Monday, 27 October 2014

OHMCS: The Scourge of St Searle’s

In this short story, I introduce the former pupils of St Searle's school for young ladies, thinly veiled St Trinian's, hence the name's homage to Trinian's creator Ronald Searle.

The girls here started life in the brief for the game of On Her Majesty's Crooked Service as 'Winter Olympians', which I built on to give them a shared history and a reason for being Diana Dare's go-to chums when it comes to high-flying heroics.

The style is intended to evoke classic girls' boarding school stories like Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and St Clare's, and even more so Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series. When I wrote this I had just attended a talk on girl's comics and Misty in particular, and was channelling a lot of Girl's Own Story zeal. I always thought it might be fun to speculate what lives those exceptional young ladies might lead after they left school, and what adventures they might continue to have. I also had a lot of fun inventing past capers that the girls got up during their time at school.

As with the OHMCS short story Ladies' Night, we also meet another of the Dare sisters from our 7TV series The Daredevils. This time it's eldest sister Diana, dead shot with a bow and leader of the heroic family of Thunderbirds meets Charlie's Angels.

St Searle's would go onto to feature prominently in 7TV's sister game 7ombieTV, when I introduced the Girls of St Searle's to the world of zombie apocalypse survival horror. The devastating effect of a hockey stick on the undead cranium cannot be understated.

Points will be awarded for spotting references to Sherlock Holmes, the Frog Chorus, Nigel Molesworth and author Angela Brazil.

* * *

The Scourge of St Searle’s

“What a rotten swiz. The Alps in midwinter and not a speck of snow in sight. Some skiing trip this has turned out to be. We’ll never be ready for the Winter Olympics at this rate!” Angelique sulked.
She pressed her snub nose against the chalet window and stared glumly out at the green valley below. Melting icicles along the edge of the steep wooden roof dripped steadily in the unseasonably warm weather.
“Cheer up Jelly, there’s still plenty of fun the five of us could have up here, even without the snow!” The irrepressible Geraldine, former house captain and demon of the hockey field, gave Angelique a playful nudge in the back as she trotted past with a fresh pile of logs for the fire.
“A fat lot of good that firewood’ll do,” pouted dark-haired Angelique, now in a dreadful funk. “It’s well above freezing outside. We might as well be sunbathing in the Bahamas!”
At that, Antigone Devere-Price looked up from her magazine.
“Did somebody say sunbathing? Count me in! It’s been simply ages since I’ve been able to top up my tan! I was rather counting on the snow to make me look less deathly pale by comparison.” She rose gracefully from the sofa and gave herself an appraising look in the mirror over the fireplace.
“Admiring your prison pallor, Tiggy darlin’?” mocked Clare as she came downstairs, wrapped in a large, fluffy dressing gown. “Or would that be your father I’m thinking of?”
Antigone hissed like a scalded cat and whirled on the freckly young Irishwoman, her hand instinctively reaching out for a projectile and settling on a formidable candlestick from the mantelpiece.
As ever, it fell to Geraldine to act as peace-maker. Reverting back to her days as a prefect at St Searle’s, she moved to interpose herself between Antigone and Clare, fixing one and then the other with a calm but forceful stare.
“Honestly, you two, it’s like being back in the Fourth Form during wet break all over again! Do try to act like grown-ups and get along while we’re all stuck here.”
“That’s right,” said Angelique, turning from the French windows to play idly with the cushions of an old leather armchair, “In times of hardship, remember the school motto.”
It wasn’t me, miss!” piped up the tall Lenny from the dining table, where she had looked up from a battered old book titled ‘Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas’.
Angelique sniggered, her mood lifting at her best friend’s wicked sense of humour.
“It’s omnes stare simul...” began Geraldine, adopting the matronly tones of Miss Ringworm, their old headmistress.
“… as any fool knows!” chimed in Tiggy and Clare simultaneously, then looked at each other and broke into peals of laughter, the hot tempers of moments before already fading.
“But still,” mused Lenny, closing the old book with a thud, “Here we all are, halfway up a mountain with all of our skiing kit in the depths of winter and it’s like summer out there. As much as I’ve been looking forward to our old girls’ reunion, I was rather hoping to get in a little time on the slopes before the biathlon qualifying rounds.”
“Perhaps you could try rigging up an artificial snow machine, like that time in the chem lab?” wondered Clare, helpfully.
“Didn’t you end up freezing the entire east wing solid?” said Angelique, remembering the sight of Miss Brazzle the science teacher skidding the length of the first floor corridor on her bottom.
“I simply failed to take into account the precise ratio of liquid hydrogen per square inch in the thermal exchange pump,” countered Lenny, somewhat wounded that her scientific aptitude was being slandered so. “And at least I didn’t leave my horse in the Sixth Form common room overnight to do something beastly in Annabel Canterford’s locker!”
The memory of that particular incident reduced them all to fits of giggles once more, reminding each why they had been collectively known as the Scourge of St Searle’s.
“I think I was almost expelled for that one,” admitted Angelique, “Good job I saved that exchange girl from drowning the next day.”
“And good job I caught those robbers looking for Miss Ringwood’s family treasure!” added Lenny.
 “Not forgetting the scandal of the history exam cheat.” said Tiggy.
“And the mystery of the refectory fire!” Clare added.
It was true. With the exception of Geraldine, ever the model of the honest, good-natured schoolgirl, the others had all come perilously close to expulsion at one time or another.
“Jolly good job we all stuck together then.” concluded the former house captain, proud of her loyal, if high-spirited, friends. Then a slightly rueful expression came over her face. “It’s just a shame none of the others could make it this year though.
“Well, some of them are busy with jobs, or fianc├ęs.” ventured Tiggy. At this, Angelique and Lenny both blew raspberries. “And some are otherwise indisposed…”
“At Her Majesty’s pleasure!” finished Clare with a knowing grin.
“But I’d have thought at least Diana would have made the effort and torn herself away from the family pile.” said Geraldine, the disappointment evident at the absence of her old dormitory chum.
“Too busy gallivanting around the world in some beaten up old biplane, I heard.” mused Angelique, taking a cushion and tossing it across the room to Lenny.
“With those potty sisters of hers.” Lenny caught the cushion deftly and swivelled as if she was back on the netball court, passing it neatly to Geraldine.
“Have you heard any of the rumours about what they’ve all been up to?” Clare stage-whispered conspiratorially. “They’re as wild as those old stories about their daddy.”
“Don’t be such a sneak, Clare. Diana’s family business is her own affair.” declared Geraldine, her sense of fair play leaping to Diana’s defence, and flung the cushion at the Irish girl with perhaps a little too much force.
Clare had no time to duck out of the way, and was resigned to the impact, when the cushion changed course in mid-flight and veered off at ninety degrees to thud into the pine wall of the chalet, a feathered shaft stapling it firmly in place.
As one, the St Searle’s old girls turned to the now open French windows, where a striking figure clad in a daring uniform stood holding, of all things, a bow. Without consciously thinking, they had all moved to find cover, or else had reached for what improvised weapons they could find. Old habits borne of bloody wars with the wildcats of the Fifth Form never quite faded.
Silhouetted by the bright sunlight streaming over the alpine peaks, the figure was at first unidentifiable. But she quickly lowered the bow and stepped inside where her familiar, and friendly, face was instantly recognised.
“Diana Dare, as I live and breathe!” exclaimed Clare, clapping her hands with excitement.
“The one and only. Sorry I’m a bit late for the reunion, ladies. I had a bit of a hold-up, what with the business with the funny weather and all.”
The girls exchanged somewhat puzzled expressions. What did Diana have to do with the strange weather?
“Well, if there’s anything we can do to help..?” offered Geraldine, not knowing what else to say.
“Funny you should mention that,” began Diana, eying the stacked skis, piles of cold weather clothing and decidedly non-regulation submachine guns lying to one side. “I was rather wondering if you could help me out of a jam. And I can definitely promise you plenty of snow.”

