Friday, February 26, 2010

Improve Your Vocabulary The Weird Tales Way!

Tired of your hum-hum, unadorned locution? Bored with your terse email correspondences? Frustrated by your lack of adjectives to describe the horror or wonder of your existence?

Well friends, I've got the book for you.

Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon by Dan Clore puts all the fecund phraseology of weird fiction at your fingertips--and into your brain!  Clore provides a dictionary definition of each word (and tells you whether or not it can actually be found in the Oxford English Dictionary) and gives, in most cases, multiple examples of the use of the word in weird fiction.

Just edify yourself with these examples:

Cat-lady...or ailurophile?

Is this Goth...or Charonian?

What a stink? Or what a fetor?

Jibber no more like a man moonstruck! Quit looking like an agrestic buffoon! Claim your desiderate erudition today or be an energumen of illimitable ignorance evermore!

Order today, and never fear to engage in colloquy again.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Unquiet Library

The Library of Tharkad-Keln is considered one of the wonders of the known world. Built in an earlier age, possibly by the mysterious Dungeon Builders themselves, the library is said to hold a copy of every written record of note in the Thystaran sphere. Hyperbole aside, the library is undoubtedly the greatest repository of knowledge currently in existence and a center for scholarship.

The library is a many-floored, conical stone structure—almost like an artificial mountain peak—situated on a volcanic plug just off the western coast of Arn. It’s connected to the mainland by a series of bridges across two smaller plugs. It seems to have powerful magics worked upon it so that it stays an almost constant temperature and humidity on the interior—though their have been times where this protection waned for unknown reasons in areas. Most rooms are filled with rows upon rows of ceiling high shelves in various arrangements made of an unknown material. Many walls are decorated with reliefs of an owl-headed man with a muscular body, dressed only in a breechclout and sandals. This figure resembles Seiptis, the Thystaran god of knowledge, in the traditional depiction—which held to derive from the stereotypical dress of an ancient Thystaran amanuensis. The presence of these images in a structure that predates Thystara’s rise is puzzling.

The library’s inhabitants and staff are demihumans called “gnomes.” This name creates some confusion as the library folk aren’t “true” gnomes (those being part of an ultraterrestrial incursion from the elemental planes), but instead an offshoot of halfling stock. The gnomes came to Tharkad-Keln sometime before the Thystaran Empire reached Arn, perhaps as long ago as the collapse of the Thalarion Hegemony, which is believed to be the fallen, final remnant of the Godmaker culture in Arn.

At first, the library merely provided shelter for the proto-gnomic tribes. Over time, the scrolls and codices found therein began to take on a cultural significance for them. Wars were fought between tribes occupying the natural philosophy and literature sections. Annals written from oral tradition dating to that time suggest there was once a bloody chieftain who rose to found a dynasty from the recesses of the culinary stacks. Even into historic times, when scholars first began to make pilgrimages to the library, care had to be taken to pay tribute to the various gnomic gangs that lurk in less traveled wings and move about through secret passages to prey upon the unwary.

Over time, the halflings came to see the books and learning as of preeminent, almost religious, importance. Generations changed them from a culture of savages to one of scholars. The old tribal system was replaced by guilds which are involved in various aspects of tending the library and serving visitors; there are guides to help pilgrims, runners to carry messages, and guardsmen to enforce the peace.

Thystaran records recount the first visit of their scholars to Tharkad-Keln over a hundred years before the fall of the Empire. The leader of the gnomes, named Atoz Yoron (the “brek” cognomen had not yet been adopted), is already given the title of “magister”—a title which survives to this day, though currently there is rule by a magisterial council rather than an individual.

The gnomes have developed an unusual supplementary language which contains a number of monosyllabic affixes that are reference codes to bibliographical citations of accumulated gnomic wisdom. This allows the gnomes to communicate very complicated and/or detailed bits of information in a concise fashion. This language isn’t secret, but neither is it actively taught to non-gnomes.

Another distinctive gnomic accoutrement is the geithi stick. These walking staffs serve as a sort of curriculum vitae. Gnomic scholars have glyphs representing their major scholarly accomplishments carved upon their geithi sticks. Approval for each glyph carved must be given by a peer review committee, and a dictionary of authorized glyphs is held (predictably) in the library’s gnomic culture section.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Arena of Death

Continuing my examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"Arena of Death"
Warlord (vol. 1) #2 (March-April 1976)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Morgan, still tied to the tree where slavers left him at the end of last issue, is about to be a snack for two sabretooths.  He manages to break the branch he's tied to, and falls to the ground.  He's able to impale one cat on the end of the branch, but is only saved from the attack of the other by an arrow.   His rescuers are a group of men led by Drogar the Terrible.  When Morgan tells them he's bound for Shamballah, Drogar offers him passage on his ship.  In Bal Shazar, Drogar's treachery is revealed as he introduces his club to the back of Morgan's skull. 

When Morgan regains consciouness, he's a galley slave, sharing an oar with Machiste.  After a failed rebellion and a battle with pirates, Drogar figures the pair are worth more to him if he sales them to Shebal, the gladiator trainer.  After a training montage, Morgan and Machiste are forced to fight each other in the arena for the amusement of visiting Prince Eris.  Morgan glimpses his old wrist watch on Eris' arm, he and Machiste stage a revolt.  The captured Eris tells him he got the watch from a slave girl (Tara!) he sold to Deimos--now king of Thera.  Morgan rallies the former gladiators to form the nucleus of an army to invade Thera.

Things to Notice:
  • This issue has the first of the two-page title spreads that will become a Warlord mainstay.
  • The tree Morgan was tied to in issue #1 appeared to be on a grassy plain near the edge of the desert, but this issue it seems in the middle of the forest.
  • Racial prejudice seems to exist in Skartaris, at least among the Gryfalcon's crew.
  • Machiste is no more believing of Morgan's tales of the outer world than Tara.  One wonders why he insists on telling people.
Where It Comes From:
This issue seems primarily inspired by historical epics and sword and sandal films.  It hits a couple of the common tropes: having the protagonists be galley slaves (like in Ben-Hur) and gladiators (like Barabbas, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and Spartacus among others).  Morgan's rallying the former gladiators for "freedom" at the end has overtones of Spartacus (both filmic and historic, perhaps).

Machiste's name betrays the story's sword and sandal origins, too.  "Machiste," or more properly "Maciste" (pronounced ma-CHEES-tay), is the name of a frequently-appearing heroic figure in Italian cinema. Dating back to the silent era with Cabiria (1914), the character appeared in numerous pseudo-historical or mythological themed films. He was revived for more adventures in the 1960s with the sword and sandal fad touched off by the 1959 Italian production of Hercules with Steve Reeves. Many of these films had the hero’s named changed when they were imported to the U.S. (and dubbed into English) to a more recognizable brand, such as Hercules, Samson, Atlas, or the like.

