Dungeons & Dragons by Jim Zub

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto Humble Bundle; it probably came up in one of the forums or newsgroups I read. However it happened, I arrived just in time to purchase their Dungeons & Dragons digital comic book bundle. The bundle included the complete runs of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms books that DC Comics published in the 80s and 90s. It hadn’t really been on my radar at the time; I was mostly into superhero books. At the moment, though, I was craving good fantasy adventure and wanted something to go along with our current D&D campaign. Good value, good cause, great buy.

Better than I knew; the bundle also included the more recent books published by IDW. When I flipped open the first pages of Legends of Baldur’s Gate I discovered hidden treasure. It was there that I met a desperate elven sorcerer named Delina, on the run from the minions of the Cult of the Dragon and unable to wield her wild magic effectively. Her flight leads her to Baldur’s Gate and the statue of Minsc, the Beloved Ranger who generations before was one of the original heroes of Baldur’s Gate. Delina’s wild magic brings him to life and the fight is on!

Minsc’s first words struck a chord deep within me, ringing a note I hadn’t realized I’d been desperately missing. “Stand down, dirty minions of evil, or face my hamster’s wrath!” Here stood a hero.

Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate (2014) #1

I’d pretty much given up on comic books entirely five or six years before. The current generation of creators simply wasn’t telling stories I wanted to read. My present comics consumption consisted of a scant handful of web comics that I read whenever I remembered to catch up. Suddenly I remembered how much I loved this art form and how much I missed it. I have more than two decade’s worth of back issues in a wide variety of titles, but there is joy in the discovery of new material entirely separate from the nostalgia of rereading favorite stories. I now had a new hero.

The more I read, the more familiar he seemed until a soft light finally dawned. It was as if Ben Edlund had come to his senses and fled the insanity of Hollywood to return to his roots. If The Tick wore chain mail and fought evil with a broadsword, this is what it would look like. The rest of the book remained rooted in the serious pseudo-realism of dramatic fantasy, without the trappings of the absurd that made The Tick’s entire world surreal. Minsc, however, perfectly echoed that hero’s oblivious optimism and charisma. He was that one guy at the gaming table, the one who just shows up to have fun and smite evil while the rest of the party deals with their intrigues and personal drama. I flipped to the credits page, fully expecting to see Edlund’s name as the headline.

Jim Zub? Never heard of him. Let’s see … Skullkickers – heard of that but never read it. Pathfinder comics – saw them in the store but never bothered. Samurai Jack – how on Earth did I miss a Samurai Jack comic? Figment – my daughter loves that book. This could be pretty good, I figured, but I’ll save my verdict for the end of the book.

I loved it. I loved reading comics again. The bitterness and frustration of the past few years washed away with the discovery of new heroes, irredeemable evil, and a sense of adventure with momentum like a freight train. I was very excited when IDW announced a new Dungeons & Dragons series that would follow up with the characters of the Baldur’s Gate story. This new book would also be penned by Zub and feature vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich as the principle antagonist. Excellent.

With some temerity, I began to investigate other comics. I quickly shied away from the Marvel and DC superheroes when a glance at the shelves revealed the continuing presence of the same elements that had previously driven me away. I landed at Titan and picked up a new line of Doctor Who books. I drifted past DC and noticed they were going to try and reinvigorate the Hannah-Barbera properties. Archie Comics called to me with the presence of Mark Waid’s name on the cover of a re-imagining of the Riverdale gang and a trade paperback showcasing Mega Man squaring off against Sonic the Hedgehog. Once again, I could read and enjoy comic books.

But I had to finish reading my stock of Dungeons & Dragons books first. They were all pretty good. Alex Irvine and Peter Bergting took me to the world of Dark Sun and the quest of a slave for survival and freedom. Paul Crilley reminded me that comics told mystery stories as well, on the world of Eberron. John Rogers and Andrea DiVito introduced me to Fell’s Five in the Forgotten Realms, a party of adventurers drawn directly from my gaming table but who didn’t shy away from the consequences of their actions or the implications of their powers. And of course no one does the Forgotten Realms quite like R.A. Salvatore and Drizzt Do’Urden.

Dungeons & Dragons (2010) #5

And then only Jim Zub and Legends of Baldur’s Gate remained. While Minsc and Boo tackled the forces of evil with tireless good cheer and inevitable purpose, the rest of the party rebelled against their parents, quested to save their family, or hung around simply because they had nowhere else to go. The stakes of the story rose to a firey crescendo that swelled and crashed in a wave of action and tide of ebbing emotion. The pacing kept me turning pages, torn between astonishment at each panel and a desperate need to see what happened next. The characters involved me in their personal motivations and desires without dragging me into a morass of juvenile emotional obsession or pedantic explanations of the obvious.

