Armagideon Time

You can’t roll home again

March 27th, 2019

I concluded the Role Playing With the Changes feature by stating that my days of buying pen-and-paper RPG stuff were well behind me. Because the fates enjoying mocking geeks who make such sweeping, it only took a few weeks before I acquired not one, but two “new” rulebooks.

The quotation marks were slapped on either side of “new” because the pair of books represent something of a homecoming. Warhammer Fantasy Role Play is the 4th and latest edition of a game which defined the bulk of my active RPG-ing years, while the D&D Rules Cylopedia is a dense compendium of the system that started me off in the hobby. The former was a birthday gift from Maura and the latter was picked up in a moment of nostalgic reverie (and weak impulse control).

The new iteration of WFRP is a strange beast, stuck in the unenviable shadow of the Green Ronin/Fantasy Flight second edition rules. (The less said about the third edition misfire, the better.) That version of the game was damn near perfect, a streamlined-yet-fleshed out realization of the concepts teased by its poorly supported predecessor.

Where is a new design crew supposed to run with that? Adhere too closely to 2nd ed, and you risk emitting a “why even bother” vibe. Break too far from it, and you risk turning it into something that isn’t really WFRP (as was the case with the 3rd edition). The folks at Cubicle 7 tried to avoid these pitfalls by bringing the system back to its “roots,” a vague concept with boils down to a narrower focus (itinerant adventurers in a single province of the Empire) and a core rulebook meant to evoke the look, feel, and density of the first edition’s hefty hardback rules “bible.”

The array of low fantasy character careers remain the centerpiece of the system, though the overall number has been drastically reduced. The game mitigates this through the use of advancement tiers — four for each career, representing levels of proficiency while consolidating similar or “advanced” options from previous editions. The shift to vertical progression does make sense in many cases. There really wasn’t a need to break out the different levels of Dwarven slayers or wizards into separate roles, except to justify the “features over 100 careers” cover hype. A soldier character who wants to be the best soldier in the Reikland doesn’t have to jump through an improbable series of additionally careers to pick up the desired skills and abilities.

It’s eminently logical, yet it still feels something important has been lost. Sprawling mess or not, the excess of career options was one of the selling points of the system from the get-go. Even though the new method did preserve the the bulk of available options in some form, it’s a difficult change to wrap my head around and set the tone for most of the other tweaks and revisions. The second edition’s magic system was an ingenious exercise in weighing risk versus reward — the more dice a caster rolls, the better chance of casting a spell and of manifesting a potentially catastrophic side effect. The fourth edition evokes the spirit of that mechanic, but in a less satisfying yet more complicated way.

The same goes for combat resolution, characteristic advancement, and other mechanics both large and small. There’s an overall tendency towards overcomplication — not because it leads to a better experience, but because the “best” way had already been employed in a previous edition and this ain’t no copycat effort, no sirree.

I don’t want be too harsh on 4th edition WFRP because I’m glad to see the game has kept chugging along in some recognizable form. The book itself is gorgeous and does a far better job of maintaining a gothic fantasy vibe than the second edition managed to (mostly because it was a little too beholden to Warhammer Fantasy Battles’ canon and the unceasing churn of Black Library novels). It’s exceptional on the fluff front, but there’s nothing in there that would make me choose it over the second edition.

My original D&D Basic Set went missing decades ago. It was the victim of two seismic shifts — first to Advanced D&D and then to WFRP. Any sentimentality I held toward it was a later phenomenon, meaning the box and its contents passed into the realm of myth without my ever noticing it happened. All I know is that neither it nor any contents of the Expert Set resurfaced in the giant crate of RPG stuff I retrieved from my late grandma’s attic.

Both were originally purchased from the clearance aisle of an Osco Drug (thanks, mid-Eighties Satanic panic!). They became the well-thumbed springboards for my fitful transition into the realm of AD&D, after which they ceased being relevant. Why settle for the stripped down version when you could have multiclassed characters and assassins and ninjas and all the other shit that keeps an adolescent edgelord honed?

