Friday, 25 July 2014

Let us cavort like the Greeks of old! (You know the ones I mean)

I saw Hercules on Wednesday, and it got me to thinking about the use of relationships in adaptations of Greek myth and history. Specifically, where are all the gay romances? Why don't any of these films have awesome gay battle couples killing their way to fame and glory?

With Hercules, you'd definitely need a different director for it, because Brett Ratner isn't the sort of person you want handling a homosexual relationship. But it's still a shame, because there was such a big opportunity for it in the film. Hercules is depicted in myth as having many male lovers, but by far the most important was Iolaus, and he's actually in the film. There was a shrine to him in Thebes where male couples worshipped, and yet in the film he's recast as Herc's nephew, in the same way that Achilles and Patroclus are almost invariably "cousins." Considering how woefully under-represented gay couples are in the media, this would have been a great film to show two men in a romantic relationship.

The absence of such relationships is presumably down to the same "think of the children" nonsense that's usually to blame for this sort of thing, and a desire held over from the Victorian era to try and forget about just how gay ancient Greece was. Ancient Greece was fucking fabulous. Granted, thinking about homosexuality in this context is wildly anachronistic, because they didn't distinguish between hetero- and homosexual partnerships in the way we do. Regardless, relationships between men were extremely common and a big part of how that society functioned, and it's very depressing that people seem to be actively trying to minimise their importance.

In both Hercules and the 2004 Troy, the removal of the heroes' male lovers is presumably to draw the focus onto their relationship with a female character, which, to be fair, is an important part in the stories of Hercules and Achilles. In the movie, Hercules is motivated by the death of his wife Megara, and while the film gets the order of events pretty muddled, that was the reason the mythic Hercules undertook the Labours: to absolve himself of the blood guilt for killing his wife in a fit of god-induced madness. In Achilles' case, he's likewise motivated by the loss of his trophy girlfriend Briseis, so both these examples could be put down to wanting to streamline the narrative and focus on the characters' main motivation.

As with so many things, though, it's that work of dribbling, vaguely fascist claptrap 300 that's the most objectionable. I have a lot of problems with that film, but one of the worst (and most unintentionally hilarious) moments was when one of the Spartans mocked the Athenians for being "boy-lovers." Now, we know Frank Miller is a homophobic asshole, so there's that problem to begin with. More than that, though, to depict a Spartan mocking anyone for being gay displays a contemptible ignorance of the evidence. Even by the standards of ancient Greece, the Spartans were keen on encouraging relationships between men. It's generally believed that part of the reason the Spartan army was so unstoppable was because lovers were fighting side by side, and they wanted to protect and impress each other. The lack of self-awareness is pretty funny too, considering that the entire male cast of 300 wore nothing but leather briefs and a cape.

It wouldn't have been difficult to mention that Hercules was (by modern definition) bisexual, and in the comic that film's based on, he apparently is. It just seems like yet another case of tailoring to the default straight male audience, leaving out opportunities for richer characterisation in the interests of playing it safe. Some might say that a big summer blockbuster isn't the place for gay romances, but honestly? Fuck those people. Gay relationships shouldn't be the exclusive territory of arthouse films which most people will never see, and there's no reason gay romance should be terra incognita in big summer blockbusters. These films almost invariably have a straight love interest, after all. Why not a gay one for a change?

It's yet another reason for me to love Age of Bronze, because it shows Achilles and Patroclus in a caring sexual relationship. While I'd love to get more people reading that comic, it would be more expedient to have a blockbuster which everyone will go and see with that sort of romance in it. So next time you adapt Greek myth or history into film, don't leave out the gays.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Dark Knight Returns is not a good Batman story

What with it being Batman's 75th anniversary this year, and since it looks very much like the upcoming Batman v Superman film is going to be taking its cues from Frank Miller's seminal comic book, I thought I'd take a look at it and see how it holds up. And I have to say, it doesn't hold up well at all in my opinion. I understand that it was hugely influential in redefining who Batman is for the modern age, even if its dark, gritty reaction to the Adam West show stops just short of outright begging to be taken seriously, but it just doesn't work as a story.

