The Johnny Depp Factor

In sumo wrestling, wrestlers work hard to achieve different ranks, and once a wrestler reaches the peak rank, yokozuna, he cannot be demoted. However, he is expected to retire if his skills falter. Leave at the top, keep your honor and make sure people remember you as young Elvis. The concept of stepping down when you are at your peak is admired, however rarely followed (who still enjoys Garfield – really?).

Pirates are currently at a peak in the social consciousness of the U.S. One only has to look at the success of Pirates of the Caribbean (including Johnny Depp’s Best Actor nomination) to see how much we love pirates. We have Talk Like a Pirate Day, where we, well, it’s one of those self-explanatory holidays. And of course there’s the extremely popular tabletop/collectible ship game from WizKids, Pirates of the Spanish Main (and all of its expansions).

And hey, I’m addicted to pirates as anyone. I have scores of those little ships sailing the Spanish Main. The game was fun, sure, but I became absolutely addicted to collecting and putting together those little boats. After I filled three sectioned boxes with ships, I decided it was time to stop. It’s like any CCG, only worse, since it takes up so much more room. On the MMOG front, the upcoming Pirates of the Burning Sea focuses on sea battles. And for those of us who have been used to taking the subway as a superhero, the prospect of captaining your own pirate ship is very attractive. It’s exactly what the pirates enjoyed – freedom from the rule of law and mastering the sea.

However, I am going to be the bold and say, with pirates at their peak, it’s time for them to step down. They’re done. We’ve been saturated. Anything more and we’ll become sick of them, like when a good song is overplayed on the radio. Pirates need to go out in a blaze of glory. This will likely happen during the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie: One more look at staggering Johnny Depp with lots of eyeliner, and then, boom – stick a cutlass in them; they’re done.

But this culture, especially our geek culture, needs a specialized group to cling to, like baby sloths. We need a fringe group to love. We need to bring someone else into the limelight. It is the nature of our culture to obsess about something and then move on, only a few things really leaving a permanent mark (Star Wars and Counter-Strike are perfect examples).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: The ultimate enemy of the pirate – the ninja – is poised to take over. The ninja waits in the shadows, waiting for the pirates to sail into the sunset so they can take their place as number one. But pirates and ninjas have been fighting for so long I don’t think they would know what to do without the other. Once pirates fall from grace, their nemeses, with nothing to counter them, will lose their cool factor. They will melt into the shadows and look for another enemy. Or perhaps follow the pirates.

So I humbly present three dark horse groups waiting in the wings to take over for the pirates. Three groups that hope to be the group to inspire the next Johnny Depp blockbuster as well as the next Hallmark holiday. I give you: zombies, hoboes and Cthulhoid monsters.

Zombies have been part of our social consciousness for decades. Who doesn’t like a good zombie flick, our motley heroes fighting the slow-moving, ever-hungering living dead, dying one by one? But that does get old: Unlike vampires, who can have personalities, zombies are fairly one-dimensional, brain-eating automatons. Only recently has the myth transformed into something else.

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“I think it has to do with the series of shows and movies … out there that aren’t as campy as the old Roger Corman stuff,” said Michael R. Mennenga, director of FarPoint Media, a company that produces and develops sci-fi and related podcasts, and the developer of the Zombie Channel, a hub for internet media dedicated to zombies. “There’re new aspects of zombies that are piquing the sci-fi community’s interest again. There’s just been some really great stuff that’s come out recently: Shaun of the Dead [and] 28 Days [Later].”

Shaun of the Dead provided a different view of zombies, allowing the monsters to make some (admittedly limited) logical leaps, such as being fooled by Our Heroes when they act like zombies to blend in, and to show ghosts of their former personalities by the end of the movie. 28 Days Later was much darker, and the people were never called zombies, but most fans agree it was a zombie flick. Still, those “zombies” were fast-moving, terrifying beasts, much harder to outrun than classic zombies.

Mennenga thinks pirates are over, and zombies are already the next big thing. “Zombies are fun. They are popular, and I think they have more staying power than pirates.”

We should apply litmus tests to each group: can we make a good computer game out of it, a good tabletop game, and can Johnny Depp play in the movie? For zombies, we already have several undead games. Best known would be Resident Evil and the undead race in World of Warcraft. The popular Zombies!!! board game has enjoyed a lot of success (even if the gameplay goes about as slow as a zombie can walk). However, I’m not sure if Johnny Depp would really shine in a zombie movie. Although, to be fair, he doesn’t shy away from the strange, compelling makeup.

