Thursday, 31 March 2011

New Beginnings - FF #1

Since November 1961, we have had the Fantastic Four - a family based super-hero team with incredibly strong morals and ideals. Time after time they saved the world from many different threats, both terrestrial and alien. They put their lives on hold for the greater good many more times too but, and this is the critical part, it couldn’t last forever, recently we have seen the death of one of the team.

Following the sacrifice they made, their wish was for the remainder of the team to carry on, to keep strong and become better. They never stopped helping and kept trying to better the world. With this in mind, combined with an idea that Reed had created, the Future Foundation has been properly formed.

The story itself, written by Jonathan Hickman, is a good opening for both new and old Fantastic Four fans. I’ve not had a giant amount of exposure to previous adventures or arcs but I did find myself feeling comfortable and completely in my depth. Even taking into account the massive personal event that they have had to overcome, to the casual reader this is an easy place to join in without feeling out of place or overwhelmed.

As the plot opens out, it is a welcome to those reading. There are new beginnings and opportunities littered throughout it without the story looking too coincidental or easy. In a herald back to the origins of the comic we see not just one notorious adversary (and considering my lack of FF knowledge even knowing who this person was is a good indication) but a second arch villain with the typical FF twist or conundrum attached to it. Yes, as a new reader, there are times when you are left with questions about who people are or what they can do but this all adds to the story.

The artwork by Steve Epting is good but I wouldn’t say outstanding, however, this I think has more to do with the fact that I have not seen much of his work previously. I find myself making comparisons and contrasts to other artists I have seen. I can see various influences in his work and there is a peculiar current yet retro feel to it for me. I have really liked Paul Mounts use of shadow and colour a lot. There are sections where we see parts of the remaining Fantastic Four really struggle with what has happened and where, in other pieces I have reviewed, the shadow has been sinister and foreboding, there is a real solemn and almost emotionally desolate feel to the frames. Considering this is black we are seeing used here, I see it a feat achieved well.

I’ve tried not to reveal which member of the FF sadly met what seems to be an untimely fate, although if you read Fantastic Four #587 I’m not convinced that this is the last we will see of them. I think that this is a good starting point for anyone to pick up and learning that knowledge first hand adds to the experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this first issue and depending on the ongoing quality of the stories I will also be following this title. Definitely worth looking at from anyone who is looking for something new but equally carrying that established feel to it.

Matt Puddy would like a suit made of Unstable Molecules

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Watcher - Battle: Los Angeles

Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) a Marine Staff Sergeant who has had enough, blamed by most for the deaths of his previous platoon, he hands in his resignation. A man on his last day of the job, what can possibly go wrong?

Los Angeles and cities everywhere are being struck by what seem to be meteors, but they‘re slowing down before they hit. Earth is suddenly invaded by aliens that have landed off the shore of LA, and begin killing everybody along the beach.

The military are all ordered into action and Staff Sergeant Nantz is pulled back into service to assist 2nd Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and his platoon on a rescue mission to extract some civilians from a police station before the Air Force wipes out that zone. Things as they say don’t quite go to plan and the small band end up fighting to reclaim the city of Los Angeles.

Battle: LA plays very much like Independence Day meets District 9 - an action spectacular but not huge on plot. The movie doesn’t bury its lead and drops you right into the fray during a very Apocalypse Now chopper journey. It then flashes back to before the aliens hit and gives you a little introduction to each unit member; I enjoyed these scenes as I felt it gave the characters a bit of depth. Yes some of them are two-dimensional clichés with cheesy lines but hey, sometimes that doesn't matter. As long as the end result is still enjoyable and those darn aliens get some cannon fodder right?

Director Jonathan Liebesman does a brilliant job, keeping the action well choreographed, gripping and never allowing for the pace to slow during the action. One scene in particular where the Marines are battling on a freeway struggling to survive is exceptionally intense - the sombre orchestral score weaving emotion into the gaps.

Aaron Eckhart elevates this movie above average, his performance even with the cheesy lines is entirely convincing, he pulls off the square-jawed military hero excellently while Michelle Rodriguez adds her usual austere but still hot assistance. It was also nice to see Jim Parrack (Hoyt in True Blood) on the big screen be it in a similar role.

I find myself getting a little annoyed with more regular use of ‘shaky’ hand camera effects during action - I just want to see everything that’s going on damn it! That said it does work well in short bursts to increase the intensity during the action.

My annoyance is quickly dissolved and replaced by awe due to the impressive visuals and special effects. The vast war torn landscapes transformed even further by the surrounding industrial alien technology and their drone ships filling the skies.

It may not be a movie for everybody but Battle: LA is a good fun ‘popcorn’ movie and I enjoyed it for its merits and its faults.

Retreat hell - Ooh-rah!

Written and enjoyed by Senior Staff Sergeant Stefan Harkins

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Saffron Threads - Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The LARP season approacheth!

Just as the withdrawal symptoms were getting unbearable, there are not one, but two, LARP events in April to look forward to.

