Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Comic Book Origin Stories - Thanks, Andy Darna!

The other day Karen Mahoney - author of the Iron Witch trilogy of Young Adult novels, classy British lady, and all-around quality human being – posed an interesting question on the Kelly Sue DeConnick forums; what’s the first superhero comic you ever read? Among the responses in the thread, I found a link to Matt Fraction’s wonderful presentation, “Batman Dreams of Hieronymus Machines”, which I cannot recommend highly enough. All this nostalgia made me think a bit about my comic book origin story, and I thought I’d share some of my earliest comic memories with you this week.
Super heroes and comics have been part of my life for just about as long as I have been alive. I taught myself to read when I was three years old through the Electric Company TV show, in particular, the segments with Spider-Man. I was fascinated by Spidey, and my parents, wanting to encourage me to read, tried to track down Spider-Man books and comics.  I would demand my dad read to me every night before I went to bed. My mother says she knew I had taught myself to read one night when my father, tired from a long day of work, tried to skip a large section of dialogue. I called him on his mistake and told him what he had missed.
My comic book collection REALLY started, though, with Andy Darna.
My dad was a cop throughout my childhood until he retired with cardiac problems in the 90s. In the late 70s, he and two other cops became co-owners of a gymnasium in our home town of Manchester, CT, as a way of bringing in extra cash. This is “gym” in the old school. Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Pumping Iron” sense. No spin classes here, just big guys and gals lifting big pieces of metal. I remember the place always smelled like sweat, rust, and Gatorade.  
One of the regulars was a young guy named Andy. I don’t remember a LOT about him. I do remember his sister babysat me when I was young. And I remember that when I was about four or so, Andy decided he was going to join the Navy. He cleared out most of the possessions tying him down, and gave me all of his comic books.
I have no idea where that guy is today. He probably has no idea what a major impact on my life he made with such a simple, casual gesture. “Here, kid,” he said, handing me a cardboard box filled with dreams and destiny, “These are yours for keeps. But you’re not getting my Superman versus Muhammad Ali.”
I’m honestly not sure what the first comic I ever read was. It was something published around 1977 or 1978, I’m sure. But I CAN remember some of those comics I got from Andy.  So to complete this walk down memory lane, here are a couple of my oldest comic book memories.

Batman #308
Mister Freeze is up to his old tricks! He’s trying to perfect a way of making his girlfriend, Hildy, immortal. But so far his experiments have failed, leaving him with an army of frozen zombie goons. Batman is overtaken by the bad guys, and for a moment, we’re led to believe he’s been turned into a frozen Bat-zombie! (Bat-frozen-zombie? I’m not actually sure how the language works there.) But huzzah! It’s all a ruse, and Batman foils Mister Freeze’s schemes, although Hildy manages to kill herself trying to shoot Mister Freeze and Batman with a faulty freeze gun.
This one genuinely scared me. I was convinced that Batman had REALLY been turned into an ice zombie. I was oddly untraumatized by Hildy’s death, though. She got what she had coming to her.


Green Lantern #114
Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary take on the new super-villain, THE CRUMBLER! It says a lot about the powers of imagination possessed by a 4-year-old that I thought the Crumbler was a credible threat. (Doing some research, it seems like this guy was a major pain in the ass for GL and GA through 1979, and then nobody ever heard from him again.)


Incredible Hulk #234
Hulk versus hippies! (Basically, anyway.) Hulk hides out in a commune with his friends Fred and Trish. The bad guy gasses the house and kidnaps Trish while disguised as Machine Man!   This is one of the rare instances where I had not only this issue, but the follow-up issue, where the Hulk goes after Machine Man in the classic comic book trope of mistaken identity leading to heroes battling heroes.
Machine Man is still one of my favorite characters. I love that guy. I remember a really great Spider-Man comic where MM and Spidey team up to fight Baron Brimstone. Good stuff.


