Armagideon Time

Better gate than never

February 18th, 2020

Talk of a console port of Baldur’s Gate dates almost as far back as the game itself. Playstation and Dreamcast versions of the AD&D-branded RPG showed up under the “season + year” bottom end of upcoming releases lists through the dawn of the new millennium before quietly vanishing. The increasingly apparent unlikelihood of ever getting a console release was a significant factor in my decision to buy my very first “grown up” computer — a Celeron II eMachine jobber — which occasionally struggled with a few resource-intensive chokepoints in the game, but still enabled me to experience what it had to offer.

For those of you who aren’t hopeless videogame geeks of a certain age, Baldur’s Gate — along with its “Infinity Engine” sequels and spin-offs — helped revive an ailing computer RPG scene by reworking real-time strategy into something more skirmish-level and exploration-driven, which was then married to a faithful approximation of the 2nd edition AD&D rules.

While the player’s party had the scripted agency to whack away at any opponents until one side or the other was dead, any foes above cannon fodder level required judicious use of the “autopause” system, where a tap of the spacebar froze the action while you queued up spells, quaffed potions, and micromanaged your tactical options. (These could also be performed without pausing, typically as acts of frantic desperation.)

It captured the feel of the tabletop source material, but as a fast-flowing isometric exercise staged across a score of gorgeously pre-rendered environmental backdrops, full of side quests and secrets to uncover. I was well and truly done with anything D&D related at the time, but Baldur’s Gate‘s blend of familiar and innovative elements hooked me something fierce.

Playing the game on its native platform did make me wonder how a theoretic console release would’ve functioned. A fair number of macros and hotkeys are required to navigate the gameworld and manage one’s adventuring party, with moving and character/team/party grouping mechanics handled by some agile mousework. Even with the expanded number of inputs on the Dualshock and later crop of controllers, it seemed like a lot of compromises would have to be made. It’s no wonder that the “Baldur’s Gate” games we did get on console were a pair of brand-coasting Diablo clones — great fun, but hardly rulebook-accurate, detail-intensive epic AD&D adventures.*

And now, after two decades, we finally have actual console versions of the Infinity Engine suite — BG 1&2 plus the Throne of Bhaal expansion, Icewind Dale, and Placescape: Torment. The ports are pulled from the “enhanced edition” releases from Beamdog in the early 2010s, which cleaned up some of the creakier bits of the originals while adding new and/or consolidating older content.

I passed on these at the time because I already had my “definitive” versions of the games — GOG’s current OS-enabled original versions tweaked and modded to my personal standards of perfection. The most notable of these was the “Trilogy” mod, an ambitious fan-made project which imported the assets of the original Baldur’s Gate into its more robust sequel for a (mostly) seamless mega-epic. Other, smaller tweaks included scripts allowing for same-sex romances and removing class-requirements for stronghold quests. No matter how great the enhanced editions were, they weren’t going to be the game as I’d grown to love it over the past two decades.

Yet I did end up picking up the PS4 bundle of BG 1&2. Mostly because I had a surfeit of holiday gift cards and I’d already received the Icewind Dale/Planescape PS4 bundle as a Christmas present.

If I was going to revisit any of these games — especially on console — Icewind Dale seemed like the place to start. The game was a narrative-lite spin-off of the BG series which dropped and franchise’s signature character interaction in favor of hacking and looting one’s way across multiple dungeons. It was still an Infinity Engine game — meaning it was still more involved and complex than a straight-up action-RPG — but I assumed its stripped-down gameplay would be more manageable in the absence of a mouse and keyboard.

It was a mixed experience, though mostly a positive one. The controller-based interface was a massive pain in the ass to navigate at first, and only improved slightly once I go the hang of things. Detailed tactical combat movement took more effort than it was usually worth, as was engaging in the complex buff/debuff/damage spell duels that made the original IWD’s higher end battles feel so rewarding and intense. It was just as easy to obtain the same results by brute force melee rushes, with the occasional drop down to can’t-be-slain “story mode” difficulty.

At the same time, I had a blast reconnecting with a no-longer-so-familiar favorite, chasing trophies while relying on my reflexes, wits, and dim memories of hidden treasures and other secrets. Upon hitting the home stretch, I decided to continue the streak with a cheap second-hand copy of the Baldur’s Gate game ports.

