Monday, March 7, 2016

In Memoriam: Paul Ryan 1949-2016.

I received word that Paul Ryan passed away at the office today, and I spent the rest of the work day in a daze. I couldn't process it. I thought I would have more time, that I'd get the chance to meet him at a convention, shake his hand and thank him for the hard work he put into the comics of my youth. It's strange to be so affected by the death of a man I never met, but in a very real way Ryan had a hand in shaping some of my favorite comics and thus had easily as much impact on my life as Christopher Reeve, Jim Henson, and Leonard Nimoy.

Erik Larsen once posited that there are certain characters that become yours as you grow from a kid who reads comics into a comicbook fan. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, these are the giants. They're untouchable, and my relationship with Superman as a character is part of the bedrock of my psyche. But Superman belongs to the world, or at least so it seemed. Some characters you find and you feel like it's a discovery. Like it's something only you know about. You develop an affection for the character. He becomes 'yours' in a way that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man just can't. For me in my Marvel Comics heyday, that character was Quasar.

 QUASAR was written by the late, great Mark Gruenwald, and he teamed with Paul Ryan in the wake of their excellent collaboration on the 12-part SQUADRON SUPREME series which I'll rave about given any opportunity. Ryan's work had a distinctive style that caught the eye. He wasn't showy or ostentatious, but he could deliver spectacle. He was especially suited for the more cosmic books like QUASAR, FANTASTIC FOUR, and SUPERMAN. He had a style and an attention to detail even in the most fantastic of scenarios that I can only call "pure comics." He never felt like he was phoning it in. He delivered on every issue and he made every character he drew feel alive.

 Picking out a favorite issue is tough, but if I have to pick it's easily LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS: THE UNTOLD STORY. Written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Ryan, it's a missing chapter from the epic saga that brought down the curtain on the DC Multiverse (for a while, at least). Ryan's art manages to create a comparable sense of grandeur as George Perez's work on the original CRISIS. The creation of a completely distinct parallel Earth complete with it's own visually distinctive take on the classic  DC Comics' heroes couldn't have been easy either, but Ryan handled it with aplomb and made you feel real sympathy for the heroes of a doomed universe. It's damned impressive and if you can find it in the back issue bins at a convention I highly recommend it.

Ryan also illustrated FANTASTIC FIVE, one of my favorite titles to come out of the MC2 stable of comics: a futuristic take on the World's Greatest Comics Magazine that was at once familiar and fresh at the same time. One day I'll cover the MC2 universe (and it's most famous scion SPIDER-GIRL) later on down the line, but suffice to say FANTASTIC FIVE was my hands-down favorite. You could tell Ryan loved getting to release his inner King Kirby, and it showed in every panel on the book Again, if you can track this series down, do so. It's wonderful stuff.

While the man himself is gone, the quality of his art will stand tall for years to come. I wish I could have met him in person so I could have thanked him for the wonderful body of work. Mr. Ryan, you will be deeply missed.

Friday, March 4, 2016


"They're coming to get you Lois. . ."

  I'm Stacy, and I am a tabletop RPG addict.

 You'd think that without access to a regular gaming group and the time to even engage in roleplaying games I'd wise up and save my hard-earned dollars for something a bit more sensible, like socks or regular tire rotation. But no. Each week invariably finds me at my friendly local games store, browsing through the aisles for a setting to catch my eye and part me from aforementioned cash like Jack from the family cow.

 Those who know me, either from long friendship or from my work on The Fanboy Power Hour (/shameless plug), may have detected a more than partial bias to superhero comics, particularly those of the Silver Age variety. Four-Color superhero worlds with talking monkeys, jetpacks, and diabolical mad scientists out to Take Over The World. . .I eat that sort of thing up like a big ol' bowl of Frosted Flakes on a Saturday morning. But for all that, there is this twisted little part of me that loves to see those heroic archetypes get pulled through the proverbial ringer. Books like IRREDEEMABLE, LEAVING MEGAOPOLIS, THE MIGHTY, and MARVEL ZOMBIES which take those shining symbols of idealism and hope and warp them almost beyond recognition.

