A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Project Superpowers: epic in its obscurity

Lowell Kempf
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Thanks to Humble Bundle, I got to read a hefty chunk of the graphic novels that make up Project Superpowers. I’ve been interested in reading it for years. It isn’t quite a tribute or a deconstruction of super heroes but it has elements of both.

Alex Ross, the comic book artist famous for basically creating near-photo realistic artwork of superheroes, took a bunch of public domain super heroes from the 40s and weaved a story that almost literally recasts them as mythic heroes. Ross already had written the Earth X series for Marvel so the fact that the guy could write wasn’t a surprise.

Here’s the basic concept: after World War II, the Fighting Yank’s dead ancestor convinces him to trap all the world’s other heroes in Pandora’s Box. The idea being if hope is locked away, all the other evils will be too. Decades later, when the ghost of the US Flag points out that the world is now a dystopia, he sets out to free them. Then things get wild.

I’m not going to go into much more detail for the sake of spoilers. However, I found the story arc to be pretty good with tons of moral ambiguity and nifty twists. The ending was a little pat and upbeat compared to the rest of work but I was still glad that read it.

But even without spoilers, there is a lot to unpack.

Earth X clearly showed that Alex Ross is really, really into comic book history. Small wonder that he and Kurt Busiek have collaborated a lot. In many ways, Project Superheroes is a love letter to the forgotten heroes of the 40s, a time when publishers were churning out superheroes like crazy. But... these characters are so obscure that Ross effectively completely reinvented all of them and just kept the costumes.

This means that any interest and emotional connection I have with the characters comes from what Ross has done with them. He could have created whole new characters and it would have been the same for me. And I’ve read enough encyclopedias of comic books that I’d actually heard of a lot of them. I think this would be even more so for more casual readers.

This had the side effect that I kept thinking that some events should have more weight than they did. Captain Future’s story arc, for instance, would have had a lot more impact if I had known there was another character from the 1940s called Captain Future who wasn’t the Buck Rogers-style guy.

It also made me ponder why these characters for languished in obscurity. Some of them were in print for ten or more years, which isn’t bad. I suspect that legal issues actually have a lot to do with it. Companies are going to spend their time developing properties they actually definitively own. The most well known character is in probably the 1940s Daredevil (renamed the Death Defying Devil to avoid confusion) and that’s probably because he had a really cool costume design. (I have heard it touted him being mute adds to his significance but multiple sources say that lasted one issue before being dropped)

I have to note that Alex Ross’s interpretation of the Black Terror, who got his own title, is particularly entertaining. Superman as a pirate, the character combines an unshakable moral compass with poor impulse control and anger management issues. Flawed and scary (I wouldn’t want to be near him!) but means well.

Project Superpowers was fun to read and Alex Ross does manage to create a mythic, epic feel but I feel like I came in halfway through the story and missed all the introductions.


Originally jotted down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Oct 14, 2020 7:23 pm
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October is a good month for MR James

Lowell Kempf
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I hadn’t been planning it intentionally but I started October by rereading MR James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian for the third or fourth time.

The Victorian period featured a ridiculous amount of authors writing ghost stories and I have read that MR James was one of the last great ones. I don’t know nearly enough to know how much hyperbole was packed into that statement but I will say that he wrote some really fun ghost stories.

While I’m sure I read some of his stories in random collections and I watched Night of the Demon when I was quite young, I became aware of MR James as a specific author when I read that his stories ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘Martin’s Close’ helped inspire the Japanese horror franchise The Ring. I’m still not sure if that’s true but I did find the stories on Project Gutenberg and read them.

And then I read everything else I could find by MR James.

His stories tend to follow a basic structure. Person who is into old stuff discovers some sort of terrible secret. Bad stuff happens. Man, is anyone surprised that Lovecraft was a fan of this guy? And, yes, not every story follows that formula but at least half of them do.

If you were to read the outline of one of his stories, it wouldn’t seem that interesting. Someone buys a picture that shows a murder from beyond the grave and then they put it in a museum. Not a lot of action or complex plot.

But James does three things very well. He has a very conversational tone, no purple prose in sight. He is at good at including just enough details to make thing visceral without being graphic. And he makes it seem like it could happen to you. That all adds up to making his writing very engaging and accessible. His work has aged very well.

I think that MR James is a good read. And he’s also public domain and the individual stories are short so he’s easy to check out.

Originally scribbled down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Oct 7, 2020 4:32 pm
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The Bone Key unlocks very human horror

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Sarah Monette wrote that both Lovecraft and M.R. James were major influences on The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth and it shows. Although to be fair, both of those authors cast very, very long shadows.

