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Ninja Girls of the Reform School

So I've finished up a draft of what I hope will become a comic book someday:


It's of course set in the world of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, and much like that setting itself, started out as a sort of joke that I, in my pedantic fashion, took perfectly seriously and tried to elaborate on.

This is much how my brain works: somebody says something completely insane, and I think, "Hm. What would that be, if you assumed it was actually as advertised?"

So if there were in fact DINO-PIRATES, what would they be? And what on earth is a NINJA ISLAND? (aside, obviously from an island full of ninjas, but don't we already call that "Japan"?)

These are the sorts of questions that keep me up late at night. Unlikely to cure cancer, I know, but there it is.

So when it was proposed that a story about ninja girls in reform school would be a worthwhile notion, I considered it long and consideringly. Well, for about a half-second, then I said, "But what do we call it? NINJA REFORM GIRLS' SCHOOL? REFORM GIRLS NINJA SCHOOL?" This stuff is harder than it looks.

I was stumped. And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure who actually came up with the proper arrangment of words though I suspect it was either Matt or Jody. But there it was: REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. And once the formulation was in place, my brain took over, doing the things it does, and asking questions like, "Who would send ninja girls to reform school? What would need reforming and why? And should they wear ninja outfits or schoolgirl outfits?"

The first incarnation of RSNG was a game I ran twice at GenCon 2008. I needed seven characters, so I based them all on women I had known in Japan: Masayo, plucky and cheerful and nobody's fool; Ayako, sweet and good-natured and always hungry; RItsuko, hilarious, always laughing and building robots; Kaori, the singer in a Judas Priest cover band; Eri, one of the greatest swordspersons I've ever known; and Yumi -- who was very sweet and completely insane. To these six I added Millicent, because the idea of a stuck-up English girl amongst these ninjas made me laugh.

The whole thing has to be played totally straight. Everything about DINO-PIRATES is meant to hold together without too much suspension of disbelief required.

Yes, I actually wrote that.

And I MEANT it, darn it all. These girls are REAL (sort of), and their story has to be real if it's going to be worth telling. Things are going to be hard for them and they're going to struggle to get through this. I'm writing six issues which will culminate in the battle royale that the GenCon 2008 adventure described, with pirates, robots, hopping vampires, sinister agents and possibly even fire-breathing monsters. The games at GenCon were fantastic illustrations of what can happen when everything goes right at the table, and inspiration builds on inspiration, but a one-shot game just can't have the history and weight that a lengthy story can acquire, and as much as I love running games, there are story-telling itches it just can't scratch.

I wrote my Barsoom Tales story hours as a way to scratch that itch in the fall-out of that game, and to bring to the surface some order around the story that had most captivated me in its first two seasons. REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS is sort of the same thing -- but this time wanting to go back in time and watch how we got to the wild craziness of that final conflict.

The first issue features flying through the air, giant tentacles, benches, decapitations, and plenty of wild ninja action. Currently our very own Claudio Pozas is having a look to see if he thinks he can find the time in his busy schedule to pencil this baby, which obviously would be ideal, as Claudio has been the artistic vision of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND from day one.

Stay tuned! REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS is coming your way!

The Self, Extended

Being a DM is a pretty strange activity most of the time, but there are times when the strangeness intensifies even beyond what seems "normal" for an activity that largely involves making up imaginary stuff so that imaginary people can pretend to interact with it. And doing a fair amount of probabilistic math.

Sometimes the imaginary stuff you (or at any rate, I, and if I'm going to go through this, why shouldn't you?) come up with seems to be generated less by a process of making stuff up and more by a process of discovery, as though the stuff had existed all along, and it only took you opening up the right door or turning on the right light switch to find it. Artists of all sorts have talked about this experience -- Alexandre Dumas famously wept as he wrote one of his beloved character's death scenes (no, I won't tell you which one. Read his damn books!), and Robert E. Howard wrote repeatedly of how Conan simply appeared, fully-formed, and in a sense dictated his adventures to Howard for the Texan to write.