My main problem is the depiction of Batman himself. He's almost unrecognisable compared to what we expect him to be: sure, especially in this post-Nolan world we expect him to be the Dark Knight, but the Batman of this comic is little more than a thug. This is a Batman who uses guns and kills people, and if you know the first thing about Batman, you know that's a problem.

He's a hypocrite as well, which makes it even worse. There's a panel in issue #4 where he breaks a gun in half and declares it the weapon of the enemy, and that's great stuff. He calls a gun "a coward's weapon. A liar's weapon", and that's exactly how a man whose parents were murdered with guns ought to act. Trouble is, it follows on from him chasing after Two-Face while carrying a sniper rifle, straight up shooting one of the Mutant Gang in the face, and mowing down the rest of the gang with the Bat-tank's "rubber bullets. Honest."

It's at its worst in the third issue though, where the Joker breaks out of Arkham again, goes on a rampage, and Batman spends most of the issue debating whether or not it's morally justifiable to kill him. This is after the aforementioned shooting a guy in the face, by the way. In the end, he snaps the Joker's neck, but he somehow does it so precisely that he just paralyses him. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Funny how everyone (rightly) cried foul at Superman breaking Zod's neck in Man of Steel, but no one ever comments on this.

I have other problems with the book, too. There really isn't any plot to speak of, for one thing: Batman just comes back out of retirement because Gotham is a wretched hive of scum and villainy - you know, just like always - and eventually ends up punching Superman in an alley because Frank Miller couldn't figure out how else to finish the story. It's very disjointed and episodic; in the four issues, he fights Two-Face, the Mutant Gang, the Joker and Superman, each for one issue. Maybe it read better as single issues back in 1986, but as one story it doesn't flow at all.

I know there are people who like Miller's art, but I find it so unpleasant to look at that it took me about three tries to even get past the first issue. It's not the problem I have with Scott Pilgrim where the style just clashes with my sensibilities, I just think the art in DKR is ugly. Batman's showdown with the Joker looks like a DC Comics-themed sumo fight, there's a panel in the last issue where Superman is winking but looks more like he's having a stroke, and the cover of issue #2 (see above) is one of these big iconic images that I find utterly hideous. Plus, when the number of panels on the page is routinely in double figures - sometimes as many as 16! - it's time to dial it back a bit. 

Which brings us to the characterisation of Superman, which is somehow even worse than that of Batman. I love Superman. He's one of the most noble, wonderful ideas in all fiction: a man who could conquer the world is his lunch hour and rule it with an iron fist, but who chooses not to because of his unshakeable sense of right and wrong. His powers aren't what make him Superman, it's the fact that he invariably uses them to do good and help people. In his own words, "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman."

Miller writes him as a minion of the US government who obeys the President's order to go to Gotham and punch Batman to death.

The Dark Knight Returns depicts a version of Batman and Superman, the World's Finest Superheroes, that I just don't want to read. Batman is an angry, psychotic thug, and Superman is a mindless government drone. They're unlikeable, they aren't heroic, and I don't want to read stories about these versions of the characters. It pains me that this book altered their relationship so much, changing them from close friends and allies to antagonistic, incompatible people who just happen to have similar goals.

If you can convince me I'm wrong, by all means do. I want to see what everyone else sees in The Dark Knight Returns, but it doesn't work for me. For the record, Frank Miller's other Batman opus, Year One, is a book I think more highly of every time I read it, and though post-Sin City Miller is a raving lunatic, he did a lot of genuinely great work in the '80s. I don't think DKR is a good comic, though, and I'm dreading the influence it's going to have on the already pretty grimdark DC movie universe.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Rat Queens is like the funniest D&D campaign you've ever played

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but other stuff kept coming up. Anyway, a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading the first volume of Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch's new series Rat Queens, and it's amazing. I'd been looking forward to reading it since I first heard about it late last year, and it doesn't disappoint. It reminded me a lot of Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick, and I mean that as very high praise.

The premise is simple: four twenty-something women with modern attitudes living in a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world. The plot is good, and I enjoyed how it takes a sharp turn towards the end and goes somewhere completely different from what I was expecting, but it's the characters that drive the book.

