Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Point of Smoking Lizard

Posted: August 20, 2019 in Uncategorized

Smoking Lizard is EVERYWHERE! I do columns here on this blog that are a mix of my personal adventures concerning a subject and pieces that will help others interested in that subject. At the moment, I really only like five things…WRITING (and the supporting READING): Behold! I give you the Scribbler’s Saga column. I will relate parts of my life as a writer, provide a review of properties I’ve read and tools I’ve tested, post essays about writing and hopefully interview other writers.Additionally, when I just need to fill my cyberspace with actual writing, whether short one-shots or small pieces of the greater whole: Author’s Assortment.MUSIC: I’ve been talking big about composing music for a decent while now. As I figure out how to fish or cut bait in this area, you, Dear Reader, will read all about it in the Composer’s Counterpoint column. Posts may include my Woody Allen-esque frustration with thinking I’m better at music than I am, reviews of music, tools and the presently rare live shows. Again, part of the mission is to interview other musicians.TABLETOP RPGS: Yes, I play Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I can go on for hours about the time I played a thief that hot-prowled the villain’s house and walked out with a suit of armor. But, that was a long time ago. It’s time to make new stories. It’s time to see if I can create adventures other players want to play. As with the other columns the content of the Dungeoneer’s Diary, will mix the personal and journalistic.ILLUSTRATION and VISUAL ARTS: While I myself don’t draw, I do okay with a camera and certain apps. The Imager’s Impression column will probably be less frequently advanced, but will discuss my appreciation of pictures and the people who make them. And when I make more images with my script kid tools, the results will go here.MOVIES: Yeah, I thought I would skip writing about movies. Start laughing now. So anyway if I’m bloviating about movies, it  goes here in the Filmgoer’s Flamethrower.There will be times when columns will cross over, because working on a fun dungeon will spark a novel idea that may cause me to pull out the harmonica…Lastly, if you came to the site for my older content click on one of the many pages that will provide links to nearby archive sites. Happy Reading.

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© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Ordinarily, this would be a post about the Monster of the Week complete with game stats. Maybe for shits and giggles, I even resurrect the Stephor the Seeker character that I used for these posts for a while, until I got bored. But, some monsters just don’t translate well out of the original context for which they were created…the Alien Xenomorph comes to mind.

As originally envisioned by writers Dan O’Bannon, Ron Shusett with interpretational stops with H.R. Giger and finally director Ridley Scott, this acid blooded smart predator seems like it would be a worthy addition to any roleplaying game. Until you stop to take a look at the subtle details of in-game physics and/or magic of the various game settings.

The Alien Xenomorph basically works really well in any game setting that has guns, nearly nothing in the way of magical armor or energy shields and where mobility is prized over armor. So pretty much if you’re playing an Aliens campaign in GURPS Space, any other similar generic or modular game system or even the branded tie-in RPG, you’ll have a monster that does it’s job, kills everybody but Ellen Ripley, or in a game setting makes the player characters sweat it out.

Do you get as much as you thought pulling this beast out of its narrow context? I don’t think so, but you are allowed to not believe me and replicate the experiment. Mayhem varies by roll of the dreaded D20.

Low magic fantasy campaign. Perhaps using Westeros as the example. Would King’s Landing do better against Alien Xenomorphs or dragons? The dragon pretty much acts like a living Dresden or Tokyo fire-bombing raid. But, the relative low numbers of dragons and the anti-dragon artillery seen in the last season gives some small measure of hope of Script Immunity.

Meanwhile, the Xenomorph picks off citizens one by one and drags them off to feed the Queen and face-hugger eggs. She hides deep in the sewers near the warm heat seeping down from the heart of the city. The probable reaction force of King’s Landing militia and Kingsguard knights are all going to be wearing lots of steel to deal with a beast infamous for its acid blood, a last fuck you to anyone that might try to kill it.

Okay, maybe the writer or DM chooses the most generous assumptions to even the game/novel out for the one character designated as Final Survivor. Does the local version of Sam Tarley read a book in the Maester Citadel telling how acid is counteracted by base alkaline substances like lye and how glass contains most but not all acids? Does he then discover the local variant of the D&D spell Glassteel buried in that lore? Did Cersei use up the city’s store of Dragonfire on the Red Keep? If the answers are No, No and Yes then pack it up the author/DM got bored and just ended the series/campaign.

High magic fantasy. Continuing on from the above paragraph, if you have enough magic as in most D&D games you’re wasting the Xenomorph. Don’t believe me? This I’ve actually played.

The Great College Campaign. We’re deep in the local trademark safe version of the Underdark (an underground abode home to dark elves and other things that go bump in the dark specific to The Forgotten Realms setting). We think we’re going to pick fights with the dark elves and steal their stuff, a typical Saturday on a campaign. But, there aren’t any Drow…

Eventually, we find the nest. Everybody has seen the movie and we inevitably have our characters act on it. Somehow the DM doesn’t penalize us for this meta play. Step One, we retreat.

We find a village with a glassblower. We make glass shields for the muscle characters up front: a sword based fighter, a dwarf, the pure thief and myself as the gnome Thief/Illusionist (I had a magic dagger with enough moxie to survive acid and no ability to contribute with magic). We cast the Glassteel spell to harden the glass. We went back inside keeping the spell-casters and arrow specialist Fighter in the back rank of the phalanx. I don’t remember us having all that much trouble.

Assumptions. We were high enough level (about 5th) to have common access to the Glassteel spell. We’d all seen the movie and employed tactics to keep the beasts in front of us to negate some of the presumed benefits of playing the Xenomorphs as smart.

Lock three of the beasts in a metal cage? The weakest one will get gutted by the other two in a bid to escape. The other movies depicted them figuring out that machine guns run out of ammunition. Or the tactical value of those overhead air shafts.

