Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Warrenverse

Warren Publishing started out in the late Fifties with an 'adult' zine called After Hours.  It made it to four issues before dying, but in the course of its last issue they ran an interview with the one and only Forrest J. Ackerman.  From the ignominious ashes of After Hours arose Famous Monsters of Filmland, without a doubt the quintessential monster-movie magazine aimed at kids and anyone else who liked a good scare or monsters in general.  (Forry Ackerman also was responsible for importing/translating the German SciFi Pulp Perry Rhodan into English and distributing it in North America, but that's another story for another day).

Forry Ackerman, working through Warren Publishing, established both Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monster World which introduced what he called 'Monster Comics.'  Monster World eventually gave rise to Creepy and Eerie and in time Vampirella as well as other magazines including a reprinting of Eisner's The Spirit.

Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella introduced a completely new universe of characters, a Warrenverse, if you will.  The combination of horror, monsters, science fiction, fantasy and pulpish heroics combined with a bit more adult perspective and frank language/sexual situations proved a fairly potent and memorable influence on quite a few readers, writers and artists exposed to this stuff at an early and vulnerable age.  Exterminator One (pictured above) still beats the so-called Terminator hands-down.  The first story alone packs more of an emotional wallop than anything Ahnuld's walking, talking bullet-catching miscreants have managed.  Or what about The Rook, a wild west tinged time-traveller whose time machine is shaped like a chess piece and who packs six shooters, not a screwdriver, sonic or otherwise.  The Rook is still cool after all these years, and though the stories were uneven on any given instance, the character is still very, very fun and would benefit greatly from being revived by an author with some imagination and a firm grasp of Zane Gray or Louis L'Amour more than Doctor Who.  Then there is the infamous Night of the Jackass...a series that dealt with the proliferation of a drug --Hyde25-- in Victorian London and its horrific effects on the downtrodden masses as they suddenly gain superhuman strength at the cost of losing their minds, going hyper-violent and dying within 24 hours.  It's a peculiar blend of Jack the Ripper and 28 Days Later, but with horribly mutated and cracked-out bat-shit-crazy street people, not zombies.  Again, the series as presented is a bit uneven, but the core concept is intriguing and horrific in a way that From Hell simply isn't, despite being far and away much better written and layered with tons of cleverness, allusions and versimilitude.  I, for one, would dearly love to see Alan Moore re-vamp the Night of the Jackass series...but it'll probably never happen.  I doubt that he's ever even heard of it, for one thing.

Mac Tavish, while appearing a great deal like a poor man's Magnus Robot Fighter in space, did manage to scrape together some fun moments.  Darklon the Mystic (an early Starlin creation) was a strange mash-up of sorcery and super-science featuring a galaxy-hopping sorcerer anti-hero that still reads as good today as it did decades ago; and I mean that in a good way.  Darklon the Mystic would easily be right at home on Planet Algol, Fomalhaut or right in the middle of a Sorcery & Super-Science session.

Hunter and Hunter 2 were actually kind of fun as well.  Hunter was about the post-apocalyptic retro-dystopian adventures of Demian Hunter who fought against the horrific 'demons,' saurian-like mutants who had branched-off from humanity after a cataclysmic war long ago.  In the usual gambit of such tales, Hunter was not only the foremost killer of 'demons,' but his father was actually the king of the demons who had ravaged Hunter's mother.  It was a real Empire Strikes Back kind of thing, and Hunter spent most of his time hunting down daddy un-dearest in order to lay the righteous smack down on his scaly butt.  The Big Bad Guy really was Demian Hunter's daddy...and he, himself was a half-mutant, which gave him some measure of improved abilities, but nothing too outrageous or useful beyond the usual large muscles and diminished brains that comes standard for most such heroes.  Demian Hunter was an emotionally distant, amoral killer who was reminiscent of a Captain America style super soldier gone really bad, barbaric and after the fall of civilization.  In some ways it is as if a half-breed Conan drank the Super Soldier Serum and then went about kicking ass in a world that wouldn't let Thundarr come out to play.  It was a fairly popular series and the character of Demian Hunter has been resurrected several times now, mostly for cross-over stories with The Rook, Vampirella and Darklon the Mystic.

Hunter 2 involved the inheritor of the Hunter franchise, a full-blooded human warrior named Karas who took up the mantle, title and helmet and got to work killing off artificial mutants being mass-produced by evil wizards.  This series was more like Thongor or one of those second-string Conan-types facing off against wizards and mutants in a post-apocalyptic Shannara-like setting...and he gets a very special side-kick/ally--the Exterminator Cyborg!  Very Cool.

This series was far less dystopian, and more fantastical, more Tolkein-esque, but in a thoroughly Warren way.  Instead of being a superhero from the start, Karas has to learn the ropes and live up to the legend of his fore-runner...and that makes the whole series take on a very different feel right from the start.  You watch Karas become a great hero, which is admittedly a stock plot, but it works very well.  This series was superior to its predecessor in many respects but it hasn't gotten the same level of support, recognition or plain old respect that Demian Hunter has. Maybe that'll change eventually.  It's a shame that this really good series was lost amidst the horror-stuff that surrounded it in Eerie at the time.  People looking for Science Fiction or Fantasy were not going to necessarily look at Eerie and that, if nothing else, really cramped this series' popularity pretty severely.

