Armagideon Time

Disharmony in my head

December 7th, 2018

My punk rock pal Leech passed me a duped cassette of Singles Going Steady as a token of our new-forged friendship in October 1991.

Back in those pre-Altsplosion days, being a punk rocker often meant existing as a scene unto oneself — isolated holdouts or latecomers going through the motions in small local clusters or utter solitude. Occasional these scattered souls would gather for a show by some past-prime punk stalwarts, but (in my case, at least) insularity and mutual suspicion governed any interactions. The same mindset which drove folks into embracing an anachronistic subculture also tended to foster a weird marriage between purity test and impostor syndrome where the nagging feeling that you might be a poser projected outwards.

When you did finally get past those silly, self-imposed hurdles and establish genuine relationships, the initial exchange almost always involved each other’s musical tastes. Outside the canon of evergreen acts (the Pistols, the Clash, SoCal hardcore, the Ramones, the Dead Kennedys), punk shit had a minimal presence on the racks or was existed as expensively out-of-print aspirational objects. A new punk pal meant the possibility of getting access to some rare treasure known only by reputation or references in some old fanzine.

In Leech’s case, it was the Buzzcocks. I’d heard of them through Lipstick Traces, but had been unable to find of their releases, used or new. So Leech passed me a copy of their made-for-America singles compilation and I listened to it repeatedly during the first few months of the Fall 1991 semester.

This happened to coincide with my pre-Maura relationship with an freshman art major. We were fundamentally incompatible (she was exceedingly pretentious, I was a pass-agg monster) though that got lost in thrill of a new romance and rush of raging hormones.

Because I had Buzzcocks on the brain, my perceptions of that doomed fling were bookended by a pair of cuts from Singles Going Steady. At the start, in the full grip of giddiness…

…there was “Love You More” (which should’ve been a warning sign in hindsight). Then, in the bitter, confidence-shaking aftermath…

…was “What Do I Get?” Maybe it ought to have been “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” but my nineteen year old self wasn’t really wired for that level of introspection.

The synchronicity has indelibly fixed the band and that compilation to a very specific moment in time. I can’t listen to them without experiencing lucid flashbacks which completely evaporate any self-mythologizing backfill, leaving only a clear loss-less channel to the psyche of my younger, angrier, and dumber self…and stray bits like the smell of the Wheatley Cafeteria and the ambient smells of Jamaica Plain after the “No Name” Storm.

It’s an incredibly disconcerting feeling, but one that speaks to the power of the music and the strange ways in which we can internalize it. I don’t even consider myself a huge Buzzcocks yet I can’t think of any other artist or tracks capable of triggering similar experiences. (Though, to be fair, there’s a lot of old favorites I specifically avoid out of fear that that might.)

Pete Shelley is gone, but the strange magic of those tunes endures in my headspace…whether I want them to or not.

The 1987 Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader rules were intended to be a hybrid of small-unit wargaming and pen-and-paper roleplaying, with a heavy focus on improvisation and customization. It was a novel concept, but one which Games Workshop abandoned very early into the franchise’s history. The wargaming aspects rapidly eclipsed the rudimentary RPG elements, which were dropped entirely from the second and subsequent editions of the game.

The “Rogue Trader” concept receded into the realm of background fluff for two decades before emerging as the titular follow-up to the 40k-based Dark Heresy role-playing game. Where Dark Heresy concentrated on the disposable cadres deployed by the sinister Inquisition, Rogue Trader cast players as peers of the dystopian Imperium of Man. Acting under sacred warrant, a rogue trader and his inner circle of confidants are free to voyage outside the Imperium’s borders and comport themselves as they see fit. Trading with proscribed alien races, salvaging forbidden archeotech, setting up personal fiefdoms among isolated human societies — a rogue trader is free to do all of these, providing they didn’t slip into blatant heresy or outright sedition.

It was a clever way to get around the oppressive regimentation of the 40k’s fictional universe, one that added exploration and starships to the mix. A rogue trader is nothing without their vessel, a kilometer-long Gothic behemoth fitted out with ancient technologies, continent-shattering armaments, and hosting tens of thousands of crewmembers. Each interstellar voyage involves a treacherous journey through the daemon-haunted warp, while the material voidspace harbors all manner of threats to mind, soul, and body.

The game used a slightly revised version of the Dark Heresy rules, with additional mechanics for handling starship travel and combat, as well as updated system for psychic powers. Rogue Trader characters, being members of an entitled elite, begin at a slightly higher power level than their Dark Heresy counterparts. This also applies to character wealth rules, where nothing but the rarest or most proscribed items are beyond personal reach. For bigger acquisitions — say, a private army or a rare starship component — players must roll against a “Profit Level” representing the sum of their various holdings and which fluctuates based on the success or failure of their various enterprises.