Iron Man #122
One of those great issues they used to have in comics where they just retell the hero’s origin again. It’s the comic book version of a clip show.


Justice League of America #168
The conclusion of a story where the Secret Society of Super Villains had switched bodies with the JLA.  Years later, this would turn out to be the basis for the Identity Crisis miniseries. So… way to fuck up my childhood memories, Brad Meltzer.
This JLA lineup, by the way, will always be THE JLA lineup for me. It doesn’t get any better than this.


Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #253
This comic started a love affair with the Legion that I still sort of nurture. And it introduces 5 new villains who stalk through the story killing a bunch of Legionnaires before setting their sights on Superboy.
Pretty heady stuff for a 4-year-old. The bad guys plow through Colossal Boy, Ultra Boy, Timber Wolf, Light Lass and Phantom Girl. At the time, I had no way of knowing that the heroes weren’t really dead. To this day, by the way, Ultra Boy and Timber Wolf are still my two favorite Legionnaires.


Thor #281
Thor finds himself stuck in Limbo, where he encounters the Space Phantom, who tricks him into a shaft where time has split down the middle, trapping Thor half in and half-out of his Don Blake form.
This is one of those great Marvel Comics that really show what comics do best. Big action, super melodrama, and insanely bizarre visual effects and sci-fi lunacy.

And last but not least…

Marvel Two-In-One #51
The Thing organizes a late night poker game in Avengers mansion, but the game gets interrupted by reports of an attack on the SHIELD Hellicarrier.
Again, this is a comic that introduced me to some of my all-time favorite characters -  Ms Marvel, the Beast, Nick Fury, and of course, the Ever-Loving Blue-Eyed Thing. Plus, Wonder Man. I know Wonder Man is something of a joke now, and his leisure suit look didn’t age very well, but to 4-year-old me, he was fucking awesome. HOMEBOY HAD GLOWWING EYES! And he freaked out the Thing! And the captions told me he was as tough as Thor! How could you NOT love that guy?
I love that the Floating Super-Hero Poker Game is still a thing in the Marvel Universe. Dan Slott cracked it out again in a recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man, and I nearly crapped my pants in glee.

Thanks to Karen for the idea for the blog. Everybody go read her books. And tell her I sent you.

Hugs and kisses,
(The) Travis

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

FASERIP Forever!

Recently, on the Bendis Board, poster Adam Greenberger started a thread reminiscing about the old Marvel Super Heroes Role Playing Game from TSR. Holy shit, the memories that came flooding back.
I started playing pen and paper RPGs in 6th Grade. This was in the olden days, of course, so I didn't have the options available to the youth of today. No MMORPGs. It was pen and paper or nothing. At the time, I was enrolled in a parochial school, so expressing an interest in Dungeons and Dragons would have been the equivalent of yelling “HAIL SATAN!” at your homeroom teacher. I was a huge comic book nerd, though, and I kept seeing ads in the back of Marvel comics for this game that would let you take on the role of your favorite super heroes. I NEEDED this game.
Again, this was that murky time before the internet, so my options for securing game materials were limited. I had to patiently save my pennies and then con my parents into driving me an hour away to the one game store I could find; the late, lamented Flock Stock & Barrel.

