Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kirby's Legacy Lives On

[Starting to run out of comics-commentary "reprints" from my defunct Kracalactaka blog. Here's one from 6 August 2010 on a tribute to Jack Kirby in the pages of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's Supreme.] 

I was reading Alan Moore's wonderful revamp of Rob Liefield's Supreme last night and came across a page by artist Rick Veitch that demonstrates Kirby's influence.  Of course, it's not particularly a surprise that this page is Kirbeyesque: the issue from which it's taken (issue #6 of Supreme: The Return) is an explicit homage to Kirby's lifework.  Nevertheless, Veitch's work here is more than a pastiche of Kirby's style, but a testament to his mastery of Kirby's layout techniques.  The page above is from a sequence in the comic where Supreme encounters a cigar-chomping "imagineer" who prefer to go by the sobriquet "King."

There's so much to love about this page.  Matt Yackey and Digital Broome (the colorists) use the traditional "color spectrum" to generate an "X" layout for the page: panels 1 and 4 form one stroke of "X," giving us natural colors brown and green bounded by "cool" colors violet and blue, while panels 2 and 3 use the "warm" colors yellow and red to form the other stroke.  Veitch strengthens this second stroke with the motion lines in panel 2, diagonals replicated by the Kirby krackle cigar in panel 3.

Veitch also uses the "Z" layout we saw in the Kirby page I analyzed in my last blog entry.  Supreme (drawn by Veitch in the 1990s Image style customary to the character) navigates his way across the four panel layout.  In panel 1, he flies away from us and to our right, drawing the eyes to panel 2--where he turns toward us and flies down and left to panel 3.  In panel 3, Supreme turns again, still facing us, but this time flying down and right into panel 4.  There he ends the page pointing up and to the right, with his back turned to us: a pose basically identical to the one he assumed in panel 1.

At the same time, Veitch makes Supreme progressively larger in each panel, an increase in size that heightens the Kirbyesque sense of motion on the page--a nice contrast to the more static quadrants of the "King"'s face.  Even there, though, there is motion as each quadrant shifts in color and texture from one of the four classical elements to another (earth to air to fire to water).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

[Supers!] Ms. Marvel (a.k.a. Kamala Khan)

To celebrate the news that Supers! Revised is now available in print format, I've decided to stat up Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel (as of issue #5 of her eponymous title). I love the story that G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona (art), and Ian Herring (colors) are telling about Jersey City's first Pakistani-American superhero—especially the way Alphona depicts Kamala's power set.

Composure 2D
Fortitude 2D
Reaction 2D
Will 3D

Even though she's just a teenager with no training, I've given Kamala 2D in her two physical Resistances to reflect the toughness upgrade most characters get along with their superpowers. She's a fairly grounded character, so 2D for Composure as well. I did give her an extra die in Will to reflect her stubborn determination to do what's right even if it gets her grounded.

APTITUDES (2D total)
Academia 2D
Art & Craft 2D

Not a lot of Creation Dice to spend here: Kamala is an ordinary high school student. She's smart and studious, so I bumped her Academia a die. I also gave her a die in Art & Craft: she writes well-received Avengers fanfic, and she does a solid job of kit-bashing her costume.

POWERS (11D total)
Regeneration 4D (complication: only out of combat)
Shape Change 4D (complication: only humanoid forms)
Size Control 3D (down to 9 inches, up to 18 feet)
Stretching 2D (up to 20 feet)

Metaphorically, Kamala is figuring out who she is—and thus she gets a power suite reflecting the instability of her identity. It's also clearly a fun set of powers for Alphona to draw. We've seen her turn into variations on Ms. Marvel as well as a store mannequin, so I thought the "only humanoid forms" restriction fit her current level of Shape Change. As for Regeneration, we know that she can only rapidly heal damage in her ordinary form; I phrased this as "only out of combat" but it could just as easily be "never in hero ID" or some such. Willing to take suggestions on refining this, especially since she also apparently needs to eat like the Wally West Flash to fuel the power.

Dumb Luck (1 reroll per session)
Occupation (superhero fangirl, 1 related reroll per session)

Kamala has been lucky rather than smart so far in her hero career. (Issue #5 suggests she's starting to get a handle on things, so I can see her buying off this Advantage to pay for improved Powers soon, though.) She's also known among her friends as an Avengers fangirl: I gave her a die in Occupation to reflect her command of superhero trivia.

