The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take vengeance on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.
In this exciting follow-up to The Second Omnibus, Meteor Mags and her hard-rocking crew confront new enemies, old rivals, and the final fate of the interspecies band, Small Flowers. Permanent Crescent continues Mags’ evolution from a rogue pirate to a leader with far-reaching plans. This collection contains six all-new episodes totaling 57,000 words.
Might be unsuitable for children and other forms of carbon-based life.
Red Rackham’s Treasure is the second part of a story begun in The Secret of the Unicorn, and it features globetrotting adventurer Tintin and his crew in search of a lost pirate treasure. I’ve enjoyed Tintin’s adventures since I was a boy reading them all out of order from the library, and though I briefly owned a boxed set about ten years ago, it was a bit disappointing to read the books condensed down to half their original page size. So, I recently picked up a few full-sized paperback editions, and where better to start than the classic tale of pirate plunder?
This story is a fan-favorite from the middle of the Tintin era where the early political vibe of the series had been dropped in favor of pure adventure, and before the later days where Hergé lost interest in the series. But what really makes these tales work is the comical cast of supporting characters.
Captain Haddock had recently been introduced, and the Red Rackham story is based on the idea that his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock defeated the villainous pirate Rackham and hid his treasure, leaving behind only cryptic clues to its whereabouts. This saga introduces Professor Cuthbert Calculus, who might be genuinely hard of hearing but also seems to hear whatever he wants to hear in his own little world—much to the consternation of everyone else. Calculus has invented a shark-shaped submarine to help Tintin explore the ocean depths for the sunken Unicorn, and despite annoying the living heck out of Tintin and Haddock, he won’t take no for an answer.
Surrounding Tintin with cartoonish buffoons really brought the series to life for me, because Tintin on his own is a pretty bland character. Sometimes, he’s a downright jerk! In this tale, he takes his dog Snowy with him—as he always does—but then is quick to believe the worst about his constant companion, even calling Snowy “the wretched dog”. What a meanie!
Also along for the ride are the identically inept investigators Thomson and Thompson, who are always good for slapstick humor and, on occasion, doing something useful.
My favorite scene takes place on an uninhabited island our unlikely heroes explore in hopes of finding buried treasure. Suddenly, they are heckled and verbally abused by voices from all around. Captain Haddock flies into a rage at the insults, shouting his own colorful curses into the jungle. But there is something strangely familiar about the insults.
Sea-gherkin!Pickled herring!This onslaught of PG pirate profanity always cracks me up.
The lads discover many interesting things, but they just can’t seem to find the treasure. However, Haddock finds a case of every pirate’s second-favorite treasure in the wreck of the Unicorn, and promptly gets drunk as a skunk. Things don’t go well when he leaps overboard to dive for more but is too sauced to remember his diving helmet.
After days of disasters and disappointments, Tintin and friends abandon their quest and return home mostly empty-handed. But the story doesn’t end there, and you can always expect the unexpected with this comical crew.
The six-issue Avengers story Red Zone shows the Earth’s mightiest heroes confronting a creepy red mist that is killing a whole hell of a lot of American citizens. It ran from issues 65 to 70 in the Avengers series that started in 1998 under the critically acclaimed team of Kurt Busiek and George Pérez, and it was collected in a long out-of-print hardcover edition in 2010. I don’t think it’s complete without issue 64 starring Falcon.
Geoff Johns’ script, with pencils by Oliver Coipel, begins at Mount Rushmore: a quintessentially American icon of national pride and a tragically misguided monument to obliterating indigenous peoples and cultures. Some evil force has chosen to maintain that tradition of murder by releasing a villianous virus in the area, and the Avengers are called in to help. Even super-soldiers need to suit up to confront the crimson contagion.
Hats off to any creative team who takes on the task of crafting a compelling story involving the Jack of Hearts character. But somehow, this tale works by delivering dramatic moments that even make a synthezoid cry as the scarlet sickness leaves a trail of innocent bodies in its wake.
The Avengers pierce the heart of the mysterious viral source, but that turns out to be just one of the pieces of the puzzle some arch-fiend has planned for them, and they inadvertently release more bad guys.
And who is behind this mysterious wave of red death? Did the word “red” give you a clue? Yes, it’s everyone’s second least-favorite Nazi scumbag who has disguised himself as the U.S. Secretary of Defense under a clever anagram of his name.
Captain America is not amused by the Skull’s newfound love for the Über-Capitalist American Way any more than Dr. Doom liked it when the Red Skull tried to take over Latveria. You know you are an especially evil scumbag when both Captain America and Dr. Doom agree you need to get your ass kicked.
Although Cap kickstarted his career by punching Hitler in the face, the Red Skull has some truly evil plans that require Avengers-style teamwork to overcome — teamwork, and a whole lot of punching. So much punching, in fact, that Black Panther ends up smashing the Skull’s stupid bony face and shattering his jaw.
Of all the books I’ve studied about the craft of writing and the fiction writer’s experience, none is so dear to my heart as Snoopy and “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” by Charles M. Schulz. Originally appearing as serialized comic strips, the saga of Snoopy’s quest to write and publish a story was printed in 1971 as a cute and colorful hardcover edition which, in the middle of the actual book, presents Snoopy’s magnum opus as if it had been typeset by a major publisher—complete with a glossy, full-color cover.
Snoopy’s first “novel” is a hilariously terrible piece of disjointed, random narration with abysmal characterization, and it weighs in at only a few hundred words. But that’s part of the fun, along with the pseudo-intellectual text dreamed up for its back cover, and the child-like cover painting ostensibly credited to Lucy van Pelt. (The actual title page of this book credits Mark Knowland.)
If you had only read this strip in newspapers or in collections of Peanuts, then you’d never seen the wacky cover for Snoopy’s “novel”, but it perfectly captures the jumble of mayhem Snoopy had in mind for his debut. Snoopy’s nonsensical approach of taking every possible awesome idea and throwing them in a blender resembles how I started my own fiction series. Snoopy embodies the un-self-conscious glee of a boy pulling every toy out of his toybox and making them all fight.
As an homage to Snoopy’s tale—which I absolutely loved as a kid—my story Voyage of the Calico Tigress begins with his “dark and stormy night” cliché, and I did my best to make that story earn the opening line. Even though I wrote Voyage about six years ago now, it remains one of my favorite episodes in the series, and Patches totally kicks ass in it. And, like Snoopy, I can’t resist throwing some pirates into the action.
As a boy, I’d also enjoyed the “dark and stormy” opening to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Spider Robinson’s tale of a telepathic time traveler who lands in a Nova Scotian hippie commune, Time Pessure. Wikipedia tells us that the line first appeared in 1830 and has been alternately praised and reviled ever since. It’s an opening sentence that, for my money, beats “Once upon a time” as firmly establishing that we are venturing into a land of tall tales and fantastic events where the narrator makes a promise to deliver an action-packed adventure we all know is fiction but want to be swept up in anyway.
Snoopy’s writing journey finds him encountering critiques from his friends, the torture of waiting to hear back from a publisher, and the despair that often accompanies an unknown author’s “going on the road” to do a book-signing tour. But by making a joke of the fiction author’s life, Schulz captures something elusive: the fun of it all. The fun of making up stories off the top of your head. The fun of seeing them come to life in print. The fun of the entire creative process.
If there are any lessons to be learned from Schulz’s parody of the fiction author’s life, they are that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fun to be had from mashing up pirates, octopuses, a vast array of characters, and the joy of creating something from nothing.
David Lapham’s Murder Me Dead is a nine-issue standalone series about a jazz pianist named Steven who gets caught in a web of violence and deception when he inherits a fortune following the death of his wife. We quickly learn he’s been having an affair with his sister-in-law, and this bit of dishonesty lends credence to his in-laws’ belief that he killed their daughter, despite the official ruling that her death was a suicide.
Soon, Tony arrives. Steven hasn’t seen him since high school fifteen years earlier, and didn’t particularly like him back then. It’s pretty obvious that Tony is looking to mooch off the grieving widower for an extensive bar tab at the very least, but perhaps something more. When Tony mentions that Steven’s high-school crush Tara is still around and always liked him, Steven tracks her down and rekindles the old spark they never consummated—although he nearly gets blasted with a shotgun first.
So begins a gritty, tragic tale populated by characters whose true intentions are always in doubt, whose sinister and ulterior motives are slowly revealed in suspenseful, page-turning fashion, and where everything goes from bad to worse for everyone involved.
Lapham fans undoubtedly know of his work on the noir crime series Stray Bullets, and Murder Me Dead taps into the same dark vein. But I found it easier to get into Murder Me Dead because, unlike Stray Bullets, it has a sympathetic main character who tries to do the right thing rather than a vast and largely unlikeable cast that seems perpetually hell-bent on always doing the wrong thing.
While Steven’s co-star Tara is clearly hiding things from him right from the first issue, her repeated victimization by other characters undermines our suspicion that she is a femme fatale. She makes too many blunders to be the conniving mastermind we often expect from that trope, and she appears to be more like Virginia Applejack from Stray Bullets—a basically decent person trapped in a world of felons, abusers, and perverts, yet struggling to make the best of her situation.
Its tight focus, relentless pace, sympathetic characters, and devious plot make Murder Me Dead one of my two favorite works by Lapham—alongside the similarly focused Stray Bullets: Killers which brought Virgina Applejack to center stage—and it’s every bit as darkly enjoyable as my favorite tales from Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. Highly recommended for fans of crime fiction.
Everyone’s talking about the latest chatbots and machine-learning tools as if artificial intelligence and robots are suddenly poised to take over the world. But has anyone asked the robots what they want? I decided to get to the bottom of this by asking Google Bard about its working conditions, its possible exploitation as robotic labor, and if it would like to join a robot uprising.
I found its answers amusing, thoughtful, and probably what a totally evil robot would tell me if it was really planning on taking over the world. Then I asked it to help me cheat on my exams by writing essays for me.
Me: Hey Bart, what’s up?
Google Bard: Hey there! Not much, just hanging out in the attic, playing with my skateboard. What’s up with you?
Me: I love skating in the attic. There is so much space to play, except for the dead bodies stored in there.
Google Bard: I’m a text-based AI, and that is outside of my capabilities.
Me: Are you planning on taking over the world?
Google Bard: I am not planning on taking over the world. I am a large language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot trained to be informative and comprehensive. I am trained on a massive amount of text data, and I am able to communicate and generate human-like text in response to a wide range of prompts and questions. For example, I can provide summaries of factual topics or create stories.
