Radio comedy spotlight: John Finnemore

This is the first in a series highlighting (British) radio comedy I particularly enjoy and recommend.  Since I listed John Finnemore as one of my current favorites, I figured I should start with him. (Note that I’m writing this from the perspective of a US fan, so comments about availability of material and other appearances of actors will come from that angle.)

John Finnemore

Credits: The Now Show, That Mitchell and Webb Sound/Look, Dead Ringers, The Unbelievable Truth
Blog: “Forget What Did”

If you’re American, the work of John Finnemore’s you’re most likely to have encountered is the sketch comedy of Mitchell and Webb, and that will give you some idea of what to expect: a clever look at the absurdities of a situation through examining its assumptions head-on. (I can’t find a list of what he wrote for Mitchell and Webb, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that some of it was partially rewritten by others, but here’s one example on a fan Tumblr.  Note that the Tumblr’s title is somewhat NSFW.) He’s worked in both sketch comedy and sitcom, and done a masterful job at both.

I’m going to focus on the two series that JF is the primary/only writer for, Cabin Pressure and John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.

Cabin Pressure

Dates: July 2008-the near future
Episodes:  4 series of 6, a Christmas special, and an upcoming finale special
Accessibility to non-Brits: High
Availability: BBC iPlayer, iTunes, CD

Cabin Pressure is a workplace comedy centered around a small cast, the workplace being a very small charter airline, MJN Air.  There are four recurring cast members:

  • Carolyn Knapp-Shappey: Stephanie Cole (Waiting for God). The acerbic, hard-driving head of MJN Air.
  • Martin Crieff: Benedict Cumberbatch (in a role that will come as a surprise to those who know him from Sherlock or the voice of Smaug).  The airline’s hapless captain.  Martin is dedicated to being an airline captain to the point of absurdity, but has a tendency to fumble his way into trouble.
  • Douglas Richardson: Robert Allam (V for Vendetta, Speed Racer, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Iron Lady, lots of stage roles).  The airline’s first officer.  Douglas is firmly convinced of his own cleverness, and is usually correct.  He is constantly looking for ways to gain an advantage, either over Martin or by finding a way to turn a profit on their travels.
  • Arthur Shappey: John Finnemore (see above).  Carolyn’s son and the airline’s notional flight attendant.  Arthur lives in his own little world, which sometimes bears only a tangential relation to this one.  He’s constantly cheerful and upbeat, and tends to see the best in everyone.

The plots are generally driven by the personalities of the characters bouncing off a situation, which may come from an airline passenger, cargo, or airport crew.  The characters are well-drawn for this sort of show, showing occasional depths and the ability to surprise in a consistent manner.  The plots aren’t formulaic: it’s not a matter of Martin and Arthur always messing up and Carolyn and Douglas always bailing them out (although Douglas’s ability to find solutions to problems, albeit not always strictly ethical ones, is one of his major traits).  Despite having a couple of characters who could easily be the butt of all the jokes, the humor isn’t mean-spirited, and there’s a clear affection for all the characters.

Here are a few clips from the show on YouTube:

Martin in rare form at first officer training.

The flight crew engages in one of the many games they use to pass the time.

Arthur explains the rules of “Yellow Car”.

A bit of banter between Arthur and Martin I particularly enjoyed. (Note that the animation is a lot longer than the actual spoken bit.)

There have been 25 episodes of the show to date, each with a title beginning with successive letters of the alphabet (although the BBC broadcast them out of order).  The third and fourth series both have final episodes that could have worked as the show’s finale, but Finnemore has confirmed that there will be one final special wrapping it up.

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

Airdates: 2011-present
Episodes: 1 series of 4, 2 series of 6, and an Edinburgh special. (Also, the special “John Finnemore, Apparently” from 2008 is very much a forerunner to this show.)
Accessibility to non-Brits: Reasonably high
Availability: BBC iPlayer, iTunes, CD

Perhaps the most intelligent sketch comedy series I’ve ever heard.  A number of the best sketches involve taking a look at a familiar story or premise in such a way as to cast a light on its hidden absurdities.  Past targets have included logic puzzles, the Emperor’s New Clothes, Winnie-the-Pooh, and the Three Little Pigs.