Enemy (the Inventor)
Secret (her hero ID is a secret from everyone except her friend Bruno)
Social Hindrance (she's a teenager and has to deal with all the limitations of being a minor)

Issue #5 ends with Kamala making her first archenemy, so a clear Disadvantage there. I've also given her Secret (for her secret identity) and Social Hindrance (she can be grounded by her parents). Note that I haven't created any Disadvantages to go along with either her Inhuman lineage (the book's done nothing with this yet) or her Muslim faith (she's observant, but I don't see her background limiting her in the way that her age does).


As you can see, Kamala fits nicely into the 20D/beginner level of Supers!

Kirby Page Layout ... Now with Panther Power

[Time for another Thursday "reprint" from Kracalataka, this time from 4 August 2011]

There's a Kirby page from Fantastic Four #52--the Black Panther's debut issue--that I've been wanting to talk about ever since I read Hagop's lovely discussion of it at The Short Box back in February.  Here's the page in question:

Hagop does a good job of discussing what makes individual panels on this page exemplars of Kirby's style.  What I'd like to add to that analysis is a reading of the page's overall layout, one that takes into account Kirby's ability to masterfully direct the reader's eye from one panel to the next.

For example, we once again see our old friend the Z-pattern.  Here it's based on Ben Grimm (with an assist from Johnny Storm).  In panel 1, Ben rushes toward the right edge of the panel (and the page), attempting to seize the FF's Wakandan guide before he escapes.  The motion lines contribute to the rightward dynamic of the panel.  In panel 2, Ben's figure still anchors the Z-pattern, but now Ben has been flipped right-to-left, and his left arm points down and left, directing our eyes to the second tier of panels.  Panel 3 (the first panel of the second tier) continues the downward diagonal begun in panel 2.  Finally, the Z-pattern is completed on the third tier of panels in panel 5: the falling figure of the Thing completes the downward diagonal's leftward motion, and the Torch's sprawling form pulls us to the right edge of the page, finishing the base of the Z.  (This is why it's important that the Torch show up in panel 3, supporting Ben from the right side of that panel--the same basic layout of figures that we see in panel 5.)

Kirby complicates matters with the appearance of T'Challa in panel 4.  Visuals match the narrative here as T'Challa intrudes upon the Fantastic Four, and the figure of the Black Panther breaks into the Z-pattern of the page.  Where the Panther is concerned, panels 4 and 5 form a second downward diagonal parallel to the first.  T'Challa leaps down upon the unsuspecting heroes in panel 4, a jump completed in panel 5 as he knocks them sprawling.  (The legs akimbo of panel 4 become the complete spread of panel 5--a single fluid motion captured in two moments.)

The Panther's attack also disrupts the page's panel grid.  Up until panel 5, we've been led to expect a six-panel grid broken down into two panels per tier, three tiers page (exactly what we'll get on the next page of the issue, page 11, and throughout much of the issue as a whole).  Kirby departs from that expectation here, giving us  instead a single elongated panel that covers the full extent of the tier.  Story drives layout: T'Challa kicks Ben and Johnny, and their flying bodies literally push the panel down and out toward the edges of the page--to the point where Johnny's body pressures the boundaries of human physiology to mimic the right angle of the panel's lower righthand corner. Again, motion lines are used expertly here, extending the panel out from the center point of T'Challa--whose impossibly split legs also copy the panel boundary (in this case, the long horizontal line at the top).  The Black Panther pushes the bottom line of the Z to its limits, causing it to bow out in the middle.

It's the clarity of layout that impresses me the most here.  While I love much of the art in modern comics, I find that the layout skills pioneered by Kirby and others are less in evidence, an absence of craft that undermines the reading experience.  But there are some nice modern counter-examples, and I'll discuss a few of those when I next find a chance to look at page layout.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Actual Play: Free RPG Day, 2014 Edition

I took part in this year's Free RPG Day celebration at Armored Gopher Games, my FLGS, and the event was an overwhelming success: five games, all of which ran with full tables, and a quickly depleted stack of free RPG materials. Since I was both a player and a referee this year, I thought I'd throw together an actual play post describing what went on.

