Saturday, February 14, 2009
As a reader and a writer, I have several obsessions, ideas and themes I return to again and again. Multiple realities and alternate histories. Masked avengers and heroic legacies. Immortal swordsmen and daring explorers. But one of my obsessions as a reader has been little exercised as a writer, until now.
I've always had a fondness for what I like to call "Secret Services," clandestine government agencies tasked with investigating and policing the supernatural. Last fall, after rereading all of Mike Mignola's Hellboy and its related series with its BPRD, and watching with my daughter the first episodes of Jay Stephens's sublime Secret Saturdays (which ironically doesn't make my list, as the Saturdays don't appear to have any connection with the government, clandestine or otherwise), I got a wild hair. I would track down all of the examples of Secret Services I could find on my shelves, and profile each of them on my blog.
I figured that it would probably take me a few weeks to get through them all. Ha. Ha ha.
Now, months later, I've finally reached the end of my completely arbitrary analysis of Secret Services, ending with my own contribution to the list, MI8 as seen in my new novel End of the Century. And here they all are, for your delectation and diversion.
- The Guardians
- Department 7
- Bureau 13
- Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense
- Vector 13
- The Diogenes Club
- Delta Green
- The Hellsing Organization
- Section Zero
- The Laundry
- Department Q
- Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management
- The Lodge
- Occult Crimes Taskforce
Friday, February 13, 2009
Secret Services: MI8
I first started writing about MI8 ten or so years ago, when I first started putting together the Bonaventure-Carmody family. Diana Bonaventure, the mother of Jon Bonaventure Carmody and the aunt of Here, There & Everywhere's Roxanne Bonaventure, was briefly mentioned to be an agent of MI8 in the story "Secret Histories: Jake Carmody, 1961." Then in the vignette "The Funeral Affair," Spencer Finch's uncle Sterling says that he was once an MI8 agent before going off to work for the UN--but no one saw that story until I put it online here recently.
Aside from a few quick references in the out-of-print Cybermancy Incorporated, readers haven't seen much of MI8, but I've been quietly noddling away with them over the years, working out the agency's origins and history, its operations and agents, gradually adding detail to the fairly skeletal original conception.
Finally, this month, I've put some of that detail on display in the pages of End of the Century.
WARNING: Spoilers lurk beyond. Minor spoilers, to be fair, and nothing that regular readers of the Ramble wouldn't have already worked out on their own. But if you're the kind of reader who prefers to approach stories completely cold, best to stop reading now and run right out and buy a copy of End of the Century. This post will still be here when you get done.
Now, for those of you who are left, here's a little glimpse behind the scenes at my process. Years ago, inspired by something Tobias Buckell had said on his blog, I set up a personal wiki database for my research and worldbuilding. Rather than just littering my harddrive with Word documents and text files, and filling my closet with countless notebooks filled with my barely legible scrawl, I started to systematize my process. I created gazetteers for the fictional settings I worked up, detailed "Who's Who" entries for each of the characters (or "Official Handbook" entries, if you prefer), annotated chronologies and timelines. Now, a few years on, the research database is massive, with subsections for the Bonaventure-Carmody stories and the Celestial Empire, as well as "series bibles" for the space opera and epic fantasy I've been writing in my spare time.
Following is the entry for MI8 in the research database, including some background and detail that doesn't get revealed in End of the Century. (Those who know something of my process know that I do ridiculous amounts of research for everything, and this is no exception. I think I read something like seven or eight biographies and histories just for the first two paragraphs of this write-up alone.)
HistoryLongtime readers of the Ramble may recall a few years ago when I revealed that, having always assumed that I'd just made MI8 up out of whole cloth, I discovered quite back accident that there actually was an MI8 during WWII. Here's what I said at the time.
During the Second World War, the Y Services of the armed forces and the Signals Intelligence Directorate of the Special Operations Executive began to intercept German wireless traffic encrypted with some new code. Ultimately, the SID and the cryptographers at Bletchley Park were able to decode these transmissions, which were revealed to contain information about top secret investigations carried out by the SS Ahnenerbe. These were immediately classified Above Top Secret. The Ahnenerbe, it was discovered, was involved in attempting to establish communications with intelligences in another plane of existence, another universe separate from our own. Operatives of the SOE were dispatched to intefere with these plans.
When the Special Operations Executive was dissolved on January 15, 1946, a secret charter was issued to continue the work of the former Signals Intelligence Directorate, now secretly Special Intelligence Directorate and known by the unofficial title used throughout the war, MI8. The new organization was tasked with policing matters considered too sensitive even to reveal to the other British intelligence services. It came of the Signals Directorate of SOE, which was responsible for signals intelligence and cryptography in the war, began to pick up strange communications during the war years. The Y Services of the armed forces were eventually instructed to divert messages on certain topics unread directly to the Signals Directorate. So from 1946 onwards, MI8 dealt with threats that were unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad.
The head of MI8 is referred to by the codename "D".
Officers of MI8 are unofficially called "Rooks". They are referred to as "Rook One," "Rook Two", and so on. There are typically three
Diana Bonaventure Carmody
From its inception in 1946, MI8 was headquartered in the disused Tower of London underground station. In 1967, when the Tower Hill station was rebuilt, it was put about that the remains of the old station had been destroyed, when in fact they'd merely been more heavily fortified. With the end of the Cold War, the focus of MI8 was changed, and the organization was relocated to offices in a commercial building.
I love the internet. A few years ago, I included an offhand reference in my novel Cybermany Incorporated to a secret British intelligence agency, MI8, operating in the 1960s. Diana Bonaventure was one of the agency's operatives, and in the chapter in question she came into contact with her American counterpart, Jake Carmody, agent of Bureau Zero. Like MI8, the Bureau "handled matters unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad." (This is the Diana Bonaventure, incidentally, who appears briefly in the first chapter of Here, There & Everywhere.) Familiar territory, and I don't kid myself I'm even among the first few hundred to have mined this particular vein. Kim Newman's Diogenes Club was an obvious inspiration, and Charles Stross's later Laundry stories captured much the same vibe.Well, as it happens the mention about MI8 being based in Devonshire House appeared to be in error, upon further investigation, but you get the idea. (The "this photo" link is dead now, as well, so I've left it out. But there's loads about that Devonshire House Ball on July 2, 1897 in End of the Century, even so.)
In any event, Stillman Waters, one of the supporting characters in the forthcoming End of the Century, is intended to be another operative of MI8. It occurred to me this morning, though, while walking my daughter, that I'd been a callow, ignorant kid when I coined the name of the agency, thinking it amusing to think there'd be an intelligence agency two steps beyond MI6, three steps beyond MI5. I'd done some cursory research at the time, which suggested that the sections of Military Intelligence stopped at six, but never delved into it deeply. So I figured I'd check before I got stuck too deep in writing the new book.
Well, it turns out I was wrong, and that there was in fact an MI8 in the days of WWII (and, in fact, sections all the way up to nineteen, at least, with lettered sections beyond). But the remit of Military Intelligence Section Eight, listening for enemy radio broadcasts--signal intelligence, essentially--actually fit well into the backstory of my secret agency, and served to provide a nice bit of historical grounding. Some research turns up the fact that MI8 was headquartered in Devonshire House in Piccadilly in the war years. I recognize the name, but don't know too much about it.
A bit of googling reveals that Devonshire House refers to a block of offices facing Piccadilly, named for the residence of the Duke of Devonshire, demolished in the 1920s. For 200 years, the original Devonshire House was a fixture of London society life. Then I stumbled upon an amazing collection of photos, documenting the Devonshire House Ball in 1897.
And then I started jumping around the kitchen, waving my arms and shouting like a lunatic. In a good way.
Without going into any spoiler-level detail, End of the Century takes place in three time periods: fifth century CE, 1897, and 1999. Romanized Britons crowd the scene in 498CE; Sandford Blank, Roxanne Bonaventure, Lord Arthur Carmody, and W.B. "Little Bill" Taylor are featured players during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria; and Samantha Lake and Stillman Waters scramble around the streets of millennial London.
In the outline for the 1897 sections of the plot, there are several scenes involving Victorian-era British socialites dressing up like King Arthur and his knights. This bit was strongly inspired by the photos of Julia Margaret Cameron, possibly best known for her shots she did illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Cameron had been dead for some time before the events of the novel, but I'd solved that minor difficulty by introducing another photographer who was following her example.
Then the aforementioned googling led me to this photo. Of a British peer. Dressed as a Knight of the Round Table. At a party in 1897. On July 2nd, to be exact.
MI8 is my take on the whole "Secret Services" trope. Well, one of two, to be precise, with Bureau Zero being the other. Well, then there's also the French agency, Cabinet Noir. And the Strangers, another British outfit. Okay, MI8 is one of several Secret Services in the Bonaventure-Carmody world.
If you're interested in reading more about MI8, though, you'll want to pick up End of the Century, in stores now (and online, too!). Heck, if you're interested in Bureau Zero, or the Cabinet Noir, or the Strangers, or any of the others, you'll want to pick it up, too, since healthy sales on this one will help ensure that I'll get a chance to write all those other stories.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Secret Services: Occult Crimes Taskforce
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A young attractive law enforcement agent accidentally stumbles across the supernatural, and ends up recruited into a shadowy organization that polices things beyond the reach of mundane agencies. Sound a little bit familiar?
Yes, the introduction covers very familiar ground. And it's not hard to imagine that the four-issue miniseries itself was designed as a film-pitch-with-pictures in the first place. But they are very nice pictures, and the attention to detail in the world building and magic systems and such is all but staggering.
The set-up goes like this. NYPD officer Sophia Ortiz has an encounter with a serial killer who seems more interested in the souls of its victims than their bodies, gets put on suspension when she refuses to let the matter drop, and is reassigned to a clandestine division of the New York Police Department that she never knew existed--the Occult Crimes Taskforce. She learns that there was a reason that the Indians were willing to sell Manhattan for a handful of beads--the island is an "extant," a place where our universe overlaps with another. The job of the Taskforce is to police that overlap, and to make sure that no one from the other universe wanders into ours (and vice versa). She also learns that her father was secretly one of the OCT's officers, is partnered with a guy who may or may not be a fallen angel by her ghost sergeant, and set about hunting down the serial killer in earnest.
Dawson is clearly the physical model for the character of Ortiz, and Shasteen's art seems to be heavily photo-referenced. There is a nice fluidity to Shasteen's panel-to-panel transitions, though, that is often lacking in photo-referenced comics, and he's got a knack for making the panels themselves look like comic panels and not film stills.
The narrative itself is somewhat compressed, almost as if six issues worth of script had been shoehorned into four issues by taking out every third page. It reads well enough, but some of the transitions can seem a little sudden.
But, as I said, as much as I like Shasteen's art, it's really in the world building aspect that the book appealed to me. Each issue of the miniseries ends with a few pages from the "Occult Crimes Taskforce Officer Training Manual." These are jam-packed with interesting insight into this world, how magic works in it, and just what it means that Manhattan is an "extant."
Here are the backup pages from the first issue, to give you an idea what I'm talking about.
The miniseries has been collected in a trade paperback, and individual issues aren't too difficult to find, as well.
Monday, February 09, 2009
Secret Services: The Lodge
Image has really become Secret Services central these days. They've got The Perhapanauts with BEDLAM, the Occult Crimes Taskforce (about which more shortly), and Proof with its Secret Service, the Lodge.
What is the Lodge?
Well, here's how the book was encapsulated in the pages of the recent Monster Pile-Up.
