What Is Really Challenging: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi

The Rise Of Skywalker, supposedly the last of the mainline Star Wars saga is coming soon. And even so, people are still talking about Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi. Even me. There is something about the eighth Star Wars film, and Rian Johnson’s own responses to fans that I’ve tried to explain, and put into words.

I mean, I even wrote an article for Sequart on The Last Jedi itself, and while it isn’t perfect, I knew the moment I saw it, it was going to become a classic: if only because of how controversial it was, how final it felt, and jarring, and experimental in some ways, while being conventional in others.

Then, I came across this article from IndieWire. It’s title is practically a thesis statement, and it doesn’t hide what it is: Rian Johnson Says Catering to Fans, Rather Than Challenging Them, Is a ‘Mistake.’ This title, combined with the subheading “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard,” left me with quite a few strong thoughts on the matter, and I want to attempt to communicate them as clearly, and lucidly — as both a writer with critical background, and as a Star Wars fan myself — as much as possible.

A lot of what I am going to write is something that has already been written, or talked about, before. After reading the article, which derives its points from an interview Johnson made, and then states that some critics apparently believe The Rise of Skywalker is “disrespectful” to Johnson, his work, and the originality of what he was attempting to do, I was reminded of something.

In 2015, I took took classes in Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp. And, in those classes, we learned many lessons not just about comics writing, but writing, world-building, and even franchise-making and supporting fandoms around it. It wasn’t completely indepth, but there was something Ty mentioned about “supporting a fan club.” Let me try to explain it as best I can recall.

Everyone likes to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone, to some extent, also likes to feel smart, and informed, and included. Ty taught us about creating emblems, and certain recurring phrases, and the value of “always bringing a character home” each time for each new story or episode: figuratively, and literally. I don’t think about forty or so years, I need to explain how that concept particularly applies to a franchise like Star Wars. But there is something in particular about this that I want to make clear.

A lot of the time, fans will speculate on a work, or details within it. And, sometimes, they will come up with an idea of where something is going to go … and they will actually be either close to it — or completely right. And especially in this Age of Information, these speculations and their conclusions are more accessible and widespread: along with the means of more rapid and open communication.

There is nothing quite like figuring something out, and realizing that you were right. And, while some fans or audience members might be like Rian Johnson and say something like: “‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me,” there is another contingent that will feel pleased, and enlightened. They might even feel a sense of belonging to that fan club. Of course, you can take that too far as well into the pedantic and condescending, but I think every story has a common source: especially human stories like mythology. Like Star Wars.

Back in ancient times, if you look at Greece, you have plays being created. And everyone knew about Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, Lysistrata and the like from oral tales but they still watched the plays. The point I’m trying to make is that even if someone does predict a story, or they want something to happen, you can still give it to them … in the way that you want to give it to them. You focus on the details, on the buildup, the pacing of the narrative, on especially the character development. You don’t do it to give the fans what they want when and how they want it. Likewise, you don’t change the story, or the way something is going to happen just to “subvert expectations.” You do it to make a point, or make an interesting twist: to focus on the story itself.

There are a lot of interesting elements in The Last Jedi that I appreciate, such as Johnson’s critique of the cycle of violence in Star Wars itself. There is a bit of preaching and condescension, and the mess that is Canto Bight but there is also the meditations on the Force itself, the stop motion illustrating an ecosystem and circle of life and death, some words about self-actualization, and even a metaphysical look on how to break out of the cycle. Then you have the milking creature, and Luke Skywalker not learning anything after the lessons of thirty years ago when dealing with his nephew.

But all the Star Wars films are flawed in some way. I mean, I don’t even have to go into the Prequels now, do I? Or even some of the questionable decisions about clunkily revamping character origins like Ventress’ or Maul’s in The Clone Wars cartoons.

I can see, for instance, that The Last Jedi was meant to be an Empire Strikes Back as Johnson put it in the article. You have a story and even advertising build up to make you think A New Hope was going to lead to the enemy being defeated in the next film, but then you get that bombshell: only Johnson attempted to do this by subverting tropes and themes in a very heavy-handed, but clever manner.

The problem is, to imagine Yoda stating this point as I did in my other article, cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. And sometimes what some might see as challenging, can also be perceived as condescending.

This is especially true when you consider all the build up and hype towards Rey’s origins, Snoke’s and then … nothing. It’s supposed to show that those expectations are irrelevant and it is the current adventure and the concepts of overcoming war and hatred that matter more, as well as friendship and love being ascendant. But they are particularly abstract concepts. So is the cycle between good and evil, of course, but then we have the other issue.

What changed as a result of The Last Jedi?

Did the concept of war get challenged? Did the Light and the Dark Sides of the Force get scrutinized and be seen beyond a simple binary good verses evil dichotomy? Did Rey and Kylo Ren realize they didn’t have to be enemies and go into a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis Hegelian dialectic: two opposites meeting to make something new, and challenging for the next film. According to the Indiewire article, as I mentioned critics are annoyed that Johnson’s innovations are seemingly being downplayed to “pander” to fan and fandom expectations for Star Wars in The Rise of Skywalker. However, it was Johnson himself who kept Rey and Kylo Ren on different sides. Rey is still on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is still motivated by the Dark Side. Perhaps they are challenged, as fans are supposedly challenged, but in the end their resolve is more or less the same: except for the regret in Kylo, which doesn’t matter as he continues on from that point until, presumably, the next movie by J.J. Abrams.

I could make a compelling case that Johnson uses the aesthetic or the seeming of innovation and subversion, but really just makes opposite, contrary trope choices that ultimately lead right back to the status quo. And this seeming of change or challenge, doesn’t really change anything. And it wouldn’t if it were simply a standalone film with its own story, but the issue is that it is supposed to be part of a nine film saga arc in which seven of those films said something else entirely. It’s jarring. And it does sometimes feel like he is subverting tropes to make it look clever, instead of actually focusing on character development and working with what came before, and making something cohesive after.

It reminds me of those creators that imitated the style and edginess of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s comics works, but didn’t really look at the content or spirit of them. I’m also reminded of something EA Games apparently did where, apparently, when some fans figured out a major plot point in the Mass Effect series, the creators went out of the way to change it so as not to seem “unoriginal” or to have people guess their story, and not want to play their game. But they forgot the lesson: that the fandom, in solving that puzzle, would only make it more interesting because even they couldn’t realize all of the details, and it’s one thing to know something — like an ancient Greek tragic story — but it is a whole other thing to see it play out, even with that knowledge or good guessing.

I don’t know. Sometimes, I think that Rian Johnson in how he has dealt with the criticism of his work can be as condescending as some of the fans who also have a tremendous sense of self-entitlement.

Either way, it is all right to like The Last Jedi or this Sequel Trilogy. It is also valid to dislike it. But I do think that if it is ridiculous to think one is insulting a fandom over the change in a film in a forty year old franchise, it is just as silly to believe a writer is being slighted when something else is being written in a different tone from his own work: which is what he did to begin with, and even then he ultimately went right back to where it all started despite that finality of a child with a broom sweeping away the past, readying for the next words to be shown on a screen.

On the Twilight of Alan Moore’s Superheroes: A Thank You

This was originally going to be a series of Tweets to Leah Moore, who is awesome, but after sitting down and thinking about it a little while longer, I decided to write something a little more substantial about this.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve really loved many of Alan Moore’s works, both his comics writing, and his prose. There’s been a lot of talk lately about superheroes, about whether or not the superhero genre in film — as discussed at length by Martin Scorsese, and in which I touch on in what will soon be my own article on Todd Phillips’ Joker — or in the comics medium, as has been covered by Alan Moore, at length, are legitimate.

I’ve had many thoughts about the comics medium, and the superhero genre, as well as Alan Moore’s words and works. I haven’t always agreed with everything he’s said, or did, but I will never deny the fact that his writing is genius, with layers of meaning and nuance, that informed my creativity and imagination personally, and through other favourite creators that I’ve also followed.

Leah Moore, the co-creator of Albion, Wild Girl, and Conspiracy of Ravens with her collaborator and husband John Reppion, recently published her own perspective on her father Alan Moore’s views on superheroes in comics and their presence in film and pop culture, as well his recent stance on voting in the British elections against Brexit, and the turmoil of it engulfing the entire nation of England.

I don’t have much to add to her words except for the anecdotes that really stick out at me from her words. I think that experiences she has, and had, with him: about his glee in finding old superhero comics, the creased pages of well-read and loved comic books he had on hand, the geeky nature of him as he took his knowledge of the geopolitical — of complex and third dimensional world-building — and applied it to the icons and inspirations of his childhood, giving those stories his tone and his voice, and all the little moments where he would share snippets of his work with her, clever lines that he was proud of, all the winks and nudges that we saw faintly in his captions and dialogue but she got to see personally and first-hand through his genuine love of not only the comics medium and what it could potentially continue to become, but for also the superhero characters that he left employment for to pursue a financially-unsure career in comics with which to work.

And it paid off. As a creator, he took a chance and with hard work and skill he not only made a living off his art, but he thrived. He achieved a dream. He took a series of risks, and I won’t pretend to understand the full implication of what that meant for him personally, or his family beyond anything I’ve read about in George Khoury’s The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, and The Mindscape of Alan Moore documentary. But it cost him too.