The characters we create are inventions; they don't exist in the meaningful way that I (the guy typing these words) or you (the person reading them) do. Obviously. And yet, that doesn't mean they don't exist AT ALL. That doesn't mean they aren't REAL in some sense.

Anyone who cried at the end of Old Yeller proves that characters have a real existence and influence on the world. Even if that's only in our imagination.

Our imagination is what gives fictional characters their power of us. It's also where they come from. And while we may like to think that we actively "make up" things, the truth is far more complicated than that. Our imagination, after all, makes US up, too. Our whole identity is constructed by our imagination out of the endless stream of sensory input our brains manage. So if our imagination invents us, who invents our imaginations?

My Barsoom campaign was a sprawling unwieldy tale (as are most lengthy campaigns) that lasted over five years and went through more twists and turns than I can readily relate (or recall, to tell the truth). Many and varied were the characters that emerged from that lovely mess, and many of the folks I invented over the course of the tale stick with me still, easily remembered even though many of the details of who did what to whom have fallen by the wayside.

Exasperated Kimiko Torokan, trying to do the right thing but feeling more and more trapped between equally evil alternatives. Arrogant and cruel Matai Shang (see? Barsoom!). Affable Phelan. Angry and suffering Zuleika.

It's a strange business, as I say, this DMing gig, and it never gets more strange than in the delicate balancing act required to create (or discover) compelling characters and yet keep the story's focus squarely on the PCs. As a DM, your characters have to be supporting roles, and yet, for them to be compelling and engaging for your players, they have to be complete, with stories of their own that you need to be invested in.

But not too invested. The trouble comes in that of course, the characters you discover (or create) come out of youself, and so reflect truths about you. There's no avoiding that, and it can get downright uncomfortable to realise it, especially when you look back over some of the characters you've created. Or discovered.

You can read too much into that, of course, but the truth is this question of creating or discovering is kind of at the heart not only of the DMing process, not only of the artistic process, but of the process of self-discovery.

Or self-creation.

We're all story-tellers, no matter how inarticulate we may be. Human beings are story-telling creatures and we understand the world and ourselves primarily through the stories we tell. We know ourselves as the stories we tell about ourselves, and those stories are both discovered and created as we go through our lives. We recognize a trend in our behaviour, or we invent one; it's all the same. It all becomes part of the story of who we are.

Artistic creation, and for a DM, the creation of characters, is part of this circular process, both creating newness and discovering what was already there. My characters, the great ones that is, the ones who seemed to have ALWAYS been there, and who even now must be carrying on with their imaginary lives, those characters both revealed truths about me to myself, and allowed me to create truths about myself. The legendary beauty Yuek Man Chong, born of a margin note scribbled without thought, nearly took over my campaign, had to be destroyed, and yet filled up pages of notes and thoughts and speculation. I don't recall ever inventing anything about her -- it was always as though I was learning more and more about who she was, who she had been and who she might yet become. She was bigger than me, as strange as that seems to say. But the process of discovering her was really a process of discovering me, and realising that I, too, am bigger than myself, because I always hold the ability to go beyond what I am now, what I understand myself to be.

When I make up imaginary people, I'm really creating new possibilities for myself, or discovering new terrain within the familiar landscape of myself. Which is a pretty cool thing to do while pretending to kill orcs.

Picture by James Ryman

Summer Holiday is Over!

We are now safely ensconced in our new location at Kokoro Dojo. The very fine folks of Sandokai Aikido and our little group have moved into our beautiful new home near Dupont Station as of June 15th.

Kokoro Dojo has a lovely place set back from Dupont Street amongst trees and old houses. It's very lovely.

Enjoy thesummer and if you have any questions about Toronto Kenjutsu's practice, feel free to drop by!

Flower photo by oui cool2

Green Lantern Trailer

Okay, this is insanely awesome. I'D totally go see this movie. Too bad it doesn't exist.

Building On A Framework

That is a GIANT SPACE TELESCOPE! on TwitpicSo I had the very great pleasure of attending the first-ever GIANT SPACE TELESCOPE CON up at the Algonquin Radio Observatory last weekend. It was tremendous fun, even if the weather wasn't entirely favourable. But as you can see, there was definitely a GIANT SPACE TELESCOPE present.