Ultimately, Maciste derives from a Doric Greek word makistos meaning “tallest” or “greatest.” It is said to have been one of the epithets of Heracles (Hercules). Interestingly, machiste also means “macho man” or "male chauvinist" in French.

While I don’t have any definitive proof of this, I suspect Machiste's physical appearance was modelled on professional football player turned actor, Jim Brown:

See what I mean? 

Coincidentally, Brown co-starred with Raquel Welch (who we know Grell was a fan of) in the 1969 Western, 100 Rifles.

Grell is perhaps playing a little literary joke with his naming of the “wastrel” Prince Eris. Eris is the goddess of strife in Greek mythology (her Latin name is Discordia). The appearance of Prince Eris in the story certainly brings discord, ultimately, to Shebal's gladiatorial academy. Also, The Iliad gives Eris as a sister of Ares, which would make her aunt to Deimos—an allusive hint at the connection between the Grell's Eris and Deimos revealed at the story's end, maybe?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gaming Kane

After writing yesterday's post, I remembered that Karl Edward Wagner's Kane had a history in gaming.  In the early days, Dragon Magazine featured a column called "Giants in the Earth" wherein writers statted up characters from fiction.

In Dragon #26 (June 1979), in what may have been the debut of "Giants in the Earth,"  D&D translations of Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever, Talbot Mundy's Tros of Samothrace, and Wagner's Kane appeared.  Here's Kane's stat-block excerpt:

The article goes on to give a brief rundown of Kane's appearance and history.  It also notes that Kane may be in disguise when encountered, and that he be on an assassination job.  In fact: 
"There is an 05% chance that when Kane encounteres a party, he is out to assassinate one party member (at random)."
"Kane's long life has made him whimsical.  He may unaccountably befriend a player character (regardless of that character's alignment).  Roll Kane's reaction to each party member.  A 12, on two 6-sided dice, shows he has befriended a character for 1-100 turns.  Kane will not assassinate a friend."
The writer also goes through some contortions to try to fit Kane's behavior to D&D's alignment system.  He notes Kane's the "eternal rebel" and that (horrors!) "he's not even true to his alignment" and at any particular time "there is a 10% chance he's acting out of character." The author suggests in these cases that a d8 should be used to determine Kane's alignment at present.

The presentation of Kane is this article caused a bit of controversy.  In Dragon Magazine #30, Gary Gygax warned in his "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column that Kane as presented was too powerful.  He suggested that 20th level fighter/16th level magic-user/12th level assassin, was more reasonable for his class abilities, though still on the high side.  He promised a closer eye would be kept on future "Giants in the Earth" installments.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Mark of Kane

"His long red hair was torn by the wind despite the rain. His eyes seemed to glow with cold blue fire in the burst of lightning. In his left hand he carried a long sword; in his right hand he held a human head."

- Karl Edward Wagner, "The Gothic Touch"

While not exactly what you would called a forgotten hero of sword and sorcery, Karl Edward Wagner's immortal anti-hero Kane is criminally under appreciated today. Of course, it could certainly be argued that outside Howard's heroes and perhaps Fafhrd and Gray Mouser that all sword and sorcery heroes are under appreciated, but that's a lament for another time. Still, Kane's low profile is particularly unfortunate. I believe he stands with Charles R. Saunder's Imaro as one of the two most significant sword and sorcery characters of the seventies revival--which makes him one of the most important sword and sorcery characters since the death of the pulps.

Kane is Wagner's re-imagining of the Biblical first murder. Created by a "mad god" who wished humanity to be his play thing, Kane rebelled against the "sterile paradise" offered and slew his brother (or half-brother, it's hinted) who was the god's favorite. Perhaps realizing what he had loosed upon the world, the god cursed Kane. Immortal, he would wander the world bringing only violence and strife, only able to find death through violence. Men would know him by his startling blue eyes, the eyes of a killer--the Mark of Kane.

In his essay "Once and Future Kane," Wagner tells us that the primary inspiration for the character was gothic fiction, particularly Charles Robert Maturin's 1820 novel of another unfortunate, cursed to immortality, Melmoth the Wanderer. Certainly, the gothic touch can be seen in the Kane tales, but filtered through Wagner it's (as he put it) "acid gothic"--which is to say it has a tinge of psychedelia about it (or maybe phantasmagoria would be a better word) and some "experimental" (for a fairly conservative genre) stylistic flourishes on occasion.

Darkness Weaves with Many Shades (later just Darkness Weaves) was the first Kane novel, published in 1970 by Powell, in a badly edited edition. Darkness Weaves has some first novel shakiness but it's great piece of pulp fantasy for all that, cheerfully mixing science fantasy, horror, and a little hard-boiled attitude.

In 1973 it was followed by Death Angel's Shadow, a collection of three novellas from Warner. In "Reflections of the Winter of My Soul," Kane takes on a werewolf in a sort of And Then There Were None-ish mystery. "Mirage" features a seductive vampire, while "Cold Light" has Kane up against a righteous paladin and his party in a Die Hard-esque confrontation in a ghost town out of an Almeria filmed Spaghetti Western.

Next came two short-stories. "Lynortis Reprise" has Kane returning to the site of an old battle, and re-imagines the Trojan War with the horrors of World War I. "Dark Muse" is a horror story evoking Chambers' The King Yellow wherein a poet seeks an ancient, magical artifact with ruinous results, and Kane is a side-player/observer.

The second Kane novel, Bloodstone (1975), got a Frazetta cover, and has Kane trying to take over the world with the eponymous ring which controls a sentient, alien super-weapon. 1976's Dark Crusade finds Kane leading a mercenary army for the prophet of a revived (and evil) ancient cult--and of course, trying to turn the whole affair to his advantage.

Over the next few years, Kane short stories appeared elsewhere. "Two Suns Setting" has Kane helping the last hero of giant-kind attempt to regain the crown of their greatest king. "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" is ghost story with Kane helping a wronged sorcerer and his love get their revenge. "Raven's Eyrie" introduces Kane's daughter, Klesst, and his old supernatural enemy, Sathonys. These stories, plus "Lynortis Reprise" and "Dark Muse", were collected in Night Winds (1978).

At the dawn of the eighties, Wagner was devoting more of his time to horror, but not far into the eighties that too would begin to falter. There were a few more Kane stories--including the crossover with Elric, "The Gothic Touch" (1994). Two of the others moved Kane out of his prehistoric past and into the modern day. The much discussed Kane novel, In the Wake of Night, was never completed. Maybe Wagner was tiring of Swords and Sorcery? We'll never really know.

Wagner died in 1994 at the age of forty-eight. It was apparently due to complications of alcoholism, though the internet also relates he had "tick fever" (presumably that means Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), but David Drake suggests this was an unconfirmed (and dubious) self-diagnosis on Wagner's part--and an excuse.

