Hank McCoy (Before the Fur) - Part 1

I remember a time, say ten years ago or so, where it seemed like the comic book industry was about to disappear. Really- it was the late nineties, Marvel was having some editor-in-chief issues, people were getting sick of buying and reading thirteen to twenty comic books that were titled X-something or X-(blank), DC was writing some good stuff for Batman, Justice League, and Starman, and that was about it, and Top Cow and Image really didn’t have much to offer beyond T & A. The “Clone Saga” came out around this time, for Spider-man? When they tried to write off Peter Parker and have a new Spider-man, who was a clone of the old Spider-man, named Ben Reiley? Yeah. Ouch. Mistakes were made. And the superhero genre just seemed…kicked. There were some awesome independent comics getting their start, left and right. But everyone just seemed like they were losing interest in the big-company books. So many titles started getting canceled, or ended up with really bad writers and illustrators. Of course, this made continuity kind of ridiculous. At some point, Teen Titans became the New Titans, but then Young Justice came out and all but replaced them, but then they pushed both teams together onto one book called Teen Titans with the older character’s tutoring the new ones…these were discouraging times to read. I’ve had assignments for graduate school that took less effort that keeping track of the revisions they were making. So what brought it all back? Tried and true, when things look bleak for the industry you can always count on one thing to keep interest alive and money flowing: LICENSING. While gimmicky, both companies have had some big hits with merchandise that have helped “spread the love” a bit and keep comics alive. Of course, they’ve had some big misses too. Big, big misses. As a chronic addict of comic-book merchandise myself, good and bad, I can hardly judge anyone for spending a few extra bucks here and there. Some of it is a lot of fun and part of what helped peaked my interest in comics to begin with. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a brief tour (review) of some of the “stuff” you could be collecting if you could just pry your nose off the rack for a few minutes: Table Top Role-Playing Games: The gaming and comic-book industry have had this strange, unhappy on-again off-again marriage for a long, long time. I believe at the core of most great role-playing games is the idea that the ability of one character to perform a fantastic, inhuman action is restricted to set odds. In other words, even though it’s Dungeons and Dragons and anything goes, the chance of your character performing such and such crazy fantasy sword move that no one on the planet could do is a function of his stats and what’s happening in the environment around him. But the rules define the odds. The problem with superhero role-playing games is that the rules are always changing issue to issue. One second, Hulk is a big green rampaging guy, the next he’s Gray and smart but kind of a bad-guy, but then he’s back to a big green guy only now he has Banner’s mind, than he’s…well, Red these days (I hear the new series is pretty hot, by the by). To add to the confusion- different writers use characters differently. A character might be portrayed as relatively weak in one comic only to get revamped as the most powerful hero or villain ever to walk the face of the planet in another. Scarlet Witch was just another Avenger until Bendis finally sat down and was like: “Wait a minute…she does what now? Alters reality?” Still, there have been some admirable attempts. The first set of these games, Marvel Super Heroes by TSR and DC Heroes by Mayfair were great games and still have decent fanbases on the web today. For example, Classic Marvel has all sorts of homebrewed rules and lets you download pretty much every game supplement TSR ever released. I haven’t found a site of the same caliber for DC, although the “system” that game used lives on in the cult-classic Champions role-playing game. Few games inspire loyalty in fans the way Champions has. It’s even going to have an online version in another year or so (see below). The focus of these first attempts was on realism. Basically, if Superman and Green Arrow get into a fight, Green Arrow better have some trick up his sleeve because 85% of the time Superman was sure to kick his ass. So if you were going to run a game, than you, the referee or gamemaster or whatever, kind of decided what flavor of game you were going to run. Is it going to be straight up crime-fighting a la Batman, where characters were mostly human? Is it going to be all out super-powered warfare, X-Men style? You pick a “style” for the campaign, and try to keep the characters you use appropriate for the style so that you don’t wind up with Black Adam and Robin fighting it out. The Marvel system always appealed to me because they had really great rules for randomly generating super-powers for a new character, as well as the origin of those powers. So the game was really set within the mythology of the marvel universe- you could be a mutant, an inhuman, a Skrull Super-Soldier…whatever. Marvel released two other games, both to pretty poor reception. The systems these games used were a lot more fluid to kind of help represent how quick things can change in the comic-verse. One used playing cards (don’t ask) and another was actually diceless, which I kind of liked. The idea wasn’t that you rolled anything- you got a certain number of points to distribute to your characters abilities at the beginning of a round. So you decided how much effort you were going to put into punching, dodging, whatever…this sounds cool, but I kind of don’t like the idea that in the hands of an experienced player Spider-man can smack Silver Surfer around like a red-headed stepchild on a good day. DC re-released their role-playing game with West End Games though, and I thought it was great. The main rulebook is actually in color with beautiful illustrations. There was a little bit of random chance involved, but not so much as to unbalance the general aspects of the characters involved. The way powers worked in this re-vamp made a lot of sense to me. Describing it would be a little outside of the range of this editorial, but check it out if you’re ever on e-bay or the like. The game also had a good classification system that helped you make good decisions about what kinds of character’s to include in an adventure you wanted to run (Superman and Wonder Woman were level 5 characters, Batman was a very experienced level 1 character, etc.). These days? The role-playing super-hero genre is almost non-existent, save for Champions.