Super high tech Sci-Fi campaign. I once contemplated putting the Xenomorphs into the old Star Trek game by FASA. I imagine I would get the same results playing with either the more recent rules or even using the GURPS sourcebook based on the diagonally related Starfleet Battles license. Or any other hi tech SF campaign setting, including Star Wars. I didn’t even put this fan fiction into the field with an adventure.

Why? The ubiquity of various high-energy beam weapons coupled with equally common nearly magic sensors. Gee, how much fun will the DM get out of using this exact creature against player characters armed with phasers (depicted as having a disintegrator setting and energy stores limited only by Plot) and the equally tough tricorder – “Captain, I detect ten creatures with a highly unusual physiology that includes acid blood…” – without upping his/her game into the stratosphere?

Even lasers with just a kill setting might end up being sort of ho-hum, next for the characters. Either power pack management becomes a real thing, the way it almost isn’t in games like this, or it becomes a one-sided affair. Possibly similar to how the Klingons ended the Tribbles only to be teased later – “do the Klingons sing glorious songs of the Great Tribble Hunt?”

As for Star Wars, the existence of Jedi and Sith kind of rob the Xenomorph of most of its impact. Okay, a lightsaber gets in too close for the unprepared Force user. But, said Jedi and Sith are all uniformly described as using the Force to conduct telekinesis. A quick wave of the hand and any flying acid is bottled up and avoided. And everybody else has a blaster, see above. Who knows, maybe even the Imperial Stormtroopers might be allowed to do something?

It is my contention that the author/DM will have to bust out their best ever mayhem game, beyond their regular A-game to make the Xenomorph work outside of the niche it landed in for the Alien Movies. Pretty much the single smartest predator ever, only DMs are only human and don’t always play that uber-smart.

You could up-gun the Xenomorph with toys last seen in the hands of The Predator (infrared, motion, thermals). Unless Ridley Scott pulls off a retconn, both beasts exist in the same universe. And there is other precedent, like a zombie adventure for GURPS with a variant for the Autoduel (trademark safe Deathrace 2000) setting. A quote – “in keeping with the ever spiraling domestic arms race, give the zombies an extra –2 for Kevlar body armor.”

So there you have it, I’ve used a classic movie monster to highlight that not all great movie monsters easily leap out of their movies into your games without careful thought. I have presented an opinion that I wouldn’t use the Xenomorph too far outside of the context in which the movies tell us so. Married to the opinion that few authors or DMs (myself included) are clever enough to give said beast the intellect to make things work.

But, it’s still only an opinion…prove me wrong!

I’m really serious about this one already killing Dracula…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Deceased martial arts legend Bruce Lee was recently rudely invited to two separate Geek Rumbles, one of many similar nerdy discussions undertaken online or in a favorite spot, my comic book store. The prototypical Geek Rumble follows this format – “X fights Y, who wins?” There are, of course, other questions and discussion topics that qualify as Geek Rumble, as fans of the form will discuss/argue about all kinds of things. And it seems to me this recent kerfuffle about Bruce Lee presents a good moment to talk about the Geek Rumble as a writing tool.

But first, the Geek Rumbles to which Bruce Lee got his rude invite. An ugly one (click here) and a one that is less ugly, if the reader/writer/fan waits to take their dive a few weeks later when the smoke clears. Luckily, very little about the ugly Bruce Lee Geek Rumble does anything for this blog that helps writers to the exclusion of most other considerations. The second one, ooh, this is too good…Bruce Lee V. Dracula.

Earlier drafts of this post spent a lot of time trying to present to you actual rules for the various Geek Rumbles some of which may serve to backhandedly comment on this recent Bruce Lee Affair without actually commenting. I love double-talk and Lawyer Speak when they serve my interests.

Anyway, the rules, well…conventions. Pretty much all of the “if you can’t be respectful in this matter, we’ll move to pull your metaphorical license to appear in public” techniques learned in Debate Class apply here. I’ll use up a lot of words to tell you to be nice. Uses up too much of the word budget for this post.

The rest of the rules and conventions in play here will vary from store to store. Pretty much the Font of Wisdom at the register will control the conversation (or not so much if they’re new). Said FOW will boot you out and that will be it until next week (or never if you’re a real problem). And they will move to cut off conversations that for a variety of reasons might blow up. Other than that each store will have an unique style and character to it as the venue lurches around in reaction to recent events.

For instance, the title Geek Rumble of Bruce Lee V. Dracula might be a tough sell in the near term. Comic book stores are especially sensitive to all things Bruce Lee, Geek Rumble and Comic Book. Quentin Tarantino has been a valued ambassador for all of that.

It could be a real trick getting this particular Geek Rumble onto the floor, because Bruce Lee V. Dracula came up in regards to that other Geek Rumble as presented in the movie. Think of it as some poor fella mistaking the salt shaker for the coffee sugar…

The store you wander into might decide to enforce a “both parties should be fictional” rule to avoid any lingering nastiness from moments like the Bruce Lee Affair. If the FOW digs in, the discussion’s over.

Comic book stores, the better managed online geek forums and the like are usually susceptible to logic and what the Great Online calls fact. And the race of who gets to Wikipedia and the rest of the Internet first also matters. If I thought there was an opening, I would argue for the inclusion of Bruce Lee V. Dracula because as a thing it predates the current mess, AKA it’s already on YouTube.

Doing my three seconds of research, I found four videos depicting someone’s interpretation of Bruce Lee fighting all kinds of things and people. I found a video (click here) from a UFC branded video game where the game owner told the game to put Bruce Lee in the octagon with Y, Count Dracula in this case, and have the computer create a randomized fight result. And the same YouTube source posted similar videos for literally everybody doing the UFC brand of mixed martial arts…plus a few movie monsters tossed in for giggles.

Skimming through the 25-minute video, Bruce Lee won with a monster kick to the Count’s head at the last moment. But, I had to ask questions like…

“So, is the game automatically biased towards Bruce Lee given the legendary rep throughout the intersecting gaming, martial arts and comic book industries?”

“Did the game writers understand proper narrative given their seeming preference for the last minute Rocky Victory that just screams a WRITER was here?”

