Recursion isn’t just a river in Egypt
Posted by Ron Edwards
The history is easily internet-available, e.g. at this Wikipedia entry. Briefly, in 1985, Dennis Mallonee licensed the term and game tie-in “Champions” from Hero Games as well as the use of very early Champions characters from their players, with creative control over the comic. The two entities were mostly firewalled from one another, with almost no cross-promotion (which sorta seems to miss the point), and later broke off entirely.
The first incarnation of Champions the comic was published by Eclipse Comics in 1986-1987; I have a few issues somewhere. For those of you following along, that makes it contemporary with Elementals (Elementary), The Liberty Project also at Eclipse (Give me liberty), and The New Universe (Stillborn), in terms of the urge to recapture 1961 in superhero comics. Then Mallonee’s Hero[ic] Publishing, founded 1987, published League of Champions and some spin-offs with minimal connection to the original game material, mainly during the later stage of the same phenomenon during 1990-1993. I admire his determination to see it all keep running since then to the present, with a nod to the nearly constant artists Chris Marrinan and Dell Barras. Currently, he retains use of the characters Flare and Icestar, and most or all of the older work (with some name-changes) and some newer work are running as webcomics at the Heroic Publishing site, linked at the end of the post.
I want to talk about the comic’s shortcomings, but (i) I don’t want this to be a hit piece, and (ii) I disavow a number of too-easy criticisms. Specifically, medium-jumping and outright lifting (however re-phrased as homage or inspiration) are normal, not just for comics, but for all media, and are not themselves indicators of lower quality.
- I’ve written a lot about medium criss-cross for books and movies, the latter under the Filmtalk tag. A couple of callback points:
- It isn’t faithfulness to the specific story in the source medium which matters.
- Visual media is very selective about acknowledging sources from other media, and role-playing, especially, is often unacknowledged.
- Originality, my ass, as discussed in Marvelous, meet miraculous and One twist of the wrist. It is not being derivative that makes something mere pastiche (yes, “mere,” I went there).
Therefore I’m not saying it has to go badly, but that makes me all the more interested in when, and why, that happens. Because it can go badly. Furthermore, a certain problem may be in play when role-playing is involved – that of recursion, or self-reference achieving nothing but a circular re-inspection without reflection. I’m not convinced that’s so, but I want to raise the question.
It’s pretty straightforward that comics and role-playing overlap, and not just among the purchasers of the former. Professionally speaking, the break-in crossover is quite real. I wrote about the interplay between Villains & Vigilantes (game) and Elementals (comic) in the post linked above, and plenty of artists built their early portfolios in the first flush of role-playing publishing, like Tim Truman and Pat Zircher. More writers did this than you might think. Significantly, as I’ll discuss in a moment, at the same time Mallonee began the Champions comic, he was writing an occasional issue for Marvel and working on the Deluxe edition of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
This post is part of my early-Champions/GURPS: Supers series because there’s the obvious counterpart in the better-known Wild Cards. The history is a little tortuous but just as indicative of the medium-interplay: a played game of Superworld, presumably in 1983-85, the famous paperback series of shared-world fiction begun in 1987, then the strong tie-in with GURPS: Supers in 1989, and eventually the Wild Cards comics in 1990.
To recap a little from my earlier post about the books So not making friends here, the Wild Cards series already suffered from the problem I’m trying to talk about here in more detail: that of playing the game to celebrate or invoke the comics, then writing the stories to celebrate the game … with the ultimate effect being a “copy of a copy,” and in this case, yet again, “of a copy,” in the comics.
The comic wasn’t a big part of the franchise, a four-issue series published by Epic Comics in 1990, albeit high-end at the time with square-bound format and shiny pages. I bought them when they first appeared, and they slot right into my falling-away from superheroes at that time. There may be a certain symmetry in that I was then only experiencing satisfaction in the genre in playing role-playing games.
The story tries to tell just about all of the back-story and content of the first six books, which ends up being impenetrable unless you’ve read them, but, if you have, serves merely as scattered visual accompaniment to what you know, with a token throughline. It serves only as an introduction to itself; and as with most Wild Cards, the plot is either a callback to its single good story (Walter Jon Williams’ Golden Man), a series of portraiture and catch-phrases, or inconclusive runnings-around.
It does showcase exactly what I mean by recursion –
- The problem with a “copy of a copy,” is not that copying is involved, but rather that “I made a copy!” is ultimately the new thing’s only feature.
- When role-playing is involved, the question arises of what is source and what is copy, turning each transition into a new medium into repeated circularity.
In Wild Cards, the role-playing/comics link is indirect and GURPS: Supers isn’t a big player in it, so it doesn’t speak to my topic as much as the Champions side does.
It might be hard to wrap your head around this one, but as with most of the games of that period, there was no canonical setting for first-generation Champions (1981-1985). These characters were merely the authors’ groups’ player-characters who showed up in brief references and funny illustrations in the II and III supplements, and contrary to some phrasings I’ve run into on the internet, the 3rd edition core book did not mention them at all.. Therefore appearances aside, Mallonee’s creative freedom with the comic didn’t potentially challenge existing high-traction content.
