Monday, January 16, 2023

The Red Brotherhood: A Brotherhood of Steel faction for the Fallout Roleplaying Game.



(A quick note: This was a bit of a doodle brought about by a post on twitter about creating a communist/anti-fascist splinter group of the Brotherhood of Steel for the excellent Fallout: The Roleplaying Game from Modiphius Entertainment. This faction was created as a lark and is presented for free. No infringement of copyright or trademark is intended in any way, and if asked I will pull the piece immediately. I did this purely for fun. So without further ado, let's begin!)

The Red Brotherhood: A Brotherhood of Steel faction for the Fallout Roleplaying Game.

A Tale of Rebirth:

    Many in the Commonwealth have heard the story of Arthur Maxson's rise to power in the Brotherhood of Steel: his upbringing in the Capital Wasteland, coming of age in the fractious period under the leadership of Elder Owen Lyons, and Arthur's ascension to the role of Elder in the wake of Owen's death and the death of his Daughter Sarah. The tale has Arthur bringing the order together under his sterling leadership, saving the Brotherhood from destruction at the hands of incompetent leadership. It's a good story, and it wins a great many potential initiates applying to join the order after the arrival of the Prydwen. But it's not the -entire- story, and the Brotherhood's status as a unified whole is a carefully constructed lie. 

    The truth resembles the official narrative to a point: Arthur Maxson's ascent to the position of Elder of the East Coast Brotherhood and his approval from the West Coast chapter did ensure the Brotherhood Outcasts of the Capital Wasteland returned to the fold, mollified that the Order would return to it's original mission to safeguard (hoard, if you're more critical) the technology of the past. But not every member of the order was satisfied with the new direction the Brotherhood was undertaking in the wake of Sarah Lyons' death. One of those individuals was Paladin Morgan Mattick. Mattick had been a member of the Lyons Pride, the elite squad hand-picked by Sarah Lyons to combat the various threats in the Capital Wasteland and ensure the safety of the populace there. Mattick had taken a great deal of pride in the work the Pride had accomplished, and was a loyal follower of both Lyons.

     Heartbroken by Owen Lyon's death, Mattick was ready to serve Sarah and continue the East Coast Brotherhood's mission. . .only for Sarah to be killed in battle shortly after her father's passing. The battle itself had been a debacle, with the Lyons Pride and two other squads fighting a pitched battle with raiders. When the smoke cleared, Sarah's body was found, her armour scorched by laser fire. She had been shot in the back. The other squads swore it had been a surprise ambush from raiders hidden nearby, but Mattick and the other survivors of the Pride were less certain. Mattick, a true believer in the spirit of the Brotherhood's mission over the letter of its dogma, began to have doubts. 


    Arthur's ascension initially quelled many of Mattick's doubts: unlike the succession of incompetents that had followed Sarah's death, Maxson was a dedicated leader, a father to his men, and had a vision of continuing Owen and Sarah Lyons protection of the citizens of the Capital Wasteland. But Arthur's vision of 'protection' clashed with the Lyons Doctrine: it felt less like protection of the helpless and more like a monarch's rule. That, combined with Maxson's increasing human supremacist views (Lyons Pride had worked with non-feral ghouls and Super Mutants in the past and found them worthy allies), and his increasing obsession with synths worried Mattick. And then the Prydwen project was announced. 

    The Prydwen was the most ambitious project the Brotherhood had undertaken: a massive mobile base dedicated to the purpose of expanding the order's reach from the Capital Wasteland to the Commonwealth. The only problem was power: the Prydwen's specs called for a fusion plant, and while the Order had no small amount of technology from the old world housed in the Citadel, a fusion plant wasn't one of them. The only viable fusion plant to be found was the one powering the community of Rivet City, a human settlement built in the ruins of an old world aircraft carrier. Maxson made plans to obtain it: by diplomacy if possible, by force if not. Mattick argued fiercely for the rights of the people of Rivet City to the source of their power. The Lone Wanderer may have been able to provide clean water with their sacrifice, but didn't the people of Rivet City deserve light and heat as well?     Maxson heard Mattick's arguments, patted the older Paladin's shoulder and promised him that they would explore other alternatives. Proctor Quinlan offered a potential site for another aircraft carrier further up the coast. Maxson assigned Mattick and his squad (comprised of Lyons Pride survivors) to obtain the fusion reactor for the Prydwen. Relieved, Mattick and his team started north along the coast to find the abandoned carrier. They found a wreck at an old naval base. . .but it had been picked clean decades ago. Radioing back, Mattick received orders to return to base, as an alternative had been found. As Mattick's squad entered the capital wasteland, they saw smoke in the distance. 

