Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Go Fer Yer Gun! and Silver Gulch [RPG]

After running a few multi-year campaigns that were enjoyable but draining, I've come up with a different approach for the next year or so.  A series of four-session long adventures, with each adventure set in a different genre and with a different mix of players.

The first adventure was a lot of fun and definitely a chance to trying something different: a Western!  I used a free D20 RPG called Go Fer Yer Gun! and while it might not stand up to campaign play, it was perfect for four sessions of gunslinging.  The PCs arrived in the veritable ghost town of Silver Gulch (nearly abandoned since the local mine petered out) and soon got caught up in a scheme by a mysterious masked bandit to drive the remaining townspeople away.  It was a chance to use all of the hallmarks of the genre, including cattle stampedes, a "new sheriff in town", abandoned mine shafts, and even a damsel in distress about to be blown to smithereens by dynamite!  We had an interesting mix of PCs:  a Maverick named Dusty (who ended up becoming the new sheriff after the NPC sheriff was killed at the beginning of the adventure), a Drifter named Quint (who had a predilection for shooting villains in the back), a female Doctor named Zenobia (a no-nonsense type), and another Doctor named Doc (a scarred fellow).  Naturally, they managed to save the day after an exciting climax on a teetering rope bridge high above a gulch and unmask the bandit leader as the town's mayor!  I stole a good chunk of the setting and NPCs for the adventure from a Western novel called "Ghost Town" by Will Sutton, and it really helped me flesh out characters.

The second adventure will start up in January and will be a 1930s pulp adventure in the Indiana Jones/The Mummy/Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow vein.  I've still got a lot of details to work out, but I'll be using the Savage Worlds rule-set for the first time.

Then later in 2016, I've got post-apocalyptic mutants lined up (using Gamma World) and super heroes (not sure what I'll use yet).

We'll see how the experiment proceeds, but so far it's been a refreshing way to move beyond the standard sword and sorcery and try out some different types of RPGs.

Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown (Marvel) (Ltd. 1988) [COMICS]

Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown definitely stood out from mainstream Marvel superhero comics when it came out.  A four-issue limited series, the comic was published by Marvel's Epic imprint, which allowed it a more mature tone and adult (read: sex & violence) content.  Visually, it was quite different with fully painted covers and interiors.  I remember reading it years ago and thinking the artwork was ugly, but today I appreciate it more.  As the title indicates, fellow X-Men Havok (Alex) and Wolverine (Logan) team up in the issue; it's not a natural or familiar pairing, so it was interesting to see what writers Walter and Louise Simonson would do with it.

Issue # 1 begins with a conversation between the series' two main villains:  a manipulative Russian strategist named Dr. Neutron and his ally, a super-powered figured named General Meltdown.  It turns out they arranged events to cause the Chernobyl crisis in a bid to slow down Gorbachev's reforms, and now they've turned their attention to Havok for a reason that won't yet be revealed.  The scene then shifts to a small town in Mexico where Wolverine gets into a bar fight while Havok watches, bemused.  Good artwork and fun banter make it work.  The pair end up getting chased by gun-toting thugs and steal a car with a woman inside, just as some sort of cyborg with a laser rifle opens fire.  Basically, it's all a trick to get Wolverine and Havok to reveal their superpowers, and then the female driver (whose code-name is Quark and who works for Dr. Neutron and General Meltdown) tranqs them.  Logan eventually wakes up in a hospital and is told Alex is dead; but smelling a rat, he digs up Alex's "grave" and finds it full of rocks.  It's an interesting, fast-paced, and intriguing beginning to a series that is definitely different than the norm.

In Issue # 2, Logan is on the kidnapped Alex's trail.  He busts up that same Mexican bar for info, and then interrogates a taco seller for information.  It's a really fun scene, and quite bloody, justifying the Epic treatment.  Meanwhile, Alex wakes up in a weird, fake hospital.  Quark wears a disguise and gives her name as Scarlett and pretends to be a nurse at the hospital.  She tricks Havok into thinking Wolverine has been captured and brainwashed by a nefarious organisation--perhaps the CIA!  The bad guys' real plan is revealed to the reader:  General Meltdown wants to absorb the full force of Havok's radiation power to become invincible, but the only way Havok would ever let loose enough is if he thinks Meltdown has been responsible for Wolverine's death.

Issue # 3 starts with a nice piece of irony:  Alex flies with Scarlett on the way to "rescue" Logan, while Logan is actually tracking the plane to rescue Alex.  Logan gears up, and in a fun and gory scene, impales a fellow in the eyes with his claws (from behind!)--try that in a Comics Code Authority approved book!  I have to admit, I'm starting to get into the moody painted artwork.  Anyway, Wolvie gets caught in a barbed-taser trap and gets brainwashed for real--when he and Alex track down each other, Wolvie attacks and Alex has to blast him to what is apparently death.  He vows revenge on whomever set up the whole thing, and General Meltdown assumes his plan is going to work.  Only, Scarlett seems to be falling for Alex for real, and I don't think Alex really thinks he killed Wolverine so easily . . .

In Issue # 4, Scarlett literally stumbles over a "clue" (a partially burned diagram of a nuclear reactor in India) to lead Havok to the site of General Meltdown's planned endgame.  After burying Wolverine in a shallow grave, Havok and Scarlett board a plane from India.  There, they find the reactor is melting down and Havok absorbs radiation to try to stop the problem but General Meltdown attacks.  There's a cool battle in the middle of a live nuclear reactor, which I can say I've never seen before.  Seeing that Havok still won't unleash his full power on him, Meltdown kills Scarlett.  Havok blasts Meltdown and is weakened, but then Wolverine arrives!  It's a tough, well-depicted battle that sees Wolvie impaling Meltdown with multiple control rods to sap his inner reactor.  Wolverine and Havok escape, having saved the day, and in a sweet moment Logan decides not to tell Alex that his beloved Scarlett was in on the whole thing.  There's an interesting and foreboding epilogue featuring Dr. Neutron, but I'm not sure if anything ever comes of it . . .

All in all, a really good limited series pairing two heroes who don't often adventure together in a novel setting.  The painted artwork can be a bit off-putting at first, but it really grew on me.  Final verdict: an interesting and successful experiment.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Buffy Comic Project: "Note From the Underground, Part 2"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 48

(Dark Horse Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Scott Lobdel & Fabian Nicieza (story); Cliff Richards (pencils); Will Conrad (inks)

Setting:  After Season Six

T.V. Character Appearances:  Buffy, Xander, Dawn, Anya, Angel, Faith, Pike

Major Original Characters:  San Sui (Chinese Vampire)

Summary:  Buffy and her friends had heard word of a secret demon gladiator ring in hidden chambers underneath Sunnydale University, and now Buffy fights her twenty-seventh challenger in the last four days!  She recognises it as a vampire named San Sui she thought she dusted years ago.  Meanwhile, nearby, Xander, Dawn, and hundreds of Sunnydale residents are held captives by the demons.  Anya, in her vengeance demon form of Anyanka, is apparently undercover and tells Xander that the demons are extracting the pain and misery of the captives to use in a narcotic called Soul Drops.  Elsewhere, Faith and Angel arrive in Sunnydale and survey the damaged scene of a fight at the Magic Box--
Angel says he's unable to track Buffy's scenet.  Back underground, Buffy keeps fighting and unleashes her inner anger on the demons.  Suddenly, machine gun fire kills a demon and a motorcycle appears.  The driver tells Buffy to hop on the back, and they manage to escape to the town limits.  Buffy thinks from the motorcyclists apparel that it is Riley who rescued her, but it actually turns out to be someone from much further back in her life:  Pike!

Review

Starting with the end, it was an awesome twist that I didn't see coming.  I haven't thought about Pike in a long, long time and I'm really curious to see what Lobdel & Nicieza do with him.  Clever writers!  The main story with the underground fight ring and the kidnapped townsfolk is interesting, partially because we're not 100% clear on exactly what went down prior to the events in the story.  I'm used to Buffy comics spelling everything out scene by scene, but I don't mind imagining some backstory for myself.  I'm anxious for Faith & Angel to get involved after their excellent scenes in the previous issue.  As far as I'm concerned, I'm sold on the new writers and the new direction.  Bring on Issue # 49!

Notes

*  A few days before reading this issue, I was telling a friend my theory that pretty much every genre supernatural genre series I can think of has at least one story involving a demon fight club:  Angel, Lost Girl, etc.  I don't mind too much.

*  That art cover is awesome.  Poster-worthy.  People who bought the photo cover because it included Angel and Faith would be disappointed to see they're only on one page of the comic inside.

*  Intriguing mysterious subplot about the demons Buffy is fighting having been ones she's sure she's killed before.  I had to do some research to remember that San Sui is the kung fu vampire she dusted way back in Issue # 1!