As Diana explained, the St Searle’s old girls gave a resounding hurrah.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

OHMCS: Kali's Angels

In this short story, I introduce the deadly Kali - 7TV's Elektra-as-Bond-villainess and her loyal, lethal Daughters of SHIVA. We witness Kali's formidable skills and divided loyalties, as well as learn a few tantalising clues to her origins which ties in with other 7TV characters.

As with all the OHMCS stories, I tried to build in references to their characters' actual skills and equipment, as seen on the game's stat sheets, obsessive that I am.

Points will be awarded for identifying Kali's roguish quarry, the location of this jungle encounter and characters from an obscure 1970s martial arts/blaxploitation movie.

Note: In the original version of this story, she chops the snake's head off. My dear serpent-loving partner found this needlessly upsetting, so I crumbled and changed it so that Kali shows mercy. I imagine Peter Benchley faced similar issues with Jaws.

* * *

Kali’s Angels

She remained perfectly motionless as the python coiled up her leg. Its green and black scales glinted in the jungle light as the snake wound around her in muscular pulses. Though not venomous, the python could still inflict a nasty bite, and was certainly strong enough to slowly squeeze the life out of her, if she let it.
Kali kept her heart rate steady and concentrated on maintaining small, slow breaths. Pythons hunted by heat-detection, and she didn’t want to let out a sudden gasp of hot air and in so doing trigger the creature’s attack reflex prematurely.
The diamond-shaped head moved up over her chest as she clung to her perch atop an old statue at the edge of the ruined temple. Slowly, ever so slowly, she brought one hand up, mirroring the motion of the python as it inched up to her neck. A probing tongue flickered against her cheek, feeling her, sensing the minute vibrations of her breath.
At the edge of her vision, she saw the python’s great head drawing back, and felt quivering vibrations up and down its coiled length, the precursor to the strike. But Kali was faster, almost superhumanly fast. Before the snake could bite down on her face, her hand whipped forward, seizing the creature just below those awful, widened jaws.
She gripped hard, straining her sinews against a killing machine comprised almost entirely of muscle, and locked eyes with the python. Seconds passed with neither moving, the serpent held out at arm’s length. The jungle seemed to pause.
Then just as suddenly as it struck, the snake’s jaws snapped shut and the coils around Kali’s body began to loosen, its tiny brain finally realising that it had chosen this prey unwisely. With rhythmic, unhurried pulses the python spiralled down the statue to the leaf-strewn floor, and soon disappeared into the undergrowth.
Kali looked around to see if the brief disturbance had given her position away. But with the exception of a few fluttering birds and a couple of hooting monkeys over the far side of the old temple courtyard, there was no movement, though she knew she not alone.
Across the winding pathway through the vegetation, a few stone pillars and lintels remained upright, casting strong shadows in the setting sunlight. Anyone passing this way would be sure to walk directly beneath them, as she had planned. She made a small hand gesture, and several shadows below the stonework responded in kind. Good. The Daughters were in place.
She mused at the strange series of events that had brought them down from their mountain base high in the Himalayas. How an enemy from the world outside had succeeded in planting a double agent within the ranks of the S.H.I.V.A. faithful. And how the Guru, in his limitless wisdom and piercing insight, had sensed the viper in their nest and flushed him out.
The man had done well to get this far, this fast. Escaping from Mount Nirvana itself had been an impressive enough feat, costing the lives of several guards during his flight, not to mention several more when news of the security breach reached the Guru’s ears. Doubtless the spy had employed some clever device to effect his escape, a small explosive concealed in a shoe perhaps, or possibly an electronic lock pick in his cufflinks. Kali was endlessly amused by the wonderful toys the enemies of her master brought with them.
They had tracked him down the treacherous mountain passes, through the high valleys and foothills and down into the jungle, where he doubtlessly planned to use the heavy tree cover to hide his progress from S.H.I.V.A.’s eyes in the sky. That was clever of him, but it would not be enough to save him from the Guru’s long reach. Kali lived to serve her master, and to remind their enemies that the price of standing against him was death.
A sound brought her back to the present. Several pairs of feet moving carefully but quickly along the jungle path. It must be the spy, and whoever was aiding him. She pressed herself closer to the head of the statue, a rearing stylised leopard. A brief glance to the shadowy archway indicated that her companions were also ready and as still as the stones themselves. She indicated that they should wait and close the trap behind the intruders.
Presently a small procession emerged from the foliage. Several men and one woman. Most of the men were locals, armed with machetes and laden with supplies for the journey. They were led by a native policeman by the looks of his uniform, doubtless one of handful of the local law authorities to have foolishly resisted the Guru’s influence.
