The Dr. Strange Movie

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Yesterday, Marvel announced their upcoming Phase 3 movies, and the earliest new character is going to be Dr. Strange. They’ve even announced that they offered the role to Benedict Cumberbatch.

For those who aren’t familiar with the character, he’s basically the superhero wizard of the Marvel Universe. Origin in brief: Arrogant surgeon injures his hands in car accident. In seeking a cure so he can go back to being his old self, he stumbles upon a world of magic spells, extra-dimensional demons, and fetishized orientalism. He becomes apprenticed to a sorcerer, then takes the role of the Sorcerer Supreme (the magical protector of his reality).

Basically, he faces magical bad guys, extradimensional weirdness, and fights with magic items and spells. And back in the Steve Ditko days, we got art like this:

Note to Disney: get that shit in the movies.

However, it seems that the MCU will continue to run away from the idea of actual magic. In the upcoming movie, Strange’s spells let him “tap into the supernatural, which involves everything from quantum mechanics to string theory, all of which you can manipulate with your hands and your thoughts.” Which makes no sense, really, but if you’re afraid of driving off any segment of your audience, you change Thor into an alien (and turn his story lines into sword and planet adventures) and base Dr. Strange’s spells on “string theory.”

Which… whatever. It’s just a different kind of hand-waving, and I seriously doubt it will satisfy hardcore “Harry Potter recruits for Satan!” types. The truth is, I’m hoping this movie works. Dr. Strange has always been better in the concept than the execution–although I wish Marvel would hire Chris Bird to write the book. His ideas are more interesting than the usual stuff Marvel runs with.

How I think it should be done:

    Skip the origin. Just to show it’s possible.
    At least three Ditko-esque acid trip landscapes.
    Keep Cleo, but without the creepy student/teacher romance.
    Keep Wong, but make him more than a kung fu manservant. Better roles for POC > fewer
    Lose the costume.
    Get a better costume. The big cape is cool, but change the look.
    Keep magic spells
    Lose rhymes required to chant them.
    Lose the magician swears. “By the Vishanti!” Seriously.

Villain: Mordo, with Dormammu lurking in the background.

As for the casting of Cumberbatch (if they’re correct) I don’t really have an opinion about him. I’ve seen him on Sherlock and Star Trek, and was underwhelmed both times. Maybe his performance in THE IMITATION GAME will surprise me, since I thought ST was boring and wanted to walk out of the room when Sherlock was on. We’ll see.

“In our next episode…” Using horror to explore real tragedy

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A recent school shooting in Marysville, WA is all over the news this week. If I owned a car, I could say it happened only an hour north of where I live in Seattle (if you could drive on I-5 instead of creep along on it like a parking lot). Marysville isn’t a place I’ve ever visited, and before this tragedy all I could have said about it is that it’s somewhere nearby.

My point is that none of this feels personal to me… at least, it’s no more personal than a shooting in Georgia, Connecticut, or Colorado. That’s why, when I read the NYT article describing the Marysville shooter–which I won’t link to because of their paywall–which is echoed in this article, my first thought is This sounds like a terrible episode of a supernatural horror show.

Because at the moment, the killings are inexplicable. The shooter was widely regarded as a popular, successful, and engaged kid. He played on the football team. He was homecoming prince. He was widely liked. As for his victims, they were his friends and family, not people who bullied him.

Bullying and resentment are the default narratives for school shootings now, ever since the media settled on a Jocks v Outcasts frame for the Columbine shootings (never mind that it turned out to be wrong). When a new shooting happens, the first questions people ask are: Is the shooter mentally ill? What petty social slights were they trying to rectify? Did they have a troubled home life?

In the Marysville incident, none of these seem to hold. From the outside, he seems like he was a popular kid with a loving home life who attacked people who liked him. Police have been trying to find a clue to his behavior since last Friday, and whatever they’ve found, they haven’t released it. It’s possible they won’t find anything.

Which immediately makes me think of a horror storyline, where inexplicable violence is attributed to demonic possession or some shit, and the whole thing comes down to Basically Decent People Who Would Never Do Such A Thing.

I mean, consider this io9 post about the upcoming CHILL third edition. The game is organized around a secret society that battles the supernatural, and for this edition they’re regrouping and reorganizing around a capable new leader, as detailed in the article. Pluses for making this new leader a woman, a Muslim, and a soldier in the Syrian Free Army, but minuses for suggesting that al-Assad’s cruel regime is somehow the result of supernatural evil. Sure, the article suggests that maybe creatures are drawn to human evil, but leaving it up in the air isn’t good enough.

Because I’m tired of stories that portray perfectly normal human “evil” as if there must be some sort of non-human explanation. Yes, as a narrative device, the supernatural helps us address difficult or inexplicable aspects of our own lives, but it’s not there to explain them or to reduce culpability. That’s shitty fiction.