 Why yes, I feel fine. Why do you ask?

 Which brings us to ROTTED CAPES, the Post-Apocalyptic Superhero Game of Zombie Survival Horror from Paradigm Concepts.

The scenario is simple enough: a zombie apocalypse takes place on a world that just so happens to be home to a variety of superhuman heroes and villains. Your character is one of the few superhumans remaining in the aftermath of Z-Day, when something happened that changed the world into a nightmare of walking undead horror. Even worse than the standard undead hordes, a number of superheroes and villains were infected by the virus and became z'ed themselves. Intelligent and amoral and in complete possession of their powers, they're stalking you as the undead hordes stalk the people under your protection. Can you keep the enclave of humanity you're working to support safe from the undead, or will you fall in battle and become the horror stalking them in the night? Will you hold on to your ideals or slowly sink into the morass of questionable ethics the world has become? This is the world of ROTTED CAPES.

 Superheroes and Horror can make for a tough balancing act. One the one hand Horror's mission objective is to scare you, to illustrate the world as a stalking ground of terrors and to prove to us that humanity is ultimately insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Superheroes allow us escapism and the hope that we can be better and that we can help each other make the world a better place. From a storytelling perspective tilting the balance too far in either direction will cause one of the elements to become insignifcant. Make things too grim and your players will lose hope, believing they can't make a difference in the face of unrelenting evil. Make things too optimistic and you lose the higher stakes feel that a zombie apocalypse can provide. One of the ways the game works to balance the issue is to ensure your characters are 'b-list' superheroes. Simply put, you're not Superman or The Mighty Thor. You're more like Black Lightning or the Guardian. You have powers and abilities that put you a cut above most people, but you're not invincible. No, most of those 'A-list' heroes either were killed in the initial conflict or were infected and become Super Zombies. They will never stop hunting you, have all the powers they had in life, and they're completely amoral. Imagine a serial killer with Superman's power set. Sweet dreams. . .

 System wise the game utilize a dice set of four, six, eight, ten and 12-sided dice. You will need two ten-sided dice (2d10) to act as your Action Dice. The mechanic is simple: Roll your Action Dice, then an attribute die (Strength, Vitality, etc). Add the results of the roll, then modifiers for powers, skills, advantages, and the like and compare the results to a Target Number set by the Editor-in-Chief (the Game Master). If you beat the target number, you achieve your goal. The system allows for a number of superhuman abilities, talents, and skill sets. You can build just about any superhero from Batman to Luke Cage, and even the big guns if your EiC is feeling generous and wants a higher powered game.

 Artistically the imagery in the game ranges from good to great, with a few striking images such as the book's cover that really help set the game's equal parts horrific and heroic tone. The In-Game setting of Paradigm City is well-constructed and the Non-Player Characters provided as examples for character creation and potential supporting cast/player characters or even antagonists make for interesting reading material. The setting is an intriguing one and hands a lot of guns on the wall for the EiC to build upon. The actual nature of Z-Day is kept deliberately vague for a future revelation, but some potential causes are discussed and explored if the Editor wants to provide an explanation out of the gate.

 ROTTED CAPES makes for a lot of fun but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out a few flaws here and there that took me out of the game a little. The power sets break down into three primary modes: Super-Human (Inherent physical powers), Skill Hero (trained heroes like Batman), or Tech Hero (mad scientist/Iron Man types). This seemingly limits the game for anyone who'd like to create a character a bit outside of these three paths. Magic-based heroes for example are possible, but in comparison to other superhero systems (Green Ronin's MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS for example) the game can feel a little limited. But again, this is a nitpick and far from a deal-breaker.

