She Can Fly: This Joke isn’t Funny

The Killing Joke has never not been surrounded by controversy. The almost 30 year old graphic novel by infamous author Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland attempted to portray the Joker as a sympathetic character, a man who had one bad day, but, in foil to Batman, it took him over the edge to insanity. Of course, the Joker’s backstory isn’t what made The Killing Joke the buzzword that it has been since its publication in 1988; the crippling, sexualization, and (possibly) implied rape of Batgirl.

But, in the nature of the comics industry, the stand-alone comic was considered a huge success, winning an Eisner, often being referred to as “the greatest Batman story ever told,” and being one of the few comics (of a certain age) that has never gone out of print.

In the original, the physical and sexual violence towards Babs was meant as a motivation for her father, James Gordon; it was the Joker’s tool to break him as a man, and the supposed illustration of Gordon’s moral superiority over both Batman and the Joker. However, in retrospect, Moore denounced the story as “[not] very interesting,” and later directly blamed DC editorial for poor decisions, including what happened to Batgirl, in a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine:

I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.

So when DC announced in 2015 that they would be producing (what ultimately turned out to be an R-rated) animated feature of The Killing Joke, reaction was mixed. Fans of the original, and of Bruce Timm-produced DC features, were ecstatic, while others were skeptical, considering the subject matter.

Immediately prior to the release of the film, right around the time of San Diego Comic-Con 2016, leaks began to slip out.

First there was a bordering on explicit sex scene between Batgirl and Batman.

This decision was apparently made because the filmmakers felt they needed to have the audience become move invested and Batgirl, and create a “deeper emotional tie” between her and Batman. Instead of a mentoring or student-teacher relationship, instead of a coworker relationship, or a friendship, or even a familial relationship, Batgirl becomes, at best, a sexual object to ultimately motivate the male characters. “It’s her decision to engage in this relationship,” the creators state. However, Batgirl was canonically, and is likely, between 16 and 19 in The Killing Joke, so the sexual nature of her relationship with Batman becomes one of Batman abusing his age, status, and power over her, even unintentionally (also, Batgirl is a fictional character with no actual agency beyond what the writers write her doing). Brian Azzarello even later stated, “The thing about this is that it’s controversial, so we added more controversy.”

At Comic-Con, it was revealed that, after the sex scene, Batman spurns Batgirl, and the film leaves her to pine alone before being shot, kidnapped, and…well, you probably know the story.

Fans at Comic-Con reacted negatively in The Killing Joke film panel, including Bleeding Cool’s Jeremy Konrad shouting his response to the panel saying that Babs was written as a strong female character in the movie (“Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce.”). Brian Azzarello responded in a way that really emphasizes his feelings on the presentation of female characters and fan reaction: “Wanna say that again? Pussy?”

Finally, it was recently revealed that the implicit nature of the Joker’s possible rape of Barbara Gordon is made much less implied, with a scene where a prostitute says the Joker has sex with prostitutes every time he breaks out of Arkham Asylum, but that he did not come visit her after his most recent breakout, saying “maybe he found himself another girl.”

Bruce Timm attempted to refute the assertion that Batgirl is raped by the Joker in an interview with Vulture, saying:

I don’t think that [he raped her], actually. I did not think of it as supporting that. If I had, I probably would have changed the line. I never, ever thought that he actually raped her. Even in my first read of the comic, I never thought that. It just seemed like he shot her and then took her clothes off and took pictures of her to freak out her dad. I never thought that it was anything more than that.

Here’s the thing: Whether he [raped her] or not, it’s still sexual violence. It’s still a horrible thing. So in my own head, I was already self-censoring the moment. Maybe just to make it a little more easier to get through. But it’s still a very horrible, horrible thing.

Honestly, all these snippets of information about The Killing Joke, which was just released digitally, makes me feel like we’re just living through this scene from BoJack Horseman:

Screenwriter Brian Azzarello and co-producers Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm are, at their core, three white guys writing a story about the destruction of a woman; a.k.a. something they have no singular, personal experience with.

That’s what The Killing Joke is at its core: the destruction of a young woman, barely in her prime, and the defacing of her body, her spirit, and her self-identity. It also uses this destruction purely to motivate male characters. Barbara is given no happy ending, no moral resolution.

