10+ Alternatives to Dungeons & Dragons

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently surrounding Wizards of the Coast’s updated Open Gaming License, and while it appears that the worst of OGL 1.1 has been rolled back in iteration 1.2, trust has been broken and many fans remain wary at best and riotously upset at worst. With anxieties swirling it really does seem like a good time to be exploring other systems, which is always fun, but feels extra relevant at the moment.

Let’s start with Powered by the Apocalypse, which is a framework for games that have been built using core elements of the game Apocalypse World, among others. There are many, many PbtA games out there that will speak to a variety of interests. Like D&D, you play to specific classes, here called playbooks, and your selected playbook page also doubles as your character sheet. Unlike D&D, you’re rolling with two d6s instead of the full complement of d4 to d20. The three games I’m most familiar with are:

  1. The Veil, a cyberpunk world where life has become filtered through a digital “veil,” think constant VR overlay/Google glasses. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing it with a group of friends. I talk a bit about my character building process in my post on Jewish roleplaying games. 
  2. Monster of the Week is about well, hunting monsters. It’s based on the style of the episodic monster hunt common in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the early seasons of Supernatural. A really fantastic actual play run of Monster of the Week is season two of The Adventure Zone. 
  3. Urban Shadows is an urban fantasy game steeped in supernatural politics. It’s got vampires, werewolves, angels, ghosts and more living as rival/coexisting factions. This was the system used for The Adventure Zone mini campaign Dust. 

 A common thread of PbtA games is that they are incredibly versatile when it comes to personalizing both the world and your individual characters. For example, in Monster of the Week it is on the players to set up the final encounter with the monsters, and in The Veil there’s a move you can use to create an NPC that your character knows—of the course the quality of your role dictates how well that relationship is going. 

Next up is Blades in the Dark. This game is Victorian-esque gothic with lots of crime and seedy underbellies. Or at least, that’s the world that Blades sets up for you—The Adventure Zone’s ongoing campaign, Steeplechase, puts the Blades system to use in a much more futuristic criminal environment. While I’ve never played Blades, I’ve really been enjoying the play style presented in Steeplechase and it prompted me to pick up a copy of the game for myself. I’m particularly interested the stress/trauma mechanic, wherein if you fill up your stress meter you’re levied with a trauma that sticks with your character. It’s very cool.

A game I have played, many times in fact, is The Quiet Year. It’s a communal map-making game, where you create and act as community over the course of a year, answering prompts on a deck of cards. I know that both Friends at the Table and The Adventure Zone: Ethersea have used The Quiet Year to develop cities/towns that larger campaigns take place in. While you aren’t supposed to have individual characters, some friends and I (a different group than the Veil group) have taken to playing The Quiet Year with preset casts, which allows for a different and new set of dynamics to emerge than might come out in a typical game. The first one we did we used a selection of crew and officers from the Franklin Expedition and our current game is based on the Donner Party. 

Another staple of the role playing game world is the one-page rpg. They are everywhere and about everything, and they range from serious to silly, though the ones on my radar veer silly, like Honey Heist, where you play as bears trying to steal honey, or Dadlands, a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is a dad. Some other great one-page rpgs in my collection are:

  1. Lasers & Feelings, space exploration at its finest. You can check out The Adventure Zone: Hootenanny for an actual play experience. 
  2. On the Path, a Witcher-inspired hack of Honey Heist. Your stats are “Hmm” and “Fuck.”
  3. Escape from Triassic Park, You are a genetically re-engineered dinosaur. What will you do?
  4. Potato, you are a halfling trying to tend to your potatoes, but things just keep happening. 

Some other short games, but not quite one page short, are things like Northwest Passage, a Tunnel Goons hack; The Warmest Place to Hide, a The Thing-inspired game based on Caltrops Core, a d4-based system; and Lilliputian: Adventure on the Open Seas, which has a single page with all the rules amidst a more expansive zine about running an ocean adventure. 