There's Hannah, the confrontational mage who's sort of the team's leader; Violet, the hipster fighter who's surprisingly kind-hearted once she stops killing things; Dee, the cleric who kind of stays in the background because she's not great with people (my favourite character); and Betty the thief, who reminded me a lot of Molly from Runaways in that she's basically weaponised cuteness.

It's a terrific cast, and most of the book's humour comes, as it should, from the character dynamics. There is drama in this comic, but it's mostly a fantasy comedy, and it's one of the funniest comics I've read in quite a while. The Rat Queens are all foul-mouthed, hard-drinking adventurers, and they act pretty much like you'd expect people who kill monsters for a living to act. It highlights the absurdity of what these sort of people, so commonplace in D&D, would actually be like in any sort of realistic society: they don't fit in with the town at all, and are as big a threat to it as the monsters they fight.

It's because these characters are so fun and so likeable that we get completed invested in them, and towards the end of the volume when the stakes get higher, Wiebe shows us it's not all laughs: he's great at comedy, but when things take a turn for the serious it's genuinely gut-wrenching. The last issue is full of lovely character beats, and is the point which cemented Dee as my favourite character for reasons I won't spoil. It's a great conclusion to the first arc.

And I can't go without mentioning how refreshing it is to see a comic like this on the stands. Image are on a ridiculous winning streak these days with damn near everything they're publishing being solid gold, and a lot of their success is the drive to do something different with their books. You can't pin their output down to a single genre, and they're doing what Marvel and DC have struggled so hard with: reaching beyond the core audience.

They're making books that aren't just male power fantasy, that people other than teenage boys will want to read, and Rat Queens is a perfect example. The four main characters are all female, which is depressingly rare in itself, one of them is black and one of them is gay. It is so damn gratifying to see a comic which actually puts characters other than straight white men on the page, and as the fan reaction has proved, it's been a huge hit with female readers. It shows how easy it really is to appeal to different audiences: they've made a book for the female demographic, which superhero comics have traditionally found so hard to crack, by writing great female characters. It really is that simple.

Rat Queens is a real treat, and one of my favourite comics currently being published. If you want to read a comic that actually gets women right, go and buy it right now.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Can we stop calling them graphic novels?

The term 'graphic novel' has long been a pet peeve of mine, and for some reason it's come back into mind lately; probably something came up on my Facebook feed. In any case, it's a term that really bugs me, and I thought I'd talk about it a bit here. Calling them graphic novels is pretentious, it's unnecessary, and it's symptomatic of the comics medium's inferiority complex. Let's just keep calling them comics.

As far as I know, people first started talking about graphic novels when Watchmen first got collected into a single volume, presumably because DC realised that it was too good to let it go out of print and because there was a lot of money to be made from selling it in conventional bookshops. I love Watchmen as much as the next person, and the comics medium's desire to be taken seriously and accorded the literary merit it deserves is admirable, but appropriating terminology from other media isn't the way to go about it.

To me, 'graphic novel' just comes across as a bit condescending, as if comics aren't good enough in themselves and so have to borrow another, more respectable medium's name before they can be treated with the same respect as traditional literature. Admittedly, there are many cases where it is a fairly appropriate description, but even in those cases I simply don't see what's wrong with calling them comics, because that is fundamentally what they are.

When a comic is conceived of, written and published as a single, reasonably long volume, in the same way that a novel is, then it is fair enough to refer to it as a graphic novel, even if my aforementioned issues with the expression still stand. For instance, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a graphic novel, and Hellblazer: All His Engines is a graphic novel. There are certainly advantages to be had in writing and publishing your work in a single, novel-length work rather than serialised in periodicals, and there have been no shortage of great books in that format. The authors arguably have greater creative control, aren't constrained by page limits, and don't have to worry about deadlines. I've no issue with the format, I just think the terminology is a bit pretentious.

The real problem for me is that, nine times out of ten, when people say 'graphic novel' they mean 'trade paperback,' and while the terms are almost always used interchangeably, they ought to mean completely different things. Most of the time when people refer to graphic novels, they're talking about collected editions of monthly comics, in which several issues have been put in one book for convenience, ease of reading, and so that it can be sold in traditional bookshops.

