Cirsova #5 Free All This Week!

We’ve been running a promotion on twitter, where for every 100 retweets, we’ll make a back issue of Cirsova free.

We’re making #5 free first, because it contains both The First American (Schuyler Hernstrom) and Beyond the Great Divide (S.H. Mansouri), which are finalists for the Planetary Awards and the Ursa Major Awards respectively.

So, download the issue, read those stories, and go vote!


Retrospective: Batman and the Outsiders Vol.1 & Outsiders Vol. 1

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, but I’ve just been so busy that I’m only now getting around to it! A couple weeks back, I finished the original run of Outsiders. That includes Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1, Adventures of the Outsiders (a continuation of BatO vol 1 sans Batman), and Outsiders Vol. 1 (a deluxe format monthly that ran concurrently with the conclusion of BatO post-Crisis, taking place one year after).


Outsiders was a title with peaks and valleys in its relatively brief run. By the time it was cancelled, it’s hard to not look at it as a mercy killing. I won’t say that Looker’s arrival ruined the Outsiders, but many of its best stories predate her addition to the team. After Jim Aparo left the original title, Mike Barr’s writing was still on enough to deliver some great stories, but by the time Jim had left the deluxe format title to other artists, like Erik Larsen (who drew Geo-Force’s chin longer than the rest of his head from the lip up), Mike had started writing for a main-line Batbook and was phoning it in a bit.

The Outsiders were never a great superhero team, and a lot of their team fights were run-of-the-mill Silver Age schlock (to which it was sort of an homage, if not the last gasp). The real charm of the Outsiders was in the deeply personal moments that these characters would sometimes share with each other and the reader.


Halo didn’t exactly have it easy, either, but she’s pretty chipper about it.



For instance, Katana begins as a very complex character; she’s lost her husband and her child and sworn bloody vengeance. Batman helps temper some of that vengeance, and taking care of Halo stirs her maternal instincts, though there’s the tension of being an adoptive mother of a teenage daughter that she has to work through. One of the great touches that I wish more had been done with was Bruce setting Tatsu up with her own oriental bookstore in Gotham as a front; she gets the ball rolling to open a store of her own on the West Coast in the deluxe series, but nothing ever comes of it. You can’t imagine how much I would love a series of Katana solving cozy oriental occult mysteries out of her bookstore. Unfortunately, Katana spends much of Outsiders Vol 1 just being the close-combat character with no powers who speaks in stilted English. While much of Katana’s personal drama actually does get resolved to satisfactory degrees (something I gather that gets rolled back in later books), the series misses out on opportunities to develop her further.


Halo goes through a pretty powerful arc, and has a rough ride, learning she was never human to begin with, finding her human host body was a terrible person, and nearly being absconded with by Kobra cultists while trying to find herself. She unfortunately spends much of Outsiders Vol 1 filling in the twee teenager role, but without near as many of the touching moments, such as when she and Brion were teased at as a couple but mutually backed away—the great “you’re like a sister/I’ve never had a brother before” moment was powerful, especially given Terra’s death over in Titans, but it was a bond that never really developed deeply.


Fans were often split as to whether Katana or Black Lightning were Batman’s #2 on the team while he was leading it. Many folks in the letters especially wished to see Black Lightning step up into the leadership role. And I’ll give Outsiders Vol 1 this: the arc where BL is wanting to try to get back on better terms with his ex-wife, but the African politician behind the food aid charity she’s working with turns out to be an evil dictator who’s stealing the money and turning his country into a Soviet satellite really was the best the deluxe run had to offer. And it was good. But Geo-Force was, for story reasons, the nominal team lead.


Except once Batman left, Brion kinda lost his chill, and Looker showing up to cheat on her husband (and lead Brion to cheat with Denise) didn’t help things. Looker, who was something of a knock-off of Dazzler, is portrayed as a chronic narcissist, is drawn like a drag queen, and never gets any character development beyond “Thot who cheats on her husband who misses her deeply”. Which is a real shame, because her origin arc in the final issues of BatO was really good and set her up to be a potentially better character than she ultimately ended up being.


Emily Briggs ultimately cheats on her husband because he loved her for who she was; she wanted him to be attracted to the attention seeking fame-whore persona she adopted when her physique changed. It’s pretty tragic.


