Monday, August 23, 2010

Saga of the Swamp Thing

I just finished reading the first volume of Alan Moore's legendary 1980's run on the horror comic Swamp Thing.

God dammit. How can one man be good at everything? It's just not fair. Some authors get so married to their genre that they have to use a pseudonym to publish anything outside their area of expertise. But Alan Moore is equally at home writing superheroes, steampunk crossover orgies, post-apocalyptic political science thrillers, bizarre multidimensional examinations of culture and dreaming, existential nihilism, and pirate-comics-within-larger-comics. Hell, he's even a pretty good songwriter!

But I'm not complaining. Not really. I mean, it's a bit intimidating to know that there's someone as talented as him out there, but it's also comforting to know that it's possible to branch out after establishing oneself in publishing, and not be tied to one story for the rest of one's career.

And if it wasn't for Alan Moore, we wouldn't have so many awesome comics. I feel that he is part of a small group of comic-book writers (along with Neil Gaiman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, et al.) who are recognized by mainstream critics as having real literary talent. The quality of their writing is so great that not even lit snobs can look down their noses at them without seeming openly hypocritical. They force the mainstream to evaluate their work on its merits as stories, not as "kiddie fare."

But anyway, getting back to Swamp Thing:

It's amazing. Simply surreal, yet simultaneously human. It feels as if Moore actually journeyed into the DCU and took case studies of humans mutated into plant-based life-forms before he set out to write this. I've never seen retconning done so well, so seamlessly. It doesn't just change the stories of the future; it turn the whole tale, from beginning to end, into an entirely different beast. It's like the big reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects: it forces you to go back and watch it again. (It feels a bit weird to talk about the shock-value of something published more than twenty years ago, but hey, it's news to me.)

And damn if he isn't a good horror writer too. Just let me say that I'm glad I read "A Time of Running", the last chapter of the book, in a well-lit room, on a night I was sleeping at my girlfriend's house. I don't know if i could've fallen asleep without someone in the bed next to me. That shit be creepy, son! It's amazing to me how, no matter how otherworldly the agents of fear may be in Moore's work, they always point us back to the fact that human beings are capable of much worse than even the vilest demon or most degenerate beast.

And that, is true horror.

Don't read it alone.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The End of the World

Yesterday morning, at about 8:00 AM, the series finale of The Masks of the Damned came to its long-awaited conclusion. The final episode clocked in at just under 12 hours. That's way too long for any TV show, even a long-running soap-opera, but it's not an unheard-of length for a tabletop role-playing game. Which is what it was.

For almost exactly one year, The Masks of the Damned has been a collaborative effort in group improvisational storytelling, and the brainchild of my good friend and former roommate Ian Murray. Ian will shortly be leaving for grad school in Buffalo, New York, which is why the series had to come to an end.

But what an end it was! Nothing else can come close to the nail-biting intensity of a long-running RPG's final session, partly because the viewer can't just sit back and watch how things will unfold. If you make the wrong move, it could spell doom for not just your beloved character, but all other viewers as well (and by extension, their characters, too). Audience-involvement is a must.

For those of you who don't know, The Masks of the Damned utilizes White Wolf's Dark Ages: Vampire setting, and takes place in medieval Krakow, in (roughly) the Year of Our Lord 1230. Not many people know this, but at that time, Krakow was something unheard-of in medieval Europe: a democracy. Granted, it was democratic only for a small group of powerful noblemen and landowners, but it was a step in the right direction.

Anyway, at the opening of the final night's chapter, the city had been under siege by Hungarians for about a week, taking heavy losses by night when the invaders' vampiric masters awoke, and laid their own siege with Tzimisce [chim-EET-see] war-ghouls. In the midst of a major battle, Nicodemus, the former ruler of vampiric Krakow, reappeared and announced that he had come to reclaim what was rightfully his. Instantly, the city began to tremble, and a titanic dragon erupted from beneath the royal palace: a dragon formed of thousands upon thousands of human corpses, bound together and given an unholy life by blasphemous magics. The beast raced with shocking speed to the Eastern Gate, preparing to smash the city walls and allow the Hungarians access to the defenseless, sleeping city.

I don't think I've ever heard of a more epic final battle, which took place on the dragon's freaking back as it raced through the city. Imagine the final battle in Army of Darkness, but instead of taking place in a castle, it takes place ON GODZILLA'S BACK, WHILE HE'S IN THE PROCESS OF DESTROYING TOKYO!!!

During said battle, the fighters held their own against a powerful Tzimisce named Lazarus, who wore a suit of armor made from his own skeleton, and dealt unhealable damage! Oh yeah, and he could fly. Meanwhile, the weak-armed mages (i.e., just me) attacked the beast's weak points with burning barrels of tar, trying to cripple its' legs before it could crush the rest of the city.

Oh, and did I mention that, for all intents and purposes, the dragon had INFINITE HIT POINTS!?!?!?! And that it was almost ONE-HUNDRED FEET TALL at the shoulder?!?!?! And that as you climbed us its body, the uncountable hands and mouths of all those corpses would bite and rake and claw at you?!?!?!?!

It was an epic battle to end all epic battles.

But then came the True Final Boss!

