Friday, March 29, 2024

Some observations while reading Bulfinch’s Mythology

From the warm and pleasant climes of the civilized Mediterranean to the wastes of the frozen north, every civilization and culture had a strong belief in gods. Yes, there were atheists in ancient times--but very few. Only very recently in the long history of humankind have we abandoned the gods. Even today, I think most people possess an underlying spirituality—just less formal and codified, less ritualized. Human nature hasn’t changed much if it all over thousands of years—these stories prove it—and I don’t think our yearning and need for something beyond the material world will ever change. Christianity is a refinement; one benevolent god offers a safer narrative than many petty and vengeful ones. Though I’m not sure a better one. The existence of gods at war with one another, constantly interfering with mankind, might better explain the world we currently inhabit than the Christian.

The Greeks were big on STAYING THE FUCK IN YOUR LANE. There are things that are province of the gods, tread upon them to your peril. So many of the stories are about people pushing too far and being condemned to death or eternal torment. Pride cometh before the fall—and hard. Cross the gods? You’ll have your liver torn out by vultures. And that’s just the beginning. It will regrow and be torn out again. Rolling rocks uphill, only to have them roll back down again. And you’ll do this, forever. The underworld was real … but so were the Elysium fields. Scandinavia had Valhalla, and Hel. Teeth to enforce ethical behavior.

The Arthurian material rocked. I love the concept of chivalry—a code to govern behavior. Yes, these codes were violated (and quite frequently) by lawless knights, but there were standards to live up to. If we all did what’s right—and we know what’s right—there’d be no need for heavy-handed laws and stifling regulations, we’d have paradise on earth. Which is what Camelot was, for a time. Until Arthur’s betrayal by the affair of the all-to-human Lancelot and Guinevere, and it all came down.

The Charlemagne/medieval romances section was short and disappointingly “meh.” I enjoyed the historical introduction to Charles Martel and his battles against the invading Muslims and his massive win at Tours, but otherwise this section felt very rushed and tacked on. The “Horn of Roland” lacked the gravitas I had expected. The book is an abridgement and this section seemed the most abridged.

Rad quotes encountered while reading.

You will go most safely in the middle. -- Ovid

Yield thou not to adversity, but press on the more bravely. – Virgil

The descent to Avernus is easy; the gate of Pluto stands open night and day; but to retrace one’s steps and return to the upper air, that is the toil, that the difficulty. – Virgil

Multiple layers of meaning in 1 and 3, but that’s what makes myths so powerful and enduring.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

One of those mind-blowing I'm old/time is short/all a matter of perspective/WTF type posts

The first time I saw Black Sabbath live was on the Ozzfest tour, Mansfield MA, June 1997.

27 years ago.

Black Sabbath released its debut album, the self-titled Black Sabbath, in 1970.

27 years prior to Ozzfest.

That means, Sabbath had the same distance from its earliest days playing clubs in Birmingham to that warm June night in 1997 as I do, right now. 

Ozzy was 49 years old then, a year younger than I am now.

Kind of mind blowing.

What made me just think of this bit of ephemera, other than it came to me in the shower and compelled me to fire off an inconsequential blog post? What does it matter?

Don't ask me, I don't know.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Of internet induced “Panic Attack” and Judas Priest’s Invincible Shield

False metal cowers before this shield.
Even as I’m feeling dragged down by the state of “reality” such as we know it, I’m buoyed, once again, by the new Judas Priest release.

The boys from Birmingham haven’t let me down, yet. Heck I even like Turbo

Could they do it again?

Yes they can, and they have. Rob Halford is 72 years old and this is JP’s 19th studio album. They’ve earned the right to do nothing, even coast on mediocrity… but they’re still bringing the heat.

Really, the new album is a marvel.

If you’re a true fan you’ve probably already read the reviews. Invincible Shield is about as good as the press it’s getting. I say “about” because I still perhaps enjoy Firepower a bit more, but that might be because I’ve listened to it far longer. I need a new more spins of the new disc before I decide. 

