Thursday 24 February 2022

More encounters from the City of Spires: the desert

 A year ago I posted tables of 72 encounters from the City of Spires, as a convenient means of recycling material from my ongoing campaign into something that other people might find gameable. As the game is still going on (and now approaching the two-and-a-half year mark, or five and a half if it's considered as an extension of the previous Team Tsathogga campaign set in the same world), I thought it was probably time for an update.

Since taking over their city the PCs have been spending more and more time in the outlying wildernesses, so I'm going to be doing three 1d10 encounter tables, one for each of the three biomes they've been most active in. This post covers the desert. Feel free to roll on them next time you need to stock a random hex!


1: Desert expanse roamed by nomad pastoralists, who travel between watering holes with their herds of goats, sheep, camels, and horses. Harsh experience has taught them to live in dread of the evil spirits of the desert, to whose wicked deeds they attribute all their misfortunes. A thriving market in protective charms, spells, and talismans exist among them, and the clans compete fiercely over those rare men and women believed holy enough to protect them from the devils of the wastes.

2: A trade road winds alongside the wadi here, watched over by linen-swathed desert giants, ten feet tall, leaning on gigantic spears. They are few in number and serve a human king, acting as his shock troops and honour guards, and demanding a toll from all who pass. The king's palace stands nearby, an ancient building divided awkwardly into human-scale and giant-scale areas. The giants are long-lived and more loyal to the palace than the man who rules it, transferring their loyalties each time it changes hands with little more than a shrug of their colossal shoulders. 

3: City built by the side of a wide, shallow oasis, surrounded by stands of date palms and overgrown with sedges. The people of the city are famous for the manufacture of papyrus: in the heat of the day they sleep, and conduct much of their business by night, in streets lit by innumerable papyrus lanterns. Their ruler is a once-vigorous man, now sinking swiftly into indolence. In the dusty caravanserais the traders mutter that the desert clans no longer fear him, and that their demands grow more outrageous every year. 

4: Here the desert clans have been driven from their watering holes by an aggressive race of diminutive lizard folk, who came surging suddenly out of the desert and have since been conducting excavations of certain long-abandoned buildings of baked brick that lie nearby. Their diggings have revealed walls painted with ancient frescoes, depicting beautiful androgynous figures dancing between pillars of fire. The lizardfolk are mute, and exactly where they came from and what they are looking for remains deeply unclear. The nomads who claim these lands would very much like them to be driven back into the wastes from whence they came.

5: A ruined city deep in the desert, raised up on a rocky plateau. In its central plaza a holy fire burns eternally, huge and hot enough to burn a man to ash. Any who come here are met by a white-robed spirit who asks if they come as pilgrims: any who say no are driven from the city by swarms of mute, dwarfish lizardfolk (see 4) who come pouring from the ruins to aid her. If they affirm that they are pilgrims then she will ask which of them is the celebrant: whomever is chosen will then be invited to step into the flame and be burned to death, so that their fellow pilgrims may ritually partake of their charred remains in the name of her god, whose name is both Fire and Hunger. Anyone who actually goes through with the whole ghastly rite will win the favour of her ancient divinity. A being of pure ritual, the spirit is easily confused by anyone who goes off-script, and quick-thinking PCs may be able to capitalise on this in order to escape. 

6: Desolate dunes roamed by desert zombies, dehydrated animated corpses with flames flickering in their hollow eye sockets. They guard the lair of an undead sorceress, whose body animates only in darkness: in the light she is merely a corpse, clad in tattered crimson rags. During the day she lies buried beneath the sands, her tame bone worm coiled around her, but when night falls she and her mount rise up to resume their unholy work. In life she was a great architect, and knows many secrets of the famous palaces and temples of the world, their hidden tunnels and concealed chambers, having been responsible for designing many of them herself. Now she seeks the resting place of an ancient god once revered in these lands (see 5), confident that she would be able to tap its power for her own purposes if only she could build a temple over it in just the right way...

7: Dusty hilltop ruin encircled by bandit camps. The bandits chased a bunch of wizards in there a while back, and have been keeping watch on the ruins ever since to make sure they don't sneak out again. They haven't gone in after them because the wizards, in desperation, activated the slumbering stone golems with which the ruins are littered: now they cower in the ruins of the very manufactory in which the golems were once mass-produced, relying for protection on the ancient ward-lines that once kept them out of the manager's offices. The wizards have no way of controlling the golems, which now randomly attack anyone entering the ruins, though they're very much hoping to come up with one before they all starve to death...

