In Which Superheroes Punch River Gods in the Face

Those of you who’ve been following my progress over the past few months may know that I’m back to doing freelance writing, which is another way of saying “I’m unemployed… except when I’m not.”

Looking for work is, of course, a full-time job for a writer. My days are spent Googling “narrative designer,” and typing up customized cover letters for submission along with my resume. Every now and then I’ll get a bite and they’ll ask me to do a writing test, which takes anywhere from one to seven days of work. Sometimes, I’m familiar with the game company, and have played all their games. Sometimes, I have to jump in with both feet and learn on the fly. While I like to think I can learn a new franchise in a very short amount of time, the reality of this renaissance of nerd-dom we live in is that there are too many properties to keep up with simultaneously.

For example, like many nerds, I played tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. But if a job opportunity pops up at Wizards of the Coast, the interview questions will be more like “What are your opinions on how to improve the Eberron campaign setting, and where do you see it going in the next five years?” Then I’ll switch gears to mobile games, where the test will be about Stardew Valley or maybe an interactive romance novel like Choices, and the next day it’ll be back to a real-time strategy series, asking me to write in the voice of generals of the Napoleonic Wars.

I can do these things. The sticking point is, can I do them faster, cheaper, or with more panache than whoever else is applying? Can I Skype with the employer at 11:00 at night because they’re on Beijing time? Am I disabled or a veteran? Can I speak Korean?

So that’s my day-to-day now. In between job applications, I play games to try to keep current on them. At night, I polish short stories, because, like I said elsewhere in this blog, I’m trying to sell them to fund a sequel to Civil Blood. I’ve polished the I.T.-expert-to-the-superheroes story (“The Needs of the Client”) and submitted it. The next in line, “Give a Little, Get a Little,” is in the queue for critiques through my writing workshop. Progress is slow, but measurable.

And then… there’s the game I love the most. The one that’s back from the dead.

The thing that really was the cherry on top to the old MMO City of Heroes was the fact that you could write up a biography of your hero and other players would see it. It was totally optional, but if you wanted to say you’re a time-traveling hawk-man wielding Excalibur, teaming up with a sapient crash test dummy, you could do it. And after around four or five years into the game, they came up with the Mission Architect, where players could create their own adventures, and have other players run through them.

I actually never got super into the Mission Architect when the game was live, because it was a rabbit hole you could be inside forever. I was writing for Bioware, getting my kiddo through toilet training, and the other players were cranking out great content already. There was one arc where you battled the Phantom of the Opera in the sewers beneath the Paris opera house. Another had archvillains inspired by the major arcana of tarot cards. And of course there was the “Visit from the Fashion Police” adventure, where you fought the Fashion Victims gang, wearing the ugliest, most clashing clothes that the costume creator could possibly make.

 My contribution was a humorous single-episode mission called “Economic Recovery Through Fisticuffs,” in which you find the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis as they escape on a cargo liner bound for Antigua, and punch them in the face. The minions had names like “Short Seller” (they were 4′ tall), “Economic Shock Doctor” (electricity powers), and bikini-clad socialites called “Somebody Else’s Wife,” because, in the words of a CIA agent I once met, “who sells out their country and jets off to an island with their OWN wife?”

Now that I’m revisiting the game (it came back in 2019), I decided to put in some time designing a story arc. I figured it’d be good for my game design skills, though honestly, it’s unlikely an employer would ever see it. While a core group of fans love the game, the chance that a particular dev has sought out the new version, downloaded it, has an appropriate-level character, and would play all the way through the 5-mission arc is ridiculously low. But it’s a fun challenge, and I’m happy to share the story.

The arc is called “Dr. Aeon and the Wrath of Achilles.” I created it because there’s a ton of players who make Greek and Roman superheroes now, and there’s a lot of good costume and powerset combos for them. And, of course, as readers of Mythkillers know, I’ve got an obsession with the Trojan War. So I thought a little time travel could be fun.

The players are summoned by Mender Lazarus, one of the guardians of the time stream, who says the balance of power in the player’s timeline is, was, or will be upset. Dr. Aeon, the chrononaut mad scientist for City of Heroes‘ premier villains, Arachnos, has broken into Paragon City University. There, he kidnapped a classics professor, and went back in time to the Bronze Age, to interfere in the course of the Trojan War. Why is he siding with the Trojans and assailing the Greeks with his high-tech weaponry? Therein lies the mystery.

What follows is a lot of fighting, because hey, it’s an MMO. You beat up everything from Trojan soldiers and Amazon princesses to a river god and super-soldiers with mechanical spider legs coming off their back like Doctor Octopus’s tentacles. I’m not actually allowed to post video from COH to YouTube, because you’re not allowed to make ad revenue on the game for legal reasons. But I will post some relatively-spoiler-free screenshots.

