Armagideon Time

The Don Knotts Courier-Gazette’s headline that day read “A G-G-G-G-GHOST?” but comically hurled itself out the nearest open window before the image could be taken.

Recommended listening: From the scene that refuses to die.

John Byrne wasn’t too thrilled with working on Alpha Flight, which probably explains why his run on the series was so damn weird and full of Cronenbergian body horror. It hasn’t aged gracefully enough to be labeled a “classic” (which, to be fair, applies to most Eighties superhero comics), but it’s still a pretty interesting read that actively messes with audience expectations in terms of plot and structure.

Also, this sequence of panels seemed kind of fitting for today.

(“Turn Again, Turn Again, Time in Thy Flight…” from Alpha Flight #19, February 1985; written and illustrated by John Byrne, colored by Andy Yanchus, and lettered by Rick Parker)

Recommended listening:

Fiend Folio was one of the first Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers I owned, purchased on clearance from Kay-Bee Toys for the whopping sum of three dollars and ninety-five cents. I spent hours upon hours flipping through its gallery of fan-created creatures, sketching my own interpretations, and dropping them into my graph paper dungeons without any sense of logic.

I was especially fascinated by the undead monsters. My embrace of D&D took place around the same time as my family’s purchase of a VCR and a flood of cheap horror flick rentals at the Video Station in Woburn Square. I’d started reading Stephen King and buying the tabloid-sized EC horror comics reprints from my local direct market shop. My nuclear war anxieties were at their peak, as were my feeling of middle school era alienation.

Shambling corpses and unquiet spirits and red-eyed bloodsuckers dovetailed perfectly with that atmosphere of adolescent dread.

I’ve come a long way since those days. my love of D&D was replaced by an interested in more sophisticated role-playing games with terrors that better reflected my current anxieties — like this lovely little beast from Warhammer FRP’s Tome of Corruption

Though, to be honest, they probably wouldn’t survive more than thirty seconds in my plague pit of a pie-hole.

Recommended listening:

Hey, kids, do you wanna see something really scary?

Then look no further, as I unleash the real-life nightmare of Billboard‘s “Bulk Vending News” from July 2, 1966!

I can see your looks of terror from here.

Once upon a time, there was a Bulk Merchandise Vendor who decided that Halloween provided a perfect promotional opportunity. He threw some ‘spooky’ cardboard inserts in the various vending machines he leased from certain Upstanding Members of the Business Community. He didn’t bother swapping out the stock, however. There were no Atomic Superballs painted up like bloodshot eyes, no plastic spider rings, no temporary Dracula tattoos.

He thought the kids would be too gullible to notice, but the target youth demographic had changed over the previous decade. The new generation was savvier, more sophisticated, and demanding when it came to disposable novelties and loose candy. They weren’t fooled by the ruse, and spent their nickels and dimes elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the Vendor had already borrowed ten large against the windfall he expected to materialize. It became a subject of pointed discussion during a midnight drive to the waterfront with the Upstanding Businessmen, where the Vendor was fitted for a new and quite weighty set of footwear.

Seriously, though, it’s really bizarre to see the Halloween retail window flagged at “two weeks maximum” from the vantage point of an era where pool noodle displays transition into palettes of candy corn and LED skulls halfway through August. The oversized role the Christmas season plays in the sector has crept outward, transforming the year into one unending series of seasonal events.

“It is a foregone conclusion that the item or mix will die the day after Halloween.”

Or Maura will buy the stuff on clearance the following weekend and put it to everyday use. Our dogs don’t care if they’re eating out of ghost-themed bowls in March. Neither do I, for that matter.

Recommended listening:

I’m sure you think you’re hip for getting into the potter’s field, but it’s just as commercial as some suburban burial ground. This place is the real cutting edge, man. It’s combines hand-quarried Romanian marble with some of the more radical elements of the Dusseldorf underground tomb scene. I wouldn’t expect you to be familiar with those. They’re pretty out there, although they’re nothing compared to some of the wilder stuff creeping up on the fringes. Like, there’s this Zoroastrian Tower of Silence I know that would strip your bones bare.

(panel from “Vengeance Will Be Mine” by Writer Unknown and Dick Giordano in The Thing #6, January 1953)

Recommended listening:

Night Gallery was proof that you can’t go home again, with a tanned and weary Rod Serling attempting to reprise The Twilight Zone minus the level of craft or creative control.

The spooky-themed anthology did have its occasional moments, but it’s telling that the best of them — like “The Caterpillar” and its ear-to-ear slice of nightmare — are frequently misremembered as Twilight Zone episodes when recounted in conversation. For the most part, the show functioned as a creepy counterpart to Love American Style, serving up a parade of familiar faces sporting the gaudiest of Nixon Era hair and clothes styles, all rendered in the washed-out yet excessively vivid palettes aimed at evangelizing the wonders of color TV.

It’s an aesthetic rooted in my most primordial memories, a shade too early to be experienced firsthand but seared into my gray matter by the power of syndication. Not that I really experienced Night Gallery through such means, apart from a handful of episodes caught during the four-ay-emm dead zone in the days before infomercials usurped that time slot. The vibe and title font and cast of characters were interchangeable and ubiquitous on the UHF band of my pre-school years.

My real introduction to the show came through a serialized episode guide (co-written by J. Michael Straczynski) which ran in Twilight Zone Magazine and a paperback collection of stories “inspired by” the series. It was enough to sate any curiosity I might have had. Even if it hadn’t, there wasn’t any real way to explore further. Except for a Halloween airing of the original pilot movie, Night Gallery was absent from the regional airwaves for the next few decades.

It wasn’t until I started reassembling a run of TZM in the early Aughts that I started thinking about the show again. Fileshare and early-stage streaming video sites made it possible to watch a decent number of isolated segments in glorious low-resolution. I checked out the adaptations of Lovecraft’s “Cool Air” and “Pickman’s Model,” less bothered by the awkwardly shoehorned romantic subplots than the rundown studio sets and sparseness behind the period facade.

Such sparseness can be used to enhance atmosphere. If I was younger, it would’ve felt profoundly disturbing, but my older-and-wiser eyes just saw cost-cutting cheapness overlaid with the unflattering tackiness of the Sixties-Seventies Transition Zone. Even when I could get past those hurdles, there was a fair chance I’d realize one of the actors was “Clayton from Benson” or “the elusive Robert Denby” and lose the narrative thread entirely.

The proliferation of retro-themed digital sub-channels has returned Night Gallery to the grim pastures of early morning TV. The time slot precludes regular viewing, but I have caught a few episodes during bouts of post-bedtime restlessness. They’ve been among the most mind-boggling and disturbing things I’ve ever seen on the small screen, and not for the intended reasons.

Night Gallery originally ran as an hour-long anthology with a pair of segments and occasionally a humorous “black out” bit (which Serling hated). The syndicated version sliced these into thirty-minute chunks, which often required a decent amount of padding to bring to the correct run time. (Y’see, back in those days, there were limits on the amount of commercials that could run in any given programming hour.) To fill out the gaps, the syndication edits are jam-packed with looped and stock footage, spliced in with little regard for logic or flow.

So “The Different Ones,” a diminishing returns rehash of “Eye of the Beholder,” has its melodramatic tale of an unhappy young fellow who resembles a Chianti bottle candle interrupted by shots of NASA space launch footage, flying robot cops, and some government announcer declaring that “aliens have landed nearby whoops no sorry our mistake.” No attempt whatsoever was made to tie any of it back to the actual segment, which rolls around the inserts to its predictable conclusion.

As confusing as that was, it paled in comparison to the syndication edit of “The Painted Mirror,” where Zsa Zsa Gabor is a cruel businesswoman who wanders through a magic mirror and gets trapped in the alien dimension where the cover of Husker Du’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories was photographed. The basic plot was a pretty simple EC Comics revenge jobber, The syndication edit turned it into the stuff of day-glo nightmare by repeatedly looping the same short clip of Gabor wandering around and shouting.

