Wants, Needs, and Gratitude

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Writer Jonathan Hickman’s now-legendary run on Fantastic Four concludes one of its adventures by having a magical science doo-dad teleport the heroes to whatever it is they truly need. Spider-man is part of the crew in this tale and, after the teleport, he finds his friends and explains what happened.

Poor Spidey! But sometimes what we want isn’t what we need, and sometimes what we need is a damn good burger and a tall drink. So, this is just a reminder to be thankful for what we do have, even if it isn’t everything on our wish lists.

When I was a kid, Mom established a tradition that I now see all the time in the self-development books I work on as an editor. These days, coaches call it Gratitude. Mom called it a Thankful List. About a week before Thanksgiving, the blank list went up on the wall of our kitchen/dining room. At dinner time, each member of the family needed to come up with three things to be thankful for and add them to the list.

Some years, it was easier to think of things to be unhappy about, or all the things we did not have. I wasn’t raised in abject poverty, but from the time I was a toddler to my early teenage years, my family always seemed to be just a couple hundred dollars away from it. We had no safety net, and anytime there was a medical emergency or a problem with the car, it was a major financial disaster. And, like most families, we had other problems.

But I always had a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and food on the table—and that’s more than many people have. So even though some days of the Thankful List ritual were challenging, it was never an impossible task. Granted, some of the final days might have included items such as, “I’m thankful that we’re almost done compiling this list!” Like Spider-man, we really could have used a million-dollar windfall. But we always found something to be grateful for, and we usually had a good laugh or two.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

So, today, I just want to let you know that I am thankful for the readers and commenters on this blog, thankful for connecting with other comic book geeks to chat about our shared obsessions, thankful for the outstanding platform that WordPress provides, thankful for the affiliate program at MyComicShop that keeps my comic-book addiction affordable, and thankful for all the amazing writers and artists who craft the stories I love and which have inspired and entertained me for as long as I can remember.

Now if I could just get that million dollars, I’d order a second round for me and my pal Spider-man. Happy Thanksgiving!   

The Secret Origin of Donny

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One of my favorite supporting characters to write in my fiction series is Donny. He’s uncouth, rough around the edges, blue collar, likes to fight, and sometimes says off-the-cuff, offensive things despite generally having a good heart. He’s a fun character when I need comedic relief, and he’s almost always played for laughs. Occasionally, he says something really wrong, learns a lesson from it, and grows as a person.

But Donny wasn’t cut from whole cloth. I spun him out of fond memories about a real-life Donny. Though I lost touch with the real Donny decades ago, I think he would be happy that his fictional namesake is a bad-ass musician and a valued crew member with hilarious scenes on the rock-and-roll adventure of a lifetime.

The fictional Donny combines the real Donny and his cousin Jimmy. I met Donny and Jimmy around 1998 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I was 24 and had my own apartment in a five-unit building on the edge of town where rent was lower compared to living near the college. Donny and Jimmy were 14, and I met them because Donny used to hang out with the even younger kids who lived next door: Dennison (literally the son of Dennis) and his little brother Jack. These kids were always playing in the yard and riding bikes up and down the street—as kids do—and I was often in my yard working on some visual art project that involved messy painting, or just playing guitar in the sunshine.

Kids are curious about that kind of stuff and ride by to check it out, so I got to know them. Then they found out I had a pet python who ate mice, and they wanted to see that, so I ended up spending a lot of time entertaining the neighborhood boys. My embarrassingly simple apartment was, to them, some kind of treehouse or clubhouse with a wildlife documentary, an art exhibit, and a killer soundtrack. And why not? At age 47, I’ve accepted that part of my brain will always be fourteen and see my living spaces as exactly that.

To be fair, they entertained me, too. Donny and Jimmy were hilarious! They had the kind of insane tales of reckless adventure, injury, and embarrassment that working-class midwestern boys thrive on. I should know, since I was one and probably, at heart, will always be. But it wasn’t just stories and jokes. After Donny and Jimmy had dropped by a few times, they invited me and my girlfriend to meet their family in the trailer park down the road and hang out for an evening.

My girlfriend—who had endured a couple surprise visits from Donny and Jimmy, rolled with the situation, and found them as hilarious as I did—was beyond awesome and handled the evening with grace and aplomb. She dressed up extra cute for that night and was a hit with the girls and wives there. After a tour of the trailer, which was basically some rooms and a hallway, we ended up drinking cheap American lager and playing cards with the adults and teens all night long. It was a chain-smoking, midwestern good time, and I don’t think either of us will ever forget it.

Somehow, Donny and Jimmy—at age fourteen—acquired a piece-of-shit Datsun that they took on wild rides through the nearby fields. They would come over to my place after their hell rides and tell me Datsun stories. They were trying to learn to power shift it, because the clutch was broken. And what fourteen-year-old has money to replace a clutch?

That fucking Datsun. We laughed so hard about it.

One day, Donny came over with this idea to write a song about the Datsun. All the kids knew I played guitar, so he brought lyrics. I will never forget them. “Datsun. It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. DATSUN! DATSUN!”

That was it! I threw together some riffs and recorded it on my old cassette-based Tascam four-track. We did another song which was something like Donny’s imaginary wrestling theme song: Daemonic Don. He pronounced it “Die-monic Don”, and that cracked me up. You’ll find a nod to that in the Meteor Mags story Old Enough. I threw together some distorted, drop-D riffs. It came out surprisingly well, and Donny loved it.

In 1999, I moved from Ypsi to San Diego. For a little while, I tried to keep in touch with the kids by sending them postcards. I’ve long since lost their addresses and can’t recall their last names, if I ever knew them at all.

But a few years ago, when I needed a name for a supporting character, I remembered Daemonic Don and his cousin Jimmy, and I thought it would be fun to channel my memories of those two teenage hellraisers into that character. They also inform more than a little bit about the adolescent character, Tarzi. The way those characters’ dialogues bounce back and forth with their older but equally reckless and so-called “auntie” Mags has a lot to do with my imagining how Donny and Jimmy would chat with me as their older guy neighbor—a role that ended up being somewhere between an adopted big brother and an uncle.

I think I filled a role in their lives because I was into all kinds of art and music, and so obviously not like their parents. They felt comfortable just being themselves, asking awkward questions about adult life, or making off-color jokes. In that sense, it wasn’t all that different from hanging out with the people I was in bands with or worked blue-collar jobs with at the time. I think the boys liked that I talked to them in the same no-bullshit style as I did with my friends. I know I always appreciated that in adults when I was a teenager. At that age, you want to be talked to, not talked down to.

Even if you are stripping the gears out of your Datsun by trying to power shift.

It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. Datsun.

Anyway, I doubt I will ever hear from Donny and Jimmy again, but I like to think they’d enjoy knowing they inspired one of my favorite supporting characters and might even enjoy reading his adventures. Hell, if those two were here right now, they’d probably be pressuring me to plug in my baritone guitar and write a new theme song.

And I would do it.

a holiday prayer for everyone

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Young Alex Power of Power Pack fame offers up an inclusive blessing for dinner with the Fantastic Four and crew in FF #1 (Marvel, 2011). Try it at your next family gathering!

the haunt of fear: a strange undertaking

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For Halloween, let’s take our minds off all the stressful current events. It’s time to relax and enjoy some good old-fashioned escapist fiction from EC Comics.

Here is a tale from The Haunt of Fear #6, originally published in 1951 and reprinted by Gemstone in 1994. It begins with a virulent epidemic.

The influenza epidemic eventually reaches the most prominent politician… Wait a minute. I was trying to escape current events! What’s next? Don’t tell me there’s a problem with ballots being improperly handled.

Improper ballot handling AND slow-moving lines of people? Damn it! I give up. Find your own Halloween stories! Reality is horrifying enough for me.

Revealed at Last: The Secret of the Perpetual Motion Comics Machine

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Today, after nearly nine years of blogging, I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.

Once upon a time, I reversed entropy.

In the early years of this blog, I sometimes mentioned my “top secret fifty-cent rack” where I got ridiculous deals on vintage and contemporary comics. I mean, they were ridiculous. For example, someone would dump Grant Morrison’s entire run on Animal Man, immaculately bagged and boarded in VF+ to NM condition. At fifty cents an issue, that find cost me $13.

If you’ve recently tried to collect that run, then you understand what I mean by ridiculous deals.

Or I’d find half of the Lucifer series, or an uninterrupted chunk of Sandman issues I was missing. Or, on two separate visits, I’d piece together the entire hologram cover series from a 1990s X-Men crossover. Then I’d find near-mint copies of complete story arcs from the Ultimate X-men series, plus random underground comix from the 1970s, current indie publishers I’d never heard of, and a staggering pile of colorful vintage awesomeness.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody was dumping Fantastic Four #1 from the 1960s. I wasn’t getting bloody rich at the fifty-cent rack. But I discovered so much there and did quite a bit of collecting. It was the best time to love comics.

Then it went away.

Forever.

Since it is gone for good, and the sacred secret no longer has any power over my destiny, I will divulge to you the fountain of comic book infinitude that fueled the early days of Mars Will Send No More.

Drum roll, please.

It was the Bookmans Book Store at 19th Avenue and Northern in Phoenix, Arizona.

Now, don’t be sad for the store. It did not die in a cataclysmic Crisis on Infinite Crossover Wars event. It is still there, selling second-hand books, video games, movies, toys, and musical instruments. You can take stuff in, and they offer you cash or a significantly larger store credit. You can also drop in empty-handed to shop for decent deals on slightly used stuff.

But several years ago, the top-secret rack died. And it died without a warning.

I had no idea until one day I walked in and discovered the horror they had made of my paradise. The shelves were moved to a different location and changed to a dollar rack. The quality of the comics decreased, the shelf size decreased, and the price went up.

A golden age had ended.

The epic was over.

But I recall when the golden age began. At a friend’s invitation, I visited Bookmans for the first time. It did not take her long to wonder what horrifying hell she had created for herself. The comic book rack was a huge set of shelves with not just hundreds but thousands of books. I spent hours looking through them all! Every single one! My friend told me it was okay and went to one of the posh reading corners to enjoy a book.

But just between you and me, she never invited me there again.

I’m just kidding. We went back there a bunch of times together. And I got hundreds of comics from that place. Stacks of hundreds at a time. Every couple of months, for years.

It was not merely a fifty-cent rack. If I brought in comics to the “trade counter”, and the books were in reasonable condition, Bookmans gave me twenty cents of store credit for them.

Do the math. If I have old comics I don’t want to read, then I take them to Bookmans and get twenty cents credit per book. But all I am there to do is buy their fifty-cent comics. With my credit, those now cost only thirty cents. If I come back and trade a stack of comics I picked up on my last visit and paid an effective rate of thirty cents for, and I get twenty cents credit for them again, then they only cost me ten cents in the long run.

If that sounds like a perpetual motion scam, then realize that the thermodynamic friction in the system was that I loved a ton of the books I found there, and I kept them.

Also, friction means, “You must work for it.” You need to feed energy into any system to power it. Every system is always losing energy through friction, expressed in terms of heat loss, which is called entropy. If you don’t add work to a system, it eventually stops.

So, I looked for ways to feed into the system for the lowest cost. Three things proved especially effective.

One, I scoured the city for “quarter” bins, especially where you could get five for a dollar. If I could get five for a dollar, then they cost twenty cents each, which was exactly how much store credit I could get for trade-in at Bookmans. I got some things worth keeping and re-reading from those bargain bins, and I traded in the rest of it for even better stuff at Bookmans. As a bonus, the stuff I traded in was fun to read and discover. It was not always material I wanted to keep, but it was something I was glad I had a chance to see, and occasionally would sell on eBay for more than I paid for it.

In another attempt at perpetual energy and comic books forever, I bought a collection from a friend, cleaned it up, sold a few things on eBay, kept a few gems, and traded in the rest. I did slightly better than break even on that venture, minus a little time and elbow grease, plus a few cool vintage things for my collection, and a bunch of fun stuff I scanned for this blog before parting with it.

But of all the perpetual motion schemes I tried, one remains unmatched in all of time and space. It was like I had broken the laws of physics and economics simultaneously. Anything and everything seemed possible.

Acting on a tip from a friend of a friend, I bought several long boxes at a pawn shop for a stupidly low cash price. I threw maybe $20 or $40 at this purchase, max.

I am such a social retard that I spent a couple hours in the parking lot behind the place, doing what I had to do to get the collection in order. Any civilized person would have fucked off and done his work in private. But to be fair, I did ask the shop if I could park in back and go through the goods. And they said yes.

They just didn’t realize I meant for maybe all afternoon.

In a dirt-alley parking lot with a beat-up old truck I later sold at a loss after some drunk driver totaled it, I cleaned up the collection, took stuff for myself, threw out damaged worthless issues, and organized other issues into runs that belonged together.

I picked out a couple things that sold on eBay for just enough to cover the entire cost of the long-box purchase. I broke even on the purchase through eBay sales, and still got twenty cents of store credit at Bookmans for a couple boxes’ worth of stuff I didn’t want. Hundreds of dollars of credit.

Take that, Isaac Newton. For one glorious moment in time, I stumbled upon a perpetual motion machine of comic books that generated pure profit and excess reading enjoyment.

That is how I reversed entropy, cheated thermodynamics, and ended up with forty short boxes of comic books lining the walls of my former office.