In 1969, government agents captured Bigfoot. Far from being an ignorant savage, Bigfoot was smarter and more sophisticated than his human captors. Three years later the United States and Canada formed a special task force to find and protect other "cryptids": endangered animals that may not actually exist. This task force is called the Lodge and its star agent is Bigfoot. He now goes by the name Proof.On the pages of Grecian's website there's a slightly more thematic description of the series:
Between the world we know and the world we don't want to know about, there are endangered species that the scientific community refuses to recognize.So that's the Lodge in a nutshell. Secret government agency, dedicated to locating and protecting monsters, with Bigfoot as their principle field agent.
Who's watching The Loch Ness Monster?
Or the dinosaurs hidden deep in the African jungle?
Or the Puerto Rican Chupacabra?
Special Agent John "Proof" Prufrock, also known as Bigfoot, works for The Lodge, an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting "monsters" from the threat of humanity.
If you believe in monsters, you need Proof.
The series Proof opens with an FBI agent, Ginger Brown, encountering something in the course of a seemingly routine hostage negotiation that defies description--a golem. Agent Brown dutifully reports this to her superior officer, who thinks she's stressed and hallucinating and gives her a few days off to get her head together. She spends her free time investigating the golem, and when she gets back to the office finds herself with a new assignment, and orders to report to something called "the Lodge."
(A young attractive law enforcement agent accidentally stumbles across the supernatural, and ends up recruited into a shadowy organization that polices things beyond the reach of mundane agencies. Quick, as I describing Proof? Or Torchwood? Or Ultraviolet? Or maybe Occult Crimes Taskforce? Okay, that last one wasn't fair, since I haven't yet got around to summarizing Occult Crimes Taskforce, but you get the gist. This is pretty familiar territory to anyone who's read more than a few of these Secret Services. Proof goes them one better, though, by quickly introducing another law enforcement agent who accidentally stumbles across the supernatural and ends up recruited by the Lodge, and sets him up as a potential love interest for Ginger.)
The star of the book, in more ways than one, is John "Proof" Prufrock, the Bigfoot. Back in his "circus days" he was known as Gulliver, but we still know very little about his background. We've learned that he was discovered by Lewis & Clark in 1805, and brought back to President Thomas Jefferson, who would go on to raise the young Bigfoot, teaching him manners and decorum. Just what happened between the time he left Jefferson's care and was "captured" by government agents in 1969, we don't know, but it likely involved the search for more of his own kind. Proof has yet to meet another Bigfoot, though tantalizing clues have been dropped as the series progresses about what the others might be like.
There are echoes of other Secret Services in Proof. The "monster-hunting monster as agent of shadowy government agency" is certainly reminiscent of Hellboy and the BPRD, and of Big(foot) and BEDLAM for that matter. The notion of hunting down the "real" animals and beings behind crytozoological reports is similar to the mission statements of Section Zero and BEDLAM (and Cartoon Network's Secret Saturdays, as well, which was one of the catalysts for this rundown of secret services in the first place). But for all of that, I think that Grecian and Rossmo manage to make the idea their own, and make Proof very much its own book.
I think part of the appeal is that the creators of the book have put a lot of care and thought into working out the mechanics of their hidden world. Here's now Grecian describes it in the introduction to the first trade collection:
That's what sets Proof apart from all the other books in which people interact with monsters... Everything between the covers of Proof could happen, could exist. Okay, we'll admit that it's all more than a little unlikely, but Riley and I have a real-world explanation for everything here. There's no magic. There's no futuristic technology. There might be other dimensions or ghosts or mammals that can puff themselves up like blowfish, but those things might actually, somehow, have a basis in fact.There are fairies in the world of Proof, but they are wild animals, effectively creepy little "piranha with wings" that aren't about to grant wishes. There's a goat-sucker, but it's nothing like the charmingly cute Choopie of The Perhapanauts. There are also animals believed by the world to be extinct, that survive in the nature preserves of the Lodge--dinosaurs, dodos, and the like.
The individual issues contain all sorts of nifty extras, articles about cryptids and such, back-up stories that show what supporting characters were doing while the main action was occurring. There was also a serialized story by Kelly Tindall featuring a leopard-headed adventurer and supernatural investigator, Archie Snow, which deserves a book of its own. I'm considering switching entirely from trades to individual issues on this one, because the trades only collect the main stories and the key backups, without the additional goodies.
There are sample pages online, if that will serve to sway any of you to check the book out.
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Secret Services: MI-13
Today's entry might have been placed way back near the beginning of the list, arguably even as early as between the Guardians and Omega Factor's Department 7 since it's first incarnation appeared in the late 70s. But then, the case could be made that it wasn't until 2006 that it finally evolved into what I'm calling a "secret service."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start at the beginning. Stick with me, this may get complicated.
In the pages of Captain Britain Weekly #17, back in 1977, readers in the UK were introduced to S.T.R.I.K.E. (otherwise known as Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies), a British answer to the UN's SHIELD. Wikipedia has the creators of STRIKE as writer Gary Friedrich and editor Larry Leiber, and I see no reason to doubt it. STRIKE is of little interest to us here except as a historical precursor, since like SHIELD it isn't really a "Secret Service" dedicated to policing the supernatural and paranormal, but your basic comic book intelligence service and counterterrorism agency. (They did have a "Psi Division," though, which is a mark in its favor. And they fought Nazis, which is always a plus.)
Later, STRIKE is compromised when one of Captain Britain's villains takes over the outfit, and the British government shuts it down, replacing it with the R.C.X. More properly the Resources Control Executive, RCX is introduced in the pages of Captain Britain (vol 2) #1, by writer Jamie Delano and artist Alan Davis. Instituted to deal with the fall-out of the Alan Moore-penned "Jaspers' Warp" stories, the RCX gives its agents Biblical codenames (Gabriel, Michael, Peter, etc.), and recruits Captain Britain to serve as their figurehead (later to be replaced temporarily by his sister, Elisabeth Braddock, who wears the modified uniform of one of Captain Britain's multiversal counterparts). RCX is quite a bit more sinister and secretive than STRIKE, but still not a "Secret Service."
Captain Britain, RCX is replaced by a new organization, and here we start getting into real Secret Service territory. First seen in in the pages of Excalibur #6, from writer Chris Claremont and artist Alan Davis, this new outfit was called the Weird Happenings Organization, or W.H.O., and was headed by Brigadier-General Alysande Stuart. And here we start moving into Secret Services territory. Headquartered in a secret base beneath the Tower of London, WHO is very much off the public radar, and charged with protecting the British realm against threats beyond the purview of the normal authorities. They interacted with Captain Britain on a regular basis, and Stuart twin brother Alistair Stuart even became a companion of Captain Britain's team for a time, travelling with them on a crosstime tour of the multiverse.
A brigadier named Stuart, in charge of secret organization called WHO? Mmm. What does that remind me of...?
(Parenthetically, I think that the potential of WHO was never fully realized. When I was asked to write an X-Men novel for Pocket Books, I jumped at the chance to feature Brigadier Stuart, then still a colonel in the Royal Marines. [I also showcased Betsy Braddock, and my personal favorite mutant Douglas Ramsey, but that's a matter for another time.] In the final pages of my novel X-Men: The Return, then, you'll the following "origin story" for WHO.
“Consider this call a courtesy,” the brigadier interrupted. “I’ve just received confirmation that Downing Street has accepted my proposal to create a tactical force of scientists and lateral thinkers, to anticipate, detect, and analyze the bizarre mysteries that lie beyond the fringes of man’s current knowledge. The next time alien invaders come calling, mankind won’t have to look to rogue elements like the X-Men for rescue, as the Weird Happenings Organization will stand ready to meet the challenge.”But enough about that.)
When Warren Ellis took over the scripting duties on Excalibur, he introduced yet another British intelligence agency, Black Air. At first, Black Air was a counterpart to WHO, with a rivalry not entirely unlike that between MI5 and MI6, but in short order WHO is disbanded and Black Air takes over the whole show. Field agent Peter Wisdom is assigned as a liaison with Excalibur, and eventually ends up joining the team. Captain Britain was mostly absent by now, but popped up now and again. Black Air was, for all intents and purposes, a Secret Service, with a mandate to investigate and research all paranormal and supernatural phenomenon. They were also sneaky bastards, engineering weaponized viruses from xenobilogical specimens, allying themselves with baddies like the Hellfire Club, and generally looking after their own dark interests before anyone else's. Apparently they eventually moved to the private sector (remember Caballistics, Inc, anyone?), where that kind of thing is standard practices.
Which brings us to 2006, and the introduction of the latest British intelligence service. MI-13 first appeared in the pages of New Excalibur #1, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Michael Ryan. Captain Britain was once more in charge of Excalibur by this point, and when Pete Wisdom introduces himself in this issue it's as an agent of something called MI-13, which goes on to fund the newly reformed team.
But it's in the pages of Wisdom that we really find out what MI-13 is all about.
Written by Paul Cornell with art by Trevor Hairsine, Widsom introduces us to that branch of the British intelligence services responsible for "Weird Happenings." Threats from within the borders of the UK are the balliwick of MI-5, threats from outside the country are the responsible of MI-6, but invasions of faeries from Otherworld? Dragons tearing up the suburbs of Cardiff in Wales? A plague of Jack-the-Rippers on the streets of London, or HG Wells's Martians breaching the walls between realities? That is the responsibility of MI-13.
Pete Wisdom is back, leading a team of field agents that includes Tink, a fairy dissident expatriated from the Otherworld; John the Skrull, an alien shapeshifter who took the form of the "Smart Beatle" back in the 60s and never changed back; Sid Ridley, the WWII-era super-soldier known as "Captain Midlands"; and telepath Maureen Raven. Outfitted by MI-13's quartermaster O, and only occasionally butting heads with MI-6's new scientific advisor, Alistaire Stuart, the team investigates the strange, the inexplicable, the unusual--weird happenings.
Wisdom is full of gems, as when John the Skrull remembers the days of the Skrull Beatles invasion, before the four shapeshifters broke-up when Skrull John hooked up with Captain Boko of the Free Kree Liberation Army and Skrull george went on a pilgrimage with the Dread Dormammu. The miniseries ran for six issues, and was released in a dandy trade paperback collection.
And that might have been that, had the fates not shined on us all and granted Paul Cornell a second shot at the characters, in the pages of Captain Britain and MI-13.
Joined this time by Agents of Atlas artist Leonard Kirk, Paul presents us in the first issue of Captain Britain and MI-13 with a new team of agents. Pete Wisdom is on hand again, but most of the previous team is gone after the events of the Wisdom miniseries. In the face of a full-bore Skrull invasion (which I think may have been covered in one or two other Marvel titles...), Prime Minster Gordon Brown drafts all British superheroes as agents of MI-13, and puts Pete Wisdom in charge of the whole affair, answerable directly to the PM. Wisdom rounds up Captain Britain, John the Skrull, the Black Knight, Captain Midlands, WII-era speedster Spitfire (who has a few secrets to tell), and a young Anglo-Arab doctor who turns out to be not only a big superhero fan, but also is the only one able to pull the sword Excalibur from its stone. Together they travel to the Otherworld, to defend the source of all magic against the invading Skrulls, and once they've seen to the alien invaders, they've immediately got a haunted apartment complex to contend with, one that is capable of granting anyone's most cherished desires--for a price. Then Blade (yes, that Blade, the vampire-hunter) joins the team, and when Spitfire's fangs give away her little secret, things get interesting. Oh, and then it turns out that Dracula has been hiding out on the moon for years, and is now getting set to come back down to Earth, with a little help from his friend Doctor Doom.
