Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Action Philosophers for TSR


If you don't want to skip to the bottom just remember that TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes is a great fucking game. This kind of thing isn't something I love writing and posting here for a few reasons but it has been on my mind and I need to get it out so better things can come through the tunnel.

I have a weird thing when I'm drunk where I end up sounding like I'm trying to make an opposite point to what I'm trying to do. This is bad with sensitive subjects. On a lighter note I recently took a big digression dump in some conversation of Zak's and made it sound like I think the best thing comics can be is Aesop's Fables, teaching morals and life lessons.

I won't bore you with the 3000 word preamble this could have been but by now I suspect my initial point doesn't need explaining to most folks: comics aren't superheroes. One's a medium and the other's a signal. And while I respect everyone who uses the medium to tell a story (especially a personal one that might be difficult to tell) or explore a theme (I can't imagine it's possible to run out of worthwhile ways to evidence the stupidity of racism) or serve a demand or need (sure my niece will buy anything with Disney characters on it, might as well give her some Frozen comics) the medium is, like film, a visual first medium. It's #1 job is to give people interesting things to see.

There's lots of reasons superheroes exploded in the States to the point of dominating our comics industry, a lot of reasons for their longevity, but Job One pretty much sums it up. It's a genre umbrella whose definition is pretty much "stuff interesting to look at," and developed to encompass crime stories, melodramas, O. Henry schtick, war comics, comedy, science fantasy, whatever meant there would be something cool to look at. Sometimes this can be facile - pretty naked people are great and well drawn naked people are great, sure, but so much of the Avengelyne era of hero was about some weird Tex-Avery-As-Envisioned-By-Larry-Flynt draftmanship focused solely on basically alien erotica at the expense of any other aspect of a composition. Sometimes it can be demanding - a lot of comic artists' real strength lies not in their gallery-level talent but in the way they use the medium, which forces you to kind of learn on the go and eschew medium shot gridlock comfort zones. But there's always something to see, and from characters who can punch somebody right through the panel barrier to books whose whole schtick relies on the fact that (unlike film) there are no depth of focus or depth of field issues, you could find 90% of comics pet-rock-boring and still keep finding showcases for Cool Stuff To See.

That's really all that's on the written test when you get your superhero comic license, which is why superhero comics have turned into Every Genre But More So over the years. Frankly HORROR is better at consistently passing the Cool Stuff To See test and really consumes and envelops genres faster and more smoothly than superheroes do. Horror just doesn't have the penetration with the markets for which superheroes are so eminently merchandisable. No, not even now in the post-Walking Dead gold rush for horror franchise properties. You can sell Batman to Methodists but not Babadook. Not a coincidence the spandex set had its renaissance after the horror market got its balls chopped off.

There's another thing superheroes have going for them that explains their longevity advantage over horror beyond the obvious (which is that horror loses its teeth when you try the same scare for too long, in the same way a joke becomes trite). It's their philosophical underpinnings. Not all heroes are specifically built around them but they inherit a lot implicitly from Superman, the ultimate fuck you from a couple Jewish guys to Nazi notions of Nietzsche, subverting or inverting their self-actualizing excuses for general fuckery. To be best is not to be better, to be best is to do better.

Some characters ARE built around a specific underpinning, or they come to be. Animal Man is a good example of the latter, Wonder Woman is something of an ur-example of the former. But from Peter Parker to Barda Free to Elektra to Punisher to Invincible to the modern day Carol Danvers everybody has a little bit of this in them, a positing of This Is What Good Is that is challenged by and proved by responding to different evils as a pretty explicit structure. Again, it can be facile, it can sure be repetitive, but it ultimately drives all the conflict in the way that a situation, location, context, or other characters might for other (and some better) stories.

This is good because while it can be as conservative and simplistic as any morality in a horror movie it gives superheroes an edge which is An Excuse For Things To Happen. Horror conveys temptation by the devil largely through tone and atmosphere. Superheroes do it with the protagonist strapped into a rocket train blasted into outer space filled with mind controlled POWs.

That's what I love about the best superhero comics and what I feel is missing from more modern day superbooks: even the most childlike view of good an evil can be used to drive the Make Stuff Happen boat and give us interesting things to see, which is what we're really here for.

Too many modern superhero comics, and this is coming from someone who does still love the industry, come at it the other way: all the action is an excuse for superheroes to stand around or fly around shouting philosophy at each other. This is an approach that, say, a prose book handles well. One inciting incident and a few bursts of excitement can keep characters reassessing the proper course of action, reconsidering past actions, expose old tensions and new connections...I love reading this shit. I love a lot of movies that are like this, a lot of comics that are like this. Hell, most of Star Trek is like this. But for action movies or action comics the DO and the LOOK AT THAT are always going to be more important than the why. Having your fistfights drive philosophical discourse would be disaster in a Die Hard movie. I contend that it is the same for the Justice League.

I think it's an instinct for wanting the thing you loved when you were younger to grow up with you and become more like other, mature fiction, so you can still enjoy it. To that I say just enjoy the things you love, people, and enjoy them for what they are. Adventure Time will never be Lord of the Rings and that's fine. When it's just allowed to be the best version if itself, frankly it's better.

So RPGs...

I have not played all the superhero RPGs in the world. I don't know that I could, at the rate they pop up. But so many of them are very concerned with capturing the melodrama in superhero comics. Built in rewards for tension-ratcheting failure, stat blocks for Perry White so you can roll your Not Superman against his Newshound value, some weird moralist elements, advice on designing your world so you can have the Street Level or Cosmic campaign you desire, a Super Friends like balance emphasis to make sure Green Arrow is as useful at the table as Metamorpho or Sapphire Stagg.

I think that's effort out of proportion with necessity, an attempt to make playing an RPG feel like reading or writing a comic book. If you're looking for that then cool, let's get these dice out of the way and talk about this idea you have for a Saturn Girl detective series, I'd be interested in that. I'd love to get the cast-off Marvel Micronauts a gig myself...

Any comic nerd can have and has had conversations like these that run for hours. Many turn them into cool little fan fiction, and that's neat. Sure, I'll read that, even if it's more filled with sex and romance than I'm looking for. If you're a pal then I'm interested in your voice, your perspective, your ideas...You have an idea for a new superhero series that you don't think will ever get published? I'm your audience of one, and I'm sure in return you won't mind listening to my pitch for MANK, the half man half tank.

When it comes to a superhero RPG, though, what I look for at the table is something that feels like DRAWING a comic. Shit Is Happening, Look At That, What Other Interesting Thing Can We Cram In Here, Check Out That NPC's Shitty Beard Ha Ha, Oh Shit Space Bees, Deep Inky Shadows, Time Dilation, Hard Cuts, That Was Slowing Down So Now We Are Over Here With These People Where Something More Interesting Is Happening...

TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes has a philosophical underpinning that takes up maybe half a page and can be used to romp in the old 616 Sandbox or make your own whole thing. It's this: you can do awesome things better and easier if you Act Like A Superhero. The philosophy drives the action, gives us more Cool Shit To Look At. We can't see these illustrations this time but the point where this gets us fighting the Hand to protect a runaway mother and child, NOW we're playing a comic. It's small, simple, and largely invisible. Best of all if you object to the morality it espouses (or rightly point out that it's a morality not always even espoused by its source material, but a version made safe for mass marketing to 8 year olds in a bright yellow box) you can change the whole thing and therefore redirect the energies of the whole campaign in about fiiiiiiiiiive minutes.

Every aspect of those rules, even this, maybe especially this, is devoted to doing interesting or explosive things to keep things moving forward and ride a momentum of Something New Happened Now. It's not breaking things into separate rooms, considered discussions over HERE and giant Civil War clusterfucks to take nine sessions to adjudicate over HERE. It's just going "if this then that" in a very elegant way. In a lot of ways I think this system is even smoother than D&D.

That feels a lot more like a superhero comic to me: not going "I see what you did there, very clever," but "HOLY CRAP WHAT JUST HAPPENED?"

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