Again, I've no issue with the trade paperback format. I don't buy single issues because the trade is usually cheaper and doesn't have adverts in it, and the fact that comics are being collected and preserved in this manner is a wonderful thing for the medium. Most writers tend to write for the trade these days anyway; it's pretty rare that you'll come across a single issue that actually works as a standalone story rather than as a chapter in a bigger, ongoing narrative. But this is where we come to the real crux of my problem with graphic novels.

Putting six issues of a monthly comic into one book doesn't make a novel any more than putting six episodes of a TV show on one disc makes a film.

The 12 issues of Watchmen may tell a single story that was clearly planned from the beginning as such, but that doesn't make it a novel. The 8 episodes of True Detective's first season also tell a single story that was clearly planned from the beginning as such, but no one in their right mind would refer to it as a film.

Like I said, it's a symptom of the medium's inferiority complex. It's a pretty old medium at this point, but given that its development as an art form was arguably set back at least 20 years by the Comics Code Authority, comics as a medium still has a reputation as being for kids, as unfair and undeserved as that stigma might be. It's simply a case of a relatively young medium borrowing terminology from an older, more respected medium to describe something that is uniquely its own, and doing itself a disservice in the process. It's implying that the comics medium is somehow inferior to the novel medium, which just isn't true. Neither is superior to the other, they're just different.

So there we are. While there are cases where 'graphic novel' is a pretty accurate description of a comic, for the most part the term is condescending, not applicable to the format, and a statement that comics aren't as good as prose.

And that's just a bit rubbish, isn't it?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Is A Song of Ice and Fire going to collapse under its own weight?

Before I anger the legions of fans, let me first assert that I am absolutely one of them. I've been a die-hard fan of the series for years, I vividly remember losing my mind when it was announced that Charles Dance was going to play Tywin Lannister in the TV show, and my old, battered copy of A Game of Thrones has been signed by GRRM.

But, I worry that the series is going the way of The Wheel of Time, and I don't mean I'm worried that Martin is going to die before he finishes it. (It's not impossible, but he seems to be in very good health by all accounts.) I mean that it's been going for nearly twenty years and there's still no ending in sight. It was initially conceived as a trilogy and is now projected to run to seven books, though Martin hasn't ruled out the option of extending it even further. It's alarmingly reminiscent of what happened with Robert Jordan's series, originally meant to be six books but bloating to 14 by the time it finished.

For the record, I think The Wheel of Time is vastly inferior to A Song of Ice and Fire for any number of reasons which I won't get into here. Yes, I know it's meant to get better as it goes, but the first 800-page tome bored me almost to tears and didn't exactly inspire me to read 13 more of the damn things. A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was gripping from start to finish and ended on a cliffhanger which almost physically compelled me to rush out and buy A Clash of Kings. And A Storm of Swords (both parts). And A Feast for Crows. And then, eventually, A Dance with Dragons.

As great as Martin's story is, the unfortunate truth is that a story is only really satisfying once it's ended. And as much as I love Ice and Fire – and I love it dearly; it's possibly my favourite series of novels – it's no closer to ending than it was when the first book was published back in 1996. The story's scope and scale, one of the things I most admire about it, has simply got out of control.

In the first book, there are (I think) eight point-of-view characters, and four storylines: the Wall, Winterfell, King's Landing, and Dany. As of book five, there have been somewhere in excess of 20 POV characters, and even if several of those have been immediately doomed prologue or epilogue characters, it's spread the story too wide. Four storylines is a lot to keep track of in itself, and I don't even know how many are going on simultaneously now. To quote that most famous of fantasy novels, it feels thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Feast and Dance were by no means bad books, even if Feast did suffer from missing almost all the best characters, but there's no denying that not an awful lot actually happens in them. Yes, Dance ends brilliantly, and the last quarter really picks up the pace and starts delivering on the sort of excitement that was present all the way through Storm, but it takes a hell of a long time to get there.

As much as I hate to say it, at this point we almost need another couple of Red Wedding-style bloodbaths to thin the ranks of the characters and bring some focus back to the story. The intricacy of Dance's plotting and the skill that must have gone into constructing and editing it are nothing short of staggering, but at this point the story is simply too big and spread over too wide a space. There are too many characters, is the bottom line, and as much as I love them – writing believable characters is one of Martin's greatest talents as a writer, and to my mind the main reason the series has become so wildly popular since the TV show – he really needs to kill some of them off.

