Digression Girl

Let's Talk Comic Books & Genre Media!

I’d like to start with that I started writing this post before the discussions regarding the future of Dungeons & Dragons during the D&D Celebration event, as well as the release of the Unearthed Arcana playtest supplement detailing a lot of new character options fit for the more fantastical styles of play and setting (notably the Spelljammer D&D-inSPACE!SPACE!SPACE! style of play, with sentient ooze beings, mantis-like four-armed insect humanoids, and ammosexual hippo-humanoids and the like). But, while this wasn’t on the table officially in some form when I started this post, it’s still very applicable.

One of the key foundations in role playing games and the games that have spawned off from them is the concept of the player character, or avatar in an online context. In many games, the player assumes the persona or role of a set character: the best example of this is Link from The Legend of Zelda series. Your play and choices drive the character’s actions. It is quite different from the generic, identity-free “player” that occupied any games: literally anyone could be controlling one side of the board or the input device that causes things to occur in a game.

But role playing games offer more than that; you can create much more of the look and persona, and even abilities, of the character crafted by your choice. This option is found in many computer and console games, but it’s more than just personalizing a token used in a game. It’s an idea all of its own. The character could be a creative interpretation or manifestation of the player themselves within the setting of the game; the character could be an alternate personality that the player wishes to explore; the character could be inspired by an idea or fictional characters, and serve as that player’s version of that idea. The possibilities are endless.

However, there are limits on top of those possibilities. First off, many games reward success with advancement and growing ability or power, and thus do not have players begin at the peak of their abilities. But, in addition to that, limits are often imposed on the types of characters that can be made, and furthermore, the potential they can fulfill. Many computer or console games enact these limits by simply having a player assume a fixed character, like Link or Mario or Lara Croft or Pac-Man or Batman or Spider-Man or so on. But role playing games do this in other fashions, and the fashion of how that was and is done has changed over the years.

Now, what I am referring to is a particular character system where there is a mix of selected and randomly generated defining attributes. This system defines all characters by numeral values in a set of attributes or abilities, like Strength, Intellect, Luck, Speed, and so on. Certain roles or professions, or as they are commonly known as, Classes, utilize one or more ability scores more than the others. In addition to this, the character is further defined by their identity: typically the variety of a species of a particular type of sentient being they are playing, whether it is a human, human-like, humanoid, or other sort of entity.

This is different from other games which simply provide a pool of points or ranked options or something along those lines, and the player picks and chooses from these resources to build a character. Often, such systems have ability scores, but they also have a broad array of skills and abilities that the player picks and chooses from. I am not going to focus on such systems, primarily because the default assumption is that the character is a human, and anything other than human is a choice or resource expenditure that takes away from selecting something else. So do I want to be a human adventurer who can use a little magic and a lot of weapons and armor, or do I want to be an elf, a dwarf, or a reptilian humanoid who has abilities beyond that of a human, but yet can’t attain the same level of skills as a human because how the game system works? These skill-based or point-based systems tend to either have humans as the only default option for players, or have that non-humanity serve as a distinguishing trait or ability to be invested in.

The class-based system that games like D&D uses and that games inspired by D&D adopt in some form or fashion have developed in a particular way. In the earliest days of the game, the initial choices for the classes were Fighting Man, Magic-User, and Cleric. Of these three, the Cleric was the last to be added, included as a sort of vampire-hunting holy warrior. And, in a way, the Cleric was the first hybrid class, mixing some fighting ability of the Fighting Man with the spellcasting of the Magic-User, though the magic focused on prayers and miracles rather than alchemical formulae, esoteric rites, eldritch powers, and foul enchantments gained through study, pacts, or inhumane lineage.

In addition, impacted by the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien, the racial choices for those first characters included Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits in addition to the standard humans. These options provided additional abilities to the character than humans did not. However, as a balancing mechanism for the game, the developers decreed that non-humans could only choose certain classes, and furthermore, they were limited in the number of levels they could attain in said class. Dwarves and Hobbits could only be Fighting Men, and Elves had to choose between being a Fighting Man or a Magic-User each game.

As classes were added to the game, so did the options increase somewhat for non-humans. Anyone could be a member of the new Thief class, though it was humans-only for later classes like Monks, Paladins, Assassins, and Druids.

The game received multiple revisions over the years, mainly due to much needed standardization and clarity of the rules, especially for organized play. However, in this process, some of the benefits and limitations of non-human characters were enshrined, and thus acted as a precedent for enshrining them in the games inspired by D&D. While the “basic” version of D&D did not modify the ability scores generated based on the race selected by the player, the races themselves became a type of class, and still had caps on the levels they could reach compared to the “human” characters.

However, in the first advanced version of the game, race and class were kept separate, but actual differences in the ability scores possible were noted through positive or negative modifiers based on the character’s race. Humans had no such modifiers, but the other races did: dwarves, elves, halflings (named so instead of hobbits due to legal actions by the Tolkien estate), gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs. Furthermore, each race had ability score minimums and maximums possible (as did classes have “minimum permissible scores”), and these limits were further delineated by gender; typically, female characters could not attain strength scores as high as those as male characters. And, as before, only humans could select any class available, assuming they met the ability score and alignment requirements, whereas non-humans were limited in the classes they could select and the maximum levels they could attain (though thieves remained available and limitless to all, for some reason).

Different classes advanced in ability at different rates; it took different classes a different number of experience points to advance to the next level of ability. One thing non-humans could do is advance in two or more certain classes at the same time, to replicate the ability of the original elves being both fighters and magic-users. However, the level limits remained, and all the experience points earned were split between the classes. Humans, on the other hand, could change their class at some point, as long as they exceeded the requirements of their own class and the new class. This system was meant to reinforce human dominance in the system (because otherwise the world would be overrun by long-lived elf spellcasters), but it also set a precedent for unfortunate unspoken connotations in the game.

You see, the race and class system in D&D perpetuated “norms” and stereotypes in the fantasy genre. Dwarves were tough, but not that agile or likable. Elves were graceful, perhaps smarter than usual, but more frail. Half-orcs were strong and tough, but often dumb and ugly as well. As the game developed, offshoots of the main non-human races came about, like the famous dark elves, who may have been meant to be photo-negative opposite versions of the elves, but their dark skin could not be ignored. The idea that these dark elves were matriarchal, inherently evil, and so on played heavily on the “Other” quality, because the game assumed the predominant demographic of players was young, male, and Caucasian.

The gender-based ability score ranges were abandoned with the second edition of the advanced game, but ability score modifiers and level limits remained. The third edition of the game eliminated the level limits of prior editions, but in some cases, the “excess” of certain racial abilities were balanced with “level adjustments,” a system that said a 1st level dark elf character was the equivalent to a 2nd level human or other “standard” sort of character.

It wasn’t until an update to the current fifth edition of the game that negative ability score modifiers were eliminated. And, in an effort to counter any unintentional effects of having a character be “Othered,” there is a work in progress to rebrand the term “race” with terms like “origin” or “heritage.” Rules became more flexible about what a character of a certain type had to start with, in order to account for those characters who do not fit the stereotypical mold. Now it’s easily mechanically possible to have a dwarf who’s more in tune with nature rather than smithing or mining, or an urban orc wizard who doesn’t even speak a word of the orc language. The game now has a custom origin option for players to build something not even provided by the current rules, such as the child of a dwarf and a gnome, an alien humanoid, or whatever the player’s imagination can fashion with this toolkit.

I like this new approach to characters in the game, because it allows for creativity. However, I am also of an age and era to remember when some players’ efforts to be creative also had an unspoken motive of having a mechanical advantage in the game. I would stress that this is a game which has multiple participants where everyone involved is trying to have fun, and it is not just for the fun or glory of one individual over all. I also applaud this approach because it is removing assumptions from who a character is. Just because a character is an elf doesn’t mean that they can use a bow like many other elves who are encountered. And, if you switch out “elf” with “Asian” and “a bow” with “martial arts,” you can see the slippery slope of thinking that’s being tackled in this change.

Relatability can be a huge influencer on our attitudes, actions, and thoughts. If we are capable of relating something or someone to something we know, we tend to do it. And this is both good and bad at the same time. While seeing tiger cubs playing like the big kittens they are makes us think of cute fuzzy kittens and thus harbor a desire to pet or snuggle said kittens, or even be motivated to donate to a charity helping tigers, we also may ignore the truth that those cute cubs are going to grow into massive wild carnivores that may and have seen us as potential prey. Conversely, if we’ve grown up seeing indigenous peoples depicted in media as violent, aggressive, superstitious, untrustworthy, fearsome, and all-around negatively, then it’s not surprising that some people’s unspoken inherent reaction to seeing a member of that group in real life be a harsh, fearful, or outright hostile one for the individual who was depicted in that manner.

This gets worse when combined with something like the Alignment system I discussed in a prior post, and labeling certain groups of sentient beings as “frequently” or “always” a set alignment. For metaphysical entities such as demons, angels, and such otherworldly beings, this is not a problem since that is the narrative role they play. However, for sentient beings of a region, culture, nation, or even planet, this falls into stereotypes. It leads to arguments over what certain groups would define as “good” or “evil” culturally or historically, and forgetting the focus on the cross-cultural, universal conceptions that all can agree on.

As to why some people may react seriously to the developments or changes made in a game, or even ask why people may consider things such as a game seriously, we have to consider what we, as people, do and think, whether for work or for fun, says about us as people. As much as we can credit an individual or an idea or object for inspiring some aspect of our identity, we should also consider how these seemingly inconsequential things shape us both consciously and unconsciously. How far of a stretch is it really to say that “orcs can’t be wizards” is that different from, say, “men can’t be nurses” for example? Ultimately, as the language works, and the thought processes with it, the formula is just “X can’t be Y,” and whatever terms one wishes to assign to X and Y is at the speaker’s discretion.

The key element in all of this is the elimination of arbitrary limitations on characters in a game, in a manner which, ideally, we should eliminate arbitrary limitations on others and ourselves, yet not in an all-or-nothing indiscriminate way.

(Despite what some may imagine or wish, we still need to breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and despite what some may secretly want, we shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal, abuse, or kill. I have to state this because, in my years of gaming, I’ve had semantic arguments with others who will use and abuse ideas and language to win an argument or achieve what they want in the game. And then there’s people in the real world who do this with real-world systems and rules like the legal system or belief systems.)

However, though these changes have happened in D&D, not everything that D&D has inspired has changed along with it. For instance, there may not be any varying experience level progression charts or level limits based on race and class in World of Warcraft, but there are permitted and restricted race and class combinations in the game. The game sort-of circumvents this with new variants of the familiar races in the game, but it still gives off the vibe of “only this sort of Orc can do this, while only that sort of Elf can do that.”

While the Warhammer universe, both fantasy and future, parodies and exaggerates tropes of each setting, there is the unfortunate side effects that come to be when the joke isn’t understood, or is taken as serious (or more likely, serious-not-serious-but-seriously-serious). With the game, it’s focused on armies and conflicts, but as a result this can be just as bad because the concept of sweeping generalizations over whole groups and cultures of folk is reinforced and normalized. It’s not any different from playing games of Axis and Allies that reinforces national stereotypes of Germans, Japanese, Russians, British, and Americans to almost absurd degrees.

While humor plays a significant role in such approaches, it must be said that things can be interpreted beyond the creator’s intent, and does so frequently. Figurative language is taken literally, or the humorous as serious, or so on. It may be the “fault” of the individual who misunderstood the context, but that “invalid” understanding isn’t immediately self-nullified; it can persist and pass on and serve as a nasty foundation for a harmful or malicious undercurrent in the real world. This may seem paradoxical to some, but it does occur. And, while some may defend such design elements as “harmless” and “just part of a game,” we must honestly consider those who don’t just see it that way; those who would see it as in indirect, unspoken, yet obvious dog-whistle validation of some horrid worldview they have and maintain.

Thus, the changes being made to the game are meant to remove the unintentionally disrespectful elements from the game, but preserve and promote those aspects in a new way. Rather than complaining or being outraged about the change, gamers should pause, look at what’s being done, objectively consider what things were like before without any value judgment labels, and truly consider if the change is going to make things worse instead of better beyond a gut reaction and a rallying defense of a cherished memory of an innocent or less-worldly past.

Besides, the new approach may allow players to create characters who are a quarter-human, quarter-elf, quarter-demon, and quarter-dragon in heritage who come from a long-ruling noble family, but that character will die just as quick as any other character after a few botched death saving throws, necessitating the need for the remaining party members to expend a ton of resources to bring the slain character to life or, quite possibly, have the player make another character and move on.

The short answer: because it’s actually pretty tough to do evil well. Most people end up being “Evil.” (More on that below.)

Evil done well:

(Gul Dukat, “Deep Space Nine”) – If the guy who ran Auschwitz believed himself to be the ‘kinder, gentler’ administrator who prided himself on reducing deaths by 20% during his tenure, and wanted to be loved as an overlord. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he then becomes the footsoldier of the Jewish Devil and swears to kill every Jew. But between the start and end of this character’s journey, we see him as a father, a leader, a patriot, and an insidiously evil manipulator who deserved his final end.

(Crais and Scorpius, “Farscape”) – Crais, the man Captain Ahab would be if he lived in space and someone had killed his brother, willing to kill his own subordinates to keep chasing John Chrichton, his ‘whale’.

And Scorpius… the ultimate, “The Ends Justify the Means” evil mad scientist who has no problems with murder, torture, making/using weapons of mass destruction, or genocide, as long as it’s pointed the right direction.

All three of these characters are evil characters that are fan favorites and end up working together with the heroes in particular situations when common interests align. They have a lot of depth, and getting these characters from the page to the screen took a lot of hard work, incredible acting, and a lot of trust between the performers… which are all the same tools needed at the table.


What is evil?

Definition – Evil: profoundly immoral and wicked.

Evil is not something that tends to play well with others. D&D is a group game that is between the Dungeon Master and the Players; there has to be cooperation between all parties involved to have a game.

The problem with many players trying to play evil characters, is that true evil doesn’t lend itself to cooperation.

For instance, a classic bar for morality would be something like, “The Ten Commandments” from Judaism/Christianity. So being immoral would be doing the opposite of these commands.

So what does a player do in a campaign to be “immoral”? Probably lie, cheat, steal, and maybe torture or kill. And to be frank, that makes many people uncomfortable to watch, and it’s worse when the target of these acts can be the other PC’s.

This is a major reason why there are three alignments for evil, including “Lawful Evil” in D&D. LE in particular helps define someone who is okay with doing immoral things as long as they are justified by law or order. Sometimes this makes a shared road, (law and order) that can be shared with the good guys of a team.

That doesn’t make the whole problem better, by the way, it just gives more wiggle room for an evil character not to butt heads with the party quite so much. “I wouldn’t steal from you or kill you because we’re on the same side. But I’ll string up my enemies and dance in their skins because they are my enemies, and that’s how our law says we treat them!”


Now, before everyone starts loading up the comments area with “But!” and “IF!” statements on how they played an evil character in their campaign and it was totally awesome, let me remind you that I’m talking in general. A lot of people DO NOT play evil well, because they play “Evil”.

“Evil” (in quotes, I told you I’d come back to this) is a player’s preconceived idea of what they want their evil character to be. Some people call this “Emo”, or “Edgelord”, or any number of other things, but the key here is that it’s an idealized version of what evil is or supposed to be, and being played in one of three ways: a caricature of evil, (the mustache twirling villain),  the chaos craver, (the person who just wants permission to do whatever they want, whenever they want, without morality being an issue), or the selfish jerk, who basically is playing only to gratify themselves, even at the expense of the other players.

