Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Bog Beast Who Never Really Got His Due

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Weird Tales of the Macabre #2 The 1974 version of Atlas Comics (from Seaboard Publishing) was another attempt to compete with Marvel and DC that did not last long. No comic or magazine they put out lasted more than four issues. As there was apparently some sort of mandatory swamp monster requirement for every seventies comic publisher, they introduced their own. Meet the Bog Beast.

The Bog Beast is very different from other swamp monsters, so much so that I seriously considered not including it in the Muck Man list. But there are similarities. Bog Beast has been sent by an underground civilization to investigate the surface world, emerging from the La Brea tar pits. It looks like an emaciated human, bubbling over with tar. In the color stories, it is red, about as far from the green or brown of most other swamp creatures as possible. It is also an intelligent, self-aware creature. It has not been transformed, there was no fiery explosion that killed an otherwise normal human. It is not a typical member of its species, but as “The Sun-Spawn Walks” shows, it is one of the fittest members of its subterranean civilization. The Bog Beast is not, and never has been dead, nor was it ever human. There was no catalyst for its transformation, because there was no transformation.

On the other hand, it is immune to bullets, and inhumanly strong. And sort of goopy-icky. But the Bog Beast is, similar to many of the muck men, an outsider, who observes humanity from a remove. So it sort of fits, and hey, there are only four stories. So here we go.

Atlas Comics' Weird Tales of the Macabre #2
Bog Beast started off in Weird Tales of the Macabre #2 (Mar, 1975), a black and white magazine reminiscent of Skywald’s mood horror titles. The initial story details an odd mix of a recently-fired Hollywood special effects technician, and a put-upon newspaper photographer. The photographer is assigned to the La Brea tar pits, and witnesses the Bog-Beast climbing out on its mission to explore the surface world. He gets mixed up in a Hollywood production, and of course there are life-threatening problems, which the Bog-beast both causes and then solves. Bog-beast thinks clearly, but it cannot communicate, due to the language barrier.

That said, we've seen this story before. The Bog Beast invades a film shoot, in a manner reminiscent of a Heap story. When the rain machine goes haywire and causes a flood, the Bog Beast rescues a woman from drowning, as in the Glob’s initial appearance.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Tales of Evil #2
The Bog Beast appeared again in Tales of Evil #2 (April, 1975), and 3 (July, 1975), both in color. The first story, “The Fifty Dollar Body” is a crime story in which Bog Beast serves primarily as a passive observer. The Bog Beast runs afoul of two fugitives, a rather slow-thinking man, as well as a viciously unpleasant woman. Bog Beast tries to communicate with them, but fails. The Beast tangles with the cops, and eventually the two fugitives turn on each other. Bog-beast is freed by the fatally-wounded, who then dies himself. Bog-beast, bewildered by the very human cruelty, moves on. The final frame is very familiar, similar to Len and Bernie's famous "If tears could come they would" ending from the original Swamp Thing story.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Weird Tales of the Macabre #3
Bog Beast turned up again in Tales of Evil #3, in an untitled story. While visiting the Mount Palomar observatory, Bog Beast discovers bodies torn to shreds, and a woman still alive. She turns out to be a werewolf, and Bog Beast must fight her. Throwing her off a cliff, he attracts the attention of the police, who then net and capture him.

This is the first fantastic story of the Bog Beast. Everything else has been noir or crime, but here we have our first story with supernatural elements. Swamp Creatures meet with werewolves often. Swamp Thing and both the Hillman and the Skywald incarnations of the Heap did. Likely the ferocity of the werewolf makes for a good opponent for the Swamp Monster: Although the werewolf is usually frenzied, the Swamp Monster is slow and tough. Few of them have been as appealing to male gaze, however.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Fearful Spectres #3
Atlas folded in 1975, and the Tales of Evil 3 was long believed to be the last Bog Beast story, the Internet has shown one that surfaces in an Australian anthology comic Fearful Spectres (1982) from publisher Gredown Comics. As far as I understand it, the story was likely sold since it was complete, and there was no sense it letting something that could bring in money go to waste, even if wasn't published under the Atlas banner. “The Sun-Spawn Walks” initially shows a new power Bog-Beast has not previously displayed. He is able to turn into a goopy, boneless form and flow through bars of a prison. And in a more comic-book story, Bog is attacked by an entity that seems to be made of living flame, and defeats it by turning to liquid form and smothering it.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Fearful Spectres #3

Although it's unlikely have influenced it, this story also has an antecedent to psychic girl "Casey" from the Pasko and Yeates Swamp Thng. Bog meets a woman who is deaf mute from birth, and has therefore developed telepathy. By the end of the story, she has been badly burned, and their psychic link is severed. Thus Bog is alone again.

And that was the end of Bog, and the end of Atlas Comics. Unfortunately, Bog never developed doesn’t have much personality. This might be due to its bouncing around between writers (Gabriel Levy for its first appearance, John Albano for the second outing, Levy again in Tales of Evil and the unknown author of “The Sun-Spawn Walks”). It's tangential to the usual run of Swamp Monsters, but interesting to see the concept stretched, if not to the breaking point.

Next time, I'll be yammering on about the second iteration of Marvel's Man-Thing. See you then.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Outward and Physical Sign of the Recognition of My NECON Peers: A Fez

In this picture, you see the representation of the recognition of my achievements on this blog.

Camp Necon is a wonderful get-together, and I haven't blogged about it for several years. NECON is like rock and roll camp for writers. I get to mingle with fantastic people, talented writers, people whose work I read and respect, in a congenial atmosphere. Because it's limited to 200 people, I don't get that 'crowd exhaustion' I get with larger conventions, where I have to get away from the convention I am attending just so I can have some breathing space.