And I have no doubt that killing characters off is well within Martin's abilities. If The Winds of Winter is as bleak as its title suggests it will be, maybe the story will be back on track by the time A Dream of Spring comes out. I just hope it doesn't take Martin six years to finish it.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist, ten years on

I am a big fan of Iain M. Banks' SF. I've read all the Culture books, apart from The State of the Art and Inversions if you consider that to be Culture; I'm of the opinion that he's one of if not the best British SF author of the past 25 years; and Use of Weapons ranks among my very favourite novels, horrifyingly disturbing though it is.

It's for this reason that I'm always slightly puzzled by the relative lack of awards he received for his SF. Specifically, the only time he was even nominated for a Hugo, arguably the most prestigious award in the field of SF and fantasy, was for his 2004 non-Culture novel The Algebraist. It's been ten years since its publication, almost a year since he tragically passed away, and we're coming up to the 2014 Worldcon at which he was going to be a guest of honour, so I thought it seemed like a good time for a look back at this book.

First off, I really enjoy The Algebraist, but I am confused about why, of all Banks' SF, this is the one that was nominated for a Hugo rather than Use of Weapons or Excession. Perhaps it was the fact that he hadn't written SF for four years by the time it came out and the anticipation contributed to its success, and it could very well be that it's one of his most purely entertaining, crowd-pleasing books. It probably is one of my favourites of his, but that doesn't mean it's one of his best. Still, it's spectacularly entertaining space opera, a thrilling adventure story which I would strongly recommend. It deserves to be read, especially since it tends to be overshadowed by the Culture.

It's largely in the world building that both its biggest successes and biggest flaws lie. Most of the action happens in the gas giant Nasqueron, where our protagonist Fassin Taak has been sent, and the construction of the civilisation within the gas giant is extremely impressive. The resident Dwellers are a Slow species, for whom entire human lifetimes can occur in the space of a lazy afternoon, and the bizarre ways they carry out their lives are never less than amusing. For me at least, there's an aura of mystery about gas giants anyway, and the extended journey Fassin undergoes while travelling through Nasqueron makes for a great space adventure story.

This could be another contributing factor to the wide appeal necessary for a Hugo nomination. It's probably the most conventional space opera Banks wrote, without meaning that as a criticism, in that it follows a protagonist experiencing a fairly traditional Hero's Journey to try and save his home from being destroyed in war. The framework of the story is rather familiar even if the details are not, and it could be that the resonances these kinds of stories have for so many people are what caused its success.

That said, the world building of the broader galactic community does get a bit out of hand. The Algebraist is a long book, and could have done with a rather more rigorous edit: all the details of the greater civilisation are interesting and well drawn, but they tend to arrive in the form of infodumps a bit too often, breaking the flow of the story somewhat. I suspect this is because the novel isn't part of Banks' already well-established Culture series, and so he was keen to mark out the differences between the two universes.

It's not necessarily a great novel, but it is a great read. It may not be top-tier Banks, but even at his lower ebbs his SF is of such a high standard that it's easy to recommend to anyone who's a fan of the genre. For those who aren't yet initiated, they're probably better off starting with the Culture before moving on to this relatively dense work. Still, if you read SF for escapism and want a cracking, thoroughly entertaining space opera, I can unreservedly recommend The Algebraist. Read it, and remember one of the genre's true masters, taken from us far too early.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Remembering Hellblazer

Hellblazer, after running for 25 years and 300 issues, making it the longest-running comic at either DC or Marvel to have never been cancelled or rebooted, was cancelled a little over a year ago. Because of that, and because of the fact that more details about the upcoming TV series have been emerging lately, I thought it was a good time to express my views on one of my very favourite comic books.

I don't object to its cancellation in itself, even if it is weird to mark the Vertigo imprint's 20th anniversary by cancelling its flagship title. 300 issues is a lot, most of them were good to great, and it was definitely better to end on a high rather than drag it out and potentially squander what had been good about it. Plus, given that John Constantine ages in real-time, even if his ageing is slowed down somewhat by his demon blood, he was still 60 years old when Hellblazer ended, and it was probably time to hang up the trenchcoat. Death and Cigarettes, the final story, may not have been one of the all-time classics, but it was still a great one and a very fitting end to the series.

