Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Master and Margarita: Absurdity and Writing

The characters in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita live in an obviously absurd world. The extremity of that absurdity is such that instead of creating a rich tapestry of fantasy or magic realism, it instead renders the plot—such that it is—annoying to many readers. And yet, I don't think that annoyance is truly rooted in an utterly unrecognizable heft of absurdity permeating the plot, characters, and setting; rather, the absurdity in the novel is vexing because it echoes a fear we have about our own existences: our world is also absurd, and if it isn't as profoundly absurd, it is at least persistently absurd. There is an uncomfortable resonance there, which is why the narrative chafes.

Many of the characters in the novel attempt to make sense of the absurdity that surrounds them in a way that is recognizable to many of us: they attempt to write their way toward sense, order, and understanding of the world around them. Take Ivan, the poet, as an example:

'The poet’s attempts to compose a report on the terrible consultant had come to nothing. As soon as he received a pencil stub and some paper from the stout nurse, whose name was Praskovya Fyodorovna, he had rubbed his hands together in a businesslike fashion and hastily set to work at the bedside table. He had dashed off a smart beginning, “To the police. From Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, member of MASSOLIT. Report. Yesterday evening I arrived at Patriarch’s Ponds with the deceased Berlioz …”

And the poet immediately became confused, largely due to the word “deceased.” It made everything sound absurd from the start: how could he have arrived somewhere with the deceased? Dead men don’t walk! They really will think I’m a madman!

Such thoughts made him start revising. The second version came out as follows, “ …with Berlioz, later deceased …” That didn’t satisfy the author either. He had to write a third version, and that came out even worse than the other two, “… with Berlioz, who fell under a streetcar …” What was irksome here was the obscure composer who was Berlioz’s namesake; he felt compelled to add, “ …not the composer …”' (Chapter XI: Ivan is Split in Two).

Even those most comforting pastimes and passions of the intelligent and creative—writing, words, literature, art—fail to give sufficient structure or stability to a world seething with nonsense, surreality, coincidence, and chaos. Words might comfort us, but in the end they don't work; language becomes so slippery and imprecise that even Ivan's third draft of his account refuses to give a definite shape to his experience.

So it goes with all of us, but perhaps writers feel this failure more keenly. Bulgakov certainly does: the novel is brimming with writers and other creatives who turn to writing or storytelling as a bulwark against an uncertain world, only to have a chance for greater meaning slip away into the tumult of a world that cannot be tamed by words alone. Ivan feels this, as does the Master, as does Margarita, as does anyone connected to MASSOLIT, as does Pontius Pilate and Levi Matvei as they witness The Story of Stories unfolding. Does Bulgakov? I'm terrifyingly certain he did.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Delphic Holes, Worm Trains, Religion, Law Enforcement, Dangers

Oh, whistle, in Scarabae, and I'll come to you...

This is my attempt to describe a setting through its material culture, which is probably foolish since I'm not an archaeologist or anthropologist. 

* * *

A Delphic Hole (1)
There are magical regions scattered throughout Scarabae called Incarnate Zones where reality itself goes wrong—areas where magic is stronger or the veil between planes is thin. At the heart of every Incarnate Zone is a Delphic Hole—a black void of negation that has desires and must be fed.

* * *

Badge of office used by worm train conductors (2)
You may wish to ride one of the transmuted purple worm trains if you've a need to travel across the city. The city has a massive span. Up and down it goes, undulating in itself like a great worm.

* * *

Prayer beads (3)
You'll find a myriad of churches, temples, ashrams, monasteries, and shrines throughout the city—each dedicated to one of the archetypes of the tarot's major arcana. Some faithful are particularly feared, such as the ghoul monks who serve the Hanged Man or the fanatical, blinded servitors of Temperance.

* * *

Phrenology bust (4)
Scarabae has no official police force, but a number of independent thief-takers and phrenological detectives (those who detect crime by studying features and head-shape) operate as law-for-hire. Masked vigilantes, such as the Red Wraith, prowl the streets doling out their own brand of justice.

