Saturday, June 25, 2022

Army Ants: The Untold Story (Part 3 of 3)

More ideas I never got to...

Return to Dinosaur Island

No idea how or why this would have happened, but the ants go back to Dinosaur Island one more time. Issue seven was probably my personal favorite of all the original run, and I had plans to go back one day and send the ants on a mission there. It seems that recovering a rare plant that can cure diseases would have been cool. It makes sense to layer this into the next story (the Plague below), and that is probably where it would have fit. It makes the most sense to send the ants on a daring raid to recover a jungle plant as part of establishing a cure for the plague. That would justify this mission. I had an idea that in the interim some other insects had created a secret base here, but not sure how that would have worked.

The Plague

Recently, I started (and again never finished) a story set some time later (probably ending up as issues 44 to 50) - the ants have relative peace, but a sickness breaks out that has been bioengineered by insane termites. The sickness creates a kind of zombie plague. While several ants become infected, they all are ultimately saved, the termites are defeated, and peace is restored. I never got too far in the planning stages of this one, but that is the broad strokes of it. Issue fifty would therefore have been a big assault on the termite mound. I wasn’t all that interested in this one ultimately because a lot of the same beats (fighting against a big enemy army - huge battle) had already been done better elsewhere. This was going to face a challenge not to tread ground I had already done (probably better) previously. I suppose that this storyline would have opened up possibilities of exploring some of the mysticism and religion of the ants, since there is this whole thing with Fate and the termites that I have already alluded to… this would have been the opportunity to maybe lock down some of those pieces in greater detail. It ran the risk of going all midichlorians, but I think it would have kept back from the precipice well enough.

Iron Ant

This one never got past the basic idea stage, but I wanted to have a prototype suit that Phil wears where he goes on a mission to test it, and he ends up doing battle with a bat. I had a few sketches for this, and not much else. Iron ant could have been a one-off, or a short story at the back of another issue that ran short. I did this a few times in the early issues (issue seven had both Dinosaur Island and Ladybug’s Picnic stories - more reasons it’s my favorite), so Iron Ant would have worked as an 8-page short to plug in somewhere else.

What To Do With This?

I’m a little tempted to create an archive that merges real and unfinished comics into one big thing - I could release this like I did the Doc Stalwart archive, or put together a ‘book’ (PDF) that I could put up on DriveThruComics just to have it there as an established ‘bible’ of the first fifty issues of the Army Ants (since that’s how I think of this whole storyline - I published 24 comics, had pages for another 3 issues or so published on the now-defunct mtdaa website, and had random pages done for a few others). I could draw covers for the graphic novels and put these in with more detailed plot summaries than those above. It would take a week or two to put together, but that’s not a bad way to pull this whole thing together and ‘finish’ work I spent several years on a few decades ago.

Ultimately, this included all of the stories I wanted to tell with these particular characters. I think they would have run their course at that point, and if the series continued after issue fifty, it would have to include a significant change in time or place for it to work. I love the idea of a series of Batman and Robin type stories with Zak and Malichi, but there’s no real reason to do them. I don’t have a meaningful story to tell with them, I just want to spend time with these characters again. That’s not a great reason to spend a few hours on each page.

By the way, it is strangely cathartic to finally ‘reveal’ things that only I have known for 20+ years. I assume nobody cares, but I still like it that the full story is ‘out there’ in some form now.

Going Forward

Man, this ended up as a long set of posts. I’ve got a set of notes (done in the last few days) for the next phase of the story, but it’s set a generation later, with an entirely different sort of vibe. One of the things that always interested me about the ants (but I never really explored in a meaningful way) is this inherent tension between the ideal and reality. It’s the same tension in America. The ants are, at their core, a tyrannical military state that presents as a noble kingdom that embraces individuality. It’s kind of like the US that way… we value individuality and peace while outspending the rest of the world by many times over to build the biggest military. Some of our loudest voices of individual rights are also openly supporting fascism. It’s the same conflict the ants face. I want to explore this idea more deeply, and I think I’ve found a way to do it. Basically, the next phase of the ants, if it happens, would be tonally and thematically far removed from what I’ve done before, but it would still logically follow the previous storylines. We all think we’re the good guys. Maybe the ants never really were…

Friday, June 24, 2022

Army Ants: The Untold Story (Part 2 of 3)

While the Fall of Valhalla was a story that I started, and that I would have considered a satisfying end to the overall comic if it ended there, I could also see the following stories having taken place. Theoretically, this would have been in 2003 and 2004 maybe.