For a few years, it was comic book heaven. At one point, I took bagged and boarded comics and nailed them to the walls in orderly rows and columns—not through the book, just the bag and board. For a couple years, I changed the display every few months. One month my office would be nothing but Wolverine covers. Two months later: four walls of seven stripes in the colors of the rainbow, one color per stripe. Next, two walls of covers featuring awesome solo shots of my favorite heroines, and two walls of dinosaurs.

I went through a fuck-load of nails, bags, and boards.

But every single day, it was geek heaven to walk into that office to get some work done.

Yes, I miss it. Life happened, and I needed some cash, so I sold about thirty boxes from that collection. Though I didn’t get rich, and it was a desperate attempt to break even, I made a small profit when all was said and done. I took the profit I worked my ass off to get and immediately spent it on rent.

For my efforts, I was left standing with a few short boxes of my favorite comics.

As the old song goes: “Regrets? I’ve had a few.”

Until recently, I regretted selling off some of my treasures. But in the last couple of years, thanks to this blog’s readers, I’ve reacquired editions of the most awesome stuff, the stories I consider indispensable and love to read and re-read, even if they come back to me in an Omnibus or TPB format instead of the original issues. I got a hell of a bargain on them the first time around, and now this blog’s readers support me in getting a second chance.

Along the way, we discover new treasures.

Thank you.

Big Box of Comics: Runaways Omnibus

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The Runaways Omnibus is the latest treasure I got thanks to this blog’s readers who help me earn store credit at MyComicShop.com when they click through my affiliate links to find the books they want. My big box of comics series aims to bring the love full circle by sharing those treasures with you.

Once upon a time, I had all the single issues of the first and second Runaways volumes. But they took me a few years to collect, and I read a bunch of them out of order at different times. So, it was great fun to finally kick back and read the entire Brian K. Vaughan run in its original reading order with this Omnibus.

Teenagers are the stars of this series and, it’s fair to say, the target audience. I don’t read many books like that anymore, and most of the “young adult” category of fiction is lost on me. If I never hear another thing about Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter, it will be too soon. But author Brian K. Vaughan lists Harry Potter as one of the influences on this series, according to the original proposal included in the Omnibus. So, what about this foray into overtly young adult superhero fiction appeals to me?

My favorite thing is the character interaction. The dialogue is PG in terms of cursing, but our teenage heroes fling savage insults at each other when they aren’t getting along. Their reckless insensitivity seems authentically adolescent, and it acts as a foil to the intentional diversity of Vaughan’s cast. One of the characters, for example, uses the word “gay” as an insult—as in “superhero costumes are gay”—which creates tension because one of the characters is a girl who likes girls. One character is repeatedly ridiculed for being chubby, and one endures transphobic insults for being a gender-switching alien. One encounters casual racism for being Asian, and a cyborg is constantly reminded that machines are soulless, unfeeling, and less than human.

I love a diverse cast of characters, but sometimes authors shy away from the conflict that naturally arises when you put wildly different people together on the same team. And when I say “natural,” I mean it is so prevalent that we even studied this conflict in my graduate-level management classes. Globalization means we often work on teams of people with a vast array of cultural, ethnic, and gender identities, and Vaughan mines that situation for dramatic conflict. But along the way, Vaughan imbues each character with depth and humanity, contrasts that with the way people flippantly dehumanize each other for being different, and ultimately makes the experience rewarding by showing how these characters grow to accept their differences, work together, and form bonds of true friendship—even love.

Another thing I love about Runaways is that while it isn’t about a dystopia like Hunger Games and a zillion other young adult novels, you could say that the real dystopia for these characters is adulthood. The kids become disillusioned and distraught about grown-ups when they find out their parents are all child murderers who are sacrificing the souls of other kids in a weird pact to bring about the end of all humanity (except for six survivors). If that doesn’t breed a severe distrust of adults, I don’t know what would. The other adults in this series—from Marvel’s Avengers to two warring alien races who cannot make peace, from parents to the police—continually reinforce the Runaways’ conviction that adults suck.

Even as the characters grow up and mature throughout the series, they express disgust at the idea of adulthood. One of the worst ways one Runaway can insult another is to say, “Now you sound like our parents.” And when one character turns eighteen, someone asks if he should even be included in the group anymore. That same eighteen-year-old, now legally an adult, embarks upon a mission that tempts him to become a killer just like his parents, driving home the point that adults can’t be trusted.

That story arc expresses a major concern shared by many young people. We all tend to become more like our parents when we age, but does that mean we are doomed to make the same mistakes as them? How many people in their thirties or forties have had a moment where they realized they sounded or acted just like their mother or father, despite their youthful determination to never let that happen?

I like how Vaughan explores this tension, and I love the way the artwork brings the characters to life. The Omnibus is an excellent reproduction of the original issues and their gorgeous covers. Upon re-reading the forty-two issues collected here, only a few flaws nagged at me.

First, the dialogue relies heavily on pop culture references—even ones that seem oddly out of place, like kids born circa 1990 quoting lines from “classic” rock songs from the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, much of the slang might have been relevant to teenagers at the time but is already beginning to feel dated. I see it all the time in novels and comics that are trying to be “relatable” to today’s young audiences by trying to sound current or hip. Maybe that helps sell more books at the time, but it tends to distract from the quality of being timeless.

The other flawed aspect of these stories is the mystical evil beings called the Gibborim. They have a stupid, nonsensical plan for world domination, and their power levels and abilities make no sense either. They say they need a sacrifice of one innocent soul for twenty-five consecutive years to bring about the end of the world. What? Why not get all twenty-five souls at once then, and get on with the apocalypse? Or, if they can appear on Earth, why not kill the kids themselves instead of hiring six married couples to do it? Evil plans should at least make some sort of strategic sense.

Later in the series, the Gibborim have been banished to a kind of limbo where they need to eat another innocent soul to escape. But they didn’t seem to be doing anything about that until the plot allowed one of the Runaways to find them in limbo. So, these beings who are powerful enough to end humanity are… totally impotent? Pick one!

The only way I can see to resolve this problem is to assume the Gibborim were lying to the Runaways’ parents from the beginning, that they never had the power they claimed to have, and that the parents bought into a total scam due to their own greed and stupidity. I doubt that is what Vaughan had in mind, but it’s the only explanation I can think of that is consistent with the plot and fits with the theme that adults are bad.

Finally, I would gladly trade the “bonus material” in the Omnibus in exchange for the six-issue story by Joss Whedon that finished the 2005 series. I recall it as a good coda to Vaughan’s run.

Despite these minor problems, the Runaways Omnibus is a terrific read with great characters who have some wild adventures while dealing with the conflicting emotions and traumas of adolescence, struggling to create new identities for themselves after all that was familiar and secure about their childhood has been torn away.

Collector’s Guide: Runaways Omnibus, Marvel, 2018. Collects #1-18 of the original Runaways (2003) and #1-24 of Runaways (2005). The Omnibus is also on Amazon. For a less expensive digital version, you can now get a $55 edition for Kindle/Comixology called Runaways: The Complete Collection, a four-volume set with everything in the Omnibus plus the continuation of the Runaways series after Vaughan left.

My Favorite Explosion: An Akira Memoir

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Akira kicks so much ass that everyone who reviews comic books and animated movies has already been there. But let me add a personal postscript, because Akira and I have a history.

The film version of this monstrous manga wasn’t released in every major theater at once. It opened in a few U.S. cities, then a few more, then a few more. In the pages of the original Epic printings of this translated and colorized version, the film showings were announced in each issue. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, without Internet or social media, this film became legend.

My friend Dave took me to see it at a theater in downtown St. Louis, Missouri in what must have been its first run in U.S. theaters. The venue was known for showing independent and avant garde films we didn’t see in the suburbs back then. I was 17 or 18 at the time, and 17 with an ID got you into the theater. I’m fairly certain this was the Tivoli Theater, which has since closed and re-opened. The old Tivoli showed some non-rated and NC-17 films such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but I never saw them. I was only there for Akira, and Akira fried my brain.

I didn’t even know what the hell to think when the credits rolled. I thought I kind of maybe understood… something? But I loved the experience.

Later, I watched Akira a second time on video and realized what was happening, and I’ve watched it about a half dozen times since. The crazy thing is that the original manga is way more complicated and drawn out than the film, and even more epic in scope.

In print, the series takes a while to pick up steam, but my favorite issue rolls around when all the tension is set to explode. It explodes in the form of a bullet that kills one of Akira’s freaky little friends. Until then, for hundreds of pages, Akira was hardly more than a MacGuffin in child form. He never had any agency since being introduced. Characters told us we should fear him, but we as readers had never been shown a reason to.

But when Akira’s buddy is shot in the head, the mysterious title character freaks the fuck out and sets off a massive explosion on the scale of a nuclear bomb.

And creator Katsuhiro Otomo gives Akira an entire issue to blow it up!

BOOM.

Collector’s Guide: From Akira #16, Epic Comics, 1990. Story and Art by Katsuhiro Otomo; Coloring by Steve Oliff.

You’ll never find the entire series in stock on MyComicShop, though you might get lucky and see it on eBay as a full run for about $150.

For $180, you could own the 35th anniversary boxed set edition on Amazon. It isn’t fully colored like the Epic edition, but it restores the original back-to-front layout of the original Japanese editions.

If you prefer a digital and low-cost edition in English that reads front-to-back, Kindle in 2020 released the Akira series in a four-volume, black-and-white, “deluxe set” for about $16 ($4 per volume). Considering that the single issue featured in this post will cost you more than that in print, the digital edition is one hell of a buy and fun to read!

Come on and Give It to Me: A Ragman Memoir

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When I was a kid, Dad had a term for people who looked disheveled and messy: Rag-picker Joe. Eventually, I discovered it was a mild version of “Joe Shit the Rag Man”. Maybe Dad picked it up in the Marine Corps. It’s listed on a site of Marine slang, and Dad was a Drill Instructor in the early 1970s, when this phrase seems to have been at the peak of its popularity.

Rag-picker Joe made regular appearances in my childhood: sometimes as me when I couldn’t get my shirt tucked in or my cowlick to lie down, and sometimes as random people on the street seen from a car window, or someone in a retail store. Rag-picker Joe was everywhere.

In the summer of 2019, while looking through my late father’s personal effects, I found papers about a family tree that seemed to be the work of Dad’s mom—my grammy, who died in 2005. I’m sure it was her distinctive handwriting.

Back in the mid-1980s, I asked both sets of my grandparents for any information they could contribute to my junior-high genealogy project. They gave me next to nothing to go on, so I suspect Grammy gained additional information over the years.

Reviewing her notes was how I learned that Rag-picker Joe was not just a bit of slang. He was one of my ancestors.

I forget his last name, but his first name was Joseph, and he was from enough generations ago that I didn’t even bother to figure out the great-great-great or however many greats it was. His occupation of record? Ragman.

If you don’t know what a ragman is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know either, and I had to look it up. A ragman collected what we might think of now as junk or scrap, and even bones. I don’t know why people would buy bones, but I assume it was either for their nutritious value (soup stock, perhaps?) or for their household utility as material for buttons and knife handles.

The cousin of Joe Shit the Ragman was the Bone man, and these nearly extinct characters from more than a century ago went from town to town, supporting themselves on what meager coin they could make from selling other people’s cast-offs and throwaways.

Bleak as it sounds, the rag-and-bone man was a mobile thrift store and scrap yard, and he was “upcycling” before any of us invented hipster words for re-using old garbage. I imagine that being a ragman required Joe Shit to be a salesman, and no song expresses that rag-selling energy as well as Rag and Bones by the White Stripes.

Sell me that old junk, baby. Come on and give it to me!

In the fifteen months that passed since discovering the ragman of my childhood was part of my family, I have often wondered if Dad ever put that connection together. I wonder if he knew Rag-picker Joe was his great-grand-uncle or whatever it was. Did he know this bit of information when I was a kid, when he used Joe as an insult on a regular basis? Or did he, like me, have an epiphany about Joe when he saw Grammy’s research?

I also wonder about things the genealogy documents didn’t tell me but seem apparent from reading between the lines. If you go back just a generation or two beyond my grandparents, my family tree is full of immigrants who came to this country and survived in abject poverty, somehow, even if it meant carrying bones and rags from town to town in a fucking wheelbarrow.

It upsets me to see our national attitude and policies becoming so obviously anti-immigrant and anti-poor. But this isn’t the first time. This always happens in our country whenever our economy is disastrous or when people feel threatened. Anti-immigrant and overtly racist attitudes flourish in times of economic trouble. The rich pit the middle-class against the poor as enemies, and the rich get richer. These aren’t mysterious ideas any longer; they are statistical conclusions verified with data from more than two centuries of U.S. history.

I only bring it up because I think of Joseph, my distant relative, a man who died long before I was born. A man who died before he became a piece of slang in the urban dictionary. A man whose station in life was used as an insult, even though he was family. A man who must have lived at the absolute ass-end of society, but somehow survived to be listed in my family tree.

In memory of Rag-picker Joe and Joe Shit the Ragman, I’ll share with you the complete issue of The Brave and the Bold #196, where Batman teams up with Ragman.

I had this comic when I was around seven years old. Coming back to it forty years later reveals why I loved it so much. The prose from Bob Kanigher could use a little editing for adult readers, but his captions are more fun than most prose I see in novels these days, and Jim Aparo’s artwork is in fine form here.

This is obviously a comic for boys and, though I was a boy once, I would not recommend it to adult women due to the short shrift the women characters get here. None of them pass the Bechdel Test. They only exist as motivating plot points for male action.

