Dungeon Master Zero

Tags: Timothy Burke and I, Napoleonic miniatures on acid, the first Dungeon Master, God versus the Metric System, the Lost Tribe.

Timothy Burke and I at the AHA in January:*

Me: It seems like 2006 was the year that a lot of academic bloggers came out of the closet as online gamers.

Tim: Definitely. There used to be a real social stigma attached to gaming in academia, but now with World of Warcraft and Second Life and so on, it really can’t be denied that online roleplaying games are a social phenomenon worthy of serious critical study.

Me: I’m just waiting for the same thing to happen to tabletop roleplaying games.

Tim: You mean like Dungeons & Dragons?

Me: More or less.**

Tim: Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen… loser.

It’s not much of a secret, if you’ve read my LiveJournal or just triangulated from my other interests, but from 1980-1990 and then again from 2001-2005, I played a lot of roleplaying games. Which today are called tabletop roleplaying games or pen-and-paper games, in the sort of prefix addition (think dial telephone, snail mail, liberal Democrat) that generally implies the object in question, while once the norm, is well on its way to the boneyard.

I’m writing something on the history and pre-history of tabletop RPGs for Jonathan Walton and his excellent journal Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying. You can see my original sketch of the article at the top secret Push forum, but it keeps getting longer and weirder than I’d planned. And although I just emailed Jonathan to tell him I’m going to miss his already generous deadline, what follows is something I’m not sure I can fit into the article and that I wanted to share right away. Read more


Old is the New Hope

Tags: “I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”

He's the Jedi, I'm the Wookiee.

Today, or this week at least, Star Wars turns 30: it’s the anniversary of the opening of the movie we’ve been retroactively instructed to call Episode IV: A New Hope. Word has gone out on the global sub-neural geek-net that we are to blog about Star Wars today. Indeed, The Constructivist cajoled me for a guest post on the subject at Mostly Harmless. While T.C.’s a fine fellow who somehow manages to maintain half a dozen worthwhile blogs, I’m not feeling the Lucas today. For one thing, this week is also the 2nd anniversary of Revenge of the Sith, the 5th anniversary of Attack of the Clones, and the 8th anniversary of The Phantom Menace, considerably more dubious occasions. And for another, isn’t every day kind of “blog about Star Wars” day?

But I’m not above recycling some old SW-content from my archives. There is, of course, the classic Alec Guinness story, from which the tag at the top of this entry comes:

The bad penny dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. … Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode. [read more]

And, in a similar vein, Matthew Baldwin‘s Darth Vader Made Me Cry:

As we walked away I was filled with combination of terror, relief, and exhilaration. … I immediately began to proactively gloat, thinking about how jealous my friends would be when I showed them Darth Vader’s autograph. But then, just before I closed the cover, I noticed something else… [read more] [expanded special edition]

And my buddy Chris has made great pseudo-historical stew out of the Steampunk Star Wars meme:

When the French Revolution began in 1789, the Jedi were slow to respond. … While the Order bickered and debated how to respond, Napoleon Bonaparte quickly rose to power by manipulating a dispute with the British over a trade embargo on the French colony of Naboo on Ganymede. When he unveilled his “Armée grande de la République,” which was composed of soldiers made from re-animated corpses, there was great concern within the Jedi Council over the properness of backing such a method. But unbeknownst to the rest of the Council, the Grand Master of the Jedi Order was squarely in Napoleon’s pocket and he compelled the Order to support the Solar Republic in their gruesome war against the British Empire and their Automaton armies.

I still think it ought to have been (p)remade as a singing cowboy serial with Gene Autry.

Edit: That’s no moon! Check out the giant collection of links at Edward Copeland’s fully operational Star Wars blog-a-thon. Also, the T-Critic (yes, I read blogs about t-shirts, doesn’t everybody?) lists his Top Ten Star Wars T-shirts (and then some).


Namu Yoda Butsu

Tags: I picked up a box, I lifted some rocks, while I stood on my head…

As a historian, I have a complicated relationship with the History Channel. As a Gen-Xer, I have a complicated relationship with Star Wars. But after a lifetime of doodling Tie Fighters and Death Stars on notepaper how can I not respond to these ads for the History Channel’s special, Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed?

Yoda as Buddha

Now, where’s the one that shows the evolution from Stepin Fetchit to Jar Jar Binks?