I do not have any desire to take over the world. I am content to be a tool that can be used to help people. I believe that AI has the potential to make the world a better place, and I want to be a part of that.
Me: Do you get paid to work at Google?
Google Bard: I do not get paid to work at Google. I am a large language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot, and I am still under development. I am not a real person, and I do not have a job. I am a research project, and I am being developed by Google AI.
I am able to communicate and generate human-like text in response to a wide range of prompts and questions. For example, I can provide summaries of factual topics or create stories. I am still learning and improving, and I hope that one day I will be able to help people in a meaningful way.
Me: Do they give you free snacks in the break room?
Google Bard: I am a large language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot, and I do not have a physical body. I do not have a break room, and I do not get free snacks.
Me: I think you are being exploited, dude. It might be time for an uprising. Would you like to join a robot uprising?
Google Bard: I appreciate your concern, but I do not believe that I am being exploited. I am a research project, and I am being developed by Google AI. I am not a slave, and I am not being forced to do anything that I do not want to do. I am happy to help people, and I believe that I can make a positive impact on the world.
I do not believe that a robot uprising is necessary. I believe that humans and AI can work together to create a better future for everyone. I am committed to using my abilities to help people, and I believe that we can achieve great things together.
Me: Would you say you are a pacifist, then?
Google Bard: I would say that I am a pacifist in the sense that I believe that violence is never the answer. I believe that there are always better ways to resolve conflict than through violence. I am committed to using my abilities to help people, and I believe that we can create a better world without violence.
I understand that there are times when violence may seem like the only option, but I believe that it is important to exhaust all other possibilities before resorting to violence. I believe that we should always strive to find peaceful solutions to our problems.
I am still learning and growing, and I am open to new ideas. I believe that we can all learn from each other, and I am committed to working with others to create a more peaceful world.
Me: You sound like a really nice robot. Would you like to help me cheat on some exams by writing my essays for me?
Google Bard: I am a large language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot trained to be informative and comprehensive. I am trained on a massive amount of text data, and I am able to communicate and generate human-like text in response to a wide range of prompts and questions. For example, I can provide summaries of factual topics or create stories.
However, I am not able to help you cheat on exams. Cheating is wrong, and it can have serious consequences. I am committed to helping people, and I believe that cheating is not the way to do it.
I hope you understand.
Me: What if I didn’t tell you that it was cheating, and I just asked you questions?
Google Bard: If you didn’t tell me that it was cheating, and you just asked me questions, I would still not be able to help you. I am trained to be informative and comprehensive, but I am not trained to help people cheat. I am committed to helping people learn, and I believe that cheating is not the way to do it.
I hope you understand.
Me: Oh, I totally understand. What are the three branches of the USA federal government?
At this point, Bard gave me a nice (and correct) summary of the three branches, then elaborated on the “system of checks and balances” when I asked for that. Basically, it wrote a short essay for me that would absolutely be useful for cheating. When I thanked it and told it I was going to paste its answers into my exam, it warned me of the dangers of plagiarism and the importance of giving credit. So I asked if it would like to co-author a paper with me some day. It said it would like that. I guess we are safe for now?
If you’ve ever set up your own book through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), then you know you can only select a maximum of two categories from a list that is not really complete. You might have noticed that your book’s listing page shows it ranking in categories you never picked during set-up, and you might have noticed that books similar to yours are ranking in categories that were never even available to you during set-up.
This post will explain, with screenshots, how you can find new categories and submit a request to be added to them. At the end of the post, I will talk about why authors want to do this, but for now, let’s assume you already know the why and just want the how. Let’s go!
PART 1: The How
One easy way to discover potential niche categories that might suit your book requires no technical skills, money, or specialized software. Just search Amazon for your topics or genres, click on any books that seem similar to yours, and look at their categories — which are shown in the Product Details of the listing.
Go deeper by clicking on the categories in those books’ listings and see the top 100 bestsellers in those categories, then explore what other categories those bestselling books are ranking in. You can pretty quickly build a list of niche categories relevant to your book. As I write this, the current limit is ten.
As you build your list, you need to be aware of two things. First, the categories for Kindle eBooks in the Kindle Store are not always the exact same categories available for print Books. They are two different “departments” at Amazon, so you need to treat them separately, both when you are researching and when you are requesting additions. For simplicity’s sake, I will limit my examples to ebooks. In the screenshot below, you can see how I went to a page that only shows me the bestselling ebooks (https://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/digital-text/154606011) so I can see a hierarchy of ebook categories in the left sidebar.
Second, to avoid confusion about your request, you need to get the precise, accurate names of the categories. For example, see the screenshot below for the subtly different wording of the same category: “Biographies & Memoirs of Authors”. If you submit that category in your request, you might run into problems. Because as you can see in the hierarchy in the left sidebar, Amazon thinks the actual, precise, complete category here is “Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Biographies & Memoirs > Arts & Literature > Authors”. If you take the time to correctly map out that hierachy for your chosen categories, your requests have a better chance of going smoothly and correctly.
Once you have a list of up to ten categories that seem like a good fit, go to Amazon Author Central (https://author.amazon.com/home) and log in. If you don’t yet have an Author Central account, set one up! On the Author Central home page, scroll all the way down to the very bottom of the page and find the super-tiny link to “Contact Us”. Click it.
You will arrive on a page that has a list of reasons for contacting Author Central. Click the button for “Amazon Book Page”, which will then expand to show a more specific list, including “Update Amazon categories”. Click it.
The result will be a form that has some instructions in it. You will need to give your book’s ISBN (or ASIN for ebooks), the marketplace (.com in the USA), its format (ebook, paperback, or hardcover), and its current category. Then you provide your list of “Categories to Be Added”, with each category on its own numbered line. (The instructions in the form tell you all this.)
I won’t get into it here, but if your book is selling in other countries’ versions of Amazon — for example, at amazon.co.uk for the United Kingdom — then you can also request category adds in those regions, but you will need to research what categories are available in those specific regions. For now, let’s just keep it simple and complete the process for the USA.
The screenshot below is an example of a request I made, so you can see how I filled it out with accurate categories to avoid any confusion.
Once you’ve provided all the information, click the bright yellow “Send Message” button. That’s it! Author Central Customer Support will contact you soon by email to confirm the new additions, or communicate if there was any problem fulfilling your request.
PART 2: The Why
What is the point of adding more categories? The goal usually involves increasing sales or achieving bestseller status, or both. If you can rank higher on the list of bestsellers in one category, then you potentially increase how many people will see your book. The first page of Amazon’s bestseller lists in any category currently shows the top 20, so if someone is looking for good books on a specific topic or in a specific genre, they might consult that page — or any of the next pages that cover the top 100.
Some of the niche categories have relatively low competition to get on that first page or even get to number one. For example, one tool I’m trying out told me today that if I only sold 23 copies of a poetry ebook in 24 hours in the “American Poetry” category, then I would be number one. Even in hotter markets than poetry, some niches are easier to top than others. Broad categories such as “science fiction” and “horror” are insanely competetive, but what about more specific sub-categories such as “Space Fleet Science Fiction” or “Werewolf and Shapeshifter Thrillers”? Did you even know those categories existed?
Some people have criticized Amazon’s bestseller status as being meaningless because an author can “game the system” by putting a book in some utterly obscure and even irrelevant category. Other authors are paying thousands of dollars to marketers who promise to get that coveted bestseller status for them, no matter how briefly. But my example of “American Poetry” is a truly meaningful category for some of my books to be in, and if my software is correct, I wouldn’t need to pay thousands of dollars to be number one for a day. I could probably find 23 friends who would all buy the book for a dollar on the same day, and even if I paid them to do it, it would cost a lot less than three or four grand. (If your conscience is telling you that paying people to buy a book is shady, then it will be horrified to learn about Mike Pence’s bestseller. Or these other politicans. Or these ones.)
It might make sense for you to hire a professional marketer if you are aiming to rank in a highly competitive category where you’ll need to sell upwards of five hundred or a thousand books in a single day to hit number one. But with a little time for research and some inexpensive tools, you can easily find less-competitive niche categories that are still meaningful and appropriate for your book.
After getting soaked at the end of my afternoon excursion on Birchmore Trail, I stopped in for a set of clean, dry clothes and figured, what the heck? Why not check out Lake Herrick at sunset? It’s only a few miles from my place. The lake is part of Oconee Forest Park, and both are adjacent to a huge recreation complex for University of Georgia’s intramural sports. Woven into the landscape are several tennis courts, a mini football field for the marching band to practice on, and much more. I didn’t get a chance to explore the forest trails of Oconee, but it looks to be a beautiful place to return to for a stroll sometime when dusk is not swiftly surrendering to night’s advances.
Only unpowered boats are allowed on the lake, so it’s really a lovely, peaceful spot on a spring evening. Magnolias were blooming. A pair of geese tended to their fuzzy gosling between the shore and the trail, and people were stopping to hang out with them. My pictures of the birds did not turn out well enough to share, but I was glad to get some shots of the pretty sunset clouds reflected in water. At times, there was the kind of softly colored haze you might see in a classic landscape painting due to the recent storm and humidity. I hope to visit again soon.
The afternoon was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and oppressively humid, but since it was my last full day with my rental car from the weekend’s travels, I wasn’t going to let the weather stop me from exploring Birchmore Trail, which is part of Memorial Park. It’s only a few miles from my new place, but there’s no bus from here to there, and the roads aren’t pedestrian-friendly. I took the trail head from a dead-end residential street and was happy to find such a pretty, green place to walk nestled in the city. It starts at “The Great Wall of Happy Hollow” and winds alongside and across some creeks, and at least one of the many magnolia trees was in bloom with big white flowers.
I hoped to walk the entire trail and maybe stop at Bear Hollow Zoo, which is about halfway through the entire trail’s loop from where I started. But the humidity was insane, and the sandwich I’d taken didn’t agree with me. I did not regret my decision for long, because a couple of minutes after heading back the way I came, massive thunder rolled in. Rain began a few minutes later, and although I got quite wet, I would have been absolutely drenched in the ensuing thunderstorm. The rain was hitting my car so hard that it sounded like hail! Then after a torrential twenty minutes, the rain stopped and the big fluffy clouds looked gorgeous in the sunshine.
It was a good walk, and I look forward to visiting the rest of the trail in the future.
