Monday, March 7, 2016

Victorian-Era Mondays: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the COMIC)

Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat - if you enjoy the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, that's great. But you should definitely read the source material. It's like watching the film version of The Watchmen but never having read the graphic novel.

However, if you strongly disliked the film (I fall into this camp), you should definitely read the comic. It's so different as to practically be a completely different story.

With that said, let's get onto looking at this work of graphic fiction as a source of inspiration for some Victorian-era influences in your games.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is set in Victorian London and brings together a disparate set of Victorian-era fictional characters into one cohesive story, led by Mina Murray (of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Unlike the film version, the American Tom Sawyer is nowhere to be found in the story.

Mina is hired by a gentleman named Campion Bond, a member of a British Intelligence agency to put together a team (described by author Alan Moore as "a Justice League of Victorian England") in order to stop a "gang war" (to put it mildly) between two major villains of Victoria-era fiction. This type of situation is one of the true bright spots of the series - major Victorian characters who never interacted in the fiction of the time are brought together into one very well-written story so that it seems completely natural that they would know each other. There are characters from Gothic fiction (Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) alongside characters from mysteries and crime fiction (such as Sherlock Holmes) and adventure fiction (King Solomon's Mines).

All of this fantastic story-telling is coupled with beautiful artwork by artist Kevin O'Neill, including some really neat pseudo-steampunk designs and period advertisements to really help convey a sense of the world in which the characters live. The artistic style of the character designs is perfect for the story, and O'Neill is a master at facial expressions, but also excels at background and architectural work.

As I mentioned before in my post on Gotham by Gaslight (another Victoria-era inspirational resource), one of the things I really enjoy about the Victorian-era for gaming purposes is that it combines some more "modern" inventions and things like travel and exploration alongside more "antiquated" ideas like superstition and globe-spanning empires. All of these types of ideas are used to full effect in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.

There are actually several books in the series - Volume II involves many of the same main characters but brings in ideas of Victorian space exploration via inspiration from works by the likes of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs (with an artistic sensibility not too dissimilar from the Space: 1889 game). The third volume of the series, entitled "Century" is actually three stories that take place in 1910, 1969, and 2009.  There's also a spin-off series, the Nemo Trilogy and a Black Dossier (which came out between Volume II and Volume III) that is more of a source book for the world of the League.

All of the volumes, but especially Volumes I, II and the Black Dossier, are fantastic, imagination-inspiring resources for a Victorian-type role-playing. There are tons of ideas for character backgrounds and personalities, equipment, architecture, and more to be found in these comics. On top of all that, they're great stories. Alan Moore is one of the masters of modern comic fiction and combined with the images of artist Kevin O'Neill, they create a world full of fun, adventure, and fantasy that can inspire any role-playing gamer. 

Format: Available in a variety of formats. The first two volumes have been collected in a 416 omnibus edition, but there's also a 176 page edition of just the first edition for about half the price.
Where To Buy: I am strongly in favor of buying comics at your local comics shop, if you have one. If you're not sure, visit the Comic Shop Locator, where you can enter your ZIP Code and see if there's a shop nearby. You can also of course order online at sources like Amazon. Lastly, if you're into digital comics instead of paper, here's a link to where you can download a copy at Comixology.
Price: Prices vary depending on the edition you get (e.g., the omnibus or just a single trade paperback). Currently, Volume I is available on Amazon for $11.68.
Rated: Comixology rates this as "Ages 15+ only" which is probably just about right. There are some real adult situations in here that could be confusing or inappropriate for younger readers. As always, my suggestion is that you read it first before deciding if it's appropriate for your kids.
More Information: It's a bit tough to find a "true" website for the series, because the publishers have changed over the years (Alan Moore has a bit of a bad history with DC Comics, who purchased the original publisher, Wildstorm Comics, and so he later moved it to another publisher, Top Shelf). Your best bet is probably just a Wiki type page, such as this one.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: A Scofflaw (with Orphan Barrel Rhetoric bourbon)
Listening: Happy-Go-Lucky Local (Live) by Duke Ellington

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

New Comics Wednesday: Supergods

Today is new comic book day - the day that shops receive their new comics. Although I'm currently subscribing to about 36 titles, this ended up being a slow week for me. Only one regular title that I'm reading came out (Batman & Robin Eternal, which is a weekly), and I also chose to pick up the first issue of Black Widow by Marvel comics.