[Editing this in: Thanks to the Facebooker who reminded me that these characters are in the first edition, numbers & all. I stand by my point that this was not treated as game setting in the sense that became hobby standard soon afterwards.]
The comic doesn’t do much with the licensed characters’ content anyway. Except for Flare and, to a lesser extent, and only as a lead-up to killing him, Giant, they’re decidedly in the background. Icestar remains a nonentity and you can see in real-time the moment when the licenses for the Marksman and Rose were revoked, in terms of their vague, bumpy characterization. The story is almost entirely about the back-story of The Coriolis Effect.
But is it any good? I think some of it is. Flare’s concept puts an interesting spin on the under-clad hot girl, and I like the early characterizations for Rose and, of all people, Foxbat. I found Giant’s arc moving. One of my great pleasures in comics is watching an artist gut through the early work and blossom quickly, and that definitely happens here.
Pay attention to the shortcomings though – because I don’t want to condemn the title for them. There’s no compelling sense of why these characters are associated or working together, and most of them decline to a full drop-out as creator interest obviously focuses on Flare and the Black Enchantress, as well as other similar young and sexy women with boundary issues. Villainy pretty much comes from stupidity and immaturity, as with many characters who entered adulthood after only a few years of life. The gender-bending is constant yet curiously devoid of content, sometimes pointless.
It suffers a lot from the really heavy emphasis on mind-control, often gratuitous gender-switching, body-switching (in this case a subset of both the former), artificially-rapid maturation, and machinations in mystic dimensions. Therefore the plot gets cockamamie, but not fatally and not as bad as a lot of the mainstream comics of the time.
About in the middle of the original six-issue series, there’s a serious shift in content, toward mind-controlled sex slavery including incest, with one bit strongly implying a child victim. I had the issue which included the depicted page. What you see here is the webcomix version, for which some of the original dialogue is missing – in panel two, Rose responds to Donna’s question, making it clear that she’d been gang-raped by the DEMON minions.
In itself, my dislikes or disapproval aside, none of even that content is a historical dealbreaker. It was certainly right in there with a veiled version of most of these very things in the mid-1980s X-Men, which I think is fairly considered the primary text for all these works (see commentary & links at MCI misdemeanors and felonies), as well as rape as a primary plot feature across many late-80s titles (see Unpleasantries and Carol Danvers spits on your grave), and the strong presence of sadism and dysfunctional trauma in both Elementals and Wild Cards. These titles were fan-favorites and generally touted as “mature.” If something makes the Champions comic not very good, that’s not it either.
So what is it? Quite a conundrum! I’ve ruled out the usual suspects. Being a crossover from a role-playing game isn’t the problem. Being derivative isn’t the problem. Squicky and somewhat off-supers content isn’t the problem. I’m not going to enter the circle that since it wasn’t a big hit, it must not have been good – no indicator, remember what I pointed out about Elementals, that being a good comic isn’t necessarily good for the comic. It works the other way too – being not so good, even kinda wretched – is no predictor for failure.
Disclosure here: I met Mallonee briefly in the late 1980s, and didn’t like him; from this side, he was surly and dismissive. I didn’t know any of the circumstances at the time, but now that I do, I realize that the title had just been denied its shot at becoming a continuing series by Eclipse, as well as the licensing of the characters breaking down, and therefore he had zero investment in Champions or Hero Games, and zero interest in someone coming up and saying, “Hello, we used The Coriolis Effect in our game, thanks for writing it.” I’m deliberately putting all that aside and spotting the comic all the credit it might get.
I am really struggling to write this, and I think all I’m going to achieve this time is enough spray and spew to reveal some kind of valid question. Again, being a a copy of a copy isn’t the problem in itself, or any kind of problem really. Instead, we’re looking at an acute version of what I criticized within comics alone in Striking twice, some day. It’s the overtaking of medium by franchise, and also a failure to connect the fictional/fantastic content with the real world. And it’s acute – and thus amplified for League of Champions – because role-playing is uniquely vulnerable to that problem, both as a new medium and because of its intrinsic features.
Here’s a bit from an essay of mine we’re debating right now at the Patreon:
The medium in isolation
I’m talking about the process of creating a fiction. Ordinarily we’d say “story,” but role-playing is a new activity and does not map to more familiar media.
A good way to look at it is that any group of musicians – and I mean musicians, not just anyone holding an instrument – can sit down together and make some kind of passable noise. But to be music, they must both invest (time, energy, specific directed effort) and attend (to one another, caring, responding), and the investment/attention are not easily distinguished from one another. There is something they literally DO in order for the noise – pleasant enough perhaps, as they are musicians – to be music.
In other media that are typically directed toward producing stories, the creators’ moment or moments of specifying the fiction into a story are generally hidden from the audience, completed long before they encounter it. Those moments are even mysticized by connoisseurs of the medium, such that the creators are presumed to be wizards, exercising magical expertise. Or conversely, and here is the hand of those Deconstructionists, the story content is presumed to be silly or manipulative, and of interest only to especially stupid audience members. In either case, the problem is that the precise operating principles of story-as-such are pushed even further from view.