“What is the F%#*ing point of selling the video as Bruce Lee V. Dracula, when the Count depicted on screen is just a tall Romanian gent wearing UFC fight gear and who doesn’t do vampire things?”

And the other videos (click here), (click here) and (click here) I found are much worse on the creativity or truth in advertising scales. There are undoubtedly other videos where Bruce Lee levels whole cities of movie monsters, I just didn’t have the time or oxygen to dive that deep.

The original point is that the existence of videos like this allows you to argue at the comic book store that Bruce Lee V. Dracula exists independently of and prior to that other more tragic Geek Rumble. Therefore, Bruce Lee, at least the legend also known as a minor Deity of Meme, is very nearly a fictional construct and is thus fair game. At least as far as the people who didn’t know him go.

Another way to put it is the Bruce Lee Affair is almost a perfect example of one of my favorite movie quotes concerning myth making – “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend (thank you, Mr. Peckinpah).” Bruce Lee the legend fights everything and because most of us just loved Enter the Dragon, we’ll find a way to lawyer the results in his favor. Though the Second Act of that epic struggle will put Legend Bruce in far more danger than the stupid game video, just sayin’. Hopefully, the real Bruce Lee is smiling from wherever he is amused that we think he’s that ripped to take down other mythological characters barehanded.

Anyway this a good moment to temporarily get off this particular Geek Rumble to talk about the art form in general. I use these discussions as a sounding board. If I need to figure out some pseudoscience or get a handle on a character that I haven’t read recently, but for whom I certainly have seen the movies (Batman comes to mind), I go to my store and ask the right questions.

I might be spoiled that my particular FOW really knows his shit. At various times, he’s let me know that my solution to a science fiction problem where you can’t take food through hyperspace neared plausibility. I highlighted the idea and…

“Greg, here’s your flaw, people are chemically identical to the food they eat, so people couldn’t go through hyperspace either…”

I take about a week to think it out. I come back.

“I’ve got it!” I say. “I’m sure it’s six different kinds of pseudoscience, but you have to spray freshly harvested mitochondrial juice on your food to keep it fresh. And for the rest I’m going to just play the Because Plot card.”

“Yeah, it is pseudoscience, but it’s plausible pseudoscience.”

Success.

The other FOW in the store also has her nuggets; telling me that the reason ninjas wear black is that there is a famous kabuki or noh play where a stagehand wearing black kills a character on stage. After a moment that might’ve been interpreted as a challenge, I agreed with her and went onto to add that based on the war documentaries I sometimes watch, black even under ideal circumstances can be ridiculous nighttime camouflage. Too black being the usual complaint. On its best days the Geek Rumble is a conversation.

I then looked up ninjas on Wikipedia. They didn’t have the exact story, but something close about Japanese puppet shows where they wear black as stagecraft to simulate certain kinds of invisibility. So close counting in hand grenades, horseshoes and bocce ball, I’ll go with her version because it’s a better story that I will save for my own writing.

With conversations like this I’ve kept up on my Batman knowledge, dropped in my usual Imperial Stormtrooper barbs and so on. Naturally, I think something similar should work for you. No matter what kind of writing you do, hook up with someone you trust and talk things out.

Crime writer? Once you’ve learned the boring book stuff about poisons, find a friend that does similar types of books and git talkin’. You’ll get into a one-upmanship thing that will squeeze a few more decades out of arsenic as a murder weapon.

Back to Bruce Lee V. Dracula; I told you its too good a thing (at least when the smoke clears) to let go. When we left the discussion, the topic was just getting cleared by the FOW after successfully arguing that Bruce Lee is just legendary enough to proceed. And then it’s on…

My opening salvo is almost always, “is Dracula even still alive in the Kung Fu-Verse? Meme Chuck Norris supposedly kills all kinds of bad things just looking at them funny. And the real Chuck Norris actually said he thought the memes were funny.”

The FOW and other participants might nod. It’s a good question. And perfectly acceptable to include a third semi-fictional character who might’ve already taken down Dracula. And then the FOW makes up a rule to get things arbitrarily back to how Bruce Lee wipes out Vlad Tepes. Tangents are only briefly tolerated.

I probably double down with, “okay, but since every version of Dracula seems like he’s a skirt chaser, shouldn’t we send a woman like The Bride? You know, acknowledge we should send the right decoy with teeth?”

Again everybody nods or adds a rebuttal. At which point, the FOW steers things back to Bruce Lee killing Dracula. After which the mostly Socratic method of asking the right questions and thinking on your feet drills it down to Bruce Lee pounding Dracula with nunchucks, say maybe over in 20 minutes with open gashes bloodying up Bruce Lee’s yellow track suit?

A hypothetical Geek Rumble. One of many…

As live entertainments go, the Geek Rumble isn’t for the rookie. Whether you get your similar nerd on through the book club, online forum, writing group or the high order professionalism at the comic book store, listen to a few before leaping in. My FOW might help a rookie keep up, others might not as stereotypes like the Comic Book Store Guy on The Simpsons just don’t appear out of thin air. And you read the part about looking things up, right?

And you also really should avoid some topics like say, the Crimson Tide fight. Two sailors throwing down over the best version of the Silver Surfer, Jack Kirby or Moebius.

The verdict, at least in my store – “It’s a real thing. I break it up at least twice a year and besides the sailor taking the Jack Kirby position has it right. At this point, it’s a boring repetitive thing. Ugh!”

There you have it, a few observations about the Geek Rumble or Nerd Fight. A little about basic etiquette. Why they happen. And why I think they’re a valuable tool for refining thought. And you’d think I’d end this post…

With each passing day, the Bruce Lee Affair becomes more annoying to me. Especially since Quentin Tarantino’s work sort of defines this post.

I mentioned The Bride as being a worthy stand in for Bruce Lee fighting Dracula. We saw her wearing the yellow track suit in Kill Bill. I also mentioned the Crimson Tide fight, a scene written by Mr. Tarantino during his script doctor days.