Flawed though the creator may have been, he gave his creation immortality. Kane lives on. Though out of print, the Warner editions and the handsome Night Shade Books hardcovers can still be found and are worth whatever you pay might for them.

"He strode away laughing into the cold night;
Kane had returned, a new challenge begun."

- Karl Edward Wagner, "The Midnight Sun"

Friday, February 19, 2010

Gloom, Rising from the Underground: The Derro

The derro, as presented in AD&D, always seemed a little superfluous. Okay, the original Jim Holloway art from S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth gives them a sort of Celtic twist (biker moustaches, spikey hair, and plaid pants), but essentially they're just evil dwarves--and that's the duergar's thing.

The derro are kind of bland, really. I'd expect more from a monster inspired by the delusions of a man likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

"They recognize no other living thing as friend; to a dero all new things are enemy."
- Richard Shaver and Ray Plamer, "I Remember Lemuria!"
"Dero" (only one "r" here) are from the stories of Richard Sharpe Shaver, edited by Ray Palmer and published in the pulp magazine, Amazing Stories. Shaver was a welder who had begun to hear voices being projected into the welding equipment he used, which he believed came from an underground civilization. These voices, visions he received, and ultimately memories he began to recover from his past lives revealed to him a secret history. He learned of the Elder Race from another world, who had been forced underground by increasing solar radiation. Over time, the elder race degenerated into the "teros" or integrative energy robots, who were helpful to mankind, and the "deros" or detrimental energy robots, who were sadistic and tormented humanity. Robot, it should be noted, doesn't mean a mechanical being in Shaver's terminology. Both races were biological, presumably.

Shaver sent a letter to Amazing Stories detailing his discovery of the ancient source of all human languages, which allowed him to pick out the hiding meanings in English words. This interested Palmer. He claims to have applied Shaver's formula to samples of other languages with "interesting results." Palmer published the letter in the December 1943 issue, and got a big response from readers.

Palmer contacted Shaver for more, and Shaver responded with a 10,000 word manuscript entitled "A Warning to Future Man." Palmer edited Shaver's work and added more of an actual plot, producing the novella "I Remember Lemuria!" published in March 1945. The Shaver Mystery series had begun, and for the next two years, nearly every issue of Amazing Stories featured a Shaver story.

Shaver's deros kidnapped humans for sadistic torture, or for food. Using ancient ray machines, they surveilled surface dwellers and projected tormenting thoughts and voices into their minds. They could also cause all manner of misfortunes, from illness to natural disasters.

It seems to me that something more akin to Shaver's deros would be more interesting than simple evil dwarves. Maybe the two "r" derro could be encountered as a mysterious evil afflicting a village or town. Villagers might disappear, others would be driven to suicide or homicide by tormenting voices. Bizarre events--anything an enterprising gamemaster might wish to borrow from paranormal or ufo lore--would have everyone in town on edge. Eventually, of course, the PCs would venture into previously hidden caves to confront the menace (and take its stuff), but until then the adventure could proceed in something of a "horror" mode--or at least a "weird" one.

The derro are no strangers to madness, and its about time they shared it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sword & Planet Hulk

Last week I watched the blu-ray of the animated Planet Hulk feature from Lions Gate. It’s an adaptation of the 2006 storyline in The Incredible Hulk, written by Greg Pak with art by Carlo Pagulayan and Jeffrey Huet. Having not read the comic, this was my first exposure to the material, and I found it pretty enjoyable, and one of the best of Marvel Animation's direct-to-video efforts.

The plot, in brief, goes something like this: the Hulk is rocketed into space by a group of Marvel Universe big-guns who think he’s menace. He winds up going through a space-rift and winding up on one of those mostly barbaric worlds with elements of advanced technology here and there—this one being named Sakaar. There, he’s put into the arena by the forces of the planet’s tyrant, the Red King, with sort of an eclectic group of other aliens. He proves himself in brute strength, but must overcome his sulkiness and stop being a loner. Then, he bursts his bonds to fight for justice (as it were) and takes a page from the Spartacus revolutionary handbook. Ultimately, the Hulk gets a love interest, defeats the Red King, and proves himself to have been the prophesied messiah of Sakaar all along.

The story is pure “sword and planet” or “planetary romance”—which is to say the subgenre of science fiction (or fantasy) that features an earthman (or woman) engaging in heroic adventure on other worlds. Generally these worlds are primitive—or have strange primitive elements—which is where the swords come into play. The prototype of these sorts of stories is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, but the genre has had many adherents, particularly during a revival in the late sixties.

Planet Hulk isn’t the first fusion of superheroica and planetary romance—it isn’t even the first starring the Hulk. Harlan Ellison’s “The Brute…That Shouted Love…At the Heart of the Atom” (The Incredible Hulk #140, 1971) had the Hulk romancing a queen and winning a kingdom in the subatomic world of K’ai—most likely inspired by Ray Cummings’ 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom. The X-Men’s Nightcrawler got into otherworldly swashbuckling in his 1985 limited series. He also got to stand-in for John Carter in a one-off send-up of the genre in Excalibur #16 (December, 1989).

Is there any gaming value here? Well, I think that for those playing superhero rpgs, a sword and planet sojourn might be a welcome respite from slogging it out with super-villains. My personal favorites for something like this would be the old Marvel Superheroes rpg (or maybe one of its retro-clones), or maybe Mutants & Masterminds, utilizing the Wizards & Warlocks supplement (which doesn’t offer a Sword & Planet setting per se, but does swords and lost worlds, which ought to be close enough).

The other possible inspiration would be for a Sword & Planet game with more over-the-top action and power levels than traditionally found in the literary genre. In other words, maybe something analogous to what Exalted is for fantasy --at least in terms of power level, not necessarily flavor. I don’t off hand know the best system for this—though either of the two suggested above could do it, and HERO System no doubt could as well, depending on the level of crunch one wants.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: This Savage World

Continuing my examination of DC Comic's Warlord...

"This Savage World"
Warlord (vol. 1) #1 (January-February 1976)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: In the jungles of Skartaris, Morgan trains in use of the sword with Tara. He recalls the events that led to this point--giving a recap of 1st Issue Special #8. After completing their practice, the two continue their journey to Tara's home city of Shamballah. Morgan tries (again) to explain to Tara about the hollow earth, but she still doesn't believe him. In their travels they glimpse a coffle of slaves being taken to Bal Shazar, and Tara is mesmerized by a satyr--who Morgan knocks out with one punch. Unfortunately, the smoke of their campfire draws the slave raiders, and the are ambushed. Tara and Morgan are chained with the other slaves and marched out across the desert. Unwilling to give up, Morgan begins to saw through Tara's slave collar with the titanium chain of his dog tags. After some time, he manages to free her, but not before they're noticed by the guards. Tara is able to escape on horseback, while Morgan fights off the slavers. Eventually, he's brought down by a blow to the back of his skull. When he regains consconsciousness, he's tied hanging from a tree by his arms, where the angry slavemaster leaves him to die.