*  It's really interesting really the advance solicitations released for this story arc to see how much the final product has changed.  Apparently, these four issues were going to be called "Hellmouth to Mouth."  This issue, for example, was supposed to include Giles, Oz, and Willow (who would be tempted by dark magic) but they don't actually show up at all!

*  The Pike reveal was pretty cool.

*  The issue includes a very, very early ad for Firefly.  "Joss Whedon gave new blood to vampires.  Now he turns his unique vision to space."

Note the different version of the show's logo font and the firefly symbol.











Next Issue

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 55 [RPG]

[2 Flamerule 1372 continued]

The adventurers leap through the mirror-portal and immediately find themselves falling towards a hard stone floor. All but Myst and Syd manage to land on their feet, but the whole group is in far worse danger. They've arrived in a warehouse that has been set ablaze, and several members of the group seem dazed and shaken by the mystical journey. Fortunately, Syd keeps his cool and instantly transforms into an ape. Climbing and leaping over crates with abandon, the druid finds an outer wall, blasts it open with a powerful spell, and returns to start ferrying his friends, confused and choking from smoke, to safety. Mellia also arrived in full possession of her faculties, and she decides to look for a nearby exit. While invisible, she witnesses Mortemont being carried to safety by his clay golems, while nearby guard-hounds yap and cringe. She returns to the others, and with Syd's help is able to escape.

The adventurers find themselves in an alleyway adjacent to the burning building. The sound of yelling echoes through the night, and occasional glimpses of large groups of men running and shouting can be seen past either end of the alleyway. As Syd and Mellia stand watch and tend to injuries, the others start to recover from the smoke and rigours of the instantaneous journey. Gradually, however, a startling realization dawns on Fargrim, Ralkin, Dolcetto, and Myst: they've switched bodies! Dolcetto's mind is trapped in Fargrim's body, the dwarf's mind is in her's, and Ralkin and Myst have likewise transferred. They have little time to grapple with the implications of such a dramatic turn, as a shirtless, tattooed man wearing red breeches dashes into the alleyway pursued by an enraged mob chanting about throwing off the shackles of Thay. 

From her studies, Mellia realizes the man is likely a Red Wizard and communicates this to her allies. Syd transforms again, this time into a giant eagle, and telepathically instructs the fleeing figure to climb on his back. The man does so and gleefully says that "the rabble below" will now face the punishment they deserve. He calls forth from realms unknown a massive, two-headed troll to appear and wreak havoc on the Laothkundians, who flee en masse. Dolcetto, who just seconds before realized she was in a new body, is filled with a sudden uncontrollable rage and charges towards the monster! The beast inflicts multiple grievous wounds before Syd convinces the Red Wizard, who names himself Olver of the Order of Abjuration, to send the creature back whence it came. Olver says his Order has a safehouse in Laothkund where they can regroup. With Syd scouting ahead through the air, the adventurers bypass heavy fighting in the streets as the uprising continues.

Once inside the safehouse in the hidden basement of a decrepit residence, Olver suddenly realizes he knows little about his rescuers. The two tieflings pass unremarked, but he is quite surprised to see a dwarf and a halfling in the city. He grows suspicious and truculent. Mellia explains that they are a group of adventurers who seek to enter Thay on important business with the Flaming Brazier. Olver says that to obtain a travel permit, they should seek an audience with the autharch of a border province. He then asks the adventurers to leave, after thanking them grudgingly.

[3 Flamerule 1372]

Shortly past midnight, the adventurers again find themselves out on the streets of Laothkund. They decide to head towards the eastern portion of the city, hoping to escape the uprising and camp in the wilderness. In the city's labyrinthine streets, a wrong turn leads the party face to face with a bloody and enraged patrol of gnolls. Mellia tries to persuade them that she and the others are on the side of Thay, but the motley band of adventurers look too suspicious to the gnolls and a fight ensues. Syd, who has transformed yet again and taken the shape of a horse, calls down lightning from otherwise clear skies to strike the hyena-faced humanoids, while Mellia sends magickal spheres of force and summons black tentacles to crush them. Ralkin, in Myst's body, is injured during the fighting, but the adventurers are victorious and able to keep moving.

The party's quest to rescue Cain has just begun, and already peril dogs them at every step!

Next Recap

Monday, October 26, 2015

Torchwood Magazine # 16 [TORCHWOOD]

I noticed some months back that on my Torchwood page, I had reviewed all of the issues of Torchwood Magazine but one.  It took a bit of digging to find someone with a back issue for sale online, but Issue # 16 has now arrived and I'm only six years behind the cover date!  This issue was published just before Children of Earth was set to come out, and the writers and letter page fans are understandably excited.  There's some good stuff in this one:

* An interview with Cush Jumbo, who plays the far less interestingly-named character Lois Habiba in Children of Earth;

*  A feature on the making of three Torchwood audio plays (Asylum, Golden Age, and The Dead Line).  I listened to and reviewed these a long time ago, and it was surprisingly fun to see behind the scenes.

*  A short story:  "The Man Who Dreamed of Stars".  It has an excellent hook:  a terribly disfigured burn victim turns up at a Cardiff hospital, and Jack realizes he's a former Time Agent.  I won't spoil it, but there's a good twist and it's a dark story that fits the Torchwood feel perfectly.

*  A feature on the episode They Keep Killing Suzie, one of my favourite episodes.  The theme is Gwen's contrast to Suzie as a member of the team.

* An interview with the actress who plays Detective Swanson.

*  Part 2 of the 5 part comic strip "Broken.  It's a Bilis story, but frankly incomprehensible without the first part.  Amateur artwork.

*  A feature on the Rift War! comic strip collection.  The revelation that multiple writers apparently had no idea what each other were doing helps explain why it was so terrible.

*  Part one of a short story called "Closing Time."  The team discovers that food, flowers, etc., are spoiling in Cardiff, but only along a particular path through the city.  Gwen & Ianto follow a suspicious figure to the Passmore Research Institute, and when Jack meets Professor Passmore, the man is clammy, leaky, and smells rotten.  Effectively creepy!  Very good, and definitely worth seeing what happens in part two.

* A "Behind the Hub" feature on immortality.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Mynock Squadron Recap # 4 [RPG]

[4.6.7 ABY]

Tuvolo wakes everyone with the announcement that the planned final exercise has been postponed to allow attendance at the memorial service for Moldva Vanir, the operations chief who died in the recent X-Wing crash.  The recruits are told they have just enough time for a grueling run around the base perimeter carrying rucksacks full of heavy rocks.  Stavros discreetly shifts some of the rocks out of his pack and into others, including poor Slaprat's.
During the run, Stavros and Kero fall back from the others.  Stavros shares his suspicions that perhaps Waric, unbeknownst to himself, is the spy.  Stavros points out the recruit's strange behaviour during the Gauntlet and suggests he might be mentally unhinged.  Kero is unconvinced, but agrees it would make sense to have Waric undergo an evaluation.

 When the two reunite with Waric and Keth, the group discuss the upcoming memorial and agree it could be a time when everyone would be vulnerable.  Each recruit agrees to carefully watch a different aspect of the event for any suspicious behaviour.  However, the service passes uneventfully.  Tuvolo states that later in the day Major Dei wishes to interview all 12 recruits, 4 at a time, in order of ranking on the leaderboard.

 In the meantime, Stavros talks to Waric about the latter's strange behaviour and black-outs.  Waric is quite agreeable to having his cybernetic neural net put through a diagnostic and explains the origin of his injury: during an explosion, a battlefield medic was forced to salvage the processor from a nearby entertainment droid in order to keep him alive.  Kero states that if she brushed up on her cybernetics she could perform the examination, but later states she's not very good with computers and that the base computer technician should do it. The two agree to go together to see Stapos later in the day. Before they split up, Kero mentions that something should be done to improve relations with the two Rodians, Torgo and Torga, as there is a fair chance one or both of them will make Mynock Squadron. Waric tracks the two down and receives a respectful greeting as he was the only one of the final contestants in the Gauntlet challenge to continue fighting.

That afternoon, Stavros, Waric, Kero, and Keth have their "interview" with Major Dei, which is actually a ruse for a planning session. Dei states that he managed to crack the encryption on the code cylinder brought to him by Kero and that it contains a message to the Imperial spy on the base. Apparently, an Imperial strikeforce is on the way and will bombard the base from orbit unless an abort signal is sent; the deadline for the signal is just 18 hours away! Dei tells the recruits he needs them to find the spy soon or he'll have no choice but to order an evacuation; and, without knowing who the spy is, the security clearance of everyone on basis will be suspect and it may mean the end of Mynock Squadron before it truly begins. The recruits receive permission from Dei to enter any base property and interview any base personnel as they urgently hope to find the spy before it's too late. On their way out of his office, they overhear the base quartermaster, Ainsi Noh, reporting to Dei that an inventory of base equipment shows that a field kit and a speeder bike are missing.