This will be my third year playing my alter ego Lady G, a medieval alchemist, and I thought I'd share why spending weekends under canvas pretending to hit monsters with a latex sword is such good fun. No, really.

  1. It's the ultimate in fresh air and exercise. Events start on Friday evening and run to Sunday or Monday afternoons, and the only permanent building you'll enter in that time is the toilet block... if the site doesn't rely on portaloos. You'll be soaking up vitamin D and running between camps sorting out plot, or running away from refs wielding The Plot Stick. Sometimes you'll be running for cover when the inevitable rain arrives, but other evenings you'll be sat around the campfire keeping warm until long after the stars come out. In the immortal words of the late High King of the Faction: "There is no such thing as inappropriate weather, only inappropriate clothing... I'm wearing inappropriate clothing!"

  2. I can wear a corset with a warm skirt and sensible boots. I'm a bit obsessed with corsets, it has to be said (at last count I had 5 with another on order), but I usually team them with Silly Shoes, a pretty skirt and hoisery I ladder within half an hour of putting it on. This is why I only *play* a Lady, rather than being one!

  3. There's always live music around the campfire and in the tavern. I always join in. Playing to a packed tavern and carrying the audience with the rhythm is an indescribable feeling! There's an eclectic mix of traditional folk, modern folk, filk and acoustic versions of alternative rock. "Nothing Else Matters" is haunting and beautiful when played like this and I'm working on a folkified version of "Holding Out For A Hero" since the lyrics require no adaptation at all. I'm hoping to debut it at the Bards Competition at the July event... but don't hold me to that.

  4. There's no technology. Now, I'm sat on a train, typing this on a smartphone, listening to an iPod, having given up reading uni PDFs on my Kindle, so I'm no technical philistine! However, not being able to follow FB, Twitter, email, RSS or anything else for a weekend forces actual, in-depth person-to-person interaction (of the giggedty sort too, if that's your thing) and I thrive on that. Which leads me to...

  5. Awesome characters. Some of the best LARPers I know are totally different in body language, voice, opinions and personality from their real selves. It's like a BOGOF of making friends. Separation between character and person is an interesting dichotomy and something I'll explore in a further post on RPG-induced-schizophrenia. For now, suffice to say there are characters which Lady G can't stand but players Saffron really likes, and vice versa.

  6. I mentioned The Plot Stick earlier. Plot comes in two main forms: head-hurty plot and head-hurty plot. The first kind is where your head (or arm, hip, shin, back, or thigh) hurts from being hit by gribblies and having a darn good time hitting them back. The second kind is intellectual, where you are given a problem and need to use in-game knowledge you have, or can acquire in character, to stop Bad Stuff Happening. Never let it be said LARP is a single-dimensional pastime. Lady G much prefers the latter type of plot, rather than having to run around getting sweaty and waving a sword. Really, isn't that what we have Knights for? Saffron, on the other hand, will happily monster (play a disposable character for other players to fight) with much more gusto than skill. Did I mention the fresh air and exercise aspect yet?

  7. Immersion. Oh wow, the immersion. The system I play is very hot on in-keeping costume and props (but not necessarily historically accurate: we have elves, magic and beastmen, so you can suspend your disbelief right there on that hook by the gate) and people regularly spend hundreds of pounds kitting out a character. It's a real mental gear change returning to the Real World. I'm an escapist at heart, and this Does It For Me.

  8. Finally there's Spiced Mead, which is truly a nectar from the gods

(All photos are © Steve "Flasher" Mitchell. Used with permission.)

This week, Saffron is mostly worrying about uni exams, and fervently wishing she were somewhere else.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Proud Lion is three years old!

This Saturday marks three years since I opened Proud Lion to the public.

Now I tend to celebrate the anniversary of the Grand Opening on Free Comic Book Day, rather than the first day of trading, but I still want to stop for a second and mark the occasion.

I'd also like to thank a bunch of people who have helped in some significant way. So here we go (in no particular order):

Mum (RIP - never to be forgotten) and Dad, Gemma Nicholson, Nicky Fitzgerald, Vince Mancari at Swin City, Jon Harrison at Forbidden Planet, Ian McMillan at Diamond, Nick Catlin at Esdevium, Richard and Louise Huskinson (and little Rae and crazy Max), Darren Whiting, Matt Brown, Krysia Browne, Sara Wingham, Kate Townshend, Chris and Jo Surma, Anthony Gifford, Richard Hart, Josh Howard, Paul Cornell, Charlie AntiGirl and Lee Chaos at Judder, David Viola and D Kai Wilson-Viola, Andrew Smith, Alexa Collicott, Chris and Kayla Boyle, Stefan and Hannah Harkins, Si, Mike and Paul and Into The Gamescape, Martin Smith, Phil Doyle, Phil Davies, Matt Puddy, Bex and El at Stuffed Nonsense and finally - you - reading this right now. Thank you True Believers.

Here's to many more years.

