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The Second Omnibus collects and updates volumes 7-10, plus two all-new stories, previously unpublished interviews, scenes, drawings, a mini-comic, and more!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

The Paul Morphy Blues

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art generated by Midjourney.

In 2033, Meteor Mags records “88 Light Years”, the second solo album featuring her vocal and piano talents. This lyric for one of her original tunes is about a legendary chess player who defeated damn near everyone in the States and Europe before quitting the game entirely at age twenty-two. At age forty-seven, he was found dead in his bathtub as the result of a stroke.

The Paul Morphy Blues

I fought fools and princes,
taught them how to kneel.
Vict’ry gave me nothing,
nothing I could feel.

I fought states and countries,
taught them how to cry.
My heart is a riverbed
drought has all run dry.

Conquered all horizons,
I solved all the math.
Quit while you’re a legend.
Someone draw my bath.

Will you come and visit?
Will you say my name?
Hist’ry’s what you make it.
Now it’s all the same.

Call me pride and sorrow.
Say I was insane.
I can’t see a damn thing,
blinded in this game.

When there’s no tomorrow,
future’s in the past,
I won’t care for legends.
Someone draw my bath.

Learn more about chess history and improving your game with Levy Rozman at GothamChess.

big box of comics: The Sandman — Overture

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I am a child of Time and Night,
and this place will prove my end.

—Morpheus; Overture #5.

Last month’s Big Box of Comics featured Sandman: Endless Nights. This month, thanks once again to this blog’s readers, I filled in another gap in my Sandman collection with the superbly illustrated Overture. While I enjoyed Endless Nights, it didn’t quite earn a place among my all-time favorite Sandman stories, but Overture definitely made my top five. Let me share with you why.

First, the art by J.H. Williams III—assisted in no small part by colorist Dave Stewart—is probably the most awesome art to ever grace the pages of a Sandman story. It has incredibly inventive panel layouts that re-imagine what is possible with the very concept of panels and are perfectly suited to this story’s journey through numerous levels of reality and dreams. Williams employs a variety of art styles for the various realms and characters, even going so far as to draw multiple styles in a single panel, such as the four-page fold-out mega-splash page in the first issue where many incarnations of the Lord of Dreams gather in a single place.

Longtime fans of Sandman since the 1980s might recall the days when the original issues were printed on cheaper paper with more primitive printing processes and the colors often lacked vibrancy. But in Overture, with Dave Stewart’s colors on high-quality paper, the vibrancy is turned all the way up to eleven. Overture is a visual feast that must be seen to be believed.

Second, Overture brings back all the elements that made so many of the original long-form story arcs into instant classics. We travel through all kinds of fantastic realms, meet fascinating characters whose infinite depths we barely have time to explore, converse about weighty and poetic concepts, re-imagine mythologies, and create new mythologies on the fly as only Neil Gaiman can do.

Some reviewers have posted negative comments about the story, but those reviews only make me wonder if the reviewers remember story arcs such as the wandering Brief Lives from the original series. Sandman was always content to spend a lot of time on journeys that at first appeared aimless, was never in a hurry with the build-up, and reached unexpected and often quiet conclusions that left you scratching your head thinking, “WTF was that about?”—until you re-read the entire thing and grasped the meaning of it all.

Some reviewers complain about a lack of dramatic tension, since you know that somehow all of Overture’s complicated plot must eventually resolve into the events of the first issue of the original series. After all, it’s obviously a prequel. But I found the high stakes kept me engaged in wondering how Morpheus could simultaneously succeed on his quest and yet find himself captured at the end, and the outcome was anything but predictable.

One of the joys in reading Overture is how it connects to so many ideas and stories that were alluded to in the original series but were never fully explored or explained. Some reviewers say Overture is a bad place to start with Sandman because it requires you to know a lot about the original series for context. I disagree. I would absolutely recommend this as a starting point, because even though a new reader won’t totally understand all the context, the same could be said about starting with Sandman #1 and saving Overture until you finish the original seventy-five issues.

Sandman always had a lot of unexplained back-story about major events that were only alluded to in a couple of panels of dialogue. Overture gave Gaiman a chance to go back and fill in or expand on what might have seemed like throwaway concepts forty years ago. After reading Overture, I re-read the original series and found a new appreciation for so many small moments. Here are a few examples.

Overture gives us a more complete tale of Alianora, a former love of Morpheus who only briefly appeared near the end of A Game of You. Reading her scene in A Game of You made so much more sense to me after Overture. Likewise, when Morpheus recalls in just two panels of The Doll’s House how he failed to properly deal with a Vortex a long time ago, you know what he meant after Overture.

In Brief Lives, Delirium tells Destiny there are things that don’t appear in his book that contains the entire universe, and there is a single panel which mentions how Morpheus was weakened after some major episode that left him vulnerable to being captured in the first issue of the original series. Both of these brief moments are explored in much greater detail in Overture.

Overture also harkens back to one of my favorite standalone issues: Dream of a Thousand Cats. Morpheus appears differently to different species, such as when he appeared as a fox to the fox in Dream Hunters, and Dream of a Thousand Cats showed that he appears to cats as the Cat of Dreams. Overture explores this idea in its opening pages where Morpheus appears as a sentient carnivorous plant to an alien lifeform, and it also features the Cat of Dreams. Plus, a major plot point centers on having one thousand beings dream the same dream to create a new reality—a central concept in Dream of a Thousand Cats.

Overture builds on the idea of stars-as-conscious-entities from Endless Nights, giving the stars an entire cosmic city you don’t want to mess with, and developing the antipathy Morpheus feels for his androgynous sibling Desire as a result of that story.

You also discover the origin of the weird gasmask-plus-spinal-column thing Morpheus sometimes wears, another item whose origin was only ever mentioned in a couple of panels of the original series. DC Comics geeks know the real reason for the gasmask is that the original golden-age Sandman wore one while he was gassing his foes with chemicals that made them sleepy, but Gaiman took an old idea and ran with it—much as he did with the subsequent Jack Kirby version of Sandman in The Doll’s House.

Those are just a few things I picked up on, and other fans of Sandman will undoubtedly find more. So, as to the question of whether this is a good place to start with Sandman, I say it is. New readers won’t always understand what is going on, but that’s the same experience they get if they start at Sandman #1. To read Sandman, you must be willing to not have everything explained to you, to put together pieces of a puzzle, and to read the stories more than once to pick up all the clues and see how everything ties together. You must also be ready to indulge Gaiman’s love of leaving many mysteries unsolved, and many endings ambiguous.

I loved Overture, and it made me love the original series even more than I already did. The art will blow your mind, the story will deepen your appreciation of the original series, and it works not only as an overture but a coda to one of the finest examples of what can be accomplished in comic books. A huge Thank You to this blog’s readers for helping me add this missing gem to my big box of comics.