(L to R) Ka-Boom, Primal, Lawman, Freeze-Tag, and Co-Opt

My stint at referee came first: starting at 11 a.m., I ran a session devoted to Hazard Studio's Supers! Revised game. I had a six-hour time slot, so I opted to let the players create their own heroes instead of using pre-gens. Since Supers! Revised is not yet in print (due to hijinks beyond Hazard's control), I had to rely on the single PDF copy on my MacBook hard drive. This created something of an information bottle-neck, although I was able to make copies of the extremely helpful Character Creation Guide provided in the back of the rulebook. It didn't hurt that the nature of Supers! Revised as a game doesn't necessitate frequent look-ups to build a character: not only does the Guide list all Resistances, Aptitudes, Powers, Boosts, Complications, Advantages, and Disadvantages but the game's relative simplicity means that dice devoted to a given Power are a more or less transparent indicator of the character's ability with that Power. (There was some fiddling with the rulebook to ensure that characters' Power dice matched up with their hero concepts, but nothing like I experienced the one time I tried to referee a Champions character creation session.)

My five players came up with the following supers:

The Lawman - Western sheriff descended from a long line of law enforcers. Carries his ancestor's six-shooter (a weapon that fires ghost bullets) and badge (affording him mystic protection from harm).

Freeze-Tag - Bounty-hunter with the ability to teleport to his quarries and stop them in their tracks with a paralytic touch. (The name was my suggestion to the player, but the powers pairing was his—and so wonderful that I will be stealing the character for use as a campaign NPC.)

Co-Opt - A hero whose powers are all about taking from others (co-opting their metahuman abilities with Power Steal and their skills with Mimic Aptitude) and then sharing them with himself (by cooperating with his duplicates). He also had Super Speed but rolled poorly with it all session, causing the other players to dub him "Worst Speedster EVER."

Ka-Boom - A skilled fighter whose primary power was her BFG. It went "KA-BOOM" when fired (natch).

Primal - A robot able to morph into any size animal form contained in its data banks.

I then tested the heroes' capabilities by running them through a fairly straightforward scenario, Hazard's Scene Stealers: Black Ice. The team found itself in hot pursuit of Cold Kill, a notorious super-villain who was in the midst of hijacking an armored truck. The chase was more or less a cinch for the players: Freeze-Tag kept teleporting from block to block to keep up with the truck, Co-Opt relied on his super-speed, Primal turned into a silver-maned stallion and carried Lawman on its back, and Ka-Boom ... well, I let her pick from the list of commandeered pursuit vehicles contained in the scenario, and she chose the ice-cream truck.

Cold Kill was definitely outnumbered, although he did nearly managed to put down Lawman and Primal with his wide-angle ice blast. (The ice-cream truck was totaled by the same blast. You served Ka-Boom well, Mr. Softee!) The team then more or less beat him down with a minimum of fuss. Unfortunately for them, the arrest was complicated by the on-site crash of a private plane ... and the arrival of Rio de Sangue, a contract killer who wanted the briefcase possessed by one of the passengers.

(Rio's nom-de-guerre led to much mocking by the heroes: "His name is Rio, and he dances on your glands ... Oh, Rio, Rio, you have got a severed hand!")

As a 35D villain, Rio was much more of a challenge for the team. His numerous super-abilities (including his hellacious 5D Armor) made it difficult for them to get in a decisive blow. On the other hand, Rio was equally outnumbered. Once Primal realized the armor's weakness (it didn't protect Rio's head, something Primal discovered when it shifted into condor form and tried to scratch out the villain's eyes), he got the rest of the team to start taking called shots. Rio attempted to escape by flying away, but Primal shifted into pterodactyl form and took him down. Cue end credits!

Everyone had a great time playing Supers! Revised; the only real complaint came from a few players who realized mid-scenario that they should have built their heroes differently to get the effects they wanted (and even these players agreed that they were talking more about fine-tuning than a completely misleading ruleset). My one regret as a referee was the massive beating my solo villains took as a result of serious outnumbering; I probably should have given Rio some minions as back-up to occupy some of the heroes and minimize the ganging-up effect. But then I didn't anticipate five players! (There was much less attendance for at the Gopher's 2013 Free RPG Day event.)