The default setting of the game, the Koronus Expanse, was directly linked to Dark Heresy’s Calixis Sector by a recently discovered but unstable passage through a pair of warp storms at the edge of Imperial space. Beyond “the Maw,” loom countless unexplored or isolated systems ripe with immense rewards and deadly horrors. The back half of the Rogue Trader manual describes some of the more notable of these locations, from strange human societies to alien pocket empires to hyper-lethal death worlds.

Dark Heresy proved that a Warhammer 40k role-playing game could exist as a cohesive concept, but Rogue Trader is where it truly began to shine. I suspect that’s partly because it focused on something which existed outside the wargaming aspect of the franchise — the only out of the five 40k RPG sibling systems to do so. Space Marines and Inquisitors and Imperial Guardsmen and Chaos Marauders are fine and all, but they’ve also been covered in excruciating detail over the years. Rogue Trader offered something a bit different, a cyber-gothy blend of exploration, commerce, and intrigue conducted by violent narcissists in giant weaponized space-cathedrals.

There’s a sense of open-ended freedom about Rogue Trader which lends itself to all manner of interesting adventure ideas, and the last role-playing game I seriously considered considered running for an actual group of (online) players. Those plans never materialized, but the book remains a most favored bathroom and travel reading selection. It even came with me on my trip to Gettysburg in 2011, and there’s a clover plucked from Little Round Top still pressed between its pages.

No good for you

December 4th, 2018

Ah, yes. Those magical afternoons my high school buddy Damian and I would spend browsing the cramped confines of Cross Street Video, where the decision whether to rent Robot Jox or Radioactive Dreams hung upon which cast had more Oscar-winners or nominees.

(And despite the ads visuals and breathy copy, Savage Dawn wasn’t a one of the roughly billion Road Warrior rip-offs shat onto VHS tape during those mythic times. It was actually an “Badass ‘Nam Vet versus Outlaw Biker Gang” jobber. A gross bit of bait and switch, but both those genres were just reskinned oaters anyhow.)

During the opening weeks of 2008, the long overdue consequences of my lackadaisical oral hygiene manifested as a raging abscess on an incisor which had been reconstructed after shattering a few years prior. It was the first time I’d experienced such a thing, and so I ignored the escalating levels of pain until they bloomed into white hot agony requiring an emergency root canal.

I chronicled the event as it unfolded on the previous incarnation of Armagideon Time (whereas these days I will postpone writing if I feel a mild sniffle coming on). In my sleep-deprived, pain-wracked delirium my mind kept looping back to a specific song as a guidepost to a future free of wanting to rip my teeth out with a pair of vice grips. I don’t know why it settled on that particular track, which I otherwise hadn’t heard or thought about in ages. Perhaps, when thrashing in the grip of an unpleasant “now,” my subconscious decided to dredge up something cozy and comforting from the furthest recesses of childhood memory…

…and pulled up Elton John’s 1975 blue-eyed disco-funk ode to a women’s tennis team. In any case, I listened to “Philadelphia Freedom” at least a hundred times in the weeks immediately following the procedure, as some strange form of thankful affirmation.

The root canal itself went fairly well, although there was a unexpected round of additional agony between the local fading out and the antibiotics kicking in. The endodontist suspected this might happen, so hooked me up with a script for Vicodin to get through that initial rough patch. Unable to sleep, I sat on the living room couch sucking on ice cubes and playing Katamari Damacy to distract myself from the ache in my jaw. I really didn’t want to dip in to the Vicodin if I didn’t have to, but the pain got the better of my aversion to drugs.

I popped one, and nothing happened. I popped another an hour later, still nothing. Then a third thirty minutes later, and the pain remained lucidly as foregrounded as before. Eventually I passed out due to sheer exhaustion. When I opened my eyes the following morning, the infection — and the pain it caused — had been flushed by the penicillin. When I tried to stand up, the walls and floor wouldn’t stop moving because of the weird hangover that ended up being the only physical effect of the (slightly excessive dose of) Vicodin.

I’ve steered clear of mind-altering substances (besides a family history of addiction) because the idea of willingly surrendering control or becoming disoriented terrifies me. Other folks might groove on it, but I find that impulse utterly incomprehensible. This after-the-fact painkiller trip only confirmed my position on the matter.

It also caused another song to start cycling through my skull — a half-remembered relic of the late Nineties electronica boom buried somewhere in Maura’s pre-cohabitation collection of compact discs. The urge to hear it compelled me to stagger up the narrow staircase to our attic and dig out a dust-glazed copy of Crystal Method’s Vegas so I could flop out to…

…”Trip Like I Do.”

One might think that both these songs would’ve turned to ear poison due to their deep and abiding connection to what was one of the most excruciating experiences I’ve ever gone through. In fact, the opposite ended up happening. Ten years later, both remain in heavy personal rotation and my ears always perk up when I catch snippets of either in the wild. When I got back into buying records of personal import, I picked up the double-LP reissue of Vegas on its day of release and dropped a handful of dimes on a clean copy of the “Philadelphia Freedom” single.

As for the bad tooth, I balked at my insurance’s co-pay for a permanent crown and it eventually shattered, leaving behind nothing but a jagged stump with the metal post sticking out of it.

I should probably do something about that.

The softer side

November 29th, 2018

I have a lot of feelings about the protracted demise of Sears. It’s sad to watch an icon implode, especially one that occupied such a prominent place in both cultural sphere and my formative years. There’s been a odd symmetry to witnessing my grandmother’s death and the shuttering of the former retail titan in space of a few months, as she viewed Sears as the apex of department stores. Each trip there was an event that went beyond running to Caldors or Bradlees for a new cardigan and set of drapes.

Their near-coterminous departures felt like a connection to a World That Was had been permanently severed — which I guess it was, for me.

But even beyond the personal musings about nostalgia and mortality, I am genuinely concerned about where folks will now acquire the essential accouterments for their EAT NUTS PARTIES.

‘Tis the season

November 27th, 2018

Christmas is less than a month away, which means the slew of hot takes about That One Problematic Holiday Standard should start arriving at any moment. In previous years, I’ve striven to keep above this circular debate, but the sheer number of wrong-headed reads of the subject matter had compelled my to weigh in on the song’s true meaning

Yes, that’s right. Clickbaiters and content farmers be damned. It’s time I finally set folks straight on the true meaning of “Deck the Halls.”

Contrary to some performatively “woke” commentators, the song is not about Christo-colonial hegemony. Nor is the familiar “Fa la la la la” chorus a phonetic code referring to the genocide of indigenous peoples. While it’s easy to see how someone could jump to such an erroneous conclusion, the falsity of these claims implode upon a closer examination of the lyrics.

The “holly” with which the halls are to be decked was deeply associated with pre-Christian pagan traditions and the jolliness is clearly a reference to the orgiastic rites practiced its worshipers. The mention of “gay apparel” is an obvious appeal to reawaken the genderfluidity and non-binary sexuality of these ancient tribes.

“The blazing Yule before us” refers to the sacrificial pyres upon which captured enemies were offered up unto the Green Mother, as the revelers cast down the technological artifice of stringed instruments in favor of their own powerful voices.

Through such ritual cleansing, the new year would be ushered in with promises of rich spoils and unbridled ecstasy as the faithful cavorted heedless of the wind and weather. The “fa la la” parts are not a code but a primordial chant which precedes language itself, the very tongue of the Green Mother and her copious brood. To utter it is to channel the power of the ancient and eternal cycles of birth and death, sowing and reaping, and fecund ambivalence of nature most naked.

In short, the song is only “problematic” for those benighted souls who refuse to hear the pulse of the World-Serpent. May they pray they don’t find themselves caught out when the hounds of the Wild Hunt bellow their bloody hunger.

I’ve written about the “death of Disco” more than a few times over the course of Armagideon Time’s lifespan. Though not as flashy a topic as z-list funnybook characters or Atomic Age anxieties, that fad’s late Seventies flameout touches upon several points of retrological interest. Disco bubbled up from the fringes of pop culture, steamrolled past an initial peak to become a megamarket phenomenon, then imploded amidst diminishing returns and venomous backlash. Its collapse perfectly aligned with the malaise-tinged fatigue that closed out the Seventies and set up the retrograde shifts of the Reagan/Thatcher Era.

It passed from history into the stuff of myth, either in its own right or as part of some other cycle. It spawned countless narratives in the public consciousness. Some were mournful, some cackled with vicious glee, but all were selective in their analysis of What Actually Happened. That’s what makes disco’s so-called demise such a rich topic to delve into, the multi-layered interactions between commerce, culture, and community. So much so, in my case, that the sound of the music became secondary to parsing conflicting patterns.

I was seven when Disco Demolition Night gave the “disco sucks” backlash a profile boost. In a matter of weeks, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack went from a sing-a-long staple to an invitation for peer ridicule. North Woburn was already a stronghold for Zep/Stones/Sabbath fandom, jean jackets, and reflexive homophobia, so slagging anything with a suspicious beat and a strings section came easy.

Disco was relegated to the stuff of lazy referential humor and embarrassed memories — using “I’ve got looks, I’ve got brains, and I’m breaking these chains” to mock an over-enthusiastic audition for the senior play while praying no one will ask why you still remember the lyrics to “Makin’ It” in 1990. I steered clear of it during my trash culture twenties. The stock was cheap and plentiful, but it was also tied too closely to the Seventies revival nonsense whose passage from ironic camp to blind acceptance is one of my generation’s greatest crimes. It was far easier and truer to my roots to embrace bubblegum pop and corporate rawk instead. I didn’t hate disco — even at the height of my punk phase — but it never managed to accrue the nostalgic appeal other retro artifacts held for me.

None of this really explains how I went from owning zero to three dozen disco seven-inch singles in the space of six months.

K-Tel certainly had a hand in it, thanks to some period compilations that framed the songs in their contextual moments. Maura was a bigger influence, shouting out recommendations for “good disco” (as opposed to “crap disco,” determined by some inscrutable personal metric) singles to add to the growing library. It also helped that I’ve hit an age where “coolness” is no longer a pressing concern, linked to the long-overdue, stone cold obvious epiphany about having a lifelong affection for catchy dance tracks.

Most of the purchases have come from either the funky early phase or synth-heavy final days of the disco scene, filled out by handful of classic diva jams and boogie standards. There are no Bee Gees or KC & the Sunshine Band singles to be found among them, because heavy rotation during their heyday turned them into sonic wallpaper where my ears are concerned…

…though the bleep-bleep effects have got me half-considering “Jive Talkin’” as a potential future purchase.

Back to Wax #39: Tested patterns

November 19th, 2018

I have always been an early riser. No matter how late I turned in the night before, my body is incapable of staying in bed past 7:30 AM and anything beyond a quarter past six is spent in a state of fidgety restlessness. These behaviors have persisted despite a lifetime spent in the company of folks who would snooze until noon if given the chance, but I’ve come to enjoy that daybreak oasis of quiet solitude. It gives me the chance a take stock of my mental and physical condition, and meditate upon the overall state of things.

When I was young child, my mother used this to impart lessons of self-sufficiency via self-interest. Give a kid some breakfast, and you can go back to be for three hours. Teach him to make his own, and you won’t need to get up at all. Besides laying out a bowl, spoon, and a box of the currently preferred sugar-blasted cereal, my mom also wrote out a kid-centric summary of the local TV listings (with numeric and clock-hand pictogram timestamps) with my known favorites bolded in marker.

“7 AM: Scooby Doo (38), Sesame Street (2), Mighty Mouse (56)” — and so forth. (I really wish I’d managed to hold on to one of these through the years.)

This was back before the broadcast day was expanded into a 24/7 affair. On most weekday mornings, my televised companion during my first bowl-and-a-half of Alpha Bits was a test pattern accompanied by a stream of AM Gold standards of Me Decade. Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” was prominent in the mix with MECO’s disco do-over of the Star Wars theme and Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” — songs that stuck in memory because of parental affection or personal fandom or dumb kid jokes.

Most of the tunes unspooled while I was distracted with stuffing my gob or playing with plastic army men or flipping through some picture book on aquatic life. There was one song, however, that would make me stop what I was doing and take notice…

…Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of “The City of New Orleans.”

The song’s subject matter (trains, which were up there with sea life and warships as a childhood obsession of mine) and its warm yet melancholy tone resonated strongly with the streak of sentimentality no amount of performative cynicism has managed to fully erase. It offered a glimpse at a bigger — and vanishing — world to a kid whose horizons began and ended within a couple miles of a single-road access North Woburn neighborhood.

The strange synchronicity between the “good morning, America, how are ya” refrain and being the sole person in the house (and probably the block) up at 5:30 AM further enhanced the experience. It’s a difficult thing to articulate and no amount of technical dissection can sufficiently explain that powerful alignment between material, moment, and mood. A few degrees difference along any of those axes and that deeply personal flash of transcendence might’ve just been “oh, yeah, I remember that song.”

I bought the single of “The City of New Orleans” because the asking price was low and the song holds a strong personal significance. That same resonance makes it difficult to listen to outside of rare occasions, lest the psychic weight of it squash me flat.

Second edition rules

November 15th, 2018

I’m not really keen on the self-promotion game, but I feel obligated to inform you that Advanced Death Saves is now available through Comixology.