Lastly, it’s…. Monty Python’s Cocurricular Mediaeval Reenactment Programme. You can strewth (nat max)! You can spam (nat 1)! You can meet your favorite Flying Circus personalities! You get to roll with exciting, nontraditional dice, such as the d14, d16, d18 and d30!

While the rulebook isn’t out yet, there is a quick start demo available for free from the publisher, which I used to run a game for my family over the holidays — it was very fun and encourages you to make things up and get silly with it. Additionally, one of the co-creators ran a live play session during the Kickstarter, which is available to watch on YouTube. It also should be noted that you don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Monty Python for the game to be fun. Sure, when I ran the game it had been on the back of binging Flying Circus in its entirety three times in a row, but my players certainly hadn’t. It is, first and foremost, a role playing game, it’s just got added flavor.*

*I have been strongly reminded (I have not) that Monty Python’s Cocurricular Mediaeval Reenactment Programme is in fact a reenactment programme where you will learn about British history and should in no way be considered a role playing game.

UPDATE 1/27/2023: As it turns out Wizard’s of the Coast has completely rolled back their plans for an updated Open Gaming License.

When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

I blasted through this book mostly in a single night. It is not only incredibly well written, but also a very fun read that is maddeningly hard to put down. The characters are rich and extremely memorable and the plot never wavers even when there are multiple subplots to intertwine, but let’s back up a bit.

“When the Angels Left the Old Country” is a queer, Jewish mystery steeped in the supernatural. An angel and a demon living as chevrusas (Torah study partners) in a tiny shtetl in Poland are drawn to America to find the daughter of one of the townsfolk who has stopped writing letters home. On the way they encounter spirits of all sorts, goyish demons, and a variety of humans both helpful and decidedly not.

Image ID: Image of text, reading "If she told her family she should be sake on the journey because she had met a nice young man and a Little Ash..." The captain reads, "'A nice young man and a Little Ash' is honestly the best way to describe them." End ID.

It is also a story about identity in all aspects, such as gender and sexuality (what gender is an angel?), what it means to be an immigrant, and differing approaches to Judaism—after all, the synagogue of the nameless shtetl is not the synagogue of upper Manhattan. One of my favorite sub-plots was the angel, Uriel, grappling with its sense of self. An ephemeral being, what does it mean for the angel when it must take on a single identity to travel to America and blend into the human world. As someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with myself and my various identities, I latched onto Uriel not unlike the spirit of the rebbe (which is another fascinating subplot about ibburs and dybbuks).

Image ID: Snapchat image of text, reading, "Little Ash, noticing that the angel seemed in a better mood, wondered if he ought to be worried that it had acted so human as to be upset when it hadn't  eaten, and decided that as soon as they reached America he would bury the papers for Uriel Federman, just in case." The caption reads, "I am fascinated by the tangible effects of the angel existing with a human identity." End ID.

There is also a fantastic layering of religions, they all exist—most notably shown in there being demons from other religions too. Something that exhausts me about Christian-centric approaches to the supernatural is that they tend to assume that the Christian mythology is the Real Accurate One. I adored seeing the way “Angels” allowed these different cultures to exist at once, even though we only see them to a limited extent due to the limits of our point-of-view characters.

While “Angels” is a deeply Jewish book, it is in no way limited to a Jewish readership. At its heart it is a story about being a stranger in a strange land and finding people you can be yourself with, feelings that resonate across marginalized and immigrant communities. For those unfamiliar with Yiddish, Hebrew and other Jewish terminology there is a helpful glossary in the back of the book, which I myself referred to several times because my Hebrew is limited and my Yiddish is worse. If I were to offer a single sentence pitch comparing it to other media, I would say it’s a bit of “An American Tail” meets “Good Omens” with the Jewishness and queerness cranked up to 11.

If you like the sound of those things together, you will certainly like this book. You can pick up “When the Angels Let the Old Country” from a variety of places. I got mine through Bookshop. 

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Happy New Year!

