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My Journey from Indie Comics Snob to Superhero Nerd

Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.

About ten years ago, I made the decision to step outside of my bubble and explore the great wide world of comics. As a child, I’d pored over my dad’s old Silver Age Green Lantern comics. More recently I’d devoured trade paperbacks of The Sandman and Maus and Transmetropolitan borrowed from friends or from the library. I’d read books about what a versatile and challenging artform comics can be, and I wanted to find out more.

I steeled myself and marched off to my local comic store.

As soon as I walked in, the man working there swooped down on me. Maybe it’s hindsight that adds the memory of a glint in his eye at the sight of fresh prey. What was I looking for? he wanted to know. What ongoing series was I following? What had me on tenterhooks, waiting for it to hit the shelves?

“I… I… I like The Sandman?” I asked him.

“Ah,” he said, knowingly. The Sandman’s run had ended nearly a decade before.

Winter Downs
“Rock On!”

Make Believe

Written by GeekGirlCon Copy Writer Winter Downs

Like a lot of kids, I loved the kind of unstructured make-believe games you’d play when all the toys got boring. Whether we were fairies with magical powers, or adventurers fighting minotaurs in the heart of a labyrinth, my friends and I loved telling impossible stories and being someone else for an afternoon.

Photo source: little girls R better at designing superheroes than you

I’ve tried many roleplaying games since, but nothing quite scratched that itch for collaborative creation–until I discovered Story Games, tabletop storytellng games with an emphasis on narrative and invention.

Whatever kind of story you want to tell, whatever scale you want to tell it on, however structured you want the game to be, there’s a story game for it.

If you like having the details of your setting defined, there are games like Durance, which explores power hierarchies on a prison planet, and guides the players through figuring out what particular shortages the prisoners suffer. If, on the other hand, you like a game that leaves the setting up to the players, pick something like Shooting the Moon, a game for three characters (one beloved, and two suitors vying for their favor). It has plenty of info on creating complicated relationships, but can take place on a pirate ship, in a law office, on an alien planet, in ancient Rome, or anywhere the players can imagine.

Genres? We’ve got genres. There’s Zombie Cinema for action horror, Shock for political sci-fi, Dungeon World for a classic dungeon crawl, and Hot Guys Making Out for yaoi manga, to name a few.

A few of these games need someone to step up and take the storyteller role, which is kind of like the Game Master in a traditional RPG like Dungeons & Dragons, but it usually has far less control over the direction and outcomes of the story. Rather than waiting for the storyteller or MC to fill in what happens next or what’s behind the locked door, players chime in with suggestions, making it a much more collaborative experience. A good example would be Apocalypse World (and all the games that grew from it, like Dungeon World and Monsterhearts). If you want your character to find the diary of their rival, just narrate that you find it. Of course, that doesn’t stop the person playing your rival from interrupting you reading it, or from saying you find out something you were better off not knowing. The Apocalypse World games also use dice to resolve some conflict situations, which can lead to some interesting unintended consequences.

Shock and Shooting the Moon don’t have MCs or storytellers, but there are very clear rules about taking turns in framing scenes, driving the scenes toward a conflict, and resolving that conflict.

At the other end of the scale, there’s Ribbon Drive, a meandering road trip set to a soundtrack. (And yes, players get to make the soundtrack!) Scenes tend to be longer, quieter, and more conversational. Scenes don’t have to contain conflict or obstacles at all, and when they do, it’s more likely to involve interpersonal tension than violence. One of my favorite things about Ribbon Drive is that the whole group collaborates on creating the setting and the characters based on the first two songs of the soundtrack, which gives you an excuse to sit your friends down and make them listen to songs you like. Or maybe that’s just me.

Most games I’ve mentioned so far are roleplaying games in the usual sense, where each player takes one character (or sometimes more) and speaks their words, narrates their actions, and advocates for their interests. While other players and MCs may introduce new events, facts about the environment, and so on, players get the final say on their individual characters.

Some games, however, are on a completely different scale. Microscope, described as a fractal game of epic histories, has the players explore vast swaths of invented history, only occasionally zooming in to play out scenes with individual characters. Even then, the characters don’t “belong” to any one player, and if they show up again in the story they might be played by someone entirely different. The typical scale of a game of Microscope might be the rise and fall of a galactic empire. This is a great introductory game for someone who feels nervous about roleplaying as specific characters.

Map-drawing game The Quiet Year is smaller in scope, covering one year in the life of a small post-apocalyptic community teetering on the edge of destruction, but rather than playing characters, players represent subgroups and factions engaged in a tug-of-war about how the community should prepare itself for the trouble to come. They don’t collaborate or make suggestions, they just show their contempt in the form of a token whenever another player takes an action they don’t like.

