It surprises me sometimes how many of the characters in this story got their start as gaming characters. I’ve gone into the origins of Digger in some depth on They Stole Frazier’s Brain, but to recap briefly: he was originally created as a character for the superhero role-playing game, Champions. Rev, Whiz, Angar, Psicho, and X-Tron 12, Space Robot (originally known as Astron 12, Space Robot) also got their starts as Champions characters.
But before them all came Bugs. Bugs has a somewhat similar origin, but in keeping with his current role as Digger’s antagonist, he was originally generated (like Dominatrix and Deathdealer) as a character for the other big superhero roleplaying game of the early 80’s (I don’t count Superhero 2044 or the short-lived Superworld), Villains and Vigilantes.
That’s him on the right, in an illustration I did for a proposed comic book in the early 80’s. Notice that his costume is yellow rather than white as described in the novel. I was worried about using plain white for the costume, because you might have print-through on the cheap pulp paper they were using for comics. Yellow was a smarter choice than white at the time.
I had originally avoided Champions in favor of Villains and Vigilantes, which seemed to have a more accessible design, being closer to Dungeons and Dragons, with which I was familiar. But one problem with V&V was that you couldn’t seem to ever develop characters as powerful as those in the comics.
The problem was starting characteristics. You would roll a strength between 3 and 18 (normal human range), and then you might get a power like Enhanced Strength. But even if you rolled really well, you would still only end up with a character about as strong as Captain America or something. Nothing close to Superman or even Spider-Man. And the rules were vague about advancement. It seemed that even with level advancement, you wouldn’t get any stronger, just more skilled. So superheroes could never be truly super.
But then along came Bill Willingham’s supplementary adventure, Death Duel with the Destroyers. And for one of the characters, Behemoth, he did something truly eye-opening. V&V had some open-ended powers which weren’t actually defined beyond saying, “The player and Game Master should work together to come up with something cool here.” One of those powers was called Mutant Power, and in Behemoth’s case, it was defined as doubling the final strength score, after adding the effects of two Heightened Strength.
So one afternoon, I decided to generate some V&V NPC’s for my campaign, and for one character, my dice were suddenly red-hot. I rolled a character with all high natural stats and 5 powers without a single dog in the bunch:Invulnerability, Regeneration, Flight, Animal/Plant Powers and Mutant Power.
Animal/Plant Powers was sort of like wishing for more wishes, because it would give you from 1-6 more powers. I rolled a 5, and taking a hint from Behemoth, I chose Heightened Strength, Heightened Senses, Insect Control (Ants), Natural Weaponry, and a special animal power – Ant Strength, basically taking the strength score and multiplying it by 5 because he had the proportional strength of an ant. For Mutant Power, I gave him the Hellblast, basically a focused nuclear detonation.
To justify all this, I came up with an origin story which involved him being an American spy in the Soviet Union (I rolled him up during the Cold War) who was caught and left to die by being buried up to his neck in an anthill out in the middle of nowhere just before a nuclear test. The radiation from the explosion cause the entire colony of ants to fuse into his body, protecting him from the radiation and giving him their strength. He also had the ability to cause a nuclear blast himself as a last resort; however, because it would also cause an EMP, there would be no photo or video evidence, so no one would realize that he had this extra capability.
Although I created him to be an NPC in my Villains and Vigilantes campaign, I never ended up using him. But I liked the character so much, I kept recycling him for other projects. First, he was a villain in my superhero cycle of Comix screenplays. When I decided not to pursue that project, I slotted him into a possible Astro comic as the villain. That never went very far, either.
I finally came up with the idea of using him as my Phantom Stranger in my late 80’s Champions campaign. Since he was so unbelievably powerful, he would only observe fights from afar, not participating since no one could offer him any real challenge. He would only get involved if someone turned out to be so dominating as to offer him a real fight (I used this to save my players from a beatdown at the hands of Firewing one week, for instance).
After I lost my job at the Daily Oklahoman in 1988, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, and Bugs was the character I decided to base my novel around. Of course, I had to ditch the comics-appropriate, but silly-in-a-novel anthill origin, and instead settled on this idea that God and the Devil made a bet.
I got two-thirds of the way through the first draft and bogged down as he teamed up with Thor to fight his way through my own superpowered version of Dante’s Inferno. The backstory you read in last week’s chapter was the way the novel was supposed to turn out, had I finished it.
And now you know the rest of the story.