This issue also has some too-convenient plotting in the way that serious injuries take exactly as much time to heal as the plot requires. Is that how it works when falling out of a window? I should fall out of the motherfuckers more often. In spandex.

Also, the re-cap of Ragman’s origin is pointless filler and stupid. Getting electrocuted with other people does not give you their traits. That’s the lowest rung of idiocy on the ladder of superhero origins, right below “Holy shit, gamma-ray exposure makes me bad-ass!”

Actually, gamma rays kill you. I’d prefer that authors stop insulting me with bogus reasons for powers, and instead tell me a story about an awesome character who has powers.

For these reasons, I wouldn’t put this issue in my list of all-time favorite comics, but it’s a cool time capsule from the late 1970s at DC, and it stars one of my ancestors.

Now let’s see how my great-great-grand-uncle Joe Shit the Ragman teams up with Batman to kick all kinds of ass.

Collector’s Guide: The Brave and the Bold #196; DC Comics, 1983.

Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell – now in print

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Five action-packed, cosmic episodes span time and space from 2.2 billion years ago to the end of the Milky Way galaxy!

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

The Crystal Core: After the events of Small Flowers, Mags and her pirate crew discover some of her telepathic octopuses are missing, things in the outer planets are completely messed up, and it’s all Mags’ fault.

The Hive: Everything goes swimmingly on Ceres, until the crew is attacked by predators who want to feed Mags and her friends to their babies.

The Singing Spell: Celina’s memoirs recall some of her earliest adventures with Mags, including how Mags got into dancing, how Celina corrupted and encouraged her, and who they built a grave for after building their club on Vesta. This tale of love and friendship spans more than a century and more than one reality, revealing at last how Celina has lived an exceptionally long life alongside her favorite cranky kitty.

A Distant Light: Join the space monkeys of Svoboda 9 as they say farewell to their beloved leader.

Antipodes: Meteor Mags and her crew descend to Earth to bring free energy to the people, but they find themselves in the middle of an intercontinental war.

Might be unsuitable for children or carbon-based life.

postcards

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Two fun postcards arrived in September. The first was a print of “Balladeer” by Jose Guadalupe Posada. My pen pal claims to have carried it around for more than twenty years before mailing it! I wonder if the guitarist was still alive back then…

The second postcard comes from the Tellus Science Museum I visited last year. It’s a lenticular print, meaning the image changes depending on the angle, and it has not two but six different images representing stages of continental drift.

Mom did not know when she sent it to me that I had been working on a story that involves continental drift, and the postcard made me realize I got something wrong in my story, despite all the research that went into it. The original draft got the date wrong about when Australia completely split from what is now Antarctica, and the error was off by about 470 million years. I’ve since made the correction. Thank you, educational postcard!

Here is a brief time-lapse video showing a few billion years of continental movement.

hot sauce: take one

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It’s been a while since we had a post about food, not because I don’t enjoy chronicling my culinary experiments but because my camera sucks so bad—and what’s a food post without great pictures? But other than an amazing crockpot chicken satay with serrano peppers, red curry sauce, and tahini instead of peanut sauce, you haven’t missed much this season. Today, however, we break the dry spell with a simple but delicious hot sauce I improvised for fun this weekend.

I’m more of a salsa guy than a hot sauce fan, because I love the robust substance of spoonfuls of tomato-based sauce or a chunky salsa fresca. Most hot sauces seem to be more about heat than flavor, with just a tiny bit being enough to set your mouth on fire. I like something I can dip my tortilla chips in and get a big burst of flavor, or drown my tacos in, with the heat amplifying the taste rather than overpowering it. So, Sunday night, after doing some research on peppers, I decided to give hot sauce a try and see if I could find the right balance.

The inspiration came from watching Hot Ones, a fairly popular interview show on YouTube that disrupts the typical “talk show” format by having the guests eat ten consecutively hotter chicken wings—or vegan “wings” for the vegetarian guests. The defining elements of Hot Ones are how impressed the guests are by the deeply researched and often thought-provoking questions, only to violently curse interviewer Sean Evans as the sauces’ Scoville ratings become increasingly ridiculous and pain-inducing. It’s a fun show that features some wonderful musicians, comedians, and actors.

Hot Ones also did a great segment about how hot sauces are made, and just how easy they are to create from scratch in your own kitchen. After seeing that, I had to give it a shot. I’ve made my own salsas, salsa fresca (which is basically salsa with chopped ingredients but not pureed), gazpacho (which is basically salsa eaten as a soup), and spicy tomato-based pasta sauces before, so the key difference seems to come down to one simple ingredient: vinegar. Vinegar preserves the sauce, which is why you typically don’t refrigerate hot sauces but need to refrigerate salsa or marinara. Other than balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, I’m not so crazy about vinegar in food—I use it more often as a household cleaning product! But what the hell. Let’s see if we can make something tasty from it.

So, one trip to Sprouts later, here are the victims I chose, all lined up on the cutting board to be sliced and roughly chopped before the puree.

I did zero fermenting, no heating or boiling, and I did not heat to 185 degrees Fahrenheit before bottling. This was simply a quick-and-easy, totally raw sauce in a small batch meant to be finished off in three or four days.

We’ve got two shallots, two huge cloves of elephant garlic (which I like because there is less peeling involved than regular garlic) two tomatillos (which are the base for salsa verde), a few ounces of mini tomatoes from Mexico (which I have never tried before but just looked so cute and colorful), five Fresno peppers (which are a medium heat), and one serrano pepper (which is hotter than Fresno, for a little kick).

For vinegar, I used 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 4 tablespoons of basic white vinegar. White vinegar just seemed too boring, but the Hot Ones instructional video included apple cider vinegar in one recipe, and I had some in the fridge. I wasn’t sure those amounts of vinegar would be enough liquid to get a good puree with my immersion blender, so I threw in a tablespoon of olive oil to lubricate everything, and figured I could add more vinegar later if necessary.

I added a little bit of sea salt (a special blend I’ve used for years, with kelp flakes and sesame seeds in it, and it is my all-time favorite salt), some ground black pepper, and maybe a tablespoon of dried cilantro.

I had a couple serrano peppers I held in reserve, just in case this mix wasn’t hot enough, but I learned my lesson last year about how easy it is to go overboard on serranos. The two backup serranos proved to be unnecessary, as the flavor and heat levels of this sauce came out perfectly matched to my taste. I’ll find something else to do with them! I love serranos, but they are like a cat who invites you to pet it, then at some point freaks out and claws your hand to ribbons. There is a serrano sweet spot, for sure, and beyond that point… abandon all hope, ye who pepper. But the same is true for hatch chiles, poblanos, and habaneros, all of which I’ve learned the hard way. They’re all fun and games until you cross a line, and I guess the trick is just finding that line for yourself.

The Fresno peppers, I could probably slice and eat raw or put them on a burger. That’s a comfortable heat level, and now I wonder where they have been all my life. Thank you, Hot Ones and Sean Evans for inspiring me to research peppers and try something new.

Anyway, here’s a crappy cell phone pic of the final product.

I lucked out and got what I consider the perfect consistency: thicker like a sauce, not watery but easily poured in controlled doses. My handheld immersion blender didn’t puree the seeds, and they’re visible upon inspection, but it did a great job liquefying everything else. You can also see the cilantro flakes in there, or maybe pepper skins. It looks prettier in person, but hey. Such is my camera situation.

I was almost scared to pour some on a tortilla chip and test it, but amazed when it came out perfect. I was like, Ooooh shit, get me a bowl of chips and let’s pour it on! The tomatillos give it a zesty tang, and there’s plenty of time to revel in the flavor before the heat comes through. When the heat arrives, it’s a friendly level of warmth, not a scary one. Eating it in quantities more appropriate to a salsa will make the eyes water and the nose run, along with a lingering endorphin buzz, but a few dabs of this gives a pleasant warmth. The warmth lasts for quite some time, and the garlic flavor stays around even longer. If you freak out over a few jalapeno slices on a hot dog or pizza, then your tolerance is lower than mine, so adjust accordingly. I think that without the serrano, this would be a somewhat mild sauce, and I’d rate it at medium with the serrano. It would definitely be hot if I had put in the backup serranos. 

I put some in a little jam jar after pigging out on it over chips.

My next plan was to put it on a burger for dinner. Mission accomplished. The burger was a bleu cheese and onion burger from Sprouts, pan fried in some olive oil with two toasted slices of Italian bread and some shredded Mexican-style cheese and not a single other condiment or dressing. Not to brag, but it might be the best burger sauce ever created. Though I didn’t snap a photo, I probably used half a cup of the sauce, slathering it on and adding some to every bite. It was warm, it was tasty, and it was a flavor explosion. I’m calling this experiment a resounding success, and I look forward to making more hot sauces.

Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell

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METEOR MAGS: THE SINGING SPELL

© 2020 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 26 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

UPDATE: This story now appears alongside four others in The Singing Spell and Other Tales, published October 2020.

Description: Celina’s memoirs recall some of her earliest adventures with Mags, including how Mags got into dancing, how Celina corrupted and encouraged her, and who they built a grave for after building their club on Vesta. This tale of love and friendship spans more than a century and more than one reality, revealing at last how Celina has lived an exceptionally long life alongside her favorite cranky kitty.

Word Count: 9K.

Seven sisters walk across the land,
singing creation, hand in hand.

Softly singing fish into the sea,
songs unfolding into you and me.

Sacred sisters, daughters of the sky,
springing into life the birds who fly,
shining brilliance, watching time go by.

Sister Moon; Pleiades, 2020.

PART ONE: BEST FRIENDS

Snacks

In the early days of asteroid belt mining, back when Mags and I were building the club on Vesta, entrepreneurs opened bars to serve the rough and rowdy blue-collar workers. Gambling, prostitution, and fighting were the chief forms of entertainment, giving the miners a chance to blow off steam in a fog induced by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.

Few musicians had made their way to the Belt in 2025, and those who did were in constant demand. But not all the Belt’s inhabitants were fans of that first wave of sonic settlers and their crowd-pleasing selections.

Under the table at her booth, Mags squeezed the handle of the .50 caliber pistol in her garter holster. “This music is bullshit!”

With a red plastic straw, I swirled the ice cubes melting at the bottom of a gin and tonic. “Some people are sentimental about these old songs.”

“Fuck them,” said Mags. “They’ve been playing the same top-forty garbage for more than fifty years.”

“Sod off, Magpie. I like this song.”

“Are you kidding me? I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than hear REO Speedwagon again.”

“Oh yeah? I’d rather shove my face in a fuckin’ meat grinder.”

“I’d rather chop off my head, shove it a fuckin’ meat grinder, and have the brain sausage jammed down the gaping hole in my neck with a broom handle!”

“So? I’d rather eat that sausage after you pooped it into a champagne glass.”

“Celina! What in the actual fuck is wrong with you?!”

I drained my glass. “You started it.”

“I did not!” Mags polished off a pint glass of rum and reconsidered. “Okay. I did. Wanna dance?”

“Not with you. You can’t even be nice!”

“Celina, are you shitting me? After all these years—”

“Yes, I am totally shitting you. You’d realize that if you weren’t wasted, you fucking cot case!”[1]

“I will kill this band.”

“Dude,” I said, “I believe it’s time for you to fly.”[2]

“Fuck yes, it is.” Mags snorted. “I take it on the run, baby.”

“Mhm. Cause that’s the way you want it, baby.”[3]

“So, I can kill them?”

“If you like,” I said. “But save the last dance for me.”

Mags squeezed my hand. “Let me see about these tunes.”

“The fuck you will. Sit down. I need snacks.”

“Snacks?”

“Snacks, you furry harlot! You are not starting a riot before we get something to eat.”

Mags sat back in the booth and sulked. “I am kind of hungry.”

“Then will you shut up and try not to kill anyone?!” I got up from the booth. “Do you want regular chips? They have yam chippies, and a salt and vinegar type—”

“I want chips,” said Mags, “made from a bloody potato!”[4]

I leaned my hip against the table. “We could get them made from grub worms. They’re high in protein.”

“You can’t get high on protein. I tried.” Mags squinted. “Do you know what I love about you?”

“Yes,” I said. “You know that if this band plays one more geriatric rock hit, I will lop off their bits and serve them to the bouncers. Grilled.”

Mags reared back in a laugh that rivaled the volume of the concert. “That’s a damn good reason.” She smacked her hand on the tabletop. “You fucking love that REO song, though!”

“What if I do? Now stay put. I’ll buy us another round and see what they can do about munchies.”

Mags drummed her fingers on the table.

I’d known the bartender for thirty-seven years. He understood my signal to make something special for Mags.

She lost consciousness on the floor of the club, leaving me to gather up the clothes she’d strewn about the place and tip the staff well enough that we might be welcome back someday, despite the broken chairs. When she awoke in the bedroom of my flat, things did not, at first, go well.[5]

Then they did.

☠️

Maggie Maid

Anyone who knows Mags knows she loves to dance naked. She’ll do it for tips, she’ll do it for free. She’ll do it completely pissed at the most inappropriate moments.[6] But she wasn’t always like that.

The first time I met her in 1938, she was in a fistfight with a bunch of blokes on a dock in England. They were trying their damnedest to prevent her from boarding a ship which, among other things, carried stolen goods I planned to deliver to the States.

I’m sure that little sheila could have killed them all if she had to. But I needed their services, not their corpses. On the other hand, I didn’t like seeing a bunch of drongos beating on a girl my age. Especially when they worked for me.