This was supposed to be a year end wrap up post, but life kept happening. So, here’s our recap of last year and what the future looks like for this blog.

First things first, I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me on Patreon, left thoughtful comments, and liked and shared my posts. An essay I wrote on camp and the appropriation of drag culture back in 2018 even seems to have gotten used as course reading in May 2022 if the redirects from Canvas are anything to go by, something that just completely blows me away. I’m torn between wanting to know what that discussion was like and glad that it’s behind an access barrier so I can’t agonize over it.

I also just can’t gush enough about all the amazing books I read this year? I read a lot more than I thought I might, some years it’s felt like the only books I read are the ones I review, but I’m literally so baffled that I reviewed The Last Wish in January of 2022, because it feels like it should be further back than that just based on all the reading I’ve done this year. While this isn’t a blow-by-blow summary of my year, I would be remiss if I didn’t list my favorites of 2022. So here are my top three in no particular order, and why they’re my top three.

  1. Not A Lot Of Reasons To Sing, But Enough by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre – Reading this book was one of those eye opening moments of catharsis that changes your life. There’s always something special about finding a book that resonates deeply with you and this was that for me. It reinvigorated my love of grappling with history and storytelling that had gotten a bit lost when the pandemic threw a wrench in my grad school plans.
  2. Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver – A fun and clever novella that scratched a major itch for queer Jewish genre fiction, especially since it is a genre I am a fan of, fantasy Victorian gothic. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I would read a full novel of these characters or even a series of some length. The world is fascinating, the characters compelling and the writing excellent.
  3. Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler – Are there issues with this book? Yes, many. Is it the most insane book I’ve read since House of Leaves? Yes, but that insanity is built out of a whole bunch of things I adore, like the Franklin expedition, labyrinthine mysteries and Jewish main characters. Also, sometimes you just need to read an insane book. Solomon Gursky was wildly fun to read and yell at my friends about in real time, which is an experience I heartily recommend.

I don’t have a huge amount of plans for books to review in the coming year. I know what I’m reviewing for this month, patrons have already gotten a peek behind the scenes about that, but I don’t have any plans beyond that. I generally don’t make concrete plans for more than a month or two in advance, instead keeping a wide range of things on my radar and seeing what speaks to me. My immediate ‘to read’ list (which is actually four discreet piles of books in my bedroom) ranges from naval history to superhero comics to queer theory to high fantasy to climate science.

In terms of extras, well, they’ll continue to be more-or-less whatever strikes my fancy. I’ve been really enjoying doing the quarterly reading round up posts, so I’m definitely going to continue those, though I imagine I will continue tweaking their structure for a bit. If you have feedback about something you’d like to see on those, you are welcome to drop a comment. Otherwise, I do have some irons in the fire that could be fun potential extras: some table-top role playing game building/design and at least one literary analysis essay that I don’t have a home for.

I was going to have a whole housekeeping section, but there’s really nothing that’s changing regarding the blog or my Patreon. The posting schedule is staying the same—the system I set up at the end of 2021 is still working really well for me—and my Patreon tiers and rewards aren’t getting any adjustments either. The baseline $1 tier gets you general behind-the-scenes and early access, the $4 tier gets you access to polls about upcoming reviews and the $7 gets you personalized book recs from yours truly.

Thank you all for coming along on this ride with me. As always, if you enjoy my reviews, essays and everything else, I would greatly appreciate your support, be that on Patreon or Ko-Fi, or even just with a simple comment. Here’s to a great 2023!

Fall 2022 Behind the Scenes Reading

We’re back to our normal sections of “In Progress” and “Finished,” though I’m still making a few tweaks to post structure. I think I’m going to include an ongoing “Partial” section going forward, for books that don’t necessarily get read cover to cover, such as D&D books or when you revisit a single chapter/essay/story in a book you’ve already read. That seems like a better way to handle books that I read portions of, but then effectively stop reading.

