Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus. Now in Paperback and Kindle!

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Thanks to Vamkire Trannel for the cover illustration!

The Second Omnibus collects and updates volumes 7-10, plus two all-new stories, previously unpublished interviews, scenes, drawings, a mini-comic, and more!

In the aftermath of the disaster that nearly wiped out civilization on Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat get set to throw the greatest birthday party of a lifetime—until alien death rains down from the sky!

Join Meteor Mags and her criminal crew, including the hard-rocking Psycho 78s and the teenage Dumpster Kittens, as they rage against the forces of law and order, struggle to control the future of the Asteroid Belt, and confront the total destruction of their beloved home on Vesta 4. Some will live, many more will die, and nothing in the Belt will ever be the same!

In fifteen episodes of relentless anarchy, sci-fi madness, and violent revolution, the pirate crew comes face-to-face with betrayal, annihilation, telepathic octopuses, evil space lizards, cybernetic murder wasps, game-changing technologies, objects of unlimited power, and much, much more! Strap on your battle armor and get ready to rock, because the asteroid-mining frontier is no place for the faint-hearted.

What readers are saying about the series:

“A violent, feel-good space romp. An irreverent, rocking series.”

“A lot of guns and bloody battles. Fast-paced and full of action.”

“Anarchy, asteroids, and rock music abound. A great read.”

“The swashbuckling spirit and generous—but murderous!—hearts of Mags and her cohort are endearing and engaging.”

“So insane.”

578-page paperback edition or Kindle ebook

(154,000 words plus illustrations).

BUY IT ON AMAZON.

Indie Box: Criminal by Brubaker and Phillips

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Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has long been one of all-time favorite works of fiction in any medium, and the greatest crime is that I’ve never written about it since discovering it around thirteen years ago.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged desperado.

My first exposure to this prolific creative team was the Sleeper series, which was either the first or second time Brubaker and Phillips worked together. Set in the same “universe” as the WildC.A.T.s (created by Jim Lee) and featuring the villainous mastermind Tao (created by Alan Moore), Sleeper was an unsettling combination of the two main elements which gave rise to the superhero genre: crime fiction and science fiction.

But Sleeper had little use for superheroes, beyond guest-starring Grifter. Instead, it focused on the adventures of villains doing covert operations for shadowy organizations. Subverting the superhero genre, Brubaker treated Sleeper like a pulp crime story with a first-person narration by a deeply broken, hardboiled protagonist you would expect to find in a noir detective novel.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged dude who dukes it out.

When I discovered Criminal shortly thereafter, I was thrilled to see what Brubaker and Phillips could do with a pulp crime story without any of the superpowers and sci-fi. I joined the ongoing series around the time the first storyline was wrapping up, so I got a subscription and enjoyed the rabid, edge-of-my-seat anticipation of every new issue.

But it’s hard to say why I love this series so much. It’s hopeless, bleak, and downright depressing. Anything resembling a character’s redemption arc is sure to end in tragedy and tears. Everyone is either broken, or despicable, or both. Characters tend to be either victims of abuse, or abusers, or both. Any brief moments of happiness are either doomed, or illusory, or both. The world of Criminal is an inescapable hell that destroys everyone, even the most powerful and the most innocent.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged downtrodden dame.

Maybe my fascination with the series is related to that part of the human mind that can’t resist looking at a crash on the highway. That sick part of our monkey brains that slows down to see the carnage until the road is backed up with gawkers for miles. It’s probably the part of our minds that is responsible for slasher flicks and so-called “disaster porn”, the part that craves horror and violence even in otherwise well-adjusted people who normally avoid such things. Maybe Criminal channels that aspect of human experience into fiction where it’s safe, where no one really gets hurt. You can gawk at a fictional train wreck and not feel guilty.

Criminal is also a remarkable feat of storytelling. You can read any one of the self-contained stories on its own or, as Brubaker often says, in any order at all. The stories feature numerous recurring characters connected by the strands of their web of crime, and the stories are not delivered in chronological order. You might meet someone in one story, then discover their childhood in another. Someone who dies in one story might appear years earlier in another.

Through it all, narrative captions tend to focus on one character’s internal experience or monologue per issue, sometimes describing the action that appears in the panels, but more often a step removed from the story that Phillips tells visually, giving insight into what characters are thinking or feeling. You also see certain events from multiple perspectives—sometimes from issue to issue, and sometimes from story to story. This approach amplifies the feeling that all events are connected and inevitable.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged detective dude.

Criminal influenced my approach to storytelling when I started writing fiction, but the criminals I write about revel in their lawless lifestyles. They experience horror, but they mostly enjoy being on the wrong side of the law and doing what they do. They have fun!

Any fun that Brubaker’s criminals enjoy is a short-lived uptick on their downward spiral to despair and disaster. If you’re looking for happy endings or uplifting messages about the human condition, Criminal isn’t for you. The most fortunate characters end up dead, and the least fortunate keep on living, trapped in Brubaker’s sprawling saga of doom, degradation, and mutual destruction.

But the series is so well-constructed, so impenetrably dark, and so well-told that I find it impossible to avert my eyes from the wreck, and I have read and re-read each story many times. I think the saving grace, what makes it possible to wander into this cruel, noir world, is that so many of the characters evoke sympathy and empathy. Many of Brubaker’s villains tend to have some spark of humanity that makes them relatable. They are rarely evil for the sake of being evil, like so many poorly done “bad guys”. Instead, they have been twisted and morally deformed by the awful events of their lives.

Even a complete scumbag such as Teeg Lawless, who often beats and abandons his two sons, is shown to believe that in his own fucked-up way, he thinks he loves his kids. His deranged and damaged brand of “love” is not one I would wish on any child, but it’s consistent with the way that even the worst villains in these tales tend to think of themselves as some kind of heroes, even when they are so incredibly wrong.

Things don’t end well for damaged and delusional deadbeat dad.

That’s something we need to think about more often but has become increasingly rare. It is now easier than ever for delusional people to find similarly deluded people in Internet echo chambers and rally around causes that range from nonsensical to dangerous. It has become increasingly easy for people to embrace messages of hate in the name of love, to proclaim treason as patriotism, to promote lies they accept as truth, and to advance anti-social policies under the guise of freedom.

We could all use a bit of self-reflection to step back and ask ourselves whether or not our heroic stances are, in fact, villainous. When writing a good fictitious villain, the best authors know that the villain should be a hero in his or her own narrative about the world.

But that isn’t something that’s only true in fiction. It works in stories because it expresses something true about real people. I often look back on my life and am filled with regret for things I did and mistakenly thought were right at the time, only to realize later that despite being a hero in my own story, I was the villain in someone else’s, and things I believed to be right were so very, very wrong.

Criminal warns this is a universal aspect of human experience, and if there is any moral compass or lesson to be learned from Brubaker’s tragic tales, it is that we need to question our own ideas, assumptions, decisions, and sense of justice. If we don’t, then we will remain as trapped as the characters in Criminal, and nothing good can come from that.

Collector’s Guide: Criminal is spread out over the first ten-issue series, the second seven-issue series, the third twelve-issue series, the four-issue The Last of the Innocent, a single-issue Special Edition, a tenth-anniversary Special Edition, a standalone graphic novel, and the standalone Wrong Time, Wrong Place, for which I can’t seem to find a link. Various TPBs and “deluxe” editions have collected parts of it, and they range from easily found to difficult. I would love to see a definitive Criminal Omnibus collecting the entire thing in one or two volumes, but that has yet to happen.

Rebel Girl: Notes on Writing Mags and Her Music

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A few years ago, I read a draft of a scene from the Meteor Mags stories to my workshop group. In the scene, our space-faring criminals turn on the ship’s radio in time to hear the DJ back-announce a few songs and say what comes next.

During the feedback session, one of my workshoppers asked, “How do you come up with all these crazy song titles and band names?”

I’m rarely stunned into silence on matters of writing, but that question hit me like the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. It took me a moment to realize that when it comes to music, I might as well be from another planet than some of my writing comrades.