Then I saw she had rescued my lost cat, who bounded into my arms and just about had me in tears. I thought maybe that feisty cunt beating the fuck out of the hired help might make a good mate.

I broke up the fight and paid the lads several weeks’ worth of wages in a roll of cash before ushering a bruised and filthy Mags into my private cabin, which was hardly big enough for me, let alone the two of us and my cat, Starry.[7]

That’s where we had our first fight.

It wasn’t right away. We sailed at least a week before I explained the situation we were sailing to. When Mags heard what kind of club awaited us, she lost her shit.

I chalk up her destruction of most everything that wasn’t nailed down in my cabin to one simple thing, one thought that consumed that furry head of hers: What would Mama think?

My oldies were straight-up smugglers and criminals, and Mum was indigenous. Their marriage wasn’t even legal. In those years, many girls my age and younger were being kidnapped and sent to “re-education” facilities to be forcibly trained in English and get beaten and abused until they were stripped of all our culture and history. The white government didn’t even remotely consider native people to be Aussie citizens until the 1960s.[8] Even then, people called us stupid shit like “Abos”.

So, it wasn’t like I came up ignorant of violence, racism, and oppression. But Mags’ mum—as I discovered in many stories over the next year—had ideas about race, class, labor, and feminism that her daughter absorbed, but for which most of society did not yet have words.

In my cabin, I was treated to some of that maternal wisdom at great length and considerable volume. Little of my dinnerware survived.

I held Starry in my arms while Mags went into her little tornado. Eventually, I had enough of her bullshit. “Pipe down, willie wagtail! It was just a suggestion. You can do whatever the bloody fuck you want once we get off this boat!”

She set a plate on the tiny kitchen countertop instead of slamming it on the floor. “Anything I want,” she said. It was like she never heard the phrase before. “I can, can’t I?”

“Hell,” I said, “you can jump into the goddamn ocean right now, and no one could stop you. Do whatever you want. I was just trying to prepare you.”

“Anything I want,” said Mags.

I didn’t know if it was a question or not, so I said, “What’s on the list? Do you want to have a hug first? Then maybe clean up this fucking mess? It looks like a dog’s breakfast in here.”

She hugged me and Starry. He licked her nose. She kissed him and, without a word, got to work tidying up the disaster she had created. I took Starry on deck, and when I came back, the place was immaculate.

Funny thing about Mags. She likes to put on a show. That whole plate-smashing and screaming routine was a performance. But all I had asked her to do was think about performing on stage for an audience.

That would be at Bert’s place, our destination in the States. Bertrand hated it when I called him “Uncle Randy”. He hated it when I walked in like I owned the place and said whatever I pleased, and he probably hated the mountains of cash he raked in thanks to my parents’ black-market dealings with him.

I’m just busting his bollocks. Bert acted grumpy, but he was a sweetheart—at least, the closest thing you’d find in a seppo in the 1930s.[9] Fuckin’ savages.

On the other hand, the spastic sheila with a tail I had just picked up was more savage than any of them, and I figured she could handle herself.

One thing was clear. She would never dance the way I did.

Eventually, we got to the States, where I had a natter with Bert about my new friend.[10] The club was closed, so Mags amused herself on the stage while I told Bert what little I knew of her story.

When he first saw her, Bert just about shat his pants. Mags in all her underage glory paraded about his stage, doing Spanish dances her mum taught her, and her tail swished this way and that below her ragged, ill-fitting skirt. Once Bert collected himself, we arranged for her to stay with me and clean the place after hours to earn her keep—just so long as she kept the tail hidden and dressed like a boy.

At first, I found those conditions insulting. Then I realized they were for the best. If people had seen her as she really was back then, especially the type of people who wandered into Bert’s place for drunken entertainment, then goddess only knows what unspeakable hell would have been unleashed in that club. Someone would have tried to put his hands on her, and a whole mess of people would have died.

But I liked that about her, and I decided to keep her around.

Who am I kidding? We were inseparable. She was a good mate. The best, that crazy cunt. Sometimes I thought she’d get me killed, but I never doubted she would have died for me, too—or at the very least, come up with a plan that didn’t involve one of us dying.

Don’t tell her I brought this up, but she cleaned the fuck out of Bert’s club. That’s right: our little Maggie Maid. If you call her that to her face now, she’ll cut you. But she scrubbed and tidied and fixed things with a military precision we didn’t normally see in the hired help.

I didn’t get it right away. I just thought she was intense about a few things. I didn’t piece it together until the first time I saw her clean a rifle. She did it quickly, thoroughly, and accurately. Mags cleaned a weapon like her life depended on it. From what she told me, it often had.

You might think of her as a party girl these days, but Magpie was serious as hell back then. It’s how she was raised.

The better part of a year went by. I came and went on a few voyages to oversee my oldies’ business, and everything was fine, at least for a planet that was about to be plunged into the most gruesome war it had ever known.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mags started to fill out. Christ, she was a skinny runt when I met her, and look at her now. She also discovered, in the wee hours when the club was closed, that she enjoyed being onstage.

After hours, in the spare time she created by making a military operation out of her chores, the club stage belonged to my fuzz-tailed friend. She pretended to dance for people in the empty seats. Then she’d get caught up in the fantasy and lose herself in the performance.

She wasn’t as good as she is now, but she threw herself into it.

Some nights, she’d sing.

I had a list of things to teach her: better moves, ways to talk to the customers, how to get the most money out of someone while giving up the least of yourself. How to stay safe.

But at the top of that list was job number one. We needed to go shopping!

☠️

Jack’s Grave

In 2026, Mags knelt at a grave on Vesta. No physical body occupied it. Below the marker lay nothing but solid Vestan stone. The headstone sat 300 meters from the crater base at the south pole. Atop the rim of the crater, overlooking the tallest mountain in the solar system, our newly constructed Club Assteroid reigned. The lights in its windows and along the curved path from its parking lot shone below a clear atmosphere splashed with a million stars.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Mags.

I rested a hand on her shoulder. “Just say what you feel. I could leave.”

Mags set a hand on mine. “Stay with me. Please.”

“Take your time.”

Mags clutched a pendant. She had owned it since January 1938, when a boxer named Jack gave it to her. Jack took her in and fed her when she was alone and friendless, and the only reason she left him was to rescue a lost cat from some hooligans. Lucky for me! Turns out that was my cat, and although Starry’s been gone for nearly a century, he brought us together. [11]

Anyway, at a house on Meteor Street in London, half a year after her mother was killed, Jack showed Mags the basics of boxing and set her on a lifelong path of being a fearsome fighter. She never forgot him.

“Jack gave me this,” she said. “It’s a stone from Australia, where he’d gone for a few boxing matches. I didn’t even know where Australia was. He thought I was fuckin’ crazy.” Mags laughed. “He said the stone was a meteorite from a place called Vesta, and I told him I wanted to go there. He laughed at me. I didn’t care.”

Mags turned the pendant in her hand. The simple grey stone, sliced into a triangular shape and filled with chunks of minerals in brown, black, and yellow, was polished so finely that it caught the distant sunlight and gleamed. Years before, Mags had it mounted on a silver chain and wore it as a necklace ever since. “I promised Jack that if I ever made it to Vesta, I’d return this to its origin.” She wrapped her fingers around the rock. “Here we are, Jack. We did it. Celina’s here with us. I never could have built this club without her. I met her just days after I met you. So much has changed since then.”

Mags placed the necklace at the base of the marker. “I love you, Jack. Welcome to my new home. Hope you like it here.” She wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of one leather-gloved hand.

I said, “He gave you your name, didn’t he?” No matter that I had heard the story many times, or that Mags didn’t remember most of them. She loved to tell that story.

“He did. My ‘fighting name’, he called it. Meteor Mags.”

“And that’s the meteorite?”

“Yeah,” said Mags. “A tiny fragment of this huge rock we’re on right now.”

“Should we bury it?”

“Nah.” Mags wiped her nose. “Maybe it stays here. Maybe it falls again to Earth. I think it should be free.” She rose to her feet.

I asked, “What if it gets lost?”

Mags hugged me. “All of us are lost. Aren’t we?”

I squeezed her even tighter. “I never feel lost with you.”

She nuzzled my neck and kissed it. “We should get a cat.”

☠️

The Hosier

In 1939, I took Mags shopping. Europe was getting fucked by the Nazis. Poland, Czechoslovakia. Millions died.

The States wouldn’t join the war for two more years, until after the attack on Hawaii. In ’39, most of the country hadn’t recovered from the so-called Great Depression.

Believe me, it wasn’t so great.

Government tried, and citizens tried, and none of it amounted to a pint of piss. It took another world-wide war to pull the Yanks out of their mess.

Even then, plenty of stateside companies made huge profits by selling goods to the Third Reich. Prohibition of alcohol sales had ended by then, too. But before that was over, the eighteenth amendment created an underground criminal empire with connections, wealth, and power. The whole situation was a lit stick of dynamite.

I thought Mags had a bit of dynamite in her, too, and I didn’t think twice about throwing her on the pile of explosives. Hell, I was curious.

Mags grew up in the middle of armed urban warfare when most of the piss-ants in Chicago were still trying to sort how to chop off a toe or beat a few helpless teenage girls into hooking for them. I wasn’t any stranger to the underworld, but my impression of most people I met was—not good.

They lacked guts. They lacked conviction. Even the ones I liked seemed a bit dense. A snag short of a barbie, for fuck’s sake.[12]

I always knew I was smarter, but they had muscle. A ton of muscle, on a huge payroll.

Not that I thought of Mags as muscle back then. She was my friend, and—

Oh, fuck it. I totally thought of her as muscle, and I hoped she could help me make a few bucks. I had a list of people I’d love to exterminate to take over their rackets, and she was exceptionally qualified for the job. Agile, intelligent, and absolutely ruthless. Plus, she liked me.

It sounds mercenary, but we had fun. She was like a kid in a candy shop with all the American goods in those days, things you couldn’t get so easily outside the States, and it made me happy to see her happy. Trying on different things. Preening and posing in front of mirrors.

Even in her youth, Magpie had her moods. But when my little cyclone of destruction was pleased with something, she lit up like a star. You should have seen her.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took Mags for a long walk through the streets of Chicago. She’d lived a rough-and-tumble life of poverty and violence before I met her, and nice clothes weren’t something she ever thought of as her reality. Those things always belonged to someone else—someone more privileged. Someone wealthier. I steered us through the commercial district until she stopped dead in her tracks.

Mags was entranced by a hosier’s window display. Plastic mannequin legs strutted in a variety of socks and stockings. I said, “See something you like?”

“All of it.” She pressed her hands to the window, and her breath made a patch of fog on the glass. “When we were in Spain, finding clean socks was nearly impossible. Mama had to steal them for soldiers.”[13]

“Let’s not steal these ones,” I said. “We can go inside and try them on.”

“Try them on?”

“Mhm.” I brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. “See if you like them before we buy them.”

“I like all of them.”

“Why don’t we pick a few you like best?” I offered my hand, and she took it. We went inside.

Honestly, you couldn’t try on shit in that store, but I knew the owner. I had a chat with the girl at the sales counter, and I let her know I’d pay for whatever we needed. Mags must have cost me a month’s worth of tips trying it all on.

One pair of white, thigh-high stockings really caught her attention. They had tiny white hearts sewn into the lace, and a ruffle around the top. Mags pulled them on and wiggled her toes. She sprang to her feet. “These make me feel like dancing!”

She danced all over the bloody store. Up on the benches, in front of the windows. I couldn’t keep her off the sales counter. Eventually, I gave up and joined in.

Mags was about fifteen, not quite sixteen. Even then, she had infectious energy that swept you into whatever party was happening in her mind.

I bought those stockings and a dozen other pairs. Then we needed to find matching shoes and skirts and garters. I guess you can blame me for Mags’ obsession with legwear. I created a monster—but one with exceptional taste in socks.

She liked them so much that she started dancing at Bert’s club that weekend, and the solar system was never the same.

Sue me.

PART TWO: FOREVER

The Highway

In 1942, Mags and I were proper pissed without the foggiest clue where we were other than a stretch of barren, sunbaked trail in the wasteland of Western Australia.

We’d arrived by boat the week before in Fremantle Harbour and, after visiting with my oldies, liberated a 1942 Chevy RHD for the drive. It had been shipped from the States as part of the Allied support for my country, which had been suffering from attacks along the coast by the Japanese. Damn decent of the seppos, and I almost felt bad about nicking it.

The ute resembled a Jeep, built like a brick shithouse with sturdy tires I hoped could handle the rough terrain, wheel ruts, and patches of sand along what would one day become the Great Northern Highway. [14]

Back then, it wasn’t so great.

At first, the Chevy did pretty well! But long after we’d passed Yalgoo and entered the outback proper, where there isn’t fuckall but scrub, red dirt, and stunted trees, the damn thing sucked up the last of the petrol. It sputtered and rolled to a stop.

Were we even halfway there? Fuck if I knew. The gauges were broken.

Mags said, “The last of the spare gas cans better get us there.”

I said, “That was the last can.”

Mags pounded her fists against the steering wheel and called it a string of creative names.

I said, “That isn’t helping.”

“It’s helping me!”

“Fair enough. Welcome to Bandywallop.”

“That’s a place?”

“Sure,” I lied. “It’s just outside of Woop-Woop.”[15]

“What the fuck are you talking about?” She popped the hood and got out to check underneath, but that was pointless. The ute was fine, just empty.