Even so, I didn’t have much confidence about how far I’d actually progress in the games. For all my tweaking and adjusting and custom portrait-making, I haven’t made it past the first third of BG1 on PC for at least fifteen years. Second edition AD&D can be extremely unforgiving to low-level characters, and even more so when dealing with an utterly impartial computerized dungeonmaster. The slog to survive until my character could take a couple of heavy hits tended to sap my urge to continue once I finally hit that point. I gravitated toward the cavalier subclass in the game because it offered intrinsic immunities against attacks for which there was no practical defense until a character had a half-dozen levels under their belt or girdle or whatever.

I barely made it out of the first wilderness zone before realizing this was not going to be the case with the PS4 version. Battles that had been white-knuckle affairs on PC became cakewalks on console, even though the difficulty sliders were set identically in both. I guess the enhanced edition developers realized how punishing the original could be and decided to dial things back a bit. It also helps mitigate the awkwardness of the controller interface, as do the default character AI scripts which are helpfully proactive when it comes to spell-casting.

At times, the game feels almost too easy, but my attempts to up the difficulty have run afoul of my aged hands’ ability to manage the clunky interface. It has freed things up for me to play the game instead of get mired in one micromanaged battle after another. The absence of my custom portraits and standard suite of mods means I’m second-guessing less than I would be on the PC version, and more inclined to just roll with less than optimal outcomes. Taken together, that’s probably why I’ve been able to progress through three-quarters of the story quest and most of the major side quests with the space of a long weekend.

It may not be my preferred way to experience the game, but at least I’m actually playing it. We’ll see if that lasts through BG2, where the PC mods had a greater impact on how I played, but I’m not feeling the same trepidation I felt when I dived into the PS4 edition of the first game.

As for the enhanced edition stuff, the fixes are appreciated but the new content is forgettable. The added characters and their BG2 style personal quest-lines are all right, but BG1 already had an overstuffed roster of recruitable party members. A few more, even from previously non-represented classes, doesn’t add much. I’m much more pleased that nearly all of the original’s little secrets and oddities were retained, such as the “free” Ring of Wizardry and suit of Ankheg mail still being stashed away in the environment for the finding.

The shovelware origins of the ports does show through in a couple of places, however. Most notably, the display tends to run outside the screen of older TVs (such as mine) with no easy fix or in-game option to adjust it, which makes it impossible to see the lead party member’s hit point total or the little icon which indicates a character is eligible for leveling up. It’s entirely characteristic of a late console cycle port of ten year old reissues of twenty year old PC games, but it doesn’t make it any less irritating.

If you want to truly play these games as they ought be played, go for the either the original or enhanced PC versions. If you’re looking for a more casual, forgiving, or couch-conducive experience — either to reconnect without full immersion or just to check out why folks raved about this shit back in the day — then you’ll probably be fine hunting down a cheap copy of the console bundles.

*A “mostly complete” beta of the PS1 port of Baldur’s Gate has surfaced in some of the shadier sections of the internet. It’s an interesting historical artifact and technical achievement, but only drives home my point about the number of shortcuts required to replicate even a rough iteration of the original PC game.

Which came worst

February 12th, 2020

See, this is what happens when a eager young letterhack gets Dragon Magazine‘s and Penthouse‘s “Forum” features mixed up.

I bet he thought it could never happen to him.

(from Dragon #121, May 1987)

BIFF! BAM! POO!

January 30th, 2020

What, “filled with a profound sense of embarrassment and regret you’ll either psychically bury or use as the stuff of cruel self-mockery a couple of decades later?”

Mission fucking accomplished.

It is my sincere belief that the funnybook scene’s decades-long push to exhibit a caricature of “maturity” has done more damage than either the Comics Code or any goofy Silver Age story ever has.

Trade-In: Buzz kill

January 23rd, 2020

I’m not a fan of the “Marvel cinematic universe,” but I do appreciate how the films have guided the publisher’s choice of reprint material. Absent a tenuous association with a multi-billion dollar media franchise, it’s hard to imagine a dedicated trade collection of the Avengers’ “Trial of Yellowjacket” arc.