It’s way better than I hoped.

I was trying to think of how to review the album and honestly, there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said. Though I have said something, and you will find that below. I lack the technical music vocabulary to be a good music critic. I know what I like (classic metal) and Invincible Shield is it.

What you might not have heard so much about (at least I haven’t, though admittedly haven’t gone digging, either) is the lyrical content of the opening track, “Panic Attack.” Which to me is a brilliant critique of almost everything that’s wrong with the world today.

(note: if you don’t want to hear this semi-rant and just get the review skip to the section break)

I actually think there isn’t nearly as much wrong with the world today as we believe there is. With one massive exception. The internet.

Judas Priest isn’t necessarily known for its thoughtful lyrical content as compared to say, Iron Maiden. Priest is more apt to write up tempo rockers, songs about motorbikes on the highway, powerful metal warriors, or gay sex (I love “Eat Me Alive” BTW, no bigotry here). 

But of course Priest can write thoughtful stuff from time to time, and “Panic Attack” is one of these songs. I’m not saying it’s Neil Peart level lyrical content, but it is an on-point critique of the internet fueled panic that I believe is the root cause for the high rates of teenage anxiety and depression, and adult political division, we’re seeing today.

Really, are things actually worse today than they were in say, 1940? Or 1860? Or 1660? Do you actually believe this?

You know the answer. They’re not.

We are wealthier, healthier, in almost every measure today than we have been at every point in our history. But I don’t blame you if you don’t agree. You’ve been programmed to think that way.

So have I. So have we all. 

Yes, we have problems today. I’m not making light of foreign wars, terrorism, global warming, bad politicians, inflation, on and on.

But what you don’t hear about are the rapid elimination of poverty. Medical improvements. We’re wealthier, better fed, live longer lives, with higher IQs (YouTube comments to the contrary).

But we’ve all been deluded by the virtual reality we live in, which is rapidly becoming reality. At least in our minds.

If everyone in the U.S. had a cellphone in 1863, or 1918, we would not to be able to get out of bed. We’d be watching thousands slaughtered on the battlefields of the South, or dying in the millions from the Spanish Flu. 

Things aren’t great all over, there is cause for alarm… but the world is getting better overall. But our mindsets? Worse. 

I always say when you’re looking for an answer to a complex problem, follow the $. Bad news attracts eyeballs, it’s part of our flawed human nature, so news outlets and independent creators on YouTube focus on telling these stories and sewing division to get more ad revenue. The platforms want you to spend every waking hour on them, and reward that behavior. 

Politicians know they get airtime when they sling mud or label everything a crisis, or describe the outcome of every election with the solemn intonement “our democracy hangs in the balance.” 

We’re so reduced to soundbites that this is what passes for thoughtful discourse.

The result is an endless supply of apocalypse. On call, 24-7, on your mobile phone. A twisted funhouse mirror on what is actually real, the world outside your window. Until, as Halford sings, “there’s no way left to tell what’s right from wrong.” Unless you “disconnect the system.”

We all need to put our phones down and touch grass. I hate that fucking phrase but there you go.

Division sells. We’re doing this to ourselves, fueled by a constant stream of technology driven negativity. The winners are Google and Apple and TikTok and Facebook.

The Priest has exposed this problem with “Panic Attack.”

The clamour and the clatter

of incensed keys

Can bring a nation to its knees

On the wings of a lethal icon

Bird of prey (aside: is this a Twitter reference?)

It’s a sign of the times when 

bedlam rules

When the masses condone

pompous fools

And the scales of justice tip

in disarray

The good news is that I see some signs of people pushing back on this, booing AI for example, which is as inhuman and fake as it gets.


The actual album review 

As for the album? Short review: It kicks ass.

Longer review? It kicks serious fucking ass.

The first time I heard it, I was like OK, “Panic Attack” is killer. Now how about “The Serpent and the King?”

That destroys too. I like it even better. Might be my favorite song on the album. At least at the moment. The guitar behind the chorus mimics the sway of a serpent, I swear. Love it.