Metamorpho was pretty great throughout. I really have no complaints where Rex was concerned other than the fact that he gets killed off for the garbage Millennium Crossover. He doesn’t get Ben Grimmed too hard, but his condition does give him some motivation. Stuff with he and Sapphire Stagg was solid, and just before he’s killed off, the two of them adopt a child together.


I get that it was a way they could end the comic and it had to tie into Millennium somehow, but making Dr. Jace a Manhunter sleeper agent was a terrible choice. After Batman left, she became the de facto team coordinator (if not leader), since Brion was usually having mantrums. She helped keep the team together, and really even played a role in starting it, since it was she who gave Brion his powers. Making Looker, who had sewn discord among them members of the team pretty much from the moment she showed up to the last battle with the Manhunters, the mole would’ve been a much better twist than making Dr. Jace suddenly evil for no reason.


Barr wrote a brutal, violent, and often petulant Batman, yet somehow his other characters from Outsiders tended to shine the brightest when he was around. His return at the end of Outsiders Vol 1. and the appearance in the Annual (a story that made me reconsider whether Kobra was trash-tier) were bright spots not for him, but for the other team members, but it wasn’t quite enough. Halo’s haircut, Looker being foisted front-and-center on so many occasions, and the character development that made first run what it was getting kind of tossed in some cases, flatlined in others, left an ensemble title with the ensemble spread thin even when the stories themselves were solid.


I need a better camera. I did a grid transfer enlargement of a panel of Geo-Force fighting Superman from BatO 19, one of the best issues. 

It sounds like I’m dumping really hard on a series that I do love, but I guess I kind of am. I’ll admit that a lot of the love I have for the Outsiders is for the potential that the characters and the title had that ultimately go unrealized. But I don’t want anyone to think that there weren’t high points. There were. Lots of them. And that’s why it was hard to watch a title that had so many great moments and great character development begin to grow stale and flanderize some of its best characters.


Oh, yeah, and Atomic Knight is an Outsider for like 3 or 4 issues.

New Story From Michael Reyes + Clock’s Watch On Sale

Michael Reyes has a new horror short in the Silver Empire anthology Secret Stairs.

Also, his anthology of Clock Stories, Clock’s Watch is discounted this week to coincide with the release of Cirsova #7. The action picks up where Clock’s Watch ends with The Iynx, out now in our Spring issue. Be sure to check them all out!

I did some work on Clock’s Watch, writing up story intros and doing some layout work for both interior and exterior. Pick up a copy and let us know how we did on this!

(Reviewed here in SciFi & Scary)

“Beyond the Great Divide” by S.H. Mansouri an Ursa Major Award Finalist

“Beyond the Great Divide”, S.H. Mansouri’s Slagborn tale from our Eldritch Earth issue, is a finalist for the 2017 Ursa Major Awards in the Best Short Fiction category!

The Ursa Major Award is given out in numerous categories for (often SFF) works pertaining to Anthropomorphic non-human characters. In the case of Beyond the Great Divide, that would be our human-hating insectoid/land-crab-men, the Slagborn, who populate some of the more inhospitable regions of the Eldritch Earth.

Anyone can vote!

All you need to do is register to be sent a voter token in your email.


On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class Part 2 – Civilization and Barbarism

The other day, during the discussion about Stark and Barbarians, I noted that Stark does NOT come from the template of European Barbarians, and would be more akin to an African warrior or Indian wild-boy. Cirsova contributor Jon M. Weichsel (whose story “Going Native” will appear in our Summer issue) jumped in, and we drilled down a bit on the nature of “barbarians”, though it’s a digression that took us fairly far from the original topic of Dungeons & Dragons.


Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

JonWeichsel: Yes. Stark is closer to Mowgli or Tarzan than Conan. He was an orphan raised by savage aliens on Mercury and was then rescued and civilized by a human but still carries some of the savage ways he was brought up with. I wouldn’t call him a barbarian.

Bushi: I think there’s an argument for that. There’s also an argument that Mowgli and Tarzan would be barbarians, too. Comparing Conan and Stark in text, they’re both uncivilized men who can function in society but still hold it in contempt.

JonWeichsel: But Conan is a foreigner who adheres to a Barbarian code despite the pressures of civilization. With Stark/Tarzan/other feral children there is an internal conflict between their wild upbringing and their humanity.