    Rivet City had fallen to the Brotherhood of Steel.

The Schism

    Mattick was furious. He stormed into Maxson's office in the Citadel, the Paladins on guard in the hall sprawled unconscious in his wake. Mattick spoke his mind and he spoke it truthfully: Maxson had betrayed the ideals of Owen and Sarah Lyons, his actions had spat on their memory, and he was a disgrace to all the Brotherhood of Steel had been. The two argued loudly, Maxson charging a physically restrained Mattick with insubordination and expelling him from the Brotherhood of Steel. Mattick's reply was cold and hard as the power armour the paladins stripped from him:

"If this is your Brotherhood, then I want no part of it."

    Morgan Mattick strode out of the Citadel with little more than the clothes on his back, a satchel of his personal effects, and a 10mm pistol. Arthur Maxson and the Brotherhood continued with their expansionist plans, confident that Mattick wouldn't be an impediment to the Brotherhood of Steel any longer, his death in the wasteland all but assured. They were to be proven very, very wrong.

The Exodus and a new direction

    Mattick wandered north, initially with the plan to warn the Commonwealth of the Brotherhood's arrival. As he left the Capital Wasteland, he found himself joined by the members of his squad, as well as a number of knights, scribes, and initiates who had been supporters of Owen and Sarah Lyons. The group moved quickly, having taken a number of scout reports from the Brotherhood's forays north. Using it as a guide, they found a military bunker south of the city of Boston. Upon exploration of the ruin a substantial cache of pre-war weaponry and armour was found, including a large number of laser rifles, powered armour, and vertibirds. Retrofitted from an abandoned copper mine the Bunker (as it came to be known) had hidden launch bays for vertibirds (two of the three remaining functional) as well as machine shops, living quarters, medical facilities, supplies, all the amenities the fugitive Brotherhood members would need. 

    On the journey Mattick thought long and hard about Maxson, about the Lyons, and about the Brotherhood's mission. A few of his squad and the other defectors believed they should strike back at the Brotherhood, gather allies from the Underworld and the survivors of Rivet City and take the fight to the order directly. Mattick disagreed. "The order is too powerful. For now, we will do our best to show another way, and hope that the others will join our cause and forsake Maxson's madness."

    Along the trek north Mattick had read the books Owen Lyons had given him as a young initiate: The Communist Manifesto, The Cry for Justice, Meditations, and The Art of Living. He meditated on the Brotherhood of Steel, on the nature of the order, and found that while there was much to be admired in its mission to act as steward to the technology of the past to protect humanity from another apocalypse, the temptation to sit on that technology and not use it for the benefit of the people had warped the order's purpose. A new path was needed, one that put the people of the Wasteland first.

    Mattick shared his vision with the others, and found them of a like mind. To his surprise, the defectors had elected him the Elder of this new group. Giving it the name the Red Brotherhood in partial mockery of the Brotherhoods' adherence to the iconography of the Western powers and as a nod to more communist ideals, the newly appointed Elder began his campaign to aid the people of the Commonwealth and help restore civilization according to the principles of Owen and Sarah Lyons.

The Red Brotherhood

    Not long after the Prydwen's arrival in the Commonwealth, rumours began to emerge of Brotherhood of Steel soldiers wandering the Wasteland protecting citizens. This wouldn't be anything new, except rather than the dull green of the standard Brotherhood squads the power armour, uniforms, and vertibirds of these Brotherhood squads were all bright red, a stylized logo of a Lion's head with it's jaws closing on a golden star emblazoned on the chest plates of their armour. These warriors called themselves the Red Brotherhood, and unlike raider gangs or even the Brotherhood of Steel they worked to not only protect the communities of the Wasteland, but provided technologies (medicine, improved filtration systems, and genetically modified seeds) to allow the communities to become stronger. It didn't take long for Maxson and the Brotherhood to realize who was behind this new power in the Commonwealth: Morgan Mattick left a statement for Publick Occurrences, which ran the following:

    "Greetings to the people of the Commonwealth. My name is Morgan Mattick, Elder of the Red Brotherhood. We are a group committed to the protection of the innocent and the restoration of civilization throughout the wasteland. We were once members of the Brotherhood of Steel but can no longer in good conscience serve that institution. It has fallen far from the vision of good people, people like Owen and Sarah Lyons. It has become an imperialist power which seeks to rule the people, not serve them. To that end, we offer an alternative. We offer our protection, our service, and our lives to ensure the Commonwealth prospers. That all people who live here: human, ghoul, and super-mutant who eschew the ways of violence and seek their own betterment will do so with our protection and our support. We ask that you join us in this cause. Together, we can throw off the chains of the old world and build something new. Something better. We are the Red Brotherhood, and we are here to help."