After a break for dinner with my family, I came back to the store for the second session of the event. This time I was a player in my friend Dave's Dungeon World event. Dave was running a scenario based on Mike Carr's Dungeon Module B1: In Search of the Unknown. He had tried to run the adventure the previous year but had insufficient players show up (i.e., just me). He had even tried to run it at home for me and another friend, but a TPK in the first encounter and a lack of time to start over had deep-sized that attempt. Hope springs eternal, though, and Dave offered the scenario again at this year's event. As mentioned above, he made the right call, ending up (like all the other games this year) with a full table.

I'll let Dave have the honor over at his blog of describing what transpired at the table. But I will note that I had a blast playing my swashbuckling Elf Fighter (who wore a fake mustache in the finest Fairbanks-Flynn tradition). Perhaps my crowning glory was the moment when I checked for traps by the corpse of a dead halfling thief onto a pile of treasure. There wasn't any trap, but I did manage to wake up the chimera who owned said treasure ...

Thanks to the Gopher staff for hosting Free RPG Day, to my players for showing up and indulging my desire to run Supers! Revised, and to Dave for sticking it out and finally getting to run his Dungeon World adventure!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

More Kirby Layout Goodness

[Another "reprint" from my defunct Kracalactaka! blog. Edited to remove a reference to a 2010 familial health crisis that ended for the better.]

This time let's look at a page from Fantastic Four #58 . . .

What we've got here is a beautiful Z-pattern that naturally syncs your eyes and the flow of narrative action on the page. The eye goes from Ben to Ben in each panel (expect for the transition between panels 5 and 6 which is handled via Doom's figure as well as the natural causal link between the makeshift spear in Ben's hand and the explosion that spear causes when it hits Doom). There is also the same sort of X-pattern that I discussed in my previous post on Kirby's Thor layouts. You have a line descending from the "ZAFFT!" in panel 1 through the "RAKK!" in panel 3 to the "ZOT!" in panel 5. Crossing that line is the one descending from the Ben Grimm in panel 2 through the Ben in panel 3 to the Ben in panel 4. The diagonal line formed by the wreckage that Ben demolishes in panel 3 adds to this larger portion of the X-pattern.

There's also a lovely bit of variation in panel size and shape here as well. The top and bottom tiers of panels consist of two equally-sized squares each. These tiers serve to frame the middle panel, a single rectangle that expands left (with the eye's own motion as it shifts down and left from panel 2) to mirror Ben's violent action in panel. A nice bit of emphasis by the King here!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Why So Many Good Superhero RPGs Now?

Over at RPGnet, someone has posted a poll asking folks which system (Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul or Supers! Revised) they'd use to run a Justice League campaign. While the poll is running in favor of my preferred superhero ruleset (Supers! Revised), the discussion has made it clear that either game would be a perfectly fine choice. Meanwhile, Steve Kenson is getting ready to release a revised edition of Icons, his acclaimed superhero RPG, HERO Games has a streamlined edition of Champions available, Paragons & Prowlers is getting decent buzz, etc., etc.

What's going on? Why are we living in a veritable Golden Age of superhero games? (Roleplaying games are generally in a good place right now design-wise, but superhero games seem to be doing especially well—I don't really see any sort of edition-warring taking place between systems.) Theories?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why Kirby Is King

[This post was originally published on my now-defunct Kracalataka! blog back on 7 July 2010. I'm going to be slowly moving the more interesting posts from that blog here to Vargold over the next few weeks.]

I've been reading the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on The Mighty Thor, and I came across these pages from Thor 137 ("The Thunder God and the Troll") that demonstrate Kirby's command of page layout.  Here's page 2, my first example:

Here Kirby depicts a competition between Thor and the goddess Sif, his new love interest.  (I get the sense that, by issue 137, even Lee was getting tired of mortal love interest Jane Foster.)  What I love about the layout on this page is the interaction of the six panels.  The first panel (Sif launching a javelin toward the reader's right) is mirrored by the sixth and last panel (Thor throwing Mjolnir toward the reader's left).  The second panel (Sif's javelin lodging in the pole) is mirrored by the fifth and penultimate panel (where the force of Mjolnir's impact on the ground causes the spears to burst out of the pole).  The overall effect is that of an "X" pattern: panels 1 and 6 form the first line of the X while panels 2 and 5 form the second line.  The coloring ties the layout together even more.  (There's no colorist credited for the issue, so I'm not sure who to praise here.)  Panels 2 and 6 match up due to their yellow backgrounds—but they're also linked diagonally to panel 3 by virtue of the rather large swatch of yellow represented by Thor's golden locks.  Blue dominates the reverse pattern of panels 1, 4, and 5.