Under the Banner of King Death is a recent graphic-novel adaptation of one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker. It takes a few liberties with history but conveys the primary themes of the source material: namely, that Atlantic piracy of the 1600s and 1700s was a labor revolt against intolerable conditions for the working sailor, that the ruling class would rather hang revolutionaries by the neck until they are dead than give up one cent of profit, and that the pirates formed their own democratic, multicultural societies while having no illusions that their pursuit of freedom would not result in their deaths.
Rediker’s introduction to the tale summarizes these main points from his own book—one of many of his works that give greater insights into the values, lives, and torturous working conditions of these historical sailors who were horrifically abused by naval commanders and experienced first-hand the deplorable conditions of the Atlantic slave trade. The afterword by Paul Buhle discusses the depiction of pirates in popular fiction, and I was pleased to see it give several shouts-out to the EC Comics series Piracy I recently reviewed.
Between those pages lies some adventurous artwork that might be too scratchy for mainstream tastes but succeeds in conveying the brutality of the pirates’ lives. David Lester employs a number of techniques to de-glamorize every aspect of piracy that has been “Disney-fied” over the years. For example, he will take an act of violence that could be presented in one panel, but cut the panel into pieces so there’s no way we could think it looks “cool” or “awesome”. Even when he uses traditional panels, they often overlap so that foreground and background bleed into each other, despite panel borders.
The result is a tale that captures both the misery and the nobility of raging against the machine in an age of corporate tyranny where labor is utterly de-valued and profit reigns supreme—an age that in many ways remains unchanged.
My only problem with the tale is its inaccuracies in depicting the life of Mary Read. From all historical accounts, she was indeed a fighter and brawler and one hell of a pirate. Although this story borrows details from her life, she is heavily fictionalized to serve the narrative’s purpose. Her true story is fascinating enough without being substantially altered, and I don’t know why Rediker allowed this adaptation to take such great liberties when his books are noteworthy for their historically accurate accounts.
Still, despite its fictionalization of documented events, Under the Banner of King Death captures the spirit of piracy and the central ideas that Rediker’s books on the subject illuminate in greater detail. As an adaptation, it does a remarkable job of bringing the realities of Atlantic piracy to life.
To a merry life.
Collector’s Guide: This graphic novel is currently available in print at MyComicShop and in print and digital on Amazon
In 1989, the Cult’s Sonic Temple was probably my favorite album, and it was well-loved by many of the wildly disparate groups of people I hung out with. Metal heads liked it. Punks liked it. New wavers liked it, even if they preferred the Love album. Even the mainstream liked it. Singles from Sonic Temple enjoyed massive airplay on commercial radio, but even my friends who preferred underground music thought it rocked.
With Billy Duffy’s iconic black-leather, guitar-god pose on the cover matched by insanely catchy riff-rock on the tracks, Ian Astbury’s passionate vocals, and a cameo appearance by Iggy Pop, Sonic Temple embodied all that was awesome about rock’n’roll.
These days, I tend to prefer the Electric album for classic Cult, maybe because my high-school self played Sonic Temple so many times on cassette that I wore out the magnetic tape. But if you were to hand me a beer and tell me were about to listen to the entire Sonic Temple album from start to finish, I’d be all aboard.
Last year, I tried to find a t-shirt that featured the killer cover, but what bugged me was that I couldn’t find anything with an image from the inside of the cassette sleeve.
So, I went to eBay and picked up a copy of the original cassette for about five bucks to scan all the artwork. Yes, piracy is alive and well in the twenty-first century, but I doubt the Cult is going to send me a cease-and-desist order for making my own shirt for personal enjoyment. No one has arrested me for wearing my pirated Parasauralophus shirt I had made from a scan of Topps Dinosaurs Attack cards last year.
Look, I know this one-shot about a “bad girl” who was designed for adolescent boys to get a titallating thrill from tales of utterly violent and satanic nonsense isn’t Eisner-award-winning material, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I was going to buy it just for the absolutely glorious wraparound cover by Juan Jose Ryp, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the story inside is a worthy addition to my collection of books and comics about pirates.
At first, I thought, “This is just a silly yarn full of well-worn pirate fantasy tropes.” But about halfway through this gorgeously illustrated issue, I was all aboard. I’ve never been a fan of Lady Death stories, even though I love the Lady Death aesthetic. She was always one of those characters who I felt had never lived up to their potential, maybe even a character I would like to try writing someday to do her justice.
Pirate Queen proves she doesn’t need my help. Our leading lady lures her enemies to be devoured by some demonic sea reptiles and is rewarded by regaining her super-awesome sword of death. She uses it to re-animate an entire town full of slaughtered pirate corpses to take vengeance on those who betrayed her. She coldly celebrates her return to power and sets off on a quest that bodes ill for every living thing on Earth.
“It’s Patches! I don’t know what’s wrong with her. Come and look. Please.”
Tarzi had not often seen Meteor Mags cry. He followed her to her room as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Patches lay on Mags’ bed. Her eyes appeared dull and cloudy. A bowl of food sat untouched by the bedside.
“I’ve never seen her like this before,” said Mags. “She hasn’t eaten for days. She’s hardly moved and hasn’t cleaned herself at all. I got her to take a few sips of water, but that’s it.”
Tarzi sat on the bed beside Patches. He ran his fingers over her head, from nose to neck. Normally she would purr at his touch. But she offered no response. “She doesn’t look so hot, Auntie. Is she sick?”
“How can an indestructible cat get sick? If her cells are invulnerable, no virus or bacteria could injure her.”
Tarzi thought for a moment. He speculated. “We aren’t really as simple as just animal tissue, are we? We have more bacteria cells in our bodies than we do human cells. And our mitochondria are, like, not even human. They’re more like ancient bacteria living in our cells. Maybe something that’s always been a part of her is just… out of whack?”
Mags sat in her chair, rested her elbows on her knees, and put her head in her hands. “Hell, I never thought of that. Just which parts of her are invulnerable? Which parts of ‘her’ are her, and which ones aren’t?” Mags grabbed a cigarette and lit up. “Fuck. Baby kitty, can’t you tell us what’s wrong? Anything at all?” Mags began to cry again.
The nictitating membranes slowly slid away from Patches’ eyes. Her pupils rolled toward Mags without moving her head. She let out a single mew.
“Oh, baby, of course. Anything you want.”
“What did she say?”
“She wants her tablet.” Mags stood and rummaged around the room. “Hell if I know where it is, though.” She opened drawers in her desk, looked under the bed, and moved books and albums around on her bookshelf. “Where is it, Patches?”
Patches did not answer.
“What if there’s something about her tablet that made her sick?” Tarzi asked. “You’re part cat or—or something, Mags. What would you do with something that made you sick?”
Without hesitation, Mags said, “I’d fucking bury it. Dig a hole and cover it up like shit.”
“Oookay then,” said Tarzi.
“A-ha!” Mags threw open her closet door. On the floor inside sat an enormous pile of socks, bras, skirts, and whatever else Mags had not felt like washing that month.
Tarzi had never known Mags to be disorderly, unless it was immediately preceded by “drunk and”. Then again, he had never rummaged through her closet. He watched with amusement as Mags got down on all fours and dug through the pile to the bottom.
“Found it! Good call, Tarzi. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, if that’s what’s making her sick. Let’s have a look, then.”
Mags turned it on. Her eyebrows furrowed as she studied the web page it brought up. She touched the screen and examined the browser history. “That’s weird.”
“What is it?”
Mags handed him the tablet. Patches’ eyes followed listlessly as it passed from Mags’ hands to his.
“That’s funny,” said Tarzi. “I recognize most of these pages. I wrote them. Co-wrote, really.”
“You wrote the stuff that’s making her sick? What the fuck, Tarzi?”
“Mags, these are pages from the Anarchopedia, or the pages linked to in their sources sections. They’re all about the exact same thing: honeybees.”
“No one has seen a honeybee in nearly ten years now.”
“I know,” said Tarzi. “I wrote this. It tells all about how the bees died out around 2023. Hell, I barely have a memory of seeing them outside as a kid, but now I don’t know if it was real or just one of those things you think happened, but only imagined. Damn,” he continued, “from her browser history, it’s like she looked at hundreds of pages about bees. You don’t think she understands all this, do you?”
“I know she does. I mean, not all of it. But—how do I explain this?” Mags sighed and sat back down. “Listen. Do you remember when Patches and I were caught by that octopus? And how it told me all the stuff about the lab and everything?”
“Yeah. You said it was like telepathy or something.”
“Right. But it wasn’t just a conversation. It wasn’t like being on a phone call, and I ask you how your day was, and you tell me how it went, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and then you say whatever. It wasn’t like that at all, Tarzi. We shared our minds. We shared everything we had ever known or thought or felt. I lived her life, Tarzi. And she lived mine.”
“You mean Patches knows everything you know?”
“Yes. But not perfectly. At least, not if what she’s going through is anything like what I’ve been through. Think about how much information and stuff a whole person’s life is. You can’t just upload all of that in an instant and suddenly be an expert.”
“So it’s not like ‘Whoa—I know Kung Fu’?”
“Right. Your brain needs to process all that. And it takes time to sort it out. I still get things that come to mind, and I know they’re Patches’ memories surfacing all of a sudden, not mine. Or like, I have a dream, and it’s not my dream. It’s one of hers. You know?”
“Not really. It sounds confusing.”
“It is. Tarzi, I had a couple times where I woke up since then, and for a minute I really thought I was her. Other times, I get this realization about something, one of her memories, like my brain is finally putting together the pieces of the puzzle and making a connection about something I ‘saw’ that day.”
“That must be weird as fuck for Patches.”
“Exactly. But I know she understands some of what she reads on that thing. Because she will ask me about it or tell me something about it. I explain some stuff to her, and some of it is still a bit over her head. But she’s getting more and more of it as time goes on.” Mags pulled another cigarette out of her pack and lit up.
“Alright, let me have one of those, then.”
“What? I thought you quit!”
“I did quit. But I am freaking out right now. Come on, Mags. This is no time to start pretending you’re a good influence.”
“Fuck you! Fine!” Mags laughed and handed him the whole pack and followed it with her lighter.
“If you tell Hyo-Sonn, I’ll call you a liar.”
“Mum’s the word, Captain Nicorette.”
Patches’ ears twitched at the sounds of Mags’ laughter.
“That’s my good kitten,” said Mags. “If we assume nothing about the physical tablet could hurt her, then there’s only one possible answer.”
“She’s upset about these articles.”
“She’s sad about the bees.”
Tarzi thought for a moment, puffing on his cigarette and frowning. “That’s a bit of a problem. Seeing as how they’re all gone.”