The Reluctant Geek - Hack on Slash

I haven’t told any of my friends or family this yet, but something strange happened to me last week. It came about during an unusually lively Thursday involving ambulance trips and a fair amount of pain related whimpering. (Fear not, regular readers, I’m fine. You’re not about to be abandoned in the barren wastelands of Reluctant Geek-less Saturdays).

The high point of the day was the shiny cylinder of delicious nitrous oxide that I was lucky enough to suck my way through, and aside from the giggling and wittering and tumbling through space it induced, there was one other rather surprising effect. In the midst of this drama and chaos I was comforted by a vision. An important vision. A vision that was telling me the time had come to share one of the most closely guarded and secretive corners of geekdom with the world.

As reality faded to grey around me, I found myself surrounded by every sci-fi crush I’ve ever had. (At least all of the male ones!) In the corner of the room, the Tenth and Eleventh doctors exchanged friendly banter about TARDIS size, while next to them the vampiric forms of Spike and Angel engaged in a bit of shirtless wrestling. On the other side of the room, Captain Jack Harkness and Captain Jack Sparrow admired each other’s coats and indulged in intense and charged conversation that necessitated some manly touching and long lingering looks. I could go on, but I suspect you’re starting to get the gist...

Far from merely being the product of my feverish and over-active imagination, all of this fits rather neatly into the genre of Slash Fiction, an interest that quietly occupies its own little corner of the internet, bothering no-one aside from the occasional religious fundamentalist who wanders over there by mistake. (And Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural). It’s a universe driven by fan interests in which primarily male, primarily straight, pre-existing fictional characters are written into complex, intense relationships with each other. So far, so subversive.

I hate to generalise, but if at this point you are shaking your head in baffled (if fascinated) disbelief, then the chances are you’re male. If on the other hand, this is all striking some secret and hitherto repressed chord, then you’re likely to be a woman and for the most part so are the writers of slash fic, to an overwhelming extent. We’re often told that whilst girl on girl action is pretty much everyone’s cup of tea, only gay men really want to see two men together, but when it comes to slash, this just ain’t necessarily so.

What makes it so transgressively compelling then? If there is safety in numbers, then it makes sense that Slash Fiction writers can often be found in little communities all of their own. The lovely, talented and eccentrically named Aelfric’s Cat belongs to one such community and offers some insight into the magnetic allure of slash.

“The idea of an overarching, transcendent love which surpasses all worldly difficulties, social objections, and yet still burns brightly is a huge draw,” she argues. “That two men have such intense, desperate desire for each other that they are willing to brave the prescriptions of a hetero-normative society, past enmity, strict upbringing, and biological restrictions is a truly beautiful concept.”

See, this is the thing. Easy as it might be to characterise Slash Fiction as the internet equivalent of a rowdy Hen Party in which women play at a kind of tit-for-tat objectification, it really comes down to something a bit more complex. Nobody, least of all me, is denying the appeal of the physical here (see earlier comments re: shirtless wrestling) but the real attraction of Slash lies in its willingness to tread where the mainstream generally won’t. There is still something thrillingly illicit about taking the bastions of conventional masculinity that populate our most influential cultural narratives, and putting them into taboo situations with all of that glorious masculinity intact. After all, the most interesting relationships are very often the forbidden ones.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that fantasy and science fiction are far and away the most frequently slashed up genres, given that their entire game plan involves exploring previously uncharted territory. In fact, we have Star Trek to thank for the earliest incarnation of this specific branch of fan appreciation, with Kirk/Spock stories first emerging in the seventies. I suppose in the end, space may be the final physical frontier, but the cultural and emotional ones we create for ourselves are universes in their own right. And anyway, slash is fun!

Read Aelfric’s Cat’s work, and other Slash Fiction at

This week, Kate is attempting to stay out of trouble...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

New Beginnings - Fear Itself: Book Of The Skull

For 2011 Marvel is giving us Fear Itself as its event arc. As both a main title and also a number of crossover stories, it is set to pan out across the whole Marvel Universe and (as per a recent interview with the Fear Itself panel) will set the tone for the next few years.

There have been many teasers in the recent weeks, with all of the Marvel titles displaying double page spreads of sneak shots into what is to come and so in anticipation of this we are presented with the Fear Itself prologue, Book of the Skull.

Written by Ed Brubaker and pencilled by Scot Eaton the story opens around Baron Zemo and Sin, the Red Skull’s daughter. This is also to set the scene for the whole arc as Sin is the main antagonist for the entire event. In what appears to be a fraught partnership the two are searching for a lair of the Red Skull to remove a very special item. Sin knows this to be the key to a phenomenal amount of power and like any good super villain she will stop at nothing. It’s short, it’s punchy but it puts a great deal in place for the reader, especially for those who have no idea of the characters involved.

This was the case entirely for me. My knowledge limit is that Baron Zemo was the original leader of the Thunderbolts and I had no idea who Sin really was, although the passing resemblance and the cover art did give things away. To this end it made for a slightly diluted opening, as I have no history and prior knowledge to base anything on. Flaw or strength, I’m not really sure yet as I have no preconceived ideas for the story to live up to.