8: Oasis city ruled by an aristocracy with ash-grey skin, marking them out at a glance from the general populace, who have normal dark-brown skin tones. Each year, the city's emir makes ritual offerings to the spirits of the oasis to ensure the prosperity of his city. He claims to enjoy the favour of the spirits, and those who defy him are dragged off into the night by the Misery Men: anonymous enforcers with jet-black eyes, their presence announced by a cold, damp smell like the bottom of a half-dried well. Among the people, mentioning (or even acknowledging the existence of) the Misery Men is believed to incur extreme misfortune. The remains of an immense rusted tank by the side of the oasis suggest that something was once contained here, although whatever it was must have leaked into the oasis long ago... (No further details - my PCs haven't got to the bottom of this one, yet!)

9: Wasteland haunted by clawed, burrowing humanoid scavengers the colour of charred meat, who sense tremors through the earth and dig their way up to sieze unwary travellers by night.  Though savage and feral, they are smaller than men and do not like to attack except by ambush. The smell of cooking meat will attract them from miles away, and a funeral pyre will bring them in swarms. If killed the bones within them are found to be black and charred, as though burned by some terrible fire, and are filled with cinders where their marrow should be.

10: The desert clans shun this region, roamed as it is by damaged but still-functional obsidian warriors, huge and mighty and almost-indestructible. Beyond them, in the heat-haze, can be glimpsed the bulk of an immense structure half-buried in the desert sands, its walls riven in ages past by some unimaginable violence. Sometimes the wind carries strange sounds from this building - distorted voices, hollow booming, the scrape of metal on stone - but since the fall of the cult of he whose name is both Fire and Hunger (see 5), none have successfully run the gauntlet of the obsidian warriors to discover what lies within... (No further details on this one - my PCs haven't been inside!)

Saturday 19 February 2022

Race, gender, and 1990s comic books 3: Ghost

Malcolm Svensson asked for more of these, so blame him for this. Previous posts on Shi and Warrior Nun Areala here and here.

Ghost was part of the same wave of comic book action heroines that gave rise to Warrior Nun and Shi. She slightly predates them both, first appearing in 1993, but her story proper began with the 1994 Ghost Special: her comic was then published almost-monthly by Dark Horse until 2000. Like Shi she appeared in 65-odd issues overall, but her stories were much less fragmented, tending towards long-arc storytelling reminiscent of the better sort of 1990s genre TV rather than a staccato rattle of throw-away miniseries. This post is mostly about the first 36 issues, which were written by Eric Luke.

Like Shi and Warrior Nun, Luke's run on Ghost is a story about wielding female power in a male-dominated world. Like them, it was written by a man; but unlike them, it initially took an openly and confrontationally feminist stance. Especially in its early issues, its heroine, Elisa Cameron, is very blunt about why the world is such a mess: it's because men are cruel, violent, and selfish, addicted to the power they wield over women, and her solution is to take them down one headshot at a time. Her targets are embodiments of exploitative patriarchal power structures: pornographers who pressure reluctant women into sex work, cult leaders who use religion to amass harems of female followers, sexually predatory businessmen who exploit their female employees, and cruel misogynists who get off on hurting and humiliating women. The cure is always the same: .45 calibre death. 

These days, people often get anxious about who has the right to tell which stories. There are certainly parts of Ghost that I suspect would have been done differently if it had been written by a woman: it can be a very male-gaze-y comic, with quite a lot of gratuitous female nudity, and it does feature an awfully large number of rape monsters. (In a particularly blunt bit of symbolism, at one point Elisa destroys a whole nest of rape-demons with the aid of a bottle of oestrogen.) At other times, though, Luke's perspective can be a positive asset: he clearly sympathises with the rage and pain of women, but he also understands something important about the ghastly force of male desire, depicted here not as some kind of accidental and easily fixable social quirk but as something horrible, primordial, and endlessly destructive. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's powerful stuff.

