Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Song of the week

INXS is a classic case for me of one of those bands that made this one song I absolutely loved, and whose entire body of work otherwise I was completely indifferent to.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Study In Evil, part IV

A quick note before I begin.  I have a ninth follower!  Welcome, I hope you enjoy the blog.

Second, please allow a moment of silence for the passing of a dear friend.

I am talking about the car, not the guy standing next to me.  That is my brother Donald who co-signed for me back then.  That picture was taken in December 8, 1999, the car was a 2000 Saturn SC2 three door coupe.  Twelve years, 155,719 miles.  I am driving a Chevrolet Sonic right now and it is nice.

But damn it, it just isn't the same.

Okay, on to why you are here.  Last time in Study In Evil...Reigns...I lambasted Star Trek, Deep Space Nine writers and producers for ruining the character of Dukat, transforming him from multi-layered villain into a cartoonish joke.  This sort of thing can be expected from almost any series if it sticks around past it's expiration date, be it a television series, motion picture series-

And Hayden weeps when he realizes this is the end of his career...
-or most commonly, a comic book series.  Since many mainstream comic book characters have been around since the sixties, fifties, forties and even thirties(!) it is inevitable that at one time or another their characters went through some tough times, creatively.  And the older a character the greater the odds that its overall quality has had it's highs and lows as creators and editors strove to make it relevant and popular to keep sales going.  I am going to look at one such character now but rather than cover it's entire history (which I am really not qualified to do as I do not have access to even a fraction of all of his appearances) I am instead going to focus on a period where the character went through a fantastic metamorphosis from villain to, well, not villain? Anti-hero?  Guy not trying to murder the X-Men and Mankind as a whole?

I am speaking, of course, about Magneto.

Really, it took forty years to explain why I wear this bucket?
Magneto is a mutant with the ability to manipulate magnetism and metal who decided that mutants were the superior species and decided he and they should either be in charge of Humanity or Mutantkind should wipe homo sapiens off the planet altogether.  When Magneto first appeared he was not a very well defined character.  In fact, I would say that for the most part he was a carbon copy of Doctor Doom, a helmet wearing megalomaniac bent on world domination with an opposite number who was head of his own super hero team, one with origins similar to his own (mutations/cosmic rays.).

Okay, to be fair Stan Lee was behind both creations and the guy was churning out a lot of product at this time, and Magneto's association with Xavier was introduced by Claremont (more on that later) so some creative shortcuts were to be expected.  Still even back then there were differences.  Magneto ultimately created his own team, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  Doom always worked alone, and-


Moving on.  When Magneto first appeared he was very much like Doctor Doom in most respects; arrogant, full of self importance, convinced he was right.  He was cruel to his minions and manipulative.  Heck, the guy even tried to take over his own South American nation at one point so he may have been jealous of Victor von Doom's ability to terrorize peons at a whim.  His frequent run-ins with the X-Men always ended in defeat, or his plans being somehow thwarted.  Finally one of his master plans backfired and he was transformed into a baby and he ultimately wound up in the care of Xavier's former love interest, Moira McTaggart. Magneto was re-aged by Erik The Red, an agent of the Shi'ar Empire to distract the X-Men but instead of being made an old man, Magneto was now a vibrant and young one (his physical age is never exactly pinned down, but it is suggested maybe late twenties, early thirties? It is hard to tell with that white hair.) with a lifetime of experience in the use of his powers now combined with a youthful strength.  He was now awesomely bad ass and needed no Brotherhood to back him up.  He defeated the new X-Men and fled1. Some time around this period once Magneto was returned to adulthood the world court ruled he was a "new man" and all the crimes he had committed before were expunged2.  This is important later.  Magneto confronted the X-Men again by using the villain Mesmero to capture them and make them acts in a carnival.  The Beast showed up and helped free them but Magneto showed up and spirited them all away to his underground based located beneath an active volcano.  There he imprisoned them in devices that rendered their bodies helpless but their minds active, much the same way he had been when he had been reduced to his infancy.  However, Magneto had not counted on Storm's experience as a master thief and lock pick and she used the picks hidden in her tiara to free herself, the rest of her team.  The X-Men fought Magneto more effectively this time,  but during the melee the base began to come apart and flood with magma, which forced both sides to retreat3.  Magneto was not seen again for some time, when he returned it was when Cyclops, on leave from the X-Men, wound up on Magneto's new base, an island he had raised from the ocean floor covered in the ruins of a pre-human civilization-

Just an aside here.  Magneto's first base was an asteroid.  His second base was located in The Savage Land.  Combined with the active volcano and island it is obvious the man knows how to live.

