Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Challengers of the Unknown

So I finished up the first DC Showcase collection of the Challengers of the Unknown. For the uninitiated, the Challengers of the Unknown is a team of four daredevils - pilot Ace Morgan, acrobat and mountain-climber Red Ryan, skin/scuba diver and scientist Prof Haley, and champion wrestler Rocky Davis, with June Robbins being a de facto fifth member without being accorded the title of full member - who believe they are living on borrowed time. That sketchy knowledge causes them to decide to team up to confront the nebulous concept of the "unknown," which in the Challengers' universe usually involves giant monsters and aliens, often enough at the same time.

Created by Jack Kirby and Dave Wood (there's a bit of uncertainty about this; some seem to think Kirby created them on his own, others cite both Kirby and Wood as co-creators), Challengers of the Unknown appeared in 1957, during a time when superheroes were just beginning to come back into popularity in comics. From the late 1940s and into the mid-to-late 1950s, comic books had become the domain of horror, fantasy, Westerns, and adventure stories. Superheroes had largely faded from view, except for some of the most enduring heroes like Superman and Batman. Eventually, though, superheroes began to come back into their own. The early 1960s would be see the advent of Marvel Comics, but in 1957 Kirby was working for DC. Challengers of the Unknown is an obvious precursor to Fantastic Four, a comic Kirby (with Stan Lee) would come to create in 1961. The Challengers had no superpowers, though, relying mostly on dumb luck and headlong charges to see them through.

The stories have a strange, almost dream-like quality to them, and I do find that I enjoy them more when I'm just about to fall asleep. The Challengers challenge everything - death, fate, destiny, physics, and logic. Several times they encounter artifacts that, according to "real" scientists/archaeologists/whatever, are from ages where magic existed, and literal wizards who use actual magic are cited as historic personages, their abilities mentioned in passing like one would mention Magellan was a sea captain. The Challengers seem to run across a lot of formulae for "mixtures" from the ancient past that cause the imbiber to gain strange powers, aliens with weird devices and popeyes, reclusive scientists who come to create devices they quickly regret inventing, and criminals who use wondrous powers and machines to rob banks. One particular trope that amuses me is the weird science device that the user has to awkwardly hold in front of them and carry around to use, looking much like they're lugging around an 1100-watt microwave oven.

Kirby and the other writers seemed to not even bother with lip service to facts; it wouldn't have surprised me to see them posit the Earth has two moons and we just hadn't paid attention to the second one before now. They remind me of the kid who does the stories for Axe Cop, except they don't have the excuse of being five years old. That type of unfiltered writing is clearly a precursor to the stuff Kirby did later, when he hit his stride with Marvel. There is an energy here that is irrepressible. It also seems like a bridge between the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. The silly premises and the "get her!" plans of action can get tedious, but it's all definitely a piece of the Rosetta Stone for interpreting a lot of early Silver Age Marvel and DC.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A wretched hive of scum and villainy: Brigands of Mirkwood

South of the East Bight, the treeless gouge in the eastern side of Mirkwood, a shadow has crept across the forest. Grim folk and dark creatures make their homes there, while others are transients, moving from one evil place in Middle-earth to another. Mercenaries, spies, and unscrupulous merchants ply their trades from the empty lands West of the Misty Mountains to the plains of the East, Rhun and beyond. Just beyond the East Bight is a crossroads of sorts, the town of Strayhold. Corrupt and colorful, few of the good folk of Middle-earth find their way here. Instead, it is the base for the Brigands of Mirkwood.
The ragged-edged town of Strayhold is a strange place in Middle-earth. Perpetually awake, the flames of torches and lanterns has caused some to dub it Fire Town. It seems a festive place in some ways, with music and carousing to be found at all hours. Yet, it is a festivity that is much like a nightmarish version of the grand celebrations of the Elven-king's court far to the North. Here, though, there is no underlying decency and concern for the well-being of others. The populace is a random hodge-podge of bandits and refugees, earning it the name of Strayhold quite deservedly.