Imagine that you are working with something you love, because you don’t see yourself doing anything else. You literally, integrally, can’t. Not forever. You work on your projects and you keep doing so, to the point where you are ill, to the point where it hurts, and you still keep going. And then, through a series of bureaucratic and legalistic convolutions, incompetence, and the greed of others you find yourself spending more time trying to survive than making the things that you want. Imagine getting blamed for plagiarizing something that you made ages before the complaint, or being told you will get your work reverted back to you only for it to never go out of print and have the company you worked for own it. Think about how you think you could have interacted with this company — or companies — and believed you came to a settlement, that you finally got this unpleasantness out of the way, and you are even thinking about adding more to the good work you did for them only for them to fuck you over further. And then, try looking back at what you once loved, that you made into a career, and being positive about it.

Of course, that is just my understanding of it and I know there are many other complexities involved in there. I’m not even saying that Alan Moore is always right, and like I said I don’t always agree with him. Superheroes, for instance, are like M. Night Shyamalan pointed out in what would become his Unbreakable film series, our modern society’s version of gods and demigods: beings of great power and different morality, but a bridge between the mortal and the immortality, between humanity and Nature, between hopes and stories. They have captivated us, these stories of heroes who do good, and terrible things, larger than life: our dreams and nightmares put into words, and panels, and dialogue balloons. It’s only the nineteenth century aesthetic of the strong man and the cape and tights have that altered the iconography, just as once auras of power around gods were symbolized by horns.

And Alan Moore knew this. He still does, even now. He explored what power would do to the psychology of an individual, and while it wasn’t always pleasant, he still kept some common decency, and the dare to dream big in many of his narratives. Unfortunately, many others looking at great comics works — like those displaying the innovation of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — only saw the dark and gritty, the grimdark, and believed that edginess was all that made these stories truly great.

Julian Darius, of Sequart, called this “comics revisionism”:  this deconstruction of the superhero to display the problematic and questionable elements of the superhero dream, while also keeping their humanity, characterization, and world-building at the forefront. Moore’s work had affected the superhero comics genre, and still does: even if a lot of the works after him — both in comics and film adaptations — only superficially borrow from that legacy.

I can talk about all of this, all day, really. But there are two things that really stick me about this discussion right now. The first is something Martin Scorsese said about film, which can be applied to stories. In his New York Times opinion piece I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema, Let Me Explain, with regards to his era of film-making he states “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

Aside from the fact that Scorsese goes on to talk about the danger of attempting to mass-manufacture a particular kind of story over and again, recycling it without innovation or introspection, his previous words are fascinating given how this is especially what Alan Moore — and some others inspired by him — actually brought to superhero characters and stories. Moore did, in fact, in the medium of comics bring spiritual revelation and contradictory, complex natures to superhero characters, and did his part to transform the medium itself by drawing into it not just continuity but a sense of literary canon — of sophistication — and a modernist voice that may well have not been there before. Seriously, Scorsese’s words above could have easily applied to moments in Watchmen, in V For Vendetta, in Promethea, and other works created by Moore. But I won’t go into them.

Instead, there is the other point I want to make. It is looking at Leah Moore’s words, about a man who liked to play with superheroes, who wanted to make meaningful stories out of them, who believed in the potential of an art-form, and in recent times claims that they are just the adolescent fantasies of nostalgic adults yearning for childhood, the tools of corrupt systems wanting to make a buck and rip-off their artist employees, and a medium that barely has any change or representation. I’m not going to debate the merits of these statements, though I disagree with the last point given how there are many forms of representation in comics now — though in DC and Marvel that’s still a give or take situation — but I just want to draw the attention that Leah Moore has brought to it: that someone who loved superheroes can’t stand them anymore, or at the very least if you go by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, has a wry cynicism tempered by a wistful remembrance of more idealistic days long gone.

It’s sad. I’ve had my differences with Alan Moore’s work a few times, one time especially during Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century where I stopped reading him for a while. But it was never because of indifference, or because somehow I felt I was better than him. It was because it hurt. It hurt when he came in, and changed something to be grimmer, but more real. Because it struck me in a place where I was still holding onto hope. But it never occurred to me that he must have dealt with something similar, a few times already. This creator, who wove together entire worlds, who interviews almost self-derisively seemed to channel Frederic Wertham’s views on comics superheroes when looking back on his work, was saying something about these stories, and his art.

And I can’t help but wonder, like Leah Moore, if it would have been different if he had been treated better during his time writing in the industry. If we would have seen a Minutemen of his own creation, or more. But at the same time, these terrible experiences did get him to create other works. I love his Providence series, for instance, and I still want to get back into reading Jerusalem.

I guess I am getting older as well. I faced my Century a few times. I never got as far as Alan Moore did in my own creative work, and I don’t think at this point I ever will. In the end, I’m just glad. I’m glad I got to be some small part of his creation, like so many others, in just reading his work: in just interacting with it even in this tiny way. I’m also glad he is making his own works in other media now, such as his films. And when I came back to him, when he created that limited run in Crossed +100 and then Providence, it was like coming home to that older intellectual friend you don’t always agree with, but you feel enriched by spending that time together. And I never forget that it was his work, and those works that he informed, that got me back into comics to begin with: that saved me from completely dismissing them as juvenalia and relics of an immature childhood. Comics are so much more that. And I have creators like Alan Moore to thank for it.

All I can do now is keep following my own dreams, and the old stories, wherever they are go. After all, as a blue, naked man once said to the world’s most intelligent, if not wise, man in another time, another life. “Nothing ever ends.”

Up, Up, and Away, My Friends

In 2014, about four or five years ago I’d been in Canada for a long time. I hadn’t left the country since about 2009. My passport had long since expired, along with my formerly independent student life, and I ended up living at home with my parents again. At the time, I didn’t really have an excuse to travel. I had few others that wanted me to visit at that point in time, and those that did were in other places in their lives entirely. I basically had no reason to go anywhere.

That changed in 2014. For the first time in about six years, I had an excuse to visit the United States. I went through all the ridiculousness of filling out a whole new passport, including going back to the office, and having to explain to them that I needed it sooner so I’d have it for my trip. That began the first of my four year Greyhound commuting trips: from Canada to the United States. And, you know what? I was happy. I was happy to see the windmills, the grass, even horses, the change from Canadian to American streetlights, and even the feeling of relief of getting through the usual customs routine. Hell, I was lucky back then in that I didn’t miss my connecting bus: that hell would happen later.

When I was there, amongst many other things that first time in six years in the United States, I went to a place called the Dawn Treader Book Shop, in Ann Arbor. In it where so many different vintage science-fiction and fantasy books: so much so they crowded the aisles in, well, piles. I remember that day well. I’d eaten a really good lunch, and here I was browsing these different books. It was a warm, sunny summer afternoon, and anything felt possible. Life was still complicated, and I knew I’d have to go back home eventually and all that entailed, but I was there, and I was happy: possibly for the first time in almost two years at that point.

I almost didn’t get anything at that Shop. I tend not to buy much of anything for myself when I travel. Part of it is because I always try to limit my baggage to carry-on luggage, because I don’t need more complication in my life. Another is, really, I can get most of what I want online or through the mail. But then, before I left, I found that the place also had other media. Namely, there were DVDs. And while most of them didn’t interest me, I found this.

And I couldn’t resist. The old 1940s Fleischer cartoons of Superman: a series created by two Canadians who came to the United States to make something new for themselves, and ended up creating a legend. There was something, I don’t know, auspicious about that. I like Superman. I’ve mentioned it before. I suppose some people who know me might be surprised that I like his character. I mean, many might tag me as a Marvel child, or a Batman fanatic. Certainly, these days and when I grew up, I grew to appreciate Wonder Woman.

But Superman had been with me since my earliest childhood. I had a poster of him on my old closet door, and I Am A Super Kid frame with the younger version of myself on it. Maybe I’d felt like, on some level, finding this was all about feeling reborn in a way. Like I was beginning some kind of new life, and the vistas were not dark and gritty like a lot of Revisionist comics out there, but golden like the Reconstructionist comics afterwards: stories that drew from the original creative well, but brought a whole new level of maturity and heart to them. Like something you love growing up with you: a thing I think a lot of jaded, more cynical people do not completely understand beyond deriding a sense of nostalgia.

I thought I found an artifact of freedom, perhaps. I kept it in its Dawn Treader paper bag, and took it home with me. It was easier getting back home through Customs than going through, and when I eventually came to Toronto again and its convoluted mess of city-roads, I went to the Silver Snail and picked up Brian K. Vaughan, Steve Skroce, and Matt Hollingworth’s We Stand on Guard.

Basically, the premise of this is that in the future America would go to war against Canada for its supply of fresh water in our ice. I thought it was ridiculous, in that it didn’t quite capture my own experience of being a Canadian citizen — whatever the hell that is given how diverse we all are — but I was entertained, and the characters were believable. But what attracted me to this comic, initially, was one of the rebels talking about the tattoo he had of Superman. The other rebels hated the Canadian that wore it, thinking they were a traitor for wearing an American icon. But he explained that Superman had not only become an international symbol of hope, optimism, and inspiration but he had been made by Canadians. Hell Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel’s creative partner, was the relative of Frank Shuster who had been the comedy partner of my cousin the Canadian comedian Johnny Wayne. Degrees of separation, I know, but it struck a chord with me, and I got the first issue just for this tenuous connection alone.

