I can make this work

I finally broke down and bought a new bookshelf for the office, so I’m rearranging a few things. I think it needs some LED lighting. The statues are too dark right now.

(The rulebook on the shelf that you have Questions about is a real thing that exists and I bought it for novelty value. It is exactly as ridiculous as you think it is.)

On terrible people and my time & money

While I’ve been doing some DMing for my wife and son lately, the last time I spent serious time playing role-playing games was in college. I lost my group when I moved to grad school, and basically never tried to find another one after that. My college group mostly bounced back and forth between Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons and Dragons.

One of the best campaigns I was ever involved in was a published Call of Cthulhu game called Horror on the Orient Express. I have some of my best memories as a gamer from that campaign; it was a tremendous achievement in game design and, not for nothing, was expertly run by our DM as well.

I recently discovered that Chaosium, the company that owns Call of Cthulhu, was planning on updating and republishing Horror on the Orient Express in a new, two-volume, 700-page, ludicrously expensive version for their 7th edition rules. It’ll be out in a couple of months.

Did I say ludicrously expensive? I don’t care, I’m buying it anyway. This is why I have a job.

Well, it’s for the seventh edition, and while I doubt that the seventh edition is all that different from the rules I’m familiar with (and it’s not like I intend to run this; I’m buying it for nostalgia value and to reread it) it felt weird to think I was going to buy an adventure for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu without actually owning the core rulebooks for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.

So I spent a hell of a lot of money at the Griffon yesterday. Because these damn things are pricey, even under normal circumstances.

Let’s talk about H.P. Lovecraft a little bit.

Just in case you’re not familiar with him (although I doubt that’s going to be the case for too many of you; after all, you’re here,) the Call of Cthulhu game is based on a mythos created by the works of an author named Howard Phillips Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on fantasy writing and specifically the horror genre is kind of difficult to overstate. His work is a big deal, and damn near everybody who works in genre has read him. He was also an enormous, disgusting racist, and his racism bled into a lot of his work. Now, when I say that about somebody who was born in 1890, a lot of people are going to shrug. “He was a product of his time,” they’ll say. “We can’t judge people Back Then by our modern moral standards.” Nah. H.P. Lovecraft was so much of a racist that it was notable in the 1920s. Like, ordinary run-of-the-mill 1920 white people thought this guy’s ideas about race were kinda fucked up. Google the name of his cat sometime. The guy was a hell of a writer, but he was trash as a person.

Typically I do not like to spend money that will trickle into the hands of giant fucking racists. However, in the case of Lovecraft, while the overall picture is complicated, his work is mostly in the public domain by now. Furthermore, Lovecraft had no children and his wife divorced him (well, sorta) a few years before he died, so there’s not even a family that money spent on Call of Cthulhu is going to go to.

But the guy’s legacy still has to be grappled with, right? The World Fantasy Award used to literally be a bust of his head; it was remodeled in recent years to a (much better) excellently creepy full-moon-behind-a-tree version after Nnedi Okorafor, who is Nigerian-American, won the award and pointed out that the greatest award of her literary life meant that she had to look at the face of a dude who literally didn’t think she was human every day. There is a long, ongoing, and very likely never-ending conversation about whether we can separate art from artist, but we can definitely avoid literally honoring the artist when that artist turns out to have been a terrible person. If that person is still benefiting from the sale of their art, then you need to have a deeper conversation. H.P. Lovecraft has been dead for 80-some-odd years and buying his books doesn’t send money to anyone connected to him, so reading his stories isn’t as problematic as, say, reading the work of still-living garbage humans John C. Wright or Orson Scott Card.

(“As problematic,” I said. And I’m not going to spend one second trying to talk someone out of feeling otherwise; if you feel like I’m making a distinction without a difference, let me know.)

All of this may be more lead-in than this issue deserves, but I was leafing through my new rulebooks last night and, as one probably might expect, Lovecraft’s name is all over this thing. And I thought about that for a bit, and went to the first few pages of the book, looking to see what they had to say about the man himself. And I was startled to discover that the official 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rulebooks devote two sentences of a chapter called “H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos” to talking about Lovecraft’s racism, and those two sentences are basically there to utterly dismiss it. The game, remember, is traditionally set in the 1920s, not exactly a great time for American race relations, to say nothing of the sexism, and the author is one of literature’s most famous racists.