* * *

Laboratory equipment belonging to Dr. Jekaro (5)
Be wary of: the traveling market of the goblin mafia, Morlia the Flesh Crafter and her golem husbands, a range of poxes, labor-unionist orcs and their pride parades, the aesthetic terrorists of the Green Carnation Club, ettercap crime lords peddling opiates from their nests in Webhaus, the reality-warping artists of the Meta-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the vengeful machinations of Lady Magwitch, any technology produced by Jekaro Industries.

* * *

(1) - Inspired by Kathe Koja's Cipher, and probably a Borges story I'm forgetting at the moment.
(2) - Inspired by the bio-punk transportation in the recent Prophet comics.
(3) - I find that I'm less interested in having the usual sort of fantasy deities in my settings these days. The idea of having religion based on the tarot was inspired by Alan Moore's Promethea. Roger Zelazny's Amber Chronicles probably factor in here too. I've noticed that they are doing something similar on Rollplay's Court of Swords, which is cool to see a similar idea in action.
(4) - The phenological detective bit was inspired by Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy, and the Red Wraith was inspired by Batman, of course.
(5) - Inspired by Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Romanticism, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Warlock Patrons in Krevborna

Warlocks make pacts with otherworldly beings to gain their powers, which opens up a good place to do some world-building. Plus, any of these can double as antagonists or allies, depending on how the players situate their characters in the world

I'm not sure it's obvious from the terse descriptions below, but I've tried to craft each set of otherworldly beings (Demons, Devils, Great Old Ones, Archfey) with a different "theme." Demons are all about inspiring destructive and chaotic impulses that undermine civilization, Devils seduce mortals into seeking personal power, Great Old Ones inspire their agents to unravel cosmic mysteries and seek unknowable truths, and Archfey embolden the connection between mortals and the natural world.


AleyusThe Butcher
  • Inspires mortals to wantonly shed the blood of their fellow men
  • Portrayed as a hulking beast with a horned, animalistic head

BeldamusThe Bringer of Madness
  • Inspires mortals to drive others into the arms of insanity and nihilism
  • Portrayed as a many-headed monstrosity that screams and whispers from its many mouths

OzogaThe One Who Slithers
  • Inspires mortals to spread illness and disease to the innocent
  • Portrayed as a monstrous snake or worm whose mouth is lined with venom-dripping fangs

PyoricThe Child of Flesh
  • Inspires mortals to commit carnal excesses and breed demoniac progeny
  • Portrayed as a slavering, wanton beast of ambiguous gender

YanakusThe Father of Undeath
  • Inspires mortals to reanimate the dead as creatures of darkness
  • Portrayed as a grave-bloated and pale man with the head of a rotten goat


AbzulaThe Sweet Seducer
  • Inspires mortals to use lustful means to gain power and influence over others
  • Portrayed as a beautiful woman clad in the furs and diadem of a wealthy noblewoman

AgrazusThe Iron Hand
  • Inspires mortals to take power by martial means and force of arms
  • Portrayed as a soldier wreathed in flames and holding an impossibly-heavy hammer

DamazuFirst Among Hell
  • Inspires mortals to bend others to their will through guile, stratagem, and intricate scheming
  • Portrayed as an imperious man with cloven hooves who holds a bloodied scepter

Malistrad – The Infernal Sage
  • Inspires mortals to seek knowledge hidden by the Church
  • Portrayed as an old man bound by stout iron chains to a ponderous book of lore

MenochThe Apostate Minstrel
  • Inspires mortals to use religion to enrich or empower themselves at the expense of others
  • Portrayed as a young man or woman holding an ornate musical instrument

Great Old Ones

The Envoy of the Black Stars
  • Associated with planar communion and otherworldly contact
  • Portrayed as a luminescent, fungal abomination

The Maiden of Dust
  • Associated with prophecy and despair
  • Portrayed as a ravening maw

The Bloodletting Beast
  • Associated with nightmares, doom, and unnatural births
  • Portrayed as an empty shroud laden with chains

The Pallid Emergence
  • Associated with dreams and the moon
  • Portrayed as an impossible thin and pale figure with writhing hair

The Elder Scholar
  • Associated with forbidden knowledge
  • Portrayed as a mass of unblinking eyes

