Monday, April 26, 2021

Comics: End of the Collection

Those who know me may be in for a bit of a shock: I have gotten rid of my comic book collection.


To call it a collection would be rounding up. It is more of an accumulation, forty-plus years of paper and staples that had been acquired, read and deposited in long white coffins, to rest in state in various locations. Most recently that location was a small room billed optimistically by the realtor as a Mother-In-Law apartment (When my Mom-In-Law stayed with us, she got the guest room - much nicer).  When we first moved to Seattle, the Lovely Bride built a storage rack for the collection, four bins wide and two bins high, each bin holding 9 "long-boxes" of comics, each long-box about 30" long and holding about 300 comics easily (or 350 the way I would jam them in). So that is, what, 72 long boxes with a total of about 2.5k comics. 

I read comics as a kid. Harvey comics like Sad Sack and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. I read DC comics, which were better than Marvels because you could never guarantee you would get the "next issue" at the drug store, never mind that a sizable chunk of the DCs were reprints from the early fifties. Original works included Dial H for Heroes and Legion of Superheroes and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. I think I had the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire

Then I stopped, showing a preference for MAD magazine as my drug store read. The old comics, disposable culture, were disposed.

In college I got back into comics. I blame the Star Wars comic and Howard the Duck. The guy in the next room over at the dorm read super-hero comics (Hi, Joe!) and I started reading the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. The story about creating a superhero RPG from alL this can be found here. I stored the comics in the bottom drawer of my dresser in the dorm, and brought them home in grocery bags.

Out of college, I started picking up books regularly, and started storing them in "real" long-boxes. In Pittsburgh, the only direct-sale shop was on the North Side, Eide's, in the an area where urban renewal had not gotten around to renewing yet. There I found the Small Press Indies - Elfquest, Cerebus, and the like. The boxes started to pile up. When I had gotten them to about 3 by 3, I put a sheet of plywood over them and made them into a desk. The boxes were not bleached white yet, and while I was bagging I was not boarding them (and never would). 

The story of how Marvel Super Heroes came about at TSR is here (again) But the upshot was not only was I using my collection as a resource, Marvel was now sending me comics on a weekly basis. I got on their mailing list and got two copies of everything. One copy went into manila folders and was circulated around the office (for "research" purposes) while my own copy went home. We were now storing the comics in an attic crawlspace over the kitchen. The LB and I would drive up to Milwaukee to the Turning Page every other week on a Friday (then comic-book day), then go to Chi-Chi's at the mall for Mexican food  (table for two, good light source, please).  Eventually I went for weekly runs to Rockhead's in Kenosha, and finally a pair of fans started carrying comics at their video store/gas station in Lake Geneva.

About that time I was writing comics for DC (Story here) and got on THEIR mailing list, so I got a lot of comics coming in. And in the process of all this I got a lot of comics that I would never buy, like Barbie, and movie adaptations like Richie Rich and comics for Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Prince. And I got a lot of exposure to their full lines - Vertigo and Epic and Milestone. Some was very good, some was forgettable. I made a culling and got rid of four boxes at a shop up in Madison.

I no longer am on those mailing lists, but the accumulation continued. The brown boxes became large white boxes. I stopped bagging, and eventually I stopped sorting, instead just stacking. The boxes became time capsules, layered like strata of popular culture. I brought the collection to Seattle, and the LB built the storage bins. I filled up about half of them, but over the years they filled up, and there were a couple extra white coffins on the floor as well. The boxes got wider (to accommodate the backing boards I don't use), and the paper stock for comics has gotten heavier and glossier. A box of old newsprint was about 50 pounds, one stuffed with recent books was more like 70. Soon, I would not be able to move them again. They became a wall of paper, and I considered that, in case of a nuclear attack, I could build a fallout shelter with them. Viking funeral also came to mind.

And so it was time to get rid of them. Needed the space, and the necessity of keeping them for research had diminished - not only was I not designing RPGs, but a lot of the material was available through trade paperback reprints and online. And the fictional universes have rebooted multiple times, with a surge of destructive fury replaced by a flurry of number ones, so their usefulness as historical records was diminished. 

And I went through them all in the process of cleaning them out. Some we kept - Kate had some we wanted to keep - Starstruck from Epic and Jonny Quest from Comico and Power Pack from Marvel and the underappreciated Baker Street from Caliber (punk Sherlock Holmes). I kept Astro City (Various publishers), Planetary, Groo the Wanderer, and the various Handbooks, Who's Whos, and Secret Files. And multiple  all the stuff I worked on over the years, with the exception of a backup story for a TSR comic that set up the story and then was cancelled that issue.Going through them was like an archaeological dig. Newsprint gave way to glossy stock throughout. There were flurries of relaunched and renumbered Number Ones. There were stunts like  chrome covers and embossed covers and wordless issues and sideways printing, and even a couple three-D's. There were books that I don't even remember reading - Xombi and Ravage 2099 and Hokum & Hex and Leonard Nimoy's PriMortals. Sublines like Razorwire and Heavy Hitters. And most recently mega-epics that swallowed entire company lines with huge epic storylines.

And I'm done. Those we did not keep I took down, four and five boxes at a time, to the Page Turner, a thriving used bookstore in Kent, Washington (Online it can be found as Hasberts.com). The store has an excellent collection of comics, genre fiction, histories, and pop culture. I pulled out the black and white indies (which the store owner said didn't sell well for him) for a friend (and stored them in brown paper grocery bags). The last load went down this weekend, in celebration of Seattle's Independent Bookstore Day/Week. So far I haven't had a shred of seller's regret. Now the bins are stacked with plastic containers filled with sewing projects and old paperwork belonging to my late mother-in-law. 