They have some image in their mind of how “Evil” will be really cool, probably edgy, and fun… for them. What they aren’t usually thinking about is how “Evil” could possibly wreak havoc when put in a pool with the other characters in the party and told to swim as a team.

No player wants to get stabbed in the back by a fellow player, because it was in their “Evil” nature to do so. No one really wants to RP their character’s rape or torture, either, for that matter. Heck, even just confronting another player over an in-game stolen wallet might be more than some players want to deal with!

It takes a lot of trust to get a good game rolling, and nothing breaks down that trust faster than “Evil” characters who the other players can’t trust in or out of character.

The hardest part about playing an evil character well is that you actually need to start by being the most unselfish person at the table. You need to be willing to find out the boundaries of the game and the players from everyone playing with you, know what lines not to cross, and do a lot of “yes, and…” from improvisation games to keep your player a part of their action, instead of treating them like they’re all part of your story.


I don’t blame any DM for banning… or at least having a VERY STRONG SAY… when it comes to evil characters.

Evil campaigns can be fun; one-shots of thieves, murderers, or mad wizards can be a riot, but there needs to be a lot of trust between the players and the DM to pull it off.

It’s hard to generate that with evil characters due to the nature of evil. And it’s even harder when someone is trying to be “Evil”, the glorified version of evil that they have in their heads that might conflict in major ways with everyone else.

In the end, it’s up to the DM and players on how to do evil PC’s. With smart decisions, good communication, and most importantly, BOUNDARIES, it can be really awesome. But it’s a headache you have to plan for, and some DM’s don’t want to go through the extra legwork.

Personally… I play Paladins, and I’ve seen the same argument against Paladins over being “Lawful Stupid”. I get it. I’d still rather see Paladins at the table, but that’s because there’s a difference between outlawing a CLASS from the table and an ALIGNMENT. But that’s an answer for another day.

“Nuance” is thrown around a lot in critiques, but do you actually know what it is? What it means? How it looks in characters? It’s something we all seem to say that we want, but do we really know what we’re asking for? Let’s dive in!

For this, I’m using characters from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” for reference. Why? Well, it’s a fictional world with space aliens and science fiction, but was also home to a lot of great characters. The setting’s backdrop was using Cardassians, (Star Trek’s version of Nazi’s), and Bajorans, (Star Trek’s version of Jews) set in a time directly after a mass occupation/extermination of Bajoran’s under Cardassian rule. The show dives deeply into politics, religion, faith, family, and more; and instead of just saying, “all Nazi’s are evil”, the show prefers to show you the different characters, their points of view, and walk you through a story. At the end, it’s usually up to the audience to decide how they feel about the characters involved.


Nuance: a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.

In performance terms, especially acting, we usually say a performer is trying to act with more than one note: just like hearing the “The Star Spangled Banner” played only with the C note would be boring beyond belief, so too are most characters who don’t have any nuance.

Fictional Characters with nuance, like the ones I pictured from Deep Space Nine, will…

  1. They have virtues and vices – This one has to top the list. The character is going to have a mix of things they do well, things they do poorly, character virtues and character flaws, all of which get presented. For example, Captain Benjamin Sisko is a monogamous husband, widower, father, Starfleet leader, and at the start of the series, becomes a spiritual part of the Bajoran religion, where he’s looked at as a spiritual leader or advisor. But Sisko isn’t perfect; he can hold a grude, he has a bit of a temper, and also is just as capable of being an accomplice to some morally dubious acts as the rest of us.
  2. They will learn, change, and grow – this is what develops that character’s arc. Usually poor, unnuanced characters feel very unsatisfying because they don’t learn, change, or grow during the story. For many protagonists, this is the crux of the “Hero’s Journey”. Even antagonists and villains should learn, change, and grow through the story if you want them to be dynamic, exciting, and alive for the readers. Characters like Kira have massive story arcs that put her at odds with her commanding officer, the head of the Bajoran faith, and Cardassian officers. Kira Nerys is one of my favorite female characters of all time because Nana Visitor and the writing team gave her lots of layers; any scene with Sisko she’s talking to her commanding officer, a friend, a Starfleet representative, AND a major part of her religion! That’s a lot of fuel for the actress to play with, and she runs with it.
  3. Use subtext – What they say may cover a deeper meaning. The character of Garak is the master of subtext, both subtle and non-subtle. In fact, much of his character is built around the craft of masterfully lying, to such an extent that he may even try to tell you the truth within the lie he’s telling.
  4. Play two notes simultaneously – Dukat is infamous as basically the commander of a fictional Auschwitz, but he sees himself as a hero; the actor plays both notes masterfully and simultaneously. He justifies his evil actions with selfishness, denial, patriotism, and more.
  5. Vary their cadence – Avery Brooks, who played Sisko, has one of the strangest speaking and breathing cadences I’ve ever heard out of an actor… but somehow, it works for Sisko. Andrew Robinson, who plays Garak, is the master of an interrupted cadence; he starts his phrases fast and curt, and then mellows out in the later parts of his sentences.
    1. In other words, they way the characters talk isn’t monotone, and even beyond that, has a particular flavor to it. You can read the text on the page WITHOUT seeing the character’s name and still know who the line belongs to.
  6. Are emotionally colorful: they feel a lot in any given moment – They aren’t just angry all the time or sad all the time; in fact, they can vary between many emotions in the time it takes to snap your fingers.
  7. And this one is my opinion, but I truly believe that nuanced characters should end up having an impact on the characters around them, and BE impacted by the characters around them! It’s a two-way street!
So what is nuance? Well, nuance is a way to describe adding emotional layers to a character. Instead of, “this guy is evil! Always evil! And ONLY evil!” like a cartoonish caricature, adding nuance to a character gives a character more range and depth. What does it look like when the man in charge of Auschwitz is discovered to have slept around with the inmates repeatedly and actually has a half-Jewish daughter he cares about deeply? What impact does this have on the character? What does it say about them as a person? How does the actor in Marc Alaimo, the actor playing Gul Dukat, perform a scene simultaneously hating the Bajorans but loving his half-Bajoran daughter?
And even just being an “evil” bad guy can have a lot of nuance. Marc Alaimo could teach a master class on acting with the work he did as Gul Dukat, and layering his performances. He’s charming, arrogant, ruthless, condescending, and hilarious… sometimes all in the same sentence.
In the end, nuance works for a lot of characters, but it takes some really good work on the part of the writers, and in the case of stage, TV, and film, on the part of the performers to pull it off well.

 

 

 

You’re going to know when a character is lacking nuance and falling flat pretty fast. They play very few notes, what they do doesn’t seem to vary much or make sense.

  • They won’t have a lot to say or do that has meaning to themselves or others
  • The plot moves the character, and they are merely reacting.
  • You don’t feel like the character helps push or motivate the characters around them or move the plot forward
  • They seem bland, uninteresting, and always doing/repeating the same things
  • They are given enormous amounts of exposition from the author and the characters in the writing to describe how “awesome” the character is, but you’re not actually SHOWN how that character is awesome.

We see flat, boring characters all the time. They’re usually in books, TV shows, and movies we find forgettable. The key to really good nuanced characters is to give them depth: how does this character feel? What’s their Point of View? What do they need? What are they willing to do to get it? What are their virtues? What are their vices? And how does all of this play into how they talk, walk, and act around others?

If you do the legwork, and let it be honest to the plot, setting, and character notes, you should end up with a pretty decent character.

Amazon.com: Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Confession: 9781563895500: Kurt Busiek, Brent Eric Anderson, Will Blyberg, Neil Gaiman, Alex Sinclair, John Roshell: Books

There are very few stories I would say are “must-reads” when it comes to comics. But when it comes to recommendations, my first two are usually, “A Death in the Family” and “A Lonely Place of Dying”, which are both Batman stories, and shockingly, both about Robin, Batman’s partner. “A Death in the Family” is the story of the first major, lasting death in the Bat-Family: that of Jason Todd, the second Robin. It’s one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve ever read and I got to read it as it came out when I was a kid. A couple years later, “A Lonely Place of Dying” came out as a crossover story for Batman that dealt with introducing a new Robin: Timothy Drake. In the first story, we see the deconstruction of the hero; the angry 80’s hero who is deeply flawed ends up biting off more than he can chew and ends up paying the price for his mistakes, despite showing at his core that he was a hero to the end. The second story is a reconstruction of Robin as a character; it’s about why Robin is a symbol and why that symbol is so important to the DC universe and to Batman. But most importantly, it’s a reconstruction for the audience to remind us why the character matters and why Tim Drake was going to be different from Jason Todd.

That brings us to Astro City. Kurt Busiek and the team on Astro City dove deep into DC, Marvel, and other classic comic inspirations when creating their own universe: Astro City. Many of the characters in Astro City feel like analogues for characters like the Fantastic Four in regards to the Furst Family, The Astro City Irregulars to DC’s Outsiders, or in the case of “Confession”, the dynamic duo of Batman and Robin now being portrayed by two new characters: The Confessor and Altar Boy.

What’s great about Astro City is that the story isn’t bound by 40+ years of canon, or even audience expectations of who these characters are supposed to be. And the story is done as a post-modern deconstruction of what Batman and Robin are as a team and as heroes, and it’s a deconstruction to reconstruction done right!

Astro City Confession Hardcover New Edition

 

My biggest problem with most post-modernism in comics is that everyone wants to be Frank Miller when he wrote, “The Dark Knight Returns”; it’s a process of breaking down a character to their grittiest, nastiest elements, and then telling a grim-dark story. However, GREAT writers will build something back up in its place. Frank Miller’s best works were with editors who understood this, like Denny O’Neil, who was the editor for the Batman & Robin stories I mentioned above and “The Dark Knight Returns”. Good deconstruction is about breaking all the elements down to their basic building blocks so you can see how each piece works; then you put it back together: this way, the audience has a deeper appreciation for how good stories and good characters are built.

“Confession” is such a story. To break this dynamic of “Batman & Robin” down, this story is told through the eyes of the junior partner, Brian Kinney, who comes to Astro City with dreams of becoming a super hero. He’s from a rinky-dink town, and his father, who was a poor doctor in that town, recently died. This lights a fire in Kinney’s stomach to not die nameless, penniless, and alone, like his father. Instead, he wants to do something significant and important with his life.

This begins the hero’s journey of, “The Boy Learns a Lesson“, a classic story writing technique. That’s an important technique because it opens a door to reconstruction; once the problems in the early parts of the story are identified, it puts the character in crisis and they have to make a choice based on their virtues or vices on how to overcome that challenge. We follow Brian on his journey to getting started in Astro City, and eventually finding a mentor in the form of “The Confessor”, and night-time hero who solves crimes and bring criminals to justice with his two fists and deductive reasoning.

But it’s the journey that is important here, because along the way, Brian is challenged on his beliefs:  “What is a hero? What makes a person heroic, and what are they obligated to do with that knowledge? What is the reality of being hero in terms of self-sacrifice vs. glory, and helping people vs. helping yourself?”

Kurt Busiek's Astro City Vol. II: Confession: 9781887279734: Amazon.com: Books

 

Thankfully, Brian’s answers to these questions leads to a terrific reconstruction of the hero and a significant milestone in the hero’s journey. It’s a page turner to the end, but it’s driven by Brian’s growth as a character as first has to unlearn his preconceptions about heroism and then rebuild them through being put through hard situations and being asked hard questions by his new mentor.

I can’t talk too much about it without spoiling the terrific plot and some of the big reveals. Plus, I really want you to dig in to the story, which despite having a big backdrop, is deeply personal. Also, as you can see from some of the art here by Alex Ross and other artists, it’s an inspiring world and set of characters that are best met on the page.

Overall, “Confession” is the story of a boy becoming a man, and a man becoming a hero. It’s about learning how to appreciate the heroes around us and deconstructing what it is that actually makes a hero so that we can recognize these pieces in those around us.

It’s amazing to me that “Confession” might be one of the best Batman & Robin stories ever written, and it doesn’t star Batman or Robin; however, there is something amazing that was created back in the 40’s with Batman and Robin that is so iconic we take it for granted, and “Confession” is a story that helps us remember why the Dynamic Duo… and Confessor and Altar Boy… are so important for those of us who love good stories.

You can create characters as fantastic, strange, and unrelatable as you want! This is the great thing about writing; there are no hard-and-fast rules.

In fact, making an UN-relatable character can help emphasize the relatable characteristics in your other characters.


It is 100% okay to make unrelatable characters, especially if they are antagonists or straight-up villains.

When it comes to protagonists though, you do have be a lot more careful, since most audiences in almost every format want to have something to root for; so with a protagonist, even if they are a horrible human being, you probably want to add in at least one relatable feature.

Here’s the thing: you won’t know what is going to be relatable to your audience’s subjective tastes. You can always throw in fairly universal human experiences like love, hate, humor, and targeting virtues like honor, trust, patience, kindness, generosity, and selflessness. These are things, when written into characters, are typically understood by almost anyone who has ever been human. You can even throw these into villains to make them relatable.

But that doesn’t mean you have to.

Because when it comes to anyone on the page? You have the freedom to do what you want as a writer.

 

It’s YOUR story if you’re the writer! If you want to have characters that are alien, inhuman, machine, or unknowable, that is your choice. Embrace it! Just like the number zero still has a place of value in our number system, so too do unrelatable character. Having one character trying to make sense of something completely unknowable to them can provide tension, drama, and mystery to your story. Some of the best antagonists of all time were unrelatable in terms of our human experience to theirs; if you don’t believe me, feel free to read some Lovecraft.

You can also choose to make your character unrelatable up to a certain point in the story, at which point, you unveil the man behind the curtain and give the reader/viewer the reasons behind ‘why’ they are doing whatever you’re having them do. Even then, it’s still a choice of whether you want their motivation to ring close to what humans might feel, or if you want it to be something foreign.

Last but not least, keep in mind that unrelatable characters can sometimes make the best foils for your heroes. If done purposefully and well, can help emphasize the humanity and relatable qualities in your protagonist!!!

 

Since the story has a broad setting but an intensely personal dynamic to dive deeply into, it’s more a relational piece than big action; because of that, you need some high-power talent! If you haven’t read the story, it’s an exploration of heroes through the eyes of a “Robin”, a junior partner to a main hero. It’s a fantastic story, and one that actually uses post-modernism well by asking good questions and then answering them: what defines a hero? What are those qualities? And once we know what makes a hero, what do we decide to do for ourselves with that knowledge?

Since we’re VERY used to Batman films, my first Astro City film would focus on doing what we haven’t seen from caped crusader films: exploring a universe through the eyes of the “sidekick” as he comes of age and learns an important lesson.

So the characters and cast:

Brian Kinney/Altar Boy: Timothy Chalamet

I’m not actually a fan of Timothee Chalamet. BUT… he is the spitting image of Brian Kinney, aka, Altar Boy. I mean, seriously: he could walk in and start playing the role immediately. I haven’t seen much of his work, but if he can actually pull of Paul Atreides, than he has got the stuff for Altar Boy! One of the keys to the character is that he has to look like someone you think you could pick on, right before kicks the holy hell out of you. At the same time, he also needs to portray a wide range of emotions, not all of them positive. So an actor who can convincingly show how to be heroic in public and have a personal crisis partway through the film necessitates an actor who is more than just a pretty face.

I’d much prefer a young actor with a lot of martial arts training who has a bit more muscle on him, but until I can think of one, Timothee will do.