My opinions about the larger Bruce Lee Affair are still unformed and all over the map as I haven’t yet seen the movie. I have an automatic Support the Artist response tempered by the fact that I really don’t know what Bruce Lee was like beyond his Wikipedia page. But, you know what tiny thing pisses me off most in this story?

Quentin Tarantino used the pleasant, amusing and preposterous Geek Rumble Bruce Lee V. Dracula, that he didn’t invent, to deflect from the angry making (to others) Geek Rumble of Bruce Lee V. Stuntman Cliff. Even if I later see the movie and decide the scene works in context of a good or possibly great movie, I’m always going to equate the moment in part with a nasty rhetorical trick – Whataboutism. Not cool. Ever.

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

“Any sufficiently advanced technology would to the less advanced be indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clark.

“At various times on your world your scholars have spoken of Magic and later on Technology as if they were two separate things, but on my world they’re one and the same.” – Movie Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

So how do GMs, Administrators and DMs handle the interface of Magic and Technology? Not well. The ones I played with almost universally banned anything more technological than a bag of lit oil.

During the Great Campaign in college, our wizard player was fairly well versed in things like the recipes for at least three different explosives typically cookable at home. I’d forgotten to ask if he’d read The Anarchist’s Cookbook, paid extra close attention to the pipe bombs in The Terminator, or like all of us closely watched the Star Trek episode ‘Arena,’ all possibilities in the 1980s.

Short version of the story, he proposed pipe bombs to solve the eternal problem of dungeons. Each door is a serious obstacle and no one has ever really figured out how to role play the probable truth that the noise from fighting the ogre in the previous encounter means that the dragon in the next room is awake, so don’t even make the First Edition sleep roll. Despite the tactical wisdom from the war games this player was more used to that speed in the dungeon is life, our DM ruled – “the black powder charge fizzles and you get a huge migraine headache out of nowhere as if the gods really hate anything remotely technological.”

In a related incident, this same player suggested lots of lye when the DM had us fight Alien Xenomorphs, acid blood and all. There was some kind of ruling here too. But, our solutions that fully exploited the rules rendered these babies almost like orcs, deadly in theory pushovers in practice…a post for another day.

We could’ve used lit oil by itself, as I remember the fizzle we used a flask of oil as the igniter. But, the player was also well versed in the difference between ignition and detonation. Oil, whether the pseudo-napalm we thought we tossed around or the equally dangerous whale oil or kerosene the rules envisioned, burns. To make something that burns (gunpowder, oil) mimic an explosive, you have to contain the hot gases with a bit of engineering. As I remember it, these contraptions failed too.

Yes, the DM determines the basic physics of the game. In every version of the rules, it’s black letter law that the DM has this authority. Think of it as the Holy Writ inscribed on the inside of the top half of the Monopoly box, though one or two common rules, like the Free Parking payout, aren’t actually on the box lid, just sayin’. And the basic social conventions of playing any game involved agreeing to rules – “right, no clipping, cross checking, rabbit punching or tripping…”

I suppose DMs have a point that we’ve agreed to play in a magic kingdom and not worry about how destabilizing a Sig P226 can be. Possibly because game systems have a way of overstating what guns do or understating their effect. Recent extra rules for D&D set most bullets at about the same damage as solid sword thrusts (D6 or D8), when the spy RPG player or war gamer is shouting that it’s more.

Even regular writers sometimes have this problem. I didn’t get more than a couple episodes into the most recent TV version of The Wizard of Oz. Long enough to remember seeing a character that was either the analogue to The Wicked Witch of the East or another completely original witch (my memory gets hazy for some shows) not in the original books examine Officer Dorothy Gale’s dropped Sig.

Yep, they tried Dorothy as a cop and her patrol unit takes the place of the farmhouse in the twister. The gun/magic problem comes to a head when this witch looks down the gaping barrel the way we hope five-year-olds in our reality are instructed not to do. Said witch took her own head off. Dorothy is later bawled out for the unintentional introduction of such completely destabilizing “magic.” Imagine if she’d brought a nuke or Sarin? Anyway, I don’t remember if this was why I stopped watching the show.

This is not to say that writers and fantasy DMs don’t or can’t make the leap to integrating Magic and Technology. It’s just that either the DM just doesn’t want to or all the ones I played with had a curious failure of imagination. I’ll bet on the former.

So you can pretty much expect that unless you’re playing a non-fantasy RPG, that cooking up charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur on the fly to blow open those stout wooden dungeon doors will always fizzle. A really cranky DM will also rule that the complicated bronze hutch to contain the hot gases from burning oil will also fizzle.

I suppose the supposed Law of Averages says eventually a DM will figure it out the way Tolkien kind of did that in true fashion of the quotes above that gunpowder is the magic. Gandalf just loved his fireworks sweetened by whatever else he did. And Saruman somehow talked a Uruk-Hai (orc) into doing the suicide bomber thing with a black powder cask in the drainage culvert at Helm’s Deep. Where there is a pen there’s a way.

Either way these are my observations about the curious intersections of various possibly oil and water game and story mechanics. You will in the fullness of time decree your own solutions…

From Rope, everything after is known…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

The King will return. Azor Ahai will appear to lead Westeros against the Others. A prediction uttered by a crazy professor of Augury leads to an ill-fated black bag job at the Ministry of Magic. Writers, especially fantasy writers just love using a prophecy as a narrative tool, but handled correctly I suppose any writer has this particular iron in their golf bag.

Prophecy comes to us from a similar Greek word that originally meant “the gift of interpreting the will of God.” Spell it with a C, it’s a noun. Spell it with an S and it’s the verb. Stories of gods, monsters and magic all trade on someone more divinely powerful than the protagonist imparting hints, riddles and sometimes outright directions to guide the results.

Sometimes this is to get through maybe three chapters ahead in the story. Other times, yep, the writer gave away cryptic hints about the ending because what happens is less important than how we get there. Prophecy as a tool should be thought of as a part of the larger field of providing foreshadowing to guide the reader/listener’s interest in the story.