The party’s adventures continued in the next volume with Shadows of the Vampire. The corruption of the realm of Ravenloft touched the heroes, laying bare their weakness and beating them down against the power of Strahd and his ability to destroy hope. Through it all, Zub continually threw the actions of hero and villain into sharp contrast, filling the world with people who are selfish, desperate, and compassionate. The stories haven’t delved deep into the philosophical discussions of the fantasy realm. They haven’t explored the implications of a world populated by deific monsters and mortals who can challenge the gods. But they haven’t needed to; Zub’s stories possess humanity. These are the people we hope we would be if we found ourselves in their world.

Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate (2014) #3
Jim Zub (left), author (right)

I met Zub at the 2016 GenCon quite by chance. He was working a booth (for his publisher, I presume) and I saw the display of Skullkickers and D&D trades. I commented to my wife that it would be very cool if I could get a signed copy of Legend of Baldur’s Gate. From the other side of the display, I heard a voice pipe up, “I can do that.” We spoke for a bit; he was very gracious and patient with me (no small feat). He’s clearly a fellow comics and fantasy fan blessed enough to be living his dream job. He convinced me to give Skullkickers a try, and signed that book for me as well.

Zub continues to write for the industry, picking up more work for Marvel as the writer on Thunderbolts and Avengers, for UDON Entertainment’s Street Fighter license, and for Image in the pages of Wayward and Glitterbomb. The adventures of Minsc and Delina continue in the pages of Dungeons & Dragons: Frost Giant’s Fury from IDW. I’ve picked up his entire run of Pathfinder comics; Skullkickers is next on my short list. I give Jim Zub’s Dungeons & Dragons books a Quality score of “Excellent” and a Relevance score of “High”.

***

Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

A Defense of Superman

I understand that some people think Superman is creepy and he makes them a little uncomfortable – he does wear his underwear on the outside of his pants after all. But I want to address this idea of Superman as the Nietzchean ubermensch, when in fact, the character hasn’t ever really represented that ideal.

The identification of Superman with Nietzsche’s ubermensch started in the 50s with the famous book Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. Wertham in fact disregarded the notion of ubermensch as “Superman” specifically because the character was not the epitome of the ideal. There are a few important differences in both origin and application of the Superman character.

1) Superman comes from Jewish and Greek roots. Siegel and Schuster were both Jews with a classical education. Their rendition of Superman in the 30s and 40s was meant to evoke Hercules and Samson. The costume came from circus strongman acts popular at the time. It is important to note that both Hercules and Samson derived their strength from a divine source outside of themselves, and so Superman was given an extraworldly origin. Which leads to:

2) Superman is not human. He comes from another planet, and it is due to this non-human status that he has great power, not due to his own efforts or his own virtue.

Though more than 70 years old, and handled by hundreds of creators in that time, these two qualities have been consistent.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche specifically created the concept of the ubermensch as a way to constrast with an supersede metaphysics in general and Christianity in specific. The ubermensch is a self-created being, using his own strength of will or body to transcend the limits of society and religion. The concept of Will to Power was never fleshed out by Nietzsche, and his modern students can come to no consensus on what he meant by the term, although personally, I agree with you that he meant it as the act of imposing one’s will on another. Unfortunately, without a unifying treatment of the character over the years, I don’t see the “will to power” concept as applying to Superman (or any other superhero) as a defining factor, although it has certainly been used as such in individual stories.

There is a literary device called transposition, where one character seems to uphold a certain value while projecting its opposite on another. In his post-millenial series “Luthor”, Brian Azzarello makes exactly your argument against Superman – that we are dependent solely upon his good will for our safety. This argument is placed in the mouths of self-made men Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne (Batman), and serves to highlight the virtue of Superman as an external savior whose presence reveals the failings of the best of men (Luthor and Wayne).

Surely, we are far better off looking to Superman as a point of identification when drawing men’s attention to the need for an external savior? Superman is the best of all things, he is everything to which we aspire, and he comes literally from the heavens. This is a fundamental literary device designed to draw one’s attention to the need for an external savior, and I think that serves as an excellent introduction to the one, true savior of humanity.

By the way, if it helps at all, in DC Comic’s “New 52” reboot, Superman will no longer be wearing the red shorts over his pants.

