You find yourself at the bar of the Plot Hook Inn, the portly fellow serving drinks gives you a cautious smile. Nearby several roughs cajole one another, the dwarven ale having already begun its work in earnest. A pair of scholars argue animatedly over the newest arcane conjectures from the nearby Mage’s College. A figure in a dark cloak, its features shadowed by a deep cowl, beckons you over to its table with a thin, scabrous hand. What do you do?
It’s okay, you don’t need to answer that question right now. Ultimately it won’t matter. A million steps from now, when you’re slaying evil wizard-kings and despoiling dragon hordes, the actions you took in that bar will be a cloudy memory.
But those choices are the beginning. The first step. Your own personal “Once upon a time…”.
At this point you must be thinking, “Hold on, wait, what in the heck are you talking about here? I thought this was supposed to be about comic books? This sounds like D&D or something.”
You’re not wrong but trust me, I’ll bring it back around.
For those completely unfamiliar with the concept Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game, one of the first actually. This basically means that it is a game in which a bunch of people sit together at a table and play roles within a (generally) predetermined setting and set of rules which make it more game-like, rather than just long form improv. Most of the time these settings and rules are overseen by someone referred to as the Gamemaster (GM for short) and they work to craft a story with the other players who take on the part of the main characters. That isn’t always how things work but in the case of D&D this is the gist.
After that you get all the trimmings. Game manuals that can read like textbooks. People talking in funny accents and using words like “Planar” and “Vorpal”. Taking time out from whatever else life may be throwing at you to spend a few hours pretending you are a Halfling Barbarian named Biggie MacFeeg. And rolling dice. Rolling so many dice.
Most of that has become window dressing to me. From the beginning it was the story that brought me back to the table, week after week, for the last decade of my life. Sitting down with my friends, crafting tales of desperate action against impossible odds. I live for it. Whether I was playing as a character or running the game as a GM (mostly the latter), I loved working with others to shape a compelling story.
The push and pull of creative energy that can exist within games like D&D is an intoxicating experience for me. The exchange of thoughts and ideas, with each player at the table bringing a different outlook to what is going on; it’s a certain type of magic.
Reread that first paragraph now. Where would you go? What would you do? How do you react to the world I’ve presented you with?
As the GM, no matter how clearly I might paint you a picture with my words, you bring your own thoughts and feelings into that scenario and it changes what I might have in my head. Your actions after that reflect into my world, changing what I saw and continuing to evolve the story. With more people at the table it becomes a fractal of ever-evolving narrative.
Creating a story together. It’s magic.
That’s how I see it. That’s why I love it.
“But Gorgone,” you say to yourself, “Comic books…”
Exactly. Comic books. They’re the same thing.
At their best comic books are an entire medium that channels that same creative energy into something tangible and solid. The writer, the artist, the colorist, the letterer, the editor, the book designer. All of these individuals coming together to put something out into the world. To create a story.
It’s a collaboration where all of these disparate parts come to a project. Characters and settings start out as just words on a page somewhere. A name. A place. Together all of these people breathe life into the story, make it move, make it resonate. Each person may not see what they are creating the same way, each brings their own thoughts and feelings and energy to the project. In the end the trade paperbacks that we buy and the single issues that we collect are those same fractals I mentioned given physical form in the medium of comic books.
Primarily we associate this creative fusion dance with the Artist and the Writer. The two pillars of any comic we might read. But if cohosting Panel on Panels has taught me anything, it’s that every layer of creative decision-making going into a book can change it and shape it. For good or ill. At its best, these creative teams can put out some of the best stories ever told.
I certainly started reading comics before I rolled my first twenty-sided die, but I think it was my discovery and appreciation for the collaborative narrative that rekindled my love of the medium.
What I’ve just described is fairly ideal. A utopia of creativity. Unfortunately, it’s not always like that. A GM can try to railroad a story, ignoring what his players might want to do. A player can put their needs above everyone else, letting their ego consume the table. Schedules of busy grownups with jobs and families can get in the way of goblin slaughter and magic missiles.
The same is true in comic books.
I’ve gone on record as saying that Rat Queens is one of my favorite comics. I think I’ve recommended it on the podcast at least three times. It’s a wonderful distillation of some of the inane, dramatic, funny and epic things folks can get into while playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Throw modern wit and sensibilities into a fantasy setting and enjoyment will ensue.
It is also an example of a book held back by a range of problems occurring behind the scenes.
The first issue of Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe was released on September 25, 2013. As of right now (July 26, 2016) there have been sixteen issues released (seventeen if you count the Braga special, which kicks all sorts of ass). That’s close to a third of the output of some other ongoing series. Over the course of nearly three years the book was beset with delays and abrupt changes in creative teams due to messy personal controversy (you can read more about this online, I’ve got opinions but now is neither the time nor the place). After a long string of these issues the book was put on an indefinite hiatus. There were serious questions about whether or not the series would even continue before Wiebe announced recently that it would live on as a webcomic.
I am also very outspoken about my love of webcomics so I’m not saying that the book is necessarily diminished by this change in medium, but it does begin to beg the question: how long can you go attempting to force something so inherently collaborative?
Time and again I have had RPG campaigns come to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Players moved to the other side of the country or just didn’t have time to commit. I abandoned a game system that I found clunky and outdated. We couldn’t schedule a gaming session for months on end and then eventually just stopped trying. It makes for some sad ends to some fantastic stories and that is a tale we’ve seen play out in comic books time and again. Without the synergy that makes these books great, it can be painful to see them linger on as ghosts of their former selves.
Artists and writers move on. Sales on a book drop off. Publishers lose faith in a character.
It is the rare ongoing series that receives a triumphant and poignant end. We live for the good times in the middle and pray that it isn’t too bad when things finally come to some sort of end. Or we hope that we even get an ending at all.
In the case of Rat Queens, we’re seeing that lingering stage now. Until it finds a more permanent home and the people with whom Kurtis J. Wiebe can truly collaborate with, we are only left with the issues we have. I want this book to bounce back. I want these characters to live on and regale me time and again. But much like those wayward campaigns, I have to be ready to accept the fact that it might be over, I might have to move on. You can’t force these things
Thankfully it is a good age for moving on. More and more creator-owned books are coming out every day. Publishers are giving more freedom and support to those great teams of people that come together to create these fantastic stories where none existed before. Ongoing books like Saga and Black Science as well as miniseries like Plutona and Huck are comics where the creative collaborations involved take the medium to the heights I adore. Even books within the big two, like Marvel’s recent Hawkeye run or DC’s Superman: American Alien (I know, a Superman book, crazy right?) can show just how amazing comic books can be.
By that same token, one of the wonderful things about tabletop RPGs is that there is always another one to play. Finding a new combination of people can be tricky at times, but in the end those people are out there. They want to play. They want to create those new stories.
So here’s to all of those stories that I’ll probably never see an end to.
Matt Wagner’s Mage. The Warriors of the Seventh Wind with my Dwarf battle-bard Grimmsbold Glimmerhelm. Dungeons & Dragons by John Rogers and Andrea Di Vito. Those brave fools that explored my supernatural version of Portland; Ewen, Camasia, Craig and Johnathan. Perhaps even Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe.
I may never know your endings, but thank you for the magic you gave me in the middle.