The Red Brotherhood today

Mattick has been very careful to avoid the Boston Airport and the Prydwen. He's made it clear to his paladins and knights that direct confrontation with the Brotherhood is forbidden for the moment. Instead, the Red Brotherhood patrols trade routes, making a circuit of communities that require assistance and offer whatever they might require. If raiders need to be taken care of, the Red Brotherhood gives them one opportunity to throw down their weapons before crushing them. Super Mutants? The Red Brotherhood will determine if they can be reasoned with, and utterly destroy them if they can't. Unlike the Brotherhood of Steel, the Red Brotherhood has opened its membership to non-feral ghouls and super-mutants. The one area where both the original BoS and the RB agree upon is the matter of the Institute. Mattick has made it clear that a goal of his Brotherhood is to destroy the Institute and their synthetics. He's extremely wary of the idea of liberated synthetics, and it would take a great deal of persuasion to leave the Railroad alone. To his mind each third generation synth is a bomb waiting to go off. He might be persuaded to leave them be if there was some means of tracking them, to ensure they didn't go rogue.

    The Minutemen are boon allies to the Red Brotherhood, but Mattick is dissatisfied with the organization as a whole. Their independent nature and lackadaisical structure irritate the older paladin, who prefers the simplicity and direct methodology of the Chain that Binds. Mattick finds Preston Garvey particularly grating, seeing him as more bureaucrat handing out missions for his CO to solve rather than effectively dispatching Minutemen operatives to resolve crises. Still, on an individual basis the two groups work well together, and the Minutemen have saved the Red Brotherhood from Brotherhood of Steel reprisals a number of times. 

    Mattick has no illusions however: Maxson won't stand for a rival organization, especially one allowing for the people of the wasteland to become less and less reliant on the Brotherhood of Steel's "benevolent" rule. A confrontation is inevitable, and it's one Mattick plans to win. While very much an idealist and a believer in the teachings of his beloved mentor and his daughter, Mattick knows the defeat of the Brotherhood of Steel is a long game, one that will require the assistance of the people of the wasteland. Eventually, when sufficient recruits have been inducted into the order and the people of the wasteland support the Red Brotherhood, he'll make his play. For now, he simply does what he can to help others today, and hopes when the time comes he'll have their aid when he needs it tomorrow.

The Red Brotherhood in your campaign

    The Red Brotherhood serves as a potential ally (or character origin) for player characters in the Wasteland: their methods and tactics are similar to the Brotherhood's own, as well as their ranks and organizational structure (See the Brotherhood of Steel Entry in Chapter Ten: Denizens of the Wasteland on page 382 for stats, using the Paladin Entry for Mattick and his lieutenants). Mechanically they're no different than the Brotherhood proper (the Brotherhood Initiate Origin on page 51 of Fallout: The Roleplaying game may be used for the Red Brotherhood also), but in terms of methodology they're a throwback to the Brotherhood of Steel under Owen Lyons in Fallout 3. Simply put, they use their technology in the service of the people of the wasteland, and work to uplift them back to a level before the war, albeit one with socialist/communist ideals emphasized over the old world model of hyper-capitalism. They're by no means foolish about their sharing of tech (they're not about to give the residents of the wasteland their power armour or laser rifles) but they'll share medical supplies, engineering assistance, advanced agricultural techniques, all in the service of aiding the people of the Commonwealth.

Mattick is a compassionate man who legitimately cares about people, but he's seen what Maxson and the Brotherhood have planned for the Commonwealth and he won't stand for it. He does his best to have his people avoid the Brotherhood, but given the RB and BoS are both securing trade routes between settlements (Maxson to forward his expansionist agenda and have the settlements become reliant on the BoS and Mattick to legitimately help the settlers however he can) the clash is inevitable. Mattick's no fool: he knows that in a stand-up fight, despite their equal footing in gear and vertibirds the Red Brotherhood simply lacks the numbers to meet the BoS in a straight fight. For now, Mattick's standing orders for the RB is to avoid the BoS unless there is no other option, and even then retreat at the first opportunity. In an address to his people, Mattick made his intentions clear: "The time will come when we'll be in a strong enough position to confront Arthur and his cronies. But for now, we play the long game." 