Captain Britain and MI-13 is one of my favorite comic series in recent years, standing nicely aside Agents of Atlas, The Immortal Iron Fist, Jack Staff, Umbrella Academy, and the Fables titles. A trade of the first arc is due out soon in the US (and is already out in the UK), and if you haven't tried it yet you honestly don't know what you're missing. So get it, already!
Friday, January 30, 2009
Secret Services: Torchwood
Torchwood was created by Russel T. Davies, spinning out of his successful relaunch of the Doctor Who franchise. The name, an anagram of "Doctor Who," had originally been used as a "code name" for production reasons in the early days of the new Who series, much like "Blue Harvest" was a fake working name for Return of the Jedi (see here for other notable examples... and really, would you rather have seen James Cameron's Planet Ice?). RTD reportedly liked the name, though, and began seeding it in the second series, beginning with the RTD-penned "Christmas Invasion."
As revealed in the episode "Tooth and Claw," the instory source of the name is the Torchwood Estate in Scotland, where in 1879 Queen Victoria had a bad encounter with a werewolf. some kung-fu warrior monks, and a certain Time Lord. It is revealed that the Torchwood Estate had been constructed with the express purpose of trapping the werewolf by the former lord of the manor, abetted by the late Prince Albert. When all is said and done, Victoria creates the Torchwood Institute in their honor, to safeguard the realm against any such unnatural threats (including, as it happens, the Doctor himself).
As the second series progresses, the Doctor encounters Torchwood a few times, in which they're revealed to possess alien technology which they use to safeguard Earth against extraterrestrial menace. They are a more secret, more dangerous answer to UNIT, their existence known only to a select few. Finally, in the two-parter "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday," we meet the modern-day Torchwood, based in a high-rise in Canary Wharf, from which they lead the defense of Earth against the invading armies of the Cybermen and the Daleks. The good guys win, the Daleks and Cybermen are defeated, but Torchwood is destroyed in the process. And that seems to be that.
Only all of us know that wasn't the end. The BBC had already started touting a Torchwood spin-off, and we had only a few months to wait. (And really, this was for many of us the weakest aspect of the second series of Who. In the first series, the question "What is Bad Wolf?" is a drum-beat that drives the series along, and even if the answer is somewhat less than satisfying, it's fun speculating on the possibility along the way. With the second series, we all knew from the start what Torchwood was, at least in general terms, and so the mystery was pretty much shot.)
In the meantime, there was the question of timelost Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent and con artist from the 51st century, who'd first appeared in Steven Moffat's incomporable two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances." At the end of the first series, in "A Parting of the Ways," Jack had been left--seeming for dead--in the future after the last big dust-up with the Daleks, and then restored to live by Rose Tyler's temporarily-obtained time-vortex powers. In essences, Rose turns into God for a few minutes, and rolls the clock back on Jack's death, restoring him to full health. Problem being, the Doctor thinks he's still dead and leaves him there.
Which brings us to the first episode of the new Torchwood, which aired in fall of 2006.
The organization is, of course, Torchwood, their leader is one Captain Jack Harkness, and they are headquartered in an abandoned Underground station beneath the streets of Cardiff. Like Sunnydale's Hellmouth, there is a Rift in time and space that runs through the heart of Cardiff, from which things are constantly falling into our world. And like the Men in Black, the agents of Torchwood are able to induce amnesia in anyone who learns more than they should.
It's a familiar cocktail of genre elements, to be sure. The only notable feature of those early episode is the sexuality with which they're spiced; the series was billed as a kind of "Doctor Who for grownups," which largely devolved into characters having frequent sex with one another.
From humble beginnings, though, the show gradually began to improve. I think the end of the first second is better than its beginning (though they'd have been better served not showing the big monster in "End of Days," and just letting the audience's imagination do the work). There were some clever ideas in there, though, and some nice little touches. This five-person operation in Cardiff was revealed to be Torchwood Three, only one of several. Torchwood One had been the one we saw destroyed in the "Battle of Canary Wharf", Torchwood Two is one guy in Glasgow, and Torchwood Four is "missing" ("we'll find it one day," they assure). The episode that revisits Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies is chillingly effective, and "They Keep Killing Suzie" stands alongside the best episodes of Who in recent years.
It's in the second series that Torchwood really begins firing on all cylinders, I think. James Marsters (Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) shows up as Captain Jack's fellow time-agent, ex-partner, and ex-lover Captain John Hart, and Freema Agyeman returns as Martha Jones, the Doctor's former companion. The scripts are generally tighter, the ideas better, the episodes more satisfying. The penultimate episode, "Fragments," is a marvel of narrative structure, revealing the backstories of each of the main characters through flashbacks, adding new layers of meaning to character interactions we've been watching for a year and a half. The final episode ends on something of a downer, but manages to serve as a nice end-cap for the series to date.
There's apparently a new miniseries in the making, "Chidren of Earth," which is to air this spring. Unfortunately, though, three of the five episodes are written by RTD himself, and the experience of Doctor Who and Torchwood to date suggests that Davies's series are usually best when written by other hands. But I remain cautiously optimistic about its quality.
For comic fans, I'll point out that Titan is putting out a collection of Torchwood comics that haven't been widely seen under the title The Rift War, with contributions from Paul Grist (Jack Staff), Ian Edginton and D'Israeli (Scarlet Traces and Stickleback) and Simon Furman (Transformers UK). I've already ordered my copy, on the strength of those names alone.
In the end, I think the good outweighs the bad, and would recommend checking out Torchwood. You should be warned, though, that there is bad, and if you have a low tolerance for suck you might want to give it a pass.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Secret Services: Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management
The Secret Services I've run down so far have come from a pretty wide variety of comics, books, tv series, anime, and games, but of all of them The Perhapanauts is perhaps the most fun. This is not a dark and serious book, by any means.
Back in 2003, Todd and Craig produced The Perhapanauts: Dossier, a 24-page xeroxed-and-stapled "ashcan" run of 500 copies, that they sold at conventions and online. Dezago, perhaps best known for his creator-owned series Tellos (with Mike Wieringo), and Rousseau, who'd done some terrific work for DC, said in interviews at the time that they weren't interested in shopping the book around to publishers, but were happy to do it themselves, without any interference or influence. Here's how Dezago described the book at the time:
“The Perhapanauts is kind of a cross between Men in Black, Mission: Impossible, and...uh, The Simpsons. The idea is that they are agents for an organization called BEDLAM - Bureau of ExtraDimensional Liabilities and Maintenance - and the police the boundaries of ours, and others’ realities.The dossier introduced the Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management (BEDLAM), and its agents, the Perhapanauts. There was Molly MacAllistar, a revenant (that is, a ghost); Arisa Hines, a psi-active with telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition; Sasquatch, aka Yeti, aka Bigfoot, aka Big, who had been gifted with genius-level intelligence through the use of an "Evolvo-Ray"; Chupacabra, aka Goatsucker, aka Choopie, who had been gifted with not-quite-genius-level intelligence the same way; and MG, a mysterious figure able to traverse dimensional boundaries at will.
”When a tear occurs in any of the dimensional barriers--allowing your bigfoots, your loch ness monsters, your chupacabra through--these are the guys who are called to stuff 'em back in and seal up the rift. That sounds like fun. To make things a little trickier, most of the team is comprised of some of the very creatures and cryptozoological entities that they are sent to confront. That's even more fun. Like, we've got a Bigfoot. And a Chupacabra. And a ghost. And...well, I don't want to wreck it... Plus, when they're home (at the Bedlam facility) they fall into typical family sitcom mode. That's fun times a hundred!”
Together, the Perhapanauts investigate the strange. Or, as the official site has it...
There are places in this world where the fabric of reality has worn thin, where strange and terrible creatures have crossed over to lurk in the shadows and the night.
There is an organization dedicated to finding these creatures and sending them back whence they came, sealing the rift behind them, and maintaining the integrity of those borders.
The organization is called BEDLAM. Its agents are...The PERHAPANAUTS!
You can think of BEDLAM and the Perhapanauts as lying somewhere between BPRD and Section Zero, but with a light touch and an "All Ages" attitude.
After the Dossier ashcan and a sketchbook, Todd and Craig produced a self-published full-color comic (on newsprint, no less!), The Perhapanauts not gigantic color special. Then the book was picked up by Dark Horse, who published two four-issue miniseries, The Perhapanauts: First Blood and The Perhapanauts: Second Chances. The idea was clearly do follow the same "series of miniseries" approach that's worked well for Hellboy and BPRD. For whatever reason, though, the creators were reportedly unhappy at Dark Horse, and after the second miniseries wrapped announced that they were moving the book to Image (who already had started publishing another "Secret Services" series, Proof, about which more soon).
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Secret Services: Department Q
In today's installment of Secret Services, we've reached the 2002 debut of the "Caballistics, Inc." strip in 2000AD, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Dom Reardon.
What is Caballistics, Inc? Well, we'll get to that in a moment. First, let's get this other Department Q sorted out.
The site 2000AD.org has a ridiculously detailed subsection on Caballistics, Inc., so I'll resist the temptation to simply point you in that direction, and instead quote liberally from it. According to the site, Department Q was...
A secret department of the British Government (Mininstry of Defence) founded in 1941 to combat Nazi occult warfare (specifically Sonderkommando Thule).So far so good. What else can the site tell us? How about the WWII-era investigations of the group?
So far, so good. We're definitely in "secret government agencies that investigate the occult" territory here. Invoking 1940s British intelligence services and dragging in occult Nazi hoodoo is certainly a plus, as well.
- Something involving apparent Nazi lycanthropes.
- The investigation of Sonderkommando Thule's Operation Doppelganger.
- Enigma code broken using psychics and team of Jewish Cabbala scholars.
- Doodlebugs knocked out of the air using telekinesis.
- Divination to track u-boat movements.
- Seances to gather military intelligence.
So what's Caballistics, Inc., then?
Well, by the time the strip begins, the glory days of Department Q are long gone. Now the staff, which once included a whole host of adventurers, researchers, magicians, scholars of the Caballa, and others, has been reduced to just two paranormal historians, Dr. Jonathan Brand and Jennifer Simmons. The British government, looking to cut costs, is on the verge of shutting the whole department down when Ethan Kostabi, a former glamrock star from the 1970s who went on to become a dot-com billionaire, buys the whole thing lock, stock, and barrel, and uses it as the basis of a new venture: Caballistics, Inc.
Dr. Brand and Ms. Simmons are included along with the Department Q furniture and files, and are soon joined by Solomon Ravne, a mysterious figure who just might be the surviving founder of the WWII-era Nazi Occult division; and Hannah Chapter and Lawrence Verse, hardbitten and heavily-armed demon hunters. Together the five set up shop in Exham Priory in Sussex, which was once the home of Malcolm Critchley, a Aleister Crowley-like "Great Beast" who got up to some dirty deeds back in middle of the 20th Century.
As the series progresses, Caballistics, Inc. is brought in to deal with a whole host of occult menaces, from haunted movie studios to hold-out Nazi threats, from Lovecraftian monsters to demons and devils from Hell itself. Along the way Ms. Simmons becomes possessed by a demon, we learn the backstories of the various characters and start seeing glimpses into the doings of Department Q over the decades, and gradually discover that Solomon Ravne has hidden connections with Ethan Kostabi, and that both of them are much, much older than they appear.
The series, the majority of which is available in two collected editions from 2000AD, Going Underground and Creepshow, is consistently entertaining, clever, and frequently downright creepy. Rennie and Reardon have clearly done their home work, and the stories are littered not only with references to various real occult belief and historical minuteia, but also metafictional nods to the work of a great many other books, comics, and films (the haunted movie studio storyline is full of nods and "easter eggs," in particular).