Influence… the thought brought a long-buried memory to mind. An image of herself, somewhat younger, standing before the Guru in some nameless hidden fortress. Bruised, bleeding, but defiant, her clothing – a school uniform? – torn and bloody. Had there been an accident? A crash? She could not recall. The younger Kali, though that was not yet her name, said something to the Guru, challenging him, scorning this strange being’s authority.
In her mind, the Guru bristled, stepped closer to the girl. His eyes seemed to flash with an inner light as she started with a shock and put a hand to her brow as if struck by a sudden headache. Then she straightened up and leapt for him, hands outstretched, fingers clawed. The Guru took a step back in surprise, then redoubled his mental efforts, his eyes boring into the girl with greater intensity. She froze in place, her hands inches from his throat, her mouth twisted in a frustrated snarl. The Guru tilted his head, as if studying a rare specimen of insect, and leant in closer, his eyes seeing into her very mind…
Blinking, Kali shook off the distracting memories and concentrated on the mission. Below her the procession had passed under the archway and into the temple courtyard. Now she could see the spy himself bringing up the rear, a local girl clinging to his arm possessively. It was often the way with these men, using their charms and gadgets to impress some gullible native into lending their aid. Doubtless she had romantic aspirations for herself and this man. A pity they were soon to be thwarted.
The man himself still wore the stolen garb of a S.H.I.V.A. cultist, torn but somehow stylish on his athletic frame. Whether it was a dinner jacket, a wet suit or a robe, his sort always managed to present themselves with a certain style. It must be in their training. How she hated him and his kind.
The spy seemed to sense the danger, but a moment too late. Kali brought her blowpipe to her lips and let fly a deadly dart, laced with poison from a rare plant found only in a remote region of China. A local man fell, clutching his neck with a wordless scream as the others shouted warnings and brought their weapons up, scanning the temple ruins.
As they had planned, the Daughters took this as the signal to strike. Deadly daggers flew out from the shadows, finding their marks among the men who had begun to fire wildly in all directions. As one, three slender female forms dropped from their hidden recesses among the stonework and landed gracefully on the temple floor. The Daughters of S.H.I.V.A. made their way swiftly and sinuously into the fray, each distinguished from the other two only by a unique decoration upon her sixth chakra; one of ebony, one of ivory, one of jade.
As the three Daughters drew swords and clashed with the machetes of the local men, Kali herself unwound from the leopard statue and somersaulted to the ground before the spy, holding her knife before her. The man seemed strangely unruffled by the attack, as if was the sort of thing that often happened to him. He patted the now-screaming native girl on the arm, whispered something reassuring and stepped forward to meet Kali.
“Kali. Looks like you can’t stay away from me after all.”
He spoke with a sardonic, roguish manner. Was he English? Scottish? It was hard to tell. He fiddled nervously with his wristwatch.
“You have stolen secrets from the Guru, the all-wise.”
“You say stolen, I say borrowed. Surely we can settle this in a more civilized setting? Say the Hotel Assam, Saturday evening?”
How he mocked her. She could feel a red rage rising up.
“You, you are a spy, the enemy. You have stolen that which is precious to my master. Nobody likes a sneak.”
Why had she said that last part? It was if words from her old, forgotten life were dripping through. Distractions, weaknesses. She would punish the smooth-tongued agent for confusing her.
Kali let the rage rush up over her like fire, and leapt in, her blade flicking out. The man’s eyebrow rose as she closed in, no doubt betraying his fear as he twisted the dial on his watch. With a click, a small jet of gas puffed out from the man’s wrist and engulfed her, choking and blinding. Kali cursed. Another toy!
Then from one side a small but vicious fist found her unprotected jaw and everything went black.
When she awoke, Kali’s first thoughts were of her failure to kill the double agent and the dreadful fate that the Guru meted out to those who disappointed him. Only afterward did she pause to consider that the spy had not killed her when she was defenceless, as she surely who have done in his place. A fool, a weak, romantic fool.
The three Daughters sat around her in a protective circle, their chakras glinting in the moonlight. The mountains seemed closer than they had been. They must have borne her some distance back to S.H.I.V.A.’s lofty abode, doubtless to face her punishment.
“Dark One,” one of them spoke, “Word has been sent from the Guru with new priorities. The spy has been allowed to make good his escape, as per the master’s great plan.”
Kali rose to her feet shaking her aching muscles loose and clearing her head of the gas’s after-effects. So perhaps she would not pay the price for failure after all, but still the denial of the kill weighed heavily on her. She indicated that the Daughter should continue.
“Others are coming, and in great force, to storm the gates of Mount Nirvana itself. We are required at the Guru’s side, to show them the folly of defying S.H.I.V.A.”
“Who? Who would dare?” Kali asked.
The answer, when it came, brought a wry smile to her lips.
“Then it is their deaths that will atone for my failure this day. Come, my angels.”

