Monday, December 7, 2015

Happy Birthday, Leigh Brackett!

Art by Allen Anderson

December 7 is, of course, a date which has lived in infamy.  Yet every date has good associations as well as bad and December 7, 2015, happens to be the centennial of Leigh Brackett's birth.

In Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax lists two kinds of authors:  “In some cases I cite specific works, in others, I simply recommend all their fantasy writing to you.”  Leigh Brackett is of the latter sort.  This is interesting in that Brackett didn't write fantasy per se ; she wrote 'science fantasy' (as well as westerns and mysteries).  Yet she certainly influenced – and was influenced by – 'traditional' fantasy.  Regardless, the quality of her work transcends genre pidgeonholes.  Among her claims to fame, she wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.  (TLDR?  Here's a summary.)

In a sort of homage to Robert E. Howard, Brackett named a character 'Conan' in Lorelei of the Red Mist (written in collaboration with Ray Bradbury).  It seems that L. Sprague de Camp despaired that he partnered with Lin Carter rather than Brackett when he excavated Howard's legacy for more Conan material.

Brackett's most famous character is Eric John Stark, who first appeared in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” a story from the summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories.  The cover of said issue appears above; the person in the lower left-hand corner is supposed to be Stark.  There are several things wrong with this representation.

First, just what is he wearing?  Is that Martian lederhosen ?  Second, I'm almost certain that Stark doesn't shave his armpits (although I could be wrong).  Finally and most importantly, there's the matter of Stark's skin color.  According to the story, “His skin was almost as dark as his black hair, burned indelibly by years of exposure to some terrible sun.”  (In The Ginger Star, his coloration is described as “dark purple.”)  Other than the Stark books published under Paizo's Planet Stories imprint, illustrations of Stark consistently show him with light skin.  After all, failing to pander to white male power fantasies would be a bad marketing decision (or at least was presumed to be).

Stark was presented in (A)D&D terms in the 'Giants in the Earth' feature of (The) Dragon #28 (August, 1979).  This adaptation is shown below.  The non-game text is largely correct; however, Stark's skin coloration is absent from the description of his physical features.  Also, while Stark is a mercenary, he's of a type occasionally found in the province of fiction – a 'principled' mercenary.  “He'll sell you out, he'll cut your throat, if he thinks it best for the barbarians,” a character explains in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs.”  Stark aids indigenous peoples oppressed by Terran expansionism.  I think this is a noteworthy qualifier to his mercenary status.

The description includes a random table to establish the nature of an encounter with Stark.  I suspect this is Moldvay's work.  Random determination of behavior defeats the purpose of using a detailed, complex character like Stark.

Most of the 'Giants in the Earth' personalities are definitely fantasy characters, even though they are products of their respective settings.  Inserting them into a traditional fantasy campaign poses no difficulty.  However, characters outside the typical scope of fantasy – such as Stark – require some consideration.   The character's knowledge and technology (such as Stark's “plasteel mesh armor”) can cause unintended (and perhaps drastic) consequences in a campaign.  Also, being transplanted to an alien environment will necessarily alter a (non-player) character's outlook and motivation.

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