This is the university hallway for the first mission:

Enemies in the basement:

The second adventure has you rescue Greek heroes from Arachnos in the plain of the Troad:

(Nothing like a good foot sweep to knock down a Trojan archer.)
(Menelaos, Great Ajax, and Odysseus, as well as our hero in white.)

And there’s more! I recreated Achilles’ rampage, with you as the star.

While I won’t reveal the end, I can show off the neatest part of the game, the character creator. There’s about six good power sets for the rank and file soldiers: single sword, single axe, single mace, archery, staff fighting with a two-handed spear, and double blades (either swords or axes). Only the single weapons can be used with a shield, or they can be left alone and paired with more supernatural powers, like flames, regeneration, or Achilles-style invulnerability. So while I can’t get a spear-and-shield combo, I can get a lot of others.

(Rank-and-file Trojan archers.)
(Memnon, son of the Dawn, king of Aethiopia)
(Hector, prince of Troy. The spear looks more like a naginata, but it’s the closest I could get.)
(Xanthos, a.k.a. the Scamander River God. The blue slime is water animated to drip.)
(Aphrodite, goddess of love, sex, and sea foam. The sparkles animate.)
(Penthesilea, princess of the Amazons, with double labrys axes.)
(Achilles, with his famous shield.)

If you’ve made it this far and actually have a City of Heroes (Homecoming) account, the arc is #31899. Just enter that into the search bar at the Architect Entertainment interface, and the arc should be playable.

Now I think I’ll get back to the prose writing, since I’m all burned out on Greeks for the moment. Take care, and let’s save the world this year!

In Which I Come Back from Faraway Lands

Those of you just joining me may look at my last blog post and say, “Egads! It’s been three months since the last update! Where has Chris been?” And the answer, of course, lies in the text of the last update — I’ve been doing my day job, which has, like most hazardous gases, expanded to fill the size of its container.

The good news is, the job is pretty cool. When we last left our intrepid hero, I was Kickstarting Mythkillers. In short, Mythkillers is an urban fantasy that is sort of like if you took the ancient bloody-minded gods from Sandman and gave them to the goofy motherf***ers writing Guardians of the Galaxy.

We were successfully funded on Kickstarter, hit two stretch goals, and have been busily making the comics ever since. Since my last post on this blog, I added somewhere around 37 articles on the Seasun Comics news page, which explains a part of my conspicuous absence. If you’re looking to check out Mythkillers, we’re currently using Indiegogo’s InDemand as our online store. I posted a general FAQ for people new to the comic here.

But like any good act of magic, the reasons for my disappearing act here comes in threes.

The second reason I’ve been absent is more related to an old, long-held vice. From 2005 to 2012 or so, I played a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game called City of Heroes. The game shut down in 2012… officially. In May or so, it was revealed that a secret cabal of reverse engineers had actually managed to illegally keep the game’s source code and played it on a private server for the last six or seven years. And then they reopened it for public play, free of charge, with the game company tacitly agreeing not to prosecute anyone for literally saving Paragon City.

It is difficult for me to express how much I loved City of Heroes… okay, it’s not difficult, but most of you wouldn’t understand me if I said “I got the Isolator badge the hard way in Recluse’s Victory and Disruptor on my empathy defender.” I’ve toned my fanaticism down a bit this time around, but I can now play it with my son, who enjoys creating characters just as much or more than he actually likes playing the game. So the game is a factor as well — it sucks up time I would have spent writing.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stuck with my plan to write short stories and sell them to try and finance a Civil Blood sequel. Far from it, in fact. The third thing I’ve been doing in the evenings rather than post updates to the blog is the actual writing of short stories. I finished two recently and sent them off to a writer’s workshop.

The first, “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Office of Superhero Registration,” humorously imagines what the superhero equivalent of the DMV is like. It highlights the down side of being a regenerating hero, which is that to register your superheroic abilities, you have to demonstrate them, i.e. get the mess beaten out of you by a big dude in power armor who doesn’t know what a safe word is.

The second story is from the Civil Blood universe and is, of course, much darker and more serious. It deals with Infinity returning to Los Angeles after the events of the novel and meeting up with Katie, the martial arts instructor who was like a mother to her. Infinity chooses to “come out” to Katie as a vampire, but she can’t go home again the way she’d like to. The story’s title, “Infection in Everything,” refers to the vampire virus VIHPS as well as a passage in Musashi’s famous martial arts manual The Book of Five Rings.