Waric and Kero start their investigation by speaking to the base administration droid, C5-B9. They learn that only three individuals on the base have the requisite authority to alter its or the maintenance droid's programming: Major Dei, Stapos, and the deceased Moldva Vanir. Later, when Waric and Kero track down Stapos and ask her to perform a diagnostic on Waric's cybernetic neural-net, a strange feedback loop damages the diagnostic equipment and forces an end to the procedure.

Meanwhile, Stavros visits the Chief of Security Wapos Du, and examines holo-footage from the interior and perimeter of the base. Stavros notices some strange discrepancies, and realizes that the base's east gate was opened just prior to the time when the maintenance droid must have been tampered with to sabotage the sims. At about the same time, across the base, Keth conducts a thorough inspection of the A-Wings that will be used for the recruits' final training mission and discovers that the harmless targeting systems on one of the craft have been bypassed and that real ordinance would be armed on the craft.

The four recruits reunite, and after discarding Stavros' suggestion that Waric should be detained for observation, quickly share the information they've gained. Keth is sent to examine the electronic access terminal on the east gate and determines that the credentials used to gain access at multiple suspicious times, including when everyone was at the morning's memorial service, were that of Moldva Vanir. Even more impressively, Waric manages to isolate a reflected image from a transparisteel pane that shows Moldva Vanir himself sneaking onto base! The four conclude that Vanir is not dead after all and must be hiding somewhere in the rugged terrain outside the base. Rushing to find Major Dei and Lt. Tuvolo to share the news, they learn that speeder bikes have hidden homing beacons on them, and that the stolen bike's beacon is active.

While Keth and Waric jump in A-Wings to patrol the airspace above the base, Kero and Stavros persuaded Torgo and Torga to help them in the hunt for the saboteur. With the Rodians' tracking skill and coordinates from the stolen bike's homing beacon, the recruits quickly reach the entrance to a deep, narrow ravine. They find the stolen bike hidden nearby and disable it before proceeding the rest of the way on foot.

As they traverse the rugged terrain into the narrow, shadowy ravine, Kero notices a formation of boulders high up on rock face that do not look like they can have been put there naturally. Careful searching of the area in front of them reveals a small motion sensor placed at ankle height. The recruits decide to try to jump over the area scanned by the sensor, but a running leap by Stavros goes awry as he stumbles at the last minute and sets off the beam! Explosive charges hidden amongst the boulders detonate, causing several of them to fall in the ravine and start rolling towards the recruits! Stavros had just enough warning to run forward and out of the danger zone, but Kero, Torgo, and Torga are hurt, with Torgo knocked unconscious trying to shield Torga.

After making sure that Torgo is safe and stabilized, the three recruits press on, but not before deciding to call in Waric and Keth for air cover. Waric spots an E-web gun emplacement pointed down at the ravine and destroys it, giving his friends below a clear path to the where the ravine ends in a small grotto. There, Moldva Vanir has made himself a small campsite. His holotransceiver, with the attached Imperial code scrambler, has been rigged with an explosive charge and Moldva boasts that in seconds, it will too late for the recruits to do anything to stop the Imperial fleet's arrival. It becomes apparent that Moldva faked his death in the X-Wing crash and has been working as an Imperial spy out of anger that he washed out in his attempt to join Mynock Squadron. 

Stavros tries to jump Moldva, but the spy reacts quickly and blasts the area all around the recruit, knocking him to the ground and raining debris all over. Likewise, Torga is shot as she leaps for Moldva and hits the ground hard, unconscious. With Kero hurt as well and time before detonation rapidly winding down, salvation surprisingly comes from above. Waric and Keth, unknown to the others, had landed their A-Wings nearby and now enter the fray. Waric grabs Moldva's head and slams it hard into the holo-transceiver, miraculously knocking the explosive charge loose. Instants before it explodes, Kero picks it up, tosses it to Keth, and the Zabrak hurls it into the sky where it explodes harmlessly. Moldva, stunned, tries to escape but the implacable Waric and Keth keep on his trail until the spy finally surrenders. 

Returning with their prisoner to the base, the four recruits (along with the injured Torga and Torgo) are greeted by Lt. Tuvolo. "Ya mooks done good," he says. "Now we can get back ta business--the final exercise is tomorrah, an' don't think I'm lettin' ya off easy!"
-------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (October 10, 2015)

This was a fun session that was a step forward for the campaign.  The PCs got to do much more than training, as they're explicitly tasked with uncovering the spy/saboteur before the entire base is compromised.  The PCs did some really good investigative work, with Keth's natural 20 on his check through the holocams responsible for him catching a recorded glimpse of the malefactor.  (I had gone with the classic "the first murder victim is actually the murderer" trick, which I thought worked out pretty well--at least no one guessed it before the clues were assembled).  The PCs took a surprising tack by splitting into two groups (one on the ground, one in the air) when they went to the bad guys' hideout, but I was glad everyone was able to get into the action in the end.  The sequence where they lobbed the thermal detonator to each other to finally hurl it out of the grotto was cool, as one misstep would have meant massive damage to low-level characters. 

This combination of training regimen, competition, and real intrigue/action was what I had in mind when I designed the campaign.  This first story arc ends with the next session, and then things got tougher for me!

Next Recap

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Buffy Comic Project: "Note From the Underground, Part 1"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 47

(Dark Horse, Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Scott Lobdell (story); Cliff Richards (pencils); Will Conrad & Joe Pimentel (inks)

Setting:  After Season Six

T.V. Character Appearances:  Angel, Cordelia, Faith, Gunn, Groo, Fred, Buffy

Major Original Characters:  Steglar (demon drug dealer), Marget Brown (judge)

Summary:  Angel and Cordelia go undercover as drug dealers to infiltrate a demon nightclub named Dante’s Inferno.  There, they discover that a demon named Steglar, who carries his head on a pole, has been trafficking in a new drug called Soul Drops, harvested from the souls of the unborn!  Steglar reveals that the source of his supply is Sunnydale, leading Cordelia to have a vision of terrible events happening in the city.  With their cover blown, Angel and Cordelia are forced to fight and kill the demons.  Angel then calls in a favour with a judge he’s helped in  the past, Marget Brown, to get Faith temporarily sprung from prison.  Over the objections of his employees in Angel Investigations, Angel takes Faith with him to Sunnydale.  Meanwhile, Buffy lies unconscious somewhere in Sunnydale, while a mysterious figure putting on clothing from Riley Finn’s locker vows to help.

Review

What a fantastic debut for Scott Lobdell as writer.  I enjoyed this issue as much or more than any other so far in the series, and it feels like the series is finally getting the right (darker, edgier) tone.  Buffy hardly makes an appearance (one page where she’s unconscious), but I honestly didn’t mind: Angel, Cordelia, and Faith steal the show, with the combat against the unique head-on-a-stick demon a highlight for me (some panache on display for once in a Buffy comic!).  I’m quite legitimately looking forward to reading the next issue.

Notes

·         *  Angel and Cordelia undercover as mobsters is bound to be fun!






·         The headless Steglar.  Things don’t end well for him.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up (1975) [COMICS]

Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up (Marvel) (1975)

Always wanted to read a comic with three hyphens in the title?  Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up is the book for you!  Although it only lasted two issues, GSSVTU (as those in the know refer to it) featured Doctor Doom and Namor the Sub-Mariner in a sometimes uneasy alliance to gain dominion over the lands and seas of this fine planet of ours.  The issues really were giant-size, coming in at 68 pages (though with some cheats, such as reprints).

In Issue # 1, we find out how the monarch of Latveria survived the explosion in space at the end of Fantastic Four # 144: Doom fell to Earth and was found by Namor’s submarine (his “long weeks of constant vigil rewarded”).  Namor asks Doom to join with him to conquer the surface world, which has long menaced both Atlantis and Latveria.  This leads Doom to think back to the last time the two discussed an alliance, which takes the form of a reprint of Sub-Mariner # 20 (Namor wouldn’t go for it then, and the two fought when Doom tried to keep him prisoner).  Then, Doom thinks about the last time he was in alliance with someone else (Diablo, the Master of Alchemy) which takes the form of a reprint of Marvel Super Heroes # 20 (an interesting issue, as Diablo holds Doom’s childhood love, Valeria, captive; Doom pretends to ally with Diablo and then betrays him to rescue Valeria, but she rejects him, knowing he really values power more than he values her).  So after some deep thought, Doom decides that allying with Namor makes no sense, as they would betray one another at the first moment it would be advantageous to do so.  A fight breaks out, but Doom escapes.  Essentially, the original material is a framing sequence for the two reprints.  Still, as far as framing sequences and reprints go, it’s done well.  Roy Thomas is a master at continuity and I’ve always liked his stories; he captures the majesty and arrogance of the two monarchs quite well.