Things to Notice:
  • The recap gives the name of the Theran king (Baldur) which wasn't given last issue.
  • Neither Tara or Morgan understand gravity. Tara has no conception of it, and Morgan gets it wrong.
  • The leader of the slavers wears a winged helm much like the one Morgan will eventually adopt.
  • The worst invective Vietnam vet Travis Morgan can hurl at the slaver who just crucified him is "stick it in your ear!"
Where It Comes From:
Tara and Morgan are on their way to Tara's home city of Shamballah.  The name comes from the Tibetian Buddhist tradition, where it came to be seen as a earthly paradise of sorts. It enters into the Western occult lore through the theosophist writings of HP Blavatsky. Grell probably encountered it in the Three Dog Night song of the same name ("Shambala") from 1975.

Tara's Skartarian cosmological mythology snippet is a nice bit of color.  Her giant is the Skartarian equivalent of Atlas, the titan who held up the heavens from Greek mythology.  The Atlas Mountains of North (western) Africa are named for him. The name of Tara's giant is "Ashanti" which is the name of a Western African ethnic group, who ruled a pre-colonial empire in what is now Ghana.

The slavers and their hapless captives are on their way to another Skartarian city, Bal Shazar--which is only a slight modification of Belshazzar (Akkadian Bal-sarra-usur meaning "Bel (lord) protect the king"), the name of a prince of Babylon according to the Old Testament Book of Daniel.  Grell probably uses it for its ancient Middle Eastern sort of sound which fits thematically with the slave coffle's trek across the desert.
The satyr sequence drives home the fantasy elements of Skartaris, which serves as a counterpoint to the dinosaurs and other lost world trappings.  The satyr is from Greek mythology, though his protrayal here shows that Grell follows the tendency--present since the Roman era--to conflate them with the god Pan, himself. The specific events in the story may have been inspired by a sequence from the 1964 film, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, where Barbara Eden's character suffers a similar musical seduction.

Monday, February 15, 2010


My birthday's today and that's got me in a nostalgic mood. Related to the matter of this blog, it's got me thinking about how I developed the various hobbies and interests I have now. Some of the pivotal incidents have been forgotten in the years since, but here's a selection of what I do remember:

Gaming: In my very first post I discussed how I got into gaming in the early eighties. I don't remember exactly when I played that first game, but I do remember the character I used. In fact, I've still got the character sheet. It's worn enough to look like it might be a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the like, and its now in a plastic sleeve to preserve it for posterity. The homemade, blue-ink pin, imitation of an official AD&D character record gives his name as "Grimlin" and relates that he's a 13th level elven fighter. His equipment list is extensive and written in precise, cursive script that I don't think I could replicate today. Among the notable items: Medusa's head, a "magic hawk", a "mirror of souls", a "lazer [sic] gun", and a "ring of ion shield." My memory doesn't extend to what sort of adventures my cousin Tim, my first dungeonmaster, led us on to acquire those items, but the list itself tells me they must have been epic.

The first rpg I played, besides assorted editions of D&D, was the second edition of Gamma World. Again, my cousin was the gamemaster. Probably because I was a little older then, I remember not only my character (a mutated humanoid with four arms named Ace Beta) but my brother's (a mutated armadillo named Norg), too.

Fantasy Fiction: I don't remember the first fantasy novel I read, but I can narrow the list. It could have been The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or the first volume of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, The Book of Three. I'm sure the first Sword & Sorcery I read was Conan, but I can't remember whether I first borrowed Conan the Barbarian or Conan of Cimmeria (the Ace reprints of the Lancer paperbacks) from Tim. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser came close on Conan's heels. I'm certain I first read the Ace edition of Swords and Deviltry--again borrowed from my cousin. Clark Ashton Smith entered the picture when I discovered the the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of Zothique in a used bookstore in Albany, Georgia.

That find--and other Lin Carter edited Ballantine adult fantasy series titles (like James Branch Cabell's The Silver Stallion)--led me to develop a serious used bookstore habit that went on for years, and to some extent, continues--though the pickings have gotten leaner in actual bookstores with the rise of ebay, so it's seldom worth the effort. Still, in 1999, it was well worth it, and I was making a lot of interesting discoveries while travelling around on my residency interviewing tour. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I found a Powell first edition of Karl Edward Wagner's Darkness Weaves, and a Warner edition of Bloodstone in a bookstore near the UNC campus. This was an interesting coincidence, because Wagner had attended UNC. It gets even weirder because I was going to be interviewing there for a psychiatry residency position, and would wind up touring a hospital where Wagner had worked as a psychiatrist.

Fantasy Comic: There's no way I remember the first comic book I ever read, but I do know the oldest fantasy comic that I bought off a spinner-rack. That would be Warlord #73.  I'm sure I had read other fantasy comics, or at least perused them at the grocery store, but that was the first one that persuaded me to buy it.

So that's a sampling--and probably enough nostalgia for one birthday.  I've yet to stop finding new authors, books, or games to discover--or old ones new to me.  Enough for another thirty-seven years, and more. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fantasy Pharmakon

"Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into locked a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can."

- Raoul Duke, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

A couple of years ago, I was following a messageboard thread discussing drugs--intoxicants--in the context of fantasy gaming. It was prompted by White Wolf's Exalted and the modern drugs like heroin and cocaine, apearing therein. One of the writer's involved with defended their choice to use those very modern drugs with those very modern names by saying that "made up" names for things were essentially lame/uncool, and that if a substance was familiar to player's under a certain name, that name ought to be used.

I disagreed in two ways. One, I think using too many words with modern connotations and origins can break the "mood" of fantasy. Such things are "amundisms," as Lin Carter would have it in his seminal exploration on world-building, Imaginary Worlds (1973). Secondly, and most importantly, why should a world like Exalted's Creation, where fantastic creatures like the Beasts of Resplendent Liquids exist--which eat raw materials and excrete drugs--be saddled with the same old, boring drugs found in the real world? Surely, that's a failure of imagination.

Thankfully, many writers of fantastic fiction have not been so limited. Here are several examples of fantastic intoxicants which should serve to inspire interesting new substances for role-playing game characters to use (or misuse):

Black Lotus
In most of Howard's Conan stories, black lotus is a poison (though in "Hour of the Dragon" it's noted that its pollen causes "death-like sleep and monstrous dreams"), but the ancestors of the thoroughly stoned citizens of Xuthal have cultivated it until "instead of death, its juice induces dreams, gorgeous and fantastic." The effects appear to be similar to more mundane narcotics in terms of the heavy sleep and euphoria it induces with the added effect of generating vivid, pleasurable dreams. Find it in: "Xuthal of the Dusk" in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

A mysterious, and powerful, new psychedelic drug on the streets of New Crobuzon in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Dreamshit takes the form of brown, sticky pellets about the size of an olive that smell like burnt sugar. Eventually, it's discovered that dreamshit is the "milk" of the deadly, mind-devouring, slake-moths. Find it in: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.