Magneto's plan was to blackmail the world into capitulation by means of a device a device that allowed him to create volcanoes anywhere on Earth, and he employed it to wipe out the Russian town of Varykino as proof of his power.  The X-Men fought Magneto to a standstill while their youngest member, thirteen year old Kitty Pryde attempted to destroy the device's computer.  Magneto broke off from the fight to stop her and as a result he almost accidentally killed her.  Now this is the point where Magneto's character development really begins.  Up until now he has largely been a one-note villain bent on world conquest.  A very ostentatious one to be sure, but for the most part he had not largely changed from his first appearance.  It is when he almost killed a fellow mutant, a thirteen year old girl(!) that he begins to doubt his cause (Although in retrospect I wonder how many mutants he accidentally killed when he wiped that Russian town off the map.  Statistically there had to be one or two there.  And he once tried to kill the X-Men with a nuke.).  Magneto abandoned his base and the new X-Men, for the first time, defeated him4.

A little while later, Chris Claremont told the story of how Magneto and Xavier first met in the pre-X-Men years, back when Xavier wandered the Earth.  The pair fought Wolfgang von Strucker and Hydra and beat them, and Magneto wound up with tons of Nazi gold (It was this vast wealth that allowed him to fund his operations.  Asteroid and volcanic bases do not come cheap.)5.  It was in this story that we first learned that Magneto is Jewish, a critically important retcon.  Because it is with this revelation that we are given more depth to Magneto's motivations.  It is not just racism that motivates Magneto, but a fundamental belief that humans are bad and if given a chance they would do to mutants what the Nazis did to anyone they felt was inferior or considered a threat.  Seen from that perspective Magneto's motives are almost justified, especially when you consider how the United States Federal government has repeatedly funded the creation of the mutant hunting Sentinel robots.
Your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.
So then Claremont wrote the exceptional graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills where a psychotic minister named Stryker kidnapped Professor Xavier and planned to use him to kill all mutants by wiring him up to a machine and turning his mental powers up to eleven.  Sound familiar?  Elements of the story were used in the second X-Men film.  And as was seen in the film, Magneto allied himself with the X-Men in order to stop Stryker and rescue Xavier.  This was an important change in Magneto's relationship to the X-Men; for the first time they had common ground and regardless of past differences they saw how they had to work together for the greater good.  As an aside, I highly recommend you pick up this comic.  Claremont is very much on his game here and the art by Brent Anderson is beautiful.  Anderson later went on to illustrate Kurt Busiek's Astro City and I love the guy's work.

Magneto, The X-Men, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk and Spider Man were sucked up into what was known as The Secret Wars.   Magneto was placed initially on the heroes' side, but he soon made himself a non-aligned player. I mention this due to the important distinction Jim Shooter was making here to align with the groundwork Claremont had set earlier; Magneto was no longer a straight up villain but someone who fell into a gray area: an anti-hero.  Magneto helped The X-Men and various heroes defeat Doctor Doom and returns to Earth, but who refuses to return with the X-Men, stating his paths and theirs "...must diverge. For now...".

Magneto ultimately replaced Charles at Xavier's School while the professor was off in space with his beloved Lilandra, Empress of the Shi'ar Empire.  This might seem strange, but Claremont again had laid groundwork for how Xavier thought.  He allowed Wolverine to stay on the team despite his violent history.  He accepted Rogue onto the team regardless of her past affiliation with The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants because she was desperate to learn how to control her powers6.  Xavier believed mutants needed to stick together much like Magneto did, but he also believed that even the worst of them were deserving of their shot at redemption.  So when Magneto showed he was changing Charles saw the importance of giving the man a chance to further redeem himself.  Magneto became the New Mutants' teacher and a full time ally of the X-Men.

Later, Magneto was taken into custody by the Avengers and brought to trial before the world court, the same judicial body that ruled Magneto's time before his "re-birth" could not be legally held against him.  Due to potential mental shenanigans on Magneto's part using technology he had stolen from the fallen Asteroid M, Magneto mind controlled one of the judges to rule in his behalf (The question was, however, whether or not the man would have ruled in his favor anyway.  Magneto would never know) and claim his actions had been those of a man at war with Mankind, and hence the world court had no jurisdiction over him.  While some countries like Russia could still hold him accountable, Magneto was essentially a free man.  This court's ruling only served to further fuel anti-mutant hysteria and Magneto would wonder in the aftermath if his actions had been the right ones to make7.

So Magneto was reborn, free (provided he stay outside of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence), and was a respected associate of the X-Men.  His character arc seemed to be largely over.