Friday, 10 October 2014

Comic Reviews - August 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1969, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
(or, The League of One Bossy Woman)

First off, I should assert that I have a great love for the concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and am rather fond of the first two series, especially series two, pitting the likes of Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde, Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray (formerly Harker) against the Martian war machines of The War of the Worlds. Really, what’s not to love about Hyde taking on the tripods on London Bridge, doing a little song and dance number as he goes down in flames?


The greatest heroes, heroines and villains of 19th century fantasy, united in one Victorian super-team. Genius.

Love the idea, love the early stuff. Dr Moreau’s horrific ursine experiment Rupert – a monstrous anthropomorphic polar bear in soiled red jersey and tattered checked yellow trousers. Nemo blowing away a Cairo mob with his version of the General Electric minigun from Predator. The distinctly unromantic aftermath of a sexual encounter between the (literally) scarred Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain, a man some decades her senior. Almost everything the Invisible Man gets up to, but particularly when he sells the Earth out to the Martians using stick figures in the dirt. What Hyde ultimately does to the Invisible Man. Marvellous. They should make it into a film some day.

Then came The Black Dossier – an impressive straight to hardback edition which filled in some of the gaps in the League’s history: their clash with France’s Hommes Mysterieux above and below Paris; the long, long life of Orlando, the immortal, gender flipping warrior; Lovecraftian adventures with Bertie Wooster (“What Ho, Gods of the Abyss”); Orwell’s Big Brother and much, much more. Any work that manages to weld Billy Bunter, James Bond, Mrs Peel and Bulldog Drummond into a coherent British spy-mythos without devolving into excitable fan-fic or dry Wold Newtonian pseudo-scholarship is a winner in my book.