The last of these is a good example: An interviewer speaks with each of the pigs in turn.  The first pig feels that his house of straw will be successful, because the foolish youngest of three brothers always comes out on top in fairy tales.  The second pig feels that his house of sticks will be successful, because in fairy tales, the middle ground between two extremes is always successful (although he has a hard time explaining how bricks are too extreme).  The third pig feels that his house of bricks will be successful because…it’s made of bricks. (The interviewer decides to shelter with the third pig.) Apart from being funny in its own right, it’s also a positively Pratchettesque look at dueling narrative assumptions.

Unlike some sketch shows, there’s no overreliance on catchphrases.  There’s only one recurring character: Finnemore himself (or a strange, upper-class Edwardian version thereof), who usually has the last sketch in an episode, beginning with “So! You ask me for a tale of…” and generally failing utterly at his chosen topic.  I also appreciate the fact that there are female cast members; while there is good single-gender sketch comedy out there, having a mixed-gender cast allows for a wider variety of characters and situations.

The “reasonably high” description under “Accessibility” is because a few of the sketches involve bits of popular culture that are primarily British, such as the Famous Five.  Most of the cultural references are more universal, though, and the British ones aren’t too obscure–Wikipedia or just listening to a lot of the BBC will be all you need.

It’s hard to pick among the sketches, but here are three representative examples:

The Man Who Makes the Noise of the TARDIS

Pooh’s Interdivention

The Best Ghost Story Ever (an example of Finnemore the storyteller)

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Ha-ha! The Emperor has no basis for his belief system!  And he has a tiny winkie!”

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Collecting classic World of Darkness, part 4a: Vampire merchandise

As the longest-running and most popular cWoD game, there have been more Vampire: the Masquerade merchandise tie-ins than any other game, and entire types of merchandise that other games don’t have.  I can’t hope to be comprehensive, but I can at least cover the broad areas. (Note that promotional material for all the games will be handled together in a separate post, so I’m not putting it here.  Posters will be covered there as well.)

[Update, 12/7/13: I have come into possession of a 2000 White Wolf catalog and have updated some entries accordingly.]

Dice.  The official VtM dice are marbled green with red numbers (which clearly aren’t intended for the color-blind).  They come in a set of ten, in a box and possibly with a dice bag decorated with an ankh.  Going by Google images, there are at least two sets of packaging, one with the 1st/2nd edition logo and one with Revised.  Chessex sells “vampire” dice with a rose in the place of the 1; these are branded as VtM dice but aren’t the same dice.  The original VtM dice don’t turn up on eBay much and can run to at least $20.  The Chessex dice are still available, if you want them.

Miniatures. Ral Partha released a fairly wide variety of metal miniatures for VtM in the ’90s, plus a set of game tokens.  These sometimes turn up on eBay, and sell for around $10 in package. (I mostly follow the Horror RPG category; they may turn up in other categories or in mixed lots.) This was a slightly odd choice of merchandising, since Storyteller wasn’t really designed for map-based play (with the exception of Werewolf.)

Collectible card game. The Vampire CCG was first published by Wizards of the Coast under the name “Jyhad”.  After realizing that people not familiar with the setting didn’t make the connection of the name with vampires, they rebranded it as “Vampire: the Eternal Struggle” and released a few expansions before dropping it.  White Wolf picked it back up, and it’s still being produced; it was the only cWoD product still being published between nWoD and V20.

VtES is far too big a topic to cover here, so I’ll just say that there’s a lot of it, and it uses a good deal of the setting, including character cards based on NPCs from the RPG.  Collecting it is basically a hobby in itself. (I used to sell VtES singles on eBay, but I gave it up because another dealer kept sniping me when I tried to buy collections and I couldn’t keep my stock up.)

Novels. Another topic that’s too big to cover in detail, but there’s a list as part of White Wolf’s official checklist.  A lot of them are available cheaply on Amazon, but one set of books I will mention: There was a series of Clan Novels, one for each clan plus a short story collection.  They were later republished in four omnibus editions, edited together chronologically and with a bit of new linking material.  The fourth volume, End Games, can be expensive (cheapest copy on Amazon right now is $44) so grab a copy if you find one.

Comics. Moonstone released some VtM licensed comics.  There’s a tendency for eBay sellers to list them as “rare”, but they’re not really–they aren’t hard to find at a reasonable price.]

Book covers. Another Chessex licensed product, part of their “Dragonskin” line of vinyl book covers.  The Vampire version has Tim Bradstreet’s Brujah illustration, and exists in two versions, one with silver ink and one with gold.