And then Chris Claremont messed it up.  Magneto went bad again, forming a new team of mutants, getting a new Asteroid M, and generally forgetting about years of character development.  In later years Magneto became ruler of Genosha (Do not get me started on the idiocy that is Genosha, one of the most utterly stupid comic book retcons of all time.), everyone thought he had died when Genosha was destroyed, he came back, decapitated Jean Gray, everyone thought he was dead but he was not, he teamed up with Xavier again, later was responsible for House of M, Cyclops let him join the X-Men even though Magneto had killed his ex-girlfriend and...

Deep breath.

Dialing back, the point is Magneto had a wonderful story arc going from the sixties up to the early nineties.  He started off as a one-note villain and over time was fleshed out to become a more complete, complex character.  I attribute this in large part not only to Chris Claremont's writing but also the work of Marvel's editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter as well as writer Roger Stern for his small contribution in writing X-Men vs. Avengers.  There was a concerted effort by all parties to try and keep Magneto's character development consistent.   It was the slide back into super villainy that ruined him, something I blame not only on Claremont but on editorial decisions at the time.  But if you focus on the point where Magneto became the New Mutants' teacher and ended it right there then I think you can see a fantastic story arc of a villain finding redemption and peace. In fact, I would have been happy to have seen them retire Xavier altogether and keep Magneto as the school head.  Heck, how awesome would it have been had they run a story where Xavier had become a villain and it was Magneto who had to find a way to bring his old friend back from the brink?  Think of the awesomeness in reading that role reversal.

So, what have we learned when looking at this portion of Magneto's run?

Your villain's base can never be too cool.  Magneto's digs are awesome. From orbital asteroids to subterranean caves beneath active volcanoes, to formerly sunken islands covered by the ruins of a city created by a long dead race pre-dating Humanity to a hidden jungle in the Antarctic, the man knew how to live.  When fashioning bases for your villain sometimes it is best to think beyond the abandoned warehouse or mundane medieval castle and go big.

Make your power upgrades make sense! There is nothing wrong with having your bad guy be more powerful in the next go 'round, but (s)he cannot be a pathetic loser in one encounter and a devastating bad ass in the next without some rational explanation.  In Magneto's case there is a good reason behind him suddenly being able to handle the X-Men all on his own (In part it was also due to the new X-Men being an uncoordinated team.  It also did not help that half of their powers could be used against them by the Master of Magnetism: Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine's powers were all countered by Magneto's abilities to some extent.).  Even stating the bad guy has "learned from his last encounter" and has prepared special spells/potions/gadgets to compensate would be good.

Retcons are not bad, unless they are bad retcons.  This means if you do add an element of the character's past make certain that it 1) does not contradict what the PCs already know and 2) it adds to the character rather than detracts.  For example, what upsets me so much about Ed Brubaker bringing Bucky back and making him The Winter Soldier is how it wrecks an important facet of Captain America's character, that of a man who has lived with survivor's guilt, and who's last act of heroism was a failure.  Captain America was shown to be fallible, flawed, without making him any less of a hero.  Sometimes even the greatest of us fail...Unless your sidekick is later found floating in the ocean by Russians, given a bionic arm, brainwashed and turned into an assassin and kept in cryogenic freeze until such time as he is needed.  Oh and have him have sex with The Black Widow sometime before or after (or maybe during) her marriage just to give him more credibility. With all those literary gymnastics you would think it would have just been easier to, you know, create a new character rather than pissing all over Captain America's story.  Or how about the time Ed Brubaker created an entirely new team of X-Men no one had ever heard of that Xavier never mentioned to anyone, who were believed to have been killed in action and Xavier did not tell anyone about.  Oh, and one of them was Cyclops' other brother8?

Do I think Ed Brubaker might be a little over rated as a comic book writer?  Maybe a bit.

Provide the catalyst.  Why do the villains change?  What is their epiphany?  All reformed villains require one.  In Magneto's case it was facing the harsh fact that his conflicts with the X-Men almost had dire consequences for a fellow mutant, the very people he was supposed to be fighting for.  Of course he did try and kill the X-Men with a nuke once, but killing from a distance and with one's bare hands-especially when the latter victim is little more than a child-are considerably different.

Give it a little time.  Magneto's road to redemption can be said to have begun when he was reborn and ran through a little while past X-Men vs. Avengers.  So that was more than ten years of effective storytelling.  Each step was logical, with Magneto a couple times almost sliding back to super villainy before finally becoming a full fledged reformed man.  These days Doctor Doom can send Reed Richard's son to hell and just a few years later become his sidekick without any mention of his horrific deeds. Do I think Jonathan Hickman is over rated as well?  Hell yes.