Ghost has a superb hook: a woman wakes up amnesiac, invisible and intangible in a bathroom, concludes she must be a ghost, and decides to solve the mystery of her own death. As following the trail leads her to one scene of injustice after another, she becomes not just a ghost but a vengeful revenant, cutting a bloody swathe through the evildoers who plague the city of Arcadia. She's terrifyingly powerful: she can control the tangibility of both her own body and whatever she's currently touching, allowing her to, for example, render her bullets solid while her body remains untouchable, or to grab someone, ghost them, push them inside a wall while they're intangible and weightless, and then let go, causing them to die messily as they rematerialise inside a solid object. But even though she can kill almost anyone, she's a complete outsider when it comes to the hidden power structures of the city. It takes her twenty-five blood-soaked issues to gradually murder her way to the truth about what is actually going on in Arcadia, and even longer to solve the mystery of her own origins.

Given the level of carnage that gets meted out in every issue, with Elisa regularly mowing down whole rooms full of men at a time, the comics very wisely make no attempt to present Arcadia as a credible American city, the kind of place where ordinary people might live and work and raise families. Exaggerated urban decay was standard in comics of this era, but Luke's run on Ghost goes much, much further, depicting Arcadia as a Gothic Art Deco hellscape of perpetual night: a kind of stylised Film Noir nightmare world in which violence is omnipresent, life is cheap, and everyone is either a criminal or a victim. (The artwork of Adam Hughes in the early issues does a great deal to define Arcadia's visual identity in this respect.) Several of Elisa's battles involve the destruction of entire city blocks, but no-one seems to care, or even really notice. Apparently Arcadia is the kind of place where a demon can crash a blimp into a skyscraper and everyone will just shrug and get on with their day. 

The airships and the Art Deco architecture, like the 1940s fashions that so many of the male characters seem to wear, serve to anchor Ghost more in the world of pulp fiction than that of conventional superheroics. Elisa's costume owes as much to 1940s 'good girl' art as to modern superhero design, and when it's revealed that the city of Arcadia was originally built by a GLOBAL CRIME CONSPIRACY as cover for an UNDERGROUND CRIME CITY built around a SECRET CRIME MACHINE - a plotline that wouldn't have been out of place in Doc Savage - it feels like a logical extension of what's come before, rather than a random asspull. (In fact, my reaction on reading the relevant issue was: 'OK, that explains so much about this place...') Elisa's twin .45 pistols are an obvious homage to The Shadow, but whereas the pulps 'explained' crime in terms of individual psychopathy or racial degeneracy, Ghost depicts it as an expression of masculinity gone berserk. A city of phallic towers ruled over by violent, abusive criminals is, for Ghost, the logical result of a society in which men think less with their brains than with their dicks.

By far my favourite part of Ghost is the way that it plays on the symbolism of this 'nightmare city' material. Elisa frequently waxes lyrical about her sense of connection to the city, the way that she experiences it as her shadow or reflection, and this connection works on at least two levels. On a personal level the city is a reflection of Elisa herself, mirroring her pain and trauma back at her: it's full of crime and violence because her mind is full of crime and violence, meaning that these are the only parts of the city she is capable of seeing. But on a collective level she mirrors it: she's the city's ghost, the composite ghost of Arcadia's innumerable anonymous victims, risen from their graves and back for blood. (Her amnesia means that she identifies less with the person she once was than with the city in general.) There's an awful lot of as-above-so-below symbolism: Elisa literally has a version of the city inside her head that she uses for teleportation purposes, while the 'real' city outside is terrorised by a demon who escaped from Elisa's subconscious, a demon who embodies everything that she hates and fears about men. When it turns out that, for example, Arcadia is the way it is because it is inhabited by a giant psychic envy monster whose tendrils grow inside the walls of every building, or because it is secretly ruled by a man with the psychic power to induce suicidal despair, these figures are simultaneously wholly symbolic and entirely literal. This wasn't new ground: back in 1989, Morrison's brilliant Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth had already made explicit that Gotham is Batman, Arkham Asylum is Batman's head, and all Batman's fights with his villains double as metaphors for his struggles with his own worst urges and deepest fears. But it's still pretty well done, and the moment where Elisa is given the key to the city by a hundred-year-old PSYCHIC CRIME SOLDIER and rises up into the sunlight, finally transcending her own inner darkness, had me grinning from ear to ear. 

