Archive for May, 2008

B-Movie Boardgames

May 28, 2008

In the late 70s and early 80s, American boardgame design was going through a bit of a renaissance. Commercial wargames — attempts to recreate historical military operations on the tabletop — had been in existence since the early 1950s, and in the intervening years the field attracted more and more talent, expanding the boundaries of design and content. What had started as a hobby with a very limited scope — the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars — began to bend and break and blossom with possibility. Simulated conflict was still the mainstay, but at the height of their productivity (circa 1980), great publishers like Avalon Hill, Simulation Publications, Inc., and Game Designers’ Workshop were turning out games about aliens invading from Andromeda, giant monsters destroying cities in Michigan, pirates a-plundering in the Caribbean, and innumerable other non-traditional subjects. Among my favorite games from this era was GDW’s Asteroid, a game in which one player played the part of an evil mad scientist, while the other player controlled a motley crew of heroes determined to foil his dastardly plans. Said plans consisted of piloting a rogue asteroid, in the depths of which the scientist had carved out his secret base, on to a collision course with Earth. The heroes had to land on the asteroid, invade the base, defeat the killer robots patrolling the subterranean corridors, and initiate a self-destruct mechanism that would save the day. Asteroid is a perfect example of how game designers of this era began to cherry pick ideas from B-movies and pulp novels.

In 1961, a man named Robert Yaquinto started a commercial printing business out of his garage in Dallas, Texas. Over the next 17 years he got heavily involved in wargaming, and by 1979 had seen the hobby grow enough to decide it was time to try his hand at the publishing end. He hired two experienced designers, J. Stephen Peek and the prolific S. Craig Taylor, to create a catalog of games from scratch.

Starting a game publishing venture from within a successful printing company put Yaquinto and his designers in the perfect position to innovate and ensure high production values. The result of this interrelationship was a roster of forty-six games, published between 1979 and 1984. Although many of these were formatted and sold like traditional wargames, the Yaquinto brand is most strongly identified with its Album Games, a series of twenty-two titles aimed at expanding the hobby’s audience through greater accessibility, more diverse subject matter, and appealing package design.

An Album Game was 12″ x 12″, about the same size as an LP (“long-playing” album, for the kids). When opened, the inner surface served as the board(s) and the counters (cardboard playing pieces) were stored in what would have been the record sleeve.

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The cover and interior mapboard for Swashbuckler (1980), which simulated shipboard battles and tavern brawls, complete with throwing flagons of ale, swinging from chandeliers, and yanking the rug out from under the opposition.

The breadth of subject matter covered by the Album Games was remarkable, and a good illustration of the flood of new ideas that was changing the face of the boardgaming subculture at the time. Here’s a sample of titles from Yaquinto’s catalog:

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The Roaring 20s pits mobsters against the police commissioner and each other, as they manage speakeasies, rob banks, and put out hits on one another; Adventurer is a science fiction version of Swashbuckler, with small-scale scuffles taking place aboard starships or in planetside cantinas; Apache has the white man bringing civilization to the American West via the railroad, while the indigenous tribes raid and pillage in return. More details of any of these games can be found by clicking on the above thumbnails.

The BoardGameGeek rating system puts most of the Album Games at around 5 on a 10-point scale. I haven’t played one since 1986, but that feels about right, even for the time. The thing that made these games exciting to play wasn’t their rules — it was their themes, and the production values that reinforced those themes. Avalon Hill, SPI, and West End Games were all putting out products at least as diverse, and more playable, but Yaquinto knew how to put together an appealing package.

What the explosion in game themes demonstrated to me then was that boardgames could be about anything. They didn’t have to be dry re-enactments of historical battles simulated in detail, or boring exercises in die rolling like Monopoly. With some imagination and clever abstraction, a game designer could allow players to enter the worlds of Sinbad the Sailor, Sherlock Holmes, or Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The equivalent experience in comics for me was discovering Read Yourself Raw while I was in art school.