Anyway, for this event, Stuart and I decided to try combining our respective GM brains and run a game together. The plan was to run a multiple-session one-shot over the weekend based on Stuart's theories around Battlestar Galactica and its Mormon theological basis. Stuart and I have discussed our GMing styles and approaches many times over the years, and I've been playing in a game of his for over a year now, so I have a good idea of how he puts together a game, but it was still fascinating to watch it happen "behind the scenes", as it were.

While we have many similarities in our aesthetics when it comes to games, our approach is fundamentally different. I come up with some ideas about genre, and a few interesting personalities, and then add the PCs and see what happens. Stuart, on the other hand, comes up with a framework -- a sort of ideological construct that will hold up the game, and provide a decision-making tool for the GM so that the events in the game come together in a thematically coherent fashion. It works as a set of metaphors, and as the game proceeds, the GM makes decisions using the metaphorical understanding of the game.

It's hard to explain. Here's how it operated in our game:

We knew we were doing a Battlestar Galactica game. This implies certain things -- the world is about to end, humanity has ascended to godhood and thus is about to be destroyed by its creations, "all this has happened before yada yada yada". In addition to that, we decided to apply a metaphor of Greek gods. Now this didn't get applied too rigorously, but we had the game start on Saturn's moon of Titan, the original creators of the gods (who were then the creators of humanity, who are the creators of the Cylons). On Titan they discovered evidence of a vanished extra-planetary civilization that had been overthrown and destroyed. There was reference to Phaeton, the charioteer of the gods, and a nod to the Phaeton Hypothesis that the asteroids were the remnants of a planet. In our framework, it meant that the asteroids had been destroyed in the cataclysm that had exterminated the Olympians and left the solar system in the hands of the humans.

In theory, had the players figured out the framework, they could have made predictions about the game based on their understanding of that framework.

We also used the Biblical plagues as a sign the world was coming to an end. This worked a little more straightforwardly, and we simply translated the plagues into a futuristic setting. The plague of insects was an attack by a super-intelligent hive of termites, the rain of fire was a swarm of cybernetic cruise missiles that looked like dragons, and so on. This framework DID provide the players with predictability -- they were able to look for and predict incoming plagues and try to take steps to survive them.

It was a great deal of fun, and from a GM's point of view enormously satisfying. Stuart and I are definitely planning to repeat the experiment -- we didn't get to use half the stuff we came up with for this game!

Arcane West

Hi, y’all!

For those who don’t know me, I’m Claudio Pozas, the “contributor that rarely contributes to the blog”. Corey invited me over to ramble, and by God, I’ll ramble!

A couple of posts ago Joshua spoke of the mix-n-match of ideas that makes up a large part of pulp (like, say, DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, or the less inspired Vampirates [really?]). This reminded me of some stuff I got churning in my ol’ (34-year-old) noggin’: the juxtaposition of fantasy and cowboys (and no, I never read Dark Tower). The first image I assembled in my head was a female mage-marshall with a silver pentagram as her badge and riding a unicorn

So what came out of that?


Location: The West. This is an arid land, divided in counties. Each county is ruled by a Count (usually a spellslinger), under the autority of the Emperor. The counties have very unoriginal names, like Dry County, Dragon County (deserted after the great dragon flight a couple of decades back), Red County, etc.

Folk: The lands were colonized by man-folk (humans) after the discovery of magic crystals that serve very well to make magical weapons (a mix of gold and gunpowder). To the East rises a Rockies-like forested mountain range, home to a Paul Bunyan-type race of giant-folk (known to D&D gamers as goliaths). Prospector-like dwarf-folk plye the ground for its crystals, and also for gold, silver and water. Dwarf-folk established at least one large village atop a mesa, called unimaginatively “High Town”. The original dwellers of the West, the elemental genasi (also known as fire-folk, earth-folk, storm-folk, water-folk and wind-folk), distrust, despise and often try to destroy the interlopers.