What Brubaker does then is takes a step back in time to when the Red Skull was creating this scenario. I’m not going to spoil anything by giving the content away but you do witness the combination of Cap, Bucky and Namor in pursuit of the Red Skull. The characters personalities and actions really shine through and Brubaker has done a fantastic job - his pedigree shows. The Red Skull being the consummate Nazi complete with undying loyalty and devotion to the Fuhrer; Captain America and Bucky being the ever good duo and Namor with his resolute fighting spirit and temper.

The story holds you and draws you in but at the same time leaves rather large holes for you to peer into and question. It works well as this is simply a teaser in itself.

My criticism would be that no matter how well the story has been written, or how well it has been illustrated, I am still left with an overwhelming feeling that even though it has looked pretty and read well, I still have absolutely no idea of what is going on with the arc. I know that there is a huge tie in with Thor. I know that Odin will be brought into disrepute. I even know that we will see a new Ghost Rider (whether or not this is a part of the bigger whole I’m not sure) but all of this I gained from taking a look around the internet. I’ve found more of a buzz there than created in this issue. I still think it’s going to be big although I’m not sure it will compare to previous world breaking arcs like Civil War or M-Day, however I am very happy to wait and see and (hopefully) be proved wrong.

Matt Puddy knows no fear...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Webstore, no more

After a few months of uncertainty, I have been informed that our webstore solution providers - Brightscape Solutions Ltd - have gone into voluntary liquidation. The product we used to produce the webstore will no longer be supported.

For now, is down whilst DNS settings propagate. Once that is done, the URL will point to this blog. Moving forward this will form the main Proud Lion web presence. You will see new About and Contact pages have been added to this blog already.

Online retail will resume, but in a different format in the months to come. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, please continue to enjoy our blog articles and don't forget the Facebook page and Twitter account for regular updates!

Big Game Hunting - What in the heck is downtime anyway?

On one of my earlier articles, a colleague from a writing group I’m with asked a really great question – that is:

“How do you handle down time? Do you have ways to help yourself submerge once again into the realms of fantasy and gaming?”
(Raven Bower)

I've been thinking about this since the comment was posted, and the thing that I keep coming back to is this...

Unfortunately, or perhaps deliberately, the only time I get real "downtime" is when I’m forced into it. Gaming and writing have such an overlap for me that if I’m not gaming, I’m playing with my characters, in my head.

But yes, I’m about to make a very shameful admission. I play two of *the* most addictive games known to mankind. And I’m mostly unscathed by the experiences too.

The less said about World of Warcrack - Warcraft, sorry - the better, but it’s a good game for mindless fun. Eve was far too complex for me to enjoy for any length of time and caused a strange little disconnect in my head because I was immersed in writing a hard sci-fi book about space travel, so I’d keep randomly doing some dodgy quasi-fan fiction based on my book and Eve. It was at that point I stopped playing. A good rule of thumb? If you’re doing something in your book that your “in game” character did for a quest, chances are it wasn't your idea...

The other game I play, Magic The Gathering, is a very expensive hobby. Despite that I've got some gorgeous decks thanks to the various pieces of advice I've been given, and Magic is about the only time I’m actually so immersed in the game that I don’t pay attention to much else. In other games, I’ll check my phone, write snippets on my notepad... anything that breaks the downtime, but with Magic? Nothing other than kicking ass. Or being kicked from here to next week.

I’m not as addicted as others – we have one friend who is painting cards as a project and I know another friend who stays up all hours of the night grinding raid instances for that last bit of kit, but then my downtime is fiction writing as well. And I’m as addicted as you get to that!

D Kai Wilson-Viola isn’t looking for that last Mythic rare from the new M:TG set, nope...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Have you heard the one about the Irish man, the Elf and the blogger? No, me neither.

It was Race Week in Cheltenham this week. Unless you’re a local, all this is liable to mean to you is horses, posh people and pictures of the Royals in fancy hats on the TV news. However, if you’re a Cheltonian, then those two innocent little words ‘Race Week’ are likely to strike fear into your heart. When you live in Cheltenham, Race Week means five hour traffic jams, witnessing public urination and a bunch of footloose and fancy-free drunkards rampaging through your home town for five days every year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against drunks per se. When they’re not on your doorstep being loud and obnoxious, they can even be mildly entertaining. Which brings me, not so neatly, to the topic of this week’s missive of geekery: It’s time to talk about LARP. Which is to say Live Action Role Playing. Or dressing up and pretending to be a knight/lady/troll/goblin to make things absolutely explicit.

If you were forced to go to Sunday School/Church as a child, you’ll recognize this as the point where I shoehorn in the fact that something utterly unrelated is somehow a little bit like Jesus... or in this case how a bunch of shouty, gambling Irish men in flat caps are a little bit like a bunch of nerds sat around a field in fancy dress. Best to just go with it...