I still believe that boardgames can be about anything, in the same way that a comic book can be about anything; it’s just another medium through which to process some part of the world, or one’s imagination. I have notebooks full of ideas, from an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice to a globe-trotting pulp adventure, and one day I hope to see some of them through to fruition. In the mean time, I keep an eye out for games that push the boundaries of theme in new and interesting ways.

City of Smoke in the Wall Street Journal (Online)

May 27, 2008

I don’t know who reads these sorts of online reading lists, but I have to assume that the Wall Street Journal pulls in a fair number of eyeballs. You have to scroll down, click on the “See our summer reading list” link, then the “Historical Fiction” tab and then the title of the book in the left-hand sidebar. Seems kind of buried, but I’m not complaining! I’m really happy that they put it under “historical fiction” and not a “graphic novel” category, and they say some nice things. Bob Hughes, the WSJ books guy, was also refreshingly kind and well-informed on the phone.

The Power of Suggestion [2]

May 22, 2008

Addendum to my previous post about graphics and imagination, perhaps only funny to those among us who are familiar with “roguelike” games. Peruse other installments of Time Stone’s Strafe Left here. The strip appears regularly in PC Gamer UK, and if you don’t get many of the jokes, don’t feel bad — it just means you’ve had better things to do than immerse yourself in video game culture.

CCS Class of 2008

May 20, 2008

Commencement for the Center for Cartoon Studies class of 2008 was held last Saturday in the old opera house in White River Junction, Vermont. We kicked another crop of misbegotten ideogramographers out the door and celebrated afterwards with root beer and mice made out of chocolate mousse. I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two during the ceremony. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend my first year teaching at the college level with this particular gang of artists, whose careers I will follow with much interest in the coming years. Thank you all for the hard work and passion you brought to the drawing table and classroom!

The above image is a great self-group-portrait the students put together as an awesome parting gift to the faculty. Here’s is a key to the characters with links to their comics work:

Hulk vs. the Universe

May 19, 2008

In October of 2002 I moved from Seattle to the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina¹, with the intention of starting my life over in a place where I didn’t know a soul. Driving into town in a rental car for the first time, having never laid eyes on it before, was a thrilling and terrifying experience, and in the months that followed I came to realize how much a person’s identity can depend on the reinforcement of friends, family, and familiar turf. Sudden and complete anonymity stripped away all but the last shred of my sense of self. I felt like a bundle of exposed nerve endings in a vast expanse of nothingness.

Although there were plenty of negative aspects to feeling simultaneously nonexistent and overexposed, I also felt tuned in to my surroundings in a way I never had before. As soon as “I” became an open question, that openness went both ways, and I absorbed every detail of my environment — birds, trees, fireflies, the incredible roaring chorus of cicadas outside my window at night — like a sponge. There were times when the line between what was inside of me and what was outside of me got pretty blurry, and in those times I had never felt a greater sense of terror and possibility.

In June of 2003, six months after moving to Asheville and in the throes of this state of mind, I took a short trip to Seattle. On my second day there, I took a bus to the University District to meet a friend, and to kill time I decided to catch a matinée of Ang Lee’s Hulk, which was showing at the Neptune Theater.

The best way to experience any film is with as little knowledge or expectation as possible; all the better if you happen to be in a mood that jibes with the director’s sensibility. Hulk is a mixed bag, but even where it falters (as when the screen is sliced up into comic book panels), I admire Lee’s willingness to take chances, especially in the pursuit of the poetic over the bombastic (in a comic book movie, of all things). Despite the missteps, I was enthralled by what I saw at the heart of the film: a man caught between the hard definitions of human civilization and the boundless forces of nature. All of Ang Lee’s movies, from The Wedding Banquet to Brokeback Mountain, are about people struggling to communicate something against some restricting force, and with Hulk he created yet another fresh variation on that struggle. I walked out of the theater in a sort of daze, wandering across the campus of the University of Washington in the pouring rain, staring up in wonder at the brilliant green of the trees.