Superman vs The Elite

In 2001’s Action Comics #775 , writer Joe Kelly asked the question, “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Kelly was responding in part to a trend in comic books that embraced heroes that took extreme actions towards their villains, often killing or permanently maiming their foes. The violent trend is one part reaction to the “revolving prison door” trope that allows series fiction to reuse villain characters, and one part the emergence into the field of a generation of creators that came of age in the 80s and 90s. Publishers Dark Horse and Image Comics built their entire businesses around providing consumers with content graphically depicting violence and brutality, and populated by heroes and villains that embraced the narcissistic nihilism of a generation raised with a dominantly post-modern viewpoint that insisted on deconstructing any kind of ethical or moral standard.

In this publishing environment, the question of whether a character like Superman could remain relevant, draw in consumer dollars, or even continue to exist in a cultural context was a very real one. Kelly’s response is an emphatic “Yes” that makes the argument, not only can Superman exist in this cultural context, but he must exist in this cultural context if we are ever to move past it toward a future founded on principles other than selfishness. Kelly expressed his point of view in the characters of Manchester Black and the Elite, who embodied the generational values of hedonism, narcissism, nihilism, and entitlement. In combat with Superman, the values that drive the Elite are taken to their logical conclusion, and the effect on society graphically portrayed. Without defending the basis of valuing Truth and Justice, Kelly nonetheless makes an effective argument against post-modern narcissism. The movie is a spiritually faithful adaptation of the comic, not surprising since Kelly wrote the screenplay.

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Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The story is fairly simple. The Elite show up and start acting like bullies. Superman puts them in their place. Little time is wasted on complex plotting. The stakes are made clear, and the battle is joined. Story exposition exists solely to allow characters to expound their points of view and provide a logical escalation of tension.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Although we really only get to spend time with Superman and Manchester Black, they are the only two characters that really matter in this story. As it is, we get to see not only what it is that drives each of these individuals, but why their motivations are so important to them. Once again, little time is wasted on supporting characters, except how they relate to the principles. Predictably, Superman’s supporting cast is important to him, while the narcissistic Black focuses solely on himself.

Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I expect better from Warner Bros animation. The voice cast is stellar, with George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, and Robin Atkin Downes performing as Superman, Lois, and Manchester Black. Unfortunately, the animation and character designs are distinctly sub-par, with characters feeling oddly angular and anemic. Special mention has to be made of Superman’s chin, which is broad enough to be a super power all its own. The action sequences feel trite and familiar; there are none of the dramatic visuals and powerful sound design we have come to expect from the DC hero movies. The opening and closing credits feel like they’ve been ripped from a particularly jarring 70s acid trip, and the movie opens with a sequence that turns out to be an intentional parody, but whose childish design almost caused me to turn off the rest of the movie without bothering to watch it. Contrast this with the comic book, whose gritty portrayal of the characters, action, and environment sparked the imagination instead of squashing it.

Literary Value (Pass/Fail) – Pass

This story has some important things to say about humanity, about living in society, about the need for heroes, and about society in general. Thankfully, it just comes out and says them without beating around the bush and making tedious generalizations. Kelly has a drum to beat, and he does so with steadily increasing volume until crescendo. Even though the underlying reasons for the moral imperative are never addressed, Kelly makes a compellingly humanistic argument for the existence and value of the moral imperative.

Shelf-Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Unfortunately, this story is more fulfilling on paper than on the screen. The comic book is a fantastic read, and Kelly’s other outings with The Elite make excellent storytelling. But the slow pace of the film, the poor animation and character design, and the familiarity of the moral message makes me hesitate to pop this movie in as a random Saturday afternoon pick. Even the feature length commentary and two fascinating featurettes don’t make a compelling case for long-term purchase. The lower investment of the comic book purchase and the extended treatment of the premise make it more tempting to buy the trade paperback, though I find myself just as satisfied with a library loan. After a single trip through the material, I feel I’ve gained all the benefit there is to be had.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie with an important and compelling message, but as with many cases where stories have been adapted across mediums – the book was better.

Dark Sun Apocalypse

Curtis and I continue our Doomsday Prepping, focusing this time on how to get ready for the advent of the Dark Sun, when a rogue asteroid spins our planet into a closer orbit, turning the world into a desert planet. Curtis got some new toys, and we do a bit about using the new Dwarven Forge miniature dungeon. The pieces are really spectacular, and there will be pictures posted into the blog later in the week. Other topics include updates on our plans to attend Fear the Con 5, Free Comic Book Day, and the premiere of The Avengers this weekend. Check out the artwork from Atomic Earth, and send us some feedback to mindspike@criticalpressmedia.com!