Collector’s Guide: Get the Sandman: Overture 30th Anniversary Edition on Amazon in Kindle or paperback formats. It’s a little harder, but not impossible and certainly rewarding, to find all the original single issues in stock.

holograms

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art generated by Midjourney

Holograms

We might be inconsequential,
but every fragment of us
contains the whole.

Every atom of our lives
holds a universe.

You and I
have always matched:

our eyes the same color,
our origins identical.

We came from nothing.
We stole everything,
and we refuse to leave.

This poem now appears in the book
Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales.

from the musical archives: Country Hate Machine

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Country Hate Machine began as a solo acoustic side-project to record hillbilly versions of songs by Nine Inch Nails, whose first album was called Pretty Hate Machine. Eventually, CHM evolved into a punk-influenced hybrid mixing rage with humor. I recorded a bunch of demos in informal settings, but life got in the way of doing formal studio sessions. So, I’ve collected twenty of my favorite acoustic demo and concert recordings from twenty years of musical madness for your listening pleasure. They contain strong language and adult subject matter, and they might be inappropriate for children or any other form of mammalian life. Consider yourself warned.

Country Hate Machine: The Lost Years is now available as a free mp3 album including twenty songs, the album art, and a mini-booklet in PDF with credits for all those who contributed lyrical and musical ideas or were kind enough to share their recordings.

I have also added several other out-of-print projects as free downloads on my Music Albums Page.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE MP3 ALBUM AS A ZIP FILE.

book review: The Puma Years by Laura Coleman

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I was always scared of her.

The Puma Years: A Memoir is my favorite book I’ve read this year. It’s the true story of a young woman who, feeling like something was missing from her nice, safe life with a soul-crushing white-collar job, went on a trip to Bolivia and visited a ramshackle wildlife sanctuary. There, she was assigned to care for Wayra, a puma with a troubled past due to being a victim of the illegal wildlife trade which killed her mother and placed her in an abusive home as a kitten.

Over time, Laura—the author—bonds with Wayra, but the path is not an easy one. Wayra distrusts people, and rightfully so, and she is kept in an enclosure where she is very unhappy. One of Laura’s jobs is to take Wayra on daily runs, as pumas like to roam, but the big cat is almost too much for her to handle safely.

You might wonder why they didn’t just let Wayra run free into the Bolivian jungle, but Wayra never had a mother to teach her to hunt and navigate the wilderness. In one especially heartrending episode, Wayra does escape. But she cannot deal with her freedom, so she constantly circles the camp and becomes a danger. When Laura finds Wayra and tries to put her on a leash, Wayra lashes out, and the wounds require stitches.

But Laura does not blame the puma. She realizes she handled the situation in the worst way possible. Laura writes:

It’s me who has these ropes, ropes that held her when she was a tiny, mewling puffed-up ball of fur, that tightened around her neck. That whipped her when she was sad, that took her mother and everything she knew away.

Other dramatic passages tell of the outbreak of a forest fire that threatened the entire sanctuary and the lives of the many animals and people there. Laura and her friends risk their lives to dig a ditch, clear away the plants, and make a firewall. It appears many times that all might be lost for the big cats and their caretakers. But at last, the fire burns out, and when Laura visits Wayra in the aftermath, something magical happens.

Wayra, who had never swum in the nearby river—unlike a typical puma who has no fear of water—decides to go for a swim. Laura enters the river with her, and the two of them frolic in waters that I personally would be too scared to explore.

For most of the book, the relationship between Wayra and Laura seems like one step up and two steps back. I don’t remember ever crying so much over a book, but the journey is worth it. In the end, things do work out for Wayra. But Laura reminds us that deforestation and the illegal pet trade and the super-sketchy “zoos” of Bolivia require much more work to solve—a work Laura continued long after the events of The Puma Years.

If you have ever loved a cat, or wondered how those of us who do can form such strong bonds with our feline friends, then you need to add The Puma Years to your reading list. It will break your heart and sew it back together many times, and give you a glimpse into the nature of these magnificent animals.

Collector’s Guide: The Puma Years is available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook editions.

big box of comics: Hello Kitty — Hello 40

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The red lettering and bow are shiny and metallic in the print version.

A few weeks ago, I told you the story of my Hello Kitty ice pack. Shout out to my friend Ashley who found a couple on Ebay—but they were like fifty bucks. That’s a lot to ask for an ice pack, so I looked around for some Hello Kitty comic books.

That’s how I ended up with an excellent used copy of Kitty’s fortieth anniversary collection, Hello 40: A Celebration in 40 Stories. Thanks to this blog’s readers, I had just received an Amazon gift certificate that covered the cost, and Hello Kitty has joined the Big Box of Comics.

The hardback edition is gorgeous, from the metallic red lettering on the cover to the overall design and the non-stop cuteness of the short comics that showcase a wide variety of art styles, from watercolor painting to paper cut-outs. While many of the vignettes revolve around Kitty having a birthday party or eating cake with friends and family, she also crash-lands a spaceship and explores another planet, meets a dragon who roasts marshmallows with his flame, goes on a couple of wild roller coaster rides, uses a time machine, stars in a movie, and has fantastic dreams after eating too many cookies before bedtime. Fans of San Rio characters will recognize a few of her friends such as the penguin (Badtz-Maru) and frog (Kerropi).

Sure, some scary or sad stuff happens, but Kitty’s tales always end happily, and no one is ever hurt. When Space Kitty makes an alien monster cry by taking away his shiny new toy—a fallen satellite she and a friend are sent to retrieve—Kitty cheers him up with a giant cupcake, and everyone is happy. Kitty has a knack for winning over her fearsome foes through acts of kindness and irrepressible good humor.

The stories are almost entirely wordless except for text-based sound effects, earning Kitty a place in our wordless comics collection, too. When the characters speak, their words are simple pictures, a kind of emoji-based dialogue.

By now, you know most of my favorite tales involve hyper-violent dinosaur battles, doomed criminals, and ridiculously grim super-hero deconstructions. Hello 40 might seem like an odd addition to my library but, hey, I like some cute stuff too! Whether you’re looking for a kid-friendly book or you want to indulge your own inner child, Hello 40 is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Collector’s Guide: Hello 40 is available on Amazon in hardcover and a Kindle edition.

Remembering Ktahdn

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art generated by Midjourney

Today, I got the sad news that my artist and poet friend Ktahdn passed away last week. If you don’t know how to say his name, don’t feel bad; hardly anyone ever got it right. Most of us just called him by his preferred nickname: “KT”. He was a softspoken, gentle guy who never had a harsh word to say about anyone, and he was always exploring different avenues for his creativity.

I met KT at an audiovisual presentation where he read original poems and short, reflective pieces about his favorite art form: building abstract sand sculptures on the beach. He displayed gorgeous photos of these ephemeral works and interspersed his readings with soothing yet evocative piano pieces by artists such as Philip Aaberg. The presentation was a hit with the storytelling group we were both part of, and he returned several times with follow-up presentations and lengthier pieces about all the work that went into his sand sculptures. For the past couple of years, he had delved into writing fantasy stories and taking part in various multimedia collaborations.