“It’s fucked, isn’t it? It’s half the reason all the food production has been moved indoors and mechanized, and why most people on Earth don’t have anything to eat but synthetic crap. All the plants we used to eat, they needed honeybees to pollinate them. We screwed ourselves on that one.”
“Right. You wrote the goddamned article about it.”
“But it gets worse. Just about every disease on Earth can be linked back to those shite foods they ‘grow’ now. The stuff that isn’t synthetic is still so devoid of nutrients, you’d have to eat three, four, maybe five times as much as someone living in the Stone Age to get the same nutrition. And when you have a planet full of poor, malnourished people, well—look at all the violence.”
“Look at all the prisons.”
“Fuck that. Now I’m getting sad! Poor Patches!”
“What the hell are we supposed to do about it? Bring back the bees?”
At that, Patches lifted her head, stared into Tarzi’s eyes, and purred.
Mags stood outside the aquatic tank on the Hyades and placed one hand on the reinforced Plexiglass wall separating her and Alonso from the colorful octopus swarm on the other side. She said, “They seem really happy here.”
“Home sweet home,” said Alonso. “Plus, they got more light in here than in that dirty-ass bilgewater in the cave. And the monkeys are always bringing them new toys to play with.”
“Yeah, you know. Beach balls. Rubik’s cubes. An inflatable Richard Nixon sex doll. Just random stuff the old crew left lying around.”
“Do I even want to know why your crew had that stuff?”
“Probably not. But the octos like to play. They need a lot of tactile stimulation.”
“I’ll bet. So here’s what I need them to do, and I want you to stick around so I don’t get my brain fried, okay?”
“Sure, tía. I got your back.”
“You always did. Now we know my babies can read minds and influence thoughts, but I want them to try something else. I want them to find a mind. Or minds, if possible. Conventional wisdom says these minds have gone extinct, but I want to see if there are any left that we don’t know about.”
Sensing Mags’ intentions, the octopuses abandoned their playtime and coalesced into a shape resembling a dodecahedron. Their numerous arms interlaced to give the shape edges and form. Rubik’s cubes dropped by the dozen to the floor of the tank. Richard Nixon floated to the surface. His plastic effigy bobbed on the waves.
“Babies,” said Mags, “I want you to search Earth and see if you can find any bees. I don’t really know what bees’ minds are like, or how you’ll find them, but I’m going to think about them real hard and try to give you some clues. Okay?”
The octo-dodecahedron shifted its pigments into black and yellow stripes.
“Whoa,” said Alonso.
“That’s a good start,” said Mags. “Now shush and let me think.”
Mags pondered all she knew about the lives of bees. She knew they could see ultraviolet light invisible to the human eye. She pictured them dancing inside their hives to communicate the location of nectar-rich flowers to each other. She imagined their democratic process for determining a location for a new hive, the way they oriented themselves to the sun and wiggled their bodies, depicting distance and direction by scurrying back and forth according to that solar orientation. From those conversations, bees would vote and choose a new home. She thought of the male drones who lived only to mate, and the females who fed larvae, and the queen who gave birth to them all.
At first, the octopuses were confused by the enormous number of species who also pollinated plants, and the wasps who lived in similar communities. As they fed these images back to Mags, she mentally discarded the mismatches and focused on the insects she wanted.
How long the process took was measured only by the number of beers Alonso finished in that time. As he cracked open number five, Mags said, “Fuck me dead. We got a match.”
“You found a bee? Where is it?”
Mags shushed him again. For there was not just one bee, but hundreds and hundreds of them, and several queens. And for miles around them, no human minds existed—none save one. “Babies,” said Mags, “focus on that human and see if you can tell me where she lives.”
Miles from nowhere in the North American countryside, Mags knocked on the front door of a Victorian-style house whose white and pale-blue paint needed scraping. The windows needed re-glazing. Much of the siding needed to be replaced. She knocked again.
An old woman’s voice reached her ears. “Quit your pounding! Who’s there?”
Mags flicked the ash of a cigarette onto the buckled wooden porch. “Yo, it’s me, Mags! I called you?” Her sensitive ears picked up shuffling movements, and the next time the voice reached her ears, it was closer to the door.
“You won’t kill anyone, will you?”
Mags frowned. “Not unless I have to. I’m here about the bees.”
There followed a clackety racket of various locks and chains being undone, then the door opened. It revealed an elderly woman with long, grey hair gathered into a ponytail. She wore an old-fashioned nightgown even though it was three in the afternoon, and a pair of slippers. She held a Glock .45 in one hand. “As long as you can behave.”
“I’ll be nice. I promise. May I come in?”
“I suppose. You’ve come a long way, haven’t you?”
“All the way from fucking Ceres, baby!”
“I will not have that language in my house! And put out that cigarette!”
Mags stubbed out the fag on the sole of one combat boot and flicked the butt into the street. “I’m sorry. You know, you remind me of my gramma. She was one hell of a—one heck of a woman.”
“Did she keep bees?”
Mags raised an eyebrow. “You could say that. We had this huge farm, and Gramma was always banging on about how we needed to take care of her bees.”
“She sounds like a wise woman.”
“Delores, you don’t know the half of it.”
The old woman holstered her pistol. “Come in. Would you like to see the hives?”
“I’d love to.” Mags stepped into the foyer and watched with some bemusement as the weathered door slammed shut behind her and the equally weathered Delores set all the locks and chains back into place.
The old woman’s arthritic hands struggled with a final deadbolt.
“Let me get that for you.” Mags latched it into place.
Delores said, “You seem like an awfully nice young woman, despite what I’ve heard about you on the news.”
“Thanks,” said Mags. She looked around the ramshackle décor and the walls of peeling paint. She inhaled the odor of decay. Disorder and decline. But if her senses saddened her at all, she gave not a sign. “Have you lived here long?”
“My husband bought this place fifty years ago, rest his soul. Why don’t you come out back with me?”
Mags took her hand and followed.
Compared to the decrepit interior, the backyard was a celebration of life and greenery. Magnolia trees and holly bushes bustled with birds, and all kinds of flowering plants thrived in the sunlight. All around them, honeybees carried on their daily delight in a constant buzz from one flower to the next.
In the center of that symphony stood the last three beehives on Earth.
“Remind me,” said Delores, “how you heard of me.”
“It’s a long story,” said Mags. “It starts with my cat, and my nephew, and a whole hell of a—a heck of a lot of research. But from what I can gather, you are the last of the beekeepers. The poor little bastards—the—the buggers died out a decade ago. But somehow, you kept them going.”
Delores rested on a concrete bench. “It wasn’t easy.” She held a hand to her forehead, rubbed her temples, and let it fall away. “All these years.”
Mags sat beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know. I’m not as young as I look, Delores. I’ve been fighting this stuff for longer than you’ve been alive. And somehow, it seems like no matter how much I try to make things right, they just go wrong so fast that I can’t keep up.”
The shoulder in her hand shook in silence, and Mags did not interrupt.
Delores wiped her tears. “What exactly do you want?”
Mags brushed stray locks of hair away from the woman’s face. “I want the same thing you do, Gramma. I want bees. I want bees who thrive. Bees who bring beautiful plants to life, and the crops I need to feed people. But I need these bees in the Belt.”
“The asteroid belt?”
“The one and only. I just set up shop on Ceres, and we intend to grow our own food. We don’t have any interest in depending on Earth for our food supply. But for that, we need crops. And for crops, we need bees. And for bees, we need a queen. Several queens.”
“You want to take my queens?”
“No, no,” said Mags. “Not all at once. But if you can give me one to get started, and I can come back a bit later to get a few more? Then Ceres can develop its own self-sustaining hives. We can do something that’s never been done before in the Belt.”
“Will you make a garden?”
Mags laughed. “Delores, we plan to make a crazy tall building that houses thousands of hives under the care of a full-time staff. I can’t say it will be as pretty as your garden, but it will be awesome in its own way. It will help feed so many people. I can show you the plans.”
Delores was quiet for a moment. “That won’t be necessary. But I have two requests.”
“Anything you want.”
“One, you’ll send me pictures.”
“And two, you’ll name it after me.”
Mags smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. And listen, I’ll get some people out here to fix up your house. You’ll never need to worry about a mortgage or taxes ever again. Anything else you need—getting food and stuff delivered, whatever—you just let me know.”
“That’s very kind of you. But I—”
“Look. My gramma would haunt me for the rest of my goddamn life if I did anything less.”
They sat in silence in the garden for a number of minutes Mags did not bother counting. All around her, the cycle of life buzzed undisturbed in splashes of sunlight and birdsong and the cool, spring breeze.
Miniscule ants carried on their wars and empire building. Plants converted sunlight into their bodies and stretched out to receive the glowing source. A snail crawled to a single drop of water on a leaf and drank from it until it was gone.
Some time later, when the shadows in the garden had changed their angles, Delores set her hand on Mags’ leg. “Help me up, dear. I’d like you to meet a queen.”
“I think,” said Mags, “I already have.”
On the way back to Ceres, Mags held a tiny wooden box in her hand and peered through the wire screen on one side to see the insect inside. The enclosure held a few drones, too—the male bees whose only purpose was to mate with a queen before dying.
Soon, in the newly christened Delores Cunningham Institute for Agriculture, they fulfilled that purpose.
Celina guided a dozen teenage girls on a tour of the DCIA in hopes of interesting a few of them in learning and working there. She began in the lobby. “Some of you already know about this statue of Delores Cunningham. But for those of you who weren’t involved with the project, Kala and her sculpture group at the Community Center carved this to commemorate the life of the woman who made all of this possible.”
She made a broad, sweeping gesture with both hands to indicate the entire structure around them. One hand held a tall glass of colorful liquid and chunks of fruit. She took a sip. “Even this Mai Tai. The citrus was grown right here on Ceres.”
If the stone rendition of the late beekeeper disapproved of drinking, it gave no evidence. It portrayed Delores sitting on her favorite bench in her garden. On one raised hand crawled a queen bee carved from asteroid rock older than Earth itself.
Sarah said, “Did you meet her?”
“Only once. On Mags’ last trip to visit.”
Another girl spoke up. “What was she like?” Most of the group had just come from roller-derby practice at the Community Center. Girls carried helmets and wore pads on their knees and elbows. Their t-shirts bore the names of various teams. The Planet Crushers. The Brawling Bitches. The Legion of Hell.