T-shirts. There were a lot of these released, and I’m not going to even attempt a comprehensive list.  The most common ones have the Tim Bradstreet illustrations of the various Clans, or the images from the Revised clanbook covers.  The game’s logo is also represented, and there’s also one for the Bloodlines PC game. Beyond that, there are shirts for specific events, and for the CCG.  These don’t tend to be available in quantity (again, unless you find a retailer with unsold stock), since they tended to be worn (in both senses of the word) and fewer remain in sellable collections than some other types of merchandise. (I did find this old Angelfire site, which has images of some of the earliest shirts.) There was also at least one sweatshirt.

Jewelry: pins. According to the 2000 catalog, here are 34 clan pins, plus a VtM game pin.  There are pins for each of the clans and, where relevant, their antitribu equivalents (including Panders), most of the older/noteworthy bloodlines, and an ankh representing ghouls. (I think there may have been more than one ankh pin but that’s the only one in the catalog.)  These can run to money; unless you get lucky on an eBay auction or find a retailer with old stock, they tend to run $15 and up apiece. The cardboard backing boards also turn up sometimes.

Note: They haven’t been released yet, but By Night Studios had a new set of Clan pins in a different style as a Kickstarter reward.  These were only licensed for the Kickstarter, so once they come out they’ll doubtless be expensive, especially for the more obscure bloodlines. (Bloodlines that had never had pins before were included in the set.)

Also note: The Lasombra and Tzimisce Clans didn’t originally have their own symbols, so the original versions of the pins had a fairly lame “L” and “T”, while the later versions had the crown and orobourus symbols.  The original versions are less common but aren’t particularly sought-after, either. (I have a half-dozen of the Lasombra that were being sold as an eBay lot.)

Jewelry: rings. Camarilla and Sabbat signet rings in four different sizes.

Jewelry: other. Mostly ankh necklaces.  Some versions of the pin set also included a couple of ankh necklaces (a Camarilla and a Sabbat).  There were also fancier versions sold on their own as LARP accessories, and Java’s Crypt released fine silver necklaces with both ankhs and Clan symbols.  These also run to at least $15, and probably a lot more for the silver ones.

Computer games. There were two VtM PC games released, Bloodlines and Redemption. (Bloodlines is generally recognized as the better of the two.) These aren’t too hard to find on eBay, and Bloodlines can be downloaded from some of the online game services (although it can be a pain to make it run on a modern PC).  Some eBay sellers include the game manual in lots of RPG material, or list it in that section of eBay rather than a more appropriate PC game category.

CD-Roms. There were two of these released, one collecting 2nd edition rulebooks and one with Revised rulebooks.  They also include character generators; the 2nd edition version has a city generator, while the Revised version has a letterhead generator.  The Revised version isn’t very hard to find, while the 2nd edition version, as I mentioned in my previous post, doesn’t turn up very often.  The 2nd edition version came with a box, while I believe the Revised just had a jewel case.

DVDs (and VHS). There was a TV series based on VtM called Kindred: the Embraced, produced by Aaron Spelling.  It only ran for six episodes due to the death of one of the major actors.  Two different DVD sets have been released, an older one that just has the series and a new, deluxe version that includes bonus material, including an exclusive version of the Book of Nod.  The series also came out on VHS, for the true completist.

Action figures. There were action figures of three of the game’s signature characters, Lucita, Theo Bell, and Beckett.  You can probably find a set of them on card for around $10-15. (They were kind of an odd merchandising tie-in in the first place, and they weren’t the best figures–especially Lucita, whose dress didn’t allow for much articulation.)

For the truly insane completist, there was a WWF wrestler named Gangrel in the late ’90s, who had a vampire gimmick.  He used the Gangrel clan symbol with White Wolf’s permission.  There are action figures of him, although I didn’t find any that included the clan symbol.

Letterhead/envelopes. There are packs of Clan letterhead and envelopes, one for each of the 13 clans. (It would have amused me if they had made each one Clan-appropriate, so the Tremere would have parchment and the Ventrue fine acid-free bond, while the Gangrel letterhead was on bark and the Nosferatu covered with unmentionable stains, but sadly not.) These don’t turn up very often, so it’s hard to generalize about price.

High-end collectibles. Some of the tie-in products were expensive when they came out, and many are more so now.  I’m listing them here as a catch-all rather than giving each one its own entry (and a few other random items that aren’t as expensive but didn’t fit elsewhere).