The hobo group is less obvious than the zombie, but they need some attention. John Hodgman, author of The Areas of My Expertise, has a hobo section in his book that includes hobo chalk marks, as well as 700 hobo names (including Doc Aquatic, Drinky Drunky Tom, The Drunk and Dora the Explorer). Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of the Boing Boing Blog and the driving force behind the effort to get drawings for all of Hodgman’s 700 hoboes, favors hoboes as next in line for the pirates’ spot.

“I think that one of the things that might have kicked in the hobo [popularity] was the war chalking thing,” Frauenfelder said. “People use chalk symbols near Wi-Fi hotspots to indicate an open or closed hotspot, and this was inspired by the old hobo chalk marks that indicated a nice widow who will give you a meal if you clean up her yard. … Another [influence] is Hodgman’s 700 hobo names.” Because of Frauenfelder’s suggestion on Boing Boing, over 1,000 illustrations have been added to Flickr, and the site was launched.

The popularity of hoboes also comes from peoples’ desire to leave their lives behind; people get a grass-is-always-greener view of lifestyles they don’t have. Frauenfelder agrees: “Every once in a while people get nostalgic for riding the rails, living a life footloose and fancy free, and there’s the notion that being a hobo is romantic, even though the reality is pretty grim. It’s the same for pirates; I’m sure the life of a pirate, 99 percent of the time, sucked. But there’s that romantic notion again.”

Frauenfelder feels hoboes are the definite favorite for the next big thing. He even thinks Johnny Depp would star well in a hobo movie, so the Hollywood angle is safe. Remove the eyeliner and add a cigar to his character in Pirates of the Caribbean, and you’ve pretty much got instant hobo. However, hoboes seem to be weak in the gaming category, with no computer games featuring hoboes coming to mind (hoboes as NPCs that are cannon fodder do not count), and only the board game Arkham Horror, with the character Ashcan Pete, comes close in tabletop games.

Frauenfelder did admit that if hoboes can’t topple the pirates, a long shot for the title may be the mythos of HP Lovecraft, what we’ll call Cthulhoid. In fact, his fellow Boing Boing blogger, Xeni Jardin , has recently blogged about the 70th anniversary of the death of H.P. Lovecraft. She mentioned how Cthulhu, Azathoth and Nylarhotep, to name a few, were enjoying more popularity now than ever. And everyone wants a baby shoggoth under the Christmas tree.

Horror writer and occasional independent Lovecraftian scholar Richard Dansky believes it’s time for the Cthulhoids, and he cites Johnny Depp as one of the plusses in his category. “Johnny Depp has already been in one Cthulhu-inspired movie – Pirates of the Caribbean 2 – and he’s already been the perfect Lovecraftian protagonist in Sleepy Hollow: a shy intellectual who faints a lot and goes investigating things he oughtn’t.”

Like hoboes, Lovecraftian monsters are re-entering the consciousness of the world. “Lovecraft is enjoying a wonderful renaissance in all sectors, academic, commercial, you name it,” Dansky said. “[Because] tentacles are cool, and because there’s so much room to maneuver within Lovecraft. He doesn’t actually describe anything; he gives you bits and pieces and lets you build your own horror.”

Honestly, by our litmus tests, the Cthulhoid have the strongest chance against the pirates. As Dansky said, they already have the Depp factor based on Davy Jones’ imagery from the second movie. They have tabletop games tied up with the popular RPG Call of Cthulhu and the board game Arkham Horror. Call of Cthulhu has come to the Xbox as well, in the guise of a first-person action-adventure game.

So can Cthulhu and his ilk be the next big thing? People have mixed Hello Kitty with Cthulhu, the Jesus fish car magnet with Cthulhu and even Christmas carols (Very Scary Solstice tunes like “Oh Cthulhu!” and “Have Yourself a Very Scary Solstice”). We like the fear of the sanity lost, we like the prospect of not being killed in battle, but having all of mankind devoured. We’re really masochists, I suppose.

When asked who would take over if it weren’t the Cthulhoids, Dansky said, “Whatever the next big thing is, the Cthulhoids will eat it. But honestly: ’70s cops [could replace them]. Preferably with huge, bushy, porn moustaches.” Imagine Johnny Depp starring in that movie.

Pirates, take heed. Your time of reckoning is at hand. The zombies, hoboes, Cthulhoids and the (shudder) 70’s cops are coming for you. Better keep you guarrrrrd up.

Mur Lafferty is a freelance writer and podcast producer. She has dabbled in as much gaming as possible while working with Red Storm Entertainment and White Wolf Publishing. Currently she writes freelance for several gaming publications and produces three podcasts. She lives in Durham, NC.

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