In a nutshell, Monette took the standard Antiquarian protagonist of either of those authors and fleshed them out into a deeper and possibly more realistic figure. Booth is a brilliant and talented archivist at the creepy Parrington Museum. He is also awkward, painfully socially-isolated and severely emotionally damaged.

This actually plays very well into Booth being the protagonist of horror stories. He is very vulnerable and often overwhelmed by his nightmarish circumstances. He is constantly aware of the danger and uncertainty around him and barely has the courage to do anything.

Of course, that only works if the stories are at all scary. Fortunately, Monette does an excellent job combing the visceral and the unknown. We almost never get a full picture of what is going on and, sometimes, we get a lot less. The world of the supernatural is much bigger than Booth and he is unable to forget that.

And it tends to be very personal. As opposed to cosmic horror that doesn’t care about humanity, these horrors are very close and seem to really want human suffering. A hateful spirit guarding a necklace, a demon that feeds on the life force of exactly one person at a time, a hotel that seems to kill very selectively. It’s all very intimate.

What truly makes the anthology work (and I do think it works) is that it is a character study of Booth. He is the last of a cursed line. The first story has him weak enough to dabble in necromancy which has marked him so the restless dead and such are drawn to him. Bad things happen around him and to him. How he copes or fails to cope is the driving force.

The end result is a dark but engaging journey. I liked it.

Originally scribbled down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Sep 30, 2020 4:51 pm
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The Complete Cosmicomics - inexplicable and wonderful

Lowell Kempf
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One of my reading goals for 2020 was to read The Complete Cosmicomics, consisting of Cosmicomics, t zero/Time and Hunter and World Memory and Other Cosmicomics, along with a few miscellaneous bits. And I have finished the last story.

And, wow, is it weird to look back at starting this literary journey that started in February. The world has changed so much that is bewildering to remember reading the first section. (Yes, I like to wait months in between reading books in a series. Lets things sink in.)

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories involves taking a scientific theory (sometimes disproven and sometimes contradicting the theories used in other stories) and weaving some sort of domestic story around it. Most of the stories are narrated by Qfwfq, who has been around since before the universe began and who has been a mollusk, a dinosaur and possibly the god Pluto among other things. The stories are peppered with anachronisms to the point where even individual stories fail to have a coherent settings.

You really have to just read them. It’s that kind of literature where words fail to do it justice.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the stories are Calvino using the whole of the universe to comment on human nature but I don’t think that’s quite it. I think that Calvino explores the way that human nature and the cosmos reflect each other. He is definitely saying _something_, not just being silly.

I will say that World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories was weakest section of the series. The original Cosmicomics is whimsical and endlessly thought provoking. t zero/Time and the Hunter is darker but challenging. World Memory, on the other hand, didn’t feel like it was pushing me as much. I didn’t find myself thinking as hard. Still fun but I can see why it is the least republished book.

After years of meaning to give Calvino a chance, Invisible Cities really impressed me last year. The Cosmicomics stories continued that impression. The petty, whiny, occasionally mysogynisric voice of Qfwfq created a fascinating view of the universe or humanity or maybe both. I am not going to pretend that I understand what the books are ultimately about but they make me want to understand.

Originally scribbled down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Sep 23, 2020 4:26 pm
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Did I accidentally start working on an RPG?

Lowell Kempf
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Have you ever been trying to make a narrative exercise and realized that you came up with a character generator instead? Actually, I bet that happens a lot since creating a character is one of the basic concepts of playing with story telling.

Anyway, without meaning to, that’s what I ended up doing while trying to come up with something that could be easily played with video conferencing.

A couple design notes:

While I know that wainscot is a real word, the only way I have ever seen it used is in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (http://sf-encyclopedia.uk/fe.php?nm=wainscots) and so I associated the word with secrets and the fantastic.

And I chose to go with tactile for the first question because I wanted the players to have some sense of description for their goblin but I also wanted to avoid visual. I thought going with touch would be more visceral and stretch the imagination more.

Incidentally, this is a first draft. I have already started to revise the game poem to set up possible conflict resolution mechanics in a larger game.


Wainscot Goblin - a game poem

You will need:
A pencil
The following list of questions
A hidden nature
A quiet truth

You are a wainscot goblin, one of those mysterious supernatural creatures that dwell just behind the walls. However, wainscot goblins are not just very peculiar, they are also very particular as well. The point of this little poem is kto figure out your exact nature.