KT and I weren’t super close, but I enjoyed our conversations about art, sand, stones, and poetry. He recommended a few great books to me, including The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz. I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s a fascinating read.

It starts with observations about an apparently simple, ordinary stone on a beach, then quickly expands into a history of the universe that made such a stone possible: from the formation of the first stars where hydrogen was fused into heavier elements disbursed when those stars exploded, to the collision of the Mars-sized planet that struck Earth billions of years ago and resulted in the formation of our Moon. The book continues with a history of Earth where geologic dramas created different kinds of rocks, and how those rocks were distributed across the planet through continental drift, erosion, and other natural forces.

That’s how I will remember KT. He was a man who could look at something ordinary and see the extraordinary. He appreciated how even the smallest things most of us take for granted are the result of complex, elaborate histories, and he knew those histories would continue long into the future after those things had gone from our lives. Like his sand sculptures that stood as beautiful monuments until the tides rolled in and washed them away, everything exists in cycles of creation and destruction, which are really just two sides of the same coin: transformation.

The tides have taken KT away. But I will remember that even the smallest grain of sand returning to the ocean will become a part of something else, something with an intricate future that dwarfs even the history that brought it onto the beach in the first place.

I don’t think KT would want us to mourn his passing any more than he ever shed a tear for one of his sculptures. Instead, he would want us to return to the beach and, once again, create something beautiful. Whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime doesn’t really matter. What matters is the experience.

“At One Point I See Antelope”, from Field Notes by Philip Aaberg.

August 30 Update: After meeting with mutual friends last night to remember KT, it hit me that my first art adventure with him wasn’t in the storytelling group but many years earlier in a weekly gathering to musically explore the old trade routes known as the Silk Road. Following the path of the Silk Road from Europe to China, KT played music from the regions and talked a bit about the various cultures. I picked up several albums he sampled for us, though I would have liked to get them all.

While going through my music library, I also found an hour-long recording I made of one of his reading sessions. Click here to have a listen.

Big Box of Comics: The Sandman – Endless Nights

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With all the talk about the Sandman thanks to his being adapted as a Netflix show, I realized I’d never read Endless Nights. Published in 2003, years after the original 75-issue series by Neil Gaiman ended, Endless Nights is a collection of seven stories. Each one focuses on a different member of the Endless: Death, Dream, Desire, Delirium, Destiny, Destruction, and Despair. As Gaiman recently mentioned in a video about mythology, the Endless are not gods, because gods die when no one remembers them anymore—but the Endless are forever.

Thanks to this blog’s readers, this month I added the hardcover edition of Endless Nights to my Sandman collection, and it was a good read. I would not recommend it as a starting point for getting into Sandman, because it will be confusing to readers who don’t already know the characters and concepts. But for those of us who read and loved the original series, it offers interesting vignettes and wildly creative artwork.

Each of the seven stories employs a different art team, and the pairings of artist with story feel very well-matched. Who but Bill Sienkiewicz could have created such wildly demented illustrations of a team of mentally ill people gathered for a mission to rescue Delirium?

Barron Storey’s non-sequential illustrations for 15 Portraits of Despair are truly disturbing.

Frank Quitely’s painted artwork for the story about Destiny shows a side of the artist I don’t recall seeing before; it’s recognizably Quitely, but with a very different vibe compared to his work with Grant Morrison or on The Authority.

Dave McKean—who did the multi-media covers for the original series—did an amazing job designing this book and all its various title pages and front matter. Todd Klein, the letterer of the original series, also shines by giving each story its own style.

My favorite chapter deals with Dream, also known as Morpheus—the Sandman himself. It’s like so many of the original Gaiman stories in that, yes, there is a “plot”, but it’s more about concepts and characters than action or adventure. Sandman is one of the few comics I enjoy even when there seems to be little more happening than characters talking to each other.

One reason is that Gaiman can achieve more in a couple of panels of dialogue than some writers can do in a single issue or even a whole series. For example, in only two panels of the story about Dream, Gaiman completely recontextualizes the origin of Superman and the planet Krypton.

Despair tells Rao, the star around which Krypton orbited, how artful and poetic it would be to have an unstable planet that would eventually die, and how wonderful it would be to leave only one survivor to despair over its loss. Millions of people have seen Superman as a symbol of hope, despite his tragic origin. By making him a character whose life was meant as an homage to despair, Gaiman adds a layer of poignancy and complexity to Superman and makes it all the more meaningful that he became something else entirely. Pretty heady stuff for two panels of conversation.

Overall, Endless Nights is a little too fragmentary to earn a place in my all-time favorite Sandman books. The story about Destruction, for example, never really gets explained and feels like an unfinished tale. But competition is stiff when it comes to Sandman favorites. The story arcs Season of Mists (which led directly to the masterful Mike Carey series Lucifer) and The Kindly Ones are epic in scope, and the original series is loaded with gorgeously written and drawn single-issue stories. The two limited series starring Death are also masterworks (The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life, now collected in a single volume).

But my all-time favorite is The Dream Hunters. It first appeared as a prose novel with incredible painted illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano, then was re-imagined as a four-issue comic book drawn by P. Craig Russell—whose work also appears in Endless Nights. The Dream Hunters is presented as an ancient tale from Japanese mythology, but Gaiman just made it up! It tells the story of a fox who fell in love with a Buddhist monk, and the dramatic sacrifices they made for each other. I’ve read it many times, and I don’t think I ever made it through either version without crying. If anyone asks me where to start with Sandman, that’s the story I recommend. There’s now an inexpensive ebook edition along with paperback and hardcover collections.

The fox perceives Morpheus as a fox in the Dreaming.

Still, Endless Nights is an artistic addition to the Sandman canon, and well worth exploring for fans of the series. You can find it in hardcover or paperback editions, or snag a $4 ebook of a more recent edition. A big Thank You to the readers of this blog for helping me add this book to my Sandman collection.

volcano

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art generated by Midjourney

Volcano

The old volcano
slowly releases her heat.
Ponds ripple gently.

Birds flock to her warmth
and nest for generations
until she erupts.

Startled birds flee to
nest on quieter islands,
remnants of raging,

sheltering their young
from the unexpected storms
brought in on the waves.

The young ones will grow
and raise their own to migrate,
exploring the seas.

This poem was written in collaboration with SisterMoon, who also composed the original poem that appears as the epigraph to The Singing Spell in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus. Although our 5-7-5 verse format is an oversimplification of traditional Japanese haiku, we did use the classical method of taking turns creating verses to form a longer poem.

Joining this collaboration as illustrator is the Midjourney AI, whose otherwordly imaginations you will now see adorning many of my original poems in the poetry archives.

playing with midjourney – the robotic artist

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The painterly image above was one of four generated in about a minute by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence that creates images based on prompts you give it. You can find Midjourney on Discord and put it to work for free at discord.gg/midjourney or start out at Midjourney.com. The prompt for the image above was “/imagine mars will send no more”, the title of this blog.