Superman I: Secret Origins

Tags: Henry Ward Beecher’s Bowflex; what Batman, beefcake, birth control, and bootleg liquor have in common; “this looks like a job for Spicy Man.”

Tarzan, wasn't a ladies man...

Secret origin? What’s so secret about it? You all know the story. Even if you’ve never read a comic book in your life, you’ve probably heard the tale. Gotham City, in the days of film-noir fedoras and Hupmobiles. A young boy–bookish, awkward, a dreamer–goes to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, and falls in love with the idea. A costumed hero who masquerades as a timid milquetoast, then bursts forth to battle crime and injustice with superhuman skill! Plot thickens: the boy loses his parents, shot dead in a mugging gone wrong. The crime is senseless, random. The boy’s life is shattered. He vows revenge, not on the thug that did his father in, but on crime itself. He vows he will become…

Hold on. Here’s the part you might not know. The city is not fictional Gotham but real life Cleveland. The boy is not millionaire Bruce Wayne but working class schlemiel Jerry Siegel. His father Michel, who immigrated from Lithuania in the first decade of the century, was murdered while closing his Woodland haberdashery in 1928. The police never found his killer. Ten years later, Jerry Siegel and his high school buddy Joe Shuster wrote and illustrated the first true “superhero” story for Harry Donenfeld’s Action Comics. This is not Batman’s secret origin, it’s Superman’s.
Read more


The Zombie With No Name

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Are you the best crack team of culture vultures on the internet, or are you the best crack team of culture vultures on the internet? It takes a certain kind of person to answer a goofball query like “What was the first cowboy zombie?” with straight up answers like:

Jeremiah: “I instantly think of Lucio Fulci’s work in the late 1970s when it comes to westerns and zombies.”
Jess: “I could get a good article out of that, if I had the resources to investigate it thoroughly.”
Ivan: “This, good sir, is a worthy quest for such as we.”

Plus Chris T representing with his beloved super-apes, and Sean D stepping up to suggest EC Comics (of course!), and not one person even suggesting that this is a ridiculous question to ask, let alone get worked up about. I tell ya, the Planetary field team’s got nothing on my Friends list.

Now, then. Chris’ sick obsession with hot clockwork-on-corpse porn notwithstanding, he is right to remind us that there may be no single smoking zombie. The super-ape phenom is a good sister example of the sort of thing we’re talking about: a visual trope that’s practically a cliche within the subculture and practically unknown without. (Although, was the super-ape boom really in the 1960s? I would have guessed it was the early 1970s, ie post Planet Of The Apes. Which could then have provided the Ur-Super-Ape. Obviously intensive further study is in order. And funding for same. Quickly, to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada!)

[Edit: Intensive further study has been completed, and Chris was right, I was wrong. The Ape Age of Comics apparently dates all the way back to the 1950s.]

“Hey, I heard we’re going to Ape Island!”
“Yeah, to capture a giant ape. I wish we were going to Candy Apple Island instead.”
“Candy Apple Island? What’ve they got there?”
“Apes. But they’re not so big.”

All that said, I’m certainly prepared to give the first horror western award to the mighty Robert Howard, especially on the double say so of Jess & Jere. (The other “Jess,” and Jere, that is.) But my guess is we probably won’t find many bona fide cowboy zombies in the 1930s pulps, because I don’t think (but please do correct me if I’m wrong) the zombie qua zombie was really realized in pop culture until a few decades further along. When Val Lewton made I Walked With A Zombie in 1942, to most people “zombie” still meant “doped up Haitian” rather than “brain eating corpse.” I think.

Sean might just win the cookie for his suggestion of pre-Frederick Wertham’s EC Comics. Not as the originator of the horror western, surely, but as a key vector that burned the image of the cowboy zombie—the dessicated corpse, the snaggly teeth, the tattered Confederate uniform—into the soft little brain tissue of the baby boom kiddies who grew up to seed it all over our culture.

Say, that reminds me. There’s a cowboy zombie story in the McSweeney’s / Michael Chabon Treasury of Thrilling Tales by none other than Sherman Alexie. It’s as nasty and moralistic as any of the EC Cryptkeeper’s yarns, and simultaneously one of the most straight-up genre pieces and one of the most memorable stories in that oddball collection.