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Secret Services: The Laundry
According to my notes, we're up to 2001 in my list of "clandestine government agencies that investigate the supernatural," which can mean only one thing. We've reached one of my favorite Secret Services of recent years, Charles Stross's The Laundry.
The Laundry was first introduced in the novel The Atrocity Archive, which was originally serialized in the pages of Spectrum SF in 2001, and subsequently collected in book form by Golden Gryphon Press in 2004 along with novella "The Concrete Jungle," which won the Hugo for Best Novella in 2005.
The Laundry stories are alternatively referred to as the "Bob Howard" series, after the techie protagonist of the novels and stories to date. He works in the IT department of a secret branch of the British intelligence services known only as the Laundry, which uses modern technology to deal with the occult. Think Lovecraft meets Len Deighton by way of Slashdot and you'll have a pretty good idea what it's all about.
Here's the description of that first novel from the Golden Gryphon site:
In Charles Stross's world of "The Atrocity Archive," Alan Turing, the Father of Modern Computer Science, did in fact complete his theorem on "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning." Turing's work paved the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when carried out, had side effects that would leak through some kind of channel underlying the structure of the Cosmos. And out there in the multiverse were "listeners" — and sometimes these listeners could be coerced into opening gates: Small gates through which minds could be transferred and, occasionally, large gates through which objects could be moved.The "bonus story" in the novel, "Concrete Jungle," sees Bob Howard involved in a departmental power struggle involving the basilisk's stony gaze and the ubiquitous cameras of the modern British surveillance society. And intriguing hints about the background of the Laundry are dropped in the form of secret files and memos with which Bob is briefed.
In 1945, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe-SS, in an attempt to escape the Allied onslaught, performed just such a summoning on the souls of more than ten million. A gate was opened to an alternate universe through which the SS moved men and materiel — to live to fight another day, as it were. But their summoning brought forth more than the SS had bargained for: an Evil, patiently waiting all this time while learning the ways of humans, now poised to lunch on our galaxy, on our very own Earth.
Secret intelligence agencies, esoteric theorems, Lovecraftian horrors, Mid East terrorist connections, a damsel in distress, and a final battle on the surface of a dying planet — in "The Atrocity Archive," Charles Stross has written a high-octane thriller, and readers need to buckle up and hold on with both hands!
In 2006, Golden Gryphon released The Jennifer Morgue, the follow-up to The Atrocity Archives. If the first novel had been Len Deighton, this one was Ian Fleming all the way.
Here's the description from the publisher's site:
In 1975, the CIA made an ill-fated attempt to raise a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. At least, "ill-fated" was the information leaked to the press. In reality, the team salvaged a device, codenamed "Gravedust," that permitted communication with the dead — the very long dead. Enter Ellis Billington, glamorous software billionaire, who has acquired Gravedust by devious means. Billington plans to raise an eldritch horror, codenamed "Jennifer Morgue," from the vasty deeps, and communicate with this dead warrior for the purpose of ruling the world. Worse still, he's prepared occult defenses that can only be penetrated by one agent walking a perilous path.
But James Bond doesn't work for the Laundry. Instead, they send Bob Howard, geekish demonology hacker extraordinaire. Bob must inveigle his way aboard Billington's yacht, figure out what the villain is up to, and stop him. But there's a fly in Bob's ointment by the name of Ramona Random — a lethal but beautiful agent for the Black Chamber, the U.S. counterpart to The Laundry. Billington's yacht is docked in the Caribbean, and Her Majesty's Government is not allowed to operate in this area without an American minder. The Black Chamber has sent Ramona to ride shotgun on Bob, but Ramona has her own agenda that conflicts with her employer's . . .
Bob and Ramona become entangled (literally), and are then captured by Billington and used to further his insidious plot. But let's not forget Bob's significant other, Dr. Dominique "Mo" O'Brien, also an agent of The Laundry, who has been trained especially for this mission. Can these intrepid agents stop Billington from raising the dead horror and thus save the world from total domination? The Jennifer Morgue takes the reader on a wild adventure through the worlds of Lovecraft and Ian Fleming, non-Euclidian mathematics and computer hackerdom — sort of like Austin Powers, only more squamous and rugose — with fast cars and faster women.
According to the faq on Stross's site, a third Laundry novel, The Fuller Memorandum, is due over the horizon, possibly in 2010. He has this to say about it:
Newly married and looking for a quiet life, Bob Howard thinks that a spell working in the Laundry's secret archives and catching up on the filing is just the ticket. But when his boss Angleton falls under suspicion and a top secret dossier goes missing, Bob is determined to get to the bottom of a historical puzzle: what was in the missing Fuller memorandum, and why are all the people who knew dying ...?And I've just this very minute (!) learned that there is a new Laundry story I've missed, "Down on the Farm," which is available freely online at Tor.com.
Okay, so now I know what I'll be reading on my walk today...
Anyway, back to the Laundry. It's eventually revealed that the Laundry was originally Department Q of SOE, or Special Operations Executive, before being spun off as a separate black organization in 1945. As it happens, Department Q was a real department of the SOE during the 1940s, concerned with obtaining through clandestine methods all sorts of equipment, arms, and explosives for SIS operations.
Longtime readers of the Ramble may recall me mentioning the Laundry novels before, back when I was finishing up The Jennifer Morgue, the second in the series. There are many points of similarity between Stross's Laundry and my own MI8--their shared origins in the wartime SOE, the involvement of Turing, and their opposition by the Ahnenerbe being only the most obvious examples--and if I'd read The Atrocity Archive before starting work on my own MI8 stories I'd probably have just chucked the whole thing and gone off to work on something else. But I hadn't, so I didn't, and I stuck with them.
As I said in 2006, after finishing The Jennifer Morgue, "I like my own little occult spies too much to cut them loose, so they stay in the picture. But I don't kid myself that they're anywhere near as clever as Bob Howard and his crew at the Laundry. I'm reminded of Thomas Pynchon including a note in Gravity's Rainbow exhorting readers to check out Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo if they want to learn about African-American secret societies. I don't think I'd go quite as far as to put a foot note in End of the Century [I didn't, as it happens], but trust me when I say that if you want to read about occult secret agents, Charles Stross is the guy to go to."
I've seldom had as much fun reading in adult life as I had with the two Laundry novels. (And while I wouldn't dream of second-guessing another writer, if I were a betting man I'd wager than Stross had more fun writing them than he did on other stories.) Relentlessly clever, perfectly pitched, and more fun than you can shake a stick at. Highly, highly recommended.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Secret Services: Q
For those of you who've been following along at home, I'm using "secret services" to define those ubiquitous clandestine government agencies that investigate the supernatural and the occult. I've been tackling them more or less in chronological order based on first appearance (though I'm fudging a bit with a few notable exceptions, as will eventually be seen). We're now up to those halcyon days of 2000, when an eager world got its first glimpse of Paul Grist's Jack Staff.
Now, as I've told you, and told you, and told you (and told you and told you) before, Jack Staff is the best superhero comic on the market today, and that everyone who doesn't hate goodness owes it to themselves to pick it up. But I won't retreat what I've already said before about the unremitting awesomeness of Jack Staff. Instead, I'll be focusing on one particular aspect of that awesomeness--namely, "Q."
Who, or what, is Q? Well, here's how they were first introduced, on page 17 of Jack Staff Vol 1. #1.
Helen Morgan(Make a note of that letter, will you? It will turn up quite a few more times in future Secret Services entries.)
Three unusual people caught up in a world where the bizarre is commonplace.
They are the guardians of the gate between reality and unreality.
They are the investigators of the unexplainable.
The question mark crimes.
They are Q.
One of the things that Grist does in Jack Staff that makes the book so good is the dense layering of story, with breadth--a large cast of characters and many ongoing plotlines--and depth--backstory and flashbacks that reach back decades, centuries, and longer. This is in evidence from the very first issue, which introduces the patriotic working class hero Jack Staff, his WWII era teammates in the Freedom Fighters, "girl reporter" Becky Burdock (soon to be vampire girl reporter), Tom-Tom the Robot Man, vampire hunters Bramble and Son, and the members of Q.
And like those other characters, the three members of Q feel somewhat familiar, even in that first appearance. That's because the world of Jack Staff is peopled by types, characters that can be boiled down into brief Homeric epithets. "Vampire Girl Reporter." "Working Class Superhero." "Victorian Escape Artist."
But more than that, the characters are, by and large, analogues of specific characters from British popular culture. Most (but not all) of the referenced characters are from mid-20C British comics (though Bramble and Son, for example, are vampire-hunting variations on Steptoe and Son, the British comedy about father and son rag-and-bone men that later inspired the junkyard father-and-son pair in Sanford and Son), in many cases being virtually identical to the originals. (If you can slide a piece of paper through the original Spider and Grist's version, I'd be surprised.) But in the case of Q, Grist has done something a bit more interesting.
(And as a brief caveat, I'll point out that a reader's enjoyment of Jack Staff doesn't depend at all on familiarity with the characters being referenced. There were quite a few references that shot right past me when I first read the book, Anglophile that I am, but I was still hooked from page 1. The characters are recognizable as types, and in fact work on their own as fully-formed characters in their own right, even if the reader has no notion that they're analogues for other characters. Contrast that with Leah Moore and John Reppion's Albion, which depended entirely on the reader's familiarity with moribund British comics characters. Ian Edginton's Establishment, on the other hand, used a very similar approach to Jack Staff, employing figures from 60s and 70s genre television, primarily, to good purpose; well worth hunting down.)
Helen Morgan, Ben Kulmer, and Harry Crane are not analogues for any specific characters that have previously appeared. Instead, they are new characters that have been impacted by analogues for previous characters.
Let me try that again, from a different angle.
In the 60s there was a British strip entitled "Kelly's Eye", about a guy who finds the "Eye of Everlasting Life" while traveling in South America, a gem that protects its wearer from any and all harm, rendering them effectively immortal. Around the same time another strip featured the "Steel Claw," a superhero able to turn invisible and channel electricity thanks to the metal claw that gave him his name.
In the world of Jack Staff, the "Eye of Everlasting Life" is known as the "Valiant Stone," and it was once worn by an adventurer just like Kelly of the strip. But that adventurer came to a messy end when the Stone itself was shattered, broken into tiny shards. One of those shards came into the possession of Helen Morgan, who is now cursed with immortality until she can gathered all the scattered shards together again.
And a small time thief named Karl Stringer steals a steel claw from a museum, only to have it bond directly to his hand. Unable to remove it, he finds that he can turn invisible and channel electricity. Recruited by Q, he is given a new name and identity, but as time goes on, he finds himself drawn inexorably back to his former ways.
Harry Crane, for his part, is a former policeman who receives psychic visions of past events. (If he's related to any previous character, it's not been revealed yet.)
As the storylines in Jack Staff have progressed, it has been slowly revealed that while Q is recognized as some kind of official body by the police and other authorities, it doesn't seem to be directly affiliated with the government. For example, when Helen encounters Colonel Adam Venture ("Britain's first man in space--not that you'll find that in any official record!" -- see what I meant about types?) and the rest of the Starfall Squad (Their motto, "If it falls from the sky, it stays on the ground!"), Venture has no idea who she is. In the best tradition of clandestine secret services, though, Helen doesn't even bother to explain, but carries on with the investigation.
It's been gradually revealed that there are two supernatural forces at work in the world, the "Green" and the "Red." It was Mister Green who set Helen the task of recovering the pieces of the Valiant Stone (and who tried unsuccessfully to recruit Jack Staff as one of his agents). Just what the Red is, we've not yet discovered.