I remember, on the subway ride back from Dundas Street East, reading this issue and recalling how uncomfortable I’d felt under the scrutiny of the American border agents, and the feeling — having traveled to America for the first time by myself as an adult — of it actually being another country. It wasn’t Canada. It wasn’t where I grew up. No matter how much television I’d seen about it, or visited it as a child, I would never be American. The closest I’d be would be North American, and what does that ultimately mean in the end? But I kept thinking: America and Canada being enemies like the nations had been in the past, during the Colonial and Victorian eras? It was silly. And yet … I couldn’t really shake that feeling: that what if our longtime friend became something else for other, unforeseen purposes? Was it conceivable that such a friend could become a stranger or, worse, an enemy? And what would we do? What would I do?

For five years and over seven months, I never opened my Superman Adventures box. For ages, it sat on my desk in its Dawn Treader white paper bag, and I never took it out. I wanted to save watching this old cartoons for … something. For some special occasion. I just didn’t know what that might be. It was something special to me. Something golden that on some level, perhaps, I thought I could preserve forever in that crinkled paper. And I thought, I would be able to go back to the Dawn Treader one day. I’d be able to relive that moment, or have others like it.

But I never did go back to the Dawn Treader. The closest I came was watching the old BBC adaptation of the book, the third book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, also from my childhood and part of what formed me as a person — of my heart, from YouTube while I was there. And despite everything, I was happy then. I was happy, until of course, I wasn’t.

This was a year or so after the American Elections when pretty much everything changed. That time was gone now. This was reality. All of it. That sunlight still exists somewhere as starlight, distant, in another galaxy that perhaps Superman might be able to travel to if he actually existed. But it isn’t here anymore, and it hadn’t been for a long time.

I don’t know how long Superman Adventures sat on my desk. Even the paper around it seemed unreal, as though despite what it said I could have just got it anywhere. I took the bag and put it away, where I didn’t have the heart to see it anymore. Then it sat under a bunch of other DVDs I didn’t watch. I got busy with life, and chaos, and shadows, but I knew it was still there. It was still waiting.

Finally, today — or I should say last night — having had too little sleep, I took the box out. And I realized, then, that it was time. It was time to do this on my own terms.

So I watched all seventeen episodes in one go. The discs were basic. There were no special features, and only poor attempts at titles screens on both volumes. There was no restoration, beyond perhaps the basic, or digital remastering. But I didn’t care about any of that. I had to see them. I had to see them through.

Most of the episodes were self-contained and basic. When I read up on the animation style later, I realized just how avant garde it was for the time: how they used some rotoscoping — tracing live action figures from film footage — and how animators inexperienced in drawing, and illustrators inexperienced in animating came together and made this work. The detail in the background is excellent, and you can see all the care that went into it. And the cartoon animals, still possessing anthropomorphic flare, remind me of Disney, even though I have to remember that Fleischer Studios also created Felix the Cat by that logic.

The first Volume dealt with Superman fighting mad scientists, and bank robbers. Lois Lane gets herself into a lot of trouble, and takes a lot of risk while always banking on Superman to save her, and outclass Clark Kent with her scoop while he always seems to look at the screen, breaking the fourth wall with the expression of “We all know I am the best though, right? I’m the real star here.” Volume Two, which contains episodes made after the Fleischer brothers were removed and the company making them renamed Famous Studios, has a lot of those same elements and … some unfortunate — read racist caricature stereotype — particulars that happen when you are essentially creating WWII propaganda. Nevertheless, given history — and contemporary circumstances — it is fitting that these episodes be mentioned, and not forgotten. I mean, can you just imagine the media that will be created after our time if we all survive it?

They were all, like I said, self-contained episodes, and Superman almost always rescues Lois Lane, she writes the story, and he saves the day. Patterns always repeat themselves. There is no Lex Luthor, possibly no Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White is just a person that introduces stories to his reporters. For some reason Superman was adopted by an orphanage instead of Ma and Pa Kent, and apparently the Fleischers were the ones that gave Superman actual flight instead of accelerated jumping: meaning that they first introduced it, and later DC Comics adapted it into their own comics … something I had no idea about until I read up on it.

I also read up on the fact that … all the episodes are online, and public domain. In other words, as far as I know I never needed the DVDs to see these anyway. I don’t know what that says, really, when you put it into the philosophical and retrospective context with which I had framed the whole thing. Perhaps, there isn’t any meaning at all, to any of this except for what you put into it.

I am glad I watched them, though, in the way I did. The last two days of the year, of 2018, where so much changed for me just seemed appropriate. I am definitely in a different place now than I was even a year ago. Perhaps this isn’t the New Year’s post that you were expecting. To be honest, neither was I. But sometimes, while some patterns and mythic cycles are eternal or beloved — and you can learn from them — others become tropes or stereotypes — tired and worn sentiments — from which you just need to break away. Perhaps, one day, that light will come back, or another light in another form. I haven’t gone to the United States since that time, and I do not see myself doing so in the near-future, but there are other places to go, and other things to find.

Perhaps, in the end, I should take Superman’s catch phrase — the one in this title — into account. Until then, my friends.

Whatever else, I am still a Super Kid.

Roleplaying The Enemy in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda

I’m not sure how this happened, really. I’d been following Yoystan’s Men of the West YouTube Channel for a while, but I think I really started going back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda and Middle-Earth because of the season, and also due to roleplaying in a homebrew world with my friends. Last week, I talked about Role-Playing Magic and The World of Arda: basically taking the subtle natural magic of Arda and its world elements and making either a table-top or a massive-multiplayer online role-playing game with those particular aspects in mind. There are a lot of issues with adapting Tolkien’s sagas in that way, of course, and while I touched upon the fact that the players would always be subservient to the overall plotline and need to really have some personal stories as well as referencing to some extent that old paternalism in the Arda narrative with regards to women, and other human ethnicities, there is also the matter of the Orcs.

Yes. You read that right. Orcs. What if someone wants to play an Orc character in Arda? For Everquest and World of Warcraft, even some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, this would not necessarily be an issue. But Tolkien makes it very clear that orcs are distortions, tortured mutations and descendants of the Elves that didn’t travel to Aman or the Undying Lands, or were captured by the Vala Melkor become the Dark Lord Morgoth before that point. They are warped and twisted, hating themselves, and everyone else around them. There is no noble Horde here against the Alliance of Azeroth. You have these angry, bitter, hateful beings that want to ruin the lives of other races that are more “whole” than they are. This is the same with Trolls, that are mockeries of the tree-like Ents, and even the Easterlings and Southron Men as well as the Black Numenoreans, and more besides of which I do not even have the knowledge. Tolkien makes it clear that these are bad creatures, and people. They have served Morgoth, and Sauron. They despise everything that is beautiful, and good, and true in Middle-Earth. They are the minions of the forces of darkness, and they will go out of their way to destroy even a sliver of hope: the heart of the Tolkien narrative itself.

However, does it really have to be that way? Could the Enemy be just as viable a player faction as the Free-Peoples of Middle-Earth? And can you role-play them in a way that stays true to Tolkien, or perhaps subverts the narrative in a way where it doesn’t take away from the original story, but adds to it? There can’t be light without shadow, after all, despite other philosophies that believe darkness to be a deformation of true radiance. And can you have fun playing the Enemy?

I believe it can be done. If I were to do it, just like the game with the general Free-Peoples that I mentioned in my last article, I would set in as a side campaign during some of the events of the Ages, or in-between lulls between major events in general: the ones that aren’t necessarily world-shattering upon first glance, or at least not obviously so.

So, Orcs are fascinating beings. What is known is that when they aren’t working for Morgoth, or Sauron they often congregate in different tribes where they engage in warlike and violent behaviour to achieve dominance among their people, and power. They are also related to Goblins as well, maybe as an offshoot. You have your warriors, and archers, as well as your Warg Riders: essentially Orcs that ride giant wolves. Goblins can have something akin to group or a nice adaptation of D&D pack tactics when fighting. Another thing to consider is that Orcs aren’t stupid. Of course, there are different breeds or races of Orc as well, but they are all cunning and can create weapons, and devices of war and torment. In fact, I would encourage there to be smart Orcs: beings with basic intelligence, craftiness, cleverness, and of course a thirst for battle.

I would have it so that if you play an Orc, or a Troll you can work your way through the ranks based on your battle prowess, your manipulation, and your cunning. Perhaps you believe that the Valar cursed your ancestors, and left you to suffer. The Lords that you follow, if you do, are the sworn enemies of the dark gods that abandoned you, leaving you to die helpless in a world you didn’t understand until Melkor came, and gave you a new sense of purpose. He changed you, twisted, and moulded you to be fruitful and multiply. This is your land. You love your god, and you hate him in equal measure. But this pain of being you reminds you that you are alive, and it also reminds you of all the other races that take their wholeness for granted. Likewise, perhaps you might not believe the Dark Lord made you, but you follow power for that is how you eat the flesh of others, which is your diet — as you have grown tired of eating your own — and you know that the more powerful and skilled you become, or the more resources you have, the more opportunities you will have for food and plunder.