I reckoned we’d be about the same in a few hours. “The middle of nowhere, Magpie. East Bumfuck. Have a nice day.”

“Do we got any beer left?”

“There’s a box in the boot.[16] Warm as goat piss by now.”

“Good enough.” Mags wiped her brow with the back of her forearm. The sun was a circle of hate directly overhead. She opened the boot to reveal the last of our supplies: twenty-four bottles of Swan Lager, courtesy of the brewery in Perth. We’d already murdered a couple of boxes. She handed me one and split open a longneck for herself, prying off the top with a ciggie lighter.

I smacked mine against the edge of the passenger-side door with one hand. The cap fell to the cracked, rust-colored earth and bounced once before lying still as death on the dirt. “Cheers!”

“Cheers.” Mags gulped half the bottle. “Let’s get to walking, then.”

“Might as well.”

She hoisted the box onto her shoulder and pushed her sunglasses back to the top of her slippery, sweat-covered nose. “You’re sure it’s this way?”

“Generally speaking.”

Mags frowned. “I am absolutely dumbfounded by the lack of confidence you inspire!” She drained the rest of her bottle and whipped it into the sparse scrub at the roadside.

I sipped from mine and trundled along beside her. “It could be worse, you know.”

“Sure,” she said. “We could be attacked by giant scorpions. Get our fuckin’ eyeballs and brains torn out. Have our flesh eaten by bacteria while we’re still conscious. We could—”

“You know what, Mags? Forget I mentioned it.” I took a sip. “You don’t regret coming out here with me, do you?”

“Nah,” she said. “Worst case, we totally fuckin’ die. But there’s no one I’d rather die with, if it comes to that.”

“We won’t die.”

“You seem awfully sure.”

“I had a vision.”

Mags laughed. “Celina, you crack me up. Remind me why I agreed to this in the first place.”

“Because you love me.”

Mags stopped in the middle of the old goat path that wanted to be a road. “Give me a hug.”

I held her for a long time. The sun abused us. The outback stretched before us with no end in sight. When she finally let me go, she said, “These beers will run out before sunset.”

“If you keep pounding them like that, they will.”

She let loose that psychopathic laugh of hers and set off in what vaguely seemed like the right direction.

I don’t know how we made it. The sky and the booze and the flat, dark-ochre ground all melt together in my memory. The sun rose and set at least once, and we stopped to sleep beside a meager campfire for a few hours. But we pressed on.

Eventually, we stumbled onto the spot: Yarrabubba. It’s one of the oldest asteroid collisions on Earth. The impact site is 70 kilometers wide, and it goes back 2.2 billion years. That sounds dramatic, but all there was when Mags and I got to it was a hill, a little red hill to mark the crash.

We climbed it.

We were out of beer by then, and the soles of our shoes were worn down to our blisters. Reasonable people would have died, but we weren’t them.

Besides, the fortuneteller told us we would make it.

☠️

Mags’ Ring

Money, boyfriends, empires. I used to think they meant something. I thought they were things you accumulated to prove you had power over your life.

Then I met Mags. Her raggedy arse didn’t have shit. She had the clothes on her back, and they were falling apart. But none of that seemed to bother her.

One night, when we were cuddling in our room upstairs at Bert’s club, I asked about her ring. I’d never seen her without it. With her hand in mine, she told me.

Imagine finding out your best friend will outlive you by at least a century.[17]

Sure, I felt bad for myself. Give me a break. I was barely twenty, and Mags couldn’t have been more than seventeen. At first, all I could think about was getting old and watching her go on without me when there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do about it.

I turned her ring around her finger. You couldn’t take it off, and I’d tried a few times to test that theory. It was like once she put it on, it was on for life. Mags wore it like a wedding ring on her left ring-finger. I asked if she ever thought about fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years down the road.

“All the time,” she said. Her tail moved along my waist and hips like a feathered hand caressing my curves. “Someday, I’ll say goodbye to you for the last time. Same with all my friends, family, and any pets I ever have. It isn’t a happy thought.”

“I’d like to live with you forever.”

Mags wrapped her arms and legs around me in a full-body hug. “Forever’s a long time,” she said. “Too rich for my blood. How would you feel about the next 180 years?”

She was joking. Mags didn’t think anything of it, and she fell asleep next to me. For hours, I laid next to her, watching her tail occasionally flick and twitch while she dreamed. I thought about how nice her last sentence sounded.

That’s a long way of saying how we came to be at the fortuneteller’s table.

☠️

The Fortuneteller

Mags took a seat in the fortuneteller’s shop. “Are you a gypsy?” Even at eighteen, she was a paragon of tact.

“Mags,” I chided, taking a seat of my own.

“What? Isn’t that the word?”

The old woman across the table neither frowned nor smiled. Even in the dim light, her colorful shawl and the Indian print on her flowing dress spoke of sensuality and joy, but I suspect she was reserved when confronted with strangers and possible fools such as we were. Mags’ bluster didn’t make a ripple in the pool of dusky calm. “We prefer the term Romani.” The fortuneteller lit a cone of incense and set it in a pewter holder. The pewter had been shaped into a network of vines, all interwoven, and a pleasant blue-grey smoke drifted through the openings between their leaves. “What can I do for you?

I said, “We’re searching for magic.”

At that, she smiled. Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight, and the silver rings on her fingers did, too. Despite her age, I thought she looked quite beautiful and alive. Playful, in a quiet way, seasoned by decades. “Magic is everywhere. I can point you to it, but you need to see it for yourself.”

Mags lit a fag. “That sounds about right. We’re looking for a spell, but I don’t think it exists anywhere on Earth.”

The fortuneteller set a deck of cards on the table, facedown. “Where do you think it is?”

“The dreamtime,” I said. “We were hoping you could point us in the right direction.” I laid a trio of gold coins on the red velvet cloth. “If you would be so kind.”

At that, the woman raised an eyebrow. Without looking at them, she swept the coins off the table and into a brass bowl where they landed with a clink, clink, clink. She set the bowl on a small, circular table next to her, in a clear spot surrounded by strange bones, bundles of dried herbs, and a few piles of books. “That’s an odd place to search for a spell. Why don’t we start with a three-card spread?” She fanned the cards, still facedown, and swept the back of one withered hand across them. “Point to three cards.”

Mags reached to pick up one of them, but the fortuneteller’s hand blocked her. “Don’t touch them. Just point.”

Mags acquiesced then let me choose the next two.

The fortuneteller flipped one over. “The first card,” she said, “is where you start on this journey. This is the Two of Cups. It shows a partnership, perhaps even love between two soulmates. The universe has positive energy to send you, but you must find balance and harmony to receive it. The two people pictured here seek a deeper commitment.”

The old woman’s skeletal fingers moved to the second card and turned it over. “This is the next stage of your journey.”

“Oh, great,” said Mags. “He looks like he’s been stabbed to death.”

“I suppose. The Ten of Swords can be read a few ways. One possible message is that the dying person failed to listen to her own better judgment, and her lapse is responsible for her suffering.”

Mags flicked the ash from the end of her ciggie. “We’re fucked.”

I said, “Shush, Magpie. What’s the other interpretation?”

“The death of the ego. Next to the Two of Cups, it might mean that these two who seek unity must give up their idea of being two different people—the idea that they are individual egos.”

Mags purred. “I like that one better.”

I patted her knee. “Go on. What’s number three?”

“Four of Wands,” said the old woman. “Is one of you having a birthday party?”

Mags and I laughed. “Not yet,” I said, “but there is a question of birthdays. Who are these four women dancing?”

“The elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Here, they dance in unison, celebrating. They share their joy with each other.”

I said, “That’s exactly what we had in mind.”

Mags leaned in. “You’re saying these lovers need to have their separateness destroyed, but after that, they dance in a field of joy?”

The fortuneteller said, “That’s one way of looking at it.”

I kissed Mags on the cheek. “It’s a happy ending!”

She put her arm around me. “I’m a bit concerned about getting stabbed to death, but I do like the after party.” She nuzzled me, then asked the old woman, “How do we get there?”

“I’m afraid the cards won’t tell you that.”

I took a few more coins from my purse and placed them on the table. “We understand. But we’d like to hear your opinion.”

Again, a hand that looked like tree branches wrapped in wrinkled leather swept the coins into a bowl. Clink, clink, clink. “I see you two young ladies are serious. Give an old woman a moment.”

She pressed her palms on the table and rose from her chair. I’ve never seen anyone move so slowly. She made her way to the bookshelf that took up the entire wall behind her. The lights weren’t so good—just a few candles near the card-reading table—so I couldn’t see what she picked up until she came back, step by eternal step.

She set a brass stand on the table. The metal picked up every sliver of light the candles cared to throw at it. She set a glass globe in the stand. Freed from her hands, it also reveled in the candlelight. I swear I saw a million stars inside.

I didn’t notice how long it took the fortuneteller to regain her seat, and the only thing that snapped me back to the present moment was Mags squeezing my hand.

Clouds of incense drifted through the dusk and surrounded the crystal ball. They swirled for a moment, then buggered off to parts unknown.

The woman said, “The magic you seek is older than humanity.” She extended a bony finger toward Mags. “But you wear this magic now.”

“Damn right,” said Mags. “Great-gramma’s magic.”

“Not just hers. She harnessed what came before.”

“Before what?”

The fortuneteller ignored Mags’ question and closed her eyes. She placed both hands on the glass orb.

Mags gave me a look that said, What the fuck? But I raised one finger to my lips.

The fortuneteller spoke ten words that would forever change my life. “The red hill,” she said. “You must go to the red hill.”

☠️

The Red Hill

“Here we are!” Mags fell onto the hilltop and laughed. “This legendary Barlangi Rock can kiss my fat white arse! Can’t even get a burger out here.” She sprawled. “Goddamn, I’m tired.”

I curled up beside her in the red dirt. It glittered with shards of quartz, though most of the surrounding outcrops were granite. “Shush, Magpie. I’ll sing a song, and you sing with me.”

It was all I could do to maintain a singing voice. In forty-eight hours, I’d only had a dozen beers while stumbling down that piece of shit road. The Swannies dehydrated me, but they also numbed me to that fate.

Mags whispered between cracked lips. “That old woman didn’t know dick. We’re gonna fuckin’ die out here.”

“Probably,” I said. “But as long as we’re dying, sing this one with me.”

Mags held my hand. “You start.”

In the stories Mum used to tell, the ancestors sang the world into being—the Earth and all the plants and animals, even the First People. The Hindus have a similar idea: Om, the primal sound, a vibration that kicked the universe into being. I like that idea, that everything we are and touch is music.

Mags likes it, too. You know how she is. If there’s anything she loves more than kicking arse and liberating cargo, it’s music.

If the ancients could create the world through song, then it made sense that we could contact them by singing. We just needed to speak to them in their language, right?

Back in ’42, Mags hadn’t mastered as many instruments as she can play these days, but she was off to a good start, and she had a beautiful voice. I think about times I used to eavesdrop on her singing after hours at the club, and it makes me cry. Not a sad cry, just overwhelmed. That feeling you get when someone touches your heart, but it’s too much, and it all spills out of you.

Atop the red hill at Yarrabubba, we sang together. I started with a tune Mum sang at bedtime. She claimed it was the song that sang the moon and stars into being. Overhead, the sky faded from bright blue to black. Every star in the southern hemisphere sprang to life, and the moon rose over the horizon like a bride in a glowing white gown.

We entered the dreamtime.

☠️

The Crash

More than two billion years ago, a meteorite smashed into what is now Western Australia. I remember it well. I was there.

Mags and I were singing, lying on our backs in the rusty dirt, when the moon and stars came out. Another light twinkled into view. Within seconds, it grew so bright it outshone the moon.

Mags gripped my hand, but she didn’t stop singing. I reckon she knew, as well as I did, that it wasn’t a star, and there was no way we could run far enough away to survive before it hit.

You might imagine the sound of an incoming meteor as many different things: a whistle like a bomb dropped from a plane, a scream of increasing volume, a roar. But what struck Yarrabubba that night began as a harmony, a three-part harmony between me and Mags and that wayward stone. I took the alto, as low and sultry as I could manage. The meteor took the energetic tenor. Mags belted out a soprano I didn’t know was in her range. The fourth harmony, the bass, was the explosion of that massive space rock slamming into Earth.

But a couple billion years ago, Straya wasn’t even Straya. It was just a section of one massive super-continent where all the places we know today were a single land mass, surrounded by one sea. Australia didn’t completely split from what’s now Antarctica until 30 million years ago.

Still, the asteroid impact shook the continent down to Earth’s mantle. The land it shot into the sky changed the weather. The tsunamis it generated reshaped coastlines around the planet. The fire it started burned for years.

As for me and Mags? It blasted our bodies into atoms and scattered them through wind, water, and earth, all across the globe.

We were proper fucked.

☠️

The Song

I can’t say for sure how long it took for me to realize what had happened. On a geologic scale that big, little things like years don’t seem so bloody relevant. But at some point, I heard a song, faintly flickering at first, like the light from a candle on a peak past the horizon. I felt drawn to it, but I couldn’t move. Hell, I didn’t even have a body. I was just one little atom spinning in the darkness.

Then I realized it was Mags. Her voice, though far away, came from all around me. I tried to say something, but I had no mouth. For what might have been a hundred million years, I tried to move closer to that song, wherever its source might be.

That was a dumb idea. Eventually it sank in. I wasn’t in one place any more than Mags’ voice was. I was all over the place. I wasn’t just one atom, but all my atoms, strewn across the bloody planet. And if that was true, I reckoned, then it was probably true for Mags, too.