I should probably stop now, before I start recounting the plot of the entire series to date. In short, Jack Staff is the best superhero comic currently on the market, and the cryptic adventures of Helen Morgan and the rest of Q are a key ingredient in that mix. Check it out, unless you hate goodness.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Secret Services: Section Zero
Back in the heady days before the dot-com bust, all sorts of ambitious plans were floated, and one of them was Gorilla Comics. The idea was that a capitalized internet startup would fund a raft of creator-owned comics by some of the best writers and artists in comics--Busiek, Waid, Perez, Wieringo, etc. Sadly, the startup was a nonstarter, and the titles already in production were left without a home. With their funding evaporated, the creator's ended up self-funding and publishing what they had through Image Comics. Most of the titles only ran for a few issues each, but they offered tantalizing glimpses of what might have been.
One of those titles, and the one that resonated most with me as a reader, was Karl Kesel's and Tom Grummett's Section Zero.
What is Section Zero? Well, according to the inside cover of the first issue, there's no such thing...
There is no Section Zero.Here's how Kesel described the outfit in an interview at the time:
Section Zero isn't a secret section of the United Nation's charter. It does not perpetually fund a team of experts and adventurers to investigate the fantastic and unknown. The idea that this "team" looks into such things as UFOs, Monsters, Lost Civilizations, Time Travel, Ancient Gods, and still-living Dinosaurs is no more than an urban legend. After all, none of these things exist.
The team is led by the smartest woman in the world. Her name is Doc Challenger. She belongs to a long lineage of adventurers. Her right hand man is Sam Wildman, who’s our loveable rogue character. Everything comes effortlessly to Doc Challenger and everything is a struggle for Sam. He can’t walk across the street without getting beat up by ninjas. That’s the sort of life he leads. Adding spice to the relationship is that they are ex-husband and wife. As the series progresses, we’ll learn more about the backstory there. There’s also a childlike alien being named Tesla who has vast, vast, vast powers but, thank God, he only has the mentality of a 6-year-old, otherwise he’d be running the world. We also have a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who has one of those cursed tattoos. You know all about those! If he rubs this bug tattoo on his arm, he becomes a bug boy character for exactly one day, so his name’s the 24 Hour Bug. He gets a big bug head and these big bug arms grow out of his back. Obviously, he’s not really thrilled with this power. It’s not a power that really wins the girls. That’s kinda where we start and we move off from there. There’s a few other members who’ll join the team as the 6-issue mini-series progresses. It’s one of those stories that starts out pretty small. There’s some sort of animal or creature killing sheep in the Australian Outback, and they go to investigate this. But as it often happens in comics, this is a small pebble that creates massive ripples. By the end of the mini-series, nothing is the same.Elsewhere, Kesel has talked a bit more about the origins of the idea. Early last year I mentioned how, while looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon these interesting comments Kessel made a few years ago on something called Monster Blog Mailbox:
"Twice I've tried to interest Marvel in series that would feature these monsters and misfits. The first was the Marvelmen— a Challengers of the Unknown-type group who fought giant monsters. The second was a Giant-Man pitch that would have had him involved with adventures so out-there that even his fellow super-heroes didn't believe him— in other words, tall tales (appropriate for a giant, I thought) or Tales to Astonish— and a lot of the stories would have involved the Marvel monsters. I actually wrote and got paid for a plot to the Giant-Man story before Marvel decided it wasn't really their cup of tea.And then, in response to another reader's comments, he goes on to say...
1) The Marvelmen would have had their origins in the early 60s, allowing me to do period stories, but would have also had a modern version of the team. I recycled this approach when Tom Grummett and I created “Section Zero.” As for art— hard to say. I think a lot of artists today would do killer versions of the classic Marvel monsters, and I'd love to see 'em, so maybe there would be some way to set up a comic with a lead story by one recurring artist and self-contained back-ups by a rotating roster. If there ever was a Marvelmen comic. Which there probably won't be.(Interestingly, this prefigures much that I dig about Agents of Atlas, as well as covering much the same ground as Roger Stern's similar concept "Monster Hunters", which came in between.)
2) I created the Marvelmen in 89 or 90. I was trying to ride the coat-tails of Marvel's Monster Masterworks trade paperback, and even pitched the idea to the editor of that book— Marc McLaurin. With the assumption that the only Marvel monster stories most readers would be familiar with would be the ones in that trade paperback, the Marvelmen were characters from stories reprinted there: Lewis Conrad from TABOO, the scientist from SPORR, and Chan Liuchow from FIN FANG FOOM. There was also one MarvelWOMAN, but I created her new since I didn't know of a Marvel monster story where a woman was the hero. (Are there any?)
In an author's note in the back pages of Section Zero #1, Kesel adds another bit of detail, that in itself is even more telling.
"Then I noticed--about thirty years after the fact--that the [Fantastic Four] were a natural, creative outgrowth of the Challengers [of the Unknown]. And I thought, well, what if one actually did evolve into the other?"And it's there that the book's essential charm, at least for me, can be found. This kind of metafictional play, encoding the history of genres inside genre stories, are my bread and butter. (More about this in a moment.)
The original members of Section Zero, who had to contend with "atomic power, giant insects, [and] little green men", were Everest Pike, Sarina Ursari, "Gorgeous" Georges Seine, and Bernie Cork. As another character says of them, "Those four faced the fantastic, and unknown... yet none of them had any special powers!"
By the 1970s, the lineup of the team had changed. Everest Pike still lead the group, but he'd been joined by Tele Moteka, Sargasso, and Jesse Presley (who seems oddly familiar...).
By the 1980s, Tele Moteka was in charge of a team that consisted of Johnny Colossus, Artifax the mechanical man, and A.J. Keeler.
By 2000, the team consisted of Dr. Titania "Doc" Challenger, Samuel Wildman, the alien Tesla, and Thom Talesi, the 24-Hour Bug.
This kind of metafictional "genre history as fictional backstory" was not new with Section Zero, of course, far from it. In fact, Kesel's friend and Gorilla Comics studio-mate Kurt Busiek had previously done something very similar with his Astro City, and in particular with the First Family.
Around that same time, Kesel and his Section Zero collaborator Tom Grummett did a similar take on a Kirbyesque quartet of adventurers with Challengers of the Fantastic.
The book was part of the second "Amalgam Comics" intercompany crossover, in which DC Comics and Marvel Comics "merged" their titles for a single month, producing books featuring characters like Super Soldier (Captain American merged with Superman) and Dark Claw (Wolverine and Batman). Challengers of the Fanastic were, naturally, the Challengers of the Unknown merged with the Fantastic Four. The Challengers in this merged universe were were scientist Reed "Prof" Richards, SHIELD agent Susan "Ace" Storm, her daredevil brother Johnny "Red" Storm and fighting senator Ben "Rocky" Grimm. Together they faced Doctor Doomsday (Doomsday and Doctor Doom) , Galactiac (Brainiac and Galactus), and others.
Kesel seems to have a real affinity for this kind of thing. In the Fantastic Four Annual 1998, with art by Stuart Immomen, he has Ben Grimm visit an alternate universe where, instead of having been formed roughly ten years before, the Fantastic Four first got their powers in 1961. This is a Marvel Universe that operates in real time, and in which Franklin Richards is now a grown man with a child of his own on the way (married to a character first introduced in Roger Stern's "Monster Hunters" mentioned above, btw), Johnny Storm and his wife Crystal have a teenaged son and daughter, and Reed and Sue Richards have mostly retired from adventuring to concentrate on research. (Kesel's Marvels Comics: Fantastic Four, with collaborator Paul Smith, is also worth hunting down; supposedly a reproduction of an issue of the "Fantastic Four" comic published within the Marvel Universe, the licensed magazine mentioned so often by the characters back in the Lee and Kirby days.)
John Byrne has played with similar ideas in the past. In What If #36 he answered the question "What If the Fantastic Four had not gained their super-powers?" The answer?
They became the Challengers of the Unknown, naturally.
Later, in his all-too-brief Danger Unlimited, he played with the idea of a family-based quartet of superpowered adventurers in real time (though interestingly, here the model for the characters before getting their superpowers was not the Challengers of the Unknown, but instead Jonny Quest and company.)
Danger Unlimited remains one of my favorite of Byrne's comics, and I've always thought it a shame that he never returned to the concept.
But what does all of this have to do with Secret Services, you might ask? Well, very little, to be honest. But it's this metafictional aspect of Section Zero that intrigued me, far more than the "occult investigation" business, I'll confess.
In that post early last year I mentioned above, I talked a bit about the influence that Section Zero had on me. To avoid repeating myself, I'll just quote myself instead.
With someone as obsessed with Wold Newton-type stuff as I am, Challenger and Wildman were names to conjure with. The clear suggestion in Section Zero is that Doc Challenger is the grand-daughter of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger. And with that being the case, how much of a leap would it be to assume Sam Wildman is some relation to James Clarke Wildman, Jr. (better known as Doc Savage)? There were scattered references to challenging the "unknown", and facing the "fantastic," which served not only to evoke the Jack Kirby series Challengers of the Unknown and the Fantastic Four which served as the comic's inspiration, but also offered the tantalizing suggestion that the Section Zero teams in past decades might have themselves served as the "real world" inspirations for the "fictional" teams Kirby and collaborators depicted in the comics. (That makes sense in my head; does it make sense out in the world?)And there you have it. In any event, backissues of Section Zero can be found without too much difficulty (Mile High has them on discount), and they're well worth picking up, if you don't mind the frustration of being left with only tantalizing glimpses of what might have been.
In the end, unfortunately, the series only ran for three of the projected six issues, along with a five page preview that ran in another title. And while in those issues we only got the barest glimpse at the backstory Kesel and Grummett had worked up for the team, it was clear fairly quickly that I was reading too much into off-hand references, and that the series would have headed in very different directions than I'd originally anticipated.
So the comic in my head was nothing like the one that I ended up reading. So what? In a writer's world, nothing is wasted, not even idle thoughts. I had just started work on one of the early Bonaventure-Carmody stories, those featuring J.B. Carmody and the team at the Carmody Institute, and as those stories developed, bits and pieces of the thing I'd thought Kesel's book was going to develop into crept in, gradually. I liked the idea of making a character's figurative antecedents his literal ancestors, which is how J.B. Carmody ended up being the grandson of the very-James-Bondish Jake Carmody, the grandson of the somewhat Doc-Savage-like Rex "King" Carmody, and the great-nephew of the vaguely Tarzan-esque Lord John Carmody. The Bonaventure side of the family (the "B" in "J.B.") developed later on, along somewhat different lines. And in short order JB Carmody's story resembled not at all the idea I'd originally had in mind for it, either. And so it goes...
Friday, October 17, 2008
Secret Services: CIB
Ultraviolet was a 1998 British television production created by Joe Ahearne, who has since directed episodes of Doctor Who and Strange, among others. The series was recommended to me a few years later, and I picked up the Region 2 DVD to check it out, sight unseen. I never regretted it.
Ultraviolet is arguably the best show of its kind to date. In the first episode, a detective-sergeant with the London Metropolitan Police (played by Jack Davenport of Coupling and Pirates of the Caribbean) is drawn into a mystery when his partner begins behaving strangely, claiming that he's been targeted by some kind of black-ops government-backed death squad. Davenport's character encounters the "death squad," which includes a former soldier, a priest, and a cancer specialist, who reveal that they really are after his partner--who just happens to have been infected with something called "Code V."