I still read comics, but I doubt I will be hoarding them. Maybe it is time to look at electronic formats (which, oddly enough, may make the print comics of today more valuable in that there will be fewer of them, much like the paper drives of WWII boosted the disposal of old golden age books). It does feel like I have jettisoned almost two tons of albatross from my life. 

Now I just need to figure out what to do with all these National Geographics.

More later,

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Plague Books: Clap for the Wolfe, Man

Too Many Cooks/ Champagne for One by Rex Stout. Bantam Books, 2009 reprint of novels from 1938 and 1958.

Provenance: Purchased at the Strand, New York City, in the before times. I had gone to the Strand to look for the new Will Gibson book, but they had sold out. But I did find this one.

Recently, I bogged down with three rather involved tomes, so when I went in for my shot, I took this book along. Didn't really need it, but once started, I spent several pleasant spring afternoons on the back deck reading it.

Review: This is a reprint compilation - two books, twenty years apart, shoved together under a single set of covers. No additional editing, and it shows. The first book runs its course, and the second begins with new page numbering. The fonts and leading are different in both halves. There's a big globby typo on page 104 of the first story that is still there. So the effort on the 2009 reprint consists of new covers and printing.

What it does do is that it allows us to compare two books, same author, same characters, same general setup, twenty years apart and eighty years back in time. Yes, there is some creakiness involved, but in general, they hold up.

(OK, for those who haven't heard me talk about this before, here's the overview of the series: Nero Wolfe is a brilliant, overweight, cantankerous private detective with a superiority complex and preference for fine food, orchids, and not working. Archie Goodwin is his legman. employee, and friend, the wisecracking Watson in this pair, but more social and more street savvy. He pushes, goads, and otherwise manipulates Wolfe into doing the right thing as part of his job. Together they're detectives.)

So, Too Many Cooks. Here Wolfe is out of his element. He is going to a gathering of professional chefs in West Virginia to give an after-dinner speech and enjoy the food, and maybe get a secret recipe from one of the chefs. One of the chefs present is one of those guys who everyone says deserves to be stabbed. Yeah, he is stabbed. So, large crowd of suspects, Wolfe having to do things he does not want to do, Archie is being charming and flirtatious, but with a heart of gold. Even at this early date, a lot of the components of a Nero Wolfe story are pretty much set in stone. 

An interesting exception deals with race. Up to this point, I hadn't considered how white Wolfe's world is, but in this case a major set of witnesses at the resort in W Va are black men. Despite being set in New York, a lot of the people who Wolfe is dealing with are Caucasian. Some of that is dealing with the Upper Class, his clients, but also most of the day-to-day that Archie runs around with - cabbies and doormen and receptionists. There is a variety of European heritages - Italians and Irish and Polish and French, and Wolfe himself is Serbian. But these would fall under the ancient rubric of "White Ethnic", a phrase I don't think I've heard since 1978 (Its flipside would be WASP - equally extinct in the modern age, even with a recent failed attempt to resurrect it as simply "Anglo-Saxon")).

But we are in West Virginia for this tale, and black men are the resort staff. They cook and serve the food. They hold the doors. The help. They are made semi-invisible by the shade of their flesh. How does Stout handle it? Casual N-bombs are thrown in the text, but not by Archie or Nero, though Archie does use a few archaic epithets that I had to look up. When confronting the staff as potential witnesses to the crime, Wolfe delivers a "Brotherhood of Man" speech that borders on cringe-worthy to modern ears, but Wolfe pulls it off in part because of his own insufferable superiority to everyone regardless of race or creed. And Stout's characterizations of the African-American staff are better than most films of the era, and he makes clear why the staff would be unwilling to cooperate with the white establishment, regardless of where in Europe those ancestors came from.

Champagne for One also involves a hot topic of its time - in this case unwed mothers. Up to the mid-70s, there were "schools" that would take pregnant unwed mothers in, see them to term, provide varying levels of support and putting the children up for adoption. The lessening of stigma about teenage pregnancy did a lot to reduce their popularity and the rise of birth control, but they are at the heart of this part of the mystery.

The setup for this one is a bit stilted, but bear with me. Widow of the founder of one of these homes continues her late husband's tradition of inviting three of the women from the school (post-birth) and three young men (of upper middle class) to a dinner at her mansion. At this particular one, Archie is leaned upon to fill in as one of the young men. One of the women, who had told people she kept poison in her purse in case she decides to do herself in, is poisoned. Everyone assumes it is suicide, but Archie goes on record as saying it is murder. And that eventually brings Wolfe in.

And here, twenty years later, the formula is firing on all cylinders. We have the brownstone on West 35th street. We have the supporting cast, both household and professional. We have the cigar-chomping chief of detectives, who lives in the pantheon with Piroit's Inspector Japp and Holmes Lestrade as foils and frenemies. We have the big cast of upper-class suspects, who pack their own secrets and agendas. That last is definitely a Stout trademark - the murder is not frozen in amber, but rather the players continue to conspire and plot as Wolfe closes in. But the setting and action is comfortable, right down to the red chair in Wolfe's office. Are these "cozy mysteries", a term used for rural sleuths like Miss Marples? Yeah, I can see it. Comfort food with a little murder on the side.

I guessed the murderer in the first book, but not the exact method. Was surprised by the murderer in the second even though I caught the fatal statement that led to the reveal. Not that I claim to be up to Wolfe or Goodwin's level.

More later,


Monday, April 19, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus - Not Throwing Away My ... Shot.

Doctors Looking At Art
from John Hopkins Magazine
 And so I am vaccinated. The Johnson & Johnson "one and done" vaccine.

