Trim, the Cat Who Circumnavigated Australia

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Matthew Flinders was a sailor, explorer, mapmaker, and navigator who served in England’s Royal Navy and once sailed with William Bligh after the events recounted in Mutiny on the Bounty. History remembers Flinders as the man who gave Australia its current name, and for completing the first circumnavigation of that island continent.

But history also honors the cat who made that voyage and many others with Flinders. If you visit the Mitchell Library in Sydney, you will find a statue of Flinders and, very near to it, a plaque and statue of Trim, the black-and-white feline adventurer who was born on a ship at sea and enjoyed waging war against one of the true terrors of nautical life: the pestilent vermin who sought to eat the sailors’ food.

The first time I read about Trim, it was in the hilarious and detailed history of Australia, Girt by David Hunt. Today, I was reminded of Trim while reading the small but delightful 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization by Sam Stall. Each short chapter tells the tale of a noteworthy cat, from the first known cat to be named thousands of years ago to exceptional cats of the current century, from cats of well-known authors and heads of state to cats in recent popular culture. Trim’s chapter is the second to last.

I highly recommend both Girt and 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization, but their summaries of Trim’s life pale in comparison to the affectionate memoir penned by Flinders himself. You can read it for free online at The Flinders Papers.

With a little exaggeration, as cat lovers are prone to make, and a great deal of love and respect for his sea-faring companion of many years, Flinders describes Trim’s travels, travails, and triumphs. I sometimes worry that my fiction stories involving a space-traveling cat living with interplanetary rogues and brigands will strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But when reading Trim’s story in Flinders’ own words, and the stories in 100 Cats, I am reminded of the great variety of character and capability to be found among felines, many of which defy our stereotypical ideas about what cats can do, and feel, and accomplish.

Flinders’ memoir about Trim ends with an epitaph. Here are its final lines:

Many a time have I beheld his little merriments with delight,
and his superior intelligence with surprise:
Never will his like be seen again!
Trim was born in the Southern Indian Ocean, in the year 1799
and perished as above at the Isle of France in 1804.
Peace be to his shade, and
Honour to his memory
.

—Matthew Flinders, 1809.

KDP: Hardcover Beta Review

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In case you missed my post from last month, I was invited by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to participate in the beta version of their new program for producing print-on-demand hardcover books. I promised you an update when the first, physical proof arrived. Guess what came in the mail today!

All I can say is that the book looks and feels amazing. It’s sturdy and way more substantial than I expected for a smallish 150-page book. The print options I chose were for white paper and a gloss finish on the cover.

Some folks believe you should use cream paper for fiction, but I have produced books in both cream and white, and the white paper looks and feels better to me. I also find the high contrast with black text makes white paper easier to read. I’ve produced books with both matte and glossy covers, and I tend to prefer the shiny gloss that really makes the colors vibrant. But matte finish is also nice, and I’ve gone with that several times when it felt right.

The binding is beautiful inside and out, and I love the way that about a quarter-inch of the cover color and design is visible inside the book when opened, where the cover wraps around the edges.

I think authors will be pleased when this hardcover option is available to everyone. I already feel the urge to make hardcover editions of about half a dozen of my books. I’d love to release the first Meteor Mags Omnibus in hardcover, but at more than 580 pages, it exceeds the maximum page count of 550 for a KDP hardcover.

Besides page count, authors will want to consider price points and profit margins. My paperback edition of The Singing Spell has a wholesale printing cost to me of less than USD $3. But the printing cost for the hardcover is $7.28. (Again, this is for a 150-page book. Longer books will cost more.) To sell the hardcover and make a reasonable per-unit profit on Amazon, I needed to price it at $14.95, as opposed to the $6.95 price for the paperback and the $2.99 bargain price for the Kindle ebook edition.

This doesn’t make much of a financial difference to me, since I design my own books, but authors who need to pay a designer to format the cover for a hardcover edition will want to consider whether they can recoup the additional expense with hardcover sales at a higher price than the other editions. Will their target market be willing to spend the extra bucks for a hardcover? It’s a question I can’t really answer for anyone without market research.