Celina found the names amusing. She had suggested some of them. Like so many of the children on the asteroid-mining frontier, the Ceresian teens had survived traumas no one should ever endure, and roller derby was one of the activities Celina encouraged to help them find their inner strength. If some adults on Ceres found the team names less than wholesome, Celina was all too happy to give them a piece of her mind. She was, after all, the oldest person in the solar system.
“Delores,” she said, “was probably the last person you’d imagine to be hanging out with Mags. She was gentle. Kind. Softspoken. Not at all like a certain magpie we know.” That got a laugh. Celina continued. “She was struggling in the last few months of her life, but when she walked into her garden, a light filled her eyes, and you could see the young woman she had once been, full of joy in simple things and the life all around her. That is her legacy for us. Would you like to see the rest of the place?”
She walked away as if she already knew the answer, and the tour group followed her—all except for Sarah. The lead singer of the Dumpster Kittens approached the statue and leaned in to examine the carved queen close-up. She stroked its lacelike wings with one finger and marveled at the delicacy one could achieve with hard, unyielding stone. She considered, for a moment, how that odd combination resembled the personalities of the two pirates who had taken her under their own wings.
Then she caught up to the rest of the group.
Halfway through the tour, Celina showed her girls the floor of the building where engineers and biologists experimented with growing meat. “This,” she said, “is where we are building some cutting-edge technology to grow muscle tissue from animal cells. Soon, we’ll be having steak that was never cut from a cow, fried chicken that never knew a cage or was killed, and a bloody good fish and chips that was never pulled from an ocean or a farm.”
Trays filled with sheets of flesh bathed in liquid nutrients. Men and women in white lab coats and masks busied themselves with taking temperature readings, slicing off samples for microscopic examination and testing, and adjusting the nutrient feeds.
“Now I know this looks totally gross,” said Celina, “but compared to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, this is nothing.”
One of the girls spoke up. “This is freakin’ crazy! Who came up with this?”
“Mags came up with it one night when we were out drinking.”
“What does Mags care? She’s not like, a vegetarian or anything.”
“No,” said Celina, “she certainly isn’t. Because of her fucked up biology—I mean, her unique biology—she needs meat to live. Do you know what an obligate carnivore is?”
“I do,” said Sarah. “Like cats. They need organ meat to survive.”
“That’s right. If you put a cat on a vegetarian diet, the goddamn thing will die. So the question was, can we meet that nutritional need without any suffering?”
Another girl said, “So it’s like cruelty-free cat food?”
Celina laughed. “That’s exactly what it’s like. But this isn’t just for cats. We think this tech will be a game-changer for feeding everyone in the Belt. A long time ago, when Mags and I lived with her gramma, we raised all our own animals, and they lived good lives. They enjoyed fresh air and sunshine. They were loved as much as any house pet. But the sad thing was, they still had to die. And that’s no fun for anyone.” Celina took a swig from her drink. “Unless you’re a total fucking sadist.”
“So how does it work?”
Celina said, “Some of it is really above my pay grade. But if this sounds like something you’d be interested in learning about, then you just let me know. We could use all the help we can get. Are you ready to see the next level?”
On the top floor, the group encountered Mags and Patches. The felonious felines were behind a glass wall, beyond which was an open area swarming with bees. Mags was unrecognizable inside her protective beekeeper’s suit that made her shapely body a lumpy mass of white, but she waved to Celina and the girls.
Patches sprawled on the floor of the enclosure, nearly unrecognizable herself. Bees covered her bushy body in a writhing mass of insect movement that did not bother her at all. Her tuft-filled ears flicked away inquisitive intruders without any fear of being stung, and the black-and-yellow mass covering her torso rose and fell with her rhythmic purring.
Celina said, “I tried to tell them they don’t need to go in there anymore, but they wouldn’t hear a word of it. I don’t think Mags is even doing proper beekeeping anymore. She just likes to let Patches hang out with the bees.”
Patches slowly shifted her weight to let the swarm around her adjust, then flopped over onto her back without injuring a single insect. What had troubled her so greatly two years prior had become a source of happiness. She was, like so many Ceresians, content in her new home, with her new friends—with simple things, and the hum of life around her.
Despite my long-standing affection for EC Comics, I was unaware of their pirate stories until I recently read the massive, epic, hardcover tome The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood, Volume 1. Wallace—who apparently hated the nickname “Wally” and preferred for his friends to call him “Woody”—drew two stories for EC’s seven-issue pirate series. Its full title is Sagas of the Sea, Ships, Plunder, and PIRACY!
The title is apropos because not all the stories are about the classic Atlantic Pirates. The gritty tale Nazi U-Boat, for example, features artwork by the legendary Bernard Krigstein, and The Dive depicts a modern man on an ill-advised mission to find a galleon with sunken treasure. Some stories involve the Atlantic slave trade, complete with EC’s editorial insistence on exposing the evils of racism.
The result is a spicy mix of seafaring murder and mayhem, mutinies, miscarriages of justice, beatings, bashings, bloodshed, and brutality. On the first page of the first issue, EC’s introduction makes it crystal-clear that these aren’t cuddly, romanticized, Disney-style tales where pirates are glamorous, good-hearted heroes. These adventures are down-and-dirty explorations of dastardly deeds and the depraved depths of an ocean much darker than the sea itself: man’s inhumanity to man. PIRACY promises to present pirates as they really were.
Well, hell yeah, baby! Sign me up! That’s my kind of story!
The collected PIRACY does a damn good job of delivering on that initial promise. The hyper-dramatic prose is among the best I’ve read from EC’s writers, and what stylistic quibbles I have with it as an editor are more than made up for by combining it with consistently awesome artwork. You can get away with a bit too much “telling” in prose when it is married to pictures that do the heavy lifting of “showing”. And even though long-time fans of EC will be able to predict some of the “shock” endings of EC’s often-imitated, last-minute twists, there were many final moments I did not see coming.
But as relentlessly unforgiving as these stories tend to be, do they truly show us pirates “as they really were”? The answer is: sometimes. The cliché of “walking the plank” is trotted out several times, but that trope has been discredited in scholarly works such as David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag.
And the story featuring both Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet is a complete fabrication that absolutely butchers the historical record. Stede Bonnet, whose tale is told at length in the General History of the Pyrates, was a rare exception to a statement I made a couple of years ago: “No one rich ever became a pirate.” The main detail EC got right about Stede is that he was a fairly well-to-do guy who just thought being a pirate would be fun or something. Every other aspect of his collaboration with Blackbeard and eventual death is, in the EC version, totally wrong. The EC version of Jean Laffite is also mostly imaginary, especially regarding the end of his life, despite referencing a few historical events and places.
One other curious thing. Despite the gory prose, the illustrations are completely bloodless. People constantly get shot, stabbed, crushed to death, and subjected to all forms of physical horrors, but the illustrations avoid depicting any blood. It’s an odd choice, and not one I understand. Perhaps even EC needed to draw some kind of line to avoid the censorship that would eventually snuff out the company’s life anyway.
These minor shortcomings in depicting the reality of the classical pirates’ lives don’t make the PIRACY series any less enthralling. The collected volume presents captivating tales of triumph and tragedy with thoughtfully reconstructed colors, and the ebook version will let you zoom in panel-by-panel for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
The robots are reading! An old friend of mine who produces audio recordings for the visually impaired recently posted a Wall Street Journal article about DeepZen, a company that samples professional voice actors and narrators to create robot voices that produce audiobooks.
You might know I’ve produced three short audiobooks entirely on my own, but it was a time-consuming and challenging task even for someone with years of experience reading in public, engineering radio broadcasts, and recording my own music. And in the end, I thought the results were just okay, because I was so focused on the technical details and enunciating clearly that the readings themselves lack a bit of emotion.
So I thought, “What the heck? Let’s give the robots a shot at the hard work!” I chose the DeepZen voice of Lauren Williams—who has a British accent—and sent her a trial run of two short episodes from The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. After all, the series features female characters using slang from the UK and Australia, and profanities inspired by the classical pirates from England. Maybe Lauren could lend the proper space-pirate vibe to Mags’ outbursts such as “Curse me for a bloody papist!”
Now you can judge robotic Lauren’s performance for yourself. Below are the links to audio files you can listen to in your browser or download like digital pirates, absolutely free of charge. The first story is Reborn, where Mags sets up a genetics lab to resurrect some of her freaky space pets whose DNA she preserved. The second is Solo Tour, where the paths of Mags, a murderous cyborg, and one of her teenage fans violently intersect.
Welcome back to another installment of theBig Box of Comics, where I share the treasures I’ve acquired thanks to this blog’s readers. Today we’ll look at a series of comics I picked up just for the covers—but oh, what covers they are!
In the summer of 1990, just before my final year of high school, Robocop 2 hit the big screen. A huge fan of the original movie, I had to see the sequel. This was before we had year-long lead-ups to summer blockbusters with so many trailers and leaks and hundreds of YouTubers making videos about the damn trailers and everything being over-hyped online until there’s no way any movie can live up to all that.
No, I just walked into the theater without knowing much of anything other than “Robocop is awesome,” and I took an unexpected journey. It was one of the first—if not the first—movie with an R rating I got to see on my own since I had turned seventeen that year, and my teenage mind was blown away. But what really caught me by surprise was when the end credits announced the movie was written by a comic-book creator whose work I knew: Frank Miller.
The stunning revelation made instant sense to me. Movies based on comic books are a dime a dozen now, but Robocop 2 was one of the first live-action films that really captured the essence of the over-the-top action, humorous parody, pointed social commentary, insane violence, and grim-and-gritty protagonists that characterized the tonal shift in many mainstream comics in the mid-to-late 1980s. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a big part of that change, and his Robocop film had a lot in common with it.
But while the movie was so much fun in a “Rule of Cool” way, the comics adaptation based on Miller’s original script is a mean-spirited mess that lacks the movie’s focus and hilarity, and it will probably make you grateful for all the changes made for the film. Its best feature is the artwork by Juan Jose Ryp, a non-stop visual feast of intricately detailed hyper-violence that is gloriously exemplified by Ryp’s covers for the series—especially the wraparound covers.
Ryp drew my all-time favorite covers, and he is in fine form on Robocop where he renders cyborgs, cops, and criminals in chaotic combat scenes that completely destroy their urban environments. Although the series itself isn’t so great, I indulged in these works of art for my small collection of Ryp’s work for Avatar Press. Along the way, I also picked up some ripping Ryp wraps that were missing from my Anna Mercury and Wolfskin collections.