As for the real world, I want to offer my sincere condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.

The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

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The Underground ManThe Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lew Archer is moving into the seventies, trying to keep up with changing times, and so are his characters.

After reading several crime/mystery novels, it was refreshing to read one that opened with real momentum, and that felt honestly earned. Archer is searching for a kidnapped boy in the midst of a California wildfire. The authorities have too much going on to offer much help, and Archer has to do the fictional PI’s work of digging through every character’s lives to work out the truth of the current crime and the obligatory crime-of-a-previous-generation.

The prose is a little purple, but it’s a pleasant hue. As a fan of private investigator novels, I like a bit of purple prose. Macdonald isn’t entirely convincing in his description of his younger character and people’s drug use, and frankly, I thought it spun on a little long, but it was still one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year.



Pick up a copy for yourself.

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

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Chelsea Mansions (Brock & Kolla, #11)Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do guys who were born and raised in Montreal really say “Fancy a cup of tea?”

Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know. It just seems a very English thing to say, from a guy who grew up in Quebec. But maybe I’m wrong.

2.5 stars for this, because it was well-structured but also sort of inert. There was no momentum, little urgency, and not much at stake. It’s one of those mysteries where everything anyone says–and everything anyone reveals as part of their personal history–turns out to be part of the solution to the mystery.

Which is fine. As a craft issue, it’s an admirable way to create a mystery, but without truly engaging characterization or a sense of momentum, it feels very rote. I realize I’m jumping into a long-running series, but it was hard to feel much interest in the characters’ dilemmas.

Did I mention that everything tied into the final mystery? Well, one thing didn’t. One of the two stars of the series catches the Marburg virus and goes into the hospital for much of the book. There’s no real reason to do this except to leave the junior partner, a woman, in charge of the investigation for a while. And of course she makes an error that gets her whole unit disbanded.

Meh. I wasn’t feeling it.

Oh! I forgot to mention that there’s a whole lot of talk about some old cases involving a deadly criminal by the name “Spider Roach.”

Now, maybe that is the greatest villain since Prof. Moriarity, but nothing about “Spider Roach” sounds promising to me.



Get your own copy of Chelsea Mansions: A Brock and Kolla Mystery (Brock and Kolla Mysteries)

Randomness for 10/21

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1) World’s Worst Playgrounds h/t @cstross

2) Maps of modern cities drawn in JRR Tolkien’s style.

3) How to “gird your loins,” in illustrated form..

4) Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover art with DC Comics characters.

5) Drunk J Crew, a Tumblr.

6) An internet glossary, from The Toast.

7) The Zero Stooges (aka The Three Stooges Minus Stooges). Video.

Authors with six-figure incomes

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Twenty years ago, Donald Maass interviewed authors to find out who had six-figure incomes, and what they had in common. What did he discover?

No conventions. Hear that? They don't attend many conventions

Excerpt from ‘The Career Novelist’ by Donald Maass

Download a free copy of the book this is from at this link.

Obviously, none of them listed “Lucky” among the important factors in their success, but we can take that as a given. You can do everything right, but if you’re abandoned by your editor, or your preferred subject matter appeals to a small audience, well, that’s just too sad for you.

But how much of this advice (to the extent that it actually constitutes advice) still holds, twenty years later?

I suspect that writers really do need to be somewhat “plugged in” right now. Writers aren’t going to make a lot of sales by going onto social media and calling for readers, but they can recommend other authors, and those other authors can recommend them in return, if they like. Log-rolling! It’s not actually evil, if you liked the book.

I also wonder what other factors would weigh in here: how quickly do they publish? Are their books largely within a single series? Do they win awards?

Personally, last month I passed the five-year mark on my publishing career, and it hasn’t be great. When the trilogy and the new UF comes out this winter, I’ll have published or self-published ten books.

I’m not looking for six-figures here, but mid-five would be nice. Very very nice, actually. We’ll see.

A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

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A Darkness More Than Night (Harry Bosch, #7; Terry McCaleb, #2)A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unsurprising and a little disappointing.

There isn’t a lot of mystery to this mystery; obviously, the star of a long-running detective series is not going to suddenly turn out to be a secret serial killer, and the B plot makes it obvious what’s really going on. It’s creepy as hell in places, but the the only real question is where they’ll find the clues to the inevitable solution.

I’d give up on these books if people didn’t keep recommending them so highly.



Buy a copy for yourself.

I backed the third edition of CHILL (and so should you)

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When Pacesetter put out the first CHILL edition way back in the ’80′s, I snapped up a copy. For those of you who watched my Kickstarter video from last year (oh, shit, a year? must finish books) you might have noticed that box on the shelf behind me. It’s been 30 years since it came out, but while I have never played in a genuinely good Chill game, I still remember it fondly.