It’s the linking story in The Black Dossier which lets the side down a little. Essentially, Mina and Allan, unrecognisable in their 1950’s incarnations courtesy of Mr Kevin O’Neill, kind of run around a slightly Dan Dare-ish Britain for a while with a book under one arm until they hitch a lift in a giant Golly’s air balloon. OK, so they do have some fights with Peel, Bond and Drummond, and manage to steal Fireball XL5’s predecessor. But our two protagonists also talk a lot. Or argue. As do their pursuers. There are a lot of panels of Alan and Mina walking along, too many I should say. And the book ends with some mystic waffle from Shakespeare’s Prospero in the other-dimensional Blazing World, which does go on a bit.

The trend continues in books 1 and 2 of Century – an interlinked 3-part series taking the League from 1910 to 1969. Book 1 is a single contained story - which is good- told in the right sequence – also good. But, and I’m writing from memory here, not a great deal happens given the length of the thing. Mina bosses around the latest incarnation of the League (a rejuvenated Quatermain, a male Orlando, the gentleman thief Raffles and Karnack the ghost-finder). An Aleister Crowley-surrogate cackles a bit. Some bird sings bits of the Beggar’s Opera. And Nemo’s daughter gets the ache and shells the Port of London from the Nautilus. Yeah, it probably sounds groovy and action-packed to you when lumped into one paragraph. Not so much when spread out over 70-plus pages of a comic book. Well, not by my standards anyway. Maybe I’m just greedy.

The situation is little improved in the latest episode, set in 1969. It came in the post a couple of days ago, and having waited far too long for the book to be published, I read it through in a slavering rush. But while the setting is new for the League (flower power, faux Rolling Stones, Jack Carter on the prowl and psychedelic freak-outs), the same old less interesting plot elements are there: Mina is a bossy cow, recognisable only by her scarf; Allan is a whiny puss, recognisable only by standing next to Mina; Orlando is an arse, mired in his/her anecdotage and polyamorous romps; the faux-Crowley (Fauxley?) is a bit naughty, though his life-prolonging scheme is wicked but hardly on a par with all-out war between Moriarty and Fu Manchu, or a Martian Invasion (series one and two respectively).

I reached the end and my overriding impression was that there had been an awful lot of chat again, and not enough action, at least not by the supposed heroes. They tended to walk around a lot and react rather feebly when it all kicked off. I think the problem lies primarily in Alan More’s choice of characters for his later League stories. The group in the first two series was comprised of a militaristic Sikh warlord (Nemo), a sociopathic Invisible Man, an ageing opium-fiend (Allan Quatermain) and Mr freaking Hyde, all kept in line by the little woman out of Dracula, played like a tough rape survivor. But in a way, Mr Moore shot his bolt early by taking Hyde, Nemo and the Invisible Man out of the picture back in 1899, leaving us with the bossy bird but no monsters to boss around. And once she and Quatermain take a dip (off-camera) in the fountain of youth, we are doomed to a visually unchanging couple at the centre of all subsequent stories. Quatermain in particular is rendered rather bland as a generic brown haired young bloke – I miss the grizzled old bugger of the 1890s, white goatee and all.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the concept of a Strong Woman at the centre of things, but Mina’s earlier role in the League was balanced by the absolutely psychotic monstrosities she had to continually stare down out of sheer chutzpah. Take the Extraordinary freaks out of the League and all you’re left with is a group of all-too human Gentlemen (and -women). With one book of the Century story to go, I am rather hoping Messrs Moore and O’Neill take a leaf out of their own earlier works and inject a little more action-packed monsteraceousness into the League, and a little less of “Mina’s Great, All The Blokes Are Rubbish”. We shall see.

Casanova, by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba

A good friend lent this 4-part series to me a couple of days ago. As far as I can tell, the character of Casanova Quinn has not appeared before, but it feels as if I’ve missed an introductory chapter somewhere. Perhaps that’s just how it’s written.

Conventional reviewing practice would be to read all four issues before launching into a piece like this, but you know what, I simply can’t wait. Granted, the fourth issue might just redeem what I perceive to be the failings of the preceding three, but in a serial medium like comic books, each issue should stand on its own to some degree, and I think Casanova falls down in that regard, as I shall try to argue.

When we first meet the titular character, he’s a naughty burglarish superthief, caught in mid-supertheft by E.M.P.I.R.E.,an obvious substitute for Marvel comics’ S.H.I.E.L.D. spy agency. So obvious in fact that E.M.P.I.R.E.’s second in command is 99% Dum-Dum Dugan, 1% leprechaun chin-beard.


Dum-Dum, ya old walrus.

I have no problem with parody and piss-takes as such, but in this story it seems a bit lazy, or at best misplaced. When you read in the back of issue one that the writer originally intended the story to be a Dominic Fortune vehicle, then it seems clear that he wrote S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dum Dum into the story early on and then barely changed them when the main character metamorphosed from Dom Fortune to Casanova Quinn. Likewise, there are counterparts here of Marvel’s villainous organisations Hydra and A.I.M. , one of them headed (pun intended) by a triple-skulled nod towards A.I.M.’s Modok, a version of which turns up in grotesque Shirley Temple drag in issue 2 (for reasons which escape me).