I felt like giving up and drifting on the wind and waves.

But I don’t know if you’ve heard Mags sing before. Maybe you’re not a fan of the Psycho 78s or her solo album, or the stuff she’s been doing with Small Flowers lately. Or that new B-side she did with Dumpster Kittens. But I am, and it’s because when Mags sings, everything makes sense to me. Even when she sings about how senseless and stupid everything is, it’s like she’s singing just for me, lending her voice to what needs to be said, even if everyone else is afraid to put it into words.

So, I did what any sensible sod would do. I sang along.

Fragments of me recalled how Mum’s people thought of Straya in terms of songlines: a musical geography of the landscape and the stars above, rich with our history and destiny ages before the written word or printed maps of any kind.

After a moment that might have been seconds or millennia, Maggie’s song came closer, or I came closer to it.

Then it stopped.

“Celina? Celina, can you hear me?”

They were the first words I’d heard her speak in eons. “Magpie! What is happening to us?”

“I miss you.”

If I had a face, I would have smiled. “No, you don’t. You hit me right on target, every time.”

Laughter followed. “I think I sang a trillion verses!”

“Me too.”

“Keep singing with me. It’s got to be our only way out of this.”

I agreed. “You take the melody. I’ll harmonize.”

From all around me, a purr. “I almost got my hands back. It’s all about the vibration.”

“Then let’s vibrate, baby. Take it away.”

She did.

Over the next few hundred million years, we improvised. With time to spare, we harmonized every possible combination of the twelve-tone scale in every imaginable rhythm. Then we started in on semitones and microtones. Together we wove incessant song while continents split apart and drifted into place. As the world began to take its current shape, so did we.

No longer scattered so thin, my atoms gathered together. Looking back on it now, I realize that the waves of our song rippled across the planet, and our atoms rode those waves, like when you shake a blanket across a bed to bring it into shape. We shook the entire Earth, and tiny pieces of us began to coalesce into coherence.

That’s not to say it all went smoothly. I witnessed multiple mass extinctions, even more asteroid collisions, and the death of countless species. But life always came back, in all its myriad forms, in the oceans, air, and on the land.

I know it’s selfish of me, but despite all those deaths and rebirths, there was only one life I cared about, and she sang with me through it all.

If you ever wonder why my cranky kitty and I are inseparable to this day, keep in mind that for a couple billion years, all we tried to do was get back together.

Eventually, the shreds of my body realigned. The same happened for Mags. All the time singing. Then there was the two of us, and I slipped my hand into hers in a gesture that must have taken an epoch or two.

“Celina,” she said.

“Maggie.”

No other words were needed.

How long that moment lasted, I can’t say. But we weren’t done yet. We had not met the rainbow serpent.

Goorialla, some tribes called him. He’s credited with many things. Some are true. Some are not. But one thing is for sure. That motherfucker is gigantic!

The enormous snake appeared, and he must have been a kilometer of scales, rippling in iridescent colors, slithering around us until we were enclosed within his coils.

Above that spiraling cage, he reared his head. I was sure we were done for. His tongue flicked in and out of his mouth, smelling us. Mags held me close, and the reptilian tongue whipped us both, taking in our scent. I did not let go.

The serpentine face withdrew to a great height above us, like a mountain, but the voice emanating from its open jaws felt as near as anything I’d ever felt, like the way Mags’ song had come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. The monster god spoke four words. “Why are you here?”

Mags almost answered first, but I put a finger to her lips. “We want to be together.”

“You are in the space of sacred songs. What makes you mortals think you have the right?” The tongue flicked at us again, smelling us and rudely slapping us about.

It stunk like hell, and I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. I clung to Mags.

She smacked the giant tongue. “Hey, fuckface! You call the tune, and we’ll sing it. We got a couple billion years of practice, so bring it on!”

That wasn’t the nicest thing to say to an ancient ancestral deity, and I was sure he would swallow us whole and shit us out onto some ethereal landscape as amorphous globs of snake poo.

But he just laughed, if you can imagine a snake laughing.

Mags gave me a squeeze and raised her voice. “Listen, you legless freak! We were just getting warmed up. Now call the tune!”

Maybe he was amused that a tiny mortal considered herself the equal of gods. But his coils undulated around us, and he called the tune. It was that tune—a song without a proper name but older than time itself—that welded the magic of Mags’ ring to me. And believe me, we sang that tune like it was the last one ever written.

For as many years as we had spent trying to reunite, nothing prepared me for the moment where our bodies and souls merged into one person wearing the same ring. It was like Mags and I were overlaid on top of each other, and for just one second, my ring-finger and her ring-finger shared the same space and time, enclosed by the silver band her great-gramma made. The rainbow serpent encircled us, and his scales turned the same silver color as Mags’ ring. The magic that promised to keep Mags alive for two hundred years became a magic I shared.

Then the serpent opened his mouth, and his fangs were also gleaming silver. Beyond them, only blackness. In a strike as swift as lightning, he swallowed us whole. The darkness was everywhere and everything, with nothing beyond its edges.

☠️

The Waterhole

We awoke at night in a pool of fresh water near Perth, sputtering and wiping our faces. I knew it was near Perth because I saw the lights of Fremantle Harbour, from which I’d sailed a dozen times.

Mags said, “Where are we?” She found a handhold on the side of the hole and pulled herself to dry land. She held out one hand for me.

I grasped it and followed her up. “Goorialla is the god of waterholes. He travels between them.”

“Gooey who?”

“Goorialla. That giant snake you just cursed out.”

Mags’ tail snapped every which way to rid itself of water. “That fuckin’ guy.”

“We’re lucky he didn’t eat us.”

“He’s lucky I didn’t eat him! But I will say this.” She scooped a handful of water from the pool and lapped it up. “Damned decent of him not to puke us up on that bloody crater in the middle of nowhere.”

“He’s not all bad.” I practically inhaled water from my cupped hands.

We sated our thirst. “Mags? My oldies’ place must be just a klick from here, right over that hill. Why don’t we stop in for a cuppa and a lie down?”

Mags collapsed on the rock. “I’m so buggered, I could pass out right here.”

“Me too. Or we could enjoy some cozy pillows and curl up next to each other. Maybe sing ourselves to sleep.”

Mags lifted her prone figure onto one elbow. “I’ve had about enough of singing for the next ten trillion years,” she lied. “But let’s go cuddle.”

☠️

Gratitude

In Mum’s native language, people don’t say please or thank you. The words don’t even exist. It’s true that I think a few polite words go a long way toward helping everyone get along without killing each other, but I also see the wisdom in not relying on words alone.

Mum’s family didn’t omit those words out of rudeness, but because they felt gratitude should be demonstrated. If someone did something nice for you, then you bloody well did nice things for them, too! That was how it worked. You couldn’t just say thanks and expect that to be the end of it. You had an obligation to help those who helped you.

Mum and Dad lived that idea. By modern standards, they were rough and inelegant with each other in the way they spoke. But not a day went by without one of them demonstrating love. It might have been Mum reserving the best cut of meat for him, or Dad brushing her hair by candlelight after dinner. It might have been the way she never pressed him to talk about what was troubling him, or the way he always told her everything once he simmered down.

It was the opposite of the powers from Europe who dressed up their actions in pretty words on their mad quest to conquer the world. They liked flowery speeches about nobility and liberty, but Europe’s hearts were filled with greed, not love, and their words rang hollow.

Mags and I always saw eye-to-eye on that. She’ll never have a career as a diplomat. She prefers abusive language. But she always understood that gratitude isn’t a word, but an action.

After our experience in the dreaming, we had no debate over whether we should do something. It was only a question of what we could do to show our gratitude. The spirits of the dreamtime had granted our wish, and though we were a bit too young to understand all the implications of that gift, we knew we needed to repay the ancients who gave it to us.

It took a while to get it sorted. In fact, it took nearly two years. But in 1944, Mags and her gramma reunited in the wake of the Allied Operation Overlord. Magpie traveled to France and saw firsthand the destruction of not just the country of her birth, but of her gramma’s estate.[18] She resolved to make a new home for women displaced by war, and she wrote to me in the States to ask if I would join her.

I didn’t even finish the letter before I knew I was in. We were still a couple of hot-headed young sheilas, and rough as guts back then. But we had an opportunity to create something new in a place where all hope had been lost. And maybe—just maybe—we could make enough difference in the world to show our gratitude to the powers who brought us together.

I booked my ticket overseas, and a new chapter began.


[1] “Cot case” meaning an insane person, presumably for occupying a cot in a primitive mental hospital. Also used as a derogatory term for any inebriated or otherwise mentally incapacitated person.

[2] Richrath, Gary Dean, et. al. (1978). Time for Me to Fly. On You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tune a Fish. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).

[3] Richrath, Gary Dean. (1980). Take It on the Run. On High Infidelity. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).

[4] “Chips” are known as French fries in the States.

[5] “Flat” meaning apartment.

[6] “Pissed” meaning drunk, not angry.

[7] Celina is recounting events from the end of Curtain of Fire, from her perspective. That story also introduced Bert and his club, and his scene which Celina retells here. Celina was 17 in 1938 when she met Mags, despite lying about her age, and Mags was 14, turning 15 that November.

[8] The Australian government did not recognize indigenous people as citizens until 1967, with the passage of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals). Even then, nothing about the law gave the First People full rights of citizenship, such as suffrage. The constitutional change merely granted the Australian government the power to make laws regarding indigenous peoples and count them in the national census.

[9] “Seppo” meaning people of the United States. Historians disagree over whether the term derives from “separatists”—because the USA separated from England—or because seppo is short for “septic tank”, which rhymes with “Yank” as in “Yankee”. As to why Australians and people in the UK use rhyming slang, that’s an entirely different subject.

[10] “Natter” meaning a chat.

[11] Celina is summarizing events told in more detail in Curtain of Fire. Mags next recalls a conversation she had with Jack in that story.

[12] “A sausage short of a barbecue”, much like the saying “not playing with a full deck”. In other words, mentally deficient.

[13] Mags is recounting experiences mentioned in Curtain of Fire. The difficulty of finding decent socks during the anarchist uprising in Barcelona in the 1930s is documented in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Socks might not sound like a big deal, but a lack of clean socks contributed to horrifying foot diseases.

[14] “Ute” meaning a utility vehicle, which could be anything from a Jeep to a light pickup truck.

[15] Bandywallop and Woop-Woop are remote, imaginary towns, similar to “Hicksville” in the States.

[16] “There’s a 24-pack in the trunk.”

[17] See Great-Gramma Magdalena’s explanation of this phenomenon in Curtain of Fire.

[18] Weight of the Universe shows this moment in a flashback and tells a story about life at the home Mags and Celina helped create.

seven short poems

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These seven seven-line poems go with a new short story called The Singing Spell, which should be ready to share soon. The subjects relate to the story, and the first letters of each line spell out the poem’s title. It’s not a form I usually work in, but I thought it would be fun to try something different.

PATCHES

Pressed close to the ground,
a solitary huntress hungers
to taste what scurries and forages unaware.

Calico colors—brown, black, and white—
hide her in the sun-dappled forest floor.

Everything comes down to
survival.

BILLION

Before history,
I knew you
like a light or a
lyric or the
iridescence of a hummingbird.

Only now,
nothing separates us.

NEBULAE

Nurseries of infant stars,
expectant giants and
black holes hungering for birth,
ushered into a theater of
light and violent gravity where
all who ever lived await
eternity’s epilogue.

MINERAL

Maybe next time,
I come back a stone.
Nowhere to go or
escape, just
rock.

Alabaster.
Limestone.

SERPENT

Sometimes you need to shed
everything to find the
right skin.

Pent-up explosions
emerge as something new.

No one ever mourned
the cell she escaped.

FORTUNE

Fate remains silent,
only speaking in unsolved mysteries.

Road signs vanish, and
travelers lose their way
until that unexpected
night, when
everything at last makes sense.

HIGHWAY

How we got here
is less important than why.

Go as far as your
heart can take you, and
when you reach the
arid edge of time,
you will find me.

indie box: Fran

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Fran is the female counterpart to Jim Woodring’s Frank, a somewhat traditional “funny animal” cartoon character who lives in a completely untraditional world of mayhem, magical beings, mysterious objects, and massive acid trips. It’s a world where even when Woodring shows you exactly what is happening, you still wonder what the hell is happening! Frank stories are unpredictable and open to interpretation, and the Fran graphic novel is no exception.

Things start out simply enough. Fran and Frank are living in apparent marital bliss, where a morning of play fighting and teasing is just an expression of their mutual affection.

But when Frank and his pet chase down a creep who stole Frank’s sketchbook, they unearth a hole that leads to a subterranean cavern filled with presumably stolen wonders. Frank, being amoral or at least morally ambiguous, loots the cave and takes home the booty.

One of the treasures is a projector that, when worn on the head, projects the wearer’s memories like a movie. When Fran refuses to put it on her head, Frank loses his temper and screams at her.

As a result, she leaves him. When Frank realizes she’s gone, he is heartbroken, and beats himself up for being such a jerk.

The rest of the story primarily concerns Frank’s quest to follow Fran’s trail into the psychedelic wilderness and reunite with her. But there is more to Fran than meets the eye, and we discover several things about her that suggest she had good reason to not want her memories exposed to Frank via the projector. She violently slaughters some creeps who assault her, shacks up with a guy with a freaky face, and ultimately uses a shape-shifting deception to ditch Frank once again.