Spanning Avengers #212 to #230, the run covers Hank Pym’s disastrous return to the team’s roster. A desperate need to prove himself to his teammates on his first outing back leads to a court-martial, spousal abuse, a divorce, a frame-up by a former nemesis, prison time, and abduction by said nemesis and his supervillain henchfolk.

It was pretty heavy shit back in the day, at least as far as the Avengers franchise went — which is a pretty low bar, if I put aside nostalgic affection in favor of an honest assessment. The run is essentially Marvel’s then-EIC Jim Shooter doing his own take on the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” At few points, it almost hits that level of emotional intensity. At most others, it does not.

The collection also provides a glimpse at what passed for “longform storytelling” outside the X-Men and a few years before Watchmen turned the concept — as it applied to superhero material — on its ear. The core of Pym’s tale takes up roughly a quarter of the total page count, and only hugs the rails during the first and final three issues contained in the collection. The rest is doled out in drips and drabs between inventory tales and other digressions spanning done-in-one throwdown with Ghost Rider, the “final” fate of Drax the Destroyer, and Black Knight’s return to the modern era. In the meantime, Tigra leaves the team, She-Hulk and a new Captain Marvel join up, and Hawkeye makes an overdue return to the roster.

The issues weren’t really intended to be binge-read in a single afternoon, but on a month to month basis where any roughness in transitions and pacing might be overlooked in the gaps between installments. It wasn’t “making shit up as we go along” as much as working within the realities of a disposable serialized medium — grab readers in the now and throw in enough hooks to keep them coming back. Stick the landing and their imaginations will order a greater whole from the sum of the individual parts.

It’s a workable — if archaic by contemporary standards — narrative model, but it stumbles here for a few significant reasons. The beginning is at odds with the ending in some extremely problematic and grotesque ways. Pym’s heel turn is incredibly abrupt and devoid of any build-up outside of a handful of past incidents. The character did have a history of insecurity and instability, but the outburst which set the chain of events into motion kicked in with zero subtlety and no foreshadowing in his most recent previous appearances. He goes from zero to teeth-gnashing supervillainy in the space of two issues. Imagine Phoenix popping out of Jamaica Bay and shouting “NOM NOM NOM! X-MEN! I’M HUNGRY, SO POINT ME TO THE NEAREST STAR TO EXPLODE! OH YEAH,” and you’ve got a close analogue to Pym’s behavior.

“Unsubtle” doesn’t begin to describe it, and yet Shooter and company decided to push it even further with the most infamous moment of Pym’s career –

– socking his spouse — a.k.a. the wondrous Wasp — in the face when she objects to his absurd plan to derail his court-martial with a false flag killer robot attack.

Shooter would later claim the blow wasn’t intended to be as forceful, but got regrettably upscaled thanks to the Marvel method of having artists work from summaries instead of full scripts. Besides the shady move of throwing Bob Hall under the bus, it doesn’t jibe with the fact that a major beat of the issue involves Wasp removing a pair of sunglasses to reveal the black eye she’d sustained, to the horror of her and Pym’s teammates. I’m not sure how that would work with a mild slap or shove, or anything short of a heavy blow to the face.

Honestly, the sequence ended up as it did because superhero material isn’t exactly restrained when it comes to depicting physical violence. In a realm where punches and kicks send combatants sailing through the air, it stands to reason that a backhand to the face would come off like something out of a heavyweight championship match. It cuts to the heart of my problem with the scene, which is that certain subjects really aren’t suited for the broad strokes of the genre — at least not without a fuckton of really, really, REALLY careful consideration before the pen remotely approaches the page.

Even the most generous assessment I can offer is that it feels like a cringeworthy four-color incarnation of a “very special episode.” It simply doesn’t really work as intended, and wasn’t even necessary from a narrative standpoint. Pym’s scenery-chewing mania was enough to get the job done in terms of getting booted from the Avengers and wrecking his marriage. The physical abuse was an awkward attempt at added gravitas which ended up casting a grotty shadow over the rest of the arc.