Below is a variation on the prompt “/imagine calico cats become space pirates and conquer the moon in the future”. It looks to me like a vintage science-fiction book cover, but painted on drugs.

If I had known about Midjourney a month ago, I probably would have used it for cover art to Permanent Crescent. The only drawback is that copyright doesn’t seem applicable to A.I.-generated imagery, at least according to this month’s article in The Register, which features Midjourney’s founder.

Below is a result of the prompt “/imagine alien dragonfly attacks a space colony”. Truly trippy!

I’d never used Discord before today, but I’ve been curious about trying A.I. Art platforms and saw some amazing Midjourney renders this week on Reddit. You can get about 25 renders before needing to pay for a Midjourney subscription, and you are basically producing them in an open chat room. On the one hand, that’s a little annoying because there are dozens of people using the robot all at once, so it is hard to keep track of your images while new messages are entering the chat every couple of seconds. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see what everyone else is conjuring with the robot. (A paid subscription allows you to invite the robot to your own chat room so you can work with it one-on-one.)

My renders for “/imagine giant space wasps attacking people on an asteroid” looked cool but not at all like wasps. However, I was impressed with the results for “/imagine telepathic space octopuses controlling the brains of dinosaurs“!

I used up all the images from my free trial, but I will return to play more with Midjourney. Below is a gallery of the stuff it made for me today in about an hour based on the five prompts I’ve shared with you.

Note that these are “upscaled” versions. The first thing Midjourney does is make a set of four low-resolution images, which you can then instruct it to “upscale” individually to get more detail and greater resolution, or you can tell it to create “variations” of any of the originals (which can also then be upscaled). You also have an option to “upscale to the max”, which I assume means even higher resolution.

gondolier

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Gondolier

Underground in the basement,
three young men plug in.

No roadies carried their amps.
They are lean and strong.

No one else wrote their music.
It came from inside,

from a place you never see
below the surface.

Friends arrive, descending stairs.
Conversations. Drinks.

Reunions and shared laughter.
The band greets them all.

Then in unison: a chord.
Not just any chord.

It’s a harmony of light,
shining in the dark.

This poem is a variation on Japanese poetic forms that often use groupings of five and seven syllables. It is named after my favorite local band in Ann Arbor in the mid-1990s. Bassist Geoff Streadwick was previously a member of the locally legendary Morsel, created 40 oz. Sound studio to record local talent, and sadly passed away many years ago while still a young, creatively brilliant man.

The vinyl single.

You can still find Gondolier’s music online thanks to their drummer, Jayson, on his Soundcloud page. Although those recordings remain amongst my favorite things, they pale in comparison to the jaw-dropping majesty of experiencing Gondolier in concert in a friend’s basement or Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig or the bar formerly known as Ypsilanti’s Cross Street Station.

The flip side of the single.

For many years, I had a Gondolier t-shirt silkscreen-printed with the first single’s cover art by the company founded by Morsel’s bassist Brian Hussey. I wore it through seven kinds of hell until the damn thing nearly fell off my body. I still miss it.

The only surviving picture of me in my Gondolier shirt from 1997, and you can’t even see it.

Gondolier was three young men from Michigan who made music that inspired me and continues to inspire me to this day. I had the pleasure of interviewing them once, for a music review in a local publication. But nothing has ever compared to being right against the stage when they belted out the greatest sounds I’d ever heard.

This poem now appears in the book Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales.

Saga of the Hello Kitty Ice Pack

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I don’t recall what injury I’d suffered when my girlfriend at the time gave me her Hello Kitty Ice Pack, because it must have been about fifteen years ago now. It’s been so long that no one even manufactures the ice pack anymore—and that is tragic, because my Kitty was taken from me this year.

Let’s take a moment to memorialize the world’s cutest healthcare item.

Hello Kitty was always there for me when I burned myself cooking, or when I jammed a finger or toe like some kind of clueless monkey. She was there for me around 2015 when I pulled out a kitchen drawer too quickly and it fell on my toe. The corner of the wooden drawer just about crushed my toe, and the pain was so awful that I couldn’t even sleep for a week unless I kept my toe entirely encased in ice like Captain America. The toenail turned black from all the blood gathering under it, and the damage to the cuticle was so severe that for a while I actually had a second toenail growing out on top of the old, dead nail. It took nearly a year before my toe was right again.

Another agonizing time Hello Kitty helped me survive was in 2016 when I had some inexplicably excruciating pain in my mouth and jaw that was so intense I gave serious consideration to going out like Kurt Cobain just to make it stop.

It turns out the pain was most likely caused by a sinus infection which also laid me low for months and was impinging on the roots of one of my molars. The mystery wasn’t solved until a dentist removed that molar for unrelated reasons and we saw the root of the tooth was covered with infection.

Let that be a lesson to you.

Last year, Hello Kitty came to the rescue for one of my neighbors. I was outside smoking on the balcony of the apartment complex when the neighbor’s daughter fell through their front window. She had been playing all rowdy and fell against a screen that couldn’t support her, and out she tumbled. I saw it happen.

The poor girl’s head hit the pavement so hard that I heard the sickening crunch from the other side of the complex. I hope I never hear that sound again. I grabbed Hello Kitty and a second ice pack from my freezer and ran down to their apartment.

The girl went to the hospital that night, and it turns out she had fractured her skull. I find that particularly horrifying because one of my earliest memories is from when I was about five and staying with my grandparents during the summer. This neighborhood kid I played with all the time fell off a wall and cracked open his head on the concrete below. Blood spilled everywhere. Years later, because the scene kept popping up in my dreams until I wasn’t sure if it was a real memory or not, I asked my grandmother about it. She was surprised I remembered it, but she said the boy survived.

So did the neighbor girl. Kids are so resilient sometimes. Not long afterward, she was back to raising hell on the property, running around and shouting and banging on the metal fence around the pool like it was a percussion instrument. She’ll probably grow up to become a drummer. Anyway, her mom eventually stopped by to return Hello Kitty and fill me in on the saga.

A few months later, an adult neighbor injured herself, so I let her borrow Hello Kitty and my backup ice pack. Sadly, that was the last I ever saw of Kitty. That neighbor moved out this year, and she took my bloody ice pack with her. Bitch, give me back my Kitty!

I can’t find anywhere that sells Hello Kitty Ice Pack anymore, so I’d be grateful if you can find one for me. Kitty and I survived the depths of hell together many times, and she was the cutest thing who always made me smile regardless of the horrors we confronted. I have since replaced her with other ice packs, but Kitty can never truly be replaced.

Long may she run.

ocean

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OCEAN

We are small things
unlike the stars that birthed us

or the Moon who pulls the ocean
without ever touching her,

an infinite depth of azure and obsidian
swallowing dreams

dissolving them for centuries
before setting them on the shore

polished as smooth and featureless
as a mystery without end.

This poem now appears in the book Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent.

