Friday 11 March 2022

More encounters from the City of Spires: the uplands

Second in a series of three 1d10 encounter tables, one for each of the three biomes that my PCs have been most active in recently. This post covers the uplands. Feel free to roll on them next time you need to stock a random hex!

1: Wooded hills dotted with overgrown ruins. There are many springs and streams, here, but not all are safe to drink from: some ancient catastrophe seems to have poisoned many of the aquifers, and the area is shunned by travellers, who fear that drinking from the wrong stream could spell their death. These lands are inhabited by clans of hidden folk, who live in concealed settlements deep in the forests, and keep watch on outsiders from afar. They are the only ones who know where to find the ruined, poisoned cities that their ancestors once fled from, and of which they consider themselves the ancestral guardians. Today these ruins are roamed by ex-human monsters over whom the clans maintain a sorrowful watch, believing them to be all that remains of those who did not flee quickly enough when disaster came.

2: Uplands inhabited by furry, bestial abhumans, who roam the vallies by day and creep back to their lairs by night. They have learned how to make crude gunpowder using the nitrate pools in the foothills: it's vile stuff, coarse and smoky and impure, but the abhumans love their bombs and blunderbusses and use them fearlessly despite their tendency to explode in the faces of their wielders. By these means they carry on an ancestral feud with the human mountain clans (see 3), killing them when they can and nailing their turbans to the walls of their hillforts as trophies. Though brave in battle, they live in fear of the cruel ghosts said to haunt the mountains, who carry their victims off into the heights and leave them to perish in the snows. Their king dwells in a ruined clifftop castle, his armoury stuffed with prodigeous quantities of black powder. 

3: Mountains claimed by rival clans who live by herding and raiding from inaccessible villages hidden amidst the scree slopes, their independence guaranteed by the impassable nature of the terrain, which they navigate with the same agility as the mountain goats they herd. They are easily spotted afar off amidst the rocks and snow by the bright red fabric of their turbans, though these are grey withinside and are worn inside out when the mountain-men do not wish to be seen. They are great travellers, roaming far and wide across peaks that anyone else would regard as uncrossable, and serve an important role as traders and messengers between peoples whom the mountains would otherwise have severed utterly. Outsiders passing through their lands are usually seized and held prisoner for ransom, though the clans do this entirely without malice, regarding it simply as the immemorial custom of their people. 

4: These hills are infested with rebels, who raised their standards a few years back, dreaming of rallying the people and sweeping their king from his throne. That didn't happen, and the king's men drove them into the uplands - but then his armies were called away by troubles on the border, and the rebels have been here ever since, lurking in the forested valleys, unable to return home while they are regarded as enemies of the crown. Initially many of the local communities supported them, but with each year that passes the 'contributions' they level on the nearby villages looks more like simple theft, and they are well on their way to degenerating into a mere bandit gang with a fancy flag. Their leader is a charismatic aristocrat who has discovered, somewhat to her own surprise, that she much prefers her new life as a terrifying bandit queen to her old life as an admired and accomplished young noblewoman. Her spiritual advisor, a saintly healer-priest, is quite besotted with her, and continues to insist on the obvious righteousness of their cause even as their grand rebellion declines into mere brigandage. 

5: High in these hills stand isolated villages, whose inhabitants practise a syncretic faith that combines the local state religion with worship of their ancestors. Each family traces its lineage back to one of a set of founder-heroes, to whom they maintain household shrines - a practise that has repeatedly got them into trouble with the religious authorities, who regard them as borderline-heretical and mistreat them accordingly. Their men are famous for their courage in battle, claiming their bravery comes from the knowledge that their ancestors are watching over them. The most closely-held secret of these villages is that their ancestors really are watching over them, having gained a ghastly immortality from deals struck with a dark spirit of the desert: by day they sleep beneath their ancient burial mounds, but at night they squirm from the cracks of the ground to watch over their descendants from afar. After so many years the ancestors have become bestial and barely-human, with wild eyes, claw-like nails, and tough, fibrous flesh covered only by their black and matted hair. They are a mad and bloodthirsty bunch, but their descendants are fiercely devoted to the 'grandparents' who have protected and watched over them for so long. Only the elders of each community are entrusted with knowledge of the hidden burial grounds where the ancestors 'live', and are charged with keeping them supplied and placated with offerings of blood. 

6: These rocky, forested hills were once inhabited only by solitary trappers and hermits, but the lands upon which they border are now ruled by a cruel lord who overburdens his subjects with conscription and taxation. Driven to desperation, a growing number of people have simply abandoned their old lives and fled into the woods, joining fledgling communities nestled in remote valleys where they hope the lord's men will never find them. They have acquired a protector of sorts in the form of a malfunctioning clockwork warrior with bladed wings, who was unwisely revived from deactivation by another local ruler, and promptly mutinied when it was unable to match its current circumstances with the memories recorded in its fractured mechanical mind. Paranoid and unhinged, this automaton assumes any soldiers it sees have been sent to recapture it, and murders any who trespass into its domain - a fact which has so far stymied the local lord's efforts to reclaim his errant subjects. He is growing increasingly irate about this, and has offered large bounties for anyone capable of destroying this mysterious defender of the woods.