Finished:

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter – This book is half “the making of ‘Hamilton,’” and half score annotated by LMM. I had the opportunity to see the current touring production of “Hamilton” in September and afterward I decided it was the ideal time to pull this tome off my shelf to read it. It’s a really fascinating look at the show behind the scenes and if you’re really into “Hamilton” I would very much recommend it.

Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars translated, edited and compiled by Sidney Shapiro – This a really fantastic book for anyone looking for an introductory text about the history of Judaism in China, particularly because it encompasses such a large scope of historians and scholars, each with their own theories. Between textual references to other historians and a bibliography of both Chinese and Western scholars, this book makes an excellent jumping off point for further research while also being an incredibly rich resource itself. While it was originally published in the 1980s, because of the historical nature of the research, it still holds up quite well. It is improved further by an expanded edition from 2000, which is the edition I would recommend getting if you can. 

Dracula by Bram Stoker – So… I fell of the “daily” part of Dracula Daily pretty significantly in October. In my defense, the longer entries are much harder to read in fits and starts during the day when I’m at work. It made for a fantastic binge over Halloween weekend, however, since October was The Hunt™ kicking into highest gear. I always forget how the ending really goes, because it’s never how it’s done in film adaptations. 

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton (audio book) – This is the story of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, largely considered to be the expedition that kicked off the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. They were the first to overwinter in the Antarctic pack and they went a bit insane about it (see title). We also meet my main man, Roald Amundsen, right at the beginning of his prolific career, and Frederick Cook, the expedition doctor and only American on the expedition. Roald “sleeps with the windows open during winter in Norway” Amundsen and Fred “It’s not lying, it’s the time honored American tradition of exaggeration” Cook are also insane in ways unrelated to the Antarctic winter. 

In Progress:

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard & the Diary of Robert Falcon Scott – We wrapped up the first few chapters of “Worst Journey” and in October I watched “The Last Place on Earth” and also listened to the “Worst Journey” BBC audio drama (highly recommend, especially if you want to hear grown men weeping.) This all in preparation for starting the real time release of Scott’s diary, which began on November 25th, making now a great time to jump on.

Moby Dick; Or, The Whale by Herman Melville – Whale Weekly has begun! Join me in a weekly reading of Moby Dick a la Dracula Daily. Tragically, this book has proven nigh impossible for me to parse on a screen. Thankfully, I not only own a hard copy and can follow along, but the emails provide you with alternatives and helpful supplements, including links to a chapter summary, annotations, and an audio book version. The links are right at the top of the email and make this one of the most accessible classic novel substacks I’ve seen so far.  

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – I’m listing this as in progress even though it won’t start properly until January, because prior to the novel starting we are being given helpful reading guides about character names, family histories, historical context, etc. in order to help readers get through what is widely considered to be a notoriously difficult novel. It’s also going to come out daily, which is going to be a tall order for me to keep up with alongside “Moby Dick.”   

Sealed with Honey by the Magpie Artists’ Ensemble – I can’t believe I almost forgot to include this, because, while letters have slowed down in their frequency, things have gotten INTENSE. A letter that Gabriel entrusted to a friend did not get mailed leading to some fraught misunderstandings! I yelled. No one is happy right now and we are all waiting on pins and needles for the resolution.

Different Loving edited by Gloria and William Brame – I’m another chapter down in this book. This time focusing on power and power exchange and what draws people to dominant or submissive roles during sex and debunking common myths. Contained the line “William Reich was right,” which sent me for a loop, because I only knew Mr. Reich from his orgone energy sex box. Some of his earlier work, however—before he entered his cosmic sex energy phase—was actually quite forward thinking about sex and contraception.

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Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2

Hanukkah sameach!

In 2020, I made a post about role playing games that can be played with dreidels. It came to mind again this year because it started getting a lot of attention as Hanukkah approached, and I realized that I ought to do a follow up. Since that original post, I completed my conversion to Judaism and have become a lot more well versed in table-top role playing games.