Law: Peace and quiet don't last long in the West. When folk can't stand up for themselves, they pray (or pay) a mage-marshall to enforce the law. But mage-marshalls are few and far between, and usually might makes right in the West.

I envisioned Arcane West as a “plug-n-play” setting that you could place in any campaign. All it needed would be an unexplored region to the West and a desire to have players yell “YEE-HAW!!!” during game.

Note: Arcane West is totally unrelated to my other mini-setting idea, called “Dungeontown”. More on that later.

And while I’m here, please vote for my Devolved Gnome concept art by posting a comment with your vote in the ArtOrder blog by John Schindehette.

Malcolm's Magic

In 1990 I think it was, my friend Malcolm and I hitch-hiked from Calgary to Lake Louise to see our favourite band, Same Difference. They'd told us at a show in Calgary that if we came up that weekend to see them, they'd put us up in their hotel room. Which given that the band was four very talented and charming young women (and Dave), was more than sufficient to shift us into high gear.

That was nearly twenty years ago now. My friend Malcolm, damn him, looks pretty much exactly the way he did then, and has only gotten more talented and charming himself. Here's some video of my dear friend being charming, talented, and amazing:

Nice job, Malcolm.

Sci-fi vs. Science Fiction

As a fan of the "pulp aesthetic", I find that I disagree with the entire premise of this conversation. But I think it's interesting nonetheless, and a good discussion point on exactly how serious this stuff should be taken and should take itself.

Japanese Horror: The Transmission of Suffering

The great explosion in a genre that can only be called "Japanese Horror" began back in 1998 with the little film called The Ring, by Hideo Nakata. And a little girl crawling up out of a well, and occasionally out of other things little girls have no business crawling out of.

Recently I watched one of the more unlikely follow-ups to Nakata's enormously successful film, Hair Extensions. Yes, this film is in fact about murderous fashion accessories. It's creepier than you might think, and a great performance from Chiaki Kuriyama gives it a weight it wouldn't otherwise earn. But it got me thinking about the phenomenon of Japanese Horror, and in particular how these films differ from, say, western horror films.

Now, in any successful horror film, it is clear to the audience that by the end of the film, judgement has been handed out. Those who died horribly may not have "deserved to die" in any realistic fashion, but the audience understands that they broke the rules and they must pay the price. This is a basic truth of all horror films -- they are reactionary, extremely conservative stories in which even the slightest mis-step is punished with torture and horrible death.

But in the western mode, the punishment comes typically at the hands of one who was wronged, with no mediation. Jason, the killer of the Friday the 13th films, was drowned in a lake as a child. The endless cycle of murders he perpetuates are his rightful claim to justice. But the killing is done by he himself.

In the Japanese tale, punishment is mediated by others. The Ring videotape is passed on from one viewer to the next. Evil extensions are placed in the hair of unsuspecting salon customers. The suffering of one is distributed throughout society. In a film like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, the suffering virtually destroys civilization entirely.

In Friday the 13th, those who commit wrongs are punished, but society itself is not implicated. In films like The Ring, all of society is made guilty for the suffering of one. The dreadful suffering of one little girl is EVERYONE'S responsibility. She has the right, says this film, to take her vengeance on any of us. We allowed this to happen; we must bear the punishment.

You can see it as a continuation of the theme of a film as old and tired as Godzilla -- all acts are social acts, and so we cannot dodge our responsibility for being part of the society that allows terrible things to happen.

A film like Hair Extensions is probably a sign that the "Japanese Horror" genre is overworked. None of the follow-ups to The Ring have lived up to that film's searing moments of terror. It will be interesting to see where the next great wave comes from.

Rules of Gaming

Well, I feel like I'm on a roll, and although I'm probably overdoing it here, it's best to strike while the iron's hot, I believe. So here I am, posting again, and this time I'm veering a little bit more overtly away from pulp and into gaming. Gaming that has a pulp aesthetic. Maybe we can all convince Corey to start talking about DINO PIRATES this way, but in the meantime, you've got me.