7: Officially these hills are the site of one of the local ruler's hunting lodges, and nothing else. Secretly, however, he also maintains a hidden prison here, in a low, mossy fort concealed by screens of trees. Here he stashes those inconvenient individuals whose disappearance he has deemed desirable, who are dragged to the prison by night and kept in ignorance of its location. They are watched over by snarling semi-human guards, who have been alchemically modified by the king's enchanters to ensure their ferocity and remove their ability to speak. Here many people are held who are generally believed to be dead, including high-status individuals implicated in a recent rebellion (see 4).

8: Half of an ancient castle clings to a mountainside, here - the other half lies smeared and tumbled across the slope below, having been toppled in an earthquake centuries before. Once the seat of some ancient tyrant, it is now the home of an exiled magician, banished from her homeland for dealings with unholy beings who promised her knowledge and power - an opportunity whose loss she still very much regrets. Since taking up residence here she's managed to refurbish the flying stone skull-throne that belonged to the castle's original owner, an airbourne symbol of power and terror that has allowed her to convince the inhabitants of the surrounding villages that she's a terrible witch whose wrath must be placated with offerings of food, herbs, and flowers. Although amoral in the pursuit of knowledge, she's otherwise a decent enough sort, and far from the fearful hag the villagers imagine her to be, even if her years of living in isolation are making her increasingly eccentric...

9: Long ago, this mountain was partially hollowed out by a now-fallen empire as the resting place of its most honoured dead. Whole sections of the complex have collapsed over the centuries: what remains is accessible only by clambering through ancient elevator shafts, and is still defended by zomborg guardians, who stand watch over endless rows of ancient, embalmed corpses in broken glass cases. Few were buried with much treasure, but the halls are an antiquarian's paradise, and the cumulative value of all those rings and earrings and belt buckles is considerable. In the uppermost part of the complex the embalmers themselves still rest in cryosleep, though various freezer malfunctions over the centuries has turned their brains to mush: if revived they will mostly come lurching from their chambers crazed and screaming, some of them brandishing still-dangerous cybernetic limbs. Only one of them, an apprentice embalmer wearing a protective amulet gifted to him by his sorcerer uncle, is really reviveable alive and sane, though he will be utterly distressed to learn that his civilisation has fallen while he slept. 

10: Beneath this mountain lies a great vault, built to contain the egg of the Great Worm. At some point after the fall of the civilisation that built it, the egg hatched, giving birth to a vast, blind worm-god crawling endlessly around its prison. At some point after that a band of luckless refugees chose the wrong cave in which to seek shelter, and ended up being converted into worm cultists by the psychic radiation of the monster-god below. Now they and their worm-man followers labour endlessly to dig their way through the innumerable tons of rubble that lie between them and their buried god: already they have dug close enough that anyone descending into the lower workings will be enveloped in the dreams of the Great Worm, a hallucinatory dream-world of alien jungles that the Worm recalls through ancestral memory, but has never actually seen. The cultists have unearthed many relics of the ancient world in the course of their excavations, and will eagerly trade these for sturdy pickaxes and shovels if the opportunity arises. Vulnerable travellers who are unable or unwilling to hook them up with good shovel suppliers will be abducted and dragged down below instead, where the Great Worm's psychic radiation will progressively transform them into worm cultists as well. 

Sunday 6 March 2022

Gender and 1990s comic books 4: Witchblade

Fourth and possibly last in this series, depending on whether I can muster the energy to do posts on any of Kabuki, Dawn, Aphrodite IX, or Fallen Angel. This one's just on gender, as Witchblade had little interest in race beyond the usual 1990s surfeit of honour-obsessed Yakuza assassins. Previous posts on Shi, Warrior Nun, and Ghost here, here, and here.

She's mostly forgotten now, but there was a time when Witchblade was a pretty big deal. Her comic ran for 185 issues, or 230-ish if you count the spin-offs and crossovers. It appeared monthly from 1995 all the way up to 2015: a run that dwarfs those of most of its competitors. Witchblade quickly became the tentpole of the 'Top Cow' comics universe, relegating older characters like CyberForce to the status of mere supporting cast. It had a manga series (2007-8) and an anime series (2006) and a two-season live action TV show (2001-2). And it provided a launchpad for Croatian artist Stjepan Šejić, who illustrated dozens of issues of Witchblade and its spin-offs between 2007 and 2013 before achieving online fame for his heartwarming lesbian BDSM romance comic, Sunstone (2014).