The Confessor: Jason Issacs

The senior hero, the “Batman” for Astro City, if you will. I love the Confessor’s design and appreciate that under the mask, the character isn’t some young, buff 20-something sprout. Without spoiling anything, we find out that the Confessor was initially an immigrant to Astro City and was a clergyman, so it works for him to be older and have an accent.

So to play him, I love Jason Isaacs for the role. He’s mature, distinguished, has a killer voice, and since the costumed character wears a mask, Isaacs doesn’t have to do a ton of martial arts. A stunt double can be subbed in.

Crackerjack: Ryan Reynolds

It’s a short list. Crackerjack is in his prime during this storyline, but coming up in later ones, will be approaching retirement. Reynolds is a great choice because he can do the humor for the role for “Confessions”, and then have the gravitas for a much bigger part of a future storyline of the character being forced into retirement.

Jack-In-The-Box: Denzel Washington/Michael B. Jordan

To me, this is a no-brainer. Denzel is the man: I’ve enjoyed seeing him in films since I was a kid, and he already is a hero in my book! He’s the only actor I’d want to be Jack in “Confessions”, because his very next appearance is a “passing of the torch” story to a successor, played by Michael B. Jordan.

Michael is an incredible talent who has already played super heroes before, and he’s locked down incredibly physical roles that entailed some drama. He’s the perfect candidate to pick up the torch and run with it.

Glue-Gun: Nathan Fillion

It’s a cameo role, what can I say? Fillion has his own series to do, (The Rookie) where he’s the good guy; so a cameo is likely all he could fit.

That said, I think he’d be perfect for the role of Glue Gun, the super-villain who wants to be taken seriously but never is, especially after getting his %^& knocked out by a bus boy in a room full of super heroes.

Mordecai Chalk: Stephen Lang

This one was ridiculously easy. It’s not a huge role, but Lang will crush it anyway.

Gunslinger: Diego Luna


Anyway, that’s off the top of my head. This gets way too long otherwise.

I’d try to stick as closely to Kurt Busiek’s story as much as possible; I think Confession would be an awesome, small introduction into the world of Astro City through the eyes of someone deciding to become a superhero. An unlike a lot of films that focus in on “Batman”, this one focuses on the partner. It’s a fantastic story dealing themes of honor, selflessness, heroism, and of course, fatherhood, since that’s an inciting factor for the whole story.

But most important is the ending message: even after you’ve broken down heroes and seen what’s beneath the mask, great stories, (and true heroes) look to build something back up. Brian Kinney’s journey is all about deconstructing heroes to finally appreciate what it takes to be one, and then choosing to take the hard road himself.

Continuing our talk on writing, let’s talk a little about the fear of writing into a “trope”, which is typically a writing cliché. The ones people worry about the most typically have negative connotations, but to be a good writer, you have to understand all your tools in the toolbox, even the tropes.

Are there any that are off limits? None, actually. It’s all about how you manage them.

Here’s the thing about writing; execution is everything. Let’s take a look at three different negative tropes from TV Tropes.org; you’ve very likely heard these referenced before!

  • The Chosen One [1]
  • The Mary Sue, [2]/The Gary Stu/Marty Stu [3]
  • The Jerkass [4]

You can use the links at the bottom to check these out in detail. But, if you want the quick version: the Chosen One is essentially a “child of destiny”, the Mary Sue is typically an author insert/character of overwhelming importance even beyond the boundaries of the setting’s believability, and the Jerkass is someone who is so completely obnoxious that it is unbelievable anyone would willingly interact with them.

Now all three of these are fixed in stories where, “the Boy Learns a Lesson”; this is a common story arc where a character is introduced, we see the problem they have, and then the story addresses solving that problem. Along the way, the character is usually confronted with their defect, and then they must overcome it, learning a new value long the way and changing afterwards.

So even though all three of these are typically tropes to avoid, they can all be used in a really good story as a starting place if the end goal is point out that these are flaws and end them in a place where they have learned a lesson.


Let’s look at these three again, but let’s apply the, “Boy learns a lesson” writing theme:

The Chosen One – (using a touch of deconstruction/reconstruction)

Character A is chosen by an alien force to be the guardian of their special power, “The Power”. Taken from Earth and into their war, Character A believes that because he was chosen, he must have some special skill, knowledge, or insight that makes him their champion. However, he badly loses his first engagement, and finds the only reason he was chosen wasn’t because he was special, it was because the alien force needed a scapegoat for why they would have to surrender. Emotionally defeated, Character A has to team up with Alien Character B, C, D, and E, and learn what power really is. Through them, he learns what it means to inspire people and be a leader. He finds that “The Power” is not meant for one chosen person, and he shares it with the alien force. This rallies them to win, and Character A learns that even though he himself wasn’t some child of prophecy, he did find a power we can all have in ourselves: the power to believe in other people.

The Mary Sue – (using a Monkey’s Paw derivative)

Character A and Character B are two teenage Sophmores who accidentally crash Character A’s father’s car into a ditch. They are towed by “Jeanie’s towing”; while at the tow shop, Jeanie A, the tow truck driver and Jeanie B, the clerk at the desk, reveal that they are actual “Genies”, and give each girl a chance to make a wish; Character A wishes to be a literal “Mary Sue”: she wishes that she was perfect and that the world revolved around her. Character B wishes simply that she can meet a boy who’d be a good boyfriend; no more, no less. The Jeanies grant the wishes: with a snap of their fingers, Character A is now the most incredible person in the world, and Character B meets a guy on the bus ride home and they hit it off.

Fast forward a few years: Character A has won the Nobel Prize, every science award, and won the Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest so many times that they had re-write the rules so that there could be two winners each year. Character B is in college with her boyfriend, both struggling to get degrees but insanely happy.

Character A discovers that her life is quickly becoming devoid of joy as everyone… EVERYONE… starts to depend on her for the answers to EVERYTHING. The more people she meets and helps, the more people become dependent on her to give them the answers to whatever their problem is. After a while, it feels like everyone she meets is like a toy or robot; they seem to lose their autonomy, capability, and self-initiative around her because the universe bends to make her the important person in any situation. Every guy Character A meets instantly falls in love with her to the extent that they stop being special regarding who they were in order to continually try to be with her. They walk away from their careers in sports, science, etc. to be the loving, supporting boyfriend, which ends up making them all uninteresting, since by design of her wish, SHE is always the most interesting person. As her star shines brighter, she realizes that it makes everyone else’s star dimmer.

To figure these feelings out, she talks to Character B again, and finds herself insanely jealous of B because despite not having the life Character A has, Character B has a boyfriend who actually loves her… flaws and all. In fact, it’s the fact that they are IMPERFECT that is the engine that drives them to need each other. Character A goes back to the Genies and reverses her wish, looking to make herself imperfect so she can actually be happy. The Jeanies grant her wish and make her imperfect again. On the ride home, she crashes her car, (she was never a good driver, and it’s a sign she’s now “normal” again), and when she gets home, gets into an argument with her boyfriend, who now doesn’t continually bend to her wishes. Despite being in an argument, she finally starts to feel happy.

The Jerkass – (using the Badguy as the protagonist)

Character A is the best High School wrestler there is Ohio, and possibly the nation. Any time, any where, he will wrestle anyone into the ground. He comes from a line of wrestlers of outstanding pedigree, and the sky is the limit. His attitude has become dynastic; he believes that some people were born to win, and others are just lost causes. Despite being the best wrestler around, people hate him: he has a terrible attitude, he treats his teammates like they are beneath him, but coaches fight to keep him around, and his teammates, (though hating his attitude), can’t deny his absolute skill and learn a lot from having him on the team.

However, in one of the early meets, one of the poorest schools with barely a dime to their wrestling program puts a kid, Character B, with equipment held together with duct tape and faith out on the mat, and the kid barely squeaks out a win. Character A mocks B ruthlessly on his lack of skill, his program, and his inferior everything. Character B calls Character A out: he tells him he will beat him at State.

Character A, finds this to get under his skin. He trains his ass off, looking to take his already dominant skills to the next level. He doesn’t just want to beat Character B, he want’s to embarrass him for even suggesting that he could rise above his station.

State Championship comes around and Character A finds himself paired off against B. But B looks transformed. It’s not that he’s bigger, stronger, or faster, it’s that’s he somehow absorbed the game by leaps and bounds, adding what feels like years of wrestling experience in only a couple short months. A, for the first time ever, doubts his own abilities, and ends up losing the match to B. Instead of railing on him though, B helps him up and gives him support through the loss when A’s teammates and coaches all turn their backs.

The loss, (his only one ever), makes him re-evaluate his outlook on winning and on training. That summer, at the know-nothing school, Character B is shocked when he sees Character A get dropped off and politely ask to join in their practice to see what they do and find out how to get better.


Hopefully, you enjoyed this, and also caught the point. With the right writing tools, you can take something like a trope and turn it into something that can be a compelling story.

Don’t be afraid of tropes. You’re going to write some by accident anyway, and there’s a good chance you’ll write many on purpose, too. The point is that if you focus on writing a good story and understand what makes for a good story, you can take a well-known trope and turn it on its head!

I’m more afraid of the writers who lack self-awareness and write the trope like the Mary Sue by accident, or worse, on purpose thinking it is good. Falling into that trap is something every writer contends with. But for the most part, if you use a good editor and stay self-aware of what it is you’re writing and why, and choose the right story arc tool, you can write confidently and without fear!

 

Footnotes
[1] The Chosen One – TV Tropes
[2] Mary Sue – TV Tropes
[3] Marty Stu – TV Tropes
[4] Jerkass – TV Tropes

Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons have been around for many years, and quite a few were created to cover a genre or style of play that the edition of D&D out at the time did not cover, while others created a new system that better suited their view of something “better.” However, despite all of this, there arevery few franchises beyond D&D that have crossed over into multiple forms of media.

The number of novels set in a D&D setting like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance is significant. But then again, the expansion of D&D into toys, comic books, cartoons, movies, computer and arcade games, and so on speaks significantly of the cultural impact this simple RPG has had on popular culture. While the influences on D&D have made significant splashes culturally as well, I would argue that D&D is a historical milestone that has impacted and shaped the modern world more than some may realize.

Some of the first massive multiplayer online role playing games were based on or inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. The Ultima series of computer games were the result of a young Richard Garriott’s initial attempt to create a D&D-like computer game, and then making a more commercially-minded effort. That game led to the eventual creation of MMORPGs so as to better replicate the tabletop gaming experience through a computer game. In a similar vein, the Wizardry franchise, along with the Ultima franchise, helped spawn the creation and popularity of RPG games in Japan.

Even works established well before D&D have benefitted from the game; would the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films have been made, much less popularized, without the influence of games and media influenced by D&D? Would Conan the Barbarian have potentially made it on the silver screen if the audience wasn’t tuned in to fantasy adventures through things such as D&D?

To be fair, I would argue everything collectively benefitted from the presence of the other: a rising tide lifts all boats, if you will. But since its debut, D&D has served as the common connective tissue amidst all of this. Consider the following points:

  • World of Warcraft has clear influence from D&D, as well as other works inspired by D&D. The original Warcraft game, it could be argued, had significant influence from miniatures games like Warhammer Fantasy. And, if you will, Warhammer Fantasy was sort of taking D&D back to its miniature wargaming roots, in a fashion.
  • Not including the actual licensed D&D computer RPGs, like the Gold Box games (Pool of Radiance, etc.), Baldur’s Gate series, and the like, several other games are clearly inspired by D&D directly or second-hand: the Bard’s Tale series, the Ultima series, the Wizardry series, the Might & Magic series, SSI games like Wizard’s Crown, as well as games like Dragon’s Quest, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda.
  • DC Comics initially published the licensed comics for D&D, including titles Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, and the Dragonlance comics during the 1980’s.
  • While there is the famous D&D cartoon from the 1980’s, there was also the D&D toyline and ancillary products to the toyline, such as coloring books, beach towels, and the like. Furthermore, consider that these toys were targeted to the same general demographic as other fantastic lines like Masters of the Universe and Thundercats.
  • Beyond the D&D cartoon, an animated Wizardry film was released in the 1990’s, and the serialized “replay” of a D&D session published in the mid 1980’s was the basis for the novel, anime, and manga franchise known as Record of Lodoss War.  
  • Interest in role-playing games of multiple genres made fertile ground that allowed for things such as role-playing games based on licensed material. Though an RPG based on Dallas (!) is apparently the first of these such games, it was the licensing of Star Wars to West End Games that assisted in keeping fan interest and focus on the then-dormant franchise to thrive. The fact that WEG also released supplements for their game based on the Star Wars novels of the time, like the renowned Thrawn trilogy, just added to it even more. Elements from this RPG and the novels have surfaced in the newer films and animated shows in various ways, in turn becoming truly “canon.”

Even the negative associations with the game have made significant impacts. The Satanic Panic of the 1980’s that made some groups seek to ban the game helped drive interest in the game, but it also served as a hallmark of significant religious development in the United States. While some may not really consider the overreaction to entertainment such as role-playing games, certain music genres, “violent” video games, and other things as significant, it can be seen as an indicator of the influence that fundamentalist groups would have on the social and political landscape of the United States. Coupled with the union of political conservatives with what is known as the Moral Majority, hindsight permits us to see how the fractious political and social environment of today took root at this critical time.

The recognized debut of D&D is 1974, and it is a handful of years away from its 50th anniversary (which I know because that also signals my big 5-0 moment isn’t that far off afterward…). The rise of the game, which meshed in with the debut and rise of in-home technological innovations, as well as the premier of a world-changing media franchise like Star Wars in 1977 laid the groundwork for the world we are experiencing now. The present has always stood on the shoulders of the giants of the past, but I would argue that the beginning of a new Age was established in the mid-1970’s due to the premier of game-changers like D&D and Star Wars. It not only influenced those generations posed to act upon them, but shaped and formed my generation and subsequent generations significantly.

As industry veteran Tim Kask has said in multiple interviews, it was a matter of good timing that D&D took off like it did. Though, admittedly, it is not the sole magic ingredient that caused all of this to happen, but rather a core symbiotic piece among many that manifested around the same time.

Yet, as I said before, this feat does stand on the shoulders of giants. In all honesty, the great causal web of history has several points that lead to this particular nexus: the establishment of myths and legends, the development of literacy, the ever-continuing literary and artistic development over time, the printing press enabling widespread literacy, authors developing works inspired by their predecessors, the development of war games beyond military esoterica into entertainment for civilians as well, industrialization and new technologies that allowed for things such as pulp fiction and comic books to be published, and the culmination of it all: a group of miniature wargamers developing an idea of playing a single character rather than commanding armies or navies of miniatures, and encountering mythical elements such as magic and monsters, who also happened to be fans of history, myths, pulp fiction, and comics, all around during the sunrise and sunset of the Free Love era.

Since Hasbro is the current owner of D&D, it is very unlikely to go away anytime soon; in fact, a soft upgrade to the game is in progress, and there’s big plans for the game on its 50th anniversary. While the current resurgence of the game may seem like a fad, we should be mindful of the journey the game has made over the years, as well as what there is now. Relatively new platforms such as YouTube enable for user-created content that has a global reach, and part of that content includes RPG game sessions. Services like Twitch or Discord enable tabletop gaming to continue despite the physical divides necessary due to the pandemic. A new D&D movie is in the process of being made, and various other fantasy fiction properties are seeing their first or their latest adaptations to screens small or silver.