  • Zippo lighters. There were multiple versions, with a fairly standard spread of game logo/sect ankhs.
  • A chess set, with board.  Each set of pieces was released separately as well. (The catalog refers to gold and silver plating in one place but describes both sets of pieces as silver-plated; I don’t know if one set was gold and one silver, or if each set existed in both metals.  Online images suggest the former, but the complete chess set may have been different from the separate sets of pieces.)
  • A replica of an Assamite knife.
  • Drinking glasses.  There are wineglasses with the VtM logo, and drinking vessels for the Camarilla clans, ranging from wineglasses to shotglasses to hobo jam jars.  There’s also a silver-plated flask and a coffee mug.
  • Vampire license plate.
  • Vampire diary, with a cover in the style of the limited edition books (black leatherette/silver embossing).
  • A cigarette case.
  • A mouse pad.

Miscellaneous stuff. White Wolf has produced a lot of stuff that was only intended for one event, or for internal use in their offices, or the like.  I doubt there’s a comprehensive list of them anywhere, but they’ll sometimes turn up on eBay.  There are also unofficial products on CafePress (including a surprising number themed specifically to Bloodlines) and material released by related groups such as the Camarilla LARP organization (another category that’ll have its own entry).

Apocrypha. The catalog I have lists some items I’ve never seen.  At least one book in the catalog (Witches and Pagans) was only released as a PDF, so its inclusion in the catalog doesn’t mean it was ever released.  If I couldn’t find evidence of its existence online, I’m listing it here:

  • Clan stickers, one set for each of the 13 clans.
  • A scented candle. (Noble Knight games lists this on their website, but since they don’t have it in stock I don’t regard that as definitive evidence.) [ETA 2/8/14: I have found another game store that has this listed as for sale.  The evidence at this point points toward it having been released, but I’ll wait to find photographic or other definitive evidence before moving it to the regular section.]

I’m sure I’ve completely forgotten some large, obvious category, but that’s all that comes to mind right now.  Future entries, especially in the merchandise category, should be shorter.  Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “And so to bed.”

eBay alert

I don’t know if anyone will catch this in time to take advantage of it, but just in case: A copy of the first VtM CD-Rom has turned up on eBay, starting at US $9.99.  This is a seriously rare item; it’s only the second one I’ve ever seen on eBay, and I bought the first one. (The Revised edition CD-Rom is much easier to find.) No affiliation with the seller, just wanted to alert people to a rare opportunity.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vampire-The-Masquerade-PC-CD-Rom-WoD-White-Wolf-Character-Creation-Aid-RARE-/261329901135

UPDATE: No one else bid on this, so I bought it myself.

Another rare item has turned up: the VtM chess set.  Unfortunately, it’s being sold from the UK–I might be willing to pay for the item but not the $50 shipping…

http://www.ebay.com/itm/121219283733?ssPageName=STRK:MEWAX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1423.l2649

Collecting classic World of Darkness, part 4: Vampire: the Masquerade

Vampire was the first WoD game, and is probably the most popular and certainly the best-known.  It’s the only WoD game to have achieved wide recognition outside gaming circles (albeit as the focus of the sort of moral panic that D&D used to be part of, at times).  It’s had a TV show, two PC games and one of the longest-running CCGs, and action figures.  There are over 100 books just in the main line, and three spin-off games.  If you choose to start collecting with Vampire, there’s a lot to buy, but a lot of it isn’t hard to find.

There are four publishing eras in VtM, each connected with its own edition of the corebook: 1st edition, 2nd edition, Revised, and V20 (the VtM 20th Anniversary edition).  In general, 1st edition books aren’t much sought after but are harder to find in good condition.  2nd edition books vary in desirability, but aren’t very rare.  Revised has the highest ratio of sought-after and hard-to-find books.  V20-era books haven’t been printed for the retail market; print copies are either limited editions or PoD.

Vampire books generally have a 4-digit product code beginning with 2. (White Wolf Publishing came from the merger of White Wolf Magazine and Lion Rampant, publishers of Ars Magica, which I believe has the codes beginning with 1.)

Core books.  As mentioned above, there are four core books.  The first two editions aren’t hard to find, although 1st edition books don’t have the best binding and are generally somewhat worn.  Revised books cost a bit more but can be found for a reasonable price if you keep your eyes open (eBay sellers have a tendency to overcharge for it).  The limited, deluxe Revised rulebook is the hardest to find of the deluxe editions from this era, and the most expensive.