Basic D&D occupied an odd niche in the franchise’s ecology. The prevailing notion was that it strictly for the kiddie crowd, which was true but more due to its pricing than its approach to the rules. The buy-in cost for the three “core” AD&D hardbacks ran close to fifty bucks, where a D&D box set might set you back ten (or less if you hit a place like Toys R Us). If provided enough of a framework to build around, if you so desired. There wasn’t perfect parity with the AD&D rules but they were similar enough to fold the various supplements from that system — which in in my case were Fiend Folio, Oriental Adventures, and the “NPC” classes from the Best of Dragon collections.

I didn’t start to feel nostalgic about those box sets until I realized they’d gone missing, at which point I began sniffing around for replacements. I was also motivated by a sense of curiosity about basic D&D in general and its evolutionary drift away from its franchise flagship sibling. It was designed to be accessible, but at a time when RPGs suffered from absurd levels of complexity. I was genuinely curious how those factors played out, now that I was more conscious of the contexts involved.

I was less keen about acquiring a stack of beat-to-shit fourth-hand box sets that would take up a fuckton of space and set me back a significant chunk of change. “For use” would be one thing, but there’s a much lower cap on my “intellectual curiosity” impulse purchases. Then I noticed the Wikipedia article on the system mentioned a D&D “Rules Cyclopedia” which collected all the box set rules — from Basic through Immortals — into a single hardback tome. None of the ones listed for sale were especially cheap, but they were still less expensive than buying the original sets, and made for an easier browsing experience, to boot.

My copy arrived three weeks ago, and I’ve been having a grand old time working my way through its curious and often confounding assortment of mechanics. There’s a quaint sense of determinism about the rules, which makes it feel more like a board game than an RPG at times. “Upon reaching such-and-such level, the player must…” is a common refrain and one lacking any defined rationale. It’s just how it’s done, no explanation needed.

Though it offers a simplified version of AD&D’s mechanics, it still devotes excruciating levels of detail to edge case scenarios while leaving more common existential threats to an unmodified d6 (or d4 or d8 or d12 or d20) roll. On subjects like weapon mastery, the results are vastly more complex than the equivalent AD&D rules. The overall vibe is one of an ad hoc agglomeration of mechanics developed by an insular community without a coherent grand design. It’s functional but inelegant and inefficient, even in a simplified form.

As I go back over it all, I can see why I gravitated to Champions and WFRP as a teen. While their systems were fairly complicated, both employed a single, consistent resolution mechanic for most combat and non-combat circumstances. Both also allowed for a far wider array of character customization options than D&D’s handful of fixed classes (which was also why I shifted to AD&D in the space of a couple of months.)

Yet for all D&D’s counter-intuitive and rigid mechanics, there’s something endearingly quaint about it which goes past nostalgia-induced cognitive impairment. It’s an effective vehicle for heroic fantasy at the genre’s most, well, basic level — easily understood archetypes and familiar scenarios and clear paths for progression. After making it a dozen pages into the cyclopedia, I began contemplating the logistics of getting a gaming group together for a run. It’s not going to happen due to time constraints and other obligations, but the fact I even thought about it demonstrates there’s still some strong magic in this battered old tome.

Back to Wax #47: Off we go

March 26th, 2019

My attempt to revisit the first two seasons of Star Blazers last year began as an exercise in childhood nostalgia and ended on a far more somber note than I’d anticipated, thanks to my decision to switch over to the no-punches-pulled original Japanese episodes halfway through. It was a traumatic enough experience to cool my revived interest in the franchise, but not before I splurged on a few items of Yamato/Star Blazers merch — a detailed blind-boxed “Black Tiger” spacefighter toy, a small model of the Argo (which I passed onto Lil Bro), and an import single of the original Japanese theme song.

The record was surprisingly affordable (even with the overseas shipping). The tricky part was actually finding a copy for sale. I originally went searching for the English language version, under the assumption that one had been released. The localized series was a minor popcult phenomenon in its day, which also happened to overlap with the golden era for licensed kiddie records. A one-off theme song release didn’t seem that implausible under those circumstances.

I soon discovered that was not the case. Maybe the North American distributors (Claster Television, the folks behind Romper Room) didn’t want to shell out extra for music royalties and publishing fees or maybe they were too slow to capitalize on a passing fad or maybe the thought never occurred to them to begin with. It was a disappointing discovery, but did jibe with the fact that even the much coveted “Star Blazers” toys that made it to these shores were Yamato products imported by various independent retailers.