From the moment Wasp tells Pym she’s filing for divorce and calls him out for referring to her black eye as a “shiner” — a “cute” term for the product of an ugly action — Pym switches from manic heel to an object of cultivated pity. His downward spiral is genuinely tragic, as he finds himself boxed in and taken advantage of by a former arch-foe, leading to imprisonment for treason and abducted to work on said foe’s latest evil scheme. By the same token, his efforts to set things right and regain a measure of self-respect make you root for the poor bastard.

There’s a really poignant bit at the end where Pym and the Wasp wish each other well in their lives and regret things turned out they way they did. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking moment, if not for the whole wife-beating thing hanging over it all like a toxic cloud. Bad starts can lead to decent ends, but truly awful ones can taint the entire journey regardless of eventual outcome.

That’s where I stand on this particular Avengers arc, and yet it continues to be one of my favorite stretches of Avengers comics. The concluding issues marked the debut of the Stern’s long run as Avengers scribe, where he built upon some of the better parts of the “Trial of Yellowjacket” (such as turning the post-divorce Wasp into a confident and competent team leader). The new Captain Marvel was a fine addition to the team, and She-Hulk was rescued from quarter bin joke fodder and given a chance to showcase her potential. (I liked her later stint in Byrne’s Fantastic Four run, but preferred the take-no-shit bluntness she expressed during her Avenging days.)

Egghead’s incarnation of the Masters of Evil is one of my all time favorite supervillain teams, mainly because it was a collection of work-for-hire jobbers pulled from various corners of the Marvel Universe. Under Stern’s direction, they functioned as a dysfunctional counterpart to the Avengers, with all the personality clashes but none of the loyalty and camaraderie. Egghead himself was a nice spin on the old arch-villain template, a witty and devious schemer who’d abandoned plans for global conquest in favor of a super-science get-rich-quick scheme run out of a secret lair under his suburban home.

And, honestly, I really did appreciate the (temporary) conclusion of Hank Pym’s superheroic career. Here was a character dating back to the dawn of the Marvel’s Silver Age, a founding member of the Avengers who’d worn multiple hats and struggled to stay relevant, who finally realized he simply wasn’t cut out for the costumed adventuring life…even if it took a colossal fuck-up to finally make him realize that. It was novel and thought-provoking stuff, especially to my tweener self back in those pre-Watchmen days.

I just wish that non-superheroic journey included 100% less spousal abuse.

Bear those ills we have

January 16th, 2020

When I launched the Nobody’s Favorites feature (over ten years ago, apparently) I made a public point of striving for more than just a “Mort of the Month” angle where I’d find lazy ways to snark on soft targets. Instead of a litany of smug cheap shots, I forced myself to find some angle — artistic, historical, personal — to approach the subject material and perhaps make a broader statement about, well, something or other.

I’d like to think I succeeded on that front. The feature stopped because the “value added” hooks became harder to find and there are only so many ways to summarize what an absolute trainwreck the Nineties funnybook industry was. Yet even at my conscientious best, Nobody’s Favorites still slipped in at least 50% more snark that originally intended.

Why? Because that stance is so easy to fall into. I can’t plead the lousiness of the source material because it’s a tendency I must force myself to curb even when writing about stuff I genuinely adore. Combining armchair criticism with “wittiness” and the metaphoric kidney punches start coming of their own accord. The jokes literally write themselves, and holding them back becomes the real test of one’s skill.

It’s a skill I’m still trying to master. It’s not easy when even comedic idioms use the the language of physical assault — “punching up” or “punching down.” It’s not that I’m aspiring to be a better person, but I’ve gotten too old to unleash my sneering wrath at petty targets. No one goes to their grave wishing they spent more time finding the right scatological pun to use for the alt-text of an out-of-context Green Lantern panel.

Plus, it feels like some generational curse in need of casting off. The cynical ‘n’ jaded Gen X’er hand waving their way through a world gone bullshit, a cliche as pathetic as the “whoa, heavy” made-for-TV hippies of Nixon Era cop shows or the polyester-wrapped disco lizards of the Carter Era. A dubious survival mechanism became an all-consuming posture, to the point where you’re left wondering “okay, dude, you’ve made an elaborate show pointing out everything you think sucks, so what the fuck do you like?”