What's Code V? Here's the list of characteristics, from the show's official site:
Code Vs do not show in mirrors, photographs or videos. Their voices cannot be recorded or transmitted by phone. Image and sound can only be detected face to face.One of the terrific things about Ultraviolet is that it's a show about vampire-hunters that never mentions the word "vampire." Not once. The series takes the basic premise of vampirism and treats it with rigorous logic. If vampires don't show up in mirrors, for example, why not mount mirrored sights on weapons, along with a miniature video camera. If a target appears in the video screen but not in the mirror sight, you're looking at a Code V and should open fire. But not just with regular rounds, but bullets of compressed carbon--reinforced charcoal--that have the same effect as a stake through the heart. Then there's the mace that's laced with oils expressed from garlic, and the UV lights used to check a subject's reaction to sunlight. Clever, clever stuff.
They are immortal. They cannot be killed, only reduced to ashes (neutralized).
They can be neutralized by exposure to sunlight or by introducing carbon into the chest cavity (projectile, probe or explosive). Resulting immolation releases enough energy to start fires.
Code V ashes can be regenerated and must be kept secure.
They can be repelled by ultraviolet light (the radiation in sunlight) or by allicin (the chemical in garlic).
They can shield themselves from ultraviolet light with tinted glass.
They can be affected by polluted blood.
When they feed, the host wound heals over in minutes and can only be detected in ultraviolet light. The bite can be treated with lasers. The skin around the wound is burnt away leaving a small scar.
If untreated, a human becomes suggestible and develops aversion to sunlight.
There may also be an aversion to religious symbols. This may be psychological. The effect of religious symbols on Code Vs is unproven.
When drained to death, a human becomes a Code V.
No-one is forcibly recruited. They only take those who want to go.
Code Vs claim to have human-type emotions. This is unproven.
The series ran for only one season of six episodes, a lamentably short run, but those six stories are packed to the gills with terrific writing, great acting, and viciously clever twists. I really can't recommend it highly enough.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Secret Services: The Hellsing Organization and Vatican Section XIII
In the world of Hellsing, supernatural monsters like vampires and ghouls are real, and Bram Stoker's Dracula is a more-or-less accurate historical account (though clearly the ending must have been a little different). Someone has to stand in the breach to civilization from being overrun by blood-drinking fiends, and that's where the Hellsing Organization comes in.
Here's the description of the outfit from the wikipedia entry.
More formally known as the Royal Order of Protestant Knights, the Hellsing Organization is a fictional group from the Hellsing universe. The Hellsing Organization was founded by Abraham Van Helsing shortly after the events of Bram Stoker's novel as a response to the threat posed by vampires such as Dracula. The Hellsing Organization is traditionally headed by Abraham's descendants, as they are the only individuals who can control Alucard, the ultimate undead created by the organization for use in their continuing struggle against supernatural threats. After WWII, it was decided that Alucard was too powerful or potentially too dangerous to continue to be used as a weapon, and was locked away in the basement of the Hellsing mansion. Upon Arthur's death, his daughter, Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, became the director of the organization. Integra's uncle, Richard Hellsing, attempted to assassinate her and take control of the organization, but was defeated in part by Alucard, who was accidentally released on vague instructions from her father. Integra herself fired the bullet that killed Richard. During the timeline of the manga series, ten years have passed since Integra became director of the Hellsing Organization and Alucard was released.
In the Hellsing universe, the organization is an integral part of the true power-structure of Great Britain, which is, according to the story, still ruled by a hidden aristocracy and the monarchy. The organization is tasked with defending the country's shores from any and all supernatural threats and often faces controversy over the highly unconventional methods Hellsing chooses to do this, such as the use of "anti-Christian" powers and creatures. In the TV series, Hellsing is portrayed much more like a paramilitary or counter-terrorist organization armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns and GKN Saxon or VAB APCs used to transport Hellsing soldiers to areas where there are reports of supernatural outbreaks in Britain. The paramilitary aspects are rarely mentioned in the OVA or the manga.
But the Hellsing Organization isn't the only clandestine monster-hunting outfit out there. There's also the Vatican's Section XIII to consider.
Also known as the Iscariot Organization, Section XIII (and there's that familiar prime numeral again) fields "paladins" with swords, holy water, and holy writ to dispatch vampires and other nasties. Naturally, they take a dim view to the Hellsing Organization's pet vampires, Alucard most of all. And given the history of friction between Catholics and Protestants in the UK, there's some doctrinal tension between the two organizations, as well.
If you've never seen the Hellsing anime, but are familiar with Japanese animation in general, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect. I kept seeing echoes of Vampire Hunter D, myself, in a setting not a million miles from the UK series Ultraviolet (about which more very shortly).
Monday, October 13, 2008
Secret Services: Delta Green
The last time I devoted serious amounts of time to role-playing games was in high school, over twenty years ago, and I think I may have played Call of Cthulhu once or twice in there. And while I kept a toe in the rpg waters in the years that followed, occasionally picking up the manuals for new games (though never really finding the time to play them), I don't think I ever came across Delta Green. If I'm not misremembering, the first time I saw the name was in Charles Stross's afterword to The Atrocity Archive (about which more in a while), in which he says that he hadn't heard of it until he was done writing his novel, either. Stross says that having discovered it, the game came "dangerous close to making [him] pick up the dice again."
From what I've read about Delta Green, I'm with Stross on this one.
Here's a brief introduction from the game's official site:
And here's an "in-story" explanation of the outfit.
Delta Green is a game setting for Call of Cthulhu, the popular horror roleplaying game published by Chaosium, Inc. Call of Cthulhu is a game about mystery, discovery, and horror, in which the characters are more or less ordinary men and women who slowly unravel terrible mysteries about the utterly alien powers at work in the universe.
Based on the writings of Jazz-era author H.P. Lovecraft and a number of authors who wrote stories based on his "Cthulhu Mythos," Call of Cthulhu is nominally set in the 1920s, and its scenarios have always been written with a small group of investigators, largely without organization or resources, in mind.
Delta Green brings the Cthulhu Mythos, and the men and women who encounter it, squarely into the modern day. Delta Green postulates a secret group dedicated to investigating alien and supernatural horrors, using the resources of the U.S. government to do so. Originally a unit of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency), Delta Green is now officially disbanded, its activities patently illegal; but its members carry on no matter what the cost, desperately facing the horrors that threaten mankind.
Delta Green was created by Pagan Publishing, an independent, small-press publisher under license from Chaosium to produce supplements for Call of Cthulhu. Originally developed in a 1992 issue of Pagan Publishing's acclaimed gaming magazine The Unspeakable Oath, Delta Green was published as a massive, award-winning sourcebook in 1997, to be followed by an award-winning sequel, Delta Green: Countdown, in 1999, and several smaller supplemental chapbooks and books of Delta Green fiction.
I can't vouch for the quality of the game-play and such, not having tried it out myself, but from everything I've read it certainly sounds intriguing.
So, I'm a psycho-burnout fed with a death wish. Just the kinda guy Delta Green goes trawling for. Just like you're going to be, unless you get killed first. Why would a covert government agency want a guy like me? Because only a psycho-burnout with a death wish would take a Delta Green assignment.
Did I say "covert government agency?" Is Delta Green a covert government agency? Well, yes . . . sort of.
Or, at least, once upon a time.
Once upon a time there was a group of men who could see clearly and who were willing to take responsibility to do what needed doing. They were called Delta Green. However, while doing what needed to get done, they did it wrong. Hence, Delta Green no longer exists. Officially anyways.
We still see and we still do what needs to get done, only today, if we get caught doing what needs to get done, we'll be doing time. Because no one in their right mind is ever going to believe what needs to get done.
"What needs to get done?" For a start, books need to be burned, artifacts smashed into powder, men need to be silenced, and, ultimately, the future must never be allowed to become the present.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Secret Services: The Diogenes Club
The Diogenes Club was first introduced in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, "The Greek Interpreter." Holmes's smarter brother Mycroft Holmes was a member of the club, about which Sherlock said, "The Diogenes Club is the queerest club in London, and Mycroft one of the queerest men." We learn little about the club in that first appearance, getting only the following description from Sherlock:
"There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger's Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere."Later, in the "The Bruce-Partington Plans", Holmes and his assistant John Watson have the following exchange:
I had some vague recollection of an explanation at the time of the Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. "You told me that he had some small office under the British government."Aside from these tantalizing hints, Doyle never revealed much more about Mycroft's clandestine role in the British government, or about the Diogenes Club itself.
Holmes chuckled. "I did not know you quite so well in those days. One has to be discreet when one talks of high matters of state. You are right in thinking that he is under the British government. You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British government."
In the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder offered an explanation--the Diogenes Club is revealed to be a clandestine intelligence agency for the British government, with Mycroft as its head. It was a clever idea, and one that other writers of Sherlockian adventures would pick up and run with.
Enter Kim Newman.
In his 1992 novel Anno Dracula, the first in the series of the same name, Newman introduced Charles Beauregard, a member of the Diogenes Club and player in the "Great Game," a secret operative of Her Majesty's Government. The novel is, of course, set in a world in which vampires are real, and in which Bram Stoker's Dracula was a bit of wishful propaganda. In this world, Count Dracula has ensconced himself as Victoria's new prince consort, and vampires are the new ruling class in Britain. In later installments in the series, Beauregard and other operatives of the Diogenes Club play a central role. (If you haven't read the Anno Dracula novels, for god's sake, what are you waiting for?!)
One of Newman's strongest gifts as a writer, I think, is his ability to rework and repurpose characters from his own work (and from that of other hands) in new and interesting ways, remixing familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. The Diogenes Club is perhaps the best example of that. Beginning as Doyle's club for silent misanthropes, expanded by Billy Wilder into a clandestine government agency, and then staffed by Newman himself by Beauregard and a host of other operatives, it was with the multipart-novella "Seven Stars" that the Diogenes Club finally took shape.
"Seven Stars" is set not in the vampire-infested alternate history of Anno Dracula, but in a history more closely resembling our own. But, like the characters in Michael Moorcock's Multiverse and DC Comics' "Imaginary Stories", which Newman cites as early influences, the characters from Newman's stories have a habit of spawning off alternate versions in other realities, and the Diogenes Club is no exception. In a history more like ours, then, the Diogenes Club is not merely a clandestine government agency, but is a clandestine government agency that handles all of the cases that the normal authorities can't--the paranormal, the occult, the strange. And that earns them a spot of honor on this list of "secret services."
Here's Newman explaining the story's origins in his own words (from the afterword to The Man from the Diogenes Club, about which more in a moment).
In the 1990s, Stephen Jones edited an anthology called Dark Detectives: Adventures of the Supernatural Sleuths, dedicated to the subcategory of weird tale in which detectives, in the traditions of Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, tackle cases that involve the supernatural or the strange. The book represented William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone, Clive Barker’s Harry D’Amour and Jay Russell’s Marty Burns. Also in the “magnifying glass and wooden stake” business are Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, Anthony Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen, Bram Stoker’s (and Chris Roberson’s—but not Stephen Sommers’) Van Helsing, The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, Jeff Rice’s (and Dan Curtis’, Richard Matheson’s, Darren McGavin’s and David Case’s) Carl Kolchak and a run of comic book or strip characters famous (Dr. Strange, Batman in a certain mood), middling cult (the Phantom Stranger, Zatanna) or obscure (Cursitor Doom, anyone? Dr. Thirteen?).It was with the creation of Richard Jeperson that the Diogenes Club really takes off, I think. Since "Seven Stars" Newman has returned to Jeperson time and again, with nearly all of the stories to date collected in the pages of MonkeyBrain Books' The Man From the Diogenes Club (and check out the spiffy John Picacio cover below).