The Star Blazers theme did get multiple vinyl releases in Italy. They’re interesting examples of cultural transmission, but not really what I was looking for. If I can’t obtain a hastily reworked anime theme in my mother tongue, then give me the uncut source material. Unfortunately, those tend to be listed in kana on Discogs, which led to a series of YouTube searches until I found an upload which included the full official title. After that, it was just a matter of some Ctrl + C/V magic and a quick comparison between track lengths.

And, yes, it was totally worth it.

I’m not partial to religious or patriotic music, but the bold and brassy military chorale which opened and closed every episode of the series never fails to give me chills. It’s also indicative of the more problematic parts of Yamato‘s premise — a Japanese iteration of “lost cause” militarism embodied by the resurrected flagship of a defeated imperialist dictatorship. The historical subtext was lost on my younger self, who only heard the clarion call of giant spaceships blasting the bejeezus out of each other and lashings of over-the-top melodrama.

Without getting into details, these past few months have been wearying. There have been numerous times where I’ve come home at the end of the day and felt completely bled out and good for nothing. Yet all it takes is one (high volume) spin of the Space Battleship Yamato theme to blast away my emotional and physical fatigue. The recharge might not last, but sometimes a single stiff jolt can be enough to help me power on through.

Last dance, last chance

March 22nd, 2019

Given the amount of mental real estate I have dedicated to 1979 as a weird, wild watershed of a year, the realization that we’ve hit its four-decade, round number anniversary only occurred to me this morning. The simple math was there, but my brain never made the connection.

To commemorate this milestone, let’s take a peek at what was going down forty years ago this very week in the pages of the March 24, 1979 issue of Billboard Magazine.

First up, a fuckton of disco. I’m talking maximum levels of boogie fever contagion, thanks to a lengthy spotlight feature about the publication’s latest “Disco Industry Forum.” Celebratory PR photos and sky (or, more likely “blow”) high optimism about disco’s eternal market dominated proceedings, with only occasional mentions of the scene’s nagging structural problems — fatigue via over-saturation, the inability to gain any widespread traction as a radio format, and the dearth of acts capable of supporting live performance tours.

(Ironically, Billboard’s follow-up forum took place during the same week as Disco Demolition Night, which was laughed off as a radio promotion gone wrong.)

Besides serving as vehicles for self-congratulation, Billboard’s special feature sections were also exercises in precision-targeted ad placement. Each would include page after page of niche industry supplies hawking their goods and services to presumably receptive audiences. This held true for the Disco Forum recap, with the finest fruits of late Seventies discotechnology offered for sale or rent — light-up floor panels, strobes, glitterballs, board-linked lighting arrays, and, yes…

…industrial dry ice fog units to be had for $350 (or $1200 in inflation-adjusted 2019 paper).

The Disco Forum was just one of three special features included in the issue. The others hyped the strengths of the UK’s music industry, with a small shout-out to one of my faves…

…and a short full color spread touting the impending release of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America album.

Other interesting tidbits from the issue included a bizarre piece about Linda Ronstadt desire to own a kangaroo…

…a condemnation of Elvis Costello for mocking the fairweather format station that promoted his St. Louis concert appearance…

…and some absurd nonsense about Phillips unveiling a new media storage format involving small plastic discs and laser beams. Yeah, like that was ever going to happen.

The (sorta) reunited Roxy Music’s Manifesto netted a couple hundred words split across a full page ad, album review, and fluff pieces. Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! got a brief recommendation blurb and the Dickies attempted to follow-up their historic appearance on CPO Sharkey with a full-page promo for their debut album.

The top of the week’s Hot 100 chart is perfectly encapsulates how I remember the moment…

…strapped into the backseat of my dad’s barge-sized Thunderbird, dizzy from secondhand smoke and queasy from McDonalds food.

At least “Heart of Glass,” was on the not-to-distant horizon to blow my six year old mind.