Smashing Words Together: Lessons from My Decade with Smashwords

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Shout out to everyone who picked up free copies of my books at Smashwords during this July’s Summer Sale. Giving away hundreds of free copies of printed books can be a major marketing expense for self-publishing authors, but ebook giveaways are a low-cost alternative for those of us whose pockets are not as deep as those of the big boys at Penguin or Random House. This year, Smashwords made a deal to be acquired by another ebook provider, Draft2Digital, but many authors I talk to are not even aware Smashwords exists.

Just to be clear: I don’t work for Smashwords, and they don’t pay me to talk to about them. But I have been using them for years as an additional distribution channel for several reasons. I also want to cover some technical aspects of using Smashwords that authors should know before they dive right in and try it for themselves.

Increasing Your Distribution

First: While I like giving away free books in July and December using Smashwords, you don’t need to make them free. You can also set discount prices at a certain percentage of the list price, and you can use Smashwords to generate “coupon codes” to distribute to anyone you want. Although I don’t, it’s a handy tool for authors with an email marketing list or social media presence. I go with the “totally free” option because it gets dozens or even hundreds of books into the hands of new readers at no cost to me. Some of them write lovely four- and five-star reviews.

Second: While I am a big fan of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they’ve always had gaps in their distribution. Amazon would—for obvious reasons—prefer that ebook readers stay within the Kindle environment rather than spend money elsewhere. Many years ago, I started using Smashwords because my friend in Australia preferred getting ebooks in the Apple/iTunes environment, and she could not get my books there. I did a little research and discovered Smashwords distributed to the Apple bookstore, so I set about learning how to use them. At the time, getting distribution through additional global retail outlets was, to me, icing on the cake. I really just wanted my friend to find the book!

Since then, I’ve realized that while KDP gets my paperback books into the catalogs that libraries can use, they don’t appear to be doing the same with ebooks. Amazon wants sales money for every single copy, and they don’t seem to care about people who check out free ebooks from public libraries and the increasing network of partner sites libraries use. (For example, Hoopla partners with the Pima County library system for ebooks, including graphic novels and comics. It’s just an app you download for free and log into with your library card credentials.)

Smashwords, on the other hand, distributes to ebook outlets such as OverDrive where libraries can buy ebooks. The Phoenix Public Library, for example, now has several of my ebooks available to check out because they buy through OverDrive. While readers can check them out for free, the library does buy them, so I got paid for those sales.

Plus, Smashwords allows you to set a different price for libraries than the retail price. Some authors might feel they should jack up the price for libraries, since a single library purchase can reach a theoretically unlimited number of readers. I take the opposite approach and lower my price for libraries, because not only do I love libraries and want to support them, but I am also a relatively unknown author who wants to make it easy for libraries to take a chance on my books without risking an arm and a leg.

One final bonus is that Smashwords will create an EPUB file that you as the author can download for free. So, if you want an ebook you can send for free to friends, family, reviewers, or contests, you can just get that file and email it to them. Anyone can get a free EPUB reader from Adobe, called Adobe Digital Editions.

Technical Difficulties

While the sales, giveaways, and added distribution are great reasons to use Smashwords, you do need some technical knowledge to work with them. If you are still using Microsoft Word like it’s a fancy electric typewriter, then you don’t yet have the skills required to work with Smashwords—unless you hire someone like me to deal with it for you. Here are some of the major things I’ve encountered and overcome in my years of working with them.

First, Smashwords will accept two kinds of files. One is a completely and properly formatted EPUB file, and if you don’t know how to create EPUBs on your own, that will be a challenge. Programs such as Calibre can help, but most authors I work with lack the technical skills to deal with it—and good luck finding any classes on it. Adobe’s InDesign program can create EPUBs, but it is most often used by professional graphic designers and is about as challenging to master as Photoshop or Illustrator, for which most authors don’t have any training.

For those who aren’t Adobe experts, Smashwords will also accept a .doc file. That’s not the current version of MS Word files, which are .docx, but the backwards-compatible and increasingly outdated version of Word files from a simpler, bygone era. Current versions of Word can absolutely save files as .doc, and that’s how I do it. I work on all my manuscripts in the current version of Word, but when it’s time to make a Smashwords edition, I save them as .doc files. That process causes some changes; for example, if you formatted anything in Small Caps, it will become All Caps in .doc. So, this requires some formatting expertise to make sure everything looks right on the virtual page.

The process becomes more complex if you have images and illustrations in your books. I have run into so many problems with images not being displayed correctly after Smashwords crunches my .doc file through their converter. The only solution that ever reliably works the first time for me is to delete every single image, save the file, then re-insert every image from scratch and make sure all of them are formatted as being positioned “In Line With Text”.

Probably the weirdest image problem I ever encountered—and it only happened once—was when the converter robots kept renaming embedded image files in a .doc to something even they didn’t recognize, so then they couldn’t find them in the converted file. Eventually, I fixed it by downloading Smashwords’ resultant EPUB file, opening it in Calibre, and using a repair function in Calibre to fix the EPUB. Then I uploaded that version instead of my .doc file and, magically, it solved the problem. I’ve never seen that happen before or since.

But there are even more time-consuming design challenges with .doc files for Smashwords. I think they boil down to the fact that the robotic Smashwords converter has even stricter demands than Kindle, because you can get away with all kinds of things that make for perfectly readable Kindle ebooks but which are total failures at Smashwords.

A common challenge is the hyperlinked Table of Contents (TOC). If you have an intermediate skill level with MS Word, then you know how to link something in your TOC to a specific place in your document. That’s easy stuff. But what you might not realize is that MS Word has a tendency to fill your document with all kinds of bookmarks you don’t know about. These Hidden Bookmarks confuse the Smashwords robots and wreck your TOC, preventing Premium Distribution to other outlets. (Note: Smashwords will not tell you the TOC is broken, but instead say that the “NCX file” is bad. The NCX file is, in simplest terms, a separate TOC generated for EPUB files. But in all cases where my NCX was broken, my own TOC links got corrupted, too.)

I am not a noob when it comes to Word. I have been working with it at an expert level for more than twenty years, taken advanced college classes and corporate training on it, and taught other people how to use it. I have done things with Word that professional graphic designers have assured me are impossible—until I showed them how it was done. So, hidden bookmarks were not a mystery to me, and whenever I work with bookmarks, I make sure there is a checkmark in the little box that says, “Show Hidden Bookmarks”.

But what I did not initially realize is that the checkbox is useless if you don’t uncheck it first, then check it again. MS Word apparently needs to reset its brain with the uncheck/check process before it displays all the actual bookmarks so you can delete the garbage bookmarks one-by-one. My failure to realize this resulted in many of my more complex books being rejected for Premium Distribution, which is how you get into places like Apple and library platforms. After struggling, I contacted Smashwords support, and they helped me get a clue. These days, I know about the problem and how to eliminate it, and my books are all approved for Premium Distribution on the first try.