Now, there is a history of fantasy games and media not treating Jews the best, when we’re there at all. See Dungeons & Dragons with its undead liches and their phylacteries, how golems are framed as monsters, or this article about Jewish tabletop miniatures from the 1980s, and how some were based on antisemitic stereotypes. I found that article while hunting for Jewish-looking miniatures for a rabbinical student character I play in a Powered by the Apocalypse game. While I didn’t find any that suited my needs, I did find a Maccabean army set designed for war games as well as some cool, non-evil looking golem miniatures on Etsy—a PC (player character) figure of a golem artificer, this guy who gives me delightfully Jewish vibes, and this rock/nature “golem” who’s got an elf friend.

More importantly, and the point of this post, is that I also found a whole slew of wonderful, independent, Jewish-made role playing games. Below the cut I will give you a break down of those games as well as talk about a few more mainstream games and how I incorporate Jewish elements into PCs I make and the games I run.

Continue reading “Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2”

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard adapted by Sarah Airriess

“The Worst Journey in the World” tells the story of the Terra Nova expedition, Robert Falcon Scott’s final attempt to reach the South Pole. The memoir of expedition survivor Apsley Cherry-Garrard, it has been a source of fascination for many, including artist Sarah Airriess, who has now given us a lovingly drawn and carefully researched graphic novel adaptation. I cannot tell you how pleased I was to discover that the final third of book was panel by panel annotations of historical, research and craft notes, particularly since, as Airriess notes in her introduction, there is some abysmally shoddy research that exists regarding the expedition. 

A spread of two pages of panel by panel annotations for the prologue of "The Worst Journey in the World" graphic novel. The Snapchat caption reads, "End notes galore for every panel!"

Volume 1, “Making Our Easting Down” takes us from leaving England to sighting the Antarctic continent on New Years. A journey that includes everything from the serious to the silly to the ‘that sounds made up.’ They contend with towering waves and storms that flood the ship but also spend their time getting menaced by crabs in the pursuit of science, making the most of the insanity that is the line crossing ceremony, and playing a game that involves running around and trying to tear each others clothes off. 

In addition to laying the groundwork for the time spent in Antarctica proper, what volume one does a superb job of doing is introducing us to the men of the expedition. Cherry, of course, introduces us to everyone in his book, but adding a visual element changes things. There is quite the cast of characters to keep track of, but between an illustrated glossary of our leads in the front and gorgeously stylized character art, it’s refreshingly easy to orient yourself as to who’s who. I believe I only had to cross reference the list in the front once. 

Two panels. In the first Lieutenant Henry Pennel, Cherry and Dr. Bill Wilson are setting down various specimens and tools. Wilson says, "Right, let's depot this stuff here so it doesn't get —" the second panel is all three men getting completely obliterated by a giant wave. The Snapchat caption reads, "You were saying" followed by three cry laughing emojis.

Airriess also makes it very easy to fall in love with everyone. Having been somewhat familiar with the expedition going in, I’d already begun to develop favorites and was shocked by how easy it was the become invested in people who I previously hadn’t really thought about one way or another. I feel like this also makes apparent just how much love and respect Airriess has for the source material and the men it concerns. 

A series of panels. In the first three, we see the whole of the Terra Nova's deck laid out between the three panels, each one shows the small figure of Cherry as he moves forward in an enthusiastic run across the deck to the front of the ship. Below, we get a small panel of Cherry hands outstretched and backed by wind lines before cutting to a panel of his view of the clear blue ocean ahead of them. The Snapchat caption reads, "Sarah Airriess is really a master of depicting motion in 2D"

All in all, the “Worst Journey” graphic novel makes a fantastic introduction to Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, both as a story in its own right and as a jumping off point to learn more. In addition to the comprehensive annotations, the back matter also includes a “further reading” section. Lastly, it’s a fun read that can be tackled in a variety of different ways. I opted to do my first read by bouncing back and forth between the graphic novel itself and the annotations so I could get all the details as I went, but that’s hardly the only way and may not be what’s right for you. 