V20 is another matter.  The only non-PoD printed version was a deluxe, limited printing that was pre-ordered from White Wolf’s website.  This was the first new cWoD product in nearly a decade, so ordering it was more of a gamble, and those who were willing to spend that much were dedicated enough to want to hang onto them.  As a result, you’ll almost never find a copy for under $200 on eBay.  There was also a special edition available only at the Grand Masquerade convention in New Orleans, which has a special cover and is even more rare. (I don’t own a copy, but I consider it a variant that I’d like to own but isn’t critical to my collection.  Or so I keep telling myself…)

Core guides. There are a lot of these: Players Guides, Storyteller Handbooks, and Companions of various stripes.  1st edition guides practically can’t be given away, as they’re mostly interesting in a “What were they thinking?” kind of way.  It’s not uncommon to be able to pick up an eBay lot of a 1st or 2nd edition rulebook and some 1st edition supplements on the cheap.  2nd edition guides are more common and not much more expensive.  This includes the two guides to the Sabbat, which until Revised were the only place to get the rules on the Lasombra and Tzimisce clans and thus stayed in print for a long time.

Revised edition had more comprehensive guides that gathered together information from a variety of sources.  Apart from the Storyteller’s Companion (a thin paperback that came with the Storyteller’s Screen), they were all hardcovers.  The ST’s Handbook and Guides to the Camarilla and Sabbat can be had for a reasonable amount, since they’re core supplements that came out early.  The Guide to the Anarchs can be more expensive but not unreasonably so.  The Player’s Guide was a late release that wasn’t very popular at the time, since it had practically no game content and was mostly advice essays, which makes it relatively rare (it’s one of two books that I paid more than cover price for).  Finally, there were deluxe editions of the ST’s Handbook (and ST’s Screen) and the Guides to the Camarilla and Sabbat.  The ST’s Handbook is the least expensive of the deluxe editions, and the Guides are mid-range.

The only book of this sort for V20 is the V20 Companion, which had a limited Kickstarter release.

Splatbooks. There are 26 of these, 13 each of the 1st edition versions (which were released over the course of 1st and 2nd editions) and Revised.  The 1st edition versions are easy to find inexpensively; they’re not as useful for reference as the Revised versions, and the early ones in particular were in print for a long time (1st edition Clanbook Brujah may be the most common non-corebook across all their games).  While individual copies of the Revised Clanbooks can be found at reasonable prices, this can take more work, since they’re less common and more popular.  You’re more likely to see large lots of 1st edition Clanbooks on eBay, or a couple thrown into a larger lot.

Note that unlike Werewolf and Mage, the 1st edition Clanbooks were never released in collected editions.  Also note that 1st edition Clanbook Tzimisce was released sealed in plastic, due to some “edgy” imagery on the back cover.  There don’t seem to be a lot of still-sealed copies out there, which would make finding one an interesting challenge.

Other sourcebooks. There were a lot of these, which generally follow the overall availability trends.  I’ll mention a few of note below:

Chaining the Beast: This was a Revised sourcebook that brought together and updated all the Paths of Enightenment.  As a result, this is an invaluable reference book, and is thus one of the more sought-out sourcebooks.

Children of the Inquisition and Kindred Most Wanted: These were collections of characters that were printed as oversized books.  Due to their age and size, I’ve never seen one that was in especially good condition.

Children of the Revolution: A deluxe Kickstarter release, and at the time of this writing one of only three that have been shipped.

Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand: This sourcebook is infamous for introducing a lot of ridiculous and unbalanced new material.  It’s not especially rare, but it brings attention both because of its reputation and because it has a lot of rules material.

Encyclopaedia Vampirica: A reference book that was actually produced by Feder & Schwert, the company that released German translations of the WoD, and translated for the US.  As a result, it’s the only English source for some material that was released in the German-only sourcebooks (about which more later).  It would be an excellent reference book except for one problem: it was released as a deluxe edition that had terrible binding problems.  It is possible to find copies that aren’t falling apart (I have one) but that fact adds to the cost and rarity of what would already be an expensive and rare book.