Overall ROTTED CAPES has an intriguing premise and is a fun-looking system that looks like it'd be a blast to play. If you're looking to spice up the gaming table with a supers campaign that's off the beaten track or want to give your horror heroes a decidedly potent edge against the forces of the undead this system has plenty of toys in the box that'd make for hours of fun gameplay. Thus far the core rulebook and a single adventure sourcebook entitled MIND GAMES are the sole products for the RC line, but I'm hopeful Paradigm will produce more. Despite the minor flaws here and there the game overall is a strong beginning to a setting I'd love to see explored in further detail. Consider it recommended.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

You Should Read This: ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR.

  Orc. For Fantasy fans the word alone is enough to send a light shiver up the spine. Whether you first encountered them on the printed page or the silver screen, in the works of Tolkien or in the press of melee during an intense session of Dungeons & Dragons, we all know what Orcs are: brutes, monsters, savages. Cannon fodder for the forces of evil, wave after endless wave of largely disposal mooks for the intrepid (and mostly human) characters to charge through with drawn blades flashing. They are the foot soldiers of darkness, and deserve nothing but the scorn and righteous fury of all right-thinking beings in your typical fantasy world. Simple as that.

 Come say hi to the bad guy.

 ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR by Stan Nicholls and Joe Flood tells an epic fantasy saga, but posits a very intriguing "What if"? With history primarily written by the victors, what if orcs themselves were in fact a violent but nevertheless noble people? What if orcs are in fact fighting for the very survival of their way of life in the face on an encroaching humanity whose presence is slowly but surely snuffing out the magic in the world?

 Stryke leads the Wolverines, an orc war band sworn to the service of Jennesta, a despotic sorceress who has allied herself with the Followers of the Manifold (Manis), those humans who follow ancient pagan traditions and are (slightly) less intolerant than the humans who follow Unity (Unis), who adhere to a cult of monotheism. Under orders from Jennesta to escort a band of goblins to ostensibly test a weapon that could turn the tide of the war against the Unis, Stryke and his band soon find themselves neck deep in trouble. Damned if they fail, unlikely to succeed, it's the kind of fight that would leave lesser men broken. Good thing the Wolverines aren't men.

 Stan Nicholls has written a number of prose stories set on the world of Maras-Dantia (The ORCS: FIRST BLOOD and ORCS:  BAD BLOOD trilogies respectively), but knowledge of those works isn't required in order to enjoy FORGED FOR WAR. Nicholls writing provides each orc with their own distinctive personality, and Joe Flood's art makes the principal cast distinctive. Flood's artwork has a nice mixture of classic fantasy along with a Herge-like quality that I found highly enjoyable.

Favorite characters include Stryke, an orc with a gift for war who's far more than a hulking berserker, Jup, the sole dwarf in the Wolverines and one of Stryke's sergeants whose loyalties are ever-questioned in a world where dwarves have frequently sold out the Elder Races, and Coilla, a corporal in the Wolverines as well as their tactical genius, her plans save the orcs' collective bacon on more than one occasion. There are a number of characters you love to hate, from Jennesta's equal measure of condescending cruelty and magical malevolence to the bigotry and persecution of the Unis fanatical leader Kimball Howbrow. If there's one thing this graphic novel excels in, it's making humans look to be utter and complete bastards. One sequence in particular had my lips skin back from my teeth like a wolf in equal parts anger and disgust. When a creative team can pull that off, you know you've got a keeper.

 Well-written, well-illustrated, and with both an engaging premise and an entertaining story to boot, ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR is one to enjoy. Get ready to root for the bad guy.

Monday, February 29, 2016

You Should Read This: FAITH #1 & 2.

If there's a word I'd use to describe my comic-book shopping agenda on those weekends when my time is my own and I owe nothing to the world it'd have to be "random." A lot of comics fans like to establish weekly pull lists for their friendly local comic book store, or they subscribe to a certain title on Comixology or the like. They have plans, favored titles and creators that they follow with regularity and basically invest in their haul much the same way as a Netflix subscriber has their to-watch list. Me, I'm not like that. Frequently I'll have an idea of what titles I'd like to check in on, but for the most part I just wander among the new release shelves, letting my feet take me where they will. Some enjoy the thrill of the chase, I just like to wander into new places and see what's doing. So it is with my discovery of Valiant Comics FAITH by the team of Jody Houser, Francis Portella, and Maguerite Sauvage.