As the comic goes on, and Elisa faces down her literalised inner demons one after the other, she gradually mellows out. She goes from avenger of the dead to champion of the dispossessed, toning down her anti-male rhetoric as she does so. In some ways I found this a bit of a disappointment, as the earlier issues gain a lot of their strength from the clarity of Elisa's feminist anger, but it obviously came as a relief to many of the comic's male readers, who were writing in from very early on expressing their hopes that Elisa would calm down and realise that #notallmen are rotters. It also allows her to gradually escape the 'strong female character' box she's initially trapped in, within which - like many other 1990s antiheroines - the only way to be strong and female is by actually embracing a kind of parodic ultra-masculinity, communicating entirely through violence and feeling no emotions other than rage. (See the earlier issues of Witchblade and Fallen Angel for more examples of the type.) All Elisa's complaints about the stupidity of male violence, and the absurdity of men clinging to their guns to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy, look a bit hypocritical when her own go-to problem solving technique is 'shoot everyone to death forever'. It's thus probably for the best that she's ultimately able to develop beyond it, tapping into empathy as well as rage, even if the comics do lose some of their edge as she does so.

The elephant in the room is the way that Elisa's militant feminism collides with the very male-gazey fanservice of the art direction. Elisa may talk like a particularly angry Riot Grrl, but she dresses like a showgirl - much to the perplexity and irritation of the comic's female readers, who quite reasonably wanted to know why its man-hating heroine insisted on fighting in high heels. Nor was she alone: this was a comic that featured a lot of fanservicey character designs and nearly-naked women, including supposedly 'empowered' characters like Mindgame, a female psychic whose teammates apparently couldn't come up with a better way to keep her from injuring herself during her trances than tying her up in leather bondage gear, complete with a ball-gag. At times this lends the comic a queasy sense that it's trying to have its cake and eat it: Elisa gets to take down creepy misogynist villains like Hunger and Reverend Scythe, but only after the reader's had a good chance to ogle at the debasement of their female victims, who very frequently include Elisa herself. Some of this may have been editorial mandate, based on the desire to drive sales - the editor admitted to having been the one behind Elisa's footwear choices, for example - and one reader mournfully wrote in to describe Ghost as 'a well-written comic [...] that can only survive by the grace of the lead character's cleavage'. But it remains an uncomfortable fit for a series whose heroine holds a special contempt for pornographers, and who repeatedly critiques the way that media objectifies women. In issue 30 a villain demands that Elisa engages in a 'sexy nurse' striptease for him, a process that she finds so degrading and destructive to her sense of self that she freaks out and shoots him, instead. But as he himself points out, he's not asking her to do anything all that different to what her costume does for her every issue.

Interestingly, Dark Horse assigned a female staff member, Debbie Byrd, to answer the letters columns for most of Luke's run on Ghost, making very clear that they did so because they wanted the comic to have a female 'voice'. Debbie steadfastly defended the comic's feminist politics, and sometimes poked fun at it's sillier aspects (like Elisa's costume), but her role sometimes put her in the awkward position of also having to defend things that didn't make much sense, like the issue in which Elisa is magically able to defuse an apparently hopeless situation by kissing another woman. (The amount of lesbian queerbaiting in 1990s comics was incredible.) Her position, as a woman defending a woman written by a man, feels somehow symbolic of the whole situation. Ghost was a comic that supported women in every way other than letting them actually draw or write it. 

Race-wise, Elisa inhabits a world that is, for the most part, as snowy-white as her costume - probably partly because it takes so many of its cues from 1940s film noir, where non-white people scarcely exist. On the plus side, this meant that the reflexive Orientalism that ran rampant through so many contemporary series is absent here, and Arcadia may well have the lowest ninja-to-civilian ratio in all of 1990s comics. Interestingly, though, one of Elisa's closest allies - and the man who first starts her on the road to wondering whether not all men are bastards - is King Tiger, an Asian martial arts mystic who assists her many times over the course of her story. Despite his decency and ethnicity he's not desexualised, prompting one Asian female reader to write in in issue 29:

And thank God, finally, an Asian-American superhero (Okay, so he still does the stereotypic Asian mystic stuff). And he gets the girl, too!

It all makes a welcome change from the endless sexy Japanese ninja girls with whom most other 'bad girl' comics at the time were overrun. Sadly, King Tiger - like most of the comic's character's - got thoroughly wrecked when Ghost changed hands.