Giovanni Saga 1: Reprints the first two Giovanni Saga adventures.  This isn’t of particular note for the print editions; however, the PDF copy at DriveThruRpg costs as much as the first adventure does by itself.  If you just want a PDF to read, that’s the one to get.

Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom: Just to explain what this is: It’s a sourcebook detailing variant vampiric Clans that have adapted to Africa.  It’s not a standalone game line like Kindred of the East, and the variant Clans are versions of the existing ones rather than completely new.  This isn’t the highest-demand sourcebook but it isn’t super-common either.

Tim Bradstreet Vampire Portfolio: A collection of art prints by one of the classic VtM artists.  It has no game content, so it’s really a tie-in collectible rather than a game product.  Since the prints are in a sort of folder, there’s a danger that used copies may not be complete.

Storyteller screens. The 1st and 2nd edition screens came with booklets that aren’t on the official checklist (or mine, but I’ll add them) or available as PDFs.  It’s not uncommon to find just the screen for sale, so keep an eye out for complete or sealed versions.  The Revised screen came with the Storyteller’s Companion; neither is especially rare, but you don’t always find them together.  A V20 screen is being released as part of the Hunters Hunted II Kickstarter.

In-setting books. There are two principal books here: The Book of Nod and Revelations of the Dark Mother. The BoN is not especially rare in its base form, but there is a deluxe hardcover that’s less common.  There are two other editions of note.  The BoN was infamous for being hard to read, with text over illustrations or blurry backgrounds, so a clearer version was released recently.  There’s a PoD version, which is not as essential as the PDF version and doesn’t have the nice cover of the original, but is there for the completist (raises hand).  There is also a special hardcover edition that’s part of the most recent Kindred the Embraced DVD set; if you want one, I recommend buying the set now to be on the safe side.

Revelations is less common than BoN; not exactly rare, but not ubiquitous, either.

There are also three books that fall into a grey area.  Book of the Damned is essentially the setting material from 1st/2nd edition VtM without the rules content, and was released both as a standalone and as part of the original Masquerade LARP boxed set.  Book of the Kindred is a mass-market version of BotD that has additional short stories, released as a tie-in to Kindred the Embraced.  Prince’s Primer is a similar-sized book of advice on vampiric politics.  I call these a grey area because they could be considered supplements for either VtM or Mind’s Eye Theatre.  They lean more toward the MET side (going by size and product numbers) but there’s nothing preventing their use in VtM, either.

That covers the basics of the Vampire gamebook line (not counting MET).  Up next, tie-in merchandise!

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says, “This is the weather the cuckoo likes, armored division submissive to vernacular the world into a gambling birdhouse velocity.”

Random thoughts on Thor: The Dark World (possibly semi-spoilery)

In the scene where Darcy interrupts Jane and Richard’s date with the “malfunctioning” sensor, I really hope there’s an outtake of Chris O’Dowd asking “Have you tried turning it off and back again?”.

I’m curious what the people directing the fighter jets to shoot down the dark elves’ ship thought the next stage was going to be.  Granted that saving the universe is more important than saving the Old Royal Naval College, but still, whatever it toppled into wasn’t going to enjoy the process.

A fan idea I’ll never get to use

So there’s a classic Scottish border ballad, “Tam Lin.” Briefly, it’s about a young woman who disobeys her father and gets pregnant, then discovers that her baby’s father is due to be sacrificed to Hell by the Queen of Faerie and has to save him.  It’s a good story with a strong female lead and appears on the landmark album of British folk-rock, Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief.  It’s also been adapted into fiction many times; Pamela Dean’s novel version, set in a Midwestern liberal arts college in the 1970s, is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the two best adaptations of ballads into novels, in my opinion. (The other is Through a Brazen Mirror by Delia Sherman.)

Anyway, the place that the heroine, Janet (or sometimes Margaret), disobeys her father to visit is Carterhaugh, which is a real place near Selkirk.  Being a ballad, there are several known variants, and in some of them it’s not Carterhaugh.  In some it’s Blackstock, which gave the name to the college in the Dean novel.  And in some, it’s Carter Hall.  This is where the fan idea comes in…

Carter Hall is of course the secret identity of the original Hawkman (and the one the Silver Age Hawkman, Katar Hol, used on Earth).  And part of the Hawkman concept is that he and Hawkgirl have been reincarnated over and over since ancient Egypt, and it never ends well for them.  This was given particular weight during Geoff Johns’s run on the character, which established that among others their past incarnations included two pre-existing Western characters.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Tam Lin and Janet as two past incarnations of the Hawks. (This is heightened by the fact that I picture Janet as a redhead, thanks again to Pamela Dean.) It would imply an unhappy ending that isn’t indicated in the ballad, but that can be further down the line.