The Quiet Year: amateur cartographers welcome.

Photo source: Buried Without Ceremony

Getting Involved (in the Pacific Northwest)

 I hope this has given you some idea of the variety of different experiences you can have playing story games, and piqued your interest. If you want to try out the hobby among welcoming, experienced players, a group from Story Games Seattle camps out in the gaming area of most big local cons, including GeekGirlCon. They’ll help you figure out which game you might like, and then play a demo with you on the spot. There are also the annual gaming conventions Gamestorm (in Portland) and GoPlay Northwest (in Seattle), which both feature story games as well as more familiar roleplaying games.

If you can’t wait that long, get yourself to a meetup at Phoenix Comics and Games on Thursdays, or Wayward Coffeehouse every other Saturday. Phoenix’s next session is July 10 at 6:30 p.m., and Wayward’s next session is July 12 at 2 p.m.

Meetup groups:

Winter Downs
“Rock On!”

Superheroes Began with a Woman: Remembering Baroness Emma Orczy

Guest post by Alan Sizzler Kistler

Superheroes began in the imagination of a woman.

I’m not speaking metaphorically, nor do I mean “behind every great man from Krypton, there is a fearless woman ready to kick a little butt in the name of truth and justice”  (though this is true and Lois Lane is simply marvelous). I’m talking about Baroness Emma “Emmuska” Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josepha Barbara Orczy. Her hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, started the ball rolling.

TheScarletPimpernelThere were stories of powerful fighters of evil before, such as Hercules, Gilgamesh, or Robin Hood, but these were cultural myths that shifted with the teller. They weren’t created for popular entertainment under the direction of one person or a small group of people, and the characters didn’t use what we consider to be a “secret identity” or costumes that symbolized an alter ego. Rather than fighting injustice in general, they usually had one major enemy or were reactionary protagonists, fighting evil if they stumbled upon it or if it directly entered their lives. Robin Hood didn’t patrol Nottingham the way Batman patrols Gotham or Superman watches over Earth.

The first step towards a traditional “superhero” in literature started in the mind of Baroness Orczy. In 1899, the 34-year-old Emma Orczy gave birth to her son John and published her first book. It didn’t meet with success, but that didn’t slow her down. She published several short stories and then a second novel in 1901, which earned her a bit of fame. She enjoyed writing heroic detective stories, and created Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, one of the first female detectives in literature. In 1901, she wrote (but did not publish) a story called “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which came to her so quickly that she is said to have finished it in five weeks. The story starred Sir Percy Blakeney, a British baronet married to Marguerite—“the cleverest woman in Europe.” Sir Percy is a man skilled in swordsmanship, disguise, and strategy. During the early days of the French Revolution, he secretly rescues people he considers unjustly sentenced to death by Madame Guillotine. To cover his tracks, he uses an alias taken from an old family seal, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and recruits nineteen friends as agents in his “League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” In public, Sir Percy acts like a shallow fop, one who grows faint at the mention of violence and believes that all problems can be solved by luxury, relaxation, and beautiful clothing.

This hero was clearly drawn from Baroness Orczy’s childhood as well as her political views. During her older sister’s fifth birthday, a peasant uprising set her family estate ablaze, prompting her family to leave Hungary and travel through Europe before settling in London, where she eventually met her husband Montagu Barstow. The Scarlet Pimpernel was the kind of hero she wished could have protected her family when she was a young girl.

Though she didn’t initially publish the story, Emma Orczy and her husband wrote a stage production version that opened in October 1903 at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. It wasn’t well received but the Baroness again chose to not give up. After a little rewriting, the new version of the play opened in London in 1905 and became a popular hit, even while critics wrote negatively about it. The same year, Baroness Orczy published her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was highly acclaimed by casual reader and critic alike. She went on to write ten sequel novels, plus two collections of short stories featuring the hero. She also wrote two prequel novels starring an ancestor of Sir Percy Blakeney, and another novel that focused on a descendant. The Scarlet Pimpernel grew beyond Baroness Orczy and spread across pop culture. There have been film adaptations, TV adaptations, and a Broadway musical. In 1940, Daffy Duck assumed the identity of the Scarlet Pumpernickel. Bart Simpson once watched a film where Zorro declared war on the Scarlet Pimpernel. In the first comic book series starring the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a painting revealed that an earlier incarnation of the titular team included Sir Percy and Marguerite, as well as the Reverend Dr. Syn (more on him in a little bit).