The Killing Joke did not create Oracle, Oracle came over a year later, and only at the hands of editor and writer Kim Yale and her husband, fellow writer, John Ostrander. Kim Yale was notably disgusted by the treatment of the character Barbara Gordon, and ultimately made it her mission to prevent the character from listing in obscurity by turning her into an even more powerful hero, despite, and also because of, her disability.

I don’t own The Killing Joke–book, film, or memorabilia–and I never will. I won’t see The Killing Joke, and I never was going to, but with the treatment of Batgirl as a secondary character, taking the backseat to the men, in what could have been the story of her power, personal strength, and moral superiority over the Joker, I am verbally denouncing the film. And I’m not alone.

Don’t give The Killing Joke your time. It’s not worth it.

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Game The Game: GameChef 2016

“The Theme is Technology. The Ingredients, of which you must use at least two are: alarm, sunlight, sketch and dance. You have one week to design your game. Begin.”

Chair of the Game Chef Arena, June 2016

Screenshot 2016-06-10 14.14.42I have wanted to do something for Game Chef for many years now, but the Theme and/ or Ingredients never really spoke to me. In addition, June is always very hectic, with my real-life job in the most critical time of the year, plus I am usually knee-deep in summer convention prep.

It is easy to watch any cooking game show and come up with one’s own recipes. But, I am no Morimoto, and the comfort of my couch is certainly not the heat of a kitchen.

In Game Chef, one must use the Theme and Several of the ingredients and write and design a complete game in 10 days. There are mysterious message boards where fellow game designers post. Many are embracing a sci-fi theme, embracing Technology this way.

Me, I approached Technology in a different way.

I am a simple man, and I viewed technology as what it is, and what is available to many in this real world.

Technology as an integral component of the game.

I had this idea of using Pandora (or similar music-streaming service) as part of the randomizer.

And then I recalled the Happy Days dance marathon episode (S4E8 “They Shoot Fonzies, Don’t They”), because they had to keep dancing until the music stopped.

A motorcycle mishap forces the Fonz to push his broken bike for twelve miles just before he partners with Joanie Cunningham for a grueling dance marathon.

And, I had recently rewatched My Cousin Vinnie which took place in a town with an alarm siren  signifying the start of the day.

I liked the Alarm idea.

My initial idea was a game with a setting involving vampires and humans coexisting in a steel town, where the Vamopires could work the night shift. The soundtrack would be parts 1950s Rock and Roll and Punk Rock for an anachronistic type feel.

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Initial seed songs: “Night Time” by The Killing Joke; “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers; and “I Don’t Wanna Grow up” by the Ramones.

3d8a12f2461ff24cb3c39e71677da7c7The idea of creating a Pandora station with these three songs and hearing what songs would be played via their algorithm really intrigued me.

Games should be about the unknown.

Music can often play a strong part in films and television.

So, I wanted to design a game that did this also (Ribbon Drive by the incredible Avery McDaldno is a game that also uses music very effectively.)

I wanted to play with this.

Music would be one of the randomizers.

Music would help drive the fiction of the story.

This story would end at some point in time, a time hinted at, but not known exactly.

Players had to do something before the story was over, rather, they would end up doing something before the story was over.

“A cross-country road trip before reporting for duty.”

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“The man who killed Gramma on her birthday is due to leave the country in one day.”

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“The alarms have been tripped, the police will arrive in 15 minutes, and the safe is not yet cracked.”

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“The annual dance marathon.”

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I have worked with a timing mechanics as one method of driving action in specific ways in game design before, I would do this again.

All of these scenarios have a very specific end-point.

The end is coming, but we may not know exactly when.

Film/ Television Influences: Streets of Fire (anachronistic), Miami Vice (TV), Reservoir Dogs, Before Sunrise, 25th Hour, Run Lola Run, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Twin Peaks.

This is a game. It is a game of narrative control. It is a game about communally telling a story. It is a game about working towards the inevitable. It is a game about audio immersion.

What happens when the road trip adds a hitch-hiker?

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What happens with the man who killed Gramma wasn’t alone in the car?

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What happens when it is discovered the bank manager and the getaway driver are having an affair?

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What happens under the bleachers at the dance marathon?