That was my train of thought while I was trudging through the thing which inspired this mini-rant — various capsule record reviews in 1987 issues of SPIN magazine. Every venue and reviewer is going to have some form of genre/artist/scene bias going on, but SPIN’s seemed to be “everything sucks and I’m above it all.” The Go-Betweens were too “yuppified” and anodyne but the Dead Milkmen were too snotty and Big Black were trying way too hard and, oh, here’s half a sentence of faint praise to make it seem like these are well-considered criticisms and not parts of a pose.

I’d call it “adolescent edgelord” but it doesn’t even rise to that level of maturity. It more closely resembles a petulant seven year old shouting “NO” to each lunch suggestion offered by their harried mother.

The kicker was a guest column by Richard Meltzer (yeah, I know) in the in-your-face by design “Anti-Hero” feature in which he savages his late pal Lester Bangs for sincerely caring about music and genuflecting about things like “ironic” sexism/racism/homophobia in the scene. If only he’d calcified his earlier “fuck everything” posturing, he’d might have avoided an early demise. It’s an obvious put-on, except it really wasn’t when so many folks did — and continue to — take this shit as both moral compass and creative roadmap.

If giving a shit is a fatal disease, then fuck it, I don’t want to be cured.

Dum duh dum dum

January 15th, 2020

It doesn’t matter who the participating parties are, my eyes can’t help but be drawn to old ads for cross-promotional contests. My brain feverishly attempts to work out the process which united these strange bedfellows, speculates about the winners, and wonders about the current status of their major awards. I assume most folks opted for the “cash equivalent” option for the top prizes, but surely some couldn’t resist the siren song of an official Lawnmower Man VR rig or a haunted house party with Clarence Clemons.

As a marketing tactic, it tends to suggest a certain degree of desperation — a failure of nerve brought on by pre-release jitters about the quality of the product, necessitating a little pot-sweetening and a cardboard display blocking two-way traffic in some retail aisle.

Did it ever help? I doubt it, but it wasn’t as if it could make things any worse….

…which certainly applies to the Miller Draft/Dragnet promotional contest of 1987.

I know there are folks out there who hold a minor degree of affection for the film, but it was a misfire from the get-go. A semi-satiric send-up of a show nobody but Dan Ackroyd gave a flying fuck about at the time, it feels like a rejected SNL skit padded out into feature length. It also has that unsettling…extruded…vibe of Reagan Era cynical cinema. Everything about felt like it emerged full formed from a focus group session, blatantly plastic and lacking remotely approaching a sense of authenticity. Too tame to be genuinely transgressive yet still dripping with a smirking, sophomoric sleaziness for sleaziness’ sake. Even slagging it feels like kicking a piece of styrofoam packing material around a vacant lot.

In other words, it was exactly the type of thing that stood to possibly benefit from a marketing partnership with America’s fifth choice of domestic dog piss.

The prizes aren’t half bad, despite the sunk-cost fallacy that came factory standard with all late Eighties Corvettes. It’s also little odd that the top three awards in a beer company promotion were motor vehicles, but what’s a DUI or three compared to putting one’s ass where Tom Hanks’ hinder once resided?

We actually had a Dragnet movie poster hanging in our room for a while. It wasn’t obtained through this contest, but through Lil Bro asking the dude who ran the Video Station (next to Ralph Bishop’s Seafood) if he could have it after it got pulled down to make room for a Police Academy 5 poster. I’m pretty sure we had it up until we moved in with my grandmother after our mom died, but I have no idea what happened to it after that.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a real promo contest without the requisite “void where prohibited” fine print. This one has quite the interesting spread of verboten states, and I assume it has to do with local restrictions on alcohol-related contests. Or the cost of shipping a shitbox prop police cruiser to Hawaii.

Every few months, the BBC releases a new installment of Top of the Pops: The Story of…, spotlighting a specific year through lens of the venerable pop music program. The format is strictly documentary-lite, generally apolitical, and typically focuses upon whoever accepts their invitation to provide commentary. (Think VH-1′s decade-themed specials from the Aughts — themselves inspired by BBC programming — but dedicated to a specific venue.)

I began watching them for snatches of punk and wave content, but the anecdotal and archived glimpses into a mythic past were enough for me to hang in through the Big Pop era. Historical curiosity overrode my long-standing aversion to plastic MOR synthpop, big hair, and pastel fashion disasters. Even if the acts weren’t up my alley, it was a fascinating look into a scene which intermingled with the one on this side of the Atlantic, yet still maintained a distinct — and often baffling to these Yankee eyes and ears — identity.