Likewise, you might not want to follow any Dark Lord and simply plunder for the sake of it. You know, those Dwarves are always trying to kill you and you want a nice safe place in a mountain. Perhaps you’ve heard of Moria, and once the Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep, you sensed the presence of a power that is familiar and grand: something that doesn’t seem to care about you, and would tolerate your presence in a grander place while destroying all others that dare to defy it. Maybe you want treasures and golden baubles from those damned Men that are always roaming around, while having a cave to keep it all in so you can have meat, and loot a plenty as a Troll. Perhaps you want control over a part of the Misty Mountains that another Tribe of Goblin or Orc possesses. So you forge alliances and friendships. You have a broodmate or two. You fight alongside each other, propping each other up until the time when you don’t need the other anymore, or when you get hungry. And, if you do serve a Dark Lord, if you prove yourself you might be worthy of his blessings: of greater weapons, of artifacts forged from Utumno and Angband, or even from the very fires of Mount Doom itself.

I myself don’t know the particulars of Black Speech, that spoken in Mordor, or by the Enemy in general but if there is an enterprising Tolkien scholar of the language out there, I would find the Black Speech equivalents to Fëa and Hröa: perhaps ghâsh as “fire” could represent a dark being’s soul, while snaga, aside from meaning “slave” can also mean “the body.” Things have been made on the backs of slaves, unfortunately, after all, and they have been seen as objects. Perhaps in this culture the Orcs and Trolls — or as they would call themselves and perhaps be called in-game the Uruk and Olog — the former term of which actually being taken from mythology by Tolkien — see their bodies as slaves to their fire or hunger, and act accordingly on that as a virtue. That is merely my idea, and I think interesting enough to consider.

Of course, you also have the Men or humans that serve the Enemy, or have their own designs. Perhaps those from the East and South have their own cultures. The Haradrim have their Mûmakil riders: their oliphant mounts. The Corsairs of Umbar have their excellent seafaring vessels, ships, and skills. The Easterlings have a vast land and many different kingdoms and cultures that can be expanded upon: with their superb constructions of wagons and chariots to supplement their fighting skills. And there are so many others. They could serve the Cult of Melkor, like the fallen Numenoreans did, because they are jealous as all hell over the Elves living forever, and they want immortality, or they despise the former Numenoreans turned into the people of Gondor and Arnor due to their imperialism, or because they were favoured over them by cruel gods. They might just want better lands, or more resources. Some might want revenge for the deaths of kin in so many wars between the West and themselves. Perhaps they even have genuine grievances, or many a few more just want to get away from Sauron. Perhaps the Cult that was introduced in the unfinished New Shadow novel of Tolkien’s has its presence in Mordor or the East and South in different iterations.

And then, you can have some interesting classes too. While there are warriors, Wainriders, archers, your oliphant riders, sailor-lords, and the like, you can have Sorcerers and Witches. These beings can be from the East and South, but even the West. They have learned lore — sorcery — or gained artifacts from dark Maia such as Sauron. Their ghâsh can be improved upon through study of entropy and decay, as well as taking the lives of others through battle and blood sacrifices. Orcs and Trolls can have these powers, this equivalent to magic: though they manifest as poisonous herb-lore, fiendish constructions, spiritual pollution, and berserker rages. If you want to take liberties, you can even say that as a reward for serving your Lord as an Orc or Troll, you could be chosen to help breed the next of your kin: choosing survival of the strongest and the clever to create a chosen bloodline that could lead to Saruman’s Uruk-hai or even Sauron’s Olog-hai: sun-resistant Trolls.

Normal Trolls have their ghâsh drained massively if they are exposed to light, or sunlight, and will turn into stone. Most Orcs can be affected in a similar way, but while they won’t die, you will feel tremendous fear and hatred of the unforgiving light. And if you are a Sorcerer or Witch of Men, you can vastly increase your ghâsh or have it increased if you prove your worth to your Masters, but it will degrade your snaga: and you will become a Wraith over time as your dark spirit from the Other World consumes your body in the mortal one. Trolls and Orcs improve their snaga through learning combat and survival tactics while their ghâsh can collectively increase if they are in larger numbers against an enemy: representing the darkness that they embody.

So, here are some interesting scenarios. You can be powerful Orcs and Men of Saruman that undertake missions for the renegade White Wizard to prove your worthiness and get your time in the breeding pits: to know you will create a new future where your kin will rule the world under the Hand of Isengard: your Clan’s immortality assured as the dominant power under any Dark Lord really. Perhaps you are an agent of Saruman hired to collect some ring-lore that he can’t quite find elsewhere: and while you might not glean the significance of it, he could teach you a few bits of other lore or give you treasures or powers of other kind in exchange. You can be the Corsairs that destroy the fleets of Gondor, and prove your superiority, or one of the Easterlings or Haradrim that either fight each other, or create mutual trading pacts, or successfully back-stab your way into power. Or here is an interesting one: Sauron hears that some strange Blue Wizards have come into the East. He orders you, his best Uruks, and his best disciples of the Cult of Melkor to either apprehend the two Blue Wizards and bring them to him, or kill them. Or perhaps the two are already renegades and will teach you some lore in exchanging for serving them … or, likewise, pretend to be renegades, and teach you that lore to make sure that your lands never fully unify — at least not right away — and delay, if not destroy a fully unified East under Sauron’s banner.

And, who knows? You Easterlings and Southrons can eventually sue for peace with the West, and mutual respect. Maybe Sauron is gone, or you just want a way to get away from him so that you can save your family and your loved ones. Maybe it’s too late for those inducted fully into the Cult of Melkor, but if you have Numenorean blood perhaps you can be an Elf-Friend again and remember the mysteries of Eru Illuvatar. Perhaps you Uruks have had enough. You don’t want to serve these Dark Lords anymore. Perhaps your hatred of the Elves and Men empowers you, but you can see which way the wind is changing. Your new quest is to gain power, but also survive. You go off to find a new home, or a cavern, or a series of tunnels with which to hide from the genocide of your kind, and one day regain your numbers. Perhaps you will even become more clever. And, who knows? Maybe you had Elven and Human ancestry. Maybe you see just a bit of that light in the brokenness you always were … Perhaps it drives you to glorious battle and seek a great end for yourself that will eclipse anything else in your horrible life. Or perhaps … one day … you might become something more.

This … isn’t perfect. Like Black Speech itself, the Enemy was built by Tolkien to be fragmented and broken and brutal. I think you can still preserve that, but show that they have aspirations and personalities of their own. Some might change their ways. Some might die by them. You can tell some good stories, and even make them. I actually view these beings differently now, especially the Orcs and Trolls. While Order of the Stick made me look at Goblin Genocides for what they are in D&D, my own meditations on what happened in H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth with the US Government and the town’s people as genocide — along with reading Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series — and my friend and sometime-publisher Gil Williamson’s Prancing Pony: in which the British come to Middle-Earth in the 1800s and see what is left of the people there, including the last of the Uruk-hai.

I don’t mind having the existence of evil or even other darker forces in a game or a world, but I do think having them fleshed out and even thinking out their world view and allowing for change in some places and meaningful stories can amount to a lot. I’ve written a lot more about this than I thought. But I hope this was interesting, if nothing else. It’s good to write such rambles on here again. That’s what Mythic Bios was designed to do after all. Until another time, my friends.

And remember: I see you.

Roleplaying Magic and the World of Tolkien’s Arda

Whenever I attempt to relax, one of the things that I do is watch a YouTube channel called Men of the West, created by a user with the handle of Yoystan. In it, he generally talks about aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s World of Arda, but specifically events, characters, artifacts, races, locations, and media pertaining to Middle-Earth. Fans like Yoystan are far more well-versed in Arda, and Tolkien’s works and backgrounds than myself, but they have inspired me to do some of my own crude and shallow research through the Legendarium of Tolkien. But there is one topic that has always intrigued me about Middle-Earth, especially with interest in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and my own Dungeons and Dragons role-playing.

Magic.

Of course, magic in this case is a misnomer. Perhaps the better word for what I am particularly interested in with regards to Tolkien’s Arda is its metaphysics, or how the rules of that world allow for certain events, and actions that we might deem as paranormal or supernatural to take place. Metaphysics in the world of Arda are predicated on its creation.

Arda was created by the Song of Eru Illuvatar and his Valar and Maiar spirits. It allows for song and oaths to shape the fate of those that utilize them. Prophecy and prophetic dreams also exist in this world. However, there are some crafts that exist in Arda thanks to the Valar, and their Maiar servants that were taught to the early ancestors of the peoples of Arda: Elves, Dwarves, and Men: specifically herb-lore, Dwarven Moon-letters, artificing such as ring-crafting, and even something akin to telepathy “thought-opening” and “Unwill”: though the latter is a rare skill. Arda also exists in two worlds, the mortal plane, and the “Unseen World” where Elves — or at least High Elves — exist simultaneously: perhaps allowing them, and other dark beings, to utilize spells of illusion or shape-changing. Certainly, there seems to be a category of metaphysics called sorcery: which is dark power that can be taught to Men — humans — by Maia such as the Dark Lord Sauron. Curses also exist that can keep human spirits from passing on, and certain areas of land can have traumatic events such as wars and battle imprinted upon them, or be sensitive to certain kinds of powers, or be protected by them.