 Back in the halcyon days of the 1990s I was a huge fan of Valiant Comics. Initially luring me in with their enjoyable takes on classic Gold Key characters like Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Magnus: Robot Fighter (one of my All-Time Favorite Characters), the Valiant brand expanded to a number of unique creations such as Bloodshot, X-O Manowar, and Harbinger. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons too involved to go into for the purposes of this article, Valiant in the '90s shut down and their stable of characters was consigned to the limbo of back issue bins for the better part of two decades. Recently the line made a comeback however, and with the aid of a number of talented creators the line has again become a force to be reckoned with. Books like RAI, ARCHER & ARMSTRONG, and THE ETERNAL WARRIOR are once again making their way back into my To-Read pile and I couldn't be happier.

 The eponymous lead of FAITH spins out of a title called HARBINGER, but you don't need to have read that book in order to enjoy this one. The elevator pitch is as follows:

 "When a car accident left her orphaned, Faith Herbert was raised by her loving grandmother and found comfort in comic books, science fiction movies, and other fantastic tales of superheroes. In her teens she would discover her fantasies were reality when it was revealed she was a psiot--a human being born with incredible abilities. Faith joined a group of fellow psiots called the Renegades to stand against the forces of evil. She's since left her Renegade family behind to take on the world's challenges on her own. She may have a lot to learn about the superhero game, but if there's one thing she's always had, it's. . .FAITH."

FAITH BEGINS opens with our heroine attempting to make a life for herself as a superheroine and reporter in California, but with the journalism game not being all it's cracked up to be she's settled for being an online content generator for an entertainment website by day and the superheroic Zephyr by night. Gradually though she's pulled into a greater mystery that may involve ties to the psiot community, and when things escalate, they escalate quickly for our heroine.

You ever meet a character in a fictional piece and it feels like you've known them forever? Faith Herbert is like that. She's got superhero memorobilia, statues, she makes pop culture references. One of the highest compliments I can give Jody Houser's writing is that the character feels like people I've known in my life in fandom. . .hell, people I still actively know. People like myself. An engaging protagonist who you come to care about and actively root for is a key to longevity in an increasingly expensive comics fandom, and the team succeeds in bringing her to life with aplomb. Francis Portella's artwork allows for a nice blend of the fantastic and the familiar, from high-flying superheroics to the office politics many of us know only too well. And a special shout-out has to go to Marguerite Sauvage, whose work on Faith's fantasy sequences give us a fun snapshot of our heroine's psyche.

 It's a rare treat to find a title that you grok to so quickly and easily as FAITH. Whether you're a longtime fan or a complete comics neophyte, titles like this are ones everyone can enjoy. The first and second issues are on the stands now and I give them my heartiest and highest recommendation possible. I haven't had this much fun with a character since THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL. Not feeling most of the superhero titles out there? Have some FAITH my friend.  You won't regret it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Stacy (Finally) Watches THE FLASH.

"Now run, Barry. Run. . .!"
 I have no earthly idea why, but there's just something inside me that is extremely reluctant to embrace the mainstream wholeheartedly. I remember being a young man and absolutely refusing to have anything to do with the Harry Potter books solely because they were popular. I wasn't going to be taken in by this pokemon-literature. I was a Serious Reader of  Serious Fantasy. It was only after HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE was assigned to me for a course at university that I gave it a chance and immediately learned a truth: sometimes the zeitgeist actually know what it's talking about. It's rare, but it's true.