Then the series finally hit 1989, and shit got heavy. I made it about five minutes and a couple of Lisa Stansfield and Shaun Ryder appearances in before getting weirded out by how old everyone looked.

While I’m not above indulging in “hey, did you realize [insert beloved Gen X artifact] is [Y] many years old” social media pronouncements for lazy mindfuck thrills, I generally don’t brood about such things. My mom dreaded getting old so intensely that it contributed to her mental illness and death at age 37. Witnessing that as a teen made me conscious of any such stirrings in my own skull, and the need to squash them whenever they surface. I’m not fond of the random aches and pains or weird proliferation of stray ear and eyebrow hair, but I’m comfortable in my skin and where I’m at…

…except when 1989 is evoked, apparently.

There’s a pat explanation for this reaction. My mom died at the end of 1988, and her passing marked a hard boundary between “then” and “now” in my brain. Any after her death is “recent” memory, shit I can generally recall with a fair degree of clarity even beyond major milestones. Logically, I understand that three decades had passed — though I had to use my fingers yesterday to verify that 1989 wasn’t twenty years ago — but shaking the reflexive “not that long ago” assessment is tough to do.

The extended adolescence experienced — by choice or circumstance — by so many folks of my generation didn’t help either. All those long stretches of day-to-day living, with the traditional milestones absent or muted, can really fuck with one’s perception of time. When my dad was my age, he was a widowed Vietnam vet with two adult sons, making a decent living in a blue collar gig he stepped into when he was 40 after previously working for a defense-tech firm. In contrast, the stretch of time between buying our house in 2004 and the kid’s arrival last Summer was marked mostly by gaming consoles, changes to the household menagerie, and vehicles owned. What major events did happen mostly fed into the sense of stasis.

Generationally, we got locked into a deceptive “island of stability” from our twenties through mid-forties, which made its inevitable erosion all the more disturbing. I lost both my father and grandmother in the space of a year, while Maura lost her mother and a number of other relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Bowie and Prince shuffled off this mortal coil, followed by one cultural constant after another.

Without making light of folks’ sense of grief and loss, this is how things happen. The cycle of life and all that jazz. It’s as natural as a pop star who was 25 in 1989 looking like a typical middle aged dude in 2020, yet here we are…and this is only the start of it.

I am extremely curious and somewhat terrified about how it will continue to play out.

Death or CD

January 8th, 2020

“It was like swimming against a current that swept you backwards however hard you struggled, and then suddenly deciding to turn round and go with the current instead of opposing it. Nothing had changed except your own attitude: the predestined thing happened in any case. He hardly knew why he had ever rebelled.” – George Orwell, 1984

Joking aside, format wars used to be a big thing among the punk set. Owning a pre-taped cassette version of a punk album was seen as ideologically suspect. Owning a CD version was tantamount to heresy back in the late Eighties.

Yet if it wasn’t for folks who went all in on the CD format duping their vinyl collections, I wouldn’t have had such a wealth of cheap second-hand material to dig through during my peak punk era.

…and I’m back, with a five alarm trigger warning for…well, a lot of stuff further on down the page.

For some nostalgic reason, I got into a Bronze Age Avengers kick during my holiday hiatus and set about cobbling together a stack of collections covering the eight-year run between issues #181 and #277.

While I had my moments of X-fandom during my wayward youth, the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were always my franchise of choice. For all the shunned outsider posturing, the X-Men always felt a bit cliquish to me — “We were born special and if you weren’t born special, you’ll never be one of us.” The Avengers, on the other hand, had more of a clubhouse vibe going on, with a constant churn of members and various hangers-on. One could aspire to be an Avenger and have a reasonable chance of achieving that goal. (They let in Tigra and Starfox, after all.)

The point here is that my love of the franchise goes waaaaaay back to the days of plastic bagged three-packs pegged by the Zayre’s checkout aisles, which happens to be the era collected in the 19th Avengers “Marvel Masterwork” collection. The high price point and low page counts tend to put me off buying Masterwork editions, but this particular one filled a particular gap in my trade paperback collections and a remaindered copy could be had for a reasonable sum.