Last I heard, the first print run of “Worst Journey” had sold out, but there should be more copies on the way. I ordered mine through the publisher, Indie Novella, but you can also order from The Children’s Bookshop and Ink@84 Books, and if you happen to be in Cambridge, the gift shop of The Polar Museum also has copies. To follow Sarah Airriess on the journey of working on Volume 2, you can join her on Patreon. 

If you enjoy what I do, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon.

Im Eisland: Band 1, Die Franklin-Expedition

Image ID: A panel of a man seated on the ground, taking notes. He has a thick beard and is dressed in an Inuit style coat. His internal monologue reads, in German, "Was gescha damals vor 20 Jahren wirklich, als die Franklin-Expedition in der Arktis zugrunde ging? Ich, Charles Francis Hall, werde das Rätsel lösen!" The Snapchat caption reads, in English, "'I, Charles Francis Hall, will solve the puzzle!' Fuck, that is so very Hall." End ID.

Kristina Gehrmann’s “Im Eisland” trilogy has been on my radar for a long time and I’ve owned it for almost as long. It’s the story of the Franklin Expedition and its disappearance in the Arctic in the mind 1800s. If you’re a long time follower, you probably recognize the name as I’ve had at least three reviews on FE related fiction appear on this blog. Due to the mystery of the expedition, however, each piece of fiction brings something new and “Im Eisland” is no exception.

Volume one starts with Charles Francis Hall interviewing a group of Inuit about discovering the remains of the expedition before flashing back to just prior to the expedition sailing and getting to know our key players. It then ends with the death of the first of the Beechey Boys, the trio of men who died during the first winter when the ships were frozen in at Beechey Island.

Something I really loved was how seamlessly we are introduced to new, frequently similar looking, characters without the narrative grinding to a halt. I also enjoyed how we got an even split between scenes with the officers and scenes with the men, which we are given through John Torrington, Thomas Evans, and John and Tom Hartnell, being point-of-view characters. (Note: The two Johns here make up two of the Beechey three, so it makes a lot of sense to make them early POV characters.)

Image ID: A panel of a man, First Lieutenant Graham Gore, playing the flute. He has dark hair with muttonchops and a freckle on his left cheek. Behind him is a string of music notes. The Snapchat caption reads "Gore on the flute!!!" End ID.

It’s also very clear that a lot of care went into the research. For example, we see Graham Gore playing the flute, which he did historically, but it’s such a small detail and one I’ve never seen in FE fiction before. I also love the art style, and how Gehrmann has adapted the few images we have of the officers to create visually dynamic characters. I am particularly fond of her Le Vesconte, Fitzjames and Crozier. The art also really drives home just how young a lot of these men were, Fitzjames was 31 to Franklin’s 59 and Crozier’s 49.

Image ID: In the wardroom, Sir John Franklin stands flanked by Captain Francis Crozier on his right and Commander James Fitzjames on his left. The age difference is very apparently between them, Sir John is graying and portly at 59, Crozier is younger, but still showing his age at 49 and Fitzjames is a fresh-faced 31. Sir John has his hands out and is saying, "Wunderbar! Heute Abend lasse ich die besten Delikatessen servieren, die England zu bieten hat! Sie werden sich wie zu Hause fühlen, Gentlemen!" The Snapchat caption reads, Fuck, the art really drives home just how young James was. End ID.

Now, I read “Im Eisland” in its original German, both because I need to refresh my rusty skills before grad school and because I do better reading from hard copies. However, there is an English version, “Icebound,” that has been published online as a webcomic. If you are thinking, “My German is rusty/bad/limited, but I’d like a hard copy,” I can tell you that it’s not impossible to read with rusty/limited German provided you have the determination and a dictionary. Ultimately, my biggest problem was unfamiliar vocabulary.