In later years, the creators of Witchblade were very open about the fact that they came up with her because Shi and Lady Death were the most successful characters in comics at the time, and they wanted a piece of the 'bad girl' action for themselves. However, unlike the other comics I've discussed in these posts, Witchblade was initially written by an actual woman, namely Christina Z, who wrote the first 39 issues. Its gender politics weren't as in-your-face as those of Ghost, but it was still pretty clearly about the difficulties of wielding female power in a world built on male violence and female victimhood. 

As the Witchblade armour shreds Sara's white ballgown, her empowered (and sexualised) 'bad girl' identity rises from the ruins of her 'good girl' femininity.

Witchblade had two opening plot arcs. The first arc - issues 1-8 - tells the story of Kenneth Irons, billionaire, sorcerer, and all-around embodiment of patriarchal power. Irons is obsessed with the Witchblade, an ancient gauntlet which grants great power to its wielder... but all of its previous wielders have been women, and any man who tries to wear it ends up maimed or dead. When it merges with NYPD detective Sara Pezzini, Irons choreographs a series of events to try to compel her to yield it up to him, in a not-very-subtle allegory for the way in which powerful men manipulate women into giving up the power that is rightfully theirs. Sara resists and reclaims the Witchblade, and Irons apparently falls to his death. 

The second arc - issues 9-14 - tells the story of Dannette Boucher, Irons's wife, who is basically a metaphor for the ways in which women become complicit in misogynistic power structures. Abjectly devoted to Irons, Dannette allowed him to experiment with implanting fragments of the Witchblade into her body, wilfully blind to the fact that he sees her sacrifices only as a means to enhance his own power. By the time he's done with her she's a monstrous mutant freak who constantly builds up power within herself, power that she can only get rid of by discharging it into other people, cooking them to death in the process. Realising that she's going to need a steady stream of victims, she demonstrates her internalised misogyny by setting up a modelling agency that keeps her supplied with desperate young women, whom she treats the same way Irons treated her: as disposable fodder. Sara hunts her down and reabsorbs her power into the Witchblade, killing her. 

Both stories set Sara up as a kind of champion of her gender, against the cruel men who seek to steal the power of women and the abject women who help them do it. The Witchblade, as its name implies, is the symbol of her power as a woman. (Pop-feminist Wiccan neopaganism was everywhere in the mid-1990s.) It connects her to a lineage of female resistance stretching back through time, embodied by all the previous women who carried the Witchblade in other times and places - a fairly obvious metaphor for the project of feminist history, which at the time was very invested in excavating histories of 'inspiring' women who could act as heroines and role models for new generations of girls. Interestingly, similar 'lineage' scenes - in which heroines have visions of all the previous women who have wielded the same power they currently hold - appear in both Magdalena and Warrior Nun Areala. Buffy, with its conceit that the power of the Slayer has passed from one woman to another throughout history, represented a minor variation on the same theme. 

So what qualifies Sara to wield the Witchblade, when most women and all men fail to do so? Simple: she's just stronger and braver and tougher than pretty much everyone else. She tells an anecdote at one point about how, when she was young, some boys encouraged her to climb a wall, and halfway up it she realised that they hadn't really done it because they wanted to see her climb: they'd just wanted to look up her skirt. She responds by climbing so far above them that their lustful leering is replaced by awe. But the limitations of this as a methodology of liberation are fairly obvious: it only works because Sara is stronger and braver than the boys who seek to humiliate her. That's great for her - but what about everyone else? What about all the girls who only possess average levels of strength and courage, the ones who will never be chosen by the Witchblade as its wielders? 

Sara frequently expresses contempt for women too weak to walk her path, including her own mother and sister. She scolds Dannette for allowing herself to become a victim, declaring: 'Unlike you, I'm not stupid. I'm not going to blame my plight on some man who screwed me over. I refuse to let anyone, man or woman or object, decide my fate.' (Dannette, as she lies dying, replies brokenly: 'I'm sorry, Sara. I wish I could have been as strong, as independent, as you.') The comic is thus led towards a kind of 'Great Woman Theory of History': advancement comes through the actions of a series of heroines, women badass enough to take on the patriarchal weight of history and kick the shit out of it. Ann Bonney is named as a previous wielder of the Witchblade, and so is Joan of Arc. Everyone else just sort of cowers and waits for the next heroine to come along. 

Sara as phallic woman, from Witchblade #1.

Even more than Ghost, Witchblade thus celebrates a version of femininity which wins power by being more masculine than the actual men. Sara Pezzini's only emotion is anger, her only mood is 'pissed off', and her only problem-solving technique is violence. Her favourite movie is Dirty Harry, she loves guns, she idolises her detective father, and when her partner is murdered she refuses to do anything as girly as talking to a counsellor: instead she works out her grief in true macho style, through boxing practise at the gym. However, whereas Ghost pairs its aggressive heroine with calmer, kinder men - 'beta heroes', as they were called in the romance literature of the time, before the internet poisoned the term beyond usefulness - Witchblade, like most female-authored media, pairs its alpha heroine with a man who is even more alpha than she is. 