The set of Xenon collected editions I stumbled across at local comics shop got me to thinking about other translated manga offerings from my teen years, and whether they’d also received the trade paperback treatment. Back in those less enlightened times, “flipped ‘n’ floppy” was the norm for localized releases, with a handful of “prestige” titles getting a slightly more upscale squarebound variety of trade dress. The familiar digest format didn’t become a thing until after I drifted away from the scene, and wouldn’t become the ubiquitous standard (alongside keeping the right-to-left formatting of the Japanese source material) until around the turn of the millennium.

As a cash-strapped punk rocker who owned full runs of the individual issues, I viewed collected editions as a needless extravagance for the sake of minor convenience. As an adult with a steady source of income and a surplus of nostalgic longing, I realized they’d be easier to read, look better on a bookshelf, and pose less risk of accidentally getting crushed beneath a precariously balanced stack of longboxes while trying to locate my original funnybook copies.

Of the twenty or so manga titles I followed in the late Eighties and early Nineties, there were only a couple I felt any real urge to revisit — and Yoshihisa Tagami’s Grey sat at the top of that short list.

The series was one of Viz’s first releases as a solo publisher — its previous localized offerings were done in partnership with Eclipse — and sported fancy squarebound binding and some striking cover design. It was also pricey, running just shy of three bucks per issue at a time when a copy of Justice League International #18 sported a seventy-five cent cover price. I was mark for it from the moment the promo flyers hit the windowsill of my local comics shop and restructured my meager finances to afford it, but the upscale formatting and lack of ads made it feel like money well spent.

The series takes place in the semi-distant future where an apocalypse has all but destroyed Earth’s ecosphere. Most of the surviving human population live in numerically designated “towns” overseen by cyborg sub-nodes of the mythical “Big Mama.” Life in these communities is squalid and governed by a rigid social hierarchy. At the bottom are lowly “people,” whose sole means of upward mobility is joining the ranks of the town’s “troopers.”

By participating in life-fire combat exercises against other towns, troopers earn credits to progress through a role-playing game series of letter ranks. Upon hitting “A-class,” Troopers become “Citizens” and are allowed access to the mythical “City.” Attrition is high, with most troopers getting killed before progressing to D-class and the few who progress to C or B opt for a lengthier-but-safer path upwards by taking supervisory roles. No one can recall anyone who has ever made it to A, but it doesn’t stop the desperate “people” from trying.

Grey is his town’s most likely candidate to hit class A, thanks to a knack for survival that does not extend to the other members of his various squads, leading to his nickname of “Grey Death.” Grey’s girlfriend Lips died on her first exercise in paramilitary upwards mobility, inspiring Grey to enlist in order to discover exactly what she had died for. He does so with a single-minded focus and a sense of self-preservation that betrays no sentimentality towards his comrades.

Over the course of his journey, he staggers, shoots, and stumbles his way towards the truth, conveniently encountering various individuals capable of explaining the bigger picture.

The story is one of existential absurdity unfolding around a surly anti-hero, a manga Mad Max with the weaponized hot rods swapped out for gorgeously rendered war machines pulled from WW2 tank model kits, Easter Island statues, Eighties mecha designs, Japanese culture, and medieval European suits of armor. I was already susceptible to that siren call before my mom’s death (which happened a couple weeks after the first issue hit the stands), but that event transformed Grey into a transcendent experience.

A dude with poor social skills responds to loss by grinding his way toward some semblance of an answer? And he doesn’t care who gets hurt in his wake? And the only thing that ends up sustaining him is pure spite? Grey made me feel, as they kids say, seen. I’ve (hopefully) moved past that kind of thinking these days, but it clarifies why Grey resonated with me the way that it did, and how its release aligned perfectly with the moment in my life where I’d be most receptive to it.

The series was collected into a two volume set of digests a couple of years after its original North American release, and neither were very easy to track down. I started sniffing around the usual places right after picking up the Xenon books in 2017, but the asking prices were astronomical for an early Nineties collection of a late Eighties manga series that maybe a dozen people still remember. Every couple of months since then, I’d run a few searches and get the same extortionate results. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I lucked out and found both volumes for close to the cover price through the Amazon portal of a Goodwill somewhere in the Midwest. Both volumes are a little sun-damaged and have a couple of loose pages, but they only set me back a fifth of what the usual asking price would’ve been.