With a Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance roared into theaters this weekend, and I squeezed some time out to catch an early matinee. I’ve been a Ghost Rider fanboy since 1982, when Roger Stern shared the writing credits with J.M. DeMatteis. I read my older brother’s abandoned comic books under the covers with a flashlight, thrilling to the explosive action of a guy who rode a flaming motorcycle, and horrified at the tortures Johnny Blaze underwent in his quest for redemption. Those stories were equal parts morality play and schlock horror, and I loved every minute of it. Many years later, Chuck Dixon and Mark Texeira brought more adult sensibilities to the story, along with a new origin, purpose, and powers for the Ghost Rider. At the same time, Marvel reprinted the final issues of the 1973 run – the very issues that had hooked me on the character – and I came to appreciate the storytelling on an entirely different level. Although the Ghost Rider has appeared in a few cartoons, he’s never had a major motion picture, and I anticipated eagerly the release of the 2007 picture. Five years later, I’m still excited to see another theater release, and I’m hoping for a better  treatment of the character.

The movie reboots the franchise with a clean break from the previous release; even though Nicholas Cage reprises his role as Johnny Blaze, it’s a much different Blaze than the 2007 picture. Where the first picture was almost entirely an origin story, the new one follows Blaze on his travels across Europe, running from the demon inside himself. In the process, he stumbles across an unexpected opportunity to free himself of the curse of the Ghost Rider, and help prevent a young boy from falling into the clutches of the devil. The result is a movie that delivers only a sliver of the action possible in its concept, none of the pathos of Blaze’s damned soul, and an inexpressibly mediocre take on a superhero movie.

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Story (Pass/Fail): Fail

I expected better from Neveldine and Taylor, the team of directors behind Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage, and Gamer. I expected much better from story and screenwriter David Goyer, the pen behind realizing Dark City. This movie doesn’t know whether it wants to be a superhero slugfest, introverted horror story, or road trip buddy picture and the resultant mishmash of styles has the viewer moving from beat to beat without any sense of continuity or purpose. Plot hooks are left dangling without any attempt to resolve them, and when the origin of Blaze’s demon Zarathos is finally revealed in a glorious 30-second backstory, the viewer is far more interested in the outcome of that tale than in anything that takes place in the movie itself.

Characters (Pass/Fail): Fail

Nicholas Cage plays Blaze like a drug addict who hates and loves his fix with equal intensity. Johnny Whitworth steals the show as the street-scum Carrigan. Neither of these performances can save the movie from a cast of flat actors going through the motions of reciting their lines and hitting their beats without regard to motivation, emotion, or consistency. Even the Ghost Rider is bizarre and unpredictable in his behavior, alternately creepy and powerful, but never actually as terrifying as he should be.

Production Value (Pass/Fail): Pass

This movie looks good. The Rider and everything he touches turns to dirty, sooty fire and ash. Carrigan’s transformation into Blackout accompanies dynamic visuals and an increased sense of unreality. The fight sequences are sharp, exciting, and charged with adrenaline. The camera work is mostly acceptable, leaning a bit too heavily on close-ups and camera movement for my taste, but I expect the effect of that will be diluted when it hits video instead of the theater. The music really stands out, with a hard metal score driving the Rider’s mayhem during the most explosive parts of the film. Even when the action has calmed down, the metal edge remains to the music, reminding us that all is not, in fact, well.

Content (Pass/Fail): Fail

For a movie without gory bloodletting, gratuitous skin shots, or excessive shocking language (a few g-d-bombs grated on my sensibilities) this somehow still manages to treat the inherently emotional subjects of original sin, fall from grace, continuity of evil, power of religion, and the search for redemption in a way that strips them of anything worth thinking about and reduces them to trope and cliche instead of powerful, motivating emotional force. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t distinguish between offensive and emotional subjects, and so elected to strip both of their visceral impact.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail): Fail

I can’t think of a reason to watch this film again. The effects and action were okay, but not spectacular enough to merit slogging through the morass of twitchy acting and time-honored cliche that makes up the rest of the film. I’m hoping for some really good featurettes on the character when the blu-ray hits. Maybe that will persuade me to buy it.

In the mean time, I’m going to dig out my Ghost Rider comics and read them again. DeMatteis and Stern set up some truly horrific themes when the character was winding down out of their care. Dixon made it all fresh again when Danny Ketch transformed into the Spirit of Vengeance at the shedding of innocent blood. I just plan to stop before they decided that Danny Ketch and Johnny Blaze were long-lost brothers, their power came from a piece of amulet embedded in their bodies, and Blaze was turned into a cyborg.

I suppose nothing good lasts forever.