Steve asked me to contribute to the book. I’ll let him describe what happened next. “After I had explained to Kim that the book would be themed along a loosely assembled chronology, we came up with the concept (probably over glasses of wine and beer) that it would be fun to have one serial-like case that would be investigated across the centuries by many of the characters he had created in his earlier novels and stories. These episodes would then be interspersed amongst the contributions from other writers to the book.” Since part of the point of doing sleuth stories is that you can do a whole series—unless, like E. C. Bentley, you kick off with a book called Trent’s Last Case—my plan was to have the serial that wound up being called “Seven Stars” feature detectives I’d written about in earlier stories or novels. The Victorian section (“The Mummy’s Heart”) revisits adventurer Charles Beauregard and journalist Kate Reed, who were in Anno Dracula; a WWII-set Los Angeles interlude (“The Trouble with Barrymore”) uses the anonymous narrator (plainly, a version of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe) who’d been in a Lovecraft-Chandler pastiche called “The Big Fish”; the “contemporary” 1990s section (“Mimsy”) is a semisequel to my novel The Quorum, featuring London private eye/single mum Sally Rhodes, etc.
“The only problem,” Steve says, “was that Kim did not have a psychic investigator for the period covering the 1970s. Of course that was no problem for Kim, who simply went back to his very first efforts at fiction while still a schoolboy and revived the character of ostentatious amnesiac Richard Jeperson, along with his striking associate Vanessa and ex-police constable Fred Regent. Inspired by such TV characters as Jason King, The Avengers, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who and the novels of Peter Saxon and Frank Lauria, Jeperson made his official debut with the novella ‘The End of the Pier Show’ in my 1997 anthology Dark of the Night: New Tales of Horror and the Supernatural.”
Here's Newman again, on the origins of the character of Jeperson in particular:
When I created Richard, I gave no thought to him as a “typical” character of the 1970s. This wasn’t just because I was eleven: I didn’t think of Sally Rhodes as a 1980s/90s character when I created her, but the stories she appears in now seem to me rooted in those decades. When I went back to Richard, I saw that he was a very 1970s fellow, and I spotted all the influences Steve later pointed out, and made an effort to work in even more. A few remain well-enough known to need no further explanation: The Avengers, a 1960s show well-remembered in the ’70s (and sequelised in The New Avengers), and various incarnations of the Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who or James Bond franchises (even Scooby-Doo’s Mystery, Inc.). But also in the mix that informs Jeperson and his world are less-often-repeated UK TV series: psychic detective efforts like Ace of Wands (little Neil Gaiman’s favourite—about a mystery-solving magician named Tarot and his owl Ozymandias) and The Omega Factor (ESP and spy stuff from 1979—now out on DVD) and Victoriana like The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (with Donald Pleasence in one episode as Carnacki) and Robert Muller’s Supernatural (about a tale-tellers’ institution, the Club of the Damned). While Columbo, McCloud, Kolchak, Rockford, et. al., were busy in America, British television had ’tecs, cops and spies like Jason King (played by Peter Wyngarde in Department S and the sillier sequel series Jason King), Marker (Alfred Burke in The Public Eye), Callan (Edward Woodward—Best Spy Show Ever, it’s official!), Barlow and Watt (Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor, who started in realistic shows like Z Cars and Softly Softly, then moved to poring over historical evidence about Jack the Ripper and Richard III), Paul Temple (Francis Matthews), The Incredible Robert Baldick (a terrific one-off by Terry Nation, starring Robert Hardy), Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve) and The Professionals.Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed a few familiar references in there. The Guardians, perhaps? Or maybe Omega Factor?
Also, the racks at W. H. Smith’s were loaded with 30p-a-throw paperbacks mingling mystery and the occult, often with a vaguely counterculture tinge and under 120 pages: Robert Lory’s Dracula series (which began, like Richard Jeperson, with an instalment called Dracula Returns), Frank Lauria’s books about Owen Orient (Doctor Orient, Lady Sativa), Philip José Farmer’s racy Image of the Beast and Blown, Peter Saxon’s Guardians series (The Haunting of Alan Mais, The Killing Bone, etc), Richard Tate’s lone “Marcus Obadiah Mystery” For the Dead Travel Fast, anthologies edited by Michel Parry and Peter Haining, Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell (who’d started writing when he wasn’t much older than I was then—and was much better at it), and pulpy New English Library one-offs like Night of the Vampire or Village of Blood. These were the things I read in the 1970s, and which percolated—along with fashions, music, food, politics, jokes, interior design (we had inflatable chairs in our living room, which was papered with pictures clipped from Sunday supplements), attitudes, haircuts, scandals, slang—in my subconscious for the years I wasn’t thinking of writing about Richard Jeperson. When I came to him again, all this stuff bubbled up, and filled out his world. Most of the stories started with me thinking about aspects of the 1970s or vintage occult mystery fiction I wanted to play with—leftover seaside arcades (I remember working dioramas exactly like the execution collection in “End of the Pier Show”) and the brand of hooliganism found in NEL books popular at my school (Skinhead, etc., by Richard Allen—author, under another name, of Count Dracula and the Virgins of the Undead), the changing tone of British smut, brainwashing camps in picturesque countryside retreats like in The Prisoner, something set on a train (a 1960s TV serial had Laurence Payne as Sexton Blake solving a mystery on a train), the huge underground installations blown up at the end of every Bond film, etc.
But the casefiles of the Diogenes Club have not been closed with the 70s adventures of Richard Jeperson and crew. Newman has continued to write stories about Beauregard and the other operatives of the Diogenes Club, and also visited Jeperson in later years and shown the agency in decline. Many of these were collected in MonkeyBrain Books second Newman collection, Secret Files of the Diogenes Club (and below Lee Moyer's amazing cover below), and there are still more coming out all the time. The novella "Sorcerer Conjurer Wizard Witch" in Marvin Kaye's new SFBC anthology, A Book of Wizards, is arguably one of the best of the sequence to date.
As I say, Newman's Diogenes Club stories are a particular favorite of mine, and a significant influence on my own work. I've cited them many times as one of the proximate inspirations for the Bonaventure-Carmody stories, for which reason Newman is one of the three authors to whom the forthcoming End of the Century is dedicated. And one of the principal motivations for starting up MonkeyBrain Books in the first place was so that I could publish collections of some of my favorite stories, the Diogenes Club tales among them. If you're looking for terrific stories about clandestine government agencies that investigate the occult, you'll not find better than Kim Newman's.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Secret Services: Vector 13
I'm also leaving out things like the MIB from the Men in Black films, because they really don't do much "occult investigating," but instead simply police aliens on Earth. And I'll be skipping over anything from The X-Files, since a pair of FBI agents working on their own doesn't really constitute a "team" (though I suppose a case could be made for including the shadowy government conspiracy from the series).
Why, then, am I including 2000 AD's "Vector 13"? Because I'm arbitrary, I suppose.
Vector 13 is kind of a corner case. The series which ran intermittently in the pages of 2000 AD from 1995 through 1998 is presented as the "Case histories of Vector 13," a clandestine goverment agency (just which government is never specified) that investigates the paranormal. There's a real kitchen sink approach in the stories, ranging from aliens to demons, from time-travel to cryptids. As Shaky Kane scripts in their first appearance in Prog 951, "Pay close attention. Everything strange is true."
Here's how the outfit was described in later issues.
Do you disbelieve?As much territory as Vector 13 covered, though, they were never really much more than presenters, on the level of Cain and Abel in the old House of Secrets and House of Mystery comics, or even Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. The Men in Black only rarely had any kind of agency (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun), seldom appearing in the stories themselves, and most often relegated to sitting in darkened rooms reviewing the actions of others. Each of the outings were self-contained shorts, in the tradition of the old "Future Shocks" and "Time Twisters" series, written and drawn by a Who's Who of mid-90s British comics creators--Dan Abnett, Peter Hogan, Nick Abadzis, Gordon Rennie, Shaky Kane, John Ridgway, Steve Yeowell, Chris Weston, et cetera, et al. Many of the stories are no better than you'd expect, but there's some real gems hidden in there, as well.
Vector 13 is a covert Government agency which protects Earth from the truth of the universe. Stored in the Vector 13 case files are accounts of strange phenomena, ranging from the paranormal to the impossible. Every week V13's operatives, the legendary Men in Black, present a fresh case from these frightening files, full of declassified terrors. But whats is the truth and what is mere disinformation? That's for the Men in Black to know and you to find out.
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
Secret Services: Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense
The in-story origin for the BPRD is that it was founded in the waning days of the Second World War by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom," of course) to investigate paranormal phenomenon. The actual relationship between the BPRD and the government is a little unclear, I think. In the earliest appearances it seemed to be a branch of the United States government, but with ties to the British government as well. Since then connections to other nations and governments have been hinted, that the Bureau is perhaps related in some way to the United Nations or that it is a private organization that receives funding from various sources, governments included. (In the film version, this is simplified by having the BPRD be a clandestine branch of the US government, founded by FDR at Bruttenholm's suggestion.) Regardless, it is clearly a "governmental agency" of some kind.
In the earliest stories, the BPRD served primarily as Hellboy's supporting cast. Other field agents included the aquatic Abe Sabien and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, along with regular humans like Kate Corrigan and any number of red shirts that fell before the claws of various and sundry monsters. Later miniseries introduced the homunculus Roger, and the ectoplasmic Johann Kraus.
At the end of the Conqueror Worm miniseries, Hellboy quits the BPRD, in part out of protest that Roger the homunculus was being treated shabbily, and in part in reaction to some of the secrets he'd discovered about his own origins. With Hellboy going off to have solo adventures in a variety of shorts, one-shots, and mini-series, the BPRD was spun off into it's own series of mini-series, scripted by Mignola, Chris Golden, and others.
Eventually the creative team coalesced, with Mignola cowriting with John Arcudi and the incomporable Guy Davis providing the art. With the introduction of hard-bitten former Marine Benjamin Daimo (who goes the eyepatched Nick Fuy one better by having a huge open scar running from the corner of his mouth to his left ear) and the relocation of the team to an abandoned military facility in the mountains of Colorado, the BPRD had really come into its own as a series.
The "series of mini-series" of BPRD, with the contributions of Mignola, Arcudi, and Davis, has developed into one of the most satisfying ongoing comics currently on the stands. The success of the book has lead to the launch of additional spin-offs. Lobster Johnson, featuring scripts by Mignola and art by Jason Armstrong, recounts the WWII-era adventures of the pulp hero, and was soon followed by BPRD: 1946, in which writers Mignola and Joshua Dysart and artist Paul Azaceta recount the earliest days of the agency with Professor Bruttenholm in post-war Berlin. More recently, a whole raft of miniseries and one-shots spotlighting the various agents of the Bureau have been released, including Abe Sapien: The Drowning, Johann Kraus in BPRD: The Ectoplasmic Man, and Roger the homunculus in the first issue of BPRD: The War on Frog, with successive issues spotlighting other characters.
Impressively, all of these various series and stories, by various hands, all cohere together to form a much larger tapestry of story, gradually revealing a small number of much larger threats that have been slowly building in the background. That is thanks in no small part, I think, to the contributions of still another group of writers, Steve Weiner, Victoria Blake, and Jason Hall, who under Mignola's direction have compiled The Hellboy Companion, a one-volume encylopedia of the Hellboy universe that also serves as a kind of "series Bible" for the franchise.
after Hellboy leaves. I can't recommend the various series highly enough.