The volume covers the tail end of John Byrne’s run as the series artist through the brief return of George Perez to that role, and there’s some damn fine stuff in here. There’s Hawkeye doing his dirtbag best against Deathbird, a two-part throwdown with the Grey Gargoyle, a visit from the new Ant-Man and the debut of the Taskmaster, an epic battle against Faux-gun Warrior Red Ronin, and the returning terror of Ultron. It’s ensemble cast superheroics at its disposable best, with plenty of humor, melodrama, and character interactions.

Unfortunately the run also contains Avengers #200, also known as “the worst Avengers story of all time.”

The issue has been the subject of countless hot takes, mostly accurate yet subject to the usual degree of hyperbolic inflation and contextual inaccuracies. That’s no to say the story isn’t utterly appalling, but that a wider angle view makes it look even worse than advertised.

You can google “Avengers 200″ for your choice of stomach churning plot summaries…though I’d caution against it.

The short version is that Carol Danvers — who in her Ms. Marvel identity was supposed to embody superheroic second wave feminism, though fell short in the male-written execution — becomes mysteriously pregnant and carries the baby to term at an accelerated rate. The baby rapidly ages to adulthood and reveals himself as son of longtime Avengers frenemy Immortus, who decided to escape his pa’s extra-temporal realm by kidnapping Danvers and slipping her a techno-roofie so he could impregnate her with his “essence” and be born into the material plane. When the device he needed to stabilize his internal energies is destroyed, he is forced to retreat back into limbo…and a weirdly smitten Danvers decides to go with him.

So it’s a story in which a feminist female hero gets raped, gives birth to her rapist’s baby who is also the reincarnated rapist, and then runs off into the sunset with him at the end.

Except there’s more to it, which makes things even worse. If it was simply a bunch of clueless dudes reworking the most problematic parts of “new wave” sci-fi with their thumbs, I could simply vomit and tag it as yet another historic example of why representation matters — an incredibly egregious example, but hardly an isolated incident for the medium, genre and era.

In the following year’s Avengers Annual, Chris Claremont (via Danvers) calls out the team for not realizing how horrible the situation was. It was an overdue correction, but one that itself overlooked the fact that at least team — and the story’s multiple plotters — actually did realize it at the time. Hawkeye smelled a rat from the beginning, and was the one to bust up Immortus Junior’s machine. Iron Man was leery about letting Danvers leave with her rapist when it was happening and when reflecting on events afterwards. The same goes for Wonder Man, who also did his awkward best to offer emotional support to Danvers.

…and Thor? Well, ancient gods have never had great judgement when it comes to these types of scenarios. Compared to swans, “golden showers,” dicks cut from elder gods and tossed in the ocean, getting techo-roofied by the soul-patched son of a wannabe time lord must seem pedestrian by comparison.

Danvers herself consistently asserts the wrongness and her sense of violation to the other Avengers…right up until the moment when she sees her full grown (eeweeweeweeweeweew) “child” and gets all squishy over him.

This wasn’t simply thoughtlessly stumbling into problematic implications. There are enough in-story indications to suggest that at least some of the creative parties involved knew this was dire shit…before going ahead and making things even more horrible anyway. Or were brought in later to tone it down from something even *shudder* more nauseating. Whatever the case was, the issue is a resounding bum note in an otherwise great run.

Fun Fact: The original 1983 Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe does not contain an appendix entry for Marcus (Immortus’s son), nor does it reference him in the “known relatives” line in the entry for Immortus or anywhere at all in the entry for Binary, Danver’s then-current identity.

…and Claremont’s righteous anger about doing right by the victim ended up counting for less than his desire to add a new opportunity for dialect writing to the X-roster.

The reason for the season

December 16th, 2019

Pal Matt warned me that the first Christmas with the Kid would be a bit wild, and he was right.

The past couple of weeks have been a manic quest to obtain the stuff she both wants and needs. She herself was guarded and non-committal about it at first, but eventually succumbed to the spirit of the season and dedicated a few hours and journal pages towards a semi-comprehensive wish list. (“But I still want to be surprised,” she added for emphasis.)