Like the Cheltenham Races, LARP is a hobby with a bad reputation. Be honest, unless you’re a LARPer yourself, you’re imagining fat men with beards dressed up like Legolas from Lord Of The Rings right now. And honestly, those stereotypes do exist. For many people, LARP is the zenith of geekiness, the passtime you seek out if World of Warcraft and collectible action figures are just too cool for you. I mean honestly, plain old garden variety table top roleplaying is bad enough, but the idea that you would want to do this in a costume? Madness!

Except, actually, it isn’t that mad. If you’re a regular visitor here, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of a fan of fancy dress. I’m also a bit of a fan of the "If you’re going to do something, then you may as well embrace it fully" philosophy. I hate Cheltenham Festival with a burning passion, but if someone held a gun to my head and forced me to attend then I’d be donning my flat cap and practicing my Irish accent with the best of them - it’s not casual racism if you’re doing it for fun! Equally, if I’m going to role play at all, then by choice I’m going to do it in an outfit, in the middle of a wood somewhere with a tavern and a fire and a bunch of people dressed up as ogres.

And as a hobby, LARP seems to attract people with a similar attitude. Far from a culture of life-limited, real world losers, the most visible string at LARP events I’ve been to is a hyper-masculine, testosterone-fueled hard-drinking one, where acceptable games involve throwing chairs at your friends and setting people on fire. This is largely done during the Out of Character portion of events, frequently in the wee small hours of the morning. It may not be particularly highbrow all the time, but it does imply a certain commitment to and passion for thrill seeking in the strangest of places.

Anyway, playing is good for you. Studies, apparently, say so. As adults it’s easy to be dismissive of activities like LARP as somehow the result of pathological Peter Pan complexes. But imaginative play is by no means only the domain of the under twelves and nor should it be. Creative, immersive escapism doesn’t mean you are dissatisfied with your real life. But it does mean that you have the intellectual resources to imagine different worlds and cultures and situations.

At any rate, given the choice between the race week pissheads and the ones in costume at LARP events, I’d choose the LARPers any day. They might be stapling each other to tables for a laugh the night before, but you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be saving the world the morning after...

This week Kate is looking out her drinking horn.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

New Beginnings - Venom #1

As a child, Christmas, birthdays and even some Easters were a treat because I found myself receiving a carefully wrapped package of some description. The wrapping paper would be bright, vibrant and would always catch your eye leaving you wondering as to what the contents could be filling you with anticipation.

This is how I felt as I got my hands on a copy of the new Venom series.

Joe Quesada opened by taking on the cover art for the first issue giving us the Venom we have come to know and love. We have the hulking mass, slathering tongue, wild eyes and drool a plenty. It is the iconic image that everyone recognises from the Eddie Brock era and also a few fleeting frames if you have read Spiderman #654.1. It’s smooth, shiny and well defined so I was a little taken aback when I opened the issue to read on. Tony Moore’s linework feels grainy and non-defined. In some frames where it is a distant image, characters are little more than shapes coloured in with a recognisable form to it - a personal let down.

So I turn to Remender’s storyline instead. Set in a war-torn Eastern European country we open with UN soldiers (in Stark designed equipment) fighting against a new and increasingly psychotic Jack O’Lantern. Enter into the fray, the new Venom. Leading with an initial narrative to establish a premise for new readers there are some very nice touches. The allusion towards Spidey’s age old, “With great power comes great responsibility,” is there if you read between the lines. More importantly Remender’s attention to the bigger picture has caught me. This new incarnation of Venom is finite. Flash can only wear the suit for a maximum of 48 hours and only on 20 occasions.

Even more frustrating is that all the time he is doing it he has to keep full control of his anger for fear of the symbiote taking over. This, above any storyline, is going to become a real driving force. We see undertones of it all the way through. We also have Flash using his brain to find new and innovative uses for the symbiote; another example of Remender using every opportunity of this new beginning.

This issue closes in quite an awkward way for me, but this is also very good. For years Flash has strived to be a hero and champion and throughout this issue he has - but only to be brought down a notch by his commanding officer and then at home too - essentially driving him back to his own demons.

Overall this is a fantastic story and Remender has done very well. My bone of contention is how it is presented and I really don’t get on with the artwork. This would be an absolute must have for me if it visually met the standards it has been scripted to. It has divided me so much that the childish excitement of the title has actually made way for grown up reason to seep in and I’m not sure how long I will follow this for. I would still recommend it though and look forward to the next issue.

Before you ask, no Matt Puddy has not read the first volume of the Walking Dead

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Big Game Hunting - The character mindset

One of the most difficult things when I game is getting into my character’s mindset. In part because - as I’ve mentioned in a previous article - it’s difficult to know whether your "a-ha" moment is because you've actually come up with an idea in character or whether your epiphany was from meta-gaming. I was chatting with the wise GM that I’m going to marry, and something else occurred to me.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I think gamers worry too much.

What I mean by this is getting into your character’s mindset might be as easy as thinking about what they’d do, or as complex as actually having some character notes to get you to where you need to be. Either way, once you’re in the game and thinking as your character, does it really matter whether it is you - the character - or you - the real you - that came up with the idea?