A few words of warning, everyone from the expedition dies. This is historical fact, but reading about graphic death in a novel is different than seeing it drawn. Volume one sees on page animal death, and later volumes will see deterioration from scurvy and a variety of other deaths. There’s also some period typical reactions to gay characters, and I believe volume two has a lashing for sodomy, but nothing I would define as uncomfortable/excessive levels of in canon homophobia.

If you enjoyed “The Terror” show (not the book, never the book), I would definitely recommend “Im Eisland”/“Icebound.” I got my copies straight from the press website, however, you can find it on Amazon if shipping costs are an issue.

If you enjoy what I do, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon.

Phoenix Song: Echo, written by Rebecca Roanhorse

When the Phoenix Force is given a host that isn’t a mutant you tend to get a lot of unhappy X-Men fans. Being wildly unfamiliar with the Daredevil comics, I picked up two random middle issues of “Phoenix Song: Echo” thinking that she might be a new X-character. I saw that Echo, aka Maya Lopez, was deaf and indigenous and said “Yes, please!” without really investigating further. It wasn’t until I mentioned my find to a friend that I realized she wasn’t an X-character and promptly went through the five stages of grief. 

However, I am now here to encourage all disgruntled/suspicious X-fans concerned about a non-mutant Phoenix Force host to give Echo a chance. We actually see that same sort of suspicion play out in canon with Forge, who decides, based on past familiarity with the Phoenix Force, that he knows best and that Maya needs to give up the Phoenix Force. While Maya is having trouble with control, Forge should frankly know better. I can’t think of a single time that trying to forcibly subdue the Phoenix Force has gone well, like… that’s literally how Jean Grey went Dark Phoenix. 

Image ID: A comic panel. The X-Man Forge is walking out of a bunker where Echo, aka Maya Lopez, Phoenix host, has been immobilized in a chair with psionic restraints. Forge says, over two speech bubbles, "I have to act, for the sake of...well, everyone. These psionic restraints are matched to the Phoenix's energy wavelength. They will hold you until I can investigate your powers more, understand how the Phoenix bonds to you and how to uncouple it." The Snapchat captain reads, "Hey Forge, Mr. so called Phoenix expert? When the fuck has forcibly restraining the Phoenix Force ever ended well." End ID

“Phoenix Song: Echo” is all about the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of Maya and the Phoenix. Who is Maya that the Phoenix felt she was the right host? With the Adversary looming large and wanting the Phoenix Force for himself, Maya has to go back through the past to figure out who she is as the Phoenix and if her ancestors can help her. But it’s not that simple, because it never is. Maya is being helped by River, the adopted grandson of a family friend, and River… River is all tied up with the Adversary. 

Image ID: Two comic panels. In the first Maya stands on some stairs with a Mayan village behind her and asks, "War games? Who are you, exactly?" The second, larger panel, shows a woman in a dress that combines both Mayan aesthetic and the pattern and color of the original Dark Phoenix costume. She says, "My name is Ohoyo Luak. but you may call me... the Phoenix!" End ID

I found Maya’s journey of self/Phoenix discovery to be incredibly compelling, and it was compelling even before we get to the reveal of her (spoilers) Phoenix host ancestor. The Phoenix Force has long been tied to questions and dilemmas of self and personhood, from Jean Grey to Quentin Quire, and Maya Lopez slots very neatly into this.

This mini-series was also a breath of fresh air for me regarding indigenous and disability representation. Marvel has historically not been particularly good about either of those things, Native characters get reduced to stereotype and disabilities get ignored. Maya, as she is portrayed here—I cannot speak to earlier iterations of her character—is well written to both points. Key for me, is that her ability to read lips isn’t perfect, even bolstered by her powers. She struggles with unfamiliar accents, can’t read lips in the dark, and knows sign language when lip reading is impossible due to language barrier. 

I will say that I would have liked to have seen more of Maya learning from her ancestors, particularly the Phoenix Force ancestor. The narrative jumped very quickly through Maya’s past, her talking to her ancestor about the Phoenix powers, and then to Maya fighting the Adversary and a weird hallucination, which I think boiled down to the fact that there was a lot to cover for a five-issue mini-series. Personally, I would have loved to see this as a longer run series, since Maya is now probably my favorite non-X character. 