It’s not the promise of citizenship in a bullshit honeytrap offered as incentive by a rogue AI to commit violence as a form of population control, but it will do.

Of the roughly five hundred records I’ve acquired in the past two years, less than a dozen were purchased at brick and mortar establishments.

I have nothing against these places. I want them to survive and the scene to remain healthy because I frequently deal with their mail order departments. It’s just that the act of visiting a shop to browse the inventory runs counter to my current methodology for vinyl collecting. The few times I’ve tried it over the past couple of years have found me staring blankly at the array of crates while desperately trying to think of something — anything — specific to seek out.

The little notebook I keep on my work desk has several successive wish lists scrawled in it, though these are mostly down to impossible to find (much less afford) rarities. Most of the records I buy these days are the stuff of whim, where some well-regarded song or artist will get jarred loose from the dark recesses of memory and generate an intense (and typically brief) search for an affordable vinyl copy in decent condition.

There’s little rhyme or reason involved, and it has been all the more enjoyable for it. Nothing drains the joy out of a hobby than turning it into a methodical exercise in strip-mining. Without a fixed event horizon, there’s less likelihood of reaching the point of diminishing returns. Instead, I bob along with the currents of my subconscious until it surprises me with some odd impetus to seek out something like…

…the Jerome Moross soundtrack EP for The Big County.

I’ve never seen the film, a 1958 western starring Gregory Peck and Chuck Heston, but encountered the title theme through a sample in the 808 State/MC Tunes technojam “The Only Rhyme That Bites.” The sound made me think it was lifted from a John Williams 1970s sci-fi score, but a little digging turned up the actual source and sparked an intense love in its own right.

The track is the epitome of the “symphonic Western” sound, those work for hire riffs on Aaron Copland’s marriage of American folk and classical music traditions. It’s a epic overture to mythic nostalgia, lofty yet folksy and brimming with a sense of confidence that idealizes the country’s frontier past and triumphalist present — and it sells that bill of goods so damn well that even my revisionist cynicism gets a little wobbly before it.

The full soundtrack got a domestic LP release, but I settled for the UK 7-inch EP version which included the main theme and three other short selections. While I was unpacking and prepping it for shelving, I noticed the picture sleeve felt oddly lumpy. I’ve found a lot of weird (and often unpleasant) things packed in with used records, so it was with no small amount of trepidation that I shook out the sleeve…

…causing a DIY death card tumbled out onto the coffee table.

I’m much obliged to the Mancunian buckaroo who slipped this handmade treasure into the sleeve decades ago, and I wish him or her the happiest of trails.

Been that kind of year

March 13th, 2019

The man responsible for shaping me into the person I am, for good and ill, was found dead in his apartment yesterday.

I hadn’t spoken with him in about a month. Despite a lot of talk about being a better person, he’d slipped into his manipulative ways. I called him out on it, after which his multiple phone calls per day abruptly ceased. He was the person who taught me not to back down when “in the right,” so I let it play out assuming that he’d have to blink for his annual tradition of calling me on the exact-to-the-minute anniversary of my birth. He ended up missing it by about thirty-six hours.

There’s a lot I could say about the man and the complicated relationship we had, especially now that I’m free to speak frankly about some of the shit he put me through as a child. It will be a while before that happens, because I’m still processing pretty much everything surrounding his passing.

Infernal ensemble

March 11th, 2019

I turned in earlier than usual last night in hopes of better acclimating myself to the effects of Daylight Savings Time. That did not happen, but I did get a chance to catch an episode of Night Gallery on MeTV before nodding off.

The plot centered around a mental asylum for rich folks (somewhere in the vicinity of Hazzard County, Walnut Grove, and the 4077th MASH camp) and a mysterious family living in farmhouse on the grounds — a farmhouse that burned down decades ago. David Carradine played one of the patients and David McCallum played the psychologist running the facility. I didn’t really care about the story or the cast, though.

I watched it because of the style.

There is something well and truly fucked about the fashion aesthetics of the early Seventies. Sure, all fashions seem quaint to some degree when viewed in hindsight, but the material culture from 1970 to 1974 is the stuff of eldritch horror.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone, ever, gazing upon it and thinking “this looks sharp as hell.”