Bookmarks in Word are also crucially important if your book has footnotes. When I upload a compressed HTML file with footnotes to KDP, their robots automatically convert them to hyperlinked endnotes that appear at the end of the book. It’s super convenient. (How I make compressed HTML files for KDP would require its own tutorial.)

But the robots at Smashwords hate footnotes. If you’re pretty good with MS Word, then you already know that it only takes a couple of clicks to convert all your footnotes to endnotes using the References tool bar. But guess what? Smashwords’ robots don’t like that either.

It took me years to figure out a solution—even after reading all of Smashwords’ formatting documentation and watching multiple, useless YouTube tutorials about it. The solution to getting workable endnotes with Smashwords is—in the simplest terms I can put it—to create a bookmark at every place where you have a numbered note in the text, then create a bookmark at every specific endnote, then create individual hyperlinks from the note number in the text to the specific endnote, and finally create another link from the note itself back to the place in the text.

The bookmarks also need to be named with the prefix “ref_”. (Don’t ask me why; it just keeps the robots from getting confused.) So, my first note in the text is named “ref_001”, and the corresponding endnote is named “ref_ftn_001”. If you only have a couple of notes, this is child’s play. If you have, like I sometimes do, upwards of 100 notes, it’s a time-consuming, brain-numbing clerical task—especially since the pop-up window MS Word gives you to work in is roughly the size of a couple of postage stamps.

Anyway, this four-step process of bookmarking and hyperlinking will allow readers to click on a note in the text so they can see the endnote, then click on that to get back to the original spot in the text.

But what if your document already has linked endnotes because you made it in Word? Sorry, but it’s now full of junk that will confuse the robots. The actual first step that I discovered is to remove every single hyperlink in the document.

I started out doing that manually. But when I got to books with copious notes, I suspected there must be an easier way, and I searched for it online. The “easy” way turns out to be running a Visual Basic script to remove all hyperlinks. Even as a Word expert, I don’t find writing Visual Basic to be easy. Fortunately, I copied the script from someone else who was kind enough to post it on their blog. It was a lifesaver.

Now, you might not need to get that technical to remove a handful of links and insert a couple of bookmarks manually. As far as I’m concerned, that is simple stuff. But one of my books had more than 200 footnotes, and doing this manually just to get approved by Smashwords and have a viable ebook that readers could use reliably was a massive project that took hours of my time, research, and so much mouse-clicking that I’ll probably end up with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The things we do for art.

Conclusion

Do I love Smashwords? Absolutely. They got me into libraries, ebook outlets around the world, and the hands of many readers who would have never discovered me otherwise. But because I often publish books with massive amounts of images, footnotes, and complex Tables of Contents, I had serious technical challenges to overcome to achieve my vision.

Fortunately, I solved those problems. Now, I can help other authors get past them and distribute their ebooks on a global scale through channels that KDP alone cannot or will not handle.

Tomorrow, the world.

Rationality, Religion, and Art

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One of the unaddressed, human problems for atheists is the concept of irrationality. While I feel that Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science are a good example of the intellectual trend that needs to become more widespread in America and across the globe, an appeal to humans to be completely rational faces an intractable problem. Despite our capacity for reason and rationality, we also experience life in non-rational ways.

While the scientific method often reveals an underlying order to the chaos we experience, we cannot say the universe itself is rational. Everyone knows what it is like to confront events in life that seem totally absurd. Entire movements in the world of art have sprung up to address this. No matter how much we want to believe that we could be completely rational beings, the human mind is a playground for irrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

My observations of the behaviors of others and myself in my five decades on this planet lead me to conclude that a purely rational approach to life leaves out some important aspects of human experience. I believe this contributes to the persistence of religion, even in eras such as ours where organized religion, zealotry, and extremist fundamentalism produce or justify violence, suffering, misogyny, racism, and abuse. The evils committed in the name of religious good or faith remain unshakable to this day, and those of us who have opted out of our religious backgrounds find this both sad and perplexing. How, we ask, can people continue to cling to primitive, Bronze-Age ideas that breed hate and intolerance and prevent society from progressing towards more humane and inclusive goals?

Many before me have attempted to answer this question, so let’s consider the four most common evaluations. First, humans fear death. Religion offers comfort in the face of a universe that in no way cares about any individual, by creating deities who do care. Religion offers comfort in a universe where everything we are is guaranteed to end, by creating an artificial afterlife where we can live on.

This afterlife is often posited as a form of justice which is absent from the actual universe, an afterlife where “good” people are rewarded and “bad” people are punished. In real life, horrible people get away with horrible things while kind and decent people suffer. Imaginary concepts such as heaven and hell give comfort that there is a form of cosmic justice that exists beyond this world.

Second, humans crave order. Disorder is frightening. The unpredictability of life is frightening, and humans are not alone in this fear. Consider how stressed a pet dog or cat can become if their routine is disrupted, or if forces beyond their comprehension appear to threaten them. If you’ve ever seen a pet hide under a bed during a thunderstorm, or develop oddly unhealthy habits around grooming and eating to deal with stress, then you know what I mean.

In the face of this fear of the disorderly and unknown, religion grants the illusion of cosmic order and also creates an imaginary ruler of that order, one who can set things right or who has a master plan in which we can place our trust. This non-existent cosmic ruler also imposes a moral authority that sweeps away the supremely challenging ethical task of deciding for oneself what is right and wrong—a task plagued by the same disorder and incomprehensible complexity of the world we experience. Deciding for oneself is hard. Having an authority hand you the answers is easy.

Third, humans look for agency. Part of progressing from an infant to a socially mature adult is the realization that other humans and even animals are like oneself in that they have agency. Others can make decisions and choices, have feelings and thoughts, and presumably have some kind of experience of life that is conscious in the same way that we are conscious. Empathy is when we come to consider that the experience of others is something to be respected, understood, and treated with kindness, because we can imagine that we know what that other person or animal feels. Their pain is like our pain. Their hopes are like our hopes. Their joy is like our joy. Their problems are like our problems.

But as important as this empathy toward other agents is to social cohesion in groups—from the smallest tribe to the largest nation—the human mind also seeks to find conscious agency in objects and events which simply have none. A rock or a bolt of lightning or a gust of wind has no agency, but the human mind naturally wants to believe it does. On one end of the religious spectrum, this results in pantheism where every object possesses some form of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, it results in monotheism where every action of every object is guided by the conscious choices of some cosmic ruler.

In the middle of the spectrum lie various gradients of these ideas. Though none of them are true or even remotely provable, their allure is the comfort that we do not live in an unfeeling and unconscious universe, but one where we might affect the outcomes of events by supplicating these non-existent agents through prayer, sacrifice, good deeds, wars against non-believers, and many other actions which do not affect the physical behavior of the universe.

Our attempts to appease the gods might make us feel better, or they might lead to atrocities, or both. They might lead us to create monuments or overcome addictions. But they do not at all affect the underpinnings of the universe. We have been fooled by our own propensity to seek out agency in all things.