Eric Luke's run on Ghost lasted for one special plus 36 issues, of which issues 1-25 were the best. After that it passed into the hands of other writers, who ditched everything that made the comic distinctive, including its feminist themes and its Deco-Gothic aesthetics. Soon it was just another 'action girl' comic book, full of boobs and gunfire, signifying nothing. But for a few years at the start it was genuinely something pretty special.

Next in line: Witchblade!

Friday 4 February 2022

Drunken incompetent regional magnates: the purpose of aristocracies

First up, a brief announcement: the kickstarter for Knock! issue three has now gone live, packed with material from the old-school blogosphere's finest. It will also have a couple of my articles in it, so if you've ever wanted to own a physical copy of my d100 problem-solving items table but couldn't be bothered to print it out yourself then this is your chance.

Anyway. Something mildly interesting happened in my game this week: the PCs were negotiating with a king to end a civil war, which had started when the king had framed a mostly-innocent nobleman for his own misdeeds. The PCs wanted him pardoned, and suggested that the king should instead pin the blame on a different, more powerful nobleman, who was (a) actually much guiltier and (b) a drunken wastrel whom nobody liked. The king baulked at this, which somewhat confused some of the players. 'Isn't he a drunken incompetent?' one of them asked. 'Yes', I replied, 'but he's a very rich and influential drunken incompetent!'

The negotiations moved on and a compromise was ultimately reached, but thinking this over I feel there may have been a disconnect between the assumptions that I and (some of) my players were bringing to the table. To them, I think that getting rid of a corrupt lord who was despised by his own people seemed like pure upside, something that should be easily acceptable to everyone who wasn't him. Whereas my assumption, roleplaying as the king, was that openly moving against a powerful regional magnate - even one he personally disliked - would be something that he'd want to avoid unless he felt that there was absolutely no alternative. This isn't the first time I've felt such a disconnect: in reading discussions of fantasy RPGs and similar online, I've sometimes seen the view expressed that pre-modern aristocracies are purely parasitic, something that can be circumvented or done away with without disadvantaging anyone other than the aristocrats themselves. Frequently these seem to be rooted in modern liberal-democratic assumptions that aristocracies are obviously stupid ideas, and that any society that has one would be better off getting rid of it as soon as possible.

Nice throne, but what exactly is the point of you?

Now, I myself believe in democracy, and I am very glad that I don't have to spend my life bowing and scraping to the guy in the castle down the road. But I also think that social forms develop for a reason, and that if most of Europe and Asia kept circling back to social systems built around powerful land-owning aristocrats for thousands of years, then that probably wasn't just due to some kind of historical accident. When people think of aristocracies, I think they often tend to think of nineteenth-century aristocracies, lounging in their stately homes, expensive and decorative and mostly useless. But pre-modern aristocracies have a function, one that is not easily circumvented before the rise of the modern state, and understanding this function can help in making settings where all the obligatory dukes and barons and whatnot actually have some reason to exist.

Pre-modern life is local. There are no accurate maps, no accurate census data, no accurate statistics: the only way you can properly learn about a region is by living there, not just briefly but for years on end. Learning who lives where, what they produce, what they trade, understanding the social fabric that connects each family or community to those around it... all this requires specific local knowledge, and there are no shortcuts to acquiring it. Under these circumstances, establishing an effective system of resource extraction (taxation, conscription, etc) is often going to be the work of years, if not of generations. Any thug with an army can ride into a major population centre, steal everything not nailed down, and ride off. But if he wants his power to extend into the woods and the hills, the hamlets and villages, then that thug and his family need to be prepared to settle in for the seriously long haul.

This is the service that the local lord provides. If they've been there for long enough, he and his relatives will have wound their tendrils deep into all the prominent local families, bought off or intimidated all the local village 'big men', and learned through a grim process of trial and error roughly what kind of tax burden can be extracted from the region without actually triggering famine and/or revolt. He's probably been hunting and hawking in the area his whole life: he knows where to find all the hidden villages nestled deep in the forests, the ones that will never appear on any official map. His family's grip on the area will often have been decades if not centuries in the making. If you just banish them and install someone else then it might take a long, long time before his successors are able to exploit the region with anything like the same success.

Thus I have made myself INDISPENSABLE!