I do object, however, to the fact that Hellblazer, one of the most important comic books in recent memory and Vertigo's longest running book, was cancelled so that John could be rebooted and brought into the DC Universe – especially since the New 52 is, by and large, awful. Yes, he originated in the DCU in the pages of Swamp Thing, but even back then those characters were more or less cordoned off from the wider universe. Hell, John considered the Crisis on Infinite Earth to be basically a sideshow to the return of the Original Darkness, the great threat that he and the Swamp Thing faced together.

Even if we leave aside the problematic, One More Day-esque erasure of 25 years of character development, it doesn't make sense from a business perspective or from a creative one: cancelling a big-selling horror comic in order to put John in what basically amounts to yet another superhero comic. They risk losing the dedicated Vertigo readers who might not be interested in superheroes, as well as losing all the actually mature (as opposed to the New 52's superficially mature) content, urban fantasy and social commentary that made Hellblazer so special. I'm told the current Constantine title isn't all that bad, but I'm of the opinion that John simply doesn't belong in a superhero universe. There was an issue of his current title when he had a run-in with Captain Marvel (I refuse to call him Shazam) and ended up stealing his powers, which pretty much sums up my problem with that comic.

Hellblazer's colours were revealed as early as its third issue, a bitter satire of stockbrokers and yuppies in the Margaret Thatcher era. And there's the rub: what made this comic so interesting and unique was that, even with the presence of magic, zombies and demons, it was clearly taking place in our world, and the themes and subject matter reflected this. John was a magician, but he was still just an ordinary working-class man from Liverpool, and tended to use wits to con his enemies far more than he actually used magic against them. The story Pandemonium, written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of John's first appearance in the pages of Swamp Thing, epitomises this: it's a brilliant, savagely angry condemnation of the Iraq War in which John thwarts the demon Nergal's plans by winning a game of poker. It encapsulates everything important about Hellblazer, and it's one of my favourite Constantine stories.

The current situation is kind of ironic in a slightly depressing way. DC has basically returned its superhero comics to the mindset of the '90s, and dragged John down into it as well, whereas the actual '90s, when superhero comics were in the toilet, was Hellblazer's heyday. That was Vertigo's golden age, Hellblazer was the flagship, and it remained the flagship for the next 20 years. It just depresses me that such a great, important comic book has been replaced by another disposable superhero title.

I guess we just have to hope that the TV series will do the character justice. And if nothing else, they've nailed John's look perfectly: I'm pretty sure the only way to get someone who looks more like him would've been to go back in time to 1988 and actually cast Sting.

Seriously, credit where it's due: this guy is John Constantine. Well done, NBC. There's talk of him not being allowed to smoke in the show, which would be irritating. Apart from the cigarettes being as indelible a visual aspect of the character as Superman's cape, they're a constant reminder of John's addictive, self-destructive personality, and one of the classic stories, Dangerous Habits, couldn't exist without his smoking addiction. Still, I'm allowing myself to be cautiously optimistic about this TV show. It can hardly be worse than the Keanu Reeves movie, at any rate.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Cthulhu Contradiction

As a follow-up to my piece about The Crack'd and Crook'd Manse, the Call of Cthulhu game I played a few weeks ago, I thought I'd write a more detailed post on my general thoughts about the system, and specifically, the big part of the game that just doesn't make sense.

First things first: I really like Call of Cthulhu. Mechanically it's very similar to Dungeons & Dragons, albeit with percentage dice rather than a d20 as the main ones you use, and the character stats and skills work in much the same way as their D&D equivalents. The big difference in terms of gameplay is that there's a lot less faffing about with the combat, which is a very nice change. Tabletop RPG combat can easily end up being dreary and tiresome, especially in D&D 4th Edition where you spend most of the time flicking through sourcebooks trying to remember what all your abilities do, but Cthulhu's is simple, fast, and often extremely tense because fights tend to be pretty difficult.