I'd name all the people I'm pleased to have met or got reacquainted with, but that list would be as long as the Campers list itself. The traditions of NECON, passed down from the late and greatly beloved Bob Booth, remain in place. Single track panels mean that you never have to choose between which panel you want to see. A roast of unique local hot dogs, called Saugies, while everyone meets and greets. There is a level of camaraderie sharing that is unlike any other get-together I've ever attended. I have said it before and I will say it again, NECON is my family of choice. They are surprisingly generous, in perspective, their experiences, and their time. Special thanks to Jim Moore for setting me straight about something I had tangled up into a knot in my head. And Vikki Ciaffone. And Errick Nunnaly. And Bracken MacLeod, Dana Cameron, Matt Bechtel, Mary Booth, Trish Cacek, Craig Shaw Gardner, Beth Massie, Barbra Gardner, Cort Skinner, Gemma Files, Laird Barron, Weston Ochse, Yvonne Navarro, Larissa Glasser, Jeff Strand, Greg Dearborn... of hell with it. Everyone at NECON deserves thanks for being there, for making a wonderful and family atmosphere, even if I didn't interact with them much.

At the end of NECON 37, fezes are handed out. During the weekend, the organizers chose actions they deem 'fez-worthy.' My admission that I wad watched 89 kaiju for My Year of Monsters films was deemed 'fez worthy'. This means that I was recognized, by a group of my peers, for this blog. For my pursuit of obscure kaiju films. So thank you to my readers, for keeping me going, for encouraging me.

This fez is for you.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Winding the Initial Swamp Thing Down: Michelinie and Conway

No one envies the person who has to follow a legend. Swamp Thing was one of the most popular comics around, and when Len Wein departed the series, someone had to be found to replace him. Enter David Michelinie, with Nestor Redondo already working the art. Michelinie’s plots were a bit more overt presenting the problem right off, rather than working up to them, as Len’s scripts had done. The majority of the plot is then solving the problem, rather then defining it.

His first story is “The Tomorrow Children” (likely a reference to the Thames Television show which first aired in 1973), in which Swampy meets a group of deformed but psychically potent children. As a freak himself, Holland immediately sympathizes with the children, and acts as their protector. Once an angry mob with flamethrowers start a fire, the most powerful of the psychic children sacrifices herself to save a ‘normal’ boy. But Micheline is canny enough to make the ending bittersweet. The remaining children find another protector, but he isn’t willing to expose his new charges to the public. Swamp thing walks away in disgust.

Given the enormous success of both the book and film version of The Exorcist (1973), it was inevitable that some of it would leak into Swamp Thing. But “The Soul-Spell of Father BLiss” has an interesting twist, as the priest in the story uses the Devil’s magic in an attempt to hasten the end of the world. Like Anton Arcane, he imprisons Alec Holland’s soul, but instead of taking it himself, he leaves the body open for a demon. It gets a bit messy. This is also the beginning of a more supernatural arc for Abigail Arcane, which peters out when the series ends.

In issue 16, “Night of the Warring Dead”, Holland finds himself on a remote island, entangled in a native insurrection. Written three years before Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” the two works clearly draw from the zeitgeist. An island revolution involves Laganna, the last priestess of her people, and Adam Rook, a disaffected Vietnam Vet unable to find his way in the world that doesn’t involve a gun. Like many of Michelinie's stories, it's a downer, and if not exactly Gothic. But like many of Michelinie's stories, they are tragedies drawn from contemporary times, rather than classic stories. This story is much more grounded in then-current political realities than Wein's work.

“The Destiny Machine” resurrects, comic-book fashion, Nathan Ellery, the leader of the Conclave. Michelinie continued to use Len’s characters of Abby Arcane, Matt Cable, and Bolt, although Bolt was often separated from the group or unconscious, as if Michelinie didn’t know what to do with him. There is also a repetition of the object without which the enemy cannot work, which allows for a quick resolution. The demons in the “Village of the Doomed“ cannot survive without their book, Laganna can’t command the dead without her talisman. Once the object is destroyed, the threat dissolves. Michelinie doesn’t have the heroes celebrate, however. The villain is always sympathetic, so there isn’t any cheering, and always sympathy for the individual who has fallen from the side of righteousness.

One of Michelinie's recurring themes is hypocrisy and the evil done by those willing to employ dishonest or destructive means to achieve their ends. More than Wein, Michelinie developed the background of his villains and antagonists. Father Bliss, Laganna, Dr Pretorus, all use terrible means to achieve what could be seen as noble goals. These characters and themes are very different from say, Gerber's Man-Thing, although both were political. Gerber concentrated on the protagonists, and his antagonists tended to be less developed.

With Issue 19, Gerry Conway, the original writer for Man-Thing, took over. Conway had a very different sense of the Swamp Thing, and here and there I can see hits that Conway regarded Swamp Thing as very similar to Man-Thing. Like the transformation of the Skywald Heap, Swamp Thing now has a mindless self, without the guiding intellect from Alec Holland. It comes from the cut-off arm from Swamp thing #5, which has regenerated into an entirely new Swamp Thing. Also similar to Gerber’s Man-Thing #7 (July, 1974), the Swamp Thing encounters one of the great legends of the Florida swamps, the fountain of Youth, and a motorcycle gang, also reminiscent of Gerber’s Foolkiller introduction the previous year in Man-Thing #3. There’s also a developer (who is no F. A. Schist) building something in the swamp. Conway even slips in issue #20, ascribing the Man-Thing’s origin to Swamp Thing. But the mindless Swamp Thing clone enables Conway to be rid of Cable and Abby and Bolt, and he seemed interested in building his own cast of side characters, if his run had not been cut so short.

Simultaneous with Issue 19, October 1975, Batman and Swamp thing got together again in the Brave and the Bold #122, story by Bob Haney, art by Jim Aparo. “Hour of the Beast.” In which hustler B. B. Riggs captures the Swamp Thing and brings him to Gotham as a freak show. The capture is accomplished with the same sort of foam that was used to capture Swamp Thing in Len Wein’s last issue “The Leviathan Conspiracy” (#13). Gotham is, coincidentally, hit with a rapidly-growing plant that threatens to take over the city. This is something Swamp Thing himself will do during Alan Moore’s stint as writer. But the story doesn't rely on Holland's intellect as a biochemist, but more on his strength. Again.