When Mayfair put out a second edition in the early nineties, I started snapping those books up. They were fun to read, for the most part[1], and suggested a great many story ideas, most of which I never got to use[2]. Someday, maybe. Someday.

Still, this was the ’90s, when The X-Files was all anyone talked about. It should have been the perfect moment for the game to break out. Unfortunately, the fear checks never really worked, and the horrors in CALL OF CTHULHU bigfooted all over the traditional monsters in Chill. People were more interested in Deep Ones than haunted houses, apparently. The game never sold as well as it should, and when Mayfair had a break-out hit in SETTLERS OF CATAN, they dumped rpgs in favor of board games and have never looked back.

There was an attempt some years back to put together a third edition; I was part of the crowd reading through the rules and discussing them. Sadly, people suck, and the nasty sarcasm I got when I dared admit that I sometimes ignored a die-roll to make the narrative work, convinced me it was more stress than it was worth. Much later they tried to raise $45k to print the rulebook, but it never happened.

Part of the reason I never quite had a successful game is my own weakness as a GM (excuse me… “CM”). Part was that the game required a certain willingness for players to face an enemy that was more powerful than they were[3] which had to be investigated before it could be fought. Part of it was that the players were unused to NPC interactions that didn’t mimic the might-uber-alles bullying that came with lawless murder hobo fantasy campaigns. Part was just an unwillingness to get in the spirit of things.

An example of that last:

Me: “The last thing you need to do for character creation is think up the first time you came into contact with the Unknown. It can be a haunting, a vampire attack, whatever.”

Player: “Uh, well, okay. I was walking down the street and I saw a werewolf driving a pizza-delivery truck.”

Me: “Dude.”

Player: “What?”

Sophisticated role-players, we were not. Suffice to say, I made several attempts over the years with different groups, but it never really came off.

However, I quite liked the way the rules handled creatures’ powers as though they were spells. I liked that you roll percentile dice for skill checks. I liked the idea of SAVE[4], the organization dedicated to fighting the supernatural[5]. I liked the genuinely scary creatures in the main rulebook. I even liked the weird psychic powers the PCs could access.

It was also nice to see that they broke the “rules” with regard to the creatures. I was raised to color inside the lines, and that attitude extended to pretty much everything, including the “rules” of monster movies: vampires can’t cross running water, ghosts have a task they needed to accomplish, werewolves could be killed with silver. There were boundaries! It was all laid out!

Then came Chill, which offered that sort of monster, along with other kinds. You could have werewolves that didn’t give a shit about silver or vampires that could walk in the sun. It didn’t matter, as long as it was interesting. For me, who had always broken rules on the sly because breaking rules meant trouble, the game was a bit of a paradigm shift, creatively.

Plus, for a guy who loves spooky horror but hated the sadistic pain movies and books of the 80′s (and who still hates modern grimy torture porn), Chill gave me some control. It let me imagine the stories I wanted.

That’s why, yesterday, I backed the third edition of their Kickstarter even though I can’t really afford it. The playtest materials are gorgeous; this is really the best art the game has ever had, and a quick glance at the rules is very promising.

It also looks like they’ve fixed the issue with fear checks.

Anyway, the materials they’ve already made available have me excited for the project. I hope they blow the doors off their goal and start funding a bunch of supplements or whatever.

Hell, I might dig out the adventures I was working on twenty years ago to see if there’s anything salvageable in them.

So, if traditional horror rpgs sound good to you, back them. You’ll at least have a chance to look at the playtest, with plenty of time to change your mind (you won’t change your mind).

[1] I was sorely disappointed by the “monster manual” for the game, called Things, but I’ve read enough horror game supplements to know how difficult it can be to make up a long list of horror creatures that are a) inventive, b) scary, and c) set the right tone.

[2] On Twitter, someone suggested that the playtest sampler for the 3e Kickstarter had a bit of Child of Fire in it, but in truth the influence goes the other way. The idea of a family (a whole community) that can’t remember one of its own comes straight out of the main rulebook for 2e. I read about that creature almost fifteen years before I started CoF. If you back the Kickstarter, you’ll get to see for yourself.

[3] In fact, I converted one of the creatures for 2e Chill (a mist mummy, which is a creature that spreads pestilence) directly into Champions so a five PC superhero team could fight it, and damn if it didn’t have blisteringly high points.

[4] aka Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata or The Eternal Society of the Silver Way, which was explicitly changed from “White Way” in the Pacesetter version because it sounded like an offshoot of the Klan. See also: The Dresden Files TV show changing the “White Council” into the “High Council”.

[5] In first edition, it was an actual functioning society that sent people out to investigate shit. The second, naturally, turned things all grim and dark, because 90′s. The new edition seems to have a rebuilding theme, which is welcome.