Frank doesn’t take it well. He lets loose a howl that brings down the heavens… or something!

From there, things get really weird. Frank’s journey takes unexpected twists and turns through a deranged cosmos loosely governed by cartoon physics and hallucinatory horror. Like the previous novel-length Frank adventures in Weathercraft and Congress of the Animals, Fran will keep you guessing about what could possibly happen next, and leave you pondering what it all means at the end.

Collector’s Guide: The 2013 hardcover edition of Fran is usually available at MyComicShop and on Amazon for about $20, and comes in a Kindle/Comixology version, too.

indie box: Patience

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Patience is my favorite work by Daniel Clowes. It tells a relatively (for Clowes) straight-forward yet suspenseful science-fiction tale. Having deconstructed the superhero genre in his previous work, The Death-Ray, which was a pastiche of multiple comic-strip conventions, Clowes gave us Patience in a more traditional narrative style. Despite that, this book subverted my expectations many times, and I love that about it.

The story begins with the quiet slice-of-life drama you might expect if you’ve read Clowes’ Ghost World or Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. Humdrum everyman characters encounter mostly typical problems while filled with a persistent existential malaise. I usually find stories about average people to be quite tedious. Real life is average enough for me, thanks. So, I began to wonder what all the hype was with Patience, because there are about twenty pages of this stuff before the story really kicks off.

But after an unexpected tragedy, the story shifts tone and becomes a mystery, and I began to wonder just what kind of book I was reading. Then the story jumps into the year 2029, which has been one of my favorite years for science-fiction tales since the first Terminator movie came out, and the tone radically shifts again. About forty pages in, our humdrum everyman has undergone a dramatic emotional change as he sets eyes on the catalyst for the rest of the tale.

Okay, now we’re into exciting territory! A force of nature! But the problem for the protagonist is that despite his delusions of grandeur, he is still a bumbling, incompetent lunkhead. Full of raging desire to set the world straight by exacting his revenge, he only makes more of a mess of everything. His bungling ineptitude reminds me of the 2007 film Timecrimes which, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching without reading about it or seeing the trailer first.

The visual style of this book feels like an homage to the brightly colored pulp comic books of a bygone age, the kind of books Clowes also paid tribute to in David Boring, which included excerpts from an imaginary superhero comic about The Yellow Streak. But there’s one convention he repeatedly messes with: He places all or most of many speech balloons outside the panel borders, cutting off their edges so the dialogue is incomplete. The result is a sense that the dialogue is less important than the protagonist’s relentless interior monologue as he narrates the story in captions which are never cut off.

Throughout the adventure, the hero becomes increasingly deranged, experiencing wild moods swings and psychedelic visions. These are shown in a style that feels more like the trippy underground comix of the 1970s than their pulp predecessors.

While Patience employed some common science-fiction tropes, it excelled at keeping me guessing about what would come next and how it would all play out. Several times I thought I might have it all figured out, only to be proven wrong. And that’s the fun. With all the plot twists and turns, gradual character reveals, and the tonal and stylistic shifts, Patience kept me riveted to the page.

Collector’s Guide: Patience is usually out of stock at MyComicShop, but you can get it on Amazon for about $22.    

indie box: Action Philosophers

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Action Philosophers uses humor, exaggeration, and sight gags to spice up a subject that many people avoid just because it’s too damn boring. Writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey bring much-needed life to the topic in their irreverent yet educational takes on many of the most influential philosophers, from ancient times to modern.

Consider Bodhidharma, an important figure in the development of both Zen and martial arts. Did you think a lesson on Zen was going to be a bunch of boring monks sitting around meditating? Think again!

Then there’s Isaac Luria, portrayed in an homage to the sorcerer Dr. Strange of Marvel Comics fame.

In their quest to make philosophy exciting, the creative team pays other tributes to action-packed comic book styles, including Jack Kirby’s pulse-pounding visuals.

Pop culture references abound, such as imagining David Hume using the old Saturday Night Live catchphrase, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” I’ve read Hume before, and it was nowhere near as fun as this version.

The conventions of comic book art lend themselves to illustrating some abstract concepts, like this page where objects and people disappear because the philosopher isn’t thinking about them.

And why suffer through tedious history books about Francis Bacon when a handy infographic does the trick?

This is a fun series, and I thank reader Ergozen for recommending it a few months ago. The Tenth Anniversary “uber-edition” collects all the material so that the philosophers appear in chronological order, but it’s often out of stock or exorbitantly priced. However, you can find a similar complete collection on Amazon at a reasonable price.

You can also explore more fun and educational works at Ryan Dunlavey’s site, including a lengthy sample of his history of comic books.

Reflections on Writing The Crystal Core

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UPDATE: In October 2020, I published The Crystal Core as part of the collection The Singing Spell, but you can still read it for free on this blog. Here are some personal reflections about writing the story.

Some of Mags’ adventures began as basic plot ideas, some grew out of an idea for a scene or a piece of dialogue, and some started as a concept about an object or situation I thought it would be fun to write about. The Crystal Core is an example of all three of these possibilities combined.

The plot inspiration goes back to The Battle of Vesta 4, where I realized I had given my pirate crew a too-powerful object: the multidimensional “triglyph”. If I had included the triglyph in that story, the conflict would have been far too easy for the crew to overcome. Rather than address the situation, I decided to ignore it for a while and come back to it later—hopefully with a plausible explanation. Along the way, I wrote 1,000 words of notes on possible narrative paths to take with the triglyph.

While writing Small Flowers, I planted the seeds for the triglyph’s return. Plutonian questioned Mags about why she didn’t use it, and she revealed she had forgotten about it. The epilogue ended on a minor cliffhanger. Mags discovered the triglyph was missing from her armory where she placed it at the end of The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. By then, I’d reworked my original notes into an idea to use the triglyph to terraform Titan.

But as I mentioned in my reflections about Small Flowers, I watched a ton of documentaries that influenced that story and the shorter pieces published with it. I’ve been reading about space, stars, and black holes since I was in third or fourth grade, but I don’t recall learning about the diamond cores of white dwarf stars until early 2020. My mind was blown by the idea that these huge diamonds are burning in outer space, but I didn’t know what to do with that concept. So, I asked a friend what she would do with a huge crystal from space.

She said, “Build a radio.”

That was the moment my plot ideas and my “high concept” intersected, and I knew I needed to write that story. I started cranking out more notes and scenes around the concept, but I was confused by some aspects of crystal radios.

Fortunately, a member of my writers’ workshop (the illustrious Jeff Duntemann) is a ham-radio enthusiast, so I called him. He cleared up my misconceptions, enlightened me about a few missing pieces of the puzzle, and showed me where I needed to patch up the science to achieve some minimum standard of plausibility.

This is one of the best things about having writers, artists, and musicians as friends. I can call them unexpectedly and, without much preamble or small talk, say crazy things such as, “Can you help me build a giant crystal radio from a star core?” That’s how I end up having intriguing and educational conversations for an hour or more about things most people never think about.

The Crystal Core became a unique episode in Mags’ adventures. It has long passages of narration about terraforming Titan and building the giant space radio, scenes where I flexed my prose muscles to see if I could write about science but keep it poetic, beautiful, and interesting. Those scenes alternate with discussions that focus on dialogue and character interaction.

But I wanted to do something even weirder with the story: use multiple narrators. I wanted to get inside the characters’ streams of consciousness when they encountered the new rulers of Titan and got their minds messed with, telepathically.

I’ve read a ton of science-fiction prose and comic books that did similar things, but I sometimes find them difficult to follow. I like challenging narrative techniques in prose and film and comics, but I don’t like it when I feel the author is wanking instead of clearly telling a story in the most effective way possible. As I’ve written before in essays on narrators and points of view, the choice to get creative with narrators or structure needs to be more than a demonstration of how clever the author is. I’m not impressed by being incomprehensible. I’m impressed when the choice of a narrator or structure is perfect because any other choice would not tell the story as effectively.

You can judge for yourself how well I lived up to my own standard. Sometimes my reach exceeds my grasp, and that’s a normal part of growing and improving as a writer. Much of my writing in Mags’ adventures is a journey toward being able to live up to my own expectations about what makes a good story, or what makes beautiful prose, or what is entertaining to read. I feel I get closer to my ideals as the series progresses and, like most writers, I’m sometimes frustrated that I didn’t quite have the “chops” to do justice to some of my earliest stories. But with each story, I work on improving everything from descriptive language to comedic timing, from plotting to character development, and the myriad other things that make up a great story.

The Crystal Core continues a trend that began in the opening scene of Blind Alley Blues, which is a diary entry from Mags. In Small Flowers, I incorporated the idea that Mags writes letters to her somewhat-deceased great-gramma, which gives Mags more opportunities to narrate events in her unique voice. These letters have often been “behind the scenes” projects that never saw print. I wrote a good letter for Voyage of the Calico Tigress, but it didn’t quite fit the overall structure, so I cut it from the final version. With Small Flowers, I tried to weave the letters into the story in integral ways, and The Last Patches Story completely hands over the narrative reins to Mags so she can tell an imaginary bedtime tale about Patches. (One of my original ideas for that story involved using Patches as a first-person narrator, but I didn’t care for how that played out.)

With The Crystal Core, I wanted to extend the boundaries of what was possible with using other members of the pirate crew as narrators, too. Other than Hang My Body on the Pier, which featured excerpts from Great-Gramma’s memoirs, Crystal Core is the first story where anyone but Mags gets a shot at narrating. Dr. Plutonian narrates a scene and, like the scene of Mags’ narration that follows it, it takes place while the telepathic octopuses are disassembling his mind. I set myself the challenge of showing this confusing state of mind while making it absolutely clear to the reader who was talking, what was happening, and why.

I feel like it worked, and initial feedback told me it worked, so I considered why it worked. The text contains details that help, such as Mags’ straight-up telling the readers exactly what she thinks is happening to her mind. But in terms of remaining true to a character’s unique voice when slipping into first-person internal monologue, I think the key to success was the amount of time I have spent living in these characters’ heads for more than half a decade now.

They might have started out as comic-book caricatures, but over the years these characters have become more complex and real people to me. I suspect any writer who spends a serious amount of time on long-form stories will tell you the same thing. When you, as an author, share and invest so much of your life and your thoughts and your feelings with your characters, they undergo what I think of as the Pinocchio Effect. At some magical point or phase in the journey, the characters stop being puppets on your strings and become real to you. They take on a life of their own. They place demands on you. They help you understand yourself in relation to them. You know they are mere fictions, but like the golem of Jewish mythology or the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, they become imbued with their own lifeforce, their own desires, their own path in this world.

I’m lucky, compared to some novelists. Many novelists go through the pain of creating and bringing to life a set of characters that will never be seen again after the novel’s final page. But because I am writing an open-ended, ongoing series with roots that stretch for hundreds of millions of years into the past, and branches that extend beyond the end of our universe, I don’t feel any need to finish working with my characters or close the final page on them. I have all the time in the world to get to know them—or at least, all the time I have remaining on this planet.

By the time I got around to giving Plutonian a scene to narrate, I had spent so many years with him that I felt confident I could write in his voice. He delivered an extended monologue in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX where he told Mags about an event in his past. That was the first scene I ever workshopped, about four years ago now. I love a good monologue, but that’s different from being inside the character’s head, which is what happens in The Crystal Core.

I didn’t know for sure how The Crystal Core would end when I started drafting scenes, but my workshoppers will attest to the fact that I am a big believer in writing the ending before the story is finished. As a writer, I’m not interested in taking a mysterious journey into the unknown by simply starting with the first page of a story and writing until it feels finished. The mysterious journey is the reader’s experience, not the writer’s.

People who write by the seat of their pants often encounter the same problems over and over again: not knowing where they are headed when they are in the middle of the story, and therefore not knowing what scenes or moments of character development matter, or how to advance their plot. They often arrive at unsatisfactory endings, assuming they don’t give up in frustration halfway through—something that’s happened to many writers I know.

My advice? Once you are clear on the characters and their motivations and central conflicts, write an ending! Know where you are going! Writing without knowing how your story ends is like trying to play a game of darts while wearing a blindfold. You might hit the bullseye out of pure chance or luck, but it’s doubtful. If, instead, you draft the ending earlier in the process, then you know what you are aiming for, and you can construct a story that inevitably leads to that conclusion. Yes, the ending might need to be revised by the time you finish the rest of the story, so don’t sweat too many of the little details. A draft of the ending is only there to give yourself the gift of direction and purpose.

For The Crystal Core, I had about half of it drafted before I tackled the ending, but I knew I needed a firm finish to guide me through the middle. I asked myself, “What would be the most logical and consistent ending for a quasi-intelligent and supremely powerful object, especially after it encountered my octopuses?”

The ending is influenced by my love of science-fiction comic books where the fate of the entire universe (or even the multi-verse) is at stake on a daily basis, and it’s a logical development of my push to constantly expand the scope of possibilities within Mags’ adventures. The Crystal Core, like The Last Patches Story, is an attempt to connect the lives of the pirate crew to huge, cosmic-level events.

It was a fun story to write. I enjoyed expanding the boundaries of what I could do with these characters and their universe, connecting the cosmic experience to the personal stories, and seeing how big I could go in fewer than 8,000 words.

My only question is, “What’s next?”