Now we’ve got “Invincible Shield.” Title track, so it’s got to be good… and yep it is. It’s awesome.

Surely it must let up at “Devil in Disguise.” Or “Gates of Hell.”

Nope, and nope. If you’re keeping track at home that’s five fucking straight songs of all killer, no filler, for a metal band whose first album, Rocka Rolla, came out FIFTY YEARS AGO. “Gates of Hell” might even be my favorite track on the album.

I even really like song six, “Crown of Horns.” It’s a melodic, slow tempo song, but we NEED it here, to break up the metal destruction. You can only take getting your ass kicked so much.

OK finally, things let up a bit with song seven, “As God is my Witness.” But it’s good. 

The rest of the album is uniformly good, even if it doesn’t rise to the height of the first half. But “Giants in the Sky” is wonderful, would make for a terrific coda to Priest’s career and the end of the metal era (“homage to the legends ‘til the better end, leaving such a legacy my friends.”)

Giants indeed. 

Overall, the production and sound of the album is a 10/10. Halford can still sing (and he’s not what he was circa 1974-87, but who is?). Richie Faulkner is a guitar hero. I’m incredibly pleased with it, and happier yet I’ll be seeing these guys next month and will get to hear some of it, live.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

50 years of Dungeons and Dragons

No save... but lots of fun.
This is the year of golden anniversaries. On the heels of 50 years of Savage Sword of Conan comes a half century of a game that meant and still means a hell of a lot to me. It’s a game in my past, but I might play it again. Hell, I bought my first comic book/illustrated magazine in 33 years, Stranger Things could happen (<=intentional D&D reference inserted here).

I can’t begin to tell you how much fun I had with Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games. But mostly, with D&D.

I still have all my old core materials. All/most of the AD&D 1E, 2E, and 3.5 hardbacks, plus Moldvay/Cook B/X and the Mentzer sets through Immortals. Approximately 60 modules, and at least 100 issues of Dragon and Dungeon. Once in a while I take them off the shelf, thumb through for the illustrations and the quirky and rich Gygaxian prose.

D&D was my gateway to the RPG hobby. I don’t know the precise year I began but it was definitely in elementary school in the early 80s. The Tom Moldvay basic set was the first RPG I ever owned. I still own those same battered, careworn books.

I remember playing Traveler in elementary school with the black books during lunch. I was fascinated by the crunchiness of the game and the fact that you could die(?) with a series of unfortunate rolls during character creation. I went on to play other RPGs as well, but always came back to Dungeons and Dragons.

This picture paints a thousand words.
We spent many years not playing “right,” misinterpreting rules and playing Monty Haul ultralevel characters that slew demons and devils and collected artifacts and relics like I collect battered S&S paperbacks. Murder-hoboing our way through The Keep on the Borderlands. But having a blast all the while. I remember the excitement when a magic-user would level up, unlock a new spell level, and spend hours agonizing over whether to memorize “Polymorph Self” or “Wall of Ice.”

Eventually our games got more refined as our grasp of the rules improved. Middle school was a step up. Some of my fondest memories of those awkward years were walking home from school with a few friends where an afternoon of adventure awaited: A ping-pong table with hundreds of painted lead miniatures. I was obsessed with the game at this time, carting off piles of books on family camping trips, vacations, and Boy Scout retreats. I created worlds on lined notebook and graph paper in three-ring binders. I painted miniatures, including a skeleton army. I vividly remember the blast I had running a group through A4, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, in which the party starts out as loinclothed prisoners deep in the caverns of the wicked slavers and must rely on their wits and pluck to escape to the surface. 

I even got to play D&D during school, during a Friday afternoon 7th period elective in eighth grade. How cool is that?

As an adult I returned to the game I loved, and played for more than 10 years with a new group of friends  made while rolling D20s together. And lost one of those friends, far too early.