It happened a couple weeks back, on a Wednesday. It turns out that the process of making appointments was tougher than the process of getting the stab itself. Being JUST under 65 in Washington State meant I missed out on the initial round, but when we finally cleared at the end of the month April, both the Lovely Bride and I when to the vaccine finder online and, finding out that shots would be given out at the local hospital, Valley Med. Great. Except to sign up, you went to the UWMed site, and once you signed up to be put on the waiting list, there was no confirmation one way or another. 

So after a week I went back to the vaccine finder, and signed up for a bunch of locations. I found they were giving the vaccine at the local sports complex (the ShoWare center, a local venue noted for never turning a profit every year). But by the time I filled out all the forms, they were out of appointments. So I ended up signing up down for a vaccination site down in Auburn, at the Outlet Center (formerly known as the Supermall). And filled out the online forms pretty fast to keep from losing THAT one. 

Now, because of what I do (designing computer games), I am extremely sensitized to UX (user experience) - how people navigate the complex web of their online experience. Every site had their own format, their own questions, and their own process. and for anyone who was not computer-savvy, it was a frustrating experience (The Lovely B, by the way, got on her iPad during a Zoom dinner party, and struck a win very quickly with a local Rite-Aide, which did not have any openings when I went looking four days before - BUT since then the J&J vaccine was halted as a result of potential blood clotting, so she's been moved further back in the line).

So, the Supermall. A friend had had a horrible experience locating the vaccination site, so I went down early for the first appointment of the day. The web site gave the location of the site by the Suite number of the store, but the maps of the mall itself did not identify anything by Suite number. And there was not a lot of signage in the mall parking lot (Supermall - big parking lot on all four sides). parked near by best guess, and found that the mall ITSELF was closed at that hour. I drove to where I had seen a number of cars parked thinking it was another entrance. And indeed, THAT was the site where the vaccine was being distributed. Spoilers: It was on the north side of the building, with a HUGE white tent for people to queue up in.

It might have been the hour, or the fact I was there early (9:30, even after going to the wrong entrance), or the fact that the web sites had confused so many people, but the huge white tent was empty, and I walked in. The place (an abandoned Sports Authority with an external main door) was swarming with helpful volunteers in orange jackets (far outnumbering the patients). One asked me if I had brought along my ID and QRCode from the confirmation message. I had not brought the QRCode, and she sent me to Guest Services, which was a long set of tables with more volunteers. I was the first of the day, so the young woman that was helping me had an older volunteer at her side, and four more volunteers hanging over her shoulder to understand what needed to be done. It turned out the first volunteer at the door was wrong - you did not NEED to bring along your QRCode, it just makes it easier. I was confirmed and sent on my way to the long, empty queue area leading to the shots itself. It was sort of like arriving for your flight early, and No One was ahead of you at security.

And here's the thing - everyone was extremely friendly and upbeat, something I rarely see in malls these days, so I was actually taken aback. The friendly volunteer at the empty queue directed me to a table with two more friendly volunteers (trainee and trainer) who took my information, and when I confirmed I had an allergy (sulfa drugs), called over a friendly firefighter who said there should be no problem but I should wait 15 minutes after the shot to be sure, and another friendly firefighter administered the shot. Now, I have an INTENSE dislike of needles, but this was probably the easiest shot I've ever gotten. I was sent to another friendly volunteer who was stationed near a widely spaced set of chair, and when I did not fall out said chair in 15 minutes, I was released into the (closed) mall itself, where a string of friendly volunteers in orange jackets showed me to the exit. 

I had taken the rest of the day off (because I was topping out my vacation time in any event), so I ran some more errands and went home, and napped. Felt a little "meh" the next day, but avoided any serious reaction.

So, it's over? No, it is not. First off two weeks to have the vaccine run its course. Plus, in D&D terms, the vaccine is Damage Resistance, not Damage Immunity. I am not immune to fire, but I will take less damage from the fire, hopefully to the point where, if I suddenly find myself in a fireball, I would not be hospitalized.(I will refrain from torturing this analogy any further in the name of the Geneva Convention). The end result is that I will continue to use a mask when I go out, and work from home until the situation changes further.

In the outside world things are trying to lurch back to normal, with a rise in number of cases in several counties out here, but a decline in fatalities (A separation of the sick and the dead). King County is verging on slipping back to Stage 2 from Stage 3. Traffic is starting to suck again, more people are being shot in public places, and I'm getting a lot more spam calls. So, I guess America is slowly becoming America again. The local grocery has pulled up the one-way arrows for the aisles that everyone was ignoring anyway. The local newspaper did a long piece on Sunday on museums that were slowly and cautiously reopening.  There was an article as well about how, despite expectations, there was a decline in suicides in the past year, as people did not deal with each other as much. And there remains much concern about new variants that are spreading and replacing earlier waves. 

So we have hit a milestone (instead of a millstone), and there is some glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. On the 15th the floodgates open, and everyone else will be allowed to get the vaccine (which, to continue the airport analogy, feels like when they have boarded the first class, business, gold, platinum, jade, and radioactive metals classes, along with people with children, those who are serving/have served in the military, and Seahawk fans, and now are ready to board "All Other Rows".

And that is where a lot of my younger colleagues are: All Other Rows. This too, I want to say, will pass.

More later, 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Life in the Time of Virus - The New Year

City Roofs by Hopper, 1932
 A year ago, my company sent everyone home. It was thought at the time it might be a few weeks, then a few months, then by Fall at the latest.

And now it may be by early Fall of this year, and even then it may be only for a few days a week just to keep touch in the flesh.

I've been back in the office a few times since then, and it still looked a bit like the Mary Celeste. Our department were in the process of reshuffling our desks around when the word came down, so some desks are empty, some have boxes, and some still have everything on them as if the occupant had just stepped away. Looking out the windows, I can see new skyscrapers that been erected while we've been gone, further blocking the view of Lake Union.