    If the Red Brotherhood is a little too upbeat for your Fallout setting you can always have Mattick be considerably less noble in his motives: it wasn't that Arthur's plan was wrong, it was that the West Coast Brotherhood chose a boy over a seasoned soldier who was clearly next in the chain of command. Mattick's ego wouldn't allow him to take orders from Arthur, so he stormed off in a fit of pique. His rhetoric is a carefully constructed lie no better than the Brotherhood proper's mythologizing Arthur's accomplishments, and if given the chance Mattock and his growing band of followers could become a worse threat than any mere raider gang or band of super mutants. They could become the next Enclave.


*Red Sky At Morning: the PCs are wandering the wastes when suddenly they notice a heavily damaged red overtired crash in the nearby ruins. Upon reaching the wreck they find a group of Red Brotherhood soldiers doing their best to strip the wreck of anything salvageable. The soldiers are initially suspicious of the PCs, but if they look to be helpful they'll ask for assistance finding a safe haven. The engines of another overtired can be heard in the distance, and a pursuing squad of Brotherhood of Steel soldiers is closing in. Will the PCs aid the Red Brotherhood's escape? Will they sell them out to the Brotherhood? Will the gang of raiders that's been closing in on both groups attack? 

*Red Diamond: The Red Brotherhood has made inroads into the outlying settlements of the Commonwealth, but now they take a bold step: creating a chapter house in Diamond City. As part of an arrangement with the mayor's office the Red Brotherhood has converted a former residence into a combination recruitment centre/way station for travelling Red soldiers. Needless to say the Brotherhood of Steel is -not- impressed, and make their displeasure apparent outside the city. The mayor is in a bind: on the one hand the Red Brotherhood make for a wonderful supplement to Diamond City Security and they provide tech and assistance for free, but irritating the Brotherhood of Steel could cause real problems for the city. The mayor elects to hire some freelancers (the PCs) and gives them an assignment: either find a way to get the Brotherhood of Steel to leave the Reds in Diamond City alone (unlikely) or find a way to get the Red soldiers to leave. The Reds are willing to leave, if the PCs help them confiscate the tech of a local lunatic called the Machinist.. . 

*Red Heat: the PCs are Red Brotherhood members (or allies) charged with a mission: eliminate a band of Forged raiders who have expanded their operation beyond the Augustus Ironwork into a facility perilously close to the Bunker. The PCs have crate Blanche to deal with the raiders as they see fit, but when they discover that the Ironwork is vulnerable, should they risk it to eliminate the Forged once and for all? Or simply raid the raiders for much needed supplies for the communities of the Commonwealth? Either option opens up it's own set of risks and rewards.

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.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

There & Back Again: A Fantasy Fan's Tale.

 So, here we are. The End of All Things.

 It's hard to believe that the film adaptations of LORD OF THE RINGS are now over a decade old. It seems like only yesterday my brother Ryan and I were settling into our seats at the cinema in Red Deer, Alberta to watch the theatrical cut of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001. At the time, I had reasonable, if relatively low expectations for the film. Traditionally to that point Fantasy as a movie genre had experienced only middling success over the past few decades: there were the odd diamonds in the rough (your DRAGONHEART, your WILLOW, your BEASTMASTER), but none of them had really had any definitive staying power and after CONAN THE DESTROYER's rather disappointing follow up to CONAN (the film that had sparked the brief Fantasy revival in movies), the genre was treated much like the Western is now; they can be done, but usually as low-rent, direct to VHS or low-rent cable fare. At the time I had no idea who Jackson was beyond the fact that he'd directed THE FRIGHTENERS(I was blissfully unaware of MEET THE FEEBLES. I will never be that innocent again). I remembered liking the flick, so I thought we'd get something akin to that, with the usual low-rent effects and swiss-chesse narrative of the Bakshi attempt at the Lord of the Rings from years prior. And then the credits rolled, the New Line Cinemas logo appeared. . .and everything changed.