And above the local lord is the regional magnate, who is playing the same game one level up. As the local lords work their hooks into the local clans and prominent village families, so the magnate works his hooks into the local lords, gradually establishing a network of family ties and legal dependencies and bribes and threats and traditions and alliances that allow him to tap them for resources, and to call upon their aid in times of war. The whole system is intensely local and intensely personal: it's 'I know a guy who knows a guy' all the way down. A really well-entrenched regional magnate can run his domain like a petty king: the royal court can issue laws and proclamations, but the court is far away, and royal power can only extend out into the regions via networks of local intermediaries. In the little hilltop towns that the king has never heard of, the law is usually whatever the local lord says it is.

As a result, for a king to antagonise one of his regional magistrates is a really big deal. That magnate stands at the head of a patronage network that reaches all the way down into miserable, marginal settlements that only a few outsiders even know how to find, and alienating him - or alienating his family by executing or banishing him - risks disrupting the functioning of government across a whole chunk of the kingdom. Dispossessing his whole family and installing someone else could easily be even worse: while they'd presumably be loyal to you, it might take decades for their replacement to get a proper system of leverage up and running to replace the one you've just destroyed. (Remember, all of this is personal - a matter of 'you owe my brother a favour' or 'my cousin married your sister' or 'our grandfathers served together in the war' - and so none of it is straightforwardly transferable to a new candidate.) And of course there's always the risk that the offended magnate (or his family) will simply storm off and rebel, relying on their remote strongholds and local support networks to keep them safe. You'll probably win the resulting civil war - you're the king, after all - but winkling them out of their distant castles is probably going to be a slow and bloody business, and exactly the kind of thing that rival kings love to take advantage of if given half a chance.

So when the PCs in our session this week proposed to King Bahir that he should sacrifice Lord Maruf, I think that what they meant was 'You're the boss, so why don't you pin this whole mess on this under-performing middle manager?' But what I, in character as the king, heard was: 'Hey, that guy whose family network you rely upon to hold down the northern provinces and the border lords? The one whose people know how to extract tax revenue and conscript soldiers from the upland villages around the domains of the Broken One? He's expendable, right?' The fact that King Bahir personally disliked Lord Maruf was beside the point. He just couldn't afford to take that kind of hit unless he really had to.

Luckily, in the end the party circumvented the whole issue by staging an illusionary wizard battle in a desert instead!

Tuesday 1 February 2022

Race, gender, and 1990s comic books 2: Warrior Nun Areala

[Advance warning: this post will probably be of interest to no-one but myself and a handful of pop culture historians.]

Researching my post on Shi involved a bit of reading around it, into the weird, spine-twisting world of 1990s 'bad girl' comic books. It didn't take long for another one to catch my attention - in this case Shi's close contemporary in the surprisingly crowded field of 'fanservicey 1990s comic book Catholic martial artist superheroines', namely Warrior Nun Areala. I promptly read something like one hundred issues worth of nunsploitation superheroics, and now stagger back to report my findings. 

Anti-Pope Sixtus VI, punching through walls one-handed like a total boss.

Shi and WNA debuted in the same year, 1994, and in many ways they are mirror images. Both are drawn in manga-influenced styles, and both are action heroines in revealing outfits who jump around a lot while hitting people with swords. Both flirt with 'bad girl' iconography, while actually depicting their heroines as completely morally upright and sexually chaste. But whereas Shi was an Asian heroine created by a white American artist fascinated by Japanese Buddhism, Areala was a white heroine created by a Taiwanese-American artist fascinated by Roman Catholicism; and while Shi had aspirations to artistry, sophistication, and moral seriousness, WNA was gleefully trashy from the outset. Ana angsts endlessly over how to reconcile her violence with her religious morality. Areala just yells 'HAIL MARY!' and then beats everyone up. 

Here’s the concept: it’s the eleventh century, and Vikings are ravaging Europe. Belatedly noticing that the warriors she watches over spend most of their time brutalising helpless civilians, the Valkyrie Auria has an ‘are we the baddies?’ identity crisis and converts to Roman Catholicism. She then spots an unarmed nun being pursued by Vikings, and merges her spirit with her own, creating a new, composite, superpowered being: Warrior Nun Areala. Areala slaughters the Vikings, achieves sainthood, and proceeds to found a secret order of all-female Catholic demon-hunters, the Warrior Nuns.