I haven't gotten my vaccine yet, though not through a lack of desire. Each state has its own schedule and rules, and, alas, I am neither old enough or nor sick enough or nor vital enough to get priority. And, to be honest, I don't want to jump the queue to get a shot when there are people who ARE old enough, sick enough, or vital enough still waiting for the situation.

However, every report I get from family and friends says that when it DOES become available, and one figures out how to get it, the entire process is well-run and fairly painless (painless compared to coming down with the coronavirus). So I have something to look forward to.

The numbers continue to climb, though a lower rate than the winter highs. But also climbing has been the number of doses administered. At the time of this writing, there have been 29 million cases in the US, and 538,000 deaths. But 113 million doses of vaccine have been administered and that number is climbing rapidly. 

In the meantime, the dawn has begun to claw its way back from utter darkness. Seattle is the northernmost major city on the continental US, further north than the bulk of the population of Canada. So the winter darkness hits us hard. Back in the beforetimes I was used to watching the dawn from an upper floor of a Seattle skyscraper. So working at home has had that advantage, but I follow the sun - the earlier it rises, the earlier I will be at work. 

There is the other social distancing going on right now up here - this one involving birds. Due to wildfires, we have an "irruption" of pine siskins. Now while "pine siskins" sounds like a snack food, it a small, mostly-Canadian bird that is now is hanging about in large numbers in the Puget Sound region. This sudden overpopulation is called an irruption, and would not be a big deal, except that they are currently carrying a deadly form of salmonellosis . So birds need to socially distance. Which means that we can't use the bird feeder in the back yard until the beginning of April. Maybe longer. Yeah, I know how the birds feel.

And we have housemates up here on Grubb Street. Some friends were having housing issues, a situation made more serious by one of them having to undergo chemotherapy up in Seattle. So they have joined us, and we have been doing a lot of cleaning and moving things about, as well as adjusting to other peoples' rhythms in the house. Part of this has been to encourage the Lovely Bride and I to do some projects we have been meaning to do for some time, like strip out the carpeting in the guest room or (slowly) dispense with a lot of my comic collection in the basement. (OK, it is no longer a collection, it is an mere accumulation - if you're looking for something in particular, I am sending it all to Page Turner Books down in Kent - good store, check it out).

But as a result of all this, my time usually spent screwing around has been diminished, and there are things that still need to be done all around me. Sort of a spring cleaning on overdrive.

It will still be a couple months before I can spend the evenings on the back deck with a good book and a strong drink, but I am working towards it. In the meantime, I remain confined to quarters, wearing a mask on the rare times when I do go out, and generally bearing up.

More later,


Thursday, March 11, 2021

Plague Book: In the Blood

Blood Royal, or, The Son of Milady by Alexandre Dumas, Edited and Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2020

Provenance: Christmas book, 2020

Review: These books have quickly become mental comfort food. I had read an excellent translation of the Three Musketeers long ago and far away, but fell into the Ellsworth translations with the Red Sphinx and kept coming back. Ellsworth is better known in gaming circles as Lawrence Schick (D&D module S2 - White Plume Mountain, among other things), and his spirit of adventure carries through here in his translation.

This volume is the back half of the original publication of Twenty Years After, which originally appeared as a serialized novel. In it, Dumas deals with two different civil wars - one in France called the Fronde, and the English Civil War. In the first half, the four inseparables are separated through loyalties and responsibilities, Mordaunt, the son of Milady plots his revenge, and two of the group (Aramis and Athos) debark for England to help King Charles, on the ropes from Cromwell's revolution.

We pick up this volume with D'Artagnan and Porthos also heading for England, with instructions to help Cromwell and assigned to aid  Mordaunt, who plots all of their demises. They soon switch sides and work to save King Charles (noble but doomed), who had been betrayed to Cromwell's forces. 

And here's the thing: they have to fail (spoilers). Historically, Charles was beheaded (real spoilers), and while Dumas will be kinda fast and loose with the facts and timelines to suit his fiction, he cannot keep the King of England alive. So we have a long section where the crafty Gascon (D'Artagnan is given that sobriquet a number of time) comes up with a plan that just ALMOST works, before time or fate or the presence of the Son of Milady foils it at the last moment. Mordaunt pops in a number of times,and the crew also fails to dispatch him, and ultimately the group has to flee England in a boat rigged with explosives.

Back in France, the four split up, and D'Artagnan and Porthos are imprisoned by the current evil cardinal (Mazarin, not the ruthless but effective Richelieu) for trying to save the English King. Athos and Aramis witness the machinations to overturn the revolutionary Frondeurs by splitting off its various factions, but rescue D'Artagnan and Porthos, and get enough leverage to get what they themselves ultimately want (which is not what the revolutionaries were after). It all ends in a riot, much as it began in the previous volume.

D'Artagnan is no longer an innocent, but is crafty and the man with the plan throughout this book. Porthos lusts after his peerage and respect, and is the most broadly-fashioned of the group. Aramis is the Sexy Priest, only moreso. Athos has in my brain changed over the passing of 20 years - the fact that he has a son (who will be more important later) has made him more of a worrier and fretter, both on behalf of his son and in general. That son in turn sort of vanishes in this volume, after a good start in the previous volume.

The swashbuckling is hard and heavy, ranging from battlefield maneuvers to very D&Dish duels, and in one section, a dungeon exploration. Dumas reserves his sharpest tongue for the politicians of all shapes and factions. Queen Anne of France is sleeping with Cardinal Maturan, who is more comic and less capable than his predecessor Richleau. The upper class leaders of the Frondeur are easily bought off by the Monarchy. The former valets of the Musketeers have established themselves with the greater society, to a variety of effects. All have their moments, but the center of the action are on the four musketeers.