Either way, I expect my fellow authors and readers will be impressed with the quality of these hardcover editions, and I’m looking forward to the day when this program is no longer in beta testing but available to all self-publishers using the KDP platform.

Update: The hardcover edition of The Singing Spell is now available on Amazon.

Reflections on Writing The Martian Revolution

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An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.

My recent story about the Martian revolution in 2030 is a fairly quick read at only 16,000 words, but it took six months to finish. I’ll tell you a bit about what happened along the way—both the challenges and successes—but let’s start with the two main lessons I learned.

First: The more moving parts you have, the longer it takes to assemble the machine. When plotting a story with two or three characters in a limited setting, you have fewer things to keep track of. Seven years ago, I used to crank out first drafts over a weekend, from 5,000 to 15,000 words long. They took a lot longer than that to revise, but most of the first drafts went quickly.

Those were simpler times in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episodes had only three to six main characters in only one or two settings. Plus, I was free to make up things as I went along, because so much of the “universe” was unexplored, and I could invent unresolved plot threads on the fly to set up stories I wanted to tell in the future.

As the series progressed, it encompassed many more characters and settings, and those dangling plot threads needed woven into the fabric of everything we already knew about Mags’ life and her solar system. When writing about any event or character, I needed to bring my internal continuity editor on board to make sure I hadn’t contradicted any previous facts in the more than 300,000 words of established history.

Plus, I chose more ambitious settings as I went along. I started with what you might call “stock footage” for the early stories: things I’d seen in movies and comics that I basically stole or used as blueprints. But after boiling those stolen bits in my own kettle of ideas for a few years, they became a stew with a flavor all its own.

As a result, I sometimes needed to step back from writing the story and return to planning—which leads me to the next lesson. The suggestions I’ve given other writers for years once again proved their usefulness. Finding renewed success with so many of my basic methods reinforced my confidence in publishing them for a wider audience.

In My Life as an Armadillo, my recent book about writing and workshopping, I assert that writer’s block is a myth, because you can always write something—and I give suggestions about the fundamental, foundational pieces of writing you can do behind the scenes to overcome any feeling of being stuck.

I needed to take my own advice a bunch of times for The Martian Revolution. I reached points in the narrative where I realized I had not fully developed my own understanding of a setting or character. I needed to step back and write about those things “off the record”, behind the scenes. That empowered me to come back to the main narrative and write through several scenes and character-driven moments from a deeper understanding and keep moving forward.

Not that I wrote it all in order, from start to finish. Instead, I started from a series of scene synopses built from several thousand words of notes I’d compiled while writing earlier stories that led up to these events. From the scene summaries, I picked whichever I felt most emotionally drawn to when it was time to write.

The challenge of that approach is that you end up whittling down the unwritten scenes to the ones you feel the least emotionally involved with. But that helped me discover, as it has in the past, what it would take to get me emotionally involved in those scenes. After all, if I am not captivated by a scene as the writer, what hope is there of involving any readers?

To get to the emotional core of some things, I did a ton of exploratory writing and description of characters—not just physical descriptions, but about their true motivations, their likes, dislikes, strengths, flaws, histories, relationships with and feelings toward each other, even things that remain unspoken in the narrative but formed a subtext for my own understanding of these characters.

All of that takes time, and no one really gives you credit for doing it as a writer, just like no one gives you credit for studying an instrument for years and practicing for untold hours after giving a great concert performance.

But it wasn’t like I spent every day of six months working on one story. I published the previous collection (The Singing Spell) in October 2020, but then I needed to move at the end of January and didn’t have a place lined up. So, I packed all the stuff that would fit into a rented 10×10 U-Haul truck, threw out everything else, and drove to another city a couple hours away. I hoped for the best, but total disaster was also a possibility.

The resultant upheaval of my life made it difficult to focus on my story, so I decided not to worry about it. I found solace in writing about something every day. During my week in a hotel, I used my mini-tablet and wireless keyboard to type thousands of words of ideas for the next couple of episodes. During the subsequent saga of three weeks with no Internet in my new place, I revised and edited the collection of essays about writing and workshopping that became the book I published in March 2021. Sometimes I just wrote letters to friends to gather my thoughts.

Plus, my neglected blog needed a shot in the arm, and I had a million things to do to get my new life started and reconnect with my clients. In the meantime, I let The Martian Revolution simmer on the back burner of my mind, and every now and then I felt inspired to make more notes about it or write a scene. Those notes and the extra time proved helpful when I got around to finishing the first draft in mid-March 2021.

I never saw this as being “blocked” as a writer. It was more of a question about where to direct my writing and editing energies on any particular day during a series of life challenges that disrupted my groove. It helped that I had multiple ongoing projects to choose from, some of which were more analytical, some of which were more creative and free-flowing, and all of which were in various stages of development from brainstorming to hammering out a final draft.

Maybe that is the third lesson. I often meet writers who are struggling with a single work, and they feel disheartened when they run into obstacles in their life or with the story itself that prevent them from making progress. But if you have a few irons in the fire at the same time, you can usually find one that strikes your fancy on any given day. Not everything in the universe depends on your finishing your current novel or short story when you have a few of them to tinker with at once. Having options gives you freedom, and having options you truly care about means you can always find something to write.

glass octopus

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My sister sent me a couple of octopus-related housewarming gifts after I got to Tucson a few months ago. One is this adorable glass octo from the Ukraine or something. The packaging had Cyrillic writing all over it. Basically, it’s the same letters in the Russian alphabet, which is fitting because the telepathic octos in my fiction series started a band with a tribe of lost Soviet space monkeys. This glass octo now lives under the monitor for my work computer, next to the cute Patches memento my art teacher made for me back in 2013. Yes, there is a solar system where mutant octopuses, space monkeys, and outlaw cats can all be friends and rock out in a band—at least for as long as I have anything to say about it.

Update: My sister says you can find the creator of this glorious glass octopus and many other creatures at etsy.com/shop/miniatureglass

Three Changes at Kindle Direct Publishing and Amazon for Self-Publishers

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Three changes are taking place this month at Amazon’s platforms for self-publishing. Two involve Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and one is happening at the Media On Demand platform that replaced the old CreateSpace function of selling compact disc albums.

Media On Demand is terminating compact disc sales, apparently due to a lack of demand and the increasing market preference for digital streaming and downloads. I’m sad but not surprised. Although my wholesale cost for each of the two music albums I made available on CD was only $4.99, I felt the retail price where I could make a decent per-unit profit was too expensive at $17.95. CDs are nice, but that price always seemed unrealistic to me. On June 4, CDs will no longer be available from Media On Demand, including wholesale copies to the creators, so creators will need to stock up if they want copies before then.

Next, KDP has begun offering print-on-demand paperbacks in Australia. This requires authors to adjust the pricing of each of their POD books for that market. That’s an easy process inside your KDP account, but since I have around thirty books in print, it took me about an hour to make all the adjustments. Still, I’m excited about this development.

Finally, KDP is currently running a beta version of the ability to make print-on-demand books available in hardcover! (Note: The linked pages for this program might only be currently available to KDP authors who have been invited to the beta program and are signed in to their account.) While not available in all international markets, they will be available in the USA and a few other countries. Many of my fellow authors will be excited if this works out, because my self-publishing customers often ask about hardcover editions.

The new hardcovers won’t be the kind with dust jackets. Instead, they will be “case laminate” hardcovers. Casewrapping is common for specialty books and textbooks, where the image is printed on a material that is wrapped onto the hard binding and glued in place, not a removable paper sleeve.

From a technical perspective, this new format will require some graphic design software skill, because formatting a cover for the casewrap is more complex than just clicking a button! Compared to a paperback cover, the casewrap cover must be created at dimensions both wider and taller so the printed image can be wrapped around the hard binding. It also means there is extra width to account for the “folded” area on each side of the spine. To help cover designers implement these changes, KDP provides a cover dimensions calculator which will also generate a PDF or PNG template to use as a guideline, and the templates are created specifically for your book’s trim size and page count. That is handy!

I spent a couple hours tonight re-doing the cover to Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell and Other Tales, getting a new ISBN and barcode for the hardcover edition, uploading and reviewing the files, and ordering a physical proof copy. I will update you on how it turns out, once the proof arrives.

So, goodbye compact discs and hello hardcovers! And hello to Australia! Feel free to share your experiences with these changes in the comments on this post.

Of Mars and Moms: A Memoir

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It’s the week of Mother’s Day, and I’m currently working on a new story about a couple of moms, so this seems like as good a time as any to tell you that Mom occasionally drops by this blog to see what I am up to.

No, she doesn’t much care about comic books, experimental poetry, or the violent, profane fiction I torment the rest of you with on a regular basis. But she does care about her boy who has long since outgrown boyhood and is rapidly approaching his 49th birthday. So, I’d like to give some credit where credit is due.

This blog wouldn’t exist without Mom. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t have been born without her, she helped me get a jumpstart on reading at a young age. I was way into superheroes and dinosaurs by the time I hit kindergarten, and if not for Mom’s infinite patience with reading dinosaur books with me when I was a child, I wouldn’t have been conversant about stegosaurs and pachycephalosaurs while I was still in pre-school.

As a result, my kindergarten teacher must have thought I was some kind of child prodigy, because I was enlisted into an advanced reading group that deciphered complexities of the English language such as “See Jane run” while the rest of the class had nap time. Let me assure you: I was no prodigy. I only had some advanced reading comprehension, and a decent memory of things I’d read—both of which eventually served me well in slacking my way through high school.

Besides dinosaur books and basically any book about animals, space, or history, I had a youthful passion for comic books. That love did not diminish in my teenage years! But by then, times had changed.

In the mid-1980s, comics experienced a cultural shift. No longer were they relegated to the magazine racks of convenience stores and drug stores. Shops dedicated entirely to comics appeared, and the publishing industry responded by creating “direct market” titles meant solely for distribution to those shops. You might take comic shops for granted now, but they were a pretty big deal at the time.

When I was old enough to legally have a job, I picked up a gig as a golf caddy on the weekends to make a few bucks. The work itself truly sucked on a Saturday morning, but some of the old golfer guys tipped me nicely, and I’d leave the place with cash in my pocket. I wasn’t old enough to drive, so Mom would pick me up.

Our first stop? The comic shop. While Mom patiently waited, I discovered series and back issues that to this day remain among my all-time favorites.

Those reading experiences undoubtedly shaped me and influenced my future as a writer, editor, and that apex (or possibly nadir) of human evolution we call a comic-book blogger.

Mom, if you’re stopping by today, thank you for putting up with learning how to pronounce all those dinosaur names back in the 70s, for making sure I always had plenty of books and comics to occupy my mind in the 80s, and for encouraging me to keep exploring my creativity all the way into the 2020s.

You rock!

pure nostalgia: Marvel Team-Up #2, 1972

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Marvel Team-Up #2 is a riotous mix of 1970s superhero nonsense and insanely dramatic confrontations between the Human Torch and Spider-man. The villains take control of Spidey’s mind and turn him into a weapon against his friend, Johnny Storm.

Script by Gerry Conway, pencils by Ross Andru, and inks by Jim Mooney.

Oh, the pathos! My suspension of disbelief is only hampered by the fact that Spidey was, by that point in comics history, established as being so strong that a punch from him should have killed Torch immediately. Spider-man isn’t strong on the level of Hulk or Thor, but he packs a wallop that could take off your head.

Regardless, this scene inspired me to use a couple panels as ink studies for chisel-tip markers I’d recently acquired. They create broad, angular lines but also finer lines when rotated 90 degrees. I found I could get a mix of bold shapes and detail lines if I worked at the appropriate scale for the brush width.

Chisel-tip Sharpie Marker study

I cut the pages from my sketchbook and hung them in a prominent place where I see them a few times a day, as a reminder. Sometimes I feel so wrapped up in and trapped by all kinds of stuff, focused on negative things about what’s wrong while my brain tries to solve problems, that it’s nice to have a buddy like Torch: someone willing to yell sense at me when I totally lose the plot. Someone to remind me who I am.

Johnny Storm stands his ground even when mind-controlled Spidey is trying to kill him. Sure, Torch could crank up his flames, “go nova”, and incinerate Spidey to a pile of ash. But it wouldn’t be enough for Torch to save himself. He wants to liberate Spider-man, too. That’s true friendship.

The friendship and occasional rivalry between these two heroes has been going on since the 1960s, and I enjoyed Jonathan Hickman’s treatment in his run on the Fantastic Four. When the Human Torch ***spoiler alert*** dies to save our universe from an invasion, Spider-man takes his place in the FF. Spidey honors his old pal’s last will and testament, and also completes a lifelong dream of joining the FF, a dream that began in the very first issue of The Amazing Spider-man where a much more inexperienced and arrogant Peter Parker tried out for the team—and failed. One especially heartfelt tale on Hickman’s run has Spidey share with Johnny’s nephew, Franklin, about how Spidey lost his uncle, too.

Second marker study of a panel from the same issue.

I got so into Marvel Team-Up #2 that I cut up a copy in really poor condition I got for fifty cents. It’s a crazy expensive comic in better condition, but it retails for about $5 in the condition I found it. I definitely got more than $5 worth of artistic inspiration from it, doing a few other ink studies and also the first painting in my 2013 dream journal series which has a partially visible underlayer of panels concerning the argument between Spidey and Torch, a battle not just for their bodies and their minds but the very essence of their friendship.

Dream Journal #1: Anger

Panels of their conflict fill the angry rift running from the upper left corner to the bottom right of the painting. Over them, I painted and textured layer after layer, including found objects from small pieces of hardware to a dead, dehydrated lizard I found on my porch, adding color washes until they became like a soothing balm for the raging argument below, brushing and pouring and splashing until a peace came over me and I knew that despite what had happened to them, Spidey and Torch would be okay. Their lives and friendship had been torn apart by anger, but they would heal. Their friendship would heal.

In that sense, the painting became a way for me to work though some dark things that had come up in my dreams until I could see the light again. It wasn’t just about anger, as I later titled it. It was about regaining one’s senses and overcoming that emotional disruption.

Another of my dream journal series of paintings began as a collage of the same issue’s cover and random interior images, plus a few add-ins from other comics I was sacrificing on the altar of art at that time, including beat-up copies of Marvel Team-Up #5 and #16. The central panel is a John Byrne and Karl Kesel illustration from a six-issue DC series in the 1980s called Legends.

Collage of comic book panels on canvas.

Spidey’s dialogue “Face it, creeps! This is the pay-off!” appears twice, which suggests I had not one but two copies of Marvel Team-Up #2. But maybe the second occurrence comes from a different and far less expensive Spider-man reprint issue, from which I repurposed a bunch of pages.

Later, I added more and more layers of paint and texture until the original collage was almost entirely obscured. The collage centered on a panel where a character thought, “Perfect! The master will be well-pleased!” Over the years, I kept adding to the canvas, trying to bring it closer to some perfect form. I awoke one morning to see what I had wrought upon the canvas in an inebriated, late-night state.

Dream Journal #9: Perfection

“Perfect,” I said. “Perfect!” Then I laughed like a maniac, probably convincing my neighbors that a real-life supervillain lived next door, because I could not keep a straight face while trying to say, “The master will be well-pleased.”

Years later, I still say this to myself when I feel stressed about some artistic decision. It makes me laugh and reminds me to not take things so dreadfully seriously. But I’ve also learned to build in a buffer of time to step away from decisions made in anger or fear before carrying them out, then come back to them a day or two later with a fresh perspective.

Do I see improvements I could make before acting? Have I realized some potentially negative outcomes I didn’t consider before? Could I improve the ways I plan on communicating with others about the situation? Do I need to do some research to back up my convictions or expose places where I might be wrong?

Then let’s attend to those things now, before we damage friendships and end up punching each other’s lights out in some science-fiction hallway where our actions only serve the villains who seek to destroy us.

Collector’s Guide: The original issue appeared as Marvel Team-Up #2 in 1972 from Marvel Comics. It was reprinted in the far less expensive Spider-man Megazine #2, which you can get for about $2. It also appears in black-and-white in the Essential Marvel Team-Up, Volume 1.

Anyone Can Self-Publish a Book—Right? Not Necessarily.

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A few times a month, aspiring authors contact me for advice on projects they have already begun, and they usually want me to help them self-publish their first book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP). Most of the time, these authors face challenges that can be summed up in one sentence: They do not know nor understand the technical requirements for KDP, nor how to meet those requirements. In all cases, these authors have been lured by the oft-repeated idea that now “anyone” can self-publish. This idea is both true and false, depending on how you look at it, so I want to give you some insight about why it can be false, and how it can be true.

Saying that “anyone” can do something is part of the problem. Consider these statements: Anyone can play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Anyone can play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal. Anyone can be an astronaut. Anyone can be a university professor who lectures about quantum mechanics.

See the problem? All these professions require years of study, training, and practice. They require technical skills and long-term dedication to the craft. While I enjoy reading the works of Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and other noted physicists, I will never be on their level of understanding the subject. I don’t even want to spend the time learning the math required to have an intelligent conversation with them. And if you put me on a basketball court with NBA players, I would get my ass handed to me. Heck, a bunch of random high schoolers could defeat me on the court.

But I’m pretty good—though not great—at making music with a guitar. People who are lured into self-publishing by the “anyone can do it” mentality remind me of all the times I was asked by someone during my twenty-plus years of performing, “Show me how to play that.” People assume that if you make something look easy, then it must be easy, so surely you can show them how to do what you do in a couple of minutes. But they don’t realize how much they don’t understand about rhythm, harmony, scales, and the language of music, and they definitely don’t realize how long you need to train your hands, muscles, and brain to play an instrument.

My experience in the world of self-publishing is no different. Someone might say, “Show me how to make a Kindle ebook,” but they don’t have the most basic software skills that take anywhere from hours to years to learn. Someone might say, “Help me set up my book on KDP,” but they have files that are completely unworkable for technical reasons they do not understand. They often do not know the language or terminology needed to even explain the problems. They have no idea what “image resolution” means, or what “Styles” are in MS Word, or the basic conventions for a properly formatted manuscript.

One author asked me on the phone about an “Izbin”, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was trying to pronounce “ISBN” like an acronym. That was somewhat less frustrating than the people who ask about “ISBN Numbers” without realizing the “N” in “ISBN” stands for “number”. I often wonder if they use their “PIN Numbers” to operate “ATM Machines” in a universe where the usefulness of initialisms has been destroyed by redundancy.

When it comes to printing paperback books, the problems compound. Have you ever tried explaining a “bleed” to someone who has no background in graphic design? I’ve encountered freelance “designers” who still don’t understand how to set up their files to meet bleed or resolution requirements, and “designers” charging way more than I do per hour but don’t have the first clue about the technical requirements for paperback covers. They might be talented artists whose creativity surpasses mine, but they don’t understand making books.

It isn’t like I was born with this knowledge or learned it all in a day. My first print-on-demand paperback in 2013 left a lot to be desired in terms of design and editing, and I’ve since taken it out of print to save myself the embarrassment. My first full-color art book was rejected by the printer for technical problems, and I couldn’t fix it for the life of me, no matter how many hours I spent. It wasn’t until I had another year or two of experience that I was able to re-open the old files, realize what the problem was, and fix it in about five minutes. That five-minute fix took me years to build up to.

Then we have the problem of quality. The biggest complaint about self-published books is that the writing isn’t very good and has never been professionally edited. One author contacted me because she was upset that her ebook wasn’t selling on Kindle, and she asked if I had any marketing advice. I looked her up on Amazon, found her book, and used the “Look Inside” feature to see what she was trying to sell. The text had a ton of obvious spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors on the very first page. Plus, the cover was unappealing, and the description in the Amazon listing was even worse.

As is so often the case in my line of work, it fell to me to be the bearer of bad news and explain to the author all the ways in which her design, description, and the text itself were sending huge red flags to potential buyers. Everything about the book screamed, “Don’t buy me!” Fortunately, I was able to help that author with copyediting, formatting, and a cover re-design. Now she has a book she can be proud of.

I understand authors with a do-it-yourself mentality. If I didn’t have the same mentality, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I came to the world of self-publishing with a few decades of experience in writing as a professional, making art as a hobbyist, and using relevant software in both capacities. And you know what? My first book still sucked. Despite all I had learned, I had miles to go before I could competently make a book, even farther before I could communicate all the requirements to others, and farther still before I could lead an entire project team in a logical, organized way where things went smoothly.

In the years since, I’ve focused on helping other authors. I’ve looked for ways to share what I’ve learned or put my knowledge and experience to good use so other authors can experience the profound joy of holding in their hands a book they made and can be proud of—and confidently sell. Even so, that rarely happened without a team.

While it might be true that “anyone” can self-publish, few people can successfully do it on their own. A team might include an editor, a graphic designer or illustrator, a marketing consultant, and even a ghost writer or co-writer. Since all those people tend to speak their own language, the team usually needs a project manager, too—not the author, who probably does not speak any of those languages fluently, but someone who can help everyone involved stay on target because he knows the entire process from start to finish.

Can anyone do what I do? Sure. It is far from impossible. I encourage my fellow authors to get into it all the time. But people getting into self-publishing for the first time rarely realize just how much there is to know, and they become easily frustrated when they encounter obstacles during the production, or if nobody wants to buy their book.

Maybe anyone can play amazing guitar like Joe Satriani, but it isn’t necessarily easy or quick to get there. Believe me. I tried to learn a few of his songs and still can’t do them justice even after months of practice. Even if I could compose and shred like Satriani, he never goes on stage without a team to support his performance, from his fellow musicians to the stage crew and his management team.

Maybe anyone can do what Satriani does, but only if they are willing to invest the years of study and practice, take the time to find a team to help them succeed, and persevere in an insanely competitive marketplace. They should also be willing to accept that their first album might not be their greatest album, but it can be a learning experience and a steppingstone to truly great things.

For more insights into writing and becoming a better writer by workshopping with others, check out my recent book My Life as an Armadillo. For a quick orientation to the world of self-publishing that will save you from a lot of headaches and wasted money, see A Passion for Planning. Good luck on your writing journey!

We3: Home Is Run No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

indie box: Wolfskin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locals with a problem. This might require violence!

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

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

He’s downright talkative on this page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Hitch on Justice League

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

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

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

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

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

Lassoing a spaceship?! Go, Diana!

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

“We’ll handle god.” Nuff said!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

indie box: Terrorsaurs!

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

Now behold the legend of the Terrorsaurs!

the big box of comics: Daredevil by Bendis and Maleev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even with his eyes closed.

Collector’s Guide:     

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

big box of comics: Iron Fist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collector’s Guide:

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

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

a note about solving writing problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Season, New Book!

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

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

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

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

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

Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers!

Doom Endures!

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

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

indie box: March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Box of Comics: Maus

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

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

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

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

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

holiday memories, music, and misbehavior

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

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

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

What music piracy looked like in the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than once, we did.

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