Never pass up an opporunity for a Modok pic.

Anyway, let me see if I can summarise the plots of issues 1 – 3 for you from memory. In issue one naughty Casanova is a superthief, then his superspy dad recruits him to replace his murdered superspy sister. Then Casanova seduces a spy-nurse, so he can steal a tooth. Then he gets into a staring contest with Not-Modok (which just reminded me of the animated World Staring Championships bits in Big Train. Those staring bits always annoyed me – it was funny at first, an entertaining idea, but whenever I pop in the DVD of the series, I always skip over the staring stuff. A bit like the snooker commentators in Mitchell & Webb: funny once, but you can’t really face watching any of the sketches more than once.)

Funny the first time.
Then increasingly not so.

Anyway, back to Casanova – he falls out of a plane and uses a doohickey to jump to a parallel world. He indulges in some pointless French dialogue for a page, then meets a guy with a bandaged face and a forgettable villain name (OK, Newman Xeno if you must know, as opposed to Fabula Berserko, the Not-Modok guy) who feeds him some cross-dimensional guff and wheels on an alternate world version of his dead sister (who is naughty, natch). He is inducted into yet another acronym-heavy organisation (W.A.S.T.E.), and then thrown into a timeline which is almost the same as his original world so he can conveniently commit the same robbery as he did on page one. He then punches the triple-headed dude’s (middle) face in. End of issue one.


Mad Gear beware!

In issue two, Casanova’s dad, the Nick Fury stand-in who looks more like Mike Haggar from Final Fight, sends him to an island to get a guy. Or something. There’s some stuff about orgone sex-energy and a years-long orgy, but you don’t really see much of it. Not-Dum-Dum has fallen in love with Shirley-Temple-Modok, and Casanova’s other-dimensional bad sister turns up in a showgirl outfit for purely exploitative reasons. A gun disassembles in mid-air, though that could be a hallucination. Two naked men hit each other a lot. Casanova shoots Bad-Sis in the gut. There is a page of adverts after which the story abruptly jumps forward in time with little warning or explanation. Our hero, sporting a beard and an unexplained military uniform hangs out (in a needlessly complicated chronological order) with Spy-Dad, bandaged face guy and two forgettable agents. There is lots of torture. Casanova’s white-haired but apparently 20-year old mum is introduced. End of issue two.

Say what?

In issue three, we meet a David Blaine–turned guru character, who Casanova attacks for a barely credible reason. There’s some rubbish about getting a bad guy to whip up a robot double of the Blaine-guru, then Casanova and Bad-Sis steal a ruby from a giant’s turban and there’s some more stuff about his mum. Then we hit another page of adverts and the story jumps again. At this point I begin to suspect that each issue should actually be divided explicitly into two distinct halves, and what we are missing here are a few handy captions like ‘End of Part Four’ and ‘Part Five’ – just a suggestion. The second half of issue three, for what it’s worth, is something to do with a lost island, a tribe of not-so unsophisticated natives, lots of spear chucking, and sailors in stripy sweaters who look like the crew of the Nautilus for no good reason.

Doubtless issue four will make all things clear to me and all my fears that this is in fact an incoherent mish-mash in need of a proper editor will be unfounded. But on the strength of three-quarters of this series, it’s not looking good. The artwork by Gabriel Ba is fine, if you like Mike Mignola-esque cartooning. The individual renditions are decent enough – Casanova is a long-haired full-lipped Jaggerish lad, Bad-Sis has unfeasible boobs, the bandaged guy has nicely drawn bandages, and so on. But I honestly could not say that the writing by Matt Fraction is up to the standard of his other work, say on The Immortal Iron Fist. It’s a case of enthusiasm and half-thought through ideas over readability.

Our main character is a self-serving ass-hat who seems to switch sides for very little reason. He never seems in real trouble, even when Bad-Sis is tearing into him with metal claws. The bad guys are too plentiful, and there are too many acronymic organisations confusing matters. The element of S.H.I.E.L.D.-parody seems incongruous in an otherwise original piece of work. The pacing is off, with characters jumping from point A to B for spurious reasons. The whole parallel world idea is introduced in issue one, but hardly developed in subsequent issues and seems superfluous (why couldn’t Bandaged Guy come from the same dimension, and why couldn’t Bad-Sis just have been an evil clone, a plot device that is introduced in the same issue?).

Most of all, why do I care about this guy and his triple crossing ways? Some of the Matt Fraction’s stated influences on this series (American Flagg!, Luther Arkwright, Grendel) are worn clearly on Casanova’s sleeve and it seems to me that this comic incorporates not only the good but bad elements of those earlier characters – the style-and-sex-over-substance of Flagg, the make-it-up-as-you-go plot of Arkwright, and the wait-a-minute-this-guy’s-just-out-for-himself character of Grendel.

