February 18, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
For a time in high school, I played Dungeons and Dragons, conquering mythical worlds, slaying dragons, and fighting evil with my paladin, Gutski the Gallant. For a couple of months between youth soccer and my eventual discovery of beer and girls, my friends and I would play all night through sieges and scenarios, fueled only by junk food and the hopes that the dice would roll our way.
Jason Thompson's new graphic novel brought many of those memories back. King of RPGs is the story of a college freshman group of gamers and is delightfully over the top. As funny as it is action-packed, this manga is a shrewd comedy about geek culture.
King of RPGs is a parody/homage to Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop roleplaying games crossed with Japanese shonen (boys') manga--comics which are generally full of passionate, over-the-top fighting, action and sentimentality. Although most manga are aimed at 14-year-olds and the genre calls for happy endings and friendship, there is also a big audience for badass characters, like the heroes of Bastard!!, GTO and Iron Wok Jan, who mouth off, act rude, and generally behave in the most socially unacceptable way possible (except when the chips are down, when they turn out to be good guys…or don't).
The same desire to act free and wild and antisocial, I think, motivates a lot of people who play RPGs and video games. Of course, there are many other motivations for roleplaying…from the thrill of acting and losing yourself in the skin of another, to the feeling of imaginary triumphs, to the polymath creative challenge of creating a world and its inhabitants and responding to the players' actions, Dungeon Mastering as a form of art. The music I listened to while writing King of RPGs was a combination of mystical, weird fantasy themes and music of adolescent aggression and acting-out…what Annalee Newitz called "nerd rage." The rage took the form of punk rock, heavy metal, and most of all rap music. I also wanted music that would fill me with adrenaline and inspire me to keep working.
Beastie Boys, "Putting Shame in your Game"
You be like hello nasty where you been
It's time you brought the grimy beats out the dungeon
Hello Nasty is my favorite Beastie Boys album because it got a lot of radio airtime in 1998 when I was sitting up late working on my first comic, H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Eminem, "Without Me"
Little Hellions, kids feelin' rebellious
Embarrassed their parents still listen to Elvis
This song is great for two reasons: firstly, it reminds me of one of the characters in King of RPGs, and secondly, it's about censorship and hysteria over inappropriate media content. Most media censors today are obsessed more with video games or MMORPGs than tabletop role-playing, a sign of video games' economic and cultural weight, but most video games are the descendants of tabletop RPGs anyway and it's all part of the same pattern of the forces of Law and Order (whether Lawful Good or Lawful Evil) trying to stamp down on escapism. The spectacle of middle-class white kids imagining themselves as gangstas (enjoying the machismo but not having to deal with the poverty, racism, etc.) also grotesquely parallels D&D players indulging their fantasies in the role of barbarians and lizard men, which are probably equally unreal to them.
Battlemaster, "Power Word Kill" "The Mindflayer's Addiction"
Battlemaster (their first CD: Warthirsting and Winterbound) is an obscure metal group which focuses on D&D-ish music. My onetime fellow party member Allan Horrocks (aka Maxar the wizard), who works at Aquarius Records in San Francisco, introduced them to me.
The Bloodhound Gang, "Fire Water Burn"
Full of venom and sarcasm and total nihilism. This song makes me think of its horrible ironic usage in Michael Moore's Farenheit 451, when one of the soldiers in Iraq says he likes to listen to it when in combat.
Mickey Avalon, "My Dick," "So Rich, So Pretty"
More rap, more over-the-top machismo. "My Dick" was the song which introduced me to Mickey Avalon, who, like the Bloodhound Gang, is referenced in King of RPGs.