Of course, the fanboys hated it. In its second week of release, ticket sales dropped by 70%, one of the worst rapid declines in box office history. It was roundly derided for being overly serious (it’s a comic book movie, after all), for failing to stay true to its roots, and for failing to deliver on the summer action movie formula. I actually enjoyed all of these aspects, but the last one — the absurd way in which Hulk subverts the “final battle” expectations of its audience — is one of my favorite parts of the film. The showdown is between Bruce Banner and his father, David (Nick Nolte). From the Wikipedia plot summary of the film:

At night, David is taken to a base to talk to Bruce. As a precaution, [Bruce has been placed] between two large electrical generators which will kill them both with a massive electical surge when activated. David, having descended into megalomania, rants of how the military and their weapons have ruined their lives, and dismisses Bruce as a pathetic shell of his “true son,” with whom he can destroy the military. He bites into a wire, and absorbs the electricity to become a powerful electrical being, and Bruce transforms to battle him. The two fight in the sky before landing near a lake, where David takes on properties of rocks and water. He tries to absorb his son’s power, but is unable to contain the grief and pain that is its driving force, and swells to an energy bubble. Ross orders a weapon (a Gamma Charge Bomb) be fired into the lake, and David’s swelled form is destroyed, leaving no trace of either man.

Yeah, that’s right. The climactic final battle is between the Hulk, electricity, rocks, and water. I’m sorry, that is all kinds of awesome. No wonder so many people were disappointed.

Which leads me to wonder whether or not the Incredible Hulk Annual 2001 was among the piles of comics Marvel gave to Ang Lee and his various script doctors². This book’s main attraction was a forgettable, fan-mandated slugfest between the big green fella and Thor, but the backup story was a beautiful four-page summation of the nature of existence. Starring the Hulk, natch.

Re-presented here, for your enjoyment and with the permission of its creator, the fabulous James Kochalka, is that story:

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NOTES

¹ Former home to legendary zinester Aaron Cometbus, and current home to alterna-comics luminaries Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley.

² Among them one of my favorite screenwriters, Michael Tolkin, who likely had something to do with why Hulk got under my skin.

The Power of Suggestion [1]

May 7, 2008

One of the great tools at the disposal of the cartoonist is the ability to imply much by showing little. A few marks under characters’ feet suggest pavement; throw a jagged black shape in the background of a panel, and voilà — cityscape. The thing I like about suggesting something over showing it in detail is that it invites the reader to complete the picture. The same effect occurs across all media, really, with comics toward the cooler end of the McLuhan thermometer and movies toward the hotter end. All visual information demands a basic degree of interactivity, but some asks for more than others, and in the continuum that runs from a person’s actual physical experience (where all senses are engaged in maximum detail by the real world) to the open invitation of a blank page (where nothing is provided), the imagination is stimulated more by suggestion and less by exacting description.

Generally speaking, as a work of art “heats up” and provides more sensory stimuli, at least two things begin to diminish: 1) the inventiveness of the medium’s practitioners, who have fewer constraints to work within; and 2) the degree of imaginative interaction the work invites from its audience. For instance, as sound and color were introduced into film, certain previously necessary devices (broad physical acting, intertitles) became obsolete, and viewers no longer needed to imagine what Gloria Swanson‘s voice sounded like.

With every step “forward” in any area of human endeavor, something is gained, and with rare exception there is a concomitant loss. I feel this keenly in video game design, as the cutting edge of graphics slices into the future, opening up new and ever hotter arteries of experience for the player, but leaving imagination dead in its wake. Consider an informal visual chronology of computer game graphics:

Left to right, top to bottom: Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), Rogue (1980), Lords of Midnight (1984), Master of Magic (1993), Age of Wonders 2 (2002), Battle for Middle-Earth (2004).