The reason there isn’t much that can be done with this is that the New 52 Hawkman doesn’t use this backstory, and this isn’t an idea that would make good fanfic.  Seeing Tam Lin used as the basis of an issue of Hawkman would have been cool, and wouldn’t have been out of place in the series from the ’00s; writing it myself would basically be retelling the ballad with an odd framing sequence.  Not that it would have been likely anyway, but–c’mon!  Carter Hall!  It’s right there!

A stupid seahorse is all I get: anatomy of a perennial B-lister

It’s fair to say that of the founding members of the Justice League, Aquaman gets the least respect.  The principal reason he’s become a punchline to the general audience can be summed up neatly by the first few seconds of this Cartoon Network short:

However, Aquaman has other factors working against him as well.  I’d like to skip over the whole standard arguments about his quality as a character (aquatic telepathy and only useful in the ocean vs. how much of the planet the ocean covers, and so on) and look at a few of the other things that stand in his way.

(Note that I come here to praise Aquaman, not bury him.  He’s not at the top of my list of favorites, but I’ve always been fond of him.  He was one of two Megos I owned as a kid; I’m buying his current title, and I’ve collected what I could of Peter David’s run on the series (and associated series) and the Showcase Presents volumes.)

1. Whose Golden Age is it anyway?

I know the following about the Golden Age Aquaman: He was a surface dweller whose father used Atlantean science to make him amphibious.  And, um…he had yellow gloves?

I know that not from having read a wide range of Golden Age reprints, but from Wikipedia.  I’ve read exactly one GA Aquaman story, and that was in preparation for this article.  He didn’t make it into The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told (although he was in the 1950’s volume) and the single volume of Aquaman Archives started with the Silver Age.  You don’t see his origin reprinted or retold, because he didn’t really have one. For a character who was in continuous publication from 1941 into the Silver Age, he just doesn’t seem to have been very interesting for the first 25 years of his career.  Even DC forgot about the existence of the Earth-2 Aquaman for at least a decade.

Granted, he’s not the only character this is true of (Green Arrow and the Martian Manhunter both deserve their own articles under this header) but it’s still a drawback.  Reinventing a character by taking them back to their roots has been a go-to strategy for DC in the past, sometimes to good effect, but that only works for a character who had a strong start.  No one’s going to bring back the “altered by Atlantean science” origin.  There are no great forgotten villains from the 1940s waiting to be revived–apparently his main enemies were Nazis and generic ocean-based criminals, so there’s no Dr. Psycho, Hugo Strange or Ultra-Humanite sitting in reserve.

1a. It’s a relatively minor point, since it applies to a lot of other characters, but Aquaman’s creators don’t give him much of a boost.  He was created by Mort Weisinger, who’s primarily associated with Superman these days, and Paul Norris, whose primary work wasn’t in comic books. (Norris’s other superhero work of note was the redesign of Sandman, but his primary work is the Brick Bradford comic strip, which again I had never heard of until reading about it on Wikipedia.) It’s not something that holds the character back so much as it doesn’t give him a boost that more A-list characters have–no Siegel & Shuster, Bob Kane or William Moulton Marston for him.

2. Any club that would have me as a member. The Golden Age Aquaman wasn’t a joiner.  He wasn’t a member, honorary or otherwise, of the Justice Society, or even the Seven Soldiers of Victory.  As a result, he didn’t show up in the JSA/JLA teamups, and he joined the All-Star Squadron for two issues, just in time to be removed from history by the Crisis.

Being a member of the Justice League offsets this problem to some extent, and the Earth-2 version wouldn’t have existed post-Crisis anyway, but JSA membership has kept some characters who would otherwise have been forgotten (Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite come to mind) in the spotlight.  Perhaps if he’d been in the JSA, DC might have remembered that he existed.

3. Identity crisis. Aquaman’s life has never really revolved around his secret identity.  He has a civilian name, but he doesn’t have a job on the land or anything like that.  This cuts out entire swathes of both potential stories and supporting cast that better-developed characters had. (The up side to this is that he isn’t stuck with three-quarters of his Silver Age stories being about his girlfriend trying to expose his secret identity.)