I’m a little surprised and more than a little disappointed that the game doesn’t address this more directly, is what I’m trying to say here. The newest edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rulebook has a whole section at the beginning of the book about how players of all races, genders and sexualities are welcome in the game and theirs is set in an explicitly fantasy world. Call of Cthulhu is not only based on the work of a racist but is set in the 1920s, when any number of people who might be interested in the game now might face some issues playing characters who reflect them. I can easily imagine a Keeper making the life of a Black or gay or Asian or enby or hell even female player miserable because That’s How Things Were Back Then. Maybe, in our pair of oversized-hardback, two-column, 400-page rulebooks we should take at least a few paragraphs to talk about how to navigate that? Particularly in the Keeper’s Handbook, the book for the person running the games? This hobby has kind of a reputation for being a little exclusionary; can we take some time to push back on that, please? Just a little?

I dunno. I’m not– at least not without further reading, and again I’ve only skimmed these books since buying them– accusing the Chaosium writers of being racist or sexist. Right now what I’m specifically saying is that there’s a huge blind spot here, and it’s kind of made me uneasy about shoveling more money toward this company. I may feel differently once I’ve read through the rulebooks; if I discover I’ve missed something important (and there’s 800 pages of material here, so this is entirely possible) I’ll update later. But this is squicky, and I don’t like it, and I thought that was worth talking about a little bit.

On Captain America and racism

First things first: I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, and really, Episode 5 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not really an episode that can be spoiled, but something minor might slip through here and there if you haven’t seen the episode yet.

So, the whole thing about this show is this extended meditation– and, to put it out there, it’s a process I’ve very much enjoyed– on what the idea of Captain America is, and on what America itself is, and what it means when America’s so-called ideals don’t match up with America’s actions. We’ve been repeatedly reminded that the super-soldier serum makes you more of what you already were, and we’ve had the moral exemplar of Steve Rogers hovering over the entire show as someone everyone on the show is trying to live up to. Left unclear is whether Rogers is actually still alive; Sam and Bucky have both used the word “gone” for him several times, and everyone else thinks he’s dead, but I don’t know exactly what the situation is there.

They’ve done a good job of making John Walker a character who people can empathize with to some degree without making him sympathetic, I think, and it’s clear and getting clearer by the moment that he’s not up to the job of Captain America. But is anyone? Is Sam, who Steve Rogers actually gave the shield to, worthy of it? Is Bucky, for that matter, who doesn’t seem to want the job but also seems more than anyone else in the story to need there to be someone out there called Captain America? (Bucky, by the way, has served as Cap in the comics. So has Sam.)

And then there’s this specter of racism that’s hung over the entire show. Early on, Sam and his sister Sarah are denied a loan by a bank officer. He blames it on the effects of the Blip, and of course they leave that frisson of deniability in there, but you wonder. There’s Isaiah Bradley, a Black man experimented on in the process of developing the super soldier serum and later locked in jail and forgotten. Walker literally tells Sam to his face that America will never accept a Black Captain America– and, hell, judging from the reaction when he was Cap in the comics, America had a lot of trouble with a comic book about a Black Captain America. And then there’s Walker himself, a less-than-great white man propped up by a Black wife and a Black best friend, introduced to a screaming crowd by a Black marching band, and who only has the shield in the first place because a Black man gave it up and the government stole it.

All this is leading into me wondering why the hell Bucky and Steve aren’t big racists.

Now, okay, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: these versions of those characters can’t be racists, and that’s why they aren’t. Marvel needed Chris Evans’ Captain America to be all-caps-and-italics CAPTAIN AMERICA, and while Bucky is allowed his dark side, what with the decades of murdering, we still need him to be sympathetic and a hero. Both Rogers’ and Barnes’ man-out-of-time thing is played mostly for laughs and nothing else; Cap doesn’t understand pop culture references and doesn’t like to swear, and Barnes read Lord of the Rings when it first came out, because he’s a hundred and nine damn years old. So we’re just going to choose to ignore certain aspects of being a white man in 1945 who suddenly wakes up in 2015 (or whatever year Captain America: The First Avenger was set in) and is immediately confronted with a Black man in a position of enormous power and has absolutely no questions about it. Bucky Barnes grew up white in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s but he has a date with a Japanese girl in the first episode and has immediate chemistry with Sam’s sister in the fifth, and never once treats his Black Best Friend ™ with a drop of paternalism or condescension or anything.

