Archive for October 7, 2017

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Somewhere in Los Angeles, lurks (really? The costumed gent in question wears orange! No one in orange lurks) a hero, or is he a thief? Who cares he’s Repo: Thief for Hire? Daniel Delgado, we are told on two expository pages one for each book, has two children ripped from him by an unfair family court judge. He also has considerable Kung Fu, probably taught in the same place as Quentin Tarantino’s Bride, The Cruel Tutelage of Pei Wei (not really but another crazy ass independent wushu instructor that didn’t get his ass kicked by the Chinese Government decades ago). He runs an impound, repossession and salvage business partly as cover. He still hasn’t got his papers despite going to college. Based in Los Angeles and supported by his brother-in-law, Daniel, a.k.a. Repo will steal anything for which you can pay…all to fund his mission to get his kids back. 

With two issues in the can from Do Everything Creator Daniel Ramirez, I found myself generally enjoying the forty-minutes it takes to read two comic book issues. But, I also took notes to see if there was some way to really make this one man A-Team kick ass and take names. We’ll see what we unpack.

First off, this series really shows the crunch that I just consider a crying shame among indie self-published comics, not enough budget despite Mr. Ramirez (another buddy from my creator scene…FYI) being generally able to write the script, pencil the pages, trace (ink, sorry inking is an art form deserving respect) said pages, color them and then put the paper together. Budget woes tend to mean the reader gets 12 pages of chop socky goodness per issue instead of 24. And reviewers with a tendency to get like the average Roman Emperor presiding over the games – “Yeah, Maximus, this one uses the throat slashing thumb, like, a lot, just sayin’.” – suddenly get cranky that these two issues don’t represent the expected total of 48 pages of full-color whammo. But, I shouldn’t complain short issues usually result in price breaks when you buy your indie comics at the con.

Mister Ramirez begins the first issue In Media Res with Repo listening to the Tom Arnold style help from his brother-in-law, Jax, in the earbuds. He drops into the warehouse in his full orange regalia hired by one Angelino crime boss to steal from another. Repo lays out several disposable thugs for which we hope their evil crime organization had dental and a generous Medicare Part B supplement plan. A bald thug with whom Repo has had dealings in the past sprays the area forcing Repo to escape with the box of rings just ahead of the hail of bullets.

In the second issue, we are introduced to the pair of cops that will recur every so often possibly as the last gasp of official civic virtue in the City of Los Angeles. We are introduced to the many conflicts and relationships between Repo and Baldy, Repo and Jax and the two crime bosses vying for the same box of rings. Oh, and we find out a young lady of dubious character that seems to like Repo is also the daughter of the female crime boss from whom Repo originally grabbed the rings. Duh-duh-duh-duhn!

What went well? Starting In Media Res (the action is already in progress) always warms me up. I’m a great believer the kind of writing that certain action oriented characters must always start successfully showing off whatever it is they do. Stuntmen jump (fall?) off tall buildings with descent rigs. Tier One commandos shoot up Baghdad or a shoot house. James Bond does a little bit of everything in the pre-credit sequence leading into the Emmy-bait title song (while I have your eyeballs, please convey to the Bond people that 007 has yet to skateboard through a major city complete with edge grinds down stairs. Never mind). And Repo steals shit like rings that look like counterfeit knock offs of the various Emotional Spectrum Lantern rings that DC sells whenever they want to move Green Lantern books.

Another really cool thing about this series is the Los Angeles scenery. Warehouses. The Downtown LA skyline. The Griffith Observatory. The Hollywood Sign. Mister Ramirez lives here as do I and we know when the movie hopes to confuse us by going up to Vancouver and then dropping in an LAPD picture car hoping we won’t notice. We get the Grand Tour, except for the beach or any place you’d go during the day, drawn highlighting the City by Night (LA needs the sunset magic hour to look her best, but dark is also cool).

In fact except for a few minor foibles, I couldn’t stop looking at the art as a general rule. The henchmen get beat up in interesting angles. The mysterious girl revealed to be possibly a crazy ex-girlfriend and occasional client wears an interesting black corset dress and boots, an Abbey Scuito-lite (NCIS) fashion choice. And it was all beautiful.

The writing came off a little mixed. I’ve written enough to usually guess the broad strokes of where a story in progress is going. A thief for hire trying to fund his campaign to get the kids back from whatever judge and richer relatives that lied about his unfitness as a parent is automatically a Robin Hood, Simon Templar or even Colonel Hannibal Smith (I did reference The A-Team above, an intentional act), who will do morally gray things for survival, but will discover the nefarious plans of all the villains who are worse than him becoming a hero. Mayhem will follow.