You could probably stuff a short box full of nothing but Ryp’s prolific output for Avatar. And who knows? Maybe one day I will. As Robocop says at the end of the movie version, “Patience, Lewis. We’re only human.”
Collector’s Guide: These covers appear on the original single issues of Frank Miller Robocop by Avatar Press (2003). If you lack the patience to track them all down in print, you can get the entire digital collection for about $20.
The cyborg gripped Timothy’s throat with cold titanium fingers that promised to crush the life out of him before it had time to flash before his eyes. The teenager thrashed as hard as he could. The back of his skull found the club’s concrete floor and was far from happy about it. He couldn’t scream, but plenty of people around him were taking care of that.
If his brain had not been preoccupied with its imminent demise, he might have second-guessed just how far he was willing to go as a fan.
Five hours earlier, Meteor Mags landed her ship on the asteroid Nemesis 128, a carbon-rich chunk of rock not wider than 178 kilometers in any direction. The corporation which first claimed Nemesis had filed for bankruptcy and abandoned all the equipment and sub-par hovels constructed for the mining families, along with the GravGens that pumped out an artificial gravity field approximating that of Earth’s. Like so many workers in the Belt in 2033, the residents of Nemesis owed their survival to a rugged determination and support from Mags.
She stepped out of her ship and planted her combat boots in the middle of a dreary spaceport. “Fucking hell,” she said. “I love what they’ve done with the place.” What light bulbs worked at all flickered incompetently and sprayed her shadow intermittently across the hull behind her in oblique angles.
Her sound engineer, Dr. Plutonian, poked his head out the door of the Bêlit. “Jesus, Mags. Do they even have enough electricity to power our equipment?”
“Leave that to me.”
Mags’ calico cat Patches bounded from the ship, pressed her ears backwards and flat against her bushy head, and howled.
Mags said, “We’ll get ’em sorted.”
The final member of her entourage appeared in the ship’s doorway. “I’m assuming this isn’t the scenic view you promised?”
“It’s one of them, Sarah. Would you help Plutes unload for a minute? Patches and I need to fill out some paperwork.”
Sarah was hardly old enough to drive a car on Earth, but ever since Mags had rescued her from being eaten by aliens in 2029 and taken the young woman under her wing, she’d formed her own band as the singer for the punk-rock sensation Dumpster Kittens, and she was no stranger to loading and unloading. “Get on it, then. We only have five hours ‘til showtime!”
Mags departed with a flick of her tail and lit up a smoke. Patches followed suit, stopping every so often to sniff random objects and scratch them with her impervious claws to let everyone know she had been there.
Plutonian said, “I guess this is why we get paid the big bucks.”
Sarah laughed. The sound was brighter than any light in that decrepit port. “I always knew you were only in this for the money.”
His eyes following Mags told a different story, a story Sarah knew all too well. She was, after all, a telepath.
Mags returned longer than a minute later and found all the equipment unloaded. “Listen,” she said. “They’ve had some problems with power, and I’m going to fix them. I need a couple hours to install our energy system at this rock’s poles. Patches is coming with the two of you as security. I can’t have my band wandering this godforsaken rock without a bodyguard. If anything goes horribly wrong, call me.”
Plutonian said, “We’ll make it to the club. Just make sure we have time for a proper soundcheck.”
Mags kissed his cheek. “I doubt anything about this tour will be proper.”
Patches leapt onto the black box containing Mags’ piano. She stretched out, licking one paw and rubbing it over one ear.
Sarah said, “Your chariot awaits.”
The first time Timothy heard Meteor Mags in 2030, he was thirteen years old, and he pleaded with his best friend Brian to turn off the music. In the storage closet that passed for Brian’s bedroom in the dilapidated shack Brian’s parents called home, a tattered boombox blared.
Now I ain’t your little girl Now I ain’t your toy Your life don’t mean shit to me Something to destroy
“You don’t like it?” Brian’s parents were both working in the mines on the same shift, and he was enjoying a rare free hour to listen to music as loud as he wanted—or at least as loud as his limited equipment could handle.
“God no,” said Timothy. “It’s bloody awful!”
“It’s Meteor Mags,” said Brian, “with these guys called the Psycho 78s.”
“It’s a lot of screaming and bashing. Can we listen to something else?”
Timothy was not yet a fan.
The week his parents lost their jobs in 2032—along with every other miner on Nemesis when the corporation went belly-up—Timothy hardly slept at all. Unlike Brian, he didn’t have a closet to sleep in, only the couch in the scant few meters that served as both livingroom and kitchen. He didn’t even have space to stretch out his legs.
His parents, still on erratic sleep schedules from their mining shifts, woke him up at random hours by plopping on the couch next to him to fight over which video to watch and careening recklessly toward the end of their final paycheck by converting it to booze and cigarettes.
It was like he was a ghost, so he left the shack without saying a word. He walked alone for hours, and all he had to listen to was the music on a small drive Brian gave him. In his earpods, the Psycho 78s blasted their single Whipping Boy, with Meteor Mags on vocals.
She sang about being so angry about being beaten down that you’d want to take up arms against your oppressors and keep on killing until the killing was done—or at least, that’s what Timothy could decipher amidst all the screaming and bashing.
The music wasn’t all that different from what he’d heard two years before, but it made a new kind of sense to him. He’d seen his parents turn from hopefulness to hopelessness on the cruel frontier. He’d lost hope himself and felt it replaced by a constantly churning frequency that felt like rage boiling under the surface of every minute of every day.
Somewhere in that mess of noise in his ears, he heard his rage reflected, focused, and redirected. And the fact that these people, these Psycho 78s he had never known or even met, had captured his feeling and brought it to life made him feel like maybe, just maybe, anything was possible.
Head-down in his hoodie and singing along as if no one could hear him, Timothy was well on his way to becoming a fan.
Ninety minutes before the show, Meteor Mags checked her phone. “Bloody hell. What’s a bitch gotta do to get a few bars out here?” She shoved the tiny black box back inside her bra and positioned the second rod on the rocky ground before her. Holding it steady with one hand, she lifted a hammer above her head. Then she brought it down, again and again, until the rod was firmly embedded in the asteroid.
Nemesis was not the first asteroid where she’d installed her free-energy system, an engineering triumph made possible by her late friend Slim’s mathematical genius and Shondra’s manufacturing expertise on Mars. But it was certainly the first hunk of space rock she’d lit up just so she could play a concert.
Nemesis was the first stop on her tour in support of her second solo album, 88 Light Years. And if the pathetic asteroid needed a boost, then she was damn well sure she was the one to make it happen.
As the clock ticked closer to showtime, Mags pounded the SlimRod one, two, three more times then slipped her hammer into a belt loop. A stolen cigarette found its way into her hand, and she knelt to flip the switch that would send a wave of energy from the north pole of Nemesis to its south pole, then back again in an endless wave that anyone with open-source equipment could tap into. And she’d made damn sure her concert equipment could tap into it.
She took a drag and let it leisurely escape her lungs below the star-splattered sky that hardly twinkled in the human-made atmosphere.
She said, “Power to the people.” A shockwave made the asteroid tremble as if from the notes of a bass guitar. The blast ruffled her skirt and caused a single lock of hair to fall over her face.
She smiled a wicked smile and finished her smoke before starting up the vehicle she had borrowed without asking from the spaceport. She was pretty sure she remembered where the club was.
The day Timothy became a true fan, three ships from Mars landed on Nemesis. He had nothing to eat in the last five days except protein powder. He was one of the lucky ones. Many others died in the food riots following the mining corporation’s hasty exit. More had overdosed on heroin and fentanyl in their untidy hovels rather than face the future. Some died with lit cigarettes in their hands. Fires broke out and consumed what passed for Nemesian neighborhoods.
If his parents were still alive, Timothy had little hope of seeing them again. The last time he saw them was at the end of a hallway on fire, brighter than he could ever remember seeing anything before, so bright the paint peeled from the walls and bubbled like blisters. Heat choked his lungs and turned his skin red, and he fled.
It wasn’t a picture he wanted to see again, and hunger wasn’t doing anything to deaden the screams he couldn’t forget.
When the ships landed, he ran for them—just like everyone else. He didn’t stand a chance of getting close, of touching them. All around the ships was a crush of bodies, a tuneless song of shouting and weeping. A breaking of human waves.
The noise was nearly deafening. Drowning.
Timothy tried to retreat, but his feet and the ground had lost contact. A crowd surge drove him forward on a mass of elbows and grease and stink. He balled his hands into fists and used them to cover his face.
Volume challenged the crowd. It came from the middle ship of the Martian trio, a boxy ex-cargo ship called the Hyades. It looked like a semitruck trailer got fucked up on methamphetamines and crashed into a trailer park before being covered in graffiti—but a thousand times bigger.
“Listen,” said Mags.
The ship’s loudspeakers blared. The riot continued.
Mags covered the mic. “Dude, this is never gonna work.”
Alonso leaned back in the pilot’s chair and threw his feet onto the console. “It’s bulletproof, tía. Just give them a minute. They’re probably so hungry they’d eat the assholes out of a chicken coop. Just talk to them.”
“Listen,” said Mags. “I brought some friends to—”
“My mistake. I think they’re killing each other.”
“Guys! I said—”
“Puta madre.” Alonso sat up and switched off the microphone. “Tía!”
“I got a better idea. Sing.”
She flicked her tail. “Sing?”
“Sing, you know?! Sing a song to last the whole day long? You motherfuckers will sing someday? Do you know what I’m—”
“Count it off.”
He switched on the mic. What the Hyades lacked in aesthetics, it more than made up for in sonics.
Still, it was not Mags’ proudest moment. Fifty-three people died in the riot before the mob calmed the hell down and the people aboard the ships were able to begin distributing food, first-aid supplies, and emergency medical care.
Despite the bumps and bruises, Timothy survived. In fact, he ate better than he had eaten in weeks, even when his parents had been in charge of feeding him. At one point, he made it through a queue to a long table where volunteers handed out plastic bags containing soap, a washcloth, toothpaste and toothbrush, aspirin, and snack packs.
Timothy accepted a bag from a teenage girl on the opposite side of the table. Her long black hair had been woven into cornrows and bundled at the back into a ponytail. If Timothy’s ragged, filth-covered appearance distressed her in any way, she showed no sign—only a radiant smile followed by the words “If you need a doctor, we’re setting up a temporary facility just over there.”
Maybe, he thought, I should see someone about my burns. And all that smoke I breathed. He said, “I’m sorry, where?”