Lately, in addition to my weekly comics, I've also been reading a lot of books about the history of the hobbies I enjoy, particularly role-playing and also comics. Not too long ago, I finished a book by comics writer Grant Morrison, called Supergods: What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, which was published back in 2011.

While I'm going to categorize the book as a history of comics, it's really much more (and at times, much less) than that, and it defies categorization. It's part memoir, part auto-biography, part history of comics, and part philosophical musings about how we can view our own lives through the lens of the superhero. What's frustrating, however, is that the book isn't really divided neatly into these sub-categories. It wanders back and forth between each one, which can make it a bit difficult to follow if you're trying to get a linear sense of the different "ages" of comics.

However, that doesn't stop me from recommending this book to those who are interested in comics from an historical perspective but also, as mentioned, from a philosophical one. Grant Morrison is highly regarded as a storyteller in comics and he has a real command of the form. His All-Star Superman is in my top three Superman stories of all time, and I'm not alone in that assessment. He understands these characters but, more importantly, understands the medium he is using to tell his stories, and does all of this in a way that makes his readers identify with the characters and insert themselves into the story. 

Supergods is, at times, written with that kind of mastery. In the first parts of the book, Morrison writes about the early days of comics, before he was even born, and in these sections he brings his love of comics and their characters to the fore. The section on the Golden Age of comics contains a lot of broad strokes history that I've read in other books on the subject, but it's instilled with Morrison's own sensibilities about the kind of political, social, and economic forces combined to create the right situation for comic book superheroes to become so popular. He continues these themes through the following "ages" of Comics - the Silver Age, the "Dark Age," and the "Modern Age."

However, once we reach the point in time where Morrison was old enough to be self-aware and has a memory of himself as a child, the tone of the book changes. Morrison can be a little self-indulgent at times, and his confidence comes across more as cocky and even egotistical. But, he also does a great job describing a very different environment for a young comic book reader than most of us are used to - he grew up in a more industrial part of Scotland, so his access to American comics of the time was much more reduced, and he also had the opportunity to read, and eventually write for, English comics that we here in the States never had a chance to see back in the day. These sections of the book are quite interesting from an historical perspective, as they describe a part of comic book history that most often gets glossed over in mainstream histories that focus only on the United States.

Those familiar Morrison know that he has some "unconventional" ideas about things such as magic (from the standpoint that, he thinks it's real and claims to practice it successfully to affect changes in his life) and other metaphysical theories. There are times in the book where Morrison's attention wanders and he writes at length about his experiences "summoning a spirit" to guide him in life, and these situations are only very tangentially related to the main points he's trying to make about the superhero culture. It's as though Morrison had the idea for three different books - a history of comics, a memoir about his experiences as a master of the metaphysical, and a theory about how humans can learn more about themselves by learning more about the main superhero archetypes that inhabitant the comics that we've read throughout history. Unfortunately, these three ideas don't really mesh all that well, yet Morrison went ahead and attempted to put them together anyway.

Then, out of nowhere toward the end of the book, with little transition to lead the reader along the way, Morrison reviews the current state of superhero movies (as of 2011) but never ties these ideas into the rest of the book. It's almost like an after-thought, as though a friend mentioned, "You should include a part about the Batman movies..." and Morrison decided to throw it at the last minute.

All told, this book does do a good job of describing and delineating the main eras of superhero comic books, and the main world events that were happening at the time that made the shift in themes and character happen between the ages. For that alone, this book is worth a read. For those who enjoy Morrison's comic book writing, this will give the reader quite a bit of insight into where Morrison gets some of his ideas and why he's written some of the stories he's written.

However, as a guide to help us understand "What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human," this book is sadly a failure. Ideas are proposed, but never fully developed, and in the end, the reader won't feel any closer to understanding what seemed to have been Morrison's main reason for writing the book.

Format: My copy is a 464-page hardback, but it's also available as a paperback and Kindle e-book.
Where to Buy: Since it was published about five years ago, this may be difficult to find at a brick-and-mortar store, but it's readily available on Amazon.
Price: A new copy of the paperback version is currently selling for $12.68 on Amazon.
More Information: Grant Morrison's official website has a page for Supergods

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: "Grapefruit Margarita" (recipe from a bartender in West Hollywood over the weekend, using grapefruit and lemon instead of lime, and mezcal instead of tequila, and muddled with fresh sage leaves)
Listening: "Coma Cat" by Tensnake

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