If there was one series that I want to see adapted for the small screen, it’s The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

The Dresden Files is one of the more popular fantasy series currently being published, and a favorite of mine.  The stories center around Harry Dresden, a wizard working as a private investigator in Chicago.  The stories are a melding of detective stories, fantasy and horror.  Dresden deals with all manner of cases involving everything from organized crime, to vampires and demons and even a certain curse involving a baseball team and a goat. All through the series, starting from the first book, Storm Front, Jim Butcher lays the groundwork for a truly epic tale.  Not to be overshadowed by the story, Jim Butcher puts a lot of work into the characters.  In the middle of fighting whatever horror the characters are facing, their personalities shine.  This leads to touching, hilarious and at times heartbreaking moments.  Leaving out immortals and beings hundreds of years old, the characters are dynamic.  After everything they go through, they change.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  The changes are never superfluous though. They makes sense considering the characters journey.

The work that Jim Butcher puts into the characters makes it hard to imagine the perfect cast.  The actors and actresses would have to portray characters that have been developed over the course of, at the time of this article, seventeen novels.  They would need to embody these characters, otherwise the fans might not accept them.

Luckily, I can pick a cast without any pressure!

Before I dive in, I want to set some ground rules for myself.

  • Minimal spoilers.  One of the joys of reading The Dresden Files is pealing back the layers of secrets regarding each character.  When I list my choice for a character, I’ll be mentioning the reasons why I choose that actor or actress, but won’t go into too many details that would spoil things for those that haven’t read the series.
  • I’m more focused on their ability to portray the character than them matching the physical description, but that is a factor in some of my choices.
  • This is a fan/dream cast.  There is no such thing as a budget.  Because if a Dresden Files show with this cast ever saw the light of day, it would need money.  I’m talking Amazon Prime Middle Earth show money.
  • This is nowhere near a full cast list.  That would be crazy for me to attempt.  I’m shooting for some of the main characters and villains, along with the occasional secondary character if an idea comes to me.

I’ve taken enough of your time.  Let’s dive right in.

 

Harry Dresden-  Zachary Levi

This was one of the hardest to choose.  I racked my brain for this, spoke with Digression Girl for her input, and even search online for ideas.  Most fan casts have either Nathan Fillion or Keanu Reeves in the roll.  I just don’t see either.  I love both actors, but don’t think they would work.  Digression Girl’s suggestions for James Marsters and Paul Blackthorne were great, and I bounced those ideas around my head for a bit.  But I thought of other roles for them.  Then I thought, who can pull of a character that struggles with his own failings, is gallant but flawed, sarcastic, self-deprecating and is also a complete nerd?  I immediately thought of Chuck and Zach Levi.  Zach Levi played Chuck for years and that roll had a lot of the same characteristics of Dresden.  His other rolls in shows like Marvelous Ms. Maisel and Heroes Reborn show additional depth.

 

Bob The Skull – James Marsters

I said I had him in mind for someone else.  Marsters is well known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  What some might not know, is he also narrates the Dresden Files audiobooks and has several voice acting rolls.  He’s already familiar with the universe, and has experience voicing other characters.  Marsters as the voice of an often lecherous and sarcastic spirit of knowledge would be perfect.

 

Susan Rodriguez – Stephanie Beatriz 

Susan is a tough reporter that will get in anyone’s face for a story.  Harry’s, the police, vampires, anyone.  Beatriz has experience with that type of roll as Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn 99 where she plays a tough cop.  She also shows her range on that show as it tackles serious issues in between the laughs.

 

Karrin Murphy – Katie Sackhoff

Karrin is a character that could kick almost anyone’s butt at the drop of a hat.  Which also describes Katie Sackhoff. She could easily step into this roll and make it her own.  This is one of the instances of the actress not quite matching the characters physical description.  Karrin is listed at 5′ while Sachoff is taller.  But not so much taller that it makes the difference hard to ignore.

 

Ebenezer McCoy – Jim Beaver

Ebenezer McCoy is Dresden’s mentor.  He’s harsh, short, stocky, and a bit of a redneck.  That fits Jim Beaver’s roll as Bobby in Supernatural to a T.   I have to be honest, when I was reading the books and Ebenezer is chastising Harry I expected him to exclaim “Idjit” or “Balls” a few times.

 

Michael Carpenter – Henry Cavil  

Cavil has the looks, the build and the ability to play a physical roll.  He can also portray a character that cares deeply for others, even if he is frustrated or disappointed in them.

 

 

Charity Carpenter – Anna Torv

I had a hard time thinking of the right person to play Charity. Then I remembered Anna Torv in Fringe. She portrayed Special Agent Olivia Dunham as a character with a lot of compassion who won’t back down.

 

Molly Carpenter – Sadie Sink

Molly and Max from Stranger Things have a lot in common. Both are incredibly sarcastic, have conflicted family loves (though for vastly different reasons) and can turn on the intensity when needed.

 

Sanya – Henry Simmons

Sanya has a dry sense of humor that compliments his understated philosophy and personal faith. Which also describes Simmons portrayal of Mack on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Waldo Butters – Daniel Radcliffe

If Steve Buscemi was younger, he would be my first choice. Buscemi fits the general physical description and quirky mannerisms. Radcliffe is close physically, and his more recent roles (like Miracle Workers) have him portraying an awkward goof.

 

Detective Carmichael – Donal Logue 

When I first read the Dresden Files I immediately pictured Harvey Bullock and heard the characters voice from Batman: The Animated Series.  I also thought Donal Logue would be perfect for Harvey Bullock even before he joined the cast of Gotham.

 

Nicodemus – Mark Sheppard

He has shown that he can go from charming and cordial to pure chewing the scene menace.  From Crowley in Supernatural, Badger in Firefly and roles in Battlestar Galactica and White Collar he has the credentials.  I can also imagine his guttural delivery as he yells at Harry.  On a side note, when Mark Sheppard starts screaming and snarling at people he sounds a lot like his dad, William Morgan Sheppard.

 

Thomas Raith – Matt Bomer

Matt Bomer made a name for himself playing charming and debonair characters.  He was a super-spy in Chuck and con-artist/art thief/forger in White Collar.  His combination of charm and looks make him perfect for Raith.

 

John Marcone – Richard Burgi

Burgi has the physical presence to play the head of the Chicago Mafia.  Every roll I’ve ever seen him in has him playing disreputable and intimidating characters.

 

McAnally – Paul Blackthorne

The owner of McAnnal’s Pub is described as tall, gangly and has an understated personality.  Paul Blackthorne fits the physical description and can easily pull off a character that says more with grunts and body language than most people do with words.

 

Maeve – Aubrey Plaza

Aubrey Plaza always plays quirky characters.  She has her own personality that shows in her rolls.  She has also shown the ability to portray completely crazy and manipulative characters as she showed in Legion.

 

Mab – Angelina Jolie 

She’s very talented, and can pull off many different rolls.  Her turn as Maleficent is a perfect mirror of how she could play Mab.

 

Titania – Cate Blanchett

When I read Tatiana’s parts, I kept thinking about Galadrial in the Lord of the Rings movies.

 

Mother Summer and Mother Winter – Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren

I was imagining Maggie Smith as Summer and Helen Mirren as Winter, but both of them could easily handle these characters.

 

Toot Toot – Seth Rogan

I’m not a fan of Seth Rogan’s acting, but something about him performing Toot’s tantrums strikes me as hilarious.

 

Justin DuMorne – James Marsters

Since we have Marsters as a voice only roll, I wanted to use him again as a live roll.  For this one, he’d have to channel Spike from season 2 of Buffy.  When he was cruel, manipulative and just nasty.

This is my fan-cast for The Dresden Files.  There are some obvious characters I didn’t cast, but I wanted to touch on some of the major players in the series.  Others I left out either because I couldn’t think of an actor or actress, and some I have ideas for but thought his was getting a little long.

I hope you like these choices.  What do you think?  Who would you want in a Dresden files show?

 

 

I didn’t realize that the heroine we’ve been needing would arrive in an anime set in a very clichéd genre: Isekai. Someone dies in our world and is reborn in a new one.

I’ll admit I’m a little addicted to the genre; they’re usually really fun and try to answer that question of what we, the audience, would do in a fantastic setting and world. But a lot of these typically take a big left turn and include radically overpowered Mary Sues and Gary Stus who use their extra experience from another life, the powers of technology or that of a god/goddess to treat that new world’s biggest threats like a gnat to be swatted. It’s not that those aren’t fun sometimes, it’s just that it moves into fanfiction territory or author self-insert territory, where the protagonist starts to be so idealized that the premise of the show is sunk by size of the overpowered protagonist’s plot armor, lack of flaws, or overpowered abilities.

So Villainess was a huge surprise in the genre. Our protagonist, a relatively normal Japanese girl with an extreme love of romance video games, dies in our world and finds herself reborn in the world of her favorite video game. The catch? She’s reborn into that world as the primary VILLAIN, and it’s only through an accidental head injury that makes her aware of her previous life, her time in Japan, and most importantly, meta-knowledge about the game’s inhabitants and important events. The most important event? The Villainess DIES AT THE END, or in the best ending, is EXILED forever! 

10 Things Anime Fans Need To Know About My Next Life As A Villainess

This was a great twist for the series to start off on. Catarina, the Villainess, doesn’t really have any special powers of note. And due to her head injury, (which to the characters in-universe, explains her sudden and drastic change in personality), she’s got high level abilities to recall the events of the game, but the absolute WORST self-perception imaginable. She’s thick as brick, a running joke in the show as all subtlety and subtext flies straight over her head. She’s clueless in the best possible way: she says exactly what’s on her mind at all times and has almost a complete inability to lie.

So Catarina is in a huge bind: she has to save her own life and inevitable doom using only her knowledge of the games protagonist and NPC’s to get the job done. The show tackles this in a lot of great ways, most notably the “strategy council” of Catarina’s inside her own head, which give a lot of exposition and insight into her current strategies.

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! – Armchair Anime

To prevent her “doom” flag from rising, she has to use the time she has to meet the other characters from the game and get them to like enough so that when the time comes, she won’t be killed or exiled. Those are really high stakes, so she gives 100% effort into making friends as though her life depends on it… because it does! Along the way, her natural enthusiasm, Japanese sense of equality, (treating everyone equally, whether noble or servant), and lack of deceit win most people she meets to not only being her friend, but falling in love with her as well.

 

So what made this anime worth watching?

Well, first and foremost, it’s just fun. Season 1 is a light-hearted blast that actually has a really great lesson. Ultimately, if you want people to like you, you have to learn to make friends. And that is the tale of the tape for Season 1: make friends with everyone. It’s a simple strategy that Catarina employs and works to perfection. Between her extreme forthrightness and her lack of ability to understand subtext, every character she meets she is extremely honest with. She has virtually no filter, and in a society that’s built around reading subtle cues, Catarina’s extreme honesty and lack of any subtext or guile begins winning people over.

Second, the setting makes for great comedy! The setting was a romance video game; anyone who’s played RPG’s of this type know that all you have to do to get a romance going is have your character say or do the right thing during an event and the romance flag gets set.

But what happens if the villainess of the story, a girl, starts setting off those same flags for other characters, man or woman?

There are so many shows that do really poor LGTBQ+ storylines, but as a conservative, I gotta say, this show gave a fantastic in-universe reason for characters who were straight to go gay, and go gay HARD. It’s not done for ‘representation’, it’s done because that’s how this universe works!

My Next Life As A Villainess: The 10 Most Wholesome Things Catarina Has Done

Nothing is super explicit, and almost all of it goes completely over our star’s head: Catarina has NO CLUE that characters from the game who had male love interests in the original game now have the hots for her. Unlike a lot of current programming that wants to shove politics down our throats, Villainess exists inside the world of a video game which runs off of the choices of a protagonist and uses video game logic. Helping a character pick up the muffins they dropped sets off the romance flag and makes them pay attention to you; that’s the way the game was built. But now, instead of a guy doing it, it’s the female protagonist, who is now noticed the same way the guy would have been by the NPC. It’s a video game world; people fall in love because of particular actions taken and fulfilled; the logic of how romance works is not like our universe, and becomes really well justified by the setting.

Catarina actually is a really fun protagonist to watch. She is deeply flawed; that brain damage helps navigate the first season, but her inability to pick up on her inner circle’s social cues is what prevents her from having a romance herself and generates animosity between her friends that she can’t see, even when they are antagonistic to each other, (in a polite society way layered with subtext) right in front of her.

Otome Hametsu, a What if: Who would win Bakarina's heart? | Geeknabe

Like a lot of great flaws, the deep irony that the protagonist’s favorite thing to dream about in Japan was romance, and now she’s stuck in a romance game, and can’t actually experience romance unless she overcomes this flaw, which is where season 2 starts picking up.

I thought it was a real hoot! The series isn’t intense, it’s popcorn fun, and super easy to just pick and enjoy. What I think makes it stand out is that unlike most Isekai, the protagonist is actually the least powerful person on screen at any given time, and also the most clueless when it comes how romance ACTUALLY works, despite knowing everything there is to know about the game the universe comes from.

 

 

 

 

A couple weeks ago I was poking around YouTube when a video popped up on my feed picturing Sean Bean in a sword fighting duel. Me being me, I clicked on it immediately, since I’m a fan of the actor and of swordfights; it’s a complete win-win.

But what surprised me was that I had never seen or even heard of the show the clip was from, a TV series called “Sharpe”, based off the novels of the same name. The duel was fantastic; Richard Sharpe, the titular character, is a soldier roped into a high society party during the Napoleonic Wars era, and coerced into a duel against a lord.

 

What really struck me about the scene, without knowing anything about the series,  was that it was really apparent that Sharpe was a soldier; he fights only when he needs to, and if he fights, he fights to kill. The opponent in question was a much better duelist having practiced for years, and won against Sharpe in their skirmish, but I was very impressed by the vast difference between the two men. Sharpe was rough, but had true honor born from humility and hard work, while his opponent was riding on ego. One of the men in the room, immediately after the duel, bears down on the Lord, saying, “Where were YOU at Talavera, SIR?!” I didn’t know anything about Talavera, but I got the context: sure, this guy won a duel against a professional soldier at a party; but Sharpe had fought in war, risking his life, and had the reputation of a war hero because he had faced real death and horror and came out the other side.

sharpe's eagle

 

I was instantly hooked! I had to know more and was SHOCKED to find out that the clip I saw was from the 13th of the original 14 TV movies based on the novels, and that there were 16 movies overall!

 

(from Wikipedia)

No. Date Aired Episode Name Setting Date Set
1 5 May 1993 Sharpe’s Rifles Portugal 1809
2 12 May 1993 Sharpe’s Eagle Battle of Talavera 1809
3 25 May 1994 Sharpe’s Company Siege of Badajoz 1812
4 1 June 1994 Sharpe’s Enemy Portugal 1813
5 8 June 1994 Sharpe’s Honour Battle of Vitoria 1813
6 12 April 1995 Sharpe’s Gold Spain 1813
7 19 April 1995 Sharpe’s Battle Franco–Spanish border 1813
8 26 April 1995 Sharpe’s Sword Franco–Spanish border 1813
9 1 May 1996 Sharpe’s Regiment England 1813
10 8 May 1996 Sharpe’s Siege Bordeaux 1813
11 15 May 1996 Sharpe’s Mission Napoleonic France 1810 and 1813
12 7 May 1997 Sharpe’s Revenge Toulouse 1814
13 14 May 1997 Sharpe’s Justice Yorkshire, Peace of 1814 1814
14 21 May 1997 Sharpe’s Waterloo Battle of Waterloo 1815
15 23 April 2006 (Part 1)
24 April 2006 (Part 2)
Sharpe’s Challenge India 1803 and 1817
16 2 November 2008 Sharpe’s Peril India 1818

 

Now, we all know the joke and memes about how Sean Bean dies in everything. Now I know that it’s actually just the universe trying to rebalance the karma for Bean’s characters, because Richard Sharpe survives 16 movies in some of the most brutal encounters TV was allowed to show at the time, and despite being a very mortal hero, was nigh un-killable.

