Armagideon Time

The purpose of this feature was to reconstruct a timeline of events through the lens of a hobby I adored through most of my teens and early adulthood. As we start to enter the final stretch, that timeline — and the personal connections that drove it — becomes a bit unraveled. For all intents and purposes, my active involvement in roleplaying games ended when Lil Bro’s and my Necromunda campaign did. Anything past that point was entirely a matter of morbid curiosity and force of habit.

Unlike, say, my copy of Oriental Adventures or the fourth edition Champions rulebook, there’s little nostalgic resonance in the stuff I picked up after 1997 or so. That mnemonic locus shifted to the various funnybooks, videogames, and music that supplanted RPGs as a major vector of interest. There’s no flood of lucid memories to be triggered via memorable passages, illustrations, or penciled-in marginalia, just a vague “oh, yeah, I forgot I bought this” when I spot it in the upper strata of the storage crate.

Even the few exceptions to this rule are lean on the anecdote fodder front, as is the case with the Realms of Sorcery supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.

The most notable thing about the tome is that it actually exists. WFRP’s magic system had been one of its weaker points since the game’s release in 1986. The “came with the frame” rules featured in the original hardcover edition were intended to be a placeholder that would be expanded on in “the upcoming Realms of Sorcery supplement.” Years went by, Games Workshop lost interest in the franchise and farmed it out to second-party affiliate publishers, and the chances of the promised sourcebook ever materializing grew increasingly unlikely.

To compensate for this, I decided to take matters into my own hands by going over every 1st edition AD&D spell, plucking out ones with useful non-combat applications, and adapted them for use alongside the WFRP’s wargame-influenced roster of enchantments. These hand-written loose-leaf notebook pages constitute at least a third of the material in my “Warhammer crate” by volume, and deciding their ultimate fate has given me no small amount of angst as I try to clear out and consolidate the stuff I stored in my grandmother’s attic.

Rumors swirled in the lonely little corners of the remnant WFRP scene about a Ken Ralston-penned draft of the tome getting rejected for publication by GW, which was tantalizing but fundamentally useless information from a fan’s side of the equation. Meanwhile, the Warhammer Fantasy Battle magic system continued to expand and revise the lore laid down in its unloved sibling, pushing it even further from WFRP’s rudimentary framework.

It wouldn’t be until 2001 that Hogshead Publishing, WFRP’s then-current licensee, finally managed to deliver the tome fans had been waiting for since Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

I’m not even sure how I found out it had been released, since my Warhammer fandom had fallen to a low ebb by the start of the new millennium. Either some old acquaintance from the Sci-Fi Club told me in order to make (awkward) conversation or I stumbled across it during a fit of boredom-induced Yahoo searches. Whatever the case made be, I chanced an order through some RPG mail-order place’s Geocities online storefront and waited the four to six weeks for the book arrive. (It’s bizarre to think those delivery times were once the norm, though it was quite appropriate in Realms of Sorcery‘s case.)

The sourcebook took some heat from critics for failing to live up to fifteen years’ worth of expectations, but that we got it at all was a borderline miracle exceeding any enchantment outlined between its softbound covers. For an overdue expansion to a game that had been suffering a protracted heat death, Realms of Sorcery was a weighty and robust attempt at closure. All the Old World’s existing schools of magic were given their relative due, alongside additional rules covering the color-themed Colleges of Magick from Fantasy Battles and various foreign and non-human arcane traditions. Rules for crafting spells, rituals, and familiars were detailed and expanded lists of spells and magic items were provided. The book also tried to clarify the role of magic and spellcasters in a world in which such things were viewed with intense suspicion (often followed by execution at the hands of secular or religious authorities).

Yet despite all of this, the meat and bones of WFRP magic retained its nigh-singular focus on battlefield enchantments over “practical” spells. The additions to players’ grimoire were either lifted from or inspired by WFB, meaning a slew of direct damage, incapacitating, or buff/debuff spells with little use outside of combat. I don’t know how much of the blame for that should be laid on Hogshead, though. They were merely coloring within the lines established by GW, which crafted and curated the lore in which magic-users were little more than leashed weapons used to turn the power of Chaos back upon itself.

When every spell channels energy from some demon-infested hell dimension, any mundane applications of the craft simply aren’t worth the risk. If you’re going to chance possession or spontaneous combustion by casting, you probably want to save that for incinerating an enemy regiment instead of helping you grab a book from a high shelf. It works fine in a wargame environment, but is limiting in the context of a role playing game, especially one where magic-users face severe social sanctions as well. Sure, the non-combat skills and talents such characters acquire can be useful, but the overall trade-offs don’t balance out in a way that makes playing a spellcaster worthwhile.

“My powers might kill me if the authorities don’t, but at least I get to cast some spells of very limited utility with a high risk of friendly fire!”

It might appeal to the edgelord crowd, but I’d rather have a WFRP equivalent to Tenser’s Floating Disk instead.