The earliest text adventures used words alone to suggest the game world, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in all of the details. Later, the ideogrammatic use of ASCII characters made possible things like the dungeon floorplans of Rogue to be clearly delineated, but that “*” that represented a pile of gold was still something to conjure with. With each step in the progression from limited-palette, low-resolution graphics to high-res 3D models and particle effects — with each step toward a more photorealistic rendering of the game environment — the player has to do that much less creative work, that much less imaginative interaction.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad progression. The trade-off is that we get games that are more immediately, actively immersive, as opposed to ones in which we have to work to immerse ourselves. Something is lost, but something else is certainly gained. Even as better and better graphics technology is erasing the need for an active imagination in playing video games, increasingly sophisticated game design has made possible a range of consequential (as opposed to imaginative) interactivity that is unparalleled in any other medium. Plus, I’d hazard that most people who play video games don’t want to use their imaginations — they just want a fun ride¹. The more bells and whistles the better.

Each of us probably have our own sweet spot between abstraction and representation, a point where our imagination is fired up by the power of suggestion, but would be extinguished by too much more information. In video games, that sweet spot for me is best exemplified by Steve Barcia‘s classic Master of Magic, specifically on the tactical combat screen:

The average “figure” or unit graphic in MoM is 12 pixels high by 7 pixels wide, and the potential of that tiny canvas (+256 possible colors) is maximized to artfully evoke specific details of each of the 86 unit types available in the game². In the above screenshot, the lizardman shamans carry staves and wear some sort of broad golden collar, but the player can still read a lot into those combinations of a few colored squares. When I play MoM, my imagination fills in the details and I find myself picturing the collars as having a sort of Aztec design.

By comparison, the units in Battle for Middle Earth leave little to the mind’s eye:

Nothing about these units is suggested — everything is described. Beyond rounding off the occasional sharp-edged polygon, the player’s imagination just has to sit back and relax.

In comics, my sweet spot is probably best exemplified by the work of Hergé or Chester Brown:

The level of detail that both of these artists bring to their work is just right for me. They draw characters and environments with enough specificity to create a believable, grounded world, but leave enough open for a sense of mobility and life to be triggered by the reader’s participation. Generally speaking, too little visual information in a comic makes me believe less in the world of that story. And too much (something I struggle against in my own work) can rob a comic of whatever vitality it might otherwise possess.

Bringing this questionable ramble back to film, last year it was announced that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson will be turning the adventures of Tintin into at least three new motion pictures. In the cinematic equivalent of the graphic progression noted above, these films will be created using motion-capture and state-of-the-art CGI.

Jackson said WETA will stay true to Remi’s original designs in bringing the cast of Tintin to life, but that the characters won’t look cartoonish.

“Instead,” Jackson said, “we’re making them look photorealistic; the fibers of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people — but real Herge people!”

I will of course reserve judgment until we see the final results, but I couldn’t help but shudder when I read this bit of news. Although some Tintinologists might delight in the prospect, When I can count the threads in Captain Haddock’s sweater, some small part of me will die.

NOTES

¹ There are, of course, innumerable scattered subcultural pockets wherein “antiquated” forms of electronic gaming continue to thrive and grow, encompassing everything from interactive fiction to roguelikes to abandonware.

² Incidentally, the art director of Master of Magic, and several other Simtex games, was Jeff Dee, who will be familiar to any fan of tabletop RPGs from the late 70s and early 80s.

Pancakes by the Pond

May 6, 2008

Today was the last day of the Thesis Seminar class that I teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies, so we just had everybody out to our place for some brunch in the swamp by the pond. After a week of gray and rainy days, we lucked into blazing sun and clear blue skies. Most of the students were wiped out from pulling all-nighters to finish their thesis projects, but they were all good sports about making the half hour trip. Thanks for coming out, gang!