Enter Kenneth's personal enforcer, Ian Nottingham, a sexy bad boy so over the top that only a woman would ever have written him. He has knee-length black hair and a British accent and he catches bullets with his bare hands and cuts cars in half with katanas. Ian actually does wield the Witchblade for a while, despite his gender - probably because, like most male love interests written by women and unlike the ultra-macho Kenneth, Ian actually has quite a lot of femme traits, including physical and emotional vulnerability, a history of abuse at the hands of patriarchal authority figures, and a tendency to wear floor-length gowns and pose with pink roses. Ultimately, though, even a gender-fluid man isn't woman enough to handle the Witchblade, and it is to Sara that it always finally returns.

Apparently Ian's pay is 'a high seven-figure salary and access to Irons's vast laser disc collection'. Adorkable.

Witchblade is also notable for being much kinkier than its competitors. The whole 'bad girl' genre owed its existence to the fact that, in those innocent days, internet pornography had not yet become ubiquitous, meaning that there was still a market of horny adolescent boys willing to pay two or three dollars a month for comic books full of pictures of mostly-naked ladies. Witchblade provided fan service in spades: every time Sara activates the Witchblade it rips her clothes up, providing endless excuses for her partial nudity. (Later writers dialled this up to absurd extremes.) But it also repeatedly featured tableaux of men and women in bondage gear or fetish fashion, and depicted Ian and Kenneth's relationship as deeply homoerotic and sadomasochistic: in one scene Kenneth even dresses Ian up in chains and a rubber gimp suit for a spot of water torture. Sadomasochism, of course, also structures Kenneth's relationship with Dannette, Dannette's relationship with her victims, and even Kenneth's relationship with the Witchblade itself, which is explicitly described as an abusive relationship in which the more the Witchblade hurts him, the more he desires it. Even Sara's triumph over Kenneth has a sado-masochistic edge to it, as Kenneth pleads with her to show him the full power of the Witchblade by hurting him as badly as she can. Sara refuses, which reminds me of the old joke: Sacher-Masoch meets De Sade in hell. 'Torture me!' begs Sacher-Masoch. De Sade thinks for a moment and then says: 'No.'

Ian Nottingham: assassin, anti-hero, gimp.

As a result, while they feature relatively little actual sex, Christina Z's Witchblade comics are much more sexually charged than, say, Shi. She's clearly interested in the inseperability of sex, power, and violence, and in the way that Kenneth, Ian, and Sara are all attracted to one another precisely because they keep trying to kill one another. She also has a much more grown-up understanding of what it feels like to be fascinated with someone else's body, as in the scene where Sara borrows Kenneth's coat and finds herself thinking about the warmth and strength of his body inside it. Sadly the art doesn't back her up on this, remaining fixated on busty women in revealing clothing to the virtual exclusion of all other forms of eroticism, although it did feature a surprising number of hot guys in bondage for a comic so clearly marketed at heterosexual boys. 

After the first fourteen issues, Christina Z's run carried on for another couple of years. She started lots of new plot threads - a cult, a conspiracy, Ian's backstory, Sara's childhood traumas - but never resolved any of them, and her run ultimately just trailed off into nothing. After that the comic passed into the hands of other authors and dissolved into stream-of-consciousness fanservice gibberish for a while, before going to David Wohl, who upped the fanservice even further but also tied up most of the dangling plot threads left over from Christina's run. Finally it went to Ron Marz, who wrote Witchblade from 2004 all the way to its final demise in 2015. Marz professionalised the comic: he gave it a consistent tone, cut back on the nudity and nonsense plotting, and tried hard to elevate it above its trashy 'bad girl' roots. But he also masculinised it, ditching Ian in favour of some generic 'nice guy' hunk, and dropping any attempt to engage with gender politics. 

I can't really claim that Witchblade is a good comic. Its art is amateurish compared to that of Shi or Ghost or Kabuki, and the writing is mostly pretty weak. Its 'solutions' to the social problems that it identifies are not exactly sophisticated: when Witchblade had a crossover with Darkminds in 2000, it takes the more emotionally intelligent Nakiko just a few pages to realise that the Witchblade's all-violence-all-the-time methods ultimately mark it out as just another abuser, and that what its wielder really needs is a supportive female friend and a good hug. But for its first 14 issues Witchblade is at least an interesting comic, worthy of note for the way in which both its author and its heroine struggle to find ways of using the 'bad girl' formula to assert themselves within a male-dominated world. That their answers are necessarily imperfect does not lessen the significance of the fact that they asked the questions in the first place!