If horror is stripping away expectations and familiar frames of reference, this was a conceptual masterpiece that outdoes any of the dark absurdism of Adult Swim’s “infomercial” shorts. The plot is telegraphed from the moment the mirror’s powers are revealed. The viewer’s expectations are on autopilot, coasting towards a foregone conclusion…that keeps getting delayed by the same fifteen second clip over and over again. Is there a problem with the feed? Is the cable box broken? Did one of the cats trigger some deep macro on the remote? OH MY GOD, THE SAME CLIP JUST LOOPED AGAIN. Am I dead? Is this hell? I should turn off the TV but what if I press the power and it won’t shut off?

In short, the perfect train of thought when it’s 2:30 in the morning and you’re already having trouble falling asleep.

Recommended listening:

Greetings, bats and ghouls and other creatures of night! Today is the first of October, which means the a month-long festival of all things spooky and groovy.

This announcement would’ve been posted earlier the day, but I was visiting a graveyard…for the funeral of a member of my extended family, taken from us far too soon.

It sounds grim because it was grim, but it also reminded me what the spooky season is supposed to be about. It’s a communal celebration in which we confront avatars of our existential dread, as mapped to the natural cycle of the seasons. I could’ve done without it being so tragic, immediate, and on-the-nose this time round, but there’s no debating the Fates.

Recommended listening:

The world is aflame, so I might as well add to miserable pyre with another recap featuring the most unloved of Charlton’s “Action Heroes.”

SON OF VULCAN! An intrepid reporter named Johnny Mann who lost a leg covering a brushfire conflict, cursed the gods, and was rewarded the the Deity Formerly Known as Hephaestus by getting a gig as a low-rent Thor knockoff! Hated by Mars, swooned over my Venus (who is technically his stepmother, but when in the Roman pantheon…), the rock-jawed demigod boldly strode through a seemingly random assortment of panels assembled into the semblance of a funnybook story.

Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #48 (September 1965) begins with Mars getting called onto the carpet by Zeus for instigating the escalating “police action” in Southeast Asia. The war god professes his innocence in that debacle, and is let off with a warning about interfering in mortal affairs…which he promptly chooses to ignore by funding anti-American riots in some “Near East country.

Zeus retaliates by stripping Mars of some of his godly powers and casting him to earth, where he couldn’t possibly get up to more mischief.

Meanwhile, Johnny Mann’s bureau chief has sent the intrepid reporter off to chase a hot lead about Captain Tusk — a “noble” whaler with a fleet of military-grade warships — and some scientists who have gone missing near the whaler’s hunting grounds. As luck would have it, this is also where Mars had landed and assumed the identity of the captain after imprisoning Tusk and his daughter in a block of ice.

Mars uses the cetatean-vaporizing firepower of Tusk’s fleet to blast the bejeezus out of every civilian and military craft he encounters. The Son of Vulcan tries to to put an end to the tomfoolery without realizing the true identity of his adversary.

Mars gets the better of Sonny Boy and chains him to the front of his flagship so that folks will think the hapless demigod is the real villain. It may seem a bit flimsy as far as ruses go, but it was enough to convince Zeus to turn against the Son of Vulcan and forbid the forge god from lending his foster kid a hand.

Sonny Boy breaks free after the navy targets him with a nuclear barrage, which the captions repeatedly insist the hero could not survive yet only manage to destroy his enchanted bindings. Mars tries to blow up the hero with an explosive harpoon (because if a nuke didn’t work, surely that would). Tusk’s daughter futzes with his aim, causing the shot to destroy the ship instead.

The real Tusk and his daughter are tossed into the ocean where — as per superhero funnybook conventions — they are immediately set upon by some hungry sharks (described as “killer whales” in the caption box). Sonny Boy only has the time to save one of the mortals, but gets an unexpected assist from a selectively remorseful Mars.

The story ends with a scowling Johnny Mann wondering what the hell actually happened, making this the first and only time I’ve ever identified with the Son of Vulcan as a character.