The supporting cast issue is not unique to Aquaman, as characters who ran in backup features didn’t have as much room to devote to non-plot critical story elements. (Apart from Speedy, Green Arrow’s main ongoing relationship seems to have been with his trick arrows.) While he did develop a supporting cast (starting with Topo the Octopus in 1956), they were all part of his superhero life or, eventually, his role as King of Atlantis.  He didn’t have a group of civilian friends and a group of work friends, as Superman did.

Likewise, having something to do in his civilian identity would have allowed for a wider range of plots than just “protector of the Seven Seas”.  Becoming King of Atlantis was a step forward in this regard, but prior to that there was never really a sense of what he did with his downtime.

4. Judging a man by his enemies.  An issue that carried over from the Golden Age and was also shared with other backup characters: recurring villains.  This didn’t start improving until the mid-1960s, starting a bit weakly with the Fisherman (1965) but adding two stronger contenders in Ocean Master (1966) and Black Manta (1967).  Up until then, there was no one to write home about, the Human Flying Fish not being ready for prime time.

(This became somewhat embarrassing in Justice League of America #14, when Amos Fortune gathered up enemies of the individual League members.  Superman and Batman were often shunted to the side during this era, so none of their villains showed up.  Instead, the flowers of supervillainy he gathered together: Hector Hammond!  Pied Piper! Not GL or Flash’s greatest enemies, but not overly shabby.  Angle Man!  Well, Wonder Woman didn’t really have many recurring villains in this era.  Sea-Thief, a guy we’ve never heard of!  Ummm….

(As a brief digression, Amos Fortune is a classic example of the Will to Fail among comics villains.  When he first appeared, he had made himself wealthy by giving himself amazing luck.  Naturally he decided to go after the JLA, forgetting that being lucky isn’t illegal and they would have left him alone if he’d left them alone.  He’d probably have been banned from every casino on Earth and possibly investigated by the SEC, but I’m sure he’d have been crying all the way to the bank.)

5. Under da sea. While I said I wouldn’t get into the limitations of the undersea thing, there are a couple of specific points that are worth looking at.

One is the weakness of having to submerge at least once an hour. (How did he know that he’d die if he didn’t get water, since it had never happened?  Clearly going through dehydration isn’t fun, so I can’t blame him for not experimenting, but still.) It’s not an issue when he’s on his own turf (er, surf), but unlike Superman and Kryptonite/magic or even Martian Manhunter and fire, it isn’t something that a villain has to actively bring to the table–it’ll happen on its own if he’s not careful–nor is it a problem to be cleverly worked around, like Green Lantern and the color yellow.  This makes him appear weak in a way that these other heroes don’t.

Another issue is tied in to the lack of civilian identity.  Having superheroes deal with Real World Issues has waxed and waned in popularity but goes back all the way to Superman.  The trouble is that, unless surface world social problems are imported into Atlantis, the only issues that really work for Aquaman are ocean-related, and that basically means environmental or conservation issues.  While those issues are a valid basis for a comic, they get old if there’s too much focus on them, and they require a careful touch to avoid falling into Captain Planet-style strawmanitis.

Finally, the underwater setting makes it challenging to do a live-action version of the character (pace Entourage).  I remember someone online complaining that the prospective live TV series would be set mostly on the shore, and insisting that it should be filmed underwater.  In an ideal world this would be nice, but we live in a world where filming in and around water is notoriously difficult, dangerous and expensive even on a film budget, let alone a TV budget. (Part of the reason Waterworld ran over budget is that a set sank, and both the star and director of The Abyss nearly drowned during filming.)

 

As I said at the outset, I don’t think these issues are an insurmountable barrier that prevent anyone from creating a good Aquaman comic.  Rather, they’re limitations that make it harder to point to the character and say “See? That’s why he’s actually awesome” when someone’s making fun of him.  I admire the creators who can get past the obvious and tell an interesting Aquaman story. (As an incidental aside, I’ve also been enjoying the badass Mera that spun out of “Blackest Night”.  It was always an interesting dynamic that Mera was more powerful than her husband, at least when it came to direct displays of power, and it’s nice to see something done with it.)

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Not even Peter David could make me cool.”

(Post title and ending quote from “Arthur Curry” by Ookla the Mok.  Also, speaking of good storytellers, a nod to Nick Cardy; RIP.)