Issue # 2 begins with Namor sinking a massive oil supertanker as a warning to the surface world that he won’t abide the environmental devastation on the oceans.  Namor then returns to Atlantis, where (apparently established in other, previous comics) the population is comatose.  Doom sends a force to attack Atlantis, but his real goal is to draw Namor to the surface world so he can offer an alliance this time: he’ll split the world with Namor, with Doom controlling the surface and Namor controlling the water.  As a bargaining chip, Doom says he’ll reveal to the surface world how vulnerable Atlantis is unless Namor agrees to join him.  Doom takes Namor on a tour of Latveria to show off his legion of recently-constructed androids, nuclear capability, and (apparently most exciting and dramatically) his solar batteries.  But there’s a problem with those new androids: they’ve gotten religion from “Andro, Lord of the Androids” (who’s really a former foe named the Doomsman) and decide to mutiny.  Namor and Doom fight side by side to defeat the androids, forcing the Doomsman to flee.  The issue ends with Namor and Doom planning their team-up.  (and a completely unrelated, not unenjoyable, reprint of Amazing Spider-Man # 8).  Although this issue had more original content, the battle against the androids was pretty rote stuff and I think I actually liked the previous issue better.


In any event, Namor and Doom’s team-up wouldn’t take place in giant-size format, as these two issues were the only ones published.  Marvel would go on to publish a regular-sized Super-Villain Team-Up to continue the story, and I think I might have to invest some cash to find out what happens next!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter Twenty [BUFFY]

CHAPTER TWENTY: THE PRESENT

Several minutes after a determined Buffy slid behind the wheel, the sedan crested the snow-covered hill. It was coming down as hard as she had ever seen it, but Buffy didn’t slow down. She knew they were running out of time, and wanted to get it over with—one way or another.

The top of Kingman’s Bluff was a flat plateau with steep sides all around it. Xander was familiar with the place. It was here that Willow had raised an unholy temple from the ground and set about destroying the world. It was here she had finally realized the enormity of what she was doing and had collapsed in his arms, the agony of Tara’s death flooding into her and racking her body with sobs. Seeing the hilltop again put Xander into one of his rare despairing moods. He missed Tara too, of course. But what he hated was seeing his best friend in so much pain and not being able to help. Willow wouldn’t let him, or anyone else, in. She had distanced herself from the world, and he knew that no matter how many frost demons or vampires they destroyed, she wouldn’t suddenly snap out of it.

Buffy hit the brakes hard, and the car slid for several feet in the snow and ice before coming to a stop. She got out quickly, and the others followed. She was staring into the sky above the hill, with a hand over her eyes to help deflect the glare from the snow. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.

“Is that what . . . it looks like?” she asked quietly.

“I guess it is,” Xander replied.

Buffy, Xander, and Dawn looked on as a giant, vaguely humanoid shape almost thirty-feet tall hovered over the hilltop. Its body and limbs looked like they were composed of ice, and even through the swirling snow they could see its mouth was a gaping maw of icicle teeth. It wasn’t complete ye —the left hand was a stump where the elbow would be on a normal human. They could see it slowly filling in with ice and snow though, and knew that when the demon’s arm was completed, it would be fully manifested. It would be free—and near impossible to stop.

Buffy’s instincts told her to tell Dawn to get back in the car and stay there. But Buffy had promised to stop trying to shield her sister from the dangers they faced. And more, Buffy doubted the car or anywhere else in Sunnydale would really be safe from this monster, once it was set free.

“And me without my flamethrower,” Xander cracked bitterly as they trudged towards it. The snow was deep here--at least two or three feet--and made for slow going.

The whirling flakes died down slightly, and they could make out a human-sized figure limping towards them from the far side of the hill. It carried a small chest in its arms, with the lid open. From the chest, a steady stream of ice flowed upward into the sky, and then spread out.

Winter in a box, Buffy thought. Handy.

The approaching figure set the box down and limped closer. It drew itself up to full height, and as it began to speak, the wind suddenly stopped and everything on the hilltop was deathly silent.

“Ms. Summers,” Castillo said, “how nice of you to drop by. And you brought company? Excellent. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long, long time. I trust you will find it suitably . . . dramatic?”

Buffy looked at the vampire carefully. She barely recognized him because he simply didn’t look much like the Castillo she had encountered before. He was nude now, for one thing—but the terrible scars all up and down his body, and on his face, made him look like a disfigured monster. Even his facial expressions were different. When Buffy had seen him before, he was calm, confident, and in control. Now his face clearly showed hatred and barely suppressed rage. She decided she might be able to exploit it.

“Dramatic?” she asked. “More melodramatic. Remember the bad comic book super-villains we talked about? Well, congratulations. You’ve become one. What’s next? You tie us up on some mechanized death-trap right before a hidden announcer says ‘Same Bat-Time, Same Bat—“

“I’m only going to tell you this once, Ms. Summers. Shut up!” Castillo said through clenched teeth. “You are the most insufferable . . . Ah, but I forget myself.” He closed his eyes for a moment and then spoke again, more calmly this time. “Can you imagine what it was like for me to linger at the bottom of that cliff, my body broken, for months on end until I was well enough to move? Can you imagine the pain and the—“

“Well it was your idea to do the whole cliff-thing,” Buffy interrupted. “Remember? Something about Sherlock Holmes or something. I don’t really remember. It was kinda lame.” She judged her distance to the open chest as she said this, and decided she couldn’t reach it before he managed to intercept her. At least not from where she was standing.

“I remember,” Castillo replied. “And what I neglected to mention was that after Sir Doyle’s famous protagonist fell to his apparent death, he was . . . resurrected, shall we say, just a few years later.”

“That’s great,” Buffy said. “Literature. I like that. Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, Stephen King. I read all the great classics.” She continued to goad him on as she edged closer. Behind her, Xander and Dawn stood anxiously, not quite sure what Buffy was doing or what they should do.

Castillo sighed at her words and put his hands to his face. He drew them away and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I’m going to kill you now. However, unlike last time, I have prepared words appropriate for the occasion. ‘For only in destroying I find ease/To my relentless thoughts.’ Milton, Paradise Lost.”

Heeding their cue, a score of Castillo’s finest suddenly burst from underneath the snow where they had lain in wait, claws extended and fangs salivating in anticipation. Castillo had kept them hungry, and now they were ready to tear something apart. Buffy, Xander, and Dawn were surrounded and stood back to back, their wooden stakes looking pitiful. The wind picked up again, the snow swirled, and a tremendous roar came from above— Solasheyk had almost completely manifested. It was then that Buffy realized Castillo hadn’t intended the vampires to kill her, but simply delay her until the demon was ready. She realized that judging by the fact that the demon was now missing only the tips of its fingers, his plan would probably work.

“The chest!” Buffy shouted.

The trio of friends fought like cornered tigers, slashing and stabbing with their stakes frantically as the vampires swarmed all over them. They pushed in the direction of the chest, but the vampires knew what they were trying to do. A moment later, scratched and bleeding, Buffy and her friends were only a few steps closer than they had been before—and it seemed like there were more vampires than ever.

“Keep fighting” Buffy yelled. She staked another vampire and dodged to the side, looking for an opening. Two more vampires stepped in front of her, and she threw herself back to avoid a fist. She dodged in low, kneeing a vampire in the chest and then brought her stake down and stabbed it in the back, piercing the heart from the rear. She barely had time to breathe before another vampire stepped up in its place.

Dawn and Xander were barely holding their own. They had had some practice fighting vampires most of it in the field, like this—but fighting a vampire one-on-one was something quite different than fighting a group of voracious vampires, each intent on scoring points with Castillo by being the first to claim a prized victim.

Buffy staked another vampire and then looked up. The snow swirled so hard she could barely see the demon, but she could tell she only had perhaps a minute left. As soon as it manifested, Sunnydale could kiss itself goodbye. She spun to avoid a high kick and saw that Xander and Dawn were still on their feet. She knew she could get out of this crowd and reach the chest—after all, she could jump over fences and walls when she put her mind to it—but it meant leaving Xander and Dawn, and they wouldn’t last a second without her around. It was a moment of choice she had never wanted to face Sunnydale or her friends—but she made it without regret. She stayed where she was and continued fighting, hoping against hope that something would happen to turn the tide of battle before it was too late.

Dawn danced in place, stake held up high, waiting for one of the vampires to come within range. Her jaw was sore—one of them had gotten in a lucky shot—but otherwise she was still feeling pretty good. She saw one of the bloodsuckers stumble in the snow and shot forth, jamming the point of the stake into its heart just as Xander’s stake did the same thing, barely an inch apart.

“Hey!” Xander said with half a smile. “There’s enough to go around. Get your own!”

“My bad,” Dawn replied, swinging around to realize two vampires had picked her as their own.

Several of the vampires suddenly started screaming, and Buffy wondered if the snow had turned to rain—liquid water was splashing all over her and the others. The vampires surrounding them threw up their hands and fell to the ground, rolling around in the snow to try and cool off. They didn’t know the terrible burning sensation was caused by holy water that had hit them and then frozen to their ski —try as they might, they wouldn’t be able to get the stuff off.