The only ones that can really wield anything close to obvious magical  power are the Istari — or the Five Wizards — who are, in turn, Maia spirits given human form by their Valar patrons from Aman or Valinor to advise and guide the peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron’s tyranny and manipulations. And the Wizards are extremely limited in what they can actually do, to make sure their powers do not dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth or actually cause irreparable damage to Arda itself.

Essentially, what I call the metaphysical situation of Arda is a subtle magic of sorts: forces of that universe — which is, arguably, supposed to be a mythological past of our own world, before the metaphysical rules of our reality changed many times — and something that can only be utilized in particular situations, contexts, or at certain times. George R.R. Martin does something similar with magic in Westeros and Essos, though there is a lot more emphasis on blood magic, and aspects of deities that may or may not exist in the forms that their worshipers believe them to be. It would make sense that Tolkien’s understated, limited use of magic — or metaphysics — influenced Martin and so many others, including the creators of Dungeons and Dragons that made spells far more overt.

So, one thing that the Men of the West YouTube channel also focused on at one point were attempts at an Expanded Arda Universe: through gameplay. And one thing that it has always found lacking is the “magic-system” in Lord of the Rings Online — a game that Yoystan otherwise praises in every other way — or even its selection of player races, and antagonists.

And, after reading up on this, I started to think to myself: what would a role-playing game — online or table-top — look like if it were based on what we knew about Tolkien’s Arda down as much to the rune as possible? This led me to writing out some thoughts on my social media on the matter, hoping to get input from other Game Masters and other players I know, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this deserves a post. And while I am not a Tolkien scholar, I do have some ideas as to what this world would look like, how it would be possible to construct a campaign, and what such a game could be about.

It’d be a question of looking at the heart of Middle-Earth and Arda, and focusing on the idea that “there is hope in the greatest darkness.” That is the spirit of Tolkien’s world. With this central theme in mind, should at least a table-top Game Master and player fellowship choose to use it, it would be a case of the metaphysics of the world shaping what happens in it.

Setting a game in Arda during the First and Second Ages, for instance, would be a very different endeavour and situation than making it situated in the Third Age with which many fans are so familiar. I would argue that it would be easier to have High Elf players in the First and Second Ages, for instance, along with a Higher Mythic Age element of Maiar abound and more supernatural beings like werewolves, Balrogs, and even Dragons. Roleplaying in Beleriand, the lost continent of Middle-Earth and central to many Elven Kingdoms and even old Dwarven ones could be fascinating. Of course, you could have intrigue and some battles from Numenor, the greatest civilization of Men as it is referred to, if you want to spend time in the Second Age. The Silmarillion and other Books of Lost Tales on those times could be useful but they are very mythological, though there could be some fun in that.

But in the Third Age, around the time of The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit is what I was — and many others would be — thinking about setting a game in with regards to Arda. If it is a tabletop role-playing situation, the Game Master can set limits on who is what in this world, and it would be easier to do so. For instance, High Elves have tremendous skill in their Arts and knowledge — and can see into the Unseen World and sense Wraiths and the like — which might give a fellowship an unfair advantage. Also, there aren’t that many High Elves beyond the titular characters in the novels at this stage in the game. Likewise, in a video game or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you can just limit what classes and races players can be: with non-player characters being exceptions, of course. And, it goes without saying, that there are no other Wizards aside from the Five.

What I would do is something like this. I would take all the different races and genealogies that commonly exist in Middle-Earth around the time of the tail end of the Third Age: the Forest Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits of course, and Men — Humans — and even include some Rangers with their Numenorean blood to make things interesting. So far so good. I would have Warriors in their permutations as Horse Riders, Archers, and even Rangers. Have some Hobbit burglars even just to be a troll (and in this case, not a literal one, as they will be enemies, trolls). The Forest Elves are a combination of different Elven families or ethnicities and perhaps I would grant them some higher statistics, and knowledge.

Healing in the game would happen naturally. If you are injured, you need to rest, or have medicine applied to you. It’d be like the role-playing system in the tabletop version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you get injured, you have to take time to heal. Of course, if your Human or Elf knows some herb-lore, you could expedite the process, but it is not an instant heal situation. In fact, I’d be really tempted to list one’s characteristics as Fëa and Hröa. These are two very fascinating concepts, created in Tolkien’s Elvish which are apparently translated as “spirit” or “soul” and “body.” I would have Hröa as one’s health meter, and Fëa as being necessary to perform certain Arts, herb-lore, crafts, and the like. The more powerful your Fëathe more sensitive you are to the Unseen World, and the more complex Arts you can understand and perform. Perhaps this would be a dynamic more suited to Elf characters, for obvious reasons, and perhaps some Numenorean descendants.

I would allow for some characters to be able to increase these basic traits. Elves, for instance, can increase Fëa and Hröa if they learn certain lore, and can start to perceive the World around them such as it is, perhaps even more than their heightened senses already do. However, I would make them more susceptible to any mood-affecting Arts or sorcery, and if their Fëa isn’t sufficiently recovered through meditation or what not, it can affect them physically. It would be interesting, however, for a non-High Elf to develop to a point where they can almost match their kin. I am even tempted to play with the concept of Elf characters being reincarnated from the Halls of Mandos if they are killed in battle, or they die, while Human characters — if they die — have to move on as their souls go to a place beyond Arda, and the player can have the option of playing as a descendant or a kinsman of theirs. It’d be closer in keeping to the metaphysical structure of Tolkien’s world.

It would really be cool if characters can learn how to train their traits through finding lore, or artifacts, or even wise people who might have, at one time, been taught a few tricks by other Elves, Dwarf smiths, or even Istari. It would be limited, of course, as secrets can be distorted or lost over time, and the power of Arda is not the same as it once was. But just think about an Elf learning how to sense the two Worlds, or a Dwarf figuring out how to make Moon-letters or doors — with time and effort — that can keep others away, or Humans learning powerful Oaths, songs or poems of power to bolster the morale of your group or army, some minor Spells, or wisdom. And everyone can learn some secrets of different locations that they find, perhaps even talk with a Maia or two and gain knowledge of subtle but useful skills. Perhaps there is a campaign where they go among the Easterlings and discover a cult dedicated to the Blue Wizards, and discover some lore from them: maybe in an attempt to figure what happened to the two who were lost so long ago, while never actually being anything but ambiguous about it like in Tolkien’s lore unless you want an interpretation.

Of course, you can train your Hröa through learning how to fight, how to survive in the wilderness and scout, to feed yourself, and through exercise and experience in battle. And there could be situations where you need something miraculous to happen, but you can’t just simply call on this power whenever you want: even as an Elf. You have to be in the right place, at the correct time, or like in some D20 systems you have a Fate Dice and you can only call on it once per session or — in this case — once per major event such as being in a battle with a Sorcerer who has a few Wraiths or Barrow-Wights on his or her side, and you have an Elven artifact that you need to repel them with azure light, or the sudden flood of a river in front of you to keep them all back.

It would be easy to find treasures of mithril and Elven blades that react to Orc presence. Orcs, Goblins, Wargs, Trolls — which would be stronger opponents — Mirkwood Spiders, Human Outlaws, Barrow-Wights, and Wraiths would be good antagonist non-player characters that you can fight, and outsmart. Perhaps you find some remnants of older more terrifying powers in remote places in Middle-Earth such as Balrogs, Dragons, or even some Maia that have gone renegade: shapeshifting wolves and vampires. I can see a quest to seek some Teleri elves (seafarers I believe) to find treasures in the waters where Beleriand used to be, or going to the East to see if you can find evidence of the Blue Wizards — as having done their part to divide the Easterlings against Sauron, failing to do so and being killed, or having made cults around themselves — or even trying to find those gosh darned reclusive Ent-Wives if you are particularly fascinated with herb and wood-lore.

You can participate in minor battles that are involved in major events. You could find all kinds of fascinating artifacts such as, again, some Elven blades you can find, some Dwarf-wrought weapons, documents and lore of lost knowledge, perhaps a lost remnant of a Wizard’s staff that wouldn’t even give you a tenth of an Istari’s power but could make for a useful talisman. Hell, you could even find the Lesser Rings of Power: which are practice rings made by Elven craftspeople that could give you … a few minor advantages in certain statistics. Saruman did, after all, examine what he could of ring-lore and maybe there are some samples of it still out there, though whether or not they are influenced by Sauron can be up to interpretation.

It seems like scraps, compared to what the protagonists in the novels encounter or use, and compared to Dungeons and Dragons, but I see all these opportunities as — well — Lost Tales in and of themselves, stories that happen in between the gaps of greater epics that are no less meaningful. They would be character driven games and campaigns, and you can focus on “fellowship” or “the day a group’s courage fails.” You could have an Elf wanting to prove themselves to their people, or a Dwarf wanting to recover their lost smithing, or a human woman masquerading as a man — or not — wanting to fight, a rare halfling that wanders from home and can’t keep their hands to themselves, or an Easterling who simply just wants to gain profit and survive and doesn’t like the influence being exerted on their lands. I’m not sure I would have Beornings — essentially were-bears — exist as player characters, but I would not rule it out in a tabletop situation provided it is roleplayed well. Perhaps Beornings are descendants of Men and Maia with an interesting Fëa as a result.