I managed to get my hands on Sharpe’s Rifles, the first entry in the series, and I was hooked. COMPLETELY HOOKED. I ended up binge watching through the entire series almost back to back over the last couple weeks.

This is a definitely recommend, and I give it a solid two thumbs up.

Why should you watch this?

Have you ever been the person who knew their job, knew what to do, but was surrounded by a boss or someone in charge who was clueless? Have you ever had to fight for respect against people who think you didn’t deserve it, and work ten times as hard to just to get one ounce of respect? Have you ever been blamed for someone else’s incompetence? Or found that despite having someone believe in you, mentor you, and try to help you rise on merit, it ends up a mixed blessing because as you climb through the ranks, you realize the struggle only gets tougher, not easier?

Sharpe is a series based off of Horatio Hornblower, but instead of the main character being from nobility, he’s the son of a prostitute, raised as an orphan among whores, who joined the army looking for a little bit of pay and a quick death. What he found though, was that he was an excellent fighter and soldier.

The series begins with “Sharpe’s Rifles” and his timely rescue of Arthur Wellington, (yes, THAT Wellington, the general who was arguably as good or better than Napoleon), who gives Sharpe a field commission to become an officer, raising Sharpe out of the rank-and-file, and into the ranks of the officers. During this time, most officers were nobles who bought their way into the army, so this is a set up for a huge culture clash. Sharpe is caught between the upper crust of nobility, and his own men who want to mutiny, since they believe he is no better than they are. Richard has to learn how to lead effectively, and learn fast, as he’s surrounded on all sides in every facet of his life by people looking to end him.

Each episode, (in reality, each is a two-hour movie clocking in at 1:41 minutes without commercials) is typically based off the book with the same name, and doesn’t waste any time being sadistic to Sharpe. He is challenged on the battlefield as a soldier and off the battlefield by politics, society, and domestic life. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t break down each film here. Needless to say, the series puts Richard Sharpe through the paces as a man, a soldier, a spy, and even with relationships. The series does have a surprising touch of romance, which further explores the difference between how masculinity and honor are defined by Sharpe and the other men around him with the women they meet.

If you can get your hands on the series, (or catch it on a streaming service, or even YouTube), it’s worth it. Yes, it’s an older series about an even older time, but the great thing about good storytelling is that a good story is timeless.

Sharpe’s themes and his struggle with meritocracy vs. nobility is just as relevant today as it was 200 years ago. What makes you “noble?” Your actions define you, not your birth, and Sharpe is a series that constantly drives that point home. If you want to be a good person, then you have to work at it; no one is evil or good simply because of how they were born, and everyone has the capacity to change their stripes.

There are still people who really don’t get the power an excellent inker has to take good art and make it amazing. Terry Austin makes everyone look better. Cockrum, Byrne, Smith, Davis. He has a great eye for line weight, shadows, face. John Byrne basically inks his own work now, and it shows. For one thing he is doubling his working time and that can lead to less than stellar art, for another his lines are too thin, it is close to literal tracing.

Byrne w/Austin:

Gerry Ordway and Dick Giordano are also favs.

Ordway:

Giordano:

For years there has been a murmur that Vince Colletta’s inks “ruined” Jack Kirby’s art. Now, with an artist of Kirby’s talent, even a bad inker can’t obscure that well-known Kirby look. So, is this opinion true?

Jack Kirby’s art is classic and he often did is own inking. Where that is, I think, a mistake for Byrne, whose line weights aren’t great and without Austin or another high caliber inker, the art is very flat, Kirby’s inks are considered. As for Kirby, people may think his style is dated, but they also don’t understand how his style permeates the psyche of young artists. Also, they don’t get just how many characters he created, or that they still appear in a form recognizable as influenced by Kirby.

Finding verifiable Kirby inks on Kirby art on the internet is a challenge, because back in the day, inkers rarely, meaning almost never, were credited. By the 60s, Jack Kirby was too busy building classic Marvel character to do his own inking, although when deadlines allowed, he still inked his work here and there throughout his career. I continue to pursue other avenues to find examples of his inks over his pencils, and I invite any readers with ideas where to look or who know examples to let me know in the Comments. I will add any art I find that is Kirby inks over Kirby art and add any relevant text.

This is Mike Royer on Kirby. Royer does a great job, as you can see when you compare the pencils to the inked page.

This exhibits the point about a talented inker showcasing the amazing work of a talented artist.

Vince Colletta was an ok inker, but his style was not a good fit for Kirby’s art. He seemed to either lack the patience or the skill to ink the original art as rendered. For example, you can see he clearly removed elements, styles and altered facial expressions:

He is rather heavy handed and is very reductive. You can see not only has he removed detail (and people) from the scene, but he has also actually altered the facial expressions, the feeling of movement and his source of light creating the shadows is all over the place.

Colletta was simply a very bad fit with Kirby.

Kirby’s pencils, before inking:

And after Colletta’s inks:

Kirby is hardly the only artist whose detail and grace was eradicated by an inker. Jim Aparo, who ties with Neal Adams as my favorite Batman artist (what can I say, I kick it old school), had his final Batman work savaged by the inker. Now, Jim was older by this point, but the level of awful can’t be attributed to age. It’s so traumatizing I can’t bring myself to fetch a panel of it.

Well. Darn it. Here is an example. Let me just say for the record, Jim Aparo was amazing. This? This is the worst. The inker was John Cebollero.

There is no excuse for this butchery in inking (and coloring). None.

Not for the artist who gave us these moments in Death in the Family:

***

The inker here is Mike DeCarlo. He knew how to add shadow, movement, and depth, with subtlety and grace.

So, did Vince Colletta ruin Jack Kirby’s art? Well, he didn’t do it any favors, but it’s hard to truly ruin Kirby art.

People who don’t value inkers because they think they just “trace stuff” are missing a very important step in the creation of the final image. When you have the right artist, inker, and colorist, you are golden. Some artists can ink themselves and are the best people for the job (Kirby) other are passable but not at their best (Byrne). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single panel of Byrne’s DC work, which was all lovely, I’m a big fan of his, that matches the depth, beauty, and gut-punch of his run on the X-Men.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. (Except and unless when I am appropriately corrected!)

If you are interested in learning more about inking and what it brings to the page, there are many good books out there. For most people, I recommend The Art of Comic Book Inking, Third Edition by Gary Martin, with Steve Rude and Vitali Iakovlev (2019 expanded edition).

Note: This essay originated as my reply to a Quora question specific to Vince Colletta and Jack Kirby.

On August 15, 2021, found a Comic Tropes episode on this very issue, which I now assume is what inspired the Quora question. It is a GREAT breakdown, as usual, and can be viewed here. I always learn something new and fun when I watch Comic Tropes, you will, too!

Canon has been addressed in prior posts on this blog. I’d like to add to the discussion in terms of RPGs, since edition changes and ancillary materials contribute or modify their canon.

Recently, over on the official Dungeons & Dragons website blog, Christopher Perkins addressed the issue of canon for D&D:

“Our studio treats D&D in much the same way that Marvel Studios treats its properties. The current edition of the D&D roleplaying game has its own canon, as does every other expression of D&D. For example, what is canonical in fifth edition is not necessarily canonical in a novel, video game, movie, or comic book, and vice versa. This is true not only for lore but art as well.”

—Chris Perkins, D&D blog

In short, Perkins notes that this liberates creatives and players from having to know an extensive multi-decade backlog of lore and details for a game setting or other element, and that it enables positive elements from prior works to be perpetuated while negative elements may be changed or removed.

In the realm of comic book properties, canon elements can be and are a headache and a half to deal with. Throw in the reboots, alternate universes, versions of spinoff media, and so on, and it gets to be a real mess. This holds true of any franchise of media. (I applaud Anthony the Silver tackling the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but to be honest, I would not try to bear the burden that argent Atlas hoists around.)

Yet, even with this declaration, I suspect some of the fanbase may feel a bit thwarted. If anything, their esoteric knowledge has officially received a demotion from Fact to “cute detail.” That information is no longer How It Is, but merely A Way It Can Be. For those fans who are prideful about mastering that knowledge, it can be a bit of a shot to the gut. For others, especially new fans of a franchise, one of the most annoying things to deal with is the whining and grumbling of one of the former know-it-all fans who’s recently been knocked off their perch.

But the trick with canon elements, especially with a persisting franchise, is that it is meant for the audience of the time and not just for the audience of the past. If canon were rigidly inviolable, then Superman has a lot of explaining to do based on his actions in old issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.” The past can be respected, if not changed to a more respectable format. The class-act performance in this category goes to the Black Panther film depiction of M’Baku, formerly the questionably named and costumed Man-Ape. Old fans like myself got who the character was, but didn’t have to wince or cringe at his inclusion as we might have if the character remained true to his original debut in the comics.

Roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons also face issues of canon. One recently announced change is the inclusion of two additional major cultures of drow elves. The ones most familiar to many, the spider-demon-goddess-worshipping wicked raiders from the underworld, are merely one culture instead of a typical example of the culture of the drow. The harmful stereotype applied to one of the game’s most famous drow elves, Drizzt Do’Urden, as “one of the good ones,” has been recognized and addressed by the author R.A. Salvatore.

This freedom from canon is helpful in creative endeavors. More than with some other franchises, roleplaying games need creativity in order to use them. Players create characters; Dungeon Masters create adventures and campaigns; groups create sessions and memories. And the canon of the gaming table is a unique creation in its own right: you can’t call up Wizards of the Coast and demand that your half-orc assassin, Balzbustur the Leet, now officially be listed as the ruler of the first layer of the Nine Hells, as well as married to the dragon goddess Tiamat, but man oh man, does that ever make for a good story around the table.

Though the results of actions and prior sessions can contribute to a group’s canon for a campaign, a campaign setting, especially a published one, brings a certain level of challenge. With significant adventures set in a published setting, groups are invited to have their characters be the ones who embark on the mission and influence the events of the world around them. In prior cases, these adventures are not pinned down and defined, because whereas one group would be successful, another would not be.

But tie-in elements like novels and comics and the like can potentially “set” canon for a campaign setting–or it has in the past. The Forgotten Realms had a major event, the Time of Troubles, that had the gods banished to the mortal realm and struggle to regain their divine power. During this time some of the deities were slain or permanently changed, while some mortals ascended to fill in the gaps of the pantheon. This event has remained canon, though later edition updates have added changes to this.

Now, as of fifth edition, a lot of the familiar deities from the pantheon’s origins are back, but the changes from prior editions haven’t been totally discarded. Essentially, it allows for fans of many editions to maintain canon for the setting as they wish. So if you liked the big divine shake-up that occured in fourth edition, you can keep that for your game, just as much as keeping the first edition lineup if you prefer. But, the game itself is in a relatively “fixed” state of play. It acknowledges what would happen after that state of play in certain modules at certain release times, but nothing more. It doesn’t assume that the players progressed through a particular adventure unless explicitly stated as such in the module itself.

An older setting for the game, Gygax’s old setting Greyhawk, has a fan-built site that deals with all things Greyhawk. Its title, Canonfire! addresses the issue at hand in its very name. One of the taglines in the banner states: “Editions change. Greyhawk endures.” Considering that this setting, along with Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting, were around before and during the origins of the game, there’s been a lot of stuff added in one form or another. And that’s not even considering what may have taken place in the games run by Gygax and Arneson themselves, which some devoted players desire to adhere to in their own games.

Tying back to the quote from Perkins, this is important because it addresses those fans who are concerned about canon, and who are so invested in the setting that they devour anything and everything released for it. It’s akin to any fan of a work who can cite rare facts and elements of any number of works written in the particular milieu, whether it’s a Tolkien fan discussing the Blue Wizards to a Star Wars fan discussing the death of Chewbacca. And those two examples are used to emphasize a point, because fans who saw the sequel trilogy of Star Wars only may not be aware that Expanded Universe materials had Chewbacca die. Or fans of the Lord of the Rings films may not know about Alamar and Pallando since the Silmarillion material or other significant notes by Tolkien were not licensed for use by the filmmakers. In essence, this stance by Wizards of the Coast is saying “the way it is now is the way it is now,” which can be a very frustrating experience for those fans who pride themselves on their mastery of the lore.

So Drizzt the drow ranger, technically, isn’t that much of a ranger, and is more of a fighter with a bit of experience as a ranger. This is fine if you consider that he never really used the magical abilities of the ranger class that much in the books (or at least not to my memory, though I’m sure a devotee of Drizzt can easily correct me on this), but it can be considered an inconsistency for some diehard fans of the character.

In relation to Drizzt, his fellow companions are a pair of humans and a dwarf, all of whom have rather short lifespans in comparison to that of the dark elf. In the novels, these fellow Companions of the Hall reincarnated and joined Drizzt on adventures once more. However, the recent Dark Alliance game has the Companions of the Hall, all in their original incarnations. It’s like the band got back together again, and found the Fountain of Youth while they were at it. It’s also a means for a game that uses the passage of time to explain changes to circumvent that problem regarding popular or beloved elements that fans want to persist as they are… like comic book characters. We don’t have the great-great-grandson of Bruce Wayne as Batman–we have the original. And he isn’t perplexed or surprised by the miraculous technology of today, as he would be if he were still an adult from the 1930’s, but is in step with the times, trends, and tech just like the bulk of his current audience is. This problem is rather old hat for franchises like comics, but it poses some challenges for things like roleplaying game campaign settings and related media. So, it’s not surprising that they took a solution used by a multigenerational media source and applied to their own creations.

Okay aspiring writers and critics! Like I said in my earlier blog, there is such a thing as objective quality, and being able to accurately judge what is good or bad is going to depend on your ability to understand and analyze what you are making or critiquing. To get the brain working a bit, let’s start with a classic: the hero vs. villain relationship. It’s a bit like opening up the hood of a car: if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it!

Now keep in mind: I didn’t say, “Protagonist vs. Antagonist”, which is actually different, since a protagonist is pushing the plot and the antagonist is against them, but either side can be morally good or morally evil. We’re specifically talking about Heroes and Villains, and what should be considered the fundamental pieces of writing their dynamic.

  1. Relationship Type
  2. Relationship Quality
  3. Relationship Goals
  4. Relationship Arc
  5. Relationship Conclusion

Relationship Type: are they bitter rivals? Frenemies? Total opposites locked in an eternal battle? Make your choice and make it strong. Once you have figured out the type of relationship they have, you can build the bones for the rest.

In real life, you can date people because you think they’d be good to marry, or because you think they’re just fun to date, OR because you’re on the rebound, OR because they are unchallenging as a partner, OR because they’re your sugar daddy… get the point? In each, you’re still dating, but the type of relationship is different each time. Mother/Daughter, Father/Son, Best Friends, and Opposites Who Just Met are types of relationships to decide on. You’re picking how each half of the relationships relates to the other.

(Credit: Fox)

Relationship Quality: do they have a good relationship or bad relationship? Once you know who each side is and how they relate to each other, you need to determine how well they relate to each other and the strength/weaknesses in their dynamic will be.