Unpacking the whys and hows of it could fill a book in itself. Transitional periods always tend to be a bit disjointed, as various trends vie for dominance. The early Seventies were even moreso, as the multi-front flameouts which marked the end of the previous decade left quite a debris field and still generated a decent amount of heat.

As every other aspect of the socio-cultural sphere disintegrated or fractalized, material culture unspooled to fill the space. All bets were off, polyester and velour were in vogue, and the more baroque, the better.

A resurgence of nostalgia befitting an uncertain future wrestled with the remnants of Space Age optimism. They’ve also proven incredibly resistant to ironic or nostalgic appropriation. Even at the height of the Seventies retro revival, the hep set steered clear of the look. Even today, you’d have a better chance finding someone sporting a 19th Century courtier’s costume than a person rocking a Mary Richards ensemble.

I’m fascinated by it because it’s singularly surreal and a product of the era that produced, well, me.

And I don’t think its a coincidence that my graduate class was the smallest in my high school’s history.

Nonsense and stuff

March 7th, 2019

Sorry for the dry spell, but Monday’s snowstorm and Wednesday’s dentist appointment have thrown off my stride. The plague of distractions does not look like it will be easing until sometime next week, so expect the low content mode to linger a while longer.

Please accept this 1982 trade publication ad as a consolation prize.

According to Wikipedia, the now defunct Kid Stuff Records was co-founded by a “Bob McAllister.” It did not specify whether or not it was the same Bob McAllister who served as the hair-helmeted host of Wonderama and Kids Are People Too

…but I’d wager it was, based on the number of releases Bob had on the label.

I’m not sure why Kid Stuff felt obligated to hype its licensed material, considering the “Kid Stuff Repertory Company” had such strong offerings as Mother Goose Disco, Nursery Rhyme Disco, A Child’s Introduction To Disco, and this immortal classic.

Go figure

March 1st, 2019

In the eternal quest to re-acquire significant artifacts of my childhood, I’m not adverse towards opting for a later upgrade of the original object. For example, when it came to picking up replacements for the two most beloved figures in my old assortment of Star Wars figures…

…I went with the improved sculpts and articulation of their modern day counterparts.

Forget Luke or Vader or Han or any of the beloved alien creatures — I was ride or die for the Biker Scout and Cloud Car Pilot. Or I was, until G.I. Joe supplanted Star Wars as the gold standard for action figures.

There was something about the faceless, rank-and-file figures that appealed to my younger self. It most likely came from a pre-Star Wars childhood spent surrounded by scores upon scores of plastic army men. They weren’t prominent personas with canonical story arcs, just working stiffs who offered a blank canvas with which my imagination could run wild.

Why did I settle my affections on these two out of the score of similar figures in that class?

The Biker Scout was one of the first examples of the franchise adopting a more “Eighties” aesthetic. It was how I wanted Stormtroopers to look, instead of the Mister Toad helmets and skinny ankles the figure was saddled with. I picked up my original figure at a department store in Wilkes-Barre during a road trip with my grandparents, which added an extra dash of exotic allure to it. He was cool enough that I actually sprung for a speeder bike for him to ride, even though I almost never blew my hard-earned money on vehicles unless they came with a figure (another leg up G.I. Joe had on Star Wars).

With the Cloud Car Pilot, it came down to the hypnotically mellow color scheme. His mix of bright orange, lemon, and white made him look like a sci-fi mascot for Creamsicles, and is why he’s the only Star Wars figure who evokes lucid taste memories when I gaze upon him. The original figure also had an unusual sculpt where his left arm was turned toward his chest so that he could hold what appeared to be the controller for an RC dune buggy. He was weird and different, which made it stand out on his peg in the toy aisle and get a toehold in my imagination.

The pair of them saw quite a bit of play, though neither were granted a name beyond their roles. No matter what melodramatic adventures they got up to, they remained “Biker Scout” and “Cloud Car Pilot.” Eventually both succumbed to wear and tear and the general griminess white plastic playthings succumb to in the hands of a kid — which is another reason I went with remakes over the vintage figures.