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It’s not whether or not you win or lose, it’s how you play the game…

I wrote like mad, I was inspired. Technology was using music as a Randomizer, the Alarm was the end of the song signifying a shift in narrator, Dance was the use of music, and Sunlight was the Scenario coming to a clearly defined end. Additionally, accessibility was encouraged. Aside from the GM (called quaintly the DJ) everything else would be accessible to those who might have vision issues. The music and the narration were the keys to the game. No character sheets. No writing. Just talking. Telling a story. Storytelling, if you will.

DanceTilDawn_cover_2(1)And then, I noticed the 4,000 word limit, and I was over 6,500 words. So, I rewrote it, and cleaned it up.

I called in a favor, and I had a cover. I taught myself a desktop publishing program, and I laid the whole thing out.

It was complete.

I didn’t advance to the semifinals.

But, does that make me think my game was incomplete?

No. I have run it several times, and each time everyone enjoyed themselves, one game even had several players holding back tears.

I printed up 50 as an ashcan version.

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I am going to go back with the reviews from Game Chef and clean some stuff up, not restricted by the word limit, but I am happy with the feedback, both from reviewers and others that were interested.

Feels Fiasco-ish (that’s a compliment) but the singletons mechanic is a great twist — love the idea of one player getting to ferret away the Z.

Many of the entries had a setting more closely tied to the theme and ingredients, and that is cool. One entry used sketch as in comedy sketch, which is awesome (I read it as to draw). I am proud of my incorporation of theme and ingredients and accessibility.

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Dance ‘Til Dawn is an RPG designed to emulate Scenarios that have a definitive end. Music will be played in the background of the game, and this music can influence the story as it unfolds, both in mood and details. Players will be aware of the passage of time throughout the Scenario, and will collectively explore the world and Scenario and the conflict(s) present within.

In addition to being an FCC-licensed DJ, I was also active in zines “back in the day,” so if you’d like a print copy, and you live in these United States, send $6 and your address to: Barak Blackburn, PO Box 43, Deerfield, MA 01342.

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I will be publishing it as a pdf at some point and hope to run it through Indie Games On Demand at Gencon.

It was a successful exercise for me, and I look forward to next year.

 

GenCon, Baby, GenCon! T-Minus 2 Weeks

It’s 1,009 miles to Indy, we got a full tank of gas, a half full dice pouch, and we’re wearing superhero shirts.

On, Tuesday, August 2nd, AoG Editor Mike and I will be making a journey to GenCon. We will be making this journey in a car. I have been to GenCon several times, in a car, on a bus, and via jet. The bus was a trip to remember, 26 hours from start-to-finish, and not a method I would attempt again, from the dude attempting to reinstall his OS by restarting for 3 hours sitting next to me, to the total and utter lack of sleep, to the 4 hours spent in Cleveland from 3:30 am to 7:30 am. It was an experience. My first several trips to GenCon, when it was in Milwaukee, were in a car. I will miss the Safe House.

But, having been to Indy several times, it is a city not without charms. We have been planning this trip for some time, and will be embracing the road trip element, in our own geeky way. The trip begins when Mike departs AoG HQ at 0800 on Tuesday, August 2. He will pick me up, and then we will power through to Cleveland, OH for our first stop. Most of the fun times start happening on Weds, so planning the trip for a mid-afternoon arrival seemed the way to go. Why, Cleveland?

More, to the point, in February, was there anyone out there who would have guessed that the Cleveland Indians would be in first place?

Wait, what, sportsball?

That’s right, we are going to catch a baseball game. The first place Indians happened to be managed by an AoG favorite, Terry Francona. Likely, we will not be playing Start-O-Matic baseball, but you never know!

These days, the Indians are moving away from Chief Wahoo, so I will not bringing along my well worn hat from my 1970 Strat season, instead I have decided to go even more retro. I present to you, the 1975 Indians uniforms modeled by the starting 1B for my 1970 Cleveland Indians, the 1970 AL MVP, a four time All Star, Mr. Boog Powell. This uniform is widely considered one of the worst in MLB history.

The next day we will head to Indy, but not before a stop at the Hall of Justice.

En route, i am hoping for a Bob Evans food stop. Maybe a Waffle House as well.

And that should bring us to Indy with enough time to see Wil Wheaton, assuming he shows up this year. Seriously.

Years ago, GenCon’s ticket purchasing system was far more arcane, and Ian and I sat adjacent computers, siging up for games, hoping we might get in some games together. This was an improvement over the system wherein Pete and I mailed in our game requests. but now, the user interface is very slick, and Mike and I have full slate of games to look forward to, from 7th Sea to Changeling: the Dreaming, a Formula De tournament, and many superhero games, set in either the Marvel or DC universe. We’re nerdy like that. And, in one, hopefully we won’t be asked to leave the table for disrupting everything, as we have had our character requests approved.

And, both of us will be doing some stuff for Indie Games On Demand, I will be running games, and Mike will be hosting or running games.

Of course, we will hit the Dealer’s Room, where I don’t think it will take too much for me to convince Mike to get at least one mug full of dice, and I am hoping to snag a copy of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu!

We are hoping to chronicle our journey and do web updates, with pictures, ruminations, and reports of our shenanigans.

And if you’re going to be at the Indians game on Tuesday, August 2nd, look for us in RF, or if you’re at GenCon, hit us up!

She Can Fly: Don’t Need a Cape to be a Hero

Lois Lane is a hero.

Lois Lane is a hero, all on her own, without the strength of Superman, or the speed of Flash.

Lois Lane is one of the strongest female characters in the DC Universe.

Lois Lane is one of the strongest characters in the DC Universe.

Being a hero isn’t about wearing capes or having super powers. Being a hero is about making hard decisions. Being a hero is about doing the right thing.

Lois Lane, the most enduring female character of superhero comics, should be a character that doesn’t need powers to be powerful. However, editorially speaking, Lois is usually relegated to the sidelines, depending on Superman either as his girlfriend, his wife, or that annoying girl he sometimes pines for. And when she’s not jettisoned to a supporting role, she is often forced into dream and fantasy scenarios where she imagines she will only ever be worthy of Superman’s love if she, too, has super powers and becomes some subsidiary of the Super-brand (“Supergirl,” “Superwoman,” and once, even, “Power Girl”).

But that perspective, that many writers rely on when they have no better ideas for Lois, is wrong. Ultimately, Lois is a character that should be written as smart, aggressive, and tenacious.

Even when the character arcs of Lois make missteps–relegating her to a “dumb broad” trope, focusing her entire character around wanting to marry Superman, trying to pit her against other Superman love interests–the essence of the character (from the beginning) remains the same: a woman who pursued an “atypical” and uncommon career for females in the 1930s (crime reporting); a woman who sought to beat her bumbling coworker to the punch; a woman who put herself in danger to get the story; a woman who wanted to do the right thing.

So, the DC Rebirth pitch of having the dying (New52) Superman give his powers to Lois Lane (so that she may become Superwoman), falls flat. While the creative team on board is a fantastic one, Phil Jimenez and Emanuela Lupacchino, the solicitation for the Superwoman series already seems to boast a plot-line akin to the current Mighty Thor, while pushing Lois to fight female villains (instead of Superman’s classic rogues gallery):

Imbued with the powers of Superman, Lois Lane pledges to use her powers to protect Metropolis as the new Superwoman. The only problem is, Lois’ new powers are killing her, and neither she nor her friend and confidant Lana Lang know what to do about it. Will Lois even survive long enough to find out the deadly secret of ULTRA-WOMAN?

Yes, there are all sorts of Elseworlds and imagined stories where Lois has powers, but DC always seems to revert her to human in the end. Why?

Lois classically represents humanity in Superman stories. The relationship between Clark and Lois is designed to have her as the rock that stabilizes Superman, the thing that epitomizes to him everything that makes humans wonderful. She is a grounding device for an alien that can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. But Lois Lane is so much more than that. Ultimately, Lois doesn’t need an emblem to show her power.

DC’s Superman: Lois Lane one shot from 2014 (by Marguerite Bennett and artist Emanuela Lupacchino) not only justifies the character staying unpowered, but also exemplified how she can be a hero without putting on spandex. More recently, the young adult Lois Lane novels (Fallout and Double Down) continue the trend of giving Lois the agency to save the day, simply by being curious, intelligent, and pursuing the truth.

Lois Lane fights for the common man, whether by exposing stories, reporting truths, or by simply being a human with her feet on the ground.

Lois Lane doesn’t need a cape to be super.

She already is.

In memoriam Noel Neill.