The story then cuts forward to the 1990s, by which point there has been no noticeable demonic activity for decades and the Warrior Nuns are viewed as something of an obsolete embarrassment by the Vatican. Newly-qualified Warrior Nun Shannon Masters is sent out to New York… just in time for a demonic invasion of the city led by an immortal ancient Roman Satanist arms dealer named Julius Salvius, who plans to use his army of cyber-demons to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Shannon tries to stop him and gets splattered, but as she lies dying she has a vision in which Saint Areala merges with her, healing her wounds and granting her superhuman prowess. (Oddly enough, the Trinitarian echoes here – Areala as Mother, Shannon as Daughter, Auria as Holy Valkyrie Spirit – are never discussed or explored.) Declaring herself to be Warrior Nun Areala reborn, Shannon proceeds to defeat Julius and saves the world. Then she hangs around in New York to beat down any other demons who turn up.

This concept could have been used as the basis for a serviceable urban fantasy series, and indeed several subsequent writers tried to use it to tell 'serious' urban fantasy stories, usually with poor results. But Dunn's original series leans deeply into high camp. Shannon is trained by a cyborg nun named Mother Superion. Her nun-fu fighting style involves yelling things like 'VIRGIN KICK!' and 'ROSARY ATTACK!' while hitting people. (And, yes, her rosary beads explode on impact.) Her original Warrior Nun costume has three cleavage windows. (It gradually became more sensible over time.) At one point she is attacked by a wooden golem who communicates entirely in anagrams of 'Warrior Nun Areala', and who thus lurches around saying things like 'WAR AURA, LEARN IRON' and 'I RAN A RUNE WAR'. The colours are bright and the visuals are cartoonish and the whole thing has a slightly amateurish air that reassuringly implies no-one involved in the comic was taking things too seriously. And the characters communicate in 'dialogue' like this:


(And then his plane explodes.)

It's also obvious that Ben Dunn is a massive D&D nerd. Demons answer to 'lord Orcus', describe inferior demons as 'low-level lemures', refer casually to conflicts between 'demons' and 'devils', and describe Earth as being on 'the Prime Material Plane'. One character is referred to as 'a level 5 Magic Priest', who went missing while 'battling a type 7 demon'. At one point, the demon princess Lillith is even attacked by an armoured Catholic priest who introduces himself as 'THE CLERIC!' (She kills him one panel later.) 

Even though Shi was a higher-profile property at the time, WNA had a lot more comics - 120ish vs 65ish over the same ten-year period - probably because Ben Dunn's Antarctic Press was a much more efficient comic-producing company than Billy Tucci's Crusade Fine Arts, which seems to have existed in a perpetual state of crisis. These are mostly filled with inconsequential adventures, and endless spin-off mini-series about minor characters: Shotgun Mary, Lillith, Dei, Crimson Nun, Silver Cross, Serina, The Redeemers, etc, etc, etc. As with Shi, however, the core narrative is contained in just a few issues: Warrior Nun 1-3 (1994), Rituals 1-6 (1995), Resurrection 1-3 (1998), and finally issues 9-12 of Warrior Nun series 3 (1999). Those sixteen issues tell Shannon's actual story, although frustratingly it cuts off just before reaching its climax: the next issue, Warrior Nun 3:13, time-jumps forwards to introduce a new, younger, Buffy-inspired heroine, leaving the original story unresolved. (Maybe it got wrapped up in series 4? I couldn't find those.) 

Considered as a stand-alone sequence of sixteen issues, I felt that there was a lot to like about the core story of Warrior Nun. The first twelve, by Ben Dunn, are lurid and campy and fun, fully self-aware of their own silliness: it was only when people tried to take it seriously that the whole thing went off the rails. Both Barry Lyga's Warrior Nun series (1997) and Steve Englehart's Warrior Nun: Scorpio Rose miniseries (1996) tried to use WNA to directly tackle serious themes of institutionalised sexism, racism, antisemitism, and homophobia within the Catholic church, a task to which it was wildly unsuited. They were meant to be character-driven stories about faith and doubt, but Shannon herself is essentially a non-character: her whole personality boils down to 'be good' and 'serve the church', and whenever they come into conflict the first one always wins. Her backstory is like that of every D&D character irritated at having to waste time on background that could be better spent adventuring: 'I'm an orphan who was raised by paladins to be a paladin so now I'm a paladin. Motivation: be a paladin. Personality: Lawful Good. Now where's the dungeon entrance?'