Michelinie returned for issue 21, which is unlike anything else done on Swamp Thing. Solus, an outcast alien and collector of freaks, beams Swamp Thing into his ship for his menagerie. It’s an interesting and very weird story, a science-fiction Gothic fairy tale. It is also the last story most people involved with Swamp Thing acknowledge.

Issue 22 returns to Michelinie’s initial story, in which a government conspiracy has a scientist capturing and sequestering human mutants which have been contaminated with radioactive pollution. None of these have psychic powers, however, although they have the same noseless face and unnaturally yellow skin as the mutants in issue 14. They also share Father Bliss’s desire to save the world by destroying it, as a madness comes on many of the mutants. But just when it seems like a by-the-numbers story of madness, he ends the story with a touching homage to Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Redondo does a very good job of making the Solomons’ last moments poignant. Again the story beneath it bears many common David Michelinie tropes.

Conway returned with issue 23, “Rebirth and Nightmare” and decided to take the unfortunate route of giving Swamp Thing what he was seeking. Holland, with the aid of his brother (a road never returned to by any later writer) Edward Holland, also a biochemist, and his live-in graduate student, Ruth Monroe. Alec Holland regains his human shape, and becomes a Hulk-like transformer. This only lasted for two issues.

The final (published) issue of Swamp Thing, #24, “the Earth Below” was written by David Anthony Kraft (with plot idea from Gerry Conway), illustrated by Ernie Chua and Fred Carrillo. No doubt this shifting of the creative team was the result of low sales, and presaged the cancellation of the series. With the help of his brother, Holland recreates the conditions that turned him into the Swamp thing, but setting off an explosion near the Swamp Thing, with the laboratory chemicals exactly as they were during the initial transformation. There’s a pool of clean water for him to dive into. Ultimately, makes about as much sense as frying a fried egg to make it raw again. Once human again, Holland is attacked by a thick-muscled Thrudavig, and spends the whole issue wishing he could be the Swamp Thing again. It’s a bit frustrating, since the ‘he gets what he wants but he misses what he used to have’ schtick is old.

Issue 25 was a promised Swamp Thing vs Hawkman issue. Some of the penciled sketches have been leaked on line. Swamp Thing was still pursued by Colossus, a criminal organization with governmental links (Sabre, a villain with a saber for a left hand, is a former federal agent). This thread was picked up again a few years later by Martin Pasko in his recrudescence of the Swamp Thing in 1982. Holland seems to be alternating between the Swamp thing and his human form, but I have only seen some of the pages, so I don’t know exactly how this works. The duality of Holland and Swamp Thing turning into each other certainly has its roots in Gothic literature, the well-known and often imitated Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Bruce Banner and the Hulk likely being the most famous version of the idea. However, the Swamp Thing is again being pursued by a shadowy organization, this time the Colossus. Swamp Thing has long interacted with such organizations, beginning with Nathan Ellery’s Conclave, to this truncated encounter with Colossus, and later the omnipresent Sunderland Corporation from Marty Pasko, which had links to the federal government. Alan Moore Sunderland used to bedevil the character. And although the events of the Gerry Conway Swamp Thing are ignored by all later writers, there are elements that were perfectly in keeping with the character as it had been subsequently written.

But Jerry Conway wasn’t done with the Swamp Thing. Less than a year after the book’s cancellation, Swamp Thing became a guest star in the Challengers of the Unknown, a science team, primarily of non-superpowered individuals. The science aspect theoretically allowed biochemist Holland to fit in reasonably well, but that wasn’t the way it worked out.

Issues 82 and 83 pick up with M’nagalah, the Lovecraftian horror encountered in Swamp Thing #8. One of the Challengers becomes infested with M’Naglah, and team seeks out Dr. Holland, who has reappeared, working with his brother. At the end of issue 83, Holland returns to his Swamp Thing form, with the little note that apparently the cure developed at he end of Swamp Thing wasn’t so permanent after all.

Issue 84 begins with an encounter between Deadman and the Swamp Thing, an association that will be reaffirmed several times, both in Alan Moore’s run-up to issue 50 and also in the Justice League Dark storylines. In saving the professor, Swamp Thing becomes an unofficial member of the group, even though he can’t wear the standard issue Challengers’ uniform. They go through a couple of adventures, including a war in the far future where everything is dystopically horrible. But it’s not particularly interesting, and the Swamp Thing isn’t used for anything but his brute strength. Which is a pity.

The Challengers of the Unknown stories move away from the Gothic and more into the adventurous and brightly-colored world of super-science. There is a fistfight in every issue, and overall, the stories aren’t that interesting. They certainly don’t add anything new to the story of Swamp Thing, who is utilized more like the Marvel Thing: inhumanly strong, and resilient. The Challengers of the Unknown ended with issue 87, June/July of 1978.

Less than a year later, in April 1979, Swamp thing returned in DC Comics Present #8: “The Sixty Deaths of Solomon Grundy.”. Having teamed up with Batman twice, Swamp Thing is this time allied with DC’s other big hero: Superman. Notably, the story is by Steve Englehard, who would be instrumental in getting Steve Gerber into the Ultraverse, and the invention of his own swamp monster, Sludge. Solomon Grundy isn’t on my list. Although he is initially clearly descended from the same root as the Heap and Swamp Thing, he loses his swampiness early on. He is more a zombie that comes from the swamp than a swamp monster, despite being described by Green Lantern (in All-American Comics 61, all the way back in 1944) as made of wood and leaves. Swamp Thing pursues Solomon Grundy, realizing he has the opportunity to study something he believes is similar to himself. Unfortunately, Superman only wants to put Grundy away. Swamp Thing cannot communicate easily with Superman, so he is forced to assist Grundy as the only way he will be able to study the plant zombie. He manages to do so, in a random underground lab he has discovered, and discovers that Grundy is not like him. Grundy is not alive, and therefore, not like the living plant that is Alec Holland. The story has a bit more depth than I initially thought it would.

And thus the first iteration of DC's Swamp Thing, which began so strongly, suffered the fate of many characters. Used by writers who don't really understand the appeal of the character, guest appearances shoved the Swamp Thing into a role to which it is not suited. Thus is a common occurrence in comics, where characters become communal property. Anyone can use the character, even those who do not understand its nuance. This slow petering out might have been the end for Swamp Thing, but Wes Craven purchased the rights to the story and made a film of the property. More on that later. But before I get to that, there’s Atlas’ Bog Beast, an oddly different sort of swamp creature.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The End of a Long Campaign

Tomb of Horrors original cover, art by David C Sutherland III

When I started my Pathfinder campaign, I wanted three things. I wanted to involve a lot of undead, I wanted killer dungeons, and I wanted an Egyptian theme to the campaign. Luckily, the first two go hand in hand. And when I discovered that Pathfinder's default setting of Golarion has an Egyptian-analogue called Osirion, it was suddenly much easier to set up.

My superobjective (an actor's thing) was that I wanted to have people in the house. A lot of middle-aged men suffer from loneliness and depression because they do not socialize enough. Having gamers in to laugh, kill things, and generally goof around forces me to be social once a week. I have noticed my depression has visited less often since I started the group.

I fused together Pathfinder's Osirion and Green Ronin's fantastic Hamunaptra for background. I didn’t have the time to write my own adventures, but I have a lot of deathtrap dungeons already, and it was easy to fill in with other adventures that fit the theme. I think it worked reasonably well.

The adventures were:

Hive of Villany: from Dungeon Crawl Classics #29, The Adventure Begins (Goodman Games)
The characters started out as prisoners, their sentences commuted by the Temple of Set in return for doing some dirty jobs. Their first assignment was to find out why the temple's bees weren’t producing honey. This properly set the campaign tone as not entirely serious.

Malice of the Medusa: Dungeon Crawl Classics #45 (Goodman Games)
The first actual tomb-raiding. This is a fun low-level adventure with good background, several small tombs, and an entertaining plot.

Forgotten King’s Tomb: (Kobold Press)
I hate to call this disappointing, but it’s a bit simple. I made this a more interesting adventure by allowing the adventurers to negotiate with the involved mummy.

Pyramid Pharaoh: I3 (TSR)
I bought this 1st edition adventure back when it first came out. I’ve carried it through many moves for more than thirty years, and finally got to run it. A wonderful adventure, a pseudoegyptian dungeon crawl set in a pyramid with a lot of creativity, plenty of strangeness, and a surprising amount of humor. The backstory provides a good hook that the players can figure out and interact with.

The Rebel's Ransom: Pathfinder Society 02-03 (Paizo)
A particularly good Pathfinder adventure, involving a certain amount of tomb-robbing, but with a twist. A combination of interesting characters, clever traps, and an enjoyable progression make this a great adventure.

Tomb of the Blind God: Dungeon Crawl Classics C9 (Goodman Games)
This was a side-quest that first touched on my own campaign arc. They are initially sent because a girl is kidnapped, and golly, there's grells, grimlocks, and more information about the past than they thought was going to be there.

The Scorpion Queen from In Search of Adventure (Goodman Games)
Maybe not the most inspired adventure. Still, a few puzzles, a little combat. The players didn’t seem to mind.

Imprisoned with the Pharaohs Imprisoned with the Pharaohs: J1 (Paizo)
One of the adventures that made me realize that a 3rd edition Egyptian-style campaign was possible. A fine adventure in a pyramid with mummies and all the Egyptian trappings I could want. Also the introduction to the mystery of Aucturn.

The Pact Stone Pyramid The Pact Stone Pyramid: J3 (Paizo)
Following on from the previous pyramid adventure, this was another pyramid dungeon crawl, and had its own contribution to the mystery of Aucturn. I provided my own answer to the mystery, and just about the time we were playing this, Paizo came out with their own. I liked mine better. Nevertheless, this was another fun pyramid adventure from the people at Paizo.

Wrath of the Accursed: Pathfinder Society 2-20 (Paizo)
A city-based intrigue adventure from Paizo. It made for a nice change of pace, giving the characters a chance to do some negotiation, and run through the streets of the city.

The Dog Pharaoh's Tomb: Pathfinder Society 3-12 (Paizo)
A smaller adventure than J1 and J3 above. Still, this was a good, rich adventure with interesting tomb traps, undead to destroy, and links to the future of the campaign.

Caves of the Crawling Lord: Dungeon Crawl Classics #37 (Goodman Games)
This was the adventure where the whole plot basically came out. And the characters learned that leaving the alchemist alone in front of the undead antipaladin was a mistake. Here the players found out about the Dynasty of Jackals, a line of corrupt and demon-consulting pharaohs whose names had been eliminated from official history. They discovered the mummified remains of the majority of the line, but not the ultimate resting place of the Dark Undying One, the last and most terrible of the Dynasty of Jackals. He was so evil that merely speaking his name would bring damage upon the utterer.

The Tomb of Horrors Tomb of Horrors: (3rd ed version) (WOTC)
Acererak was the court wizard of the Dark Undying One. The mechanics of Pathfinder mean that the adventure cannot be as deadly as it was originally intended to be. Still, the three pit traps puzzle is something you can't roll dice for, and it got the players, both here and in Necropolis. Good fun. This signaled the beginning of the serious trapped tombs adventures: the next three tombs were tributes to this classic.

The Tomb of Horrors Dread Crypt of Srihoz: Dungeon Crawl Classics 25 (Goodman Games)
Srihoz was the chief of the Navy under the Dark Undying One. This turned out to be more deadly than the infamous meat-grinder Tomb of Horrors. While the Tomb was first, the designers of the Dread Crypt also had some very dirty tricks to lay on the characters.

Lost Tomb of Kruk-Ma-Kali: (Kenzerco)
The tomb of the Dark Undying One’s mightiest general. Wonderful tribute to the Tomb of Horrors. But another instance where the extensive magics involved would have been much more expensive than a resurrection spell. But shush, because this one is really good, even though I ignored the wilderness adventure getting there.

The Mud Sorcerer's Tomb: Dungeon #138 (Paizo)
The individual entombed here was the tomb architect of the Dark Undying One’s court. And had directions to the tomb of Mrs. Dark Undying One. An update of a great 2nd edition adventure, also from Dragon magazine. A sly, thoughtful tribute to Tomb of Horrors, which fit easily with the campaign’s theme of tombs and deadly traps.

The Rolling Tomb: Dungeon #215 (WOTC)
An interruption of the main quest with a delightfully insane premise. The hook is "a full-sized pyramid on rollers is going to squash Pharaoh's favorite oasis. You will do something about this immediately."

StarHaunt Dungeon #207(WOTC)
StarHaunt was a bit of an emergency insertion. I'd made The Rolling Tomb too difficult. But replacing the meteor with an undead god-fetus made this adventure wonderfully macabre. Seriously. Look up "atropal scion" and tell me that isn't creepy.

The Tomb of Horrors Crypt of the Devil-Lich: Dungeon Crawl Classics #13 (Goodman)
After a couple of less trappy-deathy adventures, this was back to the meat grinders I love. Lots of traps, and traps within traps. There was a wonderful moment with the hellwasp swarms when everyone was helpless except the Fire Oracle. Who cashed in his chips later this adventure.

Necropolis: Necromancer Games
Sort of Gygax's adventure to top Tomb of Horrors, this is as gonzo and weird as you might expect. Wonderful, and one of the adventures the campaign was constructed to lead up to. Well converted by the people at Necromancer Games, and delightful fun for the players. They destroyed the Dark Undyng One, and the beacon that was drawing Aucturn close, amplifying necromantic spell effects. But that wasn’t the end of it all. Turns out the court wizard, Acererak also had a few lingering threats to the well-being of the world.

Prisoner of Castle Perilous: Dungeon #153 (WOTC)
The players learned that Acererak wasn’t quite as destroyed as they thought he’d been. And he’s mucking about with something in the Negative Energy Plane. Good adventure, and the beginning of the campaign’s endgame.

Return to the Tomb of Horrors Return to the Tomb of Horrors: (TSR)
I didn't use the introductory adventure, but the rest was pretty darn entertaining, if a little weird to convert to Pathfnder. Still, this is a solid, puzzling sprawl of a mega-adventure, and I’m quite happy that I finally got to run it.

Tomb of Horrors: 4th ed (WOTC)
This was the third and final Acererak the party faced. I’m a little sad I wasn’t able to reconcile the initial parts of the adventure with my campaign, instead only using the final adventure. Still, I liked this. Unfortunately, the party acted with a little haste before they learned what was going on, and managed to doom themselves. Ah well, such is giving control of the story over to the players. And there’s a lot of potential to having a new Devouring God.

There are a few adventures I wanted to run but couldn't find a way to slip in. Grimtooth's Dungeons of Death, Mayfair's Undead, and the Tomb of Iuchiban from Alderac. But they either didn’t fit the structure of the campaign, or mechanically would have lost too much when converted to Pathfinder. But now we’re onto a new campaign, one starting with zero level characters with random backgrounds and straight 3d6 characteristics. Let’s hope might oaks from small acorns grow.

I want to thank everyone who was part of the campaign, and made it the successful fun it was. Chris, John, Tristan, John, Diane, Shannon, Tara, Alex, Dave, and Nick: thank you all very much. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Monday, May 29, 2017

I bit the bullet...

After literal months of agony and wishy-washiness, I pulled the trigger on my Patreon page. If you enjoy my writing, you can get previews of my books there, before they come out.

If you haven't yet read my work, you can mosey over to the page and read the first chapter of my fantasy/noir novel Necromancer for Hire. Only the first one is free. But if you support me at $2 or higher, you can read a chapter a week until it's finished. Support me at $5 a month, and you will get a copy of every book I publish, as my way of saying thank you.

I intend to change the contribution level names and images, but not the actual rewards as I go on with this. A hypothetical steampunk airpulp story will likely have levels that have to do with biplanes. Right now, it's all about the bodies.

And a huge thank-you to Darrell Grizzle, who joined within an hour of me posting the initial link. There are days when I doubt my ability to write a compelling, marketable story. Darrell killed that doubt for the next month. Thank you Darrell!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island, The Heart of Kaiju Darkness

The first thing I noticed, even in the trailers, is that Kong: Skull Island knows its roots. This is not Peter Jackson's unbridled King Kong. This is a movie that remembers the 1933 film, but at the same time is not enslaved to it. Kong's stature is erect, as it was in 1933, and more credible than in 1976. Kong battles an octopus-thing as he did in King Kong vs Godzilla. the Skullcrawlers are from the original film, and there is a giant spider in reference to the infamous lost and deleted scene. And, possibly because it's Legendary, there's a sly Pacific Rim reference when someone shoots a kaiju in the face with a flare.

Kong

One major thumbs-up for me is that Kong's island is in the South Seas, and the natives of the island are finally not African. Although Jackson's production used "a mix of Asian, African, Maori and Polynesian" actors, they do look very African. Not so in Kong: Skull Island.

For the first time, not everything is relentlessly hostile. Sure, the Skullcrawlers are just out for lunch, and the wee pterodactyls are pretty nasty, but Skull Island finally seems to have an ecosystem that doesn't try to consume every human that sets foot on the island. And because some of the shoot is on location, you can see the swarms of insects. It's a nice touch, although I suspect the actors were none too happy about it.

The Skullcrawlers, the main antagonists of the film, deserve some mention. Clearly modeled on the two-legged lizard from the original Kong, they've been upgraded. And they a good look. Like the MUTOs from Legendary Godzilla. Despite them being an homage to the original film, the feeling is that you have never seen anything like that before. Their movements are fluid for something that has such a unique method of locomotion. They're presented as frightening, and worthy opponents for the mighty Kong.

New Skullcrawler...
The new Skullcrawler

Old Skullcrawler...
The old Skullcrawler

The use of the military is interesting. Somewhat in keeping with the seventies end of Vietnam era. Col Packard (Sam Jackson) is a deeply traumatized officer who, on seeing his country leave a conflict unfinished, decides he is going to take no shit. Not from giant monsters, certainly. But his men are not quite as hell-bent as he is. So the military is not here for show, as it was in Ishiro Honda's work. But neither is the military turned into a bunch of clowns, as they were in the 1998 Godzilla. The military are depicted as individuals in a system, and the military is represented by different people. Which is, I think, pretty fair. Although I do take exception to Vietnam-era soldiers carrying poison gas grenades. But ultimately, in good kaiju film fashion, the military and guns are not the solution to the plot problem.

Kong downs so many helicopters I couldn't help wonder if he was still pissed off from the 1976 film, where he was shot off the World Trade Centers by helicopters with miniguns. But hey, they were dropping bombs...

It's a good film. Enjoyable, and I suspect it will stand up after repeated watching. I'll definitely be owning this one.

Next month, Colossal comes out, the Nacho Vigalondo/Anne Hathaway kaiju film. And you can bet I'll be there.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

We Have To Talk About Marvin

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, before he was dead Eerie was a Warren Publications magazine, which, in the seventies, was clinging to the format EC had been forced out of. Their flagship publications included Creepy, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Vampriella. In format, Eerie is similar to Skywald’s mood-horror, a black and white magazine that avoided the Comics Code Authority’s censorius eye.

The majority of the magazine was short, moody stories, often with a buxom woman to add a little sex appeal to the story. The initial Marvin story "One is the Lonliest Number" written by Allen Milgrom, primarily known as an artist, achieving great success with Marvel's Secret Wars II and two years on The Avengers. Esteban Maroto provides beautiful line work. With this frankly stellar combination of artist and writer, the Marvin story is affectingly tragic.

Marvin merited the front cover of Eerie #49 (July 1973) Swamp Thing was in full swing, and had just published issue #5. Man-Thing was still appearing in Adventure Into Fear, but by the beginning of 1974, would be in its own magazine. The Skywald Heap had just had its final story in Psycho 13 (July 1973). So the ground was well-tread, but Milgrom managed to put the familiar tropes into a unique story.

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, enjoying himself for the first time Marvin the Dead Thing is in many ways a distillation of the Swamp Monster trope. Marvin Kanfer, we are told in the first panel, had always been alone. Six panels later, he kills himself by throwing himself in a polluted river. The pollution from ‘several factories’ serves as the catalyst (like Ted Sallis’s Super Soldier Serum, Dr. Holland’s bio-restorative formula, or the executed babies in the Heap’s Wausau Swamp). The results, inevitable. Marvin returns as a swamp monster without knowing it (similar to Sallis in his first Man-Thing story). The police get involved, and Marvin gets to demonstrate his strength and his invulnerability to bullets. He is more sentient than the Man-Thing, but thought is slow, so he id not as in control of his mind as the Swamp Thing or Skywald Heap are.

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, and the stone of social approval This is the first time that the genre has mined the idea of family for the swamp monster. Previously, the monster had been a lonely presence without attachments, only friends and enemies. The transformation into the swamp monster got rid of the individual’s previous life. However, Marvin is a different sort of person. In a story that perhaps draws from the classic 1931 James Whale Frankenstein, Marvin is befriended by a young girl who is not put off by the way he looks. But a mob (literally, a torch-waving mob) comes into the swamp to hunt Marvin down. Instead of killing him, however, they kill little Susie. Unwilling to accept the death of the little girl who had been his playmate, Marvin places her body in the same toxic sludge that brought about his transformation. After weeks of waiting, he is rewarded with her sludgy resurrection. The two then bond, and presumably, live happily ever after as man and child, free of the restraints of society. The story is similar to a Morto do Pantono story, “A Pequena Silvia”.

There us a bit of metaphor to be drawn from the stone and rope that Marvin uses to drown himself. If we view this as a symbol of the weight of society’s opinion which weighs on Marvin, it is this that eventually drags him down. During his conflict with the police, Marvin pulls the stone and rope off, throws it as a weapon, or sign of defiance, then he is free of society's opinions and rules. He can return to the swamp and be what he is. There’s a happy naturalness in this story. Marvin is the living rejection of modern society, and once he is free of those bonds, he can finally find satisfaction. Society is so damaged that the transformation of Marvin from human into a swamp monster is what allows him to be happy.

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, and the worst moment of his unlife Esteban Maroto’s work is never more poignant as the image of Marvin holding his playmate in his arms. The despair and sadness on Marvin’s disfigured face is palpable, and really makes the point of the story.

Just under a decade later, in February 1982, literally the month that Wes Cravern's Swamp Thing film his the theaters, Eerie resurrected Marvin. The writer is different, and so is the artist, but this is the second Swamp Creature's resurrection . Perhaps, like the return of Swamp Thing, this return was prompted by the Wes Craven Swamp Thing film. But Marvin returned.

Bad people. Baaaad people This story is less straightforward. Marvin watches a young couple dump their stillborn baby into the polluted waters that transformed Marvin into the swamp creature he is. Bobby-Jean and Billy are a troubled couple. Billy said he’d marry Bobby-Jean, but he most take care of his grandmother. But Billy is apparently a serial impregnator, and his supposedly sick grandmother is someone who takes care of unplanned pregnancies. The two of them have a business together, him taking advantage of inexperienced girls, his grandmother getting paid well to deal with the pregnancies.

Vengeful Baby The stillborn babe returns to life, thanks to the polluted waters, and immediately goes out to seek its father. Bobbie-Jean, hemmorhaging, tries to escape into the swamp, and the baby finds Billy, killing him. It also kills his grandmother. Bobby-Jean, dying, is taken by Marvin to the swamp, and the three of them turn into a kind of happy swampy family.

There’s a whole lot more dialog and exposition in this story. And at the same time, it’s less atmospheric and less complex. This is a more straightforward murder and revenge story, and Marvin as a character plays almost no part in it. Instead, he is primarily a watcher of the action, only There are several moments when the writer uses the shortcut of a character ‘just knowing’ something that helps move the narrative along. “Ode to a Dead Thing” is not as well-written as the original story, but it does have its tender moments, such as when Marvin carries the dying Bobby-Jean into the swamps. It is a pretty straight riff on the original story, adding another member to Marvin’s family.

Happily every after... in the swamp
The themes of the original story are gone. Marvin’s rejection of the modern world has vanished, and been replaced by an evil family, Billy and his grandmother, who are selfish, irredeemable villains. They are villains who the reader will not mourn when they are murdered by the resurrected baby. Marvin’s story is more of a wrapper around the standard revenge story, with the resurrected swamp baby serving the usual Heap role of dispenser of justice.

“One is the Loneliest Number” The first Marvin the Dead-Thing story stands as an excellent encapsulation of the majority of the tropes that make the he swamp-monster work. Using the inherent loneliness of the character to good effect, as well as the pathos evoked by that character desperately, finally caring for someone else. This emotional work is muted in the second, more simplistic story, as mentioned above. I wonder if Marvin’s return was a test balloon for making him an ongoing character, If so, it did not catch on. Like Carlton’s “Lurker in the Swamp” there are only two Marvin the Living Dead Thing stories. They are worth seeking out for the swamp monster enthusiast, especially Eerie # 49.

Next Month, the end of DC's initial series of Swamp Thing, featuring writers David Michelinie and Gerry Conway.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Coming Full Circle: Roy Thomas Adapts Sturgeon's "It" To Comics

In 1972, Marvel handed a new magazine, Supernatural Thrillers to Roy Thomas. The new magazine, which ran 15 issues, started as an attempt to capture the new macabre movement in comics. With the loosening of the CCA rules, Marvel thought they could now adapt classic weird short stories into comics, giving the medium more legitimacy. This plan lasted four issues, adapting Sturgeon's “It”, The Invisible Man, Robert E. Howard's “Valley of the Worm” and finally Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde before the original creation N'Kantu, the Living Mummy came to dominate the title.

In December 1972, the first issue of DC's Swamp Thing had just appeared, Gold Key had just released their first “Lurker in the Swamp” story, and Marvel's own Man-Thing had just merited its own magazine appearance as the lead in Fear, and Skywald's Heap was going strong in Psycho. That's a lot of swamp monsters to choose from. It had been three years since Roy Thomas had created the Glob. The Swamp Monster was at virtually every publisher, but no one had yet begin to really delve into the possibilities such a character held for long-term story telling. When Roy Thomas was handed the opportunity to launch a more literary series, he decided the first story he wanted to adapt was Sturgeon’s “It.” He adapted the story himself, primarily using Sturgeon’s language. As a fan of the story, why wouldn’t he?

Thomas had been a professional for three years at this point. The first story he’d worked was the Incredible Hulk story in which he had created The Glob. His adaptation of Sturgeon’s story is solid, using as much as the original author’s text as he could, while still adapting the story to a different, more visual medium.

The art is good. Not as moody as Wrightson, Bissette, or Mayrik, but the faces are expressive, and the emotional content of the story is conveyed well. Penciler Marie Severin would illustrate more than a hundred and sixty issues for Marvel. Especially effective is the panel Where Alton tells Corey about finding the corpse of his dog Kimbo is excellent. The tension in Alton’s stance, the sadness mixed with wariness are plain.

The creature itself is painted in a combination of green and gray, and is not as distinct from the background as Swamp Thing and Man Thing would be. Which is a bit of a shame since it’s difficult to see exactly what It looks like. The coloring, however, emphasizes the fact that it is made of the swamp stuff that surrounds it. Although it is human-shaped, It does not have a recognizable face. It has eyes, but they are usually brushed over in the same color as the rest of the creature. Other swamp monsters have red eyes, which helps to separate them from the rest of the creature, but that’s not the case here. As a result, I find it difficult to figure out which direction the creature is ‘facing.’ This and the coloration leads to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, which is not entirely unwelcome in a thriller/horror comic.

The way that Alton dotes on the dog makes me wonder if the dog as adjunct was a deliberate homage on the part of Swamp Thing scribe Len Wein. Steve Gerber also wrote a story involving a dog in the swamp, in issues 9 and 10 of Man-Thing. Kimbo is one of the early emotional hooks that moves the plot of “It” forward.

Apparently, Marvel had the idea of turning “It” into an ongoing series. But what good would it have done to set one swamp monster against another from the same publisher? Man-Thing had done well enough to was doing reasonably well. Was there enough market for two Marvel swamp monsters? Thomas didn’t think so. So “It” remained a one-off from Supernatural Thrillers. Unfortunately, Marvel has lost the contract Sturgeon signed, so it was reprinted once. Beyond that, it’s in legal limbo, since no one knows the terms of the contract. So muck monster completist’s only hope of finding the story is to buy an old comic. Luckily, it’s not enormously popular, so copies are relatively inexpensive. It's a good single issue, and brings the origin of the swamp monster back to its origin, the Theodore Sturgeon story. But it's a single issue, so there's really not a lot to dig into here.

Next month, Warren Publishing gets into it with their own, pretty unique swamp monster.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gold Key Puts Its Oar In: Don Glut's The Lurker in the Swamp

Comics, as an art form, have developed a heavily imitative business model. Most early horror comics were made in imitations of EC’s anthology format, complete with weird narrators. In 1972, Gold Key comics, one of several comics companies that survived until the early eighties, was still publishing comics digests, including Mystery Comics Digest. Tucked into the anthology of some nineteen stories including “Miracle of the Marne” and “The Ghost of the Gorilla” is “The Lurker of the Swamp.” By this time, there had been a certain amount of television pickup of swamp monsters. In November of 1972, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery aired a story adapted from Margaret St. Clair’s short story “Brenda.” Although not as popular as vampires of werewolves, but Swamp Monsters had at least touched the television medium.

The Lurker from the Swamp The Lurker is subtle twist on the now-standard Muck Man short story, in this case written by Don Glut and illustrated by artist Jesse Santos (nether of whom are credited in the digest itself). Bank Robber Martin Kraz returns home after a ten year stint, only to find that his buried loot is guarded by the swamp monster. Like the early Hillman Heap, the Lurker feels the need to feed, and it first sighted carrying off sides of beef from the local butcher shop. And like all swamp monsters, the Lurker has a powerful will to live that keeps the dead individual mobile. But Glut changed the formula, both for this as well as the Lurker’s later appearance in Doctor Spektor. For one, Martin Kraz is not a likeable character. And like Joe Timms from Like Roy Thomas's initial Glob, he’s a small-time criminal. Although Kraz has just been released from prison, rather than being an escapee. He discovers that the Lurker is the remains of his original partner, who helped him bury the loot. However, Kraz discovers that a gun does work on the swamp monster. But the curse of Haunted Swamp overcomes Kraz, and he becomes a mucky Lurker, even as the previous one dies.

The Lurker from the Swamp That said, there are several key differences that make the story stand out. One, the Lurker in the Swamp is not immune to bullets. So while the usual revenge (this time between two robbers) serves as the (apparent) climax of the story, Glut’s twist is that the Lurker dies, and the man who murdered it becomes the new Lurker. This idea of of the serial identity, that the swamp monster is not unique but an identity to be assumed, would not be picked up again until Alan Moore’s stint on Swamp Thing. Another twist on the tale is that the catalyst that changes the human into the Lurker is not pseudo-science, but supernatural. Haunted Swamp was where the local constabulary dumped the bodies of witches.

Four years later, in 1976, Glut revisited his muck monster in his ongoing series The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor. The good doctor is an occult detective, created by Don Glut as a one-off for Gold Key's Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery #5 (July, 1972). By April of 1973, Spektor had his own series, The Occult Files of Doktor Spektor, which reached twenty-four issues between 1973 and 1977, and a 2014 miniseries Doctor Spektor, Master of the Occult. Don Glut took several creatures from his time writing digest shorts into Dr. Spektor's ongoing series. And with issue 21 the Lurker and Doctor Spektor crossed paths.

The Lurker from the Swamp

The Lurker from the Swamp One of Glut's strengths is his in-depth knowledge of the genre, so he can anticipate where the reader believes the story is going. So the story is not a simple monster hunt, it has a good twist in the end. The Lurker has also changed a bit in the four years between its appearances. The Lurker Dr. Spektor encountered doesn't appear to be animated by the spirit of the criminal Martin Kraz. It is now immune to bullets, where the initial appearance was not. It also showed a new power, a command over plants. This once showed up in the Heap comic, and Glut says he had read several Heap comics, although it's difficult to say which ones exactly. Control over plants was a rare power among the Muck Monsters, or was until Alan Moore took the ability to the terrifying extreme with Swamp Thing. Post Moore, many swamp creatures would be able to control plants.

The Lurker from the Swamp

Part of the change is the gentling the soul of the monster. Initially Spektor believes the Lurker is responsible for disappearances in the Haunted Swamp. And it seems like a good bet that it was. The Lurker, however, turns out to be benevolent, almost a guardian of the swamp, protecting the people of the swamp from a greater menace. And like Roy Thomas's initial Glob story, it sacrifices itself by walking into the quicksand.

The Lurker ain't dead yet It's a good and surprisingly complex story. And Glut was savvy enough to show the mucky hand of the Lurker rising from the depths. Obviously, there's life in the old monster yet.

Unfortunately, this was the last chance he got to write the Lurker, and in his interview for Swamp Men, Glut demonstrates a bit of disappointment that he never got to write a third Lurker story. To him, as to me, there is something unique and poignant about these mucky anti-heroes, something that allows us to write many stories on their oddly unfinished and inhuman features. And in Glut's two stories are the seeds of muck men attributes that will be picked up by later writers. I can only wonder what he could have done if he had continued with the character.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Two Trailers for Kong: Skull Island



The new Kong: Skull Island trailer is pretty interesting. First off, Kong looks like he did in the 1933 original. Short legs and erect posture. This makes him seem more human. The way people talk about him indicates he is not a raging beat, either. He also exists within a larger biome than he has been seen in previously. He didn't seem to really interact much with the other creatures of Skull Island in Peter Jackson's 2005 film. There is a greater diversity among the inhabitants, also. Not just classic dinosaurs, but also a giant mammal, what appears to be a water buffalo. Let's hope that some of the inhabitants show up and don't immediately get into huge fights.

John Goodman, I suspect, is our link to the American Godzilla films. He says he's been trying to convince people about Kong's existence for years, so I suspect he's part of Monarch. I'd also like to know the nature of the military involvement in what is seems to be a purely commercial enterprise. But that's me.



The initial trailer doesn't have the same punchy energy, but I think it tells us more about the film itself. At 1:52, you'll see a soldier firing off off a triceratops skull. Will they tease dinosaurs and not bring them out? The "Skull-Crawlers" are dinosaur-like, remind me of the serpent creatures in the Willis O'Brien original.

the film takes place in 1971, and there are a lot of visual references to Apocalypse Now, considered one of the definitive films about the Vietnam conflict.

You can bet I will be seeing this opening weekend.