(“Fury of the War God ” written by Joe Gill, pencilled by Bill Fraccio, and inked by Tony Tallarico. Typeset letting.)

From the moment of Warhammer 40k‘s release in 1987, fans speculated whether the miniature-based wargame would be followed by a spin-off along the lines of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. While the original Rogue Trader rules did incorporate some rudimentary RPG mechanics, it was first and foremost a wargaming system, as were later skirmish-based side franchises such as Necromunda.

In the absence of an official product, a number of dedicated enthusiasts cobbled together their own homebrew 40k RPG rules. Most were built upon WFRP’s framework and expansive career system. The shared DNA made such find-and-replace reskins easy to pull off from a mechanical standpoint, but they also illustrated the fundamental difficulties the setting had when it came to things like balance and backstory. The super-human abilities of a Space Marine or unearthly powers of an Eldar far outstripped those of even the most talented baseline human, resulting in massive power gaps between the various player races and careers. Furthermore, the regimented dystopia of the gameworld made it difficult to justify how a Space Marine might find himself working alongside a hive ganger, clergyman, unsanctioned psyker, or some member of a feared-hated alien society.

Yes, it could be done with a bit of fudging, but then it really wouldn’t capture the grim, paranoid vibe of the setting. (I’m not saying it would be a bad thing, but it does contradict the whole notion of running a 40k RPG and not some other sci-fi system with a more logical ruleset.)

It would be twenty-one years before the Warhammer 40k franchise got its first official role playing game….

Dark Heresy, released by the Black Library as a weighty hardback tome in 2008. I pre-ordered the damn thing, because there are some parts of my wayward youth I will never extricate myself from.

Like the homebrew efforts that preceded it, Dark Heresy pulled most of its core mechanics from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The characteristics, skill/talent system, and graphic critical hit tables mirrored those in the second edition WFRP rulebook, and the psychic power rules were a slightly more forgiving reworking of that game’s magic system. Dark Heresy did drop WFRP’s open-ended career system in favor of a smaller spectrum of fixed classes with branching progression trees and background packages based on a character’s homeworld.

Where amateur attempts to translate Warhammer 40k into a pen-and-paper RPG stumbled over trying to fit the entire universe into a single system, Dark Heresy chose to focus on a single facet of that universe. The player characters serve low-level agents of an Inquisitor, wandering troubleshooters given sanction to investigate and deal with threats to the Imperium as they see fit. That patronage grants players latitude to act than the average Tech Adept or Imperial Guardsman, while also explaining why a by-the-books Arbitrator would associate with a petty criminal from the underhive. “Because our Master demanded it, and she could summarily execute us for refusing.”

It’s a solid conceit which keeps with the “life is cheap, death (or worse) is everywhere” tone of the franchise, and allows for all manner of adventuring possibilities without the need to explain a specific rationale in detail. If the dead drop message says “go to this death world and retrieve something” or “abduct this person from a noble house’s garden party,” the players need only sweat the logistics and pray that the reasons are sound. How the players advance within the bigger picture is left up to them and the gamemaster. If they manage to survive mindwarping horrors, soul-rotting corruption, and violent death, they might become (via the Ascension sourcebook) inquisitors themselves. If they don’t, there are plenty of possibilities in that as well.

The back half of the rulebook contains oodles of material about the 40k universe and the Calixis Sector, an ill-omened cluster of fringe worlds packed with all manner of threats from within, without, and beyond. It makes for some highly entertaining reading, especially for semi-lapsed fans whose interest in the franchise lore survived when their interest in the actual game faded. Like most of my 21st Century RPG purchases, Dark Heresy is thy type of game I can spend hours leafing through while thinking “damn it, why didn’t this come out when I was seventeen?”

A plague worse than death

September 25th, 2018

“I looked up and saw a horse whose color was pastel green. Its rider was named Jane, and her format was VHS. They were given authority over ranch home suburbia, to conquer with headband and lycra and legwarmers and extreme hold mousse.”

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