As always, check your local comic shop for trades and single issues, but “Phoenix Song: Echo” can also be purchased online here.

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Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022

Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.

A pile of books and papers. The bottom later is the D&D books "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" and "Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft," only the titles can be seen. The middle layer is, from left to right, "A Rainbow Thread," "Jews in Old China" and "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation" volume 2. The top layer, from left to right is "Tolkien: On Fairy-stories," Deborah Sabo's article on archaeology and history in Tolkien, and "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Continue reading “Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022”

Star Wars: The High Republic, There is no Fear by Cavan Scott and Ario Anindito

A comic panel, we see Keeve Trennis' hand extended to a young boy. She says, "Thanks. Can you hold this?" The boy replies, "You mean it?" Keeve answers, "Sure, I do. Can't keep it floating up there all day, can I?" The Snapchat caption reads, "Fuck yes. Getting to hold a lightsaber is a baller (and effective) way to console an upset child. It would 100% work on me."
I’m just saying, this is everything I would have wanted as a child.

I have found the Star Wars extended universe a fascinating place since childhood. I read every Star Wars book our library had and then I created my own Stars Wars encyclopedia out of the information contained within — the result of having access to a computer, but limited connection to the internet. The official Star Wars universe has changed a lot since then, and the new tie-in books don’t really interest me, so I thought, why not check out the comics. I picked up “There is no Fear” at my local comic shop primarily because it was volume one of a trade paperback. It promised good art and the beginning of a story and that was all I needed.

“There is no Fear” takes place during the High Republic, before any Skywalker nonsense, and follows Keeve Trennis as she becomes a new Jedi. It’s a good place to go if you are like me and wanting to avoid any of the canon-fuckery caused by the sequel trilogy. “There is no Fear” does a really good job of introducing you to new characters and helping you fall in love with them, which is a credit to both good writing and compelling art. I was deeply invested in Ceret and Terec from the moment of their introduction.

A comic panel. Two identical humanoids stand facing each other, they are bald and their skin is stark white, and both of them are fairly beat up. The one on the left, Terec, is holding out a deactivated lightsaber and the one on the right, Ceret, is reaching for it. Terec says, "Here" as he holds out the lightsaber. Ceret replies, "Terec... the things we have seen. that the drengir did to us." Terec answers, "That is in the past, Ceret. Now we are whole once more--" The Snapchat caption reads, "I am so glad my boys are okay" followed by the crying emoji.

The only place I really felt like I was missing something was in references to a “great disaster,” and just generally how the Jedi had reached the point of launching a space station outpost in the Outer Rim. I feel like there are probably storylines that precede “There is no Fear” that I’m going to have to seek out to get those answers. That’s more-or-less how comics work though, you pick a starting point and then, in reading, you find where you want to go next to learn more, and this story is a super interesting one that brings a lot of new and exciting things to the greater Star Wars universe. It’s definitely going to be one I pick up as it continues weekly (it also doesn’t help that volume one ends on a cliffhanger that I must find out the resolution to).

The story feels, to me, very much like a classic EU Jedi story, where the emphasis is that, above all, the Jedi help, though that is something that provides resolution and conflict alike as characters struggle with being, maybe not human, but people with complex emotions. All of the characters, even the side characters, are incredibly well presented both in terms of writing and art. I greatly enjoyed the expressiveness given to the alien faces. I won’t spoil too much about the new antagonists introduced by this story, but I will say that they are a particular flavor of eldritch abomination that I greatly enjoy. It’s a similar kind of horror as found in “Bountiful Garden,” so if that interested you, this may too, though as this is Star Wars, it’s going to have more action alongside the creeping eldritch horror.

As always, I highly recommend going to your local comic shop to buy comics, and the book’s retail page even has a comic store locator option right there.

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