I'm a fan of the Ray Winninger methodology of running a game. To be perfectly honest, I was already kinda doing things that way naturally, because it suits my personality so well. But, he kinda codified and made me think about things that I was just doing "by feel" rather than with premeditation, and so I give him some credit with helping me focus my efforts on running better games. If you're not already familiar with Ray's methodology, detailed during his run of the "Dungeoncraft" column in Dragon Magazine during the last year or two of Second Edition, and overlapping the switch to Third, you should be. It's good stuff. The articles all used to be online on the old Dragon Magazine website, archived, but they're obviously not anymore. However, the good folks at have archived them as simple text files. You should check them out.

Anyway, I won't really discuss them, but Ray's four main rules of Dungeoncraft are, cut and pasted from the source:

1) Never force yourself to create more than you must
2) Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.
3) Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a particular situation, consider it 50%. Note: The Third Rule of Dungeoncraft is a useful tool for keeping the game moving, not a replacement for your own good judgment and knowledge of the rules. Use it wisely!
4) Always challenge both the players and their characters
I've got a few rules of my own about setting development. Now these, I will talk about briefly.
• When you have an idea for the campaign, write it up now---strike while the iron's hot!
• Don't be afraid to swipe good ideas from another source---but don't let your source be obvious
The first was kinda a caveat to Ray's own Rule #1: Never force yourself to create more than you must. Well, yeah, don't force yourself, but my experience with setting development is that when you're really excited about it, ideas flow easily. However, this excitement waxes and wanes, and sometimes you can get a lot of stuff done, while other times, the well seems dry. It's best to take advantage of the former times rather than putting your nose to the grindstone during the latter. You'll have to use some discipline and actually do enough hard work as it is; no reason to make that any worse than it's going to be.
The second idea; that you shouldn't be afraid to swipe from another source, is the secret of my success, such as it is. Really, how many times have you read a book, or seen a movie, and thought, "holy cow, I've never seen anything like that at all?" I'd wager... not often. Even Glen Cook, who barsoomcore rightly calls a voice for innovation in the fantasy genre wasn't really doing anything new with the Black Company books; he was swiping the voice and feel of war stories, blue collar soldiers, and applying that to fantasy. The combination was new, but none of the individual elements really were. As a GM, you've got to come up with an awful lot of stuff, and much of it you'll need to come up with without much warning. Don't be afraid to steal plots, characters, or setting elements from anywhere that you think is cool.
However... there is a caveat. If you do that, you should modify it so that it's not obviously recognizable. If you want a character who's basically Darth Vader in your fantasy game, he's so well known that your players will roll their eyes, groan and start making jokes about him as soon as that becomes apparent. Take a little bit of time to "camouflage" your stolen elements. Change some details of the plots. Customize your characters.
There's nothing intellectually dishonest about using someone else's good idea, and few writers would tell you otherwise; they'd in fact be among the first to say that they are more than happy to pilfer elements from their collegues as long as they can "make it their own" in some way. If writers can do it, then certainly GMs can and should.


Well, since it's come up, the idea of crossing a pulp aesthetic with something else brought to mind a theory of mine of game design. Or rather, of game design on the GM level, not the writer or developer level. Setting design, if you will. And oddly enough, it's a half-remembered something or other that Corey once said in a posting on years ago that stuck with me and sparked the thought in the first place.

It occured to me a long time ago that I had reached a point where I found traditional high fantasy rather boring as a gaming mileu. For that matter, I wasn't reading much high fantasy anymore either. For someone who cut his teeth as a junior high kid on J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Raymond Feist and whatnot, I found that a strange, unexpected, and possibly even a little bit frightening development. So I decided to take it down out of my subconscious and analyze it.

Two things occured to me. One of them was merely the idea that doing the same thing over and over again does tend to get boring. That was easy. The other, though, was that High Fantasy, despite its prevalence in the gaming community, in many ways is not well suited to gaming.