Buffy staked another vampire and looked around for her next target. It was then she realized there weren’t any more—all of the vampires had either been destroyed or were on the ground, screaming. She looked around and saw a man dressed in green armor running full speed towards Castillo. She recognized the type of armor from the woman in the caverns who had collapsed the ceiling. And almost buried me and Dawn alive. She didn’t know quite what to think when the man leaped and tackled Castillo, screaming something about “Maggie and Kate.”

Castillo and Tintsman rolled around in the snow until, with a vicious strike, Castillo knocked his opponent back. Castillo stood up, panting. “Who the hell are you?” he said.

Tintsman stood up as well, tears in his eyes. “You’re Angel,” he said. “The Angel of Death. Spike was right. It makes sense now—Electrotech, the project, all of it!”

He rushed Castillo again, but the vampire landed a solid shot to Tintsman’s jaw and staggered him. The vampire laughed dryly.

“Ah, yes. I do seem to recall a pitiful bureaucrat standing in the way of the Sunrise Project. Maggie and Kate did you say? According to the activity report, I believe my boys had . . . quite a time with them.”

Tintsman bellowed so loudly that everyone—Buffy, her friends, even the remaining vampires stopped what they were doing and stared at him. His face was a mask of pure rage and although he tried to speak, no words would come. Castillo looked surprised and, without intending to, stepped back a few feet. Tintsman was blind to anything but his enemy now. He charged forward again and slammed into Castillo like a freight train.

“They both look insane,” Xander said, coming up behind Buffy. He held his wrist, trickles of blood dripping into the snow.

“Well good,” Dawn said. “Problem solved.”

“Not yet,” Buffy said.

Solasheyk the Frost Demon had manifested fully, and it looked even larger than before. It began to move, slowly at first as if flexing its non-existent muscles, and then faster. It drew its head back and then pushed it forward. A hail of razor-sharp icicles flew from its mouth like a dragon breathing fire. Buffy barely had time to push her friends to the ground before a thick icicle embedded itself in her side. She screamed out in pain and looked down to see her blood was already mingling with the ice and starting to freeze. She desperately tried to think—she couldn’t remember if you were supposed to pull out arrows and things like that or leave them in.

A shadow passed over her and she realized the demon was moving towards her and the others. Castillo and Tintsman still fought, each delivering brutal blows to the other. Buffy forced the pain away and stood up. She started to get dizzy and knew she was going to black out, but willed herself to keep going. There was something left she had to do.

She moved as fast as she could towards the open chest. Pain laced all the way up and down her left side where the icicle was still embedded. She was grateful for the pain though—she knew it would help keep her conscious. Blood dripped into each footprint she made in the snow as she half-jogged, half-ran. In the back of her mind, she realized that Solasheyk had focused on her for some reason. Better me than Xander or Dawn, she thought.

Although she didn’t want to, she couldn’t help but look up at the demon. Its sheer power was almost magnetic. It reared up and inhaled, drawing snow and ice into its mouth. A second later another volley of ice spikes, larger than the first, were flying directly towards her. She jumped towards the chest, landing slightly behind it. It shook slightly with the force of all the snow and ice still streaming from it. She glanced at the deadly fusillade and then with one last, final burst of energy, she grabbed hold of the lid and forced it closed.

It was like turning a light switch on and off. It suddenly stopped snowing, the wind fell to a faint breeze, but most of all, the temperature reverted instantaneously back to normal. It was suddenly a normal Sunnydale summer’s night, hot and humid. The snow quickly began to melt, but the effect on Solasheyk was even more dramatic. It was like he was being flushed down a drain. The demon’s entire body started to shrink and spin, more and more of his mass sucked into the dimension he came from. He gave a tremendous roar as his ice body melted, dripping water all over the top of hill.

The razor-sharp ice spikes were still flying. Even if Buffy had the energy, there was no time to run. She closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. Tintsman, still locked in combat with Castillo, saw what was about to happen.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone else!” he screamed, charging his foe again and knocking them both toward Buffy. At the last possible moment, the pair fell in front of her and the thick volley of spikes embedded themselves into them instead of her. Castillo was disintegrated and Tintsman torn into pieces, but she had been completely shielded.

She was still bleeding, however, staining the snow around her a dark crimson. She tried to stand up but she couldn't. She saw Xander and Dawn rushing towards her and heard sirens in the distance. She knew she was going to be okay, but her side hurt like hell and everything was going blurry.

Xander reached her first and cradled her head with his arms.

“You know what?” Buffy said through pain-clenched teeth, a moment before unconsciousness came. “Winter sucks.”

Next Chapter

Portal Through Time [BUFFY]

Portal Through Time

By Alice Henderson (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

RATING:  4/5 Stakes

SETTING:  Season Two

T.V. CHARACTER APPEARANCES:  Buffy, Lucien, Cordelia (as alternate timeline vampire); Hank & Joyce Summers (alternate timeline); Willow, Xander, Giles, Angel, Angelus, Darla

MAJOR ORIGINAL CHARACTERS:  Gorga, Victor & Jason (vampires); Zaaargul the Seer (demon); Incinii (Welsh Slayer 60 C.E.); Eyra (Incinii’s Watcher); Ejuk (Sumerian Slayer 2700 B.C.E.); King Gilgamesh; Namtar (Plague God); Agatha Primrose (American Slayer 1862); Niles Hallowell (Agatha’s Watcher); Marguerite Allard (French Slayer 1792)

BACK-OF-THE-BOOK SUMMARY:  “Buffy thought she’d finished the Master when she dusted him.  But in Sunnydale things have a way of coming back.  . . .  The Master may be dead, but he is not forgotten.  One of the vampire lord’s devotees sets out to alter the past so that he can resurrect the Master without Buffy’s meddling.  When he conjures up a portal to transport his minions through time, the vampires are poised to murder the most power slayers in history!  It is up to the Scoobies to stop the Master’s followers before they break the chain of slayers.  Giles, Xander, Willow, and Buffy pursue the vamps back in time through the portal to save the slayers of the past.  They must track the bloodsuckers from the French Revolution to the American Civil War without getting detected—or worse!  But you can’t change the past without changing the present.  . . .

REVIEW

You’ve got to give this one points for creativity: time-travel and Buffy are not a natural combination, but the novel actually holds together reasonably well.  It starts out with a gruesome but effective opening, putting the reader right into the thick of things as vampires murder a pre-Hellmouth Buffy, and then, a couple of chapters later, cut a three-year-old Buffy in twain!  Interestingly, the vampires plot to resurrect the Master by making it so Buffy never comes to Sunnydale keeps failing, so the vampires decide they need to interrupt the Slayer line more definitively.  This section of the book is a nice connection to the Tales of the Slayers short stories, as Buffy and her friends go back in time to save each of four different historical Slayers.  Without knowing much about each of the time periods, there weren’t any jarring anachronisms (at least to me), and each mini-adventure was fun and different.  Semi-continuity buffs may be interested by the backstory given Lucien (he knew Giles in the Ripper days, for example) and the brief appearance of Angelus and Darla.  Overall, the characterisation, dialogue, and action are solid, and the plot is original enough (for Buffy), that this is one of the better Buffy novels I’ve read.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Who Fears the Devil? The Complete Tales of Silver John (Planet Stories # 24)

Who Fears the Devil? collects all of Manly Wade Wellman's short stories about a character named Silver John.  The stories feature an interesting and original setting for folkloric/supernatural fantasy (contemporary Appalachia) and a character that's more memorable than the traditional swordsman/gunslinger.  Silver John is a wandering collector of backwoods songs, and travels from place to place with only the shirt on his back and a silver-stringed guitar.  He is more of an archetype in some ways than a character with real depth and history, but for short stories that are plot-focussed, that's okay.
The stories are well-written and avoid formula, but usually involve some sort of supernatural menace that Silver John's pure heart and guitar can banish.  Unlike most stories published in SF magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, there's a degree of continuity between the Silver John stories which I noticed and appreciated.  According to the editor's introduction, Wellman also published a handful of novels about Silver John, and, fascinating, there was a motion picture featuring the character (it flopped).

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [Norton Critical Edition]

This is my first time reading Mary Wollstonecraft's classic 1792 feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Wollstonecraft's argument for equality boils down to a simple syllogism:  1)  God has invested all human persons with the capacity to reason;  2)  It is the duty of all human persons to be virtuous;  3)  Virtue is the function of the exercise of reason to know right from wrong;  4)  Virtue is a universal concept, not a relativistic one: the same standards apply to all persons, male or female; 5) Therefore, women must be educated to the same extent and held to the same standards of conduct as males.  Wollstonecraft goes to great lengths to support the fourth and fifth points, as those are the ones must vulnerable to attack in the time period to which she's writing.  She emphatically criticizes the concept that there are different virtues for males (such as "courage" or "aggressiveness") and females (such as "modesty" or "docility").  Women are often focussed, she writes, on frivolous things like fashion or gossip because they have, since birth, been taught that those are the only things they should concern themselves with.  If women were given the same education and expectation as males, she argues that there is every chance that they could fulfill a far more important and valuable role in society.  In other words, she anticipates the modern argument that much of the perceived difference between males and females is socially constructed and not due to innate differences in mind or body.  Wollstonecraft's argument could have logically been extended to challenge a whole host of concrete social inequalities between men and women in her time (such as voting rights, property laws, etc.) but she avoids going so far and extends the implications of her position only to education.