And at that point, my head started to hurt.

What I failed to take into account until just after that previous article was luck. Sometimes you can do something that might seem like "the hand of Gods" from the outside, but really it was just blind inspiration. Or you have to make something up because you weren’t expecting to roll a 1 on a D100 or a 99 at the other end of the spectrum. It’s the dumb luck element all over again.

What I did eventually figure out - after chasing my tail for a bit - was part of the reason I seem to think like this is I’m a writer. We detest “deus ex machina” with a passion, because it makes for really trite books. That said, in roleplaying games if you hit the big red button that fixes everything, it’s not always a bad thing – as long as you know there are consequences later. That’s something that I’ve been overlooking as a writer, as well as dumb luck. Because dumb luck is one of the few things that it’s very difficult to role-play. That kind of luck – we just don’t do it as writer – or gamers. And sometimes that’s what’s missing from the whole equation of, "Am I meta-gaming?"

Sometimes the answer is no – sometimes it’s just luck!

D Kai Wilson-Viola is never that lucky...

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Geek culture is like the TARDIS... bigger on the inside.

I write this surrounded by debris. There is a scalp of blond curly hair flung over the back of the sofa, and a shiny, black French Maid dress abandoned on the floor. There are two boots gazing lovingly at each other across the carpet and an array of shimmery sparkly make up balanced on every available surface.

Pop quiz Lion Lovers (that might’ve come out wrong) have I:
a) murdered the hired help
b) wandered onto the set of Showgirls 3
c) been living it up at Cheltenham’s premier alternative night out?

I’ll give you a clue… I don’t like Vegas and murder is just plain messy. I do however adore Judder, a club night held monthly at the Two Pigs. In a small town like Cheltenham, there are limited opportunities for indulging interests that go beyond the mainstream. Inevitably, the few places that do exist become focuses for communities that would otherwise remain disparate. Judder is one such place, and actually, Proud Lion is another.

Don’t get me wrong, the title for this blog is ‘The Reluctant Geek’ and I’m not for a single second suggesting that Judder isn’t primarily populated with achingly hip alternative types. What I am saying is that there is quite often a fair amount of sub-cultural crossover. It’s a radical suggestion I know, but often some of the most committed geeks are the ones you see on the second Friday of the month, bouncing enthusiastically to Pendulum, attired in the most fantastically elaborate costume, looking like they’re auditioning for a bit part in the next Blade movie.

Maybe it’s something to do with an indifference to the judgement of the mainstream that creates the over-lapping Venn diagram (see I can do maths references too!) On an average Judder night out I interact with role players, LARPers, comic book fanatics and sci-fi addicts, well as a whole bunch of strange and exotic folk who sometimes look scary to the uninitiated eye, but inevitably turn out to be lovely. Judder recognises the niche superiority of its audience too, with themes designed to send Cheltenham’s geek community into paroxysms of delight; past favourites have included Comic Book Judder, Post Apocalypse Judder and High School Movie Judder.

Aside from the obvious allure for an out and proud fancy dress addict like me, one of Judder’s key selling points is the sense of tolerance and mutual responsibility it fosters. If the majority of the world dismiss your interests as childish and pointless - or your dress sense and taste in music as aggressive and freakish - then you tend to go one of two ways. You either try to elevate your own particular corner of counter-culture by surrounding it with complex rules and punishing the outsiders who break them, or you go out of your way to create a community that is friendly and non-judgemental as a foil to the rest of the universe. Judder definitely takes the latter approach.

And actually, "fancy dress" is an inadequate term for some of the lengths that its collection of talented and creative attendees take costuming to. Whilst I tend to be of the "find a vaguely cute and appropriate dress and throw on a wig" school of fancy dress, some of the outfits people sashay through the door wearing could more appropriately be termed works of art than anything else. Being outside of the mainstream quite often means finding yourself surrounded by people who are infinitely more clever, nicer and more interesting than your average sticky dance-floored meat market.

In case anyone was wondering, the theme of last night’s event was Doctor Who Judder. You really haven’t lived until you’ve hit the dance floor surrounded by two Amy Ponds, a whole host of incarnations of the Doctor and a girl dressed as a TARDIS. The intersection of geek and alternative culture can be a beautiful thing...

One last point, if you’re still baffled about the relevance of the Maid outfit then you clearly need to cast your mind back to the Christmas special of 2007...

Man, I wish I hadn’t died horribly in a fire...

This week, Kate is a literary cactus.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

New Beginnings - 5 Ronin Wolverine

Throughout March, Marvel is giving us a 5 part weekly mini-series. Starting with Woverine, I present 5 Ronin.

At first glance this could be another Wolverine title, it has a pouncing clawed cover shot and it is filled with fighting and mystery, all set to a Japanese backdrop. There is a lone man travelling and following his own path. After all, a master-less Samurai is exactly that, the Ronin element that suits Logan to a tee. However, there is a twist...