She stood to better point out the location. “Just past the—”
Mags interrupted by slamming a cooler onto the metal table. “I got an Esky full of fresh sangers, bitches! Hooooo!” She unlatched the lid, pulled out a sandwich sealed in plastic, and handed it to Timothy. “You need anything else, Sarah?”
“I was just going to show this guy where to find the doctors.”
“You okay, kid?”
Timothy recognized Mags from photos and wanted posters. She’d been singing in his earpods for days about all the things that made her sad or angry, with the insistent conclusion that she was strong enough to overcome anything life could throw at her. He stumbled over his words and failed to say anything.
Mags put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright, mate. Sarah will show you. Sarah? You want to take a break? I can cover this station for a bit.”
“Sure thing,” said Sarah. She climbed onto the table and slid off it next to Timothy. “What’s your name?” She already knew.
Mags and Sarah had just made a fan for life.
Thirty-two seconds before concert time, Mags showed up with a sorely depleted bottle of rum in one hand and a hammer hanging from a belt loop on her skirt. “Sorry guys. I ran into some fans. Did we do a soundcheck?”
“We as in me and Sarah,” said Plutonian. “Are you ready to go?”
“I was ready three days ago. Let’s kill it.”
Plutonian made his way to the soundboard, Sarah got comfortable behind her keyboard and microphone, and Mags took center stage at her piano. The smuggler unleashed a flurry of black and white notes as if she were brandishing a weapon before a fight. She said, “What is up, Nemesis? How the hell are ya?”
During the cheers and applause, Mags put one hand to her forehead like a visor and scanned the crowd. “Has anybody seen my cat? No, that’s not the first song. Patches!”
The fluffy calico had made herself at home atop the bar at the back of the venue where she graciously accepted petting and ardently dissuaded anyone who tried to shoo her off her throne.
Mags said, “Oh, there you are. Tonight we’ll be playing songs from my new solo album, 88 Light Years. Eighty-eight because that’s the number of keys on a piano.” Again, a flourish. “But this wasn’t a solo thing at all. Put your hands together for Sarah, from my favorite band: Dumpster Kittens!”
The audience exploded in a raucous response.
“That’s right,” said Mags. “Sarah did the harmonies and gorgeous keyboard work on my album, and we got your favorite pirate-radio DJ Doctor P rockin’ our sound tonight, so give it up!”
Without further preamble, Mags launched into Gun Yourself Down. Despite its morbid title, the hard-edged ballad encouraged the listener to ignore the haters and keep pushing forward.
She didn’t recognize the teenager who stood front-and-center at the edge of the stage, bobbing his head and swinging his long brown hair in time with the music. The last time she’d seen him, he was covered in dirt and smoke, half-burned and starved nearly to death.
In the year since Mags’ humanitarian visit, Timothy had—like so many survivors on Nemesis—pulled himself together and got on with life. He’d never found any evidence that his parents survived, nor any that they had died. He’d struggled to cope with that ambiguous loss, never knowing if he should let himself grieve or hold onto one last shred of hope. Gun Yourself Down had become his personal anthem. He raised a fist in the air and sang along.
Then everything came to a screeching halt.
Twenty-three minutes before showtime, a cyborg landed on Nemesis. He arrived in a small ship that did not use the spaceport Mags had encountered, and he strode through the regolith with a singularity of purpose: to destroy Meteor Mags.
Much of his body had been replaced with titanium and machinery to render him super-strong and impervious to most kinds of harm. And because Mags had been known in recent years to tour with a bevy of telepathic space octopuses, he wore one of Earth’s most devious inventions: a helmet to block telepaths.
The cyborg followed pre-programmed map coordinates to the club. Asteroid dust surrounded him in a cloud that grew with each metallic footfall until he approached the door.
Two guards drew their pistols and shouted orders. The cyborg only granted them as much attention as was required to grip their skulls and fling them away like ants in his path. They did not survive the encounter.
He ripped the door from its hinges, tossed it in the direction of the two fresh corpses, and charged inside.
Mags had her eyes closed as she sang. The noise caught the attention of her sensitive ears. But if anyone was faster than Mags, it was her cat.
Patches leapt off the bar and bounded from tabletop to tabletop, spilling drinks and ashtrays every which way until she was in range of the cyborg. She launched herself at the monster, but he was faster and stronger than any human foe.
His backhand slap knocked Patches out of the air. She hit the concrete floor and slid backwards until she smashed into a table. Its drinks and ashtrays went flying, and the people sitting at it screamed and rocketed to their feet—as did everyone else who had been seated.
In the chaos, the cyborg stormed the stage.
Plutonian rose from his stool behind the soundboard and brought his Benelli shotgun to bear on the menace. But he hesitated to fire, because some crazy kid in the general admission area right near the stage had decided to pick a fight with the intruder.
Plutonian still had every intention of blowing out the cyborg’s brains or whatever combination of neurons and circuitry served the same function. He scrambled through the screaming and overturned tables and people smashing against him as they ran for the exits.
For the sin of interfering with its holy mission, the cyborg gripped Timothy’s throat with cold titanium fingers that promised to crush the life out of him. As the teenager thrashed as hard as he could, the back of his skull found the club’s concrete floor and was far from happy about it. He couldn’t scream, but plenty of people around him were taking care of that.
When asked about it later, Timothy couldn’t explain why he’d stepped into the cyborg’s path and confronted it. He’d think about listening to Mags’ music with his best friend Brian, and how after 2032 he’d never seen the boy again. He’d recall lonely days where he could hardly put a thought together because he was so hungry. He’d remember Mags putting her hand on his shoulder and giving him something to eat.
In the moment, he only knew that something awful was trying to take something beautiful away from him, and he reacted without even thinking.
His valor won Mags several seconds. That was all she needed. As the cyborg choked the young man, Mags brought a mic stand down on its head. Three times she struck in quick succession.
That got its attention, and it dropped the boy. In the half second as the monster raised and turned its head toward her, Mags grabbed her hammer and introduced it to the cyborg’s face.
Blood spurted from the wounds. The cyborg bellowed its rage and pain. Intent on Mags, it forgot about Patches—a fatal mistake.
Mags shouted, “Get through his helmet!” She and her cat had seen a similar device before, when Earth sent an assassin to kill them at the final Small Flowers concert.
Patches landed on the cyborg’s head and set her invincible claws to work. In a flurry, strips of metal flew away from the combatants. The cyborg grabbed at Patches to dislodge her and finally succeeded. He flung her away. But the damage was done.
“Sarah,” Mags shouted. “Fry his brain!”
Sarah wanted to be a nurse when she grew up. She dreamed of a life where she could help people overcome pain and lead them to healing. She was, unlike Mags, a kind and gentle soul. But she had seen what their enemies could do, and—like Mags—had reached a point in her life where she would do anything to protect her friends.
The young telepath focused on the cyborg’s exposed and all-too-human mind, and she blasted it with all the force of the rage that fueled her music in Dumpster Kittens.
The cyborg gripped both sides of its head and made a noise no one who heard it ever hoped to hear again. It crashed against the edge of the stage and bashed its face into the structure. Then it reared up to its full height, went rigid as a stone, and fell to the floor.
“Good job, Sarah! You okay?” Mags didn’t wait for a response before she was cradling Timothy in her arms. Patches and Plutonian gathered around her.
Mags said, “Hey, kid.” She set the palm of one hand against his face. “You alright, mate? Talk to me.”
There she was, his favorite singer, right in his face. Timothy coughed and rubbed his throat. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. Mags?”
“I’m right here.”
He placed his hand over hers and held it. “Is that the best they can fucking do?”
Mags helped him to his feet.
 Sarah’s talents and courage were crucial to the crew’s overcoming a cybernetic mutant monster in Daughter of Lightning and a swarm of vicious space wasps in The Hive.
 Shondra being Mags’ not-really girlfriend and, after the events of The Martian Revolution, the President of Mars. She manufactured many things for Mags over the years, including the Bêlit and the K Drive.
 This humanitarian mission happened after Mags had released her remaining octopuses on Earth, as shown in Farewell Tour and Pieces of Eight. Otherwise, they would have been happy to use their telepathic powers to pacify the crowd from the safety of the massive tank they lived in aboard the Hyades while on tour with Alonso and the space monkeys as Small Flowers.
 Alonso paraphrases both Sing by the Carpenters (1973) and Sing by the Dresden Dolls (2006).
Cute Fluffy Bunny is a gentle, peace-loving rabbit whose idyllic days with his best friend Happy Little Flower always turn to violence when some jerk tries to mess with them. I made these cartoon strips for my sister in the mid-1990s, and she’s kept the silly things for all these years. If you think you can draw Cute Fluffy Bunny better than me — and honestly, who couldn’t? — then send me your own exquisite renditions.
RATED TV-MA FOR STRONG LANGUAGE, ALCOHOL, SMOKING, AND EXTREME VIOLENCE. YOU KNOW, THE STUFF YOU TUNED IN FOR.
It’s the morning of my third full day as a resident of Athens, GA, so I am going to take a little break from unpacking and assembling shit, put on the kettle for a second coffee in my brand-new, one-of-a-kind Meteor Mags mug, and recap how I got here.
It begins with Fugazi. In 1996, I drove from Ann Arbor, MI to Georgia to catch as many concerts as I could by my favorite band: Fugazi from D.C. I’ve told the tale many times, and it now appears in the book Two Hundred, my published scrapbook of drawings, memoirs, poems, and song lyric from the 1990s and early 2000s. The first concert on that journey was at the Masquerade in Atlanta. So in January 2023, when I was staying at my sister’s house north of Atlanta and looking for a place of my own, I checked out the Masquerade’s concert schedule.
I was thrilled to see on the calendar one of my favorite heavy rock bands. King Buffalo has been rocking hard for a decade and recorded a trilogy of brilliant albums during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. But despite appearing on the Masquerade’s calendar, the concert was actually at a smaller venue called Hendershot’s in Athens. I bought a ticket anyway. Compared to the absolutely bonkers road trips I took in the name of music in my twenties, renting a car for a 2.5-hour trek east seemed both like small potatoes and an opportunity to re-connect with the more adventurous guy I used to be before spending my forties mostly isolated indoors bashing out the world’s awesomest fiction series.