In Tim Lebbon's Noreela, fledge is a commonly used (and abused) substance. Mined from deep underground the yellowish substance is put to many beneficial uses by the race of fledge miners for whom it provides sustenance, healing, and the ability to project their minds outside of their bodies. The fledge miners experience no ill-effects from their use, but do have withdrawal if they go without it. Taken to the surface, though, fledge degrades in quality--its mental-projection effects greatly diminish--and becomes highly addictive. Not that fledge mining is totally without dangers. There are rare, but powerful demons (the Nax) sometimes found near fledge veins. Lebbon also gives us another drug--rhellim--which enhances sexual stimulation, and comes from the livers of furbats. Find them in: Dusk, and Dawn by Tim Lebbon.

The Plutonian Drug
The Plutonian Drug appears in the Clark Ashton Smith story of the same name. Also called "plutonium"--though certainly not to be confused with the radioactive element of the same name--it's found on Pluto by the Cornell Brothers' 1990 expedition (I remember watching the intrepid explorers' return on live TV in 1994, don't you?). Its native form is crystalline, but it turns to a powder when exposed to earthly atmosphere. Ingestion of the drug causes the user to be able to perceive their own timeline for a relatively recent period as if it were a spatial dimension, allowing them to see a short distance into the future. Several other extraterrestrial drugs are mentioned in the same story. Find them in: "The Plutonian Drug."

Appearing in a couple of stories by Leigh Brackett, shanga certainly brings out the beast in its users.  It isn't actually a drug, but a radiation produced by projector devices, the construction of which is a lost art. Users experience temporary atavism, allowing one to (as the quote goes) make oneself into a beast to get rid of the pain of being a man. The ancient projectors used a prism of an alien crystal rather than quartz, like the projectors found in the seeder parts of Martian trade-cities at the time of the stories. The crystals, the so-called Jewels of Shanga, produce a more potent effect leading to physical de-evolution, with longer exposure causing transformation to ever more remote evolutionary ancestral forms. Find it in: "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" (The Secret of Sinharat), and "The Beast-Jewel of Mars."

There you go. Five substances for hours of simulated enjoyment. Turn on, tune in, play on.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Forgotten Heroes of Swords & Sorcery

Getting into old school Sword & Sorcery today is easy. What with Paizo's Planet Stories, Del Rey's Robert E. Howard series, Night Shade Books' Clark Ashton Smith Collected Fantasies library, and other assort small press publishers, its easier to come by many of the classics of the Sword & Sorcery genre than it has been since the end of the seventies.

Still, a great many interesting stories and characters languish in Out-of-Print Limbo. Here are a few of the characters I've encountered over the years that ought to have collections in print, but tragically, do not, or are just less known than they deserve:

Ryre: Ramsey Campbell's swordsman stars in four stories appearing in four volumes of Andrew J. Offutt's Swords Against Darkness anthology series. The Ryre stories are somewhat spare by the standards of oft-florid pulp prose, but this leanness lends them a unique atmosphere that reminds me (for some reason) of some seventies cinema. As befitting stories from a horror writer, there are outré monsters in most of the Ryre yarns, yet they're different from the usual Howardian-inspired monstrosities of Sword and Sorcery--and Campbell's understated style just adds to their strangeness. Probably my favorite of these tales is "The Sustenance of Hoak" from the first Swords Against Darkness volume (1977) which features a village under an unusual (and horrific) curse. The Ryre stories appeared in a collection in 1996, but not since.

Kardios of Atlantis: Kardios isn't my favorite Manly Wade Wellman character (that would be John the Balladeer) but he is a Sword & Sorcery character, and he was left out of Night Shade Books' five volume Wellman short story series. Kardios is a minstrel, and sole survivor of Atlantis--who sank his homeland with a kiss. There are at least four Kardios stories appearing in the Swords Against Darkness anthologies. Possibly there are more elsewhere. Wellman infuses Kardios with gentle humor and aplomb in face of danger, adding up to a personality atypical for Sword & Sorcery protagonists.

Simon of Gitta: Richard Tierney's Sword & Sorcery version of Simon Magus of New Testament fame. The Simon stories combine sword and sandal action with speculative Lovecraftiana, and historical fantasy. Chaosium released a collection of the Simon Magus stories, The Scroll of Thoth in 1997, which is now out of print. There are also a couple of novels featuring Simon, but only Drums of Chaos, a crossover novel with Tierney's Lovecraftian SF character, John Taggart--and special guest appearance by Jesus--is still in print.

Prince Raynor: Henry Kuttner's prince of doomed Sardopolis, greatest city of the lost civilization of the Gobi. There were only two Prince Raynor stories--"Cursed be the City," and "Citadel of Darkness"--but their well worth your time. Kuttner gives these stories a slightly darker tone than most Sword & Sorcery of their day. In this way, as Karl Edward Wagner points out in Echoes of Valor III, Prince Raynor seems to prefigure Elric. His civilization in the Gobi may be lost, but Prince Raynor is actually in print currently, appearing in Paizo's Elak of Atlantis collection.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Epic Begins: Warlord Wednesday!

The new ongoing series and my recent post on DC Comic's Warlord, have led to my decision to revisit creator Mike Grell's run on the original series.  So at least from now until issue 71 (or until I get tired of it), I'm going to be looking at the Lost World of the Warlord, issue by issue.

First up,  of course, is the try-out before the series started...

"Land of Fear"
1st Issue Special #8 (November 1975)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Colonel Travis Morgan, USAF, is forced to ditch his plane after taking fire during a spy mission over the Soviet Union. Expecting to come down in the arctic, he's surprised to find himself in a lush jungle. Finding a woman, Tara, in combat with a dinosaur he rushes to her aid. No sooner have they overcome that danger, then they are captured by soldiers and taken to the city of Thera. Morgan quickly earns the enmity of the high priest, Deimos, though use of his pistol convinces the rest of the Theran court that he's a god. While guests of the Theran king, Morgan pieces together the remarkable truth of his situation--he's in the hollow earth! Ultimately, treachery by Deimos leads Morgan and Tara to flee Thera.

Things to Notice:
  • The story begins on a specific date: June 16, 1969. Though time is strange in Skartaris, stories will often give reference to the passage of "real time" on earth--something very different from most comic series. This also dates Morgan, allowing us, as more information is given, to construct a timeline of his life.
  • Morgan has a .38 special in this issue and only 12 rounds of ammo, all of which he uses here.
  • The women of Thera seem go in for the colorful, raccoon-patch, eye shadow which is also styled by some female members of the disco-era Legion of Super-Heroes, Marionette of the Micronauts, and Dazzzler, among others.
Where It Comes From:
The portrayal of the hollow earth in both fiction and purported fact has a rich history going back to Sir Edmund Haley (of comet fame) and possibly before. The primary inspiration for Grell’s version seems to be Pellucidar, a savage land debuting in At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs, serialized (as “The Inner World”) over 4 issues in All-Story beginning on April 4, 1914. A novel version was published in 1922, and in 1976 there was a move adaptation with Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, and bond-girl-to-be Caroline Munro.