My answer? “I didn’t make them up. Those are all real songs and real bands! And they kick ass!”

You can find a list of all the real songs the characters in the series have broadcast, performed, or just plain argued about on the unofficial soundtrack page of Mags’ website.

I like to think those songs might be played if Mags and Patches ever get made into a film or a cartoon. Nothing could make me happier than seeing and hearing Mags perform Porcupine Tree’s Trains as a solo piano piece in the dead of night by candlelight from Red Metal at Dawn, or her brilliant, butt-naked rendition of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Down on Me with a tribe of space monkeys and telepathic space octopuses in Small Flowers.

I have always felt that when the end credits roll on Mags’ first film, the song that must destroy the theater’s speakers is Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl.

It’s a fuckin’ barnburner.

I don’t know if Kathleen Hanna and the gang in Bikini Kill had in mind an even older song to which Rebel Girl traces its roots: a pro-labor, feminist acoustic jam by Hazel Dickens called The Rebel Girl.

Decades before Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter became a country-music hit in the States, multi-instrumentalist Hazel Dickens was singing pro-union, pro-people, and pro-women bluegrass songs in a folk-music vein, advocating through music and direct activism for America’s miners. She also eulogized her brother in song after he died of black lung disease.

Born into a coal-mining family, Hazel died in 2011, and you don’t hear about her very often these days. But she loved rebel girls, and I love her for that. The social problems she fearlessly addressed nearly a century ago have not yet been solved in our country, and maybe they will never be. But music gives me hope.

Most songs on the unofficial soundtrack page have a similar bit of history behind them and a thematic or emotional relevance to the stories. They appear in the text for a reason—even if the only reason is because Patches is obsessed with gangsta rap.

But my workshoppers were right to suspect that I have been making up a hell of a lot of other songs for my imaginary bands: the Psycho 78s (named after a line in the Misfits song Horror Business), the teenage Dumpster Kittens (who are some of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet despite singing about suicide, murder, interplanetary death armies, and nuclear infernos), and the Sterile Skins (a ska-punk crossover band that filled its choruses with the British “Oi!” despite being mostly Chicanos from SoCal).

But what I’ve never told my workshoppers (or anyone else, until now) is that for every imaginary song whose lyrics appear in the series, I put together real music.

And for that, I blame Greg.

Greg was the awesomest drummer I ever had the good fortune to share a house with, and it was a unique pleasure to hear him bashing away for hours in the basement. He was in a number of ass-kicking bands whose shows I enjoyed, and we’ve kept in touch over the years despite being thousands of miles apart now.

I miss that guy.

Back in 2015 or so, I sent him a message about how I wanted my characters to have their own unique songs, not just other people’s material they referred to. He told me, “Then you need to write those songs.”

He always had a way of cutting through my apparently complex problems with straight-forward advice.

That evening, I picked up an acoustic guitar and bashed out chords for the song that appears in the episode Whipping Boy. Ever since, I have done the same for every absolutely bonkers “imaginary” song that gets its lyrics printed in the series. It’s now a fundamental part of the creative process.

Whipping boy! What’s your name?

Whipping boy! A life of pain!

Maybe you should take the cash and run.

Maybe you should get yourself a gun,

before they kill your soul. Alright!

Most of the earlier songs can be played on a standard-issue acoustic guitar using basic power chords. After all, despite teaching several aspiring musicians about music theory and performing in small jazz combos, I still enjoy a straight-forward, punk-rock approach to songs you could perform drunk around a campfire.

But a few years ago, I got a baritone electric guitar from ESP. With its longer neck length and scale, and a weight that’s somewhere between a guitar and a bass, the baritone is designed to be tuned a fourth below standard guitar tuning, with a low A instead of a low E.

I tried that tuning, but after Wo Fat convinced me that C minor is the heaviest key in all eternity—and considering my love for Jimmy Page’s open-C tuning from Poor Tom on Led Zeppelin’s Coda—I tried a low C instead, keeping the standard string intervals from a normal tuning.

As far as C minor goes, one of my favorite heavy pieces in that key is Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Ukrainian pianist Anna Federova brings even more life to it than my concert recording of the composer performing it.

When I ran my C-tuned baritone guitar through a Logan Square Destroyer distortion pedal, ultimate heaviness resulted: crisp treble and gut-punching bass. I bought this pedal because I am a raving maniac for the first four or five Queens of the Stone Age albums (and their predecessor, Kyuss), so I thought it might help me get closer to that sound.

It did not disappoint.

To push heaviness a little further, I sometimes keep the C-based tuning but drop the low string to B flat—just like how you would tune to Drop D on a standard guitar. That gives me a power chord on the low three strings, and if I throw on a capo, I get some stupidly heavy sounds from the ESP in a variety of keys.

I am all about truly stupid levels of heaviness. If your riffs don’t give me permanent brain damage, then you’re wasting my time!

Maybe someday I’ll produce an album of these imaginary songs. But as much as I love to sing them, we need Mags or her teenage friend Sarah on the mic—not me.

I’m no brilliant singer, though I’ve never let that stop me from performing or recording. But I often fantasize about hammering the ever-loving shit out of my baritone axe while someone more talented than me takes over on vocals.

I like to think we’d give Alice in Chains a run for their money.

Happy Thanksgiving, Martians! This year I am thankful for ripping riffs and brutally heavy jams, for that annoying pain I get while building up my guitar callouses again, and for music in general. It remains one of the great joys of my life.

We own the sky! And don’t you ever forget it.

Meditation on the Monster: Godzilla Dominion

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The Dominion graphic novel takes place prior to the recent Godzilla Vs. Kong movie, and it earns a place in my pantheon of all-time favorite Godzilla stories for not only leaving out all the stupid human stuff, but for its poetic treatment of the radioactive reptile, and for its ass-kicking artwork by Drew Edward Johnson, with colors by Allen Passalaqua.

The author, Greg Keyes, wrote the novelizations for the two most recent Godzilla movies. He’s also written novels based on Pacific Rim, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Avengers, and other licensed properties. His written versions of Godzilla movies have received mixed reviews on Amazon: People either love them or hate them, without much middle ground.

But if you use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the prologue of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, then you’ll get a sense of the prose treatment Keyes uses to describe Godzilla. Dominion is like that gorgeous prologue sustained for an entire book.

Keyes tells a relatable tale of the monster’s search for a new home. Godzilla wants a place to settle down, somewhere he can chill out while rejuvenating his body and mind. But everywhere he goes, creepy weirdos get all up in his business. Flesh-eating vermin invade his old pad. He goes hungry for far too long. Despite winning his battles, he might be doomed to never know peace.

Keyes offers an unusual take on my favorite city-stomping hell-beast. In Dominion, Godzilla is more than a mindless force of destruction. He is in tune with the Earth and is a protector of the planet he calls home, waging war on other kaiju who would ignite global catastrophe by munching on nukes or destroying the ecological balance in the settings they invade.

Dominion paints an oddly heroic portrait that lends more depth to Godzilla than you might be accustomed to, but don’t expect Godzilla to be some peaceful, Earth-loving hippie. The monster’s battles in service of the big, ecological picture also wreak total havoc on ships, surfers, and off-shore drilling stations. Eco-sensitive Godzilla is the poster child for “collateral damage”.

As for the artwork, I absolutely love it. It looks a bit better in the digital version than the paperback, because many of the underwater pages are so dark that it helps to have your device backlighting them. And some of the glorious two-page panel layouts lose parts of images in the “gutter” of the paperback, while you can easily appreciate the entire page in digital format.

Although Dominion is a serious treatment of the king of monsters, the creators can’t resist sneaking in at least one comedic sound effect: HHGGIMPAAAK! I didn’t get the joke until my second read.

At times a thoughtful meditation on the monster and his life, Dominion still has plenty of awesomely rendered kaiju battles, explosions, and the larger-than-life chaos we expect from Godzilla. My favorite line? “They thought they could challenge him. They were wrong.”

Collector’s Guide: You can find either the paperback edition or the Kindle/Comixology edition on Amazon for less than $20.