The Tramp

May 4, 2008

The impression left on me (and hundreds of thousands of my geeky peers) by Dungeons & Dragons was indelible. Ironically — given all of the Satanist paranoia at the time — D&D was my salvation from the soulless suburban wasteland where I spent my teen years; it not only inspired my friends and me to heights of imaginative collaboration, it empowered me to be a creative person. Without Gygax & Arneson’s strange vision, and the love of games and improvisational storytelling that it instilled, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the cartoonist I am today (for whatever that’s worth).

Perhaps the most indelible aspect of all those books and modules was the art. Every image in the AD&D publications that I owned in the 1980s — especially the Monster Manual — is etched into my brain. In a fit of nostalgia after Gygax’s recent passing, having not looked at the TSR library since I left home for college in 1987, I bought all the old rule books off of Ebay so I could run some of my students through the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Leafing through these tomes was like looking through an old yearbook filled with the scrawlings of a madman: page after page of familiar faces surrounded by Gygax’s strangely antique prose and table after possibility-laden table. Those familiar faces, though — the Owl Bear, the Mind Flayer, the Catoblepas — are the things that have never left my head. Whether it’s one of the amateurish, Peechee-worthy dragon portraits of David C. Sutherland III, or the definitive renditions of Cthulhu creatures by Erol Otus, the summary of Armor Class, Hit Dice, and No. Appearing might as well read, “Have a great summer vacation! K.I.T.!” I love all of these old drawings, without exception, and didn’t realize how much I had missed them.

I love them all, but some more than others, and the best ones are all by the same guy. David A. Trampier, who signed his drawings either “DAT” or “Tramp,” was far and away the most talented of all of the artists who ever worked for TSR. His pen-and-ink drawings were fully-formed and beautifully precise, as if the imaginary creatures and scenes they depicted had a long visual history, when in fact they were being realized on paper for the first time by his hand. Sure, there had been folk renditions of the Rakshasa, the Ki-Rin, and the Minotaur, but in Trampier’s hands they took on an archetypal solidity, and he made real such fits of Gary Gygax’s imagination as the Ankheg, Black Pudding, Intellect Devourer, and Thought Eater. Intellect Devourer and Thought Eater? Gary, do we really need two monsters that dine on psychic energy? Well, if the Tramp is drawing them I’m not going to complain, especially if one is a quadrupedal glowing brain and the other is “a sickly gray, skeletal-bodied, enormous headed platypus to those who are able to observe it.” Thank you, David Trampier, for being able to observe it.

Left to right: Basilisk, Wererats, Medusa, Fire Giant (click for larger image).

Trampier dropped out of the gaming scene in 1988, an event marked by the abrupt halt of “Wormy,” the beloved comic he drew for Dragon magazine. Payments sent to his last known residence were returned unopened, and further investigation revealed that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Some presumed him dead, but the great game designer and cartoonist Tom Wham, Trampier’s brother-in-law, believed him to be alive and well and living somewhere in Illinois.

The above photo is from a February 15, 2002 article in the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern illinois State University. Even without the confirmation of Gygax and Wham, who say that the man pictured is in fact the Tramp, you can tell it’s him: he looks just like one of his drawings. After the article ran, people began tracking him down, but he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone. For whatever reason, he left the gaming world behind and now wants nothing to do with it, which somehow makes me respect him even more.

You probably don’t remember me, but I was the guy who pored over your drawings between classes in the quad, lying on the grass behind my best friend Eric’s house during summer vacation, late at night when I couldn’t sleep because my imagination was running wild with the possibility of imaginary worlds. Thanks for the memories, Tramp.

Coyote 1, Wolf 0

May 2, 2008

(Pixelated for your protection; click on image for the gory details)

We woke up one morning in early April to find this unfortunate animal in an open field about fifty yards from our front door. Because the throat was ripped out and not the belly, consensus of native Vermonters was that a coyote had done the deed. Little had been eaten until the vultures got to it later in the week. Ill omen? I prefer to think of it as a sacrifice.