I once wrote to Gary Gygax, and to my eternal amazement he wrote me back. I remain indebted to Gary’s work co-founding TSR and am inspired to pick up a good general history of the hobby, possibly Game Wizards or Slaying the Dragon. If you have any recommendations let me know.

For a while I thought computer RPGs would kill off this great old game. Back in the day I loved games like Wizard’s Crown and Ultima and Phantasie and The Bard’s Tale, but these were in the end fairly primitive graphics-wise, a little clunky in their execution, and most of all greatly limited compared to what you could do at the game table. Which was (and is) essentially, limitless, contained only by the imagination of the players and DM. CRPGs have gotten far better, richer, and freeform since, but that hasn’t seemed to hamper the growth of traditional tabletop RPGs. They seem as healthy or perhaps even healthier than ever, at least from my vantagepoint as a casual observer.

Today (and despite some recent missteps by Hasbro) I don’t believe D&D will ever die. It fulfills a need all humans have, for good company and shared storytelling around the table. 50 years ago D&D was created by enthusiasts who recognized this need and married it to their joint love of wargaming and fantasy fiction. The result was magic. I remain forever grateful.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

The Savage Sword of Conan no. 1, Titan Comics: A review

I haven’t bought a new comic book in 33 years, when I purchased the April 1991 Savage Sword of Conan as a high school senior. The venerable magazine ended its long run four years later. I was in college in these waning days of SSOC and so had no spending money for comics; what little funds I had went toward beer. 

I've purchased a handful of back issues of SSOC since, but that’s it. And had no intention of ever buying a new comic again … until now. The hype around the relaunch of SSOC by Titan Comics piqued my interest and I decided to give it a go.

Before I get to the contents I have to say the packaging/mailing is a 10/10. I have never ordered a comic book by mail and dreaded it would arrive mangled by the postal service, but it was secured with cardboard backing in a plastic sheath and packaged in a rigid cardboard flat. The magazine arrived in wonderful shape.

I opened it up and immediately thought, this is what I wanted it to be.

Black and white interior art on newsprint pages, just like the old magazine. Savage and sexy with beheadings and nudity. Pinup art, text articles. The cover callback to the classic Frazetta Conan the Adventurer, featuring Conan astride a mound of corpses with a woman clutching his knee. A shot of nostalgia.

It checked all the boxes.

Yes, it has some well-documented issues with the art being too dark. Not every panel, and the Solomon Kane story does not suffer from this problem. The Hyborian Age map suffers the most, as does a pinup image of Belit. Equally annoying was the lack of page numbers; there is a TOC with page numbers cited but no corresponding numbers on the pages themselves. These were either forgotten or cut off during the printing.

I’m sure these glitches will be fixed.

On to the contents.

I loved opening the issue and seeing an introduction by the legendary Roy Thomas. As if the iconic cover drawn by SSOC veteran Joe Jusko wasn’t enough, Thomas’ recap of the magazine’s history was a perfect way to kick off the issue. Thomas also alluded to having “a story or three” planned for future issues, which would be a very welcome development.

I enjoyed the main feature, “Conan and the Dragon Horde” by writer John Arcudi and artist Man von Fafner. I appreciated it being self-contained to the issue, a big plus for me. The story kept me interested, with enough twists and turns and no lulls. Conan was well-drawn, especially his savage facial expressions. It features a couple well-done “boss fights” with dragon-like dinosaurs and two hulking bodyguards, and a necropolis. The story is quite gritty and has no overt sorcery, even the monsters could be atavistic survivors of a pre-Hyborian/prehistoric age. I perhaps raised an eyebrow at the accuracy of the siege engines (they accurately target moving people, one is used to drop a noose around a man in a melee?) but otherwise was on board with what I was reading.

That said I thought the second-tier Solomon Kane story “Master of the Hunt” was even better. A historical curse laid on a medieval Welsh Lord gives rise to a vengeful demon, and the horror atmosphere is palpable (it reminded me a bit of the beginning of An American Werewolf in Londonkeep off the moors!). The story ends on a cliffhanger which makes issue #2 a must-buy. The art in this story was perfectly clear and non-murky, and it’s good. Kane is well-rendered.