Not knowing much about Peter Milligan, I did some research and found that Milligan has written before with Marvel in X-Force, as well as currently for Radical and Vertigo - plus he is committed to being the writer for next year’s Red Lantern Corp for DC. Most exciting! With such heavy ties to DC, both directly and indirectly, I am left wondering why Milligan was chosen. That is not to say his work is bad, but the situation is intriguing.

Basing the story in the year 1600, in Japan, around the time of the battle of Sekigahara has given rise to his unique plot. The opening of the issue establishes a lot of relevant information and sets the scene quickly and proficiently in a matter of pages, moving quickly into the story. A lot of this is narrative but this is perfect for the feel of the issue and suits Wolverine well. We follow the one-shot style story through getting the odd glimpse of Deadpool (although I could be wrong on this one too) and closely track the path of Wolverine as he uncovers this versions truth of his being.

As I said, this could easily just be another Wolverine title but now we see the twist. I’ve read the story twice, scanned a third time and flicked through a forth and I cannot see the trademark mutation of Wolverine anywhere! Milligan has created something that is about our heroes personality and not his traits or special skills, a lovely turn of events, and done in a subtle and unassuming way too.

The supporting artwork by Tomm Coker has me torn. On one hand I find it loose and rough with a lot of the detail being provided by what you cannot see or the use of shadow, a style I’m really not a fan of at all. It is supported by Daniel Freedman’s colouring which is simply what it is, a match to the artwork style, so once again I am left without specifically feeling one way or another. On the other hand I do find it has a style that fits fantastically to the feel and substance of the story, leaving me disliking the look but loving the idea.

The miniseries is a curious one. The following issues are Hulk, The Punisher, Psylocke and Deadpool, which now intrigue me to see how they are portrayed and explored. Again this will be more about who they are than what they are as I hope the non-powered route is still followed. I will be getting them as I want to know where they are taken, not necessarily for the story and most likely not for the artwork (although I have to say the variant covers do look lovely). I would say that these comics would be for the more open minded fan more than anyone as an interest piece as they don’t hold a longer story. An interesting approach which could have been done in a variety of ways but all the same this is not just another title.

Matt Puddy is not the only one excited about a Red Lantern Corps series

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Big Game Hunting - Gaming when you don’t feel like it

I’ve got a confession to make. Sometimes I feel like doing nothing – not even gaming. It’s one of those odd things, because gaming is my ‘downtime’ but sometimes, I just can’t get myself into the mind-set.

Over the last few years I’ve learned a couple of ways to deal with it – whether I’m sick, or tired, or too busy, and I thought I’d share some of the ideas, plus ask you guys how you handle it.

First though, I’ve found that understanding why I don’t want to game is critical – if it’s because I’m too tired then I try to conserve energy a little while before the games. If it’s because I’m too busy, then I take that as a sign I NEED to game. No ifs, no buts, I need to game. If I’m at the point where I’m tired and can’t game because I’m overwhelmed, that’s when I need my downtime most.

First rule of gaming in our household is if it’s anything more than a common cold and we’re going to be around a table with everyone, we don’t game. It might seem extreme sometimes, but I’d rather miss a week of gaming in our house than pass everything onto everyone. So far we’ve avoided sharing most versions of the flu and upset stomachs, but we do, unfortunately tend to pass colds around like currency sometimes.

Second rule in the house is if the GM or more than one of us ‘can’t be bothered’, there’s always the ‘get out of jail free’ option of silly games. The reason we’ve set that rule up is because when you game weekly for several years, you DO need a break. It’s sometimes difficult to recognise and I confess, sometimes I just need coaxed into a game to enjoy it, but if there’s more than one of us really not in the mood, it’s easier just to play a board game.

And the final rule? Know ourselves well enough to work out how to play the game to enjoy ourselves. If I’m distracted, that’s difficult, but if I put everything down and walk away for a couple of hours, I’m usually much better for it. It’s important to remember that though, when I’m really not in the mood - I’m too tired or I think I’m too busy. Gaming is good for your health – it’s a solid outlet that allows you to blow off some steam by shooting the head off Tyranids, or biting/staking/clubbing with a vampire. There’s nothing quite like it in the world, so the next time you’re not sure you want to play in a regular game, you should think again.

D Kai Wilson-Viola particularly enjoys tormenting poor Mexican vampires...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Reluctant Geek - My fantasies

OK, I admit it, it’s a bit of a sensationalist heading this week. Whilst I probably could write a few hundred (plus) words on my fantasies, I suspect they wouldn’t be fit for mainstream publication. And it would certainly make my next speeding ticket just plain awkward...

Fantasy is one of those words that comes with a whole bunch of baggage attached, whether it’s finding out more than you wanted to about your friend’s latex fetish, or watching Harry Potter fanatics dressed as witches and wizards queueing around the block for the chance to get their hands on the latest book a fraction of a second before the rest of the world.