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Secret Services: Bureau 13
I know of the Bureau 13 game only by reputation, as I never played it myself. I think I first encountered the name in connection with JM Strackzinski's Babylon 5, that featured in the episode "A Spider in the Web" a clandestine organization by that name. As he later explained it, JMS had been unaware that the name had previously been used in Tucholka's rpg, and when he was told about the earlier use, he left off using the name. (Though I know I'm not the only one to hear echoes in Star Trek's "Section 31," which first appeared a few years later.)
Tucholka's Bureau 13, which was also featured in a series of novels by Nick Pollotta, was apparently a somewhat tongue-in-cheek version of the "secret government occult investigation agency" idea, and interestingly predated nearly all of the most popular variations on that theme.
Here's the description of the outfit from the official site (where PDFs of the original game and modules are available, should anyone be interested):
Bureau 13 is one of the earlier examples of an organization dedication explicitly to occult investigation was tied to a government agency, following The Omega Factor's Department 7. Marvel Comics's SHIELD got up to similar occult shenanigans as early as the 60s, as I recall, but their basic remit was espionage and law enforcement--Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division--so they don't really count in my book. Interestingly, though, the introduction recently of SWORD--Sentient World Observation and Response Department--a sister organization devoted to extraterrestrial threats, suggests the intriguing possibility that an occult variation is at least possible. As for British agencies in the Marvel Universe that handle such matters, such as RCX, WHO, Black Air, and the current MI-13--and with a familiar prime numeral in the name, to boot--I'll be coming back to them eventually...
The history of the human race is filled with evidence of eerie and unexplained happenings. Our myths, legends, and fairy tales consistently reaffirm that the supernatural exists. This knowledge of the "supernatural" has been with mankind since before the dawn of history. Mostly these occurrences were misunderstood and greatly feared by the general populace. With no organization, it was usually the small mobs of angry peasants that stalked the creatures of the night, and, more often than not, exterminated the supernatural, good and evil.
Always, though, there have been a few who were capable of discerning the passing difference between good and evil.
In the early 1860's, the government of the United States established a secret supernatural investigative agency under the cover of the Civil War. Only a few top officials knew of its existence and it became known simply as "Bureau 13." For the next century, the few employees of the Bureau went quietly about their business of secretly ferreting out and eliminating the destructive aspects of the supernatural.
So successful were their efforts that the memories of the public dimmed and the fear of the unknown was replaced by awe (and suppressed fear) of new technologies. Foreign branches of the organization were established in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The years have passed and worldwide memories have failed. The public has come to believe that magic and the supernatural are the stuff of children's dreams and nightmares. They are wrong.
Bureau 13, now an ultramodern force, more secret than before, fights to stem the growth of ancient magic and the supernatural that threatens the innocent.
Wherever the supernatural waits, good and evil, the Agents of Bureau 13 will be there but...evil is growing.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Secret Services: Department 7
I came to The Omega Factor late, only discovering it in December of 2006. The series ran an all-too-brief 10 episodes between 1978 and 1979, but thankfully the whole run is now available on DVD. The cast includes Louise Jameson, "Leela" from Doctor Who, and really, what else do you need to know?
The back cover of the show's 1979 novelization describes Department 7 thus:
There is a highly-secret government organisation called Department 7. Its existence is known only to the Prime Minister and some members of the Cabinet. Its brief is to investigate the Supernatural: to discover the Omega Factor. Journalist Tom Crane has been given the same brief by a Sunday newspaper and suddenly finds himself confronting inexplicable and even terrifying situations.
A confirmed sceptic, he insists on finding out why. The enigmatic members of Department 7 are equally interested. For Tom Crane the search for psychic phenomena leads first to a discovery about himself which he is unwilling to face.
The Omega Factor is a stunning new thriller based on a BBC 1 TV series, which explores the eerie world of the occult and the paranormal.
The Omega Factor is about the mysteries behind the seeming normality of everyday modern life; the night and darkness of human experience.
The Omega Factor will appeal to the nervous child in all of us, determined to conquer fear, and find out what is hidden inside a darkened room.
The summary from the show's entry on Wikipedia offers a bit more detail:
The series concerns journalist Tom Crane (James Hazeldine), who finds that he possesses psychic powers which in turn bring him to the attention of the team of scientists who comprise Department 7, a secret "need to know only" government off-shoot investigating paranormal phenomena and the potential of the human mind. The phenomena explored include hypnosis, brainwashing, extra-sensory perception, telekinesis, poltergeist phenomena, out-of-body experiences and spiritual possession.The Omega Factor marks the first time I can think of that a team of occult investigators was explicitly linked with a clandestine government agency. There may have been some influence by the earlier Doomwatch, about a government agency tasked with monitoring various (ostensibly real world) scientific threats, or by Doctor Who's UNIT, for that matter, who mostly shot at aliens--and missed.
Crane joins Department 7 as a means of finding and revenging himself on Edward Drexel (Cyril Luckham), a powerful rogue psychic who is in part responsible for the death of Crane's wife in an automobile accident. His work with the department, and his own psychic gift, lead Crane to suspect a deadly conspiracy by a mysterious organisation called Omega to take over the world using mind control. The members of Department 7 include physicist Dr. Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson), an old friend of Crane's wife; and the shady head of the department, psychiatrist Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Most episodes see the driven and impetuous Crane in impatient conflict with the cautious and secretive Martindale, with Anne (who falls in love with Crane, though she also has a brief relationship with Martindale) caught in the middle. Various subplots develop over the course of the series - notably Crane's hunt for Drexel, his growing suspicions about the Omega conspiracy and his developing relationship with Anne.
The show was years ahead of its time, which is probably best evidenced by the fact that it lasted only a single season. Of course, it's early demise can also be blamed on a public outcry about the show's supposed indecency--moralist Mary Whitehouse reportedly called the show "thoroughly evil," which is a ringing endorsement in my book.
I've only watched the first third of the series, and keep meaning to find time and go back and finish off the series, but the episodes that I watched were well worth it.
Secret Services: The Guardians
I have the Groovy Age of Horror blog to thank for introducing me to The Guardians, a series of novels published by Berkley Medallion in the 60s under the housename "Peter Saxon." (Only after reading about it on the Groovy Age did I remember an early 80s interview with Chris Claremont, in which he discussed how the duel on the astral plane between Gideon Cross and an aboriginal shaman served as the inspiration for the psionic duel in "Psi War," which John Byrne illustrated in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #117.)
The Guardians were a team of occult investigators based in London of the swinging sixties. As the back cover blurb of the first volume in the series, The Killing Bone, puts it, "Sorcery, Voodo, Satanism, Witchcraft, Necromancy, Vampirism... wherever and whatever the agents of occult Evil are, THE GUARDIANS are there to combat them with their own more-than-mortal powers." First published in 1968, the Guardians are an independent team, not part of any government agency, clandestine or otherwise, but their basic setup prefigures many of the government-backed secret services that would follow.
In particular, the Guardians sets the standard for later secret services in being composed of quirky individuals with their own powers and short-comings. Not a million miles away from DC Comics' Doom Patrol and Marvel Comics' The X-Men in that regard, both of which featured teams of superpowered individuals brought together by mysterious wheelchair-bound figures; both comics first appeared in 1963, five years before the publication of the first Guardians novel. I don't know enough about the circumstances of the Guardians' creation to say there was any direction influence, but the team functions very much like a comic book super-team, recast in pulp-occult terms. (This may not have been the first time this was done, for all I know, but it most definitely wasn't the last.)
I'll quote Curt Purcell's description of the characters from the Groovy Age blog:
GIDEON CROSS: The founder, the oldest member, and the most powerful in his occult talents. He is the only member who actually lives in their building, in top-floor chambers that are strangely insulated from the bustle of modern London just beyond the windows. He almost never joins the Guardians in the field, and sometimes even declines to volunteer knowledge that might prove valuable on a case. But when circumstances force his hand and leave him no choice but to intervene . . . whoa! I don't think any of the others actually like him, and most feel a vague distrust of him--an uneasy uncertainty about his motives.I've read only the first of the Guardian novels, The Killing Bone, and found it surprisingly good. A clean narrative style and clever characterization rises the text above what its more humble pulp roots might suggest. And the covers by Jeff Jones are particularly striking. I've been meaning to hunt down the other three novels in the series, and after diving back into all of this occult investigator stuff the last few weeks, I may just do so, sooner rather than later.
STEVEN KANE: The leader. Picture a man who would look like a "Steven Kane," and you've got him: dark hair and eyes, athletic and fit, a bit taller than average, refined but with a touch of ruggedness. He's generic enough to invite easy identification from a mostly-male popular audience, but individualized enough to sustain interest throughout the series. Formerly a professor of anthropology, he has modest psychic abilities, and a wide-ranging knowledge of the occult.
FATHER JOHN DYBALL: The obligatory priest, "Anglo-Catholic." Of course he handles the exorcisms, and his prayers are as spectacularly, ridiculously efficacious as they must be in a high-octane horror-action series like this. His stint as the chaplain for a commando regiment gave him the training and toughness to pull his own weight when the rough stuff starts.
ANNE ASHBY: Dark lady, femme fatale. I think that's her on the cover of Dark Ways to Death. At least that's how I like to picture her! Of the active members (that is, not counting Cross), she's the most formidable psychic, and her jewelry consists of artifacts that enhance her natural powers. Naturally, she also kicks ass with martial arts. She has some weird connection with Cross that disturbs the other Guardians. A sexual relationship is hinted at, though she professes a distaste for him. He and she may even have known each other in previous incarnations--and he may have burned her as a witch in one of those!
LIONEL MARKS: This rotund gentleman rounds out the group with his superb talent for mundane investigation. He can get the facts on anyone, tail them anywhere, work his way into their circle, and figure out in his own world-weary manner what makes them tick. He's the most hardheaded and "normal" of the bunch, with no psychic abilities whatsoever. Still, he's one of the best at what he does, and the Guardians couldn't do without him.
Secret Services: Introduction
Saturday night, after Georgia had gone off to bed, I watched the pilot episode of JJ Abrams's new series, Fringe. I'd put off watching it because one of my Rules of Television (along with "No doctor shows, no cop shows, no lawyer shows") is "Watch nothing on Fox until it comes out on DVD." After the experience of Firefly, Wonderfalls, and too many others to mention them all, I've been burned by Fox more times than I care to remember, with episodes of new series aired out of order, series bounced around the schedule week after week, until finally being cancelled before all of the completed episodes have been aired. But I've been hearing from a lot of folks whose opinions I trust that Fringe was worth checking out, and after watching the first episode I'm inclined to agree. Allison was out of town for business over the weekend, so I'm tempted to make her watch the first episode, so she and I can watch the others that we have recorded together. It's an Abrams show, so I'm fully prepared for it to fall apart at any minute, but after watching the first episode I'm willing to give it a bit of rope.
In any case, seeing two shows about a team of quirky "secret scientists" who investigate the strange and unknown got me thinking about other treatments of the same concept. I've recently reread all of Mike Mignola's Hellboy and related titles, and have been doing some work on my own "Bureau Zero" for a few projects in the early stages of development. This kind of "investigators into the odd" thing is something that really resonates with me, and it's probably not surprising that I find on the shelves of my personal library a lot of different interpretations on the theme.
I considered doing a post on the topic, but just putting together the images I could use as illustrations suggested that it would make for a long post. So I've decided to tackle it in several parts. I'll try to group them thematically, but fully expect them to become pretty hodgepodge as I go along.
Consider this fair warning, then, that I'll be doing a few image heavy posts on the topic of "Secret Services" over the course of the coming days.