Watch Mags Come to Life: Digital Art Process Video

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Vamkire Trannel posted this video of his process for creating the illustration for the cover of Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus. I love seeing how he made Mags come to life! You can enjoy more of his work on Reddit, YouTube, DeviantArt, and Instagram.

Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day

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An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.

Curse me for a papist, you bloody bilge rats! I almost forgot it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day! But what does it really mean to talk like a pirate? Is it mastery of the word “argh” and a few catchphrases from Treasure Island?

I think it runs deeper than that, deeper than aping some romanticized Disney version of the so-called Golden Age of Atlantic Piracy. It even goes beyond the English language, as thievery and butchery on the high seas have been around for as long as people have had ships. We can’t forget the pirates who kidnapped Julius Caesar, nor the Irish pirates like Grace O’Malley, nor the Somali pirates who are probably out there right now looking for their next score. Not a single one of them talks like Long John Silver.

Talking like a pirate requires getting inside the pirate mind. This goes beyond any one language or any single period in history. Once you understand who the pirate is, talking like her is almost an afterthought. So, who is she? Let me give you eight insights.

1. She’s poor. No one rich ever became a pirate. Stealing at sea is primarily an activity undertaken by those who have nothing of their own. Piracy is not a cute ride at an amusement park, nor a lark, nor an afternoon adventure. Piracy is a desperate response to desperate times by people whose very survival depends on taking for themselves—by force, if necessary—the resources they need to survive.

2. She’s out of work. Some of you might be thinking, “No rich people? But didn’t wealthy nations of Europe hire pirates?” Indeed they did. When an empire issued a “letter of marque”, it granted authority to one or more ships to go fuck up some other country’s shipping and entire economy that depended on shipping. But because that had an official permission, it wasn’t considered piracy. It was “privateering”. Strictly legal—at least in the eyes of the nation who issued the letter of marque.

Many pirates were at one time or other “legal” privateers. But if, for example, a war ended between two nations, the privateers were out of a job. There they were, alone, adrift at sea, with their income source vanishing into thin air. They were unemployed, and they needed to survive. All they had was their ship, their skills, and their willingness to work together to stay alive.

Also, many pirates around the world were fishers who weren’t catching enough in the off season to support themselves. Their income dried up, but they still needed to eat, and they had boats. At that point, taking some shit off another boat starts to sound like a good idea.

3. She’s been abused on the job, and she didn’t like it. Besides unemployment, the greatest contributor to classical Atlantic piracy was abusive work conditions. Not having a job truly sucks, but sometimes having a job is an even greater hell.

Many of the Atlantic Pirates around the turn of the eighteenth century were part of a labor rebellion against horrific conditions on military ships. They had been whipped nearly to death over minor infractions and lived through extreme cruelty at the hands of deranged officers. Many who became pirates were people who couldn’t exactly walk off their job, since their job was in the middle of the bloody sea. So, they simply took over the ship through violence.

Often, the previous captains were flogged or imprisoned or thrown to the sharks. And in their absence, a new kind of law took their place.

4. She’s an anarchist. Once the abusive captain was gone, what sort of order prevailed? A collective order, agreed upon by every member of the crew. In this new order, the captain was not an almighty authoritarian figure but served at the whim of the entire crew.

And the pirates created their own code, their own social order. They drafted articles of their piracy and signed them, including provisions that allowed for choosing new leadership, pensions for the disabled, and humane working conditions. Everyone got a share of the spoils, and unlike today’s CEOs, the captain took hardly more than any other crew member. Authority was de-centralized, democratic, and set to chart a course no national government could control.

5. She’s evil. Despite understanding piracy as a somewhat justifiable reaction to harsh economic and labor conditions, let’s not romanticize. Many pirate crews traded in captured slaves who were even less free than the pirates. Many destroyed settlements and slaughtered people who were no better off than they. Many committed atrocities that rivaled those of the very institutions they had rebelled against. Though much of a pirate’s life appears admirable through a certain lens, much of it is deplorable.

6. She knows she has not chosen the easy path, but she celebrates it. Classical pirates had a toast: “To a merry life, and a short one.” They knew they had escaped horror only to embrace constant danger, and their days were numbered. The pirate had no illusions about living forever, unless she was the religious type. To become a pirate was to accept impending death as the outcome, and vow to live life to its fullest until that unfortunate end. No one parties as hard as those who know they die tomorrow.

7. She’s a professional sailor. If you don’t know your mizzenmast from your poop deck, then you aren’t ready to be a pirate. Very few, if any, people besides professional sailors ever “fell into” piracy, despite what romantic fiction might want you to believe. Your typical classical pirate was either ex-military (Navy), or ex-privateer (government-sanctioned), or both, and many other pirates were fishers out of work in the off-season. All of them knew their vessels and what it took to survive on the open sea.

8. She’s tough as nails. The pirate is a survivor of horrific conditions I hope you and I never endure. She’s lived through physical torture, emotional trauma, extreme deprivation, malnutrition, mutilation, and the most brutal storms this godforsaken planet can throw at her. Do you still wonder why she gets into the rum a little too often? I don’t.

I’m sure I left something out, but if you remember these eight things about what it means to be a pirate, then I bet you can talk like a pirate any day of the year, regardless of your language, culture, or era.

Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day! If you’re craving more awesome pirate history and want help finding awesome books about pirates, see my Library of Female Pirates.

Those demonized by the rulers of society as the common enemies of mankind, she suggested, were heroes to the common sailor.

One major reason was how the outlaws organized their ships… How did they manage to be “precisely just among themselves”?

What did justice mean to those whom the law sought to “bring to justice” by hanging?

—Marcus Rediker; Villains of All Nations, “The New Government of the Ship”, 2004.

Infinite Playground of Imagination

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An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.

Back in 2017, in the first few months of my writers workshop, I received feedback from a science-fiction writer I respect and admire. As you might already know, many of the first thirty episodes of the Meteor Mags stories take place from 2027 to 2030. The feedback I got was that science-fiction stories should be set at least forty years into the future.

I think the idea was that this buffer of time gives some plausibility to the development of “futuristic” technologies. It might be a decent rule of thumb for aspiring SF writers. But futurism isn’t a central concept or concern in Mags’ stories, and as a lifelong reader of comic books, I could list dozens if not hundreds of sci-fi stories set in the present or the distant past.

I won’t belabor the point but merely offer an example: The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra was published from 2012 to 2015, but that absolutely insane sci-fi epic was set in the 1940s through the 1960s.

You can probably think of many more comic-book examples, such as the 1980s Watchmen series set in an alternate 1980s universe. Or you can go back to early prose classics from H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley. Any fan of steampunk can come up with science-fiction tales set in the Victorian era, and any Ray Bradbury fan knows that many once-futuristic dates in The Martian Chronicles have long since come and gone.

Science fiction’s future is old news.

The Meteor Mags stories take place in a solar system that shares many aspects of ours but is clearly different. One of the more obvious clues is how asteroids are named with their number after their name: Our “4 Vesta” is Mags’ “Vesta 4”. Call it an alternate universe, an alternate timeline, a Marvel What If scenario, or, for you Robert Heinlein geeks, a “ficton”. I don’t care. It’s just where Mags lives, and while it sometimes offers a commentary on or satire of our solar system, it’s unique unto itself.

In terms of satire, a few examples come to mind. The Musical Freedoms Act of 2019 is an obvious satire of the “Religious Freedom” laws that recently plagued the United States. In Jam Room, Mags mentions that Ted Nugent ran for President in 2020 but was assassinated. In Hunted to Extinction, Mags concludes a parody of gratuitous female shower scenes in SF movies with a comment about the Alien franchise.

Her solar system and ours have a few things in common, but they also have many differences.

In terms of divergent timelines, the divergences go back at least a few hundred years in the backstories about how Mags’ ancestors affected the golden age of Atlantic pirates in the 1700s and the economic landscape of Europe in the 1800s. Some of those events have been specifically mentioned in the text, some have been implied or alluded to, and some remain in my massive pile of notes for unwritten historical tales.