Yeah, I'm bought in on that. There are three more volumes to come, which make up the Vicomte of Braelonne series, which ends in The Man in the Iron Mask. Yeah, I'm going to be there for them.

More later,

 


Monday, March 08, 2021

Plague Book: Mansions of the Mind

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloombury, 2020

Provenance: A Christmas book. I listened to the audio version of Clarke's previous novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and knew I wanted to read this one. So when it turned up among the usual suspects (NPR, The Seattle Times book page, the New Yorker), I asked the Lovely Bride for it as a Christmas present.

Review:  Piranesi (not his real name, but what he is called), is a simple soul living in a mazework House, which is flooded by the sea. He lives on fish and seaweed. He maps the rooms and tends to the dead bodies he has found there. He does errands for the only other living person there, who he knows as the Other, who is acerbic and looking for the Secret Knowledge hidden in the maze. The House is made of white marble, its halls populated by titanic statues, and it floods on a semi-regular basis from swelling tides.

Is the House real? Or are we trapped inside Piranesi's brain? Are we looking at a demiplane, or at dementia? Mansion or madness? The story unfolds effortlessly and captures a completely likeable and totally unreliable narrator. This is one of those books where you figure things out long in advance of the protagonist, and you are still surprised. You like Piranesi so much that any possible resolution to his situation feels like it will be heartbreaking, but Clarke manages to navigate the shoals of emotion neatly and gives you a satisfying conclusion his tale.

Prisons of the Imagination
I wiki'd up Piranesi, since the name itself meant nothing to me and there was no obvious reason for it presented in the text (there is a reason in-text, but you have to think about it). Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an archeologist, architect and artist who is best remembered for his black and white etchings of ancient ruins and wild, phantasmal vaults and prisons. Knowing this gave me another, but exact view, of what was going on Piranesi's world. Ultimately exactly what is going on in this fantastic landsacpe is theorized but not entirely defined, and that leaves it magical in its own right.

But let me talk briefly about the book as artifact.. There seems to be a new trope in book packaging regarding "serious" fantasy books - matte black covers with metallic ink. We saw it over on Circe and here it is again - Embossed lettering, copper ink, singular image, and a lot of empty black space. And hey, there's a blurb on the back cover from Circe's author. Though it is from a different publisher, it does feel like it is same design house. And it sends its own messages about the contents (This is "serious" fantasy). Authors do not always select their covers (and often do not have a say it such matters), but yes, if I were to deliver some "serious" fantasy, I would go for black and copper as well. 

More later,

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Plague Book: Money for Nothing

 Money in the Bank by P. G.Wodehouse, Penguin Books, 1942

Provenance: This is from the collection of John Rateliff, purchased from Skoob Books (Secondhand Books for Students), 66 The Brunswick off Marchmont Street in London (near the Russel Square Tube), on the 9th of December, 2012. I know this because John used not only the receipt as a bookmark, but also a coupon from the store (20% off for students, expired 31 October) and a tag from a Twining's tea bag as well. About the most British set of bookmarks I could imagine, short of the Queen herself holding a finger in the page where you've left off.

For my part, I was reading SPQR in early November, and the stories of mobs throwing rocks down on the Senators sort of convinced me I should read something else for a while. I am a Wodehouse fan, though my participation has a lot of glaring gaps in it (Code of the Woosters remains the best). So, I pulled this one out for something, well, lighter.

The Review: I have seen the quote in several places, attributed to a number of individuals, that Wodehouse wrote just one story for 75 years. That is a bit unfair, in that it his plots are always convoluted pieces of machinery, and his prose is spritely and engaging. But even I will admit that his component parts are often the same - vapid young men, headstrong ingenues, dotty relatives, English manor houses, class discrepancies, hare-brained schemes, and ultimate comeuppances. 

Here's the scoop on this one: Jeff Miller is a very inept novice solicitor who is engaged to a headstrong young woman, and longs to escape both situations. Through a series of daffy and unlikely events, he is hired as a detective at an English manor house that is being rented by a famous female African Explorer, hired to investigate the manor's butler. Said butler is actually the owner of the manor house who has hid a treasure .... somewhere on the grounds - he forgets were, and his daughter (also headstrong, but one of the sane ones in the book) is currently working as the female African Explorer's personal secretary, and is the one who engaged Jeff Miller to follow her father around and find out what he is up to. Which she really doesn't want him to do. Add the real detective and two petty crooks and, yeah, it a Wodehouse romp with all the bells and whistles. 

Wodehouse has his troupe of types and character actors, like the old commedia del'arte. His male lead is hapless (Jeff Miller's superpower is to make small talk, which he uses to get himself out of numerous jams). His women are made of sterner stuff, ranging the dangerously overbearing (the female African Explorer) to the dynamically resourceful (the daughter whose family owns the manor). His male figures tend to be made of much milder stuff, ranging from the forgetful father/butler, to the original detective, (who has a tendency to hide in closets when threatened) to the female African Explorer's milquetoast and doting admirer. There is much in the way of confrontations and conversations in various rooms in the manor as the characters bump into each other and then pinball their way into other confrontations and conversations in other rooms. Wodehouse's style is perfect in this, much like his protagonist, his superpower is chat, bringing the reader along with involved, perfect sentences that you would hate to interrupt.

The interesting thing about this book is that it was written when Wodehouse was the guest of the Wehrmacht, as an internee during the war. Wodehouse and his wife had decamped for the South of France for tax reasons, and while they made a few half-hearted attempts to get out of town before the Germans arrived, they ultimately were interned as foreign nationals, and Wodehouse imprisoned is various locations. The idea that Wodehouse could write a book, and get it published in America in the middle of all this is a bit amazing. There is not a hint within the pages of the war, or of much of anything else outside the characters' immediate surroundings. His characters are self-absorbed to the point of immunity.