In the introduction to the collection Savage Empire (1991), Grell cites the Burroughs influence on Warlord and calls the Pellucidar series "the best of the [Earth's core] genre."  In a later interview, he seems to downplay this influence, emphasizing instead Jules Vernes' Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Smokey God by Willis George Emerson.  Certainly a case could be made for the primacy of these works in Skartaris' conception.  Verne's work has prehistoric survivors in his underground world, while Emerson's novel has a central sun (the titular Smokey God).

Still, Burroughs' work has those similarities to Skartaris, too.  It also shares one feature not found in any other "hollow earth" fiction with which I'm aware: time is strange there.  The odd timelessness of Skartaris is also found in Pellucidar--despite neither ever giving a good explanation as to why things should be that way.

An interesting parallel to Burroughs, though probably not a direct reference, is this issue's title.  Burroughs' sixth novel of Pellucidar is called Land of Terror.

One thing clearly does come from Verne, and that's the name of The Warlord's hollow world.  In Journey to the Center of the Earth, "Scartaris" is a mountain whose shadow marks the entrance to the center of the earth in the crater of Snæfellsjökull.

The dinosaur gracing the cover and appearing in the issue is identified as a deinonychus, which is a species related to the velociraptor family.  Unlike its depiction in this issue, deinonychus apparently had feathers.

The character of Travis Morgan got his first name from Grell's nephew, and his surname from the privateer and rum bottle spokesmodel, Henry Morgan.  Morgan got the facial hair that Grell himself had at the time, and also Grell's experiences in the air force.

Grell has said that the appearance of Tara was inspired by Raquel Welch.  Presumably he was thinking of her in One Million Years B.C.  The name "Tara" was a popular one in the United States in the 70s, probably due to the enduring popularity of the film version of Gone With The Wind.  In this context, the name Tara derives from the Hill of Tara in Ireland. The hill is also known as Teamhair na Rí (“The Hill of Kings”) because of its association with ancient kingship rituals. Tara also means "shining" in Sanskrit and is the name of a Hindu goddess.

Grell tells us he got "Deimos" from the name of Mars' smaller moon, the larger being Phobos.  These names derive from Greek mythology where Deimos ("dread") and Phobos ("fear") are sons of Ares.  Again, the title of the issue seems to have unintended connections.

The name of the city where Deimos is high priest, Thera, is also Greek in origin.  Thera is part of what is now the Santorini Archipelago and the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.  This eruption, some 3600 years ago, led to the decline of Minoan civilization, and popular theory holds that this event may be the ultimate source of the Atlantis legend.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Something Wicked: The Drow

"The tiers and dungeons of Erelhei-Cinlu reek of debauchery and decadence...Unspeakable things transpire where the evil and jaded creatures seek pleasure, pain, excitement, or arcane knowledge, and sometimes these seekers find they are victims."

- Gary Gygax, Vault of the Drow

Like regular elves, drow provoke ambivalence in the collecitve gamer heart. Thanks mostly to R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt do'Urden books, and an enduring viusal appeal (at least the drow females), they have a prominent place in tabletop and computer rpgs. On the other hand, charges of implicit racism and sexism, and general blacklash against overexposure, fan flames in many a message board thread.

Having never read a Drizzt novel (and never intending to, honestly), my appreciation of the drow comes mainly from the AD&D D and Q modules that dealt with them. There, they were exotic and powerful adversaries. Then came Unearthed Arcana, which gave us drow as a (somewhat overpowered) player character race. Players always like more options--particularly "cool" ones--but there the seeds were sown for over-familiarity and the contempt which usually follows.

So in trying to do a little re-imagining of the drow for my current campaign world, I wanted to chart a course between the purely villainous drow of the early D&D modules, and the posing, voluptuous viragos and emo-Elric wannabes of today. Since I've conceived the world's "high elves" as posthuman, glam anarcho-capitalists, and the "gray elves" as alien beings partaking of the melancholic sense of "passing" found in Tolkien's elves and Yag-kosha in Howard's "Tower of the Elephant," it seems proper to me that the dark elves should have pulp roots growing though Lovecraft's K'n-yan, and Clark Ashton Smithian decadence, which break the surface in the vicinity of Hellraiser, along the Left Hand Path, posted with fuzzy LaVey philosophy.

"Do what thou wilt" shall be the whole of Drow law, I think.

"free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy...all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom."

- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

Like all the aethyr, the elves of the world of Arn, the drau, or "drow," are beings aligned to extraplanar chaos. Unlike the other elves, who are general beneficent, and aligned to the extraplanar power of "good," drow have chosen the path of egotism without concern for concepts like morality, and have aligned themselves with "evil."

These philosophical differences long ago caused a schism among the elves, and led to the drow being driven underground. There, they nurse their ancient enmities and plan for a chance at revenge.  They past the time until that day in strange pleasures--byzantine intrigues, arcane drugs, elaborate assassinations, and baroque orgies. 

The primary goddess of the drow is Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders. Like all demons, Lolth seeks the destruction of all matter and form, the dissolution of the multiverse, and a return to a state of pure chaos--but she wishes to enjoy every sensation and fulfill every other desire prior to that end. She offers her faithful the same reward, and finds her chosen people enthusiastic followers.

There are legends that hold that Lolth was once an elven sorceress in a time before there were drow. In the pursuit of knowledge and experience beyond what she could find on this plane, Lolth trafficked with demons from the Abyss. Tricked by a demon lord and cast into the abyssal depths, Lolth was forced to live through a myriad of lives, deaths, and physical forms, experiencing all the inhuman horrors and pleasures that fiendish minds older than the earth can conceive. After lifetimes, she arrived at the realm of the demon lord, who she thanked--and then slew. At that moment, a new demon queen was born.

Drow are often as ambitious as their goddess. Implicit in her teachings is the opportunity for any drow to ascend and claim her power for their own.

Lolth sits at the center of her demonweb and waits, nourishing herself on the partially dissolved souls of those who have challenged her before.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Fist Full of Fantasy

Looking for some weekend reading? In no particular order, here are five fantastic (in both senses of the word) stories well worth seeking out:

"Lean Times in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber
"How the lack of money leads to a lack of love, even among sworn comrades." When Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are the sworn comrades in question, what happens next certainly isn't dull. Mouser goes to work for an unusual extortionist, and Fafhrd gets religion! A clever, colorful, and genuinely funny tale. One of Leiber's best tales of the twain--and that's high praise, indeed.
Find it in: Swords Against Death: The Adventures of Fafhrd & Gray Mouser Book 2

"Worms of the Earth" by Robert E. Howard
Bran Mak Morn, last king of the Picts, wants revenge against the hated Roman invaders, and he's willing to bargain with an ancient, inhuman enemy to get it. This is one of Howard's best stories--combining action and horror, in one effective package.
Find it in: Bran Mak Morn: The Last King

"Queen of the Martian Catacombs" by Leigh Brackett
This was technically science fiction when it was written, but advancing knowledge of the solar system has rendered Brackett's pulp view quaint. Too bad for us in the real world. Eric John Stark, Brackett's hard-boiled, outlaw hero, is an earth-man raised by primitives on Mercury like an interplanetary Tarzan. Stark is forced to cut a deal with authorities to infiltrate and disrupt a plot by Martian desert tribesmen and criminal elements to ferment a rebellion against the Terran colonial powers. In the process, Stark will uncover a startling secret, surviving from ancient Mars.
Find it in: expanded form as the novel, The Secret of Sinharat.

"Undertow" by Karl Edward Wagner
This story features Kane, Wagner's version of the Biblical first murderer, cursed by a mad god to wander a sword & sorcery pre-history, knowing only violence. Kane's often more of anti-hero--a trait this story well illustrates. A ship's captain falls for a beautiful woman kept by a powerful sorcerer, and at her urging, hatches a dangerous plot to free her. But all is not what it seems. The sorcerer is Kane, and this whole drama of doomed love, manipulation, and death, may have played out before.
Find it in: The Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane, or Night Winds (both unfortunately out of print--and probably pricey).

"The Seven Geases" by Clark Ashton Smith
In fabled Hyperborea, Ralibar Vooz, high magistrate of Commoriom, is having one seriously bad day. He has magical compulsions, seven in all, laid upon him by a succession of ever more dire supernatural entities. All the while, Smith will "wow" you with his ceaseless invention, ironic humor, and lush prose.
Find it in: The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith or here--for free--on the Eldritch Dark website.

Find and enjoy!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

See Their Faces in Golden Rays: Elves Unveiled

"You gotta make way for the homo superior."
- David Bowie, "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Elves, in just about any D&D-inspired game, are smarter, more graceful, and better looking than--well, everybody. Ever wonder how they got that way?

Western fantasy literature has long contained the thematic element of "the fall"--the idea that beings were once closer to perfection than they are now. Tolkien's work has this element, certainly, but he's not the only one. It no doubt comes from Christianity, but its not an uncommon feature of many religious, mythological, and occult systems.

So in other words, in many fantasy worlds elves were, at one time, even better--because the gods or whoever made them that way.

Science fiction--from the Golden Age through modern trans- and post-humanist works--has presented another, competing idea. Progress. Maybe beings are evolving to a higher state. As the trope goes, future man is better than modern man in a lot of ways. Often, in a lot of the same ways that elves are better than man.

Jürgen Hubert explored this idea in his Pyramid Magazine article "Elves: A Case Study of Transhumanism in Fantasy Worlds." Hubert provides a lot of interesting ideas for a gamemaster wanting to explore this angle.

In the thinking about rethinking the elves for my current campaign, I revisited Hubert's article. I also found inspiration in the human variants in John C. Wright's The Golden Age trilogy, which is far future science fiction, and doesn't have any elves, but it feels like fantasy in places (in a Vancian sort of way). Greg Egan is probably in there somewhere, too.

"They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak," answered Sam slowly. "It don't seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected — so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring

On the earth that contains the ruin-haunted continent of Arn, the beings known as elves call themselves aethyr in their own language. Visually, they may be differentiated from humans by their slim builds, pointed ears, and large, slanted eyes with ovoid pupils. Their eyes give an almost feline impression. They tend to have less sexual dimorphism than humans.

The aethyr keep to themselves, living in enclaves distant from human settlements. Little is known about them really, though it would be hard to call such gregarious and social beings as the elves most commonly encountered, secretive. Somehow, they manage to talk a lot while saying very little about themselves. This is even more remarkable, given the centuries that measure their lives.

These elves, the ones most commonly interacted with by humans, are known as the "bright" or "high" aethyr. They pursue pleasure, in whatever idiosyncratic form that might take. Some are artists or aesthetes, some are scholars, some warriors, some mages. They tend to live in small, fluid communities where they may indulge these interests with a minimum of interference. Their advanced magical arts make these lifestyles possible without the toil that is the lot of most intelligent species. They live better than wealthy humans in habitations that may easily be hidden in the wilderness.

As highly individualistic beings, allied to extraplanar chaos, the aethyr shun government and law. Authority may come to rest in certain personages, but only as far as their charisma and persuasive powers take them. Conclaves are called at appointed times which seem random to other species, where any elf can be heard. All decisions made at a conclave are voluntary. Elves who violate their community's sense of propriety are ostracized, nothing more, though vengeance may be taken by individual parties.

There are other elves. We might think of these as tribes, or clades, or even political parties. In a sense, they are all three. There are the wild elves, who seek unity with nature and spend much of their time in animalistic mental states which they know as the red dream. There are the aquatic elves, who breath in water as well as air, and live nomadic lives in the seas. There are the gray, the most aloof of elven races, who live in hidden mountain enclaves. And then, there are the dark ones--ancient enemies of the others--who dedicated their long existences to the ideal of transgression.

Its the gray aethyr, though, that hold the most secrets of the elven past. This group is the least human looking of all the elves. They are tall and thin--almost like beings adapted to lower gravity. They have pale skins and even larger eyes than their brethren.

To humans, the gray seem formal, distracted and melancholy. To bright elves, they're slightly embarrassing relatives. The gray would say they're in mourning, if they ever deigned to explain themselves.

What the gray are mourning remains the secret. They alone remember what the other elves have purposefully forgotten. This was their task, though none of the others can even recall it being given to them. When elves awoke from reverie which had kept them safe and sane through their journey, and emerged from the giant, bronze, rune-inscribed ova that had borne them, they forced themselves to forget what had come before. All but the gray. And so they alone mourn.

Where did the elves come from? The future, perhaps? Maybe they're man's descendants from a distant age? Or maybe they're the creation of an ancient Immortal? Another relic from the age of the God Makers?

No one knows. Maybe not even the elves themselves.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Getting Lost

This post can be read as a tacit admission that watching the final season premiere of Lost last night kept me from finishing my planned essay for today.  It also serendipitously gives me an opportunity to formalize some thoughts I've had about the show and its relationship--unplanned, I believe--to the "lost world" genre.

A brief warning: some spoilers for the TV series Lost, and for various works of fiction written over the past hundred years or more may follow.

Anyway, the "lost world" genre is based around the idea that certain civilizations, cultures, or races have been hidden, forgotten or, well--lost. Typically, these are located in out-of-the-way places like underground regions (or the hollow earth), undersea realms, hidden valleys, remote plateaus, or unknown islands. Though the origins of the genre lie in myths and legends from many cultures, its modern progenitor is often considered to be H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), relating the search for the fabled lost wealth of Biblical Ophir. In the 1887 sequel, Allan Quartermain, Haggard's protagonist, stumbled upon Zu-Vendis, another hidden African realm.

Haggard revealed yet another lost world, Kor, in the apparently crowded heart of Africa in She: A History of Adventure and its sequels. Kor was ruled by an incarnation of a goddess, Ayesha, the She of the title. She was played by Ursula Andress in the 1965 Hammer film version--who coincidentally played another goddess in the original Clash of the Titans.

Haggard had found adventure fiction gold in King Solomon's Mines, and other writers soon sent intrepid explorers out to their own lost worlds. Arthur Conan Doyle gave us the dinosaur-infested Maple White Land in The Lost World (1912), and an undersea city of Atlantis in The Maracot Deep (1929). Rudyard Kipling sent The Man Who Would Be King (1888) to a remote (and fictional) part of Afghanistan to get his kingdom.

Some writers managed to uncover a lot of lost worlds. Abraham Merritt wrote several lost world novels, as did Edgar Rice Burroughs. In The Moon Maid (1926), Burroughs places a lost world inside the earth's hollow moon, but his most inventive lost land must the barbaric, future Europe of The Lost Continent (1915) which is rediscovered by explorers from the Americas.

Original lost worlds have appeared in other media, too. Kong's Skull Island is one, whichever of the film versions you prefer. Sid and Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost gives itself away in the title. Others include the lost valley that Hanna-Barbera's Dino-Boy winds up in, DC's Skartaris, the Lost World of the Warlord; and the world James Scully found through the Bermuda Triangle in Marvel's Skull the Slayer (1975).

So you can see where this is going. Lost spends a lot of time with character drama (and flashbacks and flashfowards that help elucidate those characters), but let's not ever forget it's a story about an island with mysterious inhabitants, ancient ruins--and a monster. Lost is completely a lost world story, just told in a slightly different style, emphasizing things (at least initially) to play to the widest possible TV audience.

Besides the storytelling style, Lost also brings an innovation in its assemble cast. Older works in the lost world genre typically have one main protagonist, one or two companions, and maybe some largely nameless hirelings--typically having a lifespan approximating that of a newly introduced, redshirted member of a Star Trek landing party. Some Lost characters get more screen time than others, but there is no one protagonist.  At least not one that's apparent so far.

It strikes me that Lost provides an interesting way to approach a lost world game. It could initially appear more like a castaway or survivor story, until the weirdness begins to show. It's assemble cast also probably better replicates a gaming group.

Now that I think about it, the same sort of innovations could be applied to a related genre, the planetary romance. Instead of one John Carter, we get a whole airliner--or maybe just a private jet--coming down (somehow) on the lichen-beds in one of the dead, sea bottoms of Mars.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Middle-Earth the Mighty Marvel Way: Weirdworld

"For those who thrilled to J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"--An All New Adventure into Epic Fantasy!"

So cried the cover blurb on Marvel Premiere #38, the second appearance--first in color--of Marvel's decidedly un-Sword & Sorcery fantasy series. As such, it stands as an interesting artifact in comics history, fitting neither with the pulp inspired fantasies of earlier comics, or the D&D-influenced ones that were to follow.

The titular "Weirdworld" is a fantasy land inhabited by dwarves, elves, and goblins, and perpetually under threat from wicked sorcerers and other magical menaces. Its protagonists are two elves--Tyndall and Velanna--who are outcasts with mysterious (even to themselves) pasts. Their obligatory companion and comedy relief is Mud-Butt, an irascible dwarf.

Tyndall starts out solo and in black and white in Marvel Super Action #1, where he good-naturedly undertakes a quest for prejudicial dwarvish villagers in "An Ugly Mirror on Weirdworld" (1976). Velanna joins him by that story's end, and they run afoul of a rejuvenation-seeking sorcerer in Marvel Premiere #38 (1977). Their next appearance, publication wise, would see them travelling with Mud-Butt to the City of Seven Dark Delights and crossing paths with the sorcerous Dark Riders, who were seeking to resurrect their fallen god, Darklens. The defeat of Darklens and the discovery of other elves, were related in the three part epic, "Warriors of the Shadow Realm" in Marvel Super Special #11-13 (1979). Epic Illustrated #9, and #11-13, in 1981 and '82, featured the "Dragonmaster of Klarn" storyline, that revealed more about the mysterious elves and their relationship with dragons. Finally, in 1986, Marvel Fanfare vol. 1 #24-26 saw a lost tale of Weirdworld--the first meeting of Mudd-Butt and the two elves, and vanquishing of yet another evil sorcerer. Work on this story had actually began back in the seventies, but it had been left unfinished.

Weirdworld was the creation of Doug Moench, and artistically designed, at least initially, by Mike Ploog. "Warriors of the Shadow Realm" had art by John Buscema, and featured a redesigned Mud-Butt--though no one knew it, sense Ploog's original design didn't see print until nearly a decade later. Pat Roderick provided the pencils for the last two Marvel Fanfare issues.

I would have thought Weirdworld bore the influences of Bakshi's animated fantasy features Wizards and The Lord of the Rings--but it actually predates both of them. Any artistic resemblance may be due to Ploog's reported involvement in those two projects, or it may be coincidental. Tolkien would seem to be a likely source, but Moench maintained in that he had never read The Lord of the Rings in his essay on Weirdworld's origins in Marvel Super Special #11. He did admit to having read The Hobbit in high school, but denied remembering much about it.

Despite the overt "Tolkienian" elements, I think we see in Weirdworld as an artifact of a time when The Lord of the Rings-style portrayals of elves and dwarves (by way of D&D) were not taken as standard. The dwarves of Weirdworld bear more resemblance to the Munchikins of Oz than the ones from the Mines of Moria. Buscema's artwork in particular gives most of Weirdworld a kind of fairy-tale-ish look (inspired by Arthur Rackham, among others) that reminds me a little of later works by Brian Froud. The elves are likewise not wise and puissant beings superior to men in every way. Instead, their short and maybe more like non-Tolkien, pop-culture elves--like the sort that sell cookies or work for Santa. Their probably part of the pre-Tolkien lineage that influenced early D&D art (as James Maliszewski outlined here) and certainly seem to be kin of hapless Indel in the 80s D&D comic book ads.

In this area, examination of the Weirdworld tales offers something to the gamer, particularly perhaps ones interested in the "old school." Weirdworld offers a portrayal of stock rpg elements refreshingly free from the influence of the rising cultural familiarity with The Lord of the Rings, and the ouroboros-like D&D-ization of fantasy. Nothing in it is new, but their might be something there worth revisiting.

The City of Seven Dark Delights and the floating land of Klarn await.