The history of space exploration and asteroid mining were influenced by Mags’ presence in her solar system, especially in terms of her contributions to localized gravity control. I do not expect that humans in our reality will have a lunar base established in 2023 nor be mining asteroids on a massive scale a few years later. We certainly will not be colonizing Mars and building major metropolises there in our current decade. These “futuristic” concepts overlap our timeline and are a direct consequence of the existence of Mags and her illustrious and unusually long-lived maternal ancestors.

A futuristic approach to science fiction is based on the idea that readers expect a story that is set in the future of their personal reality where scientific and technologic advancements have materialized. It’s a place where our dreams and aspirations about tech have come true. It’s a fantasy about where our species is headed. We might be headed toward utopia or dystopia, but these are somewhat distant futures that science fiction speculates about; hence the term “speculative fiction”.

That isn’t my approach at all. My approach is to consider myself as being Mags’ biographer. That position gives me not just the future to play with, but the past. The events relevant to her life include—as Carl Sagan liked to say—”billions and billions” of years, from the earliest days of her solar system to the heat death of her universe.

Even that timespan and location is too limited. I’ve already published a story about Patches that suggests the end of the universe is not the end for Mags and Patches, and I have notes for a story where Mags gets a glimpse of every possible alternate universe where she existed.

So, we’re way beyond guidelines to set these stories at some arbitrary number of years in our future. They don’t take place there. They take place in the infinite playground of my imagination.

The series has always—first and foremost—been about the characters and their friendships through the insane adventures they encounter. The science-fiction aspects are far less important to me than that emotional core. My intent is not to make fantasies about future technology seem plausible. I only want each story to be fun—fun for me to write, fun for my characters to live though, and fun for the readers who might consider the adventures of a hell-raising, shotgun-wielding, piano-playing, feline maniac with an odd assortment of space pets to be a nice break from the drudgery of everyday life.

As I’ve said before: This isn’t science fiction. It’s rock’n’roll wearing science-fiction clothes. Feel free to take yours off and join the party.

the octopus murder ballad

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They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and perhaps that statement is never more true than in the animal kingdom. In June, I posted a pre-publication draft of a story that involved a woman and a wasp attack. A couple nights ago, my sister called and told me an equally harrowing tale about how she had recently been attacked by a swarm of bees that came out of the ground! I knew some bees lived in the ground, but not massive hives of them.

In the same story, the narrator explained some of the more gruesome aspects of octopus reproduction—aspects I was unaware of when I first started writing octo stories back in 2015 or so. It turns out that in many cases, while the octos are getting their groove on, the female decides to strangle the male to death and eat him. That’s also her last meal, because she stops eating once she lays her eggs, and she dies around the time they hatch.

Nature is brutal!

Anyway, that should explain this poem whose title and lines are all eight syllables.

The Octopus Murder Ballad

Understand that with my three hearts,
I will love you three times as much:
passion signed in triplicate,
so you will always be with me.

You have all I long desired:
perception, beauty, daring, strength.
You outshine others like a star,
a blazing sun to stay with me.

You give me life and then you won’t
stop struggling. I thought you loved me.
I thought you wanted me. Husband.
Lover. You promised to help me.

Become this. Become us. We will
fill the ocean with our children.
You will die and I will eat you,
and we will never be apart.

This poem now appears in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus.

it’s a dry heat

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After twenty years in Phoenix, I thought I had seen it all. The monsoon season that peaks around August in Phoenix had done some terrible things to me. Once, I got caught on my bike in pitch-black night in a combination dust storm and rainstorm that was like a sheet of mud pouring right out of the sky.

Another time, I was trapped on my scooter in the middle of flooded streets, and cars and busses were trying to get past me in the dark, splashing massive waves against me, and I was pretty sure I was going to die before I got back to my lightless, powerless apartment to see if my cat was okay.

I guess at some point you just accept death as an option and keep going.

Tucson’s monsoons this year started earlier than I recall those in Phoenix rolling in, but they are no less violent. Last week, I got caught walking home from the store by a dust storm that turned the entire sky brown. Two days later, I got caught walking in one of the most insane rainstorms I have seen in twenty years. The big drops of sprinkles started in, and it wasn’t even minutes until I thought I was going to be knocked off my feet by the wind and drowned in the deluge at the side of the road. Cars and busses were pulling over because drivers couldn’t even see. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot.

So, Tucson monsoons surrounded by mountains and lightning, here is a poem for you. Now please stop trying to kill me.

The Flood

Grey mountains perforated the
underbelly of a great cloud
that admitted no horizon,
until nothing held back the rain.

City streets drowned, and vehicles
lost their way, taking with them
drivers, children, and families,
until no one held back the rain.

The entire valley filled with
rolling, churning torrents darkened
by earth and history of earth,
until no rim held back the rain.

No mortal knows what lies beyond,
where only floodwaters venture.
The deluge keeps her secrets well,
and she never forgets the rain.

This poem now appears in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus.

Reflections on Writing Dekarna Triumphant

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An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.

In the recent stories Antipodes and The Martian Revolution, things have not gone according to Mags’ plans and desires. In Dekarna Triumphant, she runs into trouble at the South Pacific station she founded back in Small Flowers. Mags thinks she has the situation all under control and expects Dekarna and the baby reptiles will be part of her personal army, but that rug gets pulled out from under her, and Mags must battle a fearsome nemesis whose rage is completely justifiable.

The resultant story is an ass-kicking freakshow full of brutality, but with moments of descriptive natural beauty.

With The Martian Revolution, I had an absolute blast returning to the heart of the series by featuring Mags, Patches, and Tarzi in a series of violent, vulgar, comedic action scenes. But after that, I felt emotionally drawn to the plight of my evil space lizard and how she rages against it.

I love how Dekarna is so remorselessly evil but is all about her babies! I love how she would stop at nothing to protect and feed her young, but she is the last reptile you want to mess with.

I think that’s why she makes a good villain for Mags, because Mags is the same way—just a more mammalian version. Mags would happily bulldoze a billion people into a ditch if she thought it would save her cat. Dekarna would do the same for her babies.

Finding that heart of the heartless reptile really brought her to life for me. I also empathize with Dekarna’s quest to be free and happy. She has been used and abused by everyone in her life—from her former commander to Meteor Mags—and every time she almost achieved freedom, some other asshole came along to enslave her. It reminds me of trying to make a living in my twenties. All I wanted was to be free.

That’s Dekarna’s life in a nutshell, and I wanted to give her a story where she was, at last, completely free. Free, unleashed, and totally fucking evil.

In the confrontation, Mags faces defeat. While I love it when everything goes Mags’ way, struggling against overwhelming odds and sometimes failing makes for a more compelling story, especially in an ongoing series. I’ve often felt that many of the early stories in the series made it too easy for Mags to get what she wanted. Though they are fun adventure tales, the dramatic tension isn’t very heavy. It wasn’t until the tornado in Blind Alley Blues that Mags really began to confront enormous, high-stakes problems she couldn’t entirely overcome. And that is where, in my opinion, the series began a major improvement.

So, I was a bit shocked by the reaction when I told a member of my workshop group that Mags would be totally defeated in this episode. The response was, basically, “You can’t do that!” I have never in my life heard anyone get so angry over one of my plot decisions.

It didn’t upset me or sway me, though. I mean, The Empire Strikes Back would have been a much less significant film if everything went great for Luke Skywalker at the end. Instead, his secret base is destroyed, his training is interrupted before he gets any real skill, his best pal is kidnapped and frozen, his scumbag nemesis turns out to be his dad and kicks his ass, he gets his frickin’ hand chopped off, and he falls to his doom.

Now that’s a story!

So, no, I didn’t change my plans for Mags’ defeat. But the angry reaction to those plans made me happy. It made me happy to know that someone else in the universe loves Mags so much that merely the thought of her being defeated would upset them! Because you know what? It upsets me too. Every time I throw a dramatic monkey wrench into Mags’ plans or write her into awful situations where she suffers pain and loss, it upsets me.