Kindly answer the following questions:

If a human were to ever touch your skin, which, of course, would never happen, what would they say it felt like?
Politely describe three details of the house that you dwell in?
Just as politely, describe three details of your own cozy nook inside the walls?
What craving or need makes you live so close to humans, to live inside their walls?
What would drive you from your nook, the house where you dwell, into the cold outside?
What is your grave vulnerability, the thing that any human kill you with, if they only knew?
What is your secret craft, the hidden art form that you are devoted to?
If you ever needed to, how would you kill?
What is the single truest thing you can say of yourself?

Now, stand up and say your wainscot goblin name.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Sep 11, 2020 4:18 pm
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The Incredible Hulk as literature

Lowell Kempf
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Hulk: The Last Titan was a graphic novel that I’d never heard of. Marvel has put out a lot of one-shot graphic novels so never hearing about it wasn’t a surprise. However, despite being eighteen years old, I found it quite intriguing. Less about the story itself and more what it said about the Incredible Hulk as a literary concept.

Okay, here’s the story. In a post-apocalyptic world where nuclear holocausts have reduced the world to a barren wasteland, only horrible mutant cockroaches and the Hulk are left. The Hulk sometimes reverts to Bruce Banner, who ruminates about existence. There are no twists and surprises, just an examination of the situation. It’s pretty bleak.

But it’s a story that works very well with the Hulk. I can’t really see it working for a character like Spider-Man or Captain America but it definitely works for the Hulk. That’s because, obviously, the Hulk is a very different archetype than just about any other silver age hero I can think of, both being Jekyll and Hyde as well as a Tragic Monster.

While Stan Lee has said that he considers the Silver Surfer the most literary character he worked on, I would really argue that the Hulk really holds that title. (Although, as long as Steve Ditko was on the job, Peter Parker sure seemed to have escaped from Catcher in the Rye) While certainly not the first anti-hero in superhero comics by a long shot, it’s still a core concept in almost all the vast variations of the Hulk. He is a hero second, unhappy loner first.

In fact, that is the Hulk’s status quo. He can be dumb and green or gray and ruthless or smart and green or an alien barbarian warlord but the Hulk is always a troubled outsider in a world that he cannot fit in with. As a small child, I found Lou Ferrigno’s portrayal both scary and sad. Also as a small child, well before Bill Mantlo or Peter David got their hands on the Hulk and started looking at psychological angles, the Hulk was sad to me. Even the X-Men at least had each other.

And I read the comics for decades and still am very found of the character and his stories. Because it works.

(Someone just pointed out to me that the Hulk can be considered a metaphor nuclear bomb and humanity’s hubris instead of an anti-hero. My response was why can’t he be both? And that just adds to the literary nature of the character.)

Hulk: the Last Titan being the Hulk alone after the world ends and nothing else? It makes perfect sense.

Originally scribbled down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Sep 2, 2020 2:37 pm
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A tiny bit of L. Sprague de Camp

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You know, it’s been over a week since I talked about literature. And folks seem to enjoy those blogs so let’s do another one.

L. Sprague de Camp has been one of my fallback authors during Covid. While I read some of his actual novels (namely The Reluctant King trilogy but I’ll probably reread the Incompleat Enchanter at this rate) but I’ve also been picking through anthologies of classic science fiction for his short stories.

I decided that The Blue Giraffe was the perfect short story to talk about. If you don’t want any spoilers, just go and read it now.

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

No, seriously, go and read it. It’s really good.

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

The Blue Giraffe answers the question ‘What if the Island of Doctor Moreau was a comedy?’ I didn’t know that was a question that even needed to be asked but de Camp did a marvelous job answering it.

The protagonist finds in darkest Africa the effects of a mad scientist’s machine that creates radiation that causes somehow safe mutations in all the surrounding wildlife. After some misadventures, he turns the darn thing off.

The first thing that is notable about the story is the tribe of intelligent baboon people, who are also the source of a lot of the hijinks, including the main character dealing with a potential forced marriage. As opposed to be being crude primitives, they are pretty much regular folks, complete with snark and jealousy and such. For 1939, that is nifty.

The other bit that stayed with me was the framing story, with the protagonist years later exposing to his son why he’s adopted. I was expecting his adopted son to not be human. No, the most ordinary explanation instead. After being exposed to all that radiation, it wasn’t safe for him to have kids. And that’s part of de Camp’s magic. There’s a practical, grounded element that makes the fantastic even more fantastic.