So hopefully, both these stories will see the light of day sometime. I suspect “The 10:40” will be an easier sell, since SF magazines perpetually say they’re starved for humorous content. I think it hits a good mix of slapstick and poignancy, and it’s high time someone wrote a story about the super-saturation point of comic book crime-fighters.

They do say, “write what you know,” right?

My Spoiler-Filled “Black Panther” Take

My kiddo Shane and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship, but when I  introduced him to LEGO Marvel Superheroes for the Xbox, suddenly I was the Fun Parent. I’m not the biggest Marvel fan in the world, but out of some 200 playable characters, I could explain the superpowers of the first 50 or so, and I could Google the rest of them. Shane loves superheroes now. All of his obsessive collecting urges that used to be for Thomas the Tank Engine trains suddenly found a new outlet. And unlike the Thomas trains, playing Marvel heroes let him fly or shoot fire, and they all have stories that I can explain.

Well, up to a point, anyway.  I had to sum up the tail end of the Dark Phoenix saga as “then there are clones and breeding super-mutants and it gets kinda dumb.”

But we like movies. And we like superheroes, including Black Panther. In the game, Black Panther gives out side quests, and you can unlock him as a playable character. So Saturday of opening weekend, you better believe our family had our butts in the seats.

I warned the kiddo it was PG-13, like Revenge of the Sith, so it might be scary. And it might be long, like The Last Jedi, which he walked out of for ten minutes or so. And there were a lot of movies that happened before it, so it might be a little confusing. But I’d be right there to explain anything.

I didn’t have to worry.

I have never seen him so actively involved in a movie. He asked a million questions, and none of them to Mama, because Daddy was Designated Explainer of All Things Marvel. I think the two most difficult things to communicate quickly were that the vibranium suit could absorb energy and release it again, and why Killmonger shot a guy to finish him off even though the guy was going to die anyway. (For the record, my wife’s explanation of “because the writer wanted to show him as a bad guy” is a lot more of a teachable moment than my suggestion, “because he was extra mad at what the other guy said.”)

So I was heavily biased in favor of this movie. Shane liked the movie, so I liked the movie. When the lights came up, I wasn’t about to get into trouble because my idea for a family outing was too grimdark for a six-year-old to handle. This is not always a given. Recently we watched Jeopardy and a question about Dr. Manhattan came up, so he asked me “who are the Watchmen?” That wasn’t hard to field, but it was immediately followed by “Are they good guys or bad guys?”

Yeah, we’re going to have to wait a little while before explaining that one.

Anyway, to use my formal Reviewer Voice, I thought Black Panther rocked. Beverly (my daughter) was not as thrilled; she thought it was inappropriately violent. And my wife, who’s a much bigger fan of books than action movies, made what seemed like a rather true observation: the characters in Black Panther serve the needs of the action. The Wakandans are a highly advanced pretty-much-utopia, but they’re also a monarchy where leadership is determined by single combat. Does that tradition make sense? Mmm… in a superhero action movie, yes, but probably not outside of that. Why are the Dora Milaje running around with vibranium spears rather than guns? Because they make for cooler choreography, that’s why. (To be fair, I don’t want to see Wakandans firing guns at each other and leaving bodies everywhere like it’s 1990s Rwanda, so bring on the spears, I say.) And, as often happens with action movies, we examined T’Challa’s character arc.

A caveat: nobody in my immediate family saw Captain America: Civil War. From what I’ve read, T’Challa gets an extensive introduction there. But in BP, T’Challa’s conflict is largely external. His father’s spirit says he’s a good man, which makes it hard to be a good king… and yet, we don’t see him grapple with kingly decisions very much. Once he’s crowned, he chases down Klaue on a mission of personal vengeance, and then his time is pretty much taken up defending his throne. He gets beat up by Killmonger, who’s a better hand-to-hand fighter without the Panther powers, and then in his rematch, triumphs because…

….because he pulls off “a hell of a move.”

So, we thought… that’s it?

Maybe he’s more used to the powers than Killmonger. Maybe he just got lucky. But his victory wasn’t because he’s exemplifying some great revelation about the mantle of kingship or because he’s right and Killmonger’s wrong about the nature of the world. (The battle for Wakanda was, however, swayed because of his recruitment of allies, so I’ll give him a nod there… but siding with the enemy of your enemy is something both Killmonger and T’Challa share and is basically Warrior Stuff 101.)