Where the heart was

June 13th, 2018

Yesterday’s post got me to thinking about my grandmother’s duplex, particularly the side where my family resided for not quite half a decade. There are a lot of not great memories associated with it. It’s where our domestic dysfunctions entered the final downward spiral culminating in my mother’s death. It’s also where I struggled through the waking nightmare of junior high and some of the dumbest episodes of my adolescence. The place feels cursed to me. I haven’t set foot in it for over thirty years, and shunned it even after I’d relocated to my grandmother’s side of the building. That chapter of my life had closed and I felt no need to revisit it.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Few things ever are.

The place was located off a small cul de sac a few blocks north of Woburn Center and weird on multiple levels. It was oddly sited on the lot, with my grandparents having a backyard the size of a postage stamp while the other tenants had a sprawling expanse big enough to fit another entire unit. (When my grandfather redid the fence between the two after the closing, he pushed it another ten feet or so into the other side in order to have more space for his rose garden and chicken coop.)

My grandparents’ side of the house had been fully midcentury modernized by a previous owner who planned on moving in before passing away shortly after the work was done. The side my family would be invited to inhabit looked like it had barely been updated since the Coolidge Administration. It didn’t even have a shower installed in the bathroom, just an ancient claw-footed bathtub where I took my daily soak for the bulk of my teen years.

My mother didn’t mind the archaic fixtures. In fact, she loved them because they dovetailed perfectly with her own retro obsession with pre-WW2 decor. (So now you know where I got this shit from.) My parents did update a few essential things like the wiring and some of the plumbing, and added a half-bath opposite the cellar stairs to accommodate my father’s mother, who still lived with us and had limited mobility after suffering a stroke in the mid-Seventies.

Across the street, a former big band conductor/record producer lived in a bungalow that had been festooned with a warren of additions and infested by multiple families of raccoons. Abutting my grandparents’ side of the property was an abandoned home where two elderly bachelor siblings had once lived and it remained vacant from the tail end of the Carter Era to the mid-Nineties.

The lead-up to the move from North Woburn was electric. It was the first time since infancy that I’d be relocating to a new address. Instead of six people crammed into a tiny apartment, I was going to be dwelling in a genuine half-house. No more sharing a open plan “bedroom” next to the living room with my grandmother and Lil Bro, my sibling and I were going to have our own room with a door that closed and a swanky new set of bunkbeds. I’d be in walking distance to my school, the handful of places that stocked new comics in Woburn, and the arcade rooms at the pool hall and bowling alley. And I’d be living right next door to my overindulgent grandparents, to boot.

Being a surly adolescent, I wanted our bedroom painted dark. My parents forced me to settle for royal blue, which went nicely with the orange shag carpet we got my from grandparents and the faded crimson drapes repurposed from the master bedroom in North Woburn. My dad sprung for a new TV for us, a Magnavox pushbutton jobber I managed to hold onto until 1994. It was joined by an overpowered stereo system bought on installment at a steep discount through my mother and a succession of electronic gaming platforms (2600, C64, Sega Master System).

After my father’s mother and sister moved out, Lil Bro was shifted to their room in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of our fraternal dust-ups. (My parents were big fans of the “BOTH OF YOU, SEPARATE” school of conflict resolution.) I had the bedroom to myself, and proceeded to make my stamp on it with an wall collage of magazine clippings (Twilight Zone, Fangoria, Nat Geo) and strings of Christmas lights around the windows. My buddy Scott put his electronics savvy to use by wiring up the TV and game consoles to my stereo receiver for maximum volume (and minimal fidelity).

For some reason, I ended up without a mattress for my bed. Instead of attempting to sleep on a box spring, I started using my bed as a writing/drawing desk and proceeded to cover it with art supplies and role playing game materials. I slept on the foam mattress from a trundle bed, which I slid under my actual bed during the day and dragged onto the middle of the floor at night. (One of the minor but significant adjustments I had to make after my mom died was getting used to sleeping in a real bed again.)

The room was hideous and messy and cluttered, but it was a genuine refuge when things got dicey. A hundred Watts per channel of thumping Stax soul was almost enough to drown out the drunken rants of my old man. Almost. (Even then there was the risk he’d decide to kill the power to my room in order to teach me a lesson. Maybe you can finally explain what that lesson was, Dad, since I know you read my posts.)

Enough darkness. There’s a lot of that I can never forget, but there were also many good moments I want to remember. A lot those are small joys, ephemeral fragments of contentment during troubling times. The action figure sagas. Lil Bro perched up in the pear tree in the corner of the yard. The backyard bashes with my parents’ bizarre friends. Hot cider after the city’s annual Halloween parade. Lounging the tire swing my father helped me set up and reading the latest issue of Dragon Magazine. The marathon D&D sessions in my room, punctuated with videogame breaks and midnight junk food runs to a nearby convenience store. Feeding my grandfather’s chickens blueberries from the garden. Sitting with my parents out back on a warm summer evening, listening to the crickets and distant strains of a band concert at Library Park. Working my way through a thick stack of Bronze age back issues while V66 (Boston’s music video channel) played in the background.