I think it was Alan Moore who said that no matter how much you love your characters, you must do horrible things to them. But that advice doesn’t make it any easier to do. I go through a whole range of emotions when writing about Mags’ struggles, including anger and sadness.

The emotional payoff for me comes when she triumphs, or is rescued by her friends, or maintains her (mostly) unshakeable attitude of rage and defiance even when the odds are against her. I like seeing what she’s made of. I admire her strength—not just her physical strength, but her emotional and intellectual strength—and I believe her qualities are best illuminated when she faces the greatest challenges.

I confess that in this episode, I intentionally “painted myself into a corner” by writing Mags into a situation she could not possibly escape. I did it on purpose, to make things more dramatic, but it was not a decision that made the writing any easier! That was okay because both Mags and I needed a challenge. But the result was that I eventually had the entire story written except for half of one scene, because I didn’t have a clue about how to get Mags out of what happened to her.

One of the recurring themes in the series is how Mags’ rash and reckless overconfidence gets her into trouble she can’t escape without the help of her friends. So, confronted with an insurmountable obstacle in writing this episode, I asked a friend for help. I explained the situation to her, and we brainstormed ideas for about half an hour. At the end, we had come up with an idea so bonkers, so absolutely insane, that I knew I had to write it. Even though I had my doubts about the idea, I couldn’t not write it!

Anyway, I wrote it, loved it, and the rest is future history. But like Mags, I needed the help of a good friend to make it happen.

Dekarna Triumphant is a kind of Empire Strikes Back ending to what will be the second omnibus collection of stories. It concludes a story cycle that began after The Battle of Vesta 4. In my reflections on Battle, I explained how that story essentially wrapped up all the ideas I originally had for the series when I first started writing it seven years ago. I mentioned how completing that story left me with a solar system where anything was possible, and I was looking forward to indulging my imagination with subsequent tales.

The twelve episodes from Hunted to Extinction through Dekarna Triumphant represent three or four years of playing in those fields of imagination, taking characters in directions I never originally planned, incorporating different narrators and narrative techniques, exploring the consequences of what the early stories established, introducing new concepts and characters, and bringing additional depth and growth to old ones.

And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I had a lot going on in my life that I was unhappy about, but writing the adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was always a pleasure. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I do, and I look forward to writing more. In the meantime, I’ll be putting together the second omnibus.

Bikinis, Beasts, and Bloodshed: Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl Omnibus

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I used to have a few of the single issues of Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl from Dymanite, and I admit they were a guilty pleasure. There is so much wrong with the classic jungle girl trope that I hardly know where to begin. On the other hand, how can I not love this idealized, bikini-clad beauty punching a pterodactyl in the frickin’ face—with a crowbar!

So, what the hell. Last month, I got the Omnibus edition that collects all three “seasons” of the series, and I was not disappointed by the lush depictions of savage dinosaurs, giant sea krakens, and other monstrosities in physical combat with Jana the jungle girl. I like heroines who kick major ass, and Jana kicks countless miles of ass in a non-stop adventure that takes her from one peril to the next in fast-paced action.

In fact, she fights so hard that her bra almost comes off, and that tells you just about everything you need to know about the vibe of this series.

Early on, the creative team lampshades their pandering to the male gaze by showing the screen of a video camera held by one of the male supporting characters. The screen is filled with Jana’s boobs in one panel, then her butt in the next. It’s a tongue-in-cheek self-reference for a series that clearly indulges the readers’ desire to look at Jana in all her unattainable glory, and I would be surprised to discover that any of those readers are women.

Despite the gratuitous yet awesomely rendered cheesecake, I can’t see this series as sexist or inherently degrading. As a character, Jana possesses a keen intelligence and a deep knowledge of the flora and fauna in her environment, even if she is ignorant of technologies and terminology of “the outside world”. She holds the moral high ground, proving herself ethically superior to the scumbags she encounters. Jana is strong both physically and in terms of her unassailable will power and confidence. Other than her portrayal on the cover, she is never really a “damsel in distress”, even though she does get into some jams—as every hero should. Jana is kind and loving to those who earn her trust, yet absolutely ready to end any human, animal, or monster who messes with her. Jana is both a protector and a destroyer, and though she parades through these pages in pin-up poses, she gives readers many reasons to respect and admire her character. She is like a female Conan.

The creative team, helmed by Frank Cho who draws the covers and co-plots the series, leans hard into the typical aspects of a jungle girl trope. Jana is a white girl in an animal-print bikini who has hairless legs and armpits despite never shaving, and picture-perfect, dirtless feet despite constantly traveling over rough terrain in her bare feet. Let’s not even discuss how she never has a stray pube despite the total lack of bikini waxing in her jungle. The bikini trope is leaned into so hard that Jana reveals she has various bikinis stashed in secret caches across the landscape, sometimes pausing the plot to change into a new animal print for no good reason.

As the series progresses, it incorporates other classic tropes and concepts dating back to around a century ago when the jungle girl became a mainstay of American fiction. The series has been compared to earlier “Lost World” stories, and the second and third seasons are rife with Lovecraftian beasts. Jungle Girl is like a story from 100 years ago, but produced with modern, high-quality artwork.

I agree with other reviewers who had “WTF” moments with the third season. For the entire third season, Jana ditches her bikini and wears a full-body wet suit after a dive, which makes sense, except that the other characters who needed wet suits lose them almost immediately. The plot veers from the absurd into the completely nonsensical, and it ends on a nearly incomprehensible note. It’s a weird stew that gives the impression that the creators wanted so much to incorporate all the vintage tropes that they forgot to have it make sense. I would say that Jungle Girl “jumps the shark” at a certain point, if not for the fact that the entire series consists of shark jumping.

While the Jungle Girl Omnibus: The Complete Collection will never be considered one of the great literary works of our time, it’s an action-packed ride for readers who want to see an ass-kicking beauty ride a mammoth, spear a T-Rex, fight a giant octopus, and bash the living daylights out of hordes of creepy weirdos. What it lacks in terms of plot coherency is made up for with dinosaur stampedes. What it lacks in sensitivity to female readers, it mostly makes up for by giving Jana such an admirable characterization that she is more than mere eye candy.

Though there’s plenty of that, too.

Collectors Guide: This Omnibus collection is easily found on Amazon in print and digital formats, and often in stock at MyComicShop.

Thus Rewarded Are Our Toils: The Unhappy Tale of Laika the Canine Cosmonaut

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I was thrilled last month when I read that NASA is sending squids into space. I’m a space-octopus enthusiast, so squids in space is something I can get excited about. But the article dashed my dreams with a cold dose of reality. After serving as research subjects, the helpless squids will be returned to Earth—frozen.

Their fate brings to mind another tragic tale: that of Laika, the canine cosmonaut. She was an abandoned puppy who became the first dog in space, but she was also abandoned a second time, in orbit. Though the details of her demise were obscured at the time, it’s now widely accepted that she died from overheating. She got so hot that it killed her. Think about that for a second. I don’t even like dogs, but that’s not a destiny I would wish on any of them.

Nick Abadzis tells her story in his graphic novel, Laika. Though he portrays her as an adorable and loving companion, and certainly the main character, Abadzis resists the urge to anthropomorphize her. He tells compelling, human tales about the researchers who worked with her, trained her, and tested her, but Laika remains resolutely canine.

The one artistic decision that bothers me is the author’s tendency to wax poetic as Laika orbits the Earth. While the decision lends the moment an inspirational grandeur befitting its place in the history of space exploration, I could not help but feel sad and angry knowing that the reality for the animal was intense suffering in her final moments, alone and without comfort inside a metal cage, tortured for a purpose she could never understand nor even desire.

But Abadzis knows these harsh facts, and he shows more than the public backlash from the world’s discovery that Laika died. He shows the grief on a personal level in the reactions of the woman who worked with Laika and built a bond of affection and trust, despite the experiments she oversaw that must have been absolutely terrifying for the animal.  

We as a species need to reconsider our choice to send intelligent, feeling animals into space to die. As much as we have benefitted from space exploration and research, the time has come to stop treating animals like disposable garbage in the pursuit of new horizons.