That said, Black Panther does something that’s pretty rare in comic book movies: the hero learns a lesson from the villain’s example. My wife, who headed for the bathroom as the credits rolled, didn’t see this, because it only comes up in the mid-credits scene, when T’Challa declares to the United Nations that Wakanda will no longer be isolationist. And that’s where the real ending to the movie lies. T’Challa has been changed, and while he expressed a bit of that when he funded a few outreach centers in Oakland, T’Challa’s character arc is only capped once he is determined to change Wakanda from the path it’s been set on for centuries. He doesn’t become complete and then triumph over Killmonger: he learned from Killmonger and then he becomes complete. It’s like culminating an on-screen romance with a kiss in the final frames of the film. Now he’s a real king.

This is where Black Panther’s social commentary and world-building got really interesting for me, and why I’d want to see a sequel. The premise of the movie is that Wakanda has thrived because it’s a special fantasy kingdom. In a departure from every real-world African country I can think of, colonialism never took root there. At some point, they decided to hide their technological prowess and created a satellite-fooling illusion and what is probably the most incredibly well-kept secret ever shared by a million-plus people. When they say “we do not speak of this” early in the movie, they freaking mean it. No foreign spies have ever discovered the vibranium that their society has run on for what must be a century or so. Now that’s some sharp self-policing.

I’m forgiving that questionable world-building, because that’s how comics roll, and it was basically all the backstory of the movie, a.k.a. the setup or the “gimme.” ‘S cool. I’m on board.

The mythmaking of the hero is also worth discussion. He’s from an ancient bloodline of kings, he’s got money and a semi-magical flower and incredibly advanced technology on demand, plus supreme executive power… and to top it all off, he’s got a loving family that has his back. T’Challa is a hero, but he’s one who has been given everything in life. He’s a good person, sure, and has many great qualities, but I think someone should point out that he’s privilege personified.

Then we get Killmonger, who’s had none of it. His family’s broken up. He grew up in a section of Oakland where they didn’t even have basketball nets, they had to use a crate. He went into the military, he trained and he learned, all so he could fight when it matters and gain the power necessary to distribute Wakanda’s hoarded resources to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Wait… are we 100% sure he’s the bad guy?

This is where the movie broke some new ground. Because here we have an American movie where an African-American is the villain and a straight-up African is the hero. The movie is not American-centric, as opposed to most Marvel movies, and this conflict contrasts America with the rest of the world. Killmonger’s visible acts of villainy include stealing artifacts from Wakanda, killing tons of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, meddling in a foreign  country’s leadership (okay, he’s got a claim to it, but still), and planning to use spies to sell weapons all around the world.

The only thing he doesn’t do is transform into a bald eagle eating apple pies, ’cause all of those dick moves are about that American. When he is defeated (in a fight on a literal underground railroad, no less), it’s hard for an American audience not to feel a bit for the guy. He’s the scrappy underdog we’ve been programmed to root for… but just because he’s self-made doesn’t mean you want him in charge.

So that brings me to the next question: is T’Challa, Mr. Wakandan Privilege, really that heroic by American standards? Wakanda values a royal bloodline, a might-makes-right combat ceremony to choose a leader, and has a high-tech wall to keep outsiders out. And let’s not mince words: “outsiders” means everybody who’s not Wakandan. White people. Asian people. Probably most black people, too, ’cause they referred to Killmonger as an outsider because of where he grew up, despite the fact he’s related to the royal freaking family. And for a nation we assume is a benevolent actor on the world stage, the Wakandans sure have a lot of weapons to defend themselves against neighboring countries. You know… this sounds kind of like an ethno-state, and I’m pretty sure most Black Panther fans would agree that that’s a Bad Thing.

“Whoa,” you may say. “That’s a pretty dark reading of this superhero movie.” It is, but Black Panther deserves some examination, at least as much as those Web articles that point out that the Ewoks probably ate some Stormtroopers. But I’m not going to bash the movie, because Black Panther doesn’t fall into that trap a hundred percent. Rather amazingly, the film has its never-seen-on-the-big-screen-before cake and manages to eat it, too. At the end of the movie, the black fantasy hero of the black fantasy world can no longer rely on the world of the past. His connection to his legacy has been forever severed: the heart-shaped herbs have been destroyed, so he can no longer speak with his ancestors. Finally on his own with the mantle of kingship, T’Challa does the heroic thing in the mid-credits sequence and rejects Wakandan tradition. “The wise build bridges and the foolish build barriers,” he says, and ends centuries of secrecy and isolationism. He’s a patriot, as are his allies, but he is one who sees the need for change.

Because of that mid-credits sequence, the fantasy we’ve been buying into for the whole of the movie is over, for both the characters and the audience. Maybe we looked into the mirror and saw how appealing the idea of “Wakanda First” might be, but now T’Challa, and we, must face the real world.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to see what happens next.

So does my kiddo.