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DCUO & The Chowderhead Crusades

How DCUO Inspired A Comic Book Nerd's Novel

Scott Jeslis Updated: Posted:
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“The Chowderhead Crusades” is a fictional superhero-based novel whose story starts at a Comic-Con in the past, but not-too-distant future for us, of 2036. It revolves around “Cateklysm Catholicon” who is an intelligent life-form that has decreed that humanity has gone astray. His solution is to entice the people of Earth to learn the lessons of superhero comics. In doing so “Cateklysm’s Challenge” is created. The grand prize winner earns “the power to change the world”. Two decades later everyone forgets about the challenge other than of a group of diehard superhero fans dubbed “Chowderheads”. One of whom is living a dystopian nightmare on a Martian freighter, but he’s determined on winning the Challenge.

 This novel has been heralded by some as being “The comic book nerd’s Ready Player One”. But how does all this tie-into mmoprg.com? This book, by author, J. J. Walsh, was the product of two things: a lifelong love of comic books, and way too much time playing the superhero MMO DC Universe Online (DCUO).

We sat down with J.J. to find out how MMOs inspired this novel.

MMORPG: So first and foremost, you must have evolved a love for superheroes and superhero comics. How did this infatuation start?

J.J. Walsh: My dad. He was a big comic book fan when he was a kid – he used to tell me he’d spend his weekly twenty-five cent allowance on two comics and a candy bar. To me that meant: One: he was really old, because when could you buy all that for a quarter? And two: comics must be twice as good as candy.

MMORPG: At some point in time, you were a big fan of and actively involved with DC Universe Online. In fact, you were also the founder of the league we’re both in “Marvel Unlimited”. So how did you get involved with the game?

J.J.: I was looking for something like Marvel Ultimate Alliance and I stumbled on DCUO in Beta. Once I discovered the potential for character customization, I was hooked. I played for months just making a new toon every day, totally clueless about the game dynamics. Then I started down the rabbit hole.

MMORPG: The “Marvel Unlimited” league is based on members who have rolled characters that look live Marvel superheroes. What caused you to take the league in that direction?

J.J.: I’m a rebel! But also, I wanted to enjoy the game as a character with whom I had an existing bond, live out their legacy and what have you. Of course, creating a DC character was lame, because those characters were already in the game, and you’d just end up being a poorly made clone because the costume pieces you had to work with would never be as proper as the NPCs (especially back at launch). So, I figured we could make Marvel characters who would never be outshined by NPCs and our league could be the product of a multiverse collision incident.

the chowderhead crusades

MMORPG: In DCUO your main was/is Iron Fist. Is that due to a special love of that character?

J.J.: It’s actually the other way around. I became obsessed with legit names and power sets. I wanted toons with names that didn’t rely on a 3 in place of an E, or junk like that, and with powers that aligned with the powers offered in the game. I managed to get IRON FIST early on and after a while I started reading a lot more of the title and feeling a strangely personal connection with the character. MMOs can have a weird effect on you.

MMORPG: Have you played any other superhero-based games, e.g., City of Heroes?

J.J.: I dabbled with Marvel Heroes and a few other things, but nothing ever caught my imagination the way DCUO did. I think when you play a game for so long and build a whole community of in-game buddies, getting into another game is like.

MMORPG: So how did you go from running a DCUO league to writing a dystopian superhero novel?

J.J.: Well, I’m a writer by trade – I run a marketing and design agency. And I’d done a lot of screen writing over the years, but aside from optioning a couple scripts, I hadn’t really created anything that caught on. So, I was thinking of writing a book because it’s easier to get it produced. Then I thought about all the people I’d met in DCUO, and how central comic book lore was to their lives and the wheels started turning. What if the fate of the world depended on comic book nerds?

MMORPG: Was The Chowderhead Crusades your first attempt at writing a novel?

J.J.: No. I wrote three hundred pages of gibberish when I was twenty-one. It didn’t go anywhere, because I didn’t have the discipline I later developed with my screen writing craft. But as I returned to the novel format, I was able to put that discipline to work, and discover some expositional freedom that I loved.

MMORPG: The audio version of the book is read by renowned comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, who has appeared in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, played the voice of an animated version of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, as well as many other roles. How did this relationship come about?

J.J.: Well Patton is a big comic book nut (and writer), and I think the book resonated with a lot of projects he’s been involved with or developing. So, we reached out to his agent and it was a natural fit. Working with him was fantastic – certainly the highlight of the publishing process.

MMORPG: The Chowderhead Crusades has plenty of comic book pop culture references. How did you go about selecting which ones you wanted to use? Did they just pop into your head? Or did you have a list typed up before writing?

J.J.: I identified them as they were needed – and sometimes I knew what to use and sometimes I’d have to do some browsing. But I took hundreds of hours to read or re-read issues to make sure I was getting my references right, because I knew my core audience wouldn’t put up with a stinking dilettante.

j.j. walsh

MMORPG: Do any comic book pop culture references used in the novel stand out as your favorite(s)?

J.J.: No question – the story about Jack Kirby being called out by Nazis in the lobby of the Timely Pubs building is the embodiment of the book’s message, and one of my favorite stories period. Dude’s a legend.

MMORPG: How did comic book themes and comic book history help shape the novel, if at all?

J.J.: Oh, they defined the whole damn thing. I wanted to create an homage to comics – but also hammer home the fact that comics have always been a platform for artists to promote morality and progressive social thinking. Captain America wasn’t a comic book, it was a political protest, demanding that the U.S. take action in WWII. And so many comics since have been leading indicators of our evolution into a more open-minded, inclusive world. Kids have always enjoyed comics, but comics have never been just for kids.

MMORPG: The novel’s main character is Clayton Clayborn a seventeen-year-old, second generation “Chowderhead”. Where did you draw your inspiration from when writing that main character?

J.J.: He’s just me if I were a lot cooler and smarter and funnier and emotionally accessible and enslaved on a space freighter.

MMORPG: Have you ever given any thought perhaps at trying your hand at writing a comic book? Maybe even doing a graphic novel adaptation of The Chowderhead Crusades?

J.J.: I don’t think adapting The Chowderhead Crusades would work in a graphic novel, but I have often thought about writing a comic. I think it would be an amazing experience. I just haven’t quite gotten around to it.

MMORPG: Looking back is there anything you would have done differently with or in The Chowderhead Crusades?

J.J.: Not really – when you’re working on a book, it’s a living breathing thing, so it’s kind of like second-guessing your parenting. You never know which mistake will make a kid great.

MMORPG: Can we expect a follow-up to The Chowderhead Crusades or perhaps another game influenced novel in the future?

J.J.: I am just finishing up a new novel – the first in a series. It’s not game inspired, but it’s definitely got a similar vibe to The Chowderhead Crusades. Look for it in 2022!

MMORPG: That's all I had unless you wanted to add anything, J.J.

J.J.: Appreciate you taking the time to talk! Thanks so much!


Scott Jeslis

Scott is a comic book, music, and gaming nerd since the late 70s. Gaming all began on the Colecovision and Atari 2600. He buys and reads new comics every Wednesday from his LCBS and helps run an online Heavy Metal radio station. He also loves all things Star Wars.