The inscription on the Soviet Monument to the Conquerors of Space speaks of the “reward for our toils”. Though the sentiment is noble, the reward for animals we send to space is not noble. It is only nightmare, or death.

And thus rewarded are our toils,
That having vanquished lawlessness and dark,
We have forged great flaming wings
For our
Nation
And this age of ours!

Monument to the Conquerors of Space, 1964.

Collector’s Guide: Laika is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle ebook. Her name appears on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space.

Around the World in Eight Arms: Traveling with Your Octopus

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Despite what my recent posts might lead you to believe, not every book I enjoy is full of brutal, blood-soaked dinosaur fights. I like some cute and lighthearted stuff, too! My summer reading list includes 2015’s charming and exquisitely illustrated Traveling with Your Octopus by Brian Kesinger. It’s a flight of pure fantasy where a woman and her octopus go on a round-the-world series of adventures without any regard for the realities of octopodal biology, a journey that takes them to deserts, islands, through the air, and even into space.

Traveling with Your Octopus is not a traditional narrative with prose. The focus is on the illustrations, with one full-page picture on the right-hand side depicting the travelers, accompanied by a facing page that contains only one or two sentences of humorous travel “tips” for that locale. As fun as it might have been to have a proper story, the pictures contain so much detail that they suggest a larger tale for each location and invite you to imagine your own story.

Victoria’s name matches her Victorian, steampunk-style world, a place simultaneously retro and futuristic. The globe-trotting Victoria always has a unique and fun outfit for each setting, even a dress embroidered with octopuses she wears for a Japanese tea ceremony, and she has no shortage of vehicular and animal-based transportation, from a submersible to a blimp to a stubborn camel. Victoria truly is a woman who has it all—and who better to share that with than her octopus friend!

In one of my short stories last year, I described a painting of the lead character done in the style of a multi-armed Hindu goddess, with an octopus supplying the extra arms. I thought that idea was pretty clever, but I discovered later that Victoria and Otto beat me to it years ago! Yes, I am jealous, but I will be looking for a print of this masterpiece. Here it is on a flyer for the original book release party.

The book is a quick read, but a quick read misses the point of savoring the delightful illustrations and letting them fuel your imagination. And if you find you can’t get enough of Victoria and Otto, you’ll be happy to know this is but one book in a series that involves more fun things to do with your pet octopus, from playing dress up to traveling through time, and even a coloring book!

Collector’s Guide: The Internet tells me that Kesinger has an Etsy site and his own website, but they do not appear to exist anymore. So, check out his entire octopus series on Amazon! (That link doesn’t include the 2020 time-travel book yet, but you can find it here.)

Skreeeeonk! Godzilla in Hell!

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In 2016, IDW answered my long-unheard prayers for a Godzilla story that cut out all the stupid human parts, made my favorite radioactive lizard the main character, and gave him the task for which he above all other creatures is best-suited: destroying the ever-loving shit out of everything in his path! The five issues of Godzilla in Hell are my favorite Godzilla story so far, beating the original 1970s Marvel stories I loved as a kid and topping the monumental, manga-style Dark Horse mini-series from 1988. Let’s take a look inside.

The first issue begins with Godzilla falling through a hole into the wastelands of Hell. It offers zero explanation about how or why this fate befell our hero, and that is a solid artistic choice. You are either all-aboard with this insane premise or not, and no amount of pseudoscience, mysticism, or tedious exposition will sway your opinion. So, why bother?

Each issue has its own creative team with its own visual style, and issue #2 is the only one that has narrative captions. Otherwise, the series has little use for text beyond monstrous screaming. I get the impression that each team received minimal instructions, something along the lines of “Godzilla encounters various horrors and monsters on his way to the end of the issue, where he will descend into the next level of Hell.” The plot is as simple and direct as Godzilla himself, who meets each foe head-on with primal ferocity and unbridled rage.

This is what Godzilla is all about to me. He’s a force of nature like a waterfall or a late-period John Coltrane improvisation. It never occurs to him to slow down, run away, or give up. And when he meets, in the third issue, a weird entity that attempts to convince him to join the forces of peace and submit to its will, Godzilla ain’t tryna to hear any of that bullshit. Peace is for beings of lesser fury.

Godzilla’s path, as he demonstrates with unrivaled brutality, is one of pure destruction. In some ways, his portrayal in this series reminds me of the unstoppable Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub. No matter what you throw at him, he’s on a mission of annihilation. Skreeeonnnnnkk!

Along the way, Godzilla murders every freakish monstrosity and classic kaiju Hell can throw at him. Yet his triumphs are short-lived. He is doomed at the end of each issue to go to another hellish level, like Dante’s Inferno but with way more ass-kicking.

In the final issue, the king of all monsters is eaten alive and completely destroyed by a swarm of flying scumbags who are little more than mouths and wings and hate. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it is a pitch-perfect finale that expresses Godzilla’s true essence in a way no movie or comic book ever has, before or since. If you want the best Godzilla story ever, then the solution is simple: Go to Hell!

Collectors’ Guide: It’s hard to find the original single issues in print or TPB, but this five-issue series was collected along with two other mini-series in Godzilla: Unnatural Disasters, which is easy to find for about $20 on Amazon in TPB format or Kindle/Comixology format, and also at MyComicShop in TPB format.

Learning to Love the Monster: Tadd Galusha’s Cretaceous

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The Cretaceous graphic novel is the most recent addition to my collection of pure dinosaur comics, and it is non-stop awesome. Like Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles series, it is a wordless dino adventure, though Tadd Galusha does drop in the occasional text-based sound effect or growl. Cretaceous delivers a wildlife documentary from hell, with nearly every page being full of brutally violent dinosaur fights and dinos eating other dinos. This tale of carnage and mayhem is not a cute book for toddlers!

If you’re like me, you wish that Godzilla movies and comics would just get rid of all the stupid human parts and show more monster battles. Galusha—who worked on some Godzilla comics for IDW—must feel the same way, because Cretaceous is all killer and no filler. Early on, I wondered if the book even had a plot, or if it was just an endless stream of savagery, with different dinos weaving in and out of each other’s lives on the way to their doom.

Although that’s a fairly accurate statement about Cretaceous, a plot does emerge. The protagonist is an adult male Tyrannosaurus Rex, a fearsome monster who, in the first scene, attacks a herd of Parasaurolophus and slaughters one of them. He carries the fresh corpse back to his home, where the meat feeds his juveniles first and then his wife. The mother Rex waits patiently while the children feed, and this detail of her characterization takes us on the first step down the path of learning to love these murderous beasts. Yes, they are killers, but within their family unit is affection, devotion, and tenderness.

But not even these rulers of prehistory can escape the eat-and-be-eaten web of life, especially when smaller predators have developed the skill to hunt in packs and accomplish what a lone individual cannot. Tragedy befalls the Rex family, and the remainder of the book resembles an old-fashioned revenge tale. A classic Western, almost.

The daddy Rex hunts his enemies and searches for his surviving child. The perpetual horror he encounters earns him our sympathy, and his mastery of unarmed combat earns him our respect. Step-by-step, as we follow him through the forest primeval and other resplendent landscapes brought to life by Galusha’s pen and colors, we learn to love this monster.

The environment is so much a part of the action that it’s practically a character itself. Galusha doesn’t just draw pretty backgrounds. The earth, the trees, the fog, the ocean—they are all more than mere settings. They are both friends and foes to the dinosaurs, often at the same time. Plus, their visual splendor is a counterpoint to the sheer terror that drives Cretaceous. And is that any different from our real lives? We are fragile creatures, even the toughest of us, inhabiting a beautiful universe where life often feels like a relentless string of one ugly event after another.

Yet life goes on, and though we know exactly how all our stories will end, we persist. By boiling down the dinosaurs’ lives into their most primal aspects, Cretaceous seems to comment on our human lives. Galusha presents an unflinchingly brutal vision of life and death, a narrative of ceaseless struggle illuminated occasionally by the moments of hope, triumph, and even love that keep us going—despite knowing all too well the cards are stacked against us. We come to love the monstrous Rex, because the monster is us, and everything around us. His quest is ours.