So for Repo we can expect that the box of rings will result in a lethal tussle for the very soul of Los Angeles about to be overrun in secret by crime lords. And someone somewhere will get the suicidal idea to put a gun to the heads of Repo’s kids (girlfriends, wives, children and pets are hostages-in-waiting). And it’s in the small details where we judge how successful the storytelling and writing were.

We are two half-issues in on this story and most of these books have been devoted to establishing the world and Repo’s place in it. But, I noticed a glaring omission…the fraternal Delgado Twins (a boy and a girl) have yet to appear on any panel in these issues. Kids may be hostages-in-waiting, but they are also metaphorical cats in the sense that Blake Synder meant writing his manual Save the Cat (trust me, my Love-Hate with Snyder’s work is so profound that I’m grinding my teeth even bringing up this book). Put another way, we shouldn’t be told on the extra pages (one in each book) providing Repo’s character profile that he has two estranged children. We should see him trying to call, email, or buy toys for his kids and be rebuffed by whomever it was that took his offspring. A literal Save the Cat Moment.

Even though I’m completely onboard with this story for which I’ve made obvious guesses about blundering into a tale of a rogue stepping up for the good of the city against villains who are far worse than he, another thing that makes the writing come off as mixed is the dialogue. Repo, Jax and literally everybody, but the cops who aren’t on page long enough for the reader to get a bead, seem to talk in a not so naturalistic way that comes very close to how Stan Lee used to write the words for the many Marvel comics during his legendary tenure. If this stilted, on the nose feel to the dialogue was intentional the way George Lucas created his words for Star Wars, then okay, I’ll shut up now.

Part of my concern about the dialogue is that this old-timey comic book feel to these words has a way of getting in the way of Repo’s strength as a college educated Hispanic character. The words in the bubbles neither present Los Angeles Hispanics in their native visage nor do they capture that Repo did go to college and studied martial arts in China (too bad the Bride can’t make the crossover). They come off like I’m reading Iron Man from 1972. The plot moves forward, but…

Going back to the art. The one super teeny-tiny concern is that Daniel and Jax pretty much share the same face, which if they were just brothers makes sense. But, confusing brothers-in-law for hermanos might need adjusting in future issues.

Wanting to close on the fun, I must say that I grooved on several minor details about Repo and Jax that really brought smiles. Look, the simple act of drawing Repo with the loudest orange costume possible is just awesome. Orange, we are told by Wikipedia and other purveyors of Internet pseudo-knowledge, is the single most visible color to the human eyeball explaining why hunters wear orange and life vests are also orange. So the act of drawing a thief for hire with a heart of gold in an orange costume that pretty much makes it impossible to hide in shadows says Repo is so good he can wear orange.

The thing that I liked about Jax was that he got his funny Tom Arnold on the Mic Moment. The spear-carrier goes for drive through tacos and hits on the young lady on the other side of the scratchy intercom. Meanwhile, Repo gets the shit kicked out of him, until the last moment possible. A cliché that remains in force because it’s funny nearly every time.

We have an urban Robin Hood with a funny/wise sidekick. We have a built-in campaign to rebuild his family and a McGuffin sure to light up the fictional Los Angeles. We just need to see what Mr. Ramirez is able to do with future issues. I’ll be reading.

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A Wikimedia Commons image…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Sometimes when creating new monsters for RPGs and books, it’s all about simply changing a name. A recent unpublished novel that doesn’t need naming here wanted orcs to run around the countryside laying waste to all travelers dumb enough to travel alone. Even though the plot revolved around me doing homage to Tolkien, specifically my version of what really went down during those Appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings…involving lawyers (won’t say more, unofficial NDA), I had an attack of – “Dude, everybody, like, drops orcs in as the massive Army of Regular Evil with stats ranging from one to three hit dice per orc. I should be able to come up with something else.” 

Interesting problem in that I need bad guys in my novel to behave exactly like Tolkien’s orcs: loud, mean, ready to stab each other at dinner over the mutton at the cook fire and pretty much angry at any other bipedal playable species. The veritable, probably untrue, stereotype of the 1-percent Motorcycle Club lifestyle. I want the behavior and social organization, such as it is, but because everybody coming after Tolkien simply dropped in orcs and called it a day, I need a new name.

I’m aware that when Dungeons & Dragons got rolling for real after a few years of play testing in Gary Gygax’s living room that the Tolkien Estate sent a few Cease and Desist Letters probably written in the slightly more polite British version of Legalese. To my understanding, they fought hard for the players among us to deemphasize hobbit in favor of halfling. It worked because no dungeoneer is going to piss off the estate for an author that gives nearly all of us a Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” feeling. But, the Tolkien Estate apparently didn’t fight so hard for orc, the next most used Middle Earth vicious beast in all of tabletop RPGs.