Foreshadowing in its many forms services the toe dance all writers play with their audience. We want to know what’s coming next but not really. We try to predict the course of the story, but still want surprises.

The best theories on storytelling assume that we told the same stories around the same campfires. The same fella sitting under the cave bear painting heckled the story in the same way to gain more of an endorphin hit from hearing this new version of the tale. The writer/teller gets over his exasperation and feeds more excitement by giving them what they want.

One element so added to narrative was foreshadowing. Give clues to what happens next. Engage those ears for a few minutes longer. The practice takes many forms.

Anton Chekhov famously asserted – “a gun on the wall in the First Act will come down off the wall and be fired in the Third Act.” This kind of subtle foreshadowing trades on set dressing and a basic knowledge of human behavior. We’re douchebags; we shoot and stab each other at dinner.

One feature of drama is that editing happens to turn real life into digestible bits of narrative where something always happens. So gun on the wall must be fired means that because you’re seeing the play/movie or God forbid reading the actual book, the writer has edited out all the times Grandpa’s Winchester 70 just sat on the wall. It waits for the passions of the family to reach that fevered pitch dredging up every fight over Barbies or Matchbox cars. It waits for the truth about Uncle Steve or worse. It waits for this family to get robbed.

The writer assumes that the consumer fully understands the powerful symbol the gun on the wall represents and will insist on seeing it on the wall in the First Act as foreshadowing. Not seeing the weapon might leave the consumer confused – “What? They build up to this big old yelling match about Uncle Steve and, okay, the scumbag got shot, but where the hell did the gun that killed him come from?”

Of course, Gun on the Wall could mean anything established in the background. Grandpa’s ashes on the mantle and the almost union-mandated Use the Urn to Bash Somebody Over the Head scene (I’ll have to check, but I really hope Roger Ebert covered this in his list of clichés). You get the idea that for this type of foreshadowing everything relevant to the end of the story must be established in the space of the story at the beginning.

Alfred Hitchcock found another usage of foreshadowing in nearly all of his movies. Because he was after suspense instead of shock, he always wanted the audience to be well ahead of the characters. The two killers in Rope start by killing someone and then hiding the body in a box on the verge of a dinner party discussing what they did, why and that they’ll dispose of the body after the party. The audience knows from jump what’s what and each time Jimmy Stewart playing a detective clearly inspired by Crime and Punishment gets too close to the body or something the killers want hidden, we cringe.

Horror movies trade on both shock and suspense in the same fashion. We see Michael Myers in the house. We shout – “No, don’t go in there!” Is he in the kitchen? No. Is he in the master closet watching the dead teens walking have sex? Maybe. Is he waiting in the closet under the stairs for the teens to think it’s all over and put on their clothes? Eventually – BOO! The build up is suspense. The payoff is shock. Both are driven by the basic foreshadowing of letting us see Michael enter the house…or not.

Shakespeare driven largely by the needs of his medium typically just had the main character tell the audience in a soliloquy – “Now is the winter of our discontent…” – what would happen next. Iago told the back row about taking down Othello. A form of foreshadowing because everything pays off and we still went for the ride.

Another bit of foreshadowing that I really like…the equipping scene between James Bond and Q. In every movie, Major Boothroyd gives Bond exactly what he needs to survive the movie. A briefcase loaded with throwing knife, 50 gold sovereigns, 50 .25 caliber bullets (the chambering for the AR-7 survival rifle packed in the case) and a teargas canister, what happens? Everything needed to kill off a Bulgarian killer and, more importantly, Donald Grant.

How does Q know what Bond needs? Okay, the equipping scene usually takes place after the Bond Gets his Orders scene with M. We do have such things as intercoms and inter-office email where M has Moneypenny call down and tell Q where Bond might be going. So sending Bond to go meet an oil heiress in the Baku/Azerbaijan/Caspian Sea/Black Sea region, we can say that Q looked at the map and saw mountains with snow in them within driving distance. So the avalanche jacket could make a little sense.

Later in the series, they stopped using this scene to do anything with the watch. Bond just pulls out his timepiece and it has exactly what’s needed to get out. A wad of C-4 for the grating in the Moonraker launch base. A laser for the floor of the armored train in Goldeneye. A magnet and rope cutter in Live and Let Die. Presumably, the Q-Branch takes after action surveys as part of the job to refine what operatives need next.

Speaking from the writing/meta view of this scene, much of the trope of getting exactly what the story requires has much to do with that, again, writers edit out all gadgets that aren’t relevant. So he’s going to the mountains and needs the avalanche jacket, but what about the space in his luggage for the parachute jacket? Bond did get mugged on an airplane once. So even with the semi-plausible in-narrative reasons for Bond having exactly the gear he needs, it still feels like Q is a laser focused prophet.

A good segue back to the prophecy section of this treatise on the various forms of foreshadowing. The reader wants to know a few hints as to how it all going to come out, but not to have the full blueprints. Isildur’s heir has been promised to come back one day. Gondor will be alright…eventually.

I suspect that in addition to the usual reasons for prophecy as foreshadowing that in a literary sense the promise from the gods of this story (the writer in the meta sense) has a way of keeping the reader in the game. The black moments in some of these stories are really black and we might put the book down.

“Close the book, Da, I don’t want to read any more…” – so says Sam to Frodo during the single most suspenseful part of the story, two hobbits dressed as orcs marching around Mordor trying not to look like hobbits asking directions to Mt. Doom. It all looks lost. We don’t believe the Dress Like the Enemy to Infiltrate the Base trope whether delivered in the spy novel or The Lord of the Rings.

But, Tolkien is as tricksy-tricksy as Gollum. Throughout the preceding narrative he peppers in poetic references to the Sword Reforged coming from ancient sources that might have a phone line to the in-narrative higher powers of Middle Earth. The folks that sent the Wizards to do the dirty work of cleaning up Sauron, just the latest Great Evil to afflict the world of men. So if the reader puts down the book, he/she never gets to see how the foreshadowing pays off.