Naturally, the biggest draw with Call of Cthulhu is the one present in the name: the fact that it's a horror game based on the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, arguably the most important horror writer of the 20th Century – and it's in the horror where the system really shines. As I detailed in my last post on the game, it's very easy for things to go spectacularly wrong very quickly, and character death is an omnipresent worry – in the foreword to the famous campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep, which I really want to play, the author outright tells you that the characters are unlikely to survive to the end. It's a really nice change from being the heroic adventurers of D&D where success is assumed: here, you're just ordinary people up against forces so overwhelming and otherworldly as to be practically inconceivable, and failure is a very real possibility.

Unfortunately, though, there is a serious contradiction inherent in the idea of merging a tabletop RPG and the Cthulhu Mythos. By their very nature, RPGs are founded in mathematics, because there need to be defined rules for how the game works or things would go off the rails even more quickly than they usually do. Numbers are the most concrete, logical means of understanding the universe that we have – there's a reason you can't do physics without doing a hell of a lot of maths as well. The problem with that is that the fiction of the Cthulhu Mythos is defined by its incomprehensibility and illogicality: what makes the monsters of the Mythos frightening is that their natures and motives are simply beyond human understanding, and their physical appearance is often beyond the ability to describe.

In the story from which Call of Cthulhu takes its name, we have no idea what Cthulhu is, where he's from, what he's doing, or why he's doing it. That is what makes him frightening. In the game itself, Cthulhu is defined by numbers and statistics: his motives may still be vague, but the GM knows precisely what he is in game terms. Even though he regenerates them, the very concept of hit points, that most crucial of role-playing concepts, is antithetical to the Mythos; the idea that these cosmic abominations will die if you do precisely this much damage to them is profoundly problematic in terms of what makes Lovecraft's fiction so compelling.

Let me stress that it doesn't make the game any less fun, and I'm certainly not trying to put forward a solution. For me, this paradox is pretty much insoluble, because tabletop RPGs are and always have been grounded in maths. It's just one of those irritating things that stick in the back of your mind, and I thought it was an interesting point about the game. It's not as if I would want to change the way things are: Call of Cthulhu is a fantastic game, and if this contradiction is necessary for us to be able to play it, then so be it. But still, it would be interesting to see if anyone could design a game which doesn't run counter to one of the most fundamental tenets of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Iron Dragon's Daughter is exactly what a fantasy novel should be

While on holiday in New York last summer I managed to track down this small, quirky little bookshop called Singularity & Co. Inside was something close to Paradise for me: it specialises in old, out-of-print, vintage SF and fantasy. I could happily have spent hours browsing the shelves, but time was pressing and we wanted to go and get a drink at the Gotham City Lounge (it was a nerdy day). Still, I couldn't bear to leave without picking something up, and I happened across a battered copy of a book called The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I'd heard good things about it, but it didn't exactly seem like a well-known or particularly noteworthy book from what I knew. Still, it was in the 'Staff Recommendations' section, and for $5, what could be the harm?

And my goodness, if it didn't turn out to be the best fantasy novel I'd read in an awfully long time – probably since I finished A Dance With Dragons back in 2011, to be honest. And the reason why is very simple. It is purely and unashamedly a fantasy.

Well of course it is, I hear you say. But wait, I say, hear me out. As much as I like Tolkien, and I like Tolkien a lot, it's always bothered me that the vast majority of fantasy fiction basically exists to rip off The Lord of the Rings. The fact that the phrase 'generic fantasy' can be uttered without irony is a depressing indictment of the general state of the genre. Fantasy, like its sibling SF, should be a playground for the author's imagination, where they can cut loose with all the crazy, out-there concepts that you can't get away with in literary fiction. It's the entire reason people read fantasy in the first place, and yet so few authors actually make the most of this opportunity.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter is quite possibly the most imaginative fantasy novel I've ever read, simply because author Michael Swanwick never insults the reader's intelligence by worrying that a particular element might somehow be too fantastical. He isn't concerned that the reader will struggle to suspend disbelief, because if you're reading a fantasy novel that shouldn't ever be a problem. The novel takes place in a fantasy world featuring all the races you'd expect – elves, dwarves, gnomes et al – but loads of others as well, chief among them the changeling protagonist Jane, who appears to have been stolen from our world and brought to this dark, twisted version of Faerie.

