypothetical buffet, they buy more tables so they can keep selling more of the food being bought. And bigger kitchens. Eventually a bigger building. Then a chain of buildings across the land. And so on, and so on.

A little simplistic, but until such time as how capitalism works fundamentally changes, or we consume everything, the company will keep pumping out the buffet in order to make more money. That’s what companies do.

So far, so good, right? Pretty easy to establish that the Objector can eat whatever he likes, and ignore eggs, and people can still get their eggs and he can have his fill.

There’s two riders to this, though, that need to be addressed:

1) The buffet needs to be prepared ahead of time. Not in the grand scheme of things, of course, because the buffet is eternal and you have unlimited time to eat it (I mentioned that before), but because the meals have preparation time, and the restaurant needs to gauge, moment by moment, what the demand for a certain item will be before they start preparing it. Are people coming in for hearty winter soups? Do they just want a brownie and a cup of coffee? Hard to tell, because the restaurant needs to forecast for trends, which means that sometimes products go away uneaten, and, to that degree, prep-time is used up which could’ve been (hypothetically) used to make something else the Objector would eat.

But guess what? This issue is self-correctingCompanies don’t want to lose money incorrectly forecasting products no-one will buy! That’s against their whole “get all the money” ethos. All they need is a few dishes of chicken feet to go uneaten (I straight up love chicken feet, by the by, but they can be an acquired taste) and they’ll stop serving it. That’s what “vote with your dollar” means.

Here’s what that means (and this is a big one): There’s no point in crying about how the industry or company has “changed” or “betrayed” you, because it hasn’t changed at all. It wants what it has always wanted – the maximum number of people to buy its products, so it can get all the money. The company has changed nothing.

The customer base has changed. Then, the company responds to that customer base – the same way it has always done – and the customer base changes further. That’s not the company turning its back on you, that’s the world passing you by.

And that’s scary. It is. No-one likes the creeping fear that their perspective is becoming obsolete. But since, Objector, you often pride yourself on “objectivity” or “rationality” you should put your money where your mouth is and realise that your fear of no-longer being a tastemaker isn’t the company’s fault, or the artist’s fault, or even the world’s fault. It’s a natural thing, as inevitable as the seasons, to a degree. The world changes, and tastes change with it. To quote the Wisdom of the Ancient (Grandpa Simpson): “I used to be ‘with it’, but now what I’m ‘with’ isn’t it, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.”

2) There’s a silver lining to this cloud, Objector: you’ve still got VASTLY more power than the egg buying public of the world and you’ve had a damn good run up to this point. People just like you are admitting that, hey, they like eggs just fine. Maybe even better than some of the things you like – but anti-egg purists are still a coveted, powerful demographic, well catered for. There’s NO SIGN of the customer base pushing you out entirely, or even (and this brings us around again) the dishes being served to you diminishing. This is all about percentages, remember? It’s pretty rare that a product is taken away from you. It’s just the people who are demanding eggs and are willing to pay for them are going to get them, sooner or later.

In fact, the restaurant has doubled down on trying to serve the foods you specifically like in the hope of getting attendance back to where it was in the old days – but that technique has failed. They’ve tried it a bunch of times, but you never ended up buying appreciably more food, because, after all, there was only so much you could hold in your stomach at any one time. And there’s all these people out there clamouring for eggs!

Hegemony means that the manifestation of eggs at the buffet is slow – because sometimes the manager of the restaurant decides that he really hates eggs too, and he won’t serve them no matter how much money he might make! But that manager will, eventually, get fired when the board gets wise to the money that they’re losing. You can also try and forestall the process by threatening not to eat at the buffet until they stop serving eggs, but you need to think about that one carefully, because:

1) You better mean it. The restaurant is recording what’s happening, remember, and if the money coming in from you doesn’t actually decrease, they’ll learn that those threats were empty. Every time you come in and buy a plate of non-egg foods, they’ll politely listen to your egg complaints, nod and tell you that they’re sorry you feel that way, and then go right on serving eggs. Because they are after all the money.

