Masks Actual Play: Junior Elite #0 & 1

junior-elite-logo

For my first online Masks campaign, we have the following characters. To read more about the Masks game system check out my overview from Origins 2016. Illustrations of our campaign’s characters are done by John Alexander. Junior Elite logo by Mick Bradley:

  • Black Hoodie the Delinquent (played by Ariana Ramos)
    • Mentored by and eventually discarded by an enigmatic figure, Black Hoodie can construct a useful gadget out of whatever materials are at her disposal.
  • Silver Arm the Innocent (played by Mick Bradley)
    • Possessor of a silver arm that grants him mystic powers connected to Celtic mythology, Silver Arm was tossed forward from 1996 to present day where he finds his modern self to be a cynical, jaded jerk.
  • Magnificent Lad the Legacy (played by Pamela Alexander)
    • The son of Gravinians Magnificent Man and Magnificent Woman, this young hero has been expected to follow in their footsteps since birth.
  • Kid Atomic the Protege (played by John Alexander)
    • The orphaned son of a pair of super villains, adopted by Doctor Atomic and raised as his ward
  • Phoenix and The Sphinx the Joined (played by Misha B)
    • Twins, one of whom is a precog and one a postcog, more powerful when in each other’s presence.

The team has been named the Junior Elite by the press, due to two of their members’ associations with elder members of The League of Elite, Halcyon’s premiere superhero team. In our first session, we focused entirely on character building with lots of questions and note taking on my end.

The inciting incident for our campaign is the disappearance of almost all the League of Elite. The Junior Elite responds to an attack on the Eon Institute; a research laboratory focused on multiversal and temporal science. The attack is led by Professor Dark and his Children of the Night; a washed up 1990s goth styled villain. The Professor is wielding cosmic level weaponry that he couldn’t have made himself, and it takes the combined Junior Elite to stop him. Before the team can examine the weapons more carefully, Gen. Juliet Mayhem of AEGIS swoops in and absconds with the tech citing her organization’s ability to keep it locked up tight. The only member of the League of Elite that’s still around is Doc Atomic, and he seems to have been broken psychologically from whatever went down. The Junior Elite also met Dr. Conway Claremont, the lead researcher at the Eon Institute. Claremont explained that Professor Dark broke into the wing that housed viewing equipment for that the scientists had coined “The Dark Star Dimension” and that he believes this was all a diversion from something worse. The twins share a vision of a darkened void with a single molten planet floating in the darkness. From the darknesses rises a being composed of the world’s very essence. It reaches out to make contact with a small being consisting of pure light. The vision ends. The first mini session ended with an object hurtling from space and crashing into a farm on the outskirts of Halcyon. The farmer rushes out to investigate only to see a thorny silver arm reach up over the crater’s edge.

In our first full session, we kicked things off with Magnificent Lad at his family’s secret base on a jungle island off the coast of Halcyon. There his robot butler Symba is trying to get the young to sleep after 18 straight hours of searching the known universe for his parents’ using their alien equipment. The conversation is interrupted by Xion, a former friend turned enemy of the Magnificent family who has arrived on the island. Mag Lad and Xion clash, with Symba alerting the rest of the Junior Elite. The battle leaves the planet’s atmosphere and ends on the moon where Xion is able to explain that he has come to help Mag Lad find his parents. His reasoning is that with their disappearance it finally set in that their species was on the brink of extinction and he will help find them. The team can’t get a good read on Xion but he does seem genuine in his concerns. The former (?) villain sets up shop in the Magnificents’ lab explaining that Mag Lad’s father would likely construct a beacon wherever he might be and that Xion can build a receiver.

The team is pulled away quickly thereafter when massive destruction is reported in the district of Prosperity. Prosperity is a borough of the city that appeared from the 31st Century. However, none of the residents came with it so, while it was amazing and beyond anything Halcyon’s citizens were used to it quickly decayed because there was no one alive who knew how to maintain and repair the technology within it. Now Prosperity is a rundown area of squatters and homeless communities. The Junior Elite, airborne in Kid Atomic’s warthog helicopter, see a path of destruction coming from the farmlands into the city. On the ground is Nuada of the Silver Hand, the mythical Celtic hero who bears the same weapon as young Silver Arm. Silver Arm attempts to calm the time lost warrior but Mag Lad decides to get physical and wants to take Nuada down. The rest of team goes into rescue mode until Silver Arm miscalculates and causes a towering spire to collapse into the energy district, exploding a fusion reactor and taking power out across town. The Halcyon City Jail is hit, meaning Professor Dark has a chance to escape.

Black Hoodie, Phoenix, and Mag Lad head for the jail while Silver Arm, The Sphinx, and Kid Atomic hang back with Nuada. It becomes apparent that Nuada knows more than he originally let on. His silver arm separates itself from his body, revealed as a sentient demonic entity. The silver demon strikes at The Sphinx who loses control of her powers and begins opening rifts in space and time. We get quick glimpses of possible futures and alternate realities, including The Sphinx as a world-destroying cosmic force. Kid Atomic tries to fly the Warthog in to scoop her up but Nuada used his sword to blow out the engine. Across town, Phoenix senses Professor Dark is headed for Damnation, the old town district of Halcyon, but they head back to help her sister when she sense the twin’s pain.

Nuada is finally taken down when Silver Arm reaches out with his consciousness and absorbs the silver hand into his own arm, causing the liquid metal to grow from his arm and shoulder and down his torso and leg. Nuada shrivels into a husk and before he passes out utters, “Heaven has fallen.”

The final scene shows Professor Dark arriving at a strange pit fighting venue in Damnation. We briefly glimpse Apollonia, one of the supposedly missing League of Elite, fighting in the pits against other metahumans. There’s no time to figure out what’s going on there as Dark meets with a figure named Prospero who usher the villain into a backroom for a private conversation.

To be continued…

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Patreon Update – August Blog Stats

Patreon-logo

Views and Visitors

Growth in views from July to August was -65% (July: 716, August: 249)

Growth in visitors from July to August was -55% (July: 464, August: 207)

16% of views came from Google Plus

41% of views came from Google searches

6% of views from Facebook

Posts

The top five most visited articles for August were:

  1. Comic Book Review – Omega Men by Tom King – 25 views**
  2. The Childhood of a Leader (2016, dir. Brady Corbet) – 19 views
  3. Games for Two – Lost in R’lyeh & Sushi Go – 15 views*
    Comic Book Review: The Vision Vol.1: A Little Worse Than Man – 15 views**
  4. Great Books You Should Read #1 – 12 views

** denotes post was published in previous months, though the views came exclusively from August.

Analysis
Due to a much-diminished posting schedule for August, I saw inevitable drops across the board. I posted less new content, so search engine hits became the core of my views for the month. As a result, my most viewed posts were more of my older content. It does appear that Tom King was increasing in interest, probably due to his current run on Batman and the release of a few trades at the end of July. Not on the top five for August, but prominent when I look at my statistics for the year is my Origins article on Bluebeard’s Bride. August marked the 100th view of that particular article since it went up in late June. To me, that is a sign of high interest in the unreleased roleplaying game.

Conclusion
Posting will increase by a bit in September. One of my series for this month will be a Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor retrospective that I suspect will get decent views due to Wilder’s recent passing. I don’t expect to see numbers like June and July’s til next summer if I decide to post with that frequency. In October there will be an increased number of posts for Halloween, and I believe the numbers I generate that month will be more reflective of what will be the mean views.

The Pryor/Wilder Quartet – Silver Streak

Silver Streak (1976, dir. Arthur Hiller)

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George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is taking the Silver Streak train from Los Angeles to Chicago. While onboard he meets and spends the night with Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh), the secretary to a prominent art professor. George claims he saw the professor dead and thrown from the roof of the train and his investigation the next morning leads to him crossing paths with paid goons and being tossed from the train. A conspiracy behind the professor’s work is uncovered and George must team up with Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor), a thief who ends up drug into the mess.

When Silver Streak was released, Gene Wilder was at his career peak. He’d come off of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Previously, Wilder had struggled to find a breakout role. In retrospect, films like The Producers and Willy Wonka are spoken of fondly but at the time they were considered box offices failures whose love only came later with home video in the 1980s and 90s. Richard Pryor was as big a name and arguably bigger than Wilder at the time. By 1976, he’d had three comedy albums that went gold and hosted what became one of the great Saturday Night Live episodes. Before that, he’d cut his teeth as a writer on Sanford and Son as well as Blazing Saddles. He was set to play the co-lead with Wilder in Saddles but his volatile nature connected to his drug use caused studio heads to nix that idea.

The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, one of the big directors of the 1970s with features like Love Story, The Out of Towners, and The In-Laws. He worked frequently with playwright Neil Simon, however, Silver Streak was the work of Colin Higgins. Higgins was the screenwriter behind Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct Foul Play, 9 to 5, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

The biggest thing you’ll notice while watching Silver Streak is that Pryor doesn’t appear onscreen until a full hour into the film. He’s billed third behind Jill Clayburgh and this appears to be because his roll was not meant to be as stand out. After reading the script, Wilder told the producers that the only way to keep elements in the film from becoming offensive would be to hire Pryor for the Grover role and allow him to bring his personality and point of view to the role. He was exactly right because, in scenes like the blackface disguise moment, Pryor is able to comment on white people and their exploitation of blackface in a way that most certainly came from his own mind. It’s very apparent to see why Pryor and Wilder would be teamed together for the next 15 years because they do have a wonderful chemistry together.

Speaking of chemistry, the relationship between Wilder and Clayburgh is one of the most convincing I’ve seen in a film. There was a certain type of naturalistic acting that worked its way into mainstream cinema in the 1970s that I think is present in the interaction between these two actors. It doesn’t hurt that both of them just have very magnetic, genuine, and charming personalities. You just can’t help but smile during their flirtation because it feels like you’re watching a real moment between two people who are attracted to each other.

The supporting cast is one of those great character actor showcases: Ned Beatty, Scatman Crothers, Patrick McGoohan, Ray Walston, Clifton James, and Richard Kiel. The roles are not that meaty on the page, but the actors bring dimensionality to the characters through their choices. The film is also very well-paced with Wilder’s series of ejections from the train marking the act breaks in a very clever manner. This will definitely be the strongest of the four Pryor/Wilder films in the series and serve as a benchmark to compare the subsequent pictures.

Movie Review – I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016, dir. Billy O’Brien)

not a serial killer

John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), a teenager with sociopathic tendencies, lives in a bleak Midwestern town, seemingly under a permanent blanket of snow. Against this wintery landscape, a series of killings begin. Cleaver gets a front row seat to examine the corpses due to his family’s prominence as the only mortuary in town. He quickly discovers each body is missing an internal organ or body part. The bodies also appear to have been cut apart with a chainsaw or toothed blade. And there’s that sizzling black oil at all the crime scenes. Cleaver struggles to control his own compulsions to hurt school bullies and the need to connect with others while trying to figure out whose sinister hand is behind the killings.

I did not expect what I got from this film. I knew going in from the atmospheric trailers that it was going to be moody and dark. There is plenty of gore due to the mortuary being a key location. We never see victim’s faces until more than halfway through the film. In many ways, this is from the perspective of Cleaver. He sees the bodies as simply hunks of meat at the beginning, parts of a mystery he wants to uncover. When the victims become people he personally knows the weight of the crimes set in.

Despite this darkness pervading the film, there is humor and softer moments. Cleaver frequently visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Neblin. Instead of Cleaver lying on a couch and unloading his feelings, the two meet in outdoor locations having sessions in a park or on a rooftop while birdwatching. The doctor comes across a very human and truly working to show empathy to the young man while attempting to stoke the fires of empathy in his patient. The family dynamics between Cleaver, his mother, aunt, and older sister feel very genuine with lots of tension around the holidays that the film knows it doesn’t have to get expository about.

The look of the film is grainy and textured. Handheld shots in moments of extreme horror and tension add to the despairing atmosphere of the crimes. It’s clear that slasher horror of the 70s and early 80s influenced the tone and visuals of the picture in all the most positive ways. The movie is also confident in letting itself wander through landscapes. There’s not hurry to wrap up the story. Instead story elements are allowed to simmer and we get some wonderful performances from young Max Records. His most notable role thus far has been as the lead in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s apparent that he understands emotion and subtlety and gives a very honest performance of a very troubled character. Cleaver is never presented as angsty, he’s contemplative and seeks understanding of his condition, even if it means communing with a killer.

There is a major twist halfway through the film that is not presented in any of the trailers I saw and should be avoided at all costs. The shock of what the film becomes in that moment was one of the best elements of the picture. The director manages to take elements that could be eye-rollingly ludicrous and add some emotional weight. If you are looking for a horror film that lives in the “real world” I Am Not a Serial Killer will do the trick.

Pop Cult BC #2 – The Hike

The Hike by Drew Magary
Published Viking, 2016
Purchase the book here!

margary

Our next book in the club will be The Hike by Drew Margary. The Hike tells the story of Ben, a businessman who sets out for a hike in the woods behind his hotel before a dinner meeting with a client. Ben ends up in a world of bizarre fantasy and strange creatures playing out a very D&D-esque scenario. Or that is what the blurb hints at. Reviews are referring to the book as “Cormac McCarthy’s Alice in Wonderland” and “a more cynical version of The Phantom Tollbooth”. Sounds like a lot of fun.

The read begins on September 1st and the review and discussion hit the website on September 30th. Good reading!

Comic Book Review – The Sheriff of Babylon Volume 1

The Sheriff of Babylon Volume 1: Bang, Bang, Bang
By Tom King and Mitch Gerads
Purchase the book here!

2015-12-03-sheriffofbabylonFlorida cop Christopher Henry has a new job training the law enforcement forces in Baghdad. It’s 2003, and he is in the heart of the Iraq War. There is the standard level of chaos and violence in the city but things get personal when one of Henry’s Iraqi trainees is found murdered. Henry teams up with Nassir, an ex-cop still hanging on in the city. In the background is Sofia, an Iraqi-American who has come back to the city to help with the rebuilding process while attempting to take control of the organized criminal underbelly. This is the tv series HBO wishes it had the budget to make.

The Iraqi Occupation has been the topic of numerous films and documentaries, but Sheriff of Babylon is clever in its genre-mashing, bringing the detective noir into play. And it works better than you might expect. The instability in Iraq has blurred the lines of authority and no one can be trusted, not even if they do wear a nice shiny uniform. Between the various sub-groups with the American military, privately contracted forces, insurgents, politicians jockeying for power, and a myriad of other factions Baghdad is an incredibly confusing and scary place.
If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know I love Tom King’s work. I’ve previously read his run on DC Comics’ Omega Men and am still enjoying his work on Marvel’s The Vision. This was the first work I’ve read of his that wasn’t within in the superhero genre, though those previously mentioned titles aren’t superhero stories in the traditional sense. King was an intern under writer Chris Claremont for many years before joining up with the CIA in the wake of 9/11. He worked for seven years in counterterrorism which is very apparent in the detailed storytelling present in Sheriff. The series is written with a level of knowledgeability that doesn’t get too jargon-filled and is still comprehensible to a civilian. The story perfectly hits the notes a good noir should, especially on the protagonists increasing confusion as he navigates the labyrinth. There’s also great moments where we see the effort towards good turned to a pretty hopeless defbabylon02eat, as all noir needs to have.

The artwork is exceptionally well done. It’s very photo-realistic with human expression and faces, but with a gritty abstraction in the right moments. In an interview, artist Mitch Gerads explained that a fan who is also a veteran of the war said the book captured the feel of the environment in its colors. Everything is colored in earth tones and primary colors only appear when something needs to pop out of the landscape around it. The uniformity of color also perpetuates a sense of confusion because military people purposefully become hard to differentiate.

The Sheriff of Babylon is a 12 issues mini-series so this volume is just the first half of the story. I enjoyed it quite a bit and reminds me of a really quality cable drama. No character is ever a stereotype and layers are revealed over time and at key moments in the plot. If you’re seeking out a modern war comic, something dealing with the more complex and gray areas, this series has a lot to offer.

Pop Culture BC Review #1 – A Head Full of Ghosts

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Published by Harpercollins, 2015

a head full of ghosts

The strongest feeling I had reaching the conclusion was a sense of sadness for the main character. I don’t see how anyone could feel anything but that for Merry Barrett. She will never have closure because she is the only one left alive and obviously doubts her own interpretation of what happened to her family. This is the aspect of A Head Full of Ghosts that elevates it to that premiere level of horror in my personal opinion. It is comfortable with ambiguity and it uses that lack of information/understanding to make its horror tragic yet still frightening.