This is a place that will draw the attention of any adventurer in Middle-earth. The foes of the Dark Lord, and those who would do his bidding, will both find much to attract them. It is a raucous place, with the energy of a frontier town, and the decadence of a civilization in decline, corrupted by long years of being a waystation for those who travel to the haunted lands of Middle-earth.

Southern Mirkwood and the lands beyond; Strayhold lies in the southeastern quarter of the map, just beyond the "thumb" of Mirkwood sticking out below the East Bight.
Strayhold is an "evil twin" of many places in Middle-earth. It has the raucous holiday energy of the Elven-king's realm, a melting-pot populace that echoes that of Bree-land, and a wildness that must be akin to that of Tharbad in its decline. The book details numerous characters for the player's characters to deal with, and numerous sites within the town that will naturally draw attention. These latter range from the inevitable taverns to guild-halls for thieves and beggars. The entire city is a black market, with just about any good or item in Middle-earth being available here, for a price. Strayhold is a town for those who have no place left to go, or those who are on their way to even less savory places.

Besides extensive descriptions of the people and places of Strayhold, the book also contains several adventures, three of which are the main focus of the book. Excursion to the City of Strays involves the player characters being hired to acquire a book from a bookseller in the "beggars quarter" part of the town. This is primarily a MacGuffin to get the characters into the town and get a good dose of the two-fisted, fun side of the place. Raid on the Clan-Hall of Rogues has the player's characters asked by some good folk to recover a horn sacred to them from the titular location - the thieves' guild, in other words. The Castle of Leardinoth has no less a personage than Gandalf the Grey himself(!) enlisting the player characters to take down the evil wizard who rules over Strayhold. This will be no easy task, even taking into account that it requires having fun storming the castle; the wizard was trained by no less a personage than the Necromancer himself(!!) In addition, there are a few adventure ideas to keep the player characters busy in the town.

All in all, Brigands of Mirkwood is a solid little book in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line from Iron Crown Enterprises. The Angus McBride cover is dynamic, and the maps, especially the always-impressive regional map by Peter Fenlon, are colorful and evocative. The book gets close to the line between what I think Middle-earth "feels" like and what it doesn't "feel" like, and, I think, straddles that line a bit. Still, the designers did a pretty decent job extrapolating how such a location would come to be and continue to exist in Middle-earth, without resorting to anything truly outlandish.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Leopard Man/The Ghost Ship: A Val Lewton Double-Feature

Val Lewton's films delved into the shadows of the human mind. The line between sanity and insanity is often a blurry one, obscured by the emotions and urges that exist deep within a person. What seizes a person to do strange and terrible things? When does simple fascination turn into obsession? How can responsibility and duty become corrupted into tyranny? Lewton chose to deal with such issues in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship.

A sleepy New Mexico town hosts a traveling troupe of entertainers. The jealousy between a flamenco dancer and a singer ends up setting off a chain of events that leads to tragedy, and then to terror, as an escaped panther preys upon the helpless and innocent. Or does it? Sometimes the most obvious solution is not the correct one, and sometimes that solution is not born from logic.

The narrative of this film seemed to meander at first, moving from character to character. It soon became apparent to me that there was more to this randomness of the story than simple unfocused screenwriting. This was the flow of fate, the stream of destiny, or maybe a small tributary of the greater watershed of creation around and through which the lives of all pass, and, eventually, end. A simple act can flow down the stream of fate, touching and engulfing those in its path, a path that changes without rhyme or reason.

Those caught up in the floodwaters have no real connection: a young girl out on an errand and fearful of the dark; a trusting and naive young woman waiting for her swain in a seemingly peaceful cemetery; and the flamenco dancer herself, who diverted a stream of fate with her own thoughtless actions. Such is life, with random events linking strangers for eternity.

I said insanity was a theme of these movies, and that is true here. But it is also the capriciousness of even perfectly sane people that Lewton explores here, their insensitivity to their fellow humans often driving their actions. They may not be purely malicious, but they are cold and focused only on their own momentary whims. Like the small, sharp sound that can set off an avalanche, though, the slights that people perform on other folk can have dire consequences.