2) If you do mean it, and you go through with it, you better hope that the money coming in from eggs doesn’t outstrip the money lost from your walk away. Because, again, they’re after all the money, and if it turns out that they can make it by turning themselves into the International House of Eggs, they’re going to do it. They only DON’T do it now, because they think they’ll make money serving a variety. That’s nothing new.

So, if you’re really certain that only a “vocal minority” wants eggs, there’s an easy way to prove it: stop going to the buffet.

Unless the real minority is you, Objector, the person who hates other people having what they want so much that they’ll become extremely vocal about how egg lovers are ruining the industry.

But that would be ludicrous, right?

Right?

The Ring of Power and The Use Thereof – An Open Letter to the Kermit Independent School District

Dear Kermit Independent School District,

I write to you in defence of Master Aiden Steward, a fourth-grader in one of your municipal schools, recently suspended for threatening to “use” the One Ring on another student.

I do not cavil with the child’s possession of the One Ring, or dispute that it is an artifact of considerably dangerous magical power. The extent to which it has somehow avoided destruction at the end of the Third Age is indeed disturbing (reputedly destroyed on March 25, 3019TA, Old Reckoning), and to see it in the hands of a child, quite disturbing! How right you are to take some interest!

That being said, it must be stressed that Master Steward would have no opportunity, and indeed, no ability to use the One Ring “on” another child! This is no mere Ring of Power! Whilst Narya, the Elven Ring of Fire, can be used to “inspire others to resist tyranny, domination, and despair”, for example, the One Ring, like the Seven and the Nine can only be used to enhance the innate powers and abilities of the wearer.

Hence, for Hobbits, it enhanced the natural stealth and quietude of the bearer into true invisibility, but invisibility was not the ring’s power, nor for that matter “disappearance”. It would only likely apply to externalities when wielded by a powerful magician in their own right, to enhance their powers. To quote Gandalf:

“With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”

It is quite unlikely that even a noticeably malevolent boy from West Texas is sufficiently trained in the sorcerer’s arts to wield the Ring of Power to channel magic against another.

Of course, children with natural magical gifts are not unknown: there is an anecdotal case of a fifteen year old girl named Sarah Williams able to invoke the power of Jareth the Goblin King as late as 1986. In that instance, the outcome of that case, and the Goblin King’s prurient interest in the minor is well known – it is to be anticipated that the danger was in age-inappropriate fraternization, and not natural magical ability.

If you are questioning the relevance of these submissions, you should familiarise yourself with the case of Tuberville v Savage (1669), jurisprudence imported into American law from before the War of Independence, and indeed, although Texas was contemporaneously under Spanish and later Mexican authority, brought to bear as part of the laws of Texas when it came to join the Union.

In that case, Tuberville grabbed the handle of his sword and stated, “If it were not assize-time, I would not take such language from you.” A serious threat, much in the manner of claiming to wield the One Ring against someone! In that instance, however, the court held that the threat was of no-effect as it was assize-time, and accordingly by implication Tuberville would take such language. Although not precisely “on all fours”, the similarities can still be noted: the threat to “use” the One Ring to cause another child to vanish could not ever be undertaken – even ignoring the ancient provenance of this law, the elements of a threat which is actionable requires both the threat and the ostensible or apparent means to genuinely carry it out! Master Steward might have issued a similar threat with nothing more than one of his schoolbooks, or a wave of his hands! Even were Master Steward one of the vaunted “Stewards of Gondor” (the line of Húrin, now extinguished), it would not likely confer upon him magical powers of the kind alleged!

In fact, amusingly, the only way in which Master Steward could cause another child to vanish with the One Ring would be to give it over to that other child freely, and allow them access to its power. Although there would be a degree of moral hazard in such a proposal, a gift, freely given, is not a “terroristic threat”, as the suspension orders have maintained. All in all, this appears to an instance where, like Sauron himself, overreach has caused your position to become untenable. We trust that you can see there is no ongoing risk to any child, and that the threat alleged was not such that any form of disciplinary action (inclusive of suspension) needs to be undertaken against Master Steward.

Of course, if you find a student threatening another with a Hogwarts affiliated wand, please contact the proper authorities.

Go Yellow Jackets!

Yours,

Robert Mackenzie