Cretaceous blew my mind and earned a spot among my all-time favorite dinosaur comics, a pantheon which includes Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles, Steve Bissette’s Tyrant, and Jim Lawson’s Paleo and Loner.

You can find Cretaceous on Amazon in paperback or Kindle/Comixology ebook formats.

black-and-white art from Illustration Age’s Tadd Galusha page.

Childhood Reading: A Memoir

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A month ago, I mentioned the reading group I joined in kindergarten. Mom recently saw that post, and we compared memories.

One reading program I recall with mixed feelings. It was part of the St. Louis County Public Library’s summer schedule, and I participated at the Daniel Boone Branch where I later held one of my first jobs as a “page”, sorting returned books and putting them back on the shelves.

That job was noteworthy in my teenage years not only because I worked with one of my best high-school friends, but also for being the time when I met Pete the janitor. Pete was also the library’s bouncer from time to time, since he was one of the few male employees in a sea of middle-aged and elderly ladies, and he wasn’t afraid to step up to disruptive patrons and tell them to knock it off or get the hell out.

As a page, I often stayed late after the library closed to chat with Pete in the parking lot. He must have been twice my age, and he turned me on to all kinds of 1970s rock bands. Some I couldn’t find in the library’s collection of vintage, vinyl records, so he let me borrow them from his personal collection. They blew my mind.

Pete was one of two guys I knew like that as a teenager. The other was Jim, who worked as a waiter on the same graveyard shift at the Denny’s restaurant where I got a job as a dishwasher right after graduating. Jim was a huge Led Zeppelin nut with an impressive collection of bootleg concerts on vinyl he let me borrow. For a brief time, I got into going to record conventions because of him and discovered all kinds of awesome live bootlegs for Zep and other bands.

But years before all that, the library had a summer reading program where kids would commit to a goal of reading 100 or more books, enter the authors and titles on a postcard-sized paper, and take it in to get a stamp or a star sticker. Staff tracked every kid’s progress on larger cards that were on display, and there was some reward for kids who read the most books.

I don’t recall the prize because I never once won that contest. After a while, I realized it was impossible, despite my voracious reading habits. I was competing against kids my age who were reading books entirely chosen from the youngest reading levels in the library, short books about Seeing Spot Run and other engrossing topics.

Meanwhile, I chose books from the adult-level science fiction shelves and college-level nonfiction books about animals, space, and history. They took a lot longer to read! So, if you looked at the cards in the library, I was a total loser. I accepted that as my fate and kept reading what I wanted to.

In sixth grade, my teacher created an advanced reading group for a handful of students in his class. I don’t recall all the kids’ names, but we read stuff way beyond a sixth-grade level, including Mutiny on the Bounty and at least the first two books in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. If I recall correctly, we ran out of time to finish Second Foundation, but I read it on my own.

That teacher was James Schwab. The group was one of the best things to happen to me in elementary school, and Mr. Schwab remains one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He knew I needed more advanced material to engage my mind, and he provided a supportive environment in the reading group, clarifying things, answering questions, and helping us find our own answers in the adult-level books.

Mr. Schwab was one of the kindest, most trustworthy adults I ever met, and I constantly asked him questions about how the world worked. For example, I noticed that if I had salt crystals on a metal spoon and breathed on them in the cold, my breath fogged up the spoon except for tiny circles around the salt. Why did that happen? What was going on? Who could I ask but Mr. Schwab?

It turns out he didn’t know the answer, and he told me so. He also suggested we do some research on it.

I was accustomed to adults who always acted like they had all the answers, and even by sixth grade I had come to suspect that many adults had no idea how anything worked. They only wanted to preserve the illusion of their authority. Mr. Schwab was one of the first grown-ups I ever met who would just flat-out admit that he didn’t have a clue about something but would also take an interest in discovering with me what the answers were and could guide me in my quest to learn.

Somewhere around that time, the school district contacted my parents to inquire about having me skip a grade, based on my test scores. My parents declined the offer. For many years, I was angry about that decision. I was beyond bored with lessons targeted at my grade level, and I believed that skipping a grade would have put me in more intellectually challenging classes where I would feel more engaged.

Later, Mom explained to me that she felt I was mentally ready to skip a grade, but not socially. I’ve never been happy about that, but she might have been right. I would have been in classes with people hitting puberty a year before me, with all my elementary-school classmates a year behind me. My social skills were admittedly underdeveloped at that age, and they have always lagged behind my other skills.

On the other hand, maybe being in a grade that better suited my early cognitive development would have also improved my social development, since I might not have been so bored and angry about being bored in every single class all the time. We’ll never know, will we? What I do know is that I absolutely hated high school, even in the “advanced college placement” classes I took in my later teens, and I was perpetually getting in trouble for my rebellious attitude.

My high-school experience totally turned me off from college after graduation, even though I could have received a scholarship for a free ride to at least one university just based on my test scores. By high-school graduation, I had more than enough of dim-witted adults trying to force me into their molds and make me memorize meaningless stuff, then write nonsense about it.

Not all my teachers were bad. Mrs. Michelle Rodgers, my first guitar teacher, is forever an angel in my mind for demystifying music in general and the instrument that would become my reason for living for more than twenty years. Mr. Dave Jenkins, my speech-and-debate team coach, was so awesome that I have always considered him more a friend than a teacher. Mrs. Judy Buschmann and I had such great conversations about literature after her class that I was constantly late to my next class. I gladly ignored all scolding for being tardy if it meant I could talk to her about art and writing and critical thinking for a few minutes longer.

Mrs. Buschmann also founded my high school’s first Writing Center, a room full of computers in the late 1980s equipped with WordPerfect software. She enlisted me to be her assistant to help kids my age brainstorm, compose, and write their papers for various classes. It was so long ago that I don’t even bother putting the experience on my résumé anymore, but it undoubtedly informed my future as a freelance editor who helps people develop and publish their books.

So, thank you to the teachers, librarians, and other adults who helped me expand my literary and musical horizons at a young age. Life ends up being about so much more than what you expect as kid, or your standardized test scores in school. Sometimes it boils down to what inspired you and who encouraged you along the way to discovering your future.

Trim, the Cat Who Circumnavigated Australia

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Matthew Flinders was a sailor, explorer, mapmaker, and navigator who served in England’s Royal Navy and once sailed with William Bligh after the events recounted in Mutiny on the Bounty. History remembers Flinders as the man who gave Australia its current name, and for completing the first circumnavigation of that island continent.

But history also honors the cat who made that voyage and many others with Flinders. If you visit the Mitchell Library in Sydney, you will find a statue of Flinders and, very near to it, a plaque and statue of Trim, the black-and-white feline adventurer who was born on a ship at sea and enjoyed waging war against one of the true terrors of nautical life: the pestilent vermin who sought to eat the sailors’ food.

The first time I read about Trim, it was in the hilarious and detailed history of Australia, Girt by David Hunt. Today, I was reminded of Trim while reading the small but delightful 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization by Sam Stall. Each short chapter tells the tale of a noteworthy cat, from the first known cat to be named thousands of years ago to exceptional cats of the current century, from cats of well-known authors and heads of state to cats in recent popular culture. Trim’s chapter is the second to last.

I highly recommend both Girt and 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization, but their summaries of Trim’s life pale in comparison to the affectionate memoir penned by Flinders himself. You can read it for free online at The Flinders Papers.

With a little exaggeration, as cat lovers are prone to make, and a great deal of love and respect for his sea-faring companion of many years, Flinders describes Trim’s travels, travails, and triumphs. I sometimes worry that my fiction stories involving a space-traveling cat living with interplanetary rogues and brigands will strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But when reading Trim’s story in Flinders’ own words, and the stories in 100 Cats, I am reminded of the great variety of character and capability to be found among felines, many of which defy our stereotypical ideas about what cats can do, and feel, and accomplish.