The Blue Giraffe isn’t my favorite de Camp work but it is what I’d recommend to someone to help them decide if they want to read more of his stories.

Originally scribbled down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Aug 20, 2020 4:50 am
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Golux Ex Mechina!

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The 13 Clocks by James Thurber is what happens when you just take the clever bits of a story and chuck the rest in the dust bin.

It’s hard to truly describe the book. The plot is a fairy tale plot of a prince having to win the hand of a princess by doing an impossible task. But that not only doesn’t do the book justice, it completely fails to actually describe the book as well. Full of not just word play but rhythm play, the 13 Clocks doesn’t just play with the nature of fairy tales but language as well. The fairy tale is just the framework for Thurber’s wit and whimsy.

A friend of mine will tell Traveling Salesman jokes by skipping to the punch line since ‘you already know what happens up to that point’ Thurber relentlessly leaves out gobs of details about the setting and the characters because he knows we already understand them because we know how fairy tales work. And he does it so cleverly that he is letting us, the readers, behind the scenes with him.

I have to make special mention of the Golux (the only one in the world and not a mere device!) who serves as the device that resolves every problem in the book. He takes the role of a Puss in Boots magical problem solver but he is relentlessly eccentric and charming. And the villain of the story calls him out as a blatant Deus Ex Machina (Golux Ex Machina!)

I first heard of the book in Middle School or High School in an essay about Fantasy literature. And I put off reading it for literally decades in part because I didn’t think it could live up to the zany impression I had of it. And, you know, it turns out that it doesn’t. But it is still a very fun and amusing book. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in the book but a ton of whimsy.

I wouldn’t describe the 13 Clocks as a satire or a deconstruction of fairy tales. Instead, it is a playful celebration of the English language.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Aug 5, 2020 8:38 pm
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Why did nobody tell me about McAuslan?

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How have I spent decades actively reading and only found out about the McAuslan stories a month or so ago? A famous series by George MacDonald Fraser, it apparently influenced later authors like Terry Pratchett. The stories consist of Fraser tweaking his experiences as an officer just after World War II just enough to make them fictional and funny.

As I have often written, since 2020 has been such a stressful year (for everyone!) and I‘ve been on the lookout for decompressing reading. Which, curiously enough doesn’t necessarily mean fluff. I’ve been reading heaps of L. Sprague de Camp who certainly has a lot of joy in his writing but there’s meaning there too.

(Oddly enough, Wodehouse, one of my favorite authors and a master of frothy writing, has not worked for me. Maybe I’ve read so much of him that my tolerance is too high?)

Back to George McDonald Fraser. So I read The General Danced at Dawn, the first McAuslan collection. The stories are actually about the narrator, Lieutenant Dand MacNeill, who is in a Scottish Battalion that manages to live up to most of stereotypes of Scotland. McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world, isn’t even featured in half the stories but, boy, is he memorable when he dies show up.

The stories are an undeniably biased view of the British army in the 1950s with each story being about another misadventure that have to be muddled though. And that might be why the stories worked so well for me right now. They are grounded in reality, in Fraser’s actual experiences. But things do work out and problems do get solved. It’s a view of an imperfect world but a hopeful one. It actually takes me back to stories I heard from veterans as a child.

From what I’ve read, Fraser had an old fashioned view of the world, particularly in regards to woman and minorities and some people of that bleeds through. I do keep that in mind as I read his works. It’s not flawless but he has a great voice and there’s some stuff to ponder.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jul 29, 2020 6:28 pm
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Wow, Howard Tayler finished Schlock Mercenary

Lowell Kempf
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On July 24, 2020, Howard Tayler wrapped up Schlock Mercenary, after slightly more than twenty years of daily webcomics. And it really was daily, without any gaps. And Sundays were extra big comic strips on top of that.

Beyond saying that Schlock Mercenary was a satirical dramedy about an intergalactic mercenary corp in a dystopian (or at least cynical) future, it’s hard for me to really describe the series. There is just too much. Too many plot elements and twists, too many characters, too many tears, too many jokes.

As near as I can tell, I read it regularly for thirteen years, although I did go back and read the story up to that point. I may very well may try and go back and reread the entire run, one volume at a time to make it manageable. Maybe after that, it won’t make my head spin trying to keep all the details straight

Reading Schlock Mercenary every morning has been part of my daily wake up routine. It does feel weird not having it there but, boy does Howard Tayler deserve a break. He has said he has more stories to tell in the setting and I do look forward to them. But if he needs to take a five-year break, the man has definitely earned it!

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 27, 2020 4:11 pm
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