Because prophecy has the specific purpose of interpreting the will of God all prophecies, whether literary or theological, must payoff. We can think of Gun on the Wall as something that nearly always pays off because of a combination of writerly concision – “if we don’t need it, we don’t establish it” – and giving the reader the hooks to play our guessing games with the story. Prophecy is something that either comes true because gods/universe are never wrong or gets relegated to the realm of instructive metaphor.

Tolkien and his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, instinctively drew from many sources for prophecy. Most were stories once deemed theological in nature. The big one, the Christian Bible, still is. And the Greeks couldn’t tell a story without some form of divine prophecy.

Cassandra had the gift, no one believed her because the gods hated her. Instant tragedy. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for fair winds to Troy, a different part of the same instant tragedy. Odysseus travels all the way to Hades to ask blind Tiresias for the checklist needed to make nice with Poseidon (you can’t live on an island and have the Sea God as an enemy) and make it home. And if I had a dollar for every time Athena borrowed various Olympians’ toys to help a hero get through the movie (maybe she should have a job in Q-Branch?)…well we always want more money.

And now inevitably…the Bible. Depending on how atheist or pagan you feel, either God or the many writers of the book had 1,300 years to work out the story. The whole point is Jesus and the crappiness of how we treat each other that is why God made Flesh has to come back. We need Hope…the one thing Pandora held onto.

The Bible uses short term prophecy in the form of a prophet walking into a throne room and promising dire consequences unless certain demands are met. After the first deal between Moses and Ramses about setting the Hebrews free, this was mostly about God getting pissed at how far the Hebrews and later Jews strayed from the covenant and sending in his latest version of Gandalf. Typically, God makes everything promised happen within two weeks. Gods are never wrong.

The Bible also uses a much deeper highly integrated form of prophecy. Everything leads to Jesus coming the first time to set our redemption in motion. And then he comes back at the end to reward the righteous. Hope on a half shell.

Various books in the Old Testament promise a messiah. Books the Jews of the historical Jesus’ time knew all of this predictive Scripture. Jesus as written in the book certainly acted and spoke in such a way to make it clear that – “here I am.” Then as now, either you accept that God knows how to tell a story and keeps his promises or you go looking for the wires that made things happen. It’s not the purpose of this post to pick a side; I’m neither your pastor nor your secular logic counselor.

This is the tradition of prophecy in our literature that Tolkien, Lewis and everyone coming after, including G.R.R. Martin, tap into. Middle Earth, Narnia and Westeros exist as seemingly whole reflections of our own world. These imaginary places have the kind of history that includes cranks, lunatics and dreamers spouting off about all the things God said. When they finally come true the story ends…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

The Hoop, a habitat ring more or less near modern Manhattan apparently placed between the high and low tide marks in New York Harbor. An enclosed society, much like a space station, struggling to provide basic services. Riots and other types of sturm und drang are daily occurrences likely to make shopping for groceries an adventure. Into this maelstrom we hurl 18-year-old Halo Jones depicted going to the store with friends suiting her last 36 hours in the Hoop.

A lot of bold emphatics…

Writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson thus propel the reader into a dystopian far future adventure driven by an everywoman, just getting by luck to still have skin on her fingers. Created in the middle-80s with The Watchmen and V For Vendetta still ahead for Mr. Moore, we see in this day-in-the-life story the beginnings of why the average comic book fan gets a weird look when the nerd fight at the register turns to Alan Moore. Though I do try to keep my scorn, derision and slight regard at how the lack of an independent editor allowed the even more recent Promethea to go so completely off the rails out of the discussion.

The management of this blog apologizes for this unwarranted attack upon the review of The Ballad of Halo Jones Volume One – SPLAT! – by the currently imaginary review of Promethea. Steps were taken behind my back and retroactively approved.

Moore and Gibson cleverly use Halo’s last day and a half in the Hoop, divided between catching a friend’s concert and an epic shopping expedition, to give us a tour of dystopian rendered on the half shell. Riots are common. High tides that force closure of ring sections to prevent flex damage happen twice a day. And don’t get Halo started on the spotty and inconsistent public transport. All of the above must be taken into account just going to the store, an expedition that might have given Leif Erickson cause to hand over the horned Viking helmet.

In the hands of any other creative team the narrative in this volume would be truncated int five minutes of backstory highlights while telling us the story of the next volume. Quickly show us the tragic murder of Brinna, Halo’s nebulously defined maternal figure. Quickly show us Halo parting at the ramp to the antique space liner, Clara Pansy, promising to meet her friend, Rodice, on the nearest off-world port before boarding with Toby, the Robo-Dog. Can you say Casablanca?

Moore and Gibson bend considerable skill towards turning backstory into story. Simply by making shopping seem like the reader’s choice of setting sail for the New World or sacking Lindesflarne, the first time. And making sure that Rodice, born and bred in the Hoop, is as agoraphobic as they come.

It’s Halo’s nature as the everywoman who spends more time getting beat up in riot between panels and running away from all other trouble that makes this story. A Class Five astronavigatrix like Barbarella pretty much vaporizes whole swaths of Hoop society and then gets laid. Ooh! The crossover fan fiction, oh never mind…these ladies don’t belong in the same quadrant let alone a shared story.

Initially created for British publisher 2000AD’s model of weekly anthologies that only needed five pages at a time from each story presented, the story builds like a TV season or newspaper strip. As part of the build it takes a few installments for Halo to come out from Rodice’s fairly large shadow as the protagonist with her name on the marquee. It’s purely a matter of taste to argue if this process happens soon enough for the reader, I thought “move it up a couple sections.” But, this is just a feeling based on theory that doesn’t really affect the read.

Certainly, Halo cements her status when she makes use of Rodice’s dropping a zenade (zen grenade) trying to avoid going outside. After that it’s the Halo show. Will she survive long enough to sign aboard the Clara Pandy?