Flinders’ memoir about Trim ends with an epitaph. Here are its final lines:

Many a time have I beheld his little merriments with delight,
and his superior intelligence with surprise:
Never will his like be seen again!
Trim was born in the Southern Indian Ocean, in the year 1799
and perished as above at the Isle of France in 1804.
Peace be to his shade, and
Honour to his memory
.

—Matthew Flinders, 1809.

KDP: Hardcover Beta Review

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In case you missed my post from last month, I was invited by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to participate in the beta version of their new program for producing print-on-demand hardcover books. I promised you an update when the first, physical proof arrived. Guess what came in the mail today!

All I can say is that the book looks and feels amazing. It’s sturdy and way more substantial than I expected for a smallish 150-page book. The print options I chose were for white paper and a gloss finish on the cover.

Some folks believe you should use cream paper for fiction, but I have produced books in both cream and white, and the white paper looks and feels better to me. I also find the high contrast with black text makes white paper easier to read. I’ve produced books with both matte and glossy covers, and I tend to prefer the shiny gloss that really makes the colors vibrant. But matte finish is also nice, and I’ve gone with that several times when it felt right.

The binding is beautiful inside and out, and I love the way that about a quarter-inch of the cover color and design is visible inside the book when opened, where the cover wraps around the edges.

I think authors will be pleased when this hardcover option is available to everyone. I already feel the urge to make hardcover editions of about half a dozen of my books. I’d love to release the first Meteor Mags Omnibus in hardcover, but at more than 580 pages, it exceeds the maximum page count of 550 for a KDP hardcover.

Besides page count, authors will want to consider price points and profit margins. My paperback edition of The Singing Spell has a wholesale printing cost to me of less than USD $3. But the printing cost for the hardcover is $7.28. (Again, this is for a 150-page book. Longer books will cost more.) To sell the hardcover and make a reasonable per-unit profit on Amazon, I needed to price it at $14.95, as opposed to the $6.95 price for the paperback and the $2.99 bargain price for the Kindle ebook edition.

This doesn’t make much of a financial difference to me, since I design my own books, but authors who need to pay a designer to format the cover for a hardcover edition will want to consider whether they can recoup the additional expense with hardcover sales at a higher price than the other editions. Will their target market be willing to spend the extra bucks for a hardcover? It’s a question I can’t really answer for anyone without market research.

Either way, I expect my fellow authors and readers will be impressed with the quality of these hardcover editions, and I’m looking forward to the day when this program is no longer in beta testing but available to all self-publishers using the KDP platform.

Update: The hardcover edition of The Singing Spell is now available on Amazon.

Reflections on Writing The Martian Revolution

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An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.

My recent story about the Martian revolution in 2030 is a fairly quick read at only 16,000 words, but it took six months to finish. I’ll tell you a bit about what happened along the way—both the challenges and successes—but let’s start with the two main lessons I learned.

First: The more moving parts you have, the longer it takes to assemble the machine. When plotting a story with two or three characters in a limited setting, you have fewer things to keep track of. Seven years ago, I used to crank out first drafts over a weekend, from 5,000 to 15,000 words long. They took a lot longer than that to revise, but most of the first drafts went quickly.

Those were simpler times in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episodes had only three to six main characters in only one or two settings. Plus, I was free to make up things as I went along, because so much of the “universe” was unexplored, and I could invent unresolved plot threads on the fly to set up stories I wanted to tell in the future.

As the series progressed, it encompassed many more characters and settings, and those dangling plot threads needed woven into the fabric of everything we already knew about Mags’ life and her solar system. When writing about any event or character, I needed to bring my internal continuity editor on board to make sure I hadn’t contradicted any previous facts in the more than 300,000 words of established history.

Plus, I chose more ambitious settings as I went along. I started with what you might call “stock footage” for the early stories: things I’d seen in movies and comics that I basically stole or used as blueprints. But after boiling those stolen bits in my own kettle of ideas for a few years, they became a stew with a flavor all its own.

As a result, I sometimes needed to step back from writing the story and return to planning—which leads me to the next lesson. The suggestions I’ve given other writers for years once again proved their usefulness. Finding renewed success with so many of my basic methods reinforced my confidence in publishing them for a wider audience.

In My Life as an Armadillo, my recent book about writing and workshopping, I assert that writer’s block is a myth, because you can always write something—and I give suggestions about the fundamental, foundational pieces of writing you can do behind the scenes to overcome any feeling of being stuck.

I needed to take my own advice a bunch of times for The Martian Revolution. I reached points in the narrative where I realized I had not fully developed my own understanding of a setting or character. I needed to step back and write about those things “off the record”, behind the scenes. That empowered me to come back to the main narrative and write through several scenes and character-driven moments from a deeper understanding and keep moving forward.

Not that I wrote it all in order, from start to finish. Instead, I started from a series of scene synopses built from several thousand words of notes I’d compiled while writing earlier stories that led up to these events. From the scene summaries, I picked whichever I felt most emotionally drawn to when it was time to write.

The challenge of that approach is that you end up whittling down the unwritten scenes to the ones you feel the least emotionally involved with. But that helped me discover, as it has in the past, what it would take to get me emotionally involved in those scenes. After all, if I am not captivated by a scene as the writer, what hope is there of involving any readers?

To get to the emotional core of some things, I did a ton of exploratory writing and description of characters—not just physical descriptions, but about their true motivations, their likes, dislikes, strengths, flaws, histories, relationships with and feelings toward each other, even things that remain unspoken in the narrative but formed a subtext for my own understanding of these characters.

All of that takes time, and no one really gives you credit for doing it as a writer, just like no one gives you credit for studying an instrument for years and practicing for untold hours after giving a great concert performance.

But it wasn’t like I spent every day of six months working on one story. I published the previous collection (The Singing Spell) in October 2020, but then I needed to move at the end of January and didn’t have a place lined up. So, I packed all the stuff that would fit into a rented 10×10 U-Haul truck, threw out everything else, and drove to another city a couple hours away. I hoped for the best, but total disaster was also a possibility.

The resultant upheaval of my life made it difficult to focus on my story, so I decided not to worry about it. I found solace in writing about something every day. During my week in a hotel, I used my mini-tablet and wireless keyboard to type thousands of words of ideas for the next couple of episodes. During the subsequent saga of three weeks with no Internet in my new place, I revised and edited the collection of essays about writing and workshopping that became the book I published in March 2021. Sometimes I just wrote letters to friends to gather my thoughts.

Plus, my neglected blog needed a shot in the arm, and I had a million things to do to get my new life started and reconnect with my clients. In the meantime, I let The Martian Revolution simmer on the back burner of my mind, and every now and then I felt inspired to make more notes about it or write a scene. Those notes and the extra time proved helpful when I got around to finishing the first draft in mid-March 2021.

I never saw this as being “blocked” as a writer. It was more of a question about where to direct my writing and editing energies on any particular day during a series of life challenges that disrupted my groove. It helped that I had multiple ongoing projects to choose from, some of which were more analytical, some of which were more creative and free-flowing, and all of which were in various stages of development from brainstorming to hammering out a final draft.

Maybe that is the third lesson. I often meet writers who are struggling with a single work, and they feel disheartened when they run into obstacles in their life or with the story itself that prevent them from making progress. But if you have a few irons in the fire at the same time, you can usually find one that strikes your fancy on any given day. Not everything in the universe depends on your finishing your current novel or short story when you have a few of them to tinker with at once. Having options gives you freedom, and having options you truly care about means you can always find something to write.

glass octopus

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My sister sent me a couple of octopus-related housewarming gifts after I got to Tucson a few months ago. One is this adorable glass octo from the Ukraine or something. The packaging had Cyrillic writing all over it. Basically, it’s the same letters in the Russian alphabet, which is fitting because the telepathic octos in my fiction series started a band with a tribe of lost Soviet space monkeys. This glass octo now lives under the monitor for my work computer, next to the cute Patches memento my art teacher made for me back in 2013. Yes, there is a solar system where mutant octopuses, space monkeys, and outlaw cats can all be friends and rock out in a band—at least for as long as I have anything to say about it.

Update: My sister says you can find the creator of this glorious glass octopus and many other creatures at etsy.com/shop/miniatureglass