I have to admit that I found the writing to be turgid and repetitive, even if the general theme of equality is well-established.  The critical essays in the Norton edition are much better and quite interesting.  They indicate that Wollstonecraft's book was well-received when first published, as the concern for women's education and perceived obsession with clothing and love affairs was under examination.  However, after her death, her husband published a biography that was meant to be laudatory but that revealed details of her personal life that were seized upon by critics to undermine her political writings.  The essay by R.M. Janes is particulary good on this point.  Other good essays discuss the debt she owed to historian Catharine Macaulay and the influence she had on later feminists such as Emma Goldberg.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 54 [RPG]

[2 Flamerule 1372 continued]

In Silverwood, Syd tells Daisy that he must enter the city. As he is still undecided as to whether he plans to travel with her to Startop Mountain or journey through the portal to Thay (a place he has been told he cannot bring Garry), he tells Daisy that if he does not return in three days she can take care of his animal companion until he finds them again. Daisy is quite excited at the opportunity to add a new animal to her small menagerie.

Back in Silverymoon, while Dolcetto, Myst, and Ralkin are out shopping, a visitor knocks on the door to Terrigo Multivar's residence. Fargrim answers and sees a slim, female kenku. The visitor announces herself as Karin Whitefeather and says she is here to return a quill-pen that Mellia allegedly left behind the night prior when she had a kenku elder sign a disclaimer. When she meets Mellia, Karin "accidentally" reveals that Ralkin failed to break into the High Palace and says that the city guard are looking for a male kenku fitting his description. Mellia has no difficulty seeing through Karin's pretence, and surmises that she and Ralkin must be rivals. Mellia tries to call Karin's bluff about the "forgotten" quill-pen by asking to speak to the elder kenku, but the sorceress loses her in the city streets.

Meanwhile, Markus renews his quest to win the famous Ninefangs blade at Blademaster Noboru's Academy. His first duel is against the Academy's fifth-ranked student, Sister Demuria, a woman who is so thoroughly cloaked that little can be seen besides her face. The Academy's Duelmaster, a priestess of the Red Knight, explains that in this duel one duelist will choose the type of sword that both will use, and the other duelist will choose the conditions for victory. By lot, Sister Demuria is given choice of weapons and chooses the greatsword; Markus decides his best chance of victory is setting the condition to be the first to disarm the other.

The two duelists are led into what appears to be a plain room with transparent, steel-hard walls. Sister Demuria removes her robes to reveal a lean, lithe body barely clad at all! A small crowd gathers to watch, including Kronk, the half-orc that Markus defeated last time, and El Capitan, who he lost to in turn. When the two duelists have taken their fighting stances and the Duelmaster has left the arena, the contest begins with a surprising equalizer: the floor magickally vanishes and plunges the duelists into deep water, while simultaneous a horizontal barrier of magickal force covers the surface of the water, preventing them from emerging!

Both duelists managed to gulp a quick breath before plunging into the water, and now the contest begins in earnest. Maneuvering in the water and fighting at the same time is difficult, and both duelists initially take defensive positions. After some tentative and inconclusive swordplay, Sister Demuria decides it is time to strike. She swings her greatsword in a wide arc towards Markus, but the nimble swashbuckler reacts even faster, and with a perfectly-timed strike knocks the blade out of her hands! With the contest ended, water drains from the arena and Markus is named victorious. He announces his plans to challenge the Academy's fourth-best student soon.

Elsewhere in the city, Ralkin visits several pubs and tries to spread a rumour about a master trapsmith being available in the hopes that he might find employment in the High Palace, but few seem interested in passing the news along. At the Emporium Arcanum, Dolcetto unloads several thousands of gold pieces worth of magickal items.

Back at Multivar's house, Fargrim overhears a conversation between the old wizard and a figure who turns out to be Mortimont! Mortimont hands Multivar a small pouch of diamonds in exchange for permission to travel through the mirror-portal with the others that evening. Fargrim tries to stealthily depart, but steps in a chamberpot and it shatters with a loud crash! When Multivar investigates, Fargrim tries to talk him out of allowing Mortimont to travel through the mirror-portal, but the old wizard is undeterred, saying that his coffers have been lower than he thought they were. Fargrim rushes to Mellia and the two discuss what to do. Mellia refuses to go along with Fargrim's suggestion about trying to frame Mortimont for a crime, but says that if they can delay his entry into the mirror-portal at the right time, he won't be able to enter until the next day and by then he won't be able to pick up their trail.

As the afternoon continues, eventually the entire group assembles in the courtyard in front of Multivar's house. Markus announces that he plans to stay in Silverymoon in order to continue the series of duels at the Academy. Mellia is disappointed at his decision to place winning a sword over rescuing his friend Cain, but she says the swashbuckler must do what he thinks is right. Syd, on the other hand, has decided to go through the mirror-portal in gratitude for the group rescuing him earlier. He sends a squirrel as a messenger to carry word to Daisy.

Various options are discussed by those assembled about what to do about Mortimont, including barring the door, selling him Fargrim's red axe, or trying to buy time by telling him the group is considering it. Before a decision can be reached, the group is shocked when Cain walks in! However, it is actually only Myst in disguise, utilizing the properties of a magickal scarf found in T'Klack's complex. Dolcetto announces that she has largely finished her calculations of the shares of gold and treasure that each adventurer is entitled to. By subtracting the value of claimed magick items from disbursed gold, several individuals end up in debt to the group.

As the sun fades away, Mellia sends her friend Hestia a magickal message stating that she will check in on Gideon in about a week. Mellia also tells Ralkin about Karin Whitefeather's malicious trick.

An hour before the group is scheduled to depart, Fargrim, standing just behind the front door, hears a carriage pull up. Peeking around a curtain, he sees Mortimont emerge along with two massive humanoid constructs: clay golems! When Mortimont pulls on the door bell, Fargrim puts on a surprisingly credible false voice and says that Multivar is unavailable and that no one is going through the mirror-portal that evening. Mortimont is on the verge of turning away when Fargrim's voice cracks, and the self-professed pastry-maker realizes he has been deceived. When Mellia and Dolcetto arrive, they insist that Fargrim let Mortimont inside, as it is not the dwarf's right to bar visitors that Multivar has invited.

Everyone assembles in the cramped and dusty room with the mirror-portal as they await the peal of the eleventh bell. Mellia and Mortimont agree on what order everyone will enter, and Mortimont says it is "good to see us all working together." He also promises that he will never again ask Fargrim to sell him his red axe, but that a time will come nonetheless when Fargrim offers to do so. Dolcetto graciously thanks Multivar for his assistance and for putting everyone up for in his home, and even hands the old wizard some coins as compensation for damage done. Soon, all anyone can do is wait anxiously for the mirror-portal to turn its face to what Multivar says is Aglarond. When it does, everyone jumps through and disappears.

Next Recap

Monday, July 20, 2015

Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Ltd. 1995) [COMICS]

Twenty years ago, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only comic book fans knew who Nick Fury and SHIELD were: even David Hasselhoff hadn't yet donned the eyepatch!  There's been a lot of attempts to give Fury and his supposedly super-secret spy organization a comic series, and most of them haven't been very successful.  In 1995, Marvel tried with a four-issue limited series titled Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Let us peruse . . .

Just look at that cover to Issue # 1--can you tell we're in the Image Comics influenced mid-1990s?  Fury looks like freakin' Cable with ginormously broad shoulders and a huge rifle.  Compare that to the classic Jim Steranko Nick Fury from a couple of decades previous.

It looks like our buddy Nick has been hitting those steroids hard.  On to the story.  We start in media res, with a good rooftop action scene: Fury tries to recover a computer microchip from some bad guys, but there's an explosion and one of them escapes with it.  The scene shifts to a party attended by Tony Stark, and we learn that the microchip was originally stolen from Stark Industries.  Fury is at the party keeping tabs on one Karl Kraus, CEO of Kraus Techmatrix, someone suspected of involvement with the theft.  Apparently there's  been a rash of similar hi-tech thefts, and Fury and SHIELD are on the case.  Nick's joined by his occasionally-psychopathic son, Scorpio.  From what I can tell, a previous story in another comic had established that Scorpio had taken over the presidency of a country called Carpasia.  Here, we find that Scorpio had given up that job because of Snickers-related corruption.  Yes, I am not joking, and no I cannot explain it.  Anyway, Nick and Scorpio intervene at a break-in at another hi-tech firm called Polydyne when they're trapped by robots.  Cliffhanger!  Verdict:  fairly average story, hate the artwork.  There is a funny scene where, due to budget cutbacks, Fury is forced to give up his daily cigar if he wants to keep his health insurance with SHIELD.