The "tropes" and conventions of High Fantasy usually posit a humble beginning, pre-destined heroes, and eventually climatic encounters with the root of all evil to save the entire world. Dungeons & Dragons does attempt to address this with its leveling mechanic, the "zero to hero" mentality, but saving the world is not really a repeatable campaign goal; you do it once, and you have to start all over and tell the story again. The root of all evil becomes a boring campaign force after a while, and it does little to engender a sense of identification with the setting; how do you "make it your own?" The heroes of destiny trope is strained as characters die, get replaced, etc. Gary Gygax himself clearly envisioned D&D as a game in a sword & sorcery paradigm that had a few superficial trappings borrowed from High Fantasy (specifically Tolkien) but not really integral to how the game was played.

Not that what Gary Gygax intended is something I particularly care about, but there it is.

In casting around my net to see what I could do to revive my flagging interest in fantasy gaming in particular, I discovered that layering in elements, tropes and conventions from other genres made it more interesting. This was all before my discovery of ideas like slipstream, or New Weird (both of which I'm skeptical of, but that's a whole 'nother post for another time), but this quest of mine for something different also wasn't really something I was aware of consciously.

That's when I stumbled across Corey's posting. I didn't really know him yet, or at best I had just started entering into online discussion with him, but here, while describing his Barsoom campaign setting, he mentioned that at the beginning he just threw stuff together without giving any thought to how it would later correllate and make sense with all the other elements. Setting jambalaya, I guess. If it was cool, in it went and figuring out what it was doing there could be handled later.

This is, if you think about it, a pretty "pulp" idea, yet if done intelligently, could be something really interesting. So, I kinda independently stumbled onto the core conceits of slipstream, New Weird and particularly steampunk as setting aesthetics, and starting using them more, rather than shying away from them in a misguided attempt to keep my fantasy "pure." I started thinking about other things---non-fantasy things---that I'd read, yet which I thought would make really cool game elements. And when I'd percolated that for a little while, I came up with my Dark•Heritage Mk. I campaign setting.

I'd gone back to some of the older pulp I'd read (but dismissed as incompatible with my D&D habit) like Edgar Rice Burroughs and said, "what if a world were more like Barsoom and less like a pseudo-Medieval Europe?" I went with a more modern interpretation of Mars than Burroughs': a cold, rusted desert, with water buried under the surface in giant aquifers. I gave some thought to technology (if nothing else to power massive steam pumps that brought water up to the surface): "pirates with guns are cool; why not have some black powder, flintlock stuff? Why not Da Vinci esque clockwork engineering?" I ended up adding wind-up bugs, like that pictured here, as a kind of replacement for messenger-boys running through urban streets. I layered in some more overtly Horror-like elements. I added in frontier areas threatened by bandits and worse that were not unlike Sergio Leone's vision of the Old West. I ditched alignment entirely, and decided that people weren't good and evil, they were just people. And therefore mostly evil. I know, I can by cynical sometimes. The urban areas (which I greatly expanded, and which often became the focus of any game I ran in the setting) started to resemble the blighted landscapes of the Industrial Revolution, and Charles Dickens became a significant influence, except without plucky heroes who clung to admirable virtues in spite of the seedy, gritty setting all around them.

And the kinds of stories I ended up telling were no longer thrilling tales of romantic adventure; they took on a darker, noir tinge, and my players started developing well-deserved paranoia. Before I knew it, I could look backwards at my game and notice a strong resemblance to the plots of Robert Ludlum books I'd read, and other mainstream spy-thriller type authors, or possibly a fantasy version of The X-files.

Of course, I had to modify mechanics to make this all work, and before I knew it, I wasn't even playing D&D at all anymore, but something else entirely, with only a few recognizable standard D&Disms, and an almost completely different paradigm about what the game would be like, what the characters would be like and do, and what kinds of challenges they would face.

And I really haven't looked back very often; this new paradigm is still where I firmly hang my hat, and although I'm not currently running this setting anymore, I'm still constantly tinkering with it, and I consider it "my" setting. One of these days if I ever develop enough self-discipline to stick with it, my partially completed novel notes and partial drafts will turn into an actual, fully-written and realized novel, set in this setting. And, with any luck, I'll start running it again, and keep doing so for as long as I can.