Chicago ComicCon Unlimited

I drop in on Comics Unlimited to see how Matt Hawes enjoyed his trip to Chicago. Of course we go on for more time than is really necessary about stuff that no one else finds interesting, but I think we saved all the juicy bits for the podcast. Matt tries to hit the Chicago Con every year, but he does it from a dual standpoint, not only as a comics enthusiast and fanboy, but also as the owner of a retail store, and his perspective of this event is slightly different. Matt Billman of Living With Zombies (.net) snuck out the door just as I turned on the microphone, so we don’t get to hear from him, but you’ll find a link to his site in the post anyway. Take that, Billman!

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Crisis on Two Earths

Alternate and parallel earths are a staple of modern science-fiction, due in no small part to the prevalence, or even dominance, of these stories in the pages of the DC comics titles all through the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s. Though the company departed from this convention during the late 80’s and 90’s, duplicate earth stories are back with a vengeance, in the comics, on the tv series, and finally in the movie-length releases.

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Perspective

Evil is never so clearly defined as in the presence of good, and the duplicate reality stories really bring this contrast to light in clear and interesting ways. Whether it is the antimatter universe of Grant Morrison’s “JLA Earth 2”, or the Justice Lords of the millennial Justice League animated series, I have always loved seeing the good guys triumph over their darkest failings brought to life. I was excited to see the teasers for this movie in front of Green Lantern: First Flight, and thrilled to hear that Dwayne McDuffie was the pen behind the script and story originally pitched for the animated series. With this kind of talent and creative team, standing in front of the movie aisle waiting for me to make up my mind, I made a judgment call and filched the price of the Blu-Ray from my Starbuck’s budget.

Background

The movie is not based on any specific Justice League story. Dwayne McDuffie pitched an original story for the millennial Justice League animated series; although it did not get picked up for the series, the script has been revised and is finally seeing the light of day. DC has a long tradition of “evil twin” universes, from Earth-3 of pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths to the antimatter universe of current continuity, and now endless variations of good and bad between 52 worlds of the multiverse. McDuffie is a veteran of comics and screen-writing both, and has a history of balancing the best of characterization and storytelling.

Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The lines between good and evil have never been so clearly drawn. Heroes and villains clash simply for the dictates of moral causitude. Evil is afoot, and those who stand against it must stand. The story of this movie is merely a vehicle for the twin pillars of world-shattering action and moral philosophizing. No plot twists, sudden revelations, or shades of moral gray mar the smooth purpose of this story. With a single exception, care is take so that the viewer is not jolted from his suspension of disbelief by contrived action, unbelievable coincidence, or inconsistent presentation. This story is about people who fight and why they do it.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

If the motivations of good people seldom seem as interesting as those of the bad, here we are treated to flatly small-minded and extremely dislikable villains who at first glance seem only to desire evil for its own sake. As the movie progresses, we discover the truth of the matter. The Crime Syndicate is not a maniacal group of laughing super-villains; they’re merely thugs, gangers, and hoods with unparalleled might. There is no glamor, no humanizing and sympathetic code of honor. With the sole exception of Owl-Man, these characters are repulsive and despicable. Next to them, the sketchily drawn heroes positively shine.

Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Impeccable voice acting conveys perfectly the character of the principle leads. Spectacular action sequences take place in astounding environments. Music, foley effects, and dialog are perfectly mixed, and a treat to the ears. Awesome visual sequences combine modern and traditional effects seamlessly. Although this film never really presents innovative material, at no point does its arsenal of tried-and-true techniques fail.

Content (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Whether Owl-Man is calmly explaining the completely rational purpose behind destroying the universe, denying the presence of inherent good in humanity, or revealing heroes and villains alike as slaves to circumstance and determinism the lead villain (voiced by James Woods) wields the moral and philosophical substance of the movie like a scalpel. Add in some generally excellent bonus features in the way of four additional Justice Leage episodes (two complete stories) from the millennial series, a bonus short starring the Spectre, an analysis of DC comics post-crisis, sneak peeks, trailers, and the complete pilot episodes of Wonder Woman (70’s) and the unfortunately unaired Smallville spin-off Aquaman, and the Blu-Ray is an incredible value. Minus about three hours of content, the 2-disc DVD still rates a hearty second place.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Reluctantly, this offering fails to offer a compelling reason for repeat viewing. No audio commentary tracks are included. Even James Woods creepy and stirring performance only carries so much weight. The movie lacks the emotional punch needed to rate serious study, or the stand-out action to make it a background piece. Even the special features, once viewed, are unlikely to be called again for their own sake. The best value for money on this movie would be a weekend rental. It will reward dedicated viewing, for the sake of the subtext and content, but nothing in this film demands it.

“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”