And just think about these characters meeting canon characters, and having a whole other kind of interaction with them. Elrond could probably, if he so chose, direct you with different kinds of knowledge, or perhaps you can meet a different Gondorian Stewards if you aren’t … quite playing at the end of the Third Age. Perhaps Galadriel has entertained other guests before, or you really got lost in Lothlorien. You might be told by a small village of Hobbits that you are not welcome there, or a passing … grey-robed and bearded man gives you some good pipe-weed, and some sound advice. Maybe even a firework or two, if you are good. Or you meet other original characters who could plausibly exist. Imagine learning how to ride by riders of Rohan, or dying in Dunharrow because you were foolish enough to go into the Mountain … or you find some cursed item just outside of it. And going into a barrow is always fun, or dealing with some Huorns and Ents in Fangorn Forest. There are a lot of possibilities.

This … could work as an online game, but that depends on the interests of the players and how much of an audience such a game world as an MMORPG could gain. Many people are used to flinging fireballs, or instantly healing from a cleric’s spell. Likewise, however, there is a paternalism in Tolkien’s world: with certain peoples of humanity, or races being inherently bad or limited to roles that could also be an issue, not to mention gender-roles.

But this system, as I have thought of it, could also be adopted into its own world. A low or subtle magic world that focuses on exploration and understanding of the environment around you, and the friendships you can forge, the poems and artifacts you can find, the songs you can sing together, and even the food you can make and eat and trade while having your battles with evil.

I guess what I’m saying is that it can be done, and it would be fairly beautiful.  I would attempt a table-top game of either a Lord of the Rings RPG like this, or a world with similar metaphysics. I know The One Ring RPG and Lord of the Rings Online do not quite have this, so I thought I’d just write about it here. Or perhaps only hardcore Tolkienites and scholars could attempt such a thing. I think this is the closest I might ever come to writing in Middle-Earth, though I make no promises. I don’t have any greetings or farewells to make in Elvish, but I hope you enjoyed reading this long digression into possibilities, this place of lore, which I feel belongs on Mythic Bios as it has been a long time since I have made such a ramble. And I wish you well.

Where Did All These Posts Come From?

You might be asking that question.

Well, they aren’t new posts per see. In fact, they are re-posts. They are re-posts of the articles I have been writing for Sequart. Brilliant genius that I was, it never occurred to me that on the magazine’s collection of Share buttons was one for … WordPress. To be honest, it wasn’t really easy to find, but once I did that and realized it offered me the option of what images from said articles I wanted to make a Featured Image for this Blog and other linked social media, there really was no turning back for me.

Seriously, and here I thought I was getting better at utilizing social media. Well no, I’ve always known that I still have much to learn and there is something new to probably discover everyday.

So basically, what I want to is show all of you — my almost two thousand or so followers — just what I’ve been doing lately and instead of hyperlinking these articles, I want to post them here right on Sequart for you be able to access at your leisure.

To say that it has been a while since I’ve interacted here beyond commenting on and participating in the Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence would be an understatement. Sequart has mostly been what I’ve been doing this past while: that and sorting out life in general. I have been thinking about posting some of my Quest Logs from my game with my table-top RPG friends.. I feel like I am role-playing much better now than that I was before, though there is always room for improvement. Certainly, I am writing my characters better than I was originally. I really like my current character: a female Artificer with a knack for understanding devices and artifacts named Ayla Farmaker. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted to roleplay a female character, and this time around it is going much better since I have a better idea of what I want her story to be … with room for the fact that she will continue to change over time. We will see how this goes over time.

Other than this, not much else has really changed in my life. But I didn’t want any of you to not feel included in my writing, although most of it is academic and speculative on Sequart. But I remember enough of my own tendencies towards including personal anecdotes on Mythic Bios to influence my current Sequart writing. And I learned and expressed that on here first: for which I am glad you got to see happen over time.

I am also planning to transfer my GeekPr0n articles onto this Blog. Unfortunately, GeekPr0n ceased publication not too long ago but, I have to say, it was quite a run. I got introduced to some geeky people and connections in Toronto. I got to experiment more with my writing, even attempt to abbreviate a lot of it (which, I guess, is sad as I am writing in my usual long-form again but I can do it).

In the meantime, I have a renaissance of science fiction television series to catch up on in addition to my Sequart writing duties: from Sense8, to Westworld, Black Mirror, Orphan BlackStranger Things, and The Expanse in addition to keeping up with The Flash and Agents of SHIELD. I am still following Legends of Tomorrow but I find I am having some issues with it. Perhaps I miss Doctor Who … you know, before it started to feel like a chore to me. I may follow Doctor Who again at some point, but there will need to be improvements. 

So with my obligatory geeking out segment finished, I hope to see you all again. I might have some other posts to write on here independently from Sequart, but that is where a lot of writing focus is these days. At least you will get to see it too as my articles are now all on here and, who knows, maybe I will even find some time to make creative works again. I do have a … few ideas to that regard.

Take care everyone.

What’s Going to Happen

I’m not sure when I’m going to be on here next, so I thought I’d stop by and tell you about some of my plans and perhaps a few upcoming events.

A little while ago, I decided to write full-time for Sequart. This means that I write 15000 words a month: including integrating graphics into those articles that talk about comics and sequential art. When I made this decision, it was part of my plan to supplement my writing and keep generating content while I spend time on my more creative works.

Something happened though. I began writing about LGBTQ+ issues through specific works. Then the 2016 American Election happened, and I have been writing about that a little bit. These have been areas that I have skirted around and didn’t really engage beyond acknowledgement as they weren’t in my area of lived experience, or my comfort zone. But this crop of articles has challenged how I write and I’ve realized since then that I do have a non-fiction writing style: something I cultivated on this very Blog.

The Editor-in-Chief of Sequart, Mike Phillips, gave me the following LinkedIn recommendation:

“Matthew is a great writer. One of the best Sequart.org has ever had, actually. Some smart people don’t know how to successfully, stylishly convey their intellect to the written word, but Matthew doesn’t have this problem. His non-fiction is meticulous, yet prose-like. That’s no mean feat! I’m so glad to have him on board here, and any publication would be better with him on their team.”

It really hit home for me that I am particularly specific in what I write about, what terminology I choose to use, and that I put in a little bit of flippancy and no small amount of geek references into my writing. But even when my writing is non-fiction, I write it as if it were a story. I particularly honed this after reading a few key books in a course at York University called The Literature of Testimony by Professor Sara Horowitz. I noted the power of their narrative voices and tried to emulate that and bring my own experience into it. It was on Mythic Bios, though, that I really started to let my voice come publicly into my own and put my ideas where my keyboard is.

But lately, with regards to Sequart, I feel like I’ve really been challenging myself. And I’ve realized that I’m actually fairly good at what I do. I was burned out from academia and I vowed never to go back to it after completing my Master’s Thesis. But when you make an article for a magazine, depending on what that magazine is, voice, relatability, your audience, and your enthusiasm can matter more than footnotes.

It’s been almost two months already and it took me a while to realize that I can actually do this, and if this is what I can do — along with making contacts along the way to keep doing it — then I can more than live with that. It’s funny. If you’d told me years ago, when I was a kid and I just read superhero comics that I would be writing articles on Sandman, LGBTQ+ issues, some politics, and Alan Moore I would have no idea what you were even talking about. It’d have been beyond my ken. I wouldn’t have understood what I was even making right now: even if a few years later some part of me, after discovering Philosophy, would do my damnedest to try and figure out just what the hell my future self was talking about and why it was so important to me.

Some things still get lost in text and you can only really figure out in experience. I wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing some of the things I do now. It’s funny how that works.

I’ve also applied for another writing job and we will see if anything comes from that. And I want to finish my comics script, possibly adapt a story of mine into a novel, and keep working on something that is the equivalent of a novel. I also have a lot of ideas for more articles.

But right now, I can’t focus on any of that. For the next two days, I’m going to be busy. I’m going to the opening night of Rogue One tomorrow and then the next day I will be roleplaying more Star Wars with my friends.

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Some of my life is still not ideal right now, but it does feel like a few steps in the right direction. I may well be onto something if I keep up this groove.

If you’re interested, you can find my Sequart articles right on my profile.

I think, really, I wanted to write here about how far I’ve come: if only a little bit more before next year starts. I might have one or two posts on here before then, but if I don’t, I hope you all have an excellent New Year better than 2016 and that this amount of progress will continue. Take care all.

Finding My Friend in Steven Universe

I remember when I would come home from school and turn on Fox 29. I’d watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Blossom, Bonkers, Goof-Troop, and all the Disney cartoons. Even in the morning, I recall enjoying Gargoyles and the Saturday afternoons with Hercules, Xena, and Sinbad. And I practically lived on YTV. It felt like they were always there. It felt like they would always be there.