The Inchoate Presence
  • Associated with mystery, chaos, and unfathomable plans
  • Never Portrayed directly

The Hunger of the Void
  • Associated with senseless violence and ceaseless propagation
  • Portrayed as a monstrous, spider-like thing


The Foolish Maiden
  • Emboldens mortals to abandon themselves in dreams and reverie
  • Portrayed as a laughing woman crowned with wildflowers

The Lover of Midnight
  • Emboldens mortals to seek dark pleasures in the deep woods
  • Portrayed as a cruel woman clad in cobweb and frost

The Mountain Lord
  • Emboldens mortals to join the Wild Hunt against those who have offended the fey
  • Portrayed as an arboreal man with antlers wearing furs

The Tempest Princeling
  • Emboldens mortals to give in to their destructive and impetuous impulses
  • Portrayed as an angry young man wearing a raiment of dark clouds

The Verdant Knight
  • Emboldens mortals to make war against civilization
  • Portrayed as a towering knight clad in green armor and bearing a greataxe

The Wild Queen
  • Emboldens mortals to protect the natural world
  • Portrayed as a shining woman gowned in waves of spring water and fallen leaves
Nicely formatted pdf of these here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet

Ta-nehisi Coates's run on Black Panther feels like a historic moment in comics: it marks the first black superhero being written by one of the most prominent black voices in contemporary literature at a time when black bodies are explicitly a fulcrum of modern political contention. (Black bodies have always been a fulcrum of American politics, but America has rarely admitted to this fact.) It might be expected, then, that Coates's Black Panther series would speak to the precarious situation (both political and lived) of the black body within the fictional context of comic books. After all, the subtitle of Coates's series, A Nation Under Our Feet, echoes the title of Steven Hahn's account of Southern black political struggles from slavery to the black diaspora within America.

Coates's Black Panther is political, inasmuch as it speaks to how power is constructed, defined, and exercised. But this Black Panther series is as much a part of Coates's deconstructive project as his book Between the World and Me. One of the main points of Between the World and Me (aside from the precarity of the black body and the centrality of that vulnerability to America's history) is the necessity of critique. Between the World and Me is ostensibly a letter from Coates to his son, telling him that he needs to deeply question the narratives he's going to inherit about blackness and America throughout his life, but it's also a letter to every reader who picks up the book--and it tells us the same thing: don't except the validity or truth of the American Dream without really looking at it with open eyes.

Black Panther continues that deconstructive critique, but unlike Between the World and Me it isn't oriented specifically toward race in America. There are a few illustration choices in the series that recall America's current racial tensions. For example:

This alternate cover for the first issue shows the Black Panther surrounded by white policemen with guns at the ready--an understandable anxiety for the possessor of a black body in the current cultural moment of militarized police forces and "stand yoru ground" dogma--although such a scene never happens in the comic the cover adorns.

Similarly, this page shows the Black Panther going prone under what could be interpreted to be a bullet wound to the head. (It's not; it's the technological part of his costume activating.)

Instead of dealing with the myths of race and the society built upon them, the deconstructive thrust of the book is specifically applied to the superhero genre: in Coates's series, it may well be the case that the Black Panther is not the hero of his own book. On the surface, that sounds like madness; of course he's the hero of the book, it's named after him and he's in the foreground of the cover! That's how you know he's the hero, right?

As far as I can tell (and I admit that I am far from an expert on capes comics), a superhero needs four things to be defined as such: powers or abilities beyond the normal ken, a willingness to use those powers or abilities for the greater good, a weakness of some sort, and villains to fight against.

I want to talk about the first three as a group because they are the mostly tightly entwined in Coates's Black Panther. The Black Panther's abilities and his willingness to use them for good are both undermined by his major flaw. Unlike Superman and his vulnerability to Kryptonite, the Black Panther's flaw is not external; it is intimately interior--his flaw is his own internalized self-doubt. The Black Panther doubts everything essential for his own self-belief that he is the hero of the tale. He doubts his ability to protect his people and promote their welfare, he doubts that one man can make a difference and steer history and polity in the right direction, he doubts that he is a just ruler of his kingdom, he doubts his inheritance, he doubts the very shape of kingship because it seems at odds with the nation's will. He doubts that being a superhero is possible.