Vampirella was one of Forry Ackerman's best ideas ever.  A vampiric answer to Barbarella, this character became an icon for Warren Publishing and one of the single most stared-at characters in all of comic-dom.  Vampi is not just any old jiggly cheesecake vampiress in a skimpy red swimsuit, she's a 'good' vampire from the planet Drakulon where blood flows in rivers...and...yeah...it does get kind of silly...but her first issue had a cover painted by Frank Frazetta, and did I mention the skimpy red swimsuit?

The Jose Gonzalez wall poster of Vampirella is still a classic and it's available for sale once again at the Vampirella website, which is very cool.

So, why dredge-up all this Warren-stuff?

Simple.  It's not all that well-known outside of those of us who grew up with this stuff or those old collector-dudes who smell like cats and grumble about insanely inconsequential minutiae only three other people in the universe know or care about.  And that sucks.  Period.

Warren Publishing produced some abysmal dreck in its time, sure, but so has any and every other publisher in any genre or media.  Sturgeon's Law applies.  But amidst all the hype and titillation, crudity and silliness (rivers of blood for crying out loud?!?), there were shining moments of inspired imagination at work, stories that didn't fit the cookie-cutter mold of Marvel or DC who would never have allowed Starlin to produce Darklon the Mystic until after it came out via Warren (they let him write Thanos, but only after Darklon proved viable).  Stories like the first Hunter series or Exterminator One's origin, let alone Night of the Jackass could never have been done through DC or Marvel  or anyone else who was peddling 'respectable' and code-approved stuff.

Warren was putting out stories that were different, demented and dangerous.  There was a grim and gritty Noirish sensibility in a Warren story that you wouldn't normally find in comics. The sorts of things that you'd find in the Pulps and Men's Adventure Novels, yes, but not in comics.  Not prior to Warren. Not in the US.  Sure some of the stories fail miserably, as do many stories written more than thirty years ago, but others stand the test of time quite well, aside from matters of taste (or lack thereof).

The grittiness and Noirish-ness became something one expected from Warren.  It made their characters such as The Rook or Hunter 2 seem more coherent, cohesive, even more literary than just the usual costumed 4-color oafs they were competing with--and that added to the overall versimilitude of the Warrenverse.  When you discovered the Exterminator Cyborg within the Hunter 2 series, that automatically lent a lot more gravitas to the mix because it just welded the whole Exterminator back-story onto Hunter 2.  And yes, the other guys did their own bit of intra-title crossovers, but there was something special about how Warren handled it--little things like the Exterminator Cyborgs, and Darklon the Mystic being a distant descendant of Demian Hunter really gave it a feel and a flavor unique unto itself.

So what does any of this mean from an RPG-type perspective?  Glad you asked.  When developing a setting, it is not enough to just go down the checklist and develop a set of archetypal characters as opponents, obstacles or potential allies.  You need to look at how these various characters that you're developing as NPCs interact with the world, with each other, and look for ways to develop their inter-personal relationships wherever it feels appropriate or useful to do so.  Relationships make more of a difference than powers, stats or weapons.  The Rook, Restin Dane, has various ancestors and descendants who are out there, crossing his path at inconvenient moments or sometimes working at cross-purposes to one another, while others are his supporting cast and the like.  That's before we get to his competitors, rivals, opponents, obstacles and former lovers.  It was the almost soap opera-esque emphasis upon the various characters' relationships to one another that really made The Rook work.  You could forgive a lot of hookum and balonium if it was broken-up by the stories that dealt more with the mischief-making of Bishop Dane and the robot gentleman Manners, the complications in Restin's relationship(s) with January Boone, Katie McCall (who also had a relationship with Bishop for a while...), and so on.  It was the richness of the character interaction that made it all work, not the gimmicks or gadgets, though those didn't hurt any--especially the Time Castle shaped like a rook from off of a chessboard.

If your NPCs arise from a vacuum and return to the void in-between encounters, they're too flat and static to be any good for anything beyond crowd-scenes and filler.  You're going to need a few decent NPCs that have more meat on their bones, more heft, more to them than just a few random quirks and a moustache or blue hair.  A good NPC is more than a bunch of stats with a name.  They're your chance to flesh-out aspects of the universe that could open doors for the players that they never knew existed.  The bad guy Gat Hawkins for The Rook is responsible for introducing Bishop and Restin Dane to both January Boone and Katie McCall, a very significant development.  This kind of NPC can become a catalyst for adventurers, like trying to live up to the legend of Demian Hunter or some similar hero that the PC may be descended from--and that could likewise lead to a betrayal of that heritage for the sake of power and revenge, becoming a dire bogeyman that others hear about in hushed whispers of dread such as in the case of a Darklon type of sorcerer.

The Warren characters occupy a strange twilight niche in-between the Pulps and the more tame and bland comics most people are used to, and that makes them a veritable treasure trove of potential inspiration and ideas to draw upon that most of your players won't automatically recognize or be able to peg off the bat.  The sheer inspired lunacy of some of the Warren stories have yet to be repeated, let alone topped...and that makes them a very good resource for your fiction, your game, or your reading pleasure.

This, of course, opens the door to the Wold-Newton Universe parascholarship efforts set into motion by P. J. Farmer...which we'll get to in another post.  Shortly.