Maura and I believe we’ve hit our targets along those lines, within the giddy parameters of “first holiday season with a new daughter who is also the only kid in the house.” Being on the parental side of process got me to thinking about my own wishlist-making years and the more memorable items in my youthful holiday hauls.

The tricky part was separating Christmas gifts from birthday presents from random acts of parental (or grandparental) indulgence. I’m pretty sure most of my major Star Wars toys were birthday presents, and family’s Sears 2600 clone was unexpectedly bestowed upon us by my Grandpa Charlie. There are more than a couple Christmases — especially in my tweens and early teens — where I can’t recall any gifts of note, which can probably be chalked up to the gift certificate trend hitting its stride during those years.

What follows is a brief rundown of some notable things I do remember.

The Fisher-Price Sesame Street playset was the first big Christmas gift I remember receiving, but for a really strange reason. The box had a distribution label on the side which stated “Sesame Street, NY” along with a string of numbers. It was clearly some kind of Sears warehouse tracking thing, but my neurotic post-toddler brain took it to mean that it was supposed to be for the real Sesame Street and Santa dropped it off under our tree by mistake. I could only be convinced to open the package after a long explanation from my exasperated mother.

The smaller bits and bobs from it soon scattered to the winds of rough play, though the building itself managed to hang in there through the mid-Eighties, where it served as the bridge of a makeshift GI Joe aircraft carrier Lil Bro and I made from a old sled. I’ve flirted with the idea of hunting down a semi-complete replacement for it, but have so far settled for a couple of the original figures.

The 1978 release (with actual modern minifigs instead of faceless prototype jobbers) of the Lego Coast Guard Station was #1 on my Christmas list that year, and I was over the moon when it actually ended up under the tree. I want to say the set was my introduction to minifigs, but I’m pretty sure I had a solitary astronaut from a previously gifted small space set. The set was built “correctly” once before getting stripped for parts to build various crazy quilt monstrosities. The minifigs’ torsos and other stickered bits got incredibly grimy after a few months of play, but the blue baseplate survived into my teens.

1982 was the Year of the Joe, and all I wanted for that Christmas was the reborn franchise’s marquee vehicle — a battery-powered faux M1 Abrams tank. Honestly, I probably coveted the exclusive driver figure as much as I did the vehicle itself. I’d already copped wise to the whole Santa jive, so I lobbied my poor parents relentlessly about getting a MOBAT as my big gift.

It seemed like it was in the bag, so imagine my expression when the toy did not manifest under the tree on Christmas morning. Even worse, all the toys Lil Bro had asked for had appeared, making me wonder if I was being punished for something. It wasn’t until after my parents woke up and the unwrapping phase began that I discovered that my grandfather had bought MOBATS for both Lil Bro and me out of “fairness.”

My dad filled me in on the details when Lil Bro was out of earshot. “Ma and I drove over trying to find the damn thing, and once we did Charlie told us he already got you one. Don’t blame us.” He’d recount the story, occasionally swapping in Star Wars or superheroes for G.I. Joe, a few dozen times over the following thirty-five years. He’d also use it as an excuse for not putting much thought into gift-buying.

My parents gave me a surplus M65 field jacket as my big Christmas present in ninth grade. That sounds a little tragic, but I really wanted one. My paternal hero worship was at a peak along with cultural fetish for military fashions in general. It was warm (especially with the insulated liner my dad snagged from the armory during his National Guard days), it had plenty of handy pockets, it could be worn while biking, and it became a fixture of my cold weather look until I switched to a punk leather jacket in my late teens.

A pair of shitty leather work gloves and a cut-out bin cassette of Chuck Berry’s greatest hits were what I got for gifts on the last Christmas before my mom passed away. I wasn’t expecting anything, to be honest. My dad was pulling a month in a drunk tank and my mom was laid up with what she called “agoraphobia” but was really fear of being too far from a gallon jug of port wine. My concern, under her shaky direction, was to make sure Lil Bro’s holiday was decent — scraping together enough to pick him up some cheap shit from the toy store’s clearance aisle and a tiny Christmas tree from a nearby florist.

I wasn’t expecting anything, which made these two token gifts all the more meaningful. Even at their lowest point, my parents managed to do something…and it gave me a little spark of hope, no matter how short lived it turned out to be.

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