He has good cause for doubt himself because the villains that oppose him aren't necessarily wrong. In the handful of issues collected in A Nation Under Our Feet, we get introduced to "villains" that often seem as heroic as the title character, and are in fact differentiated from the Black Panther largely by their vastly different and incompatible political beliefs and worldviews. The two women who are renegade royal guards turned against they system they once upheld, for example, do more to protect the downtrodden of Wakanda, and are far more effective at doing so, than T'Challa is throughout the initial issues of the series. Their belief that no one man should have exclusive access to political authority must ring true for a number of readers--it echoes the vigilante mindset of adored heroes like Batman, while also recalling true democratic principles. These villains hardly seem villainous.

Tetu and Zenzi, the other group of "villains" that the Black Panther must contend with, also seem to linger in a liminal gray area that is hard to convincingly describe as villainy. As a shaman, Tetu is representative of African land itself, and its rejection of the traditional regime's various environmental and biopower transgressions; as the leader of the People, he represents popular uprising against traditions that no longer embody the human beings who must live as one with the land and each other. Zenzi is likewise cast as a potential liberator; her ability to bring the people's resentments and anger explosively to the surface is effectively a symbolic awakening of the political consciousness and radicalization of lingering dissatisfaction with their sovereign, and perhaps the idea of sovereigns as a whole. It isn't so easy to see these two characters as villains either; contrasted against the Black Panther's inclinations and actions, they might be kind of outsiders we love to see stand corruption and tyranny.

Without a clear hero and without clear villains, Black Panther is shades of gray all the way down. The intersections tear themselves apart, as crossroads always do. We have, of course, seen deconstructions of the superhero genre before. After Watchmen, we might even claim to have suffered a deluge of them. But few deconstructions of the capes-and-costumes genre have connected that deconstruction as closely to critiques of national relations of power, nor to the ways that the politics of nation are always already the politics of the individuals--from highest to lowest--from which the nation arises.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Machete vs. Machine, Magpie Museum, Thri-kreen, The Ritual

Oh, whistle, in Scarabae, and I'll come to you...

This is my attempt to describe a setting through its material culture, which is probably foolish since I'm not an archaeologist or anthropologist. 

* * *

Weapon of the Machete's agents (1)
Behind the petty squabbles and bloody warfare that occurs between criminal gangs, political parties, guilds, aristocratic cavaliers and courtiers, religious orders, and the like are two great ideological factions: the Machete and the Machine. Agents of the Machete value liberty above all else, and are willing to pay the price of violence to protect it; the forces of the Machine foster security and stability at the cost of oppression and obedience.

* * *

Astrolabe “acquired” by the Magpie Museum (2)
Generally looked upon merely as an institution for the study of history, art, and culture, the Magpie Museum has secretive bureaus that pay explorers to find and retrieve rare objects for its collection. Adventurers possessing of deadly accuracy and flexible ethics can often find a little “night work” with the Museum if they know who to ask.

* * *

Head of a thri-kreen hunter (3)
Scarabae suffers periodic invasions from swarms of thri-kreen warriors. Some philosophers have postulated that they invade from a future time-line, and are possibly echoes of what mankind will one day evolve into.

* * *

Ritual combat helm (4)
There are a million ways to be entertained in Scarabae: all-night cabarets, theater and opera, veil-dancers, pub sing-alongs, etc. But the most invigorating performances are those of the Ritual—gladiatorial events in which ostentatiously-arrayed warriors bolstered by otherworldly pacts fight each other to the death in bouts that are part of some larger occult significance.

* * *

(1) - Inspired by Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World. This also puts alignment (at least in its chaos vs. order permutation) into the fabric of the setting in a semi-Michael Moorcock way.
(2) - Inspired by The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, and the teevee show Oddities. 
(3) - Inspired by M. John Harrison's Storm of Wings and Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War. Plus, it's difficult to do something different than Dark Sun's thri-kreen, but why not try?
(4) - Inspired by Laird Barron's The Light is the Darkness and Tanith Lee's Venus Preserved.