Wodehouse himself during this period did some radio broadcasts for the Germans. While they seem to have been very much the "Stiff Upper Lip British We Are All Making Do In These Difficult Times", appearing on behalf of the Germans was not the wisest course of action. It was labeled propaganda, he was pilloried as a traitor, and Wodehouse got, for lack of a better term, JaneFonda-ed, where any mention of his name in England for the next thirty years would cause Someone to trot out the charges. Finally, in 1974 all was forgiven and he was given the KBE, though Wodehouse passed on before the knighthood ceremony.

Wodehouse never returned to the England he left in 1930. His fantasy world remains timeless in part because of it - trapped like a fly in apsic between the wars. His manor houses have evaporated over the years, but his prose keeps them shining bright in memory.

More later, 

Monday, March 01, 2021

Plague Books: Rome on the Range

 SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, Livewright Publishing, A division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

Provenance: This has been my doorstop book for several years now. Bought it at Half-Price up in Redmond on a whim because the author had been publicly quoted somewhere as expert on the subject (she is). I started it, stopped it, started it again, let it occupy my shelf of abandoned books, read it along with ANOTHER book on Rome, finished the other book, abandoned this book again, actually WENT to Italy, picked up this book again, and finished it a year after that. So it has been a long journey. So I have thoughts.

Review: Hey, let's summarize a thousand years of history in a single volume. Yeah, that will be easy! We're talking about the history of Rome from about 753 BC to 212 AD, a point where citizenship is extended to all free inhabitants of the Empire.

What is SPQR? It stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus - the Senate and People of Rome. Which is interesting because one of the things about Rome's expansion is that it continued to expand the definition of "People of Rome" throughout its history. As it conquered and absorbed its neighbors, it incorporated them within their political systems. Historically, this was not always the way. The Vikings in Ireland and Russia ruled but didn't have a significant cultural impact on the ruled. The European Powers in America or the ancient Greek colonies in the Med were very much about moving large amounts of their own population in. The Romans swallowed other nations and peoples whole, and eventually elevated them to powers within their own spheres. Not quite equality - the folk in charge were an oligarchy, but even that oligarchy expanded over time. And the people who were already citizens were often against further enfranchisement. But it is an interesting version of colonialism.

Rome's Republic in part fell apart, in part, because of their own success. The Roman plan of absorbing other peoples into their nation "Hey, you're now Roman! And your gods? They're just different versions of our gods! Expansion brought in huge groups, who then had to be mostly managed, both at home and abroad. The advancing legions had to be paid, often with retirement land in the new territories (which was not always appreciated by the original inhabitants). And keeping the mobs happy in Rome? Yeah, that put grain-producing Egypt as the equivalent of Middle-Eastern oil in the geopolitical consideration.  

The distance of time gives us difficulty with original sources when talking about the Roman Republic. Beard opens with Cicero, once a staple in "Western Education", about halfway through the Roman Millennium (63 BCE). Why is Cicero still important to us moderns? Because he was a first-person account (though obviously biased) of the life and times towards the end of the Republic. And we have a lot of his words because he published his speeches, so that copies of the copies of his words have survived down to this day. Other than writers like him, we are pretty much confined to stone as information source - carvings, inscriptions, and the occasional graffiti. Sort of like trying to sort out the American Civil War only through gravestones - doable, but you know it is not the full story.

Even by Cicero's time, Rome has a bunch of conflicting origin stories. The mythical approach stars Romulus and Remus, a Cain and Abel story with a wolf-mother. But there is also Aeneas,who tied the Roman people to the Trojans at a time when they loomed large over the Greeks. There is a semi-historical record of the "Twelve Kings", the bad-old-times before the Republic took hold. And there's the archaeological record, who indicates that the area was originally dominated by the Etruscans,a once-successful and now-mostly-forgotten predecessor nation.

The Romans had an empire before they had a emperor. They did most of their expansion before they hit Julius Caesar and his lot. What Beard makes clear is that while the Romans professed a hatred of monarchs, its Republic was a rough affair, with powerful individuals commanding mobs (and later armies) to influence governance. One particular incident in 133 BCE involved a mob led by a faction of the Roman Priests which attacked a group delivering the votes for the tribunes and killed reformer Tiberius Gracchus with a table leg (not that we moderns would do anything that barbaric). 

The fall of the Republic was a relatively slow, bumpy process. Powerful oligarchs sought more individual power. Power came to reside within different factions of the army, which were then turned against each other. Attempts to consolidate power in the hands of a few trinities collapsed, and out of the continual conflict, a single strong figure emerged who would bring stability. Julius never claimed to be emperor, but quietly sucked up positions of power such that his successor Augustus moved in easily.

But even during the emperors our history is slanted. "Good" emperors were often simply followed by those with personal connections that wanted to declare their predecessors good, while "Bad" emperors were followed by rulers wanting to put some distance between themselves and previous administrations. But when looking at the health of the Empire as a whole, things ran on fairly well regardless of who was in charge. Until it didn't.

Large, engaging, accessible, and readable, SPQR sent me down some passageways and thought processes that I had not considered previously, some obvious and some more refined. SPQR is a great overview of a Rome that neither was built or was destroyed in a day, but rather evolved from one state to another, often as a result of its own growing power, until at last the ability to hold that power crumbled.

More later,


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (War of the Wizards)

 Over on his blog, John (Sacnoth) Rateliff has been talking about TSR boardgames from the eldest of days - Lankhmar, Cohorts, Battle of the Five Armies, Knights of Camelot, 4th Dimension and Warlocks & Warriors. I know he doesn't have War of the Wizards in his collection, so I will talk about this one.