There is striking imagery here. Lewton's trademark deep shadows lurk, as always, and, as always, they lie just beyond our reach, but ever at hand. The panther itself is a shadow made ambulatory, poised to pounce. In tandem with the shadows, the silence hovers, an emptiness that puts the viewer on edge as they wait for that emptiness to be filled with something terrifying. I will also note a strange desert procession at the end of the film, a dream-like, somber parade that leads from life to death.

I was startled to see the revealed cause of the terror. The actual answer to the mystery was not that surprising, in itself; it was the nature of the cause. I'm trying to not spoil the ending, because it is worth discovering. I can only say that there are few movies of this vintage that deal with a phenomenon that has become far too terrifyingly common in our time. It's an unsettling end.

An idealistic young merchant marine officer boards a freighter in his first assignment as Third Mate. The captain takes him under his wing, providing lessons on authority and leadership. The captain's calm demeanor and resonant voice project an air of experience and command. Soon, though, the Third Mate begins to suspect the captain's tranquil air hides something far more sinister. But are the young officer's suspicions simply generated by a misunderstanding of what it takes to lead a crew and bear the responsibility of holding the fates of others in one's hands? Could it be the Third Mate's own actions and words that begin yet another chain of events that lead to what seems a fated conclusion, one in which the destinies of several others become entwined in a downward spiral?

This movie is the sleeper of all the Lewton films I've seen. I had never heard of it before, and certainly had never seen it. Afterwards, it preyed upon my mind. What caused the events to unfold the way they did? Had they been poised for years to fall out that way? Or was it a bolt from the blue, striking without warning?

The characters seem fully realized. Each has a history that has shaped them before the narrative of the film. The captain is a beloved figure. Distant he may be, but the loyalty of his friends and his crew is genuine. What of the Third Mate? Are his suspicions warranted, or are they a product of his own lonely background? He seems good-hearted and idealistic, but his life as an orphan may have made it hard for him to trust and accept the words of others. Even the minor characters are three-dimensional - the First Mate is a world-weary man, hiding a pain and emptiness that is never explained, but is assuredly present. The captain's woman friend, and prospective fiancee, is a realist, but she, too, has hidden elements to her, a long-submerged hopeful side that longs to finally be set free. These characters, and all the others, are so finely-drawn and well-acted that they add to the horror of what is to come. These are real people confronted with something that shakes the foundations of their lives.

In this movie, Lewton's ever-present shadows are overshadowed, so to speak, by an air of claustrophobia and isolation. The ship has few places to hide, and this only adds to the creeping madness that underlays the narrative. The cramped quarters heighten the desperation of an unusually brutal, for the time, fight at the end of the film. Inky darkness, flashing knives, and thrashing limbs make this struggle an art piece of violence. It, too, seems to erupt from nowhere, its violence something rarely seen in a Lewton film. The lack of room to move, and the obstacles in the room, make the fight much more gripping than the classic style at the time of roundhouse haymakers and balsa-wood chair-shattering. It is almost literally a knife fight in a closet, and it's all the more terrifying for that.

This movie bears repeated viewings. There seems more subtext than usual, even for a filmmaker like Lewton, whose films in general seem to have an entire subterranean existence beneath the surface narrative.

The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship seem a good pairing to me. They both show not a hint of the supernatural about them, as opposed to most of Lewton's other films, which usually are ambiguous about the subject. That lack of the paranormal does not hinder the frightening nature of the films. In fact, that lack, that reliance on the purely real, makes these films disconcerting in ways the others aren't.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