Let’s think about that issue of distinct creative story-making moments carefully, and shift out to the audience as well as the author. Because to the audience, their experience includes encountering the fiction and then judging it to be a story in progress. This is a critical, even hyper-critical act on the audience member’s part. It is not “passive.” They enter the experience in expectation that it will happen, but also in a state of high awareness that they may be betrayed.
The author’s action/experience of turning the fiction into a story is one thing. The audience’s experience of encountering the fiction to judge it as a story is another. Furthermore, in each case, the respective actor does not process the fiction/story distinction at all, but considers them to be one thing.
An unprecedented historical shift
But in role-playing, two things are exposed to the light, rather brutally.
- The author-based transition from medium to fiction is shared by everyone; thus authoring is not distinct from being an audience member. It is made uncomfortably visible.
- The role-playing transition from fictional medium to story is not identified as either author-to-developing-fiction or fictional-presentation-to-audience. Since everyone involved has experienced these, or at least the latter, without reflection, their whole lives, they expect it to occur the same way.
Do you see where the danger lies? The role-playing participants are thrown into a situation of contradiction based on past experience and expectations of other media. All of them are very likely to become confused and defensive. If one of the people is holding unique responsibilities toward the presumed story, then he or she is under special pressure and becomes especially stressed regarding agency and authorship.
And yes, it’s the old enemy, ‘Verse as the curse. When setting becomes more important than situation. When plot gets front-loaded rather than emerging. When fan-appreciation canon becomes editorial mandate, as I wrote about in ‘Verse this. I think role-playing, both as a new medium and due to intrinsic features, is uniquely vulnerable to it – mainly as a response to the stress I’m trying to articulate in the quoted text. When emergent story becomes a threat to canon, the process is easily converted into a suppression of emergent plot in favor of canned events.
Here’s what I mean, in an excerpt from the comments for my previous post:
Bill White: I’m glad you mentioned Strike Force; reading that, I realized that Aaron Allston had taken bits and pieces of the Coriolis Effect and made it his own. That was rather a revelation to me. I still didn’t know how to do what he did, exactly, but I totally wished I could.
Me: I’m really glad you brought this up, as contrasting these exact two texts right in the thick of playing several intense games of Champions semi-simultaneously was a big part of my development as a role-player. Here are the texts I want to compare: Dennis Mallonee’s discussion of the Variable Power Pool in The Coriolis Effect, and Aaron Allston’s discussion of using The Coriolis Effect in Strike Force.
They aren’t directly opposed to one another. The first doesn’t discuss how to adapt or alter its material into an existing gaming group with its own established history and priorities; the second doesn’t address the Variable Power Pool specifically. But I do think that given a working knowledge of the game, as I’ve tried to express in What does this power do?, Being, having, and nothingness, and in this post, there is a very solid line to be drawn between the two authors, or philosophical purposes of play.
Mallonee’s text is devoted to preventing the most open-ended, player-driven rule option in the game from ruining or distorting the planned outcomes of a given conflict or scene. The written sequence of the published saga is the priority.
Allston’s text is devoted to preventing the overly-obedient reader of a module from adhering too strongly to its planned outcomes. The play-group’s own history and the current character arcs are the priority.
I note, grimly, that Mallonee was a contributor to the Deluxe Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I have no doubt that just as for Mark Gruenwald, his work there was a labor of love. But love is not always “all you need.” Sometimes it’s definitely contra-indicated.
What is that Official Handbook? You should realize it by now – it’s a gamer handbook, a specific sort that many of you recognize: it’s a splat. Or just as in role-playing, a series of splats, stretching out through the alphabet, and when that’s done, revised and done all over again, and when that’s done …
I can finally identify what’s up with the original six-issue [League of] Champions: Mallonee wrote it the way he ran his games.
When recursion hits within role-playing, it’s exponentially more savage in its negative effects than for any other medium. I’ve tied it to the conundrum (or non-conundrum) of story creation in this post, but there’s more to be said about the internalized second-class status, convincing oneself that role-playing is a fetish activity at best, an expression of receptive and obsessive fandom rather than as a creative medium.
But as I said earlier, this post is more primal than reasoned, more heuristic than declarative. Let’s see what you can make of it to help me past the trauma of its initial expression.
The series on 1980s super-games so far: Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, Where are you going, where have you been, Kill, kill, kill, Balancing what exactly, Best with badness, and On and on and on
Next: Knockout, the no doubt long-awaited conclusion to this series (October 1)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on September 24, 2017, in Gnawing entrails, Supers role-playing, The 90s me and tagged 'Verse, Bill Willingham, Chris Marrinan, Dell Barras, Dennis Mallonee, Eclipse Comics, Elementals, Flare, George R. R. Martin, Hero Games, League of Champions, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Wild Cards. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.