But all of this was made possible by the somewhat lunk-headedly late realization that genre purity was a pipe dream, and not even something that was necessarily desireable. Today, I find that I really enjoy the old Weird Tales paradigm, straight from the pulps (specifically, the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Duh.) Fantasy as a literary genre hadn't really even been invented yet, science fiction and horror were nascent, and what would later become strictly segregated conventions, ideas and paradigms for each of those were freely mixed and mingled. This was the way they did it back in the pulps, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the evolution from that stage to where we are today wasn't actually progress.

Apparently, I'm not the only person who's thought that, of course. While I didn't find anything particularly notable in the slipstream, New Wierd or steampunk genres that inspired me on this road (because I hadn't even heard of them until I was already, independently, kinda in the same place) the fact that they exist today shows that I must have been unknowingly caught up in some kind zeitgeist or something. Of course, that only makes it that much easier for me. I don't have to think of everything on my own anymore; I can look around, read books, google art, and find all kinds of cool ideas right there waiting for me to steal.

More Pulp History: Neo-Pulp!

So Joshua's given a great introduction to the early days of pulp, and how that word has shifted in meaning from a particular medium to a broad-ranging style popular in all sorts of media.

But these days, the pulp aesthetic holds more artistic weight than it did in its origin days. It's not a pure pejorative anymore as it once was. And the real difference is Indiana Jones.

At the dawn of the 80's Spielberg and Lucas put together their love of low-brow narrative with a sophisticated bit of story-telling, and the tremendous performance of Harrison Ford and came up with the model for "neo-pulp" -- new pulp.

The pulp aesthetic married to sophisticated story-telling. Raiders of the Lost Ark, even more than Star Wars, was the movie that proved you could make, if not "serious art", at least "grown-up art" that was full of slam-bang action and over-the-top gee-whiz sequences. The idea embodied in Raiders spread, and in the very early 80's comics creators like Frank Miller and Alan Moore began turning THAT medium upside-down with savage, intelligent tales about ridiculous characters. While at the same time, writers like Glen Cook and Steven Brust were doing the same to fantasy fiction. It was a pretty thrilling time to be a genre fan -- this stuff was still very much marginalized, even with the immense success Lucas and Spielberg were having, so it was pretty much impossible to explain to anyone who wasn't in on the secret what was going on.

But even as a teenager I knew what I was seeing. I knew Frank Miller had changed the game forever with The Dark Knight Returns, just as I knew what Cook was doing was something genuinely new and exciting. The 80's were the time when punk grew up and got smart with bands like Nine Inch Nails, when rap hit the mainstream with gangsters and revolution and in general just a massive confluence of ideas and craziness. Anne Rice's lurid vampire tales, beginning with Interview With The Vampire, launched a huge wave of horror enthusiasm we're STILL watching roll past.

It took a while for all this to be recognized, and the label neo-pulp is not a twenty-year-old one. But it seems that in many ways pulp has been growing up all this time, across every imaginable channel, and it's really hit the mainstream now.

That probably means it's no longer interesting, but I don't care. I'm still gonna write comic books about REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS!

Gorilla pirate

What does "pulp" mean? It's getting bandied about a lot lately, yet it seems that any official definition that coincides with what I mean when I say pulp doesn't exist. Rather, the word has grown a kind of gestalt definition over time, and that's what most people mean when they say "pulp." If you'll forgive me a paragraph or two of level-setting, let me throw out some background. "The pulps" were, of course, the magazines printed between the late 1890s and the 1950s on cheap, pulp paper. That doesn't say a whole lot though; spiritually, they were the successors of the penny dreadfuls and the dime novels; cheap writers, publishing stories on cheap paper in a cheap format. Low brow entertainment at it's least pretentious. Don't get me wrong; the pulps churned out some good material. A lot of really famous writers got started in the pulps before they graduated to more prestigious venues, and entire genres made their first appearances in the pulps.

