I went to the emergency room Thursday night. I’ve got a stomach condition. The test have been inconclusive. The agonizing pain has not.
I came home in the small hours of Friday morning. Since then, I’ve been working my way through Grant Morrison’s groundbreaking work of comic book scholarship-cum-autobiography SUPERGODS: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. It has been an insightful experience.
With rare exceptions – Garth Ennis’ run on The Punisher, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and several volumes of Batman – most of my favorite comic books in the past haven’t been about superheroes, but I think that’s going to change. Morrison’s book has me thinking about the spandex and cape crowd in an all new way. Through Morrison’s eyes, these extraordinary characters become transcendental figures; universal archetypes that in ages past were known as demigods and heroes. The costumes and names may have changed, but just like the Led Zeppelin tune goes, “The Song Remains the Same”. We used to have Theseus, Perseus and Hercules. Now we have Batman, Superman and The Incredible Hulk.
It’s not that I’ve never considered this before, it’s just that Morrison’s passion and insight is so persuasive. It has carried me through some of my own innate prejudices against the genre. Now I’m reconsidering a lot of things I used to believe were truisms about superheroes. If I can find this sort of transformative experience reading SUPERGODS then I know longtime comic book fans will love it.
As some of you may know, I’m a tabletop roleplaying game enthusiast. On nearly any given Sunday you can find me and my friends throwing dice and telling jokes around a dining table. Part social club, part vision quest, roleplaying games have allowed me to live a thousand lives: hero, villain, scoundrel and saint, I’ve been them all. I’ve grown to know myself better by pretending to be other people. Maybe you’ve had the same experiences. Maybe not.
Sometimes chance (or God or the Universe, if you’re spiritually minded) throws a few things your way that feel like something more than than mere coincidence. The good doctor C.G. Yung (a man of science with a strongly mystical bent) called this Synchronicity: the idea that two events can occur that are linked not by causality but by meaning. An “acausal connecting principle” is how he described it.
I’m not sure I believe this. Honestly, at this point in my life the only thing that I know is that I don’t really know anything. Maybe a comprehension of true reality is beyond the ken of a bunch of semi-clever, tool-using hairless monkeys such as ourselves. We’re born to spend few short years under the unquiet, eternal skies and then we’re gone as quickly as we arrived , none the wiser for our trouble. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” One of our cleverest monkeys said that once. Another bunch of monkeys – perhaps not as clever but a great deal pithier – said “All we are is dust in the wind.”
A package arrived Saturday morning: a review copy of a superhero roleplaying game called BASH! Ultimate Edition. Were I a believer in Synchronicity then this would have been the moment that a chill ran down my spine. Instead, my stomach gurgled and moaned. I won’t deny that it all seemed significant – an evening in the ER, a book about the transcendent meaning of superheroes and a game beckoning me to step into the cape and spandex myself – but that’s how our little monkey brains work: we look for meaning in chaos and find patterns that may not exist Is this a bug or a feature? You tell me.
BASH! is a fine roleplaying game. Dead simple in its execution, and appealingly generic. There are a handful of statistics – Brawn, Agility and Mind – and a wide selection of powers that can be purchased during character creation. It’s easy enough to reverse engineer your favorite comic book hero – any of them from Abe Sapien to Zot! – or to invent your own whole-cloth. The mechanics are so simple a child can learn them: roll two six-sided dice and multiply them by the appropriate stat. Sections of the rulebook give advice on how to run any superhero campaign: pulp adventurers, golden age heroes, occult adventurers, fantasy warriors and wizards, and even gritty war stories. This is an elastic system that mirrors the typical comic book universe. When players take action it’s in a “panel”. A complete scene is a “page”. An entire adventure is an “issue”.
Much like real comic book heroes, characters aren’t usually killed. They’re “defeated”. They might be back later. Maybe they won’t. Its creator, Chris Rutkowsky, has expanded his original BASH! (by the way, that’s an acronym: Basic Action Super Hero) system to encompass other types of games: science fiction, fantasy and pirate adventure. BASH! is the best Superhero game I’ve ever seen in terms of ease of play and approach to the source material, and I’ve played quite a few, from Villains & Vigilantes to Mutants & Masterminds.
How many superheroes begin their story with an accident or trauma of some sort? More than a handful. Maybe I haven’t been splashed in the face with radioactive material or watched my parents get gunned down by a street thug, but a night that begins in the Emergency Room, continues with the manic guidance of comic book hero Grant Morrison, and ends at dawn with the unexpected arrival of a brilliant superhero roleplaying game has me thinking. I’m grabbing my dice and a pencil. I’m taking to the sky. I’m swinging from ledges and following the Bat-Signal where it takes me. I’m going to be strong. Maybe it’s like another smart monkey once said: “We can be heroes, just for one day.”
See you in the skies.