 Which brings me to THE FLASH. Yes, my friends raved about it. Yes, people in the know whose opinions I trust told me I absolutely, positively, had to watch this show as I would take to it like a duck to water. But for all the praise there was still this little part of me that resisted. ARROW's initial take on the character of Oliver Queen as a vigilante who flat-out killed criminals had turned me off a bit to the DC Television stable, and while I was assured that this series was to be a complete 180 from ARROW in many ways, it's hard to make me want to watch genre television, particularly adaptations of favorite titles like THE FLASH. This show was about Barry Allen. My Flash was Wally West. This show had a darker take on the Flash costume. I wanted the wings and the yellow boots. I had a vision in my mind of what the character should have been and while my vision wasn't wrong it wasn't entirely compatible with what was on the screen. So I hesitated.

 But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. On a whim I picked up the first collection of DC's SMALLVILLE SEASON ELEVEN, a comics continuation of the CW series. Now, understand that I -did not- care for Smallville. The liberties taken with the canon and the long, loooooong time it took to get Clark into the suit and actually becoming Superman drove me bananas. But, in need of a Superman series to read I picked it up. . .and devoured the first trade pretty much in a single sitting. Bryan Q. Miller's take on the SMALLVILLE-verse was a mixture of the familiar and the conceits of the series in such a way that I realized something not only about the series but about myself.

 With the series, it was the notion that this take on the DC Universe could literally have it's cake and eat it too, incorporating all the coolest toys in the toybox without worrying about the budgetary constraints of the SMALLVILLE TV series. Seriously, if you haven't checked out the 7 trade collections out so far from DC I heartily recommend them.

With myself, it was simply this: I was being silly. Holding out for a version of a character you enjoy that's sympatico with your ideal take on the character (the 'real' version you hold in your mind) is about as worthwhile an endeavor as trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. With this in mind, I bought the first season of THE FLASH on Blu Ray, and having some time free over my Christmas vacation I say down with it and watched the first episode. And the second. The third. And so on into the night. By the time the credits rolled on FAST ENOUGH, the season finale, I was both an emotional dishrag and a devout believer in the power trio of Berlanti, Kriesberg, and Johns.

 The beauty of the series isn't just the love that goes into the costumed characters and the fights (which are plenty awesome, believe you me), but the thing I absolutely love about the show is the heart. Good -God- the heart. If you can make it through the sequence where Barry Allen/The Flash (played with aplomb by Garrett Gustin) gets to say goodbye to his mother (you know the sequence) without rolling tears you are stronger than I will ever be. I haven't bawled like that since the end of THE GREEN MILE. The family dynamic between Barry Allen, His father Henry (played by John Wesley Shipp, the Flash of my youth), his foster-father Joe West (Jesse Martin, who absolutely crushes as the moral anchor of the show), Barry's unrequited love Iris (Candice Patton, who is intensely charismatic and idealistic in her own right). . .not to mention Team Flash consisting of Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) and Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes, expect to hear from my attorney because your character's nerdity is clearly infringing on my copyright).

And then there's Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh).

 Dear God in Heaven, I could do a rant and half of the character of Harrison Wells, on how the arc of that character is in many ways equally as fascinating as that of our protagonist. If you haven't watched the show, I will do my utmost not to spoil it, but this take on the Mentor Archetype is so wonderfully crafted and put to such amazing use that I was left gobsmacked. As a writer, the gears and mechanisms of Making Story sometimes keep me from fully appreciating a book, movie, or TV show as I can usually pick up on the cues of a series or story unfolding and see things coming from a mile out. Like a magician watching another magician set up a trick. But with Wells. . .well, that'd be telling, but regardless my expectations were played with and I loved it. A gun was hung on the wall in the pilot, and by the end it went off with one seriously powerful bang.

And the love of the source material is insane. Costumes. Code names. THE FLASH MUSEUM. Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Trickster from the '90s FLASH series. Jay. Frickin'. Garrick (whom I've yet to see, but his helmet showed up in the season finale). All handled with such skill that the neophyte and the longtime comics reader can sit down and enjoy it and be equally entertained. I watched an episode of THE FLASH with GORILLA GRODD people. With my father. And he liked it too! We live in blessed times.

So yes, I was late to the party But now that I'm here I can't wait to see where this is headed. Consider me a fan.