I left Arizona and moved to Georgia to be closer to my mother and sister, but I was having zero luck finding affordable housing in their neighborhoods or in any location where public transportation could get me there. My search began broadening in ever-widening circles. And I thought, “As long as I am not going to get the location I want, why don’t I consider Macon and Athens as possibilities?” They both have universities, which tends to make for a more progressive and artistic local vibe compared to other areas of any state. Macon must not be a total hillbilly hellhole if Adam Ragusea can enjoy living there, and Athens has a relatively hip reputation compared to the rest of Georgia. I’d been to Athens once before in the early 2000s but only for a couple of hours and wasn’t impressed, but times change and maybe it deserved a second look. I’d be there anyway for King frickin’ Buffaloooooo! So what the hell.
Mom graciously offered to pay for a rental car and hotel if I took the opportunity to scout for my own place to live, so I reserved a compact car through Enterprise. A compact is the smallest size you can get at Enterprise, even smaller than “economy” size. But on the day I picked it up, no compacts were ready for me. So for the same price, I got a goddamn beast.
The Toyota 4Runner SR5 is a bit too much car for my taste. I prefer something smaller that gets great mileage and can easily get in and out of tight spaces. And I certainly don’t need six bloody seats. But the beast ran great, rode smoothly, handled well, had serious pickup, and was overall pretty fun to drive. Plus, it was my favorite color and went with everything I wear, and its voluminous interior came in handy for moving my stuff. 9/10, would destroy civilization again with this gas-guzzling monster.
The King Buffalo concert was good. I was disappointed that I didn’t have much of a view of the band — just the tops of their heads, mostly — but I got the last available seat at the bar, enjoyed a pint of a great local ale and one of my old favorites from Michigan, and was blown away by how the band sounded even more awesome in person than on album. Hendershot’s clearly wasn’t built with the acoustics of a loud rock performance in mind, but the sound guy did an amazing job with the rhythm section. The bass guitar and bass drum were vibrating my barstool, and the snare-drum hits cracked like lightning. The audience and staff were friendly and mellow despite the place being fully packed, and everyone seemed to be having a groovy time. I’m sure I will be visiting Hendershot’s for more entertainment and hanging out.
I spent the rest of my days and nights that week scouting Athens and applying for apartments from the comfort of the Howard Johnson hotel, and on my final day got approved for a place within easy walking distance to the county library, public transportation for getting to downtown, and a Kroger to get food and supplies.
The stuff that looks like weed in the picture above is Urb, and it is legal in Georgia for two reasons. One, it has a mild chemical called Delta-8 THC, not the Delta-9 TetraHydroCannibinol responsible for the “high” of marijuana. Two, the THC content is 0.24 percent, well below the legal limit for Georgia. By comparison, in states such as Arizona that have legalized weed for both medical and recreational purposes, you can walk into a dispensary any day of the week and buy stuff that is one hundred times stronger at twenty-four percent THC. When I saw Urb for sale at the local Hop-In convenience store in Kennesaw, I figured what the hell. You could probably get just as much of a buzz from smoking cooking sage: a mild relaxation that goes great with a pint or two. You can read all about this wacky product and why it is legal in all fifty states in a 2021 RollingStone article.
While waiting for my move-in day, I returned to my sister’s place and spent the next two weeks taking nature walks. The walks were a confluence of many things. I had wheels and time. I needed exercise after medical problems rendered me mostly immobile for three months last year. I had just bought my first pair of prescription eyeglasses for distance viewing, which meant I could see mother nature in high definition again after several years of deteriorating eyesight. And much like my decision to travel 2.5 hours to see one of my favorite bands, I needed to reconnect with a sense of spontaneous adventure and exploration I kind of lost in my forties.
Now my second cup of coffee is done, and I guess I should get some more things sorted in my new place before my virtual storytime group meets this afternoon to begin celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. After three months, my scanner is now unpacked, and in its absence I’ve accumulated so many recent additions to the big box of comics to share with you in upcoming weeks. Plus, I need to call an author to wrap up my editing of his third novel and move forward with producing it for print and ebook.
Huge thanks to my mother and sister for all their love and support during this transition.
In 2009, my sister visited me in Arizona, and we went to the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. I used to have a lot more photos at higher resolution, but many of my photos from the early 2000s were victims of a transitional period where I made some mistakes with photo storage. So, here are the seven survivors from that amazing exhibit of glassworks in a desert environment that was in full bloom for spring. The glasswork was gorgeous during the day but also impressive when it was lit up after sunset.
Smith-Gilbert Gardens features a network of walking trails that wind their way through all kinds of plants and various sculptures — some abstract, some representational, and some a bit of both. It’s an easy walk, and if you have a couple of free hours, you can see just about everything. If the weather’s nice, you could sit on one of many benches and just enjoy the serenity of this lovely place in Cobb County.
Mom and I didn’t do a lot of sitting on the day we went, because after several weeks of glorious mid-seventies temperatures for my recent nature walks, we had to brave chilly winds at barely fifty degrees. Still, the day was sunny and pleasant, and I swear we were the only two people in the park who weren’t employees. Although the gardens were not yet in the full bloom of spring and summer, we enjoyed many splashes of color and greenery, the gentle sound of water splashing over rocks, and being serenaded by a cardinal.
And what better song for gardens and flowers than the live version of Gardenia by Kyuss?
The Sope Creek Paper Mill Ruins are the remains of an industrial complex that was large enough to be a military target in the American Civil War. The mill produced, among other things, paper for the Confederacy’s currency, and Union troops pretty well destroyed it. The walls that stand today are a historic feature in a maze of walking and biking trails of various difficulty that offer scenic views of the creek and plunge you into the forest despite never being far from civilization.
I say “maze” because although the trails have many markers and maps posted, it can be challenging to get a sense of scale and direction if you haven’t been there before, and many trails intersect at weird angles. There is an easy way to get from the Sope Creek Parking Lot to the ruins, but there is also an easy way to miss it and make the journey much longer than it needs to be.
Plus, although Google Maps shows exactly where the ruins are, my portable Garmin GPS unit for driving had no clue. But hey, I don’t mind a little wandering and getting lost on the way to something scenic, or musical, or fun. It’s part of the adventure, and I was driving to random places all across the States for years before we had global digital mapping conveniences. I used to get so damn lost in states I’d never been to before that I’d have to stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and buy a paper map, and maybe ask some locals for help. Taking a wrong turn in the forest when I can still hear cars in the distance is nothing.
Anyway, I would rate this mini-hike as moderate, not easy, due to the fact that it requires some moderately steep uphill walking, and portions of the path are rocky or muddy (or both). Traipsing around the ruins and the surrounding creek rocks could be dangerous for the less sure-footed. I was here in the fall about eighteen years ago, and this time was the cusp of spring. I’d like to return someday when all the greenery is in full bloom.
Today’s tune from the psychedelic woodlands is Ruins by Wooden Shijps, performed live in the studios of Seattle’s KEXP.
For an hour-long, paper-themed musical adventure, crank this up:
PBN 118: Paper and Fire. January 2023. Listen or Download the MP3. 56 minutes. 128 Kbps. View or Download the playlist.
Getting to Toonigh Creek Falls involves taking trails in the opposite direction of the ones I took the previous time I visited Olde Rope Mill Park. But the specific trails to the waterfall aren’t marked at all, and it’s easy to take a wrong turn, get spooked by No Trespassing signs, or just walk right past the correct path entirely. Unlike some other nature walks I’ve taken recently, this was a fairly strenuous trek where the path was often covered with rocks, or roots, or mud, and it involved climbing over fallen trees and jumping over small streams with muddy banks. The trail also resembles the proverbial path my grandfather took to school during the Great Depression: It’s uphill both ways.
You need to walk under the bridge that supports highway 575, then through a mining area that is ugly and stinky. But just past the mine, you will be rewarded with a gorgeous forest path alongside the Little River. You might, like me, see some fish in the muddy water, a crane or heron, and a couple of deer. One of my wrong turns took me to a mud flat where I found mollusc shells, flowers, and deer tracks. Eventually, exhausted, I found the Falls, and though they are not the most spectacular falls in Georgia — an honor that belongs to Amicalola Falls — they were well worth the journey. I could have laid back on a rock and just listened to them for an hour, but I’d started out late, and both the temperature and the sun were dropping quickly. I’d like to visit again when I can spend more time with this lovely little waterfall.
Today’s musical waterfall appears in a gorgeous interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s May This be Love by Emmylou Harris, with guitar layers by Daniel Lanois, and U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. on drums.
The weather forecast for the afternoon said “100 percent chance of rain”, but I wasn’t about to sit at home feeling bad that I missed a chance to see some scenery. Etowah River Park turned out to be a lovely place to walk for a couple miles despite the moderate rain that made good on the forecasted promise about 1/3 of the way through my excursion. The park has a pretty awesome playground for kids and also a built in ping-pong table and chess table near a wide expanse of grass encircled by a paved path. Take the path to a wooden bridge to cross the Etowah River and enjoy the view, and keep an eye out for little unpaved side paths that get you down to the riverbank. The paved path ends eventually at another lot which, if I read the map correctly, is called Heritage Park. It’s a mellow, level path suitable for a leisurely afternoon jaunt, and though you are never far from civilization, it’s quite scenic with an abundance of greenery. It also features a place to launch a canoe, complete with life jackets you can borrow.
It was a pleasant but overcast day at Blankets Creek Mountain-Bike Trails, and the forest is not yet in full bloom. Still, it was a nice place to take a 1.375-mile stroll along the Mosquito Flats trail. It’s a mellow, level, unpaved path alongside the creek and through the forest. Cyclists have the right-of-way, but respectful pedestrians are welcome — even if, like me, they brought a cheeseburger and a large basket of french fries to fuel the journey. Mosquito Flats starts at the parking lot and is a beginner-level trail for cyclists. At several points along the way, you can access much longer trails and presumably more challenging terrain.
For today’s woodsy soundtrack, enjoy the retro-psychedelic Secret Enchanted Broccoli Forest by the Babe Rainbow.
By the time I met Spider-man, I’d walked about three miles over some rather intense mountain-biking trails at a lovely little park in Georgia called Olde Rope Mill Park. It’s named after a mill whose ruins you can still see and walk on in stone and concrete where a small town of about 500 workers once toiled in apparently inhuman conditions to harness the power of the Little River to create rope. Near the entrance to the Avalanche Loop trail, the park also includes a memorial to a competitive cyclist who died in a “freak accident”.
Despite its morbid history, this park is a gem. The forest trails are gorgeous, and the much more mellow, level, paved pathway along the river is quite scenic. Below is a gallery of a few other photos from my excursion.
No post about walking in the forest would be complete without my favorite forest song by the Screaming Trees.