The Dayglo Abortions, "Dragons"
I am the master of this world
I could have the earth devour you where you stand
You exist for my pleasure
You'll soon wish you never stepped into my dungeon
What screams "D&D" more than a song about a power-crazed Dungeon Master boasting of his plans to annihilate the adventurers? (Yes, I know that my fellow roleplayers out there are thinking, "But that's a total misrepresentation of gaming! The Dungeon Master shouldn't be in an antagonistic role! You're just encouraging stereotypes!" Now that I've acknowledged this, let me mumble something about re-appropriating stereotypes and then move on…) Carl Gustav Horn introduced me to this one.
Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, "I Can Make You a Man" (original and reprise version)
A weakling weighing 98 pounds
Will get sand in his face when kicked to the ground
But soon at the gym, with a determined chin
The sweat on his jaws as he works for his cause
I love Rocky Horror, and this is a great character song: a perfect expression of a young DM's breathless desire to mold his favorite player into the ultimate roleplaying muscle, with whom he can spend countless Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons happily gaming away the hours. Rocky Horror, and the works of Richard O'Brien in general, are very roleplay- and fantasy-themed even if that roleplaying and fantasy is of a sexual nature rather than a rolling-the-dice nature. It's all interconnected on some level, and it can't be entirely an accident that these very different subcultures use the same terminology.
The Cuckolds, "2Pac"
The Cuckolds is the rap group spearheaded (I mean that in the most Freudian possible way) by comic artist Jason Shiga. If you can find their album Shiga Please, it's unforgettable. "2Pac" was intended as a parody of homophobic rap music, making it the natural culmination of the other elements introduced so far in the King of RPGs playlist--the macho rap/post-punk homophobic posturing and the manga-style homophilic pure-hearted companionship between teenage boys.
Pearl Jam, "God's Dice"
A great little short song which always wakes me up from whatever I'm doing.
Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, "Pure Imagination"
Come with me and you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
This song with its will-to-power theme and soothing melody is a little too weird for me to embrace nonironically, but once you get past that, it's very appropriate to King of RPGs. In Roald Dahl's original children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka's godlike control-freak omnipotence (like that of Uncle Scrooge) is clearly meant to be pure wish fulfillment; it's interesting that both the movie adaptations felt the need to turn Wonka into a more complex and darker figure.
Peter Gabriel, Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ, "Lazarus Raised"
This beautiful, moody track expresses the weird/surreal element in King of RPGs which begins to break through the clouds a little in chapters 2 and 3 of volume 1. The whole Passion soundtrack is great, although actually, the invigorating "A Different Drum" is my favorite song.
Trevor Jones, Labyrinth Soundtrack, "Thirteen O'Clock"
Awesome final-confrontation villain music. "Labyrinth" is now one of my favorite fantasy movies, although when I saw it when it came out in the 1980s, I had a more lukewarm reaction—I wanted more fighting, more mayhem, more monsters! And I was disappointed by the ending which suggested that it had all been a dream and it was time for the heroine and grow up. But the surrealism and comedy and dark romance which was too much for the literal-minded 1980s me is now what makes the movie so great. And who doesn't love Brian Froud's creature designs, Jim Henson's puppetry, and David Bowie's glam Goblin King outfits?
MGMT, "Time to Pretend"
A perfectly fitting RPG song, even if it's supposedly about the rock lifestyle. But isn't the RPG lifestyle really much more rock than any rock lifestyle? The video is also fitting: with the band members in pseudo-primitive garb jumping around campfires and lobbing spears at giant monsters, surrounded by psychedelic greens and purples and blues, it's a vision which could have been born in some strange Live Action Role Play scenario. I'd much rather listen to "nerdy" music which is filled with energy and passion and take-no-prisoners spirit than nerdy music which is apologetic and self-deprecating, and so I hereby claim "Time to Pretend" as a heraldic song of RPG-dom.
Jason Thompson and King of RPGs links:
The Anime Almanac review
Appy Place review
Comic Book Bin review
Comics Should Be Good! review
Manga Recon review
Manga Worth Reading review
Publishers Weekly review
The RPG Corner review
Sci Fi Soundtrack review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists