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

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Thanks to Vamkire Trannel for the cover illustration!

The Second Omnibus collects and updates volumes 7-10, plus two all-new stories, previously unpublished interviews, scenes, drawings, a mini-comic, and more!

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

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

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

What readers are saying about the series:

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

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

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

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

“So insane.”

578-page paperback edition or Kindle ebook

(154,000 words plus illustrations).

BUY IT ON AMAZON.

reflections on writing: Infinite Spaces

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

Download or preview a free PDF of the pre-publication draft of this story.

It all started with one of my favorite films: The Abyss. I saw it on the big screen (twice) when it came out, and I’ve watched it maybe half a dozen times since then. The middle of this sci-fi film about underwater exploration includes a non-stop, high-stakes action sequence that lasts about half an hour, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could write something like that?”

My original plan was to plot something along those lines. But as I put my characters into a similar situation, something else happened. I ended up plotting a wildly different beginning and ending. I also re-watched another of my favorite films: Das Boot, about a German submarine crew that gets stuck at the bottom of the sea. I realized I was never going to top those two films, and I needed to do my own thing.

That realization was slow to happen, and I’ve written before about how it took some time to put my finger on exactly what the problem was. I’ve also written about the influence of Chaos Theory on this tale, and how much fun it was to refresh my memory on concepts I first read so long ago that I was surprised to find out just how much I have internalized them over the years without even thinking about it.

Another influence was one of my favorite books: Mankind Evolving by evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, published in 1962. The funny thing is, I can’t even remember how I got that paperback in the first place. I first referenced the book in the prologue of the third Meteor Mags story I wrote back in 2014, The Weight of the Universe, incorporating its concepts into the series by making it a favorite book of Mags’ teenage sidekick. Mankind Evolving has been mentioned a few times since then, but this episode and its supplementary essay by Mags bring it to the forefront.

Infinite Spaces and its discussion of the nature of “god” are also a counterpoint to episode 31, Permanent Crescent. That previous episode holds nothing back in conveying Mags’ utter contempt for religion. But here, she encounters an object that gives her a glimpse into something bigger than herself and makes her step back to re-consider the nature of our universe. I feel it’s important to examine Mags’ conceptualization of her universe which includes elements of both science and magic, and to explore the conclusions she reaches as she encounters completely weird and unexplainable things.

I toyed with the idea of explaining it all and revealing the secrets. But as I’ve done before, I decided to tell the tale of the encounter and the characters’ reactions to it without giving the reader a cut-and-dried explanation. All of us inhabit a universe that will always be beyond our ability to fully explain, and how we deal with that uncertainty and mystery is part of what defines us and our lives. We are citizens of the unknown and the potentially unknowable, despite our efforts to understand it all.

While I am firmly committed in this series to continually answering questions and eventually solving mysteries our heroes encounter, I also believe that as each mystery is solved, new mysteries must arise. The more these characters learn about their universe, the more they realize just how much remains to be discovered. In that sense, they are no different from us.

Ten More Top Ten Favorite Single Issues!

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Welcome to the third installment of the Top Ten Lists of my favorite single comic-book issues. The first Top Ten came out in 2011 when this blog was fairly new, but it left out all kinds of great stuff – a problem addressed with an “expansion pack” of even more awesomeness in 2014. But now in 2022, the list seems increasingly incomplete, so let’s go for round three.

The rules for inclusion are simple. First, only one book per series. This adds variety and avoids filling the list with, for example, ten issues of Nexus. Second, entrants must come from a work with individual issues, not something published as a complete, self-contained graphic novel. (Those really deserve their own list.) Third, every issue has survived numerous re-readings without losing its appeal. These are issues I’d happily share with anyone who wants a sense of everything I love about the medium.

The previous lists were in no particular order, but this one follows the order of when I first read the books — from some of my oldest, most nostalgic reads from childhood, to books I discovered in the last couple of years. Let’s go!

1. Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #245.

“Mordru: Master of Earth” from 1978 was of my most-read issues as a wee Martian. I’m fairly certain I had the Whitman variant. Despite the goofy names of the teen heroes in LOSH, this issue captured my imagination with its characterizations and camaraderie between the young Superboy and his futuristic friends. When kid Kal-El succumbs to the villain’s magical summons, one of his pals restrains him with martial arts until the spell is over. All is quickly forgiven, because these friends look out for each other. We also get a detailed look at just how blazingly fast the boy of steel can move as he races against a bolt of mystic energy to carry out a daring rescue of his comrades in a slow-motion scene that even a film would be hard-pressed to match. Add in high stakes where the fate of galactic civilization is on the line, and this is a stand-out slab of 70s superhero superbness.

2. Marvel Treasury Edition #28: Superman and Spider-man.

This is the second time these two classic heroes met in the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition, but I never cared for the first one. The second, however, is the comic I probably read the most times in my life. From the spot-on, evil-yet-tormented characterization of Doctor Doom to an epic confrontation between Supes and the Hulk, from the spectacular action drawn by John Buscema to the fulfillment of my geek fantasy of Spidey meeting Wonder Woman, there’s so much to love here that I can’t even describe it all. Oddly enough, I never owned the original, oversized Treasury Edition until I was in my forties. Instead, I had a small, trade-paperback reprint of it that I basically memorized from reading it so much. This one never gets old and has stood the test of time, and it’s even more glorious at full-size.

3. The Avengers #266.

I’ve written about my love for this issue before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate that it is a stand-out issue from one of the stand-out runs on The Avengers. Combining excellent characterizations with breathtaking visuals and high stakes that rival any modern disaster movie, this issue has a lot to say about the power of mutual trust and fearless vulnerability when people set aside their differences and work together to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also the third appearance of artist John Buscema in my list of favorite issues.

4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10.

Shout out to my high-school buddy Brian who introduced me to punk rock and indie comics. If not for him, I might still be listening to Bon Jovi and reading only mainstream super-heroes. I’ve written before about my love for this issue, so I will just say that with its wraparound cover, the massive fold-out triple-splash page shown above, and adventurous layouts of relentless action sequences, this issue delivers one of the best of the best depictions of our sewer-dwelling heroes.

5. Watchmen #4.

There’s no sense in reviewing one of the most-analyzed comic-book series of all time, but this issue (along with the issue recounting Rorschach’s origin) remains among my personal favorites. In a series of flashbacks, it tells the history of Jon Osterman’s tragic transformation into a godlike being who sees the past and future all at once, and its nonlinear storytelling perfectly captures his unique perspective on life. The intimacy with which we view Jon’s life is contrasted with the remote detachment from the human condition that it brings him. The fractured narrative is more than just a storytelling gimmick; it’s integral to understanding the character.

6. Animal Man #5.

I’ve shared this issue with you before, but it breaks my heart every time I read it. This tragic take on gratuitous cartoon violence transported to the “real”, physical world is a pivotal issue for a series that blatantly broke the fourth wall and culminated in a meta-commentary on fiction. Author Grant Morrison’s choosing the plight of Wile E. Coyote to subvert our laughter at his absurd fate and lead us to see that fate from the character’s point of view speaks a lot to me as a fiction writer who loves his characters but must do awful things to them to create dramatic stories.

7. The Authority #12.

Jenny Sparks is one of my all-time favorite characters and a huge influence on Meteor Mags. This issue concludes a four-part story where her team goes up against a massive alien who is basically god. After unleashing horrific destruction on Earth to purge it of humans, god returns from outer space to wipe it completely clean. Jenny – the embodiment of the twentieth century and a goddess of electricity in her own right — enters his massive body with her team and seeks out his brain for a final showdown. God’s about to find out why you don’t mess with Jenny Sparks, and her unequivocal claim that Earth belongs to her is both reinforced by her triumph and underscored by the tragedy that follows.

8. The Manhattan Projects #19.

This issue is the culmination of a sub-plot within a series that explores the idea that the people working on the atomic bomb in the 1940s were a bunch of utterly sick sociopaths. Oppenheimer is revealed to be his twin brother who murdered and ate him, and the consciousness of the original Oppenheimer lives on inside the mind of his evil twin. A psychic war breaks out between the bad Oppenheimer (depicted in red) and the good Oppenheimer (colored in blue).  The resolution is one of the most over-the-top battles in all of comics, and the tragedy which follows is one of the most stunning surprises. Relentlessly weird, often disturbing, and masterful in its brutal execution, this series is like a massive highway pile-up you can’t take your eyes off – and this issue encapsulates all those qualities.

9. Godzilla in Hell #5.

My all-time favorite Godzilla story drops the radioactive reptile into the ever-descending pits of hell to face a series of challenges I’ve shared with you before. Like an irresistible force of nature, he triumphs over every horror hell can throw his way. But in the final issue, he encounters a monster (and the monster’s swarm of smaller evils) that even he is powerless to overcome. Told entirely in wordless pictures, this issue perhaps more than any other Godzilla book, comic, or movie captures the unquenchable fire at the heart of the King of Monsters: his fearsome will to survive, to destroy all obstacles in his path, and emerge triumphant.     

10. We3 #2.

Grant Morrison makes his second appearance in my lists with the second issue of a story I’ve discussed in greater detail before. Showcasing the masterful art of Frank Quitely who pulls out all the creative stops in his action-packed pages, this issue depicts three animals who have been converted into horrifying war machines and have gone on the run to escape being “decommissioned” by their creators. The cat, Tinker, proves herself with a display of brutal ferocity in some of the most inventive panel layouts you’ll find in comics. We3 is also a heart-rending tale that has been known to reduce adults to tears, and it’s a solid example of just how much emotional power can be conveyed through comics.

Indie Box: Gail Simone’s Red Sonja Omnibus

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The Complete Gail Simone Red Sonja Omnibus collects all nineteen of the author’s issues for Dynamite on the title, and it’s a great read. Simone and the art team created my all-time favorite adventures for the leading lady of metal bikinis, and one of the best things they did was finding her a few more sensible outfits.

The she-devil with a sword looks smashing in her bikini, but it never made much practical sense. One unrelated, non-Simone story from Dynamite shows Sonja leading a pack of male warriors though a snowy wasteland, constantly complaining about the cold while garbed in only her metal bikini and a single animal skin draped around her shoulders. No shit, Sonja. Put on some clothes. Somehow, all the men chose warm clothing, but she didn’t get the memo? Idiotic choices about combat gear make Sonja look stupid rather than tough and fearsome.

Simone gives Sonja her proper due as a warrior who doesn’t make frivolous clothing decisions when she wanders into snowy wastelands, muck-filled swamps, and other inhospitable environments.

Simone also revamped Sonja’s origin story into something far more appealing than the dusty old Roy Thomas version from 1970s Marvel Comics. Both Simone and Thomas have Sonja’s entire village and family murdered by marauders, but there the similarity ends. Thomas inexplicably included Sonja being raped right before the reader’s eyes, as if every female hero needs a good helping of rape to get started. Note to guys writing female leads: THEY DON’T.

Then, Thomas had Sonja gain her fierce warrior “power” as a semi-divine, mystical boon. That always bothered me, because it meant Sonja had no intrinsic skill or ferocity or admirable warrior qualities. They only came to her as a gift, because in her natural state she was a weakling. Compare that to a guy character like Reed Richards, who was a bloody genius before he ever got stretchy powers, or Hal Jordan who had a relentless will before he got his Green Lantern powers. Thanks, Roy Thomas, for reminding us that women are basically useless on their own.

To add insult to injury, Thomas tacked on a condition to Sonja’s warrior powers. To gain them, she needed to vow that she would never have sex with a dude unless he first defeated her in combat. What? Linking Sonja’s warrior skill to some sex thing is stupid, and it just plays into an awful idea that you need to physically beat a woman before bedding her. As a result, Sonja’s Marvel adventures never captured my imagination.

Oddly enough, Simone became a Sonja fan back in the 70s when she discovered the Marvel stories drawn by Frank Thorne. Something about the barbaric she-devil on a constant quest for drink, destruction, and dollars fired the young Simone’s imagination. When Gail had an opportunity to write Sonja for Dynamite, she cranked up the volume on all the things she loved while sweeping away the detritus Thomas left behind.

Simone’s Red Sonja origin still includes the murder of her entire family and village, but this Sonja has the skills to pay the bills. Simone’s young Sonja puts her keen mind and hunting ability to use in a bid to exact bloody revenge on the marauders, and she doesn’t need some mystical gift to accomplish it. She doesn’t need to be sexually assaulted for us to feel the horror she experienced, nor to take pleasure in seeing her adversaries die by the score and regret the day they ever met her.

Beyond correcting the origin, Simone delivers the best characterization I’ve ever read of Red Sonja as a brutal but relatable barbarian. Sonja makes mistakes and must deal with the consequences, often going to great lengths and incurring painful, personal loss to make things right. Sonja is admirable but rough around the edges. Fine cuisine is lost on this hell-beast who prefers plain and honest meat.

Sonja also has a major aversion to bathing and, despite her good looks, usually stinks so bad that she can’t even get laid—a fate that is often played for laughs, because this Red Sonja is a bit like Jenny Sparks from The Authority in that she isn’t ashamed of craving a good shag.

Sonja is so relentlessly barbaric that when she encounters traditional “girl time” of putting on makeup, doing her hair, and wearing pretty clothes, the whole thing is utterly alien to her and awakens emotions she doesn’t know how to process. By contrasting Sonja’s rough-edged rowdiness with softer and more traditionally feminine characters, Simone gives us a well-rounded and complex portrayal of the red-headed warrior.

On top of all that, Simone absolutely nails Sonja’s voice. Where the old Marvel stories narrated using captions full of third-person exposition, Simone lets Sonja narrate many scenes in her own first-person voice, and it’s a joy to read. There were plenty of places in this run where the plotting and the villains’ motivations seemed weak to me, but the strength of Sonja’s voice carried the story, and her force of character kept me engaged.

Simone transformed the savage she-devil from an embarrassing character trapped in Marvel’s vintage boys’ club into a fully realized sword-slinger, and my only real complaint is that she didn’t do it for a few more years.

Collector’s Guide: The physical omnibus currently sells for $100 or more, but you can get it in digital format for Kindle for $30. It’s a lot easier than trying to collect the original issues and trade paperbacks. You can also find Dynamite’s reprints of the original 1970s series in three Adventures of Red Sonja volumes in digital or paperback for about $20 each.

The Final Issues of the Walt Disney Black Hole Comic – from Germany!

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This beauty was purchased on eBay and scanned by reader Demeted Derek, who kindly agreed to let me share some pages with you. Derek first contacted Mars Will Send No More back in 2018 nearly six years after I shared the original four issues of the Walt Disney Black Hole comic published by Whitman. Issue four is extremely rare because, as far as I can tell, it was recalled.

Look! The Robots have collapsed!

Issues five and six were printed by a German company as part of the series Das Schwarze Loch. From what little information I can find, it seems the original art was hand-lettered in English, but the German edition replaced that with typed German. Below is an example page of the original art, followed by the full-color German version.

Shout out to user bellerules on the CGCComics board for posting, in 2010, the two original pages he purchased, one of which is featured above. Shout out to user HugoDeVries for starting that forum thread in 2009 with information about the German issues.

As Hugo explained, all the issues of the German series were double-length, combining pairs of the English issues into one. That’s why you see “Heft 3” on the cover shown above: “Issue 3”.

Heft 1 combined issues 1 and 2—the full movie adaptation that was also printed as the single-volume trade paperback I read a million times as a kid. Heft 2 combined issues 3 and 4, and Heft 3 combines the two unreleased and final issues (5 and 6). You can tell the final issue is intended as a true conclusion to the series—even if, like me, you don’t speak German.

Let’s have a look.

The first story is called Retter des Universums, or Savior of the Universe. (Thank you, Google Translate.) I have no idea what is happening most of the time. But after a tour to see an alien sloth, a glowing crystal, and a gnarly old woman who is really intense about her scroll collection, we go for a ride on space unicorns!

We are not allowed to continue here, Kate! The Mountain of Unity is holy!

Suddenly, a robot battle breaks out—and what a time to be wearing a toga and sandals.

It works great with ours. Out of the way, Aran!

Then things get really sinister. An elderly dude explains what horrible mischief our old enemy Reinhardt is up to. Reinhardt was the evil space captain who died in the movie, but here he is again, causing trouble. He excels at looking like a raging psycho while his robots do bad things to people.

Most of us were killed by the robots.

The next story is Reinhardts Rückkehr, or Reinhardt’s Return. It opens with a ton of discussion, but then we get another unicorn ride.

All afternoon I practiced Aran’s signature for the surrender document.

The equestrian journey ends with Kate meeting a random robot in a space coffin. Why is he the world’s saddest robot? I assume it has something to with Reinhardt being a jerk to him. Who knows?

A robot that feels love and cries real tears! Not even Vincent can do that.

Our heroes do what anyone would do in that situation. They visit Reinhardt to give him a scroll.

It seems like a nice gift to me, but Reinhardt is livid about the scroll. There’s just no pleasing some people! He captures our heroes and makes them watch while he verbally abuses old people in the middle of their Shakespeare performance.

This roll is mine now, and I am… the ruler of the universe!

Alright, I admit it. I am just making up what I think the plot might be. I warned you I don’t speak German! The following panel from one of the original English pages suggests that our heroes were not captured by Reinhardt but invited him to the alien toga party. Close enough.

Here’s the coolest part. Max, the big red robot, freaks out and destroys Reinhardt—who also turns out to be a robot!

I don’t need you anymore! Max!

Off with his head! Another robot battle breaks out, and things get pretty intense.

Max! No! Release me! Help! Uaaaaahhh!

In the end, our heroes bust up all the evil robots, get on their old ship, and peacefully sail through another black hole. Their intended destination is their original home planet — but wouldn’t it be fun if they ended up someplace even weirder?

The destination is called Earth… and it is their home!

And there you have it! If you want physical copies of this German edition, you probably need to go to eBay for them. I have never seen them listed anywhere else. A big Thank You to Derek for sharing this rare treasure and completing a quest that began so many years ago. You are truly Das Retter des Universums!

Book Review: The Reasoning Voter

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Here in Arizona, we have some current and upcoming opportunities to vote this year. In the U.S.A., our political climate has become extremely polarized, and it seems common for people to assume that anyone who doesn’t vote the way they do must be stupid, thoughtless, or evil. It’s not a healthy climate, so I’d like to share the following book review from my graduate-level Campaign Management course in 2018. While The Reasoning Voter is aimed at people working on campaigns, its concepts and conclusions would help a wider, general audience understand how voters of all political stripes process information and attempt to make rational decisions about complex topics and candidates.

The Reasoning Voter analyzes U.S. presidential elections and primaries in the 1970s and 1980s. The second edition has a chapter on the 1992 election. Samuel L. Popkin, who studied campaigns at MIT and worked in campaigns, addresses how voters form opinions about politicians, how they evaluate information, and how campaigns deliver information that influences opinions and votes. Popkin’s theories about reasoning are essentially cognitive psychology, providing a framework for understanding historical events and data. He contends that voters have limited information about government, so they use shortcuts to develop ideas about government, and campaigns provide information interpreted via these shortcuts.

Theory and application are deftly interwoven, with early chapters being more theoretical to lay the foundation for the final chapters which apply theories. Chapter One introduces “low-information rationality” and “information shortcuts”. Popkin doesn’t believe voters are thoughtless and easily manipulated; they are thoughtful but confronted with a government so expansive and complex that getting a full picture is impossible. So, they draw conclusions from “past experience, daily life, the media, and political campaigns” (p. 7). The shortcuts interpret cues for extrapolating a big picture from a small one, such as using impressions about a candidate’s persona to predict his potential behavior in office.

Chapter Two explores these cues and shows campaigns need to connect issues to a specific office. If voters don’t perceive a president can do anything about an issue, it makes no sense to argue the issue in the campaign. Popkin tears down conventional ideas about a more educated constituency; education broadens awareness of the number of issues but does not lead to increased turnout and does not change how voters make decisions.

Chapters Three through Five explain how voters evaluate campaign messages and fill in the blanks. What constitutes relevant evidence? How do voters relate a candidate’s actions to specific policy and social results? How do evaluations of other people’s positions affect the voter? While answering these questions, Popkin demonstrates that campaigns don’t change voter positions on an issue; they change the relative importance (“salience”) of the issue to bring it to the forefront of voter awareness.

Chapter Six covers why candidates see surges and declines during primaries. Popkin argues that voters do not simply climb on the bandwagon of the front-runner. Preferences change as new information is revealed and concerns about personal character are supplanted by conceptions about political character. Chapters Seven through Eleven provide case studies.

Popkin backs up theories with history and polling data, comparing what really happened to expected outcomes based on traditional conceptions. Sometimes, Popkin approaches the trap of placing too much weight on a single, dramatic event, a fallacy he warns against. He sidesteps it by relating other events that came before and after. His suggestion to have longer primaries seems contradicted by his assertion that most voters don’t pay attention to primaries until they involve the voters’ state. Insisting that voters are rational is undermined by Popkin’s explanation of thought processes based on fallacies, incomplete information, or jumping to conclusions. If voters are reasoning, they are apparently not reasoning well, nor from solid premises.

This book gives campaign staff insights into how voters perceive campaign messages, and which messages matter most and when (such as moving from the personal to the political at different stages). It illustrates the need to differentiate a candidate’s position on an issue and connect it with the office. It will rescue campaigners from wasted time on information cues voters don’t respond to. For policy makers, this book highlights the importance of connecting an issue to the office through news stories and campaigns, and framing it as a social problem, not an individual one. Popkin’s cognitive psychology will enlighten anyone interested in how we evaluate information. Low-information rationality applies to decision-making on any subject, and The Reasoning Voter illuminates how we make sense out of information we encounter.

Collector’s Guide: The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns, Second Edition by Samuel L. Popkin. 1994, The University of Chicago Press.

Chaotic Notes on Chaos

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The new short story I drafted this month has a brief description of something that resembles the “strange attractors” from Chaos theory, so I spent a little time refreshing my memory about Chaos. In the most general and oversimplified terms, Chaos theory is a study of how apparently orderly systems give rise to apparent disorder, and vice versa. It also involves fractals, which are fun, and they give insights into how very simple sets of rules can create enormous complexity.

The cover of the first edition.

My introduction to Chaos was the 1988 book Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Along with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which came out the same year, I read it in 1989 or 90 when I was still in high school, and it blew my mind. It isn’t a mathematical textbook but a history of the pioneers in the field and their discoveries. It lays out the basic concepts in layman’s terms and how they apply to a vast array of disciplines that study dynamic systems, from the weather and animal populations to the human body and your heartbeats. It also has a lot to say about how a revolutionary, interdisciplinary field at first met with apathy or outright resistance from the scientific establishment.

If you don’t have the time to read the whole book, you can get a brief but engaging introduction to some of the concepts in the following video from Veritasium.

A few years after Gleick’s book made inroads into popularizing the topic with general audiences, Chaos reached the masses through the first Jurassic Park film, based on Michael Crichton’s exceptionally entertaining 1990 novel. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone from my generation who isn’t familiar with Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Ian Malcom and his famous line, “Life, uh, finds a way.” On the other hand, the film didn’t do much to explain real concepts of Chaos, and probably left people with the impression that it just means “Things can and will go very wrong, very quickly.”

Little did he know he would still be a meme in the 2020s!

That’s not so much Chaos theory as it is Murphy’s Law, but whatever. Science-fiction stories are notorious for latching on to the smallest shred of a “sciencey” concept and turning it into a fantastical plot device. I’ve written before about how the term “science fantasy” seems more accurate to me, despite being outdated. From piloting spaceships through wormholes, to nanobots that can magically do anything, sci-fi is mostly bunk science: a fantasy about something science-related.

I’m as guilty as any SF author in that regard, but I did want my current story to do justice to this one bit of Chaos. The characters encounter a phenomenon that at first seems wildly unpredictable; but upon closer examination, a type of order appears. While movement is unpredictable at any individual moment, the totality of the movement falls within certain boundaries or parameters.

That’s the oversimplified idea behind strange attractors such as the Lorenz attractor, which is usually shown as a two- or three-dimensional graph that helps us visualize the possibilities for a set of three non-linear equations developed by Edward Lorenz, one of the Chaos pioneers who was originally trying to use computers to model weather systems. While the solutions (or iterations) never repeat themselves exactly, the graph helps us see that they all take place within a certain “shape”.

Anyway, there isn’t much of a point to this post, except that Chaos is fun to learn about! For engaging introductions to the Chaos-related concepts of fractals, see the following two videos.

Benoit Mandelbrot briefly discusses fractals and the art of roughness:

Dr. Holly Krieger explains the math of the Mandelbrot Set pretty simply:

Why I Am Not an Atheist

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If you were to ask me, as many people have in the past three decades, if I believe in god, I would say, “No.” When I was a little younger and edgier, I would have said, “Which one?” But if you followed up with, “So you’re an atheist?” I would again say, “No.”

That contradiction might lead you to assume I am agnostic. That would miss the point, because there are all sorts of things I don’t believe in. I do not believe in leprechauns, Santa Claus, or werewolves. But it would be ridiculous to label myself an aleprechaunist, an asantaclausist, or an awerewolfist.

Why would I define and label myself by one singular thing I do not believe? What matters to me is what people do stand for, or believe, or are simply interested in. Classifying myself as an atheist would be defining myself in negative terms, but it would give zero information about what I find important.

I am uninterested in defining people in negative ways about things that are irrelevant to them. I’m interested in knowing what does matter to them, in a positive sense. Telling me you don’t believe in Santa Claus would establish there is one form of nonsense neither of us has an interest in. But it does nothing to identify what common interests we share.

Most people over the age of seven agree with me that Santa Claus does not exist, but many disagree with me on everything from what makes good prose to what makes good government and a good society. The fact that we are all asantaclausists doesn’t matter.

The term “atheist” might do non-believers a disservice. It assumes that a belief in a god is so important that we need to identify those who do not have it. But from my perspective, it is no more important than not believing in the tooth fairy. No fully grown, sane adults define themselves and form social groups based on the fact that they share a disbelief in the tooth fairy. That would be silly and fail to establish any meaningful common ground.

In recent years, I have noticed a tendency among atheists—especially in the younger ones who have only recently liberated themselves from whatever mythology they were indoctrinated with as children—to make two tragic mistakes I often made in my early twenties.

The first mistake is to become as evangelical about atheism as the obnoxious and often dangerously fanatical christians who think they have been tasked with a holy mission to convert other people to their way of thinking. Some people cannot keep their beliefs to themselves and need to wedge them into every conversation. They are often so judgmental about everyone else that only other zealots can enjoy their company. But many young atheists become just as abrasive as the “christian soldiers, marching as to war” that they quite rightly want no part of.

The second and more insidious mistake happens when people who have been raised as devoutly religious abandon their religious beliefs but not their religious way of thinking. I struggled with this in my late teens and early twenties, much to my regret, and I see it all too often in other people. When you are indoctrinated from childhood to be religious, you will often behave in religious ways about new concepts and ideologies you discover, even when the external trappings of your original religion have been discarded.

It’s like the religion has disappeared, but the religious way of being has not. In that state of mind, one can easily get attached to all sorts of other nonsense such as healing crystals or extremist political causes, magical nonsense such as the Carlos Castaneda novels or the Law of Attraction, or even zealotry about certain lifestyle choices.

When a person is raised in extremely religious circumstances but makes the intellectual and moral leap to reject that upbringing, they are left with a void. A significant part of their identity has been erased. What will fill that empty space? Nature abhors a vacuum, so other nonsensical ideas often rush to fill that space. I know it from firsthand experience, and I have no easy solution to overcome it. All I can do is offer a word of caution to those who abandon any religion: You can take the boy out of the church, but it is much more difficult to take the church out of the boy.

I advise young atheists to consider how their popular role models will be remembered in a positive way. Richard Dawkins? An accomplished scientist, brilliant author, and public speaker. Penn Jillette? A stellar magician, speaker, and entertainer. John Cleese and Douglas Adams? Outstanding humorists and writers. Neil deGrasse Tyson? An influential astrophysicist and lecturer. The list goes on. But it’s a positive list, defined not by things these people did not believe in, but by the legacies of their contributions to our lives and culture.

If someone else wants to call themselves an atheist, I don’t mind. But I’ve never felt the label was a good fit for me. Remember me as a writer, editor, poet, musician, or painter. Remember me as the party animal who stripped down to his Jack Daniels boxers and a feathered mask for Mardi Gras. Remember me as a massive geek for comic books and dinosaurs. I don’t care, just so long as my life is defined more by what I cared about and found meaningful, fun, and interesting instead of by things I found irrelevant.

A Few Thoughts on Mortality and Legacy

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This week, I got the sad news that an author I worked with two years ago passed away. I helped her edit, design, and publish her memoir about how she transitioned out of a life of prostitution, domestic violence, and incarceration to create a non-profit organization that supports women in similar circumstances to make the same transition and build new lives for themselves.

At times, the memoir was absolutely heartbreaking to work on due to the severity of the abuse and trauma it described. But it was also an amazingly hopeful and positive book due to what she and her organization eventually accomplished in terms of helping other women in the community.

The author was also a joy to work with. I always enjoyed our conversations, and she had an unconquerable sense of humor. Even when we discussed the saddest topics or events, she always found a way to make us both laugh.

I am sad to hear of her passing, but I am glad I had the chance to help preserve her story in a book. I don’t know if other artists, authors, and musicians think about this as much as I do, but there is something satisfying about the idea that what we create will outlive us. Whether we have an important message to share with the world, or we are just making something entertaining to enjoy, we leave our mark on our society and culture. It isn’t necessarily immortality, but it is a kind of afterlife.

Years ago, another author I work with included a piece of advice in one of her books: “Focus on what you want to create.” That idea has carried me through many times of difficulty and doubt. Obstacles pile up, and it can be easy to lose sight of long-term goals when you get bogged down in dealing with the challenges of the day. But if you can raise your head above the floodwaters and focus on the legacy you want to leave behind, it puts today in a different perspective.

So, I intend to keep on writing, editing, and helping others make books. Those legacies will last long after we pass, and I am proud to have played a part in them.

Collector’s Guide: It’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It: From the Streets to Survival by Kathleen Mitchell is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Kathleen founded DIGNITY House in Phoenix, Arizona.

reflections on writing: Odonata’s Revenge

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

Download or preview a free PDF of this story.

Episode 32 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was intended to be 33, but I got bogged down in the original story for 32 and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block, because you can always write something. So, I re-directed my energy into what was speaking to me at the time, and I also worked to articulate exactly what my problem was.

My recent post on why Finishing Matters resulted from gathering my thoughts on why it is important to power through completing a draft. My post on the difference between Active Versus Passive Characters arose from trying to articulate why I wasn’t happy with the original thirty-second episode.

I realized that the episode’s problem was, at its root, that I had originally conceived the middle of the story as a plot that needed to happen to my characters, instead of a plot driven by character choices. I knew where the story started and ended, but I felt like I was enforcing a plot on my characters in the middle, and that was causing friction.

So, I set it aside and focused on something that’s been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years: introducing a new rival for Mags. It’s an idea I kept returning to despite numerous attempts and thousands of words that failed to excite me. But gathering my thoughts on active characters proved to be the key. Last month, I added to my massive pile of notes on this rival by asking questions and answering them, then dropping her into situations and letting her choose the outcome. I let go of the idea that I needed her to fit into some mold, and I let her choose her own adventure.

Several scenes I wrote for her ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read them. But the process of going beyond notes and writing actual scenes for her revealed what really captured my imagination about her, and I enjoyed getting to know her and anticipating what kind of choices she would make. She stopped being a thing I wanted to force into a plot and became a person who could drive a plot through active choices.

Once I began letting her choices take an active role in determining the plot, she became not just easy to write but an absolute joy. In the end, it only took me about a month to write the episode featuring her, even though defining who she was had been frustrating me for a couple of years. The breakthrough came when I started treating her the way I do Mags: not as someone who life happens to, but someone who happens to life.

Also, I wrote thousands of words you will never see about her childhood, her appearance, and her motivations. We might explore those things later in the text of the series, but the important thing was that I really needed to get to know her.

I don’t need to necessarily publish words about those things, but I needed to be able to confidently write from those things. The difference between the two is the subtext an author needs to have a firm grasp on a character. Not every detail about a character’s history needs to be explained through exposition to a reader, but the author needs to know those unpublished details to create someone who feels real, consistent, and grounded. You can judge for yourself how well I did.

On a more personal note, the episode briefly includes a billiards game called nine-ball. The game will always be dear to my heart because in 2006, I joined a nine-ball league at a local pub/pool hall. I had always enjoyed shooting pool, but I was terrible at it. When I joined the league, I started practicing regularly, using an amazing book called Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool and Billiards. It had great, practical exercises and showed how to make shots from the most simple to the increasingly complex.

A few mementos from my league days.

But learning pool from a book can only do so much, and it was through the generous instruction from other people on the league that I advanced enough to not be awesome but to at least not embarrass myself, and to win enough matches to feel a sense of accomplishment. When I played against casual players at other bars outside of league, I won more often than I lost.

The people in my league who guided me and showed me how to correct what I was doing wrong were not just my teammates but sometimes my competition from other teams I played against in matches. Despite our friendly rivalry, we were not enemies but people who enjoyed the same game and wanted to help each other improve, have fun together, and generally raise the quality of every player’s ability. For years, nine-ball league was my primary social group where I formed many friendships, some of which remain to this day. We often gathered for house parties, bar crawls, road trips, concerts, and other events.

It’s a good thing we rented a van and a driver for this pub crawl.

In many ways, it was like the writer’s workshop I founded in 2017: a somewhat random assortment of people gathering around a shared enthusiasm with the aims of both helping each other improve and having some fun along the way. In both cases, my years with the groups helped me grow in ways that would not have been possible on my own.

These days, my billiards game is rusty from a lack of practice, but I still love to play. The same is true of my guitar skills. But if you ever wonder why I write so many billiards and concert or jam scenes into my stories, it’s because they are hobbies I have loved for many years, and I can’t imagine writing about a fictional world where they don’t play a role.

Anyway, those are my thoughts about writing this story, and you can download a free PDF of my pre-publication draft until such time as it gets published in a book. Until then, never bet against Meteor Mags in a game of pool!

Finishing Matters

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One of the greatest struggles I see aspiring authors encounter is with finishing a first draft. Finishing is an important part of the craft of writing, but maybe it doesn’t get enough attention. Let’s take a closer look.

Although I will offer advice and observations, there is no big secret. The key to finishing pieces is to finish more pieces. That might sound like an obvious tautology, but it runs deeper than that. Like everything else about writing, completing a work takes practice. If you aren’t seeing your pieces through to the end, you aren’t getting enough practice to strengthen this particular muscle.

It’s a bit like going to the gym. Imagine your workout involves doing three sets of an exercise, with some number of repetitions per set. What would happen if every time you decided to work out, you got dressed in your workout clothes, went to the gym, and did a couple of repetitions—then stopped? Maybe completing the workout seemed too challenging or boring, or maybe something else distracted you. Either way, you would get a lot of practice at getting dressed, but not the practice of completing a full workout. You’d be great at getting started, but you would not build any staying power.

Writing is like that. It’s important to keep going beyond the initial excitement of getting started so you can practice completion.

My writing-intensive courses in public policy were a huge help in this area. Every week, my classes required me to do a ton of reading then crank out several thousands of words before the week was up. I put a lot of time and energy into those papers, but I did not have the luxury of pondering them for months or years, agonizing over every word, or getting halfway done then deciding to do something entirely different. Even when I felt what I sent to my professor wasn’t my best work, I got a lot of practice going from start to finish in a very short time. Dawdling was not an option.

That being said, when a paper was on something that mattered to me personally, I reviewed my professor’s comments and criticisms and did a final round of revisions for my own benefit. Integrating feedback and critique was an important part of improving.

Finishing a draft even when it is challenging and you aren’t entirely happy with the result is still an important step because it gives you raw material to revise. It is always easier to start with something rather than start from scratch with nothing. When you have nothing, it’s easy to get bogged down in considering all the possibilities, spinning your wheels and not producing anything. But when you have something on the page, you can look at it and say, “Okay, I like this part, but this other part doesn’t work. Now I can see why, so let me work on fixing that problem.” You’ve narrowed down the infinite possibilities to a manageable revision checklist.

A friend who produces articles related to his artistic endeavors takes an interesting approach. He hires a copywriter to produce a first draft, then he completely re-writes it. He says it saves him a lot of time and effort in the early conceptual phases, and even when he is unhappy with what the copywriter produced, it’s a lot easier for him to start from a draft and be critical of it. If he sees something that isn’t said the way he would say it, that makes it easier for him to decide what he does want to say.

As a freelance editor, I often work on the flip side of that process. People might come to me with an essay or story they’ve drafted, but it has conceptual, grammatical, or structural problems and doesn’t feel professionally written. It’s up to me to “get” what they are trying to communicate, then rewrite the piece with clarity and concision. If I were assigned to draft a piece on the same subject from scratch, it would take a lot longer than the relatively short time it takes me to pull apart an existing draft and fix it.

I treat my own stories and essays the same way: Pound out a first draft, even if it’s a mess, then step back and look at it critically. If, for example, I feel daunted by the infinite possibilities of a scene in fiction, I just pick one and start banging away at the keyboard. Sometimes I get lucky and come up with something I love that simply needs tuned up and polished. Other times, I get something I don’t like at all or doesn’t quite fit, but I can articulate what about it doesn’t work. The process helps me conceptualize what would work so I can take a second crack at it.

In My Life As an Armadillo, I discussed the benefits of drafting an ending long before a story is anywhere near finished. I will just briefly reiterate here that knowing where you are headed with a story helps reduce the time you waste feeling stuck in the middle of it. When people are having trouble completing a draft, it’s often because they lack a sense of where the finish line is. It’s like trying to run a race without knowing what direction to run. You might end up running into the middle of the field, or into the stands, or into the toilets. That’s how it feels to be lost in the middle of a writing project. Do yourself a favor: Get clear on where the finish line is.

Finishing a draft, whether you love it or hate it, also positions you to get more practice in all the stages that come after: getting feedback, doing rewrites, making revisions, editing, and proofreading. You don’t get to practice those important skills if you don’t finish many drafts, and lacking practice in those areas will stunt your growth.

I have a ton of writings other people will never see, because either I feel they aren’t very good, or they ended up being something I didn’t feel was appropriate to share with the world. But finishing them gave me practice for producing the good stuff. Sometimes, people are trapped by the idea that everything they write needs to be brilliant, and they feel that if they write something unappealing, then they have failed.

That attitude is counter-productive. For comparison, consider what counts as an awesome batting average in baseball. Ty Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .366. That means he connected with the ball about a third of the time. It also means he failed to hit the ball two-thirds of the time! Do we look at that hit rate as a failure? Not at all. It’s a damn fine batting average—the highest in major-league history!

So if you write three things and two of them suck but one is a solid hit—not necessarily a home run, but something that gets you to first base—I’d say you’re doing well. Failure isn’t missing a lot of swings. Failure is not taking a swing at all.

Finally, consider that as your skills improve, nothing is stopping you from revisiting an earlier piece and improving or expanding it. I often return to something I wrote years ago and examine it in light of everything I’ve learned since I finished it. Maybe I now have a better grasp of what a failed poem was trying to say, so I rewrite it. Maybe I edit an old article to improve the quality of the prose. Some writers will even take an old novella and expand it into a novel, such as Orson Scott Card did with Ender’s Game, eight years after the short version was first published.

So, take a swing at completing a first draft. If you’re working in a longer form such as a novel, break it into smaller chunks: finish drafting a scene, then another, then a whole chapter, then the next. Keep going! The more you finish, the more practice you get with the entire process and seeing things through to completion. Over time, that practice will make you a stronger writer.

Mark Lanegan and the Screaming Trees: A Memoir

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My high-school buddy Brian turned me on to Screaming Trees. I didn’t get them at first. They sounded unlike any of the hair-metal, teeny-bopper bands I was into in the mid-1980s, or the more straight-forward punk bands I was beginning to appreciate, such as Minor Threat. In hindsight, I realize that opening my ears to the Trees was the beginning of my love for genres such as garage, psychedelia, and a lot of what gets called shoegaze or stoner rock these days, and maybe even jazz, jazz-rock fusion, and music from around the world.

I caught the Trees in concert twice. On the Buzz Factory tour, they played the club Mississippi Nights on the waterfront in downtown St. Louis. I loved that album and still do, but hearing songs from it in-person blew me away. The sound quality of Trees albums was pretty bad in the early years, like they had been recorded on a wax cylinder or something. The songs were energetic, fun, and brilliant, but something got lost in the low-budget recordings. In concert, the Trees sounded MASSIVE.

At Mississippi Nights, guitarist and main songwriter Gary Lee Conner launched into one of his wah-pedal-drenched solos then apparently lost his mind. He rolled around on the stage with his SG, then tumbled off the elevated stage to land on the floor. He writhed on the floor and kept shredding. The guy was like a force of nature that fell into the crowd.

This venue was all-ages, with a rule that underage kids like me could be in the general area right in front of the stage, but not in the areas that served alcohol. It’s the same place I caught Nirvana and lots of other great acts when the so-called Seattle sound was on the cusp of becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

The all-ages venue meant my buddies Dan, Brian, Dave, Chris, Amy, and many more could rock the hell out and be right up in the action. I stood in a circle of teenagers who were absolutely stunned by Gary’s electric performance on the floor in front of us.

A few years later, when singer Mark Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. By that point, I’d been learning to play guitar for a few years and was attempting to write and sing my own songs. To say The Winding Sheet influenced me is an understatement. It was everything I aspired to.

So in 2020, when I read Mark’s brutal memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, it came as a shock to me that he basically hated the Screaming Trees and hated his first album. That’s an oversimplification, so let me expand that thought.

Mark’s version of his life with the Trees begins with being blown away by the young Gary Lee Conner’s songwriting and demo recordings. It wasn’t until later that he came to feel the lyrics of the composer’s neo-psychedelic songs were hippy-dippy nonsense Mark just couldn’t feel. I think more mature adults would have realized they simply had creative differences and went their separate ways. But I say that now at age forty-nine, and I remember what my twenties were like.

In Mark’s recollections of early Trees tours, personality conflicts replaced their initial camaraderie. We’re talking about a bunch of kids here. If you pack a van with any group of guys barely into their twenties, you’ll get conflict. Hell, I’m sure anyone who knew me when I was that age would tell you I was an abrasive jerk. Creative? Absolutely. Easy to get along with? Fuck no. It’s just part of being young, artistic, broke, and stupid.

Mark was right about one thing about the early records: The sound quality was crap. It’s easy to understand his frustration with albums that changed the way I heard music, such as Even If and Especially When, Invisible Lantern, and Buzz Factory. (You can hear twenty-one of their best songs from this era in the collection, SST Years.) The Change Has Come EP is awesome—one of my all-time musical favorites—and almost captured the live intensity of the Trees’ sound. But it wasn’t until Sweet Oblivion that the recordings started to sound as killer as the concerts.

The second time I caught the Trees in concert was at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit around the time Sweet Oblivion came out and the single Shadow of the Season was getting airplay on corporate alt-rock stations across the nation. They opened with Before We Arise from Uncle Anesthesia, an album produced by another of my musical heroes, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, with a better recording budget and sound quality than previous albums.

But from the first dark, droning notes of the tune at St. Andrew’s, it was once again clear that no album had quite captured how HUGE the Trees sounded in concert. If I were to rank the top-ten sonic experiences of my life, that concert undoubtedly would be on the list. And I’ve been at shows from Swans, Crash Worship, and Kodo. The album version of Before We Arise is a pale shadow of what I experienced in Detroit. In that brilliant set, they also performed Julie Paradise, an awesome song that came close to capturing in the studio just how stellar the Trees sounded in concert.

In Mark’s memoir, he was notably happier with how Sweet Oblivion turned out, and also its successor, Dust. Besides improved sound quality, Mark felt the songs were more of something he could believe in—songs that more closely matched his personal vision of the music he wanted to create. Dust sounds amazing, and the first thing I did after buying it on cassette the day it came out and listening to it was listen to it three more times in a row. The raw, noisy solos of Gary Lee Conner’s youthful recordings had become melodic masterpieces, and the entire band sounded tighter, more focused, and more in control of the same youthful energy that made them one of my favorite bands in the first place.

But I warn you to proceed into Marks’ memoir with caution. Sing Backwards and Weep is one of the most crushing stories of misery I have ever read, only equaled perhaps by Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a tale of growing up in starvation, neglect, and dehumanizing poverty in twentieth-century Ireland. Sing Backwards and Weep includes graphic scenes of drug abuse and self-abuse, such as when Mark is simultaneously shooting heroin, choking himself, and smoking crack. It’s clear that he went way beyond partying and “getting high” for fun or inspiration. He had devolved into an extremely dark state of self-loathing where no one should ever venture.

Reading that book broke my heart. There was one of my rock’n’roll heroes who had made so much music that was meaningful to me and influenced my musical development, but he spent those decades miserable and, by his own admission, being a horrible person.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that Courtney Love, wife of one of Mark’s best friends, Kurt Cobain, helped get him into rehab. Mark maintained his sobriety until his death this year in 2022. Along the way, he recorded brilliant solo albums and contributed to great recordings by his friends in Queens of the Stone Age. My favorite Lanegan solo albums are Blues Funeral and Bubblegum, but they are all worth a listen.

I don’t think a cause of his death has yet been released, but Mark almost died of COVID-19 a couple years ago and published a book about it, and the disease is known to cause lasting health problems even if you are lucky enough to survive.

Recently, Gary Lee Conner released a video of a solo performance of his song Low Life, which never appeared on a Trees album until Last Words: The Final Recordings, after the band had broken up. It is basically the Trees’ next full album, and I enjoy hearing Gary belt this one out. It reminds me of the rebellious joy I found in early Trees recordings and their concerts, and that despite whatever internal conflicts the band struggled though, their music has been rocking my world for more than three decades.

Gary Lee Conner has released several albums under his own name. They hearken back to the psychedelic garage vibe of early Trees, and I love them. Ether Trippers, The Microdot Gnome, and Unicorn Curry are like what early Trees albums would have been if they had a bigger recording budget.

Another member of the Screaming Trees, drummer Barrett Martin, has released a number of albums that go beyond rock into a more jazz-influenced and world-music vein. Trading with the Enemy by Tuatara showcases his drumming in a band whose influences span cultures across the globe.

More recently, The Barrett Martin Group has expanded this global influence on albums such as Scattered Diamonds.

The many musical guests on Scattered Diamonds include an amazing Iraqi oud player named Rahim Al Haj, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a solo concert in Phoenix about a decade ago. My saxophone player and I chatted with him at length after the incredible performance.

Rahim was a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and he has since released many incredible albums of oud music. My favorite is When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, a collection of taqsims based on Arabic musical modes, sort of like Indian raga where soloists perform within a limited collection of notes and basic melodic ideas, but have the freedom to improvise.

So much of my love for music can be traced back to Screaming Trees and related projects. From garage rock to jazz fusion, from psychedelia to musical cultures around the world, the Trees are at the nexus of many things I love.

I don’t think those kids from Washington were on a mission to change the world. But they sure as hell rocked mine.

Indie Box: two mini stories from Age of Reptiles

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I was chatting with some fellow dinosaur geeks about Age of Reptiles and discovered that artist Ricardo Delgado might be working on a new volume of the series to amaze and astound us. Along the way, I realized I was missing one of the short stories: “The Baby Turtles”. I have now rectified that omission!

Between the epic awesomeness of 2009’s four-issue The Journey and 2015’s stunning Spinosaurus series Ancient Egyptians, Delgado produced two mini-stories that each appear in a different volume of the anthology title Dark Horse Presents.

In 2011, “The Body” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #4 (Volume Two). The story begins with a kill, and its eight pages are essentially a prehistoric nature documentary about what happens to the body of the prey. First, large predators squabble over the meat until they’ve eaten their fill, then smaller scavenging predators arrive, followed by even smaller insects and at last, flowering plants and the elements themselves.

Filled with detail and expressive animals, this wordless poem speaks volumes about both the impermanence and interconnectedness of all life.

In 2014, “The Baby Turtles” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #3 (Volume Three). This story begins not with death but with birth, and the newly hatched sea turtles must make their way from their sandy nests to the ocean where they will spend their lives. A variety of voracious predators await them in the sky, on land, and in the water in a danger-filled expedition that remains largely unchanged for today’s modern sea turtles.

This mini-story is also eight pages long in print, but six of those eight pages are gloriously detailed two-page spreads, each a single image filled with conflict between numerous species.

On a personal note, these pages remind me of what I often drew in elementary school to alleviate the boredom. I spent hours drawing insanely detailed doodles of warfare between different races of aliens with all kinds of weapons, vehicles, and aircraft. I was no Ricardo Delgado by any stretch of the imagination. My aliens would be simple shapes such as triangles with arms and legs, or ovals with multiple appendages like paramecia—just so long as they were easy to draw and easily identifiable as different factions. Every square centimeter of my alien war scenes were covered with detail, slaughter, and simplistic characters who each had their own story in my mind. My mother would sometimes see these pages and really not know what to make of them.

I think Delgado would have understood. I enjoy seeing him take that kind of intensity and deliver it with actual skill and draftsmanship based on extensive research. The detail-rich pages can be daunting to explore, but like some kind of Mesozoic Where’s Waldo, they reveal expressive, individual characters doing unique things within the scenes, all captured in one brief instant of their struggle to survive.

Here’s hoping the rumors about a new, upcoming Age of Reptiles series are true. I’ll buy two copies!

If you’re new to Age of Reptiles and want to get started, I recommend the digital edition of the Age of Reptiles Omnibus for about USD $13. It will be a lot more cost-effective than trying to buy the print versions, and it includes the first, second, and third series.

Active Versus Passive Characters

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My favorite characters to read about and write about are active characters, especially when it comes to the leading protagonist and antagonist. I’m a bit more forgiving of passivity in minor supporting characters, but even they are greatly improved by giving them some active choices. The difference between active and passive characters is simple, but perhaps it doesn’t get enough attention.

With a passive character, the plot just happens to him. He’s going about his daily life when suddenly—BOOM! Plot events arrive and sweep him up in the narrative. When the main character or hero is passive, events are largely beyond his ability to affect. I often see this in stories that are plot-driven rather than character-driven, where the author has a potentially brilliant plot that needs to happen, and the characters are forced into it.

Active characters are ones whose choices drive the story. Active characters might make smart choices or foolish ones, selfish choices or altruistic ones. Those choices carry consequences that determine the events of the narrative. As I like to say about Meteor Mags, life doesn’t happen to her; she happens to life.

That isn’t to say that active characters are always in control. One of the most fun things about active characters is when they make choices that lead to their losing control. Take Dwight in Frank Miller’s Sin City story A Dame to Kill For. Every step of the way, Dwight makes choices that determine what happens next. But he is being manipulated by a femme fatale, and we as readers know that he really should know better. He is a delusional fool, but he is an active fool, and his foolish decisions lead to events spiraling out of his control and getting the ever-loving crap beat out of him several times.

Active characters can also be subjected to unexpected events. I don’t think anyone would accuse Meteor Mags of being passive, but the super-tornado that arrives in the middle of a heist gone wrong in Blind Alley Blues is an example of unexpected plot elements showing up to mess with her. Mags’ active nature leads her to see what opportunities the disaster presents, and she makes choices that bend the situation to her advantage. Plus, the reasons the heist goes wrong in the first place all relate to conscious, intentional choices made by her and other characters. They don’t sit around waiting for the plot; they are actively driving it by pressing forward with their agenda.

I’m a fan of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and its protagonist Llewelyn Moss and its antagonist Anton Chigurh are great examples of highly active characters. Moss chooses to examine the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, then he makes one of the stupidest decisions I have ever read. Later that night, he decides to take some water to the last survivor of the deal, and that foolish decision leads to all the pain and suffering which follows. I have always found this choice a bit suspect and possibly out of character for Moss, but the fact remains that he makes it and must deal with the consequences.

On the other side of things, Chigurh is a cold, calculating, homicidal maniac who makes choices every step of the way. In his famous scene with a gas station attendant, Chigurh uses a coin toss to determine whether he will kill the attendant—a conceit that appeals to blind chance as driving his actions, even though he is the one actively initiating the situation. Near the end of the story, Moss’ young wife calls out Chigurh on this bullshit, telling him “It’s just you.” And it is just him, making choices that drive the plot.

No Country is one of my favorite novels because both Chigurh and Moss make active choices while trying to achieve conflicting goals, and nearly every event in the book is the result of these two characters working at cross-purposes.

Besides being characters who can create the dramatic intensity of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and intensifying our emotional investment in seeing how such brutal conflict plays out, active characters earn our empathy and respect.

In comparison, passive characters seem like people who say, “Woe is me,” and blame anyone and everyone except themselves for their problems. Sure, we might feel sympathy for these downtrodden folks, but we can just as easily feel contempt for those who don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. And if they passively succumb to their fate, they lack the initiative we expect from heroes. They might as well be the beach being pounded by the ocean with no true agency of its own for us to get involved with.

But when an active character makes choices, we respect her for doing something besides lying on her back and thinking of England while life has its way with her. We can respect her for, at the very least, trying to do something about her situation. We might not agree with her choices, and we might even see them as foolish, but we can feel invested in her attempts to achieve her goals—even when she fails.

When those choices arise from deeply held conviction, we are more likely to empathize. Peter Parker’s active choice to continue trying to make the world better as Spider-man is a good example, because being Spider-man tends to have nothing but painful consequences for his personal life. Parker’s choices often lead him to more suffering than many of us would be willing to endure, but he remains committed to trying to do good things, to protecting people less powerful than he, and standing firm as a force for good in a world threatened by evil. We not only respect Parker; we empathize with his struggle. We don’t just feel sorry for him; we feel sorrow with him. When he succeeds, we feel that success, too. We become emotionally invested.

None of what I have said should be taken as advice to abandon tight, compelling plots and write by the seat of your pants. The important point is that rather than designing plots that simply happen to passive characters, construct plots that are driven by the choices the characters make.

Characters need goals, and they need to make decisions they believe will take them closer to those goals. They also need obstacles in their path—both the external obstacles of circumstance, and the internal obstacles of personal shortcomings they need to overcome. What lies do they tell themselves? What misconceptions do they have? Even the most active character can harbor beliefs that keep her distant from her goal, even as she tries to move forward.

In my years as a workshop leader, I saw some stories about passive characters who had no clear, primal, compelling goal they were so intent on reaching that they would have died for it. They were just people trotted on stage so the plot could happen to them, and I found that I simply didn’t care. But even when presented with a story in a genre or style I didn’t prefer, I could easily get swept up in the adventures of an active character whose choices—whether right or wrong—defined and drove events. Those were the characters I came to care about and whose fates I became personally invested in.

So whether you see your stories as more plot-driven or more character-driven, realize the best stories are both: where the character choices drive the plot forward, so readers become emotionally invested in the outcome.

Piper’s Tale: In Memory of the World’s Loudest Cat

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One night, around sixteen years ago in Phoenix, I was walking home from a local bar called Shady’s, which was a nice place to meet friendly people and strike up casual conversations or a game of pool on the single bar-box table by the booths. Shady’s also had a cute fireplace filled with candles, a fun jukebox with loads of alt-rock, and a cozy outdoor patio for smokers. The bar had closed, and I had more than a few pints in me, but the house my girlfriend and I were renting at the time was only a leisurely twenty- or thirty-minute walk away.

I was just north of Los Olivos Park when I encountered a kittycat wandering the suburban streets. She was quite talkative but seemed to be in good health: no apparent injuries, no visible infestations or wounds, a shiny coat, and a friendly, perky attitude. I pet her for a bit and chatted with her, assuming she was someone’s cat who had gotten outside and was exploring the hood. Then I said good-bye.

She followed me.

Normally, I would have waved her off and told her to go home, but I was feeling super relaxed, and she was cute. So, I just talked to her as we went on our merry way. I figured any cat who meowed to the high heavens like she was doing must be hungry, and my girlfriend and I had plenty of cat food at home. (We had two male cats at the time.)

The house was on the corner of the rather busy 32nd Street, and as I approached home, the cat wandered into the middle of the street. I admonished her with thoughtful, drunken guidance such as, “What the fuck are you doing, kitty?! Get the hell out of the street!” She didn’t seem to care.

That turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing about what a reckless, rowdy hell-beast was following me. Eventually, I made it home, and the cat was right behind me. I went inside and got a bowl and some food for her, accidentally waking up my girlfriend who was like, “What are you doing?”

When I told her a kitten had followed me home and I was going to feed it, she was totally on board. The cat continued to meow at the top of her lungs until she shoved her face in the food bowl and chowed down. We all hung out for a bit until kitty seemed to have eaten her fill. I went inside and went to bed.

This all happened the night before I left for the weekend on a solo trip up to Flagstaff with my acoustic guitar in search of some nature inspiration for new compositions. I had a great weekend and was happy with many of the ideas I came up with while jamming in scenic areas such as Midgely Bridge. I eventually recorded the songs Midgely Bridge and Tadpoles based on that trip.

But when I came home, I discovered the lost kittycat had, in the span of a few short days, moved into our attic, been coaxed out by my girlfriend and one of her friends, and was now living in the house! Despite being well-fed, she still meowed as loudly as an air-raid siren, and my girlfriend had named her Piper—due to having quite a set of pipes on her.

I was, at first, unhappy about adding a third cat to our household, but what could I say about it? It was my drunk ass who picked her up in the streets in the first place!

So, Piper joined our feline family and proceeded to raise almighty hell. Don’t get me wrong: Piper was an absolutely adorable kitty who loved to snuggle and cuddle and play. But she was also apparently unaware of her mortality and her volume. Sometimes I had to shut her in one of the bedrooms for my own sanity when she would not be quiet, and sometimes she created absolute chaos with zero regard for her own safety.

I think if Piper had been born human, she would have been a stunt woman and put the illustrious Zoë Bell to shame. One of her more memorable stunts in recent years was jumping on a dinner table to attack a cooked turkey. She didn’t land on the table. She landed in a bowl of mashed potatoes, freaked out, grabbed a huge portion of turkey, and launched her potato-covered self off the table to feast on her prize.

Other times, she would just go into total destruction mode and maul a piece of art or furniture. But it was hard to stay mad at Piper for long, because she was just trying to have fun, and she was so damn cute. She was, in her own way, a little hell-raising anarchist with a punk-rock attitude, but she was also incredibly loving and apparently unaware of the damage she inflicted. Piper wasn’t trying to be a bad kitty; she just had a rowdy fire that could not be quenched.

Piper Kitty passed away last week. In her final days, she refused to take food or water and was quite disoriented. But she took a sedative that calmed her down, and she died comfortably cradled in the arms of the woman who loved her and adopted her.

I don’t believe in the afterlife, but if there was one, Piper would be there right now tearing the ever-loving shit out of it and raising all kinds of unholy hell. Then she would act like nothing had ever happened and come looking for a snuggle. And who could resist?

Big hugs and cuddles go out to the cat who followed me home one night and screamed her way into our hearts. Long may she run.

sketchbook sundays: hammerhead shark

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Sketchbook Sundays used to be a regular event here at Mars Will Send No More, but then I got into writing fiction. Recently, I’ve missed drawing, and I always wanted to be better at drawing animals. So I picked up a few inexpensive books by Lee J. Ames. Each page has a different animal to draw, guiding you through the process in six stages, from outlining the basic shapes to the final shading and detail. It’s a bit limited by only having one pose per animal, so it isn’t like a master class in anatomy. But it’s fun to learn some of the basics and quickly produce a decent sketch.

When I was a kid, I used to get these books from the library, but I could never get the proportions right. Results were disastrous and crushed my youthful aspirations of illustrating comics. Decades later, I better understand what Ames is trying to tell me about basic underlying shapes, and I’ve learned that it’s okay to be loose and even sloppy in the early stages — kind of like pounding out a rough draft of a scene without worrying about whether it’s perfect. Later, you come back and revise, smooth out the rough edges, and put the final editorial polish to it.

Anyway, I practiced on a bunch of sharks and cats lately. Birds and bugs are next in line.

Collector’s Guide: There’s a whole series of Lee J. Ames books in paperback and Kindle edition that cost around $10 each.

Indie Box: Darwyn Cooke’s Parker Adaptations

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Reading The Hunter sheds light on how much Donald Westlake’s series of Parker novels influenced the ultra-gritty Sin City series by Frank Miller. It seems fair to say that the style of Sin City also influenced Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of its predecessor, bringing it all full-circle.

For example, Cooke sometimes fills a page with a single image and a column of narration on the side, something Miller often did, especially in the first Sin City volume The Hard Goodbye, and which John Byrne later parodied in She-Hulk.

Cooke also shows a fondness for the BAM sound effect rendered in blocky lettering when a pistol fires.

It’s a classic sound that brings to mind Miller’s iconic pages from the sixth issue of The Hard Goodbye where the sound effect becomes the frames for the action, and it reminds us that Westlake’s Parker and Miller’s Marv are cut from the same cloth.

If you crave stories with empowered women, then Parker isn’t for you. Parker’s world is a man’s world. Women are trotted onstage mostly for sex and betrayal. In Cooke’s four volumes, the woman with the most agency and initiative is Alma in The Outfit, since she sets up the heist while having her own secret plans. She wants to be a femme fatale, but her treachery does not end well for her.

Despite depicting a few variations on the female form, Cooke seems to have a default idea about what a beautiful woman looks like, and the faces of women in The Hunter often resemble faces he’s drawn before in his superhero comics. The face of the woman who betrayed Parker could easily be Cooke’s Wonder Woman or Catwoman, and that makes her feel a bit generic.

Oddly, that works for The Hunter, because Westlake built the story around characters who don’t run very deep—whether male or female. They are more like archetypal examples of the tropes of hard-boiled detective and crime fiction, as if they are so primal to the genre that they need little exploration. The Hunter is unconcerned with delving into what makes them unique, remaining entirely focused on the relentless advance of the revenge plot. If you want well-rounded female characters with depth and agency, go read some Greg Rucka or Gail Simone stories—because it ain’t happening in Parker!

This criticism didn’t stop me from being totally caught up in the story. What I love about Cooke’s adaptation of The Hunter is how he chooses when to tell the story wordlessly and when to deliver exposition. We get some narration and one brief line of dialogue on the first page, and then nearly twenty-five pages of story told without a single word or sound effect. But in those wordless pages, all the action is so clear, expressive, and compelling that it comes as a shock when words once again appear on the page.

I also love how Cooke’s stripped-down approach to visuals honors Westlake’s stripped-down approach to prose for Parker. Compared to Westlake’s more lighthearted Dortmunder novels, the sentences in the Parker series are much leaner and tighter. Cooke’s artwork echoes that with a kind of minimalism, a simplicity that only conveys the bare essence of details to create the mood and tell the story. Panels lack borders, and thick shadows and bright light do almost all the work of defining images without lines. Cooke might depict the ironwork on a bridge by only inking its shadows and never drawing the outline of the overall shapes. While I love the detailed linework of artists such as Juan Jose Ryp, Geoff Darrow, or Steve McNiven, Cooke creates compelling environments and people using light, shadow, and monochromatic midtones.

The Outfit relies entirely on purple, and The Score uses a warm, dirty yellow that suits the setting in a hot desert mining town. While Sin City did something similar in a few volumes, those colors were more like occasional highlights than Cooke’s creative midtones.

It would have been fun to see another volume in red. The end of the fourth volume did promise another return of Parker. Sadly, Cooke was taken from us by cancer in 2016 at only fifty-three years old, and we never saw a fifth Parker adaptation.

Volumes two through four had interesting moments. The Outfit abruptly interrupts the established visual style to insert a series of explanations about a series of crimes. We get a multi-page newspaper article about a casino robbery, cartoon guides to horse-race gambling and smuggling cash on airplane flights to pay for heroin, and several pages of how to operate an illegal “numbers” betting operation. Everything I previously knew about “numbers running” came from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so it was interesting to get Westlake’s rundown on these vintage illegal enterprises.

The fourth and final volume, Slayground, traps Parker in an abandoned amusement park where he comes up with clever ways to use the environment against gangsters who want his money from a job he narrowly escaped. One of his ideas is spraying a blob of paint on every surface in the hall of mirrors, then luring someone in. I’ve seen so many hall-of-mirrors scenes in movies that I hoped to never see one again, but this was a brilliant take that restored my faith in reflective surfaces.

Slayground also delivers powerful moments of cinematic, wordless storytelling such as a four-panel page of a car we just saw lose control on the icy roads on the previous page, and now goes tumbling over our heads into the distance. You can almost feel the impact.

But of all four tales, my favorite is the first: a relentless revenge over a double-cross that made a heist go horribly wrong. It’s harder than hard-boiled and blacker than noir, a morally vacant tale about a repulsive protagonist who gets the job done with his hands.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that Parker makes it out of The Hunter alive. Westlake wrote twenty-four of these novels, and Cooke adapted four. At this point, you go into the series knowing the stakes are not life-or-death for Parker.

That does lower the dramatic tension. If you know the main character can’t be killed, then that lowers your investment in his success. In a series such as Sin City or Criminal, where individual stories are told out of order, a character might very well meet their end in any particular episode—and often does. Investment is high. You never know what’s coming next.

With Parker, we know he is unstoppable. The fun comes not from wondering whether he will live or die, but discovering how he bends circumstances to his will no matter what life throws at him. Parker’s world is a grim place, and he is not a role model nor even likeable. But he is enjoyable as an immovable object in a world of irresistible forces, or maybe the other way around. He possesses a singular focus and physical strength, and a superior insight into his amoral world of crime, lies, and power that helps him make it out alive—and, if he’s lucky, with a bit of money in his pocket.

Collector’s Guide: You can currently get the complete four-volume set of Cooke’s Parker adaptations in digital format for about $40 through Kindle/Comixology. Each volume was also printed in hardcover and paperback editions.

Cretaceous Carnage with Lobo

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Here at Mars Will Send No More, one of our favorite things is traveling time to hunt dinosaurs. We just can’t get enough of prehistoric poaching, saurian slaughter, terrorizing pterosaurs, and wrestling a ramphoryncus. We relish riding rexes, accosting ankylosaurs, and disturbing the dimetrodons. It’s just what we do.

But nobody does it better than DC Comics’ Main Man: Lobo!

In issue 38 of Lobo’s 65-issue series that began in 1993, the homicidal heathen runs amok in a masterpiece of Mesozoic mayhem. The opening splash page parodies DC’s Kamandi, a Jack Kirby creation about the “last boy on Earth” in a post-apocalyptic dystopia populated by anthropomorphic animals.

But the parodies pile up as different characters arrive on the scene, including cowboys thrilled to be in Ray Harryhausen’s Valley of Gwangi and a bunch of aging 1970s rock stars ready to embark on a “Dinosaurs of Rock” tour.

With a cover date of April 1997, this issue was timed to appear just before the release of Jurassic Park: The Lost World in May, complete with a “Jurassik Pork” action figure of writer Alan “Judge Dredd” Grant. Somehow, this series was published without the “Intended for Mature Readers” warning on the cover, and the creative team pushes that boundary. It substitutes “frag” and “bastich” for more common profanities, creatively poses a butt-naked Lobo to avoid full-frontal nudity, and couches Lobo’s sexual exploits in puns and innuendos.

Even when Lobo gets his hand chopped off, there’s something cartoonish about it all. He can’t really be hurt for too long, and his hand is soon re-attached to his arm without explanation, much in the same way that no matter what horrible fate befell Wile E. Coyote, he always got patched up and came back for more senseless violence.

According to Lobo’s co-creator Keith Giffen, the character was originally intended as a satire of grim-and-gritty, hyper-violent comics. But the satire was so over-the-top that it was hilarious, and the more insane Alan Grant made the character, the more fun it was to read. Devoid of restraints such as ethics and empathy, and physically immune to any long-term consequences of his actions, Lobo is like a heavy metal Bugs Bunny with an attitude problem.

As you might suspect, things in issue 38 don’t end well for the dinosaurs, nor for anyone else who encounters Lobo.

The creative team seems to take just as much childish glee in the wanton destruction as the Main Man himself, and the illustrations are both gorgeous and silly at the same time. I have only read a handful of issues from this series, despite having read many more of the Lobo limited series and one-shots, but they were consistently entertaining, and I’d like to hunt them all down eventually. Just like the dinosaurs.

Collector’s Guide: From Lobo #38; DC Comics, 1997. I don’t believe the issue has been reprinted in any TPBs yet, but you might also enjoy the first Lobo TPB that collects several four-issue series and one-shots, including outrageous work by Alan Grant, Keith Giffen, Simon Bisley, Denys Cowan, and Kevin O’Neill.

Indie Box: Steak

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Steak is an independently published comic from the UK that explores the personal and political ramifications of traveling back in time to hunt dinosaurs for their meat. Author and educator Will Conway reports that when he started out, he had not heard of the Flesh series from 2000 AD, and that Steak is an entirely different beast. While Flesh sprung from the violent imagination of Pat Mills and focused on brutal chaos in a prehistoric setting, Steak delves into more psychological dimensions of the dino-hunting enterprise. But there’s plenty of Cretaceous carnage, too!

The main character, Benjamin Buckland, comes up with the idea while recovering from a brain injury, and he and his scientific partner Roger Dukowicz conceive the means of time travel after eating “a rare cactus”—presumably peyote. If that sounds like a mentally unhinged way to start a business, then it should come as no surprise that by the second issue, Buckland’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. It doesn’t help that his more even-keeled partner gets abducted, and a shadowy organization is spying on him.

As a self-proclaimed “zoophage” who gets a thrill from eating exotic animals, Buckland asserts that his main goal is to eat dinosaurs. He pays for his hobby by opening restaurants and doing licensing deals to expand the market for his Mesozoic meat. This leads to hilarious narration about how different dinosaur species taste, several gory yet coldly factual pages about how to butcher them like cattle, and pun-filled products such as “Apattiesaurus” burgers and “Psit-taco-saurus” food trucks. Dukowicz sports T-shirts with dinosaur-themed pop-culture references such as “Iguanodon Corleone”.

But with corporations trying to steal his technology for profit, and militaries trying to obtain it for a pre-emptive advantage in warfare, Buckland is beset from all sides. How it will all play out remains, at the time of this writing, a mystery. Issue number three of this five-issue series is currently in production, so now would be a good time to subscribe and see what happens next.