But that’s not right either. I think what I always thought was going to be there was that mid-to-early nineties time. You know: that period where you’re at school, where it’s sometimes easier to meet up with your friends, you’re outside a lot more, and you have more child to adolescent responsibilities going on. That is a lot of generalization, I know, especially given how no one’s childhood is exactly the same for a whole lot of different reasons but I hope that I said enough to which somebody can relate.

Fraggle Rock

Yet what I think about the most is the early nineties, perhaps even the early to late eighties when musical shows like Fraggle Rock existed. Talk about a belated nostalgia alert. Fraggle Rock was like the Rainbow Connection Muppet Movie Song extended and made into a race of beings that lived all communally with one another, discovered things in wondrous environments, and took care of one another. God felt like a kindly but brusque and clueless old man named Doc whose Dog Sprocket only occasionally was a well-meaning force nature intruding on a world of friends. I think I like that version of God more than some others I’ve seen.

I think aside from Under the Umbrella Tree, Today’s Special, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, that was the first time I really felt like there was a show that was a friend to me. They all felt like my friends and perhaps more real than the rest of my life at the time while, somehow, also managing to encompass it.

I remember the Fraggles Gobo, Wembley, Red, Boober, and Mokey. I recall how close they were together. I think about that episode when everyone got sick and they took care of each other complete with a song “Sister and Brother,” and there were lessons about life and death and storytelling. And I remember really thinking the world was like that. I definitely wished that it was.

Fraggle Friends

But time goes on and no matter how much I wanted to stay with my friends, it always going to be different. I grew up and saw sing-alongs as something silly and embarrassing. I saw talking about feelings openly as something children did: as something that made adults weak. Despite how much I gained the habit of not trusting, and even detesting the world as an adult, of wanting to go back to some idyllic time that can’t exist again, I gave up on ever really feeling like I belonged again, that there was some extended communal family like Fraggle Rock that was there somewhere in the back of my heart. It’s all differences, and hard angular edges, and expectations that you put on others.

It was Gaming Pixie that introduced me to Steven Universe.

Steven Universe

As with most recommendations I’m given, especially towards shows that everyone is talking about, it takes me forever to watch them. This is especially true when I have a whole lot of other things going on.

When I came to visit her almost a year ago, she had the opportunity to get me to watch the series as it was. It started off very slowly. It seemed silly and strange. A child’s cartoon. I’ll admit, I wasn’t even fully paying attention as I was on social media responding to people about The Force Awakens that we’d just seen recently.

Then … there was this point. It was about the point when I became to realize there was continuity to each episode. When the background of the world began to spread more constantly, and seemed to tell a more quiet and larger story while Steven, Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst were more vocal in theirs. It may have been when the Gem species and the Crystal Gems’ Homeworld was introduced that I started to pay attention.

With more questions and mysteries to match each answer, I rewatched the old episodes with Gaming Pixie and then the others afterwards. I remember just watching Power Puff Girls casually when I was younger, and then hearing about the renaissance of My Little Pony and thought Steven Universe was something along those lines. Back in the day, I might have thought it mostly geared towards a mostly younger female audience and felt ashamed of watching it due to some perceived notion of masculinity, but nowadays I know better: especially coming to grips with having been invested with Sailor Moon on YTV.

Perhaps it all ties together. I just thought it wouldn’t relate to me. Or I didn’t want to become emotionally invested into something else. Combine that with the fact that music, especially musicals, can create a sense of vulnerability in the layer of irony making up adulthood and you might have a greater picture as to why it took me some time to get into Steven Universe, and why it affected me so much when I let it in.

Steven and the Crystal Gems

There is something very Scott Pilgrim about Steven Universe himself with his neotenous features, his pink shirt, and the star in the middle of it. But whereas Scott Pilgrim as a character lacked a lot of maturity, even though Steven continues to grow he has a lot of wisdom for a young child. He grows up in a non-normative family, with three moms, aunts, sisters, whatever role they are, and his father. The Gems themselves are all, from human understanding anyway, female.

Describing this show is a lot like trying to explain a certain kind of music without actually just getting you to listen to it. I think what really gets to me, aside from watching Steven grow, is how the show deals with diverse contemporary issues like ethnicity, gender, and sexuality without being preachy, and by telling an excellent story with natural character development. But more than that, it isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. It isn’t afraid to sing, and its song isn’t oppressive or intrusive. It allows you to get used to it first. It allows you the choice of listening to it and perhaps remembering part of why you loved music, and imaginary worlds to begin with.

It also makes me really value Steven. It makes me appreciate the wonder and the heartbreak he goes through as he grows. It also reminds me that he has a large and diverse family, not unlike the communal one that Fraggle Rock will always be in my heart: that perhaps Sense8 might be in a more live-action and grittier adult sense if the series continues on as well as it has.

Above all, watching Steven makes me want to paraphrase something his biological mother told him on video tape, and tell the Gems, his father, and his friends that he will need them, to take care of him: to encourage him to continue to be the awesome person he’s meant to be.

 Steven Universe feels like this generation’s Fraggle Rock, with Rebecca Sugar and her crew’s storytelling equal to Jim Henson, and I’m just glad that — in some ways — I can feel that way at least twice in my own life. We are lucky to have a friend like this — with friendships like these — again.

A Step Back Into a Much Larger World

It’s time for another retrospective.

In May of 2005, I was twenty-three years old. My girlfriend and I had broken up for the last time and it was as pleasant as you could expect. I was sitting in a movie theatre, with my brother who’d already seen the film, watching Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. My disillusionment with the Prequels had been growing for some time: from the three-hour commercial of The Phantom Menace to the atrocity that was Attack of the Clones. I wasn’t even pretending to like them anymore because they were Star Wars. It had gotten to the point where I spoiled myself on what happened in Sith because, frankly, I was just so tired of the entire ordeal.

After much anger, sadness, disappointment, and bitterness — and all the other stages of grief — I had to accept that this would be my final Star Wars cinematic experience: surrounded by ashes and a haze of post-adolescent hate. In fact, The Clone Wars not withstanding, I was almost relieved that it was finally over and I would have time to ruminate on what could, or should, have been.

Anakin Gets Burned

Ten years later, in December of 2015, I am sitting in another theatre. This time I am there with my girlfriend. I don’t really know what to expect when we’re both sitting there waiting for the film to start. I’d heard good things, but I also know about the power of hype. The mere fact that George Lucas was no longer involved with Star Wars was enough, but I didn’t want to raise my expectations.

But when that introduction, followed by the logo and the scrawling opening narrative somehow, despite the passage of time and adult cynicism, that I was seeing a Star Wars movie again: in the cinema, in good company, and that there is at least the hope of it only getting better from there. The fact that Revenge of the Sith was not my last Star Wars experience and that The Force Awakens is the first of the new, was a gift in and of itself.

The Force Awakens

And then there is the second notable geeky thing that I undertook this year. A week ago, I finished Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp Writing Classes. What can I say? I learned more about writing in four months than I did for years. It was intense. Between Ty’s engaging and witty lectures, spontaneous collaborations with my classmates, and writing assignments on the spot, I felt as though I were Luke Skywalker getting a crash course in Jedi training.

Yoda Training

Seriously, I’d studied writing and novels before. I had even created some of my own comics scripts from what I could piece together from scholarly and professional books. But if there is one thing Luke could tell you is that it’s one thing to glean information from books and Holocrons, and the occasional visit from from a Jedi Master’s Force ghost but it is a whole other to have an actual interactive teacher: someone who passes on lore and knowledge but also knows how to create exercises to challenge you, and to encourage you to share what you have learned.

One of the main lessons I take away from Ty’s class, if anything else, is the following. Perfectionism is death. If you spend so much time trying to think of something perfect, it will never happen. You have to just keep going. Just take some time, have an idea, and run with it. You will be surprised at what you might create.

I found that the ultimate challenge for me was our final assignment. The idea was that at the end of our course, we were going to send Ty a script for either a television show or a comic book. I chose to make a comics script for a twenty-two page comic. My plan was to take one of the pitches I made for the course and flesh it out into a crude outline. Then I was going to sit down and use the script format Ty taught us and give him an actual script.

What really ended up happening was that I left it for too long. I was on a creative streak and then life happened. My aunt passed away towards the end of the course. Obviously, I had great difficulty concentrating on anything afterwards and I almost gave up completely. And I could have. There were no marks riding on this final assignment. No money. I was already working on another project and it would have just been easy to let it go and sleep.

But something … wouldn’t let me. Part of it was the encouragement from my peers and loved ones. But another part of it was that I knew that this was what Ty had been talking about. While in the professional world it might not have been acceptable to hand in something so skeletal, or even miss a deadline for life reasons, I thought about what was important. In this case, it was to tell a story.

So I sat down and typed out a comics outline. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, but I think it got the point across. The truth is, the most important thing about the final assignment of writing course was that if we met the deadline, Ty himself would provide “copious notes” — suggestions, critiques, and insights — to what we had given him. And feedback from a professional in the field is utterly invaluable. I just couldn’t turn that down: even if what I wrote was not much to work on.

Still. I did that.

Luke Skywalker's Lightsaber

It’s funny though that, even now, I am getting new ideas for the series that I came up with in Ty’s course. That this course and its assignments gave me that much is another well-earned gift. But finishing that final assignment, even with such a basic and most likely flawed outline, was an achievement. Four months before this course, I was filled with almost nothing but stress and frustration at where my life was not going despite everything I was putting into it. Four months later, I feel like I truly graduated from Ty Templeton’s Writing Bootcamp: and that is something for which I am definitely proud.

And this is how I want to end the last post of this year: not in anger, or disappointment, but in the promise of something new. There is plenty of time for sarcasm and hellfire, but right now my batteries feel recharged. And perhaps there might yet be room inside me: for more wonder.

Oh and, one more thing. Please consider taking some of Ty’s Comic Book Bootcamp classes. They are completely and utterly worth it. Happy New Year, my friends.

Looking Outward

What If Marvel Cinema

I’m not sure if it will ever come to this, but I would definitely love to see a Marvel What If short film series: on the web, as bonus content on DVDs, or others. But I’m afraid I’m just being a bit misleading with my title. Really, this is just another Thursday geeky conjecture ramble that was a long time coming. What can I say? I am a busy man these days.

There are a few things I would have loved to see happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, there are some things that I could have definitely seen happening in the films that — for obvious reasons — did not.

One thing always bothered me about Avengers: Age of Ultron. You know, for all Joss Whedon had Ultron sing that “there are no strings on me,” Ultron and the way he carried himself felt a lot like Joss Whedon playing Ultron if that makes any sense. What I mean is: it felt less like watching Ultron develop and go into action, and more like Whedon using Ultron as a prop to carry the story onward: being the puppet that he claimed he was not.

Age of Ultron

Like many of you, I saw the trailers. In particular, I saw the trailer where Ultron’s conscious possessed one of Iron Man’s suits and made that twisted, jagged hole of a mouth on its surface. I thought it was creepy and perfect: the sign of an artificial intelligence going completely, maliciously, and utterly insane.

So imagine this. Instead of a long and convoluted plot that starts off with the Avengers going after HYDRA — with perhaps a key streamlining of the process for the sake of continuity with Agents of SHIELD — we get to actually see Ultron get created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. But more importantly: imagine if we could have seen Ultron develop.

Picture Tony, Bruce, and JARVIS working on Ultron. Think of them working with him. After deriving all the missing elements of artificial intelligence evolution from the Sceptre’s Gem to further improve on Tony’s own knowledge, I could see Ultron genuinely affecting change and improving on a defense plan: undertaking the monumental task of protecting humanity from all dangers. But perhaps there are … “glitches” or “malfunctions” along the way. Sometimes Ultron complains about “an absence” or “lacking something”: phantom electronic pains. Think of it as an artificial intelligence’s sense of dysphoria: though in this case it is Ultron’s lack of a physical body that plagues him. You even see him experimenting with one of Tony’s suits and attempt to embody it like a ghost in the machine: resenting the people that made him and the constant chronic discomfort that he always feels.

ultron

But it’s only when he begins to fully process the fact that humans are a greater threat to the world than anything that is extraterrestrial that Ultron decides to destroy humanity in the only way he knows how. It’d be a slow burn, perhaps one that has no real place in a superhero action movie where the audience already knows that Ultron is supposed to be evil, but the payoff along with the philosophical implications and the confrontation with Vision could have fleshed it out even further. A sympathetic Ultron, as warped and evil as he is, could have made audiences truly unsettled.

Then consider how Ultron would undertake his goals. It’s true. He could spread his consciousness through many bodies as he already has. But he could take control over SHIELD and general human technology. Hell, he could even release substances into Earth’s atmosphere that would utterly decimate humankind without going through something as grandiose as smashing Sokovia’s capital into the Earth. A subtle, creepy, and ubiquitous Ultron could have gone a long way into making The Age of Ultron an action adventure superhero film bordering on pure science-fiction horror.

Ultron wouldn’t have to look far to realize that humanity is a threat to Earth and itself. All he would really have to do, and what he already did in Whedon’s take, is look at the chaos that HYDRA attempted to unleash in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is also interesting to note that there was an AI in that film as well in the form of Arnim Zola: the man responsible for regrowing HYDRA right within the ranks of SHIELD itself.

Zola

It was Zola that ultimately created the data-mining algorithm that HYDRA relied on to eliminate potential enemies. This was done through SHIELD’s Project Insight: taking advantage of three heavily-armed satellite-linked Helicarriers that were supposed to proactively protect the Earth from further alien invasions and using them to destroy HYDRA’s enemies and everything around them. This would allow HYDRA to obliterate the world’s infrastructure and be the only force of civilization left to Earth’s survivors.

But Zola’s algorithm didn’t predict the Avengers: or at least it didn’t deal with them all that well. Imagine what would have happened if HYDRA remained in hiding for a little while longer. Think about it: HYDRA had infiltrated all levels of SHIELD and the World Security Council. HYDRA itself, at least since WWII, had evolved from a para-military branch of Nazi Germany, to its own organization, and into an intelligence sleeper-agent group. Covert operations became the name of their day.

Would it have been too much of a stretch for HYDRA, who had already been privy to most if not all SHIELD operations, to know about Captain America’s retrieval from the ocean? Would it have taken much for one of their operatives, as a SHIELD staff member, to gain a sample of his blood? And I’m not even talking about HYDRA recreating the super-soldier serum: though they sure as hell tried in the Centipede Project. No: certainly the Red Skull wouldn’t have been nearly so trusting of his branch of HYDRA back in the day to take some of his blood as we know the organization thrives on Social Darwinism to its nth degree.

What HYDRA could have done, if they had been clever enough, is create an anti-serum for Erskine’s formula. All they needed to do was inject it into Cap while he was comatose. And, really, who would have been the wiser? Cap was frozen for quite some time: and no one really knew how that formula worked to begin with. It wouldn’t have been inconceivable for Cap to have died of complications in his decades long sleep. And in injecting some sweet sleep painless poison from a hidden fang, HYDRA could have removed one major enemy off the playing board.

What would the Avengers do without him at the very beginning of the game?

Captain America on Ice

And about the rest of the Avengers? Well, most of the technology they had access to came from SHIELD itself and HYDRA has infiltrated many facets of the organization. Imagine if HYDRA had managed to get their hands on the blueprints Howard Stark created for a power source and purposefully engineered a controllable flaw in the device: effectively creating a kill switch to Tony Stark’s heart? Or maybe they could have rigged something explosive into Sam Wilson’s EXO-7 Falcon jet pack or sabotage one of Hawkeye’s arrows.

Thor and The Hulk might also be problems. However, HYDRA has the psychological profile of Thor to work with: or at the very least might be able to prevent him from returning to “Midgard” due to their own researches into Asgardian technology. As for The Hulk: they would need to use some powerful tranquilizing agent on Bruce Banner before he transforms and they would need to do it quickly … or have a very good assassin cut off his head.

The Avenger HYDRA would have the most issue with would be Natasha Romanoff. She is distrustful of everyone and she has millions of contingencies: perhaps as many as Nick Fury himself. Even releasing all the information of her past gruesome deeds to the world and a warrant for her arrest would only buy time with warm bodies. Perhaps forcing her to kill unwitting agents or having her hold back would wear her out. The Winter Soldier has defeated her before as well, and he could either be sent after her or be placed into the Avengers in Cap’s place to turn on her. But you never know with the Black Widow.

Of course, there are many flaws to these possibilities. The Hulk can change really quickly. Hawkeye probably takes care of his own arrows. Tony Stark would spot a design flaw in his Arc Reactor, back in the day, a mile away and he doesn’t even need it to protect his heart now. Even if the alloy and equipment for his armour had initially come from Obadiah Stane’s engineers, Tony would have detected any discrepancies and improved on them. Thor might be a warrior but he is not stupid enough to be manipulated easily into being unworthy of his Hammer, and I doubt anything HYDRA has can incapacitate him or keep Asgard from accessing Earth unless their “real plan” comes to fruition.

And finally, we have Cap. That Super Soldier Serum is built like a motherfucker. It is not going to be poisoned or altered easily. And even if HYDRA somehow had legitimate access to him through medical staff, Nick Fury is paranoid. He has a sixth sense born from battles and infiltration gone wrong. He is a man that trusts his gut and he just knew there was something wrong in The Winter Soldier. Also, it is fairly possible only Fury, Maria Hill, and their confidants knew about Cap’s retrieval and kept it that way.

Winter Soldier

No. if HYDRA had really wanted to win, they needed to pull an Order 66: create a visible enemy to distract SHIELD and the Avengers that wasn’t them, and then simultaneously sabotage and/or kill them with the operatives that served as their “back-up” and “cavalry.” And even if the Winter Soldier himself was brought into play, and there is no way HYDRA’s SHIELD operatives could have convincingly brought him into the Avengers or SHIELD without setting off major warning bells in Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury’s minds, none of this would be a sure thing.

Seriously: Black Widow should be remembered for just how terrifying her fighting and infiltration abilities truly are … the deeds she did in the past, and what she tries to do about them now. I wish there had been more emphasis on that.

Black Widow

Yet all this aside I can honestly do this all day and all night. But I really don’t have the time and I know there are many flaws with my ideas. Certainly, there are better geeky experts than I who could poke holes in all of these scenarios. But this was a good exercise in creative speculation. I look forward to doing this again sometime in the near future.

As the man says, “Excelsior.”