I believe I mentioned earlier that Nicodemus, Krakow's former ruler, had returned? Well, we had to fight him. Immediately. He made a brutally difficult boss: he was older than dirt, he could fly, cast tons of magic, turn himself into a gravity-defying puddle of blood, use telekinesis, fill entire rooms with nigh-impenetrable darkness, hold hundreds of gallons of blood in his body, and knew a spell that could collapse people's skeletons at will!!! For a mortal, having your ribcage collapsed would be instantly fatal. For us, it just made us loose half the blood in our bod-- Oh, wait. When you're fighting someone tougher than the fucking Antichrist, loosing half your ammo is pretty much fatal, too.

Normally, a boss like that would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. But do you remember how, mere minutes previous, Lazarus dealt most of us a ton of unhealable damage? Things were not looking good for the heroes of Krakow.

It was only in the last minutes, hemmed in, badly wounded, low on blood, and still unable to deal a single point of damage, that we came across a possible solution: Wolfgang (my character) still had a dagger on his person. A dagger with a spring-loaded poison chamber. A poison that had proved devastating to vampires in the past. I drew it from my pocket, and checked how much ammo it had.

It had one. dose. left.

Using my own limited flight powers, I took to the air and made a final desperate stab at the seemingly-invulnerable Elder Vampire. I rolled a seven. If that result had been one point lower, we all (probably) would have died then and there. (Which is not to say that I was the only one pulling my weight in the life-saving department; every character had more than a few brilliant ideas and close brushes with Final Death. This particular one just happened to be mine.)

With the successful application of the poison, Nicodemus was badly hurt, and we were eventually able to subdue him. The Page (an extremely powerful child-vampire of indeterminate gender) who had been sitting in his/her/its throne and watching the battle, congratulated us on our unlikely success, but reminded us that, in becoming the rulers, heroes, and villains of Krakow, we had nothing left to do but train our replacements, and know that one day, we too would be overthrown.

'Twas a very bittersweet ending, but what else can one expect from the chronicles of the Living Damned?

Heere endeth ye tale of Ye Masques of ye Damned.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Becoming the Buffalo

For three days during the Ann Arbor Art Fair, I did something that few adults will consent to do, even in pleasant weather: I willingly put on a full-body buffalo costume and paraded myself through crowds of onlookers.

My feelings about the experience are mixed. While the wearing of the suit was incredibly difficult, the actual experience of becoming "Blazin' the Buffalo©" was... well, it was fun. I liked it.

Putting on the buffalo suit (or any mascot outfit) equals instant popularity. Everyone loves a mascot. They're funny, instantly likable, and always up for a good joke. Total strangers will wave to you like an old friend. Children will run up to you and hug you without prompting. Strangers will ask if they can take their pictures with you. In assuming the identity of a mascot, you're essentially given carte blanche by the normally all-powerful Social Contract.

You can do any damn fool thing you want, when you're in a buffalo suit. You can dance in public, try on hats, check yourself out in a mirror, mock authority figures, try on hats (or even more flamboyant articles of clothing), and people eat it up. They love it! They want to take pictures of Blazin' the Buffalo wearing their merchandise, perusing their art, or playing with their children

Sometimes, the smaller kids were afraid of me, but all I had to do was "cry" for a moment, and they would usually get over their fears, in order to comfort the "sad buffalo". As for older kids (i.e., seven- to thirteen-year-olds) could go wither way; some thought I was really cool, others seemed embarrassed by my attentions, as if I were implying that they were younger than they really were. Teens, I noticed, were generally keen on having their pictures taken with me. Adults were generally indulgent, but didn't seem eager to get too close to me.

But please, for the love of God, PLEASE STOP ASKING MASCOTS IF THEY'RE FEELING HOT!!! Just knock it off! It's incredibly hot work, but we work hard to stay in character and have a good time, and be friendly and silly. We do it for the kids. When you ask us if we're hot, or say how you pity us, or commend our bravery for coming outside in "this awful heat", you're forcing us to break character, to acknowledge that we are not a mascot, but just a man in a costume. It's no different (and no less rude) than walking up to an actor in the midst of a performance and asking them how they stay in character when they're surrounded by such crappy sets. It takes the magic out, if deflates the fun. When I'm trying to be the Buffalo, I don;'t need people reminding me every few seconds that I'm really just a cook in a faux-fur suit, sweating my balls off and wishing desperately for a cup of ice-cold water. So for the love of God, STOP ASKING US IF WE'RE HOT!!!!

Whew! Glad I got that of my chest.

Anyway, the process of becoming a mascot was fascinating. It reminded me of those Vodouisants who "become" the god whose mask they wear.

It might be a slightly creepy way to describe the experience, but at times, it felt less like I was inhabiting the role, and more like the persona of "Blazin' the Buffalo©" was carrying me along of its own volition. I always knew what to say and do, what gestures to make, without ever having to think about it. I guess I knew how to be a mascot without having to be trained, just from watching them in action. It was an experiment in acting, subconscious learning, and... dare I say it?... spirituality.

It was almost as if "Blazin'" himself were acting through me. All I had to do was let go of my ego, the part of me that would have been embarrassed to be seen in public wearing a fur suit, and just... let the Buffalo do the talking.