On the day my grandmother passed away, I paced around the yard while the rest of my family talked about immediate matters. It bears little resemblance to what it looked like thirty-five years ago. The pear tree and tire swing tree are long gone. The rock garden has become indistinguishable from the gravel driveway. The center plot where my mom used to plant her vegetable garden is now covered by overgrown and misshapen ornamental trees and shrubs.

It was no longer the place I had known so intimately. Any ghosts it held had moved on, surviving only as echoes in my own skull.

It was depressing, but also liberating. I still wouldn’t set foot in that side of the duplex, though.

Oh, Joe…

June 12th, 2018

Lil Bro and I were fairly industrious kids when the mood struck us, and one of the manifestations of it was the “piece-together” phase we went through with our G.I. Joe figures. With the help of an eyeglass repair kit purloined from the family medicine chest, we set about “improving” our favorite figures by swapping in neat bits from less favored ones.

The results were well worth the effort, though the process did leave us with a pool of disassembled cast-off parts. There was always room for cannon fodder, though, so we used these leftovers of cobble together an assortment of gaudy plastic abominations like a pair of toy aisle Dr. Frankensteins. Some of these afterthoughts ended up assuming a narrative backstory of their own, and one inexplicably became a particular favorite of Lil Bro.

His name was “Safari Joe,” and was pieced together from Dr. Mindbender’s head and Dusty’s body. I’m not sure what the rationale was there, apart from the combination evoking some cartoon-seeded echo of big game hunters of Ye Olden Days.

He operated in his own corner of our shared toyetic universe, serving as a touch of comic relief alongside his nephews Bazooka and Leatherneck who’d been reimagined as a Franken/Davis pair of lovable fuck-ups. Joe also accreted his own convoluted backstory, inspired by and extrapolated from The Surfaris’ 1963 hit “Surfer Joe”…

…which got ample plays on our bedroom stereo at the time thanks to JCI’s budget Surfin’ Sixties compilation.

The gist of it was Safari Joe was the middle aged Surfer Joe, who’d completed his tour in the Marines and moved onto the lucrative field of mercenary work. This eventually led to him being placed on open retainer by Cobra, who funded his freewheeling lifestyle and kept his extended family supplied with mustache wax. For the most part, the trio stuck to the type of insular absurdity a geeky nine year old would generate for his own amusement.

The Safari Joe thing had all but slipped from my memories until pal Keith Pille brought up the weirdness of Dr. Mindbender the other day. The heavy duty memory dump Keith triggered — along with the whole “Surfer Joe” connection — got me to ruminating over other aspects of the action figure universe my sibling and I crafted during our youth. We had always colored outside the franchise lines when it came to playing with “our guys,” but things kicked into high gear in the fall of 1984 after we moved from North Woburn to the other side of my grandparents’ duplex outside the city’s center.

The separation from our old neighborhood peer groups and the guardedness caused my our family’s dysfunctions meant Lil Bro and I spent a lot of time as best friends as well as siblings. It’s one of the reasons — alongside the fact that Lil Bro was four years younger than me — that I continued to buy figures and stage these plastic pageants up through my early teens. It was a improvised alternative to role-playing games, which explains why my interest on that front faded fast after I obtained a copy of the D&D “Red Box” Basic Set a couple of years later.

The new house also afforded more opportunities for vicarious adventure, with a basement play area, our own room (with bunkbeds and a door!), and a large yard full of spaces to explore. The specifics events of our ongoing saga are interesting on a nostalgic level, but I’m more fascinated by what they reveal about those days through context and a good deal of hindsight. Even the hazy assortment of fragments I can recall weave a negative space tapestry of Crap The Young Weiss Boys Were Really Into At The Time.

For all the idealized talk about children’s “powers of imagination,” the process is less about spontaneous generation and more about soaking up a host of external stimuli and spitting out an interpretation which combines, emphasizes, and spins the source material in personal (and often) weird ways. We were no different, and that’s a good thing because it allows me go back and check out the “spaces between the notes.”

To keep things reasonably simple, I’m just going to do a quick summary with the suspected source material in parentheses. Buckle in, kids. It’s about to get really goofy.

The start of the Hammond Square action figure era was an inexact follow-up of the North Woburn era. The cast of characters was still pretty diverse and ranged across multiple lines and scales. The core players were drawn from the Super Powers and Secret Wars lines, with some Master of The Universe figures serving as monstrous cosmic beings of varying intent (the cosmology as described in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe). My favorite figure was Storm Shadow, who went by some other name as a magical ninja (it was the mid-Eighties so take your pick) and could teleport by popping in and out of Hell (the Belasco/Illyana story in X-Men) ruled by Crystar’s Moltar filling in for Satan (a nightmare Lil Bro once had).

That world ended when Shield from the Mighty Crusaders line of crappy figures tried to populate his “Shield Dimension” by capturing other characters with a Secret Wars shield accessory (the Phantom Zone). In his arrogance, he angered Darkseid who set off an anti-matter bomb repurposed from some gardening thing and wiped out the Shield Dimension and altered the rest of the multiverse (Crisis on Infinite Earths).