From the depths to the heights: Goblin-Gate and Eagle's Eyrie

The Misty Mountains rise up like a spine in Middle-earth, a barrier and dwelling-place for both good and evil. Mighty Eagles roost atop mountain peaks, lofting into the air to patrol the lands about for evil. Deep beneath the mountains, once the domain of the Dwarves, lurk servants and allies of the Shadow. And in one forgotten corner of a Goblin labyrinth, the greatest treasure and worst danger of Middle-earth lay hidden. This is the Goblin-Gate and Eagle's Eyrie.
Topographical map of the route Thorin & Co. took, which came to near-disaster.
What lies beneath the Misty Mountains cold.
The Misty Mountains were every bit as mysterious and dangerous as any other region of Middle-earth.  Wreathed in clouds and fog, they held many secrets. Home to Men, Orcs, Dwarves, Eagles, and Giants, the mountains themselves seemed to be imbued with an intelligence, a watching and capricious sentience. At times they seemed jealous of their passes and craggy roads, working against those who dared to pass through uninvited. Perhaps this was the work of malevolent spirits of the mountains, working according to their own whims or, perhaps, at the behest of the Dark Lord himself. Whatever the case may be, there was a looming menace to the mountains.
Another outstanding map by Peter Fenlon.
Iron Crown Enterprises' Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game line seemed at its best when it covered some of the most familiar locations in Middle-earth. This book is no exception, and is one of their better efforts. Weighing in at a slim 42 pages, it is dense with information, a lot of it worthwhile reading. As with all MERP books, it explores the geography, environment, flora, and fauna of the covered region, in this case the central Misty Mountains. Travel through and around the mountains is discussed, with all the attendant obstacles and encounters, from the weather to the cultures of the various beings that live there. The research and extrapolation done is reflected in how believable the area described is, taking Tolkien's descriptions and fleshing them out even beyond his own meticulous attention to details. It lends a dimensionality not often found in game books.

There is a wealth of adventure sites and ideas here. From the inaccessible nests of Great Eagles to the deepest Goblin hole, Goblin-Gate and Eagle's Eyrie covers it all. Besides retracing the steps of the heroes of The Hobbit, which can certainly be done using this book, there are plenty of other places to go and things to do. A trading town provides for both urban intrigue and a base of operations for adventurers.
A Northmen town for the players to have their characters trash.
I think I was most amused by a map for the Eagle's Eyrie, given its nearly-impossible-to-reach positioning, and its simplicity.
Players will always find a way to get to places like this, so I suppose it's best to be prepared.
Of course, the meat of this book is the layout and description of the underworld city of the Goblins. For once, it doesn't seem that this is a place stolen from the Dwarves, evidenced by the comparatively less orderly nature of the "city" - these are natural caverns, expanded upon, perhaps, but in a chaotic, almost random fashion.
Dark labyrinths sprawling with little rhyme and reason seem fitting as the dwelling-places for Goblins.
A history of the entire region is given, though it's more brief than that found in many of the other MERP books. Not a lot changes here throughout the Ages, so the book can be used, with a minimal amount of tweaking, to cover just about any given period of time in Middle-earth.

The Goblin-town is quite a place to explore, a classic dungeoncrawl if there ever was one. Yeah, I make it one word; consider it part of my own personal style guide. The place is full of danger - if you've read The Hobbit, you know what it's like: impenetrably dark and full of Goblins. And yes, Gollum himself can be found, though the likelihood changes depending on when the player characters decide to go spelunking, and even then it'll take a bit of luck. More than a bit, actually. Even if Gollum isn't there, there's still a lot to deal with.
And if he is there, then players can make things more complicated as history is changed. Middle-earth history, but still.

The book provides a few interesting adventures. One even has the player characters hired by a pretender to the Goblin throne to take out the current Great Goblin. It's an intriguing idea, and clever players might be able to have their characters play out the situation in such a way that the Goblins in Goblin-town are rendered paralyzed as a threat as they fight amongst themselves. It's certainly not an original concept, but the familiarity of the location and creatures involved to those who've read the book or seen the movie(s) may lend it an air of excitement and importance that other RPG adventures like it don't have.
Some of the illustrations for MERP books suggest a more simian look to Orcs, Goblins, and Trolls than I've seen in other sources.

This is a good, solid entry in the MERP line. This is from a period when ICE had hit its stride with MERP. The art, the maps, and the content all gel together into a whole that can provide for a lot of fun.

