We3: Home Is Run No More

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Every now and then, I read a tragic story that breaks my heart, but no comic-book adventure has ever broken me so relentlessly as We3. A friend who isn’t really into comic books got into Grant Morrison thanks to the live-action show Happy—based on the four-issue series of the same name published by Image—so I’ve been digging into the Morrison archives. Along the way, I realized I’d never read what many people consider to be one of Morrison’s best works, if not the best. We3 is an action-packed story brought to life by Morrison’s long-time artistic collaborator Frank Quitely, and though I’ve enjoyed Quitely’s artwork for years, he outdid his own genius on We3. Before we delve into the book, let me just say that this story features one of my all-time favorite things: a cat who absolutely kicks ass.

The cat’s given name is Tinker, but she is only referred to in the story as “2”. Tinker is part of a team of three normal animals who have been surgically altered and had their brains messed with so they can become killing machines encased in high-tech armor to perform military missions and assassinations instead of having human soldiers do the job. Joining Tinker in this horrifying experiment are the dog Bandit—referred to as “1”, and the only one of the three to re-discover his real name in the story—and a rabbit named Pirate (“3”) because of a black spot over one eye.

Each of these animals was someone’s beloved pet before the story began. Instead of telling the reader this fact through flashbacks or exposition, the creative team shows it much more powerfully with “lost pet” flyers on the covers of each issue. When you realize what has been done to these hapless animals, the covers hit like a punch to the gut.

When the higher-ups decide that these lost and kidnapped animals need to be killed—decommissioned, per orders—the three of them escape their containment facility and run away. Their combat modifications and training make them dangerous to society, so the military pursues them. One of the many tragic aspects of this story is that the trio doesn’t mean to be dangerous murder machines. These animals were forced against their will to become horrors in the service of the same humans who want to put them down.

Nowhere is this more strongly portrayed than through Bandit’s canine emotional crises. Bandit truly wants to be a good dog. He wants to protect his beloved animal allies in We3 and also help humans, but he is forced into situations where his combat programming takes over and he kills humans. In the aftermath of the killings, his simple, mournful repetition of “Bad dog” hits home more powerfully than pages of dialogue or narrative captions could ever do.

Tinker does not share the dog’s remorse. She thinks the whole thing stinks. When Bandit tries to save a human body to convince himself he is a good dog, Tinker bluntly tells him the man is dead. As the two animals fade into the horizon while arguing, the panels reveal the human is annihilated from the waist down. In a combination of graphic images and minimal, broken dialogue, Morrison and Quitely set up the tension between the cat’s no-nonsense and apparently correct assessment of the situation with the dog’s potentially delusional idealism.

Each animal’s cybernetically enhanced speech pattern says volumes about them. On the first read, I had trouble understanding their speech, but it all became clear to me upon the second reading. Bandit the dog is haunted by regret over what he has been made to do, and he struggles to lead his “pack” in a volatile and untenable situation. Pirate the rabbit is the most simple-minded of the trio, only speaking in one-word sentences, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering a heart-wrenching reminder to his comrades that they are friends and are all in this together. Sadly, Pirate’s speech degrades into mere electronic noise after he suffers an injury.

Cat-lover that I am, I especially enjoyed Tinker’s dialogue. Her feline disdain for just about everything is expressed through the word “Stink”, rendered as “ST!NK” or, when she is really angry, “!SSST!!!NKK!” Compared to the peaceful rabbit and optimistic dog, Tinker appears to be the least bothered by all the killing. She seems at times to revel in it. Tinker is also the group’s cynic who doesn’t believe the trio will ever find a home, because “home” no longer exists for any of them—a point of contention that leads to an argument with Bandit.

And what is home? What does “home” mean to Bandit after all the awful things the team has endured? To the dog, home is a simple concept. “Home is run no more.” Home is a place where these involuntary machines of war can find peace and rest, and that is Bandit’s hope for We3. But as the story progresses, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Tinker is right, that home and peace will be forever denied these unfortunate animals because of what’s been done to them—and what of their lives and identities have been stolen from them.

Quitely employs many innovative and dramatic approaches to action. A video by Strip Panel Naked does a good job of analyzing the groundbreaking visuals in this story, so check that out. Regarding the page where Tinker hacks and slashes her way through a series of panels filled with his enemies, I am reminded of what Scott McCloud taught in his book Understanding Comics, where he asserts that part of the magic of comics is what happens—but is not shown—between the panels, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. Quitely gives us two-dimensional panels rendered in 3-D with Tinker in action, demonstrating how the cat is a fast-moving agent of destruction. While Tinker’s opponents exist entirely within the panels, she flashes like lightning through the spaces between them.

Go, Tinker! As Bandit says in a dramatic moment, “Gud 2! 1 Protect!”

Quitely also does amazing things with panels-within-panels to show a sequence of fast-paced actions in a slow-motion strobe effect, and he often employs elements of the scene’s environment to create panel-like divisions, such as rendering trees in all black to create dividing lines, or using the metal structure of a bridge to divide a series of movements across that bridge.

For a few pages, Quitely captures the narrative in an insane number of more than one hundred tiny panels to show footage from multiple security cameras in the containment facility—only to present a spectacular release from all that claustrophobic tension by finishing with a two-page double splash where our heroes burst into the night.

We3 has been collected in paperback, hardcover, and a second hardcover “deluxe” edition with ten new pages of story. But I recommend you read We3 either in digital format or in the original stapled comic-book format so you can see all the amazing two-page spreads without any part of them disappearing into the gutter of a bound book. Like I said in my recent review of the Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil, it is a rare and beautiful thing to see a comic book story where script, art, and overall design are perfectly married for maximum narrative and emotional effect. We3 is one of those perfect unions.

Collector’s Guide: It’s hard to find the original three-issue printing, but you can easily find a reasonably priced collected paperback on Amazon. Current prices on the deluxe hardcover are ridiculous. Instead, I suggest getting the $10 digital edition so you can fully appreciate the two-page spreads.

guest column: Ego and the Insect

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I wrote this short piece from the point of view of Meteor Mags while brainstorming ideas that eventually became The Hive (now published in the Singing Spell collection). I’m not convinced that everything Mags says about insect minds is correct, but she did become the queen of a hive of space wasps and telepathically bond with them in 2030. Maybe she knows what she’s talking about! I’m thinking of including this “guest column” in the second omnibus edition I hope to publish next year.

🐝

Ego and the Insect

Sitting quietly, doing nothing. The seasons change. The wind blows by itself. [1] Your ego is just along for the ride. It likes to grab the wheel and try to take over. It likes to think it’s in charge. But it’s about as in charge as a waterfall or a dandelion. It’s more like the sound of a waterfall or color of a dandelion. It’s a facet of the organism. If you put enough connections in that electrified chunk of fat you have in your skull, then group it with similar organisms—Boom! You get ego as naturally as a flower blooms, or a star explodes.

The ego, the “I”, the “me, me, me” of this monologue everyone constantly carries on—it’s an effect of the organism. Fantasy is what the ego does in its spare time, though you could argue the entire ego is a fantasy, a story, an interpretation based on limited sensory input and demonstrably faulty thought processes.

The result is that the ego’s fantasies are indistinguishable from reality. They feel just as real. The emotional content is just as vivid. Fantasy can be irrational, but our understanding of reality is already anything but rational.

And when we dream, we have irrational fantasies which our minds have difficulty distinguishing as unreal when they happen. Dreams can exert powerful sway over an individual’s choices in life, from how their day goes all the way to major decisions that decide the fate of nations.

The brain is predisposed to nonrational structures and narratives. It makes its own as dreams, and it experiences them as a second reality. Some people become aware they are dreaming and even control the dream. That’s no different from a child knowing she is playing pretend but deciding how the narrative goes.

Ego arises naturally from the organism at a certain intersection of brain complexity and social complexity, and fantasy arises naturally as an aspect of ego.

Group organisms such as ants, bees, and wasps might have an ego, but it involves the social part of the equation more than ours, which we experience as individual brain function. The “I” of an ant colony arises from the same forces as ours but is experienced on a group level, by the whole group as one. We might never find a single ant who identifies itself as “I”, as a separate ego.

That doesn’t mean the colony’s ego is nonexistent. Just as we could never take out one of our brain cells and expect a single cell to identify as an ego, the ego of the ant colony is not obvious or tangible to us. But neither is the mind of another human. We have language to speak to the egos of other humans, but we don’t have the ant’s mechanism for communication, which is largely based on scent.

If you could receive and transmit ant scents, and your neural cortex processed them the same way ants do—in other words, the interpretation process and mental results were identical to theirs, not a translation by us—then you would have a good shot at truly communicating between your ego and the ant colony ego.

The challenge is understanding how the individual ant processes and interprets all that sensory data. By watching ants’ actions, we get a sense of the conclusions they draw about social status, threats, and food locations. But what is the subjective experience? Do they see an image in their mind? Do they smell things in some order that conveys meaning?

You would need to plug a receiver into your olfactory center and process the scent. But you would need an ant to teach you how to interpret.

How do ants learn their language of pheromones? How do bees learn the meanings of their dances?

The individual ant or bee does not receive teaching from another individual. It is born into the ego of the group. The bee doesn’t learn. The bee knows. The most important part of that knowing resides in the group’s ego, not inside the individual bee. The meaning of the language is stored in the group.


[1] Mags paraphrases a haiku by the Zen poet, Basho: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing. Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

indie box: Wolfskin

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Wolfskin is one of a couple dozen miniseries written by Warren Ellis for Avatar Press, a company founded in 1996 and which does not shy away from graphic violence, gore, vulgarity, nudity, and countless variant covers. You’ll find all five in Wolfskin, brought to life by artist Juan Jose Ryp, who collaborated with Ellis on several titles such as No Hero and my personal favorite, Black Summer.

Just in case anyone thought Avatar was publishing “family-friendly” books.

The titular, barbaric character hacks and slashes his way through a hell of a lot of people, occasionally pausing to rage against what he calls “machines”, which includes firearms and apparently anything mechanical. Wolfskin resembles Conan in his brute force and (questionably) superior moral code compared to the people around him, although Conan’s big gripe was not with machines but with sorcerers. And where Conan felt his god Crom was more or less disinterested in human affairs, Wolfskin’s god Wrod is available to assist with a lifeforce and power boost when Wolfie eats some magic mushrooms.

It wouldn’t be a Warren Ellis comic if someone didn’t take drugs and see god.

Wolfskin’s first three-issue series is a straightforward tale that revels in its own savagery. One of the things I find most amusing is Ellis’ take on the gratuitous shower scenes for women in basically every science fiction movie and plenty of superhero comics written by guys to indulge other guys in the “male gaze”. The better part of one issue consists of conversations Wolfskin has with a series of visitors while he bathes naked in a woodland river. He eventually steps out of the water for some full-frontal nudity featuring his uncircumcised dong that dwarfs even Dr. Manhattan’s bright blue wang.

You didn’t think I was going to post the dong page, did you?

I can’t help but feel Ellis and Ryp are satirizing pointless female bathing scenes, but it’s also funny because the poor guy can’t even wash up in peace without weirdos dropping by to pester him with their messed-up schemes and dubious stories—which is exactly how I feel as a bachelor who has his showers interrupted by everyone from landlords and maintenance people to neighbors and delivery drivers who can’t find someone else’s apartment without help.

Anyway, Wolfie gets so irate that he can’t even monologue, exposit, or make sound effects.

As long as we don’t have anything to read, let’s play Megadeth albums and look at pictures.

Wolfskin is the kind of bad-ass I love to read about, whether male or female, and he has a follow-up miniseries called Hundredth Dream in which he once again totally rages against the machines by destroying the hell out of them. Ryp didn’t draw that one, but the art still kicks ass.

Locals with a problem. This might require violence!

Hundredth Dream is also a straightforward tale of battle and bravery, but with a steampunk vibe thanks to technology that is at once futuristic and primitive.

Despite a few dialogue-heavy scenes, Ellis avoids the traditional narrative captions and expositional thought balloons of your typical superhero comic. Many pages are wordless, and sometimes Wolfskin goes several pages without saying much more than “Fuck!” I find it not only hilarious that Ellis got paid to write that dialogue, but also how much more realistic it feels compared to, for example, Chris Claremont’s X-Men characters who couldn’t walk down a simple flight of stairs without hundreds of words of self-examination, existential pondering, and plot summary floating around their heads.

He’s downright talkative on this page.

I’m not putting Claremont down; it’s just a totally different approach to scripting. Ellis scripts in a way that doesn’t so much direct his artists as it does unleash them. With a draftsman like Ryp, it’s probably best to just throw a couple scraps of raw meat at him and let him off the chain. Bryan Hitch, a longtime Ellis collaborator, once joked in an interview about how Ellis scripts have incredibly simple statements to cue the artist for massively complex splash panels, such as “The fleets engage.”

They sucker-punched me with expositional dialogue while I was enjoying the view!

If I had collaborators like Hitch and Ryp, I’d have them engage the fleets all day long. Their visual sensibilities are far beyond mine. The Ellis approach has undoubtedly infected my fiction. But instead of putting the descriptive burden on a penciller, I delegate that work to my third-person narrator, allowing him to paint a picture even if the dialogue is only a few profanities.

It just feels more real to me that way. I mean, when was the last time you injured yourself and launched into a longwinded exposition about your problems and what led up to them? Probably never. Like Wolfskin, you most likely exploded into some convenient curse words without much forethought. Maybe later, while talking to a friend, you explained for a couple hours about how your entire life story revolves around that injury. But in that case, you had crossed over into a Brian Michael Bendis comic! It certainly wasn’t Wolfskin.

Wolfskin and its Hundredth Dream sequel are like fun popcorn movies, just as long as you don’t mind getting blood all over your snacks. You won’t need to ponder the cosmic or bleeding-edge tech concepts Ellis employs in many other works. Just sit back, enjoy the mayhem, and savor every line of the ultra-detailed art. May Wrod have mercy on your soul!

Collector’s Guide: Wolfskin appears in single issues with variant covers to choose from. I especially enjoy Ryp’s wraparound covers. The standalone Annual also appears in a two-volume TPB that collects the first series plus all the single issues of Wolfskin: Hundredth Dream. Amazon has digital versions that collect the first series (including the Annual) and the second series.

Bryan Hitch on Justice League

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While everyone else was obsessing over “The Snyder Cut”, I skipped all that and dug up some Justice League issues featuring Bryan Hitch, whose work I loved on The Authority, The Ultimates, and Fantastic Four. Here are the highlights.

In 2000, DC published a “100-Page Spectacular” called Heaven’s Ladder, written by Mark Waid and brought to life by the comic-art dream team of Hitch on pencils, long-time collaborator Paul Neary on inks, and the incomparable Laura Martin on colors. The story begins on the microscopic level as The Atom does microsurgery on viral DNA, then expands to truly epic scale as the most massive spaceship I’ve ever seen steals Earth from its orbit.

Bigger than big, as only Bryan Hitch can render it.

The epic scale is why I recommend reading this book in digital format instead of the perfect-bound paperback format. In the paperback, too much of the art is swallowed by the gutter, the area of book pages that “disappears” near the spine—not just Hitch’s masterful two-page spreads, but even some of the dialogue. It would have worked much better in print if DC broke it into smaller issues in standard, stapled comic-book format so we could open the books all the way to see everything.

Still, the visual splendor is undeniable. What is there not to love about Wonder Woman being a total bad-ass and taking on a fleet of spaceships, wrangling one with her lasso and steering it on a collision course with a planet where it explodes, leaving her to emerge from the flames with a look that wordlessly says, “Is that all you’ve got?”

Lassoing a spaceship?! Go, Diana!

This tale has many great moments like that. I especially love Superman’s line of dialogue as the team goes into combat, where only three words lend all the emotional punch that’s needed on a perfectly rendered double-splash page.

“We’ll handle god.” Nuff said!

Without giving away the plot, I’ll say that Waid’s script includes many thought-provoking concepts, including how different sentient races conceive of the afterlife in different ways. It’s a “thinking man’s” Justice League story, but if you think about it too hard, some of it makes no sense. For example, members of the League are forced to become exposition machines to explain to the reader what is being seen on the page, even when it seems improbable that they would understand the crazy cosmic stuff they are looking at.

Thanks for the exposition, Atom! Where we would we be without you?

Plus, Waid’s use of “science” concepts conveniently ignores plenty of science in service of the plot. For example, a bunch of planets are held in place by some kind of hand-waving gravity thingies, but if planets were really as close to each other as depicted, their gravities would rip each other apart. Worse, the Earth is removed from its orbit and *spoiler alert* gets put back in place at the end. But what about the moon? I can suspend my disbelief to think a giant spaceship took Earth away, even without the ship being crushed into a sphere by its own massive gravity. But I can’t believe that the moon would be waiting for Earth when it got back. The moon would be long gone!

If you can kick back and enjoy the spectacle without overthinking it too much, if you’d love to see the Justice League in a cosmic-level battle drenched in glorious color and eye-popping art, give Heaven’s Ladder a shot.

I looked into more of Hitch’s work on Justice League, and my favorite story is a multi-issue drama where a legendary Kryptonian god named Rao comes to Earth with wonderful gifts and apparently benevolent purposes. He turns out to be a scumbag, and the conflict is not just interplanetary but involves a bit of time travel, too.

Cue the arrival of more god-level starships by Bryan Hitch!

Even with Hitch writing and penciling, we get “sciencey” stuff that ends up making no sense. The thing that bugged me most was how it’s clearly stated that part of the evil plan involves genetically altering humans, but the plot conveniently sweeps that detail under the rug by saying the solution to stopping Rao’s control over humans is an electrical blast. I am willing to suspend my disbelief in favor of the old trope that electricity can do anything—and look awesome while doing it—but you can’t genetically alter the human race then just ignore that.

So, like Heaven’s Ladder, the Rao storyline is one to be enjoyed for its epic scale of conflict and jaw-dropping artwork, just so long as you don’t require your science-fiction to be consistently scientific when it might get in the way of advancing the plot.

Finally, I read the first arc of Justice League that Hitch wrote after the “Rebirth” nonsense at DC. I call it nonsense because DC realized they had screwed up some things with the New 52 and decided the solution was to reveal that Dr. Manhattan from the totally unrelated Watchmen had been altering DC history, leading once again to a complete overhaul of the hapless “DC Universe”.

“Excuse me while I try to talk Superman into doing Superman stuff.”

This is such a stupid idea and such a horrible use of Watchmen characters that I get angry just thinking about it. Back in the 1980s, DC revamped their whole universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it seemed like a decent idea at the time—even a dramatic, exciting, and original one. But now, every time DC sees declining sales, the big bosses decide they need to do some pointlessly convoluted mega-event to give all their comics a simultaneous makeover. Let’s have an Infinite Crisis! Let’s have a Final Crisis! Let’s have a New 52 relaunch! Let’s have a Flashpoint! Let’s have a Rebirth! Let’s reboot everything all the time!

Let’s give me a frickin’ break, DC. All you need to do is write awesome stories with awesome art about awesome characters. The constant reshuffling of the DC Universe every few years is garbage. I don’t usually rant on this blog, but this is a major flaw that Hitch needed to deal with in the pages of Justice League. Suddenly, we have a new Superman who is really the old Superman from an alternate universe, and he doesn’t want to do his world-saving job because he is married or something, so the League needs to talk him into it, despite Batman not trusting him because it isn’t the right Superman. Please, make it stop. Even Marvel has been infected by this mentality now. Stop revamping and smashing “universes” together!

It was cool the first time. Now cut it out!

To Hitch’s credit, he did the best he could with the flaming pile of dog crap that DC management left on his porch. The result is a bunch of characters who don’t talk or act like the characters we’ve known for decades, but more like they are in a vintage Authority story using different costumes. Batman acts like Jack Hawksmoor. Wonder Woman acts like Jenny Sparks. It kind of worked for me because I loved Hitch’s run on The Authority, but I felt like this “Rebirth” version of the League wasn’t really the League at all.

Still, the story looks absolutely amazing even though Hitch didn’t draw it. One of my favorite moments is Wonder Woman’s first scene in the adventure, where once again she is portrayed as an absolute bad-ass, a goddess you do not want to mess with. Behold.

“I’m here on a mission of peace… which involves kicking major ass with a lightning bolt!”

Hitch ignited a fanboy crush on Wonder Woman I didn’t know I had! And even the new/old Superman gets some awesome moments, too. Is Hitch’s work on Justice League an indispensable part of my collection? No, but it looks so damn good that I can’t avert my eyes, and it includes memorable moments for these characters in the kind of grand conflicts that made The Authority such a joy to read. It’s a mixed bag, but one worth looking into if you want to see the League save the universe in style.

Collector’s Guide: JLA: Heaven’s Ladder appears in the 2011 reprint or digital format. Hitch was working on JLA (1997) around the same time. The Rao storyline in Justice League of America is in single issues or hardcover. Justice League after the “Rebirth” appears in single issues or TPB.

indie box: Terrorsaurs!

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Today’s entry in the Indie Box is one I have never owned nor even seen in the flesh. But with insane, sci-fi dinosaur art from Steve “Tyrant” Bissette and Peter “Ninja Turtles” Laird, who could resist? These pages come from the Mirage Mini Comics Boxed Set, a treasure so long out-of-print that I don’t mind if you post a link to buy it in the comments!

Now behold the legend of the Terrorsaurs!

the big box of comics: Daredevil by Bendis and Maleev

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In January, thanks to this blog’s readers, I reunited with my all-time favorite Daredevil run in the form of the Daredevil by Bendis Omnibuses, Volumes One and Two. Brian Michael Bendis approached the series like a crime story—of which he has penned many—and even when he embraced cliché superhero tropes, he stayed close to the heart of the superhero as a crime fighter. He never pitted Daredevil against cosmic battles where the fate of the universe was at stake. Bendis kept Daredevil on the streets in brutal, hand-to-hand combat with the criminal elements who sought to take over his neighborhood.

That’s the strength of this run and, at first, a weakness. I mean, aside from the nonsensical way that aging takes place in serial superhero comics, Daredevil has been trying to clean up his neighborhood since the 1960s. Does he just suck at his job? How long will it take before this guy finally snaps and kills Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime? How long until Matthew Murdock starts beating a mile of ass and filling graves to protect his city and free it of scum?

I guess Bendis asked himself the same question. About a third of the way through this run, Daredevil can’t take it anymore. He beats Fisk nearly to death, puts the body on the hood of a car, and drives it through a frickin’ wall! To the astonished sleazebags at Josie’s bar, the Man Without Fear unmasks and declares himself the new ruler of Hell’s Kitchen. Hell yeah! An issue later, the series cuts to one year in the future, where reporter Ben Urich tells the story of how Daredevil cleaned up the city with his fists and his force of will.

The art team deserves so much credit for this run. Alex Maleev and the colorists and letterers all mesh perfectly to bring the stories to life. Every now and then in comics, we are treated to a perfect union of art, design, and script. This is one.

As thrilled as I am to be reunited with my favorite Daredevil, three things are missing. First: a multi-issue story written and illustrated by David Mack. It takes place after the Mack-illustrated story that begins the Bendis Omnibus. It’s a beautiful work that explores the character Echo and features an offbeat yet mystical cameo by Wolverine. It really belongs with this Daredevil run, even if Bendis didn’t write it.

The second missing piece is the brilliant resolution to this run that takes place in Ed Brubaker’s first story arc: The Devil in Cell Block D. I have mixed feelings about the rest of Brubaker and Lark’s gripping yet soul-crushing continuation of the series, but their first arc is a memorable finale to the tense cliff-hanger left by Bendis. Despite its bleak prospects for our hero, the story and its continuation weave perfectly into the theme that unites the entire Bendis/Brubaker/Diggle run: How far will Daredevil go to defeat the evil that surrounds him, and will he become evil in the process?

One other thing is missing. The first time I read this run as a series of TPBs from the Burton Barr Library in downtown Phoenix circa 2006, I did not read it alone. I had a feline companion, a fluffy orange cuddle beast named Leo who decided that me and he and Daredevil on the couch made three. Leo and I spent a long holiday weekend snuggling and reading Daredevil, with occasional visits to our food bowls and litter boxes, then right back to the extremely serious business of cleaning up Hell’s Kitchen with our spandex-clad paws. We fell asleep on each other more times than I bothered to count before we finished the entire series.

Leo’s been gone for eight years now, but I miss that big fluffball, and he will always be part of my Daredevil memories. He stole my bacon off the kitchen counter like a brazen pirate, but he hid behind the bedroom curtains anytime people came to visit. He stole my spot on the bed, then purred like an engine when I used him as a pillow. Leo couldn’t tell you a damn thing about Marvel Comics, but he sure as hell loved reading Daredevil with me.

Even with his eyes closed.

Collector’s Guide:     

Daredevil by Bendis Omnibus (second edition) #1 and #2 is usually in stock. David Mack’s Echo and Wolverine stories appear in Daredevil (1998) #51-55. The Devil in Cell Block D from Daredevil #81-88 begins the Daredevil 2012 TPB series collecting the Brubaker/Lark run.

big box of comics: Iron Fist

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The Big Box of Comics series celebrates the treasures I collect thanks to this blog’s readers using my affiliate links to find the books they want, for which I earn a bit of store credit. In January 2021, I put that credit towards reuniting with my all-time favorite Iron Fist books.

The first Iron Fist story I read as a child was the two-part Marvel Team-Up with Spider-man and the “Daughters of the Dragon”, meaning the sword-wielding Colleen Wing and the bionic-armed, butt-kicking Misty Knight. With an opening scene featuring Iron Fist on the brink of death, and Spider-man telling the story through flashbacks, the tale was one of the most literary I had read at that age and—with John Byrne’s dramatic artwork—the best illustrated. Though the magic has worn off a bit now that I’m forty-eight, it’s only because I’ve read the story so many times I practically have it memorized.

I treated myself to some well-worn copies of the originals, though I have nicer copies of the slightly more recent reprints. Who knows? Maybe my VG+ copies are the same ones I had as a kid! You can also find this story in black-and-white in the Essential Iron Fist TPBs.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, I also had a few issues of the original Iron Fist series by Claremont and Byrne, and even an issue of Marvel Premier where Iron Fist first appeared. My favorites were when he went up against the Scimitar and Chaka. So, I got those again in a Fine grade that was about the same as the ones I had when I was a kid.

Thanks to the Essential Iron Fist TPBs, I’ve read all the Claremont/Byrne issues, and some were less than thrilling. But I couldn’t resist picking up two inexpensive color reprints: one with the classic cover of issue #8, and one with the first appearance of the now-legendary X-men villain Sabretooth.

Honestly, the Sabretooth issue isn’t that great. He feels like a villain Claremont introduced with minimal character development to see if reader response merited keeping him around. He isn’t the bestial nemesis to Wolverine he later became. Still, it’s a historic issue, and the reprint costs far less than the original.

In the mid-80s, I had some of the Jim Owsley/Mark Bright run near the end of the Powerman and Iron Fist title, issues I bought off the local news stand just as the series was ending. I’ve since read the issues I didn’t have. I loved them as a kid, but they don’t do it for me these days. You might recall that the run ended in issue #125 with the senseless death of Iron Fist.

John Byrne later brought Fist back to life in the pages of Namor the Sub-Mariner, but that story doesn’t hold up very well either, despite a guest appearance from our favorite feral Canadian mutant with huge frickin’ claws. But it set the stage for Iron Fist’s return, and nowhere was that return more fully realized than in the pages of the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja series, The Immortal Iron Fist.

I first read Fraction’s run as two TPBs from the public library, and it blew my mind. It took a 1970s attempt to exploit the popularity of kung-fu movies, then expanded the mythos into a rich history of amazing people who had earned the power of the Fist over centuries. Daniel Rand, who up until that point had been the only Iron Fist we knew about, met Orson Randall, a man who knew Danny’s father and was also the Iron Fist in WWI—and rejected the role due to the horrors he witnessed. Along the way, Orson reveals there are more uses for the Fist power than Danny ever dreamed, and an untold history that forever changes Danny’s life.

The storyline starts off with “The Last Iron Fist Story”, and it ends with the revelation that every Iron Fist except Orson died on their thirty-third birthday—a birthday that arrives for Daniel Rand on the final page of the story arc. Everything about this arc screams impending doom. For some of the characters, that doom comes true. Some of those characters are Iron Fists.

The interruptions in the main narrative to tell the tales of ancient Iron Fists take this series to a whole other level. From page one, you know this story is unlike any Iron Fist story you’ve read before. In another post, I’ve shared a few pages from issue #7, a standalone story about the first female Iron Fist. She suffers, she loves, and she shoots magical dragon-energy arrows from her bow to conquer a fleet of pirates. She’s far and away my favorite Iron Fist, and I’d happily read a thousand pages of her adventures. 

Orson Randall also comes off as especially awesome. His role as a “pulp” version of Iron Fist pays homage to vintage heroes such as Doc Savage and the Shadow, with David Aja specifically mentioning in his design notes that the costume should invoke those characters. Orson opened up so much storytelling potential that it couldn’t even be contained in the main series. He appeared in a couple of one-shots which are fun but not indispensable. Orson’s potential remains largely untapped. I would love to see an Orson Randall series by Ellis and Cassaday with the pulp flair they brought to so many issues of Planetary.

All good things come to an end, but I like the next two story arcs after this creative team leaves. Duane Swierczynski picks up the scripting and imprisons Iron Fist in a horrifying hell from which escape seems impossible. Travel Foreman, who did many of the flashback scenes to Iron Fists of yesteryear during Fraction’s run, becomes the primary artist. This continuation of The Immortal Iron Fist is an enjoyable read that capitalizes on the expanded mythos opened by the previous run—and it looks amazing.

Having read these runs of Immortal Iron Fist both in TPBs and single issues—and having sold them both—I opted for the single issues and snagged a few variant covers such as the Marvel Zombies variant (which had nothing to do with the storyline) and the “Director’s Cut” of #1. As far as I can tell, all the material in the Director’s Cut appeared in the TPB. It has some great design-process pages of David Aja explaining how he developed an Iron Fist costume that didn’t suck, no matter how awesome John Byrne made booties and spiky spandex collars look in the 1970s. Aja’s notes on his sketches make it clear he hated the booties.

Anyway, I totally geeked out on Iron Fist for a few weeks in January, and no matter how many people tell me they didn’t like the TV series, my fondness for Fraction’s Immortal Iron Fist and most of the vintage Claremont/Byrne stories remains undiminished. It has become like unto a thing of iron! Thanks to this blog’s readers who made this reunion possible.

Collector’s Guide:

The Claremont/Byrne collaboration begins in Marvel Premiere #25, continues in Iron Fist #1-15, and ends with Marvel Team-Up #63 and #64, which were reprinted with new covers by Mark Bright in Marvel Tales #197 and #198. Inexpensive reprints include the Marvel Legends reprint of Iron Fist #8 and the Marvel Milestone Edition reprint of Iron Fist #14.

Immortal Iron Fist can be found in single issues, paperbacks, or hardcover. Orson Randall features in the Immortal Iron Fist Annual, The Green Mist of Death, and Death Queen of California. There’s also a five-issue series featuring origins of the other Immortal Weapons.

a note about solving writing problems

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A piece of advice in my new book about writing needs qualification. In My life as an Armadillo, I state my belief that writer’s block is a myth, and the solutions to most writing problems involve more writing, usually freewriting about that problem or your emotional relation to it, until you get to the heart of it and work out a potential solution.

But I base this advice on an assumption about my audience of writers; namely, that they write because the written language is their primary way of processing information and expressing their creativity. That is not true about every person on Earth, and it might not even be true about every author. It certainly is not true of everyone working temporarily on a writing assignment such as a school paper, a business letter, or a memoir.

While my advice about writing through the problem can still help those people, it is not the only method nor even the best for everyone. Different people prefer different modes of communication, learning, and information processing. As an editor, I find the best way to help my authors work through a problem is to ask a few questions and encourage them to talk through it with me. Like many people, they feel more comfortable speaking than writing or typing, especially in a dialogue with an attentive and thoughtful listener. These conversations can lead to dynamic brainstorming sessions and bouncing ideas back and forth until we find a solution.

Other people are kinesthetic—not verbal—learners and communicators. They work through problems not by writing or talking but by walking or dancing, by doing yoga or lifting weights. Once they engage their bodies in motion, activity, or touch, the solutions come to them. Those are great options even for writers and other people in primarily non-kinetic modes. As much as I believe in writing through my problems, the process often involves stepping away from the keyboard to take a walk or a dip in the pool, or by cranking up the tunes and having a wiggle in the living room. Sometimes I even burn a calorie or two!

When you work through problems you encounter as you write, consider your mode of learning, communication, and information processing. Before you get back to writing, you might need to talk to someone, exercise, frolic, or do some tactile, hands-on work or craft. If you aren’t in a rush, you can even sleep on it. I often awake from a nap or a night’s sleep with a simple, direct solution to a problem that seemed impossibly complex before.

As I say in my book, any rules I propose are merely guidelines. Modify them to suit your personal style. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another—not in writing nor anywhere else in life.

If you know of any good self-assessments to help people identify their own mode of learning, please comment on this post.

New Season, New Book!

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Spring is in the air! And with the new season comes a new book. You might know that I recently moved to Tucson, and I experienced an ungodly delay of several weeks in getting connected to the Internet in the new Martian headquarters. I used that time to edit a collection of essays about what I learned as the leader of a writers’ workshop—a workshop I founded in February 2017 and which succeeded beyond my imagination. Before I left Phoenix, I passed the leadership torch to someone I knew would take excellent care of my baby, and I am happy to say that the group remains alive and well.

Over the years, I wrote about workshopping with other authors and the journey of improving as a writer. The result is the Kindle ebook My Life as An Armadillo: Essays on Workshopping and Writing.

My Life as an Armadillo collects my thoughts from 2016 to 2021 about writing and becoming a better writer by workshopping with others. It is not a complete guide to style nor a manifesto on how to run your own critique group, but I share it in hopes that you can learn from my experience and apply the ideas you find most helpful.

Essays are grouped into four main sections: Group Participation and LeadershipStarting a Major WorkBasic Revisions for Style, and Style and Substance. You will find guidance for leading a workshop group and getting the most out of participating in one, refining your prose based on style tips commonly given in workshops, and overcoming the fundamental challenges many writers struggle with.

Now available for only 99 cents at https://amzn.to/3c2Poga

Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers!

Doom Endures!

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Doom endures. So does Mars Will Send No More. This blog’s interplanetary headquarters pulled up stakes on the last day of January 2021 and relocated to an alternate reality where time came to a standstill — a city encased in a null-zone bubble where years pass on the outside when only seconds transpire within.

Communications systems ground to a halt mere moments after impact. Robots worked overtime to restore connectivity. But despite delays, this blog is alive and kicking and, for the most part, enjoying the change of scenery. I’ll be back with some new entries for the Big Box of Comics series and some sweet Indie Comics this Spring.

indie box: March

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March is a three-issue graphic novel from 2013 that autobiographically tells the story of 1960s-era civil-rights activist John Lewis, who later served as a representative for Georgia. He led one of the groups that helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Through a series of framing sequences and flashbacks, March takes the reader on a journey from an impoverished rural childhood, through times of heartbreaking violence and protest, to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. That moment was a cultural victory for millions of Americans, and reading about it this month puts recent events into perspective.

In January 2021, we saw a different kind of march on Washington. A violent mob of white supremacists and incredibly misguided people who swear allegiance to a reality-TV demagogue and known liar stormed the capitol, claiming their racist hate was patriotism, claiming their attempt to overthrow a fair and democratic election was a defense of democracy, and leaving in their wake a trail of death and destruction in the name of so-called freedom.

March also reminds us that this despicable aspect of America is nothing new. Similar violence and even worse was rained down upon black Americans staging peaceful protests attempting to be served in restaurants, join schools, or ride a bus — and it was accompanied by the same sort of flag-waving idiocy and bible-thumping madness that too many have used to advance an agenda of racial subjugation that has nothing to do with our country’s ideals of equality nor the peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

John Lewis passed away last year, in 2020. But we are fortunate that he left us with this memoir. It is a monument to how far our country advanced in terms of equality in his lifetime and, especially in light of recent events, a reminder of just how far we have to go.

Collector’s Guide: Find the original issues of March at MyComicShop or, for less than $30, the collected edition on Amazon. Also available in digital format for Kindle.

UPDATE: Eight days after I posted this, a newspaper in Dekalb County, Georgia, reported that a memorial to John Lewis will replace a now-removed Confederate monument at the County Courthouse.

Big Box of Comics: Maus

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What can I say about one of the most widely acclaimed and influential graphic novels ever published? I re-read Maus this month for the first time since the mid-90s, and its combination of sequential art and novelistic storytelling have held up remarkably well over the years.

Maus tells the story of the persecution of Jews in Poland under the reign of the Nazi Third Reich, framed by sequences where the author interviews his father to get the memories that form the basis of the historical narrative. Throw in some detours such as a short comic-inside-the-comic that deals with the author’s mother’s suicide, and a meta-examination of the work where the author deals with his guilt and ambivalence towards the series and visits a therapist. Maus subverts the idea of “funny animal comics” by making the characters animals but telling a story that is tragic and horrifying.

Maus was one of the first books I can recall that gained national—even global—attention for telling a serious story that did not involve any superheroes yet brought an air of literary legitimacy to the term “graphic novel”. These days, any six-issue story arc about a mainstream superhero can be collected into a paperback and labeled a graphic novel for marketing purposes. Maybe the term has become so watered down that we’ve lost the meaningful distinction between graphic novels and comic books.

But I don’t plan on losing any sleep over it. Categorize them however you want! There’s room in the Big Box of Comics for all of them.

Collector’s Guide: MyComicShop usually has the two-part hardcover and paperback editions in stock, but you can always find The Complete Maus collected edition on Amazon.

holiday memories, music, and misbehavior

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My most idyllic holiday memory, other than reading comic books from Gramma’s garage, is of curling up inside a fuzzy blanket or afghan my grandmother crocheted, staring at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, and listening to music. I felt warm, safe, and peaceful, and the music and lights together were magic.

My family was far from wealthy, but we had a bomb-ass stereo system. When Dad worked as a manager for Radio Shack, he put stereo equipment on layaway—which somehow made it less expensive—and applied his manager discount to it.

The resulting tuner, tape decks, graphic equalizer, and speakers in our living room—complete with a pair of stupendous headphones for private listening and eardrum damage—were one of the great joys of my childhood. During summers, snow days, or any other day my sister and I had “off” as kids while Dad was working, we danced around the living room like maniacs to the radio or cassette tapes. Looking back now, I guess Dad copied a lot of the tapes on a cassette deck at work. We also had a dual-cassette deck at home, wired to the receiver, so my sister and I could record songs from the radio any time we wanted—or even combine them into mix tapes!

What music piracy looked like in the 1980s

Yes, it was a time of lawless piracy. My sister and I caused the collapse of the music industry. It was us. Us, and our bad-ass tape deck in the living room.

I don’t know how Mom put up with us. She might have been happy we were entertaining ourselves instead of fighting or pestering her. I don’t doubt my sister and I were a handful. I nearly electrocuted myself, set the house on fire, broke the car, got in trouble at school, and would talk at Mom so much that she would have to tell me to shut up so my sister could learn to talk, too! My dancing on the couch was the least of Mom’s worries.

I will not incriminate my sister in any other childhood crimes, especially because many of them were my ideas in the first place. Like when I was seven and she was five, and I cut her hair in the backyard when my parents weren’t paying attention. It… did not turn out well. That one’s on me!

But one day, at the end of her wits with my sister, Mom blurted out, “You’re as dumb as your brother!” It became one of my family’s longest-running jokes. So, maybe we were better off indoors listening to the radio under closer supervision.

My sister recalls that when no one else was home, she sometimes cranked up the stereo and sang to the wall like she had a concert audience. I recall that Mom and Dad used to go on “dates” to a store called Central Hardware, which was probably code for “Let’s get out of this house for an hour before our children drive us insane!” I loved my parent’s date nights, because I could crank up the stereo speakers and ROCK OUT. I would play shit so loud that when Mom and Dad pulled into the driveway, they heard the music from inside the car.

I still love listening to music at an unreasonable volume. Granted, the music has changed over the years. In the mid-80s, my family wasn’t listening to John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space or BongRipper’s Satan Worshipping Doom. In fact, the songs I most associate with my dreamy, twinkling holiday light memories are a ridiculous number about how farm animals talk, and a minor-key ballad called “Fum, Fum, Fum” on the same album.

If this party gets any merrier, we’ll need to be institutionalized!

Besides music on a cold winter’s night that was so deep, my other favorite holiday entertainment was trying to discover my presents. One December, after my parents left the house for Central Hardware, I convinced my sister to take part in my evil schemes and swore her to secrecy. Under the tree, armed with a sharp blade and Scotch tape, I sliced open the tape on the wrapping paper on our presents so we could see what they were. The most noteworthy gifts were a pair of phones, which I taped back together with meticulous precision.

The laugh was on me. On Christmas morning, we discovered my sister and I weren’t just getting two phones. We got our own phone line! In the mid-80s, that was a big deal.

Over the years, I spoiled many surprises and became adept at re-wrapping opened presents. My parents lied to me about Santa, and I lied about being surprised about what Santa brought me. I figure we’re even! But the gift I most treasure spoiling came to me in the year when my entire wish list consisted of issues of the comic book Nexus, from which this blog takes its name.

I’d read many Nexus issues thanks to my high school pal Brian who was also my gateway to punk rock, but I didn’t own many of them. So, I made a wish list, and I imagine it was related to Mile High Comics, which became a large mail-order back-issue distributor in the 80s and ran ads in my favorite Marvel books.

Cue another December and a night when I had the house to myself. I snooped everywhere! At last, I found Nexus in a nondescript cardboard box on the back of the upper shelf of the closet in the room my father used as his library and ham radio shack.

I READ THEM ALL. But not at once. My parents never left the house long enough to read all the first fifty issues of Nexus. Over the course of a month, I stole every spare unattended moment to pull a few issues from that box. I read them under my blankets or behind other books, keeping them out of sight until the next time my parents left, when I could put the comics back in their not-so-secret place and get the next few issues.

Maybe I was a horrid child for spoiling the magic of Christmas. But no holiday gift ever brought me as much joy as those illicitly obtained copies of Nexus, and when the day came to officially open them, I could not have been happier to add them to my collection.

Due to the vicissitudes of fortune, I have been separated and reunited with Nexus several times. Every time I read the series, I love it more. But I’ll never forget the thrill of reading Nexus when it was forbidden, when I wasn’t even supposed to know it was in the house. The stolen moments I had with it were intensified by knowing I would soon need to hide it—and quickly.

Speaking of hiding and the holidays, today’s final exhibit is a vintage raccoon radio from Radio Shack. I named mine “Raccy”, ponounced RAK-EE in case you are from Italy or something. Or Racky, if you are from Indiana.

Raccy was my boy. Even before I hit puberty and began a life of totally abnormal sleep patterns, I liked to stay up late. I cuddled under the blankets with Raccy and listened to the radio implanted in his torso. He was basically a cyborg with a black, box-shaped radio inside, and the station tuner and volume knob were his cyborg nipples.

At that age, I didn’t think of myself as a nipple-tweaking animal rights violator who might be crossing the lines of acceptable cybernetic and interspecies relationships. Truth be told, sometimes Raccy was the only person I had to talk to. Most holidays, he was the only one who would stay up with me until midnight and beyond. He snuggled with me in the car on the way home from church-related holiday gatherings after dark. He got tucked in with me. He hung out after everyone else had gone to bed, so long as I listened to him quietly under the blankets.

I’ve stayed up until midnight to welcome the New Year many times, but the first time I remember doing it was with Raccy. It was just me and him, listening to pop songs as the countdown grew ever closer, wondering if we could stay awake long enough.

More than once, we did.

And on that note, enjoy a musical holiday season and have a happy New Year!

postcards

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‘Tis the season to send and receive holiday cards, but traditional themes of snow, Santa, and religious imagery are lost on me. Fortunately, I have pen pals who understand what a nut I am and how much I enjoy weird, wonderful, wacky images. They send stuff like this:

Although I lived in Nevada for a year in 2002, I never visited Tonopah and its famous Clown Motel, which has had a comic book and one or two movies made about it since it first opened in 1985. The sender of this postcard is an inveterate road tripper and included a quote attributed to Hal Hartley who, among other things, directed the film Henry Fool which I saw on the big screen at Ann Arbor’s incomparable Michigan Theater in the late 1990s: “There is no such thing as adventure. There is no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.”

Cynical, perhaps, but after several decades of pursuing romance and adventure, I can’t really disagree with Hal on this point. Speaking of holiday cards, I sent out a batch of 50 custom-made cards for the first time in several years. It’s been so long that I discovered today that one of my addresses was outdated by four years. So, if you didn’t get a card but would like to get on my list, send me an address update via email. Keep in touch!

The fronts of this year’s cards featured my drawing of Meteor Mags playing piano in space, with the interior message “Peace on Earth and throughout the Solar System”. The back was a reproduction of the cover to Mags’ latest book, The Singing Spell. And you know what that means: The cost of the cards is a deductible marketing expense for my publishing company! Nothing says Happy Holidays quite like reducing one’s tax liability.

And what festive holiday imagery did I choose for the stamps on the envelopes? That’s right. Tyrannosaurus Rex! To hell with reindeer. I need dinosaurs! Check out the awesome T-Rex series from USPS.

Deck the Halls with Prehistoric Carnivores!

Stay safe out there this holiday season, and don’t do anything dangerous like visit a hotel that’s haunted by evil circus freaks. Or if you do, at least send me a postcard, darling!

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 assembled 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 with her. 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.