This follow-up to the original Death Saves anthology further explores matters of tragic mortality around the gaming table, and expands the concept beyond the boundaries of the heroic fantasy genre. It also includes “Sawbones,” written by yours truly and beautifully rendered by the mighty Matt Digges. Like “Brassfist of the Gore” from the original Death Saves book, it’s based on an incident from my undergrad gaming days and Matt did a fantastic job bringing it to visual life.

While I’m on the subject of Matt, check out these lovely illustrations I recently acquired from him:

On the right is Dr. Cesspoole, a Stumbo the Giant adversary (from Harvey Comics’ Hot Stuff) I suggested for Matt’s skull-themed “Inktober” art jam. On the left is Brassfist, doing what he did best.

Anyway, if you’re are into role-playing games, tragic and/or comic character deaths, and great work by a talented crew of folks, go check out Advanced Death Saves.

Flipped and translated

November 13th, 2018

In a strange bit of synchronicity, Seven Seas recently announced the upcoming release of a Space Battleship Yamato manga collection. I found out about it because a number of thoughtful souls noticed my current Star Blazers obsession and felt obligated to give me a heads-up.

During the course of one of these conversations, I brought up the Star Blazers photo — or, more accurately, “cel” — comic softcovers which a Maura purchased with her babysitting money during her teenage fangirl years. This led in turn to a wider discussion about the early phase of the localized manga craze, a weird and wild time when the offerings and formatting were limited yet all over the place.

Putting aside critical darling prestige one-offs like Barefoot Gen, localized manga’s push into the American direct market started on the heels of the Robotech craze, which had ridden the Transformers-fanned updraft for giant robo fare. Comico’s Robotech funnybooks were domestically produced imitations of the manga “style,” but they sold like hotcakes and became the subject of short-lived speculative frenzy. Meanwhile, Frank Miller was shaking up the realm of superhero funnybooks with a bold and unique style which he partially credited to the influence of groundbreaking Japanese comic artists.

The initial wave of localized titles was fairly small and eclectic. Eclipse, in a publishing arrangement with Viz, floated bi-weekly floppies of the ninja drama Kamui, the gore-flecked coming of age serial Mai, The Psychic Girl, and the mercenary jet opera Area 88. First Comics got into the game with the Miller-endorsed samurai epic Lone Wolf and Cub, released as “prestige format” squarebound single issues and Marvel’s Epic imprint began publishing a colorized version of Akira.

The success of these offerings led to further releases, which was when I hopped aboard in earnest. The bombastically nonsensical Xenon, an ultra-violent and barely coherent cyber-superhero tale, was the first manga series I followed on a regular basis. It was soon joined by two other Eclipse releases — the squarebound Appleseed (visually gorgeous but hard to follow) and the licensed-but-domestically-produced Dirty Pair miniseries which launched Adam Warren’s career.

Drought-driven novelty was the dominant force behind the fandom. There were no shelves packed with cheap paperback covering every manner of manga subgenre in those days. If you were fascinated by the art styles and storytelling techniques, you were willing to settle (often eagerly) for whatever you could find. In that sense (for my crew of enthusiasts, at least) the first-phase manga boom dovetailed perfectly with the 8-bit gaming era — a small but steady stream of fascinating oddities licensed and imported to fill a steady demand. What few fanzines filtered down into our hands and tantalizing references in the Mekton RPG’s campaign notes further whetted out appetites.

To pad out the page count, some of the manga books would run pertinent essays about Japanese life and culture or include letters pages where offended old school purists could rail against “flipping” the art for the benefit of left-to-right reading audiences and provide pedantically long complaints about translation mistakes. While I later learned to avoid such souls at all costs, their back-and-forth exchanges with the editorial staff provided further insight into the process and cultural contexts involved.

The real golden age for translated manga unfolded after Viz decided to publish its own releases in the direct market, launching with a mix of squarebound and floppy titles which became the core of my pull list for the next couple of years — Grey, Justy, Pineapple Army, Lum (aka Urusei Yatsura), The Fist of the North Star. My memory tends to skip over them when I think back over my comics-buying during that stretch, but the two longboxes presently containing these books tell a different story.

Those comics and my experiences with them dwell in their own universe, a temporal pocket realm almost entirely isolated from the final days of my mother’s life and my first days at college. There are places where the realities do overlap. I can’t look at the first two issues of Appleseed without remembering how I fished them from my mother’s sewing cabinet the depressing day after she passed away. (She was interested in reading them, for some reason.) Otherwise, they feel like artifacts from a strange parallel life from which the worst traumas have excised.

That might be why I chose to hold onto them when I liquidated the bulk of my trash comics collection last summer.

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