And ‘fantasy’ as a genre remains kind of problematic for the mainstream. There is a certain uncomfortable sense that it’s a bit of an extension of childhood games of dress up and make believe, and as such not really an acceptable interest for grown ups. Which is perhaps why books like the Harry Potter franchise come in handily bland bindings for the adult reader who’s just a little bit ashamed of their Hogwartian penchant. Although, let’s face it, there are far better reasons to be ashamed of reading the Harry Potter books than the fact that they’re for kids!

My take on fantasy literature used to be the popular one. I thought writing about dragons and castles and knights was for writers who weren’t clever enough to make ‘real’ life engaging. I cringe utterly at this attitude now, since in lots of ways it’s harder to take settings which are totally removed from every day experiences and still create characters and scenarios that your readers connect to.

The real turning point in my fantasy conversion was the discovery of a series of books called A Song of Ice and Fire. Before them I’d read very little fantasy besides a bit of Tolkien, but in my head that was serious (and at some points so dry I nearly caught on fire) literature so it didn’t really count. There are four volumes in the so far unfinished series and it’s fair to say I was captivated from the first chapter of the first book. Set in a medieval-esque world where dynastic and personal interests play out against a back drop of pacey, take no prisoners brutality, I devoured them relentlessly. Seriously, my copy of A Game of Thrones has bite marks on it. It was the first time that I’d read fantasy that was truly relatable, despite its remote setting, with characters motivated by love and sex and power and greed just like the rest of us.

I knew I was truly hooked when I reached the fourth book in the series and discovered that the rest were as yet unwritten. All of a sudden I was one of those fans willing to shiveringly queue at five O'clock in the morning outside some anonymous bookstore. I scoured the web for news of forthcoming books and exclaimed delightedly when I discovered the board games and the novellas and the forthcoming TV adaptation. Unfortunately, George R. R. Martin is notorious for his literary reticence and unwillingness to be rushed and I found myself united with the rest of his Fire and Ice addicts in a scream of, "Just hurry up and write the rest of the damn thing! (Please Mr Martin sir.)"

Luckily it would be appear that Mr Martin is listening to this swell of frenzied reader anticipation since yesterday, finally, he announced a publication date for the next installment. I’m brushing off my sleeping bag and deciding whether to dress up as Daenarys or Arya as we speak.

Ultimately, I guess these days I believe that a bit of fantasy is good for the soul. Fantasy is imagination, transportation and travel to places beyond the wildest dreams of your average travel brochure. I’ve talked about the all too human search for meaning before and sometimes you have to look in some pretty unlikely places to find it, whether that’s the legendary halls of Camelot, the slopes of Mount Doom, or the furthest Northern reaches of Westeros. So maybe this blog has been about my fantasies after all...

This week, Kate Townshend knows they swapped the sangria!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

New Beginnings - Iron Man 2.0 #1

I am a fairly new Iron Man fan but even so I am aware of the back stories and history. A major component - or character should I say - is Colonel James Rhodes, Rhodey as he is affectionately known or War Machine as he is destructively known. Over time Rhodey has grown and developed and now we have a new beginning for him in Iron Man 2.0.

Written by Nick Spenser the story opens with a seemingly random piece of information, which falls into place a little later, simple and nice as it gives you a lightbulb moment. Spenser did a good job of setting the scene quickly and easily for bigger things.

Switching the scene, Spenser then goes on to explain the why of War Machine. The dynamic between Stark and Rhodes is still a jovial one, banter at worst but underlying sincerity at best, and this simple vehicle gives the issue its credibility. Working under the principle of “If it’s not me then it’ll be someone else in a Stark suit”, Rhodey becomes another Government lackey, unfortunately for him under someone who really doesn’t like him. The change in story works but there is also another change which I found tricky to swallow.

Here we have an issue with one central writer and four artists which on a 21 page issue seems excessive. With each perspective shift we are given a different style ranging from Larroca (who only did the cover but has done some great work in The Invincible Iron Man) to sections, which are lacking definition and feel almost messy. In what I can only describe as the watercolour equivalent of comic book art the changes, almost by the page, becomes confusing and detracts from the story.

I have liked comics in the past for the story even if the artwork isn’t the strongest. This is true to a degree here but for the wrong reasons. If you strip away the whistles and bells the premise that is alluded to is one from another genre I like, Asian horror, where we see (and I could be wrong as I am making a big assumption here) the body parts of a person influencing another.

I can see this being a relatively short arc as a result and wonder if this has simply been used to push War Machine back into the mainstream. The bigger picture is of course War Machine, the military tool, but how far can this really go? There is the 'rock' and 'hard place' feel for Rhodey when you consider his position between a boss who detests him and a team who resent him but we’ve been given nothing but for surface details and nothing to really digest.

The issue felt conflicted and in places contrived, as it fell in between scene setting and character embedding without fully committing to either enough to make you feel satisfied. Combined with the changing artwork I am left wondering about a great many things. Half of which have nothing to do with the comic.

For once I have to say that this is a comic that hasn’t grabbed me either visually or intellectually. I may flick through a copy from time to time out of curiosity but this one isn’t for me.

Matt Puddy was warned...