I’m not sure why the need for the prose Jim Zub story “Sacrifice in the Sand,” other than it pairs with the cover. I would have preferred to see a photo essay like we had in the old SSOC days, perhaps a recap of Howard Days or the like. I hope Titan brings those back. Zub did a nice job writing this short two-pager, and I found his prose atmospheric and poetic. It could have made for a nice 6-8 page illustrated short.

I enjoyed Jeff Shanks’ Solomon Kane essay, which paired well with the story. Shanks is a first-rate Howard scholar whom I met at last year’s Howard Days. His “Hyborian Age Archeology” is a must-read, and I relied upon and cited his essay “History, Horror, and Heroic Fantasy: Robert E. Howard and the Creation of Sword and Sorcery” in Flame and Crimson. In comparison to his academic work this Kane essay is sleight, but that’s what you’d expect in a comic magazine. I found it to be a good overview for a new reader of Kane’s publishing history and the character himself.

Oh and REH himself makes an appearance with a reprint of his poem "The Road of Kings."

I thought the riskiest move was the dead horse on the cover; these days people seem OK with every manner of violence inflicted on humans but revolt at the sight of dead animals. Unfortunately corpses of horses littered the battlefields of every historical engagement, well into the 20th century. I have no problem with it, I’m sure some will.

Overall I’m quite happy with issue #1. If you’re a Conan fan you should be too. SSOC is back.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Look what came in the mail


Looking forward to reading this. It’s the first new comic book/illustrated magazine I’ve purchased since 1991.

Feeling optimistic after reading the introduction by none other than Roy Thomas, who appears to be “writing a story or three” for the relaunch. 

Monday, March 4, 2024

Our modern problems with reading

We don’t have infinite time. The amount of reading attention any new book must compete with is getting progressively smaller. So we have to be selective.

It’s basic math.

Robert E. Howard read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London and H. Rider Haggard (and many, many authors besides, but bear with me as I make this point).

Michael Moorcock read Howard and his contemporaries C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith… but is obligated to read ERB and London and Haggard.

Writers today read Moorcock and his contemporaries Karl Edward Wagner and Jack Vance and Poul Anderson. But also should read Howard and Moore and Smith … and ERB and London and Haggard.

The demands on new generations of readers multiply. What about readers and writers three generations from now?

Oh, and we all must read the classics. Shakespeare and Milton and Homer and Hemingway.

Make sure you read outside your genre. One should read history, too. 

The accumulated reading, generation on generation, cannot continue. The math doesn’t add up. How many books can anyone read in a lifetime?

Some books must fall by the wayside.

This is just the beginning of the problem. We have many more demands on our attention than previous generations. Movies, TV, video games, TTRPGs, YouTube, doom scrolling, etc., all compete for our attention during “free” time. And despite all the breathless predictions of the techno utopians, we don’t seem to be working any fewer hours.

That means we’ve got choices to make. As you get older, you realize you cannot fritter your time away. It’s far too precious.

So, what are we to do?

My advice: Read what you want. Just read, as long as its not Reddit forums or Twitter threads.

Read new sword-and-sorcery or read the classics. Read comic books, or graphic novels. Just make sure it’s something someone has created, with care. 

Don’t listen to what other people think. I don’t. Because I’ve read enough to spot illogic and ad hominem and the rest. 

Just because a book is old, published 60 or 80 or 400 years ago, does not render it out of date. C.S. Lewis tells us to rid yourself of “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”

And our age is prone to its own illusions.

Anything still in print 60 years after it was published is probably worth your time. Because it survived the test of time. The books that influenced your favorite author(s) are probably worth reading too, even if out of print. 

But don’t feel obligated to plow through classics that are going to kill your love of reading, either. 

Read what interests you, and carry that fire against public opinion. Which is often shit.

That’s another benefit of reading widely and deeply—read enough good stuff and you’ll develop a sensitive and accurate bullshit detection meter.