Bushi: I understand the distinction as you are laying it out, but I don’t get how they can’t all fall under the barbarian umbrella.

Cirsova: Well, in part because we need to define what we mean by “Barbarian” mechanically. If we mean “Barbarian” in the 1e mechanical sense, Conan’s a Barbarian, Stark is not. If we mean “Barbarian” in the trope as it was understood during the 70s S&S revival, then yes [Stark is]. Also worth noting, in 1e, there’s no restriction on a Barbarian’s armor, so yes, your Conan-esque barbarian could be wearing full plate.

Bushi: I mean a barbarian can mean a tribesman, sure. But it can also just mean a savage, uncivilized person, no?

JonWeichsel: Stark does combine the feral child and barbarian tropes, but as far as literature goes, I’d say barbarian is a social class while feral child is a condition of being. Like, if you found some guy living in the woods who had been raised by wolves, would you call him a barbarian?

Bushi: I probably wouldn’t reject the classification, but it’s possible that [I] don’t have an accurate conception of “barbarian.” As I suggested, I’ve always just kind of thought “one who is apart from civilization; a savage.” I’m sure it’s a useful distinction, just not one I’ve drawn (though perhaps I should?)  Following that line of thought, it’s maybe barbarian vs wild man.

Cirsova: It’s a one-way window. The Civilized person can observe and perceive the Barbarism of another, but to the Barbarian, he simply sees himself and his way of life, not any barbarity. It’s a false/illusory binary. Because Conan and Stark and Tarzan have come to the other side, they can see their own Barbarism from the perspective of civilization, and they are analytical of their past and/or present condition.

Bushi: So would you class Stark, Conan, Tarzan the same?

Cirsova: We’re getting into philosophical stuff that doesn’t reflect at all on D&D’s mechanics, but they all existed in a condition that the civilized man would call “Barbarity”, they all move to a place where they could observe and reflect that Barbarity from a civilized perspective, and they all took very different things from their self-reflection on what the conditions of Barbarity meant and how they contrast for better and worse with a “Civilized” state. The reason it is a false/illusory binary is that the “Barbarian’s” state may also be one of Civilization and a Civilization’s may appear to another as a state of “Barbarity”. Barbarity is not an absence of civilization but a one-sided perceived drastic imbalance between them. Tarzan and Stark were born into more savage (less civilized) circumstances than Kull or Conan, but even Tarzan’s upbringing among the apes was not anarchic.

Bushi: Ok well. I am going to make the great leap and say that absent other evidence barbarian rage comes from Stark. Because it will help me sleep tonight.

On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class

I’ve realized that one of the reasons why you don’t see as much gaming content here as you once did is that much of my energy now goes towards having discussions on game and Appendix N theory with Cirsova Contributor PC Bushi (whose story Antares will appear in our Fall issue) instead of blogging.

So, for those of you who mostly just follow the blog, I thought it would be worthwhile bringing the discussion over here to share some of our insights.

Bushi muses that Stark may have been a more likely inspiration for the Barbarian Rage trope than Conan. The most interesting highlights, though, are that I dug up both Tom Moldvay’s stats for Stark (15th level Fighter), which predates the official Barbarian PC class, and the first official writeup for a Barbarian class in AD&D. While the ur-Barbarian PC class does not feature a “Rage” ability, Moldvay’s Stark does, in which he ‘reverts to N’Chaka’ and gets crazy stat bonuses for a short period of time.

Bushi: So not that Conan doesn’t get pissed and kill people/things, but it strikes me that Eric John Stark is a more likely inspiration for the tropey barbarian rage.

HP: If you’re going to use “barbarian” as a distinct class in an RPG, Stark is the better source material in general.

Bushi: An interesting thesis. Tell me more.

HP: I sort of touch on it here.

Bushi: I don’t think any of that is wrong, but it doesn’t exactly make the argument that Stark is more of a barbarian than Conan. At least the literary Conan.

HP: I’m not saying he more of a barbarian, just better grist for a barbarian class.

Cirsova: I mean, I have made the argument in the past that Conan is what you get when you have 16 STR and 18 CON and say “Think I will roll a Thief then Dual-Class over to Fighter at some point so I can wear heavy armor.”