One last thought. It's always struck me that the Goblin army that sallied forth from Goblin-Gate had a helluva march from the Misty Mountains to Erebor. Even if they marched through Mirkwood, which I doubt, they still had a long march through hostile territory, and had to have a vulnerable supply-line. I suppose they could have pillaged and foraged along the way, but given how they managed to surprise the armies of the Free Peoples, you'd think their coming would have been noted much earlier had they been tearing up the lands they passed through. Plus, coordinating their attack to coincide with that of the Orcs from the Grey Mountains and Mount Gundabad is quite a feat in itself. Bolg, the Orc king in Gundabad, must have been an uncommon leader and military genius, and his death may have been more of a blow to the forces of evil in Northern Middle-earth than even the annihilation of the Orc and Wolf armies under his command at the Lonely Mountain.

Even more of a genius is Gandalf, whose machinations seem to have orchestrated, in one fell swoop, a whole slew of victories for the good folk of Middle-earth: the Ring was located and in the hands of one who would not use it in a way that drew Sauron's attention until much later; a huge force of Orcs and their brilliant leader were laid low that might otherwise have been a decisive factor in the coming war against Sauron (as it is, they had recovered enough by the time of the War of the Ring to tie down much of the armies in the North); Smaug, the greatest of Dragons still remaining in Middle-earth, was killed and his threat removed; and the Free Peoples of the North had found common ground and thawed the relations between them all, and began a tradition of working together. So in many ways, Goblin-Gate and Eagle's Eyrie was a pivotal place in Middle-earth history.

Friday, January 4, 2013


I continue my look at Val Lewton's macabre movies with Bedlam. In this, it is London of the 1760s. The paramour of a decadent British noble comes to despise his treatment of those less fortunate, particularly those with mental health issues. For her trouble, she finds herself locked up in that most infamous of mental health facilities, Bedlam. With the help of a Quaker friend, she overcomes her fears of those with whom she shares living space. Yet, her survival is threatened by the de facto head of the hospital, played by Boris Karloff.

The film was inspired by Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. This is a series of paintings and engravings that show the descent into madness of a young wastrel, who ultimately ends up in Bedlam itself. It's an interesting group of pictures, and is an early example of sequential art that would lead, ultimately, to graphic novels and even film storyboards.

This film differs quite a bit from the other Lewton films I've discussed. Instead of the specter of death hanging over the narrative, it is madness that seems to lurk around every corner. The inmates of the hospital seem not so much different from the decadent and venal society on the outside. There is even levity, with the usually-sinister Karloff having an air of the buffoon at times here.

Yet Karloff brings a believability to his character that may have been overlooked or overplayed by another actor. His doctor chafes at having to bow and scrape to those who occupy strata of society above his, saving his anger and frustration for his charges, whom he exploits to curry favor with those he considers his betters. Scheming and vengeful, he doesn't hesitate to use his position to gain power over his enemies. In the end, though, he is a petty, scheming man, with no concern for those he is supposed to be helping.

This film does not evoke the kind of dread of death that most of Lewton's films do. Certainly there are shadows, and there is a body count, but in this film they are more set dressing than the main attraction. The corruption of society is pervasive, with the few stalwarts of morality in the film either too pacifistic to lend more than spiritual help (the Quaker), or gone for much of the narrative of the film (the "Devil Wilkes").

Perhaps instead of dread, Lewton meant to evoke a feeling of irony here. The actions - or, more accurately, inactions - of the Quaker, and the reputation of the hoped-for savior Wilkes (seriously, read about him at that link), are almost the quintessence of irony. Further, the microcosm of society that has been assembled in the general population of Bedlam is even more irony - the line between sanity and insanity, as drawn by Lewton in this film, is nebulous at best, and nonexistent in many cases. So it is irony instead of dread, corruption instead of death...but in the end, Lewton is still dealing with death and horror. Here, though, it is the horror of a society where insanity is determined more for the sake of convenience than for any real affliction, where corruption runs so deep that, in the end, even the best in society have a shadow of it in their hearts. That signals the death of a society, and death was always a subject close to Lewton.