The pulps faded significantly during the paper shortages during World War II (I'm not sure why there were paper shortages during the war, except that presumably folks were otherwise occupied and therefore couldn't churn out paper) and by the mid-50s had pretty much faded altogether. The "sweats" replaced them, to some extent, they had cheap thrill stories a la the pulps, and pin-ups. Since the sweats were themselves replaced by honest to goodness girlie mags like early Playboy, you can see that the successors to the pulp format never did really acquire a whole lot of respectability. For the stories themselves, cheap mass market paperbacks replaced the pulps as the format of choice, and remains so to this day. Due to the demise of the pulps, there isn't really a market for short stories anymore, and novels are written as novels, not as serials that are later converted into novels.

But that still doesn't answer the question: what do you mean when you say pulp? It's not a genre, because the pulp magazines covered stories in nearly every genre under the sun during their heyday. Perhaps it's more of an aesthetic. Because the pulps themselves were materially cheap products, and the writers were also cheap, the pulp stories had a tendency to focus on cheap, often even gratuitous or lurid thrills. These were not deep, introspective stories about the human condition, they were fast-paced, high octane stories with characters that were often over-the-top melodramatic, and plots that were almost farcical in their outrageousness. Yet, they were treated straight (mostly) and taken seriously by the authors. Pulp to me, then, means fast and furious action, gratuitous and cheap exotica and probably even gratuitous, cheap erotica too. Being cool and making a reader say, "Wow, that's swell!" were more important than being relevent or realistic.

So pulp as an adjective isn't limited to the pulps, or even the written word. The old Republic serials can be retroactively called "pulpy" because they had a lot of that same aesthetic. Comics can be pulpy (how much difference really was there between the original Flash Gordon material and John Carter of Mars anyway? Thematically, they were on the exact same page). Movies like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark very purposefully cultivated a pulp feel. And gaming can entertain a pulp aesthetic, and in fact the default condition for the original roleplaying game and the mode in which it was played is, arguably, very pulpy.

Anyway, I'm not 100% sure what that has to do with gorilla pirates, except that my exploration of pulpy things over the last year as led me to that idea. It's rife with pulpiness; it's silly, yet I've used it relatively straight, it's outrageous, it's exotic---and notably, people who are not fans of the pulp aesthetic don't get it.

So, last night I was stuck working on a project (a turtle shell made out of a cardboard box that needs to be a costume for my 5 year old) and with my craft acrylics out, and time to kill while waiting for paint to dry, I decided that I was frustrated enough with my inability to find a decent picture of a gorilla pirate online anywhere, and that it was high time I made my own. I've never used craft acrylics for art before, and they're obviously not all that highly suited to the task. Also, I have crappy brushes, crappy regular old typing paper, and I just whipped this up in (relatively speaking) a few minutes while waiting for paint to dry on a more pressing project. But, here it is. The gorilla pirate. A pulp archetype in the making.

Moving Over To A New Homestead

The "barsoomcore" blog is going to scale back, in favour of a bigger, hopefully better, Scratch Factory blog.

The new and improved Scratch Factory blog will feature, most excitingly, new bloggers! A couple of folks who share many of my eccentric enthusiasms will be posting there, and we look forward to providing you with an even wider mix of things piratical, prehistoric and pulptastic.

Anyway, we're sorry to say goodbye to the old reliable barsoomcore address, but the new home is going to be even swankier!

Well, actually, it's going to look exactly the same. But rest assured big things are afoot. HUGE. HUGE-FOOTED THINGS.

Remember, kids: pick up the new RSS feed!


Welcome to the new blog of Scratch Factory!

For now you won't see much difference between this blog and the previous one, but we'll have some new contributors now, and we are hoping for a higher rate of pulperiffic goodness coming out of here. Along with all the same sorts of assorted comments on swordfighting, management, dinosaurs, and so on.

There'll be more DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND goodness as well.

But let's meet our bloggers!

I'm Corey, better known round these parts as barsoomcore, sometimes writer, sometimes manager, sometimes teacher of swordfighting. I'm really tall. And I wear cowboy boots. That's probably enough for now.

On my left is Joshua, dinosaur expert (ish), deep reader of not very good books, and The Man Who Live In the Most Dangerous City In America!

And on the right say hi to Claudio, posting from the Southern Hemisphere, with an emphasis on the visual arts and appreciations thereof.