B+ for energy, C+ for readability. See me after class.

Postscript – I had to check to see if Casanova had indeed been published earlier, and whilst there are no earlier stories that I had missed, issues one to four here had originally been printed as issues one to seven back in 2006. So there really were two stories in each issue. Pity they couldn’t have made it more obvious for we silly people. Tch.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

OHMCS: Ladies' Night

Back in 2012, I wrote a series of six short stories for our Crooked Dice game On Her Majesty's Crooked Service, which the guys ran at the Salute games day. The stories were intended to introduce the players to the various cast of heroes and villains that they might end up playing on the day. It was also an excuse for me to inflict my writing on a bunch of unsuspecting wargamers, under the pseudonym Robin Bland.

It seems unfair to limit the suffering to them alone though, so here is part one, featuring the dashing, delightful Daretroopers from our 7TV series The Daredevils. The Daretroopers were essentially an elite trio of fighting women who would be called in by their bosses, the high-flying Daredevils, when a threat called for extra firepower.

As with all the OHMCS stories, I tried to build in references to their characters' actual skills and equipment, as seen on the game's stat sheets, obsessive that I am.

One last note: I originally wrote the story for three male characters, and only discovered late that the guys' had written the game with three female models in mind, so taking a leaf from the writers of the film Alien, I flipped the Daretroopers' genders without substantially changing their characters or dialogue. Astute readers might notice that they're loosely based on a far more famous (and male) trio of dashing warriors.

* * *

Ladies’ Night

May narrowed her eyes and concentrated on the target. Blocking out the noise, the heat and the smoke all around her, she focussed solely on her breathing and keeping her hand steady. Someone shouted her name somewhere off to one side, but she tuned it out and took the shot.
“Double top! I don’t believe it!” spluttered one of the pub locals as May strode over to the board and retrieved her darts.
“Best of three, wasn’t it? That would be twenty pounds, my dear chap.”
May, eyes twinkling beneath a sandy blonde fringe, addressed the shaggy-haired young farmer who was still gripping his own darts fiercely in one meaty hand.
“Best of five.” The young man muttered back, eyeing her with mounting hostility.
“Sorry dear, it’s past my suppertime and I was rather hoping to spend your hard-earned cash on a pint and pie.” Still smiling, she put out a hand. “So cough up, there’s a good lad.”
The young farmer scowled and lurched up off his barstool, coming close enough to breath beerily into May’s face.
“I ain’t paying you nothing,” he snarled, “You cheated, you did.”
The rest of the locals in the pub caught the accusation and put their pints down, all eyes on the brewing trouble by the bar.
“Now, now, no need to get nasty, dear boy. There’s no shame in admitting defeat in the face of a superior opponent.”
“’Superior opponent’ – hark at her!” mocked one of the young farmer’s drinking partners – a wiry fellow with close-set eyes. “Coming in here like she owns the place. Why don’t she go back to her ruddy airfield?”
“Yeah, her and her toffee-nosed girlfriends!” shouted another brave soul from somewhere beyond the fruit machine. “I seen strange stuff over at that ‘flying school’. Weird lights in the sky at night, trees all blown over one minute and all stood back up the next!”
“There’s something not right about them lot!”
The murmurs and grumbles grew from every part of the pub, as the locals began to get off their stools and close in on May. A slender woman reading a book of poetry looked up from her table with an expression of alarm.
May drew her hand back, bunching it into a fist. But before she could take any action, a dark woman in a fur-fringed leather coat detached herself from the jukebox and moved between her and the young farmer.
“Easy there, we’re just here for a quiet drink. Nobody wants a fight.” Her voice was cultured, soft and calm, her eyes bright beneath finely arched brows.
“Says you, stewardess.”
Sneering out the last words with sarcasm, the farmer waved a fistful of darts menacingly in her face. May’s gaze flicked from the dark woman to the wicked metal tips and back again. “Sorry April, I appear to have offended the natives’ local gods.”
Dark-haired April didn’t take her gaze from the red-faced farmer before her, and sighed. “You really don’t want to do-”
She got no further when the farmer jabbed his fist toward her stomach with a drunken explosion of breath, expecting her to jump back out of harm’s way. But April didn’t move, and simply looked down at the farmer’s hand as he withdrew the dart tips from her now punctured leather coat. There was no blood.
“What on..?”
With a quick punch, April smashed the man in the jaw, who reeled back into a pair of his fellow pub-goers as they surged forward, fists flying. May caught the first one in a headlock and swung him round into the second.
Back to back with April, they fought off the locals with feet and fists. Pints, stools and ashtrays flew in all directions.
“Wearing your bullet-proof vest to the pub? I thought you looked a little broad in the beam, sweetie.” May shot a quick glance down to April’s punctured but unbloodied coat. “And we may have to find ourselves another local pub, I fear!” she shouted above the roar of the melee.
“I think this was the last one in the county!” grunted April as she took a head-butt to the ribs and replied with a well-placed elbow.
On the edge of the scrum, the wiry man with the close-set eyes had scrambled over the bar and retrieved the landlord’s shotgun and was even now moving in to let April and May have it with both barrels.
Then he felt something cold and hard and sharp at his throat. A gentle, well-mannered voice whispered into the wiry man’s ear from behind. “I really wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The wiry man froze, the shotgun now loose in his hands, as the owner of the voice moved round to disarm him. It was the slender poetry reader, sliding a thin blade back into the spine of her book. She looked down at the shotgun with something like distaste, then shoved it forcefully into the man’s stomach, dropping him to the floor with a breathless oof.
“Much obliged June!” called May, catching her partner’s eye as she charged past, dragging a dazed local by his belt. Behind her, April was throwing a man through the doors of the ladies and apologising to whomever it was that squealed in alarm at the intrusion.
The bell above the bar suddenly rang and everyone stopped to look round. There, perched on the bar, the bell in one hand and a packet of salted peanuts in the other, was a most attractive young woman. “Time gentlemen, please! And ladies, of course.”
“Katrina!” The three women spoke at once.
“If I can drag you girls away from your Saturday night fighting, duty calls.” She smiled disarmingly, instantly defusing the air of violence in the pub, and hopped off the bar. “Your chariot awaits without.”
April, May and June followed her outside, stepping over groggy locals and spilt pints. Parked immediately opposite the pub was a remarkable vehicle, twenty feet long, like a strange sort of American stretch limousine, though surely no other car looked like this, nor came in such a remarkable shade of sapphire blue.
Katrina Dare climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car with low purring growl. April took the passenger seat as the other two sat behind. “You called, Milady?” she inquired coolly.
The car pulled away smoothly, rolling out of the village and down the high hedged country lanes.
“Yes indeed, April, it seems we have need of you ladies’ skills once more.”
“What is it this time, ma’am?” asked June, “A bomb on the trans-Australian express?”
“A tidal wave bearing down on the royal yacht?” hazarded May.
“Swarm of army ants marching on Rio, perhaps?” April added, with a tinge of dark humour.
“Not quite that exotic, but something that definitely requires the particular abilities of the Daretroopers.” Katrina took the strange car confidently down a winding lane, its sides brushing the hedges on either side. A break in the foliage ahead suggested a field entrance.
“You know of course of S.H.I.V.A.?” The three women nodded. “Well, it seems the Guru is up to another mad scheme, something which would explain the strange weather we’ve been tracking worldwide.
“Where do you need us, ma’am?” April braced herself as Katrina steered the vehicle sharply at the break in the hedge and down a short track. Ahead of them loomed a sturdy chain-link fence and a pair of locked gates, from which hung a sign bearing the words ‘DARE FLYING SCHOOL. CLOSED DUE TO INCLEMENT WEATHER.’
“I need you three to take a little flight with me. I hope you’ve all kept up with your parachute training. We’re going to be dropping in on the Guru and his friends.”
She put her foot down and accelerated towards the chain-link gates. The women all grabbed onto something, even though they knew what was coming. At a touch of a button on the car’s dashboard, the gates suddenly fell backwards to lie flat on the ground, just as the vehicle streaked through the gap and rattled over the metalwork into the airfield.
“I will never get used to that.” muttered May. June raised her eyebrows in agreement. Katrina was a Daredevil by nature as well as name.
As she briefed them, Katrina drove the car at breakneck speed over the grassy airfield to a low hangar whose doors swung back and forth in the wind. She brought it to a skidding halt just inside, leaping out and racing toward the hulk of an old aeroplane resting in the centre of the hangar.
“I say, we’re not going in that, are we?” asked June, trotting behind her with the others. The aeroplane was little more than a metal skeleton, the remains of an old Lancaster bomber.
“To begin with yes,” replied Katrina as she clambered up into the cockpit “It’s something Charlie’s been working on.”
“But, it doesn’t even have any wings!” April scowled at the hulk suspiciously, but had long come to accept that there was often more to the Dares’ vehicles than met the eye.
Sure enough, no sooner had they all climbed aboard the wingless bomber than it tilted forward alarmingly on hidden hydraulics, even as the hangar floor itself dropped away to reveal a dark sloping tunnel, complete with tracks large enough to accommodate the Lancaster’s fuselage.
Their stomachs collectively lurched as the bomber slid down the tunnel with increasing speed, the smooth round walls flashing by them in a blur.
Somehow, without the Daretroopers noticing, Katrina had managed to change into her uniform as they whizzed along to catch a very special connecting flight.
“How did you..?” began May, but then the bomber burst out of the tunnel to emerge into the Daredevil’s secret base, where land, sea and air vehicles of the most fantastic designs stood ready to launch.

Katrina was already out of her seat and sprinting across the floor. “Next stop: the Himalayas!”