… And while the strength of glorious Hephaestus was beginning to kindle the fire, he dragged out two lowing, horned cows close to the fire; for great strength was with him. He threw them both panting upon their backs on the ground, and rolled them on their sides, bending their necks over, and pierced their vital chord. Then he went on from task to task: first he cut up the rich, fatted meat, and pierced it with wooden spits, and roasted flesh and the honourable chine and the paunch full of dark blood all together. He laid them there upon the ground, and spread out the hides on a rugged rock: and so they are still there many ages afterwards, a long, long time after all this, and are continually. Next glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honourable. Then glorious Hermes longed for the sacrificial meat, for the sweet savour wearied him, god though he was; nevertheless his proud heart was not prevailed upon to devour the flesh, although he greatly desired. But he put away the fat and all the flesh in the high- roofed byre, placing them high up to be a token of his youthful theft.

Prose vs. Plane

May 2, 2008

In the April 27th Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier reviewed The Second Plane, Martin Amis’ provocative new collection of essays on various aspects of terrorism. Although it’s clumsy in places, the piece is refreshing for the verve with which Wieseltier ridicules Amis’ self-important, self-indulgent worldview.

The bit that resonated most strongly for me was the following:

For all of Amis’s testimonies about the transformative impact of Sept. 11 — which “will perhaps never be wholly assimilable,” whatever that means — there is at least one way in which he has been thoroughly untouched by the atrocity: he is still busy with the glamorous pursuit of extraordinary sentences. What has to happen to shake this slavery to style? Amis is the sort of writer who will never say “city” when he can say “conurbation.” In his first article about Sept. 11, written a week after the destruction, he hoped that the American response “should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish,” as if retaliation were an aesthetic statement. When, in a trivial bit of reportage about Tony Blair, Amis observes that “the crouched policemen, in their Day-Glo yellow strip, buzz past like purposeful hornets,” this is merely good writing; but when he describes the second plane on its way to the south tower as “sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,” the ingenuity of the image is an interruption of attention, an ostentatious metaphorical digression from the enormity that it is preparing to reveal, an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.

It’s that last little phrase, “an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane,” that so perfectly describes the most common pitfall of any creative endeavor.

Musicians, filmmakers, cartoonists, game developers — anyone who strives to communicate to a public beyond the dinner table, really — are already saying “pay attention to me, I have something worth hearing/watching/reading/playing.” A sense of self-importance is part of the job description, and may be why we’re drawn to the job in the first place.

The more disciplined among us are able to minimize that self-importance in service of the message we feel compelled to communicate; more often, though, an artist’s favorite subject is himself, and the message he ends up communicating is, “Look how clever/skilled/cool I am!”. This is so common in the world of comics as to be practically compulsory; artists and writers alike show off every chance they get. From the hyper-controlled structure of an Alan Moore story to the exploded ant farm of a Geoff Darrow page spread, comics is packed to the rafters with exhibitions of cleverness, skill, and cool, all begging to be noticed.

I have a reflexive aversion to this sort of thing, but in my better moments I’m able to a relax and enjoy it for what it is. It can be great fun to strap yourself in to one of Mr. Moore’s Wild Rides, or get lost in one of Darrow’s visual labyrinths. There is much enjoyment to be found in the recognition of and immersion in an abundance of talent.

And, not that I claim any abundance of talent, but I commit excessive acts of self-indulgence on a regular basis in my own work. Because I take great personal pleasure in being inventive with comics, I’ll often choose a showy bit of sequential flimflammery over a more modest approach.

I’m constantly telling my students, “If the reader says, ‘oh look at the cool thing the author did,’ you’ve failed,” because attention is being paid to how you are showing something as opposed to what you are showing. But as with all things, such instances should be judged on a case-by-case basis, according to the intended function of the work. If Martin Amis truly seeks to convince us that his worldview has value, he should use language that draws less attention to itself; on the other hand, if the whole of Geoff Darrow ‘s intent is to feed us eye candy, then all he needs to do is keep that sugar comin’.


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