The oppressive elven rulers force the poorer children to work in factories, building the steam-powered iron dragons which function as the elves' fighter jets. The plot later shifts to a great city, changing gears from an almost Dickensian beginning to an urban fantasy setting in a determinedly high fantasy world. In the city, Jane learns alchemy, cheats at her exams by practising quicker, easier sex magic, takes fantastic spins on various drugs, has a nightmarish, prophetic vision of her future, and takes part in a riot that is viciously put down by elves riding mechanical horses. It is utterly bananas, and that's what makes it so brilliant.

I've never read anything else like it, and surely one of the aims of writing a fantasy novel is to be able to elicit this sense of awe and wonder from the reader: to open to them a completely new, unfamiliar world where anything could happen, and where you don't just regurgitate the plot of The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth bloody time. In this regard alone, The Iron Dragon's Daughter is one of the finest fantasy novels I've read, and that's not even getting into the other stuff. I could write a whole other post about the broken, heroic, utterly convincing female protagonist, in a genre too dominated by male authors and characters. Or the Iron Dragon of the title, one of the most frighteningly amoral, self-serving, genuinely menacing dragons since Smaug – and that's before he decides to have a go at committing genocide.

It's a mad book, but if you want to see what fantasy can be when the author really lets their imagination run wild, I can hardly think of a better example.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Move over, Avengers, here come the A-holes

On the off chance that you didn't see it, the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy is now online, and I find myself in the unexpected position of having to rank it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. When it was announced, my only thought was “The Who of the What?” I read comics, and I'd never heard of these guys. If Thor was a risk, I can only imagine what Guardians represents for Marvel Studios.

What I'm most excited about is that it isn't a superhero movie. Rather, it's a huge, crazy space opera with a ragtag team of misfits at its core, which is a pretty big departure from Marvel's usual fare. Even by the standards already set by these films, it looks like it's going to be utterly insane. Talking trees, blue and green alien girls, a genetically enhanced warrior raccoon, a bar which is the disembodied head of a giant space monster: this is the sort of thing that an epic space adventure should be made of.

It's a gamble, but if it works, it could represent a huge shift in how Marvel Studios and Warner Bros approach comic book adaptations. Hopefully, it'll mean they'll have more confidence in non-superhero properties, and encourage them to adapt the more obscure, interesting, out-there concepts that might be more entertaining than a superhero saving the world yet again.

My big hope is that, if it works, Warner Bros will officially start production on Guillermo del Toro's Dark Universe project: a team-up movie between DC Vertigo's magic-themed characters, such as the Swamp Thing, John Constantine, Zatanna and Deadman. Their business strategy at the moment basically amounts to copying whatever Marvel's currently doing, and Groot even looks a bit like the Swamp Thing. The hypothetical prospect of this movie is pretty much the stuff of my wildest geek dreams, providing it turns out good. In the same way that the Avengers seems to have prompted them to turn the Man of Steel sequel into a Justice League movie in all but name, the hopeful success of Guardians of the Galaxy might prompt them to take a chance on one of their less-known, non-superhero teams. It's unlikely, especially with the Constantine TV show currently in production, but the possibility exists.

Apart from anything else, it's only a matter of time before both studios start running out of superheroes to adapt, and Marvel are already scraping the barrel a bit with Ant-Man. We urgently need Black Panther, Black Widow and Captain Marvel movies to balance out the overwhelming white dudeness of the Avengers, but what happens after that? For both DC and Marvel, turning to their more obscure titles could very well be the answer, and the Vertigo characters are some of the richest and most deserving of film adaptations out there. No, Keanu Reeves' Constantine doesn't count, it was terrible.

This is all speculation, though. Blind hope on my part, in all honesty. For now, all that matters is that what looks to be an incredibly awesome space opera from the same guys who made the Avengers is on the immediate horizon – and for someone who loves space opera as much as I do, that is extremely fucking exciting.

Plus, if Guardians does well, it would give Marvel more of a reason to put Runaways into production for Phase Four. Wouldn't that be something?