By then, Lil Bro and I leaned almost exclusively into G.I. Joe. Because our favorites didn’t line up with the canonical factions, we decided that the Cobra and Joe Team high commands united to conquer the entire world. The only holdouts were a loose roster of rebels and defectors fighting against the totalitarian conquerors (Red Dawn, Dreadstar, Squadron Supreme, Eighties Cold War apocalypticism and the early wave of mass market grimdark funnybooks in general).

The rebels mostly hid out in a cave im Mom’s rock garden or an aircraft carrier assembled from a plastic sled and the Fisher-Price Sesame Street playset. The group included Tomax, who’d undergone a process to break his psychic link from his still evil brother (Byrne’s Alpha Flight run), a reprogrammed B.A.T. android (some sci-fi bullshit), and Quick Kick as Bruce Lee’s forgotten apprentice (Kung Fu Theater by way of Police Academy 2). There was also a “good” clone of Zartan’s brother (Deathlok) who had been given a corpse-paint makeover with a bottle of Testors (Hit Parader magazine), and a power armor dude (Iron Man) who was forced to kill his mentor/best friend after he threatened to destroy the world (the Dark Phoenix Saga).

While all that depressing stuff was going on, Safari Joe (a 60s surf rock song and Thundercats apparently) and his two sidekicks (the Three Stooges) fumbled their way from one comedic mishap to another (Lil Bro’s relationship with our two younger cousins).

Thanks to the current wave of reissues or general lack of interest in the older material that I’ve been seeking out, I’ve had pretty decent luck with assembling a library of favorite and personally significant albums that somehow escaped me in LP form. Even indie label oddities (such as King Missile’s early albums) or formerly pricey comps (such as the Atlantic R&B series) have managed to turn up in decent condition for under a tenner.

Barring a handful of always-in-demand favorites which tend to command premium asking prices (the US version of the first Clash LP, Floodland, Boston’s debut album), the only real chokepoint I’ve experienced has been with material from the tail end of the Eighties and early Nineties. No big surprise there, as it coincides with the major labels pulling back from records releases in favor of cassette and compact disc formats. What did get issued on vinyl tended to be of limited pressing runs or exclusive to overseas markets, and the folks willing to buy that stuff were also the type who’d hold on to it despite the march of technological progress.

Unfortunately for me, this era just happens to overlap one of the richest sweet spots in my music listening history. The bulk of my fandom may have been rooted in the not-so-distant past during those years, but what contemporary acts I did listen to, I truly adored. That was not reflected in my record purchases, which were limited to otherwise unavailable material or cheap retro material. For newer releases, I stuck with more Walkman-friendly or less fiddly formats.

Some of the material was otherwise available on recent greatest hits comps (Lush) or perfectly timed re-releases (Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting). Others popped up on eBay or Amazon to become the stuff of occasional self-indulgence. Eventually, however, I hit a place where “really wanting that thing” collides with “no way am I spending THAT MUCH for it” — and that’s providing a copy was even available for sale.

After a few months of desperate yearning (because I did indeed desire these overpriced treasures), I turned to the Discogs Marketplace. I held off as long as I did because I really didn’t want to create another account I’d have to keep track of, especially one that might tempt me into a slew of impulse purchases. Plus, the whole peer-to-peer retail model makes me a little anxious when there’s no overarching arbiter involved.

Other record collecting friends spoke highly of it, though, and any remaining trepidations were washed away when I saw the top two items on my wishlist available for a fraction of what eBay and Amazon sellers were demanding. And because Discogs is an audiophile/collector venue, the fussiness about grading meant there was less chance of ending up with something that sounded like it had been stored in a sandpaper inner sleeve.

The first of my two initial purchases was 1992: The Love Album by Carter USM, the duo’s third full-length release which also happens to include three of my favorite tracks of theirs.

It was the biggest album in my world for a few months after it dropped and marked the peak of my college era Carter fandom. By the time The Love Album‘s (underwhelming) follow up hit the shelves, my tastes had drifted into the realms of postpunk and goth music, with Alien Sex Fiend taking over for the band on the electro-punk front.

The other longstanding “must have” I scored on my initial Discogs foray was King by Belly. Frankly, I was astonished it had even gotten a vinyl release, albeit a very limited import one. The band avoided the dreader sophomore slump by taking their creepy-dreamy strain of indie pop into a slightly heavier direction.

The results were utterly sublime, yet couldn’t escape the shadow cast by their first album’s massive success or the fickle volatility of the ever-mutating Nineties’ alt-rock scene. The band zigged, the zeitgeist zagged, and an incredible album got lost in the shuffle.

The vinyl versions of both these albums had been Holy Grails since I started buying records again. The average eBay asking price for either ran upwards of a hundred bucks. Thanks to Discogs, I acquired both for fifty dollars, total.

I basked in the glorious sense of closure for about a week, upon which my restless thoughts turned toward future conquests.

…and we’re back again for a look at another semi-contemporaneous “precursor” to Charlton’s age of “Action Heroes.” The focus this time around falls upon the mighty (derivative) Son of Vulcan.

The character was the brainchild of writer Pat Masulli and artist Bill Fraccio (with Joe Gill later assuming the writing chores), made his debut in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #46, released a month before Captain Atom’s returned to active duty.