For the next four years, I would spend Saturday after Saturday unleashing all manner of cosmic comic mayhem in the Merry Marvel Manner on my friends and schoolmates. Once good old Pat Coleman moved away, I was the only hardcore comic book fan in my circle, so there were some fairly hilarious communication breakdowns as I tried to wrap my friends up in the machinations of Marvel’s most nefarious. For example, an ongoing argument as to the origins of Radioactive Man’s powers (“For the thousandth time, he did NOT live on Three Mile Island!”), and a seemingly impenetrable fog of confusion as to the Wrecking Crew (“So it’s like the Village People, but they’re ALL the construction worker?”). Also, I had at least one childhood chum who could not fathom why superheroes didn’t just shoot the bad guys, ala Dirty Harry. He would spend half of his time as Spider-Man trying to buy a handgun.
In the early going I used the pre-written modules TSR produced. My favorite was FAULTLINE, where the heroes had to race against time to thwart a bombing in NYC (Not a scenario that could probably play nowadays). Also, being a huge X-Men fan, I naturally gravitated to any chance to run a mutant-centric module. (Although those game days usually collapsed in arguments as to who would get to be Wolverine. )
Eventually, I started writing my own adventures. I will admit to a certain lack of sophistication to the plots, initially. Although my friends never seemed to catch on to the whole “The Villians Spell Their Name with the Stores They Rob” scheme until it was almost too late. By the time they figured out what was going on, the Wrecking Crew was down to the second “R”.  
My favorite string of adventures came my freshman year of high school. I had purchased the Avengers sourcebook, which contained an adventure in which the players made brand new heroes and then started an “Avengers Experimental Franchise” in their hometown. (I wonder if the brains behind the Avengers: Initiative comics ever played that adventure). My players started AEF-CT, and based their headquarters in what was, at the time, an abandoned Sears department store in Manchester, Connecticut. Over the next year and change, a rotating team of homegrown heroes arrested the Taskmaster, bested Ultron, trounced the Mole Man, and handed the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants their collective asses not once, but twice.
At that point, I started devoting all of my RPG energy to the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. 20 years later, I still have a weekly D&D game, and I still love RPGs as much as I did. But I do miss those early innocent days of superheroism, friendship, and Spider-Man with a handgun.
For your entertainment, re-created as faithfully as I could remember, I present two of the founding members of the AEF-CT – Phoenix (originally created by Brian Wiatr), and Nightbird (originally created by Johanna Mead). (Thanks to HeroMachine 3.0 for the images.)

Fighting  - Good (10)
Agility – Remarkable (30)  
Strength – Good (10)
Endurance – Incredible (40)
Reason – Remarkable (30)
Intuition – Good (10)
Psyche – Excellent (20)
Fire Generation (Incredible) – Phoenix can generate flames and heat at will.
Fire Control (Amazing) – Phoenix can control existing flames and heat, shaping them, enlarging them, or extinguishing them.
Energy Sheath (Remarkable) – Phoenix can surround his body with an aura of flames, giving him protectiong from energy and physical attacks.
Carrier Wave (Incredible) – By projecting flames behind him, Phoenix can fly through the air.
Computer Science

Fighting  - Amazing (50)
Agility – Excellent (20)  
Strength – Incredible (40)
Endurance – Amazing (50)
Reason – Excellent (20)
Intuition – Good (10)
Psyche – Good (10)
True Invulnerability (Incredible) – Nightbird is highly resistant to physical damage.
Hyper-Leaping (Remarkable) – Nightbird can make leaps of up to 40 feet.
Espionage; Law enforcement; Martial Arts A,B,C,D,E; Acrobatics  

This blog is for Brian, and Johanna, and Matt, Jason, Benji, Pat, Beth, Heather, Steve, Delio, Kristie, Ben, and any other members of the AEF-CT I may have forgotten.

Leonardo Gonzalez is an insanely talented artist I am lucky enough to be working with on the forthcoming “Fairy Tale” issue of GrayHaven Comics’ “The Gathering” anthology. Everybody needs to go pick up a copy of Haunt #19, where you can see Leo’s art!
To celebrate the new creative team of Joe Casey and Nathan Fox, Image Comics ran a contest for fan art to grace the issue. Leo came in fourth overall, and then his piece was chosen by Joe Casey to appear in the book!
Congratulations to Leo, who is an awesome collaborator, a fantastic artist, and a genuinely good guy.
Here’s a preview of one of Leo’s page from our Gathering story, “The Heartbreak Tree”.

So go! Run and buy Haunt #19! Right now!

Hugs and kisses,