The fourth and final most common reason given for the continuation of religion is that humans seek power. The first three reasons all deal with feeling powerless against the workings of the universe and circumstance: death, impermanence, disorder, moral doubt, and non-conscious objects and events. But the fourth reason deals specifically with obtaining power over other humans.

There is no greater threat to man than man himself, and no greater source of fear. Religion offers a means to control those others whom we fear, and a means to mobilize or enslave others so that we might gain more power over them and pursue more power for ourselves. Religion empowers us to tell other people what they should be doing and justifies our violence against them when they do not comply. It empowers people in leadership positions to consolidate their social power not only by telling people what to do but by setting themselves up as the authority on what constitutes right behavior for all other people—usually in some bid to expand their personal or political empire.

In other words, because the first three reasons for religion meet basic emotional needs that cannot be met by a purely rational approach to life, the fourth reason allows those needs to be exploited for personal gain and a feeling of control in a universe over which we truly have no control.

While I respect and empathize with intellectual movements that embrace rationality, I doubt we can move forward as a species until we admit that a purely rational approach will never completely meet our psychological and emotional needs. Not until we accept that some kinds of non-rational experience are necessary to our well-being will we reach a more holistic, all-encompassing way of dealing with the lives we are born into.

Fortunately, we have those means within our grasp. In my life since abandoning the religious indoctrination I endured as a child, I have found ways to give free rein to the non-rational parts of my mind through various forms of art. Through poetry, music, and painting, I have found ways to express, confront, and integrate my irrational thoughts and feelings and the absurdity of human experience so I could feel like a complete human being. I often make art more through intuition and emotion than some kind of logical process.

But I have also found there is a balance between the rational and irrational. Music involves the study of scales and chords and rhythms, and it can often resemble mathematics. Painting involves analysis of techniques and the relationships between colors. Poetry involves studying language and what it takes to convey emotional meaning through words. Every art form has some rational component.

But there are stages in the process of creating art and appreciating art where you need to get into a non-verbal state of mind and allow yourself to be swept up in and overcome by the feeling. A mathematical analysis of a concerto will never completely capture the subjective experience of being moved to tears by hearing the music.

For the past eight years, I have also been writing fiction, and it is much the same. I have spent countless hours as a writer and editor analyzing things such as character arcs, story arcs, prose style, post-modern approaches to storytelling, nuances of punctuation and paragraphs, and how to say the most in the fewest words. But at some point, you need to stop analyzing and just write, to tap into some indefinable place in your imagination and go with the feeling so that the reader can also get swept up in that feeling and experience a story from the inside.

Of all the art forms I’ve explored, fiction might be the one most like religion because it makes order out of a disorderly universe. In fiction, unlike life, everything on the page should happen for a reason. In fiction, every detail matters and is relevant. In fiction, we can create a world in which justice prevails, death is overcome, and everything that happens is imbued with meaning—a world that is not at all like the one we were born into.

Granted, many authors like to subvert those goals to make a point about reality, and I appreciate why they do it. I often do it myself. A dose of reality and unexpected tragedy still makes for a compelling story that says something meaningful about our lives. But overall, I see fiction as imposing a meaningful order on life. Life itself is often pointless beyond the biological imperative to reproduce more life. But fiction can advance any point it wants to communicate. Like religion, it takes the incomprehensibly complex unknown and makes it knowable.

And unless we admit that not everything we humans need is met by rationality and find ways to meet those needs through art, the social progress desired by the rationalism movements will not be achieved.

Eulogy for Sabrina

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This weekend, I got the sad news that a friend of mine took her life. I don’t want to bare the details of her life, but she was struggling with some heavy shit. You’d probably never guess that if you casually hung out with her, because she was sassy and took great pleasure in putting obnoxious jerks in their place, and she was quite creative.

Despite her boisterous persona, she was often bullied, and I suspect her tough-girl attitude was a shield, a way to cope with how people can be so cruel to those who are different. She was transgender, and American society has become increasingly cruel in recent years toward people like her. But like all of the people in my life who fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum—from casual friends, colleagues, and clients, to people I have loved and artists I admire—she deserved none of the hate.

She didn’t deserve to be treated as less than a person or targeted by mean-spirited politicians and state legislatures who are passing laws to further marginalize a group that already has enough problems to deal with. Rates of clinical depression and suicide are significantly higher among trans people. It’s no wonder, given how much hate they must deal with just to get through their lives on a daily basis.

I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, and being a part of a marginalized group doesn’t make a person a saint. But what the fascist right-wing in America refuses to understand is that LGBT people are people—just like anyone else. They have feelings, and hopes, and dreams—just like anyone else. They aren’t trying to deprive anyone of a way of life, or bring America to its knees. They’re just trying to get through the day, and our country’s treating them like punching bags isn’t helping anyone except for groups that thrive on hate.

As I rapidly approach age 50, I’ve had the misfortune to see much of the social progress our nation has made become undone. I was born on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe Vs. Wade, and I never thought I would live to see it trashed. The only thing that gives me hope is when I see young people standing up for social progress and working for a future where simple human decency and respect is given to women, people of color, and all the people whose sexuality or gender orientation falls outside of our cultural norms.

Maybe it’s too late for America. I don’t know. But it is certainly too late for my friend.

Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent – now in print and ebook

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For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also for sale on Smashwords and other major ebook retailers.

After the events of The Second Omnibus, Meteor Mags and her hard-rocking space-pirate crew confront new enemies, old rivals, and the final fate of the interspecies band, Small Flowers. Permanent Crescent and Other Tales continues Mags’ evolution from a rogue pirate to a leader with far-reaching plans, and her choices will have major consequences for the future of the solar system. This collection contains six all-new episodes totaling 57,000 words.

Permanent Crescent: The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take vengeance on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.

Odonata’s Revenge: Mags faces double trouble when an alien menace and an ex-mercenary converge on Ceres to end the pirate’s life and steal her secret technology.

Infinite Spaces: Mags and her crew discover signals emanating from the depths of the subterranean ocean on Ceres and risk their lives in uncharted waters to find the source. What they find makes Mags reconsider her role in humanity’s evolution and the final fate of her universe.

Farewell Tour: A band of telepathic octopuses and their interspecies friends bring a message of liberation to the solar system one last time. Mags and Patches fight to rescue them from the forces of law and order.

One Last Night on Death World: On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.

Pieces of Eight: Mags and her friends in Small Flowers return to Earth to seek a new home for the dying octopuses, but what they find is not at all what they expected.

Might be unsuitable for children and other forms of carbon-based life.

reflections on writing: One Last Night on Death World

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On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.

July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.

About seven years ago, I started compiling notes for a Meteor Mags story that would take place on the last night of Gramma’s life and, through flashbacks, fill in a lot of details about Gramma’s history and how they relate to the main narrative in the series. While the series is ostensibly science-fiction, this tale was more like historical fiction.

If you’ve ever written historical fiction, you know it takes an incredible amount of research into historical fact. Otherwise, you end up with unintended anachronisms, inaccuracies, and all kinds of things any expert in your chosen time period will absolutely tear apart.