I am not saying it needs to take years to redeem a villain, just provide a little groundwork.  Establish their villainy, add a bit of complexity (i.e.  they are morally conflicted, or they hold a murderous grudge against a hero), provide the catalyst for their change.  Or use an opportunity your players may provide as that catalyst!  I mentioned before how Photon accidentally blew Doctor Hades up and this resulted in him becoming an artificial intelligence with radically different priorities.  Your players are important resources of creative energy, use it to your advantage!

Next week, hopefully, I will have another article up focusing on another antagonist.  Hopefully February will be a little less dramatic. :)

1 Uncanny X-Men #104

2 Defenders, volume one, #16
3 Uncanny X-Men #111-113
4 Uncanny X-Men #148-150
5 Uncanny X-Men #161
6 Uncanny X-Men #171
7 X-Men vs. Avengers limited series, circa 1987
8 X-Men, Deadly Genesis, a comic which makes no sense and turns Xavier into a total bastard.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

This and that

So last week was pretty rough, with a few things going on that I will not go into here.  Suffice to say I was not in the right frame of mind to post anything, not even a song of the week.

So there are several items in this post, the first and most important being my brother Donald now has a blog.  Donald is a voracious reader and his interests are more wide ranging than my own.  His blog, An Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge, focuses on the books he has read.  So far the subject matter has concerned historical texts but who knows what he might tackle next?  I recommend you check the blog out, you might be inspired to pick up something new to read based on his assessment.

Second, the other reason I have not been posting is I have been trying to better put my life in order, and a large part of that is cleaning my environment.  My condo is a mess.  You have heard of the cliche of the bachelor's pad?  Well, I am living it, only worse.  Seriously, I am embarrassed to have anyone over to see just how horrible it looks.  So this past week I have been kicking myself in gear and getting the place put right.  Step one was cleaning off my kitchenette table:

For the first time in two years I can actually eat off of it.  In retrospect I wish I had taken a picture of it for you to see just how bad it looked.  No, not old ant-filled take out containers or the like.  Just paperwork: pay stubs, receipts, junk mail I never got around to opening, misc. junk I collected in my pockets that I dropped on the table, etc.  It took me two hours to wade through it all to make certain I did not throw out anything important (Good thing, too; I found my Winter property tax bill.  See what I mean about needing to get my life in order?  I was not late in paying it, by the way.).

I hope to get a gaming related post off in the following week or so, it is going to be another one regarding villains, character development and the like.  This time I will be focusing on several villains who are part of an organization and how different they are as well as how they are associated with one another.

Now on to something political.  I decided when I began this blog I would avoid political subjects, mostly because I am ignorant of a great many things political and I did not want to get into political arguments here.  However, I do want to touch upon something that affects everyone who might read this blog and who uses the internet on a regular basis: SOPA and PIPA.  I will say up front that the links provided are to Wikipedia and after the blackout earlier this week it is obvious that the source material is biased.  However, it is a good starting point to educate yourself regarding what these proposed laws are and how they may impact the internet as a whole.  I do know there are still a great many people ignorant of their existence, or whom is responsible for the laws, and how it affects them personally.  I was speaking to someone earlier this week who thought Obama was behind the bills.  While PIPA was proposed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, SOPA was proposed by Republican Congressman Lamar S. Smith.  This is a bipartisan issue and I think everyone needs to educate themselves about how these acts might affect their personal lives and the web sites they take for granted.

Finally, here is your song of the week.  I remember when I heard this Hot Hot Heat tune on the radio I thought the dude was singing "Bag of chips".

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Song of the week

I am not a big fan of Rage Against The Machine, but man do I love The Renegades of Funk:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Character Flaw

I recently booted a long standing player from both of my games after we had a falling out in regards to his actions.  I am not going to go in to all the details here, but I will address his arguments and justification regarding his actions in my game: he was playing in character.

Playing in character is important.  If you create a PC then there should be some consistency to how they are run.  Vegetarians do not suddenly start ordering steak cooked rare and restaurants.  Characters with strict codes of killing do not enter beserker rages in the middle of combat.  Starship captains should not be touting the Prime Directive in one episode and violating it the next.
Get it right, fanboy
Oh.  Right.  Starship captains should not flagrantly violate the Prime Directive in the pilot and then irrationally adhere to it later.
That's better
If characters do act out of character there should be very, very good reasons for it (i.e. mind control).  GMs should encourage players to run their characters in a consistent manner.

However, there is a dark side to playing in character and that is when doing so is detrimental to the campaign.  A player can be too in love with their concept and run it with a manic zeal, much to the dismay of GM and fellow players alike.  Or they just like being douche bags.