Superman and Lex Luthor are enemies, but there is a type of mutual respect, though not admiration or friendship, when each regards the other. On the other hand, Ripley vs. The Queen Alien is almost completely rage driven, where each hates the other. The quality we’re talking about here isn’t just between good and bad, but also love and hate, respect and fear, and more.

(Credit: Fox)

This is an important difference from the relationship type. Once you’ve decided how these two see each other, you have to flesh out the scale of how they’ll treat each other. In real life, you can have a great relationship that is cordial, upbeat, and fun with someone who isn’t going to end up as right for you; there are entire movies dedicated to this premise. A poor quality relationship between a mother and daughter could mean that the daughter is neglected, ignored, and left to fend for themselves.

So for your hero/villain relationship, you need to determine the quality. The biggest mistakes you can make as a writer in this area is to either change your mind or be wishy-washy. For reference, watch the Kylo/Rey dynamic shift in “The Last Jedi” from being enemies to being… well, whatever Rian Johnson was trying to make them. Characters can have arcs, but once you’ve established something as powerful as the capture and torture of one character, trying to make them love interests a day or two later may cause serious logical problems.

On the other hand, deciding in advance that characters like Magneto and Professor X are equals and former friends who are looking at the same issue with very different points of view, gives you some wiggle room for why they might be ruthless to each other one moment, and cordial friends the next. You’ve already implied that they have a tumultuous history and may vary between two poles each time they meet. Better designs in the writing allow for more believable ranges and flexibility in how the characters treat each other. But you do have to make some solid decisions, and not deciding in advance leaves the characters in the lurch, with the audience scrambling to figure out why these characters are together… like Reylo.

Relationship Goals: what is each half getting out of this? Spider-Man stopping the Green Goblin isn’t just about stopping a maniac; that maniac knows who he is and is threatening his personal life, unlike other villains who only see “Spider-Man”. In The Dark Knight, the Joker wants Batman to see him as an equal, a “freak” and is trying to prove a point about the “soul of the city” to Batman with his acts of terror. Deciding on why that hero needs something from that villain or vice versa gives a strong direction to go with your writing.

Credit: Sony Pictures
Credit: Warner Bros.

This is all about “need”. What do they need from each other? If they don’t need anything, then your story can fall flat because there is nothing pushing the characters into conflict other than the plot. “He wants to blow up a building, I want to stop him” falls really flat, but if your character’s wife is inside the building, and the villain made you feel helpless for the first time in your life as he killed someone in front of you, then you have John McClane and Hans Gruber, where the conflict gets personal very quickly. John needs to save his wife, which means stopping Hans; Hans needs the detonators from John to finish his plan: it’s all about need.

Relationship Arc: Beginning, middle, and end. Once you know your goal, decide how these characters meet, how things escalate, and how they conclude.

Credit: Warner Bros.

If you plan on reusing characters, concluding the story just means finishing another piece of a mini-arc in terms of the overall goal. For instance, Luke Skywalker has a destiny to face Darth Vader; each mini arc is part of the trilogy, as Luke fights to save the princess, fights to save his friends, and then finally confronts Vader in the finale. But he has a confrontation with Vader in each film, each as a mini-arc that is a piece of their overall story arc.

Credit: Lucasfilm
Credit: Lucasfilm
Credit: Lucasfilm

Good arcs start and end in different places, and have a rising and falling action. Missing these gives a feeling of being unfulfilled for the audience; they many not know why, but it’s usually because the character didn’t change, learn anything, lose anything, or have any true conflict. That means something is missing in your arc.

Relationship Conclusion: It’s more than just how the arc ends, it’s about the IMPACT that relationship has on the characters moving forward. Just like breaking up with an ex can lead to a rebound, depression, or learning how to spot the right person instead of the wrong one, the conclusion of their conflict should push have an effect on the characters moving forward.

Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Warner Bros.
Credit: Warner Bros.

Depending on the conflict, the aftershocks could last a very long time in the characters future, or could cause them to reconsider a more immediate decision they otherwise wouldn’t have made. The choice is up to you, but to have a worthwhile conclusion, you should decide in advance how deep the impact will be.

Food for thought! Good luck, and happy writing/analyzing!

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Mass Effect's Biggest Problem Isn't That Ashley Is A Space Racist, It's  That She Never Confronts It
(credit: BioWare/EA)

Normally, I try to plan my blogs out in advance, but this time, I’m working on the fly. We’ll see how it goes.

The biggest criticism I see all the time regarding the Mass Effect Trilogy‘s romances now that the Legendary edition came out is that, “Ashley is a racist, and who’d want to either date her, or even let her live past Virmire in the first game? She’s a racisty racist, who deserves to die for her racisty racism!” Man, do some people feel good about hating her. It makes them feel good to say it, because if you label something as racist, it’s now okay to hate it, right? And it feels good to be judgmental. “I’m right, she’s wrong, I’m good, she’s bad, I should live, and she should DIE DIE DIE!”

When the game first came out in back in 2007, talking about racism was, in a lot of ways, much easier than it is in 2021 where even the mention of the word racism is enough for set people off. Talking about it right now usually just devolves down to, “Racism bad! You racist! You bad!” or “I think it’s racist not to hire this person because they’re Black!” vs. “I think it’s racist to hire him if he’s Black if that’s the only reason you’re hiring him!” But there isn’t a lot of listening on either end, and people are more concerned with being right rather than finding truth.

Here’s the great thing about Mass Effect though: The times were a little smarter, everyone was less sensitive, and best of all, more people were less afraid to do deeper dives and ask deeper questions without worrying they were going to be called racist if they did or didn’t. That’s actually part of what makes it good.

So! Let’s talk about Ashley.

Ashley Williams - Mass Effect Wiki Guide - IGN

Ashley isn’t actually racist (she doesn’t hate or fear other humans, or feel that humanity is better than others), she’s mostly tribalistic (humanity first) and at worst, xenophobic (doesn’t like strangers and outsiders). But this attitude is the starting point of a trilogy-long arc that sees her end in a very different place from where she starts.

And in Mass Effect, there are some good reasons behind it. The whole Galaxy, in fact, is dealing with xenophobia in some form or another. She’s far from alone; lots of species hate humanity openly and aren’t shy about sharing it. Ashley just chooses to be open about the fact that when she feels she’s getting pushed, she’s going to push back. Can you blame her? The game opens with everyone around her dying in a Geth/Reaper attack where she only survives through luck. She also gets to see the spikes that transform humans into monstrous Reaper weapons that actively try to kill all of us. And this is after growing up post-Encounter war, where humanity’s first contact with an alien species immediately became an armed conflict that her family fought in. That’s not exactly “ET phone home.” Even though the war ended, it hasn’t been chocolates and roses with the other aliens, and she just feels humanity might be better off making their own way through the galaxy. It’s hard to have the warm-and-fuzzies for aliens when your home and everyone you knew just got killed by alien machine creatures.

Let’s pause for a second before anyone starts throwing stones at Ashley for wanting to put humanity first and being tribal after a devastating war and the events at the start of the game. Let me just ask this: How many people ever voted for a sub-par candidate in a recent election, state or Federal, just to prevent the “other side” from winning?

If you’re willing to use the one political power you have just to try to prevent the other tribe from winning, even if your candidate isn’t any good, then you’ve already been a part of tribalism. “Those damn Republicans!” “Those damn Democrats!” “Those damn conservatives!” “Those damn liberals!” “Those damn progressives!” “Those damn libertarians!!!” In fact, right now, you’re probably just read one of these six ‘tribes’ and know the one you’d vote against, thinking you know everything you need to know about their candidate or position, simply because they are part of ‘that tribe’. And if you’ve labeled whole groups as crazy, racist, ignorant, violent, or stupid using the words, “all”, “every”, “never” or “ever”, then I hope you see my point. It’s VERY EASY to silo up and throw stones in the name of tolerance while having an, “us vs. them” mentality, especially if you think, “well, you might be okay, but the rest of those ________’s I can’t stand!” Or, throw stones shouting, “I hate you because you’re intolerant!” *throws another stone* Be more tolerant like me!”

If this has ever been you, congratulations: you’ve also been Ashley.

Guess what? All of us have been Ashley at some point. And it’s okay, because we’re all people. Getting to know people, and accepting that nobody is perfect is the first step to letting all the “us vs. them” BS go and realizing we all have a lot more in common than not in common. If you want your problems solved, we have to learn to find mutual purpose. Mass Effect manages this through an invasion of hostile, genocidal machines looking to kill all sentient life. In real life, there’s a nugget of truth in that; unless we can see what we need to fight together, we only end up fighting each other.

All of that was to lay the groundwork for this: Mass Effect ups the ante and instead of having humanity not getting along internally, it’s a galaxy full of species who fight with each other, and a lot of them don’t like humans.

Mass Effect: The Citadel Council, Revealed | CBR
(credit: BioWare/EA)

The entire first game is centered around you as the “First Human Spectre” which for all intents and purposes, is humanity’s tryout with the Council Races. It’s not too different from being the first Black man in special forces, or the first woman doctor, or the first gay police chief. All eyes are on you, but in Mass Effect, it’s the eyes of the entire Galaxy. Some people think humanity is getting special treatment, and others think that humanity is past due for being considered on a spot on the council, with evidence for both.

This is where BioWare shines, especially in the first game. When your starting line is one where most races don’t like you just for being human, it’s easier to see Ashley’s point of view of not being crazy about them, either. But BioWare smartly puts you in a position to change that, and you, as a player, can choose to have a very deep impact on healing the hurts of this Galaxy. That affects Ashley too; people miss out if they just ignore her or get rid of her because “she’s racist.” Keeping her around though lets you see her change her mind and eventually, be so won over she stops being “humanity first” and starts being “Galaxy first.”

You’re going to meet aliens from all over the galaxy and will find that some are friendly, open, and worthy of trusting, while others are just as backstabbing, cruel, and vicious as anyone you’d meet on Earth. It’s one of the better anti-stereotyping lessons you get by proxy. Individuals can, and should, be judged by their actions, but condemning entire groups based on the actions of a few of that group can lead to massive tragedies.

There is a lot of gray in Mass Effect. For instance, the Krogan are the hero species of the Rachni war, and were rewarded for their efforts by being sterilized (the Genophage) by the Turians and Salarians, who deemed them a threat. Salarians don’t really like Krogans, and Krogans hate Salarians, for obvious reasons. Where you find yourself in this debate is going to depend on whether you think the Krogan are a threat to the entire universe (which there is evidence to support) or they are victims of a heinous crime (which the actually were) that no one seems to have a problem without outside most Krogan. Some Krogan you meet fit the stereotype of violent species, but then others, like Eve and Wrex, are much more complex, and in many ways, more humane than those species who see themselves as superior to the Krogan.

can i get you a ladder — ME1 Locations: The Presidium (Krogan Monument) ...
(Credit: BioWare/EA)

Mass Effect doesn’t pull any punches: A lot of the Krogan you meet are violent, giving the side that says the Krogan are a violent species some weight. That is, until, you actually talk to Krogans and start digging deeper. Then you find that Krogan are desperate, depressed, suicidal, and near full collapse of their culture. Many of the females are so desperate to have children that they willingly volunteer themselves to be guinea pigs in inhumane experiments on the chance that it could work. The Krogan constantly fight with each other and as mercenaries because they live long lives and yet see no future, due to their forced sterilization by the Turians and Salarians .

This drives more complexity; some Salarians think it was a mistake to inflict the Genophage; some Turians think the Genophage wasn’t enough and placed nukes on the Krogan home world just in case they needed more censure.  And there are Salarians willing to die to prevent the Krogans getting a cure and Turians willing to die to rectify their mistakes. Not all Krogans, Turians, and Salarians think alike, and that’s what makes them more human anything, especially since the first impressions of all three seemed to fit the stereotypes pretty well, until you actually get to know them and help them see each other.

Mass Effect makes you listen to the other characters. And just like people in real life, the more you talk to them, the more interesting they become and the deeper, more personal their stories get. If you do this enough, you actually find that you have common ground and start to see their point of view. And in the trilogy, you can help them see past their own self-interest as well.

Mass Effect armors! (Garrus,Wrex,Liara and Tali): Fashionlancers
(credit: BioWare/EA/Anthem)

When we first meet Wrex he’s abrasive, murderous, and rude, but he also has evidence leading to convicting Saren, the antagonist of the first game. If you make the effort to talk to him, you find out why the Krogan are hated, why they hate the Salarians who used them to fight aliens called the Rachni, and then sterilized them when they felt threatened after the war. Wrex has had a rough life, even having his own father try to kill him. By the end of the game, if you spent the time to get to know him, you get a special mission to recover a family heirloom. Doing that personal favor for Wrex comes back to reward you in a big way when he puts his self-interest about saving his people on the back burner for you, so that you can stop Saren.

This is huge! And there is a good lesson to learn here. In Mass Effect 2, Wrex has +warmed up considerably to you and started uniting his people, having followed your example, and is the first real hope the Krogan have had in many years. By the third game, I was so invested into Wrex that undoing the Genophage felt personal to me. It wasn’t just Wrex’s mission anymore, it had become my mission too. Not just because the Galaxy needed the Krogan, but because I truly felt that his people had suffered enough and deserved a chance to live, and his species to survive. And I am not alone in coming to that realization.

A future for the Krogan by Natsumi494 on DeviantArt
(Credit: BioWare/EA)

So why are some people willing to do this for Wrex, but not for Ashley?

Personally, I think it’s because Ashley is human, which makes it way more uncomfortable to hear her slander and uses racist slurs than it is to hear aliens say it about other aliens or humanity. Those others are alien to us, the game player, and look it. Ashley is not an alien, she’s human. She looks like us. She is a character we instinctively see as a POV character for the player. Unless you took the time to read through all the codex entries at the start of the game, you may not understand why she feels the way she does, and just assume she’s ignorant and spiteful. But she and Shepherd have been on the receiving end of violent encounters with other races, and it’s hard for them to see their former enemies in a new light, especially since they spent so much time killing each other.

However, if you actually take the chance to get to know her and let her live, you see that she changes.

Mass Effect 3 - Second visit to Ashley at the hospital - YouTube
(credit: BioWare/EA)

Yes . . . she starts off sitting on some hate. But by the end of the first game, aside from some romantic jealousy with Liara, she has started to come around and appreciate aliens, including the Salarian commandos on Virmire, fighting by their side, if you, the player, choose to put her with them. If you listen to their comm chatter, you hear the respect growing between the two parties. It’s actually a really great and subtle moment, where her character is arcing and changing from who she was to who she will be.

And who is that? Why… Ashley becomes the second human Spectre.

Spectre Ashley Williams by MihaiRadu on DeviantArt
(credit: koobismo.com)

That’s right! She goes from being someone who thinks humanity should come first, to someone willing to lay down her life in service of the Citadel Council, being sent on missions that concern all the Citadel races, and is an example for other humans to follow!

How cool is that!? People can actually grow and change if you let them! Who knew!?

Romancing Ashley may not seem as fun on the surface in comparison to the exotic Liara, or Tali, or possibly Garrus, if you swing that way. But at the very least, she’s a great lesson about why writing people off because you don’t like what they are saying today may not be a good idea, because you don’t know who they’ll be tomorrow. You don’t know what your influence, if you give it, can have on the trajectory of another person’s life. In

And I have to say, I like Ashley. I like her a lot, actually. It takes a big person to see the error of their ways and change. My favorite romance is Tali, and Liara certainly feels the most “canon” of the bunch. And I can’t lie and say that Ashley doesn’t have a pretty crappy stint in Mass Effect 2 if she lived and you romanced her. But if you make it to Mass Effect 3, and you let yourself be open to this person and watched as your actions have an impact on her for the better, it can be really rewarding.