After accusing the gods of ignoring the evils in the mortal world, one-legged war correspondent Johnny Mann was whisked off to Olympus to answer for his blasphemous impudence. While the bellicose Mars wanted Mann obliterated on the spot, he was spared from Jupiter’s wrath by the intercession of by the empathetic Vulcan. Sensing a kindred spirit in Mann, who shared a similar physical disability and sense of justice with the forge god, Vulcan adopted the mortal as his own kin. He also granted Mann the ability to turn into a vaguely Roman superhero whenever some evil needed to be thwarted.

These sweet boons did not come without some obligations, however, and required periodic performance reviews by the staff at the Olympian head office. While Marvel’s mighty Thor was the obvious inspiration for Son of Vulcan, it’s interesting to note the dash of Captain Marvel Jr. that also got thrown into the mix.

The Son’s second appearance in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds kicks off with an entirely healthy and not-at-all nauseating portrayal of domestic life.

Harried academic and henpecked husband Leonard Lambie finds himself dreaming of a more heroic life away from the poverty and marital misery. As an expert in ancient mythology, he is especially fascinated by news reports of Son of Vulcan’s initial exploits in the mortal realm and wishes he could obtain similarly supernatural powers.

Across town, a pissed-off Johnny Mann has had his shuteye disturbed by yet another summons from his Olympus. His divine overlords at least had the courtesy to arrange a ride for Mann in the form of a sneering Mars and his flaming war chariot. After making Mann sweat a little during his performance review, Jupiter declares him worthy-for-now and (presumably) goes off to sex up some mortal virgin as a swan or golden shower or something.

Mars is less than pleased with this decision and decides to mess with Mann by slipping Lambie a pair of transmutation gloves formerly owned by King Midas himself. Lambie uses the gloves to convert a garbage can into pure gold. When this fails to impress his wife, Lambie transforms her into a gold statue as well.

The pieces have been placed on the board, but how will they interact? By way of a third principal player, silly — the sinister Mr. Zoloto, a notorious precious metals broker who combines the looks of Silver Age Lex Luthor with the interior design sensibilities of Donald Trump.

Mann wants to interview Zoloto for an article about the gold shortage. He is promptly escorted out of the Big Z’s office, right past a waiting Lambie hoping to cut some sort of deal with the robber baron. Recognizing a (ZING!) golden deal (GET IT? GET IT?) when he sees one, Zoloto strings Lambie along in hope of making the magic gloves his own.

A suspicious Mann stalks Zoloto’s goons as they approach Lambie’s apartment. He confronts them as the Son of Vulcan, only to be transformed into gold by Lambie (who has since decked himself out in the most absurd yet plausible supervillian get up ever).

The helpless hero, along with Lambie’s wife and various household objects transformed by Lambie’s touch, are carted back to Zoloto’s lair. Lambie’s objections to this plan only result in some physical humiliation by Zoloto and a telepathic dressing-down by the still-immobile Son of Vulcan.

Fortunately, the demigod is the first thing loaded into the smelter and the flames free him from Midas’s magic. His surrogate pa beams him down a magical mace, which he uses to go sickhouse on both the furnace and Zoloto’s legion of goons.

The fleeing Zoloto tries to asphyxiate the survivors with a hidden deathtrap, but is transformed into gold by a repentant Lambie before he can full activate the device.

Lambie turns over the magic gloves to Son of Vulcan, the transformed being revert to normal, Zoloto is carted off to prison, and Lambie is sentenced to a lifetime of domestic dysfunction. Upon returning to Olympus, Son of Vulcan presents the gloves to Jupiter, who praises the hero’s valor and cusses out Mars for his scheming.

The end…or is it?

Compared to Blue Beetle #50, the Son of Vulcan story in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #47 almost flirts with competence. All the pieces of a good story are present. The hero is mildly interesting and poor Lambie rocking too-large crown over a bathrobe and pajama bottoms was a truly inspired concept as far as these things go. None of it really gels together into something which rises above adequate, though. Whether by accident or design, the story lacks that extra touch of self-aware panache that drove Marvel’s line of early Silver Age superheroes. Things like, well, the actual goal of Mars’ convoluted scheme are left unaddressed outside random panels of the war god gloating and summarizing the obvious from afar.

It’s a case of a miss being as good as a mile. Yet even if the tale landed square on the target, it still would’ve ranked as a second-rate knock off of a lesser Thor story. It’s something that would continue to dog Charlton’s Action Heroes line even during its brief glory days.

“The Golden Curse” from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #47 (July 1965); script by Joe Gill, pencils by Bill Fraccio, and inks by Tony Tallarico.

My purchase of the third edition Warhammer 40k boxed set was done more out of habit than anything else. I’m sure there was a part of me that harbored some vain hope of getting back to the gaming table with my miniature sci-fi armies, but the truth was that my interests had shifted away from RPG-related stuff and towards videogames and comic books by the time 1998 rolled around.