Moore and Gibson working together created this world. Complete with a slang and speech patterns that feel like the best possible guess as to what English may sound like in the far future of about five thousand years. Taken with a caveat, this dialogue feels natural to the character and story.

The caveat leads me to the single most glaring peeve reading this volume, the lettering. As in I joked to the friend that suggested the Halo Jones series to me, that I wanted to borrow his real cardboard tube (a mighty weapon of renown) and his imaginary time machine (a long-standing in-joke) to go back to make my displeasure felt through the decades.

Possibly, it’s the pad size in the reprinted collection I read. Perhaps the size of the lettering relative to the image size was always a trick by the publisher to weed out reviewers with middle aged eyes in desperate need of a magnifying lens. Luckily my similar complaints about Barbarella, started before and completed after, have already caused me to bite the bullet and buy a lens. NYAH-NYAH!

Anyway, there are three classes of text all of which annoyed me to one degree or another. The regular non-bold prose lettering came in slightly small but still readable to my naked eye. There are a few passages of Halo starting a journal while trapped inn the Hoop’s subway on the way home, rendered in a really tiny font in pink caption boxes. Less eye friendly, but still barely acceptable. And lastly, we have the profusion of bold emphatic words…ironically the real reason to use a lens.

I mentioned liking the slang and dialogue in this book…with a caveat. Most of the new words in this story are rendered as a bold emphatic (italics in Roman and similar fonts, underlined in typewritten fonts like Courier and bold in hand lettered comic books). But, the letterer earns most of my condemnation for how bold words were handled: blobby, mushy and next to impossible to read without a lens (see representative picture above).

I do get to land much of my hating the lettering back in Mr. Moore’s lap as the writer. Bold text in a comic book functions like the many other ways in other media to represent emphasis for irony, sarcasm, and any strong emotion where an All Caps shout isn’t appropriate. Fortunately comics books have have other ways to depict thought and telepathy. Emphatics have a way of tricking the reader into applying mental stress sounds to the words on the page, so with this many bolds on the page I’m sure I’m imagining Halo’s speech patterns all wrong.

What is on the page in the average speech balloon, tricked me into reading these words with way too much emphasis and a crap not well thought out singsong that doesn’t even sound to me like English, even future English. I likened the read to experiencing an alley rumble between iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter without the benefit of a skilled fight coordinator to make things blend well. Speaking of alley rumbles, cue the angry tomcats.

And I get to level this criticism at Mr. Moore over this because, I can tell you that every italic or underline in any of my own scripts and manuscripts I did as an intentional act. This means that while the letterer might have been horrible, he/she/they went from Mr. Moore’s script. So my caveat for enjoying Halo’s slang and other dialogue is the reader might want to do the internal mental gymnastics to remove the bold letters and let her say the words with a normal tone of voice.

Moving on, Mr. Gibson as the artist and co-creator really helps the story. It’s a true art form to tell stories in sequential art and wow! I may have bought my magnifying lens for that other space heroine’s comic book and used it here. The difference between the reads is that here I didn’t need the lens for anything related to the art and Barbarella has both tiny lettering and small harder to see panels.

At no time with Mr. Gibson’s work did I ever lose track of Halo, Toby or Rodice. At no time did I go back to look at a previous panel to make sure I grokked. I remained fully within the dark clammy and terrifying world of the Hoop, where Halo seems the seconds away from the next mugging. And I suppose I lack the vocabulary to keep going on.

As awesome as I think Mr. Gibson’s pencils and inks were in the original black and white comics, we must acknowledge the coloring done long after the fact by Barbara Nosenzo. And now we’re cooking with gas. She imbues the already dark world of the Hoop with variations of dark greens, blues, murky grays highlighted by highly intentional uses of brighter colors in better lighting. Yeah, I’ll be checking out her other work.

To recap about The Ballad of Halo Jones Volume One, I see why people like and/or love the book. A great character to act as counterpoint to Barbarella at one end and Sarah Connor at the other. A well-plotted narrative that raises shopping to the level of a Viking raid on Sussex or even Newfoundland. I love the art and the later coloring. Ah, if we just could’ve fit an anti-bark shock collar to Alan Moore during the writing and hired anyone else to letter, the differences between a merely great comic book and the kind of book that…

A suspiciously symmetrical face…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Also known as things quickly extirpated once in film development and in some cases earlier…at the hands of the cover artist.

A ruined face replaced by a Hero Scar…

From this distance of more than twenty years, may I assume we’ve all seen Robert Altman’s The Player by now?

Richard E. Grant played a British film director bound and determined to storm America and Hollywood with a pet project, essentially rubbing our noses in his smug opposition to capital punishment. A DA decides he’s sick of convicting minorities and goes hell for leather to convict a white woman, just for the principle of equal treatment under the law.

The proposed plot. The DA gets his conviction. Tragically falls in love with the convict. Discovers late in the third act she was framed and rushes at the eleventh hour to stop the execution…

This fictional Brit starts the process piously asserting, “no stars, no happy ending because that’s reality!” We all saw the representative clip at the end of The Player. Bruce Willis uses a shotgun to rescue Julia Roberts while smugging for camera – “traffic was a bitch!” A character gets fired in the screening room for blasting the sellout Brit for “caving.”

But, did Mr. Grant’s character actually cave that much in the context of storytelling as we know it? A question to include the context of writing specifically for North America (Hollywood’s home break despite the rise of China and the rest of the world) and the larger context of the artsy-fartsy Hero’s Journey model long asserted as universal? Did he cave? Or just acknowledge the inevitable that shouldn’t have taken the venal suits at the studio to tell him?

Obviously, the first “cave” was stars. The venal bastard suits controlling the purse strings simply refused to write checks based on the line of credit proffered by the studio’s institutional lenders until Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, or their hypothetical equivalents signed their agreements. Depending on how we use the word “star,” perhaps now we should note that the concept exists throughout the arts, sports and most of life. Has always existed. And serves several related purposes.