My second example is page 5:

Yellow backdrops and action lines tie together panels 1 and 4.  So does content: in both panels, Thor is smashing an enemy's weapon.  The result is a diagonal pairing that continues the force of Thor's panel 1 blow down into panel 4: in both cases, Mjolnir moves down and to the reader's right.  Panels 2 and 3 are tied together by the diagonal line linking the troll missile before and after it is launched at Thor.  In panel 2, the missile points down and left to the center of the layout; in panel 3, it zooms up and right.  The layout is once again an "X" shape.  At the same time, though, Kirby ties together panels 3 and 4 in a lovely action sequence: in panel 3, Thor prepares to strike by moving Mjolnir down and to his left.  Then, in panel 4, Thor ends the page with a "Thbooom!" by swinging his hammer across his body to his right.  The layout result is a beautiful arc of motion across the gutter between the panels.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

[Supers!] Kitty Pryde

Supers!, Simon Washbourne's wonderful superhero RPG from 2010, has just come out in a revised edition ($10 in PDF, POD coming soon) from Hazard Studio. I haven't put together an itemized list of the differences between the two editions, but my initial pass through the revised version convinces me that Hazard has done an excellent job of clarifying the rules without unnecessarily complicating them—a very welcome outcome in the case of this, my favorite superhero game.

Of course, it wouldn't be a superhero RPG without a character conversion or two to see how well the rules handle archetypal comics characters. So I decided to do a Supers! RED version of my favorite Marvel mutant, phasing wunderkind Kitty Pryde. Like Josh Whedon, I too was introduced to the X-Men through Kitty's eyes, and she's remained one of my favorite characters since then.

The version I've chosen to stat up is the Kitty we see at the end of Uncanny X-Men #143 (March 1981), the final issue of John Byrne's run on the title as penciller. In this story, Kitty has to survive the attack of an N'Garai without any help from her teammates. It's a classic done-in-one, a real rite-of-passage for Kitty that more or less marks her emergence as a superhero in her own right. So it's also a perfect point to stat her up as a beginning 20D Supers! character.

Resistances (4D)
Composure 2D
Fortitude 2D
Reaction 2D
Will 2D

Kitty is not yet 14 years old, so giving her Resistances higher than 2D (already a step beyond human average) seems wrong to me.

Aptitudes (8D)
Academia 3D
Aircraft 2D
Athleticism 2D
Fighting 2D
Performance 2D
Technology 3D

Kitty is explicitly described in the comics as a genius, so I've given her MA/MS equivalent ability in academics and technology. Her 2D in Performance reflects her skill as a dancer (and looks ahead to her ability as a storyteller), while her other 2D Aptitudes are part of her X-Men training (issue #143 explicitly makes a story beat out of her SR-71 Blackbird study).

Powers (7D)
Flight 1D (only when insubstantial)
Insubstantiality 5D
Super Weaponry 4D (touch attack, only versus electronics)

Phasing is Kitty's main mutant power, so it gets the most dice. Her ability to walk on air molecules (and thus "fly" at running speed) is handled as Flight—which she gets for free courtesy of her "Only when" Complication. I've also given her Super Weaponry to reflect her power's effect on electronic systems: it's not called out as part of her power set by issue #143, but we've seen her use it to free Wolverine form a cage during the Dark Phoenix storyline.

Disadvantages (-1D)
Secret: Mutant

Kitty doesn't look like a mutant, so she doesn't get the Social Hindrance that many other mutants (e.g., Nightcrawler, Toad, etc.) get. Instead, her mutant status is a lurking secret, and its exposure becomes a plot point in future story lines.

Competency Dice (2D)

 I left Kitty with two Competency Dice to reflect her protagonist power—and also as a way of saving up for the dice she'll be spending to make Lockheed the space dragon her Companion. Well, that and the ninja training. Chris Claremont was a rather generous GM when it came to character advancement!