Warhammer 40k no longer rated that high as a diversion anymore, though I did retain enough residual interest to pick up a copy of the new iteration through Games Workshop’s mail order service. The bundled-in plastic models still possessed some allure — especially the ones for the “new” Dark Eldar faction — but mostly I was morbidly curious about what changes the design team had inflicted upon the game.

The revised rules were a pleasant surprise. The stripped-down set of mechanics jettisoned most of the loopholes and exploits of the increasingly bloated second edition rules. The third edition de-emphasized single-model “hero” models kitted out with a game-breaking array of custom wargear and instead focused upon balanced unit composition and squad-based tactics. Tweaks to the “victory condition” parameters encouraged players to do take the fight to the enemy instead of hunkering down in cover and racking up overwatch kills for easy points.

There was an ulterior motive behind these changes that went beyond improving end-user experience, however. The streamlining was carried out so that Games Workshop could upscale the scope of the action once again. Vehicles that had been one-off support units in the previous edition now became the stuff multiple-model detachments, while greater elasticity in squad sizes rewarded larger units. This was further reinforced by a switch from percentage-based army lists (“minimum 25% line troops, maximum 25% elite units”) to more specific and scenario-mandated army rosters.

The emphasis on “more and mandatory” was not-so-subtle nudge to convince players to buy more (increasingly expensive) shit from the publisher. It had been a facet of the game since the Rogue Trader days, but seeing it laid out in such a blatant fashion was a bit off-putting and led to me referring to 40k as “the Jenny Craig of wargaming.”

Old loves die hard, however. The novelty of a shiny new edition did briefly compel me to pick up a few new figures and models, mostly slick do-overs of older units or flashy new additions to my beloved Imperial Guard and Eldar armies. Only a handful actually got assembled and none ever received a proper paint job. (I found a couple of plastic bags containing most of this stuff in my grandma’s attic last weekend.)

That revived interest couldn’t sustain itself once the initial thrill subsided. There were too many other diversions (hello, Parasite Eve and Young Heroes in Love) on my plate, all of which delivered more bang for the buck in less laborious and more satisfying ways.

The A-W Boundary

June 5th, 2018

My current re-read of the SPIN archives started as a form of spiritual research for both the ongoing series of record and RPG posts. A good chunk of that mnemonic real estate was situated in the first half of the Nineties, so I thought it would be useful to sift through that psychic detritus, see how it tracked against my memories, and possibly unearth some angles which might have become clearer in hindsight.

The voyage began with 1989, the second half of my junior year in high school when the death of my mother was still a raw open wound. It’s the year I got into punk rock (by way of a brief flirtation with thrash metal) and attempted a wider engagement with contemporary popcult in general (if only to pick up the reference my new social circle were throwing out). I followed the thread from there, though the death of hair metal and the rise of grunge, the ephemeral adoration for Hypercolor and “ice” beer, and the earliest stirrings of the double-edged sword known as the Internet.

It was an enjoyable (and occasionally embarrassing) process at first, pegging the mass market music mag record of events to specific memories of those days. My senior prom date’s Deee-Lite ‘do. The culture war as manifested through the various student orgs on the fourth floor of Wheatley Hall. Reviews of tracks played at the New Year’s Eve party I attended with Maura a couple weeks after we started dating. Me wheedling Maura between mouthfuls of Mezzo Mezzo pasta about who she voted for on Election Day 1992. Shows I attended and videos I watched while hanging out with Leech or Maura.

Things took a turn for the unpleasantly weird once I hit the tail end of 1996. Up until that moment, everything had been parsed through the nostalgic lens of the “Good Old Days,” a fuzzy mythological construct walled off into its own discrete compartment. After that point, however, there was a sudden and jarring jump into the realm of “recent memory,” stuff my brain acknowledged as happened over two decades ago but still feels as fresh as yesterday.

The Playstation and the Saturn and Goldeneye? Dig Your Own Hole and Squirrel Nut Zippers and third wave ska? That wasn’t that long ago, was it? It couldn’t be because a lot of it still inhabits my physical and mental space, which would be absurd, right? One of my earliest memories of working at my present job was hearing “Don’t Speak” playing on a co-worker’s radio and a student employee telling Maura that she “looked like Natalie Imbruglia.”

And there’s the crux of the matter. 1997 was the year I (finally) graduated from college and landed what would evolve into my current job. It also followed on the heels of the comedy troupe disintegrating and my old cluster of college friends moving on to their own separate tracks. Apart from getting married and moving up to the house on the hillside, the situation has been the prevailing status quo ever since.

It’s not unsettling because it makes me feel old or reminds me of roads not taken, because it does neither. It’s strange because I never really considered the existence of of clear demarcation line between my concepts of “then” and “now.” The closest I’d had was my mother’s death, which was a life-altering event on multiple levels and even still contained distinct strata of experience.

When the massive meteor strike ended the age of the dinosaurs, it left behind a layer of iridium-laced clay — which, to be honest, is a lot more dignified than the Reel Big Fish CD wedged into my temporal boundary zone.