Raiders of the Lost Egg 

The next story would have been Raiders of the Lost Egg, my homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. This would probably have run in issues 37 to 40, as a 4-issue storyline.

The Ant Queen learns that of a cache of royal eggs that were stolen last season, one remains. Intelligence reports that the egg has been preserved, passed around the black markets of the towns in the Sandbox. This is the hope for the future; if this egg can be recovered and the child born, she would be the next ant queen. A small team is sent on a secret mission to recover it. I presume this would have included the core team of Gunner, Zak, Phil, Vince, and Slab.

After a series of small skirmishes with locals, they learn that the egg was taken to a hidden temple deep in the sandbox where a cult holds it in great value. There, they explore the temple, getting through a series of traps and obstacles to finally be captured by the cultists, a random group of insects.

It turns out the leader of these is the ant who hatched from the egg eighteen weeks ago - the princess has already been born (plot twist), and believes that she was sent by Fate to lead these insects out of destitution. When she meets the rest of the ants, her true lineage becomes clear, and together they bring this rag-tag group of insects into the fold of the new ant kingdom.

It turns out that the prophecy Sarge had seen previously (in work I published on the online Army Ants webpage when I started the Fall of Valhalla storyline in like 2014) was that Phil would be the next king of the ants, and would marry the Queen’s daughter - Fate had revealed that Sarge’s duty was to protect Phil. He had spent the rest of his professional career watching over Phil and trying to prepare him for this incredible honor and duty.

At the end, Sarge has married the Ant Queen and they consider retirement and the handing over of duties, while the young Crown Princess marries Phil, and they begin to plan for a new ant hill, and a new future for the red ants of the Backyard. 

I like it that the nerdiest character becomes the eventual leader. That was something I decided really early in my work, probably as far back as issue five or so.

Other Unfinished Works...

The Storm

In a side story, I started a narrative called ‘the Storm’ which was a bit of a Frankenstein story. This would have maybe run for two issues, comprising issues 41-42. There’s a mad scientist living in a stump. Phil, Vince and Slab get stuck there during a patrol where a horrible storm comes in. The mad scientist brings a dead insect back to life, and it goes on a rampage within the stump, ultimately killing the mad scientist and nearly killing them all, but it ends up making friends with Slab, because they both have the intellect of a peanut, and the same sense of humor. It was a one-off, silly story that I started as well but never finished. They leave the Franken-bug there to lord over the stump and live out its existence in relative peace. Maybe I would have plugged this one in before the Raiders of the Lost Egg story. Not sure. It makes more sense there; once Phil is with the princess, he probably retires from active military life altogether. I see this one as a ‘flashback’ story either way, set between issues 6 and 7.

I did one page for this decades ago, and then went back and created the first ten pages or so on the webcomic page a few years back, but never got much further. It's a story that exists in some form...

One-off Ladybug Story

I had a few sketches done for a one-off ladybug solo mission with Honeydew where she raids a bee hive. I suppose this would have ended up as issue 43 in the hierarchy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Army Ants: The Untold Story (Part 1 of 3)

I left my story unfinished some years ago. I had a plan for a final showdown between the Wasp Empire and the Army of Ants, which would have been basically my version of Return of the Jedi. The largely unpublished sequence, called the Fall of Valhalla, is as follows…

The Fall of Valhalla

This would have started in issue 25, and run through issue 36, as a 12-issue storyline and ultimately the third ‘graphic novel’ of the series. Let's pretend a bi-monthly schedule, so ideally these would have appeared in 2000 and 2001, since the previous run ended in 1998, and I needed at least a year to recharge after that. I was earning my teaching certification at the time, so I probably wouldn't have had time even if I had the motivation and inspiration, but since we're revising history, let's go for it.

The Wasp Empress is on her deathbed, having been poisoned by General Groth (leader of the fly army, and ally of the wasps). General Groth  and Colonel Irons (a traitorous ant who is now a cyborg) had assumed control of the Wasp Hive. 

They frame Baron Sh’Ak (leader of the hornets and right hand to the Empress) with the crime. He manages to escape the Hive before his staged court martial and execution, rendezvousing with the ants. Some of his elite hornet soldiers realize Sh’Ak had been framed, and know that the primary culprit is General Groth.

When last we left our ants, most (including the Ant Queen) were imprisoned by the Wasp Empire deep within the bowels of Valhalla Complex, the Imperial Wasp Hive. They had been taken captive when the Ant Hill fell during the Year of the Ant storyline. Led by Sarge, these prisoners stage a breakout, and begin a riot within the deepest parts of the hive. They are aided by the general chaos within the hive, as some rank and file doubt who they should be following, and the chain of command starts to break down.

Concurrently, a strike team of remaining ants who had not been imprisoned when the Ant Hill fell (Gunner, Vince, Phil, Zak, Honeydew… and Baron Sh’Ak who had joined them as his only remaining option) launch a raid. They intentionally crash a stealth jet of ladybug design into the tether that attached the hive to the tree. They set bombs within to explode.

Entering the hive, they fight their way to the rioting prisoners led by Sarge. Together, they fight their way to the hangar bay. There, all don gliders and parachutes, fleeing the hive. At the last, the team detonates the explosives within the stealth jet, severing the tether that had connected the hive to the tree. It falls twenty meters (in a story called Terror at Twenty Meters), collapsing when it hits the ground. It is left unknown who within survived the fall, and who perished, but the ants presume that the bulk of the Wasp Empire is wiped out in the fall, and the bulk of its military might - its vast weapons of war - could not have survived the devastation of the hive.

For all intents and purposes the war is over. Baron Sh’Ak remains to rebuild the Wasp nation, although he declares that he seeks no further enmity with the ants, and that he may lead his people to start again elsewhere. This is left as an unresolved thread, and I had no plan for what, if anything, to do with this.

In an epilogue, the ants establish a new temporary hill, while the Queen reveals that Sarge had been the love of her life; she could not marry him because of his common caste, but in this new world, she is casting off old rules and she will marry him. They wed in a small ceremony and together they begin to oversee the restoration of the ant nation.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Let's Read: Army Ants?

Well, look who decided to finally blog again... yeah, I know. Between getting back into the swing of teaching, a series of interviews for jobs I didn't get (grrr) and lingering health issues that keep knocking me down (double grrr), gaming stuff has been pretty far from my mind. However, the school year wraps up this week, and I got the first genuinely GOOD health news today, so my spirits are lifted. I started to let my mind wander around to gaming stuff, and started thinking about my little team of Army Ants. So, I cracked out the hardcover copy of Army Ants: Legacy and decided to thumb through it. It has been 9 years (!) since it came out, so I am far enough removed from it now to be objective.

My first impression is that this thing is pretty nice. The layout is very clean. It feels full at 160 pages. It's got lots of art, and the art is consistent throughout. It's got that FANTASTIC Jeff Dee cover.

Reading the first 16 pages, I like it so far. The dice mechanic is pretty nifty, and it reads as if it's got enough nuance to it to keep things interesting. It's got that nice balance of simple but elegant that I am drawn to as both a designer and player. It's got a great vibe, and most of the writing holds up well. I found a few turns of phrase that I have since worked out of my writing, and I found one typo, but so far it's holding up quite well. I also went back and re-read reviews for it, and people were generally very positive about it. Final thing: It's all me. This is the only game where I'm not trying to ape someone else's universe, but I've created my own. That alone is, to me, a big plus. Maybe I'll keep reading and do some playing. After seeing Top Gun: Maverick on Saturday night (which I really loved even though I was generally meh about the original), I want to make a helicopter gunship pilot and send him on a few missions. Maybe I'll get to that, too...