Here is an example.  One of my players was running a character who decided to be a bit anti-social.  Anti-social is fine.  This player was running his character as being someone who did not mesh well with the others and this is fine...to an extent.  What really rubbed people the wrong way was when this one player's PC was discussed: Sand.  Sand had nobly sacrificed himself to save the team from what appeared to be certain destruction and this player decided to play his character as thinking Sand had been an idiot.  In character arguments ensued and it got to the point where there was no way in hell the PCs would work with a character who was essentially a monumental asshole.  The player had taken playing In Character to an unreasonable extreme, to the point where his character was unplayable.  Having a diverging viewpoint is all well and good, but when it almost feels like one player might be criticizing another player through his character, well it is time to stand back and re-assess.

I was in a Dungeons & Dragons game many, many years ago run by a guy named Ned.  I had issues with Ned's game because I rolled up a swashbuckler and we found ourselves in an African campaign.  So my character was an African native swashbuckler.  It seems Ned did not want to reveal his campaign setting and apparently felt if he objected to my swashbuckler concept it would give away his plans.  So I was playing a character with inappropriate skill sets.  I don't think anyone was very happy with Ned but we gave it a couple sessions*.  Anyway, the opening adventure involved getting the PCs together and Ned did have a very clever way to do so.  The town in which we all resided in was attacked by a powerful force who managed to magically subdue and enthrall everyone.  Our PCs were put in a chain gang and when opposing forces launched a counter attack the magical spell was broken and our PCs' minds were freed.  And there we were, literally stuck together, having to work together to escape.  It was a fantastic method of getting the campaign started because we had nothing in common save for a common enemy and goal, namely to flee and to stick together for mutual protection .  It sure as hell beat the "you meet in a tavern" trope so many of us GMs have relied upon for years.

However, one of the players, (I think it was Herb), decided at the first opportunity to break off from the party and board a ship.  Rather than submitting to the party's majority decision to take one course of action, he decided to go by sea.  He was essentially waving a big middle finger to GM and players because he was not getting his way.  Part of his excuse?  He was playing In Character.  Never mind that in doing so it gave the GM headaches, or that it meant if the GM did go along with this the rest of the players would have to spend considerable time loitering about while the GM ran his character through a solo adventure.  It was selfish and juvenile and Ned promptly killed Herb's character off, having his ship attacked, I think, by zombie pirates.  Bear in mind this was a decade before Pirates of the Caribbean came out so Ned truly was ahead of his time.

So back to the player I recently booted.  This player is in another game and he makes a series of poor decisions. And one of his justifications is he is playing his character In Character.  An honest argument to be sure.  But this game was just starting out and the main thrust of the story is getting the PCs together as a team.  It was a matter of several players coming to rescue another, with another pair of players stumbling into the situation.  This player decided that he was going to do things his own way and not stick with the players, which complicated things further.  Which meant that made things complicated for me.

I understand how it seems sometimes a player's duty to thwart the GM.  The GM's job is to present obstacles for his players to overcome, after all.  However, there are situations where it is the job of the players to actually help tell the story along with the GM, almost collaborating with him.  The most important of these is when the PCs first meet, the PCs are becoming a team or adventuring party.  Splitting off from the party because you are playing a grim loner is very uncool because you are essentially saying "I gotta play In Character, it is up to the GM to give me excuses to stick with the group".  That is true to some extent.  It is also the player's job in this instance to be saying to themselves "Why should my grim loner stick with this party?".  And there are plenty of reasons why if you work at it.  In this particular scenario I had worked to get the loner PC to the others and the atmosphere was one of a group of people meeting a mutual threat.  However this player decided to take a single instance, a thin thread of an excuse to break off from the party that greatly complicated things not just for myself but for the PCs as well.  It was selfish of him to do so.

So e-mails were exchanged, consensus could not be reached and I decided to boot him.  I was not happy with this decision.  We have been gaming together for going on two decades now and he is an excellent and creative player.  But at the end of the day I was still his GM and he was not acknowledging his errors nor was he seeing the difficult position he had put myself and his fellow PCs in.  He was having too much fun playing In Character.

*There is nothing wrong with a campaign taking place outside the traditional pseudo-European setting.  But a GM that does not come clean with players beforehand regarding his intentions regarding campaign settings is just being an unreasonable jerk.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Song of the week

Ah, Pat Benetar, my gateway drug to the awesomeness that is Kate Bush.  Seriously, I have been a huge fan of Pat going back to the early Mtv years when she did those videos wearing those ultra tight shiny black pants and had that expression that said she would so kick your ass if you tried to do anything other than look.  Pat Benetar was utterly bad ass back then and was a pioneer of women's rock.