I got back into vinyl because Maura picked up a near complete run of Time-Life’s Swing Era box sets at an estate sale. They’d been on my retro wishlist since I first stumbled across an ad for them during by first read-through of LIFE‘s original run and the happy occasion was enough to convince me to pick up a deck I could spin them on.

Money and shelf space were short supply at the time, so I settled for a low-end Jensen jobber with built-in speakers. It was garbage, but it fulfilled its primary purpose — so much so, in fact, that I started pulling old favorites down from the attic archives and began to seek out new acquisitions on the secondhand marketplace.

By the time the fall of 2017 rolled around, my modest assortment of “most favored” albums had grown into a precariously stack that brushed against the bottom of the wall sconces in our living room. I was in desperate need of a permanent storage solution, but also realized I ought to attempt something grander than a short term fix. If record collecting and listening was going to be “a thing” for me again, I should invest in a better sound system. And, if I was going to try and make the space for that, then I should probably reconfigure the hand-me-down jumble of shelving units that had passed for our living room’s entertainment center since November 2004.

The plan had begun to gel by last Christmas, but was hung up by several false starts and logistical dead ends. The dream was to either dredge up the set of components my mother gave me during my teenage years or recreate them with similar chrome-and-digital relics of the Reagan Era. Unfortunately, I discovered my grandmother had tossed out my old set of gear (with the exception of the turntable, which I’d passed onto Lil Bro) and my go-to consignment shops didn’t have much worth the risk or expense of purchase.

Maura found Magnavox cabinet model from the late Eighties somewhere, and I spent a month of two trying to figure out how to make it fit into a theoretical set-up before realizing its wired speakers had succumbed to years of abuse and neglect. I realized would never get the damn project done unless I stopped equivocating and just committed to it, so I ordered a current model Sony 100 Watt receiver and pair of bookshelf-in-name-only speakers along with some Ikea shit that seemed — after hours of measuring and re-measuring — like it would fit in the available space.

The last of the components arrived at the end of last week, so I spent the past two days doing the sweaty and dust-disturbing labor turning a long-harbored dream into reality.

“Are you happy with it?” was the first thing Maura asked when she saw it after arriving home from her Sunday errands. I am, for the most part. The weird open layout of the House on the Hillside’s first floor doesn’t leave much in the way of obstructable wall space, so a few compromises had to be made.

The original plan was to use my old H.H. Scott turntable, but it has apparently given up the ghost after thirty-five years. Fortunately, I had an Audio-Technica model lying around in storage since the late Aughts. (It was a Christmas present from Maura, back when I had grand plans about ripping some rarities in our collection to mp3.) It has been a while since I’ve owned an actual stereo system, having spent the past fifteen years getting by with boomboxes and digital files played via Winamp.

I knew exactly which track I’d use to test the rig…

…and was more than pleased with the window-vibrating, floor-rumbling results (which were satisfactorily repeated across multiple Sixties soul jams and side one of Crystal Method’s Vegas).

It was also nice to finally have the space to integrate my SNES Mini Classic console into the set-up without having to unbox and wire it whenever the urge to play Super Metroid overtakes me. I will have to invest in dust covers for the other game consoles, though that’s pretty much a must in our critter-packed abode anyhow.

The project gave my the opportunity to take an inventory of what records I had purchased over the previous eighteen months (most of which I did manage to recall while populating my Discogs page) and organize them in a logical-to-me fashion — K-Tel, compilation series, gothy stuff, ska, soundtracks, et cetera — with the top shelf…

…given over to especially cherished artists and albums.

Now that this project has been completed, I look forward to swamping it with even more shit I don’t have the shelf space to contain.

Time is tight this week, so the second half of the July ’65 hall of shame will have to wait until next Friday.

As a consolation prize, I made a quick dive into the Charlton Comics archive and plucked this tantalizing pitch from the acid-eaten newsprint…

…a Hit Records mail-order ad from the middle of the Swingin’ Sixties. It and its slightly updated kin were fairly ubiquitous staples in the publisher’s line of funnybooks, tying back into Charlton’s real money making gig as the folks behind Hit Parader magazine. Despite the similar names, Hit Records and Hit Parader were two distinct entities, though the Derby address suggests there was some strategic alliance going on behind the scenes.

Sixty currently popular tracks for under three bucks postpaid sounds too good to be true, and indeed it was. Hit Records specialized in recording and releasing their own versions of pop hits, which they’d market to dime stores as a discount option for willing or unwilling dupes looking for the “now sound” on the cheap.

The hustle might seem horrific to hidebound music purists, but wasn’t too far afield from the prevailing status quo at the time. This was a time before “authenticity” assumed an absurd importance and the concept of “the band as a brand” was still in its infancy. Even among the legit scene, the major songwriting savants would pitch their sonic goods to various acts until one of the recordings resonated with the public and became the “definitive” version we all know and love (and have heard way too many times since).

Hit Records took a more industrial — and considerably less ambitious — approach to this strategy by waiting to see what clicked in the pop charts, then rushing out their own budget rendition adequate for the dance floor or wherever else less discerning ears congregated. It also helped that they were based out of Nashville, which sported an exceedingly high concentration of talented session musicians to draw from.