Now the pair have been reunited at long last, and occupying a place with a greatly reduced chance of getting minced by a lawnmower, eaten by a wayward canine, or smooshed beneath the rear wheel of a 1979 Chrysler Cordoba.

I hope.

Trade-in: Maximum metal

February 27th, 2019

Though my pile of trade paperbacks has ramped up its rate of growth in the past couple of months, my slow drift back into reading comics for — GASP — fun started a couple of summers ago.

Maura and I had to have our fingerprints taken as part of the pre-adoption process, and the nearest place to do it happened to be a couple blocks away from a comic shop we both frequented in our teens. We decided to pay a visit since we were already in the neighborhood.

I didn’t really anticipate buying anything, because I couldn’t think of anything worth buying. After ten minutes of poking around the shelves, I ended up plunking down the cash for a couple of “Year’s Best Comics” DC Digests from the early Eighties and a full set of Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior paperback collections.

I’ve written about Xenon a couple of times before, so forgive any auto-plagiarism that might occur. The Masaomi Kanzaki series was one of the earliest offerings of the translated manga boom of the late Eighties, localized by Viz and published in bi-weekly installments by Eclipse. While I picked up stray issues of that partnership’s previous trio of offerings, Xenon was the one that truly grabbed my attention by virtue of its ultra-violent mash-up of mecha, melodrama, and superheroics.

The story was a fairly straightforward jobber that bordered on cliche — a surly teen with sensitive side disappears in a plane crash, only to turn up as an amnesiac super-cyborg a few months later, with the sinister arms dealers responsible for the transformation hot on his heels. Limbs are severed, hearts are torn out, and panties are flashed across multiple arcs where Xenon and his ragtag band of assistants take on the arms dealers’ other enhanced agents, from super serial killers to bionic apes. The action culminated in a high stakes battle aboard a runaway freighter and one of the most abrupt and disappointing endings I’ve ever encountered in a fictional work.

I purchased the original issues as they come out in 1988, lost most of them in the wake of my mom’s death, and picked up replacements during the Great Back Issue Buying Spree of the mid-Nineties. While I still have those copies, finding a complete like-new set of the collected editions for ten bucks a pop was too good a deal to pass up.

Xenon was foundational for Teen Andrew in numerous ways, most of them either so embarrassing that I’ve blocked them from memory or so subtle that I forgot their origin. It was the first genuine manga I followed, as opposed to Comico’s domestically produced Robotech comics or other local attempts to bite the aesthetic. If you were a fan of Japanese comics or animation in those distant times, you had to settle for whatever slim fare drifted into the American marketplace — most of it badly dubbed, imperfectly localized, or edited for the kiddie crowd.

Xenon was the first manga series that appealed to me beyond the aesthetic novelty. The character’s cybered-up look echoed the slick designs of the imported mecha toys I coveted while the narrative channeled the edgy superhero stories I embraced as a sign of “maturity” and “sophistication.” Revisiting it now, I can see why my younger self fell so hard for it…and how problematic it was on several levels.

The dialogue is of the shouty-ludicrous school, frequently defaulting to “WHY WON’T YOU DIE” and “HAHAHAHA” in moments of crisis. The protagonist is a complete prick, even by the standards of the archetype, and prone to spouting off sexist rants. There’s a heavy edgelord vibe to the violence coupled with some truly dire moments of fan service, both of which have only grown more cringeworthy over time. It was the perfect manga series for a surly adolescent male who was really into Punisher and Watchmen, and — God help me — I was such a creature.

I spent hours in my room trying to copy Kanzaki’s style and adapt characters from the comic into my Champions campaign. When the supermarket I worked at went out of business, I blew part of my last paycheck on some black dye for my shaggy mane and beamed when my friend said the results make me look like Xenon. I read and re-read the prose pages used as filler for a few of the issues, covering topics like contemporary tends in manga and the significance of robots in Japanese pop culture. It was a (thankfully) short-lived phase, but it left an indelible mark.

It also makes Xenon a difficult thing to revisit, the words and images triggering flashbacks of unsettling intimacy. It’s not shame or embarrassment, really, but confronting ghosts that should’ve been exorcised three decades ago. There’s a significant piece of my adolescence trapped between those pages, and nothing will ever shake it loose.

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