This problem almost killed my story.

Since it involves the history of billiards, I got involved in the history of France and a man named Francois Mingaud. He invented the leather tip we all now take for granted on a cue stick.

The first indication that I had serious problems was that my research turned out to be contradictory about when and where Mingaud was held prisoner, and the inaccuracy of him being imprisoned at the Bastille years after it was demolished was repeated in dozens of billiards-related websites where I sought information about his life.

I solved the discrepancy by emailing Mike Shamos, author of The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards (an excellent resource rivaled only by the work of his friends Victor Stein and Paul Rubino in the massive Billiard Encyclopedia). Dr. Shamos was kind enough to provide historical documents that set the record straight about Mingaud’s imprisonment. I am such a Wikipedia nerd that I corrected the mistakes in Mingaud’s article and included a note about why the widespread inaccuracy about his imprisonment was impossible.

That’s just one of the complications of the history I was trying to construct. Eventually, it all became so overwhelming that I relegated my story to being one of those ideas I would never get around to writing.

But last month, one of the authors from my old workshop group was kind enough to listen for a few minutes to all the reasons I had never written the story I wanted to. In the days that followed, I thought about those reasons; the chief of which was that I simply did not want to invest another year of my life researching the time period to write the novella I had planned.

As I have said many times before, being able to articulate our problems often leads to them solving themselves. I’m indebted to the author who took a few minutes to listen, because thinking about my so-called “reasons” led me to trying some narrative solutions to those problems.

I played with a few ideas, cut some scenes that were too involved and slowed the pacing, engaged a few characters to summarize events that could have filled a novel, and ended up with a short, fast-paced tale that accomplished damn near everything I ever wanted from the “sweeping historical epic” I would never get around to writing.

You can judge for yourself whether it succeeds or not.

I’ve written before about my love for various games of pool, so I have only one more thing to say about the title of this story. Years ago, I saw an infographic about the most-used words in book titles. People online ripped this thing apart as an example of the most cliché and crappy book titles.

So I came up with several fun titles based on that silly infographic and decided to use “One Last Night on Death World” as the name of a pinball/videogame Mags would have distributed on the west coast of the USA in the 1990s as a cover for her smuggling operations. (It’s introduced in a flashback in the previous story, Farewell Tour, which fills in the early years of the friendship between Mags and Alonso.) The name also fit the idea of Gramma Margareta’s last night on Earth, so I ran with it.

What did I learn from all this? First, it helps to have other writers to talk to when you are having problems with a story. Second, you can get a lot of mileage from emailing an expert on a subject. Third, the problems you encounter when telling a story can often be solved by taking a different approach to narration and engaging the characters to solve your problems for you.

I’m tempted to add a fourth lesson about “Stop making excuses and write the damn thing”, but I can’t help but feel that compiling notes for all these years until I had a chance to bend a sympathetic ear was the right decision. It was like I had been dissolving minerals in a solution for seven years and then all of a sudden—Boom! All it took was one little grain for them to gather around and become a crystal.

In addition to borrowing Francois Mingaud from real life, this tale guest-stars Scott Safran, a young man history also remembers for his accomplishments in a game. Both of their lives play out a bit differently due to meeting Mags and her ancestors. The hotelier Jonathan Hathaway is a complete fabrication.

The DIY Man of Steel Cover: Superman vs. Lobo Stickers

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The 1990s were a time of gimmicky covers for comic cooks. My favorites are the X-Men Holograms from the Fatal Attractions crossovers, and the skeletal madness of Wolverine #100. But 1994’s Man of Steel #30 takes the award for the most ridicuously creative. DC polybagged this relic with a sheet of “vinyl clings”, which are like the ColorForms I played with as a kid. Through some arcane magic, they cling to the surface but are easily peeled off and re-arranged. Man of Steel‘s character-less, wraparound cover invites you to create your own fight between Superman and Lobo, who spend most of the issue hitting each other before shaking hands at the end. Enjoy this gallery of scans of the front and back of the polybag, the front and back cover, and the vinyl clings.

My scan of the “stickers” is 600 dpi resolution, because I am thinking of getting it enlarged and printed on a t-shirt. My one-of-a-kind parasaurolophus t-shirt arrived last week, printed with a scan of one of the stickers from the Dinosaurs Attack! trading cards.

My version of the cover features eight-limbed octo-versions of the characters:

For being almost thirty years old, the vinyl clings adhere okay, but not great. They were somewhat unenthused about sticking to each other when piled on in layers. And they are much thinner than I recall Colorforms being. Still, they are a bit of nostalgic geek fun. (Update: Redditor /u/bloodfist converted these scans to a web-based version you can play with! If you want something more advanced, check out their digital version at the Photopea site, which is a free alternative to Photoshop.)

Man of Steel #30 went for the gimmick-cover trifecta by also being a variant. The other edition was printed with a face-bashing cover by Jon Bogdanove, who penciled the interior pages of Louise Simonson’s story. I am sure some speculators bought this issue with a $2.50 cover price thinking it would someday pay for their kids’ college funds. Sorry, 90s Boom Buyers! I got it last week for $2.70 in Near Mint, sealed condition. And since it actually cost me nothing with some store credit I earned thanks to this blog’s readers, it deserves a place in the Big Box of Comics!

Collector’s Guide: From Superman: The Man of Steel #30; DC Comics, 1994. DC also produced a vinyl clings cover for 1994’s Worlds Collide #1, which also features Superman.

my childhood spider-man drawing

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Spidey was my jam as a young Martian. I must have crafted this masterpiece near the end of the 1970s, when I was five to seven years old. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about architecture and anatomy. Feel free to mock me now for those ridiculous hands!

Well into my early adolescence, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, “A comic-book artist.” I designed different characters and drew them poorly, no matter how many drawing tutorials I attempted to follow. Eventually, I became reasonably okay-ish in various visual, musical, and literary art forms, but I still can’t draw sequential art to save my life — unless it’s stick figures!

Someone on Reddit suggested this could be a super-rare variant cover, so I ordered a five-dollar copy of the blank version of Non-Stop Spider-man #1 using some of the store credit I earned at MyComicShop in the last couple of months thanks to this blog’s readers. I’ll see if I can get this image printed on it.

In other news, I finished drafting episode 34 in the ongoing Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches this week, and I had a blast writing it. It’s really two stories in one. In the “present day” of February 2032, the interspecies telepathic band Small Flowers performs their final concert in the asteroid belt. That story is spliced with flashbacks about the musical friendship between Mags and Alonso, who is the only human in Small Flowers and one of the people Mags loves most in all the solar system.

July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also available on Smashwords and coming soon to other major retailers.

Bonus points to anyone who gets my silly Spider-man drawing printed on a t-shirt before I do. Until then, Cadet Stimpy and I remain stranded on the planet Ballknob. We had to eat what was left of the ship.

At least the voices have stopped for a while.