In Issue # 2, we find out that Karl Kraus is a head honcho with Hydra!  He's got a girlfriend named Kitty Drake, but in a good twist, it turns out that Drake is the actual thief.  Comic books and soap operas are close cousins, because a long time ago Kitty Drake was actually Kraus' first wife, only he doesn't know that the two women are the same person! (there was a name change, some weight loss, and plastic surgery involved)  Kraus got his position with Hydra by stealing it from Kitty Drake's father, and she's out for revenge.  So she's seduced one of Kraus' tech-geniuses, a guy named Simon Mycroft, to help her build a micro-neutron bomb.  Fury and Scorpio, who had no trouble escaping those robots from last issue, get help from Iron Man to track the bomb.  We then end up with a three-way battle between the good guys, Kitty Drake, and a very mad Karl Kraus.  Kitty says she'll detonate the bomb unless Kraus turns over his Hydra holdings to her.  Cliffhanger!  I actually like the Kitty Drake character and back story, even if one must swallow a heaping helping of disbelief.

Issue # 3 starts with a very pretty splash page of a top-down view of the restaurant showing rainfall splashing on the glass with Kraus and Kitty having their stand-off inside.  Credit where it's due.  Kitty gives Kraus 24 hours to give her what she wants, or she'll sets off the bomb.  Fury and Kraus make a deal to work together to find Kitty using Hydra technology.  A car-chase jet-pack shoot-out action chain eventuates, and it's pretty good.  Kitty tries to set off the bomb, but Kraus has a jammer and shoots her.  He deactivates the bomb but then pulls a gun on Fury!  But Kitty is still alive and shoots Kraus!  Both the bad guys die, and Fury lives to tell the tale.

And now for something completely different.  Issue # 4 is evidence that this was originally planned as an on-going series before being recast as a limited one.  The story does not have anything in particular to do with the Kraus/Kitty storyline.  Instead, Fury & Son walk through the old neighborhood, as Fury reminisces about how dangerous it has become since he and his brother Jake were little kids.  A good scene, and a part of Fury's backstory rarely seen.  Soon, however, Fury and Scorpio find themselves caught in the middle of a gang war involving hi-tech weapons.  Investigating, the pair find a lead to a secret government operation named "Future First": an old SHIELD agent named Spanier has gone rogue and teamed up with a former Soviet mutant-hunter named Firefox.  Although Fury and Scorpio get captured and caged, Firefox plays around too much with Scorpio's cosmic key doohickey and accidentally blasts the cage door open!  The good guys then make short work of the bad guys, and the final panel shows Nick getting to have his cigar after all.

To sum up: the 1990s were a terrible time for superhero comics.  But that being said, Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. was slightly better than some.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter 19 [BUFFY]

CHAPTER NINETEEN: FOUR YEARS AGO

Angel slowly pushed his head out from under the desk and looked around—the science lab was empty. He rolled completely out and stood up, brushing dust and “ash” from his clothing. He walked briskly over to one of the counters along the wall and cleared a place on it for him to stand. The science lab was set lower than the rest of the building, meaning the only ventilation came from long but narrow windows set near the ceiling—students in the lab could view only the feet of other students standing outside on the lawn. Extending to his full height, he pushed one of the windows opened and hoped he could squeeze through. He had heard gunfire just outside the room in the hallway, and knew the vampire-hunters must be close.

He was pleasantly surprised Giles’ plan had worked so well. It seemed like such a cheap ruse, but the librarian had made it run without a hitch—pretending to attack Giles, Giles melodramatically scrambling for a weapon, Angel falling to the ground with a scream. “Ash” and “blood” were created from simple ingredients in the chemistry cabinets of the lab. The hardest part was the end—lying silently under the desk as Michael approached, and then rolling towards the door when he came around to the far side of the desk, and then back under the desk when he and Giles turned to leave. If the hunter had caught him then, it would have all been over. But the terrible illumination provided by the emergency lighting made the difference.

Angel pulled himself towards the window but paused midway up, listening to the gunshots again. Just what are they shooting at? he wondered. They wouldn’t attack one of their own, and with me “dead,” what is left? He thought for a second, standing on the counter. Giles! How could I have forgotten—vampires were after him too. I was thinking so much of myself that . . .

He jumped down from the counter and lurched towards the doorway, seeing that Giles and Michael were in the hallway, face down on the ground just a few yards away. Wooden bullets flew all around them. It took Angel a moment to realize Giles was not being aimed at—at least not yet. Instead, the high-tech vampire-hunters were shooting at another group of vampires on the opposite end of the hallway. Angel recognized them instantly as Spike groupies and hoped that their master really had died in the collapse of the church. They had torn off locker doors to use as shields and darted from doorway to doorway to avoid the shots.

Giles was safe now, but the two groups of vampires were rapidly advancing on each other, and would meetjust about where he and Michael were laying. I’ve got to help him. But if Michael sees me, he’ll keep coming after me and we won’ t fool him twice.


Angel didn’t hesitate to make a decision—Giles was worth the risk. Angel tried to find a lull in the gunfire and then rushed out into the hallway, the pain in his leg still bothering him. The shooting started again just as he reached the pair.

“Come on, get up!” he shouted to Giles. He crouched low to the ground as the projectiles continued to fly. When the Watcher did as instructed, the pair awkwardly ran while trying to stay low to the ground and reached the doorway. Angel pushed Giles through and turned back. Angel had been grazed in the shoulder, but it wasn’t a serious wound.

But now that the vampire-hunters knew he was there, a second such stunt could be deadly. Michael was still laying on the ground, with his hands around his head—apparently his exoskeleton increased strength, but did not provide any protection against projectile weapons. I can just leave him—we’re free and clear now, Angel thought. He tried to kill me. But . . . he is an innocent—even if hopelessly confused. Still . . .

Angel shook his head from side to side and rushed back out into the hallway. This soul is really going to get me into trouble someday, he thought. He dove towards where Michael was laying. Out of the corner of his eye Angel saw one of Spike’s vampires disintegrate from a well-aimed shot. They weren’t stupid though—they had sent some of their number around the school to flank the vampire-hunters, who would be in for quite a surprise as the others distracted them.

He shouted Michael’s name twice, but the figure didn’t respond. Angel noticed his eyes were closed. Is he dead? No, he’ s breathing. Must be in shock or something. Angel crawled over to Michael, grabbed his wrists, and began dragging him back towards the science lab door. We need a miracle, Angel thought, as a bullet whizzed just inches from his ear.

It came in the form of a thick cloud of smoke that filled the hallway, making it impossible to aim accurately. “Angel, this way!” he heard Giles shout. Angel continued pulling in the direction of Giles’ voice until suddenly Michael’s hands grabbed hold of the vampire’s wrists as well, and began pulling in the opposite direction.

“Let me go!” the human growled. “I won’t let you . . . do to me . . . what you did to them!” With a powerful jerk, Michael pulled Angel off of his feet and slammed him into the wall.

Angel hit hard with a thud before scrambling to his feet. The smoke was rapidly starting to clear, and he could see the other vampire-hunters taking aim at him. He looked around desperately for Michael, only to see the door to the basement swing shut behind him. He wanted to go after him, to explain, but there just wasn’t time. Asa fusillade of wooden bullets screamed through the air, Angel dove into the science lab doorway and Giles slammed it shut.

“I tried,” Angel said simply. “Where’d that come from?” He pointed to a few tendrils of smoke emerging from underneath the door.

“A rather simple concoction really,” Giles said, “mainly water and a little sod—“

“Never mind,” Angel interrupted. “We need to get out of here. That door won’t hold them if they decide to come through.”

“It appears that our, ah, guest is mobile again,” Giles said.

“We did what we could. He’s on his own now.” Angel walked over to the counter and lifted himself up to the window.

“Come on,” he said, bracing himself on the ground and reaching his arms through the window. He was strong enough that he could pull Giles up easily.

Sirens began wailed in the distance as they reached the parking lot. I was wondering if they would ever show up, Giles thought. One would think that with everything that happens at Sunnydale High, they would build a police station across the street.

They walked wordlessly until they reached Giles’ beat-up Citroen. Across the parking lot, they saw a handful of the vampire-hunters jump into a waiting black car, while a small army of Spike’s gang made their way to a manhole cover, ripped it out of the ground, and jumped down.

“I still don’t understand what that was all about,” Angel stated. His clothing was rumpled and dirty, but he still held his head high.

“Death . . . can make people do strange things,” Giles observed. “Pray that we never have to face the tragic loss of a loved one as Michael did.”

“You think he’ll come back?”

“Most certainly. But not for a while. And perhaps then we’ll be prepared.”