In terms of character arc, there is something admirable here when you take it as a whole in the trilogy, and not just Mass Effect by itself. In terms of a trilogy, we see a character who is suspicious and angry at aliens in general at the start, slowly transform over the course of the games to see aliens in a new light . . . so much so that she’s ready to fight and die for them as one of their champions. And she feels that so strongly that the Council actually makes her the second human Spectre, an exemplar for other humans to follow. That’s a heck of a cool arc for someone who starts off not liking aliens.  

There is a lot more I can say about how Mass Effect is one of the best games that deals racism by presenting it as alien xenophobia, but I’d rather you actually play the games and experience for yourself how good the writing is for every character and every NPC that flesh out the universe, and how your opinions change based on how well you choose listen.

Trust me, BioWare loaded the games with payoffs small and large. Watch out for a young Quarian girl at the start of Mass Effect 2; if you talked with Tali in Mass Effect, you’ll know why.

Ashley is a great test for 2021 gamers. In 2007, it wasn’t a big deal to give her a shot and see where it went; we knew it was a game and wanted to see where it went. We knew we weren’t racist for liking a xenophobic video game character, or ashamed to admit that we liked how she looked in white armor. But in 2021, when everyone is offended at the drop of a hat, or feels they need to show that they are offended lest they be accused of being racist themselves, Ashley Williams and the Mass Effect Trilogy might just be the game they’ve never known they needed. At the very least, it’s good practice in a safe environment to learn how to listen to other people’s lives and views, and learn to be less judgmental. And Ashley, by being xenophobic and flawed at the start, has an interesting arc and romance, if you choose to see it through.

By taking the risk and making her imperfect and a bit unlikable at the start, the writers gave the character a bigger payoff at the end by evolving her into a hero for the people she once hated. That’s a much cooler arc than if they just tried to make her love everyone at the start of the game, and then ends in the exact same place with nothing learned or gained. Instead, she’s a flawed character who reflects a journey that all of us need to take at some point, learning to see how our prejudices blind us and learning to see past them.

So yeah . . . do a run, and give her a shot. It’s amazing how people can change when you listen and give them some love.

Mass Effect" (2009): Why Fans Hated the Virmire Survivor - LevelSkip
(credit: BioWare/EA)

In Dungeons & Dragons and other games inspired by it, one of the most debated aspects in the game is Alignment. By now, the preponderance of alignment chart memes filled with various characters from within or across a franchise should be familiar enough to everyone. However, despite this, arguments about what actions, values, behaviors, or the like constitute what alignment still continue. Is Batman Lawful Good? Chaotic Good? Lawful Neutral?

This would, for lack of a better phrase, be one whacked-out campaign.

In some instances, there are characters that regularly appear as clear examples for a specific alignment: Darth Vader as Lawful Evil or the Joker as Chaotic Evil are frequent selections. But at other times, some selections seem to be made for the sake of completeness: the characters from Firefly are a good example of this, because I’d argue some characters depicted with different alignments actually have the same alignment, but the chart-maker had to simply fill out the grid.

This affects gameplay as well: as a veteran of multiple editions of D&D, I can tell you of my disdain for the Chaotic Neutral alignment and the shenanigans pulled by players in the name of it. I can tell you why evil-aligned PCs are a Bad Idea in a collaborative role playing game, especially when played by those not really mature enough or vested enough to keep the game going. I understand why some players hated paladin characters, and how each story spoke about all those involved as gamers.

Playing games with a different system or without any alignment system proved just as telling as well. Ultimately, the player behaviors remained the same—it was the in-game system of accountability that changed. The problem players who had a Chaotic Neutral character in D&D played the same way in the magical post-apocalyptic game Rifts, the Marvel Super Heroes game, the Vampire: the Requiem game, and so on. They would still lie to anyone, cheat, steal, and generally be antiheroic if not antivillainous.

But beyond the play style of the players, having a general consensus on aspects of the game and its play is necessary for success, whether single-session or long-term play. Defining terms, sometimes above and beyond the guidelines provided, can be a part of this process.

The original version of D&D only had 3 alignments: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. This was due to the influence of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories, and the Eternal Champion lore about cosmic forces of Law and Chaos battling each other. Generally, Law was implied to be synonymous with “good,” and Chaos was implied to be synonymous with “evil.” As the game grew and evolved, so did the alignment system. The Law vs. Chaos became an axis of measurement, and a second metric, Good vs. Evil, was an added axis of measurement. Now, in a way, each character essentially had X, Y coordinates on their values, worldview, and behavior. For a while, during the 1st ed. AD&D era, some use of tendency alignments was used (notably for non-player characters); the deity St. Cuthbert was usually deemed Lawful Good with Lawful Neutral tendencies. Furthermore, there were planes in the Great Wheel Cosmology of the game that were in between planes of a pure alignment: for example, the Chaotic Good plane of Olympus was separated by the Chaotic Neutral plane of Limbo by the Chaotic Good/Chaotic Neutral plane of Gladsheim. The Great Wheel is all that remains of this in the current edition of the game.

Yet conflict persists. What exactly is “good,” or “evil,” or “lawful,” or “chaotic,” much less “neutral”? Do these terms vary based on the values of the surrounding culture, or are they meant to be universal? Neutral Neutral, a.k.a. True Neutral or Neutral, had a rough time of it, esp. since some descriptions implied that it was all about balance and maintenance of balance—the black and red in the ledger had to be equal. However, for many players of the game, both starting and experienced, I think it’s important to discuss the alignment system and how it works, based upon how one implements it in the game.

First off, since there are usually deities that exist (yet who withdrew from the world), as well as the existence of angels, demons, and other such entities, I would argue that, in general, D&D settings have universal concepts and forces such as Good, Evil, Order, and Chaos. In prior versions of the game, this had much more palpable effects mechanically than it does in the current edition—some character classes irrevocably lost their class abilities if they violated their alignment restrictions. The alignment restrictions are not present in the current edition of the game, but the idea of beliefs enabling power, and the violation of those beliefs leading to a loss of power, is still present.

So the shades-of-grey morality of reality coexists in a realm where universal absolutes are real and have meaning. But, which part of the 2-part alignment is more important, the first or the last part?

Ultimately, I argue that the last part—the part that deals with good and evil—is the most important part. I have at least two points as to why:

  1. The nature of the English language, the language of the creators of the game, likes modifiers for nouns placed before them: big house, old Dan, patient Justice. The forms of Law and Chaos, specifically Lawful and Chaotic, reveal that they are describing the term listed after them, like any other adjective.
  2. Lawful or Chaotic tell how or why something is done or believed; Good or Evil tell what is done or believed.

Order for the sake of Order only easily falls into the purview of Lawful Neutral, as does Chaos for the sake of Chaos falls into the purview of Chaotic Neutral. Good for the sake of being Good, whether by following rules or ignoring them and just doing what is right fits into Neutral Good. Neutral Evil is the opposite: exploiting systems and rules when they can be exploited, and ignoring those same systems and rules when they get in the way.

Neutral, the exact middle of the grid, actually is the bulk of humanity, I would argue: people trying to get by, resisting temptation one day and giving in another, being a bit selfish but having a hard Line which is Never Crossed. They’re not perfect in any sense of the word, for sure.

And, the extremes of the alignment chart—Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil—are still focused on the Good/Evil part first.

A Lawful Good character follows laws and tries to reform and change unjust laws, using the system in place to do so, if that is possible. A Lawful Good character can lead a rebellion because they believe the system is corrupt and a new, legitimate system needs to be installed for the good of all. Think of a hero trying to restore the rightful heir to the throne in place of a usurper or an incapable/unjust ruler.

A Chaotic Good character does what’s right and doesn’t consider laws at all. If they’re following the law at the time—great! If they’re not, then so what? It’s a stupid law anyway, and it just gets in the way or makes things worse. A Chaotic Good character doesn’t care about something being illegal if it yields a genuine good result. Think of a scoundrel smuggling and distributing embargoed harmless goods or running an illegal gambling den in order to raise money for an orphan’s charity.

A Lawful Evil character exploits the system in place. They use and abuse authority. As said before, Darth Vader is a prime example of a Lawful Evil character—his position of power gave him the ability to do horrible things, and he could have plausible deniability or abuse the system to keep the truth from getting out. But on the other end of the spectrum, a simple merchant who uses exploitative contracts, cuts corners, has illegal acts and dealings done through proxies, and bribes officials or those in power fits the bill as well.

A Chaotic Evil character is the easiest to define; the Joker often gets this alignment, though the madness core to the character may make some think that madness is an essential quality of the alignment. A Chaotic Evil character simply doesn’t care about anyone or anything except themselves. Think of the local criminal who always gets in trouble and has a rap sheet a mile long. Even if that criminal isn’t that clever or educated, the criminal still does what they want and doesn’t consider the consequences of their actions. A disorganized serial killer who lives on the fringes of society and acts on whims or opportunities to commit their crimes counts as Chaotic Evil just as much as the two-time loser who always gets drunk, gets fired from jobs, and gets into fights (and, to be honest, there’s many serial killers who began their careers as two-time losers before graduating to more vicious crimes).

Now, I can see the argument for the balanced, 3-by-3 square grid view on alignment easily enough, but I can also see the idea of alignments being a linear progression, with Lawful Good at the “best” end and Chaotic Evil at the “worst end.” How so? Doesn’t that view seem contradictory, or suggests that a Lawful Evil character isn’t as evil as a Chaotic Evil character, or that a Chaotic Good character is less good than a Lawful Good character? Well, I would posit a certain key idea behind the use and implementation of a linear scale versus the 3-by-3 model.

A Lawful Good character focuses on doing good, and prefers doing good through a system in place. Furthermore, the system in place should be designed to bring about the most good for all, be intuitive and easy to abide by, and well, ultimately, be good. A Lawful Good character may abide by a less-than-perfect system, but they’d work through the system to change it and make it better and more benevolent for all.

Conversely, a Lawful Evil character still has limits: they follow a system. Granted, they will abuse a system, and exploit the absence of a system, but it’s still about the system. They’re aware that they are part of a group or society that perceives them and acts accordingly. The restraint that a Lawful Evil character has is about self-preservation, not morality or breaking a law—they just don’t want to get busted breaking a law, punished, and thus gain a social stigma. They are keenly aware that they are outnumbered or can be on the wrong end of things easily enough, and thus are out to save their own necks. In this regard, even Darth Vader knew that he still answered to the Emperor, and that if his actions notably compromised the Emperor’s power or standing, then Vader would answer for it.

A Chaotic Evil character doesn’t care about anything other than themselves, so there is nothing that’s off-limits. While a Chaotic Evil character may not normally slaughter children, for example, they’re fully capable of it when in a rage, or having it occur as a consequence of another action they’ve taken, such as burning down a village. And, to make them worse, they’re just as likely not to be moved by harming others, or they will project their rage and shame at harming others on another party—the classic “look what you made me do!” defense.

A Chaotic Good character, on the other hand, seeks to do good, and feels that laws aren’t necessary or that they get it the way, or that they’re not equally applied, or some other reason. However, a Chaotic Good character may not genuinely consider that a law or rule is in place for a reason, and that it actually is important to maintain that law or rule. Think of individuals who advocate for the legalization of all drugs, often putting forth the idea that individual choice should be all that’s needed for someone to take drugs. That person would argue that arrests based on drugs would decline and prison populations would decrease. Yet, the person may not consider the reality of such a move: the increase of addiction because companies can now sell and market these substances to the public at large; the increase of accidents and crime due to poor choices by the intoxicated and addicted; the abuse of the substances by the underage; etc. While the Chaotic Good person may argue that people have the right to choose what they consume, they still have to grapple with the reality of people exploiting others, people losing the ability to choose due to the power of addiction, as well as people making poor choices and the harm that can arise from them.

And, ultimately, a Chaotic Good character would not break any laws in the ideal society in the hypothetical perfect system created by a Lawful Good character or entity, because those ideal rules would be reasonable and not abusable or unfairly applied. The only difference is that the Chaotic Good character cannot conceive of the potential existence of such a system, or doesn’t think a system is possible to make.

This linear sort of alignment system manifested in two ways in the history of D&D: the Dragonlance setting had a line which charted a character’s progression, moving as such:

Lawful Good—Neutral Good—Chaotic Good—Lawful Neutral—Neutral—Chaotic Neutral—Lawful Evil—Neutral Evil—Chaotic Evil

The idea with this is that the “best” good person follows the system to do good. The “less perfect” Neutral Good person bends the rules from time to time to do what’s right, while the “flawed” Chaotic Good person does what’s right even though that may mean a law is broken in the process.

However, that person who breaks a law to do the right thing is deemed better than the person who just blindly follows the law because it’s the law, like the Lawful Neutral person. The Neutral person is less of a stick-in-the-mud and does a shady thing or two on the downlow, and never means to hurt anyone. The Chaotic Neutral person never means to hurt anybody, but they really want to do what they will or need to do.

And, once again, this lawbreaker who hurts nobody is deemed better than the law-abiding person who abuses the law for their own benefit or to harm others, as per the Lawful Evil person. The Neutral Evil person breaks the law when it gets in the way, but can use and abuse the system just as much as anyone. The Chaotic Evil person is the utter worst, since nothing matters except themselves, and anything is fair game to get what they want, for whatever reason.

The gymnastics of this system was simplified in the 4th ed. D&D alignment system, which met criticism. True Neutral was rebranded Unaligned, to reinforce that those characters had no skin in the game of the big battle between Good and Evil, or that a more mundane thing mattered to them, like following customs or the local law or honor. Lawful Good remained, while Neutral Good and Chaotic Good were simply fused into Good; Chaotic Evil remained, while Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil were fused into Evil. Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral now just became flavors of Unaligned, though some Chaotic Neutral went full Chaotic Evil, perhaps to show their desire to do whatever they want came with an inability or unwillingness to recognize or admit the consequences of their selfish or thoughtless actions.

I would argue the 4th ed. Alignment system didn’t stick because the 9-alignment system was around for so long, and got baked into D&D over the decades that a lot of players had a hard time abandoning it. Perhaps if the simple Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic system of original D&D had evolved into the 4th ed. alignment system directly would it have had a chance. And, oddly enough, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game that evolved from the wargame did have this system, though with just Lawful for Lawful Good and Chaotic for Chaotic Evil.

But, in the current 5th edition of the game, alignment isn’t a necessary mechanism for character abilities or other key elements. Alignment requirements pop up for some magic items, but those are add-on elements instead of core elements. It’s plausible to ignore or ditch alignment in the game, though storytelling aspects, social expectations, consequences, or some other system just fills the void, lest the game merely becomes a tabletop session of a Grand Theft: Auto video game.

Ultimately, alignment is a tool for managing ethical and moral behaviors of fictional characters in a fictional world which is inherently supernaturally influenced. It is a throwback to a worldview that isn’t as common as it may have been in the past, especially since our real world doesn’t hold up to the fictional perfection of cosmic ideals of Good and Evil, or Order and Chaos, or the like. It’s mythic.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, people tend toward a binary classification of things, especially when things are difficult and confusing. The paradox and complexity of life overall makes things difficult, and having some reassurance that up is Up and down is Down can be helpful. D&D is moving away from having groups of beings like orcs and drow as inherently or predominantly evil, because such depictions echo real-world bigotry that enabled and perpetuated injustices against “Othered” groups. But even still, there is the metaphysical realm of angels and demons who are more embodiments of Good and Evil, though they too may experience change (though rarely).