A Head Full of Ghosts doesn’t shy away from its influences. In fact, portions of the text outright name drop books, films, and authors to make it clear that Tremblay acknowledges these antecedents but works to present a narrative that plays with their tropes. By bringing in elements such as the reality tv show, the fractured point of view of a child, and a modern fan blog he tells a familiar story from a seemingly varying number of perspectives. When we reach the halfway point and learn adult Merry is the author of the The Last Final Girl blog we realize the author is saying that a single person’s point of view can be more complex than originally thought. And it also brings us back to the title of the text, A Head Full of Ghosts and how it doesn’t simply apply to the plight of Marjorie Barrett.

Tremblay has publicly stated that the novel is meant to be open for a multitude of interpretations. The big question when you reach the end is of course “Was Marjorie really possessed?” By not including direct transcripts of The Possession reality series, only having their events filtered through The Last Final Girl blog and Merry’s memories, we are forced to crane our neck around bedroom door frames in an attempt to see what truly went on in that house.

The most terrifying moment for me in the book was the encounter between Merry and Marjorie in the basement. The production crew for The Possession had just moved into the Barrett home and was setting up. Merry ends up down there looking for snacks if I recall correctly. The two engage in a conversation about their father’s understanding of Marjorie’s condition, specifically how he, through the guidance of his priest, believes his daughter is possessed by Satan. Marjorie laughingly rebuffs this notion but goes on to say that she *is* possessed.

“Ideas. I’m possessed by ideas. Ideas that are as old as humanity, maybe older, right? Maybe those ideas were out there just floating around before us, just waiting to be thought up. Maybe we don’t think them, we pluck them out from another dimension, or another mind.” Marjorie seemed so pleased with herself, and I wondered if this was something new she just thought up or something she’d told someone before.

Tremblay has contributed to the modern Lovecraftian horror scene. My first read of his work came in The Children of Old Leech, a tribute anthology to Laird Barron. In that collection is Tremblay’s short Notes for “The Barn in the Wild”. This particular quote from Marjorie struck me as a very Lovecraftian in its existential nature. That sort of cosmic horror is often about horrors that transcend our notions of good and evil as well as existing before our concept of time began. Later in the text, Marjorie makes mention of a minor Lovecraftian demon and this is taken as her doing research online behind the backs of the production crew and clergy. It should be noted that Notes for “The Barn in the Wild” is also a found narrative short story presented as fragments of a “discovered” journal, yet another narrative construct whose validity comes into question.

There’s just as much presented in A Head Full of Ghosts that can lead the reader to believe Marjorie is deteriorating from paranoid schizophrenia or some other similar mental illness. Again, we only hear the story from the point of view of someone who was a child and the younger sibling of Marjorie. Many mentions are dropped that Merry was in no way fully aware of what was going on in her own home fifteen years ago. It’s no surprise to anyone who has read the novel that the biggest shock comes in the third act when we learn through a very casual, distant mention that Merry’s father, mother, and sister all died of poisoning that is publicly contributed to the father. Merry’s memories of the events leading up to that moment are some of the most chilling parts of the book. It’s very telling that in how she remembers the poisoning she is the one who taints the food. Moments later she discusses the trouble she’s had remembering her aunt entering the home and saving her after she lays there with the dead bodies for weeks. But then Merry admits that’s not what happened and she was told in retrospect police entered the home to save her.

This is where we are left, with Merry unable to know what really happened. We have just enough pieces of the story to fashion a narrative but not enough to understand what it meant. Great horror understands that it’s not a monster or scary house or the Devil that wrenches at our soul and tears up our eyes. Horror comes from a place of very raw truth when we confront our powerlessness. Childhood trauma can bring the toughest tough guy to their knees. That is horrifying. So many people seek out professional help to bring closure to those scarring moments of their pasts, but never truly move past them, only learn how to manage their emotions in relation to them. A Head Full of Ghosts posits “What if you were completely unable to move on?”. Whether it be heredity or demons, what if you were damned to spend the rest of your life both haunted by your childhood yet unable to fashion a working understanding of what it meant?

 

Discussion Questions

What was Merry hoping to achieve through her blog deconstructing The Possession?

How do you interpret the exorcism scene? What really happened? What was imagined by Merry in her memory?

What did Marjorie seek to gain from Merry attending the exorcism?

Are childhood memories simply a sense memory fabrication or is there factual truth within them?