Gitabushi: Y’all might be overthinking this. D&D draws upon European history (or bad history) as much as fiction. And it draws upon fiction that draws upon fanciful variations of European history. That’s why the Cleric and Paladin are based on Catholic priest-warriors rather than Muslim. So rather than the Barbarian class being based on a literary figure, the class is best seen as based on the legendary Scandinavian Berserker that the literary figures are also based on.

Bushi: Sure. I’m just specifically thinking about the “barbarian rage” thing, which I think D&D probably made ubiquitous. I didn’t mean to imply that barbarians came from D&D. Was talking about “barbarian rage” as a game/media trope. Which I’m sure in part comes from historical berserkers, sure.

Cirsova: I somehow have the sneaking suspicion that most folks playing Barbarians wouldn’t know this and at best would picture Fafhrd & book Conan and at worst picture movie Conan.

“I am playing a barbarian. Basically he’s just a dude who is not Greek.”

And the game probably takes more inspiration from fantasy BS barbarians than actual Norse or Celtic warrior cultures. But it would be interesting to work some equivalent of the Ragnarok passion plays. It would make a great funnel.

Youth of the tribe go to collect their gravegoods, meet with the grave-maiden, fight the “werwolves” in the symbolic world’s death battle around winter solstice, then surprise! Something vaguely Fenrir-like shows up and starts killing people for realsies!

Count Donku: I’ve been beating this drum since forever, but Conan is definitely more of a fighter who dipped a few levels of rogue early in his career, which isn’t really optimal as a PC but he makes up for that with insane stat rolls.

Cirsova (aside): Actually, it would be good at early levels, because with the high con bonus and how quickly thieves level up, he’d have Fighter HP and decent thief skills by the time most folks were reaching level 2.

Bushi: I mean it kind of depends what we mean by “barbarian.” Conan is basically a tribesman who’s accumulated all sorts of different martial and leadership experiences, but Howard always stresses his disdain for civilization. In that regard I’m not really sure he’s any less barbarian. His sharp, primal instincts are often called by by Howard. What I’m referring to is more how Stark seems to fly into legitimate berserk rages and Conan doesn’t. Sure, but Stark also goes to cities. Not like he hates civilization so much that he’s become a hermit, either.

Cirsova: Stark also has PTSD from being left alone on hell world as a child having to fend off giant lizards with a stick until a space cop found and adopted him.

Bushi: Yeah, that could be a big contributor. Anyway my main point was that Stark seems to me like a likely genesis of the sterotypical barbarian flying into a fit of blind rage and killing everything. And yes, as [Gitabushi] says, that can go back further to berserkers.

Cirsova: Stark makes more sense if you look at him as more nuanced version of the Angry Black Man trope; he was marginalized himself, and is an outsider even in the world that took him in, so he sympathizes with and is angry for other marginalized peoples. Sometimes that anger boils over.

Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

Bushi: Also Conan is basically a proto-Celt, no?

Cirsova: Yeah

Bushi: I’m sure the Norse berserkers were an inspiration for these guys, even if they weren’t the only ingredient.

Cirsova: Also, Tom Moldvay has Stark as a 15th level Chaotic Good Fighter in AD&D.

Bushi: Did AD&D have the barbarian class?

Cirsova:  Stark’s stats apparently pre-date the Official inclusion of the Barbarian class. And Moldvay’s stats for Stark include “reverting to N’Chaka” ability, which is basically Rage. Dude, we are “an hour or two’s more research than I have time for” away from a major breakthru in proving you may be right! There is literally now evidence that would support the theory that “Berserker Rage mechanics as it appears as an ability of the Barbarian Class directly descending from some BS Moldvay cooked up to stat Stark.”

Okay, now to burst your bubble. Original AD&D Barbarian class didn’t have Rage. It was originally an outdoorsy, high HP Fighter/Thief/Ranger mix.

Bushi: My question is when did they pick up rage, and was there any cited or suggestion inspiration?

Cirsova: Well, I linked the original official class. I don’t know when Rage was introduced. I don’t have time to research it right now, but I’ll try to aggregate some stuff for a post next week.

Also worth seeing how Rage stacks up to N’Chaka Beastmode: +5 to hit +7 to damage +5 AC penalty +8 save vs. empathic spells/charms 2d4 rounds

There’s an interesting digression on the nature of Civilization vs. Barbarism, but I’ll save that for tomorrow!