Well, okay, he won’t move his seat up, but I don’t think that counts. And maybe you’re wondering Wait, Luther, are you seriously saying that every white person in the 1940s was a racist? To which my answer is, yes, I absolutely am saying that, at least by modern-day standards. And Steve and Bucky haven’t had eighty years of changing society to drag them along, they got plucked out of one timeline and dropped into another with no time to adjust in between.

But, to be clear: I don’t actually want Bucky accidentally dropping the n-word about Sam’s sister and having an episode where he apologizes. I don’t want Steve Rogers calling the Black Widow “Toots,” or blowing the Scarlet Witch shit for being Jewish, assuming she actually is Jewish in the MCU, which is sort of up for debate.

But it would be damned interesting to see a sort of What If? or Elseworlds-type series where Cap gets brought back by the type of person who is always holding up the forties and fifties as some sort of American Golden Age, something we should try to get back to, only to find out that the guy who was such a big hero in World War II is a massive asshole by anything approaching modern standards. The Ultimates universe leaned into this a little harder than the regular Marvel universe ever has; their Cap was jingoistic and a sexist and a whole lot of other things, but it was mostly played for comedy and/or shock value; what I’m looking for here tilts closer into villainy, and I want to see a story where America’s reaction to Captain America is part of the story. They got into that a little bit when Sam Wilson became Cap in the comics, now let’s see what happens when Steve Rogers himself is held up as this great guy and turns out not to be. What if Cap came back to modern-day America and rejected it? What if America rejected him, and said this is not who we want to be?

It’s been fun to think about, at least.


A quick social media note: I shut down my Facebook and Instagram accounts yesterday, at least temporarily, and as such blog posts won’t be shared there any longer. We’ll see if this hurts traffic or engagement on the site; you can still share posts yourself with the social media icons below, and sign up for email updates somewhere in that list of boxes on the right there.

THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER: Early Impressions

After nearly a year of avoiding sickness, I called out for the second day in a row today, and not even for the same reason I called out yesterday: I woke up in the middle of the night with my eyes trying to force themselves out of my head, and that was it for sleep for the rest of the night; ibuprofen didn’t cut it at all. My son woke up as I was in the office submitting my absence and, damn near in tears, described the exact same symptoms I had, so he quickly got called out from school too and then both of us went back to bed.

I’m … fine now? Mostly? I guess? Sure, let’s go with that.

We watched the first episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier tonight, the super short tl;dr version is that I felt like this started off quite a bit stronger than WandaVision did, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

More details, with some minor spoilers (really, there’s nothing especially spoilable in this episode; I could describe it minute-by-minute and I think it’s still as enjoyable): the show starts off with a big set piece as the Falcon rescues an American soldier from a terrorist group that’s trying to take refuge in Libya; this sets up early that this show clearly has as much budget as they want, as it looks every bit as good as any of the movies have. Interestingly, the soldier he rescues is named Torres, which– okay, there might be a spoiler behind that link if you’ve never heard of the character, but he and Sam appear to be friends and he is Somebody in the comic books. Sam and Bucky’s stories don’t actually ever cross over in this episode; Bucky is busy being sad and dealing with PTSD and hanging out with elderly Asian men and being rude to dates, and Sam eventually ends up at his family home in Louisiana, where he attempts to help his sister get the family shrimpin’ business back on its feet and is summarily denied a business loan.

And this is kinda where things get interesting, because the banker blames the Blip as the reason he can’t give them the loan– the world’s population just suddenly increased by three or four billion people out of nowhere a couple of months ago, and none of them have anywhere to live, and it’s a whole giant fucking mess and the banks aren’t handing out loans right now. Plus, you two are, y’know … Black, and well we’re very sorry we can’t help you but oh look at this pile of plausible deniability over here! Isn’t that convenient?

So it looks like the show is headed in some interesting directions even before we get to anything explicitly superheroic; I have been open in believing that the Blip was the worst possible choice to resolve the story mess that Avengers: Infinity War left the MCU in, mostly because of the unbelievable number of unavoidable knock-on effects that it’s introduced. I’m still convinced that there’s no way they can take this seriously enough, especially when you consider that the Blip was literally across the entire universe, but at least they’re trying a little bit, and I’d like to see them dig into this. Bucky is getting some attention, too; Captain America’s man-out-of-time thing was mostly played for laughs when it was addressed at all, but the first thing we see of Bucky is his refusal to play along with his government-mandated therapist, which is very Silent Generation, and a few minutes later you find out that his only friend looks to be in his seventies or eighties.

(I still kinda want to know why he didn’t just go back to Wakanda, but maybe they’ll get to that, and his time there is mentioned during the therapy session.)

I wasn’t expecting this to turn out to be super character-driven, as these two are definitely among Marvel’s more militaristic characters, but so far I’ve really liked what I’ve seen. We’re only getting a total of six episodes, but they’re going to run longer than WandaVision’s did. I’m looking forward to them.

(Oh, one more thing, and just let this roll around in your head a bit: we get several close-ups on Captain America’s shield, the one he gave to Sam at the end of Endgame, throughout this show. That shield in the logo up there? That is not Captain America’s shield.)


I strongly suspect that this isn’t going to surprise anyone, but I have still not seen Alien of Steel, Angry Bat-Themed Ninja vs. Murder Alien or the original cut of Violence League, and I have no plans at all to subject myself to this “Snyder Cut” thing that just came out. If that’s your kind of thing, glory in yo’ spunk, as BB King used to say. I’m not going near it.

On Wandavision, again (spoiler-free)

I think the most depressing thing about the finale of WandaVision, available today on Disney+, is that I really don’t have a lot to say about it, and that’s not a cute way to lead into a 1500-word post. I thought the show started off slow, and not necessarily in a good way, and it ramped up quite a bit after that, steadily getting better until the penultimate episode …

… and then the finale kind of fell flat for me. I have been religiously avoiding spoilers all day today (and, again, this will be a spoiler-free review) and the real interesting thing is that having watched the episode I’m genuinely not sure it was worth the effort. Not that things don’t happen that could have been spoiled– there are some major character developments in the finale and throughout the series– they’re just, and I hope this makes some sense, not the kind of events that spoiling them could have harmed my enjoyment of the show. Ultimately, WandaVision ends up being a very character-driven series about the nature of loss and grief, and if that doesn’t sound like typical Marvel fare, well, it’s because it’s not— there’s a couple of big fights toward the end (if you see that as a spoiler, I can’t help you) and there are some important developments for the future of the MCU in general, but they’re not any of the developments that I thought I might see going into this series in general or this episode in particular.

Was it worth watching? Yes, definitely, and it’s great to see Marvel finally putting some energy into their female characters– Wanda herself, Agatha Harkness, Monica Rambeau and Doctor Darcy Lewis all have substantial roles, and as a lifelong fan of Rambeau in particular it’s great to see her finally on screen. Do I want more? Absolutely, but I’m going to get more, that much is clear, and it’s exciting. And the show deserves some credit for reinvigorating an interest in the MCU that had been seriously flagging after the dual disappointments of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home. You could make an argument that that reinvigoration was inevitable, and you’d have a point, but the show still did it. I don’t know that it’s a reason for a Disney+ subscription all on its own, but I suspect that’s not a particularly relevant criticism, as anyone invested in Wanda Maximoff enough to consider getting a Disney+ subscription just to watch her show almost certainly already had one anyway. If all the stuff that they already have plus The Mandalorian wasn’t enough to convince you … hell, you’re probably not reading this in the first place.

So we’ve got a week off now, I think, and then straight into Falcon and the Winter Soldier, another show that I’m not hugely hyped about but I’m still watching anyway. There’s pretty much something Marvel happening damn near every week for the rest of the year; I just hope I don’t actually have to go into a movie theater to see Black Widow in May. I’ll have both my shots by then, but still. Stream it and overcharge me, guys, I’m good for it.