Was Sir Percy the first superhero? He didn’t have any powers, but neither do characters such as Batman or Iron Man (usually), or Green Lantern without his ring. In general, I see the term “superhero” as traditionally referring to a character who wears a distinctive costume or uniform, lives in an exaggerated reality that involves science fiction and/or fantasy elements, often has a secret identity, and fights evil due to a moral calling rather than because it is literally a job they signed up for (so the police and agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are heroes, while the Justice League and Avengers are superheroes). There are exceptions, but this is the general and traditional idea. The Scarlet Pimpernel wore many disguises, but he didn’t have a costume or a distinctive mask, just his literal calling card decorated by a red flower. He’s close to a superhero, but not quite there.

Dr Syn Scarecrow Blevins 1To my mind, the first traditional superhero came in 1915 with Russell Thorndike’s book Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh. The book featured Dr. Christopher Syn, a pirate-turned-reverend living in Dymchurch (a town in Kent, England) who decided not to simply stand by as his parishioners were victimized by the government and criminal elements. At night, Dr. Syn rode a dark stallion, which he kept in a hidden lair, and donned the costume of a demonic scarecrow. None suspected that the kindly, somber reverend was secretly the terrifying Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, feared even by those he helped.

Syn is a very different character on the surface, but Thorndyke followed many beats from the Scarlet Pimpernel. Similar to Orczy’s hero, Dr. Syn acted less aggressive in his public life, using tricks to appear older and weaker than he was. While Blakeney had the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Syn had a few trusted agents, including a witch and a death mask-wearing gravedigger called Hellspite. Dr. Syn was also a man initially born into a wealthy upper class family who, unbeknownst to his family and friends, received training in fighting and other special fields, just like Sir Percy.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was popular enough that he starred in six later novels by Thorndyke, three films, a television mini-series from Disney, audio adaptations, a stage play, and comic books. The town of Dymchurch even has a biannual “Days of Syn” celebration in honor of the character.

In 1919, four years after Syn’s debut, Johnston McCulley created a more famous character who also inspired by Baroness Orczy’s hero. McCulley’s story “The Curse of Capistrano” was serialized in the pulp fiction magazine All-Story Weekly. Later, it was published as a novel under a new title: The Mark of Zorro.

Don Diego de la Vega aka Zorro was, like Sir Blakeney, a man of wealth and education who was secretly adept at sword fighting, strategy, and disguise. In his daily life, he pretended to be a shallow weakling with no direction in life, focused mainly on the latest fashion and popular trends. While the Scarlet Pimpernel left a calling card, Zorro left his monogram carved on walls. Following Syn’s example, Zorro used a hidden lair and a dark horse and donned a distinctive costume.

After Zorro, pulp fiction magazines and comic strips brought forth other characters cut from the same cloth. The mysterious Shadow, the Spider, and the Phantom all followed the basic model of the Scarlet Pimpernel, being independently wealthy renaissance men who pretended to be less in their public life while fighting evil via an alter ego. The Spider, Phantom, and Green Hornet also had unique seals like the Scarlet Pimpernel. While many of his contemporaries wore distinctive clothing, the Phantom took it a step further by donning a skin-tight costume and a mask that didn’t reveal his eyes.

Two years after the Phantom was introduced, Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. The Man of Steel was not independently wealthy as the Scarlet Pimpernel had been, nor did he rely on a team of agents, but there was still the element of a man who pretended to be meek in public so none would suspect he was a hero who protected others from harm and evil. Similar to the Pimpernel, you immediately felt Superman’s presence when you saw his distinctive seal. In the Superman radio show a couple of years later, it was implied that Superman’s S-shield was actually a Kryptonian symbol. This idea entered into popular culture with Superman: The Movie in 1978, where it was shown that the shield was Superman’s family symbol —just like the scarlet pimpernel flower was Sir Percy Blakeney’s family seal.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was not a traditional superhero. He was actually the proto-superhero, that first model that eventually led to Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Justice League, and so many others. Some of these characters may still have been created, but they wouldn’t have been the same. Our popular culture, and some of our lives, would be very different. We needed The Scarlet Pimpernel before we could figure out how to take things further and further.

So if someone suggests that superheroes can only be appreciated by the male gender, remember that it all started with a woman who certainly wasn’t perfect but who should be recognized for never letting failures and setbacks stop her.  A woman who kept writing until she created something that struck a chord. Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s story was the seminal work of a whole new genre, and look where we are now, over a century later.

She changed the world.

Alan-Kistler-headshotAlan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and author who bounces between New York City and Los Angeles. He is the host of Stay Geeky on YouTube and co-host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks on iTunes. A contributor to various websites, Alan is the author of The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook and the upcoming Doctor Who: A History, and is a contributor to the book Star Trek and History. He prefers his vampires to be scary and is still waiting for a Wonder Woman movie. Find him on Twitter: @SizzlerKistler

Winter Downs
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