There is an interesting thing to note. In Elusive Shift, Jon Peterson makes and excellent case for how early D&D was shaped by players who came in from the wargaming side and those who came in from the SF Fandom side. I noted that a lot of my generation of designers were from the wargaming side of fandom. However, at the very beginning, we had a strong component of established SF/Fantasy authors who were contributing to the milieu. authors such as Fritz Leiber, Gardner Fox, Harry Fischer and L Sprague DeCamp were not only helping create the fantasy genre we mined in the game, but were also creating new games in the early TSR years.

In addition, we have early games like the original Dungeon! (which predates D&D) and M.A.R. Barker's War of the Wizards. War of the Wizards is a game set in Tekumel, Barker's setting for Empire of the Petal Throne. The games were released pretty close to each other, WotW name-drops a lot of the places, creatures, and background color of the setting. It never mentions Tekumel itself by name, but rather the nation of Tsolyanu and refers to the RPG as "Petal Throne". The gods are the Lords of Glory and the Rulers of the Shadows and generally identified as good and evil, or law against chaos. Creatures include a lot EPT standards, along with more traditional names that you can use instead.

The concept of the game is very simple - two spellcasters (choice of sorcerer or priest) are at opposite ends of a football field. They cast spells at each other, which then advance down the field at their opponents. Spells can affect other spells, walls, and summoned creature, and ultimately the opposing wizard, who has so many hit points. Kill the opposing wizard, and you win.

The first version of this game was self-published by Barker and is apparently rarer than hen's teeth. The "second edition" was in a plastic bag from TSR, and was quickly replaced by one of TSR's early boxes. I played the game itself back in college (Purdue University) in the Boilermaker Grill in the basement of Tarkington Hall. I got hold of the box version is one of TSR's frequent clean-out-the-library purges. So opening the box, I found I had versions 2 and 3, both with unpunched counters, along with the ruleset for the 1982 Car Wars minigame and instructions on how to paint the Bear Chariot miniature from Ral Partha.

War of the Wizards was a classic "wizards duel" game, and, like Empire of the Petal Throne, was extremely advanced for its time. Released in 1975, it showed that early TSR had a strong commitment to Barker's work. A set of miniature rules followed, and Zenopus Archives has an article on a Dungeon! variant that was in the works that never saw the light of day. Adventure Modules were not much of a thing yet, so there were none from TSR at the time. Yet TSR showed a commitment to Tekumel, and then they didn't, and things faded away by the time the G-series and later the campaign worlds showed up.

It is an interesting part of history, and a good game as well. I'm not sure if this is the first "wizards' duel" sort of game, but it is one of the most involved and detailed. Someone could easily resurrect it, or create a version online (and it is sort of like Plants Vs. Zombies in its approach - things keep changing and staying the same).

More later, 



Thursday, February 11, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Full Circle

New York Office, Hopper, 1962
 A year ago, at the end of January, I was in New York City. I was recording lines for a game with an Emmy-winning actor, lines which will now never see the light of day. I had pizza in a crowded restaurant off Times Square. I had dinner with my niece and her husband at a nice place in Brooklyn. I walked down to the Strand bookstore. I bought a copy of William Gibson's book, but not from there. I flew back in a crowded plane.

A year ago, in February, I was planning to go to London. We were going to do a live event and meet with the European gaming press. As the reports of the coronavirus spread, the idea of travel to Europe became dicey. Some of the guests had already cancelled. I was in the "High Risk Group" that was already being intubated in overfull hospitals. I cancelled my attendance. The next day, the company cancelled the event.

A year ago, in March, we emptied the office. Everyone went home to work. I brought my laptop home and set myself up in the basement, on an old table from Milt's Wood Shed, in Wisconsin. We learned to handle the vagaries of on-line conferences. Having met most of my co-workers' dogs in the office, I now got to know their cats. In May we launched in the game. In June we pulled it back to Beta. In October we cancelled it outright. I moved onto another project.

It has been a year. I think is the last of these write-ups, because there is little more to be said. The world has changed and we have changed with it. I am comfortable with the fact that it will change further as we move along.

I am not vaccinated yet, nor is the Lovely Bride. By the priorities of our particular state, we are neither old enough, nor essential enough to do so. I'm good with that, but want to make sure that those who are old enough, or essential enough, or from large multi-generational families, are vaccinated. The roll-out has been rough, with anecdotes of insufficient stockpiles, broken freezers, sudden rushes, long lines, fools spoiling the vaccine, and other pains.

My mother, in her retirement community, has had her first-round vaccination, not because of the efforts of the village's managers, but because my younger sister and brother canvassed the area for a place where she could get the shot, and then took her there. She says everything about the procedure itself was well-ordered and efficient and not crowded at all. So there is some solace there.

In the outer world, the Lovely Bride has returned to working in her office every day. She is an Enrolled Agent, a professional tax preparer, and her works with an investment firm. Most of the investment agents are still working from home, and her office has a door. I am left with the cats, who demand attention regularly, usually when I am on a conference call. I leave the house for groceries and a weekly comics run. I play D&D and Call of Cthulhu over Discord with friends who I once sat around a living room with.

I am noticing a change in the news, in that I am suddenly hearing about things in other countries - protests in Russia, a coup in Myanmar, the repercussions of Brexit, a farmer's strike in India, and the United Arab Emirates have sent a spacecraft to Mars (wait, what?). It may because our own government is no longer sucking all the oxygen out of the room with their clownishness (and they could reduce it a bit more), or that we are waking up from a long self-imposed slumber to pay attention to the rest of the world.