There's nothing inherently wrong with being a non-character if you're in the right kind of story. Secondary series protagonist Shotgun Mary exemplifies this: she's an ex-nun with a motorbike and a shotgun who rides around America shooting demons in the face. That's it: that's her entire life. Some of the Shotgun Mary stories are almost abstract in their pure simplicity: cultists do cultist stuff until the demons show up, and then the demons do demon stuff until Shotgun Mary shows up, and then Shotgun Mary shoots everyone in the face and the story ends. (It appears to be a fundamental law of the Warrior Nun universe that all problems can be solved by Shotgun Mary shooting them in the face.) It's more like a dance than a story. And because of that absolute simplicity, when a complication is added - as with the rather touching revelation of Mary's homosexuality in Shotgun Mary: Blood Lore (1997) - it can actually work. Whereas the writers who worked on WNA in 1996-9 kept trying to write about Shannon as though she was an actual character, and she just wasn't, and it never really came together. 

Ideologically, WNA clearly wanted to have its communion wafer and eat it, too. In one sense, Shannon is an exemplar of 1990s 'Girl Power' pop-feminism: heroic, capable, near-invincible in battle, and frequently shown to be right while her male superiors are wrong. At the same time, she's a 'good girl' who willingly subordinates herself to patriarchal religious authority, and never objects to the assortment of ridiculous stripper costumes she's asked to wear in the line of duty. (It's Mother Superion, not Shannon, who ultimately insists on a more sensible design.) Like the Paladin Girls of whom she is, in a sense, an early example, she's sexy without being sexually threatening, empowered without being confrontational. (Compare and contrast the Ghost comics written in the same period, whose 'feminist avenger' rhetoric deliberately set out to alienate parts of its male readership.) Shannon's secretly in love with a priest, Father Crowe, but they're both sworn to celibacy, and both much too moral to dream of breaking their vows. Judging from their letters columns, other contemporary comic books featuring 'strong female characters' - Shi, for example, or Ghost, or Kabuki - were extremely proud of the fact that they had female readers who identified with the pain and anger of their heroines. I'm not sure that WNA had any female readers at all.

What could possibly have driven them all away?

Religion-wise, Dunn took flak from both sides: Catholics wrote in to complain that he was sexualising and trivialising something holy, while atheists and neopagans expressed disgust at his depiction of Catholic militant orders as heroic rather than villainous. Certainly Dunn's portrayal of the Catholic church was much more positive than that of most other comic books of the era: Magdalena and Witchblade, for example, mostly depicted it as a nest of intolerant fanatics and loopy demon cultists. Maybe he absorbed something other than an epic-level nun fetish from his days as a Catholic schoolboy after all...

The most remarkable part of the series came in 2000, when Chris Allen took over as both writer and artist on the main book for four highly impressive issues. Abruptly the story swerves into operatic grandeur, as Satan comes to Earth, Shannon renounces the church, Father Crowe confesses his love, and Auria's opposite number - the demonic valkyrie Nebelhexa - manipulates the franchise's greatest villains into breaking open the hidden vaults where the first Pope is locked away, crazed and immortal, deliberately written out of history by his successors. (The true original Pope turns out to be a black man, in a fairly obvious but still effective metaphor for the erasure of black experience from Eurocentric histories.) After dozens of issues worth of plate-spinning, Allen pulls all the narrative triggers at once, and it briefly looks as though the whole franchise is actually going to grow up. Sadly, the series got yanked out from under him and soft-rebooted back into perpetual adolescence before he'd even finished his narrative arc. 

Thinking about why Allen's arc worked for me when Englehart and Lyga's didn't, I concluded that it came back to the difference between working with a concept and working against it. If your form is something that tends naturally towards absurdism, like a nunsploitation superhero comic or the average D&D adventure, then suddenly asking your audience to take it completely seriously usually won't work, because the premise is at least somewhat inherently ridiculous. But if you just keep turning up the dramatic volume, then such stories can often attain a level of weight and significance of their own accord. Shannon, like many D&D PCs, has virtually no inner life: she relates to the world purely through action, and as a result she is fundamentally ill-adapted to stories about psychological complexity. What she can do is grand gestures: doomed final stands, dramatic renunciations of allegiance, declarations of secret love. Comic books thrive off that sort of thing. So do D&D campaigns.

I haven't seen the recent Netflix adaptation. The 2019 comic book miniseries was pretty good, though!