Sporting pre-fab names that suggested some of legitimacy outside a quickie recording session, acts like “The Chellows” and “The Jalopy Five” tried their hand at crafting adequate approximations of familiar hits.

Some bordered on note perfect…

…while others amounted to a mass market variation of outsider art…

…but nearly all of them suffered from thinness on the production side which could be downright disconcerting, and made it sound like one was listening to some remnant of our universe’s “alpha build” pressed to vinyl and slipped into the final product.

The company managed to ride that formula right up until the end of the Sixties, when bargain-priced comps featuring slightly abridged versions of the real deal emerged as a more compelling alternative.

Similar soundalike schemes have managed to maintain a semi-dodgy niche up through the present day. I have a couple of disco-themed ones that came with a bulk purchase of pre-1980 easy listening LPs, and Maura was recently burned by an estate sale CD box set of doo wop classics that turned out to be contemporary re-recordings. As is typical of trash culture artifacts of yore, the original series of Hit Record releases has developed its own dedicated fan and collector scene.

While I totally understand the impulse, it actual manifestation is half a dozen bridges too far for me to ever cross.

Sometime during the 1996 primary season, I decided to pay a visit to Excalibur Hobbies in Malden Center. The shop had been my go-to place for all things role-playing during high school and my early college years, but fell by the wayside after my undergrad wanderings settled into the Allston-Cambridge-Somerville axis (a.k.a. the Used Vinyl Triangle). Backtracking from Wellington to Malden and the longish walk from the station to the store had become more of a hassle than it was worth, especially once a new crop of more conveniently located gaming stores began popping up in the wake of the Magic: The Gathering craze.

I’m not sure what compelled me to return to Excalibur on that occasion, apart from the hope of finding the either the Dark Future or Adeptus Titanicus box sets still taking up space in the store’s discount bin. Both were long gone when I got there, but everything else about the place was the same as it had been during my last visit in 1992. Any material acknowledgement of the changes that had taken place in the hobby since then were well concealed by the same ultra-dense array of unsold inventory dating back to the Carter Era. Stray sourcebooks from discontinued lines, supplements from multiple editions past, and materials from long defunct publishers still collected dust and accumulated further sun damage on the shelves.

Whether the store’s overwhelming sense of stasis was accidental or deliberate, it was extremely unsettling. I had covered a lot of developmental ground since the first time I’d set foot in the place, a couple weeks after my mom’s death. Excalibur, however, had remained fixed in a moment, right down to the magazines racked by the window. It seems silly for a twenty-four year old to think of themselves as some sort of wizened font of wisdom, but in those eight years I’d gone through grief and anger and punk and metal and more personal transitions than I could’ve ever imagined at the moment the cop showed up at my aunt’s door around midnight on November 30, 1988 and said “I’m sorry to notify you…”

Yet here I was, back at one of the early steps of that journey, with little indication anything had changed.

I ended up picking up a hard plastic blistercase (remember those?) of offbeat Talisman fantasy figures and a discounted copy of the boxed Death on the Reik module for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay before making an exit.

There was nothing left on my schedule except waiting for Maura to get off work at UMB, so I sat down to review my finds in the (now repurposed) McCormack Hall cafeteria. Actually, it was the little annex off to the side of the caf, where they’d tried to squeeze half a dozen tables, a bank of vending machines, and a repeatedly vandalized widescreen TV into what had originally been a place to store extra chairs.

Flipping through the convoluted adventure materials and examining the various lead figures (soothsayer, faerie, illusionist) began to induce a fit of extreme queasiness. The reek of frying medium and the TV’s non-stop, overload election coverage didn’t help, but mostly it came from a subtle but growing sense of post-traumatic stress. Everything felt wrong, and the more I tried to concentrate on the stuff in front of me, the stronger that feeling became.

So I threw it all back into the bag and went to the library to flip through some old collections of movie reviews instead.

The next (and last) time I visited Malden Center was around my thirtieth birthday. I’d acquired a car and a real job by then, and long since given up the mysteries of the city (and hassles of public transportation) for the familiar rhythms of suburban life. I had to meet Maura in town for some reason and decided it would be “easier” to do the 134/Orange Line combo rather than deal with parking and navigating Boston’s surface roads. The bus schedule left me with ample time to kill, so I decided to kill it by checking out some of my old haunts.

I had to walk past the storefront twice before realizing that Excalibur had been replaced by a tanning salon. It wasn’t a shock, though I had harbored dim hopes of scoring some out-of-print 40k vehicles and figures. Even temporal stasis has a shelf life, it seems.

The New England Comics store around the corner was still in business, though sporting a radically different floorplan than the one I remembered. They were also having a seasonal sale, so I picked up a deeply discounted copy of the Black Canary Archives while I was there. I started to read it while waiting for a northbound Red Line train to arrive, at which point a scuffy dude who had apparently been doing Listerine shots (neat, no chaser) parked himself distressingly close to me on the bench before leaning in for a better view of the book.

“She ain’t half bad lookin! Is she a supah hookah?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything better to say.

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