***

Buffy’s eyes were wide and she was scared—very scared. The motorcycle almost flew down the mountain road, as Castillo took turns at breakneck speed and did not slow down, no matter how much ice was on the pavement. She swore he was a maniac, but somehow, every time it looked like they were going to crash, he kept the bike on its wheels and continued going even faster. What’s he have to worry about—vampires can’t die from car crashes, Buffy realized angrily. 

As soon as he finally started slowing down, Buffy tensed to make a jump for it, but Castillo kept an arm tightly around her shoulders. He finally pulled over near the guardrail on a section of a narrow, one-lane road. He removed his jacket and draped it over the handlebars. The mountain continued to loom up above them, while only the guardrail stood between them and an almost six-hundred foot drop to a rocky slope below.

“Now, was that not exhilarating?” Castillo asked, keeping a firm grip on Buffy and walking over to the guardrail. He smiled broadly and was clearly in a good mood. “It is one of the few worthwhile inventions of this century. The wind in your hair, the –“

“Bugs in your teeth?” Buffy interjected.

“Ah, yes. Uncooperative to the end—an admirable quality. However, it is just you and me now—let us dispense with the formality, shall we? Now, as I was saying, the brooding vampire characters in your silly American novels are just that—fiction. Who would ever yearn to be ‘human,’ when one has an eternity to sample all of life’s pleasures with none of the pains?”

“You know, right about now, I so do not care,” Buffy said.

“Well.” He turned her around so she was leaning against the guardrail and had to look at the rocks below. “This is more cinematic, don’t you agree? A cold windy, winter’s night—the moon casting the slightest hint of shadow as the stars flicker—an isolated mountain road—a cliff awaiting. Indeed, did you know that this was how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed his great hero, Sherlock Holmes, perishing in mortal combat with his arch-enemy, Moriarty?”

He sighed and turned her around so her back was to the guardrail. “I regret that you do not appreciate it. But, you are no Holmes and I am no Moriarty,” he said, almost wistfully. “Still, I must apologize. I was hoping that I would have something very memorable or witty to say to you to memorialize your last moments, but I fear that I cannot think of anything. The simple fact is that you are about to experience a very long fall onto some very hard rocks. Good-bye Ms. Summers—it was not as I had hoped, but still a pleasure.”

He leaned over almost nonchalantly to push her over the guardrail. Buffy reacted instantly and twisted the chain from her handcuffs around his left wrist and tugged hard—she thought she hard something snap. Castillo cried out in pain and slammed into her, knocking Buffy over the railing. The handcuffs were still twisted around Castillo’s wrist, however, and Castillo was jerked off of his feet and tipped over the railing as well. He managed to grab one of the metal supports of the guardrail with his one free hand, though he felt he was being torn in two.

Buffy’s legs dangled in the air—there was no way her feet could reach anything to get a grip on. She heldon tight with both hands as Castillo tried to shake her off, and then she dodged frantically as he kicked at her. She caught a glimpse of the cliffside below and had difficulty drawing her eyes away—it was so far down! There was no way she could try to climb—if she dared untwist the chain, he was strong enough to shake her off easily.

She pulled her legs up and back and began to swing, slowly at first, and then faster, like a pendulum. Castillo’s face contorted into a picture of agony as he was torn between holding on to the guardrail with one hand and Buffy with the other. The bitch is trying to wrench my arm from its socket! “Stop it, girl--you’re going to kill us both!” he exclaimed, the first time Buffy had ever seen him sweat.

She continued swinging faster and faster and then, when she reached the highest part of her arc, she suddenly relaxed her grip, untwisting the handcuff chains. Before Castillo could even realize what was happening, her momentum had lifted her up in the air, and with a mid-air tumble worthy of an Olympic gymnast, she had landed on top of the guardrail itself. She stepped down onto the road and then turned to face the vampire, who was still holding onto the guardrail and swinging slightly.

“I have a question,” Buffy said. “Was this dramatic enough for you?”

She aimed carefully and planted a kick at his hand, breaking several fingers. She heard him cry out one last time and then watched his body plummet several hundred feet before crashing into the jagged cliffs below.

***

Xander crashed through the cabin door and shouted “Guys! There’s vampi—“ before realizing he was staring two vampires right in the face. Behind them, in a corner, Willow and Cordelia were sitting handcuffed. “Why does this always happen to me?” he said dryly before sprinting back out the door.

“Follow him!” shouted one of the vampires to his companion. “I’ll watch the prisoners.”

Xander ran out into the snow, knowing a blood-sucker was following close on his heels. He ran around the corner of the cabin trying to think desperately of a plan—one didn’t come to mind, so he kept running around the building and before he knew it, he was back at the front door. He decided to continue running and bounced off the chest of the vampire which had chased him and then doubled-back. He landed on his rump right in front of the doorway. Both vampires advanced on him, licking their fangs.

“Willow!” he shouted. “I need you to think up a plan for me really fast!”

“I’ve got one!” she yelled back instantly, her eyes fixed on the portion of the road she could see through the doorway. Soon everyone could hear the low rumble of an approaching motor. “Keep them occupied while Buffy stakes ‘em!”

“Angel has returned, and soon the party begins,” one of the vampires said to Xander. They were so confident that their leader had returned that they didn’t even turn to look in the direction of the approaching motorcycle. They heard its engine stop and continued smiling at the captives until a leather jacket flew through the air and landed at their feet.

They turned and looked around then and saw that the Slayer was standing in front of them, her hands free and holding broken but sharp tree branches.

“Okay, scumbags,” she said. “I’m tired, so we can do this two ways. You can either a) jump on the bike and ride far, far away, or b) stand there politely while I jam these through your hearts.”

The vampires were shocked—Castillo had never failed before. But after all the warnings they had heard about the Slayer, they were too intimidated to risk fighting her when even their master had failed. They backpedaled slowly and then ran for the bike, taking off down the snowy road in a cloud of smoke. Buffy unlocked her friends’ handcuffs with the key she had found in the jacket.

“I knew you’d come through,” said Willow, hugging Buffy.

Cordelia rubbed her wrists. “Anyone else notice how she always saves the day after my hunk gets gored by the vampires? I think there’s a pattern or something.”

“I’m glad everyone’s okay,” said Xander. “Man, you wouldn’t believe what Amara and I just went through.”

“Amara?” said Buffy. 

“Yeah. You know, the pretty girl I was with all day on the slopes. We waved to you, remember?”

“Xander, I remember seeing you once or twice, but I didn’t think you were with anyone. We waved at you, but I wondered why you were spending so much time alone. I thought maybe you just wanted some time to yourself.”


“But—” Xander looked perplexed and then cold fear hit him in the gut. “Oh no! Not again . . .” he said, rushing out of the cabin.

He jogged over to Amara’s cabin. It was still dark, but Xander tried the door—it was unlocked and opened easily. Inside, the cabin was empty and held no signs it had recently been inhabited. It doesn’t look like its even been used--but I was just here a few hours ago! The rumors about the owner’s dead daughter. I guess it makes sense. The ever-present Xander curse. He sighed and put his hands on his hips, kicking the bed frame desultorily. He walked back slowly to the others’ cabin and resolved not to tell them about it. As much as they tease me about women now, just think what they’d do if they knew I spent the entire day hitting on a ghost.

***

It was early on Sunday afternoon when Cordelia pulled her father’s SUV into the high school lot. They had jumped into the car as soon as they could cram it full of their gear—no one could sleep after the night’s excitement, and no one wanted to explain to the authorities how the lodge burned down and the resort’s caretaker died. Plus, Buffy was worried about Giles—Castillo had mentioned something about eliminating the Slayer and her Watcher.

Giles pulled into the lot from the other direction just as Buffy and the others were getting out. The librarian had intended to spend the day cleaning up his office and was surprised to see his ward had returned so soon.

“Giles!” Buffy called out and ran to him.

“Ah, hello everyone,” he said. “Finished your vacation early, I see. Was . . . there anything wrong?” he said, a worried look on his face.

“Wrong? Us? Of course not,” Buffy said innocently. She knew that if she told him of the vampire attack, he would feel guilty for letting her go and not being there when she was in danger. Fortunately, the others had agreed to keep her secret. “Just boring was all. How about you? Anything pop up here while I was gone?”

“Ah, no. No, nothing ‘popped up,’ as you say. A very quiet weekend, actually,” Giles said, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He worried about Buffy’s emotional state enough as it was, and if she found out that a small army of vampires had come to town and that Angel was almost killed, she would blame herself—she might never relax again. Fortunately, Angel had agreed to keep his secret. “I’m, ah, sorry your vacation did not turn out as you hoped,” he said.

“It happens,” said Buffy with a shrug. “You know, sometimes Sunnydale isn’t really as bad as it seems.” This is my place, she thought. It may be a literal hell hole, but it’ s where I belong. And maybe that’ s not so bad after all. “Anyway,” she said, smiling, “I’m glad to be back.”

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