The key thing with having and using alignment in a game is discussing it with the group and having a clear idea of what it is and what it means in the context of the game. Clearing that up will help evade trying to define it later on in the game amidst everyone’s own understanding—and misunderstanding—of just what it means to the game itself, and the game played at the table.

Changing Tim Drake to be bi is wrong, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking, like bi-phobia. Changing Tim Drake (Robin) to be bi is like slapping a vegan patty on a Whopper and saying it’s now a burger made for vegans. Wouldn’t a vegan sandwich from a vegan restaurant with an entire vegan menu that ensures vegan principles were in practice every step of the way from the ground to your plate serve a vegan better? How does changing a sandwich like the Whopper, known for being a 100% all beef patty hamburger, help the store sell burgers to the old fans of the Whopper or the vegans they want to attract?

I have to make this example using food because the arguments around changing a 31 year old comic book character always boil down to the same two: “Why not?” and “Well, straight people have so many characters anyway, it’s not like you’re losing anything significant!”

Both of these arguments sidestep two VERY IMPORTANT arguments that need to be addressed first: “Why should this character be changed?” and “Is this a beneficial change to the character that helps the character, the readers, or the sale of our books?” These have to be asked and answered first, otherwise there is no point to making the change. But don’t worry, I’ll address the other two as well.

Changes to characters in comics happen all the time. That isn’t new. Superman has gained and lost powers, Spider-Man had major costume design changes and perma-death for characters like Uncle Ben, and some characters have even been replaced, like the death of Barry Allen in “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, where he was replaced by Wally West, (who was the Flash I grew up with). But before making a major change, the first thing writers have to keep in mind with comics is that it is, in part, a customer-service industry depending on the readers wanting to continue buying the comics. The bigger and more significant the change, the more you risk alienating your customers and preventing them from buying not just that book, but maybe all your books, and telling their friends not to buy them either. Negativity spreads way faster than positivity; it’s way easier to lose customers from a bad dining experience, for instance, than to keep them. Customer service venues like restaurants know this all too well. This is why most comic book changes, like Superman Red/Blue or the death of Superman, are usually planned with an outcome in mind, like reversing the change if fans didn’t like it, or justifying the change with a lengthy, well-written story that provides an argument to the fans on why they’re making a drastic change.

To put it bluntly: Comic readers are used to change and even embrace changes. But not every change has equal weight, and the bigger the change the writers want to make, the more justification they’re going to need to make it. Making a huge change poorly can sour the fans to the characters and the comics, such as having Hal Jordan self-destruct and kill most of the Green Lantern Corp, leaving old fans pissed and taking years to fix to reconcile those decisions. Changing Robin is a really poor choice done in haste for the benefit of the writer, Meghan Fiztmartin, not for the character, bi people, or Tim’s fanbase.

PART I: Meet the New Robin, Tim Drake

Tim Drake, as a character, was actually already a change to a set of ideas regarding Robin that failed spectacularly with Jason Todd, the second Robin. DC comics had created a second Robin when they wanted the original Robin, Dick Grayson, to start growing up and being used away from Batman. To replace him, since Robin has been around as Batman’s partner since just a few months after Batman’s introduction, the writers created Jason Todd. Now, pre-Crisis, he was pretty much a carbon copy of Dick; nearly exactly the same origin and everything. After Crisis, DC decided to use the opportunity to change the character in a drastic way: they were going to make this new Robin an angry, troubled youth and much more prone to violence to change the dynamic between the Dynamic Duo.

This failed hard. Readers didn’t like the angry new Robin, and eventually, were so vocal about it that DC decided to write a story where fans could choose his fate; famously, fans had a change of heart and decided to let him live, but thanks to the efforts of an auto-dialer, the vote was tallied up in favor of his death. Robin was killed, and Batman was left without a partner.

During the next year, writers headed by Denny O’Neil, cooked up a solution: Tim Drake. During the storyline, “A Lonely Place of Dying”, the effect of Jason’s death is explored through the eyes of Batman, Dick Grayson, and new character Tim Drake, who gives a famous and impassioned to the Batman about why he needs Robin. Not only did this work well the readers, it worked SO WELL, that Tim Drake as Robin got his own mini-series, and that worked so well, that he became the first Robin to get his own solo book without Batman, where he was the main character; that comic ran for 16 years, over half the life of the character thus far.

(credit – DC comics)

Every single relationship he’s had has been straight for his entire 31 year run, and included memorable lovers like Stephanie Brown (the Spoiler), Cassie Sandsmark (Wonder Girl), and even included stories of him considering being the father to Stephanie’s child as a teen, even if the child wasn’t his because he loved her. This was a huge part of their relationship because it dealt with teen romance, pregnancy, and fatherhood in interesting ways the other bat-family members hadn’t tackled.

(credit: DC Comics)
DC Histories: Stephanie Brown (Spoiler / Robin IV / Batgirl IV)
(credit: DC Comics)

(credit: DC Comics)
What happened to her baby? - Stephanie Brown - Comic Vine
(credit: DC Comics)

I have to bring all of this history up to show one important point: Tim Drake as a character ended up being popular because a lot of work went into designing him with an understanding of what the fans would enjoy… not necessarily what they would say they wanted, but with a savvy of knowing what could work, and it paid off. Changes weren’t decided on and made by asking, “why not?” They were made with specific goals and intentions in mind in regards to the audience. This is why he has been successful and one of the most popular characters in DC for years.

PART II: Urban Legends

Fast forwarding 31 years, a mini-series, a 16-year solo series, multiple appearances in video games (like the Arkham series), and spots on cartoon shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Young Justice. Batman: Urban Legends is the series where writer Meghan Fitzmartin and artist Belén Ortega decided to make Robin bisexual. Following another DC universe reboot, Fitzmartin writes that Tim breaks up with Stephanie Brown, a long-term love interest OFF PANEL, and then proceeds to hook him up with a guy named Bernard.

Unlike other major changes to characters, this feels like it’s been done on a whim, mostly for the artists to get attention rather than any benefit to the character. Especially with the long history between Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown, who were created nearly at the same time and have essentially spent the last 30 years on and off together.

Stephanie Brown Learns Tim Drake Is Alive (Rebirth) – Comicnewbies
(credit: DC Comics)

New articles are quick to post up praise for making this decision with titles like, “Robin comes out as Bi in DC comics after 81 years“, as though the character has always been waiting to do this and wanted to do this on his own. But it’s a fictional character, and characters are written. He wasn’t written this way before, and he wasn’t designed to be a bi character. He didn’t decide anything; the new writers did. This isn’t about Robin coming out, it’s about the new writers wanting Robin to be bi.

So let’s talk about the arguments they’re making on why.

“Why not?!” This is usually to draw the other person into place to be accused of biphobia. If you’re questioning the change, you must just be against diversity and bi people.

This is why I went through Part I, to talk about Tim’s history. If the premise that changing the character NOW is a superior change, or at least a beneficial change, despite his initial design and 31 years of success, there should be an argument being made that states why this either maintains that quality or improves upon it. “Why not?” doesn’t do either.

And saying that making Robin bi improves the character with the argument that changing the character is a significant win for the bi community due to the change in sexuality also implies that it was important to the character before making the change. Since there are 31 years of invested fans in his straight relationships, this becomes a much more significant loss to a lot of his fanbase than it would be a win for bi people.

“Well, straight people have so many characters anyway, it’s not like you’re losing anything significant! This means more to bi people than to you!” – This argument argues that the significance for fans is in how many characters they relate to, not the personal significance a character may have to them. And I say this as someone who started on a journey with Tim Drake during his introduction in, “A Lonely Place of Dying”, where the writers convinced me this Robin was going to be good.

Questioning Comics on Twitter: "Tim Drake persuades Batman that he needs a  Robin. Tim, more than anyone else, understood why Batman needed Robin and  he explains that excellently in this classic sequence
(credit: DC Comics)

It’s easier to think about this in terms of children. If I have five children, and you have two, and you take one of mine for yourself, the argument they are making is that I should be content since I still have more children than they do, and that they will value my child more because they have fewer children. However, this ignores the relationship I have with that child. That child is significant to me because of the relationship I have with them, not because I have more children than someone else.

PART III: The Vegan Sandwich

Let’s swap bi people for vegans for just a moment. How would I show that I have vegans’ best interests at heart and attract them to my products? It’s so much easier when you talk about this in food terms because we all have to eat!  

Well, first I have to know what vegans believe. Then I have to know what they want, and not just what they say they want, but what will actually meet their needs. Henry Ford used to say, “If I just gave the people what they wanted, I’d have built a faster horse.”  

This is where the collision is felt the worst with snap changes to characters like this. Changing Tim Drake to be bi and calling him a “significant bi character” is like putting a vegan patty on a Whopper; we all know what the Whopper was. We know it was never a vegan sandwich. And calling it a significant vegan sandwich is a major misnomer, because we all know the brand name of “Whopper” was built off of beef.  

staff69420 — So Batman: Urban Legends #4 just dropped and uh...
(credit: DC Comics)

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s a much tougher road, but it’s in creating a significant character from the ground up. If you really want to value a new clientele, then you need to do the work.

This is daunting for modern writers, because that process involves a lot of failure. Bunker from the new 52 is a great example of how difficult it is to make a significant gay character from scratch. It’s the audience that determines whether a character becomes successful by how much they buy the book, not by how much you tell them to like it.

CONCLUSION

The characters still standing today went through the crucible of time, winning over fans, multiple writers, and avoided fading into obscurity. What’s left has been what WORKS. What’s there is typically what the fans wanted to buy.

Changing that is messing with a core audience that has proven they like that character. Making a change then should be with the consideration to the current base of fans.

Attracting a new set of fans, or trying to appeal to a subset of your fans, is a great business move, but it requires a lot of work. Nothing is more disrespectful to both parties than taking short cuts that piss off both.  

Making a significant LGTBQ+ character right now means putting together the bones of a character that can stand as tall as Superman or Captain America, or be beloved by fans outside the character’s (supposed) demographic, like Wonder Woman. Comics are loaded with characters that are one-trick ponies or D-list heroes and villains who never landed with the audience. Taking someone else’s character, putting a new label on it, and calling it a win for yourself is just shameful, and the only person benefitting from this process is Meghan Fitzmartin for making a ‘bold choice’ with a character she inherited,  not created, in a move that only glorifies herself, not the character.

Tim Drake being changed to bi is as significant as changing Superman to be gay: Neither character was made with sexuality specifically stated as important, but it IS important after decades of the relationships they’ve had, and that we’ve had with them.

If Meghan Fiztmartin really wants to show love to the bi community, she should focus on making a character that can become icon like these others for 30-80 years; if she does that, then we can talk about how she’s done something meaningful or significant. Until then, she’s only taken someone else’s hard work and tried to put a new label on it to give to a new owner.

Google Image

Some odd years ago while perusing the library comic and graphic novels section, I stumbled across a comic series that I had no idea I would end up falling in love with. It was a post-apocalyptic series called Y: The Last Man. I’ve read other stories by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga anyone?) and can’t sing his praises enough. He’s done a variety of genre of stories, and so far, everything I’ve read of his has left a lasting impression. Y: The Last Man is no different. He is an amazing storyteller. The art by Pia Guerra is also flipping gorgeous.

We have stories on what would happen if the dead were reanimated and walking among the living (Walking Dead to name one such story . . . which had such great promise, but that’s another story that I may visit one day in the future)—how would life be, how would humanity survive and function? What of the human condition? We also have stories about other life forms coming to Earth and the fallout that would occur from such an experience. But what would happen if men became extinct, leaving only girls and women behind? What would the world look like and how would the women left behind make sense of what happened and how they should now move about in a world that men no longer inhabit? Would it be viewed as a Utopia? So many questions and more (I really could go on with questions).

Yet there was one human male survivor by the name of Yorick Brown along with pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand, also a male. Even though the story centers around these two, we still get a look at how the woman are dealing with the aftermath of being the ones that survived. As some questions are answered, more rise up. A major one is why the plague that wiped out all male mammals with the Y chromosome (except for the aforementioned) came to be in the first place. There are a few possible explanations that are brought up in the story (such as the Rapture claiming men as punishment to women for the original sin (bible reference, by the way), which I thought was absurd), but ultimately is left for the reader to consider and decide which is the actual reason/explanation. What I think isn’t exactly the point of this post, but more to wax poetically (or so I like to think I am) about a story I love, as well as hopefully getting others to read this series if they had no idea of it previously. I love putting people on to great stories and hearing what they thought about it. Also, while I’m ramblin’ (Get it? Ramblin’? Is this mic on??) I’d like to mention how bad ass Agent 355 is, she is my favorite character in the series.

Google Image: Agent 355 and Yorick by Pia Guerra

My longwinded point to my waxing poetic of Y: The Last Man, is that I see the series has finally been adapted to TV (FX to be specific)! This has been years in the making, and at one point in time it seemed as if it wouldn’t come to be. It was supposed to be made into a movie, but that fell through . . . however, given some of the people they were looking at to portray some of the characters at the time, I think it was for the best. I think this time around they chose a better cast, especially with Agent 355, who will be played by Ashley Romans. Diane Lane, I think will also be excellent as Yorick’s mother, Senator Jennifer Brown. I’m excitedly waiting for September so I can check the TV adaptation out. For those of you who have read the series, let’s talk about it! What did you think of the story, who were your favorite characters?

 

 

 

I remember flipping through the channels on tv one night, in my tiny apartment, many, many years ago. I happened to see a commercial for a new show called Supernatural. 

I did not recognize the actors, but the plot seemed interesting. The thing that caught my attention was when the commercial said to turn off all of your lights when you watch the pilot episode. 

This was before DVR, so I put a note on my calendar. When the show aired, I got comfy on my sofa, and I turned off all of my lights in my apartment. 

I remember the mom getting up to check on the baby, but the dad was already by the crib. Then she saw the dad asleep downstairs. The fire, the mom on the ceiling, the dad grabbing the baby, handing him to his little boy and saying “Dean, take your brother outside as fast as you can.” The dad trying to save the mom. Then the fire, taking everything they loved. The three of them outside, by the fire trucks. And then so many questions. Questions that were going to be answered sooner or later, as you could tell by the sad yet angry look on the dad’s face. He was not going to let this go. 

In the dark of my apartment, I was very captivated. It was an interesting show and from the beginning I was jumpy. I loved it. 

The brothers grew up, meeting again after years apart, and coming across a woman in white. More jumpy feelings. Then they showed the Impala. The trunk. The coolest car on our planet. 

I met Sam and Dean Winchester. Sam wanted to continue his college career, and Dean wanted to continue to “hunt” and find their dad, John. Their dad had been looking for the “thing” that killed their mom ever since it happened. 

Sam agreed to go on one “hunt” with Dean. Then Sam returned home, only to see his girlfriend have the same fate as their mom. It was the fire all over again. Jessica, the love of Sam’s life, on the ceiling surrounded by flames. Sam was devastated, angry, and vengeful. 

He left college and jumped in the Impala with Dean. 

Saving people, hunting things, the family business . . .
Season 1

They both vowed to find their dad and find the “thing” that killed their mom and Jessica. This was their life and their job now. Working together to stop whatever this was. 

I loved the premise and I couldn’t wait for the next episode. I have watched every episode after that. It was and is still my favorite show. I can “carry on” about Supernatural, but I’ll leave it for my blogs to come . . .

My lights are still off.