Bu as a note to a future self, things are still more than a little tense. We have functional vaccines, but we also have variants and mutations of the disease itself, so the question remains of how long this will go on. But it feels like there is hope that will be an end to it, and though I don't want a return to "normalcy" (a cry of the Coolidge administration in the wake of war and plague), I do want stuff to settle down for a while. Boring. I could go with boring. Boring would be good.

More later,



Sunday, January 31, 2021

Plague Books: The Evolution of Gaming

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson, The MIT Press 2020

Provenance: Christmas present, 2020, despite the fact that it went on sale on 22 December of that year. This one is jumping the queue in the reviews, because I have three friends who are already interested in reading it as well.

Review: OK, I'm a fan of Playing at the World, both the book and the blog. PatW covers the history of wargames and roleplaying games, up to about 1975 or so. Elusive Shift carries the story just a bit further, drilling down on the gaming community from about 1975-1980, and the changes that swept roleplaying during that time. In particular, it starts with the fact that the original D&D, the little brown box with the pamphlet-sized booklets, were not called a roleplaying game at all, but rather a wargame. It did not even mention Dungeon Masters*. So how did things change? How did D&D evolve?

Peterson concentrates on the playing community in this book. TSR walks onto the field with statements by Gygax and Top Secret designer Merle Rasmussen, but most of the action is outside the city limits of Lake Geneva, in the fandom and in the myriad of small competitors that sprung up around the initial release of D&D. 

Peterson works from primary sources as well, with the published fanzines of the era, as opposed to the memories of the original participants. That's got plusses and minuses. One great plus is that memories are short and recollections are often shaded by intervening events. The past gets revised and rewritten in the retelling. I cannot remember if our group ever referred to the DM by the earlier term of Referee (even though we had a song called "My God What a Cheap Referee")**

The downside is that these primary sources are they are the words of people who wrote stuff down, which is a vocal subset of the entire playing audience. These were people who had opinions, and for whom examining, expanding, explaining, and defining the game was as important as playing in it. It is valuable information, but there is a lot of personal opinion in there as well.

One of the big primary sources for this information was the late Lee Gold's Alarums & Excursions, an excellent zine that has run from the distant past of D&D to the present. In construction, it was actually a collection of zines - you'd write up your four or ten pages, make copies (often mimeographed) on colored paper, send in the copies, and Gold would assemble and distribute them to the other readers and contributors. I've read a number of copies over the years, but because I did not read them sequentially, I missed a lot. Many writers would respond to things from the previous issues, making any edition of the magazine sort of like coming into the middle of a thread on the Internet, where everyone seems to know what is going on but you. 

Lee Gold created A&E in part because she came out of SF Fandom, and Peterson shows that as a definite split in the early fans - those that came out of SF that were attracted by the subject matter, and those who came out of wargaming, who were playing Avalon Hill games like Panzer Blitz and Gettysburg, writing up Diplomacy 'zines, and playing games at conventions. Each group wanted different things out of roleplaying games and saw different routes forward. From this dynamic came a lot of the early fan-based evolution of D&D

The early TSR designers were mostly from the wargamer side of the equation, but a lot of the longstanding RPG worlds came from the other side - imaginary worlds that used roleplaying as a mechanism to tell their stories - The Forgotten Realms, Glorantha, and Tekumel all had a life before before becoming RPGs. But most of the design team had wargaming blood in them, and while I was an SF fan back in the day, I did come in the door through wargaming. (The Lovely Bride, on the other hand, had her own Federation Starship, the Quetzalcoatl, in high school, so tag her more from the SF contingent).

The book was a tough read for me, primarily because I kept stopping to double-check stuff and think about what my experiences were during this period. I started at the Purdue Wargaming Club in the fall of 1975. We never had a Caller, though my group tended to have a Leader who kept the group together and a Mapper who kept the maps together. We solved problems like how to deal with paladins and thieves in the same party, alignment languages, and the fact everyone wanted to be an dual-class elf.  Oh, and how to handle "Fighting Florentine" which everyone else knows as dual-wielding. I should unearth the old volumes from the storage room and remind myself how much we used and discarded over the years (encumbrance, critical hits, damage locations, segments, weapon speed factors, and unmarked doors that had to be pushed/pulled without a clue to which, just to name a few).

Roleplaying has evolved and continues to evolve. Even the name has been bent and morphed over the years. It has been spelled as roleplaying, role-playing, and role playing (I go with the last because that's what we called it at WotC, but before then I was more hyphenated). We have lost the name to computer games, which at the dawn of time we called CRPGs. Even today, while some arguments unknowing recapitulate earlier discussions, there are new designs that challenge the traditional boundaries of role-playing games.We continue to change, and much of that change occurs on the ground level. The heart of roleplaying at conventions has never been in the dealer's rooms or on the panels, but rather scattered across the gaming tables.

There are a lot of nice, meaty ideas within the book, but here's one that had not seriously considered before now. D&D and other RPGs really contain two separate games - one for players, one for GMs The more I look at that, the more I nod my head in agreement. When I am playing an RPG I am in a different head-space than when I am running it, and my metagame/downtime as a DM/Judge/Keeper is much deeper when I am running a game than when I am playing in someone else's world.

This is a book that is worth hunting down, picking up, and reading. It is densely packed with a lot of info from the time. Go read it.

 More later,

* The term shows up as a single, lower-cased word, "dungeonmaster" in Gary Gygax's introduction to the Blackmoor supplement, to describe Dave Arneson, and as "Dungeon Master" as a proper noun in Tim Kask's intro to Eldritch Wizardry.

** To the tune of "Rosin the Bow"

     We fought a group of Ogre Magi.

     Killed two, let the others go free.

    The lair had a welcome mat in it.

    My god, what a cheap referee!

 

    My god what a cheap referee!

    My god what a cheap referee!

    The lair had a welcome mat in it!

   My god what a cheap referee!