What Are You Building? Ten Years of Inception

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July 2020 was the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of Inception, and the movie generated so many discussions and theories that I doubt anything I say will be new. But it’s one of my favorite films, and upon watching it for the zillionth time this week, a few things came to mind.

The previous time I watched Inception, last year, I put the sound on my little desktop speakers. This time, I put it in my headphones. I’d forgotten how awesome this film originally sounded in the theater when I first saw it with my sister ten years ago. The score by Hans Zimmer is integral to the movie. Like Zimmer did for the more recent Nolan film Dunkirk, he often overlaps multiple scenes with a single piece of music that establishes a thematic unity across the scenes, tying everything together emotionally through sound.

The final scenes of the movie are unified by Zimmer’s piece called Time, the song that begins when Mr. Cobb apparently wakes up on the plane. The song continues until the very last second of the film. Over the years, I’ve come to feel this song is inextricably linked to those scenes. It begins sparsely and quietly. It’s gloomy and melancholy, but it adds layers and a swelling orchestral treatment that sounds to me like triumphant sadness. It doesn’t sound like a happy ending, but neither does it sound like total defeat.

It’s an odd emotional combination, but it makes complete sense for the film’s ending. Why? Because that’s exactly what happens to Cobb. The triumph is that Cobb at last is reunited with his children he loves so much. The sadness is that those are clearly not Cobb’s real children, and he has not returned to reality to be with them. He’s still dreaming about them and has given up on returning to reality so he can experience the happiness of being with them in the dream world. As a writer of fiction, I can relate to that a little too much.

When I first saw the film in the theater, I loved the ambiguous ending. I felt like the film was leaving it up to me to decide whether Cobb was still dreaming or had truly achieved his desire in the real world. But, after repeated viewings, I no longer sense any ambiguity at all. The entire ending is clearly a dream.

Here’s why. First, the kids are in the States, and Cobb is greeted at the airport in the States by the Michael Caine character, Miles. But we know that Miles was in Paris, France the last time we met him. Why is he in the States? Answer: He isn’t. Second, the kids appear exactly as they did in all the times Cobb saw them in dreams—the same poses, the same clothes—only this time, he sees their faces. But if Cobb were in reality, wouldn’t the kids have on different clothes and be older than he remembers them? Third, Cobb asks the kids what they are doing, and they tell him they are building a house on a cliff. Building is something associated in the film with building worlds inside dreams, and the film shows us Saito’s house on a cliff in the previous scene. These aren’t real kids in a yard. They are only dream children.

The music tells us this is both a sad and a happy moment. It’s the sonic equivalent of getting everything you ever hoped for, yet failing to get it at all, because it’s an illusion. Cobb has both abandoned his struggle to truly reunite with his real kids and escaped the fate of becoming “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.” Cobb achieves wish fulfillment, but it’s just a dream, not the real thing.

While I no longer feel the ending is at all ambivalent, it does leave me with two questions. First, how much of the film is a dream? Others have speculated that the entire film is a layered dream, and the scenes in Mombasa support that theory, most notably in the way the walls of the city become impossibly narrow passages Cobb must squeeze through only to emerge at a too-coincidental rescue by Saito.

Second, what happens after the film’s ending? Since Cobb is still dreaming, his top will continue spinning after the final frame. But what happens when he returns to the room with the table where he left the top, then finds it is still spinning because he is dreaming? I don’t want to see an Inception II sequel, but I like to imagine the possibilities of what comes next. Will Cobb find the top spinning and lock it away in a safe to preserve the dream’s “reality” like his wife Mal did when they were trapped together in limbo? Or will Cobb see it spinning and decide to wake himself up to pursue fulfilling his desires in reality?

Perhaps the final scene with Saito as an old man in the house on the cliff provides the answer. Saito’s final physical act on camera is reaching for a pistol. But we never see what he does with it. Maybe he put it to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself in the dream to awake in the real world, leaving Cobb to face the decision to return the same way or simply sink into the fantasy fulfillment of the dream. Given Cobb’s established penchant for self-deception, always pretending that he has things “under control” when he clearly doesn’t, it seems likely that he chose the path of fantasy fulfillment within the dream. But I think that when Cobb finds that still-spinning top on the table, he will need to make a choice about either maintaining the easy lie or returning to the difficult truth.

That choice will define his life from then on. Who knows? Maybe Saito really can do what he promised and reunite Cobb with his real children. Maybe he can’t.

So, do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?

Maybe you have a third choice.

Big Box of Comics: Cartoon History of the Universe and More

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My love for Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe goes back almost as many years as this blog, when I first discovered scans of it and later collected many of the original nine single issues. Cartoon History won my heart with a first issue that features some of my favorite topics: the origin of spacetime, the lives of dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals and birds. From there, the series leaves behind the “universe” to tell the stories of human civilizations throughout Africa, India, China, Greece, Rome, and Europe. It’s a monumental tour de force with a great sense of humor, and it’s way more fun than most history classes.

So, this Spring, thanks to this blog’s readers, I expanded my Cartoon History collection with a few collected paperbacks. Three large paperback volumes collect issues 1–7, 8–13, and 14–19 in almost 1,000 pages of awesomeness that start with the Big Bang and end as Columbus sets sail from Spain in 1492.

On top of that, a paperback collection of nearly 400 pages offers The Cartoon History of the United States, which was originally published in two smaller volumes. Gonick adroitly strikes a balance between giving us history’s broad brushstrokes and revealing some of its complex nuances. For example, most Americans might tell you, “Lincoln freed the slaves,” but the reality was not so simple. Gonick tackles complex topics like this without ever being dry and academic about it.

He also succeeds in unraveling such complexities in a way that someone in sixth grade or junior high school could read and understand, and it’s a shame that these books are not used as textbooks in high school courses—or even college. Stylistically, this collection shows a departure from the crisp panel layouts and inking style of the “Universe” series, with Gonick abandoning his prior preferences for panel layouts in favor of a more open style and adopting a rougher inking technique that incorporates prior period-specific artwork in some of its panels. This style still works; it’s just noticeably different from what came before.

You’d think that after all that history, we might be done. But I also picked up Gonick’s collaboration with Mark Wheelis: The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. Visually, this book looks more like the volumes of United States history, and the material is more scientifically complex. It adeptly delves into not just the history of genetics pioneers such as Gregor Mendel but into the molecular structure of DNA and the inner workings of cells. I’ve read more detailed books on cells, such as the masterful The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell, but this is a book that even your average high-school student should be able to read and understand. It isn’t quite as funny as the “Universe” series, but it’s an enjoyable and informative read that will give you a strong foundation for understanding this topic.

Larry Gonick has done more books than these, but that’s where my store credit ran out! After working my way through all these volumes, I’m left with a profound admiration for his skills at using cartoons as a teaching method, for his ability to discuss complex aspects of history and science in way that renders them comprehensible without sacrificing an awareness of their subtleties, and for his use of humor to turn what could be rather dry reading into an enjoyable and memorable romp through history.

Collector’s Guide:

The original nine single issues of The Cartoon History of the Universe; Rip Off Press, 1978.

The Cartoon History of the Universe volumes 1–3, paperback collections; Doubleday, 1990. Also available on Amazon.

The Cartoon History of the United States, paperback collection. HarperCollins, 2005. Also available on Amazon.

The Cartoon Guide to Genetics; HarperCollins, 2005. Also available on Amazon.

Larry Gonick’s website, with many more books to explore.

Big Box of Comics: Mister Miracle by Jack Kirby, Expanded TPB

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For a few months in 2013, I had a complete collection of all the individual issues of Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle series. When I sold it as a set on Ebay, I knew I would miss it. But thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this summer with this classic series in the form of a full-color, collected edition. Many other reviewers have focused on the dynamic art and the high-energy storytelling that characterize this and other “Fourth World” Kirby stories, so I’d like to discuss a few things that don’t get talked about very much.

But first, this collection is a great way to own all eighteen of the original Kirby issues. It’s complete, compact without reducing the page size, and “remastered” so that the art, ink, and colors are crisp and perfect. It includes all the original covers, which are brilliant works of art on their own, and all the back-up stories about the title character’s childhood. Kirby did amazing double-splash panels for this series that unfortunately get their centers lost in the gutter in a paperback-bound book, but I scanned some of the originals for you way back when.

If there’s one thing that bugs me about owning the series in this format, it’s that same perfection. When I collected the single issues, I settled for many low-cost VG+ and Fine gradings where the paper was severely yellowed (which affected the colors), and the covers had a worn, tattered look with folds and even bits missing around the corners and spines.

Only a complete maniac would claim that as a plus. But I enjoyed it. Having Mister Miracle in its original but degraded printings felt like I was unearthing some prehistoric fossil of primordial comic book awesomeness. In pristine form, it feels more like a current book that should be judged by current standards.

But current standards aren’t quite the right lens to look through for this book. In terms of the garish colors, modern mainstream comics now employ far more sophisticated coloring techniques in even the most run-of-the-mill titles. But in the 1970s, due to the pulp-quality paper, using super-bright primary colors made a whole lot of sense. Many online reviewers praise the bright colors of this collection, but sometimes they seem a bit too bright for the darker, more sinister aspects of life under Darkseid’s fascist reign explored in this series.

A scan from the original series. “Get back to your hovel!”

Also by current standards, Kirby’s treatment of “hip” slang, female characters, and “ethnic” characters might seem clunky and awkward to modern, younger readers. But it’s important to consider the standards of the day and realize Kirby was making a serious effort to be inclusive and progressive in the mainstream. When Mister Miracle began in 1971, it was three years before women in the United States could have credit cards in their own name without a husband co-signing for them. It was four years before the TV show The Jeffersons broke media stereotypes to portray a financially successful black family and their interracially married friends.

In the pages of the Fantastic Four, Kirby had already created Marvel’s first black superhero: the Black Panther. And from his editorial columns in his comics—including his 70s work at Marvel on Devil Dinosaur, the Eternals, and 2001—we know he was genuinely interested in scientific and social trends and in creating stories that reflected not just the current culture but its progress and potential.

Kirby’s idea of an African king as a technologically advanced superhero resonated with movie audiences in recent years. Wyatt Wingfoot, mentioned here, is a Lee/Kirby creation based on Native American Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe.

For me, the standout character of Mister Miracle isn’t the lead, but Big Barda. She is lightyears apart from the Sue Storm character in the early Lee/Kirby issues of Fantastic Four, who was constantly talked down to for being female. Sue was a weakling whose biggest power was to go away, at least until John Byrne wrote the series in the 1980s and changed the Invisible “Girl” into the Invisible Woman whose power became formidable.

In contrast, Big Barda totally owns her scenes through force of character. Where Sue Storm was originally a shrinking violet to be protected by the males in her group, Barda is never less than a total bad-ass. She might have a soft spot for the title character, but she never hesitates for one second to beat some ass or carve a path of destruction through her enemies, and she has zero qualms about assuming leadership and telling other characters exactly how shit will go down on her watch.

A scan from the original series. “You kill-crazy she-wolf!”

Barda also has a somewhat evil all-woman crew of warriors — the Female Furie Battalion — with hilarious names like Bernadeth, Gilotina, Lashina, and Stompa. They deal damage in ways you can guess from their names. They’ve got sweet costumes and boss weapons, and they read less like villains and more like your favorite all-girl roller-derby team starring in a modern movie.

A scan from the original series. Just a typical day for the Furies!

Barda is so awesome that I even forgive Uncle Jack for giving her a gratuitous bathtub scene. You know your writer is male when he puts a female character into a naked bathing scene for absolutely zero plot-related reasons. As a male reader who thinks Barda is the greatest thing ever and would bet money that she could even kick Conan’s naked ass, I vote that we give a pass to Kirby for this one. And a pass to me for enjoying it.

A scan from the original series. “I find this kind of moment tranquil and soothing!”

It’s that kind of tension between “great female lead” and “gratuitous female bath scene” that marks this run. Kirby was both a product of his time and way ahead of his time. Mister Miracle stands on the cusp of American history in the 1970s where society was in the midst of a massive and progressive cultural shift, one that even today we have not yet fully realized. I like the direction Kirby was trying to push that shift.

A scan from the original series.

Kirby was a soldier in Europe during World War II, and his portrayal of the oppressive, fascist society on planet Apokolips might be read as a simple indictment of the Third Reich. But Kirby was no stranger to discrimination in the States, having changed his name from the Jewish “Kurtzberg” to “Kirby” to improve his chances of being accepted and making a living.

He was the son of two Austrian-Jewish immigrants in New York in a time when anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and anti-semitism abounded in America. While the Third Reich turned those ideas into a massive extermination program, the Nazis did not invent those ideas, and they had many adherents in the States. Sadly, that is still true today. When I read Kirby’s 1970s works, I sense a subtext that he saw fascism and discrimination not as merely “foreign” problems but ones that troubled many nations, including his own.

A scan from the original series.

It’s easy to read Mister Miracle as a series of simple adventure stories full of gadgets and gimmicky escapes, and Kirby clearly wants us to be entertained, first and foremost. But we would do him a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge the socially progressive ideas he wrapped in that cloak of entertainment. Kirby didn’t finalize his ideas about humans and our place in the universe when he was a young man. He continued to explore new ideas and grow. He saw our knowledge of science, humanity, society, and ourselves as an ever-expanding field that had no lack of new horizons to explore.

And where there’s an unexplored horizon, there’s a kick-ass story waiting to be told.

Collector’s Guide: Mister Miracle by Jack Kirby, Expanded TPB; DC Comics, 2017. Also available on Amazon. Or, get the original issues.