I’m not sure of the why. My limited reading of fantasy writing from before and generally contemporaneous to Tolkien’s work doesn’t seem to have any mention of orcs. C.S. Lewis (attending the same writers’ groups with Tolkien) just needed a White Queen, Tash and crappy people to make the Chronicles of Narnia work. Others just needed Lost Boys, Indians and pirates. Or White Rabbits, Mad Hatters, Playing Cards and Pissed Off Chess Pieces.

Even Tolkien started off with goblins in The Hobbit, later simply conflating the goblin of already extant European fairytale mythology with the orc of the later The Lord of the Rings. I think if pressed that Tolkien might have tap-danced as imaginative writers do when pressed with impertinent questions rooted in the minutia of our work, saying “goblins and orcs are kissing cousin species created in the dark times of Morgoth, the First Dark Lord.” But, if it’s true that my cursory reading of the body of literature before Tolkien suggests that he may have invented orcs as well as hobbits, then why did the estate only want to lean on D&D for hobbit and not orc?

And every fantasy-themed RPG system published since has a listing in the monster book for orc. Tusks. Pig snouts. Large muscles. Or not. They’re everywhere, largely because the Tolkien Estate didn’t want to or couldn’t fight for the word (more research needed). It is in this ubiquity that I cast about for another name for the species without wanting to change anything about the beasts themselves.

Creativity has a way of being something that only makes sense after the fact. I don’t really know why despite having a plot looted liberally from the Tolkien Appendices that I needed to rename the orcs in the first place. I also can’t really talk about how I landed on Vorgon, except after the fact when you realize that I’m one letter away from Douglas Adams’ vile poetry spewing race, the dreaded Vogons. Oooh! In order to unnecessarily avoid an unofficial Tolkien trademark that the estate didn’t even try to defend, I go one measly R away from going straight at Douglas Adams’ Vogons. I’m either a highly trained professional who knows what I’m doing or I’m going to make a big smear on the pavement.

Mind you, the Vorgons aren’t Vogons in any way. First off, my book was a fantasy story and the Vorgons wouldn’t muster up the starships, punctilio and low bids to fly around the galaxy blowing up defenseless planets to clear hyperspace lanes once the work order cleared review. But, I really had orcs in mind when I devised my story, a loud hard elbows kind of people. Orcs with subspecies that grow natural ice skates on their feet (probably tracks back to Alan Dean Foster’s Icerigger Trilogy). Orcs that stand over their eastern gate near a waterfall into the local equivalent of the Mines of Moria shouting rude insults (the French from Monty Python’s Holy Grail?).

I certain didn’t envision the Vorgons as wanting to take a moment before joining battle to recite earsplittingly bad poetry. Or showing up with a fake work order to see about knocking down the walls for the great city liberally copied from Minas Tirith. Or so I thought. Then I muddied the waters for the Vorgons as a new clean unstated trademark on the poetry front.

At the big battle of the Vorgon waterfall the beasts shout rude things about two missing women who are at the present moment making friends with a baby dragon deep in the dark of the mines. The King Aragorn analog taps the hilt of his blade demanding that his enemies in the recent war bring forth the ladies unhurt. He composes a Demand Poem in Vorgonate using the rudest words possible that fit into rhyming iambic hexameter (12 syllables per line).

Vorgons and poetry? Ooops! Well, more of an homage because there is no way a Vorgon Demand Poem serves to bore the shit out of the listener leaving him or her rolling on the ground holding ear and begging for mercy. Rather, the verse was more likely to make the Vorgon chief angry enough to attack abandoning the high ground among the falls. And then I had the ladies in question resolve the standoff from within the mines by bringing up the baby dragon willing to burn anybody if his new Mommy said so (did I get this relationship from Game of Thrones?). Fried Vorgon is the specialty of the house this week.

There you have it, Dear Reader, the progression of my thought process for monster creation trying to find inventive ways to travel places where literally everybody has been before. Take the familiar and rename it, because don’t reinvent the wheel. Spend a minute or two practicing the justification that your local languages represented in English for the reader’s convenience aren’t the same as Tolkien’s languages and some words like orcs won’t develop to describe the roving bands of foul-tempered beasts. Good, now you’re ready for the book fair or con.

Oh, if you’re really going to play Vorgons in your campaign simply take orcs from your monster book and rename them. Worked (almost) for me.