 A moment of painful honesty here: While Tolkien's work as a visionary and a fantasist is beyond dispute, his actual prose tends to leave me a little cold. As an idea man he is without equal. Much like Isaac Asimov, the man created concepts, whole culutres and worlds from the fabric of his imagination. He created the Elvish language in his idle time teaching at Oxford. . .and then created the whole of Middle-Earth to support the linguisitic equivalent of doodling. That is amazing beyond all the telling of it. But his prose has always been a bit problematic to me. I think it suffers from an unfortunate case of bad timing, really: by the time I got my hands on the 1992 Centenary Editions of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, I'd already been to Krynn, the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Lankhmar, Florin, and Camelot. The works of Tolkien were good, make no mistake, but in the wake of those more contemporary authors I was left wondering what the big deal was all about. I was seventeen, people. Grade on a curve is all I'm saying.

 What Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Phillipa Goyens, and Steve Sinclair managed with the adaptations of each of the three texts to film I liken to William Goldman's grandfather in THE PRINCESS BRIDE: they provided "The Good Parts" version of the original work. Of course, it could also be argued that they took more than a few liberties with the series (THE HOBBIT becoming the basis of an entirely new trilogy of films stands testament to that) but I like to think where they erred, they did so on the side of telling an entertaining story, not out of malice or in any effort to upstage Tolkien himself. The novels will always stand as touchstones of epic fantasy, and the films themselves do their best to honor that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is by no means a perfect film: the romance sub-plot is eye-rolling at best and irritating at worst(seriously, Tauriel is seventeen shades of badass but the minute Kili comes into view she gets distracted and beat down? C'mon now), and it was getting to be a bit much to see Legolas constantly playing in God mode(though the impossible happened and he actually ran out of arrows, which was something at least), serving at the Ace Rimmer of Jackson's Tolkienverse. But Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield is easily one of my favorite characters in fantasy film, thanks to the actor's wonderful performance. Whereas Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn wanted no part of his lineage, Thorin is desperate to reclaim it, to see Erebor restored and his people brought back from the misery they endured at Smaug's talons. In the hands of a lesser actor he could have easily gone moustache-twirling, hammy evil when suffering from the Dragon Sickness of the treasure and his need for the Arkenstone, but Armitage makes it clear that there is a very real war going on in the soul of this noble dwarf, to the point I almost expected a Superman III-style fight between King Thorin and Thorin Oakenshield atop the lake of gold.

 Martin Freeman's Bilbo isn't given as much to do here as he did in the previous films, but he is the heart of the films and it shows. His concern for Thorin's sanity, his compassion at the plight of his friend going more and more obessessed with the Arkenstone contrasts neatly with Bilbo's own growing fascination with an object that is equally. . .precious. . .to him.The scene where he takes his leave of Erebor and the dwarves. . .when he says goodbye to Balin and when he returns home. . .if your eyes don't get a little dusty, you're a stronger person than I.

And while yes, the scene with Gandalf's rescue is pure fanservice, I cannot in good conscience state I was at all put out by the arrival of the White Council in the nick of time, to say nothing of the epic smackdown given to the Nine and Sauron. Unnecesary? Maybe. Fun? Ohhhhh hells yes.

All the actors are doing solid, credible work here, but c'mon. We all know Billy Connolly walked off with the movie as Dain Ironfoot. Peter, Fran, Phillipa. . .when do I get my Dain Ironfoot movie? Whose palm do I place the money in? Tell me when to stop.

It's strange to think that the last of these films (THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES) has been released, and with it the entire saga of Tolkien on film has come to its conclusion. As a society raised in part by syndicated television and movie sequels the concept of the third act and the conclusion has always been a problematic one. Stephen King argues in his magnificent ON WRITING that the reason we have so many Fantasy novels stems from that primal desire to continue walking that road that leads ever on, for we cannot fully accept in our minds that the story has come to a close. As a superhero fan, I'm keenly aware of this willful resistance: supehero stories consist entirely of first and second acts. There will never be a final Superman story or final Batman story (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW & THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are mere shadows, 'what-ifs' or 'imaginary stories' that take place outside of canon). Those characters will continue to be written and rewritten, due to a near primal desire to have the familiar reinterpreted for a new generation. But even the best stories end eventually. Arthur faces Mordred at the battle of Camlann, Robin Hood fires his last arrow to mark his gravestone, Beowulf slays the dragon and is in turn slain himself. The best stories end because the destination is as important as the journey itself. Like Bilbo, we come home from the best stories a little older, a little wiser, and with the understanding that it is who we are when standing among good company or playing riddles in the dark that ultimately matters. Be it on the big screen or in the pages of a novel, the journey itself is what's important, and while one story may end we can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be new roads to travel, with new people to meet and new lessons to learn. And that is an encouraging thought.