When Sir Lawrence Olivier went balls out playing the title part in The Scottish Play people in the crowd remembered this performance eagerly awaiting when Sir Larry would pull off The Scottish Movie. A star in this case represents doing something so well that we remember to use the work as either something to copy or something to do the exact opposite…sometimes both. Rewarding preternatural skill.

Marcus Tullis Cicero the Elder has more stardom as a writer being 2,000 years dead. He famously lost out to Marc Anthony, hands cut off and nailed to the Senate door. But, because the words he wrote, letters, speech transcriptions and a couple attempts at pseudo-Stoic philosophy have survived into the Modern Era, he defined European prose for quite a few centuries. He even wrote text we use as placeholders – lorem ipsum.

When we use star in this context that can also include champion as a synonym, you just want to slap Mr. Grant’s character around. Greatness is where we get inspiration. In my own work, I like to say, “I don’t compete with living writers. They don’t do me and I don’t do them. Besides, I’m too busy chasing Shakespeare.” And on the music side, where at the moment my mouth just wrote checks my ear can’t cash, it’s a nice fantasy to imagine my music at Disney Hall led by Gustavo Dudamel.

Is it any wonder that my favorite two episodes of The Twilight Zone are both titled ‘A Game of Pool?’ The deceased star offers a game to the determined up and comer. Winning comes with the responsibilities to take over from the old champion. Losing means being the guy who lost. Both versions served as a vehicle to remind the audience that while it is good to strive, it means nothing if you don’t take time out to live…even just to sneak out to Disneyland or something.

I like to think that Mr. Grant’s character realized that stardom isn’t all bad for a movie and just went with it trying to get the best stars possible for the movie. Yes, there is a tawdry side to stardom that the suits in the movie wouldn’t care about the “right” stars, just any stars large enough to open a capital punishment movie. They had armed themselves with box office numbers and exit polls from other movies.

They knew the movie die would without stars and the happy ending. They also declared that a movie with dudes in prisons would need a hetero sex scene. And they adroitly let this upstart director shoot his ending betting that the test audience in Pacoima would chasten him and he would agree to fix it with reshoots that were always in the budget.

When I saw this moment in the screening room, I imagined dialogue that wasn’t in the movie. Either Michael Tolkin (the writer) or Mr. Altman had these words and cut them because of Too Many Words on the Screenplay Page, or they had a simple failure of imagination. Imagine this, Bonnie (Laurie Metcalf) goes off about the “sellout” and Mr. Grant’s character still drops in the line about the “old ending didn’t test well in Pacoima” with his face generally signaling relief. What if he also says…

“I realized I might not have needed the old ending.”

“What do you mean?” Bonnie asks.

“I’m bashing capital punishment in America, the home of the barbaric practice with the intent of convincing more Americans to shift their values. When faced with the well-stated objections from the people in this room, I asked myself if doing it their way still does that. Do I get the same mileage out of this happy ending that still trades as much on the finality of death and human fallibility as the old ending but lets the audience off the hook emotionally?”

“And?”

“How the fuck should I know? It’s a risk either way. Either I guessed right and just became Preston Sturges with the Common Touch or I won’t be back, except to take the offspring to Disneyland. Ask me when it opens.”

Speaking personally this character’s initial resistance to the Hollywood method makes more sense if he shifts the question from No Stars to “Dear God, can we get the right stars!” He is right to ask for stars better fitted to the movie. Would Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore have been better for The Player’s movie within a movie?

And we like to believe the question can also be, “can we use this part to create a new star, while bulking up the other roles with established stars?” Often Hollywood’s casting decisions cause the audience to shout at the screen – “Really, you gave that role to Ryan Gosling? He doesn’t do movies like this well!” Well, the audience segment trained by incessant film coverage in the media to think they know these things, at least.

As for the happy ending part of the discussion, Mr. Tolkin, who also wrote the novel, has a point about Hollywood ceding sad endings to…Europe. Sad endings are a part of our collective narrative tradition and yet, if it were up to Hollywood no movie not labeled Shakespeare or Star Wars would have a sad ending. George Lucas got away with the tragic ending to Revenge of the Sith by reminding people that Return of the Jedi that they’ve already seen finishes the story. And having enough power over Star Wars-land to avoid reading studio notes also can help.

I suppose we should play for the middle ground where Hollywood busts out a tragedy once in a while and the rest of the world doesn’t always have to reach for “they all get cholera and die” as is the stereotype. These things seem cyclical; Marvel tossed two popular female characters off the same ledge to get at the Soul Stone. Ask me every six months or so to see how we did.

Scars. This part of the essay is an outgrowth of the stars question. You hire a star to play X part described in the book as severely damaged about the face. How long do you think this lasts? Sometimes this gets wiped out long before movie development by the cover artist.

Two examples (see pictures). The female characters pictured were both described as having survived similar variations of getting jacked up by shitty father figures (I’ll feed that one to a more overtly feminist writer). Nether description made it to any kind of promotional art. One at the hands of the cover artist and the other slaughtered by the whole filmmaking process.

Parrish Plessis (Nylon Angel) leaps off the page described as exceedingly tall, dark haired but with a slightly flattened face and badly set nose to go with her black leather. The last two didn’t make the cover. No filmmakers involved.

Similarly, Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines is described as having a face to frighten children. A destroyed eye. A sliced up ear. Massive facial scars. To be replaced in the movie by a single beauty scar hidden behind the red scarf. Many filmmakers involved reaching the same decision as a single cover artist.

There are reasons. The hero scar is cheaper in both time and money to apply to an actress and future star cloned from the pretty end of the human gene pool. And I’m sure Peter Jackson might’ve heard his version of the Venal Suit – “what is the fucking point of hiring a star if we put so much latex on her that we might not know she’s in the movie?”

Yet, the novelists in question persisted, at least for the book, continuing as planned with messed up female characters. Brave? Dumb? I guess that depends on how loaded I get on any particular day.