Marc Olivent’s artwork is a lot of fun, especially in the scenes of dinosaur hunting and how they go horribly wrong. The dinosaurs are impressive and energetic, whether they are chomping someone’s head or stampeding off a cliff. The narrative structure is creative, jumping around a bit in time in the first issue without much guidance as to when things take place other than intentionally vague captions like “Now then” and “Meanwhile”. It works well for a time-travel story, and piecing together the puzzle is part of the pleasure.

Steak considers the ethics of killing animals that died off millions of years ago. Are they endangered species because they are now extinct or, as one character puts it, is it “morally okay” because “They were already dead before they were already dead, I guess?” And when members of a hunting party get killed by dinos, the lawyers struggle with the question of how to handle someone dying millions of years before they were born. But these philosophical conundrums don’t bog down the narrative, which remains fast-paced and lively, and lets you draw your own conclusions.

So far, the series has avoided the complications of potentially altering the future by killing animals in the past, an idea most famously explored in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. But who knows? Maybe we will get there eventually, because Steak is a smart, funny, and exciting romp that serves up a unique and unpredictable take on a classic concept.

Collector’s Guide: You can order print copies at the Steak website, and subscribe to updates about upcoming issues. Currently the first two issues are available for Kindle in the USA and in the UK.

Thoughts on Two Years of COVID-19

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In February 2020, I was chatting with some people about the recent outbreak of a new virus, and someone raised the question of whether we might be freaking out a little too much. Having been a teenager in the 1980s, my perspective was, “Maybe people are going a little overboard, but I think it’s good that it’s being taken seriously. HIV was not taken seriously enough when it hit the U.S. and, as a result, it got way worse than it needed to be.”

I figured the latest virus would be a bit like the outbreaks of Bird Flu and Swine Flu in the scope of its damage: it would be a serious and life-threatening disease if contracted, but incidents would be relatively rare.

I knew someone that almost died from Bird Flu—a supply vendor for a tech company I worked for in 2005. She was great to work with, very conscientious, but suddenly stopped calling or dropping by and became unreachable. About a month later, after I’d given up and was shopping around for a new vendor, she called me. It turns out that she was hit so hard that she became non-functional and passed out, and only survived because her five-year-old daughter called 911. Fortunately, she returned to good health after being hospitalized, and we continued to work together.

So, I knew these things could be serious and potentially fatal, but they also seemed relatively rare and didn’t threaten the functioning of our entire society.

Around March 2020, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey implemented some lockdown restrictions that limited gatherings in restaurants, and that affected my writers workshop group. We had been meeting at a local restaurant that served affordable yet gourmet sandwiches and damn good draft beers, but our meetings of anywhere from five to fifteen people got shut down.

Ducey, an often useless Republican whose claim to fame was running a chain of ice-cream shops, at least did a few things right to try to stem the tide of disease in those early months. But I still saw the viral outbreak as something we didn’t need to freak out about, because just keeping level heads and taking precautions would see us through in a short time. When I sent out a message to my entire workshop group about the change, I jokingly referred to the situation as “the zombie apocalypse”. I was completely in favor of the restrictions, but I just didn’t have any sense of worry about what I saw as a temporary measure to stop the contagion.

I still went to the grocery store without a mask, even when the staff started masking, because let’s face it: I was at a super low risk of getting a contagious disease. I worked from home, I took my university classes online from home, I was single and not dating, and my only social life was my workshop meetings. I hadn’t had so much as a cold in years due to my low level of in-person contact.

Then Ducey issued a state-wide mask mandate. I bought a pack of fifty cheap surgical-style masks and started masking for my trips to the store for food and beer. I wasn’t really worried about myself, but it was easy enough to comply with a sensible measure to protect public health and keep other people from getting sick.

I used to wear way more intense masks when I painted houses for a living. My crew would spend all day in a newly constructed house spraying primer and then two coats of paint on all the drywall. We’d spend hours in these full-face, two-filter masks in 98-degree temperatures in an empty building with no air conditioning. And yes, that did truly suck, but it also gave me an awareness of just how simple and easy it was to wear a little cloth mask to the store for ten minutes or half an hour.

My first inkling that something had gone horribly wrong was when I went to the store and learned that earlier that day, a group of people had barged into the store without any masks to stage an anti-mask protest. That was when I first began to worry—not so much about the virus, but about my fellow Arizonans and countrymen being capable of such a wildly stupid, irrational, shit-for-brains response to simple public-health measures. People were getting sick, yet here was a group of malevolent, dangerously delusional assholes throwing a tantrum about an easy way for us all, as a society, to look out for each other and try to keep things moving along as best as we can.

After that, I never made another “zombie apocalypse” joke or downplayed the outbreak and its spread. My initial attitude of “Maybe we are taking this a little too seriously” changed to “We will be royally fucked if people don’t take this more seriously.”

Around the same time, I learned that one of my workshoppers’ coworkers had died from COVID-19. I have since learned that another had a family member who died. And I have heard rumors that even within my own family, some people might be buying into the anti-vaccine nonsense. I have also seen a friend who I think of as rather smart start posting crap about Ivermectin and the ineffectiveness of masks.

I even had an old friend I considered one of the smarter and more progressive persons I have ever known call me to tell me that all we need to do is take some vitamins and listen to good music, because enjoying music boosts the immune system, and that we just need to carry on like nothing is wrong. That way, a bunch of people will die, and the survivors will be the ones who have healthy immune systems.

This approach might sound appealing at first to the simpleminded, but it completely ignores the strain such a plan puts on the nation’s hospitals and healthcare workers. It ignores the reality of running out of places to put the dead bodies quickly enough. It ignores the massive toll this wave of illness and death would extract from our country and its ability to function. But I still see and hear this kind of idiocy all the time.

And I think to myself, “What in the actual hell is happening?” These are people I have liked, loved, and respected, and that’s a damn short list of people. It’s like the stressful enormity of the situation has driven even typically sane, rational people into some sort of mental illness, some state of extreme denial about the whole thing where they concoct these fantasies to make themselves feel better, or tell themselves they are smarter than a bundle of viral DNA that doesn’t care what they believe, just so long as it can invade their cells and use them to make more copies of itself.

Viruses don’t care about your political or religious affiliation, who you vote for, or what biased news media you get your information from. They don’t care about how smart or dumb you are. They don’t care if you are scared of needles. They don’t care if this prolonged national and global epidemic stresses you out, and they don’t give one single damn about how much you wish it wasn’t happening.

Viruses are incapable of caring about anything. To them, you and I are nothing but warm meat full of living cells that can be conquered and forced to churn out even more viruses until the meat is dead or has infected other meat—or both. Even that much anthropomorphizing of a virus is too much; they are tiny machines made from proteins whose only inherent function is to make more of themselves—and to use your body as an unwilling slave to do it.

The fact that attempts to stop the wave of infection have become tangled up in arguments influenced by political and religious identities is nothing short of madness. It is a traumatic mental illness in the U.S. that is nearly as tragic and worrisome as the death toll approaching one million Americans in two years.

A public-health emergency like this should be something that unites us around a common cause: a concern for the wellbeing of all our countrymen that motivates us to do what we can to help each other and protect each other. Instead, it has become ridiculously divisive, to the point where the doctors and nurses dealing with it every day are being labeled “murderers” in “death camps” and being assaulted by dangerously ignorant jack-asses. From local school-board meetings to state governments and our national Congress, too many people are seeking to undermine or outright obstruct any efforts to curtail the spread of this virus.

That’s what really worries me. We are two years into this, and more and more of my friends are being directly affected by either being infected or losing people they love. And despite that, a public-health problem continues to be politicized and treated like a “wedge issue” that divides rather than unites us.

I want this to be over as much as anyone. But wishful, magical, misinformed thinking is not getting us any closer to that eventuality. In fact, that’s making it worse and only prolonging the agony. The virus does not give a damn about any of us. But we’d get a lot a farther if we all realized what sort of implacable foe we are up against and started giving a damn about each other.

That’s where I am after two years of COVID-19, and I hope that despite the massive amounts of misinformation, mental stress, and mis-management, that we as a nation can pull our heads out of our collective ass and find it in our hearts to do what it takes to keep everyone as healthy as possible. We have an opportunity to pull together and beat this thing. Let’s not waste it.

Rampaging Dino Art by Luis V. Rey (Updated)

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The raging dinosaurs above are featured on the back cover of 2003’s Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and on page 253. This gorgeous illustration by paleo artist Luis V. Rey shows two Giganotosauruses attacking an Amargasaurus, with a herd of Argentinosauruses in the background.

After sharing this image on Reddit in 2022, eleven years after first posting it on this blog, I learned that Rey updated the image due to what we now believe is a historical inaccuracy in portraying Amargasaurus living at the same time as Giganotosaurus. The revision portrays two Mapusauruses chasing a juvenile Argentinosaurus.

the more historically accurate update

As I read through this encyclopedia again in January 2022, I noticed some other pieces of outdated information. The big one is basically the entire chapter dedicated to the mystery of how and when the dinos went extinct (except for birds). Since the book was published in 2003, we’ve gained a damn good concept of what really happened, and where, and why. I’ve read a ton of articles on it, since extinction is a pet topic of mine, but the good folks at Kurzgesagt have made an excellent, concise video on the topic

Kurzgesagt also made an incredible dinosaur calendar for 2022 (now sold out) and some awesome dino posters! Visit their official site at: https://kurzgesagt.org/

The second and more minor point that stood out to me was the discussion about how Coelophysis was believed to be cannibalistic because one of its skeletons was found with what appeared to be the skeletons of two baby Coelophysises in its stomach. This find has since been re-examined, and the “babies” were determined to be another, smaller species of dino. I only realized this recently while reading about the discoveries of paleontologist and author Dr. Edwin Colbert.

But it just goes to show that our exploration and understanding of the lives and times of dinosaurs continue to expand and improve. Who knows what we will discover next, or what we now believe to be likely will turn out to be a misunderstanding? The history of dinosaur discovery is one of constant growth and change, where we must always be open to questioning and refining old dogmas in the light of new facts and better understanding.

Collector’s Guide: Visit Luis V. Rey’s blog to explore more of his stunning artwork, and his books on Amazon. January 2022 saw the release of a new 64-page book with his illustrations: Dinosaurs of Africa, in paperback and Kindle. I got my used copy of Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs for $8 at a book store, but you can still find this glorious oversized hardcover on Amazon for $15 to $35.